Agent Scott took a few steps toward Gabby, until he stood directly behind her. He reached down and ran a hand over the girl’s hair. Michael shivered.

“There is much you don’t understand,” the agent said. “And there are a lot of people out there who’d like to see you locked up or dead. The rules of the world are changing, Michael. I think you know that.”

Scott’s eyes flicked up then, over Michael’s shoulders. He seemed to signal someone. Michael looked back, but they were alone.

“Now we can truly get down to business,” Scott continued. “We can let it all out. You have an opportunity here. All of you. The line is being drawn. And trust me when I tell you that you’ll want to be on the side of the VNS.”

Michael slowly shook his head. “This is sad. I wouldn’t be surprised if you claimed a Tangent took over Weber’s body next. Maybe even Kaine himself.”

Scott looked at him quizzically, as if what he’d said genuinely surprised him. “Is that what you think’s happened? Do you think Agent Weber has been taken over by a Tangent, Michael?”

Michael turned to Sarah, then Bryson, and glanced over at Walter and Helga by the door to the hallway. All of them gave their own version of a shrug. He faced Scott again.

“We’re done here,” he said. “We’re not going to let the world be possessed by a bunch of coded programs. And Gabby’s coming with me. Either arrest us or don’t, but we’re finished with this conversation.”

“Wait!” Scott barked when Michael took a step toward Gabby. His voice was so loud and sharp that Michael froze.

“Please,” he said. “Just…hear me out. Or…she’ll be very upset. Please.” All of the man’s confidence had suddenly disappeared. Michael stared at him, waited to hear what he had to say.

“Kaine is trying to turn you against the VNS,” he said. “He’s off message. I mean…he was never supposed to do any of this, and he’s destroying everything!” He shouted this last part, losing his composure completely. “He wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Agent Scott was whispering now, staring off into the distance. “Kaine failed us.”

The room was quiet.

6

“What’s wrong with you?” Sarah finally asked, stepping up to stand next to Michael. “Stop talking in riddles and just tell us what’s going on.”

Scott’s eyes snapped back into focus, and he turned to look straight at Sarah. “This is between me and Michael!”

Michael took a half step backward, completely stunned. Even though it was entirely possible that this man had been taken over by the Mortality Doctrine, it shocked him to see the agent act out with such a childish temper.

“That’s enough,” Helga said. She raised her gun and aimed it at Agent Scott. Walter followed Helga’s lead. “We’re taking the girl and we’re leaving.”

“No, you’re not,” Scott replied. “You have three seconds to put those weapons down or you will all die. Right here, right now. All except Michael. Weber needs him.”

“What does that mean?” Michael asked. The situation was rapidly deteriorating, along with Michael’s patience. “Why would she need me? Why does she keep coming back to me? I don’t get it! She set us up!”

“One,” Scott said. He nodded toward Helga. “Two.”

“Put the guns down!” Michael shouted.

“Enough is enough!” his nanny responded.

“Just…just put them down for a sec.” She did as he asked but didn’t look happy about it. Michael returned his full attention to the agent. “Just let us leave. If you really think Kaine is…some villain, then that’s great. We’re on the same side.” His effort to soothe things seemed a complete waste. Scott’s eyes shone with something like madness.

“We thought we could turn things around,” the agent said, looking everywhere and nowhere at once. “But it was too late. It doesn’t matter what Kaine did or does anymore. We have to stay focused and see this through.”

“Fine!” Michael yelled. “Do what you need to, but let us go!”

“Don’t listen to him,” Scott responded, as if he hadn’t heard Michael. “Don’t listen to a word Kaine says. He’s not…he’s not…”

“This is bullcrap,” Sarah said. She marched toward Agent Scott where he stood behind Gabby, shoving past Michael on the way. She reached Gabby and pushed Scott right in the chest, causing him to stumble several steps backward. Then Sarah started working at the ropes that tied Gabby to the rickety wooden chair.

“Stop!” Scott yelled at her. Michael stared, not sure what to do.

“You really shouldn’t mess with him,” Gabby whispered to Sarah as she worked loose some of the tighter knots. One end of a rope fell to the floor with a thump. “He’s unstable. And all those people down below are dangerous.”

Michael recovered his wits and went to help Sarah. He dropped to his knees and began working on a knot around Gabby’s ankles.

“You can’t do this,” Scott said from a few feet away. “I told you to stop. Michael, stop. You’re the First, and Weber needs your help to see the plan through. I’m not a Tangent and neither is she! We’re the same as we’ve always been. We can end this. But you have to…you have to obey her!”

Michael ignored him, refusing to process another word he said. He finally got the stubborn knot loose enough to yank the rope away from Gabby’s legs. And then the world erupted around him.

A jolting concussion of noise shook the room like an explosion. Michael’s ears rang and he fell backward. He gazed up at the wooden beams stretching across the ceiling, then looked over at Agent Scott, who held a gun in his hand. There’d been a scream at some point, Michael knew that, but who was it? He searched the room until he found Sarah. She’d taken several steps away from the chair, where Gabby was now freed from her ropes.

Sarah’s hands were over her chest.

Her shirt was red.

Getting redder.

Blood seeped between her fingers, ran over them, dripped to the floor. A stain of scarlet spread across her shirt. But she was silent, as if it didn’t hurt at all, staring down at herself in disbelief.

She finally looked back up at Michael, who lay on the floor in shock, and sadness crossed her face as she fell to her knees.

***

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