Sarah studied the landscape. She saw only rolling hills and the scrub of trees—except for a dark smear to the northwest. It was indistinct, but as she rode closer, the smear resolved into a rocky ridge of cracked black crags poking out of the earth. Rain fell harder. Merrylegs lowered his head and half-closed his enormous eyes, as if the rain depressed him.
The weather was blowing in from the north; at the base of the little cliff, she would be wet, but out of the wind. Merrylegs plodded onward. At last they arrived at the ridge. Sarah hobbled the horse beneath a slight overhang, near a small crevice scarcely wide enough for her body. She crammed herself into this passably dry space. Wrapped in a wool blanket and swaddled in her rain gear, she planned to rest for a few hours.
But sleep wouldn’t come. Every time Sarah closed her eyes, she saw the patch of bloody ground on the hillside, and felt a needle-sharp prick of resentment. Why didn’t they wait for me—why didn’t they care where I was? In the middle of the night, bleary with fatigue and too tired to stay angry, a reluctant inner voice told her a different story. It was my fault—I should have kept up with the group. It wasn’t Quinn and Levvy’s job to babysit me.
Sarah fell into a deep, sound sleep, and woke up on a different planet.
Cold air made her nostrils tingle. A pink sky stretched above a crystalline world. Every surface was coated with delicate, sparkling white frost. Sarah brushed Merrylegs and murmured reassurances in his long ears while sun melted ice crystals; a trillion diamonds trickled away to nothing. There was no one around, and Sarah was thirsty. A patch of dark blue in a tree-rimmed hollow looked promising; maybe it would provide water for Merrylegs at least. Reluctant to ride, she walked, leading the horse.
The patch of blue was a swampy pond. Red-winged blackbirds trilled, and a pair of ducks floated serenely in bulrushes. Merrylegs drank, and Sarah tethered him to a tree where he could graze. Kneeling, Sarah licked the morning dew from blades of grass. When her thirst was less desperate, she surveyed the countryside. A ribbon of dun-coloured ground east of the ridge could be a trail, she decided, but it was hard to be sure. The view from atop the rocky cliff might help her see where the Rafters went. Leaving Merrylegs grazing contentedly under leafy trees beside the pond, she scrambled up the escarpment. The end of the climb was nearly vertical, but there were jagged, reliable handholds, and soon she was hoisting herself over the upper edge.
Sarah nearly toppled off the cliff in shock! She was standing at the rim of a gaping crater, a giant bite taken out of the earth. Four or five stories down, tiny human figures moved among concrete shapes: circle, rectangle, square. Bands of of sediment and rock spiralled around the edges of the gargantuan hole; the canyon walls were like a cross-section of a body, an illustration of a human without skin, muscles laid bare. Sarah closed her eyes, and when she opened them, the abyss was still there. She knew some metal or mineral had caused all this digging and scraping—she was looking at an open pit mine.
Lowering herself to the ground, Sarah crawled on her belly to the edge. A cylindrical building dominated the space below, wide at either end and thinner in the middle, like a tube squeezed by a giant’s hand. The shape was recognizable from a social studies book of her father’s: the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor. Electrical wires swooped up and out of the mine, and Sarah heard the chug-chug-chug of a gas-powered generator—the Posse was burning the fuel found by Slickers!
On the other side of the mine, parallel to where she lay, a herd of horses grazed in grassy pasture. Where were the Rafters, Sarah wondered—where were her friends? A white scar sloped down and around the inside of the mine—a road. Merrylegs was safe and comfortable.
She would have to go into the bones of the earth.
A fifty meter walk brought Sarah to the intersection of grassy plateau and dusty mine road. With a regretful backward glance toward the pond, she started her steep descent. Loose rock skittered like marbles underfoot; extending her arms for balance she slid, sending gravel avalanches tumbling ahead of her down the road. She went all the way around the canyon three times, keeping to the shadows, flattening her body against the rock wall, and trying not to look down. The slope of the road levelled out at a landing. A few meters later, a cave-like entrance had been blasted into solid rock. She edged cautiously around the corner, and peeked inside. When her eyes adjusted to darkness, Sarah saw an empty tunnel.
The bottom of the mine was still another two-story drop. Should she explore the tunnel, or return to the road? Outside, Sarah reasoned, she could see where she was going. She regained the road and resumed her spiralling descent, passing more arch-topped, cave-dark entrances. People below sharpened as she neared them; they were dressed in mismatched army fatigues. Sarah shuddered, remembering that Harpminster Abbott’s Parleyment Army had dressed in secondhand army clothes. Before anyone could spot her, she slipped into the next tunnel entrance.
The air was dry, and smelled like rust. A cold, pale illumination filtered into the tunnel from a series of open doorways. Feeling vulnerable, Sarah hugged the wall, edged around a corner—and bumped into a heavily made up blonde woman in a hot pink track suit.
“Violet?” Sarah rubbed her eyes, wondering if she were hallucinating.
“Sarah Spellings? What on earth are you doing here?” screeched Violet Smacker.
Sarah had spent three weeks as a prisoner in Violet’s house on Wailsmouth Street. At the time, the woman’s unwavering loyalty to Harpminster Abbott had seemed exasperating and strange, especially considering her boss’ poor treatment of her. Strangely, in spite of being her captive, Sarah had developed a grudging appreciation for slow-witted Violet, who was guileless, and possessed a kind and generous nature. Sarah was flooded with relief to encounter bumbling, giddy Violet Smacker, instead of a phalanx of armed guards.
Putting an index finger to her lips, Sarah whispered. “Shhhh! My friends are here somewhere. Can you help me find them?”
Violet patted her bouffant hairdo with long, manicured fingernails. “Harpy wouldn’t like that, Sarah,” she pouted. “I should really tell him that you’re here. I’ll get in trouble if I don’t.”
Sarah swallowed hard, remembering how her uncle’s eyes shone fiery red when he was angry. “Please, Violet,” she said quietly. “I’m begging you—please don’t tell my uncle I’m here. I need to find my friends.”
“Oh, I know where your friends are,” said Violet breezily. “They’re locked up. I can take you to them if you want, because the jail cells are nowhere near the action. Today’s the big day—they’re going to start the nuclear reactor! Harpy said we have to prioritize safety, and safety means me staying out of the way.” She raised a manicured hand, and let it drop. “You remember what he’s like.”
A crease formed between Sarah’s eyebrows. “Starting the reactor, eh? Wow—that’s, ummm, a big day for sure,” she stammered, her mind racing, the words locked up ringing in her ears.
Violet beckoned for Sarah to follow, and doubled back along the tunnel where she’d emerged. “The reactor is so exciting,” she gushed. “All these awesome scientists and engineers have been working for ages to get it going. Even though I won’t see it, Harpy says I’m really lucky to be here on the historic day the reactor goes operational. And now you get to be here, too! After today, everything is going to change back to what things were like before.”
Violet giggled nervously, giving Sarah the impression she doubted what she’d just said.
“Right,” said Sarah. “Super cool. I mean, nuclear power—who would have thought? Especially when other kinds of energy are easier to harness, and way less dangerous.”
Violet tilted her head, and lengthened her lips in a sympathetic smirk. “Icky told me about the kitchen in your treehouse place, or whatever. He said there’s no way to keep food cold, and all the cooking is done over smelly fires. You don’t want to admit it, but you would love a better lifestyle.”
“Um, actually, root cellars keep food cold at Sassamatta Grove. We don’t use much power, but windmills and solar panels generate as much as we need. And we eat fresh vegetables every day,” Sarah added, remembering that salads were one of Violet’s weaknesses.
“Ooh! I love a good salad! But I’d hate living in the mud. Icky says your village is dirty, and there’s no clean clothes, and you work all day just to survive.”
In the light of the next entranceway, Sarah saw that Violet was pale and haggard. “We clean our clothes in the lake, and hang them to dry,” she explained gently, pitying the woman. “The work is fun, mostly gardening and fishing, and I love being outside all day.”
Violet sniffed, and screwed up her powdered nose. “Harpy is your uncle. He should know you’re here. He’s been worried about you. You really don’t appreciate how lucky you are, Sarah. Lots of people don’t have family.”
Sarah felt even sorrier for the lonely woman. “But Violet,” she said cautiously, “you complained about my uncle last year. I saw how rude he was to you.”
“It was wrong of me to complain,” said Violet, drawing herself up proudly. “I was being picky and ungrateful. Harpy takes care of those who are loyal to him.”
Sarah was about to remind Violet her uncle punished his staff by withholding food when a door slammed open, and two people in army fatigues marched into the tunnel. Sarah flinched. She was prepared to be arrested, jailed, and kicked out of the mine, but the soldiers only glanced at her briefly and hurried past, clearly in a rush to be elsewhere. Oblivious to the soldiers, Violet veered down a small passageway lined with barred doors, each with a metal lock plate and oversized keyhole.
“Nine, ten, eleven!” Violet counted cheerfully. “Here we are!” She touched a switch, and a torch in a wall-mounted sconce burst into flame. “Your boyfriend is in cell number eleven. Say a quick hello, then I’m taking you to your uncle.”
Sarah approached the iron-barred window, yelped, and leapt backward in surprise—Quinn’s freckled face was pressed up to the bars!
“We were ambushed, Sarah. I couldn’t find you—”
“Is everyone okay?” Sarah interrupted. “I found blood on the ground!”
“Some of the Rafters have slingshot injuries,” Quinn said gravely. “Eustace was shot in the eye, and he was bleeding pretty badly. Levvy and I got separated from the group in the windstorm, and the Posse caught us, and brought us here. I’m pretty sure everyone else got away.”
“Are there more prisoners?” Sarah asked Violet, who was tapping her toe absently, and pushing her cuticles into her nail beds.
“I don’t know,” Violet shrugged. “I’m supposed to stay in the kitchen. I heard about these two because I was cleaning breakfast trays, and—”
Weeeeeooooo! Weeeeeeooooo! A deafening siren blared, echoing off rock walls. Violet’s jaw dropped. She whirled around and ran away, flip-flops slapping and hairdo bouncing.
“Get us out of here!” Quinn shouted over the noise.
Without hesitation, guided by her powers, Sarah heated up the metal lock plate. Her hexagon shone and her palms prickled. The lock glowed orange-red, then white-hot. She took the knife Quinn had given her from her pocket, unfolded the blade, jammed it into the keyhole, and turned. A wisp of smoke ascended, and Sarah tasted the acrid tang of iron. The lock cooled. The moment it was black once more she rotated the knife. Clunk, the door unlocked. Blade and lock were fused; Sarah snapped off the beautiful carved handle with its inlaid golden tree, and returned it to her pocket.
Quinn pushed his cell door open, and hugged Sarah hard.