“Just tell me!” Michael yelled. “What’re you going to do to them!”
She spun around to face him again, her gaze sharp.
“I’m going to give them the true death,” she said, “these Tangents that people believe Kaine poured into the world. I’m going to kill them all. For the good of our future—a future run by the VNS.”
Michael trembled with anger. He felt powerless. He couldn’t even find words to express how he felt.
“Keep him here,” Weber said. “Keep him safe and watch him like a hawk. And whatever you do, do not let that boy near a NerveBox or computer of any kind. Understood?”
“I think we can handle a scrawny teenager.” One of the guards grabbed Michael by the arms and the other man reached up and ripped off Michael’s EarCuff.
Michael bit his lip, refusing to cry out from the pain. He glared at Weber, knowing he should be shocked at what she’d become. But hadn’t he always seen it? Had there ever been a time when he truly trusted her?
“I’m Sinking now,” she announced to no one in particular. “With this final sweep of Tangents, the deal will be sealed. Humanity will credit us for saving them. When I Lift out, the world will be a different place.” She walked toward a Coffin along the nearest wall, one that was actually on a pedestal above the others, with three stairs leading up to it.
“Sweep?” Michael repeated. “Nice word. I think you mean murder. Mass murder.”
Weber manipulated the outside controls of the Coffin and its door began to swing open. She looked over her shoulder at Michael. “Name me a war that doesn’t have collateral damage, inflicted by both sides. It’s part of the game. Setbacks to ensure a leap forward.”
“Game?” Michael didn’t even know why he was wasting his breath. There was no way he could reach her now. “How sick is it that you call this a game?”
“The Game of Lives,” she said, looking almost wistful. “You of all people should appreciate the metaphor. You always were a great gamer, weren’t you?” She glowed like a proud mother.
Michael tried a more reasonable approach. “Kaine knows how to reverse the Mortality Doctrine. So does Helga. Their consciousness can stay alive, here or in the Hive. You don’t have to just go in there and kill them!”
The lid of the Coffin had completed its opening. Weber pulled down a privacy screen that had been installed above each device. It muffled her voice as she spoke.
“For a plan like this, we needed dramatics, Michael. If everyone returned to their bodies and there were no devastating consequences, people would forget. A year would go by, two, five, ten. They’d start saying that it wasn’t so bad, merely a bump in the road. If it happened again, we’d just get our loved ones back. Why, it’s all nothing but a switch of a program, they’d say. Who needs the VNS?” Something bumped the screen—an elbow, maybe—she was obviously undressing for her foray into the Coffin. “We can’t have that. We need death, irreversible death, and lots of it, but stopped by their saviors before it can become another holocaust. This way, they’ll never forget. Never.”
“You’re sick,” he whispered. Talking to her felt pointless.
He heard the hiss of the Coffin coming to life, its lid swinging shut. As it did, the privacy screen rolled back up into its slot in the ceiling of the balcony above her. By the time it lifted all the way, the Coffin was closed, its lights blinking with life.
Michael sat in a chair, the two guards facing him. He couldn’t even distinguish between the two of them. They were like caricatures, all buzz cuts and square jaws and army fatigues. No one spoke. They just sat there, staring at the floor, the hum of a thousand Coffins vibrating in the air, making Michael tired.
What was he going to do? Michael sat and thought about Weber. He wondered what she meant to do with all these people in the Sleep. Was she going to destroy the Hive in one fell swoop, mass murder at its easiest and finest?
He sat up a little straighter. Shockingly, he hadn’t really thought of himself during all this. All her talk about how they needed him, how she’d programmed him…but he was in a human body, a Tangent himself. If she really planned to eliminate all the Tangents out there…
No, that couldn’t be part of the plan. At least, not yet. Weber needed Tangent-controlled humans. She’d said that she had her own Tangents in place around the world and had invited those world leaders who hadn’t bowed to the VNS yet to the Coffins today under some pretext—so that she could possess them as well. He wondered if she’d personally programmed all these coded demons.
He was safe for the moment. He had to be. He didn’t really understand why he was so vital to the Mortality Doctrine, but it seemed clear that he was. An ethereal connection, Weber had said.
That didn’t make him feel any better. He thought back over everything she’d said. There was no way he’d ever walk out of this building of his own free will.
The sudden thought of his friend gripped his heart. He thought of his other friends. Bryson. Helga. Gabby. He’d told them to go to the Mortality Doctrine factory in the Hallowed Ravine—that had to be it. When all was said and done, they had to shut it down, make sure these Tangent takeovers stopped forever. But had they made it there? Had he sent them to their deaths as well? He thought of his parents. Kaine said he’d killed them, but they were pieces of code, just like him. Maybe, just maybe…
He had to do something.
“Guys,” he said to the soldiers. “I need to use the bathroom.”
They let him. How could they not?
Both soldiers escorted him to a dimly lit side hallway. They passed several doors before they got to the bathrooms. One of the guards stood with him while the other checked the facility to make sure no master escape plan had been hatched. Evidently, he found nothing.
“Go on in,” he said after completing his inspection. “We’ll be right here.”
“Thank goodness,” Michael murmured. “You sure you don’t want to hold my hand while I go?” They didn’t so much as crack a smile, and he went through the door. When it shut behind him, he leaned against it for a second, relishing the privacy. A quick look around showed him what the guard had already established—there’d be no easy way out. It was a small bathroom, with just two stalls and one sink.
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