THE NEXT MORNING AT BREAKFAST, Compry pushed the food cart, hitting the table again. Joey jerked back at the noise of plates clattering. Thoughts of creepy rollerblading people and old gunslingers floated around in his mind.
“Breakfast is served,” Compry said as she handed plates out.
“Thank you.” Poly got up from her chair and helped her pass out the plates.
Compry rolled her eyes.
“Easy on the plates, lady.” Harris smirked.
She scowled. “This is the last day I’m the breakfast maker.”
“Actually, the deal was for a few more days after this,” Harris said and leaned back in his chair. He grinned and linked his fingers behind his head.
Compry’s eyes widened. She pointed at Harris and her eyes narrowed. “Not another day.”
Harris made a face and winked at her. After some silent communication between the two, he sat forward, and directed his attention to the group. “Would you guys like to meet the person behind everything? The man who wants to suck the life from your very veins?” He grabbed his Panavice and flipped it around towards the aisle. “Let me introduce you to Marcus Malliden.”
Joey choked on his eggs and reached for the gun at his side, scanning the room for the man. Then he noticed the image projected from Harris’s Panavice. He finished swallowing and sat down. The projection showed a man in a white robe, typing into a computer.
Marcus turned to face the camera. A good-looking young man with unkempt hair and an innocent smile. He turned back to his computer. Joey leaned forward in search of the horns he was sure would be coming out of Marcus’s forehead. The plainness of Marcus made him think there had to be a mistake.
A voice-over started.
“There was a time in history when we had no path, no solutions to our problems. Our lives lasted mere decades. Birth defects were rampant.”
The video showed a two-headed baby, and then another mutated baby that Joey couldn’t watch.
“Then, we were rescued by the wonders of genetic breakthroughs. Marcus Malliden saved the world by creating the first, perfect baby. Free from defects, we no longer have to roll the dice between two people’s DNA. Marcus took the guessing out of reproduction and brought a new age to the world, where people don’t die of disease or aging. As long as you keep Orange in your life.”
The screen switched to the voice-over guy, who took a drink of an orange liquid and smiled at the camera. A line of text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. Orange, it makes you live.
Harris turned the screen off.
“What the hell was that?” Lucas asked.
“That’s a commercial for Orange, an old one, but a classic,” Harris said and Compry let out a small laugh.
“You see, at the start of MM’s new genetic design, the world was against it, but when the babies he designed lived far longer and healthier than any naturals did, the world became obsessed with having their babies modified. Unfortunately, MM didn’t factor in the problem at hand. He played God and God fought back. It was as if your life span was a rubber band, pulled and stretched way out, but eventually, the band would break. People started to become ill and long-closed hospitals starting opening. Marcus, in a scramble, invented Orange.”
Harris lifted his glass of orange liquid.
Compry said, “This drink is the torture and stranglehold that MM has on the world. Once he had the world on Orange, he knew every person who wanted to live was at his fingertips.” She took a drink. “This drink keeps you alive, but also makes you the slave of MM.” The disgust spread over her face. “Some chose death, but most simply fell in line and took the drink. MM Corp, with its massive power, gobbled up any competitors; they bought all the politicians and turned them into a one-world order.”
“This is a video our group had made and are sometimes able to get into the state TV broadcasts,” Harris added, and tapped his Panavice.
A similar voice-over started, but it sounded just different enough. “Marcus Malliden, the man behind Orange. He brought you life and he brings you death.” A montage of towns getting bombed, and old people dying, flashes on the screen. “Orange and MM allow you to live, for now.”
Harris turned it off. “If your town or province gets out of line, the shipments of Orange stop. Then people turn on each other and the town falls into chaos. This gives MM cause to step in and crush the towns.”
“If your population is addicted to this Orange drink, how can you remove it? Won’t you just all die?” Julie asked.
“Yes, we’d die without it. We are not looking to remove Orange, but the man who controls it. Marcus Malliden keeps the world under his thumb and he presses hard,” Harris said. “You see, this man is the one who killed your parents to get what he wants.”
“And what does he want?” Joey asked.
Harris made direct eye contact with him, “You, Joey.” He paused and then continued, “Marcus would take any of you, but he wants what’s in you. Isaac’s experiments resulted in his greatest accomplishment with you. You’re his best chance of staying alive and he wants to keep living very much.”
Everyone at the table stared at him. Joey felt his heart beating hard as he shared looks with each of them. It felt like another weight thrown on his back.
“Is that why I have my . . . ability?” Joey struggled to get the words out, even if he already knew the answer.
“Yes. Isaac experimented heavily on the people of Ryjack and . . . well, you saw the result, but I think he perfected it with you kids.”
“All this effort and death is for one man’s wish to live forever?” Julie asked.
“It is a deeply personal mission for Marcus. He is the last naturally born person on the planet. Everyone else is a genetically modified MM baby.”
“How’s he still alive then?” Lucas asked.
“He used to have a man named John Smith. His body kept him alive for a while, at least until Harris ended that lifeline,” Compry said. She placed a hand on his arm for a moment.
Harris lowered his eyebrows at Compry. “He finds unusual ways to stay alive. Not too long ago, we were able to take one of those things away from him, John Smith, a man we believe they made in Ryjack. He was sort of a cheap version of you guys.”
“Where’s this John Smith now?” Julie asked.
“Dead.” Harris pushed his plate forward and stuffed his Panavice in his jacket pocket. “Let’s get back to training.” He stood from the table.
TRAINING WAS SIMILAR TO THE first day, with many scenes popping in and out. By the end of the day, Joey’s eyes hurt and he stumbled into his room, burying his face in his blankets. He was glad to have the room to himself. He didn’t want to see the looks they might give him for being different, or worse yet, pity. He heard a quiet knock on his door.
Poly stood at the door and smiled at Joey. She was wearing a yellow dress with a floral print. The flowers changed colors as she moved. “You like my dress? Compry gave it to me.”
“It’s very . . . nice,” he said. He kept his eyes focused on her face. Otherwise, his eyes tended to wander and travel over her body.
“You’re all by yourself in there. Aren’t you getting lonely?”
“Not really, my thoughts keep me occupied,” he lied.
“I thought you might need a break.” Poly grabbed his hand. “Come with me. Julie found something I wanted to show you.”
“YOU HAVE TO WALK LOW,” Poly said, crouching down.
“Why’s that?” Joey asked.
“It’s only sneaking around if you’re crouching, duh.” She playfully rolled her eyes.
He laughed and watched her sneak up to the elevator button and press it. He played along and crouched down, putting his back against the wall and looking left to right. “Where we going?” Joey asked in an exaggerated whisper.
“It’s a surprise.”
The elevator doors slid open. He followed Poly in, hugging the walls. She pressed the button and spun around, smiling. He couldn’t help but feel happier around her. She was a bright light in a dark room.
Upon exiting, Joey crouched lower and followed Poly through a few hallways and into a room with white walls and ceiling. He raised a questioning eyebrow; half thinking she was going to run some training drills with him.
“Just wait for it.” She slid her finger against a screen on the wall, it lit up, and she pushed a button. “It worked!” She pulled a Panavice off the wall next to the screen.
The room changed to a grassy meadow with a large oak tree at the top of a grass hill. Poly laughed and ran to the top of the grass hill.
The heat from the sun felt good. He took in the fabricated fresh air and looked at the blue sky; taking in the moment, as if it was real.
“I even have a blanket here so we don’t get our clothes dirty.” She laid the blanket on the grass next to the oak tree. Laying down on it with her face to the sky, she clasped her hands behind her head. Her dress pressed against her body.
He took in her form, for probably too long.
She raised her head and smirked when she caught his observing eyes. “Come on.” She patted the space next to her.
Joey wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. Looking at the blanket, he reluctantly laid down on it, keeping a large gap between them. His heart raced lying next to Poly. The Preston Six travelled as a pack. He could count on one hand the times he and Poly were alone together. He kept his eyes on the leaves above his head, fidgeting with his hands. Why was he so nervous?
“Let’s get a nighttime setting so we can see the stars.” Poly pushed on the Panavice.
The sun fell off the horizon, and the darkness covered them with sparkly stars in the sky. The cold air crept in with the sun gone. They lay there in silence, looking at the stars.
He had a spot on his roof at home, where he would lay down and stare into the darkness above. So this was peaceful, familiar, and he relaxed a tad, moving his hands behind his head.
Poly rubbed her arms.
“You okay?” Joey asked.
“Just getting cold out here.” She shifted her body next to him, her arm rubbing against his side.
He tensed up with her close to him.
“Don’t worry. I won’t stab you,” she joked.
He laughed, felt her warmth, and relaxed a bit more as he looked at the stars. The crickets chirped and a flying bug buzzed by. It felt like home, as if he could be sitting under the oak in his back yard, and not stuck in this stagnant, recycled world of a bunker.
A glowing firefly buzzed above them. “Look,” he said.
“Oh wow,” she said.
The single firefly became two, then three, and then they popped into a mass of soft glowing bulbs above them. They landed in the oak tree and blinked randomly, forming a light show. Joey stared at the magical swarm doing their dance for them.
She laughed and pointed at them as they swarmed in different shapes. The maelstrom of lights above was mesmerizing—almost as much as Poly’s glee at the sight of it all. He took his first easy breath since leaving Earth. It was the best thing he could think of doing right then. The dots of light flew high into the night sky and blinked out into stars.
She turned on her side and draped an arm over his chest, squeezing him in a hug. “You’re welcome.”
They lay there, watching the night sky in silence, holding each other. For the first time in days, he felt some weight lift off his chest. He let his body relax, enjoying the moment. It was so natural lying with her; at some point Joey brought his hand down and was drawing circles on the arm she left draped across him. Her head nestled on his shoulder.
“Do you think MM is going to find us here?” She propped up on her free arm as she splayed her hand across his chest. “I keep having nightmares about him. He takes us and does horrible things,” she said, looking somewhat panicked.
He wouldn’t let them take her. He would protect her to his death, if that’s what it took. He looked over at her, and laced his hand with hers. “Poly, I’ll do anything . . . I’ll make sure that never happens.”
She nodded, their faces so close, he could feel her sweet breath on his cheek. She laid her head back on his shoulder and snuggled in closer, putting a leg between his.
He tilted his head to her hair and breathed in deeply. Then, it suddenly hit Joey, how close they were—what was happening. Her body pressed against his. They were holding each other, face’s inches apart. He exhaled and his heart started racing. He could actually see his chest moving in rapid rhythm. She had to feel it.
“This is really nice,” Poly said, looking up at him.
She continued to talk, saying something about trying to get him alone ever since their birthday party, but he just couldn’t follow along. However, he was keenly aware of her lips moving and the connection of her body against his. The words didn’t matter as much as he knew what she was telling him.
Poly’s sentence trailed off when she noticed his focus on her lips. She moved her hand over his heart. Feeling the pounding in his chest, her face changed indecipherably. She tightened her leg on his, and parted her lips as she slightly moved her chin forward.
Everything happened so fast.
Joey stopped thinking and went in for what he wanted. Rolling her on her back, he lay on top of her, their lips meeting in a heated kiss. Grabbing both sides of his face, she tilted her head and opened her mouth to him. He groaned as their tongues entwined. Pushing his weight into her, he—
“What are you two doing?”
Joey and Poly froze, breathing hard. Who was there?
The scene turned off and the grassy ground turned to a white floor. The hill of white flooring lowered to the ground. Joey jumped off Poly, adjusting his clothes and putting his hands in his pockets. She quickly followed suit, keeping her eyes averted to the ground.
Harris was at the edge of the grass field. “This machine uses a massive amount of power, and if not properly channeled, it could be traced back to here,” he said, frowning.
“Sorry,” they both said in unison.
Still looking at the ground, Poly continued. “It’s my fault, sir. I brought Joey here.”
“Dang, you’re as bad as your parents were, always sneaking around and getting into stuff. Your dad couldn’t keep his eyes off your mother either.”
Poly’s face turned red at the conversation.
“Why don’t you lovebirds get back to your rooms.” Harris held the door open with a smirk.
They hustled through the door, without making eye contact, and didn’t talk until reaching Poly’s door. She turned around to face him. It was awkward, and then they both broke into soft laughter over Harris catching them.
Just when Joey didn’t know how to say goodbye, Poly got on her tiptoes and leaned in, kissing him lightly on the mouth. She winked and darted into her room.
He turned and smiled to himself the entire way to his room. Throwing himself across his bed, Joey lay there, trying to figure out what had happened. He took off his shoes and set them next to the nightstand and that is when he saw the small velvet box. He picked it up and his thoughts drifted from Poly and him on the blanket, to the night on the balcony with Samantha. Guilt washed over him. He bit his lip, remembering Samantha’s lip-gloss. What had he done?
THE NEXT MORNING WAS THE same. Joey kept thinking of that kiss during training, and he missed a man with a bow and arrow in the tree. The electric shock didn’t seem to bother him. Harris called training early and told Joey to clean his weapons.
Dinner was meat and mashed potatoes again. Afterward, Joey saw everyone in the hallway, but told them he was going to go to bed early and avoided eye contact with Poly. He lay in his bed worrying about Samantha, but his mind kept floating back to Poly. He thought on his actions a long time, rolling the jewelry box in his hands.
Had Samantha made it to the stone and gone with them, would things be different? Would he have kissed Poly and enjoyed her body against his? When he got back to Samantha, what would he tell her? He thought he wanted to be with Samantha but each moment spent with Poly made him question it. Nevertheless, it didn’t excuse the fact he’d made a move on both of them. He couldn’t imagine hurting either of them, but he couldn’t escape the sinking feeling he had done just that.
Joey slept roughly again.
THERE WAS ANOTHER SOFT KNOCK in the morning for breakfast. Followed by training. After training, Joey avoided the others again and headed to his room.
HARRIS FELT THE GRIP OF his guns and let out a long breath. They were some of the few items he’d kept from his childhood; his father had given them to him so many years ago.
He sat at the desk across from Compry, Nathen, and Almadon. “How are they all doing?”
Compry answered first. “Poly is as lethal as anyone I’ve seen with a knife, but she’s weaker in her emotions. It could be her age, or that she has a thing for Joey.”
“Yes, I saw that as well. We should keep those two apart if we can,” Harris said. “Ever since I caught them in the scene generator, Joey’s been distant.”
“Young love,” Almadon said.
“I don’t know. There’s something else going on with Joey,” Harris said. “How’s Lucas doing?”
“Lucas is a natural with the bow. He could play at world games, I think, with some of the stuff I’ve seen from him. But he needs some time to mature,” Nathen reported.
Harris witnessed Lucas in action and wasn’t surprised at Nathen’s response. “And Hank?”
“He’s something of a physical phenomenon. He took me to the ground in our first sparing session and has progressed quickly from there. I think he might give you a run for it, Harris.”
He raised an eyebrow, but in all honesty, he hadn’t expected much less. However, there was a person he was most interested in hearing about. “How’s Julie?”
“Julie’s learning fast.” Almadon paused.
After many years with Almadon, he knew how to spot when she was holding back. “What is it?”
“She got into MM’s network and found Alice, or I should say, Alice found her.”
Harris leaned forward with shock. Alice was known to very few people in the world, and most of them sat in that room. “Alice came to her?”
“Yes, she asked Julie who she was—probably unable to recognize someone from another planet.”
“Did she find us?”
“No, Julie did it right. She kept us hidden.”
“Unbelievable.” Harris knew the kids were quick to learn, but this seemed beyond anything he expected. “What do you think about this?”
“I don’t know. She is progressing almost too fast. Beth was good, average really, but Julie is scary. I think she could hack our mainframe if she tried.”
Harris leaned back in his chair. He thought the same thing of all the kids. Joey was far better at shooting than he should be and he absorbed every instruction the first time shown.
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing with Hank and Lucas. Their skills are far above where they should be,” Nathen added.
He knew what they were getting at. “Did you run all the tests yet?”
“Yes, there are a few anomalies in each of them. It will take me some time to go through and make any sense of it,” Almadon said.
Harris gazed at her. “But one of them stands out from the rest?”
“Yes. Joey’s a bit different from the rest. Whatever Isaac did, it seemed to take hold of Joey the most.”
“Yeah, his time manipulation is something I’ve never seen in any mutation.”
“How is he doing?” Compry asked.
“He’s okay. I’ve been working with him a lot on picking targets and making the right decisions.”
“Has he done his slow-mo thing with you?” Almadon asked.
“No, it seems to trigger in extreme situations only.” If he could get Joey to harness that skill, he’d be unstoppable.
She nodded. “If we can monitor him while it’s happening, we might be able to figure it out—replicate it even.”
“Let me see if I can even get him to do it again,” he said. “Any news from MM?”
“The insider said he’s still holed up in the bowels of their bunker,” Almadon informed. “I’ve noticed a lot more negative traffic online about MM. There’s even been rogue programmers that have a ‘kill MM’ program going at some of the scene centers, but they were murdered.”
Harris took in the information. While it was encouraging to hear people posting negative things on their blogs and websites, it was a whole other thing for them to stand in arms against him. So, Marcus was still holed up in the bunker. With John Smith gone, he’d be suffering, probably clinging to life. The man deserved everything he got. Harris realized he was touching his ring finger. He hadn’t worn his wedding ring in fifteen years, but he found himself feeling for it lately. He stopped, extending his fingers and placing them on the table.
“How long are we going to stay here, Harris? It won’t take MM long to see where a massive power surge went to,” Almadon pointed out.
“We better show Julie and Lucas a few stone locations, just in case,” he replied. “I don’t want any surprises this time around.” He wouldn’t let another group of kids die for his cause.
JOEY THRASHED AROUND IN HIS sleep as he dreamed of Simon grabbing Samantha by the neck and choking the life from her. Then he morphed into Simon. His own hands around her perfect neck, choking the life from her. She communicated with her eyes, asking why, why was he hurting her. He woke up sweating and breathing hard.
The soft knock at his door was the morning wake up call.
He went to breakfast for the eggs and meat again. At the end of the day, he walked to his door and saw his friends talking in the hallway. Hank shot him a hurt look as Joey stood in front of his door. He sighed and walked toward the group.
“Hey, look who’s come down from his mountain top to grace us with his presence.” Lucas gestured with sweeping bow.
“Yeah, I haven’t been feeling well,” Joey said. He glanced at Poly, who looked at Julie.
“Well, good to have you talking again, man. We were starting to worry about you,” Hank said.
“Hey, we’re going to go sneak into the scene generator and go somewhere that isn’t . . .” Lucas looked around the hallway, “here.”
Joey laughed and followed the group to the same scene generator he and Poly shared. The white walls were still there and there was no sign of a grassy meadow with a blanket for two.
“Julie found this awesome program,” Lucas said.
Joey uncomfortably looked at Poly. She was busy studying her fingernails.
“Okay, here we go.” Julie pulled out her Panavice and pressed some buttons on it.
The room changed to a city with people walking around them and small tube-looking cars going down the road silently. The people were beautiful here and they moved around them, not giving the group of five any notice as they went about their day. He recognized the outfits. They were similar to the ones in the mall scene used during training.
“There it is,” Lucas called and grabbed Julie’s hand.
Poly gave Joey a sharp look and hurried across the street. She wore a similar dress as before, but with red and white color-changing flowers on it. Where was she keeping her knives in that dress?
A wooden sign displayed above the door read Giuseppe’s Toys. He entered the store, amazed. It was much larger on the inside than he expected. Toys hummed around the store. Flying metal birds landed on a perch near the door and tweeted at him. He pet one on the back and it flew back to the second floor. The stuffed animals’ eyes followed him as he rushed by.
Lucas grabbed a kid’s bow and arrow and shot a foam dart at Poly who slapped it away. She grabbed a large foam sword from a bucket near the end of an aisle.
“Come on, gunslinger. Let’s see what you can do against a sword,” she said, waving the sword at Joey.
He grabbed a toy gun and shot rubber discs at her, but Poly swung her sword with grace as she dodged the discs, striking them away with her foam sword. He shot another and she moved toward him, slapping the projectile away with her sword. In one second, he found the end of her sword at his neck. Her narrow eyes and scowl gave Joey good reason to hold his hands up in surrender. Her expression wasn’t all fun and games anymore. There was something else there.
She lowered the sword and he realized how deadly she’d gotten, or maybe she had always been that dangerous. Poly took a second sword from the foam weapon bucket and spun them both around.
Joey set down his toy gun for a foam sword. He stood sideways and tried to give his best fencing stance, the end of his sword pointing at Poly. “En garde.”
“Oh really?” Poly raised one eyebrow and moved closer. In two quick motions, she pushed his sword clear and struck him in the chest.
He grabbed her sword and then hit her on the top of the head with his.
“No fair,” she claimed.
“There’s no rules in love and foam-war.” They stared at each other. “Poly—”
“Look at this, guys,” Julie interrupted as he started to speak.
Poly yanked her sword away from him and stuffed it in the barrel. She marched over to Julie and Lucas, each bent over a large glass aquarium.
Joey’s stomach sank. He’d already hurt her feelings.
Joining the group, he thought they were looking at a train set with little houses. However, as he got closer, he saw tiny people doing laundry in a pail outside of their house. He leaned in with his face next to the glass. Some goats were in a pen nearby, and their neighbors were all working around their houses. Everything looked so real.
“Is this some kid simulation toy?” Hank asked.
“Oh no, this is real. Rather . . . we’re in a simulation, but they aren’t. I mean, they exist outside of here, I think. Here, watch.” Julie reached over the display, picking up a goat. The tiny people nearby screamed and ran into their house. They poked their head out of their tiny house windows.
“Look at this goat. It’s mechanical. MM put a ban on all robots, except for small toys and dolls. The tech that would go into creating something like this . . .” Julie’s wide eyes stared at the goat for a bit, and then she placed it in Joey’s hand.
He inspected the goat. A fascinating creation. The realistic small village had tiny people and animals moving around. How was it possible? He placed the goat back in the pen.
“Watch, there’s a rain button here,” Julie said and pushed the button marked rain.
The clouds moved in above the tiny town and it rained down on their roof and fields, collecting in small puddles. The tiny people scattered around, pulling their laundry into their dry houses. A small baby goat stumbled into a rising puddle. It struggled against the sticky mud but couldn’t get out.
Poly rubbed against Joey as she jostled for a better view. The goat’s head submerged under the puddle. He reached in, lightly picked up the goat, and set it in the dry pen next to the other goat. They greeted the baby goat with a few licks and the goats huddled together for heat.
“Joey, Hero of Goats,” Lucas proclaimed.
The rain stopped and the people came out of their tiny houses and looked to the sky. They moved to their goat pens to check on their livestock, then to the gardens. But they kept looking up. Were they wondering if the large arm was going to come back and take one of them away?
Joey squinted and watched the goat family as they shifted from brown to white and then back again. In a second, the whole room shifted to its white base. Joey looked for Harris at the doorway but there was no one.
“What happened?” Hank asked.
“I don’t know. The power is fluctuating—” Julie said as her fingers slid on her Panavice, before an intercom voice cut her off.
“Attention, attention. Hull breach. Everyone report to your designated zones, and await further instructions.” The message kept repeating.
An explosion from above shook the room. Joey covered his head with his hands.
“What’s going on?” Poly mouthed.
“MM. I think they’ve found us,” he called out over the warning blaring.
THE INTERCOM REPEATED ITS MESSAGE and Joey cringed. He didn’t know their designated area. Where should they go? They moved toward the scene generator door—it flew open.
“We have got to go, now!” Harris yelled. He stood at the doorway of the room. “Go to your rooms and grab your weapons. Meet me at the elevator. Run!” Then he was gone.
They all sprinted back to their hallway. Joey bolted into his room, intent on getting one item. He opened the drawer next to his bed and pulled out Samantha’s box. He ran to his door, adjusting his guns under his jacket, and opened it. Harris paced the hallway. Another explosion from above shook the floor.
Harris’s eyes darted to Joey, glanced at the other doors, and resumed pacing. If Harris was nervous, then Joey felt a near panic building in him. He moved to open Lucas and Hank’s door when they opened it themselves. Poly and Julie came out of their room a few seconds later.
“What’s going on?” Poly asked.
“He’s found us. We may only have minutes,” Harris said. Another explosion rocked the structure.
Joey looked up and gripped his gun. Tendrils of dust fell from the ceiling. He didn’t want to run. He wanted to kill. He wanted to end it now. “Let’s stay and fight,” he suggested.
“No, not here. He’ll have the upper hand. He’s prepared.” Harris shook his head. “Listen, we have no time for debate. Almadon is nuking the mainframe as we speak. With any luck, they might not even know you were here. Your rooms will be ablaze in a matter of minutes as well.” He jogged to the elevator, the doors opened and he stepped in. Joey stayed in the back and made sure all his friends got on.
The elevator plunged to the lower levels of the complex. The doors slid open and they ran down a long hallway, to a door at the end.
“The Alius stone is in the next room.” Harris said, pointing at the big steel door.
“Where do we go?” Lucas asked.
“Back to your home,” he replied.
“Preston?” Poly looked horror-struck.
“It’s the best place to go right now.”
“Is it clean?” Joey asked.
“Clean enough,” Harris said.
The sound of clanking metal emanated from the elevator, as if someone dropped a can of soda on its metal top. He turned to the doors as an explosion blew the elevator doors off, sending smoke down the hallway. They were far enough away to be safe from it, but the concussion blew by them.
Something landed behind the smoke in the elevator with a thud. Joey struggled to see the movements masked by the fog. He pulled out one of his guns, and three silver assassins emerged into the hallway.
Harris shot them dead at the elevator doorway before Joey even got one shot off. He couldn’t believe Harris could shoot from that distance. But his admiration had to wait, as three more fell into the elevator and ran at them. Harris shot two more and Joey took out the third.
Harris’s Panavice chimed and he held it to his ear. “Okay, I’ll get there as quick as I can.” He lowered his hand. “Compry and Nathen are pinned down, I need to go and help them.” Harris pointed at the Alius stone room. “Get in there and don’t wait for me. I’ll hold them off.”
Joey grunted an argument, but Harris ran down the hallway toward the elevator. Go on without him? He stuffed his gun in his holster and followed his friends into the Alius stone room. It smelled clean and didn’t have a hint of zombie goo anywhere in it.
Lucas and Julie rushed to the stone in the middle.
“You know what you’re doing?” Hank asked.
“No, not really, I mean Almadon showed us a few times.” Lucas kneeled next to the stone. “Julie?”
“You were better at it in the simulation.”
Lucas shrugged and looked put out. “We were supposed to spend most of the day tomorrow learning this.” He rubbed his hands together, and held them over the stone. He paused, hovering over the stone.
Maybe Joey shouldn’t have been avoiding his friends the last few days. They were learning how to travel with the Alius stone and he didn’t even know.
Gunfire erupted in the hall followed by a large explosion. Smoke poured into the stone room. An Arrack ran in with a dagger in hand. He shot it three times before it fell on the floor. Another Arrack emerged from the smoke; its large eyes regarded its dead friend, and lunged for Hank. Joey shot it in midair.
“We got to get out of here,” he called to Lucas.
Lucas shook his head and looked to Julie.
Julie looked several times between her Panavice, Joey, and the stone. “You got this.”
Lucas nodded his head. “No problem, I got this,” he said, as if trying to convince himself.
Rapid gunfire echoed down the hall. Joey trained his gun on the open door.
“I hope this works,” Lucas prayed aloud.
The dome went black.
WATER SEEPED INTO JOEY’S SHOES. A familiar smell hit his nose and the blood left his face. No other place smelled like it.
Joey pointed his gun at the moans coming from behind him. In the darkness, he used his ears to guide his aim. Julie lit the room with her Panavice, at the same time, Lucas screamed. He thrashed in the water with a zombie’s mouth attached to his leg. Pulling an arrow out, he stabbed it in the head until it fell from his leg.
No one could see Lucas’s leg under the water, couldn’t tell if it was bitten.
Glancing at the broken ceiling, Joey confirmed where they were . . . Ryjack. Under the casino.
The dark, domed room filled with the sounds of splashing water and moans of zombies. They weren’t alone. A zombie sloshed toward Poly and Joey shot it in the head. The sound thundered through the small space. Poly spun with a knife in hand and threw one at the zombie approaching Joey. It fell next to him and splashed water on his pants. The thing was only a few feet from taking a bite out of his back.
“Get us out of here, Lucas!” Poly squealed.
Lucas dragged his leg and kneeled next to the stone. A zombie fell from the ceiling and crashed next to him in the water. He stumbled back as it emerged from the water, clawing after him. Joey shot it in the head and it echoed through the bowels of the casino.
“Now! There’ll be more any second,” Joey ordered.
Julie directed her light to the stone and Lucas. Lucas’s red-covered leg came into view. He froze, transfixed at the sight of his leg. He knew—they all knew—what it meant. Placing his hands next to his wound, Lucas peeled back the damp clothes.
Another zombie fell from the opening above, sending foul water splashing on everyone. Hank smashed its head with a large piece of concrete.
Julie bounded to the stone. “Anywhere is better than here.” She punched her fingers against the stone and it hummed.
The ceiling changed to a steel dome. However, the foul water and smell still filled the room.
Julie ran to Lucas. “You’re bit.” She helped Lucas to his feet.
“Where’d you take us?” Lucas clutched his leg and winced.
“I don’t know.”
He laughed—his face already pale. “Maybe somewhere awesome.”
“Maybe,” Julie sobbed.
Lucas fell to his knees and bent his head back.
Julie grabbed his arm and tried to get him up. “Help me. We need to get him out of here.”
Hank rushed to help her carry him across the dome to the steel door, while Joey avoided the carcasses littering the floor. He kept his gun trained on each body as he passed it. He wouldn’t let another of his friends get hurt.
Poly took her place next to him as they reached the door. He pulled the handle and climbed out of the room and onto a stone ledge in the middle of a hill. He helped Hank lay Lucas on the ledge. Joey swallowed and turned away from the blood trailing down his leg.
Of all the places, in all of the worlds, Lucas had to choose the one filled with zombies. He wanted to be mad, but settled for pacing. “Is he going to be okay?” It was a stupid question and Lucas answered with a moan.
“I don’t know.” Julie flailed her hands as she knelt next to Lucas’s leg. “Hank, open that bag and get me the white box with the tree on it.” Her face contorted with fear.
Hank flung the bag open and pulled the box out. She rummaged through the white box as they hovered over her.
Poly paced nearby, her face occasionally peeking from behind her hands. “You know what you’re doing?”
“Almadon showed me some basic medical stuff.” Julie held a glass bottle with red liquid in it. “Can you guys give me some room?”
Joey stepped back and scanned their surroundings, realizing they had no idea where they were. A zombie could be nearby, or who knows what else. He looked up to the cliff they were next to, waiting for a zombie to fall off the edge. Above them, he saw large pine trees. Below them, an ocean splashed its waves on a sandy beach.
“This may hurt.” Julie had put on gloves and pulled up Lucas’s pant leg. She dipped her finger in the red liquid and pulled out a glob of the goo. She grimaced and watched Lucas’s face as she rubbed the medicine over his leg. It stopped bleeding immediately and Lucas’s face changed from total agony to complete wonder.
Lucas half-smiled. “Wow, what’s in that stuff?”
“It’s a bit of everything.”
Julie studied the wound with the blood cleared off. Two crescent-shaped bite marks marred his leg at the calf.
“I’ll put some bandages on it.”
Hank covered his mouth and turned away. Joey knew what the big man felt. He felt it as well. He saw it on everyone’s face. The question hung in the air like a neon zeppelin over them. He looked Julie in the eyes; someone had to ask.
“How long do we have?”
She stared at Joey, her eyes full of tears. She didn’t want to hear the question, as much as he didn’t want to ask it. “I don’t know.”
“I’m fine.” Lucas climbed to his feet as Julie gasped. “See? All good now.” He walked in a tight circle, holding his arms out with a big smile.
“He needs a hospital,” Poly pleaded. “We need to get him somewhere where he can get help.” She pointed at the stone room.
“No can do. That’s a one-way stone we came in on, a slave stone,” Lucas said. “What? I listened to stuff Almadon said.”
Joey sighed. Stuck in an unknown world got his heart beating. Were they still on Ryjack? Harris said the stone seemed to have a mind of its own when you tempted it. Could the stone be so vengeful, it would send them back there?
“Where’s the nearest stone?” Joey asked, staring at the crashing waves below them.
Julie held the Panavice in her hand. “About fifty miles to the south, there is a master stone we can use.”
“Can you walk on it?” Joey pointed at Lucas’s leg.
Lucas raised an eyebrow. “You want to race?”
Joey smiled and shook his head. “You couldn’t beat me with two good legs.”
“I was talking to Hank. I could beat him with zombie bites on both legs.”
“Not if I got my hands on you first,” Hank added.
“Can we just race out of here and get to that master stone?” Poly stared at Lucas’s leg.
A small dirt path hugged the cliff wall and led down to the beach.
“If we keep close to the water, it’ll cover our tracks.” Julie shrugged. “I don’t know if they can follow us or not.”
Joey glanced back up at the ledge. “Yeah, sure, why not?” He hoped Harris could follow them. It didn’t feel right not having him around. They now had no safety net; bad decisions could not be made. Making the wrong choice would most likely get them killed.
Waves crashed nearby, sending a mist over them. He felt the salty water on the back of his hand. He’d never seen the ocean, and admired the massive body of water as he moved closer to the water line.
THEY’D MADE GOOD TIME JOGGING down the beach, trying to close the distance to the master stone. Joey’s legs and chest burned as he slowed down and gazed at the sun nearing the ocean’s edge.
“It’s going to be dark soon. We should find a place to make camp,” he said between breaths.
“Not on the beach, we’ll be sitting ducks.” Julie bent over, panting.
“I think I see a path up the cliff,” Hank pointed out.
Joey led the way up a crooked path on the rocky cliff. The climb up the narrow path was slow, but when he reached the top, he looked back at the setting sun over the ocean, with its thin, golden clouds stretching over the horizon.
“We’re on the west coast. I’d say northern California by the look of the trees,” Julie said.
“You think we could be back on Earth?” Poly squeaked with hope.
“I doubt it, no trash on the shore line, no planes.”
“As long as we’re not on Ryjack,” Lucas said.
Poly looked distant as she let the sun warm her face. “My mom took me to San Diego once for some convention. I stood on a beach and watched the sunset . . . just like this one. It’s amazing.”
Joey thought the sunset made the world familiar. Maybe, by some miracle, they were on Earth. Maybe it was a no-fly zone. He turned away from the view and faced the forest. Pine trees lined the bluff, with ferns and bushes filling in between.
“Let’s get far enough in so we can’t be seen,” he said. “And don’t make any noises.”
“You think we might still be in Ryjack?” Julie asked.
“Don’t say that,” Poly begged.
“It’s a possibility,” Julie huffed. “Let’s just find a place to camp for the night.”
Joey didn’t think it smelled like Ryjack, but things could be deceiving. A lurking zombie might be behind a pine tree in the distance. He led the walk into the forest with his gun out, straining to see deep into the darkening forest.
The rocky edge of the coastline gave way to a pine needle floor. Joey stepped into the dense forest, feeling the strange similarity of stepping into Watchers Woods. He wished he never stepped in there. If he’d just listened to his parents, maybe Simon would’ve never found them.
What was done was done. He gripped his gun and tried not to look back.
With the forest around them, he took in the sweet, moist smell. It was amazing compared to the recycled air of the bunker and the horrendous smell of the Ryjack zombies. He stepped over a rock covered in moss, enjoying the new surroundings. The bunker had dragged him down more than he realized. It felt great to be outside and away from the cold walls and artificial lighting.
After a few minutes of walking, he couldn’t see the ocean, but the drone of crashing waves gave Joey enough reason to push farther into the forest. They walked until twilight set. He found a clearing with some grass and thin layers of pine needles spread around the forest floor.
“We can camp here tonight,” Joey said. He cleared an area with his foot and then piled pine needles to create a makeshift bed. Poly watched him as he made his bed and matched his style, fashioning her bed next to his.
Darkness overcame the forest and the night sounds appeared. The crickets creaked and the owls hooted. Joey listened to the familiar noises, but refused to let the familiarities set in. His gut told him he was far away from home.
“This place sounds like home,” Poly said, echoing his thoughts. “But it sure feels different.”
“Yeah, it does.” Julie eyed the surrounding area. “You guys think they’re okay? You know, Almadon, Compry, and them?” Julie asked.
“They’re pros. There’s no way they didn’t have a hundred ways to escape that situation.” Lucas sat down, favoring his leg.
“How far away are we from the stone, Julie?” Joey asked.
“We have a long trek tomorrow and we should see it the day after next.”
Another night in the forest didn’t seem like a bad idea to him. He was starting to make out the stars in the darkening sky peeking through the tree canopy. A branch cracked from behind him and he jumped up, his gun in hand, only to see the branch had fallen from a nearby tree.
“We probably shouldn’t make too much noise. We don’t know what could be lurking out there,” he said.
“I know, freaking zombies, grinning at us in the dark,” Lucas agreed.
“Shut up, Lucas,” Julie said as she nervously looked around. “Here let me change those bandages.” She pulled out the medical box and worked on his leg. He seemed to relax as she spread more goo over the wound.
Poly scooted closer to Joey and grabbed his arm. She seemed scared as she looked around the forest.
She isn’t scared of anything, usually. He slid his arm around her back and pulled her closer for a quick hug. She seemed to relax and lean against him for support.
A gust of cold air blew by them and stirred the forest canopy.
“We better keep watch,” Lucas said looking at the swaying branches above.
“Yeah, I’m not sure if I’ll be sleeping much anyways,” Julie said.
To keep it fair, they decided which two would take first watch with a game of rock-paper-scissors. Joey was with Julie on the first shift.
As the others settled into sleep, he found a spot next to Julie and sat down. Studying her Panavice, she curved around it protectively. The screen produced little light. She must have had some kind of night setting on it.
“Hey, Julie,” he whispered.
She looked at him with a blank expression and then glanced at Lucas. The darkness hid how bad he looked. “I’m freaking out.”
“Lucas will be fine. We just need to get him out of here.”
“I don’t know. Look at him. He’s pale and I know it’s hurting him. He’s just trying to look tough around you and Hank, but I know better. He’s suffering.”
Joey sighed. He and Julie never clicked like many of the others had. She was into her books and smartphone. Samantha was always closest to Julie. Samantha was their unifying bond.
“I keep thinking something awful is happening back home,” Julie said. “It doesn’t feel right without Samantha here.”
“You miss her too?” he asked.
“Well duh, not having her around sucks.” Julie paused and leaned closer to him. “I keep having nightmares about her.”
He had nightmares involving Samantha too, but didn’t want to scare Julie with them. “Samantha’s with our parents. I’m sure she’s fine. Probably worried about us.”
“Yeah,” Julie said, but with a distance in her voice.
He looked at her face. The corner of her eyes creased and her features sagged. He hated seeing any of his friends sad. He sighed, thinking of any way to brighten the situation—the way Poly would.
“What’s up with that Panavice?”
Her eyes brightened at the question and she smiled. “You have no idea what these things are capable of. It’s almost endless.”
“This makes any smartphone look like a jerk. I’ll show you. What do you want it to do?”
He thought about this and it seemed a ridiculous question. Then he knew something that he would like. “Can it make us warm?”
She smiled and slid her finger around the screen and then pushed a button. The Panavice’s screen began to glow red and then he felt heat radiating from it. He looked at her smiling, putting his cold hands closer to the red screen.
She whispered into the Panavice. The glow stopped, and cold night air took over.
“Can it make us Twinkies?” Joey asked.
She laughed and shook her head. He smiled back, but he had really hoped it could.
Julie stared at Poly’s sleeping body and then turned to him. “You know, at first, you freaked Samantha out with that attempted kiss,” Julie said.
The darkness covered the redness on his face. Samantha had told Julie about the kiss. His curiosity beat out his embarrassment. “What did she say?”
“She just had never looked at you that way.”
Did she know about their actual kiss on the porch?
“Don’t look all down like that, because she does now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. She just said you were hot and stuff,” Julie said. “God, this is getting uncomfortable.”
I’m hot? He couldn’t stop smiling.
“You know,” Julie whispered, nodding at Poly. “She doesn’t know. About the earrings, or the kiss. I don’t even know if she realizes you like Samantha.”
Did Poly tell Julie about their time on the blanket? He gazed at Poly’s sleeping body. Thoughts of fireflies and her warmth ran through his mind. “Poly’s an amazing person. Truly.”
“She is,” Julie said. “Do not hurt her.”
“I won’t,” Joey said. The thought of hurting Poly seemed impossible. He glanced at her again, curled up on her side. She was the kind of person you’d die to protect.
IN THE MORNING, THEY SHARED some meal bars from their bags.
Joey cleared his throat and spoke up. “We better get moving.”
With bags packed and more goop applied to Lucas’s leg, they jogged deeper into the forest, following deer trails—at least what he thought were deer trails. Joey hadn’t seen one yet. He searched the surrounding forest, looking for a familiar part, something that told him they were not on Ryjack. The wind starting playing with his senses, the sways of branches and rustles of leaves whispered black-mouthed breaths.
As leader of the hike, Hank stopped abruptly. Oblivious to the group halting, Joey bumped into the back of Poly. Grabbing her waist, he pulled her upright and quietly apologized in her ear. She seemed to think it was funny and nudged him with a giggle.
“Look, there’s a house over there,” Hank whispered.
Joey and Poly froze in their playful back and forth and locked in on the distant small house. Through the trees, Joey made out the thatch roof and plastered walls. He was scanning the area around the house when he saw it. He stumbled backward and pointed at the silver creature hitting the dirt with a long pointed tool.
“There’s an Arrack,” he whispered, his shaking hand pointing at it. He looked at the gun in his other hand, not remembering pulling it out.
“Oh my god.” Poly covered her mouth.
Joey glanced at her and then moved against a tree, pulling her behind him. “I think I can hit it from here.” His shaky hand raised the gun and he rested it against the tree, pointing at the silver creature as it swung its tool into the dirt. The Arrack filled the space at the end of his sights. His finger flirted with the trigger. It was a long shot, but he thought he could make it.
A sound emerged from the house behind the Arrack. It turned to face the house when a small Arrack ran into its outstretched arms. Scooping up the small Arrack, it held the child in a long hug.
Joey’s mouth hung open and he watched the two Arracks for a second longer before turning back to his friends.
“There are Arracks on this planet.” He kept his gun trained on the pair.
“How can that be?” Hank asked and stepped closer, vying for better view of the pair.
“Is that a kid with its parent?” Poly whispered. “Joey, put the gun down. We aren’t killing some family.”
He complied and stuffed it back in the holster, while keeping an eye on the pair.
“Where did they come from?” Hank asked.
“Look at that house, it’s proportioned for them, short doors and windows. Bits to bytes, this is there planet.”
“That’s crazy—” Hank began to say.
“They have to come from somewhere,” Julie interrupted with a bit more volume and Poly shushed her.
Lucas paced with a limp. “Oh great, we get away from freaking zombies and now we are stuck on a planet of Arracks? Why can’t we just, for once, land on some Hawaiian Tropic bikini competition island?”
Joey eyed Lucas’s leg as he favored it heavily. “This doesn’t change the fact we have to get to that master stone. Consider it lucky we found them before they found us.” Although, that island Lucas mentioned did sound awesome.
“Joey’s right.” Julie glanced at the Arrack’s house with disgust. “We should get to that stone as fast as we can and get off this planet.”
Rubbing his chin, Joey watched the two Arracks walk hand in hand to their house. No daggers hung from their waists, nor did they have three yellow lines on their shoulders. But those zombies didn’t want to kill us either, until they saw us. These Arracks might change into the crazed killers they’d witnessed in the forest.
“We need to avoid them for as long as we can,” Joey said. “Which way, Julie?”
With a task given, she jumped at the chance to use her Panavice. “That way,” she pointed past the house.
“We’ll find a way around it. Hank, you want to keep leading the way?”
He nodded and headed to the right, deeper into the forest. Poly and Julie followed behind and Joey slowed down to walk next to Lucas.
“How’s the limb?”
“Hurts, but I’ll manage.”
Joey nodded his head and glanced quickly at the bandages wrapped around his leg. Each look sent a jolt of goose bumps through his body. He studied Lucas’s face for a second and then looked ahead.
LUCAS HAD BECOME EVERYONE’S SILENT obsession. Normally he would have reveled in the attention, but he was too sick to notice. After several hours, Lucas began favoring his leg heavily, and the red dots on the white bandages had grown to one large red blob. Working a path through the forest was taking a toll on each of them with scrapped arms and legs but most of all it was killing their speed.
Hank slowed to a stop and motioned them to come to him. They kept quiet and moved next to Hank and the dirt path to which he was pointing. Not a deer trail, but a ten-foot wide dirt road with ruts on each side. Joey pushed through the last bush and rubbed his legs. He pulled a few twigs and leaves off his shirt and waited for everyone to get on the road.
“We’re never going to make it trudging through the forest like that.” Joey lingered his gaze on Lucas. “Let’s take the road until sunset. Then, we can make camp in the woods.”
“It would save time,” Poly agreed, glancing back at the thick forest behind them.
“We’re exposed on the road.” Julie leaned in close to Joey. “It could be risky.”
Joey’s wide eyes pointed at Lucas. “We don’t have a choice.”
Her lips thinned and she nodded.
“Poly, watch our backs, okay?”
She jostled a knife in her hand and nodded. The road stretched deep into the forest in both directions until curving and disappearing into the foliage.
They jogged their way down the road, stopping for water and a snack before starting again. He saw the low sun through the pine trees, there was maybe an hour before darkness. He looked at Lucas’s leg for the thousandth time of the day, his bandage red with blood.
Darkness spread over the forest and the night air cooled the sweat on his body. Joey’s lungs hurt and his legs ached. He slowed to a walk and Hank stopped, bending over and breathing hard. Joey stopped as well and tried to shake the numb feeling from his legs. Lucas kept his hands on his hips and stared at the dirt road. Hank looked almost as bad as Lucas. He didn’t want to push them too far, but with each passing minute, Lucas looked worse. Maybe he could get them to slump along for a bit longer.
“Let’s walk for a few more hours,” Joey said, looking over his shoulder. They could travel on the road well into the night. The moon gave enough light to see their steps. Everyone agreed to the slow go.
Joey looked to the sky, staring at the stars as they trudged down the road. The big dipper looked just like the one on Earth, or like the one in the simulator with Poly, when the fireflies formed shapes.
Lucas coughed and bent over, grabbing at his leg. “I’m fine. Keep going.”
They slowed to a crawl, but kept on for two more hours.
“Let’s walk into the forest and make camp,” Joey said finally, his stomach growling. He led the way through the forest, struggling to find a path in the dark. Twenty minutes in and he found a clearing large enough to fit them all, and it was behind a small hill of rocks, giving them cover.
Clearing a spot, he watched as Poly created one next to his. He smiled.
“Let’s get those bandages changed.” Julie sat and opened her bag. Taking the bandages off, the red, swollen leg was exposed. His face lit up in anticipation as she pulled the white jar from the bag. She smeared the cream onto the bite, and Lucas’s face relaxed and he let out a long breath. She wrapped fresh bandages around the wound. With her back to Lucas, she showed Joey the near empty jar before stuffing it back into the bag.
A gust of cool air blew over them and sent chills over Joey. The fresh smell and peaceful nighttime noises of forest were in deep contrast the feeling in his gut. If they did get to the stone, he didn’t know if Lucas could even be treated. Harris had never mentioned a cure.
Julie stood and scanned the surrounding forest. Joey did the same, but nothing moved in the dark.
His sweaty clothes felt cool with the night air blowing over them. Another chill swept through his body and up his neck. He looked at his friends to make sure nothing went into slow motion. Where were you, slow-mo, when that zombie bit Lucas? Joey sat on his pine needle bed, bringing his knees close to his chest.
The weight of it all kept the words choked up in his throat. Lucas would usually be the one to break the strange silence. He took a deep breath and let out a slow release, hints of mist floated out from his breath. “Julie, think you can heat up rocks with the laser gun on that thing?” he asked.
Julie stared at him, eyebrows lowered. “Oh, yeah.” She slid her fingers over the Panavice and pointed it at a pile of rocks next to them. A red beam shot out, striking the rocks. She spread the beam around the pile until they glowed red.
Joey scooted on the ground, getting close to the warmth. The rest joined in, forming a half-circle around the rocks.
“How’s the stub, Lucas?” Hank asked.
Everyone turned to Lucas.
Lucas leaned forward and touched his leg. He swayed a little before his eyes rolled back. Head slumping down, his chin rested on his chest.
“Lucas?” Poly asked.
Joey felt a weight pushing against his chest and a headache building as his blood pressure rocketed. Julie crawled next to him. “He’s cold.” Whatever color Julie had left her face.
Lucas jumped to his feet and screamed with his hands extended.
Joey feel backward, grabbing for his gun when Lucas pointed and started laughing.
“Not funny, Lucas,” Julie scolded, holding her chest.
“I’m not freaking dead yet,” Lucas said. “But man, you should’ve seen your faces.”
Joey felt as if his heart might explode. He picked his gun off the forest floor and stowed it. Poly kept a stern eye on Lucas as she held a knife in her hand.
Lucas sat back down, proud of his accomplishment. Though after a while, some of the pain showed in his face again, as a red dot formed on his bandage.
They rock-paper-scissored for the first shift—Joey and Poly came up first. Julie heated the rocks again and set up her bed next to Lucas.
After a day of running, the sounds Joey was waiting for came quickly from his friends. They were asleep, and for the first time since under the oak tree, he and Poly were alone. He held out his hands against the heat of the rocks and glanced at Poly. She scooted close against his side and held her hands out next to his.
“This would be pretty cool if we weren’t in an Arrack world and if Lucas were better,” she said.
“Yeah, and we didn’t have some mad man after us.”
“Okay, so maybe it’s not that cool.”
He saw her staring at him from his peripheral vision and kept his eyes forward.
“What do you think’s going to happen to us?” Poly asked.
He looked at her face. It amazed him to see the same sweet note in her eyes, even after what they had seen. He took his hands from the warmth and placed them on his lap. “I don’t know. I have no clue what to do.” How could he fill in for Harris? He hated every decision he made, thinking it would be their last.
She placed a hand on his knee. “You’ve been doing great,” Poly said.
“Great?” he asked. “Look at Lucas.”
“You can’t control everything.”
Joey stretched his legs forward, feeling the warmth on his feet. “I don’t know what we’re going to do if something happens to Lucas.”
“I think we know what will have to be done,” she stated matter-of-factly, looking at the rocks.
Joey swallowed and stared at the side of Poly’s face. He did know, but he could never talk about it the way she did. She was right though. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought it a thousand times while looking at Lucas’s leg.
“Think they have fireflies here?” she asked, looking in the sky.
He laughed. “I don’t know.” It was a better subject than the impending doom that was Lucas.
“Julie said this is just another version of Earth. She said if they had the internet, she could probably pin down the exact point in history when this world turned different than ours. The smallest things can change the future in drastic ways. Sometimes for the worse . . .” she said, looking at him, “and other times for the best.”
He bumped her shoulder and they both shared a smile. “You know, you’re starting to sound like her,” Joey said with a smile.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
The full moon stretched over the tops of the pine trees and produced enough light to see all the features of her face. She had such a brightness about her, an infectious spirit. She was pretty, but it was more about her presence—her aura. Being around her, he couldn’t help but smile.
“Think there are Earths with no moons?” he asked.
“I think all possibilities are played out, but without a moon, the Earth wouldn’t be stable enough for higher evolution.” She stared at him with a wicked smile. “Okay, Julie talked about this stuff every night in the bunker. I might have listened to some of it.”
He laughed and looked to the moon.
“You should have seen her back there, on the computer system, figuring out how all their stuff works. I don’t think she slept for more than a few hours in that place.”
“Yeah, well she seems pretty fond of her new toy.”
“You have no idea.” Poly eyed his body. “Can I see your gun?”
Taken aback by the question, he looked at her. She thrust her hand out. He took one of his guns from its holster, making sure the safety was on, and placed it in her palm. She rubbed the steel barrel and wood grips, inspected the sights, and handed it back to him.
“Just curious,” she said. “Guns are barbaric. At least that’s what Mom would say.”
“What are knives then?”
“I’m not agreeing with her. I just wanted see what one felt like,” Poly said. “I’ve seen you do some amazing things.”
With her one eyebrow lifted, he knew she wasn’t referring just to his guns.
“Well, anyone can pull a trigger, but how many people can do what you do with those blades?”
Poly pulled a throwing knife from her side and spun it on her fingertip. “Not many.”
THEY HEADED OUT IN THE morning at first light, reaching the road as the sun peeked through the trees, casting long shadows over them.
“Should reach it today,” Julie exclaimed, looking at her Panavice.
Joey nodded and started the jog down the road. After an hour, he saw Lucas lagging behind. He slowed and alternated from walking and jogging.
“Can we take a water break?” Lucas asked. He gulped down water, letting it spill over his chest. He was getting worse and Joey wasn’t sure what to do about it.
Joey drank some water, and looked at the road. It stretched the edges of his vision to see ahead of them—nothing. Turning around, he spotted something far behind them, a horse pulling a cart. The sun would be in the riders face . . . maybe they weren’t seen.
“Everyone off the road.”