Unthank guessed at the reason for their shock. He batted his earlobe; the kids felt at the yellow tags pinned to their ears. “As soon as you stepped out of there, I had you. You’re all tagged. GPS locators. Simple stuff, really.”
Rachel stood defiantly. “Out of our way, creep,” she said. The kids behind her murmured approval. They were thirty-eight strong. Here, beyond the structure and confines of the machine shop, their resistance was unstoppable. The man had no control of them here.
“I’d expected you’d be a little more thankful,” answered Joffrey. “At least one of my little concoctions seems to have done the job. I don’t know how you did it, but I expect to find that out in short time. And, you should know, I’m a man of my word. Wealth, freedom. It’s all yours. Just tell me which of you managed to get out first.”
“No deal,” said the girl behind Rachel. It was Martha Song. Unthank recognized her by her ever-present goggles. “We’re not going to be your slaves anymore.”
Unthank moved his lips into a smile. His body was framed by the exterior of the Unthank Home in the distance; faces could be seen at the windows, the faces of children, who were watching the proceeding standoff. “Come on,” he said. “Where are you gonna go?”
The children didn’t answer; the wind swayed the tall trees behind them.
“That’s right,” said Joffrey. “Nowhere. Now let’s all forget our little squabbles and get back to the Home. Once we’re there, I can take you each individually and see what sort of effect—”
“We said, we’re not going,” said Martha Song. “And you can either stand there and get pounded by a bunch of angry orphans or you can get out of the way.”
Unthank had a chance to respond, two more men had appeared from the direction of the building. They looked as if they’d traveled from two distinctly different eras. One, athletic and broad-shouldered in a tight-fitting suit, wore the demeanor of the modern age; the other, wisp-thin, looked as if he’d fallen from some distant corner of the nineteenth century. The latter adjusted the little spectacles on his nose as he approached.
“What’s going on here, Joffrey?” asked the larger one.
“My Unadoptables, Mr. Wigman,” he said, not taking his eyes off the children. “They’ve made it out. Somehow.” He repeated the last word again, this time more quietly. “Somehow.”
Wigman seemed to study the children carefully, assessing the implications. It gave Elsie a moment to consider just how ridiculous they must look, all huddled around an old man with wooden eyes, all wearing identical dirty jumpsuits and yellow tagged earrings. She thought she saw some glimmer of charity appear on the man’s face, some recognition of Unthank’s endeavors having gotten out of hand.
“This is pointless, Joffrey,” he said finally. The wind whipped at his tie; his perfectly molded hair seemed to ruffle slightly. “Let the kids go.” Here he looked for backing from the man at his side, who’d been craning his head forward and adjusting his glasses all the while. He seemed to be taken by a certain figure in the group.
“Carol Grod!” the man shouted.
The old blind man perked up his ears. A scowl came over his face.
Both Unthank and Wigman turned and stared at Roger. “That’s—him?” stammered Unthank.
Elsie looked up at Carol, analyzing the grim look on his face. “Who is that?” she asked, referring to this strangely dressed man.
“Roger Swindon, as I live and breathe,” said Carol defiantly. “Children, meet the man who carried out the orders to have my eyes taken from me.”
Roger seemed unfazed by the accusation. “That’s the past, Carol. No sense in reliving old hardships.”
“I’m not relivin them, Roger,” replied Carol. “I live with ’em every day.”
Roger smiled embarrassedly at Unthank and Wigman, who stood speechless at his side. He turned back to the group of kids. “Hand him over, kiddos,” he said with all the charm of an impatient dogcatcher.
Unthank managed to snap out of his reverie. “That’s Carol Grod, the machinist. The guy who made the Cog?” he asked, though it sounded more like a statement that he wished somehow proved false. He couldn’t believe the serendipity.
“Yes, Mr. Unthank,” said Roger. “One of them, anyway. That, right there, is one half of our ticket to success.”
Wigman, having heard the exchange, had begun looking at the gaggle of children in an entirely different light. “Listen to him, kids,” he said, fast making sense of the situation. “Give us the old man.” He paused, considering his next words before deciding that threatening children was fairly acceptable behavior in the Industrial Wastes. “And no one gets hurt.”
“You’re the one who’s gonna get hurt,” said Martha.
The crowd of children murmured their determined consent.
Rachel walked to Martha’s side and faced the men defiantly. “Thirty-eight to three,” she said. “That’s how I figure it. We’re going to cross the bridge, simple as that. I don’t think you’ll be wanting to stand in our way.”
Unthank swallowed nervously. Roger squirmed in his pointy black shoes, his eyes never wavering from the figure of the blind man. Wigman seemed unperturbed. He reached into his pocket and retrieved something that looked like a cell phone. Flipping it open with his thumb, he depressed a button, and suddenly the silos and smokestacks of the Industrial Wastes were ringing with the persistent, clamoring sound of a ringing bell. The children all threw their hands to their ears; the noise was near deafening.
Doors, once imperceptible, revealed themselves in their opening amid the tangle of rusted piping and wire; from each spewed an army of maroon-beanied hulks, their muscled shoulders near to bursting from their gray work shirts and overalls. They carried ratchets and hammers, wrenches and pipes. The protuberance of their chins, speckled with stubble, bore such a resemblance, one to the other, that they looked as if they’d been birthed from the same test tube. The giant men fanned out, and soon the pack of kids found themselves surrounded.