I ignored Tony’s latest outburst since we’d left Mr. Suarez’s classroom and concentrated on searching the equipment room for a computer we’d been instructed to rebuild.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d read that green book in seconds, yet I now stood here staring in confusion at tables filled with equipment that had monitors.
Wish I could get through this assignment as easily as I fanned through that book.
Much of the terminology in the classroom hadn’t clicked for me. When Suarez had explained the principles of what he expected to see built from outdated equipment in storage, I’d rolled my eyes. The jumbled words still spun through my mind, some pinging a trickle of memory but others sliding past.
I hadn’t minded that Tony dragged his feet to leave the classroom since it meant everyone else had already been here, chosen the parts they wanted, and left. Now it was only the two of us. Not ideal, but easier to escape one than a roomful.
This Top Ten Project had something to do with taking an old computer and rebuilding it into an AI or Artificial Intelligence unit. I did understand those terms, had heard of a computer and an AI somewhere, but I knew as much about turning a computer into an AI as I did about flying to Mars.
At least, I didn’t think I could build an AI unit or fly to any of the other planets in the solar system. Though I did know the planets, and knowledge of space travel tapped at the edge of my mind.
Not that I expected anyone to keep me in this program, but until I met with Dr. Maxwell at five o’clock I might as well pick my way through this clutter to see if I could find something to use. The green book had made multiple references to accessing information on the computer, so apparently computers were used to store a lot of documentation and records.
If one of these worked, I wanted to see if I could use it to find out something about myself.
Tony shoved a monitor dusty with age out of his way, grumbling, “I should be with four-point-oh Sanderson, not some mute who doesn’t even understand English.”
I swallowed my smile. Tony would think I was unable to speak since I’d refused to answer any of his obnoxious questions like what tribe had I come from. How many scalps I’d traded to get into this place? Did I have a clue how lucky I was that they let the terminally clueless into the Institute?
Did I even know where Jersey was?
I’d shrugged in answer that time, amused when Tony went off on a rant over how he wished he were back in Jersey if this was as good as it got here.
He pitched a thing he’d called a mouse into a box of miscellaneous parts and turned on me. “You’re not screwing up my chance at MIT.”
That term again. MIT what?
Crossing my arms, I faced him, more curious than anything to see what this blowhard would do next. He might have two inches on me since I was maybe five and a half feet tall, but he was the one terminally clueless if he thought his loud mouth intimidated me.
Just then the door over in the corner opened and a girl backed into the room, humming a strange, but interesting, tune as she dragged a cart with cleaning products, a broom and dust mop.
But there was no mistaking all that bizarre color. Gabby.
Still humming, she turned around and jerked back when she saw us, dropping her can of drink that rolled across the room, sloshing brown liquid everywhere.
Tony jumped sideways. “What the ‘ell? Watch whatcha doin’.”
I gave him a dark look of warning. The poor girl had been startled. Just an accident.
“My bad,” she said, sounding amused until she let out a weary sigh and grabbed a towel from her cart. She dropped to all fours to wipe up the mess.
“What’re you doin’ here anyhow, sweet cheeks?” Tony asked in his Mr. Nice Guy voice–Were all girls “sweet cheeks” to this guy?–but he looked around warily as if keeping an eye out for Mr. Suarez.
Gabby drew an exaggerated breath, eyes staring up in serious thought when she answered, “Getting ready for the prom, but I’m still waiting for my white mice and glass slippers to arrive. Until they do, I’m relegated to two hours of cleaning up. An unfair penalty for telling the truth.”
Mice and glass slippers?
Tony rolled his eyes, dismissing her with a shake of his head, muttering, “Good practice. World needs more hamburger flippers.”
“Your ridiculous opinion has been duly noted.” She smiled sweetly at him with eyes twinkling as if she knew her reaction bothered him.
He turned his back on her and mumbled, “First Sacagawea. Now Cindereller.”
Shrugging at his back, Gabby bumped her shoulder into the mop hooked on her cart, knocking the stick loose. She had quick reflexes, grabbing the mop handle before it whacked Tony in the head. But when she slapped her other hand down for balance, it landed on my foot and her finger grazed the skin of my bare ankle just as I thought, If I’m Sacagawea and she’s Cindereller, that must make Tony the Jersey Jerk.
“Jersey Jerk. That’s too funn–” Gabby sucked in a breath and shoved up on her knees, snatching her hand off my foot. For a few seconds she sat there, staring ahead, frozen. Silent.
Tony kept muttering to himself, so apparently he hadn’t heard her, but I’d caught what she’d said.
Had she heard my thoughts?
I’d had weirder things than that happen today already, so I kept my face blank and acted as if I hadn’t heard her. I returned to moving computer parts around on the table.
That must have worked to convince her I’d heard nothing, because her shoulders slumped, as if in relief. She continued cleaning up the spilled liquid.
The door still stood propped open with her cart half in and half out.
Temptation hit me square in the chest. All at once, I wanted to leave, even just far enough to find a place to sit and think. Anything would be better than being stuck as Tony’s shadow for the rest of the day, as Mr. Suarez had instructed me to do. I didn’t want to build a computer or go to another class. I wanted to go home, wherever that was.
With Tony distracted removing the cover off one computer, I slipped out the door. Two steps into the hallway I smelled something rank, and familiar.
The beast. I swung around, looking everywhere until I spied a black bird, a raven maybe, perched on the top edge of an open door at the end of the hallway.
So it could morph into a winged creature. But why hadn’t the thing done that out in the desert?
Instead of questioning my good fortune that I’d escaped it once, I backed up, slowly. I stepped into the room again, tugging Gabby’s cart all the way inside and closing the door. Sweat dampened my palms.
Tony turned around, scowling at me, but an undercurrent of worry he hadn’t managed to hide tinged his words. Something was bothering him. “Suarez finds you here doin’ nothin’ he’s hangin’ it on me. You gonna help or not?”
With that beast outside, waiting, I needed to figure out a plan. A way to escape. One that wouldn’t get these two hurt. The thing might look like a simple bird right now, but no telling what it could become in the next minute.
I stepped over to the last worktable where...what were those? Laptops. That’s what Tony had called the thin units that opened like a book. A mix of styles and colors sat open in rows, facing forward like good little soldiers. I started fumbling with the closest one.
Appeased, Tony returned to tinkering with a computer on his side of the room.
Nothing happened to the one I’d chosen, no flickering lights when I hit a couple of buttons, so I stared at the worktable as if one of the devices would choose me. I had a hard time believing what had been left here would work at all if the cracked faces and beat up exteriors were any indication of functionality. But if I managed to get one of these turned on, maybe I could send a message for help.
I paused. How’d I know these things could do that? Searching my thoughts ended in a blank again. I felt eyes on me and glanced over at Gabby who still sat on the floor with a curious squint in her gaze, though she said nothing.
She shot Tony a weighted look then made some decision and stood up next to me. “The universe can be a strange and wonderful place...” She paused, glancing over at Tony for a moment before adding, “If not for those who should have remained a glint in their parents’ eyes. Don’t you agree?”
Nicholas’s warning about Gabby came back to me, but this girl didn’t seem dangerous. Just unusual, different from the others, but so was I in their eyes.
And other than Nicholas, she’d been the only friendly one around my age so far. But Nicholas might be snitching on me at this very minute.
Gabby didn’t wait on my answer, moving ahead to say, “We didn’t get a chance to meet earlier. I’m Gabby.”
I started to offer my hand to her–some strange reflex that felt like what I should do to greet someone–but I left my arms hanging at my side, wary of touching anyone.
On the other hand, she didn’t reach out either.
Where had I gotten that stupid idea anyhow?
Tony turned halfway, took one look at the taunting smile Gabby sent him and shook his head in disgust before giving us his back.
I got it. She wanted to poke at Tony by being friendly with me.
“I’m Rayen.” I was glad to offer her something in return, even if it was only my name. All I had for now.
Tony paused when I mentioned my name, shook his head and muttered something about low placement standards.
Gabby studied me with her odd, mismatched eyes. “I presume you’re one of the chosen few offered a spot on the Top Ten Project.”
How could I answer that? I was none of those things, but I was here for the stupid project. Had it not been offered to others, like Gabby? I lifted my shoulders and let them drop.
“Ah, the rare humble academic. Found a suitable computer yet?”
I shook my head.
Tony kept his back to us when he said, “Fat chance of Sacagawea pickin’ a decent computer.” He sent a pompous smile over his shoulder and told Gabby, “Why don’t you call up your fairy godmother, sweet cheeks? See if a magic wand can help her.”
When he returned to whatever held his attention, Gabby’s lips curved up. She touched her finger to her lips, looking as though a devious idea fueled her thoughts before she whispered to me, “Put your hand out and see which computer calls to you.”
I lifted an eyebrow. Was that really how it was done?
She released one of her bubbling laughs that bordered on scary then lifted her shoulders in a what-can-it-hurt motion.
I sighed and turned back to the table. I had no reason to treat her with caution or condescension the way Nicholas had, because she seemed nice and harmless. I put my hand out and waved it over the top of each laptop.
“Ah, for love of Einstein, are you two for real?” Tony complained, crossing the room, a scowl on his face. “What are you doin’?”
Gabby rounded on him with an expression of excitement. “Perhaps she’ll prove that you techno-ites are not all full of dull stuffing,” she taunted. “Rayen is using her sensory skills to select the perfect computer, which requires the unique ability of energy touch. Please don’t try it or you might hurt yourself and I wouldn’t be able to help you. My magic wand only works if you possess a heart.”
I smiled, playing along with her teasing while I searched for a computer that showed some promise, anything to get Tony off my back. I mean, what could it hurt to go along with her? It wasn’t like I knew what I was doing anyhow.
Tony smacked a hand on his forehead. “Oh, no, don’t tell me you’re one of those woo-woo students from the east wing.”
Gabby struck a pose with one shoulder cocked up and her chin held high. “Careful or I’ll call my flying monkeys.”
“For the love of...” Tony mumbled, pulling out a small handheld device he started thumbing. “Say your name’s Gabby, huh?”
I’d seen those handheld units used earlier. Communication devices. A phone. Tony could call someone and–
I moved to reach for him, but my extended hand yanked toward a laptop, jerking me forward with the motion.
My fingers gripped a scuffed-up machine in the second row that had a scratched black case. Weird. I caught Gabby’s startled look, but she said nothing so I wasn’t going to acknowledge it. I lifted the computer and made room for it on the front of the worktable.
Oblivious to us, Tony waved his phone, chuckling. “Oh, yeah, this explains everything. Gabrielle Lin.” He glanced up, his flinty gaze more calculating than friendly this time. “You don’t look Chinese.”
“Oh, dear, really? Because you certainly appear to be the spitting image of an A-hole.”
“Ah...major screw up.” Tony focused again on his phone screen. “Says here you’re sixteen.” He eyed her up and down as if doubting her age then went back to reading. “Psychological profile...delusions, antisocial personality syndrome, alien...they got that right. What planet you from, babe?”
Right then and there I decided that if I ended up staying here I’d figure out how to build a computer from scratch on my own before I asked Tony for anything.
Prancing around happily, Gabby ignored Tony and snagged the wire attached to the laptop that had responded to my hand. Had pulled me to it. I hadn’t even felt heat inside me this time. Did that happen with others...or just me?
She stuck the metal prongs at the end of the wire into the wall. Must be the power source.
I tried to concentrate on what was happening with the laptop, but my mind still worked on what to do with that threat outside our room. What was that bird-beast doing?
I once again considered using Tony’s phone to call in help, but who would we call? Teachers? Dr. Maxwell? I’d been warned not to cause any trouble. Besides, I knew better than to try convincing the Jersey Jerk that a rabid, shape-shifting, predatory threat was loose in the hallway. Tony wanted a reason to get rid of me and that beast might morph into something else by the time someone got here.
Best case, I’d end up looking like a bigger idiot or a troublemaker.
Worst case, the bird could kill whoever showed up and us. But the bird-thing had seemed interested only in me so I just needed to keep my head down until five o’clock when I hopefully got some answers.
I realized Gabby was waiting for me to do something. When I didn’t, she finally pressed the button near the top of the keyboard.
The computer whirred to life.
Still tapping keys on his phone, Tony paid no attention to us. “Ah, now we gettin’ to the good stuff. Kicked outta the last two schools for disciplinary reasons, but...this can’t be right. No way Cindereller tested that high.” Tony frowned. More thumb typing.
The laptop in front of me buzzed with energy. I punched a couple of keys, surprised to find that my fingers knew how to form words as quickly as I thought them.
Standing at my right shoulder, Gabby hummed something quietly to herself until an image of circles appeared on the screen. She brightened at that and said, “Ah, you’ve found the entrance, but do you know the password?”
I shook my head.
She cocked her head, ponytails flopping to one side, laughing silently. “I like to keep my finger on life’s Escape key. Try hitting that, Jedi.”
I knew that key, but couldn’t very well say so after I hadn’t hit it. I pressed ESC.
Nothing happened. The three circles of banded colors that mixed with copper, gold and silver, kept spinning and turning, passing over and around each other.
Gabby gave the computer a confused look and leaned closer, mumbling, “Wonder what’s wrong?”
Tony appeared on the other side of me. “Nothin’ other than two morons do not a computer tech make.”
Ignoring the loudmouth, I kept manipulating keys in hopes of clearing the screen, but nothing would let me past those circles.
Gabby angled herself forward, talking across me to address Tony on the other side. “Perhaps there’s a better way for a computer savvy one such as yourself to garner the attention of the Browns. Such as letting Mr. Suarez know how gifted you are in hacking confidential records.”
Tony dropped his voice low. “You threatenin’ me, sweet cheeks?”
“Threat is such an unattractive word. Think of it as inspired relationship building,” Gabby said, not the least bit intimidated by Tony.
“Who they gonna believe?” He scoffed. “Me or some psycho babe with zero computer ability?”
“And here I thought you found all my records, placing you in the caliber of a true mastermind as opposed to petty thief.”
“Yeah, I found them, but records can be doctored. Not that you didn’t show an impressive level of skill pluggin’ in that power cord. Now you two are pickin’ out a computer like itsa Ouija board. Can’t wait to see what’s next.”
I lifted my hands to hold up between those two, or I tried to, but something tugged my fingers back to the computer.
Then I caught a swooshing noise outside in the hallway.
So intent on arguing, Tony and Gabby missed the flying dark shadow flashing past the glass window.
I glanced over in time to see black wings flapping. What would that thing morph into next? And would it stay outside this room? Even if it only wanted me, would it harm Gabby or Tony if they got in the way?
I had to get out of here and draw the beast-bird away, then figure out how to not get caught again. Something told me I’d only been lucky last time, but I couldn’t stay here and be the reason these two got hurt.
Gabby waved a hand, dismissing Tony, and sounding bored with their verbal game. “Some people have the gift of touch, an unfortunate shortcoming in those who don’t.”
Tony waggled his fingers and eyebrows, smiling. “I got plenty of touch, babe. My fingers can make that laptop sing.”
Gabby glanced at my hands with a knowing look and murmured, “Don’t think you’ve got her touch.”
“Ya think? She can’t even get the screen to open.”
I tried to lift my hands again, but my fingers were heavy as weighted metal and drawn to the keys as if they were pure magnets. This wasn’t helping my immediate goal of escaping this room. More than that, I didn’t think this was normal.
Gabby looked up at me, her face calm and sincere. “Just ignore Tony and open your senses to–”
Tony hooted as if he hadn’t heard anything so ridiculous in years.
In a surprising change from her earlier teasing, Gabby growled and grabbed my right wrist as if forgetting her wariness about touching. She snatched my hand off the keyboard and shoved it palm out toward the monitor, speaking past me at Tony the whole time as if he was the clueless one. “Everything has energy. You just have to–”
My arm sucked into the screen.
Gabby shrieked and gripped my wrist tighter, trying to hold me back.
I tried to back away, too, but whatever had latched onto me wasn’t turning loose.
The raven slammed against the glass window, beating its wings to get into the room. Tony and Gabby were both shouting so loudly, I doubted anyone heard the thing but me.
Tony repeated, “What the f–” He clamped his hand on my left arm, yanking to pull me back.
He was strong. I hoped he’d win the tug o’ war, but my hand kept sinking further into the monitor...then my arm started shimmering.
In the next instant, I was sucked all the way inside, my body twisting into a kaleidoscope of colors. Heat ripped through me from my arms to my chest then through my legs.
Gabby blurred into a colorful stretched shape beside me. Tony’s grip tightened on my arm as we all spun into a bright orange-red vortex.