She finally turned to look at him again. “So we do need you, Michael. We just don’t need your help. Do you understand the difference?”

“I’m not an idiot,” he spat out.

“No, you’re not. We know that all too well.”

“Where are we going?” he asked. “Why did you pull me out of the Sleep, but leave Kaine and the rest of those Tangents behind?” He wished he could pretend he didn’t care, but he couldn’t hold back.

“Because he’s doing exactly what we need, whether he knows it or not.” Weber returned her gaze to the window as the car dipped and slowed, then lowered itself to the road again. A garage was opening up in the face of a really tall skyscraper. “That group of Tangents breaking away from Kaine created yet another enemy that we didn’t need. And seeing their overall numbers dwindle in all this fighting—that’s just a bonus. They will all be insignificant soon enough.”

The car rolled forward into the garage, drove through the dark for a bit, then pulled to a stop.

Weber reached for the door handle but paused. “There’ve been times when I’ve doubted my actions,” she said, her voice solemn. “It was a plan ten years in the making, programming you and other test Tangents, creating Kaine, laying the foundation—it took a lot of work. And when it all came together, and I saw the effects…on you, on others, on the world…I wanted to stop. That’s the honest truth. But like I said, we’d gone too far. If we stop now, the world will descend into chaos. I can’t let things get even worse. So we move on. It’s almost complete. Will be by tomorrow night, is my guess.”

She opened the door and stepped out, then leaned in to continue speaking to him. “I give you my word, Michael: when our task is done and we have control over the globe and its governments, things will be better. And safer. And then the VirtNet can truly take its place as the centerpiece of life for the human race. You’ll see.”

She stepped away before he could respond. The soldier next to him gave him a little nudge with his elbow.

“Come on, kid,” he said, his voice as rough as his weathered face. “Things aren’t so bad. You get to see all of this firsthand. The biggest revolution the world has ever known. Now, are you going to cooperate or do I need to cuff you?”

Michael was too stunned to speak. He just shook his head and lowered his gaze as humbly as he could. Then he got out of the car and followed Agent Weber.

3

They led him to a giant room filled with Coffins.

The place was so massive that he found it hard to believe he was in the real world and not in the VirtNet somewhere. It was as long as a football field. Iron-railed balconies lined both walls and stretched to the ceiling hundreds of feet over their heads. Faint lights shone somewhere up there, lost in what seemed like a mist or bank of clouds. Surely his vision was just blurry from the rush of information that had dazed him.

The floor in front of him, and each balcony—as far as he could see from where he stood—was full of Coffins. Hundreds of them, their soft lights blinking and glowing. They lined the walls, one after another, like the world’s largest crypt. And most of them appeared to be in operation. The air was cool and smelled of well-oiled machinery and the metallic tinge of electricity.

“We’ve been building all of this to lead up to this day,” Weber said, proudly throwing her arms up to indicate the giant space. “This is our command center, each NerveBox occupied by my most faithful colleagues. We’ve been careful. We knew that if we moved too quickly, people would lose faith in us before we could make them have faith only in us. You understand?”

Michael tried to keep emotion off his face. “Why are you telling me this?”

Weber shrugged. “You’re the closest thing to a son I’ll ever have. And you’re a part of this. Great things are going to happen today. I want to share them with you.”

Her comments should’ve sent him flying into a rage. Comparing herself to his mother—it should’ve been the last straw. He wanted to scream, but he knew he couldn’t.

Weber smiled and continued eagerly, as if convinced he loved hearing every word she spoke. “But now we have enough support and enough Tangents in place. We’ve even planned for those humans who are still wild cards—we’ve invited them here today, to make a”—she formed quotation marks with her fingers—“ ‘presentation’ within the VirtNet. Let’s just say that when they wake up, they won’t be themselves. Strategically brilliant, really. We’ve reached the tipping point. Any further delay and we may lose our chance. So today, with this firepower”—she pointed toward the cavernous space above them—“we will go into the VirtNet and complete our plans.”

Her smile vanished, and Michael felt his stomach twist into a knot. He couldn’t stop himself from saying the next words.

“What?” he asked, hearing the tremor in his own voice. “What’re you going to do?”

“It sounds worse than it is when you say it out loud,” she replied in a whisper that echoed through the room, up and up until it faded into silence. “But I’ve always said, it’s what happens in the long run that matters. And isn’t it? A few sacrifices now to ensure a better future?”

Michael took a step backward, away from her. The soldiers moved with him, right at his sides.

“You’re crazy,” he said, half to himself. “You’ve gone totally insane.”

She looked at him with a faint smile. “Quite the contrary. I’m saner than I’ve ever been. I only felt crazy when I began to doubt the plan we’d set forth. All that back-and-forth, all the doubting, all the…indecision. Now that I’m back on course, fully committed, I’m more alive than ever. My mind has never had such perfect clarity.”

“What’re you going to do!” he shouted at her.

She didn’t flinch. “We, Michael. We. I’m not alone in this. I never have been.” She turned away from him and motioned to the bottom row of Coffins. “This is my army. Those who’ve been by my side from the beginning. Those who trusted my vision and helped me get to this point.” She then swept her arm at the remaining Coffins filling the giant room. “Soon these humans will be under Tangent control. The collateral damage will be significant, I admit. But those who aren’t needed…Well. They aren’t needed anymore.”

***

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