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Deadzone, Page 2

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  Molly nodded back at Javi. "I agree. Our target is the building. We can't get distracted."

  "Even for water?" Oliver asked.

  "We'll find more," Molly told him. "Besides, I'm tired of dead ends. We're going to fly. Maybe we'll cross this whole desert in only a few hours."

  Somehow, Yoshi doubted that. Whoever built this place, ease of travel had clearly not been their top priority.

  So who did build this place, and why? And why had nobody ever found it? You'd think that with all the satellites and airplanes crisscrossing the globe every day, maybe someone would have looked at a giant rift in the arctic and said, "Hey, that's not normal!"

  On Molly's orders, everyone else had begun connecting themselves to the bungee cords to start their flight over the desert. She handed Yoshi one end of a cord. "Put Akiko and Kira next to you, since you can speak with them, and Anna can go on the end to work the device for your group."

  Akiko and Kira were still speaking in French. Yoshi told them in Japanese that if they didn't cut it out, he and Anna were going to leave them behind.

  "You're not our boss," Kira said, swiping the end of the bungee cord from him. "If we knew English, we'd speak it."

  Yoshi scowled. "Then learn it."

  "Maybe we will," Akiko said, though her eyes were lowered, as if she were hoping to avoid any further argument.

  Yoshi preferred that, too. The sisters didn't deserve his irritation. He was just anxious about what lay ahead, and aside from the sisters, everyone had become far too quiet.

  "Only when it is silent can you hear the whispers of the universe," his father used to say, something that had never made sense to Yoshi until now. The desert air felt brittle with silence. And if the universe was whispering anything to him in the eerie quiet, it was a single word:


  Javi's experience jumping in low gravity was mixed, at best. Nothing in his history beat the thrill of leaping into the air and feeling his body float upward, then slowly drift back to earth. Or ... drift across the rift. Hey, it rhymed! He'd have to start using that line.

  However, low gravity had also introduced him to shredder birds, feathered little demons that had done to his clothes and arms exactly what their name implied. He hoped the birds had been left behind in the jungle. No trees to perch on, no birds, right?

  Javi had a bungee cord tied around his waist, connecting him to Molly and Oliver, with Molly controlling the device for their group. On her cue, they all pushed off the ground, immediately stretching their bodies straight, hoping it would create an arrow effect into the air.

  They wouldn't get as high here as they had in the jungle, where the trees gave them a canopy to bounce off. But as long as they got higher than the boulders and the cacti, and they stayed clear of whatever that gooey green river was, Javi figured they'd be fine.

  Oliver shouted over to Javi, "What's the mathematical formula to calculate friction's drag on an object in motion?"

  Javi twisted around to Molly. "Do you know the answer?"

  She looked up from the device. "No, but I bet we can work it out."

  "I guess we start by figuring out what causes the friction," Javi said.

  "Exactly!" Oliver pushed his hands through the air, as if swimming closer to Javi. "Does the desert floor create friction against my foot as I walk? Or does the weight of my foot create friction against the desert floor?"

  On the other bungee cord nearby, Yoshi groaned. "Could you guys talk about anything else? I'm falling asleep over here!"

  Akiko said Yoshi's name, then pointed to Oliver and said something in Japanese. Yoshi responded, "Pizza," then added something more in Japanese.

  "What was she asking?" Javi asked. Pizza sounded pretty great to him right now.

  Yoshi smiled. "She wanted in on your conversation but that was too boring to translate. So I told her you were debating if the rift offers any pizza delivery."

  Javi started to laugh, but now he was asking himself the very same question. Obviously there wasn't delivery, but he wondered if there could be pizza at the building at the end of the rift.

  Pizza. Thick crust piled high with sausage, cheese, and jalapenos. His mouth watered. Just the thought of it made him eager to hurry to that building. For Molly, of course. But maybe for pizza, too. They were making good progress down the slope.

  A sharp gust of wind that swept up from the desert floor ended that idea. It smacked Javi across the chest and the rest of Team Killbot as well, pushing them far too high in the air. Wind rushed past his ears.

  "I see more trees!" Anna cried.

  "What?" Molly was at the far end of the bungee cord, higher than the rest of them. "We can't hear you!"

  Anna cupped her hand around her ear. "We can't steer to you, either. I said those are big trees!"

  "Yes, it's a big breeze!" Molly looked over at Javi as if Anna had just stated the obvious. He only chuckled to himself.

  A second gust of wind separated the two groups, carrying Yoshi's group higher on the slope and pushing Javi's toward the desert floor.

  "We need to stay together!" Molly shouted over to Anna. "Turn on the gravity!"

  Anna shook her head, indicating she hadn't heard anything, and Molly pointed down to the ground.

  "We're too high!" Javi yelled at Molly. "If you drop us from here, it's Caleb all over again."

  He shouldn't have said that, shouldn't have reminded Molly and Oliver and anyone else who'd heard. Caleb had survived the plane crash, but had then discovered the device's heavy gravity setting, paying for it with his life.

  "I'll do it gradually," Molly said. "Hopefully the others will see what we're doing and come down near us. We'll make another jump after the wind dies down."

  Dies down? Javi groaned. Did she have to phrase it that way?

  But her idea seemed to be working. He felt an increasing tug in his gut pulling him downward, then the queasiness that came with floating. Then they were heavy again. Molly was turning the device on and off, lowering them a bit at a time. At this rate, it might be a hard landing, but not so hard as to break bones.

  He looked around for Yoshi's group, but they were already below the ridgeline. He heard them shouting at one another, but in the wind, couldn't tell exactly where they were.

  "Javi, watch out!" Oliver said.

  A final gust of wind had pulled them sideways and now, only a few feet from the ground, Javi was directly over a patch of cacti. Spiny, thorny, prickly cacti that seemed to widen their stems to greet him.

  "I knew it," he muttered. "I knew this would happen, just knew it."

  Inches from landing, his gut twisted again and he floated a few seconds longer, just enough for the wind to carry him past the cacti patch. He looked up at Molly who was landing a few feet away, smiling as she shut off their device.

  "You're welcome," she said.

  Javi brushed a hand through his hair as he bumped to the ground, and looked back at what he'd just escaped. His respect for Molly, as a leader and as a friend, had just increased sharply. He smiled at the pun.

  They untied themselves from the bungee cord, and while Molly collected it into her backpack, she said, "Let's spread out and see if anyone can spot the rest of our group below."

  Javi went to the right, toward the trees Anna had pointed out when they were in the air. If he could climb to the top of one, he'd have a much better view. Molly and Oliver went in the opposite direction, the way they'd last seen Yoshi's group drift in the wind.

  "Be careful, Javi!" Molly called at his back as he wandered out of her sight.

  "Javi!" No, that was Molly's voice, there, ahead in the trees. How did she get over there?

  "Mol?" He hurried closer to the trees.

  "Javi! Be careful, Javi!" she called again.

  "Why? What's wrong?"

  These trees weren't anything like the massive, powerful specimens they'd seen in the jungle. These were mostly gnarled, knotty branches with tufts of green spines at the ends. The branches would be
easy enough to climb, but chances were high he'd come down with needles in his backside.


  Javi turned in a circle, looking for Molly. If she were here, he'd have seen her.

  "Careful, Javi, careful!"

  Javi finally located the source of the sound; it was coming from a small, bright green bird at the top of one tree. A mockingbird, except the ones back at home could only imitate the tweeting of other birds. This one had heard Molly's voice and imitated it perfectly.

  "Aren't you cute?" Javi reached for the lower limbs of the tree and as he did, more of the birds flocked into the branches. A few at first, then ten, then dozens.

  "Careful, Javi! Careful, Javi!" Every bird was saying it now, a chorus of Molly voices singing to him. This was so weird, and so cool. But mostly weird.

  He climbed up to a higher branch and now the birds surrounded him.

  "How do I go home?" he asked the birds.

  Their voices shifted, replicating his own. "Go home. Go home, Javi!"

  Javi stretched out his hand, wondering if one of the birds might trust him enough to come along for a little walk. The others would love to see this!

  "It's okay," he whispered. "I won't hurt you."

  "Hurt you," the birds repeated. "Hurt you."

  And the one nearest to his hand bit it. An actual bite that drew blood. The other birds followed, swarming at him and biting wherever they found flesh. Javi yelled and waved his arms at them, and they yelled in his same voice and waved their wings back.

  He thrashed around enough to make them fly away, but lost his balance and fell backward onto the ground. The impact was so shocking that it took him a moment to feel the cacti needles in his rear end.

  Served him right for trusting a bird that had been telling him, "Careful, Javi."

  Somewhere in the distance, he heard Molly calling his name. Even as he closed his eyes, he was unsure if it was her, or if the birds were coming back to peck at him again.

  Anna's group touched down at the bottom of the steep hill. Everyone untied themselves from the bungee cord and started to look for Molly's group, who were probably farther uphill. But where? The gust of wind had taken them higher and out of sight, making it impossible to track them.

  Kira and Yoshi were arguing in Japanese, and Kira kept motioning up the hill. Finally, she seemed to give up. She grabbed Akiko's hand, pulled her off to the side, and began speaking to her in French. Yoshi turned his back on them all, scowling out across the desert floor.

  Anna didn't understand why they were so upset.

  Actually, Anna didn't understand a lot of what other people did or said. Robots were far less complicated. Their actions were functions of a code, not of flawed human logic, or worse, decisions based on emotions.

  Yoshi was constantly full of emotions, and no matter how hard he tried to hide them, Anna usually found it easy to figure out what mood he was in just by looking at him. And Anna looked at him a lot. He had nice eyes.

  Yoshi turned back to her, catching her mid-stare. Anna quickly glanced away, kicking her foot along the desert floor. It was bone dry, but caked, which suggested water had been here at some point. Now the only river in sight flowed with a thick green liquid that almost seemed to glow. It ran off the hillside and angled leftward, forming a barrier from the rest of the desert. However, a narrow trail ran along the near side of the river. Once the others arrived, that would be their path.

  "What now?" Yoshi asked.

  "I guess we wait." Anna plunked down on the ground, hoping the sun didn't become any warmer today. There was no shade anywhere in sight.

  Yoshi tossed a glance at the sisters, who had settled near some rocks. He grunted something in Japanese that Anna didn't understand, then sat beside her, sending a flutter through her chest.

  Be cool, she thought, then gave up on that idea. She was a lot of things, but never cool.

  "Akiko didn't want to get on the plane," Yoshi said. "She told Kira she had a bad feeling about it, but Kira made her board anyway. And now, for some reason, they're angry at me about it. I didn't even know them until after our plane went down!"

  Anna smiled, but said nothing. There probably was a reason they were mad at him, but maybe he didn't understand emotions any better than she did.

  "I didn't want to get on the flight, either," Yoshi said. He seemed to consider saying more, but he stopped when noises came from up the slope. Footsteps pounded and loose rocks tumbled down the hill. Alarmed voices were calling their names. Kira stood first and spoke to Yoshi, and while they argued in Japanese--again--Anna backed up for a better view above them.

  "There you are!" Molly said, scurrying around a ridge of the slope. "Everyone hide!"

  "Hide?" Anna asked. "Why?"

  "Hide!" Javi said, on Molly's heels with Oliver beside him. "Robots!"

  The base of the hill ended with a sheer five-foot jump. Not far away, a flat rock extended from the hillside, creating a small overhang. It would hide them from anything on the slope, although they would be exposed if the robots made it to the desert floor. But it was the best Anna could offer them in the moment.

  Molly jumped the last few feet of the slope, followed by Oliver and then Javi. Anna pressed her brows together when she saw Javi. His arms had already been cut by the shredder birds, but something else had gotten to him now.

  "Mock-me-birds," Javi said when he caught her looking. "Vicious little beasts. My new archenemies!"

  "Molly and I found him half-conscious under a tree," Oliver explained. "He's lucky that he isn't any worse."

  "Define worse," Javi said. "I'm in a lot of pain here!"

  "And now there are robots?" Anna asked. "Which ones?"

  "The same little ones you described to us from the cave." Molly gave one last look up the slope, then joined the rest of her team to crouch beneath the overhang.

  The other day, Anna had gone with Yoshi and Kira to explore a cave they'd found in a cliff high above the jungle. Along with the discovery of a holographic map of the rift and a menacing robot with pincers and an apparent instinct to attack humans, they'd stumbled upon an army of brick-sized robots. Those must be the ones Molly was referring to.

  "What were the robots doing?" Anna asked.

  "Looking for us," Javi said.

  They waited, and waited. The tension was thick, like old mechanical oil. Anna didn't understand why Molly and Javi had become so alarmed. From what she had seen, those little robots were harmless, more or less.

  Then she saw them. Robots were streaming off the hillside and swarming the desert surface, hundreds of them, all converging at the mouth of the trail she had noticed earlier. Each robot had antennae extended over its square body, carrying rocks that they deposited in a growing pile directly over the trail.

  Anna stood taller to get a better look at what they were doing. Was that supposed to be some kind of barricade?

  "They were ahead of us on every trail down here," Molly explained. "Each time, they made it impossible to pass."

  "We finally had to cut our own trail," Javi said, picking more cactus thorns from his pants.

  "This is bad." Yoshi's eyes suggested serious levels of alarm. "I worried those robots would follow us out of the cave. But it's worse than that--they know where we're headed."

  "You think they want to stop us from reaching the building?" Molly asked.

  "Isn't that obvious?"

  It wasn't obvious to Anna. "They're not big enough to stop us," she said. "They're like worker ants--small and single-minded. We could just step on them as we walk by."

  Javi's face brightened. "Rob-ants! That's what we'll name them!"

  Anna rolled her eyes. "They work like ants, but they move more like mites. I'll bet they're great on sand."

  "And 'rob-ants' is a terrible name," Yoshi said. "We'll just call them sand mites."

  "Yeah, that's way better," Oliver said, and Javi frowned.

  "You can name the next thing, Javi," Molly cut in, playing peacemaker.
r />   Anna groaned. Of course there would be a "next thing."

  Oliver had been sitting quietly beside Molly, but now he leaned forward. "It all comes down to whether those robots are good or bad. If they're good, then whatever they're doing might help us reach the building."

  Javi turned to Anna, cocking his head sideways. "You're always telling us that you understand robots better than anyone. So what do you think, Anna? Are the mites good or bad?"

  Anna swallowed hard. Everyone was looking to her for an answer, but the only thing she was certain of left her stomach in knots: A correct guess might save them all.

  But if she was wrong, she could cost the team their lives.

  While he waited for Anna's answer, Yoshi turned away from the group long enough to close his eyes and breathe. Anna looked like she was trying to swallow a tire, which told him that any "expert" answer she gave about the robots would only be a wild guess.

  The rest of the robotics team was already debating how to interpret the mites' actions.

  "What if the building is dangerous?" Molly asked. "Then the mites could be trying to stop us in order to protect us."

  "The exact opposite might also be true," Javi said. "If the robots are bad, maybe they don't want us to get to the building because they know we need to be there." He gave Molly's injured shoulder another significant look.

  Anna sighed as if she'd been holding her breath too long. "Robots aren't good or bad! They're only following their program. That's our question--who is giving the mites their orders?"

  "Maybe we're in some crazy reality show and the robots are being directed by a live voting audience," Oliver said.

  "Or we're an experiment," Javi said. "Scientists are testing us to see how we'll react to each new challenge."

  "Whoever gave the robots their orders is a monster, nothing less." Yoshi seethed. "If there's a person behind those machines, then he's pure evil, and I've got a torn-up knee and five hundred dead airplane passengers who would agree with me." He noted the shocked reaction from his teammates, but held his ground. "We'd be crazy to trust those things."

  Akiko touched Yoshi's arm. "Why are they looking at you like that?" she said in Japanese.

  "They want to trust that the robots are helping us," he answered.