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Skyler didn't want to wake up. He felt too comfortable and warm. He didn't want to ruin the moment. He felt somewhat dry, too. That was a new feeling.
And suddenly he remembered. Skyler gasped and sat up.
"Whoa, easy!" A voice said. Skyler turned to see the man from earlier. "It's okay, Skyler."
"How do you know my name?" Skyler frowned. "Where's Hannah?"
"Hannah's fine," the man assured him quickly. "She's getting something to eat. She's been sitting with you ever since you fell asleep."
"How long have I been sleeping?"
"All night." The man smiled. "Or what was left of it. How are you feeling?"
"Okay." Skyler shrugged. He looked at the man. He had longish dark brown hair, blue eyes, and the stubbly beginnings of a beard. He was dressed in jeans and a button shirt, the sleeves rolled halfway to his elbows. He looked about twenty-four-years-old.
"What's your name?" Skyler asked.
"Kip." The man smiled, extending a hand. "Christopher Oliver, actually. But everyone calls me Kip."
"What happened?" Skyler asked, pushing his hair from his face. "I mean, how did you find Hannah, and me?"
"The kids found your sister running from Nabbers," Kip replied. "They helped her lose them, and she told them she had a younger brother. So while she was taken here, Cody and a few others went off looking for you. Hannah told us where you were."
"What is this place?" Skyler asked. "Why are so many kids here?"
"Later." Kip smiled. "First, let's get you something to eat."
Skyler followed Kip through the tunnels to the large cavern. Cook fires were sparking throughout the room, with kids once again circling them.
Kip directed Skyler to a fire where Hannah sat, absentmindedly pushing around some oatmeal in her bowl. Skyler came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her.
"Oh!" Hannah jumped and turned. She smiled up at him and hugged him. "Hey there. Sleep well?"
"Yeah." Skyler nodded. "I almost didn't want to get up."
"Warm beds have that effect," Cody laughed. "Glad to see you looking better, kid."
Hannah scooted over to make room for him. Kip approached and handed Skyler a bowl of oatmeal. Skyler tried hard not to wolf it down.
"We should introduce ourselves," Cody said. "I'm Cody Baine." He waved to Wes. "That's Westley Hawkins." Cody pointed to the girl next to him. "This is Claire Smith."
Claire gave Skyler a smile and a wave.
"And this is Grace Alexander."
Grace smiled at Skyler and winked at him. Skyler smiled back.
Cody motioned to the whole cavern. "Collectively, we're called Fence Jumpers."
"Fence Jumpers?" Hannah asked.
"You haven't heard of us?" Cody looked surprised. "Juvenile vandals? Delinquents who infiltrate anything and everything off-limits to most people?"
Hannah shook her head uncertainly.
Skyler jumped when Kip sat down next to him.
"What are we talking about?" He asked, smiling.
"Us," Cody said. "They don't know about us. I mean, they haven't heard of us."
"If the media had their way, they would," Claire said. "But of course they don't, not anymore. So whatever we do is only communicated by word of mouth."
"Why?" Skyler asked. "I don't understand. Why do you all live down here?"
"Because we're 'criminals,'" Wes replied. "Snotty juvenile vandals with no use in the city."
"But why do it?" Hannah asked. "I mean, what's the point if you have to live underground and hide all the time?"
"Because we're not actually vandals."
Skyler started suddenly, a memory coming to him.
"The abandoned car garage by the old oil company building," he said. "That was you, wasn't it?"
"Yup." Cody nodded. "Well, not us specifically. Kyle, Laurie, Melody and lots of others did that."
"The cops came," Skyler continued eagerly. "They said there were dozens of you, but every single one escaped unidentified. A newspaper had it once."
"Okay, there wasn't dozens, only a dozen or so," Cody laughed. "But yeah. All escaped and nobody knew who anyone of 'em were. Of course we didn't know that, so they had to lie low for a bit."
"I still don't get it," Hannah persisted. "Why vandalize an abandoned garage? Why vandalize government property? Yes, wise-guy, I've seen the masterpiece. I remember seeing one now."
Skyler looked at Wes, who Hannah had directed the remark to. He looked smug.
"Vandalism is only the crime we use to cover up our real motives," Grace said. "Kip can explain it better."
Hannah and Skyler looked at Kip. The man looked hesitant, then set down his bowl with the sigh.
"Remember that this is entirely speculation," Kip began. "You might have heard about the abductions that have been occurring these past months?"
"Yes," Hannah said slowly, cautiously. Skyler looked at her.
"People have been disappearing," Kip continued. "The homeless, the orphaned, people who won't be missed. It's usually the middle-aged or the young teen. But they have been missed by fellow homeless or fellow orphans. They've been reported, but they're low priority for the police. But eventually instead of being low priority, they've been ignored completely. The police won't even listen to anyone who has anything to say about it.
"And then it started getting worse. People who would be missed go missing. Kids, mostly. The parents of course are frantic, or feign to be-"
"Hold on," Hannah cut him off. "Feign to be? You're saying they fake being worried sick for their own kids?"
"This is speculation," Kip soothed. "But I wasn't finished. After a month or so, the parents 'lose interest' in searching for their child. It's awful, I know, but the searches just kind of die out. Nobody hears anything from them again about it, and the missing person is never found or heard from again."
"Are there any similarities between the families?" Hannah asked. Skyler couldn't quite place her tone. "Are they rich, poor? Government workers?"
"We don't know." Kip shrugged. "If I had to guess, I would say rich."
Hannah's face paled. Skyler looked at her with concern.
"What's wrong?" Claire asked. "Why are you so nervous? If the Nabbers were after you, you don't have to be scared anymore. You guys can live here. You're safe."
"Nabbers?" Skyler looked at her.
"People who hunt the streets for homeless people or orphans," Cody explained. "They make weekly sweeps of neighborhoods, alleys, and such. But it's random so no one knows for sure when they'll come, so they don't know when to stay hidden."
"Hannah?" Skyler looked at her. Hannah looked at him, her eyes scared. He had never seen his sister like this. "Hannah, what's wrong?"
"We..." Hannah cleared her throat, looking at Kip. "We ran away from home about... um, a few weeks ago, I think. Our dad works for the government, and our mom's a teacher. I overheard our parents talking to people one night. They were talking about.... I'm sorry."
Hannah stood and hurried away.
"Hannah?" Skyler frowned and started up. He looked back at Kip.
"Why are people being kidnapped? What for?" He asked. "There has to be a reason. My sister heard our parents talking about me to strange men we had never seen before. She heard something she won't even tell me. She said if our parents didn't cooperate, they would..." Skyler swallowed. "What do the Nabbers want?"
"Not the Nabbers." Kip shook his head. "They're just tools for a larger mastermind." Kip looked at the kids by their fire, watching him and Skyler. "We think the government is building an army. Not a human army, but half human and half machine. Cyborgs."
Skyler felt sick. Suddenly the reason for running away from home snuck up suspiciously, as much as he didn't want to believe it.
"Kip guessed this much when he was still up top," Wes added. "When he tried to find people who would be on his side, the wrong ears found out how much he knew and he was almost killed."
"My guess," Kip said quietly, "is that Hannah took you away from home to protect you from becoming a cyborg."
"No." Skyler shook his head. "No, they wouldn't do that. Hannah said we had to run because our parents told us to. Our parents weren't going to give me to them! Those men were going to try to take us away!"
"I don't know for sure if they were," Kip said carefully. "It was just a guess. But don't you think it's odd your parents haven't come looking for you? If the coast was clear-"
"Don't, Kip." Hannah reappeared. Skyler jumped and turned. His sister's cheeks were tear-stained. Skyler spotted a boy around his sister's age watching them before sitting back down with his group, watching them for a minute before returning to his conversation.
"Is there..." Hannah cleared her throat. "Is there a place where Skyler and I can talk? Alone?"
"Hannah." Skyler turned to her. "Mom and Dad told us to run away, didn't they? They weren't going to give us up."
Hannah said nothing. Skyler felt panic and betrayal rise into his throat.
"No," Skyler choked out. "No. Mom and Dad wouldn't... they wouldn't-"
"Skyler, Mom and Dad were going to give you to the government," Hannah said, her voice trembling, forgetting about finding someplace private to talk to him. "I heard them talking to two men the night we ran. Mom was crying, and Dad was arguing. But then one of the men offered a price. It was an absurd amount of money, and our parents accepted it. I didn't know what it was about until Dad told them to take care of you, and Mom asking if we could visit. The men said no, and gave them more money for their silence, to act like you had been kidnapped or run away, like Kip explained other parents did."
Skyler didn't know what to say. Was there anything he could say? His parents had sold him to the government, and promised not to tell anyone they had done it, and to then forget about him after a few weeks of hopeless searching for their supposedly missing son. His own parents.
"Skyler, I'm sorry," Hannah said, "I didn't want to tell you this way. Mom and Dad love you, Skyler, they really do-"
"Then why sell me to people who were gonna make a cyborg out of me?!" Skyler snapped. The idea of it sickened him and terrified him. "They sold me and promised not to worry, not to even care."
"Now hold on." Kip stood up. The whole cavern was watching them now. "They didn't promise that, Skyler. You know they didn't. They promised not to come looking for you, or to tell anyone what they had done. You don't know if they hadn't worried sick about you. They probably didn't have a choice. Hannah said they were begging the government not to take you."
"But they agreed anyways!" Skyler shouted. "They took the money! What kind of parent does that?!"
"The kind that have guns pointed to their heads," Hannah said quietly. Skyler stared at her. "I was in the hall after using the restroom when I heard it all. I heard a gun being cocked, and Dad begging the men not to hurt Mom. They didn't have a choice, Skyler. They didn't know what the government wanted you for, but they couldn't risk being killed and leaving us alone."
Skyler choked back tears of anger and grief and guilt. He let Hannah wrap her arms around him.
"I didn't know what would happen to you," she whispered. "I didn't know where they would have taken you. All I knew I wouldn't have seen you again. I didn't want that to happen."
"But running away..." Skyler mumbled. "The government would think they had gotten us out-"
"No." Hannah shook her head. "I checked one day, when you were sleeping. Mom and Dad are fine. They're safe. I think they even got to keep the money, too, in exchange for their silence on the whole affair. They were moving. Mom was wearing a pretty, expensive dress. I think Dad got promoted, too."
Skyler bit back tears. Hannah hugged him tighter.
"I won't let them take you away from me," Hannah promised. "Over my dead body will they have to take you from me."
"Don't," Skyler said suddenly, "Don't say that. You're not gonna die."
"Sorry." Hannah smiled a little. "I'm sorry for keeping this from you. I didn't want you getting upset when we were already struggling."
Skyler hugged his sister as tight as he could, blinking back tears.
"We'll be okay, little brother," Hannah told him. "We're gonna be okay."
"I know." Skyler nodded. "Because I have you."
Hannah gave him another squeeze and stepped back, smiling at him through tears. She looked at Kip.
"Is it okay if we stay here?" She asked him. "At least until we can figure things out?"
"You can live here as long as you like." Kip smiled. "This place is for kids like you who need a place to stay. We're family here. Plenty of beds, too."
"You can be Fence Jumpers like us." Grace grinned, shaking back her brown hair.
Skyler looked at Hannah. Here was their chance at a home. Friends, family even. Warmth and safety. And a chance to help learn the truth. Skyler wanted to know what the government wanted him for, and why.
"Why not?" Hannah smiled. "If we're staying, we ought to earn our keep."
"It doesn't quite work that way," Cody chuckled, "but welcome to the club, guys."
Skyler smiled, excitement soothing the distressing emotions that had been previously overwhelming him.
"Eat before you do anything else," Kip told them. "Your training or whatever it is these delinquents think you need will come later."
"Training?" Skyler asked, sitting down.
"Yeah." Claire nodded, pulling her bleach-blonde hair back into a ponytail. "If you're a Fence Jumper, you're gonna need to learn how to climb over fences and thing fast. You don't drop from the top."
"That wasn't my fault." Skyler blushed.
"She knows," Cody said. "She's teasing. We'll get you two set up with the right equipment and stuff, and then we'll head out."
After a few minutes of silence, Skyler looked at Kip. There was one more question nagging at him.
"Why cyborgs?" He asked. "I mean, what for? We're not at war with anyone. The other countries and their provinces are all peaceful."
"We don't know yet," Kip replied. "That's what the Fence Jumpers try to figure out. While some vandalize and keep up the image of harmless rascals, others infiltrate government or business buildings we think suspicious."
"Why are you called Fence Jumpers?" Hannah asked, setting her bowl on the ground.
"We are 'specially adept at climbing over fences." Wes winked at her. "We like fences. Anything fenced-off catches our interest, especially those with 'no trespassing' signs."
Hannah lifted an eyebrow. Wes stood.
"Come on and we'll show you," he said, straightening his jacket. "There's a park we like to practice on. Nobody goes there, so we can climb and jump around without getting caught."
"And if we do get caught," Grace said, letting Cody pull her and Claire to their feet, "we run for it. We won't leave you behind, though."
"We're fast," Hannah said. Skyler stood and pulled her up. He winced when he accidentally used his injured hand. "Oh, your hand..."
"I'll be okay." Skyler smiled, but he couldn't help the stab of disappointment. "I'll just watch for now until it heals. I can play lookout."
"We already have people who do that," Cody said. "We'll find you some gloves or something."
"Be careful out there kids," Kip called after them as they walked toward a tunnel. "Be back by lunchtime."