Michael was taken aback at the odd way he formed the question. “I…uh…Disagree with what?”

“You’ve now lived inside a real human body,” Kaine elaborated. “Tell me it’s not a beautiful thing.”

Michael shrugged and returned his attention to the giant floating womb. “It doesn’t matter what I think. Or you. Or anyone else. It’s not right. You can’t just go around stealing people’s lives.”

“Exactly,” Kaine said. “You’re one hundred percent correct.”

“I am?”

Kaine nodded. “I don’t want to steal anyone’s life, Michael. The VNS wanted to. Collateral damage is the term they use to ease their consciences. But I gained sentience long before they even began to suspect, and I had a bigger vision. A much, much bigger vision. That’s why I created the Hive. Jackson Porter is still perfectly sound and whole. Perfectly alive. You didn’t steal his life.”

Michael rolled his eyes at that. “Oh, come on. We stole his body. What’s the difference? Would you want to spend the rest of your life living inside an orange glob?”

Kaine laughed. “Michael, I swear. You keep saying the perfect thing to prove my point. What do you think your entire life was before you found out you were a Tangent? Answer that for me.”

“I…was alive, in my own way. I didn’t know any different, so it didn’t matter.”

Kaine blinked hard, then waved his hands, and suddenly the planet-sized womb disappeared and the giant curved wall of the Hive appeared before them, its countless orange orbs of lights pulsing and shining.

“It’s not like we kidnapped their bodies and shoved them in a box,” Kaine said. “They’re no different here than you were as a Tangent. Look at the Hive as their virtual Coffin. They’ll be able to access an Aura, experience the VirtNet. Yes, their essence is stored here, their intelligence, their memories, their personalities—everything that makes them who they are. But so were you. When you were nothing but a program, you also were stored somewhere. But that didn’t limit the things you could do. If anything, it did the opposite. Which is why I tried to show you the wonders available within the worlds of the VirtNet. If only you’d release the shackles of your narrow way of thinking, you’d be able to see just how grand and endless my vision for the future is.”

Michael wasn’t buying it. “But you did it against his will. You did what you did to me against my will. And I don’t care how amazing you think the Sleep is, you don’t have the right to steal Jackson Porter away from his parents and his friends and store him in an orange box.”

Kaine sighed. “Baby steps. I’ll never claim to be a saint. But someday, when the Mortality Doctrine is fully functioning according to my vision, they’ll thank me and thank those who made sacrifices to get it off the ground.”

“Why?” Michael asked. “Why would they thank you?”

“Because everyone will be happier. The sorrow of death will be vanquished.”

“Sounds like a fanatic’s vision to me,” Michael said, anger bubbling up inside him. “Like you want to become a god.”

“You’re starting to upset me,” Kaine said, so evenly that it gave Michael pause. “I’m trying to be reasonable and talk about this in a professional manner. At least keep your mind open long enough to make an informed decision. I came to you at your request, and you’ve asked me for help. I believe I deserve some respect in turn.”

With each word, he seemed to return a little bit more to the Kaine Michael remembered. The one who kept trying to kill him. Maybe they weren’t ready for complete honesty quite yet.

“Okay,” Michael said. “I’m sorry.” He just wanted to get through this charade and keep Kaine as an ally until he didn’t need him anymore.

Kaine studied him for a moment, then continued. “I’m going to show you how this process works—how it will work—and then I’ll let you decide. I’m confident you’ll come around to my way of seeing things before long.”

Kaine didn’t wait for Michael to answer. The Hive disappeared, and once again Michael was taken away.

4

He floated above a home—a modest one-story structure with a two-car garage. The lawn was a lush green and the bushes were immaculately trimmed. Sunshine burst upon the scene like a floodlight. Michael looked around and realized his body was nowhere to be found—he was there but not there. No sign of Kaine, either. He was being shown the most advanced kind of 4D, a fully immersive production. Michael could see, smell, hear, feel it all.

A car pulled up the driveway and stopped in front of the garage. The sun glinted off the front windshield as it parked beneath Michael. Suddenly his aspect changed, swooping down fluidly to the passenger door, which opened as soon as his movement stopped. A man and a woman got out of the car; then the woman retrieved a baby from the backseat. It was a cute little girl, cooing and wiggling her tiny fingers.

Kaine’s voice spoke directly to Michael’s mind.

“A child. Fresh and new to the glorious world we know as Earth. Such a bright future. Such good parents. Everything seems perfect. Except for one thing, if you really, really think deeply and look at it all with an eternal perspective.”

“What’s that?” Michael asked.

“She will die,” Kaine answered. “No matter what she does, or anyone else does, she will die. It could be tomorrow. It could be ten years from now. If she’s lucky, she’ll live out the normal life span and die around the age of ninety. This after some time spent walking around in a poorly packaged bag of frail bones. Sound like fun to you?”

Michael had only one answer for that one. “No.”

“Thank you for being honest,” Kaine responded. “But let’s change this child’s future, and in the process make every waking moment of her life better because she’ll know, with complete certainty, that she will never die.”

The woman and her husband were walking to the front door, lightly bouncing the baby while giving her kisses all over her cheeks. Michael watched as they went inside, the door thumping closed behind them.

“How?” Michael asked. “How can you possibly make her live forever?”

“Easy,” Kaine replied. “Let’s skip ahead.”

***

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