Page 6

"Better you than me."

Bullets fly past them as they wind around swerving traffic. "Please—you don't understand—you can't take me now, I'm being tithed. I'll miss my harvest! You'll ruin everything!"

And finally, a hint of humanity comes to the maniac's eyes. "You're an Unwind?"

There are a million more things to be furious about, but Lev finds himself incensed by what he's just been called. "I'm a tithe!"

A blaring horn, and Lev turns to see a bus bearing down on them. Before either of them has a chance to scream, the bus careens off the road to avoid them and smashes head-on against the fat trunk of a huge oak, stopping the bus cold.

There's blood all over the smashed windshield. It's the bus driver's blood. He hangs halfway through, and he's not moving.

"Oh, crap!" says the maniac, a creepy whine in his voice. A girl has just stepped out of the bus. The crazy kid looks at her, and Lev realizes that now, while he's distracted, is the last chance he's going to have to get away. This kid is an animal. The only way to deal with him is for Lev to become an animal himself. So Lev grabs the arm that's locked around his neck and sinks his teeth in with the full force of his jaws until he tastes blood. The kid screams, letting go, and Lev bolts away, racing toward his father's car.

As he nears it, a back door opens. It's Pastor Dan opening the door to receive him, yet the expression on the man's face is anything but happy.

With his face already swelling from the crazy kid's brutal punch, Pastor Dan says with a hiss and strange warble to his voice, "Bun, Lev!"

Lev wasn't expecting this. "What?"

"Run! Run as fast and as far as you can. RUN!"

Lev stands there, impotent, unable to move, unable to process this. Why is Pastor Dan telling him to run? Then comes a sudden pain in his shoulder, and everything starts spinning round and round and down a drain into darkness.

4 Connor

The pain in Connor's arm is unbearable. That little monster actually bit him—practically took a chunk out of his forearm. Another car slams the brakes to avoid hitting him, and gets rear-ended. The tranq bullets have stopped flying, but he knows that's temporary. The accidents have gotten the Juvey-cops momentarily distracted, but they won't stay that way for long.

Just then, he makes eye contact with the girl who got off the bus. He thinks she's going to go stumbling toward all the people who are running from their cars to help, but instead she turns and runs into the woods. Has the whole world gone insane?

Still holding his stinging, bleeding arm, he turns to run into the woods as well, but stops. He turns back to see the kid in white just reaching his car. Connor doesn't know where the Juvey-cops are. They're lurking, no doubt, somewhere in the tangle of vehicles. That's when Connor makes a split-second decision. He knows it's a stupid decision, but he can't help himself. All he knows is that he's caused death today. The bus driver's, maybe more. Even if it risks everything, he's got to balance it somehow. He's got to do something decent, something good to make up for the awful consequence of his kicking-AWOL. And so, battling his own instinct for self-preservation, he races toward the kid in white who was so happily going to his own unwinding.

It's as Connor gets close that he sees the cop twenty yards away, raising his weapon, and firing. He shouldn't have risked this! He should have gotten away when he could. Connor waits for the telltale sting of the tranq bullet but it never comes, because the moment the bullet is fired, the boy in white takes a step back, and he's hit in the shoulder. Two seconds, and his knees buckle. The kid hits the ground, out cold, unwittingly taking the bullet meant for Connor.

Connor wastes no time. He picks the kid up off the ground and flips him over his shoulder. Tranq bullets fly, but no others connect. In a few seconds Connor's past the bus, where a gaggle of shell-shocked teens are getting off. He pushes past them and into the woods.

The woods are dense, not just with trees but with tall shrubs and vines, yet there's already a path of broken branches and parted shrubs made by the girl who ran from the bus. They might as well have arrows pointing the police in their direction. He sees the girl up ahead and calls out to her. "Stop!" She turns, but only for an instant, then renews her battle with the dense growth all around her.

Connor gently puts down the boy in white and hurries forward, catching up with her. He grabs her arm gently, yet firmly enough so that she can't pull away. "Whatever you're running from, you won't get away unless we work together," he tells her. He glances behind him to make sure that no Juvey-cops are in sight yet. There aren't. "Please—we don't have much time."

The girl stops fighting the bushes and looks at him.

"What do you have in mind?"

5 Cop

Officer J. T. Nelson has spent twelve years working Juvenile. He knows AWOL Unwinds will not give up as long as there's an ounce of consciousness left in them. They are high on adrenaline, and often high on illegal substances as well. Nicotine, caffeine, or worse. He wishes his bullets were the real thing. He wishes he could truly take these wastes-of-life out rather than just taking them down. Maybe then they wouldn't be so quick to run—and if they did, well, no great loss.

The officer follows the path made through the woods by the AWOL Unwind, until he comes to a lump on the ground. It's the hostage, just dumped in the path, his white clothes smudged green from the foliage, and brown from the muddy earth. Good, thinks the officer. It was a good thing this boy took that bullet after all. Being unconscious probably saved this kid's life. No telling where the Unwind would have taken him, or what he'd have done to him.

"Help me!" says a voice just ahead of him. It's the voice of a girl. The officer isn't expecting this.

"Help me, please, I'm hurt!"

Deeper in the woods a girl sits up against a tree, holding her arm, grimacing in pain. He doesn't have time for this, but "Protect and Serve" is more than just a motto to him. He sometimes wishes he didn't have such moral integrity.

He goes over to the girl. "What are you doing here?"

"I was on the bus. I got off and ran away because I was scared it would explode. I think my arm's broken."

He looks at the girl's arm. It's not even bruised. This should be his first clue, but his mind is already too far ahead of him to catch it. "Stay here, I'll be right back." He turns, ready to pick up his pursuit, when something drops on him from above. Not something, someone. The AWOL Unwind! The officer is knocked to the ground, and suddenly there are two figures attacking him—the Unwind and the girl. They're in this together. How could he have been so stupid? He reaches for his tranq pistol, but it's not there. Instead he feels its muzzle against his left thigh, and he sees triumph in the Unwinds dark, vicious eyes.

"Nighty-night," the Unwind says.

A sharp pain in the officer's leg, and the world goes away.

6 Lev

Lev wakes up to a dull ache in his shoulder. He thinks maybe he slept funny, but he quickly realizes the ache is from an injury. His left shoulder was the entry point of a tranq bullet, though he doesn't realize that just yet. All the things that had happened to him twelve hours before are like faint clouds in his mind that have lost their shape. All he knows for sure is that he was on his way to his tithing, he was kidnapped by a murderous teenager, and for some strange reason the image of Pastor Dan keeps coming back to him.

Pastor Dan was telling him to run.

He's sure that it must be a false memory, because he can't believe Pastor Dan would do such a thing.

Everything's blurry as Lev opens his eyes. He doesn't know where he is, only that it's night and he's not where he should be. The insane teen who took him sits across a small fire. There's a girl there, too.

That's when he realizes he'd been hit by a tranq bullet. His head hurts, he feels like he might puke, and his brain is still only at half power. He tries to get up, but can't. At first he thinks that's also because of the tranquilizers, but then he realizes he's tied to a tree by thick vines.

He tries to speak, but his voice comes out as a little groan and a lot of drool. The boy and girl look at him, and he's sure they're going to kill him now. They kept him alive just so he'd be awake when they killed him. Maniacs are like that.

"Look who's back from Tranqville," says the boy with wild eyes. Only his eyes aren't wild now, just his hair—it's all sticking up like he slept on it.

Although Lev's tongue feels like rubber, he manages to get out a single word. "Where . . ."

"Not sure," says the boy.

Then the girl adds, "But at least you're safe."

Safe? thinks Lev. What could possibly be safe about this?

"H. . . h. . . hostage?" Lev gets out.

The boy looks to the girl, then back to Lev. "Kind of. I guess." These two talk in an easy tone of voice, like they're all friends. They're trying to lull me into a false sense of security', thinks Lev. They're trying to get me on their side, so I'll take part in whatever criminal activities they have planned. There's an expression for that, isn't there? When a hostage joins the kidnappers' cause? The Something syndrome.

The crazy kid looks to a pile of berries and nuts obviously foraged from the woods. "You hungry?"

Lev nods, but the act of nodding makes his head spin so much, he realizes that no matter how7 hungry he is, he'd better not eat, because it'll come right back up. "No," he says.

"You sound confused," says the girl. "Don't worry, it's just the tranqs. They should wear off pretty soon."

Stockholm syndrome! That's it! Well, Lev won't be won over by this pair of kidnappers. He'll never be on their side.

Pastor Dan told me to run.

What had he meant? Did he mean run from the kidnappers? Maybe, but he seemed to be saying something else entirely. Lev closes his eyes and chases the thought away.

"My parents will look for me," Lev says, his mouth finally able to put together whole sentences.

The kids don't answer because they probably know it's true.

"How much is the ransom?" Lev asks.

"Ransom? There's no ransom," says the crazy kid. "I took you to save you, idiot!"

To save him? Lev just stares at him in disbelief. "But . . . but my tithing . . ."

The crazy kid looks at him and shakes his head. "I've never seen a kid in such a hurry to be unwound."

It's no use trying to explain to this godless pair what tithing is all about. How giving of one's self is the ultimate blessing. They'd never understand or care. Save him? They haven't saved him, they've damned him.

Then Lev realizes something. He realizes that he can use this entire situation to his advantage. "My name's Lev," he says, trying to play it as cool as he can.

"Pleased to meet you, Lev," says the girl. "I'm Risa, and this is Connor."

Connor throws her a dirty look, making it clear that she gave him their real names. Not a good idea for hostage-takers, but then most criminals are stupid like that.

"Didn't mean for you to take the tranq bullet," Connor tells him. "But the cop was a bad shot."

"Not your fault," says Lev, even though every bit of it is Connor's fault. Lev thinks about what happened, and says, "I would never have run from my own tithing." That much, Lev knows, is true.