Authors: J. Joseph Wright
CALL OF THE TANAKEE
Text copyright 2013 by J. Joseph Wright
Cover copyright 2013 by Krystle Wright
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I want the world to readJACK JAMES and the CALL OF THE TANAKEE. If you’d like to share it with your friends, feel free. Just don’t make a material gain off of it, because that would constitute copyright infringement. Thank you, J.
Dedicated to my life, my love, my partner, my best friend…Krystle.
The Citadel of Mashkan Shapir
The year – circa 3000 BC
A SUDDEN, VIOLENT shock forced Kubi to his hands and knees. Dust cascading from the ceiling stung his eyes. He wiped them clean with his palms. Quickly. No time to waste.
“Father! Are you okay!” he shouted into the grime and gloom. The stone walls held—for now. “Where are you, Father!”
A velvet sheen pervaded the soot, each and every particle of hovering flotsam flickering in the stuffy air. Kubi heard coughing, and felt awash with relief. His father was alive.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Shantu cleared his throat again and again.
Kubi jumped to his feet, hooked his elbows under Shantu’s arms, and heaved hard. He was only ten, and much smaller than his father, yet he possessed a will beyond his size. He tugged until his father, out of breath and trembling, dug in both heels and stopped him.
“All right, my son. You’ve saved me. The apparatus! Get the apparatus!”
Kubi spotted the purple glow and searched for its source, a light unlike any other. Neither here nor there, the illumination came from all angles. Luckily for him, the machine not only emitted light, but also issued a melody of chirps and whistles never so sweet to his ears than at that moment, in the heart of his father’s workshop, with the city’s fortifications about to crumble.
He found the apparatus concealed beneath an overturned table, surrounded by its own tiny halo, swirls of shooting stars tossing and turning deep inside. It made him gasp for air each time he laid hands on it. This time, it seemed even more breathtaking.
“What was that, Father?” he offered the device to Shantu, who had already gotten the table onto its four legs again and was in the process of relighting the candles that had extinguished in the commotion.
“Followers of the dark serpents…and they’re serious this time!” he placed the mechanism onto the table then rummaged through his scattered tools and sundry journals and vials of solutions. “Where did it go! Where did it go!”
“What, Father? What is it?”
“I can’t find anything! The apparatus needs to be completed, and my materials…they’re gone! I’ll never get it finished in time!”
“I’ll help you, Father!” Kubi knelt and gathered the precious components, when another immense explosion rocked the floor and fractured the ceiling. More dust, spilling from the roof, spoiled Kubi’s vision and he felt constricted all of a sudden, unable to move a muscle. He heard shrieking, crying, orders shouted in haste. He felt someone grasp his ankles. Two strong pairs of hands pulled him free, into the blinding light and the musty, coppery scent of smoke and ash…and death.
“It’s okay, child,” a steady voice failed to soothe him.
“Where’s my father!” Kubi kicked loose from the man’s grip, only to be stopped by another, larger man. It was Lu, the city’s elected leader. “You’ve got to save my father!”
The rescuers shared long, sallow frowns amongst one another.
“What!” Kubi struggled harder. Lu held tighter. “NO!”
“He’s gone, son,” Lu said. “He’s—”
A dazzling bluish-purple eruption lifted the rubble pile upward, forcing the rescuers to scramble for steadier ground. Kubi was the only one to stand firm. He’d seen his father’s invention in action before. Shantu, surrounded by a sparkling halo, burst out of the suffocating debris. The dazed onlookers had no time for astonishment. At that moment, an aerial ambush was unleashed. Round after round of flaming arrows spilled down on top of them, forcing a mad dash for cover.
“Father!” Kubi felt for and found Lu’s hand. “Come! Get into my father’s shield!” Lu’s weight overburdened young Kubi, yet he managed to tug the man inside the instrument’s lustrous and magical bubble of protection.
Lu stared in wonder as the translucent shield repelled the arrows. Then he regained his commanding presence rather quickly, spurred on by the sight of his beloved city being reduced to dust and ash. He took Shantu by the collar and pulled him close.
“You need to use your apparatus, Shantu…it’s the only thing that can save us!”
Shantu’s eyes lost all luster. He stared at Lu, then his invention, then again at the leader.
“I-I can’t. It’s not ready yet.”
“Not ready!” Lu towered over Shantu. “Our walls are all but breached. That apparatus is the reason the invaders are here in the first place. The city’s defenders are putting their lives at risk. The least you can do is show you’re not afraid to make a stand…use it!”
“I’ve tried,” Shantu lowered his head. “I’d do more damage than good.”
“You have to try again, Father!” Kubi pleaded.
“The apparatus isn’t ready.I’mnot ready!”
A particularly loud and unnervingly close detonation upset the earth. Several men up on the battlement fell from their stations. Screaming. Tumbling.
“Come with me!” Lu dragged Shantu up the narrow steps to a landing near the top of the fortification. Kubi followed, eager yet terrified. They had to push past a gauntlet of tower guards and militiamen, some headed down, carrying injured comrades, some hobbling and complaining. As they passed Shantu, each of them stopped and stared at the mechanism in stunned reverence.
When they reached the highest level, where the battle raged, Kubi saw the most terrifying image he ever possibly could have dreamt. But this was no dream. This was the substance of nightmares. A sea of bloodstained, mud-blemished, battle-painted faces glared up at him, each scowl more menacing than the last.
Littered about the landscape, carpeting every square cubit of ground for miles, were soldiers of all kinds, both men and beasts. Great and hairy pachyderms with decorated tusks and painted skin. Massive wolves with teeth so large Kubi could see them even from a distance. And other animals. Beasts so hideous and unreal, Kubi had to fight his own mind to accept the sight of them. Giants, the size of ten men, stomped about the terrain, writhing and reeling under their shackles. Harlequins clad in whimsical rags danced and flirted among the brutes, making light of the tension as if it were all a big game.
Kubi breathed hard when a hot blast of wind blew his shoulder-length hair asunder. The heavy stench of sulfur mixed with burnt blood. He tightened his stomach, trying to ward off the convulsions. He refused to accept this. There had to be a way out. His father’s invention was too important to be lost. Too priceless to be stolen by a bunch of bandits and mutants and scoundrels.
He heard his father behind him, begging.
“Son, what about your protector? Call him, Kubi! Call your protector!”
Kubi nodded, then focused his thoughts on his little, furry friend. Shouting on the inside, he called out for protection, for help in this, his direst time of need. He called out mentally until he felt warmth in his gut, and a low rumble permeating the ground, shaking the support stones of the city walls.
A hush fell over the beleaguered valley. The formerly boisterous giants, big and muscle-bound and mean, now shook in their boots. Worry replaced rapture. Concern overtook confidence. Even the colossal animals quit stomping and snorting in their furious attempts at getting into the city. Abruptly they stopped everything and turned their ears toward the ground.
A bugle call from in the distant woods yielded murmurs and grim whispers in cautious tones. The entertainers tried to lighten the mood, dancing about the soldiers in their motely garbs, manipulating stick puppets and juggling skulls and flying small kites. All smiles they were, moving playfully throughout the crowd with fanciful swiftness and ease.
Another deep, chest-thumping trumpet sounded, this time louder. No doubt the source was coming nearer. The attacking army, thousands upon thousands of hearty, rugged souls, stood still as statues.
Then the ground shook and the pachyderms roared and reared on their haunches, sending their riders tumbling. Horses whinnied and bolted through the crowd, trampling dozens of men in their paths. Another vigorous earthquake forced virtually everyone to hands and knees. The city’s defenders, a ragtag mix of farmers, shopkeepers and young men still without wives, took cover behind the ramparts.
“It’s coming!” one of the attacking soldiers cried.
All heads turned to the mountainside, to a solid slab of rock known as The Promontory. Silence. Not one soul dared take a breath. The entire valley, it seemed, had gone still, as a single figure appeared, climbing so quickly it was nearly impossible to follow. An initial, collective breath of fear. But then, when it became obvious the lone individual was but a tiny, furry thing no bigger than an overfed feline, another collective breath issued forth, this time one of relief.
Giggles matured into laughter, then into an anxious flood of hysterics. Men slapped their own thighs and patted the backs of their comrades and stomped on the ground with their hand-sewn leather boots. The clowns and merrymakers stood from their hiding spots and reveled once again in the newly boisterous atmosphere, doing their best to create even more cheer.
“That? That is the fearsome and all powerful protector?”
“It’s not terrifying!”
“Look, it’s just a little thing!”
“How can such a small creature be so dangerous?”
Surly men jutted their jaws and tightened their lips, showing off black stubs for teeth, those who had teeth at all. Through the haze and the smoke, high above the mammoths and the towering platforms, Kubi’s protector stood proud and tall—well, at least proud—his steady gaze fixed on the marauding militia.
From there things got confusing. To Kubi it seemed the rock cropping where his protector was standing filled with shadow suddenly, though scarcely a cloud adorned the sky. The dark area increased in size, overtaking the mountainside. With shocking speed, the distant landscape flushed with a brownish tint, the same color as his protector.
Kubi blinked his unbelieving eyes. Closer inspection told him what he already knew. The shadow, spreading like a plague, was actually a great number of Tanakee, tens of thousands of them, all exactly the same—silvery brown with a blazing, determined glare.
“Which one?” Shantu shouted over the panic beginning to spread among the invading army.
“All of them!” Kubi swept his arm.
“It-it can’t be!” Shantu’s jaw gaped open. Kubi knew better. His protector had mystical abilities. He’d seen Orzabal divide into duplicates before, though never like this. This was different, almost inconceivable. He tried to calculate the numbers, and found it too difficult.
The foothills rumbled with movement, and the besieging army cowered at the base of the ancient city walls. Kubi saw a line of Tanakee cresting over the soldiers like a wave. Men tried to fight, arms raised, swords slashing, arrows cutting the wind. The massive army of miniscule monsters was too nimble, too fast, and the soldiers became overwhelmed. Tanakee after Tanakee after Tanakee, suffocating and overpowering everything in their paths, reducing the once brutish and rowdy warriors to blubbering, whining, crying infants.
And, just like that, the battlefield, strewn with bodies, smoky with the raging fires of war, lay in quiet. Orzabal, in an amazing instant, became a single individual again, returning to his regular self, a small and furry thing with eyes the color of the rising sun and the most spectacular emerald markings on the tips of each cheek. The teeming horde of little creatures, which had only seconds earlier conquered like a swarm of locusts, were gone.
Kubi smiled at his protector. In two deceptively large and quick bounds, the little creature stood on the parapet, his shaggy hair tossing in the breeze.
“Kubi, you must leave this place. It’s not safe here.”
“But my father’s apparatus,” Kubi protested. “It’s not completed yet.”
Orzabal shook his head. “Then it is not the time.”
“What do you mean,” Shantu stood over his son’s shoulder. “Time for what?”
Without words, Orzabal gestured upward. Clouds had begun to roll in, taking on sinister shapes, whipping with supernatural swiftness, swirling like dark dragons veiled in silver satin. The thick haze layer shrouded the menacing objects, yet they were plainly visible to Kubi.
“What are those things!”
“Nagas,” Orzabal’s stoic monotone made Kubi even more uneasy. “We must leave this place!”
The sky seemed to split open, and from the fissure spilled a legion of long, slender beings with sleek wings. They undulated in groupings much the same as flocks of birds, but these were no birds. Cutting through the wind in hungry pursuit of prey. Clacking and clicking with thousands of rigid talons.
Muscular men inside the city struggled to remove the bars from the doors and, after they did, a mass exodus began. Mothers carrying children. Fathers leading oxen and horses. Young people rushing like deer, shouting and pointing up at the dark devils plunging from above.
“Come with me!” Orzabal took Kubi’s hand. “Run, young True Soul, run!”
“Father!” Kubi glanced back as they hurried from the shattered citadel. “FATHER!” he heard nothing except the constant clamor of battle. The groans of the city’s defenders. The shrieks of the attacking serpents. Kubi felt a hole inside his gut where his stomach should have been. Suddenly he caught a vision, or the lack of one. Emptiness. Loss beyond comprehension. His father. Something was wrong.
He dug in his heels and forced Orzabal to stop, not such an easy task. When their eyes met, Kubi knew. He asked anyway.
“My father is hurt, isn’t he?”
“We must continue. We must go. You must live,” Orzabal pleaded. “Kubi, do not stop now. You must live.”
“But my Father!”
“He wants you to live. He sacrificed himself so that you would.”
“Kubi, listen. You must survive!”
The city walls behind them began to fall inward. The very metropolis was crashing down onto itself. Kubi didn’t care what Orzabal said. He had to help his father.
“I’m going back!”
“No! Wait!” Orzabal stopped him. “I’ll go! Get out of here!”
Kubi didn’t have the chance to argue. Orzabal left him in a cloud of dust, straight to the city entrance, now not much more than a mound of debris. Kubi wanted to follow, and did. For two steps. Then someone grabbed him up and carried him from the battle, from the destruction, from his father—and his protector.
“NO!” Kubi let out all his pain, all his loss, all his emotions in one final cry, knowing his protector, his father and the apparatus were all lost.
TERESA EXHALED UNTIL she had no breath remaining in her lungs. She watched while brick and mortar and wood, as if by some unseen hands, built up piece by piece, until four solid walls hid away the mass of invading serpents, concealed the Tigris valley, and blocked Kubi from view as he sobbed on the mountainside. All of so-called reality bounced back into place when she closed the storybook, and Kid Castle, inside Winmart Food Store, in the town of Willow, Oregon, once again encompassed the storyteller and her bedazzled audience.
Before her were twenty-three pairs of wide, motionless eyes, along with twenty-three wide, motionless mouths. Each and every soul inside Kid Kastle had been transported to the sleepy dream realm where her stories became so real that every smell, every sound, every touch became truth. Each and every soul was convinced indeed, save for one strong-willed individual, a boy no older than six, red-haired and freckle-faced and obviously suffering from hay fever.
“Did thatreallyhappen?” he crossed his arms and sniffled.
Teresa cleared her throat. “Children? Did that really happen?”
A little girl with pigtails and braces nodded with conviction.
“Of course it happened. We all saw it. Right, guys?”
“YEAH” the entire audience erupted. Well, not theentireaudience.
“Oh yeah?” the boy held his convictions firm. “I don’t believe it!”Teresa leaned and captured him with her enchanting smile. “Oh, youwillbelieve, young man. Youwillbelieve!”
“DAVOS! YOU FOOL! Is there no limit to your incompetence!”
Davos felt a stinging slap across his face. He wanted to change out of his human appearance, yet wheneverHer Majestyheld council, she demanded they all remain in this repulsive form. Something about the way it made her feel, she once had said. It disgusted him.
“What was that?” she bellowed. “I heard you think that! What disgusts you?”
He kept his head down.
“That boy and his Tanakee protector disgust me, that’s what.”
“Good answer,” she said. Her malice was palpable. “You’ve made a mockery of the Nagas and all we’ve accomplished on Earth—in the entire universe, for that matter! Allowing those creatures to live. And allowing the True Soul to gain control of his Eteea machine…absolute stupidity!”
Another blow across his face. Good thing it was only a disguise, a shell of his true self.
“All is well, my queen. I have the humans under control, and those silly little creatures will be nothing but a blight in the history of our great, new realm of Essinis.”
“Essinis will have no chance if we don’t destroy that boy. That means destroying his power protector also.”
“I know that.”
“Silence!” she gave him yet another lash, this time to his ‘chest,’ a location slightly more vulnerable than the cheek. She knew his weaknesses well. “It’s perplexing to me. You say the Tanakee need to be eliminated, yet you didn’t do it when you got the chance. You weren’t trying to harness their Eteea powers, were you?”
“No, no of course—”
“And why not, Davos? That would have made you the most powerful of all the Nagas. Even more than me.”
“Your Grace, no…”
“LIAR!” she quaked with unmitigated rage. For a second, she let her human appearance slip and her hair, dozens upon dozens of splendidly slithering serpents, stood on end. They lunged at him, each one with the same menacing glare, and each one brandishing long, razor-sharp fangs. In that second, she let out her true nature, the real beauty Davos had always known. Neera, Queen of the Earth Realm, had forever been the fairest of the Nagas royals. Yet, lately, she insisted more and more upon hiding it behind this counterfeit human disguise. Though lovely, her natural appearance meant only one thing—she was serious.
“Correct for a change, Davos. Thisisserious. You’ve allowed the True Soul and his protector to get away. Not only that, you’ve allowed everyone in the town of Willow to see what you are, and what we Nagas are capable of. That’s unacceptable!”
“True,” he watched her reform into the likeness of a woman. Many men would have called her a knockout. Curvy, leggy, and, of course, hair the color of deep space. Her features would have landed her on any fashion magazine cover. “But you don’t need to worry about the True Soul and his protector. I’ll take care of it.”
The queen giggled, then became unyielding again.
“Davos, do you honestly think, even in your wildest dreams, I would allow you to handle this? After the treasonous act you just pulled, you’re lucky I don’t order your execution,” she paused, and a flaming red sphere flared into existence, floating above her shoulder. “The only reason I don’t is because you’re my husband,” she faced the portico overlooking her fortress in the clouds. “Whatever that means anymore. I should put you in prison, but that would signal weakness. We cannot have that. So you will live, but I’ll be watching your every move from now on, Davos.”
He nodded once more.“And as for the True Soul and his protector,” she grinned. “I have something special planned for them. Call it my…secret weapon.”
“WELCOME TO WILLOW! Home of the boy hero Jack James! See where it all happened!”
“Step right up! Getch’er official, bona fide, rarified and certified picture of a real, honest-to-goodness Tanakee—the living teddy bear!”
“Come one, come all, see for yourself—evidence of fairies, elves and pixies! See the very sticks and stones that made up the legendary woodland creatures!”
The walk down Main Street had never been so strange. Pitchmen and street entertainers and lively displays galore. Everywhere Jack turned, he saw a likeness of someone he knew. Then he spotted—in shop windows and hanging from doorways and awnings—banners and posters of his own face. That was hard to get used to.
“Look!” Amelia tugged his arm, pointing at the Old Columbia Theatre, in the heart of town. His friend and fellow adventurer didn’t need to draw his attention to the gaudy display. He’d already seen it.
“I’m trying not to,” he glanced at the life-size cardboard cutouts. The whole gang was there, the Tribe of the Teddy Bear as they were called, with Jack and Amelia leading the crew. Worst of all, it seemed as if the artist had borrowed from the classicStar Warsposter. Luke standing triumphantly, pointing his light saber into the sky, and Princess Leia at his knee. Only instead of Luke, it was Jack, wielding the O/A, a dazzling gem radiating with power. And Amelia took Leia’s place, crouched beside him, concerned yet confident.
“I know. It’s horrible, isn’t it?” she smirked. “I mean, look at me. They make me look like a cowering little girl. So typical. Sickening, really.”
“I don’t know,” Jack felt himself warming up to the gaudy exhibit. “It’s not that bad.”
“Oh, sure. Youwouldsay that. You look fabulous. Just look at you.”
He smiled. She smacked his elbow.
“Don’t let this go to your head, Jack James. You’re called the True Soul for a reason. You’re supposed to be incorruptible.”
He sighed. “I know. It’s just…” he looked down the road, the sidewalk littered with sandwich signs and pinwheels and stuffed animals, all festive messages and sales in honor of the town’s newfound heroes.
“You didn’t think things would change this much this fast?” Amelia voiced his thoughts. They caught a clear view of the marina below, and a large sign stole Jack’s attention.“River Dragon Tours”it read in huge, bold, handmade letters. Underneath, in smaller print, yet still legible even from where Jack was standing, was the slogan,‘Come see Queenie with the famous Captain Kimbo!’
“No,” he admitted. “It’s only been two weeks and already all this? How did everybody have time for this stuff?”
“People worked night and day to make the town look like this. They all got together and did this for us.”
“They did this to make money. I guess the town’s economy needs it.”
“Hey!” a pitchman on the corner spotted Jack and Amelia. “If it isn’t the man of the hour himself! Everybody! It’s Jack James! And he’s got Amelia Klein with him!”
All of a sudden, Jack regretted walking to school instead of letting his mother drive him. A small crowd gathered. People came from inside bookstores and cafes, the kite-works and bike shops. Jack smiled and nodded and waved, but both he and Amelia quickened their paces. They knew the adoring crowd would take their whole morning.
“Hey, Jack! Way to go, buddy!”
“Jack! Come back and sign some autographs!”
He turned once they crossed the street.
“I will…after school, okay?” he said to a small sea of disappointed faces. Then something else trapped his eye. Too quick for comprehension. Somehow, though, his senses perceived it, whatever it was, standing in the group. He looked young, like Jack, but was cast completely in shadow. For a moment, Jack thought it was possibly one of his dimensional duplicates, somehow stuck in a glitch in the O/A’s omnidimensional field. Then he shook off that thought. No way.
“Come on, Jack,” Amelia yanked him hard, much harder than normal. Her rush to get out of there told him she must have seen something too. Or at least she, like him, sensed it.
TAKOTA DUCKED to evade the tree limb. He knew it was coming. He’d hit it so many times before, it had been committed to physical memory. Always the same thing—after the big turn and the muddy curves came the Great Maple with its excessively long branches.
He pedaled hard three times and it felt like the earth disappeared beneath him. The wind rushed through his furry mane, cooling his steamy skin, hot from the ferocity of competition, the intensity of the race. The long, straight drop seemed so steep it couldn’t possibly be navigated on a bicycle. Takota tucked his center of gravity low, angling tight to the ground and leaning into a swift power slide. Somehow he made it, and, at the bottom, paused. Only for a moment, toiling to catch his breath.
“No you don’t! You’re not gonna beat me! EVER!”
Pud’s voice made him snap into motion, pushing off and pedaling wildly, traveling deeper into the dense forest. He heard Pud cruising down the hill, kicking up gravel and dust. Coughing and spitting, the mangy Tanakee taunted ceaselessly.
“You’re just gonna lose again, so don’t get your hopes up!”
That’s what you think, using Eteea, Takota sent a mental message. He knew Pud heard it. He could tell by Pud’s tormented groans.
Takota’s legs felt on fire. He had no time to think. The trail weaved through a tight grouping of hemlocks and firs, and he needed all of his focus for navigation. Lean left, then right. Brake slightly, but not too much. Mustn’t lose speed. Mustn’t let Pud gain on him, even an inch. Tree trunks blurred by, though it took great skill and practice to pilot his miniature bicycle at such a rapid pace.
A protruding root, one he’d seen many times, and one he kept forgetting about, seemed to pop up out of nowhere. He straightened his leg and leaned slightly, readying for the bump. When it came, he was nearly thrown off the bike. A firm grip and quick reflexes kept him on. That didn’t stop Pud from berating his performance.
“Ha! You’re screwing up, Potato! I’m coming! I’m right on your heel! Keep it up and I’ll pass you!”
“NO!” Takota clenched his teeth and pedaled harder. Wind Whisper Woods whipped past in a blur. “I’m winning this time!”
“ARE YOU READY for this, Jack?” Amelia looked into his eyes. He knew she was trying to get a read on him. “This is your first day of school since…well, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” he tightened his lips. “It’s been two weeks, and I was starting to feel like a prisoner in my own home. I just want to have a normal life. Is that too much to ask?”
“Jack,” she gestured up the sidewalk, to the contingent of children, all of whom seemed to be waiting with baited breath for their hometown hero to step foot into the schoolyard. “I don’t think your life will be normal ever again.”
Jack kept a straight face and they walked through the metal turnstile leading into the Willow Elementary playground. It seemed the entire student body, every kid from grades one through five, and even the kindergarteners, were there, clogging the blacktop, the old tennis courts, the athletic field. To get a better view, some had climbed and sat on atop the slide, some stood at the highest point on the monkey bars, and some had even managed to get up on the basketball rims and were hanging like chimpanzees.
Jack and Amelia strode in silence. Then, all at once, the awaiting kids broke out in cheers, surrounding the pair enthusiastically, peppering them with praise and, mostly, questions.
“Jack, how did you meet Takota?”
“Amelia? Did you know this was all going to happen?”
“Jack, how does the O/A really work?”
He had no time to educate his schoolmates on the finer points of the interdimensional masterpiece, his father’s invention, the Omega/Alpha, aka the O/A. He couldn’t tell them how the machine drew power from all the infinite dimensions, the omnidimensional field, and concentrated it into one person, in effect transforming its user into a superhero. The inquiries were so numerous, and they came so fast, neither Jack nor Amelia had the chance to get a word in edgewise. One person after another, without pause, came forward to voice their thoughts. After a while, all the two could do was grin at each other and allow the information-seekers their questions.
“Amelia, do you really see people’s auras?”
“Jack, when did you first know Takota wasn’t just a teddy bear?”
The questions kept coming, and, just when it seemed there would be no end to it all, a rough, skeptical voice silenced the otherwise good-natured interviews.
“Whereisyour precious little Takota?” Dillon, speaking in his trademark rapid style, shoved aside a pair of second-graders. He squinted and studied Jack up and down, approaching carefully. Then his buddy Mike came up behind him, striding with confidence.
“Yeah, Jack,” he scowled. “Where’s your so-called protector now?”
TAKOTA’S GUTS just about shot up into his mouth when his bike pitched down the insanely long and even more insanely steep decline, boulders and branches and the occasional chipmunk serving as obstacles. With nimble maneuvering, he guided his handlebars in small nudges and tiny corrections. Anything more would have taken him off course, and, at such high speeds, that would have been ugly.
He knew what came next—the bottom of Sorrel Canyon, where the first of two crucial jumps was waiting ominously. A pivotal moment in the race. Takota knew it. They all did. Behind him, he heard Ayita, almost neck-and-neck with Pud. Behind them, Cheyton and Enola followed within only a few bike lengths. That meant they’d all see him. They’d all bear witness to his make-or-break moment.
“He’s gonna do it!” Ayita shouted.
“No way!” Cheyton answered his sister.
“Go, Takota!” Enola was always good for some encouragement. “You can do it!”
“This is gonna be ugly!” Pud chided, and Takota feared his was the most accurate assessment of them all. He’d never actually done it, and several failed attempts made the entire group quite doubtful he ever could. This time, he was determined to prove them wrong. No tricks. No Eteea. Just pure physical ability, combined with the proper skill and grace of a Tanakee.
“Whoa!” he almost fell off the bike again. Okay, maybe not grace.
“Takota! Be careful!” were the last words he heard. Both Ayita and Enola shrieked them at the same time when he hit the point of no return. No going back. No stopping. The forest was nothing but streaks of green and gold and earth tones. He gripped the handlebars tighter and tighter to keep from slipping off. The tiny tires spun ferociously, smoking and spitting rubber. Somehow he got the feeling the human manufacturers hadn’t designed it to go this fast.
Or jump this far.
Suddenly, after traversing the long, hollowed-out tree trunk which doubled as a ramp, he found himself airborne. He held his breath, remembering what Enola had told him. Tuck the knees and elbows. Become a bird, with wings of steel. Soaring, soaring, soaring. Higher and higher. Takota thought he’d never stop. He heard the others behind him, a mixture of gasps and glee.
“He’s doing it!” cried Ayita. “He’s actually doing it!”
“Good job, Takota!” Enola shouted.
“NO!” Pud’s exclamation filled the forest. “No way! Not possible!”
Takota shared Pud’s disbelief. Never, in the dozens of times he’d taken the jump, had he actually hit it with the correct speed and trajectory to reach the big limb way up high in the tree. Because of that, he’d never once won a race. Not one. Ever. Yet now, for the first time, he performed the jump perfectly, just like Ayita so happily had predicted.
He opened his eyes to make sure, still not convinced it was real. No way did he really make it this time. Blinking, he looked down and beheld the proof—a thick, aromatic tree limb under his tires, its rough, mossy bark flying by at the speed of sound.
He had only a moment to look, then another branch took its place, then another, and another. The raceway had taken to the canopy, high above the forest floor. Like circus high wire artists, the Tanakee racers navigated a series of narrow little passages where branches crisscrossed, one after the other, touching and overlapping. Ruts in the limbs had been worn deep from use. Still, following the official course proved difficult. Speed was the major factor. Takota had to keep it fast or else he’d lose balance and topple over, falling, in some places, a hundred feet to the ground.
None of that mattered now. Takota knew he was the genuine leader of the pack. He’d gone over the course already, so he knew there weren’t any more of Pud’s special surprises. He also made sure Pud had stayed with the group, legally and lawfully taking the whole course, same as the other competitors. And, with such a commanding lead on the scruffy, orange fellow, Takota felt confident. He wouldn’t have to worry.
Something hit him hard and he heard giggling. Somehow, someway, Pud had caught up with him and, with the finish line in sight, had that look in his eyes. Nothing was going to stop Pud from getting there first.
“You’re going down, Potato! You still have one more jump to go and you’ll never make it!”
“DILLON SHANE AND MIKE MILLER,” Amelia stared both boys down. “Haven’t you two learned your lessons?”
A murmur of solidarity from the other students meant everyone agreed, yet nobody did or said anything about it. Jack knew Dillon and Mike upheld a certain level of respect among their peers, even after what had happened at North Point. The two boys seemed to know it too, and played their hands in the open, with confidence, paying Jack special attention, scrutinizing him closely.
“I don’t see what’s so special about you, Jack,” Dillon ignored Amelia. “I don’t see your little attack teddy bear,” he hit the side of Jack’s backpack. “It’s not in there, is it?”
“And I don’t see some funky machine in your hand,” added Mike. His tuna fish breath made Jack cringe.
“What’s the matter, Jack? Teddy bear got your tongue?” the boys laughed, hitting each other on the back. They then turned to the students, compelling a few nervous smiles, even some chuckles.
“You’re not so tough without your teddy bear, are you, Jack?”
“Or that stupid machine!”
“Jack?” Amelia threw him an anxious glance. “Youdohave the O/A, don’t you?”
He kept his eyes locked with Dillon’s, hands in his pockets, teeth clenched. “I don’t take it everywhere I go.”
Muted gasps. The whole crowd took a deep breath all at once.
“He doesn’t have his machine,” Dillon slapped his own thighs.
“Probably because it’s broken again,” added Mike.
“You really should carry it with you,” Amelia said. “You never know when you’ll need it.”
“Oh, I know,” he smiled, feeling for the device deep in his jacket pocket. He didn’t lie. Sometimes, when he went into the backyard, he’d leave the machine in his room. He wasn’t dumb enough to leave home without it, though. He just didn’t want the world to find out. “Believe me, I know.”
Mike slammed his fist into his palm.
“If you know so much, then maybe you should’ve known not to show your face around here without protection.”
“Bad move, Jack,” Dillon smiled nastily.
The two boys closed in while the others watched, stricken with horror. Jack saw their torment, their desire to do something, their yearning forhimto do something. He gripped the O/A, feeling its energy. It was ready, but he couldn’t use it. Not for such an insignificant task. The machine was meant for greater things, and he knew it. Too much power to wield on mere schoolboys. Still, they did present a problem, and it seemed neither one of them were willing to back down.
“Jack,” Amelia prodded him again. “What about Takota? Where is he?”
“I’VE GOT YOU, POTATO!” Pud gritted his fangs, swiping at Takota’s back tire with his foot. He missed and nearly toppled over, then regained balance on the slick, uneven log. Takota lifted his handlebars to take the next bump. Pud did too, just a fraction behind.
Pud angled close again, aiming his front tire into the spokes of Takota’s rear wheel. With a flurry of pedaling, Takota managed to pull away. That only thwarted Pud for a second. Just like that, he was back, kicking, pushing, biting—anything to get an advantage. Takota heard the other racers—Enola, Ayita and Cheyton—crying foul at Pud’s dirty tricks. It didn’t stop him. Nothing would. Winning the race was Pud’s only goal, and nothing was out of bounds.
“Stop it!” Takota veered left. Pud angled with him, not letting so much as an inch of daylight come between them. It was almost too much for Takota. The unrelenting attacks. The unmitigated speed. The wind slapping against his eyelids. The tears streaming down his face.
He saw the finish, and knew what he had to do. He kicked up and shifted his weight back, picking the bike’s front wheel off the ground, preparing for the final, death-defying feat. At the end of the course, just before the tape, a large, mushy marsh stood in his way. There were two ways to negotiate the bog. One was to launch straight off a perfectly-angled rock which jutted over the edge of the wetland. And the other way was to, well, go through it, but that almost never resulted in a win, and created quite a mess. In fact, no matter how good a racer was, if he—or she—happened to miss the jump and hit the mud, then he—or she—could reasonably kiss any previous hopes of winning goodbye.
Knowing this, with his eyes locked on the jumping-off point, Takota avoided Pud’s final attack, ducking just in time. Pud put so much power into the attempt that, when he missed, he lost control of his bicycle. Arms twisting like a windmill, face elongated in a scruffy look of terror, he headed straight for the swamp. Takota chuckled and almost lost balance watching Pud’s front tire wobble. Then Pud went down hard in the solid ground, trying to steer clear of the muddy pool. It didn’t work. Kicking and floundering, his momentum took him straight in. After that, Takota steered his front tire into the groove and hit his mark.
He caught the jump.
Hoots and hollers. The other Tanakee shouted in elation, making it known to all the forest that they were proud of their young friend.
Takota, for his part, couldn’t believe it. Finally, after so many times trying, after so many defeats and near misses and total embarrassments, it looked like this would be his first time to cross that line first. Once and for all, he’d shut that Pud’s mouth about being undefeated.
Sailing over the mud bog, he figured Pud couldn’t cause any more trouble. Big mistake. Pud reached from the muck, head to toe in greenish slime, his mismatched eyes the only things recognizable behind a mask of mud.
“No you don’t!” he flung himself into the air. Takota smelled the pungent aroma of the swamp saturating Pud’s thick, shaggy coat. No way could he reach, Takota thought. No way. He was wrong. The nasty varmint came right at him, on a collision course, ready to snatch Takota’s bike out of the sky.
“JACK! WHERE’S TAKOTA!” Amelia pleaded. The two schoolyard tormentors moved closer.
“He’s scared,” Dillon said.
Mike agreed. “Because he doesn’t have his little machine to perform his fancy tricks.”
“Yeah, Jack. Why don’t you have your machine? Why aren’t you somewhere showing it off? That’s whatI’ddo.”
“I think it was just a big hoax,” answered Mike. “That’s the only way to explain it. That’s why he’s here, back at school. Anyone with a machine like that would be out doing fun stuff—flying to Disneyland or something like that.”
Dillon wagged his tongue. “Or zapping up enough money to buy a football team. That would be cool!”
“The O/A doesn’t work like that,” Jack broke his silence. “And it wouldn’t work for selfish people likeyou.”
The other students watched saucer-eyed, knowing neither Dillon nor Mike reacted to criticism well.
“What are you saying, Jack? You don’t think we could do the things you can do with that machine? You think you’re so great?” Mike shoved him. Jack tripped over his own shoe, falling onto the grass. Another round of uneasy, breathy murmurs from his schoolmates. He had to look twice before recognizing the O/A had fallen from his jacket. Dillon had it in his hand!
“What do we have here?” his eyes lit up with malicious glee.
“Give it BACK!” Jack flew to his feet. Mike stood in the way. Then the whole schoolyard erupted, everyone pleading with the two boys to hand the machine to its rightful owner. Amelia was the loudest, but many others stood out. Even Wendy Wurtzbacher and her entourage were unhappy with the tormenters. Despite the begging, the two boys wouldn’t relent. In fact, the more the children pleaded, the nastier Dillon and Mike became.
“How about I smash this thing into the ground, huh?” Dillon held the device at shoulder level, speaking to a chorus of disapproval. He didn’t seem to mind their agony. In fact, he seemed to get a kick out of it, giggling and pointing. “What’s the matter with all of you? This thing’s a piece of junk!”
“Jack!” Amelia tugged his arm. “We need the Tanakee. How can we get them here?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. Deep inside, he wished he hadn’t come to school. His mother was right. Things had changed. Too much was different now, and some kids would never be able to understand or accept the new Jack. The thing was, he didn’t want to be treated differently, and he sure didn’t want to use the O/A and its unlimited omnidimensional power just to get out of a little schoolyard scuffle.
“We’d better figure something out,” she pressed her hand over her blouse in the spot where she wore her special eagle feather. “Or there’s gonna be real trouble.”
“Dillon! Mike!” Wendy pushed to the front of the crowd. Jamie, Heather, and Betsy were right behind her. “Give Jack his machine, you guys,” her followers nodded in stern agreement.
Dillon dropped his shoulders. “Oh. Okay. Whatever you say, Wendy.”
“Good,” she smiled, watching as Dillon, head low, reached out his hand. Her satisfaction stretched into shock when the boy, instead of giving up the device, tossed it over Jack’s head and into Mike’s grubby mitts. Jack spun on his heels and pushed toward Mike, reaching, grabbing at his machine. Too late. Grinning smugly, the big kid with the bowl haircut flicked his wrists and the O/A went soaring again, this time in an opposite trajectory, back to Dillon.
“Oopsy daisy!” Dillon faked like he almost dropped it, forcing another big, collective breath from the gathering. Jack tightened his stomach, fighting away the butterflies. He knew something like this was going to happen. So did Amelia, it seemed. She and Jack both lunged at Dillon, but he stepped back and looped his arm over his head. His casual attitude disturbed Jack. All he could picture was the machine on the ground, shattered into pieces, and the two thugs, Dillon and Mike, snorting and taunting in grand contentment over their conquest.
Jack had to stop that from happening, but, whenever he got close, one boy would throw the O/A to the other, continuing the torture. Each time a toss was made, the throw was a little more relaxed and the catch a little more careless. Soon, they started taking ridiculous risks, letting it sail higher and higher, while letting it fall closer and closer to the ground before grasping it.
“Guys! Be careful! You’re gonna drop it! It’s gonna break!”
“Not so tough now, are you, Jack?” Dillon threw the O/A to Mike.
“Just gimme my machine, guys!” it was at that moment Jack started to honestly wish his little, furry friend, and his valued protector, was with him.
Where are you, Takota?
PUD’S MIGHTY LEAP PROPELLED HIM so high he actually came within reach of Takota’s back tire. No way, Takota thought. He’ll never get me.
But he did.
He clasped the spokes, scratching his nails and digging into the rubber. Takota heard his tire whining and losing air. The least of his concerns. As a direct result of Pud’s abrupt and vicious interruption, his direction had changed. Dramatically. Instead of sailing on a perfect course for the landing zone, he was now looking at a dead-drop into the muck.
Twisting, turning, he managed to kick Pud free, sending him end over end, and falling into the swamp. Pud didn’t seem to mind.
“Ha! Gotcha! You’re not going anywhere now!” he watched Takota flail helplessly.
Pud’s self-satisfied smirk faded quickly when, somehow, Takota righted his bike and, with the skill of a daredevil, landed on both wheels. He shot forward into the steering wheel and lost his breath. His front tire dug into the ground. He thought he was going to flip end over end, but, miraculously, he regained balance and, much to Pud’s dismay, was still in the running. And only feet from the finish line.
“NO!” Pud lamented. “He can’t beat me!”
“He can, and he will,” Ayita answered, taking the jump with ease and flying over him. Enola and Cheyton were directly behind her, both cheering loudly.
Takota pedaled out of the soft earth and eyed his destination, still in disbelief it was finally going to happen.
“GIMME MY MACHINE!”DILLON MIMICKED Jack with a sickly squeak. He tossed the gadget to his partner.
“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”Mike tormented in an even more disgusting voice. He lifted the machine high and Jack jumped feverishly, pulled on the boy’s arm, even stomped on his toe. Nothing worked. Mike simply laughed and hurled the device once again to Dillon.
“He’s not tough at all,” Dillon caught it, barely, letting it slip through his fingers over the blacktop. More groans and moans. “Not when his teddy bear isn’t around to protect him!”
Please, Takota!Jack screamed inside.Come to me, please!
His inner cries went unanswered. When Dillon reached back, bent at the knees, and let the machine loose with the strongest, highest throw yet, it made Jack’s stomach burst with fluttering butterflies. He tried to position himself in place and catch it, but Mike stood in the way. Both kids got their legs tangled and toppled to the ground. The last of the O/A Jack saw, it was soaring over the asphalt, nobody to catch it, nobody to stop it from smashing to the ground.
“No!” Jack shouted out loud. “Takota!”
“YES!” TAKOTA PROCLAIMED his elation. After all the failed attempts. After all the humiliating crashes. The skids and tumbles. The rocks embedded in his knees. After all of Pud’s taunting and teasing, he, for the first time in two weeks, had the finish line in his sights. It was all his. An unblemished, undeniable, unchallengeable victory.
He heard Ayita one last time before securing that ever-elusive triumph. Then, in a fraction of an instant, he realized it wasn’t Ayita. That voice. He knew it in his sleep. Jack was in trouble. Takota lost his breath. Everything from his spleen to his kidneys jumped into his throat. Somehow he managed to scream when, inches from the finish line, just before he was about to taste sweet victory, the entire forest fizzled into a shimmering, blinding, twisting chasm. Then he fell directly in.
Spinning, churning, he was a feathery, weightless cloud. It only lasted milliseconds, and it left him breathless. Not that he needed to breathe. The trip, wherever he’d gone, was so brief that if he’d blinked, he would have missed it. But he didn’t blink. And he didn’t miss it. It was like watching a constant stream of never-ending comets and supernovas and meteors all rolled into one. Then, without any fanfare, he felt a suddenThud!and the cold, wet wind of the real world. The human world.
He didn’t have time to think. All of a sudden, he was in the middle of a crowd of children. He felt a tremendous pull to one of them, and knew Jack was there before he even saw the boy. Then hedidsee Jack’s face, fraught with worry.
“Takota!” Jack gestured to the air, to the O/A as it sailed toward certain destruction. Without another thought, he soared over Willow School and its playground, way up, to the same elevation as Jack’s machine.
The purplish-blue luster dazzled his vision, and when he snatched it, he got a sudden shock. Surprising, but not unpleasant. A friendly, warm embrace. With another subtle notion, Takota closed his eyes and when he opened them, he was where he wanted to be—right next to Jack.
A mob of elementary school kids rushed to meet him, dozens of smiles and laughs. All but two. He recognized them by their sullen stares, and thought those two boys should have learned by now.
“Dillon and Mike,” Takota shook his head. “Isn’t it about time you two grew up and stopped picking on people?”
“Grow up?” Dillon spoke almost too quickly to be understood. “If there’s anyone who needs to grow up around here, it’s Jack. I mean, come on. Best friends with a teddy bear?”
“We’re not teddy bears!” a tiny yet powerful voice intervened. Heads turned, stunned eyes searching for the issuer of the proclamation. Takota knew who it was. Suddenly, so did everyone else. Up in the oak trees, a silver and black figure peered back at them. An audible hum percolated the schoolyard. Kids watched in wonder as Cheyton exhibited his acrobatic prowess, swinging from one branch to the other.
“We’re Tanakee!” Ayita appeared, quite out of nothingness, on the opposite side of the schoolyard, another tiny, silver and black creature bouncing from the swings to the slide and back again.
“And all we want is peace and happiness…for everybody,” Enola materialized near Cheyton. She didn’t move or jump around or display any of her naturally athletic gifts. Instead, she merely stood among the leaves, her snowy coat glistening with its trademark green afterglow.
“Hey, guys! Where’d you go?” Pud blinked in. He clung to one of the uppermost tree limbs, but lost his grip and fell to the ground as he rejoiced. “Wait a sec…the race! Takota didn’t win!”
“Pud!” a little girl threw open her arms, rushing at him, ready to capture him in a friendly embrace. She stopped, though, and her giant smile turned sour when she noticed Pud was covered head-to-toe with sticky, soupy mud. “Ewww!”
Laughing and cheering, the overwhelming majority of students in the schoolyard were genuinely happy to see the Tanakee. And the Tanakee were just as pleased to greet the kids. Dozens of boys and girls gathered round to rub elbows with the tiny heroes.
Pud especially enjoyed the attention. He made fun of chasing the little girl who’d shown the revulsion to his filthiness, trying to get her to hug him. Takota wanted to join in the fun, but what just happened was weighing on his mind.
“Jack, you’ve got to take better care of this thing,” he handed over the O/A.
“I know, I know,” Jack sounded mad at himself. “Sometimes things just get out of hand.”
“That’s an amazing machine,” he said. “But it won’t work too well for you if you can’t keep hold of it.”
Jack responded by looking at Dillon and Mike, the two troublemakers. They both backed off. Jack had Takota by his side and the O/A in his hands, so they made themselves scarce, melding into the crowd. That didn’t matter much to Takota.
“I appreciate there are times when you might feel threatened and need my help,” he said. “But you called me here because of them? Do you realize I was about to win a bike race—my first one, against him,” he pointed at Pud. The scruffy bum only chortled.
“Sorry,” Jack said. “I didn’t mean to. It’s not like I was using the O/A to contact you or anything.”
“That’s right. You weren’t using the O/A, were you?” Amelia pointed out.
“It wouldn’t be the first time, either,” Takota added. “Remember, Jack?”
“I do,” he shrugged. “It’s happened a couple of times, now. What about it?”
Amelia smiled. “Your telepathy is getting stronger.”
“Well,” her hand traveled to the feather on her beaded necklace. “It’s good…”
Jack sighed. Amelia raised her finger, putting a halt to any further sense of ease.
“…AND it’s bad.”
“What doesthatmean?” both Jack and Takota said simultaneously.
Ayita stood next to Amelia.
“It means we have a lot of work left to do.”
Takota had so many questions. However, by then the onlookers had grown anxious, almost to the point of getting out of control. Pud, in his usual manner, whipped them into hysterics by running along the fence lines, crashing into tree trunks and basketball poles, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not so much. Ayita couldn’t seem to help herself either—jumping and running and showing the kids what she could do. Even the all-business Cheyton got into the fun, putting on a display of speed and reminding Takota of their epic confrontations. The kids loved it. The teachers didn’t.
“Okay! Okay!” Principal Humbert stood in the middle of the schoolyard, his slick, reddish hair ruffled in the commotion. He spoke to groans of disappointment. “Everyone settle down now. You’ll all get to see the Tanakee at the parade this weekend. Right now it’s time to get to class,” he smiled at Jack in frustration. “Jack, I thought we agreed about this. No talking teddy bears and no, um, interdimensional devices at school.”
Jack offered up a sheepish grin.
“It wasn’t his fault, sir,” Enola said to the rotund gentleman. “Two boys were bullying him, and we had to come help.”
The principal’s eyes got wide. “Gosh, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to you little guys talking. But I’m glad to meet you,” he let his smile travel from one Tanakee to the next. “All of you. You’ve done a great thing for this town. But we still have a few more days of school before summer break,” he eyed Jack, and then Amelia.
Takota shot Jack a questioning look. Jack patted his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Takota. I’ll be fine from here on out.”
“Are you sure? What about your machine? Jack, you need to keep it with you.”
The boy slid the O/A in his jacket surreptitiously, winking at his protector.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Nope!” said the principal. He held out his hand. “Give it here. Rules are rules. You’ll get it back at the end of the day.”
“Now hold on a second, Mister Principal,” Pud rushed toward the man. It took both Enola and Ayita to hold him. “That machine’s important.”
“He’s right,” Takota said. “You don’t know what kind of power you’re dealing with. That’s an Eteea machine.”
“Listen, I understand your concern,” Humbert replied. “But Jack agreed to this. He said he wouldn’t bring it to class, and I intend on taking him up on the promise.”
“Jack? Are you serious?” Amelia sounded skeptical.
He nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“Not a good idea,” Takota narrowed his eyes at Humbert.
“Yeah,” agreed Cheyton. “Just how much do we know about this guy, anyway?”
Pud and Cheyton both got close to the man and sniffed him up and down, growling. Principal Humbert stepped away, clearly vexed by the two tiny yet intimidating creatures.
“Listen, guys,” Jack called them off. “He’s okay, really. We can trust him.”
The principal sighed big when the Tanakee duo lowered their claws and stopped flaunting their fangs. He relaxed enough to speak.
“I won’t do anything bad to it or anything like that.”
“It’s not you we’re worried about,” Amelia pointed at the O/A. “That’s not just a smartphone you’re used to confiscating from normal kids. If you haven’t noticed, Jack isn’t normal.”
“Young lady,” the principal’s jowls quivered like jelly. Humbert was getting a little red under the collar. “If you and your friend are so special, then maybe Willow Elementary isn’t the place for you.”
“NO!” at least two dozen people shouted in unison. The school kids became uneasy, many sounding desperate, begging Jack to stay. Jack had to raise his hands to get them to quiet down.
“This is my hometown, and this is my school. I’m going to Willow Elementary, Mr. Humbert,” he gave the man his father’s invention. “Here you go.”
“But,” Takota pulled his hand, drawing Jack down to his level. “What if you need to use it?”
“Yeah, Jack,” Amelia said. “What if something happens and you need the O/A? How are you going to get it back?”
“I guess I’d have to go see Principal Humbert and get it,” he said matter-of-factly.
“But what if that’s too late?”
“Why?” Jack had a pit in his stomach all of a sudden. “Do you see something?”
She lowered her eyes.
“No, I don’t…not now, anyway.”
Humbert smiled wide and showed off a gold-capped molar.
“Rest assured, young lady. I’ll keep this thing under the best of security. Nobody will so much as get a peep at it.”
“I hope you’re right,” she frowned.
“BOYS AND GIRLS, MAY I have your attention?” Mrs. Adams stood at the blackboard with chalk in hand. It had been two weeks since Jack had last seen her. She looked rested. “I know it’s getting close to summer break, but a new family has moved to Willow recently, and they have a ten-year-old boy. Instead of going all summer without knowing any other kids, they wanted their son to come to school for the last week, just to meet you all, and, who knows,” her eyes twinkled at Jack and Amelia. “Maybe make a friend or two.”
She faced the board and, in big, sweeping cursive, began writing the name as she spoke it.
“Let’s give the young man a nice, warm Willow welcome, shall we? Everybody, this is, Argus Cole.”
Jack thought he could hear a pin drop when the door swung open and in came a boy, running straight for a school desk. He cartwheeled, stepped high onto the desk, twisted in midair, and then landed flat on his two feet.
“Whoa!” was the general outburst from the class, and Argus took a bow to a rousing applause.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said. “Just a little Parkour demonstration for you.”
Jack noticed some girls giggling and blushing. About what, he had no clue. Other than his silly gymnastics routine, the kid wasn’t so special. Dark hair, maybe black, cut below the ears, nearly shoulder-length like Jack’s but not quite that long. He also had dark eyebrows that stood out against his somewhat pale skin. His clothes were nice, maybe too nice for Willow, but that couldn’t have been why so many kids seemed so instantly taken. The most surprising thing was how immediate the acceptance came from Dillon and Mike. They were the first ones to approach Argus and shake his hand, talking as if they’d already met.
“Looks like you’re not the new kid anymore,” Jack nudged Amelia. She stood silent and still, staring at the new arrival. He waved his hand in front of her face. “Earth to Amelia. You read me?”
She shook her head and smiled, looking a little embarrassed, as if he’d caught her doing something she shouldn’t have been doing.
“I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
He giggled nervously. “I said you don’t have to be worried about being the new kid in town. He’s taken that title from you,” he noticed she’d reverted to that same glossy gaze, almost as if Argus Cole were a Tanakee and he’d put her under his hypnotizing eyecatcher. “Amelia, are you listening to me?”
Cold silence, save for the general din of the other students saying their hellos to the latest addition to Willow Elementary. Jack was close to nudging Amelia hard in the shoulder if she didn’t stop gawking so intently. It made him nervous. Before he got the chance, Argus, on his way to his assigned desk, stopped and offered her a smile.
“Thank you all so much for the wonderful welcome,” Argus said to the whole class. “It’s been great, really, meeting each of you,” he kept his eyes on Amelia. Her soft cheeks filled with color. “The thing is…I haven’t meteverybody—yet. You must be Amelia Klein.”
“You’ve heard of me?” she seemed puzzled, though Jack could tell it was only an act.
Argus laughed. “Are you kidding? Nearly the entire world has heard of you,” he turned his head toward Jack. “And, of course, everyone’s heard of Jack James. What you guys did to save your town has become an instant legend. I’m just glad my family has had the good luck to move here to Willow, giving me the honor of meeting the famous heroes and…” he craned his neck to look at Jack’s lap, under his desk, anywhere a small object might have been stashed. “And your teddy bears? Where are they?”
The class unleashed a round of giggles, lead nervously, of course, by Dillon and Mike.
“They aren’t supposed to be at school,” Dillon answered for Jack.
“Too much of a distraction,” chuckled Mike.
“Pity,” Argus spoke in a smooth, flowing accent. Almost like velvet. It made Jack cringe. It was impossible to place. One thing was for sure, Argus wasn’t from Oregon. “I was looking forward to meeting your teddy bear, Jack.”
The two boys made eye contact for the first time. The class fell silent. Jack shattered the hush.
“Yeah,” Argus seemed excited. “Ever since I heard the story, I’ve wanted to meet you. But I’ve especially wanted to meet Takota. I mean, the idea of a supernatural teddy bear, assigned to be your bodyguard—that’s so cool!”
A rumble of agreement. Jack saw right through the masquerade. Argus was playing him, using his exploits and achievements to garner favor from his classmates by faking gratitude. He couldn’t get how thoroughly it seemed the others had been duped. Especially Amelia. Dillon and Mike, he could understand. Even Wendy and her friends. But Amelia. The way she stared at Argus, and the way Argus stared in return. It was too much to take.
“You know, Jack,” though Argus spoke to Jack, he still looked at Amelia. “I happen to be in the market for a special teddy bear of my own.”
Jack’s eyes went from Amelia directly to Argus at the speed of light.
“What are you talking about?”
Argus appeared as if he wasn’t going to answer. His mischievous smile told Jack he’d have to do better than that if he wanted any information. It didn’t matter anyway. Mrs. Adams, after checking her watch, decided the meet and greet was over.
“All right, people. Let’s settle down and get started. Wedohave some school left,” she pointed to the empty desk behind Jack. “Argus, take your seat, and everyone open your math workbooks to page fifty-two.”
THE STUDENTS SETTLED IN after the morning’s excitement and became absorbed in their lesson of exponents and integers. Most kids allowed the teacher to teach, with only the occasional and all-too-expected comedic outburst from Dillon. It would have seemed like any other, normal day, if it weren’t for the incessant hand-raising and constant correct answers provided by Argus.
The kid just wouldn’t stop blurting out responses. And he kept getting them right. That would have been bad enough. However, every time Argus raised his hand and solved a math problem, gave the national capital for Portugal, or disclosed the average rainfall in Ecuador, not only did the girls swoon and the boys nod in reverence, but Amelia seemed to pay him even more interest. Every time it happened, Jack felt a little more pain, as if, whenever she would lock eyes with Argus and smile, someone punched him in the stomach. Hard. That was nothing, though, compared to the sheer panic he felt after Principal Humbert approached him in the cafeteria during lunchtime.
“Jack,” Humbert tapped his shoulder. “I think you should come with me. There’s been a…a problem.”
At first, Jack didn’t think anything of it. Amelia was falling fast for the new kid in school. What could have possibly been worse than that?
“Whatever it is, Mr. Humbert, just tell me now,” he sighed.
The principal leaned and whispered.
“It’s what?” Jack straightened in the bench seat.
“Missing!” he stood, upending his tray and sending a half-eaten toasted cheese, soggy fries, and full juice box scattering over several other kids’ lunch, one of which happened to be Mike.
“Hey!” he complained, but nobody took notice. Most children began chattering incessantly, spreading the rumor that Jack’s machine, a device of ultimate power, had been stolen.
“Everybody calm down!” the principal lifted his open palms.
“How can you tell us to calm down?” Jack said. “Do you have any idea how powerful that machine is? Can you even fathom what it can do in the wrong hands?”
“Now, Jack. Don’t get excited. We have procedures for these things,” Humbert raised his voice. “The entire school is hereby on lockdown! No one is to leave or enter the building until we locate Jack’s device!”
Kids groaned, but Jack got the sense most backed the principal’s move. He got the biggest show of support from Amelia. She hurried to him, her eyes wide, her hand over her chest, near her enchanted eagle feather.
“Jack, the O/A’s missing?” she waited for his anxious nod of confirmation, then addressed the principal. “When did this happen?”
He ran his fingers through his thick, wavy hair.
“Just a few minutes ago.”
“Then whoever did it is probably still in the school building,” she pressed harder on her custom-made necklace.
“Do you see something?” Jack begged her.
She pursed her lip and exhaled hard.
“Itis. It’s still in the building.”
“We should form search parties and look,” suggested Argus. Jack hadn’t noticed him standing behind Amelia before he spoke. Sneaky little…
“Okay,” Amelia was bubbly all of a sudden. “I’ll be on your team, Argus.”
Jack’s butterflies raged. Before he could say something, like,‘No, Amelia, come with me,’Argus accepted her offer.
“Sure, come on,” he looked at Jack. “That is, unless Jack minds. Do you, Jack?”
“He doesn’t care,” she barely gave him a glance. “Come on, Argus! I have an idea where to look!”
EVERY KID IN SCHOOL got into the hunt for the stolen O/A. All with teacher supervision, of course. The kids made a game of it, picking squads and splitting up, taking specific sections of the building and searching every cranny, every corner, every dark, dusty place where a person might have stashed the precious machine. Jack’s group had the second-floor bathrooms, the library, and the music room. He didn’t know where Amelia’s group was, and couldn’t stop thinking about them. What were they doing? Was Argus close to her, holding her hand, escorting her through the dark, worming his way into her heart?
It didn’t take long for him to get his answer.
“WE FOUND IT!”
It was Amelia, somewhere on the first floor. Jack bolted from the library and raced downstairs, following the sound of Amelia’s elated pronouncement.“Jack! We found it!”
Jack discovered Amelia in the school auditorium, behind the stage, in the area reserved for the prop and costume department. He had to fight through several closed curtains and stumbled in the darkness until he found them—Amelia, Argus, and Mrs. Adams, along with a number of other students.
When Jack caught a glimpse of his machine, all he did was stand there, frozen, his blood ice cold. Argus. He had the O/A cupped in his hands, staring at its shimmering, glistening purple and blue exoskeleton.
“What’s going on!” Principal Humbert waddled into the wardrobe area. “Someone’s found Jack’s device?”
“Yep,” Amelia beamed at Argus. “Hefound it. Right here, hidden in the props.”
“Good job, my boy,” Humbert smiled. “What was your name again?”
“Argus,” he furnished the man with a smug grin, and then aimed it at Jack. “Argus Cole.”
Jack crossed his arms. “How’d you know the O/A would be in here?”
“Just got lucky, I guess.”
“Got lucky? The odds are astronomical,” Jack pleaded with someone, anyone to see his point of view. “Doesn’t anyone else think this looks just a little suspicious?”
“Jack,” the Principal said. “Don’t be rude. The boy just found your device. Tell him thank you.”
Jack’s eyes found Argus’s. That look. That smile. Bringing himself to express any sort of gratitude came difficult, yet he knew the principal was correct. Reluctantly, quickly, he said, “Thanks,” and held out his hand.
“You really should take better care of this, Jack,” Argus extended his arm, but not enough to hand over the machine. “I mean, what good is the world’s most powerful interdimensional device if its operator keeps losing it?”
As he spoke, the O/A seemed to charge up. The pulsing light got brighter and brighter, and Jack heard it start to sing.
“Give me that!” he snatched it out of Argus’s hand. The kid just smiled bigger.
“Remember what I said, Jack. Don’t lose it again,” Argus giggled and walked away. Jack glared at Amelia.
“What?” she said.“Nothing.”
AMELIA HATED TO make Jack jealous, but the strange way Argus’s spirit clothes were sparkling—the temptation proved too great. She just had to investigate. Argus had the same type of aura, or spirit clothes, as Jack, and that drew her in like the gravitational pull of a giant star. With all the visions she’d been seeing lately, plus the Tanakee and O/A having spirit clothes when they shouldn’t have, she was beginning to take every new surprise as a precursor for future events. Argus’s arrival seemed to be one of those precursors.
She couldn’t put her finger on it. She wasn’t even sure if she’d ever know. All she knew was Argus had something—theit—and she needed to find out what it was. Still, it didn’t take a psychic to see Jack didn’t like the attention she was giving Argus. She’d make it up to him. Somehow.
Later that night, just before getting to bed, she got the surprise of her week. For the first time in days, her father, Michael Klein, Commander in the United States Navy, came home early enough to tuck in his daughter. She’d just said goodnight to Ayita when she heard his car pull into Tangled Trail Estate’s parking lot. It was late, and she knew she should have stayed in bed, but her legs acted on autopilot, taking her downstairs, past a stern look from her mother and into her daddy’s arms the second he stepped foot in the apartment.
“Whoa, there!” he shouted, and, all of a sudden, she felt like a three-year-old. Little and helpless and secure now that Daddy’s home, now that Daddy’s holding her. “I’m happy to see you too, honey.”
Her parents whispered with one another, agreeing it was too late for Amelia to stay up.
“Come on, sweetie,” he carried her up the stairs, grunting. “You sure are getting big. Too big,” he panted, though Amelia knew it was an act. Commander Klein was a large man. Six foot three, two hundred and twenty pounds. And all muscle. Even at his age, which wasn’t old, he had the strength of a bull. Amelia liked that.
“I’ve missed you, Daddy,” she whimpered. Her parents were right, she was tired. Exhausted, actually. She hadn’t yet let herself wind down after the events of two weeks ago. Not until now. Now, finally, after seeing her father for the first time in forever, she allowed herself to relax.
“I know,” he spoke soothingly, like a warm blanket. “I’ve missed you too, sweetie.”
“But where have you been? Why do you have to be gone for so long?”
He cradled her like a baby into her bedroom.
“You know I can’t talk about it, honey,” he placed her on the twin mattress. “Don’t ask, okay?”
She turned over and faced the other direction.
“Your work is more important than we are.”
“You know that’s not true,” he touched her shoulder. She pulled away. “Amelia, honey, I’m sorry if you feel like I haven’t been around much lately. It’s true. Ihavebeen pretty absorbed. I promise, though, when the project I’m working on gets into full swing, I’ll have lots of time to spend with you.”
She spun over like a lathe. “Really? You mean it?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Soon.”
That’s when her hopes dropped. She’d heard that word before.Soon. It should have been tattooed on her father’s forehead. She frowned again and shook her head slowly.
“What?” he asked.
She turned over one last time, signaling she was done with the conversation.
“Well if it isn’t the famous Tanakee protector,” he must have noticed Ayita. She’d been sitting silently on the bed. “I’ve been hearing great things about you, little one.”
“And I’ve been hearing great things about you too,” Ayita answered.
“Well, I appreciate you protecting my daughter, Ayita. Keep up the good work.”
“I will, sir,” though her back was turned, Amelia sensed Ayita saluting her father.
Slowly, he got up and walked to the door. “I love you, sweetheart.”
Amelia said nothing.
HER CHEST FELT HEAVY. Something large and dense and dark—really, really dark—was on top of her. She wanted to scream. Her paralyzed lungs wouldn’t allow even the slightest breath. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ayita, sleeping peacefully. Why didn’t she sense this? Why didn’t she wake up?
On her shelf, Amelia had a collection of stuffed animals. Bunnies and bears and unicorns, but mostly pigs. She went through a weird pig phase when she was five. Now she wished she hadn’t. They each, quite on their own, began to twist and contort, plump phantoms dancing in a festival of nightmares. At the same time, her colored beads, which she kept along the walls and hanging from the ceiling, clicked and clacked in a sudden storm. She had all types of paper machete dragons and gargoyles and bats in various locations throughout the room, each of which took flight, circling and spinning and diving. She wanted to get out of the way as one dropped straight for her. Unable to move, she could only watch it scrape her arm with its talons. The pigs jumped to the bed, where they sat on the edges of her blanket, pinning her down in the off chance she actually regained control of her motor functions.
Amelia saw eyes. Pale and sickly. Almost dead. Right away she sensed evil. Even before she saw it, she sensed it. She couldn’t understand why her protector wasn’t protecting her. Ayita slept soundly, not stirring an inch.
The thing on her chest was from the same dream she’d been having all her life. Now it was back, the captain of her nightmares, and it didn’t look happy.
“See?” it pointed at the piggies, pink and purple and blue. They used to be so cute. Now they glared at her, sharp scowls and even sharper teeth, snorting and snuffling. “I can make little stuffed toys come alive too.”
The thing looked deep into her, trying to steal something, a part of her. She whimpered again and again. Just once, she knew she’d be able to scream. She had to scream. The thing let out a ghastly little giggle, its face smooth and lustrous in the moonlight, its head concealed by a black scarf.
“That’s right, my child. Fight me. Fight me,” its hollow laugh made her nauseated. “Good…good!”
She suffocated under the weight of the thing, and the natural response was to fight for her life. So she fought.
“Yes! Yes!” it kept saying. “You’re learning…getting stronger…becoming what I always thought you’d become!”
“H-h-help,” she coughed, then coughed again. “HELP!” her voice came back to her finally. Still on her chest, the shadowy entity laughed harder, almost encouraging her outburst. The airborne paper creatures swirled about its head. The beads rippled and twirled with fervor. Her toy pigs rooted in the blankets, nipping at her legs with teeth like daggers. “HELP ME!”
Ayita sprang to her feet just as the door flew open. Her father punched the light switch, and when he did, everything went back to normal. Her beads were perfectly still, as if someone had pulled them tight. Her paper bats and gargoyles were back on display, hanging from their respective places. The toy pigs were all on the shelf again, each in the exact spot Amelia had left it. But, most importantly, the nocturnal visitor, the creature that had been sitting on her chest, was gone. No trace left behind.
“What?” Ayita scrambled around the bed, searching for something that wasn’t there. “What is it!”
“Sweetie, what’s the matter?” her dad’s head was on a swivel, glancing at the window, at the closet, behind her bed, anywhere an intruder may have been hiding.
She had command of her own body again, and took full advantage by sprinting to her dad. She landed so hard against him, she bounced. He let out an audible,“Oof!”and wrapped her in his arms.
“Oh, Daddy!” she sobbed. “It was horrible!”
“What was, honey?”
“Yeah, what?” Ayita dug through the comforter in vain.
“I don’t know,” she didn’t want to let go of her dad. “I never know what it is.”
“A shadow person?” he pulled her away so they could see eye-to-eye.
“Y-yes,” she sniffled.
“A shadow person?” asked Ayita. “You mean a Nagas?”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” Amelia was so confused. “And I don’t know how, either, but I think it was a woman.”
“A woman?” her dad sounded incredulous. “Are you sure?”
“No,” she really wasn’t sure, just had a hunch. “No, I’m not. But I felt it.”
He rubbed his chin and sighed. Whenever her father did that, she knew he was deep in thought, usually not good thought. His face flushed for a brief moment, and his breathing stiffened. However, this only happened for a fraction of a second. Then he regained composure and gave Amelia a confident smile.
“Just put it out of your head, honey,” he lowered his tone to almost a whisper, and she saw her mother, perky and perfect, even in her pajamas, with the usual two pills and glass of water.
“Hi, sweetie,” her mother tried to smile, but Amelia saw right through it. Mom was upset the little girl took her husband away from her. That was how she’d always acted toward her daughter. For the longest time, Amelia thought she was adopted, or a stepchild, but she wasn’t. At least that’s what they told her.
“No. I’m not taking those pills. They make me feel funny.”
“They’re supposed to,” her mom said sarcastically. “That’s why they call thempills.”
“That’s not exactly true,” her dad laughed. He took the capsules and the water from his wife. “Remember what the doctor said? They’re just to help you relax, ease your anxiety.”
“But I can do that on my own,” she pointed at a poster of the Buddha, sitting in the lotus position, encircled by a corona of rainbow-colored sunrays. “With meditation.”
“Sweetie, it looks like your meditation isn’t working,” her mom chuckled. “Just take the pills so we can all go back to bed.”
“Take the pills!” her mom’s face reddened. Amelia slid away, heart pumping.
“What’s going on?” Ayita stood in front of Amelia.
“It’s okay, Ayita,” her dad said. “Amelia’s mother just wants what’s best for her. So do I,” he lowered his head, comically, giving Amelia the goofy grin that always coaxed a smile from her no matter what. “There,” he said. “There’s my girl. Now, you want to stop having those terrible nightmares, don’t you?”
“Then these can help. You love me, don’t you?”
“I love you too. Now, please, take the pills. For your daddy?”
She bit her lower lip and exhaled hard. She wanted to bite until she tasted blood. That would have been better than those pills.
“Amelia?” he raised an eyebrow. She knew by his tone he meant business, and, at any moment, her congenial, easy-going father would turn into a bear. Not literally, but almost.
“Okay,” she took the pills from his hand, then the glass. Popping them in her mouth, she guzzled down some water. “There.”
“Amelia,” her mother sounded, and looked, unconvinced. “Let me see.”
She opened her mouth wide. “Ahhh!”
“Under the tongue,” her mother said. Amelia lifted her tongue and said even louder, “AHHH!”
“Okay, okay,” her mother winced. “You can close your mouth, now. And try to get some sleep, please.”
“I will, Mom,” Amelia feigned good humor. She did it for her dad too. Put on a happy act so they’d believe all was well when it wasn’t.
“That’s my sweetheart,” he kissed her forehead after brushing away the jet-black bangs. “Night-night. And tell those bad people your daddy said go away,” he made a fist and lifted it in front of his chin. “Or else.”
She giggled. That really did make her feel better. He always seemed to know what to say, though she wasn’t completely over what had happened, and wouldn’t be until after hours of searching inward.
As soon as her parents left the room, she tongued the pills from the space between her lower lip and her jaw, always a perfect hiding place. She could be a spy if she wanted. She winked at Ayita and chuckled, spitting the tablets into the nightstand drawer, where a dozen more pills were sitting. The residue of past thwarted medications. Then she tiptoed and pressed her head against the door. In the hallway, she heard whispers. She knew they were talking about her.
“JACK! COME QUICK!”
Jack glanced at Takota and his heart leapt into his throat.
“What! What!” the boy and his Tanakee friend sprinted all the way from his bedroom to the garage, aka Ben’s lab. Everything looked exactly as it always looked during a routine diagnostic checkup. Inside the Quantum Foam chamber, the O/A sparkled vividly with color, surrounded by a webbing of near transparent, effervescent strands. On his dad’s holographic display, all levels looked good, all lights green.
“What’s the matter? Something wrong with the O/A?” Jack fretted.
His dad didn’t seem to notice his panic.
“No, no. Here,” he pointed to a small, outdated television set. Tuned to the History Channel, it showed some grainy video of an ancient temple, cloaked in thick jungle flora and crumbling into ruin.
“What is this, Dad?” Jack tried to catch his breath and settle his nerves. “You yell and scare me half to death, just to get me to watchEarly ETswith you?”
“Yes,” he said. “Well, no…just watch!”
Jack shook his head and clenched away the last of the butterflies. He was no longer scared. Now he was furious. His dad almost gave him a heart attack. At ten. That would have been something.
“Shhh!” Ben ignored the fact his son was angry enough to spit fire. Jack observed his dad for a second. The man seemed totally taken by what he was seeing.
“Jack,watch,” Takota nudged him, then Ben pushed aside some extraneous lab equipment in order to reach the volume knob on the antiquated TV.
Jack looked at the screen and was blown away. He’d expected to see some kind of unearthed mummy or ancient stone tablet. However, his eyes beheld a sight so extraordinary, he had no words. Suddenly the world began to spin and his dad’s workbench would have to double as a crutch. No way was he seeing this. No way.
“These archeologists have traveled hundreds of miles into the Amazonian rainforest, searching for a place of legend, a place the people say is haunted by spirits from space…”
As the narrator spoke, the visuals were of a scientific team brushing away sediment, slowly and deliberately, from a carving on the side of what looked like a very large and very old cave. Or temple. The camera shot wasn’t clear. The column looked manmade, and had been inscribed with a strange design. As the dirt sifted slowly away, a creature, some kind of animal, came into view, and it looked shockingly like…a Tanakee.
“These petroglyphs are found in several places throughout what seems to be a structure of some kind. A temple? A tomb? The researchers aren’t sure…but they’re trying to find out.”
“This is…amazing,” Jack muttered. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Just watch,” Ben said. “It gets better.”
Jack’s breath failed him when the camera tilted beneath the pictogram of the Tanakee lookalike to show what the archeologists were uncovering next. An object, curved to fit a human palm, exactly the size and shape of the O/A!
“It can’t be!” he gained control of his lungs—barely.
“That’s what I thought too,” Ben explained. “But look. It’s my machine. And that animal, there’s no mistaking it. It’s a Tanakee.”
“Looks just like me!” Takota exclaimed.
“But how, Dad? How is this possible? I mean, the O/A’s an original invention. You invented it, didn’t you?”
“Well, yeah. I did. The thing is, though, it may not be as original as we both think.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that evil shapeshifter fellow, what’s his name?”
“Yes, Davos. He said something that really made me think about the true origin of the O/A.”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t recall exactly. Something about the O/A being the most powerful one yet. That sure makes it sound like there are others, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” answered Jack. “This is weird. This is really, really weird. Dad, what do you think this means?”
Ben ran his fingers through his thinning, unkempt hair. “I’m not sure. But I know one thing. We need to find out, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed.
“Uncanny!” Amelia’s voice made Jack, his father, and Takota all jump in surprise. After a quick recovery from having the daylights scared out of him, Jack was happy to see his friend.
“Amelia!” he said merrily.
“Ayita!” erupted Takota when the tiny, silver and black Tanakee protector showed her face. Ayita only smiled as Takota hugged her tightly. The mood couldn’t have been more cheerful. But as soon as Amelia and Ayita walked into the garage, Jack saw something, or someone behind them, and his joy evaporated. He couldn’t help it. There was only one person in the world he’d ever met that filled him with such unease, and that person was standing in the holiest of holies, the birthplace of the O/A.
“Jack, you remember Argus, don’t you?”
Argus extended his hand, wearing a warm, somewhat disarming smile. His dark brown eyes glistened in the glow of Ben’s machinery. His smooth complexion and deep brown hair almost sparkled.
“Jack,” Ben said. “Don’t be rude. Shake hands with the boy.”
Jack snarled a little as they greeted each other, then he jolted away his hand. Touching Argus made his skin crawl.
“Hey,” Amelia, thankfully, turned the attention from Jack’s discomfort to the television. “Is that what I think it is?”
Argus leaned to get a look at the TV.
“Are you guys watchingEarly ETs? I love that show!”
Despite Jack’s fervent wish his father wouldn’t say anything, Ben did. And quite enthusiastically too.
“Yes, Yes,” he let his arms fly. “We’ve come across this program, and it looks like we might have made a discovery. Or, I should say, those scientists made the discovery, but we’re putting together a correlation. You see? That pictograph looks much like the O/A, doesn’t it?”
“The O/A?” Argus squinted, then gazed into the transparent housing where the machine bathed in Quantum Foam. “Yes, I suppose it does,” he tilted his head at Ben. “What do you think that means, Mr. James?”
“Not sure,” he tapped his chin. “Not sure. It might mean nothing at all. Then again, it might mean everything.”
“How so?” Argus pressed. Jack didn’t like it.
“Well,” Ben answered. “If there’ve been other machines like this in the past, and if there’ve been Tanakee associated with those past machines, then there must be some kind of connection to us, here in the present. It might give me a piece of the puzzle as to why exactly this technology was sent to me. Why me?”
“A connection?” Argus’s questioning was getting to be borderline obsessive. “A connection to what?”
“Listen,” Jack butted in. “We’re getting close to performing some diagnostics, and it’s pretty dangerous stuff, so maybe you guys should leave.”
Amelia huffed. “Fine, Jack. If you don’t want us here, then fine. Come on, Argus,” she seized his hand and dragged him out the door.
“I guess that’s goodbye, Takota,” Ayita shrugged and followed Amelia.
“Where are your manners, Son?” Ben frowned.
“Dad, you don’t understand. That Argus Cole. He’s…he’s…”
“Uh-oh,” Ben raised his brow and whispered. “Does Jack have a little competition for fair Amelia’s heart?”
Jack chuckled nervously. “Of course not,” he watched out the door as the two strolled down the driveway. Argus said something and it made Amelia go from pouting to a full, beaming smile. Amused, they both turned left at the sidewalk, heading toward Tangled Trail Estates.
“You sure about that?” Ben asked. “You’d better do something to smooth it over, and quick.”
Jack wanted to shrug it off. A tiny cinder in the pit of his gut, though, began to burn a hole, letting in a giant swarm of butterflies. The nervous energy had him running from the garage, crying Amelia’s name. She heard him and waited. Argus waited with her.
“What is it, Jack?” she looked mad again.
“I didn’t want you to go. I just,” he looked at Argus. They shared a grouchy glare. “Amelia, can I talk to you…alone?”
She presented Argus a big, albeit fake, smile.
“I’m sorry, Argus. Jack seems to have grown quite impolite lately.”
Jack lowered his head and studied the sidewalk.
“That’s okay,” Argus responded. “Everybody’s got their little…quirks,” he threw Jack a telling look. It wasn’t smug or grim or anything like that. Just steady and confident, as if he knew something Jack didn’t. Jack narrowed his eyes quite involuntarily.
“Jack!” she snapped. “Why are you being so rude?” she turned to Argus. “We’ll be just a second, okay?”
Argus smiled at her, but when she turned her back, his grin switched to that creepy, deadpan expression. She pushed Jack a few feet, behind a large conifer that dominated the James family’s front curb.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but you’re being quite a jerk these last couple of days. Argus is new to town like I was. Remember how hard it was for me to adjust? He’s going through the same thing. Why can’t you just see that and help him feel more accepted here in Willow?”
Jack sighed. “I don’t know, Amelia. I mean,” he peered around the tree, catching sight of Argus standing next to a parked car, checking his hair in the side mirror. “I just—I don’t like him.”
“What?” she sounded incredulous. “Jack, you’re the True Soul. You’re supposed to see the good in everyone.”
“I know, I know,” he agreed, though he didn’t enjoy it. “You’re right. It’s not fair of me to not like him, but I don’t. Why do you have to hang out with him, Amelia?”
“Jack, you’re jealous, and that’s not a good thing for the True Soul to be.”
“I can’t help it,” he admitted. “I don’t want you to see him anymore, Amelia.”
She stiffened her lip. “You can’t tell me who my friends can and can’t be, Jack,” she spun on her heel, then eyed him over one shoulder. “No matter how powerful you are with that machine.”
She stomped on the sidewalk, but she might as well have been stomping on his heart. Straight to Argus she strode, taking his hand and steering him west on Pioneer Street with Ayita scampering close behind. She didn’t look back. Argus did. All grins. Then his cheerfulness disappeared when Takota walked up next to Jack. Instantly, the kid’s face tightened into a wrinkled sneer, aimed at the Tanakee.
“Is she right, Takota?” Jack said. “Is Argus really a nice guy and I’m just jealous?”“I’m not so sure,” his protector answered. “That kid gives me a bad feeling.”
THAT NIGHT BEFORE BED, Jack did something he normally didn’t do. He placed the O/A on the nightstand and got on his knees.
“God…or Eteea…or whoever you are, it’s me again. I just wanted to ask for some guidance. I’m feeling like I might not be worthy of all this power I’ve been given. I mean, I trust Amelia. I trust her judgment, so when she says that Argus kid is all right, well, maybe he is. Maybe I’m just feeling these feelings about him because I’m jealous of the time he’s spending with her,” he sighed. “I’m so confused. Why do I feel so bad?”
“MOM!” Lily screamed from somewhere downstairs. “Pud took my cupcake!”
“Ah-hahaha!” Pud roared as Lily chased him. Throughout the entire house their mad game of cat and mouse played out, much to everyone else’s irritation.
Takota walked into Jack’s room shaking his head.
“This is pretty much a nightly thing now, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Jack stood and laughed.
“Hey, what were you doing?”
“Nothing,” he said. “We should probably get to bed soon, don’t you think? We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”
“That’s right,” answered Takota. “What’s happening, again?”
“The town of Willow is putting on a parade, and we’re going to be the Grand Marshals.”
“A parade!” Pud dashed in, around, and out of Jack’s room again, evading Lily at every turn. “I love a parade!” he darted down the hall. In a flash of blinding light, Cheyton appeared in his path. Pud, with nowhere to go, skidded to a halt just before the two collided.
“Pud,” Cheyton reprimanded. “Give Lily back her cupcake.”
“Oh, all right,” he handed the treat to the blonde, curly-headed girl. She changed from upset to angelic in the blink of an eye.
“Thanks, Pud,” she said, and turned to go downstairs. Then she stopped and looked at him. He was dejected. Head down. Lower lip curling. She approached him, broke the pastry in half, and shared it with him. Pud’s eyes widened and his face lit up.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” he gobbled it down.
“Come on,” she put an arm around his shoulders. “Let’s get some milk.”
Ever since they’d fended off Davos, the Tanakee had been spending most nights at the James residence in a state of constant vigilance. Even though they could transport dimensionally at will now, and even though they enjoyed their time at Wind Whisper Woods, they felt it necessary to stay as close to the James family as possible. The sleeping arrangements took some getting used to. Enola insisted on being with Lily, and that was no problem. It was Pud. He felt the need to protect Ben at all times, so he vowed to sleep in the same room, though his snoring and constant rolling didn’t make Liz so happy. As far as Ayita went, she stayed close to Amelia, so she was gone a lot of the time. Cheyton didn’t sleep, it seemed to Jack. He was always up, always standing watch somewhere, unseen and unheard.
It made Jack feel secure, having such amazing creatures around to protect him. Especially Takota, who’d found a place to sleep right next to him. That’s where the two of them snoozed, side by side. And every once in a while, Jack couldn’t help but snuggle with the little guy. He was just so soft and fuzzy.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, something roused Jack from a deep slumber. The clock on his nightstand read 3:21 am. At first, he thought it was only a dream, and that he’d jerked awake suddenly. Happened all the time. Then, sitting next to the alarm clock, the O/A started whirring and buzzing, and that shocked him further into consciousness.
The table began to rattle, along with everything on it—the lamp, the clock, the O/A and several Yu-gi-oh! action figures. Hiroto Honda shimmied a few inches before toppling onto Yugi Mutou.
“What’s happening?” Takota stirred awake, his furry face disheveled and drowsy. “Are we dreaming?”
Jack wanted to answer, but the noise became deafening, the shaking irrepressible. He thought the house would crumble down on top of them, so he grabbed the O/A.
“I don’t know,” he screamed. “I think the machine’s running by itself!”
He pressed and held, trying to force the power-down sequence. No luck. Faster and faster the intricate shapes churned from deep inside the device, a process that seemed to give it ethereal power. Then it began chirping and whistling, a clear indication the omnidimensional field would soon arrive.
“Can’t you turn it off?” Takota climbed on top of Jack’s knees.
“I’m trying! I’m trying!” he shouted loud enough for everyone in the house to hear. He was certain at any moment his dad would burst through the door and demand to know what was going on. That didn’t happen. Instead, something else did. Something so mind-bending, Jack thought it had to be a strange and terrific product of his own mind. Suddenly the bedroom ceiling appeared permeable, and, before they knew it, Jack and Takota, still on top of the twin mattress, were suspended in the night air.
“What-what is this, Jack? Where are you taking us?”
“It’s not me!” he answered. “Really! I’m not doing this!”
“Then who is?”
“I don’t know!”
The O/A’s brilliant, translucent shell expanded to surround them, head to toe, crackling and glowing. Outside the bubble, Jack saw the night sky. Then he felt a tug in his bowels and looked down.
“Whoa!” he pointed. Takota was already looking.
“We’re lifting off!”
Jack saw his house, then his street, the town of Willow, the Columbia River where it met the Pacific Ocean. More of the sea came into view. Then the North American Continent. Higher and higher they traveled, until the entire planet, a blue and white and brown marble, drifted under them.
Suddenly they changed trajectory, and velocity. Now they were rocketing like a slingshot around the Earth, past the moon so close Jack made out individual craters. Jack saw planets, asteroids, comets, and even thought he caught a glimpse of Voyager One. Then they were out of the solar system. In the blink of an eye, they departed the Milky Way Galaxy, allowing Jack an amazing view of the pinwheel, great arms extending and twisting like some celestial sea monster, each one comprised of billions and billions of stars.
Jetting through space, with a mattress the only thing left to provide any sort of anchor to the real world, neither Jack nor Takota had time to say a word. Constellation after constellation zoomed past them as they traveled faster than any other living being had ever traveled. Faster than the speed of light. Much faster. Jack did some quick calculations in his head, watching the galaxies go by, counting the superclusters, and gauging the distance. So far, in just a few seconds, they’d travelled two hundred megaparsecs, the distance it would take light about 650 years to travel. At that rate, their speed was beyond staggering.
As Jack would soon find out, their destination would be even more staggering.
They voyaged into an unknown, uncharted, unnamed part of the universe. Jack knew that because he’d done a ton of research in developing the 3D space simulator he called the Holoversarium. More importantly, though, he knew it due to the recent experience he had showing the Holoversarium to Amelia, when they, or she, had spotted the unexplained empty chunk of the cosmos.
He recognized the twisting galaxy shrouded in a giant purple magellanic cloud. He saw the void, an empty, desolate blackness where it seemed the galaxy, its stars and planets, were being ground to dust.
“This can’t be the same galaxy,” Jack muttered. “Can it?”
“What is this place?” asked Takota. Jack said nothing. Takota tried again. “Jack! Where are we?”
“I can’t believe it!” he watched the nebulous clouds dissipate as he and Takota zoomed closer and closer to the interior of the galaxy, heading to a place which seemed quite familiar.
“What? Can’t believe what?”
“This-this galaxy, this solar system,” he pointed at the group of planets approaching swiftly, circling a monster of a star, a red giant pulsing and radiating energy.
“What about it? Tell me!”
“This is the same place I showed Amelia on the Holoversarium.”
“Don’t you get it? Amelia just randomly pointed at this place, with no idea what she would find. And it just so happened we spotted an anomaly,” he pointed at the absolutely vacant void looming close. Too close.
“What is that?” Takota trembled.
“I’m still not sure, but I know it’s not good,” he observed tons of debris, the size of small planets, mixing and spinning at the leading edge of the emptiness, the rubble and destruction one would expect to find in a flash flood.
“Not good atALLLLLLL!”
Takota’s last word stretched with their sudden dive. The mattress flew out from under them and the O/A changed course drastically, taking them in the direction of an incredibly large planet, twice the size of Jupiter. Spinning around the great globe, the O/A banked and sped toward a smaller object. Much smaller. The closer they came, the more Jack realized the planet had the same dimensions and hues as Earth. A habitable exoplanet.
Soon they were in the planet’s atmosphere, streaking through the clouds like a meteor. Jack and Takota held each other tight as the O/A went down. Feeling the pull of gravity from the strikingly Earth-like world, Jack saw vast green forests and wide open plains, rugged coastlines and tall, snowcapped mountains. He also saw other things, things that disturbed him. Cities. Many cities. But they weren’t bustling and modern like on Earth. They were bombed, broken, devastated carcasses of once great metropolises. Smoke streamers and billows of gray dominated the skies, the residue of warfare. The only lights Jack saw were from fires dotting the landscape. No life. No movement. Nothing but nothingness.
“What happened here, Jack?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”
The O/A stopped unexpectedly over a clearing in a deep, dark woodland. Now hovering, the machine’s protective bubble shined as bright as the red sun. Then it descended to the valley floor. As soon as they landed, Jack felt tension in the air. Takota must have felt it too, and when the O/A’s force field dissipated, and the machine finally felt like it had powered down, Jack’s protector dove into him, pushing him to the ground.
Jack tasted the soil of an alien world. Surprisingly, it was much the same as his home planet. Maybe a little grittier, maybe the scents were a little more intense, but strikingly similar. He didn’t have time to think much about it, though. As soon as they hit the dirt, several swift and silent projectiles skimmed over their heads, missing them narrowly.
“Someone’s trying to kill us!” Jack exclaimed.
“Shhh!” said Takota.
“If you’re trying to hide, you’re nuts. We just landed in a spaceship lit up like a roman candle.”
“You’re right,” Takota agreed rather reluctantly. “But still…LOOK OUT!”
Another volley of swift, deadly missiles came right for them from a few hundred meters away. Luckily, the O/A had a mind of its own, and sensed danger even before Jack did. Its shield flared up again, surrounding Jack and Takota, and absorbing the warheads. Several deafening explosions went off at once.
Suddenly, all around were the sounds of full-scale conflict. Gunfire. Artillery. Great armored machines rumbling on the ground and aircrafts swooping overhead. A world war had broken out it seemed, with every gun aimed at Jack and Takota.
Nothing hit the mark. In the middle of it all, as Jack and Takota held each other tighter and tighter, the O/A maintained its lustrous, buzzing shield, fending off the projectiles as if they were simple dandelion seeds drifting in a summer breeze.
“HOLD!” a voice in an alien language echoed through the forest. With the help of the O/A, Jack was able to understand perfectly. Another shot from behind hurtled toward their position, a solid streamer of smoke trailing it.
Ping!the rocket hit.KABLAM!it exploded, creating a brilliant display of white hot light, but not much more. Jack and Takota remained unharmed.
“I said HOLD!” demanded the supposed leader, though he didn’t seem to have much control. “He’s the True Soul!”
An immediate hush. Everything mechanical shut down, operators spilling out onto the dusty field. Murmuring and staring at Jack and Takota, the figures inched forward. At first, Jack thought they were still on the attack, the final assault. But the looks on their faces told another tale.
The beings were strangely humanoid. In fact, they looked almost exactly like earthlings, though Jack knew this wasn’t Earth. They were shorter than humans, and more robustly built, probably the byproduct of the stronger gravitational pull from the slightly larger planet. Other than that, though, they seemed perfectly normal. Except for their skin color. They didn’t have any. Their flesh was almost perfectly transparent, quite unsettling when Jack got a good view.
“Are you?” an abnormally tall and lean alien stepped ahead of the others. He wore a colorful uniform, the livery of one in charge, no doubt. “Are you the True Soul?”
Jack stood up straight and cleared his throat. He felt Takota holding his knee.
“Um, yes. Yes I am.”
More murmuring, shuffling, vying to get a better position. Then a crack of thunder made everyone cower close to the ground. The lead alien stood again, prompting everyone else to do the same.
“I am Rix, and this planet is called La’oon,” the alien gestured for one of the others to come closer. Smaller, with softer features, yet still with unsettlingly invisible skin. “This is my daughter, Lark. Her protector called you here before they…they destroyed him.”
The girl bowed her head and sobbed. Rix pulled her close, trying to console her.
“What do you mean, destroyed him?” asked Takota. Rix only sighed. Another deafening clap of thunder. This time Rix didn’t cower.
“We need you, True Soul!” he pointed up. “They’ve destroyed all of our Eteea warriors, along with their protectors. You’re our last hope!”
“Who? Who did this?”
“The Nagas,” Rix’s words brought Jack’s heart to a standstill. He looked down at Takota and they locked eyes.
“He’s not the True Soul,” one of the shortest stepped down from a massive mechanized beast. “He’s a Nagas!”
“But he has an Eteea machine!”
“I’ve heard of Nagas using Eteea machines!”
The little one’s argument sent a ripple of concern through the ranks. The chatter came to a crescendo when Rix quieted them.
“This young oneisthe True Soul. My daughter’s protector called him here.”
“Sir,” the short, surly one pleaded. “We cannot trust this-this alien and his little beast. They may be imposters!”
Rix had no chance to react. Another explosion cracked a hole in the heavens. Night turned to day as if it was raining magma, spilling disaster upon the planet. Out of the flames came swarm after swarm of dark streaks. They descended closer, and Jack made out details of the individuals in the swarm. Distinct and familiar shapes. He fought to catch his breath.
“The Nagas!” screamed Takota.
“We’re out of time!” Rix pleaded. “Help us, True Soul! Save us!”
Jack wouldn’t accept it. His first reaction was to try and wake up. He was in bed, dreaming. That had to be it. No alien world begging him to be its savior. No army of Nagas slithering through the sky. No life or death struggle staring him in the face. It was no dream. The aromas of that unfamiliar planet—sulfur and burnt grass and other scents too exotic to describe—each colluded to ensure he recognized everything as all too real.
Rix pointed to the attacking multitudes.
“You have to do something, True Soul!”
Jack’s neck craned up, up, up. He tried to widen his eyes to capture the entirety of what he was seeing. It seemed impossible. Only in the wildest of fantasy paintings had he witnessed anything comparable. A planet, larger on the horizon than the horizon itself, rising like the sun and eclipsing the daylight.
Rix and his allies ran from the debris falling from the sky. Everywhere the La’oonians turned, the destruction went from bad to worse. Trees collapsing. Ground liquefying. Buildings shaking and shattering. The very air seemed to catch fire, and Jack felt it hard to breathe all of a sudden.
Jack pressed and held the O/A. He inhaled deep and hard, fighting for air as the energy from hundreds, millions, quadrillions of dimensional duplicates fused within him, making him the strongest living being imaginable. The potency of the O/A was nothing to trifle with, and he needed to be fully prepared for the all-out mental assault. Concentrating, he diverted the power stream to his own liking, a blacksmith forging a white-hot bar of iron, fashioning it into a formidable weapon. His weapon of choice—the air. The atmosphere, to be exact. He thought of the surrounding gases, and then imagined applying force to those gases vertically in the form of vapor, achieving the optimal atmospheric pressure, and, once again, restoring the oxygen supply to the planet.
Takota took a deep breath through his nose.
“Good job, buddy!” but his joy didn’t last long. His eyes got huge and he disappeared in a ripple of light. Jack heard a horrible collision just above. He looked to find Takota, spread eagle in midair, with a winged serpent in each hand and each foot, along with at least three in his mouth. The flying eels snapped and clawed at their sudden captor, never once taking their cold, calculating eyes off Jack. They were on a singular mission to destroy him, and would have if it weren’t for Takota’s quick reflexes.
A few serpents got past, though, and, at the last second, Lark came forward and sent a barrage of gold-colored lightning from her Eteea machine, pelting the dark snakes and repelling them as if they’d hit a wall.
Jack nodded at Lark, thanking her for the help. Then he doubled his concentration on the looming planet, its vast, churning bands becoming the only things visible in the sky. Though he knew the giant was mostly gaseous, and could have been dissipated with the right molecular expertise, he had no time to dwell on chemical compositions. This time it would be nothing but brute force. And a whole lot of it.
At its highest setting, the O/A hummed and chirped with ferocity, its glow reflecting off the eyes of the surrounding witnesses. With his hand extended, he clenched his teeth, focusing every ounce of energy, every micron of power in his soul at the gigantic planet.
A faraway moaning and grinding. The approaching planet stopped, and, slowly, became smaller in the horizon. Little by little, the natural daylight appeared, first a sliver of blue, then a slice, then a large chunk. Jack pushed harder, and the once threatening celestial body moved even further. More and more he pressed, making sure the planet had no chance to collide with La’oon again.
“It worked!” Jack was both proud and surprised. “Takota! Did you see that! I moved a planet with the O/A! A whole planet!”
“That’s great,” Takota answered, pointing straight up. “Now can you move a solar system?”
His stomach dropped when he saw what Takota was talking about. Planet after planet, plummeting from the heavens, racing toward them from all angles at once. A pinkish giant, larger than Jupiter, with yellow gaseous swirling superstorms. A brownish gray pockmarked rock smaller than Mercury. A reddish and desolate desert planet resembling Mars. And even a medium-sized blue and green one with white, puffy clouds like Earth. One ringed like Saturn. Another all black with a charred crust. All on a collision course with the world the inhabitants called La’oon.
“NO!” he wouldn’t accept failure. “These people don’t deserve this!”
He pressed the O/A harder. Maybe he could get just a little more out of it. The protective bubble stretched and stretched, encompassing the mountainside, then the city below, then the timbered valley. The entire time it extended, it crackled and snapped wherever it touched a serpent, obliterating the nasty thing on the spot much like a bug zapper.ZAP!Went another, thenZZZAAAAPPP!a whole troop of them, eliminating them from above the hillside and beyond.
A mighty cheer erupted as the shield grew and grew. Jack imagined it surrounding the entire planet, and it was so. But it wouldn’t last. Takota seemed to know it, and stayed close as Jack trembled under the strain.
“Jack, you’re not doing so well,” he looked troubled. “Are you okay?”
Jack wanted to respond, but it took all his concentration just to maintain the force field. Every muscle in his body was tense. Then he started shaking violently. The pressure. The amount of energy he had to control. It was too demanding. A tear began to develop in the shield, coming from far off in the distance, and traveling fast.
Takota shouted, “It’s coming apart!”
Jack couldn’t see past the horizon, and was having a hard time picturing the shield beyond that point. The Nagas, in their airborne state, were finding ways to slip in. His forehead burned. His nose bled. And the sweat. Buckets of it. The small split in his shield, despite his best efforts to stop it, grew into an enormous gap, and in rushed a wave of boiling hot air, toppling swaths of trees in the great forests.
“The atmosphere!” Jack screamed.
A wave of hot vapor spread in all directions, leaving a jet of steam and destruction in its wake. All houses collapsed into piles of rubble like Popsicle models. Screams and wails were replaced by eerie winds, blitzing the landscape. The structures that didn’t fall were laid siege to by mobs of flying black things. Even from the distance of hundreds of yards, Jack heard their claws clattering and their jaws chattering.
Then a shockwave hit Jack and he felt the ground turn to liquid and dust.
“Come on!” Takota led him to an open space, with nothing above them but sky. The closest planet was near collision. Jack saw every miniscule feature of the other world’s topography in distinct detail. And he felt its influence too. No air. No atmosphere to keep the temperature moderated. The shade became a subzero freezer.
The O/A summoned another spherical shield for Jack and his protector. His heart broke that it couldn’t do the same for the others. Jack watched the little girl, the Eteea warrior, at her father’s side, turning away a regiment of flying snakes with a constant bombardment from her Eteea machine, a golden gem packing a powerful punch. Others used sophisticated light cannons, firing volley after volley into the circling, hissing reptiles, wiping whole swatches of them out of the sky at a time. The La’oonians were formidable, and they fought valiantly. But it wasn’t enough.
The ground split open, threatening to swallow everything in sight. The O/A had Jack and Takota both in its protective sphere, dangling them above the destruction. Whole mountainsides fell away, sliding and leveling what was left of the metropolises as the O/A lifted both friends higher and higher, up and up, past the dusty layers of war. Jack felt inadequate. He’d helped, but not enough. Too little, too late. Saving his small hometown from a tsunami was one thing. Defending an entire planet from this cosmic onslaught was a different ballgame altogether.
As the O/A brought them higher, Jack got a better view of the encroaching worlds. Tossing and colliding, ricocheting like gigantic pinballs, they roared toward the unsuspecting and innocent La’oon. The velocity alone created a visible shifting of the background, things stretching into strange shapes. Jack’s ears rang, and the O/A shook as it streaked from the scene at a million miles an hour, so fast, Jack glimpsed only the final act of devastation. Several worlds collided with the much smaller La’oon, surrounding and crushing it into dust. The O/A took them further away, slipping through the purplish halo which encircled the great galaxy. Then Jack witnessed the worst event of all. The dazzling, gaseous cloud turned to charred cotton candy and crumbled to nothing. All life. All light. Every shred of proof that planets or stars or moons or comets had ever existed—all gone.
“Where did it all go?” asked Takota.
“So you saw that too? I’m not crazy, right?”
“Of course I saw. The whole galaxy…it just disappeared.”
“And all those people.”
Neither of them spoke on the return trip to their home galaxy. Jack felt torn. The ride was exhilarating, yet he only wanted to weep for those lost souls. Before he could shed one tear, though, Earth came to within view. His heart filled with joy when he and Takota slipped past the moon, jettisoning into the exosphere like a torch. The O/A lit up so bright, Jack knew someone somewhere must have seen them.
Then, just when he was wondering how they would make it through the roof of his house, he and Takota were back in his bed. Jack knew he’d toss his dinner all over the place if he didn’t breathe some fresh air and quick. Once the O/A’s shimmering, electric blue and purple, semitransparent bubble folded and withdrew into the machine, he ran to the window and stuck out his head.
“They all died, Takota,” he breathed deliberately, trying to keep from heaving. “All of them.”
“I know,” Takota stared at Jack’sStar Warscomforter and sighed. “I couldn’t save them.”
“Neither could I,” Jack looked at the O/A. “What good is this so-called infinite power if I can’t get it to work?”
“That’s what I keep asking. Why does Eteea give me this power, but it never quite seems enough? Why?”
The little fellow hung his head, and Jack had no other inclination than to copy him. They both would have sat around feeling sorry for themselves for the rest of the night if Pud hadn’t barged in, arms loaded with potato chips, animal crackers, and marshmallows.
“Oops!” he stopped in mid-stride, his mouth full of cookies. “I didn’t think you guys would be awake,” he peeped over his shoulder, then at Jack and asked, sheepishly, “Is it okay if I come in here to eat this? If your mom finds out, I’ll be toast.”
Jack laughed half-heartedly.
“Sure, Pud. Come on in.”
“Thanks,” he tiptoed in and closed the door behind him. “You guys wanna…hey, what’s wrong with you two? You look like I feel when I don’t get enough to eat.”
Jack’s eyes met Takota’s. They both sighed.
“Nothing, Pud. Eat your snacks.”
THE NEXT DAY, at high noon, the whole town of Willow, and quite possibly the entire population of Clatsop County, gathered to give their local heroes a festive parade. Several floats, each decorated to resemble one of the Tanakee, ambled along Main Street.
The town’s schoolchildren, along with the art teachers, worked hard to get the adornments completed and, though they were on the amateurish side, they were nothing if not flattering. Jack couldn’t say enough about all the hard work put in by the citizens of Willow. Not only was the parade wonderful, the streets were decked out in full regalia, all celebrating their new hometown stars.
“We love you, Jack!” a group of little girls cried from the sidewalk as they passed. Jack, finally, after the cruel brutality of the night before, allowed himself to smile.
“It’s about time,” Amelia stood beside him, waving at the adoring crowd. “There’s a smile. I was wondering if you were ever going to enjoy yourself.”
Jack looked at her and put on a brave face, but said nothing.
“Jack, what’s wrong?” she came right out and asked, still beaming for the parade-goers. “You’ve been acting funny all morning. Did something happen last night?” she looked deeper into his eyes, studying him. “You went somewhere, didn’t you? With the O/A?”
“Not now,” Takota insinuated himself between the two children, waving like nothing was wrong. Jack felt relieved to be off the hook. He didn’t know if he could bear telling the story. Still, his heart hurt so badly, he needed some comfort. The kind of comfort only Amelia could give. He was about to say something when he noticed her looking at the pavement.
“There’s Argus!” she smiled eagerly. “Hi, Argus!”
Jack’s bad mood worsened.
At the parade’s conclusion, Al Horner, manager of Winmart, invited all the Tanakee, along with the public, back to the store where he allowed the five creatures to have what he called,carte blanche. That meant they were given free rein to run amok, eating whatever they wanted for a whole ten minutes.
“I call it the Tanakee Eating Spree,” Al announced. “And everything the Tanakee eat, I’ll donate to the local food bank. A new one, that is, not the one they gnawed on,” he laughed.
All the Tanakee had a great time back in their old stomping grounds. More than anyone, Pud was elated by the opportunity. Jack noticed Takota had perked up too, mentioning the chance to get ahold of some moreM&Ms. Even Cheyton became somewhat less rigid, eager to get his fill of human food. Jack enjoyed watching the little creatures enjoy themselves. Lingering ever-present in the background of his thoughts, though, was La’oon.
He tried to maintain a cheerful attitude. It was hard. How does one stay cool after witnessing the end of so many lives? It made him second-guess whether he was indeed cut out to be the True Soul. If he was to defend the universe, then he’d need a much thicker skin.
Fortunately, Pud, scampering from aisle to aisle, distracted Jack from those unsettling thoughts. Pud’s antics had everyone in Winmart in stitches with his burst of hilarity. Not once did he quit running, grabbing food items in midstride, tearing through wrappers, devouring tasty morsels and tossing aside the packaging. There were moments where he went so fast, the only way to track his movements was by following his trail of litter. Soon, the other Tanakee began to imitate him. Cheyton took it one step further and blinked in and out of sight, using Eteea to transport from place to place. Next thing Jack knew, they all were doing it, turning the previously casual outing into a feeding frenzy. And each time a roast beef or a halibut filet or a prime rib disappeared, the store manager lost a little more of his smile. When the ten minutes was up and he blew the whistle finally, the store was virtually empty of food.
“How did…” Al walked down the center aisle, looking left and right and appearing more depressed with each new revelation. “How did you guys eat so much?”
The first one to reappear from the interdimensional food fest was the snowy Enola. She held her head down, apologizing with giant green eyes. Cheyton showed up next, picking his teeth and working his gums. Then Ayita appeared, then Takota, both rubbing their bellies. Lastly, Pud joined them.
“Hey!” he looked at his friends expectantly. “What’s up? Why’re we stopping?”
Clearly, the locals were no longer surprised by the Tanakee’s mystical abilities, as evidenced by a riotous round of laughter. Pud acted confused and, obviously, still hungry. That made the laughter even louder. Jack wasn’t immune to Pud’s shenanigans, but the good cheer didn’t last long, and his mind drifted to those poor people in that faraway galaxy.
“Jack?” Amelia gave him a worried stare. He just shook his head and forced another giggle, hiding his trepidation behind a veil of fake happiness.
LATER, AFTER THE CELEBRATION had concluded and the town went back to normal, or at least as normal as Willow could now get, Jack and Takota decided to consult the Holoversarium, the only thing they knew that might shed some light on what they’d just gone through in the alien galaxy. While Pud, Enola, Cheyton and Jack’s family watched movies downstairs, the two of them snuck off alone.
“Okay,” Takota closed the door. “Coast is clear.”
“Good,” Jack fired up the device. “I don’t want anyone else to see this. Not yet.”
“Not to worry,” Takota jumped onto the bed. “Pud has them all watchingWinnie the Pooh.They’ll be at it for hours.”
“I hope we don’t need that long,” Jack entered the command for the holographic universe to appear, and a brilliant beam shot from the top of the darkened dome. He slid the mouse and the three-dimensional star map unfolded, a sea of swirling, luminous dots no bigger than gnats.
“What are we looking for?” asked Takota, watching the multicolored constellations.
“I want to see if my hunch was correct.”
“That place we saw destroyed…I’m certain it was the same place Amelia pointed out to me. It’s weird, because she picked it totally at random, but it just happens to be the same place we were taken to—it just…it’s weird.”
“What if itisthe same place?”
Jack said nothing. He didn’t need to. The hologram spoke volumes. Before too long, they were staring at the evidence. A wall of total blackness.
“What is this?” Takota asked.
“This is what’s left of that galaxy, the home of the La’oonians,” Jack checked the monitor to make sure the coordinates were correct. Sadly, they were.
“It’s gone. All gone.”
“What’s gone, Jack?”
Jack flinched at a new voice in the room. His first instinct was to collapse the Holoversarium and hide their research. Then he relaxed when he saw Amelia, Ayita cradled in her arms.
“Amelia! Am I glad to see you!”
“How nice,” she placed Ayita next to Takota. “Why? What’re you two doing?”
“Remember when I first showed you the Holoversarium and you pointed out a star system for me to zoom in on?”
“Sure,” she studied the tiny cosmos as it encircled her. “It was over-over…hey! Where’d it go?”
“Exactly,” Jack shook his head. “It’s gone now. Wiped out of existence.”
“But you said that was probably just a glitch. That’s what it is, right?”
She looked at Takota, then at Jack. They both frowned at her.
“What? What is it?”
“The galaxy. It was destroyed, consumed…”
“Eaten,” Takota finished for Jack.
“Eaten?” Ayita asked. “By what?”
Amelia and Ayita both stood straight, taking one step back and inhaling deeply. At the same time they recited, “Essinis!”
“Teresa was exactly right,” Jack said. “Thereissomething out there. It’s massive and voracious, and it just ate this entire solar system for breakfast.”
Amelia looked at Jack again.
“But how do you know?”
Jack had trouble speaking. His throat clenched up.
“We were there,” Takota spoke for him once again. “We were in the galaxy when it was destroyed.”
“You were there?” Ayita sounded shocked.
“What? Jack, what’s he talking about? How could you two be there?”
“The O/A,” Jack managed to say finally. “It brought us there.”
“Without you telling it to?”
“Yeah. It just dropped us right in the middle of a war. I met a girl, an Eteea warrior. She said she had a protector and that he was killed. And then…and then…” he deflated like a balloon. “It was horrible, Amelia.”
“I hope you’re not talking about me,” yet another surprise visitor made Jack stand straight. This one wasn’t as welcome as the first. Argus Cole poked his head in from the hallway, a cheesy grin on his sickeningly handsome face. “I’m not intruding, am I?” he winked. “Jack’s mom said you guys’d be up here,” Argus’s eyes got immense when he noticed the Holoversarium. “What. Is. That?”
Jack reacted immediately. One click and the hologram folded into a thin line, then retracted into the darkened crystal dome.
“None of your business,” he snapped. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Jack!” Amelia put her hands on her hips.
For a quick moment, Jack and Argus locked eyes, and in that shred of time, as they stared at each other, Jack’s blood ran cold. He got the strangest feeling from the kid, and couldn’t help but show his disgust with a squint and a sneer. Then he saw the look on Amelia’s face and backed down.
“Sorry,” he said. “He startled me, that’s all.”
“That’s okay. I’m the one who should be sorry for butting in like this,” he looked at Amelia. “I’ll just go, then.”
“No, no!” she took his arm and led him to a chair. “Let’s check out what Jack has found.”
“Hello there, little ones,” Argus said to Takota and Ayita.
Takota stared at Jack. Jack knew what his protector was thinking. Deep inside, when he let everything else fade to nothing, he heard Takota’s voice, telling him to be careful. Then, strangely, and quite wonderfully, he heard another voice. It was Amelia, telling him to trust her. So he powered up the Holoversarium again, and zeroed on the void—the negative area, the supermassive black hole—which used to be a cloudy, purple galaxy.
He spent the next half-hour explaining what he and Takota had experienced on the planet called La’oon. Then, after Argus asked him to, he expounded on the mechanics of the Holoversarium. For all his flaws, Jack had to admit the new boy did have a robust, even intelligent curiosity for science. He also had a healthy interest in the things he and the Tanakee went through weeks earlier, when they went up against Davos, and how they were able to defeat him. Jack tried to think nothing of it, as it seemed Amelia was able to do. Still, despite her ringing endorsement, something made him reluctant to share everything.
He knew Amelia was disappointed. He saw it in her sideways glances. It didn’t matter. He just wasn’t ready to divulge every one of his innermost secrets to a total stranger, especially when that stranger’s name was Argus Cole.
Jack’s mom invited them to all stay for dinner, but Amelia declined politely, saying she had to get home. Argus, being the syrupy gentleman he was, offered to walk her and Ayita the fifteen blocks.
“Since I live at Tangled Trails too,” he smiled at Jack. It was the first time Jack actually wished he was living at that apartment complex again.
Jack jolted his head off the pillow to find Takota already sitting up.
Immediately Jack recognized his mother, desperation in her tone. Then came the realization the other voice was Pud. Both Jack and Takota hurried down the hall to find his parents’ bedroom empty. Nobody in there at all. They raced downstairs. Still nobody.
The screaming came from the garage. There they saw Pud, sifting through what once was Ben’s elaborate setup, now reduced to dust bunnies and empty racks. The big, transparent container holding the Quantum Foam—gone. The boson bath and the exoskin repair cubicles—gone. All control panels and holoscreens—gone. The place was wiped out.
“Wha…what?” Jack stammered.
“Your dad!” Liz crouched close to an upended desk. Out of the broken glass and the crumbled metal, she found a family portrait, Ben standing proudly over the rest of them. “He’s missing! Somebody kidnapped him, I just know it!”
“Jack!” Takota pulled his pajama shirt. “Jack? Are you hearing this?”
Jack failed to react right away. He was just coming out of shock, really. The thought of his father being taken hostage was almost too bizarre for words.
Enola offered a suggestion.
“Are we sure he’s not somewhere else? Like at the school. Maybe he moved his lab and forgot to tell us about it.”
“No way,” Liz started pacing. “No. He never came to bed last night. And he’d never do something like that without telling me, or at least answer his cell phone. He’s not answering calls, and his car is here. His best walking shoes are still in the closet, and a half-eaten sandwich is still sitting on the counter…”
“What? Oh, goodie!” Pud perked up. Cheyton elbowed him.
“Well,” he shrugged. “Ben wouldn’t want it to go to waste, would he?”
“Get serious,” Cheyton bristled. “Think of what this means. With Ben, the Nagas have access to his superior intellect. There’s no telling what he’ll be forced to invent.”
The back gate opened and slammed shut. Takota took a fighting stance, so did Cheyton. Enola stood back and shielded Lily. They all took a breath of relief when they saw Ayita bounding around the house. Amelia was behind her, running fast.
“Ben’s gone, isn’t he?” Amelia said breathlessly, shaking her head. “And I didn’t see it coming. Now I know what you guys feel like when Eteea lets you down. Too little, too late.”
“We can’t get down on ourselves,” Jack lifted the O/A, its sparkling, inner turmoil of bizarre geometric shapes and patterns ramping up in activity. “I’ll get Dad. Everybody, look out!”
His friends stood back and he pressed the machine’s solitary button. He felt the omnidimensional field, surge after surge after surge of Jack James duplicates fortifying him with ultimate power.
Search for my dad!he shouted inside his mind, and instantly was swept away from his backyard. He appeared at the high school, where his dad worked as head of the science department. Dark and empty. No sign of Ben anywhere. With his dimensionally-enhanced vision he detected some latent prints, but they were days old. Some hair and, looking at the microscopic level, skin flakes, but, again, nothing fresh. All indications were he hadn’t been in the building since Friday, well before his disappearance.
Then he shifted to another of his dad’s favorite haunts—Salty Joe’s, the coffee shop near the harbor. The patrons were understandably shocked when he appeared out of nowhere, with the O/A providing a stunning light and sound show. Some got down on the floor and covered their heads. Most just stood and stared, looks of wide-eyed astonishment plastered on their faces.
“Hey! It’s him!” a suited man shouted, patting a man in fishy overalls on the back. “It’s Jack James!”
A small murmur grew to a rolling roar as the dozen or so customers surrounded him. Everybody wanted to shake his hand.
“Listen, everyone,” he said impatiently. “Has anyone seen my dad?”
“No,” the barista behind the counter handed a latte to a woman in plaid. “He doesn’t usually stop by on the weekends. Why? What’s happened?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out,” Jack closed his eyes and the O/A whipped and whistled violently. People backed off. Salty Joe’s and everyone inside spun in a whirling dervish, distorting and elongating until it all became a wispy haze. He was transported away again, and found himself in Winmart, stunning a woman and her three children in the juice section. Searching the whole store, he saw no sign of his dad. He went to the beach, a favorite spot of Ben’s. Only the windswept dunes and ragged shoreline and forbidding breakers. Standing in the sand, he concentrated, and all his instincts told him Ben was still alive. Somewhere. But where?
He allowed himself to think the worst. Cheyton had said he was certain something bad had happened. And why not? Davos swore to return and destroy them. What if those plans included creating another O/A, this one with the programming to allow the Nagas to use it? Or what if they were using Ben as bait to lure the True Soul?
If that’s what they wanted, it worked.
He focused on the Nagas, on finding their hiding place and, just like that, he was there. Standing in the middle of a smoky, gray cavern the size of a football stadium, surrounded by masses and masses of undulating, slithering, hissing snakes, intertwined and writhing on the ground like they were locked in battle. The serpents near him reeled away when the O/A shocked them with its force field, and a group of them formed a dense cluster which, in turn, solidified into the form of a human woman. She pointed a sinewy finger at Jack while her long, serpentine hair danced and hissed and gnashed their terrible fangs.
“Where is my father!” Jack demanded.
The Nagas woman shouted, “It’s the True Soul! Get him!”
A slipstream of light erupted next to him. Jack reeled away, worried one of the Nagas had penetrated the O/A’s shield. It hadn’t. It was a welcomed arrival.
“Takota! Where’d you come from?”
“I sensed you were in danger!” Takota scanned their surroundings, confronted by encroaching serpents, in the sky, on the ground, coming in waves. “What are you doing here? And, where’s here, anyway?”
“I don’t know. I just thought about being in the middle of the Nagas Empire and, well, here I am!”
“You gotta be more careful with that machine!” the little creature kept his back to Jack’s knees, spreading his arms and crouching, ready to take on all comers. Then, in an unexpected and dazzling burst, one Takota became two. Then another flash, and two became four. The process kept going, fast, until Jack saw so many Takotas it was impossible to count. And each of them went after the dark snakes, both airborne and slithering on the floor.
Jack peered past the fight, down a great hall which seemed to go for miles. Still more slender flying things were coming at them, all with intent to devour Takota.
“Come on!” Jack summoned the power of the O/A to transport him and his protector out of there, whether Takota was divided into countless copies or not. Somehow, and instantaneously, the process merged them all into one again. As they sped off, surrounded by the force field like an ethereal capsule, Takota stared at Jack with a perplexed scowl.
“How’d you do that?”
“This thing’s pretty powerful, remember?” Jack held the O/A higher as it ripped them through space, roaring at unfathomable speeds.
“What about your dad?”
“The Nagas don’t have him.”
“How do you know?” Takota still looked bewildered.
“I just do.”
“HAS ANYBODY SEEN my daddy!” Lily shouted as soon as she got inside Winmart. “He’s gone and we can’t find him!”
The cashiers each stopped what they were doing and presented her with sad faces. Then Liz walked in and they all left their posts.
“Liz, is it true? Is Ben missing?”
“Yes,” she tried not to cry. It was no use. Her mascara was already running, and her nose had stuffed up completely. “We’ve been to the police department, to file a-a missing person’s report,” she lost it on those last three words, sobbing out of control.
“Come on, Mrs. James,” Amelia took her elbow and led her toward the employee break room.
“Wait,” Al rushed from the upstairs office, keys jingling on his hip. “I heard you say Ben’s missing. Is there anything we can do?”
Liz mustered the strength to speak, fighting her shivers and lack of breath. “We just came to find out if anyone knows anything.
Al rubbed his chin, and his eyes narrowed. “Come here,” he led her to one of the cash registers. Extending from the counter, on a flexible stand, was a microphone. He tilted and pointed it at Liz’s mouth. “Go ahead.”
She thanked him with her eyes, then pressed the button.
“Hello, everybody. Can I please have your attention? This is Liz James.”
People took notice. Shoppers stopped shopping. Voices fell hushed. Liz looked at her daughter, red eyes and puffy cheeks. Then she turned to Amelia, standing beside the Tanakee—Pud, Ayita, Enola and Cheyton. Words failed her.
“Here,” Amelia took the mic.“Everyone, please listen. Ben James is missing!”
“My daddy!” Lily screamed and the store buzzed with chatter.
“We think he disappeared sometime last night, and we’re worried something terrible might have happened to him.”
A woman pushing a shopping cart and trailing several children asked, “Your son has that miracle machine. Why doesn’t he just use it to find your husband? Heck, ifIhad that machine, I’d find me anewhusband!”
Several people laughed. Cheyton hopped to the counter and grabbed the microphone.
“This is serious,”he said.“The same monsters that almost destroyed your town are behind this. They’re up to something, I know it.”
“Please,”Enola took the mic.“If anyone knows where Ben is, please come forward. We need him back. Ben’s family needs him.”
“I need him too,”Pud sniffled over the loudspeaker.“He’s my friend.”
“It’ll be okay, Pud,” Enola rubbed his furry, orange-tinted back. “We’ll find him.”
Liz detected commotion at the other end of the store. Murmurs. People moving quickly to clear a path. Someone was coming, someone determined and headstrong. When Liz saw the flowing, purple robe adorned with shiny letters and symbols, she knew help was on the way. It was Teresa Tree.
“What’s this I hear?” Teresa made her way forward, nimble as a child. “Ben James is missing? This can’t be. This simply can’t be!”
“But it is,” Lily ran and pressed against Teresa’s silken gown. “My daddy’s gone, Teresa. He’s been kiddy-napped!”
“Where’s Jack and Takota?” she asked.
“They went to look for him,” Liz responded. “But I’m getting the feeling they’re having a hard time.”
“Well, I’ll just have to see what I can do,” she reached under her shawl and produced a thick, brown leather-bound book. Immediately, Liz felt a surge of relief. With Jack and Takota using the awesome power of the O/A, and with Teresa’s amazing gifts of magical storytelling, they’d get to the bottom of this. But before the silver-haired woman had the chance to crack the book open, an annoyingly shrill declaration stopped her cold.
“There they are! These are the people, and thethingsyou’re looking for!”
For a moment, Liz felt disorientated. It took Amelia and her sharp eye to see who it was.
“Dillon Shane! What have you done this time?”
The blonde kid blinked his clear blue eyes and flashed a devilish smile while leading a group of men in expensive suits. All wearing dark glasses and wires in their ears, they reminded Liz of the evil industrialist Archer Savage’s men, but they weren’t. They were too classy to be Savage employees.
Without a word, the men filed through Winmart’s front entrance. The lead man, a tall, slender guy with no hair, marched up to Teresa and stole the book from her hand.
“I’ll take that, if you don’t mind,” he said.
“What are you doing!” Liz protested. “What’s the meaning of this!”
“We’re from the government,” the bald one said without any emotion. “And we’re here to help,” he gestured to the Tanakee. “Get the creatures!”
Liz knew Enola and Pud wanted to stay and protect the children. She could tell by the way they were eyeing the men. But the suited, sunglass-clad militia seemed too formidable. As the agents moved in, the Tanakee scattered. Liz screamed, “Don’t you dare touch those little guys!” and tried to do something about it. A man with strong hands grasped her arms, holding her in place. She could only watch as Enola, Cheyton, Ayita and Pud dashed in different directions, taking separate groups of agents with them.
The Tanakee moved quickly, scaling tall stacks of packaged food products. From the tops of the aisles, they chucked cans of soda, bottles of baby formula, tins of sardines—anything they could find for their makeshift arsenal. And the more they threw, the messier the mess became. The agents had trouble staying upright, many slipping and slopping in the strained pea, seafood, milk and ketchup mixture.
“Mommy!” Lily cried when a rather unsavory-looking fellow took hold of her.
“Hey!” Liz was livid. “Leave my daughter alone!”
Enola stood at the end of an aisle and waved her arms, letting her green halo slip out in brilliant bunches. She lowered her head and stared intently at the man holding Lily.
“Wha-what’s she doing?” he stammered. “Hey! Stop her!”
All at once, the men aimed their weapons straight at Enola. With a blinding flash, Cheyton and Pud rippled in from empty space, materializing right on top of two agents, taking down each of them.
“Stop!” the man in charge pointed his pistol at Enola. “I’m warning you! This is the business of the United States Government! Surrender or else!”
“No,” Enola skewed her head. “I’m warningyou! Leave us alone orelse!”
He ignored her decree, setting his aim even more intently. Enola answered with an eruption of green flames, a dazzling display sizzling in the direction of the lead agent. His eyes widened and he fell to the floor fast, just barely avoiding the unearthly glow.
Several agents ambushed Enola at the same time. With a flick of her fingers, she sent a cloud of green fire and enveloped the surly men. Frowns turned to smiles. Threatening sneers changed to warm greetings. They sat down, all grown adults, and beamed at Enola like she was about to give them a treat.
“Sir!” one of the unaffected agents pointed out. “It’s true! She has a love spell!”
“Get her!” their leader commanded, and the underlings aimed their guns instantly. Enola fired another salvo of emerald flames, forcing the men to dive for cover, pushing them toward the exit. The ones holding Liz and Lily and Amelia let go and ran, anxious to evade the bright green fire. They were almost out the door when Enola’s amorphous energy stopped suddenly. She lost her determined stare, and her face went blank. Then she grimaced and doubled over, hugging her own waist.
“Enola!” Ayita ran and caught her from falling. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“I, uh…” she murmured. “I don’t feel so…” and she collapsed in Ayita’s arms. Cheyton appeared in a flash by her side, helping Ayita ease her to the floor.
“Enola? Did they get you?” he searched her body, pushing aside tufts of fur, looking for a wound. He seemed to find nothing. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Enola breathed heavily. “All of a sudden I feel terrible.”
The lead agent alternated his pistol between the Tanakee and Liz. “You’re coming with us. We have a lot of questions for you!”
“They’re not going anywhere,” the store manager asserted. “These guys are heroes, if you haven’t heard. They saved a lot of lives, and they singlehandedly revived this town’s economy.”
“I don’t care,” the agent said. “These creatures are a danger to society.”
The customers grew bolder by the minute, coming forward slowly, one step at a time, and directing their ire at the agents.
“You can’t come in here and just take them!”
“They’re not a danger to society!”
“People,” said the lead agent. “We’re doing our best to protect you and your families. I know you think these creatures are cute and nice. They may have even helped to save your town, but that won’t stop me from doing my job. For your safety and ours, we have to put these creatures under quarantine.”
“Quarantine?” Liz knew what that meant. “Why? You think they’re diseased?”
“I mean they’re dangerous, and it’s our job to neutralize that danger,” the man snapped his fingers, and the agents not under Enola’s spell came forward, inching toward the Tanakee with their guns raised.
“We’ve got you cornered. Surrender before this gets ugly.”
“Teresa!” in an orange burst of light, Pud appeared on top of the agent with Teresa’s leather-bound book. He snatched the hardcover and tossed it into her outstretched arms. She plucked it out of the air, opened it, and began to read:
“From the four cardinal directions the spirits came to breathe life, to animate that which was once inanimate!”
On the shelves, packages and cans and jars began to shake and shimmy.
“Arise! Awake! Alive!—and come to the aid of your friends.”
In perfect unison, a torrent of cookies, crackers, candy, popcorn and other grocery items exploded from their boxes. Hundreds of them, flying with the force of little missiles, disorienting the agents with flurries of food, and giving Liz the chance she needed.
“Come on!” she took Lily’s hand. “Let’s get outta here!”
Cheyton let Enola lean on him and they followed Liz out the door. Right behind her ran Amelia, Ayita, and Pud. Then, sprinting faster than them all, was Teresa, carrying her book. Behind her swarmed a flood of candy—jawbreakers and Hershey’s Kisses and Hot Tamales—coming to life and dancing in midair along with the rest of the store’s merchandise. As she ran out the door, some of the smaller objects escaped. Sweet-tarts and Skittles flew in formation, then separated and rocketed out of sight.
As the renegades ran, a cadre of unmarked, four door sedans, black paint and tinted windows, raced into the parking lot from every entrance, blocking all possible ways out.
Pud hollered, “Let’s just blink outta here! You know, use Eteea!”
“Not with her like this!” Cheyton motioned to Enola. She rested against him, dependent on him to stand.
As the sedans closed in, Liz clutched her daughter and pleaded for a miracle. She should have known she’d get one. They had Teresa.
“Vroom, Vroomsaid the storyteller’s ride,” Teresa read. “Eager to please, enduringly loyal, the little yellow van saved the day—once again.”
With Teresa’s oration, her cumbersome Volkswagen sped from the crowded lot, aiming directly at them. Pud, to get out of the way, rolled on his side and then sprung to his feet again.
“Your van?” Amelia sounded puzzled. “But we wrecked it. You got it fixed already? That’s impossible!”
“Nothing’s impossible,” Teresa tapped her book. “As long as I have my stories to tell.”
As soon as the van squealed to a stop, Amelia opened the sliding door so Cheyton and Ayita could help Enola inside.
“Mommy? Is Enola going to be okay?” Lily asked as they climbed in the front seat together.
“Of course, honey,” Liz said, despite worries to the contrary. Enola was hurt, and Liz wasn’t sure if those government agents did something to her.
Teresa took command of her van, plopping into the driver’s seat. Then she caught sight of the oncoming fleet of federal Fords, turned the wheel, and hit the gas. The van banked left, toward the east exit. An official vehicle sped at them, hastening through the parking lot at a rather unsafe speed, considering how many innocent people were milling about on foot.
“Those guys are gonna kill someone!” Liz complained.
“Yeah,” Amelia said plainly. “Us. If they catch us.”
“And it looks like they’re gonna,” Pud pointed out the back windows, where a line of government cars were closing in on them.
“We’ll never get out of this!” Cheyton lamented. He covered Enola like a living shield.
“Yes we will,” Ayita smiled at Teresa. “Won’t we?”
“We will ifIcan help it,” the storytelling enchantress hit the brakes as she thumbed through her sizable book. “Let’s see, let’s see—ah! Here!” she cleared her throat. “The cars all have minds that wander, but those aren’t the only things that roam. Even the automobiles know they have a part to play. All good things join forces when the time comes. And that time is now!”
“Look, Mommy!” Lily pointed out the window.
Liz was shocked to see cars in the parking lot moving on their own. With no one at the wheel, a green pickup barreled from its spot and rammed a massive support column. Then a big, white SUV, again with no driver, lurched forward, slamming into the rear bumper of the crashed pickup. Together they blocked the oncoming government cars, pinning them in, forcing them to stop.
“Whoa! Cool!” Pud exclaimed.
“There are more of them!” Cheyton announced. Teresa didn’t seem a bit nervous.
“They hurried to get in line” she read. “They took their places, those cars of every make and model. Not just mere hunks of metal, lifeless, soulless assemblies of wire and plastic and steel. They obstructed the interlopers, and made a path for the defenders or Eteea, for the universe depended on it!”
Liz and Lily squeezed each other tight when they saw the parking lot come alive. Every truck, car, minivan, even a motorcycle, began to roll. It looked like a precisely choreographed chorus routine, with each individual automobile taking its place in perfect position. Car owners stood stunned as the rolling machines zigzagged and maneuvered into place. When they were finished, after the last auto had pulled into its spot, all the government vehicles were cordoned off, and a passageway had been established for the Volkswagen.
“They’re helping us!” Pud climbed onto a beanbag shaped like a baseball mitt and peered out the windshield.
“Uncanny!” Amelia was wide-eyed.
“You never cease to amaze me, Teresa,” Liz conveyed everyone’s sentiment. Even Enola, now looking better, was up and watching the astonishing events unfold.
“Thanks, dear,” Teresa steered through the makeshift alley, over the curb and onto fifteenth, where she turned right and headed out of town. “But we’re not in the clear, yet.”
“Where are we going?” Cheyton asked.
“To the safest place we can possibly go,” she said. “My house.”
“But these people know where you live,” Cheyton pressed. “Do you think it would be wise to go back?”
“Silly,” she winked at him “We’re not going back there. We’re going somewhere else.”
“You just said we’re going to your house,” Amelia sounded confused.
“We are,” Teresa kept her eyes on the road, swinging the steering wheel left to right to left just to keep the van going straight. “Back to the house that’s been in my family for generations.”
“Wait a second,” Liz demanded an explanation. “We can’t be going somewhere else and back to your old house at the same time. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Sure it does,” Teresa giggled. “I moved.”
“Oh, you moved…” Liz began the sentence feeling confident she understood, but, by the end, she was as confused as ever. “So…you have a new house?”
“No. Same old house. Just moved.”
Liz scratched her forehead, trying desperately to figure out how it could be possible. With Teresa, though, anything was possible. Then, out of the blue, she got it.
“Oh, yeah,” she boasted. “You had your house moved. I’ve seen that done before. A whole house, put on a giant cart and rolled away. That’s a big job…must’ve been expensive.”
Teresa giggled even harder. “No, no. No expense at all. Not money, anyhow.”
They traveled to the outskirts of town, avoiding the bridge that took traffic over to Seaside. Instead, she took the mountain pass to the treacherous coastal cliffs, amongst some of the biggest evergreens Liz had ever seen. She’d been out that way many times. It was a favorite hiking and picnicking destination for her family. This time, though, the road’s twists and turns seemed different.
“Hey, where are we going?” Liz said as the pavement turned to gravel and the slope got steeper and steeper.
“I had to place my house in a little bit of a precarious spot this time, to watch over who comes and goes,” Teresa kept her eyes on her driving as the side of the road became a sheer drop-off. The road, or what used to be a road, was nothing but a wide trail in the woods, grass up to the windows, moths and crickets dashing aside at every turn.
“There’s no way you got a house up here,” Liz had trouble containing her agitation. One false move and the van would roll down a severe drop into a wooded abyss. Then the verdure surrendered to a clearing, and the Pacific Ocean opened up into a vast expanse. Liz lost her breath at the distance, waves crashing against a rocky shoreline hundreds of feet below. “You can’t even getusup here!”
“We’re almost there,” Teresa assured her, though assurance was not coming easy for Liz. Then Teresa repeated, “We’re almost there…we’re almost there…we’re THERE!”
In front of them, the trail ended at a well-manicured lawn, lots of wonderfully arraigned marigolds and daffodils and roses. A stone driveway led past a rickety old shed to a thatch-roof dwelling with exposed dark pine timbers, whitewashed stucco, and a rounded tower, giving it the look of a small castle. Teresa’s house. And it appeared just as it did before, right down to the stonework cellar.
“How did you..?” Liz got out after Teresa parked the van. “How did you do this?” she dug down into the mossy ground to a cobblestone. “This looks like it’s been here a hundred years,” she pointed to the front porch, where a tree had grown around and through the railing. “Look at that. There’s no way this was relocated by one of those big moving teams.”
“You’re right,” Teresa watched as Cheyton, Ayita and Pud walked Enola up the steps gingerly. “Idid it…with magic.”Liz shook her head. “Amazing.”
“WHERE IS EVERYBODY?” Jack searched room to room, downstairs and up. “Takota?”
Flash!Takota was by his side. “You see anyone, yet?” the little one asked.
“I was about to ask you the same question. Where’d everybody go?”
“You don’t think—”
Takota stopped himself, but Jack knew what he was going to say. He had no desire to entertain the thought.
“No,” Jack exhaled hard. “No way!” he pressed the O/A and the omnidimensional field enveloped him. Surging with untamed energy, he summoned the power to picture his mom, his sister, Amelia, the Tanakee. Nothing. He let loose a thunderous roar that rattled the walls. “They can’t be taken hostage too! They can’t be! Why did I leave them! Why!”
“Calm down, Jack,” Takota said. “You’re gonna wreck the neighborhood. Just concentrate,” he lowered his head. “I’ll help you.”
Jack breathed hard, allowing the dimensional energy to lift him like a boat on water. He caught a wave in the stream of minds, thought, and action—the hyperconsciousness. In a semi-dream state, he saw Takota, not too far away, riding another swell. They nodded to each other, then looked straight ahead, both drifting toward a sound, a call of distress.
Two voices cut through the ether, echoing, hiding their source, though Jack knew who it was. Amelia and Ayita. They were trying to connect.
“JACK!”both called to him at once, almost overwhelming him with their desperation.“We need your help! Come to Teresa’s house, quick!”
Jack didn’t need any more prompting. He looked at Takota, and together they disappeared from the living room of the James household, rematerializing almost instantaneously at 23563 Fernhill Road. Teresa’s address.
Nothing was there. No house. No rickety garage. No flower garden or backyard shed. Nothing but ferns and tall timbers that appeared a hundred years old. There wasn’t even a clearing. Nothing disturbed—untouched forest.
Jack turned and turned and turned, until he had to stop and let the world catch up.
Takota reacted similarly, head on a swivel, spinning behind, in front, to the sides…nothing. He crinkled his little nose and narrowed his coppery eyes.
“This is the same place, isn’t it?” he sounded as dumbfounded as Jack felt.
“I think so,” Jack kept searching for signs of the antique dwelling. Not one existed. “I don’t get it. It’s not like when Davos and the giant Gedegwsets destroyed it. That left a big pile of rubble, remember?”
“Yeah, but you said those forest dwellers rebuilt it, with Teresa’s magic.”
“They did, they did,” Jack shrugged. “That’s why this doesn’t make sense,” he pressed the O/A and its purple and bluish, spherical field surrounded him and his little protector. With a thought, he had it lift them above the treetops to get a better view. Houses down the road, a mile or so away, but Teresa’s was AWOL. “This doesn’t make sense,” he repeated, controlling their flight with his mind, lowering them to the ground again. The protective sphere vanished. “No sense at all.”
“Jack, try Eteea again. Use the O/A to connect with Amelia.”
“Okay,” he held his hand on the machine and concentrated, this time being as specific as he could. All of a sudden, he heard giggling.
“What’s so funny,” he asked the voice.
“What?” Takota sounded concerned. “Who thinks what’s funny?”
“Hold on,” Jack told him, then went back to the otherworldly discussion. “Are you going to tell me what’s so funny? Because I don’t have a lot to laugh about right now!”
The giggling ceased, replaced by a stinging silence.
“I’m sorry,”he heard Amelia loud and clear.“Hold on, I’m sending someone to get you.”
Before Jack could tell Takota what she’d said, a silver, black, and orange flash of light made them both stand back and shield their eyes. Then the brightness faded, and Ayita and Pud stood there, smiling ear to ear.
“Potato!” Pud hugged Takota. “You’re okay! Amelia said she saw you two going up against an army of Nagas! Were you?”
Takota sighed, but said nothing.
“You were!” Pud pushed him to arm’s length and kept ahold of him. “And you survived! I can’t believe it!”
“Ayita, what’s going on?” Jack said. “Where’d Teresa’s house go?”
She just kept smiling. “Follow me,” she lowered her eyes and disappeared from sight.
Jack held the O/A’s interface and concentrated on the slipstream Ayita left behind, her dimensional footprint. In less than a heartbeat, they were in a different part of the forest completely. Jack smelled the cool ocean breeze, and recognized instantly they were in an area he and his family knew well, but it was a long way from Teresa’s house. When he saw the structure, ensconced in the woods like it had been there a century, his knees weakened.
“Whoa,” was all he could manage, and when he observed the sweeping view of the Pacific, he had to sit down. “Whoa!”
“Pretty neat, huh?” Teresa stood on the front porch, carrying a large tray of what looked like a homemade recipe hours in the making. “Sorry to have disoriented you like that, but from time to time I have to relocate. Hazards of the trade,” she winked. “I’m sure you’re all hungry, right?”
“YEAH!” Pud scurried up the steps, following Teresa inside.
Jack found Amelia standing by the cliff’s edge, hands on the old wooden safety rail, watching the surf crash against the rocks below.
Seeing how she was absorbed, he didn’t try to rouse her. He turned and started toward the house to join everyone else inside when she stopped him.
“It’s getting worse,” she said.
He hurried closer to her.
“What’s getting worse? Do you see where my dad is?”
She breathed deeply. “Jack, did I ever tell you why I became such good friends with Argus Cole?”
His stomach was a sudden tempest of butterflies. The mere mention of that boy’s name drove him into a rage inside. On the outside, he showed none of it. Amelia must have taken his silence as acceptance of the subject.
“I never told you this, Jack, but I see some kind of connection between you and him. He’s got spirit clothes like yours.”
“Yeah, you remember? I see auras, only I call them spirit clothes.”
“Yeah I remember. So what are you saying? You’re drawn to him? You want to be with him and not me?”
“Jack,” she looked at him with suffering eyes. “How can you say that?”
He stared at his feet. “I’m sorry. I just don’t understand this obsession with Argus Cole. Ever since he got here, it’s been Argus this and Argus that. It’s like you’re…you’re falling for him or something.”
She said not a word.
“Are you? Are you falling in love with him?”
“Jack,” she giggled uneasily. “We’re ten. I’m not falling in love with anybody. I’m just—”
“What, then?” Jack interrupted. “What is it? What do you call it when all you do is hang out with him? Every time you come over to see me he’s there. What gives?”
She stared at him, tears building on her lashes.
“I don’t know what it is, Jack,” she wiped her cheek and sniffled. “And I know I’m hurting you. I know. But I have to do this. I have to.”
“Do what? You have to be with him?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Make me understand!”
Liz hung out the window. “Jack! Amelia! Come inside, kids! It’s time for dinner!”
“Yeah, come on!” Lily popped up next to her mom, her golden curls bouncing, her bright smile beaming. “We’re waiting for you!”
Without any more words, Jack and Amelia marched inside. The whole time they ate—a delicious banquet of baked ham and potatoes and just about every fresh vegetable known to the culinary world, and some not known—they barely acknowledged each other’s presence. They sat as far from each other as possible and avoided eye contact.Dinner was delicious as usual, thanks to Teresa’s cooking, or her magic, they still weren’t sure which. For entertainment, Pud tantalized Jack and Takota with the story of their narrow escape from Winmart, and another shadowy, sinister group of men in suits and sunglasses. They all agreed it wasn’t Archer Savage and his thugs. They also agreed the men, whoever they were, did indeed come from the government. What happened to Ben was also still a mystery. Though Jack had the feeling it wouldn’t be a mystery for long.
BEN DIDN’T LIKE TO WORK with an audience usually. But in this case, with state-of-the-art equipment, and one of the greatest archeological discoveries known to mankind entrusted to him, he’d make an exception.
Trembling, his gloved hand brushed aside yet another delicate layer of dust. Then he stopped breathing. There it was, staring right at him, and it looked amazing.
“We have no time, Ben! Hurry!”
“I’m going as fast as I can!” Ben wiped the sweat from his brow. No room for mistakes. No time for meltdowns. That was the past. This was the new and improved Ben James, and he was out to prove to the world that his constructing the O/A was no fluke.
“Okay,” he swiped his finger across the control screen, initiating the power sequence on the portable Quantum Foam vessel he’d developed. “Here we go.”
The rock formation quivered. People standing near the monolith backed away just in time before several large chunks broke free.
“Ben! Look out!”
He had no choice but to remain motionless. One sudden move and the foam compound might have been weakened. Luckily, the tumbling boulders missed by inches, coming down hard on the ground nearby and kicking up enough dust to parch his throat.
Coughing the scratchiness away, he, for the first time, allowed himself to study the pillar in intimate detail. A four-sided rock edifice extending quite high, older than the pyramids of Giza, and once looking over the Tigris valley, though centuries of neglect and overgrowth had rendered it virtually invisible.
Until the Eteeans came around.
Ben’s Quantum Foam lit up like a torch when it came within range of the column, a sign that the treasure he and the Eteeans were seeking was just within reach. Now, though, he was too concerned with keeping the container safe from falling debris. The stakes were high, and he knew it all depended on him.
The Eteean team, professionals in fields ranging from quantum physics to astrophysics, genetics, archeology and anthropology, all grouped together near the solid rock adorned in undocumented languages, depictions of odd animals, machines, and even what looked like aliens. To Ben they weren’t odd at all. They were the very representation of his life, carved in solid stone tableaus. It was like someone had seen the future, his future, and chiseled it out hundreds of years before it happened.
The stone, however solid it appeared, was becoming less and less stable. Ben looked up in time to see the top shake. As if it were on a spring, the capstone toppled over, crashing and breaking apart on the way down, sending several scientists and soldiers scattering for cover.
Ben was the first one to enter the fissure that had broken open as a result of the quake. Every step he took, he felt a stronger and stronger attraction, a magnetic force drawing him nearer. Finally, as far inside as he could go, he came upon what looked like a stone sarcophagus. Thick sides and an even thicker lid. However, when he pushed it, the cover slid open easily, and inside, the light reminded him of the dreams he’d been having all his life. He stepped back to the edge and smiled at the apprehensive faces below, camouflaged in dense jungle.
“Well?” Klein crossed his arms.
“Found it!” Ben announced.
“Good,” the commander said. “Let’s get it to the lab, pronto!”
THE ‘LAB,’ AS Commander Klein called it, was, to Ben, the ultimate display of technological prowess. Quantum computers based on atomic spin. DNA-based data storage and retrieval. It surpassed anything in the consumer market by at least a decade, possibly more. The first time Ben had seen the facilities, cut deep into the side of an arctic mountain, it drove him to speechlessness. Wall-to-wall advanced tech everywhere, and, as he would discover later, all his to use.
“Hey!” he’d said that first day to a group of knowing glances. “This is my machine!” he looked around. “This is my invention!”
“Relax, Mister James,” he recalled the commander stepping down from the metal stairs leading from his office, followed closely by two armed guards. It was the first time Ben had laid eyes on the man. “You’ll come to understand it all soon. Very soon.”
Learn he did. He’d gotten a crash course in twenty-four hours, the entire lowdown of the impending disaster, and at that point he wished he was just a high school science teacher again. But that was yesterday. Today he had a job to do, and he intended on doing it well. After all, the fate of the universe depended on it.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ben raised his voice. “We’re a ‘go’ this time. I repeat…this is not a drill. The countdown has begun!”
Ben pressed the extrapolator, and the image of his workstation appeared in hologram several feet above, showing the entire team his progress.
“The machine has been fitted with new omnidimensional receptors. Its synapses have been restored. A new Gravitomiton power source has been retrofitted and replaced,” his hand hovered over the interface. It looked as inert as a common stone. “Initiating power-up sequence,” he smiled. Inside, though, he couldn’t help but feel a bit of trepidation, and, somehow, he thought the machine could sense that.
An audible buzz permeated the facility as the ancient device’s dull gray exterior, cloudy and impenetrable, began to revitalize. Subdued colors and dim luster became vibrant iridescence, glowing and vigorous and bright. Suddenly, Ben had a sparkling jewel in his hand. Then a familiar sound—whistling, chirping, singing. With it came another noise.
The power source was kicking into gear.
“Duck soup! It’s working…its working!”
The ancient machine—built in another time, forged in another place, imagined in another language—wasn’t the same as the O/A. He understood none of the symbols, and could only hope he’d set the device on level one, the lowest power setting. Or else...he didn’t want to think about it.
The thundering became louder. The machine grew brighter. The crusty, accumulated grime of five thousand years chipped and fell away, revealing a churning, vast inner substructure. Endless complex geometric shapes, spinning and roiling, in a state of celebration after being held for so long in a state of catatonic dormancy. Ben felt joy from the ancient machine. Liberation. It expressed its gratitude by infusing him with power, the great and mysterious omnidimensional field.
Each of the scientists stood frozen, big eyes peeled on the dimensional phenomena, the duplicating of Ben’s physical form over and over and over. What they didn’t know was how much actual strength it gave him. They’d soon find out, and so would he. The hard way.
A ripple in the field hit him with a little too much power. He felt it in his chest, a wave of intensity so extreme he couldn’t breathe.
“Dimensional overload!” he wheezed. The barrage of thoughts and emotions, actions and reactions, possibilities unknown and known, all intersected and twisted his mind into a pretzel. Just as with his own invention, the power became too much too fast, though he was ninety-nine percent positive he had the machine only on the lowest setting.
Just to be one hundred percent, he double-checked, and stared at the strange icon.
“What is it?” the commander yelled into the howling wind kicked up by the dimensional feedback. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know this symbol. I don’t know what it says. I hope it’s a one.”
The commander studied the machine. “What do you mean you hope!”
“Oh no! Not Again!” Ben fought against the surge, struggling to keep the machine from buckling out of his hands. Staggering backward against a tabletop, he felt more dimensional duplicates merging with him. More minds melding. More strength coursing through his body. So strong that when he leaned on a fifty-ton stone, it cracked to pieces and began to crumble to the ground, sending the scientists, coughing dust from their lungs, into a mad rush for safety. As the machine fluctuated in Ben’s hand, the wind picked up even more, and brought with it thunderous sounds. Tiny tornadoes sprung up here and there, dust and debris kicking in the air, forcing everyone to take further cover. Ben felt dizzy just before the earth shook so hard he and the commander both fell to their hands and knees.
“This can’t be happening!” Ben watched a thin fracture in the wall form into a snake, growing longer and longer. He pressed firmly on the machine’s interface, willing it to stop.
“Turn it off! Turn it off!” the commander begged.
“I’m trying!” Ben held the device despite its attempts to struggle free. He had flashes to his past attempts at controlling the O/A at its maximum setting. Each time he’d tried, someone nearly died, and that thought became foremost on his mind as he begged the machine to power down. Again and again he pressed and held the button, praying it would respect his command.
Finally, mercifully, it did just that. The walls wobbled less and less. The air turbulence weakened to nothing. The floor felt solid again. He surveyed the damage, anxious to check on the health, or lack thereof, of his colleagues. When he found them huddled in a group, he knew immediately they were skeptical no more.
“Well,” the commander said. “At least we know it works.”Ben sighed. “It works. But, like I told you, I’m not the operator. It takes a very special mind.”
JACK SAT WITH HIS arms crossed, staring out the window at Teresa’s garden, a magnificent mixture of veggies and herbs and spectacular flower rows that interlocked and twisted in a maze of color. Bees buzzed, dragonflies zipped back and forth, and hummingbirds darted from one healthy bloom to the next. The natural beauty of his surroundings should have lifted his spirits. They didn’t.
“You’re not still angry with me, are you?” Amelia sat in a parlor chair, its backrest adorned with carvings of cats and moons.
“He’s in one of his moods,” Liz said from the hall. “I thought after he ate something, maybe he’d feel better. But I guess I was wrong.”
Jack pretended to not hear, choosing instead to keep his eyes focused on nature’s spectacle outside.
“Jack, please don’t be mad at me.”
“Why’s he mad at you?” Liz came closer, and the two talked about him as if he weren’t there.
“I’m not sure,” Amelia said. “He has no reason to be upset at me,” she turned to him. “Really, Jack, you don’t.”
“Is this about another boy?” Liz got a little too personal for Jack’s taste. He stood and went upstairs when Amelia caught up with him.
“Jack, please. Try to under—” her speech cut off in midsentence and she looked like she was staring at something far, far away. Jack had seen that look before.
“What is it?” he shook her gently.
“I-I,” she blinked over and over. “I don’t know. It’s…it’s nothing, I guess.”
Jack insisted. “What, Amelia? Tell me.”
“Amelia!” Ayita, out of breath and anxious, sprinted into the circular study. “Amelia, something’s wrong!”
As soon as she finished uttering her words, a blinding light erupted outside the window. Another, thinner, even more intense beam shot toward the house and shattered the glass. Without a sound, a sparkling, shimmering sphere rose to the second floor where the witnesses stood dumfounded. Jack noticed inside the translucent ball floated a human form, a child, dressed in some sort of protective suit, with a strange helmet covering the face.
“Who isthat!” he screamed the question that was assuredly on everyone’s mind.
All five Tanakee sprang into action at once, each one leaping toward the sudden and mysterious intruder in the brilliant bubble. With almost supernatural skill and speed, the stranger avoided them all. In that miniscule sliver of time, as the tiny creatures soared through the air, Jack saw, hovering above the masked intruder’s shoulder, a fist-sized object which looked suspiciously like...the O/A!
It glowed like the O/A. It had the same shape as the O/A. It gave off the same resounding hum as the O/A. The only thing different was its color, a deep, dark amber instead of a dreamy mixture of purple and blue.
Both Takota and Cheyton, with a bit of supernatural speed and skill of their own, soared to cut the intruder off in the middle of his aerial exercise. Both furry creatures slammed headlong into the bright bubble, which turned out to be an impenetrable protective shell, just like the O/A. Jack was stunned, unable, and unwilling to recognize this could be happening.
“Jack!” Amelia ripped him from his bleak thoughts. She and his mother both screamed at him.
“Jack! Wake up!” Liz hugged him tight. He heard Lily whimpering behind his mother, though his eyes were still locked on the boy with the imposter O/A.
“Jack! Do something!”
He tugged the machine from his pocket and pressed hard, holding on until maximum omnidimensional absorption was achieved. The stranger, after flying into a rapid climbing maneuver, circled and then hovered, coming face-to-face with Jack. He seemed to notice the O/A, and sent a burst of amber light directly at Jack’s hands, knocking the machine free. It went careening across the wood floor, not stopping until it hit Teresa’s foot.
She picked the O/A up and tossed it at Jack again. He plucked it from the air and nodded, then faced the imposter once more, vast amounts of dimensional energy flowing through his veins. The other child smiled. He could see lips under a glassy helmet which concealed the kid’s eyes and nose. And, oddest of all, the child wore some sort of skintight, multi-layered armor, with luminescent channels coursing along the black fabric. Thin lines running up the arms and down the legs and crisscrossing about the chest forming esoteric symbols. To Jack it looked almost as if the inner workings from the O/A had been supplanted into the suit.
A sudden epiphany brought a flourish of nervous thoughts. This intruder seemed fully equipped with the same technology as Jack. Possibly even more advanced.
After that, things went from bad to worse.
The steep hillside overlooking the ocean trembled. Jack thought a landslide would take them all into the Pacific. Then, from the old narrow road, rushed a convoy of military transport vehicles, screeching to a dusty, rock-strewn stop. Soldier after soldier hustled out the backs of the trucks, large, threatening rifles in hand. Only the five brave Tanakee stood in their way.
In a move too fast for the human eye, each Tanakee split into two copies, exact replicas of themselves. Assuming fighting stances, the ten of them formed a blockade in front of Teresa’s property.
The soldiers stopped and took aim when the Tanakee did the trick again, then again, ten becoming twenty, twenty becoming forty, until the little creatures outnumbered their foes by at least ten to one. Guns pointed, the soldiers showed no fear at the sudden disadvantage. Instead, they crouched calmly, coolly, triggering their weapons and sending something other than bullets at the tiny creatures. Right away, Jack knew they couldn’t have been normal rounds. They were electric pulses, bluish and bright, with large arcs that bent and twisted toward their targets.
When the arcs hit their targets, each Tanakee reverted back to the original. The dimensional duplicates disappeared, all of them, leaving the Tanakee on their own, just the five of them once again. No backup. No help from Eteea.
Takota appeared shocked. But more than that, he looked scared. More blinding bursts from the soldiers’ guns forced the Tanakee to use conventional evasive tactics. They sped through the men’s legs, scattering in different directions, and leading the soldiers on what could only be described as a giant wild goose chase.
Jack imagined himself in the middle of the pack, next to his protector, and was there abruptly, standing in the grass, using his force field against the incoming streams of electrical power.
“What’re you doing!” Takota flinched at his sudden arrival. “Get away from here!”
“I came to help protect you!” Jack said.
“I protectyou, remember?”
“Yeah?” the O/A absorbed a dozen pulses all at once. “You look like you’re doing a bang-up job!”
Takota stared up at him, almost annoyed. “You just worry about him!” he pointed past Jack at the boy with the suspicious machine. “We’ll take care of these guys!”
That’s when Jack felt a jarring blow from behind. It was an intense bolt of energy, the strongest he’d felt from the strange kid yet, and it slammed into Jack’s force field, moving both him and Takota several feet forward. Jack spun to see a menacing smile and an amber reflection in a lustrous visor. Jack gritted his teeth and tightened his stomach, imagining himself in the air, a projectile, aiming straight for the enigmatic boy.
Speed. Unrivaled by anyone and anything in the known universe. He would hit his mark. He knew he would. Then he’d get to the heart of this mystery, unmask the intruder, and end this brief but effective reign of confusion and terror. But, at the last millisecond, just before impact, the stranger flickered out of sight. Gone instantly.
Jack had to think fast and slow his incredible momentum before he leveled several acres of forest. It only took a second, though, and then the villainous kid returned from nowhere, just above Jack’s position. Jack’s fury began to build when he heard laughter.
“Are you laughing at me!” he imagined himself next to the boy, and, instantly, his thought became reality. Face-to-face for just a second. Not long enough to do anything. The kid was quick, and he blinked away. Jack was quick too. He took flight immediately, and met him at the treetops.
“Whatever you’re trying to do, we’ll stop you!” he told the kid, staring at his own likeness in the mirrored eyeshade.
The kid popped out of sight again, this time reappearing inches from Takota, plucking the little guy off the ground and shooting like a missile deep into the woods. Jack didn’t have to think. The O/A, reading Jack’s instinctual reaction, sped away with him in its transparent shield, the evergreens nothing but a blurry backdrop.
Leaving his mom, sister, and Amelia behind wasn’t the most desirable course of action. No way would he lose his friend, his protector. That tiny creature had saved Jack so many times he couldn’t count. Now, Jack had to return the favor.
The other kid moved fast, swooshing left and swishing right, skimming past tree after tree after tree. Jack saw Takota, swinging from one arm, kicking and biting. But the kid had enough strength to hold on, and the body armor seemed to be repelling any effects from the little creature’s attacks. Steadily, Jack inched closer. They raced at breakneck speeds. A fierce competition in ultra-fast motion. Hugging the treetops. Diving below the canopy to within only inches from the ground. Birds and bullfrogs and even larger animals like deer and elk scurried out of the way as Jack and the kid became two electric locomotives charging through the brush.
The kid looked back, noticing how near Jack had gotten. Then, just before Jack pulled even, the kid dropped Takota and twisted up, up, up—over the trees, into the clouds.
Jack had two choices: help Takota, or capture the villain. In the end, it wasn’t even close. Jack plucked his tiny, furry friend from his spinning descent.
“What are you doing!” Takota protested. “I’m fine! Why’d you go after me!”
“I had to!” Jack panted. He touched his feet on the ground. The O/A’s power source, the Gravitomiton, whirred to silence and the dimensional power departed, making him feel queasily rundown. “He dropped you!”
“That’s not what I meant,” Takota wiped off the dust. “I meant why did you chase after us in the first place? You left everybody! No telling what kind of danger they’re all in right now!”
Jack was perplexed. “But…but…”
“I told you a long time ago, Jack,” Takota continued the lecture. “If you ever get into a situation where it looks like I’m in trouble, you’re not supposed to come after me. Remember? You promised.”
Jack dropped his shoulders.
“I remember. I just couldn’t do it, though. Everything went so fast, and when I saw him take you, I panicked. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not sure ifsorrywill cut it this time,” Takota closed his eyes and lowered his head, the signal to Jack he was readying to make a dimensional jump. “Come on. Let’s go back and help them.”
He vanished in a ripple of light and a crack of thunder. Jack still was amazed at the Tanakee’s Eteea abilities. To make such a jump without a machine. Incredible.
Jack energized the O/A and traveled through the dimensions to Teresa’s house. He was aghast at what he saw. His stomach went crazy with butterflies. His knees became rubber. In the place where the majestic cottage had stood, once again, was a massive pile of rubble. Jack caught the most acute sense of deja vu staring at the broken glass, the toppled stone chimneys, the cracked and splintered timbers. And, again, books, strewn here, there, everywhere.
“What…what…” he stuttered. Takota also seemed at a loss for words.
The two circled the heap that once was Teresa’s house, then decided to launch a recovery effort. Jack fired up the O/A and used his formidable power to lift the larger items. A support beam that had fractured in two. Stone block after stone block. Takota crept in the small places, the gaps and crannies and passages through the rubble, each time going in with a hopeful expression and each time coming out looking sullen and dejected.
After what seemed forever—searching, digging, calling for survivors—Jack glanced at Takota and they both sighed. Then Jack heard something. They both listened intently. A voice, but it wasn’t coming from in the debris at all.
“You won’t find anyone in there!” Teresa yelled from up high in a walnut tree. “They’re gone!”
“Teresa!” Jack shouted, and, with the O/A, hovered instantly in the air next to her. Without much effort, he removed her from the tree and brought her down to safety. “What were you doing up there?”
“I don’t know,” she wiped the sap from her gown. “Must have been the explosion.”
“Explosion! What explosion!” Takota was anxious.
“Which one do you think?” Teresa answered curtly. “The one that destroyed my house…again! Just look at this place, would you! I can’t believe this, my house, in pieces yet again! And this is the second time this month! Oh, this really gets my goat!”
“Can’t you just rebuild like you did before?” asked Jack. “Where’s that storybook?”
She waved her hand in disgust.
“Of course. But it gets to be a hassle, that’s all,” she huffed. “An old lady can’t be expected to do this all the time, you know?”
“What about the others?” Takota pressed. “Where are they?”
Teresa alternated her serious eyes between Jack and Takota.