Michael scrambled to his feet, fighting the pain. “What…no! Bryson and Gabby are out there! I have to help!”
Helga grabbed him by the shirt with both hands and pulled him close. “We’ve got this, Michael. Sometimes you have to let go. Sometimes you have to let others share your burden. You understand me?”
He nodded weakly, but felt helpless.
“I’ve left a pathway for you.” Helga squeezed his shoulders. “Now go. Save yourself. And have faith in us—we can win, and I know how to destroy the Doctrine. Remember my little trick to get us to the Hive undetected? The build-and-destroy?” She didn’t wait for a response. She pulled her sword from the ground and leaped into the air, cutting in half two KillSims that had been diving toward them. “Go!” she yelled.
Michael focused on the Portal path provided by Helga, closed his eyes, coded, and Lifted himself to the Wake.
The hiss of the Coffin door opening. The wet tug of NerveWires retreating from his skin to their cubbyholes. The glowing blue lights, the hum of the machine, the real world expanding to life above him. The pain was there, in every part of him, but not nearly as bad as it had been in the Sleep.
A face stared down at him. Then there was a flash, a glint of light on steel.
Michael was up in a rush. He battered the arm to the side just as it came at him with the knife, then kicked out with his leg, catching the man in the face. Michael scrambled out of the Coffin, following the man’s descent, jumping on top of him, his blood pumping with adrenaline. He punched him, then saw an arm coming again, still brandishing the weapon. Michael brought his elbow up, felt the cold blade, the bright sear of pain. He swung his fist around and knocked the knife out of the man’s grip.
Run, he thought. He was done fighting. All he wanted to do was run.
Michael pushed himself to the side, tripped as the man grabbed his foot, kicked him off, scrambled to his feet, started running. He was inside that massive room, surrounded by the balconies of Coffins. He could see the doors through which he’d entered. Michael fixed on the exit and ran for it.
Then, in a blur of pain, his face cracked against hard tile. He was on the ground; his attacker had jumped on him from behind. Michael flipped onto his stomach, arching his elbow around as he did, connecting with the man’s jaw. He cried out and fell off, clutching his face, but landed a kick to Michael’s stomach as he did. Michael curled up, clutching himself, coughing. His entire body still ached from the ordeal inside the Sleep, and now a new wave of nausea broke over him. He crawled to his feet and struggled against a spinning world.
His attacker was on his feet, breathing heavily, and Michael got a good look at him for the first time. He was familiar, but before he could place him, the man charged, rage painting his face dark. Michael planted his feet. He had no time to flee, and the man slammed into him, sending them both flying to the ground again. Michael kneed him in the groin, scrambled out from under him. He stood up, stumbled away, looked back. This had to end.
Michael noticed what he hadn’t before: one of the guards who’d died earlier was slumped in a chair, blood covering his face and chest. At his feet, there was a gun. He sprinted for it. He could hear his attacker yelling like a lunatic. Michael slid toward the chair like a ballplayer for the win and grabbed the weapon, twisted around to aim.
The man pulled to a stop, eyes big, hands raised. And in an instant, a transformation came over him. His rage vanished, replaced by fear. His lips trembled and he fell to his knees.
“Don’t,” he whimpered, the most pathetic of sounds. “Don’t shoot me. I’m…This is my only hope. I’m out of options. I need this body.” He lowered his head.
Michael slowly got to his feet, keeping the gun trained on the man. And then that sense of familiarity solidified, turning into recognition.
“You visited me at the jail,” Michael said, stunned by the revelation. He couldn’t believe it hadn’t come to him sooner. “You came in there, talking about what’s real and what’s not, how we can never know. That we could Lift a thousand times—”
“And still be in the Sleep,” the man interrupted. “Yes, yes. How can we ever know? We can’t. We can only live, boy. And I want to live, more than anything else in this godforsaken universe. Please don’t take that away from me.”
“Who are you?” Michael asked, not so much a question as a demand.
The man still acted timid. “I’m the friend you’ve always had—something I guess you’ve never realized. And I’m your sworn enemy.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“It’s me, Michael. It’s Kaine.”
The world shifted at Michael’s feet. He had to steady himself. “You think I’m stupid?” he asked. But the threat was empty. He wanted to pretend that he didn’t believe him, but he did. Kaine the Tangent had stolen a body and was kneeling before him. He knew it was true.
“Don’t go judging me like you always do,” Kaine said. “This man I took wanted to end his life, had even written a suicide note! I didn’t do anything to him he didn’t want already.”
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Michael said quietly, half to himself. He stared at the floor. “I was just…”
“It’s how my plan works. Every two weeks, I downloaded the latest version of myself into this man. Just in case things didn’t quite work out in the Sleep over the last year or so. It’s my own…insurance policy. And by the looks of it, I’m thinking it was the wisest thing I’ve ever done.”
“What do you mean?” Michael asked, looking Kaine in the eye.
The man—the Tangent—shrugged, then finally lowered his hands. “I just lost all contact. With myself, my partners, my army. So I can only assume that you’ve won. I don’t know how or where or when, but it’s over. I guess that’s two weeks of memories I’ll never get back. Not that I’d want to. All my people are gone or dead, as far I can tell—you have way more supporters than I thought. The only reason I knew you were here is because I intercepted a message from…myself to…myself.”
Michael just stared at him, completely lost. He did understand, actually, but his mind felt like a big ball of hardened twine, like one length might snap and the whole thing explode in a pile of dust at any second. He kept the gun pointed at his enemy, wanting so badly to pull the trigger.
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