She bangs her head on the low opening of the cargo hold on her way out.
"Watch your head," says one of the kids in charge.
"Yeah, thanks," says Risa. He smirks at her. This kid is also dressed in Army clothes, but he's too scrawny to be a military boeuf. "What's with the clothes?"
"Army surplus," he says. "Stolen clothes for stolen souls."
Outside the hold, the light of day is blinding, and the heat hits Risa like a furnace. The ramp beneath her slopes to the ground, and she has to stare at her feet, squinting to keep from stumbling. By the time she reaches the ground, her eyes have adjusted enough to take in their surroundings. All around them, everywhere, are airplanes, but there's no sign of an airport—just the planes, row after row, for as far as the eye can see. Many are from airlines that no longer exist. She turns to look at the jet they just arrived on. It carries the logo of FedEx, but this craft is a sorry specimen. It seems about ready for the junkyard. Or, thinks Risa, the graveyard . . .
"This is nuts," one kid beside Risa grumbles. "It's not like this plane is invisible. They're going to know exactly where the plane has gone. We're going to be tracked here!"
"Don't you get it?" says Risa. "That jet was just decommissioned. That's how they do it. They wait for a decommissioned plane, then load us in as cargo. The plane was coming here anyway, so no one's going to miss it."
The jets rest on a barren hardpan of maroon earth. Distant red mountains poke up from the ground. They are somewhere in the Southwest.
There's a row of port-o-potties that already have anxious lines. The kids shepherding them count heads and try to maintain order in the disoriented group. One of them has a megaphone.
"Please remain under the wing if you're not using the latrine," he announces. "You made it this far, we don't want you to die of sunstroke."
Now that everyone's out of the plane, Risa desperately searches the crowd until she finally finds Connor. Thank God! She wants to go to him, but remembers that they've officially ended their fake romance. With two dozen kids between them, they briefly make eye contact, and exchange a secret nod. That nod says everything. It says that what happened between them yesterday is history; today, everything starts fresh.
Then she sees Roland there as well. He meets her eye and gives her a grin. That grin says things too. She looks away, wishing he had been in the suffocation crate. She considers feeling guilty for such a nasty wish, then realizes that she doesn't feel guilty for wishing it at all.
A golf cart comes rolling down the rows of airliners, kicking up a plume of red dust in its wake. The driver is a kid. The passenger is clearly military. Not military surplus, either—he's the real thing. Instead of green or khaki, he's in navy blue. He seems accustomed to the heat—even in his hot uniform, he doesn't appear to sweat. The cart stops before the gathered hoard of juvenile refugees. The driver steps out first, and joins the four kids who had been leading them. The loud kid raises his megaphone. "May I have your attention! The Admiral is about to address you. If you know what's good for you, you'll listen."
The man steps out of the golf cart. The kid offers him the megaphone, but he waves it away. His voice needs no amplification. "I'd like to be the first to welcome you to the graveyard."
The Admiral is well into his sixties, and his face is full of scars. Only now does Risa realize that his uniform is one from the war. She can't recall whether these were the colors of the pro-life or pro-choice forces, but then, it doesn't really matter. Both sides lost.
"This will be your home until you turn eighteen or we procure a permanent sponsor willing to falsify your identification. Make no mistake about it: What we do here is highly illegal, but that does not mean we don't follow the rule of law. My law."
He pauses, making eye contact with as many kids as he can. Perhaps it's his goal to memorize each and every face before his speech is done. His eyes are sharp, his focus intense. Risa believes he can know each of them just by a single sustained glance. It's intimidating and reassuring at the same time. No one will fall between the cracks in the Admiral's world.
"All of you were marked for unwinding yet managed to escape, and, through the help of my many associates, you have found your way here. I don't care who you were. I don't care who you'll be when you leave here. All I care about is who you are while you're here—and while you're here, you will do what is expected of you."
A hand goes up in the crowd. It's Connor. Risa wishes it wasn't. The Admiral takes time to study Connor's face before saying, "Yes?"
"So . . . who are you, exactly?"
"My name is my business. Suffice it to say that I am a former admiral of the United States Navy." And then he grinned. "But now you could say I'm a fish out of water. The current political climate led to my resignation. The law said it was my job to look the other way, but I did not. I will not." Then he turns to the crowd and says loudly, "No one gets unwound on my watch."
Cheers from all those assembled, including the khaki kids that were already a part of his little army. The Admiral gives a wide grin. His smile shows a set of perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. It's a strange disconnect, because, while his teeth are sparkling, the rest of him seems worn down to the nub.
"We are a community here. You will learn the rules and you will follow them, or you will face the consequences, as in any society. This is not a democracy; it is a dictatorship. I am your dictator. This is a matter of necessity. It is the most effective way to keep you hidden, healthy, and whole." Then he gives that smile again. "I like to believe I am a benevolent dictator, but you can make that judgment for yourselves."
By now, his gaze has traveled over the entire crowd. All of them feel as though they have been scanned like groceries at a checkout counter. Scanned and processed.
"Tonight you will all sleep in the newcomers' quarters. Tomorrow your skills will be assessed, and you'll be assigned to your permanent squads. Congratulations. You've arrived!"
He takes a moment to let that last thought sink in, then he returns to his golf cart and is spirited off, with the same cloud of red dust billowing behind him.
"Is there still time to get back into the crate?" some wiseguy says. A bunch of kids laugh.
"All right, listen up," yells the megaphone kid. "We're going to walk you to the supply jet, where you'll get clothes, rations, and everything else you'll need." They are quick to find out that the megaphone kid has earned the nickname "Amp." As for the Admiral's driver, he's been stuck with "Jeeves."
"It's a long walk," Amp says. "If anyone can't make it, let us know. Anyone who needs water now, raise your hand."
Nearly every hand goes up.
"All right, line up here."
Risa lines up along with the rest of them. There's buzzing and whispering from the line of kids, but it's nowhere near as desperate as it had been in the weeks past. Now, it's more like the buzz of kids in a school lunch line.
As they're led off to be clothed and fed, the jet that brought them here is towed to its final resting place in the massive junkyard. Only now does Risa take a deep breath and release it, along with a month's worth of tension. Only now does she allow herself the wonderful luxury of hope.
More than a thousand miles away, Lev is about to arrive as well. The destination, however, is not his own: It's Cyrus Finch's. Joplin, Missouri. "Home of the Joplin High Eagles— reigning state champions in girls' basketball," CyFi says.
"You know a lot about the place."
"I don't know anything about it," CyFi grumbles. "He knows. Or knew. Or whatever."
Their journey has gotten no easier. Sure, they have money now, thanks to Lev's "deal" at that pawnshop, but the money's only good for buying food. It can't get them train tickets, or even bus tickets, because there's nothing more suspicious than underage kids paying their own fare.
For all intents and purposes, things between Lev and CyFi are the same, with one major, unspoken exception. CyFi might still be playing the role of leader, but it's Lev who is now in charge. There's a guilty pleasure in knowing that CyFi would fall apart if Lev weren't there to hold him together.
With Joplin only twenty miles away, Cy's twitching gets bad enough that even walking is difficult for him. It's more than just twitching now—it's a shuddering that wracks his body like a seizure, leaving him shivering. Lev offers him his jacket, but Cy just swats him away. "I ain't cold! It's not about bein' cold! It's about being wrong. It's about there being oil and water in this brain of mine."
Exactly what Cy must do when he gets to Joplin is a mystery to Lev—and now he realizes that Cy doesn't know either. Whatever this kid—or this bit of kid—in his head is compelling him to do, it's completely beyond Cy's understanding. Lev can only hope that it's something purposeful, and not something destructive . . . although Lev can't help but suspect that whatever the kid wants, it's bad. Really bad.
"Why are you still with me, Fry?" CyFi asks after one of his body-shaking seizures. "Any sane dude woulda taken off days ago.
"Who says I'm sane?"
"Oh, you're sane, Fry. You're so sane, you scare me. You're so sane, it's insane."
Lev thinks for a while. He wants to give Cyrus a real answer, not just something that chases away the question. "I'm staying," Lev says slowly, "because someone has to witness what happens in Joplin. Someone's got to understand why you did it. Whatever it is."
"Yeah," says CyFi. "I need a witness. That's it."
“You're like a salmon swimming upstream," Lev offers. "It's inside you to do it. And it's inside me to help you get there."
"Salmon." Cy looks thoughtful. "I once saw this poster about a salmon. It was jumping up this waterfall, see? But there was a bear at the top, and the fish, it was jumping right into the bear's mouth. The caption beneath— it was supposed to be funny—said, The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly. "
"There's no bear in Joplin," Lev tells him. He doesn't try to cheer Cy up with any more analogies, because Cy's so smart, he can find a way to make anything sound bad. One hundred and thirty IQ points all focused on cooking up doom. Lev can't hope to compete with that.
The days go by, mile by mile, town by town, until the afternoon they pass a sign that says, NOW ENTERING JOPLIN POPULATION 45,504.
There is no peace in CyFi's his head. The Fry doesn't know-how bad it is. The Fry doesn't know how the feelings crash over him like storm-driven waves pounding a failing seawall. The wall is going to collapse soon, and when it does, Cy will lose it. He'll lose everything. His mind will spill out of his ears and down the drains of the streets of Joplin. He knows it.
Then he sees the sign. NOW ENTERING JOPLIN. His heart is his own, but it pounds in his chest, threatening to burst—and wouldn't that be a fine thing? They'd rush him to a hospital, give him someone else's ticker, and he'd have that kid to deal with too.
This boy in the corner of his head doesn't talk to him in words. He feels. He emotes. He doesn't understand that he's only a part of another kid. It's like how in a dream you know some things, and other things you should know, but you don't. This kid—he knows where he is, but he doesn't know he's not all here. He doesn't know he's part of someone else now. He keeps looking for things in Cyrus's head that just aren't there. Memories. Connections. He keeps looking for words, but Cyrus's brain codes words differently. And so the kid hurls out anger. Terror. Grief. Waves pounding the wall, and beneath it all, there's a current tugging Cy forward. Something must be done here. Only the kid knows what it is.
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