"Sir, I find these measures extremely inadvisable--"
"The resources have already been requisitioned, so clearly the question isn't whether or not you approve, but whether you'll make it happen, or do I have to find someone else?"
"You've used that line for ten years. You don't have anyone else. And yes, of course I can make this work for you. But I'll need full autonomy within the operation, as usual."
"But I want it noted that the risk entailed is unacceptable, in my professional opinion."
"Rest assured, Rick, your objection is duly noted in the non-existent record of this conversation."
"I'll make the final arrangements."
Anna supposed she should have known something would go wrong.
She was used to her school doing stupid things, of course; anyone who went to school in a place with no principal's office, no loudspeaker system, and a nurse who believed that headaches could be cured with band-aids couldn't help but expect the bumbling administrators to blunder. So it was not all that surprising that on the first 9th grade trip of the year, they miscalculated and ordered two small buses, one for class 9-A and one for class 9-B. It was a tight enough fit, but to top it off, the teachers had been left out of the equation entirely.
In a last-minute frenzy, another bus was ordered and designated "The Teacher Bus." Which was dumb, Anna knew, because the intelligent thing to do would have been to alleviate congestion on the students' buses by having some of them go on the third bus, and have the teachers be evenly distributed among the buses, to provide supervision. She didn't bother voicing this knowledge, however, knowing--even after only two months in this high school--that supervision was very low on the school's priority list (possibly above only "student comfort"), and in all likelihood, she would receive the usual diatribe: "Just because you're a genius, doesn't mean you run the school." Qualifications were irrelevant, so by now she'd learned to keep her mouth shut in the first place.
It became increasingly apparent, however, that this was not the course of action chosen by the boy sitting behind her. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn't have been sitting anywhere near him, but thanks to the disarray, by the time she got onto the bus, the only fellow classmate still sitting alone was sitting directly in front of Daniel Jones, the closest thing to a nemesis Anna had ever known. At the moment, Daniel was venting his indignation over the crowded environment to his best friend, Spencer Silver. Over the rumble of the bus, Anna could only catch such disjointed phrases as "morons" and "stupid idiots," but she got the general idea. Subtlety had never been Daniel's strong point.
Spencer was a good listener. You had to be, if you were Daniel's best friend, Anna often thought. It wasn't that Daniel was such a talker (he wasn't; he was antisocial, an outcast, like herself--she assumed it was a given with anyone so much smarter than everybody else), but when he got emotional about a topic, he could go on forever, or so it sometimes seemed.
And Spencer could listen to him.
You don't know that, Anna began countering her thoughts automatically, as was her usual practice on long trips; it made for more interesting conversation than any she could have aloud with actual people. He's always quiet--He could be replaying last year's baseball playoffs with his photographic memory, for all you know.
To Anna, Spencer-of-the-so-good-it's-scary-memory had always been something of an enigma. She'd known him since second grade and he was her next-door neighbor, but he talked so little in school that it was difficult to get to know him from that alone, and Anna had never been to his house. She had been invited over plenty of times (Spencer was very wealthy and whenever he threw a party, everyone was invited and it was talked about for weeks afterward), but she'd always declined to come. He'd always approach her on the next school day, quietly, politely (that was how he did everything), and ask why she hadn't come. He was the type to notice these things. Anna liked him; everyone did. He, along with Adam Wranner, who had joined their grade this year, was easily one of the most popular kids. He was just one of those people who seemed to have everything going for him, inside and out. He and Daniel were at complete opposite ends of the social spectrum, and their long-enduring friendship, established in fourth grade when Daniel had transferred into their elementary school, was one of the few things that Anna had to admit to herself that she would never really understand.
Because Anna did not like Daniel. She hated his way of thinking, his "logic," as he called it. The times she'd found herself in agreement with him, even including today's bus fiasco, could be counted on one hand. Worse still, she couldn't stand how people wanted them to like each other. While their teachers merely expected it, their two mothers went beyond that. Since they had grown up together as best friends, they wanted the same for all of their kids. All twelve of their kids. The only thing more unbelievable than that ridiculous expectation was the fact that if it weren't for Anna and Daniel's resistance, it would have been fulfilled. Their brothers, ranging now from two years to twenty-two, had taken to the arrangement remarkably. They had all bonded so well that within twelve months of the Jones' arrival in the neighborhood five years ago, every Jackson--excluding Anna--could call their same-age Jones counterpart a "best friend." Their mothers often lamented the irony of raising two incredibly bright children who could not, or would not, get along, speculating that it was subconscious rivalry, or the fact that Daniel was a boy and Anna was a girl. Anna had overheard Daniel repeatedly trying to explain to his mom that the question wasn't, "What went wrong with Daniel and Anna?" rather, it was, "What went wrong with everyone else?! "
Anna took out her CD player, hoping to drown out Daniel's self-assured voice. As she placed her duct-taped headphones over her ears, she realized that she was probably the only person on the bus without an MP3 player. Not that it really mattered.
She pressed the ON button. Nothing happened. She jabbed the button again in annoyance; the CD player was so old that it rarely responded to any commands on the first try. The display lit up for about a quarter of a second, then went out again. Anna pressed her lips together in frustration as she realized that the batteries were dead.
She glanced at her unlikely seatmate, Andy Robent, who was obliviously listening to his own music. He had earbuds, not headphones, and Anna started to calculate her degree of desperation. What was he listening to? Could it possibly be any worse than Daniel's ranting? Was it worth it to ask him to share an earbud with her? Andy wasn't a friend--she had no friends--but he just might do it...
At this moment, Daniel's monologue mercifully came to an end, and Anna never had to make her decision, which was all the better. She leaned against the window, watching the scenery fly by.
"Hey," said a low voice behind her, and she turned, somewhat startled.
It was Spencer. He was directly behind her; Daniel had the aisle seat.
Before Anna finished fumbling for a reply, he slid his hand into the crack between her seat and the window. "Here. Take these." He was holding two completely unmarked batteries. "My father's company makes them. They last longer than most."
Spencer's father was president of a company that manufactured technology which was available only to the government, not to the general public. Anna wondered how much these batteries would have cost on the regular market, then decided she preferred not to know.
"Thank you," she said, accepting the batteries with mild incredulity.
"No problem," he said, withdrawing his hand. "I always bring extras; someone always runs out." He turned back to Daniel, and from the artificial light illuminating the side of his face, she could tell that they were watching a DVD together, almost certainly on Spencer's top-of-the-line DVD player. It was unfair how lucky some people were. On the other hand, if they were all as considerate as Spencer, she could live with it.
She put in the batteries, wondering precisely how Spencer had known she'd needed them. There was no reason for him to have been watching her. Maybe he'd just been trying to tune Daniel out and she was the only other thing to absorb his focus.
Once the batteries had been installed, Anna chose one of her CDs to play. This was not a difficult decision; Anna owned exactly two CDs, both of which she had received at least five years ago, before her mother had decided that CDs were not essential to survival and therefore a waste of the little money they had.
Anna pressed PLAY. The headphones' sound was pretty crummy and worked only from the right side, but she was used to that. She leaned against the window again and closed her eyes, trying to shut out the world.
Behind her, Spencer sat staring blankly at the brightly lit screen of his DVD player. Abruptly, he reached over and paused it.
Daniel looked at him. "What's up?"
Spencer turned his head to the window. "I don't feel well, Dan."
"Did you eat something funny--?"
"No; I mean I really don't feel well." He turned back to his best friend.
Daniel's eyes became grave. "Déjà vu dream last night?"
Spencer nodded, talking faster: "She was going to run out of batteries and I was going to give her some and then...then--"
There was a screech of brakes; a girl near the front of the bus screamed; a boy yelled; the bus swerved off the road as the driver swore. An intense glow of sunlight flooded their eyes, and there was a loud crack.
The entire bus gasped in horror as the driver slumped in his seat and then fell slowly to the floor with a dull sound that made Spencer's stomach churn.
The bus doors opened, and two masked men boarded. They wore gloves and carried guns--guns with buttons and no triggers. One pointed his at the body of the bus driver and then at the children, the universal gesture for "Keep quiet or you'll get the same." The whimpers near the front of the bus were silenced. The other man took a thin disk out of his pocket and held it chest high. There was a small button in the center, and he pressed it.
Spencer heard a gasp of dismay from Andy as his cell phone, which he had just opened in a desperate attempt to call for help without being noticed, went dead. So did the DVD player, all the MP3 players, and Anna's CD player.
An E.M.P., Daniel realized disconnectedly, nervously pressing his right thumb into the center of his left hand. Then he looked up at Spencer, thoroughly alarmed.
But Spencer showed no outward emotion. He had seen that coming, too, most likely. He ignored Daniel and gazed calmly out the window again. Daniel knew he was memorizing the surroundings.
One of the men kicked the bus driver's body into the aisle. Nearly everyone cried out or recoiled; Spencer didn't even flinch. Neither, to Daniel's annoyance, did Anna. She simply looked at the lifeless man with that cold, calculating expression that Daniel knew so well and always scorned.
Ice Queen Anna, he thought contemptuously. She and Spencer will make a lovely couple—
The bus jolted him into the back of his seat, and Daniel blinked furiously to clear his mind. Focus!
The bus had become deathly quiet. This did not help Daniel's concentration. On the contrary, it detracted from it. There was a blank buzzing in his ears, holding up his train of thought.
Anna tuned out this buzzing easily. She continued to gaze at the driver's body.
Her first thought was: There's no blood.
Why is there no blood?
There was no bullet, she realized. The driver's window never smashed.
But then what happened?
It's all fake. The driver was in on it. He's fine; he's just pretending to be dead--
No way. He hasn't blinked once since they shot him. He can't be faking.
They must be using some other kind of gun, a kind that kills without bullets.
It made no sense.
There was a flash of light just after we swerved off the road, she remembered. I thought we were just turning into the sunlight...but we couldn't have been...the sun was behind us...
But guns had nothing to do with light. This was all utterly absurd. She gave up.
Moments later, Daniel arrived at this same juncture in his thoughts. But instead of becoming discouraged, he pursued it further.
Spencer's dad's company makes stuff like that, he knew. Or they tried. Projectile-free weapons...Didn't they abandon it? Energy requirements were through the roof...Maybe some other company solved that and now these people got their hands on the stuff--
"Dan." Spencer's soft voice broke into Daniel's reverie. "It's too quiet, Dan. I've got a headache." His eyes were still glued to the window, trying to catch every detail of all they were passing.
Anna overheard this and thought it strange, but no stranger than the driver without any blood.
"I could take over for a little while," she heard Daniel offer. "I don't have a photographic memory, but I've got a darn good one--"
"No, I can handle it," said Spencer firmly. "Thanks, but I'll only need you to take over if we cross any bridges."
Apparently, Daniel knew why. He didn't ask any more questions about it, which left Anna to speculate. Why only bridges? Was Spencer afraid of the height? The water? She could scarcely imagine him being frightened of either.
"Is there anything else I can do?" Daniel asked.
"You can press the buttons on the DVD player. It won't do anything, but it'll make a little noise."
"Right. Good thing you don't have an iPad."
Anna immediately heard the clicking sounds of buttons being pushed. All too soon, the bus was full of clicking sounds. Everyone had seen what Daniel was doing and they were all trying to get their electronics restarted. Only they didn't realize it was pointless.
Anna turned her face to the window, hiding a smile. She knew they saw Daniel pressing the buttons persistently, and they figured, If he's doing it and he's so smart, it's gotta work. She didn't bother telling them that it wouldn't because none of them would believe her. They knew she disliked Daniel, and they'd think she was only criticizing his idea for the sake of criticizing it. That was, after all, something Daniel would do.
Anna decided to take a leaf out of Spencer's book and start taking note of the surroundings. She found she couldn't. Their kidnappers were driving like maniacs, flying down the highway at breakneck speed. Everything was flashing by so fast that she could barely catch snatches of color, let alone highway signs.
She glanced at Spencer. No wonder he had a headache. She noticed that he only blinked one eye at a time, so that he wouldn't miss anything. Those pale gray eyes, such a contrast to his tanned skin, remained fixed on one point, seeing everything that went by it. Amazing.
Anna checked her watch. It wasn't working. She grimaced at the thought of trying to convince her mother to buy her a new one. Then again, if she lived long enough to do that, she'd be very grateful.
Time went by, and there was no way to know how much. It seemed like years, but that was impossible.
Where are they taking us? Who are they?
The sun was high in the sky before she thought to ask the most important question: Why are they doing this?
The goal of most kidnappings is ransom, she told herself. So people who are kidnapped are usually rich...
Spencer's rich. Filthy rich. How much money are they going to make his parents pay to get him back?
She looked at him again. He was still staring motionlessly out the window. Had he thought of this? What was going through his mind? She had known Spencer for nearly eight years, since second grade, and never before had she been so glad notto be him.
At about this same time, Daniel was formulating a more pessimistic outlook.
If some other company made those guns, there's no way that some random low-lifes could get them; there would be so much security...these people must be working for that company...He frowned.
If these people are doing this because they were hired by a company with enough resources to make those guns, chances are, that company's got money, so that can't be the ultimate goal of this kidnapping...They're after something more than money...
Daniel stopped, regrouped, and approached it from that angle.
If that company has technology that Silver Industries doesn't have, maybe Silver Industries has technology that they don't have, but want. And maybe they want it enough to go through the trouble of kidnapping Spencer and swapping him for it...
"Don't worry about me, Dan."
"How'd you know I was thinking that?" Daniel demanded in a whisper.
"Worry about yourself, Daniel. I'm not expendable. You are."
Daniel's heart skipped several beats. "You think they'll kill the rest of us?"
"They might. Maybe as an incentive for my parents to fork it over."
Daniel's blood ran cold. "I'm your best friend. I'd be the first to go."
Don't you care?! "Spence, I don't want to die."
Spencer still wouldn't turn away from the window, but Daniel could see his right hand shaking. "I don't want you to die either, Dan. And I always get what I want."
Daniel shook his head, feeling sick.
"Trust me, Dan. Please."
But Daniel couldn't. Not with something this big. With anything less, probably. But not with his life. "Spence, there's nothing you can do."
Spencer ripped his eyes from the window. "Yes, there is! " he whispered fiercely, eyes blazing with a furious intensity that he had never let Daniel see before. "No one is going to die on my account! You hear me? No one! "
Daniel was silent, and Spencer returned to the window. Daniel wished he could help ease his best friend's mind in some way. He wished he had a photographic memory and so would easily be able to take over memorizing the scenery. He wished someone else on the bus had a photographic memory. But Daniel had only known one other person who'd had such a memory, and Ben had left his school just after kindergarten.
Anna had overheard the conversation between Daniel and Spencer, and she didn't know what to think anymore. There was too much confusion in her to allow room for fear, so she just sat very still and occasionally felt sorry for Spencer because of the terrible responsibility he was being forced to bear.
They had left the highway and were now winding their way along a side road somewhere. At intervals, some of the 9th graders were still pressing buttons on their cell phones and MP3 players, even though Daniel was no longer bothering with the DVD player--he had stopped because everyone else was making more than enough noise to ease Spencer's headache.
The bus turned into a forest. The ride became extremely bumpy, primarily because there was no road anymore, not even a dirt path. The leaves overhead formed a canopy so thick that hardly any sunlight reached the bus windows.
They drove on. To Anna, it felt as if they spent at least an hour weaving their way through the dense foliage. She found it hard to believe that there was actually a prearranged destination; it all seemed so random.
At last, they arrived.