Bryson, Helga, and Gabby all turned in a circle to take in their surroundings, as if his pronouncement would make them see things differently. But everything in sight was programmed with superior code—it felt almost as real as Lifeblood Deep. Nothing stood out as unusual or menacing. Grass, hills, forest, the ruins of an ancient castle, and a cabin—all of which had been searched thoroughly by Michael’s friends.

They faced him again.

“What is it?” Gabby asked. “What is the factory? Where are we?”

Michael shrugged, eager to dive into the code of the place—something he was now ten times better at than he’d been two days earlier. “This has to be the heart of the Mortality Doctrine,” he said, almost to himself, then addressed his friends. “It has to be. The Hive is the storage; the Ravine, the actual program. We need to destroy it, make sure no Tangent ever takes over a human again. Ever. Wipe it out, along with every last remaining trace of its source code. Then we go back to the Hive, reinsert people into their own minds and bodies, and release the Tangents back into the Sleep. Simple as that.”

“Simple as that,” Helga repeated.

Michael just nodded. “One step at a time. I seriously think the hardest part is over. The VNS were behind all of this—they were the real enemy. And we don’t have to worry about them anymore. We can finish this thing, with or without Kaine’s help.”

“Have you really thought this through?” Helga asked him, a motherly tone in her voice. “Like, say, for example, what happens to me and you?”

Michael looked at the ground. He’d never allowed himself to follow that line of thought, though it had hovered on the edges of his mind since the first day he’d awakened in Jackson Porter’s body. He supposed it was time to address it.

“Whatever has to happen will happen,” he said coldly. He pictured the face of Jackson Porter, so strongly that for a second he thought it was real, a glitch in the code. But then it was gone. And it had made him jealous, even though he’d lived the vast majority of his life with a different face.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Helga asked. “The Tangents I partnered with to use the Mortality Doctrine—”

“I know,” he said, cutting her off. “I…I just can’t talk about it right now. I can’t.”

Silence fell on the group, and finally, Bryson broke it.

“So,” he said with a single clap of his hands. “Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?”

Michael nodded, trying to clear the image of his face—Jackson’s face—from his thoughts. “Okay, yeah, you’re right. Let’s get started.”

“Get started with what, exactly?” Gabby asked. “I still don’t understand what you want us to do with a bunch of grass and trees and an old junk pile of brick and stone.”

Michael focused on Helga. “You know the Doctrine program to an extent, right? I mean, you guys figured it out, used it. Right?”

Her nod didn’t show a lot of confidence. “I wasn’t what you’d call an expert in that field. Others did more than I did. But yeah, I got a good taste of how it worked.”

“So did I,” Michael responded. “When I was in the Hive, fighting it out against Weber and her own version of a KillSim, I saw it, saw the connections, saw how it worked. I mean, I understood it enough to send her into another person’s mind and terminate the connection.” He paused. “It killed her.”

If he’d expected rebukes, they didn’t come. Bryson actually started to pump a fist before he stopped himself.

Michael continued. “I think if we hook up, we can dig into the code of this place. But we need to dig deep. Deeper than ever. I know this is the heart of Kaine’s program. With all of us working together, we can find it, dissect it, and blow the thing apart. You guys in?”

Helga gave a firm nod. Gabby said yes with her eyes, not a hint of doubt there. Bryson gave two thumbs up.

“Let’s do this the old-fashioned way,” Michael said, stepping closer to Gabby and motioning for the others to move in. “We’ll hold hands, keep a solid connection between us. Let’s stay in constant communication. I wanna do this fast, and I don’t want anyone to be alone in case trouble comes.”

“Trouble?” Bryson repeated. “You expecting trouble from you-know-who?”

“He’ll understand” was all Michael said. He knew he should explain his plan to Kaine first. Things would go much better if they really did stay on the same side, but Michael didn’t want to burn any more time. “We can only do what we can do, right? He’s not here.”

“You’re just bursting with confidence,” Bryson said. “Look, man, if you think this is the thing to do, then I’m in. Let’s get it over with.”

“Come on, then,” Michael responded, holding out his hand. Bryson took it. Gabby took the other. Then Helga joined in to complete the circle.

“Seek and destroy,” Michael whispered as they closed their eyes.

6

Down, down, down they went, sinking into the code. It felt to Michael like slipping into a warm bath, a comfort after the awkward conversations with his friends. Blades of grass became lines of symbols, trees became towering blocks of data, the castle a jumbled mess of letters and numbers, the sky awash in that purple haze that so often represented the most basic formative programming of the VirtNet. Michael felt the reassuring pressure of Bryson’s and Gabby’s hands, felt the links between them all. They combined their skills and knowledge and began to dissect the massive amount of information in which they found themselves.

An hour passed. Two. Three. Michael kept a timer within his files, knowing how prone he was to losing track of minutes and hours when he was in the zone. He didn’t want to go too long without a break or they might make errors.

At four hours, no one wanted to stop. They’d discovered so much, come to understand so much. Michael was swept up to the point that he’d practically forgotten the dire circumstances that had made the task necessary in the first place.

He had been right. The Mortality Doctrine lived and breathed within the Hallowed Ravine program, like the basic building blocks of genetic code. Michael had never seen anything like it. If the Ravine had veins, the Doctrine was the blood that pumped through it. You couldn’t look at the code for one without seeing the other. All of it was linked together, like some beautiful man-made biological creation.

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