It was as if Nickelan’s waking dream had suddenly turned into a nightmare. Horrible visions from the primordial recesses of his subconscious mind were being broadcast out of his skull through the twin lenses of his eyes. The shocking scenes were made that much more disturbing by his uncomfortable perspective hanging upside down from the pole of the jail cart. Through the bars, which Nickelan now savored as protection as well as prison, he witnessed firsthand the misery of Thunder World that Selwyn Harris had spoken of. The street he traveled was covered in thick reddish mud, a mixture of blood and dirt. There were bones too, some bleached white and others still rank and moist with leathery ropes of once-living flesh.
Everything was red: the buildings, the sidewalks, even the faces of the people he saw. Those faces all belonged to grown-ups and rested on top of bodies covered in armor, arms blurred with weaponry in combat. The streets were a riot of violent action. Battles raged in the gutter, out of buildings, even in places of business. The purchase of a meal or a newspaper, all transactions were paid for in blood and guts and screams of pain.
The strangest thing about this chaos was how much the participants enjoyed it. From victors to the mortally wounded, each and every face Nickelan spied was twisted in a smile that wrapped across the person’s features like a red ribbon on a present.
Everything was red: the clothing, the armor, even the weapons. There were red flags on poles with cut-off heads on top of the poles. Some poles had the head of a dinosaur with a decapitated human head spiked on the creature’s horn, just as Selwyn Harris had said. The fact that Nickelan was looking at beasts supposedly extinct for millennia was the least surprising aspect of his gruesome tour of Thunder World.
Nickelan watched the grown-ups as they fought over every little thing, but where were the little things? Where were the children of Thunder World? His question was answered as the cart turned a corner to expose a lamppost on which several boys and girls were chained together. A little further Nickelan saw a boy, no older than six, with heavy parcels bound to his back. A grown-up was unmercifully tugging at a chain clasped around the boy’s neck. On another street there were several boys and girls cleaning the debris of an earlier conflict. Their necks were heavy with chains like leashes leading to the hands of a grown-up shouting orders and emphasizing his commands with the sting of a whip.
Other sights even more grotesque passed before Nickelan’s eyes, but they wouldn’t register. His brain had collected all it could and was boiling in a stew of repulsion. He closed his eyes to escape the horrors of Thunder World and found himself drifting off into a restless sleep.
The jail cart stopped with a shudder that snapped Nickelan’s eyes open. He was in front of a dirty red building with bars on the windows. The back of the cart swung open and strong hands were on him again. Nickelan was yanked from the pole that had supported him on his vicious trip and flung over the shoulder on one of the Makas. He was still bound, but even if his limbs were free Nickelan was too exhausted and shocked to offer much resistance.
“Got a runaway,” said the Maka on whose shoulder Nickelan limply lay. “Found him on the outskirts of town.”
“He was alone?” Nickelan couldn’t see who was talking.
“Yeah,” the Maka said, depositing Nickelan roughly on the floor. “Must have wandered away from his pack. Bad move.” The Maka laughed.
“Very unusual to pick up a loner,” the other voice said, turning Nickelan onto his back.
Nickelan now could see the police officer, if that’s what he was. Whatever he was, he was very hairy. A full beard and mustache covered most of his face and an ornate hat, with a badge above the brim, covered the rest. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. Nickelan could see himself doubly reflected and it was not a pretty sight. He was bloodied and bruised and fast losing the clean sheen from being polished in the plumbing on his way to this strange underground land.
“I’ll place him in the pen with the others,” said the officer, lifting Nickelan by the shoulder. The Maka took out his dagger and placed it at Nickelan’s back, but only to cut the restraints. Then the officer took Nickelan into another room. There was a cage full of kids who sat idly on the dirty floor. “There’s an auction tomorrow, though I don’t know who’d buy such scrawny product.”
The Maka and the jailer shared a throaty laugh. Then the Maka left the building and the jailer returned to the front room leaving Nickelan alone with his cellmates. They were a ragged collection, all kids around Nickelan’s age, but filthier than Nickelan ever was. Their skin was hard with black dirt and grime. Their hair was stiff and shaped like starbursts. They dressed as if going trick or treating, as pirates and spacemen and princesses and faeries. Their eyes landed suspiciously on Nickelan.
“What team are you on?” a boy dressed like a fireman said at last.
“I don’t know,” Nickelan answered honestly.
“You don’t know?” the fireman looked at the other kids, then he turned back to Nickelan. “What part of Kid City are you from?”
“I’m not from Kid City,” Nickelan said.
That news made the group stand and talk among themselves. Nickelan could only make out certain words such as “Spy” and “Liar” and then “Get him!”
The group moved as one towards Nickelan. He had nowhere to go and slammed against the barred walls of the cell. They held him there and a girl with a tall, pointy hat with a silver star at its peak said, “Who sent you?”
“He’s a grown-up,” said another girl with cat ears and a fake tail.
“Yeah, a short one, or maybe they cut off his legs so he’d pass as a kid,” a boy dressed like a vampire said.
“They’ll do anything to infiltrate Kid City,” said the fireman, his face so close to Nickelan’s that he could see foodstuff dangling between the rotted teeth in his mouth. “Why don’t you grown-ups leave us alone?”
“I’m not a grown-up,” Nickelan protested, pulling himself away from the angry mob.
“You’re too clean to be a kid,” observed the vampire.
“Let’s beat him to a pulp!” screamed a voice from the back of the pack.
“Rip his guts out!” came a squeaky voice that sounded as if the speaker was still in diapers.
The chorus raised their voices with increasingly ugly suggestions for Nickelan’s future: “Let’s eat him! Paint the walls with his blood! Use his butt for a stepstool! I want his hands for earmuffs! I call dibs on the eyes! Cut off his ears for a necklace! Hollow out his torso and we can ride it like a toboggan!”
“Move aside, you lugs!” said a high yet commanding voice.
The crowd was stilled by the sound of the voice. Nickelan saw a tiny hand land on the shoulder of a spaceman and pull him aside to reveal a small girl. She was shorter than the other kids, with black hair curling in two thick waves falling from the center of her head. Her eyes were also black and piercing over a small nose and sharply defined chin. She was skinny and wore a black-leather pantsuit with boots that laced up to her knees.
“I’m Gelsomina Gillespie,” she said as an introduction and stuck out her hand in greeting.
The other kids backed away. Gelsomina moved forward. She looked at Nickelan, then down to his hand, which was still at his side.
“I’m Nickelan Wand,” he finally said, realizing she was waiting for him to respond, and took her small hand in his. Her handshake was like a vise.
“Where you from, Nickelan?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, looking up, “I came from the bathtub, the drain really. I mean, I live on Avocado Street, up there.” He pointed to the ceiling.
“Avocado Street?” Gelsomina said, rippling her brow. “That’s not in Kid City.”
“I told you,” said a voice accusingly, “he’s a spy!”
“Traitor! String him up! Cut off his head! Mutilate him!” roared the kids.
Nickelan was ripped from Gelsomina’s strong grip and lifted over the group of kids. They carried him to the cell’s lone, lidless toilet and shoved his face into the bowl. The toilet water drowned out the vicious sounds of the mob intent on hurting Nickelan, which, at first, was nice. Then he couldn’t breathe, which wasn’t very nice, and Nickelan began to panic.
The hooting and howling of his cellmates flooded Nickelan’s ears at full volume as his head was pulled from the toilet bowl, but he was too busy gasping for air to notice. Then the sounds were muffled as he was dunked into the dirty water again. But one voice rang clear and it called his name: “Nickelan.”
Nickelan almost didn’t recognize the voice, so choked was it with emotion. It was Springo’s voice. He was crying.
“Nickelan, Nickelan, Nickelan,” Springo’s voice sobbed. Nickelan opened his eyes and looking down the drain of the toilet saw his friend Springo. He was slightly distorted by the water, but it was Springo and he was on his knees in his bathroom with his head in his hands.
Before Nickelan could see more, the mass of hands holding him yanked his body up and out of the toilet bowl. Nickelan wanted to tell them to put him back, but he was too busy gulping down a lungful of sweet air to talk.
“That’s enough,” said Gelsomina. She took Nickelan’s face in between her slender but powerful fingers and squeezed it until his features collected at her fingertips like a trapped bug. “Who are you?”
Nickelan couldn’t answer. He was too busy coughing up water. He wiped his wet lips and looked up at Gelsomina who towered over him. “Put me back in,” he managed to say.
The kids cheered, but Gelsomina had a stern look on her face. “Are you mad?” she asked.
“My friend’s in there,” Nickelan said much to the kids’ amusement.
All but Gelsomina, who wasn’t laughing.
“My friend’s hurt!” Nickelan said more forcefully, getting onto his knees and taking hold of the back of Gelsomina’s neck.
There was an audible hush from the crowd in disbelief at Nickelan’s boldness.
“Look!” he demanded, turning Gelsomina’s face to the watery toilet bowl.
Nickelan was torn from Gelsomina’s side by the angry mob. They piled on Nickelan until he was no longer visible beneath a mountain of their bodies. But Gelsomina wasn’t looking at Nickelan. Her face was focused on the water resting in the toilet bowl. On its surface was the reflection of a young boy’s face.