“What if it’s a trap?” she asked, her last-ditch effort. “How do we even know it’s her?”

“I have faith in my danglers.”

“Huh?”

Michael let out a sigh. “Fine, it might be a trap. Which makes it a good thing we have three cars full of people and weapons. Or…like I said, we could split up so we don’t risk missing the fancy World Summit.”

Helga just slowly shook her head at him, defeat and anger in her eyes. “I miss the days when you were little and I could send you to your room without supper.” She leaned over the front seat and tapped Walter on the shoulder. “Don’t turn off the freeway at the airport exit.” She looked back at Michael with a disapproving glare. “We’re going to keep heading south for a while.”

2

They left the city far behind and entered a long stretch of flat land. Fields spread toward the horizon, broken only by the angular lines of barns and farmhouses, the curved towers of silos reaching toward the sky like castle turrets. Michael didn’t recognize most of the crops, but the grand rows of corn took his breath away. Something about those crowded rows of tall stalks haunted him. Who knew what hid within?

Helga served as the official navigator, relaying directions up to Walter. The coordinates Gabby had provided eventually led them to a dirt road that sliced a field of corn right down the middle. Walter turned onto the path, sending up clouds of dust behind him, and Michael was glad their SUV was in front so he could clearly see where they were going. They drove for at least a mile, until finally they reached a clearing—a wide expanse of yellowed lawn, half-crumbled barns, and a huge farmhouse. A lone car—a small red hatchback—was parked by the porch.

“Stop!” Helga yelled.

Walter slammed on the brakes, throwing everyone forward against their seat belts. Michael heard the other two cars skid to a stop behind them.

“I thought it was still a few miles away,” Walter said, his voice tense.

“This has to be it,” Helga replied, looking down at the coordinates Michael had sent her back in Atlanta. “But the satellite pics don’t show another house for at least ten miles.”

Sarah leaned over Michael to see the images. She’d been quiet the entire drive, making him wonder again whether she was jealous. The truth was, he had no romantic interest in Gabby. All he wanted to do was to salvage one of the many things he’d royally screwed up in this world.

“Places out in the country like this aren’t always exact with GPS,” Sarah said. “If this is it, at least we know there’s no army waiting for us. We’re winning, three cars to one.”

Those were more words than she’d spoken in the last two hours. Michael appreciated her being positive.

“I almost wish we were surrounded by soldiers or cops or goons totin’ guns right now,” Bryson said. “At least then we’d know what we’re up against. This place gives me the creeps.”

So much for the positive vibes, Michael thought. He sure hoped he hadn’t just wasted several hours of time the Alliance didn’t have. The place was a little spooky.

“I’m not sure I share your wish,” Sarah replied to Bryson, heavy on the sarcasm. “I vote for not being surrounded by people who wanna kill us. That’s just me.”

“There’s only the one car,” Michael said. “And it’s a farm in the middle of nowhere.”

Helga opened her door. “I’m not taking any chances. There might be an entire military base hidden underground.”

Michael loved Helga. He really did.

“Everyone grab a gun,” she said. “Let’s check it out.”

3

The yellowed grass crunched under Michael’s feet with every step. He had a pistol this time, a semiautomatic, fully loaded. He gripped it as expertly as any marksman. It felt like second nature after all the years of gaming. He didn’t mind taking precautions, but he hoped no one got trigger-happy and shot Gabby by accident.

He studied the house as they crept closer, half expecting a window to explode at any moment, gunfire raining down on them. But nothing stirred, not even the tattered curtains he glimpsed through the grimy glass.

The house had seen better days, that was for sure.

Tall and wide, with a steeply pitched roof and gables, it had a wraparound porch that reminded Michael of a game he used to play that took place on a plantation. It screamed iced tea and rocking chairs. But the porch was empty, and the house was a lot older than the one in the game. Shingles were missing from the roof, and the paint was flaking. The few places where it wasn’t peeling, it had faded to something like pale yellow. The only real sign of life was that the parched grass on which they walked had been cut recently.

Michael and the group stopped a few yards from the porch steps and waited for the Tangents from the other two cars to join them.

“Walter,” Helga said, “you and me, front door. Amy, you and Chris go around back. Tony and DeeAnn, watch the windows on the side of the house. Michael, you and your friends watch those windows on the second floor—the gables. Holler if you see a fly twitch.”

Michael knew she was protecting him, but this wasn’t the time to argue. He had no problem hanging back. This wasn’t a game. He just hoped they’d be back on the road in the next few minutes, with Gabby on board.

“Okay,” he said, but Helga and the others were already on the move, creeping ahead like trained soldiers. Soon Helga and Walter were up the creaky porch stairs and positioned on either side of the front door. They glanced at each other; then Helga reached out, twisted the handle of the door. It swung open with a haunted-house shriek.

She and Walter slipped inside.

4

A minute passed. Two. Michael stood breathless, straining to hear what was going on. Nothing moved behind the windows he’d been tasked with watching, and he could tell that his friends were getting just as antsy as he was.

“Nobody’s in there,” he whispered. He almost dropped his gun to his side in defeat but knew not to be that stupid. “We came all the way out here for—”

“Michael!”

Helga. Shouting his name from inside. Everything else flew from his mind and he was on the move, sprinting toward the steps, taking them all at once, flashing through the still-open door. The front hall was empty, as were the two rooms he could see to either side, all wood and antiques and crooked pictures on the walls. This place was like something from an old flat-film, no sign of even a simple WallScreen.

***

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