He leaned over the edge of the box to look down. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny lights, glowing and pulsing within a murky soup of darkness. And they all swirled together, creating an enormous orb. It was the Hive—tiny compared to the real thing. He’d only seen it from its true perspective, so large that those round sides appeared as walls.

True perspective, he thought. He was in the Sleep, for crying out loud. What did that even mean? It was all a world of code, nothing but letters and numbers and symbols.

Taking a deep breath, he put all his weight onto the stand and flipped himself into the lighted abyss. Just like Agent Weber, he shrank and fell.

4

Everything was a rush of sound and movement, spinning around him like a wild merry-go-round. Then the world righted, slamming into his consciousness like a brick onto wet mortar, and abruptly he stopped moving, his vision corrected, his mind calmed. He floated in a dark nothingness, several hundred feet from a familiar sight: the wall of the Hive, now as grand as the first time he’d seen it. The pods pulsed like heartbeats, a soft, comforting thump of sound along with each one.

There was no sign of Weber, or of Kaine and his army of Tangents. They were either done fighting or on the other side of the Hive.

But Weber. Where had she gone?

With a thought he vaulted himself through the purple air, stopping within a few feet of the glowing pods. He looked up and down, to the sides. From so close, he could barely even see the curve of the structure—which he now understood better than ever, after seeing Weber’s glass case perspective. He didn’t know what to do. If only that pool of code that Kaine had introduced him to would magically appear nearby. Somehow he had to dig into the information to see what Weber had planned.

Time had to be running out.

Michael flew forward, squeezing between two of the oval pods to enter the Hive’s inner area. A world of orange light surrounded him now, a little fainter from the far side. Still no sign of Weber. He sent himself forward, throughout the massive chamber of the Hive, scanning its walls of pods for any sign of Agent Weber.

He didn’t know how she planned to do it, but her intention had been made clear. She wanted to eliminate all the Tangents, including him when he was of no use anymore, severing the connection of the Mortality Doctrine. He’d be dead—the true death—and she could Lift back to the Wake and tell everyone that the VNS had saved the world and only they could prevent it from sinking into chaos again. As he flew, streaking up and down the curved, brightly lit walls of the Hive, he imagined the feigned look of pain on her face as she broke the news. Lives lost, but so many more saved.

He screamed in frustration, and the sound of his yell was swallowed by whatever substance surrounded him. Everything about the place was odd, different from what he was used to. It was programming on such a complex scale, it was beyond anything he’d ever dealt with before.

He flew in circles and found nothing.

Until.

There.

There.

A mere wink in his peripheral vision, like a fly buzzing by. A spark of darkness. Michael stopped his flight, turned toward whatever had captured his attention. It was far away, on the other side of the Hive from where he hovered. He threw all of his will into being there, and this time it wasn’t like flight. It was teleportation. In an instant he was there.

There to witness the beginning of the end.

A pod stood empty. Surrounded on four sides by glowing, living pods of orange light. In the entire structure of the Hive, he’d never seen anything similar. He’d never seen an empty pod. And he knew it had just happened—that had been the dark blur of movement in the corner of his eye. Although he still didn’t understand how she was doing it, Agent Weber had just eliminated the first victim in her grand plan.

The true death.

Michael understood what it meant, and his chest ached. The human who’d been taken, and the Tangent who’d done the possessing—they were both dead now. Gone. Forever. Even without a full grasp of the coding or the Mortality Doctrine, he knew this was so.

As he stared at the vacant slot, thinking all of these troubling thoughts, the next pod over began to dissolve. Like black specks of disease or hungry insects, darkness spread across the surface of the orange light. In a matter of seconds, the entire thing was gone, replaced by emptiness. Though he might’ve imagined it, Michael thought he heard a faint scream, as if from far away, right before the last bit of orange light blinked out of existence.

He floated there, watching, trembling, as another one died, eaten by darkness. The swarm of blackness consumed it like an army of ants. Not a second passed before it began on the very next one, eating away.

Never in his life had he felt so utterly helpless.

He screamed until his lungs hurt.

5

The clock kept ticking—there was nothing he could do about it. Every moment that passed without acting meant another Tangent dead, another human dead. The order of dissolved pods did have a pattern, at least. It was spreading in a straight line, from right to left. Michael made a quick timing judgment and flew to a pod about twenty slots down, trying not to think about those he’d just passed.

He reached the pod in question, drifted within a few inches. The same screen he’d seen when visiting the current resting place of Jackson Porter started to materialize with a name, but he dove into the code without looking—he didn’t have a moment to spare. He dove into the code the way Kaine had shown him. The pods of the Hive blurred and shook, transforming into an array of tightly condensed symbols and letters, still glowing orange.

It was the code, dense and crowding him tightly into the small space, overwhelming him. The structure of the Hive itself had its own code, surrounding the individual pod data chunks, so that Michael was completely immersed in a blinding display of information. All of it moved at a blistering pace, up and down and sideways, in and out of his vision. Different colors and sizes and shapes. His head swam with nausea trying to take it all in.

He looked to the right, in the direction of Weber’s attacks on the pods. The darkness was thicker, more menacing in code view, like a black oil that had come to life. It reached out to devour huge swaths of code at once. Weber’s program had already eaten through half of the pods between him and where he’d been floating before. There was no way he had enough time to create something to stop her. At least, not there.

But he could learn something. Bringing his attention back to the data in front of him, he studied the code, the organization, the characteristics of its programming. Darkness grew in his peripheral vision. It was making a sick squelching sound as it crept toward him, like a knife sticking into flesh. He tried to ignore it. He tried to focus on the code, find a link. There had to be something in there that Weber was specifically attacking. A link between the Hive and her program.

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