Darkness dimmed his vision, so he brightened the code. He dug into it like he’d done with Jackson’s pod, but this time he was much more focused. He knew exactly what he was looking for: a pathway to Weber. That was the last piece of the puzzle.

Weber. He needed her.

The darkness ate at him, but it was confused by his programming because it was so different from the pods themselves. Michael knew it wouldn’t take long for it to adapt, though. Like a pool of smart nanobots, it learned and changed as it worked. It was only a matter of time before it sucked the life from his Aura, leaving him as brain-dead as any KillSim would.

The true death.

Pain ignited his skin and sank into his muscles. His vision was blurry—almost black—and his own tears stung.

He pushed on.

Darkness closing in…Pain…

There.

Every program had a link to its owner, especially when it was being controlled. He’d found it. Weber was hidden somewhere, but it didn’t matter. He had the link. The pain was so great he shook, barely able to reach forward and latch onto her, throw a million strings of code to lock her to him, pull her to him.

He felt her fear. Like stepping under a waterfall, it was a burst of coldness.

Through her own program, Michael had found her, and now she was his.

With his last ounce of strength, he launched an anti-program, countering every line of code encompassing the destructive darkness Weber had unleashed. In an instant it eviscerated her program, eliminating it from existence. Light poured back in, blinding and glorious, and the pain disappeared.

Michael held Weber in his grasp, the massive world of her code enclosed in his mental might. He leaped toward the wall of the Hive and found a pod that had already been half destroyed by Weber’s program before he’d stopped it. Whoever it represented had no chance of survival. Gaping holes covered the orange oval so Michael could see inside to the dark purple world beyond.

It was enough. He hoped.

Michael launched himself at it, sank into its code, reached for the links to the Mortality Doctrine he’d discovered within Jackson Porter’s pod, threw Weber’s code into its vortex, and channeled her very being into the body connected to the pod at hand.

And Weber’s essence vanished from the Sleep.

She entered a new body in the Wake, possessed its mind, linked to the pod before him. Her own link severed, the real body of Agent Weber was brain-dead.

Using his scant knowledge of the program she had created, Michael finished off the job on the half-destroyed pod that now represented everything that was left of Weber’s essence. The pod disintegrated, vanished in a mist of darkness, killing anything linked to it back in the Wake. And then all was as silent and still as a windless day.

Michael had just killed Agent Weber.

CHAPTER 21

THE MORTALITY DOCTRINE

1

The sea of code vanished in a blink, replaced by the orderly world of the Hive. The scar of destroyed pods was a conspicuous gash of black in the orange light.

Michael pulled in a deep breath. He’d done it. He’d stopped Weber’s program from annihilating every single life he could see, both the Tangent side and the human side. The problem was far from solved, but he’d accomplished the most immediate task. And Weber was dead. The true death. Her body now lay lifeless back in the Wake, her consciousness wiped from the earth and the VirtNet.

Exhaustion overtook him. He floated within the void of the Hive, limp. He wanted nothing more than to go back to the Wake, stay inside the Coffin, and sleep for a day or two. Let Gabby and Bryson and Helga figure out the rest. If the VNS was out of the way, things could be worked out with Kaine, right?

Michael floated in place for a while, his eyes closed, enjoying the warmth of the orange light against his virtual skin. He was too tired to even think. Too tired to Lift himself. He just wanted some time. Some sleep.

Surely he could rest now.

Don’t call me Shirley, he thought with a smile.

2

Michael fell asleep at some point, waking and slipping back under several times. The Hive glowed and pulsed around him—which, combined with its soft hum, was like the world’s greatest lullaby. During those short, groggy moments of half awareness, he thought of Gabby. Bryson. Helga. They were so smart. Maybe they’d already figured everything out.

Could it really be over? Michael smiled again, knowing it was too good to be true. Nothing had been okay in so long. Always, always, something was wrong.

He needed to check on them. He needed to talk to Kaine. He had to finish this.

Thoughts bounced around inside his weary mind.

He fell back asleep.

3

He didn’t know how long he’d slept, but eventually Michael woke up, feeling refreshed and alive, if a little rough around the edges. Floating there in the void of the Hive, he wished a coffee cart would swing by with some wake-up juice. He briefly wondered if he could code such a thing, steal a cup of grow-joe from one of the many virtual restaurants he’d plundered throughout the years. The thought seemed ridiculous now. Silly. Gloriously silly. He missed it so much.

He rubbed his eyes, looked around. He winced when he saw the dark gash in the Hive wall again, its emptiness so stark a reminder of the lives lost. And he’d just begun to feel a little upbeat. People were dead. Tangents were eliminated, gone forever. If only he could’ve been a little faster.

He sighed, looked at the other side of the Hive, where everything was whole and brightly lit. Pod after pod after pod. That made him feel a little better.

With another sigh, he realized just how sick of that place he was. Time to move on. He wondered about going back to the VNS building to see how Kaine’s Tangents had done cleaning the place up, but decided against it. He’d gotten the rest he needed, and he missed his friends. It was time to find them. And if they hadn’t already infiltrated the Doctrine and figured out a way to kill it, he’d help them. They’d do it together. With the VNS no longer breathing down their necks, it shouldn’t be too hard.

For the third time that day, Michael accessed his history files to search for a previously visited location. This one was a little tougher. It had more firewalls than even the Hive. But he’d gotten there once, so he knew he could do it again. Once, the Path had taken him there, the place where he’d first met Kaine, the place where he’d been born into a human body for the first time. The Hallowed Ravine.

He jumped into the code and made his way.

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