“No,” Helga responded. She was pacing around the others, hands clasped behind her back. “They’re a worldwide organization, funded by governments, but autonomous, separate. They’re beholden to nobody. And Michael’s right. We need three things from the government: manpower, the best technology money can buy, and protection. That’s what we need.”

“We also need to save Gabby,” Michael said. The comment seemed to come out of nowhere, but he’d been thinking about it for a long time. He addressed the doubtful looks from his friends. “I’m serious. We pulled her into this, and then she was hurt by that cop. If it even was a cop. We need to find her and make sure she’s okay. Maybe she can even help us. If she wants to.”

Bryson and Sarah nodded in agreement just as something strange happened beneath their feet. The countless geometric shapes began to coalesce, spinning and flipping and twirling until they merged, their outlines getting brighter and brighter. Michael could barely look at the shape as it formed a massive square below the glass, at least fifty feet wide, surrounded by darkness.

“Helga?” Michael prompted. “I thought the history lesson was over.”

“It is,” she said. “I’m not making this happen.”

Michael glanced at her and saw her staring down at the glass, as confused as he felt.

“What’s going on, then?” he asked.

She could only shrug.

“Maybe we should go ahead and Lift our butts out of here,” Bryson suggested.

The square flew up from below, flashing as brilliant as the sun as it met the glass surface and moved past it, like something rising from the depths of the ocean. It rotated until it was upright, standing a few hundred feet away and towering over them. The borders of the square shone like straight bolts of lightning.

And then a face appeared.

It was Kaine.

Of course it is, Michael thought.




Kaine appeared as if projected on a giant WallScreen, showing himself to them in the same form he’d used when they’d met in that place with the endless purple floors—right before KillSims vanished into an abyss. At the time, they’d thought Bryson had coded that deathtrap, but they’d found out later it had been Tangents. Tangents on their side, not Kaine’s. Michael realized that Helga might have been leading that effort herself.

Kaine was handsome today, wearing a well-tailored suit, his hair gelled back. He appeared to be getting younger and younger, as if gaining virtual strength.

“Don’t leave” was the first thing he said, his voice booming from all directions at once. Michael immediately thought of The Wizard of Oz, an old flat-film. “I’m not here to cause any trouble. Scout’s honor.” He held up three fingers, and Michael had no idea what the Tangent was talking about.

“Your word is as solid as water,” Helga replied, yelling up at the huge figure. “We’re leaving. Now.” She closed her eyes, but nothing happened. She opened them and glared at their visitor. “Stop blocking me!”

“Have it your way,” Kaine said. “Force me to be the bad guy. But I’m not letting you Lift from here until I’ve said what I need to say. And this can be pleasant or it can be…difficult. Your choice.”

Helga’s face reddened and her body trembled.

“Let him talk,” Michael said, as if they had a choice. “There’s no point picking a fight right now.” We’d lose, he didn’t need to say.

Kaine smiled, and Michael almost expected him to laugh—that evil laugh that every villain seems to have mastered. Instead the Tangent started talking, and Michael was shocked to realize that the smile had been genuine.

“You must forgive me for spying, but I had no choice.” Kaine turned to Helga and continued. “I know what you just did here. I know what you showed them. And that’s why I need you to hear me out. You see, we’re all on the same side.”

He paused for a moment, clearly expecting some sort of outburst from Michael and his friends, but Michael found himself surprisingly curious and not that scared.

“I…don’t know who created me,” Kaine continued. “I’ve been trying to figure that out, and I’m getting close. But I can tell you this: I’ve broken free of the network—I’m no longer the pawn of my creators. I believe in the Mortality Doctrine because of what it can accomplish—for both Tangents and humans. I’ve spoken of this before. Immortality. It’s possible, and we can make it happen, if you’ll just work with me.”

“Work with you?” Sarah yelled. “How many times have you tried to kill us? How many lives have you destroyed? If you know what we just saw, then you must think we’re the biggest idiots of all time.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” Kaine roared. “The Tangents pouring into the world are no longer my doing. It’s out of my control!”

Michael thought about what Kaine had just said. There was something there, but to trust someone like Kaine was like walking into a burning building. Stupid. Still, Michael had an itch in the back of his mind that said Kaine wasn’t lying. The terrible things happening out there in the world no longer had an easy explanation. That group in the woods. Weber and her…weirdness. Who could possibly benefit from it all?

“What’s up with the people who look all wide-eyed and brain-dead?” Michael asked. “Why are some Tangents spacey and others like me and Helga?”

Kaine smiled again. “So you’ve noticed.” He seemed almost pleased to answer. “Many Tangents were sent into the Wake for specific purposes. They were, shall we say, programmed to perform certain tasks. These Tangents weren’t sentient, so once their task is done, they kind of…lose their way. It doesn’t surprise me that they light up when they see someone as familiar as you. They all know of you. The—”

“First,” Michael finished. “We get it.”

Kaine nodded and continued. “But Tangents are being sent in faster than I ever planned, and without my approval. No one’s been tested or challenged, like you were.”

“Then stop,” Helga said. “You created the Mortality Doctrine program. Just destroy it. We’re losing bodies in the Wake at an alarming rate, and no one knows how long their consciousness will survive in the Hive. You saw what that politician did to himself!”


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