Authors: S. Harrison
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Science Fiction
“You are such a neeeerd,” whispers Brent.
“That nerd is your only chance of getting out of here in one piece,” I say, and Brent sneers without turning to acknowledge me. “What does the station look like?”
“Judging from the model, I estimate that it’s about eight to twelve floors high and triangular,” says Otto. “It’s surrounded by a few similar-looking administration buildings, so we’ll have to skirt around them. I’m not sure what color the station is—the 3-D model was rendered all in white—but there’s a big tree out in front of it that’s kinda shaped like the letter
. You’ll know it when you see it.”
“We?” whispers Blondie. “You said
will have to skirt around them. I’m not going out there.”
“You can stay here if you like,” I reply. “But if there are Drones out there, I’m gonna be too busy running to bother coming back for you.”
“Why can’t we just run for help?” whispers Blondie. “We’ll be outside, so we can just keep running until we make it to the main road.”
“It was at least a ten-minute bus ride to the dome from the main road,” whispers Brent. “That’s a long way to run when you’re being chased by robots that don’t get tired.”
“Not to mention the gate we came through with the razor wire fence and the big warning signs with lightning bolts on them?” Ryan chips in.
“Oh yeah. I forgot about those,” mumbles Brody.
“I think you should go for it, Blondie,” I whisper with a smile. “You can lead all the Drones away from the rest of us.”
“Screw you,” she snipes. “And my name is not ‘
.’ It’s Margaux.”
Margaux . . .
the choice is yours. You can either hide in an air duct with nowhere else to go; you can run off and get electrocuted, ripped to pieces, or shot; or you can take your chances running for shelter beside three boys that are bigger and slower targets than you are.”
“Hey,” protests Brody.
“Sorry, Brody, but the choice is pretty obvious. Our best bet is to find a solid structure to hole up in and hope like hell that Otto can access the computer and shut the Drones down.”
“And if she can’t?” asks Ryan.
“I guess we’ll have to cross that burning bridge if we come to it,” I whisper. “So we head for the Security Station?”
Margaux pouts and sighs with reluctant acceptance. The absence of any protest from the others confirms their answers.
I take one final intensive glare through the slots, staring in the direction we need to run, and then shuffle and twist around so my back is against the wall of the duct. I bring my knees up, press my shoes against the grating, and push hard. It takes a little more effort than I expected, but before long my short section of the grating begins to bend outward. I ease back onto my knees, and with a little more levering with my elbow, I manage to make the opening big enough to crawl through.
“Is everyone ready?”
Margaux stares intently though the thin slots in the grating, snorting quiet, adrenalized breaths as Otto’s and the boys’ narrow-eyed, stony expressions are mirrored by mine. Everyone nods solemnly.
“Good luck,” I whisper as I crawl headfirst through the open section of the grate and worm my way onto the cool gray paving stones outside.
“Dr. Pierce! Dr. Pierce, wake up!”
“Ahhh! What . . . who . . . what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s Finn; her vital signs are stabilizing.”
“Let me see . . . Oh, thank heavens. The bruising and abrasions have all gone. Infinity must be back in control. Bring me that ultrasound slate over there. Yes, that one . . . thank you. Now, let’s have a look. Hmmm. Her internal injuries have improved greatly. Her ribs are fused back together, and her legs look to be nearly eighty percent healed. She’s going to live.”
“Dr. Pierce . . . I was wondering . . .”
“Yes? What is it, girlie? Spit it out.”
“Well, I was wondering if you could tell me . . . what exactly is she?”
“What do you mean? She’s a seventeen-year-old girl. You’ve got eyes in your head; I suggest you try using them sometime.”
“No, that’s not what I . . . I mean . . . she has two distinct, fully formed personalities, she’s crazy strong, she’s an expert fighter,
and she can spontaneously heal her injuries. She’s obviously not human. Not unless she’s some kind of genetically modified human? Is that what she is?”
“What she is, girlie . . . is classified. But what I can tell you is that she’s as human as you are, so don’t go treating her differently just because you’ve discovered she can do a few unusual things.”
“Unusual? That’s putting it mildly.”
“You’re right, of course; both Finn and Infinity are extraordinary, and they grew up living very strange and separate lives. But as different as they are from each other, the one thing they have in common is that they’re both very lonely young women. Even though Infinity would be the first one to tell you that she isn’t. I’ve been keeping tabs on you, Miss Otto. It’s obvious that both Finn and Infinity trust you very much. So if you care about them, the best thing you can do is to just keep giving them what they need the most . . . your friendship. Do you think you can do that, girlie?”
“Yes, Dr. Pierce . . . I think I can do that.”
“Good, you won’t regret it. Now go and get some rest; you look like a cat dragged you backward through a blackberry bush.”
I crawl from the vent and cautiously rise to my feet, my ears attuned to the slightest sound of movement. Behind the curve of the stone bench beside me is a thick mass of tall decorative ferns that are thankfully hiding me from view. Opposite this bench are an identical bench and a garden planter, completing what could have been a pleasant little nook to sit and have a leisurely lunch, if it weren’t for the fact we all could possibly die in a hail of gunfire at any second.
I duck under some overhanging leaves, quietly slide onto the nearest seat, and slowly inch around, my eyes flicking from side to side, scanning my limited view of the courtyard through the gap between the two benches. I lean forward as much as I dare, peering through the sparser ferns at the edge of the garden. I can make out the shapes of trees, a patch of grass, and more randomly placed seating areas. I can see enough of the statue now to get my bearings, so I draw a line in my mind heading northwest from it. I follow the line until I spot, in the distance, what appears to be the straight-line top corner of a building. It’s almost completely obscured by large trees; a huge, white, suspended canopy; and what looks like a winding monorail track, but if Otto is right, the Security Station is that way.
Ryan slides onto the seat beside me. Brody quietly grunts as he squeezes through the grate and crouches by the bench as Brent, Margaux, and finally Otto do the same. A gentle breeze rustles the ferns, and I silently inhale through my nose, separating, categorizing, and analyzing the scents in the air. The earthy, grassy smell of the garden hits me first, but it’s almost overpowered by the heady mix of sweat and fear pheromones pouring off everyone like a hormonal fog. I close my eyes, push the adolescent stink aside, and delve further in, discarding the dull, sun-heated masonry waft from the paving stones and the woodsy notes of the trees across the way. I’m searching for something much more specific.
Drones have a particular smell, just like everything does, and it’s especially distinct if they’re brand-new like those Crimson-Class Drones are. It’s a clean, manufactured, plasticky-sweet kinda smell. I’d describe it as “new car mixed with freshly printed money,” and right now, I can’t smell even the tiniest trace of it. I open my eyes and let the details of the aromas drift away, satisfied with the hopeful assumption that there aren’t any Drones within fifty meters upwind of us.
“I’m going,” I whisper, and Ryan nods at me with solemn confidence. I stand, take a deep breath, and scan the anxious faces of the people sitting and crouching beside me. All of a sudden, a strange and slightly disturbing feeling of responsibility ripples through me. Barely an hour ago, I wouldn’t have given a toss if any of them but Otto lived or died, and the only reason I’d care about her was because she served a purpose. But now I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I need to get everyone through this safely. Brody gives me a smile of encouragement and a thumbs-up. And that’s when something really weird happens. I smile back. And, to make matters worse . . . I actually mean it.
With morbid realization, I turn away and shudder. What the hell is wrong with me? I must be going soft.
Get a grip, Infinity One! Elite soldier, Vermillion-Class assassin, cold-blooded killer. That’s what you were created for. That’s who you are!
Firm-jawed and steely eyed, I glance back at the group. All of them are looking up at me with optimistic hope, trusting me with their lives, relying on me to protect them. And to my utter dismay, the warm fuzzy feeling rears its cutesy head again. Half hoping a Drone will just walk up and shoot me right now, I sigh and stride out into the courtyard.
Exposed out in the open, I move quickly and quietly, but I don’t run—better to save any burst of speed and energy for when I really need it. Even though I know this situation is deadly serious, I smile to myself as the ridiculous image of someone power walking springs to mind. I glance over my shoulder and see Dome One from the outside for the first time. It’s gigantic, pure black, shiny smooth, and absolutely staggering to behold. It has to be a couple hundred meters high at least, towering far above the collection of chrome, polished wood, and white-stone buildings around its base. I’ve seen classified aerial photographs of it before, but they don’t do the real thing justice at all. Even with my high level of security clearance, I was never able to access anything about what it’s made of or what’s inside, and although I’ve been inside it now, it doesn’t even begin to satisfy my curiosity about the nature of the advanced technology required to construct it. If I wasn’t marching across this courtyard like a madwoman right now, I’d quite happily stop for a minute and just stare at it. Obviously, now is not the time. I scoot past the statue, and thankfully there aren’t any alarms or disembodied computer voices calling out to murder us yet. I take that as a very good sign.
With a quick glance over my right shoulder, I see that Ryan isn’t far behind me. He’s walking quickly, half hunched over, his head swinging from side to side, scanning for danger. Brody, Brent, and Margaux join the line as Otto emerges from the relative safety of the nook, bringing up the rear. The sun is high in the sky. When I’m on a task, mission control transmits the exact time and GPS coordinates of wherever I am directly into my head, but this is definitely not a sanctioned mission, so my best guess is that it must be around midday or one o’clock. Not that we have any choice given our situation, but I much prefer the cloak of night. Out here, unarmed in broad daylight, I feel like I’m stark naked with a bull’s-eye painted on my backside.
I make it to one of the trees that I spotted from the nook. It’s large, thick at the trunk, the shadows of its leaves mottling the paving stones in a wide pattern. I press myself against the tree and peer around the side of it. Ryan, eyes alert, arrives at my shoulder. “So far, so good,” he whispers, and I nod in agreement. One by one, the rest arrive, and I beckon to Otto. She sidles past the others, and I point in the direction of a space between two buildings fifty meters in the distance. “That way?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she whispers. “We’re almost there.”
“OK, let’s go,” I say, stepping out from behind the tree and continuing on. The others follow suit, and we move as a silent group. Following a line of lampposts, we walk under the huge, suspended, white plastic canopy, between another pair of bench seats and around another tree, with nothing but the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze and the occasional tweet from the curious sparrows perched on the branches overhead.
We scurry past a grassy area and make it to the outside corner of one of the buildings. Otto leans around the side of the building and points excitedly. “There,” she whispers. “The U-shaped tree.” I peer into the gap between the two buildings and spot the tree standing near the beginning of a short path that leads to the door of a tall triangular building with high, silver-tinted windows.
The Security Station.
Without hesitation, I stride out toward the tree. I’m halfway from the corner to the tree when a flash of silver catches the corner of my eye. My gut seizes as I spin and thrust a hand out toward the rest of the group. A lone service Drone is standing barely ten meters away, its featureless black mask staring right at me. It was hidden behind the far corner of the building to the left, and I didn’t see it until it was too late. Everyone freezes, their eyes wide with fear. I furiously bat the air with my hand, and they scuttle backward. I stand my ground. I can easily take out a service Drone, but fighting it is the least of my worries. I’m much more concerned that right now this Drone is calling its big brothers. Its big, scary brothers with the guns. I plant my feet, clench my fists, grit my teeth, and wait for the alarms and the bellowing orders of termination.
But none of it comes.
I stare at the Drone. The Drone stares back. I take a step toward it. It doesn’t move at all. I tilt my head, squinting at it from the top of its head to its feet and back again. Its mask is black, not red. My hands relax, and I sigh with relief. The Drone is off-line.
I throw an OK sign at the others, who are all peeking at me from the corner of the building, and they cautiously approach. The moment Margaux sees the Drone, she lets out a closemouthed peep, but everyone else keep their nerves in check as we quietly move on, past the tree and along the path to the front door of the Security Station.
The entrance is a pair of sliding doors with a fingerprint scanner, and not surprisingly, it doesn’t open as we approach. With the computer malfunctioning, everything in this courtyard seems to be devoid of power and eerily dead. I cup my hands around my eyes and press my nose against the door, but I can’t see anything through the silver-tinted glass. “Brody,” I whisper. “A little help?”
Brody steps forward and follows my lead as I wedge my fingers into the tiny gap formed by the edges of the door frames. It’s painstaking work to begin with, but with both of us pulling in opposite directions, we manage to edge the doors apart a few centimeters. I slot the toe of my shoe into the gap and push as Brent steps up to help with Brody’s door. Veins swell in both the boys’ reddening faces and necks as I lean back with all my weight and mentally strengthen the muscles in my arms and upper body. We heave at the doors. I pull an angry lungful of air through my nose and overstimulate my thigh muscle. My leg kicks hard against the sturdy frame, and something finally gives with a metallic crack as my door jolts apart, providing an opening just big enough to squeeze through. Brent and Brody stand there, hands on their hips, gulping victory breaths as I sidle through the small gap between the doors.
Inside, the bottom floor of the Security Station is sparse and dim; the only light source is sunlight filtering in through the tinted windows from outside. Actually, “sparse” is an understatement. In the middle of the large, white, triangular floor space is a massive circular desk with a shiny metal cylinder in the center that extends all the way up into the high ceiling. Apart from that, the place is empty. The chest-high desk is sectioned for access, so I head over to it and slip through the nearest gap. Behind it are some blank computer slates on stands, but nothing else. The rest of the group has followed me in and is strolling around, looking at the same nothing I am. Otto can’t resist swiping a hopeful finger across one of the slates, but she doesn’t look the least bit surprised when nothing happens.
“All those buildings out there, that huge courtyard, and now this,” whispers Ryan. “Not a single person anywhere. Where is everyone? This place is like a ghost town.”
“I know,” agrees Margaux. “I don’t like it. It’s creepy.”
“This is the most logical place for our phones and slates to be,” says Otto. “How do we get to the upper floors?”
“No stairs,” observes Brent. “That’s a fire hazard if ever I saw one. There must be a—”
“Here!” shouts Brody. I look in the direction of his voice and see his face appear from behind the big metal cylinder in the center of the desk. “There’s a door here; I think it’s an elevator!”
I walk around behind the large metal tube, and sure enough, the thin outline of a sliding door is clearly visible on its surface.
“If it is an elevator, we’re not gonna be able to get up this way. Not without power,” says Ryan. “And it’s pretty obvious that this place is shut down to the ground.”
“Punch through it, Infinity!” blurts Brody, his eyes as eager as his childish grin.
I step forward and knock on the side of the tube. It sounds very solid. “Sorry to disappoint, Brody. But my hand would be mush long before this door would give way.”
I quickly look at the faces surrounding me just to make sure I’m not the only one who heard that. Everyone’s expressions of surprise confirm it. It was muted by the thick metal of the elevator door, but that was definitely a man’s voice.
“Hello! Is somebody out there?” the voice says again.
“Hello!” I shout back. “Yes, we’re here!”
“Oh, thank my lucky stars!” says the voice. “I’ve been trapped in here for hours! Are you security?”
“No!” shouts Otto. “We’re students on a school field trip!”
“What?” shouts the voice. “Well, whoever you are . . . get me out of here!”
“How, exactly?” I yell through the door. “There isn’t any power!”
“Under the desk!” shouts the man. “There’s a panel on the floor. Open it and you’ll find a number pad. The code is one, eight, one, zero. That’ll switch on the emergency solar power.”
“OK!” shouts Otto. Not wasting any time, she hurries over and slides onto her knees, scanning the floor behind the desk. “I’ve found it!” she blurts excitedly. Otto prods at a space on the floor, a small hatch pops open, and I can see her jabbing at something with her finger. She looks up at the blank slates on their stands and then glances at the ceiling before pouting disappointedly and glaring back down at the square hole in the floor.
“There’s a keyhole above the punch pad,” Otto says over her shoulder. “I’m assuming we need a key
“We need a key!” Brent shouts at the door.
“Of course—how silly of me!” says the voice.
“Where is it?” Brent asks, pressing his ear to the door.
There’s a pregnant pause, and then a muffled rattling sound comes from inside the elevator.
“The key . . . is in here with me,” the man says gloomily as Margaux’s face drops and Brent groans. “I’m sorry!” shouts the man. “I forgot about the lock.”
Ryan looks over at Margaux and, without asking, reaches out and plucks something from her hair. “Hey!” she barks as she recoils, frowning and shielding her long golden mane. I look down to see a diamond-encrusted hair clip clutched between Ryan’s fingers.
“I got this,” he says as he turns and walks over to kneel beside Otto.
“That kinda stuff only works in movies, Forrester,” mutters Brent.
“If you believe that . . . ,” Ryan says, snapping the clasp in two, “then you’re as clueless as every principal of every reform school I’ve ever escaped from.”