She’s okay, Michael thought. It’s the Sleep. She’s okay.

He was still looking at her when she disappeared, fading from existence. It was a good sign. It meant she’d been Lifted out. This place was like a game, after all.

Michael turned his attention back to Kaine, who still looked troubled. Maybe Helga had pulled off a miracle that would last just long enough to give them the time they needed to fix this mess.

“Listen,” Michael said. Gabby and Bryson had moved closer, standing on either side of him. “I know you’re angry. But can we talk this through?”

Kaine’s eyes narrowed. “No. We can’t. I saw what you did to Weber. I heard the things you said here. Your intentions are clear, and they’re not acceptable. There’s no room for negotiation, Michael. I’ve given you chance after chance to join me in a noble cause. And it always comes back to this. You, standing before me, thinking you have the right of it. Thinking that you can…win this game of yours. Well, as they say in your gaming halls, game over.”

“Man, I hate this guy,” Bryson said loud enough for Kaine to hear.

Kaine ignored him. “I had such a plan. For the benefit of everyone. And all I’ve been met with is betrayal. Weber, the VNS, now you. You’re tied to all this, Michael. You’re a part of it. You should be able to recognize its potential more than anyone. And yet you came here to destroy it? Do you have any idea how much that hurts me?”

Michael didn’t want to fight. He didn’t know how to fight Kaine even if he wanted to. It had been an uneven match from the start. His only hope was to reason with him.

“It’s not an answer,” Michael said. “You’re right—I totally get the Mortality Doctrine now—better than most. I’ve seen what it does to people. To the world. And I’m telling you—nobody can be trusted with this much power. Nobody. It has to end, Kaine. It has to.”

Kaine stood there, taking one deep breath after another, as if he were about to dive underwater for a long swim. “If that’s what you think, then you don’t understand, son.” He looked at Gabby, then at Bryson, then back at Michael. “I’ll give you one last chance. Help me make this dream a reality. Immortality, Michael. No more physical death for humans, and no more Decay for Tangents. We’ll all live forever. If you don’t see how…glorious that is, then something’s wrong with you.”

Gabby started to say something, but a sharp glare from Kaine made her stop.

“Just give me an answer,” Kaine snapped. “Yes or no. With me or against me. Those are your options. I can tell you right now, you’ve caused me enough trouble that I can’t afford to…Let’s just say that choosing to go against me wouldn’t be the wisest thing right now. Choose eternal life or misery. What’ll it be?”

Gabby squeezed Michael’s arm. “Let’s finish what we came here to do,” she said, not a trace of fear in her voice. And Michael knew why. The Mortality Doctrine had stolen her best friend from her.

“Yeah,” Bryson added. “There’s one of him, three of us. He already knows our answer.”

Michael looked gravely at Kaine. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

“What’s your answer!” the Tangent screamed. Michael swore he saw a flash of red behind his eyes, like a demon coming to the surface. Fear chilled him to the bone.

“We have to destroy your program,” Michael said. “I’m sorry.”

The manic anger vanished from Kaine’s face, and he actually smiled. “Then by all means, give it your very best shot. At least you’ll finally be out of my hair. I’ll just have to establish another connection to replace yours.”

He brought his arms up and blinding lights flashed from the palms of his hands. The ground beneath their feet suddenly lost all solidity, turning into a mist of green and brown.

And then they were falling.

2

Chaos took over Michael’s world.

His feet landed in a mysterious substance. It was purple and looked slick, like it could be wet, but it was firm, like hard rubber. It rippled out from where he stood, as if a giant rock had landed in a pool right before it froze solid. Bryson was above him, Gabby below, but they were still together.

“What’s happening?” Bryson yelled.

“And where’s Kaine?” Gabby added.

A shadow passed over them, answering her question. A massive winged creature descended from a misty green sky, each flap of its wings sending a fierce wind blowing over Michael and his friends. It sailed downward and landed in front of them, huge claws digging into the rubbery surface beneath their feet. Its scaly golden skin glimmered like oil on water. Kaine sat on the back of the beast, in a saddle, holding tight to reins. Michael had never seen a creature more terrifying. It had enormous horns protruding from its head and eyes like black marbles. It opened its huge mouth to reveal impossibly large teeth, and then it screamed, a sound so piercing that bright stars burst in his vision.

“I should never have offered you one last chance.” Kaine spoke from the monster’s back. “I was wrong, but I’ve learned my lesson. Now here we stand, the very core of the Mortality Doctrine at your feet, Michael. How fitting that you and your friends will die right atop its skin.”

Figures began to step out from behind Kaine’s beast, as if a trapdoor had opened and released his minions. There were KillSims, mostly—enormous wolves and black-cloaked ghosts, an unseen wind blowing around them. And there were other creatures. Demons, similar to those from the place Gunner Skale had gone to hide along the Path, big and bloody and angry. Monsters from storybooks—trolls and goblins and wights. Two dozen, three dozen, four dozen creatures, amassed in a line behind Kaine and his winged beast.

“Maybe you should’ve brought a bigger army,” Kaine announced from his perch. “For the good of both man and Tangent, I can’t show mercy today. For that, I’m sorry.”

He raised a hand, then slowly lowered it to point directly at Michael.

“Kill them,” he commanded, his voice booming. “Starting with him. But first, remove their Cores. Let’s give them this true death they keep harping about.”

3

The Core. The link that kept a mind tethered to reality. Part of the NerveBox programming. Almost impossible—not to mention illegal—to code.

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