Michael felt like a high-level spy, ready to take on the world. And then he realized that Agent Weber and his friends were all looking at him.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just thinking.”
Weber motioned to a podium that sat directly below the flying globe of the Earth, with several chairs lined up right next to it. “Please,” she said. “My people are dealing with a lot of situations that need attention. I don’t want to take any more of their time than necessary.”
Michael stared at her in disbelief. For her to say such a thing made him wonder if she could possibly understand what was at stake. He was about to say something when Bryson went ahead and did it for him.
“A lot of situations?” he asked. “Are you kidding me? Do you—”
Sarah interrupted him. “Let’s just get started. Please?” Michael was surprised that she looked nervous.
He looked back at their audience and realized that most of the VNS agents had stopped what they were doing and turned their attention to the new arrivals. He waved feebly, feeling like the stupidest person who’d ever lived. No one waved back.
“By all means,” Agent Weber said, once again motioning to the podium. “The floor is yours. I’ll be at the controls—just link with my system if you want anything displayed on the War Board.”
“War this and War that,” Bryson murmured under his breath to Michael. “Seems kinda weird for people who’re just supposed to be monitoring the VirtNet. This place gives me the willies.”
“The willies?” Michael repeated.
Sarah had already made her way to the center of the vast room. Agent Weber matched her stride for stride. Michael grabbed Bryson by the shirt and hurried after them. The whole situation seemed a little off, but what could they expect? The entire world was a little off when a computer program tried to take over the human race.
Weber stepped up to the podium and pulled the microphone closer to her mouth, just as Michael and the other two settled in right behind her. Before she said a word, the room quieted, the murmurs of conversation cutting off instantly.
“Good afternoon,” Weber began, her voice echoing. “Thank you for gathering today, especially on such short notice. Some of you are here virtually, but I’m glad that as many of you as possible are actually present. I’ve only invited those with whom I’ve built a solid relationship of trust over many years.”
Curious, Michael scanned the room, and sure enough, he could see what he hadn’t before: about three in ten agents were holographic projections in their seats. It was hardly noticeable except for an odd glow to their faces or an occasional glitch here and there interrupting the feed.
“As we are all well aware,” Weber continued, “the VirtNet is faced with perhaps its most dangerous situation since our agency was formed nearly fifty years ago. To share a very old quote, ‘We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.’ And I wanted all of you here today so that …”
Michael tuned out, looking around the room as she droned on. Something had been bothering him, and his unease was growing. As he studied the faces of all these agents—men and women, dressed in a cornucopia of cultural attire—it suddenly hit him. Hit him hard. Something wasn’t right, and he knew why.
“Sarah,” he whispered, leaning closer to her.
She shushed him with an angry look.
Michael shook his head. He thought back to Agent Weber’s performance on the uplink they’d used in that dingy office they’d found. How she’d denied everything and then explained later, when they broke into the VNS headquarters and confronted her, that she’d had no choice, that she was worried about people within her agency who might have shady intentions.
So why, then, were they standing here, in front of everyone, being presented like winners at an awards ceremony? And what about all the warrants for their arrest? And the search for the missing Jackson Porter?
Michael had the sudden urge to grab his friends by the hands and drag them out of the room. To run while they still could. But so many people had seen them. They didn’t have a chance. Not here.
Sarah was stepping to the podium by the time he returned his attention to her. She cleared her throat and opened her NetScreen, pulling up her notes. Weber came over to stand beside Michael and, as if she’d hacked into his mind, leaned in to whisper to him.
“I’ve only brought in the ones I can completely, utterly trust. But even they don’t know everything. You’re going to have to trust me.”
She paused, scanning the room with a thoughtful expression, as if considering everything one last time. Then she spoke in a low voice, “I have a plan.”
“Well,” Michael said, “don’t you think you should’ve let Sarah in on it before you threw her to the wolves like this?” Weber shook her head ever so slightly. “These people will think their way around an ice cream cone before ever giving it a lick. Once they get far enough with whatever Sarah tells them to actually accomplish anything, the matter will probably be settled anyway. They’re essentially my backup plan.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Michael looked at her, not knowing what else to say. He had no idea if he could trust her yet, but all he could do was nod. Weber seemed satisfied, and she walked toward the back of the room, where a large systems console waited. Michael turned his attention to Sarah, who finally began speaking.
“I’m glad we—” She stopped when the microphone squawked, pushed it away a bit, then tried again. “I’m glad we have the opportunity to speak about what we’ve seen. Because my friends and I”—she turned and gestured toward Michael and Bryson—“have seen a lot. A lot of things we should all be worried about. What we’re about to tell you should be the top priority of this agency, and we need to act quickly.”
Michael almost groaned. He loved Sarah, he really did, but the faster she got to the facts, the better.
“I think all of you are far too familiar with the Tangent known as Kaine by now,” Sarah continued. “My friends and I have seen firsthand that he is self-sentient and not exactly out for the good of humankind. The complicated part of this is that unlike traditional Tangents, he seems to be everywhere at once, not just part of one specific program.