I forced myself to calm down. Maybe there was still hope. “Pippen, when you snuck into Jon’s office back at the school, did you happen to take a key?”
“Of course not!” sniffed Pippen. “That would be stealing!”
I gritted my teeth. “Pippen. Simple question: Can you open this door?”
She examined the door closely by the light of her headlamp. “The door has a lip around the edge, so I can’t cut the bolt with my torch. I can try to pick the lock. But this looks a lot harder to pick than the lock on the safe at school.”
The school safe is a closet-sized room with a locking steel door. It’s where the clan keeps dangerous things like Tan’s drugs, Conner’s guns, and my modified Elmo doll. Pippen pulled out a small leather case with some slender metal tools.
“Wait a minute,” said Conner. “You’ve picked the lock on the safe at school?”
“Will I get in trouble if I say yes?”
I set the lantern on the floor. Pippen inserted a small ‘L’ shaped tool into the bottom of the lock and applied gentle pressure to it. Then she slid a slimmer tool into the lock, feeling around and humming happily to herself. After a few minutes she wiped the sweat off her forehead and switched to a different set of tools. There was no more humming. After ten minutes, she scowled and yanked the tools out.
“It’s got two rows of tumblers! Even I can’t pick it! Is there another way in?”
I looked at the walls to the side of the vault door. “Only the door is steel, the walls are concrete. We could break through the wall, but that might take a while.”
“How about crawling through the ceiling?” Pippen asked. “That’s how I get into Bonni’s room and Jon’s office back home.”
I watched closely while Pippen climbed onto Conner’s shoulders and pushed up on a ceiling tile. A big spider fell out and landed on my face. I yelled and swatted it to the floor and stamped on it five or six times.
“What kind of spider is it?” asked Tan curiously.
“The very flat kind,” I said.
Pippen slid the ceiling tile aside and carefully stuck her head up and aimed her headlamp around. “The vault has a cement top. No openings at all.”
“Are there any ventilation ducts or pipes running into the vault?” I asked.
Pippen jumped back down. “Nope. Nothing.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said, puzzled. “A closed room in a place this humid has to have ventilation. Otherwise things would get all moldy. Maybe they ran air to it through the floor, like in the computer room.”
“Callie!” said Pippen excitedly. “If there’s a vent, I can get under the floor in the computer room, crawl through the floor, up into the vault and open it from the inside!”
“No, you can’t,” I said.
“Sure I can! The safe at school has an emergency lever inside that opens the door. I’ll bet this one does too!”
“No, I mean I won’t let you do it. It’s a death trap! Did you see what it was like down there? There are cables and metal beams in the way. Even you wouldn’t fit. If you get stuck, there’s no way for us to get you out. And there are probably snakes down there. Even if you somehow got all the way to the vault, do you think you’d be able to just push the vent cover open? This isn’t a movie. You can’t do it. We’re just going to have to break through the wall.”
“Why won’t you let me try it? Do you really want to save Jon? Or are you afraid once he’s back, you won’t be the leader any more and you won’t get to boss us around?”
I turned on Pippen angrily. “I said we were going to save Jon, and I meant it! But we can’t risk one life to save another! How many times has Jon lectured us on how none of us are expendable? What do you think he’d say to us if we saved him, but lost someone else in the process? You know what? I hate being the stupid leader, and I hate having to make stupid decisions like this, but I am in charge, so I’m making it! You can’t do it, and that’s final!” Pippen glared at me, then stomped off as far away from me as she could get and still be in the lantern light. Barely. She sat down with her back to me. “Fine!” I shouted after her. “Great! Just spiff!” I turned back to Conner. “See what you can do with this wall.”
Conner grinned happily. “Finally! A problem that can be solved with violence!”
He unhooked Stanley from his belt and swung the hooked end hard at the concrete wall. Sparks flew and a concrete chip whizzed past my ear. I backed up a bit. Conner settled into a rhythm, striking the wall over and over.
Tan stood next to me and watched. In between whacks, he said, “You should go talk to Pippen.”
“Why? I’m not going to change my mind.”
Tan sighed. “You know, Callie, usually you’re a genius. But you’re really dumb about people.”
“Did I ever claim to understand people?” I shot back. “I understand machines! That’s my job! That’s what I do!”
“And nobody’s questioning your ability to do your job,” said Tan quietly, “but you just questioned Pippen’s ability to do hers.”
“I did not!”
“Did too. Pippen gets into things. That’s her job. And you just told her you didn’t think she could do it.”
I stared at the floor. I did sort of do that, didn’t I? I was starting to realize how much I still had to learn about leadership. Maybe I did need to go talk to her. But not yet. I was already going to have to swallow a lot of pride to tell Pippen I was sorry, and I wanted to wait until we got through the wall first. It would be that much less I’d have to choke down.
Conner stopped swinging and lowered his crowbar.
“How you doing, Tarzan?” I asked. “Getting tired yet?”
“No, but I think I just hit something.”
I brought the light over and looked at the wall. Conner had managed to chip a pretty good hole into it. But in the middle of the hole, something metallic caught the light.
“Oh spack!” I said. “It’s rebar!”
“It’s what?” asked Conner.
“There are steel bars embedded in the concrete. We’ll never be able to chip our way through this!”
Conner wiped the sweat off his forehead. “What else can we do?”
The plans formed in my head. “We’re going to need heavy equipment. We’ll need a concrete saw, maybe a jack hammer, and an air compressor that runs on diesel. We’ll need a water pump for cooling the saw and some hose. Floodlights. A generator. Lots of heavy power cable. Maybe a cutting torch. A big one.”
“How long will this take?” Tan asked.
“Finding everything we need might take two or three days. And it might take us a day to saw a hole in the wall.”
“Well,” said Tan, “I guess that’s okay. Jon’s not going anywhere.”
Conner looked thoughtful. “You know, Callie, you ought to go talk to Pippen.”
“I’m not changing my mind,” I said, a bit irritated. “I made the right decision!”
“It’s not enough for a leader to make right decisions,” Conner said. “A leader also has to explain those decisions so followers don’t think she’s a peahead.”
I sighed, defeated. “Okay, okay! I’ll talk to her!” I looked around. “Where is she?” I held the lantern up, but Pippen was nowhere in sight. “Pippen!” I called.
“Hey, Pippen!” boomed Conner.
I ground my teeth. “I told her not to wander off! If she’s not dead, I’m gonna pound her!” Then a thought hit me like ice water. “You don’t suppose she went…”
All three of us ran through the dark hallways back to the computer room.
I skidded to a stop just inside the door. Pippen wasn’t in the room, but one tile in the middle of the floor was open, the suction-cup handle lying on the floor beside it. I had closed that tile before we left the room!
Conner stuck his head down in the hole. “I can’t see her flashlight or anything. Pippen! Pippen, come back! We’re going to cut through the wall! And Callie’s sorry!”
Well, that was certainly true. But there was no answer.
“Maybe she can’t hear,” said Tan. “Or maybe she’s gotten stuck.”
Or eaten. But I didn’t say that out loud.
“Which way would she go?” Conner asked.
I pointed. “The vault is that direction.”
Conner grabbed the suction-cup handle and started yanking tiles out of the floor, clearing a trench in the direction I’d pointed. He didn’t stop until he reached the wall of the computer room. I held the lantern over the water-filled trench. Tan reached down and pulled out a scrap of cloth. He held it up to the light, and my throat tightened. It was a torn piece of the Tinker Bell shirt Pippen had been wearing. There was a bit of red on it that was not part of the original design.
Conner had pulled up the tile all the way to the wall, but I could see the crawlspace under the floor continued on past this room. “Pippen!” I called, but there was no reply.
“Should I go in after her?” Tan asked.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “Only Pippen could have fit through there, and it must have been a tight squeeze even for her.”
“Callie,” asked Conner, “how was Pippen going to find the vault?”
“She was probably following the sound of you hitting the wall with the crowbar. Now she may be lost. We need to get back there!”
We ran back to the hallway outside the vault. The floor here was carpet. Conner dropped to his knees and pulled out a knife. He cut a large rectangle of carpet and ripped it out. Underneath was just a solid concrete floor, no tiles to pull up. There was a narrow air vent set in the floor near the wall, but it was too small for even Pippen to squeeze through. I put my lantern against the vent and shouted down into it. “Pippen! Can you hear me? Go toward the light!”
I held my ear to the vent, but there was nothing but silence. I yelled Pippen’s name over and over until my voice started to crack.
“Maybe she’s just playing a trick on us,” I croaked. “She’s hiding somewhere, and she’s going to pop out as soon as she thinks we’ve worried enough about her.”
Tan shook his head. “I don’t think she’d do that. But I do think she’d try to crawl through the floor. Remember the time she climbed to the very top of the electrical tower?”
“Yeah.” With a flash of guilt I remembered why she’d done it. “I told her it was impossible.”
Conner clinked his crowbar on the floor. “You said we could cut through the cement wall. Can we cut through the floor?”
“We could,” I said, but it’s still going to take us days to find the cutting equipment. If she’s unconscious or trapped under water, we’ll never make it to her in time. In fact…” I swallowed hard. “We’ve been calling for ten minutes. She should have answered by now. Maybe she can’t answer. Maybe she’s…dead.”
As I said this, the impact of what I’d done hit me. I’d come on this stupid quest because I had ignored logic and listened to that voice inside me that insisted I could fix the whole world. Worse, I’d dragged others along with me, and now I’d lost Pippen!
“I’m sorry, little thief,” I whispered.
Then the door of the vault clanked and swung open.
Pippen stood in the open doorway. Her orange hair was wet and tangled. The sleeves of her t-shirt were torn ragged, and she had bloody gashes on her arms. There was an ugly blistered burn on her forehead, and her bangs were smoking. She opened her hand and two of the canisters from her torch fell to the floor with an empty clink. Trembling, she said, “Do not tell me what I can’t do!”
I ran to her and lifted her off the floor in a bear hug.
Conner slapped Pippen on the back, and Tan got out his medical kit and fussed over her cuts while I told her over and over how brilliant she was. She looked happy and exhausted at the same time. Tan closed up a large cut on Pippen’s arm with what looked like super glue.
“Pippen, we called and called!” I said. “Why didn’t you answer us?”
Pippen combed her fingers through her hair. The back of her hair was wet, but her bangs were nearly burnt off. “I never heard you! My ears were under water most of the time. I was squeezing through on my back with barely enough room to breathe.”
When Tan had disinfected and bandaged and glued Pippen’s cuts and wound her up in so much gauze she could barely move, we left Conner to guard her, and Tan and I entered the vault, lights held in front.
The vault was a long narrow room. A cut-up metal grate lay on the floor near a vent hole that I would have sworn a starved cat couldn’t have fit through. The walls on both sides were lined with shelves. There were boxes of paper documents and CDs, but most of the shelves were taken up by bottles of chemicals. Tan walked down the row, reading the labels. “Toxic. Extremely toxic. Flammable. Biohazard. Carcinogen. Mutagen. May stain some fabrics…”
Then we came to a series of small aluminum boxes with latching lids. They had labels like “098FFT,” “104SSL,” and “120PQR.”
“These must be the biobot batches!” said Tan. “Jon said they had code names. But which one of these is Fixer?”
I looked around. There were hundreds of the boxes. They sure took a lot of tries to get it right! Then I had a burst of genius. “Jon said the engineers started calling it ‘Fixer’ because they got tired of saying the code name. But they probably named it that because the code name looked like ‘Fixer’! Just pretend it’s the license-plate game!”
Tan caught on immediately and began checking the labels on the boxes. I found a lot of code names that could form words, but none of them were “Fixer.”
“I think I found it!” called Tan, from further down the row. He lifted a box with “172FXR” on the front. His eyes were bright with scientific curiosity. “Should we open the box, and see what’s inside?”
“That’s what Pandora said, and things didn’t turn out so well for her.”
“This is the version of Fixer that Jon had,” Tan said. “It wasn’t contagious.”
Tan wasn’t the only one with scientific curiosity. I was dying for answers too. “Let’s open it,” I said.
Tan unlatched the box and lifted the lid. Inside was a foam pad with sixty-four holes in it. Sixty-three of them were filled with little glass tubes the size of a crayon. One hole was empty.
“This is it!” said Tan. “They made a whole batch but then only used one vial for Jon’s test.” He pulled out one of the tubes and held it near the lantern. It was sealed on both ends and half filled with a black liquid. Tan shook the vial. The liquid came alive, sending tiny black tendrils up the sides of the vial, as if it were trying to find a way out, then it collapsed back to the bottom. It was creepy and fascinating at the same time.
“It’s the black monster!” I whispered.
Tan seemed hypnotized by the dark fluid. “I wonder how it does that?” He tipped the vial back and forth, teasing the little tendrils.
I’d reached the limit of my scientific curiosity. “Don’t wake it up! That thing killed seven billion people!”
“It’s sealed in a glass tube,” Tan said. “You’d to have break the tube for it to get out. Anyway, this isn’t the monster. The monster was Fixer B.”
But he put the vial back in the box and put the box back on the shelf. Then Tan froze. I followed his flashlight beam, which was aimed at the box right next to the one he’d just put back. I read the label.
“We have to open it,” Tan whispered.
“No we don’t!” I hissed.
“Callie, there’s too much we don’t know,” Tan insisted. “We don’t know why Jon collapsed. We need every piece of the puzzle we can get, and we’ll never get another chance at this one!”
I thought hard. For a minute there was nothing but the sound of water gurgling below the open grate. “Okay, listen,” I said softly. “They only used one vial of Fixer B, and that was to take to the conference. If we open the box, and there’s one empty hole in the foam, we’ll know that Fixer escaped from the portable enclosure Jon took to the conference. If there are two missing, we’ll know Howard opened the wrong box, and broke a vial while he was taking pictures.” I swallowed hard. “Open it,” I whispered.
Tan released the catches and lifted the lid. We looked inside. There was nothing inside but sixty-four empty holes.
“What? Why is it empty?” Tan demanded, forgetting to whisper.
“I don’t know!” I said. “Howard couldn’t possibly have broken all of them! He just needed to take a picture of one of the tubes because Jon said he liked the idea of putting Fixer on the invitation…”
“Oh, spack!” said Tan.
We both got it at the same time. It was awful, but it was the only explanation. I yanked open the zipper on my backpack and grabbed the invitation card. There was no picture of Fixer anywhere on the card, but there was a spot on the front where the surface was torn, like the card had once had a spot of adhesive on it, used to stick something to the card.
“Zow!” I said. “Howard didn’t send out invitations with a picture of Fixer on them, he sent out the real thing!”
Tan whistled. “I have to admit, that would be one impressive invitation! Howard probably thought there wasn’t a problem with sending out the original Fixer. It was past the replication phase anyway. He just got the wrong box. Then somewhere in the mail, one of the vials got broken, and Fixer B got loose and spread across the world.”
I shook my head. “I think it’s worse than that. If you were a scientist, and you got a card in the mail inviting you to a mysterious presentation, and it had a little vial attached with a black substance inside that crawled, what would you do?”
Tan’s eyes widened. “I’d crack open the vial to see if I could figure out what it was!”
“Exactly. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fixer B started spreading from sixty-three different places in the world at once.”
I looked around the dark vault and shivered a bit. The black monster had already left the lair, but this place was still giving me the creeps.
“Callie, look!” Tan shouted.
He pulled out another aluminum box, larger than the first two, with a carrying handle. The label on the front said “Universal Shut-Off Factor.” Inside, carefully cushioned in foam, were hundreds of small bottles of clear liquid.
“Grab the box,” I said, “and let’s get out of here.”
It wasn’t until we were safely back out of the vault that it dawned on me what we’d just done. “We found it!” I shouted to Conner and Pippen. “We found the shut-off!” I felt like I could fly. “We crossed the whole country by ourselves and found the shut-off! And the quest only took us eight days!”
Pippen was busy extracting herself from layers of gauze. “The quest isn’t over until we get back and save Jon,” she said. “It wasn’t exactly easy getting here, and you sort of blew up and landslided the only road back. What are we going to do about that?”
I wasn’t going to let reality spoil my good mood. “We’ll figure out something! We can spend the night in the castle again, and start home tomorrow. I wonder if we have enough light left today to visit the Kennedy Space Center?”
“Or the beach,” added Tan. “I’ve never seen the ocean.”
“Eat first, plan later,” Conner said. “My stomach says it’s hours past lunch time. I still have chips!”
Just then, we heard a sound like a muffled gunshot from down the dark hallway. Everyone froze.
“Callie!” Pippen whispered urgently. “There’s something in the dungeon with us!”
Nobody breathed. In the distance, we could hear a faint howling, like an animal in pain. The cry rose in pitch for a moment, then died off with a whimper.
“A dog?” whispered Tan.
“How would a dog get in here?” I asked. “Only a human could pull open the security door.”
“Callie,” said Pippen quietly, “all four of us are right here, and we’re the only humans alive for thousands of miles. Aren’t we?”
“Hello?” I called cautiously. “Is anyone there?”
Conner stepped protectively in front of the group. “Stay here. I’ll go see.” Conner started down the hall by himself. The rest of us glanced at each other for a second, then hurried to catch up with Conner. We’d seen enough horror movies to know what happens when you split up to investigate strange noises. Conner swept his flashlight back and forth, trying to illuminate the hallway in front. Pippen nervously aimed her headlamp behind us.
“What’s that?” asked Tan.
Up ahead, there was a dark mound in the middle of the hallway.
“We ran down this hallway an hour ago,” I whispered. “That was not there before!”
The dark shape didn’t move. Cautiously we crept closer. The shape grew clearer in the flashlight beams. A small lump with strange loops sticking out the sides…
“That’s my backpack!” said Conner, running forward. “I must have dropped it.” He unzipped it and looked inside. “Hey, my Doritos exploded!” He pulled out the bag and held it up so we could see the ragged rip in the top. “Why would they pop just sitting here?”
“I can explain that,” I said, relieved the mysterious gunshot sound had a scientific explanation. “There’s air trapped inside the bag. Normally it’s at the same pressure as the outside air. But if the pressure of the air outside the bag drops enough, the pressure inside would make the bag pop.”
“What would make the outside pressure drop?” Pippen asked.
“Taking the bag from sea level up to the top of a mountain might do it,” I said.
“We’ve been going down, not up,” said Tan. “And we got this bag at the gas station yesterday. What else could do this?”
“Bad weather,” I said. “The atmospheric pressure drops when a storm is coming.”
Tan raised an eyebrow. “Bad weather? What kind of storm would make the pressure drop enough to do this?”
I heard the distant howling again, and suddenly cold fear knotted my stomach.