Bryson glared. “Not. Funny.”

“VNC just sounds so stupid.” That came from Gabby, who’d brought along her boyfriend, one Jackson Porter. He’d taken on a completely new Aura to lessen the awkwardness of it all, but it still weirded Michael out. It was like he had an evil twin or something. “Reminds me of a hideous disease. They should’ve just called it the Commission.”

“How’re things back in the big bad world, anyway?” Michael asked. “I do my best to avoid all NewsBops these days. They give me the runs.”

Gabby groaned, something Sarah definitely would’ve done back in the day.

Jackson answered; he was getting more and more comfortable with his new friends. “They’re not too bad. Most of the special elections are done, markets are rebounding, people are brave enough to Sink into the Sleep again. Another few months and it’ll all be back to normal.”

Bryson tapped the table absently, a faraway look in his eyes. “Good thing we stopped them when we did. Seriously. I think if a week or two more had gone by, the world would have been toast. Good on ya, mate.” He raised his glass again, and the sound of glass clinking filled the air. It was a happy sound.

“What about you?” Gabby asked. That kind smile on her face was something Michael had started to get used to, virtual or not. “How’re you holding up?”

Michael thought about it for a second, then nodded with confidence. They didn’t have to know about the emptiness that still felt like an abscess in his heart.

“Things are really good,” he said. “Obviously I miss my parents. I miss you guys. I miss…Sarah. But it’s great to be with Helga and to have started school again in Lifeblood Deep. The great thing about that place is no one knows who’s real and who’s not, which suits me just fine. I’m lovin’ it, actually. I mean, hey, if I can beat back the Decay—and they’re saying being sentient does the trick—I’ll live a lot longer than you guys.”

“That’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever said to me,” Bryson replied, the beam of joy on his face exaggerated.

“Who’s to say what’s real and what’s not, anyway?” Gabby asked. “For all we know, the Wake is just an even more complicated program, run by a bunch of aliens. Or God. Or both. Maybe there’s an infinite number of levels. Maybe it gets rebooted every million years.”

That was some major food for thought. Everyone sat in silence for a good long minute, pondering the universe.

“Well,” Jackson said, standing up from his chair. “I gotta go. Project due tomorrow.”

“Yeah, me too,” Gabby agreed. She stood as well. “See you guys here on Friday. Same time?”

Bryson pushed his chair back, looking genuinely sad that the party was over for now. “Same time. And I know this is blasphemy, but next go-round, let’s get something that isn’t bleu chips? Please? For the love of God?”

Gabby laughed an evil laugh as she and Jackson walked away. Michael watched them go, wondering if people would believe their story once a few years went by. It was nuts.

Bryson smacked him on the shoulder, then gave him a rough handshake. “Games are opening back up in two weeks,” he said. His voice was solemn, as if he’d announced a peace treaty. “I say we skip school—sniffle, sniffle—and go twenty-four hours straight. Hit ’em all.” He slapped Michael on the shoulder again, then turned to go. He flashed two thumbs-up. “What say you?” he shouted.

“Sounds good!” Michael yelled back, flashing the same sign.

Man, did it ever sound good.

EPILOGUE

Michael sat in the completely repaired tree house on the outskirts of Lifeblood, exhausted. Darkness had fallen hours before, and it was well past his bedtime. Helga didn’t mind, though. She knew exactly what he’d been working on the last few weeks. And she knew he was close. She’d probably gone to bed by now anyway.

Even though he was skilled enough to access the code of his surrounding world within the Deep, he’d made a promise to himself—and Helga—that he wouldn’t do it while in that world. They both needed to adopt some semblance of a real life, to keep things steady and stable—and Lifeblood Deep had become that place for him. He could dink around on a NetScreen or WallScreen anytime he wanted, but to truly immerse himself, he had to Lift up a level, to the Sleep that the vast majority of citizens experienced when they Sank.

What an odd life he lived.

He settled himself in Bryson’s beanbag chair, its worn and cracked surface feeling like an old friend. He leaned his head back and took a deep breath. His eyes hurt from working so much. Working and searching and analyzing. It’d taken every last ounce of his skill and strength, but he’d done an excellent job. If I do say so myself, he thought.

Sitting there in the quiet, which was broken every now and then by a branch scraping against the outside wall, he thought about it all. About the insane turn his life had taken. Finding out he was a string of code. Traveling the world, both real and virtual. Fighting enemies that the biggest and baddest armies in the world couldn’t stop. Watching Sarah die. Horribly. Twice. If that didn’t scar a kid for life, what would?

But it had all turned out okay, hadn’t it?

Here he was, alive and well. Because of the Mortality Doctrine, he had an understanding of a person’s intelligence—their consciousness—far beyond that of the average person. He was real, and that was that. No one could take that away from him.

With a big stretch, he sat up straighter. For weeks he’d been working his tail off. Late nights, bloodshot eyes at school, walking around like a Flare-infested Crank, falling asleep at the dinner table. He’d done that once and he still couldn’t believe it. His face had almost fallen right into a bowl of tomato soup. Helga had just shaken her head.

But it had all been worth it. So worth it. He had it now. He was almost one hundred percent positive. After scouring the Sleep from one end to the other, searching high and low, gathering data, and breaking into so many high-security places it was a wonder he hadn’t been thrown in jail.

Gathering, gathering.

Collecting.

Piece by piece, string of code by string of code, and now he had it all in one place. In a mixed-up, confusing, jumbled mess, sure, but it was all there.

Tomorrow was a Saturday, and he had one last, long day of work.

***

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