He didn’t know what to do. A chill ran across his shoulders and he shivered. He glanced behind him to see if they could be looking at something else, but there was nothing unusual—just the restaurant. He turned back toward the car. Still they stared.

The door to the restaurant jangled and Bryson and Sarah came out, laughing about something. Michael saw them out of the corner of his eye, and he suddenly felt sheepish, like he’d been caught doing something wrong.

“Man,” Bryson said, swatting Michael on the back. “Some dude had a major disagreement with his fried chicken. Held up the bathroom for a solid ten minutes. I’ve been in porta-potties that smelled better.”

Sarah laughed again, and the sound made Michael feel better. Safer, actually.

“You all right?” she asked. But even as the words came out of her mouth, she noticed what held his attention. “What in the world?” she whispered.

“Who are they?” Bryson asked. The car still sat there, windows down, the three people staring at Michael, frozen in place.

“I have no idea,” he answered. But he did know.

Sarah wrapped her arm around his, as if protecting him. “They’re probably just Tangents who think you’re famous. The First.” She said that last word like a curse. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

Michael shook his head, then found a spark of courage. He stepped forward and walked toward the car. The movement seemed to snap the strangers out of their hypnotic state, and as the windows began to go up, Michael caught a spark of terror in the driver’s eyes before the glass sealed between them.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Who are you? What do you want?”

The engine of the car revved and it lurched into motion, the tires squealing as it sped off. Horns blared out on the street as the car swerved into traffic and disappeared.

CHAPTER 8

SEARCH AND RESCUE

1

Gabby finally responded.

Michael heard from her when they were just a few minutes from the airport. He’d been silent, thinking about those unsettling people staring at him from the car. He had no doubt that they were Tangents, but a part of him hoped it had been a random sighting and wasn’t an omen of something worse to come.

When Helga announced that they were almost there, Michael decided to check his NetScreen one last time and see if Gabby had responded to one of his many danglers. As soon as the screen winked on, he saw that she had. And her response was short and simple:

Jackson. Michael. Whoever you are. They chased me but i got away. I’m at my grandparents’ old farmhouse, south of Atlanta. Safe for now. But i’m alone and scared. Coordinates attached if you’d like to visit and talk. If not, i understand.

Michael bolted up straight in his seat. The others could tell something was wrong right away.

Sarah was already reading over his shoulder. “Oh, man,” she whispered. Her tone made it plain that Gabby wasn’t high on her priority list. “Well, at least she said she’s safe.”

“We have to go get her,” Michael said. “Somebody chased her! I knew something was strange about how that cop walked right over to her. Whoever framed us hadn’t planned on Jackson Porter’s girlfriend getting involved and wanted her out of the picture. It’s my fault.” He leaned back into the seat and let out an anguished sigh. “She deserves to be with us—to have the protection of the Alliance.”

“Michael—” Helga began, and he knew exactly what she was going to say.

“I know,” he said, cutting her off. “The World Summit. But it’s still three days away. And look, this farmhouse of Gabby’s is only a couple of hours from the airport. She is from Atlanta, after all.” He pointed at his screen, where he’d pulled up the coordinates and a map. “If we hurry, we can get her and she can come with us.”

Bryson was leaning over Sarah to get a look. “How much you wanna bet Agent Weber is the one who hassled the poor kid? The VNS’s fingerprints are on everything. One of these days we need to get Weber locked in a room with some nice torture devices. I’m ready to go medieval on her.”

“We can’t go, Michael,” Helga said. “We can’t risk spending time on one person when the whole world is on the verge of collapse. We have to get into that summit and figure out a way to make people listen.”

Michael clicked off his NetScreen, rubbed his eyes. “She deserves to be with us, not alone.”

“Then we can get her after we get back from D.C.,” Helga insisted.

“No!” Michael shouted, surprising even himself. “You don’t get it. I stole Jackson Porter’s body! His parents are probably insane with worry by now. And then I made his girlfriend help us get into the VNS’s headquarters, and she’s probably got a fractured skull because of it. Now she’s alone, hiding in some creepy farmhouse. I have to help her!”

Sarah had been leaning into him, her hand on his leg, but she pulled away and folded her arms. Was she jealous? The thought made him want to punch the roof of the car. Nothing had ever sounded stupider.

No one responded to his tirade.

“Listen,” Michael said, forcing himself to speak more calmly. “We have weapons. We have three cars full of people. A little detour will be fine.”

Helga just sighed and shook her head.

“I’m with Michael on this one,” Bryson said. “Helping Gabby is good. But she might have also learned something valuable. Look, we don’t know jack squat. We need answers. What good does it do if we sneak into that summit and say, ‘Cheerio, mates! Tangents are taking over you blokes!’ They’ll look back at us and say, ‘Duh.’ ”

Michael wanted to hug Bryson right then, even though his British accent was awful. “She’s a human being. We owe her.”

Helga wasn’t giving in. “One human. There are eight billion on the planet. We have to weigh our priorities.”

It took all of Michael’s willpower to keep his temper under control. “Fine, then we’ll split up. One or two of you can go with me. The rest of you go to D.C. I’ll find you when I’m done.”

Helga recoiled from him, as if he’d slapped her, and Michael knew he’d played his cards right. There was no way she’d let him run off to rescue Gabby without her.

“Come on, Helga,” he said. “I’m only one human. Kind of. Let me risk myself, and you guys go save the other billions.” He refused to give up. He was going to get Gabby, end of story.

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