FROM THEIR VANTAGE POINT IN the forest, they could see the Arrack approaching. Lucas, sweating and pale, got his bow out. Poly had a knife in her hand. Joey pulled out his guns.
“It looks like a horse drawn cart,” Joey said.
“It could be some harmless traveler,” Julie said, not looking up from her Panavice.
“Maybe, but why take a chance?”
They watched as the horse pulled a small cart with an Arrack holding the reigns. The Arrack stared straight ahead and passed by. They lowered their weapons and relaxed.
Making their way back down to the road, they continued on their journey. He tried not to think about the Arrack, but he saw the rest of the group looking over their shoulders.
Halfway into the day, Joey saw a glimmer of something far ahead—something reflecting light. “How much farther is it, Julie?”
“Two miles, I think,” she said, looking at her Panavice.
“I think we should move into the forest,” he said.
They headed into the forest and walked parallel to the road. Joey peered through the throng of trees and undergrowth, looking for something out of the ordinary. He stopped about a hundred feet from the end of the forest, green grass spread out for a bit before it ran into a building. The same single story building lined the dirt road for about a half mile. Smoke rose from a few other building’s chimneys and several silver figures appeared in the small alleyways between them. It looked like a town out of a Dickens novel. Just replace Tiny Tim with a silver assassin.
“Let me guess, the stone’s in that town?” Lucas coughed.
Julie studied her Panavice and nodded her head. “Yep, I think it’s in that large orange building in the back of the town.”
Joey spotted the building and shook his head. Of course it was. An easy task would have been asking too much. The space between the buildings gave him enough visibility to see the Arracks meandering through the town, kids running by, some of the larger ones carried sacks on their backs. The orange building had several Arracks with the yellow stripes leaning against its orange plaster.
A bird whistled from behind them, but it didn’t sound like any bird he knew, too much breath behind it. It sounded human.
They heard the call and a split second later, the forest filled with Arracks surrounding them, pointing daggers at their necks.
Where had they come from?
Joey reached into his holster, but stopped as a dagger closed in on his throat. He scanned his friends and they were all in the same predicament. Three Arracks surrounded Poly and she gave them fiery looks.
Her gaze met his and when he shook his head, her hand moved away from her knives. How could he have missed a group of Arracks directly on top of them? They were out-manned and at a disadvantage. Joey’s heart pounded in his chest, but he tried to keep his expression calm.
An Arrack stepped between two others holding knives on Poly and Julie. This Arrack had a large necklace and his yellow eyes stared into Joey’s.
“Who are you?” Its voice hissed through pointy teeth.
The thing spoke English. Joey struggled with the shock and answered the question. “Joey Foust.”
“You’re not in MM uniforms.”
Poly crossed her arms, but Joey answered first. “We’re not with MM.”
The creature’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know of any travelers other than MM.”
When this one said MM, his eyes narrowed and his lip quivered in disgust. Joey put his hands up and declared, “We just want to use your stone and be on our way.”
Another Arrack spoke in a slurred, hissing tongue and the necklace Arrack nodded his head. “We’ll take you to Sharati. She’ll decide what to do with you.”
The necklaced Arrack whistled that same birdcall and pointed to the town. The others thrust their daggers at them, ushering them forward.
Joey counted eleven of them. If he could slow down time, he could get them out of the situation. He concentrated on the fear and anger building in him. He pushed for the chill, but it wouldn’t materialize. He huffed out a breath in frustration. Poly brushed up against him as they walked out of the forest and into the grass field next to the town.
The Arracks herded them across the field and to the back of a large gray building. Hope departed as they reached the door at the back. An Arrack pushed it open and motioned for everyone to enter. Joey stepped in first and saw the four walls with no windows. A door stood on the opposite wall, wedged between thick plastered walls. Hank, Poly, Julie, and Lucas filed in with him and then the Arracks closed the door and left them alone in the small room.
“Great, now we’re in jail.” Lucas dragged his leg and plopped down on the wooden bench.
“They could have killed us out there,” Julie said. “But they didn’t.”
“For now.” Poly flipped a knife in her hand and stared at the door. “I could have taken out a few.”
“You’re right. I could have taken out three as well. Hank bonks a few with those monkey fists of his and Joey . . . Joey, why the hell are you not going all slow-mo on these things?” Lucas asked.
“I can’t just summon it on demand. Don’t think I didn’t try.”
“Oh no, I saw, I thought you were going to mess your pants out there.”
“Shut up, Lucas,” Julie said. Lucas huffed and stretched out his hurt leg in front of him. Julie tapped the screen on her Panavice. “They left us with our weapons and stuff. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t feel right. We’re in a freaking Arrack prison. Jeesh, take me back to Ryjack. At least then, I’d be reunited with my peeps.” Lucas rubbed the top of his leg.
Julie scowled at him, but didn’t tell him to shut up this time. Her face crunched up as her gaze followed his hands massaging his leg.
The door on the inside made a clacking sound as a small window opened. A veiled person stood on the other side of the door, staring in.
“You’re not MM.” It wasn’t a question.
The inside door opened and the Arrack removed her veil, letting it drape over her chest. Her shoulder had the three yellow lines. She stepped into the small cell and kept a hand on the dagger at her hip.
“The question is, who are you and why are you here?” Her voice hissed in its slow delivery. When her gaze paused on Lucas, her eyes narrowed and her fingers tapped on the dagger at her waist.
“We’re trying to get away from Simon . . . from MM. We need to get to the stone and get back to where we belong,” Joey explained.
“So you’re travelers? Which of you can control it?”
Joey shrugged and looked at his friends. “I think we all can.”
“Interesting.” Her steps slid across the concrete floor, closer to him. “Do you come from the same planet as them? You smell different.” She breathed in deep with her nose and her eyes went wide for a split second and then narrowed.
“Yeah, we’re all from Earth.”
Her face told him she’d never heard of it. “Your type has ruined our kind, so don’t think I trust a word you say.”
“We’re not with MM. We hate them,” Poly said.
“Are you Sharti?” Lucas asked and then struggled to keep a straight face.
“Sharati,” she corrected. “Yes. Who are you all?”
“Lucas, Hank, Julie, Poly, and I’m Joey.”
Sharati moved to the door like liquid in motion. “I used to be an M’arrack. Forced to work for them.” Her face contorted with anger. “They used us like objects, sending us to endless worlds, looking for babies. We lost so many.”
Joey controlled the emotions building in him and flattened the expression on his face. He didn’t want her knowing they were the ones she had looked for. “I’m sorry for your loss, but we have a sick friend and we need to get back home to get him help.”
“One of the dead bit you?” she asked.
Lucas nodded his head.
“You’ll be dead soon, and after that, you’ll be something much worse.” She looked at the rest of us. “If you were true friends, you’d kill him before he dies.”
Lucas’s face went a shade paler and he exchanged worried looks with Joey. Joey shook his head. He would not kill Lucas—he couldn’t pull that trigger.
“If we can just get to the stone, we’ll be gone, out of your town, off of your world.”
“You think you can just come in here and demand things?” Sharati’s eyes twitched and her fingertips danced on the dagger at her side. “MM’s bound us to a deal.” She slapped the shoulder with the three yellow marks. “But that deal is ending soon, and when it does, I’ll be searching for the one they call Marcus.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. MM has wronged us as well.” He hesitated, not wanting to give any information about being hunted since the day they were born, or how half their parents had been killed.
Sharati’s gaze scanned each of them. “I don’t know if I believe you. I’ve been lied to by your kind.” She backed up toward the door. He was losing her.
“I know, and while I won’t pretend to understand what you have gone through, I want you to know, we’re not like them.” Joey pulled his gun out. Sharati’s hand wrapped around the dagger at her hip and she went into a defensive stance. “This is a gun given to me by my father for my eighteenth birthday. Now it may not seem like a big deal, but this is the first real present he’s ever given me. It means more to me than any other object I possess.” He held the gun out. “It is loaded and deadly, and I want you to have it.”
Sharati took a few hesitant steps and kept her eyes on Joey as her hand pulled the gun out of his.
“It is forbidden for us to have such weapons.” She slid her fingers across the barrel of the gun. “I’ve cleaned many of these, but I’ve never owned one.” Her questioning eyes fixated on Joey’s. “Thank you.”
“No. No more of this talk. I’ll give you my decision tomorrow morning.” Sharati opened the door and left.
“We may not have—” Julie stopped when the hatch clicked as they locked the closed door.
One gun missing on his right side made him feel lopsided. He adjusted the strap as he stared at the closed door. Had he done the right thing? Maybe keeping the gun and fighting his way out would have been the smarter thing.
Julie held her Panavice close to her face. “There’s not a single MM tech around here. They’re off the grid.”
Poly stepped next to the door and put her knife next to the door’s lock. “I think I can break us out.”
“No,” Joey said. “These aren’t the same kind of Arracks we’ve dealt with in Preston and elsewhere. These are just a bunch of families, farmers, and stuff. We need to get their trust if we can get into that building.”
Their eyes doubted his words, and Poly moved her knife against the door.
He continued. “Yes, we can get through that door and maybe we can get out of this building without any trouble. If we’re lucky, we can get across town to the orange building, and find a way to get into it without any problems. And maybe we can handle the dozen guards I bet are in there. Yeah, maybe we can, but with each step toward that building, we are risking one of us being killed. Breaking that door down may lead one of us to our death.”
Poly pulled her knife back from the door. “Then what? We stay in here, like caged animals?”
“Yes, and if they try anything tomorrow, that’s when we make the move.”
“Who says we have a tomorrow?” Lucas laughed and dangled his leg out in front of himself.
“Not funny,” Julie said. “Let me get you some new bandages.”
Hank plopped the bag next to Julie.
Poly sheathed her knife. “If anything bad happens, you kill that Sharati chick first, she’s dangerous.”
THE WINDOWLESS ROOM MADE IT hard to tell what time it was, but the hatch around the door let in a few pinpoints of light and after a while, those lights disappeared. Julie kept them entertained with quiz games and such, all stored in her Panavice. The games were a great distraction from thinking of Sharati’s plans.
Shortly after dark, the door slid open a foot and an Arrack pushed a tray of food into the room. Hank rushed to it and picked it up. Mostly bread and a chili of sorts spread around in small bowls. Joey took one taste of it, but the stringy, white meat made him stick to the bread.
They rock-paper-scissored once again for who got the first shift. Feeling beat, Joey felt good about losing. He wanted to sleep, even on the concrete floor. He felt weary in every way. The conversation died off and slumber set in.
The door flung open and hit the wall. Joey jolted from his sleep and jerked his gaze at the open door with Sharati standing in it. Her eyes were wide and filled with urgency as she rushed toward them. His gun dangled from her hip.
“THEY ARE COMING FOR YOU,” Sharati said.
“Oh my god,” Julie said, clutching her Panavice near her face. “I’m getting a hit from another Panavice, maybe a mile out.”
“You turned us over to them?” Joey jumped to his feet, anger filling his head.
“No, we agreed to grant you your request, but someone must have seen you and turned you in.” Sharati held the door open and motioned for them to come out.
They left the small room and entered what looked like an office. An Arrack stood behind a desk with his arms crossed. They passed by his desk to another door. Sharati opened the door and the cool night air rushed in with hints of burning oil. A small army of Arracks stood at the ready¸ many holding small wooden torches.
The yellow flames danced across their silver skin. They fanned out from the open door, like a rainbow of assassins blocking any chance they had for escape. Joey grabbed for his gun; he’d kill them all if it would give his friends a chance to escape. He took a step toward the door and Sharati placed a hand on his chest.
“They are here to help us.” Sharati hissed out her words. She whistled two quick notes.
In one motion, all the Arracks turned their backs on the door.
“I don’t understand,” Joey said. Having the Arracks on his side felt as if he’d missed something important.
“We know who you are. Every M’arrack worth her narash does. It took me a second, but I smelled it on you. You’re one of those babies—all grown up.”
Frozen in shock, Joey closed his mouth and stared at Sharati. “Shouldn’t you hate us?”
“He needs you,” she hissed. “We believe he may die if he doesn’t get you. You are the best chance we have of getting out of our agreement with Marcus.” Sharati stepped in the doorway and the Arracks spread out from her. She motioned for them to follow. “We need to move.”
“Why not just kill us?” Julie said and then covered her mouth with her hand. Joey had asked the same question of Harris, but never told them about that conversation.
“What do you think we are, soulless monsters?” Sharati stepped outside.
Joey ushered Poly and Julie past the door. “Keep your bow out. If Simon’s here, we need to be ready.”
Lucas’s pale face nodded in response. Even in the cool night, sweat formed on his forehead. Joey rushed out of the building. The whole group of torch-wielding Arracks moved with them down the dirt road.
A horn blew.
Sharati’s attention jerked in that direction. “He’s here.” She whistled.
The Arracks grunted and moved faster, keeping a tight circle around them. They moved at the eye of the storm, surrounded by a hurricane of silver bodies. He held out his gun, searching the darkness over the heads of the Arracks. Poly stuck to the edge of the eye, holding a throwing knife. Lucas moved along in a skip, trying to keep weight off his one leg.
“He’s getting closer.” Julie stared at her screen, jogging near the center.
The sound of gunfire echoed on the other side of town—several quick shots and then silence. He was close. Joey gripped his gun and stared ahead as more shots sounded. The shots didn’t seem to bother the Arracks.
“Let’s run,” she ordered. Sharati whistled in two quick bursts.
The Arracks jumped into a run. They kept pace, but Lucas grunted. Hank sidled up next to him, grabbed his arm and helped him run with the group.
“Were heading toward him,” Julie said.
He barely heard her over the clatter of feet and rustle of weapons, but knowing the direction they were taking, he searched for an escape path through the Arracks. They might have been ten deep around him and kept shoulder to shoulder.
More cracks of gunfire sounded, and closer.
An Arrack watched the group moving down the dirt road. She scooped up the child at her side and ran into a house. The flickering lights inside the houses went out and the last few remaining Arracks on the street rushed into their homes as they passed.
Ahead, Joey spotted the orange building. He slowed a step when he looked past that and saw another mob of Arracks swirling around a tall man with a gun.
“Simon,” Julie said.
A few Arracks shoved him forward and he stumbled before gathering back into a run.
Sharati blew out three whistles.
A few rows of Arracks peeled off from their group and ran ahead, holding out their daggers. He and his friends weren’t going to make it to the orange building, unless that small group slowed Simon’s group. Joey pointed his gun out, hoping to help in some way, but the risk was too great.
His watched as Simon fired onto the approaching force. The front few skid to a stop on the dirt, but it didn’t stop their collision with Simon’s group. Simon fired into the fray, striking as many of his own Arracks as the others.
But the small attack worked. Simon’s group stopped to handle the assault. Joey whispered a silent thank you before running into the back of an Arrack. His group had stopped at the stairs leading into the orange building.
“Into the building.” Sharati ran to the front door of the orange warehouse.
Two wide wooden doors were their only way in. A bullet slammed into the wood door over Sharati’s head. She didn’t flinch. Behind them, clashes of steel filled the dark, dirt street.
Sharati opened the doors and they fell into the building. The rest of the Arracks stood at the door as Sharati closed it. The thump and latch echoed through the insides of the large, vacant building.
He searched for the stone protruding out of the ground.
“Where is it?” Julie asked.
“This way.” Sharati jogged toward the back of the building and into the shadows.
Darkness concealed the size of the building but their heavy breaths and steps on the stone floor bounced off distant, unseen walls.
The doors behind them rattled as something slammed into it. Joey jumped at the sound. Julie used her Panavice to shine light back at the double door. It vibrated again, dust falling from the edges. Gunfire peppered around the handle, but the locks held. Joey wondered for how much longer.
“Here it is. Down here.” Sharati stood near three doors and grabbed the handle of the far right door, swinging it open. Julie’s Panavice lit the stone steps leading down.
“It’s at the bottom.” Sharati pointed.
Julie darted downstairs with Hank carrying Lucas behind her. Poly touched Joey’s shoulder as she passed and headed down the steps.
“Thank you,” Joey said to Sharati. He searched for better words, but everything seemed insignificant for what they were contributing.
“Here, take this back.” She extended the gun to him. “It was an honor to hold onto it, if only for a bit.”
He took it and nodded.
They continued to pound on the front door. He wasn’t sure where the other two doors led, but he didn’t want to see her get shot down by Simon. Enough lives had been lost on account of him and his friends already.
“Why don’t you come with us?”
She looked confused and glanced at the door to the left. “This human shouldn’t even be here. I don’t have anything to run from.”
“He’ll kill you.”
“We all die.” Sharati took a step back and slammed the door.
Joey ran down the steps, breathing in the stale air as it poured out of the cave opening. He stepped into the dome as Julie focused her light on the stone in the center of the room. He breathed in a sigh of relief, actually seeing the stone. With one thing cleared from his mind, he marched back to the stairs and leaned at the wall next to the first step, peering past the edge.
The double-wide door that had been keeping Simon at bay finally succumbed and crashed down. He glanced back at his friends and they were all looking his way. Simon was coming.
Joey gripped his gun, feeling the smooth rosewood and eyeing the sights at the opening at the top of the stairs. He’d take out a few and buy some time for his friends.
“Lucas, can you get us out of here?” Joey whisper-yelled.
Lucas limped around the stone, wiping the sweat from his face. A yellow stain covered his bloody bandage. Joey gritted his teeth at the new color and told himself it was probably from the exertion or sweat of the run. He kept his attention on the top of the stairs.
“This is different. I’m not sure about this,” Lucas said as he moved his hands around the stone.
Joey bit his lip and glanced from Lucas to the stairs. Come on Lucas, we don’t have time.
The door above crashed open. Joey controlled his breathing and held his gun against the wall, steadying it. He lined up the sights to the top of the stairs. If Simon peeked his pinky out, he would lose it.
At the top of the stairs, a black jacket appeared. He pulled the trigger, striking the jacket. Puffs of cotton stuffing flew out and the stick holding the jacket moved out of sight. Joey sighed and adjusted his stance.
“Is that you down there, Joey? Or maybe you sent the girl to try to kill me. Or is it the big, dumb animal, Hank?” Simon laughed.
Joey didn’t respond. He didn’t have a shot, and even if he did, he didn’t think it would get past Simon’s personal shield. What he needed was time.
“I can hear your breathing, Joey. I bet you have your hand on that gun right now. Your dad give you those guns?”
“Why don’t you come into the hallway and find out?” Joey taunted.
“There he is. Listen, there’s something we need from you. We own it. We made it and I intend on getting it back,” Simon threatened, voice screeching at the end. He seemed to collect himself and started again in a calmer voice. “I only want you, Joey. The others are just a bonus, but if you come up right now and surrender to me, I won’t bother your friends or family ever again. They can all go back to their lives.”
He searched the faces looking at him. The soft glow of the Panavice was enough to see they all wore the same expression. Hank shook his head as if to make sure Joey understood. He didn’t want to hurt his friends and everywhere he took them put them at risk. The idea of ending it was intoxicating. Maybe he should go with Simon and end it for the rest of them. Poly’s hand touched his wrist.
Simon’s voice floated down the staircase again. “Last chance, if you portal off right now, I’ll follow.”
“Good luck with that, jerkwad,” Poly spat.
Joey frantically glanced to each of his friends. All he needed was a nod, something to tell him to do it and he would walk up those stairs.
Poly whispered in his ear, “You better not let this guy get into your head for one second. You’re not going anywhere.” She gripped his wrist hard.
“I think I’ve got it . . . or something close,” Lucas said.
“Poly dear, is that you?” Simon asked. “I have a present for you,” Simon entered the hallway, fired a shot and stepped back. Stunned at the speed of it all, Joey moved back but felt Poly’s grip loosen around his wrist.
Poly groaned as she clutched her arm, blood seeping through her fingers and running down her sleeve. Julie ran to Poly and grabbed her arm.
“That one is on you, Joey,” Simon said.
Joey fired into the stairwell, emptying his cylinders. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the explosive Harris gave him, tossed it into the stairs, and pulled the steel door close. It would blow in ten seconds.
“We need to go now!” Joey screamed.
The soft hum emanated from the room and everything went black. He knew Lucas had found another location. The dirty, musty smell let him know they were in another cave. Julie lit up the room with her Panavice.
Joey rushed to Poly’s side, being careful of her bleeding arm as he hugged her against his chest, kissing her head. “I’m so sorry.”
Her tears soaked into his shirt.
“You didn’t shoot me,” Poly said.
“I shouldn’t have let him get that shot off.” Joey shook his head and swore under his breath. He would’ve taken the deal in a second, if he thought he could have prevented Poly from getting hurt.
“What’s that box next to the door?” Hank asked.
A small metal box sat near the door with a row of numbers on the top, counting down. The first number stopped on zero and the box purred with power and vibrated on the floor. The noise grew louder with each passing second. Another number stopped on zero, only four numbers remained.
“Some kind of countdown,” Julie said. “Simon must have thrown it in here at the last second.”
“Where are we?” Hank asked.
Lucas threw his arms up. “I don’t know. I thought we were going to the bunker.”
“The doors are locked from the outside,” Hank reported as he pushed on the steel door.
“We need to get out of here,” Julie warned. Another number on the box went to zero and the humming grew louder.
“Can you get us to another stone, Lucas?” Joey asked.
“I was only taught a few locations and the last one was back on Harris’s world, the bunker.”
The sound from the box revved, squealing with a mechanical noise. The box vibrated against the stone floor, kicking up small puffs of dust around it. Another number zeroed out, only two more left.
Hank pounded his foot at the steel door. “It won’t budge.”
Joey pushed Poly back so he could see her face. “How are you doing, Poly?” Joey asked, letting go of her and inspecting her arm. It bled on both sides of her bicep; at least the bullet went through.
She lifted her arm, gawking at it with glazed eyes. “I don’t know.” She swayed and Joey held her up.
“She might be going into shock,” Julie said, staring at the countdown box. “Get us out of here, Lucas!”
Lucas moved his hands around the stone. The soft hum filled the room and the room became bright with light.
THE ROOM FILLED WITH THE smell of recycled air. Joey squinted against the onslaught of light filling the room. The noise of people talking and cars moving by drowned out the humming from the box. A glass dome, much larger than anything he had seen before, soared hundreds of feet over his head. Twisted and fantastic skyscrapers towered above the glass.
A woman arguing brought his attention to the line of people nearby. Two guards moved their hands in a defensive manner, as a woman in a purple dress with her hands on her hips yelled at them. She gazed up and made eye contact with Joey. He made out the words as she pointed at them.
“They’re allowed in and I’m not?”
Joey held Poly closer, as the men turned to face them.
“Hey!” the guards yelled and jumped from their seats. They pulled out square guns, an electrical type of gun Joey had seen in training simulations, and ran toward them. Joey held his gun in his free hand. He didn’t want to kill anyone, but another number zeroed on the steel box. Only one left. He figured he had twenty seconds before it counted down. He looked to Poly with her wounded arm and Lucas, who struggled to stand straight; they were all going to die if he didn’t do something.
He controlled his rapid breathing and felt the chill at the back of his neck flow over his body. Things slowed down. The scrolling numbers slowed to a crawl. He watched as the eight turned to a seven. The guards froze in a run, pointing their guns at him, and his four friends were all staring at the box. He had seconds to make the right decision, to get them to safety. Looking around, he found the back door on the opposite side of the dome from the guards.
He picked up Poly, carried her to the back door, and pushed on it—locked. He placed her next to the door and ran back to grab Julie. Lucas wasn’t as easy, and Hank took everything Joey had left.
Muscles burning, he fell to the ground and the sounds crashed back. His insides wanted to come out, but he willed them to stay put, with great effort. Sweat poured from his face and he struggled to get to his feet, wiping his mouth.
His friends, confused, looked around at their new location. The last circle disappeared, the box vibrated on the floor and the guards slid to a stop.
“Bomb!” one guard yelled, running in the other direction.
The box clattered against the floor. Julie pressed her hands over her ears and then it went silent and still.
The bomb exploded with a bright, white light. The sound hit them like a shockwave and blew them back against the glass. Joey fell to the floor after hitting the glass wall. The guards and some others unlucky enough to be next in line were on the ground, one struggling to get to his feet. Joey’s ears rang and he touched Poly’s shoulder. She looked up at him, terrified. The rest of his friends were on his other side. They’d all made it. He let a brief moment of relief enter his heart before he heard the noise—glass cracking.
Spider cracks ran up the glass wall to the ceiling, making a crunching sound. He followed the fractures as they splintered off the main fissures into a million tiny ones. These ran all the way to the top of the glass dome, small pieces were falling like snowflakes.
“We need to get out—” Julie words stopped as the glass above shattered, raining chunks of glass. Joey moved over Poly, covering her. He felt a few shards slice his back open, and warm blood trickled down into his pants. Julie screamed as a piece of glass stuck out of the top of her shoulder. Lucas hobbled next to her and pulled it out. She winced and gripped the wound. Bits of glass continued to fall as the entire dome shattered.
Joey grabbed the door handle—still locked.
“Hank, we need this door opened.” Urgency flooded his tone.
Hank stood in front of the door and kicked at the handle. It flung open and more shards dropped around him as Hank shot out of the dome. Lucas and Julie ran right behind him. The sounds of the city burst through the open door. The cacophony of cars, music, and hovering crafts filled Joey’s ringing ears. He helped Poly through the door and out to the alley behind the dome.
In the distance, sirens from emergency vehicles closed in on them. He had no idea where to go, but opposite the direction of sirens made sense. He looked back into the chaos of the dome. Purses littered the floor, people yelled while shoving and pushing each other to the ground, guards attempted to usher everyone to safety. He sighed, hoping everyone would make it out alive. After all, they had brought the bomb to them—even if it wasn’t their bomb.
“We’re in Vanar. I recognize some of these buildings from scenes Almadon had me do.” Julie gazed at the skyscrapers towering above. “We’re in MM territory.”
“Great, any more good news?” Lucas said.
“Come on. We better get away from here.” Joey scanned the sky. Some of it did look familiar. Holy hell. Out of all the places they could have gone.
The backs of businesses passed by, as they ran down the alley. Most had small signs displaying their wares. A man with a cigarette in his mouth, dressed in clothes resembling a chef’s uniform, appeared from the back door of one. He dumped out a bucket of dirty water as they came near. The smell of bleach filled the alleyway. When the chef made notice of them, he dropped the bucket and went back into his store.
Joey took inventory of his friends. Poly had turned almost as pale as Lucas had, and was clutching her bloody arm. Blood streaked down the front of Julie’s shirt. No wonder the man ran back into his store, they were a walking horror movie. Joey frantically looked for something to help him—no 911, no hospital, no Harris. He didn’t know a soul here, and his friends needed help.
“Keep pressure on it, Poly,” Julie said.
She nodded and squeezed her arm, wincing as she tried to keep pace. He tried not to stare at Poly’s arm for too long, the site sent him into vertigo. He blinked hard and concentrated, trying to figure out a way around the impossible. First thing, he needed to get out of the alley and get to a place where he might be able to help his injured friends.
They passed a building with a door covered in old, cracked plastic with a faded Do Not Enter sign. Joey grabbed at the plastic and broke it. He kicked the rest of the plastic down and entered the building.
Dim light snuck in, enough to see the tables and chairs filling the room. Thin pipes hugged the walls on all sides, with hoses sticking out at regular intervals. Many had signs like Rose, Cinnamon, and Chocolate overhead. He pulled a chair from the table and spun it on its leg.
“Poly, take a seat and let’s look at that,” Julie said, clutching her shoulder. Joey followed her moves, staying a foot behind.
“You’re bleeding too, Julie,” Poly said, as if noticing for the first time.
“Let’s get you buttoned up first,” Julie said. “And back off, Joey, you’re freaking me out.”
Joey took a half step back, waiting for the second he could help.
Poly sat in the chair, holding her arm and breathing fast. The pain in her face hit him in the gut, hard.
“We need to cut the sleeve off,” Julie said.
“Can I borrow a knife?” Joey asked the patient.
Poly smiled. “Make sure I get it back.” She produced a knife from somewhere in her outfit and handed it to him.
He slid the blade under the cuff of her shirtsleeve. The shirt was thick, but the knife sliced through it with ease. He peeled the sleeve back, exposing the wound. She watched his face as he stared at it. Keep strong for her.
“Ah, it’s not that bad,” Joey said.
The bullet went in one side and left a hole, but where it exited, produced damage that made him struggle to stand.
“Liar,” Poly said and smiled.
“I’m getting dizzy,” Julie said, leaning forward.
Hank moved over to help her stay up and she wobbled in his arms. The sounds of vomit splashing the floor drew Joey’s attention to Lucas. He hunched over on the floor near the back of the store, heaving. Lucas couldn’t even look up to see Julie limp in Hank’s arms. His pale face had turned a shade of gray and Joey gritted his teeth, fighting his attention between each of his friends. They were in serious trouble and he had no idea what to do. His friends were dying.
The weight of everything crashed against Joey. He moved his hand over his face, pushing against his eyeballs. He wanted to cry, he wanted to help, he wanted to make everything go away. Taking a deep breath, he met Hank’s steely gaze. A nod from his friend forced him to face the situation.
Julie propped herself back up and wiped her hair back from her face. Joey didn’t think she notice Lucas on the floor behind them yet and he didn’t plan on pulling her attention away from Poly. If something happened to Lucas . . . he’d be the one to deal with it.
“You can do this.” Joey refocused and hunched next to Julie.
“I can do this.” Julie sounded as if she was convincing herself. She pulled out a small tub of the white paste she used on Lucas.
Scrapping the bottom, she dabbed a bit onto her own wound first, then went to Poly and pushed the cream into her wound. Poly winced, but Julie moved Poly’s arm and pressed the remaining liquid on the other side. The pain in Poly’s face diminished and Julie placed a pad on each side of the arm and wrapped tape around it.
“She might be losing too much blood.” Julie swayed. “I’m not feeling too hot myself.” She swayed again and Hank held her steady.
His friends stared at him in silence. Tears pooled in Julie’s eyes. Poly slumped in her chair, and Lucas stood above his puke and leaned on the table.
“I’m not feeling too good, guys,” Lucas groaned, wiping his mouth. “I think I should just get away from you all before something bad happens.”
“Lucas, you’re not going anywhere without us,” Hank said.
Joey took a deep breath and knew this was the end. If he didn’t give in now, his friends were going to die. He’d have to put out a hand for help and hope it didn’t get bit.
“Julie, can you find a hospital on your Panavice?” Joey directed.
She jumped when he said her name, but was quick to pull out her Panavice and search. Her mouth opened and she held her Panavice up so he could see the screen.
The top of the screen read Wanted: Terrorists. Below were close-ups of their faces, and at the end, a reward of $100,000. There must have been cameras at the dome.
“Can you get past that wanted screen?” Joey asked.
“Yep.” She zipped her finger around the screen and the soft glow of the Panavice lit up her pale face as she pushed through the pages of screens.
“There’s a hospital, I think, half a mile from here.” She pointed out the boarded up front door.
Joey turned back to Poly, her face turned up at the ceiling, eyes closed. His heart stopped as he grabbed her wrist to find her heartbeat.
“We need to take her, now.” He grabbed her waist to pick her up, when Hank put a hand on his arm.
“Let me carry her. It’ll be faster,” Hank said.
Joey nodded and faced Julie and Lucas. “Can you guys walk?”
“Yeah,” they said in unison, but Lucas held onto his stomach and gazed at the floor. He looked wet with sweat and his eyes seemed different, as if some of the light had left them.
Hank picked Poly up like a child. Her arms flopped around Hanks back, one red with blood. They left out the back door into the alley. Joey peered down the alley and heard boots stomping in their direction and the sounds of radios buzzing with talk. He didn’t have time for a showdown with the authorities here. All he needed to do was get to the doors of the hospital; they’d have to take them. He shot a look at Julie, begging for the directions.
“It’s this way,” Julie said, looking at her Panavice.
Joey ran down the alley and turned a corner before he slammed on his brakes and scurried back behind the corner. There were two black cars with flashing lights parked in the alley. He held out his arm, stopping his friends. Looking around, he saw a door marked with a marionette. Lucas hung on Julie as they caught up.
“Through here,” Joey said, opening the wood door.
Stuffed bears and boxes of action figures filled the stock room before he entered the back of a toy store. To his surprise, it was similar to the one in the scene generator back at the bunker. He walked past the play swords and toy farms, striding to the front door. He looked back at Hank holding Poly, her head flopping around as he trotted through the store. Julie, panic spread across her face, held Lucas up as he stumbled past a group of metal chirping birds.
The shopkeeper got off his chair from behind the counter, raising an arm, and opened his mouth. He locked eyes with Joey and collapsed back in his chair, mouth still open. The TV on the wall behind the shopkeeper showed their faces on a newsreel.
A group of black uniformed men ran by the storefront windows. Joey ducked behind a stack of board games, watching them run by the front door. They were closing in on them. He felt claustrophobia weighing down on him.
Is the room getting smaller?
Joey felt dizzy. He needed to get out of there. His friends needed help, or they weren’t going to make it. He concentrated on slowing down time but the chills never came. He clinched his fist and made eye contact with Hank. “I don’t know what to do.”
“If Harris were here, he’d know what to do,” Lucas said, coughing into his shirt. His face poured with sweat and his skin had a hint of gray pigment.
“You’re with Harris, Harris Boone?” the storekeeper asked.
“We were with him,” Joey said.
“Oh no. Listen . . . We might only have seconds before they’re here,” the shopkeeper rushed to say. “They’re going to take you, but I’ll do what I can to see that Harris knows what happened to you. If I’d known you weren’t terrorists, I would’ve never called it in.”
Joey turned to the window to see what he feared. Black-uniformed men filled every visible space of the front windows, staring into the store. He heard a rustle in the back and saw black helmets over the aisles of toys, making their way into the store.
Lucas stumbled away from Julie, grabbing a spinning display of action figures, pulling it to the ground as he fell on his face. The toys crashed down around him. Julie fell to her knees, screaming as she shook his limp, gray body on the floor.
Was Lucas dead?
“Lucas!” Julie stopped pushing him and her bloodshot eyes connected with Joey.
He took a step toward them, fighting the tears welling in his eyes. Seeing his friend motionless on the floor was more than he could bear. His heart hurt and all rational thought flew out the window. He didn’t know what to do. He turned to Hank. Hank’s closed eyes didn’t see Joey’s plea for help. Joey stepped closer to Hank and saw his mouth move then he heard “Dear Lord. . . .”
Poly’s limp body dangled from Hank’s arms, blood dripping off her fingertip. He touched her cold hand. How much blood could she lose? Her blood smeared on his hands. It was a fitting end; her blood was on his hands. All of their blood was. Every misstep he made, led them to this toy store. He turned to the wall of men at the storefront. He concentrated, trying to slow things down. His body shook from the effort.
He yelled with his shaking fists and felt tears run down his face. They had lost; everything was for nothing. Joey fell to his knees and tossed his guns to the floor. He raised his hands as a small ball skipped on the floor near him. He knew they’d all be dead in seconds. This was the end, death by a grenade. He gazed up at Poly’s face. He wanted it to be the last thing he saw. Her hair dangled over her face, but he still made out the shape of her nose and those lips.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
An electrical bolt shot from the ball in all directions, striking him in the abdomen. His body went limp, crashing to the floor. He kept his eyes open long enough to see black boots stomping around him.
“DID YOU DISPOSE OF THE bombs?” Harris asked.
“Yeah,” Compry answered.
The Arracks had left bombs throughout the bunker when they left, leaving Compry and Almadon to diffuse them. With any luck, they never knew the kids were here.
Harris stared at the screens in front of him. News lines from around the world scrolled through at a rapid rate. He frowned at the information. It had been days since the kids left for Earth.
Well, they should’ve been back on Earth, but something had gone wrong. The video showed Lucas typing in a different location. Now they could be a million different places. Were they ready for this? He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked at Compry’s painted nails. Her comforting face did little to slow down his heart. If Simon got to them first . . . No, he wouldn’t allow the thought. The kids were smart and wouldn’t let it get to that.
“They’re out there somewhere. We’ll find them,” Compry said. “Or they’ll find us.”
The cleared bunker provided him with a safe option for now. The upper floors were hit badly, but most of it was still in operating condition. Smoke hung in the air, and an occasional warning over the intercom about a fire were the main reminders of the attack.
Harris lingered on the screen, showing the bunker’s Alius stone. He kept a hand over a button in preparation of an attack, or the appearance of the kids.
The steel door behind him creaked open. Due to the strain of the attack, the structure of the bunker had weakened in many places, leaving some of the doors harder to open and close.
“Any news?” Almadon asked.
He shook his head and watched the screens. Come on, guys. Get to a stone and head back here.
“The craft is ready for launch, Harris,” Almadon said.
He knew the craft was ready, but without the right passengers, he didn’t plan on using it. He could not abandon them to Simon. He wouldn’t let Simon use these kids for his sick purposes. He gave Almadon a nod and she stood behind him and Compry, joining them at the screens.
They couldn’t stay here long, not anymore. Simon would figure out the bombs had not gone off and would be back. He felt a touch on his shoulder again.
“I won’t leave until we find them again,” Compry said.
He knew she’d stay with him until the end. If Arracks swarmed the building and flooded each room, she’d be at his side. He placed his hand over hers.
The door opened fast and the sound of it hitting the wall was loud in the steel room. Harris spun out of his chair with gun in hand. At the end of his sights stood Nathen. He still had his arm bandaged from a bad wound he sustained defending the bunker.
“You need to turn on the world broadcast channel,” Nathen stammered out.
Harris hit a button and the screen changed from the scrolling text to newscasters. He turned the volume up.
“Breaking news, a terrorist attack at Capital’s museum leaves downtown in chaos. Those responsible are still at large.”
The all-too familiar faces of the kids popped on the screen. Harris leaned closer. He saw Poly’s bleeding arm. They all looked terrified, except Joey, who had a determined look on his face. He figured the newscaster had selected each of the pictures for maximum effect to make them look like criminals.
“There is a reward of a hundred thousand dollars for any information leading to the capture of these terrorists.”
The screen changed to a live, hovering shot over the museum dome. The broken glass on the floor the museum shimmered in the lights.
“If we’re seeing this, it may be possible Simon’s seeing this as well,” Compry said.
He needed to get to the kids before Simon did, or worse, MM’s police.
“Here’s some strange surveillance video, taken moments before the explosion,” the reporter said.
The video showed the kids appearing at the Alius stone and Harris cringed at the sight of Poly grabbing her bleeding arm. Lucas didn’t look right, either. A familiar small box sat at the edge of the circle—a bomb. Then, suddenly, each of the kids disappeared.
The reporter talked over the video. “Slowing the video down, we can see one of them moving at what appears to be near the speed of light as he moved his fellow terrorists out of the bomb’s path.” The camera changed back to the reporter.
“This is another obvious terrorist attack from Mutant Isle. We must put the right to exterminate all inhabitants of Mutant Isle on the ballot.”
Harris had seen enough. Capture was imminent in a city they didn’t know, without any friends. He’d have to get his team ready for an attack.
“Let’s get on the craft and get to Capital,” Harris said.
He watched as they all stood and walked toward the door without hesitation, all but Compry. She took a step toward him, her eyebrows crunched with her questioning face. He always liked that look. The others stopped at the door.
“You think this is smart, going to Capital?” Compry stopped a few feet in front of him.
Harris stood from his chair, the warm feeling of watching Compry walk toward him went cold as he thought about the results the last time they went to Capital.
“Is this any less urgent than last time? We may even get to them first.” He knew the chances were slim, but Marcus did miss stuff on occasion.
“My sister died last time, and many others.”
Harris rubbed his bare ring finger. They had both lost someone that day.
“Is it worth it?” She pinched her facial features again.
He took a while to respond, searching his mind for the answer. He would give his life to save others he cared for, but he didn’t think he could give the life of others. He had given far too many and each memory weighed on him, as if their souls were attached to him; they were his responsibility. “It is, and if something goes wrong, we can always blow the kids up.”
Compry raised an eyebrow at Harris’s words.
“It better not come to that.” Compry paused. “How are we going to get in?”
“We’re going to have to land a district over, if we have any chance of making it in,” Nathen said.
“Trade district will be the fastest. We can get the papers and tags we need,” Almadon said.
Harris nodded. It would take a day or two to cross the many layers of security. With each layer, there stood a chance a guard would take a second look; with each glance, there was a chance he would have to kill someone.