Even though they attend a school of gifted students in New York City, child geniuses Louise Mayer and her twin sister Jillian have always felt alone in the world, isolated by their brilliance. Shortly before their ninth birthday, they make an amazing discovery. They’re not alone.
Their real mother was astronaut Esme Shenske and their father was the famous inventor, Leonardo Dufae. They have an older sister, Alexander, living on the planet of Elfhome, and four siblings still in cryogenic storage at the fertility center. There’s only one problem: the frozen embryos are scheduled to be destroyed within six months. The race is on to save their baby brother and sisters.
As a war breaks out on Elfhome and riots start in New York City, the twins use science and magic to plow over everything standing in their way. But when they come face to face with an ancient evil force, they’re soon in over their heads in danger.
BAEN BOOKS by WEN SPENCER
THE ELFHOME SERIES
Wolf Who Rules
ALSO BY WEN SPENCER
Eight Million Gods
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Wen Spencer
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Stephen Hickman
First Baen printing, September 2014
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wood sprites / Wen Spencer.
pages cm — (Elfhome ; 4)
ISBN 978-1-4767-3671-6 (hardback)
1. Twin sisters—Fiction. 2. Gifted persons—Fiction. 3. Imaginary places—Fiction. 4. Families—Fiction. 5. Imaginary wars and battles—Fiction. I. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Pages by Joy Freeman (http://www.pagesbyjoy.com)
Printed in the United States of America
Electronic Version by Baen Books
Books are not the effort of just one person.
Many thanks to the people who gave me a
helping hand during the course of this book.
Ruth L. Heller, DVM
Laurel Jamieson Lohrey
Hope Erica Ring, M.D.
June Drexler Robertson
N. A. Young
Aaron, Becky, Katie, and Josh Wollerton for being
willing subjects of science experiments for fiction.
The Barflies at Baen’s Bar who were willing to
figure out exactly what I said thirteen years ago.
And especially Traci Scroggins, who fought the good fight.
To my sister, Kathy Sue Flower
Who is eighteen months older and yet has
always been shorter than me. She wore dresses
that matched mine. She shared long summers of
secret forts and rambling adventures. She slept in
the top bunk of our bed year in and year out.
Because of her, I have an inkling
of what it is to be a twin.
Louise Georgina Mayer learned many important life lessons the week before her ninth birthday. The first was that flour was indeed explosive. The second was not to experiment with explosives indoors—or at least not in a small wooden playhouse that doubled as a film studio. The third was that adults—firemen, EMTs, policemen, her parents—liked to state the obvious when trying to make a point. Yes, she realized that they’d miscalculated while still airborne—thank you very much. The fourth was that her twin sister rocked—Jillian sat there with blood streaming down her face and managed a wide-eyed story of innocence that pinned the entire event on their Barbie dolls. Fifth was that people believed the stupidest things if you delivered the story while bleeding.
Sixth was that her parents were liars.
“That can’t be right,” she told the emergency room nurse who was applying the bracelet to her wrist that claimed she was blood-type AB. The man blithely ignored her, so she said it louder and clearer. “That’s not right.”
“Hm? What isn’t right, sweetie?” the nurse asked although by his tone he still wasn’t paying attention.
“I’m blood-type O,” Louise stated firmly. She was going to be a geneticist someday. Maybe. A geneticist or an animal trainer or a circus performer. Unlike Jillian, Louise couldn’t decide what she wanted to do with her life. Jillian wanted to write, act, and direct big-budget action movies, hence the entire flour explosion. According to their alibi, Barbie was merely pinned under her pink convertible in a blizzard. In truth, the planned small explosion was special effects for Soulful Ember, queen of the elves, using magic to defeat an army of man-eating black-willow trees. It was supposed to be the climax of episode twenty-four in their partially accurate series chronicling the history of Earth’s twin sister, Elfhome.
“Type O?” The nurse became focused. He picked up a tester, and there was a sudden sharp pain in her finger. The machine beeped, and he shook his head. “No, you’re AB positive. See. Here, let’s do your sister.”
He made Jillian wince, and the machine beeped again. The display said: AB+.
Which was completely impossible. Both of her parents were blood-type O, which was amazing because they were such different people. Their father was tall, weedy thin, Nordic pale, and hopelessly nerdy looking. Their mother was an equally tall African-American warrior queen who struggled daily not to be anything but solid built. Two type-O people made a boring genetic grid: O across the board with the only possible outcome being O. Louise and Jillian weren’t identical twins, which made it even more impossible.
“I always said that we were adopted,” Jillian said once the nurse left them alone. While their dusky skin could be a blending of their two parents, the twins’ silky straight brown hair was too well behaved to be from either of their parents, and it was becoming apparent that they were never going to be tall.
“We can’t be adopted,” Louise said. “There’s that icky video of us being born. All that screaming and blood and everything. That was Mom saying the S and F words.”
Jillian giggled. Their parents had planned to watch the birth videos—again—on their birthday until Jillian reminded them how many times their mother cursed while giving birth. Luckily their parents hadn’t mastered video editing to the point that they could simply erase out the swear words.
“Maybe we got it wrong on how blood type works,” Jillian said.
“It’s not that complicated.” Louise sketched out the four boxes on the sheet of the bed with her fingernail. “At least—it didn’t seem that complicated.”
“Their donor cards are wrong?” Jillian suggested.
Louise shook her head. “They’re universal donors. The blood bank wouldn’t get that wrong. It would be bad.”
However they considered it, the facts just didn’t seem to add up.
Eventually their parents swept in, smelling of smoke and radiating concern.
“What were you doing in your playhouse that made it explode?” their mother asked. She cupped Jillian’s chin with her elegant dark hands and made a sound of dismay over the stitches at the edge of her scalp.
“Honey,” their father said in the tone that said he thought their mother was being silly. As they got older, they were realizing that their father was child-naïve at times.
“George, don’t baby them. They’re too intelligent to be babied.”
Jillian got all wide-eyed innocent again, which didn’t work nearly as well without the streaming blood, but the stitches helped. “All we were doing was playing with our dolls. Barbie had spun out in the driving snow—”
“The flour and the sifter and the fan?” their mother asked.
“It was a blizzard,” Louise explained since Jillian was losing ground. “The flour was snow.”
“What you did was very dangerous.” Their father fell back to truth number three: stating the obvious.
“We had no idea—” Louise started
Jillian kicked her and gave her a look that said that it was the wrong thing to do. Jillian was much better at lying, so Louise shut up. “We have no idea what happened. Why did our playhouse blow up?”
“Flour can explode when it fills up the air like that,” their father explained patiently. “Don’t ever play with flour like that again.”
Their mother knew them better. “Or anything like flour. Baby powder. Corn starch. Sawdust.”
“Where would they get sawdust?” their father asked. He might not know them, but he knew their neighborhood. Sawdust had proved impossible to find within an easy walk of their house.
“Non-dairy creamer. Baking soda. Sugar.” Obviously their mother had spent time researching dust explosions before this conversation. “Anything like flour. Understand?”
They nodded meekly while Jillian bit down on a “darn it.”
“Mom.” Louise held out her wrist with the plastic bracelet on it. “Why are we AB positive when both you and Dad are O? Isn’t that impossible?”
Both of their parents flinched as if struck.
“Baby, that’s very complicated,” their father started.
“If we don’t tell them,” their mother murmured, “they’ll only guess—and they’ll probably guess wrong.”
Their parents gazed at each other as if having a long, silent discussion. Finally their father sighed. “Okay, we’ll tell them. Babies, we wanted to have children very, very much, but no matter how hard we tried, for a long time, we couldn’t. We started to look into adoption when I was offered my position at Cryobank. It’s an embryo bank—umm—where—where people who—umm . . .”
“It’s like an adoption service.” Their mother took up the explanation. “But instead of babies that have already been born, it’s babies that haven’t been born yet.”
They frowned at their parents until their father added, “It’s like Easter, but instead of chicken eggs in your basket, you get—umm—fertilized human eggs.”
Their mother covered her face, which meant they weren’t to listen to anything their father said. It also meant that they probably weren’t going to get a better explanation.
“Soooo, Mommy put these Easter eggs into her tummy and had us,” Louise said.
“But they weren’t Mommy’s Easter eggs. They were someone else’s,” Jillian said.
“Yes, exactly,” their father said.
“Close enough,” their mother mumbled into her hands still covering her face.
Louise sighed. They were going to have to research this when they got home.
* * *
The seventh life lesson of the day was that when you’re nine years old (minus one week) and you blow up your playhouse while you’re in it, every adult in the world thinks a night at the hospital is a good idea. Thus they weren’t able to investigate their conception until the next morning.
“Embryo bank” turned out to be the keywords. Apparently, when couples went through in vitro fertilization, multiple embryos were created but not used. It came from the fact that they were working at the cellular level with human reproductive systems already not operating properly. More eggs than needed were released, and then flooded with sperm. Because the failure rate was high, it made sense to invite everyone to the party and hope for the best.
While the information answered one question—that of their blood type—it raised dozens of others. They took a carton of chicken eggs out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter. There were eight eggs in the package, as their mother had made four soft-boiled eggs yesterday morning.
“We’re the leftovers.” Jillian poked at the remaining eggs.
So far they hadn’t been able to determine how many eggs were fertilized at once, only that normally up to four were recommended per each implantation.
Louise took out a marker and put eyes and mouth on one egg and then the letter L underneath. “L for Louise. J for Jillian.” She went to draw on a second egg, but Jillian snatched the pen out of her hand.
“I want to do mine.” Jillian cradled the egg in her hand and carefully wrote out her name and not only did a face but hair.
“According to Wikipedia, they do four embryos per implantation because they expect a high failure rate.” Louise found another marker and put Xs for eyes and a squiggle mouth on two of the eggs to indicate that they were failed embryos. “That means there’s another four embryos.”
“Do you really think they made twelve just like a carton of chicken eggs?”
“Well . . . they keep them in freezers just like chicken eggs.”
Jillian put the Jillian-egg back into the carton beside the Louise-egg. “That proves nothing.” She tapped the remaining eggs. “These eggs might have never existed. These ones, though . . .” She pointed at the empty cups. “Those eggs existed and were used and were successful—otherwise we wouldn’t be leftovers.”
Louise rolled the idea around in her head. Their “genetic parents” created a random number of fertilized eggs because they wanted babies. Once they had one or two babies, they didn’t want more, so they gave the rest to someone that did: their real parents. Jillian was right; for them to be leftovers, their genetic parents got the babies that they wanted.
“We have sisters,” Louise whispered. The possibilities were breathtaking. Two more Louise and Jillian? Did the other Jillian want to create epic movies? Did the other Louise love animals as much as she did? Did she have pets?
“Or brothers,” Jillian said. “They could be boys. It’s not like we’ve been cloned.”
That was true. Brothers wouldn’t be bad; just different. She and Jillian were often mistaken for identical twins because their hair was the same shade of brown and had been the same length prior to the explosion. The fire had singed Louise’s ponytail to a short brittle stump that their mother had trimmed even shorter to get rid of the burnt ends. She looked like a boy now.
Louise peered at her reflection in the mirrored side of the toaster. Would their brothers look like her? Were they nine years old, too? Or ten?
“How long to you think we sat in the fridge?” Jillian said. “We are leftovers, after all.”
“I don’t know.” There were reports of pregnancies of embryos that had been stored up to sixteen years. Their sisters could have been teenagers before she and Jillian were born. They could be really old by now—like twenty-one or twenty-two!
Louise decided she liked thinking that their siblings were two girls, exactly their age. What of the other leftovers? Louise took out an egg, pure white, perfectly formed, and considered the possibilities. The others would probably be younger. “I think I would want at least one brother. A baby brother, just learning to talk.”
“That would be boring.” Jillian picked up one of the unmarked eggs. “I’d rather have a baby sister but one that could talk and walk and act.”
Assuming that any other leftovers had actually been used. Louise eyed the egg with slight unease. She knew that she couldn’t remember that time between conception and implantation. Despite that, it seemed awful somehow to be stuck frozen at the brink of being alive.
“Do you think they’re still in the fridge?” Jillian marked closed eyes on the egg as if it were asleep. A chain of little Zs came from a tiny slack mouth. “Still-unused leftovers?”
“Maybe.” How many people wanted other people’s Easter eggs, left in the grass after the hunt? Would they stay lost in the darkness, forgotten, until they spoiled?
Louise cradled the egg in her hands. Every Wednesday night their mother would sift through the contents of their refrigerator, sniffing at the suspicious packages, throwing out anything that looked too old. How much time did the unused eggs have left?
Jillian squeaked with alarm and made a wild grab at the egg that had slipped out of her hand. She missed, and it dropped to the floor with a wet splat. Her lip trembled as she fought not to cry.
“Maybe we should ask Mom and Dad to make us baby sisters.”
* * *
The most important lesson Louise learned a week before her ninth birthday was the hardest one to keep in mind. Sometimes what sounded like a good plan wasn’t.
Their parents had insisted on calling the building in the backyard the girls’ “playhouse” despite the fact it was actually a storage shed. Made of dried lumber and asphalt shingles, it had proved to be quite flammable. All that was left was a skeleton of blackened studs. Their father was dismantling it with a reciprocating saw.
“We want to know more,” Jillian called to him over the growl of the blade.
“More?” their father echoed. He had soot smeared across his pale cheeks like war paint. On another father, it would probably look cool, but it only made him look silly. The strap on his safety glasses worked his straw-blond hair into spikes, standing up at every conceivable angle. His eyebrows were cocked into an extremely puzzled look. Their mother liked to use his expressions as proof that it was possible to get your face stuck in silly-looking poses. He looked like a startled hedgehog.
“We want to know about our siblings,” Louise said.
“Your what?” His mystified look changed to slight panic. He narrowly avoided cutting his left hand with the saw blade and had to turn off the power tool for his own safety.
“Our sisters!” Jillian cried, still at the volume to be heard over the now silent saw.
“And our brother.” Odds were that at least one of their siblings would a boy. “We read up on in vitro fertilization. We know that we probably have two or three siblings, if not more.”
“We could have dozens!” Jillian cried.
Their father was shaking his head while trying to wave off their questions. “No. No. What are you doing back here? It’s dangerous. Go back in the house. You could have been killed in this shed. You were lucky that you weren’t trapped in here.”
They hadn’t been because they’d used an old coffee table as a blast shield. They had stood it on end, its legs against the double doors that opened outward. The explosion had smashed the table through the doorway. They were lucky that the thick legs kept them from being squashed between the two pieces of heavy wood. So far, no one had realized the significance of the heavily charred coffee table out in the middle of the yard.
“Daddy!” Jillian used the ultimate cute attack. “If you had a brother or a sister, wouldn’t you want to know?”
Their father melted visibly but remained steadfast. “Yes, I would. I always wanted a brother or sister. But those records are kept confidential. They’re secret.”
“Why?” Jillian was actually asking why he’d let anything like policy stand in his way. Since he worked at the clinic, it should be easy for him to get the information.
He misunderstood. “It’s for our protection. This way, no one can come and . . . and . . .”
“Get visitation rights for you.”
They understood custody battles; several of their classmates had had their lives implode via a divorce. Their situation didn’t seem to fit that scenario.
“Why would anyone do that?” Louise asked.
“You and Mom aren’t getting divorced, are you?” Jillian asked and did a lip quiver that may or may not have been real.
“No. No. Your mother and I are happy. It’s just when people can’t have other children, or they have children and lose them in some way, they’re desperate enough to use the law to take what really isn’t theirs in the first place.”
Louise exchanged a glance with Jillian. They hadn’t considered “other parents,” only “other siblings.” “And the law would actually allow that?”
“Yes, honey. The law tries to be fair to everyone, but in trying to cover all the bases, it ends up being grossly unfair to some people. It is possible, even though your mother carried you for nine months and you’ve been our daughters for nine years, that the court may think the little bit of genetic material we . . . we used is enough to warrant someone else rights to you.”
The truly frightening thing was that their father always sugarcoated everything. Somehow he never understood that they were constantly growing up; in his mind they were stuck somewhere between the ages of three and four. That he was admitting this much meant there was much more that he wasn’t telling them.
* * *
Their mother was in full African warrior-queen mode in the laundry room, dealing with her smoke-laden cardigan while she growled at someone on her headset.
“The only exploding car in my backyard is a Barbie Glam Convertible.” She shoved the cardigan deeper into the wash water as if thinking about holding someone’s head under the suds. It made Louise edge slightly back. Now probably wasn’t the best time to talk to their mother.
“I do think that while the demonstrations against the E.I.A. zone expansion are going on that checking for car bombs at the dinner is perfectly reasonable. Anna Desmarais is a complete loon, though, if she thinks my nine-year-olds are terrorists. You tell Taliaferro that if she goes after my girls, I will come down there and set her—” Their mother noticed them standing at the door and winced. “Short hairs on fire.”
With a flick of the wrist and a jangle of gold bracelets, she tried to banish them away so she could use real harsh language. They edged back so that they weren’t in the room proper but they could still see her rinsing out her cardigan.
She knew that they were still in earshot; she gave a long angry hiss instead of swearing. “She is not a nice little old lady, she is a hedge-fund manager and one of the best. She’s a shark; if she smiled a little wider, you’d see how sharp her teeth are. Oh, she hates me just as much as I hate her; we’re just both very good at smiling and pretending that everything is just peachy.”
Their mother worked in events planning for charities. In some ways, it was a glamorous job as it involved throwing bright and glittering parties for the city’s richest. It meant, however, that their mother was constantly faced with drop-dead deadlines and unexpected emergencies. She was quite good at it since, as an African warrior queen, she was forceful and unbending while extremely polite.
“Jillian needed three stitches.” Their mother sniffed the cardigan to see if she had gotten out the smell of smoke from the fine wool. “Louise had half of her hair burnt off. Other than that, they only have minor scrapes and bruises from head to toe. They spent the night at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.” She paused as the other side asked a question that made her glare at them in the doorway. “It was a dust explosion! Look it up; I had to.” She huffed with impatience. “Flour, when airborne in high concentrations, can explode. Flour. The white stuff in cookies and cakes. Tell Taliaferro to tell Desmarais that the fire department already has ruled it was an accident.” Another huff of impatience. “My girls videoed the whole thing, and the footage cleared them of everything but stupidity. Yes, the joy of raising children. Said children want their mother, I have to go.”
She laid her sweater on the drying rack and pulled off her gloves. Their mother held up her elegant hand as if giving benediction. “I love you two dearly,” she said calmly. “I would kill anyone that tried to harm you. I would lay down my life to protect you. But—this—is—not—a good time to push me.”
Louise swallowed hard. Jillian held out her hand, and they laced their fingers tightly together.
“No, no, no.” Their mother waved her finger at them. “Don’t do that The Shining twin dead girls on me.”
Louise squeezed Jillian’s hand tight and then reluctantly let it go. “Mom, we wanted to know. Could you and Dad go back to the embryo bank and use what’s still in storage so we can have little sisters and brothers?”
Their mother took a deep breath and sighed it out. She didn’t like to give them her knee-jerk reactions, but it sometimes took her a few minutes before she could find safe answers. This took longer than usual, and it was simply, “No.”
“Why?” Jillian pushed when she shouldn’t have.
Their mother caught hold of them to grip them both fiercely. “Having a child is not just getting knocked up and spitting it out into the world! You are responsible for every moment of that child’s life until it can take legal accountability for itself—which with some poor souls is never. Besides adequate food, clothing, and schooling, you must lavish it with love and affection tempered with discipline. Your father and I made that commitment to you two. We do not have the resources to reasonably extend that to other children, no matter how much we would love to have more. So the answer is no.”
They nodded and escaped up the stairs. At the top of the steps, though, Jillian paused to look back with her mouth rounded into a silent “Oh” of surprise.
“What?” Louise whispered.
“Lou, they thought about having more. That means there’s other leftovers still waiting to be born.”
* * *
Late that night, they lay in their beds as gleaming stars slowly crawled across their ceiling. The holographic, completely accurate, star field was one of the many expensive birthday gifts that their parents had surprised them with over the years. It had a “lullaby” mode where an AI with Carl Sagan’s voice gave astronomy lessons as constellations rose in the east. Louise couldn’t understand why their parents hadn’t saved their money and gotten more children instead.
“If there are leftovers, we need to do something.” Jillian was waving her arms in the darkness. Louise could only see them moving, though, as they rapidly eclipsed the stars. “Big things. Maybe illegal things. They’re our little sisters.”
“And baby brother.” Because odds were that at least one was a boy. “But we don’t know for sure if they’re still at Dad’s work.”
“Where would they go? They’re popsicles!”
“They might have been born to someone else,” Louise pointed out the obvious.
“You heard Mom . . .”
“They thought about having more and decided to pass on the others. The reason Dad talked about confidentiality might mean someone used the embryos and they’re someone else’s kids now.”
“But they’re still going to be like us,” Jillian said. “Short and brown and smart . . .”
“We are not weird. We just think outside the box.”
“So if they’ve been born, we can watch over them from a distance. And if they haven’t been born, make sure they’re safe.”
Louise blew her breath out in irritation. “If they’re not safe at Dad’s work, what are we going to do? It’s not like we can stick them in our fridge behind the ice cream. If for some reason they’re not ‘safe’ at Dad’s work, the only thing we could do is to implant them into someone. I don’t know ‘who,’ and I’m not totally sure ‘how.’ I’ve read all those links about implantation, but those pictures just don’t make total sense to me. Really there’s nothing between my legs that looks like that and certainly nothing down there is big enough for a baby to come out of.”
“It’s because we’re nine. That’s where puberty comes in. We change.”
Louise wasn’t totally sure about that. She really wished their father hadn’t passed out while filming their birth; the video would have been more instructive without the ten minutes of video of the birthing room’s floor. Their father missed the whole “come out” part of their birth. “And what are we going to do with the babies afterwards? We can’t just show up with them and say we found them. We tried that with the kittens and it didn’t work.”
A pillow came sailing across from Jillian’s bed and hit Louise in the face. “Ow!”
“Don’t be a stupid ass.” Jillian’s voice was muffled by the pillow over Louise’s head. “We didn’t know Daddy was allergic.”
Louise tossed the pillow back. “Don’t say ‘ass.’ This is just like the kittens times a zillion.”
“Don’t be a stupid butt. Before we start getting all worked up about anything, we need to figure out first if there’s anything to go all emo about.”
Jillian had a point. If someone else had claimed the embryos, then they wouldn’t have to deal with figuring out how to get their siblings born. Louise slipped quietly out of bed, got her tablet off her desk, and climbed under her blankets before turning it on.
“What are you doing?” Jillian whispered.
“Checking Mom and Dad’s computers. They probably have some kind of records on this.”
A moment later, Jillian climbed into bed with her. “Any records they have are probably going to be dated from before we’re born.”
With the sheets tented over them, they hacked into their parents’ personal files. On their mother’s computer they found medical records listing doctor visits and seemingly endless tests on both their parents. The terminology slowed them down, requiring detours to look up words and procedures. The records did prove that their parents had tried for years to have babies without success.
The only information they could find on their conception was the genetic profiles of their donors. The man was listed as white, nonreligious, no known hereditary diseases, father alive, mother killed in a car accident, master level of education obtained. The woman was also listed as white, Jewish, no known hereditary disease, mother alive, father murdered, doctorate level of education obtained.
“Well, that explains why we do the Hanukah lights at Christmas.” Jillian sighed with disappointment. “But I thought for sure we were at least a little African-American. Why are we so brown?”
“I don’t know.” Louise double-checked everything they’d searched for. “There are no names or even lot numbers on this information. We’re going to have to hack Dad’s company.”
* * *
Hacking their father’s computer wasn’t as hard as it sounded since their father was a dangerously predictable man. Most of his passwords were something of sentimental value and the date associated with them. The work password was Paris16, their parents’ honeymoon.
Once they were in, though, it was difficult to figure out what exactly they were looking for. There were thousands of frozen embryos stored, all cross-referenced with client numbers. Their parents weren’t on the client database.
“Why aren’t they on the list?” Jillian asked.
“Maybe because they didn’t put anything into storage, they just took stuff out.”
They found information on people who paid for implanting embryos that had been donated, but their parents weren’t on that list, either.
“Maybe they lied about all this,” Louise said.
“Or it wasn’t us they were lying to,” Jillian whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“What if they stole the embryos? It could be why Dad is all worried about confidentiality.”
“If they stole our embryos . . .” Louise stared at the maze of interlocking databases, all feeding information from one to another. They weren’t looking for a reported incident, but the lack of one. “Here. This database shows the date that the embryos are stored and the dates they were accessed. If we count nine months back from our birthday, we have a date range when our parents would have taken us.”
Jillian counted back on her fingers. “We were born in April. March. February. January. December. November. October. September. August. July?”
“Let’s check from June to August, the year before we were born, just to be sure,” Louise said. “I don’t know how exact that nine-month thing is. People are always talking about premature babies.”
There were only a dozen possible batches.
“I would have thought there would be more,” Jillian said. “How are they staying in business?”
“The success rate of the first implant is high for Dad’s clinic. It’s at seventy percent. The leftovers are stored and used only if the first implant fails, or basically just thirty percent of the clients.”
Jillian scanned the dozen listings. “It only shows which embryos were accessed. It doesn’t give who pulled them and how they were used.”
“Just give me a minute.” Louise checked through the other databases. “Billing includes embryo batch numbers. That way the company can keep track of who gets what without worrying about confidentiality. Since our parents didn’t pay, our batch number will be the only one that doesn’t have a matching invoice. There.”
“First, who are our genetic donors?” Jillian chased the information through the databases. “They’re the ones we have to be careful around since they probably think we’re their kids and we’re most definitely not! Huh. What does ‘the estate of’ mean?”
“How should I know?” Louise was digging through the storage records, trying to find out how many embryos had been stored, what had been taken out, and what remained.
“Ah!” Jillian made the sound of discovery. “Estate means it belongs to dead people.”
“Our donors are dead?”
“It looks like it.”
“Maybe that’s what Dad meant by ‘they have children and lose them in some way.’ It’s not our donors that Mom and Dad are worried about, but our donors’ parents.”
“Oh my God! Lou! Our sperm donor was Leonardo DaVinci Dufae.”
“You’re kidding!” Louise leaned over to stare at Jillian’s screen.
Dufae was the most well-known inventor of their time. He invented a hyperphase gate that the Chinese built in orbit. They intended to use it to jump colonists to a planet around another star. If it had worked as expected, Dufae probably would have remained obscure. What made him famous was the fact that the gate malfunctioned in a spectacular fashion.
Every time the gate was turned on, Pittsburgh disappeared off Earth and traveled to Elfhome, the world of elves. Luckily, every time the gate was turned off, Pittsburgh returned. Basically, the Chinese had turned a major American city into a giant interdimensional yo-yo.
Earth was nearly plunged into global warfare over whether or not the gate should continue to operate. The biggest problem was that Dufae had died before the gate’s first activation. Other scientists couldn’t figure out how his gate worked, so they couldn’t simply tweak his design to something less inconvenient. No one really wanted to break contact with Elfhome completely. After a great deal of heated negotiations, an awkward schedule of turning the gate on and off, or Startups and Shutdowns, was established.
“That is so cool!” Louise whispered. “But he’s been dead for forever. Maybe before Mom and Dad were even born!”
“Lou,” Jillian whispered. “Leonardo DaVinci Dufae is our father.”
“He was just a sperm donor and he’s dead,” Louise pointed out again. “Who donated the egg? His wife?”
The egg donor was Esme Shenske. They didn’t recognize the name, but the Internet did. She was the captain of the third colony ship, the Dahe Hao. The holographic star-field ceiling, complete with astronomy lessons, suddenly made sense.
“Wow. Our donors are famous,” Jillian said.
“Were famous. He’s dead and she’s at Alpha Centauri or someplace like that. What the hell happened to our older sisters? Did they go to Alpha Centauri with her?”
After some digging they found that the first batch of embryos had been inserted into April Geiselman of Pittsburgh exactly nine months prior to Esme Shenske leaving the Solar System.
“That means our older sisters are eighteen next month,” Louise said. “But where are they? Did Esme take them with her? Or did they stay in Pittsburgh with Geiselman?”
“I’m looking,” Jillian said. “What about our baby sisters?”
Louise checked and found that there were indeed more embryos in storage. There was a recent date on their records. She frowned and checked the code for it. “Oh no, they’ve been flagged for disposal. The company sent out a letter last month to inform the estate that if they didn’t respond, the embryos would be thrown away. No one has responded to the letter. We have six months to save them.”
“I think we’re lucky that our male genetic donor is dead,” Jillian whispered in art class the next day.
Louise glanced automatically to Jillian’s tablet to see what had triggered the comment. Her twin had multiple newspaper web pages up, all featuring a Boston murder case. According to the headlines, the killer’s name was John Wright, who had beaten his wife, Ada, to death. “What?”
“Leonardo DaVinci Dufae had one sister. Ada Lovelace Dufae. She married John Wright and had one son, Orville Wright.”
Louise snickered at the names. “Wow, the Dufaes have a twisted sense of humor when naming children.” DaVinci had been a scientist as well as an artist. Ada Lovelace had worked with Charles Babbage on the prototype of the computer. Orville Wright had invented airplanes with his brother, Wilbur.
“Yes, obviously our grandfather hated being Tim No Middle Name Dufae.”
“I wonder what they would have called us.”
Jillian squinted a moment. “The mind boggles. The Wright brothers are the only sibling pair of inventors that leap to mind. But Orville is our cousin, not our brother.”
“You can be Wilbur. I’ll be Jane Goodall.”
“I’ll be Marie Curie, merci beaucoup. You should be Maria Goeppert Mayer, since we’re already Mayers.”
“Marie? Maria? We have a hard enough time with people telling us apart. I’d rather be Jane Goodall.”
“Okay, monkey girl.”
“Okay, Wil-burr.” Louise giggled.
She winced as Miss Gray raised her voice. Gage was causing problems again. He really needed to be on some kind of ADHD medicine.
Jillian sighed. “I can’t find out what happened to Orville after his mother was killed.”
“Oh.” The headlines made sense now; their Aunt Ada had been murdered by her husband. “How old is he?”
“He was ten when his mother died.” Jillian pulled up a picture of a boy that looked eerily like Louise now that her hair was boy-short. His dark eyes were haunted; they spoke to her of unimaginable horrors. “He saw it happen. He’s twenty-two now. Wherever he is. Trying to find out anything about him is getting me spammed with hits on the airplane inventor. Our stupid grandfather!”
Jillian fell silent, focused on creating a more accurate genetic family tree than the one that hung over their fireplace at home. Ironically both were equally bare. Orville was their only cousin by blood or birth. Their “Aunt Kitty” was a girl that their Grandma Johnson took under her wing but never formally adopted.
Louise tapped the icon in the corner of her tablet to check on their art teacher Miss Gray, who liked to roam while her students sketched. Making eye contact would warn her that the twins weren’t working on the assignment. Normally not a good thing, but since they were hacking various computer systems, it could be catastrophic if they were caught. Louise had a monitoring application that tracked the tablet that Miss Gray usually carried during class, but sometimes she put it down. The program showed that Miss Gray was in motion on the other side of the art classroom.
Louise minimized the window and went back to chasing down leads on their older sisters’ surrogate mother, April Geiselman. She had three leads so far: one in Hawaii, one in Arizona, and one in New York. She needed to dig into their past to see if any of them had lived in Pittsburgh at some point.
The morning had been surreal agony as they went through the motions of pretending to be normal nine-year-olds. Almost everything covered in class, they’d learned before enrolling in kindergarten as four-year-olds. After a series of tests showed that they read at college level and could do advanced algebra equations, the public school system had tried to push the twins straight into middle school. Their parents resisted the move, stating life was more than just grades. Instead of calculus and chemistry, the twins were enrolled in first grade to learn a more complicated subject: socializing with their peers.
Unfortunately, “peers” was a very imperfect fit.
In theory their school was for the gifted. Yes, all their fellow students tested higher than the typical fifth-grader, but they were also dropped off by nannies in BMWs. At times it seemed that the parents’ net worth was more important than their children’s IQ. It meant that otherwise fascinating subjects were dumbed down to the class average. Art, for instance; their assignment was to draw a two-dimensional still life of what the teacher arranged on the center table. How interesting could a flat representation of a bouquet of sunflowers, a collection of stoneware bowls, and a length of red velvet be?
Luckily the teacher was letting them use their tablets instead of forcing them to use actual pencils and paper. It meant that for the first time all morning they could work on saving their siblings. According to Cryobank, there were four embryos still in storage. While the sex of the embryos wasn’t given, Jillian decided that it would be best if they were three girls and one boy. Louise had considered the matter and had to agree. More than one boy and they would gang up together and be totally annoying. Case in point—the whole reason they weren’t using pencil and paper was because Kelsey and Gage had stabbed each other repeatedly during their last freehand drawing lesson. At least the boys kept Miss Gray’s attention off Louise and Jillian.
Louise grinned as she hit pay dirt on the April Geiselman in New York. “Look,” she whispered, tilting her screen. “Her records show that she was born in Pittsburgh! She’s the one! And she lives in the Upper East Side!”
Their datapads suddenly enlarged their drawing window. Louise controlled the urge to glance up to double-check that their teacher had actually moved into viewing range. If their teacher realized that they were using her tablet to track her movements through the classroom, she would probably hover over them, and they would have to actually pay attention to the assignments. Louise’s sketch was just a rushed collection of yellow pen swipes to place-hold the sunflowers. Louise winced, picked a red that roughly matched the velvet, and added in the draped fabric in the same quick lines.
“Is that all you have done?” Miss Gray said above her head.
“I had more.” Louise made a show of pausing and considering her drawing. “I didn’t like how it was going, so I erased it. It seemed too—too real.”
“Well, if we wanted the picture to look real, wouldn’t we just take a photograph of the flowers?” Out the corner of her eye, Louise could see Jillian frantically drawing on her blank tablet. Louise held up her picture to keep Miss Gray’s attention; she at least had something to show and had already started into a reasonable excuse. “Art is translating what we feel into a visual medium. Obviously, the flowers can’t look like a photograph or otherwise I wouldn’t be putting my emotions into the picture. To me sunflowers are like . . . like . . .”
“Flowing sunlight,” Jillian prompted in a whisper.
“Flowing sunlight.” Louise babbled on to give Jillian more time. “Like the sun dripped down onto the flower and will flow away again. It’s all bright and sunny and temporary. At any moment, poof, it will be gone. What I had before just seemed too permanent. It didn’t have that ‘life is fleeting’ kind feeling.”
Miss Gray was getting that slightly panicky look she had often with the twins—like she realized she was in over her head. Jillian’s theory was that this was because it was Miss Gray’s first year of teaching and she hadn’t firmly latched on to the idea that she was an adult. Louise leaned more toward the notion that Miss Gray was smart enough to know that they were pulling something over on her, but not smart enough to figure out what or how.
“I see. Well. Then. Jillian, what do you have?”
Jillian held up her sketch. She’d gone to extreme cartoon to cover her lack of details. The sunflowers had eyes, huge sharp mouths, and were holding wriggling students in their leaves. One student was crying “Help me” as she was being dropped headfirst into a gaping mouth. “These are carnivorous sunflowers from Elfhome. Like strangle vines and black-willow trees, they’re distant cousins to Venus flytraps and the waterwheel plant. Those are both snap-trap plants as opposed to flypaper traps or pitfall traps that you have in butterworts and pitcher plants. Did you know that the black-willow trees on Elfhome can walk close to two miles per hour and can swallow a man whole?”
Miss Gray gave a tiny whimper, and her eyes went wider.
Louise ducked her head and pressed her lips tight together to keep from laughing.
Jillian frowned at her datapad as if she was totally unaware of the effect she was having on Miss Gray. “Luckily all Elfhome plants need some magic to thrive, and magic doesn’t exist on Earth, so these are most likely harmless.”
Miss Gray whimpered again.
Elle Pondwater unintentionally rescued them by waving her hand and calling, “Miss Gray, I’ve finished!” Elle and her friends were on the other side of the room; all dressed in their Girl Scout uniforms. The distance illustrated that the twins were currently failing at socializing with their peers. “Can I put my picture up on the wall display?”
“That would be good, Elle.” Miss Gray fled their table while Elle uploaded her drawing onto the wall display. “Oh, Elle, that is wonderful!”
While reasonably intelligent, Elle was not one to think outside the box. Add in her need to please adults, and it came as no surprise that Elle had done exactly what Miss Gray asked. Her picture looked like a bad photograph of the objects on the center table. Elle beamed with imagined triumph. “My mother set up art classes at the Children’s Museum of Art for our Junior Legacy National Proficiency Artist Badges. It was eight sessions of private lessons, all in drawing.”
Elle showed off her badge and explained that they were having a meeting after school to coordinate their cookie drive with the Daisies, Brownies, Cadettes, and Seniors. “We donate half the money so that underprivileged girls can go to camp.”
Jillian was moving her mouth in silent mimicry of Elle, getting the tilt of her shoulders and toss of her head down perfectly but adding in a dramatic roll of the eyes.
Louise shook her head. She really didn’t know why Elle bothered Jillian so much. It could have been because Elle was one of the few people who never believed a word coming out of Jillian’s mouth. Or maybe it was because the reason that Elle didn’t believe Jillian had nothing to do with the level of truthfulness of her statements. She could say that the sun was hot and Elle wouldn’t believe her.
Nor did it help that Elle’s mother had been a Miss Universe before becoming a trophy wife. Elle got “classic American Beauty” in bucketloads. She was freakishly tall and had stunningly pale skin that seemingly had never seen the light of day. Despite being blond-haired, blue-eyed, and beautiful, she was also unexpectedly smart, although not in the same league as the twins. Her mother dressed her in impeccable fashion and had taught her stage presence when she was still a toddler. It surprised no one that Elle got all the lead roles for the class plays, from Cinderella to Snow White.
Jillian had wanted those roles, but because the twins were short and brown, she was always cast as the evil stepmother or witch. She tried her hardest to steal the spotlight from Elle by going big and chewing on the scenery. She had taken the news hard when they learned that their father, Leonardo, had only been five foot seven. Their Aunt Ada had never even cleared five foot; she was only four foot and eleven inches when she was killed. While Esme Shenske was five foot six, chances were not good for them getting much taller.
Louise didn’t mind being short, but she didn’t plan a career in Hollywood.
“I liked your sunflowers,” Louise said after the bell rang. Everyone swept out of the art room because recess was next. The twins followed slowly since they planned to continue working on their tablets.
“I can draw better than her when I put any effort into it,” Jillian complained.
The twins used their Barbie dolls to do motion capture, painstakingly moving them one step at a time in front of a green screen. Even with their computers doing the bulk of the processing, the twins spent countless hours drawing in finer details on their videos. Their Summer Court Palace of Soulful Ember, Queen of the elves, would put Elle’s still life to shame.
“We both know you can, so why let it bug you?” Louise poked at Jillian, trying to push her out of her mood. “I bet Elle only spent so much time learning how to draw well because her mother wanted her to be good at it. She only does things to get praise. She doesn’t know what she likes when she’s alone.”
Jillian snorted. “She likes being popular.”
“She doesn’t know how to be anything else. You’ve seen how Mrs. Pondwater treats her like a little puppet.” Louise pretended to have a sock puppet on her hand. “Stand straight. Say ‘how nice it is to see you’ and smile.” She had the pretend puppet straighten and mouth the words. “How nice it is to see you.” She clawed her fingers so that the “smile” was a showing of fangs.
Jillian snickered and then sobered. “I suppose that’s true. I think why I get annoyed by her is because she could be such a cool friend if she wasn’t so . . . so . . . her! Everything is a competition, and she has to win.”
Louise shrugged. “She’s been in beauty pageants since she was three. What do you expect?”
“But she doesn’t win because she’s smarter or wiser or more creative. She wins because her father is rich and bought himself a beauty queen as a wife. She wins because her mother doesn’t need to work and set up endless little bribes to make sure her daughter is the most popular girl in class. She wins because she’s tall and blond—and I’m not.”
“So basically you’re pissed off at her because she’s not as smart or creative as we are and needs her mommy to fight her battles?”
“Shush you, monkey girl.” Jillian paused at the playground door. On the other side of the asphalt, Elle and the other Girl Scouts were playing jump rope. Elle’s loose blond hair waved like a banner in the weak spring sunlight as she skipped through the doubled ropes. They stood a moment, watching enviously, as Double Dutch was one of those things the two of them couldn’t do alone. “I just wish sometimes Elle could be our friend without one of us having to be the loser. It’s not like with you—I don’t ever have to worry about which one of us is the winner.”
Said the twin that everyone said was the cutest and the most creative. Louise blinked quickly to keep tears from showing in her eyes and lifted up her tablet to distract Jillian. “So, Wilbur, now that we found April Geiselman, what do we do?”
“We go and see her!” Jillian glanced back at Elle and smirked. “And I think I know how we’re going to do it.”
* * *
Jillian decided that they’d go disguised as Girl Scouts selling cookies.
Louise wasn’t sure they needed disguises. And she was fairly positive that they hadn’t needed to actually join the Girl Scouts in order to obtain the uniforms. She suspected that Jillian secretly just wanted to join but wouldn’t admit it. Elle had been so stunned when they showed up at the after-school meeting that she just stood there, mouth open, with a confused look on her face. Mrs. Pondwater was much better at covering her emotions. She ran on autopilot, welcoming them to the troop with only flashes of horror going through her eyes when she happened to look at Louise’s blast-shortened hair. Jillian had told everyone in class that Louise’s new hairstyle was because of an accident with bubblegum so there were no embarrassing questions about explosions, leveled playhouses, or emergency-room visits. Mrs. Pondwater apparently knew the truth, which indicated that the woman obsessively tracked everyone who touched upon her daughter’s life. She obviously didn’t want to take responsibility for anyone who had already managed to blow themselves up once. The spirit of Girl Scouts—as Jillian pointed out—was to accept any girl no matter her ethnic and social group.
So they would have the uniforms, cookie order forms, and a creditable alibi for all of Saturday.
Neither one of them remembered that Saturday was their birthday.
* * *
“The Girl Scouts?” their mother said for the third time after they told her. She was in her power business suit, her briefcase on the counter, and dinner from the supermarket’s hot deli still in its insulated bag on the kitchen table. The evening news was on but muted.
“Is there something wrong with the Girl Scouts?” Louise got out four plates and four forks.
“You said we should try to play with the other girls more.” Jillian investigated the bag. “Oh, good, rotisserie chicken!” She pulled out a small full chicken and then other containers that held steamed brown rice, salad makings, and fresh fruit.
“There’s nothing wrong with Girl Scouts.” Their mother took off her heels with a sigh of relief. “I thought—oh, what’s her name . . . ?”
“Elle Pondwater.” Louise supplied the name and four glasses.
“Yes, that Elle’s mother ran the Girl Scouts here and you thought she was materialistic and extremely controlling. What’s changed?”
Since it was true, Louise let Jillian field the question.
“By ignoring the Girl Scouts, we were allowing Elle to control that power base. By infiltrating that clique, we could disrupt her monopoly on it.”
Their mother pursed her lips, studying Jillian with eyes narrowed. “I am never sure whether to be dismayed or proud when you talk that way.”
Louise tried to soften the statement. “The other girls don’t seem to be aware of what Elle is doing, but she is using the group to exclude us. Today in Art she did a ‘Let’s all sit together’ and then picked the other side of the classroom.”
Their mother hummed something that sounded like “Oh, that sneaky bitch.” She tried not to say negative things aloud, wanting them to make up their own minds about people. She couldn’t, however, keep completely silent when she was angry for their sake.
“She’s never mean to our faces.” Louise supplied serving forks and spoons for the chicken and the side dishes.
“God forbid people realize what a backstabber she is.” Jillian poured milk for herself and Louise. “All the other girls probably think she’s always nice.”
“Pause!” their mother suddenly cried to the TV, which had frozen the picture at her command. “Go back a story. Unmute.”
The screen switched to the Waldorf Astoria’s famous façade in Manhattan. The reporter was standing across Park Avenue while people with signs marched in front of the hotel’s entrance. “Demonstrators gathered today in front of the Waldorf Astoria to protest the UN’s plan to enlarge the quarantine zone controlled by the Earth Interdimensional Agency in southwestern Pennsylvania.”
Keywords appeared at the edges of the screen indicating linked stories. In the top left was a mini-window showing the original story that had spawned the current events. The United Nations had set up only a one-mile-wide band around Pittsburgh. When the Earth city shifted to Elfhome, a virgin forest of towering ironwood trees took its place. The lack of magic kept invasive species from taking hold in Pennsylvania, but it hadn’t stopped humans from wreaking havoc. A few weeks earlier, someone had managed to illegally log part of the forest, triggering a call from the United Nations to increase the zone to ten miles wide. It would, however, cut deep into several towns that had grown up at the edge of the zone.
The reported continued, “The Waldorf Astoria serves as the embassy for the representatives of the Royal Court of Elfhome when they’re on Earth. Currently, however, there are no elves in residence.”
“Exactly!” their mother cried. “So why are they there?”
“The famous landmark hotel will be the site of a black-tie event on Saturday evening for the Forest Forever, an United Nations Foundation charity that advocates against deforestation worldwide. Celebrity supporter Lady Lavender of Teal is scheduled to arrive sometime today.”
Their mother cried out as if stabbed.
“Isn’t that one of your events?” Jillian asked.
The garage door opened and closed as their father arrived.
He came padding in the basement door, dressed in scrubs. “Sorry I’m late.” He gestured toward the TV, which was offering more stories about the protests. “Apparently the protests screwed up all the traffic in Manhattan.”
“You took the car?” Jillian asked.
Their father found this funny for some reason. “Yes, Detective, I took the car.”
“You only take the car when you have stuff to pick up,” Louise said.
He took his chair, canting his head toward their mother and spreading his hands in a plea for help.
She sat beside him. “Our daughters have decided to join the Girl Scouts, and on Saturday they will be selling cookies.”
“This Saturday? On their birthday?”
Louise winced and glanced at Jillian. They’d forgotten in the flood of information on their genetic donors and siblings, both born and unborn. “We weren’t doing anything special on Saturday. You had your event.”
“I had that covered.” Their mother used “had” instead of “have” to indicate that the news report meant she might have to work after all. “And you didn’t want a party, but that doesn’t mean we can’t plan something special for just the family sometime on Saturday.”
Louise exchanged another wince with Jillian. They’d turned down a party because they weren’t really friends with any of the kids in class. “Sunday is just as good as Saturday.”
Their mother nodded in agreement, probably because she had no way to foresee her work schedule.
“What do we do about their present?” their father asked.
“What present?” the twins cried.
“We can give it to them early,” their mother said. “But dinner first. Our food is getting cool.”
They ate with Louise wondering what their parents might have gotten them. She could almost hear the capital P in “present” that indicated that it was expensive. Her father had taken the car out and picked it up today, so it was something too large to carry home on the subway. Her father obviously thought it was a wonderful gift and that they would love it. Her mother was more reserved; the twins might not like it as much as their father expected them to. Which parent was right? What could they possibly have gotten the girls? What did they want? Jillian would want a camera to replace the one they’d blown up. A camera wouldn’t have required the car. Louise would want a dog or a pony or a monkey, but those were all impossible since their father was allergic to animal dander.
Judging by the looks that Jillian was giving her, Jillian couldn’t guess, either.
Finally the meal was judged over and their father went back down into the basement garage. Soon he was back, empty-handed.
“Where is . . .” And then Louise saw it and squealed in pure excitement. It was a dog! A pony-sized dog! For a moment she was filled with shimmering, bright, pure joy, and in her delight, missed the first clues.
Then Jillian said quietly, “Oh, Lou.” And Louise knew that something was horribly wrong with the gift, and as her excitement drained away, she saw that the dog wasn’t real.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Their dad had missed her crash and burn. “You really have to look closely at it to see that it’s a robot.”
“Yes.” She forced herself to agree. It was a big, square dog, nearly as tall as the twins, with pure white legs and belly. A creamy gray poured over its back. Its tail, face, and ears were black, with just a little white around its nose and muzzle. Its tail curled tight into a loop of gray that ended with a tip of white. If it had been real, it would have been the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
Jillian was watching her closely, bottom lip quivering in sympathy for her disappointment.
“What kind is it?” She pushed the words out, glad that she managed to sound happy. “I don’t recognize the breed.”
It stood waiting, more impassive than a real dog would ever be. That was the problem with robots. They were either too hyper or too still. Apparently the programmers had decided that with such a big facsimile, they would err toward still.
“It’s an American Akita,” their father said.
Because her mother was watching her closely, Louise went and petted the dog. The fur was a little too soft. Its tail wagged in perfect imitation but it didn’t sniff at her hands or lean against her touch or look about the new room with curiosity.
“It’s so big,” Louise said.
“But why a dog?” Jillian joined her in petting the robot.
“We’ve never been comfortable with how much time you spend alone,” their mother said. “The explosion really made us rethink your safety.”
“It’s a nanny-bot?” Jillian looked pained. “We’re nine.”
“Going on twenty,” their mother said. “And Seda Demirjian let us know that she and her husband are getting divorced and they’re putting their house up for sale.”
“Oh,” Louise said as understanding dawned on her. “Vosgi won’t be going with us on the subway anymore?”
Vosgi was sixteen and had acted as their transportation babysitter for the last year. Before that it had been Carl Steinmetz, but he’d graduated. None of their other neighbors attended school in Manhattan.
“We’re going to be commuting alone?” Jillian said.
Their parents shared unhappy looks. “Until we can think of a better solution than a nanny-bot, yes,” their mother said.
“So, what do we call her?” their dad asked.
Louise didn’t want to call the nanny-bot anything.
“What was the name of the cat?” he asked.
They looked at him with confusion. Because of his allergies, they’d never had a cat.
He made a motion of something drifting up and away. “The toy cat?”
“Popoki?” Jillian cried. “No, we’re not calling it Popoki.”
Once upon a time that was now growing to be a dim memory, they had a small robotic cat, Popoki. It had met an untimely end involving a pair of large helium balloons and their lack of understanding how much lift said balloons could generate versus the weight of the small toy. Louise’s last memory of Popoki was it floating up over the Steinmetz’s house. It went higher and higher, its electronic meows growing fainter, until the balloons were a tiny dot drifting toward the ocean. Jillian had been inconsolable for days.
“George.” Their mother scolded their father with his name. “What was the dog in Peter Pan? This one looks like it.”
From the perked-up ears to its curled tail, the robot looked nothing like the nanny dog of Peter Pan. The only similarity was its size and the pattern of its markings—but then everyone always thought the twins were identical.
“Nana,” Louise said. “She was a Newfoundland in the original story, but Disney made her a Saint Bernard. They’re the same size dog, only Newfoundlands are usually all black.”
“Saint Bernards are easier to illustrate facial emotions, because of their markings,” Jillian said.
“It doesn’t feel like a girl to me,” Louise said. “It feels like a boy dog.”
“A boy dog?” their father said.
“Something like . . .” Louise thought for a moment, but the only male names that were coming to her were Orville and Wilbur. What was another famous inventor? “Tesla.”
Jillian giggled, recognizing the path that Louise took to get to the name. “Okay, Tesla!”
“Very cool name.” Their father crouched down beside Louise. “Do you like it, honey?”
She wanted to say no. It probably cost a lot of money that could have been spent on things she and Jillian would have liked more. It was, however, a practical gift considering the situation. If they couldn’t safely commute to school, their parents would probably take them out of Perelman School for the Gifted and enroll them someplace else. It wasn’t that she loved Perelman, but “someplace else” could be anything from a local high school with kids four years older than them to a boarding school. “It’s a wonderful present. Thank you, Daddy.”
With the magical words, he melted, hugging her tightly. “Oh, I love you two so much. I want to give you the world.”
* * *
Jillian waited until they were safe in their room.
“Merde!” Jillian cursed in French. “C’est des conneries. Fait chier! Fait chier! Fait chier!”
Louise shook her head as she pulled up the website of the robot’s manufacturer. “If they hear you, they’ll ground you,” Louise warned, keeping to French until she knew if Tesla had an eavesdropping application or not. They had initiated the robot’s setup program in the kitchen by registering his name and that the twins were his primary owners. The big dog robot was slowly working its way around the room, mapping it.
“They wouldn’t understand what we’re saying even if they heard us.” Jillian growled in French and flung herself onto the bed. “It’s the whole point of using another language.”
“Merde!” Louise hissed her own curse and kept to French. “Yes, it has an eavesdropping application and GPS. Not only can they keep track of it via a phone app, they can ask it questions. It can answer in thirty-two languages!” She dialed Tesla’s number on her cell phone and he answered with a deep male voice. “Konnichiwa.”
She cycled through the various breed voices. German Shepard said “Guten Tag” in a slightly more tenor male and Shih Tzu said “Nǐ hǎo” in a bright and chipper female voice. She groaned and cycled quickly through the voices, looking for one that didn’t set her teeth on edge. The Welsh corgi had a British boy’s voice that reminded her of Christopher Robin.
She changed the default and sent a command to the robot.
Tesla shook his head and murmured, “Silly old bear.”
Jillian grabbed a pillow and screamed into it.
Louise groaned as she read on. “They can download video from his eyes.”
Jillian screamed into the pillow again.
Louise read further and laughed.
“There is nothing funny about this!” Jillian’s shout was muffled by the pillow still over her face.
“Tesla has a nano nonstick-coating on its feet. It micro-vibrates each foot before entering a home.”
“That’s not funny.”
“What Tesla doesn’t have is the optional gecko feet that lets the robot dog scale walls and ceilings.”
“What?” Jillian sat up.
“Look.” Louise played the video of a robotic corgi walking up a wall.
“Why would you want your dog to do that?” Jillian cried.
“Spider dog, spider dog, does whatever a spider dog does,” Louise sang.
They giggled, playing the video over and over. Tesla continued to work his way around the room, ignoring their laughter. They had slipped out of French with “spider dog,” but Jillian carefully returned to it to carry on a serious discussion. Luckily the auto-translate option wasn’t the default and their parents hadn’t turned it on.
“Seriously, what we are going to do?” Jillian asked, curled beside Louise on her bed. “How are we going to go see April Geiselman with a spy dog in tow? The whole point of doing the Girl Scout thing was so everyone would think that after a short subway ride, we’d be with adults.”
Their parents would insist that they take Tesla. The protests against the proposed expansion of the Earth Interdimensional Agency-controlled strip of land around Pittsburgh were spreading across the city to include the United Nations building and the Chinese embassy, as well as the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
If they took Tesla with them, though, their parents would know about their detour to the Upper East Side to see April Geiselman.
“Merde.” Jillian sighed out the curse and continued in French. “So the problem is three part. First is that it reports our position via GPS. Second is that our parents can ask it questions about what we’re doing. Third is that they can download video of what it has seen during the course of the day.”
“Oui,” Louise agreed. “It records video, so the entire day is accessible.”
“It’s a camera,” Jillian said slowly. “We can control what it sees and edit the video like any other camera. So really, it’s not a problem.”
Louise considered a moment and nodded. “Oui.” She flipped to the specs on Tesla’s GPS system. “At least we have four days to come up with a plan and test it.”
“It’s going to be so embarrassing to take it to school.” Jillian sighed deeply. “You know how it’s going to go down. Everyone is going to say we’re too poor for a real nanny. Just like the Darlings.”
“C’est la vie,” Louise murmured. “They already know we’re poor. I don’t care. Ah ha!”
“That sounds good.”
“Magnifique!” Louise said. She’d discovered the weakness of the spy application. It lay not with the robot but with their parents’ phones. She reached over and lifted up what was left of their camera that she’d been attempting to fix. Jillian had clung to it until the EMT pried it out of her hand, so it had escaped the fire. The lens, however, had been smashed. It had all the same GPS and communication software that Tesla had. They could simply rig it so that their parents picked up the camera’s output when attempting to check on Tesla. “Meet mini-Tesla.”
“Ooohhhh!” Jillian grasped the concept instantly. “C’est magnifique!”
Saturday morning, after taking their hour turn at the cookie-selling event in Queens, they planted mini-Tesla on Elle and took the 7 train into Midtown Manhattan. The Grand Central–42nd Street Station was a kicked beehive of police. Jillian led, smiling innocently at the policemen. Louise followed, leading Tesla by his leash, trying not to look like they were deceiving every adult who crossed their path. They caught the 6 local to the Upper East Side.
“Is she home yet?” Jillian swung her legs, watching the city flash by. Tesla was parked beside her, his camera eyes hacked and currently not recording. Just to be sure, they had his head carefully locked onto the back of their seat.
Louise took out her phone and checked what the GPS on April Geiselman’s phone had to say. They had hacked April’s phone and had been tracking her for two days. The woman was making steady progress toward her apartment from some mystery address that had kept her out all night. “She’s heading home—I think. What do we do if she doesn’t go home?”
“We sell cookies until she does.”
* * *
April lived in a high-rise on the Upper East Side. The Girl Scout uniforms got them past the doorman with a promise of free cookies. According to her phone, April was now home, so they went straight to her apartment.
They rang the doorbell and listened intently as soft footsteps came to the door. There was a long silence as they were examined through the spyhole. After a full minute, the locks were thrown and the door opened.
April was surprisingly young and pretty. She was wearing a tight black dress and last night’s makeup. “Wow, I didn’t think Girl Scouts went door-to-door anymore. Are you sure you’re allowed to do this? It’s not really safe, even with a dog that big.”
“Hi,” Jillian said. “Can we ask you some questions?”
“I’ll buy a box or two. I love Thin Mints. Let me get my purse.”
She started to close the door, but Louise put her foot in the door. “Wait! We want to know what happened to your babies.”
Jillian glared at her for going off-script.
“My what?” April said.
“Eighteen years ago, you visited the Cryobank fertility clinic in Manhattan and were implanted with four embryos—but you live in a one-bedroom apartment. What happened to your babies?”
April glanced down the hallway and lowered her voice. “How do you know about that? Who told you that?”
“Your babies are our sisters,” Louise said. “We’re the embryos that weren’t implanted in you.”
“Oh, Jesus,” April whispered. “Come in.”
The apartment was cluttered but clean. The floor was swept, but every surface was crowded with interesting stuff. Books. Art. Toys. They parked Tesla in the corner, staring at the door. April disappeared into the kitchen to make tea.
“I always thought that there might be a day when the doorbell would ring and it would be her wanting to know who the hell I thought I was, having a baby for money and walking away, leaving her there, on that world.”
A baby. “You only had one? A girl?” the twins cried.
There was silence in the kitchen. April came to lean on the doorway. “Yeah. A little girl. Her name is Alexander. You know, you can only leave Pittsburgh once a month, and she was born the day after Startup, so I was there with her for thirty days, knowing that she wasn’t really mine. It was so hard to walk away. To stay away. But as they say—you make your bed, you have to sleep in it.
“I wanted off of Elfhome. I was seven when Startup took Pittsburgh to Elfhome. It woke us up in the middle of the night. The power off. The phones not working. Giant trees where our backyard had been, pressed right up against our house. A saurus attacked our neighbor’s house the next morning. We could hear them screaming. My dad told us to lock ourselves in the bathroom, and he went down the street with his hunting rifle and shot it.
“Here.” She went across the living room to a bookcase and got down a picture frame. “This is him with it.”
Her father looked like an African explorer with a thick mustache and tan hunting jacket. He beamed with pride at the camera behind the saurus’ massive head, its mouth propped open to show off hundreds of long, sharp teeth.
“One day it’s the twenty-first century, the next you’re living in the Stone Age, complete with dinosaurs. My parents loved it, but it scared me. Strangle vines ate our dog. A tree ate my favorite teacher. A fish ate one of my friends. There was a bunch of us standing on the riverbank looking at this strange big fish. It was a fish. We thought as long as we didn’t go into the water, we’d be safe. And then all of the sudden . . .” She made a fast snatching motion with her hand. “And the girl standing right next to me was gone. There was just one of her shoes . . .”
She shook her head. “I shouldn’t be telling little kids like you things like this. It will give you guys nightmares. It will give me nightmares. Do you want something to drink? I have some Diet Coke and tea.”
Their parents didn’t let them have either, saying that it would stunt their growth. Personally Louise thought it was because their parents were afraid that caffeine would make them even harder to manage.
“I’d like tea,” Louise said.
It turned out tea was more complicated than soda because April had what seemed to be an infinite variety of teas. Louise picked a coconut mango oolong. Jillian chose fusion honey, ginseng and white tea. April took a bottle out of the cabinet and added scotch to her Earl Grey.
“So they paid you to have our sister?” Jillian asked while Louise tried to get the tea sweet enough to drink.
“Yes.” April sighed. “It sounds so horrible, doesn’t it? It felt good and right until it was time to walk away.” She opened the fridge, took out a carton of milk, and poured a generous tablespoon into her mug. Her cup read “I New York.”
“My family moved to Neville Island, thinking it would be safer. Mr. Bell lived down the street. He was a sweet, little old man. He could fix anything and he was always willing to help out. He saved my life once when I was little; I’d gotten too close to some strangle vine, and he cut me free. I felt like I owed him. And it wasn’t like he was going to have sex with me—it would all be neat and medical.”
“Mr. Bell?” The name on the records had been Leonardo Dufae, the famous inventor. “He was our real father?”
“No, no, it was his son. Um. Gosh, I’ve forgotten his name. I never met him. He’d been killed on Earth. He had donated some . . .” She paused, blushing slightly. Apparently she’d just remembered that they were just kids.
“Sperm.” Louise provided the proper word.
“Yes.” The blush deepened. “Genetic material. It was all that Mr. Bell had left of his son. He just wanted a grandchild. The baby, though, had to be born in Pittsburgh if it was going to grow up on Elfhome with Mr. Bell. The elves limited immigration to a handful of people a year. The EIA—the Earth Interdimensional Agency—preapproves the applicants. They want scientists and researchers, not babies. There weren’t any fertility clinics in Pittsburgh, not after the first Startup, and he couldn’t have gotten any surrogate mother from Earth into Pittsburgh for more than a month. Since in vitro babies are often premature, it would have been hit or miss whether his granddaughter would be born on Earth or Elfhome. He didn’t want to risk having the EIA declare she didn’t qualify for the family immigration rule.”
“So the surrogate had to be a Pittsburgher,” Louise said.
April nodded. “I could come to New York City, have the . . . the procedure, and go back to Pittsburgh until it was time for her to be born. I would get money to move to Earth. Go to college. We would all live happily ever after. It seemed so simple.”
“So Alexander is still in Pittsburgh?” Jillian asked.
“Oh, yes.” April got down a leather book from the bookcase. “Mr. Bell sends me a photo every year or so. At least he used to; last time he did, he wrote that the lack of technology on Elfhome frustrates her. I think he’s afraid that if she finds out about me, she’ll use me as an excuse to come to Earth. This is Alexander.”
The first few pictures looked like their own baby pictures where their parents squinted and said “Is this Jillian or Louise?” and their mother would mutter how she should have tagged their photos. At three, though, their sister became wholly herself. Her hair was boy-short. She sported a bandage in nearly every photo. In one she had a black eye, looking extremely pleased. Alexander wore bright T-shirts and blue jeans and often was barefoot. There wasn’t a doll or stuffed animal in any of the pictures, but wheeled vehicles that grew larger and larger as she did. When she was nine, she had a go-kart. Louise felt a stab of jealousy.
The last photo held another big surprise; it showed Orville and Alexander together, looking like brother and sister instead of cousins. Orville seemed only a year or two older than the photo taken of him after his mother’s murder. In this photo, he beamed with joy, arms wrapped around Alexander as she leaned comfortably back on him.
“Is that Orville?” Jillian asked.
April seemed surprised by the question and then laughed. “Of course you know about him. Yes, it is Orville. He’s living with his grandfather. He and Alexander bonded; they’re inseparable. Last time Mr. Bell wrote me, they were building go-karts and racing them all over Neville Island.”
So it was possible for family to be close as twins even if they were years apart, raised on separate worlds. Louise touched fingers reverently to the photo—proof that they were right in believing that saving their baby brother and sisters would be a wonderful thing.
“Is it really that bad? Living in Pittsburgh?” Jillian asked. “It seems so . . . fantastical. With magic. Dinosaurs. Elves. Dragons.”
April laughed. “We didn’t have any dragons in Pittsburgh, thank God. The elves are gorgeous. But magic? It was really just an annoyance. It made machines not work right. Most humans were clueless how to deal with it. Mr. Bell was an exception. He picked it up somehow.”
Obviously the Dufaes were all clever, including their sister.
“How did Esme get involved in all this?” They found that most puzzling since Leo had died when Esme was still in middle school.
“Oh, it was all her idea at first. I was there the day she first showed up. She was staying the month with her sister up at the observatory. I think she scared Mr. Bell, talking about his son being killed and everything. He kept saying ‘I’m not who you think I am.’ Finally she said something like ‘The bloodline of his unbounded brilliance must go on. Without his light, darkness will take everything.’”
Louise felt shivers go down her back, and her teacup rattled on the saucer. She fought to still her hand. She felt like she had just heard the most true thing in her life, and it scared her.
Jillian hadn’t noticed; she was leaning forward, eyes wide. “Ooohhh, that is so cool.”
“What darkness?” Louise asked.
April shrugged and eyed her empty teacup. “I’d grown up in Pittsburgh, which was fast becoming a ghost town compared to what it had been. I’d never met anyone like Esme before. In New York, you meet them here and there, the big fish in a big pond. The movers. The shakers. Forces of nature. She scared me. I started to edge away, saying good-bye. I don’t think she had noticed I was in the room until I tried to escape. She turned and saw me by the door and went ‘You!’” April pointed forcibly at the door, nearly shouting the word, making Louise jump. “‘You’re going to help! How would you like to make a million dollars?’”
“A million dollars?” Louise asked.
“She paid you a million dollars to have our sister?” Jillian clarified.
April laughed. “Crazy, right? I didn’t believe her at first, but then she gave me some jewelry as a down payment. This amazing tennis bracelet.” She held up her right wrist to show off the glitter of large diamonds and blue gemstones. “And a Rolex woman’s wristwatch. Her family is rich, and she had this crazy plan of going into space and never coming back, so she was blowing it all on this baby.”
“A million dollars for our sister?” Jillian’s tone had changed slightly. And Louise understood completely: a million dollars for their older sister and nothing for their siblings still frozen in the lab.
“She had a ton of rules. I wasn’t allowed to drink or smoke or do drugs or even date—the last wasn’t that hard considering all the decent boys had left Pittsburgh. She swore me to secrecy—I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the baby. Not my parents. Not her parents. Not even her sister. It would have been impossible to do in the summer, but we had a hard winter and spring was late. I could hide the fact I was pregnant under layers of clothes.”
“You’re telling us,” Louise pointed out.
“Oh, yinz are the exception to the rule.” April got up to start poking among her bookcase. “She said that if any of her kids were to show up at my door, I was to tell them everything. Answer every question. And—where is it—oh, here.” April pulled out a square wooden box. “And to give you this.”
“This” was a Chinese puzzle box, lacquered with a beautiful pattern. April held it out to them and, when neither took it, set it down on the coffee table between them.
“Are you sure she meant us and not our older sister?” Louise asked.
“She said ‘any kid.’ I think she even added something like ‘one or two, together or alone, boy or girl.’” April frowned for a moment. “Where exactly did you come from?”
Louise glanced at Jillian. They hadn’t come up with a cover story for that.
“We’d rather not say,” Jillian said.
“Our parents stole us,” Louise said.
April rubbed at the ridge of her nose. “It’s like your whole family has been cursed to live weird and bizarre lives.”
“We are not weird,” Louise said.
“Oh, so it’s perfectly normal for kids your age to disguise themselves as Girl Scouts and ambush people at their front door?”
“We are not disguised as Girl Scouts,” Louise snapped. “We are Girl Scouts. There’s a difference. Do you want to order cookies or not?”
“Yeah, I’ll take two boxes of Thin Mints.”
* * *
They managed to talk April into two boxes of Thin Mints, a box of Samoas, and a box of Trefoils. Then they copied all the pictures of their sister onto their tablets and collected all the personal data on “Mr. Bell,” including his phone number and address and his granddaughter’s full name, Alexander Graham Bell. Despite being out all night, April insisted on walking them back to the subway station. They barely kept her from escorting them the entire way home, escaping her protection only by promising to go straight home.
“Alexander Graham Bell.” Louise rolled the name around, trying to get used to the idea that they had an older sister, nearly eighteen. “Do you think she goes by Alex or Al or Alexi or Xander?”
“I would,” Louise said. “Don’t you think it’s cool? Xander Bell.”
“Alexander Graham Bell is a stupid name. The acting guild would make you change it. The inventor would spam all hits on your name.”
“It would be a way no one could find you. If the first thousand hits were the inventor, people would give up looking for you. I think it’s ingenious.”
Jillian glared at her and then kicked at the seat in front of them. “It should be Dufae. Tim Bell is obviously Timothy Dufae, Leonardo’s father. Why is he going by the name Bell?”
“Whoever killed Leonardo?”
They had just boarded the last train, switching off the feed from mini-Tesla and reactivating Tesla’s link with their parents, when Louise’s phone rang. She squeaked with alarm: had their parents caught them?
“Hello?” she said tentatively.
Jillian scowled at her; apparently she sounded guilty. Why had her mom picked her to call? Because she knew Jillian lied better?
“Are you still at work?” Louise added to explain her tone. Jillian leaned against her to hear the full conversation. “I thought you’d be at the Forest Forever event until late.”
“Louise! Is Jillian with you?” their mother asked, voice full of concern. “Are you two okay?”
“Yes.” They answered the first question in unison.
“We’re fine,” Jillian said as Louise examined the question for traps. They hadn’t done anything to warrant a phone call, so something must have happened elsewhere.
“Where are you?” their mother asked with sirens blaring near her.
Louise was glad she could stick to the truth since they were on the correct train to take them to Astoria. “We’re on the N train, heading home. We just left Queensboro Plaza. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” And then hesitantly, she added, “There was an idiot protester with a car bomb, but the police took care of it. It pushed our schedule back nearly two hours. I probably won’t be home until tomorrow. The company is paying for a room for me to sleep here tonight.”
“Okay,” Louise said. “But why are you asking if we’re okay?”
“According to a linked story, some of the protestors attacked a nine-year-old at Grand Central–42nd Street Station. Reports are conflicting. Some of them are saying it was a boy who was taken to a hospital, and others are saying it was a girl and she wasn’t hurt. I know you were nowhere near there, but I got worried and had to call to check on you.”
Louise winced. Since they’d taken the 7 train into the city from the cookie sales in Queens, they’d been at Grand Central–42nd Street Station earlier. It had been full of police, but Louise had been so focused on their mission that she hadn’t considered why. The N train connected to 6 local at Lexington Avenue, so they avoided Grand Central on their return. “We’re fine. We’re almost home.”
“I’ll call your father and have him meet you at the Astoria-Ditmars station.”
“Okay. ’Bye.” She hung up and stuffed the Chinese puzzle box into the small storage bin in Tesla’s torso. “Oh, God, that was close.”
Jillian was doing a little victory dance. “But we weren’t caught! We did it! We know all about our older sister, and we got something from our genetic donor.”
But they hadn’t gotten any closer to saving their baby brother and sisters. Maybe something in Esme’s mystery box would help them.
The Chinese puzzle box took them the rest of the day to unlock.
“Esme’s lucky we’re smart,” Jillian complained.
“Maybe if we weren’t smart, she didn’t want us to open it.” Louise spread out the contents.
There were six old-fashioned 2D photographs within the box and an odd rectangle of metal slightly bigger than their pinkies.
“What’s this?” Jillian picked up the mystery item and eyed it closely.
“I don’t know.” Louise watched as Jillian carefully pulled the object into two parts. One piece was a cap that fit over some type of socket at the end.
“I think it plugs into something.” Jillian eyed the pronged ending.
Louise picked up the box and examined it closely for hidden connectors. “This doesn’t have any place to plug anything into it.”
Jillian shook her head. “If I was going to leave something for my kids before getting into a spaceship and leaving Earth forever, I’d leave a hell of lot more. Like pictures of you and our parents, and copies of my movies and Fritz.”
Fritz was Jillian’s toddler-sized handmade quilt. Their Grandmother Mayer had made both of them one before she died. Louise abandoned her blanket in some long-forgotten period of time, but Jillian’s became a fifth member of the family. For years, Jillian never went anywhere without carrying Fritz. It was how everyone told them apart—a fact they used to their advantage often. By the time they were five and starting first grade, Fritz was tattered. Their mother sewed him inside a pillowcase. While they hadn’t actually seen Fritz for years, Jillian still slept every night hugging him close.
“Who are you,” Louise asked, “and what have you done with my sister?”
Jillian stuck out her tongue. “I know that Esme is still alive out there someplace, but it’s like she’s dead. She’s gone and never coming back, and that’s a lot like dead and buried. Taking Fritz would be like destroying him, too.”
“I would take him. I would want the company. My kid can get her own blanket.”
Jillian laughed and waved the odd piece of metal. “Well, that explains this box then. She took all the cool stuff and only left us this garbage.”
Louise held out her hand, and Jillian gave her the mystery item. “I think it’s an old computer part. They used to have all sorts of cables and plugs and things.” She took out her phone and took several photos of it. “I’ll run it through Whatsit.”
Jillian spread the 2D photographs out onto the bedspread. They were portraits of three men, two boys, and a woman whose eyes had been masked by black Magic Marker. Between the glossy photos was a folded scrap of paper. Jillian unfolded the note and read it. “Beware the Empire of Evil. They will destroy everything you love to get ahold of you.”
Louise shivered. “That is seriously creepy.” She picked up the photo of a man in a space suit, patches identifying him as one of the NASA astronauts, apparently from before the Chinese took dominance in space. The patches were too small to read no matter how hard she squinted at them. “Wow, these are old. There are no digital tags to identify these people. What you see is all you get.”
“There’s writing on the back,” Jillian said.
Louise flipped the photo over. “How low tech. She went into space when?”
“Eighteen years ago. What does it say?”
“‘The King of Denmark, Neil Shenske.’ I think this is Esme’s father. Her bio said that her father was an astronaut. This is our grandfather.”
“We’re Danish princesses?” Jillian was obviously wavering between fantastical possibility and the logic that princesses weren’t born from abandoned embryos. Louise was riding the same emotional rollercoaster.
“Nothing on Esme said anything about her being a princess.” Louise forced herself to point out the most logical evidence they had.
They both did searches, racing to find more information.
“American astronaut, inspired by Apollo Moon shots, flew two space-shuttle missions.”
“Born in Ohio. Went to MIT. Married Anna Cohan. Had two daughters, Lain and Esme.”
“He was killed in a drive-by shooting at a science fair at an inner-city school. Esme was four when he died.”
“I’m not finding any reference to him being the king of Denmark.”
“He’s not even Danish.”
Louise flipped the photo and frowned at the words. “Maybe it’s some kind of code.”
“What do the others say?” Jillian picked up the photo of a dark-haired young man who looked like a movie star caught in a candid moment, his focus intently on something off-camera. Jillian read the back and giggled.
“What does it say?”
“‘Crown Prince Kiss Butt of the Evil Empire.’” Jillian giggled more. “It also says, ‘Yes, you’re smarter, but he’s sadistic and short-tempered. Don’t get snarky with him.’ Esme must have thought we’d be snarky as well as clever. We’re not snarky.”
“Elle Pondwater thinks we’re snarky.”
“Elle is rarely right about anything. Besides, snarky is not genetic.”
Louise rather thought it might be but didn’t want to argue the point. The two blond boys were more average looking. There was, however, a strong family resemblance with the crown prince. “Flying Monkey Four and Five. Where are one, two, and three?”
Jillian shrugged, and they made sure there were no other photos, either still in the box or somehow stuck to the others. Esme had drawn black Magic Marker across the eyes of the woman and trailed it off so the line nearly looked like cloth ribbon blindfolding her. Louise studied the photo, trying to understand their mother. What was the point of a photo if they couldn’t see all of the woman’s face? The black line did emphasize the woman’s elegance. Her mouth was flawlessly defined by lipstick into a perfect bow that nature hadn’t blessed her with. She had a strong, determined chin. Every hair of her pale blond bob was in place. She wore a black silk blouse and an amber teardrop necklace. The back of her photo read: “Queen Gertrude of Denmark, blind to her husband’s crimes led to Hamlet’s death. Careful, lest her blindness lead to your capture.”
“Hamlet?” Louise said. “Like the play? Do you think she’s an actress?”
“I think you’re right. It’s some kind of code.”
“Some code. Hi, I went off to space and left you in the fridge, here’s a nice puzzle to hurt your brain.”
Jillian giggled and then sobered. “She probably left the box for Alexander, not us.” She pulled up the digital photos of Alexander. The one of her labeled “nine years old” could have been Louise with her blast-shortened hair. “We really don’t look like Esme or her father at all.”
“Crown Prince Kiss Butt and the flying monkeys look like brothers. They have the same cheekbones, and their eyes look vaguely Asian.”
Jillian nodded in agreement. “There’s no flying monkeys in Hamlet, though. At least none that I remember.” She struck a dramatic pose. “To be or not to be, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” Jillian paused in mid-dramatic gesture. “Oh! I wonder. Hamlet’s story is about him trying to deal with the murder of his father—the King of Denmark. The odds are so stacked against him that he pretends to be insane for a part of the play.”
“It ends badly for Hamlet?”
“Very badly. But there’s no monkeys—flying or otherwise.”
Louise trusted Jillian to know any trivia connected to Hamlet. She tried searching the other direction. “Most of the hits for ‘flying monkey’ are for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s about a young girl who is swept up by a storm and deposited on another world filled with magical creatures.”
“Maybe that’s a reference to Elfhome.”
“You know what’s odd?” Jillian studied Anna’s photo and then the boys who might be brothers. “Neil and Anna are the only ones that are looking at the camera. The rest of these seem to be taken without the person aware that they’re being photographed.”
Louise checked the last photo. The man was sitting at a table in a large sunroom, reading a paper, steam curling up from a cup in front of him. He was striking to look at, with unnaturally white skin and odd amber eyes. His coloring made him seem unreal, like he was a vampire or something. His hair was white, as if he was old, but his face was unlined, making it impossible to guess his age. He was reading an old-fashioned newspaper and seemed unaware of the camera. “I think you’re right. They’re like stalker pictures.”
“What does that one say?”
Louise flipped over the picture of the man with the newspaper. “This one says: ‘Ming the Merciless of the Empire of Evil.’”
“It’s another literature reference.” Jillian frowned at the screen of her tablet. “Ming is an evil emperor from a movie series called Flash Gordon filmed in the mid-1900s. Ming has a large army with everything from death rays to robots poised to take over Earth. But he doesn’t look anything like this guy.”
Louise stared at the photos. “Our genetic donor was weird.”
* * *
Whatsit identified the item in the box as a “flash drive” with a “USB connector” and had diagrams on how it used to plug into the side of the clunky computers which were common at the turn of the century.
“It could have anything on it.” Louise read through the description of the technology’s development. Assuming that Esme used the most advanced one she could buy at the time, it could represent a large amount of data. “Photographs. A video blog.”
“But we don’t have anything to plug it into!” Jillian growled.
“We could buy an old computer . . . or something,” Louise murmured. They couldn’t be the only people who had had this problem. It turned out that it had been a common difficulty shortly after computers started to use wireless connections exclusively. Adapters had been made so the flash drives could be plugged in to a transmitter and accessed. They would need to download emulators so their tablets could run the decades-old software, but it was just juggling data once a connection was made.
She found several places still selling adapters and whimpered at the price. It wasn’t expensive, but it still was a lot more than she had left in her mobile payment account. Louise checked Jillian’s account to see if they could pool their money. “We don’t have enough money.”
Jillian winced. “It’s going to take weeks to have enough with our allowance.”
“If Mom and Dad don’t dock us for the cost of the playhouse.”
“Shh!” Jillian whispered. “Don’t give them ideas.”
“Maybe we can sell something.”
“No,” Jillian said. “All we have left after the fire is our video-processing equipment, and we’re not selling that. We don’t know what’s on the flash drive, and it might be useless crap.” She glared at the photos, the flash drive, and the scrap of paper with the cryptic warning. “Our stupid genetic donor.”
They had an older sister. Better yet, she wasn’t some beauty-pageant poser like Elle Pondwater; she was a super-cool gearhead. She lived on Elfhome. She probably knew Elvish. And their grandfather understood magic, so she might even know some real spells. She couldn’t get more perfect unless she also had all sorts of interesting pets. She could own an elfhound. Or a horse! According to April and old satellite maps of Pittsburgh prior to first Shutdown, the hotel where Alexander lived could house an entire zoo.
It was at once terrifying and intoxicating to think that they could actually call their older sister and talk to her. Maybe she could figure out a solution to how to save their baby siblings.
Every thirty days, the Chinese turned off the hyperphase gate (invented by their male genetic donor) and Pittsburgh returned to Earth. Initially Shutdown had been the first of the month. While the thirty-day cycle had worked for September, April, June, and November, all the other months and a half dozen leap years pushed Shutdown to some illogical date currently falling in the middle of the month.
They maintained a website for their production company, Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo. Since their parents forbid them from using the website for any true advertising or promotion, they simply had a counter counting down to the next Shutdown. They used it for an interesting, self-imposed deadline for their videos. Louise sighed at the ticking numbers. While it would only be a few days until they could contact Alexander, it seemed like forever.
And there was the niggling problem that they didn’t have a phone number for Alexander. Apparently at some point Tim Bell had changed his phone number, and April had taken it as a sign that she was not to call his house. Trying to find any information out about Pittsburgh was much like being a jewel thief. Even the most mundane of information was locked away. They had to routinely hack into secure databases to get what they needed for their videos. They usually copied anything they could get away with, but up to this point they hadn’t needed a telephone list.
Louise glanced at her alarm clock. She had ten minutes until their mother expected them to be eating breakfast. She might have time to find a copy, especially if she got lucky and it was on one of their favorite sites. A band of anonymous hackers ran a data haven, posting information on Pittsburgh they’d “found” in undisclosed locations. As always, she made sure that she couldn’t be traced before dropping into the forum.
The first post made her heart jump. The heading was “Looking for Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo.” She sat staring at it with fear. Should she read the post? Who in the world even knew that they visited this forum?
Taking a breath, she opened the post. It was breezy in tone, meandering in points, and signed with a name that made her squeak in surprise.
“What?” Jillian called from their bathroom.
“Nigel Reid wants to talk to us.”
“Nigel Reid? You mean ‘I just love Nigel’ Nigel Reid?”
“I never said that!” She respected the filmmaker. He was her favorite naturalist. “But yes, that one.”
Jillian squeaked, too. “Seriously? Talk to us?”
“Yes. Well. Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo. He’s seen The Queen’s Pantaloons and wants to know if the gossamer call is real. He’s coming to New York to do the Today Show, and he wants to know if he can meet us.”
“Meet him? Like in person?”
“Generally that’s what ‘meet’ means.”
“Are you nuts? You know that Mom and Dad would just freak if they found out that we were going to meet some old guy from the Internet. They’ll get him arrested as a pedophile!”
“He wants to meet with a film-production company!” Louise cried in defense. “He doesn’t know Lemon-Lime is just two kids. If he did think we were kids, he probably thinks we’re in high school or college.”
“Pfft, high school is just as bad. Besides, we don’t know if this is really Nigel Reid posting this. It could be anyone. We list him as one of our influences. By posing as him, anyone could hope to lure us out.”
“It would be so cool if it was.” Louise went to Nigel Reid’s official personal site. How could they tell if he was actually the person contacting them and not a pervert using his name? “Nigel is going to be on the Today Show in like three weeks. We could go see the show.” Although “seeing the show” would really be standing on the sidewalk at the corner of 49th and Rockefeller Center with the crowd that gathered daily at the break of dawn.
Jillian considered it. “I don’t know. Feels like a trap to me. How is he going to know we’re really us? A big sign that says ‘Nigel, we’re Lemon-Lime’? And if it’s not him that posted that? Whoever is trying to lure us out would have us cornered.”
Jillian was right. They’d be out in the open for hours, with Nigel probably camping out in a green room. If someone was just using his name to lure them out, they could be in lots of danger. Although, no one knew they were two nine-year-olds. Lemon-Lime could be the group name for fifteen muscle-bound men—who liked Barbie dolls.
But why would someone like Nigel Reid want to meet them? While no one else seemed to realize how the elves were controlling the great living airships, the clues were there if anyone started to look in the right place. All the research they’d done, anyone else could do. They’d sketched out a mock-up of a gossamer call along the lines of a dog whistle, but they had no way of knowing if it would actually work. They agreed that they were probably missing something important in the design. Magic existed, flowed, pooled, and was depleted. The elves harnessed it in countless ways but guarded many of their secrets carefully. Humans still didn’t understand magic well enough to quantify it or even determine its source. If the elves were combining an ultrasonic whistle with magic, then no, the twins’ call had no hope of actually working.
Did Nigel think they had a working gossamer call?
And why would he think that? The only time they mentioned it in their videos had been a throwaway line in a comedic sketch about frilly underwear. Who in their right mind would use that as evidence of a working prototype? It made no sense.
Still, it was Nigel Reid! And yes, maybe she did love him. He seemed really, really nice, and he was always so gentle and kind to the animals he filmed. If there was a chance to talk to him face-to-face, she wanted it to happen.
What they needed was a two-part recognition process. The Today Show would serve to establish that Nigel Reid was the person who posted on the forum. After that they could pick someplace safe to meet.
Like maybe invite him to dinner at their house.
Even though she knew that was impossible, it made her insides go all fluttery with nerves. With trembling fingers, she double-checked that the forum only had an anonymous e-mail account that wasn’t linked to them in any way. Once she was sure that a reply couldn’t be traced to them, she created a private message and typed in, “This is Lemon-Lime. Say ‘hi’ to us on the Today Show so we know this post is really from you and then check back here. We’ll private-message contact information after the show.”
“What did you do?” Jillian asked.
Louise showed her the post.
Jillian squeaked in surprise. “You didn’t!”
Jillian flung arms around Louise and hugged her tight. “That is so awesome! I can’t wait to meet him!”
* * *
“No,” their mother said simply.
“Neither one of us could take the morning off to go with you,” their father elaborated. “People start showing up for that at like five-thirty in the morning and stand around in Rockefeller Center until nearly noon.”
“We could go alone. We have Tesla.”
“No!” their mother said. “Tesla can walk you from point A to point B, but for standing there for over six hours, you need an adult. And don’t go calling your Aunt Kitty and asking her—she’s got a deadline she’s behind on.”
“Nigel Reid is the guest,” Louise said.
“I know he’s your favorite,” their mother said.
“And he always brings animals,” Louise plowed on.
Their mother laughed as if this was a joke. “Of course he does. He’s a naturalist. That’s what people like him do when they’re on TV shows: bring animals that misbehave in funny ways and scare the daylights out of the hosts.”
“It’s not like he brings dangerous animals.” Louise felt the need to point it out, just in case this was part of their objection.
Their parents exchanged a look.
“Not everyone likes all animals, honey,” their father said. “Some people are scared of snakes and, and—”
“Spiders.” Their mother added what mildly scared her. “And creepy-looking lizards.”
“That’s just stupid,” Louise muttered quietly.
“Don’t pass judgment on people,” their mother said. “And no, you can’t go, and don’t you two dare sneak off by yourselves to see it, or there will be a world of hurt for both of you.”
“World of hurt” translated to them losing everything from Internet access to having to surrender their video equipment. In Louise’s opinion, corporal punishment would be over faster and thus less painful in the long run—which was probably why their mother opted for her way.
* * *
Louise was so disappointed that she forgot why she’d been on the Pittsburgh forum in the first place until they reached school. The day got worse as she searched through the forums and discovered no one had a telephone directory for Pittsburgh.
“This day sucks.” Louise explained what she’d found out and why she’d been looking.
“We have Alexander’s street address.” Jillian pushed Tesla into their shared locker. “He’s not going to fit in this when winter comes and we have two coats and snow boots to store in here.”
Louise really hoped that by winter they’d have worked something else out, although Tesla was making it so they had a great deal of freedom to move through the city. “Anything we mail has to hit Cranberry days before Shutdown to make it across to the border. If we miss the window, it will sit at the post office for a month until the next Shutdown.”
“So?” Jillian leaned against the wall and watched the ebb and flow of fifth-graders in the hallway. “It’s not going to go bad unless we send something like cookies. Real homemade cookies, not the Girl Scout cookies. We can only call during the twenty-four hours of Shutdown. The first five hours are while we’re asleep. Then we’re here at school. And if we make a call at home, Mom and Dad are going to want to know who the heck we’re talking to.” Because they never talked to people other than Aunt Kitty on the phone.
“I’d rather talk to Alexander instead of mailing her a letter.” Louise started to check sites that might have a Pittsburgh phone book. They were places like the universities and government offices, so she needed to actually hack the sites to search them. At least she could bounce through the café next to the school, so she didn’t have to worry about being traced. “Just dropping a letter into the mail feels a little like writing a letter to Santa Claus. In September! If she answers back, it could take months for her letter to get to us.”
“Her answering would be Christmas?”
“Shoot! Well, the day just got worse,” Jillian warned. “Incoming.”
Louise looked up from her tablet. “Huh?”
Jillian nodded down the hall, where Elle stood surrounded by the girls from the other fifth-grade class, taught by Mr. Howe. “Elle is passing out invitations to the girls.”
“Already? I thought her birthday was next month.” Elle’s elaborate birthday parties were a yearly ritual. Pride and etiquette demanded that Elle invite all the girls in their grade; thus, they were always included. It had taken them two disasters to realize that they were invited only in form, not in spirit. They hadn’t attended in third or fourth grade.
“I only did one invitation.” Elle handed it over like it should have been on a silver platter. “But it’s for both of you. That’s why I just put ‘Mayer’ on it.”
“And this is yours.” Elle handed Jillian their broken camera that had been standing in as mini-Tesla. “I have no idea how it ended up in my bag, or why you’d want something so broken, but my mother said I had to make sure you got it.”
“Thank you.” Louise knew her mother would ask later if she’d thanked Elle for the invitation or not. She also knew that because there was only one invitation, Jillian figured that they were both covered by Louise’s thanks.
Invitation delivered, Elle turned on her heel and wove down the hallway, skillfully avoiding the curious boys to intercept Zahara. The beautiful African-American girl was in Mr. Howe’s class. She was always late to the fifth-grade floor because she had to deliver her younger brother to his classroom downstairs.
Jillian tore open the envelope and muttered a dark curse at the invitation. “Little Mermaid.”
“You’re kidding me.” Louise had never understood the appeal of The Little Mermaid. “I thought she would have grown out of that.”
Jillian kept cursing.
“We don’t have to go,” Louise said.
“This isn’t about Elle’s birthday, it’s about the class play. She wants to do the play The Little Mermaid, and she’s going to be Princess Ariel. I’ll end up as the Sea Witch.”
“Oh shoot,” Louise hissed.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if we did the original Hans Christian Andersen story where the mermaid dies after the prince marries another woman. At least that mermaid was a soulless creature made of water who was really after immortality by exchanging a three-hundred-year lifespan for a soul. The husband was just icing on the cake. No, no, we’ll be doing the story where she gives everything up for a boy, including everyone that she loves dear, screws the world to hell and back and then needs him to kill the villain while she’s helpless someplace else. Oh, God, I’m so sick of these wussy princesses and evil women. We’ve done the evil witches of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, the evil queen of Snow White and the evil stepmother of Cinderella. Is this some kind of campaign against femininity? Our choices are the evil and usually ugly powerful female or the helpless princess, desired just for her beauty? And what the heck is this shit about evil stepmothers anyway?”
“Well, it’s following a biological imperative that a female devotes all her attention to the children that carry her DNA as opposed to the DNA of another female.”
“Oh, shut up, monkey girl, we are not cuckoo birds, tossing eggs out of nests and getting someone else to raise our chicks. We’re humans!”
“Okay, Wilbur. What are we going to do about Elle and these damn mermaid zombie chicks?”
Jillian giggled. “Oh, it would be worth it if I could rewrite it to zombies.” She grinned. “The boys would love it if it was a zombie play.”
“They’re never going to let us do a major rewrite of a play again.”
Jillian nodded, thinking. “Too bad there are more girls than boys. That way, if we found a play that the boys liked, they could just outvote the girls. Something cool. Like Macbeth.”
“Like Macbeth but in plain English.”
“It should have sword fights,” Jillian said firmly.
“At least try to think like a boy,” Louise said.
“It has to be a real play, not something we write, that boys will like.”
“Do you think they made Lord of the Flies into a play?”
“All the characters in that are boys. There has to be at least one or two girl parts, just so we can sway the girls that don’t fall under Elle’s spell. If we can get a couple of the girls on our side, it would work.”
They thought for a moment. Louise found herself eyeing Tesla sitting statuelike inside their locker. Their mother had thought he looked liked Nana, the Darling’s Saint Bernard nanny.
“What about Peter Pan? Pirates. Sword fights. Indians.”
“Native Americans,” Jillian muttered, frowning as she thought through the casting. “Elle would want to be Wendy. That would leave Mrs. Darling or Tinker Bell for me.”
“You’d be Peter. He’s usually played by a girl.”
Jillian’s face lit up. “Oh, God, that’s perfect. Elle wouldn’t want to be a boy, and I would have the lead!”
* * *
They had Library as their first-period class, so they spent the hour digging through what had been produced for Peter Pan.
“God, I’m starting to understand why Mom never showed us the cartoon. What the hell happened? You take the most manly of boys—he runs around naked except for some leaves, and he fights pirates—and you turn his story into this.” Jillian turned her tablet to show off the big-busted blond Tinker Bell. “In the novel, Tinker Bell dies a year after Wendy goes back to London, and Peter forgets all about her.”
Louise had forgotten that twist. “Ignore her. She’s poison to the boys having any interest in Peter Pan.”
Jillian nodded. “We stick to the original play and focus on Hook and the pirates and the ticking crocodile.”
“But what format are we going to use for the pitch? Boys don’t like to read. And most of the movie versions are girly.”
Jillian flopped back from her tablet. “How about a music video? We do all things that are cool with Peter Pan and this ‘I’m a tough guy, don’t mess with me’ fight song with a heavy bass beat.”
“Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor.” Louise sung the first song that same to mind.
“Exactly.” Jillian opened up a file on her tablet and started to take notes. “Or at least something like that.”
“So the Lost Boys, the tree houses, the island, the pirates, sword fights . . .”
“Yes, a swordfight on the pirate ship!” Jillian called up her storyboard app. “Start with Peter and the Lost Boys at the tree houses, run to the beach, look at the uber cool pirate ship in the moonlight. Then the Lost Boys board the ship and there’s a big swordfight.”
“In two weeks?”
“We can—could crank out a full episode of The Adventures of Queen Soulful Ember in a month, and those have a lot more to storyboard, full original animation, dialogue to dub, sound effects, and a music score.”
“We blew up our studio with all our sets and all our models.”
“We’ll work around that. I can act in front of a green screen for Peter’s part. We can base Hook off of . . . hm.” Jillian considered the boys in their classroom with narrowed eyes. The plays were a combined effort of both classes of their grade. With the exception of “the Prince,” the boys usually had minor roles like dwarves and mice. Reed normally played the Prince for the same reason Elle got to be the Princess. He was tall, blond and handsome. Unfortunately, he was clumsy and as much a social wallflower as the twins.
If they needed all the boys, though, they should win over the boys’ leader.
“Iggy,” Louise said. “Iggy should be Hook.”
Iggy’s real name was Ignatius Martin Chen. He was apparently named after a baby of a movie star. His first-generation Chinese parents obviously didn’t realize how uncommon the name was. He was in Mr. Howe’s classroom across the hall, only sharing lunch, recess, and class play with them. He was the acknowledged leader of the boys, perhaps because he was also the tallest boy in the fifth grade and naturally athletic.
Jillian tilted her head, thinking. “Iggy does like to be in front of an audience, and he remembers his lines when he actually gets something to say.”
“We should use all the boys in the video. It wouldn’t be too hard to model their pictures onto CGI skin. We can do half for the Lost Boys and the other half as pirates.”
Jillian was nodding. “We can put the Lost Boys in war paint. Make them look cool. We’ll have to take pictures of all the boys without them noticing us.”
“Or we could tell them we want to cast them for a music video. They’ll be more vested in the end product.”
Jillian winced. “Actually talk to them?”
“If we’re going to highjack the play completely, we’ll have to talk to them a lot,” Louise pointed out. “We work for almost three months on the play. Half of April and all of May and June.” The play represented a massive amount of work, all in the name of learning how to cooperate as a class. Everything was a joint effort, from voting on what play to do, to designing and building sets, to the actual performance. “Either we talk to them or devote all that time to The Little Mermaid.”
“Ick! Okay, let’s talk to the boys at recess about this.”
Jillian waved the party invite. “Elle’s party is in two weeks. We vote on the play the week after. We have to get this up and running quickly if we’re going to head off Elle.”
Any time on the video would take time away from their research on finding a way to save their little brother and sisters. If they were going to do it, then they should do it as fast as possible. “Okay, we’ll do it this recess.”
* * *
Perelman School for the Gifted had a rooftop playground with tall perforated metal screens creating a protective enclosure and shade. Through the orange-painted mesh, they had a clear view of all the skyscrapers of New York rising up to loom over the school. Heat of the sunbaked roof battled with the cold April wind off the bay.
The boys played four square at the edge of the playground, taking turns at rotating through the grid as players fouled out of the game. Iggy tended to hold the King’s square for long periods, controlling the large red ball with ease. For some reason, today he was sitting in the shade, just watching the game.
While Jillian was fearless around adults, she tended to be shy of other kids, especially boys. Louise suspected it was because “cute” didn’t work on kids their own age. Or maybe it did, and they only thought it didn’t because when they were younger, what melted adults to helpless puddles utterly failed to impress other toddlers and preschoolers.
Louise marched up to Iggy and asked quickly, “Can we take pictures of you?” before she lost her nerve.
Iggy lifted his head to glare up at her. His left eye was swollen nearly shut and bruised dark purple. “Why do you want my picture?”
“What happened to you?” Louise asked.
“Doh. What does it look like? Some guy hit me.”
“A guy? Like an adult? Why?”
“Yeah, he’s twenty-four. He was one of those protesters that are pissed at the Chinese over the Elfhome thing. The whole ‘China is stealing the heartland of the United States’ bullshit. Like I have anything to do with that!”
“Why would he even hit you? You’re just a kid.”
“All Chinese are short even when they’re full grown!” Iggy obviously was imitating someone older than him. “I think the jerk just hit the first Asian-looking person that was shorter than him. There’s several billion Chinese on the planet, and most of them don’t give a shit about Pittsburgh or Elfhome. My dad says the protesters are a bunch of redneck idiots. The United States makes a hundred times more off the elves than China does, and China is still paying back the loans it took out to cover their original remuneration.”
The Saturday newscast that panicked their mother suddenly took on new meaning. The nine-year-old boy attacked on the subway was Iggy. His three older sisters also attended Perelman School for the Gifted.
Louise realized that the reason he was sitting out of the game was that two of the fingers on his left hand were splinted. “Are you okay?”
He followed her gaze to his fingers. “Oh, yeah.” He blushed and looked away. “My sister tasered him. We all ended up at the police department. They’re calling it a hate crime and throwing the book at him.”
“Good,” Louise said.
Iggy squinted up at her as if she was a miniature puzzle. “You know, I don’t think we’ve ever talked before.”
She wasn’t sure what that meant. “You don’t know our names?”
He laughed. “We’ve been in school together for five years. I know who you are. It’s just that you don’t talk to anyone. It’s kind of freaking me out.”
“We just want to take pictures of you.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s part of the weirdness. Why?”
“We’re making a music video.”
“If anyone else said that, I’d figure that they were setting me up for a viral-meme joke. I think, though, that you two would only do that if I’d done something epic to really piss you off, and I’m fairly sure I haven’t. Have I?”
“No.” Louise cut Jillian off because she saw her starting to consider making up a lie. “Elle is talking the girls into doing The Little Mermaid for this year’s play.”
“Oh, gross, another kissy-face play?” Iggy groaned.
Jillian frowned at Louise for telling Iggy the truth. As long as Elle didn’t know what they were doing, she couldn’t counterattack the twins. Jillian glanced pointedly at Elle playing jump rope with all the other girls from fifth grade. “What will end up happening is the same thing that happened all the other years. Elle and her friends will all vote together and everyone else will split the rest of their votes on a couple different plays and Elle wins by default. If we get everyone to agree on the same play, then Elle can’t win.”
“Girls outnumber the boys.” Iggy pointed out the flaw to the plan.
“We’re not going to vote with Elle. We just need one or two of the other girls to go along with us. Elle doesn’t control them all.” Just most of them.
“What play do you guys want to do?” Iggy asked.
“One with pirates and swordfights,” Jillian said.
“Peter Pan.” Louise got another glare from Jillian. She felt, though, if they misled Iggy and he turned against them, they’d lose all the boys. “Mr. Howe and Miss Hamilton aren’t going to let us do something like Hamlet or Macbeth. We need a play with at least twenty-five parts for both girls and boys that the school considers ‘a classic’ and thus safe. There aren’t a lot of those.”
“Do you want to be dressed as a hermit crab and sing ‘Kiss de Girl’ or be a pirate captain?” Jillian said.
“Sing with me now.” Iggy raised his hand and snapped his fingers together like a crab’s claw. “Sha-la-la-la, my oh my, looks like de boy’s too shy.” He burst into laughter at their shocked looks. “I have three sisters. The entire soundtrack has been burned into my brain. We’ve even been to the Broadway version twice.”
“You want to do The Little Mermaid?” Jillian cried with horror.
“No!” Iggy cried back. “Captain Hook, eh?” He laughed and held out his splinted fingers. “Look, I’m halfway there.”
“So, we can take pictures of you for Hook?”
He considered it while making funny thinking faces. “Hook is this weird mix of scary badass and just campy silly. He’d be fun to play. Okay, I’m in.”
They moved against the white wall of the gymnasium to shoot the headshots.
Iggy struck a pose. “I want to look more like Captain Jack Sparrow.”
“We’re not doing poufy Hook.” Jillian had gone into director mode. “Peter is coming with the Lost Boys. It’s all games to him, but you seriously want to kick his butt.”
“Who is going to be Peter?”
“Me,” Jillian admitted cautiously.
Iggy broke into surprised laughter.
“Don’t smile!” Jillian snapped. “You’re a badass pirate. Tell Peter he’s a little girly boy in French.”
Iggy laughed again. “Why French?”
“Because you’ll need to think.”
He frowned in concentration. “Vous . . . etes . . . une petite . . . fille. Un singe. Mange . . . des . . . toilettes.”
“Yes, good,” Jillian said, even though the sentences made little or no sense.
“Stupide . . . cul . . . fromage . . . singe.” He started to giggle.
“What?” Louise couldn’t help asking since it sounded like he’d said “Stupid ass cheese monkey.”
“I’m only pulling a B in French,” Iggy said. “My parents are ready to beat me for it.”
Jillian glared at them both, which only made Iggy laugh harder.
“Captain Hook cannot giggle,” Jillian stated firmly.
“Okay, okay, I got this.” Iggy forced himself to be serious. Surprisingly, he managed to look very fierce and determined despite having been giggling a moment before. “Excusez-moi, je peux vous aider? Vous avez des cartes postales?”
It was the practice dialogue from last fall with a customer buying postcards in a shop.
After they’d gotten a full set of headshots of him being serious and menacing, he called over the boys standing in line, waiting for their turn at four square. He told them simply that they were doing a music video and reassured them, “It will be awesome.” He also suggested that they cast all the Lost Boys from “Peter’s” class and the pirates from “Hook’s” class.
They managed to get photos of all the boys before the bell rang, ending recess. Iggy walked with them down to their floor.
“You know,” he said before they split up to their own classrooms. “You two should talk more to people. You’re really cool, but no one knows that.”
The twins fought boredom every waking moment. Trapped in the classroom eight hours, endlessly “taught” subjects they already knew, they had to invent ways to quietly keep themselves amused, or run the risk of going insane. It was odd but exhilarating to suddenly be overwhelmed by dozens of projects.
For the first time in Louise’s life, she found herself needing a to-do list. She opened a document on her home desktop and started one as she painted backgrounds for the Lost Boys music video.
She still needed to find a Pittsburgh phone directory. If they were really going to contact Alexander for help with the babies, she wanted to hear her older sister’s voice. Besides, it was much the same problem they were having with Nigel; how could they be sure that the person they reached was Alexander if they stuck to letters? Since Shutdown was several days away, though, they had plenty of time to track down Alexander’s phone number.
They needed to save money to buy an adaptor for Esme’s mystery flash drive. With their allowance, it might take weeks, and it meant they would have to delay replacing their broken camera. They still had to identify the people in Esme’s photographs, but that was low priority since the pictures were over eighteen years old. Some of the people might be dead.
They were going to miss their deadline on posting their newest Lemon-Lime video. The raw footage was done. Editing on the music video for school, though, took precedence if they wanted to outmaneuver Elle. It might be good, though, to post a filler video. Louise made a note to do something quick and simple. Maybe just a fake title page that erupted into flames and then Queen Soulful Ember announcing, “Blast it all! That was too silly! Try again!”
Giggling, Louise made notes and moved to the next project. She wanted to do more research on the gossamer call, just in case it turned out to be really Nigel Reid posting on the Pittsburgh forum. She marked the date he was supposed to appear on the Today Show. She added “Rockefeller Center, 5:30” in the hope that they could figure a way around their mother’s edict. What they needed was an adult that they could bully into taking them into the city.
“Do you think we could do a Girl Scout field trip to the Today Show?” she asked.
Jillian shook her head, not looking up from the animating that she was doing on her tablet. “It’s after the vote on the play. If things go the way we want, I don’t think Mrs. Pondwater will be willing to take us anywhere.”
“If it’s already all set up, she might not be able to back out gracefully.”
“We can try.”
Louise added it to her list. And on that note, she added that they needed to deliver cookies to April and her doorman. She considered the possibility of talking April into taking them to the Today Show and then realized they’d have to explain to their parents how they knew the woman. Nope, that wouldn’t work.
The most important thing on her to-do list was the one thing she couldn’t move forward on: saving the babies. They had searched out the trust that had paid for the storage over the last eighteen years. Esme had set up the account, but the funds had run out last year. To take over the payments would require thousands of dollars.
The most maddening thing was that they technically had the money in their college fund. Their parents had been saving the money since the twins were born. It was doubtful that the twins would ever need it; between their parents’ low income and their placement tests, they were guaranteed full scholarships. They couldn’t touch the money until they were eighteen.
“If we could just use our college fund,” she growled.
“Never happen.” Jillian blew out her breath in disgust. “Stupid waste of money.” Their parents saw Jillian’s fascination in movies as a phase that she’d outgrow. Louise doubted it; Jillian had planned from the age of four on being the youngest movie director ever to win an Oscar. “They want us to be lawyers or bankers or something stupid and boring like that. The only way they’ll let us use our college fund for anything other than school is if we were already out of college and making buckets of money.”
It kept coming back to the fact that they had no way of making money as nine-year-olds. It wasn’t that they couldn’t figure out a way to earn money. Every scheme they’d come up with, though, required a bank account to collect their earnings. Without their parents’ consent, and more importantly, their Social Security numbers, the twins couldn’t legally apply for one. Louise was sure that if they were normal kids, their parents would have been happy that their kids were taking responsibility and learning how to manage money. Their mother knew them too well; she saw a bank account as a too easily exploitable venture.
“With the money they’re making now, Mom and Dad couldn’t take on four more kids.” Louise had checked into the costs involved in a standard pregnancy. “I had no idea how much time and money goes into having a baby born. You have to go to the doctors constantly. There’s blood tests, urine tests, sonograms, ultrasounds. And that’s not even what it costs for the delivery. It’s a massive amount of time and money if everything goes right. It’s a whole other ballgame if things go wrong.
“Then there’s food and clothing, and where would the babies sleep? We couldn’t have six of us in this bedroom.”
“This would be so much easier if we were almost eighteen like Alexander.”
Louise nodded in agreement. “What we need most is time.”
“We need to be old enough that we can have good jobs. We have to be able to pay for a surrogate mother like April, a place we all can live comfortably, and still be able to buy them stuff like socks and boots and winter coats.”
Jillian obviously was thinking of the homeless men they saw on the street sometimes, nearly freezing in the snow.
“And they need their own college fund.” Jillian continued. “So if one of them wants to be a lawyer or a doctor, they can.”
“We need time and money,” Louise said.
“With time, we can get money. It’s just time we need.”
On Thursday, Jillian made the mistake of leaving Elle’s invitation out on her desk in their bedroom where their mother saw it during one of her spot-checks on how clean they were keeping their bathroom. They were deeply engrossed in video editing at that moment, so she managed to read it before they even realized she had picked it up off Jillian’s desk.
Their mother made a little sound of impatience. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? I need to R.S.V.P. by tomorrow.”
Louise and Jillian exchanged glances. They shared the responsibility of telling her by both saying, “We’re not going.”
“It’s Elle,” Louise added. “We really aren’t friends with her.”
Their mother pursed her lips, considering. They waited, barely breathing. “She invited all the girls?” she asked finally.
“Yes, but it’s just a power maneuver to get control of the play!” Jillian cried. “She’s a Gemini, Mom, which means her birthday really is after May twenty-first. She’s having her birthday early so she can have it before the joint-class play meeting at the end of this month. She wants to do The Little Mermaid and we don’t.”
Louise winced. Jillian was an amazing liar, but when she stuck to the truth she seemed to have no idea what would be the result of her words.
“What happened to invade and conquer?” their mother asked.
“This is not Iraq,” Jillian said. “It’s a birthday party.”
“It’s diplomacy. You need to learn it.”
“But we don’t want to go,” Jillian cried, digging them in deeper.
“Honey, this is going to seem callous and awful, and I hate that I sound like my mother, but life is full of things you don’t really want to do that you should do. Everything from going to the dentist to giving blood. I really don’t like taking time out of my schedule to let someone jab me with a needle and screw up the rest of my day by sucking blood out of my arm. The only reason, though, that I’m alive today is because some stranger donated blood for my mother before I was born and again when I was a teenager and was in a car accident.”
“That’s different. That’s saving a life.”
“We’re sending you to school with kids your age so you can learn this, and it’s been five years and you haven’t learned it. You need people. Yes, it would be great and wonderful if all the people in your life were like Aunt Kitty.” They had always called Mom’s best friend “aunt” even though she wasn’t related by blood; she’d been informally “adopted” by their grandmother when the two friends were in high school. “Those are rare and wonderful treasures when you find them, but you need all the people.”
“Are you saying we should suck up to Elle?” Jillian asked because she knew the answer would be “no.”
“Obviously you haven’t learned the difference between ‘sucking up’ and ‘taking advantage of your opportunities.’ It’s time you learn. You’re going.”
“Mom!” Jillian and Louise both cried.
“Let me make myself clear.” She raised her right hand up, meaning that she would not tolerate them trying to weasel out. “You are going. You will be nice. You will do your best to have fun. You will be polite to Mrs. Pondwater and Elle. You will do nothing to submarine the party. You will use this opportunity to be friends not with Elle but with Elle’s friends, because one of them might be a girl you’ve discounted and held at arm’s length merely because Elle claimed her first. The only way you will ever find a friend like Aunt Kitty is to open yourself up to friendship. You will never find other people to love while sitting in your bedroom, talking only to each other.”
She finished giving a slow benediction with her upraised hand by pointing to each of them. “Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes,” they both whispered.
She sighed and lowered her hand. “You need to learn how to play the game of diplomacy. Right now you’re just fighting for a play. In the future, it could be for getting a job you love or a raise you deserve, or to win support for a law that will save people’s lives, or . . . or I don’t know. You two have the power to change the world. You’re letting shallow, self-serving people like the Pondwaters win because they understand the game and you don’t.”
* * *
That Saturday they went into Manhattan to find a present for Elle. They stopped first at FAO Schwarz and wandered through the vast toy store, trying to find something that Elle might want and didn’t already have, and that they could afford.
“This is hopeless,” Jillian kept muttering darkly. “She probably has everything in this store.”
“Live and learn,” their mother said. “The trick to giving a woman a gift is to give her something beautiful that she didn’t think to buy for herself. Flowers and jewelry are often a good fallback. Here.” She stopped in front of a display case of snow globes. “Maybe one of these.”
“They’re pretty,” Louise admitted.
“Here’s one with Princess Ariel.” Jillian pointed to it.
They gazed at the pink globe with Ariel as a human peering upwards. There seemed to be something vaguely wrong about it.
“It’s like she’s trapped,” Louise said.
“Maybe not that one,” their mother said. “Maybe a mermaid Ariel.” Their mother pointed to an Ariel with a big rounded head and huge eyes done by a popular statue maker.
“That’s a little creepy,” Louise said.
Jillian caught Louise’s hand and pointed silently at a snow globe on a nearby shelf. It was of Pittsburgh deep in the forest of Elfhome. It wasn’t accurate—a lot more of the city was shifted than the small wedge of downtown that they showed. The reason for the inconsistency became apparent when Jillian carefully flipped the globe upside down and righted it. The forest became Earth suburbs surrounding downtown Pittsburgh. Another flip and the city was once again surrounded by forest.
“Oh, that is so cool,” Louise whispered.
Unfortunately, their mother noticed their fascination. “You like that one?”
“Elle would hate it,” Jillian said quickly. It would be horrible to have to hand it over to Elle.
Their mother laughed. “I meant for you two.”
“Us?” Louise cried with surprise.
“We didn’t get you anything you wanted for your birthday. This could be a late birthday present. Do you want it?”
“Yes!” they both cried.
Their mother signaled over a clerk. “We’ll be taking two domes. This one here is the first. We think the other one should have a mermaid in it. Can you point out all the ones you have?”
Within a few minutes, a dozen globes were gathered together for them to choose from. One had a stunning crystal mermaid with a delicate silver tail with coral filaments waving in the invisible currents and detailed fish swimming around her.
“It’s so pretty!” Louise said. “She’ll love it.”
“And it’s not that expensive,” Jillian said.
“It feels very grown up to me,” their mother stated, and they had to agree. It seemed like something anyone would like, not just a little girl. “Do you know—has anyone bought one of these in the last few days?”
“This is the only one we had in stock,” the sales clerk said. “It’s been discontinued.”
“It can be exchanged? It’s going to be a gift.”
“Yes, I can give you a gift receipt.”
As the clerk rang up their purchases, their mother said, “After you buy a nice item, you wrap it as elegantly as possible, along with a sophisticated card. So next stop, a card shop.”
* * *
Louise drifted through the Hallmark store, looking at all the bright displays competing for attention. The gift-wrap aisle had animated wrapping paper. Racecars silently roaring down ribbons of asphalt for boys. Galloping unicorns for girls.
Louise paused to finger the unicorns wistfully as they raced in elegant circles, manes and tails blowing on sparkling magical wind. The only thing that Louise held against Elle was that once a week she took horse-riding lessons at a farm in New Jersey. On Elle’s profile on the school’s secure social-network site were pictures of her doing English dressage on a beautiful gray mare with black mane and tail. The mare was prancing, ears forward, neck arched, right front leg and left back leg cocked high in mid-step. It was the most beautiful thing Louise had ever seen, and she wanted with all her being to know what it was like to commune with such an animal.
Jillian came around the corner and shoved a card into Louise’s hands.
“Two cards?” Their mother followed on Jillian’s heels.
“She invited both of us.” Jillian snatched up the unicorn paper. “And we’re only giving her one present. It’s like one of us is going without a gift. If we go with only one card, then it’s like one of us is twiddling our nose at her.”
“The Pondwaters know that you two are at Perelman on a scholarship. They know we’re not at their level . . .”
“Yes, Elle’s parents know, but Elle is the one we have to live with, and she’s nine.” Jillian bumped against Louise to get her to back her up.
Louise raised an eyebrow at her twin. Normally Jillian would have been glad for a chance to twiddle her nose at Elle. Jillian was up to something. “It’s just a little more for a second card.
“Do you want us to look like welfare kids?” Jillian added.
“It’s the price of having us at a private school.” Louise checked the back of the card and winced. Between the barcode and copyright information was the price. It was more than a few dollars. This required work. “You should see the website of the party planners for this. It’s going to be a dress-up tea party like we’re a bunch of first-graders. There’s going to be roses on every table, real china and silver candelabras, and people dressed up like the characters from the movie.”
“And silk ball gowns and crowns for us to wear,” Jillian added.
“And a hair stylist and someone to do our nails,” Louise finished.
Their mother visibly melted. “Oh! That’s sounds so wonderful. You’re going to be so cute!”
“Mom!” they both cried.
Their mother sighed, shaking her head. “I swear, you two were never little girls. It’s like I gave birth to teenagers.”
As they headed for the checkout counter, Louise looked at the card in her hand. She half-expected it to be some odd joke card. It was surprisingly elegant. It took her a second to register that it read “Happy Birthday to Our Sister.”
“She turns eighteen on May first,” Jillian whispered. “Shutdown is next week and then again on May eighteenth. So if we want to get it to her anywhere close to ‘on time,’ we have to mail it today. Postage to Elfhome is going to take all our savings, so Mom needs to buy the card.”
Louise went breathless with the idea. They were actually sending their older sister a birthday card. She’d open up the envelope and be so surprised. There was no way she could know about them, since their parents had stolen their embryos. Would she be just as excited as they were? Would she want to see them? At eighteen, she would be free to travel back and forth between Elfhome and Earth.
It was thrilling to think they might actually get to see their sister someday, maybe even someday soon, because of the card. Still, Louise couldn’t help feeling as if the birthday card was a terrible idea.
Iggy was blown away by the video when they showed it to him. “This is awesome. I can’t believe you did this. But that’s Gage. And Mason.” He named their classmates as they appeared. The Lost Boys reached the Jolly Roger and there was a pan-over to show the pirates.
“Hooo!” Iggy shouted and stabbed the pause icon, stopping the camera on their version of him as Captain Hook. They had taken his suggestion of Captain Jack Sparrow and gone in that direction with trinkets braided in among dreadlocks and a five-o’clock shadow shading into a goatee. Instead of the red of Hook’s traditional costume—based on a reference in the book that he fancied himself an officer in the British Navy—they went with tattered black with just hints of gold. Iggy made a dark and exotic pirate captain. “Oh! That’s awesome! That is so awesome! How did you do that? Are your parents like movie people? Did they help you?”
“Seriously?” Louise thought everyone their age could edit video.
She explained how they had used a rendering application to turn the photographs into skins for CGI models that could then be edited. “The stock running animation is fairly wooden if you spend a lot of frames showing it, so we move the camera angle a lot.” She backed the video up to illustrate how they used just a few frames of the computer-generated movement intermixed with close-ups of the Lost Boys and shots of tropical rain forest that they had made to seem moonlit by manipulating the color spectrum and lighting. She let it play through to the sword fight.
“So cool. But how do you know how to do all this?” Iggy asked as the video ended.
“We make videos all the time.” She pointed at their production company logo that she had put at the end out of habit.
“Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo?” Iggy cried.
“It’s a production company name.” Louise showed him how their names made up the word JEl-Lo. “Jillian Eloise and Louise. Lemon-Lime because there’s two of us.”
Iggy stood staring at her with his mouth open for a minute, and then he dissolved into laughter. “What I meant was, ‘You’re Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo?’ My sister’s got one of your posters above her bed. The ‘Blast it all’ one.”
They had designed character sketches for their series. In their videos, Queen Soulful Ember had a quick temper that led to her blowing up everything that annoyed her. “Blast it all” was her catchphrase and often triggered extreme reactions from her bodyguards and servants as they tried—politely—to keep her from reducing everything to cinders. Queen Soulful Ember’s character sketch for posters and whatnot showed her mostly buried under guards with only her madly twitching fingers visible and the words of her catchphrase flaming overhead.
The twins planned to use the artwork to make money off their videos. They’d tried to set up a store using an online retailer that would use their uploaded art to create customized items, everything from posters to coffee cups. For a small percentage of the profit, YourStore would handle everything from creating the goods to mailing them out to customers. The twins had gotten all the artwork in place and the prices set. The last step, however, required that they provide bank account information. Their parents wouldn’t allow the use of their bank account, citing everything from possible identity theft to tax reporting. Their parents didn’t want to be held liable for some financial mess that YourStore might suck them into.
Since the twins couldn’t collect income, they’d assumed that the store never went live. Had the store been selling their stuff all this time?
“A Queen Soulful Ember poster?” Louise asked. “A Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo brand from YourStore?”
“Yes! You’re famous!” Iggy laughed. “Don’t tell me that you don’t socialize online, either.”
“We hang out at Sundance and Vimeo and Vicker.”
He cocked one eyebrow in puzzlement. “What are those?”
“Filmmaker sites.” They maintained gender- and age-neutral identities on the sites, posting so that no one would track the messages back to them. It was mostly because their parents were sure that they would be cyberstalked by dirty old men. Louise doubted that anyone would be interested in them, but the secrecy kept their parents from discovering their activities on questionable sites.
“So you’re totally unaware that there are kids in this school that can quote all of The Queen’s Pantaloons?”
“All of it?”
“They totally mess up the timing of the jokes, but yeah.”
* * *
The news went through the fifth grade like a virus, visibly moving from kid to kid. The students that had been told they were Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo stared at the twins as if they had suddenly become conjoined. Which would have been totally annoying if it weren’t for the state of their finances.
After the first bell, Louise had logged quickly into their store and checked their account balance.
“Oh my God,” she whispered.
Jillian leaned over and frowned at the screen. “What is that?”
“That’s what YourStore is waiting for us to claim. They’ve been selling our stuff. Lots of our stuff.”
Jillian slapped a hand over her mouth to smother a squeal.
“We still have to figure some way to claim it,” Louise said. “We need a bank account.”
“We’ll get Mom and Dad to set up an bank account for us. With that much money involved, they’d be crazy not to let us claim it!”
Louise squinted, trying to see the future events unfolding implied by the numbers on the screen. “I don’t think they’ll let us keep it.”
“Why not?” Jillian cried. “It’s ours! We earned it! It’s not like we can give it back, either.”
“I mean ‘keep it’ as ‘spend it the way we want.’ They’ll want to put it all away for our college fund and things like that. Or at least, get us another playhouse. They’re not going to let us buy an antique piece of computer equipment off some unknown vendor. Remember how they got with that special-effects software we wanted to order?”
Jillian huffed as she grudgingly acknowledged that their parents would take control of the money. “A new playhouse at least would be cool.”
“We were saying we need a lot of money to save the babies.”
“This is not a million dollars. It’s not going to be a million dollars anytime soon. Besides, like Mom said, we can’t just pay for the babies to be born. They need a mom and dad and a place to live.”
Louise considered the possibility of using the money to talk their mom into having the babies. She was always snarling how she hated her boss. But she really did like her job, and knowing their mom, she’d feel as if she should quit working until the babies were in kindergarten. The money at YourStore seemed like a lot of money to them, but it didn’t equal their mother’s salary for four years.
“Think April would help us set up a bank account?” Jillian asked.
“No,” Louise said. Their mother’s work had made them aware of salaries and taxes. “If she did, this would look like taxable income for her. She would have to report it and pay taxes on it.”
Jillian frowned at the numbers. “I wish Alexander could help us. It must be great to be all grown up and have all this stupid kid stuff over with. I would love for once to be able to stay up as late as we want, to eat pizza every night for a week, and not have to clean our room all the time.”
Louise nodded. Claiming the money would be no problem for an adult.
“Oh! Oh!” Jillian cried and started to sort through data on her tablet. “We just need an adult’s Social Security number. Someone that doesn’t have to worry about added income. Esme is in another solar system. She doesn’t have to worry about filing taxes. We can use her number as the adult on our account.”
Louise ran the plan over in her mind, looking for dangers. They could set up a joint account, link YourStore to it, and then only use the money online. If they used it carefully, there would be little activity to draw notice to it. It seemed safe enough. “As long as we don’t buy anything big and expensive.”
“Like a pony?” Jillian said and did a little mime of trying to hide said animal. “What pony? Oh, that pony! It followed us home, can we keep it?”
Louise laughed out loud.
“Louise,” Miss Hamilton said, “keep it down.”
Louise smothered giggles.
“There,” Jillian announced. “And done.”
“Jilly!” Louise whispered fiercely. “You didn’t!”
“I did,” Jillian said without remorse. “And the flash-drive adapter ordered with express shipping, no signature required. It will be here tomorrow. We just have to beat Mom and Dad home.”
Louise thought of Tesla sitting in their locker, waiting to escort them home. “And keep Tesla from ratting us out.”
* * *
Louise won the flip of the coin. After they got off the train the next afternoon, she ran on ahead while Jillian followed slowly with Tesla. She had felt nearly sick with worry all day and hadn’t slept well the night before. They had done things behind their parents’ backs before but never to a point that involved thousands of dollars. Their baby brother and sisters, though, were completely helpless, and the deadline for their disposal was just months away. The task of saving them loomed huge and impossible. The money was their only advantage.
As horrible as hiding the YourStore sales from their parents was, they had to keep the new bank account secret. The delivery of the antique computer equipment to deal with Esme’s weird mystery was putting everything at risk. If their parents opened the package and started to ask how they had afforded it, not even Jillian could spin a lie believable enough to save them.
Since Louise couldn’t get to sleep, she had spent the late hours hiding under her blankets and downloading emulators and drivers. In theory, all she needed to do was plug in the flash drive and transfer whatever data it was holding. Once they had a copy of the data, they could hide all the evidence of their crimes.
Her heart fell when there wasn’t any package on their doorstep. Had their mom come home early? Had someone stolen it? Or would it come tomorrow?
Louise fumbled through unlocking their front door and pushed it open. Lying in the hallway was a bulky envelope that the delivery person had pushed through the mail slot. Its address label read “J. E. Mayer.”
Relief flooded through her. “Oh, thank God. This better be worth it.”
Shaking, she ran upstairs. The faster they used the reader and got it hidden away, the less chance they’d get caught. She had it connected before Jillian came in the front door. She could hear her twin thumping around downstairs while she downloaded everything onto her tablet.
The television went on in the kitchen, blaring out the news, moments before Jillian charged upstairs. She must have parked Tesla somewhere downstairs, since she was alone.
“It came. It works. Here.” She flicked files across their home system to Jillian’s tablet. She tucked the flash drive back into the Chinese box. The last step was to hide the reader and the mailer away where their parents wouldn’t find them. “There’s just one large PDF file and lots of JPEGs. I think they’re photographs.”
“More pictures,” Jillian complained as she scrolled down the list of files. “Etienne Dufae 1843. Roland Dufae 1880. Are those the dates the pictures were taken?” She tapped the thumbnail of the first picture and gasped. “Oh, wow!”
Louise glanced up from stuffing the reader into the back of the camera drawer. Jillian was gazing raptly at a boy who could be their older brother. The photo was in black and white, the clothes were ridiculously old-fashioned, but there was no mistaking the family resemblance. “Well, at least we know who he is.”
“Doh, we’re related to him.” Louise considered the mailer. Their parents might see it if she just put it in their trashcan. She folded it neatly so that the mailing label was hidden and tucked it into the bottom of her backpack. Tomorrow she’d throw it out at the train station. “He’s probably our grandfather or something.”
“It says 1843. More like great-great-grandfather.” Jillian tapped on the next thumbnail. “Etienne had his own store.”
The boy stood under a storefront sign that read: E. DUFAE & CO., WATCHMAKERS AND JEWELERS.
“Where do you think that was taken?” Louise said.
“It’s named ‘Cambridge, MA 1843,’ so I’m guessing in the Boston area.”
Leonardo had gone to M.I.T in Cambridge. Orville had been born there, and his mother had been killed there. Louise felt like she suddenly had sunk roots deep into distant soil. It was an odd feeling, suddenly being anchored like that, making her aware how adrift they had been beforehand with no family history beyond where their parents had gone to college.
Jillian suddenly squealed loudly in pure excitement and leapt up to spring around the room, shouting and flailing her tablet.
“What? What?” Louise started to flick open photographs, trying to find the one that had gotten Jillian excited.
“We’re elves!” Jillian shoved her tablet out to show Louise.
The female in the black and white photo could have been Jillian; she looked more her twin than Louise did. Only the female was an elf. With her dark long hair coiled like a crown on her head, there was no mistaking the point of her ears or the almond shape of her eyes. She sat in the high-back chair like a queen on a throne. From the Victrola beside her chair to the newspaper on her lap, everything said “Earth,” while she remained wholly elf.
“That’s—that’s not possible,” Louise stammered.
“She’s an elf and she looks like me and she’s a Dufae. Josephina Dufae.”
Louise stared at the picture as her insides went all fluttery with excitement. This couldn’t be real. It had to be like the Danish king comment on the back of Neil Shenske’s photograph. She picked up her own tablet and started to open the other photographs for more proof. It was impossible to tell in the other pictures; the subjects all wore hats. Certainly, though, the earlier Dufaes had that elf look around the eyes.
One labeled simply “Dufae” proved to be a scanned copy of a handwritten document showing their family tree. The top branches were all in Elvish runes. The name that formed the trunk, merging all the Elvish bloodlines, was Guillaume Ruelle Dufae. Jillian was right in one regard; the Dufaes started out as elves. Somehow, though, they became Frenchmen. Guillaume had married a Bridget Dubois. There was no indication if she was human or elf; no information was given on her except the date of their marriage and her death. She apparently died giving birth to Etienne, because his birth date was the same day. For Guillaume’s death, it was given as only September 1792.
Elves claimed to be immortal. Windwolf hadn’t visibly aged during the last twenty-eight years. (At least once a year, a reporter would compare his appearance to a teenage pop idol. The twins parodied this by having Prince Yardstick enter American Idol.) According to anthropologists, elves were considered adult only after they were a hundred years old. Etienne was nearly sixty in his photograph, but he looked only seventeen. Was it proof he was full-blooded elf or did half-elves age equally slow? The Dufae family tree traced only the male bloodline. Wives were listed only by three dates: birth, marriage, and death. It gave no clue if the females were elves or not except by the fact that they seemed to live average human lifespans.
Etienne would father Roland and Josephina and die within ten years of when the picture was taken. Obviously he hadn’t died of old age. Etienne’s daughter never married and lived to be a hundred and fifty. The family tree stated that Roland died before he was fifty without explaining why. Was it because he inherited a human lifespan when his sister lucked into an elf’s? Or had he been murdered like Leonardo and Ada? Roland left behind a young son, Adrien, who had been Leonardo’s grandfather.
Which made the twins . . . what? Elves? Half-elf? Quarter? One-eighth? How infinitely small did the amount have to be before it didn’t matter?
Jillian had found the family tree, too. “The note at the bottom says that Guillaume was beheaded during the French Revolution’s September Massacres. We’re French elves.” Jillian obviously loved the idea. “French noble elves.”
Louise refrained from pointing out that not everyone who was beheaded in the French Revolution was noble, at least not according to Charles Dickens, but he might not be an accurate reporter on the events. “We’re New Yorkers.”
Louise abandoned the photographs. They only raised more questions. She opened up the PDF file named Dufae Codex, hoping for answers. The scanned pages of the file were from a book, handwritten in Elvish. Page after page of runes. There wasn’t a single French or English word in sight. The source material had to be a thick bound journal, as there were over a thousand pages. She checked random pages to verify that it was entirely in Elvish. After the first dozen pages, though, the text changed from handwritten notes to elaborate symbols and circles and glyphs. She recognized the format from the only scientific paper they’d ever found on spell-casting.
“This. This,” she whispered, having to force the words out one at a time. “The Dufae Codex is a book of spells!”
Jillian squealed with excitement. “Oh! Oh! Lou!” Jillian went speechless as she scrolled through the book, and when she finally could talk again, she sounded like she could barely breathe. “This is so awesome! We can learn magic!”
“There’s no magic on Earth,” Louise pointed out despite the giddy feeling that was racing through her. An entire spell book of Elf magic. This was better than Christmas. It couldn’t be real. She didn’t want to get all excited only to be disappointed.
“Well, the elves were getting to Earth somehow if the Dufae were in . . . oh! Oh!”
“Leonardo was an elf!”
“No one knows how the gate works!” Jillian jumped up and started to pace, words tumbling out with her excitement. “That’s the reason Pittsburgh goes back and forth between the two worlds. If someone could come up with another way of doing it, they’d do that instead. All the scientists on Earth have tried, but they can’t figure out what Leonardo did. It’s not based on any science that they understand. Because it’s not science, it’s magic!”
Louise nodded along with the deductions. It made sense, but she was missing why Jillian was so excited by this. “So?”
“We can’t figure out how to save our little brother and baby sisters using science—so maybe we can use magic.”
“We know what science can do. There’s no artificial womb yet. We’re not going to be able to implant our brother and sisters into—say—a pig.”
“Ewww! Why would you say that?”
“I’m just thinking outside the box.”
“And we’re not going to be able to talk a woman into doing it!” Jillian nearly shouted to override Louise. “Not without lots of money.”
“There’s the money from YourStore.”
“Yeah, with that we could get the babies born, but then what? We need enough money to raise them. We can’t make enough to do both—not legally—in a few months. And if we do it illegally, we could get taken away from Mom and Dad.”
Louise wasn’t completely sure about the last one. Their parents had explained—several times—in the past that parents who couldn’t stop their kids from breaking the law lost custody of them. She had tried to research this claim, but most kids who made the news had done something really horrible—like torturing cats or killing another child. There wasn’t any data on nine-year-old bank robbers. Louise wasn’t sure if this was because other nine-year-olds hadn’t attempted it, or had their identities protected because they were minors or simply too smart to get caught. Still, the risks were too high to explain her doubts. Jillian was always sure they could get away with everything but was sometimes painfully wrong.
“But if we focus all our time on learning magic and it turns out we’re wrong . . .” Louise started to argue her sister’s logic.
“If we don’t figure it out, we’ll track down Mrs. Shenske and tell her.”
“What? No, no, that’s bad, we talked about that. Esme’s mother might have Mom and Dad arrested.”
“We do it anonymously. First we fiddle with Dad’s company’s records. It’d be easy. We change the number of embryos so no one can tell any are missing, and we wipe out Dad accessing the racks on our conception date. Boom. Everything that ties us to Esme goes away—”
“We should do it anyhow—just in case,” Louise said.
“Okay.” Jillian sat down and picked up her tablet. “But we wipe out everything that links us to Esme and then send some secret message to her mother telling her about the embryos. Last-ditch plan.”
“Do you think she’ll actually do anything with the information?”
Jillian shrugged. “I don’t know. She might not. That’s why it’s a last-ditch plan. A better plan is to see if the codex has a spell that will let us save our baby brother and sisters.”
“We’ll need magic for a spell to work.” Louise picked up her tablet.
Jillian paused in the middle of hacking their dad’s work account. “You have an idea?”
“If Dufae’s hyperphase gate uses magic, then it’s generating its own magical power source. I’m going to see if anyone else has realized that and found a way to re-create his method.”
* * *
“We’re elves. We’re elves! We’re elves and we have a spell book!” The words wanted to leap right out of Louise’s mouth as they set the table for dinner. Jillian obviously wasn’t having the same problem. Only the speed with which Jillian put out dishes and silverware betrayed that she was impatient to get back to their room and work at translating the spell book.
Their mother, however, had brought home Ethiopian takeout from Queen of Sheba. It was a sure sign that she was very upset about something. Another indication of their mother’s mood was that she’d bought more than they could possibly eat. There was dabo bread with awaze dip, menchet abesh wot, gored gored, gomen besega, ater kik alecha, shiro, and cabbage wot. She cranked up Rob Zombie in a declaration that she was not to be talked to until she’d had time to calm down. She moved through the kitchen, stripping off the uncomfortable work shoes and jewelry, head bobbing in time with the music, eyes angry.
Certainly it was all the more reason for Louise not to blurt out their secret. She fought the urge, filling up glasses.
Their father came home, stood in the dim foyer a moment, eyes wide, listening to the loud heavy metal music. After a visible “did I do something wrong” mental check, he came cautiously into the kitchen. He opened his mouth several times, reconsidered what he was about to say, and closed it each time. He settled at the table and asked with a glance, Do you know what’s wrong?
Jillian shook her head, looking innocent.
Louise bit down on We’re elves and we’ve got a spell book and shook her head, too.
Following her own rule on quiet for meals together, their mother turned off the music and sat down for dinner in silence.
After several minutes of furious eating, she sat back and sighed. “Anna Desmarais is a raving loon.”
Their father braved a comment. “I thought you were done with the Forest Forever event.”
“She’s also on the board of trustees for the Stars Align Gala in June. Part of being filthy rich and having a guilty conscience means she’s connected to a dozen different charities.”
“You’ve worked with some whack jobs before.”
“She implied at the meeting today that I embezzled from Forest Forever.”
“You’re kidding!” their father cried as the twins gasped.
“She didn’t call me a liar and thief, at least not in so many words.” Their mother growled. “She danced all around actually accusing me, but she made it fairly clear what she thought. She wants all the books checked for Forest Forever before releasing the next round of funds for the Stars Align Gala.”
“You’re not going to lose your job, are you?” Jillian asked.
“Taliaferro and I butt heads, but he trusts me. He knows how careful I am with the expense accounts. You have to be to avoid this kind of finger-pointing with charity work. He thinks Desmarais might be a racist because she made it clear from the first time she laid eyes on me that she didn’t like me.”
“That totally sucks,” Louise said.
Their dad reached out and took their mother’s hand. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Of course it is,” she snapped but squeezed his hand tightly. “We’re being audited on Monday. Taliaferro wants me to come in Saturday and Sunday to get ready for it.”
“So . . . we don’t have to go to Elle’s stupid birthday party?” Jillian smiled at the idea that they’d have all of Saturday to work undisturbed on the spell book.
Louise glared at her sister; this was not the time to push their mother.
“You’re going if I have to FedEx you there. This is exactly what I was talking about. You have to learn how to deal with these rich bitches while it’s just the school play up for grabs and not your job. You’re going to this party, smile until it hurts, and make friends.”
“Yes, Mommy,” Louise said, and Jillian echoed her.
“How is Plan Invade-and-Conquer going at school?” their mother asked.
“Okay.” Louise wasn’t sure what was safe to talk about since everything was kind of tangled together with the secret of the bank account and flash drive and codex and them being elves.
Jillian tried to work her way around their mother’s edict. “We’ve got all the boys on our side since we showed them our music video. If two girls back us, or come up with another play, we’ll win. We vote on Monday.”
“Good! Never let your guard down until the fight is over.” Their mother tapped hard on the table to drive home her point. “You keep your guard up. You watch for an attack and you take every opening that you’re given.”
“Yes, Mommy,” they said together.
Elle had a kitten.
She also had a huge brownstone townhouse filled with gleaming hardwood floors and crystal chandeliers and oil paintings, but none of that mattered to Louise. A kitten beat everything Louise had, even being part elf and in possession of a spell book. Louise wasn’t pretty like an elf. Without magic, there was no point to being able to cast spells.
The emotional minefield of keeping so many big secrets from their parents had put Louise off-balance the entire week. On top of it all, yesterday had been Shutdown and they’d failed to contact Alexander. Even on the Pittsburgh Internet, they hadn’t been able to find a phone directory.
The last thing Louise wanted to do was engage in social warfare. Besides, with a real living pet, Elle had already won. While the rest of the party giggled and shrieked somewhere downstairs, Louise curled up on the second floor landing with the chocolate tortoiseshell kitten.
About an hour later, Zahara came creeping up the stairs. She was still in her silk tribal wrap dress with thick gold bracelets that gleamed rich against her dark skin. While nothing had been done to tame her curly hair, someone had carefully applied glitter to her face, rich blue makeup to her eyes, and lip gloss to her quiet smile.
“You’re not going to be made up?” Zahara asked.
“I don’t feel like I’m seeing myself when I put on makeup,” Louise said. “I feel like I’ve put on a mask and am trying to fool people.”
Zahara settled on the stair just below her. “It’s not like a mask. It’s like a bracelet.” She slid off her thick gold band and twirled it so it caught the light. “This is beautiful as a piece of art. My arm is beautiful as part of my body.” She held up her arm, slim and graceful, as dark chocolate as the tortoiseshell. “Gold does not make you beautiful. Your arm does not make gold beautiful.” She slid on the bracelet and twisted her hand to show off the band in all its golden wonder against her warm darkness. “The two come together in a celebration of beauty. We exist. We are. One does not detract from the other. So you cannot claim that they add to each other.”
“But they do add to each other. I don’t think that would be nearly as pretty on Elle.”
Zahara giggled, and her quiet smile broke into something younger and joyous. “Everyone has been talking about your videos all week, but I don’t think anyone has been talking to you.”
“No, they’ve been just staring.” If the twins hadn’t been so wrapped up with decoding the spell book and finding a method for generating magic, it would have been very upsetting. As it was, it was embarrassing and annoying.
“My mom is a model; she’s really famous. She meets all these amazingly talented people, and they all act like it’s a big deal to talk with her. But really, she’s a normal mom that gets up in the morning hoping that there’s enough milk for everyone’s cereal and nobody overflows the toilet before she has to go to work.”
It so wasn’t where Louise thought the conversation was going that she laughed. “Your toilet overflows a lot?”
“Constantly. It’s an old building, and my little brother is an idiot with toilet paper. When you meet enough ‘famous’ people, you start to realize that at the core, everyone is the same.”
“So—you’re not impressed with us being Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo?”
Zahara giggled. “I am impressed! I could fangirl all over you about how funny your videos are, how amazing the costumes are, how beautiful the sets are and everything. According to my mom, though, having someone suddenly gush all over you is a little creepy.”
“Yeah, it is. A little.”
“Is that why you’ve kept such a low profile? Every time you’d release a video, people would start trying to guess who you are.”
Louise shook her head. “We just thought our lives wouldn’t be interesting to anyone. We just go to school.” And school was so boring that they made up games like pretending not to know French in order to make it bearable. After several attempts to write up biographies, including one that ironically claimed that they were elves living in secret in New York City, they’d decided to leave off all information about themselves.
“Most people think you must live in Pittsburgh because everything is so detailed and accurate. Also because you always post your new video during Shutdown.”
It was a little bit creepy that people had figured out their posting schedule. Since the date floated, they didn’t think anyone would make a connection. “We make a lot up.”
“There’s scientists saying that you’re getting most of it right. How do you know everything that you don’t make up?”
Real scientists had seen their videos? Did any of them recognize themselves? “Remember the paper we had to do in first grade about Elfhome? While we were doing research for it, we ran across this funny article.”
Their classmates had been happy to regurgitate commonly known facts like how Elfhome was a mirror Earth in a parallel universe complete with identical continents. The twins, however, realized that there was too little known about the elves themselves. It was easier to find out information on ancient kings of Babylon on Earth than the current royal court on Elfhome. Even though there were big communities of scientists in Pittsburgh, there was nothing publicly available about their findings. Obviously the information was being hidden someplace. The twins rose to the challenge and started to hack university e-mails, looking for clues to what the scientists were doing with the data they were collecting.
What they found was ripe for parody.
Apparently elves knew that the humans would view them as lab rats. There was an entire section of the treaty forbidding the collection of genetic material from elves. It went so far as to specifying “stray DNA” of dandruff, fingernail cuttings, and stray hairs. Because the elves were immortal, most questions about ancient history were viewed as personal and rude. While the enclaves had public areas open to the humans, a bulk of the compounds were deemed private and off-limits to close study. The elves were also reluctant to talk about private issues to anyone outside of their household.
It forced researchers to become super-secret spy scientists that the twins parodied by making them ninjas in their videos. In every scene, they had one or more ninja anthropologists, sometimes well hidden, sometimes badly. It made every video an Easter egg hunt for scientists.
The true trigger for their videos was an “eyes only” paper on elf names and why they were taking English nicknames.
“When elves are born, they’re taken to Summer Court and the royal fortune-tellers give them these amazing, lyrical names with great deep meaning. Their real names are really like ‘Pavana Gali Vento Ceyandalo Nagi Taeli,’ which kind of means ‘bare branches swaying in night wind.’ There are rich layers of meaning to the entire name, since most of the words don’t really have matching English words. Like ‘Ceyandalo’ means the ‘alive but not in foliage’ kind of ‘bare,’ not the ‘naked’ kind of ‘bare.’ Then the word order is different, so the name really is ‘moving back and forth to brush dark hair, branches that are bare from winter, in the night wind.’ All the elves in Pittsburgh are Wind Clan, so their ‘last name’ is always some form of ‘wind.’ Humans, being humans, started to shorten the elves’ names, chopping off the wind part and such like. Since most humans didn’t understand the nuances of Elvish, they were really butchering names and pissing off the elves. Like they accidently called that elf ‘Hairbrush.’ The elves started taking English nicknames to stop that.”
Zahara giggled just like they had when they’d first read the paper. But then she gasped as she followed back the implication. “Wait. You mean there’s a real Hairbrush and Umbrella?”
“Kind of. Hairbrush actually uses the name ‘Winter’ and Umbrella is ‘Sunny.’”
“Really?” She laughed. “What about ‘Suppository’?”
“We made that one up.”
“That’s Viceroy Windwolf. His real name is Wolf Who Rules Wind. Ruler. One-third of a yardstick?”
Zahara giggled again. “That’s so funny. My sister loves Prince Windwolf. She’s got this poster of him on her wall. But she thinks Prince Yardstick is a stick-in-the-mud.”
Technically Windwolf wasn’t a prince even though he was a cousin to Queen Soulful Ember. All the reports on him stated that he was unflappable and resolute. The twins translated that into a character who was completely unfazed by the madness that they unleashed around him. Usually he didn’t appear until the video hit maximum insanity, which he would then view with mild confusion but utter calmness. Often he also was the person that put the world back in order—usually with a massive show of magic. She found it odd that anyone would consider him as dull, fussy, or old-fashioned. Maybe Zahara’s sister didn’t know what “stick-in-the-mud” really meant.
Mrs. Pondwater came to the bottom of the stairs and looked up. “Zahara, it’s your turn for photographs.”
“Come on.” Zahara hopped up. “You should try the makeup. It’s fun. And your parents will love the photos.”
Their mother would. Considering everything they’d been doing behind their parents’ backs, it would probably be good to do something nice for them. Scooping up the kitten, Louise let Zahara lead her back downstairs.
The makeup artist blinked at her in surprise. “Didn’t I . . . oh, wow, your sister didn’t tell me she had a twin! She had me make her up as an elf princess.”
“She did?” Louise thought they were going to keep that secret.
“I have a whole box of these cool ear prosthetics.” The makeup artist held up ear tips. “Elfhome parties are very popular.”
Louise’s heart leapt in her chest and she blurted out, “Oh, yes, please,” before she even thought it out.
“Your sister is so cute and funny.” The artist tilted Louise’s head and painted something cool onto her ear tips.
“Yes, she is.” Louise felt the familiar uncomfortable twinge of envy. She couldn’t understand how it was that most people couldn’t tell them apart and yet it was always Jillian who was described as “cute.” What was it that made Jillian prettier? They had nearly the same hair—well, before Louise’s was burned off. Same shade of brown eyes. Same chin. “Can you make me just as cute?”
* * *
Thirty minutes later, Louise looked like an elf. The makeup girl somehow made her eyes appear very almond-shaped. The elf ears peeked out between hair extensions braided with ribbons and little silk flowers and pinned cleverly into Louise’s blast-shortened hair. She was dressed in a lovely copper lamé ball gown and had her face and bare shoulders dusted with glitter.
If she ignored how short she was, she looked completely like an elf.
There was the small matter that everyone else was probably made up to be a princess or a mermaid. At least, Jillian was also an elf—wherever she was. Louise hadn’t seen her twin since they’d arrived. Still carrying the purring kitten, Louise went in search of Jillian.
The rest of the party was down the hall, laughing and shrieking loudly. As Louise walked cautiously toward it, she realized she could hear Jillian’s voice slightly above the rest, quoting from their video, The Queen’s Pantaloons. Louise stopped at the doorway, surprised to find that Jillian was the center of attention. Obviously Jillian was using their fame to take over the party. Elle had a stone-hard smile locked into place even though her eyes stormed. All the other girls, though, were laughing as Jillian played the part of the clueless anthropologist, the extremely nearsighted Dr. Forthwright, the only non-ninja scientist from their videos.
“Such fancy needlework.” Jillian held up a facial tissue that was standing in for a lacy pair of oddly shaped underwear. The scene was based on odd wording used in academic papers to describe the elves’ method of dealing with no elastic or zippers to create clothing. “What do you suppose it is? A table doily? A handkerchief? It has such wonderful perfume.”
“The—the—the queen’s pantaloons!” Zahara was standing in as Hairbrush, who they often portrayed as a hapless victim of cultural misunderstandings. She always managed to say the worst possible thing and then react wildly to the resulting confusion.
“Pantaloons,” Jillian muttered as she mimed typing the word into a translator. “Pantaloons. Pan-ta-loons. Pan. Ta. Loons.” She paused, eyeing the tissue that was standing in for the lace panties. “Canadian water bird? No, I think not. Forgiveness. What are pantaloons?”
Zahara did a very good job of copying Hairbrush’s wild takes—that was half the humor of the scene. “Knickers. Drawers. Bloomers. Tanga.”
“Hmm, tanga.” Jillian consulted the nonexistent translator again. “Currency of Tajikistan. Ah, I see: it’s money. What’s the exchange rate?”
“Once per day?” Zahara sputtered out after a full minute of surprised and confused looks.
Jillian tossed up the tissue and the room burst into squeals of excitement. One girl after another snatched the white tissue out of the air and quoted a ninja anthropologist line and then tossed it up again. Not all the quips were from The Queen’s Pantaloons, displaying a slightly scary range of knowledge.
Elle’s smile started to tremble, and the anger in her eyes turned to hurt. It was her birthday party and she was about to cry.
Louise darted forward, caught the tissue, and tossed it to Elle. “The queen! The queen!”
Elle’s eyes went wide in surprise.
Jillian quirked a frown at Louise but sketched an elaborate bow. “Queen Soulful Ember.”
Elle’s eyes narrowed but she rose regal as a queen. “Hairbrush? Hairbrush? We have laws against mimes.”
Zahara did a perfect triple take. “Mimes? We do?”
“Surely we do. Frightening things: mimes. What will humans think up next? If we allow mimes, Kabuki is sure to follow.”
Elle struck the first pose of the Noh play Tamura or Dance of the Ghost. Amazingly, she had the dance fairly well approximated. Anyone who hadn’t spent hours researching and re-creating the dance with Barbie dolls and CGI animation wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Why did Elle know the dance so well? Was she a closet fan or had she learned it merely because she knew all the other kids liked the video? The other girls supplied “music,” acting out the parts of the ninja anthropologist/musicians, drumming on side tables and pretending to be playing flutes.
“Noh!” Zahara cried. “Your majesty, Noh!”
“Are you telling your queen no?”
“Of course not!”
“But you just did!”
“But . . . But . . . But . . .” Zahara did Hairbrush’s whimper as she once again found herself in verbal quicksand. “That is not Kabuki, it’s Noh.”
A withering look from Elle, probably for Zahara’s part of stealing the spotlight during Elle’s party. “There is a strange female in the garden.” Elle pointed with the same circling flourish as the video, a subtle clue that the queen was on the verge of leveling everything with fire strikes. “We think she might be a mime. She’s moving her mouth but nothing is coming out. We can’t allow mimes; next thing you know we’ll be up to our armpits in all sorts of scary things. Clowns. Frenchmen.”
“Oh! Oh! Her! No! I—I—I mean to say she isn’t a mime, your majesty. She merely swallowed the gossamer call.”
Elle did a perfect comedic pause, hands cocked like a gunfighter’s, fingers twitching, as the other girls screamed with laughter. She finally broke her silence only when the laugh died to excited giggles. “What?”
“The gossamer call. It generates a sound audible only to gossamers . . . and mimes.”
Elle let her hands flutter up, fingers twitching madly, and the girls all shrieked with laughter. “Blast it all!”
Mrs. Pondwater came in, clapping her hands for attention. “Jillian. Louise. You’re the last girls for photographs. The photographer is waiting for you.”
They allowed themselves to be shooed to the formal living room, where a thronelike chair had been set before a smoky-gray backdrop. The photographer eyed them with surprise.
“Elves? Are you sure you two are at the right party?”
Jillian waved off the comment. “We’re just killing time until the next Shutdown. Then we’re heading to Elfhome.”
Louise shivered as the words raised the hair on the back of her neck.
Louise couldn’t shake the feeling of impending disaster all the next day. While she crawled through the Internet, looking for some hint that someone had created a magic generator, Jillian worked on translating the Dufae Codex.
To their dismay, the first few pages of the codex were incomprehensible. The author seemed to be making shorthand notes with only the minimum explanations. It was only when she reached the sixth page that she found a solid piece of translatable text.
“Finally!” Jillian cried. “I should have just skipped ahead to this.”
“Another dead end. Literally.” Louise stared at the police report detailing the death of the scientist she’d been researching. Or at least, the police were assuming he’d been murdered, as they hadn’t found enough of him to verify it.
“This is what page six says.” Jillian scrolled back to read her translated text.
“My theories are correct and incorrect. Yes, because the landmasses are identical on both worlds, finding the mirror site of our most powerful fiutana was as simple as following a map. Yes, power does leak through fissures between worlds at sites of fiutana. It is impossible, however, to set up a reliable resonance to the Spell Stones, which leaves me woefully unprotected. Also the magic seems, for lack of a better word, dirty. Even fairly simple spells have unpredictable results. Three different sites have produced the same failures. If I’m to stay on Earth, I will have to find a way to purify the magic. If I fail, I will need to return home. I should plan carefully, though, before returning. Who can I trust with this? How do I protect those I love when I do not know who is friend and who is foe?”
It was a disquieting echo to Louise’s findings. “So the first five pages are test results?”
Jillian scrolled back through the original text. “Yeah, I think you’re right. He says here that ‘three different sites have produced the same failures.’ Each of these pages has mystery words that don’t repeat, and three words that do. I’m betting the repeated words are the locations, and the nonrepeating are the spells he’s measuring. The numbers under them indicate the variation in the results.”
“So this codex is a record of his experiments in magic.”
Jillian flicked the digital pages. “I wonder how many years he was here on Earth before he was killed. There are hundreds of pages here.”
Louise considered her own research. “If we could find one of these fissures, then we wouldn’t need a generator. The way he said ‘three different sites’ seems to indicate they’re fairly common. I wonder if he included a map.”
“I’ll check.” Jillian started to scan quickly through the pages.
Almost immediately, though, Louise realized the mistake in her logic. “Dufae was in France and he died in 1792. Windwolf didn’t colonize Westernlands until 1930. That’s the whole point of him being the viceroy; he was the only domana on the continent when Pittsburgh was first transported to Elfhome. Dufae’s map would only show the fiutana in Easternlands.”
“Yeah, but there could be fissures here in North America. If they were common in Europe, they’re probably common all over the world. If we figure out the conditions that form the fissures by studying Dufae’s European map, we might be able to predict where they would appear in the United States.”
“Dufae said the magic is dirty.”
“One.” Jillian held up a finger. “There are a thousand more pages to his codex.” She held up a second finger. “Two. He didn’t go back to Elfhome.”
“So he figured out how to clean the magic?”
“I’m figuring that’s what this is all about.” Jillian held up her tablet and showed off a sketch of some odd-looking device. “This is page twelve.”
* * *
Louise continued to wade through a flood of information on Leonardo’s hyperphase gate. Every time she thought she was getting close to an answer, the information trail would stop. The last one filled her with so much uneasiness that she got up to pace.
“What?” Jillian asked.
“I have a weird feeling,” Louise said. “Like we’re doing something bad.”
Jillian snorted. “We’re always doing something that other people think is bad. Everyone wants us to ‘be good,’ and what they really mean is ‘make it easy for them’ and has nothing to do with ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Like talking in the library. If no one is trying to get work done, why is it still bad? Because Miss Jenkins believes in learned behavior instead of rational thought. What we should be taught is compassionate response.”
Louise growled as Jillian veered totally off subject. “That’s not the point. Besides I can’t blame them. Learned behavior is a fairly simple punishment-and-reward system. I wouldn’t even know how to start to teach compassionate response.”
“We’re not animals. They wonder what is wrong with our country, but isn’t it fairly obvious that if children are being treated like animals instead of rational beings, as adults they’ll respond like monkeys?”
“Shut up or I’m going to fling poo at you!”
Jillian frowned as she realized that Louise was angry. “What’s wrong?”
“I—I don’t know. It’s just this weird feeling. Here, look. See this?” Louise pulled up the last data trail she’d followed. “It’s a micro blog post from three years ago.”
“The Dufae gate uses magic!!!” Jillian read. “You were right; someone figured it out.”
Louise impatiently waved her to wait. “The guy that posted this was an M.I.T. student by the name of Michael Kensbock. This is his posting history. He put out something on average every ten minutes. Two months later, his stream stops. This is his last post.”
The message said: “Eureka! I haz magic. Nobel iz mine! Party time!”
“He made one!” Jillian cried excitedly.
“Yes, right before he disappeared.” Louise pulled up the page that his family had put together in an attempt to find him. “He was at a bar with friends and went to the bathroom and never came back. Here’s the weird thing. Right after he disappeared, someone took down all his content. His vlogs, his e-mails—everything that could be erased—was. His micro blog posts are the only thing not erased, although I’m finding evidence that this service had undergone a massive virus attack at that time.”
“Maybe his disappearance didn’t have anything to do with the generator.”
“And his entire web presence erased?”
Jillian sighed and changed the subject. “Did you find a copy of the magic-generator thing?”
“It took some digging.” Louise pulled up the site. “I noticed that he liked to use a cartoon icon of himself. So I did a pattern-recognition search on the image and a few of the most basic spell symbols, assuming that he would need a spell to test the generator.”
“So you could hit anything that a normal search would miss?”
Louise nodded. “He obviously was going to publish the page to announce his work, but he didn’t want it found until he’d verified his findings, so he carefully didn’t use any words that would point a search at his page.”
The page had everything needed to create a generator with a high-end 3D printer. It looked simple: a molded plastic box with two power ports. One was a normal male 220 plug, which would indicate that the generator required power on the level of a clothes dryer. The second set of connectors was mere thin wires coated with plastic with flat tabs at the end. They didn’t look like anything that Louise knew, and they were identified as “magic connectors,” which normally would have made her giggle. There were complete schematics on building a matrix of parallel Casimir plates a few micrometers apart and detailed explanations of how the electricity was turned into magic. It was complicated, but Louise could understand it.
After building the generator and running careful studies on its output, he’d used it to cast a simple detection spell designed to map out ley lines.
“I’m worried,” Louise said. “This was his super-secret personal site he had stashed in the cloud. He had three public sites, but they’re all toast. Someone did a very good job of worming into even cache copies of his sites and making them unreadable.”
“Who knows what else he might have been doing that pissed someone off?”
“The thing is, he’s not the only one.” Louise flicked open windows of earlier dead ends. “Torbjorn Pettersen was a Norwegian who disappeared two years ago after publishing an article in Scientific American on field manipulation using quantum particles in an attempt to explain how Leonardo’s gate moved Pittsburgh to Elfhome. After him, there was a scientist named Lisa Sutterland who was doing similar work and was killed when someone tried to kidnap her six months later. Marcus Shipman published work on the gate, and he’s also missing. And Harry Russell. He went missing while he was under house arrest. He had a GPS microchip implanted on him as part of his punishment. Police should have been able to find him using that, but they couldn’t until two months ago. The chip turned up inside a fish in St. Louis.”
“As in the fish ate part of him? Eeewww!”
“That’s what they think. Everyone I’ve found that has come close to figuring out how Leonardo’s gate works has either disappeared mysteriously or been killed.”
“Well, we’re not going to tell anyone what we figure out. You were careful and made sure you couldn’t be traced?”
“Of course I was!” Louise said. “After the first two guys turned up missing, I went into silent-running mode.”
“Good. Let’s copy the source and then not hit this site again.”
They copied everything. Once they were safely isolated from the original site, they studied the plans.
“We’ll need a very high-end 3D printer,” Louise pointed out. “Our printer can’t build at the nanoscale level that this is going to need.”
“We could buy one.” Jillian pointed out that they now had money.
Louise snorted. “It would eat up a huge chunk of our funds, and how would we hide it? We couldn’t even carry it out of the foyer.”
Jillian sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. Forget about it. There’s one in the technology annex to the art rooms that the high school kids use for Mr. Kessler’s robotics and computer-design classes.” Mr. Kessler taught their computer literacy class.
“We need to be careful to cover our tracks,” Louise stressed.
“We’ll be like ninjas.”
Their plan started to go wrong two blocks from school. They had intended to arrive early and go straight to the art rooms. As they stepped off the subway train, however, they literally ran into Iggy.
“Hi!” He grinned brightly as he patted Tesla’s head. “Today is the big day!”
They gazed at him, mystified for a full minute.
“The play meeting!” he cried. “Don’t tell me you went to that girly party and Elle sucked your brains out or something.”
They’d totally forgotten about the joint-class play meeting, even with Elle’s party. They’d spent all of Sunday researching magic.
“We have other things going on,” Jillian said.
“Finishing the newest video?” Iggy asked. “I saw the filler you put up on Friday.”
Strange how it was easier to lie to strangers than to people who might remotely be their friend. Could Iggy be considered that? Having gone through the process so few times—say never—Louise wasn’t totally sure of the steps. It seemed for something so important there should be some ritual—a declaration of intent or a solemn vow or at least a handshake. How could people keep track otherwise?
“Yes, another video,” Jillian lied, but added truthfully, “The girls at the party kept asking what the next one was about.”
“We—we had an accident in our studio,” Louise countered to explain why they weren’t going to be producing said video anytime soon.
Jillian made a face but after a moment of thought nodded. “We kind of burned it down.”
“Well, we blew it up first, and then it burned down,” Louise said.
Iggy giggled. “Blast it all?”
“Yeah, exactly!” Louise said. It felt good to admit that much of the truth. “So we’re trying to figure out how to finish the project.”
Louise started them toward the school. Jillian could keep Iggy distracted while she went to the art rooms alone. On Mondays, Mr. Kessler had hall duty on the first floor. Mr. Kessler unlocked the art rooms and left them open on the expectation that Miss Gray would arrive shortly. Since Miss Gray didn’t have a class until second period, though, she tended to arrive at school at the last possible moment. It was a habit that the twins were counting heavily on.
They stopped at the corner to wait for a walk light. Iggy seemed focused on petting Tesla, so Louise pulled out her tablet and activated her tracking program for their art teacher. Miss Gray was still at her apartment, running about in frantic circles as if she kept forgetting things in her bedroom as she tried to get out the door on time.
“You know Tesla’s not real.” Jillian kept Iggy’s attention as the walk light turned white and they started to cross.
“Doh!” Iggy laughed and then blushed and glanced around to see if any of the kids from their school were nearby before confessing, “I love stuffed animals.”
“And?” Louise couldn’t see how the two related.
“My parents don’t think boys should play with stuffed animals. They’re too girly because they’re too cute! Boy toys have to be fierce and strong. My parents won’t let me have any stuffed animals, but I can have robotic ones, because they’re robots.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Jillian said.
“Welcome to my life.” Iggy patted Tesla’s head. The robot completely ignored it. “My mom won’t let me have any pets, either. She calls hamsters and guinea pigs ‘livestock,’ which is kind of funny because they got me this really cute ox.”
“I’m a metal ox.” Iggy patted his chest. “I’m logical, positive, and filled with common sense, with all feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Iggy was several months older than they were, since they were Tigers, which came after Ox. Louise had never considered the accuracy of the Chinese Zodiac before, but it seemed like a good description of Iggy.
Jillian laughed. “All four feet firmly planted?”
Iggy grinned at the jibe. “We consider it being pragmatic. Others see it as obstinate.”
“So your robotic ox.” Louise measured possible ranges of sizes with her outstretched hands. “How—how big is it?”
“Bonk is just a little thing.” He demonstrated with his hands barely a foot apart. “He’s so cute!”
“Bonk?” Jillian said as they hit the door. Louise prepared to slip away as her twin held Iggy’s interest.
“He has depth-perception issues or something.” Iggy illustrated by tapping his palm against his forehead. “He makes this noise when he runs into things head-first. When he does it he makes this sound kind of like ‘baa’ crossed with ‘moo.’ I think they may have given him some goat programming.”
“Baaamoo?” Jillian attempted as Louise started her feint toward the girls’ bathroom to explain why she was walking away unannounced.
“No, not like that.” Iggy made a very cute “booonnnk” noise.
“Louise! Jillian!” Zahara came bursting through the door and spotted them in the hallway. “I’m so excited I could barely sleep. I didn’t tell you, but I want to be a pirate!”
“Shiver me timbers!” Iggy cried. “Are ye three sheets to the wind?”
“Arrr, ye scurvy dog!” Zahara cried back. “Are ye blind in both eyes? I be a corsair out of Barbados and the greatest pirate queen that ever sailed the seven seas!”
Jillian’s eyes widened and she glanced to Louise for help, completely destroying any chance that Louise could slip away. “There’s—there’s no pirate queen in Peter Pan.”
Zahara laughed. “I know, but there should be. Maybe we can rewrite parts of it.”
Jillian’s eyes went a little wider. “They won’t let us rewrite it. Not after what happened in second grade.”
“No, not you two.” Zahara grinned, her nose wrinkling with delight. “All of us.”
* * *
The morning set the pattern for the day. As hard as Louise tried, she couldn’t find a single chance to slip away unnoticed. At recess they played jump rope with Zahara. Even at lunch, where they normally sat alone, they ended up with Iggy, Zahara, and a handful of boys from Iggy’s class, all talking in pirate. By then, it was obvious to Louise that they would have to wait until the play meeting was over and forgotten before staging the raid on the art-room printer.
Jillian was not taking the delay well. She was doing a good job covering it, but inwardly she was obviously seething. “Why can’t they leave us alone?” she muttered darkly as they were herded from the lunchroom back to the fifth-grade floor.
“We’ll just do it later. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is the one day Miss Gray comes in early.”
“Then Wednesday. Or even next week. We need to find a spell that will help save the babies first.”
Jillian glared at her as Louise coded open their joint locker.
“What?” Louise whispered as Elle stopped beside them to get things out of her locker.
“I want to learn everything, not just what we need for them.” Jillian used vague terms so Elle wouldn’t understand what they were talking about.
Elle snorted, guessing wrong that they were discussing their next class. “The way you butcher French, you’ll be lucky to know enough to pass the tests.”
She yanked out her tablet and flounced away.
Louise bumped Jillian, who was about to shout something after Elle. “We’re about to yank the rug out from under her in public.” Zahara wasn’t the only girl speaking in pirate at lunch. If all the boys and at least two other girls besides the twins voted for Peter Pan, they were going to win. “Let her score points. Besides, we’re the ones screwing around in class pretending not to understand. It’s karma if people don’t know how fluent we are.”
Jillian muttered some very rude French that wasn’t in any textbook.
“We’re going to have to learn more Elvish.” Louise tried distracting her. “Dufae uses a lot of words we don’t know. We can use an online translator to get the basic gist, but we can’t trust it to be accurate. Everything we’ve read said that magic is as exacting as chemistry. We need to be sure we’re translating things right or it’s going to end like the flour experiment did—and we’re running out of places to safely blow up.”
Jillian harrumphed at the knowledge that they weren’t as fluent in Elvish as they were in French. “We planned that explosion.”
Louise made sure no one was nearby before whispering, “We planned an explosion, but not that one. If we screw up a magic spell, God knows what might happen.”
“There’s a reason we’re not more fluent,” Jillian said vaguely as Giselle opened up her locker on the other side of theirs. “Nicadae.”
Someone in Pittsburgh had mistranslated the phrase to “hello” without realizing that the elves were actually saying “Nice day” in butchered English. All in all, the official dictionaries were a joke, consisting of only a few thousand words of Low Elvish and pidgin commonly used in day-to-day transactions in Pittsburgh. “Nicadae” and its like were viral; all the dictionaries had the same mistake. If there was a more accurate dictionary, it had been hidden by a scientist with mad ninja skills. “We’ve never tried the University of Pittsburgh.”
“That’s because it’s only on Earth one day of the month, and that was Friday.” Jillian slammed shut their locker, and the twins headed down the hallway since their French class was about to start.
Louise groaned as she realized Jillian was right. They’d spent all Friday searching Pittsburgh’s limited Internet for a trace of Alexander and had gone to bed after midnight, frazzled and worried. They would have to wait until next Shutdown before they could hack the university’s computers.
Jillian stopped as something occurred to her and her eyes went wide.
“What?” Louise asked.
“Do you think . . . ?” Jillian threw up her hand and wriggled her fingers.
“Blast it all!” someone cried from down the hall.
Louise grabbed Jillian’s wrist and pulled her hands down. “People watch us now!” she whispered fiercely.
Jillian rolled her eyes. “Forget about it! What about us? Do you think we can?”
Could they? Were they like the queen and able to wreak havoc with a wave of the hand? The idea was thrilling, but seeing the gleam in Jillian’s eyes, Louise caught hold of her excitement and attempted to drown it under logic.
“The ninjas haven’t figured out how they do that.” Louise pointed out that the more humans understood how magic worked, the more they didn’t understand how members of Elfhome royalty created wildly powerful effects. Earth scientists were still writing papers with conflicting theories even after twenty-eight years of covertly studying the elves. Their stumbling block was the amount of energy that a noble domana-caste elf could channel. Written spells obeyed Einstein’s physics: energy output could be calculated in proportion to available magic. Of course there was the problem that the scientists hadn’t come to agreement on the nature of magic. Unlike Earth, Elfhome had an ambient magical field. It seemed pervasive as magnetism or gravity, but it was fluid in that it flowed like water, creating streams of power called ley lines. A written spell was fueled by local magic and could deplete the area of power, just like fire would use up all available oxygen in a closed system.
While the scientists couldn’t explain the source of magic, they could measure it. Windwolf had been recorded discharging energy on par with a nuclear reactor for over an hour. No human knew how he channeled so much power, and the elves refused to explain. Scientists could only secretly video the elves and attempt to figure it out.
“The ninjas are stupid.” Jillian waved away her point, doing the flourish that Queen Soulful Ember made right before she started to throw fireballs. “Since all elves use written spells on a daily basis, the ninjas are still not sure if the gesture-based spells are limited to the domana-caste or not.”
“Just because we haven’t seen a dragon, doesn’t mean dragons don’t exist.” Louise stated the logic of why the scientists were reluctant to commit to a theory.
“It’s obvious that it’s just the domana! Metal interferes with magic, so anyone who can cast spells with their hands couldn’t wear rings or bracelets. There’s not a single photo of Windwolf wearing jewelry, but all the other elves of Pittsburgh do.”
“That’s hardly empirical evidence.” Louise stated as they walked into their classroom. Everyone was still standing around talking because their French teacher, Mr. Newton, hadn’t arrived.
“I love it when Queen Soulful Ember loses it.” Giselle butted in as if they weren’t having a private conversation. Apparently she’d listened to them the whole way from their lockers. Giselle’s comment made everyone turn and look at them. As Louise wished she could go invisible, the other students joined in.
“Blast it all!” Claudia cried, hands over her head, fingers wriggling. “And then boom! How does she do it?”
“Yes, how do they do it?” Elle obviously didn’t think they knew. “Or did you just make all that up?”
“We didn’t make it up,” Jillian cried.
Louise didn’t want to draw even more attention to them, but Jillian wouldn’t back down now. “All we had to do was study videos of the elves casting spells frame by frame. They do a two-step command sequence. It’s kind of like selecting a toolbar on a computer screen and then selecting an app to run.”
Or at least, that’s what they’d observed. They hadn’t been able to find any scientific studies on the subject, even though it seemed obvious.
Jillian demonstrated the finger positions on the first command. “It’s the combination of both the position of the hand and a spoken word.” She held her right hand within an inch of her mouth. The queen always used the same first command, but Windwolf varied between two, depending on which type of spell he was about to cast, Fire or Wind.
As Jillian spoke the Fire command, Louise explained the rest.
“After the queen activates ‘the toolbar,’ she changes her hand position and uses another command word to choose which spell she’s actually going to cast from the toolbar. Each spell has a different hand position and word.”
By measuring the effects, the twins had determined that the caster then used additional hand movements to enter the spell’s area of effect in terms of direction and distance from the caster, and the amount of damage they wanted to inflict. Jillian demonstrated the queen casting a flame strike directly on top of Elle strong enough to probably reduce the entire school to ashes.
Louise turned her startled laugh into a cough. “We needed to analyze the spell-casting so we could draw it. We wanted to get it right.”
Elle looked confused. “It would have been easier to just make it up. Nobody would know.”
“We would know,” Jillian said.
“Finding out how they do it is half the fun,” Louise said.
“Être assis.” Their French teacher, Mr. Newton, commanded as he walked into the classroom. He waved at their chairs in case any of them still didn’t understand the phrase. And thus started yet another period where Louise hadn’t been able to slip away to the art room.
* * *
The play meeting was the last period of the day. They filed into the auditorium to find that the other fifth-grade class was already sitting in the front row.
With broad shoulders, square jaw, and a buzz cut, Mr. Howe looked exactly like what he was: a retired Marine master sergeant. He stood at parade rest, hands clasped behind his back, eyeing the twins’ class as if they were unruly invaders. Miss Hamilton was laughing as usual as she gently but firmly herded them in.
She saluted Mr. Howe. “Class 501, reporting for duty, sir!”
Mr. Howe grinned and returned the salute. “Thank you, Miss Hamilton. All right, listen up, today’s mission is the joint fifth-grade class play. Today, we’re going to vote on a play . . .”
Elle’s hand shot up. “I think we should do The Little Mermaid this year. MTI has a junior version of the script for middle school students. The cast has been enlarged to ensure parts for an entire class, and all the music has been simplified so it’s easier for kids to sing. Not that that would be a problem for me, since I take voice lessons. We can get a director’s show kit from MTI that has budgets, press releases, sample programs, cue sheets, glossary, and audition sides.”
“We would call that jumping the gun, Elle,” Mr. Howe said coldly. “I haven’t finished.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Howe. I just wanted to point out that we could get everything we needed already polished and tested.”
Louise realized that everyone was looking at her and Jillian. They hadn’t prepared a pitch for the teachers. Nor did she have any clue where to find press releases or sample programs. Every other year, teachers took care of getting what was needed after the class voted. Under the stare of their classmates, Louise put up her hand.
“Yes, Louise?” Miss Hamilton said.
“I have a play, too—when we get to nominating.”
Miss Hamilton turned to Mr. Howe. “I think we should jump to nominating, since Elle has opened the floor. We can cover the changes to how we’re doing the play this year after the vote.”
Mr. Howe considered and linked his tablet to the theater’s screen. “Okay, we have The Little Mermaid as play number one.” He wrote the title in small letters on the far left. “Louise, what’s your play?”
Mr. Howe grunted slightly as if surprised by the choice. He wrote it close beside The Little Mermaid. “And who else has an idea for a play?”
There was silence as everyone waited.
“Anyone?” Mr. Howe eyed his class as if disappointed that none of his students had a suggestion. “Iggy? I thought you had a play you wanted to do.”
“I want to be Captain Hook!” Iggy stated firmly.
There was a sudden chorus of “Arrrrr” and “Aye, matey!” from Iggy’s class.
“Lost Boys live forever!” one of the boys in the twins’ class shouted.
Mr. Howe and Miss Hamilton exchanged looks.
“So some of you already discussed this?” Miss Hamilton said.
“We want to do Peter Pan,” Zahara said.
“The Little Mermaid,” Elle and Giselle cried.
“Let’s vote. All for The Little Mermaid?”
All the other girls except Zahara and Nina from Mr. Howe’s class put up their hands. It was a depressing show of hands. Mr. Howe and Miss Hamilton both counted, and once they were sure, Mr. Howe wrote the total on the board.
“Hands up: Who wants to do Peter Pan?”
They counted and then counted again.
“All right. It’s Peter Pan.”
A cheer went up, and Elle visibly struggled not to pout. Somehow, though, Louise felt like they hadn’t won.
“Settle down. We have lots to go over yet. Louise, do you have a scene and cast list for the play?”
“I do.” Jillian raised her hand but started to talk before either teacher called on her. “There are five acts, the first and last are both in the nursery, so we would need to build four sets. For the nursery, we only need three beds and a window. It can be very Our Town-like. The second set is the forest of Neverland, the third is the mermaid lagoon, and the fourth is Hook’s pirate ship.”
“I think it would be cool if we did a Kansas/Oz comparison between the real world and the fantasy world.” Louise defaulted to set design. “Do the nursery in grays or neutrals. The original set design had details that stressed how poor the Darlings were and outside the window were treetops to give the impression of skyline seen from an attic room. We could modernize it by having a brick wall as backdrop with graffiti and maybe use a flickering light and sound to make it seem like trains are passing by.”
“So the forest of Neverland would be colorful?” Jillian asked.
“Yeah, we could do flowering trees and different shades of green for foliage of trees.”
“Sounds costly,” Jillian complained.
“The biggest challenge would actually be scene changes. They need to be quick and easy while still giving visual depth to the stage. What we might be able to do is build out something that opens and shuts like umbrellas.”
“We could get yards of fabric in different shades of green,” Zahara said. “Everyone could cut a couple dozen leaves for homework, and then, on stagecraft days, we could staple them to the umbrella rigging.”
“Girls!” Mr. Howe held up a hand for silence. “I’m glad you’re jumping in with both feet, because this is exactly how this year’s play is different from other years. The class play is a yearly exercise on working together as a team. Unlike earlier years, where your teachers would set work schedules, assign projects, and oversee the work, you will now be responsible for all of it.”
“Mr. Howe and I will simply be advisors to help you find solutions when you can’t find a way to deal with a problem by yourself,” Miss Hamilton said.
“This year, you will pick out a director, a stage manager, a costume designer, a props director, as well as assign who will get what roles.” Mr. Howe opened a new window on his tablet and wrote down “Peter Pan” and started a list of jobs.
Louise took a deep breath as their future was suddenly unveiled. As Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo, she and Jillian would be the best candidates for most of the responsibilities. The play took up nearly three months of daily work, both at school and at home. Jillian already had sold the idea of her starring as Peter, who appeared in every scene.
But their siblings were going to be disposed of in three months. They should be focusing all their time and energy on the babies. They had to make a magic generator, translate the Dufae Codex, and experiment with spells.
“I want to be Captain Hook!” Iggy put up his hand.
“Aye!” the pirates shouted.
“Captain Iggy Hook!” the Lost Boys cried.
They all cheered as Mr. Howe started the cast list with “Captain Hook: Iggy.”
“If we’re doing Peter Pan, I want to be Wendy!” Elle cried, and her friends clapped when Mr. Howe, hearing no objection, wrote it down.
“Jillian’s going to be Peter!” Zahara said.
“And the director!” Iggy added. “Louise can be stage manager.”
There was another cheer, and their names went up on the screen.
Louise sank into her chair, trying to keep dismay off her face. This was the worst thing that could happen.
It proved impossible to sneak away to the art room to use the 3D printer. Everyone wanted their attention.
Except the Girl Scouts.
As Jillian had predicted, Mrs. Pondwater didn’t take well to their coup d’état with the play. She ambushed them outside the troop meeting on Monday afternoon and politely informed them that if they wanted to stay in the Girl Scouts, they’d have to find another troop. With Nigel Reid’s appearance on the Today Show less than two weeks away, there wasn’t time to infiltrate another group and set up a field trip. They had no real guarantee that it was the real Nigel who had contacted them. If Nigel did mention them on the show, then there would be opportunities later to interact with him. Besides, it was a relief that they didn’t have troop meetings to attend on top of everything else.
Jillian was swamped with rewriting the play to more modern English and planning on how they were going to do the complex sword fights and flying scenes. Louise needed to design the sets, create a work schedule for the stagecraft period, and create a blocking mock-up on the floor of both classrooms and the fifth-grade hallway so actors could learn how to move around sets that didn’t exist yet. They also found themselves managing the other kids, who had never tackled such a large project before. They needed to help Zahara with the costumes, Reed with props, and Ava with the advertising.
With every minute of their time at school eaten up, they had no choice but to wait until stagecraft started. At that point, Louise could slip the magic generator into the work schedule. It required her to design decoy equipment into set designs.
Jillian hated the idea. She wanted to start trying out the multitude of spells in the codex. They hadn’t found anything that resembled basic magic lessons, and Louise was afraid to experiment blindly. Louise pointed out that their goal was to save their siblings, not blow up the neighborhood. Reluctantly, Jillian agreed.
Since Louise’s evenings were being taken up with finalizing the conception art for all the sets and costumes, Jillian handled the translation for the next few days.
Jillian plowed onward through text peppered heavily with completely unknown words. Dufae’s story unfolded in awkward bits and often incomprehensible pieces, such as: “I miss the moon spinners and the dark-eyed widow.” And: “I feel like a duck with a puddle. At least it keeps the house warm.” And: “What is this obsession with stone people?” And: “He shapes stone with coarse hands, rough as rock, unyielding.”
It was another day before they could translate another large section into something understandable and not a song. (At least, they thought the odd sections with what might be musical stanzas were songs and had nothing to do with magic. Maybe. Rough sketches of a kitten also started to appear in the margins, growing on each page to a slightly pudgy cat.)
I am so very lonely. Why do they put so much importance on the count of years? It disregards that some will never grow out of childish spite, and others, like myself, leap to wisdom at a very young age. If they had recognized me as an adult as I know myself to be, I would have been allowed to take as Beholden those whom I could trust completely. I would have had more options than to run and hide. The irony being that I have succeeded this much because I am still a child in their eyes. I was allowed freedom to do what no adult could—to move unwatched and unchecked through the very camp of the enemy. I worry now that my actions might have brought danger down on my parents. I can only hope that their true ignorance of my actions will guard them against attack. That I hope this in vain eats at me at night.
“I wonder how old he was.” Jillian made notes on the page and indexed it. “Not how many years old, because elves take forever to grow up, but, you know, was he the equivalent to our age? Or was he older, like a teenager? He did get married and have a kid, but he could have been on Earth for years and years.”
“I don’t know, but whoever he was hiding from—they’re probably still alive.”
Jillian looked surprised, and then her eyes went wider as she realized the truth. “Elves live forever.”
“What he was working on might still be dangerous,” Louise said.
“Oh. Oh!” Jillian said. “His parents! They’re probably wondering what happened to him.”
It felt as if reality had shifted around them. Dufae was no longer an old person who had died hundreds of years ago, but a child who should still be alive, still young, still with his loving mother and father. On Elfhome there were people who knew his face and the sound of his voice, people who probably missed him horribly and were praying in vain that he come home safe. Or worse, what Dufae feared had happened, and the people he was hiding from had killed his parents.
“We need to be careful,” Louise whispered. “This is dangerous.”
* * *
“Oh! Oh!” Jillian leapt to her feet close to bedtime. “Listen to this!” She paused to find her place again in the translated codex and started to read. “‘I still think that I might need to open one of the nactka.’”
“What’s a nactka?”
“I don’t know. This is the first time he mentions it. But listen!” Jillian went back to reading.
“It stands to reason that since I can’t set up a resonance, opening one should be perfectly safe. If I’m cut off, the spell surely cannot trigger. Logic prevails that I should delay opening a nactka until I fully understand the nature of the spell, but I’m not sure I can grasp the spell without fully studying one.”
“Open one? So they’re like jars?”
“There’s more!” Jillian went back to reading, holding up one finger to indicate that Louise should wait.
“I don’t believe that there have been any changes made to the fundamental nature of the nactka itself. The object inside is held as if time has been stopped until the nactka is open. A flower would remain as if newly picked. Ice will not melt even in the hottest of summer. A chicken egg will not hatch for a hundred years, and yet when taken out, the chick will emerge unharmed.”
Louise gasped and then caught hold of her excitement. “But we don’t have one of these.”
“But we know they exist! Magic can save our baby brother and sisters.”
“We don’t have one, and he might not describe how to make one.”
“He had one here on Earth.”
“Three hundred years ago in Paris.”
“Grandpa Dufae has this codex and the old photographs. He might have it. I’m sure he would let us use it.”
“And he might take us away from Mom and Dad!”
Jillian waved away the objection. “He already knew there were other embryos. If he wanted more kids, he would have arranged for them to be born.”
“He didn’t have the money to pay for surrogate mothers. Esme did.”
“He gave Esme copies of all the Dufae family stuff. He must have thought she was arranging more kids to be born or something.”
They both paused and frowned as the logic of their mother once again escaped them. Why had she left the puzzle box with April? Except for the odd mystery photographs, there had been nothing of her in the box.
“They would have never made her captain if they thought she was crazy,” Jillian pointed out.
“There is that,” Louise agreed. They had to be missing some vital information that made Esme’s action logical, but so far Louise couldn’t even guess what that might be. “We need more information.”
Jillian growled in frustration and sat down at her desk and started to link her tablet to the house computer.
“What are you doing?”
“This is taking too much time. I’m speeding it up.”
“I’m going to machine translate the entire document so we can do text searches and see everything he says about the nactka.”
* * *
Needless to say, the spells made the translation software have hissy fits.
* * *
The next entry of nactka came a hundred pages later and explained little.
It was pure childish curiosity that made me unlock the box, but I had recognized the dozen primed nactka the moment I saw them. I might be still a child, but I’d sat at my grandmother’s knee and heard all the dark stories of our enslavement. I knew that I had to act. My first thought was to merely disarm the nactka, but I was afraid I might accidently trigger whatever spell they were meant to activate. Nor would simply destroying these twelve solve the true problem. He couldn’t have made these; he lacks the intelligence and talent. Whoever created these might be able to make more. Might have already done so. These nactka pose no threat on Earth; they are inert. They remain dangerous, however, until I understand what the spell they’re linked to does.
“No, not another song!” Jillian cried as the next paragraph started out with “Knock knock, pick the lock, open the box . . .”
“Well, we know that the nactka are in a box.” Louise started a separate search. “Let’s see what he has to say about the box.”
Luckily Dufae obsessed about the box. He drew pictures of it. He considered changing the keyword of the lock spell and made elaborate notes on how to make lock spells and then decided that the magic of Earth was too “dirty” to guarantee a success.
And then they made an amazing discovery. The last few pages weren’t in Elvish but French. The hand that made the letters was more impatient, gone was the elegant perfection.
Today my wife has born me a son, and we named him Roland Dufae. His ears are as pointed as mine. I was born fifty-some years ago, but I still look like a youth. I realize that my father would have lived forever on his native world and could not imagine that his life would be cut so short in such a tragic way. I have no idea how long I will live, but I must be sure that my child knows of his heritage, for it is stamped upon his face and determines how fast or slow he may grow. I will teach him to read and speak my father’s tongue. When he is old enough to understand, I will tell him of how my father traveled to Earth from the world of elves and why. When the crown of France fell, taking my father with it, I was still an infant. I was carried to safety in America. The codex and many of my father’s things were brought with me, but the nactka that were his whole reason for fleeing his homeworld were not among them. I do not know what happened to the box containing the nactka. For his soul, I pray that they were smashed by ignorant fools, but from what I know of the box’s construction, this is unlikely. Protected as it was, it was virtually indestructible. It must exist somewhere in France along with all the crown jewels looted from the palaces. The fools will not be able to open the box, so it will continue to be, until I or one of my children search it out.”
On the next page was English done in careful precise lettering, nearly as if printed by a machine.
“My beloved grandchildren, Leo was killed by his efforts to build a gateway to Elfhome. Dufae’s enemies have been on Earth all this time. It is possible that they already have the contents of Dufae’s lost box. Stay hidden. Trust only each other and no one else. Keep yourself safe.”
* * *
How do you find a box that was lost three hundred years ago on another continent? Once upon a time, it might have been impossible, but the data age had put cameras into the hands of billions of humans, all with the curiosity of monkeys and a weird drive to share what they knew. Louise created a rendering of the box based on Dufae’s sketches and tied it to a spider to crawl through the web, comparing the image to the trillions of pictures stored on the Internet. Someone, somewhere, had to have seen the box.
May first was Alexander’s birthday. She turned eighteen, a full and legal adult. Louise and Jillian celebrated alongside her and yet a universe apart, with cupcakes they bought on the way home. They risked a birthday candle because their mother was working late, stuck at work because her company needed to counterbalance growing protests with more security measures at upcoming events. The lone candle, though, reminded Louise that their baby siblings might never see a single birthday, and it made her cry.
“Make a wish, then blow it out,” Jillian choked out.
Louise wiped away tears, thinking how stupid “wishing” magic sounded. She didn’t even know what it was she needed to wish. For more time? For everyone to forget that they were supposed to be doing a play at school or that Jillian and she were shouldering a monster-load of the work? That they could find a nactka that had been lost for hundreds of years tucked away in their parents’ basement?
Somehow they needed to save their sisters and brother.
She blew out the candle, and they ate their cupcakes while searching the world for Dufae’s lost box.
* * *
“Jillian! Louise!” Zahara had bounced up beside Louise at the twins’ locker. Since Jillian had cut her hair Peter Pan-short, their classmates couldn’t tell them apart from behind. Jillian had already been sucked away to deal with some play-related emergency. It left Louise feeling horribly aware that she rarely dealt with the world without Jillian beside her. It nearly felt like she had lost her right hand. “Did you see the Today Show this morning?”
Louise gasped as she realized that it was the day that Nigel was going to be a guest. She’d forgotten in the search for the nactka. “No!”
“Nigel Reid did a shout-out to Lemon-Lime.”
“He did?” Louise cried, at once crushed that she’d missed seeing him, and yet excited at the idea that the real Nigel Reid had mentioned her and Jillian.
“He said he was a big fan. And he had Wembley with him.”
“What?” Wembley was one of their running jokes in The Queen’s Parting Gift. The Court had told the humans that the queen was giving them a “wembley” as a gift and meant at first a beautiful songbird. After the bird dies, they come up with a series of increasingly uglier animals to offer up as a wembley, that all meet bizarre deaths, until they get to a woolly-mammothlike kuesi, which are so ugly that they’ve crossed the line to cute.
“Well, the two kuesi at the Bronx Zoo had a baby, and they’ve named it Wembley.”
“They did?” It had been the gift of the two kuesi that the twins were making fun of. It nearly seemed like a joke that of all the possible animals that the elves could give the humans, they had chosen two kuesi. The reason, though, was because most Elfhome animals required magic to function normally. Apparently the kuesi had been bred to be indifferent to the levels of magic around it.
“He’s so cute!” Zahara cried and pulled up a video clip on her tablet.
The video started with Nigel already onstage with Wembley. The baby kuesi looked vaguely like a very hairy elephant with nubs of tusks. Its trunk was in hyperactive overdrive and developed a fixation on exploring up and under the host’s dress. The first time the woman squealed and jumped. She spent much of the video circling Nigel with the trunk in chase while the man explained about how the kuesi had been used to build the first railroad on Elfhome. Nigel seemed torn between amusement and confusion to what could possibly be attracting the animal so strongly.
“Do you have some peanuts hidden down there?” Nigel asked.
The host glared at him for a moment, which unfortunately distracted her long enough for the trunk to find its target again. The video clip ended with the host squealing a second time.
“That’s the shout-out?” Louise managed to say after she stopped laughing.
“No, wait, it comes before. Let me see if I can find it.” Zahara went to a website that was labeled Lemon-Lime Love. “Ugh. No. No.” She changed sites to one called Jello Shots.
Louise’s stomach flipped weirdly at the site names. “Oh, tell me that those aren’t what I think they are.”
“Fan sites dedicated to your videos? Okay, I won’t tell you then. Here.”
The clip was labeled “Nigel Reid is a Jello Shot!”
The clips started with Nigel leading the baby kuesi out onto the stage. Despite being only a few months old, it was already as tall as the Scotsman. Its long hair was silky and unruly, making it look like a shambling mound of hair with a trunk.
“Thank you for having me. This little fellow is a six-month-old Elfhome kuesi . . .”
“Kuesi? I thought he was a wembley.” The host double-checked her teleprompter. “I thought . . . it looks like a wembley.”
Nigel laughed. “Yes, everyone thinks so because of the video The Queen’s Parting Gift. The people at the zoo have gotten so tired of having people insist that the sign is wrong that they’ve named this little guy Wembley. But he really is a kuesi, which is a cousin to Earth’s woolly mammoth.”
“Oh, he’s so cute,” the host said and then went wide-eyed as the beast beelined over to her and loomed above her. “And big!”
“I asked the Bronx Zoo to borrow him because I hope to be working with Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo in the near future.”
“Wow!” For a moment the host was more interested in the news than the animal standing beside her. “I love Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo.”
“Yes, they’re a wonderfully creative and knowledgeable production company.” Nigel dodged around gender, age, and number of people involved, probably because he didn’t know any of it.
“How in the world did you make contact with—” Whatever she was going to ask was cut short by the kuesi fondling her under her dress. She jumped, squeaking loudly, and the clip ended.
The comments under it exploded with speculations on what work he’d be doing with Lemon-Lime. The thread quickly grew ugly as the Jello Shot fans decided that Nigel was merely trying to capitalize on Lemon-Lime’s fame and that he was lying about the entire thing.
“Holy shit,” Louise whispered as she realized that despite being posted just an hour before, there were twenty pages of comments already.
“What are you doing with Nigel?” Zahara asked.
Louise stared at her, full of horror. It had never occurred to her that anyone who knew the truth about them would connect them up to Nigel. “You can’t tell anyone about this! We’d get into so much trouble if our parents knew!”
“They don’t know?”
“No! They think the Internet is full of pedophiles, and we’re not allowed on any adult site until we’re at least fourteen.”
“Wow. That’s like really fossil-age thinking.”
“My mom knew one person that got into trouble like that, so she’s super protective. If they found out that we’ve posted our videos online and are commenting on filmmaking sites and set up the YourStore—”
Louise stopped being able to talk, because she was completely breathless at the idea of how much trouble they’d be in. They’d be grounded for months without Internet, and they might never get their video equipment back.
“I won’t tell,” Zahara promised. “And I’ll tell everyone else not to say anything. But this was on television. Does anyone else know that you’re Lemon-Lime?”
Their Aunt Kitty had helped them pick the name, but she didn’t know about their videos. Also she didn’t watch morning shows. She wasn’t a morning person. Any time they did see her in the mornings, it was usually because she’d been up all night and hadn’t gone to bed yet. It was part of the reason she often babysat in emergencies.
“So what are you doing with Nigel Reid—that your parents know nothing about?”
It sounded horrible when Zahara said it that way.
“He wants to ask us questions about the gossamer call.”
Zahara’s eyes went wide. “But didn’t you just make that up as a joke?”
“Yes. I mean, no. We know there is a whistle for the gossamers, but we haven’t found any references to what it looks like or how it works.” Louise pulled at her hair at the sudden realization that they didn’t have anything concrete to tell Nigel. Her research had been detoured by everything else.
“So what are you going to do?”
Louise stared at Zahara as her mind raced. Was it possible that the codex had some information on it? Once they had a magic generator, they could experiment with any spells that the elves might have embedded into a whistle, but they didn’t have any gossamers to test them on. They could build a virtual simulator of a gossamer if they could find anything about their physiology. So far they hadn’t found any studies on the massive living airships. The fact that the creatures were translucent made all pictures of them blurry and difficult to figure out where the flying jellyfishlike animal ended and the sky began.
“Um . . .”
“You should at least thank him for the shout-out,” Zahara said.
“You think so?”
The bell rang for homeroom. There was a sudden and massive movement of bodies as everyone in the hall headed to their classroom.
“My mom always thanks anyone that says something nice about her to the media.”
Louise nearly protested that they weren’t on the same level as Zahara’s fashion-model mother, but then remembered the Today Show host’s reaction to the name Lemon-Lime. They might have been unaware of it, but apparently they were famous. “Okay, I’ll thank him.”
* * *
There were hundreds of messages under Nigel’s original post. The first was “Seriously? Nigel Reid? THE Lemon-Lime? I don’t know which one to disbelieve the most.” The second stated, “Dude, Lemon-Lime talks to no one. They’re like ghosts!” A random reply on the next page showed that the comments turned ugly as fans decided that the shout-out was just a way to steal Lemon-Lime’s fame.
Louise winced. Poor Nigel. Zahara was right; for all the grief he was getting, he deserved a thank-you. She opened up a private message and gave it a subject line of “Thank you for the great shout-out.” After that, she didn’t know what to say.
Famous people are all just normal people at their core, Zahara had said. It was certainly true for her and Jillian. Well, they were normal if one ignored them being elves, conceived after their male genetic donor was dead, and smarter than just about everyone else. . . .
She stared at the blank screen for a while as the cursor blinked. They had nothing to give Nigel right now. All they had was a handful of observations that anyone could make. They should be sure before they told him anything, and that would take time. Meanwhile the poor man was going to get dragged through dirt. In public.
If they released a Lemon-Lime video acknowledging Nigel, then they could clear his name. They had planned on doing filler anyhow.
* * *
“Oh, great idea!” Jillian reacted to the news with wide-eyed amazement. “A video reply will confirm we’re really Lemon-Lime. We could crank a filler out in a few hours.”
By the end of homeroom, they had a short storyboard laid out. Normally, they did stop-motion with Barbie dolls on green screen; it gave their work a distinctive style. Unfortunately, they’d blown up their entire cast. Louise always thought they should acknowledge the accident by having Queen Soulful Ember blast the royal court to cinders. The addition of Nigel to the mix gave them the idea of changing who got vaporized. In the new video, the queen lets loose a series of blasts, aiming at one precious treasure after another. Her court barely manages to deflect her spells’ damage onto what seems to be unoccupied space. After the court leaves the area, however, ninja scientists rain out of their smoldering hiding spaces.
The second act was solely a shot of the Cathedral of Learning to symbolize the University of Pittsburgh. Jillian was writing the dialogue for the first section, but Louise had an inspiration for the middle section. She typed dialogue that would later need to be read in. The first male would say, “Good God, not again. And those were the last of the anthologists, archeologists, biologists, and botanists. What’s next on the list? Ah, entomologist. Yes, we do need to learn more Elvish. This dictionary we have sucks.”
“I do not think that word means what you think it means,” some unseen male says with a slight Spanish accent.
“Get me entomologists!”
The third act was a shot of a crude box trap baited with ants. Nigel Reid and his cameraman stumble into the trap and ninjas hammer it shut and cover it with mailing stickers, addressing it to Elfhome. They could use sound bites from Nigel’s documentary on fire ants—painfully short to stay within fair use limits—specifically the discussion on the queen, since applying the factoids to Soulful Ember would be funny. Once Nigel was trapped inside the box with the ants, she could use a slightly muffled version of the section where he was cheerfully describing the pain of being stung. Repeatedly.
Louise pulled old backgrounds from their home computer to build the needed sets. Giggling, Jillian told her between first and second period that the “precious treasures” would be various plot McGuffins from earlier videos. They could get around not showing the queen and her court and use only dialogue to progress the story. They spent the break between second and third period recording the lines in the girls’ restroom.
After a great deal of consideration, Louise decided to insert one frame of the raw footage from their playhouse explosion as an Easter egg with each fire strike. The first would be subtitled, “We decided to experiment with special effects on the fire strike.” The second would state, “We blew up our studio.” The third would end with, “There will be a short hiatus in production until we manage to replace our equipment.”
They had always operated on the assumption that they had at least one die-hard fan that liked finding the Easter eggs. They’d even given the fan a name: Harvey. It was weird to know that they had thousands of Harveys and one of them was sure to analyze the video frame by frame for Easter eggs. This hidden message would definitely be read. Maybe by hundreds of people.
Louise was just adding various Foley effects, like hammering nails, out of the copyright-free archive when Jillian suddenly kicked her. She looked up, aware for the first time that the room had gone completely silent.
“Louise!” Mr. Kessler, their computer literacy teacher, was bearing down on her.
She blinked up at him, surprised. She and Jillian sat in the back of all their classes and rarely drew the attention of any of their teachers. Up to this moment, she wasn’t even sure that Mr. Kessler knew their names, since the few times he’d called on them, he addressed them as Twin One and Twin Two.
“What are you doing?” He came to loom over her. He held out his hand for her tablet.
As Louise hesitated, hands covering her screen, she saw Jillian quickly copy everything off her tablet. “I was just watching the new Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo video.”
There was a murmur of excitement from the other kids in their class. She cringed slightly as she realized that Elle could and probably would fully explain how she had the new video. Then again, maybe Mr. Kessler was a fan.
“That stupid tripe?” Mr. Kessler snapped his fingers, demanding her tablet immediately. “Those videos are nothing but a glorification of the rich and selfish elf royalty.”
“They are not!” both Louise and Jillian cried.
“It’s believed that there are fewer than ten thousand elves on the whole North American continent, and yet the queen lays claim to all of it. Nine point five four million square miles for just ten thousand selfish bastards. That’s over nine hundred square miles per elf. Alaska’s population density is less than two square miles per human.”
“Mr. Kessler.” Elle waved her hand, making Louise shrink. When he didn’t acknowledge her, Elle pressed on without lowering her hand. “Mr. Kessler, you shouldn’t use the b-word in class. It’s very rude. And what you’re saying is very bigoted. Can we stay on topic?”
Mr. Kessler snorted and handed back Louise’s tablet. He’d deleted all her work and purged her cache. She gasped at the hours of work she might have lost. “I want you to solve the problem on the board, Louise.”
She took a deep breath against the anger boiling in her. He had no right to delete work off her tablet. Yell at her, yes, but not destroy her work, much of which she’d done before his class started. They were only five minutes into class, too; it wasn’t like she’d spent a long time ignoring him.
“Sometime soon.” He pointed at the board.
She glanced to the front of the room. The wall screen had a quadratic equation. She locked her jaw against the first two things that wanted to come out. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, then you agree that this is a class and I am a teacher and if you were paying attention to me you would understand—”
“I don’t understand why you’re asking me to solve that equation. This isn’t math class, and we’re not up to quadratic formulas yet. We’re still doing pre-algebra work.”
“Yes, this is computer literacy class, and if you were listening, you would know—”
“That x is negative four and one?”
“Huh?” Obviously, he wasn’t expecting her to be able to solve the problem since he didn’t recognize the correct answer when she gave it.
“You’re asking me to solve y equals x squared plus three x minus four. The solution is negative four and one.”
He glanced at the board and then at her. “What?”
Did he even know how to solve the problem himself?
“Quadratic equations with two variables have countless solutions,” Louise explained because she suspected he didn’t know. “The answers create a continuous line in the shape of a parabola. The ‘correct’ answer to this equation is the two points where that parabola hits the x-axis: negative four and one. What I don’t understand is why you’re asking us to deal with an equation like this. Our class has just started to graph straight lines. How do you expect anyone to use a computer to calculate this if they don’t know how to check the result? They could get a nonsense answer like ‘forty-two’ and think it’s right.”
He stared at her, slack-jawed, for a moment and then said angrily, “My point is that you should be paying attention to me.”
“I will when you start teaching something I don’t already know.”
He scanned the room, taking in the hostile stares of the other kids. “Fine.” He went back to his desk, deleted the equation from the wall display and typed in a simple addition function. “Reed, can you set up a four-column, four-row spreadsheet that uses this to produce totals in the fourth row?”
* * *
At lunch, the entire fifth grade gathered around their table, worried that Kessler had deleted all their work.
“We saved it.” Jillian pulled it up on her tablet and played what they had finished.
“Wow!” Iggy said when it came to the end. “You did this all during class this morning?”
“It’s only five minutes long, and we’re using a lot of old stuff,” Louise said. “Hopefully people won’t think that someone forged this since it’s all rehash.”
“If we use the new song for Black Willow Wicker, the music would establish the video as one of ours.”
Louise tugged at her hair as she considered the pros and cons. Their soundtracks were heavily influenced by the fusion music of garage bands in Pittsburgh. The groups combined guitar-heavy rock and roll with Elvish musicians playing traditional instruments. When the twins started writing their own songs three years ago, the fusion music was insanely hard to find. They had stumbled across a handful of tracks during a research raid on the Pittsburgh Internet during Shutdown. With their Aunt Kitty being a composer, they knew better than to use the songs without permission. To create their own version of it, though, they had to digitally recreate the off-world instruments. It had taken them months to dig up enough information and code it all in. Since then, fusion music had been discovered by the masses, unfortunately fueled by mass piracy and pale imitations. None of the groups based on Earth could match the twins’ music, because no one else had the right instruments.
The new song for Black Willow Wicker had been written for the humorous battle between Queen Soulful Ember and an army of black willows protesting Hairbrush’s attempts at magical topiary that created a roving flock of boxwood penguins. (“They had to be flightless birds. Flying topiary would have been simply ridiculous.”) Louise used a series of bugle calls starting with reveille to mirror the trees’ strategies. It was bit of geek humor they didn’t expect Harvey to get.
It didn’t quite match the feel of the filler video, but everything from the zalituus horn to the olianuni marked it as one of their pieces. To write and record something else would take days. Louise wanted to get their reply video posted as quickly as possible.
“Yes, let’s use it.” Louise ported in the song and started to fiddle with the video’s story beats to match up with the music. Because the battlefield scene had been punctuated with explosions as the new storyboard, it actually wasn’t as hard as she had thought to make the two mesh together.
“What do we call this one?” Jillian asked. “Thank You for the Shout-Out?”
There was a groaning outcry against the title from the kids around them.
“It’s a Trap!” Ava suggested.
“Where in the World is Nigel Reid?” Iggy said.
“Missing Treasures,” Zahara shouted to be heard over the sudden loud flood of possible video titles.
“Missing Treasures,” Louise repeated. There was a nice double meaning that the queen was missing her original targets, the various treasures, but also that Nigel Reid was going to go missing. “I like that.” Louise glanced to Jillian, who nodded. She quickly created a title screen. The only ending credits that they did were to claim copyright to everything in the video, from the art down to the music, and assigned them to Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo. “We’re ready to load.”
A cheer went up from the other kids. As the boring part of waiting for the video to upload wore on, the other kids scattered to get food and claim tables.
Since they needed to hide their data trail while loading, normally they only loaded their videos to one site, Filmcraft. They never were staff pick, had more than a hundred comments, and never reached the thousand mark of “likes.” The low response was why they never thought they were widely popular. While Jillian uploaded the new video to Filmcraft, Louise did a search for The Queen’s Pantaloons. Where were all these people seeing their videos if not on Filmcraft? The search term brought back over two million hits. Filmcraft wasn’t even on the top page of results. The first hit was YouTube, a site that Jillian considered the ghetto of video sites and they never used and rarely visited. Unlike Filmcraft, YouTube listed the number of times the video was actually viewed. The number made her squeak.
“What?” Jillian asked.
“Five hundred million views!” Louise cried.
“The Queen’s Pantaloons!” Someone using the screen name of JelloShot01 had copied their video from Filmcraft. He had all their other videos, too. In the “recommended videos” on the side was Culotte de la Reine, which was their title translated into French. When she clicked on it, their video started to play with French subtitles.
“You really didn’t know how famous you were?” Iggy asked.
Dumbstruck, Louise shook her head. This explained all the money in the YourStore account. How much more could they make if they advertised? How did they go about advertising?
Zahara returned with three sandwiches and drinks. “Here. I figured you’d want to see it uploaded.”
“Thanks!” Louise wasn’t sure if she should offer money to Zahara. If the food was a gift, it would be kind of insulting to offer it. They had, however, all that money from YourStore. They weren’t the poorest kids in school anymore.
Once it was uploaded, they posted a link at the Pittsburgh Forum under the heading “For Nigel from Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo.”
Louise had left her tablet on the JelloShot01 YouTube channel as they ate. Before lunch was over, Missing Treasures was added to his list and already had fifty thousand views. She stared at it in surprise and dismay. How had they missed that they were this famous?
* * *
Louise spent the rest of the day searching through the rough translation of the codex for some references to the gossamer call while watching the numbers soar on JelloShot01’s channel. Debate broke out on the fan website as to whether this was a real video or a fake created by Nigel. The doubters pointed to the odd posting time, insisting that Lemon-Lime was based on Elfhome and wouldn’t be able to upload during any period other than Shutdown. Others pointed out that if Nigel was working with Lemon-Lime, then he could have arranged for work visas for Pittsburghers. This triggered a spirited debate between people who thought the twins had to be elves and those who believed that they were Elfhome “natives”—Pittsburghers born after the first Startup.
Fifty-three minutes after JelloShot01 copied their video, the first report of the frame-by-frame analysis hit the boards. Louise imagined that she could hear the massive wails of dismay as they discovered the hidden messages. Another twenty-eight minutes and their fans had decided that Lemon-Lime had sought Nigel out in order to raise money to replace their equipment. This completely ignored the fact that Nigel had posted a very public message seeking Lemon-Lime. Another theory surfaced after someone decided to take the video’s storyboard as gospel truth. Obviously, this new camp stated, Lemon-Lime was trying to warn Nigel that he was about to be tricked into a one-way trip to Elfhome. This was quickly refuted by fans that were also followers of Nigel’s work. Apparently Nigel had been fairly public in his attempts to get to Elfhome; the production company that handled his nature documentaries had been denied travel visas by the EIA for several years. His fans also pointed out that Nigel was in New York for the Today Show as part of his pitch to NBC to do a series on Elfhome. Nigel had reached out to Lemon-Lime before the April Shutdown. Lemon-Lime, they theorized, could have left Pittsburgh last month and joined Nigel in New York.
This triggered a furious reexamination of Nigel’s appearance on the NBC morning show and the phrase “hope to be working.” Some stated that this and the video indicated that Lemon-Lime hadn’t agreed to anything. Others claimed that the “hope” meant that Nigel hadn’t locked in the NBC backing yet, and Lemon-Lime was only defending Nigel from the backlash of his shout-out. Yet another group suggested that NBC was waffling on their decision, and Lemon-Lime’s video was an attempt to sway the network by adding their fanbase to Nigel’s.
“Wow, they really overthink everything.” Louise closed the window on the seemingly endless debate. “They’re making it all more complicated than it really was.”
“Maybe,” Jillian said. “We had no idea if it was really Nigel Reid trying to make contact with us and we don’t know why he’s in New York and we didn’t expect such a huge shout-out from him. Face it, we didn’t even know we were famous, and from what I can tell, we’re up there with blockbuster movie stars. Some of what the fans are saying might be right.”
Louise didn’t want to believe that Nigel had used them. He always seemed so genuinely nice on camera. She wanted it to honestly be what it be appeared to be—Nigel had only contacted them to learn something interesting to him. She had to admit that she could be wrong.
“Do you know what really sucks?” Jillian sighed. “If we could go public, then everything would work out. We could sign a movie deal with some big studio and use the money to save the babies.”
Louise’s stomach sunk at the idea of so many people focused on them. “No one is going to offer us a deal. Even if they did, as soon as the studios found out we’re nine-year-olds, they’d back out.”
“I don’t know,” Jillian said. “People in Hollywood make some pretty crazy decisions.”
“We’re still minors. We can’t sign contracts on our own. Mom and Dad would have to agree to anything, and you know what they’ll say.”
“That we should have as normal a childhood as possible,” Jillian growled with frustration. “Alexander was so lucky. Her grandfather didn’t make her be normal.”
“He must know what it was like, growing up and being like us. Mom and Dad are doing the best they can, but they can’t know how boring it is to try to keep at everyone else’s speed.”
“This might be the perfect way to nail a Hollywood deal, and it’s going to just slip away. Everyone loves us now, but how long is that going to last? A year? Two? It’s not going to last until we’re eighteen.”
Louise liked doing the videos, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to do them another eight years. Hollywood was Jillian’s dream. If Louise had a dream that included Hollywood, it’d be doing nature documentaries like Nigel. “Well, maybe not The Adventures of Queen Soulful Ember, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with something just as cool.”
Jillian harrumphed. Being a Hollywood director had been her dream for years. It had to be hard to see the possibility dangle within reach and yet know that she couldn’t claim it. She probably didn’t realize, though, that it made Louise feel so small and unsure beside her. Louise didn’t know what she wanted to be when they got old enough to do anything and everything. She did know she didn’t want to be in front of a camera, having everyone watch her, and she didn’t want to be behind the camera, having to tell everyone what to do. And that knowledge made her feel even smaller.
Hating how she felt, she focused back on searching the codex for information on the gossamer call. There was nothing on gossamers. Not on how they were controlled. Not on how they were created. She flipped through the book, pausing here and there to study the spells traced on the pages. So much to learn, so little time.
They knew that the gossamers were called with whistles. The domana triggered their magic with different words. Every written spell had an activation phrase. Sound seemed to be a basic part of magic. Each domana spell required a different finger position. Using motions and words, the elves operated their bodies like a human did a computer, selecting a spell and running it. No, not like a computer, like an instrument. The finger positions were like the fingering of a flute or guitar. The domana were producing a unique chord with each new gesture and word. Given two hands, ten fingers, two joints on the thumb, three joints on the other fingers, there was a staggering number of possible finger positions.
The written spells in the codex required phrases to trigger them. The phrases worked much like spell locks in that the main function was to keep the spell from activating until the caster wished it to activate. That each spell required a different phrase, though, seemed to indicate that there was more to it than a simple key turning in a lock. Perhaps the sound set up important resonance within the spell components. . . .
So much they didn’t know. Louise sighed and focused on what she did know.
The elves didn’t have slides or valves on their instruments. A whistle with multiple tones then would be fixed and played like a flute or boatswain’s call. The samples of gossamer calls they could find had featured only four tones that they’d already mapped out sine waves for. One was in the high ultrasonic range, but the others stepped down the hertz range to something audible to humans. It seemed to indicate that the gossamer’s hearing was similar to whales and open-water species of dolphins. The Earth sea mammals used low-pitched tones in the seventy-five hertz range to communicate because those sounds traveled farther. They used frequencies in the one hundred to hundred-fifty kilohertz range for echolocation. Humans could only hear up to twenty kilohertz, so it would explain why three of the tones were audible. The twins had noticed that “turn” commands used the ultrasonic tone while the other three sounds triggered “docking” and “wait” activities. Obviously the elves were using instinctual behavior for their commands.
The question remained whether the commands were actually spells printed on the whistle itself or were like the domana-caste, genetically keyed within the gossamer. Considering the limited tones of the whistle and the wide range of words used as commands for both written spells and domana spell-casting, it seemed likely that it was the latter. If that was the case, then the “magic” of the whistle was that it needed to cross great distances in order to trigger the gossamer’s genetically coded spells. Dufae actually discussed in length how the magic “jumped” distances via resonance, which allowed the domana-caste to channel the massive amounts of power from a distant location to where they needed it. He also took great care in determining the exact distance between the mouth and the hands to trigger the domana spells.
Louise flipped back to that section of the codex. Since Dufae was cut off from the Spell Stones, he had developed a set of spells to help him carry out his experiments. The twins needed a whistle that could hit all four tones with a magical spell that could amplify the reach of the instrument.
An hour later, she thought she knew how to build a gossamer call. They wouldn’t even need to use the school’s printer. Of course, until they got a working generator, there’d be no way to test it.
The next day they started the set construction during the joint stagecraft class. Louise had designed the sets so they broke down into many intricate pieces when they were dissembled, requiring three-dimensional models for each part to be understandable. The Darling nursery in a ghetto of New York City. The Neverland forest with trees that umbrella-opened and the Lost Boys’ houses tucked under the roots of the trees. The mermaids’ lagoon where “the ocean” would shimmer blue via a series of holographic projectors. And then, as a grand piece of design, the massive Jolly Roger pirate ship with three masts and rigging, which, of course, had to stay hidden in the wings until the fourth act.
Mr. Howe and Miss Hamilton reviewed the designs as they gathered in the art room while Louise’s heart hammered in her chest.
“This is ambitious,” Miss Hamilton said.
“Are you sure we can get all this work done?” Mr. Howe asked. “We have less than eight weeks now before the show, and we won’t have access to the stage until the end of this month.”
“These are the time schedules I’ve got worked out for the construction.” Louise pulled up the lists. This was the first year that they would use the large auditorium. Every class put on a play; the productions were set up so each class had private use of the stage for only a month. Since the sixth-graders were currently erecting their sets and doing dress rehearsals, their class wouldn’t have access to the stage until that play was over. “As long as we get the materials on time and have access to the machines like the printer. The big one in the annex.”
“What do you need that for?” Mr. Howe asked. “Do you even know how to program it? Normally only seniors work with that for the advanced robotics and science labs.”
Louise pointed out the magic-generator doubles. “These projectors are usually very expensive because they’re very versatile, but if we use the printer to create them with limited functions, we could do the same thing for just a few dollars.”
“And yes, we know how to program them,” Jillian said.
“Why do we even need these?” Miss Hamilton asked.
“The lagoon is supposed to be a bunch of rocks in the water. It’s basically a protected swimming cove. The mermaids are supposed to be slipping in and out of the water. The script calls for Peter and Wendy to attempt to capture a mermaid. She slips from their grasp and swims away.”
“There’s no explanation on how this is supposed to be staged.” Jillian took up the narrative. “We think Barrie meant for the mermaids to enter and exit via trapdoors, but those were banned in New York schools before we were born.”
Mr. Howe frowned, looking off vaguely as if he was considering time. “It really wasn’t that long ago—was it?”
“It was,” Miss Hamilton murmured. “So you’re going to get around needing to have the mermaid just ‘disappear’ by projecting her?”
“Her and three other mermaids in these alcoves.” Louise pointed them out. “Instead of them being stuck in a fairly seated position, we can pre-record part of their performances and splice them in, kind of integrating film and live action.”
“This is just a fifth-grade play,” Miss Hamilton said.
“We’re within budget and time.” Jillian gave her a carefully innocent smile. “And this is the Perelman School for the Gifted in New York City, not a public school in Detroit. It will be a play that will make parents feel like the money they spend on their kids’ education is justified.”
Louise thought Jillian was laying it on too thick and bumped her slightly. Jillian continued to smile brightly at their teachers and bumped her back.
Louise tried to detour the conversation. “These projectors will allow us to basically hand-wave most of the set for the mermaids’ lagoon. We can do a ‘painted’ backdrop of rocky cliffs, kind of what they did for the movie.” She pulled up a print from the Disney cartoon and a photograph of a Hawaiian cliff for comparison. “See, the real cliff has a black rock and the blues of the water as its primary colors. Disney went with a more purple color scheme; I think to suggest a woman’s boudoir. Don’t think we should go that direction.”
“No,” Mr. Howe said.
“Definitely not,” Miss Hamilton said.
Louise closed the Disney print and centered the photograph. “So what I was thinking is blowing up this photo and printing it out on a color printer on the largest sheets of paper our printers can handle. I think eleven by seventeen inches is the largest. This is the cost of the paper, ink, and adhesive.”
“And mount them on . . . ?”
“We do both the nursery and the lagoon as a series of panels that lock together to make a full-size wall. The nursery backdrop will be on one side and the lagoon cliff would be on the other. Panels can be flipped as they’re raised and lowered. This is the break-out of their cost, and here’s the model rendering showing them being raised and lowered.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Mr. Howe said.
Louise nodded, heart still hammering. She knew that she needed to be completely thorough with all of the set design or the teachers would feel as if they would have to watch over every little detail.
The teachers conferred in murmurs and then nodded in agreement.
“Okay.” Mr. Howe clapped his hands. “Let’s get started then.”
Louise gathered her courage by focusing on what she knew well. “I would have liked to work from the largest item down. First step would be creating the walls for the nursery and lagoon. Since we don’t have the panels yet, we can set up work on Marooner’s rock and the Darlings’ beds and the projectors.”
“The projectors are large?” Mr. Howe asked, putting a tremble of fear through Louise.
“No, it’s just that each one will take hours for the printer to create. We start one running now, it should be done by first period tomorrow.”
“I’ll set up crews to handle the rock and the beds,” Jillian said. “And Louise can do the programming of the printer. We need to discuss with Reed how to do the swords, since he’s prop master. And there are a few questions we have on the costumes with Zahara before the sewing starts.”
They’d hoped that everyone would work on the assumption that the twins were interchangeable. Either one of them could do the programming. Louise was better at not getting caught, which made Jillian better at talking her way out of things. Since they would be in adjoining rooms, they figured that it would be best for Louise to handle the printing. If she was caught, Jillian could jump in to talk them back out of trouble. That weekend, in preparation for this class, Jillian had trimmed her hair to match Louise, saying it was so she looked more like Peter Pan.
They gave identical inquiring looks to their teachers.
“She’s Louise?” Mr. Howe asked pointing to the correct twin.
Miss Hamilton paused a moment before answering. “Yes, that’s Louise.”
He picked up two cards and wrote “Louise” and taped it to her. The other went on Jillian with her name printed out. “Okay, let’s roll.”
* * *
The biggest hurdle to making the magic generator was Mr. Kessler. For computer literacy classes he came to their classroom, but the technology room attached to the art room was his official domain. Louise was upset with herself that she’d insulted him the day before. She knew that they would need the printers; she shouldn’t have lost her temper. Considering how he treated them before Louise snapped at him, he probably would have blocked any attempt to use the printer even without her standing up to him. Now it was almost guaranteed that he would try and deny them access to the technology annex.
The twins had debated how to get around Mr. Kessler. Stealth was no longer an option. In retrospect, even if they had started the printing anonymously, odds were he would have killed the print job long before it came to an end. Because of the long run time, they needed hours of uninterrupted access to the printer that only the play allowed them.
Since stealth wasn’t an option, they would have to use what they had.
After the class was engaged in building the one massive Styrofoam Marooner’s Rock and the three Darlings’ beds, Jillian took Zahara and ambushed Miss Gray with innocently worded questions about the mermaid costumes in terms of strategically placed seashells. Within minutes, Miss Hamilton was dragged into the whispered discussion of possibly scandalous wardrobe versus theater traditions. With the other two teachers occupied, Louise was free to corner Mr. Howe and ask him for help with the printer in the annex.
“I don’t know anything about that equipment. You should ask Mr. Kessler for help. He’s in the room right now.”
“He picks on us.” Louise was glad she could be truthful about it. “I don’t know why, but he doesn’t like us. He teases us in front of the whole class.”
Mr. Howe’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Let’s go see Mr. Kessler.”
She couldn’t read his tone. Aware that he towered above her, she led the way to the annex. Did Mr. Howe believe her? Did he think she was making it up? Was she going to be able to use Mr. Howe to counter Mr. Kessler or were the men going to join together to create an adult wall of stupidity?
Mr. Kessler sat at his desk. He looked up sharply as Louise entered. “This equipment is for big kids, shrimp. Shoo.”
Louise took a deep breath and clung tight to her courage. “I need to use the 3D printer in here.”
“There’s one in the art room for you squirts.” He focused on closing up the windows on his desktop.
“I need the advanced model for our joint-class play. The art room one only prints at a hundred-micron resolution.”
“No.” He glanced up and visibly flinched at Mr. Howe at her back. “Bill? Oh, I didn’t see you. Look, my stuff is not toys. I won’t let the ninth-grade kids touch my printer, because they don’t have the programming skills yet.”
“It’s not your printer, Mr. Kessler. It’s the school’s printer.”
“I know how to program it.” Louise held her tablet tight to her chest, afraid he’d try to take it and erase her work. “I made sure to run my job on a simulator to double-check my work.”
Mr. Kessler stood up and paced a moment behind his desk. “Okay. Fine.” He stormed to the 3D printer. “It’s mine in that I have to deal with all the hassles of getting it replaced if it’s broken.”
“It’s a printer for a high school. If it’s that delicate, it shouldn’t be here,” Mr. Howe said. “And if it’s here, my kids have a right to it.”
Louise linked her tablet to the printer. She had really hoped that she could print the magic generator, but not with both men focused so intently on her. She carefully loaded the program to print the holographic projectors. After double-checking she had everything set up, she started the machine. The printer hummed, and the scent of chemicals tainted the air. Otherwise, it barely seemed like the machine was working.
As she fled the room, she heard Mr. Howe growl softly. “You seem to have lost sight that these are little kids, Kevin. You are here to teach, not to casually insult them, and you don’t make them a target by singling them out. If I hear about you picking on any of the kids in my grade, or the school for that matter, I will do my best to see to it you no longer work here. I may even feel it necessary to give you a more personal understanding of the effects of being bullied. Hands-on, so to speak. I trust my position in this matter is clear.”
* * *
Louise was not sure if Mr. Howe had been serious, but Mr. Kessler seemed to think he was. He avoided her and Mr. Howe for the next few days. She wasn’t sure if that meant he’d peacefully allow them access to the printers. Half-expecting him to sabotage the print runs, she did the two hologram projectors first. Only when they finished successfully did she feel confident in attempting to print the magic generator.
While everyone was working attaching the leaves to the first umbrella trees, she slipped away to the technical annex and programmed in the last job.
“This is the last one?” Iggy made her jump by suddenly showing up beside her.
She nodded, not trusting her voice to answer. She focused on making sure everything was set correctly before pressing the start button.
Iggy perched on the edge of the nearest art table. “You don’t like people paying attention to you, do you?”
“No.” She glanced toward the art room and discovered that all the teachers were focused on the rest of the class dueling with the newly made swords. It was the first time she’d ever been alone with a boy and it made her vaguely uncomfortable even though Iggy had been acting like they were friends.
“Most people actually don’t like being in the spotlight.” Iggy swung his legs back and forth, probably unaware that it made him look very much a little boy. He was, though, the oldest kid in both fifth-grade classes. “Sometimes they find ways to keep people from noticing them. Little things. Like not smiling so much, not looking people in the eye. It’s so little that they don’t always realize they’re doing it.”
Was he implying that she wasn’t meeting people’s gaze? Certainly, considering everything she’d been doing lately, she had been trying not to draw attention to herself. Had he just caught her at stealing printer time? He probably didn’t understand the programming, as it was years above what they were doing in class. She closed the window just in case.
“The problem is that those little things work too well,” Iggy said. “People start to ignore you. But because you’re not totally aware of what you’re doing, you start imagining that there’s a good reason that they don’t look at you. You think you’re ugly and awkward and all the horrible reasons why people wouldn’t want to look at you.”
“I don’t . . .” And then she paused, as her breath caught in her chest with the realization that she did. Embarrassment burned up her face. He knew how she felt, like he’d found it written someplace and read all her secrets. “I don’t think I’m ugly.”
“Just not as cute as your sister?”
She ducked her head so he couldn’t see her blinking. Crying in school; only kindergarteners did that.
“Your sister is shy, too.”
“Jillian?” Louise snorted with disbelief. Jillian loved people watching her.
“She doesn’t like people looking at her, but if she can become someone else, have a part she can act, then she doesn’t mind them watching, because they’re not really looking at her.”
“You don’t like acting because you don’t like becoming someone you’re not. That’s why you’re fine with being the stage manager.”
“How do you know? You barely know us. I bet, from behind, you couldn’t even tell us apart.”
“I think I could. Not a week ago, no, but now, yeah. Up to a week ago, you two were like some masked wrestling tag team. The villain type that always cheat by being in the ring at the same time.”
“You watch pro wrestling? You know that’s fake?”
“It’s theater. And yes, I watch it with my dad. I think he’s worried about me growing up with so many sisters, like I might be permanently warped by Barbie dolls and Disney princesses.”
“He’s afraid you might be gay.”
“I’m not! But, yes, in a nutshell, he’s worried I’ll get to like pink too much or something under the pressure . . .” He trailed off, blushing red. “My oldest sister. When she’s home and she’s alone, she’s really beautiful. But as soon as she knows someone is watching, she does all she can to make herself invisible. I didn’t notice, not for a long time. I don’t know when it went from being shy to something else. I saw the cuts sometimes on her arms, but I didn’t understand what they meant.”
Something quietly awful had happened to Iggy’s oldest sister. The details were carefully hidden away, but it involved an ambulance outside the school late in the afternoon and her entire class going through counseling the following weeks.
“I’m not like that.”
“I know you’re not.” He kicked at the table leg. “You’re smart enough to figure it out. If you make yourself invisible, then people can’t see how beautiful you are.”
“You—you think I’m beautiful?”
His eyes went wide, and he blushed red. He hadn’t meant it. He slid down off the table, suddenly focusing hard on his shoes. She looked away, her throat suddenly seeming small and raw.
He started to flee, but he paused by the door. “I—I think you’re like my sister,” he stammered without turning around to look at her. “All alone, you’re beautiful. And I wish someone had been able to convince my sister of that when she was younger. It’s okay to be shy, but by trying to hide, you might start to hurt yourself without even realizing it.”
Jillian was being Peter Pan when the bell rang, announcing the end of last period. She was standing on one of the art room tables, practicing lines of the first scene with Elle as Wendy. Louise paused at the doorway, wondering if Iggy was right, that Jillian could only stand on the table, bigger than life, because at that moment, she was Peter and not Jillian.
Zahara shook her head at the lines. “I’m just saying, if he showed up in some girl’s bedroom in Queens, she’s not going to be all ‘Boy, why are you crying.’ She’d be either hitting him with pepper spray or calling 911.”
“It’s a fantasy!” Elle cried. “What part of fairies and pixie dust are you missing? It’s not operating in our reality.”
“Obviously, the Darlings just moved from some little town in England to New York City.” Giselle held up one sheets of the backdrop graffiti that would be seen through the nursery window. “One of their parents has been assigned a menial government job at the British Embassy. Probably their father. He’s the government type. Their mother is either a daycare aide or works at a Build-A-Bear or something like that.”
“We’ve already changed the play to the point of breaking!” Elle waved her copy of the script. “It’s a classic. It’s like rewriting Shakespeare.”
“People are rewriting Shakespeare all the time,” Zahara said. “And making them newly arrived from some farm town kills the whole ‘not in Kansas’ angle we’re going for with the sets! Our audience will relate more to Wendy if she’s just a little freaked out about having some mental case show up in her bedroom.”
“Maybe Wendy is a mental case, too.” Mason was looking pointedly at Elle. “Or maybe she’s retarded.”
“Mason!” Miss Hamilton pointed at him and gave him “the look” that she used to control anyone that strayed over the line. As he ducked his head meekly, Miss Hamilton waved Jillian down off the table. “School is over. It’s time for all of us to go home. We will discuss making changes to the script tomorrow.”
“Next week we will also be working on choreographing the fight scenes.” Mr. Howe got a cheer. He cut it short by whistling sharply. “Only people who e-mail back signed permission slips this week will be allowed to participate. If your parents don’t reply to the e-mail, you will be given a non-fighting role. And we will be checking against signatures on file, since the chances that one of your parents will sue the hell out of us is too high.”
Jillian had hopped down off the table and hurried over to Louise. Her eyes were full of questions that she couldn’t ask in front of everyone. Louise nodded to the most obvious one; the print job was started. They wouldn’t find out until tomorrow night if the generator worked, and only if they managed to get it home unseen. Jillian grinned brightly and bounced in place.
Iggy fell into step with them going down the stairs to their lockers. He was still blushing and avoided Louise’s glance by focusing on Jillian. Strangely, Jillian shied slightly away from him, looking away.
“You are going to be able to get permission from your parents, right?” Iggy asked.
Jillian shook herself a little, as if putting back on a mask. She looked up, full of confidence. “Of course I will. Our mom wants us to participate in class projects.”
“Are you?” Louise asked Iggy. She had gotten the impression that his parents were very protective of him. Certainly it explained why he’d be worried that someone else’s parents would refuse.
“I’m fairly sure my dad will sign it. Hook is da man!” Iggy waved his left hand with his fingers still in braces.
“How much longer before your fingers heal?”
Iggy eyed his left hand. “We see my doctor next Saturday. The doctor said four weeks, maybe five, so I might get it off Saturday.” He seemed doubtful. “Knowing my mom, though, even if the doctor says they’re healed, she’ll want me to wear it another week or two, just to be sure.”
Which meant it had been more than four weeks since they’d found out about their siblings. It didn’t seem possible that much time had already gone by. They had less than two months now to find the mythical box with mysterious nactka.
They got their jackets. Iggy’s locker was four down from theirs. As Louise activated Tesla, Iggy drifted back to pet the toy’s head.
“Good boy, Tesla, keep them safe.” Iggy waved his broken hand and headed back toward the stairs. “See you next week.”
“’Bye!” Jillian called brightly. Louise forced herself to wave; that’s what friends did, wasn’t it?
Apparently the Chen family was still being paranoid after Iggy’s brush with violence; his sisters were waiting for him at the staircase so the family could go home together. His oldest sister was hunched as if carrying a great weight, head bowed, long bangs covering her face. As Iggy joined them, she looked up, and for one brief moment, she was as beautiful as Iggy claimed. Then she ducked her head as if withdrawing into a shell, vanishing from sight.
“Who were you just now?” Louise asked Jillian.
“When you said good-bye, who were you? Peter Pan?”
“Oh, no, not Peter. He wouldn’t think to say good-bye. He isn’t much on hello, either. I kind of like that about him.”
Tesla tilted his head and said, “Squirrel,” in his little-boy Welsh voice. Both of them jumped with surprise.
“What the hell?” Jillian laughed. “I forgot he could talk! Why did he say that?”
Louise squeaked with surprise. “Oh, I completely forgot!”
“Squirrel,” Tesla said again.
“Alarm off!” Louise pulled out her tablet. “I linked him to the box search so he could wake us up if the result came in during the night.” A squeal of excitement leaked out as a flashing icon on her screen confirmed a positive hit. “We found it! Dufae’s box! We found it!”
* * *
They rode home, heads together over her tablet as Tesla stood guard. Luckily their subway car was blissfully empty. Louise’s spider had found a dozen photographs taken of Dufae’s chest. It matched her CGI sketch perfectly. The pictures were dated from last year. The text explained that the chest had been discovered in the basement of the Louvre. It was labeled “unidentified block of unknown wood with possible Elvish runes,” with a side note that said it had been donated to the museum in 1897.
On that site there was nothing else about the chest, but there were hundreds of other photographs of objects found around the world at various museum and private collections. The common denominator was that they were all suspected of being from Elfhome prior to the first Startup.
“We were right that it must have been common for the elves to travel to Earth,” Louise said.
“But it doesn’t explain why they stopped,” Jillian said impatiently. She pulled out her tablet and started to follow trails of data. “Okay, where is the box now?”
“All these objects are part of a crowd-sourcing project. Oh! The irony!”
“All these objects are linked to Dr. Forthwright,” Louise said.
“Forthwright? Our character?”
“No, the woman we based him on.” They’d changed the woman’s name to hide the fact that they’d raided her personal computer three years ago. Because they often played Forthwright opposite to Prince Yardstick and Director Maynard of the EIA, it felt weirdly sexist to keep the one non-ninja scientist female since they had made the character both extremely nearsighted and often clueless. It was like they were saying somehow that women shouldn’t be intelligent. They’d changed the sex as well as the name of the anthropologist. “Dr. Cassie Banks.”
“Okay, that’s a weird coincidence.”
“Dr. Banks has a sister that works at the Smithsonian. While doing inventory on objects in storage, her sister found a vase labeled ‘Jefferson’s Chinese Vase’ with what appeared to be Elvish runes. She sent photos of the vase to Dr. Banks, who recognized the mark. It’s a stamp that elves use to identify the clan and household who made the item.”
“Jefferson’s Chinese Vase?” Jillian said.
“Maybe they thought the Elvish Runes looked like Chinese characters.”
“They don’t look anything like Chinese!”
“The vase was last cataloged in 1912. They didn’t have the Internet and translation software.”
“It’s the Smithsonian!”
Louise chased data to answer the question instead of theorizing. “They’ve since verified that it did belong to Thomas Jefferson. It was anonymously donated to the Smithsonian in 1898 by someone claiming that his grandfather had stolen it during the Civil War when the Confederates seized Monticello. At the time, they had no way to establish authenticity, so they left it in storage.”
Jillian growled and focused back on her tablet. “But what about the box?”
“All the photos are part of a crowd-sourcing project Dr. Banks started with curators from around the world. They searched their museum storage facilities for buried Elfhome artifacts. Oh! The porcelain vase was thought to be Chinese because of its age. The method of creating porcelain wasn’t introduced to Europe until 1712—”
“What about the box?” Jillian cried. “I don’t care about the freaking vase!”
“I’m looking!” Louise scanned ahead faster. “All the pieces were gathered into one exhibit, and it’s touring! Currently it’s in, oh God, Australia!”
“You’ve got to be kidding! Paris is at least just on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Louise found the exhibition site and then a list of dates and cities that it expected to hit. “It’s coming to New York!”
“Oh, boy, is it ever.” Jillian tilted her tablet so show an article titled Secret Treasures Opening at American Museum of Natural History on June Fourteenth! Sign Petition Now! “This site is run by Earth for Humans, the same group that’s holding the protests against the expansion of the quarantine zone around Pittsburgh. The exhibit has their panties in a knot.”
“June fourteenth! That barely gives us any time. We need to save the babies before the end of June.”
The box had been given the name “Louvre morceau de bois” and careful noninvasive investigations had concluded that the box was solid Elfhome ironwood. The runes were being considered magical in nature, but so far the type of spell hadn’t been determined.
Jillian started to bounce in her seat. “Oh, Lou, this is so cool! They have no idea what it is! They don’t know it opens! The nactka are still inside.”
Louise shook her head, fighting the excitement. “We don’t know that.”
“Even if they identified the runes as a spell lock, the only way to open it is with the keywords. We have the password but they don’t, so they’re not going to get it open.”
“They could cut it open.”
“They think it’s a block of wood! Besides, they’re museum people. They preserve stuff, not smash it open to see what’s inside. What’s even better: they don’t know what’s in the box. We open it up, take everything out, and seal it again and they’ll never know we took anything.”
“Are you serious? Steal from a museum?”
“It belongs to us! The French might be all ‘finders, keepers,’ but they murdered Dufae. He wasn’t a French noble. He wasn’t even human! They killed him just the same. They have no right to this box.”
It all seemed morally clear until she imagined sneaking into the museum like a cat burglar, dressed all in black, to weave through laser-guided security systems and knock out guards. It got all weirdly murky ethicswise, but the idea was scary exciting. How would they knock out guards? Some kind of gas? Where would they get something like that? At their father’s clinic?
Louise found herself laughing with the giddy joy flooding her. They were going to be able to save their siblings! She struggled to contain her giggles; they had so much to do in so little time! “We need to find out everything we can on the American Museum of Natural History.”
When had she become shy?
The next morning, Louise followed Jillian through Lexington Avenue Station trying to pinpoint some unnoticed moment in her life. With all the excitement over finding the chest, she hadn’t thought about her conversation with Iggy until they were weaving their way through the rush-hour commuters. It started as a hyperawareness of all the people around them and the knowledge that in a few short weeks they were going to be robbing one of the world’s largest museums. If people knew what they were planning, they would be staring in disbelief and dismay.
Luckily no one could probably guess, not even given all the time in the world and several broad hints.
So why did Louise feel like cringing every time someone noticed them? They had no hope but to stand out. Jillian had decreed they would wear matching outfits to help pull off switching the real magic generator with a fake they’d printed at home. Jillian had chosen their cutest dresses that made grown woman start talking in abnormally high voices. (“Oh, just look at you! Aren’t you just so cute!” This wouldn’t be so worrisome if it wasn’t the same voice that women used with puppies.) Then there was Tesla, who really was quite massive beside them and at first glance looked real. He wore a big bow about his neck that matched their outfits. (Their excuse if people wondered why they hadn’t left him at their locker was that they wanted to show off the bow.) Jillian sported a huge grin and was skipping with excitement.
Really, the only reason they were being ignored at all was because it was New York City at rush hour.
Once upon a time, the attention didn’t bother Louise. Or to be more specific, it never even occurred to her to notice that she was drawing attention. Looking at her was something people did to see what was in front of them; it was how they kept from stepping on her. She hadn’t been afraid that people would judge her on what they saw.
Was it simply that she had been too young to realize people formed opinions of others? Did the strangers only become frightening when she realized that they might be thinking negative thoughts? And was Iggy right, that the only reason strangers thought Jillian was the pretty one was because Jillian purposely did the “cute act” even as she was doing now? Everyone who noticed the two little identical girls with the big robotic dog would gaze longest at Jillian. She was the one smiling and skipping, whereas Louise probably looked vaguely uncomfortable. Jillian rewarded the strangers with an even bigger grin. Most would end up smiling back, charmed as usual.
Of course in the past, Louise would think the person saw her as less cute, less charming, and she would probably end up looking even more uncomfortable. It was an endless loop. But really, the people smiling at Jillian were probably only thinking about catching their connecting train, getting to work, and whatever difficulties lay ahead of them. Louise had been imagining monsters that didn’t exist.
What started the loop? She had been running the cycle since before they started first grade. Their class photos from that year show Jillian smiling and Louise looking like she wished to be anywhere except in front of the camera. All their early photos, though, she had smiled happily. Kindergarten, then?
It had been an unsettling year. Since they hadn’t attended preschool, the limit of their exposure to other kids had been chance meetings at public parks. Up to kindergarten, other children seemed like very clever puppies. They were something fun to play with but prone to peeing unexpectedly and occasionally biting. If those toddlers could actually talk, the discussions had only been about ownership of supposedly communal property. They barked words like “mine” and “gimme.” Louise could remember vividly that she had been told that she was a girl and that the children they saw most often at the park were boys, and she had come to the conclusion that they were totally separate species, on par with monkeys and people. It was the only way to account for the difference in communication and cooperative play.
When they were four, they started kindergarten. The other children were a lot more verbal, but what they said was rarely nice. There was one girl whose favorite retort was “You’re a ugly face.”
Was that it? Did somehow that nasty little catchphrase dig in and bury itself deep in Louise’s psyche? Or had it been just part of an onslaught that they suffered for being different? They were the only twins. They were the youngest and smallest. And most importantly, they already knew everything. Their mother had spent the first three years of their life attending an online university while being a stay-home mom. It had given the twins access (accidental at first) to classes from basic math to advanced physics. What they hadn’t known was that no one liked a know-it-all. Not even teachers.
Group dynamics had led to a full-out quiet war against them, where the weapons were pointed looks and harsh words. Since no one could call them stupid, everything else was fair game. A new school had promised a restart with a clean slate, but by then the twins were battered and scarred. No one, not even Elle, had been outwardly mean, but that hadn’t stopped the twins from expecting a new attack.
Louise needed to find a way to fight this mental monster that had been lurking inside of her, poisoning her.
She reached out and caught Jillian’s hand for courage. Jillian squeezed her hand hard. She hated the idea that Jillian may have been hurt just as badly by that year but she had never noticed. At least her twin had found a better way of dealing with it.
Louise forced herself to smile. It felt so faked; she was sure she must have been grinning like an evil mad scientist out to take over the world. Skipping did help a little to let her feel strong and brave.
* * *
Miss Gray used the voice. She looked up when they walked into the art room and her voice came out all squeaky with that “oh, little puppy, you’re so cute” tone. “Jillian! Louise! Those dresses are darling.”
And then awareness of who exactly they were caught up with the cuteness, and her look changed to slight alarm. “Jillian. Louise. What are you two doing here so early? And why do you have your dog with you?”
“He matches us!” Jillian said as if it explained everything. She managed to seem unfazed that Miss Gray was in the classroom far earlier than they had expected. Louise’s heart was jumping in her chest out of nervousness.
“Yes, I see, but why are you here so early?” Miss Gray had apparently decided to tackle one issue at a time.
“Our class had a job printing on last night.” Louise pointed toward the Annex. “We wanted to see if it completed correctly and move the item to our class locker before the seniors come in.”
“And the dog?” Miss Gray asked.
“His name is Tesla!” Jillian purposely misunderstood the question. “Miss Gray, we remembered that we forgot about Hook’s hand.”
This was the complete truth. Louise had only thought of it the night before as they got their parents to sign Jillian’s permission slip for the stage-fencing lessons. Part of the fight involved Peter chastising Captain Hook for unfairly using his hook.
Jillian pulled out her tablet and moved to corner Miss Gray. “His left hand needs to be large enough to be easily seen as a hook by the audience. It needs to give the impression of a weapon, so it needs some point to it without it being dangerous to Iggy or anyone he might swing at. It also needs to be lightweight since he needs to carry it the entire play. We’re not sure, though, how to make it without making Iggy’s arm seem super long.”
As Jillian pinned Miss Gray down by sketching out the all-important hook, Louise took Tesla into the next room. Thankfully Mr. Kessler hadn’t arrived yet, so the Annex’s lights were still off. Weak morning sunlight filtered in through the wall of windows. On the top floor of the school, the art rooms looked out over the distant Hudson River. Louise left the overhead lights off and hurried to the 3D printer. The screen was reporting the job completed.
Her hands shook as she opened up Tesla’s onboard storage compartment and took out the fake generator. She set it down on the nearest table. As she took her hands away, she was filled with the certainty that she had put it in the wrong place. She snatched it up and then started to put it down, farther from the table’s edge so it couldn’t fall. It felt even more dangerous, but now that she was paying attention, there hadn’t been any chance it could have fallen from the first place she put it. She slid it forward. When the fake generator teetered on the very edge, the uneasiness disappeared.
She frowned at the precariously balanced fake. That didn’t make sense.
The hallway door was flung open and Mr. Kessler stormed in, flipping on lights. “Stupid freaking steps.” He was panting as if he had just run up all twelve flights. “If I wanted a Stairmaster workout, I’d get a gym membership.”
He hurried to his desk, logged onto his desktop, and quickly pulled up several windows, muttering, “Come on, come on.”
What should she do? It was obvious he didn’t realize she was in the room. She hadn’t gotten the real magic generator out of the printer. The fake was sitting out in plain sight. She was going to get caught! Should she try and hide the fake, or hope that Mr. Kessler didn’t notice that there was something still in the printer?
In the art room, Jillian did something that made Miss Gray raise her voice.
Kessler looked up, saw the open door, and hissed in surprise and anger. He jerked around to stare at her, the hiss becoming an explosive “Shit! What are you doing in here?”
“Me?” she squeaked as she slid sideways, blocking the view of the printer since she couldn’t shove the fake back into Tesla without being caught. “I was just getting our job out of the printer.”
“You’re not supposed to be here alone. You shouldn’t even be here with that big ape of a teacher. And what the hell is that thing you have in there?”
“You took it out?” Even as she said it, Louise remembered that the status light was still on, which it wouldn’t be if he’d taken the generator out of the printer.
“I checked your code with the teacher-access option.” He kept coming like a freight train without brakes. “The school board has made it clear that it will be my head on the chopping block if a kid used the printer to make bombs, drugs, or porn. Drugs or porn? What a complete joke.”
Louise backed up until she was pressed against the printer, stunned and dismayed. What could she say? The magic generator was just the tip of the iceberg. Alone, it would probably seem harmless. The danger to their plans was anyone digging deeper into their activities. The scope of their plans would probably stay unfathomable even with the generator’s discovery, but it would mean that they were watched closer and every action questioned.
“I took it out already.” She pointed a trembling finger at the fake.
“I don’t know what the hell you were trying to make, but this isn’t a holographic projector like—” He started to reach for decoy generator.
There was a sudden loud roar, and the world shuddered. The fake toppled from the table. Louise squeaked in surprise, reaching out to catch it and then jerking her hands back as she realized that she wanted it to fall, wanted it to break. Her heart leapt and jerked as Mr. Kessler nearly caught it. It tumbled in his fingertips and crashed to the floor, smashing into dozens of pieces.
“Oh no!” Louise cried as she was filled with the sense that something horrible had just happened. “What was that?”
All the lights flickered and then went out, leaving them in the dim morning light. Outside, a dozen car alarms wailed and smoke billowed up from somewhere below. Mr. Kessler froze in place, staring at all the broken plastic littering the floor.
She hurried to the window and looked out.
Twelve stories down, people were littered on the ground like a collection of dolls ravaged by the neighbor’s dog. The twisted wreckage of a large box truck sat burning. An explosion had gutted the building across the street, revealing an interior twisted beyond recognition as the façade tore away. Paper drifted like autumn leaves in the black oily smoke.
Mr. Kessler joined her at the window, mouth working but nothing coming out. Finally he managed to force out. “No. No. This is wrong. What could have happened?”
“Warning,” Tesla said in his little Welsh schoolboy voice. “A bomb has been detonated within the city block where I’m currently located. Warning: a ten-alarm fire has been reported within the city block where I’m currently located. Warning: a 911 call reporting multiple injuries has been made from the building where I’m currently located. Initiating emergency response.”
Louise had no clue to what “emergency response” might be, but it didn’t sound good. Tesla probably could drag her out of the building and back home. Most likely, though, it would be safer to stay in the Annex. . . . She squeaked as she remembered what she’d been in the middle of. Oh no, the magic generator was still in the 3D printer!
Tesla padded out from behind the art table and scanned the room until he spotted her. “Primary target found.”
She pointed at him and in her most level tone commanded. “Cancel emergency response.”
Tesla tilted his head. “Primary target appears unharmed. Cancelling emergency response.”
Louise glanced at Mr. Kessler. The man was rubbing his face as he gazed down in horror at the street below. He was safely beyond sane action.
She hurried to the printer and fumbled with the locks. She glanced toward Mr. Kessler to make sure he was still at the window; his hands had crept up to grip his hair. She jerked open the printer.
She had expected the magic generator and the fake one to look like a diamond and a cut-glass gem, with only an expert able to tell the difference at a glance. The fake had been the same size, shape, and general color, but now, having seen the real one, she knew that the fake wouldn’t have been mistaken for the real one. It was more like sterling silverware and plastic. The fake had looked like five dollars of melted plastic. The magic generator gleamed with perfection.
Gritting her teeth, Louise eased the generator out and gingerly placed it in Tesla’s storage. She shut the lid and redid the locks hidden by his fur.
Downstairs there was an odd sound, growing louder. As she listened, she realized it was children shouting and screaming.
The PA clicked on and Principal Wiley said, “All students are to report to their homeroom immediately. Teachers are to take attendance and report all absences. No one is to leave the building. I repeat. No one is to leave the building. All students are to report to their homeroom so attendance can be taken.”
He said nothing about injuries. Who had called 911? Who had been hurt? It was still another ten minutes until the homeroom bell. Anyone could have been out on the street when the blast went off.
Jillian ran into the room. “Lou! Lou!”
Louise reached out and gripped her twin’s hand tightly. “I’m okay.”
Miss Gray came into the room. “Louise. Jillian. You need to report to your homeroom.” Her voice quavered; a frightening thing to hear in an adult. Then again, Miss Gray hadn’t been “an adult” for very long. At the moment, she looked no older than some of the senior students. “Mr. Kessler? Kevin?”
Mr. Kessler turned from the window, his mouth still open in soundless protest to what he was seeing.
“The windows blew out on the first floor,” Miss Gray said. “A lot of the children were hit with flying glass.”
Mr. Kessler blinked at them. “What?”
“Go to the first floor!” Miss Gray cried and caught Louise’s shoulder. “Come on. We need to go now.”
“Miss Gray, we know first aid. Our father is a medical technician.”
“You need to go to your homeroom.” Miss Gray steered them toward the stairways. “First things first. Miss Hamilton has to know that you’re here and safe before you can do anything.”
They went down the stairs without talking, seven flights, the crying on each level growing louder. Each floor was a lower grade. Younger students. Closer to the destruction on the street. With each step down, Louise wondered, “Who would do this?” The gutted building had been nondescript, with offices on the upper floors and a failed art gallery on the first floor. Nothing that seemed to warrant a bomb of that level. What was the real target of the bombers?
When they reached their floor, Mr. Howe and Miss Hamilton were in the hallway.
Mr. Howe was shaking his head but then pointed toward them. “There they are.”
“Oh, thank God, they weren’t out on the street!” Miss Hamilton pointed across the hall to Mr. Howe’s room. “We’ve moved rooms.” Mr. Howe’s windows looked over the auditorium’s roof toward the school’s loading docks and the back alley. The teachers didn’t want them seeing what was on the street, barely fifty feet away.
Miss Hamilton reported, “Room 501, all students accounted for,” via her headset as she herded them into the room. Mr. Howe, however, headed downstairs to help with the younger children hurt by the blast.
“We can help,” Louise said. “We know first aid. Our father is a medical technician.”
“No, that’s very good of you, but no. This is our responsibility.”
“We took the first-responders test.”
“And probably aced it; yes. I know. You two are very, very smart, but you’re still children. I know this might be hard for you to understand, but it is the right of every child to grow up innocent. And it’s the duty of adults to protect that innocence.”
Louise eyed her with confusion. “Is this a sex talk?”
“No, it’s not about sex. This is about growing up enough that you can make wise and intelligent decisions for yourself instead of having decisions forced on you. It’s something that being smart doesn’t help you with without time to know yourself and the world around you.”
“But we can help.”
“You can’t be a child if you’re being an adult for another child,” Miss Hamilton said. “You can’t be a child and make life and death decisions for another child. And for me to allow you to be put in a situation where you have to act as an adult, I’d be denying your right to your full childhood.”
“We know what to do—”
“Yes, I know. And the fact that you don’t understand what I’m trying to explain just makes it all the more important that I do my duty and protect you. Now, go sit down.”
Zahara was waving at them. Her little brother from kindergarten was clinging to her. Her eyes were bloodshot with tears. She hugged them tight, her whole body shaking. She didn’t seem anything like the girl they knew, usually so calm and sure. It was like her little brother had sucked away all that was Zahara and left something fearful in her place. Was this why Miss Hamilton wouldn’t let them go downstairs?
“We were late,” Zahara cried. “We had just started up the stairwell to the first floor when it blew up!”
“It’s okay,” Louise said. “You’re not hurt.”
The frightening thing was how easily she could have been killed.
As if the blast had blown away all thoughts, they didn’t remember the magic generator until late that night. By unspoken agreement, they were both in Louise’s bed, after a long, hot bath to scrub away the lingering smell of smoke.
Jillian suddenly sat up with a gasp. “Did you get it?”
“Huh?” Louise had been already dreaming. She was babysitting several dozen of their baby siblings who all looked like Jillian miniatures. The babies were taking turns using the gossamer call and they had a host of monsters trying to break into the house. Louise was chasing the babies through the house, trying to get the whistle off them while arguing with a 911 operator who wouldn’t believe that they had a black willow in the backyard. She wasn’t sure if Jillian meant the whistle or the operator’s cooperation, or film for Nigel Reid as evidence that the monster call actually worked. “Get what?”
“It!” Jillian cried and pointed at Tesla parked stoically in the corner of their bedroom. In a sign of how rattled the bombing had made their parents, they had hinted that the twins could sleep with them, something that the twins hadn’t done since they were five. Secretly, Louise wanted to but she knew that their mother needed to get up early. She suggested a compromise of leaving Tesla on guard instead of setting him to privacy mode that shut off all his spy hardware.
Louise blinked sleepily at the robotic dog for a minute before understanding sunk in. “Oh! Oh, that! Yes, I got it.”
Jillian threw off the blankets and scrambled out of bed.
“He’s still broadcasting!” Louise whispered.
“I know.” Jillian got her tablet and hacked into Tesla’s systems. “There, he’s looping the feed from two minutes ago.”
“What about the time stamp?”
“I fixed that. Don’t worry.” Jillian tossed her tablet onto her bed and went to open Tesla’s hidden storage compartment.
“We’ll have all tomorrow to play with that.” School officials had decided to suspend classes since the city had closed the street down.
“I want to see if it works. Besides, Aunt Kitty will be here babysitting us, and she’s not going to let us ‘play quietly in our room.’ She’ll want to do fun things.”
Louise had to admit that was true.
Their grandmother had been a firm believer that love made a family, not blood. She’d taken in her daughter’s best friend, Kitrine Green, when the teenager’s mother chose her drug-dealer boyfriend over her child. Despite being poor, their grandmother had supplied Kitrine with an electronic keyboard and encouragement to follow her dreams. Now a successful composer and songwriter, Aunt Kitty had an extremely flexible work schedule and often acted as their emergency backup parent. Her babysitting, though, came at the price of entertaining her.
When they were little, she told them that she was their fairy godmother, appearing as if by magic with plastic glass slippers and costume-ball gowns. Their first introduction to creating videos came on Aunt Kitty’s visits as they acted out fairy tales complete with original scores. Lately they had found themselves at fascinating places like behind the scenes of a Broadway musical production, or at a recording studio, or at the NBC television studios. Aunt Kitty would think that the twins were truly upset by the bombing if they resisted any adventure that she could cook up.
And if their parents thought they were emotionally troubled, there be no privacy for them until they’d “dealt with the trauma.”
“What should we use to test it?” Louise slipped out of her bed.
“The ley line mapping spell.” Jillian pulled out the package of transferable circuit paper they’d ordered online. The printer that could use the paper to print out digital circuits was hidden in the back of their closet. They were quickly running out of hiding spaces.
“It’s not going to find any ley lines.”
“Probably not, but we could be sitting on top of one of those fissures that Dufae talked about and never know it.”
“In Pittsburgh, weird things happen around ley lines, especially with machines. Metal conducts magic, and it does nasty things to active spells.”
“It’s the one spell we know works with the generator. Kensbock used it to test his prototype.”
Which would be more comforting if he hadn’t vanished into thin air shortly afterwards. It had been his invention that caused his disappearance, not the spell he used.
Jillian continued on, getting the printer out of the closet. “We should make sure that our work environment is magic-free prior to any large-scale experimentation.”
Jillian had a point and of all the spells they could cast, the mapping spell was probably the safest. Louise abandoned her reluctance with a sense of relief and growing excitement. They were going to cast their first spell!
Louise quickly copied the spell for printing while Jillian loaded the paper into the printer.
“Okay, hit it!” Jillian whispered with excitement.
Louise hit “print” and—the longest thirty seconds that Louise had ever experienced later—the printed spell came out. “Okay, now we need to get the pastry board.”
Dufae had spent a page talking about building his spell-casting room. He needed a stone surface to act as insulator. Dufae had bought several four-foot by twelve-foot slabs and laid them as a floor, complaining about the seams he needed to bridge on the larger spells. The twins had ordered a twenty-four by eighteen inch white marble pastry board that weighed a whopping thirty-six pounds. It had taken both of them to carry it upstairs and hide it between Jillian’s mattress and box spring.
Getting it back out was harder than Louise expected. Things at rest stayed at rest, especially with a twin-size mattress on top of it.
“If we just had a pulley and a rope . . .” Jillian whispered.
“. . . Mom would bitch at us for putting a hole in the ceiling!” Louise finished. “Wheel your chair over, we’ll use that.”
“We can just put it on the floor.”
“We need to plug the generator in.”
Jillian swore softly. “How long is the plug?”
Kensbock designed the generator with a stupidly short 220 plug. The only 220 outlet in the house was in the basement for the dryer. They had bought a step-up-and-down voltage converter transformer. Unfortunately, it too had a short plug.
“We need to make this a battery-powered unit,” Louise whispered.
“Yes!” Jillian cried in agreement.
“Shhh!” If they got caught with evidence scattered all across their bedroom, they’d be so grounded.
Jillian slapped hands over her mouth.
They froze in place. Jillian’s eyes flicked right to left a million miles per second as she thought up lies to cover what they were doing, just in case. After two minutes, it was obvious that they hadn’t been heard.
All told, it took them half an hour to get the pastry board within range of the plug, the protective sheet peeled off the printed circuit, the spell carefully positioned on the marble, and the transformer plugged in. After a great deal of consideration, because the magic generator didn’t have an on/off switch, they decided to connect the leads to the spell prior to plugging it in. Since Louise had more experience with the soldering iron from set making (still something their parents didn’t know), she connected the leads to the spell. She had noticed that some of Dufae’s spells were used for healing—how would they connect the leads to that spell without burning the patient? Obviously they would have to use something like clay or paste.
Finally it was time. They plugged in the generator. Louise noticed nothing different, but Jillian gave a slight “Oh” of surprise.
“Is it working?” Louise asked.
Louise frowned at the generator, wondering how Jillian could be so sure.
According to the codex, each spell needed a certain frequency of magic to operate. Apparently, naturally occurring magic was like light in that it contained a wide spectrum. Written spells used a narrow frequency to both limit and channel power. Dufae’s description of “dirty magic” probably was because the magic that leaked across consisted of constantly shifting frequencies. It would be like trying to use a flashlight as someone kept switching the type of batteries. Dufae complained about the fact that his “magic cleaning system” gave him one steady source of magic at the cost of being limited to one frequency. Luckily for the twins, the next section of the codex was devoted to taking that one frequency and stepping it up or down via translation spells that Dufae created through trial and error. Because of it, every spell in the book was available to them.
Louise wondered how Kensbock ended up matching his generator to the one spell in his possession. Had he set the generator to the spell? Or had he rejected several spells before finding one that matched his output? The more she thought about it, the more she felt sure that his kidnapper had selected the spell and given it to him on a silver platter. Someone had been tracking his progress and acted quickly after he reached a successful conclusion. Kensbock had made extensive notes on everything, except where he had found the spell. Dufae had noted that the spell was one of the first ones taught children; he’d dissected and reconfigured it in trying to deal with his situation on Earth with the dirty magic. Had Kensbock been given it because it was so simple—or because it matched the frequency of another spell? If Louise had been the one manipulating the man, it would be the latter. But what spell would it be?
“Lou?” Jillian whispered.
“Are you okay? You look like someone hit you with a cattle prod.”
“Lights are on, but no one’s home,” Jillian whispered.
Louise shook herself. “I’m fine.”
Jillian watched her closely for another minute before leaning down to inspect the spell. Dufae stressed that the lines of the spell had to be solidly drawn without blemishes and that all conductive material, even fine dust, must be kept clear of the tracings. Jillian gave two thumbs up to indicate that they were ready to activate the spell. She turned her right hand sideways and tucked in her thumb to make a fist.
Jillian wanted to play “rock paper stone” to see who activated the spell.
Louise clenched her jaw in frustration. Part of her felt like she should let Jillian do it since obviously her twin wanted to—but she wanted to too. Jillian gave her a look that was a clear mix of impatience and confusion. Louise jerked up her fist.
Five games later—because Jillian was a sore loser—Louise took a deep breath and spoke the activate phrase as loudly as she dared.
The black lines of the spell suddenly gleamed like gold light. Jillian gasped. A glowing sphere rose over the spell and a confusion of landmasses and rivers and buildings took form in ghostly holographic perfection.
This of course called for a Dance of Joy, which consisted of leaping from bed to bed, with silent screams of delight.
Several minutes later, they were able to examine the spell in relative calm.
Louise was used to seeing the map of New York City as a clean, orderly collection of lines and labels with Manhattan at the center. This was a tiny exact miniature with their house in Astoria smack in the middle. The northern edge was the Bronx, and the western edge was a thin slice of the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River. The southern tip was just beyond East River Park.
“What’s that?” Jillian pointed at an area of featureless terrain.
“Some kind of park in . . . Flushing?”
Jillian scooted away from the spell and got her tablet to compare it to a map of the city. “It’s Corona Park.”
“Dufae said that ley lines were denoted by blue lines, the width and brightness indicating—oh no!” Louise jerked the plug of the transformer out of the wall outlet and the gleaming spell collapsed.
“Mom and Dad!” Louise slid the marble slab across the floor and under her bed, vaguely aware that she ripped the leads free.
Jillian quickly set the transformer and generator into the shadows under her desk and scrambled into bed with her. They lay side by side under the covers, trying not to pant, feigning sleep.
“Are you sure?” Jillian whispered after a minute of silence.
“Shhh,” Louise breathed, eyes closed tight.
A moment later, the door latch clicked open. A slant of light spilled into the room from the hall as their parents silently looked in on them.
Jillian faked a restless turn, threw her arm over Louise’s shoulders and pressed her forehead to Louise’s. They probably looked like sleeping angels. If Louise weren’t so scared, she would have started to giggle.
“Oh, they’re so cute,” their father murmured.
Normally their mother would snort at his naïveté. This time she said, “Yes, they are,” in a voice that was close to tears.
The door closed as quietly as it had opened. Louise felt at once relieved and horrible that they’d fooled their parents. Jillian started to shake with silent laughter. She rolled onto her back, hands against her mouth to keep the giggles in.
Louise smacked her.
Jillian leaned close and whispered into her ear. “We’re elves! We did magic!”
Despite everything, the words shimmered through her, bright and joyous. They were elves. They did magic. Surely anything was possible, even saving their baby brother and sisters.
Aunt Kitty was in the kitchen the next morning, making French toast, her one and only dish. She was wearing three-inch heels, tight black leather pants, and a bright yellow blouse that accented her dark ebony skin. “You have to not let her get to you.” Aunt Kitty waved a spatula, making all her many gold bracelets chime like a tambourine. “You control how you feel, not her. She can try and make you feel things, but if you don’t let her, then she’s not going to succeed.”
Louise paused on the stair’s landing, aware that she was interrupting a private conversation. She sat down on the top step, leaning forward so she could see her mother standing in the corner, glaring into her coffee.
“Do not quote my mother to me.” Her mother was dressed for work in a quiet business suit and low heels. She was still half a foot taller than her “adopted” sister.
“Why not? She was the smartest woman I ever met.” Aunt Kitty lifted a corner of the toast and checked to see how done it was. “Anna Desmarais is simply a paranoid racist. You control you, and you’re not going to allow yourself to sink to her level.”
“And I’m not supposed to be angry that she’s involved my kids?”
“Oh, come on, you’re saying that your girls wouldn’t jump at a chance to go to this? You know how much Jillian likes everything connected to movies. And they wanted to go to the Today Show to see Nigel Reid and you wouldn’t let them. You know how much Louise would have loved to meet him. You’re going to tell her that you’ve got tickets to this and you’re not taking her?”
Louise yelped with excitement and charged down to the kitchen. “What tickets? To some kind of event? Will Nigel Reid be there?”
Her mother sighed loudly, shaking her head. “Oh, now you’ve done it.”
Aunt Kitty laughed and flipped the French toast.
“Mom!” Louise cried.
“Anna Desmarais has given me four tickets to NBC’s charity gala in June. They’re going to have a lot of their network stars there and a handful of ‘special appearances’ like Nigel Reid.”
“Really?” Louise squealed. It was hard to rein in her excitement, but obviously her mother didn’t think it was wonderful news. “What’s wrong with the tickets? Are they fake?”
“They’re real tickets.” Their mother sighed into her coffee. “Honey, sometimes when people suddenly start acting all nice to your face, you have to start looking for knives behind their backs. After all this . . .” She caught herself about to swear and covered by sipping her coffee. “After calling me a thief, and dragging us through two audits in an attempt to find proof, Desmarais gave me nearly a thousand dollars’ worth of tickets.”
“The woman is married to a billionaire,” Aunt Kitty pointed out with her spatula. “Everywhere she goes, she rides in that big limo with two drivers when the car can bloody drive itself. A thousand dollars is nothing to her. It’s probably what she pays to keep her hair that blond and beautiful at her age.”
“She says she doesn’t dye her hair.”
Aunt Kitty snorted. “You know what your mother would say to that? ‘Maybe she was born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.’ Seventy and still blond? No, she dyes.”
Her mother pointed at Louise. “Don’t you ever repeat that.”
Aunt Kitty served out the toast to Louise and her mother and started a second batch.
Louise wanted to beg and plead to go to the event. It would be the perfect opportunity to give Nigel the gossamer call without the risk of meeting him privately someplace. (Not that she was scared he would do anything, but their mother would simply kill them if she found out.) “Maybe Mrs. Desmarais is sorry about how she treated you, and that’s why she gave you the tickets.”
Her mother sighed, drank the rest of her coffee, and rolled up her French toast so she could carry it. “I need to go. We’ll talk about this later.” She kissed Louise on the forehead and waved the toast at Aunt Kitty. “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver.” In the foyer, she paused to shout upstairs. “George, you’re going to be late. Jillian, come down for breakfast!”
Normally she would have left without waiting for Jillian to answer, but instead she stood at the bottom of the steps until Jillian came trotting down with Tesla on her heels. She kissed Jillian good-bye and gave her a hug.
Jillian came into the kitchen, so bright-eyed that she positively radiated “I’ve got a plan.” She came to lean against the back of Louise’s chair, presenting a united front. “Aunt Kitty, can we go to the Museum of Natural History today?”
“The museum? Really? I thought you would want to relax at home or go to the movies.”
“Nothing good is playing,” Jillian complained truthfully. “And the museum has this exhibit on the Alpha Centauri colony that we just found out about.” Again, truthfully as they had started to research the AMNH just two days ago. “It’s only there for a few more weeks. We really want to see it!”
Aunt Kitty looked to Louise to see if it was truly a joint decision.
Louise nodded slowly. They had planned to go alone to the museum to examine camera placements and security measures—things not easily found on the Internet. The bombing changed everything. The image of people scattered on the ground like broken dolls flashed through her mind and she shuddered.
“Are you okay, Lou?” Aunt Kitty gathered Louise into a hug.
“I’m fine.” Louise had to be okay or everyone would start watching them closely. Normally the television would have been on, playing their parents’ newsfeed. Obviously it was off because all the news was focused on the bombing and their parents didn’t want them upset by it. “I just want something to think about that doesn’t have anything to do with—with that.”
Aunt Kitty hugged her tighter. “It’s okay to be upset. Most people would be.”
“We’re fine,” Jillian said in Peter Pan’s carefree voice. “None of our friends were hurt. It was a bad thing, but it’s over.”
Their father careened into the kitchen, hair sticking out in every direction, looking like a startled scarecrow. “Louise. Jillian. Are you two okay? Is everything all right?”
“We’re fine, Daddy,” they said.
He combed both hands through his straw hair, making it stick out even more. “I should stay home.”
“I got this covered,” Aunt Kitty said. “Go on. The last thing this family needs is one of you losing your job.”
He gazed at the twins as if they’d been horribly wounded by the bomb.
“Daddy, go!” Louise pulled out of Aunt Kitty’s hug to give him a push. “We’re not even going to stay home. We’re going to the museum.”
“Aunt Kitty is going to get us each something from the gift shop!” Jillian stated as fact.
Aunt Kitty laughed. “Oh, am I?”
“And we’ll have pizza for lunch!” Jillian continued with the list of treats for the day. “And we’ll bring home Thai takeout.”
Louise looked at her twin with surprise. What was this greediness?
“Guess I can’t compete with that.” Their father nevertheless looked more relaxed at the idea of leaving. Jillian must have guessed that the adults would believe they weren’t too upset if they were trying to milk the day for all it was worth. He took out his phone. “Here, let me give you some money to cover—”
Aunt Kitty waved off the offer. “No, this my treat to them. I missed their birthday because I was buried in work. Let me play best aunt ever.”
“Thank you. Call if there’s any problems.” He gathered them both into one big hug, kissed them each on the temple, and went without breakfast or coffee.
* * *
It was impossible to avoid news on the bombing. Everyplace they went had newsfeeds spilling out updates. Everyone they brushed up against was talking about it. By the time they reached the 59th Street–Columbus Circle Station, they had learned that authorities had determined that the bomb had been in a truck rented by Vance Roycroft, who had ties to the radical group Earth for Humans. His target apparently had been an art gallery about to open in the building across from their school. Because of the riots, the owners had been careful not to draw attention to the fact they would be selling only artwork from Elfhome. There had been crate upon crate of elf-made pottery, woodcarvings, and clothing. The newsfeeds carried photographs of the artwork. As with most things Elvish, the pieces were exquisite and one-of-a-kind, handcrafted by people that had forever to master their art and the time to create stunning individual pieces.
Roycroft had attempted to pull into the alley behind the art gallery. Finding it blocked by a broken-down garbage truck, he’d double-parked in front of the building and walked away. Judging by the remains of the truck, police were able to determine that the bomb had been in a shipping crate identical to the ones that gallery used, complete with EIA paperwork from the Pittsburgh border. They theorized that Roycroft initially meant to deliver the bomb as a package delayed by customs. They also believed that detonation was controlled remotely by someone other than Roycroft who didn’t realize that the delivery had gone astray. While the blast had been designed to do structural damage, it didn’t contain shrapnel to cause harm to humans. If the bomb had detonated inside the gallery, police speculated, there would have been no loss of life.
Citing this “limited scope of intended damage” and the fact that authorities had already traced Roycroft’s movements to Adirondack Park in upstate New York, the authorities had decided not to shut down the city.
Ironically, none of the targeted artwork had been damaged. The shipping crates and a state-of-the-art fire-suppression system had protected all the pieces. There was an odd undercurrent to the words used to describe the art gallery. The newsfeed repeatedly mentioned that the gallery was empty—except for the art—and heavily insured because of the riots.
“They’re not saying it in so many words, but it’s like they think the original plan would have been acceptable,” Louise grumbled as they waited for the C train. Vance Roycroft’s face remained on the wall while the feed continued with updates on the manhunt for him, along with factoids on the massive state park.
“Why blow up an art gallery in the first place?” Jillian complained. “It’s stupid.”
Aunt Kitty agreed. “Um-hmm. If they were smart, they would have figured out a better way to make their point than with a bomb. The Waldorf Astoria and the UN building are both well protected. They must have decided that the art gallery was a safe Elfhome substitute.”
“Safe for them,” Jillian muttered darkly and then leaned close to Louise for comfort. It made Louise angry that this stranger had blindly lashed out in such a stupid, selfish way.
“The elves won’t ever know about this bomb!” Louise cried. “Humans bought the artwork on Elfhome and brought it to New York City. The elves were already paid; they’re out of the equation. The only people who are going to be impacted are humans. And besides, the elves have nothing to do with how big the quarantine zone is—the UN negotiated the space between the United States and the rest of Earth’s countries.”
“Exactly,” Aunt Kitty said. “The terrorists are protesting the expansion of the zone, and that’s controlled by a vote of the United Nations ambassadors, who are all right here in New York City.”
“They’re trying to control the vote? By blowing up children? If I was an ambassador, I’d be pissed off that someone nearly hurt my kid.”
The C train rumbled into the station, blocking the annoying newsfeed. For a few minutes they focused on getting on. Interestingly, the change in security level made Tesla much more aggressive in keeping between them and other people.
Once they got settled, Aunt Kitty asked, “Are there children of ambassadors in your school?”
“Yes. Several,” Louise answered. “We’re one of the top private schools in the city. I certainly wouldn’t vote in favor of anything if my kid were one of the kindergarteners hit by flying glass. Certainly everyone knows that if their kid was running late for school, they could have been killed in the street. When I was asked to vote, I’d say ‘screw those idiots’ and expand the quarantine zone. It wasn’t the elves that put Pittsburgh on Elfhome. It wasn’t elves that were logging the quarantine zone. It wasn’t elves that brought that artwork to New York. This is all a mess that humans made.”
Aunt Kitty nodded and gathered Louise close. “I know, honey bear. People don’t always think that clearly when it comes to hate. These terrorists hate elves, so their first target will always be something related to them.”
At some point along the way, unnoticed by Aunt Kitty or Louise, Jillian had gained a big bandage just above her left eye. To strangers, Jillian probably looked like a poor little war orphan. To Louise, the bandage gave Jillian pirate flair.
As the museum security stopped them at the entrance because of Tesla, Jillian explained with a convincing waver in her voice, “After what happened at our school yesterday, we feel safer with him. Can’t we please keep him with us?”
Aunt Kitty eyed the bandage with hidden dismay, but played along. “They go to Perelman. The bomb was right across the street. They had a rough day yesterday and wanted to do something to take their minds off the explosion.”
The girls had to produce their Perelman School for the Gifted student ID badges to verify this claim. After a quick conference with the powers that be and a search of Tesla’s storage chamber, they were allowed to take their “beloved” nanny-bot into the museum.
“Girl, you are going to be dangerous when you’re eighteen.” Aunt Kitty seemed torn between dismay and amusement. “Turn the world upside down and inside out.”
“I’m really hoping that I don’t have to wait that long,” Jillian said.
Aunt Kitty laughed then.
Louise cringed inside. She hated that they had to lie to their aunt. In many ways, she was a cohort in crime, but only to a point. Much as she loved to kidnap them away for adventures, she always kept in mind that they weren’t her kids. She carefully never crossed any line that their mother set. Thus she never gave them Coke to drink, never let them stay up past their bedtimes, and never, never would let them rob a museum.
They’d programmed Tesla to search out security cameras and map out their field of vision. With what he was recording, they hoped to be able to find all the blind spots in the museum. His optic system abided by the museum rules on cameras since he wasn’t using a flash. If the security people had known how his guidance system could be exploited, they probably wouldn’t have allowed him to enter the building.
The twins picked up maps handed out at the ticket booth and glided upstairs on the escalators. Everywhere Louise looked, there was a security guard. The colony exhibit was in the Special Exhibition Gallery 3, which would also be the site of the Elfhome’s Lost Treasures. Judging by the maps they’d studied a few nights ago, the museum chose it because it was the largest space for traveling exhibits.
“You really wanted to see this?” Aunt Kitty asked as they pondered the first display.
“Yes.” Jillian hesitated and then said in what sounded like the truth but wasn’t, “We really thought it would be more interesting than this. And it closes at the end of the month, so this was almost the last chance to see it—just in case it was more interesting.”
The first display was a very detailed model of the Chinese hyperphase gate in orbit. It looked very much like a bicycle wheel with a large inner ring that was the gate part of the station. Dozens of thin spokes connected the inner ring to an outer one where the crew lived. The long, slender needle of a colony ship was poised to thread through the eye of the gate and jump to the Alpha Centauri star system. A sign identified the ship as the Minghe Hao, which had left Earth three years ago.
While the ship and gate were in scale to each other, the Earth below was not. The two threw a massive shadow down onto the planet, blotting out everything from Malaysia to the Philippines. Because of the scale problem, the International Shipyard loomed beside the gate, closer than it really was. The next colony ship, the Shenzhou Hao, was being pieced together from segments shipped up in large prefabricated pieces from China. Obviously the scene was totally a figment of the model maker’s imagination, as the Shenzhou Hao hadn’t been started when the Minghe Hao slipped through the gate with little fanfare. The Shenzhou Hao wasn’t finished; even through its original departure date had been years ago.
Louise wasn’t sure why the display seemed so uninteresting. She studied it for a moment, noticing that they hadn’t added weather patterns to Earth, nor sunlight to indicate the Earth’s revolution. Maybe they thought people would be confused by what geostationary orbit meant if the entire display spun. There was no movement at all, not even lights blinking in the Shipyard to indicate construction of the various sections of the spaceship.
She had a sudden and awful feeling that she was looking at a frozen moment in time. A doomed ship, forever stuck on the event horizon of disaster. Had the Minghe Hao actually arrived safely? Or had it crashed?
“Wǒ kàn bù dào!” a child’s voice complained loudly in what sounded like Mandarin.
Louise glanced across the room as she struggled to translate the complaint. I can’t see!
A flock of children crowded around the last display: a life-size statue of Jin Wong, captain of the first colony ship. Faces reverent, the children lightly touched fingertips to the glass. There were too many of them to be one family, but their ages were too scattered to be kids on a school field trip. A kindergartener with long black pigtails stood on tiptoe, trying to see past the older children, who looked like they could be in middle school.
“Wǒ kàn bù dào!” the little girl cried again in Mandarin. This time Louise was certain that she was complaining that she couldn’t see the statue.
A tall boy ghosted out of the shadows, gently shushing her. His quiet command was easy to translate. “Not so loud, Lai Yee Zhao.”
The little girl eyed the boy with almost the same awe as being leveled at Jin Wong. “Yamabushi zhànshì, wǒ xiǎng kàn tā!”
Louise parsed through the sentence several times, trying to translate it and failing. She wasn’t sure what yamabushi meant, although zhànshì seemed to indicate it was a type of warrior. The last part seemed to be a complaint again that she couldn’t see the statue.
The boy scooped Lai Yee up so she could sit on his shoulder. She gazed in wide-eyed wonder and then pointed at the statue of Jin Wong.
“Is he dead?” the little girl asked, her voice still loud.
The yamabushi shushed her again. “We don’t know. He went away.”
“Why did he leave?” Lai Yee whispered loudly.
The other children half-turned to hear the answer.
The tall boy gazed at the starship captain for a moment before answering sadly, “To find another world for us to live on.”
“Elfhome?” the little girl asked.
And all the children shushed her.
Lai Yee was right: the first set of colonists had opened the door to another world. Ironically, Elfhome wasn’t light-years distant, but just an odd sidestep into another universe from any point on Earth. The distance to Alpha Centauri made all information on the colony four years out of date. Was that the reason the boy claimed that they didn’t know if Jin Wong was alive or dead? He’d been middle-aged when he left Earth; surely life as a colonist could not be easy for a man nearly seventy.
And what of Esme? How had she fared in the eighteen years? The bios all indicated that she was still alive, but they could be wrong. Something could have happened to the colony, and Earth wouldn’t know for years.
Jillian and Aunt Kitty were moving on to the next display, forcing Louise to guide Tesla into his next mapping position. Once Tesla was lined up, Louise pretended to study the model of the Alpha Centauri star system. As if to make up for the lack of movement in the first display, this one had the two stars whizzing through their complex dance with their various planets orbiting them. A red digital clock counted backwards, marking the time before the first reports about the Minghe Hao’s safe arrival would reach the Earth. Alpha Centauri was 4.37 light-years away; there remained four hundred and six days and a handful of hours before the fate of the ship could be known.
But there had been radio messages from the earlier ships. At least, Louise thought there had been. Why would the boy say that they didn’t know if Jin Wong was alive or not?
“Those poor people.” Aunt Kitty nodded at the crew photo of the Minghe Hao. “No one noticed when they left. No one will notice if and when they arrive. I don’t know why they keep sending out those ships. Even the first one—there was a ton of fanfare—and then Pittsburgh vanished—and everyone just forgot about the Chinese. It wasn’t until the Chinese started to flip the power on and off like a toddler with a light switch that anyone realized that the gate had anything to do with Pittsburgh blinking in and out of existence.”
And Elfhome had continued to steal the limelight since then. Despite their wealth of information on Earth’s mirror planet, the twins had known virtually nothing about the space mission that triggered its discovery until they learned of their own odd connection to it.
“The crews wanted to go.” Jillian led the way past the group photo of the second ship, the Zhenghe Hao, to stare at the crew of the Dahe Hao. Esme Shenske stood front and center as the captain. She looked so determined and fierce, like she was going to war. “They walked away from family and friends and ever coming back. I don’t think they cared a rat’s ass if anyone noticed or not.”
The tall boy glanced over as if he fully understood Jillian’s comment.
Louise looked down out of habit and nudged Jillian before she realized that she didn’t really know if he understood or what he thought. The twins were at the museum to plan a robbery to save their baby siblings. Until a month ago, they didn’t even know the names of the spaceships or any of their crew. Surely there was little common ground between her and this boy that worshiped Jin Wong, even if her genetic donor was a spaceship captain in her own right.
Louise looked back up at Esme. Don’t care a rat’s ass if anyone noticed or not. That’s how she had to be. Fierce and determined. They were going to war. Everyone better stay out of their way.
Only pretending to look at the rest of the Alpha Centauri exhibit, Louise focused just on the building. The hallway was one long, wide, vaguely boot-shaped corridor. There were only two openings, the toe into the reptile exhibit and the cuff into stair tower that faced West 77th Street.
According to e-mails between curators, it would take a week for the colony exhibit to be packed up and shipped to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The space would be cleaned as the Elfhome exhibit arrived from the Australian Museum in Sydney. The AMNH had scheduled a week to unpack and arrange the incoming display cases. During that time, Dufae’s chest would arrive from Paris, escorted by an assistant registrar. On June fourteenth, the exhibit would open to the public.
At the end of June, the frozen embryos would be thrown away.
It gave them less than a month between the time that Dufae’s box arrived in the United States and the last possible day to save their siblings. That narrow window opened in approximately twenty days. They had to be ready to slip into that opening and take what they needed.
At the end of the gallery, they continued through to the primates and then circled around through the North American birds, the New York State mammals and city birds and finally down through the African mammals to end up where they’d started. In the loop, the twins documented the two flights of stairs, the three elevators, the up and down escalators and the only restrooms on the floor. Since the access routes were grouped together into two tight knots, they only represented two main ways up to the level. A close examination of the map, however, showed that only one went all the way down to the lower level and access to the subway.
So while Jillian kept Aunt Kitty busy in the gift shop, Louise quickly mapped the second and first floors with Tesla. She noticed how many guards were walking around and the care that the staff was taking checking bags coming in and out of the museum. Even in the middle of the week, with the recent bombing canceling all school trips and most people’s travel plans, there were hundreds of visitors scattered among the floors. The twins couldn’t hope to set up the generator, open Dufae’s box, take out what they needed and get it locked again without a visitor seeing them. Obviously they were going to have to stage the robbery after hours.
The idea of sneaking around like cat burglars was at once thrilling and nerve-wracking. How in the world were they going to steal the nactka out of the Dufae box?
* * *
Louise returned to the gift shop to find that Jillian had picked out a souvenir slickie on the Alpha Centauri exhibit. Louise never saw the point of slickies. They weren’t connected to the Internet, so there was no way to share the data. They were barely indexed, so finding anything was a pain. And they often cut costs by making photos two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional with panning and rotation. She supposed that it allowed you to give something tangible as a gift instead of giving the “ethereal” download of a real book.
“You want that?” They’d planned on getting something in a box that was approximately the same size as a nactka, just in case they needed to get one through security the day of the robbery. Of course, they had to guess at the size.
“Yes.” Jillian gave her a look that said Louise was to play along even if she didn’t understand. Jillian held out the slickie flat on her left palm and flipped the digital pages with her right index finger. There might have been hundreds of colonists that went to Alpha Centauri, but judging by the quick flow of images, the only one that mattered was Captain Jin Wong. “It’s all videos they took of building the gate and the ships and training of the crews.” Jillian paused on the picture of Esme. Whereas the photo upstairs had shown her to be blond, this picture had her hair dyed a rich purple, the kind that only came with an expensive professional job. She hovered in midair, the Earth a blaze of brilliant blue behind her. She glared at the camera like she was going to plow it over. There was a bandage on her right temple, unexplained by the caption that read simply: Esme Shenske, Captain of the Dahe Hao, during final days of her training. “Isn’t it cool?”
Judging by the fact that all the Chinese children held one or two in their hands as they lined up at the check-out counter, maybe it was.
“Are you sure?” Louise had hoped that finding the right-sized object didn’t fall to her.
“Yes. And I saw some snow globes you might like.”
Louise followed Jillian, cringing inside. People were going to start thinking she loved snow globes if she picked out a second one for her birthday. The Pittsburgh on Earth/Elfhome one had a coolness factor that she doubted could be topped. A snow globe, though, would require a box.
She bit down on a sigh when she saw the selection. There was a small but adorable red panda globe that Aunt Kitty pointed to. There were also a handful with various dinosaurs encased in indestructible plastic. Snow flurried around the poor creatures as if their doom were quickly approaching.
With face carefully set to “excitement,” Jillian pointed to the largest, a replica of the Tianlong Hao suspended over Earth. Instead of snow, stardust littered the face of the planet, waiting for movement to send it whirling on a solar wind. In a band around the bottom were the words: Spread your wings, fly free. There was Chinese lettering, apparently repeating the sentiment, just showing on the curve of the band.
Two of the Chinese girls were intently inspecting it with surprisingly blue eyes. There was only one globe left, so if Louise wanted it, she was going to have to buy it out from under their noses, which were unfortunately large for their faces.
The yamabushi appeared between Louise and the girls. The tall boy was like a ninja or something; Louise hadn’t noticed him until he was right in front of her. “No, Arisu,” he told the Chinese girls clearly in English and then dropped to Mandarin. “It’s too big. No.”
“Mail?” Arisu apparently was the younger girl. She fumbled with the Mandarin word and then dropped to English. “Couldn’t we have it mailed . . . ?”
The yamabushi sighed and shook his head. He spoke slowly and clearly in Mandarin. “No. I’m sorry. We can’t mail anything to Pittsburgh.” The boy tapped his wrist, indicating a watch that wasn’t present. “We need to go. Hurry.”
Shutdown was on Saturday night at midnight, giving them less than three full days to get to the border.
The three Chinese children turned with easy grace considering the close confines of the gift shop and circled around, gathering up the rest of the flock. With speed unheard of in a group of American kids, the Chinese were gone without a trace.
It left Louise no reason not to buy the snow globe. Jillian sharpened her look. At least it wasn’t expensive.
“Oh, it’s wonderful. I just love snow globes, and this one is so cool.” She did love that it took them one step closer to stealing the nactka.
* * *
They had Tesla’s recording of the museum’s security camera placements, the number of security guards and their positions, floor plans, verification that the floor where Dufae’s box was going to be displayed was marble, train schedules from their house and school to the museum, and the gift-shop box (and the decoy snow globe). Louise wanted to get started on figuring out how to put them together into a logical plan.
Impatient as she was to get started on a plan, the twins had to entertain Aunt Kitty for the rest of the day. After the museum, they walked to Celeste on Amsterdam Avenue between 84th and 85th streets. The tiny Italian restaurant was packed with lunch rush. Louise would have been happier going home and ordering something delivered, or even a frozen pizza. Eating at the restaurant, though, maintained the image that the twins were perfectly fine.
The twins knew that they wanted margherita pizza, so they ignored the menu. They ordered Sprite. Aunt Kitty considered a glass of wine before telling the waiter that she’d have a San Pellegrino. She added in an order of the carciofi fritti.
While they waited for their drinks and food, Aunt Kitty checked her phone and answered a text. Whatever she read on the screen made her wince and sigh.
“What’s wrong?” Louise asked.
Aunt Kitty sighed again. It was probably more bad news; she’d already warned them that if their performance of Peter Pan was changed because of the bombing, she wouldn’t be in town for it. She had set up several business meetings the week after the original date. “Do you remember a little while ago—well, you probably think it was a long time ago, it was like the beginning of last year, I think—we talked about production companies?”