She was vulnerable, Winston realized, because she was with him.
They wouldn’t care about her as much now that he had one piece of the Alpha Machine and clues to the rest of it. Her function as bait would no longer be important. They wouldn’t need the QVs inside of her if they had his. All they had to do was keep her quiet until picking her off became convenient. If Winston split off from his mom, given a choice of two targets, he would be the more desirable one. So he had to leave her. It was her only shot at safety.
Besides, he knew that if they stayed together, she would prevent him from taking necessary risks. She would always put his safety first, and he knew deep down that playing things safe would be a recipe for failure. Always picking the safe path was why he’d never had a girlfriend, only had one friend, and had never accomplished much with robotics. He hated risk because risk, as his mom always taught him, was irrational and bad.
Things were different now, though. The only chance he had at helping his mom stay safe was to take a risk.
Or so he thought. There was only one way to find out, and the idea was so bitter that no amount of peanut butter/espresso/chocolate ice cream with mixed in Snickers could wipe the taste from his mouth.
Winston went through the motions that evening. They chatted about small things, silently deciding to postpone important topics for the morning. Winston browsed the Web on his phone as she settled in and fell asleep. Eventually, he turned off the lights and slept, too.
Four hours later, Winston awoke to the quiet vibration of his phone’s alarm under his pillow. Soon, he sat on the edge of his motel bed, fully dressed and motionless, listening to his mom’s slow, even breathing. His backpack rested on the floor between his legs, stuffed with the gear and clothes his mom had prepared along with everything his dad had left for him in the bank vault. With the blinds drawn, the room’s only light was a faint, gray glow around the window’s edge. The low engine growls of early morning commuters sped by in the distance. His mother slept on, mouth slightly open, one arm wrapped over the top of her head.
Winston felt another pang of guilt. He never deceived her. Of course, there were the usual ruses. “Sure, I scrubbed between my toes,” “Whoops, I thought that movie was PG-13,” and the ever-popular “The robot ate my homework,” which was true in his case. But this? This went far beyond little fibs.
Winston wondered if this would change their relationship. Could she ever trust him again? Could he trust her? After all, until yesterday, almost everything he’d known about his life had been a lie.
The entire world was changing under him, and he wondered if he could keep his balance. He almost had a father now, but he still might never meet the man. Finally, Winston had an explanation for his odd appearance. It wasn’t just that he had a big head and white streaks in his hair; he was actually part alien. Nobody else glowed blue when they got injured. Nobody else could inexplicably operate a robot with mind control. And while his mother also had QVs, she was clearly different. She looked and acted normal. Winston knew he wasn’t like her or anybody else in the world. No one could possibly understand him, himself most of all.
Winston realized that, if his mom was right about the people behind Area X still watching, they would never let him go. He would be captured, studied, poked, tested, and manipulated like a lab rat for the rest of his life. If his mom was captured with him, they would use her as leverage to guarantee his cooperation.
Silently, Winston used the light from his phone to find the pad of stationery paper and cheap ballpoint pen on the room’s table. Too hastily, saying far too little, he scrawled a note:
There’s no point in two of us being in danger. I will try to be as quick as possible. Please don’t worry. If everything goes well, I’ll meet you tonight for dinner at our favorite picnic place. If not, I’ll find you some other way.
I love you, Mom.
P.S. Stop worrying. I can tell you’re already worrying. Stop it.
He propped the note on the bed against the pillow next to hers. His mom’s thin, fuzzy blanket rose and fell with reassuring slowness.
Their favorite picnic place. How many evenings had they spread a blanket out on the grassy hill atop Council Crest Park, the highest point in Portland, and enjoyed sandwiches and juice while watching the sun cast its ruddy glow on the far-away mountains? It was their place. He would give anything to see it with her again.
Winston found the room’s door knob, hearing each little click and pop from its gears like an alarm clang. But his mom slept on. Finally, the door opened a crack. Yellow light from the parking lot spilled across her bed in a thin line that meandered over her hip. The more he opened the door, the more that line grew, turning into a column and then a swath of illumination that threatened to reach her face and wake her.
Winston used his body to block the light, careful to watch his shadow across his mom’s bed. He backed up — a step, then two — and slowly closed the door.
It was done. He was out.
Winston released the breath he’d been holding in.
“See you soon, Mom,” he whispered.
Then he turned, took a step, and tripped over the body sprawled beside the door.
# # #
Winston’s foot caught on the body, but he managed to catch the top of the walkway wall before he went down.
“Ow!” cried a familiar voice.
Shade sat up, blinking and rubbing his ribs.
Winston knelt down, looking his friend over. Shade was dressed in a blue jacket, jeans, and high-tops. The jacket featured about four thousand pockets, all of which looked to be stuffed with bulges of various sizes. He also had a brown, leather-reinforced backpack propped up against the wall. The pack was smaller than Winston’s but seemed equally loaded.
“What are you doing here?” Winston whispered.
Rubbing his eyes, Shade mumbled, “Special delivery.”
He reached into one of his jacket pockets and pulled out his phone. After a few swipes, he showed Winston the screen. It was a text from Moxiegirl17. Despite his wonder and confusion, Winston felt a quick stab of admiration. What sort of girl used an old-fashioned word like moxie in her screen name? His sort, apparently.
Then he read the accompanying text.
Tell him I get family emergencies. Will still need math help whenever he’s ready. Don’t take too long.
“It’s…” Winston swallowed around the heart that had risen into his throat. “It’s perfectly punctuated.”
“Ugh! She texted me to see if you were really all right.” Shade whispered as he shoved the phone back in his pocket. “Sometimes I want to punch you in the head.”
“I know,” said Winston. “What are you doing here?”
Rather than hit him, Shade jabbed Winston twice in the chest with his index finger. “Helping you. I’m not stupid, you know. A big ‘life lesson’ lecture that turns into a ‘family emergency’ for Alyssa? You and your family of two, one of which happens to be treating you to Denny’s on a school night, which never happens? You blow off your first-ever date with the girl of your dreams. You blow off talking with me about your butt. Dude!” Another jab to the chest. “Stuff is going down, and I’m here to help you.”
“You’re only saying that because you think I’m part alien.”
“What?” He looked wounded. “It’s because you’re my best friend.”
Shade looked up and down the walkway. “OK, yes, and because you’re part alien.”
Winston scowled and poked Shade in the forehead.
A vehicle pulled into the motel parking lot. Shade started to stand, but Winston held him back.
They remained hidden from view by the walkway’s wall. Winston edged closer to the railing and peeked over the top, glad that this motel was so cheap that it only had outdoor lamps at the corners rather than by each room. He should still be mostly invisible.
A black sedan made for the lot’s back row. Winston could make out two figures in the front seat — both male, both wearing dark suits and ties. An LED glowed next to the driver’s head, probably an earpiece. Tail first, the car pulled into a spot in the rearmost row, then turned off. Winston ducked back out of sight.
“Winston,” whispered Shade. “What is—”
Winston raised his hand for silence, then motioned Shade to sit still and wait. After ten or fifteen seconds, Winston hit his thigh with a fist in frustration and fear.
“What’s wrong?” asked Shade.
“They haven’t gotten out of their car. They’re waiting.”
“They’re here for us. For me.”
“Because you’re an alien?”
Winston opened his mouth to make some indignant retort, then realized the simplest reply was also the most honest. “Yes. Because I’m an alien. More or less.”
“Daaang,” said Shade. “Well, what do we do?”
“We?” Winston shook his head emphatically. “Shade, there’s no we on this. I’m in serious trouble. You have to get out of here right now.”
Shade stared hard into Winston’s face. Slowly, he began to nod with understanding. “OK,” he said.
Winston patted his friend’s shoulder. “Good, so you stay here until—”
Winston didn’t understand. “Huh?”
“No. You’re in trouble. I’m helping.”
“I am.” Shade stretched his fingers out wide, then curled them into fists. “You’ve never been in trouble for anything. Well, except that time you put a virus on Mr. Tallard’s computer.”
“I didn’t! His disk was inf—”
“Anyway!” Shade poked a firm finger into Winston’s breastbone. “I am helping you. That’s what we do. So shut up about it and let’s figure this out.”
Winston smacked Shade’s finger aside, but he couldn’t keep from showing the beginning of a smile. “If you’re here to help, then why don’t you come up with…” He trailed off, and his smile vanished. Winston closed his eyes and bowed his head.
“What?” Shade whispered urgently.
“How’d you find me?”
“GPS buddies — duh. I got here around 1:00. Did you know buses only run like once an hour in the middle of the night? Anyway, there were only three cars in the parking lot, so not many guests, and only this room still had a light on. I figured that would be you.”
Winston nodded. “I was up researching while Mom slept.”
“Same as always. And I didn’t want to risk freaking her out by knocking. So what’s the problem?”
Winston held up his phone. “The GPS. That’s how you found me. It’s probably how they found me.” He jerked his head toward the parking lot.
Shade butted his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Of course it is! GPS or cell tower triangulation, same thing. You might as well be wearing a neon sign. Dude, you should know better!”
“Well, excuse me if I didn’t share your paranoia until just now!”
“They’ll be tracking your mom’s, too,” said Shade.
Winston grimaced. “Yup. And probably yours.”
“What? No way.”
“Why not? We’re together every day. Just bugging the phones would be so nineties.”
Shade swallowed hard as his forehead wrinkled with worry.
Winston pulled out his phone and opened the browser. “All right. I have an idea, but you’re gonna need to run. Fast.”
“You know I hate running.”
“I’m sure there are worse things, and we’re going to experience most of them if you don’t.”
“Fine,” Shade growled.
Winston typed and swiped as quickly as his fingers and data connection allowed. Even as he was tapping, he was already on his feet, hunched over into a crouch, making his way toward the corner stairwell. Shade followed close behind.
By the time they were on the ground and shielded from view behind the corner of the motel, Winston had the timings and directions worked out. As he whispered into Shade’s ear, his friend kept shaking his head, which made whispering into the ear more difficult.
“You’re insane,” Shade finally said.
“And you’re late,” answered Winston. “Now run!”
Shade took off, seeming to lumber from side to side as much as he moved forward, backpack rocking rhythmically across his wide shoulder blades. He reached the end of the motel and vanished into the gray stillness of pre-dawn.
Winston returned to the stairwell and edged around it to see the parking lot and the men still motionless in their black sedan. The driver balanced something on the steering wheel, and only the occasional glow of a small screen on his face told Winston that he was snapping pictures. Winston studied them. He couldn’t make out any of the passenger’s features, but the driver’s illuminated face and neck revealed him as a large, muscular man. He was also methodical with his photography, taking several versions of each shot at different settings.
Winston glanced at the time on his phone, did one last mental recheck of his figures, then hit the speed dial as he ducked back behind the building.
The phone rang four painfully slow times and went to voice mail.
“Hello. Sorry I’ve missed your call,” began his mom, careful as always not to use her name.
Winston hung up and redialed. One ring…two…three…
He prepared to hit End again when the line clicked.
“Uhh…” his mother answered, still sounding mostly asleep. “Hello?”
“Mom,” said Winston. He waited. It didn’t take long for the mommy adrenaline to kick in.
“Winston?” Her voice immediately sharpened with concern. “What— Where are you?”
“I’m outside the motel, Mom. There are two men parked here. Black car, back row.”
“Winston, get back here! It’s not—”
“Mom, listen. You have about thirty seconds to wake up and another sixty to pack. After that, you need to be gone. I mean really gone, hidden.”
“Listen, young man. If you think—”
“No.” Winston cupped a hand around his mouth, knowing he needed to sound as stern and resolved as he felt. “I can do this. The note in the deposit box was to me, Mom…not us. I need you to stay safe.”
Neither of them spoke. A gust of wind blew across Winston’s face, and he could smell that crisp, early edge of fall mixed with cement and car exhaust. The first shades of pink blossomed in the cloudless eastern sky. It promised to be a beautiful day if he wasn’t stuck in an interrogation cell.
“Winston, I can’t let you do this,” she said, hushed and tense, probably close to crying again.
“I know, Mom. But I’m not asking for permission.”
It was the first time he had ever openly defied her wishes. Couldn’t he have started with something smaller and easier, like blowing off his chores?
“Winston, you don’t know what—”
“I don’t know anything, Mom. It’s all crazy. But right now, you need to move. Just go with it, OK? I love you.”
He heard her sniffle. “I love you, honey.”
The knot tightened in his throat, but he took a deep breath and fought it loose again. “Your thirty seconds are up, Mom. Gotta go. As soon as you hang up, pull out the battery on your phone and don’t put it back in, no matter what. That’s how they’re tracking us. Got it?”
“Got it,” she whispered.
Not knowing what else he could say and not trusting his resolve if he tried, Winston hit the End button. Then he shoved the phone into his front jeans pocket, tightened the straps on his backpack a pinch more, and broke into a sprint straight toward the black sedan.