The crowd was silent, probably as intrigued as Michael. He’d already figured out that this man was a Tangent, but what was he going to do?

“I was programmed to be here,” the man said. “To be here, at this time, for this moment. Programmed by Kaine himself. It’s very important that you all know that. So please be aware of it. I was programmed by Kaine, I was a Tangent, and I was sent into this man’s body to make a demonstration. And so I think I’ve said all that I was programmed to. Thank you for your time.”

The nervous, fidgety man reached into his pocket and pulled out something small and shiny. Sarah sucked in air. Michael, too, knew what was about to happen. He wanted to fly down and stop it, even though he knew this was just a reproduction.

The crowd screamed in horror as the man at the podium reached up and slit his own throat.

6

There was blood and screaming. Pandemonium broke out. Michael stared in stunned silence until the scene faded and they found themselves standing on the flat plane of glass once again.

“Well,” Bryson said, “I guess they’ve stopped being subtle about it.”

Michael’s head still swam from the disorienting movement of Helga’s displays. “What could possibly be the point of that?” he asked. “What that guy did makes absolutely no sense. Why would he do that?”

The others were staring down at the floor and those mesmerizing shapes below it. No one had the answer.

Finally, Helga spoke up. “Bryson’s right. At first, the Tangents were being extremely subtle. But now they’re flat-out announcing their presence. It’s almost like they decided the humans were too stupid to see what was going on, so they came out and started presenting it in sensationalist ways.”

“It doesn’t add up,” Michael whispered, turning everything over in his mind. “Not at all.”

“Why would Kaine send Tangents into human bodies and then have them commit suicide?” Sarah asked.

“To make a show of it,” Bryson replied.

Sarah shook her head. “I get that. But Michael’s right—it doesn’t add up. If anything, the Tangents should want to be a secret. Why would they bring attention to the Mortality Doctrine? That’ll just make the world join hands and try to stop them. It’s like announcing on the NewsBops that you’re going to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre tomorrow afternoon.”

“Exactly,” Michael agreed. Between what he’d just seen and the reminder of what had happened to Gabby, he was having trouble staying focused.

“Michael?”

He looked up at Sarah. “Huh?”

“You seem like you have something more to say.”

He pushed thoughts of Gabby aside. “Yeah. Well…Kaine keeps talking about this immortality stuff. How does programming a Tangent to take over a body and kill itself in front of the world…how does that help him? It doesn’t. Which is why those things Janey and Trae said ring true. Maybe Kaine isn’t in charge anymore. Someone just wants us to think he is.”

“It’s possible, I guess,” Helga said. “We’re certainly not dealing with something so simple as one rogue Tangent getting his kicks. It’s too widespread. Let me show you a few more things so we’re all on the same page. Then we’ll Lift to the Wake and get moving.”

And show them she did.

7

Helga’s space-age entertainment system took over for the next half hour, sending them on trip after trip through those shapes of light to see Tangents wreaking havoc.

All across Brazil, a terrifying series of prison breaks was traced back to officials in high positions who inexplicably allowed them to happen. In New York City, at the world’s largest stock exchange, there were multiple cases of well-respected traders suddenly acting on wild speculations and spreading insider information. Michael didn’t know enough about trading to understand it all that well, but several anchorpersons from the NewsBops explained how international economic panic had set in because of the extreme unpredictability. Three major economic systems had crashed over the past two weeks.

In Hong Kong, the chief of police transferred all of the enforcement personnel out of the metro area. Looters destroyed a major part of the largest shopping district.

In Mexico, progress against the drug trade, the result of a century of effort, was essentially erased by a series of changes to the law, passed in quick succession by several politicians whose views transformed overnight. Policy altered so rapidly that the drug cartels had taken over five cities before the public noticed what was going on.

Michael and his friends witnessed businesses collapsing, celebrities publicly killing spouses, and transit systems falling into disarray, and just like the man who’d slit his own throat in front of a waiting crowd of reporters, more and more of the cases involved Tangents announcing what they were before disaster struck.

Finally, not a moment too soon, Helga ended the show and brought them back to the now-comforting field of glass and geometric shapes. Michael wanted nothing more than to Lift to the Wake, find a corner, curl up into a ball, and push the world away. He was tired, and scared.

After a somber silence, Bryson spoke.

“Man, that’s all happened in the last couple of weeks?”

Helga nodded. “Now you see why we have to do something. Honestly, I’m worried that we’re too late. As you can see, it’s gotten out of control. To stop this, we’re going to need someone with a lot of power on our side. And like I said before, the Hive is the key. The Hive, and the Mortality Doctrine program itself.”

“So we need the VNS,” Bryson said, “even though we can’t trust Weber.”

“No, not the VNS,” Michael said. “No way. Before we try finding our way back to the Hallowed Ravine, we need to talk to actual world leaders—at least the ones who haven’t been taken over. Based on the news, there are still a lot of those left. Presidents, prime ministers…anyone but Agent Weber and the VNS.”

“But what is some president going to give us?” Sarah asked. “An army? A speech? What we need is a bunch of nerds, not presidents.”

Michael was nodding. “Right. And the nerdiest nerds of Nerdville usually end up working for the government. The ones that the VNS doesn’t steal, anyway.”

“Isn’t the VNS part of the government?” Bryson asked.

***

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