“Everybody, huh? What about the people you stole that flesh and bone from?”
Trae shrugged. “They’re safe enough. Happy enough. They’ll take their turn living in the Sleep for a bit, then maybe have another chance someday.”
Michael’s mouth dropped open, but he didn’t know what to say at first. “A…another chance? What do you mean?”
“Michael!” Walter, this time, not sounding very happy. And definitely closer.
“Word on the street,” Trae said, acting as if he hadn’t heard the shout, “or should I say, word in the woods…word is that you’ve seen the Hive.”
Michael couldn’t believe it. “How do you know that?” Realizing his mistake, he added, “If I even did.”
Trae let out a genuine chuckle. “We have our ways, as they say. And we know that you’ve seen the Hive. You know how it works. The true death only comes to a few, so what you’re fighting against is nothing for you to worry about.”
“But you said you don’t work for Kaine anymore,” Michael countered urgently. He knew Bryson would be on him any second. “Why are you against us? What’s going on?”
Trae fixed Michael in his gaze. “Kaine has his own agenda. And one thing’s for sure—” The footsteps were nearing, crashing through the bushes, snapping twigs and pine straw, and the Tangent stopped, looked past Michael for the source of the noise.
“What’s that?” Michael pressed. “What’s for sure?”
Trae leaned a little closer to Michael. “Kaine’s a lot smarter than those who slapped his code together, and his vision for the future is…dangerous. As for you, well. Like Janey told you, you’re either for us or against us. And by my reckoning, you have about twenty minutes to decide. How could you possibly want to work for Kaine anymore?”
“I don’t….I never have!” Michael said under his breath. “But I certainly won’t work for Weber, either.” He took a chance throwing the VNS agent’s name out there.
Trae didn’t respond. Instead he looked at his watch. Time was ticking.
“What’ll you do to us?” Michael asked weakly.
Trae nodded back in the direction of the barracks. “There’s a lot more of us than there are of you. I’ll just say that. And nothing, lad—and I truly mean nothing—is going to get in our way. We don’t like what’s going on with the Tangents in those barracks, and we aim to stop it. Go back now. And I suggest you all accept our demands when the times comes.”
He spun to see Bryson standing just a few feet away, between two large pine trees. When Michael turned back toward Trae, the man was gone.
“Did you see him?” Michael asked.
“See who?” Bryson replied.
Michael sighed. “Never mind. Did you find anything?”
“No, I’ve been looking for you the whole time. Walter called for you but kept going—he said he had his own job to do. What happened? Who did you see?”
Michael collapsed against the tree behind him and slid down to the ground. “Just some guy. Said a bunch of stuff that makes about as much sense as everything else we’ve been told. I think Weber is behind these people somehow, which doesn’t explain much. And it almost seems worse than Kaine leading them.”
“Dude,” Bryson said, somehow making it sound like a reprimand.
Michael groaned and got to his feet. It felt like he weighed a thousand pounds. “We need to go back. And then I think we need to leave. Something really bad is about to go down around here.”
Night began to fall, enveloping the grounds around the barracks in darkness. The dying glow of the setting sun would be gone within minutes. Michael and Bryson made it out of the woods without incident and saw that most of the others had returned already. Their figures, hooded in shadows, were grouped together behind the cars.
“Michael, come here!”
It was Walter. He stood up from his defensive crouch and motioned for Michael to join them.
“Where’d you go?” the man asked.
Michael didn’t know how much to share of what he’d learned. Bryson was quicker on his feet, thankfully.
“Find anything?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah,” the man answered vaguely. He was clearly angry he’d lost the boys. “Both of you are lucky you didn’t have your throats slit out there.”
“Amy’s back,” someone whispered from the group by the cars.
“Inside,” Walter commanded, glaring at Michael. The dusky light only made the command feel more menacing. Michael looked at Bryson and nodded. They should head back—Janey’s deadline was only a few minutes away.
Michael straggled behind the remaining group as they returned to the bunker. He was last to enter the building and could feel the nervous energy the moment he stepped inside. Everyone was on their feet, surrounding Helga. Walter went straight to her to give his recap of what they’d found in the woods. Michael hung back—he wished he’d had more time with the man named Trae.
“Not much good news,” Helga announced to the room. “Walter spotted a group of twenty. Armed. Only a few were children, despite what that little ghost of a girl claimed. Amy and Chris saw others lurking behind trees.”
She paused, seemingly searching for how to finish.
“Richard found some wire, followed it to the base of the barracks. Looks like there’s enough explosives packed around the edges to blow us to the moon. I don’t know when they set them, but we’re in a heap of trouble. And I’m afraid that if we try to leave, they’ll detonate.”
“Can’t we just cut the wires or something?” Sarah’s mom asked. “Doesn’t anyone know how to disconnect them? Disarm them? Whatever?”
“Bad idea,” Walter answered. “If we don’t know what we’re working with, it could all go off in our faces.”
The room fell silent. Michael folded his arms and tried to think. The thing that bothered him most was that these people said they didn’t work for Kaine anymore. And if Michael had learned anything from gaming, it was that if you wanted to win a war, you had to know who the enemy was.
Helga let out a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry to say it, but—”
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