With Chris Grabenstein
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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Treasure Hunters
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I HAVE NEVER felt so alone in a crowd.
I was penned in, crushed by a horde of seriously evil thugs who, fortunately, didn't realize I had infiltrated their ranks. I surged with the teeming mob down a stifling corridor carved through a solid mass of black anthracite. Coal dust filled the air. And my lungs.
I did not belong here. Not in a million years.
Which might explain why I was so petrified.
Like the sea of murky shadows bobbing all around me, I was cloaked in a black robe with a pointed black hoodie—a cape I had quickly materialized so I could tag along with this legion of alien outlaw freaks.
Trust me: I needed to blend in.
If just one of these fiendish outlanders discovered I was Daniel X, it'd be time to open the orange marmalade.
I'd be toast.
Burnt, black toast.
After all, I am the Alien Hunter, legendary destroyer of the universe's most evil extraterrestrials—including some of these goons' first and second cousins.
Disguised, and with my face hidden under my cloak, I moved with the murmuring rabble from the mineshaft into a foul and fiery chamber. The cavernous room looked like a dark cathedral. Jagged stalactites jutted out of the ceiling fifty feet up and oozed droplets of molten lava. Slick cave walls glistened with the light of a million flickering torch flames. A suffocating scent of sulfur tinged the acrid air.
Now I wasn't just petrified. I was also feeling kind of queasy. Sulfur, with its rotten-egg odor, has never been my favorite non-metal on the Periodic Table of Elements.
"Where are you from?" I heard a nearby alien grunt, luckily not to me.
"San Francisco. You?"
"Nairobi," snarled another.
These guys were definitely out-of-towners—from way out of town. Alien creatures from far-off galaxies. Extraterrestrial terrorists who lived, disguised as humans, all over the globe. And each and every one of these mutant monsters had come to this secret subterranean conclave to learn the same thing I had snuck down here to find out: Where on Earth were they preparing to strike next?
Suddenly a wall of fire shot up from an elevated stone platform at the center of the underground arena. A wave of cheers roared through the gathering as a gaseous fireball exploded and Number 2 himself stepped through the swirling whirlpool of smoke and flame.
That's right. Number 2. Numero Dos. The second-most-heinous villain on The List of Alien Outlaws currently residing on Earth.
I could tell instantly that this fiend had earned his second-seed ranking the hard way. All seven of my senses informed me that I was in the presence of pure, undiluted, high-octane evil. He looked the part, too. The demon astride the elevated stage towered over all the other beastly creatures. Enormous wings jutted out of his bony back. Red-hot rage seared his sunken eye sockets.
After momentarily savoring the adulation of his fawning fans, Number 2 raised both of his muscle-rippled arms to silence the crowd.
"My disciples! My cohorts! I have waited many centuries for this moment, this ultimate battle. Now, at last, my time has come! The final reckoning is at hand!"
The mob roared, stomped its feet, and shot up various tentacles and slimy appendages. Number 2 had his minions mesmerized.
All except this one stooge—Number 30-something on The List. I couldn't remember the gutbucket with the googly eyes' precise rank because, well, I tend to concentrate on the seriously twisted alpha dogs in the Top Ten, not the one-hit wonders down below.
Unfortunately, Mr. 30-whatever was concentrating his googly eyes on me.
In fact, he was staring straight at me, licking his slick amphibian lips and drooling.
"You!" he growled as he puffed out his enormous blow-frog chin and chest. I could tell: the toady bootlicker not only recognized me, he was all set to score some serious brownie points by ratting me out to his fearsome leader.
Too bad I never gave him that chance.
Señor 30-something had given me a pretty terrific idea by proudly puffing himself up like that. Since I was born with the awesome ability to rearrange matter at will—yeah, you copy that?—I quickly morphed the bulging blowhard into a hot-air balloon. Buffeted by thermals roiling up from the steamy horde below, the slick black blimp shot up toward the ceiling and all those pointy-tipped stalactites. He was definitely on his way to bursting his own bubble.
But he never made it that high.
The conventioneer from California whipped out his Bolide Blaster and, in a masterful display of indoor skeet shooting, torched the zeppelin in midair, initiating an awesome indoor fireworks display. The late Mr. 30-something exploded into a spectacular shower of fire flowers, glowing embers, and glittering streaks.
Raucous laughter, led by Number 2, echoed off the cavern walls.
My cover had not been blown, but the same could not be said for Mr. 30-something.
His cover—not to mention everything else—had been blown to bits.
"PREPARE FOR ARMAGEDDON," hissed Number 2, his words dripping black-hearted viciousness. "It is time for the total annihilation!"
All around me, alien outlaw freaks were foaming at the mouth. Literally.
This was it, the moment they'd all been waiting for.
The one I'd been dreading.
"Attacks on Washington, New York, London, Paris, Moscow, and Beijing will soon commence. Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Rome, Chicago, and Tokyo will also tremble and fall. I will crush their small towns and villages: Ames, Iowa, and Marietta, Georgia. Edam in the Netherlands and Malacca in Malaysia. Not a single earthling will be spared as I lay waste to their so-called civilization."
As you can probably tell, Number 2 and his hench-lackeys had a pretty low opinion of humanity. Then again, I'm pretty sure none of them had ever bothered checking out Michelangelo's David, a Beethoven symphony, or an orange-and-white swirl cone down on the Jersey shore.
"This planet is ripe for the taking," the demon continued, his voice cold, confident, and eerily intelligent. "The human race has never been more divided, more shortsighted, more consumed with greed, or more inflamed by religious differences. Before I am through, all of humanity will hail me as their new Lord and Master. They will gladly embrace all that I believe in and become my slaves."
The crowd growled its approval.
Number 2 silenced them with a simple, savage flick of the wrist. "There is, however, one who has the power to stop all I seek to accomplish. A young boy. A teenager."
A few of his henchbeasts dared to laugh, until Number 2 glared at them with his red-hot laser-pointer eyes. Suddenly sizzling red beams shot out of the leader's eyes and threw the laughing monsters halfway across the cavern, where they remained motionless on the ground.
"If you fear me—and you should—then fear this child! He has already destroyed many of the universe's most powerful warriors. Never underestimate his abilities because of his youth." He gestured at the gargantuan cloud of gray smoke billowing up behind him. "Never underestimate Daniel X!"
Right on cue, my mug shot flashed into view on that thirty-foot-tall smoke screen. I was squinting, had a zit near my nose, and basically looked like a total scrungrow. They must've found the yearbook from the one school where I actually hung around long enough for picture day.
"Find him," said Number 2, his voice weirdly serene. "Bring Daniel to me and, rest assured, I will destroy him."
Needless to say, destroying Number 2 was high on my to-do list, too. But I had to wonder: Was there really any conceivable way for me, a teenager, to stop him, a lethally powerful alien commanding an army of murderous minions?
And what did this say about Number 1? If Number 2 could command a force this enormous, how huge was Number 1's army?
"You will receive further instructions in due course," said Number 2 as his wings creaked open. "For the present, your mission is quite simple: Find the boy. Bring him to me."
All around me, grotesque alien beings sprouted webbed wings and collapsed into themselves as if they were gray, gauzy umbrellas. I quickly realized what was going on: Number 2's storm troopers were turning themselves into Diphylla ecaudata.
In an instant, I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of unbelievably ugly, bloodsucking, wing-flapping, furry fiends—all of them shrieking with glee.
Well, you know what they say: When in hell, do as the hellions do.
Totally focused on all things flying mammalian, I used my transformative powers to turn myself into a bloodthirsty bat. My nose shriveled down into a pug muzzle. My teeth sharpened into fangs. My ribs crunched out to form the articulated skeletal scaffolding for a pair of thin-skinned wings.
When all I could see was a glowing green radar screen, I squealed, fluttered out my webbed wings, and flew back up that mineshaft with the rest of the repulsively scuzzy flock.
Honestly? The whole bat thing was pretty disgusting.
I don't know how Bruce Wayne deals with it.
THE GATHERING SWARM
TIME FOR ALIEN Hunter Tip Number 46: Always have an exit strategy, preferably one that doesn't involve transforming yourself into a flying rodent with rusty-gutter breath from guzzling way too much iron-rich hemoglobin.
Coming out of the bat transformation, I felt wiped. My mind was totally blown. My retinas had burnt-in blip spots from doing time as radar screens.
But at least I was me again.
I had lost the black cloak and the bat wings. I was back in a T-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers, catching my breath outside a cave entrance. I had come to this abandoned West Virginia coal mine after picking up a hot tip on Number 2's possible location. The intel had been solid. I had definitely found the despicable Deuce's hidey-hole. My next problem: What to do about him, not to mention his massive army? How could I stop these extraterrestrial terrorists from destroying every city, town, and village on their hit list?
Still groggy, I retrieved my backpack, which I'd hidden deep inside a rock niche outside the cave. I fished out the super-thin, higher-than-high-tech alien laptop that has been my mission bible since day one and flipped open the lid. I needed to consult The List of Alien Outlaws on Terra Firma, which is what those of us from other parts of the galaxy call Earth.
I also needed to recharge my batteries. For me to rearrange molecules to create whatever my imagination cooks up, I need to be super calm and concentrate like crazy. If I'm tired or cranky, forget about it. At that moment I don't think I could've materialized a Double Whopper with cheese, even though I sort of wished I could. Bats burn up a ton of calories, what with the wing flapping and all that internalized radar action. I was famished.
The List thrummed to life in my lap. Much to my surprise, Balloon Boy—the bloated bullfrog I had called 30-something—was actually Number 29. Guess the freakazoid had shot up a slot or two after I erased a couple of his superiors in alien hunts past.
However, slot 29 was as high as Floating Froggy would ever hop. The constantly self-updating List was already flashing TERMINATED next to his name and number.
I swiped my fingers through the air and The List, fully annotated with illustrations, scrolled up the screen to exactly what I needed to see.
The entry for Number 2.
For some bizarre-o reason, the computer continued to pretty much draw a blank on the guy. Yes, there was a list of his known physical appearances (apparently he was a world-class shape-shifter, just like me), but under Planet of Origin, all I saw was CLASSIFIED. Same thing with Evil Deeds Done. CLASSIFIED. Powers? CLASSIFIED.
Classified? Hello, computer—you work for me, remember?
I gave the computer a good whack on the side. Yes, it's an extremely low-tech solution, but one that sometimes works, even with the galaxy's coolest, most artificially intelligent gizmos.
Not this time. The images on the screen refused to budge. Number 2's background would remain a mystery. A classified mystery.
I realized I needed to forget about where Number 2 came from and what he had already done, and focus instead on where he said he was going (all over the planet) and what he planned on doing once he and his army got there (wiping out human civilization and enslaving millions, not to mention making my life totally miserable).
Still glued to the uncooperative computer screen, I felt a not-so-gentle tap on my shoulder.
Startled, I whipped around.
Suddenly I was face-to-face-to-face-to-face with a four-sided killing machine.
"WELL, WELL, WELL, well," the thing said, chortling in quadraphonic surround sound.
Then all of the blockhead's faces grinned.
"How frightfully convenient! Number 2 commissions us to go find Daniel X and, lo and behold, I find you hiding right outside our super-secret meeting place."
I, of course, immediately recognized the cubic jerkonium. It was hard not to. The creature was a four-sided warrior from the planet Varladra, complete with two pairs of brutal arms clutching four extremely lethal weapons: a scimitar the size of a scythe, a quarto-headed battle-ax, a classic nine-ring Chinese broadsword, and—just in case he got tired of flailing his limbs and swinging steel—what looked like a semi-automatic, rapid-repeating disintegrator gun.
Having just eyeballed The List, I knew exactly who (make that what) I was dealing with: Number 33 in my top forty countdown.
"Prepare to die, traitor!" sneered the clanking cube.
"No thanks," I said. "By the way, is Rubik your uncle or your aunt?"
He growled and swung his ax, aiming for my head like my neck was the tee and my skull the ball.
I ducked into a crouch. He whiffed.
"Stee-rike one," I said.
Number 33 rotated ninety degrees to the left, jangling the belt of human and alien skulls he wore wrapped around his squarish waist. Swishing blades twirled and whirled on all sides of his chest. It was like fighting a berserk food processor. The boxy behemoth only had two stubby legs, but both were mounted on rolling swivels. Number 33 was definitely turning out to be hell on wheels.
He tried a downward log-splitting lumberjack chop with the battle-ax—the one with four razor-sharp blades.
I was supposed to be the log.
I rolled right. Again, he whiffed.
He yanked his ax head out of the dirt with one arm and used two of the others to swing his Chinese broadsword and slash at me with the scimitar.
I dodged, then ducked.
Two swings. Two misses.
"Stee-rikes three and four!"
I guess the official rules of baseball are different on Varladra, because he kept taking swings. I kept countering: juking and sidestepping, bobbing and weaving.
I needed to figure out this creep's weakness, and fast. Fighting this four-sided death machine was a lot like taking on four Attila the Huns at the same time.
I darted left to avoid a flying triple parry and follow-up double thrust.
Man, the guy's aim was definitely off. Maybe he needed four pairs of glasses for his four pairs of eyes. Maybe he was still blind as a bat.
I checked out his flat noses, swarthy complexion, and wispy Fu Manchu beards.
Wait a second.
Number 33 was Attila the Hun, one of the most fearsome Eurasian nomads to ever invade Rome and earn the name "Barbarian." Or he had been Attila, back in the early to mid fifth century. All he needed was a fur-lined helmet and a woolly vest. This killing machine had been on Earth for sixteen centuries and he'd never been beaten. Talk about your heavyweight champion of the world.
"Stand still, boy!" Attila growled at me. "Do not prolong the inevitable."
"What's the matter, hon?" I said, still flitting around like a hummingbird stoked on liquid sugar. I couldn't resist the pun. "Have a rough day pillaging and plundering?"
Cube-head sneered at me. I could see chunks of meat snagged between his rotting teeth.
"Prepare to die, weakling!"
"Sorry. No way am I letting you and your mongrel horde of mutant misfits destroy human civilization."
"Foolish boy! This planet belongs to whoever or whatever is strong enough to take it!"
"Or defend it!"
Attila swiped a couple of hands roughly across a few of his slobbering mouths.
"Enough," he said. "It is suppertime, and I am most hungry. Therefore, submit to me and die!"
Up came the disintegrator gun.
Good thing I finally figured out how to beat this guy.
In a flash, I turned myself into a bubbling hot pot of yak stew.
ATTILA THE GORILLA must've been seriously starving.
He immediately grabbed the pot of meaty yak gruel and tossed it into his mouth. That is, he grabbed me and threw me down his gullet in a single gulp.
Over the teeth, over the gums, look out stomach, here I come.
I slid into his esophagus and cannonballed down the quivering chute into his gut.
They say the way to an alien's heart is through his stomach, and that was my plan: get digested, clog his arteries, and attack his heart!
Of course, when they say that thing about the stomach and heart, they leave out the bit about how, in between, you have to spend a little quality time down in the bowels. Remember to hold your nose when we get there.
I splashed into a pool of burbling acid and bobbed around with milky chunks of half-digested french fries, the gooey remains of a Snickers bar, and what might've once been creamed corn. Attila's stomach looked exactly like that Rubbermaid barrel full of pig slop the high school cafeteria guy scrapes all the dirty dishes into.
I sloshed forward, trying to avoid a McNugget oil slick. I needed to act like a bran muffin and move things along his digestive tract—fast. So I swam downstream as quickly as yak stew can.
Now, in order for me to get into Number 33's bloodstream and give him some serious heartburn, I needed to be a nutrient by the time I reached his small intestine. If not, my whole plan (and me with it) would go straight down the toilet. Literally.
As I was funneled into the stomach's exit ramp, I transformed myself into a glob of yak fat and, after a quick bile bath, moved into the small intestine. I thought I might hurl. The narrow, undulating tube smelled worse than any sewer I've ever had the pleasure of crawling through.
Fortunately, I didn't have to deal with the bowel stench for long, because I was instantly sucked through the intestinal lining. Just like that, I was cruising through Number 33's circulatory system.
If I could make it into his arteries—which had to be unbelievably clogged with sixteen hundred years' worth of Mongolian barbecue, mutton dumplings, and fried goat cheese—maybe I could completely block a blood vessel and shut his heart down.
Upstream, I could hear his heart muscle pounding out a four-four beat like a quartet of thundering kettledrums.
Because he had four hearts!
If I blocked the blood flow to one, the other three might be able to compensate.
Okay. I needed a plan B, as in "Blow up" or "ka-Boom."
The vein I was log-flume riding through splashed me down inside one of Attila's throbbing hearts. As I shot through one of its valves, I made myself morph again.
I hung on to the flapping valve with both hands as I began to change back into me—the full-sized, five-foot-ten Daniel X. I started to expand inside his cramped heart chamber like one of those Grow Your Own Girlfriend sponge toys that's guaranteed to grow 600 percent when you soak it in a bowl of water overnight.
Only I grew much bigger and much faster. Call it a teenage growth spurt.
I shattered his heart and burst through that alien's ribcage like the alien in Alien.
Blood spurting all around me (picture ketchup squeeze bottles gone wild), I watched Number 33—gasping and gurgling and clutching what was left of his chest—topple to the ground.
Attila the Hun was now Attila the Done.
Meanwhile, I was a little wet, somewhat sticky, and totally grossed out.
But I would live to fight another day. And another alien.
Clearly the most formidable and fearsome foe I have ever faced.
SO WHAT WOULD you say is humankind's greatest creation?
Language? Music? Maybe art?
All excellent choices. But if you ask me, the greatest thing any creature anywhere ever created is a concept called "friendship."
I guess my four friends are my greatest creation, too. Without your friends, well, what are you?
"You guys," said Joe, "this funnel cake is awesome."
"It's cold," said Dana.
"And your point is?" Joe took another chomp out of the web of chewy fried dough dusted with powdered sugar and drenched with squiggles of chocolate sauce.
"You're basically eating knotted flour and lard, Joe," Emma said. "It's not very good for your heart."
Having just examined the insides of the late Number 33's cardiovascular plumbing up close and personal, I realized Emma, my earth-mother health-nut friend, had a point.
"Well, it may not be good for my heart, but it is excellent for my mouth," said Joe, who had an iron stomach to rival Attila's. My friend has been known to order "one of everything" at Pizza Hut. But no matter how much chow he wolfs down on a regular basis, he stays super skinny. Talk about an excellent metabolism.
This was what I needed; nothing renews my creative juices like hanging out and goofing around with my buds. And we weren't just in the middle of a pig-out session at the local county fair. No, my four best friends and I were in the middle of Six Flags Over Georgia.
After my Thrilla with Attila, I decided to call up Joe, Emma, Willy, and Dana and head south to do a little recon on Marietta, Georgia—one of the smaller towns on Number 2's Places to Destroy/Humans to Enslave list. Aliens are much easier to smell outside your major metropolitan areas—fewer competing odors.
Okay, I could've gone to Ames, Iowa. But the nearest amusement park to Ames is Adventureland, home to lots of incredible waterslides, and after slipping and sliding through Number 33's wet and wild circulatory system I was more in the mood for roller coasters. Six Flags Over Georgia has eleven of 'em.
Oh, something else you should probably know, in case you haven't already figured it out: When I say I "called up" my friends, I don't mean I hit speed dial on my iPhone. I mean my four best friends since forever are 100-percent pure products of my imagination. It's not like I walk around talking to invisible, make-believe buddies. When Joe, Emma, Willy, and Dana are around, everybody can see them, hear them, and, in Joe's case, smell them. But not one of my friends would exist if I didn't imagine him or her first.
I realize my special talent may seem alien to you but, then again, you weren't born on my home planet, Alpar Nok. For me, the power to create (the most awesome superpower of them all, btw) is just part of my genetic code.
Without this amazing gift, I'd be totally alone in your world.
And alone is never a good place to be when dealing with the likes of Number 2.
"Hey, you guys," said Willy, coming around the base of the Dare Devil Dive coaster to join us. "I scouted it out. We're the only ones here! The place is totally ours!"
"Well, duh," said Dana. "It's after three AM. The park's closed."
"Hmm," said Joe, licking sugar and chocolate sauce off his fingers, "must be why the funnel cakes are stone cold. Hey, you guys ever eat cold pizza for breakfast?"
"Yeah, right," said Dana with an eye roll. "Whenever possible, Joe."
"You should try it, Dana," said Willy. "When pizza's cold, the cheese stays locked in place."
"No sauce drippage, either," added Joe.
"By the way," said Willy, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder, "the new coaster looks absolutely amazing."
"I believe the Dare Devil Dive coaster is the Southeast's tallest beyond-vertical roller coaster," said Emma, who had picked up a bunch of brochures and maps when we first entered the amusement park.
"Hey, Daniel," teased Dana, who, full disclosure, I have a mad crush on. "Part of the park is called 'Gotham City.' You wanna head over there and check out this cool coaster called Batman: The Ride?"
"More bats?" I said. "No thanks."
"Let's do the Dare Devil Dive!" said Willy. "Get this: you climb ten stories up a vertical lift, then plummet down a ninety-five-degree first drop!"
"Um," said Dana, "not to barf all over your idea, Willy, but I detect one slight problem."
Dana gestured at the dark rides towering all around us. "Like I said, it's after three AM."
"So?" said Willy, who can be as stubborn as he is brave.
"The park is closed, Willy," said Emma, who was Willy's little sister and knew him better than anybody. "You can't ride the rides, because, well, Six Flags very wisely shuts off all its electricity after hours in an attempt to conserve energy."
I smiled. "Well, you know what they say: it's a whole 'nother park after dark. Start 'em up!"
And, by the power of sheer imagination, I made every single ride in Six Flags whir back to life!
YOU KNOW HOW when you go to an amusement park in the middle of the summer and you want to ride the really cool rides, but you have to wait like two hours in a line that keeps switching back on itself, so all you can do is keep staring at the hundreds of people ahead of you?
Well, this was absolutely nothing like that.
When we came to the end of any ride, we didn't have to unload and run around to the entrance to ride it again. I just imagined the thing starting up and—ZAP!—it did.
We defied gravity, flew through loop-the-loops, felt g-forces similar to those encountered during the reentry phase of interplanetary space travel, and, basically, got to retaste what we had for lunch that day when it flew back up into our mouths.
"C'mon, you guys," said Willy. "Time to take the ultimate plunge: the Dare Devil Dive coaster."
Yes, nausea fans, we'd been saving Six Flags' most incredible thrill ride for last.
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