It’s unequivocal that if the first thing you smell is blood, you’re probably screwed. The scent was pungent, all consuming, wetness mixed with copper, strong enough that I could practically taste it. But I felt no pain or ache, no cuts or wounds, nothing that would explain the smell. Not from me, anyway. So it wasn’t blood I smelled…but knowing that didn’t put me at ease. The ground—no, floor—beneath me was cold and hard, unforgiving, rough beneath my fingertips. Stone? Metal? Neither made sense. Grogginess and confusion kept me still, though my heartbeat quickened, while an odd calmness kept my emotions in check. Where am I? Where’s— “Fiona?” Opening my eyes didn’t help much, either, the space around me bathed in total darkness. At least at first it was, but then…as my eyes adjusted, a room slowly appeared. Walls and pipes, a cable dangling from the ceiling with a broken bulb at the end. Willing my body into motion, I turned my head left—nothing—and then right, my eyes widening as I did. Equal parts worry and relief washed through me. “Fiona,” I said again, but she didn’t respond. Carefully, I moved my arm, bare skin scraping against metal, dust, and dirt, until my hand was just a breath away from Fiona’s face.
She lay beside me, her hair fanned out around her head, beautiful strands of fading cyan blond, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, her body nearly motionless except for the subtle rise and fall of her chest. Thank God she’s breathing . With that one little sign of life, it was as though time stopped. Everything faded into the background, blurry, out of focus, because she was the only thing that mattered, this girl I didn’t deserve, and yet she wanted to be mine. What a lucky bastard I was. “Fiona, can you hear me?” She blinked a few times and turned her head toward me. All my breath escaped in one big whoosh. My fingertips brushed against her cheek, a smile tugging at my lips. Our eyes met, hers going wide. “Miles?” “It’s me, I’m here.
Are you okay?” “What’s going on?” she asked instead of answering. “Wish I knew.” Feeling more alert now, I pushed myself to my feet, then helped her up. With the faintest of smiles on her face, she took my hand and tightly wrapped her arms around me, resting her head against my chest. I pulled her closer and kissed the crown of her head, my mind reeling with questions. “What is this place?” Fiona asked, looking around but still holding on to me. “Where are we?” “I have no idea,” I admitted. “Are you okay?” “I think so, yeah, but my memory is so fuzzy. Damn. I can’t even remember how we got here.
” “Me, either.” But at least we weren’t hurt. “Let’s see if we can find anyone, or anything, that would explain this.” Together we managed to push open the only door in the room, and my hope of finding something helpful on the other side quickly dissolved. We faced a maze of identical corridors, everything corroding from rust, run-down and abandoned. “Which way?” I asked. “Does it matter? They all look the same.” “But they don’t all lead to the same place.” “Or maybe they do.” Fiona shrugged, then headed down a passageway to the right.
Maybe I was overthinking this. Either that or I was starting to freak out. After what seemed like an hour of going nowhere, Fiona said, “Finally,” with a heavy sigh and pointed. Up ahead was a door with an EXİT sign above it, hanging askew on two nails, one of them barely fixed to the wall. Blindingly bright light greeted us on the other side, burning my eyes even after I squeezed them closed. We had to be outside now. I expected to hear people or water or wind, but there was nothing, and the absence of it all made the whole situation even more unsettling. Blinking and blinking, my eyes tearing up, they slowly adjusted, bright white fading to reveal a clear blue sky. A metal deck stretched out in front of us, bordered by a metal railing, all of it a nasty brownish-green-black. “This has to be a joke, right?” Fiona said as we walked toward the railing.
“Or a really fucked-up dream?” Beyond the railing was a sixty-foot drop to what I assumed was the ocean, the water so calm that it looked fake, smooth as a mirror. “That’s…this is a problem.” There were no other ships, no land in sight, just the horizon and a perfectly cloudless sky. Watching the waterline below, I hoped to see signs of forward movement, something that would indicate this ship—freighter, whatever it was—had a crew and a destination, but it was motionless. We seemed to be anchored in place. An island made of metal. An island… Why did that feel familiar? “How the fuck did we get here?” Fiona’s voice trembled, her usual confidence faltering. “First things first.” I met her searching gaze. “How do we get out of here?” CHAPTER TWO MADAGASCAR Stepping onto another private jet felt like an awful mistake.
This was far bigger than the one we’d been in before, not that the size was any comfort. Unease sat at the pit of my stomach, coiling and uncoiling, though I tried to calm it, remind myself that we were safe now. We were with the FBI, protected, and we were finally going back to civilization. With Fiona next to me, we walked toward the front of the plane while a number of agents filled the space around us. Some sat with their laptops open on their laps, others with their phones raised to their ears or in their hands, typing something, a few standing around laughing together, and others organizing something, though I couldn’t tell what. At the other end of the plane I caught a quick glimpse of my brother, Leon, being led into a closed-off area by two agents and special agent Nikita McCarty, the woman who saved us. My head still spun with everything that happened in the last twenty-four hours. For five long years I thought Leon was dead. After all this time he was now so close, just a few feet away, and hopefully soon, he would be okay enough that I could talk to him. Finally everything was looking up, the future brighter than the past eleven days of fear, worry, and a fight to survive.
Fiona smiled at me after we chose where to sit, her next to the window and I next to her, her hand still in mine, squeezing. “Everyone, please find your seats,” one of the agents announced. Eleven days ago, we’d left Miami with one suitcase each, and now everything we had fit into a single black military backpack. It wasn’t more than a change of clothes, my notebook, an unexplained hotel keycard, and completely new identities, brand-new lives waiting for us in California. For seventeen years we had been Fiona Wolf, the Florida State Kickboxing Champion, and Miles Echo, the useless heir to more money than any single family, let alone person, deserved to have. We left home for an internship in Germany that never happened, were made to believe we were stranded on an island and hunted by a bear—a bear that turned out to be only a hallucination. Now, we were legally dead, victims of a supposed plane crash. Thanks to the FBI, though, we were reborn as Kellie Jackson and Oscar Lyel, names I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get used to, but I wasn’t about to complain. A new identity was better than actual death. “What’s the first thing you want to do once we’re in the States?” Fiona asked, about an hour into the flight.
Take you on a date. “Get my hands on the biggest cup of iced coffee ever made.” I closed my eyes, imagined the taste, something I’d taken for granted before and never would again. I wasn’t the biggest coffee drinker, only had it occasionally, but after having none on the island, I really wanted some now. Maybe go on a cute coffee date with Fiona. “Yes,” she agreed, the word said like a sigh. “And I want the biggest pizza I can find. Now that I don’t have to compete in kickboxing anymore, I can ignore all my strict diet regiments and rules.” She smiled as she spoke, her words light like she was trying her best to sound funny, unbothered by this new reality, but for me it was easy to see through the act. There were subtle shadows in her eyes, a shade of sadness in her voice.
Competing and training had been part of her life since basically forever, and now it was suddenly gone. “How will you get by without all that money of yours?” she said after a pause, her eyes meeting mine, her face an attempt at looking serious. “Not the spoiled rich boy anymore, huh? How awful. Miles Echo, reduced to living as a normal middle-class citizen. Never thought I’d get to say that.” There she was again, the Fiona I’d fallen in love with. “Technically it’s Oscar Lyel who’ll lead this middle-class life,” I said, matching her sarcasm. “And Miles Echo died with his trust fund still intact. Poor idiot.” McCarty emerged from the door at the back of the plane and walked over to us, a small smile on her face, a few strands of her blond hair hanging loose from her short ponytail.
She exchanged a few words with two of the agents she passed before sitting across from us. The longer she remained silent, the rumble of jet engines and the clacking of laptop keyboards seemed to grow louder and more annoying. Tension rose in the space between us, the air charged with anticipation. “How’s Leon?” I finally asked. “Much better,” she said, her voice kind. “Much more responsive now, and the injection is wearing off a little quicker than we anticipated. Once we arrive and you two get settled in, you’ll be able to talk to him.” Relief quickly spread through my body, the tension in my muscles lessening, though everything about Leon and the influence of the drug he’d been subjected to was unsettling. But soon he’d be okay again, and the brother I remembered from childhood would be back. We had so much catching up to do, I didn’t even know where to start, especially considering most of it was irrelevant now anyway.
“How much longer until we land?” Fiona asked. “Just under ten hours,” McCarty said with a quick nod. “And…our plans have changed.” I raised a brow. “Meaning what?” McCarty smiled as though everything about this was perfectly normal. “The two of you are going home after all.” That got my attention thoroughly, my shoulders and back straightening. “I’m sorry, what? Didn’t you say it was impossible to go back, since everyone thinks we’re dead?” She smiled wider before getting up. “Don’t worry about it. Just relax, enjoy the flight, and trust that we know what we’re doing.
You’re safe and in good hands.” Home. What did that even mean anymore? And the idea of seeing my father again…it left a strange taste in my mouth. I turned to Fiona, and her eyes met mine, but neither of us said anything. We were on a plane thousands of feet in the air. What choice did we have? The rest of the flight passed swiftly, with Fiona’s head resting against my shoulder as she drifted in and out of sleep. I envied her ability to relax, my eyes constantly flicking between her and the world beyond the small window next to us. There wasn’t much to see most of the time, just clouds or the sky as it changed color, but as we started our descent for landing, the scenery beneath the clouds didn’t look like Miami. Where was the ocean? Fiona stirred, then sat up and stretched her arms above her head. “How long was I—Miles? What are you…looking…at…?” Her words slowed as she turned toward the window, and then they came out in a rush.
“Where the hell are we?” … After a smooth landing—thank God for small miracles—my mind reeled with more and more questions I didn’t get a chance to voice. Wordlessly and hurriedly, we were led out of the plane and toward a line of black vans with tinted windows. The license plates on the cars didn’t look American. They were longer and thinner, with no images or state names, just a combination of letters and numbers. They reminded me of license plates I’d seen in Saint Tropez, but that couldn’t be right. McCarty said we were going home, and that certainly wasn’t in Europe. “What’s going on?” Fiona said, glancing around. I wasn’t sure if she was asking me or just making an observation, but I answered anyway, with a very helpful, “I don’t know.” Just as we reached the closest van, I stopped and turned around, looking for McCarty. She was walking a few feet behind us while talking to an agent and doing something on her phone.
“Where are we?” I asked when she got close. “This isn’t Miami. Maybe now’s a good time for an explanation, don’t you think?” “Everything’s okay, don’t worry, just get into the car,” she said without even looking up at us, her tone distracted and flat. No. Not happening. I opened my mouth to protest, but two agents stepped over and all but shoved us into the car. The fact they did it with smiles on their faces was even more disturbing. Alarm bells rang inside my head—more like air-raid sirens at this point—but I tried to silence them, reminding myself that this was the FBI. They knew what they were doing, and this was all top secret. Right? It was probably just a misunderstanding, the strange license plates and the airport far from Miami just ways of keeping things confidential.
We were in a sort of witness protection program, after all. Or so I’d assumed. But as we left the airport and drove down unfamiliar streets, my calmness began to slip away like sand between my fingers. The streets weren’t busy, a few cars driving in either direction, mostly older models bent and beaten, the streets lined with the wrong kinds of trees. No palms to be found anywhere, but instead there were birches and others I didn’t know the names of. We passed small villages and towns, little corner stores and restaurants, gas stations and street signs with words I could barely pronounce. Was that even English? As nice as all of it looked, small rural areas with cottages and villas, farmhouses and somewhat newer-looking apartment buildings, it still didn’t explain why we were there, what was happening, what any of it meant. First, we were told we were going to L.A., then that we were going home.
But California didn’t look like this, and neither did Florida. “Where the fuck are we?” Fiona asked next to me, her voice wavering. In classic Fiona style, she was trying to put up a tough front, but I knew better. She was scared. And slowly but surely, so was I. “I don’t know,” I said again, just as unhelpful this time as before. How could I know anything more than she did—and yet my cluelessness still felt like another of my shortcomings, another sign of failure. Hating this feeling of helplessness, this complete loss of control, I tried to focus on sorting out where we might be. The letters PL were on all the license plates, I’d noticed. Did that stand for a country, and if so, which one?