Marta and the others were visibly struggling to access their own coding to no avail.
“Mr. Skale!” the old man shouted. “I demand you remove this block immediately!”
Gunner was at a total loss—nothing could block him from code. Nothing! “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m telling you, I don’t!”
The darkness now took up half the viewing port, the approaching object obscuring the outside world. For the first time since he could remember in the Sleep, Gunner had absolutely no idea what to do. They couldn’t leave, he had no way to access defenses, his potential partners had turned against him, and something was about to crash into his ship.
The others saw that he was just as upset as they were. They gathered around him and faced the huge windows.
All was black now. No stars, no Saturn, no rings. Just darkness. As he stared, a spot of light appeared in the middle of the abyss, then widened into a bright opening that almost blinded him. A shadow passed across it with lightning speed. There was a blur of movement, a thump of sound, a jolting clap outside that rattled the ship.
And then an enormous metallic object was outside the viewing port, hurtling toward them. It crashed through the windows with a hideous explosion of noise, and shards of glass rained down on Gunner. It was as if the VirtNet itself had just been shattered with a hammer.
Amidst it all, somehow George’s screams were crystal clear.
Gunner fell to the floor, arms thrown over his head, protecting his face from flying debris. His game-hewn senses were sharp, and his reactions were lightning fast. There was no loss of pressure because they weren’t actually in space, so the atmosphere of the ship remained stable, but he could tell that the coding had started to break down—he saw glitches and fading color and wavering edges.
Gunner brushed himself off and stood. Whatever had crashed through the windows was on top of George, massive metal arms pinning the old man to the floor. The intruder was like a giant robot—a thick, monstrous body of gleaming steel and chrome, an insectile head with blazing blue eyes, vents jetting red steam, mechanical grunts and hisses sounding with its every move. And then Gunner saw exactly why George was screaming.
From the robot’s torso, blades flashed in and out, stabbing the old man in the chest. The blood was a red fountain, splashing on the shiny metal of the attacker. George’s screams turned to gurgles and moans, then stopped altogether. Gunner knew it was a simulation, but the horrific sight still sent a chill up his spine. And he knew he had to fight this thing off.
Little flaps opened on the robot’s shoulders. Two long instruments with hooked claws on the end shot out and grabbed the sides of George’s head. A third arm came from the monster’s chest, tipped with a long, curling weapon that looked like a scorpion’s tail. It slammed into the man’s temple and viciously dug out his Core—that small metal chip that represented his fragile link to the real world—pulling the chip from the vicious wound and flicking it into the emptiness that hovered behind the shattered windows.
Gunner felt his world collapsing. Nothing had prepared him for this. Whoever was behind the attack broke new Virt laws every few seconds, each one worse than the last. Coding out the Core was not only illegal, but was an extremely difficult feat of programming. And the robot had done it as easily as tearing off a bandage.
Rachel’s face appeared in Gunner’s mind then. He didn’t care about anything else. There was only Rachel. And he hadn’t spent the last ten years annihilating the Sleep to give up now.
Gunner let out a scream that emptied his lungs of air, and scrambled to his feet. He ran at the robot, jumping at the last second onto its enormous arm. He scaled its side and leapt onto the thing’s back. The robot moved, lifting and planting its arms and legs with jerky movements, heading straight for Cherry, as if it didn’t know or didn’t care that Gunner clung to it. With each step, glass crunched under the machine’s clawed feet. Slowly but surely, it caught up to the woman and swung with a huge arm, swatting her through the air until she crashed into the wall and then crumpled to the ground. Gunner hung on as the thing moved again. He searched for something on the creature’s exterior to pull or break or disengage, but his fingers found only a smooth metal hull.
Cherry didn’t make a sound when the machine tore out her Core. This time, the robot flicked the metallic coin into the air and zapped it with a sun-bright laser, obliterating it. Marta, who’d scrambled to the farthest edge of the room, was next. The robot caught her and yanked her into the air. Over the sound of her screams, Gunner heard her body breaking, bones snapping.
Still he searched, punching the robot’s metal shell with his free hand as he hung on desperately with the other. The machine was solid, unbreakable. Gunner tried again to access the code—he needed to pull a weapon from his endless stash of programs. But he might as well have been in the Wake for all the good his efforts did. He was blocked from the code like a severed spine.
The next few seconds were a blur of movement and sound. Marta erupted in one final scream as her Core was excised from her temple, and Kent didn’t even put up a fight, dying in one swift, crushing blow from the robot. Gunner knew without seeing that his Core would be removed as well. He searched his mind for possible solutions. But nothing came, and soon metal claws were gripping his arms, wrenching him off the robot’s back, throwing him to the floor.
Gunner landed with a grunt that sent the air rushing from his lungs. And then the massive machine—its gleaming body, its hissing steam, its groans of mechanics—was hunched over him, its brilliant blue eyes staring down at him like thrusters on a spaceship.
“At least tell me who you are,” Gunner said, forcing out the words even though his chest was on fire. “Tell me why.”
A voice—detached, almost dreamlike—answered.
“The Mortality Doctrine is mine. And now so are you. Say good-bye to flesh and bone, Gunner Skale.”
There was a burst of pure light and a rush of sound, and then Gunner felt his memories drain from his mind like sand down a funnel.
Hours later … weeks later … a lifetime later …
Gunner’s eyes opened, though he’d never closed them.
He was in a forest, surrounded by trees and darkness and mist. In front of him, a man dressed in a business suit stood tall and straight, like a trained soldier, a look of sublime calm on his face. The man was neither young nor old. Neither ugly nor handsome.