At some point, he found himself in front of a massive hotel. What stopped him was the sign out front, blazing with flashing lights.

NERVEBOX SERVICE AVAILABLE WITH ROOMS

He stood there and stared at the words. They disappeared, replaced by other advertisements and announcements and special offers, cycling through its program. Then the words he cared about flashed on again.

Coffins. At this very hotel, he could get a room and a Coffin. He knew what he had to do. He walked forward, opened the door, and stepped up to the registration desk. A friendly man with a perfect haircut greeted him, though he couldn’t hide the anxiety in his eyes. He’d been watching the NewsBops, no doubt.

“May I help you?” the man asked.

Michael took a breath and went for it. “I’d like your nicest room, with your nicest Coffin. Um, I mean NerveBox. And I need to check in right now.”

5

Michael lay on the bed in his room, staring at the ceiling. Things seemed to be working out for him today. Well, if you didn’t count the whole murderous rampage incident. He’d made it out of the World Summit and the Latvian embassy, made it through the streets of D.C., found a hotel with Coffin service, and then, the topper, been able to get himself a room with the fake identity he’d created so long ago. Using the money he’d stolen from Jackson Porter’s parents.

Someone might’ve figured it out. Maybe he was being traced. Flags might’ve been raised. But the world had much bigger problems to deal with right then. In any case, he hoped to be done, one way or another, by the time anyone could get to him.

There was a tap at the door.

For just a split second, fear spiked in his chest. But then a voice said, “Room service.” He’d ordered almost everything on the menu. He hadn’t eaten much since waking up that morning, and now it had caught up with him.

He needed to build up his strength. So he tipped the lady after she brought in the rolling cart of steaming food, then closed the door, locked it, and triggered the dead bolt. Then he dug in, starting with the bleu chips. He thought of Sarah with every bite.

6

A half hour later, he had stripped down and was standing above the open Coffin. He’d eaten so much that his stomach stuck out in a satisfying bulge. He rubbed it for good luck, then stepped into the pod, lowering himself until he lay flat on his back. He took several deep breaths to ease his nerves, more scared than he wanted to admit.

Bryson and Helga, along with her Tangent Alliance, were searching the streets for him at that very moment. He was sure of it. He was also sure that they were frantic and angry. He felt bad—he shouldn’t have left them like that—but he needed to do this alone. He’d ask their forgiveness once he got back.

If he got back.

No, when he got back.

Nah. If. No point being dishonest.

He finished off the programming he’d already started on the outside console. Then he reached up to his ear and clicked on his NetScreen. He sent the message he’d typed earlier, encrypting it with five layers of hidden codes, to the onetime connection link provided by the Tangent himself. If he was out there, he’d get the message. Michael pressed the final button, then closed his eyes, waiting for the mechanisms to take over his body and Sink him into the Sleep.

LiquiGels.

AirPuffs.

NerveWires.

As they started engaging, he saw the words of the message he’d sent, almost as if they’d been printed on the back of his eyelids.

Kaine,

Meet me at the attached coordinates.

I have something to tell you.

CHAPTER 13

A CANCER OF CODE

1

The Sleep had become a scary place.

Because the Coffin he used was owned by the hotel and ran on public systems, he had to follow their regulations during his Sink. He arrived at a Portal in a giant commerce square. In better times it would have seen thousands of daily patrons, shopping and gaming and virtual eating. There would have been street performers and Tangents programmed to do all kinds of services—everything from sweeping up data dust created by coding glitches to acting as the homeless, begging for coin. It was all designed to make the square feel like a real city.

Now it couldn’t feel further from that.

Whatever Weber had set them up to do with the Lance, it had wreaked havoc on the world the VNS was meant to protect. The utter lack of security caused by their breach had obviously allowed any two-bit hacker to come in and destroy whatever he or she wanted. Why destruction appealed to people, Michael had no idea, but it definitely did—the commerce square was a shambles.

Storefronts had collapsed or warped, as if they’d been made of soft plastic and left to melt in the sun. Some of them had degraded into a mess of pixels, parts of them glitching and snapping in and out of sight. Abandoned Tangents roamed the streets, seemingly robbed of their central programming and left to wander aimlessly. Some even appeared dangerous, left with a lot of virtual power but no conscience, no reason not to attack the Auras of innocent visitors. Michael steered clear of anything remotely suspicious.

A lot of the complex code necessary to create such a lifelike place had been forcibly Decayed or just plain neglected by its operators, who were too scared of the chaos to stick around. There were potholes in the streets and sidewalks, gaping black holes that led who-knew-where, ungodly places with no Portals—places from which probably only a skilled coder like Michael could escape.

Scary had been Michael’s first impression upon arriving, and it stayed with him. If he’d been just some normal Joe coming for a jaunt in the Sleep, he’d have been terrified to his very core. Even with his skills, he was afraid. Confident, but afraid.

He carefully made his way through the square, heading toward an outer point so it’d be easier for him to hack into the code and take himself where he wanted to go. He watched every step he took—the damage to the area wasn’t static; a gaping hole appeared right in front of him at one point—as he walked away from the central area of shops and restaurants and found a side street that led to a dark alley. On the far end, there was a faint purple glow, and he knew it’d be a good place to work his magic.

The alley swallowed him. The programming in the narrow walkway cut off the noise from the square and made it feel as if his ears had been stuffed with cotton. He didn’t stop, refusing to let fear dampen his determination. If anyone could handle this wreck of a VirtNet, it was Michael. At least, that was what he told himself.

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