Authors: Adam Jay Epstein
For Brian and Scott
who are so much more than brothers to me
And for Billy
the older brother I never had
âA. J. E.
For Ryder, Sam, and Nate
the next generation of Jacobsons
achary moved swiftly then stopped, pressing his back up against a steel wall. He stood motionless, his index finger hovering above the trigger of his handheld sonic crossbow. In the silence, even the slightest breath of an approaching enemy could be heard. There was just one problem: robots didn't breathe.
Suddenly from around the corner a com-botâa humanoid battle robotâappeared and kicked Zachary's wrist, knocking his crossbow to the floor. Zachary jumped back, avoiding the battle robot's second blow, a punch aimed for his head. The com-bot's electrically charged fist hit the steel wall, smashing a hole straight through it.
If Zachary was going to successfully complete his mission of neutralizing the system defenses, he'd have to move faster.
Undeterred, the robot lunged, snaring Zachary's wrist with its sparking metal claw. Immediately Zachary felt the current shock every nerve ending below his elbow, and his nostrils were flooded with the sulfurous odor of burned arm hair.
Zachary stretched his free hand to grab the sonic crossbow off the floor and took aim. He pulled the trigger, and a focused beam of sound struck the com-bot, blasting off the arm that was gripping his wrist. The robot reached out with its other claw and snagged the sonic crossbow, crushing it.
Zachary treaded backward, unintentionally cornering himself. With a snap, the com-bot's wrist compartment opened, revealing a set of whirling blades. Not eager to be sliced open like a can of tuna, Zachary dived between the com-bot's legs, rolling toward its disembodied arm and snatching it up. He swung the still-sparking claw, striking the chest of the com-bot and frying it instantly.
Zachary ran for the access panel that would disable the system defenses. He began to input the thirty-digit binary code that he'd been supplied in his mission brief when a voice called out from a speaker on the wall. “Wrap it up down there, Zachary. Dinnertime.”
“Okay, okay,” Zachary shouted. “Coming.”
He went back to inputting numbers when the voice called again. One word: “Now!”
Zachary left the com-bot still smoking in a heap on the floor and headed up the stairs. Pushing open the trapdoor in the ceiling, he climbed into his family's two-car garage and walked out to the driveway.
Zachary stopped to take it all in. Kids were riding down the sidewalk on bicycles and playing catch in the street. The smell of summer barbecue drifted over a nearby fence. He grinned to himself. Out here in the suburbs of Maryland, nobody knew that com-bots or sonic crossbows even existed. And they definitely had no idea that there was a Starbounder training simulator hidden underneath their neighbor's garage.
Zachary's sister, Danielle, was sitting on the living room floor with game controller in hand. She was playing one of the many space-combat games she had grown to be an expert in. Enemy aircraft exploded on the screen as she blasted her way through the game's futuristic skyline, but there was no sound coming from the TV. Danielle must have seen Zachary's reflection, because she paused the game and turned toward him.
You want to go head-to-head?
“And humiliate you one last time before I leave?” Zachary said, signing at the same time. “Absolutely.”
He hopped over the couch and sat beside her, snatching up a controller in his hand. Zachary's dad stepped out from the kitchen.
“You can save the sibling smackdown for after dinner,” he said and signed. “Now come set the table.”
The two stood up with a sigh.
It's going to be quiet around here without you
, Danielle signed to Zachary.
Well, more so
, she added with her typical deadpan humor.
Danielle had been born with 85-percent hearing loss, and by the time she turned nine, that had increased to 95 percent. The cause was never determined, and even the most advanced hearing aids couldn't help. To communicate with Danielle, the entire Night family had learned sign language, and the house had been tricked out with vibrating alarm clocks, and telephones and doorbells that set off strobe lights.
I'll be home for winter break in a few months
, Zachary told her.
They entered the kitchen, where his dad was stirring sauce on the stove and his mom was straining pasta over the sink.
I still don't know why I can't go to Indigo 8
, Danielle signed.
It's not fair
Zachary had thought the same thing when he was her age. But he didn't have to worry about that anymore. He'd be leaving for Indigo 8 in the morning. A secret compound hidden within the Adirondack Mountains, it was an earthbound base of operations for the Inter Planetary Defense League, or IPDL for short. It was also the place where Starbounders-in-training were taught the skills needed to protect the galaxy from outerverse threats.
Zachary would be spending the next five years of his life there, foregoing high school in favor of a different kind of educationâone that would take him to places he had only dreamed about. Looking at Danielle's face, Zachary tried not to gloat, but he could hardly wait to get there.
Zachary's distant ancestor, Frederick Night, was one of the very first Starbounders. Generations of Nights followed, all the way down to Zachary's parents and older brother, Jacob. Knowing his great-great-grandfather was a hero and his brother was a big shot made Zachary proud. He never doubted his ability to follow in their footsteps. Much.
“I neutralized a com-bot programmed to lethal,” Zachary told his parents as he grabbed a stack of plates from the cupboard.
“What you've learned down there is preschool compared to what's coming,” Zachary's mom said. “Just remember, there's far more in this universe that you
know than you do.”
“Mom, I've been waiting my whole life for this,” Zachary said. “I'm ready.”
“Can I make a suggestion, Son?” Zachary's dad asked. “After dinner, before you finish packing and turn in for bed, take your bike out for one last spin around the neighborhood. Believe it or not, you're going to miss this place.”
Zachary wondered. The single-lane bowling alley? The old movie theater playing the same film for months on end? Or the Dairy Queen where he and his friends would hang out on “exciting” nights?
No, something told him he wasn't going to miss Kingston at all.
That night he had a hard time sleeping. The clock by his bed read 11:15 as he forced himself to shut his eyes, only to open them again minutes later. A digital picture frame his mom had hung on the wall showed a continuous slideshow of photos, and as he tossed and turned through the night, he opened his eyes to see himself in numerous scenes: casting a line while fishing on the Delaware River, building a model rocket in his backyard, wearing an Indigo 8 cap three sizes too big for his head. In just a few hours he'd be leaving to go there. He wouldn't know another soul. Everything would be different than it was at home. No wonder he couldn't sleep.
Finally morning came. The duffel bag was tossed in the trunk, Danielle was dropped off at a friend's house, and Zachary and his parents were on their way. Six hours later, Zachary was sitting in the backseat staring out the window as his mom inched up a winding dirt road.
“Mom, could you be going any slower?” Zachary asked.
“You do realize who you're talking to, right?” Zachary's dad replied. “They used to call her Breakneck back when she was piloting spaceships.”
“It's true,” Zachary's mom said. “The reason you love fast thingsâgo-karts, roller coasters, skateboarding down the roof of the school gym .Â .Â . You got that from me.”
Zachary's mom pulled the car into the gravel lot of what looked like a deserted park. Zachary and his mom found a picnic table and began unpacking sandwiches from a cooler when his father excitedly handed Zachary a mahogany box.
“I wanted to give you this before we got there,” he said.
Zachary put the mahogany box on the table and opened it to discover a metal orb the size of a tennis ball, with green and silver concentric circles looping around its surface. Looking closer, he could see a pulsing yellow light within the sphere.
“My own warp glove?” Zachary asked, wide-eyed.
the most essential tool of any Starbounder,” his dad said.
Zachary had seen Jacob's glove many times before, but he knew from an early age that their use was not permitted anywhere on Earth besides Indigo 8. He reached in and gripped the ball tight, instantly feeling the warm light against his skin and the cool metal on his fingertips.
“It belonged to your grandfather,” Zachary's dad added. “That's the glove he was wielding during the Battle of Siarnaq. Under his command, a small Starbounder battalion defeated over a thousand Clipsians.”
“But it's been resynched to your genome code,” Zachary's mom said, interrupting a story Zachary had heard often. “Only your hand will be able to use it now.”
“Squeeze it with your thumb and pinkie,” his dad instructed.