JOEY STARTLED AWAKE. HE OPENED his eyes and saw nothing but white. He realized it was a dream, yet his heart raced and sweat beaded on his face. He tried moving his head to see more of the white room, and couldn’t. Maybe he was still dreaming.
Attempting to wipe the sweat from his eyes, his arm wouldn’t move. He tried to look, but could only move his eyes. He saw his arms strapped to a chair. His feet, locked down as well. Joey couldn’t see it, but he now realized there was a strap across his forehead, locking it to the back of the chair. Nothing blocked his voice and he wondered if he screamed aloud while dreaming because his throat felt raw.
He looked around the room the best he could. The walls were white, and a door sat directly across the room. Squeezing his eyes closed, he tried to remember how he got there. The cloudy thoughts raced through his mind: guns, zombies, deserts, and heat. It was fuzzy, but it seemed important. There is something I need to remember. . . .
He felt panic building—something was missing. Not being able to move his body started to make him crazy. He felt as if the room was closing in on him and he was helpless to protect him and his friends. Friends! He was here with his friends. He remembered Poly, Lucas, and the others—what they had all endured . . . and Samantha.
The door opened. A man in a white, long jacket with an oak tree on the chest, walked in, carrying a thin screen. He noticed Joey and smiled. “Oh good, you’re awake,” the doctor said.
“Where are my friends?” he asked, shaking his body in futility. “Tell me!”
“Well, you and your friends are being held here for the safety of the people.”
He remembered a toy store. Fighting Poly with foam swords, as she easily beat him in their friendly battle.
“Where is Poly? Is she okay?” he demanded.
The doctor smiled. “Now which one is she? The one with a gunshot wound?” The man raised his eyebrows.
The doctor wrote on his screen. “She’s fine, although some of my nurses cut themselves on the knife collection she had on her. So, her name is Poly?” he verified as he wrote on his screen.
Joey’s eyes widened and he bit his lip. He didn’t want to give the man any more information about his friends. Panic bubbled up and made him dizzy. He blinked, trying to stay alert. His heart raced and sweat dripped into his eyes, making them sting. He struggled against the tight straps, but they didn’t move. How did he get here?
“You don’t look too good,” the doctor said.
He felt a hand touching his neck.
“Your heartbeat is at a dangerous level. I’m going to give you a sedative.”
He barely felt the sting in his neck.
JOEY FELT A NEEDLE GLIDE out of his neck and the room popped into vivid detail. He’d never been so awake. He felt the smooth metal chair with his fingertips. The ceiling lights flickered. The toy shop crashed into his thoughts. His friends were dying. He remembered his last thoughts before the explosion. Who were the three people in front of him? He listened to their conversation.
“Oh yes, he’ll be alert for a while. Although, I’ll have to monitor his heart rate to make sure he doesn’t go into cardiac arrest,” the doctor stated.
“Fine. Now leave us,” some woman ordered. She wore a black jacket with a tight, dark gray button-up shirt underneath. A gun stuck out from her hip, next to a badge attached to her belt.
The doctor left the room and a heavyset man sat on the doctor’s chair as he cleaned his fingernails. Joey saw the shape of a gun through his black jacket. Cops or detectives of some sort.
“I’m Unitas and this is my partner, Larry.” The woman pointed to the portly guy in the corner. “We need to talk to you about what happened at the museum.” She smiled, but not the kind of smile Joey got from Poly. This smile made him squirm in his seat.
Museum? She must be talking about the Alius stone. He remembered slipping with Poly’s name and steeled himself not to repeat his mistake. Joey pushed his lips together and said nothing.
She paced in front of him. “You know, I have been an officer of the law for a long time. Don’t go thinking I started here. No, no . . . I had to work and claw my way into Capital.”
She stopped and took on a big smile, full of pride and teeth. “You know how many terrorists have gotten through my walls, my check points, and facial recognition?” She raised an eyebrow, but Joey kept silent. “None. And now, I have a mere kid strapped into a chair in front of me, and I know just by looking in your eyes, you weren’t the one to organize this. You weren’t the one to fund this. So I have to ask, who did?”
Unitas moved closer and Joey tried to move back from her advance.
“Silence then, that’s fine.” She shrugged. “You know, your friends are talking right now. The first person to tell us about the whole operation will get a deal.”
“Better take the deal, kid,” Larry said through a yawn, leaning back in the chair.
Joey thought of Simon’s deal and pushed the thought from his mind. She said his friends were talking. They were alive. It was the only information he wanted.
Unitas frowned at Larry, and then returned her attention to Joey. He swallowed, feeling like a mouse stuck in a glue trap.
“You’re the mutant with the speed, right? I watched video of you moving your friends away from the bomb. Some are even calling you a hero. But you know what I think?” She moved closer to his face. “You’re cowards. You and the others from Mutant Isle, thinking the city is the cause of your problems.” She huffed, rolling her eyes.
“I didn’t come from Mutant Isle.”
“He speaks. Oh joy,” she said, clapping her hands in fake excitement. “So where would a strange group of people like you come from then?” She batted her eyes and held her hands under her chin, staring at him.
Harris mentioned the island once before, some sort of place for Marcus to send his failed experiments. Was he a mutant?
“Arrack,” Joey said. It was the last place he came from. Did people know about other planets like Arrack?
Larry, sighing, pulled a Panavice from his jacket pocket and let out a long breath as he moved his fingers across his screen. “Nope, no such place.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she said. “I don’t like when people lie to me.”
“That bomb wasn’t even ours. We were trying to get away from it.” Joey struggled with the straps.
They both laughed. Joey wasn’t sure what was so funny.
“Oh man, you’ve got to be more original,” Larry said. “I suppose that walking biological weapon with you wasn’t yours either.”
Joey’s mouth opened to say Lucas’s name, but he slammed it shut, pursing his lips. He made eye contact with Unitas and quickly looked away.
“Are you scared of little ol’ me?” Unitas questioned, putting one finger in her mouth and prowling toward him.
Joey wanted to scream. If Poly were in the room, she could calm him down and get him through it. He closed his eyes and tried to picture her encouraging face, asking him if he was okay.
Unitas snapped her fingers. “Stay awake, eyes open. Who helped you set this up?”
Her face popped into focus very close to his, when he opened his eyes. She had a whimsical look plastered back on her face, as if she were having fun with him.
“I want to see my friends,” Joey demanded, not answering her question.
“Oh yeah, for sure. Let me see,” Unitas said. She moved close to Joey and raised her hand. “I have all five of them right here.” She held her five fingers in front of his face, made a fist, and slammed it into his groin.
Joey jumped in the chair with pain. He tried to grab at it or squeeze his legs together but he couldn’t. The pain went deep into his gut and he felt sick. Tears fell down his face, as the pain radiated up into his stomach. He wanted to scream, but held it back, causing spit to dribble out of his mouth.
“Uh-oh, we’ve got a crier,” Larry said, looking at his Panavice.
“I’ve had enough with the formalities. If you don’t answer these next questions, I’ll have to get nasty,” Unitas hissed. “Let’s start simple. What’s your name?”
“Joey Foust.” He didn’t want to set the woman off again. Telling the truth felt simpler.
Unitas looked back at Larry as he typed in the information. Larry shook his head.
“No really,” he pleaded. “That’s my name.”
Her face contorted with anger. She moved close to him with her fist clutched. He tightened his body and squeezed his eyes shut. She punched him in the stomach, and this time, he threw up on her sleeve. He coughed and wanted to wipe his mouth, but his hands wouldn’t move. She took off her jacket with vomit on it and laid it on the floor.
“I said I don’t like to be lied to, didn’t I?” she hissed, the playful look disappearing from her face.
His stomach and crotch throbbed as he tried to see through the tears in his eyes. The sour taste of vomit filled his mouth. Unitas pulled a cloth from her jacket on the floor and wiped Joey’s mouth clean.
“Can’t stand a dirty mouth,” she said.
“One last chance here, Joey, before we start to have some real fun.”
She knelt down to her jacket on the floor and pulled out a black pouch from the inside pocket. She placed the pouch on Joey’s lap and unrolled it. Stuck into the black pouches were long, metal objects. Some had pointed tips and hooks, while others looked like scalpels. Joey shook in the chair, trying to get away from them.
“I hope you’re not a screamer like Poly,” she said.
“No,” Joey yelled.
Spit frothed at his mouth and his face heated with rage. He pulled on his arms, trying to find wiggle room, but there wasn’t any. The straps dug into the soft skin of his wrists as he kept pulling.
“Well, maybe I do.” Unitas winked. “I hope, for your sake, you start being honest with us. Give us the names of the people who helped you with this stunt and you can be the one who signs the deal.” She laughed. “You may even live to tell your cellmates about it.”
Joey’s thoughts raced for an answer not involving Harris.
“The pain in your balls, kid, will be a distant, lovely memory if you get this one wrong,” Larry said, thumbing through his Panavice. He had yet to look at Joey.
“We acted alone. There’s no one else,” Joey said, breathing hard, scanning Unitas’s eyes for validation.
Unitas’ grin widened, showing perfect teeth. “Wrong,” she said gleefully. “You know, we can make this fun.” She ran a finger up his chest, her nail landing gently under his chin. “No? Too bad, you’re kind of cute.” Touching each metal pick with a finger, she made her selection and pulled it from the black bag.
Joey internally reeled back, giving her a pleading look for mercy, but found nothing behind her eyes. She looked at him like an object to play with, a thing on a mantle, a tchotchke on her desk. The deep fear that comes with knowing you are going to die started to building inside him.
“This is level one of York’s kit,” she said. “Most detectives swear by their shots and computers to tell them what they need to know, but what fun is that?”
She smiled, almost giddy. Then she moved the sharp objects to a table and sat sideways on his lap, with the metal pick in her hand. He tried to move away as she paraded the metal object close to his eye. He couldn’t escape the nightmare.
“No, please, you can’t do this,” Joey said.
She lowered the shiny metal pick, but his eyes followed its path as the sharp tip brushed against his shoulder. He tensed up; her arm hauled back quickly, and then plunged the metal into his shoulder muscle. A sharp, shooting pain went down his arm and to his spine. His hands gripped the armrests and he screamed, but kept his mouth closed. Then she twisted it and he howled in pain. The metal rod slid out of his shoulder and the pain diminished. Sweat ran into his eyes and he breathed deep, quick breaths.
“Who shot Poly?” she asked.
The room spun and he tried to focus long enough to answer. “Simon… Simon Vang.”
Unitas backed away from him. For the first time, he saw a questioning look cross her face. Maybe she didn’t have all the answers—didn’t have this one figured out.
“Simon Vang—out of all the people in the world, why would you use his name?”
“He needs me to keep Marcus Malliden alive. He shot Poly just to show me he could.” The truth. They must see he wasn’t lying. His eyes begged them to believe. He couldn’t take anymore.
Larry seemed interested. He leaned forward on his swivel chair, and for the first time, looked at Joey. “Son, you shouldn’t be dropping names like Marcus. That’s not going to help you here,” he said.
“Simon’s been hunting us, and if you hurt us, he won’t be happy,” Joey said. He watched as they looked at each other, then Larry shrugged.
“You little mutant puke, how dare you use his name, trying to save yourself.” The giddy look left her face, replaced with rage. “Level three.”
There was no fanfare with this selection as she picked the metal spike and stabbed it into his knee, just behind the kneecap. He screamed and felt her moving the metal around inside. He bellowed again, as she dug it in. Nothing in the world mattered but the pain. It burned out all traces of himself and left nothing but agony. The room spun and went black.
His cheek hurt, and then again, a sharp pain. He opened his eyes to Unitas slapping his face.
“Oh no, you don’t get to pass out.”
His vision cleared and his body felt numb. Thankfully, the spike was out of his knee. She grabbed his hair and plunged the needle back into his knee. He screamed again, a guttural scream. He wanted to die. Anything would be better than the pain.
Larry got up from his seat. Joey thought he might intervene, but he stood with an emotionless expression as he watched Unitas punish him. He had died. This wasn’t some hospital. He was in hell. He got his friends killed and these people were here to punish him for eternity.
His throat wouldn’t allow more screams. His breath fell out in silence like a dog with its voice box taken out. He deserved it, maybe more. She stopped moving the metal rod in his knee and stood up. The pain lessened enough for his body to weep. All his clothes were soaked in sweat and his muscles ached. The straps were the only thing keeping him from collapsing on the floor.
Unitas wiped her frothing mouth and pushed back her disheveled hair. Her wide eyes stared into his.
“There are plenty of other kids in this,” Larry said. “Why don’t we off this one and move to the next? I bet we can get that girl, Poly, to talk before lunch.”
Unitas’s face, red with rage, glared at Larry. “No,” Unitas yelled. “This kid will not get the luxury of a quick end. He puked on my jacket!” She moved to take the black pad of metal objects and showed Joey one of the larger ones. A metal rod, like the others, but she pushed a button on the back and three hooks shot out.
“This isn’t going to be pleasant.” She moved the metal bar in front of his face. Joey’s eyes fluttered, but he stopped trying to move away. He was ready. He wanted it to be over. She brought the metal close to his eye. He slammed his eyes shut and thought of Poly and him on the blanket, under the stars, fireflies dancing above.
The door slammed open. He opened his eyes, to find Simon standing in the doorway.
“Oh, sh—” Larry’s words died on his tongue when he realized Joey had been telling the truth.
Joey tried to break free, but he could only watch. Simon, in one motion, pulled a square-looking gun from his side and shot Larry with an electrical charge. The big guy fell to the ground, convulsing. Unitas pulled her gun out, but Simon shot her with his electrical gun first. She fell to the floor in a heap.
“Looks like I got here just in time. That was a nasty trick, collapsing the stairwell. I had to use the locals to dig it out.” Simon sounded disgusted. “But finally . . . we’re reunited, after so many years.”
Joey gave up trying to move. His body ached from the pain and strain of it all. His focus bounced from Unitas to Simon. When he was sure she wasn’t going to move, he focused on the man standing in front of him. The person responsible for shooting Poly. He hated Simon. He hated him even more for stopping the torture. How dare he be the one to save him? How dare he make it possible for him to feel relief at his presence? But he did. He was glad Simon sent her to the floor.
Simon yanked out the metal spike in Joey’s knee and tossed it to the floor. “Let me get you out of those straps.” He spun the bolts and released the bindings.
First, his legs were free and then his arms and waist. After the head strap fell to the side, he was free. Never had he had such a feeling in his life—being free from that chair was like waking from a nightmare. He moved his arms and leg to make sure it was real. Simon stood in front of him, smiling. That face built up the rage he’d known for Simon.
Joey lunged for his throat, but his leg didn’t work right and he fell to the floor at his feet. “I’m going to kill you,” he grunted, slapping Simon’s shoe.
Simon laughed. “You might be surprised at how many times I’ve heard that, but at my age, you’ve heard it all.” He knelt, face directly in front of Joey. “I’m not the one you should be fighting. I offered you a deal that would’ve saved your friends and your families. Now, the deal’s gone and I’ll make you watch as Marcus devours each of your friends.”
“Harris will come for us.”
“That fool? He and his small group have been bothering us for decades. In fact, if they hadn’t interfered with the last donor, you wouldn’t even be here.”
Joey attempted to swing at Simon, but he raised his hand to block the weak punch.
Grabbing a clump of Joey’s hair, he pulled his head back, making him look at his face. “You’ve kept me stuck for the last eighteen years.” Simon spit out the words with such hate, he felt the wet droplets cover his face. Then, he pushed his head down to the floor and Joey couldn’t move to defend it.
Two Arracks entered the room.
“Let’s sedate this one,” Simon said. “There better not be another scratch on him.”
The Arracks moved to Joey. He felt yet another needle glide into his neck.
AN OVERSIZED, BIZARRE HAT WITH a yellow veil covered most of Harris’s face. His black jacket, with enormous puffy shoulders, had a black cape cascading to the back of his knees. His tight, black, vinyl pants with a fringe of white lace extended to his shoes. The black, shiny shoes scrunched his toes together with a large square heel. He would have normally felt ludicrous wearing such attire, but he had his mind on other things. Besides, everyone in Capital seemed to wear the ridiculous.
Past the line waiting in front of Harris—all people with equally outlandish outfits—a large screen lit up with Capital Entry, and under that read, Have your papers ready. Compry was next in line for the entry into Capital.
Behind the entry, a tall, concrete wall ran to the left and right of the guards, with no openings, except for the one behind them. Car or plane travel into Capital was banned, unless you were with MM, or an official of the government. The common person waited in line.
Harris watched as guards asked Compry questions. He was too far away to make out what they said, but he saw the guard smiling and scanning her card. Compry sauntered past the guard post and behind the concrete wall. The guard waved for the next person to come forward. He exhaled, relaxing his hands. Almadon’s hack into the guards’ computer had worked.
They’d been through many checkpoints to get to this one—the last and most protected. Body scanners looked for changes in your heart rate and body temperature. A camera scanned eyes for suspicious behavior and facial recognition. This is where Almadon’s hack came in handy.
“Line’s moving,” a man behind Harris said.
Harris looked at the small space in front of him. He might’ve corrected such a person on their rudeness, but he had to keep a low profile.
“Sorry.” He stepped forward.
Almadon was next in line to the guard post. He heard a few words between her and the guard. Almadon played a haughty role and never dropped her eyes to the guards, answering their questions, as if they were wasting her time. He liked the way Almadon could take on a role with such ease.
Harris was next in line and Nathen was a few people behind him.
“Card,” the guard said, holding out his hand.
Harris handed him the card, the guard scanned it, and a picture of Harris’s fake identity showed on the guard’s screen. The body scanner, a metal plate, moved closer to his head. Harris concentrated on the construction of a combustion engine while the scanners moved near him. Pistons, camshafts, valves, and headers bounced around in his mind.
“What do you need in Capital today, Mister Tre Hoffer?” the guard said, reading the screen.
“Here on business,” Harris said.
“You planning on doing anything that could harm the people of Capital?” the guard asked, not looking up at Harris.
“The people of Capital? No.”
The guard looked up at him. “Yes or no, please.”
“No,” Harris said.
The guard picked up his card, slid it down the side of his screen, and then handed it back to Harris.
He glanced up at the smooth, concrete wall towering above him, and strolled toward the small arched opening. Two guards stood on either side. He stuffed the card back into his tiny pants pockets and tried to walk normal in his shoes through the archway.
Past the first concrete archway, he entered the dead zone, a thirty-foot space between the two concrete walls. This was the last place they might be stopped. Capital stood on the other side. A chain-link hallway connected the two walls. He looked down the dead zone, seeing the wall curve, as it wrapped around the city.
Two guards stood at the second archway. He walked past them, as if he had gone through the hallway a hundred times. They never looked at him.
He was in Capital.
Pulling back his veil, Harris was glad his yellow-tinted vision was gone. He pulled out his Panavice and looked on the map for the meeting place, Giuseppe’s Toys, two miles away.
Harris never heard of it, but Almadon said the owner, a friend, had direct contact with the kids a few days ago. He strutted through the throng of people crowding the streets. Twenty years had passed since he was in Capital. The streets and the people seemed unchanged. There were more hats on men than last time he was here, but the fashion changed frequently. Feeling the silky smooth pants he wore, he longed for his simple jeans and jacket. He sighed as he looked at the two miles he had left.
Despite the shoes, he made good time, striding through the streets in his man-heels. Harris made it to the last corner before the toy store. Across the street, he viewed Giuseppe’s Toys, looking for a person out of place, or a hint of a stakeout. Satisfied it was clear, he scampered across the street to the toy store. The sign in the window said Closed.
The glass door creaked open and he saw an elderly man with glasses looking at him.
“You looking for a toy?” the old man asked.
“A Gem doll,” Harris said the arranged password.
The door opened and the old man ushered him inside. Harris hadn’t been in a toy store for so long, he was actually in wonder, looking around at the vintage and new toys scattered around.
He took off his shoes and hat and placed them on the counter. He moved his toes and feet, trying to bring the blood back into them. He hoped never to put them on again.
“Hello, shopkeeper.” Harris extended a hand.
The man shook his hand and he felt the soft, wrinkly skin of an older hand. He held his hand for longer than standard, feeling the strange texture of old age.
“You’re the first here, but I think you already know that,” he said. “Oh great, here’s Almadon!”
He watched as the old man opened the door and ushered her in. He thought they must know each other well, bypassing the password. The two embraced in a long hug.
“Harris, you see the others yet?” Almadon asked, breathing hard.
“Not yet, it’s just us.”
There was a knock and he saw Compry and Nathen at the glass. He was starting to think they should move to the back of the shop; a closed store shouldn’t have so many customers visible from the windows.
Almadon waved them in. “So glad you made it.”
Harris moved to the back of the store. The shopkeeper locked the front door and they huddled together behind stacks of board games.
“So what do we know at this point, Giuseppe?” Harris asked when the shopkeeper joined them.
“My name’s not Giuseppe. I use that name because Lenny’s Toys doesn’t sound as good.” Lenny paused, smiling at them. Harris motioned for him to continue. “Oh yes, well, I feel really bad about this, but I was the one who turned them in.”
Harris sneered at Lenny.
“It wasn’t that I was trying to hurt them. Once I found out they were with you, it was too late,” Lenny said in a hurry.
“In the video it appeared as if Poly, Julie, and Lucas were badly injured. Did you get a good look at them?” Almadon asked.
Lenny took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “The big boy carried one girl like a ragdoll, blood dripping steadily from her arm. Another sick young man looked like the dead walking, until he finally just fell limp to the floor. The other girl with the bloody shoulder was as pale as a full moon. The boy with guns looked to be in a sheer panic.”
“Who came here to take them?” Harris asked.
Harris let out a long breath of relief. Guards would take them to the hospital first.
“How long has it been since they were here?”
“Three days, but they took them just across the street to the hospital.”
Three days. They could be anywhere by now. If the injuries were bad enough, they might still be in the hospital. “Almadon, can you get into the police database and see where they have them?”
She got out her Panavice and looked at him. “Yes, but it may set off alerts.”
“I don’t think we have time to jump through proxies and setup dummy servers. Once they’re in MM’s bunker, it’ll be much more difficult to get to them.” He didn’t want to think about that, not yet.
Almadon placed her Panavice on top of a box of a flying-car labeled Car of the Future. A screen projected above the Panavice and she began typing on the digital keyboard.
Harris was good at the computer, but he always kept to practical stuff, like learning how to break into a lock, start a fire, or hack a security system. Almadon was a master. He watched her as she flipped through the screens, typing at a furious pace.
“Okay I’m in, but it won’t take long for their anti-hacks to find me.”
“Look for any medical releases in the last few days,” Harris said.
“Way ahead of you. I found them. They’re in the hospital still—in the guarded wing.” Her face went pale.
“What is it?” Harris placed a hand on her arm to get her attention.
“Simon had them signed over to him and they’re transporting them in thirty minutes.” The screen went blank. “They just booted me off the server.”
“Do you think they spotted you?” Compry asked.
“Yes, but it doesn’t matter because it will take them hours to figure out what I was looking at. Lenny, they might be able to track it back to here.”
Lenny adjusted his glasses. “Oh that doesn’t matter much.”
“It matters to me. Can’t you find somewhere to stay for a while?” Almadon asked.
“Nope, never had much family. My wife died quite a few years ago in a car accident.”
“I’m so sorry. I remember Margaret when I was a child. She would spend so much time helping me create the perfect doll.”
Harris watched Lenny, wrinkles at all the corners of his face. How long could that face hold out against an MM interrogation?
“They will come for you, Lenny. When they do, they won’t be asking friendly questions. Do you think you can withstand the interrogations?” Harris asked. He wanted to be blunt, having no time to waste.
“I stopped drinking Orange some time ago. Living after Margaret passed seemed wrong. Let them do their worst. I won’t say a word.”
Harris nodded. He admired Lenny for going out on his own terms. Nevertheless, if he talked about what happened here today, he would find him and make his short life shorter.
He glanced at the clock on his Panavice. “Lenny, did you get the packages?”
“Oh yes, they’re right over here.”
Two large, stuffed bears sat on the ground nearby. Lenny grabbed one by the top of its head and sliced the bear’s stomach open with a box cutter. The stuffing poured out of its belly and onto the ground. Harris saw the silhouette of his gun holster and guns. Other toys held Compry’s knives and Nathen’s bow.
They all collected their weapons with cold determination set in their eyes.
“Do we have a plan?” Nathen asked.
“When don’t I have a plan?” Harris said.
JOEY’S NOSE BURNED AT THE ammonia smell and his eyes opened. Simon pulled a vial away from his face and Joey lunged at him, but straps over his wrists and ankles held him firmly in place. Simon turned without a word and walked away. The chair Joey was strapped in followed him down the hallway. From the white walls and the smell of ozone, he thought he was still in the hospital.
He turned his head, happy to have full use of it. His arms and legs felt better. The strength was back in them. How long was he out?
Over his shoulder, he saw a shiny, silver hand pushing his chair. He heard its raspy breath, feeling each exhalation on the back of his neck. His chair stopped at a door and another Arrack pushed Hank through the doorway. The joy of seeing Hank filled him. He struggled in an attempt to reach out. Hank struggled against his bindings until he made eye contact with Joey.
“They told me you were dead,” Hank said with disbelief, eyes bloodshot.
“Still here. You okay?”
“I think so.” Hank spotted Simon walking farther ahead. He strained against the straps and his chair creaked under the pressure, but the straps held. “Hey, Simon. When I get out of this chair, I’m going to crush your skull!”
Simon responded with his back to them. “Your mom thought she had a chance against us. How’d that turn out for her?”
Hank’s face went red with fury and he yelled obscenities as he struggled against the straps.
They stopped at another door and Julie, Poly, and Lucas appeared next to them. It didn’t seem real. They were all alive. Joey’s mouth hung open.
They looked healthy. Lucas was still pale, but he seemed much more coherent. The color was back in Poly’s face. Joey felt the corners of his mouth turn back in a smile. It was more than he could’ve wished for. He watched as her eyes widened and she eyed him up and down.
“You’re alive?” Poly’s voice wavered. “I heard you screaming.” Her chin quivered and the tears welled in her eyes. “I thought you were gone.” The Arrack pushed her chair next to his.
“Can’t keep me down,” Joey said. Unitas’s wicked smile crept into his mind and he shivered involuntarily. “How’s your arm?” He glanced up and saw Simon turning around to saunter over to Poly, a coy look in his eyes.
“So this is the one you like?” He asked Joey. Kneeling in front of her, he brushed back her hair and touched her neck.
“Don’t touch her.”
“Like this?” Simon grabbed Poly’s bandaged arm and squeezed hard. She yelped. “You think I woke you all up ‘cause I like conversation?” He moved his face within a few inches of Poly’s face. She shook and kicked. He let go of her arm, grabbed her face with both hands, and kissed her forehead. Lingering at her hair, Simon made eye contact with Joey and took a deep, exaggerated sniff.
“Get away from her.” Joey’s face was hot with anger. He pulled at the straps and shook his chair, trying to get at Simon. He could hear Hank wrestling with his own restraints.
Simon stood and laughed. “This is why I woke you up.” He pointed at Joey. “You kids took eighteen years of my life and I plan on seeing you suffer as much as I can before I turn you over to him.” He frothed at the mouth as he spoke. Then he blinked, and the anger flooded out of him. His expression changed to a pleasant smile.
“You’re crazy, you sick f—”
“We have a schedule to keep,” Simon interrupted, talking over Joey’s rant. He turned and marched down the hall. The Arracks followed behind with their chairs.
Simon ruined the moment, but Joey quickly remembered his friends were alive. He hadn’t killed them. Even Simon’s presence couldn’t stop the joy of seeing them. He looked over his shoulder.
“Julie, how are you doing?” Joey asked.
“Fine,” Julie said. She didn’t struggle, but he noticed her looking intently at everything around her. He heard Harris’s voice telling him how slow he was at noticing what surrounded him. He glanced around him, looking for what he was missing.
“You can thank me for saving Lucas,” Simon said, looking back over his shoulder. “Hope you all enjoy this reunion because after he gets his hands on you, there won’t be any joy left.” He laughed maniacally as they continued down the hallway.
Lucas struggled in his chair, giving up quickly. He still didn’t look a hundred percent. Had Simon saved Lucas? Joey watched as Poly and the others seethed, looking at Simon’s back. She moved her wrists, trying to pull them back through the straps. She made progress, but the straps were so tight it looked impossible to squeeze a hand through.
Simon stopped at the end of the hall, extended his right finger and pressed a button on the wall. The button lit with an arrow pointing down.
Maybe the elevator wouldn’t be large enough to fit all of them. They’d have to split up to take the elevator. Hopefully, there’d be a chance he could get one of these silver guys close enough to grab its knife during the separation.
The elevator dinged. The doors slid open, revealing a man dressed in all black, with R8 on his chest.
Simon’s eyes narrowed.
“We’ve changed plans. You’ll be taking them out through the basement,” the man told Simon.
“Max, I don’t care which way I take them as long as you stay out of my way.”
Max locked eyes with Simon. Simon looked away first.
Max then turned his attention to Joey. His gaze made Joey shudder, as if he was looking at a science experiment. There was something familiar in those eyes to Joey.
“So this is them?” Max stood at the elevator door and used his foot to stop the door from closing, without taking his eyes from Joey. “We’ll be taking off from the roof. Don’t mess this up, Simon.”
Simon’s face twitched. “Just get in your birds and be gone.”
Max shook his head and walked back into the elevator. The doors slid closed.
Simon stomped to the next elevator and pressed the button. The second elevator over dinged. When the doors finally slid open, they revealed a space large enough to park a car.
Joey slumped in his chair as the Arrack pushed him and Poly all the way in, until their knees hit the far wall of the elevator. The rest moved in with noises of feet shuffling and metal chairs clanking as they rolled over the threshold.
A camera pointed down at them. What a sight they must have been. A bunch of people strapped to chairs with small, silver creatures pushing them. Would the footage be deleted? Would those detectives report what happened? Would Harris learn of their fate? He lowered his head, trying not to think about the future. Maybe if he had taken the deal with Simon back in the prison, his friends would be safe now. Joey felt a something graze the side of his hand.
He jerked away, until he saw Poly’s fingers stretched out to his. He outstretched his pinky to touch her. When they made eye contact, she narrowed her eyes and nodded with a determination. Joey clenched his jaw and nodded back. He wouldn’t let them take his friends. He’d find a way.
“So what, are you Max’s bitch?” Lucas asked.
Simon walked to Lucas and raised his hand. He held it above him for a moment before pulling it back to his side and walking away.
The elevator moved down. It stopped at two different floors on the way down, with people trying to get on. He heard comments from behind him like “I’ll get the next one,” and after one stop, a woman screamed. The elevator dinged again and he felt his chair move backward. He reached for Poly’s fingertips, grazing them with his. Uncertain future be damned. At that very moment, he felt elated. She was alive. He was touching her warm fingertips. The same fingertips that dripped with blood, from what seemed like only an hour ago. In that moment, he felt as if he had something to fight for again.
The bright sunlight filled the lobby through the large windows at the front of the hospital. On the road outside, four large, black vans were waiting at the curb. The lights dimmed and the view of the lobby disappeared as they entered a hallway off to the side. He didn’t think Simon would take them through the front doors.
He tried to look around for some way that could help him out of the situation, but he found nothing.
At the end of the hallway, an elevator was marked with Parking Garage. Simon pressed the button, typed into his Panavice, and placed it in his pocket. Joey pulled at his wrist straps, wanting to slap the grin off Simon’s face. Glaring at the smug bastard, Joey wanted to say something, but he felt useless. If he could only get one hand free, he might have a chance.
“Simon,” Lucas said from the back of the line. “You’re going to be dead soon.”
Simon raised an eyebrow. “I have lived through more than any of you insignificants could imagine. If it’s my time, it won’t be at the hands of some kid like you.”
“We’ll see,” Lucas seethed.
Words. It was all they had for an attack.
Simon frowned and pushed the elevator button again. It dinged and slid open. Simon paused, looking into the small elevator.
“These three first. Not this one. He stays with me.” Simon grabbed Joey’s wheelchair.
The Arracks rushed Poly and Lucas into the elevator. Hank’s wheels squeaked as he rolled next to him, in queue for the first trip down. He saw the rage on Hank’s face as he looked at Simon.
“Hank. . . .” Joey locked eyes with his friend. He wanted to tell him how much he meant, but the words sounded like a goodbye and he choked them back.
Hank’s expression lightened and he nodded. He wasn’t a big talker and Joey liked that. He expressed himself without words. A simple nod and Joey knew how he felt.
The elevator door closed with Hank, Poly, Lucas, and their Arracks inside. Joey felt this was his best chance of doing something. He pulled on the strap binding his wrist to the chair. He pulled past the pain and shook at the effort, but he couldn’t get his wrist through.
After a minute, the elevator returned for Joey and Julie. Simon followed them onto the elevator and pressed the ground floor button. A few pops sounded from below. Simon froze with a frown, cocking his head toward the noise. Joey did the same, trying to discern if the noise came from the elevator or something else. He fantasized about it being gunfire—that someone had come to rescue them. Another sound, like a screech.
Was that a scream?
The elevator continued to move down, stirring the silence with a hum and metal clanks. Simon paced, staring at the door. He heard the sounds as well and probably thought the same as Joey—it was gunfire. Did they kill his friends? Did this Max guy have other ideas?
Joey jerked on his chair.
“Quiet,” Simon gripped the wheelchair. He looked back at the Arrack and motioned for them to push their chairs closer to the door. Simon stepped around and stayed behind the chair with his gun drawn, pointing at the closed elevator doors.
Simon let out a whistle, but it sounded more like a hiss. The Arracks both responded by drawing their daggers and placing them directly on Joey and Julie’s neck.
Joey reeled back and flashes of Unitas popped into his mind. The blade grazed his throat and he felt a warm trickle of blood run down his neck.
“Joey,” Julie said.
He looked to her and she had wide eyes as if trying to tell him something without words. He knew what she wanted from him and it was the same thing he wanted. But what use would slowing down time if he couldn’t get his hands free. He could spend an hour trying to get free and for nothing, he’d still be stuck and at the moment all he could think of was the blade touching his neck.
“They’re cutting me,” Joey said.
“If you kill him, I will end your line,” Simon said to the Arrack.
The Arrack moved his blade back an inch, giving his neck a reprieve.
“Joey, when the door opens,” Julie said.
A few more pops sounded and Joey was sure this time of gunfire and so was Simon. He slammed the stop button on the elevator and it jerked to a stop. He pulled out his Panavice and his finger shot over the screen. His face contorted with anger he finger punched the screen.
“She’s blocking you, isn’t she?” Julie said with a triumphant smile.
“Doesn’t matter.” Simon took a deep breath and pressed on the screen of his Panavice.
It hummed and the air around Simon shimmered. He pulled out a second gun and pointed at the door, hiding behind the two wheelchairs and their occupants.
“Whoever is on the other side of these doors will die.”
“I can save you the wonder. That person blocking you out of your Panavice is Almadon and if she is down there, I can all but guarantee she brought her friends with her,” Julie said.
“Shut up,” Simon said and slapped the side of her head.
“Don’t touch her!” Joey jumped up in his chair, staring at Julie. He shook up and down, trying to get free and the Arrack moved his knife further away to keep from mangling him but he didn’t care. The rage built as he saw tears in Julie’s eyes and her cheek redden.
The elevator stopped and the door dinged. He stopped his frantic hopping and stared at the line between the two doors, waiting for them to part. That was when Joey felt the tip of Simon’s gun pressing against the back of his head.
THE DOORS PARTED.
On the ground in front of the elevator sat a pile of Arracks mixed in with MM guards in black uniforms. Black and red blood smeared the floor and scents of gunfire filled the air. Beyond that were rows and rows of parked cars in the massive underground parking garage.
“Yoo-hoo. . . .” Simon called out. “I have your two pretties in here with guns pointed at the back of their heads. I suggest you put your guns on the floor and kick them toward the elevator or I will kill them.”
The gun pressed against his head as if to prove the point, he had them. Joey stared into the blank parking garage, looking for signs of life from his friends. They were out there. They could be just on the other side of the wall, waiting for the moment to strike.
“I will give you three seconds before I shoot Julie, and don’t think I won’t. She isn’t a critical person to him.”
Joey looked at Julie.
She shook with fear and more tears fell down her face. “No, don’t do this,” she pleaded.
Julie jerked at the number and slammed her eyes shut. Joey needed to do something. He had to take control of the situation and slow things down. He didn’t care if it took him a year to figure it out, there was no way he could watch his friend get shot and do nothing about it.
The Arrack kept his blade away from his neck and it gave him an idea.
Julie whimpered and shook her head back and forth, saying no repeatedly.
This was it, the last second he would have any chance of stopping what was about to happen. He had no doubt Simon was about to do the unthinkable. Simon’s finger tapped the trigger of the gun and Joey felt the familiar chill rush down his neck. The sounds of the room dulled and stillness crept into the air. The Arrack’s blade stayed a few inches away from his neck, just far enough for his idea to work. He crunched down and bit the blade, being careful to only use his teeth. With a tug, he pulled the knife free of its hand.
Half way there. Don’t drop it.
He crunched down to his awaiting hand and grasped the hilt of the dagger. Flipping the dagger around, he sliced through the fabric and breathed a sigh of relief at his freed hand. A few more seconds and he had the rest of his body free.
Julie’s face froze with her eyes slammed shut and a tear hanging off the edge of her cheek. He shifted her head away from Simon’s gun and cut the straps from her chair. He wasted a second looking at Simon and thinking of taking the dagger he had in his hand and stabbing it through him, but he didn’t know how long the slow-mo would last, or if it would make it past his shield.
Stuffing the dagger in his back pocket, he picked up Julie in a fireman’s carry and stepped out into the ramp. Just past the elevator, he saw them all waiting. The sight shocked him even though he expected to see them. He stumbled back, almost dropping Julie.
On each side of the door stood Harris, Almadon, Nathen and Hank on one side, and Compry, Poly, and Lucas on the other. Black blood covered Compry’s hands, one holding a gun, and in the other, a short sword.
He placed Julie behind Poly and next to the elevator wall. The white exit sign pointed to a ramp leading into the daylight. Somehow, he needed to get all of them out of the garage. He’d moved them all in the museum . . . he could do this.
The sounds around him crashed into him and he fell to his knees.
“Three.” A gunshot blasted from inside of the elevator.
Joey might have had a chance to imagine the shocked look on Simon’s face but his stomach sent him into a deep nausea. He hunched to the ground and heaved. The garage spun and all his senses felt numb. The screams and gunshot barely registered to his weak ears.
“Joey,” Poly said, shaking him. The sounds cleared and he felt her pulling him to his feet.
“You won’t get out of here alive,” Simon laughed from inside the elevator.
Harris spoke up. “We have the kids. We have you surrounded. You lost Simon. Just take a ride back up with the elevator and we’ll be on our way.”
Simon laughed and an Arrack came skidding out of the elevator as if it had been thrown. The thing scurried on its feet and lunged for Harris. “I’ve spent too long searching for them to let them slip from my fingers once more. I will not yield an inch.”
Compry shot the Arrack dead, while Harris kept his focus on the elevator door. Gritting his teeth, he stuffed his gun into his holster. They had to get past the open elevator door to get to the ramp on Joey’s side.
“He got a message through,” Almadon reported, staring at her Panavice.
Joey staggered to the wall next to Poly. She held his hand but kept glancing back at the elevator.
“You okay?” she asked.
Joey nodded and did quick self-assessment. He felt better with each passing second.
Harris pulled a small canister out of his jacket and showed Compry, She nodded and pushed her back against the wall. Harris kneeled down and bowled the canister into the elevator. Joey braced for the explosion.
An Arrack jumped out but only made it to the door when the canister exploded. The shockwave blasted the Arrack back, sending it sliding along the concrete floor, into the parking garage. Its body stopped at the foot of the ramp.
Joey’s ears rang and smoke poured from the elevator. The first few breaths didn’t come easy after the impact of the explosion. Harris didn’t waste any time and rushed everyone across. Joey kept waiting for Simon to take a shot at the runners but nothing came out of the elevator but more smoke.
Could the blast have killed him? The thought sent chills down his spine and he hoped the man was dead on the smoke. He wanted it over. He wanted his friends to be free from the run and the pain and the near death. He wanted to step into the elevator and see the man’s mutilated body.
Harris placed a hand on his chest.
“Can you run?” he said with a voice full of urgency that snapped Joey out of his fantasy.
Harris grabbed Compry’s gun and thrust it into his hand. “Good.” He glanced back at the elevator.
Nathen took lead and darted toward the ramp. Joey kept next to Poly and found his legs worked better than expected, even the hint of pain in his knee didn’t slow him down. Glancing back, he saw Simon lumbering out from the thinning smoke cloud. With a shaky hand, Simon pointed his gun at them, but they were at the bottom of the ramp now and a good distance away. The flash from the muzzle shined for a split second before the crack sound of the shot. Compry, at the back to the pack, screamed and clutched her side.
Harris slid to a stop and returned fire. The shots hit Simon but bounced off his shield, sending only sparks around his face. He shifted his feet and hid behind a column.
“Compry,” Harris called out, shaking his head.
“Run, you fool.” Compry pushed Harris toward the ramp. Near her stomach, her shirt reddened with blood
“We’ve got a van incoming.” Nathen yelled from the top of the ramp. “I got it.”
“Faster, they’ll try to pin us in here,” Harris said.
Joey glanced back at Simon. He was making good ground, even though he staggered along. The shield must not have protected him completely. It was hard to tell, but he appeared to have blood dripping down his face.
The sound of the squealing van tires made its way down the ramp. Nathen stood with an arrow cocked, and then let it fly.
“Get to the side!” Nathen motioned everyone to hug the far wall.
They ran up the ramp, angling toward the wall just as the van screeched sideways and flipped on its side, skidding into the underground parking garage and halfway down the ramp. Moving forward, the group made their way into the light of day at the top of the ramp, as stayed back and Harris shot the driver through the windshield. He kept firing as he walked backward toward the group.
Joey raised his own gun at the vehicle and waited for something to appear. With the van lying on its side, one tire still spinning, the back door flung open, unleashing a small army of Arracks. Harris fired into the melee and ran sideways away from them.
Joey’s heart raced at the sheer numbers stuffed into the Van. Too many. He raised his gun and fired into the lot. Some fell, but most made it closer and closer to them.
“Keep them in the ramp. If they get out, we’ll lose this in a hurry,” Harris instructed.
Joey fired to the front line but more seemed to be coming from the van as they kept moving sideways, away from the fray. Too many, they were going to lose the ramp. Joey searched the nearby city, looking for an escape path.
“I don’t have many bullets left.” Joey kept his gun pointed at the ramp. He glanced back at Harris hunched over Compry. Almadon had a white box next to her and put something on her wound with one hand, holding her Panavice with the other. “We need to get out of here,” Joey called to Harris.
“Just a second, if we move her, she dies.” Almadon said. Joey hadn’t noticed that Compry had collapsed on the ground with Almadon treating her wound.
Small glimmers of silver moved around in the darkness on the ramp. He fired a random shot into the ramp, hoping to keep them from running out. A man in black walked near the Van. He whistled and the Arracks moved close to him.
“Yoo-hoo,” Simon called. He stuck his face into the light, squinting in their direction. “Where are you guys going? We own this city. There’s nowhere to hide.” He pointed to the sky. A black aircraft hovered far above.
There had to be a way out of there. Joey scanned the high-rise buildings flanking them in every direction. Any number of them would have to do. He took a few steps back when he heard the screeching of tires. He glanced back to witness a car veering off the main road and onto the hospital sidewalks. It bounced over two curbs and over a grassy area. Its tires screeched as it made a hard right, coming straight for them. The car’s driver, an old man, nodded to Joey as he passed. In the back seat, he had two large containers. Joey turned, following the cars path toward Simon.