After what seemed like an unnaturally long pause, she began reading from a prepared statement.
“Thank you for coming today, and thank you for your patience while we’ve exhausted our every resource investigating this horrific incident. There is at least some comfort in knowing that the perpetrators of this act are confined in prison as we speak. As for the far-reaching effects of what they’ve done, I’m afraid the news is not good. Now we must move forward to rectify the situation.”
She lifted a hand to indicate something behind her, but whatever it was, Michael couldn’t see it. She continued.
“A full report has been made public, but the basic conclusion is this: the VNS infrastructure has been temporarily rendered nonfunctioning. At this moment, there can be no oversight of VirtNet activities. Monitoring, security, reporting capability, and code-safety protocols have all been damaged, and effective immediately, we are no longer in service. We want to stress that it’s our intention to return to fully operational status, but it will take some time. I’m relieved to say that it will be a matter of weeks, not months. We will work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until this enormous task is complete.”
She paused then, looking uncomfortably at her unseen audience for several long moments. Michael assumed she was being assaulted with questions they couldn’t hear.
At some point they must have quieted, because she finally resumed speaking. Michael watched with rapt attention, wondering where all of this was leading them. Something told him his near future wasn’t going to be a happy place.
“Now, I’m afraid I have another piece of very troubling news to report. Again, we have provided a more detailed written statement, but here is the basic situation: the entity known as Kaine, a Tangent of unknown origin, has gained an unprecedented level of sentience.”
Another dramatic pause. “More importantly, and urgently, and as a direct result of the terrorist actions against our facility, Kaine has eluded us and executed a process by which the codes of certain Tangents have somehow been, for lack of a better word, downloaded into the minds of flesh-and-blood humans. By doing so, these people now serve as hosts for rogue-coded programs.
“Until we can bring our services back to their full capacity, we warn the entire world that anyone who Sinks into the VirtNet is highly susceptible to this hostile takeover. As we don’t have the ability to stop you at this time, we ask for your support in this matter. Under no circumstances are you to Sink. Thank you.”
Before she could say more, her body dissolved and blew away like those of the reporters before her. No one replaced her.
“I can’t believe it,” Sarah whispered as the last fragments of Weber’s digital dust disappeared. “I can’t believe it.”
She could’ve been commenting on a hundred different things, but Michael could tell she meant something very specific.
“What?” he asked.
“She lied,” Sarah replied. “I know she’s a liar, but she stood right in front of the entire world and lied to their faces.”
Helga was nodding. At some point, the city of Atlanta had faded from beneath their feet and been replaced by what they’d seen upon first arriving—the glass floor, the dark blue sky, the dancing geometric shapes of light.
“Something’s definitely not right,” Michael said. “She obviously knows the Mortality Doctrine kicked in before this whole thing with the Lance device happened. This is getting ridiculous. I mean, who’s worse—Agent Weber or Kaine?”
“I vote we just get rid of both of them,” Bryson suggested.
“I know that was a lot to take in,” Helga said. “But we’re not done. I’m afraid you’ll need to brace yourselves for what you’re about to see.”
A few yards away from them, a huge circle of white light pivoted up from the glass floor, slanting upward until it stood on its side, like the entrance to a tunnel. Within the depths of the circle, a very old, majestic stone building appeared. It had huge fluted pillars and giant bronze doors, with a tall, wide expanse of steps leading up to them. Helga walked up to the circle, spread her arms, then spun back to face Michael and his friends, flinging her arms as if throwing something at them.
As she did this, the circle of light expanded, turning into a tunnel. They flew into the scene. It was a cold, gusty day outside what Michael realized was a government building, and he shivered as he rubbed his arms. Like before, they hovered in the air, maybe thirty feet off the ground, slowly moving in to see whatever was about to happen. Or had happened, more likely.
A podium had been set up on the plaza at the top of the steps. An army of police stood at the bottom of the stairs, keeping back hundreds of people who’d obviously come to hear someone give a speech. Michael was just about to ask Helga what they’d come here for when one of the massive bronze doors swung open with a mighty groan of metal on metal.
An older man in an expensive-looking suit walked out of the building. The crowd quieted for a moment, then came to life with a roar, hurling question upon question in a frenzied chaos, all of them holding their hands up like schoolchildren.
Helga motioned to Michael and the others and they descended until they were only a few feet above the man in the suit. He’d reached the podium now, and held his arms up to quiet the crowd. At first they ignored him, barraging him with questions, but when he didn’t speak, they finally went silent. His voice was powerful, and boomed over loudspeakers.
“Thank you for coming today,” he began, speaking in a strange accent. “Especially on such short notice. What I want to show you is, uh, very, uh, important.”
He cleared his throat and fidgeted for a moment with the microphones. Michael stared, perplexed. The guy might look like a prominent businessman or politician, but he was sweating and acting odd. And what did he mean by show? Didn’t he mean tell?
“Yes, very important,” the man continued. “Don’t worry, I won’t take but a moment of your time.” Another rumbling of his throat that was like an explosion in the speakers. “To preface what I’m about to do, let me say something. I…well…the man who stands before you today has been the leader of this fine country for more than five years. He, I mean, I, have done great things for the economy, social welfare, and international diplomacy. But his reign is at an end.”
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