She lay there—NerveWires inserted into her skin, LiquiGels covering parts of her body, an IV inserted in the crook of one arm—looking for all the world as if she were taking a nap. Her chest rose and fell with steady breaths.

“What are you doing in there?” he said softly. “Where have you gone?”

He looked at her neck. Wouldn’t that be the easiest way to end this problem? Kill her while she couldn’t resist? Cut the head off the dragon and hope the underlings realized she’d gone too far?

But no. He couldn’t risk that. He needed to find out what she was doing and where she was doing it. Who knew what kind of damage she’d already inflicted. He had to find her in the Sleep, understand what she was doing, and fix it. That was his job now. He had to fix it. Fix everything.

Michael opened up the interface to the Coffin, quickly scanned the information, memorized it. The Sleep was one screwed-up place, but he thought he could find her with the information provided. And lucky for him, three Coffins nearby had just been vacated. How fitting that his and Weber’s real bodies would be lying so close together as they settled this in the place where she’d created him.

“I’m coming for you, Weber,” he said to her as he input the command to close up her Coffin. He stared at her peaceful, unconscious face. “I’m coming for you right now.”

CHAPTER 19

DISSOLVING PODS

1

Once in the Sleep, Michael had to fight the code a bit. He was confident in the coordinates he’d stolen from Weber’s Coffin, but the deteriorating VirtNet didn’t want to cooperate. He swam through clouds of purple refuse and thick black material that was the basest programming he’d ever seen. He coded a corridor through it all, visualizing his way to the place Weber had gone, and was able to create a ground to stand on. As he ran down it, things suddenly appeared in front of him.

“Buy one, get one free!” a man barked at him, holding up a VirtBox of Sims that wouldn’t make too many moms of the world happy. Michael ran right through him—the man was like a ghost. “Buy none, get none, you jerk!” the salesman yelled at him from behind.

A lady dressed like an old-fashioned housewife popped up, selling cookie dough. She was blurred out by a series of fully immersive scenes from the latest 4D films, making him feel like one of the characters for a moment. He shook it off; something was now trying to mess with his mind. A kid appeared, begging for money. He was straight out of a Dickens book. Michael blasted through him, but others kept coming, selling everything from massages to antiques. The VirtNet was so damaged, ads and spam were sinking in from everywhere. It was an utter cesspool, and he had to tunnel his way through it.

The corridor he’d built stretched out before him as he ran. He coded and coded, focused on Weber’s location, pushing everything else outside the boundaries of his programmed pathway. Far ahead, based on all the input swirling around his mind, he created a door. A simple wooden door with a round brass knob. Michael leaped into the air, threw his arms forward, and flew, obliterating any other spammage that got in his way.

He landed in front of the door and sucked in an enormous breath. Light poured from its corners and it seemed to vibrate, pulsing with the power of whatever was behind it. Michael knew he’d made it. Weber was on the other side. He’d found her. He wasn’t even sure he knew how he knew anymore. He was beginning to feel like the code was a part of him and he was a part of the code. Just like the old days.

He didn’t bother knocking. The door was just an illusion anyway, created by him, a way of visualizing the path. It wouldn’t be locked. She didn’t even know he was coming, at least not this way, this quickly. He reached down, felt the cool hardness of the brass handle, turned it, and pushed the door open.

The light was blinding.

He stepped into it.

2

“Michael,” she said. At first there was only her voice and white light. “I won’t mince words. I’m shocked to see you here.”

He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, righted himself in the world of code that he’d been so recklessly manipulating. Everything around him trembled, then snapped into focus. He took another deep breath to steady himself and looked around.

Weber was only a few feet away. She stood in front of a glowing glass case. And she wasn’t alone. At least a hundred Auras stood around her. Michael knew they were there to protect her as she destroyed the world.

“You said you programmed me,” Michael said, trying to hide any surprise at where he’d ended up. The room was so ordinary—what was she hoping to accomplish in such an everyday place? He’d been expecting the Hive. “Why would you be surprised that I figured out a way to come after you?”

She cocked her head, as if he’d said something profound and she wanted to consider it for a moment. “This may surprise you, but I wasn’t…completely honest with you.”

“Shocking,” he replied.

“I did program you,” she said, still contemplative. “You and others. Don’t worry, you’re still special, but we’re not quite as mother-son close as you might’ve thought.”

Michael laughed. It was maddening how skillfully this woman was able to tick him off. “Do you think I really cared? What, you thought I’d feel something for you? Think of you as my mom? Just when I think you couldn’t be any farther from reality…” He really didn’t know what to add to that.

“You were the one who went the farthest,” she continued, acting as if she hadn’t heard a word he just said. “Of all the ones we programmed and placed into the Deep. The Path wasn’t just a test, Michael. It changed you, developed you, tied you to the Mortality Doctrine. It was all part of the programming. The complexity of it all is…it’s beautiful. Awesome. Horrifying. It’s everything.”

Michael shook his head. What she said—it made sense on some level. But none of that mattered now. She obviously needed him alive. It had to be the reason he was still breathing.

“You told me you were going to kill them all,” Michael said, spitting out the last three words. “I’m not sure how you plan to do it, but I can’t let it happen.”

Weber folded her arms. “Your body is safe and sound in a Coffin somewhere. Like I’ve said, I need you alive. But here, in this beautiful place that your generation calls the Sleep, we can pretty much do anything we want to you. I know you know that. Look around, Michael. Do you really think all of these good agents and soldiers standing here with the VNS today are going to let you take even one step toward me?”

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