And Michael planned to destroy it.

“Let’s go out,” he messaged to the others. Sensing their reluctance, he let go of Gabby’s and Bryson’s hands and opened himself back to the visual side of things. The universe of code disappeared, replaced by greenery and blue sky.

Helga blinked against the brightness of the sun. “Well, that was…fascinating.”

“Weird,” Bryson said. “And cool.”

Gabby nodded her agreement. “I wonder if my dad knows about this place.”

Michael’s heart skipped a beat. He’d totally forgotten that her dad worked for the VNS. Had he been in one of those Coffins back in that enormous building?

Gabby obviously sensed his concern. “Don’t worry, Jax. I mean, Michael. I know my own dad. There’s no way he’s one of the bad guys. I’ve been messaging him—he’s safe and nowhere near the office. I guess you could say he called in sick.”

She gave him a weak smile, and it made Michael think of the last time he’d seen Sarah do that. She’d always tried to deflect his worries with a grin, too—even if it was a weak one.

“That’s good to hear,” he said.

“So what’re we going to do?” Bryson asked. “You really want to destroy this place?”

Michael nodded. “We don’t have a choice.”

“We need rest,” Helga said.

Michael couldn’t have agreed more. “And food, but we can’t afford to Lift right now. Bryson, you were always the best at it. Code us in some grub from Dan the Man Deli.” Back in the Coffin, they’d be fed with an IV—nothing to write home about—but here in the Sleep it’d all taste divine.

“You got it, maestro.”

7

They ate. They took naps. They spent two or three hours strategizing and planning. It was going to take a monumental effort—they all knew that. But not one of them doubted it could work. Linked together, with a lot of hard work and brilliant coding, they could destroy the Mortality Doctrine program. Michael knew it. They were hours from victory.

“When we’re done,” he told the others as they prepared to join hands again, “the Hive is the last step. But I think at that point we can ask for help. Lots of help. The world can’t expect us to do everything.” He was mostly joking, but he felt a stab of pride all the same. As absurd as it sounded, he had saved the world. With a lot of help from his friends. He smiled, and it felt good.

“Let’s do us some deconstructing!” Bryson yelled, followed by obnoxious hoots and hollers. Surprisingly, Helga joined in. Gabby just glanced at Michael, exaggerating a mortified look.

“Kids these days,” Michael said to her.

He held out his hands. Gabby and Bryson took them, then linked with Helga.

Michael’s eyes were halfway closed when a man’s voice spoke behind him, snapping them open again.

“Enough of that.”

Michael let go of his friends’ hands and spun around, but he already knew who it was. Kaine. The Tangent stood there in his youngest Aura yet, sharply dressed, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up a couple of times. He looked like some movie star on the cover of a StyleBop.

“Hey,” Michael said, hurrying to stand. “I was going to talk to you about all this—”

“Stop.” Kaine held up a hand, bowing his head slightly. His expression was unreadable. “Don’t say another word. This is the point when, for once in your life, you are going to listen.”

“Kai—”

“I said be quiet!” the Tangent screamed, his eyes flashing. “Act like a child, be treated like a child. Do not say another word, any of you! How could you do this to me, Michael?”

Michael realized at that moment how terribly he’d misjudged Kaine. Despite what he’d been telling himself, this end had been inevitable. Kaine wanted immortality, at any cost. Michael had to kill him or die trying.

Kaine folded his arms over his chest. “After all I’ve done for you. I saved your life. I helped you bring down the VNS. And now this.” He held his hands up to the sky, looking around at the world he created. “This is how you repay me. You want to destroy my very reason for existing!”

Michael wanted to explain, but he didn’t dare speak.

Kaine shook his head in disgust. “What a stupid, stupid thing you’ve done, Michael. It was your idea to send my people to the very place where your body rests in a Coffin, right now, right this second.”

Fear—fear like he’d never known before—exploded in an icy burst within Michael.

Kaine gave him the coldest glare he’d ever seen.

“And I’m sure at least one of them doesn’t care if you live or die.”

CHAPTER 22

GODS AND MONSTERS

1

Helga marched past Michael before he could stop her. He thought for one terrible moment that she was going to attack Kaine, but instead she dropped to her knees in front of him. The Tangent never flinched.

“Please,” she said. “Spare this boy. I’m begging you, Kaine.”

“What is this?” He stepped away from her in disgust. “Some kind of tri—”

Before he could finish, Helga lashed out with a wire-thin rope hidden in her sleeve. Kaine had barely reacted before it wrapped around his neck, cinching tight. She gave it a hard pull and he crumpled to his knees. In an instant Helga had him facedown and she was tying his wrists behind him.

Michael watched in disbelief, not sure what to do. He took a step forward, but stopped when he saw Kaine’s face. Instead of the look of anger Michael expected to see, Kaine was perfectly calm, almost smiling.

“Really?” he asked, his speech muffled with his face pressed to the grass. “You really think some whip conjured from a cheap game is going to stop me? Here? In the place I built?”

Helga rapped a knuckle against his ear, just hard enough to garner a wince from the Tangent. “Nope,” she said. “But it distracted you enough for me to throw up a firewall to your communications. Go ahead and order your goons to slash my boy’s throat. Try it.”

To Michael’s shock, panic flashed across Kaine’s face.

“It won’t last very long, now, will it?” Kaine said. He puffed out his cheeks and everything around him suddenly blurred with motion. He flew off the ground and landed on his feet, while Helga was sent windmilling backward through the air until she slammed into a crumbling castle wall. She fell with a crash among the rocks and lay still on the grass.

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