Like tar thrown from a bucket, a splash of a strange black substance sprayed the Hive in front of him. Upon contact, half of the pod’s information sizzled and died, whisking into the endless darkness of Weber’s program. Another thick ribbon of inky darkness came swirling in from above, snapping at the code, then whipping toward Michael’s face. He cried out as it hit his skin, latching on, burning. The pain was like acid on a wound. He screamed and the sound died in the thick blackness that had covered him. With a burst of panic he reached up and pulled at it until he ripped it off. It came back at him but launched back into visual mode and flew out to the center of the vast open chamber of the Hive.

Breathing heavily, he floated there, his skin burning as sweat trickled down his scorched face. He took in the Hive around him and saw the pod where Weber had begun her attack. At least thirty pods had now been destroyed, leaving nothing behind but empty space. And the destruction was spreading, its pace quickening.

Michael scanned the wall of consciousnesses, trying to gather his thoughts. Focus, he told himself. Focus. If ever he had to act without thinking, now was the time. Lives were dropping by the second.

A sudden, chilling thought almost froze his heart.

Jackson Porter.

In the frenzy, Michael had almost forgotten that he himself was a Tangent, that he himself had taken over a human body, that he himself could die at any second. If Weber got to Jackson’s pod…

Still he floated there, thinking all these things, when people were dying left and right. Indecision had him in its grasp. A sickness grew in his stomach. If he went straight for Jackson Porter, Weber would know. She’d throw everything at that pod.

Do it! he almost shouted at himself. He had no choice. He could do nothing if he ceased to exist. Nothing else mattered. He had to protect himself, no matter what she brought down on him.

The Bubble.

It flashed across his mind, that membrane of protection that Kaine had programmed for him. Michael closed his eyes, tried to remember its feel, its look, its code. Complex, unusual, something he’d never done before. But it might be his only hope.

It was time to work on instinct.

As Weber’s wave of dark decay swept across the Hive, Michael accessed his files, found Jackson’s location, and went for it.

CHAPTER 20

LIFE

1

The pod was at least sixty or seventy rows up from the swath of destruction laid out by Weber’s program. Michael zapped himself to it and dove into the code as if he were diving into the cold ocean. It was a sensory shock as it enveloped him, that beautiful, complex universe of information. He scanned the data, allowing his mind to open up and take it all in. He couldn’t afford to think about it in individual pieces. He had to let it all flow past him, through him, grasping its meaning on a subconscious level.

At the same time, compartmentalizing his mind, he worked at the code for Kaine’s creation, the Bubble. It had been a wonder of coding, but Michael was a wonder himself. He knew that, even if all the forces against him had made him doubt his abilities. An unexpected burst of laughter exploded from his virtual chest as he pieced his vision of Kaine’s program together.

He was giddy.

He was delirious.

He was having the time of his life.

2

Near the end, things happened so fast he could barely track them all. The Bubble grew around him. He scanned the code of Jackson Porter’s pod, searching for any clue that would help him rebound against Weber’s program and stop it in its tracks. Then he could feel it coming—the darkness swooping. A shadow fell over him, and he turned and saw that Weber had abandoned her original course. She was now cutting across the Hive wall diagonally, heading straight for him.

Pod by pod went black as she passed.

Michael swam in the code of Jackson Porter’s prison, even as he put the finishing touches on the Bubble of protection. He had no idea whether it would hold against Weber’s program like it had against the KillSims. But surely it would, wouldn’t it?

In his frenzied state, he remembered a line from an old flat-film.

Surely you can’t be serious.

I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.

He laughed again, certain the pressure was finally starting to crack his mind wide open.

Yes, he was delirious. But he was sharper than ever.

Michael went back to the code, the Bubble around him giving him the time he needed. He hoped.

But what was he searching for? He had no idea—just had to trust that he’d know. He worked the information that pressed in from all directions, worked it like wet clay.

His entire world shook when the darkness of Weber’s program hit the surface of his Bubble. Every piece of data around him shuddered and blurred for a moment, then righted itself. He looked over his shoulder and saw the visual manifestation of it all: black tendrils of some monstrous, amorphous beast attacking the invisible layer of protection between them.

From there, his instincts took over. He found things he hadn’t dreamed of finding within the code. Access points to the Hive. A running history of the Mortality Doctrine program and how it did what it did to Michael’s Tangent self. He even found a piece of himself in there, something he couldn’t quite understand. It was almost as if he’d found his own DNA gene sequence.

He was a building block. He was beginning to see how he served as a foundation for the Doctrine and all that it had accomplished.

He took as much of the information as he could until he finally felt ready.

It was clear to Michael now that what would follow would be horrible, but it had to be done.

It was the only way.

Michael turned around and faced the Bubble. Weber’s black destroyer program had now completely encased it. With a few quick manipulations of the code, he dissolved the shield of protection and let the tarlike substance come at him and his pod.

It struck him all at once, and the stinging pain from before overwhelmed him. He resisted the urge to suck in a breath from shock, the world around him shifting between visuals and raw code, flickering like a bad WallScreen signal. Michael forced his mind to calm and made his surroundings solidify in the pool of code, the substance in which he needed to work. And work he did.

Michael floated a few feet from Jackson Porter’s pod and let Weber’s program devour him until it had nearly merged with his own code. He had to let it in to have access to what he wanted. The pain was excruciating, the intensity heightening. He ignored it, not caring how battered his body back in the real world might be—all he needed was to stay alive.

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