“Okay,” he said to Kaine. “Show me what we need to do.”

2

Kaine spun them through the diseased realms of the Sleep, launching past glitching cities and broken code. Numbers and letters and symbols scattered like leaves in a windstorm, and pixels crumbled around them. Kaine’s prowess in coding was something Michael still watched in awe. He’d always known Kaine was good, but the Tangent manipulated their way through it all with the ease of splashing through a puddle.

The journey took less than a minute. They vaulted through eroding mountain ranges, black seas, and razed cities. Code was collapsing everywhere.

They flew through a soundless darkness, interrupted by violent explosions of light, and suddenly the vast wall of the Hive appeared before them. It stretched seemingly endless in every direction, glowing orange; it looked like some kind of alien planet.

Jackson’s here somewhere, Michael thought. He’s still alive.

Michael flew through the air, Kaine’s grip still tight on his arm, guiding him closer and closer to the wall. Gradually, a section oddly different from the rest of the Hive became visible. A speck of green grew as they approached and turned into a square about twenty feet across. Lights flashed and streaked across its surface, which bubbled and rippled like a pot of boiling water. Misty smoke whirled in jetties. All of it only added to the otherworldly feel of the place.

Kaine pulled them to a stop right in front of the strange scene. Michael looked deeper into the bubbling haze and saw that what he’d thought were lights were actually symbols of code, breaking apart and forming back together. It looked like nonsense.

“What is this?” he asked. “Some kind of living NetScreen?”

Kaine laughed. “That’s almost exactly what it is. It’ll take you some time to get used to it, but once you start coding within the Code Pool, you’ll never want to go back to the old ways.”

“The Code Pool,” Michael said absently, studying the mysterious goop in wonder. How was it possible he’d never heard of this before?

Kaine answered as if he’d read his mind. “Only a few people can even see this, much less know what it is. But I’m afraid we don’t have much time for me to explain things at the moment—they’ll be here any second.”

Michael tore his eyes away from the mesmerizing dance of the Pool. “Wait…what? What am I supposed to do? Who’s ‘they’?”

“My former friends, the rogues,” Kaine replied easily, as if these Tangents didn’t want both of them dead. “As well as a few current friends. I suspect it’s going to get ugly, but I think we’ll be okay. As long as you can get your part done.”

“What part?” Michael was getting more and more nervous.

“I’ll message you what you need to know. You’ll have two jobs: finding their storage unit and severing the connection. But you have to follow the procedure I send you so that the human minds they stole are Doctrined back into their bodies, processed through the Hallowed Ravine. I know it sounds a little complicated, but I think you can handle it.”

Michael stared at Kaine, wondering how they’d gotten to this. This Tangent had once been his mortal enemy, and now they were talking like a couple of IT workers at the company picnic.

Seeds of panic started sprouting inside Michael. “I’m not sure….” He didn’t know what to ask. And then Michael spotted figures in the distance, growing as they approached. Gradually, he made out people dressed as medieval warriors, trolls, and enormous panthers and other beasts standing on hind legs. There were samurai and paratroopers and armored space cadets from the future. It looked like a VirtGame gone supernova.

“Don’t worry,” Kaine said. “Those are mine. The others are on their way.”

Michael searched for words. “Which is…I still don’t get it. What if they bring those KillSims with them again? They will!”

Kaine reached out and squeezed his shoulder, looking at him very seriously. “Michael, there’s a link between you and the Mortality Doctrine that I can’t afford to lose. Neither can Weber and the VNS. You need to stay off the battlefield. And you’re perfectly suited to what I need you to do.”

Michael nodded, too many questions running through his mind to give voice to any.

“Good. Now just close your eyes and let the connection flow. Once you have all the information, things will start falling into place. It’ll come fast, so be prepared.”

“Okay.” Michael wanted to say so much more. He was scared—worried he wouldn’t know what to do—but then, if anyone could figure out what Kaine was talking about, it was most likely to be Michael. He closed his eyes and opened himself to the raw world of the code. “I’m ready.”

“Here it comes,” Kaine said, and information came in a torrent, filling Michael’s virtual vision like a blizzard. “And don’t worry. You won’t be vulnerable to attack while you’re working—I’ll form a bubble around you and we’ll fight them off as best we can. Just keep working.”

“Uh…yeah.” It was all he could do to get those words out, lost in the rushing stream of code.

“Let’s just hope the bubble holds.” They were Kaine’s last, not-so-reassuring words before the onslaught of information finally overwhelmed Michael.

And he gave himself to it.

3

For a while, Michael was having fun again. Wading through code, facing down puzzles, learning at a pace faster than thought could process. He had been born for this—programmed with these abilities. And he relished the challenge.

The Code Pool was like the next step of evolution for coding, as if it had all transformed into something biological, his virtual body melding with it, becoming one. It reminded him of the human brain, which was really nothing more than a biological computer. This is what he existed within now, a living goop of code. Kaine’s instructions swirled in his mind like a whirlpool as he worked, manipulating the sea of pure information in which he swam.

Time was lost to Michael, but eventually he saw it. Lights, twisting in a pattern not unlike that of DNA, extending into the universe of code for what seemed like eternity. Individual strings shone so bright that they blended together in the distance miles away. He had to focus hard to find the specific strings provided by Kaine in his information dump.

***

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