The thing she wanted to show them didn’t even exist.

Not in the real world, anyway.

They were in Weber’s office, huddled around a large projection. It was a collection of images and words that were slowly swirling in a circle. Michael saw a picture of a dog—a golden retriever—with a little boy kneeling next to it, the biggest smile you ever saw splitting his face. So many thoughts went through Michael’s head seeing that picture, but mostly it made him feel like Agent Weber was a real person after all.

Without any kind of introduction, she tapped and swiped at the projected sphere and moved things around until it all suddenly flew away and was replaced by one lone image: a long, rectangular metallic box, wires and anodes lining its surface. As Michael and the others stared, it revolved in place.

“What’s that?” Bryson asked.

Weber reached forward into the projection, and it looked as if her fingers touched the two ends of the box. She grabbed them and stretched the whole thing out so that it was much bigger. Michael had no idea how large or small the device would be if it weren’t just an image.

“This is what you’re going to use to bring Kaine down,” Weber said, her voice filled with satisfaction. A little too much, Michael thought, even though it didn’t bother him. She obviously disliked the Tangent as much as he did. “This is a project I’ve been working on for a long time. A very long time. And it’s a grand achievement, if I do say so myself.” The woman stared at the box, pride on her face. Then she blinked hard and cleared her throat, as if she’d just realized there were other people in the room.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s just that … I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into developing this. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little excited that it’ll finally be put to use.”

Sarah asked the obvious question this time. “What is it?”

The agent sat back in her chair, leaving the image to continue rotating. “I call it the Lance. It seems to fit.”

Bryson and Sarah didn’t say anything, just stared. Michael knew it was his turn to ask, but it seemed stupid. So he stubbornly waited for the agent to tell them what the thing did. She took a few moments to admire her creation before speaking again.

“It’s a program, of course, the most complex collection of code I’ve ever been able to put together. I gave it this visual manifestation to make it as easy as possible to place and trigger.”

Michael broke his silence, so intrigued now it was like an itch. “Place and trigger?” he repeated.

She nodded slowly. “Yes. I’m going to meet you inside the VirtNet, where I’ll literally hand you this program, in the form of this device. It won’t be as easy as I’ve laid out, but all you’ll need to do is get to the location of Kaine’s programming, insert the Lance, activate it with an eight-digit password to initiate the countdown, then get out of there. When it detonates, the Lance will annihilate the Tangent. Not only his central code, but it’ll set off a chain reaction that will wipe him out wherever his Aura may be.”

She paused, letting the information sink in. There was an awful lot to sink in, Michael thought. Then she continued. “I’ve spent years programming this. I knew we’d need it someday. It will kill him. I know that’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. All we have to do is get you inside Lifeblood Deep, into its version of Atlanta, and into this building. The Lance will do the rest.”

Michael was waiting for the inevitable catch. “And how do you expect us to get inside the Deep, much less the building, without being seen? The Hider programs make us blind to the code, for the most part.… If we do what we did in that purple sea, it’ll be like hanging up a big sign that says ‘Hey, Kaine! Come and get us!’ ” He didn’t like the hesitant look that was coming over her face as he spoke. “I’m guessing you have a plan?”

Her expression matched exactly what she said next. “Yes. And you’re not going to like this part.”

Michael waited for the bomb to drop.

Agent Weber let out a huge sigh; her excitement about the Lance had disappeared. “There’s no easy way to get you inside. There’s a reason it’s called the Deep, and the Lifeblood section is the toughest by far. Its whole purpose is to keep you out unless you have proper access, and all three of you know how hard that is to get—even you, Michael. You’re not who you used to be. Alarms would spring up all over the place if we put you three in without taking … extreme measures.”

Bryson and Sarah shifted in their seats, but Michael stayed stock-still. He was ready to hear just how bad things were going to get.

“We have to Squeeze you in,” Weber finally said.

Michael looked at Bryson, then at Sarah. They looked at each other, then back at him.


Michael had only heard the term Squeezing a few times in his life, mostly in off-the-cuff remarks from little kids, talking about things they knew nothing about. People didn’t speak about Squeezing because it was illegal. It was nearly as bad as messing with someone’s—or even your own—Core programming. No one Michael had ever met had Squeezed or been Squeezed. He almost asked Weber to repeat the word, just to make sure he’d heard her right.

But he knew very well that he had.

Agent Weber was going to Squeeze them into Lifeblood Deep.

God help us, he thought.

Chapter 19: Squeezed

Michael sat on the toilet lid, fully clothed. He didn’t need to use the bathroom, but he desperately needed to be alone, even if for just a few minutes. Agent Weber had been serious about wanting them to Sink back into the Sleep immediately, and his friends were pretty much ready to go. But not him. He wanted a little time to himself—time to gather his thoughts.

Weber had dropped so much news on them, so many plans at once, that he could feel every single tick of his pulse, throbbing in his head, his neck, even down to the veins in his ankles. They’d done plenty of dangerous stuff, and going back out into the world and risking arrest just wasn’t an option. But he didn’t know if he felt ready for this.

The Lance—that ordinary-looking rectangular metal box that was supposed to solve all of their problems. Going back to the Sleep right away, when they’d just risked their lives for what they thought was the last time. The job of finding that building in Lifeblood Deep, getting past its security firewalls, planting the device, triggering it, and getting away. It was so much to accomplish. Not to mention the Squeezing it would take to get them inside the Deep in the first place.