For Daisy Korman, Theatrical Mastermind
1. Eli Frieden
2. Amber Laska
3. Malik Bruder
4. Amber Laska
5. Tori Pritel
6. Eli Frieden
7. Malik Bruder
8. Tori Pritel
9. Eli Frieden
10. Amber Laska
11. Eli Frieden
12. Amber Laska
13. Malik Bruder
14. Tori Pritel
15. Eli Frieden
16. Malik Bruder
17. Eli Frieden
18. Tori Pritel
19. Amber Laska
20. Malik Bruder
21. Tori Pritel
22. Malik Bruder
23. Hector Amani
24. Tori Pritel
25. Eli Frieden
26. Hector Amani
27. Malik Bruder
28. Eli Frieden
About the Author
Books by Gordon Korman
About the Publisher
“I see your taco and raise you half a cheeseburger.”
I peer at my cards. I’ve got a pair of kings and a pair of eights. It’s a pretty good hand, I think. Then again, I only learned the rules of poker twenty minutes ago. I’m from Serenity, New Mexico, where nobody plays poker because it’s gambling.
Trust me, that’s far from the weirdest thing about the place.
“Come on, Eli. In or out?” Randy Hardaway demands. He’s from Serenity, too, but he’s been here in the real world for a couple of months already, so he knows a lot more than I do about things like poker.
The third player, Malik Bruder, tosses his cards on the carpet. “Forget it. I quit.”
“You’re supposed to say I fold,” Randy corrects.
“Whatever. Let’s eat. I’m starving.”
“It’s not food, it’s our stakes,” Randy insists. “If we eat it now, we’ve got nothing to bet with. When the game’s over it can be food again.”
I laugh. “But by then you’ll have won it all.”
“And if I’m in a good mood, I might even consider sharing it with you. Now let’s play.”
With a plastic knife, I saw off a piece of my own burger and place it in the Styrofoam takeout container that’s serving as the pot. “Fine,” I say, turning my cards over. “I have two pairs.”
“Not good enough,” Randy cackles, revealing his own hand: three sixes. “You guys are such suckers! It’s like you just graduated kindergarten yesterday.”
“Ha!” Malik snorts. “Kindergarten is like NYC compared to where we just blasted out of.”
Malik isn’t even exaggerating about the “blasted out” part. We didn’t just leave Serenity; we escaped from it on a speeding truck. It would be a great story, except that one of us—a kid named Hector—didn’t make it.
There’s a knock at the door of Randy’s room—the secret knock, which means Malik and I don’t have to fight over who gets to hide under the bed and who has to squeeze into the jam-packed closet. We’re not supposed to be at McNally Academy, Randy’s boarding school. It’s just the place we came to after we escaped. Randy was the only person we knew on the outside. He was sent away to school because he was getting too close to the truth about how our “perfect community” was a big lie.
The door opens to admit Randy’s roommate, Kevin, and another kid. The two of them are weighed down with bags and Styrofoam containers. “Good news—we got leftover pizza and some fried chicken—” Kevin’s eyes fall on the smorgasbord of food serving as poker stakes. “Thanks a lot. We risk our necks raiding the cafeteria to feed your poor starving runaway friends, and you’re using it to gamble with!”
“We’ll eat it—eventually,” Randy explains. “And don’t forget we need some for the girls.”
I stand up. “We should take it over to them now. They’re probably pretty hungry.”
“I’ll go with you,” Malik decides. “Maybe they’ll feed me. And anyway, my mother always told me not to play with my food.”
He stops short, and I can tell he’s thinking about home. He loved his parents, especially his mom, who babied him and treated him like a royal prince. That’s not a problem I have. There was only my dad, and he turned out to be the ringleader of all of Project Osiris—him and this billionaire lady none of us have ever met.
Not that any of our parents were real parents—you know, in the biological sense. What we are, actually, is clones—part of a twisted, secret experiment. The whole town of Serenity was created just for Project Osiris. We were guinea pigs, lab rats. That’s why we had to run away. It was our only chance at having actual lives.
Randy isn’t one of the clones, but in a way, his life revolved around Project Osiris every bit as much as ours. When he got overly curious about why some of us were “special,” his own parents—real parents—chose to banish him to McNally rather than risk contaminating the experiment. That has to hurt.
Nobody at McNally knows that besides Randy. And even he doesn’t have the whole story. He knows we’re clones; what he doesn’t know is who we’re cloned from.
I wish I didn’t.
We peer out the door to make sure the coast is clear.
“We’re good to go—” Malik begins.
Whump! The noise isn’t that loud, but it’s almost like a mini-earthquake. The building seems to resettle on its foundation.
Kevin grabs the two of us, hauls us back into the room, slams the door, and locks it.
Malik, who’s a big guy and not used to being manhandled, dusts himself off, his jaw stuck out.
“What was that?” I ask, a little shaken.
Randy leads me to the window and we peek through the venetian blinds out to the front drive. A huge flag lies on the grass where no flag should ever be. Two moving bumps scramble out and begin frantically trying to fold the billowing silk.
“This happens at least twice a week,” Randy explains. “The flag’s gigantic, and the pulley’s broken, so the littler kids can’t handle it.”
“That’s fascinating,” drawls Malik. “And I should care about this because . . . ?”
The answer to that becomes apparent when a short, fat man in a suit comes running over from the administration building, waving his arms. We can’t make out his words, but it’s pretty clear that he’s chewing out the kids for letting the flag touch the ground, which is a serious no-no.
“That’s the headmaster, Mr. Ross,” Kevin supplies.
And if we were on our way to the girls’ dorm, we’d be passing twenty feet in front of him.
“Just give him a few more minutes to go through the usual song and dance,” Randy soothes. “He’s not a bad guy, if you don’t mind windbags. Reminds me of your old man a little bit.”
I almost tell him what he already knows—that my old man is a bad guy, technically a mad scientist. But I can’t say that in front of Kevin.
Eventually, the lecture is over and the flag gets folded up and put away for the night. When Mr. Ross goes back to the administration building, Malik and I gather up our food and hustle over to the girls’ dormitory.
We catch a couple of inquisitive looks from students on the way. According to Randy, there are rumors circulating about us: we’re new arrivals nobody’s had a chance to meet yet; we’re friends and/or cousins on break from a year-round school; we’re foreign exchange students. That last one is my favorite, since there isn’t a country on earth that’s as foreign as Serenity, New Mexico. Luckily, the kids here are too wrapped up in their own lives to worry about us all that much, one way or the other.
The people actually hiding us have the explanation closest to reality. Randy told them we’re runaways from his backward hometown. It’s the truth—with a few important details left out.
At room 122 I give the secret knock.
No one answers.
I knock again, louder this time. There are some scrambling sounds and the door opens a crack.
“We’ve got food,” Malik says impatiently. “You have three seconds to let us in, or I eat your share.”
Tori Pritel ushers us inside. This room is smaller than Randy’s, but nicer, with better furniture and satellite TV. It belongs to McNally Academy’s nurse, who’s on an exchange program at a school in Maryland for the next three weeks.
The fourth member of our group, Amber Laska, doesn’t even look up. She’s completely engrossed in a news broadcast. We’ve all been media-obsessed since leaving Serenity. Our TV, radio, and even internet were strictly controlled by Project Osiris. Any information about crime or conflict or violence was kept from us. Even the history we were taught left out unpleasant details like wars and revolutions. The only reason we knew about lying was so we could be told that nobody from Serenity ever did it. There were no secrets in Serenity—except for the fact that the whole town was a secret. And we weren’t supposed to find out about that.
So here we are, four escaped clones in the middle of a world that is an absolute mystery to us. We’re kind of protected at McNally, but we can’t stay much longer. Sooner or later, the rumors about us are going to reach the teachers.
We spread our donated food for a picnic on the carpet. Malik picks a stethoscope up off the floor and holds it dangling by an earpiece. “What’s this for?”
“It must belong to the nurse,” Tori replies. “But we’ve been using it to listen in on the room next door.”
“Spying on the neighbors.” Malik clucks disapprovingly. “Not very Serenity-like. This is going to bring down your grade in Contentment class.”
She flushes. “It’s not spying. We’re just trying to get a sense of what real kids talk about.”
“And?” I prompt.
“There’s a lot of discussion about a person called the Bachelor. I think he might be in the government. Also Starbucks—that’s a restaurant in Pueblo. It must be superfancy, because all the things you can order have these long foreign names. Oh—and zombies.” She shrugs. “We haven’t figured out what those are yet. Jewelry, maybe.”
“Sounds like some kind of earrings,” Malik suggests without much interest. “Come on, let’s eat.”
We dig in. Eventually, the smell of lukewarm pizza gets through to Amber and she joins us.
“I just saw a report,” she fumes between hungry bites, “about people who get sick but they can’t see doctors because they can’t afford it! In what universe is that allowed to happen?”
“This one,” I tell her honestly. “And it’s probably not the hardest thing we’re going to have to get used to.”
“Well, that’s wrong!” she insists, getting louder.
“Shhh!” Tori cautions. “We’re supposed to be hiding.”
“But in Serenity—”
“Happy Valley was never a real place,” Malik interrupts, using his pet name for our former hometown. “It was a big petri dish, only more boring. And we were the germs they were growing in it.”
Basically, Project Osiris is a scientific study to determine if terrible people are born terrible, or if their environments make them that way. Would evil kids raised in an isolated community where nothing bad ever happens still grow up to be evil?
The problem is this: Where do you get evil babies? My “father,” Felix Frieden—actually, Hammerstrom—came up with a solution that’s as awful as it is ingenious: you clone them—from evil adults.
Project Osiris took DNA from some of the worst criminal masterminds in the prison system and created eleven clones—the four of us, poor Hector, and six others still in Serenity. If a sweet, wholesome upbringing can turn the scum of the earth into ordinary citizens, it proves that there are no bad people, only bad environments.
We were never supposed to find out the truth about ourselves. Bad enough the only parents we’ve ever known turn out to be the scientists who did this to us. Then there’s the little detail that we are exact copies of some of the most depraved criminals ever.
One of us—one of the boys, anyway—is cloned from Bartholomew Glen, the notorious Crossword Killer. It’s impossible to be sure which. The pictures of him on the internet show a middle-aged inmate with a shaved head, wide staring eyes, and a crazed expression. None of us look like him—or maybe we all do. Fast-forward a few decades and one of us will for sure, which is pretty scary. As for the others, we can’t even guess who they’re cloned from, which is scarier still.
The next few moments are devoted to the kind of serious eating perfected by Malik. Even Amber, who’s always on a diet, is double-fisting pizza slices. It’s a small thing, but it shows that we’ve shifted into Fugitive Mode. Fugitives eat like they don’t know where their next meal will come from, because they don’t. When we first got to McNally, the stash of jellybeans hidden in Randy’s underwear drawer was the first food we’d seen in nearly two days.
“It isn’t, you know,” Tori says thoughtfully. “We just need it more. I’d give anything for Steve’s jalapeño meatloaf right now.” She calls her dad by his first name—the scientist she thought was her dad, I mean.
Malik cocks an eyebrow at her. “Having second thoughts, Torific?”
She glares back. “We left because we had no choice—we all get that. It doesn’t change the fact that I miss my parents.”
Malik won’t let it drop. “The only parents we have are eyedroppers and test tubes.”
“Leave her alone, Malik,” Amber snaps. “You know what she means.”
I speak up. “This is pointless, you guys. Yeah, we miss certain things. But if any of us got the chance to go back home, no questions asked, who’d take it?”
“But what are we going to do?” asks Tori. “I mean, we can’t stay here forever. Sooner or later, the teachers who run this place are bound to notice they’ve picked up a few extra kids.”
Malik snorts. “I didn’t bust out of Happy Valley to hang out in a place just as lame. I’m going to see the world.”
Amber makes a face. “That’s all we are now? Tourists?”
“You’ve got a better idea?”
“Justice!” she exclaims. “It’s so simple. What happened in Serenity is a crime. We need to go to the police and get our so-called parents arrested for what they did to us.”
“Police!” Malik spits. “The only police we’ve ever known are the Purple People Eaters, and how much justice did they ever dish out?” He’s talking about the Surety, Serenity’s police force, who are really just the enforcers for Project Osiris. “You think the cops are any different? They could hand us right back to the Purples. Or arrest us for being clones. For all we know, that’s against the law. And wait till they figure out who we’re clones of.”
I have to agree. “It’s complicated. We can’t go to the police until we know more about how things work in the outside world.”
“And don’t forget there are six others like us still in Serenity,” Tori puts in. “They deserve a chance at a real life every bit as much as we do.”
“But no pressure,” adds Malik sarcastically.
There is a sharp rap at the door, and everyone freezes. It’s not the secret knock.
“Is somebody there?” calls an adult voice.
Then we hear the sound of a key in the lock.
We’re galvanized into action. Tori disappears into the closet with what’s left of the pizza. Amber scoots under the bed with the rest of the food. I try to roll under there too, but Malik beats me to it, and I bounce off his bulky form. The doorknob turns, and there I am, still out in the open. The thought that I escaped
from Serenity only to be caught in a random dorm inspection lends my feet wings. I literally fly to the bathroom, and dive into the tub, pulling the curtain closed.
There are footsteps, and the teacher’s voice again: “I could have sworn I heard someone in here.” The door opens and closes. The footsteps die away in the corridor.
And a moment later, the four of us are staring at each other. The crisis is over as quickly as it began. But the feeling of being close to disaster has not yet gone away.
Maybe it never will.
I’m running through the woods, the leafy branches slapping at my face, my sneakers pounding against the uneven ground.
I know what you’re thinking. Too risky. I get that. If any adult sees me, we’re all toast.
That’s why I’m exercising under the cover of the trees. This brings its own set of hazards, though. If I trip on a tree root and break my ankle, everything we’re trying to do instantly becomes ten times harder. But how can I stay cooped up in that room any longer? Especially when I’ve worked so hard with diet and exercise to achieve my goal weight.
I used to start each morning by making a to-do list of everything I needed to accomplish that day. I wouldn’t have to think about how much time to spend practicing ballet; it would be right there on the list: Practice ballet—1.5 hours. I’d know exactly how long to spend on each homework assignment—my “mom” was our teacher, and it wouldn’t do for her daughter to be anything less than perfect. If I was going over to Tori’s to swim or hang out, the list would say how long I could do that too. I was in complete control of my life.
Since we left Serenity—I can’t believe it was only three days ago—I’ve become list-proof. You can’t plan anything when you’re on the run. All you can do is react to what happens to you, and do your best to stay free. Ballet and piano and water polo and studying—all the things that defined me before—now take a backseat to survival.
I miss my lists. Even though they don’t really work anymore, I still see them in my mind as they might apply to my current situation:
THINGS TO DO TODAY (UNPRIORITIZED)