“Nope,” Michael said. What was taking Kaine’s people so long? “I really don’t think that at all. Looks like you’ve got them pretty brainwashed.”

There was a commotion in the back of the room. What started as murmurs of conversation became a series of startled cries, then shouts and screams. Michael felt a moment of pure joy when he saw the terror that flashed across Weber’s Aura. She turned away from Michael to look, and he could see it, too.

Her people were disappearing.

3

Nothing fancy or pyrotechnic accompanied the vanishings. Michael stood on his toes to watch as, one by one, the agents and soldiers Weber had mentioned with such pride ceased to exist within the room. There, then not there. Not even a pop of sound or wisp of smoke or blur of color to mark the instant transition. Torn from the Sleep, Lifted. The four Tangents Kaine had sent him were breaking every rule in the book back at the cavernous skyscraper.

Weber turned back to Michael, not even trying to hide her anger or shock.

“What have you…,” she began, then seemed to realize that she was mere seconds away from losing her army. “Quick!” she yelled to her posse. “Before they get to you! Grab Michael, take him down, kill him! Hurry!” Her Aura couldn’t hide the lunacy that blazed behind her eyes. She was breaking from the inside out.

Her cronies quickly obeyed. Michael had barely caught that fearsome look on her face before he found himself lifted into the air and thrown to the floor. The air left his lungs and he struggled to fill them again, but bodies piled on top of him, punching and kicking him, pressing him harder into the ground. Hands wrapped around his throat and squeezed. He couldn’t even see who they belonged to; his vision was filled with arms and legs and hair and feet, as if they were all connected to each other, some monstrous creation from a mad scientist’s lab.

“Quickly!” he heard Weber yell. “Do it!”

Michael couldn’t tell what was worse, the pain of his pummeled body or the aching of his lungs, desperate for air. He coughed and sputtered, struggling against the hands that choked him. He couldn’t fight all these people, no matter how good at coding he might be. He tried to flail his arms, but both of them got pinned by bony knees.

His vision blurred from the lack of oxygen, but he saw one of the figures on top of him vanish, a disorienting pop of reality. He relaxed his body, gave in to their fight against time. Another person disappeared. Then another. He could feel the lessening weight pressed against his chest. Please, he thought, make the choker go next. It felt as if his eyes were going to explode, and fire burned in his chest.

Then, finally, relief. The pressure on his neck suddenly disappeared, and air rushed into his lungs. Colors blurred and rushed above him, but he could see enough to know. All of his attackers had disappeared.

He rolled onto his side, coughing and sucking in air. His entire body shook from the effort. He retched and spit. Then he caught Weber coming at him in the corner of his vision and he reacted, kicking out his legs and scrambling away. He flailed until his back hit a wall. But Weber had stopped. She was retreating, her face filled with horror, as if she’d come upon a rabid dog.

“You should’ve killed me,” he said, his throat raw. The anger took over, making him petty and vengeful. “Better yet, you should never have created me in the first place.” Still breathing heavily, still hurting in a hundred places, he pushed against the wall behind him and climbed to his feet. “I’m too smart for you. I’ve got too many people on my side. It’s over, lady. I’m not going to let you hurt one more person.” He took a step toward her to show the threat was real.

A hand went up to her chest protectively, and she backed away until she once again stood in front of that mysterious glass case with the glowing lights. She stared at him, not saying a word. She looked as if she was trying to figure out what she should do.

He took another step forward, not so sure himself of the plan. Getting into an all-out brawl with a grown woman wasn’t exactly how he’d envisioned saving the world. But he had to get it out of her—what they’d been on the verge of doing when he’d arrived.

“Just tell me the truth,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you. I could’ve easily just killed you back in the Wake, ended it the simple way. What were you going to do when I got here?”

“We had a plan,” she said, a glazed look in her eyes. “I stuck to that plan. We had a plan!”

“Listen to yourself,” Michael said. “You sound crazy. How can you be helping people by killing people? And taking over the world? It’s insane.”

Weber’s eyes met his sharply. “We needed you. But you’re really beginning to get in the way.”

Michael took another step, now only three or four feet away from Weber. He could almost reach out and grab her. “Let’s figure this out. What’s that thing behind you, anyway?”

“Circumstances have changed,” she whispered, sounding more delusional by the second. “I didn’t want to…I don’t want to kill you. Things won’t run as smoothly. But we can always rebuild the Doctrine. And reprogram the ones we lose. We can always adapt, can’t we?”

“What,” he said, emphasizing each word. “Are. You. Talking. About.”

“So be it,” she said, standing up straighter. She sounded as if she were having a conversation with someone who wasn’t there. “This can be on your conscience. Even though…even though you won’t be around for it.”

A fanatical look came over her face, eyes wild. “If you have even an ounce of sense left in that mind of yours, go back, Lift and leave us alone. Do not”—she held up a finger—“do not follow me. I swear if you do, I’ll kill everyone. Every last one.”

“What—”

She quickly turned from him and faced the glass box behind her. She put her hands on the lip of the stand it stood on and was suddenly pushing herself up, swinging her legs over the open top of the container. Michael bolted forward to grab her, but he was too late.

Then the strangest thing happened. As she descended into the container of lights, her body began to shrink. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, so that by the time she was fully in the box, she was the size of a small doll. She looked up at Michael, and for the briefest moment he’d forgotten he was inside the Sleep and was shocked by the sudden transformation. He watched as her tiny body disappeared into the lights floating in the box. Lights that Michael now realized made up a galaxy of stars.

***

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