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When Mr. James and his Cyber Thugs find her in New York City, Shreya accepts the help of a boy to hide from them. Unfortunately, that means going deep down into New York’s subterranean tunnels where darkness is just a light switch away.
To purchase this and other books by Sheryl Kaleo, please visit her Amazon Author page.
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~ We Know Who You Are ~
Buried deep below the subway tunnels of New York City is an underground grave lined with silver. The people in this place would probably take offense at my calling it that, but considering the power and might of the Others and their minions, the Shadows, I can’t help but feel like the Arka Saggha headquarters is a burial waiting to happen.
The Others—the name Mama and I use for the Djinn and their friends—don’t like places where Humans gather to say how great it is to be xenophobic. In fact, I’ve seen the Others destroy a diner full of racists—wipe it clean off the block where it stood—while leaving everything else around it untouched.
The walls, ceilings, floors, almost every surface in this graveyard—except for the over-the-top, blood-curdling posters—are blindingly white and sparkling clean with not a hint of a smell. I can’t see how anyone would want to stay even one night.
However, when it comes to showers, sparkling and odorless is a nice thing.
As Jenna’s mother would say, luxuriate and repeat. And I do. I sway, letting the hot water scald my flesh. I lose hours under the bubble jets. Heaven.
Afterwards, my whole body shakes as the air jets dry me off. This isn’t the pleasant ache and fatigue I get after a day of track. This is mind-numbing, thought-blurring exhaustion catching up to me. I need sleep more than I need food. And yet my stomach is howling.
I need to keep moving. I don’t feel safe here . . . anywhere actually. Best to keep moving.
After getting dressed, I do my usual eye check—a reddish brown like dark amber—then I slip on my shades. It’s bright enough in this place that I can see just fine. And I’ve noticed other people wearing them, too. Next I slip on my knives and hoodie over my short-sleeved tee. I’m so used to the straps and sheaths against my skin, I feel naked without them.
I wish I could do some laundry, but that’ll probably have to wait until I’m far away from New York City. I repack my bag, ready to make my escape.
Dax said he’d meet later to tell me about the Gourd. I’m not waiting. Finding another entry point not connected to anyone from this place would be smarter. Besides, I’m not even sure what’s the purpose of this secret escape route. Centuries ago, they were at least heading north to freedom. What would be my end point on this one? No place is safe.
I leave the women’s lockers, set on finding my way toward the elevators. Instead, I find Nate standing across the hall, playing with a small puzzle box. The cube projects a hologram of a knight in armor on a horse fighting some sort of demon riding on the back of a dragon.
“What’s the cube about?” I ask.
“Killing monsters. Bev calls it Arka Saggha propaganda.”
I’m beginning to like Bev. “Where’s Dax?”
“He sent me to help you find your way. Where do you want to go?”
I’ve no doubt that Nate’s been sent to keep an eye on me. So how do I give a seven-year-old the slip? “You know where I can do some laundry?”
If the kid’s going to keep track of me, I might as well be efficient with my time until I lose him. Besides, if I ever write a book on how to be on the run, my first rule would be to take advantage of every available laundry facility whenever possible.
We head down another tunnel. When we stop in front of a door that slides open, poor Nate almost gets run over by a round man. His arms are brimming with his laundry bag of clothes, and he has to stop and grab a few of the socks that have fallen as he apologizes. “Sorry-sorry-monsters. Leaving.” He mumbles a few more words. “Run now. Gone.”
We stare after the man. Then Nate turns to me and shrugs before entering the room.
As I follow him into the tiny laundry room, I do a quick Shadow-and-surveillance-camera check, looking for the darker areas on the walls that are tinted the lightest gray. This room easily has half a dozen circles.
There are four of those huge, heavy-duty, wet-dry units, a folding table, some chairs, and a vending machine. The matte gray metal here and there on the machine is the only color in the silver and white room except for the scary posters. Don’t these people get sick of all this whiteness? And the horrible posters? And the total lack of smell?
I miss the orchids Mama loved scattering around the house. I miss the smell of the wild flowers in the fields next to our yard. I miss the smell of the fresh mown grass in the school’s football field. I miss my stinky-perfume. I’ll need to reapply as soon as I sneak out. Geez, I even miss Genghis’s stinky cat box. Stupid cat refused to go in a self-cleaning one, so we had to get him an old-fashioned one—talk about something that should only be touched by cleaning bots.
A twentieth-century poster on the wall shows babies with fangs and wings about to attack a woman cowering in fear. Attack of the Killer Babies is wrong on so many levels I get tired of counting the ways.
Nate is staring at the poster, too. “Maybe that’s why he ran out of here.”
I snort and Nate breaks into a big grin. I like this kid—both him and Bev, and not just because they remind me of Jenna’s younger twin siblings.
The machines have no credcard slots. I take that to mean free and dump my clothes into two so they’ll wash and dry faster. The timer says fifteen minutes. I hit start.
“Do you wear those sunglasses everywhere?” Nate asks.
My eye color seems to be hovering between dark and light brown. But any minute now they might break out the tie-dye. “All this bright white is bad for the eyes.”
“Do you carry that bag with you everywhere you go?”
I left nothing behind in the room. “Like a snail.”
“Your house goes with you.” He leans against the washer and squints up at me. “You remind him of his girlfriend. Only . . . she has blond hair. And blue eyes. And is taller.”
I sound nothing like this girlfriend. “Whose girlfriend?”
“Dax. Stacey was . . ..” Nate waves his separated hands in the air and then in front of his chest, trying to show a curvy figure. Definitely nothing like me and my flat everything.
My cheeks heat up. Great. Now even a little kid has me blushing. “What happened?”
He shrugs. “When he started to change, we ran. Now he says she’s part of the past. I think he thinks she’d think he’s a freak or something.”
I frown at all those thinks. I almost want a diagram, but I manage to pluck out the important words: She, he, and freak. Didn’t I call him a freak, too? That makes me feel bad.
Nate crawls up onto a table, rolls onto his belly, and plays with the cube.
I sit in a chair and pull out my cell phone, being careful to angle away from the numerous cameras. I wish I could check my translation account for a response from Professor Babel, but even though I’m hunched over, guarding the phone’s screen, I don’t want to take the risk. I delete the usual text messages from “Darlene” and look up Chicago’s library system.
“How come there’s no cleaning bots?” I ask. “A place this big? What do they do?”
“SST doesn’t like that someone can steal them and spy. They have a cleaning crew that comes in with the bigger cleaning bots during lockdown from three to four at night.”
So three A.M. is my cutoff time for sneaking out of this place. Thank you, Nate.
“Besides,” he says. “They would just scare people away. No one would come here.”
And SST would just hate that. “And the cameras in the walls don’t?”
“Most people don’t notice those.” He sits up to look at me. “Why are you running, Gina?” His face is so serious I almost forget he hasn’t even hit puberty.
“Same as everyone. The Undying took my family.” I feel a twinge of pain as I say those words, and anger that I can’t ever name the real killers. The Shadows— Not Leechers and not Cyborgs—made me the same as Dax, Nate, and Bev. An orphan. “Why do the Arka Saggha live here, underground, when sunlight is their friend?”
“Not everybody in Arka Saggha lives here. And these aren’t all Arkies. There’s other people here with different I—dee—I—dee—oh—Ideeo—”
“Yeah, what Bev calls it. There’s political groups. They’re here ‘cause of the election. And there are the people who were rescued by the Blood Fox. Usually it’s not so crowded.”
“But why underground? Why not in buildings above with wide open windows?”
“’Cause of the secrets. Bev says if we did the kinds of things we do here above ground, the UCLU would shut us down. And at night, we’ve got lights and silver painted walls.”
He sits up to face me. “’Sides, it’s not the Arkies that runs this place. SST does.”
“I thought Dax said this was the Arka Saggha’s headquarters.”
“Bev says he’s just saying that because that’s what Ken tells him and it’s what Dax wants to hear. She thinks we should keep moving. There are too many people hiding here.”
I really like Bev. “Tell me about the Arka Saggha.”
“They’ve been around since ancient civilization. Since ancient Meso—Mesap—”
“Since ancient Mesopotamia?”
“Yeah. They believe in freedom for Humans. They’re okay with other creatures coexisting with their ten—tennis—tenants—of life.”
“Tenets?” I continue to check out cities on my phone. Chicago’s temps are too cold. Someplace warmer would be better. Mama said she wanted to go to Phoenix someday. I look up driving directions between New York and Phoenix.
“Of life, yeah.”
“Are you saying that they think everyone should exist together and try to get along?”
Nate frowns at me. “Yeah, that’s what I said . . ..”
He continues talking. Arka Saggha sounds like a peaceful organization that wants the best for everybody, but understands it needs to sometimes fight for Human rights. Brainwashing.
The wet-dry units buzz. I jump down, open the doors, and roll each item into a tube, then stuff it all into my backpack. Bundled in with my clothes are some unfamiliar sweats and shirts that are too large for me. When I hold them up, Nate says, tilting his head to stare, “Are those your fat clothes? That’s what Janice calls them.” He explains, “She’s head of security. She sometimes babysits us. She says her fat clothes are for that time of the month.” He shrugs.
And just like that I’ve got an idea to help my escape. Ingenuity—that’s what Aunt Sheila calls my quick thinking. When I get ready to leave later, I’ll put on extra layers of my clothes, then pull my “fat clothes” on over them to disguise myself as a chunkier person. With a little make up from whatever I can scrounge up in the backpack, I’ll no longer be Gina. I roll the extra sweats, stuffing them in with my things, acting as if they are indeed mine, and I mentally apologize to whoever left them in the laundry room.
My bag is bulging. Next, I slip my phone into my pouch, since I’m still doing research on cities. But Phoenix is definitely my next stop. “What’s next?”
“Hungry for dinner?” Nate asks.
“Dinner? What happened to lunch?” I feel like I’m always hungry lately.
“You missed it. It’s almost nighttime.”
“Dinner sounds good. Know someplace?”
“There’s the food court here or the cafeteria at the SST building. But we gotta walk a ways in the underground tunnels or go above ground and take the trains.”
Here’s my chance. “I don’t need anything fancy. Let’s do the caf. But all this white and silver is giving me a headache. I’d love a walk above ground.” Then I’ll ditch him.
“You mean upside? Sure.” In the hallway, he pauses in front of the room Dax had pointed out earlier as mine and eyes my backpack. “Snail?”
I yank on the straps and nod. “Yup.”
My phone buzzes in my pocket, and out of my former-life habit, I check the messages but immediately wish I hadn’t. “Darlene” has texted, “We know who you are.”
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To purchase this and other books by Sheryl Kaleo, please visit her Amazon page.