There are a few moments of stunned silence. Skye and B. C. both pick themselves up and dust themselves off, looking highly disgruntled at having their moment of save-the-day so dramatically usurped.
As usual, Rain is the one to break this silence. Flipping her blonde forelock out of her eyes, she says, Of course it’s me. D’you know anybody else this awesome?
“Or annoying,” mutters Skye under her breath. Her relationship with my sister has never been shall we say one of mutual delight.
Rain looks at her with flat ears. Muttering under your breath won’t work. I’m a horse, remember?
Rainy! I bounce towards her in glee and blow into her nose, having to reach up quite a long way to do so. You’re safe!
Of course I’m safe, says Rain. I’m awesome that way.
Skye just glares at her. Holstering her pistol, she turns towards the (completely ruined) gates and says, “Okay, chestnut pony, speak to me. Where are we going now?”
Well, the cells are all down this way, says B. C. I’m hoping one of you two has an awe-inspiring plan to get us all out of here.
I was kinda hoping you’d have an awe-inspiring plan to get us all out of here, I say.
Well, if I had a plan, it would be awe-inspiring, says B. C.
Of course it would, I say loyally.
Hellooo-ooo? Rain snorts loudly. Is anyone going to consult the real genius here?
“No,” says Skye.
Have you got a plan? I ask.
Yes! says Rain.
Let’s hear it, says B. C.
Without missing a beat, Rain responds, Let’s wing it! and charges back through the ruined doors, vanishing in a veil of smoke.
“Your sister annoys me,” says Skye flatly.
Got any better ideas? I ask.
“Uh, no. Let’s go this way.” Skye jumps over the double doors with ninja grace and B. C. and I follow her into yet another creepy, white-walled, blue-lit corridor. The doors at regular intervals down both sides have barred windows and clipboards underneath the numbers painted in white across them. The corridor is empty. Well, mostly empty. There are a few guards lying around in various states of disrepair and Rain is tap-dancing her way down the middle of the corridor. It should not be possible for a four-legged, half-ton animal to tap-dance; nevertheless nobody seems to have explained the concept of possibility to Rain.
I take a deep breath. Underneath the reek of technology, humans and sanitation, I can smell the strange mixture of horse and human. Lots of it. There are a lot of people-horses here…
Ugh. B. C. shudders. I hate this place.
“Are the people-horses all here?” asks Skye. “And where are the horse-people?”
Same corridor but further down, says B. C. How are we going to break them out? Rain can’t crush the cell doors. I’ve tried.
“Solitary confinement.” Skye shakes her head. “If we were all together in a herd, we could do something. Alone, we’re useless.”
You’re thinking like a horse now. B. C.’s blue eyes turn serious; he turns his head sideways, thinking, forelock falling irresistibly over one eye. We don’t need to see each other to work together… Not when we’re human. He looks at me with his eyes glittering in an equine smile. Jericho.
Jericho? I stare at him, uncomprehending.
“Jericho!” yells Skye. “B. C., you are a crazy genius!”
That’s my line! I snort. And what on earth are you people on about?
It takes Skye, B. C., and Rain – who seems to get it instantly – almost ten minutes to explain themselves to me.
Okay, okay, I say eventually. So you’re going to get all the horses to jump against their doors and all the humans to shout their loudest all at the same moment? And keep doing it until the walls fall down?
“Exactly!” says Skye, relieved. “Okay, Firn’s got it, let’s go.”
But why would that how? I say, utterly nonplussed.
It’s simple, says B. C. The sound causes vibration…
Yeah, I know, I say, but how will we make enough sound?
Echoes, the chestnut colt explains. Sheer numbers. Oh, and a very large amount of luck.
I’d pray, says Rain. Faith works better than luck, in a pinch.
That’s exactly what I’m doing as Skye starts to rally the troops. Skye was born to be a leader. Her voice rings clearly down the entire corridor as she walks, tapping her stolen machine gun against her hip.
“All of you! Listen up! This is Skye’s The Limit. I’m a person who was once a horse, just like most of you. I’m here to help you break yourselves out, and if you want to get out of here, you’ll have to listen to me.”
There’s a moment of silence. Then, voices explode. Neighs, kicks, shouts echo through the corridor. Skye shouts ineffectually for a few moments; then Rain neighs SHUT UP!!! and instant silence falls.
“How do we know we can trust you?” a voice yells from the horse-people end.
“You don’t have a choice,” says Skye calmly.
“Of course we can trust her!” The next voice is bright, sunny, and deep as a sea. “She’s my mommy! She’ll get us out of here, and then we’ll all find out it was a tremendous misunderstanding and nobody meant any harm in the first place.”
Thunder! I squeal, recognising my youngest horse’s general attitude towards life.
Skye’s face darkens, and I read war in her dark brown eyes. “They have my baby? That’s it. They die,” she mutters under her breath. “Now listen to me!” she yells out. “If you want to get out of here, listen for the beat. You’ll know it when you hear it. Wait until you have the rhythm. Then, all together, I want all you people-horses to slam yourselves against the doors of your cells and kick with all your might. And all you horse-people, shout – a good deep loud one. Got that?”
There is a general mutter of agreement, and then it’s over to Rain. Her job is to make noise. Lots of noise. She is, naturally, in seventh heaven. Having dragged a tin feed bin out of her cell – the lock of which she had chewed off, after several weeks of dogged gnawing – she turns the bin upside down, lifts a front hoof and brings it smashing down on the tin. It rings like a gong.
Awesome! Rain tosses her head like a rock star and counts in little snorts (once again the impossibility of a horse counting does not seem to have occurred to her). And a one-two-three-four go! Slamming her hoof against the bin, she stamps out a loud rhythm that anyone with a bucket and at least half an ear could carry.
“When you’re ready,” Skye coaches, yelling above the din.
The first combined thump and shout make me jump a mile and hide under B. C. From then on, it just gets louder. And louder. The floor begins to shake, plaster crumbling from the ceiling as cell doors bend. I bury my head in B. C.’s shoulder and pray, the silence of a horse’s language filling the prayer with far more urgency than mere human words, and the floor shakes and the crash and rumble and shout grows louder and louder still. Dust rises from the floor; my head begins to ache. Neighs of effort and screams of frustration join the general chaos, but the noise starts to take on a rhythm. It rises and falls, swelling like a sea, breaking like a wave, receding, only to swell and break again. Six times the great wave of noise washes over me, and just as I doubt I can stand it anymore, the roar of shattering masonry joins the rest of the sound. I look up. Cracks are spreading all over the walls and floor, dust pouring out from everywhere.
It’s working! B. C. gapes.
Skye pulls out her gun and fires into the floor, and the gunshot does it. The walls collapse, all in one huge dusty crumbling heap. Silence reigns. Stunned horses and people are staring at us from everywhere.
That should not have worked in a million years, says B. C.
What’d I tell you? snorts Rain cockily. Luck’s no good; faith works every time.
A loud yell breaks the shocked silence. “Mommyyyyyyyy!”
We all leap aside as a very large, thickset young man lopes down the corridor. Long arms outstretched, long legs reaching and flying, he bounds towards us, black hair blowing.
“My baby!” Skye holds out her arms and her son almost crushes her in a massive embrace, lifting her almost off the floor.
Awwwh! I sigh wistfully. I think that my big dumb colt, Thunder, might just be the cutest human I have ever seen. With one notable exception.
Let me guess. Thunder? says B. C.
That’s him, I say. I wonder where my parents are.
Scanning the crowd of horses, who are now milling around looking for their leader – who is still trying to get out of Thunder’s hug – I search for my parents. It’s not easy, since I have no idea what they look like, or even what they smell like through equine senses.
Some horses/people are easy to recognise. An extraordinarily tall liver chestnut stallion standing and watching the goings-on in perfect silence has got to be the Horse Mutterer; the tall girl with brown hair, one strip of it dyed white, and odd eyes – one blue, one brown – can only be Sookie Lynn.
Hey Firn! Rain’s whinny pipes up behind me. Look what I found!
I turn around and see my sister with her pony on her back. Well, I’m guessing it’s her pony. Siobhan is now humanoid, has cut her long black hair in layers, and has a tattoo across her cheek and a piercing in her nose, but she’s still short and sassy with way too much attitude showing in her rather plain face. She has a handful of Rain’s mane and looks perfectly at ease on her owner’s back.
“Oh, hello, human,” she says distastefully. “I hate you.”
Hi snotface. I hate you too, I say.
Skye has finally detached herself from Thunder and shooes him off with instructions that I can’t hear. Then she turns to the aimless bunch of horses/people milling about and raises her voice. “Alright! We only have so much time to wander about before those guards get reinforcements and kill us all! And before that happens, we have to bust out of here. They’re on high alert, but we know the way.” She crosses over to me and vaults on. “All of you people, find a horse and get on. If it bucks you off, find another one. Now is not the time for interspecies bonding.” I feel her weight shift as she glances around. “Where is Thunder?”
“I’m here, Mom!” Thunder shouts, pushing through the crowd with two other people in his wake. “I found them!”
It’s not hard to recognise the people. One is short and dainty, with a very pretty snub nose and something vaguely elfin in her slightly pointed ears; her hair is cut in a bob and jet black with white highlights. That’s definitely Arwen. The other is very tall and lanky with endless legs, a kind expression and white-blond shoulder-length hair – undeniably Magic.
I whinny to them and submit happily as Magic strokes my shoulder and Thunder almost strangles me in a massive hug. By now, most of the horses are mounted, except for one or two, and there are a few people clutching bruised knees and bleeding noses.
“We’re going to have to lead these guys out,” Skye tells the rest of her herd. “Thunder, go help the injured people onto horses. Magic, you’re charismatic, organise them into groups of two horses and two people. Arwen… Where are the alpha pair from the human herd?”
“I don’t know,” says Arwen. “Thunder, Magic and I looked everywhere for them.”
A cold hand grips my heart. You can’t find my parents?
Skye shakes her head. “They’re probably in the herd somewhere,” she says, unconvincingly. “But I’ll have Thunder keep searching. If we haven’t found them by the time we reach the exit, I’m coming back for them.”
Thunder appears. “Everyone’s ready, Mommy,” he says.
“Good,” says Skye.
Hop on, says B. C. to Thunder. I owe you a ride. He lowers himself to his knees and Thunder jumps on, taking a fistful of mane.
Skye pulls on my left rein, turning me to face the rest of the herd. They’ve been arranged in double file with B. C. and I in the front and Rain and Siobhan bringing up the rear. Arwen gets onto me behind Skye, Magic joining Thunder on B. C., both armed with machine guns.
Skye addresses the herd in her clear, ringing voice. “Okay, everyone, the rules are simple and they’re programmed into your equine DNA. Never leave the herd. Only fight if you must. And do what your leader tells you to. That’s me, and if you want to get out alive, follow my orders to the letter.” She turns me back around. “Herd, move out!”
Her boots tap against my flanks and I break into a slow canter, toiling under my double burden. B. C. lopes effortlessly beside me with his usual infuriating ease, and we canter out of the cells and into the long dark passage we used to get here. The doors are still jamming the way; B. C. kicks them aside to reveal a heap of guards who aren’t going anywhere very much for the next few weeks, and two by two we jump over them and gallop on. The alarms are still wailing and at one point we come around a corner and almost crush a pair of guards, but Skye clouts one over the head with a fist and B. C. tramples the other one, and after that any guards we happen to meet flee in terror faced with several hundred determined horses and riders.
We come to a halt just in front of the closed doors to the lab, in a sea of sirens, darkness and swirling red lights. I’m too tired to be properly afraid, trembling as Skye and Arwen get off to give me a rest. B. C. worriedly pushes his nose against my neck. Are you okay?
I’m fine, I say. It’s just been a long night for short legs.
It’s almost over, he reassures me, blowing softly in my ear. We’ll be fine.
What about my parents? I shiver.
We’ve come this far. We can go the rest of the distance.
Skye runs her hands over the doors, searching for a way out. “It’s no good,” she says. “Rain will have to bust us out again.”
B. C. gives an explosive snort. She’s not stealing my show again! he says indignantly. Shaking Thunder and Magic off in a grumpy heap, he trots over to the door, gives it a wicked glare with flattened ears, then rears and hammers both front feet into the door in one mighty blow. Already damaged, the door bends, cracking open. B. C. turns and gives it a good kick and the door breaks, opening wide enough to admit a horse and rider.
Ta-da, he says smugly.
Nice! I say.
“Let’s get out of here.” Skye jumps back on, Arwen joins her and we gallop across the creepily silent lab floor. On the other end, the doors are open.
“This is wrong,” says Skye. “It’s too easy…”
Last time you said that we ended up in hectic trouble, snorts B. C.
“That’s just because I was right.”
Finally we’ve out of the lab and into the corridor and I can see the moonlight at the end of the creepy little corridor. Behind us, there are curses and snorts as people hit their heads on the ceiling and scramble to dismount, squashing once more into single file in the narrow tunnel. It takes some shouting to organise everyone, but at last we’re ready to leave.
Then, without warning, all the blue lights go on in one dazzling moment. I screw my eyes shut, gasping at the light. B. C. snorts behind me. Firn, look!
I don’t want to see. But I open my eyes anyway and read the terrifying message projected into the air in front of me.
IF YOU DARE TO LEAVE THIS LABORATORY
YOU WILL NEVER SEE YOUR PARENTS ALIVE AGAIN
The projection vanishes, only to return a split second later:
MWA HA HA HA HA HA HA
To be continued…