Michael snapped into action as Kaine’s army charged. He ran over the slick surface, slipping twice, to reach Bryson and Gabby. “Use the fly program from Invisible Wings!” he yelled, transferring the code to them in case they didn’t have it. “We’ll survive a lot longer if we’re in the air. Pull in every weapon you can think of, fight them off! I’ll take Kaine—I need his link to deconstruct the Doctrine.”

They had to be in the air for this or they’d never last. The first KillSims were almost on them, loping across the ground, growling those awful electronic growls.

“Got it!” Gabby shouted, even as she rose twenty feet off the ground. Bryson and Michael used the same program and leaped up to join her, just missing the first wave of attack right below them.

“What if we can’t do this?” Bryson yelled at Michael, his eyes wild with fear.

Michael understood. He smiled at his friend. “Give it your best shot, man,” he said. “But kill your Aura and Lift before you let them get to your Core. Deal?” Bryson nodded and they both looked at Gabby, who nodded as well. They were in it together.

A gust of wind blew over them, and the three friends turned to see Kaine’s creature flapping its giant wings, rising into the air. Kaine stared straight at Michael. The demons and KillSims had followed Kaine’s lead and had begun igniting their own flying programs. It looked like it would be an aerial battle.

As it all unfolded before him, Michael felt a sudden and complete loss of hope. It was just the three of them against so many. He knew they didn’t have to win the fight, they only needed to hold them off long enough to destroy the Mortality Doctrine code. But how could they even do that? He turned to face his friends, to tell them they should all just give up and get out of there. It’d be much smarter to regroup with more backup.

But Bryson and Gabby were gone. Michael looked up and saw them flying through the odd-colored sky, fighting, twisting, and turning in battle. His heart sank.

Something crashed into the side of his head.

Crying out, he lost control and plummeted; he hit the rubbery ground hard and bounced twice. The winged beast landed next to him, its enormous claws piercing the purple substance. Michael looked up at its hideous face—its black eyes, its sharp teeth. The creature screamed again, and Michael threw up his hands to cover his ears.

He stood. Fear trickled down his back, and he shuddered. He’d never been so terrified. Never. But he brought his hands up, curled them into fists, and searched his mind for the right weapon to pull from his files. And then he froze. Everything was blocked. He’d hoped the whole time that in the weakened state of the Sleep, they’d have more power to manipulate and swing in code from other sources.

He’d been wrong.

He had nothing. His fists. That was it. Well, his fists and Bryson and Gabby. And now they were all about to be pummeled.

Kaine’s beast lashed out with a wing, hitting Michael hard in the face. It knocked him off his feet and sent him flying. He landed ten yards away, on his back, pain consuming his whole body. The creature leaped into the air, flapped its wings twice, then dove at Michael, landing with a terrible thump on his chest. Every molecule of breath left his lungs. He choked out a muffled cry.

Kaine jumped down from the monster’s back, and after another piercing scream, the creature flapped its wings and rose into the air, leaving Michael for his true nemesis.

“You could’ve had it all,” the Tangent said. Then he kicked Michael in the ribs. “Immortality.” Another kick, even more vicious. Blinding pain filled Michael’s world. “A place by my side.” Another kick.

Kaine leaned over him. “You should’ve known.” This time, a punch to the face. An eruption of more pain. “You should’ve known from the beginning that I couldn’t be defeated. Not by someone lesser than me.

“I will have my way.” Kaine’s voice was suddenly calm, almost soothing. He spoke slowly. “And you will die. I don’t need your connection anymore. It’s been—how did they used to say it?—corrected with troubleshooting. That’s the beauty of the code, Michael. In time, anything can be programmed. Anything.”

He reached down and touched Michael’s temple with his finger, and a sharp claw suddenly snapped out of its tip, aimed at the very spot where Michael’s Core resided. Michael pulled his head away, but the pain from his beating was unbearable. He leaned over, threw up. He had no strength left to fight.

“Sarah,” he whispered. “Sarah.” He’d sworn to die with her in his mind.

Kaine brought up his newly clawed finger, making sure Michael saw it.

“I do this for the future of intelligence,” he pronounced. “For the next step in evolution.” He reached for Michael, who had no power to resist.

And then, as had so often happened in Michael’s life, things changed in an instant.

There was an eruption of noise and a searing wind of heat, and Kaine’s body catapulted into the air, disappearing in the distance.

Michael lay on the ground, so exhausted and weak from pain, he thought he’d never move again. It took everything he had left in his body to turn and look up, only to see his salvation.

4

Portals were opening all around him, dark spaces through which countless figures poured. They swarmed Kaine’s massive winged beast and his KillSim army, falling on them with every weapon imaginable. Some of the newcomers were familiar—warriors and robots and superheroes and aliens from dozens of games Michael had played with his friends over the years. Others were new to him. A thing that looked like a giant tree with a face, swinging its many branches with ruthless force. A rock creature, sharp angles of stone erupting from its chest. There was even a six-legged steel horse with a humanoid on its back made from a hundred sharp blades.

Michael breathed out in relief and disbelief. An army of Tangents had come to save them. They’d been so close to true death. And Bryson and Gabby were still out there, fighting. He had to go—

Someone put a hand on his shoulder when he tried to get up, gently pushed him back down. Michael turned to see Helga, dressed in armor, kneeling beside him. She leaned against a massive sword of fiery light that she’d driven pointfirst into the ground.

“What’s going—” he started to say, but she stopped him.

“Stop talking. We don’t have time. I pressed Kaine into killing me so I could Lift and get help. But I wasn’t fast enough. Someone’s coming for you in your Coffin—Kaine’s broken through my firewall. You have to go back, now.”

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