“Welcome to the wild blue yonder,” Helga said, stretching out her arms proudly. “My own little bit of heaven.”

“It’s real inviting,” Bryson muttered sarcastically as he looked around for somewhere to sit.

“This is just the basic interface,” Helga replied, not hiding her annoyance at Bryson’s smart comment. “Pretty much anything can happen from here. It’s my equivalent of the old entertainment centers people used to pay for in the public VirtNet houses.”

Michael felt a little sway of vertigo whenever he looked up or down, so he concentrated on Helga’s face while she spoke. Still, those swirling shapes beneath his feet created a sense of movement that made his stomach turn.

“So how does it work?” Sarah asked. “And why are we here?” Her Aura heavily resembled her real self, and her face showed that the question of what to do about her parents still weighed heavily on her mind.

Helga gathered them around her and pointed at the glass on which they stood. “Everything in this place is directly connected to my thought process, which took a long time to fine-tune. Under better circumstances, we could have a lot of fun in here, and I’d love to show it off, but for now, I just want to show you some of the things you’ve missed.”

She looked down and focused on a large rectangle of bright light, pulling it closer to the surface. It stretched until it surrounded the group of four, and when Helga tapped her foot, a moving picture appeared within the rectangle, like a WallScreen. It was an aerial view of Atlanta, and suddenly the picture was moving—zooming in closer to the city. Michael’s stomach lurched and Bryson yelped, throwing his arms out and staggering to get his balance.

Michael looked up at Helga and caught a sly smile on her face just as she spread her fingers, then threw her arms into the air. The motion brought the images up and out of the surface beneath their feet, and sent those images flying into a perfect three-dimensional rendition of the city of Atlanta around them. It was all Michael could do to keep his eyes open; the transition was so dramatic it was almost too hard to watch.

Helga, using her whole body like a remote, moved like a dancer to manipulate the imagery around them. A twirl of her fingers to spin the orientation of the city, the sweep of an arm to shift them down streets in an instant, leaning left or right to steer them. They traveled without any sensation of motion—a trick that took Michael a bit of time to get used to. Finally, though, his queasiness dissipated, and he could appreciate the incredible detail of what he was seeing. Beyond impressed, he couldn’t help but wonder, had his nanny been a closet programmer the whole time he’d known her?

Helga swept the group around a huge skyscraper, and suddenly the building to which Agent Weber had sent them with the Lance came into view. Or the remains of that building, anyway. What they saw was the aftermath of the destruction they were responsible for. Most of the structure had collapsed, and thick black smoke poured from its ruins. Crowds had gathered to witness the devastation, and police, firemen, and medical teams surrounded the perimeter.

It was all an exact re-creation of what had actually happened. Michael watched himself and his friends being dragged toward the police vehicles. His own face looked even more stunned and confused than he remembered feeling.

Michael’s breath caught when he saw Gabby, Jackson Porter’s ex-girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend? Current girlfriend? Neither sounded right. But he focused on her now, knowing what was about to happen, dreading having to see it again. The cop approached her, lifted a nightstick, swung. It hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious, and she went limp. Michael cried out in shock despite expecting the violence.

“What just happened?” Sarah shouted. She hadn’t seen the attack originally, and they’d never had a chance to discuss it.

“Why would they have done that to her?” Michael asked in a tight voice. He still didn’t understand, and he felt terrible that he’d almost forgotten about her in the last couple of days.

“Whoa,” Bryson murmured. “It’s like that cop singled her out.”

“Why?” Michael whispered, not sure to whom exactly he directed the question.

The scene below suddenly shrank away and in front of them appeared a holographic image of a woman, dressed smartly, with perfectly styled hair—an anchorperson for the NewsBops.

“Breaking news this morning,” the woman said in a lyrical British accent. “Representatives from VirtNet Security have finally gone public with their official findings from the terrorist incident one week ago. It happened at their secret mainframe facility hidden within a historical building in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States. Three teenagers, wanted for prior crimes, have been charged with the incident, having used a highly sophisticated device that set off chain reactions through the entire security system of the VNS. Charles Rooney, outside VNS headquarters, has more of the story.”

Her image dissolved into a million digital blocks and was swept away as if caught by a sudden gust of wind. A man replaced her, gray hair, mustached, his tie loosened and his face red and sweaty.

“The report came down just minutes ago directly from a VNS spokesperson,” the man said. “And all are in agreement that the news is quite shocking. VNS have hinted at significant damage from day one, but the devastation is evidently much more widespread than even the most dire predictions. Details on just how the device managed to inflict such damage are still being withheld, but it appears to have been comprehensive and quite viral in nature. As you’ll see in the following clip from the VNS press conference, the VirtNet has become a dangerous place indeed.”

It was the man’s turn to dissolve and blow away, and this time Michael took two steps backward when he saw who was on the screen.

Agent Weber.

4

She stood behind a bank of microphones, only her shoulders and face in view. She wore a tailored suit jacket, and her hair was done up in an elegant twist, and everything about the way she held herself said that there was nothing to worry about. But those dark eyes of hers gave it away to Michael. She was scared. Terrified, even. Michael still didn’t understand why she’d betrayed him, or why she’d come to visit him in the aftermath of it all, trying to smooth things over. Most importantly, he didn’t understand why she’d want to secretly ruin the VNS and the VirtNet.

But there was one thing he was sure of: he despised her.

***

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