Michael watched all this, bewildered.

None of the other guards moved. They stood looking at each other. It was impossible to know who’d been taken by Tangents and who hadn’t.

The chamber had grown incredibly silent.

Then Michael heard a sound. A familiar sound.

Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. A steady rhythm. Coming from somewhere below, from a place outside the stage, hidden in darkness. Tap tap tap. Heeled shoes, footsteps tapping along like a musical instrument.

Then, far below, Agent Weber appeared from the shadows. She reached the dais, took the stairs, and calmly crossed the stage. Guards parted for her, their confusion obvious to Michael even from a distance. But a dozen or so feet from her, a man suddenly raised his weapon, aiming it straight at her. Before he could pull the trigger, he collapsed to the ground, rolled down a couple of stairs, and came to rest in a twisted bundle of arms and legs. His weapon clanked against the floor.

Agent Weber never even paused.

Michael’s heart felt as if it had forgotten how to pump blood, his breathing at a standstill.

Weber looked down at the body of the guard who’d claimed to be Kaine, stepped over him, and moved to the podium proper. The microphone stood before her. She appeared comfortable, serene, as if she’d waited her whole life for this moment. The hologram now showed her to the masses within the chamber, the NewsBops surely projecting her image to the entire world.

She took a moment, allowing the shock of events to dissipate before she spoke. Michael forced himself to breathe now, trying to do it as calmly and as deeply as he could.

Agent Weber leaned forward an inch or two and spoke directly into the microphone.

“I can’t imagine the confusion and horror that all of you must feel right now,” she said. “Not just those of you in this once-beautiful audience chamber, but those watching around the world. What we’ve witnessed here today is a tragedy—there’s no debating that. But it’s also a moment of hope for us all. Our time to speak was meant for later, but under the circumstances, I felt it appropriate to come up here now and show you what we’ve prepared.”

She paused, flashing the smallest hint of a smile. Then she said something that gave Michael chills.

“Be at peace, all of you.” She spoke barely above a whisper. “The VNS is going to save the world from its demons.”

CHAPTER 12

THE EXORCIST

1

Conversation moved across the chamber in a wave of hushed whispers. Michael’s group was just as eager to discuss what had just happened. Bryson and Helga turned to Michael, but Michael held up his hand. He didn’t want to miss something vital.

Information. He needed to know everything possible. And then he planned to do something about it.

“I ask for your patience right now,” Agent Weber said, her words booming from the speakers. “If you will give me but a little slice of your time, everything will be explained. I come today as a representative of the VNS, an entity that exists to protect one of mankind’s most valuable resources, the VirtNet. As you know, we’ve recently suffered a devastating loss to our internal structure, setting us back considerably.”

She sighed and frowned, a little too dramatically, playing up how difficult the situation was. Michael wanted to scream. She was the one responsible for the damage! She’d given them the Lance device!

Weber continued. “Because of that setback, the Tangent known as Kaine has been able to apply his Mortality Doctrine program without restriction. As a result, programs have been inserted into the bodies of humans the world over. Sadly, the results of Kaine’s actions culminated in the bloody savagery you saw here today. I am happy to say that we came here with good news, and now it has only been amplified by what’s happened.”

She nodded at someone and the hologram of her was replaced by a 3D image of a large room full of people, each working at a small station of glowing screens and blinking machines. It was such an unexpected image that Michael’s anger was replaced by genuine curiosity.

“The VNS has put their hardest-working, most effective programmers on the task of diving into the deepest, darkest realms of the VirtNet in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of this Mortality Doctrine. After much work, and with the help of many brilliant minds, we’ve finally been able to reverse-engineer the program, effectively terminating the connection that allows its continuity. The Tangent program thus ceases to exist.”

The vast hologram at the front of the room changed once again, from a view of Weber’s room of workers to that of a street, where a man stumbled along the sidewalk, holding another man in the crook of his arm in a choke hold. The aggressor was waving a gun wildly as he struggled to hold on to the second man. Even without audio, it was clear that the man with the gun was yelling at everyone around him. Then the image froze.

“This was our first test of the process,” Agent Weber said, “initiated just yesterday. This man was a politician in the city of Berlin. One moment he was a popular moderate, running for prime minister, and this very morning he was claiming to be a piece of VirtNet programming. When the politician in question abducted this senior staff member, he began yelling to anyone who’d listen that Kaine, the…how did he say it…the ‘Lord of the Tangents,’ had ordered him to kill every person in the entire city, one by one, as a sign of what was to come. We saw this moment as the perfect chance to test our process. Watch what happens next.”

Michael watched Weber carefully, wondering if everyone else realized just how horrific her plan—the VNS’s plan—was. But she had a card up her sleeve. The general population didn’t know about the Hive—didn’t know that these people still had a chance at life. Yes, maybe the VNS had figured out a way to wipe out the invading Tangents by severing the Mortality Doctrine link.

But the humans would die, too.

Michael would die. And then Jackson Porter.

2

He turned his attention to the holographic image of the German street. The video had shifted back into motion. The struggle continued until the strange man stopped, then abruptly collapsed. The gun tumbled out of his hand, and his hold on the victim loosened until the hostage could scramble away. It was as if someone had snapped the politician’s spinal cord. He lay lifeless as a crowd gathered around him, staring down in awe. The image froze again, then vanished, and once more Agent Weber’s larger-than-life visage appeared above them.

***

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