“So we have two enemies,” Michael said, thinking aloud.

Kaine barked a laugh. “More like one very big one.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Michael said, satisfied at the conviction he heard in his own voice. “You and me are now a team. We’re going to take down these rogue Tangent buddies of yours. And then we’re going to take down the VNS. Deal?”

Kaine actually took a step back in surprise. “I…uh, yes. Absolutely. I’ve said it all along. I need your help.”

Michael shook his head once again. “No, that’s where you’re wrong, Kaine. I’m the one who needs help. And you’re going to do it. The Tangents. Then the VNS. And I’m in charge.”

Kaine was so obviously shocked that he barely managed a nod.

Michael had to hold back a smile. If only the Tangent knew the third part of his hastily conceived plan, he’d never be standing there, agreeing to go along.

“All right, then,” Michael finally said. “First things first. Let’s go kill us some Tangents.”

CHAPTER 16

HUNTING GROUND

1

Michael hadn’t really meant it—he didn’t want any part in meting out the “true death.” He knew there had to be some way to reverse the Mortality Doctrine.

Kaine walked next to Michael, silently crossing the raw expanse of the VirtNet.

“You’re right,” the Tangent said, looking down as he walked. “We need to kill all the Tangents who broke away from me. They’re just an annoyance now and are merely causing trouble.”

Michael glanced at Kaine, happy for the reminder of how soulless he was. “Dude, I wasn’t really serious. We can’t just go around killing everyone. There has to be another way to stop them besides this…true death thing.”

It appeared that, without having come out and said it, they’d agreed on the first order of business: they had to stop the people behind those new black-cloaked KillSims. At least Weber and the VNS weren’t actively trying to eliminate them. But these rogue Tangents, though—Michael shuddered when he thought of those creepy kids and the toughtalking Trae at the barracks. They had to be dealt with, or Michael and Kaine would never get to the bigger issue—the VNS.

Kaine stopped walking. “Where exactly are we going?”

“Nowhere. I’m thinking.”

Kaine turned to him. “Listen.” He rubbed his chin, lost in his own thoughts, and Michael stopped as well. He didn’t know when it had happened, but at some point Kaine had stopped being an enemy, entirely. He’d stopped being just a piece of code also. Something about him had turned almost…human.

Kaine shook his head. “I didn’t think I was ready for this yet, but maybe these Tangents are the perfect test subjects. Though, if it goes wrong, don’t blame me. It’s all I’ve got.”

Michael had no idea what Kaine was talking about. “What?” he asked.

“The reboot.”

“Reboot?” Michael was thoroughly confused now. “Isn’t that some word they used like fifty years ago with plug-ins? What does it even mean?”

Kaine folded his arms. “You need to learn your history, son.”

“At least I recognized it. But what does it have to do with anything?”

“Reboot,” Kaine said again, only this time Michael heard something like dread in his tone. “It’s part of the plan I showed you. One of the keys to living forever. When you’ve lived out your fifty years within the VirtNet, you’re rebooted into a new body in the real world.”

Michael recalled the visions Kaine had shown him. The lines of kids getting into the Coffins. “So are you saying we should…reboot…who? The people those rogue Tangents stole the bodies from?”

“Yes!” Kaine replied. “It’s just not how I’d planned it. And I haven’t tested it in the cycle yet. But it might be the only way to rid ourselves of those traitors before they get in our way again.”

“Wait a second,” Michael said. He thought about what Weber had done at the World Summit. How those guards had just dropped to the ground, dead. And Helga had done the same thing to one of Trae’s group outside the barracks. But hadn’t that been the true death? “Back at the summit, Weber sent some kind of message to the VirtNet and these guards just dropped. Is that what we’re talking about?”

Kaine shook his head. “No. That’s what you’ve been insisting we can’t do—the true death. The true death kills both the Tangent and the human—the body and the consciousness. I’m telling you that we can prevent the deaths of the original humans. We can reboot them—use the Mortality Doctrine to send them back into their own bodies.”

Michael almost smiled at how ridiculous his life had become. “And that would kill the Tangents? They’d be gone forever?”

Kaine shrugged. “That’s the problem. I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t tested it yet. In theory, we should be able to swap intelligences in and out of biological brains indefinitely without harm so that we can all live for eternity in body after body. The Tangents should upload back into the VirtNet. Should being the key word. But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

“Okay,” Michael said, “so you’re sure we can put these humans back into their own bodies, but you’re not sure what will happen to the Tangent?”

“Something like that,” Kaine said, a twinkle of excitement in his eye. Michael felt uneasy. It seemed like they were playing God, rolling the dice to see who lived and who died. Like it was all some sort of game. “And I’m pretty sure I know some programming that would take care of the Tangents.”

Michael let out a sigh. “All right,” he said. “Then let’s do this. I guess they aren’t real, so no one’s going to miss them anyway.”

A look of disgust washed over Kaine’s Aura. It was only there for an instant, but it made Michael feel terrible. He was talking as if he’d been a human all his life instead of having taken Jackson’s body. He really was playing God, which seemed like the very thing he and his friends were trying to stop. What made him better than these other Tangents?

Then Sarah’s face surfaced in his mind. Her expression when she’d been shot, the life draining out of her. He thought of all the other people who’d lost their lives to this Mortality Doctrine, and he steeled himself. He couldn’t let it keep happening.

***

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