Neither of them said a word for several seconds.

It was Kaine who spoke first. “Why am I here, son? I’ve given you several chances, yet you reject me every time.”

“I…” This wasn’t quite how Michael had imagined it.

“You only exist because of me,” Kaine continued. “Surely you realize that I could’ve had you terminated at any point. I have watched in wonder—and amusement, I have to say—as you run around like an obedient dog, doing whatever Weber commands.”

Michael tried to recover. “Listen—”

“Yes? Why am I here?” Kaine interrupted.

“I…well…” Michael motioned toward the beanbags. He was having a hard time figuring out where to begin. “Can we sit down? I know you’re powerful, but I’m not going to botch this. Let’s sit down and talk through it without your power act.” Michael fought to stay put, expression unwavering.

It took Kaine a moment to answer, but when he did, Michael swore he could make out a slight smile on the Tangent’s lips. “Fair enough. Fair enough.” Kaine stepped over to the nearer beanbag and sat down, as limber as any teenager.

Michael sat back down in Bryson’s infamous bag, settled himself.

“Now,” Kaine said, exaggerating his patient tone. “May I please know why I’m here?”

Michael eyed the man carefully. “How can I know for sure that you’re Kaine? I was just at the World Summit and supposedly watched you die the true death.”

Kaine folded his hands in his lap. “If we’re going to talk, let’s not waste time. Okay? How about we agree on that first. You know very well that was just another of Weber’s shows. I’d be insulted if I couldn’t plainly see in your eyes that you know that wasn’t me. After everything I’ve done, I’d be very upset if you thought I’d actually fall into that trap.”

“Fair enough” it was Michael’s turn to say. “I had to at least ask the question. I don’t think anyone else could get past that crypting I put on my message, and I never believed it was you at the summit. This is you.”

Kaine gave a slow nod of acknowledgment. “Then I ask again—why am I here?”

A nervous tingle in Michael’s chest had slowly grown into a monstrous buzz that made it hard to breathe. “I…I guess I just got to my breaking point. Ever since all this started—way back when Weber first contacted me and sent me on the Path…I’ve felt like a pawn. A guinea pig. A lamb sent to the slaughter, or whatever that old phrase is. And I want to know once and for all—why me? What’s the point?”

“So you brought me in to complain?” Kaine asked. “Complaints noted.”

Michael was glad Kaine went the sarcasm route, because it was just enough to tick him off and dampen the nervousness. “See? That right there,” he said, pointing at Kaine. “I’m sick of that crap. Just talk to me like a normal person. You know I have every right to be here and to be heard. If you would just treat me with some respect and hear what I have to say without trying to intimidate me!” By the time he finished speaking, he was practically shouting, his face red.

To Kaine’s credit, he remained calm. He simply shrugged humbly. “Well spoken,” he answered. “I’m here, aren’t I? I’ll listen to what you have to say. Consider me madly curious.”

Michael nodded, satisfied. “All right, then. From here on out I’m doing things my way. I have a lot of questions, and I have a lot of ideas.”

Kaine didn’t say a word, but his focus was strong, his eyes sharp.

Michael nodded again, as if to convince himself he was on the right track. “So, first things first. I want you to tell me everything about this…immortality. And why? What are your motives?”

Kaine shifted his position, leaning closer to Michael. “I’ll talk to you, but answer me one question: why now?”

Michael didn’t hesitate. “Because you and I have to stop the VNS.”

CHAPTER 14

THE VISION

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Michael could see right away that he had Kaine’s attention. The Tangent had probably come expecting many things, but not this. Michael had never hidden the fact that he hated the man.

For Michael, it was a no-brainer, though. Weber and the VNS were up to something terrible, and Kaine was the only one powerful enough to stop them. Michael just had to make sure he used him in the right way.

Kaine finally spoke. “I’ll admit, you’ve surprised me.”

“I figured I would.”

“I’ve wanted you to work with me from the beginning,” the Tangent said. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted. There’s a reason you were the first to be chosen for the Mortality Doctrine. And there’s a reason I’ve come to you on more than one occasion asking you for help. Why, after everything that’s happened, have you suddenly decided to take me up on my offer?”

“I know about the Hive,” Michael said. “I know about the connection between the bodies stolen by the Tangents and the consciousness taken from those bodies and stored there. I know they need each other to coexist.”

If Kaine was surprised, he hid it well. “And?”

“And now the VNS thinks the solution to the problem you created is to sever those connections and let both sides die. I’m not going to let that happen. That’s why I need your help.”

Kaine shifted in the beanbag and rested his hands in his lap, his gaze fixed on Michael. Michael had no idea what was going on in the Tangent’s mind.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Kaine finally said.

Michael couldn’t hide his exasperation. “Yes, I’m serious.”

Kaine held his hands up. “It’s just…a bit of a relief to see you come to your senses.”

“So?” Michael urged. “What do you know about the VNS? What are they trying to accomplish?”

Kaine shifted again, then let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m sorry, but this won’t do. Can we please sit in the chairs at the table?”

The table was small, the chairs smaller. But if that was what it took for Kaine to continue this meeting, then so be it.

“Fine,” Michael said. A few seconds later, they were settled and facing each other.

Kaine leaned forward with a very serious look on his face. “Let me start by saying that yes, I agree with you regarding the VNS. They’ve gone far, far past…decency. Let me ask you, though, Michael—why the Hive? Why would I go to all the trouble to create, maintain, and secure that massively complex program?”

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