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Gifted

 

Important Forward

From Author Richard Bard

 

This novella is intended for readers who are not yet familiar with the Brainrush thriller series—providing a quick entré into The Wall Street Journal #1 bestselling thriller that Publishers Weekly called “terrifically entertaining.” With over 2,000 Amazon 5-Star reviews to date, the 5-book series has captured the imagination of a growing number of enthusiastic followers. I hope this novella encourages you to check out the series.

Gifted is a compilation novella featuring the characters from the Brainrush thriller novels, Brainchild and Smoke & Mirrors. It is a complete story unto itself, however, if you’ve read or listened to books four and five of the series, then you’ve already read most of the contents of this novella.

 

The Brainrush Series

Brainrush is a story about second chances, and embracing every day of your life as though it’s your last. Called “a terrifically entertaining thriller” by Publishers Weekly, Book-1 of the series was named The Wall Street Journal #1 Bestselling Action/Adventure in their Guide to Self-Published Big Sellers, while Book-2 was on the Top-10 Amazon Mystery/Thriller Top Rated list for 53-straight weeks. This set the stage for the blockbuster release of the third book in the series, which was heralded by Suspense Magazine as “part science fiction, part thriller, part suspense, part love story, and part mystery. It’s got it all and that’s what makes this novel one of the best.” The characters live on in the final three books of the series. Books 4 & 5 were released in 2014, and were met with rave reviews. Book-5 was named “one of the best books of the year” by IndieReader.com. No Refuge, the final book of the series, is scheduled for release in 2017.

 

GIFTED

A Brainrush Novella

Richard Bard

 

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Text and cover copyright © 2016 Richard Bard, All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Richard Bard, PO Box 107, Redondo Beach, California 90027

Shakespir Edition

eBook License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy at any online eBook retailer. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the price of this book, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the author.

 

Table of Contents

IMPORTANT FORWARD

THE BRAINRUSH SERIES

GIFTED

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

A NOTE FROM AUTHOR RICHARD BARD

CHAPTER 1 OF BRAINRUSH (BOOK-1)

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Prologue

Veterans Administration Medical Center

Santa Monica, California

 

JAKE BRONSON THOUGHT his life had finally returned to normal. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Sure, he’d married the woman of his dreams, his three children meant the world to him, and he was blessed with a cadre of friends who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him in the face of unthinkable dangers. He was even back in the air as an acrobatic instructor pilot. Life was perfect. That is, until a few seconds ago, when the sixty-seven-year-old scientist beside him had given him the news.

“Someone’s coming after you,” Doc had said, grimacing behind his frameless spectacles. His usual blue-eyed twinkle had vanished. The former head of the Obsidian Project—the top-secret US government division tasked with dealing with “the Grid” of alien pyramids that had threatened Earth a year and a half ago—now led a clandestine arm of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He looked tired after his rushed trip from his underground offices in the mountains of northern Nevada, jokingly nicknamed Area 52 by those who worked there. Doc’s shoulders slumped beneath the waves of silver hair that spilled over his collar.

“About a month ago our monitoring system decrypted bits and pieces of some disturbing chatter about you. It was scattered at first, popping up between servers in Europe and Southeast Asia. We didn’t think much of it at the time, figuring it was more conspiracy conjecture about the Grid. But in the last few days it expanded to a point that it captured our attention.”

“They mentioned me by name?”

“Not specifically. But they’re looking for the Brainman.”

Jake cringed. He’d done everything possible to maintain a low profile regarding his connection with the Grid event—when more than a thousand small alien pyramids had awakened from a twenty-five-thousand-year-old sleep, erupting from beneath the earth to circle the globe, counting down to the point when every human on the planet would be eliminated. Doc and the government had worked to divert attention from Jake, agreeing to keep his involvement—and that of his friends and family—a secret. But information had leaked out, and though Jake’s name had not been mentioned, a Swiss newspaper had run a story about the mysterious man it called “the Brainman,” crediting him with averting the world cataclysm. There had been a global outcry for more information; the population wanted—needed—a hero to thank. But Jake hadn’t wanted any part of it. Eventually, the topic had faded from the headlines as inquiries continued to be met with tight lips and false trails, and the media refocused on the knowledge that man was no longer the only sentient life form in the universe.

Jake blew out a long breath as Doc’s warning sank in. What he’d heard so far was worrisome but not alarming. They stood in the corner of the physical therapy room of the Advanced Prosthetics Technology Center, located in the basement of the main hospital on the 388-acre Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus. Therapists were assisting several patients in the large room as they performed exercises and tests designed to acclimate them to their new robotic appendages.

Jake turned his back to them and lowered his voice. “There’s more, isn’t there?” Doc wouldn’t have tracked him down to this obscure location otherwise.

Doc sighed. “I’m afraid so—”

Gasps coming from behind Jake coincided so perfectly with Doc’s comment that he thought someone had overheard. Instead, he turned to see five wide-eyed therapists and their patients all focused on his seven-year-old son.

Alex was helping the US Army veteran called Mississippi Mike take his first step in over six months. The weathered man had lost both his legs to an improvised explosive device during his last tour of duty.

The replacement limbs reminded Jake of the robots from the Terminator films. Alex stood in front of the vet, his small hands grasping Mike’s, their eyes fixed on each other. Mike’s brow furrowed in concentration as he commanded his brain to send the signal to the nerves that would articulate his legs. He took another tentative step, and then another, small beads of sweat forming on his brow.

“I knew you could do it,” Alex said. He didn’t speak often, but when he did it usually had an impact.

The corner of Mike’s lips lifted. It was the first time Jake had seen him smile since they’d met two weeks ago. The battle trauma had taken more than just Mike’s body parts. According to the lead therapist who had called for Jake’s help, the soldier—who had previously been known for his boisterous personality—had sunken into a suicidal depression. Jake had been happy to assist. His ability to transmit thoughts into the minds of others was limited in most cases, especially with strangers, but at least he’d developed a knack for projecting a calming influence and mental clarity on subjects. It had proven to be a helpful talent with patients who needed to train their brains to control the latest evolution of thought-controlled artificial limbs. Jake had helped out with several patients over the past year. Today was his third visit with Mike, but progress had been slow in coming. Until a few moments ago, when Jake had interrupted his session to speak with Doc and Alex had unexpectedly stepped in.

The department head stood in the doorway, his mouth agape. “That’s incredible!” he said, moving toward Alex.

Jake’s senses were already on alert based on the unsettling news from Doc, but the developing situation before him sent his tension into afterburner as he recognized the risk to his son. He moved forward with a feigned casualness, sliding between Mike and Alex. Jake supported the soldier with a firm grip on his shoulders while projecting a calm aura with his thoughts, guiding Mike back to his chair.

Jake patted the man’s shoulders. “I’m proud of you, Mike. Like I told you earlier, sometimes all it takes is a little distraction to let your brain figure it out on its own.”

The department head moved forward, his focus trained on Alex, who sidled shyly to Jake’s opposite side. The man opened his mouth to speak, but Jake cut him off as he continued with Mike. “And you did it! The neural pathways have been triggered. It’s all downhill from here, pal. Congratulations.”

Mike’s glance shifted from Jake to Alex and back again. His eyes narrowed and Jake sensed the man’s awareness of the situation. It was as if the mental connection he’d had with Jake over the past few sessions—as well as the one he’d just experienced with Alex—had provided him with unique insight about father and son. He shook Jake’s hand with a firm grip. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Mr. B,” he said with a deep Southern drawl, offering Alex a wink in the process. “I’m in your debt and I won’t forget it. Now, didn’t you say you were late for an appointment or something?”

“Yep,” Jake said gratefully, squeezing the man’s hand. “We should’ve been gone twenty minutes ago. Keep up the good work, Mike. I’ll be back to see you when I can.”

Jake turned and ushered Alex toward the door, where Doc was already waiting.

“But Mr. Bronson—” the department head called out behind him.

“It’ll have to wait,” Jake said over his shoulder. “Like Mike said, I’m already late.”

The trio hurried down the hallway.

***

It had been a mistake to bring Alex along today, Jake thought as they turned down another corridor. When Francesca had received a phone call this morning with an unusual last-minute request to attend a Saturday meeting at her school—and Sarafina and Ahmed had already gone to grab breakfast burritos at the cafe down the street from the house—he’d figured there’d be no harm in letting Alex tag along.

He should have known his son’s empathetic nature would tug at him under the circumstances. When Alex saw a problem he could fix, he went for it, which was fine when they were in the privacy of their home, but not in a public situation that could draw undue attention to the boy’s gifts. Jake and Francesca had drilled the warnings into Alex ever since they’d returned to the US, and for the most part their son had complied. But in the case of Mississippi Mike, where a quick connection on Alex’s part might not only help the man walk again, but also alleviate some of his emotional pain, the temptation to reach out had been irresistible.

Jake wasn’t angry. He was proud of his son and admired the boy’s instincts. After all, it was that same aptitude that prevented nothing less than the apocalypse, a fact Jake was desperate to keep secret.

If the truth ever got out…

“You know better, son,” Jake said, squeezing his hand.

Alex didn’t say anything. It wasn’t necessary. Jake’s physical connection with him was all he needed to feel his son’s remorse, as well as his pride for what he’d accomplished. Jake picked up the pace. He wanted Alex out of the building. Only then could he take the time to finish his discussion with Doc.

They were three steps into the lobby when Alex came to a sudden stop. He let go of Jake’s hand and spun on his heels.

“There you are!” Francesca said as she emerged from a separate corridor. Jake’s wife wore sandals and a flowing white peasant dress that accented her thin waist. Her thick mane of auburn hair was pulled back, and Jake smiled at the sight of her.

“Doc?” she exclaimed, rushing to give the man a hug. As she pulled away, she patted the chest of his herringbone sport coat. “I see you’re still armed,” she said with too much exuberance. Jake’s brow furrowed.

Doc was flustered a moment and then smiled, reaching inside his jacket and pulling out his meerschaum pipe. It had a hand-carved face of the wizard Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. “Don’t leave home without it!”

“You’re half an hour early,” Jake said, trying to put his finger on what was different about his wife.

She averted her gaze, pulling Alex toward her. “The meeting ended sooner than I expected.” She turned back to Doc. “I didn’t know you were in town,” she said, her Italian accent coloring her words. “Are you here for a while? Will you join us for dinner?”

“I-I flew down for a symposium at UCLA,” Doc said. “It’s just across the freeway. But I’m only here for the day.”

Jake knew from Francesca’s expression that she’d sensed the lie in Doc’s words. But she didn’t call him on it and that’s when Jake knew something was wrong. He stepped forward and captured her gaze. “Are you okay?”

“Of course. Why shouldn’t I be?”

“It’s just that—”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she said, pulling away. “Why don’t we all go to lunch, yes?”

Jake let it slide. Right now there were more pressing issues. He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “Something’s up.” He motioned subtly toward Alex. “Doc and I need a little time alone to talk about it.”

Francesca’s jaw tightened. The mask she’d worn a moment earlier vanished, replaced by a look of concern. Her nod was barely perceptible as she took Alex’s hand. “Will you be long?”

“Nah,” Jake said casually, knowing full well the facade he wore wasn’t likely to play any better than hers had—not to their gifted son. “I’ll be home before you know it.”

Chapter 1

[]Redondo Beach, California

I’D USED 547 WORDS in the past week—19 more than the week before and 47 more than the previous week—but I could have gotten by with only four: I love you, too. Those are feel-good words. It’s what I’d say when Mom and Dad tucked me in and told me they loved me. Other words were a waste of time—for the most part, anyway. What’s the sense in having a conversation with someone when their words are intended to hide the truth? You’re better off watching.

Sensing.

Mom was behind the wheel. The smell of the ocean slipped through the slit at the top of her window. Houses and palm trees blew past as we made our way through the neighborhoods of South Redondo Beach. One more turn and we’d be on our street in the Avenues, just two blocks from the sand. She was worried about something. It was a big worry, bigger than anything I’d sensed from her in a long time.

“Mom, is everything okay?”

She glanced my way, the smile coming a bit too late to be convincing. “Of course, honey. I was just going over a list of things I need to pick up at the store.”

Yeah, right. Sometimes I swear she forgot I was her son, that I shared her empathetic gift…and then some. I guess the fact I was only seven made it hard for her to remember. Especially when I had a thirteen-year-old adopted sister who happened to be a musical savant, and an eighteen-year-old adopted brother with a brain implant that sometimes made him talk too much.

Earlier at the VA hospital, it had been the same between Mom and Dad—and even Uncle Doc. He wasn’t really my uncle but we called him that anyway. Dad said anyone who saves your life should be treated like family. Anyway, there had been a whole lot going on beneath the surface of their words this morning, and they weren’t just trying to hide something from me, even though that’s what they tried to make one another think with their fake nods and expressions. They were hiding stuff from each other.

A person’s eyes hold more truth than a thousand words.

At least that’s the way I see it.

Of course there was also Mississippi Mike. Now that had been a conversation. When I took his hands, I felt his pain. It wasn’t physical. It was a sense of hopelessness that seemed to crowd out everything else in his consciousness.

Mike was more interested in dying than living.

I’d felt his surprise when I connected with his thoughts. His eyes had bugged out and his grip had tightened to the point it had begun to hurt. But he’d realized it right away because of our bond so he’d eased off. From there it had been easy to change his focus to what he could do rather than what he couldn’t. When he’d stood up and taken his first step, I knew he’d be okay. I can’t explain how I did it. My dad called it letting my brain go on autopilot, same as what he did. Beyond that, all I’d done was imagine myself inside Mike’s brain and body, connecting his desire to walk with the electrodes that linked spare nerves in his chest to his new robotic legs. He’d done the rest.

Mom kept the motor running after she pulled the Fiat into the driveway. “I’m going to run to the store,” she said. “I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes. Tell Sara and Ahmed to stick around. I want to speak to all three of you when I return.”

I didn’t ask what it was about. Why bother? I grabbed my backpack, jumped out of the car, and walked up the steps to the porch. The front door swung open before I could grab the handle, and Ahmed stepped out and nearly speared me with the end of his short board.

“Whoa!” he said, twisting to one side. “Sorry about that. Hey, I’m headed to the beach. Would you like to go?”

“Mom says we have to stay here.”

“Huh?” Ahmed leaped down the steps as the Fiat backed down the drive. “Mom, wait!”

It was no use. She waved a finger to indicate she was in a hurry and then drove away. Ahmed’s mouth stayed open longer than necessary, the palm of his free hand jutted into the air as if to ask what had just happened.

Beyond him, a car with blacked-out windows pulled away from the curb and followed Mom around the corner.

Chapter 2

I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE some sort of genius, but I got confused just as easily as the next kid. Even more so, since my brain never seemed to slow down. It gobbled up information day in and day out—cataloguing, memorizing, analyzing. A part of me realized it came naturally to me, but another part wondered how long I’d be able to keep it up. What happens when my brain gets overstuffed?

My dad had the same gift, if you want to call it that, though he wasn’t nearly as good with computers as I was, and Dad’s abilities seemed to be coming and going lately, like something was changing in him. I catalogued that in the Worried About Dad drawer.

I’d have to start a drawer on Mom, too, after the way she was acting this morning.

The drawer system worked pretty well for me. I kept the bad drawers closed so that the uncomfortable feelings they gave me didn’t distract me from the important stuff, like online gaming. There’s nothing like diving into a role-playing game, where you control the character’s choices and actions, or a first-person shooter where quick reflexes mean the difference between life and death. Living inside a good game pushed away the constant flow of data that bombarded me all the time in real life. In a game, the world is…finite. I liked that word, even though most seven-year-olds would screw up their face if I used it. But my vocabulary was pretty much only limited by whether or not I’d been exposed to a word. Between books, TV, and the Internet—not to mention my brother’s occasional bouts of jabbering—I’d learned lots of words. And I never forgot them. My brain stuffed them into drawers and I could recall them whenever I wanted. It’s the same with videos, pictures, people, and places. You name it, I remember it. And math and numbers? Don’t even get me started on that.

I had lots of drawers.

It’s pretty cool, I guess, but when most everyone around me had trouble even remembering what they ate for breakfast that morning, it kind of made me stand out. People look at you funny when you’re different. That’s why I didn’t play with kids my age.

They didn’t get me.

But my family did, and like my dad said, In the end, family is all that matters.

I was hungry but I figured I could wait a while. Mom should be home soon, and I was hoping she’d bring something good for lunch. I climbed up on the bar stool and scooched it up to the kitchen counter. I liked to sit on the end that butted up against the wall. My dad’s Snoopy helmet hung there on a peg. He liked to wear it when he flew acrobatics in one of the old planes at his work. Sometimes he put it on my head when he told me stories about his Air Force days. It smelled like old leather…and Dad.

Sarafina and Ahmed were at the kitchen table. She wore shorts and a cut-off tee shirt that Dad would say showed too much for a thirteen-year-old, and if Mom noticed the touch of makeup my sister had on, she’d be in trouble. I don’t know why she bothered with face paint, especially around her eyes. They were her best feature, big and friendly. As usual, she was texting someone on her iPhone. That’s what she did if she wasn’t playing music on her keyboard.

Ahmed was still in his board shorts and tank top. His right knee bounced up and down so I could tell he was anxious to go to the beach like he planned. He didn’t have many friends but he loved surfing at the beach down the street from our home. He said his Afghan skin was built for the sun, and oceans were among Allah’s greatest gifts. Right now, he was focused on his laptop, which was connected to two external speakers. He tapped a key and a loud karate kiai made me flinch.

Sarafina looked up and crinkled her brow. “You’re kidding, right?” she said. “Pleeease use your headset. Those screeches are enough to give a person a headache.” She should know since she had perfect pitch, and the ability to compose amazing songs in her head and play them with her eyes closed on a piano or keyboard. I loved listening to her play. We all had coping mechanisms. Hers was music.

“Uh-huh,” Ahmed said, without looking up from the screen—or putting on his headset.

He was studying a recording of his last sparring event, playing it over and over. When he focused on something, it could be hard to break him loose. I’d learned it was best to let him be when he got into that mode. Even though the brain implant he received years ago had done wonders to eliminate most of the adverse affects of his autism, he still suffered from bouts of paranoia. When that happened, he couldn’t stop talking. It could be annoying and he knew it. So over the last year or so, he’d been trying to channel that energy toward karate classes.

The video ended, and I cringed when he tapped the screen to start it all over again. Another loud kiai sounded. Sharper this time. I flinched again.

“Really?” my sister said, glaring at him. Ahmed didn’t notice, so she huffed and plugged in her own earphones, turning her back on him as she texted.

I pulled my tablet from my backpack and propped it up on the counter. Then I donned my neuro-headset, which was about the coolest thing ever invented. The wireless device was a human-to-computer interface that allowed me to control online games using nothing but my thoughts. Talk about hands-free! The game developer named it the Spider because of the way its eight legs draped around your scalp and forehead. If it had been up to me, I would’ve named it the Octopus, since each of the legs was embedded with rows of circular probes that reminded me of tiny suction cups. Either way, it was the latest device of its kind, way better than anything else out there. The headset was still in beta testing, but a bunch of them had been distributed to select gamers around the world—the best of the best—each user getting a unit registered exclusively for his or her use, no exceptions. It was no surprise that Uncle Marshall—who wasn’t my real uncle, either—was invited to join the beta testing group. He’d been a gamer elite for ages, same as many of his friends, and was probably on top of the distribution list.

But he’d been swamped lately with government contracts for his cyber-security consulting business, and right now he was in Rome visiting his wife, Lacey. She was an actress and she was on location for a film. So he’d let me test it out for him on the sly. I was supposed to pretend I was him whenever I used it online. He’d even added his own twist to the software so that when the server at game headquarters pinged for a location address, it was rerouted to wherever Uncle Marshall’s laptop was.

I slipped the Spider onto my head, activating the noise-canceling feature to tune out the world. It felt like home. The instant I switched it on, the application on my tablet responded with an audible cue. “Good morning, Marshall. Are you ready to play?”

Oh, yeah! I thought, and the screen automatically drew me into the online game in progress.

As usual, while I played, I blocked out the endless stream of underlying images, words, and numbers that accompanied the data stream, figuring it was some sort of subliminal advertising gimmick the game makers were testing out. As I dodged explosions and returned fire with all sorts of cool weapons, my mind drifted on autopilot, exploring the network of other players, connecting to their emotions and thoughts in a way that didn’t allow them to notice the intrusion. I could tell the exact moment when each of them recognized Uncle Marshall’s TurboHacker call sign—by their emotional groans. That’s because I didn’t lose very often, and when I did it was usually because Mom interrupted my play. But none of the other players ever gave up. In fact, they seemed more determined than ever to beat me.

My favorite weapon was the robotic swarm. It became available after you used conventional weapons to kill twelve players without dying yourself. The swarm consisted of twenty-four dart-sized drones that hovered and zipped around like hummingbirds. The player could switch his screen view to any one of them, and a single strike from a drone’s needle-tipped nose spelled instant death. The key to my success with them was multitasking. Players tended to maneuver a swarm as a single unit. A few of the better players had learned to split their drones into two groups and they had a far higher kill rate than everyone else—other than me, of course. I used an entirely different strategy, my brain separating the drones into twenty individual units so they could either move with the swarm or operate independently. It came naturally to me, so I guess it wasn’t very fair to the other players, but heck, war isn’t fair, right? Besides, the better I got, the more the other players teamed up against me to even the odds.

I loved it!

Chapter 3

I WAS MIDWAY THROUGH a leap off a building, blasting my M1216 shotgun at two opponents who’d just run past, when my cell phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a burst of three short vibrations, then three long, three short—Morse code for SOS. I think my heart might’ve skipped a beat because my breath caught in my throat. I glanced up to see shocked expressions on my sister and brother, and even with my noise-canceling headphones on, I knew the ring tone that accompanied the code on all our phones was “Danger Zone,” a song from Dad’s favorite movie, Top Gun, programmed to play by an application that synched specific text messages with distinctive tones.

I ripped off my Spider and we all scrambled for our phones.

“Oh my God!” Sarafina gasped. Her face was white.

“No, wait a minute,” Ahmed said, standing up so fast that his chair toppled backward. “I was supposed to go surfing. What about school? My stuff? I haven’t even eaten lunch yet. This can’t be for real—”

I ignored him because the moment I unlocked the screen on my phone, I knew it was real. Mom and Dad had pounded it into our heads over and over again. The alert message would never be sent as a drill. The group text had come from Mom’s phone. I stared at the four characters that would change our lives forever:

Now!

Sarafina dropped her phone on the table. Her hands shook and her fingers danced in the air as if they were playing an aggressive song on the piano.

Ahmed’s rant continued, his words spilling over one another. “Where’s Dad? We don’t even have a car. I love this house. What about my board—”

I tuned him out, recalling Dad’s instructions:

Don’t question. Act!

I snapped off the back of my phone, yanked out the battery, and threw the device as hard as I could against the tile floor. Glass cracked, plastic splintered, and my sister and brother froze. I set my jaw and returned their stares, ignoring the tears spilling down my cheeks. Sarafina’s fingers calmed and Ahmed’s lips tightened. We needed to work together. I knew it. They knew it.

Ahmed blew out a breath behind clenched teeth. His eyes narrowed and a nod told me he was back in control. He removed the battery from his phone and dropped the remnants beside mine on the floor. Sarafina followed suit. That act of solidarity was like the Spider game’s countdown clock reaching zero.

“Move!” Ahmed said, grabbing his laptop and running toward the staircase leading to our bedrooms. Sarafina was right behind him. I jammed the Spider and tablet into my backpack and followed.

“Sixty seconds!” Ahmed shouted as he dashed into his bedroom.

My sister let out a yelp and disappeared around the corner.

I ran into my room and a flush of sadness washed over me when I realized this would be the last time I’d ever see it. I pushed the feeling aside and kept moving. Most of the stuff I needed was already in my pack, but Dad had drilled into us that our survival depended on having everything on the list. So I opened the bottom drawer of my dresser and pulled out a new cell phone, a rolled-up sweatshirt, a Swiss Army knife, and a rubber-banded wad of documents and money. I shoved it all into my pack.

“I hate these long pants,” my sister shouted from her bedroom. “They make me look fat.”

“Don’t forget the barrettes!” Ahmed said.

I pulled on my jeans, laced up my sneakers, and slung the pack over my shoulder. Fighting back a sniffle, I took one last look at my room, memorizing every detail—the action figures on my dresser, the wall covered with my favorite fractal patterns, the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling—

“Thirty seconds!” Ahmed shouted.

I flinched, grabbed my favorite Transformer figure, and rushed out the door. There was one last thing I had to get that wasn’t on the list.

Dad’s life depended on it.

Chapter 4

[]Twenty Thousand Feet Above Fujian Province, South China

MY BACKPACK WAS at the back of the plane, but I could still feel the energy emanating from the miniature pyramid I’d taken from Dad’s floor safe. The mini, that’s what I called it, felt good in a way I’d never felt before, like I was stronger somehow and everything was going to be all right. I’d known all along Dad had taken it from the island on the day that an overhead Grid of pyramids left by an ancient alien race had nearly destroyed humanity—which is a mind-bending story of its own—and I’d been tempted to ask him about it several times. But he’d wanted to keep it a secret, even from Mom, so I let it go.

“It’s so cold,” my sister said, shivering under our shared blanket. Ahmed scooted closer on my other side, draping his blanket over the three of us.

We huddled together on inward-facing web seats in the cargo compartment of a transport aircraft that Ahmed said was a C-130. The interior wasn’t finished like the passenger jets I’d been in before. Instead, it was noisy and drafty, and it rattled like crazy every time we hit the slightest bit of turbulence. There were two covered pallets of cargo tied down near the back of the plane and two guards toward the front. One of them was dozing and the other had just plopped into his seat after prepping a fresh pot of tea.

A man was lying on the seats across from us. At least we thought it was a man from the jeans, sweatshirt, and short black hair, but his back was to us so we couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t moved since we woke up. His ankles were zip-tied together.

Our ankles were free, but our hands were zip-tied in front of us and our wrists were chafed from the cuffs. Sarafina had begged the guards to remove them when we’d first awakened an hour ago from the drug they’d given us. She’d received a slap in the face. They seemed to hate us and I knew why. Ahmed had shot one of their friends when they had jumped us at the arcade after we’d fled the house. He’d fought back, a gun had come loose, and he’d picked it up and fired. He’d done it to save Sarafina, and I’ll never forget the look on his face when he’d squeezed the trigger. Pure determination. He hadn’t flinched, and he’d held the pistol in a two-handed grip just like my character held the Colt Python in the Spider game. But the sound of the shots echoing in my ears, the holes exploding in the man’s chest, and the expression of terror as blood gurgled from his mouth had been a lot different from a video game.

I didn’t like it.

When one of the other men had grabbed me from behind and held a knife to my neck, Ahmed had turned the weapon in my direction, and I realized part of him had believed he could take out the guy without hurting me. I swear my heart stopped beating, and if I hadn’t willed him to stop I think he might’ve tried it.

The guard checked his watch, and I had the sense we were in a slight descent.

“Maybe we’re getting close,” Ahmed said, keeping his voice low.

“Yeah, but close to where?” Sarafina asked with a shiver.

She was right. There was no telling where we were. But based on how hungry I was, we must’ve been traveling for a very long time.

But it didn’t matter. We had a plan, and we were waiting for Ahmed to get it started.

“Any second,” Ahmed said, watching the guard.

“How can you be so sure?” Sarafina asked.

“He keeps jiggling his knees up and down, just like Alex does.”

I could see it, too. I had the same nervous habit when I was holding it in.

“Get ready,” Ahmed said.

Sarafina tensed. “I’m scared.”

“Like Dad says, it’s okay to be scared,” Ahmed said. “There’s no such thing as courage if there isn’t fear. Besides, it’s gonna work.” His confidence helped me relax.

Her lips tightened, but she nodded, leaned over, and placed her head in my lap, pretending to take a nap. The guard glanced over but Ahmed was right—the man’s mind was elsewhere.

Sarafina closed her eyes and I snuggled the blanket under her chin like Mom would when she tucked me in. Then I caressed my sister’s hair, casually removing her barrette and passing it beneath the blanket to Ahmed.

He took the tool and I could feel his movements beneath the blanket. We’d all done it dozens of times before, a talent we’d learned compliments of Uncle Becker. He’d taught us lots of things during his visits over the past year, and getting out of flex-cuffs was one of them. Even the thickest ties turned out to be no problem, especially if you had a tool like a barrette with a modified tongue that slid easily between the lock’s angled teeth. I felt my brother’s relief and knew it had worked. He passed the barrette back and I handed it under the blanket to Sarafina. It was her turn, then mine.

A few minutes later the guard rose and disappeared into the tiny bathroom.

As soon as the door closed, Ahmed was on his feet and rushing like a crouched ninja toward the other guard. My sister grabbed my hand and we both squeezed hard. Ahmed reached under the sleeping guard’s seat and pulled out the leather satchel. The hypodermic we’d noticed earlier was still protruding from its side pocket. Ahmed grabbed it and squirted its contents into the steaming teapot. He was about to replace it in the bag when he hesitated, glancing first at the sleeping guard and then at the closed bathroom door. Sarafina squeaked and I held my breath, praying he’d stick to the plan and hurry back. Instead, Ahmed rummaged around inside the satchel and pulled out a vial. He stuck the vial with the hypo and filled it up, doing it in such a practiced way that I was reminded he’d spent several years in a mental institution, where I suspected he’d seen it done hundreds of times. When the hypo was full, he squirted the contents into the pot. Finally, he replaced the hypo, vial, and satchel, and was back under our blankets five seconds later. He wrapped his hands around ours and I could feel the rapid pounding of his pulse.

“They could die with that big of a dose,” Sarafina whispered.

“How do you know that?” Ahmed said.

“Well, I don’t know for sure, but it seemed like a lot.”

“Too much is better than not enough,” Ahmed said. “And if they die, they deserve—”

“Holy crap,” a voice said from across the aisle, startling all of us. The man had turned to face us. He was in his late twenties, but he still had a few pimples on his chin. His forehead had a bruised lump. It was Dad’s good friend who worked with Doc at some top secret government facility. Dad sometimes referred to him as a “whiz kid.” If it hadn’t been for him, Dad wouldn’t have ever come out of his coma.

“Uncle Timmy?” Sarafina blurted out.

“Shhh,” Ahmed and I said in unison, checking to make sure the sleeping guard hadn’t heard.

“Jeez, kids,” Timmy said, rubbing his eyes with his cuffed hands. “I’m so sorry you got dragged into this.”

“Do you know where we are?” Ahmed asked.

“Not sure,” Timmy said, blinking as if to shake off the drug he’d apparently been given. He remained reclined, pointing at the guard. “Last time I came to, they drugged me again, but not before I realized where I was. They were transferring me from a private jet to this rig at the Kansai International airport in Kyoto, Japan. You guys were probably on the jet with me.”

“Japan,” Sarafina gasped. Tears gathered in her eyes.

I felt like a sharp icicle was slowly pushing through my stomach. We were so far away from home. How could Mom and Dad ever find us way out here?

Ahmed sagged beside me and I sensed his internal battle to maintain his composure. It was situations like this that usually sent him into a rant. But he kept his mouth shut, as if he knew we were depending on him for strength. That made it easier for me to close the drawer on my fear. We all needed to be strong.

I focused my thoughts and projected an umbrella of calmness over all four us, kind of like I did to help Mississippi Mike.

After a moment, I felt Sarafina find her center. She sniffled and pulled the blanket up to wipe her eyes. “We were drugged, too,” she said. “Back in California. We woke up a while ago but they didn’t drug us again.”

Timmy’s brow creased. “Maybe that means we’re close to our destination. If I knew which direction we’re flying—”

“Southwest,” I said, and everyone stared at me. I was used to that. I learned a lot of things on the Web that I didn’t bother telling anyone about, so it usually surprised people—well, except my dad—when I pulled one of them out of a drawer in my head. “I saw the stars out the small window by the bathroom.” I could tell our direction by the location of the Big Dipper in relation to the North Star.

“Isaac Newton’s got nothin’ on you, kid,” Timmy said. “Unfortunately, though, that means we’re somewhere over southern China.” He glanced toward the rear of the plane. “Where’s Tony?”

“Huh?” my sister said. “You mean Uncle Tony?”

My skin tingled.

“Yeah, I saw him during the transfer,” Timmy said. “He was still unconscious. There were others with him but they were covered up.”

Sarafina gasped. “Maybe Mom and Dad were with him.”

“Maybe,” Timmy said. “But your dad isn’t an easy guy to take down.”

“Doc was with Dad,” Ahmed said. I’d told him and my sister about the unexpected visit at the VA hospital.

“That’s great news,” Timmy said with sudden eagerness. “I was hoping they hadn’t taken Doc at the same time they grabbed me. If he flew to see your dad, he went to warn him, which means Jake would’ve been on his guard. I pity the dudes that tried to nab him, especially if he thought you guys were in danger.”

A flicker of hope made my pulse race.

“Mom sent out the warning text,” Sarafina said hesitantly.

Nobody said anything for a moment, and from their grim expressions I suspected we were all thinking the same thing: Mom had been alone when she’d sent the text and she hadn’t been at the arcade to meet us like she was supposed to. Dad might’ve been free, but she wasn’t.

Timmy’s expression hardened. “Your dad saved my life. Hell, he’s saved countless lives, and you can bet that he will move heaven and earth to find you and your mom and Tony, too.” He looked us over one at a time. “In the meantime, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”

I found myself nodding, seeing a little of my dad in his determined expression. I’d seen it before in Dad’s other friends. “Thank you,” I muttered.

“Tony and your mom must be on the second plane,” Timmy said.

“Second plane?” Ahmed asked.

“Another C-130. It was on the tarmac in Japan.”

“So we’ll see them soon?” Sarafina said. “And then escape together?”

Ahmed’s lips tightened. “No. Even if they are on their way to the same place we’re going, there will definitely be an army of guards waiting for us. That’ll make it impossible to escape. Our best chance is here and now, which means we’re on our own.” He hesitated before adding. “And our plan will work.”

Timmy’s face scrunched up. “Plan? What—?”

The bathroom door started to swing open and Timmy quickly rolled back to his original position. We stopped talking and pretended to sleep, but I watched through my eyelashes as the guard poured himself a cup of tea. He took a sip, and Sarafina and Ahmed tensed at the same time. I wasn’t the only one peeking.

The guard nudged his sleeping partner, tapping his watch. The man nodded begrudgingly, stretching as he rose to his feet. He donned a wireless headset and spoke into the microphone, then pulled two covered mugs from a cabinet and filled them from the pot. A moment later the elevated flight-deck door opened and the copilot reached down to accept the freshly brewed tea.

Chapter 5

[]Fujian Province

UNDER THE BLANKET, Sarafina’s hand was poking Ahmed’s leg faster than a woodpecker digging through bark.

“I know, I know,” Ahmed whispered.

I could feel their fear. Drugging the guards was one thing. But drugging the pilots…

“You have to do something!” Sarafina said.

“Not yet.” Ahmed shifted beneath the blanket, and I could tell he was getting ready to charge out of his chair.

“What the heck’s going on?” Timmy whispered, twisting around just enough to be heard.

“Don’t move,” Ahmed ordered under his breath. “You’ll distract them.”

The crew door closed and the guard with the headset grabbed a mug for himself. He was filling it when the first guard swayed to one side, rubbing his eyes and saying something to his partner. The guy punched him gently in the shoulder as if to say he should buckle up. Then the guard with the headset turned in our direction. Sarafina and I both flinched and the man looked at us hard. I saw hate in his eyes.

He still hadn’t taken a sip from his mug.

The guard behind him swayed again, this time setting down his cup of tea to brace himself against the wall.

If the first guard turns around and notices…

My mind whirled.

What would Dad do?

“Hey, jackass!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “We’re thirsty, too.”

Ahmed and Sarafina gawked at me. I hardly ever shouted and the bad word felt strange coming out of my mouth.

The guard stormed forward. “What did you call me?”

I cowered just enough to keep him from slapping me like he had my sister, but the guard behind him collapsed to the floor so I had to keep his attention on me. “You’re mean!” I said, doing my best to act like a kid my mom and I saw throwing a tantrum at the mall. “I’m thirsty and I want some tea.” I scowled at him and tried stomping my feet, but my legs were too short to reach the ground so all I managed was to paddle my legs under the blanket.

He seemed amused, and I used that unguarded moment to throw my mind toward his and fill it with feelings of thirst.

He leered at me, and I felt like a mouse trapped by a cat. But he raised the cup to his lips and slurped, his gaze locked on mine. I frowned and he tipped the mug further, taking in several swallows. Finally, he smacked his lips and flipped the mug upside down. One last drop fell to the floor.

“After we land, I am going to personally teach you some manners,” he said.

“You’ll not touch my brother,” Ahmed said.

The man’s expression went cold as he stepped forward and backhanded Ahmed across the face. Ahmed’s head snapped to one side. But instead of backing down, he sat up straighter and jutted out his jaw, his defiant expression daring the man to hit him again. The guard’s face flushed. He cocked his arm to strike but his movements had slowed. The first guard had collapsed in less than a minute and he’d only taken a few sips. This man had consumed an entire mug.

The swing came but Ahmed dodged it, throwing off the blanket as he used the man’s momentum to push him to one side. The guard stumbled but kept his footing. He spun around too fast and blinked rapidly as he struggled to maintain his balance. There was a brief look of shock when he realized Ahmed was standing before him with no wrist cuffs. The guard’s hands were halfway to his holstered pistol when Ahmed let out a sharp kiai and planted a front kick in the man’s solar plexus, sending the guard flying to the deck. His eyes rolled and he was out.

“Quickly!” Ahmed said, grabbing the man’s pistol.

Sarafina and I jumped to our feet and used her barrette to free Timmy. “We drugged the tea,” Sarafina told him. “But the pilots may have drunk some, too!”

“Oh, crap,” Timmy said. We raced toward where Ahmed waited at the foot of the ladder leading to the flight deck. He handed Timmy the second guard’s pistol. “Do you know how to use this?” he asked.

“Kind of,” Timmy said. “This is the safety, right?” He clicked a button on the side and the magazine dropped to the floor.

Ahmed sighed. He took the pistol from Timmy and set it next to the coffee pot. “Better just leave it alone.” He placed a hand on the stepladder leading to the flight deck. “There’s only room for one of us up there anyway.”

The engine noise shifted, and I had the impression the plane had started a slight turn.

“Oh, no,” Sarafina hissed.

Ahmed tucked the pistol in his belt and put his foot on the first rung.

“Wait,” Timmy said. “Whatever you do, don’t shoot up the instruments. I may not know much about guns but I think I can fly this plane.”

“You’re a pilot?”

“Not exactly. But I’ve flown every plane in the Flight Simulator X gold edition.”

It was better than nothing but it didn’t give me much comfort.

“Praise Allah for even the smallest of blessings,” Ahmed said, exhaling deeply. His face darkened and I realized he was readying himself to do whatever was necessary to hijack the plane, even if it meant killing the pilots. He clambered up the ladder and my heart was in my throat.

With the pistol in one hand and the door lever in the other, he looked down at us and whispered, “Allahu Akbar.” Then he turned back and his hand twitched on the door lever. But it didn’t move. He tried again, the muscles of his forearm straining. Finally, he shouldered the door as hard as he could.

It wouldn’t budge.

“Get back,” he shouted as he aimed the pistol at the latch.

Timmy herded us behind the pallets. We crouched down, and a moment later I heard three quick shots. I flinched at each blast. After a moment, four more shots rang out.

“Damn it!” Ahmed shouted. He climbed back down the ladder and we ran forward to meet him. The air smelled of gunpowder, and I flashed back to the room in the underground facility on the island where Sarafina and I had been taken to force Dad to try to connect with the grid of pyramids. He’d been strapped in a chair with his head linked to a computer. Mom, Lacey, and Ahmed had arrived just in time to save us, and Ahmed had used a gun to shoot a man. It was the first time I’d ever heard or smelled a gunshot. There’d been so much blood…

“It’s no use,” Ahmed said. “The door is reinforced. We can’t get in. And there was no reaction from inside the cockpit. They’ve gotta be unconscious.”

“Then who’s flying the plane?” Sarafina said, grabbing the ladder rail as if that could help if the plane dropped from the sky.

“They must have realized they were going to pass out so they put the plane on autopilot.” He glanced out the exit door window. “We’re probably flying a racetrack pattern, like when a plane has to hold for a while because a thunderstorm is crossing the airport.” He rubbed his chin. “Assuming we’re close to our destination, we probably have about a two-hour reserve of fuel.”

“What happens when the tank is empty?” Sarafina said.

She realized right away that wasn’t the smartest question. Her face went white and Ahmed put an arm around her.

Timmy said, “We’ll figure something out. The point is, we have a couple hours to do so.” He moved to an LCD panel beside the guards’ chairs and began scrolling the screen. “I’ll bet I can pull up our position from the loadmaster’s screen.” He hesitated on one page and I saw we were flying at 140 knots at an altitude of 12,000 feet. He nodded and moved to a menu page.

While he was absorbed in the task, Ahmed and Sarafina started searching compartments. I walked to the back of the plane and grabbed my backpack. Everything was still inside, including the mini. Its leather case was the size and shape of a softball. I picked it up and it sent a tingle up my arm. After a moment, my senses felt sharper. The smells that had tangled together into a single odor before were now separated. I smelled rust, grease, oil, and fuel. I smelled the sweat on the guards’ clothing, the leftover tea, and the chemicals from the bathroom. It was the same with my hearing and my vision. I felt stronger and I liked it.

The mini’s case was rigid so I suspected the inside was lined with metal, and I imagined a felt-lined mold around the small pyramid. There was a seam around the middle. I tried to twist the two halves apart but they were stuck solid, locked somehow. Knowing how big a secret the mini was for my dad, I didn’t try to force it. It might be booby-trapped. I’d heard Mom talk about how it had killed my dad after he started using it all the time. His heart had failed and the government had performed an emergency transplant to save him. That’s why I’d taken the mini. I didn’t want him to die again.

I tossed it up in the air once or twice, enjoying the surge I felt each time I caught it.

“Hey, we found a parachute,” Ahmed yelled. He and Sarafina had opened a compartment near the back of the plane. Timmy ran over to check it out. I stuffed the mini in my pack and slung it over my shoulders as I joined them.

“That’s not for people,” Timmy said, lifting the edge of the dusty, oversized pack. “They’re for cargo pallets.”

With an angry grunt, Ahmed slammed the lid closed and moved on to the next compartment. Sarafina slumped onto the web seating, her face buried in her hands. I went to sit beside her but she waved me away with a sniffle. She started to rock gently and I knew she was using her love of music to help her cope. I went to the exit window to look outside, but I was too short to see anything except the moon. I climbed onto the railing next to the door and leaned over to look at the ground. The moon shone through scattered clouds, but all I could make out was the silhouette of the rolling horizon. I couldn’t tell if the shadows were hills or mountains. Either way, they looked dark and scary.

The wing dipped and I realized we were making another turn in our holding pattern. The horizon rose, the shadows moving across the window as the plane banked into a turn.

“I’ve got something,” Timmy said, and Ahmed and Sarafina rushed over to join him. But an uneasy feeling made me stay put, and I kept my eyes on the sweeping view.

Timmy said, “It looks like we’re about a hundred and fifty miles from our destination.”

The wings leveled. I jumped off the rail and ran to the others. “We’re lower,” I said.

“Can’t be,” Timmy said. “The autopilot should hold our altitude—”

He saw the expression on my face. We hustled back to the LCD and brought up the page I’d seen earlier.

Airspeed: 140 knots

Altitude: 9,700 feet

“No, no, no,” Timmy said, his fingers dancing on the touch screen to bring up the plot map. “The valley ground level is 1,875 feet, but the highest peak beneath us is 4,500 feet.” He closed his eyes as he ran through the numbers. “We dropped from 12,000 to 9,700 feet. Time elapsed was about—”

“We’re going to crash in 4 minutes and 15 seconds,” I said. “That’s if we hit the highest peak. But if we make it to the valley, we’ll crash in 6 minutes, 24 seconds.”

Timmy gulped, and his eyes darted this way and that, settling on something in the rear of the plane. He grabbed me by my backpack’s shoulder strap and started running. “This way,” he shouted. Ahmed and Sarafina raced to keep up. We gathered beside the pallet closest to the rear door.

“Now listen up good,” Timmy said. “Because I don’t have time to explain this twice, and each one of us has gotta move superfast if we want to live. First off, did you find any life vests?”

“What—?” Ahmed said.

“No time,” Timmy yelled. “Life vests, life vests!”

Sarafina’s face was white. “But—?”

“The plane is descending,” I said. “It. Is. Going. To. Crash.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Timmy scrunched his shoulders and held up his hands. “Well?”

“I saw life vests in the front,” Sarafina said breathlessly.

“Get as many as you can. Alex, you help her.”

I ran after her and heard Timmy say to Ahmed, “Help me with this chute pack.”

We returned with two dozen inflatable life vests. Timmy and Ahmed were cinching the parachute pack to the top of the five-foot-tall pile of cargo on the first pallet. When they were finished, Timmy snapped open a pouch on the top of the pack and pulled out what looked like a smaller chute pack connected to a thick line. He left it on top of the pile.

“Inflate the vests and lay them out here,” Timmy said, pointing to the eighteen-inch space between the cargo and the edge of the pallet, made narrow by the series of webbed straps that held the cargo in place. “Divide them evenly on each side.”

A part of me knew what was about to happen but I refused to think about it. I pulled the red tab and the first vest inflated in an instant. I laid it down in the space. Sarafina did the same, setting hers next to mine. Her eyes were as big as saucers. As we worked, my internal clock kept track of the countdown to the mountain peak altitude.

Two minutes, 50 seconds…

“Did you find any spare straps?” Timmy asked Ahmed.

“Only a bunch of seat belts for the web seats.”

“Get ’em. I’ll finish with the chute.”

Ahmed hurried off. Timmy finished what he was doing and moved to a control panel by the rear ramp. He made several entries on a screen there, and each time he hit the Enter key he grumbled. When Ahmed returned with the belts, Timmy pounded his fist on the wall and came back to the pallet. By then, Sarafina and I had finished laying out the vests.

“Do you have anything warm to wear in there?” Timmy asked, pointing to my backpack.

“My hoodie.”

“Put it on. You guys, too.”

Ahmed and Sarafina grabbed their packs. Ahmed had a hoodie like mine and my sister had a sweater. After dressing, we slipped our packs on over our clothes. In the meantime, Timmy had cinched a harness of some sort around his chest and waist.

“You first,” Timmy said, guiding me toward the vests on one side of the pallet. “Wedge yourself between the vests and the straps.”

My heart was racing but I moved into place and lay on my side. Timmy helped to reposition the vests around me like bubble wrap around a fragile vase. Then he grabbed one of the seat belts and wove it through a pallet slat and around my waist. “Give me a hand,” he said to Ahmed. My brother tightened another one around my thighs while Timmy cinched a third over my chest. I felt like wrapped sausage. My legs were quivering and I wanted to pee.

“You’re next,” Timmy said to Sarafina, motioning to her spot.

“Please no, please no,” Sarafina mumbled, lying down on the edge nearest the back door. Her head was close to mine and we locked eyes as Timmy finished wrapping her up. Her lips made a tight line and I could tell she was doing everything possible to keep from crying.

One minute, 15 seconds…

“Ahmed, get behind the pallet,” Timmy said, moving to the panel that controlled the rear doors. He made an entry and suddenly a top section of the slanted rear ramp opened inward to lie flat against the ceiling. The rush of cold air made my ears pop. A moment later, the bottom ramp swung down until it was level with the floor, and the roar of the motors and the rushing wind filled the space.

Timmy released two clamps at the front of the pallet and got behind it to help Ahmed push it onto the ramp.

The pallet rolled to a stop, and I heard Sarafina’s frightened voice over the wind. “W-what’s happening?”

The sky behind her was foreboding. “Keep your eyes closed,” I yelled.

“Slide into your spot,” Timmy ordered to Ahmed. “Quickly!”

“This will work!” Ahmed shouted from the opposite side of the pallet, where Timmy was helping him strap in.

A moment later, Timmy hooked a safety line to the harness he’d put on earlier. It was connected somewhere behind me. He reached over Sarafina, grabbed the small chute pack from the top of the pallet, and moved carefully to the end of the ramp. He was so close to the edge that it made my knees feel watery. He hooked the pack on a hook suspended above the ramp and it looked like the wind wanted to suck it outside. A thick bungee cord connected it to the main parachute pack on top of the pallet.

“This is going to happen very fast,” Timmy yelled over the noise. He walked out of sight behind me and reappeared by the control panel. After he entered a command on the screen, his finger hovered over the Enter key.

“I wish this thing had a timer!” Timmy shouted, with a wide-eyed stare toward the trailing edge of the pallet where a row of life vests waited for him. And that’s when I realized he hadn’t set up any seat belts for himself.

I shouted, “But—!”

“Close your eyes and hang on tight!” Timmy yelled. His eyes met mine and his face was grim. He nodded, and I suddenly understood the sacrifice he was making. I gripped the straps tight but there was no way I was going to close my eyes. I nodded back, memorizing the features of his face.

Fifteen seconds.

He tapped the display.

There was a tug. The inside of the plane vanished, a rush of wind whipped across my face, and my stomach felt like I was on the first drop of a rollercoaster. Sarafina’s scream pierced the wind.

The pallet tilted sharply and one of my life vests came loose and spun out of sight. We swung in the opposite direction and the moonlit shadows of a mountain peak rushed by beneath us. Then there was a swoosh overhead and a lurch pressed me into the pallet. I looked up to see that three parachutes had blossomed above us. The pallet settled into a gentle seesaw.

“Yahoo!” Ahmed yelled.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” Sarafina chanted.

I was relieved, too, but when I looked toward my feet and saw that Timmy wasn’t strapped beside us, my stomach went hollow. The sound of the airplane disappeared as I said a silent prayer for him. That’s when I felt the pallet jiggle.

“Who’s doing that?” Sarafina cried out. “Stop it!”

“It’s not me,” Ahmed said. “Alex, are you okay?”

The jiggling became more persistent. It felt like something was tugging at the bottom of the pallet. I shifted my shoulders around, peeked over the side, and my heart leaped.

“It’s Uncle Timmy!” I yelled. He was climbing up the tether attached to his harness.

“Stay where you are,” he shouted. Finally, he pulled himself onto the pallet like a drowning man into a lifeboat. “Dudes,” he said breathlessly, “I can’t believe that worked!”

A moment later, tree limbs snapped, branches lashed across us, and everything went black.

Chapter 6

THE FIRST THING I FELT was the tingle from the mini, prying open a locked memory.

I’m in the underground facility on the island, standing on the special chair with a bulky skullcap on my head, connected to the grid of pyramids that ringed the planet. My brain is being bombarded with images and information, and I’m overwhelmed as hundreds—no, thousands of drawers in my mind are being filled. I slam them closed one after another, doing my best to send a message of my own to the pyramids’ makers, trying to convince them to leave us alone. But it’s a losing battle. My brain feels like it’s on fire and I know the overload is killing me.

Then my dad’s mind is suddenly there, his thoughts joined with mine, his energy fueling me.

In the end, it works. My message is received. The pyramids disappear into space and the threat to our planet vanishes with them, but the packed drawers in my mind are still there, ready to burst open. I seal them tight, because a part of me knows they contain something bad.

“Alex,” Sarafina’s voice was soft, as was her hand brushing my forehead. “Please wake up.”

I opened my eyes to find my head cradled in her lap. Her expression brightened and her lips parted in a smile.

“He’s awake,” she said, and Ahmed and Timmy entered my frame of vision. I was thrilled to see them. It was still night, and the thick umbrella of foliage beyond their faces flickered and danced from the flames of a campfire.

“You okay?” Ahmed asked.

I wiggled my arms and legs. “Uh-huh,” I said, sitting up too fast. It made me dizzy. I reached back and felt a tender lump behind my ear.

“Take it slow,” Timmy said. “You just survived a heck of a drop.” He examined the lump. “It’s not bleeding. Do you remember what happened?” He was looking at me the same way the nurse had when I fell off the jungle gym at school. She’d asked me a bunch of questions. I didn’t say much because I rarely did, and she’d told Mom on the phone that I might’ve had a concussion. I’d felt fine but Mom made me stay home for two days anyway. The worst part was, I hadn’t been allowed to play video games.

“We’re in China,” I said. “A hundred and fifty miles from where they took Mom and Tony, and maybe Dad. The plane was going to crash so we went skydiving on a pallet. We hit the trees, end of story.” I wasn’t sure Timmy was convinced, so I pushed to my feet, picked up my backpack, and added, “Oh, and next time try not to be late to the party. Climbing up the rope kinda rocked the boat.”

It had been a long time since I said that much in a single stretch, but sometimes words were necessary.

Timmy sighed. Sarafina rose and gave me a long hug while I took in our surroundings.

“The plane crashed a few seconds after we dropped through the trees,” she said. “We heard the explosion.”

My first thoughts went to the pilots and guards. They’d been bad men, but did they deserve to die? Were their families wondering about them right now? We didn’t mean to kill them but we still made it happen. My stomach felt queasy. I thought back to the stories I’d overheard about Dad and Tony and the others and how many people had died because of them. If the deaths had left scars on them, I hadn’t noticed, though sometimes during our get-togethers the adults would move to the den and have a quiet drink together. They’d seem a little sad afterward but it always went away soon enough. Somehow they’d put it behind them, and I hoped I’d be able to do the same. I put the memory of the four dead men in a drawer of its own, but for some reason it wouldn’t close all the way. At least for now.

Even though it was the middle of the night, it was warm and humid. The ground wasn’t damp but it felt soft. I heard the gurgle of a stream nearby. There was lush vegetation everywhere and the trees were higher than a three-story building, their upper branches intertwined to block out the moonlight. Clouds of insects danced just out of reach of the flames from the campfire.

“I told you he’d be all right,” Ahmed said with a pat on my shoulder. He had a mosquito bite on his chin. “Now let’s get back to checking out the cargo.”

Four of the six plastic crates were already hinged open. There were a few pieces of straw packing material on the ground around them, and even more around the perimeter of the campfire, which must’ve been started with the straw. The open containers contained military supplies, which the others had lined up on the tarp that had been used to cover the cargo. There were canteens, belts, vests, backpacks, flashlights, binoculars, flares, and a few other things I didn’t recognize. Timmy had already exchanged his loafers for a pair of boots. A smaller wooden crate had been nestled among the others. The lid had been pried off and six bottles of whiskey were inside, plus a bunch of CDs.

Ahmed gasped when he opened the fifth container. He reached in and pulled out an assault rifle, handling it with the same reverence a mother would have for her newborn baby. I recognized it immediately from the Spider game as an AK-47. It looked comfortable in my brother’s hands, and I remembered him telling me about the training he’d received from Uncle Tony when they’d been on their way to rescue us from the island. As Ahmed stood there sighting down the weapon, with the pistol from the plane still tucked in his belt, the angles and planes of his face seemed to grow sharper. It made me feel uneasy. Sarafina edged closer to me.

There were five more rifles. Timmy set them aside to access the twin metal containers beneath them.

“That’s gotta be the ammo and magazines,” Ahmed said eagerly.

Timmy opened the first one to find a row of bulky cell phones lined up in foam cushioning. “Thank you, Jesus,” he exclaimed. “They’re satellite phones.” He pulled one out and opened the battery compartment. It was empty, and he quickly snapped open the second metal container. “The batteries must be in here.”

“Or the ammo,” Ahmed said.

But all they found were more phones. They rushed to the final crate. Timmy snapped open the clasps, whisked aside the straw padding, and pulled out a box labeled mre.

“What’s an MRE?” Sarafina asked.

“Meal Ready to Eat,” Timmy said. He dropped the box on the ground and pulled out one after another until the crate was empty. “They’re all MREs,” he said glumly.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Ahmed said, the AK-47 dangling loosely at his side. “What good’s an assault rifle with no ammunition?”

“Or a sat phone with no batteries?” Timmy asked.

Ahmed paced. “What idiot packed these crates? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that a gun has to have bullets.” He shook the weapon in the air. “Without them, this thing is worthless. They didn’t even pack a bayonet with it. At least that would’ve been something. And a cell phone with no batteries? Are we being punked right now? Is this just a bad dream? Or are we really stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way to call for help and no protection? After all we’ve been through, isn’t it about time we had a little good luck for a change? I mean, come on, we’ve been kidnapped, drugged, and carted halfway around the world. Our parents and friends have been taken and we’re…”

My sister and I exchanged a glance and I could tell we were both thinking the same thing. Ignoring Ahmed’s rant, we dropped to our knees and each ripped open a box of MREs. They were filled with vacuum-sealed bags.

“I’ve got spaghetti and meatballs and pound cake.” She was beaming.

“Mac ’n’ cheese,” I said, hugging the bag to my chest. It was my favorite.

Ahmed continued, “Why does this kind of stuff always happen to us? It’s not like we deserve it. Heck, we saved the world, didn’t we? What more—”

He hesitated when Sarafina stood and waved one of the bags of food in front of his face. “Brownies,” she said.

It was his soft spot and she knew it. It wasn’t her usual method for stopping one of his rants but it worked just as well. His gaze darted from the bag to her and then down at me. Finally, he bowed his head. “Sorry.”

Timmy pulled out several packets of MREs and fanned them out like a big deck of cards. “Dudes, at least we won’t go hungry.”

“First off, I’m not a dude,” Sarafina said, ripping open the bag and handing Ahmed one of the brownies. “Secondly, we need something to heat them up in.”

Ahmed stuffed the brownie in his mouth, his cheeks bulging as he chewed. He set the rifle down and ripped open another bag. He peeked inside and grinned, as if he’d needed to see for himself that there were plenty of brownies available. Then he grabbed one of the canteens and unsnapped the canvas cover to reveal the cooking pot the canteen was nested in. He said, still chewing, “We can cook in these. And we can get water from the stream.” He popped another brownie in his mouth.

I liked how they pulled together. It reminded me of the way my dad was with his friends. I guess things weren’t as bad as they’d seemed. We had food, water, and if I could get a look at the stars I could keep us heading in the right direction to find our parents. Maybe we were finally in for some good luck.

Timmy had just opened a bag of pound cake when a deep-throated growl echoed from the trees.

The hiss of thousands of insects stopped, and it seemed as if the world held its breath along with me.

Then a second growl joined the first.

“Bears,” Timmy whispered.

The growls were short and angry but they didn’t sound like they were getting closer. Sarafina and I huddled by the fire while Timmy and Ahmed worked frantically around our camp. They’d already stacked the cargo crates in a semicircle behind us. It wasn’t much but it made me feel safer. Timmy rushed from the darkness holding another armload of branches and sticks. He lowered it quietly onto the pile next to the campfire.

“Keep feeding them into the flames,” he whispered. I nodded and he raced after the beam from his flashlight and disappeared into the trees on the far side of the clearing.

We tossed the sticks one at a time into the fire. Several of the branches still had dead leaves sticking to them and the flames engulfed them with a hiss of crackles and snaps. The fire grew and we inched back to avoid the heat. Bears don’t like fire, Timmy had said, so we hoped the roaring flames would keep them away.

Ahmed used his pocketknife to peel strips of bark from a nearby tree. The bark appeared softer than I imagined it would be and he peeled away another large layer. He brought over a double handful and dropped it beside the two branches he’d already gathered. They were thicker than a broom handle and about half as long.

“We’ll use these for handles,” he said quietly, whittling off the stray branches from one end but leaving the nubs on the other end. He’d learned how to make torches on a field trip with Uncle Becker and Dad. I wish now I’d gone with them. Instead, I’d stayed home to play video games.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“Sure, grab the tool and the wire from my pack.” He had what Becker referred to as a survival kit in his backpack. It contained a multipurpose tool, fishhooks, flint, wire for snares, a compass, and basic first-aid stuff. It made me feel foolish for stuffing my favorite Transformer figure in my own pack. I fished the bundle of wire and the tool out of Ahmed’s pack and handed them over.

He unrolled a length of wire and snipped it with the tool. Then he jabbed the end of one of the handles into the ground. “Hold this.”

I gripped the smooth end with both hands while he wrapped the strips of bark around the other, impaling them on the nubs to hold them in place. The bark seemed to bend easily around the stick.

“Aren’t they too wet?” Sarafina whispered. I could tell she was trying to put on a brave face, but her quivering lower lip wasn’t cooperating and her gaze kept darting to the darkness beyond the firelight. I moved closer to her.

“No,” Ahmed said. “They’re filled with oil and resin so they shed water.”

He wrapped several layers around the end and then wound the wire around it to hold the bundle in place. When he was finished he stood and swung it like a baseball bat, and I suspected he was imagining a bear towering in front of him. It made me shiver, but watching him also gave me courage. After several swings he appeared satisfied that the end wasn’t going to fly off. He crouched down and started working on the second one.

“How long will they burn?” Sarafina asked.

“Maybe twenty minutes.”

Timmy returned and placed more wood on the stack. “That should be enough to keep the fire going until sunrise.” He crouched beside us.

“When’s that?” Sarafina asked.

“Couple hours,” he said, holding up his wrist so we could see his digital watch. It was 4:00 a.m. “I reset it based on the LCD on the plane.” He helped Ahmed wind the wire around the second torch. When they finished they leaned the torches against the crates, where they’d be within easy reach.

The growls stopped all at once, and there was a rustle of leaves and a series of low grunts. Something was running toward us.

Sarafina squeaked, wrapping her arms around me. Ahmed and Timmy each grabbed a torch and dipped it into the fire. Flames engulfed the wrapped bark and the two of them rose protectively in front of us. Ahmed used his free hand to pull the pistol from his belt as he stepped to the other side of the fire. Firelight reflected off his back as he took up a defensive stance—the torch held forward and pistol at the ready—looking like a warrior from an adventure movie.

Twigs snapped and a low shadow rocketed through the brush just beyond the reach of our firelight. It was the size of a dog, snorting as it charged by. I gulped. There was a ripple of leaves and several smaller shadows chased it, zigging this way and that. Ahmed swept the torch in their direction and I saw something with gray hide scamper into the bushes.

“Pigs?” Sarafina whispered.

“Wild boar,” Timmy said, sounding relieved.

“Quiet!” Ahmed said, his head turned as if listening to something in the darkness.

A limb snapped and there was a deep-throated chuff. Ahmed inched back, raising the pistol.

The bear’s head poked through the brush less than ten feet from where Ahmed stood, its huge face illuminated by the torch. The animal stopped, black eyes frozen on my brother, its shoulders hunched, black claws curled into the earth. It was like a child’s nightmare come true and I could sense my sister was about to scream. As I started to open my mind to help calm her, I sensed something from the bear. Not anger, but fear. Ahmed raised the pistol and the bear’s shoulder fur twitched.

“Wait,” I said too loudly. The bear chuffed and turned its gaze in my direction.

Ahmed braced himself.

If he squeezed the trigger…

I rose, ignoring Sarafina’s gasp. I wrapped my mind around the bear’s, doing my best to project a calming influence toward it. No, not it but her. Her head tilted to one side and I wondered if she felt me.

“Don’t shoot,” I said softly. “Lower the pistol and step back. Move slowly.”

Ahmed hesitated. I prayed he’d trust my senses.

“Do as he says,” Sarafina said. She rarely questioned me when I chose to speak. Plus, she had such a deep-hearted love of animals that I knew she didn’t want to see the bear injured.

“What’s going on?” Timmy said.

“Shhh,” Sarafina said.

“It’ll be okay,” I said.

Ahmed lowered the weapon and edged backward. When the bear made no move to follow, Ahmed stepped around the fire to join the rest of us. We stood still as statues as I continued to project my thoughts toward the bear. She stared back at me, and though I couldn’t enter her mind like I had with Mississippi Mike, I had a growing sense she understood we were no threat. After several moments, the tension eased in her neck and shoulders, and she raised her snout and wiggled it from side to side as if sniffing the air. She let out a low chuff and ambled toward the gear we had lined up on the tarp. Her muzzle disappeared inside one of the open bags of brownies.

Ahmed sighed.

She pulled her nose from the bag and swung her head to one side, licking her snout as she released two soft grunts. There was a rustling in the darkness behind her and two more bears pushed into the light and brushed up beside her. Ahmed and Timmy both tensed, but somehow Sarafina and I knew it was going to be okay. Even though the two bears were nearly the same size as the first one, I could tell they were cubs. The new arrivals glanced our way but didn’t seem concerned, happy to follow their mom’s lead. Their snouts dug through the MREs, one bear finding the second open bag of brownies and the other gulping down the abandoned pound cake. After several failed attempts to find other open bags, they snuffed and moved away. The cubs padded into the darkness and the mother took a last glance at me before disappearing behind them.

“That was amazing,” Sarafina said.

All the strength left my legs and I dropped to my knees, only then realizing how scared I’d been.

Chapter 7

I DIDN’T TALK MUCH but I thought a lot, and at this moment I couldn’t stop thinking about how long it would take to trek a hundred and fifty miles through this jungle.

“If we had a road to follow,” Ahmed said, “we might be able to make ten miles a day.” He shouldered through some foliage and a branch whipped back and nearly hit Sarafina.

“Watch it,” she said, grabbing it before it slapped her. “And by the way, if we had a road to follow, we could catch a ride and make it in a day.” She released the limb with care.

I was next in line and it barely scraped my head. Timmy was behind me.

Ahmed stopped to check his compass. A tall stand of bamboo blocked our path. It clicked and clacked as it swayed in a breeze we could barely feel at ground level. “But finding our way through this jungle,” Ahmed said, “we’ll be lucky to make four miles before sundown.”

It could be weeks before we find them, I thought. So much could happen between now and then. The jungle was thick and the terrain rolled sharply. Before setting out, Ahmed had climbed a ridge and charted what he hoped would be the best course. We kept to the furrows. There were more insects that way but it was better than climbing up and down hills.

The path widened a little and Timmy stepped up beside me. “How you holding up?” he asked.

I shrugged. It had only been two hours since we left the campsite and I seemed to have a lot more energy than usual. Even so, my shirt was soaked from the humidity and my shoulders ached from carrying my backpack. It was stuffed with MREs so it was much heavier than before. I’d made extra space by tossing my Transformer and my tablet but I’d refused to get rid of Uncle Marshall’s Spider. Keeping it gave me hope that things would return to normal soon.

As if sensing my discomfort, Timmy reached for my shoulder strap. “Why don’t I carry your pack for a while?”

I jerked aside. “No,” I said with a sharpness that was unusual for me. The mini was tucked in the bottom of my pack and I wasn’t going to let anyone else hold it.

Timmy looked at me funny and I could tell I’d hurt his feelings, so I added, “But thanks.”

We’d walked another hour when two deep mewling sounds stopped us in our tracks. Something thrashed around the next bend in the path. We huddled together behind a thicket and Ahmed pulled out the pistol.

“What is that?” Sarafina whispered.

“It sounds like whining dogs,” Ahmed said.

“I don’t think so,” Timmy said, and I agreed with him.

“This way,” Ahmed said. He grabbed Sarafina’s hand and led us off the path and up a rise.

The mewling sounds grew louder. They tore at my heart and a part of me wanted to rush toward them. But I knew better. Timmy urged me forward and we clambered up the slope. The ground steepened and we had to grab exposed tree roots to pull ourselves up. Sarafina yelped when she stepped in a nest of tiny, yellow snakes. There were at least a dozen of them and they slithered away in all directions, blending into the brush and leaves.

“Come on,” Ahmed said. “We’re almost there.”

A minute later the four of us settled on a small plateau. We plopped on our butts, breathing hard. Ahmed pointed and we all gazed down at the source of the sounds. Below was a clearing, where a black bear swayed back and forth inside a bamboo cage. Two more bears paced around it, their snouts jutting upward as they vocalized their distress. The broad carpet of trees and foliage dropped off to a valley behind them.

“I didn’t know bears could sound like that,” Ahmed said.

“They’re the ones from last night, aren’t they?” Sarafina asked.

“We have to help them,” I said, rising to my feet.

“Whoa, pal,” Timmy said, pulling me back down. “There’s no way I’m letting you go down there.”

“They won’t hurt me.”

Sarafina and Ahmed turned and studied me.

“Mama Bear won’t let them,” I added.

My sister scooted over to me and took my hands in hers. I stared past her at the bears. The mother chuffed and clawed at the cage. I could feel her confusion and her cubs’ anguish. All I’d have to do was lift the bamboo panel that had slid down to trap her.

“They’re too agitated to risk it,” Sarafina said, squeezing my hands. “I know it’s the right thing to do. I can feel their pain, too. But you could get badly hurt.”

“Quiet,” Timmy said. “Do you hear that?”

It sounded like grinding gears and the rumble of a motor. It was coming from somewhere beyond the bears. We ducked and fixed our eyes in that direction, and a prickle started at the back of my neck. I had the strange sensation someone was watching us. Then there was another gear change and I sloughed it off. A motor revved and a puff of black smoke sprouted from the trees. There was a flash of canvas and metal. A truck was climbing the hill.

“Yes!” Sarafina said, rising to her feet. The rest of us were quick to join her.

The mama bear stilled, her head turned toward the sound of the truck. She woofed and the two smaller bears disappeared into the brush. The truck pulled into the clearing and stopped with a squeak of its brakes. A tarp covered something in the rear of the vehicle. The cab doors opened and two men jumped out.

“Let’s go,” Sarafina said, starting off.

“Wait,” Timmy said, pulling her down in the tall grass. Ahmed and I ducked, too. Timmy pointed to the back of the truck, where a third man had jumped out holding a weapon that looked like the AK-47s we’d left back at the camp. “Let’s see what’s going on before we go charging down there asking for help.”

Good idea, I thought. I didn’t like the look of those guys. The men rolled back the tarp, sparking a chorus of growls and snorts, revealing four metal cages about half the size of the bamboo cage in the clearing. Three of them held angry bears, each of them swiping at the men as they walked by.

“Down,” Ahmed whispered, dropping to the ground. We flattened beside him and watched.

The driver jeered at the animals, poking one of them with a probe that sparked when it touched him. The bear jerked backward and mewled. The men laughed.

“Creeps,” Sarafina hissed, clenching her fists in the dirt.

I was sickened by the pleasure the men took, and felt a sudden desire to use the sparking stick on them to see how much they liked it. I shook my head to clear the thought. I’d never wanted to hurt anyone before and it made me uncomfortable. But when the man walked over to the bamboo cage and did the same thing to the mama bear, I felt a tingle of energy from the mini in my backpack and the emotion returned. I allowed it to linger and finally understood what the makers of the pyramids had seen as the flaw of the human race. Violence was a part of our nature, whether it was from nasty men who took joy in the pain of a helpless creature—or in the children who witnessed it.

I felt Sarafina’s gentle touch. “We’ll find a way to stop them,” she said, and a part of me wondered if she was reading my mind. “We need to follow the truck.”

“Yes,” I said, watching the men below as they backed the truck up into the clearing and used a built-in crane to lower the empty metal cage beside the bamboo cage. The bear roared and swiped at the men, her claws slashing across the bamboo. But the men barely flinched. When the entrances were lined up, they lifted the bamboo gate and used the prods to jolt the bear, each touch rippling the muscles beneath her fur and triggering a whimper. She lurched into the new cage and the door clanked closed behind her.

A few minutes later, the truck and its live cargo made its way back to the road and disappeared into the trees. There was movement in the surrounding brush and I caught a glimpse of the two younger bears running after it.

“Hurry,” Sarafina said, taking my hand and starting down the hill. The others followed, and when we reached level ground we ran as fast as we could. We rushed across the clearing, through the trees, and onto the dirt road, finding ourselves on a promontory overlooking a rolling forested valley. Mountains rose in the distance. The road was mostly hidden as it twisted and turned through the trees. The sounds of the truck were faint.

“There,” Timmy said, pointing to an exposed hairpin turn.

The truck lumbered down the hill, and my mind’s eye tracked its probable course into the endless canopy of trees. That’s when I saw it.

“Look,” Ahmed said, beating me to the punch. He pointed to where columns of smoke snaked through the trees, drifting together to form a faint cloud that stretched above the tree line.

Two hours later we were huddled on a ridge above a farm. A grand, three-story, pagoda-style house with smoke coming from its chimneys was situated on a slight rise overlooking a cluster of older wooden structures, including a long building with wide entrances at either end that looked like a kennel of some sort. There were also a barn, two barracks, and several smaller shacks. An orchard of red flowers climbed up and over the hillside beyond, and people were working the fields. Others milled around the buildings and most had rifles strapped to their shoulders. Alongside the long building were scattered vehicles, including a tractor, a couple older cars, an SUV, and two trucks, including the one from the clearing.

“The bears are still on the truck,” Sarafina said.

Ahmed said, “There are more over there.” He pointed to the near end of the long building where several other bears were caged.

“Yeah,” Timmy said. “But it’s not like we can do anything about it. There are armed guards everywhere.”

“Why are there so many?” Sarafina asked. “It’s not like the bears are going to get away.”

“They’re not there for the bears,” Ahmed said. “It’s because of the poppies.”

“Of course,” Timmy said. “Opium.”

“They grew poppies near my village in Afghanistan,” Ahmed added. “And we knew never to go near. Poppy growers shoot first and ask questions later.”

Sarafina sniffled. Her eyes were moist. “But what are they going to do to the bears?”

A man and a woman wearing coveralls walked over to inspect the four new cages. One of the men from the truck followed closely behind. After a quick inspection, the woman nodded. The three men grabbed their gear and rifles and strode toward the barracks. The couple put on gloves, turning their backs on the truck and the other caged bears as they proceeded into the long building. As soon as they entered, a chorus of mewling sounds echoed from within.

The mama bear and the other three bears on the truck raised their heads as one, all looking toward the building. They clawed and gnawed at the bars of their cages.

“Oh my God,” Sarafina gasped.

The mewling got louder and I could imagine rows of caged bears inside. Their cries were agonizing. I spun around when I felt another prickle at my neck but no one was there. My mind was playing tricks on me. Under the circumstances, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

“We have to do something,” Sarafina said. “Besides, we need one of those vehicles.”

“We can’t,” Timmy said.

My sister’s expression flared but Ahmed shushed her before any outburst could happen. He took her arm and urged her back down the hill. Timmy and I followed. When we were out of sight of the farm, we gathered under a stand of trees.

Sarafina put her hands on her hips. “What do you mean?”

“Do I really have to explain?” Timmy said. “Think about it. Those are armed guards down there. Like your brother said, they’d shoot us, dump us in a ditch, and think nothing of it. We have no clue what’s going on inside those buildings, and even if we did, what could we possibly do about it? Besides, we’ve got a mission of our own.” He pointed in the opposite direction. “To hike that way and find your parents and Tony and the others. And in the meantime, it’s my job to keep you safe. So mingling with a gang of sadistic Chinese drug farmers in order to help some bears is simply not going to happen. Just forget about it.”

But I could tell my sister wasn’t going to. It wasn’t in her nature. If someone needed help, she’d be there for them. Ahmed wasn’t much different, and I guess I wasn’t, either. It’s the way my mom had raised us while my dad was in a coma, and it’s the way my dad had acted every day of his life since. The three of us stood side by side in front of Timmy. He crossed his arms and his lips became a thin line.

After several moments, Ahmed said, “You’re right. Sarafina and Alex can’t go down there.”

Timmy blew out a breath.

“It’s not safe,” Ahmed said, facing my sister and motioning toward me. “Especially for Alex. So you’re going to have to watch over him while Timmy and I go down to take care of business.”

Sarafina sighed, but she nodded and took my hand.

“What?” Timmy asked.

Ahmed turned to face him. “I respect that you wish to protect us, to stand with us as we face down the challenge that has been set before us.” He spoke as if elders from his childhood guided his words, as if he were still part of an Afghan warrior tribe determined to fight back against ill treatment from the West. “The loyalty you have shown to our father and to us does you great credit, and you have long since become part of our family because of it. We are honored and fortunate to have you with us.”

He placed a hand on Timmy’s shoulder, standing slightly taller than him, and it was in that moment I began to see my brother as an adult.

“But don’t be fooled by our ages,” Ahmed continued. “We are warriors in our own right and have proven ourselves as such in the past, each of us using our different talents to do what was necessary, guided by our love for one another and the lessons we have been taught by our father and mother. Those lessons have served us well, and it is in situations such as this one that we must rely on them the most. So I ask you,” he said, squeezing Timmy’s shoulder, “what do you think our father would do?”

The question seemed to hang in the air. When Timmy’s jaw dropped open, I knew the answer had just hit him in the head.

“Oh, crap,” he said.

Chapter 8

WE WAITED UNTIL NIGHTFALL, each of us taking a turn keeping a lookout. It was dark and sticky by the time we were all up and ready to go. Insects swarmed around our faces. Several had already bitten me, though for some reason they didn’t seem to like my sister. I guess boy’s blood tastes better to them.

Sarafina and I lay on our bellies on the ridge overlooking the farm. We used binoculars to watch Ahmed and Timmy as they shuffled through the shadows from one tree to another. They hesitated behind the last row of shrubs before the dirt road. The ground had been cleared beyond that. The truck was parked about thirty feet in front of them. The cargo bed was empty; the four bear cages had been moved beside the others near the end of the long building. Light spilled from the wide doorway and I aimed the binoculars at the cage with Mama Bear. She shifted uneasily, her gaze fixed inside the structure, an occasional whine from within capturing her attention. The couple wearing coveralls had left the building an hour ago, returning to the big house. The people working the fields had been picked up by an old bus and most of the guards had retired to the barracks area. Smoke drifted from their chimneys and I could smell food. It made my stomach grumble. A few guards were still on patrol.

Timmy darted across the road toward the truck and I swung the glasses back around to watch. Ahmed covered him with his pistol, then followed a moment later and the two of them huddled in the truck’s shadow.

“Say a prayer,” Sarafina whispered.

I’d already said ten. My muscles twitched. Our part of the plan was simple—as soon as they started the truck’s motor, we were going to run down the opposite side of the ridge and meet them at the first bend in the road. But the last thing we wanted was a high-speed chase, so they had to disable the other vehicles first. That’s the part that scared me the most.

Timmy crept to the driver’s door while Ahmed kept watch from behind the truck. I followed his gaze through the binoculars and spotted the guard who patrolled this side of the farm. He was a good ways off and still hadn’t turned around for his return trip. They’d timed their approach based on his routine. Timmy opened the door and climbed inside the cab. His silhouette was highlighted by a lamp attached to the outside of the building. He pulled down the visor and then twisted and turned in the seat. Then he ducked out of sight as if looking in the footwell. Finally, he crawled out of the cab and crouched beside Ahmed. Timmy’s hands danced in the air and it looked like they were having an angry conversation.

“Oh, no,” Sarafina said. “He couldn’t find the keys.”

Sticking to the shadows, Ahmed and Timmy rushed to the second truck, and this time both of them checked the cab. A few moments later they were scrambling toward the cars parked at the other end of the building. There were two older cars and a big SUV.

“Please, please, please,” Sarafina whispered.

We knew the keys might not be there, but we had a simple contingency plan in that case.

Abort.

I followed their movements as they split up, Timmy checking the first car while Ahmed checked the second. I focused on my brother as he searched the car. His movements appeared urgent but controlled, and I felt a swell of pride at his courage. But he slid out of the car empty-handed and I could imagine his frustration. As he scurried to the last vehicle—the SUV—it was like I was right there with him, desperately hoping we’d find a set of keys, hearts pounding, grateful for the shadows that covered our movements. Timmy was already there, crouching by the open driver door, his hands sweeping the interior. Then he pulled himself out of the car and shook his head, motioning in our direction. Ahmed’s head dropped. He nodded, and the two of them crept to the rear of the SUV to make sure the coast was clear for their dash back. I panned the binoculars and saw the guard had started his return trip. He was still far enough away that the darkness should hide their escape, but only if they hurried.

When I swept the binoculars back, Ahmed and Timmy took off running.

A squelch from a walkie-talkie drew my attention to the near side of the building, where a second guard rushed into the entrance. A moment later two sharp bursts sounded from an alarm horn and the floodlights came on.

The entire area surrounding the structures was suddenly bathed in light. Ahmed and Timmy were in plain sight, and for an instant it seemed as if they’d been frozen in place.

“No!” Sarafina said.

Ahmed dropped to all fours and scrambled back to the temporary cover of the SUV. Timmy was right on his heels. With nowhere else to hide, they rolled under the vehicle and buried themselves in its shadows. I held my breath as the barracks door swung open and guards streamed out with assault rifles. They split into pairs and jogged in different directions, each pair positioning themselves at strategic spots around the area.

The guard who’d set off the alarm ran out of the long building and joined his comrades. The scene reminded me of online clan wars in my video game, where one side established defensive positions as they waited for the other team to show up. But the men’s movements lacked the urgency I would have expected, and I had a growing hope that the alarm had nothing to do with my brother and Timmy. When I saw four of the guards station themselves in the parking area with their backs to the SUV, I breathed a little easier.

A stocky man wearing Western clothes exited the pagoda and stood with his hands on his hips. I focused the lens and saw he was an older Chinese man with a droopy mustache and long goatee. He surveyed the area, and from the way the guards seemed to stiffen when he appeared, I guessed he was the boss. The couple in coveralls I’d seen earlier appeared behind him, and the three of them strode to the parking area.

Even though our position was outside the range of the floodlights, we flattened ourselves and edged back until only the tops of our heads peeked over the ridge.

“What are we going to do?” my sister muttered, more to herself than to me. She knew I didn’t have any answers. So we watched. And waited.

Two guards had positioned themselves near the far end of the road. One of them raised a walkie-talkie to his lips, and the guards in the parking area brought their weapons to the ready position. The guards positioned behind the structures also brought their guns to bear, sliding behind cover. Headlights popped into view and a big car and a van turned onto the far end of the road, pulling to a stop when the two lead guards held their hands up. One stood guard while the other conversed with the driver. The tinted windows rolled down and the guard gave a cursory look inside. Then the side door of the van slid open. The guard peeked inside. Satisfied, he spoke into the walkie-talkie and waved them through.

My stomach went queasy when the two vehicles parked next to the SUV that Ahmed and Timmy were hiding beneath. Six armed men exited and took up defensive positions around the van, and I could imagine my brother’s heart in his throat as he watched their boots walk past. The men were dressed in fatigues and moved like a military squad. Once they were in place, a white-haired man in an officer’s uniform stepped out of the car and strode to the back of the van, where the boss man and the couple greeted him with short bows. They exchanged a few words and the officer motioned for his guards to open the rear door of the van. The guard reached inside, brought out three duffels, and set them on the ground. The couple examined the contents and nodded to the boss man. An order was issued and a forklift appeared around the far corner of the long building. It carried a pallet stacked four feet high with plastic-wrapped bricks. All of the farm guards left their hidden positions to accompany it. From the way they held their weapons, I could tell they were ready for trouble. The military guys tensed as well.

“Opium,” Sarafina whispered. “They’re selling it.”

We watched as both sides squared off while the drugs were loaded into the van. I felt a spark of hope that everything would soon return to normal and Ahmed and Timmy could escape and we could get far away from this place. Five minutes later, the van doors closed, tentative bows were exchanged, and the new arrivals climbed back into their vehicles and sped away, leaving clouds of dust. The farm guards shouldered their weapons.

My sister blew out several short huffs and I could tell she was trying to hold back tears of relief. I had to lower the binoculars to wipe my own eyes. But when I looked through the lens again, a chill raced up my spine.

Chapter 9

OH, NO,” I SAID. I watched one of the remaining guards open the trunk of the SUV and begin placing the duffels of money inside. Another guard held the rear passenger door open for the boss man, who seemed to be giving instructions to the couple. If the SUV moved, my brother and Timmy were dead.

“We have to do something,” Sarafina said, her voice shaking. She lowered her binoculars and glanced desperately at the scene, as if pleading for a solution to present itself.

I lowered my glasses and pushed down a surge of panic so my mind could process it all. The men below were all bunched up around the car, and it reminded me of the kind of challenges I’d faced in video games. In the game Fallout, the main character is able to throw objects to attract attention. “We need a distraction,” I said.

Sarafina frowned and then pulled the binoculars back to her eyes. She swept them from the SUV to the near end of the building and back again. Finally, she stuffed the lenses in her pack and said, “Stick close behind me, and when I tell you, we’re going to have to run as fast as we can.” Her chin quivered but her eyes were filled with resolve.

It wasn’t until I went to put my binoculars away that I realized I was holding the softball-sized case housing the mini in my other hand. I must have pulled it out of the pack when I panicked. That I’d done so unconsciously scared the heck out of me.

I could have killed us all…

I put it away and tightened the straps on my backpack. My heart was thudding so hard I thought it might burst.

“You ready?”

I nodded.

She pushed to a crouch and moved quickly down the path Ahmed and Timmy had taken down the hill. I stuck to her heels. She hesitated when we reached the trees along the edge of the road. We were directly across from the front entrance of the building, less than thirty steps from the bear cages. A couple of the bears lifted their heads and looked in our direction. One of them was Mama Bear, and I sent a silent prayer she’d remain calm. She lowered her head but her eyes seemed glued on me.

“We’re going to run into the building,” Sarafina said, taking a deep breath. “Then we’re going to set off the alarm and turn off the floodlights. Then we run back up the hill.”

It was a smart plan. Ahmed and Timmy should be able to make it to the tree line in the confusion, and then we could all get away from here.

Sarafina hesitated. “Uh…maybe you should stay here.”

My scowl told her no.

“Yeah, I figured,” she said, grabbing my hand. “Let’s go!”

My sister was on the track team at school. She ran so fast, it felt like my feet wanted to leave the ground as she pulled me with her. Mama Bear rose to her feet and chuffed as we sped past the cages and stopped inside the building.

The sight that greeted us tore my stomach to shreds, and the stench nearly sent me into convulsions.

Dio mio, Sarafina said, taking shelter in her native language.

My brain soaked in the sight in an instant. Long rows of wire cages lined short shelves on either side of the building, and the prone bears inside looked over at us with pleading eyes, unable to move because the cages were barely larger than the bears themselves. Their faces were scarred from rubbing against the rusty wires, their claws broken, teeth missing. Gutters of dirty water flowed beneath the cages to remove pee and waste but remnants remained. The odor mingled with the smell of rotting flesh.

And fear.

“We have to free them,” Sarafina said.

But I knew we couldn’t. They’d been here too long; they probably couldn’t even walk. When she reached for the latch on one of the cages I stopped her, and she stared at me with tear-filled eyes.

“It’s too late,” I said, shaking my head.

There was a bench with hypodermic needles, tubes, medical equipment, and jars of black liquid. The swollen abdomens and implanted metal probes on the animals told me that something was being taken from their insides. A pallet in the center of the space was stacked with the carcasses of several bears that had apparently been killed to make room for the new batch outside. I thought of Mama Bear being stuffed into the tiny cage and I felt a swell of rage like I’d never experienced before. These animals were being tortured, and it made me want to punish the people responsible.

One of the bears let out a soft whine that tugged at me. Several others joined in, and suddenly the building echoed with their pitiful cries. The noise whipped us into action. I wiped my eyes, buried my anger, and we ran to the alarm panel. Sarafina pulled on the Plexiglas enclosure protecting it. It wouldn’t budge, secured by an electronic touch pad. Our plan wasn’t going to work. There was movement at the opposite end of the building, and we ducked to one side as the woman and two guards entered the doorway.

“Look!” I whispered, pointing to an electrical panel not far from where we huddled. It was higher than I could reach, but Sarafina crept toward it and yanked on the lever.

The interior of the building went dark.

The woman shouted an order as she and the guards exited the far side of the building and disappeared around the corner. They needed to check the electrical panel that we were huddled under, so I imagined a guard running along the well-lit exterior of the building in order to enter from this end.

“Come on,” Sarafina said, taking my hand. We ran in a crouch toward the caged bears clustered outside, huddling between two of them. All seven of the bears shifted to face us. A few low growls made my insides vibrate, but something about the way Mama Bear looked at me set me at ease. I opened my mind, and she blinked as we made the connection. It was different than the links I’d made with my family, or with others like Mississippi Mike, where I could sometimes hear their thoughts. With Mama Bear it was more of a transfer of emotions. I sensed her fear but also her trust. So I tested our bond, first embracing her with my thoughts, sending feelings of family and safety and caring for her cubs. Then I asked her to lie down. Her nose wriggled as if she was sniffing my scent, and then she slowly lowered herself to the floor of her cage.

It worked!

It gave me an idea, but it frightened me. We could get hurt. Or worse. But what choice did I have? The area was lit by floodlights, and though we were well hidden among the cages, I was afraid that as soon as the guard turned the corner, he’d notice the bears all staring at us. How could I get them to ignore us?

If we sit down and close our eyes, would the bears turn away?

I knew it was a stupid thought the moment it came out, and it reminded me of the time I put a bucket over my head during a game of hide-and-seek. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me, right? Blah!

The mewling sounds in the building died away, and that’s when I heard the SUV’s engine start up. Sarafina stiffened beside me. If the car pulled away, my brother and Timmy would be discovered.

I stopped thinking and reached for the latch on Mama Bear’s cage.

Sarafina’s sharp intake of breath didn’t stop me. “Stay behind me,” I whispered, pulling out the hooks that held the side panel in place. She shuffled over. Her breath was on my neck.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

I ignored her, sliding open the cage door, my focus entirely on Mama Bear. She crouched less than five feet away, her shoulders bunched, her black eyes locked on mine. The other bears quieted.

Safe.

She blinked. I inched backward. Sarafina moved with me.

Come.

Mama Bear slunk out of her cage and stopped in front of me, her snout wriggling a few inches from my face. She huffed and I felt her warm breath on my cheeks. I moved to one side and pulled Sarafina beside me. Her body was shaking.

Family.

Mama Bear’s gaze took us both in, and the rolls of muscles under her furry shoulders relaxed. I felt a projection of warmth from her mind. It reminded me of Mom.

Follow.

She padded beside us as I moved to the next cage, expanding my mind to embrace all six remaining bears, urging them to follow her lead. Mama Bear woofed, and as each of the other bears became present in my mind, I had the sense they had long since established a group bond of their own, formed as they’d shared the fear imposed by their imprisonment and the anguish of others like them inside the building. I opened the next cage, and the male bear hurried out so fast that for a moment I thought he was coming for me. Instead, he brushed past and turned a quick circle behind me, and I felt his joy at being free. I moved quickly to another cage and Sarafina unlatched the one past that. Within a few moments, all the bears milled eagerly around us. I sensed each of their connections individually and the purity of their emotions felt good.

The squelch of a radio drew our attention toward the building, just as a guard trotted around the corner. He skidded to a stop at the sight of us, his eyes huge as his hands scrambled to unclip the radio on his belt. Backing away, he raised it to his lips and shouted in Chinese. Then he turned and ran around the corner.

The bears’ thoughts combined to form a single thought:

Danger!

I felt their combined urge to run up the hill toward the safety of the darkness. But I threw the force of my will behind my thoughts as I ran after the man.

Protect.

Mama Bear was immediately beside me. The other bears followed.

“Are you crazy?” Sarafina said, quickly catching up. “What are you doing?”

“Creating a distraction.” I charged as fast as I could around the corner, knowing we’d only have one chance for this to work. The floodlights were still glaring. We ran past the first truck, and as soon as I spotted the running guard, I let out a loud, angry scream. The bears picked up on my emotion, their roars fueling my own, and we became a marauding band of man and beast assaulting an enemy tribe.

Chapter 10

AHH!” SARAFINA SHOUTED as she and I and the bears charged at the guard.

The running man glanced over his shoulder, his face filled with terror. His friends at the far end of the building were already speeding toward one of the shacks behind them, the woman and her partner leading the way. The SUV was still parked at the end of the row of vehicles, smoke coming from its exhaust. The driver was inside, his face frozen in shock. The boss man was in the back yelling at him as he rolled up his window.

An instant later, Ahmed popped up on the opposite side of the car, swung open the rear passenger door, and jumped inside. The driver’s head snapped around. His hands went up in the air, as did the boss man’s, and I knew my brother was pointing a pistol at them. The driver shook his head, probably refusing to get out to face a gang of attacking bears. But when a warning shot shattered the driver’s-side window, the door flew open, the driver scrambled out, and he fled toward the shack faster than a jackrabbit chased by a pack of wolves.

I slowed and the bears slowed with me. Growls turned to huffs as we approached the SUV.

Ahmed had the pistol aimed at the man in the backseat. Timmy ran around from behind the car and jumped into the driver’s seat. “Get in!” he shouted, slamming the door closed so hard that the remaining glass fragments spilled onto the ground.

Sarafina slid into the front passenger seat. I turned toward Mama Bear and the others. They all looked my way but seemed confused, moving about restlessly, their skin twitching under their fur.

I pointed up the ridge and the darkness beyond.

Freedom!

The thought unified them, and all but Mama Bear raced up the hill. She hesitated a moment, and it was like she took one last look into my soul. Then she turned and raced away. I clambered into the backseat next to Ahmed and pulled the door closed.

“Go!” Ahmed yelled.

Timmy backed us up in a spinning turn that threw me against the door. When the SUV’s nose was pointed down the road, he put it in Drive and stomped on the gas. The car jumped forward just as one of the guards rushed out of the shack. I recognized him as the man from the truck who had enjoyed hurting Mama Bear with his electric prod. His discolored teeth were bared in anger as he raised his assault rifle, its muzzle matching the movement of the vehicle.

“Duck!” Sarafina cried.

I couldn’t move. Everything seemed to slow in my mind as I stared at the AK-47. It was a weapon I’d used hundreds of times online, when damage was more important than accuracy. I was deadly with it on short-range maps, and got a chill when I imagined what it would feel like when the bullets struck real flesh. The shooter was so close he couldn’t miss and it looked like the gun was aimed directly at me. The man’s eyes narrowed, his grimace changed to a leer, and I realized he was looking forward to tearing us to shreds. The woman rushed into view and shoved the weapon aside just as he squeezed the trigger. The muzzle flashed but none of the bullets struck the car. We sped away, shimmying in the ruts, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. As we exited the pools of light cast by the floodlights, there was movement on the hill. I saw one of the first six bears disappear into the trees. Then I caught a glimpse of Mama Bear scampering along the ridgeline in the opposite direction. She was headed back to her territory to find her cubs.

“You are all dead,” the boss man growled. He had a thick Chinese accent.

“Shut up,” Ahmed said, jamming the pistol in his side so hard that the man winced. “Hands up. Grab the hand grip.”

The boss man glared but Ahmed didn’t waver. Finally, the man raised his hands over his head and wrapped his fingers around the handle, squeezing it so hard his knuckles went white.

Timmy glanced in the rearview mirror. “They’re following us!”

I got up on my knees and looked out the back window. There were at least three sets of headlights on the road.

Sarafina swiveled around and followed my gaze. “Faster, Timmy, please.”

“Oh, dear,” the boss man said when he saw her face for the first time. “Aren’t you a pretty little thing. My men are going to love—”

Ahmed swung the pistol across the man’s jaw, whipping his neck to one side. Blood flowed from a gash in his chin.

“I told you to shut up,” Ahmed said, pressing the muzzle of the pistol into the boss man’s temple. The pulsing vein in the man’s forehead looked like it might burst.

If he gets his hands on the gun…

The car went into a sharp turn and I had to grab hold of the headrest to keep from falling into Ahmed. The man’s eyes narrowed and I could tell he was looking for his chance to make a move. Ahmed must have noticed it, too, because he pushed the pistol harder against the man’s temple, forcing his head against the window.

“Don’t even think about it,” Ahmed said.

The boss man spat a glob of blood. “You’ll be wearing a green hat in our brothel before this night is out,” he said. “Have you ever even shot a man, monkey? It’s a lot different than putting a bullet through a car window.”

“Not yet,” Ahmed said. “But this is as good a time as any to give it a try. I suggest you keep your ugly mouth shut.”

The boss man laughed and his grip loosened on the overhead handle. “You don’t have the balls—”

Ahmed shot him through the biceps. The man shrieked. The window exploded in a spray of blood. Ahmed jammed the smoking muzzle into the man’s crotch.

“My balls are fine,” Ahmed said. “How about yours?”

The boss froze, his eyes wide, blood leaking from the fingers gripping his wound.

My ears were ringing, my heart was racing, and my mind was astonished by how easily my brother had slid into the role of protector…and aggressor. If necessary, he’d kill the man, and I suspected he’d not regret doing so. The violent reaction to the man’s threat had seemed like an instinctive response, no different than that of a bear protecting her cubs.

Is that what I would have done?

We pulled out of the turn and the road began to climb. Wind swirled into the car from the two missing windows and a blur of trees rushed past us. I looked out the back window again and saw the first set of headlights clear the corner behind us, getting closer.

“Dammit,” Timmy said, giving it more gas. The SUV rocked on the uneven road.

The road steepened. The moon broke through the clouds, illuminating the view. The landscape dropped off behind us, where two cars and a truck followed.

“This is their territory. We’ll never lose them,” Sarafina said. She glanced at the boss man. “But maybe we can slow them down if we pull over and let him out—”

“No!” Ahmed and Timmy said at the same time.

“As long as he’s with us, they won’t shoot,” Timmy added.

“But they’re getting closer,” she said in a choked voice.

“The money,” I said.

“Huh?” Timmy said.

“Give them the money,” I said.

“What money?” Ahmed said, never taking his eyes off the boss man.

“That’s right,” Sarafina said, pointing to the back of the SUV. “There are three bags of money back there. From the drug deal.”

Ahmed risked a quick peek over the seat. “Timmy, can you roll the back window down from up there?”

“No. It’s a flip-up.”

“Never mind,” Ahmed said, keeping an eye on the boss man as he removed the pistol from between his legs and aimed it at the back window. He waited until I dropped low and covered my ears before he fired two shots. Then he turned the gun back on the boss man. When I peeked over the seat, I saw that the window had shattered and most of the glass had blown outside.

“Get back there and open ’em up,” Ahmed said.

I climbed over and unzipped the first duffel. It was filled with bound wads of colorful money.

“Start ripping off those rubber bands,” Ahmed said. “Timmy, I need you to slow down.”

“Dude, are you nuts?” Timmy asked.

“They’ve got to be close enough to see what we’re doing.”

“Oh man, oh man,” Timmy said, easing off the gas.

I pulled off one band after another and before long there was a pile of loose bills in the bag. The headlights rushed toward us. A few moments later the lead car was close enough that I could see the heads of four people silhouetted by the lights from the car behind it. One man leaned out a side window and looked like he held a rifle.

“Now!” Ahmed shouted. “Start tossing it.”

I grabbed two handfuls of bills and pitched them out. The wind grabbed hold of them and a cloud of money swirled and danced like confetti at a parade, whisking around the cars behind us. The man leaning out the window seemed distracted.

“More,” Ahmed said.

I threw wad after wad, and suddenly the caravan behind screeched to a stop. A figure jumped out of the lead vehicle. He waved as though he was issuing orders to the other drivers. A moment later the occupants of the second car were scurrying along the road gathering money, and the lead car and the truck were speeding up to follow us.

“One down,” Timmy said. “Two to go.”

I heaved more wads out the window.

“Nooo,” the boss man moaned.

“Not a muscle,” Ahmed said, the pistol digging into the man’s ribs.

When the last of the loose cash was gone, I looked up and saw that the two cars had caught up to us. Men leaned out of either side of the lead vehicle and they didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the scattering bills.

“Guns!” Sarafina cried out.

Timmy floored it and the SUV leaped forward just as the muzzles flashed. Sparks skipped along the road behind us and two loud thunks hit the back of the car.

I ducked and unzipped the next duffel.

“They’re going for the tires!” Ahmed said.

I started throwing out the bound wads of bills. They cartwheeled this way and that, several of them disappearing down the steepening slope on the left side of the road. The lead vehicle closed the gap and the men swiveled their heads to watch the money disappear. But the car didn’t slow. In another moment it would be close enough to fire at us again.

I glanced forward and saw that the road was about to bend to the right. I gathered the nearly full duffel in my arms, lifted it to the sill, and waited. The men were leaning out of the car with their rifles raised when the SUV went into the curve and I heaved the duffel out the window. It slid across the dirt road, the centrifugal force sending it flying over the edge and down the slope.

The sight was too much to bear for the drug dealers. The car swerved to a stop, disappearing from sight as we completed the turn.

“Way to go, Alex,” Timmy said.

Ahmed turned to the boss man. “I guess your boys back there decided you aren’t nearly as important as the money.”

The man glared at him. “We shall see,” he said through clenched teeth. He still gripped the wound on his arm; it wasn’t bleeding much anymore. “This ride is far from over.”

The road took several more turns, and at one point the headlights of the truck were still on our tail. They weren’t that far back and soon enough the two cars would be back in the chase. At best, I figured, we’d bought ourselves a minute or two. Timmy braked to a sudden stop, then backed up and angled the headlights up a steep side road.

“Take it slow,” Ahmed said. “So there’s no dust trail.”

Timmy steered the SUV up the hill, turning off the headlights as soon as we cleared the road. He moved slowly, guided by the streaks of moonlight that pierced the thickening foliage overhead. When we were completely hidden from the road, he cut off the engine.

“There,” Sarafina said, pointing to a flicker of lights through the foliage behind us. We heard the truck’s engine as it sped past the intersection and around the next corner. When the sound of its motor faded away, we let out a collective sigh of relief. Timmy started up the SUV, keeping the lights off as we climbed the narrow road. A minute later, the road leveled off and we found ourselves in a clearing.

“Wait a minute,” Sarafina said, pointing out the front window.

Timmy stopped the car. The clearing looked familiar, and when I saw the shredded remnants of the bamboo cage that had trapped Mama Bear, I knew we’d come full circle.

“It’s the same place,” Ahmed said.

“But why is the cage hacked up?” Sarafina asked. “When we left it was still in one piece.”

The stout bamboo cage bars had been hacked through by a blade so sharp that it seemingly had sheared through in a single stroke. The walls had collapsed, with some of the pieces still tied together at their base, sticking out this way and that. The damage was man-made, and it reminded me of the prickly feeling I’d had when we were here before. Someone had been following us.

“Who cares?” Timmy said. “What matters is that the road ends here. It’s a dead end.”

“Dead is right,” the boss man said.

Ahmed smacked the butt of the pistol into the man’s temple. The man’s eyes rolled and he slumped forward in the seat. Ahmed reached over him, opened the door, and shoved the man out. He hit the ground with a sickening thud.

“Y-you killed him,” Sarafina said, her hand over her mouth.

“Not yet,” Ahmed said, pointing the gun at the prone body. “But I probably should.”

“No!” she cried. “You mustn’t.”

Ahmed frowned, and I knew a part of him wanted to do it. But he lowered the pistol and yanked the door closed. “We have to go back.”

“It’s our only choice,” Timmy said, turning the car around on the promontory so that it pointed downhill. The jungle canopy was bathed in moonlight, stretching to the valley below. There were probably several intersecting roads under all those trees, and one of them would take us to my mom and dad. Timmy turned off the motor. “Keep an eye out. We’ll wait until the other two cars drive by and then we’ll double back behind them.”

“There,” I said, pointing to two sets of headlights flickering through the trees below.

We waited anxiously as the cars wound their way along the road. They sped past the road leading to our position and their taillights disappeared around the corner.

“Whew,” Timmy said. He started up the car and steered it down the dirt road. “It’s about time we had a little good luck.”

We were halfway to the main road when the truck’s headlights appeared around the distant corner. The two cars popped into view behind them. The caravan was slowing as it neared the intersection below us.

“Crap,” Timmy said. He put the SUV in reverse and sped back up the road.

“No,” Ahmed said. “The backup lights will give us away. Shut it down!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sarafina said. “They’re coming up here anyway.” The truck had turned onto the road, its headlight beams bouncing as it climbed our way. Our four-wheel-drive SUV kicked up gravel and dust as it raced backward up the hill.

“They may know the roads but they’re not going to be any more familiar with the dense part of the jungles than we are,” Ahmed said, his voice jumping as the SUV lurched over a bump. “Put on your backpacks and get ready to run.”

By the time we reached the clearing, the truck and the two cars were a third of the way up the hill. Timmy swerved to avoid the unconscious boss man on the ground and then stopped the car at the far edge of the clearing. We were out of the car in an instant. Timmy scrambled around the back. He reached through the broken window, grabbed the last duffel of money, and ran back to his open door. That’s when I realized the motor was still running. “Head for the trail we were on yesterday,” he said. He threw the bag onto the front passenger seat and jumped in behind the wheel. “I’ll catch up.”

Ahmed said, “What are you—?”

“There’s no time to explain,” Timmy said, slamming the door closed. “I’ve got a plan but it’s not going to work if you don’t hightail it out of here. Go!”

“No way we’re leaving you behind,” Ahmed said, grasping the door handle. But the car leaped out of reach and raced across the clearing. As Timmy passed the boss man, he tossed the duffel of cash out the window.

“Why did he do that?” Ahmed screamed.

“It doesn’t matter. We have to do as he asked,” Sarafina said, taking my hand and turning up the hill. “And pray that whatever he’s planning works.”

Ahmed stomped his feet in frustration, but the act seemed to help him accept what was happening. “May Allah guide you,” he said before spinning to catch up with us. “Quickly.” He took my other hand and tugged me up the slope toward the ridge we’d been on when we first spotted Mama Bear in the cage.

I glanced over my shoulder as we made our way up. I could still make out the SUV’s red taillights as it moved through the trees, heading down the road.

On a collision course with three sets of headlights.

Chapter 11

I WAS OUT OF BREATH and worried sick when we reached the ridge. After we flattened ourselves, I pulled out the binoculars and panned toward the three sets of headlights spearing upward through the trees. I was still focusing the lenses when a resounding crunch of metal against metal echoed up the hill and pulled my heart into my throat.

Sarafina gasped.

The nearest set of lights had gone out during the crash, but the trailing pair of headlights came to a stop and backlit the scene. The truck and the SUV had crashed head on, their noses accordioned against one another. There were shouts, and several flashlight beams bounced and weaved around the crash site.

“He gave his life,” Ahmed said under his breath.

No, it couldn’t be. Timmy might not be a genius with weapons, but my dad always said Timmy was one of the smartest guys he knew. And even though I believed he wouldn’t hesitate to put his life on the line for our safety, he wouldn’t have given it up without a good reason, and simply crashing into the truck didn’t make sense. It would’ve bought us a few minutes at best. So—

“Look!” Sarafina whispered, pointing to a silhouette dashing toward the boss man.

“It’s Timmy,” Ahmed said. “He must have rigged the SUV and jumped out.”

My skin tingled with relief.

Timmy grabbed the bag of cash and slid to a stop beside the boss man. He crouched and slapped the man across the face. The man moaned and Timmy slapped him again. Words were exchanged and Timmy smacked the man a third time. Then he grabbed the duffel and sprinted across the clearing—in the opposite direction of where we were headed.

The boss man sat up, waved an angry fist after him, and then collapsed back to the ground. The flashlight beams were about to break into the clearing.

“He’s leading them away,” Sarafina said, her expression pained.

Ahmed nodded. “Yes, and we dishonor his sacrifice by staying here.” He pushed to his feet and hurried us toward the game trail we’d been on the day before.

***

An hour later we stopped at a stream to refill our canteens. I was sweaty, sore, and out of breath.

Sarafina seemed dazed, her eyes unfocused as she crouched down and dipped her canteen in the water. Tracks of dried tears lined her soiled cheeks. Timmy hadn’t caught up as he’d promised. We’d heard gunshots at first, each one twisting my stomach. A few minutes had passed and there’d been more shots, and more after that, leading me to hope Timmy had remained out of reach. We pushed through the foliage in the opposite direction, each shot fueling my hope. But after fifteen minutes or so, they’d stopped altogether.

We hadn’t talked about it but I knew we all feared the worst.

The jungle was alive with noises, each one taking its toll on my senses. At one point I’d heard a branch snap and was sure we’d be caught. I’d sensed someone—or something—lurking in the shadows nearby. But he, or it, had elected not to reveal itself.

Ahmed had accepted the lead role without complaint, encouraging and helping us along the way. The entire experience since we’d left home had transformed him, and I had the sense he was drawing on survival lessons he’d learned as a child in Afghanistan. His fears were still there, of course, under the surface. I could feel them and I knew Sarafina could, too. But Ahmed didn’t allow those feelings to take over. I loved him for that.

“We have to keep moving,” he said, hooking his canteen to his belt. He took Sarafina’s hand and helped her up. She pushed to her feet, avoiding eye contact with either of us.

I reached out with my mind and wrapped her in a blanket of warmth, trying to ease her pain. Her eyes closed and she took in a long breath through her nose, then she exhaled slowly through her mouth. Finally, she turned my way and nodded.

“Thanks,” she said.

I smiled.

We were about to set off when I heard a rustle in the bushes behind us.

“No move!” a deep voice shouted.

I spun around and my mouth went dry. Three of the poppy guards had stepped into the clearing behind us, their hungry expressions like those of predators who’d just cornered their prey. They reeked of violent intentions and I had to fight to control my bladder. Men like these were why the planet had nearly been destroyed by the Grid, a judgment I’d forestalled with a personal plea that humanity could change. But could we? Hadn’t I felt a hint of those same angry urges after what I’d witnessed in the past twenty-four hours?

I recognized the dirty-faced guy in front immediately; the electric animal prod he’d used to torture Mama Bear was still hooked on his belt. The men had guns leveled in our direction, so I raised my hands in the air like I’d seen in the movies. My brother and sister did the same.

“Good chase,” the torturer said, stepping forward, his smile revealing irregular rows of decayed teeth. “No chance for you,” he added. “This my jungle.” He motioned to the two men with him and they moved to surround us. Like him, their skin and jungle clothes were weathered and filthy, and their expressions lacked even the tiniest bit of compassion. As they neared I could smell their rank body odor. The one nearest Ahmed stiffened at the sight of the pistol in my brother’s belt. He pointed the rifle at Ahmed’s head and barked something in Chinese.

The lead guy translated. “Throw gun or die.” I had the feeling he didn’t care which choice was made.

Ahmed lowered his left hand and slowly pulled out the pistol with his fingertips while the guard tightened his grip on his rifle, the muzzle inches from my brother’s face. I tried sending thoughts at the man, willing him to lower the rifle, but his simple mind was like a brick wall. I’d need more than my thoughts to break through.

If I used the mini…

Ahmed tossed the pistol aside. In a flash of movement, the guard cracked the butt of the rifle into my brother’s skull. Ahmed folded to the ground and didn’t move. His scalp glistened with blood. I lurched forward but the guard behind me grabbed a handful of my hair and nearly lifted me off the ground. I cried out and he laughed at my puny efforts to break free.

Sarafina screeched as the torturer dropped his weapon and shoved her facedown onto the ground. She gasped as the wind was knocked out of her. He crouched over her and yanked the backpack off her shoulders and threw it aside. Then he spun her onto her back and straddled her waist. She screamed, kicking and beating at his chest. He issued a quick order in Chinese and the first guard rushed over and pinned her hands to the ground.

“Stop!” I shouted. I whirled to break free and felt a searing pain on my scalp when a chunk of hair was ripped out. The guard slapped me. He leaned his rifle against a tree and yanked me off my feet, gripping me under one of his bulky arms like I was a dog.

Sarafina twisted and jerked but it was no use—she was no match for the two men. The torturer unhooked the prod from his belt and set it aside. Then he slid his weight onto her hips and unbuckled her belt.

Time slowed as I realized what was happening. Sarafina’s expression was filled with terror, and she released a drawn-out scream that tightened every nerve in my body. The mini responded to my emotion and surged with energy. I tried to tap into it, sending my rage into the skulls of my sister’s attackers. But they only blinked and I knew I needed to hold the bare mini to accomplish what I must do.

The torturer unzipped Sarafina’s trousers, breathing loudly as he bore down on her wrists.

I pounded my fists against the man holding me, but he merely tightened his grip around my chest and I found it difficult to breathe. Tears filled my eyes as I craned my neck to see the torturer looping his fingers around the top of Sarafina’s pants.

“Nooo!” I yelled, realizing at that moment that I wanted the man dead with all my might. I kicked and my guard’s grip shifted, and suddenly his bare forearm was in front of my mouth. I bit into his flesh. He yelped and tossed me aside like a sack of potatoes. I hit the ground hard, gagging on the meat and blood in my mouth. I spit it out and rolled away as I pulled the pack from my shoulder and scrambled to unzip the top. I reached inside just as the guard’s boot connected with the pack. It went flying, my hand came out empty, and the guard stomped down on my neck and pinned my ear into the earth. The more I wiggled, the harder he pushed down. My desperate screams for help melded with my sister’s and echoed in the forest.

The torturer yanked my sister’s pants to her knees and I wailed with every ounce of my being. The torturer turned my way and issued an angry order, as if my antics were interrupting his plan. My guard responded by pulling a pistol from his holster and aiming it at my head. His eyes were empty as he cocked back the hammer and I knew he was going to pull the trigger.

Then I heard it—the rumble of heavy footfalls making the ground vibrate. There was a heavy crash of torn shrubs and snapped limbs as Mama Bear charged into the clearing at a full sprint, her two cubs racing in her wake. My guard’s eyes widened and then he was gone, thrown backward by Mama’s assault. His gun flew through the air as Mama’s claws gouged his face and chest, his blood splattering the trees. His body went limp and Mama Bear roared into his lifeless face.

The torturer and the other guard released my sister and scrambled for their weapons. The guard dove for his assault rifle just as the cubs charged him from either side, one digging his fangs into the man’s calf as the other chomped on his neck. The man’s body twitched and lurched as the bears tugged in opposite directions.

Sarafina yanked up her pants as the torturer swung the assault rifle around and aimed it at the cubs. “Die!” he shouted.

“No, you die!” Sarafina screamed. She rushed up behind him and jabbed the electric prod into the small of his back.

The torturer’s arms flew backward, the rifle went flying, and he collapsed to his knees. His face twisted in pain. But the jolt didn’t incapacitate him like the Tasers did on TV. He was hurt, but his shocked expression changed quickly to fury. He shook his head and pushed to his feet.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” Sarafina jabbed him again, this time in the crotch.

The torturer shrieked in pain and stumbled backward, his hands clutching his private parts. “You bitch,” he said, backing toward one of the fallen rifles.

Sarafina wielded the probe like a Three Musketeers foil, lunging and jabbing, steering the man away from the rifle with each jolt. But there was something wrong. He seemed to flinch less with each impact, and I realized the probe must’ve been losing some of its charge. I scampered on all fours and grabbed my backpack, reached inside and pulled out the mini.

I opened my mind to it and absorbed its energy. What I was about to do frightened me to my bones. I wasn’t familiar enough with the device to know if there were any half measures I could use, but I suspected from my contact with the Grid that the mini could be used to kill thousands, or hundreds of thousands, in the blink of an eye. I prayed I could control it to kill only one. My hands shook as I held it out before me and turned around.

Sarafina jabbed the prod into the torturer’s chest, but he reacted with little more than a brief grimace.

He lunged, slapped the prod from her grasp, and shoved her to the ground. As he turned toward his rifle, I knew I’d run out of choices. I was sinking my mind into the depths of the black pyramid when Mama Bear brushed past me. She chuffed and the cubs joined her, the trio moving toward the torturer, their paws and muzzles glistening with fresh blood. The man took a step backward, then another. He took a desperate glance at the rifle three paces away and his face turned white. He spun on his heels and ran into the trees. The three bears followed and disappeared into the darkness.

A moment later, the torturer’s scream was cut short. I slowly lowered the mini, letting out a long breath. From the rustle of leaves I could tell the bears had turned to leave. I reached out with my mind and caught a final emotion from Mama Bear.

Family.

“Oh my God,” Sarafina said, running to embrace me. “They saved us.”

“Who saved us?” Ahmed said, slowly pushing himself onto his butt. He winced as he ran his hand over his scalp.

“The bears,” Sarafina said as we rushed to his side. “They protected us.” She examined his wound. “How do you feel?”

“Like I got hit in the head by a bowling ball.”

“Oh, come on,” she said, taking his hand to help him to his feet. “It’s not even bleeding anymore. You’ve been beat up far worse than this on your surfboard.”

He stretched his neck from side to side. “Can’t argue with that, but I’ll still take one of those aspirins from the med kit.”

I placed the mini back in my pack while they spoke, quivering at the thought of what I’d almost done. Would it even have worked while still in its case? Could I have limited the mini’s power to the torturer, or would I have hurt my sister as well? Or all of us? I wished Dad was here. He was the only one who’d understand.

“You okay?” Ahmed said, rubbing my head.

“Uh-huh,” I said. I slung the pack onto my back. “We should go.”

A quick glance at the two mauled bodies was all it took for them to agree. They put on their packs and Ahmed grabbed one of the assault rifles. He unclipped the magazine and checked it. “Fifteen rounds,” he muttered as he rammed it back into the weapon. Then he bent over one of the bodies, removed the man’s web belt, and clipped it around his waist. Patting the two spare magazines it held, he led the way up the path.

Chapter 12

WE’D BEEN CLIMBING for ten minutes when a twig snapped in the darkness behind us.

“Hide,” Ahmed whispered, leading us quickly off the path and behind cover. He crouched in front of us, rifle at the ready. There was a rustle of leaves. Someone, or something, was moving our way. At first I thought it might’ve been Mama Bear but the footfalls were too irregular, as if someone was struggling to move fast. And the breathing was labored. I reached out with my senses, and then I knew. I stepped around my brother and onto the path.

“What are you doing?” Sarafina whispered behind me. “Get back here!”

I held my ground, and a moment later Uncle Timmy appeared around the corner. He spotted me and stopped, dripping with sweat, out of breath, grinning from ear to ear. I rushed forward and held up a high five, and he crouched down to return it. “Hey, little dude,” he said, slapping my palm. “It sure is good to see you.”

“Timmeee,” Sarafina cried out, rushing to embrace him. She squeezed him for a long moment. When she pulled back, one of her cheeks glistened with his perspiration, something that would’ve made her puke two days ago. Instead, she was beaming.

“Jeez,” Timmy said breathlessly. “I thought I’d never find you guys.”

Ahmed gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder. “You were awesome, man. What you did was pure genius.” He scanned the darkness behind them. “Did you lose them?”

“I-I think so. It didn’t take them very long to figure out that I was by myself. I kept dropping wads of cash on the trail to keep them interested, but after a while I saw three flashlights split off from the main group and head in your direction.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “I guess that was them in the clearing back there. At least two of them, anyway.” His face crinkled at the memory of what he’d seen.

“Allah is just,” Ahmed said. “They got what was coming to them. So did the third guy.”

My sister shivered.

“How’d you track us?”

“To be honest, I was lost,” Timmy said. “So I left the duffel and the rest of the money on the trail, figuring the poppy lord and his goons would find it and quit following. I kept moving in the general direction I knew you were headed and prayed for a miracle. When I heard the gunshots, I knew it had to be you guys, so I came running. Then I saw the…mess down there. How’d you do it?”

“Long story,” Ahmed said.

Sarafina glanced in my direction. “We had help,” she said.

“Mama Bear,” I said.

“No way,” Timmy said.

“It was the miracle you prayed for—that we all prayed for,” Sarafina said.

“Up there!” a distant voice shouted. A hundred yards down the slope, several flashlights popped on.

“Move!” Ahmed screeched, motioning us upward.

Sarafina led the way, clambering up the path so fast I had trouble keeping up. I heard tiny yelps sneaking from her throat. Timmy was beside me, helping me forward, and Ahmed was on our heels, constantly glancing over his shoulder.

There was a spit of automatic fire and bullets whizzed through the foliage around us. We dropped to the ground.

“Cease fire,” the boss man yelled from below. “I want them alive.”

“Hurry!” Ahmed said, pushing to his feet.

We charged up the steepening path. Within a few minutes my heart was pounding in my ears and I could barely catch my breath. The scattered shouts behind us didn’t seem as far away now.

Then the path died at a vertical incline covered in a tangle of roots and shrubs, disappearing into the darkness above. Another trail at its base stretched left and right. Sarafina glanced in both directions, her chest heaving and perspiration dripping from her nose.

“Which way?” she asked.

“Our only chance is straight up,” Timmy said. “They’re gaining on us. If we take the easy route, they’ll be on us in minutes.”

A deep inhale was all my sister took before she grabbed a root above her and pulled herself up. She quickly found another root and kept going, moving with the assuredness of an athlete. Timmy helped me to the first foothold and I scrambled to catch up with her. It was tiring but not as hard as I’d thought it would be; it was kind of like the jungle gym at school. Before too long, fueled by fear, the four of us were scaling the wall like spiders. Within a few minutes the path beneath us was out of view, obscured by the overhang of trees and foliage.

“Freeze,” Ahmed whispered from behind Timmy. “They’re coming.”

We stopped and pressed ourselves into the wall. I did my best to control my ragged breathing. The voices were directly below us. Someone issued an order and it sounded like they split into two groups, then each one ran up a side path. Ten heartbeats later, the footfalls receded and the voices faded.

“Okay,” Ahmed said softly. “But keep it quiet.”

Ten minutes later my sister disappeared over the top. After a few breaths her head popped back over the edge. “There’s a bridge up here,” she said eagerly. “I’m going to check it out.”

I was so excited we’d finally made it that I stretched too far when I reached for the ledge and my foot slipped. The next instant I was falling. Timmy grabbed for me but all he caught was the strap of my pack and my body cartwheeled to one side. The momentum caused him to lose his opposite grip on a limb and we both tumbled free—until Ahmed hooked one arm around a thick root and the other around Timmy’s ankle. Ahmed grunted at our combined weight but didn’t let go. There I was, facing outward, swinging side to side in midair from Timmy’s grip on my backpack, with Timmy hanging upside down above me while Ahmed hugged Timmy’s ankle to his chest.

Timmy’s voice was strained but controlled. “Alex, I’m going to slowly spin you around so you’re facing the wall. But listen carefully—you can’t use your hands to grab hold of a root or limb. You have to get a foothold first. Understood?”

I was confused by his instructions, until I looked down and saw I’d locked my arms so tightly around my chest that they were shaking. It was the only thing keeping me from sliding out of my straps. I tried to say something but fear paralyzed me. Then I felt a tremble through Timmy’s grip. I looked up beyond him and saw a grimace on Ahmed’s face that told me he couldn’t hang on much longer.

“O-okay,” I said.

“Here goes,” Timmy said.

I felt myself slowly turning. When I was facing the wall, I stretched my toes out as far as I could toward a solid-looking root in front of me. I couldn’t reach it; I was still inches away.

“Hurry,” Ahmed urged.

“Can’t…reach,” I said.

“Hang on,” Timmy said. “I’ll swing you.”

I felt Timmy shift above me, and heard a continuing grunt from my brother in reaction to the extra weight of the movements. I swung outward and then back toward the wall. My toes caught the limb but couldn’t hold on, and suddenly I was swinging farther out for another try. Ahmed’s grunt grew louder and I knew this was our last chance. I swung forward and this time my foot lodged itself on top of the root. But the reverse momentum was going to pull me away, so I released my grip on my pack and reached for the wall.

“Got it!” I cried as my hands wrapped around a tangle of shrubs. Timmy released his grip and I clung to the wall for dear life, my knees wobbling from relief.

Timmy swung one last time and hooked his arm around a limb above me. “Okay, Ahmed. Let me go.”

Ahmed released his ankle and Timmy allowed his body to pivot until he slammed upright into the wall, at which point he was directly beside me. In the same instant, Ahmed’s assault rifle sailed between us and lodged itself on a branch several yards beneath us.

Timmy and I exchanged a glance.

“What a rush!” he said.

Sarafina returned from her recon of the bridge and stuck her head over the edge. “What’s taking you so long?” Her voice told me she liked what she’d learned from her inspection of the bridge. “Can’t you guys keep up with a teenage girl?”

“Yeah, right,” Ahmed said, moving to one side as I climbed past him. He put his hand under my butt and heaved me onto the ledge. We were on a path that led into a stand of trees, beyond which loomed a moonlit mountain shrouded in mist. There was a gentle breeze and the air smelled fresh.

Timmy said, “I’m going back for the rifle. Be up in a second.”

“No time!” Sarafina said, pointing to the canopy of trees stretching below us to our left, where twinkles of flashlight beams interrupted the darkness. “They’re coming.”

Ahmed scrambled over the edge and followed her gaze. “One of the side paths must lead up here.” He reached down, grabbed Timmy’s hand, and hauled him up.

“This way,” Sarafina said, running into the trees.

We followed closely, and twenty paces later we were standing at the edge of a narrow rope bridge that spanned the chasm separating our ridge from the mountain. The bridge was about half the length of a football field and dipped low in the middle. It looked ancient, though I could see signs of maintenance. The handwoven ropes had been repaired here and there, and several of the rough-hewn, wooden planks that made up the walking platform had been replaced. There were six support ropes, each one as thick as my wrist, looped around stout logs that appeared to have been pounded deep into the earth.

“Don’t look down,” Sarafina said. She grabbed the rope handrails and jogged across, each step causing the bridge to bounce and sway.

The handrail was a little high for me but I could still reach it. I focused on skipping every other plank as I ran across.

“Oh, crap,” I heard Timmy mutter behind me as he stepped onto the swaying bridge. Even though he’d been willing to jump out of an airplane to save our lives, he hated heights.

A minute later we were all across. We turned and spotted the flashlight beams climbing the trail toward the bridge. It only took a moment for us to realize that was a different group from the one we’d spotted earlier on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Both trails lead to the bridge,” Timmy said.

Ahmed took out his pocketknife and started sawing through one of the support ropes. The blade was sharp but the rope didn’t split easily, and after several strokes it became obvious he wouldn’t be able to cut through all six ropes in time.

“Dammit!” His face was red as he exerted more pressure, each stroke causing strands of fiber to split and curl away. “If only I hadn’t dropped the rifle.”

A wave of guilt washed over me. He wouldn’t have dropped it if I hadn’t slipped.

If we get caught…

I slung my backpack off my shoulder and reached inside for the mini.

Suddenly, Timmy was dashing back across the bridge. I realized he was going for the gun.

“No!” Sarafina said, starting after him.

“You can’t,” Ahmed said, stepping in front of her. “He can make it back in time.”

“Are you sure?”

Ahmed glanced at the partially cut rope and pocketed his knife. “He must.”

A half minute later we heard the first burst of gunfire.

Angry shouts echoed across the canyon walls, and the flashlights bounced and flittered more quickly. There was a scatter of gunshots and Timmy dashed out of the trees, carrying the assault rifle. He took a knee, aimed in the direction he’d run from, and fired a burst from the AK-47. It was answered by several more shots. Timmy ducked and rolled and came to his feet at the end of the bridge. He glanced across at us, then back over his shoulder, then back at us.

I gulped.

“Run!” Sarafina screamed.

Instead, Timmy seemed to draw in a long breath. He said, “Love you all!” then opened fire on full auto at the support ropes on that side of the bridge. The first rope shredded and one of the handrails collapsed.

“God, no,” Sarafina said.

Ahmed pocketed the knife. “Allah is with you, my friend,” he said, his voice choked with emotion.

Timmy aimed at a second rope and opened fire. But only two shots rang out. The rope jiggled but remained intact. Timmy removed the magazine, examined it, and gaped at us.

Ahmed gasped, his hand slapping the magazines attached to his web belt. “Run!” he shouted, waving Timmy toward us.

Timmy spun around as if he’d heard something behind him. There was a shout and he threw down the rifle and dropped to his knees.

The boss man stepped from the trees.

There were two guards on either side of him, and they stood in a semicircle in front of Timmy, each with a weapon trained on him. The boss man said something but he was too far away for us to hear his words. Timmy replied, shaking his head. The man spoke again and Timmy’s head shakes grew more insistent.

The three of us stood frozen. One of the guards pointed at us and all eyes turned our way. Timmy swiveled around on his knees to face us. His mouth was wide open, as if he was shocked we’d remained in sight. After a moment, he hung his head.

The boss man stepped behind him, grabbed Timmy’s hair, and pulled his head back. His other hand held a knife and the blade glimmered in the moonlight as he held it against Timmy’s throat. The boss man stared at us, as if awaiting our response.

I swiveled my backpack around and unzipped the top. I pulled out the mini’s case and held it in front of me with trembling hands, focusing my thoughts on the men surrounding Uncle Timmy. The mini’s surge of power caused my skin to prickle. But it wasn’t enough. The mini needed to be free of its housing. I twisted, pressed, and squeezed, but nothing seemed to open the case. In a moment of frustration and panic, I screamed, launching my thoughts at it.

There was a click and the case opened like a clamshell in my palms. I pulled the mini from the case with my right hand, and the full force of the shiny black pyramid from another world was suddenly a part of me.

My senses expanded outward, stretching across the chasm until I could feel the hatred emanating from the men around Timmy. I breathed in the foul odors of their sweat, heard their quickened breaths, and the anxious pounding of their hearts. These were living beings and I possessed the power to kill them. If I didn’t, Timmy would die.

What would Dad do?

I knew from the stories I’d overheard from Dad and Tony that killing someone changed a person forever. But I had no choice. I drew in a deep breath…

“Wait,” Sarafina said, placing her hand on the mini.

The contact broke my concentration. I stared up at her.

“We can reason with them.”

Was it possible? I lowered my arms. What if she was right? She was my older sister and I had always trusted her. Maybe she could sense something I couldn’t? But I found myself shaking my head because something deep in my stomach disagreed with her. I remembered something Dad had said: Only reasonable men can be reasoned with.

The mini’s energy was inside me, anxious to burst forth and do my bidding. I was unsure what to do. The choice was made for me when Sarafina stepped forward and stood at the entrance to the bridge. Ahmed moved beside her and my view was blocked. I lowered the mini as I squeezed between them. Uncle Timmy’s eyes got huge and he was shaking his head despite the blade at his throat. I reached out with my mind and felt his fear for our safety. I also felt his overwhelming sense of guilt. He’d wanted to protect us and failed.

Just then the second group of poppy guards appeared from the front trail. They joined the others behind the boss man.

Sarafina gathered her courage. “We meant you no harm, sir. Our plane crashed and we’re simply trying to make our way to our family. We returned all your money and our parents will gladly pay you more if you help us. Won’t you please release our uncle?”

The boss man hesitated a moment, as if confused. Finally, he said, “You wish to bargain for this man…your uncle?”

Sarafina nodded, and the man said something in Chinese to the men surrounding him. They laughed, and it brought a wide smile to the boss man’s face.

Then he sliced Timmy’s neck from one end to the other.

Chapter 13

A WATERFALL OF BLOOD spilled from Uncle Timmy’s neck.

My sister’s scream pierced the night and echoed between the canyon walls. Ahmed moved forward like he was shielding us from the violence, his fists white and shaking. I collapsed. The mini and its case tumbled to the ground as I grasped my throat, feeling Timmy’s pain like it was my own. His fear was inside me as his blood flowed down his chest.

Then the boss man kicked Timmy over the edge.

He disappeared into the darkness and I trembled from the depth of his terror as he fell through the air. Then his life vanished abruptly and I was left cold and empty.

The boss man and his guards sprinted onto the bridge.

“I will not stand by any longer,” a thickly accented voice said behind me.

We spun around and stumbled aside as a dark form appeared from the shadows. The short figure was dressed as a monk, his features hidden within a cowl, his brown robes seeming to merge with the shadows as he glided past us and stood at the edge of the bridge to face the boss man and his guards. The bridge’s thick support ropes stretched on either side of him.

The boss man hesitated in the middle of the bridge. He held a hand in the air and the men with him lowered their rifles. They seemed to be conferring with one another.

My mind was assaulted by the dark sensations of Timmy’s death. They threatened to overwhelm my own senses and I started to close off the world like I had when I was younger. It was the tingle of energy from the mini at my feet that kept me in the present, as if it had latched on to a part of my mind and demanded that I pay attention to the world around me.

“It’s been a while,” the boss man said.

“Yes,” the monk replied, standing just off the bridge with his legs spread and his hands hidden within his robes.

“Yes?” the boss man asked. “All you have to say is yes? No words of wisdom or comfort after so many years?”

“You shouldn’t have murdered that man,” the monk said. “His blood is on your hands.”

“And what do you know of blood, dear brother?” the boss man said, wiping each side of the bloody knife on his pant leg. “Your outdated vows preclude you from living life to the fullest.” He turned his swollen jaw to one side and spit. “Now remove yourself. This is no concern of yours.”

“I shall not permit you to pass.”

“You won’t permit us?” the boss man said with a chuckle. “A miniature monk against nine armed men? And what of your vows?”

“I have taken many vows. A few moments ago I took another.”

“Is that so? And what vow was that?”

“To protect the children behind me.”

I felt a spark of hope from my sister and resented her for it. She needed to get a clue. Hadn’t it been her eternal optimism that prevented me from killing the boss man when I had the chance?

But my anger quickly soured my stomach. It wasn’t her fault and I knew it. Blaming her was a lame attempt to make me feel better, and I realized the emptiness caused by Timmy’s death was nothing compared to my overpowering sense of guilt.

I could have prevented it.

The boss man said, “And what of your primary vow?”

“Sometimes vows conflict.”

“You sicken me, brother. You’ve dedicated yourself to an order that trains endlessly with weapons that have been used for killing for many centuries. And yet that same order now proclaims that it is sacrilege for your weapons to cut flesh? You won’t even butcher an animal to provide food for your table. Do you not see the foolishness of your ways? You claim to be overseers of the land and protectors of its resources, while in reality all you do is huddle in your monastery and bring unrest to the population by making flyers that speak of the ill treatment of bears. This is not worthy of the brother I once had. Our father would be ashamed. Your life has been a waste.”

The monk pulled his cowl back, revealing a bald head that shone in the moonlight. His skin was bronze and he appeared to be in his fifties, with a clean-shaven face and wrinkles around his eyes and mouth that suggested he smiled a lot.

He wasn’t smiling now.

With a sweep of his arms, his robe fell from his shoulders to the ground. He wore an earth-colored tunic over baggy pants. The pants were tucked into calf-high socks wrapped with elastic straps that disappeared into moccasins. A sash crisscrossed his chest and wrapped around his waist to hold two shimmering swords with hooked ends. His hands hung loosely at his sides. Despite his short stature, he had a commanding presence.

The guards on the bridge stilled. Regardless of the odds that favored them—nine men with rifles against one with swords—these men had probably grown up listening to legends about the monks who lived on the mountain. Monks who were seldom seen and always to be avoided. The moment stretched, and I used the opportunity to scoop up the mini and its case. I stuffed the case in my backpack but kept hold of the mini. I wouldn’t hesitate again to use it. In fact, a part of me longed for the opportunity. The realization frightened me.

“You make a pretty sight,” the boss man admitted. “But your time has passed and we both know you are bluffing. You would sooner throw yourself from the mountain than allow your blades to taste our flesh.” He moved forward with confidence. The guards followed.

The monk moved in a blur of movements. He lunged with his right foot as his arms crossed in front of his body, each hand coming away with a sword that he swung in wide arcs over his head and downward to either side.

The blades sliced through the bridge’s first two support ropes without slowing.

“Shoot him!” the boss man shouted. The guards at the front raised their weapons.

But the monk never stopped moving. He maintained his low-slung stance as his upper body twisted smoothly to one side, the spinning blades glinting as he swept them downward through the two remaining support ropes on his left. There were loud snaps as the taut lines gave way and the left half of the bridge collapsed.

“Nooo!” the boss man shouted as the planks beneath his feet dropped. He and his men abandoned their weapons and grabbed for the remaining handrail. Several of them didn’t make it.

The monk’s upper body moved fluidly to the opposite side and the blades followed in an arc that severed the remaining two ropes.

The bridge snapped like an overstretched rubber band, causing the boss man and the remaining guards to lose their grips.

The monk stood motionless, his body balanced in a forward crouch, his arms and swords extended behind his body as if cocked to swing forward again if the need arose. His eyes were closed. The chorus of screams from the falling men echoed up the canyon walls and sent chills up my back. They cut off suddenly, and then the only sounds I could hear were the pounding of my heart and the sharp intakes of breath from my sister and Ahmed.

No one moved, until the monk stood to his full height and whipped the swords in a smooth arc and slipped them beneath his sash. Then he folded his hands in prayer, bowed toward the chasm, and sang a chant. I didn’t understand the words but the rhythm and tones were soothing—and filled with pain.

Finally, the monk put on his robe and turned to face us. “I am deeply sorry for the loss of your friend. He showed tremendous courage on your behalf. His actions honored both himself… and you.” His look lingered on the mini in my hand and his eyes narrowed. I reached into my pack and placed it in its case.

“I’ve been watching you on and off since your plane crashed,” he said. It was him I’d sensed during our trek!

“You’ve all been through quite an ordeal,” he added, “and you performed exceptionally well in the face of extraordinary circumstances. I only wish I’d interceded sooner. I’d thought you all were safe when you made it across the bridge. But when your friend ran back over…” His voice trailed off.

“Thank you for saving us,” Sarafina said, wiping a tear from her face.

Ahmed dropped to his knees at the cliff’s edge with arms outstretched over the chasm. “To Allah we belong and to Him is our return,” he said. It was a translated verse from the Qur’an. As he continued he switched to his native tongue of Dari. I couldn’t understand the words, but when he unclipped the two magazines from his belt and tossed them over the edge, I realized that in addition to a prayer of peace for Timmy, he was also seeking forgiveness for his own shortsightedness. He must’ve blamed himself for not having given the ammunition to Timmy when Timmy ran back to retrieve the weapon. Of course, I knew it wasn’t Ahmed’s fault that Timmy was dead.

It was mine.

The monk lowered himself to his knees beside my brother. He closed his eyes and his lips formed soft words I couldn’t hear. Sarafina took my hand and we knelt down beside them to offer our own silent prayers.

After several long minutes, we rose and stepped clear of the edge. Ahmed turned to face the monk. “What you did just now…the way you moved? It was as if Allah himself guided your blades. You delivered justice in His eyes.”

The monk bowed. “I pray you are right, my son,” he said, his eyes going distant for a moment. “I pray you are right.”

He started up the path and motioned for us to follow. “Come. You will be safe at the monastery.”

Chapter 14

IT HAD BEEN A LONG and quiet march up the mountain, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I couldn’t shake the emptiness I felt over Timmy’s death. Or the guilt. Ahmed and Sarafina had given up trying to get me to talk about it after the first hour or so, though from their glum demeanor I knew that they were also haunted. I’d drawn into myself and they knew from experience it was no use trying to coax me out of it. I’d not spoken a word, even when the monk had introduced himself. His monastic name was Shi Yan Du but he’d asked us to call him Little Star, after the nickname his mother had given him as a child.

“I may no longer use my monastic name,” he’d said without further explanation.

The dawn sun was just peaking the mountain when we first saw the monastery. It was breathtaking, like something out of a storybook. The multilevel structure was perched on a huge outcrop of rock that stair-stepped beneath the peak of the mountain, its golden, pagoda-style rooftops glimmering under the sun, a rolling ocean of green forest surrounding it, stretching as far as the eye could see.

“It’s beautiful,” Sarafina said.

“It has been home to my order for over fifteen hundred years,” Little Star said. “I have lived here for forty-five years, since the age of twelve.” He picked up the pace. “If we hurry, we will be able to join the others for first meal.”

Thirty minutes later we were seated in a grand hall eating with a couple dozen monks. We sat on cushions surrounding a long wooden table. Bands of sunlight angled into one side of the room from narrow windows at the vaulted roofline, illuminating walls adorned with ancient murals. Little Star was seated at the other end of the table beside an elderly man with a long white goatee and friendly eyes. He’d been introduced to us as the master of the order, and he and Little Star were deep in hushed conversation. The topic seemed to be Little Star’s twin swords, which had been placed on a side table. The mood was somber, and when I looked up from time to time I caught several of the monks casting curious glances my way. It made me feel uncomfortable so I focused on my food.

The vegetarian meal was small but filling, and flavored with only light spices. Ahmed sat beside me and Sarafina sat across from us. She pushed her half-finished plate away. “I can’t stop thinking about Uncle Timmy,” she muttered.

I shared her feelings but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to look her in the eyes. If I did, I was sure she’d see my guilt and then a new round of questions would start. I figured as long as I kept eating, they’d leave me alone. So I raised my bowl of soup to my lips and took a long sip. The clear broth was hot and flavorful. There were several walnut-sized dumplings swirling in the bottom of the bowl, and I used my finger to maneuver one into my mouth. It had a crunchy vegetable inside. It tasted good so I slurped in another.

“Me, either,” Ahmed said, gently pushing my sister’s plate back in front of her. “But we must eat. We need to build our strength for whatever lies ahead.”

She shook her head, staring at the plate with trembling lips.

“Your brother is right,” Little Star said, sitting down beside her.

I tilted my bowl back and two more dumplings slid into my mouth.

“Take a lesson from Alex,” Little Star said. “He honors his friend by enjoying his food.”

I kept my eyes buried in my bowl.

“It is normal to be sad over the loss of a loved one,” Little Star continued. “There is a part of us that feels guilty at the prospect of not keeping them constantly alive in our thoughts. But to embrace their memory in every waking minute starves one’s soul. Instead, set aside a moment of prayer each and every day to acknowledge your friend’s sacrifice and to mourn his loss. Look forward to that moment throughout the day but do not dwell on it. Permit yourself to smile when you think of him and recall the fond moments of his life. Is that not what he would wish?”

Sarafina’s expression shifted ever so slightly, and I had the sense Little Star’s words had struck a chord within her. She picked up her chopsticks and scooped up a bite of rice.

Ahmed appeared thoughtful. “Remember what he said when he woke up in the plane and found us sitting across from him?”

“‘Holy crap,’” she said. “He was like Uncle Marshall that way. They both liked to say ‘holy crap.’”

“And ‘dudes,’” Ahmed added.

Sarafina’s smile was brief, but real. A piece of rice tumbled from her lower lip.

Ahmed finished the thought. “When we were parachuting on the pallet toward the jungle and his head popped into view, he said, ‘Dudes, I can’t believe that worked!’”

They quieted again, and I sensed that the weight of Timmy’s loss had eased somewhat. Little Star’s words had rung true for me, too, and I promised myself I would say a prayer for Timmy each night. I set down my empty soup bowl and started in on a piece of orange-colored rice cake, doing my best to push my guilt aside.

As we ate, Little Star commented on the colorful murals adorning the walls on the far side of the room. He pointed to several that contained scenes of ancient Chinese battles, lines of soldiers clashing, leather-armored warlords atop rearing horses, bloody swords slashing, archers launching arrows from crossbows, men impaled and dying. Each scene included a scattering of monks wielding staves, swords, and other weapons, all of them wearing the same colored tunics as those worn by the men around the table.

“As you can see,” Little Star explained, “our history is steeped in the practice of martial arts. Each of us trains daily, beginning with the day of our arrival as children and ending only when age prohibits us. When our order was established centuries ago, our vow to protect the surrounding countryside had a far different scope than it does today. That is the heritage my brother referred to on the bridge.”

“He was your real brother?” Ahmed said. “I thought he called you brother because of your robes.”

“He was my brother, the eldest of the family.” His eyes twitched and I realized he was pushing his sadness—and guilt—aside, just as he had advised us to do.

He had killed his brother to save us.

Little Star continued, “Like most regions across the globe, China was a lawless territory for much of its history. Encroaching warlords and raiders were a common threat and we were often called upon to do battle. We used our skills mercilessly and earned a reputation as fierce warriors.” He pointed to a scene depicting monks fighting oddly dressed pirates. “In one famous encounter, forty of our order joined eighty monks from other temples to confront a formidable band of Japanese pirates. We defeated most of them in a bloody battle and chased the stragglers toward the sea for ten days, slaughtering them along the way until every one of them had been killed. Only four us of lost our lives in the encounter. News of our prowess spread, and it wasn’t long before raiders chose to seek simpler fields to harvest.”

He motioned toward the wall behind me. I followed his gaze to discover the sun had shifted, and the wall, previously cast in shadow, had come to life. Where the other murals spoke of battles and bloodshed, this wall displayed the wonders of nature. It was a lush landscape of jungle, mountains, and forest, teeming with life. There were deer, boars, monkeys, rabbits, butterflies, birds, and other animals I didn’t recognize. But what stole my breath was the scene that dominated the center of the wall, of a child monk seated among a family of bears. I approached the wall and the monks stilled behind me. I ran my fingers over the images of the bears. I was reminded of Mama Bear and her cubs, and of the other bears being tortured in tiny cages.

Little Star walked around the table and stood beside me. “It depicts an ancient legend of a time when bears and men were bitter enemies. Village warriors hunted the bears to near extinction, until those remaining joined together to fight back. Marauding bears terrorized the countryside, tormenting villagers by stealing their children, who were never seen again. This continued for many years, until one day a child monk was taken. Unlike the other children, the young monk was not frightened by the bears. Instead, he embraced them with his pure spirit, frolicking with their cubs and learning their ways. In the end, the bears were enchanted by the child. They returned him to his village and the monk taught his people to respect the bears rather than hunt them, until finally man and bear learned to share the jungle in peace.”

He placed a hand on my shoulder and guided me to the center of the room. He waved to Ahmed and Sarafina and they joined us. Everyone else had stopped eating to watch. I looked at the elderly monk at the head of the table. When he smiled, a wave of warmth washed over me.

Little Star pointed at the other murals. “If you look closely, you’ll see that our respect for the bears has been a cornerstone of our order since the beginning.” My eyes narrowed as I studied the walls, and it was like I was seeing the warlike pictures for the first time. Only this time I realized there were bears hidden in every scene, huddled behind rocks, beyond the trees, peeking from caves, always close to the monks, as if they watched over them. In one scene, a bear ran amidst the monks as they charged the enemy, his maw snarling.

“The bears taught us many things,” Little Star continued. “In fact, many of the movements we use in our training are modeled after them. But in the end, the most important lesson we learned was to appreciate life like the villagers did in the legend. And while our order shed much blood for most of the years of our history, we have since taken vows to leave that part of our past behind us. We still train and practice, but we have sworn that neither our weapons—nor our bodies—will ever again taste flesh.” He paused, and I suspected he was reflecting on what had happened on the bridge. When he spoke next, his words contained an undercurrent of anger. “And now the world has changed, and raiders with spears and swords have been replaced by drug lords with assault rifles and no regard for the sanctity of life. So we do what we can to protect the animals that are our family. You saw what they were doing to them on the farm.”

I looked up at him, amazed to realize he’d been watching us even then.

“Yes, I was there,” he said. “And I shared your disgust at what you saw. The harvesting of bile from these gentle animals is an insult against nature.” He hesitated before adding, “I also saw what you did for the bears outside, and my soul danced when I watched them run alongside you as you charged to save your brother and Timmy.”

He stared at me for a moment, as if waiting for me to say something. But I still wasn’t interested in talking.

“It’s alright,” he said, with a pat on my shoulder. “Words aren’t necessary to communicate what is in your heart. Your true spirit is laid bare by the friends you keep and the actions you take. I see the child monk in you, and like him, your courage and sense of caring are there for all to see. Even the bears witnessed it.”

The praise felt good and my face flushed.

A moment later, a young monk entered the hall bearing an old leather suitcase and a set of keys. His eyes were moist. He bowed deeply and handed them to Little Star.

Little Star took the suitcase and pocketed the keys, and all at once the monks rose and bowed toward us. Little Star returned the gesture and the monks held the position for a long moment. When they finally rose to face us, most of the monks at the table shared pained expressions, and an overwhelming sense of sadness descended on the room. Sarafina and Ahmed inched closer to me. A monk at the near side of the table captured Little Star’s gaze, and I sensed unspoken words of friendship pass between them. Then the monk nodded, turned, and walked solemnly from the room. One by one, the other monks did the same, until the only one remaining was the elderly master of the order. The moment stretched as he and Little Star looked at each another.

Finally, the old man said, “You came in peace, and you leave in peace. Go now, Little Star, and fulfill your destiny.” His hands trembled as he turned and left the room.

Little Star let out a long sigh. He motioned toward a table at the far end of the room. “Better grab your packs.”

“We’re leaving?” Sarafina said. “Now?”

“I’m afraid we must.”

Ahmed said, “Wait just a minute. We have to get online first. We need to see if our parents or any of our friends have checked in.”

“I’m sorry. Only monks are allowed beyond this room.”

“Can’t you check for us?”

He shook his head. “As I said, only monks are allowed access.” He paused. “I am no longer a monk.”

Sarafina’s hand flew to her mouth.

“I broke my vow.”

Ahmed said, “That’s ridiculous. You saved our lives. And besides, your blades never touched flesh. You simply cut the rope.” His expression turned angry and he started toward the door to the monastery’s inner recesses.

Little Star caught his arm. “You’d not make it past the next corridor, my young friend. I’m sorry but it is not permitted.”

Ahmed glared at him. “But it’s not fair. Your blade never touched them.”

Little Star held him fast and returned his stare.

Ahmed’s shoulders sagged. “I know,” he muttered. “It’s a lame excuse.”

“We must stand by the promises we make and the actions we take,” Little Star said, releasing Ahmed’s arm. “I am saddened by the consequences but I do not regret my actions.” His eyes grew distant. “I fully accept the sacrifice I made. For a life without sacrifice is like a bird without wings—where one dreams of a life fulfilled but has no means to achieve it. It is only through sacrifice that we learn the true value of our existence.”

Ahmed gathered our packs and handed them out. Then he pointed to the side table. “What about your swords?”

“Except for the clothes on my back, I must leave with nothing more than what I brought with me.”

Ahmed huffed. “No weapons. That’s just great.”

“And no Internet to check on our family,” Sarafina added.

Little Star jiggled the keys in his hand. “You’ll have every technology at your fingertips soon enough,” he said. “But I doubt you’ll need it. Because I already know where your family and friends were taken.”

###

 

A Note From Author Richard Bard

If you enjoyed Gifted, I’d love to hear from you! If so, send an email via the “Contact” link at RichardBard.com, or better yet leave a quick review on your favorite site. Reviews, no matter how short, are a huge help for newer authors like me, so I’d sincerely appreciate it! Also, if you’d like to get advance notice on new releases, or updates on the progress of the film adaptation for the Brainrush series, sign up here.

Alex’s journey in this novella is only a small segment The Wall Street Journal #1 bestselling Brainrush thriller series. Books four and five of the series expand on Gifted, tracking the desperate efforts of Alex’s father, Jake Bronson, as he races across three continents to unravel the mystery of why his family and closest friends were simultaneously ripped from their lives and taken hostage.

What happens to Alex and the others when they arrive in the jungle village where the rest of their friends and family are being held? Who is the man behind it all, and why does Alex’s unique brain hold the key to his plans for world domination? What will Alex do when faced with the ultimate choice of killing in order to save his loved ones?

The answers to these questions, and many more, are revealed in Brainchild and Smoke & Mirrors, books four and five of the series.

But if you truly enjoyed Gifted, then I’d recommend you first dive into to the genesis of Jake’s and Alex’s stories by reading the entire series, starting with book one, Brainrush, available at most online eBook retailers. With over two thousand Amazon five-star reviews to date, it’s a thrill ride that is sure to capture your imagination. Keep reading below for a sample of the first three chapters.

Happy reading,

Richard Bard

 

 

Chapter 1 of Brainrush (Book One)

[]Veterans Administration Medical Center

Santa Monica, California

Jake Bronson had spent the past two weeks preparing to die. He just didn’t want to do it today trapped in this MRI scanner.

The table jiggled beneath him. He was on his way into the narrow tube like a nineteenth-century artillery round being shoved into a cannon. The glassy-eyed gaze of the bored VA medical technician hovered over him, a yellow mustard stain on the sleeve of his lab coat.

Comforting.

“Keep your head perfectly still,” the tech said.

Yeah, right, like he had any choice with the two-inch-wide strap they had cinched over his forehead. Another wiggle and the lip of the tunnel passed into view above him. Jake squeezed his eyes closed, anxious to ignore the curved walls sliding by just an inch from his nose. Three deep breaths and the table jerked to a stop. He was in, cocooned from head to toe. He heard the soft whir of the ventilation fan turn on at his feet. The breeze chilled the beads of sweat gathering on his forehead.

The tech’s scratchy-sounding voice came over the speakers in the chamber. “Mr. Bronson, if you can hear me, press the button.”

A panic switch. Hadn’t he been in a constant state of panic ever since the doctors told him his disease was terminal? He’d agreed to this final test so he’d know how many months he had left to live, to make at least one positive difference in the world. After today, no more doctors. After today, he’d focus on living. Jake pressed the thumb switch gripped in his hand.

“Got it,” the tech said. “If it gets too confining for you in there, just press it again and I’ll pull you out. But remember, we’ll have to start all over again if that happens, so let’s try to get it right the first time, okay? We only need thirty minutes. Here we go.”

Jake’s thumb twitched over the panic button. Crap. He already wanted to push it. He should have accepted the sedative they had offered him in the waiting room. But his friend Marshall had been standing right there, chuckling under his breath when the tech suggested it.

Too late now.

Why the hell was this happening to him again? Cancer once in a lifetime was more than enough for anyone. But twice? It wasn’t right. He wanted to lash out, but at what? Or whom? This morning he’d smashed the small TV in his bedroom over a movie trailer for Top Gun 2. “Coming next fall.” He hated that he was going to miss that one.

The chamber felt like it was closing in on him. A claustrophobic panic sparked in his gut, a churning that grew with each pound of his heart, a hollow reminder of the crushing confines of the collapsible torture box he’d spent so many hours in during the air force’s simulated POW training camp.

Come on, Jake, man up!

Thirty minutes. That was only eighteen hundred seconds. He clenched his teeth and started counting. One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three—

The machine started up with a loud clanking noise. The sound startled him, and his body twitched.

“Please don’t move, Mr. Bronson.” The tech was irritated.

The tapping noise sounded different than he remembered from the MRI he had ten years earlier. “Lymphoma,” the flight surgeon had said. “Sorry, but you’re grounded.” And just like that, Jake’s childhood dreams of flying the F-16 were cut short on the day before his first combat mission. The chemo and radiation treatments had sucked. But they worked. The cancer was forced into remission—until two weeks earlier, when it reappeared in the form of a tumor in his brain.

The annoying rattle settled into a pattern. Jake let out a deep breath, trying to relax.

Eight, one thousand, nine, one thousand—

Suddenly, the entire chamber jolted violently to the right, as if the machine had been T-boned by a dump truck. Jake’s body twisted hard to one side, but his strapped head couldn’t follow. He felt a sharp pain in his neck, and the fingers on his left hand went numb. The fan stopped blowing, the lights went out, and the chamber started shaking like a gallon can in a paint-store agitator.

Earthquake!

A keening whistle from deep within the machine sent shooting pains into Jake’s rattling skull. A warm wetness pooled in his ears and muffled his hearing.

He squeezed down hard on the panic button, shouting into the darkness, each word trembling with the quake’s vibration. “Get—me—out—of—here!”

No one answered.

He wedged his palms against the sidewalls to brace himself. The surface was warm and getting hotter.

The air felt charged with electricity. His skin tingled. Sparks skittered along the wall in front of his face, the first sign in the complete darkness that his eyes were still functioning. The acrid scent of electrical smoke filled his nostrils.

Jake’s fists pounded the thick walls of the chamber. He howled, “Somebody—”

His body went rigid. His arms and legs jerked spasmodically in seizure, his head thrown back. He bit deep into his tongue, and his mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood. Sharp, burning needles of blinding pain blossomed in the hollow at the back of his skull, wriggling through his brain. His head felt like it was ready to burst.

The earthquake ended as abruptly as it started.

So did the seizure.

Jake sagged into the table, his thumping heart threatening to break through his chest.

Faint voices. His mind lunged for them. He peered down toward his toes. A light flickered on in the outer room. Shadows shifted.

The table jerked beneath him, rolling out into the room. When Jake’s head cleared the outer rim of the machine, two pairs of anxious eyes stared down at him. It was the tech and Jake’s buddy, Marshall.

“You okay?” Marshall asked, concern pinching his features.

Jake didn’t know whether he was okay or not. The tech helped him sit up, and Jake spun his legs to the side. He turned his head and spat a bloody glob of saliva on the floor. Holding the panic switch up to the tech, he said, “You may want to get this thing fixed.”

“I’m s-so sorry, Mr. Bronson,” the tech said. “The power went out, and I could barely keep my balance. I—”

“Forget it,” Jake said, wincing as he reached over his shoulder to massage the back of his aching neck. He gestured to the smoking chamber. “Just be glad you weren’t strapped down inside that coffin instead of me.” He slid his feet to the floor and stood up.

The room spun around him.

He felt Marshall’s firm grip on his shoulders. “Whoa, slow down, pal,” Marshall said. “You’re a mess.”

Jake shook his head. His vision steadied. “I’m all right. Just give me a second.” He took a quick inventory. The feeling had returned to his fingers. Other than a bad neck ache, a sore tongue, and a tingling sensation at the back of his head, there was no major damage. Clutching the corner of the sheet on the table, he wiped at the wetness around his ears. The cotton fabric came away with a pink tinge to it, but no more than that. He stretched his jaw to pop his ears. His hearing was fine.

Using the small sink and wall mirror by the door, Jake used a damp paper towel to make sure he got all the blood from his bitten tongue off his lips and chin. His face didn’t look so bad. The tan helped. His hair was disheveled, but what the hell, sloppy was in, right? And if he could get at least one good night of sleep, his eyes would get back to looking more green than red. It was a younger version of his dad that stared back at him. He sucked in a deep breath, expanding his chest. Six foot two, thirty-five years old—the prime of his life.

Yeah, right.

He tried to sort out just what had happened in that chamber, but the specifics were already hazy, like the fading details of a waking dream. He threw on his T-shirt and jeans and then grabbed his blue chambray shirt from a spike by the door and put that over the tee. As he slipped on his black loafers, he glanced back at the donut-shaped ring of the machine that had almost become his tomb. The seam that traveled around it was charred, with faint wisps of smoke still snaking into the air.

“Never again,” Jake muttered.

On the way out, a pretty nurse grabbed Marshall’s hand and slipped him a folded piece of paper. Jake stifled a smile. Ten to one it was her phone number, though the concerned look Marshall exchanged with her suggested otherwise.

Marshall stuffed the paper in his pocket, turned his back on her with a friendly wave, and followed Jake out the door. “Dude, you sure you’re okay?” he asked.

“Sure.”

But an odd, sporadic buzzing in Jake’s head told him something was very different.

Chapter 2

[]Redondo Beach, California

Jake slouched forward on the edge of the patio chair on his backyard deck, hands clenched, elbows propped on his bare knees, which were protruding from his favorite pair of tattered jeans. The midafternoon sun was finally beginning to burn through the clinging marine layer, with patches of sunlight punching holes through the clouds and warming his skin. He drew in a deep breath of moist salt air, his eyes half closed. One hundred feet below his perch, a lone surfer paddled through the breakers. The soft rumble of the waves was a salve on Jake’s nerves. Seagulls drifted overhead, seemingly suspended in the gentle offshore breeze.

Marshall’s grinning face popped through the small kitchen window. In spite of the slim wireless earpiece that had become a permanent fixture on his left ear, girls seemed to flock to his dark features, though Marshall had never exhibited much of a talent in figuring out how to deal with them. His genius was with computers, not girls—a point that Jake often ribbed him about.

“You better put beer on the shopping list,” Marshall said. “These are the last two. And I threw out your milk. It expired two weeks ago, dude.”

Jake shrugged. His sixty-year-old two-bedroom Spanish stucco home wasn’t anything to brag about. But it was the one and only place he had planted roots after a lifetime of bouncing from one location to another, first as a military brat and later as a pilot in the air force. The panoramic coastal view stretched all the way from Redondo Beach to Malibu.

The porch screen door slammed closed as Marshall walked over and handed him a beer. “If you have to keep every window in the whole house open twenty-four/seven, you’re going to have to start wiping the counters once in a while. It looks like a college dorm room in there.”

Jake ignored the comment. He liked the windows open. Dust was the least of his problems.

Marshall cut to the chase. “You gonna reschedule the MRI?”

Jake shook his head. “No way.”

“You’re not worried about another shaker, are you? After a couple days of aftershocks, the tectonic pressure will be relieved and that’ll be the end of it, at least for a while.”

Jake recalled the radio broadcast on the ride home. The earthquake had been a 5.7, centered just off the coast, but it had been felt as far south as San Diego and as far north as San Luis Obispo. After the initial jolt, the rolling shaker that followed had lasted only ten or fifteen seconds. Damage had been light, injuries minor.

“No more MRIs. No more doctors,” Jake said.

“But you have to, right?” Marshall left a trail of sneaker prints as he paced across the remnants of dew that coated the wooden deck. He wore a white, button-down shirt, khaki Dockers, and his trademark multicolored Pro-Keds high-tops. “I thought it was the only way to identify how far the disease had spread. You could die, man.”

“Yeah, well, ‘could die’ is better than ‘would die.’ So, forget about it.” Jake wished he’d never said anything to Marshall about the tumor that drove him to the MRI in the first place. Marshall was the only one of his friends and family who knew. Even so, Jake still hadn’t told him it was terminal. With only a few months to live, the last thing he wanted was to be surrounded by pity. He’d had enough of that the first time around ten years earlier.

His mom’s uncontrolled sobbing was the first thing he’d heard when he regained consciousness after the exploratory “staging” surgery. Dad seemed okay, but that’s because he kept it bottled up as usual. Jake felt their fear, knew they were both petrified they might lose their second son too. When Jake’s older brother died in a motorcycle accident, grief had shaken the family to the core. Now it was Jake causing the grief.

Months of chemo and radiation therapy had followed. His weight dropped from two hundred down to one forty in less than six weeks. He’d lost all his hair. But he hadn’t quit, on himself or his family. Halfway through the treatment, Dad had died of a heart attack. A broken heart, Jake remembered thinking—his fault. That’s what unbridled grief did. His mom would be next if he didn’t pull through. His little sister would be all alone. Jake couldn’t let that happen. He’d beat it. He had to.

In the end, the aggressive treatment regimen had defeated the disease. The war was won—at least the physical part of it. His health improved, and he became the anchor that allowed his mom and sister to pick up the pieces of their lives.

No, Jake didn’t want to be surrounded by pity again. He couldn’t handle it a second time around.

Marshall paced back and forth in front of the rail, his fingers unconsciously playing over the smooth corners of the iPhone snapped into a holster on his belt. He took another slug from his bottle of beer. “Dude, at least tell me what happened when you were inside that machine. You’ve barely said a word since we hightailed it out of there.”

Jake still couldn’t remember the sequence of events that actually occurred while he was in the MRI machine, but he recalled the resulting sensations all too clearly: heart pounding, shortness of breath, helplessness, uncontrollable panic—feelings he wanted to banish, not talk about. “Something weird happened to me. I’m still trying to sort it out. I freaked in there. A full-fledged, your-life-is-on-the-line panic, like when your chute doesn’t open and the ground is racing up at you.”

His voice trailed off. “The next thing I can remember is the news talk-radio show in the Jeep. The announcer was reeling off the game scores, and somehow that relaxed me. I saw each score as a different image in my mind. It’s crazy, but instead of numbers I saw shapes.” Jake closed his eyes for a moment. “I can still recall every one of them, and the scores that went with them.”

“Of course,” Marshall said.

“No, really, Marsh, I’m serious.” Jake closed his eyes and recited, “Boston College over Virginia Tech, fourteen to ten; Ohio State beat Penn State thirty-seven to seven teen; USC-Oregon, seventeen to twenty-four; California-Arizona State, twenty to thirty-one; West Vir—”

“Sure, dude. Here, it’s my turn.” In a mock sports announcer voice, Marshall said, “West Virginia-Connecticut, fifteen to twenty-one; Texas A&M-Missouri, fourteen to three.”

“Cool it,” Jake said, “West Virginia didn’t play Connecticut; they played Rutgers and trounced them thirty-one to three. And Connecticut played South Florida and beat them twenty-two to fifteen.”

Marshall took a hard look at his friend, as if he was searching for a sign that he was joking around. Jake accepted the stare with a determined clench of his jaw. To him, this was anything but a joke.

Shaking his head, Marshall pulled the iPhone out of his belt holder, his index finger tapping and sliding along the surface of the touch screen. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s do this again.”

Jake started over but recited more slowly this time so Marshall could confirm each score. Following the first several answers, Marshall’s surprised look shifted to a grin. After hearing all thirty-one scores, he looked up from the small screen. “Son of a bitch.”

Jake smiled. “See what I mean? I’m not even sure how I did that. Pretty cool, huh?”

“Sweet is what it is. Kind of reminds me of Dustin Hoffman in that old movie Rain Man.”

Jake remembered the character. “He was really good at math, wasn’t he? He did it all in his head. I think I can do that too.”

“Like simple math or complicated equations?”

“I’m not sure.”

Marshall brought up the calculator on his iPhone and tapped the screen. “Okay, what’s four thousand seven hundred and twenty-two times twelve hundred and thirty?”

Jake didn’t hesitate. “Five million eight hundred eight thousand sixty.”

“Suuuuu-weet!” Marshall tapped a few more keys. “Give me the square root of seventy-eight thousand five hundred and sixty-six.”

“To how many decimal places?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

Jake shook his head.

Marshall studied the long number stretched across the screen, his lips moving as he counted the digits. “Twelve.”

Jake closed his eyes and rattled out the answer. “It’s 280.296271826794.”

“You have got to be abso-friggin’ kidding me.”

“Did you just say abso-friggin’? What a geek.”

“Shut up and tell me how you did it.”

“It’s easy, Marsh. The numbers feel like shapes, colors, and textures, each one unique. The shapes of the original numbers morph into the answer in my head. All I have to do is recite it.”

Marshall’s hands danced in a blur over the tiny screen. He talked while he worked. “Jake, I’ve heard of this before. How head injuries sometimes give people unusual new abilities.” His fingers paused, and he handed the device to Jake. “Here, read this.”

Jake scanned an article about Jonathon Tiel, a genius savant who developed his incredible mental abilities after a car accident. He developed a gift for memorization, mathematical computations, and languages. He could recount the numerical value of pi to over twenty thousand digits without a single mistake. He spoke fifteen languages fluently, and it was reported that he learned Swahili—considered one of the most complicated languages in the world—in less than a month.

Tapping the screen, Jake opened the link to another article. His eyes blinked like a camera shutter, and he tapped the screen again. A second later, another tap, and then another. He was amazed at the speed that his mind soaked in the information.

Jake wondered how in the hell he was doing it. It was as if each page he read was stored on a hard drive deep in his brain. He could pull each one up just by thinking about it. But what was going to happen when the drive reached full capacity? When that happens on a computer, things go wrong.

The blue screen of death.

“Are you actually reading the pages?” Marshall asked.

Jake nodded but kept his eyes glued to the small screen as he sped from one article to the next, each one describing incredible mental feats, artistic talents, and even enhanced physical attributes, all exhibited by ordinary people after various types of head trauma. Marshall watched for a moment from over his shoulder. The images shifted at an incredible speed as Jake absorbed the information on the screen. Marshall shook his head. He sat down on a chair beside Jake, propped his Keds on the deck rail, and nursed his beer.

After four or five minutes, Jake sank back in his chair. He stared at a contrail high over the water, thinking back.

Two years after his first illness—seven years earlier—he’d moved to Redondo Beach to take a flight instructor position at Zamperini Field in Torrance. It wasn’t a high-paying job, but it got him in the air. He was a natural stick, and advancing to the lead acrobatic instructor position had taken only a few months. There’s nothing quite like sharing that first-time thrill with a sky virgin. And besides, hot-doggin’ in an open-cockpit Pitts Special was about as close as he could get to the rush he’d felt when he was screaming across the sky in his F-16. The crazier the stunt, the more he liked it. Sure, his boss said he sometimes skirted the edge of flight safety parameters, but Jake had an uncanny knack for knowing just how far he could push it without losing it. Of course, the inverted fly by over a packed Hermosa Beach crowd on the Fourth of July wasn’t his smartest move. He’d almost lost his license over that one, until Marshall hacked into the FAA database and inserted a post-dated permit into the system.

All that had changed when he met Angel.

She’d bounced in the front door of the flight school amidst a circle of girlfriends. They’d dared her to take an acrobatic orientation flight, and she wasn’t about to back down. She sized Jake up with a twinkle in her eye that stood him back on his heels. With hands on her hips she gave him a spunky attitude that shouted, “You can’t scare me.” Between that and a contagious smile that melted his heart, Jake had all the excuse he needed to show off.

But once in the air, Angel’s false bravado turned quickly to panic when Jake followed a snap roll with a split-S that came uncomfortably close to the ground. She lost consciousness from the intense maneuver. When she came to, she was violently sick in the cockpit. Jake couldn’t forgive himself. He knew better. He spent the next several days trying to make it up to her with apologies, flowers, and finally dinner. They were married a year later. Their daughter, Jasmine, was born eighteen months after that. Jake had never been happier.

Until a year earlier, when a drunk driver killed them both and ripped his heart to shreds.

Jake had little doubt that the pain of that loss is what led to his cancer coming back—unbridled grief.

The airliner overhead disappeared from view—the dissipating contrail the only evidence of its passing—heading due west over the ocean. Next stop, New Zealand? Fiji? Hong Kong? Places that had been on his and Angel’s vacation list. Places neither of them would ever see.

“You with me, pal?” Marshall asked, reaching over to take the iPhone from Jake’s hand.

“For now.”

Marshall hesitated, apparently unsure of what to say.

“No worries,” Jake said with a somber grin. He clinked his bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale against Marshall’s, escaping into the marvel of his new mental abilities. “What the hell, man? I’m a bona-fide freak of nature.”

Marshall downed the rest of his beer in salute.

“Something strange happened to my brain in that MRI, Marsh. It changed me. And you know what? It might be just what the doctor ordered.”

Jake rubbed his temples.

“You need some downtime, or what?” Marshall asked.

Determined to ignore the sudden buzzing that crawled from the back of his neck up across his scalp, Jake said, “No. I’d just as soon head out and meet Tony at the bar to watch the game like we planned. But remember, no more talk about my health. Tony still doesn’t know. Got it?”

Marshall’s lips thinned, but he nodded.

Chapter 3

[]Venice, Italy

Luciano Battista soaked in the view through the triple-arched windows overlooking the sparkling waters of the Grand Canal. The late-afternoon sun reflected off the pastel facades of the centuries-old palaces across the water that were pressed up against one another like books on a shelf. A tourist-filled vaporetto motored up the canal. A row of shiny black gondolas tied at their posts bounced and swayed in its wake. He caught the faint scent of fish drifting up from the open-air market around the corner.

Battista admired the scene from his richly paneled private office on the top floor of the six-hundred-year-old baroque palazzo. The magical floating city drew tourists from around the world who were hoping to get a taste of its mystery and romance, knowing little of its dark historical underpinnings of violence, greed, and secrecy. It had become his European headquarters seven years earlier.

He had made a point of being meticulous in his efforts to blend into the upper-crust society of the ancient city, to perfect his image of sophistication and elegance. Today he wore his steel-gray Armani suit and Gucci shoes. He knew the outfit complemented his dark eyes, olive complexion, neatly trimmed black Vandyke beard, and thick stock of salon-styled hair that left no trace of his underlying scatters of gray. All part of his refined disguise.

Turning his back on the view, he moved in front of his hand-carved, cherry wood desk, his attention on the bank of thirty-inch LCD screens that covered the wall in front of him.

The subject on the central monitor had been recruited two years earlier and taken to Battista’s hidden underground complex deep in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. He’d completed his training and passed all the medical tests before he had been flown here a week earlier to receive his implant. The young man sat at a small dinette table absorbing the pages of a technical journal. The electrical diagrams and parts schematic he drew on the tablet beside him indicated a thorough understanding of the information he was reading.

The implant was working.

“It’s been seven days, Carlo,” Battista said.

Si, signore.” Carlo sat in the winged leather reading chair next to Battista’s desk, wearing loose-fitting khaki slacks and an open-collared white shirt, its sleeves rolled up. He absently trimmed his fingernails with the razor-sharp, five-inch blade of his automatic knife. His weathered hands and thick forearms were crisscrossed with a patchwork of scars. The rich olive skin of his bald head was so shiny it looked waxed and polished. A deeply furrowed scar slashed diagonally through one bushy eyebrow, its arc continuing into his cheek, pulling his eyelid down into a droop and giving his dark face a constant scowl.

The subject on the monitor closed the technical journal and picked up his notes, scanning his completed drawing. With a satisfied grin, he looked into the camera. In perfect English with an accent that hinted of Boston, he said, “Well, how do you like that? All I need now is a Home Depot, a Radio Shack, and about twelve hours of quiet time.” He flicked open the fingers of his fist. “And ka-boom! I’ll give you a makeshift device no larger than a backpack that can obliterate half a city block. Or if you prefer a more subtle approach, how about a cigar-sized aluminum cylinder that can be slipped into the plumbing at the neighborhood school to release a tasteless delayed-reaction poison at the water fountains? Not bad, huh?”

Battista nodded. This one was truly remarkable. Before the implant, the man’s English was broken and heavily accented. Now he had an astonishing command of the language that included the extended a’s and missing r’s prevalent in the blue-collar crowds of south Boston. With his surgically softened features and his dyed light-brown hair, he could easily pass as a beer-drinking Red Sox fan from Hyde Park—the last person one would suspect as a terrorist cell leader on a jihad to incinerate Americans.

Carlo stood to get a better look at the monitor. Next to Battista’s lean frame, he looked as sturdy as a fire hydrant. “Is he stable?”

“This one has lasted days longer than most of the others. The team was quite confident that they solved the problem.” And they had better be right, Battista thought. This was the thirty-seventh subject to receive the experimental transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) implant. The first dozen or more trials were utter failures; the subjects died immediately after the procedure. But they had learned something new from each variation in the tests, and the thirteenth subject lasted for nearly twenty hours, during which time his mind exhibited extraordinary savant-like abilities. That had been eighteen months earlier. Each of the subjects since then had lasted longer. But only two of them were still alive after several months, one just a boy. None of the others had lasted more than four days after receiving the implant. Thirty-four loyal subjects dead. Battista would not allow their sacrifice to be in vain.

He continued to monitor the screen, hopeful. This subject had lasted a week, thanks to clues they had gleaned after studying the brain of another one of the autistic children. Unfortunately, the exam had proved fatal to the child, as had happened before. Battista knew that such sacrifices were unavoidable, but it still tore at his heart, reminding him of his own son.

“Imagine it, Carlo, an army of our brothers able to perfect their command of the English language in less than a week, to adopt its nuances, its slang, its mannerisms.”

Battista clenched his fists as he continued. “Let the Americans use their racial profiling to try to stop us. These new soldiers will talk circles around their underpaid and complacent screening employees. Their confidence is their weakness, Carlo. Their belief that we are a backward people is the blindfold that will bring them to their knees.”

Carlo twitched his thumb, and the knife blade snapped back into its slender, contoured handle. He slid the knife into his pocket.

“Believe it, Carlo, for it will soon be upon us. One final hurdle and our research will be complete. Then, within a few months we will introduce more than one hundred such soldiers into America, any one of whom will be capable of unleashing his own personal brand of terror without guidance from us or help from the others.” He took a step forward and focused on the young man on the screen. “Here is our future, a single soldier of Allah with the mind of Einstein, multiplied by a hundred, and later a thousand.”

It happened suddenly. The subject on the monitor leapt up from the table. The chair behind him fell backward. His hands shot up, palms pressing hard against his temples as if to keep his head from exploding. His eyes squeezed closed, his mouth agape in a silent scream. The young man’s body twisted violently, and he fell hard to the floor, curled into a fetal position, shaking uncontrollably. After several seconds, there was one final spasmodic jerk, and he lay still.

Battista didn’t allow the flush of anger to overtake him. Instead, a dark calm spread over him.

Carlo knew to keep his mouth shut.

Battista’s eyes never left the monitor. After several moments, three men in white lab coats stepped into view and stood in a semicircle around the body, facing the camera, shifting uneasily.

One of the doctors said, “We are close, signore. Very close. But I’m afraid we’ll need to examine another autistic subject before the next implant.”

Battista was irritated by the doctor’s cavalier attitude regarding an exam that would surely prove fatal to the child subject. But he chose to ignore the man’s absence of compassion, at least for now. The more serious problem lay in the fact that finding the ideal set of traits in a candidate was getting more and more difficult.

They were running out of children.

###

 

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About the Author

 

Richard Bard draws on his own experiences as a former USAF pilot and cancer survivor to craft compelling characters who risk it all for love and loyalty. Born in Munich, Germany, to American parents, he joined the United States Air Force like his father. But he left the service when he was diagnosed with cancer and learned he had only months to live. He earned a management degree from the University of Notre Dame and ran three successful companies involving advanced security products used by US embassies and governments worldwide. Now a full-time writer, he lives in Redondo Beach, California, with his wife and remains in excellent health.

 

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Gifted

From #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling author comes a heart-pounding adventure of love, loyalty, and survival. A gifted 7-year-old boy and his teen siblings are ripped from their peaceful lives—kidnapped by a sinister organization determined to get back at their father. But when their plane crashes an ocean away in the bear-infested jungles of South China, the mysterious motive behind their abduction is the least of their problems, and they must lever every ounce of their courage and wits to survive the wilds and escape the ruthless drug lord who is hot on their heels. Can a gifted child learn to kill in order to save his loved ones? Important Note: This 130-page novella features the characters and continuing story from the #1 Bestselling “Brainrush” Thriller series. It is a complete story unto itself, compiled from books four and five of the series, “Brainchild” and “Smoke & Mirrors.” If you’ve read those full-length novels, then you’ve already read most of the contents of this novella.

  • Author: Richard Bard
  • Published: 2016-05-27 18:50:18
  • Words: 38766
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