She directed a sheepish look Michael’s way. He’d lived most of his life thinking the Deep was the real world. It was a painful reminder of everything he’d lost.

“Now, any questions before I send you off?” Weber looked eager for them to get to work.

Michael and his friends traded looks. And shrugged.

Agent Weber appeared satisfied, almost smiling.

“Good,” she said. “Time to Squeeze you into the Deep.”

Michael’s back was pressed against the marble wall between Sarah and Bryson. Weber had told them to hold hands, to not let go no matter how bad things got. Bryson’s hand felt meaty and sweaty, Sarah’s dainty and soft. Michael liked hers a lot better.

Weber faced them, standing a few feet away, a grave look on her face. “I’ll be doing most of the work,” she said. “All you have to do is close your eyes and endure the … intense sensations you’re about to experience.”

“You mean the unbearable pain,” Bryson muttered. “Pain that’s going to make me cry.”

Michael smiled a little, but his heart thumped like the foot of a nervous cartoon rabbit he’d seen on the Vids years and years ago. He wanted to get this part over with.

“Pain, yes,” Weber replied. “But there are also things worse than pain. Just keep hold of each other, try not to panic, and … endure. It won’t last as long as you might think. Once you’re in, get the job done as quickly as possible.” She looked at the bag on Michael’s shoulder—he’d slung it across his chest to make sure it didn’t fall off. “You know what to do, right?”

He nodded stiffly, impatient to get going.

The agent gave them a warm smile, her face creased in what Michael could swear looked like sympathy. It helped, a little, and if Michael had been alone he just might’ve hugged her and said goodbye.

“Okay,” Weber said. “Close your eyes.”

A good minute or two passed before the process began. Michael counted the seconds down for a bit, then abandoned the idea when his anxiety spiked even more. The first thing he noticed was the dimming of the lights. Darkness swept over them, and he had the urge to open his eyes. He didn’t really know if Weber had meant they needed to keep them closed, or if that would only help. Crap, he thought. He should’ve asked her.

“Do you think—” he started to say, but a loud humming cut him off.

It felt as if the air suddenly had weight, as if it was pressing in on his eardrums with a heavy buzz. His skin tingled, and he shifted on his feet, feeling more and more uncomfortable. All he could do was hold on tightly to Sarah’s and Bryson’s hands and not let go. No matter what. He needed them—he was far more scared than felt natural. Maybe it was the uncertainty that made it so bad.

The world pressed in, the sound getting louder. Michael imagined the LiquiGels back in the Coffin, pressing in on his skin as if he’d lain down in water that was freezing solid. He tried shifting again, but it did no good. The strain made him feel every pulse of his heart beating, feel the pumping of the blood in his temples, his neck, the crooks of his elbows, everywhere.




Something pulled him away from Bryson and Sarah, but he held on to his friends. He curled his fingers tightly around theirs, refusing to let them slip away. His eyes popped open on instinct and darkness filled his vision, so he closed them again. That tugging sensation continued, but instead of trying to yank his friends out of his grip, it worked on his body, every part of it, as if some force was trying to pull his muscles and bones and skin and sinew—everything—apart. Stretching him, impossibly. It hurt, an achy strain turning worse by the second. Then came the pain—little jolts that made him gasp. Parts of him were snapping.

It’s the Sleep, he told himself in a rush of panic. It’s not real, not happening. Endure. Don’t let go. He thought he might’ve heard Bryson trying to say something, but it was lost in the humming buzz that pulsed in rhythm with his heart, felt in every vein he had.




The pulsing of his heart. The pulsing of the noise, pressing into his ears, his face, his skin.




The force continued to work on him, stretching him forward and backward into a long trail, making him shudder when he thought of what his body must look like, how thin and grotesque. The pain intensified, lancing through his nerves, becoming unbearable. A constant rush of brutal agony, as if something wanted to rip apart every molecule in his body. He screamed, but he let out nothing but a dull memory of sound swallowed by the buzz. The force pulled him, thinned him, stretched him to infinite lengths, making the pulse of his blood stronger and louder.




On some distant edge of his mind, he knew that his fingers were still clasped around Sarah’s and Bryson’s, but everything was like a string, a thin cord of tissue, full of pain.







A storm of humming, buzzing, thumping.


Holding on to something that made no sense, lines of code, barely there.

The world, collapsing.

Pain. Oh, the pain.



His mind, finally unable to handle any more, gave up and shut down.

All was nothing.

Not even a thump.

Chapter 20: Plant and Trigger

He floated in emptiness, completely unaware of time passing, barely aware of anything at all. But the pain faded, and the darkness held him, and he slept.

He sensed a brightness, a glowing red that woke him up. He blinked several times, then squinted to keep his eyes open. He lay on his back. The sky hovered far above him, several buildings converging to a point up in the blue, as if they were fingers reaching for something he couldn’t quite see.

His head swam with grogginess, and when he rolled over onto his side, that didn’t help. Woozy, he paused and saw Sarah and Bryson close by, still asleep. They were at the end of a long alley, no one in sight, and not much of anything else except cement and dust and trash. The wet warmth of the air made him feel sticky, greasy.

The crisp realness of his surroundings made him realize that Agent Weber had done it. She’d really done it.

Michael and his friends were inside Lifeblood Deep. She’d Squeezed them through the intense complexity of its code. He was home—back where he’d always lived. He didn’t know how to feel or what to think. Maybe, just maybe, his parents and Helga were somewhere in the Deep. Trapped, imprisoned, or something. Had they really just vanished, their code wiped away? He swore to look for them, to search every last digit of code if he had to. As soon as they dealt with Kaine.