“It’ll never stop!” Michael shouted. “Not until we stop letting people manipulate us. We need to use our own Coffins to get back into the Sleep and figure out how to fix this ourselves.” He was seething with anger now. “Let’s get to the Portal and Lift out of here before someone stops us.” It was a heartless thing to say, but rage filled him. Whoever it was behind this latest attack had to be stopped, and Michael wasn’t waiting for other people to get the job done.

He grabbed Bryson by the arm and pushed him toward the aisle—the rest of the people sitting by them had already cleared out into the antechambers. Helga was waiting at the entrance, yelling at Michael to hurry. He loved her, and he knew she was doing everything she could, but the sight of her right then made him mad. What a waste it had all been.

He took another look at the stage, where the chaos continued. Bodies littered the ground, and shots were still being fired in every direction.

Michael and Bryson had chanced fate enough—they needed to leave. Michael gave his friend another push and they ran for the aisle, met up with Helga. She didn’t waste time on words, ushering him toward the door, refusing to leave until Michael went before her. They were just a few feet from the exit when a voice boomed through the enormous room, from all directions at once.

“Sit down!”

It was a man’s voice, amplified by the speakers.

“Get back in your seats,” the man yelled again, “or we’ll blow the entire building up!”

Michael turned away from the door and looked back toward the center of the chamber. Another enormous hologram floated where the speaker had previously been. It was a guard, his hair disheveled, sweat streaming down his face. He held his weapon in both hands before him, right above the top of the podium.

“Last warning,” he said, this time in a softer voice. Most people in the room had stopped to listen. Only a few had actually made it out. “You will sit, you will listen, and you will watch as we change the world.”

He paused, and Michael knew what he was going to say before the words came out of his mouth.

“My name is Kaine.”

4

The truth struck Michael at that moment. His life was forever connected to two people: Agent Weber and the Tangent known as Kaine. He just had to accept it.

The guard who’d identified himself as Kaine waited as the remaining audience members filed back into the main chamber. Maybe it was something in his eyes, but most patrons in the chamber believed his threat that he would bring down the entire building.

“Wise,” Kaine said into the microphone. “You’re all very wise to do as I say.” The Tangent’s face hovered above the dais, one hundred times its actual size. Kaine always seemed to find a way to establish his presence in a grand, theatrical style.

Michael and Bryson had found their same seats, and Helga sat next to them. The rest of the crowd had done the same, except for a few stragglers who staggered around the room as if they’d lost their minds to fear.

Kaine gave them only minutes before he started talking again. “It’s good to see that humans are still reasonable when called upon to be so. Thank you for taking my suggestion. It would have been a shame to destroy such a lovely building. You will find that I’m not entirely unreasonable, either—once you see things my way. You will probably even agree with me. The world, my friends—both virtual and real—is about to become a much better place. One day you’ll tell your grandkids that you were here to witness the beginning.”

Michael scowled. He felt like he knew Kaine, not only from their interactions, but from what they shared—that they were both just lines of code when it all came down to it. But something was off. This just didn’t seem like the Kaine he knew.

“Now,” the man said. “As of this moment, I am the leader of this world. President, chancellor, prime minister, all wrapped into one. My fellow Tangents will be assigned various locations in the many countries and territories around the globe. You will submit or you will be replaced by Tangents who are more than willing to do so. The Mortality Doctrine is a wonderful thing, my new friends.”

Michael wanted to stand up and shout. Something was definitely off. After his last two encounters with Kaine within the Sleep, he knew he was right. This was absolutely, positively not Kaine.

The impostor kept talking, but Michael tuned him out, leaning over to Bryson. “That’s not him, dude. That’s not him.”

Bryson looked at him. “He does seem a little over-the-top. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s just hear him out,” Bryson said. “Learn something.”

“…that so many people had to die,” the guard was saying, his larger-than-life hologram addressing the crowd like a god. “We needed to show a display of power, make sure you know that we can do what we need to do and literally be whoever we need to be. Think about this—if we can so easily take over one of the most secure meetings in the world, imagine what else we can do. You need to abandon any idea of rebellion you may already be hatching.”

Michael didn’t know how much longer he could take this display.

And then, once again, the world changed.

5

The guard claiming to be Kaine seemed to like talking.

“Our perception of the world, of intelligence, of mortality, of life…with each passing year, it seemingly evolves at double the rate of the previous year. Our understanding of death has transcended even the most optimistic religion, when we can plainly see that the termination of our physical bodies does not have to mean the end. Although you may despise me now, that will change. In time, as we rule and show you the way…”

Kaine stopped, his words fading out as if he’d suddenly forgotten a memorized speech. A blankness washed over his face, and the silence in the chamber stretched out. Michael watched, wondering what was going on, and a thread of drool dripped from the guard’s mouth. On the huge hologram, it appeared as a long line of silver-blue that flashed, then disappeared beneath the display.

“What the…,” Bryson murmured in awe.

Kaine, the guard, whoever he was—moved his mouth to speak again, but no sound came out. Another stream of drool dripped from his lips. Then his eyes rolled up into his head and he fell backward, disappearing from the hologram.

Michael jumped to his feet just in time to see the man down on the dais crash to the floor, the thump of his body echoing through the chamber. A round of gasps circulated and another guard leaped onto the stage and ran for his fallen companion. Before the man made it halfway across the stage, however, he stumbled and fell, crashing face-first to the ground. He lay there, sprawled in a painful-looking tangle, unmoving.

***

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