“We haven’t…killed anyone,” the tall woman finally clarified. Her stance had grown formal again, her expression no longer tender. But Michael could see a deep sadness in those eyes. “Not the true death, anyway.”

“The true death?” Sarah repeated, shooting a wary look at Michael. He suddenly felt like the ground below him was shifting.

“Please,” the woman said, clearly frustrated by her audience’s turn. “Let’s just sit down and talk through it all, okay? Please.” She motioned toward a circle of chairs set up near the glowing Coffins.

Michael looked at Bryson and Sarah and shrugged, then started for the chairs, the words true death ringing in his ears.

4

“Let’s start at the beginning,” the tall woman said once they’d all taken a seat. “You need to know that I am who I say I am before you can trust me.” Helga gave the group a moment to get settled, then turned to Michael directly, looking into his eyes as she spoke. “I was your nanny, Helga. I am Helga. A part of me suspected that we might be Tangents, but you were real to me, Michael. Apart from everything Kaine has done, I think there were many of us who’d taken the leap to sentience—which slows down the Decay process significantly. I know you and I had taken that leap.” She’d begun to stare off into space, as if lost in a desert of old thoughts, then came back just as fast, waving it all away. “My point: you have been and always will be like a son to me. But let me prove it to you.”

Michael furrowed his brow, looking long and hard at her, as he thought through his options. The woman sat forward, leaning toward him, arms resting on her knees, hands clasped. She seemed genuine, her gaze intense and full of pain. The rest of the room was quiet as he focused all his attention on this woman. Helga. His future hung in the balance.

“Okay,” he said, trying to think clearly. “What was my favorite breakfast?”

“Wait a minute,” Bryson said just as their host opened her mouth to speak. “This isn’t going to prove a thing.” He turned to face Michael. “If your nanny was a Tangent, then Kaine could easily know every single detail about your life. An instant download, boom. Or worse, he could’ve programmed her! This is pointless.”

“You’re not helping,” Michael replied. His friend was right, and it was as frustrating as ever.

“No, he’s right,” the woman replied, standing up. “Not about Kaine—but about it being impossible for me to convince you beyond a doubt that I’m Helga. I could talk all day about how you love to eat waffles for breakfast and how when you were barely five years old you begged me to let you read that Stephen King novel and I made you stick to Judy Blume. Or about your broken leg when you were seven, or how many times I caught you trying to sneak into your dad’s Coffin before you were legal. How many nights I brought you cheese and crackers while you studied the coding logs on your NetScreen in bed, or how we worked frantically to clean up after the infamous Sleepover Party Incident before your parents got home from that business trip.”

She paused, a warm smile spread across her face, and Michael could do nothing but stare at her, slack-jawed.

“I could go on and on and on,” she continued. “But you’d never fully be convinced. Neither would your friends. I’m a piece of code, Michael. Nothing more. No one understands the pain of that more than I do, trust me. I’m not sure I know how to completely gain your trust.”

“Sheesh, I didn’t mean to insult everybody,” Bryson said sheepishly, looking down at the floor.

Michael realized that he himself was trembling, emotion welling up in his chest. Bryson had made an excellent point, and they couldn’t afford to ignore its implications. But at some point, Michael had to let himself trust again. Something. Someone. And if he had a truth radar, it was pinging like never before.

“It’s you,” he whispered.

No one responded. Maybe they hadn’t heard him.

“It’s you,” he said louder.

And then he ran to her and hugged her before anyone could see the tears spill from his eyes.

CHAPTER 2

A CIRCLE OF HANDS

1

“It is me,” Helga whispered in his ear, patting him on the back. “I promise you. We’re going to get through the madness together.”

It had been a long time since Michael had felt anything like this—and it all crashed down on him at once. Happiness, sadness, nostalgia. He cried into his nanny’s shoulder as he remembered the parents he’d lost, the home he’d lost, the life he’d lost. He had his two best friends, but Helga was the only link to the world he’d known without them. And he’d been sure she was gone forever.

There were questions, yes. Concerns. But in that moment all he could feel was the sweet, burning warmth in his chest.

Finally, Helga gently took him by his shoulders and held him away from her. He was relieved to see that she had shed a tear or two as well.

“I might’ve convinced you,” she said through a weak smile, “but not them.” She nodded toward the others.

Totally embarrassed, Michael composed himself, wiped the tears from his cheeks. Then he turned to face his friends.

“It’s her,” he said with all the force he could muster after making such a scene. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know it’s her.”

Surprisingly, it was Sarah who showed the most doubt. “Well, you’re going to have to figure out a way to explain it, Michael. We can’t just hand our lives over to this lady. What she did…stealing a body…it’s no better than what Kaine’s doing.”

The last word had barely come out of her mouth before the rest of the group erupted into chatter, talking on top of talking, until Michael shouted for them to shut up.

“Listen to me!” he said, looking straight at his friends and Sarah’s parents. “You don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a Tangent. We might be a bunch of code to you guys, but I can’t accept that. There’s more to us. I know it. I’m a person, I have a mind, I can think for myself, and I don’t care what anyone else says. I mean, I could just as easily be programmed as Helga. At some point you have to go with your heart! My parents were real, as far as I’m concerned, until Kaine wiped them out. And Helga…she’s like a grandma to me. This is Helga. I know it.”

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