Six-thirty in the morning, the sun was already on ascent and the temperature a comfortable 20 degrees. Link slowed his e-bike for the speed bump as he turned right into Zhou-Wong labs and stopped behind Reese at the guard shack. Reese’s mom and dad met at NYU, married after college, and lived in Taiwan until Reese’s grandfather retired. Then they moved to Beijing and his mom took over as CEO. Since both his parents were top Z-W executives, Reese and his brother spent a lot of time here and even had their own mini lab in the basement.
Reese looked back and nodded. Link sped up, shifted, and followed him through the near-empty parking lot, around the white double story building to the rear where they shared a parking space close to the back entrance. As long as they left within an hour, they wouldn’t be in the way.
Helmets in hand, they entered the building and immediately descended a set of stairs off to the right. At the bottom, they entered a hall and passed a couple of large rooms set up for testing but stopped short when one of the lab doors opened. A guy about their age, or a couple years older, stepped out.
“Reese. Hello. Didn’t expect to see you here so early. Is this your friend I’ve heard so much about?”
English. Interesting. Maybe from Singapore? or Hong Kong? Link extended his hand and introduced himself.
“My name is Mek. You can call me Mike. I’ve heard about your progress combining AI and GPS for indoor flight. Cutting edge stuff. I’d love to talk to you about it sometime.”
“Sure.” Link fiddled with the strap of his backpack as Cheng Fu, Reese’s enormous two-meter uncle, entered the hall. He stopped short and scowled. “Why are you here?”
“Working on a project before school.” Reese answered without flinching.
“The robot?” Mek grinned and rubbed his hands together.
“Yes.” Reese adjusted his backpack and glanced at Link. A signal to follow his lead. Not the first time they lied to Cheng Fu. “There’s an adjustment we want to make before school.”
Cheng Fu jerked his head toward Reese’s room. “Make it quick. We have a demonstration down here first thing this morning.”
“Okay. We’ll hurry.” Reese answered as if obeying orders. Somehow the empowering approach always worked to smooth over Cheng Fu’s intimidating exterior. Reese theorized his uncle was jealous because he hadn’t been made CEO after he married into the family, so stroking the guy’s ego usually bought Reese good favor.
But when Link turned to find Cheng Fu and the English-speaking Mek watching after them, speaking too quietly for Link to hear, good favor was not how he would have described the moment. More like a quiet tolerance.
Reese locked the door and fired up his computer. “When I noticed my anti-virus software had been disabled, I did a random check to identify any suspicious connections.” He tapped on several keys to access the command prompt screen and showed Link four foreign addresses. “With a temporary email link, I tracked their IP’s and traced their location.” He pulled up his email. “You ready for this?”
“I already have a guess.”
He copied the latitude and longitude coordinates and pasted them into Google Maps. They waited as the screen loaded, offering an image and the physical address for … their school.
“That’s what I thought.” Link said, not at all surprised or concerned someone hid behind a school computer. A useless way of getting data given the hours it would take to navigate the security obstacles. No one would spend that amount of time at school. “Whoever did this is trying to make a statement. Prove they can do it.”
“Should we worry that people are asking questions about 0x150 and the algorithms?”
“Not if this is Dylan and his gurus.” Link pulled out his computer, turned it on, and walked to the fireproof safe in the corner of the room where they kept the external hard drive.
“I was talking about Mek. And what if it isn’t Dylan?”
“Then we should back up all our information and wipe the computers clean. Just in case they try again. But I have another idea.”
Regan felt Link’s gaze when he and Reese sat down at the lab table in Physics class and shifted only her eyes away from Braam Malherbe’s book The Great Run. Why did he look at her with that goofy half-smile when he didn’t want to have anything to do with her? She’d planned to confront him at the bus stop and ask what about her turned him off, but was glad when he didn’t show. Nothing like making a fool of herself the second day of school. And because of a boy no less.
He reached into his backpack and pulled out hers. “You left this at my house last night.”
Not like he could have brought it to her before school. That would have required a moment alone. A situation he obviously wanted to avoid. She grabbed it, placed her books inside, then zeroed in on his best friend. “Hey, Reese. Link said you have connections for climbing the Great Wall.”
“Yeah, my uncle runs a tour company. When do you want to go?” He braced his forearms on the table and leaned forward, smiling sweetly. A part of her wanted to play into it, try and make Link jealous, but she hated those games. If Link didn’t want to spend time with her that was his right.
“Go where? I want to go.” Sasha joined them with the same vibrant flair as yesterday. Today she wore a pink jacket and a pink bow in her hair.
Regan shifted her eyes to the side to catch Link’s reaction. He was still looking at her, eyes narrowed. “Something wrong?” Regan snapped. He shook his head and looked away.
Regan closed her eyes to refocus. She didn’t need to be mean. Link did nothing wrong. But disappointment from his rejection upset her—a bruising left over from Noah. But she barely knew Link. His interest in her shouldn’t matter. So why did it? Was she rebounding? The thought made her shudder. She wasn’t that shallow. Was she?
Regan forced a smile. “We should all go. Honestly, I think it’s the only way my parents will allow it.”
“Great idea.” Sasha pulled out her notebook as she were about to take down an appointment. “Link and I aren’t much into hiking, so he and I can take the ski lift up the mountain while you and Reese hike.”
Link looked up like he’d unwittingly warped into another universe. Reese laughed while Regan frowned, hating how Sasha spoke for him as if he couldn’t think for himself.
“I think Link might enjoy hiking up the mountain. Could be a fun challenge.” Regan faced him and tipped her head. “Never know unless you try.”
“Link, which do you prefer? Ski lift or hiking?” Sasha glared at Regan.
Regan tipped her head, confused by the snippiness, then she widened her eyes, realizing she made it sound like she wanted Link to choose her option—to choose her. Ooops.
Link glanced between them. “I’m staying home.” He opened his physics book and ended the conversation.
After class, Regan hurried out. Sitting next to Link, yet avoiding last night’s encounter had been exhausting. She needed to find other friends. A pang of homesickness washed through her. She missed her sister—a confidant to bounce ideas off of and a friend to set her straight before she derailed. Katie—level-headed Biomedical engineering major. Better in school, better in sports, better in life. Regan was opening her locker as Link caught up to her. He wore a dorky blue and white jersey t-shirt that said team internet.
He wrapped a hand around the edge of her door and leaned in close. “I need to talk to you in private.”
Regan changed the contents in her backpack then touched the words on his shirt with her fingertips. “Are you more into computers, robotics, or math?”
He looked down and rubbed a hand over where her fingers had been.
“Math. Why?” They dodged groups of kids as they started down the hall.
“I’m trying to understand you. Why’d you blow me off last night?”
He expelled a breath and glanced at the ceiling. “Can you meet me in the physics classroom at lunch? I need to talk to you about something important.”
“Blowing me off isn’t important?”
“It’s not what you think.” They reached the door to her history class, and she turned on him, frustrated.
“It’s not a big deal. Just for—”
A tall blond slipped between them. “Hey, new girl. What’s your name?”
American. Blue eyes. Built well enough to fill out the navy blue Nike T-shirt. How’d she miss him yesterday? Maybe being overwhelmed in a new school had something to do with it. “Regan Hepburn.”
“Dylan.” He held out his hand. She shook it.
“Uh…” she peered around him, hinting that she was busy. The guy turned. “Oh, hey, Link, didn’t see you, man. How’s it going?”
Link rolled his eyes, focused on Regan, and started to speak, but Dylan interjected.
“So, how’s the toy robot? He didn’t come down with a cold, did he?” Dylan laughed.
Link stood tall and stepped an inch closer. “There aren’t enough brain cells between you, Stephen, and James to figure out how to touch our robot. And fixing the computer was like wiping a snotty nose. Annoying but nothing to it.”
Hurt their robot? Wait. What was going on? This was not the shy Link she originally met.
Dylan crossed his arms as if creating a barrier. “You won’t be so lucky next time.”
“In the ring or with the computer?”
Dylan turned red. Oh no, he was going to punch Link. Regan prepared to jump in the middle, but the teacher came to the door. “In or out, people?”
Dylan relaxed and backed up. What? No fight? No locker slams? No one-upping?
Link fixed his eyes on Regan. “See you at lunch?”
You betcha. She had questions.
Dylan glanced between them and slipped an arm over her shoulder. “C’mon, Regan Hepburn, before he makes us late.”
Regan jerked herself out from under his arm and pointed at Link. “Be prepared to talk.”
Link smiled. Those dimples brightened her world, making everything Mrs. Sherman said about Cambodia and Vietnam a little more interesting and her stupid attraction to Link more confusing.
Two hours later, Regan carried a sack lunch into the physics classroom. Link sat at their usual table, computer open and 0x in front of him.
“Hey,” Regan pulled out a salad. “Where’s Reese?”
“Making a call to his uncle to organize one amazing adventure.”
“Doesn’t waste time, does he? What are you doing? Where’s your lunch?”
“No time. I need to finish programming 0x. Hope you don’t mind. It’s for safety measures.”
“You need to eat. Sit for a second.” Regan pulled out a plastic container. “I bought this oversized brownie for us to share.” She showed him. “Which is why I have two forks, but I’ll share my salad, too.”
“No, you eat it. I’m fine.” He tapped on the computer.
“Eat with me, or I’m leaving.” She placed the bowl of veggies in between them. “Especially eat the egg on top. Those are gross.”
He chuckled, took the fork, and plopped on the stool. “Fine.”
She pulled out a bottle of water. “So, what’s up with Dylan?”
Link rolled his eyes. “He’s an annoying gnat we can’t seem to squash.”
“Why?” She plunged her fork through the lettuce.
“Sophomore year, Dylan Brayden lost a taekwon do match to Reese. Since then, Dylan’s had it in for him. He’s not very smart, but he has money and people skills. He manipulates to get other students to do stuff for him.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“His homework, hacking to pull tests and change grades. Periodically, they try to mess with Reese’s programs, but it never works.”
“And that’s what happened this time?”
“He pretty much admitted to it.” Link cut the egg in half.
The classroom door opened. Mr. Oakley entered. “Oh, hey, Link…” The teacher’s eyes drifted to her, and he frowned. “Regan. I didn’t know you were eating lunch in my classroom. Next time you might think about asking permission.”
“It’s my fault. I invited her.” Link put the egg in his mouth.
“Sorry, Mr. Oakley but someone has to make Link eat, or he’ll waste away working on this robot.” Regan grinned at her nonsense.
“Yes. Leave it to the presumptuous American to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Hey…!” Grin morphed to scowl. Link touched her arm and shook his head, a silent warning to keep her big mouth shut. Not easy. She wasn’t some robotic-geek groupie. Link invited her here.
Link spoke softly. “The reason I didn’t agree to hang out last night was because Reese likes you. He said something yesterday, and—”
“Yeah. Bro-code. I get it.” She stabbed a piece of celery but didn’t eat it right away. “I’m not into him though. I mean, he’s nice, and I think it’ll be fun for all of us to hang out, but…” she shrugged. “Don’t worry. I won’t stalk you or anything. That’ll make Sasha happy, too.”
He expelled a breath. “I’m not into her, and I never will be.”
“None of my business.” She forewent the salad and dug into the brownie. “But you’re going to the Great Wall with us. Even if I have to drag you.”
“You know me…” She flipped her eyes toward Mr. Oakley who typed away on his computer at the front of the room. “Presumptuous American…”
Between Link’s honesty and that smile, Regan had no clue how she’d kill her attraction.
Two weeks later, Reese and his cousin, Jackie, picked them up in front of Link’s house well before sunrise. To simplify the pickup, Sasha had spent the night with Regan. Surprisingly, they’d had a good time, applying face masks, French braiding their hair, talking about past boyfriends. It’d been a nice way to curb the homesickness she felt for Katie.
Even though they Skyped, her sister was too busy to be held down for more than a few minutes, so there’d never been enough time to dig deep into any one topic. Like Noah. Or Link. Or why she felt a hollowness growing inside her.
“Hey, Reese.” Regan tousled Reese’s hair as she climbed into the van behind the passenger seat where Reese sat. She landed next to Sasha with a thud. Reese playfully glared as he made sure his spikes were still in place. Link brought up the rear and collapsed on the backseat, sleeping the entire two-hour ride to Xizhazi, two hours outside Beijing.
The sun was barely up when they passed under a tall red archway with Chinese characters across the top. Jackie stopped at a guard shack, paid their entrance fee, and passed back brochure maps. Regan unfolded hers as Jackie drove over the bumpy road, alongside the village of white, stucco homes. The roofs were made from gray overlapping tiles, positioned in rows. Courtyards enclosed home entrances, surrounded by alleyways, big enough for bicycles but not cars.
Window still down, the smells of ginger and chicken drifted inside the van. Men, women, and children dressed in baggy work clothes cut down corn stalks using long-handled sickles, stripped off the ears, and stacked the stalks in piles. Someone else dumped baskets full of the shucked corn ears into a wagon attached to a small tractor.
A group of children waved and ran alongside the van for a short distance.
“What do they do with the corn?” Regan asked.
Reese translated to Jackie, who looked to be only a few years older than the rest of them.
“He’s not sure, but he thinks the land belongs to the government. After harvest, the people get paid for however much corn there is.”
“They use a lot of corn in food for humans and animals. It used to be a major crop.” Sasha half-turned in her seat to include Link who sat up after they hit the last pot hole. He still looked groggy.
Sasha continued. “The government used to stock-pile corn. At one time, they had enough to feed the entire country for six months, but most of it molded. They also had this huge rat infestation. So, they no longer do that.”
The three of them stared at her.
“What? Don’t look so surprised. I may not be a genius, but I know things.”
Beyond the village and cornfields, Jackie parked in an open lot. They climbed out, and Regan stared at the green-covered mountain range. Not rolling and soft like the Appalachians, but like miniature Rocky Mountains—sharp and jagged, covered with pines and other types of trees. The wall snaked across the ridge, a good two or three miles away.
Jackie lit a cigarette and leaned against the van, speaking to Reese in Chinese. Words flew between them as if they were arguing, but their faces remained passive.
Reese looked at each of them and settled on Link. “He said he’ll take us to the first tower, then come back for the van and meet us at the other end.”
“Oh, god.” Sasha doubled over and braced hands on her gray leggings. “Can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
Regan patted her back then yanked lightly on her braid. “I read all the reviews for this hike and watched every YouTube video available. It’s not that tough. You’ll be fine. It’ll be an adventure to remember.”
“Reese…” Sasha sucked in deep breaths. “Your cousin doesn’t speak English, and he can’t answer simple questions about corn production. Now, he plans to leave us. He’s not a real tour-guide, is he?”
All eyes fell on Reese. “He’s not a tour-guide yet, but he’s been out here several times. It’s a straight shot along the wall. We have nothing to worry about.”
It wasn’t a straight shot. Trails and short cuts detoured deteriorated sections, but Regan wasn’t concerned. She could make it without a guide. She slipped on her backpack then adjusted the red and blue flannel she wore over her red tank top that hugged the upper portion of her jeans.
Jackie smashed his cigarette in the van ash tray then he and Reese started down the gravel path, followed by Link and Sasha.
Regan tried to ignore the way Sasha sidled up next to him. Last night, she tolerated her drivel as they stood out on the balcony, speculating which room belonged to Link. It’d been Regan’s lame attempt to try and end her crush.
But it wasn’t working because watching Link talk to Sasha stirred up an ugly annoyance. Frustrated, Regan lifted her gaze to the mountain range, studying the peaks, named for their shape and the way the wall curved or dipped over them.
They hiked a steady upward grade over rocks and tree roots. Regan wiped away sweat as the climb intensified. About thirty yards from the wall where boulders and loose stone had slid down the hillside, creating a barely visible trail.
“We’re almost to the first watchtower,” Reese called back.
“Good, because my legs are burning,” Sasha said.
Reese kept up a steady conversation with his cousin which relieved Regan. She had given Reese several subtle hints that she only wanted to be friends. He’d backed off with the goofy grins and over attentive conversations. So far, it hadn’t affected their friendship. Another reason to avoid Link. The last thing she wanted was to cause tension between best friends. Way too much drama.
Link grasped a small tree, offered Sasha a hand up a stack of boulders, and smiled sheepishly at Regan. “Would you like a hand, or are you good?”
He might not enjoy the outdoors, but he wasn’t klutzy. In fact, he wasn’t overly winded. She mocked a southern drawl and touched her chest. “Why, aren’t you quite the gentleman?” She laughed. He probably had no clue why she did that. She ignored his hand and jumped in front of him. “Your damsel in distress is up there.” She tossed over her shoulder and cringed. That definitely made her sound jealous.
Ahead of them loomed the massive wall and the Zhengbeilou Tower, the actual starting point of their hike. Jackie paid a man sitting beside a bamboo ladder then motioned for them to climb to the top.
“I don’t want to do this.” Sasha shook her head, the braid moving side to side.
“You’re doing this.” Regan grabbed her hand. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Come on. You won’t fall. People do it all the time.” Except they hadn’t met a single person yet.
Jackie and Reese waited at the top while Sasha slowly scaled one rung after another. At the top, Reese grabbed one of Sasha’s arms to steady her as she stepped onto the wall.
Regan glanced at Link and motioned for him to go, but he moved in behind her. “I’ll break your fall if you need it.”
“I’d prefer you just catch me.” She blushed and rushed the rest of her words. “But I won’t need it.” She rushed up the ladder, refusing to look back. As she cleared the top, her breath caught. This section of the landmark was called the wild Great Wall because it hadn’t been refurbished. Every stone underfoot was almost a thousand years old. Crazy.
They made their way into the tower and climbed the concrete steps to the top. Reese said something about crumbling stone and watching her step, but she couldn’t pull her attention from the view of never-ending mountains. The Wall, gray and tan, ran across the very highest peaks, overgrown by trees in various places.
Sasha walked over to a secure corner, sat, and snapped photos while Reese stood in the middle of the tower.
“Stunning, isn’t it?” Link stepped beside her.
“It’s like a monstrous serpent with no end.”
“The air is so fresh, and there are birds. Listen.” He closed his eyes, taking in the chirping as the breeze lifted his hair.
“Worth leaving the confines of a lab?”
He opened his eyes. “I was dreading the crowds, but this is amazing. There aren’t many places to go with no people.”
“Hey, guys. Are you ready to get down from here? This is starting to freak me out.” Sasha walked over and Regan wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Let’s get a picture first.” She snapped a selfie of the two of them then handed her phone to Jackie.
Regan sandwiched herself between Reese and Link while Sasha stood on Link’s other side. After several shots, she took her phone from Jackie and slipped it in her back pocket.
“Everybody ready?” Reese started for the ladder, but stepped to the side while two men cleared the top of the tower, both out of breath. The taller one brushed off the front of his red plaid shirt while the shorter man stepped off of the ladder, blocking their path. Scraggily beard and mustache, he wore a black T-shirt with a white Chinese letter on the corner pocket and stared at Sasha like he’d never seen a blonde-haired girl before.
“Look what we have here.” The tall guy spoke with an Asian accent. Jackie spoke to them in Chinese, but tall-guy waved him off. “We can use English. So the kids understand.”
Regan glanced at her friends, each looking as puzzled as she felt.
“Do we know you?” Reese asked.
“No.” The taller of the two shuffled closer to the center of the landing. “But we know you and Lincoln.”
Still standing near him, Regan felt Link stiffen. He looked around, taking in their surroundings.
“All we want are your backpacks, then you can leave,” Mustache-guy said.
“Why?” Reese glanced from the man to Link.
“We want the robot.”
Regan didn’t see any weapons, so she started for the ladder. “Come on, guys. Ignore them.” The tall guy blocked her path. Link pulled her back and whispered in her ear. “Give them your backpack. Go down. I’ll toss you mine. Then run. We can’t let them get 0x.”
“I knew we should have stayed down there.” Sasha slipped off her backpack but held onto her phone.
Jackie stepped closer to the men and spoke rapidly, flailing his arms. Link spun and pulled the four of them together. “Reese, you and Regan run for Mutianyu. Sasha and I will hold these guys off.”
“What?” Sasha looked horrified.
“The short guy is attracted to you,” he whispered. “And you’re a reporter. Think of something.”
Reese handed Link a transmitter. Link shoved it in his front pocket and looked at Regan. “You know the way.”