Michael worried he could be walking into a trap, but knew he had to answer honestly. “Because there has to be that connection. To keep the Tangents alive in their human hosts.”

“No.” Kaine shook his head. “Absolutely not. If we’d merely wanted to replace the human intelligences with Tangents, we could’ve done so. Download the Tangents and terminate the life it replaced. That connection you speak of exists because of the Hive. Because I wanted to keep those humans alive—and to do it, a connection needed to be maintained between the two. One depends on the other. It’s that way because I made it that way. Others…well, others didn’t care one way or another. They’ve always had their own motives in this process.”

Michael stared at him, his mind going places that he found hard to believe. “You mean…”

Kaine nodded, a sad smile forming at the corners of his mouth.

“The VNS,” Michael said.

“The VNS. I have it all figured out. Are you ready to know the truth? Do you think you can handle it?”

Michael could only nod.

Kaine leaned in. “They created me, Michael,” the Tangent said. “The VNS created me.”

2

Kaine leaned back, his whole body seeming to shrink from whatever trick in the code he’d just invoked. Michael stared at him as his mind worked to put all the pieces together.

“They created me decades ago,” Kaine continued. “An experimental artificial intelligence that would become stronger and stronger. The human minds at the VNS could have never created the Mortality Doctrine program on their own. No human mind could have—it’s far too complex. And so I came to be. I was double the value, too. Once the Doctrine had been created, I could be their bad man. Their very bad man.”

Michael shook his head. He just couldn’t believe it. “You mean they had all of this orchestrated from the beginning? Why? The whole world is screwed up, and most people blame them!”

Kaine shook his head, as if at a stupid child. “Of course it wasn’t all orchestrated. Things have gone worse than even they planned. They didn’t know that I would become sentient. That I’d come up with my own plans. They didn’t know about the Hive. And so things fell harder and faster than they had hoped. But in the end, all the better for them. The farther your world falls, the bigger the hero the VNS becomes when it’s saved.”

Michael didn’t feel so well. “You’re telling me that the VNS programmed you, led you toward creating the Mortality Doctrine, then instigated sending thousands of Tangents into the world so that they…what, could look good in the NewsBops?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Kaine snapped. “You were just at the World Summit. You know what’s happening. Every government in the world is practically begging the VNS to do whatever it takes to save them. When this is all over, the VNS will be the most powerful entity in the world, and they’ll never relinquish that power. They’ll never let the threat die down enough to allow that to happen. They’ve almost won already.”

“And what about you?” Michael asked. “What’s your role in all this?”

“My role?” he repeated. “My role is that I’m their enemy, just as you are. It was their plan all along. They used me. They used you. You have to admire their brilliance. By the time we turned against them, us turning against them is exactly what they wanted. The Hive was the only wild card, and now they’ve figured that out, too. It’s only a matter of time before there’s nothing else we can do, about any of it. The VNS will practically rule the world, and we’ll be terminated one way or another.”

“Then what do we do?” Michael asked. As much as he hated it, it was now crystal clear that he had no choice but to work with Kaine on this.

“It’s all about the Hive,” the Tangent said. “Everything depends on the Hive. The VNS want to annihilate it, erase every stored intelligence, claim victory that the Tangents are dead and the world is saved.”

“Okay.” Michael had already assumed the Hive would play a major role. “So how do we stop them?”

Kaine thought a moment. “I know our time is short. And there are things we need to do right away. But first I have to show you something. It’s absolutely worth the time it will take.”

“What?” Michael asked.

“I once tried to show you what it would be like to have the entire VirtNet at your disposal. Do you remember that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Michael replied, hoping the Tangent understood sarcasm. He would never forget being glued to that shaft of purple light and traveling through the countless programs inside the Sleep.

Kaine gave a shrug that seemed to say, You win some, you lose some. “Well, that didn’t work on you and your friends very…effectively, so I’m going to show you the other side of the coin. I’m going to show you how the world—the real, living, breathing world—is about to change forever.”

Michael sucked in a breath. “Okay.”

“Prepare to be amazed.”

Everything around them disappeared, replaced by darkness.

3

Michael found himself catapulted into the blackness of space. Before him, a giant planet took up half his vision, brighter than the fullest moon. Kaine was beside him, looking on, his eyes large with wonder. Michael started to say something but stopped, instead deciding to study the celestial body that held the Tangent’s attention.

When he turned back, he realized that it wasn’t a planet at all.

It was a human fetus, almost fully grown, inside a crystalline sphere that pulsated with light. The baby’s little arms and legs curled around an umbilical cord, its huge blue eyes actually open, looking wiser than they should at such an early stage of development.

“Just look at that,” Kaine said, his voice quiet but clear. “It’s a miracle, life. Don’t you think? A group of cells reproducing with such precision that they become what you are today. A full-grown person, walking, talking, running, jumping, eating, dancing, sleeping.”

He turned to look at Michael. “There are so many things humans have experienced that we haven’t. From this simple stage of birth to puberty, broken legs and skinned knees, the feel of the real sun warming your skin. Until the Mortality Doctrine, no Tangent ever had the chance to know what it’s like to be living flesh and bone. But now we’ve had a taste. It’s beautiful. Tell me you disagree.”

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