It was three day’s hard driving to the tip of Florida, and another half a day to Key West. I slept whenever I wasn’t driving, although I was rarely tired-sleeping helped pass the time. Twice our car was stopped and checked for either fugitives or drugs (part of the new ISA’s standard), and both times I hid under the back seat as a pile of sand. David took to the sky, completely escaping their scrutiny. He spent much of the time he wasn’t sleeping in the sky; most likely just to escape the little car. We slept in the car, or rather, Razo slept in the car-David and I both offered to sleep outside, and neither of us was eager to retract our offer, especially once we heard Razo’s snoring. It was extremely comfortable sleeping as sand, although the vertigo and displacement I felt when I woke up were like nothing I’d ever dealt with before. Every single time I woke up, I felt like someone had tilted me upside down and sideways while I was sleeping, and I constantly dreamt about falling (although that might have been caused by something else entirely). David seemed incapable of turning into a bird for a full night, but he never complained about the ground either.
Razo was even quieter than usual, and only pulled his blades in when we had to stop for food or a checkpoint. He ignored David almost all the time, and only rarely spoke, even to me. Something was bothering him, but I couldn’t guess what it was. I hoped it was just because he didn’t like David, but I couldn’t be sure. I came close to asking him a thousand times, but was never brave enough to actually do so.
I hoped that nothing bad was happening to Rek, and Shark in particular, because of her previous experiences in a lab. I could only hope that Jessi was still fine and at the same prison-David hadn’t heard anything else useful. But there wasn’t really anywhere else they could put her-the prison was the only one of its kind. Razo had done some research on it when he’d discovered that Rek and Jessi had both been stolen. Inside, all ranged powers were blocked, except in the lab areas, where some of the prisoners were forced to undergo tests. They had discovered a form of radiation here that could temporarily block even physical powers, such as running, regeneration, or strength, and used it on their more powerful prisoners. The doors opened inward and could only be opened from the outside, by telepathically-shielded guards. The individual cell doors could only be opened if a signal was sent simultaneously from a remote location and from a secret, secure place within the prison. Razo knew someone who knew someone who knew the location of this room inside the prison and an emergency override code that would unlock the cell doors, and had bought the information at a higher price than he had liked, but at least we knew where it was. I wasn’t certain what he was going to do about the other signal, but I figured he had something up his sleeve. He almost always did. There were rumored to be terrible, silent zombie guards that hid inside the prison walls, but he had dismissed this as a meaningless rumor.
The structure itself was mainly underground, unheard of in such a wet area. In reality, it was an underwater facility, with the top stationed in a floating (but carefully tethered) manmade island like an iceberg’s tip, the actual facility extending both horizontally and vertically underwater. The island was the largest of its kind and had taken twenty years and several million dollars to build. It had actually been built by the US to house the most dangerous post-humans, but had been bought by what was now the ISA during the long lapse of serious, or, in fact, any, post-human threats.
As for Auntie and Sir, he hadn’t heard anything from them at all, but he had heard rumors of a rebellion and assumed that they were behind it. That was about all he said, really. Our entire conversation went like this-
“The prison…do you know anything about it? Because I really don’t know anything at all, and we should have some kind of plan, don’t you—”
“Folder. On the floor.”
“Oh, I see it. The red one?”
“Yeah. Careful. Some of that stuff was expensive.”
“Have you heard anything from—”
“No. Heard about a rebellion, though. They’ll be the ones behind it.”
Now we were standing on a dock, at midnight, in Key West. One of Razo’s contacts from his time working for Sir with Chris ran a smuggling boat through these waters, and he could get us to the island-in fact, that was what Razo had used the smuggler’s boat for the last time he’d had to call on him. But that time, they had only been going to take someone off the island-they hadn’t been trying to break someone out as well. Luckily, Razo still had a favor or two to call in with this guy, so he had gotten everything ready for us.
The little white boat powered into the dock, near-invisible with only two lights, one at the front and one at the back. A man threw some ropes over the boat’s edge to us, and Razo fastened them to the dock. A gangplank was run out and we ran up it, moving quickly in the darkness. The ropes were released on our side and they fell into the water, still tied to the dock on the other side. The boat moved off, navigating carefully out of the dock and into the ocean beyond. Before long, all the lights had been extinguished and we were moving invisibly and all but silently through the waters. I climbed carefully to the front of the boat and perched on the very tip of the prow. The smuggler guy was giving me the creeps, but Razo and he were getting along just fine.
David had disappeared into the boat’s tiny restroom as soon as it had left the docks, and although I hadn’t seen him reappear, he was definitely standing next to me, as Nevermore, his weird black outfit flapping in the breeze. “It does make your moves look better,” I commented.
“Huh?” he asked.
“Are we going to free the people I saw the first time I contacted you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “plus one more. Remember the girl you guys kidnapped? Her too.”
“Oh,” he said. There was a long pause, then- “You know, I’m really sorry about all that.”
“It’s the only reason we’re even in this…predicament. If you hadn’t taken Jessi, well…I wouldn’t be here, that’s for sure. We wouldn’t know each other and we’d both probably be a lot happier.”
“I’m not sure about the happier part.”
“What, you like being chased across the East Coast?” I joked.
“Well, okay, maybe I would be.”
We stared out across the dark water. Behind us, the key was fading quickly out of sight, helped by the dark of the night. No land was visible ahead of us yet but it couldn’t be long before we arrived. The smuggler had Razo pulling the tarp off something down behind us, but whatever it was, it wasn’t time to use it yet. We were floating in the limbo of the ocean at night. It was calm and peaceful.
A pair of dolphins swam up, leaping gracefully and inquisitively around the ship. They never came close enough to touch, but they were closer than I’d ever seen them before, outside of an aquarium. Nevermore tried chittering at them, but they wouldn’t come any closer.
I turned around, moving my face out of the headwind for the first time since I’d come up here. The tarp had been completely removed, revealing two jet skis lashed to the deck of the boat. I worried for a moment where Nevermore was going to sit once we rescued everyone before remembering he could fly, then worried for a moment more about how we’d fit three extra people on two jet skis before recalling that Shark would probably be happier in the water. Then I had to laugh at myself-I was acting as if everything was over already! We hadn’t even started the hard part yet.
“Why’re you laughing?” Nevermore asked.
“Mm, just thinking too far ahead. It’s not actually funny, I guess,” I said, just realizing it as I spoke. “This is all just kinda getting to me.”
“Yeah. Ah,” I agreed. “I just want this all to be over and done with already.”
“Me too, I think,” said Nevermore. “But when it’s all over…I have nowhere to go. Do you think I could go with you and your friends? Will My/ine accept me?”
“I don’t know. Most likely he will, though... so long as you remember to call him Sir, not My/ine. We’d have to find him first, anyways. I guess that’s what we’ll do next, after breaking Jessi and Rek and Shark out of prison. If, you know, if we succeed.”
“Mmm,” he said. “Well, at least it’s better than crawling back to the ISA claiming insanity or something.”
“Yeah. They’d probably just stick you back in the prison we’re gonna break into and then we’d have to go get you out again.”
He smiled. “I can’t believe we’re talking seriously about all this. It feels like I’m in some kind of spy movie.”
“I wish. Then we’d have cool gear and backup. Oh, and we’d be about ten years older and incredibly good-looking,” I joked.
“What, I’m not already good looking?” he replied. I felt myself starting to smile too.
“No, are you kidding? Seriously, that mask of yours is the best invention since sliced bread.”
“At least I don’t go parading my face around.”
“Are you saying I’m ugly?”
He turned away and pointed. “Look, another dead bird. It must have looked at you.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t looking at you?” I returned.
“Quiet down, you lovebirds! We’re getting close!” Razo called from behind us. The smile slid from my face in an instant as I was brought back to the situation. I peered ahead, looking for any sign of land, but could see none. Nevermore pointed to left, where one of the larger small islands was coming up rapidly. “I think that’s it.”
“Oh,” I replied, gazing off to the left instead of straight ahead.
“Get down here!” said Razo. “If we time this wrong we could never get to the island at all.”
“Time what wrong?” asked Nevermore.
Razo rolled his eyes. “Look, it’s not like we can just sail up to their dock. We’re going to launch the jet skis from out here and use them to approach the island. They’ll be less conspicuous-my friend says they’re the same brand the guards drive.”
“So we’re just going to jet ski up to their dock?” he asked.
“Do you have a better idea?” asked Razo.
“You’re gonna have to fly, Nev,” I said. “There won’t be enough room for you on the way back, and besides, it’ll be useful to have a scout.”
“Oh, alright,” he said. “I should probably change now, so I won’t slow you guys down when it’s time to go.”
“Yeah,” said Razo, but it looked like he didn’t like the idea. Then he shrugged, and signaled to the smuggler. The boat began to slow. Quickly, the two jet skis were pushed into the water, and Razo and I mounted them. It had been a long time since Auntie had taught me to drive a jet ski, but it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of it again. Razo could drive his like a pro, as usual, and it took me a while to catch up. Nevermore swooped ahead of us, turning sharply every once in a while to warn us of a patrol up ahead. It almost felt like we were just riding our jet skis out for a joyride-the adrenaline hadn’t set in yet, and I was still strangely calm.
If it hadn’t been for Nevermore, we would never have made it to the island. Even so, we had a couple of close calls as we got closer to the shore. When we finally ditched the jet skis in some hidden cranny of the island, I relaxed, thinking the difficult part was over, now that we were on the island. I was wrong.
While Razo finished hiding the jet skis, I walked up the beach toward the tree line, feeling awfully exposed at the tide level. Nevermore was already perched in a tree on the edge, invisible from the beach, and I headed towards where I’d seen him land.
I don't know if anyone saw him- I certainly know that no one heard him. But suddenly, out of the woods, I guess, there was a man- in a security guard's uniform. Everything was paled by the moon's light, but this man's uniform was definitely grey. I froze as he drew nearer, his eyes still staring straight ahead, hoping he somehow hadn't seen me. But then, when he was nearly on top of me, his head turned down to look directly at me, and, in a terrible monotone, he said, "Do not resist capture. Do not move. We will-"
He froze, suddenly and inexplicably, and his eyes began to glow an unnatural blue. I made to run off, but found that I was frozen as well. I thought I heard Razo calling my name, but then my ears were filled with a rushing sound, as of a waterfall, and my vision dimmed slowly. This time, however, I didn't black out- instead, images flashed in front of my eyes and the rushing in my ears resolved into many, many voices, all babbling at the same time. I wanted to scream, do anything to make it stop, but I was held by whatever strange force united me and the grey-coated man.
The images and sounds cut off suddenly, and I fell to my knees, gasping as though I had just run a marathon. My vision was still dim and the rushing was back in my ears, but both my hearing and my vision were slowly returning. Eventually, when I was able to make out the sand beneath me and the pounding of the waves in the background, I looked up. Nevermore was standing over me, looking concerned, but Razo was nowhere to be seen.
"Where's...?" I asked, motioning to make up for my breathlessness.
"He's in the forest. I think he's going to kill the guard."
"Yeah...probably." I admitted. "Wow, that was...weird."
"What happened?" asked Nevermore. "We had no clue what was going on- that guard was about to...capture you and then he just...froze."
"I don't know," I said. "All I'm sure of is that something really weird, and really lucky for us, just happened."
"Yeah, that's great," said a familiar voice, and I saw Razo coming from behind Nevermore. "Now can we go? Someone's going to run across that guard sooner or later."
"Alright," I said, "You lead. Nevermore, help me up."
Whatever had happened hadn't affected me at all in the long term, it seemed, because I was walking well ahead of Nevermore before too long. By the time we came to the path, he was out of view behind us.
"The map said that this section of the path had no traps," said Razo. "We don't have to tramp through this jungle any longer." He stepped out onto the path, and something flashed in front of my eyes. It was the same map Razo had had...only different.
"Razo, no! Don't take another step! We have to get away from here as fast as we can!"
"Jem, don't be stupid," he said. "It's miles more if we have to avoid the path."
"We don't have to avoid the whole thing," I said, "only the parts close to guard stations! Get out of the path!"
"The closest station is miles from here," he argued, "you saw the map."
"The map is wrong! Razo, I think that the guard... I think that whatever happened, it transferred some of the guard's memory to me! Because I can remember this path…there’s a guard station barely a hundred yards away!"
He paused, then stepped back out of the path. "All right, but if a guard doesn't pass through here in the next twenty sec-" He froze, looking down the path, and I followed his gaze.
A guard had turned the curve and was staring at us. He raised his hand as if to stop us, and his eyes wandered into mine. He blinked, and, as if his eyelids were some kind of green flag, the three of us took off, running as quickly as we could back into the woods. We heard him coming after us, crashing through the woods, hard on our heels.
“Jem! Nevermore! Split up!” called Razo. “We’ll meet at the beach where we landed!”
I turned to the left and Nevermore turned right. Razo kept going straight ahead and the guard followed him, not even pausing to consider following Nevermore or I. It didn’t take me long to find out why—the forest seemed suddenly full of guards. I looked to my left and there was one, running just inches behind me. I veered right, still heading for the beach, but one stepped from behind a tree. I skidded to a stop and turned away, barely escaping his arms, and fell into another one, who’d come up behind me while I wasn’t looking. I screamed at him and twisted away, running as fast as I could away from all of them.
Ahead of me, the jungley forest thickened, but through it I thought I could see a clearing. I pushed through, getting pricked by several palm trees en route, and came out…onto the path? I tried to stop, but a root that poked inches out of the dark soil sent me flying face-first instead. I hit the ground hard and shattered into a million sandy pieces. As I slithered through the hands of the waiting guards, I realized that it had all been a setup, a trap within a trap, if you will. They’d found us, and then tricked us into running into their ambush in the woods. But instead of catching us there, they’d herded us back to their reinforcements on the path. Not a bad strategy, except when you considered Nevermore and I’s powers. But still- had they caught Razo?
I rose up in a wave of sand behind the guards who’d been so eager to catch me and pushed them to the ground, pummeling them with every grain in my body, then flowed over their inert forms at their fellows. I picked up some rocks, small ones, as I moved across the path, and used these to gouge at their faces as I knocked them to the ground as well. I couldn’t stay long enough to make sure that they’d stay down—I had to get out of there before they sent someone who could stop me. I wasn’t sure what they would use against me in my sand form, and I wasn’t particularly eager to find out. Discarding the stones, I slither-sprinted into the dark jungle-forest, heading back towards the beach and, hopefully, my friends.