Michael’s flash of anger turned his face hot. He fumbled for the right words to throw back at her and she held up a hand to stop him.

“No, don’t,” she said. “You don’t have to respond. That was an unfair thing for me to say. We’ve cajoled you and manipulated you and confused you. I know that. You’ve had to unbury yourself from layer after layer of deceit, and go through things that no person should. I…”

She faltered, with a sudden tremble in her lips, then sat back in her chair, looking more flustered than Michael had ever seen her.

“What,” Michael said, emphasizing every word, “is…wrong…with…you? It’s like you have multiple personalities or something. I think you need help.” Part of him was being cruel, but he also actually believed it. Something was so…off about this woman.

Agent Weber stood up hesitantly, as if she were surprised to find herself in the hotel room with Michael. She looked at him, her face somewhere between confused and distraught, then walked away from the table, circling the kitchenette several times. The most obvious explanation seemed too…obvious.

“Are you a Tangent, Weber?” he asked.

She glanced sharply at him. A long moment passed. Then she shook her head.

“No.” She paced back and forth. “Though I can see why you’d think that. I know that I’ve been…erratic of late. Well, really, it’s when I’m around you. I just don’t know how to cope sometimes. I can’t believe I’m even saying this in front of you.”

Was it an act? Michael observed her, tried to read something in her face. But she genuinely looked torn up inside.

“Whatever,” he finally said. He considered bolting, but he figured guards were waiting outside.

Weber came back to the table and dragged her chair a little farther away from Michael. The sound of it scraping across the floor put his nerves on edge. She sat down, avoiding his gaze now.

“Michael, I…,” she began, appearing to struggle for the right words. “I need you to know that you’re coming with me today. One way or another, I’m taking you from here. Do you understand?”

Michael was thoroughly confused. That wasn’t what he’d expected at all.

Weber kept talking. “But I want to talk to you first. I’m so conflicted when it comes to you. I meant what I said earlier. I did program you.” Her eyes finally came up to meet his once again. “Do you believe me?”

He didn’t answer at first. He wanted to deny it, couldn’t believe he was sitting here, listening to her, allowing her to poison his mind with an all-new batch of lies and manipulations. But…he did believe her. Maybe some deep part of him could recognize its maker.

Sickened, he nodded, just once.

“Most of your memories are real,” she said. “I want you to know that. I created you over ten years ago, as part of my training with the VNS. We wanted you as lifelike as possible. More importantly, we wanted you to believe you were real. We did create the first few years of your life within Lifeblood Deep to give you a foundation, but from that moment on, from when you were about five or six, your memories—every one of them—actually happened. We fabricated nothing.”

Michael tried to grasp some meaning out of all she said. “How can you say nothing was fabricated? I’m a computer program!”

“Yes, that’s true. But within the world of the Deep, you actually had each and every one of those memories from the last decade of your life. With your parents. With Helga. With your friends.”

“And then you took it all away from me.” Michael was drained of any fight. He hated this woman, and he was so exhausted.

Weber stared at a spot on the table. “I take it he’s told you the truth?”

And with that simple sentence, she proved that everything Kaine had said was true. Michael stumbled out of his chair, barely made it to the couch, collapsed onto it. He buried his head in his arms and swore he’d never get up again.

There was the sound of a chair moving and a few steps; then Weber was standing right above him. He could almost feel her shadow across his shoulders like a blanket. The door opened. Heavy footsteps. The rustle of clothing. Michael knew it was her people, but refused to give them the satisfaction of looking.

Weber crouched over him, put a hand on his back as she leaned down to whisper into his ear. “I’ve gone too far to turn back now. Way too far. I need to keep going for the sake of the world.”

Michael flinched as if she’d hurt him.

Agent Weber of VirtNet Security stood up. “Do it.”

Rough hands grabbed Michael by the arms.

2

He didn’t fight them, the two men dressed in fatigues. He realized that Weber had gotten her wish—she now had armies at her disposal, by the looks of it. And who knew what else? Or how many people she’d taken over with Tangents to get what she wanted? Michael went with them quietly—down the hall, into the elevator, through the lobby, out the doors of the hotel, into the back of a car—but his mind was a tornado of noise, sorting out all that he knew and trying to figure out what in the world he could do about it. Before long, they were on a plane and in the air.

He refused to talk, refused to be intimidated by the guards. And they let him be, although they made it very clear he wasn’t to touch his EarCuff.

Hours passed.

The plane landed and the soldiers dragged him to a car—a fancy hovercraft reserved for big government types. One of the soldiers drove; the other one sat next to Michael in the back, sure to flash the barrel of his gun as he took his seat. Weber situated herself on Michael’s other side.

“I lied when I said I don’t need you,” Weber said. It was the first time he’d heard her voice in hours.

Michael sighed. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” he asked wearily.

“There’s a connection between you and the Mortality Doctrine program.” She faced the window, seemingly engrossed in watching the buildings flashing by. “It’s a very complex program that was created using quantum computing. Essentially, it requires so much data knowledge that the human brain can’t handle it. Only artificial intelligence can manipulate it, and you’re part of the ethereal connection holding it all together. Like a battery in an old gas engine. Or more like the gas itself.”

Michael listened, but said nothing. He knew plenty about quantum computing and wasn’t surprised at all to know that the Mortality Doctrine program used it. That was the only way to explain how they’d figured out how to utilize the human brain itself as a computer. But how it all had to stay connected through him? That he didn’t get. Though he sure wasn’t going to admit that to Weber.

***

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