“Thanks for the message you sent me,” she whispered. While separated, both Michael and Sarah had hacked through the prison firewall systems to send notes to each other. “It helped a lot.”

Michael nodded, gave a half smile. A horrible image formed in his mind—Sarah dying beside the lava pits, her last struggle for breath before exiting Kaine’s Path in the deepest folds of the VirtNet. Michael had dragged her into all this. And her parents. And Bryson. It had broken his heart to see her in so much pain, and he couldn’t stop wondering—did worse fates await them than virtual molten rock?

Bryson leaned forward to look at them. “Hey, no one sent me a message. That’s not cool.”

“Sorry,” Michael said. “I know how much you love your naps—I didn’t want to interrupt.”

As if to rub it in, Sarah clicked her EarCuff, illuminating her NetScreen. Michael’s message, We will win, hovered before them. A thrill of happiness warmed his chest to see that she’d saved it there. He smiled, more than a little embarrassed.

“Real sweet.” Bryson leaned back, eyeing Michael. “I’m pretty sure I haven’t slept in, oh, about three weeks—which I blame you for, by the way.”

“Blame accepted.” Michael knew his friend was joking—mostly—but he still felt bad. Bryson might have never said something so simple and yet so perfectly true. The nausea from the roller-coaster driving suddenly shot up a few notches. “Oh, man,” he groaned. “Sir? Uh…Gerard? Could we pull over a second? I’m not feeling so well.”

“Turn toward Bryson,” Sarah said, inching away from Michael. She rolled down the window. “Does that help?”

But her dad had already slowed—the sudden braking sending Michael’s whirling stomach up another notch—and was pulling into a little patch of dirt on the side of the narrow road.

“There you go, son,” the man announced. He seemed familiar enough with the maneuver that Michael was sure it wasn’t the first time he’d driven someone to the brink of losing their lunch. “But hurry—we’re already late.”

Sarah’s mom smacked her husband on the arm lightly. “Have a heart, honey. For heaven’s sake. No one likes to throw up.”

Michael was already climbing over Sarah. He opened the door and jumped out of the car before she could complain. His horrible prison breakfast was coming up, and there was no stopping it. He found the closest bush and gave it a very unpleasant surprise.

2

“Ah, man, I think there’s something on your shirt,” Bryson said a few minutes later. They were back on the road and Gerard had resumed practicing his racing skills.

Michael smiled—he didn’t care. He felt so much better that the world had brightened and cleared.

“I’m glad that makes you so happy,” Bryson muttered, then patted his friend on the shoulder. “Actually, thanks for not spewing all over me.”

“You’re very welcome,” Michael replied.

“You feel better?” Sarah asked.

“Tons.” Michael folded his arms and shifted his legs to get more comfortable. “I guess I’m feeling better about everything. I mean, I’m not sure what happened back in Atlanta—but it’s something that we’re all still alive, right? And now we’re on our way to people who want to help.”

And I have a plan, he thought. It was the first time in ages he’d had one, and it felt good. He would go to the Hallowed Ravine, back to where this had all started. He just had to find the right time to tell his friends about it.

“Dude,” Bryson said, “you’re a glass-half-full kind of guy. I like it.”

Sarah smiled and covertly grabbed Michael’s hand between them, slipping her fingers through his. The world brightened even more. And we need to make sure Gabby’s okay, he thought. The last time he saw her she’d been unconscious—hit in the head—and it was Michael’s fault for dragging her into the whole mess. He didn’t want to pull her in any deeper, but he needed to make sure she was all right.

“We’re almost there,” Gerard called back to them, slowing. “Uh…I think.”

Butterflies filled Michael’s stomach. Still holding Sarah’s hand, he leaned forward, peering through the front windshield as they continued tunneling through the leafy forest. He had absolutely no idea what to expect—where they were going or why—but his excitement built in leaps and bounds as he watched the road ahead. It made him think of the Path, and with a jolt of anxiety he wondered if he was truly in the real world, in the Wake, or somewhere in a box, connected to wires and uploaded to the VirtNet. He’d been fooled so many times and in so many ways, he’d never be certain again.

He thought back to the man, the one who had visited him at the prison right before Agent Weber. It had come back to him in his dream also. Something about waking up over and over again, within layers upon layers of VirtNet levels. What was it? Like a dream within a dream. That really creeped him out.

The road pitched steeply downward, and Michael shook the thought out of his head. He’d get dizzy again if he kept it up. He focused on the world around him—real or virtual—as it was.

Outside, the trees had thinned to reveal a wide valley nestled between two heavily forested mountains. Clouds covered the sun, casting the day back into gloom, as if to make up for the shade they’d lost.

“Is that where we’re going?” Bryson asked. Releasing his seat belt, he scooted as close to Gerard as he could, gripping the headrest in front of him. “That place looks a thousand years old.”

“That’s gotta be it,” Nancy answered. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything else around.”

Michael stared. Down below them, scattered among the trees of the valley floor, were several long, low buildings that reminded him of battered shipping crates. They looked like military barracks, something you might see in one of those ancient war movies set in a jungle somewhere exotic. The roofs had holes torn in them—some were patched; most were gaping wide, though, and open to the elements. Kudzu and ivy crept everywhere, blanketing sections of the buildings so that certain parts resembled neglected topiaries in the garden of some forgotten giant.

“Man,” Bryson moaned. “I was kind of hoping for something more along the lines of a Marriott. At least the prison had working toilets.”

***

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