Regan marched over and dropped her backpack at the feet of the tall guy, barely glancing at his face before descending the large, slab-stoned steps into the base of the watchtower. Reese followed, a half-step behind. Sasha said something, but there was no time to eavesdrop. She needed to focus. One wrong move could cost her an ankle.
On the lower level, Regan rushed around loose rocks of various sizes and exited through an arched doorway, jumping over three steps to the base of the Great Wall. Her braid slapped her back when her feet hit the ground. She turned as Reese stumbled over the broken steps and let out a string of words about stupidity and broken necks. Regan ignored him, cupped her mouth with her hands, and hollered. “Now, Link!”
Link peered over the tower’s edge and dropped the backpack right into her arms.
Mandarin cut the air as the head of the tall guy came into view. He stepped toward Link, and Regan’s breath caught.
“Hey, you moron!” she yelled. The goon looked her way. “Come and get it!” She shoved her arms through the straps and took off running across the jagged, uneven surface toward the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.
Shouts erupted. Regan glanced back to make sure neither Link nor Sasha had been tossed over the edge, but she only caught glimpses of movement. Hold them off, guys. We need a decent head start.
She looked at Reese’s stoic face as he concentrated on the hazardous path. “It’s only five miles. We can do this.”
“Easy for you to say.” As wide as a one lane road, this stretch of the deteriorated wall was nothing but an elevated path with crumbling sidewalls. Scraggly shrubs grew up in random sections, covering most of the expanse. They jogged until the path narrowed next to one of the side walls. The rectangular stones had fallen into heaps, blocking the path.
Using hands and feet, Regan climbed over one pile of stone after another. About thirty yards back, she glimpsed red clothing through the twisted brush. “I think that’s them. Hurry up.”
Stones shifted under Reese’s feet. He paused, waiting for the pile to settle. Regan resisted the urge to yank him down. “Why’d you guys have to bring 0x along?”
Reese jumped, landing next to her. “Because we thought it might be fun. Every situation is an opportunity for him to encounter new obstacles he can apply to his existing knowledge.”
How could she argue with that? Regan followed a path that continued to narrow until overgrowth forced them to the very edge. The drop off was steep, and if they fell…
Regan stepped heel to toe along the edge, arms outstretched for balance. They had no time for a fall. She spoke to ease the tension. “Why do you think they want your robot?”
Two steps later, a stone shifted, sending fragments of the wall over the edge. Regan bent her knees—one hand on the wall, one in the air—and stared at the tree tops descending the mountain. Her throat went dry.
“You okay?” Reese stood close.
“Tricky step. Watch out.” She swallowed hard and carefully stood, concentrating until the path widened. Behind them, the men appeared around a scraggly tree and stopped at the piled stone.
“There they are.” Regan wiped the sweat off her face with a corner of her flannel shirt jacket.
Reese held onto a small tree and then a bush. Two more steps and he made it to where she stood. “Maybe one of them will slip over the edge.”
Regan took off at a jog and called over her shoulder. “If they’re going to this much trouble for a robot, there has to be something unique about him.”
“There are several things, but nothing the world doesn’t already know.”
“Are you sure about that? Why not give them what they want? Make another robot?”
“We have two years invested in 0x, and if he’s gone … so is the scholarship.”
The scholarship. Right. Link’s odd dream to go to Stanford. “We’re risking our lives for a scholarship … for the guy who stayed back on the tower?” She didn’t want to accuse Link, but they were being chased by thieves in a foreign country! She pulled her phone out of her back pocket and glanced at the screen. No service. Figured.
“He stayed back to slow them down.” Reese struggled to speak. “And it’s my scholarship, too. Give me the pack … you don’t have to do this.”
But she did. Reese and Link were her friends. What kind of person bailed on a friend? “Shouldn’t you have stayed? You’re the one with the martial arts skill.”
She and Reese approached another tower and descended steep stairs into the decaying shelter beneath.
“Hold up.” Reese stopped at the bottom of the steps breathing hard. He removed his black-rimmed glasses and swiped his jacket sleeve over his face.
“We can’t stop.” Regan carefully stepped through the cavernous ruins. Reese caught up and grabbed her arm.
“If you want to stay together, then you need to slow down. Trust me, the smoker and the old guy are not going to catch us. And what did you mean I have martial arts skill? Who told you that?”
“Link did. Taekwondo … or something like that.”
“He lied. Link’s the one with a black belt. He’s been working on it for as long as I’ve known him. Well, except this past year…”
“Why would he lie to me?” Her elevated voice bounced off the concrete walls.
Boys. Full of ego and lies. The black belt wasn’t the only lie. She raced up the steps, cleared the tower, and met a barrier of trees and brush. Regan growled. “Why can’t there just be a straight path!?”
To the left, she pushed aside branches and followed a trail of dirt that cut a sharp angle to the right. Regan held an extra-long branch so it didn’t slap Reese in the face.
“Thanks.” He placed a hand where hers had been.
“Reese, I’m not stupid … there has to be more to 0x and this scholarship than you’re telling me. I mean, why is Stanford your dream school? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Stanford is where Link’s brother went to school.”
“He died a year ago. Car accident.”
Her curiosity stumbled as an ache for Link’s loss settled in her chest. He wanted to go to his brother’s college. Did Link need closure? Hope to finish something his brother started? Link had told her his parents didn’t want him to go to Stanford. Hence the need for a scholarship.
Hence the need to protect 0x.
When they came to the next tower, Regan stopped and glanced behind them. Brush blocked the view. Reese unzipped the backpack she carried, pulled out Link’s water bottle, and handed it to her.
“Thanks.” she gulped the warm water and handed it back. “I kind of get why Link’s going to Stanford, but why are you?”
Reese twisted the lid back on the bottle and pulled the backpack off her shoulders. “I don’t expect you to understand.” He maneuvered the bag onto his back and motioned for her to lead.
She stood in place and stared up the mass of steps that angled to the left up the mountainside. The Great Wall looped over what the map labeled Ox Horn Ridge. Various websites claimed the climb was steep and required about an hour to hike. One day, she hoped to go that route. What a rush to walk where few others had traveled.
Not today. Regan pointed toward a break in the wall off to their right. “There’s a shortcut through the woods that’ll allow us to bypass this entire section. Reviews say it’s not a hard trail, so we should be able to move fast.” She stepped onto the dirt path and descended into the forest. “Hopefully those guys take the long way.”
“The view of the mountain is unobstructed. I think they’ll notice we’re not there.”
Regan frowned. “True. We should move fast.”
Much easier terrain, Regan shifted to a jog. The birds sang as the sun inched higher in the sky. Her mind drifted to Link. Why had he lied about the Taekwondo? Dylan’s reaction in the school hallway made sense now. It wasn’t Reese who had bested Dylan in the ring. It’d been Link. Which meant Dylan wasn’t seeking revenge against Reese.
Had Link lied to her about anything else? Confused and a little hurt, Regan picked up the pace, skirting trees, jumping holes.
Reese panted behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and slowed her pace. Reese wasn’t the adventurous one either.
“Wait a second.” He stumbled to a halt, doubling over.
“We don’t have that far to go.”
“Just need to catch my breath.”
Regan couldn’t stop the words from rolling off her tongue. “From what Link said, you went hiking all the time.”
Reese avoided her eyes.
Sweat poured down her back. She removed her flannel shirt and tied it around her waist.
“What is up with you two? Why lie to me?”
“I said I had connections that could provide you with an adventure. I never said I was adventurous.”
“Your love for the outdoors was heavily implied.” She ripped the backpack off his back and put it on her own.
“Yet it didn’t make a difference, did it?”
“Avoiding the geek stereotype. I thought you might … like me … if we enjoyed the same things.”
Regan rolled her eyes. “I like you. If geek is you embrace it, and be you, because lying is a deal breaker … in friendship and … anything else.”
He shoved his glasses up his nose. “I don’t know why Link told you I knew taekwondo, but you need to give him a break. It’s been a rough year.”
“That’s why you’re following him to Stanford, isn’t it? So, he’s not alone.”
“Is that so bad?”
They continued along the dirt path at a fast walk, Regan in the lead. “Depends on what it costs you.” She glanced back. “But it’s admirable. Thank you for telling me the truth.”
“Charlie—that was Link’s brother—he was my brother’s best friend and my friend, too. The four of us spent a lot of time hanging out.”
“And by hanging out you mean…?”
“Working on projects, playing games—usually board games. We’d have intense battles playing Carcassonne.”
“Where’s your brother now?”
“Oscar is at the University of Hong Kong.”
“Wouldn’t you rather go to school there?”
She smiled at the simple answer. “You’re a good person, Reese. Not sure I’d do the same for one of my friends. Sorry I called you a liar.”
Too bad she couldn’t say the same for Link. And why was he okay with Reese following him to California?
Ten minutes later, they re-entered the Great Wall through a gaping hole, the only broken-down section that looked intentional. To the left, the wall descended Ox Horn Ridge. There was no sign of the men or anyone.
“Those guys know the shortcut, and if they ran through the forest, they could be closer than we think. I know you’re tired, but we need to move as fast as we can.” Regan took off, dodging debris and shrubs. She hopped a pile of rock and was on her third step when she heard the oomph! Then Reese hollered out.
Regan swung around. Reese pushed himself onto his bottom and grabbed his ankle between both hands.
She ran back and knelt at his side. “How bad is it?”
He winced and rocked back and forth. “I don’t know.”
“Try standing.” Regan grabbed one of his arms, but he pushed her away.
“Just give me a second.”
She backed off and crossed her arms. Glancing ahead, she could see the Mutianyu barrier. They would need to climb that, and then it was only a quarter to half-mile run on a fairly even, modernized surface.
Reese carefully pushed to his feet, favoring his left foot, and stepped, limping heavily. Three steps forward, he turned and limped three steps back.
Voices? Regan looked beyond him. “We need to hurry, Reese. They could be just beyond that bush.”
Reese hop-stepped as fast as he could, which slowed Regan to a walking pace.
“It’s getting stiffer and hurting more. You need to go on without me.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Reese eased himself onto a pile of rocks. “Let me see your phone.” Regan pulled it from her pocket. Reese tapped and concentrated on the screen then turned it for her to see. “This is your home address in Chinese. When you get to the bottom of the mountain, have a taxi take you there. You’ll be off their radar. Give me the backpack.”
“Separating isn’t a good idea. Isn’t there any way we can hold them off?”
Reese leaned to one side and pulled the transmitter out of his front pocket. “We can’t take a chance on those guys getting this either.” He unzipped the backpack, placed it inside, then sipped from the water bottle.
“Reese, I’m not leaving you alone. We can figure this out.”
“You have to. When they catch up to me, I’ll stall them and try to find out what they want. Hey, wait … I have an idea. Reese handed her the transmitter then pulled 0x out of the backpack. “Wrap him in your jacket.”
Regan folded the long tail around 0x’s body then secured him in her jacket sleeve and wrapped it back around her waist. Reese picked up a rock and tossed it in his hand. He smiled and wrapped it up in an extra T-shirt Link had packed.
Impressive, but the deception scared her. “When they find out he’s not in there, they might toss you over the wall.”
“I’m a kid and an expat whose parents have connections. They won’t risk it. Besides, I saw Sasha take pictures when Jackie was arguing with them. If I know her, she already emailed them to herself. I’ll remind them that if I disappear, they’ll be the first suspects. Just help me get over this section. The farther I go, the more people there will be. I can make a scene if necessary.”
Regan kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you for being you.” Then she hopped on the low-lying border wall. In the distance she saw the thieves. Both stopped. The shorter guy wearing the red shirt pointed then started running.
“Come on. Come on. Come on.” Regan extended a hand and helped Reese maneuver over the wall. She jumped and landed on the ground next to him, tightening her jacket. “When I get to Mutianyu, I’ll send someone to get you. Keep the water.”
“Thank you for helping us.” He hopped stepped next to her.
“Yeah, well, if you see Link before I do, tell him I want answers. Promise me you’ll keep walking. It’d be better if they don’t catch you.”
“Tell that to my throbbing foot.”
“You can rest your foot later. You need to move as fast as you can.” Regan backed away, secured her shirt-jacket one last time, and then ran.
Link piled into the van after Sasha. Sweat poured down her red face. He hated pushing so hard, but they had to get to Mutianyu. If Regan and Reese ran the entire way, they were probably about there. No doubt Regan could make the run, but Link wasn’t sure about Reese.
Jackie hopped in the front and started the van. Link checked his phone. No service. No GPS. Link should have been the one to run with Reese, but they couldn’t leave the girls alone with three guys in a remote village. Neither girl spoke Mandarin very well, and Link wasn’t a hundred percent sure Jackie could be trusted.
They should have stayed together. Five against two, they might have been able to take the guys, but one of them could have gotten hurt.
Link’s side throbbed from the hit he’d taken when he blocked the path of the guy in the black T-shirt. Sasha had detained them longer by flirting. Neither told her why they wanted 0x, but when Sasha asked how they found them in the middle of nowhere, the guy with quick reflexes and a solid kick laughed and said that should be obvious.
“I need water.” Sasha tapped Jackie’s shoulder and tipped her hand in a drink motion. “Shui?”
Jackie answered her in Mandarin and lit a cigarette.
Sasha turned toward Link. “What did he say?”
Link pointed over the seat. “Water is in the back.”
“Thank goodness.” She came back with two bottles. “Are you sure you’re ok? That guy kicked you hard. I thought he broke one of your ribs.”
“I’m fine.” Link leaned forward, meeting Jackie’s gaze in the mirror. “We need to go fast.”
Jackie nodded as he put the car in gear.
“So, what’s the plan?” Sasha took another drink of water.
“Pick up Reese and Regan. Hopefully we’ll have cell service soon and can meet up.”
“Do you think those guys will catch them?”
Link used the tail of his T-shirt to wipe the sweat off his face. “No. Regan knows what to expect.”
“Why? Has she been chased by bad guys before? Wouldn’t surprise me. America is a violent place.”
Link rolled his eyes. “She knows the route and the terrain.”
“Watching videos isn’t the same as hiking the trail.”
“It’s better than knowing nothing,” Link snapped.
“I still don’t see why you couldn’t just give them the robot. You might lose two years of hard work, but it’s better than someone losing a life.”
“No one is going to lose a life!” He had to believe his mates would make it safely. Link couldn’t handle it if something happened to them.
But Sasha was right. He’d put all of them in danger. Maybe those guys didn’t have guns, but they could hurt them in other ways. Shoving 0x off on Regan had been a selfish move in a desperate situation.
“I’m sorry,” Link said. “You’re right. We should have given up the robot.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Link stared at his phone, waiting for the smallest bar to appear. He tapped Jackie’s shoulder and spoke in Mandarin. “I will give you eighty pounds if you go faster. Much faster.”
“And you’ll pay the fine if I get caught?”
Link nodded. The van sped up but not fast enough. Link tried the transmitter, but no one answered. Why weren’t they using it?
Thirty minutes later, Jackie pulled into the parking area at the base of the mountain. Link climbed around Sasha and opened the door before the van stopped. “Wait here and watch for them. I’ll be back.” He put the phone to his ear, jumped out, and ran up the wide, crowded road lined with vendors selling silk pictures, toys, T-shirts, and all sorts of other souvenirs.
The crowd thickened the nearer he came to the entrance. Link lost time, weaving through people. Why weren’t they answering their phones? He’d been trying for fifteen minutes.
No way did those guys catch them. He chose not to believe it. There were three ways to come down the mountain: on foot, the ski lift, or the toboggan.
Last time Link rode the toboggan, he and Charlie timed their descents, broke the rules, and received a stern lecture. Charlie always broke the rules … with no regrets. He lived on the edge every day until it ended way too soon.
Link shook his head to clear thoughts of his brother. The memories never ended with a positive one, and right now, he needed positive.
Twenty or so feet in front, coming down the sloped road, Link saw a red tank top and a long braid. He plowed through people and called Regan’s name, waving. She scanned the crowd, found him, and smiled.
Where was Reese? Regan wasn’t carrying the backpack. His pulse quickened as he pushed forward. Regan flung arms around his neck. “Thank God. I was so worried about you guys. Where’s Sasha?”
“In the van.” He put his hands on her waist and pushed her back. “Where’s Reese?”
Her smile disappeared, replaced by a grim line.
His heart fell into his gut.
“Twisted his ankle. He’s still up there. I told several people and had one lady translate to a guy who looked like a guard. He said he would send someone after him.” Regan unwound her flannel. “But I have 0x.” She showed him the robot.
Link shielded 0x from view and scanned the crowd for the men. He placed an arm over Regan’s shoulder and turned them toward the parking lot. “Reese isn’t answering his phone, so he’s still too far away for cell service. You have the transmitter?”
She worked the radio out of her front pocket and handed it to him. He flipped a switch. “Only works if it’s turned on.”
“Well, I was a little busy.”
Link sighed and glanced back at the mountain. He needed to help Reese, but first he had to get Regan and 0x out of the open. “Can you jog?”
She nodded, and they took off.
At the van, Sasha grabbed Regan in a hug and gave her water.
Link spoke to Jackie. Then he relayed their conversation to the girls. “Jackie will take you home.” Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but he didn’t know what else to do. He focused on Regan. “Can you keep 0x awhile longer? I’m sure those guys know where Reese and I live.”
He handed her the second transmitter and made eye contact, hoping she could see his remorse. She asked for fun and he gave her danger. “I owe you. I’ll call you later.”
Link grabbed a backpack, walked to the rear of the van, and tossed in a couple bottles of water.
Regan turned and leaned over her seat. “Want me to go back with you? I can.”
“He should be easy to find, and you need to get away from here in case those guys search the parking lot. We’ll meet up later. Keep the transmitter on. It’ll work if the phone doesn’t.”
Link turned and ran up the hill. Quickest way up would be the ski lift, but the line was backed up. Where was Charlie when he needed some western charm to go with his blond hair? Link swallowed hard, switched to an American accent, and approached a group of Chinese girls near his age at the front of the line. “Hey, my name is Zac, could you help me out?” He smiled and explained that his friend was somewhere on the wall hurt.
Throughout the ride, he tolerated the giggles, stares, and shallow questions until his feet touched ground. Tapping into Charlie’s charm one more time, Link kissed the cheek of the girl who shared her chair. He didn’t look back as he entered the throng of tourists and moved as fast as the crowd allowed. In less than a quarter mile, he found Reese sitting with his back to the wall, leg outstretched. Eyes closed. No backpack.
Link dropped his shoulders and slid down the wall beside Reese.
“What took you so long?” Reese opened his eyes and grinned.
“Jackie has no concept of the words go fast.” Link handed him a fresh bottle of water. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what? You didn’t do anything.”
“You wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for my stupid decision to save an inanimate object.”
“Why do you think your decision was stupid?”
“I put real people in danger.”
Reese snorted. “We’re not in danger from those guys. I just convinced them a rock was the robot. Besides, protecting 0x is not about saving an object. This is our life, our future, and no one, at least not some random, wanna-be-gangsters, are going to steal that from us.”
“Did they say why they wanted 0x?”
“They’re just delivery guys. They don’t know who wants him or why.” Reese pushed up his glasses and took on a cheesy sort of half grin. “But something else happened.”
Link lifted an eyebrow.
“I think I’m growing on Regan. We had time to talk, and who knew? She likes geeks. She hinted that if I’d just be myself, we might have a shot at being more than friends.”
“She said that?”
“Maybe not those exact words…” Reese lifted a shoulder. “But she kissed me.” Disbelief tinged with jealousy moved through Link. But he had no right to be jealous. He’d pushed Regan off on Reese. “So, was this a full-on romantic kiss or a peck on the cheek?”
“Does it matter?”
Regan didn’t hold back when it came to expressing herself. A kiss on the cheek meant nothing, but a more intense kiss on the mouth could mean everything. Fearful whatever he said would come out wrong, Link hopped to his feet and changed the subject. “No. You called those guys chasing us random … I don’t think they were random.”
“How do you find someone or something where GPS doesn’t work?” He clasped hands with Reese and pulled him into a standing position.
“Use a highly sophisticated device that picks up random satellite signals.” His eyes widened. “You don’t think…”
Link nodded. The newest tracking device W-Z labs created was still in the testing phase, but so far, it worked well in off-the-grid areas.
They searched their clothes, shoes, and wallets.
“Here it is.” Reese pulled the device, no bigger than a watch battery, out of a pocket in his wallet. He heaved it deep into the surrounding forest.
“That came from inside the lab.” A chill moved through Link. “We need to get a hold of your dad. Whoever planted that on you probably has access to records.”
“Which means they’ll have access to 0x’s tracking number.”
“Which means when they discover the rock, they might start tracking 0x instead of you.”
“If they haven’t already been tracking him.”