Walter gunned it and they drove off, Michael wondering to whom and for what exactly he was sorry.

To everyone, he thought. For everything.

CHAPTER 10

LEADERS OF NATIONS

1

Not much happened the rest of that afternoon and evening, which allowed Michael to nap on one of the beds in the adjoining hotel rooms they checked into. Bryson sat on the bed next to him, mostly staring absently into space. Michael knew his friend felt just as much pain at losing Sarah as he did, and probably the same guilt at not being able to make the other feel better. But at least they were together.

The most important thing I do now is put an end to this Tangent craziness, Michael told himself. The Hallowed Ravine. Somehow it all goes back to the Hallowed Ravine.

Helga and the others were busy, doing what, Michael didn’t know. He couldn’t bring himself to ask. Tomorrow, he kept telling himself. He’d be rested and rejuvenated, ready to kick some butt.

At some point that night, between fitful dozes, he realized he couldn’t stand the silence anymore and spoke to Bryson.

“You awake?” Michael turned and looked at his friend, lying on top of the covers of the other bed.

“Yep.”

“How’s it hangin’?” Michael asked him, the words coming out a bit croaky. “Besides the obvious.”

Bryson answered after a heavy sigh. “Besides the obvious, I’m doing downright swell. Quite lovely, old chap.” He mocked a British accent again there at the end, doing a crap-poor job of it.

“I think that’s more, like, Australian,” Michael said. “Maybe drunk Australian.”

Bryson sat up and yawned. “I was going more for Madagascarian.”

“I’m sure that’s a thing.”

“It’s a thing.”

They stared at each other, then burst into one of those hysterical late-night laughing fits that couldn’t possibly happen during the light of day. It was a start.

“I keep picturing her parents,” Bryson said several minutes later, after they’d sobered up. “I almost feel worse for them than I do for Sarah herself. I mean, can you imagine telling them? I gotta be honest, I hope I never see them again. I can’t do it. It’s gonna kill ’em.”

Michael knew that was totally selfish. And yet he felt exactly the same way.

“They’ll blame us,” he said. “And they’ll be right.”

Bryson shook his head. “Nah, man. Come on, we’ve got plenty to beat ourselves up about. And plenty to cry about. Now we need to focus on moving forward. We’re the good guys, and we could’ve given up a long time ago. Anyone who thinks differently can kiss my big white butt.”

“Amen,” Michael said. “And that’ll be punishment enough. Where’s Gabby?”

“She’s in another room, sleeping, I’d guess. She’s really feeling stupid about the whole thing. I had a talk with her, though. Honestly, man, I think she’s okay. She didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. They made all kinds of threats.”

Michael shrugged. “Yeah, I figured. I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I’m just glad she’s alive.”

Bryson didn’t answer, and the silence felt heavy.

Michael finally changed the subject. “I’m so thirsty I can feel my tongue cracking into dust. I’m going to get a drink out of the vending machine.” He got up from the bed and rubbed his eyes, let out a big yawn. “You want something?”

“Whiskey?”

Michael just stared at him. “How about a nice cold cola?”

“That’ll do.”

As Michael opened the door to the hallway, he could see Helga, Walter, Amy, and a few others huddled over a NetScreen in the adjoining room. They evidently had no interest in sleep. He thought about speaking to them, but he just wasn’t in the mood for that yet. He slipped out and quietly closed the door behind him.

2

There was a snack nook about halfway down the hallway, and he stopped there, glad that no one else was around. He’d had enough of other people. Every time he ran into someone new, his mind jumped to the same conclusion—Tangent, Tangent, Tangent. Only he couldn’t tell whether they worshipped him or wanted him dead.

His credit chip worked fine on the vending machines, producing the same drink he’d created at the streetside shop earlier. He also bought some regular old potato chips and a couple of water tubes. Then he got a cola for Bryson. He was just taking that last item out of the dispenser when he heard the creak of hinges: a door was opening out in the hallway. He waited for the inevitable clunk of the door closing again, but it never came. The hall was silent.

Gathering his things in the crook of his arm, Michael left the snack nook and immediately saw the door he’d heard open a few moments earlier. It was still ajar, and an older woman was standing there, staring right at him. She didn’t look angry, but she didn’t look particularly happy to see him, either.

“Hi,” Michael said, feeling as if he were swimming in a pool of awkward. “Cannnnnn I help you? Want something to eat?”

“No. Thank you.” She spoke in a sweet old-lady voice, then closed the door, the hard thump echoing down the hallway.

Michael stood and watched the door for a minute, wondering if she’d open it again. There were billions of people in the world. Surely the Tangents couldn’t follow him along each phase of his journey.

Yeah, right, he thought. Like anything would ever surprise him again.

He sighed and started walking back to his room, passing the lady’s room on his way. He slowed and tried to look in the peephole as he passed—it seemed much darker than the others. He imagined her aging eye on the other side, watching his every step through her cataract. He told himself that all old ladies did that sort of thing. They assumed every teenage kid they ever saw was one candy-rush away from murdering every senior citizen in sight.

It could be a coincidence, he thought. All these people watching him. It could be his imagination, or just paranoia from all he’d gone through. People had an instinct to observe those around them. Didn’t they? A pair of eyes on him didn’t mean a Tangent spy for Kaine every single time. They might just be normal people wondering if they’d seen him before, somewhere on the NewsBops.

Making light of things, he realized, was an excellent way to get himself killed. He picked up his pace and hurried for his room.

***

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