Her last word hung in the air as the lights blinked off. Helga’s voice was replaced by a flurry of whispers and shuffling feet. Sarah grabbed Michael’s hand and he reached out to clasp onto Bryson’s elbow. There wasn’t a hint of light in the room—Michael couldn’t see a thing. Even the Coffins’ glow had disappeared. They’d cut the power.

“Calm down!” Helga shouted from the blackness. “Everyone, stay where you are.”

EarCuffs clicked and NetScreens lit up, casting a green glow on everyone’s faces.

Michael could make out Sarah’s parents standing behind her and Michael. They looked even more scared than Michael felt. Gerard had his hands on Sarah’s shoulders, and Nancy had her arms wrapped around her husband.

Helga started speaking again. “Amy, Chris, go pull our friends out of the NerveBoxes. I don’t think we have any choice but to—”

Crash.

Helga never finished her sentence. A rock exploded through a window on the far end of the barracks, glass raining down on the carpeted floor. The fist-sized stone rolled to a stop in front of Michael.

Bryson leaned close to Michael to whisper in his ear. “Dude, I’m about ready to give up on these people. I think we did a lot better job of taking care of ourselves on our own.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Michael responded. “Just not really the best moment for that.”

Another rock crashed through a window, this time closer. Michael jumped, his heart almost stopping. He spun around just in time to see the last shards of glass sprinkle on the carpet around the large stone. This was followed by only a few seconds of shocked silence before yet another rock broke through a window, then another, then another. Screams filled the room as crash after crash splintered the air, stones thumping on the carpet and glass flying like crystal bugs.

Michael and his friends instinctively pulled together. Michael felt glass hit his back; a fragment pricked his neck and stuck there, stinging.

It seemed to last forever, one after another, concussions of sound like a series of thunder strikes. Michael had to press back the certainty that at any moment the world would blow up around him, sending them to oblivion.

Then, suddenly, it stopped. The silence was so stark, Michael worried for a moment he’d lost his hearing. Gradually he could make out breathing, the occasional high tinkle of a shard of glass falling out of the window frame to the ground. Still, no one spoke.

A flash of movement at the nearest window caught Michael’s attention, immediately followed by the distinct giggles of a little girl. Walter raised his gun and started toward the window, but Helga stopped him.

“Remember what they hold over us,” she said to him. “You start firing that gun and they blow us up. We’re out of options, my friend. Except…”

More movement outside, more laughter, both boys and girls, from the sound of it. Something about these people was really starting to sicken Michael. He didn’t care what kind of Tangents had taken over their bodies; they were still children, running around in harm’s way. Could the adults be using them as bait? It was so confusing, he almost wished he were back in that prison cell.

Finally, Helga’s last comment caught up with him. Except…except what? Her people were looking at her with varying expressions of shock. It seemed something was going on here that Michael and his friends didn’t understand.

“You can’t be serious,” Walter said after a long silence.

“You can’t be serious to question me,” Helga countered. “We’re completely out of options. Do you think they’re going to let us walk out of here?”

“But it’s against everything our alliance stands for.” The eerie laughing hadn’t stopped, filtering in through the windows like something from a haunted orphanage.

A man’s voice suddenly thundered at them.

“Your hour is up! We want your leader to come outside with her hands in the air or we’ll detonate. We see one sign of a weapon and it’s all over.”

Michael thought it sounded like Trae—it was the same lilting accent. Maybe this was a chance to surrender and leave. He looked at Helga, whose eyes made it clear that she didn’t agree.

“We have no choice,” she said, sounding tired. “We have to give them the true death.”

CHAPTER 5

BEDTIME STORIES

1

“I’m coming!” Helga called back. “I won’t have a weapon, and you’ll want to hear what I have to say. We have something that could be very valuable to you.”

Michael turned to his friends and shot them a questioning look. They clearly didn’t know any more than he did. The green glow of the NetScreens around the room shone in their eyes, lighting them up like orbs of kryptonite.

“Enough talk!” Trae yelled back. “You have three seconds to get out here.”

Helga quickly walked to the door, opened it, and stepped outside. Walter twitched with an obvious desire to follow her, but held his place. He had a murderous, angry expression on his face.

“Let’s check it out,” Bryson whispered. He nodded to a window and gestured to Michael and Sarah to follow.

The glass crunched beneath their shoes as they crept up to it. Bryson swiped away the few jagged pieces of glass remaining in the frame and knelt down. Michael got to his knees on Bryson’s left and Sarah crouched to his right. Michael hoped the darkness would hide them from whoever was outside.

“An empty threat.” It was Trae speaking to Helga, shining a flashlight right in her face. They were surrounded by a group of five or six, all with their own flashlights pointed toward the ground. “You do realize we’re Tangents—we weren’t programmed to be idiots.”

Helga raised her hands above her head. “Well, you’ve got us cornered, and there’s too much at stake. If you don’t believe me, then I’ll prove just how high those stakes are. And if you decide to jump the gun and blow us to bits, then the message has already been sent. You’ll all die. Forever.”

Michael couldn’t make out much about the people standing behind their leader. He could make out Janey, though, and judging by their size, there were other children in the group as well. One boy looked to be as young as eight or nine.

Several moments passed in silence as the bearded man thought.

“What do you think she’s talking about?” Sarah whispered. “What message? How could she kill them?”

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