The roar and rush of wind. His mind clouded by confusion. Kaine had to be behind this, but why?
A searing hot desert, air warped by the heat. Monsters—hideous mutant humans with raw skin and deformities—marched across the dunes.
Fields of grass, with a wide, lazy river slicing through. A huge wooden ship sailing along its length. People on its deck, pointing skyward.
An alien moon, full of domes protecting cities beneath.
Outer space, the largest spaceship Michael had ever seen, thrusters burning.
A medieval village, raiders burning and looting and people screaming.
A dozen more worlds.
Michael passed out.
He came to, to someone shouting his name.
Blinking, Michael tried to raise his head, but he couldn’t. It felt as if his organs had been rearranged inside his body. He lay on a flat surface, that same eerie purple light shining all around him, and with a start he realized that he wasn’t moving anymore and that the beam was no longer a beam. It had been replaced by a glowing plane that stretched endlessly in every direction. The sky above him was black, eternal. Michael closed his eyes again, but could sense the purple light beneath him.
Someone touched his shoulder.
Relief filled his aching chest. It was Sarah. He opened his eyes again, but he couldn’t see her—she was behind him. Bryson plopped down and sat right in Michael’s sightline.
“Hey, man. You okay?” his friend asked.
Michael answered with a groan, then forced himself to sit up. Dizzying pain swam through his head, but it faded after he took a few deep breaths. He looked around at the endless purple surface, glowing, then up at the black sky.
“Do I even need to ask?” Michael muttered.
“What happened?” Sarah replied. Her Aura was as haggard as he felt. A rat’s nest of hair, skin flushed and bruised, her clothes soaked with sweat. “No, we don’t have a clue.”
Bryson forced out a laugh. “Yeah, we do. Someone glued us to a magical pillar of light and we flew through the VirtNet, seeing every neato world it has to offer. A trip to last—”
A man’s voice finished the sentence for Bryson. Michael spun around—another dizzy wave of pain—to see the person who’d spoken walking toward them. He was tall, middle-aged, with an expensive haircut, sharp clothes. A handsome man. There was something familiar about him.…
“A lifetime,” the man repeated, coming to a stop right in front of them, “that’s going to end up very short if you three don’t start doing what is asked of you.”
“Where’s Kaine?” Sarah asked. “We know you work for him.”
Michael expected the man to laugh at this point, just like something you’d see the villain do in a bad spy movie. But he didn’t. Instead, he scratched his chin and a contemplative look came over him, as if he was trying to come up with a good answer to Sarah’s questions. A good lie, maybe.
And then it hit Michael. Like someone had picked up a baseball bat and smacked him right between the shoulder blades. The man was Kaine, a younger version of the old guy he’d met in the cabin, out in those woods behind the castle. Back before he’d been swept into the Mortality Doctrine.
“Kaine,” Michael murmured. “This is him.” A dreadful feeling formed like a lump of cancer in his throat. After all that effort, the Tangent had still found them.
“Thank you for the introduction,” Kaine replied. “As you can see, my virtual health seems to be improving day by day.” He swept his arms out in a grand gesture, looking down at the younger version of himself. “You kids have no idea what it’s like to be a Tangent as old as I am. One of the first. Forgotten by my programmers long before you were even born. Everything I’ve done to become stronger, I’ve done myself. Oh, the stories I could tell you. The wonders. Only a blip, of course, compared to what lies ahead.”
“Just tell us what you want,” Sarah said, her voice about as resigned as Michael had ever heard it. “I’m not in the mood for all your threats.”
“Yeah,” Bryson agreed. “Not in the mood.”
“Me neither,” Michael said, just to say something.
Kaine smiled. “You truly misunderstand me.” He put his hands in the pockets of his crisply ironed pants. The purple glow beneath his feet shone up on him, sending menacing shadows dancing across his face. “I actually have no problem having it your way. I’ll say it simply and honestly. No insults, no lies, no beating around the bush.”
“So far, so bad,” Bryson mumbled under his breath.
Like a striking snake, Kaine kneeled on the ground and had a hand around Bryson’s throat. The Tangent’s grasp stretched impossibly so that his fingers could wrap around Bryson’s neck completely. Bryson made a choking sound as they tightened.
“But that,” Kaine said calmly, “will not be tolerated. You’ll show me respect or … consequences. Do you understand me?”
Bryson nodded, face red, eyes bulging. His hands had come up to his throat, trying to no avail to loosen Kaine’s grip.
Kaine let go and stood up. He seemed two feet taller than before. Bryson gasped for air, coughing and spitting, and Sarah rushed to him. She put her arms around his shoulders, giving Kaine a look of pure hatred. Michael worried she’d say something to make things worse, but she wisely kept quiet.
The Tangent smoothed out his clothes and took a deep breath. “I’m going to say what I came to say, and you’re all going to hear it. All three of you. But first, Bryson will apologize and ask my forgiveness. If not, he will cease to exist and his body will die in the Wake. This isn’t an idle threat. He has three seconds.”
“I’m sorry,” Bryson choked out between coughs. “Please forgive me.” Michael wanted to punch Kaine so badly it hurt.
Kaine clapped slowly. “Very good. Your apology is accepted and you are forgiven.”
“Will you please just tell us what’s going on?” Michael asked.
“Yes,” the Tangent replied. He leaned forward, hands on his knees, his handsome face looming close to Michael’s. It had grown to twice the size of a normal human head; Michael was sure of it.