“Look, I’m nothing anymore,” Kaine said. “Without the Mortality Doctrine, without my resources, without the support of the VNS infrastructure…I even created my own little Hive, tucked away in oblivion, and I don’t think I could find the thing if I had a hundred years to search for it. Everything in the virtual world is lost to me now. I can feel its absence.” And then, right there, at Michael’s feet, the most terrifying figure the world had ever known wept like a frightened child.

“Please,” Kaine whimpered. “Just let me live in this world. I’ll never access the Sleep. Never again. You have my word. You took away immortality. Let me have mortality. I’m begging you.”

Michael took a step forward, pointing the tip of the gun right at Kaine’s forehead. But he couldn’t do it. There was just no way he could pull that trigger. Sorrow engulfed him.

“You,” Michael whispered, trembling. “You and…Weber. I hate you. You took everything from me. My parents. My life. Sarah.”

“I’m sorry,” Kaine said. “I swear I did what I thought was—”

“Shut up,” Michael snapped. “Get up and walk out of here. Now. If I ever see your face again, you’re dead. You hear me? There won’t be a second chance. I swear it on every last person’s life that you took.”

Kaine nodded. He was a miserable, pathetic creature. As Michael turned away, he heard him run across the room and through the doors, out into the street.

Michael let him go, hoping that he didn’t come to regret it someday.


Several minutes later Michael was still standing in the same place, staring at the floor. He didn’t have the energy to move, not even to sit down. He wished his mind would turn off and give him peace.

The Coffin he’d used earlier chirped loudly across the room. He’d been sent a Bulletin message. He walked over and flipped on its NetScreen to see a simple message clearly displayed across its glowing blue surface.

A message from Helga.

It’s done.




Michael stood among friends.

Including Sarah’s parents.

“I’m sorry if I blamed you for her death,” Gerard said. He was standing with his arm wrapped tightly around his wife’s shoulders. “It was hard at first, seeing you come back safe and sound. Seeing you all over the NewsBops, being praised as a hero. I was selfish, I know. It just—” His voice hitched and tears filled his eyes. “It just hurts so much. I miss my baby girl.”

Michael’s heart ached as Sarah’s mom and dad embraced him, both of them shaking as they cried. They pulled away and took a step back.

“It’s not your fault,” her dad continued. “I know that. You’re a hero, and so was Sarah. If she had it all to do over again, I know she’d make the same choice. Every time.”

Michael could only nod, the grief too much. It probably wasn’t possible, but he sure felt like he missed her just as much as Gerard.

“We love you,” Nancy said with a sad smile. “You’ll always be like a son to us.” She paused, an uncertain look in her eyes. “Can we keep in touch?”

Michael did his best to smile. “Absolutely. You can visit me or message me….I’d like that.”

Gerard reached out and squeezed his shoulder, gave that manly nod only a dad can give to a boy in love with his daughter.

“Take care, son,” he said. “We’ll let you finish your goodbyes.”

They walked over to the side of the room, and Gabby stepped up to greet Michael.

“Hi,” she said, tears streaming down her face. It touched him. They’d grown a lot closer since the madness ended a month earlier, and he had no doubt they’d be friends for a very long time. “I can’t believe you’re leaving. It always seemed so far away.”

“Yeah.” He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. “You better come hang out with me sometimes. Feel free to bring the boyfriend around, if you have to.”

She laughed, a short burst that came through her nose. “That’s gonna be weird, huh? It doesn’t even seem possible that you two haven’t met. So weird.”

“Oh, we’ve met,” Michael said, releasing her from the hug. It had felt so good. “In more ways than one. And hey, I know you. He can’t be too much of a dirtbag if he’s your special guy.”

“Ha. Yeah.” She paused, looking him straight in the eye. “We’ll definitely come visit you. A lot. You two will like each other. And…what you’re doing for him…it’s…”

“Please,” Michael said, swatting the air with his hand. “Don’t even mention it, ever again. It’s not even a choice.”

She nodded, fresh tears springing forth. “Okay. Well, we’ll come see you really soon. Let us know where, okay?”

“For sure.”

Last but not least was Bryson. They hugged, doing the requisite pounding of the backs to make it macho.

“I love you, man,” Bryson whispered in his ear.

Michael barked out a laugh, but then Bryson squeezed him tighter. “No, I’m serious. I love you. You’re the best friend any person could ever ask for. The bravest, the craziest, the funniest, the best. You’re my best friend, always have been, always will be. And I’m going to visit your butt every single day.”

He pulled away and turned, went toward the door.

“Bryson!” Michael called.

Bryson just waved without looking, then walked through the door. It’d been abrupt, but Michael understood. It had been the perfect goodbye.

And so that was that.

Tears stinging his eyes, he went over to the open Coffin and lay down. He was fully clothed, figuring he’d spare anyone having to see him naked. The body wouldn’t be inside that long anyway.

He closed his eyes and let the NerveBox work its magic.

When those eyes opened up in an hour or so, Jackson Porter would see the real world once again. And Gabby would be right there waiting for him.


The process hurt.

It was like Squeezing through firewalls and having your brain sucked on by a KillSim at the same time. There was darkness, there was blinding light. Quiet mixed with ungodly sounds of metal screeching and nails scratching concrete. And through it all, the pain.


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