Michael moved things with his mind. The lights twisted and spun and vaulted like comets, forward or backward, according to his will.

There.

He didn’t even know how he recognized it—how he identified the light’s data with that of Kaine’s—but he knew immediately that they matched. Michael was looking at a representation of a Tangent that had broken apart from Kaine’s initial group, joined the rogue alliance that wanted to topple him and continue the original plan to ruthlessly, and without mercy, take over the human race. Michael hoped Kaine had meant it when he’d said that was no longer his own wish.

Michael pulled himself closer to the light in question. Or pulled it closer to him—impossible to tell what was actually happening. He reached inside the brilliant streak of light before him with his mind. The code was like clay, and he kneaded it, squeezed and pulled, all according to the guidance Kaine had sent him in that torrential flow. At some point, it was there for the taking. A connection so isolated and fragile, perfectly formed in front of him. It was there, like a thin toothpick, held between his virtual-within-virtual hands.

Michael pulled it apart into two pieces.

A long string of light winked out of existence, without even a flash to glorify its exit.

Michael turned, surprised to see a perfect view of the battle between Kaine’s Tangents raging outside the Hive. Somewhere within that chaos, a man dressed as a World War II soldier exploded in a fiery burst of pyrotechnics, leaving not even a trace.

Gone. Dead.

Michael had just murdered him.

4

His heart grew heavier with every light he extinguished. But he kept at it, not allowing himself to listen to his conscience. He didn’t have time for it. One by one, he pinpointed the rogue Tangents he’d been provided and initiated Kaine’s Reboot. The stored human intelligence was sent back into its own body and the renegade Tangent was drained out, eliminated. Killed.

Each time he broke another connection, Michael glanced behind him, looked for the fiery explosion that marked the demise of the Tangent. Slowly but surely, the tide of the vicious battle being fought outside the wall of the Hive was turning in favor of Kaine and his faithful.

Michael had eliminated twelve of the Tangents, had seen the burst of flames—and the nothingness that followed—of the latest victim, and was turning back to his work within the goop of the Code Pool when something slammed against the protective Bubble that Kaine had programmed around him. It was like a giant bird hitting a window, making a loud enough thump that Michael recoiled and sucked in a gasp of air. A black mass lay splattered against the invisible surface, an amoeba of darkness.

Then a mouth appeared, rimmed with teeth. It reminded Michael of the algae-eaters that suck the walls of an aquarium. That curtain of black around it left no doubt what had come for him.

A KillSim. One of those new daggers-for-teeth KillSims.

He’d barely had the thought when another hit the Bubble next to the first one, flattening out like a pancake of tar. Its mouth appeared instantly. The teeth shone and scraped against the surface. Another one landed right after that.

Three of them.

Hold, Michael begged the Bubble. You better hold. He returned to his work.

It was odd, his current environment. Unlike most of the VirtNet, the Code Pool didn’t obey normal physics. It existed in different formats and different locations at once. When Michael immersed himself in it, everything else disappeared, and he saw only that core substance of the programming language in which he floated. But every time he turned his head to look back—he saw it all. The Bubble of protection, the leeching KillSims, Kaine’s battle behind that, raging like an alien war in space.

He resumed his deadly work, ending Tangent lives one by one. It made him feel better to know that he was also giving life back to those who’d had their bodies stolen. Or so he hoped. What a changed world it would be if he trusted Kaine completely.

A horrific screeching sound broke his concentration just as he was about to snap another Tangent life away. He couldn’t help but look, almost losing his grip on that tiny stick as he did so. Behind him, one of the KillSims had pierced the shield of the Bubble with a single tooth, letting that awful noise in as it twisted and tore at the invisible material. It was worse than nails on a chalkboard. Michael fought the urge to put his virtual hands to his virtual ears, turned back to his deed, and snapped another line of code. Yet another string of lights winked out.

Michael faced the KillSim again. It had torn a three-inch gash in the Bubble now, grinding away. One of its companions had formed some kind of spike out of its black mass, a dark pick that it used to hammer at the shield. A low thump sounded every time it hit. Soon it was accompanied by a crackle, like a large sheet of ice beginning to break.

Time was running out. There had to be almost a hundred rogue Tangents left in the list Kaine had sent. Michael went into overdrive, taking leaps in his coding that weren’t exactly safe or foolproof. He decided the time for careful treading was over. If that protective barrier burst, there’d be no way he could fight off those KillSims before they sucked the essence from his body back home—especially with his strength drained as it was. He’d be a vegetable in no time.

He swept through the files of the Hive, finding connections to over a dozen Tangents and latching on to all of them. Working one by one was no longer an option. Scrapes and cracks and screeching continued behind him, like a glacier coming apart all at once. That Bubble was about to burst like a lightbulb under a boot. Feverishly, Michael gathered data, pooled it, swept it, manipulated, massaged it. He layered the codes, counting on pure instinct to keep everything in order, working too fast for his mind to make sense of it all.

Before long he held a bundle of fragile sticks in his hand as if he were about to draw straws. Each one represented a life—no matter how programmed or artificial, it was a life. How could he say any different? He’d been one of them. But they were different, he told himself as the KillSims pounded his thin membrane of protection. They’d been created to do harm. Created to wreak havoc on the real world.

But hadn’t he been created to do the same? In a way? He was the First, after all.

Michael!

The booming sound of Kaine’s voice came from everywhere at once. Michael tore himself from his thoughts and doubts, looked down at the bundle of sticks in his hand. The artificial lives, the threads to their intelligence and being, their lifelines.

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