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The Strike Trilogy

 

The Strike Trilogy

Charlie Wood

Copyright © 2015 Charlie Wood

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photography, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written consent from the publisher and author, except in the instance of quotes for reviews. No part of this book may be uploaded without the permission of the publisher and author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is originally published.

This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, actual events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters and names are products of the authors imagination and used fictitiously.

The publisher and author acknowledge the trademark status and trademark ownership of all trademarks, service marks and word marks mentioned in this book.

BOOK ONE:[
**][
**]THE HERO FROM THE SKY

CHAPTER ONE

Tobin Lloyd turned over with a groan and looked out the window. The other houses in his neighborhood were still dark, and the sun was just starting to rise over the trees across the street.

“Why am I doing this?” he grumbled, sitting on the edge of his bed with his face in his hands. But he knew why: he had promised his best friend, Jennifer, that he would wake up early to study for his history test later that afternoon. Like most high school students, Tobin hated getting up early, but there was something else he hated even more: having to withstand the torture of listening to Jennifer lecture him on the benefits of studying.

So, after quickly showering, brushing his teeth, and getting dressed, Tobin returned to his bedroom, carrying his bowl of cereal in one hand and a glass of orange juice in the other. But, as he flopped onto the futon near his bed, he grabbed the remote control and turned on the TV. Sweet, he thought to himself. I’m up early enough to catch the Three Stooges. That’s a benefit, at least. He checked the time on his phone. A couple minutes couldn’t hurt. After all, it will get my brain going. That’s gotta be good for studying.

“Tobin?” the boy heard his mother suddenly call from the bottom of the stairs. “Are you ready?”

Tobin sat up with a start, knocking over the bowl of cereal that was now resting on his chest and spilling it onto the couch.

“Aw, c’mon,” he groaned, maneuvering away from the milk and soggy corn puffs. He checked the time again. 7:20. Dammit. Apparently he had fallen back asleep during breakfast without even realizing it. Whoops.

“Tobin?” his mother called again. “Are you up? It’s almost time, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” he replied. He grabbed the spoon from the floor and used it to scoop the rest of the corn puffs from the couch cushions into his mouth. “I’m just, uh, eating breakfast.”

His mother started up the stairs. “Well, don’t be late. And don’t forget what Mrs. O’Neil told you: it’s a great idea to look over in the morning what you studied last night. Did you read from your history book again this morning?”

Tobin turned down the volume on his TV, just as Moe whacked Larry over the head with a shovel. “Yeah, I’m actually looking at it right now, and you know what, I think it’s really helping.”

“Good,” his mother said from the hall, “because I don’t want to see another—”

She stopped. Tobin turned around. His mother was now standing in the doorway of his room.

“Oh, hello,” Tobin said with a smile.

Looking across the room, Tobin’s mother spotted his history book lying underneath a pile of clothes. She picked it up and showed it to him.

“Looking at it right now, huh?”

“Oh, the book!” Tobin said. “The book! I thought you meant, was I looking at a guy in a bowl cut poking a bald guy in the eyes.” He pointed at the TV screen. “’Cuz that’s what I was looking at.”

His mother smirked. “Right. Up, let’s go. It’s time for school.”

Following his mother out of the room, Tobin walked with her downstairs and into the kitchen.

“I know I’ve told you this a million times,” she said, tidying up the table, “but since I also know that means nothing, I’ll tell you again: Bill and I are going out on a date tonight, so when you get home from work, we might not be here. Okay?”

Tobin stuffed his hand into a cookie jar on the counter. “Yup. And can you please stop calling them ‘dates,’ by the way? It’s creepy. Plus the guy practically lives here.”

His mother took the cookies from his hand. “Okay, first of all, this isn’t breakfast.” She put the cookies back into the jar. “And second of all, it is a date, a nice dinner and a movie, so I’m asking you, right now, to behave yourself today. Please don’t ruin my night with something ridiculous you do at school. Got it?”

Tobin stood at the door and slung his backpack over his shoulder, offering his mother a salute.

“Mom, you have my word: I will absolutely, positively not do anything ridiculous today.”

***

Seven hours later, Tobin opened his locker and began putting his books away while his friend, Jennifer Robins, waited for him. She was a short, pretty brunette who was well on her way to becoming class valedictorian. At the moment, she wasn’t very happy.

“I can’t believe you got another detention,” she said, reading the yellow slip in her hand with Tobin’s name on it.

“I know,” he replied.

“Your mom is gonna kill you.”

“I know,” he said again.

Jennifer stared at him. “And you don’t even care, do you?”

“I know. Wait, what’re we talking about again?”

Tobin smirked and closed his locker. The two friends walked down the noisy hallway.

“You are unbelievable, Tobin. I swear, you drive me absolutely crazy.”

“Why?” he laughed. “Because I got kicked out of the cafeteria? Big deal, Jen, who cares. What the heck are you so worried about?”

She shoved the detention back to him. “This, Tobin. This is what I’m so worried about.”

“This? Okay, watch, watch this.”

Tobin crumpled the slip into a ball, held it out in front of him, and kicked it across the hallway like a football. It bounced off another student’s backpack before dropping to the floor.

“See?” Tobin said, holding up his empty hands. “No more worry.”

Jennifer watched the detention get lost in a sea of teenagers’ feet. “Yeah, that’s great, Tobin. That’s great. And what about the test Mr. Hastings gave you back today? You know, the one with the big ‘thirty-two’ circled in red at the top? Are you gonna kick that across the hallway, too?”

Tobin thought a moment. “I can, if you want me to,” he said, looking through his backpack. “I have it right here.”

Jennifer turned and walked towards the school’s lobby.

“You know what, Tobin? Fine. If you don’t care, then I don’t care.”

Pushing his way through the hall, Tobin walked outside and followed his friend down the school’s front steps and onto the sidewalk of Middle Street, which ran through the center of their small, seaside hometown of Bridgton, Massachusetts. The street, only a few miles from the beach, was made up of an ice cream parlor, a general store, and a barbershop, among other things, including three antique dealers. It was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

“Aw, c’mon, Jen,” Tobin said, catching up with her. “Don’t be mad at me. I hate it when you’re mad at me. And so does Julie Meyers. Right, Julie Meyers?”

Tobin turned to a group of girls gathered on the sidewalk, but they only glanced at him before returning to their conversation.

“Okay,” Tobin said. “Julie Meyers didn’t answer me, but I know that she also hates it.”

“I’m not mad at you, Tobin,” Jennifer said. “It’s just that you don’t care—about anything. We’re already a month into our senior year, and you still haven’t even started thinking about colleges or the SAT’s or anything. That makes me…nauseous.”

Tobin nodded. “I know it does. You’re weird.”

Jennifer stopped. “No, I’m not,” she laughed. “I’m normal. Look, I’m as excited for the rest of senior year as much as anybody, but this is all gonna be over in a few months, Tobin, whether you like it or not. And what’re you gonna do then? Last time I checked, skipping class every day and watching Family Feud for hours and hours doesn’t lead to a career.”

“Sure it does,” Tobin replied.

“What?”

Tobin grinned. “Host of Family Feud.”

Turning the corner of Middle Street, the two friends walked toward a soccer field behind the high school, where the Bridgton Panthers were getting ready for their afternoon match against the Hillside Warriors. Chad Fernandes, the third member of their trio of best friends, was waiting for them there, so Tobin hopped up onto a set of bleachers while Jennifer stood nearby.

“I don’t know why you’re so worked up about all this,” Tobin said. “It’s freaking October, Jen. I still have plenty of time to think about all this stuff.”

“No, you don’t,” she replied, “not really. Even Chad has started thinking about colleges already. That’s how far behind you are.”

Tobin snickered. “No, he hasn’t.” He turned to Chad. “Have you?”

“Yeah.” Chad was tall, lanky, and one of Bridgton High’s best athletes. He and Tobin had been friends ever since the second grade, when they were both teammates on the Bridgton Little League Blue Jays. “Some dude from UMass is coming to watch my first game next month.”

Tobin rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, that’s not fair. You’re only going to college because you can put an orange ball into a hole with a net on it. Congratulations.”

Chad laughed. “Hey, it’s not my fault I have a skill at something, Tobin. Maybe if you had any kind of skill, you’d be going to college, too.”

“Tobin has skills,” Jennifer said defensively. “He just…doesn’t know what they are yet.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Tobin agreed. “I’m good at plenty of stuff. Like…” He scanned the soccer field. “I’m really good at watching other people do things,” he said proudly, holding up a finger. “I could sit here and watch other people do things all day.”

Tobin watched the field, then sighed as if exhausted.

“Whew. I am really good at this. Really, really good.”

Jennifer groaned and rubbed her temples. “God help me.”

Nearby, in the school parking lot, a car honked its horn.

“Oh, that’s my mom,” Jennifer said. “I better go. But are you guys going to Stacey Redmond’s party tonight?”

“Yeah,” Chad said, “I am, but Detention-Boy over here is working.”

“You are?”

“Yeah, only till 9:30, though,” Tobin explained, “so I’ll probably stop by after.”

“Good, you definitely should,” Jennifer said. “Everyone’s gonna be there, and who knows how many more times we’ll all have to hang out like this, you know? Plus, I wanted to talk to you guys about something, too. You promise you’ll be there?”

“Yeah,” Tobin said. “I’m going.”

“You promise?” Jennifer held out her pinkie. “I really want you to be there, Tobin.”

Tobin looked at her with a confused smile, then completed the sacred pinky swear.

“Okay,” he laughed. “I’ll be there. I promise.”

“Okay.”

Jennifer walked toward the parking lot.

“Bye, guys. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Later, Jen.”

“Bye.”

Tobin watched as Jennifer got into the car and it drove off.

“What was that all about?” Chad asked.

Tobin turned back to the soccer field. “I don’t know. She’s probably just having a nervous breakdown. Again.”

The two friends shared a laugh. Then, as the referee blew his whistle, they turned their attention to the game and cheered on their school’s team.

What they didn’t know, however, was that they were being watched.

Jonathan Ashmore—a thin, pale man in his late twenties dressed in a perfectly tailored purple suit—was standing behind the bleachers, leaning against the high school and studying the boys with a smirk. As the soccer match got underway, he popped a piece of gum into his mouth, kicked himself off the building, and strolled down Middle Street, walking among the people of Bridgton.

CHAPTER TWO

A dozen miles from Bridgton High, on the outskirts of town in an area nearly devoid of people, Jonathan Ashmore hopped over a rusted fence and walked across the crumbling parking lot of the old Bridgton Amusement Park. The park had been abandoned for over two decades, yet its structures still stood: the merry-go-round, with its wooden horses, elephants, and swans swollen into deformed monsters; the popcorn booths, with their doors boarded up and their windows coated in thick grime; the rollercoaster, with its barely-there track covered in peeling white paint and its loops ending abruptly in mid-air. The place was like a forgotten memory, left to rot in the sun and sit alone in the night.

Ignoring the macabre remnants, Jonathan made his way through the park until he reached the creepiest structure of them all: the Haunted Forest Fun House, with its scary-looking trees and their scary-looking faces looking down on him. Inside, walking along the track, he weaved around its motionless carriages and broken-down ghosts, goblins, and reapers, and eventually reached an elevator door. Plastic trees and cobwebbed shrubs surrounded the door and a sign above it read:

ELEVATOR OUT OF ORDER! DO NOT USE!

Paying no mind to the warning, Jonathan pressed a small button near a speaker on the wall.

“Harold, it’s me. I’m here to see Vincent. He’s expecting me.”

With a ding, the elevator opened and revealed Harold—a scrawny, wispy-haired, elderly man dressed in a long black coat with green trim on the sleeves. As he stepped aside, he greeted Jonathan with a smile that made him appear younger than his eighty-eight years.

“Hey, Jon, how are ya? Good to see you. Come in, come in.”

Jonathan stepped into the elevator and the doors closed.

***

At the bottom of the elevator shaft, the doors opened again and Jonathan stepped out. He was now in an elegant, serene entryway, with walls lined with gleaming emerald stones and a ceiling that was over forty feet high. The focal point of the entryway, facing the elevator, was a giant pair of golden doors, resting in an arch. Not only were the doors so tall that they almost reached the ceiling, but they also had eight doorknobs at their very top, where no one could reach them.

Jonathan watched as Harold stepped out of the elevator and removed his coat. The elderly man actually had a second pair of arms, located directly underneath his normal pair, and also a second set of legs, which folded down from behind his back. Skittering like a spider, he quickly climbed up the golden doors and grabbed each of the eight doorknobs with each of his hands and feet.

“You know,” Jonathan asked. “I’ve been wondering: what would happen if you didn’t turn all eight at the same time?”

Harold leaned back. “Well…you don’t want to know, let’s put it that way.”

Jonathan raised his eyebrows, leaving the conversation at that. Above him, the eight-limbed man turned all the doorknobs and leapt back to the floor. Slowly, as Harold stepped next to Jonathan, the doors opened with a smooth, elongated WHOOOOOOOSH!, revealing a swirling, humming portal of black energy behind them. The massive portal—which filled the entire arch—had a reflective surface like a mirror, and snapped and cracked with occasional bursts of purple electricity.

“There you go,” Harold said, walking back to the elevator. “It’s all yours, Jon.”

“Thanks,” the pale man replied. Then, just as he had so many times during the last few months, he stepped into the portal and disappeared into its mirrored surface.

***

A half-second later, as easily as if he was walking through a door, Jonathan emerged from the black portal and stepped into a strange city. It was a bustling place, with large, gleaming apartment buildings, streets filled with sleek, retro-cool cars that appeared to be from the 1940’s and 50’s, and perfectly paved sidewalks lined with smiling vendors selling fruits and vegetables. The people of the city, many of whom had skin that was a light shade of green, wore suits and hats and sundresses, and up-tempo jazz music from a street corner band filled the air. The city, known as New Rytonia, was safe, clean, and wonderful.

Walking through the city, Jonathan made his way toward its tallest building: a glass-walled skyscraper topped with three large points, which was known as the Trident and sat directly in the middle of the city’s busy main avenue. The building’s front doors were being watched over by two heavy-set, green-skinned guards, but they were not concerned when Jonathan approached. Instead, they simply nodded, reached across their bodies, and opened the doors for him, no questions asked.

***

110 stories above Jonathan, on the very top floor of the skyscraper, Vincent Harris sat at his desk in his office and looked out a massive window at the city below. Vincent was a handsome, blue-eyed, older man in his early sixties, with thick grey hair that he wore somewhat long, a few inches above his shoulders, and a neatly trimmed grey goatee. He was also very fit for his age, with a well-built body standing over six feet tall, and he was almost always wearing the same thing: a black-and-green uniform with a green insignia of a tiger-like beast above his heart. This insignia could be seen on posters and banners all over New Rytonia, along with portraits of Vincent.

At the moment, the grey-haired man in black-and-green was absent-mindedly listening to a report from his assistant, Chris. Chris was a young man in his early thirties with closely cropped dark hair and—unlike Vincent—light green skin.

“Tom Paulson let me know that his district received an over-shipment of their medical supplies,” Chris explained, “so I had him send the extra cases to the hospital, like you advised. Also, here are the most recent reports from General Thrace about the D. N. project, and also the photographs from your home.”

Chris handed Vincent a file and a leather-covered photo album.

“Thank you, Chris,” Vincent said. “I’ll have Rigel look over the report before I take a look at it myself.”

Vincent handed the file to the third man in the room, his bodyguard and closest confidante, Rigel. Rigel was a towering, barely human beast, with dimpled, red skin that was rough like a rhinoceros, yellow, piercing eyes, and a body as thick and as strong as an oak tree. He wore a uniform similar to Vincent, and was nearly seven-and-a-half feet tall.

“I think that’ll be all for now, Chris,” Vincent said. “Thank you.”

“No problem, sir. Just let me know if you need anything else.”

After watching Chris leave the room, Vincent placed the photo album on his desk and opened it. One of the photos caught his eye.

It was a photograph of three teenage boys: there was a blonde boy with a movie star smile; a dark-haired boy in the middle of a loud, booming laugh; and a black boy with glasses, shy and smaller than the others. The dark-haired boy was standing in the center with his arms around the others’ shoulders, and they were about fifteen years old.

Vincent turned the page. He stopped on another photo.

This photo showed a tall, handsome young man dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans. He was smiling a crooked smile and sitting next to a pretty young woman who was dressed in black and red. They were holding hands and very happy. They were about twenty-five years old.

Vincent turned the page, but he did not look at the next series of photos. Instead, he stared down at the desk in front of him.

“Vincent,” Rigel said, breaking the silence with his guttural, graveled voice. “Jonathan is here to see you.”

Vincent looked up and saw Jonathan standing in the doorway.

“Oh, thank you, Rigel. Hi, Jon. Come in. Take a seat.” Vincent and Jonathan shared a handshake. “How is everything, Jon? How’d everything go today?”

Jonathan sat down in front of the desk. “Fine, sir. I did just as you said. Didn’t have any problems.”

“Good,” Vincent said. He leaned back, resting his hands on his stomach. “I’m glad to hear it. We’ll get started on what we agreed upon right away. How’s that sound?”

“Very good, sir. Thank you.”

A silence passed. Vincent tapped a pencil on his desk, studying Jonathan’s face. When he spoke again, each word was given time to breathe.

“Jon, what we are doing tonight is significant. To both our history and our future. It’s not often one can say something like that and truly mean it, but tonight, we can, and I think we should always be aware of that.”

The grey-haired man walked to a liquor cabinet and poured himself a drink. As he swirled the dark liquid in the glass, he watched it spin around with the ice cubes.

“We are responsible for this, Jon,” Vincent continued. “It begins tonight and sets in motion everything we have planned so far. Without it, we’ll be starting over, and we can’t have that; it would be devastating to us, and—most importantly—to everyone outside. But you already know all that. At least I hope you do.”

Vincent looked to Jonathan and smiled. The pale man nodded and smiled back, but he clearly didn’t like to be talked to this way.

“I want you to know,” Vincent said, walking back to his desk. “I want you to understand that, even though I picked you myself for this team, that does not excuse you from discipline. There’s a set of rules for us here, Jon. A set of rules set up by them outside—for us—to make sure we do our job. It’s them we’re doing this for. If someone were to let them down, well…I don’t know what I’d do.”

Vincent stared across the desk. Jonathan looked back, uneasy.

“This is the future, Jon,” Vincent said. “Do not fail it.”

Jonathan stood up. “You have nothing to worry about, sir. Everything is ready. The storm will come tonight.”

Vincent pulled his chair out. “Yes, it will.” He motioned toward the door. “Thank you, Jon.”

When he was once again alone, Vincent sat behind his desk with his drink and looked through his photo album.

***

Meanwhile, outside of Vincent’s office, one of the skyscraper’s many green-skinned guards stood in the hallway, listening to all that had transpired. As he watched Jonathan walk away from the office and down a flight of stairs, the eavesdropping guard quickly walked in the opposite direction and entered one of the skyscraper’s empty dining rooms. Spotting a balcony high up near the ceiling, he ran to it, leapt, flipped, and landed on its floor with a soft clack of his boots. In front of him, there was a door on the balcony, so he opened it, entered it, and quietly shut it behind him.

After moving down a long corridor, the guard soon found himself in the skyscraper’s main kitchen. A chef was walking toward him, so he ducked behind a corner and retrieved a metal, ballpoint pen-like device from his pocket with a button on its top. After he clicked the button, his appearance changed from that of a green-skinned guard to that of a green-skinned chef, complete with white chef jacket and white chef hat.

With his new disguise in place, the mysterious guard-turned-chef nodded to the other chef, walked through the kitchen, and eventually found himself in front of a large storage room, which was filled with shelves of cooking utensils, cardboard boxes, and crates of food. After watching the other chef leave the kitchen, the guard-turned-chef stepped into the storage room, closed its door, and clicked the button on his device one more time.

This time, the man’s true identity was revealed: he was Orion, a tall, thin black man, with grey hair and glasses. As always, he was wearing black boots, a long red coat that reached his knees, and a quiver of arrows and bow on his back. Leaning against the storage room door, he closed his eyes and sighed, tired and worn.

But then there was a knocking at the door. “Hey!” somebody shouted from the other side. “Who’s in there? Open this door immediately!”

Orion jumped up. After using a long wooden table to barricade the door, he quickly stepped behind one of the metal shelving units. Hiding there, he reached behind him, grabbed an arrow from his quiver, pulled it back in his bow, and aimed it at the door. The arrowhead began to glow bright red.

After three loud BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!’s, the door was smashed open, and three green-skinned guards entered the room. However, the first was immediately blasted back by an arrow that exploded in a bright red flash and sent him flying into the kitchen.

Stunned, the second guard stepped forward and fired his laser rifle. But, Orion dodged the green laser beams, jumped onto a stack of crates, pulled his bow back, and shot another exploding arrow, all in one fluid motion.

The third guard, amazed at how an old man could move so fast, focused on his target and was able to shoot the bow out of Orion’s hand. However, the old man was unfazed; as he avoided the next series of lasers, he ran down a long metal shelf, leapt toward a hanging pipe on the ceiling, swung around it, and threw another arrow with his bare hand.

In a red streak, the arrow pierced the air, struck the guard in his chest, and slammed him against the wall with a BANG! After sliding down the wall, he joined his other two mates on the floor in a heap, unconscious.

Letting go of the pipe, Orion dropped to the floor and picked up his bow. Suddenly, he was exhausted; with his body hunched over and his lungs wheezing, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small pistol that was made out of shining, red chrome. Pointing the barrel of the pistol in front of him, he pulled its trigger and waited.

Within seconds, the faint hum of electricity was heard, and then a red-and-white, swirling portal of energy burst into existence, forming directly in front of Orion. It had a mirror-like surface, floated above the ground, and was nearly as tall as a man, snapping and flashing like a livewire.

Orion stepped toward the portal, but then stopped—a CRACK! sounded from his back. The old man reached to his spine, straightening his body in pain.

“My chiropractor is gonna love this one,” he groaned.

With gritted teeth, the old man limped into the portal and disappeared. When he was gone, it closed behind him with a SNAP!

CHAPTER THREE

As Tobin arrived home from the soccer match, he found his mother’s boyfriend, Bill, washing dishes at the sink.

“Hey, Bill. What’re you doing here so early?”

“Oh, hey, Tobin. I left work at two to surprise your mom.” Bill was an exceptionally kind man in his early fifties who owned a construction business and looked like he just stepped off of a paper towel package. “How was school?”

“Not bad.” The boy headed to a cupboard above the fridge and grabbed a bag of potato chips. “Same as always, I guess.”

“Well, that’s good.”

Tobin’s mother walked downstairs and gave her son a kiss on his cheek.

“Hey, honey. Did you get that test back from Mr. Hastings today? I’m dying to see how you did.”

“No, not yet,” Tobin replied. “I guess he’s gonna give them back Monday or something.”

“Oh.” Tobin’s mother helped Bill with the dishes. “Don’t eat too many of those chips, honey; I packed you some of Grandma’s noodle soup for you to take to work. And don’t forget we might not be here when you get home.”

“Yeah, I know. Actually, it might not matter, anyway, ‘cuz I’m probably gonna go to a friend’s house after work, and then spend the night at Chad’s. If that’s okay with you.”

Tobin’s mother thought it over. “I guess so. Is that really where you’re going? And how many other people are going to be at this friend’s house?”

“Oh, I don’t know, just the usuals: Jennifer, Chad, whoever. Plus a couple hundred other people maybe, who knows.”

“What?”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

Tobin’s mother looked to Bill. He smiled and shrugged.

“All right,” she sighed. “Be careful. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Tobin walked to his mom and wrapped her in a hug. “Thanks, Mom. Anyone ever tell you you’re the greatest?”

“Yeah, that’s great, Tobin, but I’m serious about that: be careful. Now go get dressed for work before you’re late, remember what they said last time.”

With a grin, Tobin headed upstairs, excited and eager for the night to begin. In the kitchen, he heard the phone ring and his mother answer it.

“Hello? Oh, hi, Mr. Hastings.”

Tobin stopped, halfway up the stairs, his eyes wide.

“Yes, he just got home a couple of minutes ago. No, he didn’t tell me what he got on his Algebra test.”

Tobin grimaced. He didn’t have to turn around to know that his mom was glaring at him. It felt like an eternity before she spoke again.

“You’re kidding me,” she sighed. “And this all happened today?”

Another sigh. Two sighs in less than a minute. Not good.

“All right, well, thank you for letting me know, Mr. Hastings. No, I’m just sorry to waste your time like this. I will. Bye.”

She hung up the phone. Tobin walked downstairs and looked to her, but she didn’t turn around. She simply stood at the sink, washing dishes.

“If you still think you’re going out tonight,” she said, “you’re crazy.”

Tobin stepped toward her. “What? Why?”

“You know why, Tobin. Don’t play stupid.”

“I’m not, Mom! Seriously! I didn’t even do anything, it was just a stupid joke.”

“Oh, it was just a joke. You got kicked out of the cafeteria for two weeks and got another detention, but it was just a joke. Okay.”

“Mom, I was just being funny. It’s not like I hurt anybody or anything. Even the ladies in the office were laughing about it and everything.”

“Oh, and I guess since they were laughing about it, then I should probably just laugh it off, too, right? Well, that’s not gonna happen, Tobin. Not anymore.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re grounded.”

Tobin laughed. “Shut up.”

“I’m serious, Tobin; I can’t allow you to keep doing this stuff. You’re seventeen years old, you shouldn’t be getting thrown out of the cafeteria and getting detentions! It’s ridiculous.” She put a dish in the drying rack. “So, until I know you’re behaving yourself, you’ll be in your room every night, unless you’re at work or eating dinner.”

Tobin rolled his eyes. “Yeah, okay. This is so stupid. I didn’t even do anything.”

“No, you never do, Tobin. I know.”

Stomping up the stairs, Tobin grabbed his work uniform from his room, and then stomped back down again.

“This is so friggin’ ridiculous. I seriously cannot wait to get out of this place next year.”

His mother laughed. “I doubt that, Tobin. Who’s gonna clean your clothes? Who will cook you dinner?”

Tobin reached for the doorknob. “I don’t know. Dad left you and he obviously did okay. I’ll figure something out.”

A silence. Bill turned to Tobin’s mother, but she only looked to the dishes in the sink.

“Tobin,” she said, her voice quiet, her hands in the soapy water. “Go to work.”

Spinning around, Tobin walked outside and slammed the door. But, before he got into his car, he looked back to the kitchen window. Inside, he could see his mom standing at the sink, with Bill’s arm around her. She was still looking down at the water.

***

At 9:25 that night, Tobin knelt on the floor of an empty aisle in Thomas Grocery Store, half-heartedly straightening a series of canned string beans on a shelf. After much internal debate, he had decided it would be best for him to just go home after work, skip the party, and apologize to his mom, especially after what he said to her before he left. It seemed to be his specialty: saying incredibly stupid things in an argument, usually the most hurtful things he could think of, and then immediately regretting it afterwards.

“Tobin!” he heard someone call. He looked up and saw his manager, Jeff, standing at the top of the aisle. “Go get your last carriage pick-up, then you can leave.”

Tobin stood and wiped the dust from his khakis.

“Thank god,” he muttered.

***

Outside, Tobin saw three lonely carriages at the end of the parking lot, so he walked to them and brought them back to the entrance. As he pushed them along, the sparse sounds and sights of the night seemed to envelop him: the rusty carriage wheels squeaking; the wisps of fog floating ghost-like above the pavement; the broken streetlight buzzing and flickering above him. The boy suddenly felt very unsettled. That feeling only grew when he realized he was not alone.

“What the hell?” he wondered. He looked ahead and saw somebody standing in the entrance of the grocery store: it was a tall, thin black man, with grey hair and glasses. The old man was standing with his arms behind his back, and wearing a red coat that reached his knees.

With an uneasy feeling in his gut, Tobin pushed the carriages into the store and lined them up with the others. As he watched the old man, the old man stared right back, with a slight smile across his face.

“Hello,” Tobin offered, as he turned around.

But the old man said nothing.

“Can I help you?” Tobin asked.

But, again, nothing.

“Look,” Tobin said, pointing to the door with his thumb, “we’re about to close, so if you want something you should probably just—”

“Hello, Tobin,” the old man said.

Tobin squinted. “Uh, hi. Do I know you?”

The old man smiled. “No. But I was a very close friend of your father’s.”

Tobin’s brow furrowed. He looked the man over. “Well, my dad took off when I was three, so I have no idea who you are.”

The old man waited a moment. “I know that, Tobin, but my name is Orion, and what I have to tell you is very, very important. I know that you don’t know who I am, and that you must be very suspicious, but you must try and listen to me. Okay? It’s very important.”

Tobin thought it over.

“Sure,” he said with a laugh. “What have you got?”

A silence.

“You are in great danger, Tobin.”

Tobin snickered. He stepped toward the door.

“Yeah, okay, thanks, pal. Thanks for that. I’ll make sure to write that one down. Look, you should probably just get out of here, okay?”

The boy pushed a button above the door and it opened. But Orion stayed put.

“I know what I’m saying sounds strange, Tobin, but a group of people are looking for you tonight. You must be very careful, please, whatever you do. This is incredibly serious.”

Tobin’s heart jumped. He looked into the store, but saw nobody nearby.

“Uh, look,” the boy said, “if you don’t leave, I’m gonna havta tell my manager, and then he’s probably gonna call the cops, and that won’t be good, so why don’t you just go home or something, okay? C’mon, let’s go.”

Tobin motioned toward the open door.

“Dammit,” the old man snapped. He began to search for something in his coat pockets, his fingers trembling, his breath coming in quick gasps. “I don’t have much time—dammit, where is…? Here, look, look.” He handed Tobin a photograph. “This is a picture of your father and me.”

Tobin looked down at the photograph. It showed two men in their early thirties: one of them was a young Orion, wearing the same red coat, and the other was a dark-haired man. The dark-haired man was wearing a midnight blue outfit with a black cape on his back, and also black gloves. On his chest there was a white “S” in the shape of a lightning bolt.

Tobin was stunned. The man looked like his father.

“Okay,” the boy asked, “what the hell is this? Who are you?”

Orion suddenly screamed. Tobin jumped back, startled, as the old man doubled over, clutching his stomach.

“I’m sorry, Tobin, I wish I could stay, but I can’t, I—arrrgghh!” He groaned and gritted his teeth, his voice a hoarse, pained whisper. “Listen…if you get into any trouble tonight, if anyone comes looking for you—run. It doesn’t matter what your body tells you, or what you think you should do: run. Run until you are far away, and even then do not stop.”

Tobin’s thoughts flew a mile a minute.

“What are you talking about? What is this?”

The old man screamed again, falling against the wall. As he staggered toward the exit, he held his side.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll do my best to speak to you again soon. I’m sorry.”

Tobin watched as Orion ran out of the store and down the building. Then, the boy looked around, half-expecting to see a hidden camera.

“Okay,” he said. “What the hell was that?”

The boy ran out of the store and after Orion.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey, get back here!” The old man was running away and almost at the end of the building. “You can’t just leave! What are you talking about? Hey! Hey!”

But, suddenly, Orion turned the corner of the store, and a blinding red flash and a snap of lightning erupted in the night.

“Whoa!” Tobin exclaimed. He staggered back, raising an arm to shield his eyes. When he regained his bearings, he found that the world was covered in a red haze, and his ears were ringing like mad. Cautiously stepping forward, he placed his hand on the corner of the building and peered around it, looking to the back of the grocery store.

But nothing was there.

The old man was gone.

CHAPTER FOUR

Still trying to make sense of his strange encounter, Tobin walked into his house and hung his car keys on the wall. Hearing the TV on in the living room, he looked in and found Bill on the couch, watching the Red Sox game.

“Oh, hey, Bill. How was dinner, did you guys have fun?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, we did. It was good.”

“Cool. Where’s my mom?”

“She’s, uh, upstairs. She went to bed when we got back, called it an early night. I told her I’d stay here until you got home.”

“Oh.”

Slightly confused, Tobin headed upstairs. He walked down the hallway to his room, but then stopped at his mother’s room. Inside, he could see that she was asleep, and next to her on the nightstand, there were several bunches of balled-up tissues.

Tobin stepped back into the hallway. Reaching into his pocket, he took out the photograph that the old man had given him and studied it.

***

After a quick change of clothes, Tobin climbed up the ladder to his attic and turned on the light. Maneuvering past the exercise equipment and Christmas decorations, he made his way to a series of boxes against the far wall. Sorting through them, he found the one he was looking for; it was labeled: MOM’S STUFF.

Tobin opened the box. It was filled with photographs, picture albums, and other mementos. One of the photos caught Tobin’s eye: it was of him and his mother, taken at a recent family barbeque. He was laughing and pulling away from her as she wrapped her arms around him and tried to give him a goofy kiss on the cheek.

Tobin chuckled, putting the photo down. Then, at the bottom of the box, he found a picture album. As he opened its cover, he felt a slight wave of nerves in his stomach. He rarely looked at these pictures, and his mother looked at them even less.

They were pictures of his mother and father’s life together: their wedding day, their honeymoon, bringing home a new baby.

Tobin flipped through the pages. He stopped on a picture of himself at a baseball game with his father. They were eating popcorn and wearing matching caps, bought only moments earlier. Tobin guessed at his age in the picture. Probably around three. It must have been right before he left.

Tobin turned the page. He stopped on another photo.

This photo showed his father, in his mid-twenties, standing next to another man, also in his mid-twenties. The other man was tall, thin, and wearing glasses. Tobin compared the photo with the one from his pocket, and the two men did look similar.

A buzzing came from Tobin’s phone—it was a text message, from Jennifer:

EVERYONE’S HERE. ARE YOU COMING OR WHAT?

Tobin closed the box, watched his head on the low ceiling, and walked toward a window.

“I really shouldn’t, and it is absolutely the wrong decision, but yes, I am.” He opened the window and crawled onto a short roof above the porch of his house. “Because I am an idiot.”

After closing the window, Tobin hopped off the roof, walked down the street, and turned the corner toward Stacey Redmond’s house.

CHAPTER FIVE

The party had been a great one. It was at a house only a mile-and-a-half from Tobin’s—right along the beach—and the early autumn air had been just warm enough for the teens to grill some burgers, chat outside, and pretend it was still summer for one more night.

Now, though, the party was almost over, and Tobin was walking along the shore with one of his best friends. She was someone he had known ever since the seventh grade, when they had both helped each other sneak out of an insufferably boring health class.

“You are so lame,” Jennifer told him.

“What? Why?”

“Disappearing old men at the supermarket? Red flashes of lightning or whatever the heck you said? Tobin, you’ve been trying to scare me with stories like this since we were in middle school. This is—my god, it’s like we are still twelve.”

“I know, but this time it actually happened, Jen, I swear! I don’t know what else to tell you, but this is absolutely, completely true.”

“Yeah, okay. Just like the time in ninth grade when you were sick in bed and you saw your neighbor murdering his wife. Just like that.”

Tobin smiled. “That…was also true. Both of these stories are true.”

“Yeah, either that or plots from Hitchcock movies. Either one.”

“Okay, look, the other one was a lie, but this one is true, I’m telling you. I can even show you the picture and everything.”

Jennifer laughed it off. “Whatever.”

A silence passed.

“This was fun, though, wasn’t it?” she asked. “Tonight?”

“Yeah, it was. I just wish I could’ve gotten here earlier.”

“I know, me too. I’m thinking about having everyone over my house in a couple of weeks, though. My parents might be going away.”

Tobin looked at her with a grin. “Everyone that was here? Don’t you think your dad might be a little mad if you have a party with, like, fifty people?”

She shrugged. “I guess. I just want everyone to hang out again soon.”

“What is it with you and all this hanging out with everybody stuff lately, anyway? You’re going crazy with this.”

“I know. But that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about tonight. Why I wanted you and Chad to come.”

“It is?”

“Yeah. You and Chad…you guys are my best friends. I’ve been hanging out with you two longer than anyone else in my life. And when we go away to college next year, I don’t want that to change.”

“It won’t.”

“It might. My sister is friends with nobody that she went to high school with. Nobody. And she goes to college like twenty minutes away.”

“Well, that won’t happen with us.”

“It might. It probably will.”

“No, it won’t. Because I won’t let it.”

“Well, then, we have to make sure. Let’s promise, tonight, seriously, the three of us, that no matter what happens next year, we will always stay friends. Just like this.”

“Okay.”

“I’m serious, Tobin.”

He laughed. “I am, too! It had never even crossed my mind that we wouldn’t be friends.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

A silence.

“Because, hanging out with you guys…that’s like my favorite thing in the world.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. And don’t make fun of me for saying that.”

Tobin laughed. As they walked along the beach, he put his arm around her and kissed her on the side of her head.

“Okay.”

***

As Tobin and Jennifer returned to the party, Tobin’s phone rang.

“Uh-oh.”

“What?”

“It’s my mom.”

He let it ring.

“Aren’t you gonna answer it? She probably just wants to know where you are.”

“Yeah, I know, but she probably also just found out that I left, and will now somehow find a way to actually kill me through the phone. I’ll just wait till I get home.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I said something pretty crappy to her today, anyway, so I should really go back and apologize.” He headed for the street. “Tell Chad we should get lunch tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay. And remember what I told you, Tobin: if you see any more disappearing old men in red coats, I want you to call me. I can get you some help.”

He laughed. “Ha, ha. Very funny, Jen. Talk to you later.”

“Bye, Tobin.”

***

Walking along a quiet road, Tobin was about halfway home when his phone rang again.

“Geez, Mom, I’m on my way. Take it easy.”

But, when he looked at the phone, Tobin saw that it read: UNKNOWN CALLER. He answered it.

“Hello?”

A woman replied. “Please, whoever this is, don’t call the police.” She sounded as if she had been crying.

Tobin was startled. “What? Who is this?”

“Please!” the woman cried. “He said if you don’t come right now, or—or if you call the police, he’ll—he’ll—”

She sobbed. Tobin could no longer understand her. He grew frightened.

“Who is this? Why are you—Hello…? Hello?”

The woman didn’t answer. Instead, a man’s voice came from the phone. It was hushed, calm, and quiet.

“You better get over here, Tobin. As fast as you can. Don’t stop and don’t ask for help. You are the only one who can help her.”

The boy was nauseous. His hands shook.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Jackson’s Bookstore,” the man said. “At the end of the Chapman Bridge. Now. Before it’s too late.”

And then the man hung up.

“Hello?” Tobin asked. “Hello…?!”

The boy looked at his phone, then put it back in his pocket. With his stomach rolling, he looked down the street toward his house, then back in the direction of where he came. Suddenly, he felt a warmth behind his eyes, and saw a quick flash of blue light.

Tobin walked in the opposite direction of his house. All of his thoughts faded away and he had a fierce, unwavering focus. He walked toward the Chapman Bridge.

It began to rain.

***

Usually by this time, Susan Wilheim was home for the night. Her bookstore was closed, she had enjoyed a nice glass of wine with her husband, and they were ready to watch their favorite late night TV program. But on this night, on this suddenly stormy, October night, she had been faced with a nightmare.

Susan was tied by glowing purple ropes to a chair in the middle of her bookstore. She was gagged, sobbing, and terrified. With tears streaming down her face, she looked to the man on the other side of the room.

Jonathan Ashmore, the pale man in the purple suit, stood at a large picture window, watching the pounding rain that had just started to fall. He was waiting for someone to appear at the other end of the Chapman Bridge, directly outside the bookstore, but that person wasn’t here yet. With an impatient grunt, he wiped away the condensation on the window and looked toward Susan.

“Can you please stop all that crying and struggling?” he asked. “I know you’re playing the ‘damsel-in-distress’ role and everything, but really, that’s just annoying.”

Jonathan walked to her and turned on a lamp. She looked up at him.

“Take it easy,” he said, frustrated, chomping away on his gum. “No one’s gonna hurt you. I told you: I’m just gonna wait here, do my thing, and then…I’ll be on my way.”

Thunder rumbled. The wind picked up. Jonathan walked to the window and looked to the other end of the bridge. A boy was there, about seventeen years old. Tobin.

“Ah,” Jonathan said, walking back to Susan. “Places everyone.

“It’s show time.”

***

At the other end of the Chapman Bridge, Tobin stood in the rain and listened to it pattering the dirt and pebbles around him.

“What am I doing?” he asked himself. Looking down, he saw that his clothes were drenched to his skin, and his hair was in wet pieces across his forehead. He wasn’t sure how he had gotten there, or even how long it took. “This is insane, I have to call the police.”

The boy took his phone from his pocket, but then looked up at the bookstore on the other side of the bridge. A woman appeared in a large picture window, pushed there by somebody. She was tied to a chair. She was crying.

Tobin’s thoughts faded away. He stepped onto the bridge.

Another person appeared in the window. It was a pale man in a purple suit. He reached over and put his hand on the woman’s shoulder. He was chewing gum.

A flash of white. A burst of heat. With quick, heavy footsteps, Tobin walked across the bridge. He felt his fists clench, his abdomen tighten, and his back straighten. He was ready. He did not know what was about to happen, yet he knew he had been waiting for this moment his entire life.

Lightning streaked across the sky. Thunder boomed.

***

In the quiet bookstore, Jonathan pushed Susan away from the window and against a far wall.

“There you go,” he said. “Now just sit here and watch. Should be interesting.”

Jonathan looked down and saw that she was crying.

“Look,” he said, “you’re gonna be fine.” He turned off the lights around the room. “If everything goes the way it should, I’ll leave here, and it’ll be like none of this ever happened. You won’t even remember seeing my handsome face.”

The pale man smiled at Susan, then popped a piece of gum into his mouth and crouched in front of the window, with his back to her. As he stared at the floor, he thought.

“You know,” he said, “this isn’t really my style, to be honest. I usually don’t like to get involved in things that are this big—and believe me, this is big—but this one was just too good to pass up. So, I just gotta be the bad guy for a bit, you gotta be the victim, and then that’s that. Okay?”

Behind her back, Susan rubbed her wrists together. She found that she could move her arms, just a bit. When she looked down, she saw that the purple glow around her ankles had begun to fade.

Jonathan snapped his gum, picking at a spot on the floor.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” he said. “It’s not like you have much of a choice, do you?”

Jonathan realized that the room was silent. He turned around.

Susan was free from the chair and standing over him.

The pale man frowned. “Aw, dammit.”

Susan reared back and kicked Jonathan in the groin, causing him to fall over with a grunt. In a panic, she ran to a phone and dialed 9-1-1.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Please!” she cried. “Somebody’s here and he’s going to—”

But the phone was ripped away from Susan and thrown across the store. She turned around.

“That,” Jonathan said, “was not smart.”

The pale man pushed Susan into a corner, trapping her there. As he talked, he flexed his fingers, open and closed, open and closed.

“I was having a good day. There hasn’t been one of those in a while, and I was starting to enjoy it. But now…now it’s happening again, and it’s all your fault. You ruined everything.”

With wide eyes, Susan watched Jonathan’s fingers. They grew into twisted claws—long, bony, skinny claws with translucent talons on their ends.

“I have my good days, Susie Q, and I have my bad days. But you just turned this into a very, very bad day.”

Jonathan pulled her close and opened his mouth. Suddenly, it was filled with snake-like fangs—disgustingly yellow and dripping with saliva.

Susan screamed. “Somebody please help me!”

Glass shattered. Thunder boomed. Lightning lit up the night. Jonathan spun around. Susan stopped crying.

There, in the dark shadows, was Tobin. He stood in the broken picture window frame, with his clothes soaked and pressed against him. As he stared at the floor, with his fists at his sides, his chest rose and fell with deep breaths. Another lightning bolt lit up the darkness around him.

Jonathan was transfixed by the boy in the window. He pulled Susan nearer as she tried to get away.

“Wait,” he said. “Wait.”

A thunderclap rumbled. Tobin looked up. His white, swirling eyes looked like they were dead.

“Let her go,” he said.

“No,” Jonathan replied, amused. “No, I don’t think so.”

Tobin jumped down and walked toward Jonathan. The pale man grew nervous.

“You—you really think I’d do this alone, Tobin? No, I always save this kind of stuff for my friends. They enjoy it much more than I do.”

With a snap of his fingers, Jonathan summoned Nelson and Miller from the shadows. The towering duo was made up of two huge men in their early thirties, with the bodies of weightlifters, purple suits like Jonathan’s, and white, zombie-like faces. As they stood on either side of Jonathan, the pale man looked to Tobin with a smile.

“Plus,” he said, “I’d just hate to ruin another suit.”

Tobin was calm. His fists were raised, and his eyes were now glowing with a blue, electric light. Lightning streaked across the sky.

Jonathan pointed at the boy. “Take him down.”

Nelson and Miller started toward Tobin. Miller took the first swing, but Tobin grabbed the goon’s fist, swung him around, and used his momentum to toss his huge body into a bookcase. The shelves came tumbling down on top of the goon, sending books and shards of wood scattering across the floor.

Lightning struck and thunder boomed.

Crouched in the corner, Jonathan watched the fight with Susan. She shouted and tried to get away, but he held her wrists tightly, and then took a small bag from his pocket.

“When you awake,” he said, pouring sand from the bag into his palm, “you’ll have no memory of me, the kid, or anything that happened tonight. Now sleep.”

Jonathan blew the sand into Susan’s face and she dropped to the floor, her eyes fluttering.

Near the bookcases, Tobin heard the woman fall and was distracted, turning around. In an instant, Nelson tackled him and they tumbled to the floor. Struggling, they awkwardly—but violently—exchanged several brutal punches, until Tobin felt Nelson push off of him and stand. When the boy looked up, he saw the goon looming over him.

Nelson smiled. Reaching to his waist, he removed two shining knives from his belt and held them in between his fingers. Then, snapping his wrists, he flung them down at Tobin.

The boy’s first instinct was to turn away, but then he stopped: he saw that the blades were tumbling toward him through the air ever so slowly, like they were traveling through gelatin. Reaching across his body, Tobin grabbed a book from the floor and held it in front of his face. He heard two THUNKS! in the book, one right after the other, and then everything returned to normal speed.

Tobin turned the book over and looked at its front. The two knives were sticking in its cover.

Nelson was stunned. “What the…? How did you…?”

Tobin stood up. His thoughts suddenly returned to him; they were fast, confused images, like somebody was replaying everything that had happened over the past ten minutes in fast-forward. The boy was shaken, his knees weak and his arms trembling. His eyes were no longer glowing blue.

“Neat trick,” a voice said from behind him.

Tobin turned around. Jonathan was there.

“But I bet you can’t beat this one.”

The pale man smiled. As his mouth stretched into a grotesque crescent moon across his face, his teeth elongated into yellow, snake-like fangs. White, patchy fur sprouted from his hands and arms, and as he moved his head around agitatedly, bat-like wings ripped through his suit and stretched out across the room, measuring six feet long on each side of his body. Finally, when he looked to the ceiling, his nose flattened into a disgusting snout.

Tobin stared at the bat-creature in front of him. It gazed at the ceiling, panting and growling, until suddenly it snapped its head down and looked at him. Its eyes turned yellow.

“Boo,” it said.

Tobin backed away, panicking and swinging his fists. But Jonathan dodged every swipe. Taking a coiled whip from his belt, the bat-creature snapped it at Tobin, wrapping it around the boy’s legs. When Jonathan pulled the whip, Tobin fell, crashing awkwardly against a chair and hitting the ground.

Jonathan pounced, landing on top of Tobin and pinning him to the floor with his hind legs. Laughing and growling, he slashed at Tobin’s chest over and over, tearing at his shirt with his long, clawed fingers. The boy screamed, the pain unbearable, like his skin was being lanced with a fiery knife.

Finally, Jonathan jumped off, and Tobin looked down. The boy’s chest was now sliced open and bleeding, and there was a white acid sizzling on the wounds. He tried to stand but fell down, his limbs suddenly feeling as if they were not there. All he could feel was the burning. The burning, the burning.

As Nelson and Miller stood over the boy, Jonathan crouched down and spoke to him.

“I’m sorry, Tobin, but the bit of pain is necessary. We knew you wouldn’t come quietly, and we couldn’t take our chances with you…acting up. But, in just a few more seconds now, it’ll all be over. Don’t try and fight it.”

The pale man reached down and grabbed Tobin’s face, forcing him to look out a window, pressing his cheek against the glass.

“Your world out there is on a timetable, Tobin, and one that is not in its favor. Earth has been on this course for decades, centuries, maybe even eons, and now we are finally coming to its end. It’s my job to help that end happen, and—unfortunately for you—that means erasing you, your name, and any trace that you ever existed.

“You should know that it has to be this way, Tobin. We have no choice. We have to break you.”

Looking out the window, Tobin suddenly thought of his mother. Somehow, in his mind, he could see her: she was standing on the front porch of their house, waiting for him to come home.

The boy’s eyes flashed open. They burned bright blue. He had one more moment of clarity.

Tobin stood and pushed Jonathan away. Amazingly, stunningly, lightning bolts screamed from the boy’s hands. The streams of raging, blue-and-white electricity threw Jonathan across the store and he smashed into the cash register, his body contorting around the wooden counter before falling to the floor. As he lay there, unmoving, smoke rose from his body, and little dashes of white electricity jumped across his chest.

Lightning struck and thunder boomed.

Nelson and Miller ran to Jonathan, the both of them very afraid.

“Oh my god, Jon, are you okay?” Miller shouted. “C’mon, man, we gotta get out of here! C’mon! C’mon!”

Helping Jonathan to his feet, the two goons ran out of the store. Jonathan followed, with his arms across his ribs, his body still smoking.

Tobin fell to the ground. His mind and body were completely drained—he felt nothing except a dense, numbing tingling in his hands. Hearing a police siren, he crawled to a window and pulled himself up. Through the glass, he could see that three police cars were speeding across the Chapman Bridge, and the rain was falling harder than ever. A faint ringing entered Tobin’s ears, and his eyesight began to go blurry.

Pushing off the ground with his hands, Tobin stood on his shaking legs and stumbled across the room. He was weak and unbalanced; the store around him was nothing but a swirling mess of red-and-blue lights from the police cars outside. When the boy finally reached Susan, he lifted her and placed her on a couch against the wall, away from the window.

There was a mirror above the couch. Tobin looked at his reflection in it, but the face he saw was not his own: it was drawn and pale, and its milky white eyes were staring back at him lifelessly. Red-and-blue lights were dancing around the face like fireflies.

This was the last thing Tobin saw before everything went black.

CHAPTER SIX

The morning after the thunderstorm in Bridgton, Vincent Harris stood in the security center of his skyscraper, watching a news broadcast. Onscreen, a young female news reporter stood outside Jackson’s Bookstore, with police investigating the area behind her. Yellow crime-scene tape crisscrossed the broken picture window.

“Police were unable to apprehend the three suspects as they fled into the surrounding streets,” the reporter explained, “and upon entering the building, they found no items or cash missing from the register. One of the officers reported seeing a bright red flash as he was approaching the store, but saw no other signs of anyone inside when he—”

Vincent turned off the security monitor. He stood in front of it for a moment, tapping the remote controller against his chin, before leaving the room, stomping down the hall. When he reached his office, he passed by his bodyguard.

“Rigel. Here.”

Rigel followed Vincent into the office and closed the door.

“Orion has gotten involved,” Vincent said. “This will cause a delay in our plans, to say the least.”

“Allow me to take care of it, sir,” Rigel said. “I will have no trouble finding Orion, and when I do, I will take care of him and the boy. Leave it entirely up to me.”

“No,” Vincent said. “You’re much too important—I need you here with us.” He looked out at the city below, through the massive, floor-to-ceiling window that made up the wall behind his desk. “I had thought Jonathan was more than capable of handling this on his own, but obviously I was wrong. Where are he and his two friends now?”

“They came here immediately after abandoning the plan, sir. They were not followed.”

“Good. And what did we do with them?”

“I placed them under arrest. They’re waiting for you there now.”

“Good.” Vincent turned around and flipped through a file on his desk. “It’s too bad Jonathan never really committed like you did. I had high hopes for him. But, I guess everybody is wrong sometimes. Even us.”

Rigel chuckled. “What would you like to do now, sir?”

“Well, let’s send out the air division. If they aren’t able to get the job done, at least make sure they track Orion and report back to me. We still have plenty of time, but we can’t allow them to slip away any further.”

“Yes, sir,” Rigel said, before turning and exiting the office, eager to carry out his orders.

Sitting behind his desk, Vincent looked at the files scattered in front of him. One of the files contained various blueprints and documents, along with a photograph of Tobin.

Vincent slid the photograph of Tobin away with his finger. Underneath it, there was another photo—this one was of Orion, wearing his long, red coat.

Vincent studied the two photographs.

***

With his eyes closed, Tobin lay in a grassy field, asleep. It was beautiful, with the sun shining and the birds in the nearby trees chirping.

There was a low rumbling. Tobin rolled over, groaning, and felt the damp grass underneath him. Confused, he opened his eyes and reached out to touch the grass.

The grass was blue.

Tobin stood up. He looked around.

The sky was yellow. The clouds were a light shade of pink. The leaves of the dense trees around him were blue, and waving from a slight breeze. A bird—a tall, skinny crane at least seven feet tall—flew from one of the trees to the next.

The rumbling came again. Tobin turned to it, to the trees that surrounded the clearing. The leaves in that area were shaking. Faster and faster.

Suddenly, a blood-colored dinosaur burst into the clearing with a thundering ROAR! The massive, tyrannosaurus-like beast had leathery wings on its back, a body covered in bumpy scales, and a hideous head the size of a Winnebago. As it lowered its neck, it eyeballed Tobin, snorted, and then charged, its feet hammering the earth.

Tobin screamed, paralyzed with fear. The furious dinosaur closed in on him, roaring, its heavy tail whipping back-and-forth. It was so fierce, so giant, so angry. But then…

BOOM! A blinding, green explosion erupted against the dino’s face, causing it to crash to the ground. Its massive body skidded across the wet grass, and its lifeless head, mouth slung open and dripping with blood, came to a stop inches in front of Tobin’s feet. The boy looked down at it, with his eyes wide and his heart racing.

Something grabbed Tobin’s arm. He looked there to find a six-and-a-half foot tall, blue-and-white Siberian husky. It was standing like a man, and wearing a cowboy hat, a brown leather jacket, and blue jeans. It was also wielding a very large gun.

“We need to run,” the dog said to him.

The dog pushed Tobin in front of him and they ran across the field.

“What—what is going on?” Tobin gasped. “What are you?”

“I’m a talking dog,” the talking dog replied. “Head towards that sky-ship.”

Tobin looked ahead and saw a gleaming silver jet parked in the grass at the other end of the field.

“Why are we running?” he yelled.

“Take a wild friggin’ guess.”

ROAR! Another winged-dinosaur emerged from the forest, shaking the trees with its deafening bellow. Luckily, the boy and the dog were only a few yards away from the silver aircraft, and they ran into a door that slid open on its side.

Inside the craft, the dog ran into the cockpit, leaving Tobin behind in the cabin. The boy was surrounded by three rows of empty seats.

“What is going on?” he yelled. “What the hell is going on?”

The dog sat in the pilot’s seat, pushing a series of buttons on the control panel. “Recognize that guy?” he asked.

Tobin turned and saw Orion sleeping in a chair. “Yeah?”

“You came here with him. You’re lucky I found you before they did.”

“They who?”

The dog turned around. “You serious?”

The sky-ship shook violently. Tobin looked out a window; the maroon-colored dinosaur had now grabbed one of the ship’s wings with its jaws.

“Ah, krandor,” the dog snapped, spinning back to the controls. “Hold on tight, kid.”

The dog pushed a big red button, and a burst of blue fire shot out from the ship’s wing, surrounding the dinosaur. The beast roared and let go of the wing, allowing the ship to take off.

Tobin fell backward, knocked over into a chair as the craft zoomed upward. Nearby, Orion awoke from the commotion, sitting up and looking around at the shaking, trembling sky-ship. Then he noticed Tobin.

“Stay there,” the old man said. “Don’t move.”

Gripping the armrests of his chair, Tobin watched as Orion walked to the cockpit.

“What’s happening?” the old man asked the talking dog.

“I got your call, and as soon as I got here, two blood birds were approaching. One of them is on our butt right now.”

Orion looked to a monitor in the cockpit; the dinosaur was flying through the air and following them.

“Send me up,” the old man said, walking to the back of the ship.

“Are you sure?” the dog asked. “You’re pretty wiped out, O, you should probably just—”

“Send me up,” the old man repeated.

The dog shrugged. “Okay, you got it.”

Walking past Tobin, Orion took a quiver of arrows from the wall, put it on his back, and then stood in the center of the cabin. As he crouched down, he pulled a series of metal straps across his boots. The straps were attached to a silver plate in the floor.

“Tobin,” the old man said, “this is my friend, Keplar Costello. He’s the pilot and owner of this ship we’re in, the Sky-Blade. Keplar, Tobin. Tobin, Keplar.”

The dog stopped manning the controls long enough to throw Tobin a peace sign. “Hey, how’s it goin’, bro?”

Tobin had a death-lock on the armrests. “Oh. Okay.”

Orion finished strapping his boots to the silver plate and stood up. “Tobin, I’ve got a hell of a lot of explaining to do, I know, but I can’t really get into it right now.” He took an arrow from his quiver and strung it in his bow. “I’d just really rather not start explaining everything while we’re being chased by a dinosaur.”

The old man looked into the cockpit.

“Keplar, send me up.”

“All right, you’re going.”

Reaching forward, the dog pulled a lever, and suddenly a hatch opened in the ceiling above Orion, sending cold air rushing into the ship. The old man was then raised upward by a hydraulic lift, which pushed him and the silver plate up through the open hatch and out onto the ship’s roof. When the old man was outside, the hatch closed.

Tobin stared at the ceiling. He had no idea what was going on.

“Hey, bro,” Keplar said, “you can come up here and watch, if you want to. It’s pretty sweet.”

Tobin walked into the cockpit. On a monitor on the dashboard, he could see Orion; the old man was strapped by his feet to the top of the Sky-Blade, bracing himself in the wind.

***

He could not believe he once did this for fun.

With his old knees buckling, Orion stood atop the Sky-Blade and tried to keep his balance. When he felt halfway confident, he looked up and aimed an arrow at his target: the gigantic, blood-colored dinosaur flapping its wings above him.

The lizard looked down at the ship and let out a tremendous ROAR!, and Orion had to duck when it swiped its spike-covered tail at him. Crouching, he restrung his arrow, but his fingers slipped, and the arrow went flying away.

“Dammit!” he spat. He reached for another arrow, but then saw the lizard roar again. This time, a wave of fire burst from its jaws, and Orion had to fall forward to avoid the flames.

Lying on his stomach and breathing heavy, the old man grabbed a pipe on the ship’s roof for support and looked up, carefully watching his enemy. The lizard was swooping upward now, readying itself for another attack. The old man was running out of time.

He stood and steadied himself. He turned his eyes skyward and pulled back an arrow. The arrowhead erupted with red fire. Carefully aiming the weapon, the old man let go of the string and let it fly.

BOOM! The arrow exploded against the underbelly of the dinosaur in a bright red flash. Roaring, the lizard flew downward, losing speed, its wings flapping erratically. Orion fired another arrow and another and another, in three perfect motions: SWISH! SWISH! SWISH! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

With its enormous jaws clenched, the blood bird’s body dropped, its head bowed. Soon, its leathery wings stopped flapping altogether, and Orion watched as it whistled past the sky-ship and plummeted toward the ground. It crashed there at a violent speed, sending up a plume of dirt and rocks into the air. When the debris cleared, Orion saw the dino lying there in a crater, hundreds of feet away, never to flap its wings again.

The old man sighed. As he put his bow into his quiver, he and the platform were lowered back down into the Sky-Blade.

“Yee-ha!” Keplar shouted, as Orion and the platform arrived in the cabin. “That was awesome, O! I haven’t seen a blood bird fall like that in years! That…was…the…krandor!”

Orion unlatched his boots from the plate, collapsing into a seat. His arms trembled as he placed his bow on the ground next to him.

“It might have been the ‘krandor,’ but it took a hell of a lot out of me. Dammit, I’m getting old.”

Orion lay back and brought his arms across his stomach, Tobin was shocked to see that the old man’s fingers were curled and smoking.

“Keplar, take us back to my place,” Orion said. “We can’t stay there long, but there’s some things I need to get before we go. They’re already looking for us. We have to keep moving.”

Keplar set the course on his controls. “We’re on our way, O. Get some rest.”

The old man reached for his bow, so Tobin picked it up and handed it to him. The old man turned and looked at the boy.

“I’m sorry, Tobin. I’m sorry this has happened to you. I tried so hard to stop it. I’m sorry.”

Tobin was confused. The old man turned to the wall and closed his eyes.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “I know you will. I just hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me.”

In the cockpit, Keplar laughed uncomfortably. “Okay, Orion, go to sleep. You’re freaking the kid out even more than he already is, which I didn’t think was possible.”

Without knowing what else to do, Tobin walked into the cockpit and sat down next to Keplar. When the boy looked out the side window, he could see the ground speeding by far below them. When he looked ahead through the sweeping windshield that stretched across the cockpit, he could see a gleaming, futuristic city in front of them, with super-tall buildings, flashing lights, and all kinds of colorful billboards. It was too much for the boy to understand and he felt like crying.

Keplar noticed how much the boy was trembling.

“So,” he asked, “how you like flying in a class 7-24 sky-ship, kid?”

He turned the steering wheel from side-to-side, then pushed a horn, which honked loudly outside in a funny little tune. He grinned.

“Pretty freakin’ sweet, huh?”

Tobin wasn’t sure if his brain would let him answer, but he gave it a try.

“Uh, yeah. It’s…nice.”

“You wanna try?” The dog pushed the steering wheel toward Tobin. “It’s just like driving a car, pretty much. Here, go ahead.”

“No!” Tobin blurted, holding his hands out and pressing his body against the window. “No, no, I don’t want to.”

The boy suddenly felt sick and began to gag.

“Uh…are you gonna puke?” Keplar asked him.

“I think so.”

The dog reached for an empty fast food bag on the floor and handed it to him.

“Here—if you’re gonna spew, spew into this.”

Tobin took the bag and immediately vomited into it. Keplar stared at him, surprised.

“Wow, he actually did it.”

As Tobin breathed into the bag, Keplar tried to get the conversation going again.

“So, that was fun, huh? Getting chased by dinosaurs and stuff? That kinda thing happens to us all the time, really, so no big deal. One time, one of these big scorpion things was chasing us, so we—”

Tobin vomited into the bag again. Keplar looked at the floor near the boy’s feet.

“Glad I just got my ship cleaned,” the dog muttered.

Tobin looked ahead at the bright, noisy city. His stomach was churning, and he felt light-headed. He wanted to be out of there. He wanted to be home.

“What—what is going on?” he asked, the words barely leaving his throat.

“Uh-uh, you’re gonna havta ask him that.” Keplar motioned to the back of the ship. “But don’t worry, he should be up again soon. Ever since he’s been going to Earth so much lately, he’s been feeling a little off, ya know—getting old, that kinda thing. But he should be fine once he gets some rest.”

Tobin turned to the cabin and saw Orion sleeping.

“What he has to tell you isn’t gonna be easy to take, kid,” Keplar continued, “but listen to him good. He knows a heck of a lot, and is a great teacher. Saved my butt countless times.”

As Tobin turned back to the cockpit, he saw a framed photograph on the wall behind Keplar.

It was the same photograph of the two costumed men that Orion had given Tobin at the supermarket.

“Believe me, Tobes,” Keplar said, “the old dude knows what he’s talking about. You can trust me on that one.”

Soaring through the air, the Sky-Blade’s journey continued, with Tobin trying to will himself to wake up and Keplar never stopping the conversation for more than eight seconds at a time. But, what the two of them didn’t know, was that there was a third blood bird, following them from afar, and tracking their every move…

CHAPTER SEVEN

An hour later, in the kitchen of Orion’s apartment, Tobin sat at a round table and looked out a window. The busy streets of the sprawling, futuristic city were below him, while its flying cars, towering buildings, and flashing billboards were above him. This was all a part of what Keplar kept calling “Quantum City,” and it was like nothing Tobin had ever seen. For the past twenty minutes, he had been desperately trying to comprehend it, but his mind was simply unable to process the insane surroundings. He could come to only one conclusion:

“I’ve gone crazy,” he whispered to himself. “I’ve completely lost my mind.”

Nearby, Keplar stood at the refrigerator, taking out nearly everything that there was inside of it and tossing it all into a big pile on the counter.

“Holy smokes,” the dog said, “there’s like nothing in here, Tobes. I’m telling you, the old dude needs to go shopping, ASAP—it’s time to hit up the Stop n’ Shop or the Quickie Mart or something. I mean, hell, how am I supposed to eat anything when all that’s in here is like tofu and health food crap?”

He sniffed a carton of rice, grimaced, and then placed it with the rest of the food.

“I actually think what the O-Man really needs is a woman in his life, ya know? Someone to go shopping for him and get him some real food, like steaks and hamburgers and stuff. Hell, I’d even take some cheese whiz and crackers at this point, right?”

The dog peered at Tobin over the refrigerator door.

“You sure you don’t want anything, bro?”

“Uh, yeah,” the boy stammered. “I’m not…I’m not hungry.”

After settling on some ingredients (six of them, to be exact, including a massive, pink-and-green hunk of something that looked and vaguely smelled like spoiled ham,) Keplar plopped the food onto the counter and began making himself a gigantic sandwich.

“I know everything else here must be pretty weird to you,” he said, slathering half of a bottle of mustard on the bread, “but the food we got here is just as good as the food on your world, if not better.” He pointed to the fridge with his knife. “I can make you a bremshaw sandwich if you want, I think he’s got some more bremshaw in there.”

Tobin eyed the pinkish and greenish meat. “Uh, no thanks. I, uh, don’t know what bremshaw is. I don’t think.”

Keplar chuckled. “Oh, right.”

Bringing his sandwich to the table, the dog sat across from Tobin and took a big bite. As he chomped away, he and the boy stared at each other.

“So,” the dog said after a moment, “this is pretty freaking weird, huh?”

Tobin nodded. “Uh, yeah.” He hated this. He was scared and wanted to run away, but had no idea where he would go. At any moment, he felt he could be attacked, or tackled, or killed. By what or by who, he didn’t know. He just knew he wanted to be safe again. And back home.

“Well, look at it this way,” Keplar said, his mouth full. “No school for the foreseeable future, right? So that’s pretty cool.” He reached for a beer from a six-pack on the counter and cracked it open. “And, as long as you don’t die from the shock of all this or anything, we’ll have a great ole’ time. Beat up some bad guys, chase some girls, annoy the hell out of Orion—it’ll be fun. You’ll love it here.”

Tobin watched Keplar chug down the beer in three big gulps. He couldn’t believe this talking dog was treating the situation so lightly, and, even more, he couldn’t believe he was sitting across from a talking dog in the first place.

“Look,” the boy said, his voice wavering. “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know where I am. But I don’t really care. I just want to go home. Please. Can you do that for me?”

Keplar brought his used dish to the sink and grabbed another beer.

“Looks like you better spill your guts, O. The kid’s getting impatient.”

Tobin turned around. Orion was walking downstairs from the second floor, leaning on a cane and carrying a big, brown book under his arm. He’d been sleeping ever since they returned from the ride in the Sky-Blade, but he still looked so tired.

“That’s okay,” Orion said, walking into the kitchen and pouring himself a cup of coffee. “He has every right to be impatient with us. I’d feel the same way, if I were him.”

“No, it’s not that,” Tobin said, watching the old man sit down slowly and carefully across from him. “It’s just…it’s just that…”

The boy looked at Keplar. The dog was stuffing a ridiculously large, pink-frosted donut into his mouth. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the giant glob of frosting on his cheek.

“I’d just really like to know why you’re kidnapping me and forcing me to sit here with somebody from ‘Sesame Street on Steroids,’” Tobin finished.

Orion looked to Keplar. The dog laughed.

“Ha! Nice one, kid. ‘Sesame Street on Steroids.’ That’s good, I’m gonna have to use that one.”

Orion turned back to Tobin.

“I know, Tobin, I’m sorry. This isn’t how I wanted to start things with you at all. I was hoping we’d be able to begin everything very slowly, because this is a very difficult trip the first time, and a lot to take in all at once. Honestly, I’m surprised you’re still conscious.”

“Well,” Tobin said, “I’m not sure that I am.”

Orion chuckled. “You are, I can assure you of that. So, let’s just take it easy from here on out. You must have a lot of questions, so ask them. We’re here to help. Anything you wanna know, just ask.”

Tobin thought it over.

“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what this is, or who you are. I can barely even remember my own name at this point. I just want to get out of here. Please.”

Orion squinted. “Do you remember how you got here, Tobin?”

“No. Not really.”

Orion looked at Keplar. The dog shrugged.

“You went to help somebody who was in trouble,” the old man said. “A strange man was waiting for you there and he attacked you. You were hurt very badly. Do you remember?”

Tobin’s eyes flashed open. “Oh my god. That guy…that guy…he was…”

“A were-bat.”

“What?”

“A were-bat,” Orion repeated. “It’s like a werewolf, but…a bat.”

Tobin leaned forward and buried his face in his hands.

“No,” he muttered. “What is this? I hate this. I hate this. I don’t want this.”

“I know,” Orion said, “but you’re with us now, Tobin, and you’re safe. No one’s gonna hurt you here.”

The boy suddenly jumped up and moved to the other end of the kitchen. “No,” he blurted. “No, no, I don’t want—I don’t want this. I don’t want to be here.”

“I know, Tobin, but we will not—”

“This isn’t real,” the boy said. He backed up against a wall. “None of this is real. You aren’t real, this isn’t real.” He looked to Keplar. The dog smiled back and held up his beer. “This isn’t happening,” the boy said, meaning every word of it.

Orion stepped toward him. “It is happening, Tobin. I am real, Keplar is real. This is our world, where we come from. It’s a different world than your own, but a real world nonetheless. And we’re gonna help you get through it.”

“No.” Tobin scanned the apartment for an exit. “No, you’re not. How do I know—how do I know you’re not gonna turn into another were-bat or something? Or how—how do I know that I’m not in a coma or…or dead? ‘Cuz I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on.”

“How about the photo I showed you at the supermarket?” Orion asked. “The picture of your dad and me? You know that was your dad.”

Tobin shook his head. “Photoshop. My cousin could do that in eight seconds in Photoshop. Can you bring me home now? Or can you just kill me or whatever it is you’re going to do with me? Please?”

Orion took a deep breath.

“The highest grade you’ve ever received is a B plus,” he said, “and that was in gym. You once ate fifteen ice cream sandwiches in fifteen minutes simply to win a bet, and the prize money was two dollars and twenty-three cents. You threw up for four hours afterward, and you still think it was worth it. You consider the greatest achievement in your life mastering a video game that you play with a little plastic guitar, and you think this may lead to a career in music someday. It will not.”

Tobin was shocked. “What? How do you…?”

Orion laughed. “I told you, Tobin, you can trust us. Your father was my best friend for the majority of my life. We’re here to help you.”

Tobin sat back down at the table. “I don’t know. This is…my god, I just feel like I’m gonna pass out.”

“I know,” Orion said. “Just try and relax, okay? Ask me whatever questions you want. Take your time.”

Tobin thought it over.

“What—what is this place?”

“It is a world known as Capricious,” Orion said. “No one from your world knows that it exists. But it does, obviously, and we live here along with billions of other people. It’s very different than your world, but also very similar, too.”

“And who are you? What are you?”

“I’m a superhero. Or, at least, I used to be.”

“He still is,” Keplar said.

Tobin looked to the dog. “And what is he?”

Keplar let out a loud burp.

“A pain in the butt,” Orion said. “But also a superhero.”

Tobin closed his eyes and ran his hand through his hair. “This is insane. I’m gonna go jump off a bridge. Is there a bridge nearby? I want to jump off a bridge.”

Orion laughed. “Here, Tobin.” He slid the heavy, brown book across the table. “This is…well, it’s some things you’ll need to know if anything else I tell you is going to make any sense. Do you wanna read it?”

Tobin picked up the book and turned it over. “If I do, will you take me home? I really just want to go home.”

Orion and Keplar looked at each other.

“You will go home soon, Tobin, I promise,” the old man said. “But for now, why don’t you take that down to the library and look it over? When you’re done, we’ll talk about it. Okay?”

Turning around, the boy headed down a flight of stairs behind him, in disbelief he was actually listening to these two strange people. When he was gone, Orion stared at the wall, while Keplar leaned against the counter and popped open another beer.

“Well,” the dog said, “I hope the kid’s ready to have his world tipped on its butt.”

***

After walking down the creaky, narrow stairway, Tobin found himself in the library on the first floor of Orion’s apartment. It was quiet and comfortable, with red, brick-lined walls, old wooden shelves filled with books, and big, cushiony chairs. As Tobin sat in one of the chairs, he placed the book down on the table in front of him and opened it.

But the book was blank. There wasn’t a single word on any of its pages.

“What the hell?” he wondered aloud. “Nice book, Orion. A little slow in the beginning, but it really picked up there at the end.”

“Hey!” a voice suddenly shouted from across the library.

“Aaaaahaaahhh!” Tobin screamed, nearly falling out of his chair. When he looked up, he saw the owner of the voice walking toward him.

It was a little robotic boy. He was about three feet tall, and made out of purple and silver chrome that shimmered when he moved. His eyes were tall, white ovals, glowing like a pair of computer screens, and each one of them had a black pupil in its center. His feet were round and almost too big for his body, like a cartoon character, and his voice was that of a nine-year-old.

“Oh, sorry!” the robot laughed. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Tobin.” He climbed up onto a chair, and then up onto the table. “That was pretty funny, though. Usually I don’t scare people, usually I’m the one being scared. It’s nice to be on the other side for once.”

The robot sat down cross-legged on the table and smiled at Tobin. Tobin smiled back, in wonder.

“Uh…hi. Did you—did you say my name?”

“Of course I did! Orion’s told me all about you. You’re Tobin, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s you, then. I’m Scatterbolt!”

Scatterbolt offered his metal hand and Tobin shook it, laughing. “It’s nice to meet you,” Tobin said. He felt strangely relieved; this was the first person or thing he had seen so far that didn’t make him feel uneasy or about to be eaten.

“Nice to meet you, too!” Scatterbolt replied. “Did you just get here? Did you meet Keplar yet? Did you fly in the Sky-Blade?”

“The, uh, sky-ship thing? Yeah, just a little while ago.”

“Oh, cool! Sometimes Keplar lets me fly it, but not too often ‘cuz one time I crashed it into the garage, and Keplar was mad but not too mad ‘cuz I fixed it up for him after. Keplar and I are friends, you probably already knew that, but we’ve been friends a long time, ever since one time he taught me how to play poker, and we play poker a lot, and sometimes Orion plays with us, but not too often ‘cuz Keplar gets mad when Orion beats him ‘cuz Orion is the best poker player.”

The robot smiled.

“Oh,” Tobin said with a laugh. “Okay.”

The robot pointed to the book. “Were you trying to read that?”

“Uh, yeah, but it doesn’t have any words, so I didn’t get very far.”

“I know.” The robot pulled the book toward himself. “Books with no words—weird, right? But watch this!”

When the robot placed his hand on the book’s cover, a title appeared:

THE HISTORY OF CAPRICOUS AND ITS HEROES.

“Whoa,” Tobin said. “That was so cool. How’d you do that?”

“I don’t know,” the robot laughed. “I just did. And check this out!”

Scatterbolt opened the book, and Tobin saw that its pages were now filled with words, and also photographs and drawings that moved like they were alive.

“Whoa,” Tobin said, “that’s amazing.”

“Thanks! I’ve read every book down here, most of them a bunch of times, so now everything that I’ve read, I can show to you. How much do you know about this world so far?”

“Um…nothing, really. I think it’s your job to fill me in on everything.”

The robot sighed. “Whoo boy. All right, well, let’s get started, then. Prepare yourself: this can get kinda nuts.”

Flipping through the book, Scatterbolt stopped on a page with a black rectangle on it; when he pointed to the rectangle, it was slowly filled in with hundreds of twinkling stars, and also a yellow-and-green-and-blue planet that was rotating in space.

“This,” Scatterbolt said, “is the world of Capricious.”

Tobin watched as a series of scenes played out on the book’s page: there was a futuristic, metallic city with a flying train; an ancient, vine-covered jungle; a land made out of ice and snow; a place with red mountains and erupting volcanoes; a village inhabited by black-furred, lumbering monsters. The variations in climates and cultures seemed to be endless.

“Capricious is made up of all kinds of different places,” Scatterbolt said, “and also all kinds of different people. Some of them look similar to what you have on your world…”

A clean-cut man in a suit appeared on the page. He looked out at Tobin and waved.

“Some of them look a little different…”

With a flash, the man’s skin turned yellow. He looked down at his hands and arms, confused.

“Some of them look a lot different…”

The man suddenly turned into a yellow-furred, half-man, half-cat. Now he was very confused.

“And some of them even have super powers.”

Finally, the man turned into a superhero, with a red-and-yellow costume and a red, billowing cape. Pleased, he flexed his biceps and flew off of the page.

“These people with superpowers are rare even in our world,” Scatterbolt said, “but they play an incredibly important part in our lives, and are really the defining characteristic of Capricious. Some of these super-powered people use their powers for good…”

An image of Orion appeared in the book; he looked out at Tobin and fired an arrow from his bow. The boy ducked, laughing at himself.

“And some of them,” Scatterbolt said, “unfortunately use their powers for evil.”

An image of a grey-haired man with a goatee appeared in the book; he was dressed in a black-and-green uniform, and standing with his arms across his chest. As he looked out of the book, he sneered.

“Um,” Scatterbolt said, “let’s move on.”

The robot turned the page; now Tobin saw a series of bold, golden letters. They read:

THE GUARDIANS.

“Of all the superheroes we’ve ever had on this world,” Scatterbolt said, “the most important and most famous were a team who called themselves ‘the Guardians.’ Their leader was a man named Titan, who had immense strength and also the powerful wings of an eagle.”

A blonde-haired superhero appeared in the book; he was wearing a white costume plated with gold, like an ancient gladiator, and had feathered, grey wings growing from his back. He was also wielding a shining broadsword.

“Then there was the Red Wolf, who had incredible eyesight, unmatched intelligence, and the ability to hit nearly any target with his bow and arrow.”

A young Orion appeared; he was wearing his same long, red coat, and also a red mask over his eyes. After aiming his bow, he let go of an arrow, which nailed the bull’s eye of a target on the next page of the book.

“And finally,” Scatterbolt said, “there was Strike. He was a fearless daredevil with amazing agility, and also the power to control lightning.”

Strike appeared in the book; he was dressed in a midnight blue costume, with a black cape on his back and a blue mask over the lower part of his face. As he twirled a wooden bo-staff around his head that sparked with blue electricity, he looked out at Tobin and winked.

Tobin watched the image. Even though he knew full-well who the person was behind the mask, he still tried to convince himself he was wrong.

Scatterbolt turned the page; the blue-and-yellow-and-green planet appeared again. This time, it was split into dozens of countries.

“There are fifty-seven countries in Capricious,” Scatterbolt explained, “and each one of these has its own leader, who is elected in much the same way as many of the leaders of your world. We used to have fifty-eight countries with fifty-eight different leaders, but the leader of the fifty-eighth country…well, he did something very bad.”

Tobin watched as the grey-haired man in black-and-green appeared in the book again.

“This is Vincent Harris, the former fifty-eighth leader of Capricious.”

The book’s image slowly changed; now Vincent was standing behind a podium and giving a speech in front of thousands of people. Many of the people had skin that was a light shade of green, and they were all cheering Vincent’s every word. Behind Vincent, there was a gigantic flag with a green insignia of a tiger-like beast adorned on it.

“Vincent was at one time a great leader, but he was also one with dangerous, misguided ideas. He firmly believed that Earth—your world—was inhabited by alien beings who were inferior, destructive, primitive, and a threat to the rest of the universe. When it became clear that your species was moving closer toward the technology for space travel, Vincent decided he had to act; in speeches and televised events, he began to convince his entire country that Earth was a world that needed to be forcefully controlled and monitored, for the safety of Capricious.

“He became obsessed with swaying the rest of the leaders of Capricious to agree with him, but they did not, and instead they grew concerned with his fear-filled messages. They demanded that he stop these actions immediately, but his warnings about Earth only became more fierce and frightening. He was out of control, causing widespread panic about a world that didn’t even know this one existed, so the other leaders were forced to strip him of his power and put him on trial.”

Tobin watched the pages of the book; now he saw Titan, the winged-superhero, walk into a dark office on the top floor of a skyscraper. The winged-man began to look through the files of a computer, and he was very concerned with what he was finding.

“Not long after Vincent’s trial began,” Scatterbolt said, “the leader of the Guardians discovered a horrible secret: all along, Vincent had been planning to invade Earth with a team of monsters and super-villains from Capricious. He knew that your world had no superheroes to defend it, and that it would be incredibly easy for him to take control of it and rule over it, as he saw fit.”

Now Tobin saw a high-security prison in the book; Titan was walking through its halls, holding a folder of papers under his arm. When he reached a jail cell, he stuck the folder of papers through the bars, angrily showing them to Vincent, who was sitting on a bed in the cell.

“Titan confronted Vincent and told him he had discovered his plan, but Vincent grew enraged. The evil man was too powerful for Titan to take on alone, and Titan was defeated.”

On the book’s pages, Vincent held his hands out between his jail cell bars, blasting Titan with black, searing fire from his palms. The flames threw Titan all the way across the spine of the book, and he crashed onto the next page, sending the words and letters there scattering.

“More powerful than he had ever been, Vincent escaped from Capricious and traveled to your world. As he hid there with his team of super-villains, he waited and planned his invasion.

“When Strike and the Red Wolf learned what had happened to Titan, and what Vincent was planning to do on the other world, they went against the wishes of the leaders of Capricious, and traveled to your world on their own.”

Tobin now saw Strike and the Red Wolf travel through a swirling, red portal and arrive on Earth.

“The two heroes lived on your world under secret identities for months, all the while searching for Vincent. Finally, after many battles and near-misses, they found him.”

Tobin watched as Strike and the Red Wolf fought Vincent and his team in a giant, wooden warehouse. It was a brutal battle between the two heroes and many super-villains.

“Thankfully, the Guardians were victorious; they were able to disrupt Vincent’s plans for invasion, and send him back to Capricious where he belonged.”

Strike and the Red Wolf led a bruised, shackled Vincent through a mirrored, swirling portal. When they were on the other side, the gateway snapped with electricity and then disappeared.

“So,” Scatterbolt said, as the pages of the book went blank, “that’s everything Orion wanted me to tell you, Tobin. What do you think of it all?”

Tobin stared at the blank page. “I think if any of you guys actually thought that was going to make me feel better, you’re all out of your minds.”

***

One floor above, as Scatterbolt’s history lesson was wrapping up, Keplar and Orion sat at the table in Orion’s kitchen.

“The kid seems smart, O,” the dog said, handing Orion a cup of coffee. “He looks like he has a good head on his shoulders, but…he’s so damn young.”

“I know,” Orion sighed. “It’s horrible, isn’t it? I always swore it would never come to this. I don’t know how I ever let it get this far.”

Keplar shook his head. “It’s not your fault, O. You know that. This woulda happened to the kid no matter what we did to try and stop it. Now, we just gotta do what we gotta do, and make sure nothing else happens. But you had absolutely nothing to do with what happened to him.”

Orion drank from the coffee. “I know. I keep trying to convince myself of that.”

***

Outside, in the tops of the tall trees that reached all the way to Orion’s apartment, a creature rustled in the leaves: it was a robotic chameleon—a half-organic, half-mechanical creature, with a tarnished metal head and a twisted body made out of wood and springs. The being had found Orion’s apartment after using the coordinates gathered from the third blood bird, and was now moving on to the next step of its mission: scanning the building with its bionic eye.

After spotting Orion through the kitchen window, the robo-chameleon chirped loudly and then leapt onto the building with a springing of its legs; instantly, its body changed from the color of the green leaves to the color of the grey apartment walls. In little flits of movement, it then dashed down to the window, reached toward it, and stuck one of its suction cup-like feet onto the glass. It could now see and hear everything that was happening inside.

With its mission accomplished, the robo-chameleon finally raised its head toward the sky and blinked its eyes. As it began to emit a soft beeping sound, like a satellite giving off a signal, it beamed the images and sounds of the apartment to someone else—someone far, far away…

***

In the security center of his skyscraper, Vincent Harris studied one of his monitors. Onscreen, he could see Orion and Keplar, having their conversation in Orion’s kitchen.

“Where are we going after Scatterbolt’s done talking to the kid?” the dog asked.

“Well,” Orion replied, “there aren’t many places we can go where they won’t come looking for us, but Gallymoora is one of them. As soon as they’re finished in the library, that’s where we’re headed.”

Keplar grumbled. “Great. Gallymoora. My favorite place.” He finished his beer and tossed it into a recycling bin. “Well, you’re right about one thing, bro: they won’t ever look for us there.”

Vincent smiled, pushing a button on the intercom in front of him. “Rigel, send the Hoplites to Gallymoora immediately. Have them wait there until I give further word.”

“Yes, sir,” Rigel’s voice crackled through the speaker.

Pleased with himself, Vincent looked back to the screen with a smile. But then he watched Orion: the old man brought his coffee mug to his mouth, but his hand was trembling so much that he had trouble sipping from it without it spilling. He was younger than Vincent, but looked so much older.

Vincent watched the image in silence. The smile was now gone from his face.

CHAPTER EIGHT

After taking off from the roof of Orion’s apartment building, the Sky-Blade was in the clouds again, soaring to its next destination. In the cockpit, Keplar was using the time to catch up on his sleep, with his cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes and his feet propped up on the control panel, while Scatterbolt stood on the pilot’s chair next to him, doing his best to steer the ship along its way. The robot’s metallic arms were just about long enough to reach the controls, and it was a bit of a struggle, but he didn’t mind, as flying was one of his favorite things to do in the world, right up there with playing poker and reading about frogs.

In the cabin of the ship, Tobin sat all the way in the back, as far away from the others as he could possibly be. Orion was also in the cabin, but he sat up near the front, sharpening his arrows with a square stone.

“You must be very frightened still,” Orion said, trying to get the boy to open up. He had barely spoken since they left Quantum City.

“No,” Tobin said, his arms across his stomach. “Nauseous. Dizzy. Kinda feel like I’m dying. But that’s about it.”

Orion chuckled. “That sounds like fright to me.”

“I guess. Either that or my body is collapsing in on itself. One of the two.”

Orion laughed again. “You haven’t asked me any questions about what Scatterbolt told you back at the library. I thought there’d be plenty of stuff you’d want to know more about.”

Tobin grabbed the sides of his chair as the vehicle banked and picked up speed, then looked across the cabin. Orion looked human, but that hadn’t been the case with almost everything else Tobin had seen so far, so he wasn’t taking any chances.

“No offense,” the boy said, “but I don’t really feel like talking. To anyone. I just…want this over with.”

Orion nodded. “I understand. But if you want to talk, I’m here.”

A silence passed. Orion looked out the window. “All right, Scatterbolt. You can take us down now.”

“Here?” the robot asked. “But we’re not near the city yet.”

“I know.” Orion stood and slung his quiver onto his back. “But we’re gonna walk the rest of the way. It’ll be safer.”

“Okey dokey,” Scatterbolt replied. Then, with an easy push of a lever, he brought the ship slowly downward.

***

When the Sky-Blade’s engines turned off and came to a stop, Tobin walked out the ship’s door and down a long metal ramp that jutted into the ground. Scatterbolt had landed the sky-ship in a forest, but it was the swampiest forest Tobin could ever imagine: the ground was nothing but brown sludge, with large, random patches of moss resting on top of the sludge like bizarre islands. There were also thick, winding trees crawling out of the moss, which seemed to be scratching at the drifting clouds with their brittle, leafless branches. Heavy thickets of fog floated through the area above the ground, like curious residents inspecting the new arrivals in the sky-ship, and strange animal calls and insect clicks bleated out from all around the deep darkness.

“Well,” Tobin said, stepping onto the swampy ground, “this is the creepiest place I’ve ever seen.”

Behind him, Scatterbolt walked off the ship, and his big, round feet sunk into the mud, all the way up to his ankles.

“And the grossest,” he added with a sneer.

Next, Keplar walked off the ramp, waving his hand at the football-sized horsefly buzzing around his nose.

“And buggier than hell, too,” he grumbled.

Lastly, Orion walked off the ship, picking up a long skinny tree branch and using it as a walking stick. He moved ahead of the others and toward the dark forest, as if it was a completely normal thing to do.

“Which is exactly why it’s safe for us to hide here,” he said. “Follow me, everybody. A friend of mine is waiting for us up ahead.”

Following the old man, Tobin stuck close by Keplar, as he was growing more nervous with each new sound coming from the darkness.

“You guys actually know somebody that lives in this place?” he asked the dog.

“Yeah. Her name’s Aykrada. She used to be a superhero in this place not too long ago, but now…well, there’s not much of a place left.”

To his right, Tobin noticed a couple of small, shanty-like houses on the edge of the forest, but they were rundown and abandoned, as if nobody had lived in them for months.

Tobin was just about to ask Keplar another question when the football-sized horsefly returned and landed on the boy’s shoulder. He turned and saw its kaleidoscope eyes staring back at him.

“Aaaaahh!” Tobin screamed. “Get it off, get it off!”

Jumping up and down, Tobin waved his arms and stomped his feet, until finally the bug flew away, letting out an insulted little buzz as it zoomed into the forest.

Keplar laughed loudly, throwing an arm around Tobin’s shoulder. “Ain’t hanging out with superheroes fun?” he asked.

Behind Tobin, Scatterbolt was doing his best to keep up with the group, but his feet kept getting stuck in the mud, and he had to pull them out with loud, sticky SHLURPS!

“Hey!” the robot called, shaking the mud from his foot. “Hey, guys, wait up! C’mon, wait for me!”

Stepping forward, the robot avoided another deep puddle of sludge, but then the horsefly returned and landed in front of him. This time, it blocked the robot’s path, licked its lips, and drooled.

“Oh, no,” Scatterbolt said, holding his hands out. “Stay back, boy. Don’t you get any funny ideas.”

But the horsefly was too curious to regard the robot’s warning, and it stepped closer.

“All right,” Scatterbolt said with a shrug. “You asked for it.”

Suddenly, Scatterbolt’s arm drew back into his body. Then, after a few whirs and clanks, a new arm popped out—this one had a spray can on the end of it where its hand should be. A label on the can read: BUG-BE-GONE!

“Open wide,” Scatterbolt said with a smile.

The nozzle on the can descended, and instantly a toxic spray shot out and enveloped the horsefly. The bug flew away, coughing and hacking, finally taught its lesson to keep its distance.

Relieved, Scatterbolt ran forward through the mud and caught up with his friends.

“Hey, guys! Wait up! I almost just became something’s dinner! C’mon, guys! Wait for me!”

***

After a short (but skin-crawlingly creepy) trek through the dark forest, Orion, Tobin, Keplar, and Scatterbolt came upon a faded billboard: WELCOME TO GALLYMOORA! it said, and underneath the words there was a picture of a lively, tree-lined city, awash in sunlight and home to a magnificent marble fountain. The city looked nothing like any of the areas Tobin had seen so far.

Then, looking down, Tobin realized somebody was waiting for them underneath the billboard: it was a beautiful woman, wearing a long, brown dress. She was about forty years old, with friendly green eyes and wavy, brown hair. When she saw the group approaching, she walked toward them with a smile.

“That’s not a cane, is it?” she asked. “I know you said we were getting old, Orion, but, geez, it can’t be that old, can it?”

Orion laughed and embraced her in a hug. “No, not for you, but definitely for me.” He looked her in the eyes. “Thank you for helping us, Aykrada. It really means a lot to us, more than you could ever know.”

She waved him off. “Don’t be silly, Orion. You know as well as I do that we need your help much more than you need ours. We’re thrilled to have you here.”

The old man led Aykrada toward the others.

“I’m sure you remember Scatterbolt,” he said, motioning toward the robot.

“Of course. How are you, Scatterbolt?”

“Fine, thank you! Nice to see you again!”

Orion smirked. “And then there’s Keplar.”

Aykrada gave the dog a once-over, narrowing her eyes. Tobin noticed that Keplar was very nervous.

“Hi, muh-ma’am,” the dog said, offering his paw for a handshake. “It’s very nice to see you again, ma’am. I hope we can help you out while we’re here. Ma’am.”

Aykrada ignored the paw a moment, but then shook it, laughing. She wasn’t really angry, Tobin realized.

“I hope things will go better this visit?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Keplar replied. “I’ll be far away. Far, far away. People will be like, ‘Hey, who’s that?’ and everyone will be like, ‘I don’t know, he’s so far away, I can’t tell.’”

Aykrada laughed. “I’ll make sure to tell my husband that. But be careful: if he even senses you’re thinking about it, he will—”

“I swear,” Keplar blurted, “I had no idea she was your daughter, ma’am! If I knew that, I never would have—”

Aykrada covered the dog’s mouth. “All right. Just stay away. Far away. Got it?”

Keplar nodded. Tobin was eager to hear more of the story, and when he looked to Scatterbolt, he saw that the robot was trying not to laugh, snickering through clenched teeth.

“And this,” Orion said, “is Tobin.”

Tobin looked forward, finding Orion and Aykrada standing in front of him.

“Oh, hi,” the boy said, extending his hand. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, Miss…Aykrada. Nice to meet you.”

Aykrada smiled, but with a bit of sadness. Then, surprisingly, she wrapped Tobin in a hug.

“It’s an honor to have you here, Tobin. As long as you are a guest in this city, you are welcome to have anything you need. Just ask me and you’ll get it. Okay?”

Tobin nodded, uncomfortable. “Uh, sure. Thanks, thanks…”

With a laugh, Aykrada grabbed Tobin by his cheeks, gave them a squeeze, and then walked away with Orion.

“He looks just like him, O,” she said. “Just like him.”

“I know,” Orion replied. “I promise we won’t be here long, Aykrada, just a day or two. Is everything I asked for ready?”

“Yup. Anytime you need it, Orion.”

As the two of them walked toward a brick path behind the billboard, leading deeper into the woods, Tobin and the others followed.

“Wow!” Scatterbolt whispered. “Did you guys hear that? Aykrada said Tobin could have anything in the city that he wanted!”

“I know,” Tobin replied, scratching his head. “What was that all about? It kinda freaked me out, to be honest.”

“Just ask for her daughter,” Keplar said. “Trust me.”

The dog winked.

“What was that?” Aykrada asked from up ahead.

“Nothing!” Keplar said quickly. “Nothing!”

The dog ran up to the others, and Tobin and Scatterbolt shared a laugh.

“So,” the boy asked, “there’s actually people living in this place? I can’t believe anyone would want to live here.”

“Well,” the robot said, “it wasn’t always like this. And some of them do wanna leave, so Aykrada’s been helping them out until we can find a new place for them to live. But there’s a lot of them, so it’s taking a while.”

“Oh.”

Ahead of Tobin and Scatterbolt, Orion turned around. He watched as Tobin said something with a grin that made Scatterbolt burst out with a loud laugh.

The old man turned back to the brick path. For a moment, it felt as if he was once again on an adventure with his best friend.

***

After walking down the brick path, Aykrada led the group into the city of Gallymoora. As Tobin scanned the area, his stomach turned, and he nearly forgot to breathe.

There was a small city in the middle of the forest, but it was a wasteland. The houses were hollowed out and boarded up, and the cobblestone streets were littered with potholes. The giant marble fountains in the center of the city were covered with algae, and the largest fountain—the one from the billboard—was cracked into pieces and bone-dry. Worst of all, Tobin realized, there were people living here, dressed in rags and pale and beaten down. They were regular human beings, but so starved and ill they appeared to be ghosts shuffling through the wreckage.

“Oh, Aykrada,” Orion said. “I had no idea it had gotten so bad. I am so sorry.”

Aykrada looked over the city. “Since the flood we have made almost no progress. Every day, more people get sick, and every day more people are lost. It is heartbreaking.”

Tobin watched as a mother crossed the street with her two sons. One of the boys was about four years old, and the other was an infant, who was being pushed in a wobbly, barely-standing stroller.

“This is my fault,” Orion said. Tobin spun to the old man, surprised. “I should have never given you that damn thing to watch over. It was my responsibility, not yours.”

Aykrada shook her head. “I asked you for it. And you know they have been searching for it everywhere, not just here. So never think like that, Orion. Never think like that.”

She turned to the others.

“I’m sorry to say that the only building really left standing is City Hall, and the space there is pretty limited, so I’ve set up a camp for you outside in the garden. I hope you understand.”

“Of course,” Orion said, and the others nodded. “You know, Aykrada, once you get this place back up and running again, I think you could run for mayor.”

She smiled. “Thank you, O. You’re as good a friend as ever.” They hugged, and then she walked toward City Hall, which wasn’t far from where they were standing. “Have a good night, everyone. I’ll see you in the morning for breakfast, my treat.”

After watching Aykrada leave, Tobin was surprised to hear laughter behind him. Turning, he saw Keplar surrounded by a group of children. The dog was showing the kids Scatterbolt while the robot put on a show, juggling and telling jokes. The kids were laughing and clapping, fascinated by the robot.

Orion walked to Tobin.

“Once, Tobin, Gallymoora was the greatest city in all of Capricious, and the generous people here and their water fountain festivals were known all over the world. If you didn’t live here, you wanted to, and if you visited, it was unlikely you’d ever want to go home. Now, all that is obviously gone.”

“How?” Tobin asked. “How did this happen?”

“A question we’ll save for tomorrow. I remember back at the apartment you kept saying you didn’t think any of this was real. Remember?”

Tobin nodded.

“Well, it is all very real, Tobin. Just take a look around you.”

The boy looked over the city. He felt sick, and more confused than ever.

Orion noticed the look on the boy’s face.

“Come on,” he said, putting an arm around Tobin’s shoulder. They walked toward City Hall. “It’s been a long day.”

CHAPTER NINE

Tobin was lost, driving in his car, unaware of where he was and not sure how to get home. Moving along the wide road, he finally saw his mother, walking in the grass.

“Mom!” he called out, pulling over. “Mom! Where am I? What’s going on?”

But, when Tobin’s mother turned around, her face changed, and she was suddenly a stranger.

Startled, Tobin pulled back onto the road and drove forward. Finally, at the end of the deserted highway, he came upon a bridge. It was thin—so thin it was barely wide enough for him to fit his car over. When he pulled closer and looked down, he could see the bridge was supported only by skinny concrete beams, and underneath it, so far away he could barely see it, was the cold, grey sea.

The bridge did not look safe, but Tobin knew it was the only way for him to get home, so he carefully pressed his foot to the gas and drove over it. However, he did not drive slowly enough, and halfway across, he and his car tumbled off the side and plummeted to the dead water below.

Tobin’s eyes flashed open. With his heart racing, he slowly remembered where he was—lying in a small tent on the cold ground in the garden outside the Gallymoora City Hall. When he caught his breath, he decided he would rather be awake than asleep, so he wrapped himself in a blanket, opened the door of his tent, and stepped outside.

The boy saw the other three tents in the garden, and the crackling fire resting in the middle of them. Keplar was sitting by the fire, resting on a tree stump and poking the burning wood with a stick. As Tobin sat on the other side of the fire, he watched the flames and smoke rising up.

“Nightmare?” the dog asked.

“Yeah,” Tobin replied. “You heard?”

“Yeah. It’s all right.”

A silence.

“You miss your home?” Keplar asked. “Your family?”

Tobin nodded. “It’s just my mom and me, really, and my friends and stuff.” Tobin thought it over. “Before I got here, I was pretty much a huge jerk to my mom, so who knows where she thinks I went. Then there’s my friend Jennifer. She gets nervous about everything, so she’s probably even more worried than my mom.”

“Is that your girlfriend?”

“No. Just a friend.”

Keplar chuckled. “Sure.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What?”

The dog grinned. “Nothing.”

Another silence. Keplar added some wood to the fire. They listened to it crackle.

“What has Orion told you so far about all this, anyway?” Keplar asked.

“Nothing, really. Scatterbolt just told me a whole bunch of stuff about these three superheroes, the Guardians. But I still don’t know why I’m here.”

“I’m sure you can probably guess.”

“I have an idea, but I hope I’m wrong.”

“You probably aren’t.”

Tobin watched the fire. He didn’t like the sound of that.

“Why are you out here so late?” he asked the dog.

“I don’t really sleep. Not too much, anyway.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“Why, though? Everyone has to sleep. How can you not—”

“I just don’t,” Keplar repeated, making it clear this was as far as the conversation would go.

Tobin took the hint. He and Keplar sat in silence.

But, then there was a dull boom, off in the distance. Tobin looked toward the dark city. Another boom, louder this time.

“You hear that?” Keplar asked.

“Yeah.” Tobin watched the quiet buildings. “What is it?”

“Don’t know yet.”

Reaching to the ground, Keplar picked up the large, grenade launcher-like gun lying next to him. This was the same gun he had used to take down the blood bird earlier, and Tobin had heard him refer to it as a “plasma cannon.” As the dog listened to the night, he moved his hand toward the trigger.

Within seconds, the boom sounded again, and this time it was followed by a soft buzzing. It grew louder. Closer. It sounded like bugs. Coming closer. Soon the buzzing was so loud that the ground shook. So loud that it hurt Tobin’s ears.

Keplar readied his gun.

“Krandor,” he swore. “I know what this is—Tobin, get out of here, now, before they—”

KA-BOOM! An explosion rocked Gallymoora, knocking Tobin and Keplar to the ground! The buzzing filled the air now, like a piercing, shrill machine, and Tobin had to cover his ears when he stood. Wincing in pain, he looked toward the city, and gasped.

Hundreds of giant wasps flew into the city from the surrounding forest. They were three feet tall, wore armor-like clothing, and had horrible, ugly faces, with bulbous eyes and mouths that were filled with gnashing teeth. They were also holding spears and firebombs and flamethrowers, and as they swooped through the city in a massive horde, they were using these weapons to rain chaos down upon it.

Tobin watched as explosions erupted throughout the city, and fires rose up in scalding bursts. As their houses burned, the people of Gallymoora ran outside, trying to take cover. But there was no place to hide. The wasps were everywhere.

Tobin spun to his left, looking for help, but instead saw Keplar run into the center of the city. As the dog growled in anger, he used the green explosive projectiles from his gun to blast as many of the wasps out of the air as he could. But the swarm was only growing by the second, reinforced with more troops from the forest. The dog was alone in a sea of bugs.

Dropping to the ground, Tobin wrapped his arms around his head and made his body as small as possible. Hearing a WHOOSH! to his right, he turned and saw Orion—the old man was riding on a metallic, flying surfboard, and as he zoomed on the board toward Keplar, he was firing his bow and arrow. When the red-tipped weapons pierced the bugs, they exploded into bursts of yellow-and-black goo. POP! POP! POP!

“Tobin!” the old man yelled. “Get out of here, now! Get somewhere safe!”

The boy covered his head. “Where the hell do you want me to go?!”

“Scatterbolt, take him to City Hall!”

Orion hopped off the flying surfboard, and it hovered over to Tobin. When it reached him, the metal on the board’s front suddenly morphed into Scatterbolt’s face.

“I think it’s best we get out of here, Tobin,” the robot said.

Agreeing completely, Tobin hopped onto Scatterbolt’s back and they zoomed toward City Hall.

***

Arriving on the roof of City Hall, Tobin looked back to the battle. Bursts of fire were erupting throughout the city, and from this distance, the wasps looked like big, black clouds, swooping down and creating destruction whenever they neared the streets. Keplar and Orion were a blue and red dot, almost lost among the blackness.

Hearing a sound behind him, Tobin realized they were not alone on the roof; Aykrada and her family were there: her husband, son, and daughter. The son was a small blonde boy—no more than six years old—and he was crying and holding onto the waist of his sister, who was around twenty. She was doing her best to comfort the boy, but she was so frightened herself, wincing every time an explosion erupted.

“I have to go,” Tobin heard Aykrada say. He turned and saw her standing with her husband; he was a big, burly man, dressed in his bathrobe.

“No,” her husband said. “There’s too many of them, Aykrada—they’re destroying the city!”

“I know. That’s why I have to go.”

Her husband swallowed a lump in his throat and pulled her close. “Be careful.”

“I will. You stay here with them, no matter what.”

Tobin watched as Aykrada stepped to the edge of the roof. Shockingly, her entire body suddenly turned to tan-colored stone, from the tips of her toes all the way to the top of her head. She was now so heavy that when she leapt off of the roof, her stone feet created two giant holes in the ground, and a tremor shook City Hall. Stomping through the city, she ran toward Keplar and Orion.

“What are those things?” Tobin asked, watching the battle.

“They are called the Hoplites,” Scatterbolt said. “They were sent here by a person who doesn’t like us very much.”

A burst of fire erupted, louder than the others and closer to City Hall. Aykrada’s son buried his face against his sister, who was now crying herself. Their father walked to them and led them away from the edge of the roof.

Tobin watched the city. He grew angry.

“We should be down there,” he said. “We should be helping.”

“I know,” Scatterbolt replied. “I wish we could be, too, Tobin, but we can’t. We’re not strong enough.”

“We can still help.”

Tobin scanned the area, darting his eyes around the roof; against a far wall, he spotted a mop, sitting in a bucket. Running to it, he removed the mop head from the handle and plopped it back into the water. Now he only had a wooden stick.

He brought the stick to Aykrada’s son. “Hey, little dude,” he said, crouching down. “What’s your name?”

The boy turned to him, shy and nervous. “Leroy.”

“Hey, Leroy, I’m Tobin. I’m gonna go help your mom, okay? But let me ask you something: do you know anything about superheroes?”

Leroy let go of his sister, intrigued. “Yeah…”

“Oh, cool. Do you know anything about the ones who were called the Guardians?”

Leroy squinted. “Yeah, I learned all about them in my history class. Everybody knows about them.”

“All right, good. What about the one who’s called Strike? He used a weapon like this, right?”

Leroy looked at the mop handle with some disappointment. “Yeah. Except a lot more awesome.”

Tobin laughed. “Okay, thanks, Leroy.” He walked back to Scatterbolt. “Okay. I’m gonna go down there and help them. I’m probably gonna die in the process, but I’m not just gonna sit here and watch while everybody else gets killed. So…do you wanna come with me?”

Scatterbolt grumbled. “I’m not gonna be able to talk you out of this, am I?”

“Nope,” Tobin said. “I figure just being here means that I’ve gone completely insane, so why not do something completely insane to go along with it?”

Reluctantly, the robot transformed into the hover board and floated over to Tobin. “You’re gonna be a bad influence on me, aren’t you?” he asked, as they flew off toward the city.

CHAPTER TEN

In the middle of Gallymoora, Orion, Keplar, and Aykrada were doing their best to fight off the invading Hoplites, but they were vastly outnumbered: every time one of the hornets was killed, two more emerged from the forest to take its place. Making matters worse, time was not on their side: Orion was low on arrows, Keplar was down to his last few rounds of ammunition, and Aykrada was exhausted, having not used her stone powers like this in weeks. None of them would admit it, but each of them was wondering the same thing: how much longer could they keep this up?

As if an answer to their question, Scatterbolt zoomed in from City Hall, with Tobin riding on his back. The boy was wielding the mop handle—nervous, but ready for action.

“What are you doing?!” Orion shouted. “Scatterbolt, get him out of here! Now!”

“I know, I tried to tell him, Orion, but he wouldn’t listen to me!”

“He’s right, sir,” Tobin said, stepping onto the ground. “I’m sorry, but I’m staying. I can help.”

“Hey, what the hell, O,” Keplar yelled. “Let the damn kid stay. Let’s see how he likes it tomorrow when he—”

A Hoplite dropped from the sky, landing on Keplar’s back and sinking its teeth into his blue fur. With a grunt, he reached back, threw the bug to the ground, and blasted it into goo.

“Let’s see how he likes it,” the husky finished, “when he’s lying in bed tomorrow with a couple of broken legs and a whole lotta regret.”

Orion glared at Tobin, then turned and fired at a distant Hoplite.

“You stay near me,” the old man said. “You do exactly as I say. You understand me?”

Tobin nodded. He watched Aykrada; a Hoplite charged at her, but she used the bottom of her stone fist to squish it into the ground. Then, reaching up, she grabbed another Hoplite out of the sky, before flinging it into the far off woods.

Tobin decided he better do something to earn his keep. He looked for an easy target.

He found one: a lone Hoplite, standing away from the battle and using a burning tree branch to set a house on fire. Its back was to Tobin, and it was completely distracted.

Tobin nodded and took a deep breath. Gripping the wooden bo-staff in his hands, he clenched his teeth, yelled in battle, and ran at the Hoplite. When he reached it, he raised the weapon up, brought it down, and smashed it over the bug’s ugly head.

But the Hoplite simply stood up straight. It turned around. It wasn’t even dazed—only annoyed.

Tobin looked at his mop handle, wondering what went wrong.

The Hoplite approached. As it waved the burning tree branch, Tobin could feel the heat of its fire singing his face. Turning, he saw that he had no where to go: his back was up against a brick wall. Looking away, he closed his eyes, his body stiffening in anticipation of the fire. So this is how it ends, he thought. Burnt to death by a three-foot-tall—

But then there was a blast of blue light and a snap of electricity.

Tobin opened his eyes. The Hoplite was gone, and in its place there was now a large puddle of yellow-and-black slime. Sparks of electricity were zipping through the bubbling slime, crisscrossing it from one end to the other.

Tobin held up his hands. They were now faintly glowing blue, and hissing and popping with streaks of electricity.

“Huh,” the boy said, waving his hand in the air. He watched as it left a trail of blue light behind it. The light hung in the air before fading away.

Tobin had an idea. He closed his eyes again.

He thought about electricity: a power plant; a warning sign; a broken electric line, snapping and twisting on the ground. An electric plug; a generator; a cord powering a machine. A lightning bolt, scorching down from the sky and—

The blue flash again.

Tobin opened his eyes. Wild, blue electricity was now coursing over the bo-staff, flowing through it like a river. Like his hands, the weapon was encased in glowing, snapping, blue-and-white energy. He could feel it humming and vibrating in his arms.

Tobin grinned. “This is awesome.”

***

As Tobin ran back into the center of town, Keplar noticed that the boy’s hands and bo-staff were both glowing bright blue.

“Well, look at that,” the dog said with a grin. “The little boy is all growns up.”

“Not hardly,” Orion replied. He shot three arrows from his bow at once, nailing all three of his Hoplite targets. “Tobin, I told you to stay near me. Do not do anything unless I tell you to. You hear me?”

A Hoplite swooped toward the group, so Tobin swung his bo-staff up into the air and sent the bug tumbling to the ground. “Yes, sir,” he said, twirling the staff around his head in a flashy show of victory. “Loud and clear.”

Orion grumbled. “Oh, great. Another cocky one.”

Keplar laughed. “He’s just like me!”

Orion readied another arrow. “Don’t remind me.”

Nearby, two Gallymoora children sprinted away from a murderous Hoplite. The hideous bug was laughing as it chased them, and it was just about to grab one of them with its spindly hands when—

CLANG! A metal wall sprang up in front of the bug, causing the wasp to smash into it with a SPLAT! Hearing the noise, the two children turned around, only to see the bug’s face contorted into the metal. When the wall receded, the Hoplite stood there a moment, dazed, before falling to the ground.

“Have no fear, citizens!” the wall exclaimed. With the sound of a piece of steel being wobbled in the air, the wall quickly morphed into Scatterbolt, who stood in front of the kids with one fist on his hip and one fist in the air. “Scatterbolt is here!”

Realizing his heroic pose wasn’t accomplishing much besides making him look cool, Scatterbolt quickly morphed into an even bigger wall—this one was as wide and as tall as a small truck. The two children ran behind the robot, finally finding a place to hide among the violence.

“Any of you guys happen to have a giant roll of flypaper lying around?” Scatterbolt asked, spraying his BUG-BE-GONE can at the oncoming Hoplites. “No? Okay, just checking.”

Near the Gallymoora city fountains, Tobin, Keplar, Aykrada, and Orion stood in a circle, finally making some headway against the invading hornets. Running toward one of them, Tobin swung his bo-staff and sent it flying upward, where it crashed into another wasp, causing them both to fall out of the sky.

“Not bad, kid,” Keplar said. “Not bad at all.”

“Thanks,” Tobin replied. He spun his weapon in front of him. “Kinda reminds me of a video game.”

Because he wasn’t paying attention, Tobin didn’t notice the Hoplite approaching him from behind. Luckily, Orion was paying attention, and he fired an arrow that whizzed right past Tobin’s ear. The boy spun around, startled, as the bug behind him exploded in a POP! of yellow-and-black slime.

“Funny,” the old man said, taking another arrow from his quiver. “I must have missed when this became a time to congratulate each other. Stay alert, both of you. Enough talking.”

“Sorry,” Tobin replied sheepishly.

But, Orion didn’t have to worry about their focus for much longer: soon, Aykrada reared back her stone fist and squished the very last Hoplite. Finally, the four heroes could relax.

“And that,” Keplar said, “is that.” He raised a boot, stomping on a barely-squirming Hoplite, finishing the job. “You know, they’re actually kind of cute. In a hideous sort of way.”

Aykrada reverted her stone body back to flesh and blood. “Well, that was exhausting. I should go back and check on my family—let them know that I’m not, you know, dead.” She ran toward City Hall. “Come and see me when you’re ready—let’s see if we can make a plan to clean up this mess.”

Keplar watched her go, scratching a huge, red welt on his arm. “I hope she has about 500 gallons of anti-itch lotion back there.”

Tobin leaned on his staff, catching his breath. “Maybe her daughter can help you put it on.”

“Ha! Good call, bro. Actually, now that you say that, I think I’ll head up there right now…”

Tobin laughed and sat down, light-headed but exhilarated. He still couldn’t believe what had just happened—he wasn’t even sure he knew what had just happened. Nearby, Orion listened for something in the air.

“I gotta say,” Keplar said, sitting in the dirt, “you did pretty good, Tobes. How’d you know how to use your powers like that so fast?”

The boy shook his head. His thoughts felt like they were spinning. “I don’t know. I don’t even know what it is that I just did. Me and Scatterbolt were up at City Hall, so I asked—”

“Quiet!” Orion snapped, spinning toward them. “Enough! Both of you!”

Tobin and Keplar looked at each other.

“Uh, Orion,” Keplar said, “relax, buddy. We won, remember? We made like a giant fly swatter and smashed ‘em all. Bugs: zero, us: one thousand.”

Orion waved his hand, motioning for the dog to stay quiet. Then he knelt down, lowering his ear to the ground.

Not far away, Scatterbolt was still morphed into the wall, shielding the two Gallymoora children and a few other people.

“Um, Orion?”

“Yes, Scatterbolt.”

“I’m picking up something weird.”

“What is it?”

“It’s…I’m getting life signs from the Hoplites.”

Tobin spun to Keplar. Orion stood and dusted the dirt from his pants.

“How many?” he asked.

Scatterbolt waited a moment to answer.

“All of them.”

There was a low buzzing…and then every single dead Hoplite suddenly sprang back to life. The hundreds of carcasses, now chattering and growling madly, rose off the ground and up into the air, creating a deafening, hovering swarm above and around the heroes.

“Well,” Keplar said, “this kinda sucks.”

After dashing into his tent, Orion returned to the group carrying his last bag of arrows. Then, as he, Keplar, and Tobin stood in the middle of the city, the Hoplites began to fly together in a donut shape above them, like planets orbiting around a sun. Gradually, as the wasps moved their bodies closer together, the air in the center of the circle disappeared.

Keplar spoke from the corner of his mouth. “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?”

“Yes,” Orion said. “I’m pretty sure they are.”

Tobin watched, confused, as the hundreds of Hoplites lowered themselves and floated in front of him. They were becoming less like a swarm now and more like a giant ball of bugs, crawling all over each other like they were building a nest. When the boy looked closer, he realized he could no longer make out each individual Hoplite—they were now simply one slimy, pulsating, yellow-and-black mass. He felt relieved, because surely this blob couldn’t hurt him, not like the hundreds of swarming Hoplites could. But then he noticed something growing out of the bottom of the blob.

It was a giant pair of legs, which stretched down from the blob and touched onto the dusty ground. Next, two massive arms emerged from the sides of the blob, sliding out with slow, quivering slurps. Finally, at the top of the mass, a head appeared: it looked just like a Hoplite head, except it was bigger, slimier, and possessed a mouth whose teeth were made up of the black stingers of the hundreds of smaller Hoplites inside of it.

A thirty-foot-tall monster was now standing on the street, towering over the heroes. As it lowered its head, it stared at Tobin and blinked, before letting out a shrill scream. The boy covered his ears and cried out, feeling the warm garbage breath of the monster blasting over him.

Enraged, Keplar leapt in front of the monster.

“Rarrrgghh!” he growled, firing his plasma cannon at the giant Hoplite in quick succession: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!

The green blasts created a great deal of smoke, and when it cleared, Tobin could see that the Hoplite now had a huge hole through its chest. However, the hole was quickly filled in with the bodies of the smaller Hoplites as they crawled across the giant’s slimy arms.

“Uh-oh,” Keplar said.

Reaching down, the Hoplite swiped at Keplar with its massive claws, sending the dog flying. His body smashed against the pavement, skidded wildly, and ended up lying underneath a building. Before he could regain his bearings, the Hoplite stomped over and toppled the building on top of him, covering him in debris.

Tobin spun to Orion. The old man was firing his bow at the monster, but most of the arrows were zipping right through its body with no effect.

“Tobin!” Orion shouted. “Focus your lightning in your bo-staff and fire it at the monster! Now, before it gets any closer!”

But Tobin was too afraid. After looking up at the monster in shock, he turned and sprinted across the city, hiding behind a half-destroyed building.

“Dammit,” Orion whispered. He fired another arrow, then ran to Tobin and hid with him behind the building.

“Tobin,” the old man said, crouching, his voice labored. “Jump out. Now. Fire your staff. We don’t have any time.”

But Tobin couldn’t. He looked away from Orion, crying. He could only think about hiding.

Orion peered over the wall; the Hoplite was approaching. The old man tried to string an arrow in his bow, but his fingers slipped and contorted into a painful claw. Clutching the hand against his chest, he knelt on the ground and looked up at Tobin.

“Please,” he said. “Do something.”

The boy and the old man were found—the wall was ripped away, and the Hoplite swung a mighty backhand that sent Orion careening into the surrounding woods. Tobin watched as his body crashed into a tree and disappeared out of sight.

With the Hoplite now only a few feet away, Tobin had no choice but to run. He sprinted to one of the city fountains and pressed his back against the marble, but his new hiding spot was quickly demolished, exploding into a cloud of white dust and hundreds of heavy chunks. As the Hoplite monster reached down and grabbed Tobin in its giant fist, the boy could feel each of the individual Hoplites that made up the fingers squirming against him. Without knowing if anyone would hear, he screamed for his life.

A safe distance away, Scatterbolt watched Tobin and the Hoplite monster, but the robot couldn’t move from his spot—if he did, everyone behind him would be exposed. Looking across town, he saw Keplar, still lying underneath the rubble of the toppled building.

“Keplar!” he shouted. “Over here! Keplar! Help, Keplar! Help!”

Hearing somebody call his name, the dog pushed the debris off of him and rolled over. As he slowly stood on his feet, he reached up and felt the stream of blood running down his forehead.

“Keplar!” Scatterbolt shouted again. “Over here! Hurry!”

The dog turned, seeing Tobin flailing in the Hoplite’s grasp.

“Oh, krandor,” the dog swore. Then he ran at the monster, with no idea what he was going to do when he reached it.

Stretching out his long metallic arm, Scatterbolt grabbed Keplar’s plasma cannon from the ground. After he opened a hatch on its side, he removed the gun’s ammunition—a glowing green orb.

“Keplar!” the robot shouted, heaving the orb across the street. “Take this!”

“Got it!” the husky replied, catching the green ammo. As he sprinted toward the Hoplite, he carried it underneath his arm like a football.

But the dog didn’t have much time: the Hoplite was raising its arm, and bringing Tobin toward its open mouth. As the boy looked into the foul, gaping cave, he could see all of the slimy, hissing hornets inside, and their black stingers waiting for him.

“Hey, fat and ugly!” Keplar yelled. “Chew on this!”

The Hoplite monster turned—it saw Keplar running toward it. As it opened its mouth even wider, it let out an earth-shattering ROAR!

But, in that same instant, Keplar leapt into the air and hurled the ammo toward the Hoplite. With the accuracy of a star quarterback, he hit his target—the green orb soared right into the Hoplite’s open mouth.

The Hoplite dropped Tobin. It gagged. The green orb was now a huge lump in its throat, glowing through its skin. As the monster clawed at its neck and choked, Keplar ran underneath its legs, grabbing Tobin by the arm.

“This is the second time I’ve saved you from a giant monster,” the dog said. “Don’t think I’m not keeping count.”

As the monster swiped at them, Tobin and Keplar ran toward the center of the city. When they were far enough away, Keplar pushed Tobin ahead of him, turned around, and reached for one of the laser blasters on his waist. Closing one eye, he aimed the blaster at the monster’s neck and pulled the trigger.

KA-BOOM! The ammunition exploded, sending Tobin and Keplar soaring through the air. They hit the asphalt, rolled underneath a tree, and came to a painful stop on top of its exposed roots. In shock, Tobin rolled over and turned back to the monster.

The Hoplite had been completely blown away, but its remains were now raining down on Gallymoora. As hundreds of pounds of yellow-and-black chunks splattered the streets, the people of the city ran for shelter, saved from the monster but now in danger of being drenched in its guts.

Lying where they landed, Keplar leaned against the tree trunk and pulled himself up. But, as he was getting to his feet, a hunk of goop fell only inches away from him, splattering him in yellow-and-black slime from head-to-toe. Groaning, he tried to wipe the sludge away, but it stuck to his hands and fur.

“Son of a bremshaw,” he muttered.

As the dog walked into the forest, Tobin sat underneath the tree and stared ahead blankly. When he heard voices, he turned and saw Keplar reemerge from the forest with Orion. The old man was leaning against the dog, and using his bow as a cane.

“It’s a big, scary world, kid,” Keplar said to Tobin as they passed. “But being afraid of it ain’t gonna get you crap.”

Orion looked to the boy. “We’ll talk about this later, Tobin.”

As the old man and the dog entered a doorway, Tobin was left alone, sitting in the dirt, as the last of the goop dripped off of the trees around him.

***

On the top floor of the Trident skyscraper, Vincent Harris sat in his office and watched Tobin on a hand-held monitor; the boy was sitting underneath the tree in Gallymoora, covered in yellow-and-black sludge. The Hoplites hadn’t been able to beam back much footage from the battle, but what Vincent had seen was enough.

“Well,” he said with a smirk. “That was unexpected.”

Rigel stood by the door. “I agree. I thought his powers would take over and push him much further than that. What happened?”

“I don’t know, but whatever it was, it was very…strange. He’s not nearly as far along as I thought he’d be.”

“Should we act now, then? Move ahead while they’re so unprepared?”

“No—we stay with what we mapped out: we only have to be concerned if we know Tobin can be sent after us. If he’s not strong enough yet to make another trip through a portal, then we still have plenty of time, and we can wait and move ahead as planned. If he is strong enough to make another trip between worlds, though, we may have to reassess our schedule.”

“We could figure that out somehow,” Rigel said. “Find out if he’s able to travel through portals.”

“Yes,” Vincent said. “We force their hand—with something small, but something that deserves attention. If he’s able to survive the trip, Orion will have no choice but to send him after us. Then, we’ll know he can go between worlds, and we can begin.”

Rigel walked to a nearby shelf and picked up a file.

“Sir, I think I know exactly how we can figure that out.”

He placed a photo on Vincent’s desk.

“Their names are Jennifer Robins and Chad Fernandes,” he said, pointing to the teenagers in the photo. “They are Tobin’s closest and oldest friends.”

Vincent studied the photo.

“Yes,” he said. “Make the first move.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The morning after the Hoplite battle, Tobin stood at a sink in the Gallymoora City Hall and scrubbed his arms with a bar of soap. He had been at this for nearly an hour, but his clothes and skin were still covered by the yellow-and-black sludge. As he resigned himself to a life where he would forever be blotched with Hoplite monster guts, he heard someone in the doorway.

“Good morning, Tobin,” Orion said. “If you’re ready, we should get going. The Sky-Blade’s waiting for us.”

Tobin turned to the door; Orion had his right arm in a sling, and was using a crutch. The boy felt terrible.

“Did you sleep all right?” the old man asked.

“Yes,” Tobin lied, putting the soap in its dish. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Come along.”

Tobin walked into the lobby of City Hall. Outside, he could see the Sky-Blade, with its engines running.

“We have to leave already?” the boy asked.

“Yes. I got what I needed from Aykrada and we’re moving on, like we should have in the first place. We’ve only made it worse for them here.”

Tobin could hear the regret in Orion’s voice. “Where’re we going now?” he asked.

“You’ll see,” the old man said.

***

Soon, the group was off again in the Sky-Blade, and Keplar was once again using the time to catch up on his sleep in the cockpit. This time, however, Scatterbolt was having a much easier time piloting the ship, as he was standing on a stack of old phone books that he found in the Gallymoora City Hall. As he set the ship’s course, he leaned forward and gracefully adjusted its steering wheel, smiling brightly.

In the cabin, Tobin lay on a hammock that was suspended from the ceiling by chains. Across from him, Orion sat in a chair, reading a book.

“Somebody’s pretty quiet over there,” Orion said.

“Just tired,” Tobin replied. “That’s all.”

“Oh. I thought maybe something else was on your mind.”

“Like maybe how I almost got everybody killed last night?”

Orion chuckled. “Yeah, that might be it.”

“I feel like an idiot,” Tobin said. “I know I should have done something, but…I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything.”

Orion closed his book and walked to the cockpit.

“Tobin, when you got yourself involved in the battle, you owned it. A piece of it. And whether you were ready for it or not, you were responsible for that piece. That’s what happens when you put yourself in a situation like that: everyone else is depending on you to do your part when you need to. I knew you weren’t ready, which is why I didn’t want you getting involved in the first place.”

Orion looked at Tobin. The boy was staring at the ceiling, with a miserable look across his face.

“But I guess you already know that,” the old man said with a laugh.

“Yeah. Now I just hope nobody else almost dies because of me.”

Orion opened the cockpit door.

“Let it go, Tobin. It’s over, after all. The worst thing you can do now is obsess over it, because then you can’t move on from it and learn from it. That’s all you need to do now—learn from it.”

Tobin nodded. He still felt so angry. And embarrassed.

“Try and get some sleep,” the old man said. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

The lights in the cabin went out. Tobin turned to the wall, listening to the hum of the sky-ship, and thinking.

***

As the Sky-Blade started its descent, Tobin looked out the window at their next destination: they were landing on a tan, brick platform that rested in the side of a mammoth mountaintop, high above the clouds.

When the ship came to a stop, Tobin walked onto the mountain’s brick landing platform and looked over the area. It was as if he and the others were the only people left in the world. Far away from civilization, and thousands of feet into the air, all he could see were the green tops of trees, clouds, and other mountain ranges, for miles and miles.

Shielding his eyes from the reflection of the sun, Tobin turned to the mountain and saw that there was a structure—a building of some kind—built into the side of it. A set of giant, glass doors was the building’s entrance, and there were several floors of windows above it.

“Wow,” he said. “What is this place?”

Orion walked down the ramp and pressed a button on a remote control. “Read that tablet.”

A marble pedestal rose with a whoosh! near the mountain’s entrance, so Tobin ran to it. There was a tablet on top of it, and a series of words ran down the tablet in a column, repeated in all kinds of languages.

“I can’t read any of this,” the boy said.

“Keep reading.”

Tobin ran his finger along the words until he found it. “Ah, here it is: ‘The Museum of the Heroes.’”

“Yes.” Orion walked toward the entrance. “This was where my friends and I lived many years ago, when we were superheroes. Now, no one needs it any longer as a headquarters, so I’ve turned it into a museum about this world’s heroes and where we came from. Come in and I’ll show you.”

Tobin followed Orion toward the doors, but he noticed there were no doorknobs on them—no handles, no latches, not a single thing to pull them open. However, when Orion’s face was only inches from smashing against the entrance, there was a loud click! from inside the mountain, and the glass doors quickly opened. The old man walked in as if he had done this thousands of times, and he had.

Behind Orion, with cautious, curious footsteps, Tobin followed, stepping into the mountain’s entrance. He was stunned with what he found inside.

There was a wide open, sun-filled room sprawling in front of him, with colorfully designed marble floors, dozens of glass-encased exhibits, and a ceiling that rose all the way to the top of the mountain. Scanning upward, Tobin saw that the ceiling was etched with images of superheroes, and also spotted with skylights. These skylights were letting the sunlight flow in, and it was illuminating all of the wondrous statues, costumes, paintings, and photographs. Tobin couldn’t believe it: inside the mountain, in the middle of nowhere, there was a fantastic museum.

Walking across the marble floor, the boy inspected the exhibits. Along one wall, he found a glass case full of old weapons and colorful costumes, some of which looked like they could be a hundred years old. Down a ways from there, he found an incredible bronze statue: it was of a tall man with the outstretched wings of an eagle, holding a sword high in the air. The inscription on the statue read: MATT “TITAN” TAYLOR, LEADER OF THE GUARDIANS. Tobin recognized this man from Scatterbolt’s impromptu history lesson earlier, and also noticed that this statue was on a pedestal higher than the others around the room.

Tobin walked nearer to the other statues. Some of them depicted normal humans, like the one of a gorgeous woman standing next to her pet panther, but there were also depictions of strange-looking men and women, like the one of a man with pointy ears and three-fingered hands. Then there were the statues that didn’t look human at all, like the one of some kind of toad-man; he was wearing knight’s armor, holding two daggers, and showing off a grin filled with hundreds of teeth.

The paintings and photographs throughout the museum were also fascinating. Many of them showed great battles between heroes, monsters, and super-villains, but many of them showed quieter moments, too: there was an old man in bed, surrounded by his saddened family; a fisherman and his dog, sitting on a hill and fishing in a lake; there was even one of the winged-man named Titan, dancing with a blonde woman at a party.

Then, at the end of the row, Tobin found a large, framed photograph, which nearly encompassed the entire wall.

It was a photo of a massive gathering of superheroes. There were at least seventy of them, and they were all wearing varied, colorful costumes. Tobin noticed the one named Titan again, standing in front of the group and looking very serious, with his wings folded at his sides. On one side of Titan, there was a young Orion, standing with his bow and arrow, and on the other side of him there was a young Strike, who was wearing his midnight blue costume, holding his bo-staff, and not taking the picture nearly as seriously as Titan.

Then, at the edge of the photo, nearly out of frame, Tobin saw another tall man dressed in black. This man was smiling for the camera, with his arm around a young, pretty woman with dark hair.

“Pretty neat, huh?” Orion said. “Capricious has many superheroes now, Tobin, but when I was your age, we had even more, hundreds more. Many of them were our friends and allies, but my teammates and I were the only ones who used this place as a headquarters. Which was probably a good thing, considering all the trouble we got into.”

“And these two here in the front were your teammates, right?” Tobin asked. “The Guardians?”

“Yes,” Orion said, pointing to Titan and Strike. “The young man here with wings, and the man dressed in blue. The three of us were the most famous superheroes on Capricious, for better or for worse. And, to be honest, the fame part was often for the worse, but…we had a lot of fun, too.”

“And you guys were the best?”

Orion chuckled. “No, not really. But pretty good.”

Following Orion out of the main gallery, Tobin and the old man walked into a quieter room in the back of the museum. There were a couple of benches here, a small duck pond, a glass display case, and three more statues, all of which seemed to be watching over the area. One of the statues was of Orion, one was of Titan, and one was of Strike.

Tobin approached the statue of Orion.

“Orion Hobbes,” he read from the inscription. “He Might Be Old and Cranky Now, But We Still Love Him, Anyway.”

“Keplar and Scatterbolt put that here for my birthday a couple of years ago,” Orion said. “They said they were being nice, but I think they just like to remind me of how old I am.”

Tobin chuckled. The statue showed Orion as a teenager; he was wearing a mask over his eyes, the same knee-length coat, and a quiver of arrows on his back.

“We were so young, when we started,” Orion said. “Fourteen, fifteen years old. And with absolutely no idea of what we were doing.”

Tobin walked to the long glass display case. It held photographs, newspaper clippings, and magazine covers.

“I’m sure by now you’ve figured out why you’re here,” Orion said.

Tobin waited a second. “Yeah. I think it’s pretty obvious.”

Tobin looked down; a photograph showed Strike, Orion, and Titan, sitting at a restaurant. They were out of costume, and wearing normal clothes. Tobin saw his father staring back at him—young, happy, and with friends.

“Your father and I became best friends and teammates our freshman year of high school,” Orion explained. “Later, the team disbanded, and then it was just the two of us.”

Tobin read one of the newspaper clippings:

STRIKE AND THE RED WOLF PUT AN END TO DABOSI CRIME FAMILY!

Underneath the headline, there was a picture of Strike and Orion, dressed in costume and fighting a group of armed criminals in the middle of Quantum City.

“After we stopped Vincent’s invasion of Earth,” Orion said, “your father and I returned to your world many times over the years, to make sure no other villains from Capricious had crossed over into it. We had let that happen once, and we swore we would never let it happen again.

“While we were there, though, we also realized we could help out your world in other ways. Your world unfortunately needed it at the time, and it was a great honor for us to fight alongside the heroes of Earth, who were infinitely more brave than we could ever be.”

Tobin looked at another newspaper clipping: this one was from Earth, and it was dated August 16th, 1944. It showed a blurry picture of Strike and the Red Wolf, as they helped the Allied soldiers in war-torn France. The headline read:

MYSTERIOUS MASKED MEN HELP WALLOP HITLER’S GOONS!

Tobin was stunned. “What? How could…?”

Orion laughed. “Our bodies age much differently than yours, and we live for much longer. I’m just starting to feel my age now, if you couldn’t already tell.”

Tobin walked along the case and looked at the other photographs: there was one of Strike and the Red Wolf in Chicago in the 1960’s, one of them in Los Angeles in 1975, and one of them in New York in the 1990’s. It was all so very strange.

Behind him, Tobin heard a knock at the door; Scatterbolt stood in the entryway, holding a book.

“Hi, Scatterbolt,” Orion said, sitting down on one of the benches. “Here, Tobin. I want to show you something.”

Tobin sat down on the bench, while Scatterbolt hopped up next to him. As the robot placed the book on his lap, he opened it.

“Your father and I made hundreds of trips to your world,” Orion explained, “and we always made sure while we were there to have as little contact with your people as possible. But, on one of our last trips…well, you’ll see.”

Tobin watched the book:

The pages showed New York City at nighttime. Orion stood atop a skyscraper, scanning the horizon with a pair of high-tech binoculars. Strike stood next to him, and they were both in their late-thirties.

Suddenly, on the street below, Strike saw something of interest. Grabbing the binoculars from Orion’s neck, he pressed them against his eyes, nearly pulling Orion over in the process. Confused, Orion peered over the edge of the building, but then laughed, shaking his head.

Strike was watching a beautiful woman walk down the street with her friends.

The woman was Tobin’s mother.

“From the very first moment he saw her,” Orion said, “your father, Scott Webber, fell madly in love with Catherine Richards.”

On the page, Tobin watched as his mother laughed at one of her friend’s jokes, and the image froze. Tobin remembered how he had acted the last time he saw her.

“Against all of my advice,” Orion said, “your father began going out of his way to speak to your mother. Then, very much against all of my advice, he asked her out on a date. He fell in love, so did she, and it wasn’t long at all before he was spending almost all of his free time on Earth.”

In the book, Tobin now saw photographs of his mother and father, from the period when they had just started dating. He even recognized some of the photos as ones his mother had back home.

“After a couple of months,” Orion said, “your father and I agreed it was best for him to move to your world full-time, where it was clear he was meant to be. He changed his name to Scott Lloyd, started a new life on Earth, and married your mom. At the same time, I stayed here on Capricious, continuing on as a superhero on my own.

“It was a wonderful time for your father, and I truly never saw him happier in his life. We—all of your dad’s friends—were so happy for him, as strange as it was, that he could have this new life on Earth. However, three years after you were born…” Orion waited a moment. “Three years after you were born, our worst enemy, a man named Vincent Harris who calls himself the Rantamede, reappeared on Capricious and again plotted to invade your world.”

Tobin looked to the floor. Next to him, Scatterbolt glanced up at Orion. The old man motioned for the door, and the robot headed in its direction.

“I faced Vincent alone this time,” Orion said, “but I failed, and Capricious was nearly destroyed. Before I went to face Vincent again, your father insisted on leaving Earth to help me. Together, we were able to stop him, but…”

Orion took a breath. His next words were quiet, careful.

“Your father pushed his powers to the limit. It was too much for him. Shortly after we stopped Vincent’s invasion, your dad passed away. It was a July morning. The night before, he had left your house, promising your mom he would be back. He didn’t…we didn’t know it would be the last time he would ever see her.”

Tobin tried to look away from the floor, but found that he couldn’t.

“I wish I would have known that,” he said. “I wish my mom would have known that.”

Orion nodded. “She never knew anything about your dad’s past, or the truth about where he was from. I think he was finally planning on telling her that morning, but…”

Tobin stood and walked away. He didn’t want anyone to see him this way.

“You were everything to him, Tobin,” Orion said. “You and your mother. You were his entire world, the reason he risked it all, the reason he gave up his life. He did it to save Earth, but really, to save you and your mom. That’s the only reason he did it—because he knew that way you and your mother would be safe. And that’s why it hurts me so much to have to tell you what I am about to tell you.”

Orion waited for the boy to turn around, but he didn’t move. The old man knew he couldn’t wait any longer, so he said it.

“Tobin, Vincent Harris has returned.”

Tobin still didn’t turn around.

“How?” he asked. “I thought you and my father killed him already. This is so…”

The boy ran his hand through his hair. He could feel a deep anger growing inside of him.

“No,” Orion explained. “We were only able to imprison him. I had hoped he was imprisoned for good this time, but now he is back, and he is planning to—”

“I won’t do it,” Tobin said.

Orion sat up, surprised. “You—I’m going to help you, Tobin. It will be the three of us, Keplar, Scatterbolt, and myself, and we will help you to—”

“No,” Tobin said again. “I won’t do it.”

Orion stood and walked to Tobin, standing in front of him.

“Tobin, Vincent has tried to attack your world before, and at those times, my friends and I were able to stop him. But now…my friends are gone. It is just me, and I am old and crippled and useless. There is now only one person who even has a chance of surviving a confrontation with Vincent. Only one person, out of two entire worlds.” The old man paused. “You cannot throw that away. I won’t allow you to.”

But the boy said nothing. He only looked at the ground.

“We need your help, Tobin. I need your help.”

Tobin walked away, toward the gallery’s entrance.

“I have no help to give you,” he said. “I’m sorry. Just take me home.”

Orion stepped toward Tobin and turned him around by his shoulders.

“I know you’re scared, Tobin. I would be, too. I’d be thinking that I’d lost my mind, and wishing for this all to end. I’d be hoping that this stupid old man would just shut up and let me leave, instead of begging me to go off and fight a monster. But you are my best friend’s son, Tobin. I will not allow you to get hurt. I would rather die myself than see you get hurt.”

Tobin reached up, wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Your father was incredibly reckless, to be honest,” Orion said with a laugh. “He never took anything seriously, and he never stopped telling jokes, even in the middle of battles. But he lived to protect people, Tobin. It’s all he ever aspired to do. And now we must do it, because he isn’t here to.”

The boy breathed in deeply. His voice betrayed him and cracked. To cover up the nerves racing through his body, he laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

“And how exactly do you plan on doing this?” he asked.

“We will train here,” Orion said, “with Keplar’s and Scatterbolt’s help. While Vincent is still planning his invasion, we will teach you and we will guide you, and when you are ready, you will go to Vincent and you will stop him, at all costs necessary.”

Tobin looked up, surprised at the last detail.

“He doesn’t know it, but I have found Vincent and his team,” Orion explained, “in a secret place he has created, on one of the moons of Capricious. When you are ready, you will go there, and you will end this invasion before it ever begins.”

Tobin thought it over. It was all so insane, so ridiculous, so much more than he could understand. But he kept thinking about one thing over and over.

“I think about my mom,” he said. “And my friends. And Bill. And the people I work with. And then I think about that place we visited, Gallymoora, and how that could be my friends’ houses and their families’ houses. I think about that, and…” He took in a breath. “I’ll try.”

The old man smiled, proud and relieved. “Yes, you will. And you will succeed.”

As Orion put an arm around Tobin’s shoulder, the two of them walked back into the main hall of the museum.

“I knew you would help us, Tobin. I never had any doubt.”

“Well, that makes one of us, then, ‘cuz I’m pretty sure I just made the worst decision of my life.”

Orion laughed. “Then we’ll have to change that. Come on, let’s go and find the others. We have a lot of work to do.”

As the boy and the old man walked out of the museum, they passed by a giant glass case holding the remains of what appeared to be a ten-foot-tall praying mantis.

“By the way,” Tobin asked, “what the heck is that thing?”

“Oh. Your dad and I stopped that once from destroying Quantum City. There were three of them, actually.”

“Is Vincent as terrifying as that?”

“No. He’s about a million times more terrifying.”

Tobin shook his head. “Great. What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

***

The small boy looked around the massive auditorium. There were thousands of other people seated around him, and many of them had lightly green-tinted skin, just like him: he recognized his teacher, his next-door neighbor, and the grocer from down the street. They were all gathered, anxiously but excitedly, in front of a stage with a podium at its front. There were also black banners on the stage, and each banner had the head of a green, tiger-like beast on it, which the boy knew represented him and his home. But, they were so far from that home now, in this strange new world, and the boy was confused with all the seriousness and commotion.

“Who’re we waiting for, Grammpa?” he asked. “Why are all these people here?”

“I told you,” his grandfather said with a laugh, sitting up to get a better look. “We are here, just like everybody, to see the man I have been telling you about. The man who is going to change everything for us.”

The boy remembered the stories his grandfather had told him back home, about the man who used to lead their home country of Rytonia.

“And that’s why we’ve moved all the way here? Just to see this man?”

“Well, in a way. We’ll only be living here for a short while longer, because this man is readying a new home for us. It is going to be safe and wonderful, even more wonderful than our old home, and we will be free to live there exactly the way we want to, with nobody telling us what is right and what is wrong.”

“But how do we know it’ll be so much better?”

“Because he has promised this to us. Never once has he failed to live up to his word. He is a great leader and has been ever since I was a young man.”

The opening notes of a song were heard, and the boy knew this song as the one they used to play back home before sports games. The people around him stood up, so he did, too, but he was too small to see the stage.

“Here,” his grandfather said, lifting him onto his shoulders. “Get a good look. We may never get this chance to see him in person again.”

From his new perspective, the boy saw a hulking, red-skinned man walk onto the stage. He knew this man’s name was Rigel, and that he was very important, but he was not the man they were waiting for. They were waiting for a different man, and when he walked onto the stage, the people in the auditorium erupted into applause. It was the loudest cheers the boy had ever heard.

Vincent Harris, wearing his black-and-green uniform, walked to the podium, smiling and waving. As the people clapped and hollered, he waved his hands up and down, motioning for them to quiet. When they finally did, he lowered the microphone toward his mouth.

“People of Rytonia. I know how long you have been waiting for this moment, because I, too, have been waiting. It has been difficult, and long, and tiring, and I know this is not what many of you expected, to make this long journey here only to hide and wait.

“But it has all been worth it. In only a few more days, all of our waiting will be rewarded. We will all find a new home.”

The people cheered. The boy saw that many of them were crying.

“This has strengthened us,” Vincent said. “We have sacrificed, and we have suffered, but we have done it together. We have taken hardship and turned it into determination, and now we will use that determination to build each other up. At the most crucial of times—this time—we have come together to help our fellow people reach for heights that we didn’t even know existed. These heights are within our grasp now, waiting for us to seize them.”

The cheers came again, and this time Vincent was still, waiting for them to fade.

“I believe in us,” he said. “I believe in Capricious, and I believe in what that world once stood for. And even though that place as we knew it is gone, we can now work together to recreate that once great world. As we carry the memories of the old Capricious with us, we will bring light, strength, and unity to this new world—to this New Capricious. The wait is over: the dawn of a new day is here!”

The people stood and applauded. The boy realized that his grandfather was right—this man, this Vincent Harris, was a great man.

“It will not be easy,” Vincent said. “The people of this new world will resist us. They will fear us. Many of them will even fight us. But it will be a fight worth fighting. We will face it—together—and we will triumph.

“We will bring Earth truth. Fairness. Honor. We will bring it the future.”

The people leapt with joy, hugging one another and raising their fists in celebration. As the boy walked out of the auditorium with his grandfather, he looked back to the stage, to get one more glimpse of the man who was changing everything.

When the final person left the auditorium, the doors closed, and Rigel and Vincent were left alone.

“So,” Vincent said, “all of our planning comes to this: a fistfight with a world that doesn’t even know we exist, full of people who won’t understand why we are there.”

Rigel opened his mouth to say something, but stopped. He let Vincent think.

“The army must be ready,” Vincent said. “Have we received the Gores from Capricious yet?”

“Yes, sir,” Rigel replied. “They arrived early this morning.”

After leaving the auditorium, Vincent and Rigel traveled down an elevator into the lowest level of the skyscraper. At the end of a long corridor, they reached a reinforced metal door.

The room behind the door was cold and open, with concrete walls, damp floors, and metallic walkways crisscrossing overhead. Up and down the room, in row after row, there were dozens of cages filled with quick-moving creatures. These creatures were five feet tall and wearing hooded cloaks, with no facial features visible in their hoods except for glowing, red eyes and a blunt, lizard-like snout. As they hissed at each other, they were gripping the bars of their cages with their two-clawed, vulture-like hands.

Vincent and Rigel walked down the rows of creatures.

“The Gores are ready at any moment,” Rigel said, “and the Eradicators only need to be awakened.”

Vincent and Rigel reached another room; this one was clean and white and filled with silent robots dressed in black armor. The robots were as tall as a man, with gas masks on their faces and laser blasters equipped on the tops of their hands. As they stood motionless, the bright glow of the fluorescent light bulbs around the room gleamed off of them.

There were also several green-skinned Rytonian scientists in the room, who were standing near the robots and checking on the readings of several computer stations. The computers were attached to the robots by wires.

“What we are doing is savage, Rigel,” Vincent said. “Make no mistake about it. But we are doing what must be done. These kinds of problems require these kinds of solutions.”

Vincent placed a hand on one of the robots.

“It will be clean,” he said. “A new start.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Tobin crouched behind the cold, stone pillar, clutching his bo-staff. On his body, he was wearing a midnight blue costume made out of a durable, stretchable cloth, and on his face he was wearing a mask of the same color—only his eyes and hair were visible above it. After moving to another pillar, he peeked out and scanned the room.

A robot was looking for him; it was a silver, six-foot-tall humanoid, with one glowing, blue eye, and a laser rifle in its hands. As it weaved around the pillars, its heavy footsteps clanged on the floor.

When the robot was close enough, Tobin rapped his knuckles on the pillar and darted back behind it.

The robot marched toward the boy. It readied its laser rifle, but, in a blue flash, Tobin leapt out and struck it with his staff. The machine stumbled backward, firing its rifle, but Tobin cartwheeled past it and avoided the searing laser beams. The boy had only been training for a week, but his speed and agility were amazing.

With green lasers zipping by his body, Tobin planted his feet on the ground and decided to try something. This part of his training had been difficult, but he thought he had it figured out, so he closed his eyes and concentrated.

Suddenly, a burst of blue electricity crackled from the bottom of Tobin’s boots and sent him flying upward.

Thrown fifteen feet into the air, the boy narrowed his eyes and reached for a ladder that was leading to a platform near the ceiling. But, his leap was not strong enough, and he was only able to grab onto the bottom rung with one hand. Struggling to bring his other hand up, he felt his shoulder twinge with pain as it was struck by a laser blast from the robot, which seared a hole through his shirt.

“Arrgh!” he grunted. Swinging his body to reach the next rung, he looked down and saw the robot coming toward him; it was smashing its fists into the wall and climbing upward.

The boy thought it over. The wound on his shoulder was killing him, and his entire body was heaving with exhaustion.

Screw it, he thought.

When the robot was halfway to the ladder, Tobin let go. As he fell toward the ground, he held out his bo-staff and ignited it with electricity. Thanks to the momentum from his fall, he was able to slice the robot right down its middle. In a hail of sparks and smoke, the robot fell, plummeting to the floor.

Tobin landed only a few seconds before the robot, which hit the ground with a metallic CRASH! Pushing its body upward, it got to its feet, still determined to take out its target. As it raised its laser rife, it aimed the scope at Tobin.

But, gripping his staff like a baseball bat, the boy swung it forward across his body and sent a blast of blue energy scorching out from it. The electricity thundered across the floor like a tsunami, barreled into the robot, and sent a shockwave through its body.

The robot stood still a moment, trying to recalibrate its failing internal systems, but then fell, cut into two pieces. When the halves of its body hit the floor, they burst into flames.

Exhausted, Tobin took off his mask and sighed.

“Whoa!” Scatterbolt said. “Holy crap, that was awesome!”

Tobin turned to the doorway of the training room; Scatterbolt and Orion were there. Orion was carrying a blue duffle bag over his shoulder.

“How long have you been watching?” Tobin asked.

“Five minutes or so,” Orion replied. “You did very well.”

“I sucked.”

Tobin threw his mask to the ground and headed for the exit. Scatterbolt passed by him, running to the burning remains of the robot and putting out its flames with a little fire extinguisher on his hand.

“It took me almost an hour to stop the stupid thing,” Tobin said, as he and Orion walked into the main hallway of the museum. “It almost got me like seven times.”

“That’s perfectly normal, Tobin. You’ve only been training for a week. These things take time.”

“I still can’t lightning jump. I tried to underneath that platform, but ended up smashing into the ladder like an idiot.”

Orion laughed. “Yeah, and jumping fifteen feet into the air is some kind of huge failure, right? The lightning jump is the hardest ability of all, Tobin. It comes last.”

“Whatever. I still sucked.”

Orion changed the subject; he motioned to Tobin’s costume.

“How’s everything fit?”

“Great, actually.” Tobin looked down at his shirt. “But two pieces of it are missing.”

Orion reached into the duffle bag on his shoulder, pulling out a black cape and a dark blue vest. The vest had a white lightning bolt on it in the shape of an “S.”

“Here. This is what I got from Aykrada while we were in Gallymoora. They haven’t been used in a while, but they’re still in pretty good shape, I think.”

Tobin pulled the vest over his head, then tied the cape around his neck. The cape reached about halfway down his back, and its edges were cut into ragged triangles.

“Cool,” he said, inspecting the lightning bolt on his chest. “This is awesome.”

“And just in time, too.”

Orion pressed a button on the wall, causing two training robots to emerge from doors inside the training area. Scatterbolt ran out into the hallway in a panic.

“Hey, what the heck are you trying to do?! Get me killed by one of my own kind?!”

Tobin laughed. “Tell Keplar I’m gonna beat his old record. Someone has to show him up sometime.”

With a grin, the boy ran back into the training area, in full costume for the first time.

Pleased with Tobin’s enthusiasm, Orion walked out of the museum and onto the sky-ship landing area outside the mountain’s entrance. Keplar was there, lying underneath the Sky-Blade and working on its underside with a wrench. His clothes and fur were smeared with grease.

“I was watching him earlier this morning,” the dog said. “He looks good, O. Damn good. I can’t believe how fast he’s learning everything.”

“I know,” Orion said, “but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. We still have a lot of work to do, and it looks like we might not even have as much time as we originally thought.”

Keplar slid out from underneath the ship. “Uh-oh. You go to Earth today?”

“Yes. A group of Gores have gathered in the woods near Tobin’s friend’s house—the girl, Jennifer. There’s a small army of them, just waiting there.”

“Waiting for what? That’s way too obvious and risky, especially for Vincent.”

“I know—it’s a trap, nothing more. He’s only trying to get Tobin’s attention.”

“Well, that won’t work. The kid’s too smart for that.”

“I hope so, but let’s not mention it to him, just in case. Especially since it has to do with Jennifer.”

“Hey,” Tobin said.

Orion and Keplar spun around. They found Tobin standing near the Sky-Blade.

“Those last two robots were pathetic, Orion. I’ve seen tougher appliances in my kitchen.”

He shot Orion and Keplar a look.

“So…what has to do with Jennifer?”

***

“This is bull!” Tobin shouted. He looked across the Sky-Blade’s cabin toward Orion, who was standing with Keplar sitting next to him. “An army of creatures outside her house? And you weren’t even going to tell me about this?”

“No,” Orion said. “Because she’s not in any danger, Tobin. And I knew it would interfere with your training, just like it has.”

“I can’t believe this,” Tobin said, shaking his head. “I thought you told me if you went to Earth, you’d die? That’s the only reason I agreed to do this stupid thing, because you said you couldn’t! What else have you been lying to me about?”

“Hey!” Keplar shouted. “Take it easy, Tobin! That’s enough!”

“No, Keplar, I won’t! Why should I? No one seems to be telling me the truth around here!”

“We haven’t been lying to you about anything, Tobin,” Orion said, trying to not raise his voice. “I can travel to your world for very short periods of time, you know that. The only reason I’ve been doing it at all is to make sure your friends are safe.”

“Yeah, an army of demons around Jennifer’s house—sounds like you’re doing a great job to me.”

“All right!” Keplar said, standing up. “Tobin, you really need to shut up before I—”

“No, it’s all right,” Orion said, putting a hand in front of Keplar. “He should be mad at us. We should have told him. That was my mistake.” He turned to Tobin. “I’m sorry, Tobin. I am. But they are completely safe, I promise you.”

“Whatever. I’m going to Earth with you tomorrow to check on them.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s a trap, Tobin: it’s exactly what Vincent wants—for you to go to Earth when you aren’t ready, so he can take you out and be done with it. You’re wasting your time. All of this time we’ve been arguing, you could have been training. So let’s go.”

Orion held out Tobin’s bo-staff, but the boy didn’t take it.

“C’mon, Tobin. Let’s go and—”

The boy pushed past the old man and knocked the bo-staff to the ground.

“You guys treat me like a damn baby. I’m outta here.”

Tobin walked out of the ship and down its ramp. Keplar and Orion followed.

“I’m surprised, Tobin,” Orion said. “I thought you’d be smart enough to understand this.”

Tobin spun around. “Forget understanding it! I don’t wanna sit here, doing nothing, while my friends get killed! We need to go back now!”

“You aren’t ready,” Orion said. “You aren’t going.”

“I am ready! I could go back right now, by myself!”

“Then prove it.”

Orion pushed a button on a remote control in his hand; instantly, a door opened on a cliff jutting out from the side of the mountain, and three training robots emerged from it. Tobin ran to the edge of the landing platform, leapt into the air, and landed on the cliff, engaging the robots with his bare hands. Screaming with rage, he punched one of the robots right through its metal chest.

Orion and Keplar watched Tobin’s display.

“Doesn’t look good, Orion,” the husky said.

“He’ll be fine,” Orion replied. “The boy will be fine.”

***

Later that night, Tobin sat on the brick landing area of the museum and looked out over the forest. It had been a quiet night, and for that he was glad. He had felt so angry earlier, so betrayed, and he had wanted nothing more than to get away from Orion and the others and never see them again. Now, though, as a warm breeze swayed slowly through the trees, he had begun to feel better. He could think clearly again, and he knew what he had to do.

But he also knew he had acted foolishly toward the others. Even mean. It was a problem he had dealt with his entire life.

The doors of the museum opened behind him, so Tobin turned and saw Orion. The old man walked to him and sat down, but it was quiet a long time before anyone spoke.

“I was very impressed with the way you used your electricity to create that ball lightning, Tobin. That’s a very difficult but effective trick.”

“Yeah. I remembered how you said my dad used to do that against multiple targets, so I gave it a shot. It worked pretty good on those little bug-bot things.”

“Yes, it did. It was a very well done exercise all around.”

A silence.

“I’m sorry for how I acted before,” Tobin said. “I feel like an idiot.”

“It’s okay. I know what it’s like to feel like your friends are in danger, especially when you feel you can’t be there for them right away. But that’s one of the toughest things we have to learn, Tobin: people in our position have to make the right decision, even when it seems like the wrong one. We can’t think about ourselves, we have to think about others. And that’s very tough.”

Tobin nodded. “I’m just so frustrated. With everyone in so much danger with Vincent out there, and they don’t even know it. I just…when I do finally go after him as Strike, I hope it’s all worth it.”

Orion looked at him. “‘Strike,’ huh? So you’re gonna keep your father’s name?”

“Well, you did give me a shirt with a big lightning bolt ‘S’ on it.”

Orion laughed. “I guess you’re right.”

“But, no, I like it. It has a nice ring to it. ‘The Red Wolf’ on the other hand…”

They laughed.

“My costume was red,” Orion explained. “That’s the only reason I called myself that. It sounded much cooler when I was fourteen.” He reached into his pocket. “Here, Tobin. I want to show you something.”

The old man took out a pocket watch, made out of blue-tinted silver. It was hanging from a chain, and about the size of a small seashell.

“Wow,” Tobin said. “Where’d you get it?”

“In that duffle bag of your father’s. Your dad was…a bit of a collector. Some people might have called him a thief, but he always preferred ‘collector.’ He was always taking souvenirs from the missions we went on, and keeping them in that bag.

“That’s why Gallymoora had been attacked—when it was already too late, I realized Vincent has been searching for something in that bag, even though he knows full-well he destroyed it years ago. But apparently he doesn’t want to take any chances.”

Tobin turned over the blue pocket watch and looked at it; its backside was transparent, and inside he could see all of its mechanical parts—gears, cogs, a small gyroscope.

“Your father always used to say that watch was lucky,” Orion said, “and that if he ever got into any trouble, it would take him wherever he wanted to go. As far as I can tell, that was just your dad being your dad—making up stories to get a laugh—because I never saw it do anything.”

“Does it still work?”

“I don’t think so. But when we face Vincent, I thought maybe you’d like to take it with you, for good luck. Just in case.”

“Okay.” Tobin handed the watch back to Orion. “I will.”

“We’ll work tomorrow on teaching you how to use the portal pistol,” Orion said. “Step one to getting you back home. Sound good?”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Okay. Goodnight, Tobin.”

“Goodnight. I think I’ll just sit out here for a little while longer.”

Tobin watched Orion walked back into the museum. Then, when he was sure the coast was clear, he leapt off the landing area and onto a lower part of the mountain. When his boots hit the ground, he ran into a dense circle of trees.

Even though he was no longer angry, and even though he was embarrassed by how he had acted, Tobin still knew one thing: there was only one way to make sure his friends were safe.

***

After running into a small clearing, Tobin looked back at the mountaintop. The museum was now far off in the distance.

“Well, here goes nothing.”

The boy reached into his pocket, pulling out a red, chrome portal pistol. Earlier, without Orion knowing, he had snuck into the old man’s room and taken the bizarre device, hiding it away until now. He wished he didn’t have to go this sneaky route, but felt he had no choice.

Nervously pointing the chrome pistol away from him, Tobin pulled the trigger. There were different settings on the pistol, and different ways to fire it so you ended up exactly where you wanted to be on the other world, and when nothing happened, Tobin wasn’t sure he was using it correctly.

But then he felt the hair on his arms stick up. He felt his clothes cling to his body. There was electricity all around him, tingling in the air.

Then there was a red flash and a snap of lightning.

Tobin opened his eyes. A swirling, red-and-white, six-foot-tall portal was now hovering in front of him. Reaching forward, he stuck his hand into the mirrored gateway, and felt a tremendous burst of static run up his arm. “Whoa,” he said, pulling his hand back. It felt like it had fallen asleep.

The boy eyeballed the portal, taking a deep breath.

“Home, here I come. I hope, anyway.”

With more than a little trepidation, Tobin jumped into the portal and it closed behind him with a SNAP!

***

In the night sky above Bridgton, Massachusetts, directly above Foley’s Auto Repair, a red dot appeared. At first it was non-discrete—no bigger and brighter than a star. But then, slowly, it grew. It grew bigger and brighter until it pulsated with red light and buzzed in the night. Finally, when it was about the size of a small car—CRACK!

The red circle was gone, and in its place there was a seventeen-year-old boy dressed in a superhero costume.

But, Tobin couldn’t fly, and soon he was falling. Screaming the whole way down, he watched the auto repair shop’s roof grow closer and closer until he crashed into it with a THUD! Stunned and shaken, he stood up, feeling a dull aching in his bones. Then he vomited over the side of the building.

“Ow,” he said, rubbing his elbows. “Something tells me that’s not how that’s supposed to work.”

Tobin looked over the buildings in the area; he was in his hometown. He realized how long he had been gone, and how much he had missed it.

“Hello, Bridgton. It’s good to be back.”

With a grin, Tobin ran to the edge of the rooftop, leapt into the air, and landed on top of the next building. Then, eyeballing the next roof, he used his newfound strength to leap onto that building. After sizing up his next jump, he came to a conclusion:

“I really gotta talk to Orion about getting me a ‘Strike-Mobile’ or something.”

Leaping from rooftop-to-rooftop, Tobin continued his journey all the way down Middle Street, heading toward Thomas Grocery. There, he knew, he could cut through its parking lot, cross through the woods, and, in no time at all, be at his friend Jennifer’s house.

***

In the Museum of the Heroes, Keplar and Scatterbolt sat at a round table, playing cards and eating pizza. At the top of the mountain, where they were now, there were bedrooms, a kitchen, and a common area, all set up for a time like this when the museum was needed as a place for people to stay for a short period of time. As both Keplar and Scatterbolt hadn’t felt like sleeping (or, in Scatterbolt’s case, didn’t need to sleep), the two friends had instead settled in for a long night of junk food, cards, and laughter.

“I bet…twenty-five,” Scatterbolt said, pushing a stack of chips across the table.

“Okay, you got it.”

Keplar threw his own chips into the pile, then put his cards down, face-up. “Three of a kind,” he chuckled. “Sorry, SB. Maybe next time.”

The dog reached for the chips, but then Scatterbolt showed his cards.

“I have all the same color.”

Keplar looked at the cards in astonishment. Happily, Scatterbolt wrapped his arms around the chips and gathered every last one.

“What the…?!” the dog said. “You played a seven and a three? Who the heck plays a seven and a three?”

The robot shrugged and counted his money. “They were all the same color.”

Keplar threw the cards down and sighed, giving up.

Meanwhile, several floors below Keplar and Scatterbolt, Orion sat at the small duck pond in the rear exhibit of the main gallery, tossing breadcrumbs to a trio of quacking ducks. The old man was grateful for their company, as tonight he just couldn’t sleep, and needed something to take his mind off all that was troubling him. As he threw his last piece of bread into the pond, he turned, looking out the window at the trees outside. He could not shake the feeling that something had gone wrong.

***

With long, quiet footsteps, Tobin walked through the deep woods until he reached a spot where he could get a clear view of Jennifer’s house. As he peered out from behind a tree, he was relieved to see that all was quiet—the house looked exactly the same as any other time he had visited.

“Well,” he said, “everything looks fine, I guess. But I should probably stay for a little while longer, just to make sure.”

Sitting down on a large rock, Tobin watched the house. He found it was nice to simply sit there, away from all the craziness and chaos of Capricious. However, as he thought and remembered what everything was like before, he did not notice something shuffling behind him.

***

In the museum, Keplar and Scatterbolt were just about to start another game of cards when Orion burst in.

“Where is he?” the old man shouted. “Where is he?”

Keplar was startled. “Whoa, Orion, where’s the fire, buddy?”

The old man dashed by the card table. “The boy! Where is the boy?” He opened the kitchen door, looked inside, and then slammed it shut.

“I don’t know,” Keplar said, looking to Scatterbolt. “In his room sleeping, I guess? What the hell is going on?”

Orion rushed to Tobin’s room, flung open the door, and turned on the light. But the bed was empty.

“Dammit,” Orion whispered.

***

Outside of Jennifer’s house, Tobin sat on the rock, with his elbows on his knees, his chin in his palms, and his desire to leave waning by the second.

But then, suddenly, he heard something behind him. He sat up, startled, and turned around.

A Gore stood there, only a few yards away. As it stared at the boy, its red eyes blinked out of the darkness of its hood, and it raised one of its two-clawed hands.

Tobin stood and removed his bo-staff from his back. “Get away,” he said. “Get away…”

But then there was more movement to Tobin’s right. He turned.

Two Eradicators were looking at him. The moonlight was shining off of their black armor, and as they lifted their fists, they pointed their wrist-mounted blasters at him. Stepping closer, they tilted their heads and studied the boy.

Tobin turned to run, but then stopped. What he saw took his breath away.

***

Orion dashed out of the museum, running toward the Sky-Blade. Keplar and Scatterbolt followed, confused.

“Yo, Orion!” the husky shouted. “You mind telling us what the hell is going on?”

The old man ran into the Sky-Blade, looked around, and then walked down the ramp.

“He’s gone,” he said. “The boy is gone.”

Keplar looked to Scatterbolt, who was very frightened. “What’d you mean, he’s gone?” the dog said. “Where’d he go?”

Orion stood at the edge of the landing area and looked over the forest.

“C’mon, Tobin. C’mon.”

***

Tobin stood surrounded in the forest near Jennifer’s house by dozens of Gores and Eradicators. As the creatures approached, the demons clicked their claws together, while the robots whispered orders to each other in a strange language.

A million thoughts ran through Tobin’s mind. A million scenarios fighting to be heard. But the boy could not focus on any of them, and instead was only able to stand in the circle of creatures as they enveloped him.

One of the Gores broke from the pack, stepping in front of Tobin. When it was only a few inches away, a mouth opened in the blackness of its hood. A piercing scream then came from the mouth, like broken glass being scraped across a window.

***

A world away, Orion was looking over the forest near the mountaintop when a red flash and a burst of electricity snapped behind him. The old man turned to the museum.

Tobin was there, lying on the ground. A crack of thunder boomed, and rain began to fall.

“Oh, no,” Orion said. He ran to the boy and dropped down next to him, but when he turned him over, he had to restrain himself from gasping—the boy had been mauled. His costume was torn to pieces, and his nose and mouth were bleeding. His right eye was swollen shut, and gashes covered his arms. When Orion felt something warm on his hand, he looked there to find blood. A pool of it was already forming around the boy’s stomach.

“Oh, no,” Orion said. “Tobin, please, no…”

“I’m sorry, Orion,” Tobin said. “I’m so sorry…” The boy’s voice was barely a whisper. He tried to stand, but cried out and fell back down again.

“Stay there,” Orion said, helping him lie down. “Don’t move.”

The old man inspected one of Tobin’s wounds; it was two long slashes, side-by-side, torn through Tobin’s costume.

“Who did this to you?” Orion asked. “Did the Gores find you? Where did you go?”

The boy whimpered. “There was so many of them, Orion. I couldn’t do anything. They held me down, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t—”

He sobbed and curled into a ball, wrapping his arms around his stomach.

“It’s hurts so much, Orion. It hurts so bad.”

“Stop. I’m putting you to sleep.” The old man looked to Keplar. “The kit! Keplar, bring me the kit!”

The husky ran into the Sky-Blade.

“I’m sorry,” Tobin said again. “I’m so sorry, Orion.”

“Enough,” Orion said. “There’s no time for that. Close your eyes.”

When Tobin was finally quiet, the old man looked up at Scatterbolt. The robot was standing in the rain near the museum’s doors, with his fists at his sides and his eyes fixed on Tobin. The old man began to say something, but then stopped and looked back to Tobin.

The pool of blood was flowing away from the boy and across the landing dock, mixing with the rain and falling off the bricks and into the forest.

Orion cradled Tobin’s head, holding him close.

“What have you done?” he whispered.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

It was a day like any other, until the skies darkened.

At 10:27 on a Monday morning, the people of Bridgton, Massachusetts stopped and looked up. Only seconds earlier, they had been on their way to various places—to work, to their parents’ house, to their friend’s place—but now suddenly the sun had gone away. The blueness of the sky was replaced with a grey, swirling storm, rolling like an ocean, and the dark clouds were intertwined with quick, sharp flashes of purple light. The hundreds of people stopped and stared. No one knew what was happening, but each of them realized this was not a normal storm.

Thunder rumbled. The people looked to the north. A monstrous skyscraper was there, flying up in the clouds, far away but moving closer. Floating across the sky, the building eventually came to a neat, perfect stop right above them. As it hovered there, a quiet hum emanated down from it.

The people were frightened. Were they in danger? Did others see it, too? Should they run to their families? What was happening?

A hatch then opened on the side of the skyscraper. A man was there—a giant hulk of a man—and he was staring down at them. He had red skin, yellow eyes, and was dressed in a black and green uniform.

After a moment, the giant man motioned behind him and made a fist.

“Now!” he bellowed. “Now!”

The invasion began: hundreds of robots in black armor and red-eyed demons in brown cloaks jumped out of the hatch and flew down to Middle Street. The Eradicators used jetpacks to slow their descent, but the Gores simply freefell, striking into the pavement with their clawed feet. The two groups had come to do the only things they were programmed to do: for the Eradicators, it was to empty Middle Street of all people; for the Gores, it was to cause as much destruction as possible.

Witnessing creatures that this world had never seen, the people of Bridgton began to panic, running into one another and looking for places to hide. But the Eradicators and Gores were overtaking the street, descending upon it in waves from the hovering skyscraper.

The Gores, in frenzied rages, began ripping apart everything that they saw: windshields, newsstands, trees—even grabbing people and tossing them around like bags of trash. The Eradicators, with their faces hidden behind gasmasks, began herding the frantic humans into groups. The people of Bridgton quickly learned that they had no choice: anybody seen running away from the robots was immediately stopped by the green lasers from their hand-mounted guns. When hit by the lasers, the people dropped and fell into hideous convulsions, before freezing in place on the sidewalk as if encased in ice.

It was a nightmare turned real. In the darkness, at 10:27 AM, Hell had arrived on Middle Street.

But not everyone was outside in the invasion; many people were inside their homes or businesses, watching it through their windows. As they began to barricade their doors and try to call for help, they turned to their TV’s and computers for answers. What they found, however, was bizarre: every screen in Middle Street—even the cell phones—was filled with static.

A picture then faded into view on the screens—it was an image of Vincent Harris. He sat behind his desk in his skyscraper, wearing his black-and-green uniform.

“Hello,” he said. “My name is Vincent Harris, and I am not of your world. You do not know the world I am from, nor do you know my intentions, but this will all be made clear to you in time. The only thing you need to know now is that—as of this moment—I am taking over. It is my wish to initiate this process as quickly and humanely as possible, but if anyone, as either individuals or governments, does not cooperate, I will be forced to react as necessary.”

The screens then showed what was happening outside: as a police officer tried to escape from the invaders, he fired his handgun at them. After he was shot by a green laser, he dropped to the ground, shook, and froze. Two Eradicators then lifted him and brought him into a building.

“You cannot prevent this,” Vincent said, “so please do not force me to take actions that I do not wish to take. This is a transition—from one era to another—and I only wish to make this new era safer, more educated, and more humane. Your leaders were given their chance to guide this world; for eons, you have been left alone to grow and evolve, but the people in charge have failed you and sent you on the wrong path. I only wish to reverse this while there is still time, and show you the true way you should have been living all these years.

“This is all a part of what we are here to help you with: starting over. Together, we will create a world the likes of which this universe has never seen. This is what has to be done, and I am willing to work with those who accept it.

“It begins here, in this town, and will then move on to all others, in every part of the Earth. Thank you, and long live our new world. Long live New Capricious.”

The TV screens, computers, and cell phones then turned off. The people of Middle Street were left to wait and hide, until the robots came to their doors to group them with the others. It was now time to wait for their turn.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

In the Museum of the Heroes, Tobin lay in his bed, asleep. His wounds were partly healed, but he was still covered in bruises, and parts of his costume were showing tears and gouges. Next to him, Orion sat in a chair, with his elbows on his knees and his hands against his mouth.

Finally, after nearly four hours, Tobin woke up. Orion ripped the covers off of him.

“Get up,” the old man said.

Tobin looked around the room. “What?” He found that his throat was raw and his head was pounding. The world seemed to be awash in smoke. “What’s going on?”

“Get up,” the old man said again, pointing to the floor.

Tobin stood, unable to remember what had happened and unsettled by Orion’s anger. His legs were shaking and he felt like he was going to vomit.

“Put your mask on,” the old man said.

Tobin grabbed his mask from a table. “Why? What’s happening?”

Orion pointed to a monitor; onscreen, Tobin could see Middle Street covered in fire and darkness: overturned cars, robots marching through town, demons ripping apart everything that they saw. And the people. The screaming, horrified people.

“Oh my god…” The boy fell forward, catching himself. “No,” he said. “No…”

Orion stared at him. “Put your mask on.”

Tobin tied the piece of cloth around his face. His eyes never left the screen.

“Vincent made his move a little past ten o’clock this morning,” Orion began. “The first part of his invasion was to create a toxic, poisonous cloud that formed in the sky over Bridgton and then drifted downward, where it settled and created a dome around Middle Street, blocking it off from the rest of the world. This dome is called the Dark Nebula, and Vincent has been waiting to use it for decades. He wasn’t planning on calling on it for another month or so, but when he learned that you could travel back to Earth, and he saw how ill-prepared you are…the destruction began.”

“This isn’t happening,” Tobin said. “We can stop this, right? This hasn’t happened yet, we can—”

Orion pointed at him. “Do not speak. Listen to me. Do not say a word.”

Tobin nodded, swallowing a lump in his throat. He could not believe what he had done.

“No one outside the Dark Nebula has any idea what is going on inside of it,” Orion said. “It is better that way. Behind its walls, people are screaming, people are crying, and people are begging for their lives. They are being captured, separated from their families, and put into groups. Whole buildings are gone, with nothing in their place but smoking, burning shells. Nothing can be heard except gunshots, explosions, and screams.

“But the rest of the world doesn’t know this. They are simply at home watching the outside of the dome on their televisions—billions of them around the globe—watching as medical and emergency teams try to get through the poisonous cloud that fell from the sky in Massachusetts. The rest of the planet is frightened, looking out their windows to see if another death cloud is going to come down and surround their town, too. And soon, one will. All over the planet, people are thinking that today is the End of the World. And they are right.”

Orion looked at Tobin.

“Vincent is waiting for you, Tobin. He’s standing in the middle of your hometown, and he’s taunting you. He’s gloating, and he thinks he has already won. He hasn’t.”

The old man took Tobin’s bo-staff from the table.

“You screwed up, Tobin. More than any of us will ever be able to comprehend. Now all you can do is try and fix it. With everything that you possess. That’s all we have left now.”

The words rang through Tobin’s ears.

“It’s your time,” Orion said. “You aren’t ready, but you have to be.”

Tobin took the bo-staff from Orion, but the old man didn’t let go of it. The two of them held it together.

“I’m sorry, Orion. I don’t know what I—”

“Go,” Orion said. “Just go now.”

Tobin stepped away. Silently, he watched Orion hand him a portal pistol—it wasn’t the red one Tobin had stolen earlier, but instead was one made from blue chrome.

When Tobin squeezed the pistol’s trigger, it created a blue-and-white portal in front of him. As he stepped forward, he glanced at Orion, walked into the portal, and then disappeared. When he was gone, the gateway closed.

Orion stood in the middle of the room. He listened to the static remnants of the portal, and the little pops of energy it had left behind. Then, he sat on the edge of the bed and covered his face with his hands.

***

Chaos reigned on Middle Street: smoke rose from buildings, billowing up and swirling against the purple, domed roof of the Dark Nebula; fires roared atop overturned cars, with their alarms pathetically repeating themselves over and over; Eradicators marched rows of prisoners through the town and toward the giant skyscraper, which had settled itself directly in the middle of the street. The fear seemed to be emanating from this building, and from the man dressed in black standing in front of it.

Among the dark sky, a blue-and-white circle of electricity slowly formed. It grew in brightness and intensity until it flashed with thunder and Tobin appeared. He floated down to Earth, but to the people watching, they did not see a seventeen-year-old boy who lived only minutes away. They saw Strike.

Strike walked towards the towering skyscraper, oblivious to the horrors around him. To his left, a Gore was crouching on the sidewalk, demolishing a car, when it looked up and saw him. Enraged, it ran at him, with its claws raised.

Strike stopped and waited. He pulled his bo-staff from his back. When the Gore was only a few yards away, it pounced, and Strike swung his weapon.

CRACK! In a blue flash, the Gore was sent flying across the street. When it hit the road, it tumbled over itself and burst into a pop of smoke. Just like that, nothing was left of the demon but an empty cloak.

Strike marched on.

However, it wasn’t long before three Eradicators stepped in front of him. As the robots readied their wrist-mounted laser blasters, Strike held his staff by his side and charged it with lightning. The staff swirled with blue energy.

When the Eradicators moved to fire their lasers, the hero hurled his weapon. It tumbled like a boomerang, slicing through the air and curving toward the robots, before cutting through them as if they were not there. As the weapon made its way back to Strike, the robots fell, crumpled in a pile of armor.

Strike plucked his returning bo-staff from the air and continued.

Behind the hero, a Gore stepped out from behind a tree, following Strike down Middle Street. Tracking its prey like a hunched jackal, the demon bided its time, until finally it jumped at Strike’s back. The hero simply stopped, pointed his staff behind his head, and fired a lightning bolt. The Gore dropped, its cloak smoking and sizzling on the ground.

Strike only had a few more steps to go before he reached the skyscraper.

Vincent stood there, leaning on the handle of a massive, black axe. The blade of the axe was digging into the ground.

Strike realized this was it: either he would accomplish what he came to do, or he would die. As he gripped his bo-staff, he tried to push away the suffocating feeling that his life may be coming to an end.

In front of Strike, Vincent breathed in through his nose, studying the hero in the familiar blue-and-white costume.

“You seem like a smart kid, Tobin. You probably understand why I’m dong this. I’m in charge of a large number of people, and these people depend on me to protect them and keep them safe from others who would do them harm. Since that’s the case, I simply could not sit by and do nothing while your species continued on its path toward the destruction of the universe.”

Vincent stepped forward, swinging his axe over his shoulder.

“Because sooner or later, Tobin, someone from your world would have discovered our world of superheroes, and when that happened, we would have been destroyed. That’s what your people do when you find something new—you get excited and frightened, and then you take whatever it is that you found and you destroy it. Like animals. I could not allow my people to live among the danger of loose, wild animals.

“This is for protection, Tobin. That’s all. I’m protecting myself and billions of others from a species that can’t even live with each other without killing the very planet they live on. Orion and all the others would do the same, if they could see things the way that I see them. Because, Orion and I, we really aren’t that different, when it all comes down to it.”

Vincent watched Strike. The boy didn’t move.

“Did Orion tell you what I used to be before I became one of the leaders of Capricious? I was thinking about that recently, and I realized he probably didn’t. He has a way of retelling history, you know—of leaving out the parts that he doesn’t like. Especially…he especially does this when he talks about that old superhero team of his, the Guardians. From everything that I’ve read, and from what people tell me, he always says that there were three members of that team. But, if he was telling the truth, Tobin, he would admit that there were four heroes involved in all those adventures all those years ago: there was Titan, there was your dad, there was Orion…and there was me.”

Strike stepped back. Vincent smiled.

“Huh. He didn’t tell you. Well, that’s okay. You know, I bet he went through that whole thing: ‘I knew your father so well, he was my best friend, I only want you to do what he would have wanted.’ Well, guess what, Tobin: I knew your father pretty well, too. He was one of my best friends, too. And this is not what he would have wanted. He was much more interested in chasing girls and cracking terrible jokes than he ever was in ‘saving the world.’ So if you’re doing this because it’s what your dad would have wanted, you can stop right now.

“Your dad wasn’t some big, great, grand superhero, Tobin. To tell you the truth, he was kind of a scumbag.”

Strike looked at his surroundings: hundreds of Gores and Eradicators were gathered around them, watching the confrontation. A few remaining humans had even come out of their hiding places to inspect the two strange, costumed people.

“You know we even had a truck?” Vincent laughed. “It’s true: four super-powered, color-coded teenagers, driving around in a truck and fighting crime—making sure people were safe. So, you see, Tobin, Orion might tell you that I’ve changed, but that simply isn’t true. I’m still protecting people—I’m just doing it on a scale so immense that Orion and the others can’t comprehend it. And it’s what I’m doing right now.”

Vincent stepped forward, only a few feet away from Strike. The boy tried to hide his nerves, but, without realizing it, he backed away.

“I know why you’re doing this,” Vincent said. “I can see Orion has gotten to you, and that you can’t see the world as it is. So, okay.”

The grey-haired man tossed his axe to the ground and extended his hands, palms in the air.

“C’mon, Tobin. Take your best shot. A freebie.”

Strike thought it over—was it a trick? Even if it was, it was too much of an opportunity to pass up. He was being underestimated, and he needed to take advantage of it.

Strike ran at Vincent, lowered his head, and lit his bo-staff with electricity. But, instead of swinging his weapon, he leapt into the air, flipped, and landed on the ground behind Vincent. When his boots hit the street, he slashed his staff down Vincent’s spine.

“Argh,” Vincent grunted. He reached back, rubbing the ripped fabric of his uniform. Thunder rumbled in the sky. “Not bad, kid. But did you really think, for even a second, that one week of superhero kindergarten was going to be enough?”

Vincent looked up, and his eyes flashed with black fire. His body began to grow, stretching out from a little over six feet tall to nearly eight feet tall. Muscles ripped through his uniform, and his face and arms sprouted green fur. His hands morphed into clawed paws, while his mouth and nose swelled into a broad, protruding jaw. Finally, as he stared at Strike, his hair grew long and black.

“I wanted you to hurt me,” Vincent said. His voice was low, grumbling—inhuman. “I wanted to feel the power of the Guardians, to make sure that what flowed through Matt and Orion and Scott and I, now flows through you. I needed to know, without a doubt, that you are one of us.”

Vincent’s transformation was complete: he was now the Rantamede, an eight-foot-tall, green-and-black monster, with the face of a tiger and the body of a mythological beast.

“It feels good,” he said with a smile.

Leaning down, the monster let out a mighty ROAR! Stunned by the sound, Strike stepped back. He braced himself as Vincent ran at him, but the monster quickly swung his giant fist and sent the hero flying with a brutal punch. Strike crashed against a building and slid down it, falling to the street with the wind knocked out of him.

Stomping across the pavement, Vincent marched toward Strike. When he opened his clawed paw, a ball of black fire formed in the middle of it. “You came here to play the superhero going up against the bad guy, Tobin. But it’s not like that. It never is.”

Vincent hurled the fire at Strike, and it exploded against the boy and strangled him, running over his body. Strike screamed, trying to free himself from the black flames.

“You’re too young, kid,” Vincent said, watching the boy struggle. “You need more time.”

Turning to the crowd around Middle Street, Vincent held out his arms and addressed them.

“People of this world! We can work together to bring this place the peace that it deserves! You have been wronged by the people that say they lead you—they have been lying to you, telling you the universe works in ways that it does not! My people and I can show you the true way to live, and we can—”

Vincent stopped. An Eradicator was looking behind him, over his shoulder.

“What is it, what’re you looking at?”

Vincent turned. Strike was standing there, holding his bo-staff.

“Hmm,” Vincent said. “Maybe you’re not as out of your league as I—”

Strike pointed his bo-staff at Vincent, firing a lightning bolt from only a few yards away. The explosive blue blast sent the monster flying backward, where he crashed into a pickup truck and caused it to burst into flames. As Vincent struggled to claw his way out, he roared among the wreckage.

Holding his electrified bo-staff at his side, Strike ran at Vincent, charging up another lightning bolt and keeping his eyes pinned on his target. The hero knew this was his only shot.

But then…Strike’s feet left the ground, and he was lifted into the air. Looking up, he saw the person holding him.

It was Rigel; the red-skinned giant had grabbed Strike by his cape. As the giant held the boy higher, he moved his hand to Strike’s neck and squeezed. The boy clawed at Rigel’s fingers, but the red giant only closed his hand tighter, staring into the boy’s eyes.

Vincent finally crawled out of the mangled truck and walked to Rigel. He looked at Strike.

“Break him,” he said simply.

Rigel punched Strike in the stomach. Once, twice, three times. Then, after lifting him higher, he slammed him down, whipping his body against the pavement like a wet towel against a linoleum floor. Finally, not out of mercy but out of boredom, the red giant tossed the boy away and the boy skittered across the street.

Lying on the ground near a burning building, Strike pulled himself up, taking hold of a lamppost, but Rigel walked over and kicked him back down. The boy tried to rise again, but Rigel simply knocked him over with his foot. This time, Strike rolled over and looked up.

Rigel loomed over him. As the red giant gripped a massive wooden club with his hands and raised it over his head, he readied it for one, final smash.

But then, he stopped. His yellow eyes went wide. He let go of the club and it dropped behind him. Strike rolled out of the way.

Like a rotted, dead tree, Rigel fell forward, his face smashing against the pavement. As he lay there, unmoving, his arms were at his sides.

Strike sat up and looked to Rigel’s back; there was a glowing red arrow sticking out of his spine.

Vincent saw the arrow, too. With a grunt, he looked up, in the direction of the shooter.

A man was standing on the roof of a nearby building, dressed in red and holding a bow and arrow. His long coat was billowing in the wind.

Vincent’s lips rose into a snarl. “You.”

Suddenly, another red arrow zipped down from the building, hitting Vincent in his chest and exploding with a BOOM! It knocked the monster back, and he stumbled to the ground.

Strike looked to the man on the rooftop; he suddenly shot another arrow downward, and this one had a rope attached to it that stuck into a tree. The man then slid down the rope like a zip-line, and when his boots came to a stop, he walked to Strike and knelt down.

“Are you all right?” Orion asked.

“Hmm,” Tobin said painfully. “No. No, I don’t think so.”

“All right. Stay there.”

Picking up Tobin’s bo-staff, Orion walked to Vincent. The bo-staff burst with red flames.

“You,” Orion said. “Me. Now.”

Vincent laughed, ripping the arrow from his chest and shaking his head.

“Don’t make me do this, Orion,” he said, picking up his axe from the ground. The axe’s blade was illuminated with black fire. “Don’t make me do this again.”

With their boots pounding the smoking pavement of Middle Street, Orion and Vincent ran at each other. When they clashed, Vincent let our a furious ROAR!, and they each used their weapons to deflect the other’s blows. They had known each other for years—as both teammates and enemies—and now neither one of them could gain an upper hand.

From the street only a few feet away, Tobin watched the fight through half-closed eyes, barely conscious. Pressing his hands to the ground, he tried to stand, but was overcome with exhaustion and collapsed back down. As he looked up to the sky, the world was zooming in-and-out of focus, as if he was trying to wake from a dream. Rolling over, he looked back to the battle.

Vincent found an opening, landing a blow with his axe. Orion rushed to get back to his feet, but then a group of Gores jumped onto him and pinned him to the ground. As he struggled to get free, they clawed at him, tearing at his clothes and skin.

Vincent walked to the old man, ready to finally end the fight. He smiled, holding his axe in front of himself and illuminating it with raging, black fire.

But then he stopped. He raised an ear. Tobin could hear it, too—a high-pitch whistling, rising in intensity. Like a teakettle. A very large teakettle.

BA-BOOM! With a crack of thunder and a flash of silver light, the Sky-Blade suddenly zoomed in from a portal and appeared in the sky! Hurtling toward the ground, it violently crashed into Middle Street, where it ripped up the dirt and cement and stones as it tore a large gouge through the town.

When the ship finally came to a stop, its side door slid open. Tobin could see somebody in the doorway, sitting on a motorcycle. The person’s eyes and face were hidden behind a helmet, but his blue-furred paws were sticking out from his jacket, revving the handlebars.

With a roar of the bike’s engine, Keplar shot out of the ship, careening through the street and firing his plasma cannon. The green blasts from his gun exploded against Vincent and the monster fell back, staggered. Keplar drove toward him, growling and baring his teeth.

When he neared Vincent, the dog leapt off his motorcycle and tumbled along the pavement. Jumping up, he took off his helmet, whipped it away, and charged, firing his plasma cannon and laughing wildly.

“Here we go, Vince! Let’s do this, bro! I’ve been waiting for this for years! C’mon, let’s go! Let’s do this!”

Vincent shook off the plasma blasts and laughed, stomping toward the husky.

“Amateur hour, Keplar. Amateur hour.”

Rearing back, Keplar cocked his fist and nailed the monster across the chin with a right hook. But Vincent countered it with a punch of his own, sending Keplar stumbling. The husky recovered, lunging at Vincent, and they locked arms. In the center of Middle Street, they growled and slashed and clawed at each other—it was horrific, merciless, and primal. Animal vs. animal.

Tobin suddenly heard another zoom! of an engine, and spun toward the Sky-Blade—this time it was Scatterbolt, who sped out of the ship in an egg-shaped, red-striped, gleaming white vehicle with words along its side: ROBO-POD. As he steered the vehicle wildly toward Orion, the robot pushed a button on its dashboard, causing two front-mounted blasters to appear in the place of its headlights. When Scatterbolt pulled a pair of triggers, the blasters launched globs of black oil, which flew across the town and splattered against the Gores surrounding Orion.

The attacking Gores were bowled over, knocking into one another, and eventually they stuck to the ground, ensnared in the sticky, tarry gunk from Scatterbolt’s Robo-Pod. Finally free from the demons, Orion was able to get to his feet and rejoin the fight against Vincent.

A safe distance away, with his eyelids fluttering, Tobin rolled over onto his back. Staring at the sky and breathing in a painful wheeze, he realized he could no longer focus on any one spot; the Dark Nebula’s purple ceiling was coming and going, and as he listened to the sounds of the battle, they soon faded away, and then he could hear nothing.

Tobin brought his shaking hand to his pocket. He felt something there—his dad’s pocket watch, the one Orion had given him. He brought the blue, translucent watch to his face and opened it. The gears inside were moving, and its rods were spinning and its levers were rising up and down. The outside of the watch began to glow bright blue.

Tobin closed his eyes. The blue light from the watch enveloped his body.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Tobin only knew that he was lying in a bed. Feverish and weak, he tried to look around, but because it was so dark, he could only make out a few shapes: a door, a dresser, a window on the wall. He wasn’t sure how long he had been there, but it felt like a long time.

Rolling over, Tobin realized someone was sitting next to him. It was a young woman, about thirty years old, with blonde hair and pale skin, but that was all Tobin could see in the dark. The boy listened as the woman hummed a song and the rain pattered against the window.

Soon, the woman reached over and placed a cool, wet cloth on Tobin’s forehead. He tried to ask her a question, but all that came out was a pained groan.

“Shh,” the woman said. “It’s all right. You’re okay now. Shh.”

Tobin pushed the covers off of him, but the woman held her hand on his shoulder, gently pushing him down.

“It’s okay, honey, lay down. You’re gonna be okay now. Shhh. Lay down, honey, lay down.”

Tobin looked up. He could see that the woman was smiling.

“Are you feeling better?” she asked.

“Hrm,” he said. It was hard for him to talk. “Where am…?”

She rubbed her thumb along his cheek. “It’s okay.”

The woman removed the cloth from Tobin’s forehead. When she wrung it into a bowl, the water that came from it was red with blood. Reaching for a new cloth, she dipped it into a fresh bowl, then placed it on Tobin’s forehead.

“I’ll take care of you,” she said.

After a few seconds, the door at the front of the room opened. Light seeped in, and Tobin looked up. A silhouette of a man was standing in the doorway, and a TV was on in the next room. It was playing an old cartoon.

Soon, the man closed the door, and the room went dark again. As the man walked toward him and stood at the end of the bed, Tobin could see that he had dark hair and a five o’clock shadow, but that was all. The man watched Tobin with his hands on his hips.

“He’s awake?” the man asked.

“Yes,” the woman said.

“How is he?”

“He’s all right. Getting better.”

“Good. Has he been talking?”

“A little. He’s still half-asleep, and he has a fever. He doesn’t know where he is.”

“Good.”

Turning around, the man stepped back into the hall, then returned carrying a heavy footlocker. The woman watched as the man began unlocking its many locks.

“Is it time already?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

The woman took Tobin’s hand and brought it to her face. Tobin could feel her tears running down his fingers.

Unlocking the last lock, the man opened the locker and took a blue duffle bag from it. Bringing the bag to the bed, he sat down next to Tobin. The woman moved to the other end of the room. Tobin didn’t know why she was crying.

“Hey, Tobin,” the man said. “Can you hear me? How’re you feeling?”

Tobin let out a quick grunt. He felt like he was falling back asleep.

“I’m gonna help you,” the man said, “but I need you to stay awake for just a little while longer, okay? Can you do that for me?”

Tobin mumbled. He was having a hard time keeping his thoughts from slipping away.

“Only a couple more seconds now, okay, bud?” the man said. “Then you’re gonna go back and help Orion. You told me Orion needs your help. Remember?”

Tobin thought back to his friends on Middle Street. “I have to…I have to…” He looked up at the man. “Where am I?”

The man shook his head. “I can’t tell you that. But I can give you something to take back with you. It’s very important. Take this with you, and don’t forget about it. Okay?”

The man placed the duffle bag on Tobin’s chest. The boy tried to get a good look at the room, and the two people in it.

“Who are you?” the boy asked.

“I’m sorry,” the man replied, “but I can’t tell you that, either. Just make sure you remember that I gave you this, okay? That’s all you need to know.”

“Sure,” Tobin said, frustrated.

The man laughed. “Okay. Now you can go back to sleep.”

The man stepped away from the bed. Tobin could feel electricity running over his arms and legs. But he didn’t want to leave yet. He reached out and grabbed the man’s hand.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “You have to go now. I have to go.”

But Tobin wanted to stay. He watched as the man walked to the woman and pulled her close.

Blue electricity sparked around Tobin. He and the man looked at one another.

Then, with a blue flash, Tobin was gone, and the bed was empty.

The man held the woman in the dark room.

After a few moments, a child spoke, from outside the door.

“Momma! The movie’s over!”

The woman wiped her eyes.

“I better try and put Tobin back to bed.”

The woman opened the door and stepped outside. Nearby, in the living room, her three-year-old son, Tobin, was sitting on the couch. On the TV in front of him, a movie was playing, its credits running up the screen.

“Can I watch it again, Momma?”

“No, Tobin. Daddy’s friend who needed help is gone, so it’s time for bed now. Come on, I’ll read you a story in your room, okay?”

“Okay, Momma.”

Meanwhile, in the dark room, the man dialed a number on his cell phone and pressed it to his ear.

“Orion?” he said into the phone. “I know. I’m still at home. You better get over here. Things have changed. Something’s happened.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Tobin saw a blue flash and realized he was floating down to Middle Street. When his feet hit the ground, he looked over the area. The street was quiet and nobody was near, but nearly everything had been destroyed—buildings were smoldering, trees were burning, and cloaks of Gores were littered across town. The ground itself was pockmarked with huge, gaping crevasses.

Tobin realized how much better he felt; his body still ached, but his wounds were mostly healed, and his costume was repaired. Reaching back, he found the blue duffle bag over his shoulder. “Where the heck did I get this thing, anyway?” he wondered.

But, before Tobin could open the bag, he saw a body down the street. It was slumped against the ground, and its cowboy hat was covering its face.

“Keplar!”

Tobin ran to his friend, but found the dog unconscious. A laser blaster was still in each of his paws, and the barrels of the guns were still smoking.

“Keplar!” Tobin yelled, kneeling and shaking him by his jacket. “Keplar, can you hear me? C’mon! C’mon!”

But the dog didn’t move. Instead, Tobin heard a different voice calling for him.

“Tobin…Tobin…Here.”

Tobin’s head snapped up and he spun to the other side of the street; Scatterbolt was sitting against a building, with his metallic arms limp against his body. His white eyes were flickering.

“Oh, no…” Tobin ran to him. “Scatterbolt, are you okay? What happened?”

The robot’s voice was one monotonous stream—devoid of any personality. His mouth barely moved as he relayed the information.

“tobin lloyd seventeen years old father scott lloyd a-kay-a scott webber a-kay-a strike mother catherine lloyd maiden name richards born long island new york…”

Tobin knelt down, looking into the robot’s eyes, trying to get any recognition. “Hey, Scatterbolt, hey, I’m here now.” The boy could hear the gears inside the robot whirring and cranking, like a train running out of steam. He lifted him and placed him in the Robo-Pod, which was sitting nearby. “What happened, Scatterbolt? Where is everybody?”

“There were too many of them. We could not win. It was mathematically impossible. I am sorry.”

The robot’s eyes dimmed and his head slumped over.

“No, Scatterbolt, it’s okay, you did your best, buddy. I’m here now. Where’d Orion go? Where’s Vincent?”

The robot raised a shaking arm. With his hinges groaning, he pointed across the street.

“He. Smash through window. He. Chase Orion. Vincent.”

“Who? Who chased Orion? Vincent?”

“Yes. Hurry. Through window.”

Scatterbolt then shut down, his eyes turning off, and his body freezing in place. His hand still pointed across the street, so Tobin turned and looked in its direction.

The boy couldn’t believe it. He stood and walked to the broken window Scatterbolt was pointing at, then looked at the sign hanging over the building’s main entrance.

“You gotta be kidding me,” Tobin groaned.

The building was Bridgton High School.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Inside Bridgton High School, a group of students fled as a black-and-green monster stomped through the halls.

“Rarrrrrgghh!” Vincent yelled. “Where are you, Orion? Come out here and face me! Now!”

As the students dashed into a classroom, Vincent ripped a locker from the wall and tossed it down the hallway.

“Where are you?” the monster screamed. “Where are you?”

The school security guard—Joel Manuel, a fortyish, chubby man—suddenly stepped in front of Vincent and summoned up every last bit of his courage. As he pointed his stun gun at the monster, his hands were shaking.

“Stop,” Joel said. “Stop or I will stun you.”

Vincent looked down, growled, and then grabbed Joel by his neck, lifting him into the air.

“You better come out here, Orion! Because if you don’t, I’ll get impatient, and let’s remember what happens when I get impatient: I start ripping people’s limbs off.”

The monster reached down and gripped Joel’s arm, squeezing it in between his green fingers. The security guard looked down at his shoulder, gulping.

But then a red arrow whistled down the hallway in a perfectly straight line and struck Vincent in the chest. The monster dropped Joel, grunted, and stomped off in the direction of where the weapon had been fired.

Stunned, Joel jumped up, grabbed his stun gun, and ran in the opposite direction of the monster. When he reached the school’s lobby, he passed by a seventeen-year-old boy in a superhero costume.

“Hey, Joel,” Strike said. “How’s it going?”

Joel ran out the front door.

“Oh, cool,” Strike said. “See ya later, Joel.”

Strike continued down the hall, but then saw a classroom door open. He darted behind a locker and hid.

Chad Fernandes peeked out of the door. “Is everybody gone? Is it safe, do you think?”

Jennifer Robins looked out of the room. “I don’t know. What should we do, Chad? What is going on?”

Walking out from behind the locker, Strike approached them. “Um, hello.”

Jennifer and Chad turned around. They locked eyes with Strike as he looked back at them over his mask.

Then, Jennifer and Chad walked back into the classroom and closed the door.

“Oh, great,” Strike said, looking down the hallway, tossing his arms up. He knocked on the door and tried again, this time using a deep voice. “Hey, kids. I’m, uh, a good guy. I’m gonna…save…you.” He shook his head. “Yeah, that’ll work.”

Chad yelled from inside the room. “Who are you? How do we know it’s safe?”

“Just, uh, open the door and trust me, son,” Strike said, in his very-much-needs-practice superhero voice. “Everything will be okay, I promise.”

Chad thought about it, then answered with a swift, “No.”

Strike leaned toward the classroom. “Just open the door, Chad!” he whispered angrily. “C’mon!”

After a moment, Jennifer and Chad opened the door. Strike motioned for them to come into the hall.

“C’mon, close the door, close the door! C’mon!”

The three friends stood in the hallway and looked at each other.

“You need to get the other people out of the school and get out of here as fast as you can,” Strike said.

“No, we can’t,” Chad replied. “It’s—it’s not safe.” He looked at the hero. “Who…who are you?”

“Um…”

Strike thought a moment.

“It’s me. It’s Tobin.”

A silence.

“Yeah right,” Chad laughed.

“No way,” Jennifer added.

Strike threw his arms out, frustrated. He made sure no one was near, then pulled down his mask and pointed to his face.

“Look, it’s me. Hi. I dress weird now. How are you?” He put his mask back on. “Okay? Now get the hell out of here, please.”

“What…the…hell?” Chad asked.

“What are you doing?” Jennifer demanded, scanning Tobin’s outfit. “What is all this, Tobin? Where have you been?”

“And why the hell are you talking like that?” Chad wondered.

“So many questions, so little time.” Strike pushed his friends toward the classroom. “Look, all I can tell you is that you need to get out of here and get far away. Now.”

“But we can’t,” Jennifer said. “There’s all kinds of monsters out there, Tobin—these things, they’re taking people away, and—and—we have to hide in here.”

“I know, but they’re gone now, Jen, trust me. The most dangerous place to be right now is here. Are you the only ones left in the school?”

“I think so,” Chad said. “Everybody else got out, but we were stuck. What’s going on, Tobin, honestly? Where have you been?”

“I can’t tell you right now, I already told you way too much. Just double-check the rest of the school and get out of here, okay?”

Chad opened the classroom door. “Dude, this is weird. And it just keeps getting weirder and weirder.”

“Tell me about it,” Strike said. “One of my friends is a talking dog now. He’s cool, you would like him.”

Jennifer looked into the room. “Uh, guys, we’re gonna leave now. C’mon, it’s safe. Follow me.”

The students stepped into the hall, all of them very frightened. Strike turned to Jennifer, with a hand on each of her arms.

“Just stay with the other kids now, okay, Jen? And don’t be afraid. I’m gonna take care of all this.”

“You are?” she asked.

“Um…I give it about a thirty-five percent chance. But go now, everything is gonna be okay. Go ahead. Go.”

Standing near the open door, Strike watched as his friends led the other students down the hall.

“So,” he said to himself. “This is my life now.”

***

Past the science labs and past the gymnasium, Vincent ripped a metal door off its hinges and entered the courtyard in the middle of Bridgton High. Immediately, he saw the target of his search.

Orion was leaning against a tree, hunched over and breathing through his nose. One of his arms clutched his ribs, while the other dangled uselessly at his hip. He coughed and spat blood, which landed in a clump on his chest. His bow was on the ground next to him, in splinters, and his quiver was empty. He had stayed on this world, and fought an impossible fight, for too long.

Vincent walked to Orion, lifting him by his coat and pressing him against the tree.

“I saw more guts from you today,” the monster said, “than I saw in eight damn years of being your teammate. Where was this kind of fight when we were kids, O? Why didn’t you show me this then?”

Orion looked up, but his eyes were nearly closed, and his forehead was furrowed. His head wobbled weakly on his shoulders.

Vincent realized that the old man was dying.

“I know,” Vincent said after a moment. His voice was once again human. “I know I was never very nice to you, Orion. I gave you a lot of crap, when all you were trying to do was be my friend. That was a horrible way for me to be.”

Vincent remembered: he was seventeen years old, and the others were fifteen years old. They were in their daily training session in the Guardian Headquarters. As usual, Orion was trying to go through an obstacle course, but he was nervous, and he made a simple mistake. Vincent, though, was furious, and he yelled at Orion, jabbing a finger in his face and nearly bringing him to tears. Their mentor, a kind man named Steve, had to step in and pull the infuriated Vincent away.

In the high school courtyard, Vincent stared at his green hands gripping Orion’s coat. He could not believe they were now both old men.

“I look at the way I was then and I regret it,” Vincent said, relaxing his grip. “I do. Every day.”

Vincent was eighteen years old and Orion was sixteen years old. They were at a high school party. Orion was talking to a pretty girl, which Vincent knew took all of Orion’s courage and all of Scott’s words of encouragement to accomplish. After some initial nerves, Orion was doing quite well, but then Vincent walked over and poured a cup of soda over his head. Vincent laughed, so did the girl, and they walked away. Titan—with his feathered wings hidden—took Orion by the arm and led him to their other friends.

Vincent tried to push the memories away, but he couldn’t. He never could.

“But I acted like that because I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “Being a hero, being famous, having these powers—any of it. But you guys could. You loved it. You savored it. And I hated you for that.”

The Guardians were in their late teens, and they were taking part in a press conference. Titan and Orion were laughing along with the reporters as Strike took control of the microphone and the room, rattling off his rapid-fire jokes. Vincent—transformed into the Rantamede—was standing behind the others, awkwardly smiling and feeling out of place and untrue to himself.

Vincent’s grip on Orion’s coat tightened.

“And then,” he said, “after the others…I thought you would understand, Orion. You were smarter than them, and I thought you would listen to me. But you didn’t.”

Strike, Orion, and Titan were twenty-two years old. They were hanging out on a rooftop, talking and laughing with a couple of other brightly colored superheroes. Vincent, twenty-four years old, was watching them from a doorway, but when they called to him, he turned around and walked back into the building.

“And instead you went against me,” Vincent said. The animal, the fury, was returning. “And what became of you then, Orion? What did you turn into, after our team disbanded? You went and joined Scott and became his sidekick. That’s what sickens me the most about all of this. You became a sidekick.”

Vincent raised his massive claws over his head. They glistened with the moonlight.

“I’m sorry, O. For you and the others. I truly am.”

The claws snapped with black fire.

“But it always ends this way. Every time.”

Suddenly a voice spoke from above them.

“Look, I know why you’re pissed.”

Vincent snapped his head up; Strike was standing on a balcony, overlooking the courtyard.

“I’d be pissed, too,” the hero said. “Your super-villain name is the Rantamede. That’s gotta suck.”

Vincent dropped Orion to the ground and stepped toward the boy.

“There you go!” the monster said. “Now you’re taking after your old man—a joking, goofy lunatic, just like him. Perfect.”

Strike jumped down from the balcony, his cape rippling behind him. “I mean, there’s so many cool ones. Venom, the Joker, Sabretooth—and you get stuck with Rantamede? That’s not a super-villain name. I’m pretty sure that’s a sports drink of some kind.”

Vincent clapped his hands together, laughing. “Yes! You’re so much like him it’s scary! Next are you gonna knock up an Earth chick and be stuck here with her forever, too?”

Strike took his bo-staff from his back, lighting it with electricity.

“Enough. This ends now.”

Vincent held his hands out. “I’ve heard it all before, kid. And I just keep coming back.”

Black fire formed in Vincent’s hand, and he hurled it at Strike. The hero dodged it, cartwheeled to his right, and pointed his weapon at Vincent. A lightning bolt blasted from it, sending the monster to one knee.

Strike ran at the monster, standing over him. “Your reign of evil is over, Vincent Harris!”

Vincent knelt on the ground. At first it sounded like he was panting, but he wasn’t—he was laughing. He stood up and laughed loud and hard as he looked at Strike.

“Wow! That was horrible, Tobin! I mean, I have heard some goofy things come out of superheroes’ mouths in my time, but that was the worst! Embarrassingly bad. Top ten, without a doubt.”

Vincent made a fist, and instantly Strike burst into black flames. The boy panicked, trying to put fire out, but the flames only grew.

“Don’t feel too bad,” Vincent said. “That little lightning bolt from your staff hurts. A little. Like when you stub your toe.”

Vincent flicked his wrist, and Strike was immediately whipped up into the air. With another flick of his wrist, the monster sent the boy thrashing around the courtyard, and his body smashed into the surrounding walls and trees. With each high-speed thud, the boy could feel his bones cracking.

Finally, Strike fell to the ground. He lay there, with the air sucked out of him.

Vincent stomped toward him. “Time to finally learn why I’m doing this, Tobin. Time to finally get some answers.”

Strike used the last of his strength and stood, bracing himself against the wall. With a groan, he limped toward the entrance of the courtyard.

Vincent followed the boy, fire rolling in each of his hands. “This is my destiny, Tobin. I deserve this. This is what I’m meant for. You’ll see. I know how you think.”

Strike fell against the courtyard doorway. Leaning down, he picked up the blue duffle bag lying there. He turned around, holding the bag.

Vincent stopped. “What—where did you get that? Where did that come from?”

Strike unzipped the bag. “I put it over there before my big balcony entrance. Thought I might need it. Always planning ahead, this guy.”

Vincent stared at the bag. The fire in his hands disappeared. “No. That’s…what—what’s inside it?”

“I don’t know. But let’s find out, shall we?”

Strike looked into the bag. A brilliant white light shone out of it, illuminating his face.

“Whoa,” he said.

Vincent stepped back. “No, Tobin. Don’t. Please.”

Strike reached into the bag, pulling out the shining object: it was two pieces of a white bo-staff. Vincent was stunned.

“No…that’s—that’s your father’s. I destroyed that years ago. You can’t have that. You can’t.”

Strike put the two pieces of the staff together; they created one long bo-staff that erupted with white lightning. Electricity was soon flowing from the weapon, and spreading over Strike’s arms.

“That’s not the Staff of Titan,” Vincent said. “It’s not.”

“Sorry,” Strike told him, “but I’m pretty sure it is.” He twirled the bo-staff around his head. “By the way, what’s the Staff of Titan?”

“No!” Vincent bellowed. “That’s not it! That’s not real!” He scurried back, hurling fire at Strike. “Get away from me, Tobin! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! I’ll rip you apart!”

Strike cringed at the impact of the fire, but soon realized the flames were simply disintegrating against the white electricity coursing around him.

“Where was this thing two hours ago?” he wondered.

Vincent stumbled, falling over the root of a tree. When he clambered up, he saw Strike walking toward him. The hero’s body was covered with white electricity.

“No, Tobin,” Vincent said, holding his palms out. “It doesn’t end like this. Listen to me, Tobin—you need to know why I’m here. There’s a reason why I’ve been—”

A lightning bolt scorched down from the sky, striking the weapon in Tobin’s hand. The electricity around the boy grew wilder. Wind began to swirl around the courtyard.

“No,” Vincent said. He closed his eyes. “No.”

Tobin swung the weapon forward, and a lightning bolt screamed out from it, striking into Vincent. The white electricity streamed into the monster, circulating in one long, scorching loop. The power was so strong that Tobin could barely hold onto the weapon, even with both hands.

Overcome with lightning, Vincent let out a mighty scream. As he threw his fists outward, he created an explosion that sent Tobin flying across the courtyard. With his bo-staff no longer lit with electricity, the boy got to his feet and looked to Vincent.

The monster was stumbling with the white energy running over him, slithering like bright, flashing snakes. As Vincent barked and growled, the ground trembled underneath him, and the building’s walls began to shake. A thunderclap boomed, and the windows around the courtyard shattered. Tobin had to cover himself from the broken glass that blasted into the area.

Vincent dropped to his knees, pounding the ground with his fists. A sphere of white electricity surrounded him, flashing from his eyes and mouth. Soon his entire body was enveloped by the light, and when he opened his mouth to scream, no sound came out.

Then, with a sudden crack of thunder and a blinding white flash, all was quiet.

Tobin blinked his eyes. He looked across the courtyard.

Vincent was gone; there was nothing where he stood but a burnt spot, flashing with white electricity on the ground.

Tobin stepped forward, but suddenly another thunderclap boomed. Rain poured from the clouds, and a black lightning bolt seared down, striking directly in front of Tobin. “Whoa!” he shouted, jumping back.

The ground shook. The walls of the courtyard erupted in purple flames. Tobin pushed forward, with the strange combination of intense heat and rain all around him. The noise of the storm was immense.

“Orion!” he yelled, cupping his hands over his mouth. “Orion, where are you? Orion! Orion!”

The walls of the school began to crumble, and the trees crashed down. Tobin looked up and saw that a raging roof of black fire was now covering them, stretching from one side of the courtyard to the other, trapping him and Orion inside. The thunderstorm raged.

Pushing past a tree, Tobin finally saw Orion, lying on the muddy ground.

“Orion! C’mon, we’ve gotta get out of here! Let’s go!”

“No!” the old man shouted. He was holding his right leg, which was bent awkwardly. “I can’t go with you, Tobin—you need to get out of here, now, before the—”

A wall of fire erupted in between them, and Tobin could barely see Orion through the flames.

“No, I’m not leaving you! Let’s go, Orion! C’mon!”

“I can’t, Tobin! It’s my leg, I won’t be able—”

“I’ll help you! I won’t go without you!”

“Do not argue with me, Tobin! You and the others are what’s important now! Get them to safety and—”

Another black lightning bolt shot down, striking into a tree. It burst into flames, crashing down in front of Tobin and blocking Orion from his view.

“No!” the boy yelled. “No! Orion! Orion!”

But the fire was too much. As the courtyard began to fill with black, heavy smoke, Tobin coughed and looked for a way out. Finally, he saw that one of the only spots not covered in flames was the door back into the school.

Tobin headed for the door, but then stopped. He thought.

He walked back to the fallen tree. He reached down, grabbed the underside of its burning trunk, and lifted it with all his might. The fire burned through his gloves and ate away at his skin, but he did not feel the pain; his body and mind knew that there was no other choice but this one.

Holding the tree up with one hand, Tobin held out the other.

“C’mon!”

***

With Orion leaning against him, Tobin made his way out of the courtyard and into the hallway. But the building was shaking around them, falling in massive chunks of brick, and they had to move very carefully. As they neared the lobby, Tobin looked back to the courtyard.

A wall of purple fire exploded out from it, erupting into the gymnasium. The fire quickly ate through the gym and then charged down the hall, swallowing up the walls and lockers along its way. The fire was after the boy and the old man, as if it knew they were its prey.

When he finally reached the lobby, Tobin saw that the school’s exit was blocked by fire. He looked back to where they had come from, but saw that the wall of flames was rolling closer.

Tobin only had a few seconds. He needed to find another way out.

He looked up. It had been there every morning since the first day of his freshman year, but he had never given it any thought until now: the lobby’s skylight, with its intricate, colorful glass etched with his school letters.

Orion murmured, shifting against Tobin. The old man was barely conscious. Tobin had to make a decision.

He closed his eyes and remembered.

Tobin was standing on a tree stump outside of the Museum of the Heroes. He had been training there for four days now and had grown to hate it. He hated the obstacle rooms, he hated the robots, he hated the lessons, and he especially hated this lesson: high above him, hanging from a tree branch, there was a golden ring.

Standing on his tippy-toes, Tobin stretched out and reached for the ring. He concentrated and closed his eyes, until finally lightning sparked from his boots and pushed him upward.

But, the lightning quickly fizzled, sputtering out in pathetic little pops. Tobin slammed his fists against his legs.

“Dammit! Just tell me how to do this!”

Orion walked to him.

“No,” the old man said. “There will come a time when I am not here with you. At that time, you will be alone, and you will have no choice but to take what you have learned and use it. No more handholding, no more being watched over. No more relying on others to lead your life. Become your own person.”

Tobin opened his eyes. He looked up at the skylight. His eyes flickered. He could feel it. Lightning. Electricity. It started in his hands and ran down to his feet.

Suddenly, Tobin shot up into the air! With a burst of electricity trailing behind him, leaving a blue streak from his boots to the floor, he and Orion soared up toward the skylight. Only one phrase could sum up the boy’s feelings, so he belted it out:

“Woooo-hooooooooooooooooo!”

Breaking through the glass with a CRASH!, Tobin and Orion escaped into the open air. The wall of fire burst out after them, nipping at Tobin’s ankles, but it quickly gave up on them and rushed downward, spreading its flames over the roof of the school.

When Tobin was so high up that the buildings of Bridgton began to look like children’s toys, his momentum stopped, and he started to fall. Popping bursts of electricity in his feet to slow his descent, he made his way across Middle Street and towards the Bridgton Public Library. When he landed on the roof, he let go of Orion and looked back to the school.

Bridgton High was overcome with purple fire; its walls were unseen under the flames, and its roof soon crashed in on itself.

Turning around, Tobin handed his bo-staff to Orion. “Well, I guess there’s no school tomorrow.”

Orion leaned on the staff, putting all of his weight on his uninjured leg. As much pain as he was in, he was still overcome with relief.

“You shouldn’t have come back for me, Tobin. That wasn’t very smart.”

Tobin thought it over. “Well, sometimes you have to make the right decision. Even when it seems really, really dumb.”

Orion laughed. “Not exactly what I said, but close enough.”

Hearing a siren below them, Tobin and Orion walked to the edge of the library and looked down.

The walls of the Dark Nebula were thinning; its purple-and-black, swirling surface was breaking away in chunks, and the cloud was dissipating like fog on a hot summer afternoon. An ambulance from the other side was finally able to push through the barrier, and a team of medical workers immediately jumped out of its doors. They were stunned by the destruction.

All around Middle Street, groups of people began to notice the ambulance and emerge from their hiding places. Among them were a dozen high school students, led by Jennifer and Chad.

“Hey, over here!” a medical worker yelled. “More help is on the way—come on everyone! What the hell has been going on in here?”

Chad approached the EMT. “I don’t know, it happened so fast. We were in the school when all the sudden—”

“Hey!” the ambulance driver shouted, pointing to the roof of the library. “Look!”

Jennifer and Chad looked up. Strike was leaning over the edge of the roof, but when he realized he had been spotted, he quickly darted out of sight.

“Did you see that?” the EMT asked, spinning to the others. “What the hell was that?”

Jennifer and Chad looked at each other. They smiled.

“I have no idea,” Jennifer said.

***

Leaning over the library roof, Orion looked down at the street.

“Hey, aren’t those your friends down there, Tobin? Tobin…?”

Orion turned around. Suddenly, Tobin was kneeling on the rooftop, with his arms across his stomach. His eyes were filled with fear.

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

Orion rushed to the boy, helping him lie down.

“What is it, Tobin? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know…I don’t know.” Tobin gulped for air, a wheeze coming from his throat. “I can’t breathe, everything’s fading away, everything’s going away.”

Tobin tried to focus on Orion, but the old man’s face went blurry. All Tobin could see was a white light over the old man’s shoulder, seeping through the Dark Nebula. Cracks were revealing streaks of the sky behind it.

Tobin looked at Orion. The old man was a haze of red and grey.

“Am I gonna die?” the boy asked. “Am I dying?”

“It’s okay,” Orion said. “Close your eyes. Everything’s gonna be—”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Windshield wipers.

Swoosh-swoosh, back and forth, like someone sweeping with a rubber broom.

Rain pattering against glass.

Something soft and smelling of rubber.

An engine hissing.

Tobin opened his eyes. He was leaning against an airbag. Sitting up, he rubbed the back of his neck, which was aching terribly. Along with the windshield wipers, he could hear music—an oldie, from the radio station that he liked. The words were mixing in with the rhythm of the windshield wipers.

With his vision unsteady, Tobin looked out the window. It wasn’t a strong storm, but the rain was small and fast, tick-ticking against his car and the pavement and the surrounding trees. He suddenly felt an overwhelming relief, like he could lift his shoulders again and breathe normally for the first time in days.

As Tobin tried to get his bearings, red-and-blue lights flashed across his face. He looked out the driver’s side window to see a police officer standing in the rain. He was a portly guy, like Porky Pig in a rain slicker. He was holding a flashlight and motioning for Tobin to unroll the window.

“Hey, are you all right in there?”

“Yeah,” Tobin said. “I think so.”

“Then come on out if you’re not hurt. We gotta get you off the side of the road.”

Tobin stepped out of his car, holding his head. He was home, right? How did he get here?

“You’re lucky I was driving by and saw your car,” the policeman said. “You musta been going pretty fast—you can’t be doing that in weather like this, you know. Where the hell were you trying to go right now, anyway?”

Tobin looked to the front of his car: it was smashed into a telephone pole. Its hood was scrunched up, and a wisp of smoke was rising into the wet air.

Confused, Tobin walked with the policeman to the police car.

“I was actually on my way over to Middle Street,” the policeman said, “to help clean up the aftermath of the damn Apocalypse. I heard they finally got through that cloud, thank god. I still can’t believe you were out here driving around—you must be the only person on Earth who isn’t at home underneath their bed, waiting for the end of the world.”

“The what?” Tobin asked. “What did you say? They finally got through what?”

“The, uh, death cloud? Ya know, the one that fell from the sky around Middle Street? It finally started breaking away about an hour ago. People can get in and out of it now.” The policeman shook his head. “I swear, you kids and the news. You really need to put down the cell phones and start paying attention to the world.”

Tobin leaned against the hood of the police car.

“You sure you’re all right?” the policeman asked. “You look like you’re on another world or something.”

“I’m fine,” Tobin replied. “But this is Earth, right?”

The policeman laughed. “Yeah, Earth. The United States of America. Bridgton, Massachusetts. Come and sit down, for crying out loud. You musta hit your head pretty hard. Where do you live?”

Tobin looked down the street. “Uh, right there,” he said, pointing. He was surprised to see his house was only a few dozen feet away.

“You crashed right in front of your house? That’s pretty weird.”

“Yeah.”

The front door of Tobin’s house opened, and Tobin’s mother stepped out. She saw her son standing in the rain with the police car.

“Tobin?” she said. It was him. It was really him. “Tobin!” she cried, running toward him.

Tobin walked to her. Of all the things that came to mind, he only needed to say one.

“Mom.”

She reached him and they embraced.

“Tobin, what happened to you? Where have you been? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” he said, his eyes closed. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She let go of him and held his face in her hands.

“Where did you go?” she asked. “I was so worried, Tobin, I thought I was never going to—Bill and I, we didn’t know what to do, we looked and we called…where did you go, Tobin? Where have you been?”

Tobin rubbed his neck, scrunching his forehead. “I don’t know, Mom, I feel…I think—I don’t know, I think something—”

“Hey ma’am?” the policeman said. He was inspecting the front of Tobin’s car. “You should call somebody to tow this thing outta here. And your insurance, too. This thing is pretty dinged up.”

Tobin’s mother grabbed Tobin by his shoulders. “Stay here,” she said. “And don’t you ever think about moving. Ever again.”

As Tobin’s mother and the policeman looked over the accident, Tobin leaned against the police car and tried to sort out his memories. Putting his hand into his jacket pocket, he found something.

It was a note. He unfolded the piece of paper and read it:

SORRY ABOUT THE CAR, KID. ORION TOLD ME TO THINK OF AN ALIBI FOR YOUR INJURIES, SO THIS IS IT. PRETTY GOOD, HUH? AND ALL IT COST YOU WAS ONE CAR! YOU CAN THANK ME LATER. YOUR BUD, KEPLAR.

Tobin smirked. He sat against the police car and laughed—a loud, sudden laugh.

His mother and the policeman turned to him.

“Uh, honey? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mom. I’m absolutely fine.”

Tobin looked to the sky.

The rain was finally stopping.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

“Man, these Hillside kids are such losers,” Chad said. He, Tobin, and Jennifer were sitting in a different, foreign cafeteria. “I still can’t believe we have to spend the rest of our senior year with…with…Hillside kids. Ugh. I wanna puke.”

“I know,” Jennifer said. She looked over the lunchroom full of students, most of whom she didn’t recognize. “There’s like forty kids crammed into my art class alone—it’s crazy. Right, Tobin?”

Tobin realized someone had said his name. “Huh? Oh, yeah. My Computer Education class is packed, too. It sucks.”

Jennifer looked at him, concerned. “Are you all right, Tobin? You seem out of it today.”

“I do? No, I’m just tired, I guess. I don’t know.”

Chad leaned across the table. “You get any word from them, yet?”

Tobin laughed at Chad’s demeanor. “No, I don’t think I will, either. They would have contacted me by now, somehow.” He shrugged and took a sip from his milk.

“It’s only been three weeks,” Jennifer said. “Maybe they can’t contact you. Maybe they’re—I don’t know—unable to for some reason. You never know. I think they’ll find you soon.”

Tobin shrugged again. “I guess. I’m just glad you guys don’t think I’m completely nuts.”

Chad shook his head. “Dude, after everything we saw that day, and everything that happened in this town, I’ll believe anything you say. You could tell me you’re actually some kind of half-lizard creature from Mars, and I’d still believe you. You aren’t, are you?”

Tobin laughed. “No. Not that I know of, anyway.”

“Hey, look at this.” Jennifer pulled a scrapbook from her tote, placing it on the table. “Do you know Time magazine called ‘The Cloud’ one of the most important events of our lifetime? Right here, in little Bridgton. Can you believe it?”

She flipped to a page; there was a magazine cover on it, and it showed the outside of the Dark Nebula. Its headline read:

CONTACT FROM ANOTHER WORLD? SECRET GOVERNMENT COVER-UP? OR BOTH?

“In our own hometown,” she added. “It’s crazy.”

“I know,” Chad said, flipping through the book. It was filled with photos, magazines, and news stories about the Dark Nebula. “But you’re seriously obsessed with this.”

Chad stopped on another magazine cover; this one showed the demolished Middle Street, with a headline reading:

DISASTER IN BRIDGTON.

There was also a blurry photograph of Vincent on the cover. The caption read:

MONSTER OF BRIDGTON CALLED A HOAX.

“I saw another guy on TV this morning saying the whole thing was fake,” Jennifer said. “That it was just some kind of weird weather event, and we’re all freaking out about nothing.”

Chad sneered. “I’d like to punch that guy in the face. No one knows what happened that day except the people who were there. And…Mr. Hero-Man!”

“Chad!” Jennifer said. “Be quiet!”

“What? I said it softly!”

Tobin laughed. “I can see I picked the worst person in the world to reveal my secret identity to.”

Chad shook his head. “No, dude, I just think that was the most awesome thing in the world. To do what you did that day, that kicked so much butt.”

“All right,” Tobin said uncomfortably. “Thanks.”

Jennifer put her scrapbook away. “We’re gonna go down after school and check out Middle Street, see how the clean-up is going. You wanna come?”

Tobin thought it over. “Um…nah. I think I’m gonna head home. I’m pretty tired.”

The bell rang and Tobin stood up.

“I better get to class. Talk to you guys later.”

“Later, dude.”

“Bye, Tobin.”

Jennifer and Chad watched Tobin walk out of the cafeteria.

“You think I could be his sidekick?” Chad asked.

“No!” Jennifer replied. “You’d be the worst sidekick ever.”

They brought their trays to a trash barrel.

“Why?”

“’Cuz you don’t have any superpowers.”

“So? Batman doesn’t have any superpowers, and he’s awesome.”

“Does Batman still collect Pokemon cards?”

“Hey!” Chad said, looking around the room. “Don’t say that so loud. I only do that as part of my secret identity.”

They laughed and walked out of the cafeteria.

***

After the last bell of the school day, Tobin walked across the student parking lot and toward his car. His mind, however, was elsewhere; he saw the world so differently now, as if he suddenly had new eyes from the ones he had only a month before: the people, the places, the things he saw on the news at night—it was all different, and he was having a tough time dealing with it. He only wished that there were others who knew about all the things he had been through.

Tobin’s phone buzzed. He pushed his thoughts away for a moment and checked it.

It was a text message, from an unknown number:

I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Tobin was startled. He looked around. Another text:

I KNOW YOUR SECRET.

The boy couldn’t believe it. He stared at the phone. Another buzz:

LOOK BEHIND YOU.

Nervous, but prepared for a fight, Tobin turned around.

“Orion!” he shouted.

The old man stood in front of Tobin, smiling.

“Hi, Tobin. How are you?”

Tobin wrapped his arms around him.

“It’s good to see you, too,” Orion laughed. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long.”

“Whatever,” Tobin replied. “Where the heck have you been?”

Orion laughed again. “Come on, I have about twenty minutes.”

***

Fifteen minutes later, Tobin and Orion sat at a booth in a diner near Hillside High. The old man was drinking from a coffee cup, but Tobin’s soda was still sitting in front of him, untouched, as he had been too eager to talk to even think about drinking it.

“So that’s the last thing you remember?” Orion asked.

“Yeah—being with you on the roof across from the school, and then all of the sudden…I was in my car. It was very weird.”

Orion nodded. “I thought that might happen. You pushed your body too far, too soon, and that last lightning jump pushed you over the edge. Your body couldn’t take it and shut down. Luckily, we were able to bring you to your house and get you to your car during all the commotion.”

“I figured it was something like that.”

Orion placed his coffee cup on the table. His next words came with a slight hesitation.

“I saw in the papers that you’ve gone out some. As Strike, I mean.”

Tobin nodded. “A couple times.” He shifted in his seat. “Up in Boston. Nothing too intense. I’m still trying to figure out if all this is for me or not.”

“You’ve already done all you need to do,” Orion said. “I mean that. If you feel like you never want to put the costume on ever again, no one would ever begrudge you of that. Honestly.”

Tobin nodded, looking at the table.

“I—I wanted to thank you, Tobin,” the old man said.

“For what?” Tobin asked with a laugh.

“For doing what you did. I asked too much of you, when you barely had any idea what was happening. And I want to thank you for being able to handle it the way that you did.”

The boy shook his head. “Orion, without you asking that much of me, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Nobody would.”

“I know. And that’s why I’m thanking you.”

Tobin smiled. The old man checked his watch.

“Well, we better get going,” he said. “There are some people who want to say hi before we go.”

***

A few miles down the road, Tobin and Orion walked onto the roof of a shuttered Hillside warehouse. The boy saw what he never thought would be a welcoming sight: the Sky-Blade, with its brilliant silver sides gleaming. Two friends were standing next to it.

“Hey!” Tobin said, walking toward them. “Funny seeing you guys here!”

Keplar smiled. “Hey, how ya doing, kid?”

Scatterbolt ran to the boy’s side. “Hi, Tobin!”

Tobin laughed, putting an arm around Scatterbolt. “Thanks for the alibi with my car, by the way, Keplar. That was really great, thanks.”

Keplar grinned. “Anytime, bro. My pleasure.”

“How about you, SB?” Tobin asked, looking down. “How’re you feeling? Last time I saw you, you weren’t looking too good.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” Scatterbolt said, waving away the concern. “I got all fixed up, no problem. Are you coming to the party with us tomorrow night?”

“The party?”

Orion laughed. “Aykrada asked me if she could throw a dinner for you tomorrow night in Gallymoora. I told her I’d see if you were up for it.”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” Tobin said. “Definitely.”

Keplar opened the sky-ship door. “And her daughter’s gonna be there, too. Don’t forget about that.”

Tobin laughed.

“Okay, guys,” Orion said, shaking his head, “let’s get going.” He turned to Tobin. “I’ll meet you here tomorrow night? Seems like a good spot.”

“Sure, that’d be awesome. Totally.”

“Okay.” The old man smiled. “I’m very proud of you, Tobin. I want you to know that.”

The boy and the old man shook hands.

“Thanks, O. It was nothing, really.”

Minutes later, when all of its passengers were aboard, the Sky-Blade’s engines revved up. As it began to hover off the ground, Scatterbolt opened the passenger window.

“Bye, Tobin!” he said with a wave. “See you tomorrow! I’m bringing the guacamole!”

Tobin laughed and waved back. “Okay, SB! See you then! Can’t wait!”

Soon, the Sky-Blade zoomed up into the sky, and away into the clouds. When it was nearly out of sight, it disappeared with a CRACK! of thunder and a bright silver flash, leaving a streak of white smoke behind it.

Tobin watched the sky. To see his friends again, and to know he would see them tomorrow, filled him with relief.

But then he heard a commotion on the street.

“Help! Somebody help me!”

Startled, Tobin walked to the edge of the building. He knew he was in one of the rougher parts of Hillside.

“Somebody help me!” the person shouted again.

Tobin looked down; a thief in a ski mask was running away from a liquor store, and an older man was standing in front of it.

“Somebody stop him!” the older man shouted. “He just robbed me! Help! Help!”

Tobin stepped back onto the rooftop. He remembered the photo that Orion had showed him that night at the supermarket—the one of Orion and his father, dressed in costume. Then he looked at the streak of smoke still left in the sky by the Sky-Blade.

Tobin smiled. He opened his shirt, revealing the white ‘S’ underneath, and stepped to the edge of the building.

BOOK TWO:[
**][
**]DAWN OF THE DAYBREAKER

CHAPTER ONE

The night air was hot and still as Rigel trudged through the jungle. The seven-and-a-half-foot, red-skinned giant had been walking for hours now, and even his feet—strong, tough, elephant-like—were beginning to ache with each step. But, the pain did not matter, because he was almost there now. Almost home.

Rigel turned to check on his two companions. Luckily, they were still there, but they looked even more tired than him. One of them was a young woman named Adrianna; she was in her early twenties and impossibly beautiful, with long, pin-straight dark hair, almond-shaped eyes, and fine skin nearly the color of snow. She also had an incredibly fit body, which was covered by a tight-fitting purple costume complete with a black cape on her back, black gloves, and tall, black boots on her feet. The other companion, the man in his mid-thirties named Nova, was more difficult for outsiders to figure out: he spoke rarely, and when he did it was always in a calm, collected manner. He was tall, and on his body he wore a green costume with white gloves, white boots, a long, white cape, and a large, multi-pointed white star on his chest. Other than that, his appearance was a total mystery—no one alive had ever seen his face, for his entire head was always covered by a featureless, grey mask made out of thin, metal wires, which crisscrossed over each other so tightly that it was impossible to see past them. From a distance, he looked like a medieval fencer—stoic and composed, but also standing up straight and ready for action.

The strange trio—Rigel, Adrianna, and Nova—continued their trek through the dark jungle until finally Adrianna turned to Nova.

“Are we almost there?” she asked. It was the first time anyone had spoke in nearly an hour.

But Nova said nothing.

“Um, hello?” Adrianna asked. “Nova? Are you awake? Are we almost there or what?”

“Yes,” Nova replied. “Be patient, Adrianna.”

She shook her head. “‘Be patient.’ That’s what you’ve been telling me for the past two hours, and all it’s gotten me is half a ton of mud in my boots, probably a few bacterial infections from that river we had to cross, and who-knows-how many poisonous bug bites from bugs I’ve never seen before and hope to never see again. What makes you think we’re almost there?”

“Because he showed me the map before we left.”

“He showed you the—there’s a map?” Adrianna asked. “What the hell? Why didn’t I see a map?”

“Because he doesn’t trust you.”

Adrianna glanced at Rigel in front of them. “Oh, great. I’m trudging through the damn jungle for ten hours and he doesn’t—”

“Quiet,” Rigel grunted, turning his head. “We need quiet now. Nearly there. Quiet.”

The trio walked a few more steps, and eventually came to the trunk of a massive, downed tree. After climbing over it, Adrianna looked ahead, hoping to see some sign of life, but instead saw only more unending green jungle and darkness.

“This is stupid,” she whispered to Nova. “You can waste your time with Big Fat Fatty here, but I’m going back. There is absolutely nothing here that will—”

Nova stopped and held a hand in front of her.

“Shh,” he said, with a finger against his mask.

Adrianna looked to Rigel—the red giant had stopped, and was now looking down at the dirt. His body was swaying back and forth, and he was singing softly in a strange language.

“Cosino,” he whispered. “Makino, slingdownbach, basino, cosino…”

Adrianna felt a low grumbling in the ground beneath her feet. She stepped back, cautious, and looked to Nova. But the grey-masked man didn’t move—he was simply looking ahead and watching Rigel, as if he knew what was about to happen.

The red giant dropped to his knees. Adrianna couldn’t see much of the giant’s yellow eyes behind the hood he was wearing, but it looked like he was crying. She watched his hands—one of them reached down and grabbed a handful of loose dirt, letting it run through his fingers, while the other hand reached into his robe and retrieved a silver control panel with dozens of buttons on it. Without looking, the red giant pushed a series of buttons on the control panel, all while continuing to sing his bizarre song.

Adrianna was startled—the grumbling underneath her feet erupted into an earthquake, and she had to reach out and grab Nova’s shoulder for support. As she watched in awe, a giant stone statue of a bizarre beast rose from the ground, tearing up the dirt and knocking over the trees and ripping through the dense vegetation all around it. The stone beast was as big as a house, and had the head of an ape, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. It was lying flat on its stomach, with its head facing the trio, and when Adrianna looked closer, she realized that it wasn’t a statue—it was the entrance to an underground building, with the beast’s open, roaring mouth acting as the doorway.

“We’re here,” Nova said.

Adrianna stared at the stone beast. “You know…I think you might be on to something.”

Rigel walked toward the doorway. “Thank you for your patience. He will allow us to enter now.”

Adrianna and Nova followed Rigel under the beast’s giant, hanging fangs, and walked into the darkness of its insides. Adrianna was careful and intrigued, but Nova and Rigel were unfazed. This was especially true of Rigel, who was walking with a quick conviction, as if he could not wait any longer for what they were about to find inside this mysterious stone beast in the middle of Capricious’ most dangerous and unexplored jungle.

At first, Nova and Adrianna could see nothing inside the beast, until Rigel lit three torches. After he handed one to each of them, the red giant led the group through a long, dark corridor, which sloped downward, leading them deeper underground. The corridor’s walls were made out of thousands of rectangular grey stones, and although they were spotted with a few cobwebs and the floors were dusty from not being used in years, the trio could still appreciate the elaborate decorations inside the underground hallway—beautiful paintings of green, tiger-like beasts ran along the walls, and stunning candelabras burst with illuminating flames as Rigel passed them with his torch.

After following the twisting, turning, stone-walled corridor further underground, the trio finally reached its end: it lead to a ten-foot tall, gold-trimmed entryway, and beyond the entryway there was a dark room filled with odd shapes and shadows. Before Adrianna and Nova could walk into the room, however, Rigel stopped and stood in front of them.

“Do you believe?” Rigel asked Adrianna.

“What?”

“Do you believe in the Rantamede and pledge your life to him and his quest for universal peace?”

She shot him a smirk.

“Do you pledge your loyalty to him?” Rigel asked again, more forcefully this time.

“Just do as he says,” Nova told her.

“Sure,” Adrianna said, with a smile and a shrug. “Okay.”

“Do you give him your life?”

“Yes.”

“Until the very end?”

“Why not.”

Rigel reached out with his tree-trunk arms and embraced Adrianna, pulling her close. She was surprised, not to mention in a bit of pain from the overzealous squeeze.

“He will be very pleased to meet you,” Rigel said.

“Can’t wait,” Adrianna replied, wriggling out of the hug before her ribcage was crushed.

Finally, with a smile that neither Nova nor Adrianna had ever seen, Rigel walked through the golden entryway and into the shadowed room at the end of the corridor. Adrianna and Nova followed him and inspected the underground cavern: it was a large, circular room, with dozens of candelabras burning brightly, a domed ceiling, and more artwork of half-human, half-animal creatures along the walls. There were also rows of statues of animals made out of black marble, and in the center of the room there was a beautiful green pillar made out of pure emerald, which stood about eight feet high. As stunning as the room and its contents were, however, it was clear that no one had been inside it for years, maybe even decades: there were spider-webs in the corners and on the statues, and the floor was littered with tattered nests and animal bones. In the silence, every few seconds, the trio could hear the sounds of scurrying rodents and insects.

“Wait here,” Rigel said to the others. “He may look…strange to you.”

Nova and Adrianna watched as the red giant walked toward the emerald pillar in the center of the room.

“Is he talking about…?” Adrianna asked.

“Just watch,” Nova replied.

Rigel knelt in front of the green pillar and bowed his head. After he whispered and mumbled in the strange language, a burst of black fire erupted atop the pillar. When Rigel looked up at it, the fire swirled and snapped, until it began to take the shape of a pair of eyes, a nose, a goatee, and a mouth. Soon, there was a green face of a man in the middle of the black flames, and it was a face Rigel knew very well—it was the face of his mentor and leader, Vincent Harris.

Rigel watched the face for a few moments, before looking to the ground, overcome with emotion.

“Hello, Vincent,” the red giant said. “It is a great honor to finally see you again.”

“How long have I been gone, Rigel?” the image of Vincent asked.

“Seven months, sir. It has taken me seven months to heal from my injuries and arrive at this place.”

Near the entryway, Adrianna and Nova were watching Rigel have his conversation. However, Adrianna was confused—to her, it appeared Rigel was having this conversation with thin air. She did not see either Vincent’s face, or the black flame atop the pillar.

“Um, am I crazy,” she asked, “or is he talking to nobody?”

“He’s talking to Vincent,” Nova replied.

“He is? I don’t see anything. Do you?”

“No. But Rigel does. And that’s all that matters.”

Near the pillar, Rigel was staring at the ground and grimacing, shaking his head.

“I am sorry, sir. I have no excuses for why it has taken me so long to find you.”

“You have nothing to apologize for, Rigel,” Vincent said. “Without your determination, Rytonia and the entire universe would be lost. You are the reason our people, and our dreams for Capricious, still live.”

“Thank you, sir. I just wish…I wish you could be with us again.”

Adrianna watched Rigel from a distance, with a skeptical frown.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “Does he really see something, or does he just think he’s seeing something?”

Nova shook his head. “I don’t know. But as long as he’s convinced he’s talking with Vincent, and as long as it leads us to what we want, that’s all we need to be worried about.”

“I wish I was there, too,” the image of Vincent said to Rigel, “but you know that can’t be. I am gone forever, and it is up to you now to look over our people. It is time for you to fulfill your destiny. That is why it is so important for you to find the others.”

“Yes,” Rigel replied, motioning to Nova and Adrianna, “these two heroes have joined me. They have pledged their lives to you, and to helping us achieve universal peace.”

Adrianna leaned over to Nova. “Gee, I hope non-existent man approves of us,” she whispered.

“Shh,” Nova told her.

“You have done well to find them, Rigel,” Vincent continued, “but there is still one more member that needs to join you. You know there needs to be another.”

“Yes,” Rigel said. “He is not here yet, sir. But we are working on finding him, and have come here to carry out our plan.”

“Good,” Vincent replied. “Because without the Daybreaker, you have nothing. He is the one to bring peace to Capricious. Without him, you cannot succeed.

“He is the one who was always meant to lead us, Rigel. Even if I had survived. This has all been about him. He is the only one who can lead us home.”

Rigel nodded. “But…there are still people who will try and stop us, sir.”

“Yes, I know. Is Orion aware that you are still alive?”

“No. But he is with the others constantly, working with them and fighting alongside them. On Earth and on Capricious.”

“So Tobin is still alive then,” Vincent said. “And has he been learning more about his powers with Orion?”

“Yes.”

“Has he become more powerful?”

“Yes.”

“Has he become a hero?” Vincent asked.

Rigel waited a moment before answering.

“Yes,” he finally said.

CHAPTER TWO

The “Gala by the Back Bay” was one of the most prestigious events in all of Boston; held on the top floor of the historic Bellemont hotel, this annual fundraiser to benefit the city’s hospitals attracted the wealthiest of the wealthy: politicians, socialites, athletes…year after year, the most famous citizens of Boston would attend the gala to mingle, eat terrific food, show off their most expensive jewelry…and, of course, donate to a very worthy cause.

Being that the event was so well attended by Boston’s most famous citizens, the event’s security was always top-notch. This night, however, many of the partygoers had noticed something strange about the many security guards stationed throughout the ballroom. Many of them seemed nervous. Jumpy. As if they were waiting for something. They didn’t, many people at the gala thought to themselves, seem to be acting like security guards at all.

That’s because they weren’t.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! The three gunshots rang out, loud and sudden in the ballroom, causing the music to stop and many of the partygoers to shriek and drop their drinks and appetizer plates.

“Everybody be cool!” one of the security guards shouted, holding his pistol in the air, which was still smoking from the three warning shots that had just caused the party to come to a screeching halt. “This is a robbery! Everyone listens to us, and nobody gets hurt!”

With that bone-chilling threat, every other security guard on the top floor of the Bellemont hotel also fired their guns into the air. The partygoers screamed and dropped to the floor, trembling and crying. As the security guards began locking the doors to the main ballroom, it became very clear what had happened: at some point, the real security guards for the party had been replaced—by armed, dangerous, vicious thieves.

“Put all your money and jewelry into these bags,” the leader of the thieves shouted, as he began throwing small, tan bags to the partygoers on the ground. Several of his partners were also throwing empty bags to the trembling partygoers, while also barking orders and making it very clear they were to be listened to. “Don’t forget a dime, and don’t say a damn word!” the leader continued. “The first person who talks gets a bullet in their head, and so does the person next to them! We are not joking around here, people! You will die! There will be blood!”

Suddenly a window shattered. The thieves and the partygoers looked up.

He was here.

Through the broken glass ceiling of the Bellemont hotel, a masked figure dressed in blue jumped down from the night sky and into the ballroom, surrounded by shards of broken glass. A dark, tattered cape was billowing around him as he gripped it with both hands, and a bo-staff was on his back. As his feet hit the floor, the figure in dark blue looked up at the thieves and partygoers, and the eyes above his mask sparked and flashed with white electricity. To the partygoers, he looked like an avenging hero. To the thieves, he looked like an angel of death.

Strike—the masked, electricity-wielding, crime-fighting vigilante (who was also secretly Tobin Lloyd, an eighteen-year-old high school senior from Bridgton, Massachusetts)—stood up straight, stomped across the broken glass, and headed for the leader of the thieves. The rest of the thieves were so frightened they didn’t even fire their guns or try to run away—even when Strike grabbed their leader by his shirt collar and smashed him against a wall.

“You’re right,” Strike said, holding the thief a foot into the air, “there will be blood.” The hero leaned in close, only inches from the thief’s face. “Yours.”

Then there was the sound of an elevator bell, dinging to announce somebody’s arrival. Every person at the fundraiser—the partygoers, the thieves, even Strike—turned to see who was coming through the elevator at the far end of the room. When the elevator door opened, everyone watched as a six-and-a-half foot tall, blue-and-white Siberian husky walked out of it and into the party. He was wearing a cowboy hat and a brown leather jacket, and also holding a very large grenade launcher over his shoulder. Many of the people at the party had heard rumors of the dog-man that had been fighting crime alongside Strike for the past few months, but nobody had ever seen him this close. He was even stranger looking than the newspapers had described.

“Seriously,” Keplar Costello said. “Don’t you ever just use the door? You and the broken windows.”

Strike relaxed his grip on the leader of the thieves and let him drop to the floor. “I don’t know,” the hero said. “It’s my thing, ya know? I like the broken glass entrance.”

Keplar walked towards the center of the ballroom, loading green canisters into his plasma cannon. “Yeah, I can tell. And you know what else it is? Really mean to whoever owns the window.”

“You think so?” Strike said.

“Yeah. You know how much it must cost to replace a window that big? Plus it’s getting really old. No one’s even surprised by it anymore.”

“How can you not be surprised?” Strike asked. “Who said that? How can you not be surprised when somebody crashes through a window and—”

“Um, hello?”

Strike and Keplar looked down. One of the fund-raising partygoers—an older man with white hair—was cowering on the ground.

“The thieves with the guns?” the white-haired man said. “You might wanna do something about them?”

“Oh, yeah,” Strike replied. “Right.” The hero looked to Keplar. “You wanna?”

Keplar fired his plasma cannon across the room, nailing one of the thieves with a green, explosive blast that sent the thief crashing through a door and into the outside hallway.

“Yeah,” the dog replied. “Why not.”

The fight began, and the room turned into a warzone: as Strike and Keplar began taking out the thieves one-by-one, bullets were whizzing around the ballroom and the partygoers were taking cover every which way they could, with many of them escaping through the open door or into the elevator. In the middle of the awkward, violent chaos, Strike was as calm, cool, and swift as the world’s greatest acrobat; as he flipped and cart-wheeled around the room, he was dodging the thieves’ bullets and fists, while also taking them out with his glowing, electrified, blue bo-staff. In the seven months since Tobin Lloyd had become Strike, his fighting skills and agility had advanced well beyond any human comprehension; he often simply looked like a spinning, kicking, punching, staff-swinging ball of electricity. The would-be thieves of the Bellemont hotel were barely able to comprehend what was hitting them.

“So let me get this straight,” Strike began, as he spun in a blue flash and kicked one of the thieves directly in the stomach. “For the past seven months, a legit, real-life superhero has been stalking the streets of Boston and literally kicking the snot out of the city’s criminals, and you guys decide to rob one of the most well-known events of the year? I’m guessing you guys didn’t do too well in school, did you? I’m gonna say…fifth grade? You didn’t make it past fifth grade? I know, believe me—long division is a nightmare. Am I right?”

Whereas Strike was fast and agile in his attacks against the criminals, across the room, Keplar’s fighting style was different: the husky was strong, deliberate, and downright brutal. He had been fighting crime much longer than Tobin, after all, and was so skilled in the use of his plasma cannon that taking out these thieves was a game for him.

“Oops, sorry about that,” Keplar said, as yet another thief was sent flying from a green explosive blast from his gun. The husky had noticed a group of partygoers trying to escape through a locked door, so he was quickly making his way over to them. “Hey there, look out,” he said with a laugh, as he used his giant, furry, blue paw to cold-cock one of the thieves across the chin. Finally reaching the partygoers, Keplar used his plasma cannon to blast the door open. “There you go, everyone,” he said, as the partygoers ran to safety. As they escaped, many of them were glancing back in shock at the dog that was saving them from the criminals. “No, folks, do not believe the Internet—this is not a costume. C’mon, now, you know how insulting that is? Go ahead, get a good look. But don’t stare too long—we’re trying to keep you alive here, after all. Don’t worry—I’ll be available for pictures and autographs later.”

As Strike watched the partygoers run out the door, something caught his eye; one of the thieves was dashing behind the hotel bar. After disappearing out of view, the thug stood up again and pointed his handgun at Keplar.

“Keplar!” Strike shouted. “Look out!”

Keplar dove out of the way right as a series of bullets whizzed by his tail. The gun-wielding thief behind the bar laughed, thinking he had his target cornered…until he tried to fire his weapon again: CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! The gun was out of bullets.

The thief looked at his useless gun, then turned his eyes to Keplar. The husky stood up, grinning wildly, and pointed his plasma cannon at the thief. But when he pulled his own trigger: CLICK! CLICK! CLICK!

Keplar looked at his plasma cannon. “Well, what do you know? I’m out of ammo, too.”

The thief let out a sigh and let his shoulders relax. Keplar laughed.

“Now that’s funny, huh?” the dog said. “You gotta admit, that’s pretty funny.”

The thief nodded and chuckled, relieved.

“Why don’t we just call it even?” Keplar said. “It’s only fair, right? It’s a draw.”

The thief shrugged and smiled.

However, Keplar quickly pulled one of the laser blasters from the holster on his waist and blasted the thief. Instantly, the thief was thrown against the wall in a green flash, before dropping and disappearing behind the bar.

Keplar blew the smoke away from the barrel of his laser blaster and put it back in its holster. “A draw,” he said, shaking his head. “What do you think this is, soccer?”

At the other end of the ballroom, Strike was engaged in a brawl with the last two robbers. When he elbowed one of them across the jaw, the robber’s fake mustache went flying across the room.

“Oh my god, you guys wore fake mustaches?” Strike laughed. “That is so awesome. What, were you gonna try and blame this on a group of baseball players from the 1980’s? C’mon, if you’re gonna attempt a huge robbery, at least have some fun. You could even do a themed thing next time, like pirates or something. How cool would that be?”

Strike swung his glowing bo-staff around his body and knocked out the two robbers.

“Bank-robbing pirates. You guys gotta start thinking of this stuff.”

As soon as Strike was finished with the last of the criminals, he heard police sirens blare outside. Looking out a window, he saw a half-dozen squad cars pull up outside the hotel.

“Uh-oh,” he told Keplar. “Time to go.”

“I’ll head out the back and meet you out front.”

“Got it.”

With a flash of blue electricity erupting from his boots, Strike shot up into the air and through the broken ceiling window, returning to the night sky.

***

Down an alley not far from the Bellemont hotel, Keplar (wearing a helmet to cover his face and a pair of gloves to cover his paws) pulled a blue tarp off of his motorcycle and hopped on. When he reached the sidewalk, Tobin was there to meet him, already out of his Strike costume.

“Well,” Tobin said, “that was fun.”

The boy and the dog looked across the street; the police officers were leading the bruised and battered thieves out of the hotel and into their squad cars.

“All in a day’s work,” Keplar replied. “You coming to the museum for training tonight?”

“No, I gotta meet Jen and Chad over at Jen’s house. I haven’t hung out with them in a while, and I promised I’d see them tonight. What time is it?”

Keplar looked at his watch. “Almost eight.”

“Oh, crap—I was supposed to be there an hour ago. I gotta go.”

Tobin dashed down the street.

“It’ll take you at least an hour to get home,” Keplar told him.

“Not if I try out my new car.”

“Well, I’ll be looking forward to your funeral then.”

Tobin turned around and shrugged. “Don’t worry, it can’t be that hard. It’s just a car, right? See ya tomorrow.”

“All right, good luck.”

As Tobin turned the corner, Keplar revved up his motorcycle and headed onto the street. Before he took off, however, he noticed a beautiful blonde woman in her early twenties walking along the sidewalk. As she strolled by, the dog watched her carefully through his helmet.

“Hey there,” the husky said. “Any chance you got a thing for big blue hairy guys?”

CHAPTER THREE

Fifteen minutes outside of Boston, Tobin was driving his car down a quiet back road, away from the main highway. He was running late again to meet up with his friends, but knew there was one way to make up some time.

“Okay,” he said, looking around the deserted road. “Nobody else around.” The boy opened a hatch on his dashboard, revealing a series of buttons. “Let’s see how this ‘Bolt Racer’ works.”

Taking a deep breath, Tobin pushed one of the buttons and held it down with his finger. “I am terrified,” he said to himself. Then, after clearing his throat, he said in a clear, assertive voice: “Change to Flying Mantis.”

As Tobin nervously gripped his vehicle’s steering wheel, the run-down, dinged-up, 2002 model, aqua station wagon suddenly spouted sleek, midnight blue wings from its sides. Then, with a mechanical whirring and humming from both inside and outside the car, the entire vehicle suddenly transformed: gone was the aqua station wagon—now Tobin was driving a dark blue vehicle that resembled a menacing, flying praying mantis.

“Okay,” Tobin said. “Now what?”

As if an answer to his question, an engine on the back of the vehicle roared and shot out a streak of red flame. Before Tobin could grasp what was about to happen, he and his vehicle lifted off the road and rocketed straight up into the air.

“Aaaaaaaaaaah!” the boy screamed, as he was pinned against his seat like an astronaut during take-off, looking out the windshield at the zooming sky in front of him. Gritting his teeth, he glanced down at the speedometer: 120 miles per hour.

Suddenly, Tobin’s stomach lurched, and the vehicle finished its take-off and leveled itself at cruising altitude. At least he was now facing forward, but Tobin still couldn’t control the Flying Mantis; as he screamed and fumbled with the steering wheel, his vehicle was dipping and swooping, crashing through the treetops and nearly dive-bombing the cars below him on the street, which were swerving wildly at the sight of the unidentified flying object being piloted by a terrified teenage boy.

Not far from Tobin, a college student named Brett and his new girlfriend Tanya were making out in Brett’s open Mustang convertible. They were parked on a quiet cliff overlooking the skyline of Boston, and Brett could tell Tanya was nervous.

“What’s wrong, baby?”

“I don’t know, Brett. I’m not comfortable. Somebody might drive by.”

Brett shook his head. “I already told you, Tanya: we’re all alone. No one is gonna drive by, I promise. Okay? Just calm down.”

“Okay.”

Brett and Tanya resumed their kissing. The moment Tanya relaxed and got more into the romantic moment, however, a giant flying insect made out of midnight blue metal zoomed by directly over their heads.

“Sorry!” Tobin shouted from the open window.

The force and speed of the Flying Mantis sent dirt and litter swirling around the open convertible, while also whooshing! Tanya’s hair into a wild mess. When the flying vehicle was gone, Brett and Tanya sat in shocked silence for a moment, until Tanya reached over and slapped Brett in the face.

Tobin, meanwhile, had more important things to worry about: he was in a panic, still trying to get the Flying Mantis under control. Reaching out with one hand, he pushed the button on the control panel of his vehicle again and held it down.

“Change to Ion Speeder!” he shouted. “Change to Ion Speeder!”

After swooping down and hitting the street at 140 miles per hour, the Flying Mantis screeched onto its landing gear and metallically morphed once again: this time it turned into an ultra-sleek, ultra-fast, midnight blue convertible, looking like the world’s coolest sports car from the year 2525. Rocketing down the open road, Tobin could only scream and hold on tight.

“Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhaaaaaaaahhhh!”

Heading straight toward a fork in the road, Tobin was going too fast to turn his steering wheel, and instead he drove headlong into a cornfield. As the corn stalks whizzed by him, battering the sides of his car and sending ears of corn flying, Tobin once again pushed the “Morph” button on his dashboard.

“Change to Off-Roader!” he yelled. “Change to Off-Roader!”

The sports car now turned into an off-road buggy, with big, bulky wheels attached to springy shocks, and a metal cage of yellow armor around the front of the car. The Off-Roader smashed through the corn stalks until finally bursting free from the field…and directly into a ravine.

Springing along the rocks and water, Tobin splashed through the ravine and bounced off its banks like a rabid Kangaroo. After being rattled around the inside of the vehicle for several hundred feet, the boy’s trip suddenly smoothed out, and his bones stopped rattling. He sighed. Phew. What a relief.

When the boy opened his eyes, however, he realized why his journey had smoothed out: he had driven straight off a cliff. He and his vehicle were now in the open air, and falling face first toward the ground.

“Flying Mantis!” Tobin shouted, holding the “Morph” button on his dashboard. “Flying Mantis!”

The Off-Roader mercifully morphed back into the Flying Mantis and shot back up into the air. Tobin was no longer falling to his death, but he was once again soaring uncontrollably through the sky.

“God, I wish this thing had an Auto-Pilot!” Tobin bellowed.

A woman’s voice then spoke through the vehicle’s speakers:

“Auto-Pilot on,” she said calmly. “Enjoy your ride.”

The Flying Mantis took control of itself, straightened out, and flew quietly and quickly toward Bridgton, Massachusetts. As he cruised smoothly through the air, Tobin sat back. He was breathless, stunned, and shaking.

“Are you kidding me?!” the boy shouted.

***

Twenty minutes later, Tobin was back in his small, seaside hometown of Bridgton, Massachusetts. As he parked his car and walked to the back door of his friend Jennifer Robins’ house, he realized that he hadn’t been to her house in almost two weeks. All through the last two years of middle school and the first three years of high school, Tobin had been to her house two, even three times a week, either to hang out with Jennifer and their friend Chad, or to have dinner with Jennifer and her family. Now, though, Tobin’s daily life was becoming very hectic, and he was finding it difficult to go back to his usual routine. After knocking on the back door of the house, he let himself in.

“Hey guys,” Tobin said, “sorry I’m late, I was—”

Tobin looked into the living room; Jennifer was there, sitting on a couch and watching television by herself, with her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.

“Where’s Chad?” Tobin asked.

Jennifer didn’t turn around. “He left about a half hour ago.”

“Oh.” Tobin held up a bag of popcorn. He had picked it up on the way over to Jennifer’s, after his Bolt Racer had finally morphed back into a 2002 aqua station wagon. “Well…do you still wanna watch the movie?”

She stood up. “We already watched it ‘cuz we didn’t think you were coming.” She handed the DVD in its red envelope to Tobin. “It sucked.”

“Oh.” Tobin watched Jennifer walk toward the door. “I’ll make sure to let Netflix know. This movie will feel the wrath of the one star.” The boy mimed clicking the button on a computer mouse. “Click. One star.” He clicked his imaginary mouse again. “Click.”

A silence. Jennifer put her coat on.

“Ya know?” Tobin said. “One star, like when you return a movie and rate it on the—”

“Yeah,” Jennifer said. “I know.”

Tobin’s shoulders drooped. “I’m sorry. Let’s do something else. We could go get ice cream. We’ll have Chad meet us there.”

“I can’t—I already made other plans. C’mon, walk with me.”

They walked outside and toward Jennifer’s car.

“Who’d you make plans with?” Tobin asked.

“Tommy Evans. We’re going to his friend Josh’s house. You can come with us, if you want.”

“Um, no thanks. Josh gave me a wedgie freshman year that I can still feel, especially right before it rains, for some reason.” They reached Jennifer’s car. “You’re hanging out with Tommy Evans? Since when?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. He asked me to dinner a couple weeks ago.”

“He did?”

“Yeah.”

“And you went?”

“Yeah.”

Tobin furrowed his brow and shook his head. “How did I not know about this?”

“I don’t know. We don’t really see you anymore, Tobin.”

He sighed. “I know, and I want to fix that, I do. I’m just having a hard time…balancing everything.”

“I know. I understand completely. Chad and I, we both do. We want you to keep doing what you’re doing, Tobin—it’s incredibly brave and important and absolutely amazing. We literally couldn’t be more proud of you, and I hope you know that. I just—hopefully you’ll have more time to hang out with us soon, too. I know that must sound incredibly selfish, but…”

Tobin nodded. “I know. But definitely Friday night, right? The prom will make up for it. You’re gonna get sick of me you’ll be seeing me so much. I’ll be dancing you off your feet all night long.”

Tobin began dancing a Mexican hat dance around Jennifer, snapping his fingers and shuffling his feet in a stutter-step. She stood there. Tobin continued the dance. Nobody said anything. It got awkward.

“You don’t seem to be too enthused about me dancing around you,” Tobin said, not giving up on his dance.

“Ugh,” Jennifer said. She closed her eyes and threw her head back. “This sucks.”

Tobin stopped dancing. “What?”

“I’m not going to the prom with you guys.”

Tobin was shocked. “You aren’t? Why?”

“Because…” She thought it over. “Because I’m gonna go with some other people. But I’ll still hang out with you guys when I get there and stuff—it’ll be just the same as if we went together, we just won’t be…arriving together.”

Tobin looked at her. “You’re kidding me, right? You’re gonna make me go by myself with Chad and his weirdo foreign exchange student date, who I’m pretty sure is a mail order bride? Who are you going with?”

“Tommy.”

Tobin threw his arms out and let them fall at his sides, shaking his head. “What is going on here?”

“I don’t know. I told you—Tommy and I have been hanging out a lot and he asked me to the prom last week…so I said yes. I was waiting to tell you.”

“But we always said that if we didn’t have dates to the senior prom, we would…”

A silence. Jennifer looked at Tobin, sad.

“Why do you wanna go with Tommy Evans?” Tobin asked. “I mean, sure, he’s ridiculously handsome. And athletic. And smart. And he smells how a man should smell. But other than that…”

Jennifer laughed and hugged Tobin.

“I’m sorry, Tobin. I miss you. We all do. Let’s hang out Thursday night, okay? Are you doing anything?”

“I’m supposed to go out on patrol, but I’m gonna tell Orion I have to skip it. It’s time I hung out with you guys again.”

“Okay, it’s a plan then. See you in school tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah.”

Jennifer got into her car and drove away. Tobin watched her go. Then he grabbed a handful of popcorn from his bag and shoved it into his mouth.

“This sucks,” he said, chomping away.

CHAPTER FOUR

The next day, Tobin and Chad were playing basketball in the Bridgton High School gymnasium during their Advanced Physical Fitness class (the school had just recently reopened after its extensive reconstruction after being nearly destroyed in Tobin’s battle against Vincent Harris seven months ago.) Advanced Physical Fitness was a right of passage for seniors at Bridgton High, as its loosely monitored syllabus consisted of running a few laps, lifting a few weights, and shooting a few hoops. But, mostly, everyone knew, it consisted of talking with your friends for forty-five minutes each day.

“Why do I feel like I’m missing everything?” Tobin asked, as Chad stood at the free throw line and sunk a basket.

“Because you are.”

“Hey!”

Chad laughed. “You have been incommunicado lately, dude. And by ‘lately,’ I mean the last five-to-six months.”

“I know. I’ve just been out every night, either with Keplar or by myself. It was quiet for a while, but now it’s getting kinda crazy again. Orion says crime gets worse as the weather gets warmer. I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry about it, bro. Seriously. What you have to do is so much more important than hanging out with us idiots.” Chad weighed the options with his hands. “Saving lives, fighting crime? That’s a little more important than sneaking into the beach at night and partying until the cops show up.”

“Yeah, I know, but…god, that sounds like fun.”

Chad laughed. “I told you a million times, dude, there’s one way we could hang out more often: new sidekick, right here.” He pointed at himself. “And, if I help you, you’ll get done so much quicker.”

“But you don’t have any superpowers.”

“So? Batman doesn’t have any superpowers.”

“No, but Batman is a badass. And he didn’t cry during my seventh birthday party sleepover when we watched ‘Toy Story 2.’”

“Dude, that was like ten years ago. Let it go, please.”

After a quick change out of their gym clothes, Tobin and Chad were walking down the crowded school hallway; Tobin was heading to his next class, while Chad was heading to lunch.

“So apparently Jennifer hangs out with Tommy Evans now?” Tobin asked.

“Welcome to this century,” Chad laughed. “Mr. Hastings practically announces it over the intercom every morning. Everyone’s talking about it.”

“How and why did this happen?”

“Um, let me see: she’s smoking hot and the nicest person ever, and he’s the most popular guy in school? It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“I know. I just didn’t think he was her type.”

“What’s her type?”

“I don’t know. Funny guys. He’s not funny. He may be a lot of things, but he is not funny.”

“I don’t know, dude. He’s in my Photography class. He’s pretty funny.”

“He’s not funny,” Tobin repeated. “If she likes him ‘cuz he’s funny, that’s friggin’ bull.”

“You should just be happy for her, dude. She really likes him, I can tell.”

“What, are they, like, going out or something?”

The bell rang. Chad headed down the hall toward the cafeteria.

“Gotta go to lunch,” he said. “See ya.”

Tobin yelled out after him. “Hey—are they going out? I thought they were only… hanging out or something. Are they really going out? Hey—are they?”

Chad turned around with a wave and a laugh. “Later, Tobin!”

Tobin stood in the hallway as the rest of the students rushed into their classrooms. Soon he was standing all by himself.

“Tommy Evans,” he said with disgust. “I’m funnier than Tommy Evans.”

***

At 8:07 that night, Tobin lay on his bed in his room and stared at the ceiling. He was hoping to get some homework done since he didn’t have to work at the grocery store that night, but, instead, he couldn’t stop thinking about everything he had learned from Chad that day.

Tobin reached over to his nightstand and grabbed his phone. He quickly typed out a text message to his friend Julie Meyers:

HEY JULIE. AM I FUNNIER THAN TOMMY EVANS?

Tobin waited for a response from Julie, but instead heard a voice from near his bedroom window.

“Who’s Tommy Evans?”

“Ah!” Tobin screamed. Startled, he looked across the room: his robotic friend Scatterbolt was sitting on the edge of his open bedroom window. The three-and-a-half-foot tall, purple-and-silver robot had recently begun a habit of climbing up to Tobin’s room when he needed to ask Tobin a question, even though Tobin and Orion had repeatedly told him it was dangerous, since it had a good chance of making the evening news if someone saw a robot walking around Bridgton, Massachusetts. But, Scatterbolt insisted, he always made sure to only visit Tobin when it was safe and nobody was around, so there wasn’t anything to worry about. Plus, it was worth the risk; Earth was so much more interesting than boring old Capricious, anyway.

“Oops, sorry, Tobin,” Scatterbolt laughed, hopping up onto a chair next to Tobin’s bed. “What are you doing?”

“Just talking to my friend. I’m supposed to be doing homework, but…I’m not.”

Scatterbolt looked at the screen of Tobin’s phone.

“Oh. You talk to your friends on this a lot, don’t you?”

“Only about twenty-two hours a day.”

“But you never use it for its intended purpose, right? You don’t use your voice, you only write with your fingers.”

Tobin thought it over. “Ya know what, I actually kind of forgot that I could make calls with this thing.”

Tobin’s phone BUZZED; he had a reply from Julie. Scatterbolt leaned over and read the message.

“This girl likes you, you know,” the robot said.

“No, she doesn’t,” Tobin replied.

“Yeah, she does. Look. She sent you one of these guys.”

Scatterbolt mimicked a winking emoticon; he closed one eye and smiled brightly.

Tobin laughed and looked to the screen. Julie had written:

OF COURSE YOU ARE ;)

Tobin was surprised. “Whoa, you’re right. That’s a total sign of flirting. Good call, SB.”

Tobin typed on the phone, then sent a reply. He and Scatterbolt waited for a response, staring at the screen.

“Is she gonna write back soon?” the robot asked. “This is really exciting.” The robot suddenly slapped himself in the forehead. “Oh man, I almost forgot! Orion wanted me to come here so we could head to the police station right away.”

“Why?”

“Officer Randy found something. I don’t know what it is, but Orion sounded pretty worried, so it must be a big deal.”

A BUZZ! came from Tobin’s phone.

“Do you think it can wait a couple minutes?” the boy asked.

“Yeah, definitely,” Scatterbolt replied, leaning in closer to get a better look at the phone. “What’d she say? Write back, write back.”

***

Forty miles away, Orion waited near the rooftop entrance of the Boston Police Department headquarters. The grey-haired superhero was wearing his usual long, red coat, his black boots, and his quiver of arrows on his back. As he adjusted his glasses, he looked down and checked his watch.

“Teenagers,” he said with a grumble.

Finally, the door opened, and Tobin and Scatterbolt walked into the police station from the rooftop outside. Tobin was dressed as Strike.

“About time you got here,” Orion said. “What took you so long?”

“I was, uh, helping him with his homework,” Scatterbolt replied.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Tobin agreed. “Homework.”

“Sure,” Orion said, rolling his eyes. “Uh-huh. Yeah.” The old man led the boy and the robot toward a stairway. “C’mon, Randy has something to show us.”

After opening the door to the police station morgue, Orion, Strike, and Scatterbolt walked into the dark, metallic-walled room. Keplar was waiting for them there, along with Officer Randy Norris of the Boston police department. Seven months ago, when Strike had first begun fighting crime in Boston and its surrounding cities, most of the police officers in the area had looked at the hero as a threat. Some, however, had seen that the mysterious, masked vigilante could be a great help to them, and, if they worked together, the city of Boston could be safer than it had ever been. Luckily, Officer Randy Norris was one of the cops who saw Strike as an ally: for months now, he had been helping Strike and his friends from Capricious, and in return they had helped him solve many cases of his own. For the forty-two-year-old veteran policeman, it was a little strange to be dealing with a masked teenager, a talking dog, a miniature robot, and a superhero that appeared to be older than his father, but Officer Norris was almost starting to get used to it. Almost.

“The chief would kill me if he knew I called you guys about this,” Officer Norris said, as he led the group through the morgue, “but hell, we don’t know what to do with it. I thought it’d be more of the type of thing you guys would be used to.”

Officer Norris opened one of the morgue draws; there was a dead body lying on it, covered with a sheet.

“We were getting reports of all kinds of weird stuff from people down at the fishing ports,” Officer Norris said. “People’s stuff getting stolen, fisherman saying something was eating whatever they caught, sightings of weird stuff under the docks. So last night we went down there and got into a fight with this guy.”

Officer Norris whipped the sheet off the gurney, revealing the dead body underneath. It was a man of average height, about thirty-five years old, with dark hair. His skin and lips were blue, and there were dark circles under his eyes.

“So the guy could use some sun,” Keplar said. “So what?”

“Look closer,” Officer Norris said, pointing to the man’s neck.

Orion leaned in and carefully moved the dead man’s head to one side.

“This man has gills,” Orion explained.

“What the hell…?” Strike wondered, looking closer. He could see them, too: there were four slits on either side of the man’s neck, a few inches under his ears.

“Why would he have gills?” Scatterbolt asked.

“That’s not all,” Officer Norris said. “Watch this.”

Officer Norris reached to a nearby table, grabbed a pitcher of water, and dumped it onto the dead man’s body. The man’s skin suddenly turned green, he grew slimy scales, his eyes bulged out and moved to the sides of his head, and his nose disappeared. His hair also fell off, shortly before being replaced by a dorsal fin that ran down his neck.

“Whoa,” Scatterbolt said, his eyes wide.

“I thought I smelt something when I came in here,” Keplar said. “I just thought it was Randy.”

“Ha ha, very funny,” Officer Norris replied. “So you guys know what it might be?”

“Umm…Tuna-Man?” Strike offered.

“The Amazing Goldfish?” Keplar tried.

“Oh, I got it,” Strike said, holding up a finger. “The Piranha.”

“There’s gotta be a Piranha already,” Keplar replied.

“Ya think?”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“I know what it is,” Orion said, ignoring Strike and Keplar. “It’s a mer-man from Capricious.”

“What’s a mer-man from Capricious doing here?” Keplar asked.

“I don’t know, but it can’t be anything good. The only thing that’s confusing me is that mer-men can’t change into humans like this thing did.”

Officer Norris walked to a computer and pulled up a report on the screen.

“Well, when it was human, we ran its prints. It’s a schlub named Mike Rossi, some two-bit hood from Southie. Used to sell drugs, cocaine, run a little gambling operation. He was in and out of here all the time.”

“And now he’s a mer-man?” Strike asked.

Officer Norris shrugged. “You tell me. He had this on him.”

The cop handed Orion a piece of paper. Orion read it aloud.

“Sullivan’s Wharf. May 18th. 10 P.M.”

“Sounds like a meeting spot to me,” Officer Norris suggested.

“Thanks, Randy,” Orion said, putting the paper into his pocket. “We’re going to look into this right away.”

“I also wanted to show you this.” Officer Norris handed Orion a stack of photographs. “People on the T have been calling us like crazy, saying there’s some kind of giant bird-thing down in the subway. One of our guys got these pictures but that’s all we got.”

Orion looked at the photos: they were grainy and blurry, but they seemed to show some kind of gigantic, six-foot tall crow in the shadows of a subway tunnel.

“These two things ain’t the only weird stuff, either,” Officer Norris continued. “Werewolves, lizard-people, vampires…all the sudden, out of nowhere, people are reporting all kinds of screwed up stuff.”

Orion looked over the photographs. “Thanks again, Randy. You did the right thing showing this to us. We’ll be in touch soon.”

***

An hour later, after an inter-planetary jump to Capricious through a swirling, mirrored portal of electric energy, Tobin, Orion, Keplar, and Scatterbolt stood in the Museum of the Heroes—specifically, in the museum’s science lab. Here in their hidden headquarters at the top of a mountain high above the trees, the heroes could look over the photos and data from Officer Norris and try to figure out what they were dealing with on Earth.

“So,” Tobin asked, “you ever hear of a giant crow-man before?”

“Not in a long time,” Orion replied. He was scanning the blurry picture of the subway crow-creature into a computer. “There used to be a team of crow-like men on Capricious who called themselves ‘The Plague’ about forty years ago, but they’re all either in jail or retired. One of them is in a nursing home in Quantum City.”

“So it’s not them, then,” Keplar said. “Unless we get a call about this thing stealing prunes and religiously watching ‘Wheel of Fortune.’”

“No, it’s not them,” Orion said. “It’s something a lot worse.”

Orion clicked on the blurry photograph, and the image became clear. The creature in the subway wasn’t a giant crow after all: it was actually a flying Gore. Tobin leaned in and looked at the picture closely, and goose bumps ran down his arms. He remembered the terrifying demons called Gores all too well from his battle to save Earth seven months ago: they were about five feet tall and dressed in hooded, black cloaks, with nothing visible in their dark hoods except for red, glowing eyes, and sharp, white teeth. The boy hadn’t seen one of the creatures since the battle, but here was one in the picture now, staring back at him. And, to make it even more frightening, this Gore had something none of the others had ever had: gigantic, ratty, black-feathered wings extending from its back.

“Crap,” Keplar said, looking at the photo.

“You gotta be kidding me,” Tobin groaned, rubbing his eyes.

“A Gore?” Scatterbolt asked. “How is that possible?”

“It’s not,” Orion replied. “Or at least it shouldn’t be. Gores can only be controlled by Vincent. And he’s gone.”

“For good, right?” Scatterbolt asked. “Please say ‘yes.’”

“It’s not Vincent,” Orion said with a chuckle. “But that means it has to be someone very close to Vincent, who now somehow has control over the Gores.”

“Someone who is now on Earth?” Tobin asked.

“Apparently,” Orion replied. “But it also could be a stray Gore that was simply left over from Vincent’s invasion. There were hundreds of these things, after all, so it wouldn’t be too surprising to find out that some of them survived. Either way, our first step to figuring this all out…”

Orion put the piece of paper that Officer Norris gave him on a table.

“We need to check out Sullivan’s Wharf on May 18th. Which just so happens to be this Friday. Who’s up for a stakeout?”

“I’ll be there,” Keplar said.

“Me too,” Scatterbolt replied.

Tobin held his arms up. “I’d love to be there, guys, I really would, but my prom is that night. I know it sounds stupid, but I really need to be there, if I ever plan on having friends again in the future.”

“That’s okay,” Orion said. “You absolutely should go to your prom. You need to have some semblance of a normal life, after all. Keplar and Scatterbolt can check out the wharf—I don’t want them being seen or getting involved in any kind of altercation, anyway. This is simply a fact-finding mission. They can do that without you, Tobin. You go to your prom and have a great time. I’m sure it’ll be a blast.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Two days later (May 18th, to be exact), Tobin stood in the downstairs bathroom of his house and looked in the mirror. He was wearing a tuxedo.

“I’m not going,” he said, in the direction of the closed door that led out of the bathroom.

In the hallway outside, Tobin’s mother and her boyfriend, Bill, waited eagerly for Tobin with cameras. Chad was also with them, dressed in a very sharp tux, and standing next to him was his prom date, Olga. She was Polish, six feet tall, blonde, supermodel-beautiful, and wearing a prom dress that could very easily cause major car accidents each time she stepped out in public. She also spoke about twenty-three words of English.

“You have to go, honey,” Tobin’s mother told him. “It’s your prom! It can’t be that bad.”

“I’m not going,” Tobin repeated from the bathroom. “I look like an idiot.”

Bill and Chad tried to stifle their snickering.

“No, you don’t, honey,” Catherine said. “Come out so we can see you! I’m sure you look incredibly handsome. Come on, come out!”

Tobin opened the bathroom door and stepped into the hall, with an absolutely miserable look across his face. Tobin’s mother, Bill, Chad, and Olga all looked him over, and everything appeared fine…until they reached his legs. The pants of Tobin’s tuxedo were about five inches too short, exposing his ankles, his socks, and a good portion of his calves.

Chad immediately burst into laughter. “Oh my god!” he bellowed. “That is awesome!”

Bill was trying not to laugh. “You can’t even tell, Tobin,” he said, biting the corners of his mouth. “Honest.”

“Is it supposed to look so stupid?” Olga asked Chad.

Tobin pushed past the group and walked down the hall. “I’m not going. I’m not.”

Tobin’s mother stopped him and hugged him.

“Tobin, stop it! You look so handsome! I’ve never seen you look so handsome!”

“I look like an idiot!” Tobin said. “They gave me the wrong pants, I’m not going in the wrong pants!”

The group followed Tobin into the kitchen.

“Hey,” Chad said, “look at it this way: if the place floods, you’ll be all set.”

Bill laughed. “Or, if there’s some after-prom clam-digging, you’re good to go there, too.”

Tobin’s mother slapped Bill and Chad on their arms. “Guys, stop! He looks great. You look so handsome, honey. You’re gonna have such an amazing time.”

“No, I’m not,” Tobin said. “‘Cuz I’m not going.”

Tobin’s mother turned her camera on and pushed Tobin near Chad and Olga.

“Yes, you are going, and you are gonna create a memory that you will have forever. You would regret it the rest of your life if you didn’t go to your senior prom, Tobin—you’ve been looking forward to this for years! C’mon, now, all of you stand together and say, PROM!”

Tobin stood next to Olga and Chad. He had a vicious sneer on.

“Prom!” Chad said with a smile.

“Prom!” Olga said cheerfully, in her thick accent.

“I’m not going,” Tobin said, looking like a five-year-old who was just told to clean his room.

But, Tobin’s mother ignored him; with a click of her camera, she saved the moment forever: Chad, looking strapping in his tux; Olga, the giant, beautiful, Polish prom date; and Tobin, in his ridiculous pants, looking like he was ready to play in an old-timey baseball game.

***

Three hours later, at the Grand Wellemore Hotel in the center of Boston, the prom for the senior class of Bridgton High was in full swing. The 168 students were celebrating the end of their high school days and reveling in one last, grand party, happily dancing in the flashing lights to the bumping music from the town’s best DJ.

Tobin, however, was standing by himself, leaning against the banquet hall bar, and sipping from a drink. He was miserable.

A group of classmates walked by, led by one of the most popular students in Tobin’s class, Joey Stern. Joey and the others giggled and pointed at Tobin’s pants.

“Yeah, laugh it up, Joey,” Tobin called out. “That’s great. Remember when you crapped your pants in first grade in Music class? ‘Cuz I do!”

Chad approached the bar.

“C’mon, Tobin. Get out there. You can’t stand here all night by yourself.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.”

“So your pants are too small. Big deal. Don’t let it ruin your whole night. Jen keeps asking where you are.”

“Sure she does.”

Tobin looked to the dance floor; a circle of students had opened up, and Jennifer’s prom date—the dark-haired, handsome, incredibly charming Tommy Evans—was standing in the middle. After he performed an amazing break dance routine that could have won him first prize on any dancing reality show, the entire student body erupted into applause. Tommy—proud, but also a little embarrassed—walked out of the circle and toward Jennifer. She jumped on him and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him and laughing, very impressed with his skills.

Tobin and Chad watched Tommy from afar.

“God,” Chad said, in all sincerity, “that guy’s cool.”

Tobin turned to the bartender and pointed to his glass of Coke.

“You sure there’s no way you can put some rum in this?”

***

On the other side of the city, Keplar and Scatterbolt sat on the roof of the warehouse at Sullivan’s Wharf, bored. Keplar was looking over the horizon, mindlessly tossing some pebbles against a wall, while Scatterbolt had just finished telling Keplar the list of his favorite movies from Earth.

“Hey,” the robot said, “remember this?” His face suddenly went blank; his eyes turned black, and each of his pupils turned into tiny red dots. “Hello, Keplar,” he said, in a soft, monotone voice that sounded very much like the creepy, murderous robot HAL from the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Don’t you want to talk to me, Keplar?”

“No,” Keplar said, turning away. “I don’t. Knock it off.”

“Why, Keplar?” Scatterbolt said, using his bizarre HAL voice. “I just want to have a conversation with you.”

“Dude, stop,” Keplar replied, moving away from him. “You know that freaks me out.”

“I don’t know why.” Scatterbolt was still using his scary voice. “Do you like music?”

Keplar stood up. “Dude, I swear, if you start singing in that voice, I’m gonna throw you off this damn roof in two seconds.”

Scatterbolt’s face and eyes reverted back to normal. “Okay, okay,” he said in his usual voice. “I’m just so bored.”

Keplar walked to a skylight on the roof of the warehouse. “That’s what stakeouts are 90% of the time, SB,” the husky explained. “They’re boring. Nothing ever happens and we just sit here and—”

Keplar stopped. He saw something inside the warehouse. His eyes went wide.

“What is it?” Scatterbolt asked.

The robot walked to the skylight and looked down. Two people were now inside the warehouse: one of them was a man in a grey mask and a green-and-white costume, while the other man was nearly eight feet tall, wide as a rhino, and wearing a green cloak that covered his face and massive body.

Scatterbolt was shocked. “Is that…?”

Inside the warehouse, the man removed the hood from his face, revealing his red, rough skin, and his yellow eyes. It was Rigel.

“Yup, it is,” Keplar replied, watching the red-skinned giant. “And apparently he’s not dead.”

CHAPTER SIX

Back at the Grand Wellemore Hotel, Tobin had finally gotten over the embarrassment of his too-short pants and was now dancing with a group of his friends.

“See?” Chad said, as the song came to an end. “I knew if you just got out here and danced with us, you’d have some fun.”

“Yeah, well, the guy played ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, so I was legally required to make a fool out of myself.”

The next song began; it was a slow song from the 1960’s. The DJ spoke into the microphone.

“We’re gonna slow it down a bit right here to give ya’ll crazy kids a break, so why don’t you look around and find that special someone you wanna get a little bit closer with? This next one’s an oldie but a goodie that some of your teachers out there might remember.”

The teens began pairing up and slow dancing to the classic song. Tobin looked around the dance floor, searching for somebody.

He found her. Jennifer. His best friend since way back in seventh grade. She was standing all by herself. She smiled and waved at him.

Tobin smiled back and walked toward her, cocking one eyebrow and swaying with each step, acting like a hip, happening guy from the 1960’s. It was incredibly cheesy and looked completely ridiculous, but that was the point. Jennifer laughed. She always loved it when he acted silly like that.

“So,” Tobin said when he reached her. He motioned to his pants. “You like a guy in capris or what?”

Jennifer laughed. “Yes, I’ve been watching you for a while. I’ve never seen someone in tuxedo shorts dance like that to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’”

“Very few people have. So, what do ya say?” Tobin held out his hand. “A repeat of our first slow dance from the eighth grade winter semi-formal?”

“Oh,” Jennifer said, surprised. She was suddenly uncomfortable. “I, uh…I don’t know if we…”

Tommy Evans approached them.

“Hey, guys!” he said cheerfully. “Great song, huh? Shall we, Jen?”

Tommy took Jennifer by her waist and they began dancing. She put her arms on his shoulders. Tobin stood near them, unsure what to do.

“I’m sorry, Tobin,” Jennifer said, when she turned and faced him. “Next song, okay? I promise.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tobin said. “Sure. No problem.”

Tobin walked away.

“Hey!” Tommy called. “Tobin!”

Tobin turned around.

“Great pants!” Tommy said, laughing. “Seriously! You’re hilarious, man! I was just telling everyone how funny you are!”

Tobin did his best to nod and smile back, even though he was seething with anger.

“Thanks,” he said through gritted teeth. “Thanks, Tommy. You’re the best.”

***

On the roof of the warehouse at Sullivan’s Wharf, Keplar and Scatterbolt’s stakeout had just gotten a lot more serious. After the robot placed his hand on the glass skylight and pressed a series of buttons on a panel inside his arm, he and Keplar were able to hear everything that was happening inside the building through a speaker on the robot’s chest.

“What is going on in there?” Scatterbolt whispered.

Inside the warehouse, Rigel and Nova had been joined by dozens of other people—and not just any people: it was a gathering of the worst criminals in all of Boston: drug kingpins; the mafia; carjackers; muggers; even some men who looked like clean-cut Wall Street types. The various criminals were sitting in rows of chairs facing a makeshift stage, where Rigel and Nova were now standing. It seemed as if the two costumed super-villains were getting ready to address the group of criminals, but the presentation had not yet begun.

“Any idea what this is about?” one drug dealer asked another.

“You got me, man. Something big, that’s all I know.”

“I heard it had something to do with magic or super powers or something,” another thug added.

“Yeah, right.”

“Hey, that’s what I heard.”

“Can I have everyone’s attention,” Nova said from the stage, in a commanding voice.

The crowd of criminals turned to the grey-masked man in the white cape. Rigel was standing behind him.

“Thank you everyone for coming,” Nova said. “I know there’s a lot of rumors out there, and questions about why we’ve gathered you here, so let’s get right to it. We are here because we want you to join us.”

Snickering spread through the crowd, especially in the section where members of Boston’s most dangerous organized crime family were seated.

“Oh yeah?” one of them yelled out. “And who the hell are you?”

“My name is Nova. This is my associate Rigel. He organized this meeting, and is also the leader of our operation. We are not from your world.”

Several members of the audience laughed loudly.

“Yeah, sure,” the crime family member said. “And my name’s Gazoo, and this here is my friend E.T.”

The group of criminals laughed again, not taking any of the events seriously. Rigel grunted, growing impatient.

“I don’t believe any of you would be laughing if Strike was here, would you?” Nova asked.

“No,” a tattooed thug called out. “I’d be showing him how we do things here in the streets of Boston.”

Several members of the crowd cheered in agreement.

“That’s funny,” Nova said, “because he ‘showed you how things were done in the streets of Boston’ last month, didn’t he? Hung you upside down from a flagpole outside Fenway Park and threw about $300 worth of your cocaine into the Charles River? Is that about right?”

The criminals now laughed at the tattooed thug.

“Hey man,” the thug said to Nova. “You better watch yourself. You’re bringing up some stuff you don’t want to be bringing up.”

Nova waved his hands toward himself, motioning for the thug to come to the stage. “Why don’t you step up here for a moment. Come help us with our presentation. Bring a friend.”

The tattooed thug and his equally tattooed buddy stood up and hesitantly walked toward the stage.

“I’m going to be frank with you people,” Nova said. “You make me ill. I would like nothing more than to burn you all to cinders as you sit here in front of me. You—as a group—make me nearly as sick as Strike makes me. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Strike. He is a problem for us, and he is a problem for you. Which is the whole reason we are here.”

The crowd murmured—some in agreement, some with concern.

“Hey, if this is about taking out Strike,” a nicely dressed man said, “forget about it. I want nothing to do with that freak show. I’ve seen enough of my men end up in the hospital because of him already. No one’s gonna be able to stop that guy.”

“But you see,” Nova said, “that’s where you’re wrong.”

With inhuman speed, Nova reached out and grabbed the tattooed thug by his neck. The thug struggled for his life, with his eyes bulging and his fingers clawing at Nova’s arm.

“Hey man,” the other thug on stage said. “What the—”

Rigel grabbed the second thug and restrained him.

“Together we can stop Strike,” Nova said, tightening his grip on the tattooed thug’s neck. “We need to put aside our hatred of you, and you need to get over your suspicions of superpowers like us. We may come from the same world as Strike, and we may have powers like him, but that is where the similarities end.”

“So,” one of the crime family members said, “you’re looking to make some kind of deal?”

“Call it…an alliance.”

“And what do you get out of it?”

“Strike is in the way of what we want,” Nova said. “With him gone, we will be able to proceed. You will also get Strike out of your way, obviously, along with a little something else to help your various pursuits in the city of Boston.”

“Oh yeah?” the crime family member said. “What’s that?”

Behind Nova, Rigel grabbed a syringe from a table on stage. It was filled with a glowing, bubbling, red liquid. With a grunt, the red-skinned giant jammed the needle into the neck of the thug he was restraining.

“Hey, what’s that?” the thug yelled. “What are you—”

Rigel let go of the thug and threw him to the ground. The thug screamed out and curled over, grabbing his stomach. As he bellowed in agony and contorted his face, his body began to change. His muscles grew. His face was covered by brown fur. A single, long, white claw emerged from each of his forearms, looking like the blade of the Grim Reaper’s scimitar. As he stood, clawed hooves ripped through his boots, and his face transformed to that of a Minotaur of Greek myth.

The thug was now an enormous, destructive monster. After roaring and throwing out his clawed arms in anger, he reached for a run-down tow truck that was next to him on stage, lifted it over his head, and tossed it across the room.

The crowd—each one of them now standing—looked on in shock.

“You see,” Nova said, “you can get rid of Strike. You just need to even the playing field a bit.”

“This always works?” a nervous drug dealer asked. “It won’t kill us?”

“No. We’ve tried it on several low-level thugs already throughout the city with great success—you may have seen them on the news. Now we want to offer it to you, the most powerful criminals in Boston.”

“What if we refuse?” the drug dealer asked. “What if we don’t want this?”

Nova finally let go of the tattooed thug that he had been strangling. The thug dropped to the stage, grabbing at his throat and gasping.

Raising his arm, Nova held out his open hand toward the thug. The masked man’s palm began to glow with a golden light. The tattooed thug stared at the light, but before he could move, a blast of blinding, gold energy with the heat of the sun blasted out of Nova’s hand, searing through the tattooed thug. The crowd was momentarily blinded, but soon saw that the tattooed thug was now simply a pile of ash on the stage.

“Oh, I think you misunderstood,” Nova said, turning to the crowd, his hand still glowing. “You don’t have the option of refusing.”

The crowd was speechless.

“Any other questions?” Nova asked.

***

At the prom, Tobin stood at the hotel bar and watched the dance floor as the slow song came to an end. The boy was trying not to be nosey, but his eyes kept drifting toward Jennifer and Tommy. When the song ended and all of the couples parted, Jennifer and Tommy shared a kiss.

Tobin was surprised. He watched as Jennifer and Tommy walked back to their table. Sighing, Tobin turned to the bartender.

“Hey, Steve, I’ll have another—”

Tobin’s eyes went wide. His adrenaline kicked in. Steve—the friendly bartender with whom Tobin had been talking all night—was suddenly stuck against the wall, with his body wrapped in grey spider-webs from his neck down to his feet, his arms pressed against his sides. His mouth was also gagged by the sticky, grey webbing, and his face was filled with horror, his eyes fixed on Tobin.

“Oh my god,” Tobin said.

Suddenly the banquet hall went dark—the electricity was turned off. The students screamed as they were plunged into pitch-blackness.

Tobin could not see anything in front of him as he looked around the banquet hall, and the shrieks from his classmates and chaperones only grew louder as someone—or something—began running through the dance floor, growling and snapping and knocking people out of its way.

The banquet hall dissolved into chaos, with the students fleeing from the dance floor and running toward the exit. Tobin, however, headed the opposite way, walking against the crowd and toward the DJ booth. But between the darkness and panicked mob of students, he could not make much headway.

Over the sounds of screams and trampling feet, the DJ’s voice was heard over the microphone.

“Hey, what the—aaaaahhhhaaah! Stop! Help! Help! Someone—”

A growling now came through the microphone, along with the agony-filled howls of the DJ. As Tobin finally made his way through the crowd, the lights came back on, and the boy found himself standing in front of the DJ booth. He looked up.

The DJ was hanging from the ceiling, dangling from a long spider-web, with his body also wrapped thousands of times over by the disgusting webs. He was still alive, thankfully, but a demonic Gore with eight arms was clinging to his body, with its fangs only inches from the DJ’s neck. Tobin was even more shocked to see a massive spider-web on the wall behind the Gore, with words written in the middle of it. The words read:

THE DAYBREAKER IS COMING.

Gunshots and screams suddenly rang out, as several hotel security guards and police officers ran into the banquet hall and fired their guns at the Spider-Gore. The five-foot tall arachnid hissed at them before crawling onto the ceiling and skittering out a doorway, escaping into the halls of the hotel.

“What the hell was that?” a policemen said.

“Who’s gonna go find that thing?” a security guard asked.

Tobin stared at the gigantic spider-web on the wall in front of him, then dashed out of the banquet hall.

CHAPTER SEVEN

On the roof of the warehouse at Sullivan’s Wharf, Scatterbolt and Keplar were looking through the skylight and into the building.

“I can’t believe this,” Scatterbolt whispered. “How is this happening?”

“I don’t know,” Keplar replied. “But we just gotta keep quiet for now and watch. See if we can find out what the hell they are planning.”

Inside the warehouse, the secret meeting was over, and the dozens of criminals were now waiting in a line that led to the stage. At the end of the line, Rigel was injecting each of them in their right shoulder with a syringe of red liquid. Within seconds of Rigel pushing the plunger, the criminals were granted their superpowers: some of them sprouted demon-like wings, some began to create ice from thin air, some began to levitate, and some were granted super-speed. Many of the criminals were transformed into completely inhuman beasts—one man turned into a seven-foot tall, black-scaled dragon with barbs running down his back, while a group of six others became impish goblins, with long fangs and two extra arms.

On the roof of the warehouse, Scatterbolt walked away from the window and to the edge of the building.

“We gotta go tell Orion.”

Keplar was lying on the skylight and peering inside. “And just leave these things here?”

“Yeah! What are we gonna do, take them all on by ourselves?”

With his back against the glass, Keplar turned to Scatterbolt. “I guess you’re right. Krandor. This is really, really bad.”

“I know. I’m just glad none of them saw us.”

Keplar nodded and exhaled. Then there was a CRACK!

“What was that?” Scatterbolt asked.

“I don’t know.”

Another CRACK!

“I hope it wasn’t…”

Keplar turned over and looked at the skylight underneath him. A crack was running across it.

“Uh-oh,” the dog said.

SMASH! The skylight shattered and Keplar fell into the Sullivan’s Wharf warehouse. Shocked, Scatterbolt stared at the broken window.

“There’s no way that just happened,” the robot said.

After landing on the floor of the warehouse with a THUD!, Keplar lay on his side a moment, surrounded by broken glass. After he pushed off the ground and got to his feet, he looked around.

The dozens of super-powered criminals and newly-created demons and monsters were gathered around him. They were shocked, confused, and angry.

“Hey, fellas,” Keplar said, wiping the dust and shards of glass from his pants. “I’m here to get my superpowers. I saw the sign-up sheet out front and—hey, look at that! Looks like I’m a little late!” The dog turned and saw a man with the face of a hyena standing next to him. The hyena-man was drooling, and his eyes were crooked. “Yeesh,” Keplar said. “Whatever that guy had, I ain’t having.”

Rigel pushed through the crowd of super-powered criminals and stepped into the center of the circle. When the red-skinned giant saw whom it was that had crashed the meeting, he grunted and snarled.

“Hey, Rigel,” Keplar said. “What’s up, pal. Thought you were dead. Long time, no time.”

Rigel walked toward the husky and punched him across the face, sending the dog crashing into a pile of boxes.

“Now is that any way to greet an old friend?” Keplar asked, as he clumsily climbed out of the cardboard.

Several of the demonic and super-powered criminals stepped toward Keplar— ready to rip the dog limb-from-limb—until suddenly a giant net dropped down on them from the ceiling, ensnaring them and pinning them to the floor.

“Look out!” Scatterbolt said, as he jumped down through the broken skylight and into the warehouse. When he hit the ground, he held out his open palms and three more nets sprang out of his hands and trapped six more of the criminals. “You are all under arrest! Please wait here until the police arrive! Thank you!” The robot looked at the remaining criminals. “That’s not gonna work, is it?”

“Kill them!” Nova shouted. “Both of them!”

The criminals pounced on Scatterbolt and Keplar, shouting and growling, the newly super-powered beings whipped into a rage. The dog and the robot did their best in the sudden brawl, with Keplar using his laser blasters and Scatterbolt using his blasts of sticky oil from his hands.

“Hey, Keplar?” Scatterbolt said. “Probably shouldn’t have leaned on that glass.”

“I think it might be finally time to go on that diet I’ve been putting off,” the husky replied.

The grey-masked, white-caped Nova ran at Scatterbolt, readying a blast of gold energy from his hand, but Scatterbolt sprouted a helicopter from the top of his head and flew up towards the ceiling, avoiding the beam of devastating heat from Nova.

“I really wish I was at the prom like Tobin right about now,” Scatterbolt said, hovering above the melee.

***

On the top floor of the Grand Wellemore Hotel, Strike carefully walked through the dark hallway, holding his electrified bo-staff. He was still wearing his tuxedo, but luckily he had been able to tie on his mask after leaving the banquet hall and chasing the Spider-Gore. After a few skirmishes with the arachnid (which had left several cuts and bruises on the hero’s face and arms,) he had chased the demon here to the top floor, but had now lost track of his enemy.

His enemy, however, had not lost track of him, and suddenly the Gore pounced on Strike from behind, tackling him to the floor. After suffering a few more stinging slashes from the giant spider’s clawed legs, and narrowly escaping having his neck chomped on by its fangs, Strike was able to roll out from underneath the Gore and blast it with a lightning bolt from his staff. Screeching and smoking from the electricity, the Gore ran out a door and onto the roof of the hotel.

Pushing the door open after the Gore, Strike sprinted across the rooftop, ready for another round with his opponent. But, the hero realized, his part in the battle was done—somebody else was already standing at the edge of the rooftop, engaged in a fight with the Spider-Gore.

It was a beautiful young woman. She appeared to be in her early twenties, and was dressed in a tight-fitting purple costume with a black cape. She had long black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and the body of an Olympic volleyball player. Surprised and confused, Strike watched the battle: the Spider-Gore swung three of its arms at the girl, but she ducked, swung her legs in a circle around her, and knocked the Spider-Gore on its back. The Spider-Gore jumped up, ready to counter-attack with its eight legs, but found that the girl was gone. Unbeknownst to the arachnid, the girl in purple was now standing behind the demon; after quickly pulling two circular discs from her belt and holding them in her hands, she swung them across her body, one in each direction, and the discs flashed with a bright, purple energy. Instantly, the Spider-Gore was cut into three pieces—a head, torso, and legs. The three pieces dropped to the rooftop, twitching, but no longer a threat.

Tobin had never been in love, but he was pretty sure this is what it felt like.

“Hi,” the girl said, turning to Tobin. She moved her black hair away from her face. “You must be Strike.”

“Uh…” was all Tobin could muster.

The girl looked at Tobin’s feet. “Nice pants,” she said.

Tobin looked at his exposed ankles. “They gave me the wrong ones.”

The girl chuckled. “Right. You’re friends with the blue dog and the robot boy?”

The girl leaned down to tighten her boots. Tobin watched her.

“Well?” she asked, looking up at Tobin while she tied her laces.

“Huh?” Tobin replied, his eyes glazed over. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. The robot and the dog. I know them.”

“Then you better get to Sullivan’s Wharf if you wanna save their lives.”

“What? Why?”

“Just go there.” The girl turned to the edge of the rooftop. “Oh, and do me a favor,” she said, arching her head back. “Don’t tell anyone I told you any of that. Okay?”

The girl jumped off the building and disappeared.

“I’ll do anything you say,” Tobin replied, staring where the girl once stood, with a punch-drunk look across his face.

***

With the old, rotting Sullivan’s Wharf warehouse barely standing from the battle within, Keplar and Scatterbolt finally escaped the wooden building and ran out its front door. Free from the super-powered criminals, they stopped to catch their breath in the parking lot, beaten up and exhausted.

“You think they saw which way we went?” Scatterbolt asked, his internal gears wheezing.

“No,” Keplar huffed, leaning over with his hands on his knees. “Probably not.”

SMASH! The wooden doors of the warehouse were blasted open, and the army of super-powered criminals and enraged monsters poured out of the building and stampeded toward Keplar and Scatterbolt.

With the little bit of energy they had left, the dog and the robot ran from the twisted mob and toward the street. Just when it appeared they had nowhere else to go, an ultra-sleek, midnight blue racecar convertible pulled up in front of them and screeched its tires. It was Tobin, driving the Bolt Racer and dressed in his full Strike gear.

“Get in!” Strike said.

Scatterbolt and Keplar jumped into the car, Strike slammed his boot to the gas, and the trio of heroes screamed off down the street.

The super-powered criminals and monsters didn’t give up, however—the creatures that could fly flapped their wings and took to the air, the villains that had super-speed dashed down the street after the Bolt Racer, and the rest of the criminals jumped into vehicles of their own, following the trail of super-powered beings and rocketing through the city of Boston.

As Strike steered the Bolt Racer wildly in between the other vehicles on the road and tried to make his way out of the city as fast as possible, Keplar turned back to the insane army of creatures chasing them.

“Hey,” the dog shouted, “can’t this friggin’ thing fly?”

Strike reached forward and pressed the “Morph” button. “Change to Flying Mant—”

But then a blast from one of the criminals’ laser guns zipped past Keplar and nailed the dashboard, frying the Bolt Racer’s control panel. Strike turned to Keplar and shrugged.

“So much for that,” Keplar said. “Bolt, see if you can fix it. Tobes, stay on the wheel and floor it.”

“What are you gonna do?” Strike asked.

Keplar stood and took his plasma cannon from his back.

“What I do best,” he said.

As Strike drove the Bolt Racer out of Boston’s twisted streets and toward the highway, Keplar turned to the rear of the car, braced his foot on the backseat, and began blasting away: BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The dog had to maintain extreme focus—not only did he have to fire at the half-dozen cars following them filled with criminals, but he also had to turn his weapon to the sky, to take down the bat-winged demons that were swooping down at him and his friends in the Bolt Racer.

At the wheel of the car, Strike was soon able to relax a little; they were out of the crowded city, and he no longer had to worry about all of the civilians caught in the crossfire. Just when he was thankful to be out on the open road, however, he realized that he was driving straight towards a bridge…and the bridge was opening.

“Oh, crap!” Strike yelled. “Hold on!”

The Bolt Racer hit the open bridge as if it was a ramp, and the car flew off the street and up into the night sky. Many of the criminals’ cars also hit the ramp and went airborne, making them easy targets for Keplar—as if they were ducks floating in the air, he blasted them with green plasma bursts from his gun, one-by-one: BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

Crashing back to the street on the other side of the bridge with a screeching of rubber, Strike desperately tried to regain control of the Bolt Racer, which was fishtailing wildly and kicking up dirt and stones and narrowly missing the other cars coming toward them.

“Kid, keep us on the damn road!” Keplar yelled. The dog looked to the rear of the car; thanks to the open bridge, most of the criminals were stuck on the other side of the river, and there was now only one convertible full of villains chasing them. However, the heroes weren’t out of danger yet; Keplar could see swarms of flying demons in the air above them, and a few of the tougher super-powered criminals with the power of flight were still following them. “SB, how’s it going down there?”

Scatterbolt was underneath the dashboard on the passenger side of the Bolt Racer, working on its exposed wires with his hands, which were turned into welding tools.

“A couple more minutes!” the robot yelled.

“Okay,” Keplar shouted, over the sounds of screeching tires and honking horns. “Just let us know when—Aarrrggh!”

Keplar grunted as his arm was hit with a laser blast from one of the flying super-criminals. He fell into the front of the car, holding his wound.

“You okay?” Strike asked, his eyes pinned to the road.

“Yeah, but—aarrrghhh!” Keplar tried to move his arm, but couldn’t. “This arm is blurkopped…damn it! Kid, you can’t drive for crap. Get up there and shoot.”

Keplar took the Bolt Racer’s wheel from Strike and pushed him out of the way. Strike jumped into the back of the vehicle and picked up Keplar’s plasma cannon.

“How the heck do you work this thing?” Strike asked, inspecting the gun.

A bullet whizzed by Strike’s ear and he had to drop to the backseat.

“Just pull the thing on the bottom!” Keplar yelled.

“Where?”

“The thing, the thing!”

“What thing?!”

A flying, one-eyed, grey-skinned demon dropped from the sky and landed on the back of the Bolt Racer, screeching at Strike.

“Ah, the hell with it,” Strike said. He swung the Plasma Cannon and bashed the demon in the head with the butt of the weapon, as if the gun was a giant hammer.

“Uh, not exactly how that thing works, kid,” Keplar told him.

After whaling on the demon’s head with the Plasma Cannon and finally getting the demon to let go, Strike tried one more time to figure out the gun, but gave up and tossed it away.

“Forget it,” Strike said.

Keplar looked in the rear view mirror; the last convertible of criminals was catching up with them. “How are you gonna hit them from here?” the dog asked.

Strike stood on the backseat of the Bolt Racer, leapt into the air, soared across the street, and landed inside the criminals’ convertible, where he immediately started taking out the villains with his glowing bo-staff.

“Huh,” Keplar said, turning back to the road. “That works, too. Sometimes the kid impresses me.”

“Okay, got it!” Scatterbolt shouted, closing the control panel on the dashboard of the Bolt Racer. Reaching out, he pressed the “Morph” button. “Change to Flying Mantis!”

The Bolt Racer sprouted midnight blue wings from its sides, and the vehicle soared into the air. Finally, Keplar and Scatterbolt were free from the road…but, just when the vehicle reached cruising altitude, its wings disappeared, a roof covered its top, and the vehicle morphed again. Now the Bolt Racer was plummeting back to Earth.

“Um, what the hell just happened?” Keplar asked.

“I’m not sure,” Scatterbolt replied, looking at a screen on the dashboard that showed the new shape of the vehicle. “But I’m pretty sure we’re a submarine now.”

“Oh, that’s just fantastic.”

Sure enough, the Bolt Racer had morphed into a submarine, and with Keplar and Scatterbolt trapped inside, the metallic, blue submersible smashed into the pavement like a missile. Spinning out of control and sending sparks flying along the street, the vehicle eventually collided with a tree in a city park and came to a sudden, destructive stop.

Strike—now behind the wheel of the criminals’ convertible—was heading straight toward the crashed submarine, so he had to violently cut the wheel. Unable to regain control of the car, he drove off of a nearby dock and splashed into a river. The impact with the water caused him to hit his head on the dashboard, and he was knocked out cold. He was also entangled in the car’s seatbelt during the crash, and was unable to escape as the convertible sunk into the river and slowly filled with water.

Regaining his bearings inside the crashed Bolt Racer, Keplar blinked his eyes and looked around; the vehicle had morphed back into a sports car. As the dog tried to stop his head from spinning, he looked in the rear-view mirror.

Nova and Rigel had arrived on the scene, and they were approaching the Bolt Racer. Keplar closed his eyes and dropped his head against the steering wheel.

“Are they dead?” Nova asked, as he walked to the passenger side of the car.

Rigel leaned down and inspected Keplar.

“I doubt it,” Rigel said. “They are incredibly—”

Keplar sat up and opened his eyes.

“Morning!” he said, before grabbing Rigel by the back of his head and smashing his face against the car. The red giant was knocked backward, stumbling and holding his nose.

On the other side of the car, Nova looked up to see Rigel stumbling, then quickly looked down to the passenger window.

“Whoever you are,” Scatterbolt said, as he popped up from underneath the dashboard and held out his palm, “I really don’t like you.” Before Nova could duck, a basketball-sized glob of tar shot out from Scatterbolt’s palm. The gooey, black gunk stuck to Nova’s mask and blinded him, like a wad of chewed up, sticky bubble gum.

“I really am so glad to see you’re still alive, Rigel,” Keplar said, as he stepped out of the Bolt Racer. After rearing his foot back, he swung it forward and kicked Rigel in the gut, causing the red giant to double over. “After all, we didn’t get a chance to talk last time.” The dog then punched Rigel across the face, nailing him with a right hook. The giant fell to the ground, and Keplar stood over him.

“And, ya know what,” the dog said, removing a laser blaster from his waist, “I’ve got a few things I need to get off my chest.”

The dog powered up the blaster and pointed it at Rigel. The red giant was lying in the dirt, afraid, with the blaster inches from his face. The barrel of the weapon was glowing bright green.

“No,” Rigel said, holding his hands out. “No, Keplar. It’s me. It’s still me. It’s Marcus.”

Rigel’s red-skinned body changed—it shrunk down and changed color, and the giant’s face became human. He was no longer Rigel—he was now a young, frightened black man, about thirty years old, with his human-sized body practically lost in the green cloak.

The anger and concentration in Keplar’s face faded. His eyes narrowed, and his laser blaster dropped, away from the frightened man on the ground.

“I’m sorry, Keplar,” Marcus said. “I’m so…I’m screwed up. Please. Help me. Ask Orion to help me. Please.”

Keplar thought a moment, with his eyes focused and his jaw clenched. Finally, he depowered his gun, and the green glow around the laser blaster faded.

Marcus grinned. In an instant, his body reverted back to the red giant, and he kicked upward at Keplar with both feet. The husky was sent flying by the blow, and he crashed into a wall across the street before dropping to the dirt, unconscious.

“Keplar!” Scatterbolt shouted. The robot ran to his friend, but was quickly grabbed by Rigel and lifted into the air. The robot tried to fight back, firing globs of oil at the giant, but had no success. Rigel simply laughed.

Finally removing the black tar from his facemask, Nova looked to the sky; a helicopter was in the air hovering over them, shining its spotlight downward and illuminating the area.

“Too many eyes on us,” Nova said, as police sirens blared from a few streets away. “We need to get out of here.”

“Yes,” Rigel said, looking at the punching-and-kicking robot he was holding by the neck. “And we’ll bring him with us.”

“No!” Scatterbolt shouted. As Nova and Rigel began walking away, Scatterbolt opened a compartment on his chest and reached into his robotic insides. Soon, he pulled out an object: it was a golden sphere, covered in shining computer circuitry. After rearing his arm back, the robot heaved the sphere toward Keplar, and it rolled across the pavement and toward the dock where Strike had driven into the water. Seconds after the sphere left the robot’s hand, his body shut down; his eyes turned off, and his arms and legs went limp.

“Let’s go,” Rigel said, with the motionless robot dangling from his hand. With his other hand, the red giant reached into his cloak pocket and retrieved a black, chrome portal pistol. Pointing the shining pistol in front of him, he pulled its trigger and created a black, swirling portal of energy.

“Where’s Strike?” Nova said, as they walked toward the portal.

“No time to deal with the others; they will have to wait until later.”

The two villains stepped into the portal, and it closed after them. They—and Scatterbolt—were gone.

Near the dock, Scatterbolt’s golden sphere was still lying on a patch of grass—until Adrianna picked it up. The beautiful, purple-garbed girl looked over the sphere, before noticing tire tracks on the dock leading into the water. Bubbles were rising to the surface from the darkness of the river below.

Putting the sphere into one of her pockets, Adrianna sprinted across the dock, leapt off of it, and dove into the water. Swimming downward, she followed the bubbles until she saw a car—it was sinking downward, with its nose toward the bottom of the river and its brake lights glowing toward her. The vehicle was a convertible, and inside she could see Strike in the driver’s seat—he was tangled in the seat belt, floating and unconscious.

Knowing she only had a few seconds, Adrianna kicked her feet and swam down to Strike. Reaching into the car, she used a knife to cut the seat belt around the hero, and then pulled him free. After holding his unmoving body against her, she pushed herself off the car with her feet, looked up, and swam toward the moonlight above.

With a desperate gasp, Adrianna broke the surface of the water and pulled Strike into the open air. After swimming with him to the shore, she threw him down onto the riverbank. His mask had fallen off, and she saw that the teenage boy’s face was blue and his lips were purple. Dropping to her knees, she leaned over and began giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, before sitting him up and giving him the Heimlich maneuver. Finally, after feeling the boy move, she let go of him just as he coughed violently and fell to the dirt. After vomiting a few gallons of water, he looked up, confused and disoriented.

“Yes,” Adrianna said, smiling down at him, “I just saved your butt again.”

Tobin nodded, then spit up more water. He was starting to remember: the car chase; Keplar and Scatterbolt crashing in the submarine; driving the convertible off the dock. And now here he was, with the beautiful, dark-haired girl from the hotel rooftop. And he was pretty sure they had just made out. Technically.

Adrianna reached into her pocket. “By the way, your robot friend left this behind.”

She tossed the golden sphere onto the dirt in front of Tobin. He picked it up, inspected it, and then looked up at Adrianna.

“Toodle-loo,” she said, with a smile and wave of her fingers, before throwing something to the ground. It was a smoke bomb, and with a sudden CRACK!, a burst of grey smoke covered Tobin’s vision. He coughed and waved his hands in front of him…but when his vision was clear, he saw that the girl was gone.

CHAPTER EIGHT

“Damn it!” Keplar shouted. The husky’s left arm was in a sling, but that didn’t stop him from using his other arm to flip over a medical table in the Museum of the Heroes infirmary. The metal instruments on the table were sent flying across the room and clanging to the floor, just as the dog punched a hole through one of the cupboards on the wall. “Arrrrrrrggggh!” he growled.

“All right, Keplar,” Orion said, standing on the other side of the infirmary. “Smashing things isn’t going to help us. Let’s get our thoughts in order here.”

“They treated us like amateurs!” Keplar yelled. “Scatterbolt was taken away, while we basically watched like morons! We should be ashamed of ourselves!”

“You got taken by surprise by odds that no one could have handled,” Orion said. “Now we need to prepare ourselves for the next step. And this certainly isn’t achieving that. So why don’t you go get the Sky-Blade ready for our flight? We’ll be out in a few minutes.”

After flipping over one more table on his way out, Keplar stomped out of the infirmary and toward the Museum elevator.

Orion and Tobin also walked out of the infirmary, but headed down the hallway in the opposite direction.

“Hopefully he’ll cool down soon,” Orion said. “But I doubt it. How are you doing, Tobin?”

Tobin tilted his neck to the side and patted one of his ears.

“Not so great. I think I’m gonna have swimmer’s ear for the rest of my life. But thank god that girl saved me, whoever she was.”

“Yes, that will be our first step: figuring out who did this, and who was involved. We know at least Rigel was there. Apparently still alive.”

“Yeah, what was that all about?” Tobin asked. “Keplar said that he turned into a human? I don’t understand. I thought he…?”

Orion led Tobin into the Museum’s research room. Its floors were lined with bookshelves, and there were dozens of circular filing cabinets and computer stations along the walls.

“There are still some things we haven’t told you much about, Tobin,” Orion said. “Some things that aren’t very easy for either Keplar or me to talk about.”

Orion walked to a shelf; it was lined with small, crystal discs in plastic cases. The old man found the disc he was looking for, then placed it inside a circular machine on the floor.

“You already know some of this,” Orion began, “but we have never gone into too much detail. Many years ago, after your father moved to Earth and retired from being a superhero, I decided I needed to train a new team of superheroes here on Capricious, in case Vincent ever returned. If there was ever another threat to Earth, I didn’t want to have to rely on you, when you grew up.”

“So much for that,” Tobin said with a smirk.

Orion laughed. “Yes. But I did try.”

Orion pressed a button on a remote control, and a life-size, three-dimensional image appeared above the machine on the floor—it was an image of Tobin’s father Scott, the original Strike, and Orion. The image was made out of shimmering, colorful light, and as Tobin walked around it, he could see all sides of Orion and his father in their superhero costumes. It was still one of the coolest things Tobin had seen on the world of Capricious: a machine that created life-size, life-like holograms. The hologram machines here in the Museum played movies about history and science, but there were other machines, as Tobin had quickly learned, that played the greatest video games in the entire universe.

“Two of the superheroes I decided to train when your father retired were two new heroes who had recently begun making news fighting crime on Capricious,” Orion said. “One of them was Keplar.”

Tobin watched as the machine projected a hologram of a young Keplar, about twelve years old. The pre-teen husky looked much younger and skinnier than he did now, but he was still wearing his usual cowboy hat, heavy boots, and leather jacket. The image began to move, and Tobin watched as the twelve-year-old Keplar fired his laser blasters in the Museum of the Heroes training room. The husky easily dispatched a squadron of six-foot tall, humanoid robots, all while laughing and hooting with glee. The target shooting came so natural to him, even at an age when most kids were just starting sixth grade.

“And the other hero,” Orion continued, “was a young man named Marcus Drake.”

The hologram changed: now it showed a young black man, about eighteen years old. He was tall and built like a marathon runner, with a fit body and dark hair that was shaved nearly down to his skin. A training robot was charging at him, but he readied himself; as he yelled in anger, his body grew nearly a foot, and his skin turned red and rough like a rhinoceros. The giant’s appearance wasn’t as inhuman and demented as Tobin had seen in the present, but the boy could still recognize who it was—it was Rigel. The red-skinned man quickly clubbed the robot with his forearm, knocked it to the ground, and then stomped on its head with his elephant-like foot.

“Both of these heroes were young and hot-headed,” Orion explained, “but they were also very gifted. Keplar took to the training immediately, embracing the challenge of becoming a better hero, but Marcus was…very troubled. I thought I could help him deal with his terrible past, and help him overcome the paranoid thoughts that were haunting him, but in the end, I couldn’t. Eventually, he revealed his true intentions—for the majority of the time, he had only been training with Keplar and me so that he could learn the secret whereabouts of the prison where Vincent Harris was being held. Like Vincent, he was obsessed with the planet Earth, and he believed that unless the inhabitants of Earth were controlled and ruled over by Capricious, the universe was doomed to be destroyed. He was terrified about what might happen if the humans of Earth gained the ability to travel the universe, and believed it was his destiny to stop this from happening.

“Using the information he had gathered from myself and the other heroes of Capricious, Marcus found the underground prison where Vincent was being held, broke him free from his cell, and awoke him from the cryogenic sleep he had been under for nearly five decades.

“The rest of the story you know: with Vincent reawakened and threatening to travel to Earth, your father came out of retirement and helped me stop him. Your father paid a terrible price for Rigel’s actions that day. We all paid a terrible price.”

“And now,” Tobin said, “Rigel is back, carrying on Vincent’s work since Vincent isn’t here any more.”

“Yes,” Orion said. He watched the image of Rigel. “It appears that way.”

After walking out of the museum’s giant double-doored entrance, Orion and Tobin walked across the headquarters’ brick-lined sky-ship landing platform. The gleaming, winged sky-ship known as the Sky-Blade was waiting for them at the edge of the platform, with its engines running.

“When Vincent and I were both still members of the Guardians,” Orion explained, “I often heard him talk about something or someone called the Daybreaker. He was always saying that this Daybreaker was even more powerful and important than him, which is saying something, considering Vincent’s ego.”

Orion and Tobin walked up the Sky-Blade’s ramp and into its open door.

“Rigel and this other man dressed in green must be working together to search for the Daybreaker, to continue Vincent’s plan for the enslavement of Earth. And they must be looking at you as their main obstacle to finding this Daybreaker, which is why they were giving all those Earth criminals superpowers, in an attempt to get you out of their way.”

Tobin shook his head. “Great, I’m flattered. So where are we headed now?”

Orion sat in the passenger seat of the sky-ship’s cockpit. “First, we get Scatterbolt back. We find out where Rigel took him, and we take Rigel and his partner down in the process.” The old man held up the golden sphere that Scatterbolt had left behind in Boston. “There is only one person in the world who can help us figure out what this sphere is—the person who created Scatterbolt. And he lives, conveniently enough, in the one place that may be able to cheer Keplar up.”

CHAPTER NINE

Five hours later, under the night sky, Tobin, Keplar, and Orion stepped out of the Sky-Blade and onto the wet, grassy shore of an ocean. However, Tobin thought, the ocean appeared to be more of a massive bog—the air was filled with a thick, rotten fish-stench, and nearly everything around him was black: the slow-moving water, the sand, the trees, even the patches of dried-up lily pads under his feet. Nearer to the shore, there were hundreds of rocks lining the sand, and they were also covered in a black, slimy algae. Looking closer, Tobin could make out crabs and six-legged rats scavenging and chewing on the carcasses of dead fish, hidden under the blanket of thick fog.

“You guys bring me to the nicest places,” Tobin said, careful not to slip on the rocks.

“Here we are,” Orion said. “My friend should be able to get us across the water more discreetly than if we flew in. We want to be as inconspicuous as possible, after all.”

Tobin had originally thought there were no signs of human life along the ocean, but then he noticed a rickety, wooden dock sticking out into the water, and next to it there was a small, wooden shanty. The shanty was leaning to its left, like a condemned building about to fall down, and it was barely bigger than a tollbooth. There was also a window on the front of the shanty, with a sign above it that read: SHADOW OCEAN TICKETS.

“Hi, Drendel,” Orion said, approaching the booth’s window.

Tobin saw a person sitting in the booth, facing the other way and watching a sporting event on a black-and-white television. When the person turned around in his chair, he revealed himself: it was a strange, incredibly thin man, with light grey skin and a neck that was nearly two feet long. His small head was topped by a thatch of black hair, and he had little red dots for eyes and a nose that stretched far out from his face. He was so skinny, Tobin realized, that in certain places his bones could be seen through patches of his translucent skin.

“Oh, hey Orion!” Drendel said in a graveled, but friendly, voice. “Wow, didn’t think I’d see you around this place at this time of night.”

“Normally you wouldn’t, but there’s someone I need to see on the other side. Can you take us over?”

“Yeah, sure, sure.” Drendel looked at Keplar. “Good to see you, too, Keplar. Going over for your weekly visit?”

Orion looked to Keplar, with his eyebrows raised.

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” the husky replied.

“I saw Tess over there last night,” Drendel said. “And Diane, too. They were both looking for you.”

“Again,” Keplar said with a smile, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Orion shook his head.

“Right, right,” Drendel laughed. “Well, let’s get you three over there, huh?”

After opening the shanty’s wooden door (causing it to nearly fall off its hinges,) Drendel stepped out of the booth and onto the sandy shore. Tobin was shocked to see that the skinny man was nearly nine feet tall, with scrawny legs that looked like they were about to snap simply from trying to hold him up, and bony arms that were dragging along the ground. After lifting the waistband of his saggy, white-and-grey striped pants, Drendel walked past the heroes and toward a tugboat that was anchored near the dock. The tugboat was the size of a large pick-up truck, and it looked like it hadn’t been washed or serviced in decades: its stern was covered in mold, its wooden floor was rotting, and its smokestacks were black with soot. Its rear engine was shiny with slippery grease, and the smoke that emitted from it was heavy and thick and possibly responsible for 65% of all of Capricious’ pollution.

Drendel removed the rope that was blocking the boat’s entrance and looked to the heroes with a smile.

“That’ll be ten bucks a pop.”

Cruising across the Shadow Ocean, Tobin, Orion, and Keplar sat in the rear of the noisy, chugging tugboat. Looking in the direction of where they were heading, Tobin could see an island cutting through the darkness; there was a city on the island, and it was full of flashing neon lights: blue, yellow, green, red, purple. There were also spotlights swooping through the sky above the island, and the boy could hear the faint, bumping beat of loud music drifting over the water and toward the boat.

“The Never-World,” Tobin said, watching the island city grow closer. “How come I’ve never heard of this place?”

“Because I didn’t want you to know it existed,” Orion said. “It’s a twisted island—a lost place full of lost people. A group of supposedly-reformed super villains run it, and with not very good intentions. It’s a great place if you want to have a trouble-filled weekend, lose all your money, and never remember any of it.”

“Wow,” Tobin said. “Sounds great.”

“Don’t even think you are ever coming back,” Orion told him.

Soon, Drendel’s tugboat reached the shore, and Tobin stepped onto the Never-World. The island city was completely overwhelming: even though it was nighttime, the city’s colorful lights made it as bright as the middle of the afternoon, and its sidewalks were lined with every vice you could imagine: bars, casinos, street-side gambling tables, and booths selling booze and junk food were found every ten feet. The air was filled with the greatest rock-and-roll music Tobin had ever heard, and the streets were mobbed with laughing, yelling, drinking, partying people.

“Wow,” Tobin said, walking down the main strip of street. “This is…”

“Awesome,” Keplar replied. “Yeah, I know.”

Orion walked behind them. “This is not a vacation, guys. We find who we’re looking for, we talk to him, and we get out. Got it?”

“Uh-huh,” Tobin replied. He looked to his left. A snappily dressed man with the face and head of a bulldog was barking into a microphone, enticing people to enter his establishment, which was a massive, red-striped circus tent resting in between two buildings on the side of the street.

“Come one, come all! Step right in and behold the amazing Eight-Headed Woman of Zalcaraz! Watch in awe as the most beautiful female creature in the world seduces and romances you! And, oh—did I mention she has a sister?”

Tobin and Keplar walked toward the circus tent. Orion pulled them back to the center of the street.

“This is an incredibly dangerous island, Tobin,” the old man said. “You do not want to start wandering off. This place is full of escaped villains, monsters, and people who will rob you blind without you even realizing it.”

“It’s also a great place for bachelor parties,” Keplar added.

After walking through the downtown area of the Never-World, Tobin and his friends found themselves in a much quieter, darker place: it was a more rural area, and the roads were wide and made out of dirt, which swirled up in dust clouds when walked or driven over. On either sides of the road, there were wooden-planked buildings, containing saloons, barrooms, and dance halls—none of which Tobin was old enough to enter. There were only a few cars in the sad, tired town, and they were rusted out and battered; most people seemed to get around on horseback, as there were several horses tied up outside the wooden buildings. It felt as if the town was stuck centuries in the past, with the only light coming from a few dim streetlights and the full moon above.

“Okay,” Orion began, “the man who created Scatterbolt is named Wakefield. He’s known to hang out here.” The old man pointed to a saloon in front of Tobin and Keplar. It was the largest saloon in town, with a sign above it that read: JESSE’S PLACE. “You guys check it out while I ask around. We’ll meet up in twenty minutes. Got it?”

“Got it,” Keplar replied. As the dog and Tobin walked toward Jesse’s Place, Tobin looked around the dirt road. The people in this dark part of the Never-World were some of the most frightening he had seen on Capricious: they were disfigured and demented, with many of them muttering to themselves drunkenly as they shuffled through the town and from bar-to-bar with their boots dragging through the dusty dirt. Tobin made the mistake of making eye contact with one of them: it was a man with a scar all the way down the front of his face, which Tobin could just about make out under the man’s wide cowboy hat. The man stared at Tobin, until the boy quickly caught up with Keplar, who was already pushing through the wooden double-doors of Jesse’s Place.

Tobin followed Keplar through the swinging doors, and immediately felt as if he had walked into an old western film from the 1950’s: the floors and support beams were made out of exposed, dusty wood, and there was a piano being played in the corner by a small, skinny man with a grey mustache. The solid mahogany bar of the saloon ran the entire length of the back wall, and there were a few dingy tables scattered throughout the establishment. Sitting at these tables was a gathering of creatures from all over Capricious: at one table, Tobin saw a group of zombie cowboys playing cards, while at another table he saw a cyborg super-villain with a blinking, glowing eye, drinking from a giant mug of frothy beer. Behind the cyborg, there was a drunk Pegasus, passed out with his head on the table in front of him, and near the Pegasus there was a table of men with the faces of snakes, pounding back glasses of whiskey. Walking through the smattering of tables there was a squadron of saloon girls, who were wearing short, poofy skirts, low-cut tops, and red-and-black stockings. The waitresses’ purpose was to sell drinks and food to the saloon customers, but mostly they seemed to be there so that they could be harassed by the table full of two-foot tall, red-headed men with the foulest mouths Tobin had ever heard.

With the eyes of everyone in the saloon fixed on them, Tobin followed Keplar toward two stools at the bar. As they sat down, Keplar was completely at ease, resting his elbows in front of him and watching a television in the corner. But Tobin was on edge, scanning the room and trying to blend in; he was out of his Strike gear, so he was pretty sure none of these shady characters had recognized him, but they almost certainly had recognized Keplar.

“So,” Tobin whispered, hunching down in his seat, “any idea what this Wakefield guy looks like?”

“Not really. An older guy. Bald. Some kind of wizard or something.”

“A wizard?”

“Yeah, you got me. A wizard that makes robots, I don’t know. He made Scatterbolt, so he’s gotta be pretty smart, at least. And hopefully able to help us out.”

The bartender approached Tobin and Keplar. “What’re you having?”

Tobin turned to the bartender and nearly jumped out of his seat: the man had three eyes, the last of which was in the middle of his forehead. All three eyes were different colors and looking in different places, but the one on his forehead was darting back-and-forth between Tobin and Keplar. He was also fat and unshaven, and his skin was blotched and pink, as if he had been out in the sun too long and dried up.

“What are you having?” the man said again, aggravated.

Keplar’s eyes never left the television screen. His favorite kermball team was in a heated playoff game, after all. “I’ll have a Boogeyman,” the husky replied. “Heavy on the groundrill.”

The bartender’s eye looked to Tobin. “You?”

Tobin wasn’t sure what to say. Did they even serve orange soda in a place like this? “Uh, I’ll have…”

“The same,” Keplar interrupted. The husky grinned and slapped Tobin on the back, before turning his attention back to the kermball game. Tobin watched down the bar as the bartender mixed their drinks: after adding three different liquids from three old foggy bottles into a metal mixing sifter, he shook it vigorously and poured it into two glasses. The liquid that came out from the sifter was green and luminescent, and also bubbling like nuclear waste. As a vine of smoke began to rise out of the concoctions, the bartender slid the glasses across the bar to Tobin and Keplar.

Unsure, Tobin picked up the glass, inspected it, and then looked to Keplar. The husky nodded, smirking.

Tobin took a sip. Immediately it felt as if he had just poured napalm down his throat. He lurched forward and spat out the drink, causing an explosion of smoke to burst from his mouth. With his eyes pouring water, his stomach roiling, and his burning tongue hanging from his mouth, he hacked and coughed—it was as if his body wouldn’t allow him to swallow even a tiny drop more of the toxic liquid. When he caught a glimpse of himself in the bar mirror, he saw that his skin was ashen and empty of any color.

Keplar laughed. “How is it?”

Tobin stopped coughing and tried to catch his breath. “It’s a bit strong,” he said, in a voice that barely escaped his throat.

The swinging doors of the saloon opened. Tobin heard the clanking of metal and turned around; a man was entering the saloon, about forty years old. He had a goatee and a bald head, and was wearing a tattered, black duster coat and tattered, brown pants. He was big and muscular, with a sneer on his face that clearly advertised: DON’T BOTHER ME. As the bald man sat down at the bar a few seats away from Tobin and Keplar, the sound of clanking metal was heard again, and Tobin thought for a moment that the man was wearing spurs on his boots; he wasn’t, however—the sound was from the tools hanging from the man’s belt: hammers, screwdrivers, and bags of nails.

The bartender approached the bald man. “What’ll it be, Junior?”

“Usual.”

The bartender grabbed a beer and put it down. The bald man drank from it and watched the television in the corner.

In the corner of his eye, Tobin saw a group of people stand up from their table in the shadowy saloon. He watched as they walked toward the bald man: they were three young men in their early twenties, and they were dressed in all black. They had tattoos on their faces and arms, and the shoulders of their jackets were covered in spikes. One of them had a Mohawk a foot high, while another’s long hair grew past his shoulders. The third punk, the one standing in the middle of the others, was the shortest of the group. He had mangy, black hair, and tattoos on his neck that ran up the side of his head, all the way to his ears.

“Hey, Wakefield,” the shortest punk said.

Tobin turned to Keplar at the sound of the name. The husky had also heard it, and was now watching the confrontation.

“Remember us?” the shortest punk said, stepping closer to the bald man. “We paid you last week to get our car back from the Warthog?”

The bald man never looked away from the TV. He let the punks talk to his back.

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” Wakefield said, taking a sip from his beer. “You’re welcome.”

The shortest punk shook his head. “Only problem is, you never got us the car.”

“Sure I did. Left it in your driveway.”

The punk stomped his foot. “It didn’t have any wheels! Or seats! Or an engine!”

“Well, let’s not be picky about it,” Wakefield said. “Come on, let’s have a drink and celebrate.”

The punk stepped toward a pool table. “Nah. I think you’ll be having something else.”

The punk picked up a pool cue and reared it back, holding it over his head.

After the TV changed to a commercial, Wakefield turned around. As soon as he did, the punk brought the pool cue down with all his strength, intending to smash it over Wakefield’s head. But, Wakefield caught the cue, snapped it in half with one hand, and tossed his half away. Then, the bald man stood up, grumbled in annoyance, and punched the shortest punk in the nose. The punk was knocked backward into his friends, and once they got back to their feet, they all screamed in anger and charged at Wakefield. The bald man waited for them, finished his beer, and then swung the empty bottle and cracked it across the Mohawked punk’s face. The longhaired punk then lunged at Wakefield from behind, so Wakefield swung his elbow back, whaled him across his jaw, brought both his fists down onto his back, and sent him to the floor.

Finally, without breaking a sweat, Wakefield grabbed the shortest punk by his jacket, lifted him off the ground, slammed his body onto the bar, and dragged him across it, shattering a dozen bottles and ten glasses of booze. Finishing the job, the bald man picked up the punk from the bar, held him over his head, and tossed him across the saloon. The punk crashed into the piano in the corner, causing the instrument to snap off its legs and fall to the ground with a dull BOOM!, its keys all loudly ringing at once. As the pianist and bartender looked at the ruined piano in shock, the punk lay silently in the middle of the broken wood and wires, his eyes closed.

Tobin and Keplar were stunned. The rest of the patrons in the saloon were now standing, anxious and readying themselves in case the bald man turned his fists on them. Unfazed and unhurt, Wakefield dusted off his hands, walked to the bar, and finished a drink that wasn’t even his.

“Sorry, Jesse,” the bald man sighed, putting a roll of money on the bar. “Won’t happen again.”

With his metal tools clanking against him, Wakefield pushed open the swinging doors and walked out of the saloon. Keplar watched him go, then turned to Tobin.

“Gee, I hope that guy’s on our side.”

Outside the saloon, Keplar and Tobin ran out of the doors just as Wakefield was getting into his black pickup truck.

“Hey,” Keplar said, “are you Wakefield?”

Wakefield started up the truck. “Sorry, fellas. It’s my day off.”

Tobin stepped toward the open passenger side window. “But, uh, those guys called you Wakefield, and we’re looking for a guy named Wakefield. Are you him?”

“Yup, but I can’t help you. Sorry.” Wakefield put the truck in drive.

“We’re here with a guy named Orion,” Keplar said, stepping in front of the truck. “Maybe you know him?”

Wakefield narrowed his eyes.

“Yeah, I know him. What’s he need?”

“It’s our friend Scatterbolt,” Tobin said. “He’s in trouble.”

Wakefield pointed to the back of his truck with his thumb. “Get in.”

“Can you help us?” Tobin asked.

“No,” Wakefield replied. “But my father can.”

CHAPTER TEN

After a fifteen minute, bone-rattling ride in the back of the bald man’s pickup truck, Tobin and Keplar found themselves standing in the lobby of “Wakefield and Son’s,” a repair shop for robots, androids, transforming cars, cybernetic livestock…and the occasional vacuum cleaner. The wide, clutter-filled shop was in an area similar to the one around Jesses’ Place—with dimly lit dirt roads and a smattering of other wooden-planked buildings surrounding it—but there was one big difference: an elevated train track that ran through the middle of the area, curving by the back of the repair shop.

As he walked around the lobby of the shop, Tobin was inspecting all of the technological wonders and bizarre metal devices on display. In a work area toward the rear of the store, the boy could see Orion standing next to Wakefield Sr., the man that they had been looking for at the saloon. The short, white-bearded man appeared to be about seventy-five years old, with a round face and large head that was topped with a ring of thinning, white hair. At the moment, he was hunched over a table, wearing thick, black glasses and using a table-mounted magnifying glass to inspect Scatterbolt’s golden sphere.

“He doesn’t look like a wizard to me,” Tobin said.

Keplar picked up a tin sign that was resting on a table. The sign read: WAKEFIELD AND SON’S REPAIRS: TECHNO-WIZARDS.

“Ah,” Tobin said. “I see what they’ve done there.”

Keplar smirked. “A little play on words.”

“Very cute,” Tobin said.

Tobin picked up a small, shiny microwave with glowing springs and stepped to his right, but then bumped into something; Wakefield Jr. was standing in his way. Tobin looked up at him.

“Uh, I mean, not cute,” Tobin stammered. “I didn’t mean you and your dad were…cute. I just meant…that…”

Junior walked away.

Keplar laughed. “Nice work, Tobe.”

“I don’t think he likes me,” Tobin whispered, as he put the shiny microwave back on its table.

In the work area in the rear of the shop, Orion stood over Wakefield’s shoulder as the short, goggle-wearing man inspected the sphere.

“So what do you think?” Orion asked.

“Well, it’s not damaged,” Wakefield replied. “If it was, we’d be in big trouble.” He picked up the sphere and showed it to Orion. “This is Scatterbolt’s brain, for lack of a better word. Everything that makes up Scatterbolt—his personality, his memories, his voice—it’s all on this sphere chipboard. It was incredibly smart of him to remove this before they took him.”

“So what they have is useless, then?” Orion asked. “His body? It’s just an empty shell?”

“Well, they might be able to get some random information from it, but that’s all. Anything they do to it won’t hurt Scatterbolt—for all intents and purposes, I’m holding Scatterbolt right here. The only bad news is that Bolt is currently without a body. It’s gonna take me a while to make a new one.”

“That’s okay, take as much time as you need. Just try and make it exactly like the old one. He’s become, uh, part of our team, you know.”

Wakefield looked for something amid the piles of tools on his workbench. “Yeah, I know, I know. Don’t get all emotional on me.” He found a transparent glass tablet and handed it to Orion. The tablet had a handle on each side, allowing it to be held like a map. “Lucky for us, Scatterbolt’s body also has a tracking device, so whoever took him, you can use this to find them.”

Orion inspected the glass tablet. There was a map on the screen, and a blinking light in the middle of a large landmass, marking the location of Scatterbolt’s body. “Thank you, Wakefield. You have no idea how much this will help.”

Wakefield checked his watch. “Hold onto something.”

Confused, Orion clutched the top of the workbench with both hands. Wakefield stood in a doorway and braced himself.

The repair shop began to rattle. A whistling pierced the air. As Orion’s brain vibrated in his skull and the metal devices and tools on the walls clanged and swayed wildly, a flying train zoomed by the shop, hovering above the train tracks outside and traveling at over 200 miles per hour. When it finally passed and the building stopped shaking, Orion let go of the workbench and regained his footing.

“Why did you move your shop to this place, Wakefield?” he asked, with his eyes wide and his hands on his ears. “I’ll never understand it.”

Wakefield returned to his workbench, as if the earthquake was only a minor delay. “Eh, it’s not so bad. I like being alone. Plus someone has to keep an eye on all these thugs and loonies around here.”

Wakefield began using a small torch to solder the sphere under the magnifying glass, so Orion walked around the workshop. A framed picture on a shelf caught his eye.

It was an old magazine cover. The colorful image showed Orion, Tobin’s father, and Wakefield, appearing to be in their early thirties, and dressed in costume. Wakefield, much thinner and with a full head of hair, looked especially young, with black welder’s goggles on his eyes and a belt across his waist with mechanical devices and tools hanging from it. The headline read:

THE INVENTOR HELPS THE GUARDIANS SAVE QUANTUM CITY!

“Fifty years ago we offered you a spot on our team,” Orion said, “and fifty years later, you’re still saying no.”

Wakefield shrugged off the memory. “I work much better on my own than I ever did with any team. Don’t know why, just do.” The short, balding man sat down at the workbench. “Ya know, it’s strange you coming to see us. I was just about to send Junior out looking for you.”

“You were? Why?”

Wakefield thought it over. “A bunch of friends of mine that work in the Never-World, they’ve been telling me lately that they’ve been seeing someone walking around in the city. Someone we both know.”

“Who?”

Wakefield looked up at Orion. It took him a moment to answer.

“Scott,” he replied. “Tobin’s father.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

From the time that he was ten years old, Marcus Drake had known that he was one of the most important people in the universe.

He was born in an area of Capricious known as Whinland, a place that had traditions and customs that many of the other countries of Capricious considered archaic: when the children of Whinland turned ten years old, they were brought to a secluded academy in the center of the country to determine what the child’s way of life and future would be. Three weeks after his arrival, Marcus had been brought before the instructors and dean of the academy and told his destiny: he was the smartest, strongest, and most athletically gifted student in the history of the school. And, they had told him, those qualities were not even his most impressive: like only a few of the other students at the Whinland Academy for the Future, Marcus was a superpower: by focusing his anger, he was able to transform his body into a red, rhino-skinned giant, making himself even more extraordinary. Marcus was special, and he had a special future waiting for him as one of the leaders of the universe. This leadership position was his gift from the universe itself, and his right—simply because of the traits that had been fated to him.

It was these traits, Marcus had learned at the age of ten, that set him apart from every other student who had ever gone to Whinland Academy—and really, every other person in Capricious. On this day and every other day for the next seven years, Marcus had been told it was his duty and future to be one of the universe’s protectors, because the other, lesser inhabitants of the universe needed him. It was his responsibility—his destiny—to lead the universe to become a safer place. He was, after all, as he was told time and time again, stronger, smarter, and mentally tougher than anyone he knew or would ever know in his lifetime. At the Whinland Academy for the Future, Marcus Drake had learned the lesson that had driven every moment of his life since then: everyone in the universe has a destiny that is set out for them from the moment that they are born. Everything that happens to them is simply prelude and preparation for this destiny, which has already been set. Some children at the Whinland Academy had been destined to become teachers, so they had become teachers. Some were told that they were destined to be bankers, so they had become bankers. It just so happened that Marcus Drake was meant for something more. He was special. He was meant to be a leader. A savior. He was meant to watch over the weak and simple. He was, he had learned three weeks after his tenth birthday, one of the most important people in the history of the universe.

Now, at the age of thirty-three, in the center of Capricious’ most dangerous jungle, Marcus Drake had used the instructions left behind by his mentor and idol Vincent Harris to unearth several gigantic buildings from the ancient ground; the stone beast with the head of an ape, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle was now surrounded by seven other stone structures, which were being used as living quarters and training centers for Rigel and his army. A team of Rytonian workers had also cleared out the area’s trees and dense vegetation, and there were now roads and a long runway cutting through the middle of the jungle. This construction had made it much easier to bring supplies, food, and demonic Gore soldiers into the secret headquarters, and especially to its center of operations: the massive, flat-topped, grey pyramid that sat in the middle of the other seven structures.

One of the floors of this gargantuan pyramid was currently housing a science lab, where a team of Capricious’ most brilliant scientists were working all hours of the day to try and solve the complicated technological puzzle of Scatterbolt. On a long table in the center of the room, the robot’s empty body was lying under constant observation, with its wires and power-cells connected to dozens of computers set up around the lab.

“Well?” Rigel asked. He was standing over the shoulder of one of the scientists. “What have you found?”

The scientist adjusted his glasses as he inspected a monitor; it was displaying a constant stream of information being emitted by Scatterbolt’s insides. “A lot of spare data, but nothing significant. It mostly seems to be historical stuff—this thing must have read over a million books, and we can’t get through—”

Rigel grunted. “‘Historical stuff?’ Your life depends on what you find here, and all you can tell me is that you’ve found ‘historical stuff?’”

“We—we’re looking, sir, it’s just that—”

Rigel leaned down, inches from the scientist’s face. “You haven’t found a single mention of the Daybreaker or how to find him?”

The scientist pressed his back against the wall and turned his head. “No, no, not yet, but we are—”

Rigel walked away. “I’ll be back in an hour. Find something.”

As the red giant stomped out of the lab, the scientist dropped his shoulders and let out a relieved sigh.

In the pyramid hallway, Rigel was joined by Adrianna and Nova, and the three of them walked toward the building’s command center in the center of the headquarters. It was a large, open, foyer-like area, where one could look up and see the other floors of the pyramid, all the way to the flat top of the structure.

“I know I’m kinda new at this stuff,” Adrianna said, “but kidnapping the best scientists on Capricious and forcing them to work for you? Isn’t that a little…blatant?”

“We need to examine the data from the robot,” Rigel said. “He could be the key to finding the Daybreaker.”

“I know, but don’t you think we could be risking being found out, since we—”

Rigel stood in front of Adrianna. “I’m sensing some doubts.”

Adrianna looked up at him. “No, I just don’t think it’s smart to—”

“If you are faltering in your commitment to the Rantamede,” Rigel said, “please let me know.”

“No.” Adrianna was nervous. “I just want what is best. I don’t want to expose ourselves if we don’t need to.”

Rigel stared at Adrianna, then turned to Nova.

“You said there was someone here who wanted to see me?”

“Yes,” Nova replied. “Right this way.”

Nova opened the door to the command center. The shortest of the punks from Jesse’s Place—the saloon in the Never-World—was sitting in a chair, and standing on either side of him there were two green-skinned Rytonian guards. The punk was bandaged and bruised from his fight with Junior.

“Who are you?” Rigel asked. “What do you want?”

“You’re looking for Strike and his pals, right?” the punk replied. “Well, I know exactly where they are.”

***

In the workshop of Wakefield & Son’s, Orion was staring at Wakefield, with his mind racing.

“People have been seeing Scott?” Orion asked. He looked into the shop’s lobby to make sure Tobin and Keplar couldn’t hear them. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said,” Wakefield replied. “People I know—people we both know from the old days—they say they’ve been seeing Scott wandering around the Never-World. A couple of ’em have even tried to speak with him, but he has no idea who they are. He doesn’t even know who he is—he’s just wandering around, lost.”

Orion’s eyes darted around the floor. “That’s impossible, Wakefield.”

“I know, I think so, too, but I just wanted to let you know. He was last seen down near the mines around the Shadow Ocean, looking for work, so I thought you’d at least want to go down there and see for yourself. It’s gotta be a mistake, but if it’s not…I’m sure he needs our help.”

***

The next morning, Tobin and Keplar were back on the other side of the Shadow Ocean, ready to take off in the Sky-Blade. While Keplar readied the ship’s controls in the cockpit, Tobin stood in the cabin, talking on a walkie-talkie.

“You sure about this, O? You aren’t gonna come with us?”

Orion was still in the Never-World, standing outside Wakefield’s repair shop.

“Yes, I’m sure, Tobin,” the old man said into his own walkie-talkie. “You and Keplar use Scatterbolt’s homing device and find where they’ve taken his body. I have some…other things I need to attend to here in the Never-World, but I’ll catch up with you when I can.”

“Okay,” Tobin said into his walkie-talkie, “but one more thing.” The boy looked across the cabin; Junior was sitting in a seat by himself near the back of the ship. Tobin pushed the button on his walkie-talkie and whispered. “You sure Junior isn’t gonna, like, kill us?”

Orion laughed. “Yes, Tobin. Junior is gonna give you a hand. He knows the area on the tablet map very well, and you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Tobin walked into the cockpit. “Okay, if you say so. Later, Orion.” The boy turned off the walkie-talkie and turned to Keplar. “So, you know where we’re heading?”

Keplar pointed to the glass tablet map they had received from Wakefield; it was now connected to the Sky-Blade’s dashboard, and the blinking light was showing in the center of a landmass on the eastern section of the map.

“Yup,” the husky said. “Me, you, and Mr. Baldie-McScowl-Face are headed to wonderful, scenic Zanatopia. So sit back and enjoy your flight. Try to not get murdered.”

Walking into the cabin, Tobin buckled himself into a seat across from Junior. The bald man was holding what looked like a bag of red licorice; as he nervously snapped off pieces of the candy with his teeth, he was looking around at the cabin’s ceiling and walls. Tobin smiled at him awkwardly.

“Hi,” Tobin said.

“Hi.”

The boy looked at the bag of licorice. “Are you eating candy?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I always eat candy when I fly.”

“Oh.”

A silence.

Junior held out the bag. “Want a piece?”

“Sure.” Tobin took a piece.

Junior looked into the cockpit. “So…are you sure this thing’s safe?”

“Oh yeah,” Tobin said. “Definitely. I’ve flown in it a hundred times.”

“Good.”

The ship’s engines turned on, and Junior jumped and gripped his armrests.

Tobin smirked and furrowed his brow. “Are you afraid of flying?”

The ship ascended into the sky and Junior’s hands darted to his chest and clutched his seat belt.

“No,” the bald man replied.

Tobin smiled. “That’s funny—a guy who makes robots is afraid of flying.”

“Why is that funny?” Junior snarled, with his teeth clenched and beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

“Just is,” Tobin replied with a grin, chomping a piece of licorice.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Four hours later, the Sky-Blade landed in Zanatopia, and Tobin walked down the ship’s ramp and into the outskirts of a town. This was a land that very much resembled Japan, the boy thought: there were beautiful temples, wooden houses with pitched, layered, colorful roofs, cherry blossom trees, and tall, snow-capped mountains in the distance. There was also a bustling urban area only a few blocks from the sky-ship port where they had landed.

“Okay,” Keplar said, walking down the Sky-Blade’s ramp with the tablet map in his hand. He was also wearing a bulky backpack containing all of their supplies. “We park here where my friend will look over the ship, and we follow the blinking light.”

“Should be easy enough. Hey, Junior, you coming?”

Tobin and Keplar turned to the Sky-Blade; Junior stumbled out of the side door, with his face pale and his arms across his stomach. As he walked down the ramp, he swayed from side-to-side and burped three times.

“All right,” the bald man said, trying to hide the fact that he was seconds away from vomiting. “Let’s go. We cut through the town, and then head up the mountain.”

Junior led the way, with Keplar and Tobin following him, snickering.

***

Just as Junior had described, Tobin and his friends had quickly made their way through the crowded-but-friendly streets of Zanatopia, and were now hiking up one of its majestic mountains. Unending cherry blossom trees surrounded them, and a cool, refreshing breeze was sending small, pink petals fluttering to the ground. It was beautiful—a place for deep thought and appreciation of nature’s wonders.

“Strange place for a super-villain hideout,” Tobin said. “Looks more like a place my grandparents would go bird-watching.”

“Well, we’re not there yet,” Junior said. “We’ve still got a ways to go before we pass these mountains, cross the heat-belt, and reach the jungle. That’s where we’re headed—the middle of nowhere. It ain’t gonna be easy.”

Keplar was walking behind them, holding the electronic map. “Let’s keep at it, then. We’ll stop and make a camp when the sun goes down. It can get awfully cold up here.”

Junior looked ahead up the mountain. “There’s a hot spring about three hours from us. We can set up there for the night.”

“Great,” Tobin said. “A hot spring in the middle of the gorgeous blossom trees of Zanatopia—exactly where I want to spend the night with you two idiots.”

Keplar and Junior laughed.

“Hey, it could be worse,” Keplar said. “You could be—”

A five-fingered hand suddenly burst up from the ground and grabbed Keplar’s leg. The hand was made out of mud.

“Hey!” the husky yelled, looking down at the brown, dripping fingers clutching to his pants. “What the hell? Hey!”

Tobin and Junior spun around, just in time to see another giant mud-hand emerge from the ground and grab Keplar’s other leg. The two hands began pulling the dog down, dragging him into the soft dirt underneath him, which was turning into quicksand.

“Hey!” Keplar yelled, trying to free himself from the pulling hands. As he panicked, his waist sunk under the quicksand. “Get offa me, ya bremshaws!”

Tobin and Junior rushed to Keplar, grabbing his arms and trying to pull him away from the mud-hands, but it was nearly impossible—especially when four other mud-hands grabbed onto the dog’s backpack and began pulling him further down into the quicksand. Soon, the sand was all the way up to the dog’s chin, and the backpack was gone.

“Get me out of here!” the husky yelled.

“We’re trying!” Tobin said, prying the mud-fingers from Keplar’s shoulders. “But these things are so strong, we can’t—”

“Step back,” Junior said.

Tobin moved away and watched Junior; as the bald man held out his arm, strands of robotic machinery crawled out from his sleeve and enveloped his hand. Soon, Junior was wearing a bulky, robotic glove, and with his super-strong hand, he grabbed onto Keplar’s arm and pulled him from the mud. When the dog was free, the six mud-hands disappeared back into the quicksand.

Exhausted, Keplar sat on the ground, with his body covered in the quickly-drying mud. His backpack was gone and the tablet map was ruined, but at least he was alive.

“Gee,” the husky said. “I guess you are a techno-wizard.”

Junior flexed his robotic fingers. His hand was now twice its normal size, and the sunlight was glinting off of its metal casing and silver wires. “My father and I invent things,” the bald man said. “It’s what we do.”

As Tobin and Junior were helping Keplar to his feet, the trio heard crinkled footsteps in the leaves behind them; spinning around, they saw nobody there. But then a disembodied voice came from the forest:

“Not only did you piss me off, Junior, but you made friends with people you really don’t wanna be friends with.”

Tobin recognized the voice—it was the shortest punk from the saloon in the Never-World. But where was he?

“You wanna get your teeth kicked in again, Derek?” Junior said, scanning the treetops. “That’s fine by me—come out here and I’ll make sure to break a few more bones.”

Movement fluttered between two of the tree trunks in front of the trio, and—out of thin air—the shortest punk, Derek, emerged, his camouflage dissipating. As the punk stepped closer, Tobin saw that he had been through a drastic change; the tattoos running up his neck were now green vines, while his arms, legs, and torso were now wrapped in coiled, thorned tree branches. The skin on his face was now dull and green, and his eyes were completely brown.

“There’s some awfully bad people who want these new friends of yours dead, Junior,” Derek said. As he grinned, the branches on his arms twisted and grew. “And I was only happy to help them—as long as I got to kill you, too.”

Junior heard a snapping above him; thick, brown vines suddenly dropped down from the treetops and wrapped themselves around him, squeezing him like a boa constrictor. The bald man was trapped.

“They even hooked me up with some new powers,” Derek added.

Tobin heard marching footsteps to his right; he spun around to see an army of wooden men emerging from the forest. The tree-warriors were six feet tall and made out of bark, leaves, and tree branches, and they were brandishing incredibly sharp axes and swords made out of wood. They were also holding wooden shields.

“So all in all,” Derek finished, “a pretty productive day.”

The punk made a motion with his fist, and the tree-warriors attacked. Wood, splinters, and leaves flew into the air as Tobin and Keplar used their weapons to defend themselves against the bizarre wooden army.

“Look out, Keplar!” Tobin shouted, as he swung his bo-staff at a warrior about to slash Keplar with his sword. The boy was able to knock the warrior to the ground, but its body was dense and incredibly strong, sending a paralyzing vibration through Tobin’s hands and arms. The warrior quickly stood up and engaged Tobin in a duel, clashing his sword and shield against Tobin’s electricity-covered staff.

Finally breaking free from the brown vines coiled around him, Junior ran at Derek and swung at him with his robotic hand. But, the punk now had super-strength—thanks to his new powers from Rigel, this fight with Junior wasn’t going to be as one-sided as the brawl in the bar.

“So you can control machines,” the punk said, “and I can control the trees and ground we stand on. Seeing as how there aren’t any machines around…I think I like my chances.”

Junior landed several blows with his robotic fists, but the punk was too fast, and soon the bald man was overpowered; vines and tree branches slithered across the ground and ran up Junior’s body, entering his mouth and choking him.

Nearby, Tobin and Keplar were fighting the army of tree-warriors, but there were simply too many of the wooden soldiers, and they were simply too strong and unrelenting. The dog and the boy were bruised and bloodied, losing ground, when Tobin broke free and scanned the battle-scarred forest. As he tried to focus and plan his next move, he saw a purple flash in the trees—it was a figure sprinting through the forest and coming closer. A tree-warrior also saw the flash, but before it could react, two purple, glowing discs were suddenly sticking out of its chest. The tree-man fell to the ground, with its arms and legs splayed out, and as Tobin looked to the group of tree-warriors surrounding Keplar, these warriors were also struck by a spray of purple discs, which stuck into their bodies like Japanese throwing stars.

Tobin turned to where the discs had been thrown—the dark-haired girl from the hotel rooftop was sprinting into the forest, wearing her purple costume and brandishing a double-edged spear. With an unbelievable grace (and using her spear, throwing discs, fists, and feet) she helped Tobin and Keplar cut down the tree-warriors, turning the army into a pile of lifeless tree trunks and branches.

Soon, the tree-warriors were gone, but then Tobin spun to Junior; the bald man was still being choked by the branches and vines wrapped around his neck and face.

“Hold on,” Adrianna said. “Don’t move.”

Walking up behind Junior, the girl swung her spear upward and cut him free. He fell forward and gasped, able to breathe again.

Derek was shocked.

“But…but…” he stammered. “I thought you…?”

“Yeah,” Adrianna replied. “You just never know, do you?”

Rearing back, Adrianna swung the wooden part of her spear across the punk’s chin, knocking him to the dirt. When she reached down and punched him across his face, using one of her purple discs like a pair of brass knuckles, the punk was knocked out cold.

Worn from the battle, Tobin, Keplar, and Junior stared at Adrianna, cautious.

She turned to them.

“So…isn’t anyone gonna thank me?”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Seventeen miles from the Wakefield & Son’s repair shop, deep within the shores of the Shadow Ocean, there lay an area known as the Midnight Hills; it was here where men (and some tough-as-nails women) worked in the underground mines that ran along the granite-filled valleys of the Never-World. Working all hours of the day and night, these workers made a healthy (and dangerous) living, heading into the deepest depths of the island to mine for the incredibly potent coal that made the Never-World’s various areas of gluttony, excess, and debauchery possible. Without these miners, the island could not function, as the power needed to feed its attractions was immense; luckily for the ex-super-villains that ran the place, there were plenty of eager, hungry, displaced people willing to work for a good salary—even if it meant risking their lives.

Like any area near a mine, there had sprung a mining town—this one called Riggston—and it was here where Orion now found himself; the gritty, dark streets were lined with hotels, diners, and tenement buildings, and also filled with exhausted inhabitants leaving the mines after a long day’s work.

“Excuse me,” Orion said, approaching a gruff-looking man who was wearing a mining helmet and soot-covered overalls. “I’m looking for someone named Scott. Have you seen him?”

Orion showed the man a photograph of Tobin’s father, but the miner shrugged.

“Nope. You can ask around, maybe someone else has.”

“I’ve asked just about everybody,” Orion sighed, watching the crowd of miners shuffle down the street. Frustrated, the old man stepped into a diner; at least he could get a bite to eat, although he wasn’t sure he wanted to eat anything from a place that looked like it had been blasted by a century’s worth of soot.

“Hey, honey,” a waitress said, as Orion sat down at the diner’s counter. “What’ll it be? You look down and out.”

“Just frustrated. I’m looking for someone, but…” Orion shook his head. “Anyway, I’ll have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie, please.”

“You got it, sugar.”

The waitress walked away, and Orion leaned on the counter, running his hand through his grey hair. Soot fell from his head and landed in a small pile in front of him.

“Hey, Orion,” the waitress said.

Orion looked up. “Yes?”

“Not you,” the waitress said. “Him.”

The waitress pointed across the diner, and Orion turned around. The old man saw his best friend, who died fifteen years ago, sitting by himself in a booth. Scott Lloyd, Tobin’s father, was wearing dirty, white coveralls and reading a newspaper. His hands and unshaven face were covered in soot, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

Orion’s stomach roiled. He stared at Scott from across the diner; the old man had not seen his best friend in over a decade. He was never supposed to see him again.

“Orion?” the waitress said again, louder.

Scott turned the page of his newspaper. “Yeah?”

“Lenny told me to tell you he’s got more work for you tomorrow. Show up at five and be ready, he said.”

“Okay. Thanks, Susie.”

Another waitress arrived with Scott’s dinner. He put his newspaper down and began to eat. Orion sat at the counter, staring, with his lungs and chest tight.

***

In the blossom tree-lined mountains of Zanatopia, Tobin, Keplar, and Junior stood around Adrianna. Keplar had his plasma cannon drawn and pointed at her, while Junior was brandishing two cybernetic gloves, ready for a fight. Adrianna was holding both of her hands in the air.

“I don’t know if you guys noticed,” she said, “but I kinda just saved your lives.”

“Yeah,” Keplar replied, stepping toward her, raising his gun against his shoulder. “Except if you ask me, Derek seemed awfully surprised that you attacked him. Almost like he thought you were on his side.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Junior agreed.

“Guys,” Tobin said, stepping in between his friends and Adrianna. “She saved my life, back on Earth when I crashed into the harbor. And she helped me before that, too, fighting one of Rigel’s Gores. And let’s not forget that she just saved your life, Junior.”

“So she just keeps showing up whenever the bad guys show up,” Junior said, his robotic fists raised. “Seems awfully convenient to me.”

Adrianna kept her hands in the air, but stepped toward Keplar. “Hey, if you wanna fight, that’s fine with me. I just thought maybe you’d like to hear what I have to say.”

“Let’s hear her out, guys,” Tobin said. “She deserves that, at least, for saving us from Derek. I really don’t think she’d go through all that trouble if she was working with him.”

Keplar thought it over. “You’ve got about five seconds,” he said, his plasma cannon still pointed at Adrianna. “Make it good.”

“How’s that map of yours?” the girl asked.

Keplar looked to the ground. The tablet map was caked in mud, and its glass was cracked.

“Maybe it still works?” Keplar said, looking to Junior. The bald man shook his head.

“I know where Rigel and Nova are,” Adrianna said, “and I know what they are planning. You can either come with me to my place, learn everything I know, and then help me take them down tomorrow, or you can stay here and freeze to death. All those supplies of yours at the bottom of the quicksand pit are gonna come in real handy when it’s five degrees in a few hours.”

Keplar kept his gun pinned on her, thinking.

“I have food,” she said.

The dog narrowed his eyes.

“And beer,” she added.

Keplar and Junior exchanged a look.

“Good enough for me,” the husky said.

“Me too,” Junior agreed, unclenching his fists. “Which way we headed?”

***

After a two-hour hike along the mountainside, Tobin, Keplar, and Junior followed Adrianna into her house; the wide, two-level home was in a secluded, wooded area of the mountain, overlooking the main town of Zanatopia. The building was similar to the other houses Tobin had seen when they first landed: it had a blue, pitched roof, and it was made of a bamboo-like wood. The inside was warm and comforting: it was open and bare, and there were only a few pieces of furniture, along with elegant, beautiful carpets running along the hallway floors. There were no other homes for miles, and the quietness of the forest made Keplar, Junior, and Tobin feel at ease as they sat with Adrianna at a table in her kitchen.

“Rigel and Nova know who the Daybreaker is,” Adrianna explained, “they just don’t know where he is. That’s what this whole thing is about.”

“Have they told you who he is?” Tobin asked.

“No. They don’t trust me very much.”

“I wonder why,” Keplar said, chugging from his beer.

Adrianna nodded. “I was helping them, to a certain point. But when I learned the truth about what they are trying to do…” She shook her head. “This is way deeper than I ever knew. I can’t be a part of it anymore, not with what I know now. I think you guys are familiar with Vincent Harris?”

“Uh, yeah,” Keplar said.

Tobin raised his eyebrows. “Just a bit.”

Adrianna gripped the cup of tea in front of her. “Well, the Daybreaker…he was Vincent’s secret. Vincent was never supposed to be in charge of his invasion of Earth— he was only keeping the place warm for when the Daybreaker showed up, whenever that would be. That was Vincent’s whole plan: to find the Daybreaker and let him rule the Earth—with the threat of the Daybreaker’s power looming over everyone, Vincent believed he could bring peace to the war-torn, dangerous planet, thereby making the universe safer for Capricious. That’s how powerful the Daybreaker is—even Vincent was willing to step aside for him, and no one from either Earth or Capricious would ever be able to stop him.”

“Well,” Tobin said, “that’s just awesome. So we have someone out there who is more powerful than Vincent, someone Vince even looked up to?”

“Yes. Now Rigel and Nova are obsessed with finding him. I didn’t even think he actually existed, but now it looks like…what they have planned is…I can’t let that happen.”

“So now you expect us to believe you all the sudden had a change of heart and switched sides?” Junior asked.

“I don’t have a side, honey. Except my own. If they find this Daybreaker, we’re all dead. I’m smart enough to see that.”

Tobin thought it over. “Okay, so where did they take Scatterbolt?”

“They’re in an ancient pyramid they raised from the ground, about a day’s journey from here on foot. They have your friend, or his body, or whatever. They’re using the data they’ve gotten from him to get closer to the Daybreaker. From what I heard, we don’t have much time.”

Keplar looked across the table at Tobin and Junior.

“Okay,” the husky said. “As much as I don’t like it, I say we let her stay with us. If we even sense she’s leading us in the wrong direction, she’s gone. Agreed?”

“Yes,” Tobin said.

Junior nodded. “If you think it’s a smart idea.”

“I don’t,” Keplar admitted. “But right now it’s all we got.”

***

Later that night, as Keplar and Junior were studying a map of Rigel’s pyramid that Adrianna had provided, Tobin stepped out of the house to get some fresh air. Near a small shed to the side of the house, he saw Adrianna gathering some firewood. They would need the wood to heat the fire during the night, before they set out in the morning.

“Hey, Adrianna?” he asked, walking to her.

“Yeah?”

Tobin took the pile of wood from her arms. “Sorry about how those guys acted before. They can both be, uh, a little touchy sometimes.”

Adrianna gathered some more wood from the shed. “It’s okay. I can see where they’re coming from. I’d be acting the same way, if I was in their place.”

They walked back to the house with the firewood.

“And thanks, for, uh, helping me back on Earth,” Tobin said. “Both times.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Adrianna said with a smile. “Rigel’s gonna be pretty pissed when he realizes I told you guys everything, so just help me against him when we get there tomorrow, and we’re even. How’s that?”

“Help you fight a giant, insane monster? I don’t know if that’s equal, but sure.”

Tobin smiled. They walked into the house and made a fire, and it warmed them as the chill of the night air turned cold and heavy.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

In the diner in the mining town of Riggston, Orion stood from the counter and approached Scott’s table. The somehow-resurrected Scott was eating dinner and reading his newspaper, either unaware or ambivalent to Orion’s presence. While Orion searched for the right words in the impossible situation, he watched his old friend: Tobin’s father looked awful, with his dark hair unclean and his face gaunt, washed out, and grey. But, Orion thought, he appeared strangely young—as if he hadn’t aged in the past fifteen years.

“Scott?” Orion said, the word choking out of his mouth and hanging in the air.

Scott looked up, but shook his head and returned to his newspaper.

Orion was confused. He and Scott had been friends for nearly a hundred years. But there wasn’t even a flash of recognition. “Scott, it’s me,” the old man said. “Orion.”

Scott looked up again, this time focusing. He was apprehensive, but curious. “I’m sorry?”

“What are you doing here, Scott?” Orion asked. He looked at Scott’s hands; they were bruised and battered, covered in soot and gnarled. “How is this possible?”

“I’m not Scott. Can I please just finish my meal?”

Orion’s mind was filled with a million, shouting thoughts. “Scott, don’t—don’t you…why did that waitress call you ‘Orion?’”

Scott pushed his chair away from the table and stood. He walked around Orion and toward the door.

“Susie, put it on my tab. Tell Lenny I’ll see him tomorrow.”

Scott walked out of the diner. Orion followed.

“Scott, I need to talk to you,” the old man said. Scott was walking away from him down the crowded, dark street. “Please. Just let me explain—I don’t know what—”

Scott suddenly turned around and grabbed Orion. He walked with the old man toward a building and slammed him against a wall.

“Are you one of them?” Scott growled, cocking his fist, his jaw clenched.

“One of who?” Orion asked, trying to remove Scott’s hand from his coat.

“The ones who have been looking for me,” Scott said, his eyes darting, his hands shaking. “The voices. Are you one of the voices?”

“No,” Orion said. “I don’t—”

Scott let go, but stepped closer to Orion. He was breaking down.

“Don’t mess with me,” Scott said, his voice cracking. He was furious, but also fragile, his eyes welling with tears. “Stop screwing with me. Get out of my head.”

“I’m not—I’m not, Scott…Don’t—don’t you know who I am?”

Scott studied Orion’s face. “You—your name’s Orion?”

“Yes.”

Scott began to cry.

“What’s my name?” he asked. “Please tell me my name.”

***

A short walk from the diner, Scott unlocked a door and led Orion into a small, filthy apartment in a tenement building in Riggston. The place looked like hell: the floor was littered with piles of dirty clothes and half-eaten food, and there was mold on the ceiling and cockroaches crawling on the broken-down furniture.

“This is where you live?” Orion asked.

“Yes,” Scott said, opening a closet and looking inside. He was twitching. “I think so.”

“Do you mind if I sit?”

Scott was now pacing. “Yeah, have a seat, wherever. Just make sure it’s where I can see you. Do you have the circle?”

“The circle…?” Orion looked to Scott; the confused man was breathing heavily, his eyes pinned open. “You can relax,” Orion said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I told you that.”

“Do you know where the circle is?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. Just sit and talk with me. Go ahead.”

Scott sat down on a musty couch. Orion sat in a recliner across from him.

“How did you get here?” Orion asked. “How long have you been here?”

“I don’t…I don’t know. One day I was just here. I didn’t know who I was or what happened. I still don’t. And I can’t leave. They won’t let me.”

Orion thought it over. “Why did that lady call you Orion?”

“It’s the name I’ve been using. I know it’s not mine, but…it’s one of the only names I remember.”

“What are the other names you remember?” Orion asked.

“Catherine. And Tobin.”

Orion felt a lump growing in his throat. He did not know what to say. He looked at Scott, and Scott looked back at him.

“I have a son? A wife?”

Orion didn’t answer.

Scott looked away. He squinted at the floor. “Why can’t—sometimes I remember a life, but it doesn’t seem…who are you? I remember someone…”

Scott stood and walked to a cabinet. He opened a drawer and rummaged through it, searching through hundreds of sheets of yellowed paper. He found the piece he was looking for, and handed it to Orion.

Orion looked at the paper; it was a pencil drawing. It showed a young Orion: he was about twenty-five years old, and wearing his superhero costume, with a mask over his eyes. Scott always loved to draw.

Orion stared at the sketch. His eyes filled with tears. He looked up at Scott, trying to keep it together.

Scott was staring back at him. There was a new openness in his eyes, a recognition. “I remember him,” Scott said, pointing at the drawing. “Is that you?”

Scott walked back to the drawer, rummaged through it, and then retrieved another sheet of paper. He handed the second sheet to Orion.

It was another pencil drawing, this time of both Scott and Orion. They were in their teens and at high school, smiling and laughing.

“Sometimes I remember…” Scott said. “I remember having a friend.”

Orion looked up at Scott, trying not to blink.

“Yes, that’s me,” Orion said, his voice cracking. “I’m your friend. Always.”

Scott’s face fell. His eyebrows drooped.

“I need…” he said, his mouth quivering. “I need…”

Orion stood up and embraced Scott. Scott fell against him, exhausted and weeping.

“Help me,” he said. “Help me.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

In the living room of Adrianna’s house, Tobin was sitting near the fire and keeping his feet warm. Adrianna was standing in the doorway, looking into the kitchen. Keplar and Junior were still sitting at the table, looking over the blueprints of Rigel’s pyramid.

“Are they really gonna stay up all night?” she asked.

“Yeah, probably. I think they’re keeping an eye out. For, you know, bad guys. Or whatever.”

“They’re keeping an eye on me, that’s what they are doing. They can go to bed, you know. So can you. You don’t have to worry about me.”

Adrianna walked into the living room and sat down on a couch. She picked up a book from a nearby table.

“What are you reading?” Tobin asked.

“Something I picked up while I was on Earth.”

Adrianna showed Tobin the book. It was a paperback collection of superhero comic books.

“It’s actually really good,” she said.

Tobin laughed. “I would think you’d have enough of that stuff in your real life.”

“It’s interesting to see it from a different point of view, I guess.” She put the book down and sighed. “Honestly, I just can’t sleep. Not with all this going on. I was hoping to find something to take my mind off of everything.”

“I know. I tried to close my eyes for a little while, but my mind just won’t stop. I wish we could just get out of here for a little while.”

“Me too. But we can’t go anywhere without the risk of being seen.”

“I did have one idea,” Tobin said.

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

The boy grinned. “Didn’t I hear you say something about a hot spring near here?”

***

Three minutes later, Adrianna stood at the edge of the lake-sized hot spring that rested in a cliff near her house. As she held her arms across her chest, shivering, she looked up at the rock-lined waterfall that flowed into the spring from higher up the mountain.

“He can’t be serious,” she said to herself.

“Woo-hoooooooooo!” Tobin yelled, running along the top of the waterfall. When he reached the edge of the rocks, he leapt into the air. “Cannonball!” he bellowed, curling his body into a ball and wrapping his arms around his legs. As he splashed into the hot spring, he sent a spray of water into the air, and an explosion of mist into the sky.

Adrianna laughed as Tobin returned to the surface, his body steaming as he burst through the water.

“Wow!” he said. “That was amazing!”

“You’re insane, you know that?” Adrianna told him. “No wonder why Rigel wants to kill you. You’re insane.”

“This feels great! Come on, come in, come in!”

“No way, I’m freezing out here already.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s why I’m in here, in the unbelievably amazing warm water.”

“What am I supposed to wear?”

“I don’t know, who cares. Just jump in in your clothes. That’s what I did. Just take off your boots.”

“Okay.” She shook her head and leaned over, unlacing her boots. “This is so stupid, what am I…I don’t know why I’m doing this. I’m gonna kill you if I get frostbite or something.”

“Just get in, come on. Quit your complaining.” Tobin watched as Adrianna took off her boots and dipped her toes in the water.

“Oh my god, it’s not even that warm,” she said, wading in, her arms across her chest. “I’m seriously gonna kill you, I really am.”

“Just come in deeper and dunk your head. It’s way warmer in here than out there, I guarantee it.”

Adrianna lowered her chest into the water, then held her nose and dunked her head. When she reemerged, she flung her hair back, whipping it into the air before letting it fall onto her back.

Tobin stared at her as she adjusted her hair behind her ears. “Oh my god, this is actually happening,” he whispered to himself.

“I cannot believe I am doing this right now,” Adrianna said, smiling and shaking her head as she waded to Tobin.

“Doesn’t it feel great?”

“Yeah, it does. But when it’s time to get out and we freeze half-to-death walking back to the house, I’m still gonna beat the crap out of you.”

“Don’t be such a wuss,” Tobin said with a grin. “I thought you were some kind of tough, ruthless chick.”

“I am. And that’s exactly what I’m going to show you once we get out of here.”

Tobin laughed and splashed Adrianna, and she laughed and splashed him back.

***

Inside Adrianna’s house, Keplar and Junior could see the hot spring from the kitchen window, which was overlooking the cliff.

“Let the kid have fun,” Junior said with a laugh. “No one’s gonna hurt him.”

Keplar looked out at the hot spring with a disapproving scowl. “I don’t get how you two are so welcoming to this…whatever she is. I still don’t trust her. She was at one time helping the two people trying to kill us, in case you forgot.”

Junior grabbed two beers from the fridge. “She says she’s not anymore, and even if she was, she wouldn’t do anything now. We’re right up here.” He handed one of the beers to Keplar. “Not to mention I set up all my scanners in the woods to go off the second anyone comes near. Believe me, if we’re in danger, we’ll know. Just relax.”

Keplar took a sip from his beer. “I am, I am. I just…worry about him.”

Junior laughed. “Why are you watching him like a hawk? I think he can take care of himself, you know.”

“I know. But I just owe it to him, that’s all. With everything that’s happened, that’s the least I can do.”

“What do you mean?”

Keplar thought it over. “You know how, years ago, Orion was training me and Rigel to be superheroes?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, when Rigel broke Vincent free from prison…I helped him. I helped Rigel reawaken Vincent, fifteen years ago, when I was a kid.”

Junior was surprised. “You did? Why?”

Keplar stared at the label on his beer. “Orion’s wife…she got sick. The old dude was devastated, and so was I. She was like a mother to me. And Rigel told me that if I helped him break someone free from jail, this person could bring her back. So I listened, and helped. And that person we broke out of prison turned out to be Vincent, who couldn’t bring Orion’s wife back, obviously. That part was a lie. It was all a lie. But Vincent was free, he almost destroyed the damn Earth, and Tobin’s father died because of it.

“So that’s why I gotta watch over the kid. Because it’s my fault his dad is dead.”

“How old were you when this happened?”

“Twelve.”

“So you were a damn kid, and Rigel was what, eighteen or something?”

“Something like that.”

“This guy you looked up to, this older guy you thought was your friend, told you a lie, tricked you, something terrible happened, and you think it was your fault?”

“If it wasn’t for me, none of it woulda happened in the first place. Rigel never woulda found the prison, and Vincent never woulda been freed.”

Junior shook his head. “You didn’t free Vincent, Keplar. Rigel did. You’re gonna beat yourself up over something that happened when you were a kid? Fifteen years ago? You were twelve damn years old. You didn’t know what you were doing—you thought you were doing something great. It wasn’t your fault—it was Rigel’s. The son of a bremshaw lied to you, when you thought he was your friend.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that Scott isn’t here anymore. That Tobin doesn’t have a dad.”

“Does Tobin know all of this?”

“Yeah. I told him a while ago.”

“And what’d he think?”

“He was upset, but he didn’t care about my part. He said he knew that I was just a kid, that I didn’t know what I was doing. That it wasn’t my fault.”

“Exactly.” Junior leaned forward. “The kid doesn’t hold it against you—you’re his friend, the kid friggin’ idolizes you, I can tell. He isn’t killing himself over it, so you shouldn’t, either. You were twelve, Keplar. You can’t let things that happened to you when you were a kid follow you your whole life. A guy will lose himself doing that, he’ll eat himself up till there’s nothing left.”

Keplar stared at the kitchen table.

“Now let’s finish our damn beers,” Junior said, “and figure out how we’re gonna kick the damn brains in of this red giant and his buddies.”

***

Down on the cliff, Tobin and Adrianna were still swimming in the hot spring.

“Can you touch the bottom?” Tobin asked.

“I’m not sure. Can you?”

“Yeah, watch.”

Tobin dunked underwater, then swam back up.

“See? Let’s see who can stay under the longest.”

Adrianna laughed. “You’re like a little kid.”

“Oh, gee, thanks.”

“No, it’s great. I love it. It’s hilarious.”

“I’m just trying to have some fun. I haven’t really had the chance to in the last couple weeks.”

“Why not?” Adrianna teased. “Don’t you have any friends?”

Tobin laughed. “I have friends. I just haven’t…really seen them lately. I don’t know. Things are weird right now.”

Adrianna smirked. “Get used to it.”

“What do you mean?”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Twenty-five.”

Adrianna shot him a look.

“Twenty-three.”

She still didn’t believe it.

“Nineteen,” Tobin said. “I am…almost nineteen. In a year I will be nineteen. Why, how old are you?”

Adrianna smiled. “Twenty-one.”

“Oh, wow!” Tobin said sarcastically. “Twenty-one! Wow, you’re so much older and wiser than me!”

She laughed. “No, I’ve just been exactly where you are. Once you graduate high school, everything changes. The people you thought were your friends suddenly aren’t your friends anymore.”

“That’s not true.”

“Sure it is. And it’s nobody’s fault—everyone just gets older: you change, you grow up, and you become different people. Maybe you no longer like the same things, you no longer have the same sense of humor. Or maybe you just move away and meet new, interesting friends, and then you don’t have room anymore for the old ones. That’s what happens, Tobin.”

“Not with friends like mine.”

Exactly with friends like yours. Are you really the same person you were even a year ago?”

“Yeah.”

“Really? You were a superhero a year ago? Look at how much your life has changed already. And soon your friends’ lives are gonna change, too. And then you’ll all go to different colleges, and suddenly you’ll realize it’s been weeks since you even spoke to them. And the next time you do speak to them, it’ll be different. Like they’re a stranger, or a memory.

“It’s just what happens, Tobin. And the harder you try and hold onto them, the more they slip through your fingers.”

Tobin looked at Adrianna, thinking.

“Wow,” he said after a moment. “You’re depressing.”

She laughed. “I’m just trying to explain it to you, that’s all. So you aren’t shell-shocked when it happens. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

She grinned and splashed him in the face. He splashed her back.

“I didn’t cry. I’ll save that for later, when I’m all alone and friendless.”

She laughed again, then arched her head up toward the kitchen window. “You think they can see us up there?”

Tobin looked at the window. “I don’t know. Why?”

“Come here.”

Adrianna took Tobin’s hand and led him into a cave behind the waterfall.

“What’s back here?” Tobin said, looking at the rocks around him.

“You think they can see us now?” Adrianna asked.

“No,” Tobin replied, “‘cuz all I can see is the backside of water. Why are we—”

Adrianna grabbed Tobin and kissed him, pulling him close, holding her body against his. He was shocked, but then quickly wrapped his mind around what was happening, and kissed her back. In the silence in the cave behind the waterfall, they kissed, with their arms around each other, their bodies pressed against each other. At this point in his life, Tobin had kissed four girls, but none of them with this passion, this intensity. With the other girls, it had always been quick and mostly awkward, with Tobin constantly wondering if he was doing the right thing. Now, though, he was barely thinking at all, and could only feel an incredible, emotional energy being shared between him and Adrianna. He pulled her closer into the waterfall, then parted from her and looked her in her eyes.

“Hi,” she said with a smile, embarrassed. “Was that okay?”

“Uh, yes.” He shook his head. “Wow, you’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

She laughed, and they embraced again, holding each other close.

With a brief moment of thought, Tobin realized that he had never really kissed anyone. Not really, not until this moment. And no one had ever really kissed him.

***

In the Wakefield & Son’s repair shop in the Never-World, Orion and Wakefield stood in the lobby, looking out the front door. Scott was there, sitting on the front porch; the lost soul was quietly watching the sparse cars and horses travel down the road. It had taken a lot of reassuring and frustrating conversation to get Scott to leave the Midnight Hills, but finally Orion had convinced him that he had a friend who might be able to help.

“He has no idea who he is, or how he got here,” Orion said. “He remembered me eventually, but only as how we were when we were kids. He’s so confused. Just getting him to come here, I thought he was gonna lose it.”

“None of this makes any sense,” Wakefield said. “Look at how young he is: he’s exactly the same age as the day he died. He should be your age, even older.”

“I know. What the hell is going on here, Wakefield?”

“I don’t know. See if you can get him to remember anything else. I’m gonna look through those drawings of his.”

Wakefield stepped into his workshop, while Orion walked onto the front porch and sat down in a chair next to Scott.

“Hi,” the old man said. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“No,” Scott replied. “Did your friend know anything about me?”

“He’s, uh, still looking over some things. He’s your friend, too, you know. Do you remember him?”

“No, I don’t remember…” Scott looked out at the road. “Sometimes I remember…little pieces. A blonde woman, who doesn’t seem like she was from the same place as me. But I loved her very much. And a boy. A baby boy. Is that right?”

Orion nodded.

“And sometimes I remember,” Scott said, struggling with the thoughts. “I remember I had other friends. And we went to all kinds of strange places, and wore these weird costumes. But that can’t be true, can it?”

Orion laughed. “Yes, it can, actually. We had a lot of adventures. You, I, and our friends.”

Scott thought, then turned to Orion. “My wife…did she die?”

“No, she didn’t.”

Scott nodded. “Did I die?”

Orion didn’t know how to answer. Wakefield stepped out of the shop and joined them on the porch. He was holding a pile of Scott’s drawings in one hand, and a thick, hardcover book in the other.

“Scott, what is this?” Wakefield asked. He handed Scott one of the drawings; it was a sketch of a pocket watch with a translucent backside. The watch’s gears and cogs were visible. “Why did you draw that?”

Scott looked at the drawing. “I don’t know. That’s the circle. I see it everywhere. When I’m awake, when I’m asleep. Everywhere.”

Wakefield flipped through the book he was holding. He showed a page to Orion. “Do you know what this is, Orion?”

Orion looked at the page; it contained a photograph of a blue pocket watch on a silver chain, and also an article about the watch. The photo looked nearly identical to Scott’s drawing.

“It looks like a pocket watch that used to belong to Scott,” Orion said, “when we were kids. I gave it to Tobin a few months ago, right before Tobin’s final battle with Vincent. Why? What is it?”

Wakefield pointed to the photo of the watch. “This is the Chrono-Key,” he said. “And it explains everything. We need it right now.”

“Why?” Orion asked.

“Because whoever holds it,” Wakefield replied, “can travel through time.”

***

At Adrianna’s house on the mountain overlooking Zanatopia, Keplar and Junior had finally fallen asleep, while Tobin and Adrianna had returned from their swim in the hot spring; they were now warming themselves by the fireplace, wrapped in blankets. The walk back to the house had been mostly silent.

“Hey,” Adrianna said, watching the fire. “I wanna say…thanks for trusting me. And not treating me like, ya know, one of them or something.”

“One of who?” Tobin asked.

“You know. A bad guy.”

Tobin laughed. “You’re not a bad guy.”

“No, seriously. Everyone I meet treats me like one of them, you know. And I’m not. I just…I don’t know. I probably sound like an idiot right now.”

“No, you don’t. Not at all.”

Adrianna thought a moment. “What I wanted to say was…Rigel and Nova… when they find out that I left…I didn’t have anywhere else to go. So I’m glad you listened to me.”

“Don’t worry about it. You helped me, so now I’ll help you. Okay?”

A silence. Adrianna leaned toward the fire, with her elbows on her knees.

“Why are you hanging out with me?” she asked.

“Because you’re better looking than the bald guy and the dog,” Tobin replied. “Why wouldn’t I be hanging out with you?”

“Well…because of what I do, people like you…don’t usually talk to me.”

“What is it that you do?”

“Whatever pays the most. Robbery, bounty hunting, protection. Usually things that aren’t very nice.”

“Why do you do those things?

“I’m…I don’t want…I don’t want to sound…”

“Go ahead.”

“It’s…my mother,” Adrianna said, watching the fire. “And my brother. They’re both sick, they have been for a long time. They have a horrible…it’s awful. No one really knows what’s wrong, but the…it costs a lot of money, to keep up with the treatments and everything.”

“Is that why you were helping Rigel?”

“Yes. He said that if I helped him, he would be able to heal them, find a cure. Or at least pay for it.” She shrugged.

“That’s probably a lie, you know,” Tobin said. “He won’t help you.”

“I know. But I’ll try anything. It’s my family.”

Tobin nodded.

“Why do you do it?” she asked.

“What? You mean be a hero?”

She nodded.

“I don’t know. Because it’s the right thing to do.”

She laughed. “Oh my god.”

“No, I’m serious. I have these powers for a reason, you know? So, me and my friends…this is what we do. Well, until someday soon when they aren’t my friends anymore, and I never talk to them again, like you warned me about.”

She chuckled. “I’m just telling you, Tobin; everyone leaves sometime.”

“Not this time. I’m still looking forward to proving you wrong on this.”

She shrugged. “Friends come in and out of your life. Even your best ones. People change, lives change…and the friends who were once a huge part of your life are suddenly gone. Your lives go in different directions.

“The only thing that lasts in this life is family. And even then…that can change, too. It just happens.”

A silence.

“Well, I think you’re wrong,” Tobin said. “I think you just want me to get mad and leave you alone so you can go to sleep.”

She laughed. “No, actually—I like hearing all your naive views on life. I was hoping you’d stay awake a little longer.”

Tobin laughed. “Sure. I just live to entertain you.”

***

Tobin heard the chirping of crickets. He opened his eyes; he was lying on the couch in front of the fire at Adrianna’s house. It was still night. He must have fallen asleep.

Tobin looked to where Adrianna had been sitting, and saw that she was gone. But there was a note on the coffee table in front of the couch:

HEY, TOBIN, STILL COULDN’T SLEEP. IF YOU WAKE UP, MEET ME ON TOP OF THE WATERFALL. I NEED TO TELL YOU SOMETHING.

After a quick change of clothes into his Strike costume to keep warm, Tobin walked to the top of the waterfall above the hot spring. Adrianna was there, standing at the edge of the rocks, with her back to him.

“Hey, Adrianna. What’d you wanna tell me?”

She turned around. She was crying.

Tobin was confused. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

“I’m so sorry, Tobin,” she said.

Tobin felt a burning. He looked down. The blade of a glowing, purple knife was sticking out of his chest, having been shoved all the way through his back. The white-hot burning spread to his arms and stomach as the knife was removed, disappearing back through his ribs.

With his eyes wide and his lungs breathless, Tobin turned to his attacker; Jonathan Ashmore—the pale man in the purple suit, the man who had turned into a bat-creature the first night Tobin had used his powers—was standing there, holding a glowing, purple, bloodied knife. Before Tobin could defend himself or yell for help, his vision went blurry and left him, and he fell to the ground.

Adrianna looked at Tobin’s unmoving body, sobbing, with her hands against her mouth.

“It’s okay, sis,” Jonathan said. “You did a great job. Everything’s gonna be fine. We did what we had to do. Everything’s gonna be fine.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

“What do you mean, it can send people through time?” Orion asked, concerned, as he followed Wakefield into the back of the repair shop.

Wakefield was frantic, searching through stacks of books for more information on the Chrono-Key. “This watch—I didn’t think it even existed. There were rumors—legends—saying that whoever held the watch could instantly transport themselves to wherever they most needed to be. No matter if that place was in the present…or the past. This thing was so dangerous, so potentially lethal to time itself, that it was sealed away forever, thousands of years ago. How the hell did Scott get it?”

Orion thought it over. “He found it, when we were kids. I can barely remember…we were on a mission in some remote desert—Scott, myself, Matt, and Vincent—and Scott found it hidden in a cave—just stumbled upon it. He started bringing it with him everywhere we went for a while, saying it was good luck.”

Wakefield slammed a book shut and moved on to another. “Well, isn’t that just goddamn great.”

Orion stared across the shop, remembering. “In Tobin’s battle against Vincent, he said he passed out, and when he woke up, he was…he wasn’t sure, but he thought he was with his mother and father.”

“I remember.”

Orion and Wakefield turned to the workshop doorway; Scott was there.

“I remember what happened,” he said.

Scott sat down at the workbench. Orion and Wakefield joined him.

“It was a July night,” Scott explained. “A thunderstorm was raging, loud and awful. Orion, you needed my help against Vincent, so I was leaving my house on Earth, trying not to wake up my wife as I packed my things in the kitchen. But she did wake up, and we got into an argument. I had to leave, I knew I had to, but I couldn’t tell her why. She didn’t know the truth about my past, and she was angry that I wasn’t telling her anything. I felt awful about it, and I was trying to calm her down, so we wouldn’t wake the baby, too.

“But then…there was a boom. And a blue flash, coming from the baby’s room. Me and my wife, we ran in, terrified, and we saw our three-year-old son, Tobin, sitting up in his bed. He was crying and afraid, but he was okay. And there was something else.

“Near the baby’s bed…there was a teenage boy lying in a heap on the floor, seventeen or eighteen years old. He was bloody, beaten to hell like he was in some kind of accident or something. And he was wearing my superhero costume.”

Junior turned to Orion. The old man was listening to Scott’s story, with his hands clenched in front of him.

“The boy was delirious,” Scott said. “He was out of it…he kept rambling on and on. He was talking about you, Orion. And Vincent. He kept telling me that he needed to go back and help you, needed to help you save the Earth from Vincent. I think I talked to him and sent him back where he came, but that’s all I remember.”

Orion stared ahead, thinking.

“Do you understand what’s happened?” Wakefield said, standing up. “Tobin had the Chrono-Key with him during his final battle with Vincent seven months ago, and just when the boy was at his lowest, just when he thought he was beaten, the watch brought him to the one place he most wanted to be: back home, with his mother and father. But that place only existed in the past! During his fight with Vincent, Tobin traveled back to the night that Scott died, and actually spoke with his mother and father, fifteen years ago!”

“Only Scott didn’t die.”

“No. Apparently not. Because Tobin changed something. By traveling back in time with the Chrono-Key, Tobin created a reality where somehow Scott didn’t die. Something that happened in our time stream…never happened.”

“Hold on,” Orion said. “How can that be? Are you telling me that time travel is actually possible?”

“Yes,” Wakefield said. “Time travel is possible, but it’s not how people usually think of it. The Chrono-Key can’t give you the ability to travel into the future, simply because the future hasn’t happened yet—there’s nothing there to travel to, it doesn’t exist. We are constantly making the future every minute we are here, with every choice we make. It’s impossible to travel to something that is being created every second in front of us. If you asked me to show you the exact future, I couldn’t. There are infinite possibilities, and none of them exist until we create them.

“But, with the Chrono-Key, it is possible to travel to the past, because there is somewhere to go—the past is tangible: it happened and it existed and it was there. There are concrete places and events to travel to, and people to see, and happenings to relive.

“But even that part isn’t how people think; you can’t travel into the past and change things, change the present. Because anytime someone travels into the past, they create a new timeline—so when they return to the present, things are just the same as when they left. But, by traveling to the past, they have created a new timeline, one that branches off from the moment they arrived in the past and began to change things, began to interact with people.

“By traveling back to the night his father died, Tobin created a new timeline—a new timeline where, for whatever reason after Tobin left, Scott never died on that stormy night, never died battling Vincent to save the Earth.”

“And now that Scott has ended up here,” Orion asked. “But why?”

Wakefield cocked an eyebrow. “The Never-World, the place where lost souls go when they have nowhere else? Where would you end up if you were from an alternate timeline, with no memories and no idea who you were? Seems pretty obvious to me.”

Orion thought it over. He shook his head, frustrated. “What the hell does all this mean?”

“It means,” Wakefield said, “we need to find that pocket watch.”

***

In the stone pyramid in the middle of the jungle, down a long stairway leading away from the pyramid control room, there was a dark, dank dungeon. It was here where Tobin now found himself, chained to the wall by his wrists. His ankles were also chained to the floor, and his costume was hanging off him in pieces, with his bloody, scarred skin showing through holes in the fabric. As he wobbily held his head up, he opened the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut and saw Rigel. The red giant was rearing back for another swing.

“Where is he?” Rigel bellowed, as his massive fist cracked against Tobin’s jaw. The boy’s head snapped to the side and his mouth spat blood. “Where is he?” the giant yelled again, backhanding the boy across the face.

Tobin’s head hung toward the floor, then he slowly looked up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Who are we talking about again?”

“The Daybreaker!” Rigel said, grabbing Tobin by his jaw and bellowing in his face. “Show me where he is!”

“Did you try looking in the couch cushions?” Tobin said. “Whenever I can’t find something, it seems like it’s always in the couch cushions.”

Rigel slapped Tobin. The boy grimaced.

“You will show him to us,” the red giant said, inches from Tobin. “You will starve, you will burn, you will endure pain that the universe has no name for. But you will show him to us. We will find him.”

Rigel saw something shining through a hole in Tobin’s shirt, near the boy’s chest. It was glinting with a blue reflection from the sole light bulb that was hanging from the dungeon’s ceiling.

Rigel reached through the hole in Tobin’s shirt and grabbed the shining object, ripping it from the necklace around Tobin’s neck. The object was a blue, translucent pocket watch, about the size of a small seashell, hanging from a silver chain. Its gears, levers, and cogs were visible through its back.

Rigel held the watch up to his eyes, inspecting it. “This is…interesting.”

The red giant turned and walked up the dungeon’s stone stairway and into the pyramid control room. Nova was there, waiting for him.

“What’s the next part of our plan?” Nova asked.

“We use Tobin to figure out how to find the Daybreaker,” Rigel replied, clutching the blue pocket watch in his hand.

“And how are we going to do that?”

“We break him until there is nothing left.”

Jonathan Ashmore—the pale man in the purple suit—approached Rigel as the giant and Nova walked across the control room.

“Hey, guys,” Jonathan said, “this is all well and good, I’m glad we finally got the kid here and all—hooray—but I think it’s about time me and my sister split. We’ve fulfilled our end of the agreement, so how about you fulfill yours?”

Rigel stopped and turned to Jonathan. “There was no agreement, other than the one in which I agreed not to kill you.”

Jonathan was nervous, but not giving up. “We agreed we would get you Tobin, and you agreed to pay us. We’ve only gotten half the money. Now you have Tobin, and we need to get the other half. That’s how this ‘payment for services rendered’ thing works.”

Rigel grabbed Jonathan and pressed him against the wall. “You are lucky I do not rip your head off as you stand here. You and your sister will go nowhere until the Daybreaker is here. That was the agreement. And even then, you will be fortunate if I let you leave here alive.”

“But you said,” Jonathan stammered, “you said you would help us. Help us find the cure. We did what we promised.”

Rigel walked away. “With how immeasurably you failed Vincent and I, this is the least you could do. I owe you nothing, and I owe your sister nothing. Especially since it seems she is much more concerned with the welfare of our prisoner than she is with finding the Daybreaker.”

In the dungeon at the bottom of the stairs, Tobin was barely conscious, his body hanging from the wall, his chin against his chest. He heard something move in the darkness, and looked up to see Adrianna hiding in the shadows. She was carrying a bucket of water.

“Oh great,” Tobin murmured. “Exactly who I wanted to see.”

“I’m sorry, Tobin,” she said, stepping into the light. She was crying. “I’m sorry.” She removed her long black cape and dipped it into the water, using it to clean Tobin’s wounds. He winced each time she touched him.

“So,” he said, “are you here to shove another knife through my ribs, or…?”

She shook her head, tears running down her face. “I had to do it, Tobin. I had no choice. I didn’t know they were going to do this to you, they promised me they wouldn’t. If I knew this would happen, I never would have—”

“Yeah, I know,” Tobin said. “Right.”

“Tobin, it’s my mother. And my brother. They need my help. I only did this—they’ll die if I don’t help them. I didn’t know what else to do.”

She sobbed. Tobin stared at her.

“You are one of them, you know,” he said. “You aren’t any different. Rigel, Nova, your brother…you’re all the same. You’re one of them.”

She cried. “No, Tobin, please. I’ll help you, I’ll—”

She knelt in front of Tobin, wrapping her arms around him. He hung from the wall, silent, his body broken and mangled.

***

On the cliff overlooking the waterfall near Adrianna’s house, Keplar leaned over and touched the grass. There was a small puddle of blood on the ground. The husky had woken up during the night, only to find Tobin and Adrianna gone. Now what he had feared all along had been confirmed.

Junior was standing nearby, looking at the blood. “I’m sorry, Keplar. She must have turned off my sensors in the forest, she must have—you were right. I don’t know how I didn’t see it coming. You were right. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We made a mistake. It won’t happen again.” Keplar stood up. “Are you ready?”

“For what?”

“We go get Orion. Then we come back here and save my friend.”

Junior held up his hand; his robotic glove grew over it.

“Lead the way.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Rigel shoved the door open with his shoulder and stomped into the pyramid control room, carrying a stack of books under each of his arms. After tossing the books onto a metal table, he opened one and flipped through it, his frantic hands nearly ripping its pages.

“Rigel,” Nova asked, “what is this blue pocket watch? We have other things to worry about, we need to be—”

Rigel grunted and waved Nova off. The giant’s yellow eyes were pinned to the book, scanning its pages. Tossing the book aside, he searched for another, clutching the Chrono-Key in his left hand.

As Nova watched the red giant, frustrated, Jonathan approached.

“So, Nova,” Jonathan said, “while Rigel’s over there doing his summer reading, we need to talk about our arrangement. My sister and I did everything you asked us, even more when you—”

“Oh my god,” Rigel said. He was staring at the book, his eyes wide. “Here it is. This is it.”

Nova stepped to Rigel. “What did you find, Rigel?”

Jonathan threw his arms up. “Great. This is just great.”

“This,” Rigel said, holding the Chrono-Key in front of him. “This is the answer to…to everything. It’s this watch. This watch that just fell into our lap…this is the key to the Daybreaker. He must be watching over us, even now…”

“What is it?” Nova took the book from the table. There was a drawing of the blue watch in the book, along with an explanation of its abilities. Nova began reading.

Rigel walked to the center of the room, gripping the Chrono-Key with both hands and holding it against his chest. As the cogs, gears, and levers inside the watch began to move, a blue energy emanated from the device and surrounded the giant’s body, twisting and swirling around him.

“I’m going to find him, Vincent,” Rigel said. He was nearly in tears, his eyes closed. “I’m going to change everything, I’m going to fix everything…I’m…” The giant arched his head and looked to the sky, crying. “Oh, thank you, Vincent. Thank you.”

The blue energy from the Chrono-Key built and grew in color until it burst in a flash and a BOOM! A wave of white-and-blue energy spread out from Rigel and cascaded over the room. Suddenly, Rigel and the Chrono-Key were gone.

“What was that?” Jonathan said, covering his eyes with his arm. “Where the hell did he go?”

Nova was reading the entry in the book about the blue watch. “He left,” the grey-masked man said. “He went…to go find him. He did it. He actually did it. He’s going to find him.”

“Who?” Jonathan asked. “The Daybreaker…? Does this mean my sister and I can get paid and get the hell out of here?”

Nova spun to Jonathan and blasted him with a solar energy beam from his hand. Jonathan screamed and dropped to the ground, his purple suit smoking, his body paralyzed.

“You simple moron,” Nova said. “Don’t you understand? None of that means anything now. I have what I want. We’ve found him. I have what I want.”

“That’s great,” Jonathan said, wincing. “I just want my money, please.”

Nova blasted Jonathan again. “Guards, restrain him.” Two Rytonian guards standing near the door lifted Jonathan by his arms and held him in the air.

“Where would you like him?” one of the guards asked.

“Keep him here,” Nova said. “Rigel will be back any moment, and we will decide what to do with him and his sister then. In the meantime, if he turns into the bat…kill him.”

Adrianna was watching the exchange nearby, hiding behind one of the grey computer towers in the control room. When Nova returned to the book to read more about the Chrono-Key, she dashed through the shadows and down the control room stairs that led to the dungeon.

At the bottom of the stairs, Tobin was still chained to the wall, with barely the strength to lift his head.

“If you keep coming down here,” the boy said, “people are gonna start rumors.”

“Shut up and save your energy,” Adrianna said. She walked to Tobin and began to unlock his shackles. “We’re gonna need you.”

Tobin fell from the wall and into Adrianna’s arms. She crouched down with him and gently laid him down on the ground.

“Why?” Tobin asked. “What’s going on?”

“Rigel’s found him,” Adrianna said. “He’s found the Daybreaker. You need to stay down here and rest. If we don’t have you, we’re all as good as dead. Stay down here and try to heal up.”

“What are you gonna do?” Tobin asked, his voice scratching against his throat.

“I have no idea,” Adrianna replied. “But most likely? Stand and watch with everybody else while the universe is destroyed.”

***

“Let me go!” Jonathan bellowed, trying to free himself from the Rytonian guards. “Dammit, we were supposed to be a part of your team! We had an agreement!”

“You don’t make agreements with gods,” Nova said, reading the information on the Chrono-Key. “Which is what I will be, once Rigel returns. Take comfort in knowing that you’ll be able to tell people you were once in the same room as me.”

“What makes you think I’m not gonna kill you before he gets here?” Jonathan yelled from across the control room.

Nova snickered. “Oh, Jonathan. Why Rigel and Vincent ever had any faith in you, I’ll never know. I’ll take great satisfaction in watching you slowly die from that terrible little disease of yours.”

“I’ll kill you!” Jonathan said, his eyes turning yellow. The back of his suit was beginning to tear—his bat wings were sprouting from his back. “I’ll kill both of you!”

But then a wind picked up in the pyramid. Nova looked up from his book and walked to the center of the control room. Jonathan felt the wind, too, and his transformation faded; as he watched, a circle of blue energy sparked on the floor, then grew outward, spreading out to the walls like a ripple in a pond. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a snapping BOOM!, and Rigel reappeared in the control room, kneeling on one knee and clutching the Chrono-Key in his hand. Another person was with him.

It was a man in a metal helmet, his face hidden. He was lying on the ground, unconscious, and his entire body was covered in a silver, shining suit of armor. The armor was similar to that of a medieval knight, except for the sharp, gleaming spikes running along the man’s arms, from his shoulders down to his elbows. There were also red, arrow-like markings painted on the sides of his armor, along the man’s ribs. His hands and feet were both unseen under the gloves and boots of the armor, and he was completely still.

“Where did you go?” Nova asked, keeping his eyes on the man in the armor. “Is this him?”

Rigel was exhausted, breathing heavily, but smiling. “I found him,” the giant said with a laugh. “I left this place and I found him. He is nearly ready. Help me bring him to the throne.”

Nova knelt by the Daybreaker’s unmoving body. “What happened, why is he…” Nova turned the Daybreaker over and looked at his face. It was covered by the helmet, which was made from the same shining, silver metal as the suit of armor. The helmet had two sinister, insect-like eyes built into it, and two horizontal slits where its wearer’s nose would be. For a mouth, there was a rectangular box, filled with slivers of identical strips of metal in a grid, appearing to be its teeth. The helmet gave the wearer the appearance of a silent, stoic demon. Even Nova was unsettled as he stared into the cold, emotionless eyes of the Daybreaker.

Nova looked over the Daybreaker’s armor. He noticed that much of it was covered in razor-sharp blades, as if the Daybreaker could slice off an opponent’s arm simply by brushing past them as he walked by.

“Why is he unconscious?” Nova asked. The Daybreaker’s armor was bloodied, as if he had recently been in a battle. “Shouldn’t he be—”

“Help me bring him to the throne,” Rigel repeated.

“He’s not ready for that yet,” Nova said. “You know we can’t begin the process until he accepts it and understands what we are doing. If we begin before he’s ready, he could be—”

“We don’t have time!” Rigel roared. “We need to start the process now! Help me, and we can proceed once the memory stream has begun.”

Nova was unsure and cautious, but he nodded in agreement. Careful not to cut themselves on the Daybreaker’s armor, they dragged his heavy body across the control room and toward the back wall of the pyramid. For days, an elegant, metal throne had been sitting there, waiting for this moment; now, finally, Rigel and Nova were able to place the Daybreaker in his place of honor, where his education would begin.

“Lift his head and hold it there,” Rigel said. Nova complied, lifting the jaw of the Daybreaker so that the Daybreaker stared straight ahead. Nova looked at the back of the unconscious man’s neck; there was a socket on the back of the man’s helmet, filled with intricate gold wires and coils.

“Hold him still,” Rigel said. The red giant placed his hand on the Daybreaker’s forehead and pushed, connecting the socket on the back of his helmet with a plug on the throne. The Daybreaker was now in place, with his helmet connected to the throne, and his arms and hands placed on the metal chair’s armrests.

“Begin the memory stream,” Rigel said.

“We can’t,” Nova replied. “Not until he is conscious, and aware of what is happening. If we begin now, we could ruin him—the memories won’t hold, and we will no longer be able to—”

“The time is now,” Rigel said. “We no longer need to wait. He has come to us. This is how it was destined to happen. There is no need to wait for him to accept us. To succeed, we must begin the process now.”

Nova stared at the Daybreaker a moment, then stepped to the side of the throne. There was a silver lever there, similar to a switch that would power a large electrical device. After holding his hand on the lever, Nova pulled it down, and turned on the throne. A quiet hum emanated from the chair, and the insect-like eyes on the Daybreaker’s helmet lit with a white glow.

“It has begun,” Rigel said, as he and Nova watched the Daybreaker. “In moments, he will be with us. And the peace that Vincent died for will become a reality.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Orion looked out the window of the soaring Sky-Blade; he could see the flat-topped pyramid in the middle of the jungle down on the ground, and the long runway leading up to it.

“Bring us down here, Keplar,” the old man said. “On this hill overlooking the runway. They’ll see us coming, but at this point we don’t have any choice.”

After the Sky-Blade came to a stop on the hill, Keplar and Orion walked out of its side door and down the ramp. Both of them were holding motorcycle helmets; Orion’s was red, Keplar’s was blue. As Orion looked into a pair of binoculars, he studied the pyramid; it was at the other end of the runway, about a half of a mile away.

“All right,” Orion said. “This is it. They are going to be waiting for us, so prepare yourself.”

Orion put on the red motorcycle helmet and pulled its visor down over his face.

“You sure these things are gonna protect us?” Keplar asked, turning to the Sky-Blade.

Junior walked out of the ship, followed by three vehicles he was controlling by a remote. The vehicles were similar to all-terrain vehicles—ATVs—with four large wheels and a handlebar for steering. One of the four-wheelers was blue, one was red, and one was grey.

“I made them,” Junior said. “Of course I’m sure they’re gonna protect us.”

“How do you know?” Keplar asked.

“Try to get on it.”

Keplar stepped toward the blue ATV, but immediately bounced off and fell to the ground. He was so violently pushed back that he tumbled over backwards on the jungle floor.

“Force fields,” Junior said with a grin. “And the best damn ones in Capricious.”

“Okay,” Keplar said, standing up and dusting off his cowboy hat. “Not bad. And what if they get broken?”

“They won’t,” Junior said. “And even if they do…he’ll be there in front of us, taking care of anything in our way.”

Junior, Orion, and Keplar turned to the Sky-Blade. The fourth member of their rescue party walked out of the ship and joined them.

***

Inside the pyramid control room, Nova was watching a security monitor. On it, he could see Orion and the others mounting their ATVs.

“Rigel, we’ve been found.”

Rigel was standing near the Daybreaker, who was still sitting silently in the throne.

“Yes, I imagined they’d get here eventually,” the giant said. He turned to the Rytonian guards, who were holding Jonathan captive. “Guards, take Jonathan and his sister and lead them into the jungle. When you can no longer see the pyramid, leave them.”

“What?” Jonathan shouted. “How are we gonna find our way home? That was never the agreement! You need to hold to your end of the agreement!”

“The agreement has changed. Your new reward for bringing us Tobin is that you get to live.”

“And what about Tobin?” Nova asked. “Do we still need him?”

“No,” Rigel replied. “He is useless to us now that the Daybreaker is here. Now he can be eliminated.”

“You’re going to kill him? After all you did to bring him here?”

“Yes—slowly and deliberately. As punishment for his crimes to us, our people, and Vincent.”

Rigel walked to a wooden gate near the dungeon stairway and pressed a series of buttons on a control pad; an alarm sounded, the gate rose, and two Gores emerged. However, these Gores were not like the others; they were seven feet tall, and nearly as wide and muscular as Rigel. Instead of hoods, they were wearing golden helmets, with a vertical slit down the middle that exposed their red, glowing eyes, and their mouths full of sharp, white teeth. They were also wearing armor made out of black leather under their brown cloaks, and carrying broadswords with blades that were six feet long and two feet wide.

“Gladiators,” Rigel said, as the colossal Gores frothed at the mouth and growled. “Head downstairs to the dungeon. There you will find a boy. Kill him. Enjoy it.”

The Gore Gladiators turned and headed down the dungeon stairway, holding their broadswords over their shoulders, their heavy footsteps thudding on the stone floor.

“What about Orion and the others from the sky-ship?” Nova asked. “They’re headed this way.”

“I’ve been waiting nearly a year to see them again,” Rigel said. “Don’t you think I would be ready?”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Outside the pyramid, the stone drawbridge entrance of the structure raised and closed, and a series of Gatling guns and laser cannons emerged from the walls. Over a dozen more cannons and Gatling guns emerged from the ground along the pyramid runway, and, at once, all of the weapons turned and pointed their barrels at the intruders approaching from the jungle.

But it was not Orion, Keplar, or Junior who led the way.

It was a nine-foot tall, humanoid robot, with its silver body shining in the starlight. It had one, horizontal green eye under its forehead, but other than that, its face was featureless. As it stomped down the runway, the Gatling guns and cannons fired, but the laser blasts and explosions had no effect on the silent robot.

The sounds of humming engines were heard buzzing through the jungle, and the three ATVs from the Sky-Blade emerged from the dense trees, following the robot down the runway. Orion was driving the red ATV, Keplar was piloting the blue, and Junior was behind the wheel of the grey.

“Boy, this looks fun,” Keplar said into his helmet communicator. “You sure we’re gonna make it there alive, Junior?”

“Damn sure,” Junior replied. “Just watch.”

The cannons and Gatling guns along the runway fired more rapidly, increasing their barrage of lasers and explosive blasts toward the silver robot. Most of the desperate blasts missed the ‘bot, however, and the ones that landed were simply absorbed into his silver chest plate.

Turning to his left, the robot raised his hand and opened his palm. As his green eye focused on one of the Gatling guns, a giant glob of oil the size of an elephant exploded from his hand. The oil flew across the runway, splattered against the gun, and covered it in black gunk, causing it to short-circuit in a shower of sparks. Using his blasts of oil, the robot took out thirteen more Gatling guns and a half dozen cannons, all in a matter of six seconds.

The cannons and guns were also firing on the ATVs, but the lasers were bouncing off of the force fields surrounding Orion, Keplar, and Junior. The heroes were also weaving in-and-out of the lasers, avoiding as much of the fire as they could.

Orion spoke into his helmet communicator. “Junior, Keplar: take out anyone in your way, and head around back to the second floor entrance we saw on the blueprints. I’m going straight in.”

“You sure about that, O?” Keplar asked.

“Yes. Enter by the second floor and wait for my call. I’m facing them alone.”

***

On the surveillance screen in the pyramid control room, Nova was watching as the robot and ATVs approached.

“Army, ready yourselves.”

The floor of the pyramid control room had been cleared out of its usual decorations and personnel; it was now filled only with Rigel and twenty-eight of his Gore demons, ready for battle. The red giant and the hooded, five-foot tall creatures were facing the stone drawbridge entrance of the pyramid, which was raised and closed.

“Do not attack until I give the order,” Rigel said.

Rigel and his army of Gores stared at the closed drawbridge, and watched as something began cutting through it from the other side. It was a laser torch, and as the white-hot flame of the torch burnt through the stone, Rigel realized that the person wielding the torch was cutting out a door; the laser first cut upward in a long vertical line, then across in a short horizontal line, and then finally down in another vertical line.

When the laser reached the floor, the cutting job was complete, and a stone slab rectangle fell forward into the pyramid with a BOOM! The green growth of the jungle outside the structure was revealed, along with the silver, nine-foot tall, humanoid robot, who stepped into the new pyramid doorway, with its finger still glowing with white-hot heat.

Rigel grunted at the sight of the robot, while his Gores hissed and snarled, clicking their two-clawed hands together. The robot looked around at them silently with its green eye, until suddenly a silver plate on the front of its head opened. The plate revealed Scatterbolt’s face behind it, which—he would readily admit—looked pretty out of place on his new nine-foot tall body.

“How’d I do, Orion?” the robot asked. “Was that right?”

Orion stepped through the doorway and into the pyramid, with his bow and arrow ready.

“Yes, very good, Scatterbolt. Great job.”

Rigel stepped in front of his army of Gores. “So, Orion, is this yet another child you’ve recruited and forced to do your fighting for you?”

“I’m not a child,” Scatterbolt said. “I’m a robot.” He raised his hand and blasted Rigel with a rushing stream of water, which sent the red giant tumbling backward.

Scatterbolt turned off his blast of water. “Idiot,” he finished, shaking his head.

As Orion stepped toward Rigel, Nova and the army of Gores readied themselves, with Nova drawing a samurai sword from his back, and the Gores baring their claws.

“No, wait, wait,” Rigel said, standing up, soaking wet. “They pose no threat to us. Not with him here. Not with the Daybreaker here.”

Rigel stepped forward, but slipped and fell in the water, landing hard on his elbow. Orion walked to him and offered him a hand.

“Marcus, stop this,” the old man said. “It has gone on long enough. You look foolish. Vincent is dead, and you can’t—”

“He’s dead because you killed him!” Rigel screamed. “All he wanted to do was bring order to Earth, and peace to the universe, and you killed him!”

“You know that’s not true, Marcus. You do. He wanted to enslave billions of people, because he was afraid of them. His fear drove him insane, and you need to stop before you—”

“He wasn’t afraid.”

“Yes, he was. He was afraid of something and he let it obsess him and ruin his life. And he died because of it. And now that same thing is happening to you. You can’t let things that frighten you destroy your life.”

“No—Vincent wasn’t afraid. He knew what would happen if the humans of Earth ever discovered our world. The same thing they have done to themselves for centuries: war, murder, genocide. Vincent wasn’t afraid of the humans; he just knew what they were capable of, and what had to be done—they had to be controlled, to protect Capricious.”

Orion shook his head. “You can’t control the entire universe, Marcus. You can only control yourself. And right now, your actions are leading to your destruction, and the destruction of the people you care about. You can change this course, whenever you want to. You just have to act—you have the choice.”

Rigel stood up. “I’ve heard this before, Orion. You wanted me to be the one to stop Vincent. You told me he was a liar, and a murderer. You told me that, and I almost believed you.

“But it was all a lie. You were the liar. Vincent showed me the truth. He showed me the truth about the humans of Earth, and how it was my destiny to change them. He allowed me to be a part of his dream for Capricious. He was going to lead us into a safe, new universe where we wouldn’t have to worry about the chaotic, destructive humans of Earth. And now, as much as you’ve tried to stop us, I’m going to make his dream come true.”

“How, Marcus? Even Vincent couldn’t succeed in his takeover of Earth. You have to stop this, before it goes any further. You’re only going to get yourself killed, taking god knows how many other lives with you. And for nothing.”

Rigel shook his head. “Not now—not now that I have him.” The red giant pointed to the Daybreaker, who was sitting in the metal throne at the other end of the control room. “He is the Daybreaker. He is the savior of the universe, the ruler of the humans of Earth.”

Orion stared at the silent Daybreaker. “Who is he, Rigel? How did you find him?”

“With this.”

Rigel reached under his green robe and showed Orion the Chrono-Key, which was hanging around his neck.

Orion’s eyes went wide. “Oh, no…”

“All right, enough of this krandor.”

Orion looked up. Keplar and Junior were standing on the second floor of the pyramid control room, looking down on the others.

“I know we were supposed to wait for your order, Orion,” Keplar said, holding his plasma cannon over his shoulder. “But I can’t listen to this blurkopping dweeb and his daddy issues anymore.”

Keplar and Junior jumped down from the second floor and onto the ground level with the others.

“Can I please just punch someone already?” the husky asked.

Nova pointed his sword at Orion, Keplar, Scatterbolt, and Junior.

“Gores!” he shouted. “Attack!”

“Thank you,” Keplar said with a sigh, shaking his head.

The Gores charged at the four heroes, snapping their fangs and raising their two-clawed hands. Keplar, Scatterbolt, and Junior fought off the wave of demons, while Orion broke free and engaged in a battle with Rigel. The old man used his bow to defend himself against the blows from Rigel’s massive, wooden club.

“You can’t win, Rigel,” Orion said, dodging a swipe from the giant. “Please. Listen to me. Vincent is gone, and the past is over. You can choose not to live this way. You have to believe me.”

“He’s not gone, Orion. He’s with us, always, all around us. He showed me the way to the Daybreaker.”

Rigel landed an uppercut against Orion’s chest, lifting the old man off his feet. The old man fell to the ground, holding his broken ribs, and scrambled to escape the red giant.

“And now,” Rigel said, following Orion, “he will show me the way to kill you.”

Keplar watched as Orion fired a red-tipped arrow that stuck into Rigel’s leg, slowing the giant down, and allowing Orion to get to his feet and escape. But, because the husky was distracted, he wasn’t able to dodge the Gore that jumped onto his arm and dug its claws into his fur.

“Anyone know where Tobin is?” Keplar said, struggling with the biting, scratching Gore. “We could really use his help.”

Adrianna jumped down from the second floor, using her double-bladed weapon to spear the Gore that was attacking Keplar.

“You’re just gonna havta settle for me,” she said, as she removed the Gore’s empty cloak from the end of her blade.

“Seriously?” the dog asked. “Whose side are you on here, sister?”

Adrianna reached down and took the laser blasters from Keplar’s holsters. Holding a blaster in each of her hands, she shot down three Gores that were charging at her.

“I told you,” she said. “I don’t have a side. Now duck.”

Keplar ducked, and Adrianna fired a laser over his head, blasting a Gore.

Keplar looked at the demon’s empty cloak, then turned to Adrianna. “I don’t know if I should thank you or shoot you.”

“I’d go with the first one,” she replied.

Keplar raised his plasma cannon, and he and Adrianna stood back-to-back, with her firing her twin laser blasters and him shooting his exploding green blasts of plasma at the hooded demons.

Nearby, Nova was swinging his sword through the air and firing his streams of solar energy from his fists, but his target was elusive; Scatterbolt—in his new, nine-foot tall body—was hovering over the battle with his head-mounted helicopter, and dodging all of Nova’s attacks. When the robot saw an opening, he fired a glob of oil down at the grey-masked man, covering the villain in the sticky, black gunk.

“Enough of this,” Nova growled, shaking the oil from his hands. He looked across the control room: Junior was brawling with a group of Gores, sending them flying in all directions with his cybernetic gloves. Walking up behind Junior, the grey-masked man fired a blast of solar energy at the ground.

“Stop!” Nova yelled, as the searing, golden light from his hand hit the ground and exploded. Instantly, the control room was washed out in the blinding light, and no one—except Nova—could see a thing.

When the golden nothingness finally faded from his blinking eyes, Orion looked across the pyramid: Nova was now standing behind Junior, holding the bald man’s arm behind his back, while using his other arm to hold his samurai sword across Junior’s neck. The entire room—Orion, Keplar, Scatterbolt, Adrianna, Rigel, and the Gores—stopped and stared at Nova and his hostage.

“I think we can all agree,” Nova said, bringing Junior towards the Daybreaker’s throne, “that we are all accomplishing absolutely nothing here. It’s clear, to me, at least, that the only way to end this fight would be to ask our new friend here to get involved.” Nova motioned toward the Daybreaker, who was sitting silent and still. “And we don’t want to do that. Not yet, anyway. So, let’s say we settle this another time, huh? Seems the rational thing to do. If you want to keep fighting…well, then Baldy here gets his throat cut.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Adrianna said, lying on the pyramid floor, bruised and bleeding from the Gores. “He’ll do it anyway.”

Rigel stomped over to Adrianna. “Enough from you,” he said, before spitting on her. “You have chosen very unwisely, Adrianna. You have aligned yourself with the losers in this battle for Earth—a place you hold no allegiance to, a world that would destroy ours the moment they discovered it. You will be the first to die, but not until—”

“Wait,” Adrianna said. “I have a question for you.”

Rigel growled. “Enough. No more of your games.”

“No, no, listen,” she said. “Didn’t you send two of those Gladiator beasts down there to kill Tobin a little while ago? Don’t you think we would have heard, I don’t know, something from them by now? Don’t you think they would have come back?”

Rigel thought it over, his eyes looking away from Adrianna. Suddenly, footsteps were heard, echoing through the pyramid control room. The footsteps were coming up the stairs from the dungeon—THUD…THUD…THUD. Rigel—and everyone else in the room—turned toward the stairs.

The echoing footsteps stopped, and Tobin appeared at the top of the dungeon stairway, standing in the doorway that led into the control room. He was beaten; the top half of his costume was torn completely off, exposing his waist and chest, and his arms and face were streaked with blood. But, he was standing tall and confident as he stared out at the group of friends and enemies gathered in front of him. In each of the boy’s hands, he was holding the golden helmet of a Gore Gladiator.

Rigel was stunned, his jaw dropped open.

“So,” the boy said, stepping forward. He tossed the two helmets to the ground, and they clanged on the stone floor. “What did I miss?”

Rigel walked toward him. “You…you can’t stop us, Tobin. Look at what we’ve done to your friends. I’ve…I’ve fought you before, and I smashed you to the ground. You can’t—”

Tobin waved him off. “Yeah, I’m not much in the mood for talking.”

The boy walked toward Rigel, and passed by Keplar. The husky had brought Tobin’s bo-staff with him, so he removed the weapon from his back and held it out for the boy.

The boy shook his head. “No.”

Keplar was shocked. “No?”

“No,” the boy repeated.

Tobin stared at Rigel. His eyes snapped with blue lightning. The electric, cobalt energy then burst from his exposed arms and swarmed around his chiseled body.

Rigel backed away.

Tobin grinned.

Before the red giant could escape, the boy sprinted across the control room, leapt into the air, and tackled Rigel. Rigel fell onto his back with Tobin on top of him, and the giant was able to land a few defensive blows, but soon Tobin had Rigel pinned to the ground, with the boy’s knees pressing against the giant’s arms. After cocking his fist into the air, Tobin brought it down and pummeled Rigel’s face, over and over, smashing the giant’s head against the ground. With his eyes glowing blue and his jaw clenched, Tobin connected with his fist again and again, cracking Rigel’s nose and sending blood spattering. The boy was in a fury, merciless and unstopping, his coiled hand rising up and down in a blue flash: WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

Finally, Keplar approached Tobin.

“Tobin, Tobin, okay…” the husky said, shocked by Tobin’s attack.

Tobin stopped his flying fist, but leaned down and grabbed Rigel by his neck. He lifted the giant’s head off the ground and spoke inches from the giant’s pummeled face.

“I win,” the boy said simply.

Tobin felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up.

“That’s enough, Tobin,” Orion said. “C’mon.”

The old man helped Tobin stand. The boy was breathing heavily, trying to calm down. His blue eyes were flickering and he appeared confused, as if he was unsure of what had just happened.

As Keplar took Tobin by the arm and led him away, Orion walked to Rigel. The red giant was now in his human form, lying on the ground on his side, spitting blood, trying to stand. Orion looked down at him, sad.

“It’s not over,” Rigel said. “It’s not…”

“It is, Marcus. Give yourself up. Let me help you.”

Rigel looked up at the old man, his eyes burning with rage. “No, never.” He turned back to his giant form and looked toward the Daybreaker’s throne. “Now, Daybreaker: rise from your sleep and greet the universe that so deeply needs you to set it on its destined path.”

Orion turned to the metal throne. The quiet hum that was emitting from the chair faded, and the glow in the eyes of the Daybreaker’s helmet darkened. For the first time, the Daybreaker moved: his fingers clenched the armrests of his chair, and he stood. As he moved his head from side-to-side, he inspected the strange group of costumed people scattered throughout the control room.

“It is them!” Rigel shouted, pointing at Orion. “These are the ones I have told you about, Daybreaker! The ones that I have showed you! They are the ones that have killed your family, the ones that are threatening to destroy the universe!”

The heroes looked to the Daybreaker, confused. The Daybreaker looked back at them, cocked his head in curiosity, and then raised his hand. A searing blast of black fire—snapping with white lightning— suddenly shot from the Daybreaker’s armored hand and struck Tobin. The boy fell to the ground and screamed, his fists clenched.

“Arrrrggghhh!” Tobin bellowed, squirming on the floor, his body contorted.

Orion quickly strung an arrow in his bow and pointed it at the Daybreaker, but the Daybreaker blasted the old man with another stream of black fire. The old man fell, screaming.

“Grrraaarrrrggghh!” Keplar growled, as he charged at the Daybreaker and fired his plasma cannon, with the gun’s setting turned to full power. But, the green blasts broke away into nothing before they even reached the Daybreaker. When the armored man held out his hand, Keplar was immediately stopped, frozen and hovering four inches above the ground, his body infected with the black fire. It was running over him and digging into his veins.

In a desperate frenzy, Scatterbolt, Junior, and Adrianna all attacked the Daybreaker at once, but the silent warrior defeated them easily—one-by-one, he enveloped them in black fire and flung them around the temple. His posture never changed, and he never spoke. He simply held out his hand and doled punishment to anyone showing him aggression.

Walking to Rigel, Nova helped the red giant stand. Rigel—limping and wheezing from his fight with Tobin—pointed across the control room.

“Daybreaker,” Rigel said, “don’t forget about him.”

The Daybreaker turned to where Rigel was pointing; with a flick of his neck, the Daybreaker telepathically moved a control tower out of the way. Jonathan—the pale man in the purple suit—had been hiding behind the control tower, crouching and leaning against a wall.

“Oh, hello,” Jonathan said. “I was hoping to just kind of hang out here until everything died down. Is that not cool?”

“Kill him,” Rigel said.

The Daybreaker approached Jonathan, raising his hand, but Jonathan quickly jumped up and ran toward a nearby wall.

“No!” Rigel shouted, watching Jonathan. “Daybreaker, stop him!”

But Jonathan reached the wall and slammed his hands into a glass box—the box broke, and Jonathan pushed a large, red button that had been hidden behind the glass.

“Too late,” Jonathan said, wiping the broken glass from his hands.

The pyramid began to quake. A growling came from the floor in the center of the control room. It sounded like the wails of an enraged animal.

Rigel and Nova looked around at the quivering walls and ceiling of the stone pyramid.

“You idiot,” Rigel sneered.

The Daybreaker walked and stood with Nova and Rigel, and the black fire around Tobin and his friends dissipated. They were able to get to their feet and regroup, but they could barely stand from the earthquake under their feet. They scanned the pyramid around them, confused.

Rigel walked to the security station of the control room and grabbed a portal pistol.

“We need to get out of here, now,” the red giant said.

“What about them?” Nova asked.

“They became footnotes the moment the Daybreaker arrived. We will leave them here. Even if they survive, it means nothing now.” Rigel turned to the Daybreaker and showed the silent man his portal pistol. “Daybreaker, freeze them. And if any of them are carrying one of these, remove it.”

The Daybreaker glanced at the portal pistol, then turned to Tobin and his friends. After the Daybreaker held out his hand, the heroes were encased in black fire, unable to move, while Orion’s portal pistol was suddenly drawn out from his coat pocket. The portal pistol flew across the room and stuck to the Daybreaker’s hand like a magnet.

“Thank you,” Rigel said, before holding his own portal pistol in front of him and pulling its trigger. As a swirling portal of black energy snapped into the air, Rigel turned to Tobin and his friends.

“As we leave here,” the giant said, “know that everything you have dedicated yourselves to is meaningless. Not just today, but for the entirety of your lives. You all have had one goal—to stop Vincent from carrying out his vision for the universe—but that vision is here now, in the form of him.”

The Daybreaker stared at the frozen heroes as the rumbling of the pyramid grew stronger, and the growling from underneath the floor turned into a roar.

“You have failed,” Rigel continued. “Vincent has won. Your lives have been pointless. Please keep that in mind as you die.”

Rigel, Nova, and the Daybreaker stepped toward the black portal that Rigel had created.

“No!” Tobin shouted, floating off the ground, encased in the fire. “No!”

The Daybreaker stopped and turned around. The black fire around Tobin faded and the boy fell. Holding his arm across his stomach, grunting, he crawled across the floor toward the Daybreaker. When the boy reached the Daybreaker, the armored man looked down at him, confused. Tobin stared back, with his fists glowing, but the boy was too weak to attack.

After studying Tobin a moment, the Daybreaker turned and followed Rigel and Nova into the portal. The three of them disappeared, and the portal closed after them.

When the villains were gone, the rest of the black fire around the heroes faded, and they were able to move again. However, the earthquake was still rising in intensity, and pieces of the pyramid’s ceiling were beginning to fall. An entire wall crashed to the floor, blocking the entrance to the pyramid that Scatterbolt had cut out with his laser torch.

“Why the hell did they take off so fast?” Keplar said, trying to regain his footing. “What the hell is going on?”

“Follow us, guys,” Adrianna said. “We have to find a way out of here. Now.”

“Why?” Orion asked. “What’s happening?”

The animal roar thundered from the floor. The heroes jumped, startled. It sounded as if a beast was only inches from the bottoms of their feet.

With a snapping of his head, Jonathan’s eyes turned yellow, and he turned into the bat-creature: translucent wings sprouted from his back, tearing through his suit, and his nose turned upward and his ears grew pointed.

“I know none of you are very knowledgeable about the story of the Daybreaker,” Jonathan said, “but Vincent always told me that when the Daybreaker was ready, the first thing Vincent would do was awaken the Cicatrix to mark the Daybreaker’s arrival. The Cicatrix would then go to Earth before the Daybreaker, to sear the ground and ready it for the reign of the Daybreaker.”

“And I’m guessing that sound we hear is the Cicatrix?” Junior asked.

“Yes,” Jonathan replied.

“And by pushing that button, you just released the Cicatrix?” Orion asked.

“Yes,” Jonathan said again.

A hole dropped out in the stone floor, and the heroes had to jump back to stop themselves from falling into the crater. With a hideous, skeleton-shaking ROAR!, the Cicatrix emerged from the cavity in the floor, bellowing toward the sky and waving its arms in a frenzy. The gigantic animal was the size of a two-story house, with the head of an ape, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. It looked exactly like the stone structure outside of the pyramid, except for one important detail not visible in its stone likeness: the razor-tipped tail of a scorpion.

“Rigel was right,” Keplar said to Jonathan. “You are an idiot.”

The Cicatrix climbed out of its hole and swung its tail at the heroes, roaring as its mammoth stinger jammed into the ground. Scatterbolt was quick enough to escape its attack, rolling to his right, but Jonathan was not; the pale man was seared by the beast’s tail, and he fell to the ground, screaming, with one of his wings sliced down the middle.

“You all need to get out of here!” Adrianna said. “Now!”

“Where?” Tobin yelled. “Where’s the nearest exit?”

“Down that hallway!” Adrianna yelled, pointing to a dark hallway across the control room. “Turn left at the end and you’ll find a gate! Blast it and get out of here! Now! I’ll distract it and keep it here!”

“We can’t,” Scatterbolt said. “You’ll be—”

Adrianna threw three glowing discs at the Cicatrix, drawing all of the animal’s attention to her. “If you don’t go now, we’ll all be dead! Go!”

Tobin looked to Keplar and Orion. The dog nodded. Tobin picked up his bo-staff from the ground, while Keplar readied his plasma cannon.

“Junior,” Orion said, stringing an arrow in his bow. “You and Scatterbolt get out of here and bring the ship in as close as you can. We’ll need you to get us out of here.”

“You sure?” Junior asked. “We can stay here and—”

“I’m sure,” the old man said. “Go.”

Scatterbolt and Junior ran toward the dark hallway amid the falling pieces of debris. The Cicatrix was too distracted by Adrianna to notice them escaping.

Dodging a swipe from the Cicatrix’s gigantic claws, the purple-garbed girl sprinted away from the monster and hid behind a control tower. Tobin, Orion, and Keplar joined her.

“What are you doing?” she shouted. “Get out of here while you can!”

“We don’t leave anyone behind,” Orion said.

“Yeah,” Keplar agreed. “Especially someone who’s on our side.”

“What about him?” Tobin asked.

Tobin pointed to his left; Jonathan was hiding behind another control tower. The bat-creature’s wing was torn, and he was terrified.

Keplar shrugged. “Eh.”

Tobin, Keplar, and Adrianna ran out from behind the control tower, followed by Jonathan and Orion, who was firing his red-tipped arrows at the Cicatrix. The beast was blocking the hallway that led to the exit.

“Jonathan!” Adrianna shouted. “Use whatever strength you have left in your wings and get us up to the second floor! There’s a window there, we might be able to make it! Take Tobin first!”

Jonathan grabbed Tobin by his shoulders and flew with him to the second floor. As Adrianna distracted the Cicatrix, Jonathan then flew down and brought Keplar to the second floor, before finally picking up Orion and Adrianna.

“Where now?” the bat-creature asked, as he dropped his sister with the others.

“There!” She pointed to a hallway. “It’s gonna follow us, but we don’t have any other choice! To the window, it might buy us some time!”

The heroes ran down the hallway and leapt out a small, square window, escaping into the open air and sliding down the side of the pyramid. When their feet hit the ground, Keplar pointed to his and Junior’s ATVs, which were sitting nearby.

“Those!” the husky shouted. “Hurry!”

Tobin eyed the vehicles. “Uh, what are they?”

“Just drive it! We gotta get this thing away from here!”

Tobin jumped onto the ATV. “Let’s not forget that driving isn’t really my—”

The Cicatrix burst through the wall of the pyramid and charged at the heroes, roaring and swiping its tail. Keplar and Tobin zoomed off on the ATVs, with Tobin following Keplar toward the edge of a cliff as the monster bounded after them.

“Uh, Keplar…”

“Zanatopia’s not too far from here,” the husky replied. “I’m not letting this thing get away and get loose in some town.”

The Cicatrix chased after the ATVs, its claws pounding the ground, its fang-filled jaws gaining on the heroes. They sped toward the cliff.

“On the count of three,” Keplar said. “One…two…”

Tobin’s eyes widened as the cliff grew closer.

“Three!”

Keplar cut his ATV to the right, while Tobin cut his to the left. The Cicatrix was running too fast and was taken surprise by the sudden turns of the vehicles, and it could not slow itself down. Scurrying its feet against the ground, it hurtled off the cliff, plummeting toward the water below. It tried to get its wings flapping during its descent, but the water was too close, and the beast’s body crashed against the jagged rocks in the river below, where it would lay until the end of time.

However, Tobin and Keplar were also going too fast for their quick maneuver, and their ATVs tumbled over and sent them flying. Both of their bodies were sent rolling toward the cliff, but they were able to grab onto the edge and hold on.

Clutching at the dirt, his feet swinging in the air, Tobin struggled to bring himself up. But then a hand grabbed onto his arm. He looked up.

“Honestly,” Adrianna said. “What would you do without me?”

Nearby, while Adrianna pulled Tobin up onto solid ground, Jonathan grabbed onto Keplar’s jacket and pulled him to safety.

“Tobin, I’m so sorry,” Adrianna said, as Tobin leaned over with his hands on his knees. “About everything. I will never forgive myself for any of this. I just…I’m sorry.”

Tobin looked up at her, exhausted. “Adrianna, I don’t know whose side you’re on. But right now, I don’t really care.”

Tobin embraced her and wrapped her in a hug. She was surprised.

On the jungle ground, Keplar rolled over, and slowly got to his feet. Jonathan was standing near him, transformed back into his human form.

“You okay?” the pale man asked.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Good. Hey, thanks for staying with us back there. That was really—”

Keplar punched Jonathan in the face and Jonathan fell to the ground.

“You’re welcome,” the husky said, dusting off his pants.

Hearing the loud engine of a sky-ship, Tobin and Adrianna looked up. The Sky-Blade was hovering over them, readying itself for a landing.

“Hey, Romeo, Juliet,” Keplar said. “Let’s go. We got a lot of stuff to figure out.”

Tobin looked to Adrianna. “You ready? You can go with us and we can—”

“I’m not going,” she said.

“What? Why?”

“I don’t belong with you guys. I never will. No one up there will ever trust me, and I don’t blame them.”

“Look, I’m not exactly sure I trust you either, but we still need to—”

“Tobin, I can’t. I’m not one of you. As much as I wish I was.”

“You’re better than you know.”

The Sky-Blade landed, its side door opening and its ramp extending to the ground. As Orion walked up the ramp, Keplar followed him, dragging the unconscious Jonathan with him.

“Tobes, we gotta get out of here,” the husky said. “She can do what she wants, but her brother’s coming with us. I ain’t letting him go free after all the crap he’s pulled.”

“Come on,” Tobin said to Adrianna. “You’re safer with us.”

“I can’t,” she replied. “I have to go. My mom needs me. I have to bring whatever money Rigel gave us, and see if I can cure her. She’s waiting for me.”

“So we will take you to her.”

She looked at him, unsure.

“How else are you gonna get out of here? What are you gonna do, walk? Come with us, and if you want, after we bring you home, you’ll never see any of us ever again. Though I really don’t know why you’d do that—not after you’ve only just begun experiencing my dashing charisma and charming wit.”

Tobin smirked. She laughed, shaking her head.

“Something tells me that smirk of yours gets you in a lot of trouble.”

Tobin took her hand, and they walked up the Sky-Blade’s ramp.

CHAPTER TWENTY

“Hey!” Jonathan shouted, as he banged his fists on the impenetrable glass wall in front of him. He had just awoken, and was surprised to find himself in one of the cells in the holding area of the Museum of the Heroes. The temporary prison cells on the bottom floor of the mountain were almost never used, but for this particular prisoner, Orion had made an exception. “Let me out of here!” the pale man shouted. “You don’t have to keep me in here! I already told you, I’ll tell you anything you wanna know! We were on the same side back in the pyramid, remember? Hey! Get back here! Hey!”

As Keplar and Scatterbolt walked away from the cell, Keplar was holding the cell’s keys in his paw, swinging them around on their chain. Scatterbolt was back in his normal body—once again three feet tall, with his purple-and-silver chrome shining as if brand new.

“Do you really think he’ll help us, Keplar?” the robot asked, as they walked out of the holding area.

“I don’t know, pal. Maybe. Either way, we can’t just let him go free—he was working with Rigel and Nova, after all, so we gotta be careful. But, they did leave him to die back there, so maybe if we help him with his disease, he’ll help us figure out more about this Daybreaker.” The dog shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”

“But is it really smart to keep him here in the museum? I don’t like the idea of him knowing about this place…”

“He was out cold the whole way here, bud—believe me, he’s got no idea where he is. As far as he knows, he could be in any jail cell in any prison in Capricious. You don’t have to worry about that. By the way, how’s it feel to be back in your normal body?”

Scatterbolt flexed his elbows and rotated his waist. “Really great, actually. As much as I liked being big and powerful for a while, it was also kind of scary, to be honest. It turns out I much prefer being small to being big.”

Keplar laughed, and the two friends walked into the museum elevator. When the elevator opened again, they stepped out of it and into the museum science lab. Wakefield and Junior were there, standing at a row of computers and intently discussing their latest research. The father and son techno-wizards were surrounded by stacks of books and three-dimensional holograms of the Chrono-Key, and they were so engrossed in their work that they didn’t even notice when Keplar and Scatterbolt walked past them.

Orion was also in the lab, sitting by himself at a table and looking over Tobin’s father’s pencil drawings. In the old man’s hand there was a note, written on a piece of paper with the letterhead of the Wakefield and Son’s repair shop at the top. The note on the paper was scrawled in pen:

ORION,

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR HELP, BUT I CAN’T STAY HERE. THIS ISN’T WHERE I BELONG. I NEED TO FIGURE OUT WHAT BROUGHT ME HERE, AND HOW TO GET HOME.

SCOTT

“What are we gonna do now, Orion?” Scatterbolt asked, as he and Keplar approached the table. “Are we ever gonna be able to figure out what Rigel did to find the Daybreaker?”

Orion turned around. “Well, we’ll keep trying until we can’t any longer, Scatterbolt, I know that. Wakefield and Junior are gonna stay with us for the time being, and we’re all gonna work together to try and find the answers.”

“What about Tobin?” the robot asked. “What’s he gonna do if the Daybreaker comes back? Do you think the Daybreaker even cares about Tobin?”

Orion thought it over. “I’m not so sure about that, Scatterbolt. But we’ll deal with it when the time comes. Right now, Tobin needs some time to rest and get back to his normal life. Right now, he’s exactly where he needs to be.”

***

Tobin walked into his house with a sigh and hung his jacket on the wall. His mother was in the dining room, setting the table.

“Hey, honey, you’re just in time. I made your favorite for Sunday dinner—tacos—and I thought we could—oh my god, Tobin, what happened to your face?”

Tobin touched his fingers to his jaw. Oops. He had forgotten how terrible he looked. He had a black eye, and a gash across his cheek.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” the boy said, waving off the concern. “Chad’s uncle got these new ATVs, so we were taking them out behind Chad’s house, and I flipped over the handlebars. It’s no big deal. It looks worse than it is.”

“Well, it looks awful. You need to be careful on those things, you know: I heard ATVs can be very dangerous.” Tobin’s mother pulled his chair out from the table. “Here, sit down and eat. Everything’s nice and fresh. I made chicken, veggies, and got some nice cheese from the deli.”

Tobin and his mother sat down at the table and began making their tacos. Tobin’s stomach growled. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was.

“So how was your big weekend sleepover at Chad’s?” his mother asked. “Did you guys do anything else fun? Hopefully something less dangerous?”

Tobin took a big bite. “You know what? I’m actually more interested in hearing about your weekend, Mom. Did you end up going shopping with Aunt Megan?”

“Yes, I did. We met at the Providence Place mall this morning, and I got these fantastic new shoes to go with my dress for your cousin’s wedding next month. And that store I love, you know the one? They were having a really great sale, so I got a bunch of new stuff from there. But I know you don’t wanna hear about all that, so I’ll stop now.”

“No, go ahead.”

Tobin’s mother was surprised. “Really? You wanna hear about my shopping trip?”

“Yeah. What else did you guys do?”

“Well, first we met for breakfast at this nice little place your aunt knew about. And, of course, she was convinced this guy sitting at the table across from us was Johnny Depp. Because that’s exactly where Johnny Depp would be on a Sunday morning, eating breakfast in East Providence.”

Tobin laughed. His mother continued her story as they ate their dinner, and, as usual, her recollections and impressions of her sister became more exaggerated and more hilarious as they went along. He loved having these dinners, just him and her, like the old days, when he was little. Oftentimes, their laughter and jokes would go on for hours after they had finished eating, and on this night, after the weekend he had endured, Tobin was happier than ever to see that this seemed like it was going to be one of those nights.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

“Everybody say ‘high school graduates!’”

Tobin, Jennifer, and Chad smiled. “High school graduates!” they replied in unison. The three friends were at Chad’s graduation party in his backyard, with a banner hanging above them that read: CONGRATULATIONS, CHAD! As usual at Chad’s parties, the house and surrounding yard of the Fernandes clan was filled with dozens of members of Chad’s very large, very emotional Portuguese family, while his father, a heavy man in his late forties named Tony, had just finished taking his ninety-ninth picture of the afternoon.

“Great pic, guys,” Chad’s father said, inspecting the photo on his camera. “Don’t forget to come in and have some food—there’s plenty of it, and I really don’t feel like having miniature chicken salad sandwiches for lunch for the next two weeks.”

Tobin laughed. “Okay, thanks, Mr. Fernandes.”

As Chad’s father walked up the stairs and onto the patio, Tobin reached into a nearby cooler and grabbed a couple of cans of soda (and a bottle of water for the health-conscious Jennifer, of course.)

“I still can’t believe it,” she said, taking the water from Tobin. “We were just at our high school graduation, guys. We are literally no longer students at Bridgton High. We’ll never walk those halls ever again, and we’ll never take another test there ever again. How weird is that?”

Chad nodded. “I know. It seriously doesn’t even feel real. I keep thinking that next September I’ll just wake up and drive there, out of habit.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re gonna have to do that, anyway,” Tobin said. “I still have no idea how you graduated, considering your senior project was on Pokémon.”

“Listen, Pokémon has had a huge impact on our generation, okay? And I really don’t wanna hear this crap from you, considering you were number 158 out of 168 in our graduating class.”

Tobin grinned. “I’m still just amazed there were ten kids with grades worse than me.”

Jennifer shook her head. “I’m still just amazed that I made it all the way through high school, and yet somehow I’m still stuck with you two dim-wits as best friends. How did I not find new friends somewhere along the way? Honestly?”

“Because nobody is as awesome as us,” Tobin replied, throwing his arm around her. “Just think, if it wasn’t for us, you would’ve gone through your entire high school career without ever getting a single detention.”

“The great ‘Ice Cream Sandwich-Eating Superbowl Championship World Series Final Battle of Sophomore Year,’” Chad reminisced. “Best day of my life.”

“I’m still gonna kill you two for that,” Jennifer said. “I wasn’t even in the stupid contest.”

“No, but you were a judge,” Tobin replied. “And like Mr. Hastings told you, that’s as bad as being in the contest, Jennifer Robins. He was so disappointed in you. I thought he was gonna cry.”

“Seriously,” Chad said. “Best day of my life.”

The three friends walked toward a length of the backyard where two of Chad’s cousins were playing horseshoes.

“What’d you guys wanna do now?” Jennifer asked. “You wanna play horseshoes? Chad, who else did you say was coming? We could go swimming; I’m not sure how warm the water is, but it’s so hot that I don’t—”

“Oh my god,” Chad’s father said from the patio.

Tobin, Chad, and Jennifer turned toward the patio. Chad’s father was looking at his cell phone. He was concerned, and frightened.

“What is it, Dad?” Chad asked.

“There was some kind of attack in Boston. Some guy is standing on top of the Garden, and there’s fire everywhere.”

Chad and Jennifer turned to Tobin. He was staring at Chad’s father, waiting for more information.

“I’m gonna turn on the TV,” Chad’s father said, as he walked into the house. Other members of Chad’s family had also heard the conversation, and were now checking their phones and following him inside. Tobin, Jennifer, and Chad also followed, bringing up the rear of the group and walking into the back door. Tobin’s heart was thumping. His adrenaline was kicking in. He knew he was most likely going to be needed in Boston, to take care of the situation, whatever it was. Hopefully nothing too intense, as usual. Just some weirdo trying to get on the news.

In Chad’s living room, Tobin made his way through the crowd gathered around the television set that was hanging on the wall. He couldn’t see the screen, but the boy could hear that the TV was tuned to WTN, the popular twenty-four-hour news network. Various members of Chad’s family were gasping, and whispering to each other.

“Oh my god,” Chad’s Aunt Paula said. “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”

Tobin reached the front of the crowd. He looked at the TV. The twenty-four-hour news network was broadcasting a live image of the exterior of the sports arena known as the Garden—the arena where the Boston Celtics and Bruins played their home games, near the North End of Boston. The shaky video footage was being filmed by a helicopter, and as it recorded, the viewers at home could see that a man was standing on the roof of the arena. White pillars of fire were shooting up from the streets and sidewalks around the arena, and the thirty-foot tall flames were snapping with black, snaking streaks of energy. A group of pedestrians and police officers were gathered on the street below the arena, looking up at the roof, unsure of what to do.

Tobin watched from Chad’s living room as the news camera zoomed in on the person standing on the rooftop. It was a man dressed in silver armor, with a helmet covering his face and head. The helmet had two insect-like eyes, red markings along its cheeks, and a grid of silver strips of metal for a mouth.

It was the Daybreaker.

Tobin stared at the TV. Jennifer and Chad were very frightened.

“Tobin, is that…?” Jennifer asked. “Is that…who you told us about?”

Tobin didn’t answer. He was concentrating on the TV.

“Oh, great,” Chad’s father said, throwing his arms up. “Another one of these costumed lunatics. What the hell is going on in that damn city, lately? All these freaks popping out of the damn—”

“Wait, wait,” Chad said. “Something’s happening. Turn it up.”

Chad’s father turned up the volume.

“We are looking live at the city of Boston,” the WNT reporter said on the TV, “where a masked figure is standing on the rooftop of a sports arena in silence, already having conjured up several large, bizarre fires that have created a traffic back-up for miles throughout the city. As of yet, the strange figure has done nothing but stand there, unmoving, but it appears…yes, it appears he is going to take off his helmet.”

The helicopter camera zoomed in on the roof of the arena. Reaching up with both hands, the Daybreaker placed his palms on the sides of his helmet, and pushed up. Removing the helmet from his head, he revealed his face.

The Daybreaker was Strike.

More specifically, the Daybreaker was Tobin Lloyd dressed as Strike. The mysterious figure was wearing a blue, triangular piece of cloth over the lower part of his face, so that only his eyes and dark hair were visible, but for the few people who knew Strike’s secret identity, there was no doubt that it was Tobin Lloyd’s eyes and dark hair above the mask.

The party guests and family members at Chad’s house gasped at the sight of Strike underneath the Daybreaker’s helmet. But how could this be, Jennifer and Chad asked themselves? Tobin Lloyd, the hero known as Strike, was standing right next to them in Chad’s living room, forty miles away from Boston.

“Tobin, what’s going on?” Jennifer asked, her voice cracking. “How could…who is that?”

Again, Tobin didn’t answer. He couldn’t. His eyes were wide and pinned to the TV, his jaw dropped. His chest was rising with rapid breaths.

“It appears that the person standing on the roof is the mysterious crime-fighting vigilante of Boston known as Strike,” the news reporter said. “This masked man—some say teenage boy—has been sighted repeatedly in the city in recent months, stopping crimes, helping the police, and saving pedestrians in need. He has never been known to do anything like this, however, so we are still waiting on confirmation that this is indeed the crime-fighter known as Strike.”

The crowd gathered in Chad’s house watched as the Daybreaker’s metal armor dropped off him in pieces, landing on the rooftop around him. With his armor removed, the rest of the Strike costume on the Daybreaker’s body was revealed—the white ‘S’ in the shape of a lightning bolt on his chest, the tattered black cape, and the black gloves and black boots.

“I can confirm that it does indeed appear to be Strike who has set these fires around the city of Boston,” the reporter said, “but the reason for this bizarre scene and demonstration remains a mystery.”

The cameraman in the helicopter turned to his right. There was now a military helicopter in the sky, hovering above the sports arena.

“The United States Air Force is now on the scene,” the reporter explained, “along with the National Guard—dozens of troops are on the ground, convening with the members of the Boston police department. The Air Force helicopter is now shining a light on Strike, and it appears to have gotten his attention.”

Onscreen, the Daybreaker raised his head and looked at the U.S. Air Force helicopter hovering above him. After his eyes flashed with blue lightning, the mysterious teen boy raised his hand and shot a stream of raging white fire from his palm. The helicopter was engulfed in the white flames, and it immediately dropped, its pilot losing control, and the vehicles’ blades spinning erratically as it plummeted to Earth.

The party guests at Chad’s house screamed, covering their mouths. Most of them looked away as the helicopter crashed and burst into flames on the chaotic street in front of the Garden sports arena.

Many of Chad’s family members were crying now, including Chad, who was hugging his mom. Jennifer watched Tobin. The boy was staring at the TV, craning his neck forward, his eyes narrowed and full of fury.

“Oh my god…” the reporter gasped. “Oh my god…Strike has attacked the United States Air Force. The helicopter has crashed to the ground, to the streets full of people. Oh my god, why is Strike doing this?”

Onscreen, the Daybreaker walked to the edge of the arena. After raising both hands and holding them in front of him, he sent streaks of blue-and-white lightning down from his palms and toward the sidewalk below. The lightning crashed into the police cars surrounding the building, sending the vehicles and the police officers standing behind them hurtling through the air.

“My god…” the reporter said. “Strike is now attacking the police and pedestrians gathered on the streets below. The pillars of white flames around the arena are growing and spreading now, catching fire to the surrounding buildings. Good lord…this is an attack. The mysterious vigilante known as Strike is on the attack.”

“I knew it,” Chad’s father said, shaking his head, his jaw clenched. “I knew that freak was up to no good. For weeks, I’ve been telling everyone—all this damn Strike has brought to this place is more harm than good, with the attack on Bridgton, all these whackos in the city, and now look at this!”

“Tony, stop,” Chad’s mother said. “This isn’t the time to—”

“No, the freak is showing his true colors. I told everyone. Watch, I said. Sooner or later, he’s gonna show what he’s really here for. And look at this. Here it is.” Chad’s father shook his head. “Someone shoulda killed that freak when they had the chance.”

“Tobin,” Jennifer said, tears in her eyes, “what’s happening?”

Tobin stared at his exact likeness on the TV screen, as the Daybreaker extended his arms and spread his white fire and blue lightning throughout the streets and buildings of Boston.

“I have to go,” the boy said to Jennifer.

Tobin turned and walked out of Chad’s living room, pushing past the people gathered around the TV. The party guests were so frightened that they didn’t even notice as the boy walked out the back door and down the sidewalk.

Tobin—his eyes filled with anger and staring straight ahead—marched with heavy footsteps and eventually reached a small general store on the corner near Chad’s house. Walking behind the store, where nobody was near, the boy reached into his pocket, retrieved a blue portal pistol, and pointed it in front of him. After pulling the pistol’s trigger, he created a portal of blue energy, and walked into it.

On the other side of the portal, Tobin emerged and walked onto the landing platform outside the Museum of the Heroes. With the same focused, intense look across his face, he marched toward the museum’s entrance, and pushed open the giant double-doors.

Three floors below the entrance, in the museum science lab, Orion, Junior, and Wakefield were inspecting Jonathan, who was sitting upright on a medical bed. The pale man’s sleeves were rolled up, and there were several IVs and sensors attached to his arms. Wakefield was showing Orion the latest readings about Jonathan’s bat-transformation disease, while Scatterbolt and Keplar were sitting nearby at a table, playing cards.

Tobin pushed open the door of the lab.

“Where is he?” Tobin said. “Where is he, where’s—”

Tobin saw Jonathan, sitting on the medical bed. The boy walked quickly toward the pale man, his fists clenched.

“Tobin, what’s wrong?” Orion said. “Why are you—”

Tobin grabbed Jonathan by the shirt collar, shaking him. “What’s happening?!” the boy shouted. “How is this happening? What did they do?”

Jonathan was amused, leaning away from Tobin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, kid, but you need to let go of me right now, I know that much.”

“Tobin, what’s happened?” Orion asked. “We’re trying to get some readings on Jonathan’s disease, so he can help us find—”

Tobin ripped the IVs from Jonathan’s arms and flipped over a nearby computer station. Grabbing Jonathan by his neck, the enraged boy pulled the pale man from the medical bed and slammed him to the floor.

“Tell me what’s happening!” the boy shouted, kneeling over Jonathan, his fist cocked. Using his other hand, he pinned Jonathan to the floor. “Tell me what is going on!”

“Tobin,” Orion said, walking to the boy, “you need to tell me, right now, what you are talking about. What’s happened?”

Tobin spun around. “Turn on the TV! Turn on the newsfeed from Earth!”

Orion picked up a remote control from a table and turned on a large monitor that was hanging on the science lab wall. The screen took up half the wall of the lab, and when Orion tuned it to WNT, everybody in the room could see Strike standing on the roof of the arena in Boston. The masked hero was firing bolts of blue lightning at the helicopters and jets flying over him.

“Oh my god…” Orion said. “What is…how’s that…”

Keplar and Scatterbolt stood up from the card table.

“What the hell…” Keplar whispered, staring at the screen, his mouth dropped.

Scatterbolt was frightened. “What’s happening, Tobin? Orion, how is that possible? What’s he doing?”

Orion watched the screen. “Is this live footage, Tobin?”

“Yes!” the boy shouted. “That’s the Daybreaker! He took off his armor, and that’s what was underneath!” The boy turned back to Jonathan, grabbing his shirt again and shaking him. “Tell me what’s happening!” he shouted, his voice booming through the museum. “Now!”

Jonathan laughed, shaking his head. “Wow. You still don’t get it, do you, Tobin? Have you ever wondered, for even a second, why one day you didn’t have superpowers, and then all of a sudden, the next day you did?”

Tobin loosened his grip on Jonathan’s shirt. He stared at the pale man, listening.

“We awoke your powers in you, Tobin,” Jonathan continued. “I practically gave them to you, that night at the bookstore.”

Tobin thought back, to the first night he had used his powers, seven months ago: he had received a strange call on his cell phone from a bookstore, and when he arrived at the store, he had found a frightened woman there, held captive by Jonathan. In a bizarre trance, Tobin had fought Jonathan and rescued the woman, and since that night, the boy had been able to create blue electricity and lightning.

“By putting someone in danger near you,” Jonathan said, “someone only you could help—we awakened your powers, Tobin.

“That was always Vincent’s plan: to activate your powers, and then use them how he wanted—use them to take over the Earth. The second part of his plan failed, because Orion rescued you, brought you here, and you became a hero. But, if Vincent had things his way…”

Tobin stood and turned to the monitor. Orion, Junior, Wakefield, Keplar, and Scatterbolt were standing underneath the screen, watching the newsfeed from Earth. The news was showing the Daybreaker, with his eyes closed and raised to the sky, and his palms open and extended over his head.

Lying on the floor of the lab, Jonathan sat up.

“You were never meant to save the world, Tobin. You were meant to destroy it.”

Tobin watched the newsfeed. The Daybreaker was standing on the roof of the arena; as he held both of his hands over his head, roiling, massive, grey storm clouds formed in the skies above him, snapping with purple lightning. Soon, the frothing, poisonous clouds grew so thick and heavy over the city of Boston that they began to drift downward, until they touched onto the ground and merged together, changing color. As the WNT helicopter’s camera rolled, the black-and-purple clouds became a black-and-purple dome, forming around the city and cutting it off from the rest of the world. The swirling, toxic dome looked identical to the Dark Nebula that had surrounded Tobin’s hometown of Bridgton seven months ago, but this one was immense; soon, the Daybreaker, the sports arena, and everything else in the city, was no longer visible.

As Tobin watched the skyscrapers and millions of people disappear under the black-and-purple Dark Nebula, only one thought ran through his mind: the entire world had just watched Strike, The Hero From The Sky, attack and invade Boston, Massachusetts.

BOOK THREE:[
**][
**]THE RETURNING SUNRISE

CHAPTER ONE[
**]MANY YEARS AGO

Crouching behind a marble pillar in the Guardian Headquarters training room, Orion Hobbes tightened the red mask around his eyes and looked up. His teammate, Matt Taylor, also known as the superhero Titan, was using his feathered, eagle-like wings to soar high above the training room floor. After dive-bombing through a metal gate only seconds before it slammed shut, he used his shining, silver broadsword to cut down a series of dangling, electrified razor wires, before flapping his wings and moving on to the next area of the obstacle course.

Why can’t I be like that? Orion thought to himself. Never nervous, never frazzled. Orion was seventeen years old now and had been a member of the Guardians superhero team for over three years, but he still got so anxious before training sessions that most days he could barely bring himself to leave his room. Only Orion’s best friend, Scott, knew that sometimes Orion got so nervous beforehand that he even spent several minutes locked in the bathroom, vomiting his guts out. And before real missions, real battles? Forget it. It was the moments before the real missions that Orion wondered if he was cut out for this type of superhero life at all.

“Red Wolf, pay attention,” Orion heard a stern voice say. “Keep up with your partner as you move toward your goal.”

Orion looked to his right. The Guardians’ mentor and trainer, Steve Dawson, was standing in his usual spot in the corner of the training room, away from all the traps and obstacles, with his arms crossed and his eyes fixed on his students. He was a slightly heavy-set black man in his mid-forties, with a black goatee and trim, black hair that was just starting to go gray. He had the body of a retired athlete, Orion always thought, which made sense considering he was once a star fozzball player in college.

“Sorry, Ranger,” Orion replied, using the name Steve once went by when he was a cowboy hat-wearing, laser pistol-toting superhero. “Won’t happen again.”

Then Orion suddenly heard a scream above him.

“Arrrgghh!”

Orion looked up: Matt had been shot by a laser blast from one of the training room robots. The blast had hit him right in the ribs, in the rare area that wasn’t covered by Matt’s gold-plated costume. Orion’s winged partner was now holding his side and flying not quite as majestically as before, bobbing up and down in the air as he tried to avoid more laser fire from the robot.

Orion looked ahead. He saw a six-foot-tall, one-eyed, humanoid robot, hiding behind a steel wall and popping out every few seconds to fire his laser rifle at Matt. Reaching for an arrow from his quiver, Orion pulled back the string of his bow and aimed the weapon in the robot’s direction. After timing it perfectly, the next time the robot popped his head out, Orion let the arrow fly and pierced the metallic pest, right through his glowing blue eye. As anxious as Orion could be before training sessions, he could still sling an arrow with the best of them.

“Very good, Red Wolf,” Steve said. “Way to keep an eye on your teammate.” Steve shouted louder now, so Matt could hear him high up near the mountain’s ceiling. “But don’t be careless, Titan. You were so busy flying towards your target that you forgot about your opponents on the ground.”

“I know,” Matt replied from the air, flapping his wings and floating in place above Orion. “But I didn’t think there would be any ‘bots until we got further toward the base.” Matt looked down. “Thanks for the save, O. I thought I was toast there for a second.”

“Titan,” Steve said, annoyed. “Watch the use of real names in the battlefield.”

“Sorry, Steve,” Matt replied, before shaking his head and correcting himself. “I mean, Ranger.”

On the ground, now concerned about the potential for more training robots, Orion ran ahead through the obstacle course, jumping over gaping pits in the floor and darting behind pillars. Sure enough, as he got closer to the other team’s base, he could see three more training ‘bots keeping guard. However, with three quick motions of Orion’s arm, the red-garbed superhero easily took care of them; before they even knew anyone was approaching, the robots dropped to the floor with a dull THUD!, with glowing red arrows through their silver skulls.

“Titan,” Orion said into the communicator near his mouth. “Any sign of the enemy?”

“Not yet, Red Wolf,” Matt replied, his voice coming through Orion’s earpiece. “But I think I—yeah, I think I see some kind of movement at the base’s entrance. Something fluttering in the wind. Want me to move closer?”

“Yes,” Orion said, stringing another arrow in his bow. “I’m right behind you.”

Moving ahead to the end of the obstacle course, Orion reached the enemy’s metallic, fortress-like base. Directly in front of the ground-level entrance of the building, there was a blue flag sticking in the ground, waiting for him and Matt.

“This doesn’t seem right,” Orion said.

“I know,” Matt said from above, with his forehead furrowed and his eyes suspicious. “There should be much more security than this. If we wanted to, we could just walk right up and take the flag. But why would—”

Then there was a sudden, loud, grinding rumbling below Orion, like two sheets of steel being dragged across each other. The ground began to vibrate, and when Orion looked down to his feet, he saw the floor suddenly open up, revealing a dark, gaping pit filled with slithering snakes and giant, crawling rats. Leaping to his right, Orion escaped the pit, but he was only able to grab onto the edge with his fingertips, leaving his legs to dangle over the disgusting vermin below him.

As Matt watched his teammate struggle to swing himself up to safety, he once again heard the sound of grinding, groaning steel. Looking ahead, he suddenly saw another entrance opening up, near the top of the enemy base. Matt hadn’t even known there was an entrance there.

“What the hell?” Matt whispered, confused, as the second gate of the enemy base slowly opened.

Then Matt saw his enemy, the occupant of the base. It was his and Orion’s Guardians teammate, Scott Webber, also known as the superhero Strike. As Scott moved out of the shadows of the gate, he was wearing his dark blue costume, with his mask over the lower part of his face, his black cape on his back, and his glowing, electrified bo-staff in his hand.

However, it wasn’t his appearance that was out of the ordinary; this was how Scott always looked when he was in his Strike gear. It was what was underneath Scott that was out of the ordinary.

Scott was riding on the back of a giant, fat, robotic, metallic grizzly bear. The silver bear had wings on its sides like a jet, laser blasters equipped on each of its wrists, and a snarling snout full of metal, shining teeth. Strangest of all, the bear was wearing sunglasses.

As Matt watched, with his mouth dropped open and his eyes in disbelief, Scott and the bear stepped out of the second-story fortress gate. Behind them, there were two more robotic grizzly bears, identical to the first.

“Behold!” Scott shouted, in his best, melodramatic, over-the-top voice. He sounded like the villain from an old medieval-times movie. “The Mighty Grizzly Bear Army of the Ninth Region of Grabbaladoo! They all heed the call of the magnificent Strike! And…” Scott paused for dramatic effect, before adding his favorite part of the scheme. “They are wearing sunglasses!”

With a laugh, Matt swooped down toward the base and headed for Scott, but the bears quickly stood up on their hind legs and fired on the winged-hero with their laser blasters. Matt had to swiftly dodge their green laser fire and head back up toward the ceiling.

“Not so fast, Winged Heartthrob of the Skies!” Scott shouted from atop his steed, holding his electrified bo-staff in the air. “With the Mighty Grizzly Bear Army at my disposal, you shall never defeat me!”

Matt shook his head, grumbling. “God, you’re annoying. Do you really have to be in character?”

Riding atop the lead grizzly bear, Scott flew down to ground level and ripped the blue flag from its spot on the floor. “Yes, it’s much more fun,” he said, before shaking his head. “I mean, ‘character?’ What dost thouest speaketh of? I am not-ith in character-ith.”

Matt laughed. “What the hell kind of accent is that?”

Steve was still watching from the ground, with his arms across his chest and his eyes focused on Scott and Matt. “Titan, don’t let him distract you.”

“I’m not,” Matt said, “but it’s not like he can get by me just by using his terrible jokes and fake accent. He—” Matt’s eyes went wide. “Uh-oh.”

With a grinding of steel, another gate near the top of Scott’s base opened, and out rushed a dozen more robotic grizzly bears. They also had wings on their sides, laser blasters on their wrists, and clenched, frothing mouths that showed they were very hungry. And, of course, they were wearing sunglasses.

“Oh, come on,” Matt said, ready for the onslaught about to hit him.

“Fly, my wondrous winged babies!” Scott shouted, pointing to the new set of bears with his staff. “Fly!”

As their jet wings ignited with blue flames, the entire pack of grizzly bears leapt up and soared into the sky, forcing Matt to use his best evasive flying maneuvers to avoid the rapid laser fire blasting from their wrists. He knew his only chance to win the game now was to drop down on Scott from above and steal the blue flag from his hand, but it was suddenly impossible—if Matt took his mind off of the pack of bears chasing him for even a second, he would be overwhelmed. He tried to confuse the bears by flying back through all the obstacles he had gone through on his way to Scott’s base, but it was no use—the robotic animals were just as adapt as him at avoiding the metal gates, strings of razor wire, and scorching blow torches.

As the bears chased Matt and matched his every loop-de-loop and hairpin turn, one of them broke from the pack—it was the bear Scott was riding on. With a big grin underneath his mask, Scott steered the bear toward Orion and Matt’s base at the other end of the training room.

“Hey, Orion and Matt, I just want to break character here for a second and let you know that I did this all by myself, okay? No help from Vincent or anybody. I just want to make sure you guys know that I beat you all by myself. Now—” Scott cleared his throat and resumed his ridiculous accent. “On with the triumphant flight of victory!”

With Orion still dangling over the pit of snakes and rats and Matt being hit in the air with more laser fire by the second, Scott flew easily and smoothly to the top of their base. After landing his steed, he planted his blue flag in the rooftop right next to Orion and Matt’s red flag.

“I claim this land in the name of Scott Webber!” he shouted, with one hand gripping the flagpole and one hand on his hip. “The greatest, most handsome, most wonderful-est man in the world!”

Orion finally swung himself out of the pit and reached the safety of the floor. “Did he just say ‘wonderful-est’?” he asked himself.

Near the entrance to the Mountain training room, Steve pushed a series of buttons on a control panel on the wall, and instantly all of the robot bears were deactivated, landing peacefully on the floor, while the two bases at either end of the room retreated into the walls.

“Very good, Scott,” Steve said with a smile, as he walked toward the middle of the room. “Excellent use of your environment.”

Scott tipped an imaginary cap on the top of his head. “Thank you, thank you very much.” He walked toward Orion and offered Orion a hand, helping him up off the ground.

Sore and rubbing his wounds, Matt flew down to the ground and landed near the others. “That’s not fair. We weren’t prepared for an entire army of flying bear robots.”

“Yeah,” Orion said. “That wasn’t part of the exercise.”

Steve nodded. “I know, I agree that Scott once again bent the rules—”

Scott shrugged. “You say bent, I say gracefully disregarded.”

Steve ignored him. “But that doesn’t make up for the fact that, even without the other member of the blue team, he was still able to capture your flag. He was able to beat you, all by himself, and remarkably easily. I want a full report on what went wrong from the two of you tomorrow morning. Got it?”

Orion nodded, but with a grumble. “Yes, sir.” Matt was so annoyed that he didn’t even answer.

Scott stood next to one of the motionless grizzly bears. “Can I just point out again that they are wearing sunglasses? How cool is that?”

“Yes, why are they wearing sunglasses?” Steve asked. “Why would bears need to wear sunglasses?”

Scott shot him a look, as if it was obvious. “In case it gets sunny?”

“Oh,” Steve said with a nod. “But they’re robots. Why would robots need to—” Steve shook his head. He was falling into Scott’s vortex of nonsense again. “Why am I having this conversation?” he asked, before looking around the room and changing the subject. “Where is Vincent, anyway? Has anybody seen him? Why did he miss training again this morning?”

“I don’t know,” Scott replied. “I even reminded him a couple hours ago, but he basically ignored me.”

“Surprise, surprise,” Matt said, shaking his head.

Steve let out an angry sigh. “I’m getting really tired of this. That’s the third time he’s missed a training session this week. Orion, go find him and tell him to come see me right away.”

Orion frowned. “Why do I have to go?”

“Consider it your penalty for losing to Scott.”

Scott smiled and clapped his hands, before throwing an arm around Matt. “Oh, that has such a wonderful ring to it, don’t you think, guys? Let’s hear that one more time.”

With his frown turning into a sneer, Orion turned and exited the training room. Great, he thought to himself. First I get beat by Scott, and now I have to go talk to Vincent when he’s in one of his moods. Could this morning get any worse?

***

On the top floor of the Guardian Headquarters, Orion pushed open the door to Vincent Harris’ room and peeked in. As usual, the bedroom of the fourth member of the Guardians was nearly completely dark, with the only light coming from a small window at the far end of the room, which looked out over the miles and miles of green, leafy treetops that surrounded the mountain.

“Vince?” Orion said, slowly stepping into the clean, well-organized room. It didn’t look at all like the rooms of the other Guardians, especially Scott’s, which could be shut down for being a toxic waste disaster area. “Are you in here?”

With his eyes readjusting to the darkness, Orion finally saw his teammate, Vincent, sitting at a large wooden desk near the small window. His back was to Orion and he was facing the wall, but Orion could see that he was hunched over the desk and reading a book.

“No,” Vincent said, without looking away from the book. “I’m outside looking for butterflies. Oh, look at that. Such a pretty one.”

Orion shook his head. Yup, Vincent was in one of his moods again. Vince was older than the other Guardians, already twenty years old, and more and more lately it seemed as if he was simply annoyed by them. Over the last few months, several training sessions—and even a few missions—had ended with Vincent screaming obscenities at either Matt, Orion, or Scott, and then stomping off to wherever it was he went when he couldn’t stand to be around them.

“If you’re coming in,” Vincent said, without turning around, “close the door.”

Reaching back, Orion shut the door behind him. As he walked toward the desk and small window, he could see that Vincent was wearing a black coat, tight-fitting black T-shirt, and black jeans. This led Orion to believe that at some point this morning, Vincent was at least thinking about going to training, since these were the specially designed clothes made to stretch out and fit Vincent, even when he transformed into his alter-ego—the green-furred, tiger-faced, eight-foot-tall goliath known as the Rantamede. Now, though, as usual when he wasn’t training or on patrol, Vincent was in his human form: tall and incredibly handsome, with a chiseled face that was just now growing out of looking like a teenage boy, topped off by long, thick brown hair that he wore somewhat long, just an inch or two above his shoulders.

“Steve’s looking for you,” Orion said, stopping a few feet from Vincent’s desk. “He’s pretty pissed that you missed practice again.”

Vincent’s eyes never left his book. “Oh, no. I missed out on getting chased by training robots with the brains of second graders. How will I ever succeed at being a better hero?” He turned the page. “Somehow, I think Steve will get over it.”

Orion was intrigued; Vincent never let him into his room, never mind for this long—that must have meant he actually wanted to talk to somebody for once. Standing on his tippy-toes, Orion peered over Vincent’s shoulder to get a better look at the book. He knew he had never seen the book before; it looked poorly made and was filled with strange drawings and blurry, black-and-white photographs. “What are you reading?” Orion asked.

“Just studying for the exam next week.”

“No, you’re not. That’s not even one of our course books. Plus, all you do is brag about how you don’t need to study. What is that?”

Vincent finally turned around, craning his neck toward Orion. He squinted for a moment, thinking.

“Can I tell you something? Something you’ll promise to keep a secret?”

Orion was shocked at Vincent’s tone. He couldn’t remember him ever speaking this way, especially to him. “Yeah, I guess.”

Vincent handed Orion the book. “This is why I’ve been missing practice so much lately.”

Orion looked at the cover of the book. Its title read:

A HISTORY OF THE WORLD, FROM PREHISTORIC TIMES TO TODAY.

But there wasn’t a picture of the world of Capricious on the front cover.

There was a picture of the planet Earth.

Orion’s heart jumped. He brought the book closer to his face, his eyes wide. Underneath the drawing of the planet Earth, there was a sketch of a prehistoric caveman, an etching of a bearded man in a tall hat, and a picture of a crude-looking airplane made of wood.

Orion opened the cover and looked at the first page. Towards the bottom, it read: PUBLISHED IN NEW YORK CITY. 1931.

“This is…this is from the other world,” Orion whispered. “Where’d you get this?” He grew angry. “We aren’t allowed to have stuff from the other world. You know what the Leaders would do to you if they found out you had this?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Vincent replied, unfazed. “Look at page 77.”

“Vince, you aren’t—no one’s supposed to have anything from the other world. Where did you—you can’t have things from Earth.”

“I said, don’t worry about it.” Vincent took the book back from Orion, turned to a page, and then shoved it back to him. “Now look at that.”

Orion held the book away from him. “No, I don’t want to, I don’t want to even see anything from—”

“Just look at it,” Vincent said through clenched teeth, pushing the book back to Orion.

With his hands shaking, Orion looked down at the page.

The book showed a black-and-white photograph of an ancient stonewall, covered in vines. Parts of the wall were painted with blocky images of humans and animals—the humans were shirtless and wearing giant feathered headdresses, while the animals were various species of buffaloes and cows. The artwork was fairly intricate, showing the humans hunting and living in settlements, but the images seemed to be faded, as if they had been created hundreds of years ago. A caption under the photograph read: ANCIENT ARTWORK FROM SOUTH AMERICA.

Orion was confused. “What is this?”

“They are temple drawings,” Vincent explained. “From the walls of an ancient structure on Earth. Made by the Padmains, one of the very first advanced civilizations that lived there. Those drawings were created over 3,000 years ago. According to writings found near the drawings, they depict a time when the Earth was visited by people from another world. The Padmains called them the Sky People.”

Orion looked at the next page. The temple drawings there showed the shirtless men in headdresses standing in front of a circular, six-foot-tall, swirling portal of electricity, hovering above the ground. Strange creatures—men with the heads of snakes, armor-wearing foxes, and wild-eyed, fanged goblins—were coming out of the portal and floating down to Earth. The humans were afraid.

“Notice anything familiar?” Vincent asked.

With his breath caught in his chest and his fingers barely able to hold onto the book, Orion scanned the temple paintings. The creatures emerging from the electrified portals were getting scarier and larger, with each one being more vicious than the next: a rhinoceros-like man, spearing one of the humans with its tusk; a faceless, hooded demon, clawing at a man’s chest; a figure in a space suit, firing a long rifle at the fleeing humans.

Finally, at the bottom of the page, Orion stopped. He stared at the last temple drawing, in shock.

The ancient drawing showed a striped, tiger-like beast, walking on its hind legs like a man and carrying an axe. The beast had long fangs growing from its mouth and black hair running down its neck.

“That…” Orion gasped, feeling his knees weaken. “That…”

“Looks like me,” Vincent replied calmly. “Though they really didn’t do a very good job on my nose, don’t you think?”

Orion studied the photo, confused and scared, his eyes darting around the page. But it couldn’t be, he thought, as he looked at the paintings more closely. It made no sense. As much as Vincent liked to pretend he wasn’t, he was still just a confused, 20-year-old kid.

“How could this be, Vince, from thousands of years ago?” Orion asked. “How could this be you? This could just be an ancient story—a myth—or it could just be a drawing of something else.”

Vincent ran his finger along the words underneath the photo. “The text reads that the beast had fur the color of the leaves, and stripes the color of the night sky without stars. And that he could change into a regular man at will.”

Orion flipped to the next page. The drawings there showed the tiger-beast attacking the human warriors. Eventually, after many of the human warriors fell in battle, one of the last temple paintings showed the humans surrendering and bowing before the tiger-beast.

Orion stared at the axe-wielding, striped creature in the book, triumphant over the humans. “This is—this doesn’t make sense.”

Vincent looked out the window at the unending treetops and distant mountain ranges.

“Orion, I’ve been saying it all along: there are things out there—things about us—that no one is telling us about. I’m starting to realize there’s a lot of things that don’t make any sense.”

Orion turned the page. There was one more photograph of a temple drawing.

This drawing showed a final entity coming through the mirrored portal in the sky. It was a man dressed in shining, sleek armor, with his face covered by a helmet. The man’s armor had spikes running along its arms, and his helmet had lifeless, insect-like eyes and a rectangular grid of identical teeth.

Every person in the painting—even the tiger beast—was kneeling in front of the armored man in the helmet.

“Who’s this?” Orion asked, pointing at the image.

“That is the being that everyone walked in awe of. They all answered to him, once the tiger-beast had finished readying the Earth for him. It says in the temple writings that he was the most powerful of all the Sky People, and that he came to Earth to recreate it for the betterment of the rest of the universe.”

“What was his name?” Orion asked.

Vincent looked at the drawing, in deep thought.

“They called him The Daybreaker.”

CHAPTER TWO[
**]THE PRESENT

It had been two months since the Dark Nebula fell from the sky and surrounded Boston, Massachusetts. But Boston, Massachusetts was no longer Boston, Massachusetts.

It was now the city of Harrison, the first and capitol city of New Capricious.

Behind the walls of the Dark Nebula, where no one from the outside world could see them, harm them, or interfere with them, the people of Harrison lived in wonderful peace and happiness. The streets were filled with gorgeous, silent, sleek cars and trucks that appeared to be classic models from the 1940’s or 1950’s, except that they gave off no emissions and no pollution. Blimps and airships glided magnificently through the sky, bringing the thousands of citizens of the city wherever they wanted, free of cost and within minutes. Every day was sunny, every sky was blue, and every moment was perfect.

The people of the city were filled with life and joy and a friendly energy. All of the citizens—be they green-skinned, white-skinned, or dark-skinned—considered each other family. They knew they were all in this together—this wonderful, amazing, courageous journey—and they knew they were all a part of something that was going to reconstruct the universe into what they knew it should be. As they walked to work, to home, or to meet their date at one of the diners along the waterfront, they always looked their best—with the men in their dark hats and freshly pressed suits, and the women in their pastel sundresses with their bows and ribbons in their hair. After all, this new world was so clean and crisp and shiny, the people—who had once considered themselves Rytonians but now considered themselves New Capriciouns—knew they had to match the perfection of their new home. And, of course, the children were always dressed in their best, too, with clean faces and washed, trim hair and socks that matched their shirts—except, that is, when they were playing hide-and-seek in the school playground or starting pick-up games of kermball in the luscious parks dotted throughout the city. At those times, the kids of Harrison were allowed to get a little dirty; after all, having fun and enjoying the outdoors was the best part of every Rytonians’ childhood, back home, years ago, when things were good.

Across the new city, there were various sights that made the people of Harrison feel safe, calm, and at home. Flags emblazoned with a green-and-black, tiger-like beast adorned nearly every window in the city, as a reminder of where they had come from. The freshly constructed billboards in the center of downtown—showing a cheerful, green-skinned man holding up a glass bottle of soda—always made everyone smile, especially when they read its headline: FIZZY COLA: THE TASTE OF THE NEW WORLD. From the very first day the people of Rytonia had been allowed to move to Harrison, a popular, brightly colored poster had seemed to be everywhere: it showed a New Capricioun family sitting down for dinner, with the wonderful city skyline of Harrison outside their window. The red cursive text on the bottom of the poster read:

NEW HOME! NEW WORLD! FINALLY! A PLACE FOR US!

Another poster in Harrison was even more prominent, as this poster was mandated to be hung in every home, place of business, school, and public place in the city. It showed an image of a handsome, young, seventeen-year-old boy with dark hair and dark eyes. He looked very dashing in the photo, dressed in his white suit jacket, white pants, and white tie, and as he looked over the city as a perfect sunrise gleamed on the horizon, he stood with his hands on his hips. This was the city’s leader, a young man named the Daybreaker, and the text underneath his picture displayed the thoughts of every person in Harrison; it read: A PROMISE FULFILLED. This poster in particular always made people feel safe and happy.

In downtown Harrison, near Rytonia Park, teens shared milkshakes in soda shops and danced the night away at the dancehall playing all of the latest hits. In the suburbs on the outskirts of town, mailmen pleasantly delivered letters (and smiles) to waiting housewives (with the mailmen always making sure to step lightly around the pet dogs and one-eyed octopuses, of course.) Everywhere in the city, kids rode their bikes on the sidewalks, men bought the morning newspaper on their way to work, and women cooked hearty, full-course meals for their families. The only reminder of the scary outside world could be seen sporadically on telephone poles throughout the city, but the people knew this reminder was necessary. The poster on the telephone poles was split into four sections, and each section showed a different person’s face: one face was of a dark-skinned elderly man in glasses, one was of a robotic boy, one was of a blue-furred dog in a cowboy hat, and one was of a dead-eyed, scary teenage boy with a mask over the lower part of his face. The text on the poster above the faces read BE VIGILANT!, while the text under the faces read: IF YOU SEE ANY OF THESE INDIVIDUALS, CONTACT THE AUTHORITIES IMMEDIATELY! OUR NEW WORLD DEPENDS ON IT! Sometimes, these posters could lead to frightening thoughts, but luckily, no one had ever seen the faces in the city, and everybody knew they probably never would. The Daybreaker wouldn’t allow dangerous people like that into the city.

In the western section of Harrison, a building once known as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was now known as the “Vincent Harris Remembrance Center,” and it was here where the people of the city could spend a day viewing artifacts, memorabilia, and even the personal items of the man who had first started the process of their new world. In the schools around the city, the children were taught by teachers who were trained at the Vincent Harris Remembrance Center, and these teachers were experts at bringing the fascinating, important stories of history to life. A popular lesson was always “Vincent’s Valiant Last Stand,” in which the students learned about the green-furred, tiger-like hero known as Vincent Harris, and how he gave his life against the evil, twisted villain known as Strike. Vincent had been lost in battle only a few months ago when he was first trying to create New Capricious, as the red-eyed Strike—with his fangs dripping with blood and his claws gripping his electrified bo-staff—had struck him down to stop him from saving the people of Rytonia. It was sad that Vincent was gone, but everyone knew his memory and lessons would always live on, thanks to Rigel, Nova, and the Daybreaker.

And it was in the northern section of the city where the Daybreaker lived, in a wonderful, green, open park once known as the Boston Public Garden. Now, it was known as Trident Gardens, as the three-pointed skyscraper known as the Trident rested here. The young man in charge of the entire city—the young man protecting the capital of New Capricious—resided on the top floor of this magnificent building, where he could stand at his massive, ceiling-high, room-wide window and watch over the city. His name had once been Tobin Lloyd, but that was a long time ago, and he did not like to remember that life anymore, for it all had been taken away from him. He had a new life now, and he knew it was the one he had always been meant to have, even when he did not know it. Two months ago, Rigel and Nova had come to him and told him of his true identity: he was the Daybreaker, a powerful being from another world called Capricious, and it was his destiny to reshape the planet Earth into a new version of Capricious, where there would be wonderful creatures and brave superheroes and no wars and no suffering. The Daybreaker found this truth shocking and unsettling at first, but when Rigel and Nova showed him his new powers, and showed him the evil villains like Orion and Keplar Costello who would hurt those he loved, the Daybreaker had quickly learned it was his fate to protect the people of both Earth and Capricious from evil people like them. He could not let Orion hurt anyone else; he had to make sure that Orion could never do again what he had done to the people the Daybreaker loved. Orion and his allies had taken away everything from the Daybreaker, and the Daybreaker would never let anyone feel that kind of pain ever again. It was his destiny to eradicate that kind of pain, from everyone, everywhere, forever.

It was a strange life for the Daybreaker sometimes—to wear his white suit everyday, to work with Rigel and Nova on the new plans for the city, and to train with Rigel on the use of his powers—but it was a life the Daybreaker was getting used to. Sometimes he would think of his old life, with his old friends and family, and he would look through his photo albums of his old pictures, but he would never let that feeling last. Even though he was only seventeen years old, he had so much work to do. So many people to protect. So much power to use for good. He had to remind himself that his old life as a regular human on Earth and his old life living in Bridgton was a kind of poison, and a lie. If he had kept living that life, unaware of his destiny, it would have only have led to the destruction of the universe. Two months ago, he had learned the most important lesson of his life: Bridgton, Boston, and the rest of Earth were not the wonderful places he once thought they were.

After all, people felt pain in those places. In Harrison, nobody ever felt any pain.

CHAPTER THREE

On a rainy, sunless August day, Chad Fernandes sat with his friend Jennifer Robins and watched the evening news in the living room of Chad’s family’s house. As had been the case pretty much every day for the past two months, the news was not good, and nobody spoke while it was on.

“It has been over two months,” the reporter on TV said, as she stood a safe distance from the purple-and-black, swirling dome of gas that had surrounded Boston since the beginning of June, “and yet still there has been no progress made in either figuring out what the dome is or how to get through it.” Behind the reporter, Chad and Jennifer could see the streets lined with tourists, with their cameras and cell phones, trying to get a closer look at the dome. Policemen were trying to keep the crowd in check, and they were especially making sure that nobody went past the barricade that marked the area that the U.S. government and Boston police had decided was a safe distance for them to stand. Past the barricade, endless vehicles of the United States military could be seen—armored vans and green trucks and tanks—along with hundreds of soldiers, policemen, and construction workers, who were building the elevated, steel working stations set up around the dome. Most importantly, scientists from NASA and other space research agencies from around the world could be seen testing the walls of the dome, taking readings and trying—desperately trying—to find a way to cut through the poisonous gas and smog that seemed to be miles thick and in some places as hard as diamond.

The reporter continued her story. “The only good news, the president said today, is that it’s estimated that 99% of the people inside of the dome have now been released. By whom and for what purpose, we do not know, as it seems those inside the dome during its initial appearance were kept in windowless, artificial structures during the invasion, before ultimately being set free outside the perimeters of the dome.

“Unfortunately, endless questions remain: we have no idea what is going on inside of the dome, there is apparently still no way to get into the dome from the outside, and there is still no explanation about how the otherworldly dome was created or where it came from. We can now only wait to see if these mysteries are ever solved.”

Chad sat back on the couch with an exhausted sigh. He glanced to his right at Jennifer next to him. She was sitting quietly, with her eyes toward the TV but her thoughts clearly on something—and someone—else. Out of all of Chad’s family and friends, Jennifer talked about the dome the least. Only Chad knew the reason why, because only him and Jennifer knew the truth.

From the kitchen behind Chad and Jennifer, Chad’s father stepped into the living room, with his bowl of ice cream in one hand and the sports section of the Bridgton Herald in the other.

“I don’t know why everyone keeps saying we don’t know where the dome came from,” Chad’s father said, shaking his head. “We know damn well where it came from.”

“Well, Dad, we don’t know for sure,” Chad replied.

Chad’s father sat down in his recliner. “Sure we do! That cabeza de nob Strike put it there!”

Jennifer knew Chad’s father only used Portuguese insults when he was really angry, but she couldn’t help but speak up. “I really don’t think it was Strike, Mr. Fernandes. There’s no proof, and I just don’t think he would do that.”

“You don’t?” Chad’s father said. “I saw it with my own eyes—millions of other people, from all around the world, saw it, too! Strike stood in the middle of Boston and the next thing we knew, it was the end of the damn world.”

“But why would he do that after helping the people of Boston and fighting crime all this time?” Chad asked, growing frustrated.

His father shrugged. “I never liked that guy anyway. Running around in that outfit, being a vigilante, going outside of the law. Clearly this was his plan all along.”

Chad closed his eyes. “Dad, I really don’t want to get into this again. I’m not gonna fight with you about this every day for the rest of our lives. All I’m gonna say is, I know—for a fact—that the person who did this wasn’t Strike.”

Chad’s father laughed. “Oh, yeah? Really? Okay, then, if it wasn’t Strike, if he’s not in that dome, then where is he?”

Jennifer looked to Chad. Each of the two friends knew the answer, but both of them knew they could never tell a soul.

***

A world away, across the universe, Tobin Lloyd sped down a cracked, deserted highway, with his gloved hands gripping the steering wheel in front of him and his eyes fixed on the dark road. The eighteen-year-old boy was dressed in his Strike costume—with his black cape on his back, white lightning bolt on his chest, and blue mask over the lower part of his face—while his vehicle—the transforming, aqua, 2002 Ford Escort station wagon known as the Bolt Racer—was currently in its “Ion Speeder” form: it was a sleek, midnight blue, ultra-fast sports car, which could reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour while still handling like a BMW. This feature of the transforming vehicle was perfect at the moment, because Tobin knew where he was headed, he was going to have to get in and out as fast as he could. Traveling on the empty stretch of highway that apparently hadn’t been paved in over a century, Tobin was in a virtually unknown area of Capricious, surrounded by foreboding dark mountains, endless canyons, and a roaring ocean. After traveling for over two hours, the boy finally saw the faint light of a settlement in the distance up ahead. Reaching forward, he pushed a blue button on the Bolt Racer control panel in front of him.

“Scatterbolt, am I coming up on my destination?”

The face of Tobin’s robotic friend Scatterbolt appeared on a rectangular screen near the steering wheel. The little boy made out of purple and green, shimmering metal was very worried.

“Yes, Tobin, you are, but I need to remind you to please be very careful. You’re heading into a part of Capricious that is barely on any kind of map. It’s incredibly dangerous to ever go there, never mind alone.”

Tobin laughed. You could always count on Scatterbolt to worry. Although this time, Tobin knew the robot actually had a reason to be concerned.

“I’ll be fine, Scatterbolt. Don’t worry about me, just remember one thing.”

“I know, I know: don’t tell Orion where you are.”

“That’s right. I’ll see you soon, buddy.”

“Yeah, great,” Scatterbolt said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll just be sitting here with my terrible secret, worrying myself into an ulcer. I don’t know if it’s possible for a robot to get an ulcer, but if it is, I’ll definitely be getting one.”

Tobin chuckled and turned off the communicator. Looking out his windshield, he saw a line of wooden buildings ahead, resting in the middle of one of the canyons, before looking down to the map screen on his dashboard. “Yup, there it is,” he said to himself. “Daxtonville. A hellhole at the end of Capricious.”

To be truthful, to call Daxtonville a “hellhole” would be an insult to both the word “hell” and “hole.” It was a horrendous little town—a long, grimy street with dingy, wooden tenement buildings on either side of it, with both the street and the structures untouched for decades. Most of the buildings were abandoned—or appeared that way, anyway, with broken windows and doors hanging off their hinges. There wasn’t a tree, or a blade of grass, in sight.

It was a place you went to if you never wanted to be seen again, because you had done things you didn’t want people to ever know about. The people of the town—and when speaking about Daxtonville, that term was used very loosely—milled about the dirty street, in various stages of drunkenness, illness, and death. To live in this dark corner of the world, it was pretty much a prerequisite to have either murdered or maimed someone, possess less than half of your teeth, and bathe less than once a month, and it was exactly these type of people that Tobin saw as he drove the Bolt Racer closer to the city limits.

It was a group of a dozen men gathered around a burning trash barrel in the middle of the road, entertaining themselves by tossing grimy glass bottles and firing their pistols at an unconscious elderly man lying in the gutter. Tobin knew these were the men he was looking for; once known as the Bronk Gang, decades ago they had been a group of world-famous bank robbers—even folk heroes in some parts of the world—but now they were simply a sad squadron of has-beens and low-lives, devolved into a state of putrid filth thanks to a lifetime of drugs, booze, and increasingly violent and desperate criminal activity.

As Strike stopped the engine of the Bolt Racer and stepped onto the dirt road, the leader of the gang—a dark-haired, grimy-faced man named Sal—turned away from the old man they were tormenting and faced the hero. Laughing loudly, he pointed his gloved finger at Strike.

“Hey, look who it is, fellas!” he shouted. “It’s the hero boy from Earth! Or, wait—maybe that’s his evil twin?”

The rest of the drunks turned and laughed at Strike, swinging their bottles of booze in the air and offering him a toast. Strike had no reaction. He simply stood a few feet away from the drunks and stared them down.

“What are you doing here, buddy?” Sal asked, taking a drunken step toward Strike. “Come to hang out with a few like-minded murderers like yourself?”

“No,” Strike replied. “I’m here to tell you two things. One— bathing. It’s refreshing, it’s easy, and it can even be a lot of fun. Two—and most importantly—one of you is going to tell me where I can find Charlotte Vendorsworth. And, as a bonus, whoever steps forward, I’ll even let them in on the secret world of teeth brushing.”

One of the gang members behind Sal—a skinny guy named Evan—piped up.

“Who you lookin’ for?” he asked with a confused snarl. “Man, we don’t know no Charlotte Vendorsworth. I got a couple other girls you can have some fun with, though, if you’re interested.”

The drunks all laughed, falling over each other and gulping from their bottles of whiskey.

“You know Charlotte Vendorsworth,” Strike replied. “She calls herself the Time Queen.” He grew angry, raising his voice. “Where can I find her?”

Sal laughed. “Man, you ain’t been paying attention, Strikey. None of us are scared of you anymore. We know what’s going on on your other world. Word gets around fast in our community. We know what the Daybreaker’s doing, we know what you’re capable of: taking over entire cities, enslaving people, shooting helicopters full of cops out of the sky—you’re practically one of us. We ain’t afraid of you—we wanna have a drink with you.”

The gang members laughed louder than ever, toasting their bottles and high-fiving one another. Evan and another gang member, Rusty, walked up behind Sal and patted him on the back, congratulating him for standing up to Strike.

Strike watched the gang for a moment, in silence, before rearing back and swinging his electrified bo-staff across Evan’s mouth. Evan bellowed in pain and grabbed his face, falling to the ground on his knees, with blood running down his hands and the few remaining teeth in his mouth dropping from his lips. The other drunks cringed, suddenly no longer laughing.

Infuriated, Rusty reached for his pistol on his waist, but Strike immediately extended his fingers and threw a sphere of ball-lightning at the thug; the snapping ball of energy hit the pistol and exploded in a blue flash, sending Rusty to the dirt, screaming, with his pistol destroyed and his hand smoking and covered in soot.

Taking advantage of Strike’s distraction, another drunk gang member approached him from behind with a broken bottle, but Strike swiftly spun around and kicked him across the jaw. Knowing his back was now to his enemy, Strike turned around, only to see another thug—a tall, muscular man in a torn motorcycle jacket—coming at him with a knife. Strike dodged the slash of the knife, grabbed the man by his jacket collar, spun him around, and, just at the height of his momentum, let go, tossing the thug like an Olympian throwing a discus. As the thug screamed, his body spun through the air in a blue flash, before crashing to the earth fifty feet away, tumbling over itself in the dirt of the canyon.

Completely unfazed by any of the attacks, Strike pushed forward through the remaining drunks, who were now standing away from him, with their jaws dropped open. Finally, Strike reached the leader of the gang—the no longer smug-and-smiling Sal.

“No, no,” Sal stammered. “C’mon, man…don’t…”

Reaching forward with both hands, Strike grabbed Sal by the lapels of his jacket and walked with him toward the end of the street. Reaching the edge of a cliff, Strike stepped forward and lifted Sal up, holding him out in the open air over the canyon. As Sal struggled to free himself, with his legs waving wildly, he looked down: the bottom of the cliff was hundreds of feet down, surrounded by jagged rocks and a raging river.

Sal was nearly in tears. “No, no, no! C’mon, man! No! Don’t do it! Don’t do it, man!”

Strike held Sal out over the abyss. Stepping forward, he brought the thug closer to his face.

“So,” Strike asked. “What’s this about you not being afraid of me anymore?”

Sal whimpered. “I’ll tell you anything you wanna know.”

Strike bellowed in the thug’s face, his voice echoing in the canyon. “Where is the Time Queen?”

***

Far from the outskirts of Daxtonville, surrounded only by tall, tan-colored rock formations and sparse trees, Strike walked down a dirt road and studied the electronic map in his hand. As he heard waves crashing against a shore, he knew he was nearing his destination, and, sure enough, his electronic tablet map soon beeped, his position on the map marked by a blinking, white dot. Turning a corner, the boy came upon a body of water—a massive, blue lake, extending far out from the edge of the canyon and shining with the moonlight.

Strike looked out at the lake in front of him: there was a long bridge extending from the sand, leading from the shore to an island in the middle of the water. Resting on top of the strange island there was a large, well-kept wooden house with a triangular roof, surrounded by windmills, wind chimes, and a beautifully landscaped yard full of yellow-and-pink rose bushes, flowing streams, and small ponds. Taking a nervous step forward, Strike walked across the long bridge, holding the ropes on either side of him as he swayed over the waves of the water far below.

Finally reaching the end of the bridge, Strike stepped onto the island in the middle of the lake and saw a stone path leading across the yard and to the front porch of the house. As he walked down the path, Strike was surprised to see silly wooden figures stuck into the grass of the yard: there were ostriches, coyotes, and men dressed in sailor suits, with the legs of each of the figures spinning from the constant breeze coming off of the water. Eyeing the figures with a confused smile, Strike reached the porch of the house and stepped up to its front door. Just when he was wondering if he should knock or look for a doorbell, the boy saw a wooden sign hanging to the side of the door. In immaculate, perfect writing, the sign read:

HI, TOBIN! WELCOME! I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU!

SINCERELY, CHARLOTTE VENDORSWORTHTHE TIME QUEEN!

CURIOS AND FORTUNE TELLING!

Startled by the welcome, and realizing any element of surprise he had was clearly gone, Strike cautiously opened the front door and entered the house.

***

As he shut the door behind him, Strike realized the structure wasn’t simply a house—it was also some kind of bizarre shop. As he walked along its creaky wooden floor, surrounded by flickering candles and foggy gas lamps, he inspected the items for sale on the store’s dusty shelves: he saw old diamond necklaces and sets of faded silverware; stuffed creatures mounted on tree stumps, including a purple-spotted leopard and three-headed rabbit; and finally, most disturbingly of all, he saw algae-covered jars filled with reptiles and insects, some of which Strike was pretty sure were still alive, including a turtle who was looking at him with its blinking eye pressed up against the glass.

All throughout the dark shop, there was also a strong, wafting odor of burning incense, giving the air a smoky, sweet flavor, and as Strike moved deeper into the building, his ears were increasingly filled with the sound of ticking clocks. Soon, he realized why: moving beyond the jars filled with reptiles, the boy found himself in a section of the shop where there were no antiques or stuffed animals or jewelry; there were only clocks—hundreds and hundreds of clocks. There were clocks on the shelves, clocks on the walls, even clocks looking down on him from the ceiling. The clocks were all different shapes and sizes: some of them were circular and made from tin, some of them were giant, wooden grandfather clocks resting against the walls, and some of them were made of glass, with tiny, delicate porcelain bells on top that were painted with blue flowers. The most interesting clocks, however, were the cuckoo clocks—made out of oak and carved with the intricacy of a master carpenter, they showed elaborate scenes, such as a group of moose in a peaceful forest, striped tropical fish under the sea, and an old-fashioned puppet show, with a female marionette in a red dress standing in front of a yellow curtain that opened and closed. As Strike stopped to inspect one of the cuckoo clocks, he picked the perfect time: as the clock struck two in the morning, its bells chimed, and a small wooden door opened on its front. Out of the door, a tiny soldier emerged, holding a rifle. However, the soldier was quickly followed by a black, gigantic, ape-like monster, which held its arms high in the air as it chased the soldier around the track outside of the clock. Usually with clocks like this, the figures continue chasing each other until the bells stop chiming, but that wasn’t the case with this clock; as Strike watched, the giant ape caught up with the soldier and used its massive hands to rip the man’s head clean off his body.

“Hi, Tobin!” a voice suddenly shouted.

With a gasp, Strike turned to his right: there was a woman in her early sixties standing at the end of the row of clocks, with a thrilled grin across her face. She was dressed in red, orange, and yellow flowing robes, with long gold earrings that shimmered from the candlelight, a big chunky necklace of blue stones resting on her chest, and a mass of neatly-coifed, curly, grey hair atop her head. She also had several dozen gold bracelets on her wrists, which jingled like bells as she clapped her hands together in excitement.

“Oh my god!” she shouted. “I’ve been waiting for you forever! Look at you—you’re really here! And so handsome!” The woman reached forward and grabbed Strike, pulling him close with both arms and squeezing him, all while swaying him from side to side. “I went back and forth, for decades,” she said. “He’ll be here, he won’t be here. He’ll come see me, he won’t come see me. But—you came! Today, just like I thought you would! Oh, this is just great!”

The woman let go of Strike and walked across the shop. This was clearly the Time Queen, Strike thought to himself, though she wasn’t exactly what he was expecting. Puzzled, he watched as she walked to a little sitting area in the middle of the shop, with two large sitting chairs and a circular table resting in between them.

“Would you like something to drink, Tobin? Some iced tea, maybe? I have peach iced tea, your favorite. You can take off your mask, too, by the way—I already know who you are, Tobin Lloyd.”

Smiling bigger than ever, the Time Queen reached for a pitcher of iced tea on the table and poured the cold drink into two glasses. As Strike cautiously stepped toward her, he took off his mask.

“How did you…?” Tobin watched as the Time Queen hummed a song and neatly arranged a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table. “You knew I was coming?”

“Well, I had a pretty good idea. The past, you see, is easy. I can tell you anything you want to know about the past, because it’s already been decided. The future, though, it can be muddy. It’s always changing, there are different possibilities, and any one decision anybody makes at any moment can set it off in a different path.” The Time Queen brought one of the glasses of iced tea to Tobin. “I’ve been seeing this particular moment since I was ten years old—sometimes you came, sometimes you didn’t. But—lo and behold—here we are. Come, sit down, sit down!”

Knowing he’d rather jump out the window than drink whatever this crazy woman had poured for him, Tobin took the glass and followed her to the sitting area. As he sat down in one of the ancient-looking chairs, she sat down across from him, grinning. She seemed to be getting more excited by the minute.

“Do you want to tell me why you’re here?” she asked. “I already know, but you can tell me, anyway.”

Tobin thought it over. As nutty as this woman seemed, there was a reason he had traveled all the way there. “I hear you know all about the time-stream. As soon as I heard that, I wanted to come, but…”

The Time Queen smirked. “Let me guess: Orion, right? He has never liked me, you know. Never, ever. I bet he told you that I’m crazy.”

“He said that anyone who can see what you can see—anyone who has access to all that information about time, and the future, and the past…No one should have all that in their head at once. That it could…”

“Drive a person crazy?”

Tobin nodded. “Yeah, pretty much.”

“Well, he’s right. It could drive a person crazy. But it could also be a wonderful gift. And that’s how I choose to look at it.”

Tobin glanced down at the table in between the chairs. “I came here…I don’t really have any other choice. I need help with something.”

The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a diagram drawn on a piece of paper. It was a detailed description and blueprint of the Chrono-Key—the blue, translucent pocket watch with the ability to send its holder back through time.

“Do you know what this is?” Tobin asked, showing the Time Queen the drawing of the Chrono-Key.

The Time Queen fell into a state of total euphoria. She took in a deep breath and held the air a moment, with her hand against her heart.

“Do you have it?” she asked. “Do you know where the watch is?” She held out her hand. “Is it real? Can I…?”

Tobin handed her the piece of paper. “I need to hear everything you know about this watch.”

As the Time Queen clutched the diagram against her chest, she swiftly entered a trance-like, hypnotized state. Her body swayed rhythmically, and her breath came out in long, slow exhales. Slowly, she opened her eyes, and when she did, Tobin saw that they were now light purple, and without any pupils.

“Oh my god,” she said. “I’ve been waiting…I can hear the watch, speaking to me. With this, I would be able to see everything. It’s clear. It’s finally clear. My whole life I have—it’s real. The Chrono-Key is real.” She suddenly grew emotional, closing her eyes and crying. “Thank you. Thank you, Tobin.”

Tobin stared back at her, with his eyes wide. “Uh, no problem. Can you tell me about it, though? I know it allows people to travel through time, but…”

“It’s talking. The watch speaks…the same way that I speak. It can see everything. It’s showing me everything. The past, possible futures. It’s so clear. It’s…the watch tells me that it has only been used twice in thousands of years. Once by you, and once by a man named Rigel.”

Tobin’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me about when Rigel used it.”

The Time Queen held the blueprint closer to her and concentrated, her brow furrowing and her mouth pursed. Suddenly, as her fingers released the piece of paper, it began hovering in the air above her.

With the Time Queen’s hands now free, she slowly waved her fingers out toward Tobin. As she moved her hands, they began to emanate colorful wisps of smoke, and soon Tobin could see an image of Rigel—the red-skinned giant—made of smoke and floating in the space in front of the Time Queen.

“Rigel stole the Chrono-Key from you,” the Time Queen said. “Not long ago.”

Tobin watched the dancing wisps of smoke and light; he realized they were showing him images of himself and Rigel, in the pyramid dungeon, two months ago. As Tobin hung from the wall of the pyramid, beaten and bloodied, Rigel reached forward and ripped the Chrono-Key from his neck.

“The red giant used the Chrono-Key to fulfill a powerful dream,” the Time Queen said. “A wish—a wish he shared with the person closest to him in his life.”

Tobin watched as Rigel used the Chrono-Key in the pyramid control room and disappeared. When the red giant reappeared, he was suddenly standing outside of the grocery store where Tobin worked, at the far end of the store’s empty parking lot. It was night. As the red giant gripped the Chrono-Key in his hand, he walked across the asphalt, staring ahead at the entrance to the grocery store.

Inside the store, Tobin could see himself, talking to Orion.

“Rigel went into the past,” the Time Queen said. “But not too far. Only a blink of an eye in the time-stream.”

Tobin watched the images in shock. “That’s me,” he said. “That’s the night I met Orion, almost a year ago. The night all of this started.”

The Time Queen nodded. “You were supposed to meet Orion that night, but Rigel went into the past and changed that.”

Tobin watched the images in light and smoke. Enraged by the sight of Orion in the supermarket, Rigel charged across the parking lot and rammed his massive shoulder into the glass. The walls around the entrance shattered, and Tobin and Orion turned to see the massive, hulking, furious giant standing in front of them.

The Time Queen continued. “Before you could hear Orion’s warning that night and learn about his connection to your father, Rigel attacked Orion, left him to die, and took you with him from the supermarket.”

Tobin watched as Rigel grabbed Orion by the neck and rammed him into the ground. Before Orion could recover, Rigel clutched the terrified Tobin, fired a portal pistol into the air, and escaped with Tobin from the supermarket, through a swirling portal and back to Capricious.

The Time Queen took a deep breath. “A separate timeline was created in which Orion did not meet you ten months ago and train you in your powers. Instead, Rigel took you from the supermarket that night and forced you into the armor of the Daybreaker. By placing you in that armor and helmet, he opened up your mind and body to the infinite possibilities of your power.”

In the smoke and light, Tobin saw the Daybreaker, wearing his armor and sitting in the metal throne in the pyramid in Zanatopia.

“When you were ready, Rigel brought this second version of you back to the present and bestowed upon you the legendary title of the Daybreaker. Then, after teaching you more in the ways of your powers—well, the results of this can be seen on your home world now.”

The smoky image of the Daybreaker changed, morphing into the black-and-purple Dark Nebula surrounding Boston. Tobin watched the dome, dismayed and sick to his stomach.

“So it is me,” the boy said. “The Daybreaker is me. It’s not some illusion, or fake trick. It’s actually me.”

“Yes. A different you from a different timeline, but you nonetheless. Only one event in the Daybreaker’s life has been different from yours. One small difference has created all of this. Instead of being taken from Earth and trained by Orion, he was taken from Earth and trained by Rigel.”

Tobin stared at the Dark Nebula. “So Rigel found me instead of Orion, and this is what happened. This is what I turned into. I’m capable of doing all this.”

“Yes. And so much more.”

Tobin didn’t want to know the answer to his next question, but he knew he had to ask. “He—the Daybreaker—he has chosen to do all of this? Of his own free will? Rigel isn’t making him do this, or hypnotizing him or something?”

The Time Queen shook her head. “No. This is his choice. Because of what Rigel has told him about the universe, he has chosen to work with Rigel and the others. He is leading them in their conquest of Earth. This is how he—how you—has chosen to use his powers.”

Tobin was quiet, watching the smoke and light, with his hands clasped in front of him.

“Is this not the answer you were looking for?” the Time Queen asked.

“It’s what I was looking for. I was just hoping you’d be telling me something different.”

“I can only tell you what I know. And what I know is truth.”

Tobin nodded. “Thank you. I’m gonna go home now. I’ll be needing that diagram.”

Tobin reached forward and plucked the drawing of the Chrono-Key from the air. With his thoughts and the truth overwhelming him, he stood and walked back toward the rows of clocks, towards the exit of the shop. The Time Queen stayed seated.

“Oh, Tobin,” she said with a wide smile. “Would you like to know more? Would you like to know about your future?”

Tobin turned around, his eyes squinting.

“Like I said, the future is unclear,” the Time Queen said. “It’s always unclear, because there are infinite possibilities. It is impossible to be 100% sure. But I can tell you what I see most often when I look into your future.”

Tobin thought it over. He shrugged. It couldn’t be any worse than what he had just heard. “Sure. Why not.”

The Time Queen closed her eyes and entered another trance, swaying side-to-side. “I see…a dead man, appearing as if risen from the grave. I see…a giant, walking the streets of the Earth. And I see you. You are alone…scared…and crying.”

Tobin stared at her, with his eyebrows raised. “Okay. Not exactly ‘you win the lottery and buy the Boston Celtics,’ but okay. Thanks. Thanks for that.”

Tobin turned toward the exit, more eager to leave than ever. Behind him, the Time Queen laughed.

“Oh, Tobin. My handsome, little Tobin. You really are so sweet. I didn’t think you would be so naive.”

Tobin turned around. “Come again?”

“I’ve been waiting over fifty years for this moment,” the Time Queen said. “Did you really think I would just let you leave?”

“Umm…” Tobin thought it over. “Yes?”

The Time Queen laughed again. “That diagram in your hand—that device. I need you to get it for me. What that watch allowed me to do, even from afar…for the first time, I could see clearly. If I held the Chrono-Key, if I could actually hold the device in my hand? Everything has been a jumble, since I was a little girl, but when I spoke to the Chrono-Key—it was like someone had lined everything up for me. Cleanly. Clearly. All the voices and images had been lifted. I had always hoped this is what would happen when you came to me. But I never thought it would ever be this beautiful. I never thought I would feel this…high from it.”

Tobin stepped toward the exit. “Okay, uh, you’re welcome, I guess. But I really should be going. Hope you keep feeling…high. Don’t go driving or anything.”

The Time Queen laughed, loud and hard, flinging her head back.

“Oh, Tobin. You know. You know I can’t let you leave. You’re my only hope of getting the Chrono-Key. Do you understand what I could do if I had that? What I could accomplish? You must stay with me. You must stay with me and help me get the Chrono-Key.”

Tobin looked for another exit. “No, actually. I don’t. I’m leaving now, and I’m going to make sure you never get your hands on the Chrono-Key, ever. I’m going to need it, I’m sure, for whatever happens next.”

“You will need it,” the Time Queen said. “But you won’t have it.” She reached toward one of her cuckoo clocks hanging on the wall. “You won’t have it because I will have it.”

Tobin stepped toward her. He grabbed his bo-staff from his back. “What are you doing? Listen, you need to stop before I—”

“Yes, stand right there,” the Time Queen said, with her hand on the cuckoo clock. “Right where I’ve been seeing you stand since I was ten years old.” She squinted. “Wait a minute. Not quite right.”

Tobin stepped forward, lighting his bo-staff with electricity.

“There you go,” the Time Queen said. As she used her finger to spin the hour hand on the face of the clock, the floor slid open underneath Tobin’s feet. Suddenly, he fell into the floor and disappeared from view.

The Time Queen let out a satisfied sigh. “Nothing quite like building a trap door and then having to wait forty-five years to use it. But boy, was it worth it.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Tobin found himself careening down a twisting, turning, underground metal slide, underneath the Time Queen’s curio shop. The tube went nearly straight down, and Tobin could not stop or control his fall.

“Whooooooaaaaaaaaa!” he shouted, as he tried to brace his hands on the walls speeding by him. “Whoooooooooahh!”

Finally, the boy reached the end of the slide and SPLASHED! into an underground cavern. Getting to his feet and soaking wet, he stood in the knee-high water and looked toward the ceiling. High above him, he could see the hole he just fell through, but it was soon covered by a sliding door.

“Tobin?” the boy heard someone say. “Did you land okay?”

Tobin darted his eyes around the cavern. Up near the ceiling, there was a speaker built into the dirt wall. The Time Queen’s voice was coming from it.

“Are you in the water now?” she asked. “Okay, good. Good, I can see that you are. Now, you just be a good little boy and agree to help me get the Chrono-Key. Then, I will let you out of there, and we can all move on from this unfortunate incident and continue being friends again.”

Tobin sloshed through the water, running his hands along the walls and stomping his feet, listening for any hollow spots in the ground.

“No, that’s okay,” he said. “I think I’ll just look for a way out of here and go home. Thanks for the iced tea, though.”

The Time Queen laughed. “There is no way out, silly, I’ve made sure of that. And if you won’t get the Key for me, then I will have to kill you. It is one of the futures I’ve seen. Is that the road you want to go down?”

Tobin didn’t answer. He looked up and down the muddy walls and ceiling, searching for a door.

“Fine,” the Time Queen said. “Have it your way, then. It wasn’t the way I wanted. But now this future must be.”

Suddenly, there was a loud, metallic KA-CHUNK! in the wall in front of Tobin, and the water around him began to rise. Within seconds, it was up to his waist, and then, before he knew it, it was up to his chest. And still rising.

“I’ll be down to pick up your corpse in a few minutes,” the Time Queen said. “It was nice finally meeting you, Tobin.”

Then, with a CLICK, the speaker went silent, just as the water rose so high that it lifted Tobin off his feet. As he rose toward the ceiling, he tried to concentrate and keep treading water, but he was beginning to panic. Splashing in the water, swimming all around the cavern, he continued looking for a way out, but there wasn’t one.

The boy tried to think: what could he do? How could he use his powers to get himself out of this? Soon, he knew, there would be no space left in between him and the ceiling, and he would be forced underwater—with no air, and nowhere to go but down. He had to find a way out before then.

As the boy looked to the ceiling, searching for the trap door he fell through, he once again heard another KA-CHUNK! in the cavern, but this time it came from underneath him. Looking down through the murky water, the boy saw movement, coming from the far side of the cavern floor.

Something was underneath the water. It was moving, swimming toward him. After seeing more fluttering shapes, Tobin quickly realized there was now more than one thing in the cavern with him. As he looked closer, the boy could see faint white figures, swimming under him, coming up from the floor. Taking a deep breath, Tobin went under, and opened his eyes.

There were now over a dozen skeleton-like creatures coming toward him, swimming up through the cavern in a line. Their bony, skinless bodies had the appearance of a man, but their heads were those of a piranha skull, with big, empty, dead eye-sockets and long jaws filled with snapping teeth. They had no muscles, fins or scales—only pure white bones and webbed, clawed hands. Using these hideous appendages, the piranha-men quickly swam in a group up toward Tobin, gnashing their jaws and thirsty for blood.

Tobin panicked, thrashing his arms and legs, praying he could somehow swim faster than the skeletons. He swam up to the top of the water, but when he got there, he found there was now only an inch in between him and the ceiling. With no other choice, the boy sucked in as much air as he could, ducked under the water, and prepared to swim away from the piranha-men.

Then he felt it. A hand grabbing at his leg. Looking down, he tried to kick at the white figure underneath him, but it was too difficult to fight back under the water. A searing burst of pain scorched across the boy’s thigh, and he screamed, bubbles bursting from his mouth. As he watched, the blood rose up from his leg, filled the water with a red cloud, and sent the piranhas erupting into a frenzy. They snapped their jaws on his legs and slashed at his arms, and as he yelled from the hideous pain, he swallowed a mouthful of water and began to cough. Soon, he felt the bony hands once again grabbing onto his legs, and this time the squad of piranha-men began pulling him down, deeper into the murky darkness. Even when he desperately tried to fire lightning blasts from his hands, the electricity simply fizzled out under the water, and only accomplished spreading faint light through the cavern.

But then, just as Tobin’s mind began to drift away from lack of oxygen, he thought of something. Using all of his remaining strength, he broke free from the pack of piranhas and swam as fast as he could toward the cavern floor.

The piranhas had to have come from somewhere.

Reaching the dirt floor, Tobin looked around, straining his eyes to see through the muddy water. There was nothing there, however—just unending brown dirt and a few rocks sticking out of the walls. Worst of all, the boy could feel his lungs tightening; he was running out of air. Soon he would have to swim back to the top, but he doubted he even had the strength to do that, and even if he made it, there was likely no longer any air pockets between the water and ceiling. As he looked up to where he came from, trying to figure out his options, he suddenly saw the pack of white shapes coming toward him. The piranha-skeletons, every single one of them, were swimming down to the floor, with Tobin’s blood still streaming off their lips.

Tobin looked back to the ground. It was now or never. He swam downward as fast as he could, and began to fire his lightning blasts in every direction. With the bolts fizzling under the water, he darted his eyes around the walls, but he could see nothing, even with the light from his energy blasts, and the only sound he could hear was his lightning searing against the cavern floor, sporadically bouncing off something metal.

Wait a second.

Metal?

Tobin fired more lightning; yes, even through the water, it was the unmistakable sound of one of his lightning blasts hitting metal. Tobin looked in the sound’s direction, and he saw a rock sticking out of the wall, right where the wall connected to the ground. There were a few other rocks embedded in the cave wall in that area, but none as big as this one.

This was no ordinary rock.

Knowing he only had seconds to work with—and fighting the terrible urge to gasp for air—Tobin swam down to the large rock. The piranha-men were nearly on him now, but he had to put them out of his mind. Reaching the rock, he hammered at it with his arms and legs, blasting it with lightning bursts. But, it would not budge, so finally he reached back and grabbed his bo-staff from his back. Using it like a crowbar, he jammed the weapon into the area where the rock was attached to the wall and sent a stream of lightning scorching down the staff. Summoning all of his strength, the boy then gripped the bo-staff with both hands and pulled back on it as hard as he could.

The power Tobin exerted in attempting his lightning-fueled crowbar was so fierce that he uncontrollably let out a scream, and in the process let out whatever remaining air he had left in his lungs. But, it did not matter; feeling a rushing sensation underneath him, Tobin looked down. The rock was wiggling against the wall, and as Tobin gave it one more swift kick, it loosened itself and dropped to the ground. However, before Tobin could even celebrate with an underwater fist-pump, everything in the cavern—the water, the piranhas, Tobin—was sucked down into the hole behind the rock, and suddenly Tobin found himself falling down yet another underground-metal-death slide. This was where the piranhas had come from, all right—now Tobin just hoped this slide led somewhere better than the underground cavern.

Luckily for Tobin, it did; the slide traveled right out through the underside of the Time Queen’s island, and the boy soon found himself in the open air, falling at an incredible speed. Hitting the lake with a SPLASH, he swam up to the top and broke free of the water, gasping for air and thankful to see the night sky above him. However, even though he had escaped, Tobin was well aware that everything else inside the cavern had also been sucked out into the tube. As he looked back to the underside of the island, every last one of the piranha-skeletons also came rushing out of the slide, before falling into the lake with Tobin, splashing one after the other. It only took a moment for the skeletons to smell Tobin’s blood in the water and reengage the chase for their prey, swimming madly in his direction.

Tobin bobbed at the top of the water, trying to think of an escape. His brain was light-headed, and he knew his lungs could not take another swim underneath the surface. He half-heartedly attempted to swim towards the far-off shore, but his arms and legs were exhausted to the point of uselessness, and he could not manage to make it even ten feet from where he was. With blood pouring from the wounds on his arms and legs—leading the piranhas straight to him—he debated trying to reach the Time Queen’s island, where he could perhaps climb the underside up to safety, but deep down he knew he couldn’t do it. He didn’t have the strength. And he could never out-swim the piranhas, anyway.

Resigning himself to waiting until the piranhas reached him, he treaded water and reached for the bo-staff on his back. When the piranhas came near, he would light the weapon, and then give it his all, trying to fight them off. As useless as he knew it was, it was either that or give up. At least this way, he wouldn’t give up.

But then, with his eyesight going blurry and his lungs tearing at his chest, Tobin heard a roaring, burning sound above him. He was so disoriented and light-headed that he didn’t recognize the noise at first—it wasn’t until a beam of light shot down from the sky and illuminated the water around him that he realized the sound wasn’t coming from inside his own aching head. Arching his neck back and squinting, he shielded his eyes from the light and looked up.

A figure was descending from the sky, dangling on a long rope. As Tobin’s eyes adjusted to the blinding brightness, and as the figure grew closer, he could see who the person was: it was his friend, Keplar Costello, the six-and-a-half-foot-tall, beer-drinking, cowboy-hat-wearing Siberian husky. Looking past the dog, Tobin realized that the rope he was dangling from was attached to the open cargo bay of the silver sky-ship known as the Sky-Blade, which was hovering above them.

“You’re lucky,” the husky said, as he reached Tobin, “that our little robot friend can’t keep a secret for krandor.”

As Tobin grabbed onto Keplar’s arm, the dog pulled the boy against him, and they both rose up to the waiting cargo bay of the Sky-Blade. Nearly unconscious, Tobin looked down; far below him, in the water, he could see the swarm of piranha-men, splashing their arms and snapping their jaws in a fury, still trying to jump up at their escaping prey. To the right of the furious fish, on the shore of the island, Tobin spotted the Time Queen; she was standing outside her curio shop and staring up at the Sky-Blade.

“No!” she shouted, slamming her fists at her sides. “No! This wasn’t how it was supposed to end! This isn’t what I saw! I need the Chrono-Key, Tobin, please! Please! Bring it back to me! I need it! I need it!”

Smiling and closing his eyes, Tobin rose up through the open cargo bay door of the Sky-Blade, and it closed after him.

CHAPTER FIVE

The morning after the escape from the Time Queen’s island, Tobin, Keplar, Scatterbolt, Wakefield, and Orion were in the briefing room on the main floor of the Museum of the Heroes. Orion and Wakefield stood at the front of the room in front of a large screen, while Keplar and Scatterbolt sat in a couple of chairs facing them. Tobin, meanwhile—wearing all of his Strike gear except for his mask—stood in the rear of the room by himself, near a large open window that looked out over the treetops outside of the Museum.

“Okay,” Orion said, holding a remote control in his hand. “Here’s what we know.”

The old man pressed a button, and a long horizontal line appeared on the screen behind him.

“Thanks to Tobin’s completely unauthorized trip to see the Time Queen, we now know that Rigel used the Chrono-Key to travel back into the past. By doing this, he created another timeline. This timeline branches off from ours at the moment I first met Tobin at the supermarket.”

Orion clicked the remote control again, and another horizontal line branched off from the line on the screen.

“By traveling into the past, Rigel changed one incredibly important moment. Instead of meeting me and receiving the picture of his father, the Tobin in this timeline was captured by Rigel and placed in the Daybreaker armor. Rigel and this second Tobin then returned to our timeline. Which is why it is possible we now have two Tobins in our timeline—and it’s also why this other Tobin—the Daybreaker—is so different than ours.”

“That’s it, though?” Keplar asked. “That’s the only difference? I mean, I know our Tobin can have a bad temper sometimes, like when he dies in Mario Brothers or we run out of Nutella, but I can’t believe he would take over the entire city of Boston.”

“No, you’re right,” Orion replied. “That can’t be the only difference. And that’s what we need to find out. We need to find out what else has happened to make this Tobin so different from ours.”

Wakefield—the short, grumpy, balding, robotics-genius senior citizen— stepped in front of the screen.

“Because of our work in helping to cure him of his were-bat disease, Jonathan Ashmore has finally begun to give us useful information about the Daybreaker. And he has told us that he was there when Rigel first reappeared with the Daybreaker in our timeline. And the first thing Rigel and Nova did when the Daybreaker arrived in our timeline was hook him up to some kind of mechanical throne.”

“We don’t know what that machine did to the other Tobin,” Orion said, “because even Jonathan doesn’t know that. But we can assume, almost assuredly, that the machine somehow affected his brain, his memories—it made him think things that weren’t true. It essentially brainwashed him.”

“Which is why he was so quick to attack us at the pyramid,” Wakefield said.

“Yeah,” Scatterbolt said, “and that explains why Rigel was telling him all that stuff about how we were the bad guys.”

Orion nodded. “Yes, exactly. Whatever that machine did to him, it made him think that we are his enemies, that we did something to his family. Which led to him attacking us, and—a few weeks later—to him working with Rigel and Nova to invade Boston.”

Keplar turned to Tobin. “See kid, I told ya you couldn’t be that psychotic on your own. Not unless a lack of Nutella was involved.”

Tobin rolled his eyes.

“Which leads us to our next course of action,” Orion continued. “Up until now, we have not been able to get into the Dark Nebula surrounding Boston, but I have been able to make contact with someone who has. This contact on the inside has been supplying me with intel, and now we finally have enough to make a move.”

Orion walked to a nearby table and picked up four silver, ballpoint pen-shaped devices with buttons on their tops.

“These are called fakers, and they will conceal our identities, allowing us to walk freely inside the Dark Nebula. Thanks to the holographic technology that Junior and Wakefield have created, while using these devices, anyone interacting with us or seeing us will not actually see us—we will be coated with a hologram, and they will instead see four normal, Rytonian citizens. Tomorrow night, using these to conceal our identities, myself, Tobin, Keplar and Scatterbolt will infiltrate the Dark Nebula, and use the information my inside contact has been able to obtain.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Keplar asked.

Orion clicked his remote again, and the screen behind him changed. It now showed a blueprint of the Trident skyscraper.

“Based upon what my contact has told me, it seems that the next phase of Rigel and the Daybreaker’s plan involves two key components. We don’t know what the two components are, or what these next phases involve, but we know where the information on these two components lay.”

Orion clicked his button, and two blinking lights appeared on the blueprint of the skyscraper. One was in the basement, and one was near the top of the building.

“The first component is being worked on in the basement of the skyscraper, in its computer mainframe, and the second component is being worked on here, in a science lab on the 105th floor. I do have concerns about the 105th floor, however, as it is only five floors below the Daybreaker’s place of residence.”

Keplar raised his hand. “I hereby volunteer to be part of the team that goes into the computer basement, rather than the one that goes near the ultra-powerful teenager.”

Orion ignored him. “We’ll decide on the teams later.”

“Okay,” Keplar replied. “But, like I said, I volunteer for the non-super-villain teenager one.”

Orion turned off the screen behind him. “Okay. That’s it for now. Let’s get some rest people. We’re going to need to be as prepared as possible for what’s next. We’ve worked hard to get this information, and it’s the only chance we have to discover what Rigel is planning to do next.”

The meeting broke apart, and as the heroes headed to the various parts of the Museum, Tobin walked through the building’s main entrance and out its giant glass doors.

“Hi, Tobin,” Orion said, following Tobin onto the museum’s sky-ship landing platform. “Everything okay? Do you agree with what we’ve decided to do next?”

“Yeah, definitely,” Tobin said. He stood on the edge of the landing platform, looking out over the trees. “It makes sense to me.”

“Okay. It’s just that you seemed awfully quiet in there. I’m not used to you not piping in and telling everyone why my plan is all wrong when we have a mission briefing.”

Orion smiled, but Tobin didn’t smile back. He looked down to the ground.

“It’s just…this mission isn’t like any of the others, Orion. This is me we’re going against here. It’s me.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is. The Time Queen even said so. Everything you and Wakefield have investigated has said the same thing. That’s me, whether we want to admit it or not. It’s me up in that skyscraper. Just a different me.”

“Tobin, sit down. Take a deep breath. Let me tell you what I know.”

Tobin sat down on the landing area, with his legs dangling over the edge, and Orion sat down next to him.

“I know, for a fact, that the Daybreaker is not you. You are right here next to me. Right now. This is you.” The old man poked a finger in Tobin’s chest. “Everything in your life up until this point has made you who you are. Just like everything in the Daybreaker’s life has made him who he is. Your life went one way, and his life went another. We can’t know what terrible things happened to him, or what terrible things he was told. But that’s why he’s done what he has done. You did not, and would not, do those things.”

“But that’s the thing, Orion. I know what you are trying to say, but that’s exactly my point. If those things had happened to me—those exact things that happened to him—I would have made the same decisions as him. Because I am him.”

Orion thought it over. “If my life had gone another way, who knows what I could have turned into. If only a few things had gone differently for Vincent, he could have become the greatest hero in the history of Capricious. I have always known that. It’s all a matter of whatever is thrown at us. And sometimes what is thrown at us is too much to take, without anyone there to help us.”

“I would just think that…even if I was in the worst situation possible like him, no matter what had happened, that I would still do the right thing. But I guess I wouldn’t. Because the Daybreaker—the other me—didn’t.”

“I can understand why you are confused, Tobin. And angry. I completely can. But the first thing we need to do is figure out what has happened to the Daybreaker. What has happened to him to make him make these choices. Only then will we be able to figure this all out.”

Tobin nodded.

“Just know,” Orion continued, “that no matter what you might think, that is not you in that skyscraper. Okay? Because I know that is not you. I know it, because I am sitting here with you now. You would not make the same choices that he has. There is only one you, Tobin. And you are who you choose to be.”

As Orion headed back into the museum, Tobin sat on the landing platform by himself, listening to the wind blow through the leaves of the trees.

***

That night, back home in Bridgton, Massachusetts, Tobin sat on his bed in his room and surfed the Internet on his iPad. He knew he needed to take his mind off the situation and think of other things, but he couldn’t help himself.

Tobin clicked onto the website for the Bridgton Herald. The top headline read:

BOSTON DOME DEATH TOLL RISES TO TWENTY.

Underneath the headline, there was a smaller headline:

MOST DEATHS OCCURRED DURING INITIAL APPEARANCE OF THE DOME.

Tobin heard his mother calling for him from downstairs. “Tobin? Are you up there? Did you have any dinner?”

“No, Mom,” Tobin said, quickly closing the webpage. “I’m not really hungry.”

Tobin’s mother walked up the stairs and into his room.

“Are you sure? I made one of your favorites. Well, I re-heated some of Grandma’s shepherd’s pie, which is one of your favorites.”

Tobin smirked, but he didn’t look away from his iPad. His mother could tell something was wrong. It was impossible to hide things like that from her.

“Is everything okay, honey? Is something bothering you?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m just…feeling kinda crappy today.”

Tobin’s mother sat down on the bed. “Do you wanna talk about it? Is it the dome in Boston? It’s okay to be afraid of it, you know. We’re all a little afraid. I was watching this special with Oprah today, and she was discussing the dome in Boston, and she said we should all be talking about it with our families, and that it’s okay to be afraid.”

Tobin felt nauseous. He couldn’t have this conversation. Not now. Not ever. “No, it’s not the dome, Mom. Really, I’m fine.”

“Okay. But if you ever wanna talk about it, honey, I want you to talk to me, okay? We’re all in this together, and we’re all gonna get through it. And even though none of us know what the dome is, they are gonna find out where it came from, take care of it, and then we won’t have to worry about it anymore. Okay?”

Tobin’s mother walked out of the room.

“Everything will be fine, honey. Just remember that it’s nothing for you to worry about. It has nothing to do with you. Someone will take care of it, someone will take care of whoever did it, and then everything will be fine. It’s not something you should be worried about. It has nothing to do with you.”

Tobin stared at the ceiling, listening to his mother walk down the stairs. What would she think? he thought to himself. What would she think, if she knew who really created the dome? Would she ever talk to him again? Would anyone ever talk to him again?

***

After yet another useless night of trying to sleep, Tobin used his portal pistol to transport himself out of his bedroom and into the Museum of the Heroes. After walking through the museum’s quiet main exhibit area, he took the elevator down to the holding area, where he knew he could find the museum’s lone prisoner.

At the very end of the holding area, in the last cell on the left, Jonathan Ashmore, the pale man in the purple suit, was laying on his bed with his arms behind his head, staring out the tiny window across from him. Hearing the door to the holding area open, he sat up and looked down the hall.

“Well, look who it is. What the hell are you doing out here so late?”

Tobin pulled up a metal chair and sat down next to the cell. “I need to talk to you. I need you to tell me everything you know about that night.”

Jonathan snickered. “Again? How many times are we gonna go over this?”

“I just need to know more. I need to understand. What happened, and what you did. And why Vincent wanted you to do it.”

“You wanna know about the night I activated your powers?”

“Yes.”

Jonathan sighed. “We’ve already gone over this so many times, kid, I don’t know what else I can say other than what I—”

“Just start talking.”

Jonathan shook his head. “Okay. Pushy little bugger, aren’t you. All right.” He thought a moment. “About a year ago, Vincent came to me and asked me if I would help him with his plan—his plan to invade Earth. I said sure, what the hell, why not. What did I care about your stupid little world anyway? Plus, I knew Vincent could help me. I knew he’d give me just about anything I wanted, if I helped him. I knew he was capable of providing me with what I needed.”

“Which was help for your mom.”

“Yes. Because she was sick. With the same disease I have. And if helping him take over a world I knew nothing about meant saving her? I didn’t care. All I knew was that it was gonna help my mom. I didn’t care what it was gonna do to a bunch of alien beings I was never gonna meet in my life.”

Jonathan stared at the ceiling, thinking.

“So, I agreed to help him. I cooked up that scheme, where I kidnapped that woman in the bookstore in your hometown. And by doing that—by putting an innocent life in danger in a situation where you believed you were the only one who could help her—I knew it would activate your powers.”

“Which is what Vincent wanted all along.”

“Yes. Your powers were in you, always. It just took a little push to get them out. If it wasn’t for Vincent, they probably never woulda developed. They almost definitely wouldn’t have. But Vincent made sure they did.”

“And his plan was to then train me to become the Daybreaker.”

“Yes. The only reason you have your powers is because Vincent wanted you to have them. After your powers were activated that night, I was supposed to bring you to Vincent. But that didn’t happen, because you beat the crap out of me and broke my back and almost killed me.”

Tobin smirked. “Well, you deserved it.”

Jonathan chuckled and shook his head. “Oh, I know I did, believe me. But I didn’t care, as long as it was gonna help my mom.”

Tobin stared at the floor, running over everything Jonathan had told him.

“I want you to know, Tobin,” Jonathan said, “no matter if you’re gonna believe me or not, but I know I never shoulda gotten involved in this. I know that. I didn’t even really know what I was doing. But I should have known better. I should have known that son of a bremshaw Vincent wasn’t gonna help me. And then I got my sister involved, and put her in danger, and now the whole universe has gone to hell, and it’s basically all my fault.”

Tobin looked up at Jonathan. The pale man looked sick to his stomach.

“And now look at me,” Jonathan said. “I’m pouring my damn heart out to one of the people that put me in here.”

Tobin laughed. “You’re lucky you have information I need, or no one would be talking to you at all.”

Jonathan nodded. “Just know, Tobin, that this isn’t the type of thing that I do. I do bad stuff, but…not this bad.”

Tobin stood up and walked down the hall. But before he reached the exit, he turned around.

“If you had been able to take me to Vincent that night,” Tobin asked, “after you activated my powers, if things had gone the way Vincent wanted them to, what would have happened next? What’s happening in Boston now? Was that always the plan?”

“Pretty much,” Jonathan said. “You were gonna be his number one weapon, Tobin. You were gonna be the tool that scared everyone and allowed him to do everything he always wanted. You were gonna be the tool that allowed him to take over the Earth. Now, it’s actually happening, and who knows what the hell is going on in that skyscraper.”

CHAPTER SIX

“Welcome, everyone, to the first meeting of the New Capricious Council.”

The red-giant Rigel stood at the front of the conference room on the top floor of the Trident skyscraper and looked out at the gathering of people sitting at the long mahogany table in the center of the room. Along with Rigel’s grey-masked partner Nova, there were five other super-villains (and one former superhero) waiting to listen to Rigel’s presentation.

“Vincent came to you all many years ago—for some of you around this table, it was decades ago—and he told you of his vision. Of what the universe should be, of what Capricious could be, and how we could make our world better. And though he is now gone, today we have fulfilled that vision. Today, we have fulfilled Vincent’s dream. The city of Boston, Massachusetts is gone, and it has been replaced with what we know life should be.”

The super-villains around the table applauded.

“But,” Rigel continued, “we are not here to talk about the past. We are not here to talk about what we have accomplished. We are here to talk about the future.”

Reaching forward, Rigel pressed a button on a small, circular device resting on the table in front of him. With a soft hum, the device projected a holographic map of the United States, which floated in the air and took up nearly the entire table. The giant map was made out of colorful light, and split into seven sections.

“Our new world does not end in the city of Boston. No, the capital of Harrison is only the beginning of New Capricious. In only a few short weeks, the Dark Nebula around us will spread across the country, and the rest of our plan will be set in motion.”

Rigel’s partner Nova stood up and pressed a button on a remote control in his gloved hand; the map hovering above the table suddenly changed—the image zoomed in on the northeast section of the United States.

“The northeast will remain under the control of Rigel,” Nova began. “Harrison will be the capital of our new nation, with Rigel and the Daybreaker’s headquarters being here in this building. Rigel will rule over everything from Washington, D.C. and above, and I will rule over everything south of that, from Virginia down to the south coast of Florida.”

Nova clicked the button on his remote again, and the map now zoomed in on the central part of the United States. It was split into three sections.

“The middle of the landmass will be governed this way. Zaius Moldron, you will be in charge of this area, from Michigan to the western border of South Dakota.”

Zaius Moldron—a nicely dressed man with the face of a chimpanzee, a body covered in blue-ish grey fur, and tiny glasses resting on his nose—nodded towards Nova, with his hands and their long fingernails folded on the table in front of him.

Nova moved on to the next section of the map. “Ember and his team will be in charge of this area in the central section, while the south, from Oklahoma and Tennessee down to Texas, will be the land of Songbird and her children.”

The villains turned to the only female member of the group: a hypnotizingly beautiful, white-haired woman with cream-colored skin. She was twenty-eight years old and wearing a flowing, floor-length dress made out of glittering scales that reflected the light in all shades of the rainbow, like a prism. Surrounding her, floating around her neck and shoulders like wisps of fog, were several ghostly creatures with black eyes, crow-like beaks, and bodies that faded away like spirits as they glided through the air. The three-foot-long demons never left Songbird’s side (except when they needed to attack her enemies) and they were nearly always speaking to her in a hushed, bizarre language, as they circled her white hair and drifted in and out of her body.

“In the west, there will be two sections,” Nova said. “The first will be governed by Greylock and will be—”

At the end of the table, Greylock—a forty-ish man with a brown goatee and a glowing red eye—laughed and shook his head. The upper left of his face was completely made out of shining metal, as was his left hand, though it showed much more wear-and-tear and battle scars than his face.

“This is all well and good,” Greylock said, stubbing out a cigar in an ash tray in front of him, “and I’m sure next you’re gonna tell us who is gonna be ruling over the west coast and then from there the rest of the world, but…where is he?”

“Who?” Rigel asked.

“The Daybreaker,” Greylock replied. “The one we’ve all come here to see.”

“Yes,” Songbird said, in her wistful, melodic voice. “We’ve all been promised, since the days of Vincent, that we would one day meet the one who is going to lead us. But, unless I’m incorrect, I don’t think anyone here has even laid eyes on him.”

“I haven’t,” Zaius Moldron said.

“And I know I haven’t,” Ember agreed, with his fiery skin glowing like his namesake.

“You will all meet him very soon,” Rigel said. “You must understand that he is very busy. He has a lot of planning and rules to delegate to Nova and I, and we are always listening to him—”

“He’s very busy doing what?” Greylock asked. “You barely even mentioned him during your little presentation here. You said his headquarters will be here in this building, and then you went on to say that Rigel’s ruling the northeast, and Nova’s ruling the southeast. What is the Daybreaker ruling over?”

“He is ruling over everything,” Rigel said, growing angry. “All of it. That is how it was always meant to be. While I may have my section of the new world, and you may have yours, it is all ruled over by him. We are all ruled over by him. I did not think I needed to mention that.”

Zaius Moldron spoke carefully. “We all understand that, Rigel, we do. And we are all very excited—excited isn’t even the word—to see what is coming next. I know I speak for everyone when I say we are all honored to have been chosen by him to be one of the leaders of the new world. But…we would like to see him.”

“We should see the one who is leading us,” Songbird agreed. “The one who is saving the universe. We would be grateful to hear his plan in his own words.”

“You will, very soon,” Nova said, stepping to the center of the table. “It is just going to take a little more time before he is ready to see you. He has told us he will address you all when he is ready, and when the next phases of our plan are ready to be put into motion.”

“Is he here?” Greylock asked. “Is he here in this building now?”

“Yes,” Rigel said. “He is always here, always planning, always thinking about what is best for New Capricious. When we are finally able to share his vision with you—when he is ready to share it with you—the scope of his plan will be made known to you. It is a truly stunning re-creation of our home world.”

“Okay,” Zaius said, holding up his palms. “As long as we will be able to meet him soon, I think we can all agree and keep waiting. You just must understand we are very eager to see him for ourselves.”

“I understand that,” Rigel said. “But know that everything will happen in time. The Daybreaker has told me that he has a plan for everyone, and that includes when he will meet with you in person. Now, if there are no more questions, we will continue on with—”

“I have a question,” Greylock said, puffing on a new cigar. “Who the hell is this guy?”

Greylock pointed to the person sitting next to him; it was a short, normal-looking man in his early forties, with a bald head, rectangular glasses, and ears that stuck out from his face. He was wearing a sharp dark suit and light blue tie, but appeared nervous—sweating and not moving in his chair.

“I don’t remember ever seeing him in any of the information sent to us,” Greylock said.

“Yes,” Songbird added. “My children tell me he is not of our world.”

“He’s not? Then what world is he from?”

“He is from Earth.”

Greylock spun toward Rigel. “Excuse me?”

“This is Daniel Melfi,” Rigel explained. “He is the current governor of the area of Earth known as Rhode Island.”

“Then what the hell is he doing here?” Greylock asked. “Why do we have a guy from Earth here with us, listening to all of this?”

“Daniel is one of the current leaders of the United States,” Rigel said. “He is also now the only being behind the walls of the Dark Nebula who is not from Capricious. Daniel has come to us and offered to help us make the transition from the old ruling government of the United States to our new ruling government.”

“And we need an Earthling to do that?” Zaius asked. “We need someone who is not one of us behind these walls?”

“Yes,” Nova replied. “As Vincent always wanted, this transition from the old world to the new world must be as peaceful and as without bloodshed as possible. The people of this world are going to be afraid of us. They already are afraid of us, because of the Dark Nebula around Boston. We need to show them we are not here to eliminate them—not the majority of them, anyway. The people here need to accept us as their new rulers. And Daniel is going to help us with that.”

“Daniel, why don’t you stand up and say a few words?” Rigel said, motioning to Daniel.

Daniel stood up, clearing his throat. Beads of sweat grew on his forehead.

“Well, first of all, let me start by saying how honored I am to be allowed to be a part of this. And I understand the hesitancy from some of you about me being here, but let me assure you that I am one of you, even if I am not from your world. I believe in the same things as all of you. This world—my world, Earth—is broken. And it needs to be fixed. That’s why I became a politician, to help fix my world.”

Greylock smirked. “You’ve done a hell of a job. How many wars are going on in the world right now? I kinda lost count.”

The group of villains laughed.

“I know, you’re right,” Daniel said, holding his hands up. “You’re exactly right. My colleagues and I have failed spectacularly. That is why I went through the trouble of contacting Rigel and Nova. That is why I want to be a part of this. There needs to be a contact between the people who run this country now in Washington, and the New Capricious Council. And I am thrilled—I am humbled beyond belief—to be that person. As I said, I completely understand anyone being uncomfortable with me being from Earth and being the current governor of Rhode Island, so if anyone has any questions—any questions at all—I would be more than happy to answer each and every one of them after this meeting.”

Still sweating, Daniel nodded to Rigel, and then sat down.

“Thank you, Daniel,” Rigel said. “Governor Melfi is going to be an integral part of this leadership team—this transition team—and to have him available to deliver our message to his colleagues in Washington is going to result in us having to eliminate only who we need to, as Vincent always envisioned. Now, with your questions answered, we will continue on with what the Daybreaker has allowed us to tell you at this time.”

***

After the meeting, Nova walked with Rigel down the hall, away from the conference room.

“They are growing impatient, Rigel.”

“I know. But he is not ready.”

“I don’t know how much longer we are going to be able to tell the council that. We promised them they would be able—”

Rigel stopped and turned to Nova.

“I don’t care what they were promised. He is not ready. He has told me—he has told the both of us—that he is not ready to meet them yet. They will meet him when he is ready.”

Nova stepped toward Rigel, speaking in an angry whisper. “You know why he isn’t ready to meet them yet. Why are you talking to me like I’m one of them, like I’m one of the ones who doesn’t know? He’s not ready to meet them yet because he is still so confused. So uncontrollable, so volatile. And rumors within the council are starting to spread.”

“What kind of rumors?”

“Rumors that he’s not under our control—that he’s making decisions rashly, and that we are following him blindly. Or that he’s not making decisions at all, and we are the ones doing all the ruling. And you know why those rumors are spreading—because they are true. If the council knew what was happening, if they knew what you were truly doing with the Daybreaker, who knows what would happen. I told you we rushed him into the process too early, and now we—”

“Um, excuse me?”

Rigel and Nova turned to see Governor Melfi standing in front of them.

“Hi, Rigel, hi, Nova,” he said, the fear evident in his voice. “Hello. I just thought I would ask you a few questions. If you have time.”

Rigel stared at him. “Go.”

“I was just thinking—I want to say again how honored I am that you’ve let me be a part of this, and I’m so excited for what’s next. But…I couldn’t help but notice some impatience in there.”

“They are just eager to meet the Daybreaker.”

“Yes, I know, but I would hope their eagerness does not distract them from their commitment. From their commitment to helping build the new world. We’ve got a great team assembled here, and I really think some of their impatience and some of their suspicions could be alleviated if they were able to meet the Daybreaker.”

“He is not ready yet.”

“I know he’s not ready for them. But perhaps he is ready to meet me.”

Rigel turned to Nova, then looked back to Daniel.

“He knows me already,” Daniel said. “Or at least he probably does, from seeing me on television as the governor. And I’m from his world. I’m from literally only miles away from him. I think I would be a comforting face.”

Rigel stared at the governor. “He does not need comfort.”

“He might. Everyone needs comfort, even someone like him. It might be beneficial for him to see someone from his world. Someone from his own area of the country. And I could even convince him to meet the others.”

Rigel looked to Nova.

“It’s not time,” Nova said. “It’s not wise.”

“I just want to do what’s best for the council,” Daniel said. “And what’s best for the plan. It might be good for him.”

Rigel thought it over. “You may see him,” he said.

“What?” Nova asked. “Are you serious? You’re not going to let the council meet him, but you’re going to let him meet him?”

Rigel ignored Nova. “You may meet with him, Daniel. But very briefly. Follow me.”

Nova followed Rigel and Daniel toward the Daybreaker’s office. “Rigel, this isn’t—this isn’t what we’ve planned.”

“We will be there with Daniel,” Rigel replied. “And it will help the Daybreaker to see someone he recognizes.”

***

After lightly knocking on the door to the Daybreaker’s office, Rigel turned the doorknob and stepped inside.

“Hello, Daybreaker,” the red giant said. “I hope we aren’t interrupting you.”

Standing on his tippy-toes behind Rigel, Daniel peered over the red giant’s shoulder. The governor was shocked by how young the Daybreaker looked in person. He was just a normal, seventeen-year-old boy with thick dark hair, appearing like any other student that the governor met on his many trips to the high schools around his state. At the moment, the Daybreaker was wearing a white suit jacket, white pants, and white tie, and looking out a massive window at the city of Harrison below him. The window was right behind the Daybreaker’s desk, and it ran the entire length of the back wall of the office, reaching from the floor to the ceiling.

Following a silence, the Daybreaker turned away from the lights of Harrison and looked toward the door. The governor furrowed his brow, surprised; the Daybreaker looked sickly, with pale skin, dark blue circles under his eyes, and an expression that was mostly blank.

“Would you like us to come another time?” Rigel asked.

“No,” the Daybreaker replied. His voice, too, was that of a teenager. But filled with longing, and without energy. “I was just thinking.”

Rigel motioned to the governor. “If you’d like, I’m interested in introducing you to a friend of ours.”

The Daybreaker glanced at the governor, then looked back to Rigel. “I told you I don’t want to see anyone but you and Nova.”

“I know, but I thought it would be good for you to meet this person. He’s going to help us. Do you recognize him?”

The Daybreaker looked the governor over. “He looks vaguely familiar.”

“Hi, Daybreaker,” Daniel said nervously, stepping forward with his hand outstretched. “My name’s Daniel Melfi. I’m the governor of Rhode Island. You might have seen me on television. Or maybe online.”

The Daybreaker looked down at Daniel’s hand, then shook it. “Yes, I recognize you.” The Daybreaker turned and walked back to the window. “Why is he here?”

“Well,” Rigel said, “he has offered to help us, sir. He came to Nova and I recently with some wonderful ideas, and we agreed it would be great to have him on the council. It will be incredibly helpful to have one of this country’s current leaders able to spread our voice to the other leaders of the United States.”

The Daybreaker didn’t turn around. “Okay. I can understand that.”

“Would—would you like to speak with him?” Nova asked.

“Sure. Leave us and close the door.”

Daniel spun to Rigel, surprised, his eyes wide.

“You want—you want us to leave you alone with him?” Rigel said.

“Yes. I’ll let you know when we’re done speaking.”

Daniel stared at Rigel, anxious, with fear across his face. But Rigel only nodded.

“Okay,” the red giant said. “We’ll be right outside.”

Rigel and Nova walked out of the office and closed the door. Daniel was left alone with the Daybreaker.

“Thank—thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Daybreaker,” Daniel began. “I understand you don’t do this with most people.”

“No, I don’t,” the Daybreaker said. He finally turned away from the window and sat down at his desk. “Take a seat. Tell me why you’re here.”

Daniel sat down in a chair across from the Daybreaker. “Well, let me first say how honored I am to be a part of this. This is—this is truly a world-changing event. This is a historic time for the planet Earth: a time when we have made contact with beings from another world. I could not be more grateful and beyond proud to be involved with it.”

Daniel waited for a response, but the Daybreaker simply stared at him.

“For my whole life,” Daniel continued, “I’ve always wanted to be a part of something like this. Part of a moment that will be remembered forever. I’ve always known I was meant to guide this world towards something better, and it’s why I became a politician. This is truly a dream come true for me.”

“I’m glad we could help you with that,” the Daybreaker said.

Daniel nodded. “You have. And I’m glad I can help you. In any way that I can. Whatever needs to be done, whatever message you need me to deliver to Washington, to the people of the world, I will do it. You just need to tell me what to say.

“Because there are going to be other people out there like us, who know this world needs fixing. Terrible things happen here everyday, Daybreaker. You know that. This is a horrible world we live in. But it doesn’t need to be. It wasn’t always. And now we have the means to fix that. In ways I never could before as governor. I thank you for that.”

The Daybreaker stood up and walked to the window. “So let me get this straight. You are willing to turn your back on your people—your country—to help us. You are willing to do what we have to do to remake this world.”

“I am. I absolutely am. Rigel and Nova have laid out the plan for me, and I am on board. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do: make Earth a better place. And no one is going to be able to do it as well as you and this council.”

“You understand the methods we are going to use to change this world?”

“I do.”

“You understand how this is going to look? To the other people of Earth? To the people of Rhode Island who elected you, even to your own family? When they see that you’ve aligned yourself with us, they are going to feel betrayed. Like you lied to them, turned on them.”

The governor nodded. “I understand that. They may feel that way at first. But I can read the writing on the wall, Daybreaker. I can see where the future lies. And it’s with you and the others in this skyscraper. Not with the people outside of it. You are the ones who are going to create real change in this world. And I know I want to be a part of it.”

“Even though you are not from our world,” the Daybreaker said. “Even if it means putting some of your colleagues in danger. Even if it means going back on what you told the people of your state. Even if it means betraying your friends in Washington.”

Daniel nodded. “I know what must be done. I know what’s best for me, in the long run. And that’s to align myself with you. No matter the cost to anyone else. They will understand, someday.”

The Daybreaker stood at the window, without turning around, without looking at Daniel. He only watched the flickering lights of the billboards outside and the cars driving through the streets far below. An airship drifted by the window. Daniel grew uncomfortable.

“You know,” Daniel began, his voice wavering. “We are actually very similar, you and I.”

“Oh yeah?” the Daybreaker asked.

“Yes. Rigel tells me—he tells me that before you found out who you really are, where you’re really from, he told me that you were a teenage kid living in Bridgton, Mass. I’m from Cranston, Rhode Island, originally. Not far from you at all.” The governor smiled. “So we are like homeboys, really.”

“Oh,” the Daybreaker said, “that’s nice.”

The Daybreaker turned around and walked toward Daniel.

“Ya know,” the governor began, “I bet we even went to some of the same—”

The Daybreaker reached out and grabbed Daniel by his neck. Daniel was shocked, clutching at the Daybreaker’s hand and trying to scream, but he couldn’t. As Daniel’s eyes bulged and he gasped for air, the Daybreaker’s grip only tightened. For the first time, the Daybreaker showed an emotion: anger.

Lifting Daniel up, the Daybreaker pulled him from his seat and forced him to stand. As he held the governor’s throat, the Daybreaker walked with him toward the window.

Finally, the Daybreaker let go of Daniel’s neck enough to allow him to speak.

“What are you—what are you doing?” the governor asked. “What’d I say? Please, please, what are you doing?”

The Daybreaker stepped forward with his hand still on Daniel’s throat and pressed Daniel’s back against the glass.

“You would go against anyone to join us,” the Daybreaker said. “Your friends, your peers, even your own family. Because you see us as better, you would align yourself with us. You see us as the future, and you would like to be a part of it, even if it means turning on everyone who has ever trusted and loved you. Why? For fame, for power?”

“No, that’s not true,” Daniel said, clawing at the Daybreaker’s arm with both of his hands. “That’s not what I meant—I was just saying—”

The Daybreaker lifted Daniel up by his neck and pressed him even harder against the window.

Daniel began to cry. “No, please, what are you doing? What did I say? You took it all wrong, I was just saying—”

“You would betray all that you know for something better. I can’t allow people like you to be a part of this.”

The Daybreaker’s hand—gripped around Daniel’s throat—began to glow with blue electricity. The electricity then spread from the Daybreaker’s fingers, through Daniel’s body, and into the massive window behind him. Streaks of blue energy spread across the glass like spider webs.

Daniel saw the streaks of blue electricity surrounding him. Then he heard the glass begin to crack.

“No, no, please,” Daniel said, tears falling down his cheeks. “I have a family. I have kids, a wife. Please. I have a son and a daughter, please, please, let me go. I’ll leave here, I’ll—”

The Daybreaker pushed harder against the window. The cracks grew. The blue electricity now snapped from the Daybreaker’s eyes.

Suddenly, the entire window behind Daniel shattered, in a hail of broken glass and a blue, electric flash. The air from the outside rushed into the skyscraper.

“No!” Daniel screamed, now dangling in the open air above the street. “Help me! Help me! Somebody help me! He’s going to kill me!”

With a bang, the door of the office flew open, and Rigel and Nova rushed in.

“Daybreaker!” Rigel shouted. “What are you doing? What—”

The Daybreaker let go of Daniel’s neck. With a scream, the governor sailed downward through the air and plummeted toward the ground. As Rigel and Nova ran across the office and reached the blown out window, they looked down to see the governor land on the roof of a parked taxicab, 110 floors below them. The taxi’s alarm went off and the people walking by on the street screamed. Daniel didn’t move. His body looked like a twisted paper clip.

The Daybreaker walked away from the window and toward his desk.

“Never bring people like that to see me ever again,” the boy said. “Have someone clean that up.”

Rigel and Nova stood at the broken window, looking down at Daniel’s body. Neither one of them said a word.

CHAPTER SEVEN

In a deserted area of Boston, Massachusetts, on the shore of the Charles River at 8:47 in the evening, a swirling portal of red energy appeared, snapping with electricity and floating in mid-air. Soon, four figures emerged from the mirrored portal, and as Strike, Orion, Keplar, and Scatterbolt stepped onto the damp ground of Boston, the gateway behind them disappeared with a loud SNAP!, leaving nothing of itself behind but a faint crackling and humming in the air. Now, thanks to Orion’s portal pistol, the four heroes were only a few dozen feet away from the outside of the Dark Nebula.

“You know, Orion,” Keplar said, as they walked toward the exterior of the poisonous dome, “sometimes I think about my life before I met you, when I was just a young pup and I wasn’t attempting to break into super-villain strongholds. Sometimes I miss those days.”

“You were also about to be imprisoned for life when I met you,” Orion said, “so there’s that.”

“Good point.”

Reaching the cloudy, black-and-purple Dark Nebula, Scatterbolt turned to the others and held up the blowtorch-like device in his hand.

“I still can’t believe Junior was finally able to invent something that can cut through the Dark Nebula. How cool is that?”

Suddenly a stream of orange fire shot out of the blowtorch’s barrel and headed straight for Strike’s head.

“Whoa!” the hero shouted, as he dove out of the way. The fire hit a tree behind him and turned it immediately into a pile of ash.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” Scatterbolt shouted, holding the smoking blowtorch. “I didn’t know it was on! I’m just so excited!”

Orion carefully took the blowtorch from Scatterbolt. “Okay, before we head in there with three people instead of four, I’ll take that and adjust the settings. It took two months, a small fortune, and I’m pretty sure a good portion of Junior’s sanity to create this torch, so let’s be a little more careful.”

“Yeah,” Keplar added, “and let’s remember he wasn’t that sane to begin with.”

Strike got up off the ground, dusting the dirt off his uniform. “So this thing— which clearly has a way-too-sensitive trigger—is really gonna cut through the Dark Nebula?”

“That’s the theory,” Orion said. “All of our information tells us this is a safe spot for us to cut—it will open to one of the only parts of Harrison without much security. But, before we cut, we gotta use these.”

Orion retrieved the four silver, ballpoint pen-like devices from his pocket. He handed one to each of the others.

“I’ve used these fakers before, but the hologram never lasted very long. Junior and Wakefield tell me that these new models are much improved, however, and will allow us to spend much more time in the Dark Nebula.”

“Because these will conceal our identities from whoever sees us,” Scatterbolt said.

“Right. When turning this on and keeping it with you, anyone who looks at you will not see your true identity. Which is good, since I’m told we are the city of Harrison’s number one enemies.”

Strike inspected the pen-like device. It was completely featureless, except for the button on its top. “Will this thing even protect us from security cameras?”

“Yes, it essentially covers your body in a perfectly life-like hologram, so even cameras and other technology will be fooled.”

“Awesome, I love this kind of stuff,” Scatterbolt said. “Who am I gonna be? Someone cool, I hope.”

“My contact on the inside has acquired four identities for us. There is some kind of celebration going on in the Trident skyscraper tonight, and nearly everyone in the city has been invited. Our identities will be a family that was invited to the party but are not able to attend.” Orion pointed to the button on his faker. “Just hold this down for a second or two and your new identities will take hold.”

Scatterbolt held his thumb down on the button. Strike was shocked with how quickly the faker worked; within seconds, the little robot was replaced by a human, green-skinned, nine-year-old boy with dark hair.

“Okay,” Scatterbolt said, looking himself over. “I was hoping to be someone a little more cool than a nine-year-old for once, but green is my favorite color.”

Strike pushed his button. The skin on his hands quickly turned green, and soon he was a healthy, handsome, teenage Rytonian boy.

“Okay,” he said. “Pretty cool.”

Keplar pushed his button. In shock, Strike watched as the six-foot-tall dog was replaced by an overweight, green-skinned blonde woman in a flowery dress.

“What the hell?” the dog shouted, looking down at himself, his voice now that of a deep-voiced female. “Seriously? This is what I get?”

Strike and Scatterbolt dropped to the ground, doubled over with laughter.

“Oh my god!” Strike shouted, holding his stomach. “That is hilarious!”

“That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen!”

Keplar turned to Orion, pointing at him with his painted pink fingernail. “You did this on purpose! I’m the mom? Why the hell am I the mom? I’m not going in there like this!”

Orion couldn’t hide his smirk. “These are the only identities we were able to acquire. We had four identities, and because of your body size it makes the most sense for you to be the mother. I’m sorry, it’s all we had.”

“This is krandor! You just did this to mess with me! You just did this so I look like an idiot!” The dog looked himself over. He tugged at the yellow and purple flowers covering his body. “And seriously, couldn’t I have worn a prettier dress? This is the best dress I have?”

Catching his breath from laughing, Strike turned to Orion. “Who are you gonna be?”

“I,” Orion said, pressing his button, “am being your uncle.” Orion’s image was replaced by a fifty-ish, green-skinned man in a tuxedo. “The good news is we also have these.” The old man handed each of the heroes a little metal case. “These special contact lenses will allow us to see each other as we really are. So, if we look at each other, we’ll see our real identities, not the fake ones. That will make it much more easy to identify each other in the field.”

“Good,” Strike said, “because if I have to look at Keplar like that anymore, I’m definitely not gonna be able to concentrate on the mission.”

After carefully putting the contact lens into his eye, Strike blinked and looked at his friends. Once again, he saw a blue-and-white Siberian husky, a purple-and-green robotic boy, and a grey-haired man in a red coat.

“There?” Keplar asked. “Is that better?”

Strike shrugged. “Weirdly enough, I actually think I liked you better the other way.”

Keplar closed his eyes and raised his nose. “Don’t get any funny ideas, I’m a woman with values.”

“Now, if you look at yourself in a mirror,” Orion explained, “you will still see your fake identity, so don’t get freaked out if you pass your reflection, okay? Is everyone ready?” He handed the blowtorch back to Scatterbolt. “Here you go, start cutting. And please be more careful this time.”

Eager and excited to get another try at the blowtorch, Scatterbolt knelt down and began using its orange flame to cut through the swirling wall of the Dark Nebula.

Strike stood next to Orion. “You totally didn’t need to make Keplar the mom, did you?”

Orion smiled. “I’m sure we could have figured out a way to make him the father. But I figured we could all use a good laugh. Plus, it’s good karma for him, considering how many times I’ve had to deal with his angry ex-girlfriends.”

***

A few minutes later, Strike, Orion, Keplar and Scatterbolt were walking along a quiet sidewalk in the northern section of Harrison.

“Okay,” Orion said. “As you can see, a lot has changed around here.”

“You’re telling me,” Strike replied. Even though he was in Boston, he was surrounded by a foreign world: the city’s trendy stores and college bars were replaced with diners and ice cream shops, and three silent, gliding blimps were floating in the sky overhead. The boy was having a hard time figuring out where he was, but then it hit him; he was on Newbury Street. His favorite place to grab a slice of pizza before a Red Sox game—Vesuvio’s—was now a butcher shop, with sausages, racks of lamb-like animals, and the ribs of some kind of beast hanging in the window.

“They have certainly made it their own, that’s for sure,” Orion said. “And there’s even less people out and about than I thought.”

“Yeah, this is really creepy,” Scatterbolt said. “Where is everybody?”

“The big celebration is happening at the Trident skyscraper, and it seems everybody that was invited decided to go. Which is great news for us, because it means less eyes on us in the streets.”

“You okay over there, Keplar?” Strike asked, eyeing the husky.

Behind them, Keplar was looking at his reflection in the window of a department store, checking out the figure of the large-boned Rytonian woman looking back at him.

“I’m not sure,” the dog replied. “I think I’m having a hot flash. Is that possible?”

Orion laughed. “No, it’s definitely not. Okay, our target is right in the middle of the Boston Public Garden, next to Boston Common. Everyone here knows what the Trident looks like, and we all know it won’t be hard to miss.”

Sure enough, soon Tobin saw it; the soaring, three-pointed skyscraper with its hundreds of crystal clear windows was resting at the eastern end of Boston Common, in the middle of the Boston Public Garden, towering over every other building in sight.

“Remember,” Orion said, as they drew closer to the building. “We know that the next phase of Rigel’s plan involves two major components. Keplar and Scatterbolt, you will investigate whatever is in the basement computer mainframe, while Strike and I head to the 105th floor to see what we can find.”

“And there’ll be a car waiting for us outside in case anything goes wrong?” Strike asked.

“Yes. My contact has gotten us a getaway car that closely resembles the vehicle of our nice little family here. If there’s any sign of trouble, we are to get out of the building and meet back at the car immediately. Everything make sense to everybody?”

“Yup,” Strike said.

“Got it,” Scatterbolt agreed.

“Nothing makes sense anymore,” Keplar replied. “I’m starting to look at the world in a whole new light. Why are men such jerks?”

“You know,” Orion said, “this should have no mental effect on you. It’s just a hologram.”

“Then I suddenly have way more issues than I ever knew about.”

As the group made their way to the front entrance of the Trident, Strike noticed a group of people waiting to get into the building, along with a large, green-skinned bouncer, who was holding an electronic tablet.

“Uh-oh,” Strike said. “There’s a line. You sure our names are on the list, O?”

Orion stepped into the back of the line. “I’m positive. My person on the inside has assured it. Plus, we have one important factor working for us: Rigel is way too overconfident, and security is incredibly lax. He thinks there’s no way we’ll be able to get past the Dark Nebula, and is clearly not prepared for us to be here. So, when you get to the front, just act natural.”

“I will,” Scatterbolt replied. “I’ve already created a whole back story for my guy. My name is Felix and I’m a computer science prodigy billionaire with my own video game company. I’m also just an adult who looks like a kid, and I’m married to the most beautiful supermodel on Capricious, a woman named Larianne Esmeralda.”

“How about we just stick with ‘you’re a nine-year-old Rytonian kid named Felix?’” Strike suggested.

“Okay,” Scatterbolt said. “It might be easier that way.”

“Just slightly,” Strike said with a smile.

Keplar caught another glimpse of himself in the skyscraper windows. “I just can’t stop thinking about how wide this dress makes my hips look. Seriously, my body has just never been the same since the baby.”

Strike stepped forward in line. “And, I’m officially creeped out.”

“Guys,” Orion whispered, growing impatient, “can we please take this just a tad more seriously since we’re almost at the bouncer?”

Strike looked up; the heavy-set, scowling bouncer was staring down at him. His round face desperately needed a shave, and also featured a tattoo of a twisting string of barbed wire around his right eye.

“Name?” the bouncer asked.

“Uh, Kurt Peterson,” Strike replied.

The bouncer checked his list. As Strike peered forward, he could see that there was more information than simply the names of the guests on the tablet.

“Where are you from?” the bouncer asked.

“You mean now?” Strike replied, remembering the information Orion had told him to memorize. “I’m from right down the road, on Baum Street. But back home in Capricious I lived in the town of Barrie.”

The bouncer looked at the list, then checked off Strike’s fake name.

“Okay,” the bouncer said, smiling for the first time. “Have fun. Long live Rytonia.”

“Absolutely,” Strike said with a grin.

Stepping past the bouncer, the boy waited at the open entrance to the skyscraper. He could hear the celebration inside as he nervously watched the others reach the front of the line. But, there was no need to be worried; one after the other, the bouncer allowed Orion, Scatterbolt, and Keplar into the party.

“Okay, Peterson family,” Strike said, as the others regrouped with him at the entrance. “Let’s see exactly what the heck is going on in here.”

***

In a grand ballroom on the tenth floor of the Trident, Rytonia’s most famous singer—a beautiful, busty, blonde woman named Luna Davis—stepped onto stage from behind a golden curtain and belted her new hit song, all while the big brass band behind her joyously played along. Decked in a skin-tight white dress beaded with diamonds, she was a sight to behold.

Oh we came here from another world, looking for a place to call our own

The Daybreaker took us in, kept us warm, and made us feel at home

When the world expands, and the Earth is ours, the universe will be free

But until then, as the leaders get to work, come cel-e-brate with me!

As the party guests danced in their finest suits and gowns and sipped from the champagne glasses being handed out by the dozens of waiters around the ballroom, Rigel stood awkwardly near his table, surrounded by two of Harrison’s most well-known power couples—the Carroways and the Elmsberrys.

“I have to say, Rigel, you’ve really outdone yourself with this celebration,” Albert Carroway remarked.

Rigel smiled and tugged on his collar, uncomfortable in his tuxedo. “Yes, well,” the red giant said with a smile, “parties aren’t usually my thing, but I knew it would be good for the people of the city. Vincent always told me how important celebrations were for the community.”

Albert’s wife, Stella, finished her drink and placed it on the tray of a passing waiter. “Well, I know I have spoken to many citizens tonight, and they could not be more thrilled. Celebrating like this in the Trident is a wonderful luxury for them.”

“And for the party to be a celebration of the new world, and the fulfillment of Vincent’s dream?” Oscar Elmsberry added. “That just makes it all the better.”

Albert nodded. “It really is an amazing achievement.”

Oscar waved his glass around, his speech starting to slur. “Just being here, with all these people, so proud of their heritage and our new home, and just so happy to be with one another. And just celebrating our new lives…it’s really, truly amazing.”

Dottie Elmsberry chuckled. “I think someone has had a little bit too much to drink.”

The group laughed.

“Maybe,” Oscar said with a grin, holding up his drink. “But I’m not going to stop now. We’re celebrating our new conquest, after all. Imagine: a life where we don’t have to worry about the barbarians of Earth.”

Albert held his glass up. “Now that’s a reason to celebrate.”

As the men clinked their glasses together, Rigel took advantage of the opportunity and stepped away.

“Yes, keep going,” the red giant said. “Enjoy yourself. I’m a little uncomfortable with all this extravagance, but I know—” The communicator on Rigel’s belt buzzed. He looked down at it. “I’m sorry, excuse me a moment,” he said, before stomping across the party to a group of admiring partygoers gathered around Nova.

“It’s something we really wanted to do,” the grey-masked man said to his captive audience. “We wanted to open up the skyscraper to the city, and throw other celebrations around the city, to show this belongs to all of us. We hope to make it an annual—”

Rigel made his way through the crowd and grabbed Nova’s shoulder.

“Nova, I need to speak with you,” he said, making it known it was not a request.

Nova turned to the guests. “I’ll be right back.”

The red giant and the grey-masked man stepped off to the side of the dance floor, in a corner where there were no partygoers.

“What is it?” Nova asked. “What’s so urgent?”

“They did it,” Rigel whispered. “There’s been a breakthrough.”

“What kind of a breakthrough?”

The red giant smiled. “The one we’ve been waiting for.”

***

On the fourth floor of the skyscraper, Rigel and Nova followed Dr. Arthur Brooks into a science lab tucked away in the far corner of the Research and Development wing of the building.

“Show it to us,” Rigel said. “Show us what you’ve found.”

The green-skinned Dr. Brooks—dressed in his pristine, white lab coat— handed Rigel a manila folder. “Well, it’s just as we thought. Based on the findings from our tests on the Daybreaker, and the readings from our extractions, it is absolutely certain that his powers are transferable.”

Rigel looked over the readings inside the file. “Just like his father’s.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“So this means what we were thinking is true?” Nova asked. “His energy powers can be transmitted to other people?”

“Yes.”

“And this will be permanent? The person on the other end of the transfusion will be granted similar powers to him permanently?”

Dr. Brooks adjusted his glasses. “Yes, absolutely. It will result in a complete change in the recipients’ physical cosmology. But I must tell you, it will be a while before we—”

“Where is he?” Rigel snapped. “Where is he now?”

“We are just finishing up our latest extraction.”

The doctor stepped in front of a massive, circular metal door. The door protruded from the wall and appeared to be over five-feet thick, with its front adorned with several electronic locks and a handle that looked like the captain’s wheel on a ship.

As Dr. Brooks began entering his codes into the electronic locks, a horrible, agonized scream came from behind the door.

“What is that sound?” Nova asked. “Who is that?”

“That,” Dr. Brooks said, as he turned the handle of the door and opened it, “is the boy.”

Rigel and Nova stepped inside. Across the gigantic, cold, metallic room, the Daybreaker was strapped into a metallic, bed-like contraption, which was several feet off the floor and standing straight up against the wall. The Daybreaker’s arms were extended out from his body and pressed against the contraption, and there were dozens of sensors, IV’s, and thick tubes protruding from his exposed biceps and chest.

Nova followed Rigel and the doctor across the room, shocked at the sight of the Daybreaker, whose forehead and body were dripping with sweat. As the boy gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, a blue electricity wave around him snapped and flashed, reaching out towards the scientists gathered around him. The entire room was soon covered in the blue-and-white light from this seemingly alive energy, which only grew more wild and violent as the boy screamed in pain against the wall.

Dr. Brooks approached one of the young scientists who was manning the controls of the energy extractor. “Two more rounds, Daybreaker,” the doctor said, “then we will be finished for the day. Dr. Matthews, bring it up to level seven-dash-twelve. And follow it with level ten-dash-eleven.”

Dr. Matthews adjusted a knob on the controls in front of him, and the energy extractor hummed and vibrated, shaking the walls and floor of the room. As the Daybreaker screamed, louder than ever, his body contorted in pain. Nova stepped back, startled, as the blue electricity suddenly exploded from the boy’s chest, streaking across his arms and hands.

Dr. Brooks waved his hands up and down, motioning for Dr. Matthews to turn off the energy extractor. “Very good, Daybreaker. That’s all for today. You did very well. Now it’s time for a rest.”

The humming of the machine stopped, and finally the Daybreaker’s arms and legs went limp, still strapped against the wall. Several nurses and doctors dashed to the Daybreaker and began unlatching his wrists and ankles, being careful not to touch the parts of his body that were still pulsing with blue electricity. Exhausted and nearly unconscious, with his body involuntarily shaking, the nurses helped him down and carried him to a wheeled hospital bed in the middle of the room. As they pushed him toward a door, a group of doctors frantically gathered around him, checking his pulse and shining lights into his dilated pupils.

“Is it always so violent?” Nova asked.

“Yes, unfortunately. We haven’t found a way yet for the extraction to not result in incredible pain for the Daybreaker.”

“As long as it does not kill him,” Rigel said.

“No, it certainly won’t. Not unless we go too far with our extractions, but we know where the line is that we must not cross.”

Rigel stepped toward a gigantic, round, metal container attached to the energy extractor by thick pipes. The silo-like tank took up nearly a quarter of the room, and was covered in warning signs and meters that displayed the readings of the energy stored inside.

“And all of the power is being stored here?” the red giant asked, placing a hand on the silo. He could feel the electricity vibrating inside.

Dr. Brooks stood next to Rigel. “Yes, since our very first extraction of the Daybreaker, all of his transmittable power has been stored in this unit. The amounts are still incredibly concentrated now, and much too dangerous for transmission. But once we are able to dilute the power and separate it into smaller doses, the sky is the limit for whoever wishes to receive the first transmission.”

Rigel looked up, admiring the energy tank. It was so large that metal catwalks wound around its top, with scientists walking along the walkways high up near the ceiling, inspecting the electricity readings.

“It’s just as we thought,” the red giant said. “Just like his father, his powers are transmittable. This will change everything for us.”

“When do you think you will have the first doses ready?” Nova asked.

“Not for another few weeks or so. Maybe a month. We are still testing the extracted power, to see how far we can go, what size doses will be safe for the recipients. The level of his power is stunning, and we need to make sure we know how much is viable to transmit at a time. We—none of us—have ever seen energy and powers this strong.”

“Good,” Rigel said. “Take your time. We want to make sure we get this right. Where is the boy now? Will he be able to speak?”

“Yes. He’ll be a little disoriented, but he’ll be conscious. He’s in the recovery room.”

Following Dr. Brooks through a door at the rear of the science lab, Rigel and Nova stepped into a brightly lit, comfortable room with a bed, nightstand, and television. The Daybreaker was laying in the bed with his eyes closed, and a few of the nurses were checking on him and transcribing his condition into their electronic tablets.

As Nova waited in the doorway, Rigel approached the hospital bed. The nurses and doctors stepped aside as the red giant stood next to the Daybreaker.

“Hello, Daybreaker. How are you feeling?”

The Daybreaker opened his eyes, his eyelids fluttering before closing again. “Fine. Tired.” He took a deep breath. “But I should be up again soon. It doesn’t last long.”

“Good,” Rigel said. “I’m sorry about the pain from the procedure. But it’s necessary, if we are going to heal you and make you better.”

“I know,” the Daybreaker replied. “I just want things to be okay. I just want to be okay again.”

Rigel patted the Daybreaker’s shoulder. “It’s one of life’s cruel twists that the powers that are such a gift to you are also making you so sick, but with all the work the doctors here in the Trident are doing, they’ll have you cured in no time. And then you can get back to doing what you do best.”

The Daybreaker nodded. “I just want to be back on my feet at full strength again. So I can get to work with you and Nova. We need to get everything ready for the next phase.”

“You will be ready, don’t worry. These procedures are going to make sure of that. Once the doctors are finished with their work, you’ll be back to feeling like your old self again. And ready to lead us where we’re going next.”

The Daybreaker groaned and rolled over. “Can I go back to my office now?”

“In a few minutes. When you are feeling better. Now, just stay here and rest. The nurses are going to take care of you.”

Rigel walked away from the hospital bed and toward the exit of the recovery room. As he reached the door, he pulled one of the nurses aside.

“Make sure he doesn’t leave this room,” the red giant said, gripping the nurse’s arm. “In twenty minutes, have him ready for another extraction.”

The nurse was a pretty, green-skinned young woman in her early twenties, with blonde hair and brown eyes. She pulled away from Rigel, surprised and frightened.

“But—but we can’t,” she said. “We can’t do that. We’ve already done too much today, we can’t do any—”

“He can handle it,” Rigel said. “We need another extraction. Tell the Daybreaker that the doctors found an abnormality in his most recent extraction, and that another procedure must be done tonight. I’m going to tell the doctors the same thing.”

The nurse looked at the Daybreaker lying in bed. “But he can’t, he’ll—”

“Believe me,” Rigel said, growing impatient. “He can handle it.”

The red giant stomped out of the door, followed by Nova.

Soon, the nurse was left alone in the quiet recovery room with the sleeping Daybreaker. In silence, she walked over to the boy’s bed and placed her fingers on his neck, checking his pulse.

“Hmm,” the Daybreaker said with his eyes closed. “Your hand is cold.”

The nurse pulled her fingers back, startled. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were asleep.”

The Daybreaker opened his eyes. He couldn’t see very well, but he could recognize the nurse; she was around his age and very pretty, with blonde hair and beautiful dark eyes that were striking against her white uniform. She was often in the recovery room with him, after his procedures. He smiled at her.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It felt good. Thank you for helping me.”

The nurse was surprised. “Oh, I don’t—it’s my—of course. That’s why I’m here.”

The Daybreaker looked up at her. He was growing delirious. “You know, you are one of the only people I see in this skyscraper besides Rigel and Nova. You and the doctors. It’s so nice you are all helping me.”

The nurse looked to the floor. The Daybreaker had never spoken to anyone before, besides Rigel and Nova. “Yes, well, we would do anything to help you, sir,” she said. “We all owe you so much. But just rest now, okay?”

“Okay. Let me know what the doctors say about that last test. I hope I’m getting better. I hope it says I’m not dying anymore.”

The nurse looked up, shocked. “Is that—is that what you were told? That you’re dying?”

“Yes.” The Daybreaker rolled over. “But now Rigel and all of you are helping me. So I’ll get better.”

The nurse thought, looking at the back of the Daybreaker’s head. “Okay. Just try and sleep, okay?”

The nurse watched the Daybreaker. Eventually, she heard his breathing change, which meant that he was asleep. Pulling up a chair, she sat down next to him, with her hands in her lap. She listened to his breathing and the clock on the wall ticking.

Soon, Dr. Brooks stepped into the recovery room.

“Nurse Somerset? Have the patient ready for another extraction in fifteen minutes. Rigel’s orders.”

“Yes, sir,” Nurse Somerset replied.

CHAPTER EIGHT

In the loud, rocking ballroom on the tenth floor of the Trident, Strike, Keplar, Scatterbolt and Orion stood at the bar, watching the dance floor. As the band ripped into another song, the partygoers laughed, celebrated, and sipped their champagne.

“Okay,” Strike said. “As much as I’d like to stay here and enjoy the ‘End of the Earth Jamboree,’ I think it’s about time we split up. You guys ready?”

“Yes,” Scatterbolt replied. “Let’s do this. I can’t wait to look like myself again.”

“You?” Keplar said. “You know how many dance requests I’ve had to turn down? I guess Rytonians like the big broads.”

Orion looked toward the elevator at the end of the room. “Okay, you guys head into the basement and get to hacking. Tobin and I will head up to the 105th floor and see what we can find there. Don’t forget: we meet up at the extraction point in thirty minutes—not a second longer. Good luck, everyone.”

***

Two and a half minutes later, Scatterbolt and Keplar were heading to the basement in the elevator, with Scatterbolt crouching down and typing furiously on a tablet computer. The computer was hooked up to the control panel of the elevator by blue and yellow wires.

“You know, this is working out great,” the robot said. “Just like I thought, from here I can access almost every computer in the skyscraper. It’s tough but I figured it out.”

Keplar watched the robot. “Whatever you say, just hurry up. The fact that I’m supposed to be your mom is starting to be the only thing that I can think about, and I think I’m starting to lose my mind.”

The screen on Scatterbolt’s tablet blinked with static. Then, after a moment, it was quickly filled in with the various security camera feeds of the skyscraper.

“Ha ha!” the robot laughed, pumping his fist. “Yes! I’ve got it. Every security camera on the 105th floor and basement have now been put on a loop.” With a grin, he pushed a button on his tablet. “I’ve rewound all the cameras on those floors four hours and pushed play, and we are good to go.”

“So if anyone looks, they won’t see me and you down here snooping around?”

“Exactly. But who knows how long that will fool them, so we have to be quick.”

The elevator opened.

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Keplar said. “Let’s do this.”

“Right. One question, though: when we’re done, can we stop and get ice cream?”

Keplar looked down at Scatterbolt. “Why are you asking me that?”

“You know, because you’re my—”

“Okay,” Keplar said, holding up a hand. “Stop. That’s enough.”

With a grin, Scatterbolt stepped out of the elevator and into the basement hallway.

“I’m gonna kill Orion,” Keplar grumbled. “I really am.”

***

On the 105th floor, Strike and Orion made their way through a small lobby and toward a security station that led into the Space Travel Research labs.

“Okay, remember what I told you, Tobin. We just so happen to be lucky enough that the owner of my identity is also one of the skyscraper’s scientists, so we will have access to the labs. I’m going to tell them that my nephew wanted to see where I work, and hopefully that will be enough to get us through.”

Strike casually walked by a trio of scientists who were heading toward the elevator. As they passed Strike and Orion, the scientists nodded and said hello, then headed down to the party.

“I still can’t believe we’re able to just walk around the place like this,” Strike said. “It’s insane.”

“I know. Between the blowtorch and these identity-fakers, we owe a lot to Junior and Wakefield. We wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without them.”

“Is it wrong that I really wanna go up to one of these hot Rytonian chicks and hit on them, just to see if I could get them?”

Orion chuckled and shook his head. “Yes, it is wrong. Incredibly wrong. It’s really scary sometimes how much you’re like your dad when he was your age.”

“Is that what he would have done?”

“That’s exactly what he would have done. Except probably a lot worse.”

Strike laughed. Looking ahead, he could see they were almost at the security station for the Space Travel Research labs.

“Okay, here we go,” Orion said. “Just let me do the talking.”

The security guard for the Space Travel Research labs—a well-built man in his late thirties—greeted Strike and Orion, standing behind a waist-high desk with a computer built into it.

“Hello there.”

“Hi,” Orion said. “I just wanted to bring my nephew in to see the labs. He’s dying to know what we do here.”

“Oh, okay. Were you guys at the party, or…?”

“Yeah. I’ve been telling him for weeks that I would show him where I work, so I figured we would just come up here real quick so he could see.”

“Oh, okay. Well, of course I know you, Mr. Peterson, but I’ll just need to know his name so I can write it in the log.”

“Oh, sure,” Strike said, realizing that was his cue. “It’s Kurt Peterson.”

The guard typed on the computer keyboard. “Okay, there we go. I didn’t know you had a nephew, Mr. Peterson.”

“Yup,” Orion smiled. “Sure do.”

“Okay. And Kurt, are you registered in the city population ledger?”

Strike looked to Orion. “Uh, yeah,” Strike replied. “Definitely. Yup. Uh-huh.”

The guard reached forward and turned a black device resting on the desk toward Strike. “Okay, Kurt, so if you could just place your eye here and give it a scan, that would be great.”

Strike looked down at the device. “Uh, what is that?”

“The eye scanner. I just need you to scan your eye, that way it will match up with your file in the city’s main record, and then it will record that you visited. Don’t worry, your uncle does it every day. Plus, until I scan both your eyes, that door won’t open anyway.”

“Oh,” Strike said. “Okay.”

The boy looked to Orion. The old man shook his head and mouthed the word “no.”

“Are we ready?” the security guard asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Strike said. “Yeah. Let me just…”

Strike leapt forward and grabbed the back of the security guard’s head, before bringing it down and bashing it against the top of the desk. The guard was immediately knocked backward and fell to the ground, unconscious.

Orion watched, shaking his head, as Strike stepped around the desk and lifted the knocked-out guard up by his armpits.

“Okay,” Strike said, “let me just do this…”

Strike pried open the man’s eye with his finger and then placed the man’s face against the eye scanner.

“Access granted,” the computer said in a woman’s voice. “Thank you.”

The doors to the Space Travel Research labs slid open.

“You know,” Orion said, “I’m sure we could have figured out another way.”

Strike placed the unconscious guard back on the ground and underneath his desk. “Hey, we got in, didn’t we?”

They walked through the open doors.

“Yes. But let’s just hope Scatterbolt got the security cameras turned off in time before you did that.”

“Oh yeah,” Strike said. “Probably should have checked on that first, huh?”

“Probably.”

***

Keplar and Scatterbolt carefully made their way down the sterile, white-walled hallway of the basement. Luckily, thanks to the party upstairs, they hadn’t passed a single person, but they both knew that wouldn’t last.

“We gotta get where we need to be fast, SB. Even in our disguises, people are gonna be awfully suspicious if they see some mom and her kid down in the computer mainframe.”

“I know,” Scatterbolt said. “Only problem is, look.”

Scatterbolt pointed ahead. A security guard was standing in front of a closed door.

“That’s the room we need to get into,” Scatterbolt said.

“Okay. We figured this might happen. Hit him with the Sleeping Spider.”

“You sure? Is anybody else around?”

Keplar looked down the hall toward the elevator. “I don’t know, but like you said, we don’t have much time. We gotta deal with this now.”

“Okay. Here goes.”

Scatterbolt gripped his left hand with his right hand and began to unscrew it. Soon, his left hand popped off at the wrist and became detached. Crouching down, he placed the detached left hand on the floor and let it go. Suddenly, the hand’s fingers straightened out, and it stood up like a spider. After the spider-hand scanned the hallways, it skittered across the floor and crawled up the nearby wall, eventually reaching the ceiling. Clinging by its sticky fingers, the hand dashed toward the guard’s location, upside down, and when it was directly above him, it let go of the ceiling and dropped to the floor.

Hearing the clinking of metal, the guard looked down and saw a detached, moving, crawling, robotic hand near his feet.

“What the hell…?”

As the guard reached for his gun, the spider-hand reared back on its palm and spread out its fingers. In a red flash, a dart zipped out from each one of its fingertips, flew through the air, and stuck into the guard’s neck.

The guard quickly grabbed at the darts, but it was too late. Like a scarecrow made of hay, his legs went out from underneath him and he dropped to the floor, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Keplar and Scatterbolt dashed to the guard.

“Nighty-night, security man,” Keplar said, as he lifted the man by his arms. “How long is he gonna be out?”

“A few hours or so,” Scatterbolt said, quickly scanning the hallway. “I’m not worried about that, I’m worried about where we’re gonna put him while I hack into the mainframe computer system.”

“We’ll have to bring him in with us.”

Scatterbolt grabbed a card from the man’s belt. “Okay. We’ll need his key card to get in.”

“Okay, let me see,” Keplar said, taking the card and sliding it into the door’s lock. A message popped up on a screen near the door: KEY ACCEPTED. PLEASE SCAN PALM.

“Son of a bremshaw.”

“Now we gotta scan his palm,” Scatterbolt said. “Come on, we gotta hurry.”

“Okay. Help me stand him up.”

With Keplar holding him by his arms, the dog and the robot placed the guard on his rubbery legs and attempted to get him propped up. Reaching forward, Keplar awkwardly grabbed the guard’s hand and placed it against the scanner.

However, before the scanner could read the man’s hand, a second security guard came around the corner and stopped in his tracks, directly in front of the door to the computer mainframe.

Of course, this guard didn’t see Keplar and Scatterbolt. Instead, he saw a 300-pound blonde woman in a pink-and-yellow dress helping her adorable nine-year-old son prop up an unconscious security guard next to the palm scanner.

“What the…?” the second guard asked.

“Hi,” the 300-pound woman said, her hands still tucked under the unconscious guard’s armpits. “We are just…not doing anything suspicious at all.”

“Nope,” her son said. “Not at all.”

The guard reached for his walkie-talkie.

“Krandor,” Keplar said. He let go of the unconscious guard, walked across the hallway, reared back, and punched the second security guard in his face. Before he could alert anyone, the second guard dropped to the floor, knocked out, with his walkie-talkie skittering across the hall.

“You do realize,” Scatterbolt said, “that as far as that guy knows, he was just punched in the face by a very large woman?”

“You’re damn right he was,” Keplar said, rubbing his knuckles. “Anything you can do, a woman can do better. Now let’s drag this sorry son of a bremshaw in there with his friend.”

***

In the quiet, dimly lit Space Travel Research Department, Strike followed Orion toward the end of a hallway.

“Do we know which room we are looking for?” the boy asked.

“Yes, according to my contact, I believe it’s…this one.”

Orion pointed to a closed door.

“How are we going to get in?” Strike asked.

“We hope they let us in.”

“That’s it? That’s your plan?”

“That’s about it. It’s like I always tell you: sometimes simple is best.”

“Orion, that works with a grilled cheese recipe, I’m not sure it applies here.”

Orion knocked on the door. “We also have to hope someone is working in there tonight.”

“Even better. Remind me to team up with Scatterbolt next time.”

The door opened, and a green-skinned man in glasses opened the door.

“Oh, hey, Clark,” the man said.

“Hey there,” Orion replied. “Do you think you could let us in? My nephew really wanted to see the lab, but I forgot my key card.”

“Yeah, sure. Come in, I was just heading out.”

The green-skinned scientist stepped aside and let Orion and Strike walk in.

“See?” Orion said with a smile. “Simple is best.”

Strike shook his head. “Clark, you’re a genius.”

As soon as the green-skinned scientist left them alone in the Space Travel Research Lab, Strike and Orion scanned the room. At first glance, there didn’t seem to be much to see: only several computers, long tables, and various blueprints taped up on the walls of the scientists’ cubicles.

“Okay, this is where I work,” Orion said. “Well, it’s where Clark Peterson works, anyway. There should be plenty of information in here, if we just know where to find it. Start looking around the desks, while I’ll try Clark’s computer with one of Scatterbolt’s hacker cards.”

Orion reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, yellow card with a drawing of Scatterbolt’s face on it. When Orion slid the card into a port on the side of the computer, it only took a few seconds for the computer to bypass the password screen and grant him access.

“With all this network activity,” Orion said, “and everything Scatterbolt is going to be doing in the mainframe, someone is bound to notice sooner or later. We need to keep moving. Find anything?”

“I don’t know.” At the other end of the lab, Strike was standing in front of a large map on the wall. “But I’m pretty sure I did.” The map showed the world of Capricious as seen from outer space, and all around the empty space surrounding the planet there were scrawled math problems and equations. “Look for any kind of large image on that computer. Some kind of large image file with a map. Do you need my help? Can you do that?”

“Of course I can,” Orion replied, studying the screen and typing on the keyboard. “You know, when I was a superhero with your father, I was the computer genius of the group. I know my way around machinery like this.”

“Geez, don’t be insulted. It’s not like I called you old and clueless or anything.”

“You kind of did.”

“Okay, I kind of did.”

As Strike stepped closer to the wall, he inspected the map. It was covered by tiny dots, marking locations all over Capricious.

“What do you think all these markers are? There must be thousands of them.”

“I’m not sure. But look at this.”

Strike walked over and looked at the computer screen.

“This is the same map of Capricious that’s on the wall, right?” Orion asked.

“Yeah.”

“Well, look at this.”

Orion opened another file; it contained a map of Earth from outer space. The map of Earth was also covered in thousands of circular markings.

“That’s Earth,” Strike said.

“Yup. And it has all of the same markings as the map of Capricious. If you lay them on top of each other, the markings are in the exact identical spots.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I don’t know. But it can’t be good.”

***

In the lowest level of the skyscraper, far underneath the party, Keplar watched as Scatterbolt attempted to hack into the building’s computer mainframe.

“Are you making any progress?” the dog asked. “Can’t you just use one of your hacker cards?”

“No, not on a computer like this. Not on one with this much security. My hacker cards are only useful on people’s own personal computers.”

“Oh.” Keplar thought it over. “You never used one of those on my computer, did you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Okay, good.”

“Why, are you afraid of what I’d fine?”

“No, no, of course not.”

Keplar watched as Scatterbolt continued to hack.

“Hey, when we get back,” the dog said, “can you show me how to, like, erase everything on my computer and all the history and everything?”

***

On the tenth floor, the party was still in full swing. Taking a break from his awkward mingling and socializing, Rigel stood at the bar with a glass of seltzer water, watching the celebration from afar.

A green-skinned, thirty-year-old man named Lyle—one of Rigel’s many assistants—approached him.

“Rigel, sir, how is everything going?”

“Fine. Do you have a security update for me? Is everything going smoothly on your end?”

Lyle looked down at his tablet. “Yes, no major incidents to report. The only thing that was flagged was that a waiter saw a woman and her son heading down to the lower levels in the elevator, but I’m sure it was nothing.”

“A woman and her son?”

“I assume it was a woman and her son. It says it was a woman and a small boy. I’m sure they just got lost on their way to the restroom or maybe to the coatroom. Other than that, there haven’t been—”

“They were heading down where?”

Lyle checked his tablet again. “Well, they got into the elevator and went down five floors below the main level, but they weren’t seen again on any cameras, so I’m sure they just—”

Rigel headed toward the exit of the ballroom. “Come with me to the security center.”

“Sir, I’m sure it was nothing. You should enjoy yourself and—”

The red giant turned around, his yellow eyes fixed on Lyle. “Come with me.”

***

Two floors below the ballroom, the young Rytonian men and women working in the Trident security center were startled as Rigel stormed into the room, followed by Lyle.

“Where is the feed for the basement?” Rigel asked, looking up at the wall in front of him. It was made up of dozens of surveillance screens, all of which showed security camera feeds from all over the skyscraper. “Someone show me the feed for the basement.”

Lyle pointed to one of the lower monitors. “Right here, sir.” The monitor showed an empty basement hallway. “See? Everything looks normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t want you to be worried if—”

“Did you send someone down there?” Rigel asked.

“Yes, on the way up to see you, I had one of our men go down there to check it out. But I don’t think—”

“Call him.”

Lyle grabbed a walkie-talkie from his belt and spoke into it. “Garth? Are you there?”

“Yes, sir,” Garth said through the walkie-talkie. “I just arrived in the basement. Nothing to report, sir. One of the guards is missing from his post, but I’ll find him right away. That’s not unusual for this time of night.”

“But you don’t see anything out of the ordinary?”

“Nope. Not at all.”

Lyle turned to Rigel. “See, sir? Everything is fine. You can leave everything up to us. Our security is as tight as a drum. You can go back to the party and enjoy your—”

“Where is Garth?” Rigel asked, staring at the screen. “The man you sent down there, Garth. Where is he?”

“Right in the main computer center.”

“Give me that.” Rigel took the walkie-talkie from Lyle’s hand. “Garth. This is Rigel. Are you in the main computer center?”

“Yes, sir. Right now.”

“What door are you near?”

“Um…door number 78.”

“Please go stand near door number 71.”

The room waited to hear from Garth.

“Okay,” Garth said after a moment. “I’m there.”

“You’re standing in front of door number 71?” Rigel asked.

“Yes,” Garth replied.

Rigel turned to one of the technicians manning the security screens. “You. Which room is your camera fixed on?”

“Room number 71.”

Everyone looked to the man’s screen. There was nobody on it.

“Oh, no,” Lyle said, with his eyes wide.

“The feeds are on a loop, you morons,” Rigel growled. “We need to immediately shut down everything and—”

A buzzing came from Lyle’s phone. He looked at it. His face went white.

“I just got another security alert,” Lyle said. “There’s a family of four trying to get into the party, but the bouncer says he already let them in twenty minutes ago.”

Rigel stared at the screen showing the basement. “Shut it down. Shut everything down. All computers, electronics, everything. And put the entire building on lockdown. I don’t want anybody going in or out until I say so.”

Rigel turned to leave the room.

“Where—where are you going?” Lyle asked.

“I’m going to update Nova on the situation,” Rigel replied, as the door to the security room closed and he disappeared into the hallway.

It was quiet for a moment. One of the security technicians looked up at Lyle. “We’re in a lot of trouble, aren’t we?”

CHAPTER NINE

In Clark Peterson’s office on the 105th floor, Strike and Orion carefully inspected the two maps of Earth and Capricious on the computer screen in front of them.

“Can you make out anything else?” Strike asked. “What are all those markings?”

“I’m not sure. But I don’t think they actually mark things on the ground. I think they may mark spots where something is in the sky, or maybe even—”

The computer screen turned off.

“What did you do?” Strike asked.

Orion sat back with his hands in the air. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Did you just turn it off? I thought you said you were some kind of computer genius?”

“I didn’t turn it off, I—”

The lights in the room went out, sending Strike and Orion into darkness. A red light near the entrance of the room began flashing, and an announcement was made over the skyscraper intercom system.

“Attention, please. At this time, we are asking everyone to please stay where you are. Due to a power outage, we are asking everyone to stay inside the Trident. For your safety, please do not leave. A security official will be around shortly to lead you outside. In the meantime, please stay exactly where you are. Repeat: at this time, we are asking everyone…”

The announcement repeated from the beginning. Strike looked to Orion.

“Does that mean what I think it means?”

“Krandor,” Orion snapped. “We’ve been caught. We need to get out of here, now.”

“What about Scatterbolt and Keplar?”

“We’ll alert them right away, but I’m sure they’ve heard the announcement. Grab anything you can and let’s get out of here.”

In the darkness, and with only the flashing, red emergency light to guide them, Strike and Orion began grabbing boxes of papers and hard drives from the computers. From outside the room, Strike heard the muffled footsteps and voices of scientists.

“What’s going on?” one of them asked.

“I’m not sure, some kind of power outage,” another answered. “We’re supposed to stay where we are.”

“Dammit,” Orion said. “They’re right outside our door.”

“How do you plan on getting out of here with all this stuff?”

Orion walked toward the exit of the room. “You know what doesn’t mix well with a lockdown?” The old man reached forward and pulled down on a fire alarm. All throughout the hallway, the alarm began to blare loudly, and the red emergency light near the ceiling flashed quicker and brighter. Another announcement came over the skyscraper intercom.

“Please evacuate the building. Repeat: please evacuate the building.”

“Come on,” Orion said over the noise of the wailing alarm, as he grabbed his box full of hard drives and documents. “They’re gonna have a hard time keeping everyone inside with the fire alarm going off. Let’s go.”

Strike grabbed his own box of intel and headed for the door. “I hope ‘Bolt and Keplar got more done than we did.”

***

In the basement, Scatterbolt sat at the screen of the computer mainframe, frantically trying to hack into it as the red lights of the fire alarm flashed in the ceiling and the announcement repeated itself.

“Please evacuate the building. Repeat: please evacuate the building.”

“Come on, kid!” Keplar said, standing near the door with his plasma cannon loaded and ready. “We gotta hurry this up! You know what these flashing lights mean!”

“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Scatterbolt said, typing on the keyboard. “The security on this computer is insane, and now it keeps trying to shut itself down! But I know I’m on the right track, I just need a couple more seconds!”

“Well, those are seconds I don’t think we have!”

Keplar turned to the door. It was still closed, but through the opening at the bottom, he could see the shadows of people’s feet in the hallway.

“Krandor,” the dog said. “Someone’s out there.”

***

In the hallway outside the computer mainframe, Rigel and Nova arrived with over a dozen armed security guards.

“Is everyone leaving the building?” Rigel asked the head security guard. “Why was the fire alarm pulled?”

“We don’t know yet, sir, but people are leaving in droves. They are ignoring the lockdown and beginning to panic. We don’t know who pulled the alarm, we just know it was on the 105th floor. Someone is heading up there now.”

“And what about the computers and electronics in the building? Are they all shut down?”

“Yes, sir. All computers in the building have been remotely shut down. Except one.”

“What do you mean, except one?” Nova asked.

“The mainframe computer is overriding our commands to shut down. Which should be impossible, but it’s as if someone is keeping the computer running, even though we are telling it to turn off.”

“Where is this computer?” Rigel asked.

“Here, sir. Right behind this door.”

“Well, then open the damn door!” Rigel bellowed. “Clearly someone is behind it who shouldn’t be!”

“We can’t, sir. The door has also been compromised. It’s been locked from the inside, and will not listen to our commands to be opened.”

“Then break the damn thing down! Do I have to do everything around here?”

“We—we can’t, sir. Doors like this for the mainframe were made specifically so brute force wouldn’t open them. It was done for our security against superpowers, but now—”

“Now our own security is working against us.” Rigel shook his head. “How do you plan on getting through this damn door?”

The guard held up a silver briefcase. “With these, sir.”

“What is it? What’s inside?”

“A series of cybernetic creatures. We call them ‘The Bugs.’ They will attack and kill any organic beings they sense inside the room.”

Rigel stared at the briefcase. “Send them in.”

***

Behind the locked door, Scatterbolt sat at the screen of the computer mainframe. The monitor was filled with black and green numbers, repeating themselves over and over.

“I’m almost in, I’m almost in!”

“Well, that’s good news,” Keplar said, “because people are out there and I’m starting to think—”

The dog stopped. He saw something crawling underneath the doorway. It was coming into the room from the hallway outside.

“What the hell…?”

The dog shined the light from his plasma cannon toward the door. He immediately saw what had crawled in from outside: it was a mechanical beetle, as tall as a house cat and as wide as a pizza box. It had an armored body, no eyes, thousands of legs, and two protruding, scissor-like teeth. Hissing and ravenous for flesh, it opened its mouth wide and skittered toward Keplar. The dog had to shoot it three times before it finally exploded into yellow goo.

“What the heck was that?” Scatterbolt said, spinning toward the green plasma explosions behind him.

“I don’t know, but I think—”

Keplar looked toward the door. Another beetle crawled in underneath it. Then another. And another. The bugs all instantly crawled toward Keplar.

The dog jumped up onto a chair and aimed his gun at the blood-sucking pests.

“Yup. There are more of them.”

Keplar fired his gun at the invading bugs, blowing them to pieces. But more kept coming from the hallway outside.

“C’mon, Scatterbolt,” the robot said to himself, staring at the computer screen and studying each line of code. “Figure this out. They need you now more than ever.”

***

In the main lobby on the ground level of the skyscraper, Strike and Orion fought through the crowd of urgently exiting partygoers and made their way outdoors. The street and park around the skyscraper were filled with hundreds of people, all of them murmuring and confused about what was going on inside.

“What do you think it could be?” Strike heard one of them ask.

“I don’t know, I think it was a gas leak or something. That’s what I heard.”

“Why do you think they told us to stay where we were, and then the fire alarm went off?”

“I don’t know, I’m sure it’s nothing. They would tell us if it was something to be concerned about.”

Strike turned to Orion. “You think anyone saw us running out of there with all these boxes full of hard drives and stuff?”

Orion looked around the park. Thanks to their disguises, they were still safe. “No, not with all this commotion going on. Just try and stay inconspicuous. I’m going to go get our getaway car. It’s gonna be hard to get to because of this crowd. While I’m doing that, you go find Keplar and Scatterbolt. See if you can get them on our earpieces yet.”

Strike handed Orion his box of documents. “Okay. I’ll head around the back.”

“Get them, and meet me at the extraction point near Hancock Street as soon as you can.”

“Got it.”

Orion ran off one way toward the getaway car, while Strike ran off in the opposite direction. Hundreds of partygoers were still leaving the skyscraper and dispersing into the Boston Public Garden, but Strike was the only one running back toward the building.

“Now,” he said to himself, “if only I can finally get through to Keplar on this stupid earpiece.”

***

On the top floor of the Trident, the Daybreaker stood at the repaired, floor-to-ceiling window in his office, looking out at the crowd of people and firemen gathered below him in the park. Minutes ago, the Daybreaker had just started to recover from his latest procedure, but now the alarm had been sounded and the building evacuated.

Behind the Daybreaker, Nova entered the office. He tried to hide the urgency in his voice.

“Daybreaker, I can assure you that—”

“What the hell is going on out there?” the boy said, spinning around.

“It is just a minor security issue, and we are dealing with it as we speak. It is nothing to—”

“Why do I feel like everyone is lying to me?” the Daybreaker asked. “What is going on here? Is this something I need to take care of?”

Nova stood in the doorway. “No, no, sir. With your illness you need to be here and resting. We have the suspects cornered and we are resolving the matter now.”

“Who are the suspects? Is someone here who shouldn’t be?”

“We’re not sure yet, sir. But we know it can’t be Orion and the others, because there is no way for them to get through the Dark Nebula. Whoever it is, they came from the inside, and they will not escape. We have no reason to believe—”

“Is everyone out of the building? Are the people of the city safe?”

“Yes, sir. They were all evacuated and are being moved away from the building now.”

Angry, the Daybreaker turned back to the window. “Fine. As long as the people are safe, I’ll trust you and Rigel to take care of it. I don’t want to have to get involved.”

“Yes, sir. I will keep you updated.”

As Nova closed the door and exited, the Daybreaker watched the massive crowd of partygoers in the park below the building. They quickly parted and moved away from the building as another truck of firemen arrived on the scene.

However, one person didn’t move away from the building. This person was separated from the crowd, and they were actually walking toward the building—almost running—around the side of the structure and toward the skyscraper’s rear entrance.

The Daybreaker stepped toward a telescope in his office and peered into it. Looking down, he could see that the person heading toward the rear of the building was a green-skinned teenage boy. The green-skinned boy was talking into an earpiece, and pushing it into his ear.

The Daybreaker turned and exited the room.

CHAPTER TEN

“I can’t keep this up much longer!” Keplar shouted, standing on the chair in the basement, surrounded by an army of flesh-eating beetles. One of the bugs was clamped onto his ankle. He blasted it off, but seared his thigh in the process and burnt his blue fur. “More and more keep coming through!”

“I’m almost in!” Scatterbolt yelled, his eyes dashing around the mainframe computer screen. “It’s just this code—I’ve never seen anything like it! The more I try and get in, the more it fights back! I’ve never seen code as strong as this! It’s absolutely fascinating!”

Keplar spun around and fired at a beetle that was crawling up the backside of the chair. “Well, that’s great Zuckerberg, but I’ve got some things of my own I’m dealing with here, so if you can hurry it up, that’d be awesome!”

“After all this, we have to get what we came for!” Scatterbolt said. “I’m almost in, I think I’ve got it…” The robot quickly jabbed at a few final keystrokes, and the computer screen became clear. “I got it, I got it! Oh my god, I got it!”

“Great, SB, now download that krandor and let’s get out of here!”

With his robotic fingers shaking, Scatterbolt opened a compartment on his chest and retrieved a small, black hard drive. He hooked the hard drive up to the mainframe by wires and began downloading.

“That was insane,” Scatterbolt exhaled, finally sitting back in his chair. “Do you understand how hard that was?”

“Probably about as hard as being bit sixteen times where the sun don’t shine by mechanical bugs with teeth the size of small daggers.”

Scatterbolt watched the progress bar on the computer screen. “Sorry about that. But the download is almost done, I promise.”

Keplar leapt from the chair and landed on a desk in the middle of the room. “Why aren’t they attacking you?”

“I can only guess they’re programmed to only attack organic matter.”

Keplar kicked away one of the maniacal beetles. “Well, that’s great. I hope you’re enjoying the show over there.”

“As scary as they are, they are pretty fascinating.”

“Say ‘fascinating’ one more time, and these won’t be the only robots I’ll be shooting.”

Scatterbolt’s hard drive beeped.

“Okay, we got it! Now we just have to get out of here!”

Keplar looked around the room. There were no windows, and the door they came through wasn’t an option. “How are we gonna do that? These bugs keep coming in from out there, so I can only guess some other people are out there who’d also really like to hurt us.”

Scatterbolt looked up. Then he retrieved the blowtorch from his chest compartment. “Well, if this thing can cut through the Dark Nebula, I’m pretty sure it can cut through the ceiling.”

Keplar grinned. “Get cutting, kid.”

***

Finally reaching the rear entrance of the skyscraper, Strike walked toward the glass doors, but there was a small crowd of newspaper reporters there, and the security guards were not letting anyone inside. Dozens of waiters and scientists were still evacuating the building and gathering on the sidewalk.

“Crap,” Strike said. “There’s no way I’m getting back in there now.” He pushed the button on his earpiece. “Keplar, Keplar, can you hear me?”

Keplar’s voice crackled through the static. “Yeah, I got you now, kid.”

“Finally! What the hell was all that grinding noise before, I could barely hear you?”

“Well, we had a visit from some not-so-friendly termite-beetle things, but we’re out of there now. Scatterbolt cut us out through the ceiling and we’re heading out a window on the first floor. Where’s Orion?”

“He should be at the extraction point by now, waiting for us.”

“Good, you get over there as fast as you can. The baddies think we are still in the computer center, so they won’t be following us. Just get to the getaway car.”

“Got it!”

Strike ran off through the streets of Boston. Even though everything around him had been replaced with something Rytonian, he still had a good idea of where he was, and he knew he wasn’t far from the getaway car. If he hit the northern edge of Boston Common and kept heading down Beacon Street, he’d be there in no time, and him and his friends could escape and get away back to Capricious.

However, then he ran by an alley, and something caught his eye. As he passed the darkness in between a pair of brick buildings, he could see someone standing in the alleyway, looking out at him. Stopping himself, he turned around and carefully walked back to the alley.

The Daybreaker was standing in between the two buildings, with his fists at his sides. He was wearing his silver armor, with its blades running down his arms and its red markings along his ribs. But, he was not wearing his helmet, so Strike could see himself staring back at him.

“Oh my god,” Strike said, stepping toward the Daybreaker. It was the most bizarre sensation the boy had ever experienced: only twenty feet away, there was an exact duplicate of himself, looking back at him. The same dark hair, same thin build, and same dark brown eyes. Strike felt his knees buckle and his mind begin to swim, as if his brain could not handle what he was seeing. For a few seconds, it was beyond comprehension, like he was looking at a life-size video screen or having a strange dream. Except, Strike knew it was none of those things. Another version of himself—a perfect mirror image from a different timeline—was staring back at him.

As the Daybreaker stood there, unmoving and with his eyes pinned on Strike, Strike began to focus, and he was shocked to see the physical state of the Daybreaker. His skin was sickly and pale, as if he had not been in the sun for months, and the deep circles under his eyes were purplish-black and extended all the way down to his cheekbones. He looked the same way Strike’s uncle had looked, when he was dying of lung cancer, in the last days of his life.

Strike waited for the Daybreaker to say something, but there was only silence. Hoping he himself would be able to speak through the shock, the boy took another careful step forward.

“Um…hi,” Strike said. “What are you—what are you doing out here?”

“Who are you?” the Daybreaker asked.

Strike was surprised. “What?”

“Who are you? I know you’re not a Rytonian. I know you’re in disguise. Who are you?”

Strike thought it over. He realized he still looked like the Rytonian teenager. Reaching into his pocket, he pushed the button on his faker. The hologram faded away, and he was once again himself, dressed in his Strike uniform.

The hero reached up and pulled down his mask, showing his face. “I’m…listen, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but—”

“Who are you?” the Daybreaker said again, his face suddenly filled with anger.

Tobin stood up straight, taken aback. He pointed to himself. “I’m me, this is me. I need to talk to you and—”

“Who are you?” the Daybreaker shouted. “I told you to remove your disguise, and you just replaced it with another one! Who are you?”

Tobin stepped into the alleyway. He was having a hard time concentrating, due to the bizarreness of the situation. “I’m not—I’m—this isn’t a disguise. This is me. I’m the same as you, I can explain if you—”

Now the Daybreaker stepped forward out of the alley, his fists clenched. “What is your name? What is your name?”

“My name…is Tobin Lloyd. Just like you. I’m the same as you. Listen, something terrible has happened, but I can explain and help you if you—”

Suddenly, the Daybreaker screamed and charged toward the street. “Arrrrrrggghhhh!”

Tobin moved back, readying himself. “No, listen, you don’t—”

But the Daybreaker swung at Tobin, his armored arm glowing with white fire, and Tobin was only able to grab his bo-staff from his back at the last second and deflect the blow. The hero was knocked backward, but the Daybreaker was completely unaffected. With insane speed, he swung his fists at Tobin over and over again, his knuckles erupting with white bursts of flame each time he connected against Tobin’s staff.

Tobin tried to stay on the defensive and look for an opening, but the Daybreaker wasn’t slowing down. He was in a fit of rage. “This isn’t what you think,” Tobin said. “You don’t—”

The Daybreaker’s speed and strength were too much for Tobin, and he could not keep up. The Daybreaker connected with his open palm against Tobin’s chest, sending Tobin flying backward in a stream of white fire and electricity.

“No, stop!” Tobin shouted from the ground, backing away from the Daybreaker, his Strike costume sending up wisps of smoke. He fired his own blue electricity from his bo-staff, and it erupted against the Daybreaker’s silver armor. The Daybreaker quickly raised an arm to his face, blinded by the blue flash.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Tobin got to his feet and lightning-jumped up onto a fire escape attached to one of the brick buildings in the alleyway. From there, he quickly sent another lightning burst down to his feet, and then leapt up onto the building’s rooftop.

But, Tobin did not buy himself much time. As he lay on the roof, holding his side and trying to catch his breath, he watched as the Daybreaker slowly hovered up over the top of the building from the ground below, surrounded by white flames and snapping, blue electricity.

“Please,” Tobin said, scooting away with his foot and putting some distance in between him and his opponent. “You have to listen to me…we can’t—”

As soon as the Daybreaker’s metal boots hit the rooftop, he again charged at Tobin, with his teeth gritted and his face contorted with the ferocity of a warrior in battle. The enraged, armor-wearing teen was now wielding a bo-staff of his own—except this one was made out of pure white flame, and he used this scorching weapon to punish Tobin, raising it up and bringing it down against the boy’s body. As Tobin lay on the roof, he was only able to roll out of the way and desperately defend himself with his arms and his bo-staff, looking for any opening to pop a blue flash of electricity from his hands—this seemed to be the only method of attack that had any effect on the Daybreaker. Finally, as the rampaging teen swung upward with his staff, Tobin fired a ball of lightning from his palm, striking the Daybreaker in his face and momentarily stunning him.

“Please,” Tobin said, getting to his feet. He held his hand against his chest. “We are the same person. I know…everything that you know. Our mom is named Catherine. We live in Bridgton. Our best friend is named Jennifer, our friend Chad is going to—”

“Don’t you say their names!” the Daybreaker shouted, pointing his finger at Tobin. “Don’t you dare say their names!”

“They’re my friends, too,” Tobin said. “I can prove it, I can—”

The white fire around the Daybreaker grew. “Don’t you speak their names because they are dead! They are dead, and it’s all because of you!”

Tobin was confused, but realized this was his only chance. This was obviously a topic that distracted the Daybreaker enough to stop him from attacking.

“They’re not,” Tobin said, catching his breath. “They’re not—what are you talking about?”

“Rigel told me the truth,” the Daybreaker said, stepping toward Tobin. “He told me about Orion and the others. He told me what you are all planning to do. He showed me how Orion killed them all.”

“Orion didn’t do anything. They’re lying to you, telling you things—”

“I saw it!” the Daybreaker screamed. Tobin could feel the intense heat from the Daybreaker’s white fire. “With my own eyes! He killed them! And I have to stop him! I have to stop all of you!”

Tobin closed his eyes and held out his hand. “Listen, what you saw, it isn’t real. I don’t know what happened, but that helmet…we think it was that helmet. It fed you fake memories, false information. It made you think things that aren’t real.”

“No, I saw it. Rigel showed me all of it. He showed me that Orion would create a fake version of me to try and fool me.”

Tobin’s mind was racing. He tried to concentrate, focus on how he could get through to the Daybreaker. “We’re from—we’re from different timelines. Listen, you have to believe me. We’re the same person. But what’s happened to you…I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you are clearly in pain. You don’t look right. I don’t know what they are doing to you, but—”

“They are not doing anything to me. They are training me. They are preparing me.”

“Preparing you for what?”

“To rule. Over everything. To make the decisions of the world, to protect everyone. So no one else gets hurt. I couldn’t protect them, but I will destroy every one of you if I have to—with my bare hands—to keep the rest of the universe safe.”

Tobin shook his head and closed his eyes. “No, no. You have it all wrong. I can prove it to you, somehow. I don’t know how, but just come with me. Come talk to Orion, come with me and—”

“I will not talk to you. I will not talk to Orion. I will only stop you. And anyone else that stands with you.”

“What are you gonna do?” Tobin asked, frustrated. “Take over the world? Is that Rigel’s plan? Is that what you want to do? Kill millions of people? Destroy lives, destroy countries? That’s what you’ve signed up for?”

“No one will die who does not need to die. Those that stand with us will not perish.”

Tobin shook his head again, smirking. “My god, that’s not how you talk. I know that’s not how you talk, because that’s not how I talk. Now you’re just repeating Rigel. You don’t have a single thought that belongs to you, do you?”

“Yes, I do. This is all mine. All of this belongs to me. I’m in charge of this entire operation.”

“That’s what you think, huh?” Tobin asked with a grin. “That’s cute.” Tobin thought it over. He couldn’t beat the Daybreaker with brute strength, but the mirror image of himself was clearly distracted by his anger. He would have to exploit that weakness with all that he had. “Seriously, it’s so obvious now what’s happened: you’ve bought into all their crap, just like they thought you would. I just didn’t realize I was so stupid. I mean, really, if you’ve decided to be a super-villain, at least get your own personality. I can’t believe I basically became the fat-free version of Rigel, with better skin.”

“Rigel is not telling me what to do.” The Daybreaker pounded his fist against his chest. “I am in charge. They have shown me that it’s my destiny to rule over Earth and Capricious. To protect it, with my powers. To protect it from people like you.”

“So to do that,” Tobin said, “you’ve encased Boston in a huge dome and now you’re scaring the crap out of the entire world.” He gave the Daybreaker a thumbs up. “Sounds like you’re doing a great job so far, buddy, keep it up.”

The Daybreaker smirked. “They told me you would do this, if we ever met. They told me you would make jokes and try to get under my skin to distract me.”

“You should have listened to them. They were right.”

Tobin unleashed a stunning blast of lightning from his bo-staff. It barreled into the Daybreaker like a freight train and exploded in a burst of blue light against his chest, finally knocking him off his feet.

Tobin walked toward his downed opponent, readying another blast in his staff.

“I don’t know what they are teaching you in that skyscraper,” the boy said, “but you’ve clearly got a lot left to learn. Don’t you know that the longer we store our energy in objects, the stronger the blast? You seriously just stood there and let me charge my staff for like five minutes. You know, I keep thinking that you’re really stupid, but then I realize that means I’m really stupid. You’re indirectly giving me low self-esteem here.”

Tobin blasted the Daybreaker again with his bo-staff, but this time the Daybreaker erected a wall of white fire in between them, blocking the blue electricity.

“I was gonna try and talk to you,” Tobin said, “but, instead, I’ll just kick the crap out of you and take you to Orion myself, so then we can tell you what’s really going on.”

The Daybreaker’s white wall of fire disappeared, and the armored teen stood up. “I used to be like you,” he said. “I remember, before everything changed, before Rigel told me the truth. But now, I see the world as it truly is. And I know people like you and your friends must be eliminated, for the better of the world.”

“Look, I tried to be nice,” Tobin said. “I did. But now you’re just pissing me off. And you should know what happens when we lose hold of our temper. We do really stupid things.”

The Daybreaker smiled. “I know why I have these powers, you know. I know why I’m better than everyone else. Rigel showed me. I have these powers to destroy people like you. It’s only a matter of time. And I’ll destroy the others, too. The robot, the dog. You will all die, and it will be because of me.”

Tobin charged up his bo-staff. “Yup. Here comes something really stupid.”

Tobin ran at the Daybreaker, and they clashed on the rooftop, with their bo-staffs erupting in an explosion of blue-and-white electricity.

***

Only a few blocks away, Keplar and Scatterbolt dashed down a dead-end street toward a black, inconspicuous getaway car. Orion was waiting for them there.

“You made it,” Orion said, walking toward them. “Where’s Tobin?”

“He was headed down here before we were,” Keplar said, huffing and puffing with his hands on his knees. “He should be here already, we thought he was here. You haven’t seen him?”

“No. Did you talk to him?”

“Yeah, when we were escaping,” Scatterbolt said. “But he said he was on his way here, so we—”

An explosion of white light and heat erupted from a rooftop back near the skyscraper, behind Keplar and Scatterbolt. Startled, Orion and the others looked in its direction.

“I think we know where Tobin is,” Scatterbolt said, watching the white fire on the rooftop burn.

Orion opened the car door. “Get in.”

***

On the rooftop, Tobin had given the fight his all, but he was now overwhelmed. White fire was everywhere, and the boy was beaten to hell and bloodied, with his costume and skin burned. As he lay on the roof with his nose broken and his face smeared with soot, he looked up at the Daybreaker. The armored teen was now hovering over him, surrounded by fire, his eyes burning white.

“This is what happens,” the Daybreaker said. “This is what happens to people like you. This is what will happen to Orion. I will rain down death upon all of you.”

“Yikes,” Tobin said, rolling over with his arm clutching his ribs. “Someone has been practicing that line for months. But B-minus on the execution. Sorry, DB.”

“Enough!”

The Daybreaker opened both palms and sent a river of fire rolling toward Tobin. The boy screamed in agony.

“I am the protector,” the Daybreaker said over the noise of the fire. “I am the ruler of all. I am Tobin Lloyd. I am the Daybreaker.”

The fire finally stopped, and Tobin got to his feet, stumbling against a wall. “You’ve got it all wrong,” Tobin said. “I tried to tell you. I don’t know what else to do. But you have to stop. They are letting you—they are turning you into a monster. They’ve turned—they’ve turned me into a monster.”

“They have only showed me my destiny,” the Daybreaker said. “They have only showed me what I really am.”

The Daybreaker clenched his fist tight and sent a white lightning bolt down at Tobin from the sky, but the boy blocked it with his blue bo-staff and rolled out of the way. Jumping up, he flung his electrified weapon at the Daybreaker, then lightning-jumped to the rooftop of a nearby high-rise hotel.

“Surprised, aren’t you?” Tobin said, breathing heavy. “Surprised that I’m not just giving up? Doesn’t that show you I’m telling the truth? That there’s more about this that you need to know?”

The Daybreaker hovered up into the air and flew to Tobin. “I know all there is to know.”

***

Underneath the high-rise hotel, a crowd had gathered, looking up in confused shock at the battle between Tobin and the Daybreaker on the roof. The Harrison police force were also on the scene, trying to back the people away from the hotel, but the curiosity of the crowd was too much, and the hectic scene was only causing more citizens to stop their cars and look up at the chaotic fight.

Nearby, at the edge of the crowd, Orion, Keplar, and Scatterbolt pulled up in the getaway car.

“Crap,” Keplar said, looking up at the white explosions of fire on the hotel rooftop.

“We have to get up there,” Orion said. “He can’t take on the Daybreaker alone. Scatterbolt, do you think you could helicopter us up there?”

“I don’t know, it’s awfully high. But I’ll try, I think I can—”

Something beeped inside Scatterbolt’s chest. Opening his chest compartment, he retrieved his faker. The button on its top was blinking.

“Guys, I think our fakers just ran out.”

Orion looked in the rear-view mirror. He saw his own reflection. “Dammit. Looks like we’re exposed. It makes no difference now, anyway. Scatterbolt, get ready to get us up there and—”

“Look!” the robot shouted, pointing to the roof of the hotel.

Tobin and the Daybreaker were now fighting on a sky bridge that connected the high-rise hotel with a nearby shopping center. They were over three hundred feet in the air, trading blows high above the street.

The crowd underneath them gasped with fear.

***

Knocked back by the Daybreaker’s bo-staff, Tobin rolled over and crawled to the edge of the sky bridge. As he looked down toward the crowd of people far below him, blood dripped from a gash across his forehead.

The Daybreaker stepped toward Tobin, with his staff at his side. He didn’t have a mark or wound on him. “You fought pretty good, whoever you are. You’re just as tough as they warned me you’d be. But this ends now.”

“It doesn’t,” Tobin said, looking down at the street. He rolled over and faced the Daybreaker. “That’s the thing. Whatever happens here, it’s just going to get so much worse for you. It’s going to get so much worse, if you don’t listen to me.”

“There’s nothing to listen to. It’s finished. It’s done. I am going to rule over the universe. That’s why I have these powers, it’s why I have this gift. For moments like this. You won’t be here to see it, but I am going to protect and rule over everyone.”

“No, you’re not,” Tobin said. “You’re just going to become a murderer, just like Rigel and Vincent. You’re going to become a murderer, if you aren’t already.”

“No, I won’t. I’m going to be a hero.”

The Daybreaker hit Tobin with one more blast of fire. It pushed Tobin closer to the edge of the bridge. The boy’s legs were hanging off the side now, and he was barely conscious, gripping onto the sky bridge with his fingertips.

The Daybreaker walked over and placed his boot on Tobin’s forehead. “I’m a hero now,” he finished. Then, with a swift push from his foot, he sent Tobin off the side of the sky bridge, and the boy plummeted down towards the street.

***

In the getaway car below the high-rise hotel, Orion and the others watched in shock as Tobin fell from the sky bridge. The crowd on the street screamed as the boy’s lifeless body tumbled toward them through the air.

“Oh my god,” Orion said, opening the car door.

“Give me your portal pistol,” Keplar snapped.

“But you can’t, it will—”

The dog held out his hand. “Just give it!”

Orion tossed Keplar his portal pistol, and the dog jumped out of the getaway car. Running full-speed down the middle of the street, he pushed the people of the city out of his way and dashed toward where Tobin’s body was going to land.

However, as Tobin continued to fall, the crowd in the street turned toward the commotion Keplar was causing.

“It’s him!” a green-skinned man shouted, pointing at Keplar. “It’s one of them! From the posters!”

The man’s wife let out a blood-curdling scream. “Somebody help!”

The Rytonian people that were gathered around the hotel erupted into even more of a frenzy at the sight of the giant dog, but Keplar didn’t pay any attention to them. He only ran faster forward and kept his eyes pinned upward, locked on Tobin.

But, the boy was falling faster and faster. The dog wasn’t going to have enough time. Unless he pushed himself. Unless he ran faster than he ever ran in his entire life.

Soon, Tobin was only seconds away from smashing into the street. The crowd in that area ran away and dispersed, not wanting to be near the site of the horrible impact.

Ten feet away, Keplar left his feet, jumped into the air, and slid forward across the asphalt like a baseball player. Coming to a skidding stop directly underneath Tobin, the dog pointed his portal pistol up into the air and pulled the trigger. With only milliseconds to spare, Tobin’s body hit the red, swirling portal floating above the barrel of the gun, and the gateway popped with a loud SNAP!, before disappearing in a flash of red light.

When Keplar let go of the pistol’s trigger, all was quiet. Lying on his back in the middle of the street, the dog opened one eye and looked up. Tobin was gone.

With a groan, Keplar pushed himself off the asphalt and stood up, wiping off his hands and very pleased with himself. But, then, he looked around.

He was no longer a 300-pound blonde woman. He was now a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Siberian husky in a cowboy hat, leather jacket, and blue jeans.

“Why, hello everybody,” the dog said to the hundreds of shocked citizens gathered around him. “So, I gotta know: am I public enemy number one, two, three, or four? I’m really pushing for at least two.”

A green-skinned man pointed at him and screamed. “Police, help!”

As the crowd burst into a panic, Keplar ran back toward the black getaway car. With Orion driving straight toward the dog, Scatterbolt flung open the back door and Keplar jumped in.

“So,” the dog said, as Orion drove away from the fleeing crowd, “this car is supposed to be able to teleport us back to Capricious, right?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Even though we’re inside the Dark Nebula?”

Orion jerked the wheel and drove on the other side of the street, dodging an oncoming police car. “I hope so.”

“Well, let’s give it a try, then.”

***

Up on the hotel sky bridge, the Daybreaker watched as the black getaway car sped through the streets of Harrison. To his right, a door on the sky bridge opened, and Rigel and Nova dashed out of the hotel and onto the bridge.

“Daybreaker, what happened?” Rigel shouted. “Why didn’t you alert us?”

“Where’s Strike?” Nova asked.

“He escaped through a portal,” the Daybreaker replied.

“Where are the others?”

The Daybreaker pointed downward. “There.”

Rigel and Nova looked to the street; within seconds, a red electrical energy spread across the roof of the black getaway car. Then, in a bright red flash and loud CRACK!, the car disappeared, leaving in its wake only burning tire tracks across the asphalt.

Rigel stared at the empty street, in shock. “They escaped. They escaped back to Capricious.”

“Yes, they did,” the Daybreaker said. He turned and walked toward the door on the sky bridge. “I expect all of our energy and resources to be focused on finding them. They’ve become a nuisance. They must be punished for invading our city and frightening our people.”

“Yes,” Nova replied. “Yes, sir.”

The Daybreaker opened the door on the sky bridge and exited into the hotel.

When the armored teen was gone, Rigel looked down at the crowd of people underneath the bridge. “We can no longer rely on him. He has become completely uncontrollable. We have no choice. The extractions of his powers have to be increased.”

“We can’t increase them anymore than we have,” Nova said. “It will kill him.” “I will not let Orion and Tobin embarrass us like this again,” Rigel said. “As soon as we are back at the Trident, ready the Daybreaker for another extraction. And tell the doctors to increase the severity.”

Rigel walked toward the hotel door, leaving Nova alone.

“It’s up to us now, Nova. Things have changed. We are in charge now.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

High in the mountaintop above the green, leafy trees, all was quiet on the sky-ship landing platform of the Museum of the Heroes.

That is, until a black getaway car appeared through a snapping red portal and screeched its tires across the platform’s brick surface. Eventually, the car came to a stop, resting at the very edge of the landing area, with its roof and hood smoking.

“Well,” Keplar said, his body contorted into a pretzel in the backseat, “we made it. Kind of. Did anyone follow us? ‘Cuz then we are really screwed.”

Orion let out a sigh. “No, it appears not. No one was in range to follow our portal, thankfully. Now the question is, where the heck did you send Tobin?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t have time to enter any coordinates into the portal pistol while I was running toward him. I just kept entering the same thing, over and over.”

“Which was?”

Keplar turned to Orion. “Lake.”

***

Five hundred miles away, a red portal opened in the night sky above the dark waters of Lake Okanda. With a SNAP! and red flash of light, the portal disappeared, leaving Tobin to float in mid-air above the lake.

However, as Tobin had learned the first time he used a portal pistol, it’s not the best idea to be on the other side of a portal that opens in the middle of the sky.

Screaming the whole way down, Tobin fell toward the freezing water and hit it with a SPLASH! Breaking the surface and reaching the cold night air, the boy caught his breath, gasping and shocked. After regaining his bearings, he quickly swam to the nearby shore.

“Okay,” he said, pulling himself up onto the sand and sitting down facing the water. “What the heck happened? Let’s see: I was fighting the Daybreaker. He beat the ever-living crap out of me. I remember that for sure. I think I fell off the bridge, and then I saw a portal. And now, I’m here. Only problem is…where the heck is here?”

Tobin looked around. Behind him, past the sandy shore, there was a thick forest of tall pine trees.

“Well,” the boy said. “I guess I better get walking.”

After taking off his cape and the blue vest that showed the white lightning bolt ‘S’ on his chest, Tobin rang the water from the items of clothing and then walked into the dark forest.

“Knowing my luck,” Tobin said to himself with a shiver, “something tells me I didn’t end up anywhere near a beach and/or bikinis and/or tropical drinks.”

Twenty minutes later, after hiking through the towering pine trees, Tobin finally saw a smattering of lights up ahead. It was a small town, filled with little log cabins with brick chimneys puffing out white smoke, and tiny, cozy shops, all of which were made out of wood and topped with pitched, shingled, snow-covered roofs. Lights were twinkling from each of the shops’ windows, and red-cheeked people in winter coats were strolling through the main street of town, sipping from cups of coffee and hot cocoa.

“Hmm,” Tobin said, emerging from the forest and stepping onto the snow-dusted street. “This doesn’t look so bad. Now to find a phone. And hope no one recognizes me.”

As Tobin made his way through the sleepy town, thankfully no one seemed to be concerned by his presence. Mostly they just seemed to be confused because it was the middle of winter and he was wearing clothes that were soaking wet. An older woman walking with her husband stopped and gave him a particularly long once-over.

“I don’t like to take off my shirt when I swim,” Tobin said, tugging on his drenched costume. “Self-conscious.”

After passing the bewildered woman, Tobin spotted a pay phone nestled in a little plaza in front of a bakery. He quickly made his way to it and dialed a number.

In the Museum of the Heroes, Orion, Keplar, and Scatterbolt had just finished bringing in the boxes of files and hard drives that Orion and Tobin had taken from the Trident.

“Okay,” Orion said, “before we start looking these over, I want to immediately start figuring out where we sent—” A buzzing came from Orion’s phone. He took it from his pocket and answered it. “Hello?”

“Here I am,” Tobin said. “I think I’m gonna take a short vacation, if that’s all right with you.”

Orion turned to Keplar and Scatterbolt. “It’s Tobin.”

“Oh, thank god,” Keplar said.

“Where is he, where is he?” Scatterbolt asked.

“Tobin, are you okay?” Orion said into the phone. “Where are you?”

“I’m okay,” Tobin said. “Soaking wet, but okay. Only problem is I have no idea where I am.”

“Do you see anything? Anything that looks like a landmark?”

Tobin looked around. “Not really. I’m in some small weird town. It seems really safe and normal—for Capricious, anyway.” Tobin looked to his right. A seven-foot-tall penguin covered in shaggy, brown fur was walking by the payphone. The round, waddling bird’s eyes couldn’t be seen thanks to the hair draped over his face—the only thing visible was his protruding yellow beak.

“Hey, excuse me,” Tobin said. “Hi. What town am I in?”

“Holdenshmirth,” the bird mumbled, before continuing on his way.

“Thanks.” Tobin spoke into the phone. “Some furry penguin just said I’m in Holdenshmirth. So either that’s the town I’m in, or he swore at me.”

“I know Holdenshmirth,” Orion said. “You’re not far from Gallymoora, actually. I have a safety deposit box in the bank of Holdenshmirth.”

“You do?”

“Yes, I have safety deposit boxes all over Capricious, for situations just like this.”

Tobin rubbed his temples. “Of course you do. Remind me again to second-guess what I’ve decided to do with my life.”

“Go to the bank,” Orion said. “Give them the name of Ivan Murray, and this pass code: 068984. In the safety deposit box you’ll find clothes, money, and a communicator so we can talk more easily. Okay? Did you get all that?”

“Yup, sounds good. I’ll call you when I get there. By the way, is it okay if I take a coffee and cinnamon bun break first?”

“No.”

Ten minutes later, Tobin walked out of the First Bank of Holdenshmirth. Thankful to be in warm, dry clothes, he pulled his baseball cap down over his eyes, adjusted his sunglasses, and sat down on a bench in the middle of the village. Reaching into his coat pocket, he retrieved his communicator and dialed Orion’s number.

“Good,” Orion said, as the old man’s face appeared on Tobin’s screen. “I see you found my deposit box.”

“Yup,” Tobin said. “I look like a total dink wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night, but at least this way I’m a little more hidden.”

“It should do the trick. Just stay out of the public as much as you can and don’t interact with anyone—I’m sure Rigel already has every super-villain in Capricious looking for you. After we spoke, I contacted Wakefield, and we’ve arranged for you to meet him in Ruffalo Rock. It’s about a four-hour journey from where you are now.”

“Okay. What’s he doing there?”

“He’s been there working on a secret project the last few days. I want you to go there and help him with it, okay?”

“Sure. What kind of project is it?”

“You’ll see when you get there. It’s very important in what we have planned to counteract Rigel and the Daybreaker’s invasion. I’ve arranged a ticket for you for the next train to Ruffalo Rock. Can you see the train station from where you are?”

Tobin turned and saw a train station. A train was waiting there, with its smoke stack puffing, and passengers were waiting on the platform to get on.

“Yeah, I can actually.”

“Good. Remember my contact inside the Dark Nebula? The one that arranged for our identities in Harrison? He’s going to be on the train waiting for you.”

“Okay. What’s he look like?”

“It’s…complicated,” Orion said.

“What’d you mean?”

“It’s complicated. He’s complicated. He doesn’t like to tell me what he looks like. You’ll see when you meet him. I know this isn’t the easiest way, but it’s the only way he would do it. He’ll find you, he assures me.”

Tobin shook his head. Nothing was ever easy when it came to superheroes. “What are you guys gonna do?” the boy asked.

“Well, we are gonna stay here and sift through this information we got from the skyscraper and try to figure out more about the next two phases of Rigel’s invasion. Scatterbolt has already started looking over what he downloaded from the computer mainframe, and it doesn’t look good.”

“Great,” Tobin replied. He turned to the train. “So should I make my way over to the train station now?”

“Yes, I would. We’ll talk again soon, after you arrive in Ruffalo Rock and Wakefield tells you about his project. Until then, we’ll stay here and figure out what we can.”

***

An hour later, Tobin sat in the commuter section of the train to Ruffalo Rock and looked around. Surprisingly, the train was normal by Capricious standards; it ran on wheels along a track, rather than hovering above the ground, and it didn’t travel at speeds usually only reserved for space shuttles. The train seemed to be split into two sections: one for commuters, where Tobin was now, with twenty rows of identical, red, cushioned chairs, and another section for overnight travelers, which was beyond the commuter section and lined with dozens of private cabins with their own beds and bathrooms. Unfortunately, at such short notice, Orion wasn’t able to secure a ticket in the private cabins, so Tobin was stuck facing the front of the train, surrounded by all of the businessmen and women as they traveled to work.

Pulling up his jacket for the hundredth time to cover his face, Tobin focused on the rhythmic sound of the trains’ wheels chugging along the track and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. Luckily for him, all of the businessmen and women were sitting in complete silence, with their eyes turned downward and focused on their newspapers and electronic tablets. The only people who spoke were a man quietly making some kind of deal on his cell phone, and the train attendants as they occasionally walked by to offer drinks and snacks. Tobin sighed, relieved; it appeared as if it was going to be a quiet, completely safe, event-free journey. If anything, it would be a good time for Tobin to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

But then, an hour into his trip, Tobin glanced toward the front of the train car and noticed someone staring at him. It was a gorgeous, twenty-year-old girl, sitting in a seat facing him, near the door that led to the next car. She had blonde hair that was pulled back behind one ear, full lips that were painted with a shock of red lipstick, and green, crystal-like eyes that were pinned directly on Tobin. She was wearing a yellow dress that showed off the curves of her body, with a low neckline that revealed just a hint of cleavage, and she was smiling.

Tobin looked toward the front of the car, puzzled. As the girl faced the rest of the train, she was definitely focused only on Tobin. She was also the only person not either reading, asleep, or texting on their phone. Tobin turned around to see if there was anyone else behind him that she was looking at, but there wasn’t anyone there. Then, when the boy turned back to the front of the car, the corners of the girl’s lips turned up even more and she waved at him.

Tobin’s eyebrows furrowed. He pointed to himself and mouthed “me?”

The girl laughed and nodded her head, mouthing “yes.”

Tobin squinted, smirking. He was surprised, but also very happy. Maybe this train ride wouldn’t be so bad after all. Things had just gotten a lot more entertaining, anyway. It had been a while since a girl who looked like her looked at him like that.

As Tobin smiled, the girl stood up and walked down the aisle. She was even taller than Tobin thought, with long, tan legs that carried her down the train as if Tobin was the only other person in the car. When she got closer, Tobin could see that her sun-kissed skin was spotted with tiny freckles.

“Hi,” the girl said, adjusting her pocket book. “My name’s Hannah.”

“Uh, hi,” Tobin said. “Are you Orion’s contact?”

The girl cocked her head, confused. “What? Who’s Orion?”

Tobin grinned. “Oh, okay. Never mind. I just thought you were someone else.”

The girl laughed. “Nope. Just me. Are you sitting by yourself?”

Tobin looked around. “Uh, yeah. Yeah.”

“Oh, me too. Would you like to get something to eat?”

“Right now? Uh, I don’t know if I should…”

The girl held out her hand and nodded toward the back of the car. “Come on. Get something to eat with me. This train ride’s so boring and I’m gonna go crazy if I don’t have someone to pass the time with.”

Tobin thought it over. He deserved a nice break like this. Especially if it involved someone as holy-crap-beautiful as this. “Uh…sure. Sure. Why not.”

The girl smiled. That smile could take over the world, Tobin thought. “Come on, follow me,” she said.

Pushing himself up out of his chair, and still not believing his good fortune, Tobin followed Hannah toward the rear of the train. But, before they reached the food cart at the door that led to the next car, Hannah stopped at one of the private cabins and began unlocking the door.

“Uh, the snack thing is down that way,” Tobin said, pointing with his thumb.

“I know. But I thought we could have something to eat in my cabin.”

“You have a private cabin?”

“Yeah. It’s much more comfortable in there.”

Tobin smiled. This had officially reached all kinds of levels of awesome. “Uh, okay.”

The girl opened the door and Tobin walked in first.

“I gotta say, this is pretty great,” the boy said. “To be on a train like this and have a girl like you ask me to—”

Suddenly Hannah slammed the door shut and spun around. Immediately, her face changed—her cheeks rippled and morphed, like silly putty folding in on itself. Within seconds, her blonde hair and red lips were gone, and her face was replaced with a rotting corpse, its gaunt, grey face covered in decaying skin.

“Are you really that stupid?” the corpse asked, its voice now that of a deep-throated man.

Tobin fell backward, tripping over a suitcase and screaming. “Aaaaaahhaaaahh!”

With his eyes wide and his hand pressed against his beating heart, the boy sat on the floor and looked up. There was now a man standing in front of him, dressed in a black suit and black tie. The man’s face was hideous—it was rotting and moldy, blotched with grey spots like old beef, and also slightly moist, as if he had been dead for days. The bone of his right cheekbone was completely exposed, due to the fact that there was no skin in that area, and through a long gouge along the man’s jaw, Tobin could see dead muscle.

“Did you really just use Orion’s name in the middle of the train?” the corpse asked, stepping toward Tobin. “Did you really just ask me if I was Orion’s contact, in the middle of the train?”

Tobin scooted away on the ground. “I…I…” As he looked up, the boy saw a slug crawl out of the man’s eye socket. Like an inchworm, it slithered across his face and disappeared back into his ear. “Who are you?” the boy asked with a whisper, growing nauseous.

“You really are that stupid, apparently.” The corpse stepped around Tobin, walking toward the cabin’s bed. “I’m Orion’s contact, you moron. You’re lucky you didn’t just completely blow our cover.”

Tobin still couldn’t catch his breath. “What—what—why did you—why did you look like a girl?”

The dead man opened a briefcase on the bed. The black foam on its inside was lined with strange knives and shining laser pistols.

“It’s my power. I can look like anybody. I can change my face, my body, even my clothes. Look.” The dead man changed back into Hannah. “I chose this identity because I’ve never used it before, and I knew it would get your attention. I just didn’t realize you weren’t smart enough to instantly see through it and realize what I was doing.”

The dead man changed back into the rotting corpse. As he began removing the laser pistols from the case and placing them on the bed, Tobin stared at his hands; they were also covered in dead, grey skin, with two of the fingers on his right hand completely exposed, appearing like white, skinny bones sticking out from his palm.

“Why do you—why do you look like this now?” Tobin asked. “This…zombie thing?”

The dead man turned to Tobin. “Because this is what I really look like.”

Tobin looked to the ground. “Oh.”

The dead man took a silver laser pistol from the bed and attached a long, black attachment to the handle. The attachment had blue stripes along it, like a caution sign. The barrel of the weapon also looked different than any other laser pistol Tobin had ever seen: there were three blue rings around the barrel, like a ray gun from an old sci-fi movie.

“My name’s Agent Everybody,” the dead man said, as he twisted the black attachment onto the ray gun. “I’ve been working with Orion for years. As soon as he needed someone to break into the Dark Nebula and live there for a while, he knew who to go to.”

Tobin nodded. It was starting to make sense. As much as speaking to a living corpse could make sense. “Because you can change your image.”

“Yes. Permanently. Not temporarily like those ridiculous fakers you guys use.”

Agent Everybody turned to Tobin. His face squished and morphed again, this time changing into a green-skinned Rytonian man.

“This was me, for about a month and a half. I lived, worked, and slept inside the Dark Nebula. That’s why I was able to get you guys in and get you those fake identities.”

“Yeah, thanks. Thanks for that. That was insanely helpful.”

Agent Everybody turned back into his corpse form. “No problem. You wanna help pay me back?”

Tobin shrugged. “Sure.”

“Take this.”

Agent Everybody handed Tobin the ray gun with the black-and-blue attachment. Then he took an identical ray gun from his suitcase for himself.

“What is this?” Tobin asked, inspecting the weapon.

“I’m guessing you didn’t notice the guy on the train who re-read the same newspaper four times in the last thirty minutes.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t. But I did. That’s why Orion called me. You got a tail on you.”

“I do?”

“Yup. Followed you right on the train. Rigel and his goons must have put out an all-points bulletin on you. Does Rigel know you’re in Capricious?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“I can only imagine what kind of bounty he put on your head. But regardless of who’s after you, we can’t have them following us. Not where we’re going.”

“Who is it? Who’s following me?”

“A guy who was sitting a few rows behind you. I was hoping to sneak by him and get in here before he saw which cabin we went in, but I doubt that happened. We should—”

Agent Everybody spun around toward the door. He stared at it, then motioned “shhh” with his bony finger. As Tobin mouthed back “what?,” Agent Everybody stepped to the door and looked into the peephole.

“Krandor, it’s him,” Agent Everybody whispered. “The guy who followed you onto the train. You ready?”

“For what?”

“I’m gonna open the door.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. How else are we gonna get rid of him? I’ll be quick. Quicker than him, anyway. But, just in case I’m not, be ready.”

Tobin gripped the ray gun in his hand. He didn’t even know how to use the bizarre, ringed weapon. “Uh, okay.”

Agent Everybody counted to three on his fingers, then quickly flung open the door. Tobin saw a man standing there, but before the man could reach to the gun on his belt, Agent Everybody stepped out from behind the door and fired his ray gun.

The instant the blue, circular ray beams hit the man, he disintegrated into billions of specks of multi-colored molecules, floating in a cloud above the train car floor. Then, with a soft “whirring” sound emitting from Agent Everybody’s ray gun, the billions of floating molecules were suddenly sucked across the private cabin and into the gun’s black-and-blue attachment, flying through the air and disappearing into the ray gun like dust being swept up by a vacuum cleaner.

Within seconds, any trace of the man who had followed Tobin was gone, and Agent Everybody closed the door.

Tobin was shocked. “What the hell?”

Agent Everybody turned to him. “What?”

Tobin held his hand out. “What the heck was that? You disintegrated the guy?”

“No. Well, not exactly.” With a flick of his exposed-bone finger, Agent Everybody opened a metal hatch on the side of his ray gun. From inside the weapon, a small blue pill popped out and into Agent Everybody’s hand.

“This is our bad guy,” Agent Everybody said, showing the pill to Tobin and holding it in between his forefinger and thumb.

“What?” Tobin pointed to the pill. “That’s the guy?”

“Yup, in here.” Agent Everybody brought the pill to his suitcase on the bed. “These ray guns we’re holding deconstruct matter. They take whatever the target’s made of, rip it apart, shrink it, and put it all back together in this little pill.”

Agent Everybody retrieved a small black box from inside his briefcase. When he opened the box, Tobin saw that it was cushioned with dark red material, and also filled with about ten other multi-colored pills.

“Are those…other bad guys?” the boy asked, his lip curled.

“Yup. When I get back to agency headquarters, I’ll put these little guys in water, and then: poof. Our criminals grow back to normal size. Right in their own little jail cells.”

Tobin shook his head. “That is…messed up. Whoever invented that is seriously messed up.”

“You’re friend Wakefield Junior invented it.”

Tobin nodded. “That makes sense.”

“But I gave him the idea.”

“That makes even more sense.”

Agent Everybody closed his briefcase and carried it across the cabin. “Now we just hope no more bad guys desperate for money followed you onto this train.” He looked out through the peephole. “Uh-oh.”

“What?”

“There’s a whole bunch of bad guys desperate for money who followed you onto this train outside our door.”

“What? Didn’t you see them before?”

“Oh, I saw them. I was just hoping I was wrong.” Agent Everybody grabbed his ray gun from his briefcase. “Problem is, I’m never wrong. Are you ready?”

“To take care of them?”

“Yeah. You wanna use the ray gun or your powers?”

“My powers. I don’t feel like accidentally shrinking innocent people on the train today.”

“Suit yourself. Luckily, Orion told me to come prepared.”

Reaching into his briefcase, Agent Everybody pulled out a small, silver wand. When he pushed a button on its side, it grew with a metallic shint! into a long bo-staff. He threw the weapon to Tobin and Tobin caught it.

“There you go. You lay ‘em out with electricity, and I shrink ‘em down?”

Tobin tied an extra mask from his pocket around his face. “Sounds good to me.”

Agent Everybody hooked his briefcase onto a loop on his belt, gripped the door handle, and then turned to Strike.

“You know,” he said with a smile, “I used to work with your dad, when I was first starting out. Let’s see how you do.”

Strike twirled his bo-staff in front of him and shrugged. With a chuckle, Agent Everybody opened the door.

As soon as the heroes stepped out of the private cabin, they were greeted with seven sneering, wild-eyed, jumpy thugs, each of whom had their index finger on the trigger of an automatic rifle. With a hail of bullets barraging the private cabin and the train’s silence being ripped apart by the passengers’ screams, Strike leapt off his feet, flipped over the group of thugs, and went to work, taking out the thug in the back of the pack with a roundhouse kick to the back of his head. Before that thug even hit the floor, Strike flung a ball of lightning to his right, sending another thug careening down the train’s center aisle.

“Be careful not to hit the pedestrians,” Agent Everybody said, as he fired his ray gun and dove behind the train’s snack cart.

“You don’t have to tell me that. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this kind of thing, ya know.”

Even though they were outnumbered, the two heroes had skills that far outmatched their opponents; these were low-level criminals, too scared and frantic to focus on the heroes, and they were quickly taken down—within fifteen seconds, two of the thugs were deconstructed into billions of molecules, while two more were thrown against the train’s ceiling in one uppercut swing of Strike’s blue, electrified bo-staff.

“Any idea how many guys we’re dealing with here?” Strike asked, as three more thugs joined the fray from the dining car.

“More than we want,” Agent Everybody said. “Look up there.”

Strike looked into the upper corner of the train; a small, frog-faced gremlin was perched in the corner near the ceiling, sticking into the wall with its clawed hands. It had long pointy horns protruding from the sides of its head, a lime-colored, scaly body with a yellow stomach, and a pointed, two-pronged tail that was whipping wildly in circles behind it. As it looked down at Strike, it hissed at him, with long, frothy drool dripping from its lips.

“What the hell is that?” Strike asked, as he cracked his staff across the nose of a charging thug.

“One of the Gremlin Wizard’s gremlins,” Agent Everybody replied. “Which means, apparently, the Gremlin Wizard is interested in securing that bounty on your head.”

“Are these other guys working for the Gremlin Wizard, too?”

“Yup. He’s got a whole fleet of regular idiots, in addition to his gremlins. And if he’s working the way he usually does, these poor saps are just here to distract us while the gremlins do the real work.”

“Which would be?”

“Who knows. But I’m sure we’ll find out sooner or later.”

Swinging his bo-staff like a baseball bat, Strike sent a wave of scorching, blue electricity across the train, and it barreled along the carpet like a speeding tsunami. As it made impact against the legs and chest of a lone thug, it exploded in a blinding flash, throwing the thug across the aisle, where he crashed through a closed door and went tumbling into the train’s bathroom.

Looking around and catching his breath, Strike realized that was the last thug—no more were coming in through the dining car.

“What do we do now?” Strike asked.

Agent Everybody checked the settings on his ray gun. “We wait until we hear somebody scream because the gremlins are doing something horrible.”

“Aaaaaaaaahhhh!” a man shouted from the front of the train.

“There we go,” Agent Everybody said, as he dashed off toward the sound of the scream.

As Strike followed Agent Everybody through the train cars, they soon reached the train’s conductor at the very front of the locomotive. He was sweating and frantic, desperately trying to get the train back under control.

“What’s going on?” Strike asked.

The conductor pointed ahead. “They’re switching the tracks!”

Strike looked out the train’s front windshield. He could see a group of gremlins up ahead, in a small wooden booth that rested on the side of the train tracks—the maniacal creatures were pulling levers and wildly pushing buttons in the booth, jumping up and down on the control board.

“How are they doing that?” Agent Everybody asked. “Isn’t there anybody in that booth?”

The conductor reached across and pulled on the train’s emergency brake, but there was no reaction. “We just got a report—they overwhelmed the agent and forced him out. They are in control now and they’ve changed the track!”

“So what’s that mean?” Strike asked.

The conductor’s face was awash with fear. “We’re off track. We’re heading into the caves.”

“And what’s so bad about that?”

“We don’t have permission to enter the caves right now,” the conductor said, staring blankly ahead. “And they’ve messed with my controls. I won’t have enough time to stop us.”

“Dammit,” Agent Everybody snapped, before heading back toward the commuter cars.

Strike followed him. “Can someone please fill me in on what exactly is happening right now?”

“We need to unhook the passenger cars from the train,” Agent Everybody replied. “Right now.”

“Why?”

“Because we don’t have permission to enter the caves. And if we don’t have permission to enter the caves, the spirits inside won’t be happy.”

“The spirits?”

“Yes. The cave is haunted. The locals get permission to use the cave for transportation once every few weeks, but they have to ask for permission first. If they don’t, the spirits inside don’t react well.”

Strike shook his head. “Haunted train caves. Gotta love Capricious.”

Agent Everybody opened the door that led to the first commuter car. “Let’s go. We gotta head outside and make sure we don’t bring these passengers in there with us.”

Stepping outside, Strike braced himself from the rushing wind. The train was speeding along the track now, faster than ever. The hero could feel the vehicle listing as it went around a bend, and judging from the sound of its engine frantically pumping its wheels, he knew they were traveling at a rate the train was never supposed to reach. Looking down, he could see the hitch where the front car connected to the passenger cars, and beyond that, he could see the blur of the track zooming by.

“We need to get these pedestrians away from the train,” Agent Everybody said, as the conductor dashed past them, leaping onto the exterior of the next car before dashing inside. “Ever unhook passenger cars from a moving train before?”

“Oh yeah, all the time. It’s how I spent my April vacation.” Strike looked down at the steel hitch that joined the cars together. “Could I just blast it with my lightning?”

“I don’t see why not. I don’t care how we do it, as long as those cars get stopped where they are. Jump across and—”

Suddenly, a gremlin leapt down from the train’s roof, landing on Strike’s shoulders. It knocked the hero back and he fell onto the metal grating floor of the exterior of the train car.

“Dammit!” Agent Everybody shouted. As he looked to the roof, eight more gremlins jumped down on them from above. Strike blasted the two-foot-tall pests with lightning as they scratched and clawed at him, and while the creatures weren’t doing much damage, they were enough of a distraction to keep Strike from unhooking the train cars.

“Oh, I see what you’re trying to do here,” a voice said from the train’s roof.

Strike looked up. A skinny, gangly, dark-haired man with glasses and a pointy nose was standing on top of the train, directly above them. He was wearing a brown, dusty, ancient robe on top of a tattered white shirt, which looked just as old as the robe. Unlike his clothes, however, the man appeared young—no older than twenty-five.

“You’re concerned about the spirits,” the grinning man on the train’s roof said. “I don’t blame you—they are awfully upset if you enter without permission.”

Strike knocked a gremlin off the train and onto the speeding tracks. “Something tells me that’s the Gremlin Wizard.”

The Gremlin Wizard laughed. “I’m insulted, Strike! Acting like you don’t know who I am. How rude. Everyone knows the Gremlin Wizard!”

“Sorry,” Strike replied, “but I’m working my way down the super-villain ladder. Something tells me you are somewhere between F and G-list, so I’m sure I’ll be meeting you soon.”

“Oh, is that right?” the Gremlin Wizard said with a smile. “Well, guess what, you twerpy little brat? We did just meet, and this F-list super-villain is sending a train full of innocent passengers into the haunted caves of Narandarth. How’s that for an introduction?”

Finally freeing himself from the attacking gremlins, Strike ran to the edge of the train and blasted its steel hitch with lightning from his bo-staff, disconnecting the passenger cars. As the train sped forward, Strike, Agent Everybody, and the Gremlin Wizard kept moving with the locomotive, while the passenger cars were left behind.

“Correction!” Strike shouted. “You’re sending me and Agent Everybody into the haunted caves of Narandarth!”

“Still not great,” Agent Everybody replied.

“No,” Strike said, “not really.”

From the roof of the speeding train, the Gremlin Wizard clapped his hands together. “Oh, how surprised everyone is going to be! How shocked! When they learn who it was that brought you to Rigel! Finally, I will get the recognition I deserve! Finally, the Gremlin Wizard will get the credit I have always—”

Just as the Gremlin Wizard was beginning his speech, the train entered the haunted cave, and a white, long-armed, moaning ghost swooped down and grabbed the Gremlin Wizard’s shoulders, ripping him off the roof of the train and carrying him off into the cave’s unending miles of darkness.

“Something tells me he forgot to get permission for himself before we came in here,” Agent Everybody said, watching as the spirit and the Gremlin Wizard became smaller and smaller in the distance.

“Man,” Strike replied, “he might be, like, M-list.”

Agent Everybody peered around the side of the train and looked forward. They were barreling into the dark cave. “Yup. Except he did lead us in here, and we are still surrounded by angry spirits, so he might jump up a level or two. C’mon, we gotta get to the front of the train.”

Strike and Agent Everybody reentered the conductor car and made their way to the controls.

“Any chance we survive this?” Strike asked.

“Well, the good news is the tracks through the cave aren’t very long, and we should be through in a few minutes. The bad news is what the spirits do to you when you enter without letting them know.”

“They boo at you and tell you not to do it again?”

“No. They rip the track out from under you, and you plummet into the water below us.”

“Great.”

“Your dad used to have this lightning jump he used to do. Can you do that?”

“I can. But it takes a hell of a lot out of me. Especially if it’s high.”

“Okay. Good.”

“Why?”

“‘Cuz we’re gonna need you to jump.”

“How high?”

“Probably high enough that it’s gonna take a hell of a lot out of you.”

“Not to be mean, but I’ve only known you for about fifteen minutes, and I already hate you.”

“I get that a lot.”

Agent Everybody climbed up a ladder and opened a hatch that led out onto the train’s roof.

“C’mon. We gotta head up top.”

Strike followed him up the ladder. “You see? This is why I hate you.”

On the train’s roof, Strike squinted from the wind battering his face and looked around. He gasped at the height and sheer breadth of the caves; the train was on an elevated, narrow track, speeding above a rushing river over three hundred feet below them, and there was still another four hundred or so feet above them, until the ceiling of the dark cave. The boy could see dozens of abandoned, crumbling train tracks criss-crossing the cave above him, along with hundreds of moaning, open-mouthed, white, flying ghosts, with long, dangling arms and bodies that appeared to be made out of fog.

“Okay,” Agent Everybody said, “it looks like the track swoops down up ahead. Right after we go down the hill, we are going to—uh-oh.”

“What?”

“They’ve already started taking the track a part. The track in front of us is gone.”

Strike looked in front of them. The long-armed ghosts were swooping down from the ceiling and removing pieces of the train track. Now, instead of going down a hill, the track they were traveling on simply ended, leading to the open air.

“Once we run out of track, we’re gonna go airborne,” Agent Everybody said. “We’re gonna have to hold on and hope we land on the lower level of the tracks.”

“We’re gonna have to hold on?” Strike shouted. “How are we gonna do that?”

“We’re gonna reach down and hold on.” Agent Everybody crouched and gripped a metal railing on the roof. “It’s not that hard to follow along, kid. You gotta keep up with me here.”

Strike bent at the knees and grabbed the railing. “Oh, I’m following along. So far I’ve got: ‘Orion sent me on a death train with a lunatic.’ Let me know if I missed anything.”

Strike looked ahead. They were rapidly barreling toward the end of the train tracks. Soon, there would be nothing but open air in front of them.

“Okay,” Agent Everybody said. For the first time, nerves were evident in his voice. “We’re about to lose track. When we hit the air, hold on, and stay as low as possible. Don’t let the spirits grab you and take you away. If the train lands on the lower tracks and we keep moving, I want you to immediately lightning jump up into the air.”

“If’ we land on the lower tracks? Don’t you mean ‘when?’”

“Yeah, yeah, sure—‘when.’ Listen, you’re gonna have to lightning jump as high as you can, to draw all of the spirits towards you. They’re attracted to bright light.”

Strike stared out at the darkness in front of him. “I’m going to be bait.”

“Essentially. The vast majority of the spirits will be blocking the exit of the cave, so you are going to need to make as much energy and lightning as possible to bring them all to you, so we can get out of here.”

“Won’t we just go right through them if they are blocking the exit?”

“No. If we hit them, they’ll fly into our bodies, where they will slowly kill us.”

“And we don’t want that.”

“No. I know I don’t.”

Strike thought it over. “So I’m gonna have to lightning jump as high as I can, and time it just right so I land back on the moving train, hopefully without any ghosts on me.”

“See? You’re learning already. I didn’t even have to spell that part out for you.”

“No, I’m just learning to figure out the worst-case scenario, and then do that, because it’s what you’re gonna ask me to do.”

The two heroes now only had a few feet left to go before the end of the track.

“Here we go,” Agent Everybody said. “Hold on. Don’t forget what to do if we land on the other side.”

“‘When.’ ‘When’ we land on the other side.”

“Right.”

Strike watched the tracks. The end grew closer and closer.

“Hold on!” Agent Everybody shouted.

Strike crouched down and gripped the metal railing as tight as he could. As he closed his eyes, he suddenly no longer heard the wheels grinding along the track. The smoke stack in front of him was still puffing away, but that was the only sound in the vast cave. They were airborne.

Strike opened his eyes. He, Agent Everybody, and the locomotive were now falling through the air, heading straight for a lower level of track.

“This might actually work!” Agent Everybody shouted. “Hold on!”

With a horrendous metal SCREEEEEEEEECH! and an explosion of bright red sparks, the train crashed onto the lower level of train tracks and wobbled wildly on its wheels. As the locomotive swayed from side to side, all while barreling forward, Strike gritted his teeth and tried to keep his grip on the railing. His legs went out from underneath him and his chest slammed against the train, but he managed to stay on the roof. Finally, the locomotive steadied itself.

“We made it!” Agent Everybody shouted.

“Oh my god!” Strike said, still lying on his stomach on the roof. “Oh my god!”

“But there’s no time to celebrate. Look!”

Agent Everybody pointed upward. The lower train tracks led up a slight incline, toward an opening in the cave that showed the night sky outside. But, one by one, the moaning, swarming ghosts were flying down from the ceiling and floating inside the opening. As Strike watched, the train’s only point of exit was soon infested with open-mouthed, long-armed ghouls. He could no longer see the world outside.

“Jump, kid!” Agent Everybody shouted. “Lightning jump!”

Strike let go of the metal railing, crouched down on one knee, and pressed his fingertips against the roof of the train. Concentrating on his powers, he sent blue electricity down his chest, across his waist, and into his legs. Once blue sparks began to spit from his boots, he stood tall and leapt upward, with lightning erupting from his feet. Shooting up into the air, with his legs leaving a stream of blue energy behind him, he raised his hands over his head and created as much bright, snapping electricity as he could.

The boy couldn’t believe it—it was working. The ghosts that were crowded together in the cave’s exit quickly turned their eyes toward Strike and then swarmed out into the cave, flying upward toward his bright light above the train.

“It’s working, kid!” Agent Everybody shouted.

“But not on all of them!”

Agent Everybody spun toward the cave’s exit. A few of the ghosts had stayed behind and were still blocking their escape.

“Krandor!” Agent Everybody shouted. He quickly grabbed his ray gun from his waist and began blasting the remaining ghosts in the exit. As the spirits were hit by the blue ray beams, they dissipated into nothingness, but many of the ghosts were avoiding his fire, waiting for the train to reach their outstretched arms.

With the hundreds of moaning ghosts flying behind him and following his blue electricity, Strike reached the apex of his lightning jump and began to descend. Luckily, he timed it just right, and as he fell downward toward the train, he knew he would land towards its rear. Hitting the roof with a painful THUD!, he tumbled backward and grabbed onto its metal railing, with his legs dangling off the side and swinging above the speeding track.

Feeling the rushing air all around him, Strike looked up. There were still ten ghosts blocking the exit, and the train was only seconds away from hitting them.

“Hurry!” Strike shouted.

“I’m doing my best, kid!”

Aiming at each ghost one by one, Agent Everybody fired his ray gun, and soon there were only two moaning ghosts left. Right as the train was about to reach the exit, the dead man fired two quick ray blasts, and the final ghosts dissipated into thin air directly in front of Tobin’s face. Finally, the moaning of the ghosts stopped, the train escaped into the cold, open air, and Tobin could once again see the night sky above him.

Letting out the largest sigh of his life, Tobin lay down on the train roof and closed his eyes. Agent Everybody sat down near the front of the train, breathing heavily and watching as the green grass and tall pine trees zoomed by them.

“We did it,” Tobin said.

“We did it,” Agent Everybody replied. “I can’t believe that worked.”

“It was your plan. I thought you were always right.”

“I can’t believe that worked,” Agent Everybody said again.

A silence passed. The two heroes rested on the locomotive’s roof, listening to it chug along.

“Can we go back inside the train now?” Tobin asked.

“Yes.”

***

Three hours later, and without any of its passenger cars, Tobin and Agent Everybody’s train reached a small train station in Ruffalo Rock and came to a stop. As they walked down the train station’s steps, Tobin was back in his baseball cap and sunglasses, while Agent Everybody was once again the beautiful blonde Hannah. Standing in front of a green jeep, Wakefield was there to meet them.

“Let’s make this quick, guys,” Wakefield said. “I think you might have been followed back in Holdenshmirth.”

Grumbling, Tobin got into Wakefield’s jeep and closed the door.

CHAPTER TWELVE

In the Museum of the Heroes computer lab, Scatterbolt sat at a keyboard in front of a massive screen, inspecting the lines of code he had been able to download from the Trident’s mainframe the night before. Behind him, Keplar sat in a chair, drinking from a beer and tossing the tabs from other empty beer cans into a cardboard box.

“Okay,” Orion said, as he walked into the computer lab. “I just got off the phone with Wakefield. He picked up Tobin and our other contact and they are on their way to Ruffalo Rock. So at least we know Tobin is safe. What have you guys found?”

“Well,” Keplar said, “I’ve totally been helping, but I’ll let Scatterbolt explain it.”

Scatterbolt pushed a button on his keyboard and brought up a map of Rhode Island on the screen. “I haven’t found much from the information you and Tobin got from the 105th floor, but the stuff Keplar and I got from the computer mainframe has turned out to be the motherload.” The robot handed Orion a stack of papers. “One part of Rigel’s next phase involves something in Fairfield, Rhode Island.”

“Fairfield, Rhode Island?” Orion asked, surprised. “Outside of the dome?”

“Yes. Believe it or not, Rigel has the governor of Rhode Island secretly working for him.”

“Say what?” Keplar said, sitting up in his chair. “I mean, of course. I knew that. Because me and Scatterbolt have been working on this together.”

Scatterbolt typed on the keyboard, and a photo of Governor Daniel Melfi appeared on the screen.

“According to this, Governor Daniel Melfi is the only non-Capricioun who has been allowed to travel in-and-out of the Dark Nebula since they released everyone. He’s been working with Rigel to act as some kind of transitionary figure, for when Rigel makes his move to take over Washington, D.C.”

“My god,” Orion said, looking over the papers. “Someone from Earth helping Rigel. Though I don’t know why I let this kind of stuff surprise me anymore. And let me guess: he’s allowing Rigel to build something in Fairfield?”

“Well, I don’t know if ‘build something’ is the right term,” Scatterbolt said. “It seems to be something organic.”

“Organic?”

“Yes.” Scatterbolt pulled up a picture of a crew of green-skinned Rytonian soldiers, unloading massive wooden crates from an airplane. “Or somethings organic, as in more than one. Whatever is going on in Rhode Island, it requires tons of feed from Capricious. They are secretly bringing in all kinds of feed and drugs from Capricious, and transporting it down to Fairfield.”

“What the hell could that be for?” Keplar asked.

“I don’t know, but whatever it is, they’re hiding it here.” Scatterbolt pointed to the screen, and the image changed to a photo of an island military base, with a sign that read: ALTON HAYES NAVAL STATION.

“This is a defunct navy base off the coast of Fairfield,” Scatterbolt explained. “It’s no longer operational, but it’s still used as a tourist attraction—for tours, field trips, things like that. Except it hasn’t been used for anything lately, because Governor Melfi shut it down a few weeks ago, citing safety concerns and saying it needed a lengthy refurbishment.”

“Boy,” Keplar said. “This governor sounds like a real krandor stain, doesn’t he?”

“He does,” Scatterbolt replied. “Though no one has seen him in a few days, so who knows what that means.”

Scatterbolt brought up an article from the Providence Journal. Its headline read: GOVERNOR MELFI MISSING.

Orion stared at the screen. “Whatever it means, we need to get to Fairfield now and check it out. I have a terrible feeling things just got a lot more serious.”

“We’re going to Earth?” Keplar asked. “Now? Without Tobin?”

“Yes.”

“That’s gonna be interesting, especially since our fakers are no longer working.” Keplar stood up and put his jacket on. “You think the Daybreaker knows about any of this? That Rigel is growing some kind of weird crap down in Rhode Island?”

“We have to assume he does,” Orion said. “But right now, I’m afraid we don’t know much about the Daybreaker. That’s been our issue all along for the past two months: we know next-to-nothing about the Daybreaker, even after Tobin’s recent face-to-face with him. If only we could find out more, find out what’s going through the Daybreaker’s head. Find out what’s made him so quickly and easily turn on his own world. If we could only somehow get closer to the Daybreaker, and have someone speak to him, it would make a world of difference.”

Scatterbolt thought it over. He looked up at Orion.

“I have an idea,” the robot said. “You’re gonna hate it.”

***

On Middle Street in Bridgton, Massachusetts, Orion sat in the black getaway car and looked out the driver’s side window. Across the street, he could see Tobin’s friend, Chad Fernandes, standing behind the counter of Tony’s Pizzeria, wearing an apron and tossing dough into the air. The teen boy and the restaurant’s manager were laughing as one of their female co-workers tossed a handful of flour at them.

“You know,” Keplar said, slouched down in the backseat of the getaway car. He was wearing a trench coat, sunglasses, and yellow fisherman’s hat, which was pulled down over his forehead. “I thought I would feel pretty hidden in this disguise. Turns out I was wrong. I’m pretty sure I just look like a giant dog who’s about to flash everybody. Can we please talk to Chad and get this over with?”

“Yes,” Orion said, opening the car door. “I’m going in now. Stay here. Don’t move.”

“You’re joking, right?” Keplar asked.

Orion stepped onto the street. “Yes.”

Keplar threw his hands up and slouched down further in the seat. “Great. Now he’s making jokes. What a time to start.”

“I just learned a bunch of new jokes from my joke book,” Scatterbolt said, as he sat cross-legged on the floor of the backseat. “I can tell you some while Orion’s in there.”

Keplar grumbled and pulled the fisherman’s hat over his eyes.

***

Inside Tony’s Pizzeria, Chad watched with a smile as his co-worker Stacey walked out of the kitchen and toward the break room. He was very pleased with his progress today; he was pretty sure the fact that she had just thrown a handful of flour in his face was a sign that she liked him.

“Chad,” the manager of the pizzeria said. “Can you take care of the cash register while Stacey’s on break?”

“Sure,” Chad replied, as he put down the pizza dough he was tossing into the air and wiped his hands on his apron. When he reached the register, a customer was already waiting for him.

“Hi,” Chad said, looking up. “Can I help you?”

The customer was a black man with grey hair and glasses, wearing a long, red coat.

“Yes,” Orion said. “I think you can.”

Chad waited for the order. “Okay. Go ahead.”

“Do you know who I am?” Orion asked.

Chad stared at him. Then his eyes went wide.

“Oh my god,” he said. “Oh my god, oh my god.”

“Please calm down,” Orion replied. “Don’t act out of the ordinary.”

Chad’s eyes were pinned open, and a smile was quickly growing across his face. “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. You’re him. You’re him! Tobin’s showed me pictures of you. You’re Orion!”

Orion spoke softly. “Please don’t use my name.”

“This is so awesome!” Chad whispered, not very quietly and with a massive grin. “Why are you here? Is Tobin with you?” He looked out the pizzeria’s glass door. “Oh my god, this is so crazy! I can’t believe you’re actually here! This is awesome!”

Orion kept his voice down. “Please just act like I’m any other customer.”

“This is awesome!” Chad said again. “I can’t believe I’m talking to you! I’ve never met a superhero before! I mean, besides Tobin and everything. But this is so cool! I can’t believe you’re here!”

Orion gave up. He motioned toward the street. “Come on. Let’s talk outside.”

***

As Orion opened the driver’s side door of the getaway car, Chad opened the passenger side and looked into the back seat. Scatterbolt was there, sitting on the floor, while Keplar was hunched down behind the front passenger seat, in his trench coat.

“Oh my god,” Chad said. “It’s the dog. The dog is here. This is amazing.”

“I guess my disguise didn’t work,” Keplar replied.

Scatterbolt waved up at Chad from the floor. “Hi!”

Chad sat down in the front of the car and closed the door. “This is crazy. I can’t believe you guys are here. I’ve always wanted to meet you. I can’t believe this!”

“Yes, we’re all very excited,” Orion replied. “But we can’t stay here very long, Chad. We need to ask for your help with something.”

“You do?”

“Yes, but we can’t talk about it here in the open. Do you have anywhere we could go?”

“Um, I don’t know. Both my parents are home from work right now. What do you guys need my help with? Does it have to do with Tobin?”

“Yes,” Orion replied.

Chad grew concerned. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” Orion said. “But it’s…complicated. Can you think of anywhere we can go? Anywhere where we’ll be safer?”

Chad thought it over. “I have an idea. But Jen is gonna be really pissed.”

***

Seven minutes down the road, Chad led Orion, Keplar, and Scatterbolt into Jennifer’s house.

“Here it is, guys. Just be careful.”

“Are you absolutely sure her parents aren’t going to be home, Chad?” Orion asked.

“Yes, I’m absolutely positive,” Chad replied. “They’re in the Barbados right now. They won’t be home for a week. Jen was planning on having a party tonight.”

“Is she home right now?” Orion asked.

“No,” Chad said, peering out the living room blinds. “It doesn’t look like it. Her car’s not here.”

“Okay. Give her a call and let her know what’s going on.”

As Chad retrieved his phone from his pocket, Keplar walked into the kitchen and whipped off his trench coat, tossing it to the floor.

“Finally I can take off this stupid thing. I’m so sick of disguises.” The dog swung the refrigerator door open and stuck his head in. “Now, let’s see what they have in here…”

“Ooooo!” Scatterbolt said, his eyes lighting up. “Earth TV!” The robot dashed into the living room and leapt onto the couch, grabbing a remote control from the coffee table. “Oh, they have Downton Abbey!” He turned to Keplar in the kitchen. “Keplar, they have Downton Abbey!”

The dog was rummaging through the fridge. “Okay, just make sure you don’t go past where we are. Make sure you put on the next one.”

“Just be careful, guys,” Chad said, watching Keplar stack a jar of pickles onto a pizza box on the kitchen counter. “Jen’s dad can be really crazy O.C.D. about his stuff being neat.”

“Yes, guys,” Orion said. “We’re taking a big risk coming here, and so is Chad. Let’s make sure we keep things exactly the way they are.”

“Relax,” Keplar said, “it will be like we were never—” The dog turned around and his tail knocked a jar of strawberry jelly off the counter, sending it to the floor with a SKCRASH! “Don’t worry,” the dog said, looking down at the gooey, red mess. “It’s just the jelly.” The dog then bent over to pick it up, and in the process his tail pushed something else off the breakfast nook, resulting in another SKRASH! “And a vase of some kind,” the dog added, eyeing the jagged pieces of blue porcelain in the puddle on the floor.

In the living room, Scatterbolt lounged on the couch, pressing buttons on the remote control. “Chad, do you know if Jen’s dad is taping a baseball game on the DVR? I think something’s taping on the DVR.”

Chad stared into the kitchen, his eyes wide. “Oh my god, Jen is gonna kill me. Her dad is gonna kill me. Everyone is gonna kill me.”

Orion placed a hand on Chad’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about all this, Chad. I think it’s best if you just tell Jen we’re here so we can leave.”

Chad pressed his phone to his ear. “Yes, I think so.”

In the parking lot of Thomas Grocery a few streets away, Jennifer placed her party supplies into her car and answered her phone.

“Hey, Chad. What’s going on?”

Chad watched the kitchen as Keplar made himself a ham, roast beef, peanut butter, chocolate ice cream, potato chip, and wine sandwich. In the living room, Scatterbolt stood on the couch and whipped his arm back and forth, playing a game of Wii tennis.

“Oh,” Chad said into the phone, “nothing.”

“What’s going on?” Jennifer asked. “You sound weird.”

“Nothing. Just kind of…hanging out.”

Jennifer opened her car door, then stopped. “Where are you?” she asked. “Are you at my house? I told you, we can all hang out there later, but I don’t want to go there now when my neighbors might see us. If you and Zack are there now I’m gonna flip out.”

“Oh, I’m here now,” Chad said. “But it’s not Zack I’m with.”

“It’s not? Then who are you with?”

Ten minutes later, Jennifer slowly opened the door to her house and stepped inside. She was greeted by Chad, Orion, Keplar, and Scatterbolt, who were standing in a line in the kitchen. She stared at them, with her mouth dropped open.

“Hi,” Keplar said, stepping forward and extending his paw. “I’m Scatterbolt, the little robot. Nice to meet you.”

Jennifer said nothing. She simply stared at him.

“Just kidding,” Keplar said, stepping back and holding up his paws. “I’m the giant dog.”

Jennifer eyed the lineup in front of her. “What the hell is going on?”

“Hi, Jennifer,” Orion said, offering his hand. “I’m sorry about all of this, but we wouldn’t have come here unless it was absolutely necessary.”

Jennifer shook his hand. “Is it absolutely necessary?”

“Um, yes. Yes, I’m afraid it is.”

Jennifer peered over his shoulder. “Is it absolutely necessary to eat all of my food and make a huge mess in my kitchen?”

“Um, no,” Orion replied sheepishly. “That part was not necessary.”

Scatterbolt looked up at her with a smile. “I hope you were done with Downton Abbey, ‘cuz I kind of erased it off your DVR by accident.”

Jennifer closed her eyes and shook her head. “What—what is going on? Why are you here? Why are all of you here?”

“I’m sorry, Jen,” Chad said. “I know this is nuts, but it has to do with Tobin. He needs our help.”

Jennifer spun toward Orion. “He does? Where is he?”

***

“So it ac