“GET TO THE GROUND,” HARRIS yelled over the gunfire.
Joey reactively went to the ground, looking up at the ceiling and the guns mounted to it. They rotated and shot out with rapid fire. A bullet whizzed by his head. Each shot flashed, causing a strobe light effect. The stop-motion horror film played out as Joey, paralyzed with fear, covered his head and waited for the bullets to shred his body.
Then silence. He looked up. In the dark room, he saw the two barrels glowing red as they rotated. A zombie moaned and moved on the floor. A gun moved and fired a single shot into its head.
Joey breathed and searched in the darkness for his friends. “Lights, Harris,” Joey said.
Two lights from Harris and Julie lit the room.
“What the freak was that?” Lucas pointed to the ceiling and the still glowing guns. “Where did you bring us?”
“Somewhere that could take care of our unwanted guests. I don’t think you’d want one of those loose on your planet,” Harris said, pointing to the ceiling. “We found a way to install those outside of the transport dome. They are a defensive measure, in case we get unwanted visitors.”
Lucas nudged a zombie with his foot.
Joey rushed past the bodies scattered around the room, searching for Hank. He had been right there, before the machine guns started.
“Anyone see Hank?” Joey asked, trying to catch his breathe.
“Over here,” Hank said and pushed a zombie body off him.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Hank said, getting to his feet. He pinched his shirt, keeping the soaking, bloody material away from his body.
Joey scanned for each of his friend’s faces and each of them looked around the room at the dead bodies scattered around. Joey looked at the ceiling to make sure the hole was gone.
“Oh crap.” Hank held up his arm, and in the dark, Joey saw the red streaks of blood running down his arm. “One of them scratched me.”
“If you’re scratched, you should be okay,” Harris said, holding his Panavice in his direction.
“If he’s bitten?” Poly asked. She held a throwing knife in each hand and glared at the zombies lying on the floor in front of her. She favored one leg as she stepped toward Hank.
“Well, let’s hope he’s not,” Harris said.
In the dim light, he saw Hank’s arm had several marks on it but he couldn’t be sure if they were scratches or bites.
“How do you feel, Hank?” Joey asked.
“Okay.” He shrugged, but he looked anything but okay. His hair was slick and matted with zombie goo, and his hand shook as he held his scratched arm.
“You okay, Poly?”
Poly limped over to Joey and wrapped her arms around him, burying her head against his chest. “Just tell me we’re never going back there,” her words wobbled.
“Can we get out of this freaking zombie coffin?” Lucas asked.
Harris stepped over bodies to get to the door. He turned on his heel to face them. “I have to warn you,” he said. “Behind this door is help for the wounded, but also a world you won’t be familiar with.” He paused. “While there aren’t many people here, they may be strange to you and I ask you keep an open mind. Everyone is here to help you and you should treat them as such.”
“Can it get any stranger?” Lucas used both arms to point at the floor of bodies surrounding him.
“I guess not.” Harris opened the steel door. Artificial light flooded the dome and illuminated the motionless zombies. Julie gasped and moved toward the door, holding her hand over her face.
Joey ushered Poly to the door. “One step closer,” she said when they reached the door.
She looked up and made eye contact with him and he held it. She gave him a weak smile. He tried to turn up the sides of his mouth, but he couldn’t find the joy. His stomach felt queasy. He needed to get out of the dome. Poly stepped through the door first.
He held his ribs and stepped past the steel door, pulling the door closed behind him. The lights muted the gray walls of the hallway. It was clear they were in another world, a clean one, free of the horrible smells and cannibals—hopefully one without zombies, as well.
At the end of the hallway were three women dressed in tight, shiny, white suits. Each donning a symbol of an oak tree on her chest, and had a thin, metal table levitating in front of them. One walked toward him and the floating gurney lowered next to him. She motioned for him to get on it. He stepped back from the floating table. There was no way it could hold his weight.
“No, take the others first. I can walk,” he said.
“Aren’t you the noble one?” she said with a smile.
Poly waved away the table as well, and then helped Julie on one. Lucas pushed Hank aside and jumped on the floating table, lying on his back. He waved at the woman next to his table. Hank sat on the edge of his table and the table bent up, forming a chair.
The women in white pushed them down the hallway. Lucas smiled at the women. They smiled back, but didn’t say anything. A light flickered above and reflected off their high-gloss outfits.
“What is this place?” Joey asked.
“This is Haven 14,” Harris said.
The vague answer annoyed Joey, but they stopped at a pair of doors. The double doors swung open and everyone walked into the room.
Joey smelled a hint of ozone. White, sterile-looking machines lined the white walls. Large lights dangled over some of the machines, giving off bright light. A woman in an all-white outfit, and an oak tree on her chest, stood in the center of the room holding a thin screen in her hands. Pens and thin metal objects stuck out of her pockets.
“Hello, I’m Doctor Almadon. I understand some of you have sustained injuries. Let’s take a look at you, young man. What’s your name?”
“Joey. But please, take care of the others. They’re hurt worse.”
Almadon raised an eyebrow. “Let’s leave that for me to decide, young man.” She motioned with one finger for him to come forward.
Joey looked to Hank, who shrugged. He took three steps. She peered over him while pulling a screen down next to his body. Almadon slid her fingers over the screen. He couldn’t decide what felt more violating, the machine or Almadon’s penetrating gaze. He leaned forward to peek at the screen.
“Stay still,” she said. “You fractured three ribs, Joey. Nurse, can you please take him to the Makings?”
The nurse nodded and took Joey by the hand. He looked at her hand on his as she led him toward an adjacent room. He stopped at the metal door and looked back at his friends. Poly stood in front of the scanner as Almadon pointed at her leg.
The nurse let go of his hand and pushed open the door. “Please, step into the room.” She motioned with her hands.
A stainless steel coffin sat in the middle of the room with light bars around it like a tanning booth. He looked to the nurse and she gave him a reassuring smile. What wasn’t as reassuring was the size of the tiny room, which was not much bigger than the table itself.
“Please, lie down on the Makings,” she said.
His ribs had hurt when he landed on the floor of the Alius stone room—pain had shot through his body. He rubbed them, touching the tender parts and feeling the dull pain. His whole chest and back started to ache—each deep breath jolted pains along his ribs.
“This thing safe?” he asked.
“You’ll be fine.” She smiled and nudged him toward the table.
The climb into the Makings, as she called it, took a few grunts and a couple groans. But he made it and let the nurse position his body as she saw fit. He tensed up as she pulled the top side of the bed overhead. A crack of light peeked between the two.
“You may feel some tingling inside. It’s the bones resetting and healing. Try not to move.” The nurse left the room.
Joey wanted to jump off the Making machine and be out of the confined space in which she placed him. He moved his foot to get out, but the bars in the table lit with blue light. The tingling sensation started in his chest and spread through his whole torso. A warm, electric feeling, deep in his chest, radiated out. He struggled to stay still.
He closed his eyes, concentrating on a boat ride he had with Samantha over the summer. She had worn her red bikini; the mist from the boats wake sprayed into the air, misting her body before evaporating away. It was the day she lost her earrings.
“Ok, all done,” the nurse said from a speaker in the room.
The door lifted and she peeked her head in. “All done.”
Confused, he stared at her while propping himself into a sitting position. He held his ribs and winced at the expected pain, but it wasn’t there. He touched his side and pushed. They were fine.
“The body can be easy to heal. The mind is more difficult,” the nurse said tapping on her temple.
He stumbled out of the room.
“You okay?” Poly asked, standing in line for the Making with the rest of his friends.
“Yeah . . . I feel good,” he said, rubbing his ribs. He looked around the room. “Where’s Harris?”
“He had other matters to attend to,” Almadon spoke up.
“Where are we? Not this room, but where are we?” Julie said, standing in line, looking around the room.
“I think you better ask Compry. She’ll be here as soon as you’re all healed.”
She tried to get Almadon to talk more, but she just smiled and gave polite responses.
Joey paced near the door as each of his friends came out of the Makings room, completely healed. Hank, the last one done, walked out of the room confidently walking on his right leg.
“It really worked,” he said, dumbfounded. Even the scratches on his arm were thin red lines now.
“Told ya. Thing’s freaking incredible,” Lucas said.
The double doors swung open and a person came into the hospital room. Almadon rose from her chair and nodded to her. She wore black, sleek clothes, and commanded the room with an air of confidence. Lucas’s attention swiftly stayed on the beautiful woman as her gaze swept over them. She didn’t look much older than Almadon, maybe late twenties but they each held such wisdom in their eyes. He felt as if they were his senior by a much longer time.
“Hello, all. I’m Compry.” She strutted across the room and stopped in front of Almadon. “Harris wants them all vaccinated.”
Almadon raised an eyebrow and paused for a second. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll get the vaccines ready right now. Oh, and make sure you tell him to get back down here so I can fix that hole in his gut.”
“He also got hit in the shoulder . . . with an arrow,” Lucas said and adjusted his bow over his shoulder as he looked at the floor.
The doc opened a cabinet and pulled out a black box, setting it on a steel table. “Okay, everyone form a line here.” She pointed to the ground next to her.
Joey walked over first, frowning at the black box on the table. Almadon pulled out a black gun with a black handle and glass barrel. His mind felt so frazzled, he didn’t think to question anything. He would have normally said something about being stuck with a needle, but at that point, he obliged to whatever command given; shuffling around like a herded cow.
“Stay still, this goes in your neck.” Almadon placed a vile in the barrel and brought it up against his neck.
He heard the shot, like air released from a tire, and felt the pinch. It didn’t hurt as much as it felt weird—like something cold wiggling under his skin. Joey rubbed his neck and walked away.
“Next,” Almadon said.
“What’s this vaccinating against?” Julie asked.
“We have different diseases. This will protect you from those.”
Julie narrowed her eyes but stepped forward. Joey felt dumb for not asking what they stuck in his neck. He felt the injection site and the small lump it left.
The rest took their shots without argument.
“Come with me,” Compry ordered and marched out the door.
Joey ran to keep up with her, as she turned left down the hallway. He glanced back to make sure each of his friends were with him. Lucas jogged up to him and nudged his elbow, nodding his head at Compry, and stared at her backside. Joey sighed and rolled his eyes. Lucas continued to ogle—the guy had no shame.
Compry stopped at a pair of doors. They slid open and she stepped into an elevator. Julie nudged up between Lucas and Compry as they entered the elevator.
“Where are we going?” Julie asked.
“To your quarters.” Compry pushed the B23 button on the elevator.
They moved downward and then stopped. Out of the elevator was another hallway with gray walls. Doors with nametags lined the passage.
“You’ve been assigned rooms. Hank and Lucas here. Julie and Poly here. Joey, you are here. There are fresh clothes and linens on the beds. Please get cleaned up. If there is something else you need, let us know.” Compry turned on the last part of the sentence and started speed walking down the hallway.
“Um, yeah. I do need something else.” Lucas held one hand in the air, as if he was in school.
She stopped her quick pace and turned to face Lucas. “Yes?”
He lowered his hand. “Is anyone going to tell us what’s going on here, or where we even are?”
Compry took a few steps toward Lucas and then regarded all of them with a concerned expression. “I’ll let Harris explain everything to you. Now, it looks like you kids have been through some bad stuff, and I think it’s best if you get cleaned up. Everything’s in your rooms.” She regarded Hank and his zombie blood soaked clothes. “There is an incinerator in the room as well, right next to the hamper. Use it.”
“When’s Harris coming?” Julie asked.
“He’ll be back soon. Now go on.” She pointed to the rooms. “Get going.” Compry turned and strode down the hallway and into the elevator.
Joey dragged his feet to his door, staring at his nametag. He felt the grime on his shirts and the oil in his hair. Was that blood? He smelled his shoulder and winced.
“Let’s get cleaned up and meet in the hallway in thirty minutes,” he recommended.
The others nodded and disappeared into their rooms.
Staring at his door, Joey searched for a handle of some sort. His fingertip touched the door and it slid open, revealing a small room with a bed and a tiny kitchen in the back. Another door led to a bathroom with a shower.
He stepped inside the room, and the door slid closed behind him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and felt the velvet box in his pocket. Was she okay? It had only been a few days since he’d given her the present. The memory of them on the balcony seemed a lifetime ago.
He let go of the box.
Fresh clothes draped off the edge of the bed with a note on top.
Please place soiled clothes into laundry cabinet
He turned around to the cabinet on the wall marked Laundry. He emptied his pockets, placed the velvet box on the nightstand, and his guns and holsters on the bed. He peeled off the rest of his clothes and placed them in the plastic box in the laundry closet. A red button blinked on the face of the laundry closet door. He pressed it and it changed to a green light. It hummed from behind the door. He gathered the new clothes and headed to the shower.
After a few minutes of staring at the control panel in the shower, he figured out the digital screen and the small metal pipes coming out of the walls dispensing soap and shampoo.
HAPPY TO BE IN CLEAN clothes, he strapped his guns back on. The laundry drawer dinged and a green light blinked above. He opened the door to the laundry closet. Steam and the smell of soap puffed from the cabinet. Yanking the jacket out, he inspected it. It appeared clean . . . clean enough, anyway. He closed the door and put on his jacket to cover the guns. He grabbed the velvet box off the nightstand, stuffed it into his pocket and went into the hallway to meet his friends.
Poly stood in the hallway. She smiled when she saw him exit. He couldn’t help but notice her black outfit. It was similar to his, but she wore it well—nothing like the black dress though.
“What did you think of the showers?” she said, feeling her hair. “The auto dry was amazing.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t really get it going,” he admitted. He’d given up trying to figure out the menu and dried off with a towel. “How you doing?” He pointed at her leg.
“All better now,” she said and kicked the air.
“She’s fine. She found some kind of computer in there. So, she’s basically in heaven.”
“We should go check on Hank and Lucas.” He knocked on their door.
Hank opened it and had on a similar outfit to his. “Joey.” His face lit up. “How are the ribs?”
“Good, how about you guys?”
Lucas came to the door. “My leg feels good,” he said. “But we should be talking about the real hero here,” he thumped Hank hard on the back.
The big guy looked at the floor. “It was nothing.”
“Breaking through that floor and taking on those zombies . . . that wasn’t nothing,” Joey pointed out.
“Yeah, thank goodness you have the massive amount of weight it took to break through concrete.” Lucas swiped his forehead.
“Strength. It’s called strength.” Hank stretched out his arms and flexed.
“Or sheer mass. . . .” Lucas pushed his point.
“Yeah, well, we wouldn’t be here if he didn’t have mass or strength,” Joey added.
“Speaking of here, where the heck are we?” Lucas asked.
Joey looked to the ceiling. “Must be some kind of bunker.”
Julie, who must have heard the talking, came out of her room. She still wore the clothes she arrived in. “I’ve been reading about this place on their computer. This is an old complex, discovered and dug up partially, until some war happened. Harris is the one who found it and now he’s rebuilding it as a base of operations.”
“Yeah, but where is here?” Lucas asked.
“We’re basically at their south pole. I believe there’s miles of ice above us.” Julie looked at the ceiling.
“South pole?” Joey swallowed and looked up again. He felt heavier, the miles of ice pushing down on his shoulders. He controlled the expression on his face, keeping a calm appearance. He didn’t want the others seeing him freak out.
“Okay great, so we’re at some secret south pole base with a group of rebels,” Lucas said, throwing up is arms.
“I don’t know if we’re rebels. . . .” Harris interjected, coming up behind them. “You all should be getting something to eat and then catching some sleep. You’re going to need it for tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Joey’s eyes widened and his thoughts went wild with anger. He wanted to get home now. He didn’t want to wait another day to see if Samantha was okay.
“We’ve been fighting the man who’s hunting you for a long time. We’ve lost great people along the way.” Harris shook his head and looked at the floor. “As long as he’s around, you won’t be safe. What you guys did back in the basement of that casino was pretty impressive for people your age, but you need training.”
“Training, but what about going back home? We need to see if Samantha and our parents are okay,” Julie said.
She had taken the words out of Joey’s mouth. He didn’t care about training.
Harris frowned. “That zombie-filled room will take days to clear out and days more to sanitize. If your planet was exposed to one drop of blood, we could have another Ryjack.”
Joey felt a twitch in his eye as he struggled with a valid argument, but failed. “I want to know the second it’s cleaned out.”
“Of course,” Harris said. “In the meantime, I encourage you to consider training with us. I think we have something that would interest each of you. You’ll need more than your current skill set to defend yourselves against MM.”
Poly held a dagger in her hand. “You just get me in stabbing distance.” She had a fire in her eyes.
“Good, you’ll need that determination to get past the defenses they’ve put up.” He continued, “There are a few rules while you’re here.”
Lucas rolled his eyes and paced next to his door. “Great, what are the rules? No colors allowed?”
“No, but you will stay in your rooms or this hallway, no wandering.”
“Why? Is there something you don’t want us to see?” Julie asked.
“Yeah, what’s up with this place?” Lucas added.
Harris sighed and then smiled, as if visiting a fond memory. “Your parents had trouble following the rules, as well.”
“Wait, our parents were here? All of them?” Julie asked, stepping toward Harris.
“For a time, yes.” Harris lowered his head. “We had hoped to keep them safe, but with six pregnant women, they wanted to get back home.”
Poly studied the walls and floors, touching the grey paint. Joey knew the feeling; their parents had shared this same space at some point. Each looked around with wonder.
Joey thought about his mom and dad running down these halls around his age, breaking the rules. “They stayed right here, in these rooms?”
“Yes and a few on the other side as well,” Harris took a deep breath and crossed his hands at his waste. It was the first time Joey had seen him look uncomfortable.
“You knew my mom?” Lucas asked.
“Tamara, yes. I knew all of your parents. Each one of them was an amazing person.”
“You should have kept them here, locked them up or found a place to make them safe,” Julie said with tears building in her eyes.
“Free will is necessary. Otherwise, they were just prisoners. Your parents chose to return and face Isaac. They did it for you. Every one of them was ready to sacrifice their life to ensure you kept yours. I don’t intend on letting their sacrifice go in vain.”
“Yeah, but look at what happened in the end,” Julie said.
“Yes, look.” He pointed at them. “They kept you alive. However, the dangers are much greater now. Marcus and MM know you exist and they have sent Simon to fetch you. They know I have you. They will do everything they can to find us. So please, stay in this area unless you’re with me or one of the trainers.”
“You going to hold our hands to cross the street and cut our food up for us while were here?” Lucas asked.
Harris laughed. “Now everyone back to your rooms and get some sleep. Tomorrow, you can decide on how you want to train.”
JOEY WANTED TO TALK TO his friends, but Harris stood in the hallway until they all were back in their rooms. Being alone in the room didn’t feel right with so much to talk about. He was the only one by himself. Jealousy crept in, but he pushed it away and sat on the edge of his bed. He wouldn’t allow for such petty emotions.
Had his parents sat on this very bed? He felt the soft comforter and looked at the lights above. Thinking of his parents here, in another world, in an underground bunker, made his head hurt. They had kept so much from them.
Joey couldn’t begin to understand what his friends were feeling. They were sitting on what could have been their dead mom or dad’s old bed. They might be walking on the same floors their dead parent had walked on so many years ago.
One thing was for sure, his parents were far more interesting than they were letting on.
He stared at the door and thought about checking on Poly. He wondered how she was doing in the next room, and if she was okay. It would’ve been nice to check on her before they went to sleep.
A bell rung and a green light lit on the wall near the bed. Below the light, a small door slid open, revealing a plate of food. Steam streamed from the plate. His urge to eat overtook his cautious mind and he bounded to the plate, taking it and sitting back on the bed.
He ate the mashed potatoes and meat. Half way through, he placed the plate on the nightstand. Even a small pleasure, like eating a hot meal made him feel guilty. The unknowns weighed on him.
Joey took the small jewelry box out of his pocket and rotated it in his hands. Rubbing the smooth velvet surface, he opened the box. The two earrings slid around as he moved it. These were supposed to bring him and Samantha closer, an icebreaker he had hoped would open the door for something more; and it had.
He spent most of the summer searching for the earrings, searching for an impossible find, until finally he had them. Now, Samantha felt as far away as the earrings had at the bottom of the lake.
He snapped the box closed and placed it on the nightstand. Swinging his legs over the bed, he stood. His mind raced with too many thoughts to stay still, so he strode to the door and touched it. Forget the rules. It slid open and he stepped into the hallway.
“Thought you might step out,” Harris said.
“I’ll go back to bed. . . .”
“Why don’t we go for a walk?”
“What about my friends?” Joey asked.
“Come on, just you and me.” Harris led the way down the hall and onto the elevator. He pressed a button on the panel and the doors slid closed.
“How’s the zombie cleaning going?”
Silence filled the moving elevator and Joey put his hands in his pockets, staring at the side of Harris’s head. “Where we going?” Not that Joey cared. Anything would be better than lying in bed, trying to capture sleep.
“I think you’ll like this.”
The elevator came to a stop. The doors slid open and the icy air swept in. He stepped from the elevator with his mouth open, gazing at the huge cavern, large enough to fit an entire mall in. Along the ceiling and flowing down one wall, was a huge ice sheet. There were a few people working in heavy coats, shooting a beam of light into the ice.
“Wow, what is this for?”
“This is the bottom of the ice sheet. We collect all our fresh water here.”
A metal platform stood off the elevator and Joey walked to the edge and placed his hands on the cold steel railing. The ice glistened from the light beams. A stream of water ran down the ceiling like an upside-down river, collecting on the floor, and down to a drain.
“It’s beautiful,” Joey murmured, but he didn’t think Harris wanted to talk about ice and water.
For a bit, Harris was silent.
“You see the water runners over there?” Harris pointed and Joey nodded. “The motors on the lights broke yesterday and to keep water flowing through the compound, we have to manually melt the ice. This old place is breaking down more every year.”
“Why did you bring me down here?”
Harris turned to face him. “Marcus is ill, he’s dying. He needs you, if he wants to keep living. Simon has had the terrible task of finding you amongst countless worlds. It’s driven him over the edge of rational thinking; he’s a dangerous man.”
Joey frowned, watching the water runners melt the ice. Its shiny surface reflected some of the light back to him. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I need you, Joey. I see your wavering commitment. I don’t think you guys realize what is after you. And if you do not at least train and learn some of the basics, you won’t be able to protect yourself or your friends.”
He shook his head and glared at the water runners. His parents had spent eighteen years running from this. And now, when the same offer was placed at his feet, he felt a wavering. “Do you think we can end it?” That’s all he wanted. He wanted his safe home back.
Harris crossed his arms and his warm breath flowed out in a quick cloud. “If we can keep them from getting to you, then eventually, he’ll die.”
“Why don’t you kill us?” Joey studied Harris’s face for a reaction. They must have thought it. How could they not? They just kill the problem and Marcus would wither away.
Harris raised an eyebrow at him. “If he thinks you’re dead, what do you think he’d do with the new, shiny planet they just discovered?”
New planet? Joey gasped. “You think he’d go after earth?”
“No question about it. Marcus would play with your world like a kid in a sandbox.”
Joey stood in silence for a while, watching the water melt. It fascinated him. He wanted to go down there and operate one of the lights, carve his name into the wall and watch it melt away.
“You think we can learn enough to stop them?”
Joey took his hands off the ice-cold steel and rubbed them together. His whole body felt like it needed a thaw. He glanced back at the elevator.
Harris turned to face him. “There’s one thing I want to ask you. Do you think you can control your accelerated movement?”
Joey turned from his gaze. He didn’t want to talk about his mutation. It made him feel like a freak exhibit. “It seems to happen without my control, so I don’t know how I’d control it.”
“If they find out what you can do, they may try and use it.”
His breaths floated out in front of his face. “They can have it. I don’t want it.”
“If they figured out how to replicate what it is you do, they’d be unstoppable. I know I’m dumping a lot on you all at once, but time is not in our favor. We don’t have the time to waiver. Joey, I need you to back this.”
The cold air numbed Joey’s hands and the feeling crept up his arm. He rubbed his wrists and breathed into his hands. He’d had enough of the cold room. “I’ll do what I think is best for my friends. If we are stuck here, it seems foolish not to learn from you.”
Harris nodded his head. The cold didn’t seem to bother him. “Let’s go.”
“Please.” Joey rushed to the elevator. “You think you can train me to shoot like you?”
“If you can do what I think you can, you should make me look like a child with a dart gun.”
Joey shook his head. The idea of being better than Harris seemed ludicrous. “I just want to shoot straight.”
“It’s not just about the weapon in your hands.” Harris pointed to his head. “Up here is the real weapon. I hope you’re ready.”
A LIGHT TAP ON THE door woke him up. Joey smoothed out the wrinkles in the jacket he slept in, and felt for his guns. Another light tap on the door, too dainty for Harris. He touched the door and it slid open. Compry stood on the other side.
“Time for breakfast,” she said matter-of-factly and strode away.
He looked at the small door that delivered his dinner—no green light. Then he spotted his friends in the hallway. Was he the last one awake? He stepped into the hallway, glad to be out of his room and back with his friends. He smiled and felt better about the day. He wanted to put as much time between him and the zombie world as possible.
Compry led them to a pair of doors marked with a fork and knife. The cafeteria was large and circular, filled with rows of empty chairs and tables. At the edge of the circle, he saw more doors with numbers on them. He looked back at the door he came through and it was marked 2.
Harris sat at a table with his back to them. He put his Panavice on the table as they approached. The chair screeched across the white floor and Harris stood to face them.
“Everyone sleep okay?” he asked, lingering on Joey as they nodded. “Good, we have an interesting day planned.” He turned his attention to Compry. “But let’s eat and get some fuel for what’s ahead.”
Compry scowled at Harris as she pushed the metal tray cart and let it smack against the table. The plates clattered and slid about on the top of the cart. “Breakfast is served.”
Joey sat at the far end of the white table, away from Compry and avoided her cold gaze as she surveyed them.
“Eggs, milk, and some ham.” Compry picked up a glass of orange juice and placed it next to Harris. “Orange for you, Harris.” He tapped his finger on the table as he stared at the orange beverage. He grasped it, swirled it in his glass, and slammed it down his gullet.
“Eggs and ham? Sounds good,” Poly said.
Joey knew what she was doing, trying to put a brighter light on the situation. Compry eyed Poly with curiosity, before returning her attention to the cart. She slapped the first plate down on the table next to Lucas. “Pass the plate down . . . please.”
Lucas complied without a comment and passed the plate down.
After the plates were out, Joey looked at the slice of ham and scrambled eggs. How did they get stuff like this here? He forked a piece of ham and inspected it. It looked fine, so he popped it in his mouth. It was all right. He shoveled the remaining food down and picked up his empty plate, looking around for what to do with his dishes. “Where should I put this?”
“Compry will handle the dishes.” Harris smirked.
She pursed her lips, but held her tongue. Joey avoided her eyes and held his plate in his hands. He’d rather throw it away than have Compry looking at him like that. Maybe he could take it to his room and wash it in that laundry-cleaning thing. He’d probably be able to fit everyone’s plate.
Harris stared at him.
Joey gave up on his plate and set it back on the table. “You said last night you wanted us to consider training here, what kind of training do you have in mind?” he asked.
“That’s up to you. We have people with varied skills here.”
“I want one of those Panavice things. I want to learn everything about them,” Julie spouted out.
“Almadon is the best tech person on the planet, in my opinion. She’d be happy to train you.”
Julie almost fell out of her chair with excitement.
“You’re telling me you have an archer in this place?” Lucas asked.
“Sure do. His name is Nathen. I’ll let him know about you.”
“I take it you can train me with guns?” Joey asked looking at Harris.
“I can.” He nodded. “What about you, Poly?”
“My mom trained me. I don’t need any other teacher, but her.”
“What if it was the person who trained your mom?” Harris glanced at Compry.
Compry looked at Poly and raised an eyebrow.
“You serious? You taught my mom about blades?”
“I sure did. I’m glad to hear she passed it down to you.”
“Do you have any gorilla handlers for Hank?” Lucas smirked. “Or anyone with a zookeeper background?”
“Oh, you’re so funny, Lucas,” Hank said. He stood from his chair and stepped toward him.
Lucas laughed and hid behind Julie. “Mommy, help. The rhino’s getting too close to the car.”
Hank smiled, but grabbed for Lucas. He darted under the table and exited out the end, moving to the opposite side of the table from Hank.
“Those toothpicks you shoot won’t help when I come running for you.”
“If you could run, I’d be worried.”
Hank ran to one side of the table, but Lucas matched his moves and kept away from him.
“Can you two stop it?” Julie asked, exasperated.
Lucas stood straight and pulled at the end of his shirt. “Hank started it.”
“Oh, you’re dead, funny man,” Hank warned.
“Enough,” Compry slammed a plate against the table. It rattled and spun to a stop.
Harris filled the silence. “We should get to training. Lucas, I want you to take Hank and go see Nathen over on floor twenty-three. I sent him notification. He will be waiting for you.”
Lucas rolled his eyes. “You better not try anything, Hank. I was just messin’ around.”
Harris continued, “Julie, you’ll find Almadon waiting for you in the medical wing. Joey, you’ll come with me.”
“That’s just leaves me and you,” Compry said to Poly.
THE IDEA OF TRAINING WAS exciting to Joey, but the realization of why they were training, brought about thoughts of his family. He’d learn as much as he could from Harris and take it with him back to Preston. If he could learn to control his slow-mo stuff, he’d be unstoppable.
Following Harris through a few elevator stops and two hallways, they made it to a white room.
Joey had been in gun ranges before, but this room didn’t look like any gun range he’d ever seen. It was a long white room, with white walls, floor, and ceiling. It was completely stark white, except for the black line on the floor at the start of the room.
“Stay behind the black line,” Harris said. “Get ready.”
The whole room changed to look like a Wild West version of a town. Wood buildings were on each side of the street, with horses hitched to a post in front of the Dusty Saloon. A few dingy-looking people walked around, and one old man threw Joey a sneer. A man in a cowboy outfit hitched his horse and stepped into the saloon. Joey shook his head and squinted at the movement in the saloon windows. Was he missing something?
A gunshot cracked through the dirt-ball town and in the same instant, an electrical shock hit his shoulder. Joey grabbed at the pain in his shoulder and searched the town for the shooter. Then he saw an out of place movement; a man standing on the roof of the general store, with a rifle pointed at him. The end of the barrel flashed and another crack echoed through the town.
Joey stumbled backward at the second electrical shock, this time in the middle of his chest. He raised his gun to the man, took aim, and pulled the trigger—striking his target in the chest. The man froze like a still picture, then melted into a white goo, and disappeared. Everything in the town froze and dissolved into white.
“Whoa,” Joey said. His heart pounded in his chest. It felt as if he were there, in the town. It was so real. He rubbed the shoulder the electrical shock hit, a reminder of how real it was. “That was crazy. What is this place?”
“It’s a training room. We can create almost any scene we want within these walls.”
Joey stared at said walls, questioning their reality. “How’s this possible?”
“Better to ask Almadon, but let’s get back to your training. What do you think happened there?”
“I don’t know. Some guy just shot me from the roof?”
“The people in the open are not always the dangers, you have to look beyond the obvious and find the true danger,” Harris said. “Let’s try again.”
“Did you train my dad here?” Joey turned to him and asked.
Harris’s expression didn’t change, but he paused. “Yes.”
“How was he?”
“Good. He was your age. Young and enthusiastic,” Harris stated. “We don’t have much time, let’s continue.”
Joey readied himself, this time with gun in hand. A new scene popped up in front of him—a park. He scanned the grass fields, oak trees, a man selling balloons with a smile, a weird kid walking toward him, and a group of emo kids giving him looks from a picnic table they were carving into with a screwdriver. A man glided by on a set of roller blades. He couldn’t find anything.
Glancing over at Harris, he shrugged. Then, Joey felt an electrical shock in his back and lurched forward. He spun around and saw the guy on rollerblades holding a knife.
“Near is important as well. The bad guys aren’t always obvious. Sometimes he/she/it is right in front of you before you know it.”
“I don’t know, just seemed like regular people.”
“The brain is an amazing thing. Your subconscious takes in way more information than can be processed consciously. Everyone’s brain cleans out the clutter and presents only what we think is important. Think again about that guy.”
Closing his eyes, all he could remember was the guy stabbing him with black eyes staring at him.
“Black eyes, his pupils were all crazy looking.”
“Good, let’s do some more.”
The next scene appeared. An indoor two-story mall. He was on the bottom floor. Everything looked different from any malls he’d been in. The men wore suits and the women wore dresses, but the styles and colors were wild like a futuristic version of the fifties. The hats on the women were large and curved in all shapes, and many wore glasses with only one pane of glass in them. Most were holding a Panavice like Harris’s in their hands as they walked.
He couldn’t begin to think of a single strange thing in this scene. Everything was strange to him. Even the stores were strange, with interactive holograms projecting in front of them, selling to passersby. Then a man stuck out. He sat with a newspaper folded out in front of him, blocking his face. A big newspaper didn’t seem likely in this world of digital. He narrowed his vision on the man and the woman walking next to him. The man lowered his newspaper, looking straight at him. Joey didn’t hesitate and shot the man. He dropped the newspaper to reveal a gun pointed at him. The scene went white.
“He was reading a paper in this digital world, and when the woman who walked by him, looked scared, I knew it was him. He confirmed it when he lowered his paper, and was looking directly at me.”
“Good, let’s do some more.”
Harris had him run through more scenes and he began to spot the ones who didn’t quite fit into the scene much quicker. In one scene, Joey shot a guy driving a car and Harris asked him why.
“There is a broken window on the passenger side and a dead body in the back. He was the killer; I saw blood on his hands.”
“Wrong, the person in the back of the car was injured at a nearby construction site. His friend was driving him to the hospital.”
Joey felt the heat in his face. He’d been shooting people like in a video game. “I don’t think I can do this in the real world. How do you know when you have to shoot?”
Harris sighed. “I’m glad you asked that question. It’s the right question and the answer is simple. When the time comes, you’ll know. Trust me. When it’s time to end another’s life, it’s because they intend on ending yours or those around you.”
Joey sheathed his gun and looked at the blank room.
“Why don’t we do some target drills for a while, work on that aim.” Harris pushed the screen on the Panavice.
Joey wondered about the others training, but he didn’t have much time to think as an open gun range appeared in front of him. Paper targets floated in the air.
Is that Simon’s face on one?
POLY STARED AT COMPRY AS she explained to her about knife throwing. She patiently waited for her to finish and for her to turn on this machine she kept talking about. Her fingers tapped the hilts of her new throwing knives on the sides of her hips.
“Do you follow?” Compry asked.
Poly resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She gave a small nod, yanked two knives from their sheaths, and spun them in her hands. Compry watched on with that curious look again. She’d give her a show.
The white walls morphed into targets and Poly took a step back in confusion. The whole room changed in a nanosecond. It reminded her of a carnival game with wheels spinning, rectangles rocking back and forth, objects popping up from the floor, and each target had several colors on them.
“Yellow,” Compry said.
Poly threw a knife through a hole in the wall and hit a yellow spinning target, then the yellow floating circle and finally the yellow rectangle metronome.
“Green,” Compry said.
A green rectangle popped up from the ground and she hit it with her knife before it retreated below. Then she spotted a green dot on the far side of the room. She reached back and threw hard, not waiting to see if it hit, she drew another knife from her side and threw it at the floating green target. The target retreated into the floor and the room returned to white.
“Well, you’ve got some skill I see.”
“My mom’s a good teacher.”
“Opal was a natural.” Compry smiled warmly. It fit her face nicely.
Poly thought it was the first time she’d seen the woman express a positive emotion. Maybe it was the mention of her mom. Knowing her mom trained in the same place she was training, made her well up with pride. She’d grown even closer to her over the summer, as she learned how to handle all kinds of bladed weapons. “Yeah, she’s amazing with blades,” Poly said, relaxing as the room went white.
“Even when she was pregnant with you, she insisted on learning blades,” Compry said.
“Who taught you?”
With eyebrows raised, Compry pulled out a dagger from the sheath at her side, a black blade with a dragon etched into it. “My father.”
“Really? That’s so cool. I love training with Mom. Is he part of your group with Harris?” A little bit of jealousy crept in when anyone spoke about their dad.
“No, he runs a city. He doesn’t approve of what I’m doing.” Compry sheathed her knife.
“I’m sorry.” Poly had trouble imagining not having her dad’s approval. If he were still alive, he’d be calling her his little princess and embarrassing her in front of all her friends. At least that’s what she pictured in her mind.
Poly fidgeted with her fingers, avoiding eye contact.
Compry smiled. “You’re the real deal, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?” Poly forced her hands to stop touching and looked into Compry’s friendly face.
“People here may look young, but we are old. Moreover, when you’ve lived for hundreds of years, you lose innocence. But you, you’re like a beam of light . . . just like your mom.” Her gaze passed over Poly. “I almost forgot what true youth was like.”
“I’m not some china doll,” Poly said, annoyed at her making her sound like some child.
Compry laughed. “I know. You’re a kickass woman. Now let me show you how to be a little more badass.” She pushed a button on her Panavice. A human dummy appeared. She showed the vital areas to slice or hit if you wanted a kill, and the places to target to incapacitate someone.
Poly spun her blades around the dummy, slicing it in the areas marked with red for kill.
“Only kill blows?”
“No one tried to incapacitate my dad,” Poly said.
“Fair enough, but there will be situations where a kill isn’t necessary.”
If she could get closer to the people responsible for killing her dad, she wouldn’t need to know how to incapacitate them. She gave Compry a smile and nodded her head, but they could skip the lesson on wounding a person.
“I think you’re ready for some more intimate simulations.”
The scene changed and there stood a man with a gun pointed at her. Poly, with knife in hand, sneered at the digital man. He shot her in the gut. Poly winced and grabbed at her stomach. It felt like the time she walked into her neighbor’s stupid electrical fence. She flung her knife and hit the man in the eye. He dissolved into white and spread into nothing on the floor. The knife lay on the white floor where the man once stood.
“Guns win in a duel. However, most cannot shoot worth a damn. Give them a moving target next time, okay?”
The room changed to a man with a sword, moving toward her. Poly threw her knife, striking him in the head. The whole scene dissolved back to the white room.
“You’re quick to kill.”
“Better them than me.” Didn’t she get it? What was the use of learning how to wound a person when you could kill them?
“Yes it is. But when you grossly overmatch a person, mercy can be shown.”
“Mercy . . . really?” Poly huffed air through her nose and spun the blades into the sheaths on her hips. “Can I expect mercy from them?”
“Yes. All humans can make the choice. When you stop making the choice is when you become less than human.”
Compry seemed like she had a question, but didn’t ask it until after practice. “Is everything okay with you and your friends?”
“Yeah, they’re my best friends.” Poly scrunched her brow in. What was she after?
“So I’ve heard.” Compry pulled back her hair.
Was she really hundreds of years old? She looked to be in her late twenties. Poly would’ve asked if her mom hadn’t always told her it was rude to ask a woman’s age.
“But maybe one of them is more than a friend? I saw you checking out Joey more than once.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Poly fiddled with her knives.
“He’s super cute, so I can’t blame you.”
It was as bad as her mom trying to have the ‘talk.’
“But if I may make a suggestion. . . .”
Oh God, when is she going to stop?
Compry bulldozed ahead. “It’s okay to give a boy a push in the right direction.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Poly said between her teeth, a blush rising up her neck.
Compry laughed, as they left the room. “I see him sneaking looks at you as well.”
Do we really have to talk about this? Maybe silence will get her to stop.
Poly glanced at the high fashion, beautiful woman walking next to her. She’d probably have any man she wanted with just a single look of her fierce eyes. She couldn’t possibly understand watching a man from the sidelines—for years.
Compry smiled and looked over. “I’ll say one more thing and then stop. If I’ve learned anything in my years, it’s that time is a gift, but by the time you learn that lesson, it can be too late. You wait too long for something, and it may never happen. Sometimes, you need to act. Sometimes . . . fate needs a gentle nudge.”
“YES!” LUCAS JUMPED IN THE air with his bow in his hand. “That was awesome.”
He stopped his theatrics as Nathen, the trainer, gave him a stern look. But how could he not be excited? He just shot flaming balls coming at him while riding in a zeppelin.
Best. Video. Game. Ever.
“I noticed a few times where you stopped smiling and just made the shots,” Nathen said. He paced next to Lucas and tapped the end of his chin with his finger.
“I call it the Zone. Like a poor man’s version of what Joey does, the world around me just comes into focus. When I’m in the Zone, I’m the best shooter in the world.”
“Let’s strive for more of these in-the-zone moments, shall we?”
“Bring on the next game,” Lucas said in the calmest voice he could manage.
The jungle formed in front of him with large trees pressing in on all sides. He couldn’t stop smiling even after he saw the half-man, half-monkey things holding knives. They were jumping around in the trees and screaming at him.
A knife flew by his head and he spotted the man-monkey that threw it. Oh, hell no. No digital man-monkey was going to throw knives at his pretty face. He pulled back an arrow and let it fly, replaced it with another, and fired it into the trees at other mankeys. Ha-ha! Mankey . . . Just thinking of it made him smile. The mankeys fell from the trees with arrows in each one. Nathen patted Lucas on the back and the room dissolved into white
“Take that, mankeys,” Lucas cheered.
Nathen chuckled. “Okay, good job. But let’s say there’s a situation where you have to keep your friends alive.”
“Like when my parents fought MM?”
“Yes, like then.”
Lucas lowered his bow and shuffled his feet. “Did you get to meet my mom?”
“Mm-hmm, while she was pregnant with you.”
“What was she like?”
“I didn’t have much interaction with her,” Nathen said. “But your dad loved her very much. There wasn’t a training session that went by where he didn’t talk about her. His face lit up at the mere mention of your mom’s name.”
Lucas controlled his breathing and felt tears in his eyes. He wasn’t going to cry in front of this guy, but no one ever spoke of his parents like that. He dreamed of being able to see them the way Nathen described. He and his dad had love, but it felt colder. There was a wall between them that kept him from getting close.
“I think you’ll like this next scene.” Nathen pushed on his Panavice.
The room changed to a ledge. Lucas stood on the ledge and looked down at the half-mile drop. A flying pig squealed with large fangs. It flew at him and he pulled back an arrow, letting it fly—sending it sailing past the pig.
The pig growled, showing its pointy white teeth. Lucas yanked another arrow in place and took a breath, lining up the shot. He fired and struck the monstrosity in the gut, sending it falling to the earth below.
“I found a bow in my dad’s closet a few years ago. I bet it was the same one he used here.”
“Was he a good shot?”
“He wasn’t too bad, but he had his mind on other things while they were here.” Nathen chuckled. “He must have spent a long time training you.”
Lucas frowned. “No, he didn’t. Even this summer, when he finally started showing me a few things, it was like pulling teeth.” Lucas took a deep breath and looked way down to the bottom of the cliff where there should have been a splattered pig. “I think I was too good for him. I just got the feeling I was disappointing him by picking it up so much.”
“Sometime parents don’t want us stepping in their footsteps. Especially when they’ve stomped in the mud.”
JULIE SAT IN FRONT OF her very own Panavice. She caressed the cold edges of it with her hands and tried to contain her excitement while sitting next to Doctor Almadon.
“While the barbarians play with tools, we’ll be learning the true weapon of this world, technology. Everything is connected, in some way, digitally. Once you find your way around the digital walls, the world will be yours.” Almadon pressed the screen on her Panavice. “I’m sending you the first training round.”
Julie stared at her screen. Level One appeared.
“You’re going to go against a level-one com.”
Julie held the Panavice in her hands. It was thicker than her cellphone, but the screen was larger and clearer. When she tilted it, the tabs on the screen moved from the background, giving it a 3D look.
She pressed the tab with the cracked safe and it opened a new page. From there she saw every computer nearby. Each one had a label, Medical Equipment, Elevator 4, Lighting, Panavice - Almadon. Then she spotted it, a level-one label. She pressed it and a wall of code floated on the screen.
“There is software I installed on that Pana to help you break through many of the walls.”
She saw the walls, but why use a sledgehammer when she could tip toe around it and sneak in? The codes on her screen scrolled with her finger swipes. Then she saw what she was looking for and typed into the keyboard. She pressed the last key and she was in.
The wall dissolved and a digital flower twirled on the screen.
“Nice, Julie. Now again, but this time try using the built-in software. It’ll help you when you can’t find a sneak. Level two.”
Level two went down in under a minute. Julie set her Panavice on the table.
Almadon set hers down and furrowed her brow. “I suspected something on the first go, but now I am certain. Where did you learn these systems?”
Julie locked eyes with Almadon. She fidgeted with her hands in her lap and felt like a kid in the principal’s office, confessing to prank gone wrong. “I used the computer in my room.”
Almadon leaned back and touched her chin. “Find anything interesting?”
“I searched through MM’s mainframe. . . .”
“What? That was incredibly foolish.” Almadon jolted forward in her chair. “How? Those are meant for watching shows and browsing the net.”
“I found a cloud that had unlimited storage and set up a basic operating system to penetrate walls,” Julie said. “But I made sure I used a stack of proxies. They shouldn’t be able to find me.”
Almadon’s mouth hung low. “Why, what were you looking for? Not to mention how dangerous that is. There are things on this net not to be trifled with.”
“I know, and I found something strange. Deep in the code, it seemed like a hidden underground river, streaming through the background.”
Almadon raised an eyebrow. “Probably just a data feed.”
“I thought that as well, but then I wrote a program and found a back door into the stream.”
Almadon’s eyes twitched and she leaned closer. “And?”
Julie looked at the table. “Nothing at first, it just seemed to be a backup stream, but then I saw it deleting things, everywhere, like a virus.”
“The Harris virus.”
“Yes, but it did more. It pulled in vast amounts of info, yet had a very limited output, like it was being choked.”
“Anytime someone writes anything about Harris on the net, this program finds it and deletes it. It’s common knowledge.”
“I know.” This was the hard part for Julie. She almost didn’t want to say anything to Almadon about it, but she needed to tell her. “It found me. It called herself Alice and appeared on my screen as a young woman. She asked me who I was, but it freaked me out so bad I turned off the computer.”
“Alice actually talked to you?”
“Did I screw something up?”
Almadon stretched her fingers out in front of her and then proceeded to take great interest in smoothing out her shirt. “Alice is a whisper on the net. A myth to most. Some think the net itself birthed an A.I.”
“I thought artificial intelligences were illegal.”
“They are, but this one is different. MM has let her be, which makes me think she is part of MM. Possibly implemented by Marcus himself.”
“Did I mess up? I’m so sorry; I just got all caught up in the level of computing power. I didn’t think there was any limit to what I could do within your internet.”
“It’s probably nothing, but if you can get into systems like that, I think we should jump to level twenty.”
She looked at the screen and Level 20 popped up. There were more layers to this one, but she had already seen the flaw. She typed quickly and saw the swirling flower on her screen.