“He gave us an ultimatum,” Helga said more calmly. “I couldn’t risk him blowing those explosives and killing every one of us. Including four people”—she pointed at Bryson, Sarah, Gerard, and Nancy, one by one—“who aren’t backed up on the Hive yet. You want to talk about true death—well, these people are our friends, and I wasn’t going to sit back and allow that to happen to them. I had no choice!”

“You did have a choice,” Walter answered.

Helga sat back down. “A lot more lives were saved than lost.”

“But—” Walter started, but Helga cut him off.

“Stop!” she shouted. “If you want to go out there and organize a coup, then do it. Go make your case and gather your votes. But what I did was necessary, and it’s time to move on.”

Walter didn’t answer. And he didn’t leave, either. He looked down at the floor, breathing heavily.

Michael sat, stunned, taking it all in, not sure he understood what was happening. The thing that really stood out to him was when Helga had pointed at his friends and Sarah’s parents. She’d very deliberately pointed at them, but not him. That simple gesture meant everything.

“Once and for all,” Bryson interrupted the silence. “Can someone please tell us—what is the true death?”

“Straight out.” Sarah nodded.

Helga leaned forward on the desk and clasped her hands together. “Remember what I explained earlier? Even if we’re not sure exactly how it works, for a Tangent to exist inside the body of a human, a connection needs to remain to the original person’s consciousness. It’s a link that can’t be severed or the body would die. We believe this is the reason the Hive exists.”

She took a deep breath, studying her hands as she rubbed them together. “The true death is when an intelligence stored within the Hive is destroyed. It can be either a Tangent or a human. Destroy it in the Hive and that…person, Tangent, consciousness, whatever you want to call it, is gone forever. And if it’s connected to a body here in the Wake, that body will die as well. They both cease to exist, as far as we know.”

She paused. “But that’s just one way for the so-called true death to happen. What it really means is quite simple. It’s when anyone—Tangent or human—dies without having a backup stored. However the death happens, virtually or in reality. If there’s no backup in the Hive, then a person’s intelligence, memories, and essence are gone forever.”

Michael was picturing the Hive in his mind. He wondered how they did it—how they killed a consciousness. He imagined floating in that vast space with all those orange pods, igniting one with a virtual flamethrower. He could almost hear the screams as the intelligence inside was burned to a crisp.

He shook the image out of his head and turned to Helga. “I’m still stored there, right?”

Everyone in the room looked at him.

Slowly, Helga nodded.

“And so is Jackson Porter,” he continued. “So we could still insert him back into this body and I could go on existing in the Sleep. Right?”

Helga nodded again. She seemed almost sad.

“And the reason that you pointed at Sarah and the others is because if we’re all killed here by the explosives, the rest of us wouldn’t die the true death. We’d revert back to our programs stored in the Hive.” He paused. “Except for these guys.” He gestured toward his friends. “No backup.” The two words felt cold and harsh.

Helga stood and walked to the other side of the desk, then leaned against it. “That’s all exactly correct, Michael. When the other Tangents and I gathered and made the decision to use the Mortality Doctrine to borrow bodies and come here, we made some important promises to ourselves. And one was to avoid the true death, for anyone, at any cost. But today I broke that rule because I had two terrible options. I’ll have to live with that decision, but we have to keep going. I believe that with your help, we can stop Kaine, whoever was behind Kaine in the first place, and this splinter group we met tonight.”

She folded her arms and looked down at the floor. “We call ourselves the Tangent Alliance. Ever since you were taken away from me, things within the inner workings of the VirtNet have been crumbling. Several Tangents broke away from their host programs. We saw what Kaine was doing, and we decided to fight against it. We want to restore things to the way they were. And I wanted you back. I think we have the same goals. Am I right?”

Michael glanced at Sarah, who’d been quiet since Trae and his gang finally left the barracks. She gave him a half smile, her eyes sad.

Michael sighed. “We definitely want to stop Kaine, Helga. But I feel like there’s something major that we’re missing. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying that Kaine is our enemy. We need to figure out what’s really going on, and I think the right place to start is the Hallowed Ravine. If we can…disrupt the Mortality Doctrine itself, at least we’ll stop Tangents from being able to leave the VirtNet.”

Helga clapped her hands together. “I taught you well, didn’t I? The Hive is merely a storage facility—the actual Mortality Doctrination happens exactly where you mentioned.” She gestured toward the door to the main room. “Well, we haven’t exactly been sitting around doing nothing. You saw what we have out there. People, NerveBoxes, NetScreens. We’ve been working, and we’re ready to take the next steps.”

This time Bryson spoke up. “Sounds to me like you better catch us up, then.”

“I want to know what’s going on out in the world,” Sarah added. “Things were getting bad even before we got caught in Agent Weber’s setup with the Lance device.”

“We’ve got answers,” Helga replied. “And some potential plans. But first, I think we all need some rest. Diving in right now will only make everyone miserable.”

As curious and anxious as Michael felt, he couldn’t disagree. He could have crawled under his rickety wooden chair right that second and fallen asleep.

“The Hive was the first thing I wanted you to see,” Helga said. “And then we got a little sidetracked, didn’t we?” She started moving for the door. “We’ll have a few more cots brought in. You can all sleep in this room. In the morning we’ll Sink into the VirtNet and I’ll lay out our plan and our resources.”