“Ask it again,” Inez said, as if the last three rounds had just been for practice. May appreciated that dogged persistence in theory, but in practice it was a bit much.
From the look of it, Jing-Wei was coming to the same conclusion. Inez: proper noun, synonym for “a bit much.” Or maybe an anagram of that, if you were feeling harsh: “Um, a . . .”
May knew this doppelgänger of Jing-Wei wasn’t the same person as her old friend—that they hadn’t woken up on a space station together. Still, she couldn’t help but feel that kinship. It was like a phantom limb, only nothingness where a friendship should be. It ached at moments like these, when Jing-Wei quirked an eyebrow at her, as if asking, Can you believe some people?
Out loud, though, Jing-Wei only said, “Sparky said Sanctuary is dangerous and your friends are in trouble, but we’re never going to get a clear answer about what that means, exactly. Trust me, I’ve tried.” She crouched on her heels, drawing lines in the ground with a knobby stick, looking for all the world like none of this was important to her.
Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t.
“What kind of danger are they in?” Inez persisted. “Is it caretakers?”
Jing-Wei shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. She squinted at Sparky, like the answer might come into better focus that way. “That’s not what it’s like when he talks about the unbuilders.”
The caretaker was motionless, parked well away from the kids and half hidden by trees. As if any of them could forget it was there. May was exquisitely aware of every sound it made, every tiny gesture. Ten minutes ago something on it had whirred, like a camera lens focusing, and Seyah had jumped like a hand grenade had dropped in her lap.
Other people seemed to be coming to terms with the caretaker’s presence a little more easily, though. Hyrum chewed on his lip, wide-eyed. “What’s he saying?”
“The dangerous part is . . . the place?” Jing-Wei shrugged with one shoulder and tossed the stick down. “I don’t know anything about your friends, but Sparky’s about to have some kind of coronary over there. He’s convinced we need to get your buddies away from that Sanctuary place pronto. So we can either go and help them, or you can decide I’m full of it and let whatever happens to them happen.”
She rose, gawky and angular like a collapsible measuring stick. “If you believe me and you want to hear what Sparky thinks we should do, I’ll be here. But if all you’re going to do is argue with me”—and here she looked Inez dead in the eye—“then maybe you should just stop talking and let me go back to my camp in peace.”
“Fine,” Inez said. “It’s this way.” She turned and stomped ahead, expecting that Jing-Wei would just follow her. She thrashed branches out of her way a lot harder than strictly necessary, too. Typical.
Jing-Wei rolled her eyes, but slouched after Inez anyway. Hyrum and Alex exchanged a look and followed too, Talon swooping above them. So May figured she’d better go along and keep an eye on things.
“We have to go save them,” Hyrum told Inez. “We have to go now.” He’d been quieter than a mouse on the trip out, probably upset about Jing-Wei leaving them again, but he’d started in on this practically as soon as they’d left Jing-Wei and Sparky—alone together in their shunning shack, as May thought of it. With every step that left Jing-Wei farther behind, he’d become even more high-pitched and insistent. He skipped faster every few steps to keep up with Inez’s brisk gait, but she kept breezing right by him. Talon glided overhead, keeping a close watch as Hyrum grew progressively more agitated.
“You think she’s telling the truth?” Inez scoffed. “You have to admit it’s a lousy story. She doesn’t even know what she’s supposed to be scaring us with.”
“But what if it’s true?” Hyrum stepped in front of Inez to stop her. May was startled at his boldness. Apparently Hyrum was too; he continued, a little softer now: “We don’t have any reason to think she’s lying to us.”
“Except the caretaker!” Inez’s nostrils flared and her voice grew louder. Temper, temper. Alex moved closer to Hyrum, protective, and Talon landed beside him. Inez went stiff at that, and stepped back. May could all but see the steam coming out of her ears, all but hear her counting to ten to calm down.
“Even if she’s telling the truth,” May said, “Holden and the Rye-Catchers probably got to Sanctuary ages ago. So if there is anything dangerous there, they’ve probably either dealt with it already...