“I know why,” Bryson replied, looking intently at his screen. “My dad’s taught me a thing or two about the old days of programming. This is patterned after a super-old system. Like, from decades ago. Why would Kaine do that?”

“To avoid suspicion,” Michael said. He glanced at his friends, but they were too busy to look up. “If he had something really advanced and heavy, that’d just make people really want to know what’s inside. And considering he’s in the place that has the best-of-the-best gamers and hackers in the Sleep, that’s not a good thing. It’s like the old hiding-in-plain-sight thing.”

Sarah appeared doubtful. “Seems too easy. Another thirty minutes and we’ll be ready. I expected to work at this for eight or nine hours, and then be lucky if we got in after all that.”

“Yeah, no doubt,” Bryson said. “You’d think he’d choose buff security over trying to trick people into just walking on by.”

Michael shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I think what I said makes sense, though. Let’s just get in there and blow his mind to bits.”

Kaine was inside that stupid building—he’d helped trace the Tangent there himself—and he wanted to get this over with. Kaine might move his central programming if they wasted any more time. Michael kept working, excitement building to match his rage.

True to her word, thirty minutes later, Sarah turned off her NetScreen. With a click of her EarCuff she let out a huge sigh. “Okay. I’m ready.”

Bryson had shut down a few minutes earlier. “Me too. Cameras are all showing old loops from an hour ago. There’s a back door we can get to through a tiny alley next to the building. It’s unlocked and ready to welcome three crazy people eager to blow the place up. And there aren’t any guards on-site, as far as I can tell.”

Michael finished up just as his friend said those words. “All the alarms are shut down.” He clicked off his screen in triumph. “And you’re right, that was way too easy. Once we’re inside, we better be ready for whatever little booby traps he has for someone who does come snooping.”

“I actually think you’re right,” Sarah said. “I can’t see Kaine trusting anyone—gamer or Tangent—to work as a guard here. I bet there are plenty of traps. Who knows what’ll spring up once we’re in. KillSims for sure.”

“Are we still a go?” Bryson asked.

Michael spoke quickly. “Absolutely.”

Sarah paused before giving her answer. “One hundred percent.”

“Then let’s get on it,” Bryson said with a tight smile.

Bryson hadn’t been kidding when he said the alley leading to the back of the building in question was tiny. Michael had to turn sideways, his chest and back brushing against the brick walls as he shuffled along. He led the way, Sarah and Bryson right behind him, nothing but a canyon of concrete in front and decades’ worth of trash at their feet, making each step an adventure. The sun barely penetrated the high cliffs squeezing them in, and the entire walk had a spooky, twilight feel.

When they were about halfway to their goal, Michael paused and looked back. “So far, so good. Nothing’s jumped down and ripped our throats out.”

“I keep thinking,” Sarah replied, “about Lifeblood Deep. When they say they want to replicate the real world, they sure mean it, don’t they? Can you imagine? Michael, you didn’t even know it was fake! I just can’t believe how amazingly lifelike the programming here is. It’s like you have to follow the same rules as life in the Wake.”

Bryson made a scoffing sound. “Don’t jinx us. If anyone’s going to break those rules, it’ll be Kaine. I bet he’s just waiting for us to step through that back door, and then he’s going to throw everything that’s ever caused pain in the Sleep at us.”

“Always looking on the bright side,” Michael replied. He turned away and continued down the alley, stepping over a dead rat, hoping Sarah didn’t see it. It ended up being Bryson who squealed before he could stop himself.

They finally reached the end of the narrow passage. Michael was surprised by how far back the building went—it looked so small from the front. But it was the Sleep, and there were two giant skyscrapers throwing off their perception.

He steeled his breath, then leaned out from between the walls to take a look. Another alley, this one much wider, crossed the back of the building and the others beside it. Michael heard cars and people in the distance, but this area was deserted, dark, and silent. A sudden rush of wind sent the cover of a Dumpster swinging, and the noise made Michael jump. The hinges creaked until it slowed to a stop again. All was clear.

“Come on,” he whispered to his friends, stepping out into the wider alley. Bryson took over from there, leading them to the back door of Kaine’s building, the one he said he’d been able to unlock. It was a simple metal door with a silver latch for a handle. Three cement steps, cracked and worn, led to the entrance. Bryson pressed his back against the outer wall right next to the stairs, and Michael and Sarah lined up beside him. Michael fingered the hard edges of the Lance in his shoulder bag, eager to use the thing.

“Should we try to code in weapons?” Sarah asked. “Who knows what’s waiting in there?”

“It won’t work,” Michael said, and he knew that despite the suggestion, Sarah already knew they couldn’t. They’d had a hard enough time Squeezing themselves into the Deep; there was no way they could risk trying to bring something else in. “Use your fists and elbows, and if they shoot bullets, lasers, or bombs, duck.”

“Thanks,” Sarah responded. “Helpful.”

“Nothin’ to do but go in,” Bryson said, his chest puffing up with deep breaths that he blew out far too noisily. He gave a stiff nod to Michael and Sarah then pushed himself away from the wall and quickly moved toward the steps, ran up them. Sarah was next, then Michael, waiting right at the bottom. He watched as Bryson lifted the latch, hesitating just a second before doing so. It clicked and the door popped open.

All three of them froze, expecting some monstrous beast to emerge, roaring, ready to suck the lives out of them. But nothing happened. Michael leaned over to see a line of darkness where the door stood ajar. With a pang in his heart, he remembered a joke Helga had once told him, when he was a little boy.