By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Atheneum, 2009.
This page contains the prologue and Chapter Eight of The Walls Have Eyes, sequel to The Sky Inside.
"She's melted down? Completely?"
"We couldn't save a single chip."
One middle-aged man and two young men sat on folding chairs in a lemon yellow cube of a room six feet long and six feet high. So close was the space that the knees of their gray pinstripe suits almost touched. With its bright walls and rigid shape, the room bore a resemblance to a hollowed-out baby's block, but the grim expressions on the faces of the men indicated that playtime was far from their minds. In fact, the baby's block was a clean room, a small space free of bugs or any other spying device. Director Montgomery was taking no chances.
"I conducted the interview myself," Montgomery continued. "The collector bot had failed to bring in her target, a suburban boy named Martin Glass. Five minutes after the collector arrived in our facility, a top priority order came through from Central to melt her at once. I'd barely started the interview when she went into shutdown."
"Pardon me, Director Montgomery," said one of the young men, "but I don't see why that's such a surprise. The collector had failed. She was malfunctioning. No wonder she was scrapped."
"Thank you for that brilliant insight, Zebulon," Montgomery said. "But I do have some small amount of intelligence, and I thought of that myself. I responded that we understood the demolition order, but we needed time to hold the exit interview. That time was emphatically denied. Yes, the collector had something to tell, and we weren't supposed to hear it. That's what was going on."
He sighed. His colleagues sighed too. Then all three scratched the tips of their noses.
Montgomery was in his fifties, and Zebulon and his partner were in their twenties. Nevertheless, they bore an uncanny resemblance to one another, and not just because of their gray suits. They were clones, duplicates of an operative who had become Agency Director some seventy years ago. That chief had realized his management troubles would be over if his entire workforce thought the same way he did. He had filled the Agency with copies of himself, and his copies had done in-house cloning ever since.
Montgomery leaned toward the two young men with whom he shared a complete set of DNA and an unaccountable fondness for spicy burritos. "Now, you listen to me, Abel, and you do as you're told for a change, Zebulon. Don't repeat this next bit of information once you leave the clean room. Shortly after the meltdown, the Secretary of State contacted my office and asked about 'that Martin Glass boy.' It seems he wanted to interview the collector himself."
"Then you mean—"
"That's right. He didn't know the collector was gone. When I told him she'd been scrapped, he cussed me for a fool. He thought I'd ordered the meltdown. Boys, this looks like a secret plot hatched in the highest levels of government. And for once, the Secretary of State didn't do the hatching."
The two young agents exchanged identical worried looks. "And that means you want us to—"
"That's right! Find out what's going on. I want to know whatever it is that the Secretary of State doesn't know. A little secret plotting is good for this fine nation, but the Agency needs to be in on the joke. If the Secretary has the bad luck to get himself assassinated, we need to be ready to congratulate the winners."
Abel glanced at Zebulon and cleared his throat. "Um ... doesn't the Secretary demand our absolute loyalty, sir?"
"They all demand our absolute loyalty," Montgomery answered, "right up to the minute they're dead. Now, I don't have much for you to go on. Aside from the boy's name, we only have one decent clue. The packet chief who was present at the failed collection of Martin Glass said that there was the boy, and then there was a copy of the boy. I thought the copy might have been a hologram, or even the packet chief's imagination, so that was the first question I put to the collector. She confirmed that the copy was there. But get this: 'My canine colleague'—that's what she called it."
"'Colleague'?" Zebulon mused. "I thought collectors worked alone."
"'Canine'?" Abel said. "Sir, you can't mean—you don't mean a dog?"
"Agent Abel, I don't mean anything," Montgomery said severely. "I just repeat what I hear. It's up to you two to put the meaning into it. Now get out there and find out what's going on!"
Meanwhile, several hundred miles from the clean room, in a secret mountain hideaway that had become the Wonder Baby school, Martin Glass sat on the cafeteria floor and hugged his bot dog. The ecstatic German shepherd bestowed such a frenzy of swipes to Martin's face that the hair that normally fell into his eyes defied gravity for the rest of the day.
Martin's new friend Theo shook her head in disbelief at the hysterical reunion. "How did you manage to get your hands on that superbot, anyway?" she asked.
"Birthday present," Martin said. "Chip, get your nose out of my eye. Settle down. I'm fine!"
Chip flopped onto the floor to beg for a tummy rub and nearly knocked Martin over. I love you more than anything, his dark eyes told Martin. You are my whole world.
"So you got him by accident," Theo said. "Modified bots cost a fortune. That's somebody's very expensive mistake."
"Don't listen to her, Chip," Martin said. "You're not a mistake. You're my dog—the best dog in the world."
[Omitted from this set of sample chapters]
Trailing behind his parents as they hiked down the old road, Martin tried to talk them out of their decision. Instead of nagging or whining, he tried honesty: he attempted to convey some idea of the dangerous enemies these houses held. But honesty failed in spectacular fashion. He wasn't surprised. It usually did.
Decayed houses crowded the underbrush at the edge of the road like grotesque monsters shambling into the light. Their busted doors seemed to leer at Martin; the sunlight glittering on their broken windows winked with obscene meaning. The roof of the house closest to him had fallen in, so that it looked like it was wearing a hat pulled down over one eye. "I swear, I've seen zombies hiding in better-looking houses than these," he told them. "We're gonna be sorry once it gets to be night."
Dad ignored him. He sized up the line of sinister wooden buildings as briskly as if they were new scooters. "We won't go look at that one," he said, pointing. "Too worn. It's gone all soft."
"Walt, this one coming up doesn't look so bad."
"Great, Mom," Martin groaned. "That one looks just like our house back home ... in a few million years, maybe."
Their shabby road wound around the base of a steep, forested hill. Other roads branched off it. Dozens of ruined houses came into view. "Wonderful," Martin whispered. "A whole zombie suburb."
They came around a long curve, and the road changed. It split into two roads running parallel to each other, with a strip of tall weeds and bushes between them. The concrete slabs of the two roads heaved and tilted at awkward angles.
Enormous trees lined each side of the new double road. A number of them were hollow black shells with only a spray or two of green leaves to show that they still lived. Others were dead, rattling skeletons with brittle branches. Several had fallen across the roadway.
Off to the left was open ground, a break from the dilapidated houses. Iron swing set frames and the remains of a stand of bleachers stood among bushes and wildflowers.
"That was a park," Mom said.
A couple of hundred yards beyond the old bleachers, the ground lapped up to the edge of a steep incline covered with massive pine trees. Directly above that slope rose gray granite cliffs.
"Wow!" Martin said. "The mountain starts right over there." The nearness and hugeness of it made his pulse race with excitement. It was accessible. It was personal. Heck, it was part of a park! What fun he and David would have had if they'd had a mountain in their park.
"A park is good news," Dad opined. "The best houses are by the park."
A shallow, pebbly stream flowed down from beneath the dark pine trees at the mountain's foot and cut across the park parallel to their street. It sang loudly with its own importance.
"Come on, Chip," Martin called, and they hurried over to investigate.
The stream wasn't deeper than two or three feet. The streambed was full of light gray rocks, and it foamed over these minor obstacles with great excitement, as if it were a fearsome cataract. Martin liked it right away.
Chip liked it too. He waded into it up to his hocks, and it tried to sweep his tail downstream. He bit at the water while Martin plunked stones into it. Then the two of them ran back to make their report.
"I saw fish, Dad. They were brown, maybe this big, with little spots all over them. Even though the water's moving really fast, they didn't move."
"That's some good news at last."
"Look at that," Mom said. "Over there."
Across from the park, grand houses were set far back from the street, all but invisible beneath tough gray-green vines. Handsome details peeked through the leaves: stately pillars on either side of the driveway, a bay window here, a carved lintel there. They were like nothing Martin had seen before.
"Maybe families were bigger then," Dad said. "I think you could fit twenty people in that one."
Chip sniffed at a statue of a little boy tilted at an angle next to the street. Its stone skin was green with mold, and ivy smothered it; only the head and one chubby arm escaped. Under a massive tree were the concrete ends of what had been a graceful bench. Its boards were gone, leaving only the suggestion of leisure: the ghost of a seat.
"It's cool," Martin said, "but spooky. I like the park better."
They investigated the larger houses as the day wore on. Several of the buildings were promising, but others, being bigger, had just fallen into more dramatic decay. Entire walls of glass had shattered and exposed their rooms to the elements, and massive beams were wedged precariously against shifting supports.
Evening came early in the lee of the towering mountain. A hush had already fallen under the cool shadows of the trees. Birds sang quiet, senseless songs in the lush, overgrown bushes. Even the loud stream in the park sounded subdued now. It had wandered away, and a portion of its water had been diverted into a large, quiet pond.
Martin began to look over his shoulder.
"House-to-House has green skeletons that shoot spells," he said. "During the day, they're these thin, stripy shadows, and at night they glow. But when it's in between, like now, they blend right in with the backgrounds."
Dad was walking a few feet ahead of them. He let out a shout.
"Look at that roof! And almost all the windows are in. A crack here and there, but they'll still do their job."
"The back could be gone," Mom warned before Dad could get too excited, but she had to agree that the house he had found seemed remarkable. Its rows of dark gray shingles were so regular and even, they might have been brand-new. The walls showed no sign of damage either, and no wonder, Martin thought. They were made out of mortared stones.
The house was not as large as the grand wrecks they had already visited, but it wore an air of stately dignity. Two stories tall and wide across the front, it had crisp, clean lines that reassured the eye. The front door was in the exact middle, tucked away behind an arched portico that rested on thin columns. At least, it appeared to rest on them. Martin realized as they walked past it that the left-hand column no longer touched the ground.
"It's a very simple shape," Mom said. "A rectangle. But that's what gives it its beauty."
"It looks like a shoebox," Martin said.
Dad climbed up onto a garden wall that abutted the corner of the house. "This roof is made out of stone. Stone!" he marveled. "That's got to weigh a ton!"
They walked all the way around it. Only a couple of windows were broken. "I can't see in," Mom said, pushing her way between rangy shrubs. "There's a covering on the windows. Some sort of privacy film."
The veneer had peeled off the front door in ugly flakes, but it still stood firm in its hinges. Dad stepped gingerly across a sloping vegetable heap that had built up against the door. Then he rattled the handle.
"It's locked or stuck," he said. "No surprise there. Martin, can your bot give it a try?"
Inside, there was no color. Everything was the gray hue of dust. It furred the banister of the stairwell that faced them and lay like a carpet on its treads. It obliterated the pattern of the hall floor, so that it was impossible to guess what kind of floor it was. And in every beam of dusky light that peeked through the grimy windows, dust motes danced in a hypnotic swirl.
"That's your privacy film," Dad said as they stepped inside, pointing to the dust on the windows.
His voice sent a storm of specks rising, like a flock of pale, infinitesimally tiny birds. In an instant, the air was thick with dust, too thick to breathe. The three of them choked and hacked, and they pulled their sheets up over their noses and spoke in desperate signals to one another. They made their way past the stairs and practically fell into the room beyond, wheezing and gasping.
This room was a little less dusty, but much dirtier. Puffs of air filtering through a couple of cracked panes had kept the dust from forming faery drifts, but brown pellets and droppings ran in trails around the edges of the room, and spiderwebs muffled every object in untidy mummy wrappings. Living spiders still pursued their occupation in the gritty nets alongside the remains of their ancestors. Hollowed-out bodies of insects lay in the caked dirt on the windowsills like carcasses after Armageddon.
Like an optical illusion that turns from a vase into two faces, the dim room suddenly made sense to Martin. It was a living room, and this disreputable object taking up an inordinate amount of floor space turned out to be a very long couch. Here were two chairs beside it; they had probably not always been greasy beige. More objects asserted themselves: an end table, a round table, straight-backed chairs, a lamp. Long draperies of no particular color still hung at the edges of the windows, torn into lacy scoops and scallops by their own meager weight.
"It's so dirty!" Mom gasped once she could speak again.
Dad cleared his throat three or four times. "You've been sleeping on dirt."
The kitchen was bright with windows in spite of the clinging grime. Dried plants in pots lined the window over the sink. Dad pointed out a fridge, but they lacked the fortitude to open it.
Chip found two small dishes on the floor and stuck his nose into them. Small painted paw prints lined their dusty rims.
"Hey, Chip," Martin said. "This is a pet-friendly house. They set out a plate for you."
Dad went to one of the windows and rubbed a clean spot on the glass. "You can just get a glimpse of the park," he said. "Here we are, Tris, another house on the street by the park, and I can't see the fishpond, but I know it's right over there. We'll sleep safe indoors tonight. No more waking up to killer dogs."
Martin's heart sank. After the wide horizons of the outside world, he mistrusted the close space. "I'm gonna look around a little," he said, backing away.
"Don't go up the stairs," Dad said. "The floor up there might not be safe."
This whole place might not be safe, Martin thought.
He held his breath and tiptoed by the front door. The dust storm had not yet subsided. Covering his nose, he hurried down the hall. In this part of the house, cracks in the glass had prevented the dust buildup, and he could explore at leisure.
At the end of the passage, he found the largest bedroom he'd ever seen, a dim, cavernous room with heavy, thick drapes over the windows. These still held together, although Martin suspected that they would tear like paper if touched.
A bad smell hung in the room, acrid and rank, and the bed looked strangely disordered. As they walked past, small squeaks rose from its rents and fissures, and tiny gray mice raced past their feet.
Chip wrinkled his black muzzle at the smell and eyed Martin unhappily.
"No, don't worry," Martin said. "I don't want you to catch one."
A room next to the bedroom was lined with dark objects on shelves, and a padded chair stood before a wide wooden desk. Nothing squeaked or scurried, and here at least the faded brown color scheme seemed to work. The room wasn't dim, but it wasn't bright, either. Bushes or vines had grown up to shade most of the window.
Martin approached the desk to see if the square things stacked on it might be antique game cartridges. A basket on the desk held a mound of pale fur, and a dirty glove lay across it. That seemed like a strange place to leave a glove.
Martin's eye followed glove to sleeve, sleeve to chair. He discovered that the chair wasn't padded after all, but something padded was in the chair. He took two steps to its other side and almost fainted from fright. A skull rested its bony cheek against the desk and surveyed him through wire-rimmed glasses.
The skull and desk wavered. Then they whisked out of sight. The kitchen appeared almost instantaneously. Martin's feet had taken action on their own.
"Skeleton!" he shouted. "Zombie, skeleton!"
Mom and Dad turned toward him, startled.
"Skeleton, skull," Martin babbled. "Skull and glasses—gold teeth! And crap, crap, crap, that wasn't a glove. It was a—a—not a glove!"
"Don't say 'crap,'" Mom said automatically.
Dad said, "Settle down."
Martin became aware that he was dancing from foot to foot, but when he tried to stop, his feet wouldn't obey. "Aren't you listening?" he cried. "There's a skeleton in here, or a zombie or something, just like in House-to-House Hunt-Down! We need to get out before it comes after us. We need to get our hands on a gun!"
"Walt, is it dangerous?" Mom asked.
"I'll go see," Dad said. "Um ... Chip? Martin, would you ask your bot to come along?"
Dad and Chip left. After a few seconds, Mom followed them. Martin stayed in the kitchen, hyperventilating.
"It's just a dead body," Dad said as he returned. "If your story about the creation of the domed suburbs is correct, it's probably the person who owned this house."
"How do you know that?" challenged Martin in a panic. "Maybe it moved in after the owner left!"
"Ugh," Mom said, making a face as she walked in. "Walt, won't that thing spread disease?"
"I doubt it," Dad said. "Considering the state he's in, I doubt he's any more of a health risk than the rest of this mess. We have plenty of space here. We just won't use that room."
Martin was aghast. "You mean we're gonna sleep in a house with a skeleton?"
"It's just a bunch of bones," Mom said. "Trash, like chicken bones. Outside those violent games of yours, skeletons don't walk around."
Dad and Mom went back to the kitchen cabinets. Inevitably, Martin wandered back to the skeleton. He went to the room where it sat and watched it for a while from the doorway. It didn't look like a padded chair at all. Then again, it didn't look like a person in a chair either.
He tiptoed closer, staying out of sight of those grime-filmed spectacles. The back of the skull was hidden by hair, or maybe a mixture of spiderwebs and dust. Inside the wide gap of the shirt collar, the neck had shriveled down to almost nothing, and the whole bony form seemed shrunken, like a boy in his dad's suit.
Martin couldn't make up his mind about it. One second, it seemed small and pitiful. The next, it seemed uncanny and horribly inhuman, and he wanted to smash it with the nearest heavy object he could find.
Rudy had told him that the people who hadn't gotten picked for the domed suburbs lined up to be given euthanasia shots. This was such a big place, with so many houses and so many people. Those lines must have been pretty long.
"I guess I'd want to die at home too," Martin murmured to Chip. "You know, have a little peace and quiet."
The skeleton didn't acknowledge that he had spoken. It continued to slump in the same discolored heap it had formed for decades. Martin plucked up the courage to come closer.
Dry brown skin encased the bony hand in a glove of its own making. It lay in that flattish nest of fur that was piled up in the basket. A pet basket to match the little paw print bowls in the kitchen. A cat bed. The pale fur belonged to a cat.
A vision wove itself together in Martin's mind of the house before the dust, when the neat row of potted plants in the kitchen had been green and flourishing. The world was ending, and people were forming long lines to get their shot. But this man with the paw print bowls couldn't do that. What would happen to his cat? He couldn't just put her outside and not come back. He loved her too much. So he gave his cat poison and stroked her until she lay still, and then he took poison himself. And the soft fur of his cat was the last thing he felt as he drifted away into death.
Martin's throat ached. He knelt down and buried his face in his dog's shaggy fur. "I wouldn't leave you, either, Chip," he said. "Not ever."
Then he walked out of the room without looking back. The skeleton didn't scare him anymore.
Copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Text courtesy of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division.