“Whoa, there! We’ll never make it to the airport if you crumple us in a ditch,” Helga scolded Walter.
“You said you were in a hurry,” their driver grumbled. He obviously hadn’t forgiven Helga for inflicting the true death on two Tangents—and two humans—yet.
“Airport?” Sarah repeated. “I thought you said flying wasn’t safe right now.”
“Don’t worry. We have a private plane,” Helga answered. “I didn’t just randomly download my people into whoever happened to be walking by on the street. We have connections.”
“Nice,” Bryson said.
“So you were saying?” Sarah prodded.
Helga went on. “There’s a World Summit in London three days from now. It was called by the Union of Earth to discuss all the things I showed you. A lot of important people will be there. And I assume they’ll be arriving very soon. We’ll be going virtually—from a small embassy in Washington, D.C., that we’ve almost completely infiltrated. I’m eager to get there as quickly as possible so we can maneuver ourselves in.”
“Let me guess,” Bryson said. “More human bodies taken over?”
Helga grimaced. “None that we haven’t made the same promise for as the others: to bring them back.” She winced again, and Michael felt sorry that she had to bear so much guilt. “Anyway. It’s a very small embassy—Latvia—which will help us keep a low profile. We should have enough credentials to get ourselves into the meeting virtually. But it won’t be easy. We need to get there ASAP to make preparations.”
They went on talking for a while, but Michael tuned out. He laid his head back and closed his eyes, trying to sort through his many thoughts. He kept coming back to Gabby. He’d felt bad about her from the beginning because she seemed to genuinely, and deeply, care for Jackson Porter. How ridiculously unfair to feel close to someone like that and then have them literally swap their mind with a stranger’s.
And just like with his other friends, he’d dragged her into the whole mess. He had to know if she was okay. It might seem like a small thing to a lot of people, but it was something he could hold on to, like the Hallowed Ravine. Another specific goal.
His eyes snapped open.
“Hey, guys,” he said. The others quieted, turned their attention to him. “I have a request and it’s nonnegotiable. I really mean it. There’s something I have to do, and if I have to branch out on my own to do it, I will.”
“How about you tell us what it is before you make a bunch of lame threats,” Bryson responded. “When’s the last time we said no to you about anything?”
“Sorry,” Michael said a little sheepishly. “It’s more for you, Helga. You’re not going to like this.”
“What is it?” his nanny asked, eyebrows raised.
Michael let out the breath he’d been holding. “I know we’ve got some really important things to take care of, but we need to find Gabby and make sure she’s okay. Based on how everything’s been going, I have a really strong feeling that she’s not.”
A few hours later, they were well out of the mountains and on a freeway heading toward Atlanta, where Helga said they had an airplane waiting to take them north to D.C., the location of the Latvian embassy.
Throughout the entire drive, he’d tried and tried to make a connection with Gabby. He sent out dangler messages for her in several places, but she still hadn’t responded. The universal Net signal had been spotty up in the mountains, so at first he was hoping that had been the problem. But now that they were back in civilization, he was beginning to worry. All he could think of was that cop hitting Gabby with the nightstick. If she was dead…
He barely knew the girl. But he felt a debt to Jackson Porter. It was bad enough that he’d stolen the guy’s body. If he’d caused Jackson’s girlfriend to die as well, Michael didn’t know if he could handle the guilt.
“Anyone else starving?” Bryson asked. No one had spoken in at least an hour, and it snapped Michael out of his dark cloud. He’d long ago put away his NetScreen, and now realized he was hungry.
“I am,” Sarah replied.
Michael nodded absently.
“Find us a restaurant,” Helga said to Walter up in the front seat. “Preferably one with fried chicken.”
Michael laughed, the most random laugh that had ever escaped him. Maybe he was going cuckoo from the stress.
“You have a problem with fried chicken?” Helga asked him.
“Not at all. I’m just in a weird mood.”
Sarah squeezed his leg, then took his hand. “I’m sure it’s nothing that a good bucket of greasy heart-attack food won’t cure.”
Michael stood outside the restaurant, taking long, deep breaths to calm his nerves while he waited for the others to use the bathroom. He’d barely spoken while they ate—chicken had been an excellent choice—he was just too wired thinking about Gabby, Kaine, the VNS, and how in the world he and his friends were supposed to make a difference at the World Summit. What he would give for a switch that could turn off his brain for a while.
A car was passing him in the parking lot, one of those new, fancy things with only three wheels. It had barely gone by when it slammed on its brakes, the back end swerving around until it came to a stop sideways. Michael took a step back, nervous. There were three people inside, but the sun reflecting off the windows prevented him from getting a good look at them.
The car sat there, its engine still running with a high-pitched whine of electricity. Michael turned back to the restaurant to see if any of his friends were coming out, but there was no sign of them. The line for the bathroom had been long—it was a popular place for travelers, and they’d hit it right at the peak of lunch hour. He looked back at the car again; nothing had changed.
Michael tried not to stare, but things were feeling weirder by the second. Had the driver had a heart attack or something? Done in by one too many grease-soaked drumsticks? The other two people in the car weren’t moving, either. Were they okay? Their heads were warped shadows behind the sparkling windows, totally still.
He almost jumped when all three windows started to go down. A man was driving, young and alive, and two women sat in the back. They looked to be about the same age as the driver, one blond and one brunette. All three of them stared at Michael, expressionless, their eyes glued to him.
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