A cold and unsettled feeling takes up residence in my chest. The usual sounds of my empty house are wrong, out of place, drowned out by a tiny scratching at the kitchen door. I mute my TV and sit up in bed to listen. Any noise anywhere in this small house echoes in even the corners farthest from the source. Like the current scraping of metal slipping into the lock, not a key… something clumsier, something that wasn't made as an exact fit for those specific tumblers. I try to attribute it to my imagination, but I can't deny the truth.
Someone is trying to get into my house.
Panic swirls in my chest like a tempest, clouding out rational thought. What am I supposed to do? Staying home alone when my mother is out of town for work has never been a problem before, never been a threat to my well-being. We live in a safe neighborhood. All my neighbors have known me since I was born; they're supposed to be keeping an eye on things here. It's what they do. I have no contingency plan for a break in. Nothing beyond panic and pray.
I reach for my phone and dial 911 with shaky fingers, hit send. The call drops with a cheery, three-note chime. My hope drops with the call. I try again with the same result, then check my service. Zero bars. My stomach tightens into a solid lump in my throat, threatening to cut off my air supply.
And then the back door creaks open. I all but fall out of bed, and with every step I take toward my open bedroom door, a heavy boot step answers in my kitchen. Closing in on me. I make it to my door before the intruder makes it to the hallway, but his shadow looms at the other end of the passage as I slam my door shut and lock it. The soft steps turn into a pounding thump thump thump thump—a solid mimicking of my racing pulse—as the intruder kicks into a jog across the hardwood floor. He stops just outside my room. The locked door offers little protection. One good kick and that thing's probably coming down. My fear rages like an ice storm, chilling the blood in my veins.
I sprint to the other side of my small room and tug up the window blinds. My front yard is empty and still and looking so much like a blessed haven compared to the danger in my house right now. As I fumble with the window lock, my doorknob jiggles forcefully. A heartbeat later, something solid and heavy thuds against my locked door, and the whole house shudders from the impact.
I finally manage to push my window up high enough to slide through, and I drop into a crouch in my mom's favorite flower bed. Mulch and other plant debris digs into the soft soles of my bare feet, but I don't let it distract me. I push off from the ground in a runner's start. A year of track has prepared me for this moment, and in seconds, I'm halfway across the lawn in aim of the Fergussons' house.
My feet sink into the grass, and soft dirt squishes between my toes with every step. I'm almost unprepared for the high-impact feel of pavement when I reach the driveway, but the change in ground surface helps me propel myself faster. Twenty more feet and I'll be at the Fergussons' front door.
I shoot a frantic glance behind me, but no one is chasing me. In the midst of my panting breath is a soft sigh of relief. My lungs loosen from short, panicked gasps to a deeper runner's breath. Refuge is almost close enough to touch.
The Fergussons are always up late, and even now, their living room light seeps through the cracks in their curtains to spill out over the space between our two houses in soft yellow streaks. As I round my garage, I open my mouth to call out. If they hear me through their window, maybe I won't have to lose time knocking. Maybe they'll already be there waiting for me, and I can just race inside the house. To safety.
Before I make a sound, a hard body slams into me. The impact knocks the wind out of me, and I can't even scream. My phone skitters across the driveway, and suddenly I'm face down on the ground, my cheek scraping the concrete. Someone's full weight rests heavy on my back, and I never saw the guy coming.
I suck in a lungful of air and cry out. The person holding me down shoves a coarse cloth into my mouth, muffling my call for help immediately. And then a cloth bag drops over my head. He pulls drawstrings tight around my neck and ties them off behind me as casually as I tie my shoes. The ties are dangerously tight; if I move wrong, it could end very badly. But I don't stop struggling, bucking and twisting and fighting for freedom. Not when he ties my hands behind my back so tight I think my shoulders might pull from their sockets. Not when he lifts me by the arms and sets me on my feet like I weigh little more than a toddler. Not when strong arms grab me around my middle and my captor starts a forward progression that, even without my sense of sight, I'm certain is toward the road. My heel connects with his shin, and he grunts in response but doesn’t let me go. I try again and again, but get nowhere. The human vice grip carrying me must be made of steel.
An engine rumbles closer, then idles next to us. Metal scrapes against metal, and the person holding me tosses me unceremoniously into the back of what must be a van. I take longer tan I hope righting myself, but as soon as I’m up on my knees, I scramble across the gnarled carpeting in the direction of the opening. The door slams shut before I get there, and I fall against it, slumping in defeat. The metal is cold against my skin, even through my T-shirt.
I voice a string of curses that ordinarily would make me blush, but every word is a garbled mess behind my gag, and none of it makes heat rise in my cheeks. Somewhere to my right, the sound of a car door opening is muffled, as if the back of the van is separate from the front of the van. The vehicle bounces with the weight of someone climbing into the cab. Before the door shuts again, we're speeding away from my house.
Did any of my neighbors notice the commotion? Did anyone see me being trussed up and thrown into the back of a kidnapper's van? I hope against hope that someone saw and called the police, but deep down, I harbor the suspicion that no one did. It all happened so fast, how could they have seen? My mom's not due back from Seattle for two more days. By the time she gets home, I'm going to be lost forever, disappeared without a trace.
We drive for a hundred years, or at least long enough for my fingertips to start to go numb and all of my extremities to feel the burn of being stuck in the same position for too long. The twists and turns and stops and accelerations are too many to count. I try at first, but I lose track after a while. Eventually, the ride becomes bumpier and underscored by the crunch of gravel under the tires. The van slows to a crawl, then stops. Both cab doors open, and two men engage in conversation as they climb out. But I can't make out their words.
The door I'm leaning against moves, shifting out from under me. I've been in this position for so long, my muscles are weak and slow. Before I can catch myself, I fall backward through the opening. But I don't hit the ground. Instead, a pair of strong hands catches me under my arms and lifts me to stand. Gravel prickles the undersides of my feet, and I wince against the pain. I'm not steady right away, and my legs ache as blood suddenly rushes back into them. Whoever caught me continues to hold me upright until I'm able to bear my own weight. Then he unties my wrists and moves my arms so they're joined at my front instead of my back. Just as the feeling starts to return to my fingertips, he ties my wrists back up. When he lets go, I feel more than hear him move away from me.
I can't smell or hear anything that might tell me where we are, or if anyone might be close enough to hear me scream. But scream I do. It's mostly pointless with my gag absorbing most of the sound and my hood absorbing even more, but I wail at the top of my lungs. Until something hard jams solidly into my gut, forcing the last of the air from my lungs. I double over, gasping for breath, and do my best to will away the wrenching pain in my abdomen.
Just as the pain starts to subside, there's a tug at my wrist, and a second later, another more forceful tug. It pulls me forward like a tether. I'm leashed at the hands. I have no choice but to follow where my lead takes me. Each step is like walking on sharp glass, and by the time I step onto thick, soft grass, I'm certain I've left a trail of bloody footprints behind me. But I don't whimper or cry. I don't make a sound. As scared as I am, I'll be damned if I give these assholes the satisfaction of seeing my pain.
They lead me onto pavement and then up four stairs, two of which I stub my toe on before I realize a step is there. Thanks for the heads up, guy. Then I'm standing on a landing, maybe a porch. The wood beneath my feet is smooth and finished, and I send a silent thank you skyward.
A door squeaks open in front of me, and my tether pulls tight, encouraging me forward again. In two steps, I'm inside a building. The air inside is cooler, and a soft doormat cushions my battered feet. Until a body shoves me from behind, almost knocking me on my face. "Move, recruit."
Recruit? I get my balance and begin a tentative progression forward. My lead isn't taut anymore. Is there still anyone on the other end? Maybe not, but there is, for sure, an impatient jerk behind me, probably just waiting for the next opportunity to shove me. So I continue forward. And slam into a wall.
The impact reverberates up my left shoulder, and the side of my head makes contact a heartbeat later. I swallow a muffled oomph. From the feel, I’ve just walked into the side of a door frame. And the guy behind me snickers quietly. Thanks again, jerk. I correct my trajectory and enter a room. The noise here is different. The sounds of tense breathing, from several directions, is muted only by rustling fabric. There are multiple people in this room, but no one is speaking.
The flooring in here is different, too, padded but not carpet. I take several steps. Then a gentle hand grips my arm and leads me farther in. When we stop, the hand at my elbow glides down to my wrists and begins working at my ropes.
No way this is the same guy who almost shoved me on my face and watched me slam full-force into the door frame. This one's touch is benevolent, almost… careful. As soon as my hands are free, I rub at my aching wrists, caring more about the blood flow to my fingers than the abraded skin there. And he sets to work on the sack covering my head and tied around my neck.
When it’s gone, bright light is my new enemy. I have to close my eyes against the pain and slowly squint them open to adjust to the brightness. By the time my eyes acclimate, my gag is off too.
Without moving from where I stand, I turn my head to take in my surroundings. The room is large, longer than it is wide, and set up like a home gym. Free weights and kettle bells are stacked in a corner. Floor to ceiling mirrors cover the long wall in front of me. And reflected in it are twenty-plus other teens just like me.
We're all dressed in various states of casual, from jeans to sweats--to pajamas, like me--and every face reflected in the mirror matches my shell-shocked expression. Except for the guy on the far end, who was apparently abducted in nothing but a pair boxer briefs. I avert my gaze to give him some privacy, but he doesn't seem too bothered by his lack of clothing. He seems more interested in the mirror, more specifically, the handful of people haunting the space behind our reflections. Like guards on patrol.
In front of us is a tall woman with exotic features, a tight black bun, and slender frame. If it weren't for the fact that she is apparently the end of the line in this little abduction game and dressed head-to-toe in burglar black, I'd peg her for a model.
She takes a moment to survey each of us, and when she gets to me, her stare gives me the heebs. I try to hide a shudder, and she continues down the line to the end. Then she looks at our group as a whole. "Hello, recruits," she says in a clear, crisp voice. "Welcome to The Program."
The austere woman at the front of the room asks, "How many of you have heard of The Program?"
I scan the line reflected in the mirror behind her. Only four hands go up. A cheerleader type at the end, the guy in his underwear, another boy near the other end of the line, and the tall boy next to me. My eyes linger on him the longest. He's well over six feet and runner lean. His dark hair is cropped short, military style, and the expression on his too-handsome face is neutral, unsurprised. He knew this was coming. He's even fully dressed in jeans, a dark hoodie, and combat boots.
Wish someone had given me a heads up.
"Good. You four already have a leg up. The rest of you will have some catching up to do." She looks us each over again, but this time with a scowl, like she's disappointed in what she sees. "I'm Wraith. I will be your instructor. One of four. Ruger, Sever, and Matrix." She waves a hand toward two men and then a woman who have moved from behind us—now that everyone is unbound—to stand at her sides. They each wear matching monochrome-black ensembles and expressions that clearly say, "Don't mess with me."
"Who are you guys? CIA, FBI?" The boy next to the mostly naked guy at the end calls out. Wraith turns only her head in a move that's more horror movie villain than secret agent. "Who we are is classified. Information will only be given to you on a need-to-know basis, and all you need to know right now is that we own you. No one knows where you are or what has happened to you." And it's possible they will never find you. She doesn't have to say it. Her threat is implied, but it's loud and clear. The boy drops his challenging gaze to the floor, and his shoulder's slump.
"The Program," Wraith continues in a booming voice, "is a top-secret, government training program designed to recruit the best and brightest. You sorry bunch are this year's recruits. You will spend the next six weeks living together, training together, and failing together. Look around you."
I don't lean out of line to look at the others, but several of my fellow recruits do, including the mousy girl to my left. I'm too focused on absorbing the information Wraith is throwing at us. This isn't your everyday run-of-the-mill abduction. This is government sanctioned.
"Six weeks from now, only five of you will remain. If you want to be one of those five, you will need to train harder, learn faster, be better than the rest. Each of you were chosen because you have a special skill, and you have been assigned codenames accordingly." Great, my codename is going to be Sarcasm. "To be successful in the program, you will need to not only hone your own skill, but also learn the skills of those around you. You will need to be the best at not just what you do, but also what everyone else does."
Here's hoping my special skill is learning other people's super secret special skills. But do I really want to win the day in a government training program designed to… well, I don't really know what the program is designed to train us for. But I'm not about to ask. I learned my lesson vicariously through the mouthy guy next to Underpants. Wraith seems like the kind of person who would sooner put a bullet between my eyes than answer a stupid question. And I have no doubt all four of the instructors are packing.
"For the next six weeks, you will be divided into two teams. After that, it's anybody's game. You will compete, both as teams and individually, for the privilege to remain in the program. Instructors Sever and Matrix will be your team captains. Teams have already been assigned." She emphasizes her announcement by holding up two tablets and handing one to Sever and the other to Matrix. "They will tell you what your codename is and show you to your rooms. Anyone caught revealing their real name will be penalized. Your codename is your new identity. Who you were before no longer exists. Rest up, because you will be expected to be back in this room at 0600 to begin training." When she finishes speaking, she turns on her heel and marches from the room. Clearly, there will be no Q and A session happening.
Sever steps into the spot Wraith just vacated and clears his through. He is softer-looking than Wraith, and possibly shorter, too. Though his muscles are bigger. Massive really. I have no doubt he could snap my neck with one hand tied behind his back. "When I point to you, I want you to take two steps forward and wait for further instruction. Clear?" His voice doesn't carry as well as Wraith's, but his ability to imply a threat does. I send up a silent prayer that I'm not assigned to his team.
He starts with Underpants who's holding down the end of the line to my left. "Maverick," Sever calls him. I like Underpants better. Maverick steps out of line two paces, crosses his arms over his chest and waits. Sever moves on down the line, selecting people the exact same way.
"Ammo." A girl two spots down steps out.
"Sim." The girl right next to Ammo.
"Houdini." A lanky boy with a narrow face that kind of reminds me of a weasel.
"Shadow. Figment." Two boys side by side. With each new name he calls, with each person closer to me he gets, my pulse races that much faster.
"Havoc and Hazzard." Sever says the names together, and points to a boy and a girl who are most likely twins. The family resemblance is obvious even from my bad angle and only a reflection to view. Matching coppery hair, patrician noses, and unreadable expressions. They step out in unison. He's two people away from me now. I suck in a shaky breath and hold it.
Then he points at me. "Infinity." Crap. Clearly, I'm on a lucky streak tonight.
And what kind of a codename is Infinity? With that as my clue, I'm not even going to be able to figure out what my own super awesome skill is, let alone anyone else's. I step out carefully, trying my best to hide the fact that my legs are shaking. I mimic Maverick's devil-may-care pose with my arms crossed over my chest and what I hope is a completely disinterested look on my face.
Sever doesn't seem to notice my nerves and continues through the line.
"Bug." I hear bug and think small and pest-like, but a giant of a boy steps out of line. His fist is easily the size of my face. He could probably squish me like a bug.
"Prodigy." Prodigy is definitely too young to be here. He can't be a day over fourteen, which right now, feels a million years younger than my seventeen. He's small and wiry, with wire-rimmed glasses and a mop of shaggy brown hair. He looks just as terrified as I feel.
"Vita. Legacy." Two girls step out of line, the last one being the cheerleader who already had the dish about The Program. Two of the four people who knew about this little shindig beforehand are on my team. Maybe I can get them to share some of that insider info with dear old Infinity.
"All right, recruits. Follow me. Let's go see your new home for the next six weeks." Sever makes the announcement like it's supposed to be the most exciting thing to happen to us today. Because, being abducted, forced to participate in a top-secret government training program, and given the stupidest codename in the history of codenames isn't exciting enough. I bite my lip against the urge to scoff and fall into step behind Bug on his way to the door. Time to get the tour of my new home.
Sever leads us out of the room and into the long front hall of the two-story house. A flight of stairs stretches from the other end of the hall, near the front door, to a landing above our heads. "You are Team Sever. Don't bother trying to think of a cleverer team name. That one's permanent until the teams are disbanded in week four. This is the main house. It's where you will work and train." He pauses to open the front door and ushers us out onto a surprisingly cozy front porch. The house we're exiting is flanked by matching houses on either side.
The paint is fresh and crisp, the lawns are perfectly manicured. Three identical American flags even fly from the post to the right of the stairs leading up to each front porch. It's the quintessential, all-American neighborhood. Except that it's not. These three houses are the only ones on the street. The only ones anywhere in sight, in fact. Whoever runs this program has gone through all the trouble of creating a miniature neighborhood, comprised of three brand-spanking-new houses and nothing more.
Sever marches down the steps to a walkway leading out to the street and heads to the house on the left. "Team Sever, you will be sleeping in Cottage A." Team Sever; Cottage A. Such original names. But it's still better than Infinity. What could my special skill possibly be? The length of time I can hold a grudge? My limitless supply of snark? My penchant for circular reasoning? Or, maybe my name is a reference to how I used to sing that never-ending song from that old show with the lamb puppet when I was little. These people really did their homework.
No one speaks as we follow Sever to Cottage A and wait while he punches a code into the electronic keypad where the doorknob should be. The door swings open, and he steps aside so we can file in.
Inside, Cottage A is an exact replica of the front hall of the main house. Dark wood flooring, pristine white paneling halfway up the walls, neutral paint on the upper half. A crystal chandelier hangs from the impossibly high ceiling, and a set of white-banistered stairs climbs to a landing overlooking the foyer. Off to either side are a dining room and a living room, respectively. The décor in those rooms is the same: dark wood, white paneling, neutral paint.
"Common areas are down here: Living room, Dining room, Kitchen, and at the back," he points to the room behind the stairs that is the gym in the main house, "is a game room. Upstairs are the sleeping quarters."
"You mean, the bedrooms?" A boy—I think Sever called him Shadow—asks with a snicker. Sever levels him with a glare so murderous, I'm surprised the boy doesn't spontaneously combust on the spot. He bites his lip and loses the smirk immediately, but it isn't until he drops his gaze in submission that Sever continues on as if Shadow never spoke in the first place.
"This way, recruits." He leads us up the stairs. At the top, the landing stretches into a hallway on either side. He takes us down the one to the left and stops in front of the first doors. "Boys are on this side. Girls on that one. There are four bedrooms on each side, already assigned. So, don't try to pick your room. Maverick and Prodigy, you're in room one. Houdini and Figment, you're in two…" And here I stop listening while he spouts the guys' room assignments. This whole thing is insane and only getting worse.
Then it's our turn. The guys all file into their respective rooms, two by two like good little ants. And Sever takes the rest of us over to the girls' side. "Infinity and Sim, you're bunking in room five." He points toward the door closest to the stairs, and I step inside. A tall, purple-haired girl in a skull-print pajama set follows me in, and the rest of the group moves farther down the hall. Sever's voice is still audible as he shows the other girls their rooms, but I tune him out to survey my new bedroom. Two single beds are pushed up against opposite walls with a desk between them. A tall dresser stands at the end of each bed. A doorless opening on one side of the room leads to a small walk-in closet, and through an open doorway next to it, I spot a bathroom.
I look longingly into the bathroom and think wistfully about a shower. As much as I'm freaked out by this whole situation, I'm wearing hours—and an entire kidnapping's worth—of dirt and abrasions. My new roomie, Sim, has already taken over one of the beds and is staring aimlessly out the window behind the desk.
"Do you think it opens?" she whispers.
I listen for Sever's location before I answer. His voice is fainter now, likely placing him at the end of the hall. So, I whisper, "Try it. I'll keep a lookout." I move to the door as Sim leaps for the window. I lean against the doorframe and look out, trying to effect a casual air. I don't want to let on what I'm actually doing. He's busy droning on in answer to some question one of the last two remaining girls asked.
Sim fidgets with the window for a long minute, then two. Finally, she gives up and sits back down on her bed with a curse. "We're trapped."
Understatement of the century. I move back into the room as Sever finishes his monologue and heads for the stairs. As he passes my room, he calls out, loud enough for the whole house to hear, "The exits will remain locked until 0600. You will be expected to be at the front door when it unlocks and ready to head to the training room. Sleep tight, recruits." Something about the way he says sleep tight sounds like a challenge, or maybe a promise. I hope against hope it's not a threat. I listen as Sever clomps down the stairs with heavy bootsteps, and then the keypad at the front door beeps as he punches in the code. A moment later, the front door opens, then slams shut, and he's gone. It's just us… fifteen unwilling recruits in a program no one's heard of.
Except a guy in his underwear and cheerleader Barbie. And I'm going to find out what they know.
Sim and I sit in silence for a long time after Sever leaves the house.
"What does your name mean?" I finally ask, just to break the silence.
"I code sims and apps in my spare time. I was actually working on an A.I. that matches…" She breaks off and looks away from me, blushing. "It's dumb."
I don't know if it was something in my expression that made her feel self-conscious or if I actually had nothing to do with her self-doubt. "No, it's not dumb. I've always thought it would be kinda cool to be able to build a sim from scratch. I know a little bit of coding, but not enough to do that."
She nods, but doesn't tell me any more about her A.I. "So how'd you get your name?"
I try to come up with something, anything that would explain the name Infinity. I come up empty. "I have no idea."
Sim looks at me skeptically, like I'm holding out on her, and I feel compelled to continue, "I really don't know. I've been trying to figure it out since Sever first called me that."
Sim's jaw works, like she's chewing on my words. "I guess we'll have to give it some thought and try to figure it out."
Footsteps in the hall pull my attention away from our stilted conversation. I get up, creep toward the door, and peek around the frame to see what's happening. Two boys at the other end of the hall are fiddling with window, trying to get it to open. One curses and they both back away, dropping their hands to their sides. Giving up.
"They're trying to find a way out," I tell Sim, and she's on her feet, standing next to me before I can blink.
"Think we should, too?"
The boys leave their wing and head for ours. The larger one, Bug, shrugs at us as he passes, but neither of them says anything. They go to the window at the end of our hall. There's a lot of tense whispering I can't quite make out while they struggle with that window. Then they give up and head back the way they came. But instead of heading back to their room, they turn in unison to descend the stairs.
"Let's go," I whisper and head out after them. Sim is right behind me. We're still halfway up when the guys reach the first floor. They try to open the front door, and fail, in the time it takes us to get to them. The other one, not Bug, who is downright tiny next to the giant, gives us a nod of approval and motions for us to go right, into the living room, while they head toward the dining room on the left.
The living room is formal and fancier than anything I've ever set foot in, complete with a massive stone fireplace and gilded mirror hanging above the mantel. I'm wound too tight for fancy right now. There's only one, large window in here. And sheer white curtains accenting the picture window, with no blinds. No privacy. Not that there were any neighbors to try to maintain privacy from. But what about the Fab Four? Are they hidden out there somewhere in the field across the street watching us? Laughing at the stupid kids trying to escape the escape-proof house?
But why would they sit outside and watch us? They could just bug the house. And as soon as the thought occurs to me, I realize it's probably true. If I were in charge of a running an operation like this, not only would I bug the living quarters. I'd install cameras too.
I scan the corners of the room, but don't see anything out of the ordinary. Then just as I move my gaze from the ceiling to the fireplace, I catch a glimmer of something shiny out of the corner of my eye. There, up where the crown molding meets the ceiling is a shiny white disc with a darker center. The whole thing is no larger than a dime, but I have no doubt that it's a camera. And it's set in the perfect position to take in almost the entire room and most of the foyer.
Are they watching us right now? What do they think of our little escape attempt? I mentally run through how to tell Sim we're being watched. She's over at the window, working at its seams diligently, blissfully unaware of the surveillance built into this place. In the span of heartbeat, I come up with a million different ways to tell her, and have to shoot them all down because I can't do any of it without letting on to whoever's behind the camera that I know they're watching.
"Hey, Sim, I think I have an idea." She perks up immediately, and I tamp down a spike of guilt. I don't have an idea on how me might get out of here, but it's the only way I can think of to get her to follow me without letting on about the real reason until I find a safe place to talk.
She follows me back up to our room, and now that I know what to look for, I spot cameras everywhere. Two in the foyer, at opposite ends, one on the base of the chandelier, overlooking the landing, one at the start of our hall, and I believe another one at the other end, though it's too far away to tell for sure. There's even one inside our room, above the window.
Sim doesn't ask any questions—even when I lead her into our bathroom, shut the door, and, after scanning it for cameras, turn on the shower. In case of an audio bug. Somewhere along our journey, her expression went from intrigued to confused, and now was a solid understanding. She knows exactly what I'm doing.
Cameras? She mouths the word, and I nod my response.
"Where?" This is a whisper from her.
I hold up one finger and point an invisible line through the bathroom wall in the direction of our bedroom window. "Bedroom," I whisper. I go through each area I saw cameras in, half-miming, half-telling her their locations.
"Lovely," she says when I'm done. "We should probably just lay low tonight and re-evaluate the situation tomorrow after we've had a chance to scope out the rest of the cameras and search for bugs.