He did his business—that part hadn’t been a lie—but he didn’t flush the toilet right away. He wanted a little time to himself, and he didn’t care what they thought. He’d stay inside until they came in after him.

Kaine. The name came to him unbidden. Kaine was on his side now. The Tangent hated the VNS as much as Michael did. Weber had created him, then turned against him, and now wanted to destroy him and everything he believed in. Michael tried not to think about the fact that he himself didn’t quite believe in the same things. For now, they were working against the same enemy.

Michael paced back and forth in the small area. All he had to do was get a message to Kaine somehow. He just needed ten seconds, with any kind of computing device linked to the VirtNet. Michael remembered an old cartoon: a lightbulb would appear over a character’s head when he got an idea. That was what he needed right—

He stopped pacing. The lights. A huge building like this, with all that fancy technology…the tech had to be centralized and operated via a VirtNet connection. Had to be.

A guard beat on the door. “Come on, hurry it up in there!”

Michael jumped. “Yeah! Sorry!” His mind spun. “Sorry, my stomach’s all messed up from the stress you guys put me through!” He winced at his lame attempt to stall.

“You’ve got two minutes!” the soldier yelled through the door. Michael was surprised they didn’t just come barreling in, though he figured not even a guard would have the stomach for what he might walk into.

He ran to the lighting panel, a black plate of glass on the wall. It was a simple interface—the lights operated automatically based on movement, but there were also images on the glass for turning them off and on manually, and to dim them in different quadrants of the room. Michael’s mind worked. He knew he could figure out how to hack into the network; he just needed time. Time he didn’t have.

“One minute!” the soldier shouted, banging on the door again. Michael jumped and accidentally turned the lights off. He quickly flipped them on again, hoping they hadn’t noticed out in the hallway.

He could do this. He took a deep breath and gripped the edges of the glass screen, digging his fingers into the crevices. Then he pulled. It took three tries to slide the unit a half inch from the wall. With more leverage, he was able to yank it out all the way. Michael carefully let it dangle from the optic fiber that connected it to the main system. When he was sure it wouldn’t snap, he took a look at the back of the console. There was a button to switch the interface on the glass from symbols to raw code. He quickly made the change, then shoved the console back into the wall. The black glass now displayed several lines of code that would look like absolute gibberish to most people.

Not to him.

He went to work, tapping and swiping at the code to dig down several layers, reaching past the simple lighting communications and diving into the actual systems of the building itself.

“What’s wrong with you, kid!” one of the men shouted from the hallway. “I’m coming in.”

Without thinking, Michael reached over and engaged the lock on the door, something he hadn’t done earlier to limit suspicion. As soon as it clicked, both soldiers started pounding on the door.

“What’s going on?” the other soldier shouted. “There’s nothing you can do in there! Unlock it, right now! This isn’t some game, kid.”

Michael was busy with the code. He needed to get his message to Kaine. Let them break the door down, beat him up, lock him in a dungeon. He only needed another few seconds. Furiously, he worked at the symbols flashing on the screen, trying to find a conduit, any link to a messaging system, no matter how archaic.

The guards pounded on the door; it sounded like they were using their shoulders now. The metal slab quivered violently, but the lock held.

“Open the door!” one of them yelled.

Michael ignored them, his fingers moving faster than ever. He was almost there.

A gunshot rattled the room. Michael yelped and instinctively raised his arms to protect his face, as if that would do any good. A quick look at the handle and lock showed that it’d been damaged, but not broken yet. Even as he watched, the gun fired again, battering the lock so much it was pushed halfway out of its place.

Michael jumped back to the code. Frantically working.

There. A service line, meant to automatically alert workers when there were malfunctions in the lighting system. Michael easily expanded it to reach the outer realms of the VirtNet and tagged it to Kaine. Then he typed a quick message, even as another gunshot exploded the lock into oblivion, tiny pieces of shrapnel raining against the mirror above the sink.

PINPOINT MY LOCATION

The door slammed inward, almost breaking off of its hinges.

WEBER HAS COFFINS HERE, BRING TANGENTS

The first soldier entered, gun raised, swept the room with his eyes.

COME SAVE ME NOW

“Stop!” the guard yelled, pointing the gun at Michael. The other one ran forward, reaching for Michael with both hands.

Michael swiped the message into the VirtNet, then yanked out the connection fibers just as hands roughly grabbed him by the shirt and lifted him, then slammed his body onto the tiled floor.

An ugly face hovered just above his. “What did you do? What did you do?”

The wind had been knocked right out of Michael’s chest. He gasped for air but couldn’t talk. The tip of a gun touched his forehead, cold and hard.

“What,” the man repeated, enunciating each word. “Did. You. Do.”

Michael coughed, trying to get the words out. “Nothing…I…was just…I tried…but…nothing.” He scrunched up his face as if he was about to cry. “Why can’t…you just let…me go? Please.”

“Get him out of here,” the guard with the gun said. “I’ll see if I can figure out what he did.”

His partner dragged Michael away by the feet.

4

Soon the three of them were back in their chairs, Michael staring at the floor. But he could see all too well in his peripheral vision the barrel of the gun pointing straight at him. The men had lost any semblance of subtlety.

“Tell us what you messed with in there,” the guard with the gun said. “We’re not idiots. Tell us or we just might have to shoot you in the back of the head, tell the bosses that you ran for it.”

Michael had tried hard to fake tears, but nothing would come. Even with no tears, though, it wasn’t hard to show how much the incident had rattled him. “Look, I’m being honest. I was desperate. I tried to see if there was anything I could do. But it’s just a bunch of lighting stuff. I swear. No one has to know.”

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