They heard a faint electronic double-chirp, like a calendar reminder, from deep in Shade’s backpack. Both boys paused, waiting to hear if anyone outside came running. No one did.
“My tablet,” whispered Shade. “It’s still on the library Wi-Fi.”
Winston heard Shade undo his backpack’s zipper. “Dude,” he said with equal caution, “this is not the time for YouTube.”
The moment of total silence told Winston that Shade was probably rolling his eyes and looking nonplussed.
After so long in complete darkness, the tablet lighting up was like igniting a flare. The screen illuminated the beaver on Shade’s sweatshirt and cast long shadows up his face. Shade squinted and turned the backlight level way down. He drew a set of ear buds from one pocket, shoved one speaker into his left ear, and held out the other side for Winston.
In the tablet’s glow, Winston examined the ceiling of their small space, trying to make sure that the device wasn’t casting any light outside. Fortunately, the dark walls and thick dust absorbed just about everything, as if they were stuck in a musty black hole.
“I really don’t need to watch your little sister,” Winston said, “and now isn’t the time for—”
Shade cut him off. “My sisters are all at school.” He turned the screen so Winston could see it better, revealing the Shack’s security dashboard app, which in turn displayed a young man in a suit and sunglasses standing next to Shade’s mother on the Tagaloas’ back patio. “This guy is not.”
Their Wi-Fi bandwidth in the library basement’s hidden cubby registered only three bars, so the scene appeared more jerky and pixelated than it should have. Still, the feed from the Shack’s dome camera looked decent. Winston could make out a man of probably no more than thirty, clean-shaven with dark pants, white polo shirt, and a decidedly nervous shifting from one foot to the other. Winston recognized him as Smith, the second agent from this morning’s frantic run. Beside him, Mrs. Tagaloa stood with her cell phone held out at arm’s length. She seemed to be taking a selfie with the guy.
“What on earth is she doing?” whispered Winston.
In reply, Shade tapped an icon, turning on the combined streams from the back yard’s three microphones.
“—thousand thirteen,” said the man. “On behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I, Vernon Smith, release the Tagaloas from any liability from injury that may result upon my…examination of the property’s yard or tree house.”
“It’s the Shack, doofus, not a tree house,” muttered Shade.
His mom started to lower her phone, then put it back up. “And for the record,” she said, her tone unusually agitated, “there is no way that my son has done anything illegal or terrorist-y. Neither has Winston. They’re good boys.”
“Ma’am,” said Agent Smith wearily. “May I?”
“Fine!” She lowered the camera and faced the man. The top of her head barely reached his chin. “I just don’t know where you get all of these crazy accusations. There’s going to be a perfectly good explanation.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sure there is. Meanwhile, we have footage of your son aiding and abetting a boy with suspected ties to a wanted terrorist, a boy who is in possession of a radioactive device. Also, that boy fled from two federal agents this morning.”
Winston snickered. “And fled a lot faster than you, boss.”
Shade gave him a quick fist bump.
“Now, may I proceed?” asked Smith.
Mrs. Tagaloa took a step back and gestured at the Shack. “If you want. But I warned you.”
Smith strode from the patio onto the thick summer grass. He took half a dozen confident steps before reaching the red string line pulled taut over the turf, then paused before it, considering.
Shade brought up a menu of controls along the bottom of his screen and carefully rested his fingertips above the glass like a concert pianist preparing to launch into a recital. “All right, Captain Crunch,” he growled. “Let’s dance.”
Glancing from the screen to Shade’s narrowed eyes, Winston asked, “Captain Crunch?”
Smith took a tall step over the red string, but his next step froze in place as a stern, robotic voice called out from the tree house, “Proximity alert detected. Three seconds to password authorize.”
Winston felt the chuckle rumble deep in Shade’s chest.
Smith glanced about, trying to locate the speakers. When that failed, he looked over his shoulder at Mrs. Tagaloa. “What’s the password?” he asked, his voice considerably higher than a moment before.
Mrs. Tagaloa shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t invade my son’s privacy.”
Turning back toward the Shack, Smith blurted out the default answer of all English-speaking noobs. “Password!”
A flat electronic buzz informed him that this probably wasn’t the correct answer.
“One-two-three-four!” he called, hoping for a simple PIN.
Another buzz of failure.
“This guy thinks I’m a moron,” whispered Shade.
“You should write him a complaint letter,” said Winston. “Tell him you’re offended.”
The FBI agent hunched his shoulders and started to take a step, then reconsidered.
“Time elapsed,” announced the Shack’s security system. “Defenses engaged.”
Shade studied the split screen before him, the map of his arsenal on the left and the dome camera’s live view on the right.
“You could let the system handle it,” suggested Winston. “It worked when we tested it on your sisters.”
A competitive sneer signaled Shade’s dismissal of the idea.
Smith started to take another step toward the tree house. Shade’s fingers waited over three possible options, waiting for the agent to commit. As if sensing a trap, though, Smith took three quick steps to the left.
“Bravo-2,” said Shade, and his right index finger hit one rectangular red icon.
They heard two shots — pop-pop!
Smith only had time to register the sound coming from the dense willow branches above him, then something struck him in the left shoulder. Half a second later, another something hit his left jaw and exploded. He recoiled, instinctively raising his hands against the stinging pain. Only once he stopped his sideways stumble did he put a hand to his shoulder and discover that he’d been tagged with royal blue paint.
“Ohhh!” rasped Shade, bouncing with glee in the darkness. “Pwned!”
“Are you OK?” called Mrs. Tagaloa. “I’m so sorry. But I did warn you.”
Smith stood there, his breath coming in shallow heaves, his hands clenched shut to hide how badly they were shaking.
“I’m fine,” he said.
Much more slowly this time, Smith took another step toward the tree house. The bark dust surrounding the structure waited about twenty feet before him. The smartest thing the agent could do would be to make a dash for it.
So he tried. Arm raised against more paint balls, half-hunching, Smith took one long launching step forward, landed, and tripped as his foot sank into the foot-deep hole under the turf. Shade activated Charlie-1 just as the agent’s face hit the ground.
They heard another pair of cracks, sounding over the electronic distance like those little gunpowder-packed Pop-It fireworks that kids throw onto sidewalks. Winston could only make out a pair of small blurs several inches in front of Smith’s head. The agent had barely lifted his face from the grass when both blurs exploded into much larger blurs of green paint that instantly splattered across his face, the side of his head, and down much of his back.
The boys rocked in place and bit their lips. Winston wrapped an arm around Shade’s shoulders and shook him hard enough to nearly dislodge the tablet from his lap.
“Soak it in warm water, then scrub with dishwashing soap!” called Mrs. Tagaloa. “Trust me!”
Smith pushed himself up to his knees and tried to wipe the paint from his eyes with his shoulders, which were equally splattered. He wiped his hands through the turf, trying to clean his fingers, then cleared his eyes.
“That stuff stings, too,” whispered Shade.
Back on his knees, Smith was only ten feet from the bark dust. He stayed in a crawl, moving only a few inches at a time. The agent kept his head down to protect against fire from above and explored the thick grass before him with side-to-side sweeping motions. Sure enough he found booby trap Charlie-5 about a foot before the bark dust. The little green peg barely poked above the dirt, almost completely obscured by the turf. Shade could have simply activated it then and there, but he showed a little mercy.
Winston raised an eyebrow at his friend, who shrugged.
“Those bouncing paint pockets aren’t cheap,” Shade said. “Besides, once this joker finishes, they’re just going to cut power to the property and send in a S.W.A.T. team.”
Winston knew better than to ask where Shade got his tactical data. Ultimately, there was little difference between the Internet, movies, and Shade’s own imagination as an information source.
Smith carefully went around the trap and reached the line of half-buried 2x4 beams that separated the lawn from the bark dusted area under the Shack. Smith huddled an arm’s length away from the rope ladder dangling from the hole in the tree house’s wrap-around deck. The agent stood and took one shaky stride toward the ladder. Nothing happened.
“Pressure pads?” asked Winston.
Shade shook his head. “Disabled them last week, dang it.”
At this point, the dome camera pointed almost directly down on Smith’s head, so Shade switched to the wide angle camera mounted under the eaves over the back patio. This didn’t offer as much detail on Smith, but it would suffice.
Gingerly, the agent reached out and pinched one of the rope rungs between his thumb and index finger. When nothing happened, he gave it a slight tug, unable to keep from cringing.
“When we get out of this mess,” said Shade, “I’m putting this on YouTube and getting like a gazillion ad revenue clicks.”
“After conversion, that’s about fourteen bucks,” said Winston. “Go for it.”
Smith placed one foot on the first rung above the ground and set his weight on it. Shade waited just long enough for the man to think all was clear, then he tapped another icon.
“Psst!” blared a gravelly voice from the dome camera’s speaker. In their hiding spot, Shade mouthed the words along with the audio. “Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys. Hold on tight with both hands, if you please. There be squalls ahead!”
Smith once again glanced back at Mrs. Tagaloa. “Isn’t that from the old Pirates of the Caribbean ride?”
“Maybe!” she answered. “Is that the kind of thing friends of terrorists do?”
Winston said, “I love your mom.”
Smith visibly straightened at the rebuke. He put his other foot on the next rung, committing all of his weight. Nothing shot him. Nothing clicked, broke, or blew up.
The agent climbed another rung. The ladder swayed freely as his weight shifted, rocking him back and forth. Another seven or eight rungs remained to the deck.
“Now?” asked Winston.
Shade’s fingertips hovered. His eyes were large and unblinking as he stared at Smith on the screen.
The man reached for the next rung and took another step, clearly gaining confidence. He reached up again, began to lift himself to the next rung, and then Shade tapped the Delta-1 icon.
Smith’s body instantly stiffened. His left foot remained free in the air and twitched. They heard him make a short choking noise. No comical sizzling sound or whiff of smoke from his ears followed. But Smith couldn’t control his muscles. His back arched, and his body quivered as hundreds of amps poured through his palms.
After a couple of seconds, Shade cut off the countermeasure. Smith’s body peeled away from the ladder, hands first. His back hit the bark dust, then his skull bounced off the ground like a rubber ball.
“Infinite pwnage!” crowed Shade.
After a moment, though, the boys fell silent and still as they realized that the agent’s body wasn’t moving.
Agent Smith lost consciousness for twenty-three seconds. Winston watched as Shade’s mom paced anxiously and slid her phone from her pocket. He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to call 911 or not. He certainly didn’t want Smith or anyone else to die, but he also knew that the more people who got dragged into this mess, the worse it would get.
“What do we do?” whispered Shade with a clearly audible edge of panic.
Winston had no idea, but as Mrs. Tagaloa started to tap at her screen, Agent Smith groaned and tried to roll onto one side.
Both boys exhaled with relief, and Shade’s mom lowered her phone.
“As I was saying,” she continued, “this is what comes from abuse of power. Do you believe in karma, Agent Smith?”
The man groaned again and gingerly touched one hand to the back of his head, checking for blood. His fingers came away blue, and he mumbled, “Great.”
On impulse, Winston said, “Put me on speaker.”
“What?” Shade drew the tablet deeper into his lap, hugging it tighter. “Are you crazy?”
“Maybe. So humor me.”
Shade shook his head, but he pressed an on-screen microphone icon and raised the tablet to Winston’s face.
Winston leaned in and, enunciating as clearly as he could while still whispering, said, “Agent Smith, this is Winston Chase.”
Smith’s head turned from side to side, but he quickly surmised that the voice was coming from a speaker mounted to the Shack’s underbelly.
Mrs. Tagaloa, having not just been knocked unconscious, responded more quickly. “Winston? Is Shade with you? Is he OK?”
Shade flicked the tablet’s edge back to his mouth. “Yes, Mom, I’m fine.”
Her head tilted to the sky, and she exhaled deeply. “Oh, thank God. Your father is going to kill you.”
Winston pulled the tablet back to himself. “Agent Smith, the Tagaloas have done nothing wrong. Neither have I, for that matter. I’m not a terrorist.”
Smith forced himself to sit up. “So why are you running? And—” He flapped a hand, indicating the Shack and lawn. “Why all this? Why’d you attack me?”
“We didn’t attack you! Shade put all that stuff in because of his sisters. You just…blundered into it.”
“So what’s in your backpack?”
Winston’s mind churned through various answers. He didn’t want to give out the truth, but he also knew he needed to give Smith something solid. The man seemed honest. Maybe he could help them.
“It’s not a weapon or anything like that,” he said. “It’s something my dad left to me.”
Smith gingerly got to his feet, careful to stand in the same spot. “Winston, the FBI wouldn’t be interested in some ordinary family heirloom.”
“Bledsoe is not regular FBI. He’s not what you think.”
“What is he?”
“He’s…” The word resurfaced in Winston’s memory from his mom’s description. “Damaged. He’s the one you should worry about.”
“OK.” Smith hunched his shoulders and rubbed at his neck. “OK. Winston, I’m willing to hear you out, but you need to come in and talk with me. Will you do that?”
Winston met Shade’s gaze over the tablet’s glow. He couldn’t tell what his friend wanted. If he did go in, Shade could return home. Maybe Smith could help them. If they could work out a place where Winston could chat safely with Smith, perhaps he could turn the tables on Bledsoe. Did Smith have that sort of influence? Or perhaps there was a way to use Smith to get out of here, then slip away and be on his own. Wasn’t that the smartest, safest way?
“Maybe,” Winston said. “But how do I know—”
Without warning, Shade reached up and cut their connection. The video feeds went black.
Winston almost kicked Shade. “Dude!”
Shade pointed at Winston’s chest. “No, you dude. That guy was going to tell you whatever you wanted to hear to get you to turn yourself over. This is why I watch cop shows. Know your enemy, man.”
“Not cool,” muttered Winston, even though he knew Shade was probably right. He dropped his earbud into Shade’s lap and stood.
“You’re welcome,” Shade whispered.
The silence that grew between them seemed thicker than before. While Shade stowed his tablet back in his pack, Winston felt along the walls. They were rough and pointy. No gaps or passages lead away from their little space. The thought of secret passages crossed Winston’s mind, but he discarded it. The library had opened in 1913, and the place wasn’t exactly some old, haunted Victorian mansion. If the building contained a hidden dungeon, they were already in it.
“I’m sure Alyssa will give you another chance,” whispered Shade. “You shouldn’t worry about it.”
At first, the random subject change confused Winston. Then he realized that Shade was trying to get them back on safe, comfortable ground.
“I wasn’t worrying about it. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll start worrying about that, too.”
“No, I’m saying you don’t need to worry. She’d been planning on asking you out for a while. I think she was just waiting until after the robotics competition.”
“Huh? What makes you think that?”
“Rosa,” whispered Shade. “She told me Alyssa was going to ask you to the Sadie Hawkins dance last year, but she chickened out. June thinks you’re a total freak, and that’s always kept Alyssa from approaching you.”
“You know this how?”
“Rosa’s little sister is friends with my little sister. All they do is sit around and gossip.”
Alyssa was going to ask you to the Sadie Hawkins dance last year.
Last year. Could this possibly be true?
“Why talk to me now?” Winston asked. “What changed?”
“I dunno. Maybe because of the fight with Steinhoff? Maybe she wanted to cheer you up. Or maybe you give off some kind of alien pheromone now that she can’t resist.”
Winston threw a half-hearted punch at where he thought Shade’s arm should be and only connected with empty air.
He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that the girl he’d wanted to date since grade school had been interested in him for almost a year, and he’d never known.
“That’s another thing,” said Shade. “Now that you know, what’s it feel like to be part alien?”
Winston thought about it for a moment. “About the same as yesterday. It’s like having a birthday: a little different on the outside, but nothing’s really changed on the inside.”
“Is there anybody else…like you?”
“My mom,” said Winston. “Although the QVs don’t seem to have done much to her. My dad. And this guy they used to work with named Bledsoe. But I’m the only one born with QVs, which is why my mom thinks my symptoms or whatever may be stronger.”
Two ideas clicked together in Winston’s mind. The officer had said “soon as whoever called this shows up and figures out it was a wild goose chase.” Who had called it? The FBI was after him, not the Portland Police. Could it be Bledsoe? Was his mom right and the old creep had found his way back into the government? Or was somebody else calling the shots for Project Majestic?
“I’m so jealous,” Shade muttered.
Winston wondered if he’d misheard his friend. “Jealous? Of what? I’m on the run from the government. Who knows where my mom is? And because I’m so different, nobody wants to be my friend!” Winston realized his gaffe as soon as it was out of his mouth. The silence between them seemed to pulse with Shade’s hurt feelings. “I mean…except for you. Because you’re so much smarter and handsomer than all the others.”
“Nice.” After a moment of silent thought between them, Shade added, “You know why I’m friends with you?”
That caught Winston by surprise. “Why?”
“Because you’re the only person in the world who knows everything about me. To you, I’m not the short, big kid. Or the football guy. Or the science guy. Or anything. I’m just Shade. You don’t care that I live in a tree house. You’re OK with me giving advice about girls even though I’m too chicken to ask for a date myself. And it’s cool that we can just sit sometimes. Neither of us has to act or talk a certain way. It’s just us being us.”
Winston thought of Shade more as a brother than a friend, although he never said so. Yet Winston realized that if he were captured or killed, he’d likely never see Shade again — or anyone else he cared about. There would never be time to say those things. Realizing that made his throat tighten with sudden fear and sadness.
“You know why I’m friends with you?” he whispered.
There was the tiniest hitch of breath from Shade. “No. Why?”
“Your pheromones. I can’t resist.”
Of course, Shade’s shoulder punch did connect. They both chuckled in the deep gloom.
“No,” said Winston. He had to do this right. “Because you’re my brother. Actually, you’re better than a brother. Normally, siblings want to kill each other. And I…I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
There was a moment of dead silence, then Shade surprised Winston with a powerful linebacker hug. He let out a little “oof!” as the air whooshed from his lungs.
“Thanks, Winston,” said Shade. “I’m gonna cry now.”
From anyone else, Winston would have assumed this was sarcasm.
“See?” added Shade. “Who else could I say that to? They’d think I was soft or femmy or something.”
“Well, you kinda are sometimes,” said Winston as he hugged his friend in return.
“I know,” said Shade. “Don’t make me kill you.”
Winston let go and stepped back. Shade released him and sniffled.
Not trusting himself to say anything else without shedding his own tears, Winston changed the subject back to their immediate problem. He set down his backpack and fished out the vaguely cone-shaped artifact made of tubes. An idea had been nagging him, and he wanted to try something.
“What are you doing?” Shade asked through the blackness.
“Remember how I used that thing to open the door upstairs?”
“Ugh,” said Shade. “Vlad.”
“I’m not calling it Vlad!” Winston slid his right hand inside the device’s bottom ring and gripped the crossbar, immediately feeling it warm against his palm. “I can sense it in my head when I hold it. There’s like this…energy connection.”
“Like lightning bolts and superhero stuff?”
“No. I mean…” Winston wasn’t sure how to describe the feeling, which was something between flexing a muscle and feeling the buzz of a nine-volt battery through wet fingertips. “In my mind, it’s just a little trace of energy, but I can push and pull it. Does that make any sense?”
“Nah. Doesn’t sound very impressive for something that’s supposed to shoot laser blasts.”
“Well, can you give me a minute to learn how to use it?” Winston sighed. “It’s not a laser gun. Mom said it could either be electricity or plasma. Either way, it’s about energy. It’s…” The name flowed into his mouth like the sensation he was attempting to describe. “Little Ee.”
“Yes. In my brain, the energy is small, but through this…interface…I think it can be hugely magnified. So I’ll call it Little Ee.”
“Why not Big Ee? Or Vlad?”
“I’m not trying to impress anyone. It’s Little Ee.”
“More like Little Creepy.”
“Anyway.” Winston felt for the support wall under the drop chute and ran his hand up the rough surface. At the top of his reach, he felt the slide’s smooth metal. “When I used this to open the staff room door upstairs, I could actually see the electrical circuits. Maybe I could see something here that would help us.”
Their only way out was through the old exit at the back of the stacks room, but that would necessitate triggering the alarm. Winston recalled the little wire at the corner of the inside double doors. There must be some way to disable the fire alarm.
“Yeah, but we’re stuck in here,” said Shade. “You can’t reach the alarm.”
“Not directly. But let’s try something.”
If Little Ee could work with electrical energy, would it also do electromagnetic? Winston held the device up and mentally felt its tips flay out, almost like his own fingers spreading to support a large bowl. Only the metal tubes weren’t trying to support anything physical. They were searching for a signal, and in a moment they found it. Winston knew all about networking and radio frequency communications. He knew that computers needed network adapters, and Wi-Fi required radio transceivers. There were system device layers and network protocols and dozens of other things. The aliens either had brains optimized for networking and electronics or had designed these QVs to make changes in their host’s brain capable of better handling such things. In his case, the difference didn’t matter. Could his brain be Wi-Fi-compatible? With a twinge of disappointment, Winston realized that this would explain his telepathy with the Stadlerator 7000 and possibly his lifelong knack for sensing how to fix electronics. However, the ability also just might get them out of here.
Winston was quickly learning that the best thing to do with the device was to think about what he wanted to do and then apply a sort of mental shove. Like controlling a game console with physical gestures, the system in his head seemed set up to perform functions based on thought cues. This made perfect sense. Engineers had already created affordable headband-type devices that could detect brain wave activity and convert it into numeric data. One only had to write a program to do something with the detected activity.
With Winston, those programs seemed to be already planted in his brain — embedded firmware that he’d grown up with and never known he had. Understanding this made him feel a bit better. These things happening with him weren’t that alien. Now, he needed to figure out what programs were stashed in his skull and how these devices helped to execute them.
Up on the library’s third floor, Winston had sensed the building’s electrical systems by touching Little Ee’s tubes to some sort of outlet, such as a sensor pad — only he hadn’t actually touched the electronics. The device’s tubes had explored the pad, but they had never penetrated the plastic shell to touch wires or leads. The tubes only moved into an optimal arrangement for the “best fit” with their target, almost like tuning into an analog radio station with a dial, listening for the clearest, strongest signal. If the connection could work across a distance of millimeters, maybe it could also work across twenty or thirty meters.
Winston concentrated, trying to visualize the exit in his mind: double doors, old wooden frame, glass panes looking through to the small, dingy chamber beyond, brass lock, wire in the top-right corner, fire alarm. He focused on that little bit of wire running over the frame molding and into the wall. He saw it clearly in his memory, and it began to glow blue. Winston tried to follow the glow into the wall, to make the wood and sheetrock turn translucent as it had before, but he couldn’t. He was already gripping the crossbar hard enough to make his fingers ache.
He felt a slight compulsion to move his arm upward. Some sort of attracting force guided Little Ee like a dowsing rod, and his body along with it. Winston quit resisting the pull and let his arm drift. Gently, the tubes made contact with the metal book drop chute and slid along its surface with a soft rasping. The interface grasped the chute’s corner, and the wiring in the far wall sprang into focus as if someone had suddenly flicked on the lights.
“What?” Shade asked. “Did it shock you?”
“No. It’s using the chute as a giant antenna. I can see the security system.”
“Oh. Well…good! Can you do anything with it?”
“I can play Call of Duty.”
Winston watched as more and more of the security network grew visible. Energy pulsed along the many lines weaving through the walls and floors like blood flowing through a network of veins and arteries. Resistors acted as congestion points, wires bent around wall studs, and fuses served as little drawbridges. More importantly, he could feel the circuit board at the far end of the electricity loop. Activity flooded across the board, registering in his mind as only a dizzying block of energy, glowing white. The more Winston concentrated on the block, the more his awareness narrowed onto it, making the lines of electricity magnify and separate. He knew that if the circuit board malfunctioned, it would trigger an alarm. In fact, the whole system was probably designed with fail-safes so that if any piece failed, the alarm would sound.
Understanding this, Winston knew what he had to do. He pulled his awareness back, zooming out from the circuit board, and looked at the hundreds of connections running into it. Dozens of these were thin, slow capillaries. Those would be lines from the door and smoke sensors throughout the building. No, he needed...
There. One large line from the circuit board branched into four, and each of those branched into another four. Those would be the connections out to the alarm speakers placed around each of the library’s floors. He couldn’t disable the alarm system, at least not without wasting more time to figure it out, but he could at least render it mute and buy them another minute or two.
Winston zoomed into the point where this speaker artery connected to the circuit board. When he could see it clearly, he thought about how to attack it. If this was a circulatory system, how could he give it a heart attack? His hand clenched tighter still around the alien device. The device’s tubes gripped into the book drop chute, starting to crumple the thin metal. Small flecks of blue light, like radiant dust motes, ran across the chute’s surface.
The more he thought about that spot where the alarm speakers joined the circuit board, the more that area of the board glowed. He mentally pushed energy into the electrical conduits, gathering it into one area, forcing the pressure on the connections higher and higher.
The connection snapped. With an almost imperceptible burst, the artery ruptured, probably melting down, and the entire web of wires stretching out to the alarm klaxons went dark. The instant that happened, another area on the circuit board lit up. The alarm had activated, only no one could hear it.
“Got it!” he whispered. “OK, time to go. The alarm triggered, but I killed the speakers. In a minute, emergency services will be all over this place.” He zipped Little Ee back into his pack and crouched down on all fours beside the chute wall. “You first. Step off of my back.”
Shade set one foot between Winston’s shoulder blades, shifted about for balance, then whispered, “One…two…three.”
All of his weight pushed down on Winston. He had braced himself, but with a hundred and sixty pounds suddenly shoving his already bruised hands and knees into the cement, he couldn’t help but let out a strangled groan of pain. Then most of the weight lifted away as Shade found a handhold.
“Quietly,” Winston hissed.
“Trying…” Shade said.
Winston felt the tip of one shoe scrape across his neck. Shade groaned, using years of strength training to heave himself up and hook an arm over the chute’s edge. A moment later, after much slipping about but thankfully little banging of body against slide, Shade called down for Winston to take his hand.
Winston stood and winced as he tightened his pack straps on his shoulders. He blindly waved his arms about until his fingers smacked into Shade’s wrist. The two of them clasped hands, and Shade pulled Winston off the ground. Getting back up onto the chute proved much harder than dropping off of it, but finally Winston got a hand over the chute edge and crawled over Shade’s back. Both of them clung to the slide, panting and bruised, but able to see dim light and the canvas bin at the bottom of the chute.
“I’m lighter and won’t make as much noise,” breathed Winston. “Let me make sure the coast is clear.”
Using his palms and the rubber soles of his shoes against the chute’s side walls, Winston gradually slipped down the book slide. At the bottom, he turned sideways so that his legs could hold him in place while he slowly leaned out to look into the stacks room. Fortunately, they were screened from the room’s main area by a line of bookshelves. Winston waited but saw no movement. Slowly, he lowered himself into the canvas bin. Hardbacks and audiobook cases shifted under him. Soon, he was out of the chute and standing on the cement floor.
Winston gently pulled the bin several feet away from the chute, allowing Shade to drop quietly from the slide onto the floor.
They tip-toed back along the side wall, turned right at the corner, and were soon back at the exit doors.
Winston pressed down on the handle lever and pushed, tensing for some alarm that he had missed. None did. The door opened stiffly, and the first whiff of air from what had once been the vestibule to Library Hall smelled of dust and age. When the hinges started to creak, Winston froze. The door wasn’t even open half-way, but it was enough. Winston slipped off his backpack to slim down his profile. Shade did the same and followed behind him, guiding the door back to a slow, quiet closing. Before turning away, Winston peered through the door’s window and saw an officer appear around a bookshelf and scan the spot where they’d just been standing. The officer’s glance passed over the door, then he walked on.
Winston jogged several steps to the room’s far door, withdrawing Little Ee from his pack before slipping the bag onto his shoulders again. He twisted back the door’s deadbolt, leaned hard against the pushbar, and almost fell out into the fresh air. Shade came up behind him. They stood in a concrete-lined hollow, a sort of pit in the library’s landscaping. Half a dozen stairs before them led up to a short gate, and beyond that waited Yamhill Street.
They crept up the stairs. Peering over the top of the concrete, the two looked around. Shade started to stand up, but Winston put his hand, still grasping the artifact, on Shade’s back, holding him in place.
“Dude, don’t touch me with Little Creepy,” said Shade.
“Wait,” Winston said, eyes following one navy blue car as it idled at the red light on 11th Avenue.
Sure enough, red and blue lights buried behind the car’s front grill and near the top of its windshield began flashing. The cruiser ran the stop light, gave off a couple of alarm chirps, and suddenly turned left. The vehicle screeched to a halt directly in front of them.