4

He saw Gabby first, and even though he barely knew her, her face brightened his day. Not until she stood before him, her Aura looking so much like her actual body, did he realize how lonely he’d been. For so long he’d gone at this all by himself.

“Hi,” she said, obviously startled at his sudden appearance. They stood on a rolling hill of wind-flattened grass, a thick forest at the bottom. “I…We…Where’d you come from?”

Michael shrugged. “Oh, I’ve been out and about. Saving people, killing bad guys—that sort of stuff.”

She stepped forward and threw her arms around him, hugging him as fiercely as if they’d known each other forever. He hugged back, thankful for the human touch. The light went on in his mind: no matter what happened, she saw Jackson Porter in him, and Jackson Porter was her boyfriend.

She pulled away and looked up at him. “It’s good to see you. Any word on…I don’t even know what to ask, actually. Did you do it? Whatever it was?”

He nodded, feeling more confident by the second. He’d half expected to be greeted by KillSims when he’d arrived, something that had happened in this very place not that long ago. But there were trees, and there was grass and a bright blue sky. Kaine must have really worked hard to protect the place from the ruination of the VirtNet.

“Yeah,” he said, “I think so. I think the VNS is done, and Weber’s days of making our lives miserable are over for sure. What about here? Any luck?”

She gestured for him to look around. “We’ve been looking and looking, but there’s nothing. There’s an old cabin in those woods, and an abandoned castle on the other side of the forest that’s barely standing. Not much else. Bryson’s checking out the castle, and Helga’s in the woods somewhere. I feel like I’m wearing a path up and down this hill.”

Michael let out an exaggerated sigh. “Do I have to do everything myself?” He quickly laughed it off, hoping she didn’t think he was a jerk. “Just kidding. That’s really good, actually. I’m glad you weren’t attacked by KillSims or Rodents of Unusual Size.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing. Let’s go find the others. I need more hugs.”

5

Michael remembered everything about the Hallowed Ravine. The castle, overrun by VNS agents and Tangents loyal to Kaine and KillSims charging out of the ruins to attack him. He remembered confronting Kaine in the cabin, being dragged through the woods by that giant of a man. He remembered the world spinning into chaos and dissolving around him.

But strangely, it looked like none of that had ever happened. The castle was still standing—old, yes, but in one piece. It was confusing, and Michael wondered yet again what had truly happened that day he’d been sucked through the Mortality Doctrine program and placed into the body of Jackson Porter.

Michael and Gabby walked into the wide clearing between the forest and the castle, and before he could let his thoughts get too dark, they slipped from his mind. Bryson came charging out of the entrance of the castle and bounded down the stairs with a ridiculous smile on his face, and Michael couldn’t stop his own smile from forming.

“Michael!” Bryson yelled, just as he tripped on a loose stone in the bottom step. He tumbled, flipped, jumped right back up onto his feet, and kept running. “I’d kill you if I wasn’t so happy to see your ugly mug!” He reached Michael and grabbed him, pulling him off his feet into the biggest hug he’d ever received.

Through a grunt, Michael barely managed to say “Good to see you, too.”

Bryson put him down and took a step back. “You look seven minutes from death, dude. Especially in the eyes. Let me guess—rough couple of days?”

“You could say that.” Michael glanced at Gabby, who had a genuine look of happiness on her face. He was liking her more and more, and the whole fiasco at the farmhouse felt like a distant memory or a half-forgotten dream. “But I think we’re doing okay. Kaine helped me, you know. I never could’ve done it without him.”

“Done what?” Bryson asked.

“The VNS…we don’t have to worry about them anymore. Or their mass murder program. Or Agent Weber. I…stopped her.”

Bryson and Gabby exchanged a look, both of them knowing that last phrase communicated a million different things. Luckily, they didn’t push him to explain because right then Helga came running out of the woods, having already spotted him, her face lit up. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she pulled Michael into a hug even more viselike than Bryson’s. She even swung him around a couple of times for good measure.

Once the world had stopped spinning and he was on his own two feet again, Michael laughed, as genuinely as he ever had.

“Man,” he said, “I don’t even know what to say. You guys are all right, I’m all right, we’re back together again. If only Sarah…” He faltered there, grief plucking at his heart. The pain was still heavy and hot, but it didn’t overwhelm him like it had at times before.

“I know, sweetie,” Helga said, hugging him one more time, holding on for a beat longer than normal. “I need to…well, uh…” She stepped back, and the look on her face was strange, mysterious.

“What?” Michael asked.

She looked away. “For now, it’s nothing.”

“What?” Michael pressed, his curiosity close to uncontrollable now.

“Later,” she replied emphatically. “I promise.”

Michael threw his hands up. “Okay. I guess we don’t need to spoil the party any more than we already have.”

Gabby stepped closer to him and lightly touched his arm. “What’re we doing here, Michael? Back at the tree house you were going nuts—all those KillSims, Kaine…we were scared to death. Then you sent us off, and ever since, we’ve been tramping around trying to find this factory you’re talking about. There’s nothing here.”

“She’s right,” Bryson added. “Not a thing, not a person. So what are we doing here?”

With a sinking feeling, Michael realized he didn’t know. Not fully, anyway. “I assumed this was where the Mortality Doctrine…factory was. Whatever you want to call it. This is where I came—this was the end of the Path.” He pointed to the center of the field in which they stood. “I was standing right there when the world spun around me and I was sucked into the Doctrine program’s vortex. Next thing I knew, I was a different dude in a real body. This has to be it.”

***

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