Authors: Margaret Peterson Haddix
“Well, look at you,” someone said, the innocent words laced with such menace that they seemed to be saying something else entirely.
Gideon would come to my rescue if I cried out, wouldn’t he?
she wondered. And then she was disgusted with herself, because wasn’t she there to rescue
? Was she so helpless that she couldn’t survive someone speaking to her?
Automatically, she glanced ahead, scanning the crowd for another glimpse of Gideon.
Gideon was gone.
Tessa almost gasped, but the follower didn’t seem puzzled.
The follower scurried three steps forward and then darted into a dark alley.
I am a fool,
Tessa thought, and stepped blindly after the others.
Tessa stood for a moment at the edge of the alleyway, hoping her eyes would adjust. When they didn’t—when the darkness before her stayed inky and indecipherable—her brain threw something at her from one of those old spy novels she’d read.
It’s not like the street behind me is all that bright, but anyone looking out from this alley would see my silhouette….
She dropped down to the ground, her hands and knees landing in a puddle. She told herself it was only water, but that was probably too much to hope for. She stayed low and listened, her ears straining to make up for everything she couldn’t see.
She heard voices. First Gideon’s, tight and almost angry: “That was the price we agreed on.”
Then a stranger’s, low and indistinct.
Tessa edged closer, deeper into the darkness. She moved slowly, her hands sweeping out before her. Her fingers brushed sleek, curved metal—the side of some sort of vehicle. In this part of the city she would have expected rusted fenders, smashed-up bumpers. But this vehicle, whatever it was, didn’t seem to have so much as a dent.
“I know what I’m doing,” Gideon said, the anger almost palpable in his voice.
Tessa thought that he and whoever he was talking to—the follower? Someone else?—were probably several feet away. She couldn’t get too close for fear of running into one of them in the darkness.
Footsteps sounded, coming back toward Tessa.
Desperately, Tessa felt down lower on the side of the vehicle. Maybe she could hide underneath it. Lower, lower … her fingers hit some sort of latch, and a door slid open with a tiny whoosh of air.
The footsteps were getting closer.
You don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on here,
Tessa’s brain screamed at her.
It’s something dangerous—hide!
Tessa slipped in through the open door. She felt a seat before her—a leather seat, maybe?—and she scooted past it. She felt around, discovering a wide, flat, open space behind the seat. Maybe this was a van? Then Tessa found a padded column in the open space, and she shifted over to crouch on the other side of that.
Just in time, too, because the next time she heard the voices, they seemed to be coming from the open doorway.
“I know how to operate it perfectly well,” Gideon said.
There was a soft thump—Gideon stepping into the vehicle?
“We’d hate to see you destroy your investment,” the stranger replied, and this time he was close enough that Tessa could understand every word. His voice was oily and untrust-worthy. “We have your best interest at heart.”
“I didn’t pay you enough for that,” he muttered.
Something clicked, and the barest amount of light glowed from near the seat in the front. Tessa huddled lower. Her foot touched something soft—a blanket?—and she pulled it over herself.
There was another soft click—the door closing. Tessa
listened hard, desperate to know if the stranger had been sealed inside or outside. But no more voices spoke.
The floor vibrated softly beneath Tessa, as some sort of engine purred to life. The vehicle moved—forward at first, and then, as it went faster and faster, not just forward but also …
For a moment Tessa couldn’t make sense of this.
Up? How could we be going up?
Surely her senses were scrambled; surely she was just confused.
But she felt herself rising and rising and rising, along with the forward motion, and finally her brain supplied an explanation:
Oh. This isn’t a car or a van. It’s a plane.
Of course, she had never been in a plane in her life. She’d never even seen one up close, only in pictures and news footage: the proud military jets soaring through the sky, defending the border. The helicopters ferrying military officials into or out of danger. The bombers speeding off toward the enemy lands …
Gideon flew a bomber in the war,
Could this be a bomber they were flying in now? Was he headed off on some secret military mission?
Tessa remembered the flat way Gideon had said,
I killed one thousand six hundred and thirty-two people. Do you still think I’m a hero?
She remembered the devastated look in his eyes. She couldn’t imagine him dropping any more bombs.
Then where were they going? What was he doing?
Tessa couldn’t think of any possible answers to either of those questions. It was too hard to think with all the weird forces of flight tugging at her: the floor rising beneath her, lifting her higher and higher, even as gravity seemed to be trying harder and harder to pull her back down. Then everything tilted, and she slid backward. She grabbed for something to hold on to, but there was nothing within her grasp except the blanket, which was sliding too.
“Oh, yeah!” Gideon cried from the front of the plane. “I know how to fly!”
Nobody answered him. Did that mean that the other man was still down below, back on the ground?
The blanket had slipped off Tessa’s head, so she dared to look up. As far as Tessa could tell, Gideon was sitting in front of a dimly lit instrument panel. She couldn’t see anyone in the copilot’s seat beside him, but from this angle only a very tall, very large man would be visible.
She had to know if Gideon was alone or not.
Using the column and the wall as a support, Tessa clawed her way up to a standing position. She swayed unsteadily with the jerking and tilting of the plane.
“Turbulence?” Gideon muttered. “Or—are there still some external controls I need to override? What’s hidden in the coding?”
He began frantically pressing buttons and pulling on controls. A computer screen glowed to life above the instrument panel, providing more light. But Gideon was flashing through various commands so quickly that the light was there and gone one instant to the next.
Tessa glimpsed a shape in the copilot’s seat, but it was too small to be a person. Was it a backpack, maybe? A duffel bag? She rose on her tiptoes, wanting to be sure—
And the plane lurched to the side, slamming Tessa against a window.
“Oh, no! You are not in control anymore!” Gideon screamed from the pilot’s seat. “This is my plane now!”
Tessa decided this probably wasn’t the best time to spring forward and announce,
Guess what? I’m coming with you!
She found a strap to hang on to beneath the window, and clung to it for dear life. She realized she’d had her eyes squeezed shut ever since the plane had tilted sideways. But the jerking movement seemed to have stopped for the moment, so Tessa dared to open her eyes again.
The entire city lay beneath her.
And for now, for once, it was
The darkness hid all the dirt and despair and desperation. Under the night sky the city’s lights stood out like gleaming jewels. The streetlights were lined up like beads on a necklace; glowing windows crowned the skyline. Tessa stared in amazement, her awe too great for her even to gasp. And then, as the city receded, the lights blurred into one another, all the patterns growing clear. It was a broken pattern, the string of streetlights missing entirely in one section of the city.
It was the same section where the bottom of every building stood in darkness.
Is that where Gideon and the follower and I were walking?
Is it possible the lights went out only in that one area? Why? Was it on purpose? Who did that?
These were more questions Tessa couldn’t answer.
At the front of the plane Gideon was screaming even louder.
“No! No! Override!”
The plane dipped and swooped wildly, the window under Tessa’s cheek spinning to show her the sky, the city, the sky, the city, each view little more than a flash before it vanished. And then the plane lurched, and the hand strap Tessa was holding on to was jerked from her grasp. She plunged backward, falling, falling, falling …
She landed, hitting hard. Her head struck the corner of something—a handle? A partially open door?
And then everything went black.
Tessa woke to light.
She was bathed in it, swimming in it—it was the most glorious light she’d ever seen. Even with her eyes still closed, she could feel it teasing against her eyelids:
Wake up! Rise up! It’s such a bright world out here!
Tessa opened her eyes.
For a moment she was too sun-dazzled to actually see anything. But then her eyes focused on something in the light: Gideon.
He had his white uniform on again, and Tessa tried groggily to remember if he might have been wearing that last night and she just hadn’t noticed. But he was bent over the copilot’s seat, as if tidying up, and Tessa figured out what must have happened.
He was wearing other clothes last night. He had the uniform in his duffel bag or backpack or whatever he carried onto the plane. He changed while I was … sleeping.
Tessa was still trying to put together everything that had happened the night before: the darkness, the follower, Gideon’s conversation with the oily-voiced man, the crazily swooping plane. It was still too hard to make sense of, too hard to reconcile the darkness and the screaming of the night before with this glowing vision before her eyes now: Gideon in his uniform.
Tessa wanted to say something, to get Gideon to turn around and notice her. But even in the sunlight she wouldn’t be gleaming. She could feel something caked in her hair—blood?—and her face felt puffy and bruised. She looked down and saw that both her sweatshirt and her ragged jeans were streaked with mud.
She remembered what she’d been called the last time she’d seen Gideon in his uniform:
gnat … flea … slug …
Tessa calling out to Gideon now would be like a gnat trying to speak to a god.
Gideon smoothed down his already perfect hair. Tessa realized the plane had stopped moving; everything was still. In the absence of any other motion or sound, Tessa was acutely aware of Gideon taking a deep breath. His shoulders rose, resolutely. He did not let the breath back out right away. Instead he took a single step toward the door and hit a switch.
The door slid open, the light pouring over Tessa in even greater abundance. How could Gideon not see her now? But he wasn’t looking in her direction. He was standing in the doorway, facing out into the blinding light.
Tessa saw him take another deep breath.
“I am sorry,” he said in a booming voice. Tessa’s eyes were too light-dazed to see who he was speaking to.
Gideon kept talking.
“I came to apologize. You can arrest me, kill me—punish me however you see fit. I am the one who killed your countrymen in this place….”
In a flash Tessa understood.
Gideon had flown them into enemy territory.
He’d flown them to the very spot where he’d killed all those people.
He was willing to be killed too.
No—he was asking for it.
Tessa’s body reacted as quickly as her mind. Before she was even conscious of moving, she was already on her feet and running toward Gideon. Her legs tangled in the blanket, but she kept going, diving for Gideon. She knocked him sideways onto the floor of the plane, so if any of the enemy were already trying to shoot him, the bullets would just whiz harmlessly past. But this wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to tackle him, to hold him down, the mud from her ragged clothes rubbing off on his spotless white uniform. Guns could be reloaded, re-aimed, fired again and again and again.
Tessa rose up and slammed her hand against the control on the wall.
The door slid shut.
“What? Who? But …
?” Gideon said. His eyes focused on her face, and he wailed, “Noooo … Now I’m going to be responsible for your death too!”
He curled inward, almost in the same pose of despair Tessa had seen him in that day she’d taken him flowers.
“No one’s going to die,” Tessa said, with more confidence than she felt. “Not me, not you—you’re going to get us out of here!”
For a moment Gideon didn’t move, and Tessa had to tug him toward the pilot’s seat.
“Fly!” she commanded.
Gideon looked at her again, and he seemed to snap to, scrambling into the pilot’s seat under his own power.
“Yes, yes, I have to try,” he mumbled. “I can’t let …”
He didn’t even bother finishing the sentence. He was a flurry of motion, hitting levers, punching buttons, tapping the computer screen.
Tessa cast an anxious glance toward the door she’d just slammed shut. She expected it to spring open again any minute now and reveal a cluster of evil-looking soldiers pointing guns at her and Gideon. She stumbled over toward the switch she’d hit before.
“Is there any way to lock—”
,” Gideon snapped at her. “Get down! The window—”
There were actually two windows: the one she’d had her face pressed against the night before, and another one on the other side of the plane, directly across from it. Those windows were the source of the light that had wakened Tessa so dramatically only a few moments ago. But, from this angle, she couldn’t really see out of them now. Tessa would have expected a third window at the front of the plane, so the pilot could see out to fly, but the computer screen lay there instead.
The computer screen showed only words:
System not engaged. Troubleshoot?