She was older, maybe sixty, dark hair streaked with gray. She was slightly plump, wearing a blouse and skirt, her legs crossed primly at the ankles.

And Michael had no doubt that she’d been staring at him for as long as he’d been looking out the window. Watching him.

He felt a chill.

His gaze flickered back to the woman every few seconds, waiting to catch her staring again. But she didn’t return the look, not once, removing any doubt he might have had that the woman had been casually watching him. No person would naturally resist at least a cursory glance when being stared at. There could be other reasons why a creepy woman had been observing a kid, but only one seemed likely to Michael in this case.


Did the Tangent already have spies trailing him, watching him? Could Kaine really be that all-knowing? Michael had been good at deception in his old life, and he thought he’d covered his bases pretty well in escaping and creating a new identity.

But this was Kaine. Kaine was better at everything. He’d figured out how to put an artificial intelligence into a real human body, for crying out loud. Which made Michael wonder once again if the Tangent had triggered the Mortality Doctrine for himself.

Kaine might very well be a human now, running around in some stranger’s body. Michael had to stop himself. If he was the guinea pig in this whole experiment, surely Kaine had a while to go before he risked the transformation himself. Then again, would Kaine even want that for himself? As a Tangent, theoretically, you could be immortal, living forever in code. As a human, you’d risk death every day. What was Kaine’s ultimate goal?

Michael’s vision had blurred as his thoughts raced. He shook his head and focused on the woman again. This time she was staring right back at him and didn’t bother to lower her gaze.

Michael flinched, but he didn’t break eye contact. Nor did she. Teenage boy and grandma: staring contest. Her heavily made-up face was unsettling, her expression blank—no hint of a smile, but no anger or animosity, either. She looked at him, and he looked back.

Finally, the woman lowered her eyes and squeezed her EarCuff, cutting off the NetScreen projection in front of her. She gathered a couple of things from under her seat, then calmly stood up and turned to walk down the aisle in the opposite direction from Michael. He watched as, without so much as a glance back, she moved farther away. A surge of panic struck him—he had to know who this lady was, and his chance to find out was about to disappear into the next car of the train.

He got up and followed her down the aisle.

He had to pause a couple of times, turning his body and leaning against the seats to allow other passengers to get by. He saw the woman step through the door onto the next train car, still not looking back, not even a glimpse out of the corner of her eye. He quickened his pace, almost knocking over an old man who grumbled something about “kids with bad parents.”

He caught the glaring eye of more than one passenger who’d noticed his rudeness. He didn’t care. With every passing moment his sense of urgency increased, his heart pumping rapidly. He had to know who that stranger was.

He made it to the door just as it opened again. Three women passed, gossiping about the latest NetVoyeur show. They were all bright lipstick and big hair, and he had to resist the urge to push them out of his way. He shuffled past them, onto the next train car, caught a glimpse of the older woman, almost at the opposite end now. There weren’t many people standing, so he picked up his pace again, moving through the aisle as if he were being chased. An attendant halfheartedly yelled at him to slow down, but Michael ignored him.

He made it to the next door, opened it, hurried through. The woman had sped up, too, but she was only halfway across the train car. Michael moved, figuring he’d catch up to her just as she reached the next door. And then he’d grab her arm and ask her nicely but firmly to tell him what was going on. Why she’d been watching him.

Before he could get to her, though, she stopped in front of the door and spun around to face him, her expression completely blank. It was unnerving, how calm she appeared after how fast she’d been moving. Michael stopped in his tracks. The woman raised a pale arm and held up three fingers.

She thrust her arm out in several short, quick jerks, emphasizing the number three to him, keeping an impossibly vapid expression the entire time.

Then, abruptly, she turned and walked through the door into the next train car.


Three what?

Michael went after her.

The next car wasn’t for passengers; it was some kind of storage area. There were two emergency exits, with first-aid equipment, fire extinguishers, and blankets bundled and tied down on metal shelves that lined one of the walls. The woman had stopped in the middle of the car, her back to Michael, her head hanging as if she were staring at the floor. For some reason the sight reminded him of a zombie game he used to love, Undead and Unfed. He half expected her to turn around and shuffle toward him, a raving, hungry monster, her face covered with blood and gore. But she didn’t move at all. Goose bumps prickled the back of Michael’s neck.

He cleared his throat, refusing to admit that he was scared of an old woman.

“Who are you?” he asked, glad his voice was steady when it came out.

She didn’t answer. Or move. She remained frozen, her back to Michael.

“Why were you watching me? And what do you mean by—”

He stopped speaking as she raised an arm, slowly, once again showing three fingers, stiff and trembling. She stopped only when her arm was all the way up, like a child wanting to ask a question in class.

Michael stared at her back, her three fingers raised in the air. He searched for words.

“What does the number three have to do with me? Who are you?” His voice might not have been so steady this time.

The woman slowly turned, her movements sluggish. It was as if she’d used every last ounce of energy she had trying to get away from Michael. Her head still hung low until her body fully faced him; then she looked up to meet his eyes, arm still high overhead.

“Just tell me what’s going on,” Michael said, frustrated at the game of charades.

“Three,” she whispered. He wouldn’t have been able to make out the word if he hadn’t read her lips. “I’m one of you. Three.”

“Three what?” he pleaded. “Were you a Tangent, too? Can we sit down and talk about this? Please.”