Someone’s got to admit we’re lost. Might as well be me.
I paused to lean against a broad tree trunk and dropped my head back, feeling the wood squish around my head. But when I shoved the heel of my hand at it, I hit a rock-hard surface. Had the bark anticipated the strike? I wiped sweat out of my eyes and rubbed at my ankle cuff that caused a drag on each step. I might be in better shape than either of those two, but I was exhausted and thirsty. “This isn’t working. I don’t think we’re getting any closer to where we started out.”
I’d hiked over mounds of gnarled roots, hacking bushes with unyielding branches using nothing more than my hands–minus the super power I’d fought the vine with–and was hungry enough to start gnawing on my own arm.
Gabby slipped into a crouch. The chafed, reddened skin around her wrists hadn’t gotten any worse, but no better either. She chugged a harsh breath, her hair now wearing as many twigs as ribbons. “Maybe Rayen’s right.” She exhaled heavily, looking at Tony. “Not sure we’re making any progress going this way.”
“What is it about girls? You always side with her. Ever think I might be the one who’s right?” Tony crowed. Or it would have been a crow if he hadn’t been as winded as the rest of us. He stood with his legs braced in a wide V, hands on his hips, his chest heaving.
Gabby cocked her head, tapping a finger to her cheek. “Hasn’t got anything to do with gender, but let me think about it. You right? No. You called her Xena. Change your mind about her being a warrior princess?”
“A crazy one,” he mumbled.
If we didn’t find water soon, being right or wrong wouldn’t matter. Besides, Tony had lost some of his edge after that scrape with death. And to be honest, I couldn’t in good faith say that returning to the pod area was a bad idea.
But we needed to hydrate.
Could we find anything in this place that would be safe to drink?
I’d worry about that when we found some liquid. With as much as we were sweating, dehydration was a given. I’d gotten more light-headed with each step and I was sure a small furry rodent had slept in my mouth for a week.
“I’m not taking sides,” Gabby added. “Nor am I arguing with the logic of going back to the pod area, but I don’t think you know where you’re going and rushing forward isn’t safe.”
Tony’s gaze turned hard as tempered steel for a few seconds, then remorse washed all that away. Something was driving him even beyond the basic desire we all had to return home. Some fear that hid inside his anxiety and shook beneath his words. “I haven’t figured out what the freak happened to get us here or where the freak here is, but I can’t be late checkin’ back in with Suarez this afternoon. I’ve got a lot on the line for this Top Ten Project. A lot.”
“Like what?” Gabby asked, her voice holding no bite.
Tony looked as though he would tell her the truth, but his gaze shifted from worried to arrogant, quickly shielding whatever vulnerability he wanted to keep hidden. He cracked his knuckles, burning off energy even when he was exhausted. “Unlike you two, I am going to MIT.”
Between dealing with the beast-turned-bird back at the school and getting sucked into this alternate dimension, I’d forgotten about my own time pressure. I had to be in Dr. Maxwell’s office by five o’clock.
I had to find out who I was.
Of everywhere I’d been since opening my eyes today, the school offered me the best place to learn who I was and somewhere safe while I figured that out.
Except for the beast that was still there. But I’d take my chances with it to get Gabby and Tony back to safety. I didn’t fit into their world, but I believed they were in this world because of me.
And right now, worrying about anything except escaping here and getting back to the school was laughable.
Gabby huffed an exasperated breath at Tony. “You’re not the only one with time issues.”
“Oh, yeah?” Tony said. “What’s pushin’ on you, sweet cakes?”
“You, right now.” She dismissed him with a wave of one hand, and started stretching as if she had a routine that relaxed her.
Tony ignored her and pinned me with a “what now?” glare.
I hadn’t asked to be in charge and if Tony thought he had all the answers he could start sharing. “Okay, genius, if you want to keep going, we need water. Got ideas on where to find it?”
Tony looked surprised to be put on the spot, but all he offered was a tired shake of his head. “Told you. I’m out of my element here.”
“Gabby?” I asked, not expecting much, but with her gifts she might be able to find water. When she gave me a confused look, I said gently, “You have some abilities. I’m not asking you to share what they are, but I dug my fingers into the ground during the last stop and didn’t reach moisture.”
She nodded, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I’m not a diviner,” she murmured, though I didn’t have a clue what that meant. “But I’ll give this a try.”
I shot a look at Tony to warn him not to ridicule her, but he actually watched her intently as if he hoped she could do something.
Gabby dropped her head back and held her arms out to each side in a motion of opening up to the world. Her lips moved silently then she frowned and lowered her arms. When she opened her eyes, she cocked her head, listening for something. “Hear that?”
“What?” Tony looked around. “You hear water, maybe moving like a stream or river?”
She twisted her head one direction, then another, getting a fix on what I couldn’t hear. But she’d heard those bats before, way sooner than I had, so I turned my head in the direction she faced...and caught a faint sound.
A high whine that sounded like a cry.
“Is that a child?” Gabby stood straighter, pointing in the direction we’d been heading. “That way.”
“A kid?” Tony looked confused. “I thought you were divining for water?”
Gabby turned on him and snapped, “I’m not a magic wand! I hear what I hear and right now it’s the sound of a child crying. Some things are more important than you.”
Tony jerked back. I didn’t blame him. Our rainbow butterfly had fangs. What had triggered that reaction in Gabby? The child’s cry?
“I hear it, too,” I confirmed.
Tony slapped his forehead. “That could be anything in this place.” He dropped his hand and said in a calm, logical voice, “Computers aren’t computers, flowers aren’t flowers so why should a cryin’ kid be a cryin’ kid?”
He had a point.
Gabby paid no attention to him, her voice turning to steel. “I don’t have an answer for you and that still sounds like a child. It could be hurt. Who’s to say someone else isn’t here if we are and I’d think you’d be interested in checking it out if that child arrived here in a pod as well.”
The gears started turning in Tony’s head. “You’re absolutely right, sweet cakes. We can’t risk that bein’ a child left alone in this place. Let’s get humpin’.”
Surprise at his quick shift in attitude showed in Gabby’s face. “Uh, okay.”
I almost wished she hadn’t handed him such a convincing argument for checking out the noise. Tony perked up the minute he realized the arrival of another person might open the path to go home, which meant he’d go charging forward without thinking about the dangers.
Tony looked right and left, anxious to move out. “Which way, sweet cakes? That kid’s our GPS to the pod area.”
Gabby turned toward the sound of the child’s voice. “This way.”
“Wait.” I grabbed her arm, feeling sudden determination rigid in her muscles. “It could be a trap.”
In the moment that I touched her, I caught a buzz under her skin and saw a visual of Gabby as a young child, alone, crying. Who’d left her to fend for herself?
And how had I seen that?
“Or it could be just a child,” she said emphatically, shaking off my hand. “We haven’t found water or a way back. If there’s a child here then there may be other people here. Regardless, are you willing to gamble a child’s life and leave a vulnerable kid exposed to this place?”
Something inside me shouted, “No,” that I’d defended younger ones before, but I had no idea when or where. Nothing felt right in this place, but if I was perfectly honest with myself, nothing had felt right since opening my eyes this morning.
“What’s it going to be, Rayen?” Gabby asked, fidgeting to get going.
Tony added, “Like you said, we can’t split up.”
More than that, Tony had just admitted that he trusted my judgment. Something not to be taken lightly. Not if we were going to make it out of this alive.
Were they right to trust me?
I didn’t have a reason to stop them from going to the child other than sensing that sounds had been used as bait for traps at some point in my life. On the other hand, I couldn’t honestly live with the thought of ignoring a child in need. “We’ll go, but if it is a child let’s not race straight to it without a plan.”
“Agreed,” Gabby said and Tony nodded.
I didn’t like the thought of walking back toward the clearing where the sound was coming from, not with my gut still screaming the metal pod area wasn’t a safe place to be, even if it was our only connection to the school. But I raised a hand, indicating to Gabby to lead the way with Tony following and me taking up the rear.
Not an ideal setup for defense, but I felt better suited for this terrain than those two and could keep an eye on both of them this way.
The hike back to the clearing seemed to take a lot less time as the cry grew louder, though decreasing in intensity as if the child, or whatever, was winding down from full pitch bawling to a pathetic whimper.
I noted purple light again through a break in the trees. But this time, the green stripes were back. The way the sky had looked when we’d fallen out of the pod. Call me superstitious, but I had an uncomfortable feeling about that sky.
I jogged past Tony, calling to Gabby. “Wait up.”
“What now?” she asked in a snappish tone. I looked at her more closely. Maybe I’d heard exhaustion.
“We agreed to scope this out before walking up to the noise,” I pointed out.
A child in distress clearly bothered Gabby on some internal level, but she nodded a reluctant agreement. “As long as...if it’s a child we’re going to help it and not just make a dash for the pod, right? If there is a pod.”
I nodded. “If it is a child, and alone, we’ll take care of it.”
“We doin’ this today?” Tony stood with his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans, waiting. Sweat beaded down the side of his face, streaking through patches of dirt. He might have been a self-centered jerk at the school, but he’d been working with us better since the flower attack and I could tell he moved like someone capable of defending himself.
I turned and eased cautiously toward the whimpering sound. When I reached the tree line, I crouched low, waving the other two down, making sure they hugged the multi-colored foliage enough to avoid being blatantly visible to anything in the grass clearing.
And there she was in a patch of packed-down earth. A small girl. Maybe five or six years old, curled on her side into a fetal position, hiccupping air like someone who’d cried out every last ounce of emotion.
She looked so tiny and alone out there.
But the flower that attacked Tony had been the vulnerable-looking bait of a carnivorous plant and this place was riddled with danger.
The child was dead center in the clearing of the odd-colored grasses mixed with patches of bare ground. She wore a silvery dress, gold jewelry, sparkly shoes and her hair was braided and curled as if she’d been dressed for a party. Why didn’t she look like us–ragged from running for our lives?
Had a pod dropped her here, too, or was she just lost?
Tony whispered in my ear as he squatted up against me. “There’s no pod. We in the same spot where we arrived earlier?”
I shared the disappointment in his voice, since I couldn’t deny hoping the appearance of a child meant adults would be nearby and show us the way home. But Tony was being calm so I answered him by pointing to where we’d clearly beaten down the grass while running from the bats earlier. The trail started from a flat area of grass, roughly conical in shape where the pod had been recently.
So the grass did not grow back out there the way the jungle had?
Gabby flanked me on the other side. “So what’s the plan?”
A battle raged inside me, a tug-of-war between my drive to protect an innocent and the strong sense that I was right to be wary. “I’ll go get the girl. You two sit tight.”
“What if the pod comes back while you’re there?” Tony asked. “We should all go so we can be together if that happens.”
Gabby wasn’t agreeing or arguing, but I knew from her response to the child’s cry that she’d go along with anything that would allow her to help with the...kid.
I shook my head. “Based on how that metal thing brought us here and left, we’ll have plenty of time for you to reach it if it shows up. I need you to watch my back. I can’t explain why, but I have a feeling this is some kind of a snare. If something happens to me, I don’t want you caught out there, too.”
A sudden thrumming started. The vibration came from below ground. The pod? Or something else?
I fought to keep my balance. What the–?
Gabby floundered where she knelt beside me, her arms flapping to keep her balance. Tony cursed and growled.
The earth movement shifted from a tremor through the ground to an eruption of rocks and dirt out in the open space. Something alive emerged from beneath the surface on the other side of the child, near the dark jungle where it bordered the far side of the grassy clearing.
Like a giant crocodile on steroids, the creature’s head with a long snout burst out of the ground. Huge eyes stuck off each side of its head. The body kept coming. It used multiple arms to drag itself up. Had to be twelve, maybe fifteen, feet tall when it stood upright on two feet the size of giant palm leaves, but with talons. Thick hide covered in scales and a wide mouth full of pointed teeth. It let out a wild screech. A metal-tearing-against-metal roar.
Tony sat up on his knees, eyes bulging. “What the freak is that?”
Color drained from Gabby’s face. She stared open-mouthed at the beast emerging from beneath the ground then squeezed out a whisper. “The child.”
A trap. I hated being right.
Just as much as I hated what I had to do next.