Michael didn’t know what to think of that news. Was it good or bad?

“Then who is it?” he asked. “Who’s in charge?”

“I’d rather not say,” Janey replied, “but I believe she’s a friend of yours.”

Weber, Michael thought immediately. It had to be. What in the world was going on?

Helga had finally had enough. She grabbed Janey by the shoulders and forcefully turned her around, motioning for Walter to open the door. “Time for you to go now,” she announced.

Janey wrenched free of Helga’s grip and faced Michael.

“You’re right,” she said. “There’s been more than enough talk for one day. No more. So here’s the deal: we’ll give you one hour to make your decision. It’s your choice, Michael. Either you leave this place and join us, or you—all of you—will face the consequences. It’s like the old saying—”

Helga grabbed Janey again, was pulling her away as she struggled to get out her last few words.

“—you’re either with us or against us!” she yelled.

Helga pushed the girl outside and Walter slammed the door.

2

Michael and the others gathered again at the circle of chairs, a heavy mood hanging over them. No one had spoken much, and Michael felt as confused as he ever had. At least before this girl had shown up, they’d clearly known who they were up against: Kaine. Although Michael put Agent Weber right up there with the Tangent.

“Obviously, she could be lying,” Bryson said. “For all we know, she’s some crazy inbred chick from the backwoods.”

“Oh, come on,” Sarah countered. “How would she have known all that stuff about Kaine and the First? She knew Michael’s name!”

Bryson nodded. “I know. Okay. A crazy inbred chick taken over by a Tangent, then.”

Sarah groaned; Michael wished she wouldn’t take out her frustration on Bryson all the time.

“Look,” Bryson said, “I’m just saying there’s absolutely no reason for us to trust a word that comes out of her mouth. Maybe she’s really Kaine and he’s messing with us, trying to make us chase our own tails.”

“Or,” Michael offered, “Weber’s doing it.”

Helga spoke up. “All that matters right now is figuring out the immediate threat. We might have a bunch of gun-toting children hiding in the woods out there, ready to make us their very own VirtGame.”

“Okay, so what do we do?” Michael asked.

“We need to know exactly what we’re up against,” Walter replied. He turned to the three closest people. “Chris, Amy, Richard, grab your weapons and let’s go have a look.”

As they prepped themselves, Michael stepped closer to Helga.

“I want to go with them,” he whispered to her.

She patted him on the head. Actually patted him on the head. “Nice try, Michael. No.”

“I can’t stay in here,” he said, angrily brushing his hair as if she’d messed it up.

Helga pointed at him. “I didn’t risk the true death and break every moral law in the universe by stealing someone else’s body just to have you go out there and get killed by a demon child possessed by one of Kaine’s programs. No way. End of discussion.”

Michael changed tack and gently touched her arm, flashing big, sad eyes. “Helga, please.”

It was something he’d learned to do as a young boy when he wanted something, and it worked—further proof she was really his beloved Helga. Her expression softened.

“Michael, why?” she asked quietly.

“I need to do something. I’ll go crazy if I stay here waiting. And I really don’t think they’ll hurt me. Judging from how that Janey girl acted and how others have treated me, it’s like I’m a god to them. It could give us an advantage until we know more.” He paused, giving his nanny the saddest eyes he could muster. “Please let me go.”

Helga let out a frustrated sigh. “You’ve been stubborn since the day you were born.” They exchanged a look, and then they both laughed, a welcome change of pace. “I guess they programmed you that way!”

“Guess so.” Michael shrugged.

“Do you have any idea how to use a gun?” He opened his mouth to answer, but Helga held up a hand to stop him. “Never mind. Dumbest question I could ask a boy who’s conquered every game on the planet. Walter! Michael and I are heading out, too.”

“You know you’re not leaving us in here, right?” Sarah asked.

Michael looked at Helga, who rolled her eyes.

“Fine,” she said. “Grab a weapon and let’s get out of here. And no killing any children unless you absolutely have to! For a nanny, I sure am sick of kids.”

Michael couldn’t tell if she was joking.

3

Michael held a long, heavy rifle. It was the worst thing ever for slinking around in the woods. He figured Helga thought if she’d given him the semiautomatic handgun he had wanted, he’d just blast away at the first thing he saw. He was crouched behind the very car in which he’d driven to the abandoned barracks with Sarah’s parents. It was because of them that Sarah wasn’t there at his side. She’d argued relentlessly, but her mom finally quieted her by saying, “If you’ve ever loved me, then you will not go out there and risk your life again.”

It was impossible to argue with, and Michael was glad Helga didn’t use a similar line on him.

“All right,” Walter whispered. He and Bryson were with Michael behind the car; the others had slipped around the back of the building to check things on that side. “We’ll do a zigzag sweep, starting here and heading out that way”—he pointed toward the woods—“and see if we come across anyone hiding.”

“Shouldn’t we split up?” Bryson asked. “We could cover way more ground.”

“Helga swore to give me the true death if I let you two boys out of my sight,” he replied. “After she cut off all my special parts.”

“Ouch,” Bryson whispered. “She’s one tough nanny.”

“What is the true death?” Michael asked, ignoring his friend. “No one ever told us in there.”

“Really?” Walter responded. “Right now?”

Michael shrugged.

***

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