I took in as much of the room as I could without moving my head and neck. We were in an open space at the middle of the library, dominated by the aforementioned table in front of me. The table was cluttered with documents, diagrams, and pieces of equipment both scrutable and otherwise. At its center, mostly blocked from view by piles of books, was a grid dotted with pegs and overlaid with a tangle of glowing lines. It looked like the man and woman currently staring me down had been poring over this just before my intrusion. Beyond them, the room’s other occupants watched me warily, a woman paused in the middle of recording something at a smaller table and a man who had just entered through a side door. If you haven’t already guessed, all of them were tall — not superhumanly so, but taller enough than the Earth average to be noticeable.
“Who else is with you?” asked the man behind the table. All his speech was curt and straight to the point. This may have been a function of the overall atmosphere of stress and intense focus in the room, although looking at him I could easily believe it was his default manner. His posture was scrupulous, his movements precise, his fair angular face clean-cut and equipped with a brow best described as permafurrowed.
“It’s just — ” I was about to say it was just me, but their henchmen in the school had already seen Nik. “Just my friend.”
“Just another kid, a school friend. Leave him out of this.”
“Could he really have gotten here on his own?” the woman asked him in their language.
“We can answer that later. If he got in, others might.” He turned to the man who’d just come in. “Alert security.”
“Who are you people? Where’s Esther?”
They glanced at each other and must have agreed that there was no harm in answering. “Paiumi Caerd,” said the woman, an imposing figure with strong lines in her nut-brown face and streaks of gray in her hair. While the others in the library all wore variations on a collared, belted tunic that I guessed was their equivalent of business casual, and the men in the school had more practical workman’s outfits, her dress was distinctively pleated and patterned in muted colors. “This is Rakine Roia. And first of all, Esther is safe.”
“Sure. I’ll believe that when I hear it from her.” I hoped defiant words would compensate for the tremor in my voice. I doubt it fooled anyone.
“That isn’t possible right now,” said Roia. The two of them moved around the table to approach me from opposite directions, his brisk stride almost entirely masking a limp. The door I’d entered through slammed again and two pairs of hasty footsteps came toward us from behind. The man by the door had gone over to a boxy wall-mounted apparatus and was speaking into one of the disks built into it. “Tell Orokobu we have an intruder…no, not them, it’s the catalyst’s brother…alone, apparently. They have him contained at Breach Site One.”
“Thank you, Abrien, quick thinking as always,” said Caerd to whomever was holding me. “Give him some space now.” The point of the blade came off my neck and the hand off my shoulder, and I got my first look at my captor. Instead of the ninja-type operative with a big dagger I’d been picturing, there was a flushed, tense-looking woman in a sort of kerchief, with some tubular cases tucked under her arm. She held a fistful of utensils, including a short precision blade with a long pen-like handle.
Did I just get held at X-Acto knifepoint? I felt a little silly, though not particularly relieved — no doubt she could still mess me up with it. We stepped away from each other and I spun around to see if I had a way out. It wasn’t promising. Caerd and Roia were forcing me to back away from them as they advanced, with shelves on either side of me. The new arrivals were blocking my retreat: Overalls and someone I hadn’t seen yet, a bullet-headed blunt instrument of a man with a thin beard and thinner hair, wearing a vest full of tool pockets.
Abrien moved to the end of the table and handed one of her tubes to the man sitting there, who I couldn’t believe had escaped my notice earlier. He was working on something behind a trifold screen not unlike what they used to use in elementary school to keep us from cheating on tests. Even now that I knew he was there, it was difficult to keep him or anything around him in focus. Then again, I had a lot to pay attention to at once.
”We’ve had a — oh. You already know,” said Overalls.
“There was also another boy who fled the building,” the Tool Man added. “They triggered a security alarm first. I expect the authorities will be there soon — we didn’t come prepared for combat.”
“Is the Autua link secure, Ennis?” Roia asked the Tool Man. “You’ve stabilized it?”
Caerd held up a hand to cut him off, then spoke a word I didn’t catch, directed at the others in the room.
“Can you understand us?” she asked me.
It took barely any effort for me to act bewildered and ignorant, given all the practice I’d been getting lately. “What? What just happened? You can still do English, right?”
“Of course. Sorry, your language is new to me. No linguistic shortcut can override a lifetime of habit.” She seemed convinced, giving me the dubious satisfaction of knowing just how good I was at being clueless.
Up to this point I had understood more of their conversation than my own repertoire of inwords could account for, but no longer. Could words be suppressed? I’d have to chew on that one later.
“Go on,” she told Roia. “Get your men under control. I’ll deal with him.” She took several more steps toward me; I took several backward. Ennis and Roia circled around me to confer with each other.
“So, uh…what happens now? What are you going to do with me?”
“For the moment, nothing. I mentioned we were otherwise occupied. I am very curious, however: what happened after you and Esther were separated?”
If she wasn’t going to threaten torture or anything, I didn’t see a reason to play along. “That’s my line. What do you pedo cultists want with her? I mean, sneaking around stealing school pictures? Where do you get that kind of obsession?”
While keeping my eyes on her, I tried to overhear as much as I could of Roia’s huddle with Ennis, who seemed to be in charge of things in the field. “We’ll withdraw temporarily…Let them search all they want…retain control of the breach’s immediate surroundings and move the link there…I won’t waste this much preparation unless absolutely necessary.”
“I know nothing about this is ideal,” said Caerd, “but we don’t expect or require you to understand. Esther is now part of an enterprise that outweighs all personal concerns.”
“What about him? Do we detain him or send him back?”
“Take him back, then find a place to detain him. It’ll be easier over there.”
My only advantage was that they didn’t know I could understand them. The longer I could keep Caerd talking before they threw me out, the more I could learn from the others. My stalling tactics might not work so well on Mom anymore, but they were worth a try here.
Word about the Earthboy in the room had spread quickly. More people were entering the library and closing in around us. Roia waved them off. “Keep your distance. You can help by blocking all exits except the breach. Make sure he leaves the way he entered.”
I bit back the saltier retorts I felt like throwing at Caerd; hostility wouldn’t help me. “You’ve got no right to yoink people from our world just because you can’t get things done yourselves. Give her back.”
“She’ll be a hero to millions of people.” Again she stepped forward and I stepped back. “Do you have the right to to take that from her?”
“Even if I believed that…what, you think I’m just going to walk away and leave her?”
“That would be the safe option, yes. Think carefully before you say such things.” She was thinking carefully herself now, considering new possibilities, and a more amiable look came over her. “I have to admire attachment like yours. If you’re that set on following her, we could perhaps find something for you to do.”
I couldn’t suppress a twitch. Was I doomed to keep hearing some version of those words no matter how far I went? “Your brother wants to come too. Find something for him to do.” But in the interest of further stalling, I ignored the slight. “Like what?”
“You’ve identified the main bond focus?” Roia was asking.
“Yes, it’s distributed all over the building. Shouldn’t be more than an inconvenience once the locals are gone.”
“Good. You did well to collect the others, but something that extensive should be sufficient on its own.”
“…no guarantee of returning to the life you’ve known. What I can guarantee you is an opportunity. The chance to surpass anything you could have achieved in your own world. To liberate yourself and bring about a historic liberation for others.”
Sounds deluded. “Sounds great. But what do you actually want me to do — like right now?”
“I just told you.”
Caerd’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She was going to see through my ignorance act if I wasn’t more careful. “I said that if you truly want to be reunited with Esther, you’ll start by surrendering that bag and everything else you’re carrying, and submitting to temporary custody.” She wasn’t breaking eye contact — had I let my eyes wander toward the men while I was listening?
Better change the subject. “Yeah, this is the second time I’ve heard that one today. Were those your goons at the Institute, or do you all use the same script?”
“Pardon? The Institute?”
“Yeah…the Institute Holistic? Var?”
“I’m not familiar…It sounds like you’ve been on quite the adventure of your own.” Her curious look intensified. I’d given her a clue without meaning to.
She turned in Roia’s general direction and said casually, “He knows too much. We’ll have to kill him.”
There was only one viable direction to run in. They had me surrounded, but there was a decent-sized gap on either side of Overalls. And he just might be the only person between me and the exit back to school, the one Roia told them not to block.
I’d fake him out, just like cutting around a defender on the court; I did it all the time. I lunged to my right without thinking, but the instinct I was counting on deserted me. Before I knew what was happening, I had overshot, too close to avoid him by reversing direction, and reacted like a complete novice. I ducked, almost lost my balance, and dove sideways straight into Ennis’s arms.
In two seconds he and Overalls had me pinned against the nearest shelf, while most of the others rushed in to surround me. “Calm down, everyone. Calm down,” Caerd laughed, a more pleasant laugh than I thought she had any right to. The only sinister thing about it was that she found any of this amusing. To the others she said more brusquely, “He’s listening. Ennis, get him out of here before you discuss anything further.” Then to me: “If you wanted to see your sister again, trying to deceive us was the wrong way to start.”
They pulled the backpack off and Ennis continued to hold me while the rest stepped back. Not quite sure whether that remark about killing me was only a trick or a legitimate order as well, I thrashed, stamped at his feet, and used my every degree of freedom to try and get in a groin shot.
“Stop that,” he snapped, and twisted both arms painfully behind me as soon as the pack was off.
“Better tie him,” Caerd said. She walked away for a moment to get a length of cord from somewhere nearby, then bound my wrists with it. “You’ll be fine, Reid, as long as you give up trespassing and eavesdropping. We’ll continue our talk after all this is over.”
Ennis manhandled me back through the door into my school. He tossed the backpack aside and steered me out into the atrium, then toward the connector to the high school, checking doors as we passed them in search of a place to store me.
“Act wisely and forget you saw any of this, and they might let you go. You were never meant to be involved.” To himself he added, “That’s what we get for working with an outsider.”
He shut me up in the first closet we came to, and I pressed an ear against the door waiting for him to leave. Would it really not occur to him that I couldn’t be locked in and could easily work the handle?
There was a click, a whoosh, and a bright orange glow flared up outside. I jumped back as spits of flame began licking through the crack between door and frame, the metal heating up. The handle glowed red, then orange, then yellow, and the air around me grew hot and smoky, forcing me to the floor.
With another click, the flames cut out. Once the metal cooled back to red, Ennis pounded on the door and the lock area, testing his handiwork, then hurried away.
Needless to say, the door was fused shut. The handle wouldn’t budge once I could get an elbow on it without being burned. There was nothing else in the closet but a few electrical conduits, certainly nothing I could use as a tool. I struggled with the cord around my wrists for a while, but Caerd really knew her knot-tying. In the end all I could do was wait, listen, and think about what was going to happen when they let me out.
If they planned to interrogate me, they’d get bored in a hurry once they found out how little I knew about anything. What then? Lock me up somewhere else? Try to recruit me? Use me as a tool, more likely; it hadn’t escaped my notice how that guy referred to Esther as “the catalyst”. Maybe they’d start right in on erasing my ties to the school once they were done with hers. Wouldn’t take anywhere near as long.
Two sounds pulled me out of my thoughts. The first was a police siren, filtering through the building from one of its remaining connections to the outside world. The second was a series of quiet bumps from the closet’s ceiling. Though it was hard to tell in the low light, something was moving one of the tiles.
“Hello?” There was no answer as the bumping and scraping continued. Finally I discerned the outline of a snake thrusting its way through a gap between tiles where a conduit penetrated. “Nik?” I called tentatively. I couldn’t tell which it was, but it had to be one of his, unless Wrigley was back in snake mode.
It drew back and out of sight. “Yeah, go get help, Lassie,” I muttered. But a short time later I heard soft approaching footsteps and Nik’s voice: “There you are!”
“Here I am.”
“Whoa, what? Reid? What are you doing in there?”
“Being tied up! What happened to you?”
“Those guys stopped following me after I ran outside. Red must have slipped out somewhere along the way. No one’s watching the high school, so I lay low there for a bit, snuck back in here to look for you when it was safe, then I saw Red hanging out of the ceiling.”
“Speaking of, do you think you could get in here through the ceiling? The door’s stuck.”
After some fruitless rattling (”Told ya”), he went into the adjoining classroom, where I heard him jumping and swatting at ceiling tiles. Grunting and general upheaval followed until one of the tiles above me was pulled up and his faint partial silhouette appeared in the opening. He hung down and began worming his way in, grabbing my shoulders for support. As soon as his legs came through we both collapsed in a heap on the floor.
I filled him in while he got to work on the cord around my wrists…and kept working on it…and kept working on it, getting increasingly agitated as the cord refused to get any looser. “Hey, uh…how’s it going back there?” I prodded after a few minutes.
“Gimme a second,” he growled. “I’m — uugghhh, these knots! What did they do, superglue them?”
“You did not just put your mouth on me.”
“I thought I could use my teeth! Nothing’s working!”
“We might have to cut it. My — Esther’s backpack should be out in the hall. There’s a scissors in there.”
One stealth retrieval mission and some more ceiling damage later, he was back with the scissors and a severely depleted store of patience. “If this doesn’t work we’re cutting one of your hands off. I’m not doing any more of that. Oh — ha, yes! There we go. Freedom!”
I won’t say who it was who placed a hand wrong while scrambling over the wall and fell, bringing a whole section of the ceiling grid down with him. All I’ll say is that it was dark and it could have happened to anyone. Since there was no way the crash and accompanying yowl went unnoticed, we rounded up the snakes, which Nik had had to leave to their own devices on the classroom floor, and made ourselves scarce.
The high school connector was longer than I felt it needed to be. Ordinarily we would have passed a board at the beginning of the hallway with our faces on it, along with the rest of the Class of 2000. Every year the eighth graders continuing on to Bohr High processed this way after graduation, to be greeted by their new teachers on the other side. My aversion to the place had been growing more or less on pace with my classmates’ anticipation. While acting as excited as any of them, in private I feared another transition like sixth grade: intruding onto Esther’s territory, primed with two years’ worth of expectations she had set, only this time with two more years of her watching over me to look forward to. For now, however, angst about the future could take a back seat to ensuring I would still have one.
The outcry over my escape began almost as soon as the double doors at the far end closed behind us. Once we’d run far enough to satisfy Nik, we stopped in a moonlit stairwell to collect our thoughts.
“So you got into their…their domain? What was it like?” Nik lay on his back with Great Red at the top of the stairs, his head hanging downward to watch Orm exploring the handrail.
“I literally saw one room and some sky out a window. And some scumbags. That’s the main thing I can tell you about it, it contains books and scumbags.”
“Just by walking through a door…I didn’t know it was that simple.”
“Maybe it’s not. It looks like they put a lot of work into this…whatever this is.”
Neither of us was used to playing the strategist, and the exhaustion wasn’t helping. Our obvious priority was escaping into the real world at the first opportunity. But with the people behind Esther’s disappearance so close at hand, I couldn’t leave it at that.
“The police are already here,” I said, pacing up and down the stairs with my hands on my head. “They’re probably searching the other school right now. The real one. They don’t find anyone there, they go home. Till then, the tall guys are planning to pull back and go dark. Then I guess they’ll finish what they started.”
“And then they’ll close the door to their place?”
“Probably. You know, if we could just get the cops to that door while it’s still open…They aren’t prepared for a fight, he said.”
“But would the cops be prepared for them? You saw what one guy did to that closet.”
“That’s what they can do on our side of the door. Imagine what a SWAT team could do on their side.”
“If you really want to go there…”
“They kidnapped my sister, Nik. I don’t see the two of us storming that place all by ourselves and getting her back. If we can keep the library open, get the cops’ attention and get them to it, they might have a shot at doing something. And if you just want to get out of here, I understand. There’ll be—”
“No, I’m in,” he said abruptly.
“You sure?” Now that I understood just how safe he’d been playing it his whole life on Earth, I was more than a little surprised.
“Yeah, screw it. We might not get another chance like this. You have any sort of plan?”
“Not really, but I have an idea of how to keep them from closing the door. I know what they’re after.”
Esther’s Spirit Chain project was without a doubt the thing she was most remembered for at the middle school. It was what had first marked her out as Someone to Watch, the reason for her place on the Wall of Leadership. Looking for ways to bring some solidarity to our clique-riddled school other than bashing rival schools, she had originally proposed the challenge as a School Spirit Week activity in place of the usual “come to school in your pajamas” or “wear a silly hat” days.
I don’t remember all the details of how the system worked, since the rules grew pretty Byzantine over the years. At its core, the Spirit Chain was a way of encouraging our insular student groups, teams, and clubs to engage with each other. Each group had its own segment of chain to grew over the course of a semester, but they couldn’t add links to their own segment. Links could only be earned for others, by a range of supportive actions from helping promote their activities to showing up at games or events they put on. Every semester each group was assigned as another’s “patron,” with a different patron supporting them in turn, in what was meant to be a forward-paying loop reaching all the way around Bohr’s social scene.
The initiative had a promising start once the administration was on board, and for two years it really did make the kind of positive connections they hoped for – until Esther graduated and it turned out not to be sustainable. Without her, Trina, and their circle putting in the work to come up with fresh incentives and fun challenges, it lost most of its momentum. Ambitious student council members and idealistic teachers did their best to keep it going, but everyone could tell it wasn’t the same. Those who didn’t care made a joke of it, while those who did ended up making it more of a competition than Esther ever intended.
“Their boss called it, what was it, a bond target — a bond focus. I don’t know what else he could have been talking about. So if they don’t want to call their mission off until they get their sweaty paws on it, what if we got our sweaty paws on it first?”
“Cool plan, except how are we supposed to get them all?”
“Got a theory about that. Try and follow me.” Not for the first or last time, I wished Sem was around to tell me if I was on the right track. “Right now there’s a gazillion pieces all over the place, yeah, but they were made to all be one single chain. That’s their reason — they’re going to get connected at the end of the semester. And the prize we all get depends on the length of the whole chain, not the pieces. So I’m thinking we try and harness that connection.”
“That connection that doesn’t exist yet.”
“No. No. Kind of? It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen it. It gave me a headache at first too.”
“Fine, still.” I took the squirming talisman out of my pocket. “All I know is, this thing made a connection to its other half without me even trying. And I pulled you into this whole twilight-halfway-border-zone by making a connection with you. So who’s to say we couldn’t pull in the rest of Esther’s chain starting from just one piece?”
He sprang to his feet. “Well, I’ll keep an eye out for one, but I’ll be looking mostly for an exit or a way to warn the cops. Either way we have to get to a normal room first, so let’s start with that.”
Before we headed back he asked, “Do you get a weird feeling from this place?”
“Dude, I’m going to have to make a chart pretty soon to keep track of all the weird feelings there are. What kind of weird?”
“Not like trouble. I mean, that’s been there the whole time. This one was faint at first. I think it gets stronger when they change things, when they switch us back and forth between the real Bohr and here. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels familiar in a way.”
“Not because we — ”
“No, not because we go here. A different kind of familiar.”
“Uh-uh, I’m not getting that.” The transitions only felt out of joint and wrong to me, which in one sense was becoming distressingly familiar.
The atrium was silent when we returned, a silence which was soon broken by a large bird fluttering up to the balcony railing next to us. From the way it stared at us, it had to be Wrigley.
“Thanks for ditching us!” I whispered.
“He’s shy of these people. Can’t blame him for that.”
We peeked around the corner of the main hall to see light coming from two rooms in addition to the library. The hall was in its normal state, and I should have been able to see the prominent chain segment of the yearbook club hanging outside the computer lab where they met. “Susan, they already got it. Of course they’d grab the obvious ones.”
“Oh, that’s one of the new cusses I picked up on Var. Remind me to give you the full list later. Hmm… I bet they missed the one in Mrs. Graham’s room.”
Nik went to check, with Wrigley following him in a catlike form. He crouched below window level when he passed lighted rooms, but at the library he poked his head up just enough to get a look inside despite my vehement shooing gestures. He tried the door of our English classroom and shook his head at me.
A piece of Wrigley split off and appeared to melt, trickling under the door. The handle turned shortly afterward and Nik opened it, beckoning me to hurry. To our perplexity, Wrigley then divided in two, one of which scampered up the wall and disappeared into the ceiling while the other ran off down the hall.
“He really picks and chooses when to be useful, huh?”
“Uh-huh,” said Nik, distracted. “You know that feeling I was talking about? The familiar-weird one? It’s a lot stronger around here.”
“I’m still not getting anything. The only thing I can think of…they were talking about moving some doohickey closer to the library. I bet it’s in one of those rooms with the lights on.”
“Wish I could have a look at whatever it is.”
The creative writing club’s meager length of chain was on a shelf near the windows. No sooner had I retrieved it than I forgot about it, catching sight of two police cars in the front parking lot. “Nik, look!” The officers were returning from their inspection of the school. We had almost missed our chance to get their attention.
We opened a window, but fearful of making noise, I blinked the flashlight at them instead. “Who’s there?” one of them called.
“Shhh!” Nik tried to wave them closer so we could keep the volume down. “Help! We’re being held against our will!”
There was a series of crashes from down the hall, followed by the sound of men rushing to investigate. “Was that Wrigley?” I whispered.
“Who is this? You can’t be here, you’re trespassing and there’s a curfew in effect.”
“My name’s Reid Emberley! We’re trapped in here with the guys who abducted my sister!”
“Show them your face, they put up posters and stuff,” urged Nik.
I turned the beam on my face. “That’s him,” said one, shocked. Their tone shifted as it dawned on them that they might actually be dealing with more than a couple of punk teenagers.
“Sit tight. We’re coming in.” They moved toward the main entrance.
“You can’t get to us that way,” said Nik. “You’ve gotta come in through this room. We — uh — How do we make this plausible?” he asked me under his breath.
“They’re watching all the ground floor entrances,” I ventured. “And you need backup! All the backup you can get. There’s a bunch of them and they’re armed.” Not in the conventional sense, perhaps, but whatever literal firepower Ennis was packing certainly counted.
Everything blacked out yet again.
We were back in an empty room, looking out on an empty parking lot. But something was different this time. Flashes of light from elsewhere were visible through the door, and the tell-tale racket of rooms switching seemed to be coming from all over the building. We felt the subtlest of tremors, like when you can’t quite be sure whether or not a mini-earthquake just passed you by.
Why. Why is nothing ever allowed to be easy.
More hubbub, running, and slamming of doors ensued out in the hall. “They took the link,” I heard Ennis saying breathlessly. “They’re both still here.”
Nik ran for the door. “Come on!”
“What are you doing?” But he was already outside, our cover fully blown. Maybe I could have jumped out the window or hid in a corner and hoped no one would look in the room too closely, but I followed his lead before I had time to think it through.
We sprinted into the atrium and descended the stairs in flying leaps, nearly stumbling out of control. It sounded to me like they were on my heels the whole time, but looking back was out of the question. We made for the hallway to the lobby, where the lights were on and I could hear English voices. Two officers were approaching, guns drawn. I put on the brakes and threw my hands up, unsure if they knew we were the wrong people to shoot. “They’re behind us!”
One of them waved us forward and we dodged past them as they continued into the atrium, shouting the usual commands at our pursuers.
“Fall back!” I heard from Ennis. “Fall back and get word to security. I’ll find —”
The lights went out, along with the officers’ voices, as the hall and lobby changed around us. Nik only slowed down after swerving into the athletics corridor, putting us back where we had started. “The fresh hell is going on?” he panted.
“I think Wrigley swiped their doohickey. Whatever they’ve been using to mess with this place. It’s out of control now. Is anyone coming for us here?”
“I don’t think so. Not yet.”
“Okay then, time to test this out.” I still had the chain segment from our classroom. “I don’t suppose you remember which groups are paired with creative writing?”
“You’re still on that? I have no idea.”
“I know this can work. Maybe. Just give me some space and let me know if anyone’s coming.”
This wasn’t the Institute Holistic. There was no web of premade mental connections this time for me to tap into. But some sort of connections still existed, I just had to dig deeper to activate them. Who got stuck with the wannabe writer nerds this semester? This is worse than a pop quiz, I shouldn’t even have to know this crap. I could barely be bothered to know which groups were paired with my basketball team.
Basketball. One memory triggered another and I flashed back to a conversation I’d overheard from the girls’ basketball team. It was them, they were creative writing’s patron group. And just as they had earned most of the loops of stapled ribbon I was holding, others had done the same for them. For all my past eye-rolling at the concept, now that I was under pressure to look at it from Esther’s viewpoint, I could see a degree of beauty in it. I held on to that viewpoint as we made for the suite of athletics offices, concentrating on the balance of giving and receiving that gave those flimsy loops their meaning.
Inside the offices, I scanned all around with the flashlight. A lot of teams kept their chains in here, but which office was Coach Fournier’s again?
“Either find it quick or come back for it,” said Nik. “We can’t stay here long.”
“Just a minute, it’s gotta be somewhere.” What did I get wrong?
“Let’s go. This way.” He was making for a little-used exit at the back of the suite.
“Wait — Yesss! I knew it!” My first hasty pass had missed the only decoration in the place: a peg in an inconspicuous corner with a sloppily-made length of chain hanging from it. “What did I tell you? Who’s the connection master?”
The main door banged open and Ennis’s flashlight beam hit me right in the eyes. I backed away blindly, remembering too late to hide the two chains behind my back.
“I see. You really were paying attention.” He wasn’t attacking, just advancing steadily and speaking in a level voice. “The girl casts quite a shadow, doesn’t she?”
Something about his tone made me retreat more slowly than I should have. Was that sympathy or just pity?
“What if you didn’t have to keep living in it?”
I hated that I was listening to this bastard talking down to me. What galled me the most was that he had a point. As long as I was “the brother,” I could never really graduate from that shadow. It would live on long after we walked down the high school connector.
“You can go home right now and be free of all this. I’m not afraid of Roia, I’ll come up with some story for him. Just give back the box you took, take my advice, and let us do our job.”
I made a break for the back door that Nik was holding for me, which led to the maze known as the Student Resource Center. The twists and turns got us far enough ahead of Ennis to hide in a corner of Nik’s choosing, from which we doubled back to the athletics offices after he’d passed.
We heard heavy footsteps from above the ceiling, along with muffled voices and other incoherent sounds as the building continued its existential spasms. “I think that’s the cops upstairs,” said Nik. “Come on. If they find the library, we’ve gotta let them know what they’re getting into.”
“I’ll catch up. Just give me a minute here.”
He swallowed his exasperation, conceding that he didn’t have time to argue with me, and left for the nearest emergency stairwell.
I found an out-of-the-way corner in case anyone else came in and sat down to think. As exhilarated as I was by my success, trying to retrieve the chain piecemeal like this was no good. Even if we had the time, I couldn’t possibly remember all the individual connections. I’d have to summon the entire thing at once. Enough pieces of it would show up here that I could easily verify if it worked.
Something touched my arm. I jumped and swatted wildly, sending Wrigley tumbling across the floor. It bounced right back and tugged at my pant leg.
“Oh, look who decided to show up again. Not now, weirdo, I need to concentrate.” I crossed my legs like meditating people were supposed to do, held the chains in both hands, and tried to clear my mind.
I don’t care what you want her stupid legacy for, you can’t have it. Don’t act like you know me. I get enough of that here already.
I recalled every detail of Esther’s project I could, weeding out all the memories of snide and jaded reactions to it, trying to get at the essence of the thing. But disparate details and emotions weren’t getting me anywhere.
Come on, think like Essie. She’d see the big picture. Make yourself useful for once.
Goodness knows I’d listened to enough of her talking about her vision. I forced myself into what I imagined was her mindset, picturing her goal, her desire to make it real. Make it real! After a few minutes of this, I got up and searched the offices, checking everywhere I’d seen chain segments in the past.
Voices escalated somewhere in the distance, things were shattered and fell heavily to the floor. Evidently the police had found Ennis. And were those more sirens on the way?
If everyone would just shut up and hold still for two minutes…If I wasn’t so tired…
No. It wouldn’t matter. You could never pull this off. Don’t get your hopes up because you got lucky one time with one little piece.
“It wasn’t fair to expect the same of him. He can’t help it he’s not like his sister. You should hear the horror stories about their eldest…”
I punched the wall, crushing loops of ribbon in my fist. This was pointless.
Wrigley prodded me again. “What?” I snarled.
Its back split open and an oblong shape emerged. It pushed the object further out until it dropped to the floor: a rectangular case of some transparent material.
“Is that the thing? What am I supposed to do with this?” I picked it up and examined it by flashlight. There was something inside the case that I couldn’t focus on, but the inscription on the outside quickly commandeered my attention anyway. Written in unknown characters, it was all legible except for one word. It signified a link, an overlap, between ––––– and a bounded space, presumably the one I was in right now. No wonder they were so concerned for it. If I was reading it right, this thing was the key to what was happening to the school. I wouldn’t have to think like Esther to hamper their bizarre operation if I could use this to knock it all down, cut it off at the source.
The excitement was enough to shake me out of my funk, reminding me that I should catch up to Nik. I ran into him at the top of the emergency stairs, on his way back to rejoin me and more aggravated than before. “The other library’s still there, but I can’t tell where anyone is. Everything’s changing randomly again and…” He trailed off when he saw the box. “What is that?”
“I dunno, but they want it and we’ve got it, and I know what to do with it. Are you okay?”
He appeared transfixed, staring with an odd expression halfway between eagerness and apprehension. “Yeah… This is where it’s coming from.”
“Your other feeling?” He nodded. “Is that good or bad?” He shrugged.
“Alrighty then. Here goes.” I lifted it over my head.
“Wait,” he said unsteadily, as if he didn’t know he was going to say it until the word was coming out of his mouth.
Wrigley was waiting expectantly near my feet, mostly amorphous except for a few limbs. As I dashed the box to the ground, it lunged beneath it, cushioning the impact. It reformed itself and stretched upward, extending the box back toward me. Clearly the direct approach wasn’t what it had in mind.
“You didn’t tell me your big plan was to smash it!”
“Why wouldn’t I? But if we’re not supposed to, Wrigley, there’s something else I could try.”
I closed my eyes. Forside was right: since arriving back here, I hadn’t been able to break ideas down like he’d taught me. But the whole purpose of this box and whatever it contained was to serve as a link to somewhere else. That just might make all the difference I needed.
It took more effort than before and I could only manage it for moments at a time, but it was possible. I shoved away all the thoughts of how I’d failed to connect the Spirit Chain and would fail equally here. This was a much simpler act in theory: the words of the inscription gave me a clear concept of the link itself; now I just needed a clear concept of what I was unlinking it from.
Even if I couldn’t see it the way Esther did, I knew this school. The hallways and common areas where friendships were solidified through goofing off and last-minute homework completion, the gym and locker room where I bonded with teammates, the classrooms where I had to grudgingly admit I’d learned some pretty cool things. I captured the chaotic whole that comprised them all. And for a moment I saw clearly, unobscured by any thoughts of shadows or siblings or expectations, that I was going to miss it.
I struggled to break the connection, to separate the two by pure willpower, until finally I went with what felt natural, stretched out my hand with the box in it, and suited the action to the thought, letting it go.
Again Wrigley scooted underneath it as it fell, this time to engulf it completely.
I knew it had worked before I opened my eyes. There were no more dramatic noises, no flashes of light or dark, only a scattering of ordinary fluorescent lights coming on. The overwhelming sensation was of release — that the school had been under tension this entire time and it had suddenly relaxed. Everything was back. We were back.
Wrigley churned, sprouted several more limbs, and ran off without ceremony, leaving the box on the floor. I finally noticed what was inside it: a squat, octagonal rod divided into eight interlocked segments in progressively darkening shades of blue.
Nik picked it up and said in a low voice, “It’s gone.”
The two of us shared a profound moment of relief, of quiet triumph, of reflection, of —
We raced to the library. The daylight of some other sun was still shining from it, but it was fainter now, and faltering. It wasn’t much of a jump to the conclusion that the experiment was being shut down.
From the sound of it, the police had returned to the first floor after what must have been a sanity-straining runaround of their own. “Up here! They’re getting away!” I shouted, and tugged at the door handle. I thought it was locked at first, but a second, harder pull opened it a fraction. I was fighting more than just the air pressure gradient this time.
Nik joined me, pulling on the door’s other leaf. If Roia and Caerd had called the thing off and all their people were back safely, there might not be anything we could do to keep the connection open, but that wouldn’t stop us from trying. Come to think of it, were we sure that all their people had made it back safely?
My answer was a click and a familiar whoosh from behind me. “Step away from there.”
Ennis approached us like a riding lawn mower approaches an especially obdurate weed patch. Though he looked physically unscathed from his run-in with Morrow Glen’s finest, his composure was thoroughly scathed. The small gadget he held, which I guessed was the equivalent of a lighter, was spitting out a growing flame that swirled around his hand.
Directly over his head, a ceiling tile was pulled aside and three tentacles shot down from the opening, one encircling each of his arms, one his neck. His flames released as his arm was jerked upward, sending them arcing past us in a jet that ignited a portion of a nearby bulletin board.
He fought back furiously, straining until a portion of the ceiling buckled, but Wrigley was anchored fast and steadily wrapping more of itself around him. He tore off the end of one tentacle, only for it to crawl back up his arm and rejoin the body elsewhere.
The fire alarm and emergency sprinklers went off. My shoes lost their traction as the floor flooded, causing my side of the door to slam shut. I got a grip on the jamb with one hand and dragged it back open with the other. The wind had died out but some other force was still at work, causing the metal around us to creak and the surface of the pooling water to vibrate, a resonant pattern converging on the threshold. Nik and I maneuvered ourselves in between the two leaves and braced against each other to prop them.
The library on the other side looked like we were seeing it through a telescope. The scene warped and flickered, giving me momentary glimpses of a room like a laboratory, then a wall of solid rock, then a range of wooded hills seen from high in the air, then more impenetrable blackness like I’d seen in the basement. I stared into it, fearful that if I looked away or even blinked, the connection would be lost and we’d be left sitting in a puddle outside our own library like a couple of chumps.
The cops were calling something to us from the stairs. “Over here!” Nik yelled. “Help! Child molester!”
Ennis choked out a “Hey!”
An officer appeared at the end of the hall, and at the same moment Wrigley let go of Ennis and retracted into the ceiling like a released stretch toy.
“Get on the ground!”
Ennis had already fallen to the ground, rubbing his throat, but he had no intention of staying there. He rolled to his feet and charged us, gathering another ball of flame in spite of the sprinklers.
Nik grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me to the floor an instant before the fire blast passed over us. No longer braced, the door swept us across its threshold, the world twisted around us for an instant, and we felt a final snap that was more than physical as it closed, leaving us on the wrong side.