He grabbed the two ends with both fists and snapped them all into two pieces. The air lit up with the explosions behind him. He turned to face it and watched fiery clouds of red and orange erupt across the empty space beyond the Hive. Then, as if opened to another dimension, they disappeared, lightning fast, darkness settling on the world once again.

So many dead.

So many saved.

He had to remember that. Kaine said that the original inhabitants of those bodies would automatically get reinserted into the VirtNet, resume their lives. What a wake-up that would be.

There were more. He hadn’t gotten all of them. But Kaine and the Tangents on his side outnumbered those who’d come to attack, and it was plain to see that the tide of the battle had turned drastically in Kaine’s favor. Michael had done enough.

The KillSims kept coming. The one had opened its dark maw over a foot wide, and even as Michael looked at it, a sharp blade of darkness came swiping at his head. He ducked, letting it skim over him. Just.

The creature with the black spike hadn’t stopped hammering; cracks spiderwebbed away from its point of attack, thick and white and expanding. Michael pushed himself as far away as he could, but the Code Pool resisted. It was as if it didn’t want him sinking into its goop of code unless he was willing to work it. The dark blade swiped at him again, sliced some threads on his shirt.

“Kaine!” he yelled, not knowing if the Tangent would hear him. “You need to get me out of here!”

Michael saw him, just a glimpse through the white cracks and the bodies of the KillSims that had swarmed his protective Bubble. The Tangent had turned his head toward him, and their eyes met for a brief second, but then he disappeared from view. Hopefully coming to save him. Surely Kaine’s friends were enough to—

Michael’s vision bounced, then went blurry. It bounced again, as if he were on some amusement park ride that jolted his body. Colors smeared together, getting blurrier and distorted. Stretched, darkening, covered in mist, now brightening, everything turning white. He tried to call for Kaine again, but he couldn’t get the words out. Then he was moving, picking up speed, catapulting into a brilliant light, unable to feel anything. There was a terrible rush of noise.

What…? His mind couldn’t form the thought, much less speak it.

The atmosphere popped, and his eardrums felt as if they’d erupted. He screamed—the sound of it was close and contained and dulled, as if he were inside…

A Coffin.

Something hissed loudly; then a bright line of light appeared above him. NerveWires snaked out of his skin and back to their cubbyholes. His body was soaked from head to toe, and every part of him ached.

How had he Lifted? Kaine had been coming for him. Maybe he’d—

Agent Weber’s head appeared above him as the Coffin door swung open.

Her.

Again.

“How’d you find me?” he asked, though the words came out slurred and wet-sounding.

“It wasn’t that hard,” she said, tilting her head so that her face lined up with his. “I did program you and Kaine, after all. Might as well ask me how I find my own nose.”

Michael tried to sit up, the pronouncement like a charge of electricity through his joints. He flailed his arms and slipped and smacked his head.

“Get out, get showered, get dressed,” Weber said, looking away. “You have ten minutes.”

CHAPTER 17

THE REAL WORLD

1

She was waiting for him at the little table in the hotel room’s kitchenette, her hands folded in front of her, resting on the wooden surface. She was dressed in the same clothes she’d worn at the World Summit, or something similar. Blazer, skirt, blouse, heels—she looked like a businesswoman. She always did. She nodded toward a chair directly across from her. No one else was in the room.

“You should’ve brought some security,” Michael said, trembling with anger. “I should choke you to death right now. With the hands you made me steal from Jackson Porter.”

She gestured to the chair, then placed her hands on the table again. “You’d never do that to me, and we both know it. Now please sit down. I’m sure you’re curious to hear what I’ve come to say—I flew here all the way from London, despite the million things I need to get done. I’m sure you’re curious why I’ve used my power to Lift you out of the VirtNet without following protocols. I’m sure you’re even wondering why I didn’t just come in here and end your life while you lay there, helpless in the Coffin.”

“Or send that weasel Agent Scott to do it,” he replied.

She only nodded, as if the idea had occurred to her.

Michael had to admit, he was curious. As he always was. He stepped over to the chair, pulled it out, then walked around the table and placed the chair close to her. He sat down, his knees almost touching hers. A small act of defiance, not sitting where she wanted him to. Pathetic, but it was all he had.

“Power?” he asked. “Your power? Sounds to me like you’re enjoying this ego trip. Your head does look a little bigger, now that I think about it.”

Weber turned to face him. “How many times have we met like this? How many times have you looked at me and thrown accusations like a child? It’s time for you to grow up, Michael.”

The laugh that burst from his chest was genuine. “And how many times have I been exactly right? It doesn’t matter what you say or do or show me. I’ll never trust you again.”

She appeared troubled and shifted in her seat, straightening her skirt. “Fair enough,” she said. His words had obviously struck a nerve, but she quickly recovered her composure. “I didn’t come here to ask for your trust. Or even your cooperation. We don’t…need you, Michael. I believe you’re the one with the ego, not me. How quickly you assume that we can’t accomplish a damn thing without your help.”

Michael shook his head and dropped his eyes to the floor. “Whatever, Agent Weber. Just…I’m not the one who made me sit at this table and listen to you.”

“You’re right. That was me. And as you said yourself, I didn’t have to do that, did I? I could’ve had Agent Scott walk in here, open up your Coffin, and end it. But I didn’t.” She suddenly leaned toward him. Michael looked up—her face was only a few inches from his. “Despite what you may think, you mean a lot to me, Michael. I don’t want you dead. That’s ridiculous. A lot of trouble could’ve been avoided if you’d just done as you were asked and worked with me from the very beginning.”

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