Agent Weber was at his side, touching his shoulder.
“That bad?” she whispered.
He nodded. He tried not to think of Ronika and what had happened to her. “I’m fine. It was just … I was attacked by one of those … one of Kaine’s creatures. How did he find us? I thought your hider codes were supposed to be super complex.”
Weber stood up, maneuvering deftly in her heels, then helped Michael get to his feet.
“It wasn’t you specifically that he found,” she said. “I’ve talked to Bryson and Sarah about it. Kaine noticed the massive amount of programming you three were doing and he sent in his cavalry. But Sarah said she was able to wipe away the code structure before he could see that you’d been backtracking to find his information. Still. I didn’t expect things to go so wrong in just twenty-four hours. Again, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” he said. He could hardly blame Weber. They’d been reckless once again. And most importantly, she had brought them back to safety.
Weber motioned to the door. “Well, you’re all back, and you’re all okay. And from what Sarah said, it sounds like you found some pretty incredible information. Am I right?”
Michael felt a surge of pride and hoped Weber didn’t see it on his face. “Yeah. We did. And we need to work fast. Before he catches on and moves his home base.”
Weber walked toward the door, her heels clicking. “I’m already gathering the few people I trust. I’ve called them to the War Room. In the meantime, you need to shower and eat. And this is going to take everything we’ve got—so get some sleep.”
To Michael, that sounded good. Really good.
It felt like he’d only shut his eyes for a moment when someone gently nudged him awake. He jerked up to a sitting position, looking right and left. It was as if his body had been waiting for the moment Kaine’s monster would return.
“Whoa, there, cowboy!”
It was Bryson, Sarah standing beside him. It was odd to see their real selves again. “No need to get feisty.”
Michael closed his eyes and, relieved, slumped back onto the bed. It was actually more of a cot, stowed away in a dark, cool room alongside several others. His friends had already been sound asleep and snoring by the time he’d showered and eaten, and he hadn’t had the heart to wake them up. He’d wanted to, wanted to wake them and hug them—well, Sarah, anyway—but instead he’d collapsed and fallen asleep almost instantly.
Sarah was standing, arms folded, at the foot of his cot, looking down at him with a smile he could tell she was trying to hide. She was happy to see him—it showed in her eyes.
“How’re you feeling?” she asked.
Michael groaned and sat up again, swinging his legs to the floor, rubbing his eyes. And then told the truth. “Like crap. Groggy. Achy. My muscles feel like a granny’s.” But at least he felt no pain in his head, other than a foggy, dull throbbing from where the Coffin had simulated the struggle with the KillSim. If it had even been a KillSim.
“How do you know?” Bryson asked.
“How do you know what a granny’s muscles feel like?”
“I used to play Grannies at Teatime, and don’t say you didn’t.”
He and Bryson started snickering like middle schoolers in the back of class.
Sarah threw her hands up. “Are you guys finished? I know more about that game than you think. Now come on, we need to talk about slightly more important things.”
“Yes, we do,” Bryson said, suddenly serious.
Sarah sat on the cot next to Michael, leaned in, and kissed him on the cheek. “That’s something Bryson will never get,” she whispered, obviously not caring that their friend had heard.
“Who said I’d want it?” he countered, though his cheeks turned red.
Sarah just smiled, not taking her eyes off Michael’s, and he suddenly felt much, much better.
“All right,” he said. “What’s the plan? Where’s Weber?”
“She woke us up and said she’d be back for us in a minute,” Sarah answered. “Apparently she has a team of people waiting to meet with us. We’re going to a place she called the War Room to tell them what we know.”
Michael nodded. “Yeah, she mentioned that to me, too.”
“What’re we going to say?” Bryson asked. “I barely got through my presentation on amphibians last fall without squeaking.”
“Squeaking?” Sarah repeated. She gave him a little pat, then turned to Michael. “How about you do all the talking?”
“Me?” Michael’s voice rose an octave. “Why me? Last fall when Bryson was … squeaking through his amphibians report, I wasn’t even human. I might not know how to use my vocal cords properly.”
“Fine, I’ll do it,” Sarah said.
Michael and Bryson exchanged a look: it was clear she’d known all along that she’d be the one. Before Michael could thank her, there was a knock on the door and it swung open. Agent Weber walked in, confident as always.
“It’s time,” she announced. All that humble sorry-you-were-almost-killed sentiment had vanished. She was back to being all business.
“We’re not ready,” Bryson said. “We need to plan what we’re going to say.”
But Sarah was already off the cot and walking toward the door. She stopped when she reached Agent Weber and turned to face her friends.
“Come on,” she said. “We’ll wing it.”
The War Room.
Michael found himself not breathing for a few seconds after Agent Weber ushered them inside. He stopped for a moment to take it all in. On one side of the giant room, there were several tiers of seats—almost like a theater or a stadium—the rows roughly half filled with men and women of every race. In front of each glowed a NetScreen, at which most of the people were busily working, oblivious to the newcomers. Michael wondered why the room was only half full.
On the other side of the room, one of the largest three-dimensional displays Michael had ever seen hovered in midair. Displays like that were usually reserved for games and movies, but this one was enormous, at least a hundred feet wide and nearly as tall. It was impossible to tell how deep it went; it looked like it continued on forever. There were maps and diagrams and live feeds of places both real and programmed. A massive, detailed globe of the world hung right in the middle, slowly turning, symbols and dots scattered across its glowing surface.