Silently, Nudge pulled a napkin-wrapped knish out of her pocket and handed it over. The woman sniffed it, looked at it, then turned her back to us and started eating.
Here and there the cavern was dotted with fifty-gallon oil drums in which people had made fires. It was a warm night, but the fires provided the only light and helped get rid of the dank chill that was creeping up my legs.
It was a whole new world, made up of homeless people, people who didn’t fit in anywhere, runaways… We saw a handful of kids who looked around our age.
I realized that my head was aching. It had been growing worse all evening, and now I just wanted to go to sleep.
“Over there,” said the knish woman, pointing. We looked and saw a narrow concrete ledge built into a wall. It was hundreds of feet long, and people were sleeping on it, sitting on it, marking off their territory with old blankets or cardboard boxes. The woman had pointed out a thirty-foot-long section that seemed unoccupied.
I looked at Fang, and he shrugged. It wasn’t as nice as the park, but it was warm, dry, and seemed somewhat safe. We scrambled up the ledge, with me boosting Angel. Keeping our backs to everyone, we stacked our fists and tapped twice. Almost instantly, Nudge lay down, pillowing her head on her hands.
Fang and I sat with our backs against the wall. I dropped my head into my hands and started rubbing my temples.
“You okay?” Fang asked.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “I’ll be better tomorrow.”
“Go to sleep,” said Fang. “I’ll take the first watch.”
I gave him a grateful smile, and soon I was out, out, out-with no idea how we would ever know it was morning.
The brain explosion came again while I was sleeping.
One moment I was lost in a dream in which I was strolling lazily through a field of yellow flowers, like a dopey shampoo commercial, and the next I had jack-knifed into a sitting position, holding my head and feeling like this was it: Death had finally come for me, and it wasn’t taking no for an answer.
My breaths were tight hisses. Jagged shards of pain ripped through my skull, and I heard myself whimper. Please let it be fast, I begged God. Please just end it, end it, end it now. Please, please, please.
“Max?” Fang’s low voice, right by my ear, seeped through the waves of agony. I couldn’t respond. My face was awash with tears. If I had been standing on a cliff, nothing could have kept me from throwing myself off. With my wings tucked in.
Inside my brain, images flashed incomprehensibly, making me sick, assaulting my senses with pictures, words, sounds. A voice speaking gibberish. Maybe it was mine.
As if from a great distance, I felt Fang’s hand on my shoulder, but it was like watching a movie-it seemed totally unrelated to what I was going through. My teeth were clenched so hard my jaw ached, and then I tasted blood-I had bitten into my lip.
When was I going to see the proverbial tunnel of white light I’d heard about? With people waiting for me at the other end, smiling and holding out their hands? Don’t kids with wings go to heaven?
Then an angry voice filtered through the pain: “Who’s screwing with my Mac?”
Just as before, the pain slowly ebbed, and I almost cried with frustration: If it was ending, I wasn’t dead. If I wasn’t dead, I could go through this again.
Images flashed across the backs of my eyes, but they were unfocused and undecipherable. If I had been alone, I would have started bawling. Instead I had to desperately try to keep it together, try not to wake the younger ones (if I hadn’t already), try not to give our position away.
“Who are you?” The angry voice came again. “What are you doing? You’ve crashed my whole system, worthless dipstick!”
Ordinarily, I would have been on my feet by now, pushing Angel and the others in back of me, an angry snarl on my face.
However, tonight I was crumpled in a humiliated, whimpering ball, holding my head, eyes squeezed shut, trying not to sob like a complete weenie.
“What are you talking about?” Fang asked, an edge of steel in his voice.
“My system crashed. I’ve tracked the interference, and it’s comin’ from you. So I’m tellin’ you to knock it off-or else!”
I drew in a deep, shuddering breath, totally mortified that a stranger was seeing me like this.
“And what’s wrong with her? She trippin’?”
“She’s fine,” Fang snapped. “We don’t know anything about your computer. If you’re not brain-dead, you’ll get out of here.” No one sounds colder or meaner than Fang when he wants to.
The other guy said flatly, “I’m not going nowhere till you quit messing with my Mac. Why don’t you get your girlfriend to a hospital?”
Girlfriend? Oh, God, was I going to catch it later about that. It was enough to make me lever up on one arm, then pull myself to a sitting position.
“Who the hell are you?” I snarled, the effect totally ruined by the weak, weepy sound of my voice. Blinking rapidly, finding even the dim tunnel light painful, I struggled to focus on the intruder.
I got a hazy impression of someone about my age; a ragged-looking kid wearing old army fatigues. He had a dingy PowerBook attached to straps around his shoulders like a xylophone or something.
“None of your beeswax!” he shot back. “Just quit screwing up my motherboard.”
I was still clammy and nauseated, still had a shocking headache and felt trembly, but I thought I could string a complete sentence together. “What are you talking about?”
“This!” The kid turned his Mac toward us, and when I saw the screen I actually gasped.
It was a mishmash of flashing images, drawings, maps, streams of code, silent film clips of people talking.
It was exactly the stuff that had flooded my brain during my attack.
PART 5 THE VOICE- MAKE THAT MY VOICE
My eyes flicked to the kid’s grimy face. “Who are you?” I demanded again, still sounding shaky.
“I’m the guy who’s gonna kick your butt if you don’t quit messing with my system,” the kid said angrily.
In the next moment, his computer screen cleared totally, turning the same dull green as his fatigues. Then large red words scrolled down: Hello, Max.
Fang’s head whipped around to stare at me, and I focused helplessly on his wide, dark eyes. Then, as if connected, our heads turned to stare again at the computer. Onscreen, it said, Welcome to New York.
Inside my head, a voice said, I knew you’d come. I’ve got big plans for you.
“Can you hear that?” I whispered. “Did you hear it?”
“Hear what?” Fang asked.
“That voice?” I said. My head ached, but the pain was better, and it looked as if I might avoid barfing. I rubbed my temples again, my gaze fixed on the kid’s Mac.
“What’s the deal?” the kid asked, sounding a lot less belligerent and much more weirded out. “Who’s Max? How are you doing this?”
“We’re not doing anything,” Fang said.
A new pain crashed into my brain, and once again the computer screen started flashing disconnected images, gibberish, plans, drawings, all chaotic and garbled.
Peering at the screen, wincing and still rubbing my temples, I spotted four words: Institute for Higher Living.
I looked at Fang, and he gave the slightest nod: He’d seen them too.
Then the screen went blank once more.
The kid quickly started typing in commands, muttering, “I’m gonna track this down…”
Fang and I watched, but a couple minutes later the geek stopped, flicking his computer in frustration. He looked at us with narrowed eyes, taking in everything: the drying blood on my chin, the other kids sleeping near us.
“I don’t know how you’re doing it,” he said, sounding resigned and irritated. “Where’s your gear?”
“We don’t have any gear,” Fang said. “Spooky, isn’t it?”
“You guys on the run? You in trouble?”
Jeb had drilled it into us that we shouldn’t ever trust anyone. (We now knew that included him.) The geek was starting to make me extremely nervous.
“Why would you think that?” Fang asked calmly.
The kid rolled his eyes. “Let me see. Maybe because you’re a bunch of kids sleepin’ in a subway tunnel. Kind of clues me in, you know?”
Okay, he had a point.
“What about you?” I asked. “You’re a kid sleeping in a subway tunnel. Don’t you have school?”
The kid coughed out a laugh. “MIT kicked me out.”
MIT was a university for brainiacs-I’d heard of it. This kid wasn’t old enough.
“Uh-huh.” I made myself sound incredibly bored.
“No, really,” he said, sounding almost sheepish. “I got early admission. Was gonna major in computer technology. But I spun out, and they told me to take a hike.”
“What do you mean, spun out?” asked Fang.
He shrugged. “Wouldn’t take my Thorazine. They said, no Thorazine, no school.”
Okay, I’d been around wack-job scientists enough to pick up on some stuff. Like the fact that Thorazine is what they give schizophrenics.
“So you didn’t like Thorazine,” I said.
“No.” His face turned hard. “Or Haldol, or Melleril, or Zyprexa. They all suck. People just want me to be quiet, do what I’m told, don’t make trouble.”
It was weird-he reminded me a little bit of us: He’d chosen to live a hard, dirty life, being free, instead of a taken-care-of life where he was like a prisoner.
Course, we weren’t schizo. On second thought, I had a voice talking inside my head. Better not make any snap judgments.
“So what’s up with your computer, man?” Fang asked.
The kid shrugged again. “It’s my bread and butter. I can hack into anything. Sometimes people pay me. I do jobs when I need money.” All of a sudden his mouth snapped shut. “Why? Who wants to know?”
“Chill out, dude,” Fang said, frowning. “We’re just having a chat.”
But the kid had started to back away, looking angry. “Who sent you?” he asked, his voice rising. “Who are you? You just leave me alone! You just stay away!”
Fang raised his hands in a “calm down” gesture, but the kid had turned and run. In about fifteen seconds we could no longer hear his sneakers on the ground.
“It’s always refreshing to meet someone crazier than us,” I said. “We seem so normal afterward.”
“We?” Fang said.
“Wha’s up?” Iggy asked sleepily, pulling himself upright.
I sighed but forced myself to tell Iggy about the kid’s computer, the Voice in my head, the images that flashed through me during one of my attacks. I tried to sound nonchalant, so he wouldn’t know I was quaking in my boots.
“Maybe I’m going crazy,” I said lightly. “But it will lead me to greatness. Like Joan of Arc.”
“But controlling other people’s computers?” Iggy said skeptically.
“I don’t see how,” I said. “But since I have no clue about who or what could possibly be causing it, I guess I can’t rule anything out.”
“Hmm. Do we think it’s connected to the School or the Institute?” Fang asked.
“Well, either that or I was born this way,” I said sarcastically. “On the off chance I wasn’t, let’s really, really try to find the Institute tomorrow. At least now we know what name to look for.”
The Institute for Higher Living.
Have you ever woken up about a hundred times more exhausted than you were when you went to sleep?
The next morning-at least, I assumed it was morning, since we were all waking up-I felt like one of the twelve dancing princesses, who danced all night, wore holes in their shoes, and had to sleep it off the next day. Except, oh, yeah: a) I’m not a princess; b) sleeping in a subway tunnel and having another brain attack aren’t that much like dancing all night; and c) my combat boots were still in good shape. Other than that, it was exactly the same.
“Is it morning?” Angel asked, yawning.
“I’m hungry” were, predictably, Nudge’s first words.
“Okay, we’ll get you some chow,” I said tiredly. “Then it’s off to find the Institute.”
Fang, Iggy, and I had agreed to not tell the younger kids about the hacker or about my latest brain attack. Why make ’em worry?
It took a couple minutes for us to wend our way through the subway tunnels, back up into light and air. You know you’ve been breathing something less than primo when the New York street smells really fresh and clean.
“It’s so bright,” the Gasman said, shielding his eyes. Then, “Is that honey-roasted peanuts?”
Their incredible scent was impossible to resist. You could have an Eraser selling those peanuts, and we’d probably still go. I focused my eyes on the vendor. No. Not an Eraser.
We got some peanuts, and then we walked down Fourteenth Street, chomping, as I tried to figure out a sensible way to comb the city. First, a phone book. We saw a phone kiosk up ahead, but it had only a chain where the phone book had been. Would a store let us use theirs? Hey! Information! I dug some change out of my pocket and picked up the phone. I dialed 411.
“In New York City, the Institute for Higher Living,” I said when the automated operator came on.
“We’re sorry. There is no listing under that name. Please check and try again.”
Frustration was my constant companion. I wanted to scream. “What the he-eck are we supposed to do now?” I asked Fang.
He looked at me, and I could tell he was mulling over the problem. He held out a small waxed-paper bag. “Peanut?”
We kept walking and eating, gazing in constant amazement at the store windows. Everything you could buy in the world was for sale on Fourteenth Street in New York. Of course, we couldn’t afford any of it. Still, it was awesome.
“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera,” said Fang, pointing at a window.
In an electronics store, a short-circuit camera was displaying passersby on a handful of TV screens. Automatically, we ducked our heads and turned away, instinctively paranoid about anyone having our images.
Suddenly, I winced as a single sharp pain hit my temple. At the same time, words scrolling across the TV screens caught my eye. I stared in disbelief as Good morning, Max, filled every screen.