When’s a door not a door? she’d said in her thick accent.

When? he’d asked

When it’s ajar.

He’d loved her, just as much as he loved his parents. And Kaine had taken that away from him.

“Let’s go!” he whispered fiercely. “Now!”

Bryson tore the door open and the three of them slipped inside.

They entered a room that looked like nothing more than a storage area—big and dusty and full of boxes, mostly on warped shelves that sagged in the middle. A lot of the stuff looked mechanical—wires and pieces of metal and exposed circuit boards. For the few seconds it took to cross the room, Michael admired the almost perfect programming of the Deep once again. Crisp and real, even in its deteriorated parts.

But they didn’t stop and stare. Sarah had her NetScreen on, a map and schematics of the building glowing brightly before her.

“No sign of people,” she said, right before stepping into a long, dark hallway. “Anywhere. At least according to the heat sigs.”

“Are we sure this isn’t too easy?” Bryson responded. “I’m getting nervous.”

“Getting?” was all Michael would say to that. “Come on, Sarah, lead us to the mainframe. Or whatever his programming looks like here.” His finger itched on the surface of the bag, as if there were a trigger there that he could pull at any second.

“It’s on the top floor,” Sarah said. “In a column at the center of the building—looks like it goes down the entire length of the building, even into the basement, but the easiest way to access it is from above. Like a silo. I can’t really tell what it looks like.”

It sounded strange to Michael—but it didn’t matter. They’d come this far, and all they could do was move forward.

“The stairs,” Sarah said, suddenly bolting forward, down the hallway.

Michael was at her heels, Bryson right next to him. They turned a corner and ran into another dimly lit hall. Sarah stopped at the first door and opened it, went through. A stairwell. They started up, running, skipping every other step when they could. So far, no one had made an appearance. All Michael could hear was their own footsteps. If there’d been guards, they would’ve been on top of them by now—there was no doubt in Michael’s mind.

So, no guards.

Which meant there was probably something worse once they got to where they were going. He remembered the KillSim’s mouth, its jaws, its breath, its terrifying digital growl. He put it out of his mind and climbed.

Second floor, third floor. Another set of steps led to a roof, but instead of climbing, Sarah opened the door to the top floor and they stepped into a hallway. She had her NetScreen on, brightness up all the way, map shining. Down one hall into the next. Turn, then turn again. Still no sign of people. Still no sounds but their own. Michael studied the ceilings, the walls, the corners, searching for anything suspicious, but there was nothing. The building was like any other he’d set foot in.

Sarah stopped at a big metal door that appeared to be slightly newer than anything else. She yanked on the lever and the heavy thing swung open—Bryson had done his job well. A bluish light spilled into the hallway, pulsing like a heartbeat, and for the first time, they heard noise. A deep, mechanical growl that throbbed along with the light, keeping the same rhythm.

“It’s in there,” she said.

Michael didn’t hesitate. He stepped past Sarah and Bryson, directly onto a catwalk that circled the room. Below his feet he could see that he’d entered what Sarah had said looked like a silo on the map—a round room that seemed to descend for miles. The drop took his breath away for a moment, and the space itself was jarring. The pulsing light, the smell of ozone and metal. There was machinery everywhere: walls lined with circuits and buttons and switches and wires and pipes, all covered in blinking lights.

And that pulsating hum that sounded more like a heart now that he was inside and near the source.






Michael noticed Bryson and Sarah at his back and he jumped. It was as if he’d been temporarily hypnotized by the surroundings, but they hardly registered him, staring down into the humming throng of sights themselves.

“Okay,” Michael whispered, mostly to himself, as he got down to his knees and pulled the bag off his shoulder. He placed it carefully on the metal grid of the catwalk and unzipped it, opening its top wide. Then he reached in and pulled the Lance from its resting place, handling it as if one wrong move might set it off and kill them all.

It’s not real, he told himself. None of this is real. How strange was that? After all the years, after all the gaming, after everything—for the first time it hit him just how odd life in the Sleep could be. How much their world had changed, a world that wasn’t even really his.

He placed the Lance on the catwalk just as Sarah said, “Uh-oh.”

He looked up at her. “What?”

“I think our luck finally ran out,” she said, staring at her NetScreen. A bead of sweat trickled down her cheek. “I’ve got heat sigs all along the outside of the building. At least a dozen, maybe more.”

Bryson clenched his jaw and shook his head. Michael felt a roll of panic in his chest.

“Whoever it is, they’re coming inside,” Sarah said.

Michael’s mind switched off. There was no time for thought, only instinct. No chance of turning back. Only forward now.

Place and trigger the Lance.

Kill Kaine.

Whatever happened after that didn’t matter.

Settling his mind to the task, he picked up the device carefully and examined it. He found the keypad, flipped up the cover, typed in the code. His friends stood patiently beside him, knowing better than to urge him to hurry.

A glance showed him that there was a ladder on the other side of the room. It led from the catwalk into the depths of the machinery. He headed that way.

“Our visitors are spread out across the bottom floor of the building,” Sarah said, amazingly calm. Michael knew she was doing it for his benefit. She had to keep him informed, but she’d try her best to make it sound like she was giving him directions to bake cookies. “They are clearly in search mode, scattered in some kind of military formation.”

Okay, Michael thought, not so much like baking cookies. He made it to the ladder, leaned over the railing to search the maze of machines and wires and tubes. Those pulsing, blinking lights that seemed to be trying to lull him to sleep. Kaine’s central programming appeared to descend to the very depths of the Earth, a tunnel straight to hell. An apt description. And Michael was ready to blow it up.