All these animals, even though they were stuck in enclosures, probably bored out of their minds, possibly lonely, still had it so much better than we’d had it at the School. I felt edgy and angry, nervous, still coming off my adrenaline high after being chased by the Erasers. Seeing all these animals made me remember too much about when I was little, when I lived in a cage so small I couldn’t stand up.
Which reminded me: We were here to find the Institute, whatever that was. In just a short while, we might know who we were, where we came from, how our whole lives had happened.
I rubbed my hand across my mouth, really starting to feel twitchy and kind of headachy. But Nudge, the Gasman, Angel, and Iggy were having a great time. Nudge was describing everything to Iggy, and they were laughing and running around. Just like normal kids. I mean, except for the retractable wings and all.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Fang said.
“You too? I’m going nuts,” I admitted. “It’s flashback city. And I have-” I started to say “a headache,” but then didn’t want to complain or have Fang tell me to see a doctor again “an overwhelming desire to set all these animals free.”
“Free to do what?” Fang asked drily.
“Just to be out, to escape,” I said.
“Out in the middle of Manhattan?” Fang pointed out.
“Free to live without protection, without someone bringing them food, with no idea of how to take care of themselves? They’re better off here. Unless you want to fly to Greenland with a polar bear on your back.”
Logic is just so incredibly annoying sometimes. I shot Fang a look and went to round up everyone.
“Can we leave?” I asked them, trying not to whine. Very unbecoming in a leader. “I just-want to get out of here.”
“You look kind of green,” the Gasman said with interest.
I was starting to feel nauseated. “Yeah. Can we split before I upchuck in front of all these impressionable kids?”
“Over here,” Fang said, motioning us to a big crevice between two huge manufactured rocks. It led back to a path that must have been for the zookeepers-it was empty and roped off.
I managed to get out of there without crashing, screaming, or throwing up. What a nice change.
“You know what I like about New York?” the Gasman said, noisily chewing his kosher hot dog. “It’s full of New Yorkers who are freakier than we are.”
“So we blend?” Iggy asked.
I glanced over at him. He was licking an ice-cream cone that was like a mini him: tall, thin, and vanilla. He was already just over six feet tall-not bad for a fourteen-year-old. With his height, his pale skin, and his light reddish-blond hair, I’d always felt he was the most visible of all of us. But here on this broad avenue, we were surrounded by gorgeous supermodels, punk rockers, Goths, and leather-ites, suits, students, people from every other country-and, well, yeah, six kids with bulky windbreakers, ratty clothes, and questionable hygiene didn’t really stick out.
“More or less,” I said. “Of course, that won’t help with the Erasers.” Automatically, I did a perimeter sweep, a 360 around us to pick up signs of trouble.
“Speaking of which,” Fang said, “we seem to be dealing with version 6.0.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” I said. “This year’s crop looks more human. And there are females. Which is a bummer.” Even as I said the words, I was examining every face we passed, looking for a hint of feral sleekness, a cruel light in the eyes, a hard slash of a mouth.
“Yeah. We all know how bloodthirsty females are. Dirty fighting and so on,” Fang said.
I rolled my eyes. What a comedian.
“Can I have a burrito?” Nudge asked as we approached yet another street vendor. She faced me, bouncing backward down the sidewalk. “What’s a nish? I can have a burrito, right?”
“Ka-nish,” I corrected her. “It’s like a square of mashed potatoes, fried.” I was scanning every building-for what, I didn’t know. A big sign that said The Institute?
“What’s sauerkraut?” Angel asked.
“You don’t want it,” I said. “Trust me.”
We each got a burrito, hot and wrapped in foil.
“I like being able to just buy food as we walk along,” Nudge said happily. “If you walk a couple blocks, there’s someone selling food. And delis. I love delis! They’re everywhere! Everywhere you go, there’s everything you need: food, delis, banks, subway stops, buses, cool stores, fruit stands right on the street. This is the best place, I’m telling you. Maybe we should always live here.”
“It would certainly be convenient for the Erasers,” I said. “They wouldn’t have to track us down in the middle of nowhere.”
Nudge frowned, and Angel took my hand.
“But you’re right, Nudge,” I said, sorry for raining on her parade. “I know what you mean.” But it was costing money, and we were running out. And we had a mission.
Suddenly, I stopped dead, as if I’d been poleaxed.
Fang examined my face. “That pain?” he asked quietly, glancing around as if planning where to take me if I suddenly crumpled.
I shook my head and inhaled deeply. “Cookies!”
He looked at me blankly.
I spun in a circle to see where the aroma was coming from. Duh. Right in front of us was a small red storefront. Mrs. Fields. The scent of cookies right out of the oven wafted out onto the street. It smelled like Ella’s house, like safety, like home.
“I must have cookies,” I announced, and went into the store, Angel trotting at my side.
They were fabulous.
But not as good as homemade.
“So what’s your big plan for finding the Institute?” Iggy asked.
“I’m tired of walking,” Nudge said. “Can we just sit for a minute?” Without waiting for an answer, she sank onto some broad stone steps in front of a building. She rested her head in her hands and closed her eyes.
“Uh…” Just walk around until we see it didn’t seem like a good response. But Iggy had hit the nail on the head: I didn’t know how to find the Institute. I didn’t know what it looked like or even, really, if it was in New York City.
The Gasman and Angel sat down next to Nudge. I was struck once again by what incredibly cute kids they are-for mutants.
“How about a phone book?” Fang suggested. “Every once in a while I see one.”
“Yeah, that’s a possibility,” I said, frustrated by not coming up with something better. We needed an information system of some kind-like a computer we could hack into. A large marble lion caught my eye; this building had two of them. Very fancy-schmancy.
I blinked and saw four lions, like images superimposed on one another. They flickered in front of my eyes, and I shook my head a bit. I blinked again, and everything was normal. A heavy weight settled on my chest-my brain was malfunctioning again.
“So what are we going to do?” Iggy asked.
Yeah, leader, lead.
Stalling for time, worried that my head might explode at any moment, I looked up at the building in front of us. It had a name. It was called the New York Public Library of Humanities and Social Sciences. Hello. A library.
I jerked my head at the building. “We’re going to start in here,” I said briskly, and clapped twice to get the younger set on its feet. “I figure they’ve got computers, databases…” I let my voice trail off and started purposefully up the steps. Nudge, Gazzy, and Angel followed me.
“How does she do that?” I heard Fang ask Iggy.
Inside, the library was awesome. None of us had ever been inside one, and we were staring like the out-of-town yokels we were.
“May I help you?” A young guy was standing behind a polished wooden counter. He looked faintly disapproving, but not like he wanted to rip our lungs out, so I figured he wasn’t an Eraser.
“Yes.” I stepped forward, looking as serious and professional as a fourteen-year-old mutant who had never been in a library can look. “I was hoping to find information about a certain institute that I think is in New York.” I smiled at him, putting real warmth into it, and he blinked. “Unfortunately, I don’t know the whole name or where in New York it is. Is there a computer I could use to search? Or some sort of database?”
He glanced over all of us. Angel stepped up next to me and put her hand in mine. She smiled sweetly at the guy, looking, well, angelic.
“Fourth floor,” the guy said after a pause. “There are computers in a room off the main reading room. They’re free, but you have to sign in.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, smiling again. Then we hustled to the elevators.
The Gasman punched number four.
“Well, aren’t you the charmer?” Fang muttered, not looking at me.
“What?” I asked, startled, but he didn’t say anything. We rode upward, hating being in a small enclosed space. Sweat was breaking out on my brow by the time the doors slid open on the fourth floor, and we leaped out as if the elevator had been pressurized.
We immediately found a bank of computers with instructions on how to surf the Net. All we had to do was sign in at the desk. I signed “Ella Martinez” with a flourish, and the clerk smiled at me.
That was the last cheerful thing that happened for the next hour and a half. Fang and I searched in every way we could think of and found a million institutes of one kind or another, in Manhattan and throughout New York state, but none of them seemed promising. My favorite? The Institute for Realizing Your Pet’s Inner Potential. Anyone who can explain that to me, drop a line.
Angel was lying under the desk at our feet, murmuring quietly to herself. Nudge and the Gasman were playing hangman on a piece of scrap paper. Violence occasionally broke out, since neither of them could spell their way out of a paper bag.
Iggy was sitting motionless in a chair, and I knew he was listening to every whisper, every scraped chair, every rustle of fabric in the room, creating an invisible map of what was happening all around him.
I typed in another search command, then watched in dismay as the computer screen blurred and crashed. A string of orange words, fail, fail, fail, scrolled across the screen before it finally went black and winked out.
“It’s almost closing time, anyway,” Fang said.
“Can we sleep here?” Iggy said softly. “It’s so quiet. I like it in here.”
“Uh, I don’t think so,” I said, looking around. I hadn’t realized that most people had left-we were the only ones in the room. Except for a guard, in uniform, who had just spotted us. She started walking toward us, and something about her, her tightly controlled pace, made my inner alarms go off.
“Let’s split,” I muttered, pulling Iggy out of his chair.
We skittered out of there, found the stairs, and raced down as fast as we could. I was expecting Erasers at any moment. But we burst out into the dim late-afternoon light and ran down the stone steps without anyone following us.
“Can we take the subway back to the park?” Nudge asked tiredly.
It was late. We’d decided to sleep in Central Park again. It was huge, dark, and full of trees.
“It’s only about eighteen blocks to walk,” I said. But Angel was starting to fade too-she wasn’t back to a hundred percent by a long shot. “Let’s see how much it would cost.”
Five steps down the subway entrance, I was already tense. Nudge, Angel, and the Gasman were too tired to hate being in an enclosed space, but Fang, Iggy, and I were twitching.
The fare was two dollars a person, except kids under forty-four inches, who were free. I looked at Angel. Even though she was only six, she was already over four feet tall. So that was twelve dollars.
Except the fare booth was empty. So we’d have to use the automatic fare machine. That is, if we were going to be troubled about a small thing like hopping over the turnstile when no one was looking.
Once we were inside, ten minutes went by with no train. Ten loooong minutes with me feeling like I was about to start screaming and climbing the walls. If we’d been followed, if Erasers came…
I saw Iggy turn his head, listening to something from inside the dark tunnel.
“What?” I asked.
“People,” he answered. “In there.”
“I don’t think so.”
I peered into the blackness. Now that I concentrated, I could hear voices too. And way down the line, I saw what looked like the flickering of a fire-its reflected glow from around a bend in the tunnel.
I made a snap decision, which always makes the flock feel so safe and comfortable.
“Let’s go,” I said, and I jumped off the platform and onto the tracks leading into the darkness.
“What does that mean?” the Gasman asked, pointing at a small metal plaque that said Stay off the third rail!
“It means the third rail has seven hundred volts of direct current running through it,” Fang said. “Touch it and you’re human popcorn.”
“Okay,” I said. “Good tip. Everyone stay off the third rail.”
Then I shot Fang a look that said, Thank you for that lovely image. He almost grinned at me.
Iggy felt the train first. “Everyone off the rails,” he said, standing still until I took his arm. We all stepped over to a yucky, disgusting wall and pressed ourselves as flat against it as possible.
Thirty seconds later, a train rushed past so fast that its slipstream made us sway toward it. I kept my knee shoved against Angel so she wouldn’t be pulled off her feet.
“Well, that was fairly nerve-racking,” I said as we gingerly peeled ourselves off the wall.
“Who’s there?” The voice was querulous, aggressive, and rough, as if its owner had spent the last fifty years smoking cigarettes. Maybe he had.
We walked forward, on the alert, wings starting to unfold a tiny bit in case we suddenly needed to go airborne.
“Nobody,” I called convincingly as we turned the bend of the tunnel.
“Whoa,” the Gasman breathed.
Before us was a city. A small, ragged city in Manhattan’s basement. Groups of people clotted a large concrete cavern. The ceiling was three stories above us and dripped with paint stalactites and humid condensation.
Several unwashed faces looked toward us, and someone said, “Not cops. Kids.”
They turned away, uninterested, except for one woman who seemed to be wearing about five layers of clothing. “You got food?” she barked.