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Game On: Alien Space Adventure (The Adventures of Jayden Banks and the Jameson T

 
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GAME ON

 

by R.E. Rowe

Shakespir Edition

Copyright 2015 by R.E. Rowe

Professionally edited by Erin Brown

Cover Illustration by LLPix Designs

Space Command Spacecraft Illustrations by Rafael Bot

Space Command Robopod Illustration by Bernard Erlinger-Ford

Atilla Spacecraft Illustration by Bernard Erlinger-Ford

Atilla Robopod Illustrations by Srdjan Pavlovic

Andromedia and Milkyway Illustrations Art©www.jonlomberg.com

All Spacecraft and Robopo illustrations copyright 2015 R.E. Rowe

 

All rights reserved. This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

All inquiries should be addressed to: [+ [email protected]+]

Game On is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, places, theories, and dialogue in this novel are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual aliens, planets, moons, people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, organizations, or locales, is coincidental.

Game On/R.E. Rowe—1st ed.

ISBN 978-0-9909992-6-3

Dedicated to dreamers who dream up dreamers.

Game On!” ~Jayden Banks

Most kids called online gamer JAYDEN BANKS the luckiest thirteen-year-old around before his curiosity transported him into a real intergalactic war that just might destroy Earth, get his parents killed, and change his destiny forever.

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

About the Author

Connect with R.E. Rowe

Other books by R.E. Rowe

Acknowledgements

Chapter 1

Outthink, outsmart, and outplay—boring. Changing the game—priceless.

Thirteen-year-old Jayden Banks fluffed up his bed pillow and adjusted his headset. He fidgeted more than usual, but it wasn’t from the anticipation of another online battle. It was the game hack checklist that was driving him crazy. He’d activated the cheat codes after his best friend, Parker Jameson, had installed the attack code. But had they forgotten something?

Level 150 had been open to gamers for only four days, and Jayden and Parker were one battle away from leaderboard history. Conquering Level 150 in less than five days would surely get their names and pictures in the Galactic Blog of Fame.

After readjusting himself on his bed for the twentieth time, Jayden decided they were as ready as they’d ever be. “Level 150,” he muttered with anticipation. “Game on.”

He tapped the refresh button on his status screen and watched as their homegrown computer worm infected opposing avatars like a new flu virus. Updates appeared in a pop-up window on the tablet every second, showing each opposing avatar’s position and weapons status. Jayden almost grinned, then stopped short, and glanced at his golden retriever, Rox, curled up beside him on the bed.

With one hand, Jayden scratched Rox under the chin for luck, and gripped his dad’s red mini-tablet in his other. He double-checked the battery level. Twelve hours remained.

“Ready when you are, Jayden,” crackled Parker’s voice through the speakers of his headset.

“Seriously, stop using my real name!” Jayden said. Parker obviously needed to review the rules.

“Sorry, Killgeek,” Parker muttered.

Jayden gazed at the screen. His reptilian avatar crouched behind a pile of rubble next to Parker’s avatar. A quick tap with both of his thumbs widened Jayden’s view. “The city’s a mess,” he whispered into the headset’s microphone. Two more taps made his avatar crack its scaly knuckles.

“Yep, total chaos,” Parker replied.

“I can barely hear you. What’s up with your microphone?” Jayden asked. “You sound like you’re a million miles away.”

Of course, that was ridiculous since Parker’s house was, in fact, only a thirty-second jog from Jayden’s house. Both of their families lived inside the Tinkerhill gated community of custom million-dollar homes in the historic downtown district of Los Gatos, California, near the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“Hold on,” Parker said, fumbling around with his headset. “Is that better?”

“Yes . . . much,” Jayden replied as he zoomed in on Parker’s avatar. Its green lizard head shook and sent drool everywhere like Rox did after chewing on his sock toy for an hour.

“The payload is working perfectly,” Parker said. “I can see everything.”

Jayden surveyed the pop-up window. “I show six remaining,” he said, counting them carefully. “You see them?” he asked Parker.

“Yep. They destroyed our getaway transport.”

“How’d they do that?”

“How do you think, Jayden?” Parker pointed his avatar’s long yellow fingernails at Jayden’s reptilian creature. “Dirty bomb!”

Jayden sighed. “How many times do I have to tell you not to use my—”

“Sorry, Killgeek.”

“So how’d we miss the bomb?” Jayden asked.

“We forgot to include a radiation detector. Oh, and there’s more bad news.”

Jayden surveyed the smoldering virtual street. “What news?”

“Zeekmo is with them.”

Jayden’s heart lurched. “Zeekmo? She never watches this close to the front line.”

“She probably wants to reverse engineer our hack,” Parker said. “Personally, I think she figures our big green butts are mash.”

Jayden felt his knuckles aching from gripping the tablet all morning. There had been way more surprises on this level than any before it—too many ridiculous twists. “You’re pathetic, you know. You made me do all the work.”

“I was pinned,” said Parker. “I had to focus on taking out their hawk-eye’s laser on the roof.”

“Yeah right, amateur,” Jayden said, adjusting his grip on the tablet. He tapped the controls, and his avatar bared its fanged teeth and hissed. “You were out of position when they unloaded on us.”

“I got distracted,” Parker replied, then cleared his throat. “Hey, did you see that Raven avatar?”

“The monster with the dark blue feathers on its beak?” Jayden asked.

“Yep, wicked cool. I bet it’s a World Corp game monitor. I think they’re suspicious of us.”

“Just ignore them. They won’t be able to prove anything. Maybe they’ll hire us.” And World Corp totally should hire them. After all, Parker was the best coder Jayden ever knew, besides Parker’s twin sister, Nora—aka Zeekmo.

Jayden’s avatar flicked its forked tongue in and out of its mouth, updating the tablet’s readout of environmental status. He saw the building fire getting closer to them.

Parker let out a loud sigh. “Now what do we do?”

“I’ll launch my replicating blasters. Looks like our last stand.”

“You’re heaving all of them?” Parker asked.

“Not yet,” Jayden replied as he checked weapon status. “It’s time for our smoke-a-bloke strategy. Just sit tight and light for a momento.

“Remember to take out Nora if she joins the fight,” Parker said.

Dang it! Jayden had forgotten that Nora was watching. He felt his face heat up. “I thought she wanted to be a designer, not a player. Do we have to take out Zeekmo?”

“Shut up, would you?” Parker complained. “If she stands with them, it’ll be the only way to capture their flag. You want to be first to rule World Corp’s new level, right?”

Jayden sighed. “Of course.” No way did he want to take out Nora’s avatar, but he couldn’t tell Parker that. “Let’s do this.”

Parker’s muscular avatar aimed his weapon from behind a heap of rusty metal. “I’ll whistle when I’m ready.”

Jayden rolled his eyes. Parker’s birdcall whistle was pathetic. It sounded more like blowing a raspberry full of spit than a bird singing. He scanned through their game status one last time. “Blaster shells ready. Laser charged. Life energy 5 percent. Enemy locations identified. Enemy weapon hack activated. Shields hacked. We’re ready.”

“Good, here they come,” Parker whispered.

“Uh, oh,” Jayden said. “Just like you thought. Zeekmo’s avatar is with the Geckonian clan.” He knew destroying Nora’s avatar was not the way to impress her.

Jayden heard Zeekmo shout, “Fire!”

A dozen more rival green Geckonians materialized out of nowhere.

“Retreat!” Parker screamed. “Nora hacked my hack! She’s riding our game worm like a rodeo bull.”

But it was way too late. Lasers zipped everywhere, and blaster explosions vibrated Jayden’s headset. Five members of the Geckonian clan charged forward.

“Watch our backside! Let’s show these green buckets of flesh how we roll!” Parker howled into his microphone.

The weapon fire increased and explosions rocked the scene. “They’re destroying us!” yelled Parker.

Three more Geckonian avatars appeared out of nowhere. Jayden watched in horror as the three quickly joined five others and jumped into the fight.

“Oh man.” Jayden hesitated. A wave of reality struck. The way Nora was using Jayden and Parker’s game hack against them was beyond brilliant as far as Jayden was concerned.

Parker made his raspberry sound and fired a blaster burst at the aliens. The explosions snapped Jayden out of his brain freeze. He fired his blasters as fast as he could.

When their rain of pain landed on target, green masses exploded like giant paint balloons.

For a moment, Jayden thought they might still triumph. Snap, winning, he thought, and then fired all his remaining weapons.

Jayden whistled to attract the alien’s attention. “Over here!” he shouted.

Just as he started to release a cluster of replicating shells with his left thumb, a one-hundred-and-five-pound furry golden mass jumped straight onto his lap. “Rox!” Jayden screamed as the mini-tablet tumbled out of his hands, then crashed to his bedroom floor with the headset flattened under it.

Before he could move, Rox gave him a sloppy lick with extra saliva, and blinked his big brown eyes.

“Gross. Go on, Rox!” Jayden said, as he wiped the disgusting goo from the side of his face.

He stretched to twist on the bedroom lamp, afraid that his dad’s titanium trophy tablet was completely trashed. When Jayden picked up the tablet from the floor, a bright white light beamed from the display, illuminating the ceiling.

Unbelievable! The tablet was still alive!

But after a few seconds, the bright white light faded until it disappeared. Strange. Jayden took a closer look. The tablet was still intact and running, but there was a major dent in the red frame. Constantly changing, strange symbols filled its display.

Jayden squinted at the screen. “Dad is so going to kill me,” he whispered.

What looked like a website address suddenly appeared on the top line and remained fixed while the symbols continued to dance all over the tablet’s display. Instead of the usual website format, the address read: “vlaic://385647n77932w.”

Every second a symbol changed to a different symbol. Jayden was sure something inside the tablet had short circuited, or worse, melted. The information on the screen made no sense to him. It was official: the tablet had gone crazy.

He put the headset back on and adjusted the microphone. “Parker? You still connected?”

“Yep. Why’d you hesitate yet again? What happened?”

It was true. Lately, Jayden had been hesitating at the worst possible time during battle, but that was the last thing he wanted to discuss.

“Rox decided to team kill me,” Jayden replied. “How’d we end up?”

“Zeekmo modified our attack worm all right. Turned it against us like a rabid dog. Zeekmo’s avatar used wearable weapons on her hands, knees, and elbows. But before she could kill us, we blew up our massive butts . . . So much for level 1-5-0.”

“You mean—”

“Our alien-splatter is everywhere. They got our flag dude . . . it’ll set us back at least a hundred levels.” Parker sighed. “Zeekmo slaughtered us.”

Jayden peered at the strange symbols moving across the tablet’s screen. “I think my dad’s tablet is broken. When Rox killed me, it hit the floor. Now it’s acting possessed.”

“You broke his ‘Investment Banker of the Year’ award? The fastest tablet in the known universe? More expensive than my dad’s Mercedes?”

Jayden groaned. “Looks like it . . . The one and only.”

“You’re so screwed,” Parker blurted out.

“Not helpful,” Jayden said. “Seriously, get over here and help me fix it.”

“Be there in five. G-striker, out.”

 

Chapter 2

Parker launched himself through the open window into Jayden’s bedroom, jumping onto the floor with flourish, his arms in the air. “A perfect dismount!” he said, beaming.

“Can’t you use the front door like a normal human?” Jayden asked.

“Why, dude, when I can take the direct route?” Parker adjusted his ever-present black baseball cap over his curly, caramel-colored hair. Most of the time, Parker wore a ball cap with “Pop Star” printed on its crown, turned sideways. He told Jayden it topped off his epically cool-look of faded jeans and a black t-shirt with “WINNING” printed in bold white letters. Even when it was eighty degrees outside, he wore a flimsy black leather jacket over it. Naturally, kids at school called him, “Pop Star.”

In Jayden’s opinion, Parker was the worst singer on planet Earth. He couldn’t even rap. The same kids in class had tagged Jayden, “Surfer Boy,” but at least that made some sort of sense. After all, he lived in the Santa Cruz foothills only a short drive from the Cali beach community of Santa Cruz. His dark brown complexion made his shoulder length, sandy blonde hair appear sun-bleached. But Jayden avoided all things saltwater, especially when there was potential to become Great White shark bait.

Together, the two friends had been labeled “The Odd Squad.” But that didn’t bother Jayden. It actually helped them because no one suspected the so-called Surfer Boy and the Pop Star duo were a game hacker team. Well, no one except for Parker’s twin sister, Nora.

Rox jumped up to give Parker a nice, big slurp.

“Okay, let’s see the patient,” Parker said, nuzzling Rox before crossing to the bed and grabbing the tablet. He pulled out the headset connection and moved the screen close to his face.

“No way,” said Parker. “The tablet has gone nuts.”

“Obviously . . . The input is locked out too. Do you think it’s totally hosed?” Jayden groaned when Rox once again jumped on him.

“No clue,” he replied. “Here, hold up the tablet and smile. I want to take a selfie.” Parker pulled out his mobile and snapped a photo.

“Why?” Jayden shook his head in disgust.

“I want to record how Rox killed you before your dad does it for reals,” Parker said with a laugh.

If the mini-tablet turned out to be burnt toast, Jayden knew his dad would restrict his online access and ruin his life forever, or at least for a couple weeks. Up until this point, Jayden had been proud that he’d avoided major drama, school conflicts, and girl problems. Although honestly, after turning thirteen, he actually wanted girl problems. Especially if it involved Nora.

Jayden hated to disappoint his dad, aka Mr. Banks. After all, his dad ran the largest high-tech hedge fund in Cali’s Silicon Valley, and Jayden’s mom sat on the corporate board. It had taken months for Jayden to convince his parents that teen-gamers, like Parker and him, would give their investment company an edge when considering new gaming company investments. Of course, neither Jayden’s dad nor mom had a clue he and Parker were hacking their way through the games to the top of the leader boards, leaving game modification Easter eggs behind like rabbit turds.

Jayden flinched as the mini-tablet began making a repetitive, high-pitched beep that sounded like the tones in a hearing test. With each new beep, the volume grew louder. He tossed the tablet onto his bed like a hot potato. The symbols on the screen flashed, changed to bold, and then flashed again. The red tablet acted like a ticking time bomb counting down to explode.

“Did you press the reset button?” Parker asked.

Jayden’s face twisted. “Seriously, Parker? What do you think?”

“Well?” Parker persisted.

“Of course . . . you moron.” Jayden groaned. “It didn’t work, duh.”

Jayden grabbed the tablet and discretely tried it again just to be sure.

The beeps continued faster and louder, each one a different tone.

Then the beeping abruptly stopped, and the numbers and letters disappeared. The blank screen changed from black to bright-blue. After a second, a message in bold letters appeared at the center of the tablet’s screen:

 

CIASECC

Unauthorized Access Is a Felony

 

Parker’s eyes went wide. “CIA? Felony? We’re so screwed.”

Jayden’s heart pounded against his chest as the tablet continued making the annoying, high-pitched sounds. He gazed at the tablet the same way he looked at Rox whenever his furry friend brought home a dead rodent.

“What’s SECC?” he asked Parker.

Parker shrugged. “No clue.”

After one final, loud noise, the tablet went silent, and the blue screen turned back to black.

A loud thump rattled the bedroom door.

Jayden and Parker jumped.

“Are you fine?” asked Rosa from the other side of the door. Rosa was born in Belize. Without asking Jayden, his parents had hired her last summer to take care of their house and watch over him when his parents traveled on business. Rosa had moved in and become part of their family soon after.

Parker frowned. “What’d she say?”

Jayden waved him off. “We’re good,” he called through the door to Rosa. “Just playing a game.”

“Fine, good. No eat in the room!” she shouted, and then walked away.

“What do you think?” Jayden whispered to Parker.

“Looks whacked,” he replied. “Breaking news, Jayden Banks gets banned from the Internet for life and won’t be allowed to drive his father’s Porsche until it becomes a classic.” Parker snickered like a five-year-old and adjusted his black ball cap. “The babes will love going out with you, Surfer Boy. I hear public transportation is considered totally current. You’ll have the babes lining up.”

“Would you shut up? So not helpful.”

Parker’s face tightened. “We need to get Nora’s help.”

Jayden’s heart thumped as though it were playing a massive metal bass riff. Annora Jameson, aka Nora, aka Zeekmo, also known as dream girl to Jayden. She was an inch taller than him with long, curly brown hair that covered a birthmark on her lower back just above her waistband. He had spotted the mark one day at school and thought it resembled a flying wasp tat.

Jayden noticed more about Nora than he wanted to admit. Especially her killer tan, though Parker said she spent most of her time online in her room behind a closed door. Parker claimed the tan was spray on, but Jayden didn’t care if it was man-made. All he knew was her bright brown eyes pulled him in like tractor beams. She was on Jayden’s dream girl list of one. Or as Rosa would say, “Las perspectivas de la lista.”

The other reason she was on his perspectivas lista: she might’ve been a talented hacker, a superior cracker that could break into almost any computer, and the next top game designer, but when it came to online shooter games, Jayden wanted her flag. That might happen too if he didn’t get so freaking nervous every time she was close.

But honestly, he realized capturing her flag probably wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. She could easily out-hack Jayden and Parker without much effort. Their avatars didn’t stand a chance playing against Nora.

“Your sister would help us?” Jayden asked.

“Yep,” Parker replied.

Jayden was suddenly aware of the hot air blasting from his bedroom vent. “Seriously? Why?”

Parker stood straight and beamed. “Because we’re going to motivate her.”

Jayden’s heart lodged firmly in his throat. “Motivate . . . how?” The massive metal bass riff paused. He steadied himself.

“You’ll see. Let’s roll,” Parker replied. “To my house.”

 

Chapter 3

Parker burst through his front door with Jayden on his heels and skidded to a stop. Jayden didn’t notice until it was too late. He crashed into Parker, nearly knocking him into the next room.

Parker collected himself and stood while Jayden brushed himself off and peered over his friend’s shoulder at Parker’s parents. They had both turned away from their one-hundred-ten-inch flat screen television to peer at them over dark 3D viewing glasses.

Jayden held back the urge to laugh out loud at the glasses, which seemed two sizes too big for their faces. But he wasn’t shocked. The glasses were just like the ones his parents owned along with all the latest electronics, three-dimensional flat screens, and high-definition gadgets.

“Hi, Jayden, how are you this fine evening?” Mrs. Jameson asked. Her petite head looked besieged by frizzy brown hair.

Epic fail, he thought. If Parker’s parents knew Jayden had his dad’s prized possession, they’d tell his dad for sure. Everyone in the valley knew about his Jayden’s dad’s cherished red mini-tablet. It was the first thing he showed people when they came to their house.

Jayden swallowed hard. “Fine, ma’am. Thank you.” He quickly hid the seven-inch tablet in a custom pocket Rosa had sewn into the back of his white t-shirt. He wore the t-shirt under his favorite black hoody. The one with Drake’s equation printed on it in big white letters. He thought Dr. Frank Drake was seriously brilliant, like Gates and Jobs. But Drake was the scientist who’d dreamed up an equation for calculating the total number of alien civilizations living in the universe.

“And how’s that father of yours?” Mr. Jameson asked with a foghorn tone, and then shot him an artificially whitened smile.

“Good,” Jayden squeaked.

“His tablet has got to be the most unusual mini ever created—the first quantum prototype,” he added.

“I love the color,” Mrs. Jameson said softly. “Bright red like ripe cherries with gold sparkles . . . Real gold too.”

Mr. Jameson nodded. “Impressive.”

The tablet moved slightly under the back of Jayden’s sweatshirt. His heart skipped a beat as he reached around and fumbled to readjust it with his fingertips.

Mr. Jameson continued. “Personally, I thought it’d take twenty more years before quantum computing was productized.”

Parker pointed toward his bedroom. “We’re in the middle of a project, you know. We don’t have time for small talk.”

Jayden raised an eyebrow. Parker never shied away from speaking his mind.

“Your father didn’t mean to interrupt you boys,” Mrs. Jameson said with a forced smile. “Now did you, dear?”

“Not at all,” Mr. Jameson replied. “You go back to earning all that — intern loot. Testing out new games is hard work, I’m sure.” He chuckled as his gaze remained fixed on the flat screen, watching a reporter drone on about some international aid organization.

Jayden’s head swung around when he heard the reporter’s phrase, “World Corporation.” He glanced at Parker and nodded towards the television screen.

“World Corporation, the international maker of online games, is expanding their recruitment and education program,” continued the reporter. “Representatives of the company tell us they’re hiring teens, ages thirteen to seventeen. World Corp will teach them all aspects of software design to work on the next generation of the hit game Space Expeditionary Combat Command in their international development offices. Kids will be able to finish school abroad. All expenses are paid and the money earned goes straight to a parent’s bank account. World Corporation’s recruits receive real life experiences and travel to exotic places with talented gaming development teams. . . .”

Jayden’s dad had seen a similar report a few nights back but had told Jayden to forget it. He’d said, “World Corp should stick with software development in the US.” Jayden knew the only exotic travel he would likely experience was a virtual trip to one of World Corp’s online game worlds.

As the news report continued on the television, Jayden and Parker made a beeline to Parker’s bedroom. A “Keep Out” sign dangled on the middle of the door. Inside was a certifiable disaster area with a ripe trash dump smell. Parker’s bed was unmade, and Jayden counted three piles of dirty clothes and two towers of books framing the computer display on his small desk. A half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the back of the desk caught his eye. Beside the PB&J was a drinking glass containing a white, thick liquid with a solid layer of grossness on top. Gag me. He guessed the milk was seriously past its “good until” date.

“Is she home?” Jayden asked.

“Yep. Let me do the talking,” Parker replied. “You just nod.”

Jayden felt his face heating up. He had been hoping to talk to Nora for a while, maybe even get some one-on-one. They left Parker’s room and tiptoed up to Nora’s closed door.

“Now what?” Jayden whispered.

Parker smiled and pounded on her door with a closed fist. “Nora, you in there? Jayden’s here to see you.”

Jayden shoved him against the door. “You’re a jerk,” he snarled.

“Not now, P-brane,” Nora yelled through the door. “Tell the string frag to vibrate out the front door.”

“Peabrain?” Jayden asked. “String frag? Vibrate?”

Parker rolled his eyes. “Never mind,” he whispered.

Jayden smirked. “Seems second grade to me.”

“That’s not what she meant,” Parker replied with major attitude.

“Oh really?” Jayden said, imitating Parker’s insolence.

Parker sighed. “It was just a stupid joke. She was referring to “branes” in string theory. You know, spatially extended mathematical concepts.”

“Ahh,” Jayden muttered.

“Forget it.” Parker shoved him back, twisted the door handle, and entered Nora’s room with Jayden sauntering in behind him.

Nora sat in a swivel chair, her back to them, furiously typing on a keyboard.

Jayden tried to say hello, but his voice box seized. It was the first time he had ever seen Nora’s room. He’d expected pictures of roses and animals on the walls and lots of pink. Maybe some stuffed animals and a few boy band posters or something. Instead, waist-high stacks of computer equipment with green and red blinking lights populated most of her room.

Her bedroom wasn’t a bedroom. It was more like a computer research laboratory and computer repair shop all jammed into one ten-by-ten space. She’d surrounded herself with the latest, top-of-the-line electronic equipment. A world map covered one wall. A map of Asia covered another. At one end of her room, four flat-screen computer monitors stood side-by-side on a desk. Each screen displayed constantly-changing information.

A shiny new computer the size of a clothes hamper stood out among the stacked electronic equipment, and a warm breeze from working fans circulated the jasmine scent of Nora’s perfume around the room.

She spun around in her chair to face them, causing her long hair to become weightless for a few hundred milliseconds. Jayden felt piranhas picking at the inner lining of his stomach. Ooh la.

“Get out!” Nora thundered, glaring at Parker. “Mom!”

“Sis, wait. How’d you like to make two hundred bucks?” Parker asked.

Her eyes went wide, and so did Jayden’s.

“How?” she asked sharply.

Yeah, no kidding, right? Jayden wanted to know too, but his voice box was still offline.

“Parker’s mini is hosed. The screen looks encrypted.”

Nora batted her eyes. “So why ask me for help?”

The computer equipment hummed. Four computer displays occasionally beeped as each displayed characters and numbers in no apparent sequence. It looked to Jayden like she might be hacking something.

Parker continued. “We need your help. Besides, you could use the cashola. Rumor has it you need more memory for your server.”

Her soft brown eyes hardened. “What kind of help?”

“Check it out.” Parker turned to Jayden and gave him a slight shove. “Show her.”

Jayden’s brain sputtered, as it usually did when he came within twenty-feet of Nora. She was his kryptonite, maybe even radioactive. Either that or Jayden was allergic to jasmine. He’d exchanged looks with Nora a couple times at school, but not much more than that. Everytime Jayden tried to work up the courage his nerves would get the better of him. He’d hesitate, and she’d disappear before he could think straight.

“Surfer Boy?” she asked, then turned to Parker and shot him with her laser sight eyes.

Jayden was amazed that she even remembered him. Gulp. His voice box struggled to reboot.

Parker cracked his knuckles. “This is Jayden, remember?”

Nora gave her computer displays a quick glance as if to check the temperature of a turkey cooking in an oven. “Killgeek, right?” she asked, turning her attention to Jayden.

Parker nodded.

Jayden shifted his gaze away from Nora, trying to act nonchalant. He saw her staring at him out of the corner of his eye.

She squinted. “Do you surf?”

Jayden shrugged. “Occasionally, I take a board out.” Total lie. He’d never surfed in his life. Jayden was a skater. But more important than his ridiculous fib, his voice box croaked as it came back to life. He was talking to Nora. Nora! Jayden suddenly felt sure he could shred a wave or two if he tried.

Nora shot him a half-smile, and then spun back to her computer monitors. “How you doing, Killgeek?”

Buena,” Jayden replied, deciding to score some mucho points using the romantic Spanish phrases Rosa had taught him. Rosa had said, “Girls love Spanish. Eres muy bonita.”

Nora turned back around and stared at Jayden. It wasn’t the look he’d expected. His heart surged.

Jayden shrugged, still acting as though he could care less about anything that smelled of jasmine. “Basically, it means I’m good. Thanks for asking.”

She stared for another moment without moving. “Right. Whatever. Let me see the mini.”

He lifted up his sweatshirt, twisted his shirt around, and pulled open the Velcro pocket.

Nora raised an eyebrow when he handed the tablet to her. “Love the cherry red. Nice machine.” She inspected the tablet. “Probably worth thirty-thousand, easy. Does it really has a quantum core processor in it?”

Jayden nodded as if everyone had one. Please be able to fix it, he thought.

“Real gold flakes too.” Nora set the tablet aside and tapped on her keyboard. “Sick.”

“See the dent,” Jayden said, his voice cracked. “Do you think I broke it?”

Nora continued typing without lifting her head. “Highly unlikely.”

“What are you doing anyway?” Jayden asked her.

“Setting up my hide-the-babe bot.”

Jayden had read some of the hacker blogs that followed Zeekmo. She’d designed an arsenal of bots ready to launch at any game, any social media account, or any computer connected to any network in the world. But the posts also said she spent most her time designing game code and hacks that were way more complicated than the ones Jayden and Parker designed. Jayden seriously wouldn’t want to make her mad. She could easily hack his personal social media game profile and turn his avatar into a skinny, mumbling llama wearing army boots with zero-level skill.

“You’re going to run a web-crawler?” Jayden asked.

She tapped the keys as if she were giving a drum solo or playing piano. “Not a web-crawler. It’s a program that automatically hides my Internet connection.”

Jayden frowned.

“Tell him why,” Parker said, his hands on his hips.

“Isn’t it obvious?” She continued pounding on the keyboard.

“Well, sort of,” Jayden said. He couldn’t stop staring at Nora’s long brown hair. It draped over her shoulders and flowed down her back like a waterfall. She was tall and seriously cute. It was hard for him to comprehend that he was in the room of the hottest babe around!

Look away, he thought and forced a yawn.

Nora glanced at Jayden like he might infect her computers with his exhale. “Website webmasters can see your IP address and easily figure out your location.”

Jayden shifted his gaze and tried to stay calm. “You mean—”

“Uh huh, easy to trace a network connection back to its physical starting point. The hide-the-babe bot conceals my location. I randomly route net traffic to ten different servers around the world. Whoever notices my Internet connection will think I’m somewhere in Spain, London, or China.”

“Who would notice?” Jayden asked.

“Never know.” She finished pounding on the computer, and then placed the broken tablet upright on a docking connector tethered to her computer. “Homeland security is everywhere these days.” She pressed the tablet’s power button.

Sure enough, the titanium tablet’s display went crazy again.

Jayden lunged toward her. “Don’t keep it running too long or—”

She held up a hand without moving her eyes away from the screen. “Shhh!” Nora looked as though she were dissecting a frog.

“But—”

“Shhh!” she hissed again.

Parker frowned and shook his head. He shoved Jayden and mouthed, “Chill.”

She kept her eyes fixed on the tablet. “You’re so cool.”

For fifty nanoseconds, Jayden thought she’d meant him. But no such luck.

The symbols on the tablet changed faster and faster. The tablet made the same loud, beeping, ear-testing tones.

“Wow!” she shouted over the racket. “Unbelievable!”

“But—” Jayden started again.

“Shhh!” she shouted. “Parker, tell Killgeek to shut up, would you?”

Parker shot Killgeek an “I said chill” glare.

“Fine. Sorry,” Jayden grumbled.

Suddenly, the CIA screen that Jayden and Parker had seen earlier reappeared. Nora screamed and clapped her hands. “That is wild.”

The tablet froze just like it had done before.

“What the heck?” Nora frowned. “OMG!”

Jayden tried to offer input again. “See how it—”

“Sssst,” she said, as though she were commanding Rox to stay. “Totally insane.”

“Can you figure it out?” Parker asked her.

Nora paused and narrowed her eyes. “Maybe, but it’ll cost five big Bens. And I don’t mean the lame virtual cash kind.”

“What?” Jayden gulped. “Five hundred bucks?”

Parker gave Jayden a glare, and then softened his eyes when he turned to Nora. “Okay. Jayden’s dad is good for it.”

Jayden was sure his own eyes looked like freaking beach balls. So much for acting cool. He wondered. “But I—,” he sputtered.

Nora gave them a devious grin. “You’ll need to leave your dad’s prized red possession with me.”

Parker grabbed Jayden’s arm. “Come on. Nora needs to get hackin’.”

As Parker pushed him out of the room, Nora turned and smiled. “Oh, and Jay, gracias por el cumplido.” She looked back at her computer monitors and slapped a key on her keyboard. A techno-beat boomed from the speakers like a heartbeat as her body swayed to the rhythm.

When Nora’s bedroom door shut behind them, Jayden froze. “What’d she mean? Gracias for what?”

“She thanked you for the compliment in Spanish, dork. And, by the way, your ridiculous attempt to woo her . . . seriously gross.” Parker shook his head. “‘You think she’s very pretty?’ Are you in kindergarten?” He made a fake barf sound. “She’s my freaking sister, you idiot.”

Parker slapped Jayden on the back of his head. “Let’s go back to your house.”

Jayden rubbed his face with his hands, and mumbled, “Where am I going to get five hundred bucks?”

 

 

Chapter 4

Jayden and Parker hurried back to Jayden’s house, and then sat on the floor in his room with computers in their laps for a couple hours until Parker’s cell phone rang.

“Speak . . . You what?” Parker roared, glancing at Jayden with his eyes popping. “We’ll be right over.” He tapped his cell phone and tucked it in his pants pocket.

“Nora?” Jayden asked.

“Yep,” replied Parker. “She fixed the mini.”

“Already?” Unbelievable, Jayden thought with a grin.

Parker nodded. “She wants to show us something, but it has to be in her room where she can run her hide-the-babe bot.”

They bolted back to Parker’s house, made a beeline to Nora’s room, and thumped on her cherry wood door.

“Enter!” Nora shouted.

Jayden followed Parker into her room as if they were a couple of teenage SWAT team guys.

Nora’s jasmine-scented perfume knocked the wind out of Jayden . . . yet again.

Hola, Jay,” Nora said with a grin.

Jayden spied his dad’s mini-tablet, powered off, near the side of her desk. He gave her a disinterested gaze, but that didn’t stop his stomach from rumbling. His face reddened. “Hey.”

Parker grabbed the tablet. “You figured it out?”

“All fixed,” she replied. “Drex the dragon-bot scorched the viruses. Nasty ones too. I’ll give you a demo.” Nora grinned as she stared at the computer screens on her desk and tap-danced with her fingers across the keyboard.

Jayden stood behind her, peering at the computer monitors on her desk that were full of rapidly changing information. It all looked like gibberish to him.

“Watch,” she said, then typed: “vlaic://385647n77932w.”

Jayden recognized the text from the tablet when it had first gone nuts.

Nora’s computer screen instantly filled with the same weird symbols as Jayden had witnessed in his room. The same ear test tones blasted from her computer speakers as the symbols randomly changed all over her computer screen.

She tapped a new sequence of keystrokes, causing her computer to blast three low-pitched beeps. The random dance of symbols stopped, and the screen went blank. A new sequence of numbers appeared in the center of her screen:

 

37 14 06 115 48 40

>>

 

“What does it mean?” Jayden asked.

Nora glanced at him over her shoulder. “It’s a prompt—”

“For what?” Parker asked.

“Not sure. But I think the numbers you see are Global Positioning Satellite coordinates.”

“Like the navigation system in my dad’s car?” Jayden asked.

Nora nodded. “Sort of.”

“GPS coordinates to where, Nora?” Parker.

Nora typed out a quick Internet search on her desk computer. “Well . . .” Nora sighed. “The coordinates correspond to Area 51 in Nevada.”

No way. Jayden’s jaw dropped, and Parker’s eyes went wide. The super-secret military base where people think aliens are stored in freezers?

“How’d you fix it?” Jayden asked. “I thought my dad’s tablet was destroyed.”

Nora grinned. “Don’t be an idiot. It wasn’t easy. I used a distributed Internet crack. Once I found the public key, I figured out the private one. Whoever they are, they’re using asymmetric encryption, nothing too intense. They must’ve figured I’d be a dirtball.”

Jayden tried to think of something intelligent to say. Nothing came to mind.

“Close your mouth, or you’ll catch insectos voladores,” she said to him.

Jayden eyed Parker, then shrugged.

“Insects,” Parker whispered to Jayden. “You’ll catch flying insects.”

Jayden returned his attention to Nora. “How do you know all this computer stuff?”

“Dad’s startup became her elementary school,” Parker whispered. “He hired an MIT Ph.D. student to home-school her on-site while everyone else worked on programming. Paid him a mint too.”

“I can hear you,” she said, exaggerating each word. “And Dad didn’t pay him a mint.”

Nora was not only smart, but she was also a magician. Somehow she always managed to turn the ground below Jayden’s feet to melting rubber.

“You know the numbers that were in your browser?” she asked.

Parker tapped on his cell phone and held it up. A picture of Jayden’s dad’s tablet was on the phone. He zoomed in on one line: “vlaic://385647n77932w.”

“These?” he asked.

“Those are the ones,” Nora said. “The numbers happen to be the GPS coordinates for Langley, Virginia.”

“Why’s that important?” Jayden asked Parker.

“CIA headquarters,” Parker replied before Nora could.

Jayden shook his head. In his world, the CIA stood for spies and blockbuster movies, not encrypted websites, GPS coordinates, and Area 51. It was like taking a skateboard to go surfing. It made no sense at all.

“See the letters?” Nora pointed at the screen. “‘vlaic’?”

Jayden nodded.

“Ring a bell?”

Jayden peered closer. “Nope.”

“It’s an acronym spelled out backwards,” she said. “You know, in reverse. VLAIC is really CIALV . . . for CIA Langley, Virginia.”

Dang, she’s good, Jayden thought.

“Once I figured out they’re using GPS coordinates, I used trial and error. It turned out the GPS coordinates for Cheyenne Mountain was the private key I needed to decrypt the encrypted data. The rest is history.”

“So what does it mean?” Jayden asked her.

“No idea,” she replied sharply.

Suddenly, the numbers changed and displayed a message:

 

36 06 23 112 06 23

>> Pick up 0321

 

“No way,” Nora said. “Updates. It looks like a pick up time to me. Maybe, three twenty-one a.m.? I’d guess it’s a way to communicate when and where.”

“Now all we need to figure out is the what,” Parker said.

The information changed again:

 

24 33 33 81 47 2

>> Pick up 0258

 

Parker leaned in for a closer look. “That’s insane. Someone is doing pick-ups and using an encrypted website to communicate?”

The display suddenly filled with fifty sets of GPS coordinates and the message changed. The hairs on the back of Jayden’s neck tingled as he studied the last four lines of the new information:

 

World Corp Code Red

Space Expeditionary Combat Command

Recruit Pickup

Next 5

0400

Password Required

>>

 

“World Corp?” Parker asked. “The gaming company?”

“Space Expeditionary Combat Command?” Jayden asked. “What does their game have to do with anything?”

“Still no clue,” Nora replied. “Looks like a password is needed for something.”

“Maybe World Corp is distributing a new game version to secret beta testers,” Parker said.

“Hey,” Jayden said. “I bet the CIA reference has something to do with their new game.” He watched Nora as she used one of her other computers to convert each of the new GPS coordinates to locations.

She read them out loud, “Big Bear Solar Observatory, Foothill Observatory, Griffith Observatory, Stony Ridge Observatory, Santa Cruz Observatory—”

“Santa Cruz Observatory?” Jayden asked. “That’s not far from here.”

Nora raised one eyebrow. “Santa Cruz Observatory at four a.m.”

“We have to get our hands on their new game,” Parker said.

“Tomorrow morning?” Jayden asked Nora.

“Looks like it,” Nora replied.

“You guys thinking what I’m thinking?” Parker asked them. “It’s only a two-hour bike ride. Ninety minutes up. Thirty minutes back.”

“Are you serious?” Jayden asked.

“Count me out,” Nora said, and twisted her face. “I’m not getting up at two-thirty in the morning to peddle up a mountain road. Besides, I have no clue what their password could be . . . No way, Newt.”

“Come on, sis, please?” Parker grumbled. “You’ll be able to figure it out faster than we can.” His voice climbed a notch. “I need my sister’s help.” He sounded pathetic, but it always worked when he begged.

Nora smirked. “No can do. I have a game algorithm to decrypt. I’ll be busy all night.”

“How about for another hundred?” Parker asked.

Jayden gazed at him with narrowed brows. Is he crazy? Probably, but Jayden figured getting a new World Corp game at a secret location in the middle of the night was seriously cool. It would be a major rush to be one of the first to play it.

Nora stopped laughing.

“How about three hundred?” Parker asked. He leaned toward her and rubbed his hands together, moving his head in the direction of one of the computer boxes. “You know you need more memory. And we need your help.”

Nora glanced over at her computers as though she were calculating how much it was going to cost to upgrade them. Twenty seconds had passed before she sighed. “I guess I’m in. Where you going to get that kind of cash?”

“Jayden’s dad’s good for it.” Parker winked at Jayden.

“Ah, geez.” Jayden groaned, but he wasn’t going to argue. A midnight bike ride with Nora was definitely worth the cash.

Game on!

 

 

Chapter 5

Jayden biked over to Parker’s house and glided his bike in front of their closed garage. He glanced at his watch and groaned. It read two fifteen a.m. A few seconds later, Parker and Nora walked their bicycles through the side gate.

“Let’s do this.” Nora hopped on her mountain bike, turned her bicycle light on, and took off down the driveway. Jayden and Parker followed behind her. Before long, they were peddling like mad up the curvy private road to the observatory. Lucky for them, no other vehicles or security patrol cars were on the two-lane mountain road.

When they finally arrived at the observatory ninety minutes later, Jayden was exhausted. But one faint whiff of jasmine gave him an instant second wind.

Nora led the way to an open spot behind a cluster of oak trees and tall bushes, overlooking the parking lot where they hopped off the bikes and dropped them to the ground.

Jayden peered around the large shrubs and focused on a group of about thirty teenage kids standing around an unmarked green school bus parked in front of the white dome observatory. He didn’t recognize anyone from his school in the parking lot.

Besides the bus and the group around it, the lot was empty. “Crazy place to distribute a new game,” Jayden said.

“Cold too,” Parker said, dancing in place with his teeth chattering.

“Come on.” Nora stood. “It’s ten minutes till four. It’s time for some recon. Let’s hoof it.”

“You go, we’ll wait,” Parker said.

Nora shot him a look. “You’re not serious.”

“Hey, we’re paying you, aren’t we?” Parker said, folding his arms and looking away from her.

Jayden was tempted to go with Nora, but even her jasmine perfume couldn’t get his feet to move. No way would he risk getting caught by the authorities. Who knew what they would do to teenage gamers who crashed the World Corp pre-release party? A lifetime game ban would be worse than death. “I’ll wait here too,” he mumbled under his breath.

“Whatever.” Nora huffed and shook her head. “Wimps.” She jogged around the bushes into the parking lot.

Jayden watched as she sauntered over to the group. No one on the blacktop seemed to suspect a thing. At first, Nora chatted with one small cluster of kids before moving on to another. A couple of boys gave her a long look and sucked in their guts, which caused Jayden to tighten both hands into fists. Nora gave them a glancing smile and moved on without offending them.

“She’s definitely smooth,” Jayden whispered to Parker.

“Nora has always been good at this kind of thing,” Parker said. “She says if you own it, people will buy anything. My sister is completely insane.”

“But evidentially, it’s true.” Jayden squinted. “You see any adults around the bus?”

“Nope. Just kids our age.”

Jayden pointed to a teenager sitting in the driver’s seat of the bus with the inside lights on, reading a newspaper. “He looks like he just got his drivers license.”

“Yep,” Parker said. “Seems like he’s waiting for something.”

They watched Nora talk with another boy standing outside near the front of the bus. He handed her a piece of paper. She scanned it once, and then slipped away from the kid when another girl walked up to talk with them.

The bus driver abruptly jumped out of his seat and jogged off the bus into the observatory building. Without missing a beat, Nora dashed into the bus. She searched around the driver’s seat and in the glove compartment.

The girl is fearless, Jayden thought. “Your sister is amazing,” he blurted out to Parker without thinking. “What’s she doing now?”

“No clue,” Parker said with a shrug.

A minute later, the driver quickly walked out of the building.

Nora saw the older kid coming towards the bus and dove to the floor.

Jayden made a face. “Oh man.” He thought for sure she was about to get caught.

Parker pointed to Nora and agreed with him. “Oh crap, she’s so busted.”

Before the driver reached the bus, the guy stopped and answered a call on his cell. Nora peeked over the seat and used the opportunity to scamper out the bus door. She ran around to the rear of the bus, and then crouched down so the driver couldn’t see her. As soon as the coast was clear, she hauled butt back to the two shivering boys.

“Wicked crazy. Wait until you see this,” Nora uttered between breaths. She tossed a document to Jayden. It was in a flimsy black cover and looked official. “I snatched it from under the driver’s seat.”

The first page read: “HIGHEST SENSITIVITY SECRET.”

Jayden glanced at the next three lines:

 

Zulu Echo Uniform Sierra

Space Expeditionary Combat Command

Squadron Group 717

 

“What is it?” Jayden asked her.

“No idea,” Nora replied. “But it looks important. Read the small print.”

Jayden peered closely at the bottom of the page.

 

Penalty for unauthorized disclosure of the contents of information contained herein is cause for immediate execution. SECC Code 12.31.1

 

“Are you kidding?” Parker asked.

“Immediate execution?” Jayden scoffed. “Oh right. It’s just a game.”

Nora handed a piece of paper to Jayden. “And I took this flyer from a girl.”

“Did anyone tell you the password?” Jayden asked.

“It’s the word: ‘Dione,’” Nora said. “You need it to get a ride on their pick-up bus.”

“Put that away, I think it’s almost time,” Parker said.

Nora snatched back the flier and stuffed it into her jeans pocket.

Jayden searched around, expecting either a car or truck to roar up the small private road and into the observatory parking lot at any minute. Instead, he heard only the sound of crickets and a slight breeze whistling through the oak trees.

The kids in the parking lot continued to mingle. They began to get restless and impatient until a faint noise buzzed overhead. Jayden glanced skyward and noticed a pinpoint of light getting bigger in the night sky. A faint vibration tickled his nose.

“Uh, guys.” Jayden pointed at the light. “Look.”

The white dot kept growing. After a few seconds, he realized the light was originating from the underside of a falling black object. Unbelievable, he thought as the giant object landed smoothly in the empty parking lot.

Two girls screamed and a boy shouted, “What is that thing?”

Jayden tried to make out details. The craft was the size of a small, two-story house, but with the shape of a massive helicopter without blades or a rotor. It reminded him of the alien UFOs he had seen in a few of World Corp’s older space games.

The parking lot’s lights buzzed and went dark. A bright white spotlight, brighter than daylight, flashed from the object and lit up the entire area near the bus where the kids were standing.

Parker’s teeth chattered louder. “Is that, ah . . . um, a real freaking UFO?”

“Quiet!” Nora snapped in a breathy tone.

Jayden heard a droning vibration that reminded him of a high voltage power line. “No way,” he said, studying the massive object. “It’s probably a fancy stealth promo helicopter.”

“Sssst,” Nora hissed, poking Jayden with two fingers as though her hand were a serpent. It hurt, but Jayden didn’t flinch.

Without any warning, a large door, the size of a small garage, opened on the vessel’s side. A short metallic ramp extended to the ground. Another spotlight from the craft flashed near the bushes.

Parker, Jayden, and Nora hit the ground and didn’t dare move until the light shifted away.

“I don’t think they saw us,” Parker whispered, his voice trembling.

They slowly rolled to their knees but stayed crouched. Jayden noticed no one in the parking lot had moved. Then, the weirdest thing happened. A small-framed, elderly African-American woman with curly salt and pepper hair sauntered out of the vessel’s open door. She wore a tight-fitting black body suit. Large, black-rimmed glasses almost overwhelmed her round face. Maybe she’s the one handing out game discs? Jayden thought.

The woman waved at the crowd in the parking lot, and then turned around and walked back inside the craft. Thirty-some-odd kids meandered up the ramp and entered the flying machine. Only the bus driver and his unmarked bus remained in the observatory’s parking lot. The driver continued reading his newspaper, totally unfazed by what was happening around him.

A moment later, the brightly lit parking lot abruptly went dark, and the flying craft shot up into the sky, faster than a rocket launch. The three of them fell back on their butts and stared up at the heavens.

Jayden was speechless. It was the fastest moving helicopter ever!

Then the vessel stopped and hovered one hundred feet above them.

For a moment, Jayden forgot to breathe until he gasped. He noticed Parker blinking as if he was sending a Morse code message. And as best as Jayden could tell, Nora’s tan had instantly turned the color of chalk.

A blast of unnatural warm wind hit him in the face. Four white lights below the craft flashed on, and then the craft shot to the right and disappeared.

The only things remaining in the parking lot were a bus driver, a bus, and harmonizing crickets.

“What just happened?” Jayden whispered, rubbing his eyes.

Neither Parker nor Nora answered.

Jayden peered from behind the bush and watched the driver study his watch. After a few seconds, the kid started up the empty bus and sped toward the parking lot exit.

“Stay down,” Nora said in a loud, wobbly burst of breath.

The bus lights flashed over their heads as the bus drove away.

Jayden managed to catch a closer glimpse of the driver as he passed. He seemed to be in a military uniform or maybe an ROTC uniform. The kid was clean-shaven with no hair showing under his black cap and wore a black jumpsuit uniform. Jayden noticed white letters on the driver’s cap: “SECC.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Parker stuttered.

“I vote for that,” Jayden said.

The three of them jumped on their bikes and coasted down the windy road back to Los Gatos. When they caught up to the bus, they made sure to stay far enough behind it so the driver wouldn’t notice them if he looked in his rear view mirror. After thirty minutes of high-speed gliding, they arrived at Parker’s house and regrouped in Nora’s room.

Jayden tried hard to sound calm. “Okay, what was that flying thing?”

Nora’s jaw tightened as she reached into her pocket and pulled out the flyer from the girl in the parking lot. She peered at it with narrowed eyes.

Parker finally spoke. “Let me see that paper, sis.”

Nora handed the paper to Parker. He read the print: “World Corp. Finish school abroad, all expenses paid. Earn college credit while learning to develop games. Exotic travel. Five hundred dollars per week salary.”

“No freaking way,” Jayden muttered. He turned to Parker. “It sounds just like that news report we saw at your house.”

Parker continued. “Hiring applicants aged thirteen to seventeen. World Corporation is active in every country in the world.”

“Easy to sign up,” Parker read. “Just fill in the online application and have a parent sign in the parental signature box. Watch for the green bus in your area. All pickup locations and times are in the appendix. Join us today.”

Nora shook her head. Her brow furrowed. “No, thanks.”

“So the kids that disappeared into that supersonic, bladeless helicopter were picked up by World Corp?” Jayden asked.

“Apparently,” Nora said.

“Let me see the other document,” Parker said to Nora. “The one you snatched from under the driver’s seat.”

Nora handed the other flimsy document to Parker. It looked to be about ten pages or so. He thumbed through it, stopping on the second page.

Parker and Nora gazed at the page over Jayden’s shoulder.

 

Welcome to Space Expeditionary Combat Command (SECC)

Classified Employee Briefing

 

This document has been created for new employees responsible for driving recruits to pick up areas. SECC headquarters has answered the most frequently asked questions below:

 

1. How have recruits been selected? After an application is received, selection is based on a number of criteria, including economic status, health, and age. Simply verify the password and the recruit’s name. Collect the signed permission form at the pickup site before allowing entry on the bus.

 

2. What age range are the recruits I will be picking up? 13 to 17 years old.

 

3. Why so young? Earth teenagers are best able to adapt to the physical and mental demands of space training.

 

Jayden jerked his head up. “Space training? What the heck? This must be the most advanced role-playing game in history!”

Nora shushed him, and they continued reading the paper in silence.

 

1. What is SECC? SECC is a special division of the US Navy established by the CIA to recruit and deploy an international combat force into space to fight the ongoing war against the alien invaders known as the Atilla.

 

2. Is World Corporation a real organization? No. It is Space Command’s cover story.

 

3. What if I decide to quit Space Command? You will be executed, and your family will be taken to Guantanamo, Cuba. Furthermore, in order to maintain secrecy, those who are reassigned off-world will never return to Earth.

 

“This paper makes the game sound real,” Jayden said. “Space Expeditionary Combat Command . . . SECC? For real?”

Nora shrugged.

“Pages are missing,” Parker said, thumbing through the paper.

Jayden noticed jagged scraps of torn-out pages, and ran his fingers over them.

“The rest of the pages in the back look like a bus schedule,” Parker said. “Wait. There are some loose folded pages here.” He took one page out and inspected it.

Jayden leaned in to get a better look. “Blank permission forms?” The page appeared similar to a Brooke Middle School field trip permission form with official-looking small print, a signature line for a name and another for a parent’s signature. “This must be the slip you need to get picked up by the bus.”

Parker put the blank form back with the others, and then browsed the second page again.

The three of them sat for a few minutes in the silence, trying to digest the official-looking document.

Jayden swallowed hard and was the first to speak up. “Is it real? A space war?”

Parker huffed and started to pace. “It has to be some kind of stupid joke—”

Nora interrupted him and raised her voice. “Or maybe a way to hype their ridiculous new game. Make it seem super realistic, so it goes viral. I bet the new game is already trending.”

“I’d think it was a video trick if I saw it online,” Jayden said. “But that flying thing really took off with no blades. All I heard was a slight buzzing sound.”

“Snap,” Nora added, sounding less confident. “Those kids just disappeared inside the thing.”

Jayden shook his head. “Do you think World Corp is actually picking up the kids to fight in a real secret space war?”

“That’s what the paper implies,” Parker said.

“Ridiculous.” Nora shook her head. “Not possible. It has to be related to hyping their new game.”

Jayden thought everything they’d read had sounded nuts. “Now what?” he asked Nora.

“Now you pay me,” she replied, and then grabbed the official-looking document and threw it at Jayden’s face. “I could care less about idiot kids and some stupid, make-believe video game war. It’s obviously just a corporate marketing ploy. I expect payment in full tomorrow.” She grinned and sat in front of her computer display.

Jayden figured she was imagining computer upgrades or new parts. From the expression on her face, it seemed to him as though she’d already put the UFO, the disappearing kids, and the so-called space war out of her mind.

Nora continued. “Got it, Surfer Boy and Pop Star? I’m shopping for computer hardware this weekend.”

“Jayden’s dad is good for it,” Parker said for the third time. He refused to look at Jayden when he said it.

“Good,” she said. “You’ll get the tablet back when I get my money. Now get out! I have a hacker’s avatar to turn into a slug.”

Jayden’s eyes went wide as he followed Parker out of Nora’s room.

In the hallway, Jayden glared at Parker. “Where am I going to get that kind of cash?” He was ready to punch Parker’s lights out.

Parker didn’t answer as he walked Jayden out the front door.

Jayden shook his head. The sun was just starting to rise. He was way too tired to think straight. “I’m going home to sleep.”

“I’ll come over this afternoon,” Parker said, patting him on the back as if it would comfort him. “We’ll figure out the cashola situation.”

Jayden pulled his shoulder away. “Right. I’ll just visit an ATM,” he said, rolling his eyes. “They always have cash, right?”

“Maybe your dad can give us an intern advance?”

Jayden shrugged and scrunched up his face. The thought of asking his dad for money wasn’t pleasant. His father would ask a million questions. The last thing Jayden wanted to do was start lying to him. But he needed the mini-tablet back.

Jayden groaned as he turned to leave. “My dad is flying with my mom to Austin for a meeting at 10 a.m. this morning. So it’ll be just me and Rosa for the next few days.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “No way Rosa will lend that kind of cash to me.”

“Chill, dude. We’ll figure it out,” Parker said. “Now go get some rest.” He patted Jayden on the back again.

This time Jayden didn’t object. “Yes, Mom,” he said.

Parker forced a smile.

“I hope you’re right,” Jayden added as he sauntered down the driveway and turned towards home.

Besides the money problem, there was another thought that just wouldn’t go away. The paper they’d read had said: “Penalty for unauthorized disclosure is immediate execution.”

Surely that meant avatar execution, he thought. Or had the three of them discovered something they couldn’t even begin to comprehend?

Chapter 6

Jayden paddled effortlessly on a surfboard towards a perfect tropical wave fifty feet away. He glanced back over his shoulder and flexed. Nora blew him a kiss from a white sand beach with his dad’s red tablet in her hands.

A loud thump, then another, caused Jayden’s eyes to snap open, his surfing dream popping like a firecracker. He gazed around as his bedroom came into focus. His digital clock on his nightstand glowed three forty-two p.m. More thumping. The window rattled.

“Okay, okay! I’m coming!” Jayden stumbled out of bed and toward the noise, then pushed aside the blinds.

Parker pounded on the glass like a madman. He glanced back over one shoulder, then the other.

Jayden could tell by Parker’s puffy eyes that he’d been crying. His stomach sank. It was the first time he’d seen Parker cry. “What?” Jayden pushed up the window. “What’s wrong?”

“They took her!” Parker screamed as he climbed through the window. “They took my mom and dad too.” His eyes were moist and bloodshot. “I think they’re coming here next!”

Jayden stepped back and steadied himself. “What are you talking about?”

“Nora—they pulled us out of our bedrooms, and then they took her and forced my mom and dad to go with them.”

Jayden forced his eyes closed, and then opened them. He wasn’t dreaming. “Who did?”

“Guys in black masks with automatic rifles, that’s who! SECC printed on black shirts.” Parker was talking fast, his voice getting higher and higher with each word. He struggled to catch his breath as he paced in a circle, his fists clenching and unclenching. “These guys weren’t avatars, Jayden! It wasn’t a game. They raided my house with real assault rifles!”

“Slow down!” Jayden said, grabbing Parker’s arm. “Start over.”

Parker took a deep breath. “They said Nora was going away, and she’d be gone a long time. They yelled at my parents. The men told us it’d be better for Nora if we didn’t say a word to anyone. One man quoted the Patriot Act and a presidential directive to capture and detain terrorists. He claimed Nora was a terrorist. Oh my God! My sister?” Parker sucked in a short breath, then another. “Something about an SECC code. . . .”

“SECC code?” Jayden repeated. He snatched the flimsily covered document from his desk, and rapidly flipped through the pages.

 

Space Expeditionary Combat Command.

 

SECC must be an acronym, Jayden thought. But it’s a game! It had to be a game. He decided Parker must be seriously confused.

“Nora screamed,” Parker said, just above a whisper. “She told me to run, but a masked guy grabbed me.” His voice shook as he added, “He yelled, asking if I knew a gamer named Killgeek . . . They’re looking for you, Jayden!”

“What?” Jayden rubbed his face, trying to understand Parker. “Me? Why me?”

Parker shrugged, shaking his head.

Jayden’s stare fixated on his best friend. “How’d you get away?”

“The guy questioning me walked away to answer his cell.” Parker’s voice wavered. “I bolted.”

“Okay, okay, let’s think about this.” Jayden sat down on his bed and inspected the typed pages. “SECC Code 12.31.1.”

The phrase below the numbers caught Jayden’s eyes. “Immediate execution,” he muttered. World Corp had gone way too far promoting their new game, he thought. Jayden refused to believe it was anything other than a game. It made no sense. Who would take Nora and Parker’s parents?

Parker looked around, his eyes wide. “We need to get out of here!”

“Shhh, lower your voice. You’ll freak out Rosa . . . What else did they tell you?”

Parker continued rambling a hundred miles an hour.

Jayden only understood every third word. He seized Parker’s arm and shook it. “Slow down!” he said through his teeth, forcing his voice to stay calm.

“Okay, okay.” Parker drew in a quick breath. “Another guy in a black mask asked my dad questions about hacking a top-secret website. A dude with a deep voice told us if we didn’t go with them peacefully to be debriefed, they’d toss us in a dark cell at Guantanamo until we turned ninety years old.”

Nora’s hide-the-babe bot didn’t work, Jayden thought. Someone must have tracked the babe. He knew he needed to do something, but at that moment, his brain had frozen.

“After I slipped away, I hid beside the garage and watched them throw my family into the back of a black van. Mom was screaming. It was chaos. I didn’t know what to do. One masked guy told my dad and mom that if they cooperated, the two of them could return home tonight. But Nora was going someplace else. She wouldn’t be coming back, not for a long time, no matter what.” Parker sobbed. “What is happening?”

“Easy man,” Jayden said, trying to sound calm. “Take a breath and give me a second.” He didn’t have a clue what was going on, but these guys apparently knew about Nora’s hacking.

“What’d they say about me again?” Jayden asked.

“The masked guy said they were looking for a second terrorist hacker that went by the name Killgeek. They claimed to have narrowed the cable company’s IP address to our block. They’re going to check every house.”

“What did you tell him?”

Parker dropped his head. He looked up with red-rimmed eyes. “I’m sorry, Jayden. I couldn’t help it.”

“What do you mean?” Jayden asked.

“I told them your real name.” Parker covered his face with both hands. “They’ll be coming here soon.”

“Seriously, Parker?” Jayden groaned. “Are you kidding?”

“I thought they were going to kill me!” Parker whispered, his shoulders quaking.

“Did you give them my address?” Jayden asked.

“No, I took off. But they’ll figure it out once they ask around,” Parker said, making the most pathetic face Jayden had ever seen. Parker trembled as if the temperature in Jayden’s room had dropped below zero. “What do we do?”

Jayden inspected the pamphlet again. “They mentioned an SECC code. This paper does too.”

It still made no sense to him. SECC was an online game. It wasn’t supposed to be real. He scanned the schedule at the back of the document, showing times and locations.

Jayden continued. “You said the guy told you Nora was going away for a long time. Maybe they’re taking her to the place they took the observatory kids. I bet it’s all part of the new game marketing hype. Get the web buzzing, you know?”

“Yeah, and get parents suing them!” Parker took a deep breath and stood straighter.

Jayden went silent for a moment. It’d be a risky PR strategy for World Corp, he thought, and wondered if any company would do such a thing. They had to realize they’d get sued.

“Do you think Nora is in their weird helicopter?” Parker asked, his eyes bulging. “We need to get her back, Jayden!”

Rox barked from outside Jayden’s bedroom door.

“Parker, keep your voice down. You’re getting Rox all riled up,” Jayden said, and then glanced at the paper again.

“Rox? Seriously?” Parker bit his lip. “We have to do something quick.”

“We?” Jayden asked. “Rosa will talk to them when they show up. I’ll deny everything.”

“What are you saying?” Parker asked, his eyes full of tears. “Jayden?”

A long, awkward moment passed. Jayden inspected the paper again. That’s when he smelled jasmine. His stomach sank. Parker was his best friend. He knew he needed to do something. But it wasn’t because of Nora’s stupid perfume. It was the expression on his best friend’s face. It had shocked him to the core. Parker was in big trouble thanks to the stupid tablet.

Jayden felt a pang of guilt. He never should’ve used his dad’s one-of-a-kind, tricked-out tablet to get a game advantage. He lowered his voice. “Did they take the tablet?”

Parker nodded.

Jayden felt his stomach spin, and bile lodged in his throat. “Okay, okay. Let’s figure this out. We have rights, you know? They can’t just invade your house without a warrant and haul people away. If it is some crazy marketing scheme for a new game, our parents will call the real cops, right?”

Parker wiped his nose, looked around for tissue, but couldn’t find one. He wiped his hand on his pants. “So what do we do, Killgeek? What’s the plan?”

Jayden sighed. It was clear to him they weren’t playing an online game. The stakes were much too high. But Jayden wasn’t about to let World Corp keep his dad’s tablet or mess with his best friend’s sister. “We go find Nora.”

Parker’s eyes instantly lit up and shined brighter. He wiped his nose again. “You’d do that for me?”

“They’ll be sorry they messed with our clan.” Jayden opened and closed his fists. “Jerks.”

“Thanks,” Parker said, trembling as he gave Jayden a hug.

Jayden shoved him. “Get it together, dude. Tell me what they told you about your parents again?”

“The guy said my mom and dad would be home tonight if they cooperated,” Parker replied.

“Good,” Jayden said. “So Nora is the only one being sent away?”

He nodded. “That’s what the guy told us. How are we gonna get her back?”

Jayden held up one hand. He thought of the prompt on Nora’s computer screen. “Remember the info after the GPS coordinates? It read, ‘Recruit Pickup. Next Five.’”

“Yeah.” Parker frowned. “So?”

Jayden shot him a grin then continued. “What if it meant the pickups would continue for the next five nights or five mornings? You know what I mean? Five more pickups of kids at four a.m., just like the last one.”

“You mean we go back to Santa Cruz Observatory and try to get on their flying machine?” Parker asked, incredulously.

“Exactly.” Jayden nodded. “Got any better ideas?”

Parker put his hands on his hips. “Are you insane?”

“Probably,” Jayden replied. “But look, we don’t have a clue where they took her. It will at least get us to the place where they’re taking kids. I bet that’s where we’ll find her.”

“What about your dad?” Parker asked. “Do you think he’d help?”

Jayden eyed him, then said, “How? Make a call and have the guys in black masks pick him up too? Besides, he’s traveling with my mom.” He paused, thinking hard. “Nope, let’s sneak into their crazy flying machine. I bet it’s just some rocket engine stealth helicopter. Besides, no way they’ll be expecting two stowaways trying to rescue a girl they kidnapped.”

Parker rubbed his eyes. “Maybe.”

“Like your sister said, remember? If we own it, people will buy it. They’ll never suspect a thing. If we get lucky, they’ll take us where they took her.”

Jayden had no clue what they’d do after that, but he’d come up with a plan later. It was time to change the rules to whatever game World Corp was playing.

“Are we going to bike up to the observatory?” Parker asked.

“No. We’d be more legit if we took the bus with everyone else.” Jayden flipped through the documents in the flimsy black cover again, browsing the pages of street addresses, cross streets, dates, and times. “I bet these are bus stops and pickup times. It looks like there’s a stop at Vasona Park on University Avenue in an hour. That’s not far from here.”

Jayden remembered the permission forms in the back of the flimsy document and pulled out two. “Grab the pen on my desk. Let’s write in our information and scribble our parents’ signatures.”

They quickly filled out the forms and tucked them away in their back pockets.

Jayden never thought to change out of the hoody and jeans he had worn from the day before. “Let’s go,” he said, as he ran his fingers through his hair, grabbed his backpack, and stuffed the flimsy document into it. “It’s payback time.”

 

Chapter 7

Jayden and Parker carefully navigated side streets lined with tall trees and overgrown bushes until they reached the pick-up bus stop on the outskirts of Vasona Park. They sat down on the cold concrete bench and waited.

Before long, a muddy, plain green bus identical to the one they saw at the Santa Cruz Observatory cruised by them without stopping.

Jayden grumbled under his breath. There goes the plan, he thought.

Just as he was about to admit defeat, a second bus hit its brakes and coasted to a stop alongside the bench. This bus was larger than a yellow school bus but smaller than a city bus. In fact, Jayden realized it was the same exact bus from the observatory.

The driver opened the door.

Jayden glanced at Parker out of the corner of his eye. The same driver, he thought.

Apparently, Parker noticed the driver too. He gave Jayden a nod.

“You two here for the SECC pick up?” the older kid asked from the driver’s seat. He took off his cap and scratched his shaved head.

They both nodded.

“Strange.” The driver grabbed a clipboard and flipped a page. “I don’t show any pick-ups scheduled for this stop until later.” He tossed the clipboard on his dashboard. “Good thing I noticed you on my route . . . Password?”

Jayden felt his stomach sink. It was a terrible time to draw a blank.

Parker pushed Jayden aside. “Dione,” he blurted out.

The driver smirked. “Good. Get in.”

Parker climbed up the metal steps with Jayden on his heels.

The driver held out his hand. “Signed approval forms.”

Parker reached into his back pocket, pulled out his form, and handed it to the guy. He elbowed Jayden.

Jayden was happy to see the determination in Parker’s eyes, instead of the uncertainty that had filled them only moments before. He straightened and retrieved the form from his back pocket, then handed it to the kid.

The driver’s eyes narrowed as he studied the pages. “Parker Jameson and Jayden Banks.” After a long pause, the driver relaxed his shoulders. “First two of the day.” He pointed to the back of the bus. “You guys sit in the last row. We fill up from back to front. Box dinners and bottled water are on the seats. Bathroom is in the far back. Get comfortable. I’ll be making pickups for the next ten hours.”

Jayden swallowed hard. Ten hours?

“Thanks,” Parker said before Jayden could object. The driver shut the door and put the bus into gear as they staggered down the aisle to seats in the rear.

Parker picked up the boxed dinners and handed one to Jayden as they both settled in for the long ride.

Inside the box wasn’t much of a dinner in Jayden’s opinion. Just a single ham slice between two stale pieces of white bread with a mustard packet, a bag of mostly air and a couple potato chips, and a dill pickle. He gulped down the water and finished off the sandwich in three bites.

“He has got be kidding with the ten hours stuff,” Parker whispered.

“The dude must have just learned how to drive,” Jayden said.

It soon became apparent to Jayden that the driver wasn’t exaggerating. The bus slowly drove around town picking up kids one or two at a time, sometimes in groups of three. He watched as each new arrival walked down the aisle as if the floor had been covered in tacks.

“Take the first available seat in the back,” the bus driver repeated each time he picked up a new kid.

Most everyone was about Jayden’s age, but some older kids got on the bus too. Jayden thought they all looked like kids that went to Brooke Middle School or Zillow Oak High, except for one older kid with long, black, greasy hair and puffy, close-set eyes.

The greasy-haired kid seemed like a typical tough guy who’d been held back a couple years. He wore a black leather jacket to match his attitude. Jayden avoided eye contact.

No one in the bus said a word as they drove around the Valley. A couple of kids seemed to know each other, but most didn’t.

During one stop about an hour into the trip, Jayden noticed a girl with a pixie haircut get on the bus. She was cute, but not like Nora. Her vacant watery eyes summed up the overall mood inside the bus.

The bus slowed to a crawl in bumper-to-bumper Bay Area traffic, and Parker’s head lolled onto Jayden’s shoulder. After a couple hours picking up more kids, Jayden grew drowsy too. The chaos of the past couple days had caught up with him fast and furious. Before long, he was dreaming again that he was sitting on a surfboard, floating on crystal blue water near a white beach. He felt a warm breeze as he desperately searched the beach for Nora. But the beach was empty.

Nora was lost, he thought, and worse, so was the tablet.

Chapter 8

The day had ended and the pitch-black night had taken charge. The bus was chilly when Jayden awoke.

“How long?” Jayden asked Parker, fighting off a yawn.

“You’ve been sleeping for hours. We drove all over the Valley . . . twice,” Parker said.

Jayden stared at him. He couldn’t imagine how he’d feel if guys with guns took away his family. His friend’s eyes were bloodshot.

“You didn’t miss anything, just insane traffic. The pick-ups took forever. It’s a good thing there’s a toilet in the back.” Parker rolled his neck back and forth trying to crack it. “Anyway, we’re almost to the parking lot.”

“You mean—?”

“Yep.” Parker nodded, pointing out the window. Santa Cruz Observatory glowed from the top of a mountain a few miles away.

As the bus groaned up the steep hill and around sharp curves to the familiar observatory parking lot, Jayden rushed to take his turn in the bathroom. It was seriously bad timing. Just as he returned to his seat, the bus arrived at its destination and stopped near a group of a dozen teenage kids standing next to another bus.

“Everyone out!” the driver shouted. “Wait with the others.” He pointed to the group in the parking lot. “Over there. Don’t wander around, or you’ll end up flat as a pancake. I’m seriously not joking.” The guy grabbed a newspaper from under his seat and opened it. “Move it!” he added, as he glanced up into the mirror above the windshield.

Jayden thought about asking the driver a question or two, but decided against it as they followed the others off the bus. He’d have to wait until they were aboard the crazy looking helicopter to formulate a plan. He noticed that the mix of middle- and high-school kids came from just about every clique imaginable: there were the jocks, some geeks, a few cheerleaders, and a couple tough guys. And, of course, there were the ones who didn’t seem to fit into any group at all like the pixie-haired girl.

Jayden glanced around again, questioning their crazy idea until Parker turned to him and gave a small fist pump. No turning back now. He’d always covered Parker’s back, and vice versa. They were clan mates. This situation was no different. Their mission was clear: Find Nora. Find the tablet. Make it back home in one piece.

Parker took in a loud breath, wiped his face, and threw back his shoulders. “Let’s mingle. Follow me.” He strode right into the middle of the gathered teens with Jayden on his heels.

“Hey,” Jayden said, nodding to the greasy-haired, leather-jacket kid from the bus.

“Colder than hell tonight,” the kid replied.

Jayden noticed a silver chain dangled from a pocket of the teen’s jacket. His jeans had a sort of dirty, haven’t washed them look, rather than a trendy designer look. The guy’s small head and close-set eyes didn’t match his broad shouldered, six-foot-tall frame. He looked a little on the goofy side to Jayden, but the kid could probably kick his butt.

“Well, actually,” Parker said, “most people think hell is hot—”

Jayden kicked Parker in the shin and cleared his throat. “Totally agree, dude. The name is Jayden. He’s Parker. Truth man. It’s colder than hell.”

“People call me Creep,” he said in a deep, raspy voice. His eyes shifted around as if he were watching for the police. “You got a smoke?”

They looked at each other and shook their heads. “Sorry,” said Jayden.

“Man. I’m in serious need. You feel me?” He flexed one bicep and pointed at it. “The patch is wearing off. My guns need more ammo.”

Parker smirked and was about to make a comment, but Jayden grabbed his arm. “So, dude. Your name is really, um, Creep?” Jayden asked.

Creep glared, and his thin lips tightened and disappeared.

“Um, nice to meet you, Creep,” Parker said.

Creep didn’t appear to be interested in talking to them anymore. That was fine with Jayden since the kid’s name actually fit his look. The kid wandered off, presumably to continue his hunt for a smoke.

“Hey, check her out,” Parker said, pointing at a pretty girl, barely five feet tall, with thinly plucked eyebrows, a small nose, and amber eyes.

Jayden realized she was the girl from the bus who’d looked as though she’d been crying all night. The one with the pixie haircut.

“Would you chill?” Jayden said. “Stop flirting, Pop Star, and get serious.”

“Shut up, Surfer Boy,” Parker jested. “I just meant she might be able to help us.”

“Because she’s cute? Whatever.” Jayden shook his head as they approached the girl.

“You okay?” Parker asked her.

She sniffled and shrugged. “I guess.”

“I’m Parker, and this is my friend, Jayden.”

“I’m Cleo,” she said.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Parker asked.

“Guess some place for training and working. My mom said I’d be like a foreign exchange student or a Peace Corps worker,” she said. “Learning in a place totally international, like Canada or Mexico.”

“What’d they tell you when you signed up?” Parker asked.

“Nothing more than what’s on their flyer.” Cleo pulled out a rumpled recruiting paper.

They had seen it before.

“At least my family will be taken care of,” she continued. “My mom really needs the five hundred dollars per week.”

“Where you from?” Jayden asked her.

“We have a small apartment on the east side of San Jose. My parents have been out of work for a while now.” She shook her head. “I want to help them, that’s all.”

“How’d you get recruited?” Parker asked.

“Guys dressed in black knocked on all the doors in our neighborhood and handed out the flyers. Most of the people living around us are out of work.”

“Was there writing on their hats?” Jayden asked.

“I think so,” Cleo replied softly. “Something starting with S, I think. I’m not sure, really.”

Parker softened his voice. “So you joined?”

“We were getting kicked out of our place anyway. No way I want to be homeless during freshman year at Eastside High, so yeah, I volunteered. They told me the money I earned would go to my parents. I’ll be able to finish school when I get on-site.” Cleo pointed to another group of recruits. “There are lots of kids here from my neighborhood.”

“Your parents were okay with you leaving?” Parker asked, shooting Jayden a wide-eyed stare.

Jayden ignored him.

Tears filled her eyes. “Not really. But with no jobs . . .” She looked down, her voice fading for a moment. “My mom signed their form, and the next thing I knew . . .” She pointed at the bus. “He picked me up. This all happened in the last twenty-four hours. I didn’t even have a chance to say good-bye to my friends. But you know, life will be better for my mom, right?”

“Look. You really need to get out of here,” Parker said.

“What?” Cleo, muttered, shock written all over her face.

“He’s right,” Jayden said. “None of this feels right. We think something else might be going on.”

Cleo shook her head again. “Thanks for your concern, guys, but I don’t have a choice.”

Jayden and Parker peered at each other, then at the group. World Corp was setting their sights on families with financial problems. But Jayden thought Cleo was probably right. She really didn’t have much of a choice.

“Stick with us,” Parker said. “We’re forming a clan.”

We are? Jayden thought.

“A what?” Cleo asked.

Parker took a fighting stance. “Ever played an online shooter game?”

What is he doing? Jayden wondered, shaking his head.

“A shooter game?” Cleo asked.

“Yeah, multiple players, on-line shooter.” Parker paused. “Well, never mind. Just stick with us. We figure there’s safety in numbers.”

Jayden noticed that a distant light in the sky appeared as suddenly as it had the night before. Even the slight breeze returned. “It’s time,” he whispered.

Parker moved closer to Cleo and gazed upward. “Get ready, Cleo. They’ll be here in a minute.”

“Who will?” she asked.

“We’ll all see soon enough,” Parker said. “Just stay close.”

The three of them huddled together and watched the small pinpoint of light grow.

Jayden squinted as the dark, house-sized helicopter from the previous night came into view. The craft landed in the identical place as before. The door opened, and he watched the same small-framed, elderly, African-America lady with the large, black-rimmed glasses step outside. She gestured for the crowd of teens to follow her into the ship.

“Who’s that?” Cleo asked.

“Come on,” Jayden said as he started towards the ramp.

Parker and Cleo joined him and strolled with the crowd up a metal ramp and through the door of the giant, bladeless craft.

Jayden jumped when the heavy door closed in a blast of air once everyone was aboard, sending a windy echo through the large, circular room.

An instant later, the older lady disappeared in a flash of white light.

Jayden scanned the circular room that looked twice as large as his garage back home. Metallic spiral stairwells reached up to a second level metal walkway. On the second floor, he noticed colorful blinking lights, displays with changing red digits, and projections of sensor gauges and fluctuating numbers. Hundreds of holograms beamed from panels surrounding the second level that reminded him of pop-up windows from a World Corp game.

They were in! Step one—accomplished, Jayden thought. He was about to give Parker a fist bump, but noticed his best friend had the same wide-eyed and confused expression as the other hundred teens from the observatory’s parking lot. “Look for Nora,” he whispered to Parker.

Parker nodded and searched the crowd while Jayden did the same.

Suddenly, the lights went out, and a few of the other recruits screamed. Jayden felt Cleo grab his arm when a flickering image, resembling a funhouse mirror, appeared over their heads. He watched as the image stretched into a ribbon that shifted and moved like a strip of a Mylar balloon in a light breeze.

When Jayden peered again at the second level, he made out other shifting shapes. Each one sort of resembled a person, but he couldn’t focus on any of their faces. His eyes went wide when the image overhead morphed into a slim man well over six feet tall.

The man wore a tight black jumpsuit like the bus driver, but Jayden thought this guy looked seriously scary. His smooth bald head, boney jaw, and tiny nose appeared to stretch long, then contract.

The mysterious guy flickered and buzzed on a floating platform above them.

Jayden’s stomach sank as he peered at the man’s eyes. Amber reptilian pupils with unnatural vertical slits shimmered gold. He was willing to bet the dude on the platform was no human being at all.

An avatar hologram? Jayden wondered. Maybe the creature was part of World Corp’s elaborate marketing hype for the new game. He watched in amazement as the hologram creature floated above the crowd. Now and then, the image buzzed and flickered, confirming that it was a high-tech projection.

“Welcome!” the large hologram thundered. The floating dude’s lips puffed on a stick the size of a long carrot as though it were a cigar. Several of the recruits around Jayden and Parker pointed at the hovering hologram and began shouting questions: “Who are you? What is this place? Where are we going?”

“Silence!” the hologram roared.

Jayden froze, as did Parker. The perimeter of the circular room lit up and more long, flickering holograms fluttered around the room. Jayden could tell they were shifting images of creatures, but he couldn’t make out their details. He was seriously impressed. World Corp’s new 3-D tech was amazingly immersive.

The whispers around the room turned to shouts, and a couple of kids laughed. Jayden noticed one of them was Creep. “Laughing is seriously a bad idea,” he muttered.

“I said ‘silence!’” This time, the hologram’s booming voice made Jayden’s ears ring, vibrating through his entire body.

The room went silent, but Creep continued to snicker. “Screw you!” the kid shouted.

The creature overhead ignored the hecklers. “My name is Nuk’ana. I am ruler of the Space Expeditionary Combat Command, known to us as Space Command. You will call me Leader from this point forward.”

Jayden tapped Parker. “Nuk’ana? Stupid name.” He shook his head. “Pretty cool tech though.”

Parker made a jerky nod and continued searching the room. “Feels like we’re really inside a game.”

Jayden watched carefully as Nuk’ana paused and relit his smoking stick. The creature puffed on it as though he were a locomotive, then cleared his throat with a gurgle. “If you fail to obey the—”

“This is all a big World Corp trick,” Creep said. “Someone’s playing a lame joke on us. Way lame.” He raised his voice. “I need a smoke. Yo, Leader, can you pass me whatever you’re smoking?”

“Shut up,” Cleo murmured. “Do you want to get us all killed?”

Creep smirked at Cleo. “Oh, please. This corporate Muppet doesn’t scare me.” Creep yelled louder. “Eat this!” He waved his middle finger at the hovering creature. “Yo, pasty-face, down here!”

What an idiot, Jayden thought.

Suddenly, a flash of bright white light hit Creep full-on with an ear-piercing pop. The unruly kid vaporized into a black dust cloud about a foot away from Jayden.

Jayden nearly fell over. He grabbed his ears when Cleo screamed bloody murder and noticed Parker had gone white as a sheet. A disgusting smell hung in the air. It reminded Jayden of Fourth of July fireworks with a touch of barbecue.

He felt queasy and he saw Parker gag. At least half of the teens around the room started crying. One even threw up. Game promotion? No way.

When Jayden removed his hands from his ears, he heard a deep, clicking purr and a hiss coming from Nuk’ana. The creature’s distinct jawline stretched and extended as if it was made from rubber. “Silence!” Nuk’ana screamed with extra bass.

The entire room went silent.

“Good,” Nuk’ana said, and then took a long drag from his smoking stick.

Jayden struggled to get enough air as he watched Nuk’ana’s jawline transform into something alien then back to a natural, human-like shape.

Nuk’ana grinned. “I have your attention now, yes?” Nuk’ana raised his voice and twisted his face, making his golden eyes shimmer like a snake about to strike. “Fail to obey my rules, or to listen when I speak, and you’ll become well acquainted with the vacuum of space or vaporized like your disrespectful friend, Johnny McFeay, aptly known as Creep.”

Jayden rubbed his face. “Space?” he wondered.

Nuk’ana cracked his jaw without moving his head, then continued. “Poor Creep. He won’t be missed. Now, I shall begin once more, yes?” A gurgling sound escaped the creature’s throat.

Leader’s voice changed. This time it was full of excitement as if Jayden was listening to a science fiction infomercial. “Welcome, Space Fighters! I am pleased to tell you that your international assignment was . . .” The creature paused, lowering its voice, its words drawn out. “All . . . a . . . lie. You are now traveling in space, deep into your solar system.”

Whispers spread through the crowd like wildfire.

Cleo leaned over to Jayden. “What’s going on? I mean, we’re not really in space, are we?”

“Silence!” Nuk’ana sucked harder on his smoking stick and exhaled a cloud of smoke. A hiss followed every few words. “You are our newest group of Earthling space fighter recruits. Today is the first day of your new life. From this point forward, you will be told what to do, what to say, and where to go. You will be told when to eat and sleep. If any of you disagree, you shall meet the same fate as your late friend, Creep, yes? If you didn’t know him, it doesn’t matter now, does it?” Nuk’ana’s laugh sounded hideous with deep vibrato, originating from his core.

This is so not good, Jayden thought. He refocused on their mission and shifted into planning mode. Find Nora. Find the tablet. He repeated this over and over to himself.

Nuk’ana’s laughing faded with a snort. Muffled cries came from two husky boys next to Jayden. Both of them looked like they could easily kick Jayden and Parker’s butts, but they were crying like kindergartners.

The smell of BBQ lingered in Jayden’s nose. For a second he thought it smelled of hickory, just like the popular BBQ rib place in downtown Los Gatos. Then he remembered it was Creep and nearly puked again. No doubt they needed to work out an escape plan, but first they had to find Nora.

“If you little Earthlings haven’t noticed, we are on a spacecraft. Our allies, known as the Ga3si, donated this technology to our cause.”

Jayden tried to absorb the bizarre facts that Nuk’ana was spewing.

“They go by the name, Ga.” Nuk’ana took a long, deep inhale from his smoking stick. Smoke exited from slits below the creature’s chin.

Well, that’s a cool party trick.

“The Ga provide us with technology to travel the vast distances between the stars,” Nuk’ana continued. “Their tech is . . . out of this world.”

Nuk’ana laughed and opened his arms wide. “The place where you stand, you feel no movement, yes? Again, Ga technology. But know this for certain: we are indeed flying.”

Jayden didn’t get what was so funny. He nudged Parker.

Parker’s lips tightened, and he frowned. He waved off Jayden and continued searching the room.

“We call the craft you are on a UFO, mostly because you Earth children call them UFOs when you see one flying in your sky. On this craft, you’re in an atmospheric gravity bubble, isolated and stabilized. The bubble is configured to simulate Earth’s gravity and oxygen levels.”

Nuk’ana paused for a long moment and leaned down as if his hologram was talking with someone that they couldn’t see. He stood straight and cleared his throat. “We will be at the space base on Saturn’s moon, Dione, in ten minutes.”

Dione? Like the password? He took stock. One, they were in space. Two, they were nearly to Saturn, as in planet Saturn!

“That’s right,” Nuk’ana said. “We’re already orbiting Saturn. Fast, huh?”

Everyone in the room seemed to be holding their breath.

“Now you’re starting to understand,” Nuk’ana said.

A white light lit up a nearby wall, where at least two hundred phones, tablets, and laptops rose from the floor. The mobile devices had been stacked high near two open doors spaced about ten feet apart.

Jayden’s eyes went wide. He searched for his dad’s tablet in the pile.

Nuk’ana pointed. “Stack your mobile devices along the wall. They won’t work where you’re going. Girls proceed through the left exit door, and boys take the right.” The creature’s voice lowered. “You will be given what you know as earplugs. Push them into your fleshy ears. They are universal translators with a few million languages configured to help your tiny baby brains.”

Leader sucked on his smoking stick and blew out puffs, waiting for his recruits to move.

No one did, including Jayden.

“Move, Earth children!” he thundered, forcing smoke out of his tiny nose and chin slits.

Cleo took off toward the left exit door. Jayden and Parker caught up with her.

Jayden stepped in close and whispered, “If you meet a girl who goes by the name Nora, or Zeekmo, tell her Jayden and Parker are coming to rescue her.”

Cleo stopped and turned to Jayden. “Who—?” she whispered with a puckered brow. “Rescue?”

“A girl named Nora or Zeekmo,” Jayden repeated. “Just tell her we’re coming for her.”

Parker lowered his voice. “She has a birthmark that looks like a wasp tat on her lower back.”

Cleo’s eyes shifted out of focus, her breathing short and rapid. She was coming apart at the seams.

“Breathe, Cleo. We’ll figure out a way to help you too,” Parker said.

They walked together, joining the enlistees around the mobile devices.

Cleo nodded, then placed her mobile phone on the stack and followed the other girls through the door.

Jayden scanned the stacks closer. Jackpot! The unique mini-tablet was near the bottom of the girls’ pile. Cherry red. The red gloss paint with gold specks was one of a kind. “Nora had been here!” he thought, and tapped Parker’s shoulder, then pointed in the tablet’s direction.

Parker didn’t hesitate. He stumbled on purpose into the neatly arranged piles near the left door, pushing over three stacks of mobile phones and tablets. The devices crashed on the floor causing everyone near them to scatter.

In one quick motion, Jayden snatched the red tablet, lifted his sweatshirt, and secured the tablet into his t-shirt’s hidden rear pocket. “Thank you, Rosa,” he muttered.

Parker jumped to his feet, dusted himself off, and glanced at Jayden.

Jayden jerked his head upwards as aliens morphed from fluctuating silver ribbons into real-life physical forms with smooth white faces, boney jaws, and tiny noses. Some were tall, some short, but they all had Nuk’ana’s steely, amber snake eyes and scaley skin. Each one began shouting commands and directing traffic. One creature pushed Jayden and Parker behind the boys rushing to get through the open door.

Jayden grabbed Parker’s arm and whispered, “We have some serios problemas, amigo.

 

Chapter 9

Jayden and Parker walked through a second set of doors into a large, octagonal-shaped room lined with marble walls that rose up three stories. A smooth, silver dome in a spiral design shimmered brightly over their heads, but it was the flaming torches on the walls that caught Jayden’s attention.

The door slammed shut behind them and the floor jerked upward.

Jayden quickly realized they were in a room-sized elevator. He exchanged glances with Parker.

By the expression on Parker’s face, he could tell they were both thinking the same thing. Their situation was still going from bad to worse.

When the floor rattled to a stop, two retractable doors opened at one end of the room. Jayden scrutinized what resembled another blurry, funhouse mirror stretched into a silver ribbon. When the shape abruptly morphed into a tall, thin creature in a black uniform resembling Nuk’ana, Jayden’s heart climbed into his throat and his legs went rubbery.

The creature’s creepy reptilian eyes matched the leader’s eyes, but as it stood near the entrance gesturing for them to follow, its mushy, wet dog smell confirmed this creature was no hologram.

Jayden joined a single file line that had formed, and Parker marched behind him.

The alien shouted in a combination of gibberish and hisses. Jayden had no clue what the alien was saying, but it had his attention. As he reached the strange-looking being, it handed him two earplugs. Jayden squeezed both of them. They looked and felt like the soft earplugs his mom used to block out his dad’s snoring. He pushed one in each ear.

The plugs felt as though they’d come alive, automatically implanting deeper into his ear canals.

Jayden winced. “So gross,” he whispered. But as weird as they felt to him, the translators didn’t hurt at all.

The alien’s nonsense noises suddenly changed to English. “Let’s go, boys. This way. Move along,” the creature said.

Jayden stared at the alien. It was like watching a foreign karate movie where the words weren’t in sync with the actor’s lips at first. But before long, the creature’s lips somehow synched up. Cool trick, he thought.

Jayden and Parker’s line of teens followed behind another tall creature dude with a limp. The creature was en route to a large, open hallway with white metallic walls, at least twice as tall as Jayden.

When they marched to the end of the hallway and stepped through the entrance, the room opened up into a massive space four times the size of a typical classroom. Jayden could see himself in mirrors that lined the walls and covered the ceiling twenty feet above his head. He seriously felt trapped in a twisted funhouse.

Against the far wall, four amber-eyed creatures stood behind empty leather chairs. Each one wore a solid black uniform and a black hat with SECC printed in white, and gripped an electric hair clipper with three webbed fingers. At the end of each finger, Jayden noticed a dagger-like fingernail that could inflict serious pain.

The four aliens grinned and turned on their buzzing hair clippers at the same time. “Line up in front of a chair, Earth children!” one yelled over the drone of the clippers.

Oh, man, Jayden thought. Not the hair. He touched his shoulder-length, sandy-blonde strands. Parker looked at him and shrugged.

The aliens pushed the boys into four lines, each one starting in front of a chair. Jayden was first up in his line, and Parker stood behind him.

“Welcome to Space Command Basic Training, Earth babies,” a shape-shifting alien called from the far side of the room. “You will be prepped and fitted in our standard blacks. Then training will begin. First child in each line, take a seat.”

Jayden didn’t move and neither did the other recruits.

The creature hissed. “Sit on your brains!”

Jayden figured he meant butt though he wasn’t about to correct the overzealous alien. He dropped into the seat facing Parker, who gave him a cheesy grin and a reluctant thumb’s up.

Jayden gagged when he took a whiff of the alien’s body odor. It reeked. Sort of like leather polish with a drop or two of clorine. The alien immediately pushed the vibrating buzzers across Jayden’s head. Thick locks fell to the floor. Jayden jerked forward, but the creature shoved him back into his seat and snarled. It dug its claws into his shoulders. He got the message.

The alien was not only shaving his head bald, the creature was doing it like his dad’s gardener mowed the lawn every Saturday afternoon: one row at a time. He felt a sudden stick like a bee sting in his left arm.

The boys in leather chairs next to him groaned in harmony.

“Ah, you Earthlings disappoint me!” a limping alien shouted over the clatter of the clippers. “The last group didn’t even flinch. You are being given a mega-injection containing antivirus nanobots to protect you from every virus known to exist in the Milky Way and at least three other galaxies. The Ga acquired it special, just for you babies with no immunity!”

All the barber aliens laughed. They repeated the words “Earth babies” and made strange hissing sounds and barks. Except for their reptilian eyes and nose slits, they resembled human men with scaley white skin speaking in hisses and purrs.

Jayden could tell from Parker’s face that his haircut was going to make him very homely indeed. He tried not to look, but couldn’t help himself. His nervousness turned to shock when he gazed into the mirrors.

The barber stopped halfway through the buzz cut, freeing long strands of his blonde Surfer Boy hair from the clipper blades, and then tossing them to the floor. The alien hissed like a deranged cat and patted Jayden’s half-bald head. As if to make a point, the barber pulled on the hair Jayden had left and snarled, exposing its white pointy teeth like a Rottweiler.

Jayden sat in the leather seat, dumbfounded, as Parker gaped at him in horror.

Another being bellowed something from across the room, and the clipper-guy started up again. Floating locks of Jayden’s hair drifted to the floor.

As soon as the barber finished, Jayden was pulled out of his seat and pushed into an adjacent room with three other newly bald boys.

An older Earth boy of about seventeen in a black uniform, with short black hair and a huge nose, told them to strip down to their skivvies. The older teen fitted Jayden for a black uniform with the number 5052 on the right breast pocket and a blue emblem of the solar system on the left.

Jayden wanted to ask him questions, but his voice seemed to have frozen somewhere behind his tongue. The best he could do was to turn his body so the older kid couldn’t see the hidden t-shirt pocket behind him with the tablet in it. He handed Jayden a snug, military-style cotton black cap with a white “SECC” printed on it, and then said, “Keep it off your head until you’re told to put it on.”

The teen pushed Jayden through another door that led into a basketball-court-sized auditorium that was set up with rows of black folding chairs. About a hundred kids in black uniforms and shaved heads sat silently in the chairs. Boy recruits sat on one side of a wide aisle, in a cluster of about a hundred and fifty chairs, facing the same number of girls on the other side of the aisle. Everyone wore black uniforms and held black SECC hats in their laps.

Across the aisle, Jayden noticed buzz haircuts on the girls too. They wore the same black uniform. So not cool, he thought. Finding Nora just got harder.

Jayden scanned the perimeter, searching for an exit. Colorful flags surrounded the room, and two large black flags draped down from the ceiling near the front of the room. One displayed an image of the Milky Way Galaxy. The other showed a galaxy he didn’t recognize.

The familiar elderly African-American woman pushed Jayden toward a row of chairs and pointed to an empty one. “Over there, young man,” she said softly. “Take a seat.” She leaned in close. “Do what they say, okay, honey? It’s your best chance to stay alive.”

Jayden searched harder for the exit, as his legs flexed. He was prepared to bolt until he remembered the barbecue stench and sat down.

Soon, at least three hundred other teens about Jayden’s age were assembled in the large auditorium. More alien creatures in black uniforms lined the perimeter of the room. When their jaws weren’t stretched, they all appeared to Jayden as if they’d come straight from a bankers’ convention. But the expression on their faces belonged on an FBI Most Wanted poster.

Jayden searched for Parker. Panic filled him, and he knew he was on the verge of freaking out.

Then he heard Parker’s stupid raspberry birdcall sound. Jayden jerked his head to the right, and their eyes met. Parker sat in a chair ten kids to Jayden’s right, luckily in the same row as Jayden.

Parker winked.

“Thank goodness,” Jayden whispered, trying to act calm. He knew they needed to stay together. “Swap with me,” he whispered to the recruit next to him.

The boy stared at Jayden without saying a word, so Jayden moved anyway. None of the boys made a sound as he slid down to the floor and did a quick chair swap. None of the creatures noticed either.

Jayden hurriedly climbed into the chair next to Parker. Made it, he thought, but they still hadn’t found Nora, which had become more difficult than anything he could imagine.

Three shifting images dressed in black uniforms moved overhead on a floating platform and morphed into aliens. Jayden gasped along with everyone else in the room. He recognized Nuk’ana standing in the middle with his long smoking stick.

Aliens were freaking everywhere!

The platform lowered from the ceiling until it hovered one story above his head in the middle of the huge auditorium. Nuk’ana removed his glasses. He paced the platform, puffing away on a smoking stick.

Standing at attention on the left side of the platform, Jayden saw a being half as tall as Nuk’ana, resembling a pasty white, hairless wolf with a long snout and pointed ears. Large, dark red eyes on the creature’s pasty white temples bulged like a lizard’s, but focused like those of an eagle. The alien’s sparse, spiked white hair made it look like an intergalactic punk rock star. Jayden thought the alien had to be male compared to the shorter creature on the leader’s right.

Red lips dominated the shorter creature’s dark pink face. Instead of spiky hair, this alien’s hair was candy-apple red, teased into submission, and apparently drenched with gooey hair spray. A whip-like tongue snapped out of its mouth, and then zipped back behind closed lips.

Nuk’ana cleared his throat. “Greetings, Space Fighters. Thank you for volunteering.” He laughed in a deep baritone. “Welcome to our intergalactic war.”

Jayden wanted to correct the weird-looking creature dude, but the Creep incident motivated him to keep his mouth shut. No one around him said a word either.

Nuk’ana paced and puffed. “You probably wonder why I have called you this name, ‘Space Fighters.’ Yes?”

The room remained silent.

“We are at war. Not the kind of war you’ve seen on your televisions during the six o’clock news, or on your movie screens as you stuff your cheeks with pop-jolly and wormy candy . . .”

Pop-jolly? Wormy candy? Jayden almost laughed out loud until it caught in his throat when a gross thought crossed his mind. What if they used real worms? So not cool!

“No, space fighters, we are fighting a real life war against a horrific alien race, a race who takes sport in eating your eyes and drinking your blood. In the same way you eat your pop-jolly and sip carbonated drinks at entertainment events.”

The recruits around Jayden and Parker gasped.

Nuk’ana waved his arm to the left, then the right. “This is Colonel Jazu, and Colonel Shazu. They are, as you baby Earthlings say, family. We Zepar call such relations ‘entanglements.’ My left and my right. You probably have guessed. We are not from your Earth.”

Jayden rolled his eyes at Parker and mouthed, “No kidding.”

Nuk’ana nodded to the short male alien standing next to him. “They are both from the planet known as Jepsilon3, orbiting one of the stars comprising what your people call Orion’s Belt.”

Colonel Jazu jumped in and started talking a hundred miles an hour without taking a breath. His voice was high pitched. “Earth was conquered five of your years ago by the Zepar, led by the one, the only, the magnificent, Leader Nuk’ana . . .” He blinked rapidly, fanning long eyelashes.

Parker elbowed Jayden. “Earth was conquered?” he whispered.

Jayden remained silent, but his dangling jaw could have easily attracted insectos voladores.

“Up until that glorious time,” Jazu continued, “your planet remained isolated from the trillions of living worlds within the Milky Way galactic kinship . . .”

Trillions?

“The Ga oversee intergalactic trade routes. They protected your blue marble planet as their property.” The almost hairless wolf paused and wiggled his pointed ears. It looked like he snickered, but it sounded to Jayden as though the wolf creature was blowing spit bubbles. “Fearing the Ga, other intelligent civilizations, like my people, the Zepar, stayed away from Earth . . .”

Nuk’ana made a circling motion with his finger to the colonel.

The colonel continued. “The trade war existed between Andromeda Prime and Milky Way Central for two millennia in Earth-sol years. It ended when supreme emperor of Andromeda and Nuk’ana reached agreement. But a different participant on the intergalactic stage started a new intergalactic war . . .”

War? Jayden wondered. How could no one on Earth know about it?

“The Zepar occupation of Earth was deemed essential to provide new soldiers to fight the aggressive enemy invading Milky Way Galaxy.” Jazu finally took a breath. “Known as the Atilla.”

Jayden remembered the name Atilla. They were the ones mentioned in the documents Nora found at the observatory.

The female alien named Shazu began speaking with a lisp that made a zzz sound. Occasionally, she sounded as if she were bringing up a lugee. “The enemyz a galactic powerhouse. These invaderz originate from Galaxy IC 1101, one billion light years away from your world. Galaxy IC 1101 iz a massive Abell 2029 galaxy cluster sixty times larger than our Milky Way Galaxy.” She made a long collecting-spit sound.

Ew, disgustingly nasty. He cringed with the entire room of recruits as her dark pink face tightened, exposing a large, V-shaped vein on her forehead. She puckered her red lips as if she were blowing a kiss, then her face relaxed. She continued. “Billions of Atilla invaders attacked Andromeda, then only recently arrived at the outermost spiral arm of the Milky Way. Regions of both galaxyz are now under control of the Atilla. They terraform habitable worlds and moons to suit them. Trillions upon trillions of living life forms have been exterminated in the process . . .”

Jayden felt his face burning. He was way past overload. Aliens? Real aliens?

“As of this briefing,” Colonel Jazu said, his pasty white skin erupting in red blotches as his voice rose, “the Atilla are invading at an exponential rate. Earthlings like you are to be trained and sent to the front lines as reinforcements. But Earth’s general public shall never be informed about life beyond Earth. Your world order would quickly collapse as we’ve seen on other planets. But never forget, Leader Nuk’ana’s Zepar army controls your world’s generals and political leaders.”

Nuk’ana jumped in. “Your parents will believe you are in a third-world country somewhere on Earth developing software, cleaning a latrine, or monitoring pollution counts.”

Jayden sat as though frozen to his chair, wanting to scratch his shaved head. I’d much rather be cleaning toilets in a third-world country.

“Besides a small number of Earth’s leaders and those working for the SECC, no one on Earth knows your planet has been taken over.” The creature began to laugh again, and then stopped and nodded at Shazu.

Shazu’s ears wiggled as she continued. “The invaderz Galaxy IC1101 iz beyond our ability to reach. There are roughly 400 billion starz in our Milky Way Galaxy . . .” Her lisp grew intense. “Approximately one trillion starz populate the Andromeda Galaxy. You do the math, or at leazt az much calculation az your primitive Earthling brains can manage. Compare theez numberz with number of starz in IC1101 and understand why you are here. The IC1101 Galaxy haz over 100 trillion starz.”

Jayden glanced at Parker, who was still scanning the crowd for Nora. Jayden realized finding her in a room full of shaved-headed kids would be next to impossible.

The three bossy alien holograms overhead flickered and buzzed.

“The huge army of aliens from IC1101 invaded both the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies,” said Nuk’ana. “Do not forget. The Atilla threaten your families too.” He stretched his face into a grin that crinkled up his tiny nose and narrowed his amber eyes. “My choice would be to vaporize all of you into oblivion and take your planet’s resources . . .” He licked his lips. “But we need you sniveling little Earth beasts with your soft bellies as fighters in the war.” He nodded at Shazu and patted her gently on the back.

Jayden wasn’t impressed with Nuk’ana’s motivational style. One minute he wanted to zap everyone to smithereens, and the next he sounded like a mad scientist who needed interns.

“Qualified Earth officers will supervize your training,” Shazu said, puckering her lips as if she wanted to kiss someone. She made the disgusting lugee sound again, and this time launched a glob of turquoise phlegm from her red lips. The entire first row ducked for cover, but the flying phlegm flickered, and then vanished.

Thank God for hologram lugees!

“Do not think you will ever see a Ga in person. You will not. They remain busy operating the Golden Way routez.”

Jazu grinned, licking his lips. Disgusting blue drool dripped down his pasty white chin. Jayden figured manners weren’t a priority for aliens.

“The Ga are interested in managing trade routes,” Jazu said. “Training baby Earthlings is our job.”

“For the next six weeks you Earth babies will be trained in three parts,” Nuk’ana said. “The first is a general briefing of the battlefield, the second is flight school, and the third is hand-to-hand. Yes, combat. It is true. Millions of fighters are engaged in hand-to-hand combat on one thousand different worlds, across two galaxies. The bad news for you soft bellies is simply this: the life expectancy of a fighter in this war is, at best, ninety seconds.” He flicked his narrow tongue. “Yes, that means most of you will become stardust in under two minutes.”

Mmmm, not the best odds, Jayden mused. Nuk’ana and his two sidekicks’ shoulders bounced up and down. Go on, he thought, laugh it up, ugly aliens. He so wanted to run, but there was no place to go.

A few kids sobbed. Jayden and Parker looked at each other. Jayden mouthed, “We’re in trouble.” Parker mouthed in return, “No duh.”

“We adapt what iz learned to lengthen your livez in battle. Do pay cloze attention during your training,” Shazu said. “You may be the one who figurez out how to live more zan two minutez.”

More rumbling spread across the sea of recruits in the auditorium. A boy jumped up from the seat at the end of a row. “Take me home!” he wailed, then bolted toward one of the doors and was hit with a spotlight.

Uh oh, Jayden thought. Zapping time. The elderly woman ran to the boy and covered him with her arms. The light disappeared as they walked to a side exit. Lucky kid.

Nuk’ana’s sharp jawline extended, and then contracted. The alien glared at the woman who’d saved the boy. She lowered her head and disappeared through a doorway.

Jayden eyed the doorway. If only they could find a way to get behind the scenes, he thought, they might have a fighting chance.

“For those of you Earthling babies who would rather go home to your miserable lives on your miserable stinking planet, well, think again,” thundered Nuk’ana. “Not that you could find your way home anyway.” He glanced at Jazu and Shazu and started to laugh, and then abruptly broke off and made the disgusting gurgle before continuing. “Anyone trying to defect or go back to Earth will be killed, yes? We will have no yellow-belly, pop-jolly, wormy-candy, jelly-worm space turds in Space Command’s galactic forces.”

Jayden frowned at Parker. “Space turds?”

All three aliens suddenly glared at Jayden. Parker shrugged. Jayden swallowed hard and sat up straight.

Jazu eyed him as he continued. “We have joined forces with the people of the Andromeda Galaxy. This multi-galaxy space fighting force is known simply as Space Command. It too is led by our great leader, Nuk’ana.” Jazu bowed toward Nuk’ana who nodded in return, and then turned back to the crowd. “You are now soldiers in Leader Nuk’ana’s great Zepar army. Is that understood?”

The three aliens glared over the sea of upturned faces as if they were able to focus on each kid individually.

“Do you understand, yes?” Nuk’ana shouted.

A few kids murmured, “Yes, Leader.”

“What?” Nuk’ana yelled.

“Yes, Leader!” the auditorium bellowed as one voice. Jayden joined in, so did Parker.

“Again!” shouted Shazu, her purple forehead vein pulsing as though it might explode.

“Yes, Leader!” the room roared louder.

Jazu’s pasty white skin turned blotchier. His dark red eyes briefly changed to white. “Again!”

“Yes, Leader!” Jayden and Parker yelled.

Nuk’ana smiled. “Good.”

Jayden struggled to make sense out of the “space turds” Nuk’ana and his cronies had just spewed out about a space war, but his brain had slipped a gear.

“There are a billion trillion other pebbles like Earth in our Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies,” Parker muttered. “So Earth is nothing special?”

“Drake was right,” Jayden whispered, thinking about his favorite t-shirt with Drake’s equation to calculate alien civilizations printed on it.

Nuk’ana smirked. “Are you curious what you are up against?”

No one in the room made a sound.

“Take a look,” the alien added as he pointed.

The lights suddenly went out, the auditorium pitch black. Two holograms of mean-looking metallic spacecraft appeared.

“Those are the Atilla ships, Earthling babies,” boomed Nuk’ana.

The flickering images showed two fighter ships in a battle against twenty or so smaller spacecraft. Jayden realized they were exactly like the ones that had picked them up at the observatory.

The scene looked to Jayden like a swarm of gnats on a summer night. The spacecraft attacked each other in a circular, spinning square dance. Nuk’ana was right—it took fewer than two minutes before the mean-looking fighters blasted all of Space Command’s UFO ships into bits.

“Yes, that is correct,” Nuk’ana, said. “The Atilla spacecraft are the only ones that remain. They have a shield and weapon combination we are still trying to reverse engineer. Currently, in a flying battle, our space fighters do not last long.”

Jayden and Parker groaned.

“Pay attention to your training,” Jazu added. “Be innovative. We know this is difficult for you soft bellies, but there are a million trillion home planets and moons across two galaxies depending on you to outthink, outfight, and eliminate our enemy, the Atilla.”

Oh, no pressure then, Jayden thought, just another season of Survivor Universe.

Shazu spoke again, her giant vein throbbing with each z she uttered. “You’ll be organized in groupz of five. You will train together, live together, and fight together. Your purpoze from this day forward, iz to be each other’z right and left, learn how to fight, do your bezt.”

“Get to know your squad mates,” Jazu added. “Your lives and your families’ lives depend on it.”

“Remember,” Nuk’ana added, his image flickering. “Your purpose from this point forward is to destroy Atilla before they destroy you. Understood, yes?”

“Yes, Leader!” a front row recruit shouted before anyone else could.

“What?” Nuk’ana boomed.

Jayden and Parker yelled with the crowd. “Yes, Leader!”

Jayden felt the room vibrate.

“Stay where you are until you are grouped into teams,” Nuk’ana said. His thin, pale lips stretched into a creepy grin, and his amber reptilian eyes glowed bright. “Welcome to Space Command. Good luck, Space Warriors.” He laughed deep in his belly, and then abruptly halted. “Try hard, Earth babies.”

In a flash of red, all three holograms disappeared right before Jayden’s eyes. For a brief moment, he felt patriotic until he remembered why they were there in the first place.

Nora.

Parker leaned over and whispered, “I saw Cleo when I first walked into the auditorium. She saw me too. But they’re keeping the boys separate from the girls. One of Nuk’ana’s Zepar aliens pushed me to my seat before I could talk to her.”

Jayden gazed across the sea of kids dressed in black and thought about the new mission: survival.

 

 

Chapter 10

A brawny, older man over six foot, six inches tall, clean-shaven with a crew cut, had taken over as the motivational speaker. “Listen up or die, Earth wussies!”

Jayden noticed “Hill” printed on the man’s nametag, and he was fascinated by the raised tribal tattoos that covered his thick brown neck.

Hill barked out commands and moved recruits like chess pieces while his biceps threatened to burst through his black uniform.

The man’s sidekick, with no nametag, was an older teenage boy with a scar across one eyebrow. He shuffled behind the burly dude writing down the number from each of the recruit’s breast pocket and arranging boys in groups of five. Jayden snuck a peek at a clipboard to see if Nora’s name was on it, but it wasn’t.

Before long, Jayden and Parker were next to be grouped. From the way Hill organized kids, Jayden realized Parker was going to be number five of one squad, and he would be number one of a different squad.

Just as Hill yelled, “Five,” Jayden yanked Parker out of the way and shoved the boy on the opposite side of him into Parker’s spot.

Hill didn’t notice, but his scar-browed sidekick glared at Jayden and shook his head. For a second Jayden thought the kid might give them away, but scar-brow simply looked back down at his clipboard and remained silent.

The quick move positioned Jayden and Parker as number four and five of the same squad. “That was close,” he whispered to Parker.

“No kidding,” replied Parker, gazing at the aliens around the room.

Scar-brow looked up from his list. “You losers are squad Delta Three,” he said to Jayden, Parker, and three other teens near them. “Huddle up and get to know each other. You’re family now.”

The group gathered, and Parker jumped right into the how-do-ya-dos. “I’m Parker, call me G-striker,” he said in one burst of breath.

Jayden was impressed by Parker’s quick thinking. Giving avatar names instead of real names was a brilliant idea.

Two of the recruits nodded at Parker, but Jayden noticed the third kid just stood in place with a glassy eyed, blank expression. He ignored the boy and followed Parker’s lead. “I’m Jayden. Call me Killgeek.”

“Any other gamers?” Parker asked as if he were chatting it up at summer camp.

Two of the boys nodded, but the one in shock remained clueless.

One of the nodders stuck out his hand. “I’m Jake. I go by Zebraguts.” Jake stood tall with a big-boned frame and a rectangular face, prominent nose, and a square chin as solid as an iron anvil. Jayden did a double take when the teenage boy spoke in a high-pitched voice that cracked with every other word.

The second nodder stepped forward. “Hey. I’m Tommy. Call me Knifetango.”

Tommy looked skinny in the black uniform he wore. By the way the uniform hung loosely over his shoulders, Jayden guessed the uniform dude probably gave Tommy the wrong size.

Jayden tried not to stare when he noticed the wide space between Tommy’s eyes, and the kid’s crooked nose overpowered his thin face. Tommy stood tall with an air of confidence for a short kid, but the beads of sweat on his forehead told Jayden all he needed to know.

The fifth boy gazed down at his shoes and remained quiet. He was shorter than Knifetango with an oval-shaped face, thin lips, and hooded eyes that made his eyelashes disappear. But it was his Frisbee-sized ears that Jayden noticed first.

“What’s your name, kid?” Parker finally asked him.

“I’m Hank,” he replied.

“How old are you?” Knifetango asked, squinting his eyes at Hank.

“I just turned thirteen last month,” Hank replied softly.

Jayden didn’t believe it, and from the look on Knifetango’s face, he didn’t believe him either. Hank barely looked twelve, let alone thirteen.

“You ever play video games?” Jayden asked him.

Hank shook his head. “Nope. I move around a lot since my mom lost her job.”

“How about we call you Greenhorn?” Parker asked.

Hank glared at Parker with eyes full of fire. “I’m no greenhorn, jerk wad!”

Jayden and Parker took a step back.

“Sorry, cuz. No bad intentions,” Parker said with both palms outward.

Hank stepped in close to Parker’s face and scowled. “I’m not your stupid cousin either, buttface.”

Jayden smirked and gave a nod. He’d never heard anyone call Parker a butt face. The goofy-looking kid wasn’t going to be pushed around.

“Ahhh, sorry. Got it,” Parker said. “Then what should we call you?”

Hank shrugged and looked down again at his shoes.

Zebraguts peered at Hank’s ears. “How about Satellite Dishes, chief?”

Hank’s eyes narrowed at Zebraguts.

“Sorry. Sorry. No harm, no foul,” Zebraguts whispered, and then glanced away.

“You ever shoot a gun, Hank?” Knifetango asked.

“Just a BB gun,” he muttered.

Knifetango snickered but cut it short when Hank gave them his fire-eyed-sneer again.

“Perfect. How about we call you BBgun?” Parker suggested.

“Yeah, whatever,” Hank mumbled.

Jayden and Parker looked at each other as if they could read each other’s mind. They’d need to ditch the other three as soon as possible if they were ever going to find Nora.

Knifetango broke the ice. “So. I can’t get my head around this,” he said, wiping his forehead. “It’s wicked unbelievable.”

“Freaking nuts,” Zebraguts said in his high-pitched, squeaky voice. “Hologram aliens and a space war? No way.”

“The hair cutters smelled like old shoes,” Knifetango added.

“More like shoe polish and lizards,” Jayden added.

“True. This whole thing is insane,” Parker said. “Especially our ‘great leader,’ the shape-shifting motivational speaker.”

“We need to get our game on,” Jayden said, and he meant it.

BBgun tightened his face, causing his ears to wiggle up and back slightly. “Get our game on? What is that supposed to mean?”

Zebraguts stared at the boy’s ears for a moment, then peered at Jayden. “You think they’ll make us flyers or shooters?”

“How do they decide?” Jayden asked him.

“I heard a rumor they put you through a skills test with your squad,” Knifetango said. “If you’re a badass, they make you a shooter. If you suck, they make you a flyer.”

“Same for the girls?” Parker asked, obviously thinking about finding Nora.

“Nah, I think they’re all flyers,” replied Knifetango. “Something about the United Planetary and Moon Nations not wanting them to go hand-to-hand or something.”

“That sounds messed up,” Zebraguts said. “Personally, I’d rather fly.”

“Doesn’t much matter,” Parker said. “Sounds like we have a couple minutes, best case, then we’re dead.”

BBgun jerked his head to the left and then to the right. His ears continued to move after he’d stopped. “I’m getting out of here!” He took a step and readied himself to bolt.

Oh no, he’s having a meltdown, Jayden thought. He quickly grabbed BBgun’s arm and stopped him. “Easy, kid. Breathe,” Jayden said. “I know this is crazy. But if you bolt, the aliens will barbecue you.”

“Yeah,” Zebraguts said. “The shifters will practice lead-packing on your rear.”

“Lead-packing?” BBgun asked with a frown. His legs trembled. “I—”

“Zap you into a trillion atoms with the bad ass beam weapon of theirs,” Knifetango said.

“But what’s the point?” BBgun asked. His eyes flooded with tears. “Two minutes then we’re dead?”

“Easy there, BBgun,” Knifetango said. “I’m thinking we’re going to change the odds.” He looked at Parker, Jayden, and then Zebraguts. “What about you guys?”

They nodded as if they were a gung-ho shooter clan playing an online video game from the comfort of Jayden’s bedroom. But when Parker glared at Jayden, Jayden knew his friend was thinking the same thing he was: focus on finding Nora.

“Delta Three, you’re up next,” Hill shouted from across the room, as he pointed to an open door. “In the training room, pronto. Find a chair when you get inside and park it.”

Jayden led the way into the room with Parker and the other guys on his heels. The empty training room was all white walls and glossy tile floor. It reminded him of a school classroom, but without any windows or a chalkboard, and just big enough to fit twenty desks.

They sat down at a cluster of desks. Jayden and Parker sat two rows from the front. Knifetango and Zebraguts sat in front of them. BBgun took a seat, four chairs back, at the rear of the room. Jayden figured the kid was trying to disappear.

A wrinkled, boney, white-haired man with bright blue eyes limped into the room wearing a Space Command black uniform, and using a cane. He could’ve been anyone’s grandfather. Jayden saw “Sanders” printed on his nametag.

“Get up front, boy, now!” Sanders screamed at BBgun. “You ain’t got time to let the grass grow under your feet, or you’ll be deader than a doornail in less than two seconds. Now, move it, son!” Sanders seemed like a man who’d retired as a basic training drill instructor and wasn’t happy about retirement.

Tears streamed down BBgun’s cheeks as he scurried to sit next to Jayden.

“Listen up, gentleman.” Sanders narrowed his eyes. He tilted his head to one side, sucked in a deep breath, and then let it out slowly. “I’m your trainin’ officer, Captain Sanders. Your six-week trainin’ schedule starts now. After this briefing, ya’ll will be travelin’ to the tin-can trainin’ base on Ganymede, the largest moon in our solar system. All y’all will start by sittin’ inside a real tin can. Then I’ll move ya to the classroom to learn strategy.”

BBgun raised his hand. “Excuse me, sir.”

Jayden nearly fainted at BBgun’s sudden confidence. Shut up! he thought.

“What is it, son?” Captain Sanders asked BBgun. Jayden heard compassion in Sander’s voice.

“What if I don’t go?” BBgun whispered.

Jayden held his breath, expecting the poor kid to get blasted, barbecued, or something way messier.

“Son, let me explain this to you one last time. If you don’t learn to fight, you’ll have a zero-percent chance against the Atilla. You can run, but who’s gonna save your family? All our families? Who’s gonna save our homes back on Earth?”

Oh, man, Jayden thought. His mom and dad! He hadn’t even considered what might be happening back home. Jayden wasn’t even sure how long he’d been missing, but was sure that Rosa would be in total panic mode by now. He felt his throat thicken.

“Have any brothers and sisters back on Earth?” Sanders asked BBgun.

BBgun nodded with tears trickling down his face. “Yes, sir. Two younger brothers and a sister.”

“Don’t you want ’em to live?” he asked.

BBgun nodded again.

“What are you gonna to do about it, son?” Sanders asked. “You still wanna give up? If the Atilla get to Earth, everyone’s dead. You’ve been given an opportunity to try and stop them. Now we don’t need anyone who’s useless as a screen door on a submarine. So . . . you still wanna run away like a baby chicken?”

“No, sir,” BBgun said, and picked at his fingernail.

Sanders’s voice deepened. “You ready to learn or should I just kill you right where you sit?”

Captain Sanders sounded sincere to Jayden, not like some gung-ho, shape-shifter alien shooting laser beams on a whim. He actually had motivation skills.

BBgun fixed his gaze back on the captain. “Sorry, sir. I’m ready.”

“Okay, listen up. There are three divisions of fighters in Space Command. Ya’ll are in the Space Rocks Fleet. After six weeks of trainin’, we’ll deploy you for a real mission on a world invaded by them Atilla gorilla devils. Our transports will ship you directly to the front line.”

“How long does it take to get there, sir?” Jayden asked.

Sanders talked faster. “Most space vehicles use a space drive known as a dark energy propulsion system. Technology provided to us compliments of them Ga aliens.”

“Who are the Ga, sir?” asked Zebraguts.

“Lord, son, does your elevator go all the way to the top?” he asked. “Weren’t you listenin’ to the leader’s speech?”

Zebraguts turned red.

“They’re one of the oldest known civilizations in the Milky Way,” he said. “The ones who figured out the shortcut through space that allows us to travel faster than light speed. We can trek across the entire galaxy in hours.”

“How does it work?” Parker asked.

Jayden kicked him in the shin. The sooner they got out of the briefing, the sooner they could get back to looking for Nora.

“Son, if I tell you a duck can pull a truck, then shut up and hook the sucker up!”

“Duck and a truck?” Parker looked confused. “I just thought that—”

“Stop thinking, boy,” Sanders said, his voice bellowing. “It’ll just get you into trouble, or worse, killed.”

Parker shut his mouth.

Captain Sanders sighed. “Okay, fine. Can’t really fault a young man for wantin’ to know about space travel.”

Jayden was starting to like Sanders.

“The Ga spacecraft punches a hole in the bubble membrane of our universe usin’ a hyper-gravity pulse,” Captain Sanders said. “The pulse is powered by refined neutron star matter with some white dwarf filler. It creates a temporary hole to punch into multiverse space known as the ‘space between the space.’ We punch in through the inside of a star or a black hole.”

Punch a hole in space? Jayden couldn’t imagine how a hole could be punched into nothing.

Captain Sanders chuckled. “Y’all follow that?”

“What’s a neutron star?” BBgun asked softly.

“Speak up, boy! There’s no place for fear on the front lines,” Captain Sanders said. “A neutron star is a stellar remnant from the gravitational collapse of a massive star after a supernova.”

Knifetango raised his hand.

“Yes, son?” Captain Sanders asked.

“Wouldn’t the spacecraft be burned up inside a star?”

Captain Sanders smiled. “Good question, son. Not with Ga tech. The spacecraft they give us can handle it. Don’t ask me how.”

“What happens once we punch a hole in space, sir?” Zebraguts asked.

“Once the spacecraft gets in the multiverse, it uses dark energy propulsion to travel to a desired point, and then, wham, it punches back into our universe through another star. The Ga tech does all the navigational space jumpin’. We call the ‘space between the space’ the ‘Golden Ways.’ Most Earth grunts figure it’s like the ancient Silk Road, if y’all remember your Earth history. All a pilot has to do is dial up coordinates on the Ga command panel. The Ga craft calculates everything else to travel from point to point. The trick is knowin’ the coordinates. So unless you’re as dumb as a bag of rocks—”

“Are there different spaceships?” Zebraguts asked.

“That’s right, and don’t ever interrupt me again, son. I’ll let that one slide.” Captain Sanders gave a tight smile before continuing. “Each Ga ship is configured for a designated purpose and has different-sized dark energy drives, allowin’ some to travel faster and farther than others.”

BBgun started to fidget. “How are we going to learn all this in six weeks?”

Good question, Jayden thought. Finally.

The captain frowned and began to fidget. “The space equipment ya’ll will be usin’ has been customized. For example, the controls to fly a space fighter are similar to driving a sports car on Earth.”

“A sports car?” Jayden asked. He’d never drive a real car before but he had played plenty of online road racing games.

“Yes, son, there’s a steering wheel, pedals, even leather bucket seats.”

Jayden felt a heaviness pushing down on him. Everything was getting weirder by the second. What he wouldn’t give to be back home with Rox, snuggling on his bed. His thoughts shifted to Nora. Ugh! Jayden’s stomach sank further. Their situation had gone from worse to “Oh, my God way worse” than worse. If there was an unlike button somewhere, he’d press it!

Captain Sanders continued. “The Ga built the tin cans y’all will be using in hand-to-hand.”

“What do you mean tin cans, sir?” asked Zebraguts.

“That’s what we call ’em. They’re the most high-tech robo pods ya’ll ever see. You sit inside the belly of the thing in a recliner-sized chair and shoot off weapons . . .”

Suddenly, Jayden had an idea. What if they could use the pods to escape?

Captain Sanders handed out pictures of a robo pod. Both Jayden’s and Parker’s eyes went wide at the same time.

“The tin cans are ten feet tall by five feet wide, massive really. Don’t ask me how the Ga build ’em.” Captain Sanders handed out an instruction book. It reminded Jayden of the owner’s manual for his dad’s car. “The antigravity bubble inside activates when the door closes. You won’t feel any movement at all once you’re strapped into the bucket seat.” He gave out detailed drawings showing how the tin can’s control panel worked.

Parker raised his hand.

“Yes, son?”

“Where are the girls training?” Parker asked.

Good, Jayden thought, the mission.

“Ha!” Captain Sanders shook his head. “Forget about girls, boy.” His eyes narrowed. “They’ll be providin’ cover for your big tin-can butts with the fighter craft them Ga built, the flying machines we call UFOs. Them UFOs are specially equipped with an entire arsenal of weapons.”

“They get to learn how to fly?” Jayden wondered.

“Like I told ya, flying a spacecraft is just like driving a sports car. You know, like a Beemer or Mercedes.” He laughed in a baritone roll. “Funnier than hell. Them Ga must have a real sense of humor. Either that or they’re just crazy sons of alien mothers.”

Jayden’s face tightened. How in the world were they ever going to find Nora?

“Let’s go, space warriors,” Captain Sanders said. “Trainin’ time. Don’t worry, it’ll go by quick as a supernova shock wave.”

Jayden, Parker, and the rest of the boys reluctantly followed him out of the room.

Captain Sanders stopped at the entrance to a long circular tunnel with evenly spaced rib supports and a flat, stone floor. “Follow the signs. I’ll meet up with y’all on Jupiter’s moon for hands-on training. Now, move your rear ends!” He glanced at his wristwatch, and then bolted back inside the room before anyone could ask him a follow-up question.

The first thing Jayden saw in the wide hallway was a crowd of boys. They flowed in both directions as if they were exploring an amusement park. He looked right, then left. No signs. “Forget about looking for the signs.” Jayden turned to the right. “Let’s find a way out of this place. You guys okay with that?”

Everyone bobbled their heads yes.

“Pretend like you know where we’re going. Follow me.” Jayden took off down the tunnel.

The tunnel reminded Jayden of a New York subway, but with translucent walls and three times the size. The translucent material changed in color from dark blue to light blue to white, then back to blue. It was like walking inside the belly of a giant whale. Jayden searched the smooth tunnel wall for a door they could use to escape. But he quickly realized there was no way out.

After walking for a while without seeing any doors at all, Jayden was sure a giant space whale had swallowed them whole. All he heard was heavy breathing, whispers, and a few recruits crying as they continued on down the passageway with countless other boys all around them.

Every now and again, Jayden made out the flickering shape of an alien, but that didn’t stop him from searching for a way out of the tunnel.

Chapter 11

When they finally reached an area that branched into six smaller tunnels spaced roughly five-feet apart, Jayden knew he needed a plan fast to have any chance of finding Nora and getting home in one piece. Every one of the six tunnels went off at different angles with boys flowing one way into each.

He studied each passageway, and then motioned for Parker and the others to huddle up on the far left side of the main tunnel. As recruits passed, he spotted an angry-looking older kid in a black Space Command uniform and hat with the apparent job of yelling.

“Take your assigned walkway and move your rear!” the teen shouted, then pushed a recruit near him and tripped another. “Move it, you little whiners!”

“Did you see any way out of this tunnel?” Jayden asked Parker.

Parker shook his head. “I haven’t seen any doors at all since we started this crazy hike.”

Jayden gazed at the other boys with them. “Any ideas?”

Knifetango, Zebraguts, and BBgun all shook their heads no.

“Hey! You!” the older teen yelled from across the tunnel, his gaze fixed squarely on Jayden. “Get moving, punk!”

“We should ask him,” BBgun said, pointing at the kid.

The last thing Jayden wanted to do was talk to a loud mouth bully, but he couldn’t think of any other options. “You guys wait here.”

Jayden pushed through the moving crowd of boy-recruits and made his way over to the teen with anger management issues. He wasn’t about to ask for directions to the closest exit though the thought had crossed his mind. Instead, he asked the next best question. “Dude, which way to the restroom? I seriously need to take a leak.”

The older boy scowled. An awkward moment passed before the scowl changed into a smirk. “That one.” He gestured to one of the smaller tunnel’s entrance, and then shoved Jayden in that direction. “Get your butt moving!”

“Gee, thanks,” Jayden grumbled, before pushing his way back through the crowd toward his squad. When Jayden reached his squad, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Angry Boy grinning at him. Bite me, he thought.

Jayden walked toward the smaller tunnel. “The kid said this way to the bathroom,” he told the others. “There has to be an exit near there. I’m thinking they must have some maintenance crew keeping the place clean.”

“It doesn’t smell clean in here to me,” BBgun muttered.

After a few minutes along the tunnel, they passed closed red doors on their right, spaced about fifty feet apart. Jayden checked each one, but every door was locked. They continued on in the tunnel.

A man’s voice suddenly echoed all around them. “Stay in your squads. Proceed to the first open door along the wall. Enter that room with your squad. Once your squad is inside, the door will close automatically.” The announcement repeated.

Jayden kept searching for any other doors that might be a way out but didn’t see any at all. Worse yet, he had no idea where the girls were. No chance to find Nora.

When they reached the first open door marked “Pod Z24B,” Jayden led the way into the room.

Once inside, he estimated the room to be about twice the size of his bedroom. But the walls and ceiling of the room freaked him out the most. They were made from the same kind of weird translucent material that changed from an eerie yellow to orange, to red, and then back to yellow.

The door automatically slammed shut behind them.

Jayden sprinted back to the door to try and open it, but it had locked. He turned his attention to the center of the room where a circular grouping of five high-backed chairs faced each other. Each chair looked similar to a dentist’s office patient chair, except for the over-the-shoulder, race-car-like seat belts.

All five boys froze when a man’s voice boomed from a speaker concealed somewhere in the room. “Sit your backsides down in any one of the five seats. You’re all going to the same place.”

A hologram of a floating digital timer appeared in the center of the circle of seats. It displayed six minutes and counted down in seconds. “Place the belt over your waist and the straps over your shoulders. Put both forearms on the armrests of your seat.” The voice paused. “Prepare yourself for metal safety bars to cover both your legs and your forearms,” said the booming voice. “Failure to comply with these instructions may cause death during transport.”

They needed no further encouragement. The five of them sprinted to get into a seat as if they were playing musical chairs.

Jayden sat down in a seat and buckled up, as did Parker and the other boys. He placed his arms on the armrests and gazed at the floating holograph. It showed four minutes and began to count down faster after they’d all found their seats.

“Launch activation engaged,” thundered the voice. “Prepare for Stage One . . .”

Metal clamps thumped across Jayden’s arms and legs. He felt a slight jerk, but nothing too intense. The hologram timer changed into a three-dimensional hologram showing the sun, an approaching spacecraft, and a hovering, dotted line. From Jayden’s gaming experience, he presumed the dotted line was their flight path.

A gong sounded. “Your present position is here.”

Jayden watched an arrow appear directly above the hologram of the spacecraft. From the flight path shown, it was clear to him they were heading straight into the core of the sun.

His head felt heavy, and the room started to spin when he shifted his eyes away from the hologram.

“We’re going to crash into the sun!” shouted BBgun.

Jayden fixed his gaze on the hologram and stopped the spinning. Another clock hologram appeared, counting down from ten seconds.

When the timer reached zero, a message blasted out of the speaker. “Prepare for grav-singularity activation and dark energy drive engagement.”

The flight-pattern hologram showed the spacecraft moving, yet Jayden couldn’t feel any motion at all. Another timer hologram floated near the first one. This one counted down from thirty seconds. When it reached zero, a loud chime echoed. An announcement followed. “You may feel sick, but it will pass.”

Oh, that’s nice to know, Jayden thought as the room spun again. Sweat dotted his forehead and ran down into his eyes.

The timer reached zero. “Brane travel has commenced.”

Brane? Like P-brane? Jayden vaguely remembered Parker mentioning string theory when Nora had used the term, but he still didn’t have a clue what any of that meant.

Another gong sounded. “You are traveling in the ‘space between the space.’ Enjoy your trip in the Multiverse.”

Jayden groaned. “Whatever that means.”

The sun disappeared from the hologram, and only blackness remained. A new timer appeared—counting down from five minutes.

Jayden wasn’t feeling dizzy anymore. Instead, he felt lightheaded with a minor case of the chills.

BBgun’s face turned pale, and his voice shook. “I’m going to puke.”

“Hang on, only a few minutes to go,” Jayden said, staring at the timer and digging his nails into the armrests.

Finally, the timer reached zero. Jayden felt another jerk. The metal clamps retracted and the door to the area opened with a loud burst of air. He hopped out of his chair. Parker and the rest of the squad followed him.

“Welcome to the outpost on Zeta 109b’s third moon,” a woman’s voice said over a concealed intercom somewhere in the room. “Proceed directly to the first open door down the hallway. Robo pods are ready, Space Fighters.” A chime rang.

“Didn’t Sanders say something about training on Jupiter’s moon?” Parker asked.

Knifetango walked to the doorway and poked his head into the hall.

“Screw that,” Jayden said. “Let’s see if we can find the exit now.”

“Maybe we should wait,” BBgun said.

An older teen in a black uniform appeared at their doorway and pulled Knifetango into the hall. “Get moving!” he yelled.

Jayden took a step towards the boy. “Dude, we’re looking for—”

“I said move it!” the kid screamed louder and yanked Jayden out of the room. The boy’s dark, sunken eyes narrowed. Jayden reluctantly marched forward. Parker and the other boys followed.

Jayden quickly realized this passageway was way different than the last one. Bright white light lit up a square tunnel that would easily hold three minivans side-by-side, and black, roll-up doors lined both sides of the seemingly never-ending hallway. Recruits his age wandered through the passageway in a daze.

An older guy in his late twenties directed traffic. “Find the first open pod transport. Hurry it up!”

It was hard to tell exactly how big the place was, but it felt massive to Jayden. He tried to find any door at all that might get them out of the tunnel. But every one of them was locked.

“You see any girls?” Jayden whispered to Parker.

“Nope,” he replied. “Just boys.”

“We’re so screwed,” Zebraguts mumbled.

Parker shoved him. “Shut up.”

Zebraguts pushed him back.

“Hey!” Jayden said. “Keep it together, guys. I’d like to get out of this alive, if you don’t mind.”

Parker and Zebraguts went quiet.

“That’s more like it,” Jayden muttered.

When Jayden and his squad reached an open door, a bald, pasty-skinned man greeted them with a furrowed brow. The man was wearing the SECC uniform and looked to be in his forties with scars on both cheeks. He pushed them all through the door.

Jayden, Parker, and the other boys continued through a long, empty hallway that opened up into a huge room. They all stepped inside, hoping to find some exit door.

The door to the hallway shut with a metallic echo and locked. Jayden froze when his gaze fixed on five massive machines.

Robo pods.

Chapter 12

Jayden ran around the room searching for a way out. When he didn’t find one, he focused his attention on the five massive contraptions. “OMG.”

The metal fighting machines reminded Jayden of an online space game he’d played back home. Each one looked like an upright military tank with a tapered top, an arsenal of missiles, and other weapons mounted all over its massive metallic body. Two short tank treads supported it on the bottom like feet. For a brief moment, Jayden thought the machines would be a gamer’s dream weapon until reality slapped him in the face.

The five of them stood silently, staring at the huge mechanical wonders.

“I’m going to vomit,” BBgun moaned.

“Will you shut up?” Zebraguts said.

Jayden shot BBgun an angry look. “Get it together, BBgun! It’s not the time to freak out.”

BBgun gazed down at his feet, shoulders shaking and ears wiggling.

“So these are what Sanders was talking about,” Knifetango said.

“Yep,” said Parker. “Robo pods.”

A three-step ladder leaned up against each pod’s midsection. Jayden climbed up and peered through an open, circular hatch door. A large, black leather bucket seat with shoulder and waist belts was mounted squarely inside the belly of the pod just as Captain Sanders had described. Control panels, displays, and flashing lights lined the inside walls of the pod.

“These are whacked out!” Zebraguts shouted from another pod.

“Seems like they’d be clunky,” Knifetango said.

A loud gong sounded.

“Enter a pod capsule immediately!” a women’s voice thundered. “Failure to do so will result in your immediate egress into space.” The voice softened. “Have a nice day.”

“Guys!” Jayden shouted. “Huddle up. Fast!”

They gathered in front of the pods.

“I feel like a mouse in a maze looking for cheese,” Parker muttered.

“What does egress mean?” asked BBgun.

“It means you get tossed out into space and die,” Jayden said.

“Guess we’re trapped,” Zebraguts said.

Jayden continued scanning the room. No matter how many times he searched, there was no way out.

“Now what?” Parker asked Jayden.

Jayden let out a huff and gazed at Parker. “Guess we pick a pod. Get inside and do what the lady says. Once we figure out how to operate them, maybe they’ll help us find your sister and a way back home.”

“You lost your sister in this place?” asked Knifetango.

“What?” Zebraguts asked Parker. “You have a sister?”

“Never mind,” Parker said.

“I have a sister too,” BBgun said.

“Come on. Get into a pod.” Jayden hurried to the closest pod and sat down on the leather seat inside the capsule. A head-high, circular computer display extended around the inside of the entire pod belly. Control panels surrounded Jayden and switched on when he sat down. Lights blinked and displays flashed information that Jayden didn’t understand.

Well, here goes nothing. Jayden rubbed the soft leather on the armrests of the bucket seat. Not bad. Luxury at its finest. Those Ga sure know how to build stuff.

Jayden sat back farther in the chair and immediately, a metal bar clamped down over his thighs. “Ow!” He struggled to move. Soft leather inflated underneath the metal base, pushing down on Jayden’s legs and locking them in place. A keyboard, joystick, and trackball moved to within his reach.

“Warning, secure your seatbelts immediately,” said the intercom. “Your transport is now en route.”

En route? Jayden wondered. To where?

He put the chair’s straps over each shoulder, and then fastened the waist belt. The robo pod’s outer door slammed shut, and the displays around him came to life.

Strange looking characters transformed into English descriptions of weapon and other controls. Cool air circulated inside the capsule. The pod’s inside walls began to transform into a see-through outer skin, allowing Jayden to view the other pods nearby.

He took stock of the inside of the pod. When Jayden moved his eyes to the right or left, and up or down, his chair rotated smoothly in that same direction. Holograms activated over the panels.

A rotating hologram of a light bulb floated near his head. Jayden tried to touch the hologram. Instantly, the hologram popped into smaller holograms hovering over each of the physical controls around him.

Jayden picked a small light bulb and moved his hand through it. The hologram changed into a video animation showing how to fire a laser. He choose another one. This time an animation played showing how to fire blasters.

Then a hologram of a man appeared. The man had bushy eyebrows and a bright red beard. His image was the size of a small doll and floated a foot in front of Jayden’s face. Live holograms of G-striker, BBgun, Knifetango, and Zebraguts appeared and hovered on either side of the floating, red-bearded man.

“Congratulations on completing training school . . .”

“Hey, wait a minute!” Jayden shouted. “We just got here!”

The hologram continued talking.

“Can anyone hear me out there?” Jayden asked the hologram faces of Parker and the rest of their squad.

Parker began shouting. The rest of their squad joined in, but the red-bearded man ignored them and continued talking. Jayden figured Red Beard was a recording.

“Time to rock and roll, gentlemen.” The man raised his voice above their combined shouts of disapproval. “Now, listen up!”

They all stopped shouting.

Red beard continued. “You’ll find the controls easy to use and compatible with most video game devices available on Earth just like we showed you in training. Remember to breathe deeply and work as a team. An automated reference guide is on your left if you need it. It accepts voice commands—”

“We’re so dead.” BBgun groaned.

“Remember your training, gentleman,” Red Beard continued. “Thruster buttons and holograms on your right and left . . .”

What training? Jayden thought.

Buttons, switches, and two-dozen readouts surrounded him. He tugged on his seatbelts. They didn’t budge. “We haven’t had training!” Jayden screamed.

The recording continued. “Do not pull the red lever over your head. It’s the egress lever and ejects you from the robo pod. If an egress occurs, you’ll be able to breathe on Zeta 109b1, but death or capture from the Atilla is highly probable. Avoid capture at all cost unless you wish to become an Atilla pop-jolly snack. They’ll eat your head off . . . literally.”

Jayden watched BBgun’s hologram crying as he scratched at his jaw until it hurt. Eat, as in chew and swallow?

“Should your robo pod become incapacitated and unable to function, it will self-destruct after ten seconds . . .”

“Not cool,” Knifetango said.

“A wide selection of Earth music has been provided for your listening pleasure. For a music and language selection from other planets, dial in the star designator using the third knob on your right. Prepare for battle. You will be landing directly on the battlefield . . . Good luck, Space Warriors.”

“Yeah right, we’ll need more than luck,” Parker muttered.

“Can you guys hear me?” Jayden asked. “G-striker?”

Parker’s hologram appeared to look up. “Roger that, Killgeek. I can see you too.”

“What’s happening?” BBgun asked.

“It sounds like we’re being sent into a real battle,” Jayden replied.

The voice of another man blasted from an invisible speaker. This one talked faster. “Listen carefully, gentlemen. The Atilla have overrun a world known as Zeta 109b1, orbiting a star in the Carina Nebula within the Sagittarius-Carina Arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. You’ll be providing cover for our evacuation transports. Just don’t blast the inhabitants. You can’t miss their six-foot tall, preying-mantis bodies. Even have two wild-looking antennae. For some reason, them things like to wear bright pink clothing. Don’t ask me why.” The voice let out a loud sigh, and then cleared his throat.

Saving pink bugs? Jayden thought. That’s the mission?

“As of one hour ago, the invading Atilla forces have massacred one billion of them pink-dressed crickets. The good news is nearly five hundred million Pinkies have escaped. The bad news is five hundred million more remain stuck on their planet.”

Knifetango’s hologram sighed. “Sounds like we’re going to war.”

“This is bad,” Zebraguts added, shaking his hologram head.

“Okay, okay,” Jayden said. “Let’s think . . . start studying your controls. Figure out how the pods work. Just like a game, right?”

“Really? That’s the plan?” BBgun asked.

“Look, anybody have a better idea?” Jayden yelled back.

“Killgeek is right. Get busy,” Parker said. “Let’s figure out these tin cans.”

Jayden scrambled to make sense out of the controls. A few minutes passed.

“I still don’t get it,” Parker said in a low voice as the briefing continued in the background.

“What do you mean?” Jayden asked him.

“What’s the Atilla’s motivation?” Parker asked with beads of sweat shining on his upper lip. “From what they told us, their galaxy is way bigger than ours. The Atilla have trillions of planets. Probably with all the resources they could ever need. It’s totally insane. Why do they need our galaxy? Even our shooter games have a mission.” Parker raised his voice louder. “We always have a mission! The Atilla gotta have one too.”

Jayden thought Parker’s point was a good one. But at that moment, he knew the bigger problem was finding a way to escape so they could start searching for Nora.

“I’m getting the hang of these controls,” Zebraguts said, his hands moving over his control panel.

“Yeah, me too,” Knifetango said.

The man’s voice started again. “Watch for the large red X. Those are your assigned targets. Do not, repeat, do not, shoot anything pink, or you’ll be painted with a laser-red X.” The voice paused for a moment, then changed to a whisper. “Good luck and Godspeed. Somebody’s gotta outlast them Atilla monsters. Maybe you’ll be the first.”

“We’re going to die,” BBgun whimpered.

“Chill, chief,” Zebraguts said. “I ain’t dying without a fight.”

“Doesn’t sound good, though,” Knifetango whispered.

“Look, let’s just imagine we’re inside one of our favorite games,” Jayden said. “Focus on winning. Got it?”

“Good point,” Parker said. “You take the lead, Killgeek.”

“I’m good with that,” Knifetango said. “We’ll need a clan leader.”

“Good idea, friend,” Zebraguts added.

“I’m in,” BBgun said. “I don’t want to die.”

“Come on, Killgeek, let’s kick some Atilla butt. That is if they have butts . . . you lead, we’ll follow,” Parker said. “We still have my sister to rescue. Don’t forget that, okay?”

Jayden knew Parker was right. “Roger that. I’ll do it. Let’s get there first and see what we’re up against. Then we’ll look for someplace to ditch these pods. Use gamer names from now on. Stay close, G-striker.”

“Now you’re talking,” Parker said with a hoot.

“Kick butt,” Zebraguts said.

“Time to rock,” Knifetango added.

Jayden scanned through the music channels and found one that got his blood pumping. “Everyone switch to music channel three-niner-one. It’ll be our theme song, but keep the volume low enough so we can communicate. We’re going to show these dirty Atilla gorillas how we roll back in the hood.”

“Oh, brother,” Parker whispered. “Back in our gated-community hood?”

“We’re going to die,” BBgun groaned.

“BBgun, get your act together. Today is not a good day to die,” Jayden said. “So listen up and do what we say, or I’ll blast you myself.” Jayden moved a control for his crane arm and smacked the side of BBgun’s pod. “Got it?”

“Roger.” BBgun’s voice wobbled. “BBgun ready.”

“Knifetango ready.”

“Zebraguts ready.”

A moment passed, then another. “Parker, I mean, G-striker, you there?”

“Roger, Killgeek, G-striker here. Just making a few modifications.”

“Modifications?” Jayden asked Parker.

“You’ll see. Snipe weapon configured along with blaster and scatter mode. It took a minute, but I figured it out. There’s a blue button above your head that activates what appear to be grenade launchers. The switches allow you to configure how the weapons will fire,” Parker said. “G-striker, ready.”

A gong sounded. “Prepare for engagement,” a woman’s voice said. “Don’t move, children, until the door opens.” She sounded as if she was someone’s grandmother managing a crosswalk.

Jayden still didn’t feel any motion at all. It was hard to comprehend that they were already halfway across the Milky Way Galaxy and headed into battle on an alien planet.

Suddenly, a hologram popped up in front of his face, and the grandmotherly-sounding voice counted down as though she were reading a nursery rhyme. Jayden stiffened.

Her calm voice continued. “5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1.”

The white wall in front of their pods fell forward like a ramp, landing on the ground outside with a crash.

Dust filled the air.

Jayden, Parker, and the other boys sat silently in their robo pods.

When the dust cleared, Jayden looked out and saw utter chaos. Massive, blown-up piles of metal and concrete slabs covered the landscape. A block away, golden skyscrapers with hundreds of brightly lit windows towered into a red sky. The buildings were at least a hundred stories high and lined both sides of the wide street on which they’d landed.

Crumpled structures and crushed metal vehicles littered the street. Flying spacecraft and UFOs zoomed above like flies over rotten hamburger. Everything near them was either blown up or on fire. Destroyed robo pods were stacked on top of other crumpled vehicles. It looked to Jayden like a massive pile-up of eighteen-wheelers.

Jayden scanned the landscape. Farther away, he watched as bombs dropped from a sky full of buzzing fighter craft. Closer to them, he saw lines of marching Space Command robo pods.

Jayden didn’t see a single red X. Nothing around them looked like the alien killers Leader Nuk’ana had described to them. Nearby, a group of tall, pink creatures with large, round eyes, stick legs and arms, ran around frantically like ants in a frying pan. Two thin antennae extended high above their pointed heads. Jayden couldn’t believe crazy-looking bug creatures were one of the galaxy’s most intelligent life forms.

A large mass of flying metal suddenly crashed near them, exploding upon impact.

“Killgeek?” Parker screamed. “What do we do?”

Jayden swallowed hard and searched down the city block for a place to take cover. He tried to breathe, but couldn’t.

Jayden was officially in choke mode.

“Killgeek!” Parker yelled. “Talk to us!”

“Crap!” Zebraguts yelled. “Say something!”

Jayden forced out a stutter, “Give me a second.”

“Oh man . . . follow me!” shouted Parker.

Through the transparent skin of his pod, Jayden saw Parker’s robo pod take off down the ramp and into the street. His tank treads were zipping.

“Wait!” Jayden shouted. “Get back here! You’ll be dead in ten seconds without us backing you up.”

Parker stopped his robo pod and turned back toward the transport. He raced his machine back up the ramp.

Jayden was coming out of his fog. Parker’s “leap before looking” approach would get them all killed. He scanned the street for something large enough to hide five massive robot rear ends. The glow of a raging skyscraper fire lit up the area.

There, he thought, a good place to regroup. A short way down the street, Jayden spied the entrance to an alley with towering skyscrapers on either side.

“G-striker, get on my six, the rest of you guys move to my right. Pronto!” Jayden’s head cleared, but his heart raced like a hot rod. “Follow me, now!”

“Thank goodness you woke up,” Parker mumbled, moving his pod aside so that Jayden could take the lead.

Jayden ignored him. He quickly figured out that pushing the right foot pedal made his robo pod move fast, while the left one slowed him down. He used the controls to move the upright tank into a bent-over position, with the tank body positioned horizontally above the top of the treads. The seat rotated too, so Jayden stayed upright. The pod moved awkwardly at first, but then Jayden figured it out and accelerated. He zipped down the ramp and weaved through burning piles of metal, before turning down the alley.

Jayden checked to make sure all the pods were following him. Only three. Dang it, he thought.

BBgun whimpered over the voice monitor. He hadn’t left the transport. The kid was a sitting duck inside the large square vehicle that had brought them there.

Blasts and explosions erupted nearby. “BBgun!” Jayden screamed. “Move it, now!”

No response.

Jayden softened his voice. “BBgun, I need you to focus. Press the pedal on your right and use the trackball to steer. Push the button in front of your nose to move your pod over here.”

“Oh, that’s how it works?” BBgun said. “Be right there.”

The kid accelerated out of the transport and made his way to the alley next to Jayden. Just as he joined them, a bomb blew up their transport in a rolling ball of fire and smoke.

“That was a little too close for comfort,” BBgun said.

“No kidding,” Jayden said. “BBgun, you gotta get a grip or you won’t last long. Now huddle up, boys.” They repositioned their pods in the alley as if they were a huddling football team.

Jayden studied the alley. It was about thirty-feet wide and easily a mile long. On both sides, the golden walls of skyscrapers towered overhead.

“G-striker,” Jayden said, “do some hunting, would you?”

“Roger that, Killgeek.” Parker replied.

Parker left the cover of the alley and disappeared down the street. A skyscraper a block away took a direct hit. Exploding glass and gold fragments rained down on the street.

“Everyone stay put until G-striker gets into position!” Jayden shouted.

Jayden watched on his heads-up display as Parker’s hologram pushed buttons and moved controls inside his pod. A few more minutes passed before Jayden tapped both feet. His best friend was taking way too long. “Report, G-striker.”

Silence.

He tried again. “G-striker, would you tell me what you’re doing? Please—”

“Take a chill pill, would you, Killgeek? Need another second or two. Standby.”

Massive bomb explosions were getting closer. Jayden was officially beyond nervous.

“Okay, I’m set,” Parker said, finally. “In hawk eye position around the corner, about twenty feet above you.”

Above? Jayden thought. He moved his pod towards the street and the others followed him, then peered around the corner. “What the heck?”

Parker waved with one of his robo pod’s massive, metal crane arms.

Jayden gave a half-wave back. His robo pod had somehow drilled into the side of the building.

“How’d you manage to get a big butt, mass of metal to stick on the side of a skyscraper?” Jayden asked.

“A slight modification,” Parker said. “These puppies have some epic thrusters on them. Boy howdy. I was flying when I used ’em. Totally insane. The pod has giant clamps like way cool gecko claws.”

Jayden pressed a button on the control panel that caused a new heads-up display to appear showing distinct images from inside each one of the pods.

Zebraguts’s eyes went wide and his jaw tight. “Serious mojo.” He worked the controls of his pod super-fast.

“What do you see?” asked Knifetango. His hologram scratched under his black cap and rubbed his crooked nose every few seconds. Then he moved his hands across the control panel just as fast as Zebraguts had.

“We got twenty metal monsters about the size of upended minivans heading our way,” Parker said with passion. “They have a big cylinder body unit and a treaded bottom piece.”

Jayden knew Parker was in “game on” mode. “Are red Xs showing up on your display?” Jayden asked.

“Yep.” Parker paused. “Holy smokes.”

“What?” Jayden asked him.

“There’s a row of guns going all around their cylinder bodies,” Parker muttered.

“Guns?” Zebraguts asked.

Parker nodded. “Yep. Multiples. Gun barrels a foot apart, built into a cylinder that rotates around the entire frame. Three hundred and sixty degrees of pain.”

A rotating machine gun? Bad news. Just when he was gaining a pinch of confidence, the alien firepower became more ridiculous. “Roger,” Jayden said. “Recommendations?” He noticed that at least one hundred robo pods had been obliterated only a few blocks away.

Parker chimed in. “They’re moving forward, destroying row after row of pods like ours. Dang. It’s a total massacre. Looks like the Atilla are hammering our guys big time. No red Xs on the ones getting blown to bits.” He paused. “The way things look . . . we don’t stand a chance.”

BBgun sniffled.

“Give me options, G-striker,” Jayden said. “I’m not ready for game-over yet.”

Parker’s hologram nodded, then continued. “Position two of our squad on the far side of the street. Put them in the alley across from your position. Keep one with you. I’ll stay up top and snipe. Everybody, use your blasters in rapid fire. Look for the blue switches and turn them on. Press and hold the yellow button to fire.”

“I see the switches,” Zebraguts said.

“Me too,” added Knifetango.

“I’ll take out as many of those Atilla gorillas as I can during their approach,” Parker said. “I’ll use my armor-piercing blasters on their backsides. One last thing, I found a laser splash control. I’ll paint a red dot on the targets.”

“Good. All we need to do once G-striker paints targets is launch our missiles,” Jayden said. Snap! The missiles would find Parker’s red dots then . . . boom, baby. “Use the purple button to fire missiles.” He wiggled his fingers like he usually did playing online. “On my mark. Zebraguts and Knifetango, far side across the way, pronto. BBgun and I will stay put.”

“Remember, only paint targets with red Xs on them!” Jayden yelled at Parker.

Parker nodded, his face beet red and dripping with sweat.

Jayden, took a breath and held it, trying to will his heart back into his chest. He was determined not to freak out. The situation was not only nuts, it was totally confusing. Working the controls, moving the pod, firing weapons. His head pounded.

“Go, go, go!” shouted Parker.

“Ten-four, G-striker,” Zebraguts added. “Game is full on.”

“I’m right behind you, Zebraguts,” Knifetango said. “Pedal to the metal, boys. These pods are way awesome.” He let out a whoop, and his robo arm punched the air.

Zebraguts and Knifetango moved out and took positions in the alley across the street. The alley was a mirror image of the one BBgun and Jayden were in with towering golden skyscrapers all around.

Jayden’s eyes shifted, and his fists flexed as he slapped the control panel entering commands. He jerked his head around to keep his gaze fixed on the approaching army of Atilla machines painted with red Xs.

The robo pods moved gracefully. It was incredible to Jayden considering their massive size, and hard to believe other boys like him were sitting in comfy leather chairs inside the belly of each one.

Jayden found a control panel for an array of mortar rounds and guided missiles. He peered around the corner of the alley into the street. Rows of Atilla-monster minivans marked with red Xs moved toward the alleyway. The Atilla machines had filled the street and were destroying every Space Command robo pod they encountered.

“In position,” Knifetango reported.

“Targets painted!” shouted Parker.

“On my mark,” Jayden said. “You ready, BBgun? See the weapon controls that G-striker talked about?”

“I see them. I’m ready.”

“Blast ’em!” Jayden yelled. “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

They unloaded a rain of pain on the approaching Atilla as more Space Command robo pods joined their battle.

“Let those pods go on ahead,” Jayden commanded. “Hold your position and keep firing at red Xs.”

Jayden and BBgun blasted Atilla from one side. Knifetango and Zebraguts blasted them from the other side. Parker shot at every metal monster within two football fields of the alleyway. Explosions rocked the gold skyscrapers as Atilla machines exploded into metal fragments.

It was working! The five of them had helped other good-guy robo pods move forward, forcing the Atilla to retreat.

The battle raged with explosions all around them. Jayden gazed up and down the street. Dang, he thought. For every Atilla blown up, two more Atilla replacement machines appeared. But Jayden’s clan stayed put in the alleys and continued firing down upon the Atilla from their positions.

After what seemed like an hour, they had blown up all the Atilla they could see, and the Atilla reinforcements had stopped coming. Space Command reinforcements had ceased as well.

As the smoke cleared, Jayden surveyed the area. Destroyed Atilla machines and Space Command robo pods were scattered all around them, making the street look like a junkyard. What a mess, he thought.

Suddenly, his stomach dropped. Two massive armored vehicles with red Xs painted appeared from around a corner and moved toward them.

More Atilla arrived. Each one shaped like a massive industrial robot with tank tread feet and guns for arms. These Atilla machines were bigger than the other Atilla pods they had been fighting and twice as large as Space Command’s robo pods.

The two giant pods fired laser bursts out of their gun turrets. They easily vaporized everything in their way, clearing a path toward Jayden’s position.

“Killgeek, we’re made!” Parker yelled. “I’m taking ’em out!”

Parker returned fire with his missiles and scored a direct hit! Both Atilla machines blew up in a tremendous ball of fire.

Jayden let out a sigh. “Nice going, G-striker.”

“Any time,” Parker said. He fired his rockets to move back to Jayden’s position while shooting down the long street at new Atilla machines joining the fight.

Jayden was impressed. Parker had obviously mastered the controls of his robopod. With a steady barrage of firepower, Jayden, Parker and the rest of the squad pushed the new wave of Atilla pods back.

Suddenly, Zebraguts screamed, and Jayden heard explosions getting closer.

Jayden zoomed in on Zebraguts’s and Knifetango’s robo pods. He saw Atilla pods firing at them from the far side of their alley a half-mile away. The Atilla were closing in on them fast. Jayden felt a chill when he realized Zebraguts and Knifetango had nowhere to go.

“Killgeek,” Zebraguts said, “An electronic voice inside my pod is identifying itself as Atilla. It’s telling me I should give up or be destroyed.”

“The voice is telling me the same thing,” Knifetango said. “It wants me to egress.”

“Can anyone else hear it?” Jayden asked.

Parker and BBgun both shook their hologram heads no.

“Is there any way we can help them, G-striker?” Jayden asked Parker.

Parker’s voice cracked. “Sorry . . . afraid not. We’re pinned down too.”

“Surrender then, Zebraguts and Knifetango.” Jayden let out a huff. “We’ll blast our way out of here and circle around to rescue you . . . You read?”

“Roger, Killgeek. Cross your fingers we don’t get eaten. Zebraguts out.”

“Ten-four. Knifetango out.”

“BBgun, G-striker, point your guns that way and follow me this way,” Jayden said, using his hands to point in two different directions.

As they blasted the approaching Atilla, the three of them retreated. Jayden searched for a way to circle around the block to rescue Zebraguts and Knifetango. When they reached the far end of the alley, Jayden made a right turn and abruptly stopped his pod. Parker and BBgun stopped behind him.

A new line of Atilla pod reinforcements approached from the opposite direction. It was obvious to Jayden that moving their pods around the block to rescue Zebraguts and Knifetango was no long possible. They were screwed.

“We’re blocked,” Parker said. “No way we can circle back to get them now.”

Jayden clenched his teeth and yelled. “Dang it!” He pointed to a two-story pile of destroyed robo pods. “G-striker, over here! Let’s regroup behind that massive metal pile.”

Seconds later, Jayden, Parker, and BBgun huddled together behind the crumpled pile of metal as the Atilla continued marching closer. Jayden’s stomach spun. There was no place to run.

“Knifetango, Zebraguts. Do you read me?” Jayden shouted.

No answer.

“The Atilla just keep coming,” Parker groaned.

“They got us pinned too,” BBgun said.

Jayden’s tablet vibrated behind him in his shirt. He’d forgotten he even had it on him. It vibrated again. He quickly reached down, lifted up his Space Command shirt, and snatched the tablet from the hidden pocket of his t-shirt.

A picture of a galaxy rotated on the tablet screen. Weird, he thought. He had never seen that before.

Portrait of our Milky Way Galaxy – Art©www.jonlomberg.com

 

Suddenly, a white beam of light flashed from the tablet like it had back in Jayden’s bedroom. But this time, the flash transformed into a soft white light beaming from the tablet.

The beam changed before his eyes into a hologram floating at face level. At first, it looked to Jayden like a glob of moving colors: blue, purple, red, and then yellow, every color of the rainbow. The glob of colored light rotated in a circle as though it were a Fourth-of-July sparkler. Around and around it went. The colorful flashes grew bigger, and brighter.

“What in the—?” Jayden muttered. “Are you guys seeing this?”

The glob of colors morphed into the figurine of a doll-sized girl with bright eyes, a petite nose, and thin face. Jayden closed his eyes and shook his head, but when he opened them the doll-sized floating pixie was still there. She blew Jayden a kiss, then winked one of its large eyes. He heard a high-pitched whisper. “It’s time for you to go now.”

“See what?” Parker asked.

Jayden rubbed his face in shock. Go? Go where? The only explanation that made sense was he had to be losing his mind. Then, just as suddenly as she’d appeared, the fairy-sized hologram disappeared, and the tablet blanked out.

“This can’t get any weirder,” Jayden mumbled. “Time to go?”

“Killgeek?” Parker shouted. “Go where?”

Jayden put the tablet back into his t-shirt. His attention shifted beyond his pod. The Atilla closed in on them. It can’t end this way, he thought. No way did Jayden want to become an Atilla snack.

“Game over.” Jayden sighed. “Be proud, boys, at least we set a new record for how long we lasted.”

Jayden, Parker, and BBgun positioned their pods as close together as possible. Each one faced each other.

Jayden could see Parker and BBgun’s long faces in the heads-up display.

Parker held his head low. “Sorry, Nora.”

BBgun sat up tall with his ears at attention. He didn’t look like the frightened little boy Jayden had first met. The one who wanted to run away at Nuk’ana’s briefing.

Jayden’s pulse slowed. “G-striker, you remember our smoke-a-bloke?”

Parker straightened his back and squared his shoulders. “Roger that.”

“The what?” BBgun asked.

Jayden located the buttons to release all his remaining blasters. “Prepare to fire all your weapons when they get up on us. Begin self-destruct sequence on my mark. No way the Atilla are capturing us—”

Before Jayden could finish, a crackle blasted over the communication channel. “G-striker, Killgeek, you read me?”

The girl’s voice sounded familiar.

It couldn’t be, Jayden thought, could it? He reflected on what the pixie girl had said, and now he heard Nora’s voice? “Guys, stop the sequence,” Jayden yelled. “Disable!”

Large explosions hit the Atilla that had been approaching them. “G-striker, Killgeek, you read me?” the voice asked again. “Come in. Over. I can’t push them back for long.”

“Nora?” Parker asked.

“Roger, we read you!” Jayden shouted.

“Zeekmo here to save your skinny rear ends. Egress and prepare for pick up. I have you in my laser sight.”

“You’re alive?” Parker asked. “You’re alive!”

“So far, but hurry. Bad guys are kicking our butts up top too. They’re getting close. An Atilla spacecraft is closing in on my position. I only have about thirty seconds. Get a move on, boys.”

BBgun and Parker hit the egress button, and then Jayden pressed his button. The belly of the pod opened, and he jumped out and landed on a large block of solid gold metal the size of a truck near Parker and BBgun.

Jayden felt seriously small. Towers of crumpled debris and mangled skyscraper surrounded the pods. The air was thin and smelled of burnt tires and gunpowder mixed with cotton candy. Gross. It was hard for him to breathe.

Explosions rocked the skyscrapers and knocked the three of them onto their butts. Jayden felt like an ant next to the towers of destroyed Space Command metal pods and crushed Atilla monster machines. He jerked his head up towards a flying UFO like the one from the observatory.

A white beam of light shined down on them.

The next thing Jayden knew, the three of them were inside the hull of the UFO standing on a glowing white circular platform. A spiraling metal staircase ascended on both sides of the circular room. He saw stars from portals along the circular wall.

Parker sprinted for the stairs with Jayden and BBgun at his heels.

When Parker reached the top, he let out a whoop and punched the air. Jayden did the same. Nora was sitting in a black leather bucket seat in front of a wooden steering wheel. She looked like a Formula 1 racer, and wore the Space Command’s black uniform with a black cap on her head. Her tan had faded, but her bright eyes and cute sideways grin reminded Jayden of home.

Cleo, the girl Jayden and Parker had met at the observatory, sat next to Nora. She wore a similar Space Command black uniform and matching cap.

Nora played a drum solo on the controls of the UFO. “Welcome, Space Fighters,” she said. “You were about ten seconds from becoming pop jolly.”

“I found Nora,” Cleo said with a smile on her face. “She saved my rear, big time.”

Nora hit the keyboard again and jumped out of her seat. She gave Parker a giant bear hug. “You crazy twin brother of mine. What do you think you’re doing? Trying to get yourself killed or something?”

“Glad to see you too, sis.” Parker took a step back. He grabbed Nora’s hat, yanked it off, and froze.

Jayden didn’t say a word. Nora’s head had been completely shaved. He couldn’t help but stare, although it didn’t matter. She still looked awesome in Jayden’s opinion, no matter her hairstyle.

“All the girls got buzzed,” Cleo said, and lifted up her hat to show off what had become of her pixie cut.

Parker started to get teary-eyed. “I thought I’d never see you again, sis.”

“I know, right? When they took me, I figured I was burnt toast.” Nora snatched her hat back and flipped it onto her head. “Once I got here, I wasn’t about to fight in some ridiculous alien war.”

Nora smiled at Jayden. “Hola, Surfer Boy.” She walked over and gave Jayden a big hug. “Guess we’re all in the Hair Club for Space Kids clan, huh?”

Jayden smelled jasmine, and his voice box seized.

“Thanks for coming after me,” she said.

Jayden cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “How’d you find us?”

“Well, first, Cleo found me. She said two crazy cute guys were looking for me. One looked like a surfer, and the other wore a black leather jacket and a cap with “Pop Star” printed on it—”

“Basically, I saw the wasp birthmark,” Cleo interrupted.

Nora shot her a grin, then continued. “I heard rumors that Space Command was sending all the boys into hand-to-hand combat. I picked up on some chatter about a squad headed to the front line with no training. I checked the uniform tags. Sure enough—your names popped up. Then I hacked one of Dione base’s control panels, hitched a ride on a transport, and then stole one of these badass flying saucers. The rest is history. Some idiot named Sanders broadcasted a message to all commanders in the area telling them he didn’t figure you’d last ten seconds. He told them not to waste resources rescuing you.”

Jayden smirked. “Winning.”

“You saved us,” BBgun said. “We were all but cooked.”

Cleo and Nora stared at the BBgun’s giant radar-dish-sized ears. Jayden could tell Nora was about to make a comment, but Parker stopped her with a discrete shake of his head.

“This is BBgun,” Jayden said. “The other two guys in our squad . . . well—” Reality started to sink in, and Jayden looked down at his shoes. “I think they were captured.”

Nora made a face. “I heard over the comm. I’m sorry I didn’t get here earlier.”

Parker coughed. “Hey, you hacked a control panel, hitched a ride, and stole a UFO. That’s pretty darn awesome for a newb!”

BBgun gazed at Nora with a stupid grin. “You’re amazing.” His ears turned purple and wiggled.

No kidding, Jayden thought.

“I admit I was a tad nuts,” she said. “But it wasn’t hard to do once I found the Ga training manual. They use a big binder to train the officers.”

“The manual was in English?” Jayden asked.

“It was in about twenty different language sections, like one of those product manuals back home. I just read the section in English and used what I’d learned from hacking your dad’s tablet to figure out the Ga encryption scheme. The control panel was way more complicated, but not completely different either. Long story short, I’m here.”

“Are we going home now?” asked BBgun.

“Wish it was that simple,” Nora said. “It seems like it should be as easy as driving to the mall. Unfortunately, I need coordinates to get there. At the moment, I’m still working on that.”

“So where are we headed now?” Parker asked.

Jayden stared out a long viewport window that surrounded the circular room above their heads.

Nora sat back down and flipped a switch and the entire metallic top of the UFO went transparent and filled with bright stars. Jayden couldn’t believe they were flying around in space.

“Nice viewport, huh?” Nora asked.

A nearby red planet reminded Jayden of Mars. Three colorful moons floated around it. He was having trouble getting his head around everything that was happening. The city battle was far away, but it didn’t feel like they’d moved at all.

“Right now, we’re on the dark side of the second moon orbiting that red planet,” Nora said. “Every other place around here is crawling with either Atilla, shape-shifting Zepar, or Space Command grunts like us.”

Jayden shook out his hands in relief. They had Nora and the tablet! Next stop: home. He could almost smell Rosa’s chicken and coconut rice. “Once you figure out the coordinates, how long will it take to get back to Earth?” he asked.

“Sorry, not possible,” Cleo said. “Afraid this little flying thing doesn’t have the range.”

“This UFO won’t make it home?” Jayden asked Nora.

Nora shook her head. “Nope.”

So much for home cooked Columbian anytime soon, Jayden thought. His stomach churned again as he clawed the high back of Nora’s seat to steady himself. “So how do we get home?”

Nora glanced over her shoulder at him. “Once I figure out the coordinates, we’ll need to snatch a bigger ship. But I found something else.”

“What’s that?” Parker asked her.

“There are rumors about a large group of rebel kids our age from different planets.”

“Rebel kids?” Jayden couldn’t imagine why anyone would rebel against Space Command with the consequence being death by the freaky-looking Leader dude’s BBQ light beam.

“They go by the name of the Spring Tide Masons,” Cleo added.

“I guess they were tired of being told what to do by reptile-eyed bullies,” Nora said. “Creepy too. When their jaw isn’t extended, they look like accountants to me.”

Jayden grinned. He was thinking banker, but Nuk’ana did sort of look like his dad’s bald accountant.

“Should we try to find the rebels?” Jayden asked.

Nora nodded. “I hear they have a long range transport spacecraft. That seems like the best chance of getting back to Earth.”

“Assuming we do find them, how do we know they’ll help us?” Parker asked his sister.

“Well, put it this way,” she replied. “If we don’t find them, we’re on our own. And if we’re on our own, we’re carbon dust for sure.”

“What do you want us to do?” Parker asked.

“I need some time to work on hacking the more secure parts of the Space Command communication system,” Nora said. “Maybe I can monitor encrypted communications. That way we can figure out where to find the masons.” She paused and gave them one of her long looks. “Why don’t you guys get some rest? You all must be exhausted.”

“Can’t remember when I slept last,” BBgun said. “Or ate.”

“Downstairs there’s a crew quarters. Not much room though. The Ga are tiny. Just under four feet from what I can tell.”

“You saw one?” BBgun asked.

“Nope, but I can tell by the way Space Command and the Ga modified this flying saucer for humans.” She shot back to her feet and hugged Parker again. “Glad you’re here with me.”

Jayden saw tears in Parker’s eyes.

“Go get some rest,” Nora said. “Take the stairs down. There are cots, pillows and blankets, food and drinks, and a shower. The food and drinks are seriously good. Wait until you try the food cubes.”

Nora gazed at Jayden with soft eyes. She took both of his hands in hers. “Thanks again for watching over my brother.”

Jayden smiled. “Um, he was doing pretty well on his own.”

Nora hugged Jayden again. “I mean it.” She stepped back and touched Jayden’s face with her hand. “Thank you.”

It felt as though every nerve in Jayden’s body had activated at once. “I, um—”

Nora smiled. “Go. Get a drink, something to eat. You need to keep your strength up.”

“Oh, wait. I have something to show you.” Jayden reached around to his secret shirt pocket, retrieved his dad’s tablet, and handed it to her. The display showed a new picture on it of the Milky Way Galaxy with a blue background like a screen saver. Black, bold letters “SECC” were in the middle of the Milky Way image. “Weird, huh? Somehow it connected itself to Space Command’s network.”

Nora’s eyes went wide. She held the tablet close to her face, studying it. “Can I hang on to it for a while? All the malware code I wrote to fix it should still be hiding in email attachments inside. It might help me access their systems deeper.”

“Sure,” Jayden said. “It’s running low on battery. It’ll need a charge soon. Can you get power to it?”

“I don’t know,” Nora replied. “I’ll figure something out.”

“I’ll stay and help you,” Cleo said to Nora.

Nora nodded but kept her eyes fixed on the tablet’s display.

The three boys lumbered down the stairs. Jayden realized Nora was right. He was exhausted.

It didn’t take long before they found the crew quarters. The space was about twice the size of Jayden’s bedroom, with smooth, black walls, three beds that looked like cots, and a separate area with a bathroom and shower combo, just barely bigger than a commercial airplane’s restroom.

After Jayden took a shower, he was too tired to eat. He curled up on a single-sized cot. For the first time since the bus ride, he yawned. They hadn’t been zapped or eaten by aliens. Nora had found them. He’d even recovered the tablet.

Maybe their luck was improving.

Chapter 13

A hand on Jayden’s shoulder shook him awake. He sat up on the cot and rubbed his eyes. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry for waking you.” Cleo smiled at him. “You were out cold.”

“How long—?”

“A few hours,” Cleo replied.

“How’s Nora doing?” Jayden asked.

“Still playing with your freaking tablet. That girl is wicked amazing. I couldn’t keep up.” Cleo stretched. “I’m going to grab something to eat and hit the sack for a while. You want to sit with her?”

Jayden looked over at Parker and BBgun who continued to snore. “Sure. You sleep here. I’ll go.” He rubbed his neck and shuffled out of the crew area, yawning every couple feet.

As he stepped up the spiral stairs, he noticed each step was a strip of metal that wasn’t very wide, forcing him to tiptoe all the way to the top of the stairs. He tried to imagine how small a Ga alien’s foot must be.

The second level was a smaller version of the craft that had picked them up at the Santa Cruz Observatory, with a large open center space and control panels all around its perimeter. He continued on to the third level.

The top level was nothing but a small flight control room that could fit ten kids, tops. Jayden saw Nora hunched over the control panel, her face three inches from a panel display. Even with the black hat covering Nora’s shaved head, she still made Jayden’s stomach spin. “Hey,” he said.

“Hola, Surfer Boy . . . Or should I call you Killgeek?”

Jayden smiled, and then said, “Stick with Killgeek. Have you made any progress?”

“Yeah, sure did,” she replied.

Jayden peered at the panel in front of Nora. Lights blinked around a video of a solar system survey. Sitting next to the panel was his dad’s red tablet. Wires ran from under the panel to the propped-up tablet, which was displaying the strange symbols he’d seen when it had originally crashed. The symbols on the display changed quickly, and as usual, made no sense at all to him. He pointed to the tablet. “You found power?”

Nora nodded and held up wires. “I had to improvise.”

Jayden inspected the tablet and saw what she meant. She had pulled tiny wires out of a cable and connected them to the tablet. He nodded towards the tablet’s screen. “Do you understand any of that?”

“Sort of. But it’s hard keeping up. The information repeats every twelve minutes.”

“This is a nightmare,” Jayden muttered.

“I know, right,” Nora said, then toggled four switches on the control panel and pushed a button. “We got yanked out of our fantasy world and thrown into this real one. Shocking, to say the least.”

“So what do the weird characters on the display mean?” he asked.

She gestured towards the viewport. “Well, there’s a lot going on out there.”

He peered out the window but couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black. “Doesn’t look like it from here.”

“Well, space is a big place,” Nora said. “Our side is getting pounded. From what I can tell, lots of the outposts and worlds along the edge of the Milky Way have been taken over, or destroyed, by the Attila.”

Jayden scratched at his face. “Are we headed towards home?”

“Not yet. Our first stop is a star system named Enlil99, about five light years away. It has three planets, each with an oxygen-based atmosphere, and no crazy monsters or creatures that will eat us alive.”

“Good to know.” Jayden swallowed hard. “But if we travel at light speed, isn’t it going to take five years to get there?” he asked.

“True,” she replied. “If we traveled at light speed. But the Ga technology pokes a hole into the fabric of space. We’re traveling in the ‘space between the space.’”

Jayden remembered Captain Sanders’s quickie tutoring session. “So why can’t we just travel straight back to Earth?”

“If I could figure out the coordinates, we could eventually get there. But we’d still need a bigger ship. From what I read in the manual, the spacecraft we’re in can only travel ten light years, max. Then it needs to recharge near a star for forty-eight hours and refuel with material used by the UFO’s engines to punch a hole into the space between the space. I hate to say it, but from my calculations, it’d take thousands of years to get back to Earth in this metallic flying saucer. To travel across the Milky Way, we’ll need a way bigger, faster ship.”

“Like the one we used to travel to the front line?” he asked.

“Exactly,” she replied. “They call those galactic transport ships.”

“What’s the plan when we get to Enlil99?” he asked.

“We’ll see if we can find the masons, or better yet, stow away on a transport back to Dione.” A warning light flashed red on the control panel. Nora tapped the display a few times, and the light turned off. “We’ll be at Enlil99 in fifteen minutes.”

Jayden gazed out the viewport into the blackness. “We’re traveling in the space between the space?”

Nora nodded and pointed to the portal. “You can tell because there are no stars.”

“What’s out there?” Jayden asked.

“No idea. When I was going through training, some of the flight instructors called it multiverse space.”

Jayden squinted, but all he could see was black outside the viewport. “How do you know where to go?”

Nora smirked. “I don’t.”

Jayden tried hard to focus outside the viewport, but he still couldn’t see a thing. “That’s not good.”

“It’s not that bad. The Ga computer does all the navigation work. It shows me the closest coordinate options. Think of it as an alien version of an Earth car’s navigation system. I just pick a set of coordinates and tap the screen. It calculates the route and flies on autopilot.”

“Earth doesn’t show up anywhere?” he asked.

“Afraid not. Our planet must be a long way from here. Besides, there are billions of planets, and each one has unique coordinates. Like I said, I have no idea what coordinates to enter for Earth.” Nora sighed. “You better go wake everyone.”

Jayden leaned on a leather chair for a moment silently staring at Nora. She was by far the smartest person he’d ever known. “You’re amazing, Zeekmo.”

She smiled back. “Thanks, Surfer Boy . . . So are you.”

The chair gave way and Jayden nearly fell went flying, but caught himself at the last moment. He stumbled to his feet and gave the chair a look as if it was defective. Way to be cool, dork.

His face heated up. “I am?”

“Seriously, you kicked major Atilla butt back there,” Nora said. “I was watching on approach. Pretty wild, if you ask me. You guys were working the controls of those pods like crazy gamers. You did a great job leading them, Jayden. Just like you always do on-line.”

He remembered Knifetango and Zebraguts getting captured. Thinking about what might have happened to those two was more than he could handle. “But I lost two of our guys. The Atilla just snatched them.”

Before he could move, Nora stood and hugged him. “I know. But you saved my brother.”

Jayden wiped his face. “I just wish it was a game or simulation that we could end.”

Nora stepped back. “Me too. Now go get everyone up . . . They need to be ready when we punch back into normal space.”

“Right,” he replied.

Nora disconnected the tablet and handed it to Jayden. “It’s fully charged.”

“Thanks.” Jayden took off down the steep stairs, three at a time, barely gripping the handrail.

Everyone was sleeping when he burst into the crew quarters. Even Cleo was snoring. He lowered his voice. “Time to wake up, Space Fighters. We’ll be at our next stop in a few minutes.”

BBgun groaned.

Cleo turned over and put a pillow over her head.

“Come on, let’s go,” Jayden said, and then turned to Parker. “Get up, G-striker.”

Ten minutes later, they were all standing around Nora.

Jayden noticed Parker was competing with Cleo for the biggest yawn award.

“Pick a seat and park it,” Nora said. “We’re punching back through in ten seconds. That should put us inside the star, and then we’ll do a quick hop to the second planet in the system,” Nora said, pointing at her display panel. “That planet seems to be the quietest of the three.”

Jayden sat down and buckled up in a seat on one side of Nora. Parker sat on the other side of her. Cleo and BBgun sat in seats behind them.

“What’s the plan once we get there?” Parker asked.

“We’ll search for a galactic transport to get us home,” Nora said. “Here we go. Five, four, three, two, one.”

Starlight instantly filled the portal.

Jayden felt a slight jerk before a green and white planet floated past the viewport, and then came back into sight in the middle of the portal. It looked like a green and white marble. At least a dozen moons floated above the large planet. One moon was blue and white. A few of the other moons appeared to be solid rock while others looked like round candy swirl lollypops.

“We’ll land on the dark side of moon five,” Nora said. “Seems to be the only one vacant from what I could find out when I hacked Space Command’s network.” She gripped the polished wood steering wheel, nearly identical to the one in his dad’s car, and pulled and pushed at the control panel directly in front of her. Moments later, they reached the moon, as Nora played a drum solo on the dashboard.

“Man, this beast is fast,” Parker said. “It doesn’t even feel like it’s moving.”

“There’s a spot to land,” Nora said. “I’ll set down on the surface. Then we can scan the live communication to figure out our next move.”

Jayden watched Nora work. He still couldn’t make any sense out of the displays, but the high-definition, live video feed of the landscape below looked to him like they were watching a movie.

The UFO approached the surface and slowed.

Jayden could make out small green islands jetting out of an aqua-blue ocean below. It reminded him of pictures his dad had showed him of southern Thailand. He saw white sand beaches too.

Nora stared at the display, apparently searching for a place to land.

Jayden thought the islands looked deserted. He didn’t see any structures at all. Not even a resort or a fishing boat.

Nora screamed. Warning lights lit up the control panel, and an alarm sounded. “Bad guys directly above us!” she shouted.

Jayden jumped.

“They’re blocking us,” Nora added as she slapped at the control panel with gusto.

The display showed three spherical UFOs moving above. Jayden did some quick calculations in his head to try and figure out a route to get past them. But he didn’t see one.

Parker gasped. “Where’d they come from?”

Jayden’s stomach twisted when the control panel display flashed on.

A hologram of Leader Nuk’ana’s face floated above the panel. His boney chin made his face appear abnormally long. “Gotcha!” Leader Nuk’ana said, followed by a hiss. He wore a black SECC cap with dark sunglasses secured to his face like racing goggles.

The leader took off his goggles, exposing his amber reptilian eyes with black, vertical slits. “Prepare to be boarded. We’ve been waiting for you at all the star systems in range. You and the traitors with you will be extinguished. Do not attempt to run, or we will blow your vehicle to atoms. But that would be a waste of a good ship, now wouldn’t it, yes?”

Nuk’ana took a long, deep breath, and then his image disappeared.

“Sorry, guys,” Nora said. “Looks like game over.”

“No way,” Parker said. “We’re not giving up so easy. What if we dive into the ocean?”

Nora raised an eyebrow. “I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose it might work.”

A large, pointed spacecraft with sharp edges suddenly appeared above the three UFOs outside the viewport. It looked like one of the Atilla spacecraft he remembered from Nuk’ana’s briefing, only this craft was about three times as large as each of the UFOs blocking them. “Isn’t that an Atilla ship?” he asked Nora.

Nora scowled. “Oh, snap. It’s Atilla all right.”

The spaceship fired what looked like glistening bubbles, which encompassed each one of Nuk’ana’s UFOs hovering above them. Each of the spaceships froze in place and appeared to be disabled. Bolts of lightning zapped around the surface of the bubbles as though each was made of pure energy.

Nuk’ana’s three UFOs fell slowly toward the moon’s green islands as though they were inside floating balloons. Each one landed below smoothly.

Totally nuts, Jayden thought. The Atilla ship was ignoring their UFO. He saw it as an opportunity. “There!” Jayden pointed to a large open space to their right. “Let’s get out of here.”

Nora saw it too. She pressed down on the accelerator and pulled back the steering wheel. The ship took off, straight up. On one of the control panel displays, the Atilla ship shrunk in size as Nora accelerated away from it.

Just when Jayden thought they’d escaped, the Atilla spacecraft shot something at them. In a flash, they were trapped inside a bubble and began to drift.

Nora pressed buttons on the panel. She frantically tried to regain control. “The ship isn’t responding!” She sat back in frustration, slapping the control panel with both hands. “They’re reeling us in.”

The Atilla spacecraft moved in closer.

“You mean inside the Atilla ship?” Jayden asked her. All he could think about was pop jolly. Gulp.

Nora nodded and pointed. “See the open doors on the underside of their spacecraft? We’re headed into its belly.”

“Great, must be a tractor beam or something,” Parker muttered.

Jayden rubbed his eyes, trying to wake himself from the bad dream that seemed to be getting worse. He noticed Cleo was shaking in her seat, and BBgun’s ears had turned bright red. Jayden wanted to reassure them, but at the moment he wasn’t sure about anything.

They all sat speechless watching through the view portal as the Atilla ship pulled them inside its dark metallic belly. Something latched onto their UFO, then positioned the ship into what appeared to be a three-story-high cargo bay loaded with other Space Command ships.

They finally came to a stop with a slight jerking motion.

Nora broke the silence. “Sorry. I—”

A new hologram appeared. It was a boy a couple years older than Jayden. His shoulder length, jet-black hair made his pasty skin look porcelain. He wasn’t wearing a Space Command hat or a black uniform. Instead, he wore a leather jacket and reflective aviator sunglasses.

When he took off his sunglasses, bright hazel eyes greeted them. The guy smiled. “Welcome, Space Fighters. I go by the name Lorcan.”

“Whoa, are you one of the rebel dudes?” Cleo asked him.

“Rebels? Ha!” Lorcan laughed. “Don’t believe everything you hear. That’s what those Space Command turds call us . . . We go by Spring Tide Masons.”

Jayden let out a loud sigh. They were apparently safe, but he didn’t exactly feel comfortable, yet. “Now what?”

“Now you live,” Lorcan said. “We’ll be at Sigarr in ten minutes. When we arrive, push the second button on your left. It’ll open up the UFO’s outer hatch. Then take the elevator down to the bottom. A boy named Altair3 will show you to our briefing room. I’m sure you have lots of questions.”

“That’s the understatement of the century,” Jayden mumbled.

“Oh, one other thing,” Lorcan added with a big smile, shaking his head slowly. “Annora Jameson, Space Command was not the only one tracking you. Very impressive flying, Zeekmo. You have fans back at the outpost.”

Nora blushed. “Oh, uh . . . thanks.”

“And Killgeek, well, you and your clan have fans too.”

Jayden’s eyes went wide.

“Not bad Atilla hunting. You set a new record for staying alive in a pod. You three are the only ones ever to survive. Although, if it weren’t for Annora, you’d be smashed atoms for sure.”

“Thanks,” Jayden said. “I think.”

“Lorcan out,” he said, and the screen went dark.

Chapter 14

Jayden and the others stepped out of the elevator into a colossal-sized room resembling a two-story-high hotel lobby. Two dozen teens were scattered about at workstations that reminded Jayden of a robo pod control panel.

Across the room, a tall boy with shoulder-length emerald hair and lime-green skin waved at them.

“Nice crop of hair,” Cleo whispered.

Parker snickered, and Nora quickly shushed him.

Jayden was fascinated by the alien boy’s green skin and dark green hair. He wore a long, black leather jacket and matching pants. The boy’s diamond-shaped green face and large, almond-shaped, magenta-red eyes were strange, but cooler than any avatar he’d ever controlled. The kid’s nicely trimmed green hair reminded him of the ferns growing in the Pacific Valley cliffs near Big Sur, California. Even freakier was the small silver chain woven into each ear. The chain attached to his lime-green temple, wrapped around the outside of the ear, and then dangled down below each ear lobe. Jayden tried not to stare but couldn’t help himself.

Silver stud piercings, each the size of a pinhead, decorated the boy’s cheeks in geometric patterns. Smaller symmetrical patterns adorned his dark green eyebrows. Colorful raised tattoos of creatures Jayden didn’t recognize covered the boy’s arms and neck. Strangely, each three-dimensional tat appeared to move when he did. One particular 3-D tattoo of a tiger creature appeared to turn its head to keep its ink eyes on Jayden.

The green boy touched his chest. “Altair3.” The expression on the alien boy’s face was part crazy eyes and part tight-lipped. He gestured for them to follow him.

The alien kid moved his head with each step. Jayden thought he looked like a fern dude with a cool gait. He was tempted to copy Altair3’s walk, but thought better of it. But that didn’t stop Parker.

Nora gave Parker a sisterly “cut it out” glare. He stopped just before Altair3 glanced back and caught him.

They all jogged to keep up with Altair3 as he quickly crossed the lobby room and entered a massive circular flight hangar. The place was enormous. White-yellowish light glowed from the ceiling.

Jayden counted twenty UFOs stacked like vessels in a boat hanger, along with a few other spacecraft he’d never seen before.

Altair3 pointed to a glowing circular platform. “Please. Take nap in center of glow. It flings you like egg to Sigarr meeting room.”

Take a nap? Jayden tapped on his ear translator plugs and twisted his face. Flings like an egg? He assumed the green boy meant step up on the glowing platform, so that’s what he did. Parker, Nora, and the rest of the group followed his lead. As soon as Jayden stepped onto the metal platform, the hangar disappeared. Suddenly, he found himself with the others inside a small room. He hadn’t felt a thing, not even a jerking motion.

The room resembled an old, rusty-metal railroad car, with metal-ridged walls and a matching ceiling. Dangling from the ceiling were round lights the size of baseballs attached to black cables. A large table made from welded metal scraps with matching chairs filled most of the room.

“Carry your rear,” Altair3 said, pointing to the chairs as he sat down at the head of the long, rusty table.

Jayden smirked at Parker and decided the kid meant they should sit down on the uncomfortable metal chairs. The room was a low-end version of what he and Parker had experienced at the Dione base.

A steel door resembling a submarine hatch burst open, and the kid who called himself Lorcan walked into the room with a tall, thin, lime-green girl. Her green hair draped down below her waist, with tiny pink flowers blooming throughout the tresses. Jayden noticed the irises of her eyes matched the color of the pink flowers. Her petite facial features matched Altair3’s, but her deep-set eyes and curvy full lips gave her a more exotic look. The girl was surprisingly beautiful for being green.

She wore a dozen shiny gold studs embedded in the skin on both sides of her nostrils, and a small silver chain like Altair3’s was woven into the skin outlining each ear. Round, silver stud piercings the size of pinheads dotted her forehead in a cool geometric pattern like silver freckles. Colorful raised tats covered her lime-green forearms and the sides of her neck. Jayden had always thought tats on older girls were pretty rad, but her 3-D tats set a new bar for serious coolness.

“I’m Lorcan and this is Rhea2. She’s from the Royal City on MachuTutu3 located on the far side of Andromeda.” They sat down at the head of the table.

“As in the Andromeda galaxy?” BBgun asked. “Isn’t that over two million light years from Earth?”

Jayden and Parker gave BBgun a puzzled look.

BBgun shrugged. “I got an A in astronomy class,” he whispered.

“Correct.” Lorcan pointed to the fern-headed boy. “I take it Altair3 introduced himself?”

Altair3 interrupted. “Before platform naptime, I sprayed name in their faces.”

The way Altair3 talked was hilarious. Jayden nodded and tried to conceal a grin.

“Good. He commands a mason base on Daxon2 in Andromeda. I’m an Earth grunt like you. Seattle, uptown to be exact. Welcome. Strange place where we live, huh?”

They all remained silent.

“So the Spring Tide Masons . . . you guys are rebels, right?” Nora asked.

“Not necessarily,” Lorcan said, “We like to think of ourselves as liberators. We’re an assortment of teenagers from different worlds that escaped the repression of Space Command and their ridiculous intergalactic war. You’d be amazed at how many planets have humanoid-looking species similar to you and me all over both galaxies.” He paused when Rhea2 leaned in and whispered something to him. “Oh, yeah. But just like on Earth, there are many physical differences between intelligent beings.” He grinned. “Some really do look alien.”

“Like walking plants,” BBgun said.

Altair3 and Rhea2 glared at BBgun.

Jayden elbowed him. “Dude.”

“Sorry, no offense,” BBgun said, and then gazed down.

“True statement,” Lorcan said. “It takes some getting used to, for sure. Some have green hair, some multicolored, some blue. Others have different features. Just about anything you can dream up or code into a video game. Evolution beyond Earth can be pretty wild. In the Zepar case, shape shifters too . . .”

Jayden knew what he meant. Jazu and Shazu were two prime examples of “way different.”

“These days the Spring Tide Masons are a growing group of kids that escaped from Space Command’s battlefields and found each other.”

“Like George Washington,” BBgun said. “He was a freemason.”

“Just listen, would you,” Jayden whispered to him.

“Fine.” BBgun lowered his eyes. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Lorcan said. “He’s right. George Washington was a freemason. In fact, from what I’ve been told, the freemasons existed all through the galaxy a thousand years ago. They inspired our name choice.” A serious expression came over Lorcan’s face. “Once we organized, we took over old, deserted moon bases across both galaxies, like the one you’re on now. As word got out that we existed, more space fighter teens defected and joined us and our cause.”

“And what cause is that?” Jayden asked Lorcan.

“To free kids from being Space Command’s war slaves,” Rhea2 whispered in a soprano voice that sounded as if the air was leaking out of a bicycle tire.

“You mean free from the Atilla, right?” Cleo asked.

“Well, yes, maybe, no—,” Altair3 said.

“You can’t think so two-dimensional,” Lorcan said, his voice rising. “You have to touch and feel our situation.” Rhea2 tapped Lorcan’s arm. He paused and softened his voice. “We needed to free ourselves from Space Command. It’s a long story, but everything you’ve been told so far is a lie. Except for the fact that Space Command uses teenagers to fight for them because we can handle it physically.”

“Nuk’ana and his Zepar army are evil ones,” Rhea2 said.

Well, yeah. Jayden thought. No kidding. He’d already seen Nuk’ana turn one kid to dust. The Zepar didn’t seem the type to hold back.

“Tell them the history, so they understand,” Lorcan said to Rhea2.

“The Ga3si, or Ga, as they are named,” Rhea2 said, “Showed up all over Earth at same time to contact Earth leaders five of Earth’s years ago.”

“Your military married them and formed a family,” Altair3 said.

Parker smirked and covered his face.

Formed a family? Jayden snickered too. Someone needed to fix Altair3’s translator.

“The Ga agreed to keep the contact classified in order to avoid worldwide panic,” Rhea2 said. “They toiled with Earth leaders retrofitting alien technology so Earth people could use it.”

“Why would they do that?” Nora asked.

“Sort of an offering, a way to welcome Earth into the galactic community of the Milky Way,” Lorcan said. “Build trust. If you want to learn something about somebody, team up with them, right?”

“But it was a trap they often use,” Rhea2 added. “This is how Ga steal from all civilizations they contact.”

“So what happened?” Parker asked.

“Earth leaders discovered Ga had been removing massive amounts of gold, silver, and platinum, along with other valuable Earth resources. Earth governments suddenly knew Ga to be a threat. But sadly, it was too late,” Rhea2 said.

“Figures,” Nora said.

“When all secret armies of your world started to fight back, Ga made Zepar army, led by Leader Nuk’ana, do the dirty work,” Rhea2 said. “Nuk’ana took control of Earth.”

“That novel Nuk’ana spewed out was mostly air farts,” Altair3 said.

Jayden choked, holding back a laugh.

Before anyone else could react, Lorcan interrupted. “He means Nuk’ana’s army conquered Andromeda the same way with the help of the Ga.”

“A treaty wasn’t signed?” Jayden asked.

“No. It was a lie,” Lorcan said. “Nuk’ana’s Zepar army now controls all of the civilized worlds in the Milky Way and all the worlds throughout Andromeda.”

Altair3 turned to Rhea2. “Tell how mines in Andromeda pass gas.”

Parker turned to Jayden and whispered under his breath, “Like air farts.”

Jayden covered his face again. Altair3 was killing them.

“Sorry. He means my people in Andromeda have spent millennia perfecting fuel resources,” Rhea2 said. “The fuel my people make powers spacecraft technology the Ga acquired.”

“So Nuk’ana conquered Andromeda to control fuel resources?” Parker asked.

Rhea2 nodded. “Correct, Zepar conquered my people to control fuel and to open up trade routes between Andromeda and Milky Way.”

“So the Ga skim resources they want from every world?” Nora asked.

“Many people call it the Ga tax,” Lorcan said. “All civilizations are allowed to trade with each other, but it comes at a cost.”

“What’s in it for Nuk’ana?” Nora asked.

“Power and control,” Lorcan said. “The Ga could care less about the civilizations conquered by the Zepar army. Think of them as highly-evolved mad scientists.”

“So why is Space Command fighting the Atilla?” Jayden asked.

Lorcan sat back in his chair. “Nuk’ana figured if Space Command controlled Galaxy IC1101, he’d have an unstoppable intergalactic force to invade millions of other galaxies.”

“So Nuk’ana invaded IC1101?” Jayden asked. “They told us it was too far for them to reach.”

Galaxy IC1101 Size Comparison -- Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

“He lied about that too. Long range transport cruisers can make it,” Lorcan said. “When Nuk’ana invaded, it was like disrupting a hornet’s nest inside Galaxy IC1101. Nuk’ana destroyed hundreds of the Atilla worlds and murdered over a hundred trillion souls. The Atilla’s supreme leader, Abaddon, didn’t take too kindly to the intrusion or the mass murder. He sent his galactic armies to the Milky Way and Andromeda. The rumor is their orders are simple. Destroy all civilizations, and then begin terraforming conquered worlds to their liking.”

BBgun groaned. “That’s not cool.”

“Can’t someone talk to the Ga?” Parker asked.

“Very curious,” Rhea2 said. “Just after war broke out with Atilla, all Ga vanished.”

“They hid the ball because they fouled Atilla,” added Altair3.

“The leeches just disappeared,” Lorcan added. “Puff. No trace.”

Parker leaned forward. “Where’d they go?”

“Maybe into the space between the space,” Lorcan said. “Another universe perhaps. No one really knows.”

“Who controls the trade routes now?” Cleo asked.

“Nuk’ana controls the entire Golden Way. But Nuk’ana’s war with the Atilla is taking a toll. Nuk’ana is losing.”

“No kidding,” Jayden said, as he thought back on the blazing skyscrapers and piles of crushed robo pods.

“So the Atilla are kicking our butts because Nuk’ana threw the first punch?” Nora asked.

“Truth,” Rhea2 said.

Lorcan nodded. “The Atilla are eliminating the threat to them, so to speak.”

“Threat as in us,” Nora mumbled.

“Why can’t we just tell the Atilla we want peace?” Parker asked Lorcan.

“Because Nuk’ana is determined to keep expanding trade routes no matter the cost,” Rhea2 said.

“Greedy bully baby. He wins to fight,” added Altair3.

Jayden was starting to understand the fern-headed boy. Nuk’ana fights to win because he’s greedy.

“When those UFOs trapped us, I thought I saw Nuk’ana on the UFO’s display panel,” Nora said.

“Yeah, wasn’t Nuk’ana in one of the UFOs?” Parker asked.

“Why didn’t you just blow up his ship?” BBgun asked.

“Just a hologram,” Rhea2 said. “His communication was patched into your UFO. All the UFOs you saw were flown by Space Command teens like all of us.”

“We avoid hurting innocents that are being forced to fight,” Lorcan said. “It’s a fine line, but that’s why we only incapacitated their ships.”

“Nuk’ana never comes out to play,” added Altair3.

“That’s right,” said Lorcan. “Leader Nuk’ana stays at a secret location somewhere in the Milky Way.”

“Many dream to see him spinning atoms in grinder,” Altair3 said.

“What happened to the kids in the UFOs you downed?” Cleo asked.

“We invited them to join us,” Rhea2 said.

“But they must decide. Most are still in shock and scared of Nuk’ana,” Lorcan said. “Some don’t want to join us.”

“Then what?” Cleo asked.

“To answer your question, Cleo, the recent encounter is a good example. We kept two of their UFOs. But I immediately sent one UFO back to Space Command with two girls and one boy who didn’t want to join us,” Lorcan said.

Jayden peered at Lorcan. Something about him seemed strange, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“You wonder about me?” Lorcan, asked. “Is that it?”

Jayden hesitated, then nodded. He reads minds too?

“I was one of Nuk’ana’s officer apprentices, so was Rhea2. We found out what was going on and decided to stop watching teens die at Nuk’ana’s hand.”

“But fighting against Nuk’ana? Isn’t that a little ambitious?” Nora asked.

“How’s that?” Lorcan asked.

Nora continued. “A bunch of kids against thousands of Nuk’ana’s shape-shifting Zepar? Seems like the odds are impossible.”

“Agreed. We hope that when more kids find out the truth, they’ll join us and rebel against Space Command,” Lorcan replied. “Our size grows larger each day.”

“Whatever,” Nora said with a wave of her hand. “Look, we just need to get out of here and go back to Earth!”

“Yeah, I want to go home!” BBgun said.

Jayden’s head hurt. “Can’t you get us back to Earth?”

“We have our hands full here with Space Command. Not to mention Earth is on the other side of our galaxy. We can’t afford to take the time or resources to get you there now. I’m sorry.”

Nora scowled. “In the meantime, we’re stuck here?” She took a breath, and then blurted out, “Will our parents be safe?”

“Probably. Nuk’ana is sidetracked at the moment with his losing war efforts.”

Nora broke the silence. “Can’t you please let us borrow a transport? We’ll be on our way. You can have it back once we get home.”

Jayden was thinking the same thing. They needed to get their parents to safety before Nuk’ana figured out where they lived.

“You’d need our transport ship to get there,” Lorcan said. “We only have two galactic transport ships. I’m sorry. We can’t risk sending one to Earth.”

Regardless of what Lorcan said, they were going home, Jayden thought. It was just a matter of when.

“Take some time and get cleaned up,” Lorcan said. “Rhea2 will brief you later on our next mission.”

“You’re putting us to work?” asked BBgun.

“I am afraid so. We need your help, unless, of course, you want to go back to Space Command.”

They all shook their heads.

Jayden needed time to figure out another plan. “Sure. We’ll help.”

Nora and Parker glared at him. He discretely gestured at them. For now. Nora and Parker seemed to get his message. They’d have a better chance getting back to Earth by pretending to team up with Lorcan and his masons until they came up with a better plan.

“Good,” Lorcan said. “Now get some rest. You’ll feel better.”

“We have a group living pod set up for you all,” Lorcan said. “We’ve provided you with rations as well.”

Lorcan and Rhea2 abruptly stood and exited the room without looking back.

“Skip with me,” Altair3 said.

Parker started to skip. Nora pushed him.

They followed Altair3 for about ten minutes through rusty metal hallways with a few open doors. Teen boys and girls about their ages worked inside the rooms. One area resembled a chemistry lab, with bubbling mixtures and steam filling the air. Another room reminded Jayden of Nora’s bedroom—full of computer equipment.

Altair3 pulled opened a heavy hatch door that appeared to belong on a battleship. He pointed. “In. Go. Dream for a while. I’ll tunnel back in six.” He turned around and walked away.

Jayden, Parker, Nora, BBgun, and Cleo entered the living pod that was a larger version of the conference room they were just in, rusty walls and all.

Jayden spotted five camping-style cots at one end of the room, and a bathroom and shower at the other end. In the middle, a metal table held an inviting pitcher of clear water, a dozen silver cartons that looked like juice boxes, and a large metal bowl of foil-wrapped cubes. Each cube was about twice the size of a game die. A wooden bowl next to the metal bowl contained strange-looking fruit: red oranges, black apples, and purple bananas. Rosa would not be impressed, he thought.

From the look of the room, sleeping and eating were a low priority in their military-barracks-style living quarters. Jayden grabbed two handfuls of foil-wrapped cubes, and then made a beeline to a cot and sat down. He stuffed his face with cubes. The sudden blast of flavor surprised him. “Wow,” he mumbled through a mouth full of expanding cubes.

One cube tasted like meatloaf and potatoes, another like steak and eggs, and another like lasagna. He chomped down as many as he could, as fast as he could. A few minutes later, he was beyond stuffed. It was as if each cube had expanded in his belly to a full-sized meal.

BBgun and Cleo unwrapped foil cubes and nibbled on them as if they were sampling candy. “This one tastes like a hamburger and fries!” BBgun shouted. “I can even taste catsup.”

“This one’s mac and cheese,” Cleo muttered with her mouth full. She shoved them in faster than she could swallow.

Jayden let out a burp. Aaahhh. He didn’t care that Nora and Parker were standing next to him. Before long, everyone was burping, and laughter echoed off the metal walls. It turned into a “who could burp louder” contest.

Then just as quickly as the burp fest erupted, it ended in a pity party.

Parker groaned. “This totally sucks.”

It was as if they all remembered at the same time that they were still farther away from home than they could ever imagine.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” Jayden muttered. “It’s my fault we’re in this mess.”

“Like I said before, get over it, Killgeek,” Nora said.

“Who knew the galaxy was filled to the brim with aliens?” Parker asked.

“Drake did,” Jayden mumbled. He turned to Nora. “We need to get you access to a computer.”

Nora’s eyes went wide. “Like the kind we saw in that room down the hallway?”

“Bingo,” Jayden replied.

Chapter 15

Jayden jerked himself upright when a loud whack vibrated the metal hatch door to their quarters.

“Rinse and scrub, rebel battalions!” Altair3 bellowed, thumping the metal wall again with a huge steel hammer. “Teaching in ten. I’ll zoom again in five. Be willing.”

Jayden stretched and glanced at Nora, then at Parker. Both of them were awake and sitting. “Time to put our game faces on.”

In five minutes, Altair3 returned and led them back inside the railroad-car room.

“On your bellies, earthworms,” Altair3 said, pointing to the chairs surrounding the metal conference table.

Rhea2 rushed in wearing a tight brown leather body suit with gunmetal chains. Yellow jewelry dangled around her neck. Small silver chains decorated with red gems adorned her hands and wrapped around her wrists, then attached to a diamond ring on her middle fingers. Silver eyelids. Sparkling gold lips. Lime-green skin.

Jayden thought everything about her clashed, but it didn’t stop him from doing a double take. Girls from Andromeda were pretty hot, even with freaky flower-fern hair and screechy balloon voices.

“Operational names?” Rhea2 asked.

No one replied.

She cleared her throat and raised her voice. “Tell me what name you wish to use. We don’t use real names around here for obvious reasons. Ever.”

Jayden realized she meant gamer names, and raised his hand. “Killgeek.”

“Zeekmo.”

“BBgun.”

“G-striker.”

Jayden peered at Cleo, waiting for her to chime in. When she didn’t, he whispered to her, “Those are our online gamer names. Just make something up. Andromeda girl is right . . . It’s better than using your real name.”

Cleo stared blankly at him, and then at Parker. “Any ideas?”

“Well?” Rhea2 asked. Clearly, girls from Andromeda weren’t very patient.

“How about ZapperGirl?” Parker blurted out.

Cleo grinned. “I like it,” she said nodding, and then clapped her hands. “Call me ZapperGirl!”

Nora rolled her eyes.

“Thank you, Earth child,” Rhea2 said. “Next, you all must learn a few skills before you’re useful to us in next raid. First thing, we don’t do hand-to-hand. Killgeek, G-striker, and BBgun, there are no robo pods here. Sorry for you.”

“What about blasters?” Parker asked.

“Afraid not. We have no blaster weapons that can hit a shape-shifter Zepar. We use wearable electro-shock weapons instead that deliver a bolt of electricity.”

“Like a Taser?” Parker asked.

“No. ES wearables are more advanced than your simple Earth shock weapons. We wear them on our hands, knees, and elbows. Each delivers a bolt of electricity up to a distance of two meters.”

“Those sound like the same weapons I used in that game the first time I took your flag,” Nora whispered.

Jayden raised an eyebrow but didn’t turn his attention from Rhea2.

“Additionally, we have high-energy electromechanical pulse wafers. Each one is stored in wire mesh cover. Set timer. Leave it and run. Disables all electronic devices and weapons in an area where activated.”

“A pulse?” BBgun asked.

“Sounds like an electromechanical pulse,” Parker said. “You know, an EMP, a super powerful energy burst. Sort of like what a nuke does, but without a massive explosion. Doesn’t hurt people, just destroys anything with an ‘on’ switch.”

“That’s it?” Jayden asked.

“Do not underestimate these weapons, Earth boy,” she replied.

Jayden was about to argue, but remembered they were playing along at the moment. He kept his mouth shut.

“What about lasers?” Parker asked. “We saw a kid get blasted by one.”

“Laser weapons are built into a Zepar’s physical structure. Zepar use a small handheld activation clicker—one button to paint a target with a laser mark, one button to blast painted target with a high-powered laser. Clickers work only within specific areas.”

Cleo groaned and scratched at her head. “Why is everything so complicated?”

“What else do you have?” Parker asked.

“We have fighter carriages, mostly UFOs, a few Atilla Draz carriages, and two galactic transport carriages that we use to travel across Milky Way.”

“You jacked them?” asked Nora.

Rhea2 glared at Nora. “We say ‘borrowed for our cause.’” She sucked in a long, squeaky breath. “All models of carriages require dark energy for power to travel within a star system and operate basic life support systems, food production, and essentials. All require neutron star refueling to enter the space between the space after every three to four flights.”

Cleo held her head. “Neutron?”

“What happens if the spaceship runs out of fuel during travel in the space between the space?” Nora asked.

“No place to land,” Altair3 said. “Ever.”

“He means you die,” Rhea2 added, eyeing Nora.

“Nice . . . not. How many rebel bases are there?” Parker asked her as if she was their middle school science teacher back on Earth.

There he goes again, Jayden thought, always the teacher’s pet. He rolled his eyes.

“Presently . . . twenty, but we only use three at one time. We move bases every 604,800 PSR1a2b3 rotations.”

“Rotations?” BBgun asked, glancing at the others.

“Rotations of a pulsar named PSR1a2b3,” she replied.

“How long is that?” Cleo asked.

“Roughly, seven Earth days,” Rhea2 said. “Other notable points of interest . . . There are Ga data station nodes every parsec. Each node connects to all stations within one parsec.”

“What’s a parsec?” asked Cleo.

BBgun sat up and chimed in. “A parsec equals a little over three light years or about nineteen trillion miles.”

“Let me guess, the astronomy class you took?” Jayden whispered.

BBgun shrugged.

“What about the Ga computer network?” asked Nora.

Jayden discretely winked at Nora. He knew where she was going with that question.

“You will not understand,” Rhea2 replied. “It is best to skip over that information.”

Nora lowered her voice and said, “Try me.” Her eyes narrowed.

Jayden felt his stomach gurgle and squirmed.

Rhea2 turned her head slightly and gazed curiously at Nora. “If you are interested, Zeekmo, I will tell.” Rhea2 paused as if to collect her thoughts.

She gazed at Nora for a moment, and then continued. “Ga computers use quantum technology. Photon-shifting communication using entangling particles . . .”

Jayden’s eyes slid out of focus, and he turned away. These details he’d leave to Nora for obvious reasons. He counted the lights in the room, then the chairs, then tattoos on Rhea2’s neck. Before long, he ran out of things to count.

Rhea2 was still droning on about Ga technology. “Encrypted with quantum encryption algorithms that no one in either of our galaxies has been unable to decrypt.”

Nora’s shoulders stiffened.

Jayden sat up straight and braced himself for a brawl. His bet was on Nora. She’d just been body slammed by the fern-headed girl from Andromeda. Rhea2 was right about one thing. He had no idea what quantum encryption meant. But he bet Nora did.

Nora cleared her throat, and Jayden braced himself. She narrowed her eyes at Rhea2, and then began spewing words. “You mean the computers are based on quantum mechanical phenomena, such as, superposition and entanglement to perform data processing operations. Whereas most Earth-based computation is performed by digital computers where data is encoded using only silicon-based technology that uses binary digits, representing a one or a zero. Simply put for Andros children, Miss Andromeda, the computer can be in more than one state simultaneously.” She ended with a huff.

Jayden seriously thought Nora was going to flip Rhea2 the bird too, but she didn’t.

Rhea2 took a short step backward and raised one eyebrow at Nora.

“You were right,” he whispered to Parker. “She had an awesome MIT tutor.”

Parker grinned without shifting his eyes from his twin sister, seriously watching her back.

“Have you attempted to hack in?” Nora asked. “Maybe using an entangled qubit-state machine or a polarization-hacker-bot?”

Jayden knew Nora was scheming. Looking for an angle, some weakness she could exploit after Rhea2’s galactic class from hell.

Rhea2 shifted her weight and looked down. “Ah, well, no, Zeekmo. We have not.”

“Why not? After all, you’re Andros. I hear your people work in mines and pass gas. That’s got to be mentally difficult, right?”

Oooooh! Nice one. Jayden smiled.

Rhea2 cleared her throat and tried unsuccessfully to lower her voice. Her pitch rose with each word. “We have not tried to break their encryption,” she said, glaring at Nora, “simply because it is unbreakable.”

“I see,” said Nora with a smile. “Perhaps an Earth child should give it a try.”

“Perhaps,” Rhea2 replied. Her face suddenly changed from light green to hunter green with a touch of fuchsia.

“Point, Nora,” Jayden mumbled.

“I suspect whoever invented a way to use quantum mechanics to convert and transport particles in the form of waves could hack their system,” Nora added. “Like the way you transported us to the conference room when we first arrived at this base. Our bodies converted from particles to waves, then back into particles, right?”

Rhea2 nodded. “But the range is limited.”

Two points, Nora, Jayden thought. He cleared his throat, trying to get Rhea2’s attention. It was time for him to defuse the situation. If they ever wanted to jack a transport to get back home, they needed Rhea2 as an ally, not an enemy.

Rhea2 quickly composed herself by drawing in a wheezy breath. “Yes,” she said, turning to Jayden. “You have a question?”

“You said we’re going on a mission, right?” Jayden asked. “Well?”

She nodded. “On every Space Command base exists a carriage hub. Your first mission will be to fly one UFO to carriage hub, and then fly five UFOs back to our base.”

They all sat up in their chairs.

“Is that how the raids work?” Parker asked.

“What do you mean?” Rhea2 asked, questioning him with her eyes.

Parker swallowed hard. “We just surprise them, do a grab and dash? No pray and spray?”

Rhea2 cocked her head to the side. She tapped at her earplug translators.

Nora huffed. “He wants to know if our mission is just to jack stuff,” she said. “You know heist, take, steal, snatch.”

“Ah, steal,” Rhea2 said. “Yes. We borrow.”

“When is the raid?” Parker asked. His gaze fixed on Rhea2.

“Oh, man, I’ve never driven a freaking UFO before,” Cleo said, holding her face in her hands. “Zeekmo did, like, all the driving when we left the training base.”

“No problem. I’ll walk you all through it,” Nora said softly. “It’s like driving a car.”

“Oh.” Cleo lowered her voice to a whisper. “Never driven one of those either.”

BBgun fidgeted in his chair but stayed quiet.

“Once you suit up, I will provide coordinates,” Rhea2 said. “You simply proceed to coordinates. Once your UFO punches back into space, you go to Zeta109b’s third moon—”

“Isn’t that where we were fighting on the front line?” Parker asked.

Rhea2 nodded. “Flight pattern will appear on your display. The transportation hub is orbiting Zeta109b’s third moon with approximately three hundred Space Command UFOs. Once in range, Zeekmo will stay on UFO while the rest of you transport to hub using the quantum transporter. There, each will acquire a UFO. Then return to coordinates on this paper.” She handed each of them a small piece of paper with six sets of numbers on it. “Simple. Punch numbers into the coordinate dial in sequence shown on paper.”

“Will we have other rebels backing us up?” Parker asked.

“No. You are on your own.” Rhea2 glared for a couple seconds, then tightened her lips, focusing on Nora. “Do not allow coordinates to fall into hands of Space Command for obvious reasons.”

BBgun leaned over to Parker and whispered, “What obvious reasons?”

“They’d figure out the location of this base, duh,” Parker whispered.

Rhea2 ignored their whispered conversation as she continued. “Once you punch into space between the space, Space Command cannot track you.” Rhea2 gazed fixedly at each of them. “Any questions?”

They reluctantly shook their heads. Everything was about to get crazier.

Chapter 16

Dressed in a freshly pressed black Space Command uniform, Jayden sat in a wrap-around style bucket seat next to Nora. The rest of the gang sat behind them in a two-seat-wide row of bucket seats.

Nora flipped switches and pressed buttons on the dashboard control panel. “All systems are green.” She gripped the sports-car steering wheel. “We’re a go.”

“Roger, Zeekmo,” Rhea2 replied over the speaker from the rebel base. “Your mission will be easy in, easy out operation. The transport hub will be distracted by the battle on the pink creature’s world, Zeta109b. You should go unnoticed.”

Jayden took a long, deep breath when he remembered the strange pink aliens on Zeta109b. When his thoughts shifted to losing Zebraguts and Knifetango, his stomach soured. “Let’s hope so.”

“You are clear to launch,” Lorcan added over the speaker. “You’ll find your weapons in two boxes in the back of the cockpit. Green, green, green.”

“We’re away,” Nora replied.

“Happy hunting,” Lorcan said.

Right, Jayden thought. Hunting with no blasters? Perfect. He gazed up through the transparent UFO roof that was nearly the size of a green house. The stars moved outside the UFO’s view portal, but he didn’t feel any moving sensation. “How do you know how to get there?” he asked Nora.

“Rhea2 already configured the coordinates,” Nora said. “It’s flying on autopilot using the Ga’s weird navigation system.” She glanced at Cleo, then at Parker and BBgun. “Hey guys, come up here. Time for everyone to learn how to fly this thing.”

Everyone huddled in behind Nora.

For the next hour, Nora gave a flying lesson. As far as Jayden was concerned, it was essentially like driving a car. The only difference was how the steering wheel pulled up and pushed forward to make the UFO go up and down.

“That’s the end of UFO 101. Get back to your seats,” Nora said, checking the readout. “We should be at the raid coordinates in a three minutes. We’ll approach from the rear of the hub, and then transport down. Everyone ready?”

“Ready,” Jayden said.

“G-striker ready,” Parker replied.

“What am I supposed to do again?” asked BBgun, his eyes wide.

Jayden turned around in his seat. “Just follow us into the hangar. We’ll pick four of the newest looking UFOs, then get the heck out of there. Easy.” Even though he sounded convincing, he wasn’t so sure it’d be so easy.

“Should be a snap,” Parker chimed in. “You listened to Nora, didn’t you?”

“Of course,” replied BBgun.

“Good. Stay close,” said Parker. “We’ll point out the UFO for you to snatch.”

“ZapperGirl, sit up here,” Nora said, gesturing to Cleo, then pointed to the control panel. “Press this red button to transport us down when I tell you. Then press this button to get yourself back to the base. We’ll meet you there.”

Cleo nodded, worried. “But I thought—”

“I’m going to the hub instead of you,” Nora said. “Someone’s gotta watch these three.” She smirked.

“Cool,” Cleo said, trying to conceal a grin. “I’ll meet you peeps back at base.”

Jayden turned his attention to the two boxes of weapons, and checked the first box. “Here are the electromagnetic disrupters that Rhea2 told us about.” He handed out what appeared to be hockey pucks. Each disrupter included a snap to attach it to the matching snap at the waist of their uniforms.

The second box contained black gloves, elbow pads, and kneepads that looked as though they could be used to play a football game. But instead of pads, each wearable device was made from an odd, squishy metal. “It feels like a diver’s wetsuit,” Jayden said, “but it looks like some kind of weird metal.”

Parker grabbed a set. He quickly slid them on his knees and elbows. Then he slipped his hands into a pair of gloves. “How do you fire them?” he asked Nora.

Crap, Jayden thought. They’d forgotten to ask.

“No idea,” she replied. “But they look like the ones I used in that online game back home. Once I had them on, all I did was flex. You know, make a fist, throw an elbow, or lunge a knee.”

“Let’s not try them inside this UFO,” Jayden said. “We’re liable to shoot each other.”

Parker smirked. “We have bad memories about doing that, huh, Killgeek?”

Jayden grumbled as he remembered the last online game they had played with Nora. He shook his head in disgust as he put on the wearables. “Any idea what the transport hub will look like?” he whispered to Nora.

“Nope. But we’ll find out soon enough. Let’s go UFO shopping.”

Nora led the way onto a platform of glowing white tiles.

“We’re in position,” Nora said to Cleo. “Ready for transport.”

“Ah, um—” Cleo stammered as she stared at the control panel.

“The red button I showed you, remember?” Nora shouted. “Press it!”

The next thing Jayden knew, he was standing in a UFO hangar with Parker, BBgun, and Nora.

For a couple seconds he felt a little dizzy and off balance. That transport trick is pretty handy, he thought.

The air inside the hub was thin, but Jayden could still breathe. The place was larger than a pro football stadium and fifty stories high. He gazed upon row after row of UFOs filling most of the hangar and noticed the hanger opened at both ends, leading out to space. Groups of ten UFOs in formation flew out of the hangar at one end while two or three beat up UFOs wobbled in from the other end. Wow, Space Command’s war effort was seriously not going well.

Other kids wearing Space Command uniforms scurried about pushing carts of replacement parts to Zepar, apparently repairing dismantled UFOs. With all the activity in the hanger, no one noticed them.

Nora pointed to the middle of the hangar at a steel support beam the width of a house. The beam went straight up to the ceiling. Adjacent to the steel support stood a one-story, glass-walled room the size of a greenhouse with red, blue, and green lights blinking inside. “Let me see the tablet,” she said.

“Uh, sure.” Jayden replied, and snatched it from his t-shirt and handed it to her. “What are you going to do with it?”

“See that room?” Nora asked, pointing to the giant glass booth.

“Good idea,” Jayden said, assuming Space Command was about to be hacked.

“Buy me some time. I’ll be back.” Nora said, and then casually jogged to the glass room, stepped inside, and went to work on a panel with flashing lights.

Jayden knew Nora was good. But as he watched her working and moving with precision, he thought she looked like a super hero. “Let’s spread out and divert anyone going toward that room.”

He pointed to two different UFOs within the hanger about one hundred feet away. “You guys take position there and there. Try to act like the other Space Command kids. Pretend you’re inspecting a UFO or something.”

Parker and BBgun quickly spread out.

Before long, Nora had connected a rigged-up cable to the tablet attached to the panel. She continued pressing on the tablet and pushing buttons on the control panel. Whatever Nora was doing, Jayden could see the information on the tablet’s display changing every two or three seconds.

Suddenly, she started moving quicker, and then let out a blood curdling scream.

Jayden’s stomach dropped. “So not good.”

The entire glass room flashed bright red. A wavering siren blasted.

Nora bolted out of the room in a sprint. She arrived at Jayden’s position nearly at the same time as Parker and BBgun.

“What happened?” Jayden asked her.

“Encryption was harder than I figured it’d be. But I did it. The tablet will connect to their systems now.” Nora handed it to him. “Hide it back in your t-shirt. I’ll mess with it later. Let’s get out of here.”

BBgun’s face turned pale. “Uh, great,” he said, as the siren continued to wail.

Jayden saw what BBgun meant. Twenty shimmering Zepar in black uniforms were fifty yards away and closing on them. He glanced around and scoped out the four closest UFOs. Each one was a little smaller than the UFO they’d just flown in, but they would have to do. “Let’s take those. Fly it straight up and hover.”

“Good idea,” Nora said. “Pull back on the steering wheel to go straight up fifty-feet. Watch the control panel. It will show you how high to go.”

Jayden pointed toward an open hangar door. “Let’s bug out that way.”

“Wait for me to move forward first, and then fly behind me,” Nora added. “They won’t expect us to fly out through the entrance. Just try not to crash into one of the UFOs coming in.”

Parker frowned towards the distant, smooth side panel of one of the UFOs. “How do we get inside?”

“Look for a white triangle with a circle around the bottom edge of the UFO,” Nora said. “Just push. It’ll open a hatch.”

The Zepar were getting closer.

Parker opened and closed his fists. “Let’s go!”

They scattered and each jogged to one of the four UFOs.

Jayden reached his ship, found a triangle, and pushed. Sure enough, it opened the front hatch. As he entered the UFO, the lights came on, and then the hatch closed automatically behind him. He jogged up the circular metal stairs to the control room, sat in a bulky leather chair behind a wooden steering wheel, and inspected the control panel.

After tapping in the punch-in and punch-out coordinate numbers from the paper Rhea2 had given each of them, he turned on the outside cameras, pressed a large green button, and pulled back on the steering wheel.

Amazingly, the UFO wobbled straight up, jerking to the right, then to the left. He groaned as he fought the controls and turned the steering wheel while figuring out how to stabilize the UFO. Finally, he was able to proceed upward until the display showed fifty feet.

“Dang it,” Jayden said. He noticed on the control panel display that BBgun was heading straight toward him. He pushed on the display of BBgun’s UFO. A hologram appeared over the panel showing BBgun fighting the steering wheel. Luckily, he managed to straighten it out before he collided with Jayden.

Jayden pushed on the display until an image appeared of all four of them hovering side-by-side.

Nora’s UFO inched forward and took the lead.

Jayden pushed down the accelerator and followed. He wobbled and grazed Parker’s ship, then BBgun’s, but didn’t inflicting any major damage. A few seconds later, they all slowly flew in a V-formation towards the back entrance with Nora in the lead. Even BBgun managed to get it right and maintain his position.

Not bad for rookies, Jayden thought with a tinge of pride.

The plan worked until the massive hangar door began to close. Red lights flashed all around the gaping opening in front of them.

Jayden’s dashboard display showed other UFOs rising up behind them. His heart pounded as the hangar door closed faster. This was going to be close. He stepped on the accelerator.

Nora, Parker, and BBgun must have been reading his mind. They all sped up at the same time and wobbled side-by-side.

Jayden kept his eyes on the hangar door and realized they weren’t going to make it in the current formation. He jerked the steering wheel to position his UFO above Nora’s craft. Parker took position above his UFO. BBgun moved below Nora’s UFO.

With only inches to spare, they made it out before the hangar doors closed. Jayden’s rear cameras showed the pursuing UFOs disappear behind the closed hangar door.

“Whoo hoo!” he shouted and gave a fist pump.

Once they were clear, Nora took the lead again, speeding out from the hub.

Then a voice blasted out of the speaker on Jayden’s dashboard. “Halt, Space Fighter! Failure to comply will result in death. Self-destruct sequence started.”

Red lights on his control panel blinked rapidly, and a beep began to pulse. Panic gripped his shoulders, as he searched frantically for a way to turn the lights off.

“Can you boys hear me?” Nora asked.

Jayden shouted in harmony with Parker and BBgun, “Yes!” He slapped at the control panel until live holograms of Nora, Parker, and BBgun floated over his dashboard just like the holograms in the robo pod.

“Don’t have a cow,” Nora said. “It’ll take me a second.”

Suddenly, the lights on the dashboard stopped blinking. Thank goodness.

“Easy to override,” Nora said. “They used a stupid microwave beacon pointed at our UFOs. I jammed it. Easy peasy.”

Jayden felt his face twitch. That was close. Lucky for them Nora had more talents than just being a hacker.

“Follow me,” she said, then explained how to punch in the coordinates. When Jayden did, the starlight disappeared, and everything went pitch black. Jayden realized they’d just entered the space within the space. He couldn’t see the others flying near him.

The space between the space is seriously strange.

Before long, his UFO automatically punched-out and returned safely to the Sigarr base with the other three. The autopilot landed all four ships next to each other in the open hangar.

Rhea2 and Cleo waited for them as Jayden walked down the ramp of the UFO he’d jacked. He noticed Rhea2 was biting her lip, her brow furrowed. The Andros girl’s face had turned hunter green again, but this time a shade darker. She glared at Nora. “We heard the alert on Space Command communication channel. Did something go wrong?”

“Nope,” Parker said, holding out open hands. “We didn’t need to use our weapons.”

“What did you do?” Rhea2 asked her fists on her hips.

“Guess we tripped some auto-alarm beacon or something. No problem, we made it out, didn’t we?” Nora said. “Now you have four more precious UFOs to add to your rebel UFO collection, courtesy of us.”

Rhea2 glared at Nora. “Get some rest before your next mission. It is tomorrow.” She turned and walked away.

“Great, thanks!” Parker shouted to her back. “Love how you watered your fern today.”

Jayden gave Parker a slight shove. “Chill, man.” Agitating Rhea2 was the last thing they needed to do.

BBgun frowned. “We have another mission tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Sounds like it,” Jayden replied.

“Let’s hurry, I have a system to hack,” Nora whispered, and then ran off, leaving a light jasmine fragrance in Jayden’s nose.

 

Chapter 17

Once back in their living quarters, everyone unsnapped their disrupters and took off the wearable devices. They piled up the weapons on a table near the food cubes.

Parker inspected a wearable glove. “Wish I knew how the thing worked.”

“Let me see the tablet,” Nora said.

Jayden grabbed his t-shirt and twisted it around. “Here you go,” he said, handing her his dad’s pride and joy.

Nora tapped on the screen. “Check it out,” she said, thrusting the tablet back at him.

Weird symbols and information continuously scrolled all over the screen. “What does it mean?”

“I’m not sure,” Nora said. “All I know is it’s entangled to the Space Command computer system. It must be some kind of status update.”

“Entangled?” Jayden asked.

“Entanglement,” Parker said. “It’s a quantum thing.”

“Sure, that explains it,” Jayden said, rolling his eyes.

Nora ignored them and continued tapping on the tablet’s screen. “I need to get into the mason’s computer lab, and convert these symbols into something I can understand. If anyone asks, tell them I went to get some air or something. I’ll be back,” Nora said over her shoulder, heading for the door.

“Just stay inside the airlock, would you?” Parker said.

Jayden’s eyes stayed on Nora until she disappeared. “That sister of yours is something else.”

“Yep.” Parker peered at the glove. “She tends to dance to her own drummer.”

“True story. I like how she dances,” Jayden mumbled, still staring in the direction of the door.

Parker put down the glove and shoved Jayden. “Excuse me?”

“Um, uh, nothing. Sorry.” Jayden picked up a food cube from a bowl and shoved it into his mouth. His eyes went wide. The cube tasted like the best cheeseburger and French fries he’d ever eaten. “Oh man, this one is good,” he mumbled through a full mouth.

Over the next few hours, Jayden fiddled with the hockey-puck-shaped disrupter. He figured out how to disable it and remove the cover, but still wasn’t sure how it worked. The insides resembled the guts of a cell phone he’d destroyed once. Instead of silver solder and small electronics, tiny gold pieces had been woven together using super thin gold thread.

Parker, BBgun, and Cleo watched as he took out what appeared to be a battery and started unweaving the thread. It was a long shot, but Jayden wondered if the parts might make some weapon they could use. Before long, he had pulled out enough thread to wrap around two fingers a hundred times. He tugged on the thread trying to break it. But it nearly sliced into his finger. Impressive, he thought.

“There’s a lot of gold inside that little hockey-puck,” Cleo said.

“True,” Jayden replied, tossing Parker a disrupter. “What if we used the gold thread to lasso Zepar shape-shifters when they’re still shimmering? We might be able to make a blaster out of the battery.”

“Genius,” BBgun said.

“Worth a try,” Parker added, peering at the device.

“Pull them apart. Take out the battery and unweave the gold thread. Let’s tie the strands together.”

Soon, they’d tied enough gold thread together to make a long wire to use as a small rope. Jayden wound it up and shoved it inside the empty hockey-puck-shaped disrupter cover along with three loose batteries. He snapped it closed.

Parker sauntered over to the wearable weapons and shoved his hand into a glove. “I want to test this thing out.” He pointed his hand at the far wall and made a fist.

Nothing happened.

Parker punched at the air.

Still nothing happened.

He turned toward Jayden and extended his hand. “I give up—”

But this time when Parker opened his hand, a bolt of electricity shot out from the glove as if he were Spiderman shooting a sticky web. The blast of electricity barely missed Jayden’s head, leaving a large black mark on the metal wall behind him.

Jayden dove to the floor. “Parker!” he roared. “Be careful. You nearly took my head off.”

Parker’s eyes went wide as he eyed the black mark. The jubilation took over. “Whoa.” He took a closer look at a glove. “Pretty cool. It was like I threw a bolt of lightning.”

“Yeah and you almost killed me.” Jayden said, climbing back to his feet.

Parker glanced at Jayden. “I think it fired when I opened my hand and shoved it forward. Boom, baby. I bet kicking motions fire the knee wearables.”

Jayden brushed himself off. “Just put it away, please!”

Parker grumbled but complied.

A few minutes later, Nora dashed through the doorway with an ecstatic smile. She sat down at the table. “Oh yeah. It is a beautiful day . . .”

BBgun glanced at the solid metal roof, then at the walls, and frowned. “How can you tell?”

Nora ignored him and continued. “Just beautiful.” She noticed the huge black mark on the wall. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Jayden said. “Just your idiot twin testing weapons.”

She shook her head. “Yeah, whatever.”

“BBgun, ZapperGirl, why don’t you organize our food cubes or something?” Jayden asked them. “Altair3 says they added a new flavor. Smells like ice cream sundae, but tastes like chicken. See if you can find it.”

“Yum that sounds—” BBgun hesitated. “Good. I think.” He dashed to the cubes.

Cleo followed, glancing back at Parker a couple times. She knew something was up. “Meals with meat,” she muttered. “Meals with pasta, and meals with fish. Alien fast food. Wicked cool . . .”

“Altair3 said that?” Parker whispered.

Jayden shook his head. “Of course not, but it’s probably something he’d say.”

Nora glared at them. “Would you two get serious?”

“What’s up?” Parker asked.

“I was able to access Space Command’s core systems.” Nora pulled the red tablet out from under her black shirt and handed it to Jayden. “They use crazy levels of encryption for everything. The first level gives the coordinates for all of the Space Command bases. It even has an inventory of the supplies on each base. The Ga are meticulous. Hundreds of data fields are in each of their database records. They record everything.”

“The Ga system is in English?” he asked.

“Actually, it’s in a kind of Unicode,” she replied.

Jayden had no clue what Unicode meant, but he wasn’t going to admit it.

“I toggled a parameter to view everything in English,” Nora continued as if she were explaining how to ride a bike. “Each data file name is clear text. You know, not encrypted so that I could read it. The Ga have a set of files for every habitable planet. Each planet’s file tracks people, equipment, and just about everything else.”

“Anything on Leader Nuk’ana?” Jayden asked.

Nora shrugged. “Well, I think someone from Nuk’ana’s team is keeping details on Nuk’ana out of the database. His current location isn’t in there. At least I couldn’t find it. Some of the files are in crazy languages I can’t read. The files I could, I hacked. Turned out to be a jackpot of information related to Space Command’s war activities.”

“How’d you manage to break in?” Parker asked.

“When we were at the hub, I entangled your tablet’s Quantum processor’s memory with a memory unit. I figured they replicated their databases and kept copies on every node just in case a particular location gets blown up. I was totally right. When their main database memory unit changes, the memory in this little tablet changes too.” She turned to Jayden. “Speaking of which, who gave that tablet to your dad anyway?”

“No idea,” he replied. “It was an award, I think. My dad showed me the thing after he’d received it at some trade show.”

“I don’t think it’s from Earth,” Nora said softly, shaking her head.

A crease deepened on Parker’s forehead. “Sis, can they trace it like they did your computers back home?”

“Doubtful,” she replied, sharply. “But honestly, I’m not exactly sure. I didn’t think they could track me back home either.”

Parker huffed. “Oh, great,” he said. “Now we’re stardust, for sure.”

Jayden held up a hand at Parker. “Dude, chill, would you please?”

Nora narrowed her eyes at her twin brother. “Look, we all want to get back to Earth, right?”

Parker rubbed his face and nodded. “Of course.”

She turned to Jayden. “I’ll spend more time hacking the next layer of encryption once everyone goes to sleep. If I can figure out the coordinates of Earth, we’ll be on our way. This tablet is a game changer for us.”

Jayden grinned. “Awesome. But hang on. We’ll need a galactic transport to take us home, right?”

Nora nodded.

Parker said. “How do we get a transport?”

A wide smile took over Nora’s face. “Steal one, of course.”

 

Chapter 18

Three loud, metallic thuds on the sleeping quarter walls woke up Jayden from his first deep sleep in days.

“Spit and shine, workforces!” Altair3 bellowed. “Pulse your wafers and shock your pistols. After teachings, you’ll foot straight to the pool.” Then the crazy-talking alien teen abruptly walked out, presumably to wake up some other poor kids with nonsensical comments.

“Ah, man.” Jayden groaned and pushed himself out of the cot. He glanced over at Nora’s empty and still pristine bed.

“What’d green-haired plant dude say?” Parker asked.

“Guess we have a briefing or something,” Jayden replied. “Have you seen your sister?”

“Nope,” Parker replied as he gazed at her empty cot.

Jayden rubbed his face and yawned. “We’re so hosed—”

As if on cue, Nora burst in through the metal door. She made a beeline to Jayden and Parker with the red tablet in her hands. “Got it. I know how to get us to Earth. I’ve got the coordinates.” As she tried to catch her breath, she handed Jayden the tablet. “Put it away.”

Jayden noticed her eyes sparkling as he stuffed the tablet into his t-shirt pocket. “Seriously? You know how to get us home?”

Nora nodded. “It takes two sets of six coordinates. One set of six for our current position and one set for our destination. The good news is the transport’s control panel always calculates current position, so we just need six coordinates for our destination. But it’s not all good.”

“Why not?” Parker asked, frowning.

“The starting point to get home is a star 16,000 parsecs from here,” she said.

Jayden did a quick calculation in his head. One parsec is equal to about nineteen trillion miles, multiplied by sixteen thousand. The number was too big for him to imagine. “Where’s the star exactly? In non-mathematical terms, for those of us who didn’t have MIT tutors.”

“A star system in the Milky Way’s Scutum-Centaurus spiral arm. There are three habitable planets in the system with two habitable moons.”

“Why do we have to start there?” Parker asked.

Nora let out a sigh, and then said, “The transport won’t reach Earth in one hop. We’ll need to recharge the UFO near that star and pick up more neutron fuel from the depot that operates there.”

Altair3 rushed into the room with his face all scrunched up. Jayden thought the green kid’s silver piercings might shoot out from his skin like blow darts. “Push it, Earth elders,” Altair3 said. “You’ll be early. Shadow me yesterday!”

It took Jayden a minute, but he understood. Altair3 wanted them to follow him quickly.

They each grabbed two disrupters and a set of wearable devices tied together in a bundle.

Jayden snapped everything around his waist. He preferred pockets or even a belt, but finally understood why there were snaps around his uniform. He grabbed the disrupter case with the wound up gold thread they’d prepared, along with the three disconnected batteries, snapped the case to his pants, and then pulled down his shirt to cover it. On the way out, he snatched a piece of red-colored fruit, bit into it, and immediately spit it out. Bleck! It looked like a ripe apple but tasted like an onion.

They jogged though the steel paneled hallway following the fern-headed mason kid until Altair3 reached a different metal door. He opened a heavy hatch and motioned for them to follow him.

About twenty-five teens had gathered around a large table listening to Rhea2. She interacted with chart holograms and map projections at the front of the room. Jayden noticed her fern curls appeared to be in full bloom.

Layered steel and white painted walls enclosed the windowless room, which was at least twice as large as the last conference room. The chairs were the same ridiculously uncomfortable ones made out of sharp-edged, welded scrap sheets of metal.

Jayden’s first impression was that the kids around the table looked like typical Earth kids, but then he noticed differences. A few were fern heads like Rhea2 and Altair3. Three other teen aliens sported purple braided hair that dangled down past their shoulders with purple eyebrows above intense, dark blue eyes. The freaky thing was their skin glowed florescent blue, and their fingernails shone yellow.

He noticed a group of alien girls sitting next to each other in black leather jumpsuits. Their jet-black hair, dark black eyes, and black lips made them look like Goth kids with major attitude. Red ears pointed up through their straight black hair.

Jayden decided most of the other kids in the room were definitely not from Earth. As if he was some kind of intergalactic cool dude, he nodded to the red-eared girls. He jumped when they sneered back in return, hissing and showing off white, pointed shark teeth.

Nora gave Jayden a shove. “Focus, Surfer Boy,” she whispered.

“This next raid is more complicated than previous . . . ,” Rhea2 continued.

“In posterior, sleep walk there,” Altair3 muttered to them.

Jayden decided that Altair3 meant they should stand in the back of the room next to him.

As Jayden stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Altair3, he noticed Altair3’s green hair smelled like Hawaiian flowers. He flashed back to a family vacation a few years ago. Walking out of the airport with his mom and dad into a neck full of nice smelling Hawaiian leis.

Home.

Rhea2 continued her briefing. “We are targeting intergalactic carriage hub, which is on-orbit around Zeco23-1 in the Xe7vb2 star system. It is size of a small city, with a long cylindrical shape and fifty-seven levels. Each level has similar dimension to hangar here on Sigarr and accommodates either a galactic transport or an intergalactic transport. Top levels are dedicated to UFOs. Four high-speed transport elevators are located in the middle of a fifty-yard-by-fifty-yard area. With Leader Nuk’ana’s fighters focused on front line of the war, this should be quick, in-and-out raid.”

Jayden glanced at Parker and yawned. It seemed like the masons loved boring briefings.

Rhea2 continued. “We’ll take our mason’s transport ship 10,000 parsecs from this base to edge of galaxy where intergalactic transport hub is located . . .”

“Oh, great,” Nora whispered.

“What?” Jayden asked.

“She’s taking us in the opposite direction. We’re going farther away from Earth.”

As they whispered, kids sitting nearby glared and nudged each other. Some even pointed at them.

“So what if we’re heading farther away?” Jayden whispered. “We have the coordinates of Earth now, right?”

“True. But it’ll take an extra stop to get home. I’ll need to find another place where we can refuel—”

“Ssssilence!” one of the shark-teeth girls hissed.

Altair3 glared at Jayden and put one finger to his lips. Whatever.

Rhea2 paused for a moment until the room stilled. “Access to pilot’s cockpit in each carriage requires voice command, which is only security device you will need,” she said. “We will pass out portable voice cubes. Just put cube on access unit and press yellow button. It plays audio of entry code in Ga-speak . . .”

Ga-speak?

Jayden hadn’t thought about different languages much since the day the Zepar implanted the translator in his ears.

“This particular hub is massively larger than the hub that Zeekmo and her clan raided yesterday.” Rhea2 nodded at Nora.

Weird. Rhea2 had been going toe-to-toe with Nora, but now it sounded as if Rhea2 was giving Zeekmo props. Just mention quantum physics and you’re evidently in Rhea2’s clan. The green-haired fern girl from Andromeda didn’t seem to hold much of a grudge. Good news for us, he thought.

The door burst open, and the room went silent. Lorcan walked in wearing a brown leather jacket, a vintage leather aviator hat, and reflective aviator sunglasses. The Spring Tide Masons’ leader removed his glasses then removed his hat. Long, jet-black hair fell to his shoulders. The kid seriously needed a tan, Jayden thought, but the girls back on Earth would probably vote for him as homecoming king.

Lorcan fixed his hazel eyes briefly on each kid around the room. It seemed to him that Lorcan seriously cared about each of the masons in the room. Then Lorcan gazed at Nora and winked.

She blushed.

Um, what? Hold up a second! Jayden felt a surge of blood warm his face.

“I want to introduce the latest addition to the Spring Tide Masons,” Lorcan said. “In the back of the room: Zeekmo, G-striker, Killgeek, BBgun, and ZapperGirl. They successfully completed their first raid yesterday. Captured four UFOs with zero casualties. Quick and easy, although, I did hear they pulled off a creative flying maneuver to make it out of the hangar.”

All the masons stomped both feet on the floor and shouted, “Uta!”

Altair3 grinned at Jayden.

“You five will be with Rhea2,” Lorcan said. “She’ll be piloting the intergalactic transport you will steal. You’ll be with her on this raid and the coming raids over the next three moon cycles. Is that clear?”

Jayden nodded.

Parker leaned over to Nora and Jayden. “How do we jack a transport with Rhea2 watching our every move?”

“We’ll think of something,” Jayden replied.

“Oh, great,” Parker whispered. “I know what that means.”

Nora grinned.

A boy in dark sunglasses waved. He was tall and slim with a button nose, thick red lips, and long, red hair with a matching scraggly beard. Jayden thought the boy looked like he should be playing in a mega rock band. The kid removed his glasses to reveal wide set, yellow bug eyes.

Yeesh! Never mind on the rock star vibe.

“Speak!” Lorcan said.

“Are we authorized to fire our wearable devices?” the alien boy asked in a loud, deep voice. It sounded as though he seriously wanted to zap something.

Lorcan nodded. “You may shoot only Zepar. We must secure the intergalactic transports at all costs, but we will not harm our brothers and sisters.”

Everyone in the room seemed restless.

“Look, Masons. This raid is our most important yet. You are the very best.” Lorcan paused to gaze over the group. “If we can acquire three or more transports, we can start reaching other Space Command teens around the Milky Way Galaxy. Better still, if an intergalactic transport can be secured, some of you will be able to return to Andromeda.” Lorcan nodded at the kids with the fern hair.

“Io3, Sol9, and Orion2. You’ll each lead a team. Any questions?”

BBgun raised his hand.

Jayden’s stomach dropped. BBgun?

“Yes?” Lorcan asked him.

“How long does it take to travel on a galactic transport?”

The kids in the room snickered as if he’d asked for the answer to one plus one. But Jayden thought it was a decent question.

“Right,” Lorcan said. “In Earth time, the transport travels in the space between the space at 10,000 parsecs per hour. The intergalactic transport travels 150,000 parsecs per hour. UFOs travel 6 parsecs an hour. Anything else?” This Lorcan kid from Seattle sure knew his parsecs per hour. No wonder he was in charge. But Jayden still didn’t like the way he looked at Nora.

No one replied.

“Good. We muster at transport one.”

“Muster?” Jayden whispered to Nora.

“He means gather,” she whispered back.

All the kids clapped their hands, hooted and hollered. He figured it was their version of a rally before a big game.

A loud bong rang. The biggest flat screen television Jayden had ever seen inched down from the ceiling at the front of the room.

The entire room of masons went silent.

“What is that?” Jayden asked Altair3.

“Shhh, it is Nuk’ana’s live talking points,” Altair3 replied. “He yells.”

Rhea2 crossed to the back of the room and stood by Jayden as an image of Leader Nuk’ana standing behind a wooden podium appeared on the screen.

Leader Nuk’ana puffed on his long, carrot-shaped smoking stick. The leader stood tall in a pressed black Space Command uniform. His jawline wasn’t extended like it had been the first time Jayden had seen the alien. He thought Nuk’ana’s new jaw shape was a much better look for him—less ruthless mass killer and more CPA banker.

But Jayden still felt sick to his stomach when he peered at Nuk’ana’s reptilian eyes with their black vertical slits. Jayden had lost two boys to the Atilla because of Nuk’ana and had watched another boy turned into BBQ dust.

A black Space Command flag with a large image of the Milky Way Galaxy and another black flag with an image of what Jayden assumed was the Andromeda Galaxy dangled behind Nuk’ana.

Jazu stood at attention on the left side of Nuk’ana. Just as Jayden remembered, Jazu was half as tall as Nuk’ana, with a long, pointed snout and pointed ears like a hairless wolf. When Jazu blinked, he fanned colorful eyelashes. Shazu stood on Nuk’ana’s right side. Even though she was shorter than Jazu and Nuk’ana, the alien was hard to miss with her piled-high, red-apple hair and dark pink face.

Twelve Space Command kids in black uniforms stood beside the leader, five on either side of the podium, framing Nuk’ana’s image. They all appeared disoriented. He noticed one kid with red-rimmed eyes.

“It is time for Nuk’ana’s sixteen-rotation communication briefing,” Rhea2 whispered.

Sixteen-rotation? Jayden thought, shooting Rhea2 a puzzled look.

“That’s every five days in Earth time,” she whispered. “His briefing is always at this hour.”

“Communication with whom?” Nora asked her quietly.

“He always delivers his message and war update from a different location in Milky Way,” Rhea2 said.

“Talking points are Nuk’ana’s updates,” Altair3 said. “But I say it is eagle poop.”

“Why from random locations?” whispered Parker.

“Nuk’ana stays in hiding,” Rhea2 said. “He delivers a live message to twist truth.” She narrowed her eyes. “There are rumors he worries about assassination, so the leader randomly selects a different location for each briefing.”

“How does Nuk’ana manage to send a message that reaches across a gazillion light years instantly?” Parker asked.

“He uses the Ga mesh communication network. It sends broadcast through space between space to every Ga data station node, simultaneously reaching every civilization in Milky Way and Andromeda,” Rhea2 said. “It allows Nuk’ana to keep his grip on Andromeda while remaining in Milky Way.”

“Wasn’t there like someone else who used to rule Andromeda?” whispered Cleo.

“Yes. Emperor Ruchbah9,” Rhea2 said. “When Atilla invaded Andromeda, Nuk’ana took control of my people. Now Nuk’ana believes he speaks for all Andros.” Rhea2 scowled. “Nuk’ana wanted Emperor Ruchbah9 to be at his side during these propaganda updates, but our emperor spit.”

“Ruchbah9 told Nuk’ana to pound particles,” Altair3 said, and looked away.

Jayden raised one eyebrow.

“Greetings, citizens,” Nuk’ana began in a deep baritone voice. “We have excellent news that the war effort continues to go well . . .”

Jayden reflected on the front line battle he and Parker had managed to survive. How two of his clan had been captured. He couldn’t listen to Nuk’ana’s lies any longer. “Liar! He’s a liar!”

All the masons in the room peered at Jayden, then began to stomp both feet, one at a time. Some screamed things he didn’t understand. But he got the impression they agreed with him.

Lorcan grinned and waved his hand.

The room fell silent.

“We have pushed back the Atilla and have protected our citizens.” Nuk’ana grinned and continued. “The invaders are no match for our Space Command fighting forces. We will prevail! Build a better tomorrow, build a better future, take care of our citizens, and grow our wealth along the Golden Way . . .”

“The guy talks like an Earth politician,” Parker whispered.

“A murderer always,” Altair3 said in a low-pitched growl.

“Who are the Space Command kids with him?” Jayden asked Rhea2.

“Jazu and Shazu request new recruits to be with Nuk’ana for each briefing,” she replied. “I have been told Nuk’ana believes that having them stand with him reinforces what he says.”

“Just like Earth politics,” Parker said.

“What do you mean?” Rhea2 asked.

“During speeches, politicians always have people in the background that represent whom they want to attract for more votes,” Parker said.

Nuk’ana continued. “Space Command army will protect you. The Ga will help us defeat the Atilla barbarians! Continue to go about your day-to-day living. I promise to protect your children and our way of life. Space Command fighters, like the outstanding recruits around me, will protect us all.” The teens with him smiled on cue, like robots.

“You said the Ga disappeared,” Jayden whispered to Altair3.

Altair3 nodded.

“But Nuk’ana said—”

“He tells baby man lies,” Altair3 said with a snarl.

Nuk’ana took a long drag on his smoking stick. He blew the smoke out in one puff. “Thank you, one. Thank you, all. May the beings of energy protect the Zepar Empire and guide our Space Command warriors.”

Beings of energy? It was the second time Jayden had heard the phrase.

The screen went black, and the room remained silent.

Lorcan stood and raised his fists. Rhea2 strolled over to him. “Let us get to our raid.”

He punched the air. “We can beat this maniac and his brainwashed army! We will take away his power and return it to the people across both the Milky Way and Andromeda. I promise to expose this lying monster. Our star brothers and sisters will be set free! Do you agree?”

The room went wild. Everyone stomped their feet and began chanting, “Uta! Uta! Uta!”

Jayden had no idea what that meant but joined in the sing-a-long anyway. “Uta! Uta! Uta!”

He could relate to what these masons were trying to do. It made sense. Nuk’ana bullied, deceived, and hurt teens like them. But that was the Lorcan’s problem, not his.

Jayden leaned over to Nora and Parker. “Let’s jack a transport at the hub and bolt from there. I don’t care if it takes an extra stop. We need to get out of here A.S.A.P.”

Parker responded to Jayden with an “Uta!” in sync with the larger group’s chants.

Nora nodded and joined in with her own “Uta!”

The time to leave these masons had come.

Chapter 19

After changing into freshly pressed Space Command uniforms, Jayden, Parker, Nora, Cleo, and BBgun scurried to the hanger where a previously stolen galactic transport awaited them.

“Here’s the plan,” Jayden whispered to Parker and Nora as Cleo and BBgun walked behind them. “Once we arrive at the hub and help Rhea2 jack a transport, we’ll ditch her and find our own transport.”

“Sounds good to me.” Nora nodded. “After we jack one, I’ll punch in a quick set of travel coordinates where we can regroup. It’ll buy me time to use the tablet to work out the refueling hops to get back to Earth.”

“Leave Rhea2? Seriously?” Parker asked. “That seems intense, doesn’t it? Won’t Leader Nuk’ana kill her?”

“We’ll only leave her once she gets to an intergalactic transport,” Jayden said. “She knows her way around the Milky Way better than we do. She’ll be fine.”

The three of them agreed as they entered the moon base hanger. The galactic transport was massive compared to the house-sized UFO. Rhea2 waited with Lorcan a short distance away from the open entrance.

When the group reached the two masons, neither Rhea2 nor Lorcan bothered with a greeting. “We’ll be riding in captain’s pod,” Rhea2 said, sharply. “Follow.”

Jayden and the rest swiftly proceeded toward the transport’s entrance. He noticed Rhea2 was peering at a hologram of the target hub facility that floated above her mobile device. She interacted with it by using hand gestures.

“Your raid yesterday was impressive, Zeekmo,” Lorcan said to Nora. “I enjoyed watching your wicked cool maneuver to exit the hangar before the door closed.” He put his arm around Nora’s shoulder.

She didn’t resist.

Jayden wanted to kick Lorcan’s feet out from under him.

“Where’d you learn that?” Lorcan asked Nora.

Nora shrugged and giggled. Jayden did a double take. He’d never heard Nora giggle before.

“Are you coming with us?” she asked Lorcan.

“Not this time. I’m traveling to Megena9,” Lorcan said.

“Where’s that?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s just another one of our moon outposts, about 9,500 parsecs from here,” Lorcan replied, then added, “I’ll be taking transport ship number two after you leave.”

“Why are you going there?” Nora asked.

“We have some expansion opportunities, so to speak. Besides, I like to rotate between our outposts.” He moved closer to her as they continued walking. “I’d like to get to know you better. Why not come with me and try some of that decryption you mentioned? Rhea2 and the rest of your clan can handle this raid.”

Nora gazed at him but remained silent.

Poacher! Jayden thought. “We stick together, Lorcan,” Jayden told him with authority.

Nora flashed a grin.

Lorcan hesitated, then said, “Excuse me there, Killgeek. I was talking to Zeekmo—”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Nora said. “I stay with my clan. We can discuss decryption techniques another time.”

Lorcan forced a smile. “Too bad. We could use your help breaking into Space Command’s system.”

Jayden wanted to shove Lorcan onto his arrogant backside but thought better of it. They needed to get back to Earth and the only way to do it was to keep cool. Lorcan couldn’t suspect they were planning on bolting soon.

When they reached the transport, Rhea2 put away her handheld unit. “We go in here.”

“I’ll be off,” Lorcan said. “Happy hunting. We’ll all meet up after the raid.” He widened his stride without looking back as though he couldn’t wait to get away from them.

Good riddance, Don Juan, Jayden thought.

They followed Rhea2 into the transport, then up a four-story-tall spiral stairway to another door resembling a reinforced international jetliner’s cockpit entrance. Jayden was huffing for breath by the time they reached the door.

Rhea2 held a cube in front of the door and pressed a yellow button. The cube played the Ga audio with no translation: “Gsse-ta-aat-tez.” It sounded like a cross between a teapot whistle and a rap song. When the cockpit door opened, they hurried inside.

The cockpit was arranged similar to an Earth-style commercial jet pilot’s cabin, but much larger than a first-class cabin. Instead of fancy first-class seats, the cabin was filled with bench seats that seemed to belong on a city bus. It wasn’t very advanced in Jayden’s opinion, though the benches included pop-up headrests, shoulder and seat belts.

At the far end of the room, two impressive leather chairs had been positioned in front of a long dashboard and bus-sized steering wheel. Jayden figured they must be the pilot and co-pilot seats.

“Smells like a city bus,” BBgun muttered to Jayden, who sniffed the air and agreed.

Musty and dank, he thought. The room seriously needed a bucket of bleach and a day with Rosa.

“Everyone takes a seat,” Rhea2 said. “Put on the straps and belts. You sit here next to me, Zeekmo. I’ll show you how to fly the transport.”

Rhea2 sat in front of the big bus steering wheel, which was twice as wide as her body.

Jayden and the rest of the squad sat behind her in pairs on bench seats, peering forward towards a wall-sized view portal. Wow. A hundred UFOs filled the busy hangar bay. Some masons were getting onto UFOs, some getting off, and others working on disassembled UFOs. At the far end of the hangar, Jayden saw an opening as wide and tall as the hangar itself that led out to space.

“Panel is green,” Rhea2 said.

“Girlfriend’s hair is blooming today,” Cleo whispered to Parker. “Freaky.”

Jayden glanced back. Parker and Cleo were making eyes at each other.

“You look handsome today, snickerdoodle,” said Cleo.

Snickerdoodle? Jayden rolled his eyes.

Lorcan’s voice came over a speaker. “You are go for launch. May the energy beings guide your mission, Lorcan out.”

“Launch,” Rhea2 said.

In an instant, the portal view changed from the inside of the hangar to a swath of stars. One of the stars grew bigger by the second, filling the view with a bright yellow sun.

Rhea2 lifted a switch on the panel. “Prepare to punch in.”

They all looked at each other and sat back in their seats. Jayden tightened his muscles.

“Punching in . . . now,” Rhea2 said.

Again, Jayden had expected some physical movement or jerking motion, but he felt nothing. The only thing that had changed was the star field above their heads. One second there were stars, the next second, nothing. Just blackness. No sound either, or even a vibration.

Before long, he relaxed and peered at a countdown display on the control panel indicating fifty-nine minutes and thirty seconds to go before punch-out.

“Show me the buttons to push again,” Nora said. “The ones you use to enter coordinates.”

Rhea2 gave Nora a tutorial while Jayden dosed off.

Suddenly, Jayden felt an elbow in his side.

“Dude, you’re snoring.” Parker huffed.

“Oh, sorry.” Jayden wiped his face and sat up.

Rhea2 turned a large knob. “We have arrived.” She flipped a switch on the panel. “Punching out in 3-2-1.”

Starlight filled the portal.

“That was easy,” Nora said. “So the intergalactic transport works the same as this transport?”

“Yes.” Rhea2 stood. “Come. It is time.” Rhea2 left the cabin in a hurry as they all jogged to keep up with the fern-headed girl.

A minute later, Jayden and his team joined the other twenty or so masons assembling inside the transport’s giant hull. Jayden recognized the mason kids from Lorcan’s briefing: Io3, Sol9, and Orion2.

“Put on your wearables.” Rhea2 handed each of them a silver water container resembling a workout water bottle. “Everyone carries a water bottle inside hub. Snap the container onto your pants.”

They quickly put on the knee and elbow wearables, and then forced their hands in the tight fitting gloves. The cube of lightning bolt electronics on the topside of each hand felt bulky to Jayden. He opened and closed both hands, trying to stretch the glove out.

“Have you memorized coordinates?” Rhea2 asked.

Nora nodded.

“Good. Destroy coordinate papers.”

She complied.

Jayden couldn’t stand still. Jacking a transport was their ticket home, and this raid was do or die.

“Io3, you are on point,” Rhea2 said. “Take north side elevator to level sixteen. There you will secure transport and return to Sigarr. Sol9, take the south side elevator to level four. Orion2, take west elevator to level six. We’ll take east elevator to transport level one where they prepare intergalactic transports for launch. Epsol8, once we are away, return our transport back to Sigarr. Any questions?”

A few of the masons fidgeted, but no one said a word. Everyone appeared to be as eager as Jayden felt.

“Good luck. We meet up at the outpost. May beings of energy be with each of you.” Rhea2 pushed the button and the outer hatch of transport opened wide and led the way into the hub.

The group followed her casually out of the transport as if they were Space Command kids working inside the hub.

Nora grabbed Jayden’s arm. “Let me see the tablet,” she whispered.

He discretely took it from his t-shirt and handed it to her as they walked. The characters on the screen were changing faster than ever. “What’s it doing?”

“No idea,” Nora said. “It’s starting to worry me, though. It seems way too active.” She handed the tablet back to him. “No time now. I’ll investigate more later.”

Jayden tucked the tablet away as Io3, Sol9, Orion2, and most of the other masons jogged off in different directions.

As they walked with confidence into the massive hub facility, Jayden abruptly froze, and his feet stuck to the floor. This place wasn’t just big, it was massive. And Zepar were all around them.

Chapter 20

Jayden gazed around the hub level in awe. He estimated it had to be at least twice the size of the mason’s outpost hangar, rivaling the dimensions of at least twenty superdome football stadiums. In the center, a large, open square with massive steel beams and cables passed through all the levels. It was hard to imagine fifty-seven similar levels built on top of each other.

“Follow me . . . hurry,” Rhea2 said as she jogged off.

Parker grabbed Jayden by the arm and pulled him forward, and quickly followed her.

When they reached a corner in front of the open space near the hangar’s center, Rhea2 pressed a large button on a waist-high metal rail that ran along the edge of the center open space. A small section of the rail near them lit up.

Then they waited.

Jayden noticed the Space Command kids and shimmering Zepar went about their business. No one even notices us.

“Each corner of open space has an elevator,” Rhea2 informed them.

What was taking so long? Jayden wondered, tapping his foot impatiently. “Good to know.”

Jayden leaned over the railing and peered upward. Unfreaking believable! The huge center space went up as far as he could see. He glanced down and instantly felt dizzy. The drop seemed to go on forever.

Rhea2 yanked Jayden back from the rail. Just in time too. An empty elevator on the other side of the rail appeared in a flash and jerked to a stop in front of them. The elevator was nearly the size of Jayden’s bedroom back home, but completely round with a see-through glass frame.

Two doors slid apart with a burst of air, while at the same time the lit-up portion of the rail retracted in front of them. It was the wildest elevator he had seen.

When they stepped in, Jayden’s head began to spin. The only thing that wasn’t see-through was the thin, metal-frame skeleton and the mirrored ceiling.

“To prevent sickness, it is best to breathe in deeply,” Rhea2 said.

They all sucked in a breath at the same time. Apparently Jayden wasn’t the only one freaking out.

Rhea2 pressed a large, square panel inside of the elevator. The doors closed and the clear bubble took off in a flash. Jayden couldn’t feel any movement at all, but he could tell by looking outside the elevator that they were moving super-fast.

Jayden gazed upward and saw his reflection on the elevator’s mirrored ceiling. He took off his hat and rubbed his shaved head. Not cool. The buzz cut wasn’t a good look for him. He missed his Surfer Boy hair.

Numbers on a digital display inside the elevator continued to change. When the elevator reached three floors away from their level, the lights inside the elevator began flashing bright red.

“Intruder alert!” the speaker over their heads blared. “Intruder alert! Decks sixteen, six, and four! Commence lockdown procedures immediately! Shoot to kill! Repeat! Shoot to kill!”

Jayden’s stomach instantly dropped to his toes. Guess we didn’t fit in as well as I thought.

“Silence,” Rhea2 whispered. “Act normal if door opens. Act as if you belong.”

They shuffled to the back of the elevator.

When the floor number flashed “2,” the doors opened.

Jayden’s eyes went wide. He held his breath as Leader Nuk’ana and four Zepar fighters boarded, and then turned their backs in front of them to face the open doors. He noticed each Zepar held a small device resembling an automobile key clicker.

The doors shut, and the elevator continued to level 1.

Jayden tried to remain calm, but it was next to impossible. Please don’t turn around, Leader Dude, he said to himself. Sweat beads accumulated on his forehead. For a moment, he thought they were going to go unnoticed until Leader Nuk’ana peered upward into the mirror. Nuk’ana’s eyes focused on Rhea2.

“It’s so nice to see you again, Rhea2. How is your father these days?”

Father? Jayden wondered.

She turned away and said nothing.

Nuk’ana sneered at Jayden’s reflection in the mirror. His jawline stretched long, retracted, and then sharpened.

Jayden totally wanted to puke. Being stuck in an elevator was one thing, but being cornered by a mass murderer was something entirely different. If he did toss his food cubes, he’d aim for Nuk’ana.

Leader Nuk’ana shifted his eyes to Parker. One by one, Nuk’ana stared each of them down through the mirror. “I see you have friends with you, Rhea2. Might you introduce me?”

Rhea2 continued to ignore him.

“Too bad,” Nuk’ana said with an evil grin on his face. “It does not matter. The end is near for all of you, I’m afraid.”

End . . . as in death? Jayden swallowed hard.

The elevator reached deck one, a chime sounded, and the doors opened again. Rhea2 didn’t hesitate. She shoved past the Zepar on the right, grabbed the alien’s clicker, and dove out of the elevator. Nora lunged to the left, snatching a clicker from a second Zepar alien before hurtling from the elevator. Without thinking about it, Jayden followed behind them, and so did Parker.

Rhea2 and Nora hit the deck a little before Jayden and Parker. They all managed to roll away from the open elevator doors and jump to their feet.

“Get down!” Rhea2 shouted at Cleo and BBgun.

The two of them fell to the elevator floor.

Outside the doors, Rhea2 took aim, lit up one of the Zepar fighters with a laser, and pressed the second button on the clicker. A laser beam shot down from the ceiling into the elevator and turned a Zepar into a BBQ-scented dust cloud.

Nuk’ana flickered, buzzed, and disappeared.

“Hologram!” shouted Rhea2.

In a blur, Nora tried the same move, but the three remaining Zepar fighters shape-shifted before the laser beam fired.

Jayden pointed a fist at one of the shimmering ribbons, then thrust his wearable forward with his fingers spread wide. A bolt of electricity hit the ribbon, prompting it to transform back to a Zepar. The fighter collapsed.

Nuk’ana’s two other Zepar fighters bolted out of the elevator, and then took off into the hanger like glistening streamers.

Another group of Zepar down the hall moved like a SWAT team toward them.

Rhea2 and Nora lit two of them up with lasers and blasted them before they could shape-shift. Jayden and Parker managed to zap two others with bolts of electricity from their wearables.

Jayden peered down a long hallway to the right. More Zepar were coming. To his left, transport spacecraft lined the wide-open hangar into the distance. He wanted to bolt, but couldn’t move with the Zepar firing lasers at them.

A laser spot appeared on Parker’s chest. Jayden shoved Parker out of the way just in time as the laser zapped the wall instead.

Zepar shape-shifted into glistening ribbons. Rhea2 and Nora tried to lock lasers on the Zepar shape-shifters coming their way, but weren’t having much luck. Still more Zepar joined the battle.

Finally, Cleo jumped to her feet, but a laser grazed her. She shrieked and crumpled back to the ground.

“Cleo!” Parker yelled.

BBgun ran to join Jayden and Parker. The three crouched and fired lightning bolts from their hands, knees, and elbows. The Zepar continued to shoot at them.

“We need to help Cleo,” Parker said.

Jayden looked around for an escape route, but the Zepar still had them pinned down. “I know—”

A blinding bright flash nearly hit Jayden as he dove out of the way. The laser hit the wall next to BBgun, sending him to the floor. “BBgun!” Jayden yelled.

Nora and Rhea2 held their positions, firing lasers back at the reptile-eyed Zepar as they shifted from ribbons into full bodies.

“It’s time to move or we’re toast!” Nora yelled. “Killgeek. Let’s go!” She heaved a disrupter at the Zepar. Rhea2 threw another in the opposite direction. Both disrupters delivered electromagnetic pulses in metallic-sounding explosions.

Smoke wafted from the Zepars’ clickers and the laser pulses stopped.

Jayden peered to his left. He spotted the office-building-sized intergalactic transport they wanted to jack. Bingo!

“We need to move out,” Parker said. “You help BBgun. I’ll get Cleo.”

“Can you move, BBgun?” Jayden asked.

He nodded.

Jayden managed to get BBgun on his feet. The kid was disoriented, but he wasn’t wounded. Jayden looked over at Cleo, who was lying outside the elevator with Parker leaning over her. Her eyes opened.

“What happened, Snickerdoodle?” she asked Parker.

Parker sighed and shook his head. “Let’s go. You must have fainted.”

Cleo managed to stand with Parker’s help.

Jayden moved forward with his friends in a crouching position toward the transports, but the shape-shifting aliens from the hallway were getting closer. He quickly realized that the Zepar could only fire at them when they weren’t shape-shifting. It gave them a chance to move.

“Give me your water canisters, quick!” Jayden shouted to Cleo and Parker then pulled the bottle off his waist snap.

Parker and Nora twisted their heads and tossed him their canisters.

Jayden retrieved the three batteries from the empty disrupter case on his waist snap. He shoved a battery into each water container and sealed them again with the trust of his palm. Then he heaved one as far as he could to the right, another to the left, and the third one behind them. Jayden was counting on a chemical reaction from the shorted batteries, but he wasn’t sure it would work or how long it would take.

When Nora and Rhea2 lasers erupted again, they zapped more approaching Zepar using their clickers.

The air filled with the sickening aroma of a Zepar BBQ flavor profile: hickory with a touch of gunpowder.

Another group of Zepar neared as the batteries exploded. The blast threw the Zepar hard against a wall.

“Nice, Jayden,” Nora said.

“The EMP disrupters are only working once,” Jayden said, glaring at Rhea2. “How come?”

“It takes five minutes to recharge each time it’s used,” Rhea2 replied.

A Zepar fired a laser from the opposite direction. The beam grazed Rhea2 and knocked her off her feet. She slammed hard to the ground.

“Eat this!” Nora yelled. She painted an approaching Zepar with a laser, and then pressed the clicker. A blast fired from the ceiling overhead and vaporized the alien into a dust cloud.

Jayden zapped Zepar with lightning bolts from his wearables, and then helped Parker drag along BBgun and Cleo. He spun around, searching for his next target as they moved toward the intergalactic transport, but there were no more Zepar.

The intruder alert continued to blare.

“I’m hit,” Rhea2 whispered from the floor, holding her left side. “Here, take the voice cube. Go on without me.”

Nora grabbed the voice cube and glared at Jayden. He could tell by her expression that she wanted to leave Rhea2. It was tempting, but he shook his head. “No one gets left behind.” After all, that was his and Parker’s rule when they played online games. The strategy always felt right.

Nora made a face and sighed. “Fine. Hurry. We need to make a run for the transport.”

“We’re not leaving you,” said Jayden to Rhea2. “Can you stand?”

She nodded and Jayden helped her.

Nora took position in front of them.

“We’ll follow you!” Jayden yelled at Nora. “ZapperGirl, help Parker. I have an idea.” He retrieved the gold thread and handed BBgun one end, and then pointed to a heavy beam on their right that extended from the floor to the ceiling overhead. “You okay now?” he asked BBgun, who nodded. “Good. Tie this around the beam over there.” Jayden indicated a heavy beam to their left. “I’ll tie the other end around that one.”

Running in opposite directions, Jayden and BBgun tied the unbreakable gold thread to the beams, making a waist-high clothesline that was nearly impossible to see.

“Zeekmo,” Jayden said. “Paint and fire at that gold thread when the shape-shifted Zepar run into it.”

Nora nodded. Then they were on the move again.

A few seconds later, a large group of Zepar screamed as they ran into the wire.

Nora wasted no time. She painted one end of the wire with the clicker, and fired a laser at it. The entire wire lit up like a florescent light fixture, instantly zapping ten Zepar into dust.

Cleo was helping Parker toss out disrupters. He used his wearable glove devices to zap a few Zepar as they moved toward the transport.

The open doors of the targeted intergalactic transport came into view thirty yards away. Jayden knew if they could make it inside and seal the door, the Zepar wouldn’t be able to get to them. But with no cover and Rhea2 struggling to walk, there was no way they were going to make it in time.

Twenty more Zepar fighters shifted into solid form and sprinted toward the same transport entrance.

“You guys go, I’ll hold them off!” shouted Parker.

“No way, Parker. I’ll do it,” Nora said.

“Not a chance, let me,” Jayden said.

Before anyone could move, Parker sprinted toward the approaching Zepar, firing his wearables in a wide pattern.

With the bolts of electric shock Parker was delivering, the Zepar fighters reversed course to get out of range. Some dove to the ground, then shape-shifted and disappeared, while others ran for cover. Parker was kicking butt while Jayden, Nora, BBgun, and Cleo kept moving with Rhea2 as fast as they could. He was buying them time to get to the transport.

Finally, they made it, and ran through the transport ship’s open hatch door. Parker’s diversion had worked brilliantly.

Cleo helped Rhea2 up the spiral stairway inside the transport leading to the pilot cockpit. On the inside metallic wall of the transport, Jayden and BBgun waited with Nora in the open hatch. Jayden held his hand over the button that closed and locked all of the transport entrances.

“Hurry!” Jayden screamed at Parker.

Parker jogged backward toward the transport door, continuing to fire bolts of electricity from his hands, knees, and elbows. The kid was relentless as bolts of electricity continued to zap Zepar.

But he still had fifty feet to go.

“Watch out!” screamed Nora. “On your right!”

Five Zepar surprised Parker from the side with laser fire, and fired at the transport door.

Jayden and Nora dove to the floor to avoid being vaporized. Damn it, Jayden thought. Parker wasn’t going to make it! Jayden’s hand shook as he held it over the button that would shut the transport door and lock out the Zepar.

Jayden and BBgun both took a step forward, but Nora screamed at them. “Stay here. It’s too late.”

They froze, and an instant later, the Zepar surrounded Parker. His chest lit up with laser splashes.

Nora pulled Jayden and BBgun away from the doorway, a look of horror on her face.

“Parker!” Jayden screamed.

“Get out of here,” Parker yelled back as he fell to the floor, then slowly rose to his knees with both hands behind his head.

“No!” screamed Nora. “We’re not leaving you!”

Not Parker!

More Zepar appeared, firing lasers at the transport.

“This can’t be happening!” Nora shouted to Jayden. “We don’t leave anyone behind, right?”

But it was happening. They had no choice. Jayden knew they needed to get out of there or they’d be captured or killed too. He groaned. “Sorry Nora . . . There’s nothing we can do. I, I—We’ll come back for him.”

She yelled again, only louder. “Parker!”

Parker screamed back. “Get out of here now—”

A large Zepar back-handed Parker. He collapsed to the floor.

Nora slammed the last button with her open hand. The transport door closed and locked. She fell to her knees crying.

 

Chapter 21

Inside the transport door, Nora kneeled down next to Jayden and stared into his eyes.

“We’ll come back for him, I swear,” Jayden said.

“My brother will not die,” Nora said. “Now, let’s get this transport out of here, okay?” Tears fell down her cheeks. “We have no choice.”

Jayden nodded, tears welling in his eyes. Losing Knifetango and Zebraguts stung, but losing Parker was on a whole different level.

BBgun helped them stand up. Then the three of them ran up the spiral stairway, hurrying toward Cleo and Rhea2 at the top of the stairs.

When Jayden reached Rhea2, he heard her groan, and noticed blood had soaked the left side of her uniform.

They quickly worked together to move Rhea2 to the cockpit door. Nora pressed a button on the voice cube, and it played the Ga audio: “Gsse-ta-aat-tez.” The cabin door opened revealing the transport’s cockpit.

“Stay with Rhea2,” Jayden whispered to Nora and Cleo. “BBgun, follow my lead.”

Jayden and BBgun eased into the cockpit, and then began to inch sideways along the wall of the flight deck. BBgun pointed to clicker devices hanging on the wall like keys at a valet station. Presumably for the pilots and crew. They both grabbed one.

Jayden went into the cockpit first. As he stepped inside, he noticed two older Space Command Earth boys standing at the far end of the room, focused on a control panel. Jayden jumped back into the hallway before the two teens caught sight of him.

The intergalactic transporter cockpit layout was similar to the galactic transport cockpit, only bigger with more rows of benches, a bus-sized steering wheel, and bucket pilot and co-pilot seats in front of a super-sized control panel.

When Jayden was twenty feet from the two older kids, BBgun painted one with a laser. Jayden squared his shoulders and painted the other boy.

“You two!” Jayden shouted. “Stand up. Back away from the panel.”

Both boys jumped, and their eyes went wide.

“Anyone else aboard?” Jayden asked.

“No,” one of the boys said. “Everyone’s been evac’d. We’re just shutting down—”

“You have two seconds to decide to join us!” BBgun shouted.

Go, BBgun . . . way to show some nerve!

“What?” the other boy asked. “Who are you?”

“You’re either with us or against us,” Jayden added. “It’s a simple question.”

The two boys glanced at each other. “You’re masons?”

He nodded. “Something like that.”

“Leader Nuk’ana announced rebels would be coming. Offered a reward in solid gold for a girl with green hair too. Is that her back there?” The boy nodded towards the open door. Jayden glanced back and saw Nora and Cleo helping Rhea2 lean against the doorway. They were ready to fight if necessary.

“Answer us!” BBgun yelled.

“I want to join you,” one boy said.

“Me too,” the other added.

“Where you from?” Jayden asked both boys.

One boy said, “Kansas.” The other said, “New York City.”

Jayden relaxed and put down his weapon. He pointed toward Rhea2. “Go help her. She’s wounded.”

“Right,” the boys said.

Jayden jogged over to Nora. “We need to get this bucket of rivets out of here. Do you know how to get the systems fired up?”

Nora nodded. “Yeah, Rhea2 showed me.” She sat down in the bus-driver bucket seat and strapped herself in, then started to play a drum solo on the control panel.

Jayden softened his voice. “Are you okay?”

Nora made two fists and sighed. “I guess.”

“Look, if Nuk’ana wanted Parker dead, those shape-shifters would’ve blasted him on the spot,” Jayden said. “We didn’t have a choice. You know that, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I know.”

“If we had stayed and fought, the Zepar would’ve captured us too.”

Nora wiped the tears from her face. “I know. It’s just that—”

BBgun showed up and stood behind Nora. He patted her on the back. “We’ll come back for him.”

Nora cleared her throat. “Hell, yes we will.” She returned to her drum solo to the control panel.

Suddenly a scream came from the back of the cockpit, then a zap of electricity. When Jayden looked back over his shoulder, one boy struggled with Cleo while Rhea2 lay still on the floor.

A laser flash grazed Cleo. She collapsed.

BBgun spun and painted the boy who’d downed Cleo. Jayden painted the other. They fired. Both boys collapsed to the floor.

Jayden peered at his clicker and quickly realized there was only enough laser power to stun them. Presumably because they were inside a transport cockpit, he thought.

“Get us out of here!” he roared at Nora.

Jayden and BBgun hurried over to Cleo, who had passed out on the floor next to Rhea2. But the blood-soaked wound to Rhea2’s side looked worse.

“Guess the price on our heads was too tempting for these jerks.” BBgun scowled.

The raid had been a total disaster.

Rhea2 coughed. “You need to take me to my home. My father will help us.”

“Where? The rebel base?” Jayden asked.

“Andromeda,” she moaned.

“Andromeda? Another galaxy?” BBgun asked. “Are you crazy?”

“This is an intergalactic transport. It will make it.” Rhea2 moaned, struggling to whisper. “Tell Zeekmo to enter these coordinates: and01, z4322, x3111, a1233, da1378, ed9946, d8237.”

“Zeekmo!” Jayden yelled. “You almost ready?” The front wall of the cabin transformed into a viewport. Jayden saw the inside of the massive hangar. Hundreds of Zepar and Space Command kids ran in every direction around the rows of transports like ants in a hot pan. Blinking red lights pulsed throughout the hanger, but Parker was nowhere in sight.

Nora pointed to an opening at the far end of the hanger. Some sort of force field allowed UFOs to come and go, but it kept out the vacuum of space. “Engines engaged. We’ll be clear of the hub momentarily.”

“New coordinates for you,” Jayden turned to Rhea2. “Tell me again.” Rhea2 whispered the coordinates, and he relayed them to Nora.

“Got it. Coordinates set,” Nora said. “In three minutes we’ll punch in.”

BBgun helped Jayden lift the wounded girls on two of the bench seats behind Nora, and then strapped them in with seatbelts. They both searched storage cabinets along a wall and found what looked like twenty feet of cable. BBgun managed to drag the unconscious boys across the cockpit, and Jayden used the cable to tie them to a cargo hook. When they came to, they wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Jayden took a seat near Nora and buckled in for the ride. BBgun found a seat near Cleo. A moment later, the transport cleared the hangar and Nora flew it toward the system’s bright star.

A yellow light on the control panel began to flash.

Nora flipped a switch.

A hologram appeared over the control panel showing twenty UFOs chasing them.

“Almost ready to punch in.” She pushed a button and flipped another switch. A timer came on. It displayed one minute remaining.

“We better hurry,” Jayden said.

A second hologram showing Nuk’ana’s head appeared, hovering over the control panel. His jawline extended two inches, and then contracted back to normal. Jayden punched at the hologram face, passing his fist through the projected light beam.

“We were expecting you,” Nuk’ana said. His eyes narrowed, and jaw extended.

Jayden frowned at Nora. Expecting us? The whole thing was a trap?

Nuk’ana continued. “Your rebel colleagues have been captured and will be executed. Your rebel moon base has also been destroyed.”

The hologram changed to show Sigarr. The sprawling mason outpost was exploding.

“Honestly, you have nowhere to run. Give up now, or we will turn the ship you stole into atoms,” the leader said. “But that would be a waste of an intergalactic transport.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Rhea2 said in a whistling whisper. “He wouldn’t dare fire on the intergalactic transport so close. The nuclear shock wave would blow up his entire hub.”

“Good to know,” Nora said.

The hologram changed, and the camera view widened. Parker had been tied up in a chair next to Leader Nuk’ana. He was already bruised and bloodied, but still alive and conscious. A muscular, bald Zepar stood next to him.

Nora gasped and Jayden bit his lip. Blood pumped hard through his veins. He wanted to do something, anything. But he couldn’t. Not yet anyway. He had failed his best friend.

“Return my intergalactic transport,” Nuk’ana said, his eyes glowing yellow. “Turn yourselves in. If you fail to do so, your comrade, the boy you know as G-striker, along with the other rebels we captured this day, will be executed.” He paused and sucked on his long smoking stick then released a column of smoke.

A display flashed on the transport’s control panel: “Space-between-space travel imminent.”

Nuk’ana’s jaw stretched then shrank back to normal when he heard the update too. “I see. You are determined to flee. Very well. I give you seventy-two Earth hours to return and give up. Not an Earth second longer. If you do as I say, I will let you all live. But I warn you. Don’t be late, rebels, or we’ll send you holo-highlights of their executions. Bring me back my transport!”

Parker lifted his head. “Don’t listen—” A hulky Zepar struck him across the face.

“Get out of here!” Parker yelled.

The holograms disappeared just as the timer reached zero. The portal view of the star near them went pitch black. They had made it to the space between the space, and were on the way to Andromeda.

Tears ran down Nora’s cheeks.

“Hang on, Parker,” Jayden whispered under his breath. “We’ll be back for you. I promise.”

Chapter 22

The timer on the large control panel indicated three hours before punch-out. It was difficult for Jayden to comprehend traveling at 150,000 parsecs an hour towards Andromeda. He handed Nora the tablet then unbuckled and searched through the metallic storage cabinets surrounding the rectangular cockpit room.

Before long, Jayden found a metal case resembling a fishing tackle box. The case contained a variety of bandages, tape, ointments, and two square pieces of two-inch-thick gauze, each covered with electronic components and colored wires. He pulled up the left side of Rhea2’s uniform about six inches, pressed the strange-looking gauze onto the bloody wound, and slid a small switch sideways.

The gauze glowed light green. Part of the bandage melted into the skin around Rhea2’s wound. The bleeding instantly stopped, and her contorted face relaxed.

“It will keep a wound in stasis until arrival. I sleep now,” she whispered, and then the fern-headed girl closed her eyes.

“What’s stasis?” BBgun asked Jayden.

“I guess it stabilizes the wound or something.” He tossed the other gauze to BBgun. “Try one on Cleo.”

BBgun tore open Cleo’s pant leg and pushed the square piece of gauze onto an area of burned skin the size of his fist. He slid the switch, and the gauze glowed.

It was obvious to Jayden from the wounds they both needed medical attention. He returned to his seat next to Nora and pounded his first on the control panel. “Screw Nuk’ana!”

Everything was seriously messed up. Zebraguts and Knifetango had been captured by the Atilla. Parker had been captured by the Zepar. Nuk’ana had hurt so many people. It was Jayden’s worst nightmare. Everything just kept getting worse.

Nora put her arm around Jayden as he hung his head. “I feel the same way,” she said, “but this is Parker we’re talking about here. He will survive.”

“A lot of kids got hurt today,” Jayden said, holding back tears. “And Parker. It’s not fair. We didn’t ask to be in the middle of a ridiculous war with shape-shifting fanatics.”

“We’ll figure this out. We’ll get Parker back,” she told him.

He lowered his head. “I hope so.”

Rhea2 moaned on the bench. “Here, come. Please, come here,” she whispered.

Nora and Jayden hurried to her side. Rhea2 struggled to take in a breath. She gripped a handful of her black uniform. “My father. You must . . .” She coughed. “Land on planet at coordinates I gave. He will know what must be done. Trust him. He will help you get back to your home.”

Rhea2 passed out.

“She needs a real doctor soon. She may have internal bleeding.” Nora placed a blanket over her and went back to the pilot seat while Jayden and BBgun checked on Cleo.

“At least Cleo looks like she’s doing better,” Jayden said to BBgun.

“Yeah,” BBgun replied. “The laser only grazed her knee.”

Jayden nodded toward the two tied-up Space Command teens. “I don’t trust them. We should move them behind a locked door.”

He didn’t need to convince BBgun. Together, they dragged the boys into an adjacent room and locked the door then returned to their seats.

“It seems like Nuk’ana is always two steps ahead of us,” Jayden said softly to Nora.

“I know. It was like the Leader knew we were coming,” she said. “The way his hologram smugly sauntered into the elevator. The hologram looked totally real.”

Jayden’s thoughts shifted to his best friend. “Do you think the Ga database can help us figure out a way to rescue Parker and any other masons that were captured?”

Nora hesitated. “I don’t know,” she muttered, shaking her head as she peered at the red tablet. “I managed to access the Space Command’s computer system’s replicated storage. It appears to be Nuk’ana’s personal log, but I can’t crack it. I still need to dig through more layers.”

“What about Parker?” Jayden asked. “Anything in the database yet?”

“No. The database is offline while we’re in the space between the space. But I found out Nuk’ana has a planet just for holding political prisoners,” she said. “I’m betting that’s where Nuk’ana will move all the captured masons.”

“At least we have a place to start the search,” he said with a forced smile. “Where is it located?”

Nora tapped the tablet a few more times, and then pressed buttons on the transport’s control panel. A three-dimensional, full-color hologram of a planet appeared above the control panel. The name “Zilon” floated beside the planet with a list of writing in some weird language he didn’t understand.

“Let me convert it to English,” she said.

The strange text flickered, and settled into English. The information appeared to be statistics: “Atmosphere – Oxygen 27%, Hydrogen 55%, Carbon Dioxide 13%, Hydrogen sulfide and other gasses 5%. Main function: high-value prisoners. Secondary function: fuel-processing work camp, diamond mine, two-point-four million workers, three hundred and twelve pickups per day . . .”

“They process fuel too?” he asked.

“Raw materials for fuel with free prisoner labor. Their database keeps track of the location of the two-point-four million workers and seven million prisoners.”

Jayden stared silently at the holographic image of the rotating planet, which resembled a beautiful virtual toothpaste marble with blue, white, brown, and green wavy streaks and swirls. It was hard to imagine a prison existed on it.

“Something doesn’t smell right about Nuk’ana,” Nora said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t find Nuk’ana’s current location in any of the databases. You know, where he lives or where his headquarters are located . . . I’ll keep searching.”

After a few hours, lights on the control panel near the steering wheel started to flash and beep. They both jerked backward.

“What the heck—?” Nora said, eyeing the control panel. “Oh, it looks like a warning that we’re getting close to our punch-out coordinates.” She stared at the controls then pushed a button to shut off the alarm.

Jayden sauntered over to BBgun. “How’s Cleo?”

BBgun ran his fingers over her temple. “I think she’ll be—”

As if on cue, Cleo opened her eyes.

They both jumped.

Cleo’s eyebrows hooded over her droopy eyes. “What happened? All I remember is struggling with two older dudes.”

“Guess they liked the price Nuk’ana put on our heads,” said BBgun.

“We’ll be landing soon,” Jayden told her. “Try to relax—”

“We’re punching out in thirty seconds,” Nora shouted. “Coordinates are confirmed. You need to buckle up, boys.”

BBgun made sure Cleo was secure while Jayden checked on Rhea2. Then they took their seats.

When they entered normal space, the viewport shined bright yellow. It wasn’t long before the view transformed into a white star field. “Wow, those stars are bright,” Jayden said.

The viewport automatically dimmed the incoming light.

“Makes sense. There are about three times as many stars in the Andromeda Galaxy as there are in the Milky Way Galaxy,” BBgun said.

Portrait of the Andromeda Galaxy – Art©www.jonlomberg.com

 

“Where do we go now?” Jayden asked Nora.

“To the coordinates Rhea2 gave us. We’re on autopilot. We’ll have to wait and see where we end up. Hopefully, it’s not inside of a moon or someplace ridiculous like a gas planet.”

In an instant, the view changed to a large, swirling, blue, brown, and green planet, with a dozen orbiting moons, each with slightly different color combinations of green-blue-gray. A yellow star lurked in the distance with a smaller red star near it.

Nora tapped on the command panel. “We’re on approach to land. Entering the atmosphere now.”

Jayden again felt no movement. A loud beep came from the control panel. The hologram of a man’s bright green face hovered over the control panel. His hair matched the color of his face, and he wore a long, straggly green beard with a black felt hat. Jayden stared at a gold crown patch on the hat.

The lime-green man’s eyes narrowed. “Dolt sakis sazi aejes?”

Jayden frowned at Nora. “Did you understand anything he just said?” he whispered.

Nora tapped her ear translators. “Nope. Must not be in the translation database.” She pushed a button on the panel and spoke slowly, pronouncing each word as if the man were hard of hearing. “We are from the Milky Way. Earth to be exact. We have two wounded girls. They need medical attention. One has green hair with tiny flowers in it, although they look wilted at the moment. We’ve been told she is Andros.”

The man frowned, and the hologram disappeared.

“Guess we scared him off,” he said. “I liked your green hair description. Nice touch.”

Nora elbowed Jayden, and BBgun grinned.

Another man’s hologram floated above the panel. He looked similar to the first man—green hair, black hat, gold crown and all.

“Guess we didn’t scare them off, after all,” Jayden muttered.

“What business do you have on MachuTutu3?” the man asked.

Jayden and Nora looked at each other.

“Guess they got the translator working,” BBgun whispered.

“We have a girl named Rhea2 onboard. She’s hurt and needs a doctor,” Nora said.

The official raised his eyebrows. “Rhea2?”

“Yes. She needs medical attention . . . Now!” Nora roared, steel lacing her voice.

“Easy, Zeekmo,” Jayden said. “Give them a minute to process.”

The hologram disappeared.

“Guess they’re thinking about it,” Jayden added.

Nora scowled. “Not much to think about—”

The wrinkled face of a man appeared—his brown-fern hair mixed with green—and then hovered above the panel. The crown had been sewn onto his hat too, but the older man’s stitched emblem was much bigger than his fellow aliens’ crowns. Jayden figured he must be the green alien in charge.

“We will pull in your transport carriage. A medical team will greet you after landing. Once the light goes green on your control panel, you may exit your carriage.”

The hologram disappeared.

“Well, that seems like progress,” Nora said.

“Light?” Jayden asked.

“No idea,” she replied. “But when we see a green light, we’ll push the big red button.”

Before long, the viewport filled with the sight of a massive, square, marble courtyard the size of ten football fields by ten football fields. Large and small UFOs rested motionlessly on the courtyard. Tall, stone castle structures framed the entire area with weathered stonewalls towering into the sky.

The transport craft landed in the courtyard. A green light appeared on the panel.

“Touchdown,” Nora said, and then pressed the large red button.

Seconds later, a loud metallic knock rattled from the cockpit entrance door.

Jayden jogged to the door and pushed a button on a side panel.

The cockpit door opened with a burst of air. Six large men entered, each well over six foot tall, and easily over two hundred pounds. Two of the men glided in a pair of hovering stretchers. With the men’s familiar facial features and similar fern hair, any of them could have been Rhea2’s father.

Each one wore a puffy, black suede robe with large, open sleeves and a tall, stiff collar. Black Charlie Chaplin hats with gold symbols topped their heads, and each carried a long, curved sword on their hip. Strange, embroidered gold symbols ran down the front of their robes. Their outfits reminded Jayden of a picture in his history book about sixteenth-century Europe.

“Back in the day” was today for these guys, he thought.

The men didn’t say a word. When they saw Rhea2 and Cleo lying on the benches, they hustled to move the girls onto the hovering stretchers, and then pushed the stretchers out the door.

Jayden recognized the first man from the display monitor and approached him. The alien looked about his dad’s age. He was giving directions to the others green-haired dudes. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “There are two Space Command kids in there.” He pointed to the storage room. “They’re on Leader Nuk’ana’s side.”

The man nodded and said something into a communication device. Four more lime-green men walked to the storage room and hauled away the two boys.

A girl who looked eerily similar to Rhea2 entered the cockpit and approached them. The only difference between her and Rhea2 was the blooming yellow flowers throughout her long, green hair. Rhea2 seemed to prefer pink.

The girl’s eyes matched the color of the yellow flowers, and she wore a dozen shiny silver studs embedded in both sides of her nostrils. A silver chain outlined each ear. But unlike Rhea2 and Altair3’s chains, this girl’s earrings were connected to four small rubies, arranged in a square pattern, dangling an inch below each earlobe. Colorful raised tats of creatures covered her lime-green forearms and the sides of her neck.

“Welcome,” the girl said in a whispery whistle. “We have never met anyone in person from a planet named Earth circling Sol in the Milky Way Galaxy. This is a great honor for my people.”

“Seriously?” BBgun asked.

Nora glared at him.

“I am Princess Rhea1.” She smiled. Her teeth were the whitest Jayden had ever seen. He quickly decided they must have great dentists in the Andromeda galaxy.

“Of course you are,” Nora muttered.

This time Jayden elbowed her, but Nora pushed him away from her.

“Thank you for bringing my sister home to us. We have worried about her safety. Supreme Emperor sends his gratitude and invites you to a royal celebration.”

“The emperor?”

“Yes, Emperor of Andros, our father.”

Jayden, BBgun, and Nora’s eyes went wide, but they wisely remained silent. If Rhea2 was this girl’s twin sister, she was a princess too.

“Follow me,” she said. “Our father is waiting.”

“Your father is the emperor of MachuTutu3?” Jayden asked.

“He is the Supreme Emperor, leader of all Andros.”

“You mean of the entire Andromeda Galaxy?” BBgun added.

“That is truth. My father rules entire kingdom. Although, Leader Nuk’ana believes he does.”

This information shocked Jayden to his toes. Rhea2’s father was a total big shot. She’d never acted like a princess, although she was pretty bossy and had a rough start with Nora.

“I can’t believe you were sassing a princess,” Jayden whispered to Nora.

She briefly clenched her hands. “Whatever. Let’s go.”

Jayden knew she was right. If they didn’t do something soon, Parker would be stardust.

Hang on, Parker, Jayden thought. Your rescue party will soon be on the way!

 

Chapter 23

Two suns glowed high in the light-blue sky: one, a yellowish-orange, resembled the one circling Earth, the other glowed ruby red. A large, dimly lit white moon floated like a massive balloon above snowcapped mountains.

Rhea2’s sister led Jayden, BBgun, and Nora out of the transport and onto the polished marble courtyard. Ten UFO spacecraft and scores of smaller spacecraft the size of fighter jets rested haphazardly on the stone surface.

Jayden was amazed at the magnificent archway entrances that rose up every fifty yards or so. He gazed at the gigantic stone castle surrounding the rectangular courtyard. The castle towered thirty stories with smaller, square towers soaring even higher at the courtyard corners. Large, rectangular windows peppered the castle walls and sparkled like diamonds. Solid gold majestic roofs capped the massive structures.

The thin air required him to work harder than normal to breathe. But he didn’t mind because a jasmine smell lingered in the air, reminding him of Nora’s perfume back home. No wonder Altair3 smelled like a Hawaiian lei, he thought.

Jayden, BBgun, and Nora followed Rhea1 through an archway to a large set of polished silver doors framed with dark brown wood. Inlaid diamonds and other colorful jewels twinkled over the doors like stars. Two tall, stoic men dressed in long red robes with ornate gold trims stood on either side of the double doors.

Jayden did a double take when he saw the black hats the green men wore. They looked as though they’d jacked the hats from a couple of London Bobbies. He noticed each man held an intricately carved gold staff, twice as tall as a typical walking stick on Earth. Long, wiry green beards framed each one of their lime-green faces, and stringy, lime-green hair dangled down from under their black hats.

Two other men wore multilayered metallic armor suits. Each held a long silver sword like something teleported from the Knights of the Round Table. The two men in armor suits opened the double doors.

The four of them entered the castle and strolled down a massive hallway with a ceiling three stories above their heads, and walls made of polished gray marble. Paintings of creatures from some alien zoo mash-up covered the ceiling. Jayden thought one animal resembled a tiger with a giraffe neck, another had a water buffalo body and a bear head, and still another resembled Rox, but with eagle wings. He chuckled to himself when he thought about how the creature would seriously freak out his dog back home.

Strange, colorful flags dangled above his head. Far overhead, small windows let filtered light through rainbows of colored glass. The entire place appeared to be over a thousand years old, but it was surprisingly spotless. Rosa would give it two thumbs up.

After a hundred feet, they walked through two large, wooden doors and entered a long hallway. Bulky golden candleholders ran along the back wall, with tall, white candles giving off a flickering, yellow glow.

They approached a man with long, curly green hair and a trimmed, hunter-green beard who weighed at least three hundred pounds. From the furrows on his face, he was old, maybe, a few hundred years old.

The fern-headed giant sat on an enormous, dark wood throne decorated with hand-carved animals, landscapes, and people. The old man fidgeted and adjusted himself in the chair.

Dear old dad? Jayden wondered.

Two guards stood at attention on either side of the old guy. Each dressed in what appeared to be red spandex, from their necks to the tops of their black boots. One held a modern metallic weapon that resembled an AK-47 automatic rifle. Six more green-bearded guards in red velvet clothing and two others sporting purple velvet, stood guard around the room.

Rhea1 caught Jayden raising an eyebrow and staring at the men in red tights. She whispered to him, “It is Andros body armor. Quite deceiving, really. Very high tech and completely blaster-proof.” She stopped ten feet from the big man, then did a sort of multi-stepped greeting dance in front of him. It reminded Jayden of a line dance that his parents practiced on the weekends in San Jose.

When Rhea1 stopped the dance, she faced the big man, with BBgun, Jayden, and Nora standing shoulder-to-shoulder a few feet behind her. “Dear Father, I present to you, children of Earth from Milky Way Galaxy.” She turned to them, smiled, and gave a sweep of her arm. “This is Nora, the great Zeekmo. Jayden, the ultimate Killgeek. And Hank, the amazing BBgun.”

Jayden was ready to correct fern girl on the descriptions, but just as he opened his mouth, Nora elbowed him. The girl was a mind reader. He quickly let it go.

“Welcome children from Milky Way’s sol system’s third planet, known as Earth,” the emperor said, then grinned large and in charge. “I am known as Ruchbah9, and father of Rhea1 and Rhea2. Thank you, I say, for saving my daughter’s life.”

The three of them stood silently in front of the old man and nodded as if they were synchronized bobble heads. Jayden asked, “So you’re Rhea2’s father?”

Ruchbah9 nodded with pride. “In flesh, as it were.”

Jayden was impressed. The fern-headed girl was a daughter of the man who ruled a civilization spread over a galaxy of more than a trillion stars.

“My apologies, your highness,” said Nora, “but we’re in a rush to get back and rescue my brother.”

“Yes, I completely understand.” Emperor Ruchbah9 let out a long breath and stood. “Please do follow me.”

Nora sighed. They followed the emperor and Rhea1 through a side door next to the throne, then into a long hall. Jayden noticed that other men shadowed them, presumably Ruchbah9’s bodyguards.

“You must meet the ‘one of energy,’” the emperor said, peering at Jayden. “She has called for you, young mason, Jayden, the ultimate Killgeek.”

“Dude, you’re famous.” BBgun snickered.

Jayden gave him a discrete shove as his stomach did a backflip. Uh oh. That couldn’t be good, he thought. “Some alien called for me? Why me?”

The emperor frowned. “It is not known why the energy being called for you,” he said. “She tells us not reasons she wishes to speak. Only that she wishes to do so. Will you receive her?” This emperor sounded a little like Altair3 to Jayden.

Jayden glanced at Nora. She shrugged. “Might as well see what she has to say,” she whispered. “Maybe this alien chick knows a shortcut to Earth.”

“Why not?” added BBgun.

Jayden turned to the emperor. “Sure, count us in.”

Ruchbah9 smiled. “Marvelous. Please follow.”

They walked through a doorway and into a room behind the wooden throne. It was a small, dark room with a high ceiling. In the middle, a round, wooden table with high back, matching chairs nearly filled the room.

The emperor sat and motioned for them to do the same.

The door closed, and a single, yellow orb glowed on the ceiling above Jayden’s head.

“Please be still.” The emperor clapped twice. “She is—”

The room went pitch black. The red tablet in Jayden’s t-shirt began to vibrate. He reached around and pulled out the tablet. The screen had turned a dazzling white.

Suddenly a beam of light shot out of the tablet to the ceiling like it’d done in his robo pod. He held the tablet with outstretched arms as it vibrated harder. Just when he was about to toss the tablet, the white beam transformed into a colorful, glowing figure of a purple girl dressed in yellow. Her image floated in the air above the tablet.

Jayden leaned in and peered at the creature. He saw wings and smelled something that reminded him of an approaching summer rainstorm. His nose tickled. A fairy?

The small light being flitted up and down around the room with a crackle. It reminded him of a high-voltage power plant sound. Her face was petite, kind, and her smile large. When small sparks shot out from her body, Jayden realized she was no hologram. She was the real deal!

“How could she have come out of the tablet?” he wondered and glanced at Nora, then at BBgun. Both of them stared at the winged fairy girl in disbelief.

The tiny fairy girl sang the words of a song soft. Her soprano voice was pleasing to the ear.

 

“Birth of the new,

Light of the full,

A time comes soon,

Align Sol, Earth, and moon.”

 

He thought her angelic voice was fitting of a pixie. It gave him goose bumps but made him feel calm at the same time.

The glowing purple “energy being” glided six inches away from of Jayden’s face and studied him with large, serious round eyes. Instead of round irises, each was the shape and color of a marigold flower with a black dot in the center, surrounded by a circle of pure white.

The fairy girl continued to sing to him as she hovered in place.

 

“Find the spot behind the neck,

Push to switch off the holo-tech,

Reveal you will find the truth at last,

Tell all you can, quantum fast.”

 

Her eyes softened as she rose slowly to the ceiling, gazing off into the distance, and continued her song.

 

“Exceptionally high, exceptionally low,

Worlds collide, during spring tide.”

 

Then she dove back down and circled Jayden’s head slowly. Around and around she flew.

 

“Where masons try,

As missiles fly,

Must find a way,

To save the day.”

 

Her graceful dance stopped over his head. Jayden gazed up at her and felt tingles on the back of his neck.

 

“A boy must rise,

A leader must fall,

Deciding you must,

To lead, follow, or . . .”

 

She stiffened. “Bust!” screeched the fairy girl.

All three of them jumped at the same time. Then the being’s form relaxed and floated over to Nora. It kissed her on the cheek. The being glided to BBgun, then kissed his cheek. Finally, the fairy flew back to Jayden and kissed him for a full three seconds on his cheek before flying again around the room in a fluttering dance.

The energy being’s dance was mesmerizing. She made another circle, rising slowly to the ceiling as she sang, allowing her words to linger like a ringing bell.

 

“Spring Tide Masons face the gun,

Fighting and dying until it is done,

The Ga invasion from the sun,

Death is certain if he runs.”

 

The singing fairy floated upward to the ceiling, and then in a flash disappeared back into the tablet. The orb lit up and painted the room with yellow light.

“As I was saying, very shy that one,” the emperor said with a slight chuckle.

“What did it all mean?” Jayden asked the emperor. He figured the pixie girl had to be seriously confused. “And how did she come out of my dad’s tablet?”

“Ah. Give it time,” he said. “The message was most certainly for you, young Killgeek. You will know the meaning when the time is right.”

“Follow me. We will converse more in the great hall,” the emperor said. “Someone else wishes to greet you.”

 

Chapter 24

Jayden, Nora, and BBgun followed Emperor Ruchbah9 into the hallway, then to a large room lit up with blue-white glowing candles. The emperor’s men followed them into the room but stopped at the door.

“Please, join me,” said the emperor, and then sat down in a wooden chair at the far side of a hexagon-shaped table of polished black wood.

Jayden sat between BBgun and Nora.

“Again,” Emperor Ruchbah9 said. “My sincere gratitude for saving the life of my daughter. I can never repay such courage.”

Nora’s eyes narrowed. She raised her voice. “Why don’t you make peace with the Atilla?”

The emperor stared at Nora for an uncomfortable moment. “I see. Straight to point. I like that.”

She glared at the emperor. Jayden was pretty sure Nora could take the old, heavyset dude, but he wasn’t sure they’d get past the sword-wielding guards on their way out the door.

“If it was possible,” the emperor said, “it would have been done long ago.”

“Yeah, right,” Jayden added.

“I see you are all upset.” The emperor raised his voice. “Well, I too am upset.”

The emperor slowed his speech. “You wish to know our story. Well, fine . . . Andromeda found itself running low on resources. We had perfected technology to mine neutron stars and white dwarf stars to make the fuel that punches a quantum tunnel allowing Ga spacecraft access into space between the space. To keep up with demand for our fuel, my people needed additional materials to operate fuel-making machines, including gold, diamonds, and platinum. As such, I reached a deal with the Ga.”

“We’ve already heard about the Ga,” Jayden said. “Weasels.”

“Yes, but we had little choice.” The emperor paused. “Our agreement was to trade our fuel with civilizations along the Golden Way. It would have been a good deal for my people.”

“So you needed access to the Milky Way?” Jayden asked.

“Yes, the Milky Way’s trade routes. The Ga leadership mediated an agreement with leaders in your Milky Way. And the Golden Way extended into Andromeda. But everything changed when Leader Nuk’ana attacked IC1101. The Atilla traced his carriage fuel back to our galaxy. The Atilla blamed my people for helping Nuk’ana. Invading their galaxy was never my intent.”

“So why not explain it to the Atilla?” Nora asked.

“Ah, but we have tried. The Atilla wants proof that Leader Nuk’ana was behind the deception. But I have none and Nuk’ana denies everything. The Atilla blamed all people of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies for deaths of their innocents. We could not defend ourselves from the Atilla on our own,” the emperor said. “We asked Nuk’ana for Zepar help.” The emperor pounded his hands on the table. “It cost my people dearly.” He took a moment to collect himself, and then lowered his voice. “Please forgive me. The memories are painful.”

Jayden’s head hurt. “So where do Lorcan and his Spring Tide Masons fit in?”

Emperor Ruchbah9 began to make funny sounds, and then threw his head back. For a minute, Jayden thought the emperor might be having a seizure or something. Then he realized the emperor was smiling. “Are you laughing?”

Ruchbah9 nodded. “Do you not see?”

“See what?” BBgun asked.

The emperor laughed harder.

The doors in the back of the room suddenly burst open. In stepped a boy with long black hair . . . Jayden’s eyes went wide. Lorcan!

“Perhaps you shall understand now,” Ruchbah9 said.

Jayden, Nora, and BBgun all pushed their chairs back at once and stood.

“Thank God, we thought Nuk’ana killed you when he blew up the rebel base!” Nora shouted.

Lorcan smiled and gave each of them a quick hug. “Ah, yes. The leader thought he did too. Yet I am still here, am I not?” He bowed. “I was able to escape his pathetic trap. He had been gunning for me for some time. It’s nice to see you all . . . Zeekmo, you look ravishing as usual.”

Nora blushed.

“Please, sit,” Lorcan said. “I will join you.”

“How’d you get here?” Jayden asked.

“Well, I wasn’t entirely honest,” he replied.

Jayden glanced at Nora, who rolled her eyes.

“We’ve heard that before,” Nora said.

“Rhea2 and I worried about a spy planted by Nuk’ana. Someone was providing information about our raids. So we hid an intergalactic transport and kept it secret. We planned to meet up here after the raid and regroup in the safety of the emperor’s castle.” He looked into Nora’s eyes. “I’m truly sorry the raid ended badly for your brother. Over eighty-five percent of the masons on the base died during Nuk’ana’s raid. The only good that came from such great loss is that we identified the spies. I remedied the situation, personally.”

“The shark sisters?” Jayden asked. “The purple hair girls at your last briefing, right?”

“How’d you know?” Lorcan asked with a crease in his forehead.

“Just a feeling.” Jayden gazed at Lorcan and squinted. A very faint, golden glow radiated from the older boy. “You’re not really from Seattle, are you?”

Lorcan glanced at Ruchbah9. They both smiled.

“Not exactly,” Lorcan replied. “Strange Universe we live in.” He smiled. “My people live on the fourth moon named Uraeus, orbiting a planet that goes by the Earth designation of Gliese581g. It is roughly twenty light years from Earth. We share a common ancestor, your people and my people. Star travelers journeyed across the space between the space long before the Ga claimed it as their Golden Way. Our ancestors sprinkled their DNA across many worlds over five billion years ago. There are many human-looking species across the Milky Way and some along the outer regions of Andromeda. In many ways, my friends, we are truly one family among the stars.”

“You’re from a moon?” Jayden asked with a smirk, and then groaned when Nora kicked him under the table.

“Yes, it is not as uncommon as you might think. There are quadrillions of civilizations spread across galaxies, planets, moons, and asteroids. I’m sure there are many more we do not know of.”

“Lorcan?” the emperor’s voice boomed. “You did not confess to them?”

“Confess what?” asked Nora.

Lorcan smiled and cleared his throat. “Rhea2 will be my wife when we both come of age in two of your Earth years.”

Jayden’s mouth dropped.

“This young man was Leader Nuk’ana’s first officer for a time,” Emperor Ruchbah9 said with a grin. “I planted him personally.”

The three of them remained silent for a few moments.

“First officer?” Jayden asked.

“Emperor Ruchbah9 placed me on Earth. I was picked up by a Space Command bus and did my best to blend in until I was taken to Dione for training.”

Lorcan’s plan sounded familiar, thought Jayden.

He continued. “Posing as a Seattle kid from your world was my cover. Nuk’ana believed I was from Earth. I worked hard and followed orders. He selected me to establish training plans and strategies for Earth recruits. The kids Nuk’ana recruited listened to me. They hated him.”

Lorcan swallowed hard. “When I took a group with me to start the masons, Nuk’ana found out about my cover story and learned my true identity.” He lowered his eyes and softened his voice. “Nuk’ana had my family executed. My grandmother was the only one to survive.”

“So the masons know you’re not from Earth?” BBgun asked.

“Some do,” he replied.

Altair3 burst into the room and patted the emperor on the shoulder. His magenta and red eyes beamed as he grabbed a chair from against the wall and slid it next to Lorcan then sat in it.

Jayden couldn’t help but smile. He noticed a new tat on his lime-green neck—some furry animal with fangs and eagle wings. Its eyes shimmered when Altair3 moved.

Lorcan continued. “Only Altair3 and his brothers know about my future marriage to their sister. It will unite our two galaxies.”

“Altair3 and Rhea2 are related?” BBgun asked.

Emperor Ruchbah9 smiled at him. “Yes, of course.”

“Unbelievable,” Nora said. “Why all the cloak and dagger if Nuk’ana already knows about you?”

“It is easier for Earth recruits that become masons to believe I’m from Seattle. For new Earth recruits it’s difficult to comprehend so many life forms beyond Earth.”

“True story,” Jayden said.

Lorcan’s face reddened. “Nuk’ana throws away lives like he throws away his smoking sticks when he’s finished with them.”

“Nuk’ana’s words are snake. But the evidence lacks,” Altair3 said.

“The leader thinks the Atilla will eventually tire of the war,” Lorcan said. “Then the murderer plans on controlling the Golden Way everywhere in and between the galaxies of Milky Way, Andromeda, and IC1101.”

“How’d you meet the emperor?” Nora asked Lorcan. “After all, he’s from Andromeda and you’re obviously not.”

“Yes. It will sound strange, but a boy with a black raven introduced me to the emperor.”

“A raven?” Jayden asked.

“Yes, I met the raven in one of the game simulations I played when I was a young boy.”

The emperor sat back in his chair with a satisfied expression but didn’t say a word.

Jayden flashed back to the strange raven they saw during the online game that started this entire nightmare. It felt to him like a lifetime ago.

“Aren’t you a little young for marriage plans?” Jayden asked him.

“Yes. I suppose if we lived on Earth,” Lorcan said. “But such arranged marriages have always been the way to unite people, worlds, and, well, galaxies.”

Nora crossed her arms and shifted her gaze. Jayden could see she wasn’t impressed.

Lorcan continued. “With the emperor’s help, we formed the masons to rebuild our worlds and to destroy Nuk’ana. Just like spring tide on Earth. Extreme high tide or extreme low tide. When the sun, moon, and earth are in alignment. It is our goal to stop the buzzard and his shape-shifting army.”

“What about the Atilla?” Jayden asked.

“Yeah,” BBgun added, “how are you going to stop them?”

“A good question indeed,” the emperor said. “We are hopeful to find a peaceful end to the war, but we are far from such a goal. Our objective at the moment is to grow the masons and take power away from Nuk’ana—”

“I think I know where he’s holding Parker and the others,” Nora said.

“Zilon?” Altair3 asked.

Nora’s eyes widened. She nodded slowly.

“Truth confirmed,” Altair3 said. “That marble is a bully prison, summer camp, and diamond ring.”

Jayden’s face tightened. “We need to rescue Parker.”

“I understand you are worried about your friend—,” Lorcan said.

“He’s my brother!” shouted Nora.

Lorcan softened his voice. “I am truly sorry, Zeekmo . . . I too am worried about the lives of all the captured masons.”

Nora groaned.

“Your brother plus eleven souls float within,” Altair3 said to Nora.

“This is why I’ve asked Altair3 to join us,” Lorcan said. “Please show them.”

Altair3 took a small sphere from his pocket and put it in the middle of the table. He switched it on and a hologram of Zilon appeared.

Lorcan leaned in and pointed. “We know they are being held in Singze prison. It is five hundred snaps from the largest miner city on the planet named Gotah.”

Altair3 used the motion of his hands to change the hologram from the planet, to a view of the city, to the prison, and then to a close-up. The last motion changed the hologram to a large, flat, city square. The square included a giant stage area extending outward thirty feet from one of the two hundred story buildings that surrounded the square.

“Nuk’ana plans on zapping the prisoners onstage in the square city,” Lorcan said.

“It is trash,” Altair3 added as his hands moved. Hologram images of the captives appeared one at a time.

When Parker’s image appeared, Jayden and Nora sucked in their breath. His face appeared bruised and bloody, but he was still alive. “They’re going to kill him!” Nora said.

“Their defenses are impenetrable,” Lorcan said. “We wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Can’t we just fly a UFO over and yank them out of there?” Nora asked.

“No,” Altair3 said.

“Along the top of each of the buildings are Zepar robo pods,” Lorcan said. “They will blast anything from the sky that gets within three snaps. They do the same to anyone entering the square that doesn’t belong. Two hundred miners and world leaders from around the galaxy, along with Space Command recruits, will witness the executions,” Lorcan said. “They plan a huge broadcasted event.”

“Why do these aliens enjoy watching people get zapped?” BBgun asked.

“It goes back to the planet’s history,” Lorcan said. “It’s why Nuk’ana selected the planet for his prison. People who have broken a law, anywhere in the galaxy, are shipped to that prison. There are no trials once a world chooses to send a criminal to Singze prison. For centuries, their people used the city square to eliminate crime and reinforce laws. They have a one strike and you’re dead policy.”

“No trials,” Altair3 added.

“A form of Russian roulette, as you might say on your world,” Lorcan said. “If the accused is randomly chosen, they are blasted into atom dust on Saturday night under the lights.”

“A ball game and pop jolly,” Altair3 said.

“That’s disgusting,” Nora muttered.

“True, but it has been effective for Nuk’ana and the people of Zilon. Their diamond mine is the richest in the galaxy,” he said. “And their defenses are protected by quantum encryption that is beyond our capability to hack.”

Altair3 moved his hands to change the hologram to one of Leader Nuk’ana sitting at a desk with a flag behind him. Nuk’ana had a smile on his face, showing off his perfect white teeth. Altair3 gestured again, prompting a video hologram to start.

“Leaders of the Milky Way,” Nuk’ana’s hologram said with a slight smile that almost looked kind. “We invite you to the year’s most incredible spectacle. Come to Zilon, all expenses paid by Space Command, to witness the execution of twelve rebels who have committed the highest crime against our way of life: treason. These twelve terrorists have attempted to destroy Space Command resources and have killed innocents . . .”

The video switched from Nuk’ana to a video of the battle at the hub when Parker had been captured. “Our Zepar army is protecting our way of life as Space Command fighters battle the evil Atilla invaders . . .”

The video had been edited, appearing as though Space Command was kicking the Atilla’s butts. All lies, thought Jayden. The stream switched back to a close-up of Nuk’ana, his jaw extended and his alligator eyes glistening.

The leader’s eyes narrowed and lips thinned. The alien’s look had morphed into pure evil. “Come for the celebration. Pre-event executions start at six MWP time. The main event will be at nine. Twenty lucky Space Command recruits will be vaporizing twelve terrorists. I will join you for the event in person.”

The video ended.

“Zilon square bubbling with leaders,” Altair3 said. “Party on.”

Silence filled the room.

BBgun broke the stillness. “MWP?”

“Milky Way Pulsar time. Standardized time throughout the galaxy,” Lorcan said.

“If we can get inside, can you provide backup?” Jayden asked Lorcan.

“Nuk’ana’s ego is bigger than the galaxy,” he replied. “He’ll have extra security. It’s a suicide mission.”

Jayden retrieved the tablet and handed it to Nora. “Can you use the tablet to crack their passwords and hack into their city systems?”

“What kind of device is that?” the emperor asked.

“It’s a long story,” Jayden replied.

She held up the tablet and turned to Lorcan. “Does the city system use encryption similar to Space Command’s website encryption that I hacked back on Earth?”

“Yes.” His eyes widened. “Hang on. You hacked into Space Command?”

Nora nodded.

Lorcan grinned. “Nice . . . But unfortunately, the prison will require on-site access.”

“It’s a hardline system?” she asked.

“It is indeed,” Lorcan replied. “The Zepar integrated the Ga encryption tech into all their city systems. The system at the square is in an isolated cloud. You’d need to hack the main hardline under the square. That’s where their control systems are located for the Zepar robo pods and shields. If you disable the security systems and weapons, one of our masons would be able to slip in with a spacecraft and transport everyone out.”

Jayden turned to the emperor. “Can you make us fake credentials?”

The emperor smiled. “Yes, of course.”

Jayden turned back to Lorcan. “Can you plant masons in the square?”

Lorcan took a deep breath. “Do you have a plan, Killgeek?”

“Of course he does, right, Jayden?” BBgun said.

Jayden hesitated. “Where’s the nearest exit off the stage?”

“The butt,” Altair3 said, displaying a hologram of the stage. He zoomed in and pointed. “There. At the rear.”

Jayden continued. “We need a distraction. If I can communicate with the UFO pilot, I’ll give them the signal to start blasting the robo pods. We need enough of a distraction to get the firing squad to hesitate. BBgun and I will jump onto the stage with your masons and escort the prisoners off the stage. Can you plant some of those wearable weapons under our seats?”

BBgun looked worried as Lorcan rubbed his chin. “I’ll do one better,” the mason leader said.

“I’ll have laser triggers taped there.”

“That’ll work,” Jayden said.

“Once Jayden gives the signal, I’ll shut down their shields,” Nora said. “Then your UFOs can destroy the robo pods.”

Lorcan tapped his fingers on the table and peered at Nora. “For this plan to succeed you realize it depends on one thing?”

Nora nodded. “I’ll hack into their lame system. Don’t worry about it.”

Lorcan frowned. “My best hackers haven’t been able to get through their encryption. You think you can do it so quickly?”

Jayden raised his voice. “We’ll do our part. But can you deliver the support we’ll need?”

Lorcan’s serious face grew into a large smile. “Consider it done, my friend.” Lorcan turned to Altair3. “What are the best extraction points?”

Altair3 changed the hologram to show locations in and around the city center.

“Once prisoners are on vacation, get them to surf here, here and here,” Altair3 said.

“I will provide you with portable map devices,” the emperor said. “Altair3 will set it up.”

“Yes, father,” Altair3 replied.

Lorcan smiled. “Zeekmo, there’s a green door you’ll be looking for in the concession area. It’ll provide access to the lower levels where Nora can access their system hardline.”

Altair3 changed the hologram to show the route from the stage to the underground network router room, and then back up to ground level outside of the square. “Extraction points. Far side of the scrapers.”

“When can you be ready?” Jayden asked Lorcan.

Lorcan turned to the emperor.

“The transport shall be refueled and ready for launch soon,” the emperor said with a smile.

Jayden jumped to his feet and marched to the door. “Let’s go.”

BBgun and Nora didn’t hesitate. They followed behind him.

“Wait just a moment, please,” the emperor said. He turned to one of the guards and made a hand gesture.

The guard brought over an ancient looking wooden box and opened it.

Jayden peered inside and saw pairs of earplugs similar to what had already been installed in his ears.

The emperor nodded at another guard who came over and stuck his finger into Jayden’s right ear, causing his implanted translator ear plug to fall out into the guard’s hand. The guard replaced it with one from the box, and then did the same for BBgun and Nora.

“These are entangled comms. You will be able to hear and speak to each other as well as the UFO pilots,” the emperor said. “It uses the Ga’s communication network but is encrypted using our algorithms. Pull on your right earlobe to speak to each other. Pull on your earlobe twice to communicate with other masons. I suggest the team break up into small groups and ride Zepar shuttles from different moons to prevent detection.”

Good idea, thought Jayden.

The emperor turned to Lorcan. “You and the masons should meet up with the Killgeek and his clan inside Zilon’s capital city square.”

Lorcan winked at Jayden and nodded.

Off in the distance a horn sounded.

“It is time,” the emperor said. “May the beings of energy illuminate your path.”

Jayden straightened, and then threw back his shoulders.

Game on!

 

 

Chapter 25

The intergalactic transport from Andromeda punched out inside Zilon’s star just long enough to send Jayden, Nora, and BBgun on a smaller UFO to a Zilon moon. Each of them wore freshly pressed Space Command uniforms with special ID credentials provided by Emperor Ruchbah9.

The credentials consisted of a half-paper, half-electronic gizmo that affixed to the Space Command uniform breast pocket. “VIP” flashed in three-dimensional red letters and a small hologram of the person’s head rotated three hundred and sixty degrees. Jayden thought the animation of his head was cool, even though it made him look possessed as it rotated in a complete circle.

Jayden, Nora, and BBgun boarded a Zepar shuttle on Zilon’s moon and blended in with other Space Command teens, then flew down to the planet’s city square destination. They moved with the crowd from the shuttle docks through a long polished limestone tunnel, which led to an outdoor mall area in front of towering golden skyscrapers. The tall buildings reminded Jayden of the gold skyscrapers in the pink-bug city.

A video display the size of four billboards combined stood at one end of the mall area nearest the skyscraper. Talk about high-def, Jayden thought. Seriously cool. The massive display replayed video scenes of previous executions in what he assumed was a pre-execution telecast. When it played images of Parker’s bruised and battered face, his pounding heart nearly knocked the wind out of him.

The three continued to the entrance building of the city square.

Zepar, Space Command officers, and weird-looking aliens walked shoulder-to-shoulder. It reminded Jayden of going to a football game at a sports stadium where everyone had dressed up and painted their faces for the big championship game. The only difference, was no one around him wore a costume. He caught whiffs of tobacco smoke, smoke he didn’t recognize, a sewer smell, and a variety of sweet perfumes. The combination of smells was seriously nasty.

Jayden led BBgun and Nora into a one-person-wide line where Zepar checked credentials and collected weapons. Just as Lorcan had mentioned, only the Zepar were allowed to carry munitions. He had no idea how Lorcan was going to bring weapons into the square.

As Jayden approached the entrance, he noticed one Zepar guard asking random questions before allowing attendees to move through the entrance gate. When it was Jayden’s turn to pass by the guard, he kept his eyes down.

Awa Waz!” The guard grabbed Jayden’s arm. He froze, holding up Nora and BBgun behind him. Bad idea. This was a freaking bad idea. Man, the alien dude, was ugly, Jayden thought. He inhaled deeply and peered into the Zepar guard’s reptilian eyes with confidence. The alien smelled like ripe manure mixed with spoiled tuna fish.

Jayden quickly realized his mistake. It would have been better to have kept his eyes lowered.

The guard studied his badge. “English?” the alien asked with a deep growl. “Ah, you are from Earth.”

Jayden nodded.

“You are a trainer, it says.” The shape-shifter’s jaw extended two inches, then contracted.

Jayden’s stomach twisted.

The Zepar breathed in like a dentist’s suction tool then exhaled with a whistle. “What great lessons do you teach those Earthling puppies?”

Jayden didn’t know if the Zepar was making fun of him, or if the translator in his ear wasn’t working again. He said nothing.

“Well?” The Zepar guard demanded. “Are you a puppy too? Bark, Earth puppy, bark.”

Aliens in line behind them fidgeted nervously. Two more Zepar guards walked toward them.

“I train in the great ways of the Zepar,” Jayden said, narrowing his eyes. “Leader Nuk’ana has shown me personally how to kill with one finger.”

“One finger? Oh?” the Zepar asked, raising his funky alien unibrow.

“Yes, wise one,” he replied. “Shall I show you?” Jayden forced the biggest fake smile he could muster and tried to channel his inner Lorcan confidence. He raised his hand slowly with an index finger pointed at the guard’s tiny nose and squinted as if he were aiming a pistol.

The Zepar let out a loud laugh that rumbled from its belly. “I like you, Earth boy! Enjoy the entertainment.” The Zepar pushed Jayden past him and let Nora and BBgun pass.

“One finger, huh?” Nora whispered, shaking her head. “Very original, Earth puppy.”

BBgun chuckled nervously.

As they crossed through the entrance into the concession area, Jayden could hear the crowd roaring out in the city square. Aliens of all shapes and sizes stood in booths selling drinks and purple popcorn, among other alien meats on rotisseries and bags of crispy treats. By the increased rush to get inside the square, he could tell it was nearly time for the main event.

Jayden spied a dark green door in between two concession stands. He noticed a lever across its middle lined with flashing green lights. Bingo! The door matched Lorcan’s description of the underground access point. “There’s your entrance,” he whispered to Nora.

BBgun gave Nora a small salute. Then Jayden whispered into her ear. “Relax, Zeekmo. The plan is going to work.”

Nora nodded. “I know. It has to—he’s my brother.” She pulled the lever down, then disappeared through the metal door without looking back.

Jayden and BBgun quickly followed the signs from the concession area into the packed square to the VIP seating. An audience of a few thousand aliens eagerly sat in rows of bulky leather chairs.

Jayden estimated about one hundred Zepar fighters strolled around the perimeter, each with a laser clicker in hand. He located the seat identified by his badge in the middle of the first row, right in front of the stage, and checked under his seat. Sure enough, a clicker device was taped under it. “Lorcan is here somewhere,” he whispered to BBgun, sitting next to him.

As Jayden searched the square, the entire scene seemed unreal. He tried to convince himself that turning aliens into BBQ dust was okay. After all, they were aliens. But in his gut, he knew it wasn’t right.

Jayden focused on his rescue plan. He pulled down once on his ear lobe. “You both hear me?”

“Got you,” BBgun whispered and followed up with an elbow. “But I’m sitting next to you, duh.”

“I can hear you,” Nora said. “I’m almost to the control room.”

“Good,” Jayden said.

“Be careful,” BBgun said.

“Don’t worry about me,” she replied. “Just don’t get blasted onstage, K?”

“We’ll do our best,” Jayden replied.

Jayden’s legs trembled as he searched for Lorcan. How the mason’s leader was going to pull off his part of the rescue was still a mystery to him, what with all the Zepar guarding the place. We’re so screwed if he doesn’t deliver.

Space Command officers sat down all around them as the time of the event approached. A red-haired alien kid sitting next to Jayden held a large bucket filled with purple puffs. He shoveled the puffs into his mouth like popcorn while chatting with an older alien boy one row behind them.

Jayden peered at the stage area, elevated about three feet up from the floor. He located their escape route door, which blended in with the back wall of the stage.

Lights on the platform flashed.

BBgun gripped Jayden’s forearm.

“Just try to relax,” Jayden whispered.

Horns roared and bass drums thundered. Jayden gazed around desperately for Lorcan. Where are you, dude?

A voice echoed through the square. It was deep but energetic. “Welcome, people of the Milky Way. Welcome.” The voice sounded like a wrestling ring announcer. He’d expected the alien guy to add, “Let’s get ready to rumble.”

Two familiar aliens walked out to the center of the stage. Jazu and Shazu had arrived.

Jazu strutted his short body and moved his pasty face like a funky, hairless wolf sniffing a potential meal. Shorter Shazu followed behind, blowing kisses from her bright red lips. Her red hair was piled even higher atop her pink head.

When the two aliens reached a podium on the platform, they flicked their forked-whip tongues at the audience. Jazu spread his arms and spoke. “Today is a great day. We have destroyed many Atilla invaders. We have captured their weapons. We have flattened their army. Victory is within our reach . . .”

What a liar! Jayden thought.

The crowd roared.

“The great legions of Space Command fighters, led by impressive Zepar warriors, are taking back our galaxy one battlefield at a time. They are pushing the pathetic Atilla invaders back to their home galaxy.”

Oh, please! Who are you kidding?

Shazu began to speak. “Peoples of the great Milky Way and distinguished fighters of Space Command, who are here today, we thank you for making the journey to celebrate with us at this great event . . .”

Jayden still didn’t see Lorcan anywhere.

“A rebel group known as the Spring Tide Masons has tried unsuccessfully to disrupt our victories. They are terrorists fighting side-by-side with the Atilla, killing your citizens, stealing your resources . . .”

“It is our great pleasure to introduce,” Jazu said, “our supreme of the supreme, the leader of the leaders, the greatest of the greatest, the wisest of wise in all of the galaxies.”

Gag him, Jayden thought, please!

“He will stand with you shoulder-to-shoulder and watch the elimination of these terrorists. We have confirmed the rebels you are about to see are the very last of the Spring Tide Masons.”

Jayden felt sick, but the crowd loved the speech. BBgun’s mouth hung open in silent rage. But when Leader Nuk’ana walked onto the stage, Jayden nearly puked.

The crowd stood up and screamed, roaring louder.

Nuk’ana wore a long purple robe with gold chains around his thin, white neck. He walked with his shoulders back, the smoking stick in hand.

The crowd cheered.

A spotlight shifted from Nuk’ana and shined on a hairy alien wearing nothing but long brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The creature’s parted hair hung from his head to the ground. The alien began to play a solo on a stringed instrument that looked like a combination of an electric guitar, a bass guitar, and an accordion.

Jayden was ready for cell phones to start waving, concert style. He had to admit that the guitar player was seriously jamming. The longhaired guitarist could easily keep up with Earth’s best rockers. For a second, Jayden swayed to the beat as he watched the alien play.

The music suddenly stopped, and the beam shifted back to Nuk’ana. The smoking stick found its way to the leader’s lips. He let out a long puff of smoke then raised both arms and yelled in his deepest baritone voice, “Welcome!”

The crowd went wild again. They chanted: “Leader Nuk’ana, Leader Nuk’ana, Leader Nuk’ana!”

Talk about working a crowd, Jayden thought. The evil mass murderer had to be the best at it. The leader waved for the crowd to calm as he paced near the podium where Jazu and Shazu stood.

Jayden looked around again. “Do you see Lorcan?” he whispered to BBgun.

“Nope,” BBgun whispered back.

Not good.

Leader continued. “Today, our Space Command warriors will vaporize twelve treasonous traitors. Will the executioners please come forward?”

Twenty figures walked onto the stage, all dressed in long black robes and black ski-like masks, gripping handheld weapons. They marched in line to the center of the platform, and then stopped and rotated in one motion, presenting their backs to the crowd.

The red-haired kid sitting in the next chair gave Jayden a nudge. The alien boy grinned and whispered, “The masons call me Flame. Get ready, Killgeek. It is nearly show time.”

Yes, a mason! Jayden thought. He could breathe again.

BBgun smiled. “Oh yeah.”

“Bring the terrorists in!” Leader Nuk’ana shouted. He moved from the center of the stage to the side with the podium where Jazu and Shazu stood.

The hairy guitar player disappeared as each of the twenty masked executioners onstage lowered to one knee. Twelve mason prisoners staggered in along the far back of the stage until they were directly in front of the assassins.

Jayden pulled on his earlobe twice. “Are the UFOs in position?”

“Roger that, Killgeek,” said a pilot Jayden didn’t recognize. “Zulu-niner, ready. Alpha-two, ready. Charlie-six, ready to go on your command.”

“Stand-by,” Jayden said. He pulled on his earlobe once. “Nora, how you doing?”

Silence.

Dang it, he thought, then tried again, “Nora, do you read?”

“I’m nearly done,” she replied. “They changed the private key. It might take a little longer.”

“Hurry. Not much time before—” Jayden spotted Parker limping onto the stage. His eyes were puffy and red. His head hung low.

“Everything good?” Nora asked.

“Yeah,” BBgun replied, “but Parker just showed up onstage.”

“Is he okay?” Nora asked.

“He will be,” Jayden said, not sure if he believed it. All of the mason prisoners stood at the rear of the stage facing the crowd. A clear backdrop plunged down behind the mason prisoners. It was obviously something to absorb misfires. The bigger problem was how it blocked Jayden’s path to the rear of the stage.

Another clear wall fell into place in front of Nuk’ana, Jazu, and Shazu.

“Prepare to fire!” the leader yelled with thunder in his voice and fire in his eyes.

The crowd went silent.

The group of onstage Space Command executioners lifted their electro-shock devices and pointed them at the masons.

Jayden held his breath. Each of the prisoners stood silently, and there was still no sign of Lorcan. He prepared to go it on his own.

Leader Nuk’ana screamed, “Fire!”

Before Jayden could point his laser, the twenty Space Command executioners yanked off their masks and turned away from the prisoners. He almost roared out loud. It was Lorcan and other masons. They fired at the nearby Zepar guards along both sides of the stage, instantly vaporizing them into BBQ dust before they could shape-shift. Ingenious!

“I’m in!” Nora reported, screaming into Jayden and BBgun’s earpieces.

Jayden pulled on his earlobe twice. “Begin firing.”

Loud explosions overhead caused the entire crowd to gaze up and gasp. UFOs buzzed over the square. But the shields above the square still protected it.

Jayden’s stomach twisted when the robo pods fired back at the UFOs. “Any time now,” he told Nora and reached under his seat to retrieve a laser clicker.

“Almost there,” she replied.

“Hurry!” BBgun added.

Lorcan made a hand motion for Jayden and BBgun to join him on the platform.

“Stage shields are disabled,” said Nora.

The clear shields on the stage fell flat to the ground. A path opened to the escape door. Jayden climbed onto the stage along with BBgun and the first three rows of the audience. They were all masons, and even better, they all carried weapons. One hundred masons spread out on the stage, protecting the prisoners and blasting Zepar into dust clouds. Lorcan had brought an army.

“All right, Lorcan!” Jayden shouted.

Lorcan zapped two Zepar fighters into dusts, and then ran after Nuk’ana, Jazu, and Shazu.

Nuk’ana’s image buzzed, dimmed, and buzzed some more. So did Jazu and Shazu’s images. The three of them smiled and started to laugh. Then their images disappeared.

“Trap!” Lorcan yelled. “Holograms! Retreat!”

Zepar guards fought back. The large crowd screamed in panic and ran for the exits as laser fire and explosions filled the square.

Jayden wondered if the crowd still considered this entertainment. He and BBgun ran as fast as they could to Parker. “You okay?” Jayden shouted to his friend.

Parker nodded, his eyes glassy and legs wobbly.

“This way!” Jayden said as he grabbed Parker’s arm and helped him to the door at the back of the platform.

The other injured masons followed BBgun.

“Go, go, go!” Lorcan shouted from twenty feet away on the stage. “Get them out of here. We’ll cover you.”

Jayden opened the door and helped the other prisoners off the stage. He led them down a long marble stairway.

“We need the shields down,” said one of the mason’s UFO pilots somewhere above them. “It’s getting a bit hot up here.”

“A couple more minutes,” Nora replied.

“Roger, Zeekmo,” said the pilot. “Hurry. Please.”

“Nora, we’re coming to you,” Jayden said.

They hurried down another set of stairs, down a hallway, and then down more stairs. When Jayden, Parker, BBgun, and the masons reached Nora, she was doing her usual finger tap dance on a touch panel.

She looked up, saw her brother, and smiled. Wires covered the wall-sized control panels, and piping ran across the ceiling. A hologram of a building layout floated in the air near Nora. She looked like she was searching for something.

All the lights in the room suddenly flashed red.

“Are the exits open yet?” Jayden asked her.

Nora huffed and pushed buttons on the panel. “Almost there. Just one last—here, and here.” The lights went green. “Got it. Let’s get moving. I’ve let loose my scorch-bot. It’ll bring down their outside defenses in a few minutes—assuming it works.”

“We’re out of time, we have to go!” Jayden shouted.

Nora reluctantly nodded and handed Jayden the tablet, then grabbed Parker in a tight hug. “I love you, bro.”

“Thanks for coming for me, sis. I knew you would,” Parker said. He turned to Jayden. “You too, Killgeek. Rock on.”

“No time for this now,” Nora said, turning and running up a stairway. Jayden, Parker, BBgun, and the rest of the masons followed. When they reached the pickup point, Az, just outside one of the tall golden skyscrapers in a sprawling grassy area, the masons were in the midst of a laser firefight with Zepar soldiers.

Robo pods far atop the towering high-rises rained down blaster fire. Searchlights lit up the smoky area. The robo-pod shields still functioned. Jayden realized if the shields stayed operational, they’d all be sitting ducks soon. “I thought you said it was going to work?” he said to Nora.

“Give it another minute,” she replied. “The code needs time to replicate.”

Replicate? He held his breath, but the battle didn’t look good. Attendees from the event still scattered in every direction and blasters exploded all around them. One mason UFO was hit and wobbled away in flames.

Suddenly, all the robo-pod weapon fire from above them stopped. The spotlights went dark. Nora’s bot had worked.

Nora pulled on her ear. “The Zepar defenses are offline. Your path is clear.”

“Roger that,” replied a mason UFO pilot somewhere above them.

Nora gave Jayden a hug and Parker joined in. Mason-controlled UFOs bombarded the robo pods from above.

A few seconds later, an Atilla spacecraft appeared above them. In a white flash, Jayden’s view of the battle area landscape changed to the inner walls of a large Atilla spacecraft. He realized they had been transported into the belly of the flying spacecraft.

Jayden turned to Parker. “How are you feeling?”

Parker sighed. “I’m okay.” He forced a grin.

Jayden and Parker searched around for Lorcan on board the Atilla spacecraft but didn’t see him. They found the red-haired kid named Flame.

“Hey, have you seen Lorcan?” Jayden asked.

“Still fighting,” he replied. “We’ll pick him up at the backup extraction point. I hear there are twenty masons still trying to get out. Lorcan is with them. We’ll pick them up, hightail it to an intergalactic transport, and then travel back to Andromeda.”

“Nice going out there,” another mason said to Jayden. “Glad Parker is okay, man.” The kid took off his SECC cap, shook out long brown hair, and then threw his cap in the air. “Hoorah!”

It wasn’t long before more masons transported into the Atilla spacecraft. The spacecraft’s hull was nearly full. Jayden seriously didn’t realize so many masons had been recruited for the rescue.

“Medical! Need medic here!” Jayden turned his head towards the shouting and saw five wounded masons on their backs. An Andros mason with long, green fern-like hair jogged over to the injured with a small box.

Jayden, Parker, BBgun, and Nora sprinted to catch up with the medic.

Jayden recognized one of the wounded masons lying flat on his back. The boy’s cap was missing, and his long, jet-black hair spread out under his head. Blood soaked the tattered uniform.

“Oh no,” said Jayden. “It’s Lorcan.”

Chapter 26

The mason medic ripped open Lorcan’s shirt, then applied electronic compresses to his chest wounds. But the high-tech compresses appeared useless as yellow blood oozed out of his wounds.

Lorcan coughed hard, and then gazed up at Jayden. “You did well, Killgeek.” Yellow moisture collected on Lorcan’s lips. “Did all twelve prisoners make it out?” he asked, squinting his eyes against the pain, his forehead creased.

This can’t be happening, Jayden thought. The raid had been a success. They had pulled it off. But when he looked at Lorcan, his chest tightened. “Yeah,” he said with a slight nod. “They all made it.”

Lorcan turned his head and coughed again. The medic wiped the yellow flow of moisture from his nose and mouth.

“What happened?” Nora asked Lorcan.

“Nuk’ana,” Lorcan said, struggling to breathe. “I guess he figured I’d chase him. He was right. Only he didn’t count on us having an Atilla spacecraft or our secret weapon.” He grimaced. “You, Zeekmo, star hacker. You cracked his mesh net. Good going.”

As Jayden watched the mason leader struggling to speak, he realized just how much he respected him. Lorcan was the real reason they had pulled off the rescue. He held off the Zepar so the rest of them could escape.

“I saw Nuk’ana flicker and disappear,” Jayden said, his throat tightening. “Same with Jazu and Shazu. They were holograms?”

Lorcan jerked his head in a nod. “Leader was somewhere close. That’s the only way the hologram tech works.” He forced another breath and coughed. “I thought he’d be hiding on the side of the stage, but ten of his Zepar shimmering grunts were waiting for us. The buzzard . . . got away.”

“Just hang on,” the mason medic said to Lorcan. “We need to get you back to Andromeda. The empire has cures. Be strong and bold.”

Lorcan squeezed his eyes shut and coughed hard. Yellow fluid bubbled from his mouth.

The medic turned and mouthed to the four of them, “He’s not going to make it.”

BBgun trembled as he stood near Jayden. Tears streamed down both Nora and Parker’s faces.

Jayden closed his stinging eyes. He wanted to help the mason leader, fix him somehow. It wasn’t a video game they were playing with a new avatar at the ready. Lorcan was dying for real right before Jayden’s eyes, and there was nothing he could do. Nothing. Jayden’s stomach tightened like a freeze-dried peach.

Parker suddenly collapsed, crashing to the floor near Lorcan. The medic swiftly went to his aid. He cut away the material from Parker’s pants, then went to work on his legs and feet.

“Do not worry,” the medic whispered to Jayden. “The emperor has cures for this mason. Your G-striker will recover.”

“Killgeek . . . listen . . . to me.” Lorcan wheezed.

Jayden knelt down.

“Come . . . closer,” Lorcan whispered, his eyes mere slits.

Jayden leaned in.

“The masons need your help, Killgeek,” Lorcan whispered, and then struggled to take another breath.

Lorcan’s words hit Jayden hard. “Me?” he asked.

“Yes, you have a special energy . . . I’ve seen you in battle . . . You are a natural leader . . . They need you to help end this war.”

Jayden couldn’t believe what Lorcan was saying. Lead the masons? Returning to the comfort of his home in Los Gatos was all he wanted. Lead? No freaking way. “No, I—,” Jayden started.

“Killgeek,” Lorcan whispered, struggling harder to speak. “Don’t doubt yourself.”

“But . . . but I just want to go back to Earth. Go back to my life. Make sure our parents are safe,” Jayden said. He sucked in a deep breath, and then let it out in a huff. He pointed to Nora, Parker, and BBgun. “We need to go home. I don’t want to fight the Zepar or Space Command.”

“I know, I know.” Lorcan wheezed. “In good time you will go home. But first you must lead.” He coughed again. “Our galaxy needs you. The people of Andromeda need you.”

But Jayden still didn’t get why he had to be the one to lead the masons. “Rhea2 can do it. She’ll recover soon.”

Tears dripped from Lorcan’s eyes and ran down his face. “No, she has another path. She must lead Andromeda.”

“But I don’t understand,” Jayden said.

“She must govern the people.” Lorcan coughed violently, and then stopped. “You are the one to lead the masons. You are the one who will defeat Space Command. Trust yourself.”

Jayden didn’t know what to say to the dying mason leader. What could he say? Staying light years away from home while his parents could be in danger was the last thing he’d do.

“You must.” Lorcan grabbed Jayden’s shirt. “A trillion souls are counting on you to succeed.”

Seriously? No pressure there. “But there are lots of other masons that know way more about this stuff, masons that have been training for years. I don’t even—”

“Be strong, my friend,” Lorcan said. “You are destined—” He groaned.

Without warning, he gasped. His head jerked left, and then dropped. His eyes froze.

The medic worked frantically on Lorcan. He pressed down on his chest and breathed into his mouth, but nothing revived him.

Lorcan was dead.

The Andros medic covered his body with a gold blanket.

Jayden clenched his teeth, collapsed to his knees, and then yelled. “Screw this! Screw this! I don’t want to fight anymore.”

Nora patted his back, but he continued to shout, “I want to go home! I want to go back to my life!”

All the mason kids around Jayden went silent. Word that Lorcan had died spread through the spacecraft like a wildfire. Some masons screamed, and before long, everyone was crying.

The mason known as Flame kneeled down and wrapped his arm around Jayden’s shoulder. “We all want to go to our homes,” he said. “We all want to go back to our worlds, our lives, the people we love, our families. We all want peace, Killgeek.”

Jayden gazed around the room. So many had suffered, he thought, too many kids had died. He saw desperation in their eyes. No one wanted to fight the Zepar or Space Command. For the first time, he realized these kids were all lost. Everyone in the spacecraft’s hull was homesick. They’d lost family and friends like he had lost Zebraguts and Knifetango. So much waste. They needed a leader.

But Jayden was just a gamer geek from Cali. A happy-go-lucky, stay-out-of-trouble, keep-his-head-low dude who made extra money interning for his dad. He didn’t ask to be a leader somewhere across the galaxy in a real space war. But the kids around him weren’t avatars or part of an online shooter video game clan. They were alive, real kids like him.

He let out a deep sigh. The last thing he wanted was for Parker to get hurt or harm to come to Nora or their parents. He didn’t want to die either.

Mason teens silently surrounded him.

Nora and Flame helped Jayden to his feet. “You can do this,” Nora whispered. “Lorcan believed in you. We all do, Killgeek.”

Suddenly his tablet began to vibrate intensely. As much as he wanted to ignore it, he couldn’t. Jayden removed the tablet and a bright white light beamed out of its display and onto the ceiling. The beam transformed into a blue-white flicker, then a flash. The energy being?

He gazed at the flickering light with his teary eyes.

Yes. It was the same pixie. Everyone around him watched as the pixie light changed color: blue, purple, red, and then yellow—every color of the rainbow. The light moved in a slow circle around Jayden’s head just as before. Around and around it went.

The flash of energy grew bigger and brighter still as the colorful winged pixie took form and flew around the room humming, and then sang.

He recognized the song from his last encounter back in Andromeda. Each note tickled the inside of his brain. Goosebumps ran across his neck.

 

“Birth of the new,

Light of the full,

A time comes soon,

Align Sol, Earth, and moon.”

 

She sang with a soothing pixie voice, each note growing slightly louder than the last.

The energy being hovered like a hummingbird. Her form brightened and became more defined as she gazed deep into his eyes. She resembled a perfectly handcrafted porcelain figurine with a small nose, perfectly curvy lips, and marigold-iris eyes. The pixie fluttered long eyelashes as though they helped her fly.

 

“Exceptionally high,

Exceptionally low,

Worlds collide during Spring Tide.”

 

The being sang softly. She circled and flew upward, then down and fluttered around him in a dancing motion.

 

“Where masons try,

As missiles fly,

Must find a way,

To save the day.”

 

Jayden gazed at the energy being’s beautiful marigold eyes and fluttering eyelashes as she hovered in front of him. She had a calming effect.

 

“A boy must rise,

A leader must fall,

Decide the boy must,

Lead, follow, or bust.”

 

She floated gracefully, waving her arms as if she were doing sign language or the hula.

 

“Decide the boy must,

Lead, follow, or bust.”

 

She repeated the lines three times, raising her voice and the pitch each time.

She circled Nora and Parker. Then circled Jayden.

The glowing being rose slowly above them and increased the tempo as she sang.

 

“Find the spot behind the neck,

Push to switch off the hologram tech,

Reveal you will, the truth at last,

Tell all you can,

Quantum fast.”

 

Her graceful dance continued, and then slowed to the tempo of her song. She sang louder:

 

“Spring Tide Masons

Face the gun, fighting and dying

Until it is done.”

 

The energy being hovered six inches in front of Jayden’s face and suddenly screamed in a burst of air:

 

“The Ga invasion from the sun!”

 

Her breath blew Jayden’s Space Command cap off his head.

Gasps circulated the spacecraft.

The flying pixie darted about as if she were about to attack someone and screamed until her voice hurt Jayden’s ears. He quickly covered them with his hands, but the screams still managed to penetrate.

The cute little pixie girl had completely freaked out. Her face glowed like fire, and her marigold eyes had wilted and turned gray.

 

“Death is certain!

Death is certain!

Death is certain!”

 

Just when Jayden was ready to run, the pixie slowed, and then returned to hover peacefully in front of Jayden’s face in silence, peering deep into his soul.

A hush came over the crowd of masons, and Jayden felt a blanket of calm energy return. The energy being’s wilted marigold eyes had bloomed once again. After a moment had passed, the pixie began to sing softly again.

 

“If he runs,

If he runs.”

 

She kissed Jayden’s cheek. It tickled him like a feather. Her touch made him instantly breathe slower. Then the energy being blew warmth into his face that smelled like a summer rainstorm. For a brief moment, it was as though she was somehow holding Jayden, comforting him, making him feel safe.

She smiled from pixie ear to pixie ear, then darted over to Lorcan’s body and touched the body. A golden shimmering glow appeared around his still form.

The pixie blew her warmth, covering his body. In a bright flash, Lorcan was gone. She flew upward, paused, and then disappeared back into the tablet display.

A room full of eyes turned to Jayden.

Me, lead the masons? he thought. Then a sudden wave of clarity came over him. He realized it was simple. If the Zepar continued battling the Atilla, they’d all eventually be space dust, burnt toast, and dead. Lorcan had believed he could lead the masons and stop the war. And the pixie girl wanted him to make a choice. “What am I waiting for?” he muttered.

Suddenly, Jayden knew what he needed to do. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain if Lorcan and the energy being were right about him. He closed his eyes and still felt the pixie’s warmth and the echoes of her song in his head. I will lead, he thought to himself, and then opened his eyes, searching the faces of the silent masons.

Finally, he said, “We’re going to need a bolder plan.”

Nora and BBgun hugged him, and Flame smiled. Parker forced a grin too.

“Sit tight and light,” Jayden said to the crowd. “It’s time to remove that buzzard bully from power once and for all.”

The entire room of masons cheered.

Chapter 27

Jayden sat at a polished wood table in Emperor Ruchbah9’s castle and reflected on everything that had happened. In the flickering light of white candles spread around the room, two guards in red blaster-proof spandex stood at attention on either side of the door archway, each sporting long, handcrafted swords.

The emperor pounded his fists on the table, and then sat back down. “Damn him. Damn him.” Jayden noticed his double chin had turned dark green. “Nuk’ana must be removed from power. He is getting more aggressive, more evil, and hurting more innocents. Killgeek, what is your plan? How will you take down Leader Nuk’ana?”

“Forget Nuk’ana right now,” said Nora. “We need to get back to Earth, right, Jayden? We need to get our families to safety. Nuk’ana knows where they live.”

“Yeah, I agree with Nora,” Parker said, tapping the table repeatedly with his fingers.

“Lizard gas,” Altair3 grumbled. “Nuk’ana barks like a snake.”

All eyes turned to Jayden. He peered at the red tablet, waiting for the light energy to show up and tell him what to do.

Nothing happened.

“Well, young man?” the emperor said. “Your plan?”

Just when he was ready to give up, an idea popped into his head. He slapped the table. “We need to do both. Return to Earth and destroy Nuk’ana.”

“Both?” Parker asked.

Nora sighed. “Right. But how in holy Higgs particles are we going to manage both?”

“Look, I want to make sure our parents are safe,” he replied. “We know how Nuk’ana works. The slime bucket is ruthless.”

“So we get back to Earth, right?” asked Nora.

“Yes. But—”

“What of Nuk’ana?” Ruchbah9 asked.

“Look, I don’t want us to walk into a trap. We know Nuk’ana is always a few steps ahead of the masons. Heck, he might even have spies here too.”

“Killgeek is truth,” Altair3 said.

Emperor Ruchbah9 stood and glared at the two guards in spandex. “Out, now!”

They scrambled out of the room, nearly falling on their faces in their haste to obey. The door slammed behind them.

Jayden peered at the emperor.

“Just in case,” Ruchbah9 said, then sat down, and sucked in a long, deep breath.

“Go on,” Parker said. “What’s the plan?”

“We need to change the rules of Nuk’ana’s game,” Jayden said. “Keep Nuk’ana off balance. Something unexpected.” He rubbed his face, slammed the table with both hands, and gained his feet. “We’ll need two intergalactic transports with a UFO on each of them.”

Ruchbah’s eyes went wide. “Done. I have what you need all fueled up in my courtyard.”

“But I still don’t get it. What’s your plan?” asked Parker.

He winked at Parker, and then turned to the emperor. “I’ll need as much explosive as you can pack into the hull of one of the transports. Just leave room for one UFO inside the transport’s hull.”

“Oh, really?” the emperor said as his brow deeply creased.

Jayden turned toward to Nora. “I need you to crack Nuk’ana’s passwords and hack the Ga database using my dad’s tablet, only this time dig deeper. Break into Nuk’ana’s personal data. Find and decrypt his detailed information. We need to know where Nuk’ana’s next communication briefing will be located.” He turned back to the emperor and asked, “Will these new communicator earplugs connect across the galaxy?”

The emperor rubbed his green double chin, which had lightened a tad. He nodded. “Yes, of course. They are entangled.”

“And they’re secure, right?” Jayden asked.

“Indeed. The devices have been custom configured and paired to the three of you with our most advanced encryption. But one limitation does indeed exist.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“You will not be able to communicate when you are in the space between the space.”

That made sense to Jayden given the place didn’t even have stars. It was clear to him what they needed to do. “Nora, I need you to hack the offline Space Command database copy while you’re traveling on an intergalactic transport to Earth. Take BBgun with you. With any luck, by the time you reach our sun, you’ll know how to decrypt Nuk’ana’s personal live database.”

“With a lot of luck,” she muttered.

He continued. “When you arrive in Earth’s solar system, connect to the live database. Find out where Nuk’ana’s next briefing is going to be. I’ll need the location. After you get that info, hack into their system again, but let space command locate your position.”

“But won’t they destroy our transport?” Nora asked.

“Probably,” Jayden said. “But that’s why the hull will be filled with explosives.”

The emperor let out a loud laugh. “Very creative, young mason leader.”

Jayden continued. “After you tell me the briefing location, use a time delay to insert the transport’s location into Space Command’s live data feed.”

Nora grinned.

“Genius,” Parker said, as if he could read Jayden’s mind. “Smoke-a-bloke?”

Jayden peered at Nora. “You’ll let them get up on the transport, and then, boom, BBQ those shifty Zepar. But you won’t be on the transport. You’ll be on the UFO from the transport’s cargo hold.”

Nora’s smiled grew.

Jayden turned to Altair3. “When’s the next briefing?”

“One hundred, seventy-two thousand, eight hundred pulses,” Altair3 said.

“Huh?” Jayden said blankly.

“Two of your Earth days,” the emperor replied.

“After you tell me Nuk’ana’s meeting location and booby-trap the transport with explosives, take the UFO to Earth and pick up our parents. BBgun will be your backup. Once you have all the adults onboard the UFO, hightail it to the far side of Earth’s moon and hide out until I check in with you.” Jayden turned to the emperor. “Nora will call you. She’ll let you know when to send them an intergalactic transport that will bring them back to the Royal City.”

BBgun looked nervous and Nora’s expression changed to a frown. “You’re not coming with me, Jayden?”

“No time. That’s the second part of my plan. Parker and I will punch out somewhere near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. When you tell me where Nuk’ana is going to give his briefing, we’ll have other masons start raids as far away from the briefing as possible. From there we’ll use a galactic transport to travel to the briefing. Nuk’ana will think all the rebel activity is far away from his pathetic little briefing.”

“Then what?” asked Nora.

“Parker and I will sneak in with a group of masons. We’ll replace the recruits he’s planning to put on display at his briefing.” Jayden turned to Altair3. “Can you arrange for masons to join us onstage?”

He nodded. “No issues. Bigger puzzle is weapon pieces.”

“I’ll work on getting weapons and credentials,” the emperor said. “We’ve recently upgraded a set of skin tight wearables that blends in with your natural skin color. They’ll be perfect. Blast 50,000 volts of shock. It won’t kill, but it will disable very effectively.”

“Once at Nuk’ana’s talking spot,” Altair3 said. “Mason sleeper cells wake up.”

“Yes,” Jayden told Altair3. “But you’re going with Zeekmo too. She’ll need help enabling the explosives.” He smiled. “Understood? I need you to make a light show to keep Space Command distracted near Earth.”

“Understood,” Altair3 said, “I bus with Zeekmo and BBgun.”

“We shall send my other son with you and G-striker, Killgeek,” the emperor said. “His name is Altair5.”

“Altair3 has a brother?” Jayden asked.

The emperor nodded. “Yes, Altair5 is twelve of your sol years.”

The Andros sure don’t get too creative with their naming tradition.

“Then what?” Nora asked Jayden. “How will you stop Nuk’ana at his briefing?”

“Yeah, well, that part Parker and I will need to work out,” he replied.

Altair3 stood and gestured for them to get moving.

“May the beings of energy be with you,” the emperor said.

“And some luck too,” Jayden added, and then paused. He peered at the emperor. “The energy being said: ‘Find the spot behind the neck, push to switch off the hologram tech.’ Does that mean anything to you?”

The emperor gazed at Jayden carefully then shook his head.

Jayden continued. “Reveal you will the truth at last, tell all you can, quantum fast. No idea at all?”

The emperor frowned. “Unfortunately, I do not know the meaning.”

Jayden let out a frustrated huff. “We should get moving.”

They all headed for the door.

Nora grabbed Jayden’s arm, holding him back until they were the only two left in the room. Her hair was growing back, but it was still short. He loved the way her glinting brown eyes softened when she talked to him.

She touched his face with one hand and gazed into his eyes. “Be careful, Surfer Boy,” she whispered. “And take care of my brother.”

“I will,” Jayden whispered back to her.

“Come now!” shouted Altair3 from the hallway.

Jayden’s focus shifted. Both fists tightened.

Time for a Zepar BBQ.

Chapter 28

The viewport filled with a blue and yellow gas cloud littered with pinpoints of stars when the intergalactic transport punched out of the space between the space into the middle of the Milky Way’s Sagittarius Arm of stars. Jayden was getting nervous. The masons had started the raids as planned, and Leader Nuk’ana’s briefing was only six hours away. They were cutting it close.

Jayden and Parker quickly transferred to a smaller galactic transport that waited for them at a secret mason base in the gigantic gas cloud hidden from Space Command sensors.

Altair5 piloted the transport. The kid was a miniature version of Altair3, with a similar silver chain woven around the outline of his ear. Silver stud piercings the size of pinheads were fixed all over his cheeks in geometric patterns, with some pierced through his dark green eyebrows. The only difference between Altair3 and Altair5 was that Altair5’s face appeared to be a lighter lime green, and he didn’t mess up his words nearly as often. Jayden was also pretty sure this was Altair5’s first real mission.

Jayden’s new comm device beeped. “Hello?”

“Zeekmo here, you read me?”

Yeah! “I got you. Can you hear me?” He gave Parker a thumbs-up and mouthed, “It’s your sister.”

Parker rolled his eyes. “I hear her too, duh. The earplugs are all entangled.”

“We’re in position,” she said.

“Good,” replied Jayden. “Do you have news?”

“I hacked Nuk’ana’s database and figured out where his briefing will be.”

“Awesome,” Parker said.

“Where?” Jayden asked.

“A Space Command base on the second moon of a star located near the molecular cloud SH2-136 in the constellation of Cepheus. Are you ready for the coordinates?”

“Go ahead,” Jayden said.

Jayden and Parker listened to the sequence of numbers. Parker relayed them to Altair5, who in turn called the emperor and transmitted the coordinates.

“Where the heck is SH2-136 located?” Jayden asked Nora.

“It’s about twelve hundred light years from Earth,” she said. “The location is near what they call the Ghost of Cepheus, also known as Flying Bat Nebula.”

“Sounds creepy,” Jayden said. “Are you guys ready to take the UFO to Earth and pick up everyone?”

“We’re ready,” Nora replied. “Don’t worry about us, we’ll get them to a safe place and hide out as planned.”

“So the transporter booby trap is set?” he asked.

“Ready,” Nora said. “All wired up and ready to explode. Altair3 is making some last minute adjustments. He’ll activate the trigger’s timer just before we leave.”

“When?” Jayden asked.

“We’re headed to Earth in ten minutes,” she said.

“Okay. I’ll call you when we punch out into the Flying Bat Nebula.” He sucked in a long, deep breath. “I—”

“Don’t worry,” Nora said. “We can do this while you deal with the alien leader jerk.”

“Right,” Jayden said, a little too quickly. He watched Parker give a reluctant thumbs-up. “Don’t forget to pick up Rosa and Rox too.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll pick-up everyone, including BBgun and Cleo’s families. Just kick that bully’s butt.”

“Roger that,” said Parker. “Good luck, sis.”

“Be careful, Zeekmo. Killgeek and G-striker out.” Jayden wanted to be with her on the rescue, but he was on a mission with Parker just like old times.

“Get us moving,” Jayden told Altair5.

Altair5 worked the controls of the galactic transport. It wasn’t long before they saw nothing but black in the viewport.

“How long will it take us to arrive?” Parker asked.

“Do not worry,” Altair5 said. “I will get you both there before the meeting with time to spare.”

Jayden groaned. He realized by the time they entered normal space again, Nora and Altair3 would have all the families safe, or he would need a bigger rescue plan. He crossed his fingers, arms, legs, and toes, and hoped for the best.

Time to settle the score with Leader Nuk’ana and end his Space Command reign of terror, Jayden thought. He imagined the look on his mom and dad’s faces when they learned what he had been doing since his disappearance. He knew a joyful reunion wouldn’t happen unless he could stop Nuk’ana.

But at that moment he had no clue what he was going to do.

 

 

Chapter 29

When they punched out through a star in the middle of the Ghost of Cepheus, Jayden’s stomach began doing Olympic high dive flips.

“Punch-out complete,” reported Altair5.

He tapped his ear. “Zeekmo? Can you hear me?”

Nothing.

His stomach sank. Oh no, he thought. Had Nora failed? “Zeekmo?”

“Sis?” shouted Parker, tapping his earpiece. “Are you there?”

Still nothing.

Finally, a beep vibrated from their earpieces.

“Killgeek? G-striker?” Nora said urgently. “You there?”

“We’re here,” said Jayden at the same time Parker did, and then asked, “Are they?”

Nora interrupted. “Relax. Everyone is safe.”

He turned to Altair5 and gave a thumb’s up, then let out a long breath.

“Thank God,” Parker said.

She continued. “We moved our getaway spot from the far side of Earth’s moon to the dark side of Titan. We’re all fine, but we encountered a slight problem.”

“What happened?” Jayden asked.

“Well . . . ,” she said.

Jayden heard his parents and others talking loudly in the background. “Where are you from again? Andromeda? The galaxy? Jayden is okay? Where’s Parker again? The moon? We’re in space? What about our Cleo? This must be some kind of prank. Is that real hair? It looks like a plant.”

Rox barked as if the dog were asking the same questions. He imagined Rox running in circles through Nora’s UFO, then wondered if Nora had remembered to grab a pooper-scooper. “So what happened?”

“Rosa about killed me,” she said. “Oh, and disgusting! Rox peed all over my leg!”

He smiled. “That sounds like Rox. What’d Rosa do?”

“She was completely nuts, talking a mile a minute in Spanish. Thank goodness I understood her. She thought she was being taken to heaven. Then she started to cry when she thought she was being taken to hell, and . . . well, you get the idea. Most of the other parents thought we were taking them on an international trip. When they saw space, all of their eyes grew to the size of the moon. Anyway, it was tough to explain everything.”

“Cool,” Jayden said.

“You did it, sis!” shouted Parker.

“Are you in position?” she asked.

“Yeah, we’re here, in the Nebula,” Jayden said. “We’ll be ditching the transport soon and hitching a ride on a UFO to travel to Nuk’ana’s briefing.”

“Be careful, okay?” she said.

“We will. Don’t worry, sis,” Parker said.

“Right, like I’m really not going to worry,” she said.

“You know what I mean,” Parker added.

Jayden shushed Parker. “We need to go.”

“Just come back in one piece,” Nora said. “Besides, someone needs to calm your dog down, Surfer Boy. He’s doing his business every ten feet. He obviously smells alien.” She softened her voice. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

He felt his face warm. “Will you be able to watch the briefing?”

“Yep, Altair3 rigged up the UFO com-channel to receive it. He told me Space Command blasts out their broadcast, so we don’t have to worry about anyone tracking us.”

“Good,” Jayden said. “We’ll need to stay silent, so don’t try to call me with the comm device. I’ll call you when it’s over.”

“Got it,” she said. “You want to talk with your parents? I’ll pull out this ear thing—”

“No time. Tell them I’m fine. Besides they’ll just tell me not to do anything crazy, and this entire situation is crazy.” Jayden’s stomach was back in knots. “It’s too late to back out now.”

He was thankful the families were safe. But he knew if the plan didn’t go well, they’d all be in big trouble.

“One more thing,” she said. “I found something curious in Nuk’ana’s personal data files.”

“What’d you find?”

“It’s hard to explain,” she said.

Jayden made two fists, tightened, then shook them out. “Should I be worried?”

“No, it just looks like some sort of wearable technical device he keeps on all the time.”

“What sort of device? A weapon?” Parker asked.

“Not sure, but it seems important. Be careful.”

“Okay, see what else you can find,” Jayden told Nora. “We need to get moving. Contact the emperor and tell him what you found. Keep digging and see if you can find anything else.”

“Right,” she said.

“Killgeek, out.”

“G-striker, out.”

Before long, Jayden, Parker, and Altair5 ditched the galactic transport on an asteroid and transferred to a UFO. Jayden and Parker quickly changed into pressed Space Command uniforms, put SECC caps on, and walked back to where Altair5 was piloting the UFO.

“Are we in position yet?” Jayden asked Altair5.

“My father has provided me with coordinates. I transport you using quantum wave particle-izer.” Altair5 frowned and raised his voice. “But why cannot I join?”

“I appreciate you want to help us. But we need you here to transport us out if things go south.”

“Go south?”

“I mean if the situation gets bad and we need a quick exit.”

“Ah. Understood.” Altair5 gave Jayden a quick look over. “You are impressive in uniform, Killgeek.”

“Thanks.” Jayden stood a little taller.

“So where are you transporting us?” Parker asked.

“The location is a mining operation on a moon with no atmosphere. Space Command base is an enclosed habitat with artificial oxygen atmosphere inside. You can breathe without apparatus. Father has knowledge of secret water channel entrance below habitat. The entrance avoids Zepar security.”

“A water channel?” Parker asked. “You mean a sewer?”

Altair5 turned his head slightly.

“Never mind,” Jayden said. “Once we’re in, which way do we go?”

“Masons will greet you. Follow them. They have weapons and credentials. What is your plan, Jayden the ultimate Killgeek?”

Jayden sighed. “If I knew, I’d tell you.” He took off down the stairs to the transport platform with Parker, and then projected his voice to activate the intercom. “We’re ready, Altair5. Transport.”

“Yes, sir,” Altair5 replied.

The next instant, Jayden and Parker found themselves standing in a brick hallway with eighteen other masons dressed in Space Command uniforms. It was at least one hundred degrees Fahrenheit inside and smelled like a sewer.

Jayden began to sweat and gag at the same time. Most of the masons around him reminded him of typical Earth kids in middle school and high school, but with subtle physical differences like bug eyes, cat ears, dog noses, and flicking lizard tongues, all alongside green-haired Andros kids.

“Hi, sir. I’m Talon,” a teenage boy about Jayden’s age said to him. His face was long, with a hawk nose and crooked bright white teeth. “Put this on.”

Talon handed Jayden and Parker credentials and small compact blasters. “Hide these on your trousers behind your back. They’re a new design. Looks minimal, but the blast is epic.”

Jayden stuck two onto the back of his pants and pulled his shirt over them. He did a double take at Talon. “Where you from?”

“Huntington Beach. All the masons from Cali have mad love for you, dog.”

Jayden smiled. “Thanks.”

He turned to Parker. “You too, dude. The way you walked a robo pod up a skyscraper was, well, seriously cool. We’re glad you’re okay.”

Parker grinned.

Another boy walked up to Jayden and stared at him with haunting topaz eyes. His dark eyebrows looked drawn on his face with a Sharpe. “I’m RegusZ. We, sir, are pleased to help.” RegusZ lowered his voice. A growl followed at the end of each word he spoke. “Lorcan hath assigned me mason go-team leader in thirty-third quadrant.” The alien teen looked down and whispered, “We shall indeed miss him, sir.”

“Yes, we all will,” Jayden replied. “Please, just call me, Killgeek.” He pointed at Parker. “He goes by G-striker.”

RegusZ raised his voice. “It is a privilege. Lorcan spoke highly of your clan.”

The rest of the team greeted Jayden and Parker as if they were the heroes of a recent football game.

“No one ever fought the Atilla on the front line like you did,” another mason said.

“Your fight holo-vid has gone viral among the masons,” Talon added.

“A viral video?” Parker asked.

“Totally, all tin cans have thee video recording,” Talon said. “We hacked in and stole it, along with Zeekmo’s flying video. Lorcan uploaded it to our Space Net Zebra cloud and configured it for self-replication. It went viral. You, G-striker, and Zeekmo are doing some major trending. Will the babe be joining us?”

“Sorry. Just us,” Jayden said.

Talon’s face dropped.

“What is the plan?” RegusZ asked.

“Good question,” Jayden replied, and scratched his head. “I’ll give you all a signal, probably a sound or something. Just follow my lead and make sure the briefing continues to be transmitted across both galaxies no matter what. I want everyone out there watching.”

“What is the signal?” RegusZ asked.

“Knowing my friend here, it will depend on the situation,” Parker said, turning to Jayden. “Right?”

Jayden nodded. “You’ll know it when you hear it.”

RegusZ reluctantly nodded.

“Let’s start by getting into the briefing. How are we going to manage that?” Jayden asked.

“Follow,” RegusZ said, waving at them. “You will stand in the middle with G-striker next to you.” RegusZ gazed at a device on his wrist filled with sequences of numbers that made no sense to Jayden. “We must hurry. We have this timed to a micro-rotation.”

The boy began jogging.

Jayden, Parker, and the rest of the masons followed him along a walkway with channels of stinky, dark water on both sides. The group continued jogging until they reached a long flight of steep stairs with no handrails that went upward about five stories.

“Watch your step,” RegusZ said.

Jayden wasn’t typically freaked about heights, but falling onto a solid walkway or into a river of brown sewer water and poop had him navigating the stairs more carefully than usual. When they reached the top level, a dozen more masons greeted them.

The area was wide enough to drive two golf carts side-by-side. But the level wasn’t as warm as the one below, and it wasn’t humid either. Even the smell was better. Clean with a touch of lemon. He figured this level was probably a supply route below the main habitat, sort of an underground, temperature-controlled maintenance level.

“Be ready, they come soon,” a mason said to them, his face dark green and his hands trembling.

A door opened from a level above. An older kid in a Space Command uniform led twenty Space Command recruits down the open stairs to where they had previously gathered.

Jayden held his breath. None of the recruits were masons. It would only take one wrong word to blow their cover.

A young recruit approached Jayden and RegusZ. “Is this where Leader Nuk’ana will give his briefing?” he asked. The kid shifted his head in jerks, searching the hallway.

“Yes, recruit,” replied RegusZ. “Please follow these Space Command officers.” He pointed to the mason kids in pressed Space Command uniforms who’d been waiting on the platform.

The recruits followed them down to the sewer level.

“All clear,” RegusZ said. “We’ll take their places beside Nuk’ana in the briefing. Quickly now.” He led the way to the main level.

The group walked into a spotless hallway with bright, artificial white light and marched single file behind RegusZ. When they turned a corner, a tall Zepar army officer was waiting. “You are thirty ticks late, Space Recruits,” the officer said with a growl.

Jayden cringed when he got a close-up look at the shape-shifter’s bony jaw. And he still couldn’t get used to the Zepars’ old sock smell with a slight hint of dead snake.

Focus on the mission, he thought.

“Apologies,” RegusZ said, his eyes steady. “We are ready, sir.”

The Zepar hissed and showed its teeth. “Stay single file and march behind me to the briefing area,” he said sharply. “We must not be late.”

They continued through the rounded, dome-shaped habitat in a synchronous march a couple of feet apart. Jayden followed behind RegusZ with Parker behind him. It was as if they were walking through one-story pipes with a transparent top half. Metal ribs reinforced the rounded walls.

Jayden saw rain splashing on top of the habitat through the clear ceiling. The inside was spotless with a hospital odor, sort of a cross between rubbing alcohol and mint. Leader Nuk’ana was one smart alien dude, picking out such a remote location instead of a planet like Earth or somewhere similar to give his briefing.

Local workers hustled back and forth as they continued to march. The workers were men, women, and children no taller than four-feet tall, with chalky skin and long, unkempt, greasy yellow hair. Grime and dirt covered their faces and soiled their clothes. The workers smelled like a ripe trash bin. Jayden figured they hadn’t bathed for months, if ever. The workers were busy cleaning everything in sight. It was as if all the grime from the habitat stuck onto them like biological lint rollers.

Up ahead, he saw healthy green plants and trees—an atrium oasis in the middle of a sanitized mining habitat. Plants grew out of the stone floor. The entire place had been scrubbed and polished—trees trimmed, bushes shaped, and stone floors polished to the point that Jayden could see his reflection.

About thirty round, softball-sized metal balls hovered in the air around the atrium with lenses sticking out of them. A group of twenty Zepar worked just outside of the atrium at desks with control panels, apparently controlling the camera balls.

He realized why Nuk’ana had selected the location. It was obvious. Leader Nuk’ana and his army could control the briefing set and manage security. Over fifty Zepar guards patrolled just outside of the set. Jayden never imagined so many Zepars would be guarding Nuk’ana, though it made perfect sense. He also had hoped there’d be a few escape routes to choose from, but he didn’t see any at all. Not a single one. He was feeling sick again.

Nuk’ana is one smart buzzard, he thought, and worried about ever seeing Nora, Rox, or his parents again. Get it together!

With shaking hands, he touched the blasters tucked into the back of his waistband and reminded himself he wasn’t alone. Parker and eighteen masons were with him. Everyone carried blasters. His focus shifted back onto the mission.

The last thing Killgeek wanted was a shootout at the O.K. Corral. He had no desire to be a martyr. Think!

He needed a plan, quick!

A Zepar officer pushed Jayden, Parker, and the other mason rebels into position on a small stage in the middle of the atrium briefing set. The boys stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Cameras floated all around.

Little did the shape-shifter know he was pushing around Spring Tide Masons, Jayden thought. But the alien jerk would find out soon.

The Zepar continued. “When camera red lights are on, we broadcast live,” said the officer with an impatient edge to his voice. “Smile. Say nothing. If you disobey, you die after briefing.”

Jayden figured Nuk’ana’s briefings were probably an opportunity for Zepar officers like him to meet and greet their mass murderer boss.

“Stand at attention,” the Zepar continued. “Prepare for inspection.”

All of the disguised masons with Jayden and Parker stood on red painted Xs on the floor. They had been arranged in a half circle. All the masons appeared calm and cool. No one said a word. Parker didn’t even look nervous.

Jayden stood close to the center. It was a perfect spot, but he still needed a plan. How am I going to tell two galaxies’ worth of people that Nuk’ana is deceiving them? he wondered. Who would believe him? How would he avoid getting zapped? And keeping the masons with him safe? His head spun.

Jazu and Shazu arrived. The Zepar officer greeted Nuk’ana’s left and right, and then followed behind the two weird-looking aliens.

Jazu strutted his short body, moving his pasty face close to each of the masons as though his vision were failing. Shazu followed him and smacked her bright red lips, sounding as though she were collecting spit for a lugee. She pushed and patted her red hair, probably checking that it was still piled high.

Leader Nuk’ana’s left and right inspected each of the disguised masons, flicking their forked-whip tongues while making last minute adjustments to the Space Command uniforms. The leader’s assistants straightened collars and applied white powder to the mason’s faces, presumably for the camera.

Jazu stopped in front of Jayden, narrowed his eyes, and looked him up and down, sniffing the air as if he were trying to smell a Spring Tide Mason. Shazu pushed Jazu aside and hit Jayden’s face with a pad of powder. He nearly choked in the cloud of white make-up.

As Jazu and Shazu walked away, they said something in a weird language that didn’t translate. Did they recognize us? he wondered.

A moment later, Jayden relaxed when the two aliens didn’t turn back, and the Zepar officer ignored them.

A gong echoed throughout the level.

Jazu and Shazu clicked their heels and stood at attention in front of the disguised masons. A large, red X marked the center where Nuk’ana would stand, slightly in front of Jazu and Shazu.

The entire group faced outward toward the network of hovering cameras. Twenty more Zepar aliens shimmered and appeared, carrying handheld weapons. They all approached the briefing set and spread out around the perimeter. As they dispersed, Leader Nuk’ana shimmered, then took form in the middle, near his assigned red X.

Nuk’ana had arrived—live and in person. He wore a long, gold robe and brown leather boots. Heavy silver chains hung around his thick neck. The leader puffed on a smoking stick. He let out a long exhale, and then tossed the stick to a nearby Zepar. The Zepar caught the hot end and made a face, but he didn’t make a sound.

This time Jayden watched as a column of smoke continued upward to the ceiling. He smelled tobacco too. Both were good signs that this Leader Nuk’ana wasn’t a hologram. Game on!

Jayden gazed at the back of Nuk’ana’s gold robe and up at the hovering cameras and bright lights as he still struggled to come up with a plan. He reflected on all that they’d endured since he’d gotten onto that first UFO. Lorcan: killed saving boys like him. Two of Jayden’s robo pod clan, Zebraguts and Knifetango: captured by the Atilla. Parker: captured and beat up. The Milky Way is full of alien life. Space Command and the Zepar bullies. Ruthless Leader Nuk’ana and Ga technology.

Parker, Nora, BBgun, Cleo, their parents, and the masons were all counting on him. He knew why he was there in the middle of a Zepar army ready to shoot off his rear end and turn him into BBQ. But what he was going to do was still a mystery.

The Zepar officer who’d led them to the briefing hugged Leader Nuk’ana, then kissed him on both cheeks.

Gross. Jayden glared at the murderer, and then forced himself to calm down. Too much was at stake to let emotions take over.

It took a moment, but his pulse rate slowed. He watched as the Zepar commander took his position on the red X in the center of the group. Welcome, buzzard.

Show time! Jayden realized the setting would appear beautiful to those watching the briefing. All the weapon-carrying Zepar aliens had taken up positions out of camera shot. Viewers would see luscious green plants, Jazu and Shazu, and a group of adoring Space Command recruits. No alien watching the broadcast would know how staged the scene was or know anything about the enslaved lint roller alien workers and their children.

Jayden knew massive changes were needed throughout the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies to free kids and their parents, get rid of disgusting execution events, and more. And he knew the first change had to be the permanent retirement of Leader Nuk’ana.

The Zepar officer stepped out of camera range and said, “We are live in three, two, one . . .” The shape-shifter pointed at Nuk’ana with a long claw. Red lights flashed on around each of the hovering cameras.

Nuk’ana spread his arms and raised his voice. “Greetings, loyal citizens. We have excellent news that the war effort continues to go well for Space Command. I hope you enjoyed the special entertainment we provided at the recent big event. All the mason rebels were quickly captured and executed. How fun was that?”

One of the Zepar pushed a button to play an applause track, and Parker elbowed him. It sounded like a thousand people were in the atrium.

Jayden stayed silent and didn’t react to the elbow jab. He peered at a monitor hologram floating above a Zepar cameraman’s control desk, catching a glimpse of the video being transmitted out to the galaxy. The video stream cut from a live shot of Leader Nuk’ana to video footage from the battle where Lorcan had been fatally injured.

His blood began to boil. Total propaganda!

The live video feed of Leader Nuk’ana resumed. “The Atilla invaders do not stand a chance against the fighting Space Command’s great forces—”

“Liar!” Jayden shouted.

Leader Nuk’ana stiffened.

Jayden’s eyes went wide. Did I really just yell that? Oh man.

None of the other masons moved, obviously watching Jayden for some kind of signal.

Jayden watched the video stream of Nuk’ana in a monitor. The shape-shifter leader tightened both claw hands into fists. His jawline extended and eyes bulged as he glanced over his shoulder at Jayden, Parker, and the other masons. He was pretty sure Nuk’ana had no idea who had spoken up.

Jazu and Shazu searched each mason with their eyes.

Nuk’ana smiled as if he hadn’t heard anything. “I promise the people of the Milky Way and Andromeda we will build a better tomorrow together, a better future, take care of our citizens—”

“Liar!” Jayden shouted again, but this time louder. Yet he still remained frozen at attention as though he hadn’t made a sound. Parker fidgeted next to him and whispered. “This is your plan? Seriously?”

“Hold tight for one more second,” he whispered so only Parker could hear him in the earpiece comm.

Nuk’ana stopped and stared in Jayden’s direction. It was clear to Jayden, Nuk’ana was narrowing in on him. It was time to act.

Here goes nothing.

“Now!” Jayden jumped toward Nuk’ana and felt as though he was jumping into a pool of hungry sharks. He pulled out a blaster weapon then pointed it straight at Nuk’ana’s face. He grabbed a second blaster with his other hand and pointed it at Jazu.

Parker lunged forward and forced one blaster against Jazu’s back and another against Shazu. “Move and you’re all dust!”

With Parker covering him, Jayden put Nuk’ana in a chokehold and held a blaster to the leader’s cheek. He felt the leader’s jaw extend and contract.

A handful of other masons replaced the Zepar, who were operating the cameras at the control desks. And the rest of the masons raised their weapons at the Zepar army aliens surrounding them.

“It would seem you have my attention now, Earth Boy,” Nuk’ana whispered to Jayden. Then Leader Nuk’ana raised his voice and projected it toward the cameras. “You see? These are the rebels I warned you of. We thought we had killed them all, but these are the last. Once we execute them—”

“Silence!” Jayden thundered. The volume and deepness of his voice surprised even him. “Shut your disgusting pie hole, you alien buzzard.” Now what? He reflected on the energy being’s words: “Reveal you will the truth at last, tell all you can, quantum fast.”

It seemed like he was telling the intergalactic audience “quantum fast” using Nuk’ana’s broadcast, but what else did that pixie say? He tried to remember, his pulse pounding in his ears as the masons around him took control of the hovering cameras.

The masons repositioned the cameras above Jayden and Nuk’ana and kept the video stream live.

“People of the Milky Way and people of Andromeda,” Jayden said. “You’ve been deceived. This Zepar calls himself a leader, but he’s the one who started this ridiculous war.”

Nuk’ana tried to jerk out of Jayden’s grip, but Jayden shoved his weapon harder into Nuk’ana’s cheek. “Don’t even think about shape-shifting,” he whispered.

Jayden continued. “The leader is the one who murdered innocents. He sends teens and kids like us to war. Nuk’ana murdered Atilla so he could take over their galaxy too. He’s a deceiver.”

“Turn the cameras off!” Nuk’ana shouted. His reptile eyes went wide when he glanced up and realized masons had taken over the hovering cameras.

“See,” Jayden said. “Nuk’ana controls everything. He’s a faker, a liar, and a jerk.”

Nuk’ana forced a smile. “Prepare to die, Earth child,” he whispered.

The trees around the stage rustled and fell backward. Multi-level platforms full of Zepar reinforcements rose from below the floor. Jayden saw laser light from gun sights on his chest from new weapons. Zepar took control of the cameras.

Uh oh, he thought.

“Drop your weapons, terrorists!” Leader Nuk’ana said. “Your executioners have arrived.”

Jayden looked around and realized he was sunk. Even if he started a firefight, they’d all end up as stardust. He dropped both blasters.

“Masons,” Jayden said. “Drop your weapons.”

Parker dropped his blasters along with the other masons.

“Keep the video streaming.” Nuk’ana began to circle him. “On your knees, Earth boy.”

Jayden complied.

“This is the boy who leads the rebels? An Earth baby?” Nuk’ana said, smirking. “You expect our great ancient civilization to believe an Earth boy over me, the great leader of leaders?” He turned to a Zepar officer. “Give me a weapon . . . now!”

A Zepar officer threw a blaster to the leader.

“I find you guilty of treason. Prepare to die,” Nuk’ana barked at Jayden. He took aim at Jayden’s forehead.

Jayden squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. All his options were gone now. He’d failed.

Suddenly someone shouted from across the room. “Do not move, Nuk’ana! Zepar fighters, drop your weapons or the leader dies!”

Jayden’s eyes popped open. Two dozen red laser sights moved from his chest to the chest of Leader Nuk’ana.

Emperor Ruchbah9 strode through the briefing set and stopped in front of Nuk’ana. “Drop your weapon, Zepar scum!”

Nuk’ana looked down at his chest at all the red dots from laser sights. His blaster fell to the floor.

The rotund emperor marched forward, his long, red velvet robe flowing behind him. Rhea1 and two hulky, olive-skinned men wearing long black leather jackets followed him. The men’s kind, light-blue, almond-shaped eyes scanned the room with hawk-like intensity. Each had short black hair, bushy eyebrows, and wide noses on their smooth, hairless faces.

Jayden peered across the room and could see the masons had regained control of the cameras hovering above them.

The emperor gazed up at the cameras. “People of the Milky Way and people of Andromeda, it is my honor to introduce you to General Apep and General Kerberos of the Atilla Empire.”

Atilla? Gasps spread through the atrium area. Jayden was just as confused as everyone else except for the emperor. Twenty more Atilla warriors filed in behind them and pointed golden blasters at the Zepar. Three Zepar attempted to shape-shift but were zapped by Atilla into BBQ dust. Nuk’ana and his left and right assistants got the hint.

“Drop your weapons, Zepar!” Emperor Ruchbah9 repeated. “I will not say it again.”

They all complied. Still more Atilla flowed into the atrium area until they outnumbered the Zepar two-to-one. Atilla warriors looked as though they weight-lifted and stayed in darn good shape. Jayden grinned. They were bigger and stronger than the Zepar. And they were on his side now.

“Atilla? Here?” Nuk’ana glared at the emperor. “Traitor! You will all—”

“Enough! That is simply not true,” Ruchbah9 said. “People of both galaxies, the Atilla have agreed to end the war. Let me be clear, the war is over!”

Jayden still couldn’t believe it. These were the Atilla? Live and in person? The Atilla warriors’ eyes had an intelligent glimmer in them. They weren’t evil or horrific. Their teeth weren’t sharp or pointed. They had normal looking white teeth. In fact, his mom and the family dentist would be seriously impressed.

“Killgeek, please rise,” Ruchbah9 said.

Jayden stood, grinning at the emperor. Rhea1 embraced him, then she embraced Parker.

“How—?” Jayden whispered.

“Zeekmo contacted us,” Rhea1 whispered in Jayden’s ear. “She decrypted Leader Nuk’ana’s plans to invade Galaxy IC1101 in his private Space Command database. My father sent the Atilla leadership the metadata as proof. The Atilla agreed to peace if the leader is removed from power.”

Atilla warriors shoved Jazu and Shazu to the ground next to Nuk’ana. The three captives cowered and made screeching sounds that the translator couldn’t decode.

“Silence!” Ruchbah9 said.

The three stopped muttering.

Two Atilla warriors in black leather stood next to Jayden. The emperor handed one of them an ear translator. The warrior inserted the earpiece, no doubt including a recent language upgrade to another custom translator device.

The Atilla general named Kerberos began to speak in a low voice: “People of the Milky Way and People of Andromeda. We have received information from Leader Nuk’ana’s encrypted datalog. Your Leader Nuk’ana is the one who planned the invasion of my people’s galaxy. Nuk’ana is responsible and will be charged with war crimes and unthinkable crimes against all life forms in three galaxies. He is the one responsible for loss of blood on both sides.”

“Enough of this nonsense,” Leader Nuk’ana said. “Lies. All lies. Fight these Atilla or you too will become their slaves. Mason criminals have hacked into my files using advanced technology and obviously forged documents to make it appear as though I am the guilty one. I swear to you the so-called proof you have been shown is not true!”

“Oh?” one of the Atilla leaders said. “Hacked into your files?”

A larger group of Zepar suddenly appeared with weapons aimed at the Atilla. The intensity in the room instantly increased. Nuk’ana and his left and right stood.

Nuk’ana smirked. “Looks like the fight is even again, yes?”

It was beginning to seem to Jayden like there might be a shootout, after all. All it would take was one of them to slip and fire a weapon. Everyone would die in blaster crossfire. He quickly thought back to what the energy being had told him. Two lines from her song stuck in his mind. “Find the spot behind the neck. Push to switch off the hologram tech.”

Jayden peered at the back of Leader Nuk’ana’s neck.

There! Jayden saw a strange small black circle. With a quick glance, he confirmed similar circles on the back of Jazu and Shazu’s necks. A switch? It has to be, he thought. Jayden lunged at Nuk’ana, reached around, and then pushed down hard on the circle. He rotated and pushed down on similar circles on the back of Jazu and Shazu’s necks.

Nothing happened at first.

Jayden started to panic as Nuk’ana glared at him. More Zepar appeared with weapons. A blaster firefight was only seconds away.

“Emperor!” Jayden said, projecting his voice toward the cameras. “Everyone! Watch now and see.” He pointed to Nuk’ana, Jazu, and Shazu. The three suddenly flickered, buzzed, and jerked.

Jayden’s stomach sank. Another hologram? But instead of disappearing like previous holograms, each of the three images transformed right before everyone’s eyes.

Nuk’ana morphed into a creature about four feet tall with long, slender arms and legs, and a head too large for his body. Jazu and Shazu transformed into identical creatures, but half as tall. Each one of their oval-shaped heads had a small chin and large, almond-shaped dark eyes. Black netting wrapped their shark-skin-like bodies, and a black net hood covered the tops of their heads.

The emperor gasped. “Ga! Leader Nuk’ana and his entanglements are . . . Ga3si! All three of them are Ga!”

Jayden knew this was the solid proof the Atilla needed. Even the Zepar warriors around the room were shocked and lowered their weapons.

Everything the energy being had told Killgeek suddenly made sense: “Find the spot behind the neck. Push to switch off the hologram tech. Reveal you will the truth at last. Tell all you can, quantum fast.”

“It is clear!” the emperor shouted. “The Ga planned the overthrow the Atilla!”

The three Ga yelled in ear-piercing screeches: “Ssse-ba-aag-tex!” The shrieks sounded like the language from the cube Jayden used to open the cockpit door of the transport.

Everyone in the room covered their ears.

The three Ga made their move, pushing the emperor and the two shocked Atilla generals out of the way. In a flash, the tall Ga snatched the emperor’s blaster and scampered to the hallway just beyond the atrium area. Both of the shorter Ga grabbed a weapon and scurried behind their leader.

Ga aliens are seriously fast! Jayden thought.

The three Ga turned and pointed weapons toward Emperor Ruchbah9 and the Atilla generals.

“No!” Jayden yelled.

Before the three Ga fired their blasters, multiple blasts fired from somewhere behind them, vaporizing the three Ga into a large, barbeque-fireworks dust cloud.

Nuk’ana, Jazu, and Shazu were gone.

Jayden peered out into the hallway, wondering who’d fired the shots. His gaze settled on two boys in black Space Command uniforms holding blasters.

Hah! He recognized the two boys and felt a lump suddenly materialize in his throat. Knifetango and Zebraguts saluted him. They’re alive! They bolted over to Jayden and Parker and embraced them.

Jayden let out a hoot and pumped his fist into the air. “How’d you guys—?”

“Freaking cray,” Zebraguts said in a high-pitched voice. “Turns out these Atilla were just defending themselves. They’re seriously cool when you get to know them.”

“Way unbelievable,” Knifetango said, standing tall. He wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Once we worked out the language prob, they realized we were decent. But, dude, we were shocked. They had hacked into the Space Expeditionary Combat Command game but couldn’t get past level 10.”

It felt to Jayden like years had passed since they had battled Nora trying to reach level 150.

“Who knew World Corp games are played in other galaxies?” Zebraguts said, chuckling. “I told them they should try hard, but the newbs didn’t get it.”

Knifetango pointed to the Atilla commanders. “They brought us with them when the big man reached out.”

The hovering cameras continued transmitting.

“They play World Corp games?” Jayden started to ask.

The emperor grabbed Jayden and embraced him in a bear hug. “Young man, you are a hero. You have exposed them and saved us all.”

After a moment, the emperor looked up at the cameras. “You see, people of Milky Way and people of Andromeda, explanation is simple. The Ga3si have been the ones to mislead us. The Ga did not disappear at all. No! They played the puppet master, disguised as the Zepar leader and his left and right. They fueled the war against the Atilla, hoping that we would kill each other. Hoping we would reduce to weak civilizations, so they could offer to fix what they had deliberately destroyed. It was Ga that wished to control Atilla’s access to Golden Way. The war is over!”

Everyone cheered.

“People of our great galaxies,” the emperor continued, “peace has finally come, my star brothers and sisters. It is a time to celebrate. All Space Command warriors and recruits will return to their home worlds immediately. All three of our galaxies will begin peaceful Golden Way trade talks.”

“Peace,” an Atilla general said. “Today is a new day.” The two Atilla bowed to the emperor, then to the cameras.

Emperor Ruchbah9 spoke again to the cameras. “In coming days, I will address you all and provide an update as to our progress.” The emperor softened his eyes. “Today, I give thanks to Jayden Banks, the ultimate Killgeek; Annora Jameson, the great Zeekmo; Parker Jameson, the amazing G-striker; Cleo, the ZapperGirl; BBgun, Zebraguts, Knifetango, and all Spring Tide Masons.”

The emperor moved past Jayden and embraced each of the Atilla warrior generals. “We must remember our Atilla star brothers and star sisters who died fighting so bravely for their people. In this place, on this moon, at this rotation, we must all learn to trust in each other.”

The Atilla generals agreed.

“Until next briefing, I bid you good-bye,” the emperor said.

The red lights on the cameras faded to black.

 

 

Chapter 30

Twisted metal and piles of cement rubble were all that remained of the downtown city block. The twenty-story building fire raged as Jayden and Parker huddled together behind a mangled green dumpster near Market Street and First.

Jayden stared at the red tablet his father had given him to keep after the war with the Atilla ended three months ago. He sat next to Parker, Nora, and Cleo in the waiting room of the emperor’s castle. The waiting area reminded him of a dentist’s office. Each of them used a mini-tablet to battle inside level 150 in Space Expeditionary Combat Command’s online game while they waited.

“Everyone else space dust?” Jayden asked.

“Yep,” Parker said. “Isn’t this the same way we ended the game eons ago?”

Jayden heard Nora snicker next to him. “True,” he said, “But we’ll capture Zeekmo’s flag this time.”

“You know I can hear you guys, right?” Nora said to Jayden. “You might want to stick with flinging angry fowl or making pretty gardens, Earth baby.”

Cleo chuckled. “I can hear you too, Earth babies.”

All of the tablet displays went blank at the same time. Altair3’s face filled the screen causing Jayden to jump. “Swim forward. The emperor winks at bubble bath.” The tablet returned to the game screen.

Jayden grinned. “We really need to upgrade his translator . . . let’s go.” He turned off the tablet, and then put it behind his back in a Rosa-sewn, t-shirt pocket.

The four of them walked shoulder-to-shoulder down an elongated hallway toward the emperor’s main chamber.

Twenty-four Earth hours earlier, the emperor had requested that they visit him in the Royal City on MachuTutu3. The big man wouldn’t tell them what it was about, so they had boarded an intergalactic transport and traveled to the castle in Andromeda from their new home.

“So you think you can capture my flag, huh, Surfer Boy?” Nora asked him with a smile.

Jayden grinned.

Nora walked tall and confidently with her short curly locks. Her tan was killer again. Living on Lorcan’s home world, Uraeus, twenty light years from Earth, was like living in a super high-tech tropical paradise. Sort of Silicon Valley meets Honolulu, Hawaii, two hundred years in the future.

Cleo had plucked her eyebrows to perfection. She batted her eyes playfully at Parker, AKA “Snickerdoodle,” and poked him as they walked.

Two guards in red tights opened the tall wooden doors at the end of the hallway. Ruchbah9 was waiting for them inside, sitting atop his large wooden throne, with Rhea1 and Rhea2 at his sides. The doors closed with a thud that echoed throughout the chamber.

The rotund emperor pulled at his trimmed green beard. “Welcome, young heroes,” Ruchbah9 said with a wide smile.

All of them took turns hugging Rhea1 and Rhea2. Then the emperor embraced them. Finally, the emperor sat down with his daughters at his side with the four of them facing the big man.

“It must be very difficult for you to live somewhere other than Earth. But keeping the people on Earth isolated until they are ready to join the galactic community in a few decades will ensure your people are ready,” the emperor said, adjusting himself in the large chair. “Your parents are well and adapting to life on Uraeus?”

“Yes, thank you,” Nora replied.

“Mine too,” Cleo added.

Jayden nodded. “Lorcan’s people welcomed us all like family.”

“We’re celebrities,” Cleo said, her eyes wide.

“Yeah. And our dads enjoy playing with the alien tech and working as your envoys,” Jayden said. “My dad is even talking about starting an investment firm to help manage Golden Way companies.”

“But Rosa still thinks she’s gone to heaven,” Parker said with a chuckle. “Everything she says now is in Spanish.”

“Rosa?” the emperor asked. “No translator?”

“Never mind,” Jayden said, and gave Parker his “shut-up” look.

“Knifetango, Zebraguts, and BBgun are all good too,” Jayden said. “They wanted to join us here, but they’re still helping their families get settled.”

“Not a problem,” the emperor said. “It is you four with whom I wish to speak. Thank you for joining me here on such short notice.”

“Is everything okay?” asked Nora.

“Your request seemed important,” Jayden added.

The emperor nodded. “Two items of interest. First is an announcement. I want to inform you before the news goes intergalactic viral.”

“What announcement?” Cleo asked.

“Later today I will make it known that Rhea1 and Rhea2 will be taking my place as emperor. They will work together to lead Milky Way and Andromeda governments into the future with Atilla leadership.”

“Are you sick or something?” asked Parker.

“Oh no, of course not. I will be traveling with the Atilla’s supreme leader, Abaddon, along the Golden Way to expand trade agreements into the Atilla’s galaxy.”

Rhea1 sat up straight and smiled.

“Congratulations,” Jayden said.

“Thank you,” Rhea1 and Rhea2 said in a combined whistle-whisper.

The emperor cleared his throat. “But that is not everything,” Ruchbah9 said. “We hear rumors about Ga.” Concern washed over his face. “We believe they are doing something sinister inside ‘space between the space.’”

Sinister? “Like what?” asked Jayden.

“Destabilizing it somehow,” the emperor said.

Jayden tried to visualize how the space between space could even be considered stable in the first place. He gave up trying to understand what the emperor meant. Obviously, the Ga were doing something that wasn’t good. “Can’t the Atilla just go in there and blast the Ga into stardust?”

The emperor shook his head. “They have tried, but failed. The Atilla forces have even teamed up with the Zepar to form one fighting force. But still they did not succeed.” He paused for a moment. “There is someone I wish you to meet.”

Jayden swallowed hard. The emperor certainly seemed to enjoy surprising them this way.

Two men in red tights opened the large wooden doors at the far end of the room.

A giant black raven flew into the room, cawing as its two massive wings pushed down on the air. The crow circled near the ceiling, four stories above them. Jayden estimated each of the bird’s wings was about six feet long. His mouth hung open as he watched the raven circle and land near the emperor.

The four-foot tall crow lowered its head while adjusting its enormous quills. Midnight-blue feathers covered half of its long, stout bill, and shaggy, black feathers decorated its tall throat. Its eyes were large and clever.

The bird somehow looked familiar, but Jayden couldn’t place it.

The emperor nodded to the crow.

Parker elbowed Jayden. “It looks like the bird avatar in the video game,” Parker whispered. “Remember the raven with the blue beak that was watching us play all the time back on Earth? We thought it was a game monitor, remember?”

Parker was right. But that was in a video game. “How—?”

The emperor’s face tightened. “I know it is not fair to you, Jayden, the ultimate Killgeek. You and the others have been through much.” He paused. “I have asked you here today because I need your help to muster the Spring Tide Masons once again.”

“You want us to get them back together?” Parker asked.

“But why?” Jayden asked before the emperor could answer Parker. “I don’t get how a bunch of teenagers could do better than the Atilla, the Zepar, and the new and improved Space Command fighting force.”

The emperor clapped his hands twice. They turned to the front doors as the crow flew upward again. It circled the room as a boy walked through the large doors.

The boy appeared to be about twelve years old, with dark skin and curly black hair. But it was the boy’s large, enchanting sapphire eyes on his otherwise petite, big-cheeked face that captured Jayden’s attention. The boy faced the throne and lowered his head to acknowledge the emperor. Then, he turned toward Jayden and bowed at the waist.

The raven flew through the doors to the outside.

The emperor lowered his voice. “I introduce you to Magnetar, son of Thuban.” The emperor clapped three times.

The doors shut.

A man in red tights ran over to the four of them. He handed out new earplugs.

“Please replace your old ones with these,” the emperor said. “Software upgrade.”

Jayden pushed the release button on the plugs, then took out the old ones and replaced them with the new ones. Both new plugs planted themselves softly into his ear canals.

“Thank you, great emperor,” the strange boy said.

Magnetar turned to Jayden and the others. His bright eyes glowed from his dark brown face. “I am from a cluster of galaxies your Earth calls Abell 2029. In total, it is eighty-one times larger than your Milky Way. The hundred trillion stars that comprise the home of my people are 315 megaparsecs from Earth in the constellation of Virgo.”

Jayden nodded as if he knew where that was located, though he didn’t have a clue. “It’s nice to meet you, Magnetar,” he said. “Are you helping the emperor?”

“I will be helping you,” he replied. “My people have been watching you for some time now, Jayden Banks.”

“Watching me?”

“We monitor all play on World Corp games. But more important, we have been watching your strategic play—very creative. I must say, your Gallimimus eggs contained a wide variety of colorful code.”

Jayden and Parker both tilted their heads simultaneously.

“I apologize, a minor translation glitch,” Magnetar said, touching his earplug and pushing a slide switch. “The Easter eggs your clan has created are, well, very impressive.”

Jayden smirked at Parker. “Oh yeah,” he whispered, and followed up with a casual fist bump.

Nora rolled her eyes.

“My people created the red tablet you carry. Once you had been chosen, we arranged for your father to receive the tablet as an award.”

Jayden’s eyes widened. He searched the emperor’s face.

“The tablet measures you. You have a special energy, my young friend,” Ruchbah9 whispered. “Energy you must cultivate and grow.”

Jayden’s red tablet vibrated as if it were a cell phone ringing. He ignored it and recalled the raven’s knowing eyes from the video game. The tablet vibrated again.

“If we do nothing,” Magnetar said, “our entire universe will collapse into ‘the space between the space’ and extinguish back into the void of the multiverse. All life forms in our universe will perish as the bubble membrane of the ancient universe implodes. This would, of course, include you and your family, my friend. Everyone will die.”

“We need your help again, Killgeek,” the emperor said, locking eyes with Jayden.

Getting involved in another space battle wasn’t part of Jayden’s plan. His life on Lorcan’s planet was finally boring again, and he loved it.

“We are all in danger,” Rhea2 said. “Your home world, Earth, is in danger too.”

Jayden took a moment before speaking. “Can the four of us stay together?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” the emperor replied.

“Knifetango, Zebraguts, and BBgun too?”

“Yes, yes. Not a problem.”

Jayden stared at Nora, then Parker, then at Cleo, probing each of their faces.

They nodded.

He turned his attention to Magnetar, then to the emperor.

“You will do it?” the emperor asked Jayden.

The red tablet vibrated again. This time Jayden glanced at its display. The familiar pixie face of the energy being filled the screen, her marigold-flower irises glowing. Two wings fluttered in a hummingbird-like blur. It looked to Jayden as if she were flying inside the tablet.

The pixie girl smiled and winked.

Jayden grinned back at her, then nodded to the emperor.

“Game on!”

 

 

###

Dear Reader,

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this book, please take a moment to write a quick review. [+ CLICK HERE.+] Think of each review as neutron fuel that will propel this series into more books.

Thank you for reading! ~R.E. Rowe

 

The Adventures of Jayden Banks and the Jameson Twins

More Adventures Coming Soon

[++]

About the Author

When R.E. Rowe isn’t dreaming, you’ll find him trying to discover why, figuring out how, uncovering ancient mysteries, searching for a grand unified theory of everything, exploring the universe, writing a crazy fun middle grade or young adult novel, reading a novel, helping a business innovate, inventing something seriously cool, or learning something super interesting. He enjoys participating in science camps and talking to groups about creative topics such as the process of inventing, building worlds for science fiction and fantasy stories, and importance of dreaming big.

Connect with R.E. Rowe

Email at: [email protected]

 

Author’s website: http://rickrowe.com/adventures-jayden-banks-jameson-twins/

 

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RickERowe

 

Follow the author on Twitter: @rickerowe

 

Goodreads: Author R.E. Rowe

 

 

Other books by R.E. Rowe

The Reincarnation Young Adult Series

Voices Copyright 2015 by R.E. Rowe, Book 1

Whispers Copyright 2015 by R.E. Rowe, Book 2

 

Acknowledgements

Thank you to all my amazing writer friends for offering suggestions, support and critiques. Thanks to the professional editors and writing teachers I’ve worked with who continue to teach me the art of transforming neurons carrying story ideas into digital manuscripts.

 

A big thank you to all the amazing authors, podcasters, literary agents, and educators who spend time teaching writers and sharing lessons learned. I’ve been touched by many and promise to pay it forward as you all continue to do.

 

A special thank you to my author friends Jenny MacKay (www.jennymackay.com) and U.K author Vanessa Curtis (http://www.curtisliterary.co.uk) for sharing their knowledge, experience and taking the time to work with me.

 

Last, but not least, thank you to all the readers who take the time to comment and review the novels they enjoy. Taking the time to post even a one or two sentence review motivates us to write more, dig deeper and craft seriously cool stories. As Jayden Banks would say, “Game On!”


Game On: Alien Space Adventure (The Adventures of Jayden Banks and the Jameson T

Most kids had called online gamer Jayden Banks the luckiest thirteen-year-old around before his curiosity tossed him into a real intergalactic war that might just destroy Earth, get his parents killed, and change his destiny forever. When Jayden, his best friend, Parker Jameson, and Parker’s sister Nora get taken away by a UFO, they must use their gamer-hacker skills and a powerful quantum computer tablet to stay alive. As the trio struggles to get back home to Earth, an alien commander and his army of shape-shifting Zepar aliens force them to fight in an intergalactic space war until a rag-tag group of alien teens, called the Spring Tide Masons, come to their rescue. Just when it seems like Jayden and his friends might be on their way back home, everything gets wicked complicated and life as they know it may change forever. Each novel in the middle-grade science fiction series follows the trio and the Spring Tide Masons through a space adventure, solving problems and exciting intergalactic mysteries while rescuing civilizations in trouble. Will Jayden and the Jameson twins and the Spring Tide Masons keep the universe safe or will they ultimately decide to hide on Earth playing online games, collecting virtual gold and flinging fat fowl? Game On has been judged and named a 2015 Benjamin Franklin Digital Award GOLD HONOREE!

  • ISBN: 9780990999263
  • Author: R.E. Rowe
  • Published: 2016-07-20 17:05:28
  • Words: 77898
Game On: Alien Space Adventure (The Adventures of Jayden Banks and the Jameson T Game On: Alien Space Adventure (The Adventures of Jayden Banks and the Jameson T