“The true death,” Bryson answered. “Something’s going on that we don’t know about.”

“Obviously,” Michael replied. He didn’t mean to sound rude; he was in total agreement as to how clueless they were.


A girl’s face had appeared on the other side of the window, and Michael nearly jumped out of his pants. Bryson yelled and fell backward, knocking Sarah to the floor. Michael froze. Those dark eyes and that pale face. She giggled hysterically, then vanished again. Michael sucked in a breath of air.

“Quiet!” Trae screamed outside. “Tina, get away from there. Now!”

“Sorry, boss.” There was another giggle; then Michael saw the girl run off into the woods. Bryson and Sarah came back to crouch next to Michael.

“I was just trying to protect you,” Bryson said to Sarah. “She could’ve had a gun, you know.”

Sarah rolled her eyes and settled back into her place at the window. Helga was still outside, and they didn’t want to miss any of what happened.

“I call your bluff,” Trae said. “You’re not going to surrender, and I don’t have any more time to waste.” He turned back to face his people. “Kill them,” he said in an eerily calm voice. “Every one of them. I’ve had enough of this.”

“Now!” Helga yelled.

Suddenly a woman standing next to Trae slumped over and collapsed to the ground, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. She lay splayed out, arms and legs in an unnatural position. Her face was mostly hidden in shadow, but Michael could see her eyes had rolled back in her head, the whites shining in the dark.

Trae was at her side in an instant, feeling for her pulse. He didn’t need to say anything—his body language showed it all.

She was dead.


Michael’s breath caught in his chest, and the next couple of seconds seemed to stretch out forever. The group outside stared at their friend in shock, and then, as one, looked up at Helga. Trae bolted to his feet and whipped out a knife, pressed it to Helga’s neck.

“What did you do?” he bellowed. Spit flew as he yelled. “Tell me what you did or I’ll make sure each and every one of your pathetic friends dies a long and painful death!”

Helga was the picture of serenity. “Killing me or anyone else in my group will only make it worse. One of you will die every thirty seconds until you leave. And this order to my friends in the Sleep will stand until we leave. If you set off the explosives, you will receive the true death. If anything happens to us, same. Now leave.”

Trae stumbled backward a couple of steps, his hand dropping to his side. “You…you…”

Michael couldn’t believe this was the same man who’d been so terrifying just moments ago. “What did she do?” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” Sarah answered, “but it sure seems to be working.”

Helga still hadn’t moved, but she seemed a few inches taller. And Trae looked stunned. He stared at Helga, fear transforming his face.

“We swore to never do this,” he said weakly. “We swore.”

“We?” Helga asked. “Who is this ‘we’? We have nothing to do with you. We are trying to save the world from what you’ve done. You signed up for this, so don’t blame it on us. Leave, now. I’m done talking to you.”

She turned away, pausing to show she didn’t fear having her back to him, then calmly walked back into the barracks, closing the door behind her. Michael kept his gaze fixed on Trae. Some of his people had gathered around him, were whispering furiously. If he noticed them, he didn’t show it, because his eyes were glued to the door through which Helga had disappeared.

Someone tapped Michael on the shoulder and he jumped. It was his nanny.

“What’s happening?” Helga asked.

Before Michael could answer, a scream came from outside. He spun to see a girl—one of the youngest he’d seen—sprawled at Trae’s feet. A woman knelt panting by her side, as if she’d carried the lifeless child there to her leader.

“Dead,” the woman proclaimed to no one in particular. “She fell to the ground right next to me.”

Helga’s voice boomed from behind Michael. “And every thirty seconds there’ll be another! Leave! Now!”

Trae finally snapped out of his daze. “I swear on my maker that you’ll regret this, Tangent,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. Then he turned from the barracks. Michael expected him to command his people to leave. But instead he just slowly walked away, the others who’d come with him following. Michael watched as they vanished into the trees like wispy ghosts.

“We better have a meeting,” Helga said, suddenly not sounding so confident. “There’s going to be hell to pay.”


They met in a room at the far end of the barracks, an old office with a desk and chairs. There was a cot in the corner, and Michael wondered if this was Helga’s private quarters.

“Sit,” the woman said as she took the chair behind the large wooden desk. Michael, his friends, Sarah’s parents, Walter, and the woman named Amy had been invited into the room. Everyone sat down except Walter, who stood behind them all with arms folded. “I know you’re upset,” Helga said to him. “Which is why I owe you an explanation. And, Michael, all of you deserve to know what happened as well.”

“You got that right,” Walter said. It seemed to Michael like he might say more, but he went silent.

Helga sighed. “Only two of them died.”

That was enough to set Walter off again. “Only two? Only two. I think you mean four. You gave the true death to two people, so two humans and two Tangents. Four beings who will never exist again. Without consulting any of us, you decided to go against every principle we agreed to when we joined you. And you’re supposed to be our leader!”

Helga stood up and slammed her hand on the table. “Yes! I’m your leader! And I did what I had to do! A lot more people would’ve died if I hadn’t done that—you know it, Walter!”

“We could’ve fought them,” the man countered. “We could’ve stood our ground and fought. Or we could’ve surrendered and started over. Or tried negotiating more. Anything but resorting to the one thing we’re trying to prevent!”


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