Michael didn’t know what it was exactly that set off his alarm. It might’ve been the heightened paranoia of crossing paths with so many Tangents—or people he suspected were Tangents. But something strange hung in the air. So when the world within that cavern descended into madness, Michael wasn’t surprised.

Only scared.

2

The chamber was circular—rounded tiers and countless balconies surrounding a large dais with a rotating stage, a dark wood podium resting in its middle like an old tombstone. Security was heavy throughout the auditorium. Michael had noticed the many armed guards immediately. They were everywhere. A ring of the stern men and women stood just a few feet back from the wide stage. At first, it had set his mind at ease—at least those attending were safe from outside attack at the summit. An inside job was another story.

Just a few minutes after he and Bryson had taken their seats, an elderly gentleman rose to the stage. He walked to the podium slowly and stopped, gripping its sides firmly. His image was projected high above him as an enormous hologram so that he could be seen easily even by those in the antechamber farthest from the stage.

He cleared his throat into the microphone and it was like thunder cracking from the giant speakers above them.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the man began, his voice surprisingly strong, “it is my pleasure, and sorrow, to welcome you to this hallowed assembly today. As speaker for the Union of Earth these many years, I’ve never seen such a dark time come upon us. It is with a heavy heart, yet with unshaken certainty of hope, that I open these proceedings. Thank you for being here.”

He paused, and Michael thought it was a natural place for applause, a general acknowledgment of his words. But the thousands of people in the chamber remained silent. It felt as if the air had frozen solid.

The man continued. “We have promised that each country, territory, and union represented here today will have their moment. Not only do we expect reports of the troubles seen in your lands—troubles caused by these so-called Tangent invaders—but we also hope to hear your proposed solutions. I am determined that we stay here together until we’ve paved a path of solutions.”

The old man reached somewhere below the podium and came back with a glass of water in his hand, from which he took a long, shaky swallow. Michael cringed at the sound of it booming from the speakers. His sense that something was wrong only increased, and he couldn’t keep still in his seat, scanning the audience for any sign of mischief. His head ached from the stress and unease.

Another thunderous throat-clearing brought his attention back to the speaker of the UE.

“The order of presentation was chosen at random this very morning,” the man said. “We sincerely ask that no deviation from this order take place. We also ask that brevity be the rule at hand, and that we save deliberations until we’ve heard all those who wish to speak their mind.” He paused, looking around the room.

“Before we officially begin, however, I want to announce a very special guest. Sitting before me, on the ground level, is a representative from VirtNet Security. We are told the VNS has a potential solution to this dire problem of Tangents and the so-called Mortality Doctrine program. But they’ve requested that their own presentation wait until all others have been heard, so that their information can be understood in the full context of what’s happening globally. We’ve been assured that there’s a very good reason to keep hope in our hearts.

“Please,” he said, holding an arm out to his side, “as they’ve had deep troubles of their own and are not a usual part of our quorum, please give Agent Diane Weber from the VNS a welcoming round of applause.”

The chamber erupted with the sound of clapping as Weber’s face replaced the speaker’s in the floating hologram, high in the air, near the ceiling. She smiled warmly and gave a slight dip of her head.

Michael looked at the haunting visage of Agent Weber and thought, Of course.

Of course.

3

The ring of guards positioned around the stage faced outward, watching the audience, their weapons holstered but visible to all. There had to be at least fifty of them, all standing at attention, their eyes scanning the crowds. The applause was just starting to quiet, and the speaker leaned forward to continue the program, when Michael caught movement in that wide ring of armed guards.

Others saw it, too, because a collective gasp filled the room right before the first shot rang out.

It was from a guard standing to the right of the speaker. He dropped his weapon and immediately turned and ran up the stairs, onto the stage proper. As he ascended the steps, he pulled out a second gun, long and sleek. The room went dead silent, and then the guard pulled the trigger.

The shot echoed through the chamber, amplified by the acoustics of the structure. Michael was on his feet in time to see the speaker fly back from the podium. He landed on his side, and it was clear to Michael that the man wouldn’t be getting up. Whatever ammunition that guard had used was far deadlier than any from a standard weapon.

There was one last beat of shocked silence; then the chamber erupted. Chaos swept through the hall as most people struggled to leave their seats, pushing urgently toward the exits. Michael and Bryson could only stand and stare as things got worse.

The guard who’d shot the speaker turned away from the center of the stage and faced the rows of chairs closest to the dais. Once again he raised his weapon and started firing into the crowd. The noise grew tenfold. Panic spread throughout the chamber, and people were no longer merely pushing, but clawing and fighting, climbing over each other to escape.

Still Michael couldn’t move. He watched, frozen in disbelief.

The rogue guard got off three shots before one of his partners took him down. But before any calm could be restored, a female guard fired at the man standing beside her. Then other guards jumped into the action, one shooting at the woman who’d just killed her neighbor, others firing into the audience. The entire display was madness, and try as he might, Michael couldn’t figure out who was on whose side.

It seemed like some surreal, impossible nightmare. There was so much blood, and shots continued to sound. More guards went down; others were targeting the patrons they had signed on to protect. More people died.

Oddly, Michael felt a certain calmness, as if he’d grown used to the world being insane. He turned toward Bryson, who seemed as paralyzed as Michael.

“What’s happening to us, man?” Bryson stared straight ahead as he spoke. “When will it ever stop?”

***

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