Chapter 21

In every direction, heavy equipment clanked and droned. Conveyor belts carrying garishly multicolored bottles rattled past thundering mechanical arms and thumping pistons.

The boys in blue jumpsuits, dwarfed by the metallic maze of machinery, were scattered in clusters around the hall. Some were at the tedious task of picking flawed vitamins out of the batch, some were listlessly pushing buttons to infuse the vitamin mix vats with unnatural colors, and others were lugging boxes out of the room on handcarts. But they all looked tired and joyless as they carried out their assignments.

“They must not know the guards are off today,” said Ari, not needing to whisper since he could barely yell loud enough for Arden to hear him over the din of the equipment.

“Except for that one,” she yelled back. She motioned toward a solitary man in a Daylatch guard uniform which was noticeably too big for him. He was sitting on a stool in the corner of the room and appeared to be completely absorbed in a motorcycle magazine called Zoom Squad. “But I doubt if one guy can keep two-hundred boys from running out of here.”

“But they’ll never hear us,” shouted Ari. “We’re already yelling.”

“Ok then,” Arden shouted back. “Maybe we can fix that.” She ran to the guard and stood squarely in front of his stool. “Guard! GUARD!” she screamed. “There’s a boy pouring GRUEL WITH GRAVY into the vitamin mix! Their orangy goodness will be RUINED!”

“WHAAAAT?” replied the guard in a whiny squeak.

“RUINED!” Arden repeated. “Stop the equipment and maybe we can save the batch!”

“Cripes!” screamed the guard. “If it gets into the shape squeezers we’ll be shut down for two days!”

He scurried to a gray metal box mounted to the wall, inserted a key into the front, opened the cover and yanked an enormous green switch. All the motors on all the equipment in the room began to power down from a roaring surge to a dwindling hum to complete silence.

Then the guard turned around. “HEY!” he cried pointing at Ari. “YOU’RE not in uniform! And…HEEEY! What’s SHE doing in here? She’s a GIRL!”

Ari ignored him and looked around at the boys. “We’re here,” he called out, loudly enough for the whole room to hear, “to break you out! All of you! The guards are all in town!”

“There’s nothing stopping you!” added Arden “Just follow us!”

“No!” cried the guard in the too-big uniform. “NO! He’s WRONG! This place is TEEMING with guards! SWARMING with them! And YOU’RE coming with ME!” He lunged for Ari who darted around an industrial tank and climbed a ladder to a platform at the top.

“No!” yelled Ari to the boys. “HE’S wrong! They’re all in town to watch Dudge Hunker kill my uncle in an unfair fight set up by Wilton Daylatch! I need all of you to help me stop it!”

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” piped up a boy who’d been pushing a box into the room, “but I’m out of here!”

“ME TOO!” cried a boy from the vitamin sorting bin.

More and more voices began to chime in in excitement.

“To Town Dock Park!” yelled Arden. “Everyone go to Town Dock Park! Stop Wilton Daylatch’s fight!”

“YAAAAAAAY!” screamed two-hundred voices as the boys abandoned whatever they’d been doing and streamed for the exit.

“NO!” cried the guard “You’ll get in TROUBLE! I’LL get in trouble!” But all he could do was get out of the way of the boys who were streaming through the doorway like a swarm of hornets screaming “WE HATE HUNKA-VITES!”

“Come on,” said Arden to Ari as he jumped from halfway down the ladder. “Let’s not get stuck in here!”
They hurried through the doorway amidst the rampage of escaping boys.

“Oh!” cried the receptionist, catching sight of them as they were swept by her desk in the flow of blue jumpsuits. “Oh dear! Those children really are scruffy!”

Ari and Arden ran with the crowd–out of the factory, past the dining hall, over the compass inlaid in the brick walkway–straight to the stone wall and the iron gate. The heavy, locked-tight, iron gate.

“Now what?” wondered Ari aloud. But he only wondered for a minute. A white convertible sports car with the words Short Stars Modeling Agency emblazoned on the door zoomed through the mob as boys jumped out of the way on both sides.

“I’ve never been subjected to such dangerous work conditions,” huffed the girl with the plastic-looking hair in a loud voice which was clearly meant for all to hear.

The driver jabbed the call button on the black box at the gate. “Short Stars checking out!” he called in reply to Helga’s abrupt greeting. “And it’s good to see the boys out for exercise!”

The gate began to rumble open.

“What?” squawked Helga’s voice. “What did you say? Exercise? Boys?”
But it was too late. The gate had barely opened a crack before the boys in blue jumpsuits were squeezing through and stampeding down Duchy Street.

“What?” squawked Helga again.

“SHUT THE GATE!” shrieked the voice of the guard in the too-big uniform through the call box.

“I can’t!” screamed Helga. “First it has to finish opening!”

But by the time the gate had slowly rumbled to fully open, all the boys plus Ari and Arden were safely through, and by the time Helga got it closing, there was nothing left for the gate to catch but the rear bumper of the Short Stars Modeling Agency convertible.

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