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Billy was not asleep. He was aware of the others’ conversation. More aware of it than they could ever be.
His ears heard their words. He sensed feelings that rose, fell, shifted and mixed like notes in a complicated piece of music. Nine minds harmonizing.
Mo’Steel’s excitement. 2Face’s smug satisfaction with finally being in charge. Jobs’s curiosity. Dr. Cohen’s loneliness for her husband. 2Face’s worry. Kubrick’s tender feelings towards 2Face. 2Face’s indifference towards Kubrick. Kubrick’s fury with 2Face’s indifference. Edward’s cozy, sleepy response to seeing his mother’s face in a dream.
Some of the emotions came and went almost faster than Billy could register them. Others- like Olga’s affection for her son- never wavered.
Finally Billy closed his mind to the cacophony. He spun the dial and tried to tune into what else was happening on the ship.
Mother. She was weak, deteriorating fast. Only an echo of what she had been. But still alive. Still dangerous. She was directing thousands of Squids all over the ship, preparing them to go into battle to protect her.
Again Billy spun the dial.
Far away, like fireworks in the next town, the minds of the other Remnants. They were chiming the same high notes over and over. Fear. Indecision. Moral outrage. Anger.
Billy sat up. “Something is happening to the others. They’re-“ Billy hesitated, unsure of what adjective to choose when so many fit.
The same panicked high notes. Much clearer, closer. Coming from Mo’Steel and Kubrick.
“Riders!” Mo’Steel shouted. “There has to be thirty of them, coming this way!”
Panic, indecision, fear. The emotions swarming around him made Billy dizzy, nauseous.
“Run!” 2Face ordered.
From the Riders came a chorus of shrieks like the brakes of a runaway train. Their battle cry.
Jobs searching through a field. Unable to find his younger brother because his skin had turned straw colored and blended into the grass. “Edward! Edward, where are you?”
Edward sitting up with a confused, sleepy expression. Jobs pulling him to his feet, urging him forwards.
They were running. Billy with 2Face, Jobs, Edward, Kubrick, and Mo’Steel ahead of him and the others behind. Running the same direction they’d been heading. Only now the Riders were chasing them.
Down the hill. Slipping, sliding, grass slapping them in the face, unable to see where their feet were landing. Edward fell and rolled until Mo’Steel grabbed him and yanked him up. The bottom of the hill. Water. They splashed through and started up the hill on the other side.
Pointless, futile. They were inchworms, trying to outrun greyhounds. The Riders on their hoverboards are closing fast, yelling their bloodthirsty cry.
Billy heard the others’ thought, jumbled together like a panic variety pack. Horrifying images of death. Spears piercing flesh. A bloodied head held aloft, eyes staring. A frantic Rider mouth disgorging a human skull.
The worst were Noyze and Dr. Cohen. They’d never seen Riders and what they imagined was even worse than reality- floods of blood, enormous mouths with rows of teeth, human bodies roasted over fires like chickens on a rotisserie.
Billy couldn’t block the other’s minds out. Couldn’t concentrate on blocking them and running at the same time. They were too persistent, too panicked.
Noyze cried out. Billy shot a look toward the sound. He saw her topple backward, arms flung out, mouth open. She fell and disappeared into the tall grass.
“Someone help!” Dr. Cohen shouted.
Then the Riders were on them, the grass shushing aside to reveal a swarm of hoverboards, each one topped by a warrior with his spear at the ready. The Riders’ eating mouths gnashed. They shrieked so loudly that Billy covered his ears. What could the humans do? They were defenseless. The Riders were closing in. Ten feet. Five!
“Get down!” 2Face bellowed. “Hide in the grass.”
Billy dropped onto his hands and knees and then onto his belly. His face hit the dirt. He tasted gritty soil on his tongue.
A crash to his right. The grass waved and Violet rolled into view. They stared at each other, eyes wild, bot daring to talk. Billy was happy it was Violet. Happy that the last thing he would see was her pretty face.
Riders! Two, seve, ten hoverboards rushing at them, blocking out the sky and then-
They were past!
Past. And Billy was still alive. He blinked. Violet stared, too shocked to move.
Billy stood up. Shaky, dirty, confused. He offered Violet a hand. She got up, brushed the dirt and grass off her dress. Billy turned 360 degrees and saw the heads of his friends appearing in the tall grass around him. The Riders had already crested the next hill. Their cries were fading into the distance. Violet and Billy began to walk toward 2Face, toward where all of the others were gathering.
Dr. Cohen had a wide, amazed smile. She gave Noyze a sideways hug. 2Face was counting heads like a teacher on a field trip. “Everyone is here,” she said briskly.
“You okay?” Olga asked Mo’Steel.
“Fine, Mom. You?” Mo’Steel asked.
“A few scrapes and scratches,” Olga said. “Nothing serious.”
“Why didn’t they wipe us out?” Edward asked.
Jobs shook his head. “Good question.”
“They sure seemed to be in a hurry,” Violet said.
“Maybe the fight has already started,” Jobs said.
“Let’s just say we were lucky and leave it at that. We’ve got to reach the bridge. Time to move.” 2Face.
“The others,” Billy said. “Tate. Yago. Something is happening to them. Something bad.”
Jobs, Violet and Mo’Steel exchanged looks.
“Can we help them?” Noyze asked.
Billy shrugged. “I-I’m not sure where they are.”
One by one, the others turned to 2Face. Waited for her to decide.
“Time to move,” She said.
The Riders were preparing for battle. Half a dozen Chiefs, plus Tamara with the Baby on her back, crouched together in a circle. They drew in the peaty soil with sticks, arguing in their strange clicking language. Generals planning strategy.
The remaining Riders- the ones Tate thought of as the troops- seemed to be killing time. They fished in the copper-colored seas, built fires, sharpened spears and boomerangs, and drank from small green flasks they removed from their bandoleers.
Tate sat against a tree, eating a piece of fish. One of the Riders had given the little group of humans a crude bowl full of the charred eel-like creatures. The fish were surprisingly delicious, flavored with the smoke from the fire. All Tate could wish for was some salt and pepper. And maybe a plate, a napkin, and a fork and spoon.
“Watch out for the bones,” Rodger Dodger said. He was nearby, leaning against another one of the endless trees.
T.R. and Burroway were farther off, poking a fire they’d built, seemingly lost in their thoughts or regrets. Tate had no desire to join them. Yago was talking quietly and urgently to Anamull and D-Caf. The boys both looked anxious to escape.
“Lots of little bones,” Rodger Dodger warned her.
“I’ll be careful.” The others were ignoring Rodger Dodger, so Tate had encouraged him to sit with her. He wasn’t a bad kid.
“My dad got a trout bone caught in his throat once,” Rodger Dodger said, starting to giggle. “We were camping. The closest hospital was about fifty miles away and Dad gagged and gagged and finally threw up all over the car.”
Tate smiled. “Was he okay?”
“Yeah.” Rodger Dodger sobered up. “But it doesn’t really matter too much now, does it?”
Tate didn’t say anything. She wondered what Rodger Dodger had been like back on Earth. Probably just a kid, playing with his video games and doing homework. Thinking about how much his life had changed made Tate sad.
The Remnants tended to think of themselves as lucky. After all, they were the ones who survived. But maybe they’d gotten that backwards. Maybe Rodger Dodger was right and the lucky ones were the ones who had perished before humans ever heard of the Rock.
Tate watched Tamara and the Baby separated from the ever-growing group of Riders and approached T.R. and Burroway’s fire. Tamara put the Baby down and helped herself to some of the food. The men moved silently away as Tamara crouched down and began to eat. Exactly the chance Tate had been waiting for.
“I’ll be back,” Tate told Rodger Dodger. She stood up and approached the fire. She picked up a piece of fish and then gave Tamara a tentative smile. “Not bad, huh?”
Tamara’s face was like ston. Her eyes showed no warmth, no recognition, no humanity. She could have been a machine.
The Baby reacted by baring its pointy little white teeth at Tate. It crawled between Tamara and Tate and glared in Tate’s direction.
“I get the message,” Tate said coldly to the Baby. Her stomach was twisting with fear, but she refused to show it. Nobody bullied her. Nobody.
She longed to put a hand on Tamara’s shoulder, to let her know that she wasn’t alone. But that wasn’t happening- not with the Baby standing guard.
Reluctantly, Tate retreated to her spot under the trees. Rodger Dodger had dozed off, still sitting up.
Tate flashed back on the one moment she’d seen pure humanity shining from Tamara’s eyes: When the Baby had transformed into a Shipwright. Then, when the Baby was strong enough to move and speak for itself, the connection with Tamara had been broken. For those brief moments, Tamara had seemed lost. Tate regretted not approaching her then, not trying to convince her to resist the Baby’s control.
So she had missed one opportunity. That didn’t mean she could give up. She just had to try again.
The answer was obvious: When the Baby consumed another Blue Meanie. It looked as if the Baby was going to have plenty of opportunities, considering the enormous ranks of Riders who were about to declare war on the Meanies.
Tate wasn’t thrilled with the idea of turning the Meanies into enemies. The humans’ survival seemed precarious enough already. Why antagonize a group of aliens that possessed superior firepower?
She wondered if the Meanies already thought of them as enemies. Mother had forced the humans to attack the Meanies. The battle had been ridiculous-with Yago and his toadies riding in on horseback and the rest of them dressed up like extras from a Civil War regiment. The humans had been completely out-gunned. They were lucky the Meanies hadn’t turned it into a total massacre.
And then there was Billy.
Could it be that the Baby was interested in Billy?
Or scared of him?
Tate felt lightning-struck. Maybe she was wrong about the Baby wanting to use Billy or being scared of him. But even if she was wrong, Billy was the strongest person among them and the most able to help them.
He should know what the Baby was up to.
Tate sat up on her heels, full of energy but unsure of exactly what to do.
First things first. Is she was right about the Baby, she had to warn Billy and the others about what was going on. Maybe, if she could find the others quickly, she could be back before the battle began, before the Baby could absorb any more Meanies.
Tate crawled over to Rodger Dodger and shook his shoulder. “Wake up,” she whispered.
Rodger Dodger opened his eyes, silently alert.
“I’m going to go look for the others,” Tate told him as quiely as possible. “We need to warn them about Tamara and the Riders.”
Rodger Dodger bit his lip. “Can I come?”
Tate nodded and got up. “Follow me. Quietly.” She turned toward the woods and instantly noticed a figure among the trees- not five feet away.
And she could tell from his expression that he had heard everything.