“What,” Michael shouted, “is this?”

“The only thing I could code,” she replied. Then added, “Yes, I’m really good at this. Come on, the others are still down there.” She turned and revved the engine, and they flew through the same hole the first KillSim had created—a straight line through the canopy and trees. “And you’ll get your punishment for leaving us later! Bryson’s not happy.”

“Fine.”

The ground flew at them, so fast that Michael closed his eyes despite himself. At the last second Gabby reversed the engines and slowed their descent, landing with a soft thump. Michael didn’t even have a moment to admire Gabby’s skills; the KillSims swarmed them the moment they touched down. He caught a glimpse of Helga fighting several of the creatures with what looked like a long sword of bright light. Bryson was at her side, holding a roughly coded shotgun. Kaine ran through the trees, still swatting at the black cloaks with his mighty club.

Crazy, Michael thought. The whole world’s gone crazy.

KillSims reached for them with tendrils of darkness. Right before they could make contact, Gabby revved her jetpack and shot them into the air again, flying toward their friends. Michael looked back as three of the creatures slammed into each other, forming a cloud of black fog, specks of white fluttering within. As Gabby landed, she kicked a KillSim away from Helga; Michael swung out with a fist to pummel another one and his arm bounced back, as if he had just hit a firm balloon. Just in time, Helga swung her magic sword, cutting another creature in half, giving them a moment’s respite from the madness.

And then, all at once, Michael made a flurry of decisions.

“We have to split up,” he said, his mood lifting for the first time since he’d sat in the tree house and seen that Kaine had answered his message. Whether or not it was a good one, he now had a plan.

“What are you talking about?” Helga shouted, between thrusts of her sword. “We just found you!”

Michael shook his head. He glanced quickly to make sure they were still clear of KillSims; then he spoke as quickly and clearly as he could to his friends. “Make a Portal. To anywhere. Get out of here, then go find the Hallowed Ravine. That’s where they’re uploading the Tangents—it’s where the Mortality Doctrine is. Send me a message when you’re there and I’ll meet you. Soon.”

He didn’t know what they showed more strongly on their faces—confusion or rage.

Gabby started to argue, but Michael cut her off.

“Just do it!” he yelled. “Go! We don’t have time!” He had no idea what had come over him, but he wasn’t going to abandon the course he’d decided on back in D.C.

Bryson still looked as angry as ever. “And what’re you going to do, boss man?”

Michael turned away from him and started marching toward Kaine just as he saw the Tangent destroy two KillSims with one mighty swing of his stick.

“Michael!” Bryson shouted at him. “Michael!”

Michael glanced over his shoulder. “Find the Mortality Doctrine! Right now I need Kaine! I need to…use him.”

Michael’s time had run out. He sprinted toward the fighting Tangent, forming the code for an illegal Portal even as he ran.

4

He’d always heard that adversity sharpened the mind, honed the senses. He experienced it firsthand in the frantic moment he reached Kaine and pulled him through the makeshift Portal.

The VirtNet was a mess—he’d already discovered that. The code, Decayed. But he’d learned enough on his trek to the tree house to do what he needed to do. He worked on pure instinct, manipulating things seemingly with thought as he formed a Portal just to the left of Kaine, who still battled the KillSims ferociously.

Michael grabbed the Tangent by the shirt, yanked him toward the black rectangle, kicked a KillSim who dove at them at the last second. They slid through together. The instant Michael felt they were free of the woods, he collapsed the Portal behind them.

They landed on a soft, rubbery surface surrounded by a pale purple light and absolutely nothing else as far as the eye could see.

Kaine lay next to him, looking up at the empty sky, breathing heavily. Michael rolled onto his back and did the same. Emptiness above. No color except that dull, faded purple. In his rush to get them out, Michael had brought them to the most basic level of VirtNet programming.

A few minutes passed in silence, and Michael wondered what he’d just done. Bryson, Helga, Gabby—they’d all been there. Why had he left them?

Then he thought of what he’d decided back in the streets of D.C. He needed to be alone with Kaine. And he needed his friends to get back to the Hallowed Ravine and find the source of the Mortality Doctrine.

He had a plan, and he couldn’t waste any more time doubting himself. Too much was at stake.

“Get up,” he told Kaine. Michael pushed himself to his knees, then his feet. “Come on. We’ve got a lot to do.”

Kaine, looked startled, confused, and he didn’t move. Instead he whispered, “I can’t believe the Tangents have turned against me like this. All that time I worked. All the effort. And now that they’ve tasted the sweetness, they’ve gone off on their own.”

Michael raised his eyebrows in surprise. That certainly wasn’t what he’d expected to hear. “Those KillSims. Who programmed them?”

Kaine glanced up, as if shocked to see that he wasn’t alone. “What game are you playing, boy? Do you have any idea the kinds of things you’re messing with?”

“I think I do. Now answer my question.”

“So you’re giving the orders now?”

“I’m sure done taking them.” And Michael meant it, too. He was fed up with the entire world—both worlds.

Kaine let out a grunt and sat up, rubbing his face. Then he stood to join Michael, his smartly cut hair and his polished suit not so smart or polished anymore.

“Does this mean you’re joining me?” the Tangent asked. “I’ve convinced you?”

Michael shook his head. “Doesn’t mean a thing, brother. Tell me. Who made those KillSims?”

Kaine seemed almost pleased to get some things off his chest. “You know exactly who. The same people—and I use the word people loosely—who came at you in the forest, where Helga and her other hoodlums had camped out. I programmed some of them, improved the code on the lot of them. Raised them. Gave them a chance at a real life. And now they’ve spit in my face and gone off on their own.”

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