I’d been, like, sucked into another dimension, where I could feel my body, sort of, knew where I was, and yet was powerless to move or speak. I was in a movie, starring me, watching it all happen around me. I was going down a dark tunnel, or the tunnel was slipping by me, and I was staying still. Trains were rushing past me on both sides, so it was a subway tunnel.
I was thinking, Okay, subway tunnel. Yeah, so?
Then I saw a train station: Thirty-third Street. The Institute’s building was on Thirty-first Street. In the darkness of the waking-dream subway tunnel, I saw a filthy rusted-over grate. I saw myself pulling the grate up. Fetid brown water gurgled below. Bleah-it was the sewer system, beneath the city.
Beneath a rainbow…
Bingo, Max, said my Voice.
My eyes popped wide open. Fang was watching me with concern. “Now what?”
“I know what we have to do,” I said. “Wake everyone up.”
“This way,” I said, walking in the darkness of the tunnels. It was as if a detailed map was imprinted on my retinas, so I could see it laid over reality, tracing the path we needed to follow. If this map effect was part of my life forever, I would go nuts, but right now it was dang useful.
One other thing I guess I should mention-I was really, really afraid now, more afraid than I’d ever been before, and I didn’t even know why. Maybe I didn’t want to know the truth. Also, my head was throbbing, and that had me a little crazy too. Was I approaching my expiration date? Was I going to die? Was I just going to fall over and be gone from the world and my friends?
“Did the Voice tell you about this, Max?” Nudge poked at me and asked.
“Kind of,” I answered.
“Great,” I heard Iggy mutter, but I ignored him. Every step was bringing us closer to the Institute-I could feel it. We were finally about to have our questions answered, and also possibly fight the worst fight of our lives. But our curiosity was so compelling: Who were we? How had they taken us from our parents? Who had grafted avian DNA into us and why? My mind shied away from the parent question. I really didn’t know if I could stand to find out. But everything in me burned to know the other whys and wherefores. I wanted names. I wanted to know who was accountable. I wanted to know where they lived. “Okay, now the tunnel splits,” I said, “and we take the one with no tracks.”
Angel’s hand was in mine, small and trusting. The Gasman was still dopey with sleep, occasionally stumbling. Iggy had one finger in Fang’s belt loop.
We were looking for a rusted grate set in the floor. In my dream, I had seen it at the crossroads of two tunnels, so it had to be here. But I didn’t see it. I stopped, and the others stopped behind me.
“It has to be here,” I said under my breath, peering into the darkness.
Don’t think about what has to be, Max. Think about what is.
I set my jaw. Can’t you just tell me stuff straight out? I thought. Why did everything have to be like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping” and all?
But okay. What was here, then? I closed my eyes and just sensed where I was, consciously letting any impression at all come to me. I felt like such a total dweeb.
Then I just walked forward, eyes shut, trying to sense where we should go. Instinctively, I felt I should stop. So I stopped. I looked down.
There, at my feet, was the dim outline of a large rusted grate.
Well, aren’t you special, I told myself. “It’s over here,” I called.
The grate pulled up easily, its screws disintegrating into rusty powder as Fang, Iggy, and I pulled. It came loose, and we set it aside.
Below it was a manhole with rusted U-shaped handholds set into one side. I lowered myself over the edge and started climbing down into the sewer system of New York City.
What a destiny.
Finally, I had to ask the Voice a question. HAD TO ASK. Am I going to die? Is that what this is all about?
There was a pause, a long one, really agonizing, the worst.
Then the Voice decided to answer. Yes, Max, you are going to die. Just like everybody else.
Thank you, Confucious.
This may surprise you, but the sewer system of a burg with eight million people is even less delightful than you might imagine. We climbed down the manhole one by one and ended up standing on a grimy tiled ledge maybe two feet wide. Above us, the tunnel curved around, some fourteen feet across, and below our ledge was a swiftly moving current of filthy wastewater.
“Bleah,” said Nudge. “This is so gross. When we get out of here, I want someone to spray me with, like, disinfectant.”
Angel stuffed Celeste up under her shirt.
“Max?” said the Gasman. “Are those, um, rats?”
Lovely. “Yes, those do appear to be either rats or mice on steroids,” I said briskly, trying not to shriek and climb the walls like a girly-girl.
“Jeez,” said Iggy with disgust. “You’d think they’d want to live in a park or something.”
Ahead of us was a four-way intersection of tunnels, like a big cross. I hesitated, then turned left. Several minutes later, I stopped, completely and utterly without a clue.
Hello, Voice? I thought. A little help here, please.
I had no hope that the Voice would respond, but if it did, it would probably say something like, If a tree falls in a forest, does it still-
I looked down, then sucked in my breath so fast I almost choked. / was standing on a translucent platform suspended high over the sewer system. I wanted to scream, feeling off-balance and scared. Below me I could see another Max, looking like a deer caught in headlights, and the rest of the flock staring at me. Fang reached out and took the other Max’s arm, and I felt it, but no one was with me.
When are you going to trust me, Max? said the Voice. When are you going to trust yourself?
“Maybe when I don’t feel completely bonkers,” I snarled.
I swallowed hard and tried to get a grip. Tentatively, I glanced down again at the translucent surface. As I watched, faint lines of light tracked the path behind us, where we’d already been. Then the lines continued through the tunnels, like a neon This Way sign.
Quickly, I glanced up but saw only the yucky yellow-tiled arch covered with mold-no glass ceiling. Fang was still holding my arm, looking at me intently.
I gave him an embarrassed smile. “You must be so sick of looking at me with concern.”
“It is getting stale,” he said. “What happened? This time, I mean.”
“I don’t even want to explain,” I said, wiping clammy sweat off my forehead. “You’d have me committed to a madhouse.”
I stepped carefully around him and led the others forward. Some sections of the tunnel were lit dimly from open grates high above us, other parts were dark and dismal. But I was never lost, never uncertain, and after what felt like miles, I stopped again because it felt like it was time to. ‘Cause, like, the feng shui was right, you know? Ugh.
As we stood staring around ourselves in the darkness, avoiding our chittering little rat friends, I saw why we were there.
Set into one cruddy, disgusting sewer wall was an almost completely hidden gray metal door.
“We’re here, gang. We made it.”
Don’t get too excited. The door was locked, of course.
“Okay, guys,” I said softly. “Can any of us open locks with our minds? Speak up now.”
No one could.
“Iggy, then.” I moved out of the way and pulled him gently to the door. His sensitive fingers reached out and skimmed the door, feeling its almost indistinguishable edges, hovering around the keyhole. Like someone was going to come down here with a key.
“Okay,” Iggy muttered. He pulled his little lock-picking kit out of his pocket, as I knew he would. Even though I had confiscated it for forever only two months ago, after he picked the lock on my closet at home.
Home. Don’t even think about it. You no longer have a home. You’re home-less.
Carefully, Iggy selected a tool, changed his mind, took out another one. Angel shifted from foot to foot, looking nervously at the rats, who were growing creepily curious about us.
“They’re going to bite us,” she whispered, clutching my hand, patting Celeste through her grimy shirt. “I can read their minds too.”
“No, sweetie,” I said softly. “They’re just afraid of us. They’ve never seen such huge, ugly… creatures before, and they want to check us out.”
I was rewarded with a tiny smile. “We’re ugly to them. Right.”
It took Iggy three minutes, which was a personal record for him, breaking the old four-and-a-half-minute record required by the three locks on my closet.
Iggy, Fang, and I gripped the edge of the door with our fingernails and pulled-there was no doorknob. Slowly, slowly, the immensely heavy door creaked open.
Revealing a long, dark, endless staircase ahead of us. Going down. Of course.
“Yeah, this is what we needed,” Fang muttered. “A staircase going down to the Dark Place.”
Iggy blew out his breath, less than thrilled. “You first, Max.”
I put my foot on the first step.
You’re on your own now, Max, said my Voice. See you later.
My headache was back, worse than before. “Let’s keep it moving,” I called over my shoulder.
Unlike the sewer, there wasn’t even far-off light on the stairs, so it was pitch black. Fortunately, we could all see pretty well in the dark. Especially Iggy.
The steps seemed endless, and there was no handrail. I guess whoever built this wasn’t too concerned with safety.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Fang asked softly.
“We’re approaching our destination,” I said, descending into the darkness. “We’re homing in on the answers we’ve dreamed about getting our whole lives.”
“We’re doing what your Voice has told us to do,” he said.
I was wary. “Yeah? The Voice has been okay so far, right?”
There was a bottom at last. “Here we are,” I said, my heart pounding.
“There’s a wall in front of you,” said Iggy.
I reached out in the blackness, and a few feet away, my outstretched fingers touched a wall, then a door, then a doorknob. “Door,” I said. “Might need you, Iggy.”
I turned the knob, just to see, and lo and behold-the door began to open.
We were all silent. The door swung all the way open without a sound, and a gentle wash of fresh, cool air wafted over us. After the fetid, dank stench of the sewers, it was amazing.
Feeling like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, I stepped forward, my filthy shoes sinking into thick carpet. Yes, carpet.
Dim lights showed me another door, and, almost shrieking with tension, I opened it.
This all suddenly seemed horribly easy, suspiciously easy, scarily easy.
We went through this second door, then stopped and stared.
We were in a lab, a lab just like the one back at the School, thousands of miles away in California.
“We’re in the Institute,” I said.
“Uhm, is that a good thing?” asked Gazzy.
“Holy [insert a swear word of your choice here],” Fang said, stunned.
“No kidding,” I said. There were banks of computers taller than me. And tables with first-class lab equipment. Dry-erase boards covered with diagrams-many of which I’d seen during my brain attacks. Things were in “sleep” mode, quietly humming but not working-it wasn’t yet dawn.
We wove our way among the tables, trying to take it all in while quaking in our boots. I knew there were Erasers in this building-I could feel them.
Then I saw one computer still on, its screen bright, data being processed as we watched. This could be it-our chance to find out about our past, our parents, the whole amazing enchilada.
“Okay, guys,” I said quietly. “Fan out, stay on guard, watch my back. I mean it! I’m going to try to hack in.”
I climbed on the lab stool in front of the counter and grabbed the computer mouse.
I cracked my knuckles, making Fang wince. Well, it could only be about a hundred million different things, I thought. How hard could it be?
I started typing.
I won’t bore you with the whole list of what was rejected. I was thankful that the system didn’t lock me out after three bad tries. But “School.”
“Flock,” and a whole lot of others didn’t cut it.
“This is pointless,” I said, my nerves frayed.
“What’s wrong, Max?” Nudge asked softly, coming to stand close to me.
“Who am I kidding?” I said. “There’s no way for me to crack the password. We’ve come all this way for nothing. I’m such a loser! I can’t stand it!”
Nudge leaned closer and touched the monitor with a finger, angling it so she could see better. She read the screen, her lips moving silently. I wanted to push her away, but I didn’t want to be pointlessly mean.
Nudge closed her eyes.
“Nudge?” I asked.
Her hand fanned out on the monitor, as if pressing closer for warmth.
“Hello?” I said. “What are you doing?”
“Um, try big x, little /, little n, big p, the number seven, big o, big h, little j, and the number four,” she said in a whisper.
I stared at her. Across the room, Fang was watching us, and my eyes met his.
Quickly, before I forgot, I typed in what she’d said, seeing the letters show up as small dots in the password box.
I hit Enter, and the computer whirred to life, a list of icons popping up on the left-hand side of the screen.
We were in.
I stared at Nudge, and she opened her eyes slowly. A bright smile crossed her face. “Did it work?”
“Yeah, it worked,” I said, stunned. “Where’d you get it?”
“The computer,” she said, looking pleased. “Like, when I touched it.” She reached out and touched it again. “I can see the person who works here. It’s a woman, with frizzy red hair. She drinks way too much coffee. She typed in the password, and I can feel it.”
“Wow,” I said. “Touch something else.” Nudge went to the next chair and put her hand on it. She closed her eyes and, a few moments later, smiled. “A guy sits here. A baldie. He bites his nails. He went home early yesterday.” Opening her eyes, she looked at me happily. “I have a new skill!” she said. “I can do something new! This is so cool!”