Despite the pain, he pulled himself up, getting his hands and knees under him. He was barely to his feet when those same invisible hands had him again. They lifted him into the air, spun his body, threw him. His stomach lodged in his throat as he flew, crashing through branches and leaves, all of them tearing his skin like razors. His head smacked into a limb too large to break, and then he fell straight down, taking several more branches with him. Lights flashed in his eyes, and pain like fire lit his body.

With a jolt he slammed into the forest floor once more, the wind knocked from his chest. He lay on his side, sure that his entire body had broken this time. Unable to move, he stared at the pine straw and rotted leaves beneath him. The trees seemed to loom over him like an audience, pointing at him with their long, scraggly branches, refusing to help. His entire world was pain, and he knew that even if he could Lift before these new KillSims sucked the digital life out of him, his body in the Wake would be in agony as well.

The black forms appeared in the distance again, dodging trees, twisting left and right. Their mouths still gaped, those teeth razor sharp and ready to devour him. He hurt so badly he couldn’t bring up the code, couldn’t even see it. His mind was a blank slate, barely aware. He had to throw up. He was scared to move, scared that if the creatures vaulted him into the air one more time, he’d be nothing but a bag of sticks and putty, ready for the KillSims to do as they pleased.

One of them reached the space right in front of his eyes, its black cloak brushing the forest floor. It descended, the cloak pooling out around it as it did so. It looked like a hole into the deepest, darkest pocket of space. Then its face was there, eyeless, mouth wide, teeth glinting in a sudden ray of sunshine that broke through the trees.

“You are…the First.” The words came from its mouth in a wash of wretched stink. “Don’t resist….Become a part…of us.” Those teeth stretched even father apart, and then the mouth moved closer. “The last…piece…of our puzzle.”

The creature was hit from behind and torn away in a blur of black and white. It slammed into the nearest tree, exploding into a dark mist. Michael looked up to see Kaine standing there—he held a huge stick in his hands like a baseball bat. He swung at another KillSim as it dove in to replace its brother, catapulting it through a break in the trees and out of sight.

“Get up,” the Tangent barked. “I can’t do this by myself.”

Michael wasn’t sure he could stand, but he boosted himself to his feet, groaning in agony. The dark-cloaked KillSims surrounded them.

“I don’t have a weapon,” Michael said through clenched teeth.

“Then use your hands. Don’t make me regret making you a part of my fut—”

Two creatures flew at them before he could finish. Kaine swung so fast, the breeze swept Michael’s hair when the wood connected with the monster’s face. There was a crunch of teeth and a gritty cloud of black mist as the creature disintegrated. There seemed to be no sense to what these things were made of.

Michael barely had time to get his hands up before the other KillSim was on him. He grabbed the edges of its mouth and spun his body, throwing the creature with all his strength. It let out a loud squeal and clamped its mouth shut at the last second, almost catching Michael’s fingers. But it worked. The thing landed on the ground twenty feet away.

Something grabbed him from behind, lifting him by the shirt. Kaine swung at it and missed, the end of the stick grazing Michael’s skin. He vaulted into the air, thrown once again, up and up until he smacked into a thick branch. He quickly wrapped his arms around it before he could fall to the ground.

Kaine stood below, swinging his weapon like a deranged batter. He’d connect with one phantom and two more would be on him. But somehow he stayed on his feet, spinning and ducking as he continued to bat away the monsters. Michael saw another KillSim—maybe the one that had just thrown him into the tree—gazing at him with an eyeless face, mouth opening wide. Then it flew at Michael.

He dropped to the next branch, then the next one, leaping recklessly toward the forest floor. The creature launched itself after him, weaving in and out of the tree limbs. Michael jumped down the last ten feet, landing in a roll. He scrambled back to his feet and started running, but stopped when he saw something so unexpected he forgot for a split second what was chasing him.

Just a dozen or so feet away, three Auras stood beside a tree, looking back at him.

Bryson, Helga, and Gabby.

3

The chaos continued, only now with pieces of conversation amid the madness.

“Why’d you leave us?” Bryson yelled at him, his face transformed by anger.

Michael was about to explain when another KillSim grabbed him by the shirt, yanked him into the air. Draped in filmy darkness, they rose, crashing through branches and leaves. Michael’s skin was bloody with scratches, and stung with every new one. He tried to fight the KillSim, but the creature had him in a tight grip, spinning as they rocketed toward the sky.

They burst from the treetops into a sky of broken code. It looked like a stormy sea covered in sewage. He struggled against the KillSim, screamed at it.

“What do you want?” he yelled. “Take me back down!”

The creature ignored him, holding him in a viselike grip, all the while flying higher. Michael twisted to get a look at the monster’s face, saw nothing but streaks of darkness.

“Let me go!” Michael yelled.

The KillSim obeyed. It released Michael and he fell, his stomach lurching into his throat. Waving his arms and kicking his legs, he plummeted, wind tearing at his clothes. He watched the canopy of thick leaves rush up around him and struggled to catch a breath. He didn’t understand why they didn’t just suck the life from him. Maybe they wanted his Aura broken, shattered. Maybe it would be easier to destroy him if he couldn’t put up a fight.

Michael felt a weird sense of calm as the green expanse grew below him. Why had so many Tangents turned against Kaine? What did they need Michael for?

Something burst from the canopy, leaving an explosion of leaves and branches in its wake. It was Gabby, some kind of jet pack strapped to her shoulders, blue flames bursting from twin rockets. She leveled off next to Michael, matched his rate of descent, grabbed him, and pulled him into a fierce hug. The roar of the pack’s engine was like the growl of a massive beast.

Michael wrapped his arms around Gabby, careful not to touch the flames or the hot part of the engine. His relief outweighed his chagrin at needing rescue.

***

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