“Snakes,” Sarah whispered, as if in a trance. “I bet that place is full of snakes.”

Michael refused to let his newfound enthusiasm be dimmed. His curiosity more than made up for the dilapidated appearance of…whatever the place was. “So, you haven’t been here before, right?” he asked Gerard, then tried a new tack. “Where’d you meet Helga and the others? How’d you know where to find us, how to get here?”

Nancy turned to face him. “Not a lot to tell, I’m afraid. My guess is you three probably know more than we do. These…Tangents—that’s what they called themselves—barged into that horrible warehouse our kidnappers took us to, released us, gave us this car, gave us instructions. Everything happened in a whirlwind. We didn’t have much choice but to trust them. I mean, look, it meant getting to you kids and getting out of there.”

Michael could’ve responded in a lot of ways to that one. Trusting others was something he’d never find easy again. At the moment, it was just about staying alive, and he had to admit that this did seem to be their best option.

And there was Helga. He had to meet this Helga.

The road leveled out, cutting off their view, and suddenly they were pulling into the overgrown complex of barracks. What Michael had been unable to see earlier were the dozen or so cars parked under the shade of several big trees. The cars were beat up. They looked so old that, if it weren’t for the complete lack of kudzu on their surface, one would think they’d been there as long as the buildings themselves.

Gerard had barely pulled to a stop when a tall woman appeared at a door of one of the buildings. She wore dusty jeans, boots, and a black sweatshirt, and her sandy blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She walked confidently toward them, her face twisted into a scowl.

“That’s her,” Gerard whispered as he rolled down the window.

Michael didn’t recognize her, and his heart fell even though he’d have no reason to know what Helga looked like in the Wake.

She leaned in the driver’s-side window, resting on her forearms, and peered inside at each of the occupants. She nodded back toward the building from which she’d come.

“Let’s get you inside,” she said, her accent far from the German that Michael realized he’d been expecting, “before the world falls apart.”

Then she turned and headed back toward the barracks.

3

“Today, dude, today.” It was a bad time for Bryson to take a year and a half to get out of the car. Michael had never been so impatient in his life. He had to find out the truth about this Helga and the people she was with. They could help him get back to the Hallowed Ravine.

“I’m coming, man, chill!” Bryson responded. But he still hadn’t moved. He gave Michael a hard look. “Are we sure about this?”

“Yes,” Michael and Sarah answered at the same time. Sarah’s parents were already out of the car, closing their doors.

“Would you go so far as to say…you’re sure as heckfire?” Bryson pressed. “My grandma used to say that. If you say you’re sure as heckfire, then I’m in.”

Michael willed himself to calm down. “Yes. I’m sure as heckfire.”

“Okay, then.” Bryson climbed out of the backseat, Michael half pushing his friend to get him out faster. Sarah got out on the other side, and the group followed her father up a trampled path of weeds to the door, which stood ajar. Gerard didn’t hesitate. He walked right in. Michael and his friends followed.

The tall woman who’d greeted them was waiting for them, but that wasn’t what got Michael’s attention.

When his eyes adjusted to the light, he was shocked by what he saw. It was as if he’d stepped into a completely different world. The beat-up, weathered building housed a technological wonderland. Low-glare LED lights lined the ceiling, illuminating the green haze of dozens of NetScreens. A row of blue Coffins lined one wall; a row of desks lined another, men and women working furiously at them. Fresh lumber had been used to reinforce the walls and ceiling, and Michael noticed that they’d used some sort of plastic to patch the various holes in the roof.

Their host’s voice cut through Michael’s daze, breaking the silence. “We had to find a location that was remote—”

“Mission accomplished,” Bryson muttered.

“—and yet had a power source and access to the satellite VirtNet feeds. This is an old training facility for army tech warriors, abandoned a decade ago due to budget cuts. Turns out it worked perfectly for our needs. Took a couple of weeks to set up, but here we are. Already down to business.”

Michael had a million questions, but one stood out above all others.

He faced the tall woman and took a step closer to her, looking into her eyes carefully. “Gerard said you told him your name was Helga. And that you’re a Tangent. Does…” He had no idea how to phrase what he wanted to ask.

Michael was surprised to see tears glistening in her eyes, blurring the reflections of the lights in the room. “Yes,” she said. Then she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him into a crushing hug. “So you must be Michael, then. My boy.”

Michael’s eyes widened and it took him a moment to return the embrace. “You’re…Helga? Really? But how?” She’d quickly come to accept him in his new body, but he didn’t know if he could do the same.

She pulled back from him, her eyes fierce despite being wet. “There’s a lot to tell. A lot to catch up on. In brief, we’ve been on Kaine’s trail since even before you crossed paths with him. We stole the Mortality Doctrine program from him. Copied a version of it, anyway. We had to do it, Michael. We had to come here into the real world if we ever wanted to save the virtual one.”

The carsick feeling washed over Michael again. “Wait…you…stole people’s bodies?” He took a step backward. “You…How do I even know you’re really Helga? How can I trust any of you? At all?”

The woman who claimed to be his old nanny smiled kindly. “Good questions, all,” she said. “And I’ll answer each and every one. I think it will be easy enough to prove who I am. I’ll answer something only you know….”

She paused, carefully looking over Michael’s group. It was obvious they were as concerned as he was. They’d committed themselves to stopping this sort of thing. And yet their rescuers were no better than Kaine, apparently.

***

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