Finally, he reached the pool of dark purple light. It had no substance or form, no obvious source. When he turned to look back the way he’d come, there was no sign of the square. No sign of anything at all.

The code really was breaking down. Nothing showed it better than this—it was as if the programmers hadn’t even attempted to make the setting of the commerce square resemble real life. It was broken in the middle, nonexistent on the edges. Michael literally stood in the middle of virtual nowhere.

He sat down, closed his eyes, and dove into the code.

It was even worse than he’d thought.

2

If someone had asked him to describe the cesspool of broken code into which he’d flung himself, he would’ve said rot. He imagined the inner workings of the human body—muscles and organs and tissue—slowly being destroyed by rotting cells. Broken down and eaten.

Everything around him looked sick.

Lines of code were broken, crooked, hitched as they streamed by. The code pieces themselves—numbers and letters from countless alphabets and symbols from mathematics and science—they didn’t look right. Wavy lines where they were supposed to be straight, and straight where they should be wavy. Ragged holes and truncated commands, units that had been warped or stretched and splayed like amoebas.

And that wasn’t all. The background was full of colors—pale green and deep yellow and an orange that made Michael feel seasick.

But he had to face it all head-on.

Programming in this VirtNet felt almost like learning from scratch. But if anyone was capable of it, he was. He knew that. Already, as he studied the cyclone of virtual nonsense around him, his mind was adapting. Oh, that symbol has transformed into this; that line of code actually does this task; those three functions add up to what these two functions once triggered. Maybe it was because his essence itself was made up of code, but he started to see through the muck, like a nearsighted child putting on glasses for the first time.

Excited and scared at once, he threw himself at the disease-riddled mess of code like he’d never done before. And that was saying something. That was saying a lot.

3

Time lost all meaning as he worked. He concentrated so furiously that his head felt like a crushed grape. His virtual eyes begged him to stop, the pain like knives pressing directly through them into his skull. But he was on a roll, and the adrenaline-laced rush of it all kept him going.

Finally, he released himself from it, catapulting away from the strange alley of no-man’s-land. It was like literal flight, wind rushing past him, blowing at his clothes and hair. Exhilarated, breathless, he opened himself up to the euphoria. He was a rocket, flying through space. Butterflies swarmed in his chest, and his mind was light as air.

He knew when he’d arrived, just as someone sleeping in a dark room knows when a light has been turned on. He felt the soft ground beneath him, heard the breeze rustling the virtual leaves of the trees, smelled the pine and earth.

He opened his eyes.

The tree house was nearby, looking as strong and firm as ever. An endless forest stretched in every direction, the sounds of insects and frogs and birds filling the air, though a little more muted than normal. The colors were a little weaker also; maybe the trees weren’t as tall, the smells not so vibrant. But all in all, the code was much healthier than anything he’d seen so far in the Sleep.

He’d built this place with Bryson and Sarah, on the outskirts of Lifeblood, hidden from all but the most discerning coders. Seeing the tree house, its ladder leading up to the trapdoor, made his heart shatter. The pain of Sarah’s death came crashing back, and he lay down on the forest floor, curling up into a ball. He missed her. He missed her so much. His head still pounded from the work it had taken to restore this place, not to mention the effort of traveling there through a sea of decomposing code, but the trauma in his heart was much worse.

How could Agent Scott have done that? Taken his best friend away from him?

He’d never known a pain like this. He’d taken Sarah for granted. She’d just always been there, and he’d assumed she always would be. It was hard to face the fact that someone like Agent Weber was still alive, yet his best friend was gone.

And then there was Kaine. He didn’t understand Kaine any more than he understood Weber. He could only hope that the Tangent would show up.

It felt as if he weighed a thousand pounds, but Michael finally pulled himself to his feet and climbed up to his tree house. To Sarah’s tree house.

4

Time passed.

Michael sat in the corner, in the beanbag that constituted Bryson’s most important contribution to the furniture arrangement. As they’d so often said, it was vomit-colored. Unfortunately for Michael, it reminded him a lot of the code in which he’d been floating before.

Sarah had carved her name in the wall across from him, and he sat staring at it listlessly. His aching heart had morphed into a dull numbness, and he lay completely still, looking at the letters of her name one by one. It didn’t seem possible that she was gone. If only she’d been a Tangent like him, and Kaine had never entered the picture, they could’ve gamed and lived life to its fullest for what felt like forever, until the Decay took their minds and they drifted into forgetful bliss.

More time passed.

And then, finally, there were footsteps—the sound of leaves crunching beneath his tree house. He sat up with a jolt, his feet thumping on the wooden floor. His gaze shot to the trapdoor.

“Michael,” a man’s voice said from below.

Michael slowly stood, careful not to make the slightest noise. Though there wasn’t much point in being quiet. Whoever had arrived knew Michael was there, obviously. The question was, was it Kaine or an impostor?

He stepped lightly over to the trapdoor, leaned forward, and looked through the hole.

A man stood next to the ladder, staring up. And it was him—Kaine—in the same Aura that Michael had last seen him. Not the old, decrepit geezer from the first time, but the younger version. Perfectly styled salt-and-pepper hair, a sharp jawline, bright and intelligent eyes. In his dark, three-piece suit, he could have passed for a handsome businessman.

“May I come up?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

Not the greatest start to the most important conversation of his life.

Kaine grabbed hold of a rung, and as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a grown man in a suit to do, he started to climb. Michael stepped back when Kaine’s head popped through the opening, and then the Tangent was on his feet, standing before him. He had almost a foot in height on Michael’s Aura, and his face was totally unreadable. He didn’t look angry, but he sure didn’t seem too happy, either.

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