Authors: Matt London
THE BUS DRIVER'S VOICE BLATTED OVER THE INTERCOM: “STUDENTS. PLEASE EQUIP YOUR
backpacks and line up at the front of the bus. We are coming up on ISES.”
Evie shouldered her backpack and pushed her way to the front of the line. School was a complete drag, but the trip there was the best part of her day.
Two boys in front of her were debating the merits of a new documentary film on the fall of the Roman Empire. “Come on, boys! We don't have all century!”
Rick hissed from behind her, “Evie! Leave them alone.”
Evie didn't have time to be polite. As soon as they got to school, she would be in Vesuvia's territory. Evie shuddered just thinking about the awful things Vesuvia had done to classmates who had supposedly wronged her. One time a boy called Vesuvia's haircut “unusual.” At first it looked like she was cool with it, but that afternoon a pack of pink robo-wolves
appeared and chased him around the playground. The boy ended up transferring to military school; he said he needed a less stressful environment. Then last year there was the girl who accidentally wore the same dress as Vesuvia on the first day of school. Vesuvia lit the offensive garment on fire. That girl's eyebrows never grew back right.
Evie shook like an industrial paint mixer. The eighth continent could not come soon enough. Then Evie could escape the International School for Exceptional Students and never go near Vesuvia Piffle again.
These final moments on the way to school might have been the last happy seconds she would ever have as a student at ISES, and she was not about to let a couple of yapping snails ruin it for her.
“Okay!” the driver said. “We're over the target. Go! Go! Go!”
The door folded open and kids started filing out, tumbling through hundreds of feet of open sky toward the school below.
Evie could hear Rick behind her, his teeth chattering like castanets. The first time Evie had parachuted out of the busâreally a jumbo octo-blade helicopterâher bones had turned to marmalade. Now, though, it was a thrill, as it was for every single one of her classmates. Everyone, that is, but Rick. When he jumped, he still screamed like a baby goat.
“Just remember that even though you're a big wimp, I still love you,” Evie said to her brother.
Then she took a nosedive out the door.
The wind rushed past her ears as she plummeted toward the ground below. From a thousand feet up, she could see her entire school. A hexagonal wall surrounded the mountaintop campus, which was dotted with weathered brick buildings. Bright morning sunlight reflected off the solar panels that shingled each roof. On the big lawn in the center of campus, students from an earlier chopper-bus chatted in small groups.
Evie straightened her body and aimed for the lawn. When she reached the correct height, Evie tugged the pull-string on her backpack, and an apple-red parachute billowed out. The sudden jolt snapped her forward, and a moment later she landed gracefully in a crowd of eighth-grade boys.
“Hiya!” Evie smiled at them. They snickered and walked away. Okay, that wasn't too abnormal. The boys at school usually thought Evie was kind of weird.
Seconds later, Rick landed beside her. His feet slipped, and he toppled into the mud.
“I'd give that landing a nine-point-two,” Evie said sarcastically.
Rick wiped the mud off his glasses. “Don't worry. I have six changes of clothes just in case of emergencies like this.”
“Oh, phew, that's a big relief.”
“Yeah, I know, right? I really thought ahead.”
“Yeah, I thought you might only have had
. Then you'd really have been in trouble.”
“Four? Are you crazy? The school week has
days, and what ifâ” Rick paused as Evie started to snicker. “Very funny, Evie,” he concluded. Then he shambled off.
“See you after first period,” she replied with a mischievous smile.
Behind her, a girl shrieked. “No, Diana, you stupid toad! I want the cocoa butter scallops as an appetizer today at lunch. For my entree, I will have the spider makiâno, waitâthe chateaubriand.”
“Yes, Vesuvia. Of course, Vesuvia,” Diana Maple said, tapping notes frantically into her phone.
Evie glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she'd been seen. There sat Vesuvia Piffle on a park bench with a gaggle of friends. She was the biggest egomaniac in the school, and that was saying something, considering this was the International School for Exceptional Students. ISES was an expensive high-tech academy for the children of the world's richest and most important people. Skydiving and chateaubriand were just a couple of the many perks.
Yes, the International School for Exceptional Students might have been a perfect place, if it weren't for the kids who studied there. Example A: Vesuvia Piffle. Her hair was so blond it was nearly white, and at age eleven the rumor was she had already had a nose job and two face-lifts. She looked like a movie star, plastic and perfect. She carried a purse instead of a backpack, inside of which was a little pink robot that was always beeping and sticking its head out. Today the little robot was a pink turtle. Last week it had been a pink ferret.
Diana, by contrast, was wearing a misbuttoned blouse and a skirt that was on backward. She looked up from her phone as Evie tried to slink away. “Oh, hi, Evie. Good morning.”
“Um, hiÂ .Â .Â .” Evie glanced at Vesuvia to gauge her reaction. Her face was as impassive as a porcelain doll's.
The moment of silence that followed made Evie feel like she was an animal in a zoo that the other students had come to gawk at. Two of the girls in Vesuvia's gang whispered impassionedly to their esteemed leader, one in each ear. Vesuvia nodded slowly.
Evie tried to be diplomatic. “So, VesuviaÂ .Â .Â . about yesterday.”
“Whatever do you mean, Evie? It's fine.” Vesuvia smiled her movie star smile. “I know what it's like to have a daddy who is a complete loser. It's not your fault.”
“Okay, ummmÂ .Â .Â . uh, thanks. That's great. ErrÂ .Â .Â . see you later.” Evie gave a little wave and ran away before Vesuvia could say anything else. That wasn't nearly as bad as Evie had feared. Vesuvia seemed almost cool about the whole thing.
She raced into the student center to swap out her parachute for some textbooks before first period. The halls were packed with students on their way to class, cramming for tests, dueling holo-dragons, finishing last night's homework, and gossiping. Never a dull moment at ISES.
When she reached her locker, Evie pushed her thumb against the scanner, and the locker popped open.
And that's when the avalanche happened. Filthy, stinking garbage poured out. Brown oranges and fuzzy mushrooms tumbled to the floor. A rotten tomato landed on her shoes.
A dozen students burst out laughing at the sight, pointing fingers and screeching like harpies. Evie shriveled.
An envelope hung from the top of her locker on a strip of tape. Inside was a note:
In honor of the wonderful memories we shared in the Buhana Jungle, I thought I would give you this souvenir as a token of my appreciation.
Not knowing what to do, Evie fled, tears and legs both running as fast as they could to escape.
She sat in a stall in the girls' room and cried until the well went dry. After that humiliation, she could never show her face at this school again. Now she really had to complete her mission and make the eighth continent. She could never come back here.
Evie emerged to find the bathroom attendant standing there as stiffly as ever, like a “proper” servant, ignoring the puffy and soggy face of the girl who had been hiding on the toilet for twenty minutes.
“A moist towelette, Miss Lane? Some mouthwash? Perhaps a spritz of perfume?”
“No thanks, Danushka,” Evie said sadly, washing her hands in the automatic sink. Even the Bach preludes that played when she held her fingers under the faucet did little to improve her mood.
As she closed the door to the restroom, it occurred to Evie that she was twenty minutes late for first period. Not only was her social life devastated but a trash stasher had a bazooka to grind with her, and she might have jeopardized the mission to build the one thing that could get her out of ISES purgatory.
She poked herself in the forehead. “You had one job, Evie. One job!” She raced to her first-period class and slipped into her seat.
The instant she made contact with her chair, her teacher launched into a big lecture about punctuality and professionalism and how Evie Lane had just displayed neither. On a normal day this would have been the most humiliating thing everâliterally her entire class could hear Evie being reprimandedâbut today it was nothing compared to the crazy that was radiating from Vesuvia two desks over.
After the scolding, Vesuvia leaned over to Diana and whispered something in her ear. Diana turned to Evie and said, “Vesuvia wants to know if you found her gift and if you appreciated it.”
Evie leaned in, refusing to be intimidated. “You can tell Vesuvia that I appreciate that she is a sociopath.”
“Of course I am!” Vesuvia cheeped with a flip of her hair. “I'm the most social person in the whole school. But it's too late for compliments, Peevy Evie. I'm still going to ruin your life.”
The second half of first period was the longest twenty-five minutes of Evie's existence, and the moment the bell rang, she jumped up and raced out of the room, not giving Vesuvia an extra second to insult her. She nabbed Rick in the hall on the way to second period.
“You're so lucky that Mom checked our class attendance at the end of first period instead of the beginning,” Rick said as they wove their way through the crowded school. “Where were you?”
“I don't want to talk about it.” Evie hung her head. “So things with Mom went okay? She confirmed that we were here?”
“Yeah,” Rick conceded. “But that doesn't mean you should take risks like that.”
Evie ignored his advice. “Follow me,” she said, leading Rick out of the building and onto the finely manicured lawn where children played Segway polo after lunch. The other kids totally ignored Evieâprobably at Vesuvia's commandâas she and her brother crossed the field.
“Evie, maybe this is a bad idea,” Rick said. “I have a three-page worksheet due in second period.”
“Sorry, Ricky. Second period is canceled.” With a roar of white-hot hover engines, the
shot over the school like a fiery comet, assuming that burning space ice took on the shape of giant trees. “We're taking a field trip to Winterpole.”
THE WINTERPOLE HEADQUARTERS WAS A MASSIVE BUILDING ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF GENEVA FROM
Lane Mansion. At a distance, the concrete megastructure resembled an immense ant moundâa big dome pocked with alcoves and dark windows. Its halls and chambers went deep underground in a winding network.
2-Tor brought the
in for a smooth landing in front of the building. Rick and Evie exited the vehicle, each carrying a stack of papers. These documents were the permission slips necessary to enter Winterpole's main facility.
Rick was so worried he wouldn't have been surprised if his nose started spontaneously bleeding. Winterpole Headquarters. So much could go wrong. What if he'd made mistakes filling out the permission slips he'd downloaded from the Winterpole website? What if some administrator woke up on the wrong side of the bureaucracy and denied them admission irrespective of the forms? Worst of all, what if his brash sister's penchant for recklessness bungled the whole operation?
“Trust me,” she'd assured him on the ride over. “No one wants to build the eighth continent more than me. I'll be careful.”
Well, there's a first time for everything
, Rick thought optimistically as he and Evie approached the entrance to the building. The wide glass doors slid open with a hiss. Refrigerated air billowed into the warm morning like it was fleeing a crime.
The vast marble hall beyond the entrance looked like the inside of an igloo, its smooth walls leading up to a domed ceiling of marble panels that resembled packed snow. More doors than Rick could count led out of the room. At the center of the space was a bucket-shaped desk. A single administrator, in a crisp blue uniform, sat inside the bucket, towering over the immense empty space. A set of steep stairs led down from the desk. Save this one man, with matted black hair and Oreo-shaped sunglasses, the entire room was deserted.
Dozens of old-fashioned candlestick telephones hung from the ceiling. The administrator had one of the cones clutched to his ear. He nodded and muttered into the receiver, ignoring the Lane children completely.
Rick and Evie crossed the threshold, shivering in the wintry air.
The Lane siblings froze in their tracks.
Rising from his chair, the administrator opened the door beside his desk and descended the stairs. With each step on the waxed floor, his smart leather shoes squeaked like a dying rat. He waddled across the room, taking his sweet time, until he stood before Rick and Evie.
“Two penalties!” the administrator said. Up close, Rick could see that he was incredibly short. “One for each of you. Don't you know there is a penalty for entering Winterpole Headquarters without permission?”
“We just got here,” Rick said.
“And already two penalties! You must be wicked children indeed.” The administrator shoved his hand into his breast pocket and rooted around like he was looking for the toy at the bottom of a cereal box.
Rick and Evie exchanged a knowing glance. This guy was not going to make getting into Winterpole easy.
The administrator withdrew a stack of stapled tickets and scribbled on two of them furiously. He tore them off.
He handed one to Rick and one to Evie. “There you go. In the future I hope you will be more respectful of authority and protocol.”
Rick felt like he had forgotten to charge his Game Zinger before a long trip. Two minutes after trusting Evie and already he had a penalty from Winterpole. What would his mother say? Would the teachers at ISES put this on his permanent record? It would certainly have an effect on his ability to get into a top university.
Evie nudged him. “Rick, snap out of it. You're not going to jail. It's just a piece of paper.”
That was easy for her to say. She had lined a whole set of drawers with all the demerits she'd received at school. One more didn't mean anything to her.
The administrator squeaked on his heels and retreated to his desk. Up the stairs he went, then he plopped back down into his seat.
With that interruption behind him, and trying to shake the feeling that his future was in jeopardy, Rick started toward one of the doors.
The alarm blared. The administrator stood up from his chair, opened the door in his desk, and started the whole cycle again.
“Two penalties! Don't you listen when people talk to you?”
“What did we do this time?” asked Rick. He started to gasp like a fish on land.
The administrator handed out more tickets. “You still have not asked permission to enter Winterpole Head-quarters. Without permission, every step you take in this building is considered trespassing and a violation. Do you want me to throw you out of here?”
Rick hefted his stack of papers and said, “That will not be necessary. We have our permission slips right here.”
Startled, Evie dropped her permission slips with an echoing
A few loose sheets whirled through the air like feathers on the wind.
Evie ran around the lobby, gathering up the papers.
“Three penalties! You really are naughty,
“Now, wait a second,” Rick said. “We are asking permission to enter the headquarters. That is what you just told us to do!”
“One penalty is for this girl making an unseemly mess of Winterpole property. The other two are for failing to request permission to submit a permission slip to a Winterpole administrator.”
Rick's head was starting to hurt. “Wait a minute. You mean we need permission to ask for permission?”
“Of course you need permission to ask permission, you, you, you, youÂ .Â .Â . children!” the administrator stammered. “The rule is clearly stated in Winterpole Statute 47-X3. Don't you know ANYTHING?”
Evie snapped. “That's a stupid rule!”
“Evie!” Rick wiped his face to hide his embarrassment. “You're not helping.”
The administrator returned to his desk and sat down in a huff.
Rick cleared his throat. The noise echoed off the walls of the cavernous lobby. “UmÂ .Â .Â . excuse me. Mister Administrator?”
“What is it?” the administrator asked.
“We have these permission slips to enter Winterpole Headquarters. May we have permission to submit them to you for review?”
The administrator ambushed them with a courteous smile. “Winterpole reviews all permission slips submitted. It is but one of the many services we extend to the people of Earth. Please come up to the desk and submit your permission slips.”
Evie picked up her reassembled stack of papers and blew a loose lock of hair out of her face. “Suck-up,” she muttered, glaring at her brother.
Rick shrugged and approached the desk, each footstep creaking on the floor like he was walking on a pond that was barely frozen over. He had to stand on his toes to place his stack of papers in front of the administrator, then he did the same with Evie's, because she was too short to reach.
The administrator flipped through the papers. “What is your business at Winterpole?”
Rick was proud of the compromise he had come to with Evie regarding their cover story. “We are here to review the statutes to see if there is anything we can do to help our father, George Lane. He is under house arrest.”
“Oh, yes. I heard about that. Poachers are a deplorable bunch. No wonder you children are so poorly behaved.”
“He's not a poacher!” Evie said. “He was saving that bird. My dad has never killed an animal in his life.”
The administrator ignored the outburst. “Well, I don't know what you expect to find in the statutes to undo the punishment for your father's reprehensible crime, but these requests seem to be in order. It will take several weeks before we can complete our evaluation. Each error will result in a penalty. We reserve the right to revoke admittance if any errors are found. In the meantime, you are granted permission to enter Winterpole Headquarters.”
“Thank Tesla!” Rick breathed a huge sigh of relief. His mission objectives were complete. Time to advance to the next level.
“Where can we find access to Winterpole's computer database?” Evie asked the administrator.
He didn't look up from his paperwork. “Any of the doors on the western curve of the lobby will lead you thereÂ .Â .Â . eventually.”
Rick and Evie hurried across the room, Rick grabbing his sister's arm before she could sprint forward. Rick was certain running would result in another penalty. He shook his head, hoping his sister got the message to keep both feet on the ground, then chose a door that looked promising.
The administrator blushed. “Sorry! That was my mistake. Hand slipped and hit the buzzer. One penalty for me.”
Rick and Evie left the lobby as fast as they could.
The hall was no warmer than the foyer had been. On the plus side, Rick and Evie were alone. The minus side was that the walls, doors, and floor were painted the same dull beige of a forgotten decade. It was impossible to tell one place from another.
“Which way is the data room?” Evie asked.
Rick had no idea where it was, but he didn't want his sister knowing that. “I think it's this way. Follow me.”
The hall bent in a long curve. Doors branched off the corridor, but most had old-fashioned padlocks. Whenever they located an unlocked door, Evie opened it eagerly. But each time all they found inside was paperwork stacked to the ceiling.
“You would think they would recycle some of this stuff,” Rick said. “Or at least make digital copies. They must spend a fortune on ink.”
At the end of the hall, the kids saw a man and a woman in business suits come around the corner. Rick recognized the man instantly. “It's Mister Snow!” he whispered. “Quick, hide!”
The kids darted into the nearest room.
Glancing around, Rick couldn't believe their good luck. “We're inside Winterpole's database access room!” he exclaimed. Several white cubesâwhich Rick recognized as archaic computer monitorsâhung from the ceiling, swaying gently, each with keyboards dangling. Rick tapped the spacebar on one of the keyboards a few times, and the screen brightened.
“Awesome sauce!” Evie pumped her fist victoriously. “And now we search for Doctor Grant.”
One thing that Rick and Evie could agree on was that computers were the spellbooks of the real world. By coding a computer program, Rick could make the machine do anything he dreamed of, just like magic. When he was writing a piece of code, called a script, he felt like a genius wizard hunched over a cauldron at the top of a tall tower.
His latest incantation, which was really just a quickly scripted program that chugged through the data in the Winterpole network, was one of his usual masterpieces, but the search moved at a crawl on the obsolete computer. Then the results started to come in. Most of the files were old reports from the days when Winterpole monitored Doctor Grant. At around five years ago, the updates began to get much less frequent. “I guess he got harder to track,” Rick mused as he examined the files. The later reports were little more than rumored sightings of Doctor Grant in random places around the world.
“Hey, Rick, check this out!” Evie had located a different computer and was exploring the system. While Rick's programming style was meticulous, Evie never studied or practiced, so her coding was rough, aggressive, and prone to errors, much like Evie herself. “I found the master list of every infringement of Winterpole regulations. Look, here's Dad's file.”
“Evie, don't touch anything.” Rick did not have time for her dangerous curiosity.
She scrolled through her father's infractions. “Wow. This is longer than one of 2-Tor's lectures.”
Rick was about to ask Evie what she was talking about when he discovered the most recent report on Doctor Grant tucked away in an unmarked subfolder. “Here we go. Doctor Evan Grant was working on a top-secret construction project two years ago. It looks like he was inâ”
“You won't believe this! Dad's profile is available for editing. All I have to do is delete his infractions, and he should have a clean slate. Isn't that awesome?”
“Evie, I said do notâ”
But it was too late. With one push of the delete key, George Lane's many infractions vanished from the database. Evie grinned at her skeptical brother. Rick watched in horror as her computer screen turned the color of fresh blood, and all the lights in the database access room went dark.
Hazard lights along the floor flashed. Sirens blared so loud Rick felt like his head was going to pop like an alien puss bug.
“EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY! UNAUTHORIZED DATABASE ALTERATION DETECTED. DISPATCH SECURITY TO D.A.R. L1.”