By Ned Rust
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Daniel X: Armageddon
A Preview of MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE
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HELLO! Buenos dias! Bonjour! Konnichiwa! It's me, Daniel, here with the critical life lesson of the day: There's absolutely, positively, no such thing as too much practice or preparation. Not when it comes to sports, not when it comes to acing your math test, and definitely not when it comes to issues of mortal combat.
Having just died a horrible bloody death in a dusty urban parking lot, I'd clearly forgotten this lesson.
I mean, if you don't even take the time to learn the commands before you start playing a high-end video game like Crown of Thorns IV—the celebrated first-person battlefield shooter with 140 million copies sold and more than twenty million totally obsessed kids playing online at any given moment—you should at least bring along some butter and jam. Because if you're going to be toast, you might as well make the most of it.
Of course, I could have cheated. After all, I am the Alien Hunter, legendary destroyer of the most evil extraterrestrials on Terra Firma (that's Earth for those of you who are new to this stuff). I'm gifted with the ability to create and manipulate anything I can understand, which definitely would include something as basic as cheat codes. I could have given my character Iron Man–style weapons and armor, or I simply could have put my character in a less dangerous place on the battle map. But, like with any game, if you break the rules, it kind of detracts from the experience.
Plus, I was trying not to call attention to myself. I was hanging out at the Game Consortium, Inc., flagship store in the high-rise Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, acting like a normal, human teenage boy, doing things that normal, human teenage boys do when they want to play a video game. That includes drooling, grunting, hooting, and standing in line for more than an hour just to have a shot at the latest GC product offerings, as if I were waiting to get onto the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Which is kind of what this place was like.
It was the most high-tech space I'd ever seen, outfitted wall-to-wall with the most cutting-edge gaming software ever devised. Like something you'd expect to see in a secret underground bunker or in NASA's flight command center. The images on the floor-to-ceiling screens and at the holograph stations were crisper and more vivid than reality itself.
The kids waiting in line for a console were all agog in a freaky trance—sweaty, shaking, pale, wide-eyed—like hard-core drug addicts desperate for a fix. I couldn't blame them. The GC's game offerings were truly revolutionary. They always seemed to have better graphics, greater depth of play, and way more addictive hunt and battle scenarios than their competitors in the gaming market did.
How, you might ask? The explanation is actually pretty simple. You see, the GC was run by a couple of very, very clever aliens: Number 7 and Number 8 on The List of Alien Outlaws on Terra Firma.
In other words, by not one but two of my most devious mortal enemies.
YOU'RE PROBABLY WONDERING how I know the true identities of the owners of the Game Consortium. Fortunately, they're not the only extraterrestrials with outrageously advanced high-tech devices. Allow me to introduce you to Exhibit A: a transcript* of a transmission I'd managed to intercept between Number 7 and Number 8 on my Intergalactic Frequency Sweeper 3000:
Male voice: Hello?
Female voice: It's me. Are we still on schedule?
Male voice: Yes, just two more hunts to conduct, and we should be able commence Operation Decimation.
Female voice: The Mahlerian, then our special friend?
Male voice: Yes, of course.
Female voice: What a week this is going to be—three legendary species will fall!
Male voice: We're making history, my dear.
Female voice: You're not at all worried about our friend?
Male voice: In some ways, him least of all. His behavior to date has been quite predictable. He's proved himself to be rather dull and unsophisticated.
Female voice: Well, let's hope he stays that way. If we manage to pull this off ahead of schedule, we may earn quite a hefty bonus from headquarters.
Male voice: And then we can stop this ridiculous charade. I'm so sick of pretending to be human, I could explode! One more stupid press conference, and I may just pull out a blaster and go alien on their butts!
Female voice: Relax, dear. Within the month, we'll have to change their scientific name from Homo sapiens to No-mo sapiens.
[snorting sounds, then an increasingly loud buzzing sound]
This little exchange had been keeping me awake since I'd first heard it and was precisely why I had come to Tokyo. That snippet had made it clear that Number 7 and Number 8 were possibly about to wipe the human species off the face of the earth. And on a personal note, I was pretty sure that yours truly was the "special friend" they mentioned. In other words, they knew all about me, and they weren't exactly shaking in their alien booties.
According to The List computer—the alien-tech laptop that has been my bible since I started this gig—going after an alien in the top-twenty deadlies is basically a crapshoot in terms of whether you're going to live or die. But The List isn't some all-knowing machine. It's just an encyclopedia of what we alien hunters and our friends upload into it. Kind of like an ultrasecret wiki about superpowered psychopathic aliens.
All The List had to offer about Number 7 and Number 8 was that the pair had spent the past few years masquerading as Earth's ultimate power couple. In human disguise, they were known as Colin and Ellie Gygax, founders and owners of the Game Consortium, the biggest and most clandestine video-game corporation in the world.
The rest of the info I had was courtesy of Google: the video games created by the Game Consortium were so addicting that phrases like "brainwashing" and "mind control" were sometimes used by concerned parents and teachers when describing them. There were even stories of kids who acted out some of the scenes in the games and landed themselves in detention—or worse.
But GC hadn't technically broken any laws—yet—so governments had done nothing to stop them. I knew it was time for me to act. Unfortunately, the GC's computer systems had proved impossible to hack from the outside. These guys were about twenty times more tech savvy than I was, so electronic surveillance was not exactly easy.
If I wanted to find out more about this place, I would have to get behind the scenes.
EVIL ENTERTAINMENT EMPIRE or no, I probably could've kept gaming on the showroom floor all day long. But after I lost my thirteenth virtual bout of Extreme Cage Fighter VI, I decided it was time to start the real hunt.
My first move was to head to the back of the store and down a set of stairs to a service corridor, scouting out a way to the Gygax inner sanctum. I guess luck was on my side, because it took me less than five seconds to collide with a poorly disguised alien store clerk who was swinging around the corner with a cart stacked high with boxes.
A sure sign that top-ten List aliens are in the proximity is the presence of low-level hench aliens. In this case, the oddly matched skin around the clerk's eyes and ears, not to mention his orange toupee, were my first clues as to whom I was dealing with.
I immediately materialized a banana peel under one of the cart's wheels, which skidded sideways, causing the cart to tip over—right on me.
"Ahhh!" I yelled, falling to the floor in mock agony. (Well, not exactly "mock." Those boxes were heavy.)
"Thisss isss for employeesss only," he hissed in annoyance, accidentally revealing a forked purple tongue. The thing was so long, he could barely keep it in. Clearly, he'd forgotten the mouth part of his human costume that morning.
"I was looking for the restroom," I said, gritting my teeth. He looked me up and down like he had X-ray eyes. "Could you please get these boxes off me?" I continued. "I'm a paying customer, you know."
"You're not welcome in thisss place," he said, his voice dripping with menace. "Go back to Kansssasss."
I felt the blood drain from my face. Kansas is where my parents raised me from just about infancy until I was three. And Kansas is where my parents were killed—slaughtered in cold blood by The Prayer, Number 1 on The List of Alien Outlaws. Did the clerk know? Had my cover been blown? Were Number 7 and Number 8 watching me? Did they know I was there?
I refused to let paranoia get the best of me and so switched gears.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, sir," I said, extracting myself from the pile. "I'll be on my way, but let me help you with these boxes first."
The clerk looked momentarily confused, clearly not the cleverest creature to ever step off a UFO. A good tip to remember: politeness and civility throw a goon every time.
I heaved a box that had partially split open. Something metal was poking out, and I shifted the box so I could peer inside.
"No!" The clerk suddenly sounded more anxious than hostile. "I've got it. Pleassse, go back upstairsss. Thisss isss a ssservice corridor only."
"Sorry!" I said with forced cheer. "Have a good day, sssir!"
I was feeling a lot less cheerful than I sounded. What I'd seen inside that box was something no video-game store should need: guns—dozens of them.
And they were definitely not garden-variety man-made handguns that I could easily change into something else. In fact, their Andromedan trinitanium alloy suggested they were imported from a galaxy far, far away—specifically for the purpose of eliminating hard-to-eliminate beings from other planets.
And I just happened to be one of those beings.
I pretended to walk back the way I'd come, then when the clerk wasn't looking I quickly turned myself into a replica of one of the many light fixtures on the walls. The hench alien hastily got his boxes back in order and rushed the cart farther down the hall, where he swiped his ID card at a door bearing a sign that read .
I hoped to heck that meant "Employees Only" and not "Alien Hunter Execution Chamber."
I HADN'T YET downloaded all the Japanese language characters to my brain, but at least I'd been studying radio frequency security-lock protocols. By adjusting my eyes down to the RF spectrum and intercepting the ID reader's brief interaction with the clerk's pass, I was able to figure out and memorize his security code.
The next step in my plan would require help, which meant it was time to morph back to human form and summon my best friends Willy, Dana, Joe, and Emma.
Brief interjection here: when I say "summon," I don't mean the way a rich guy might summon his servants. I mean that my best friends are now 100 percent pure products of my imagination. It's not like I spend time talking to empty space or cracking up at things that only I can hear. When Joe, Emma, Willy, and Dana are around, everyone can see them, hear them, even shake hands with them if they want to. They're absolutely real. And they're manufactured by the power of my mind.
You might have difficulty understanding what I'm talking about—the power to create and manipulate the atomic structure of things around me is completely "alien" to you earthlings, but it's just part of who I am. It's one of the gifts an alien hunter gets early on and uses pretty frequently. In fact, it's the same power I used to turn myself into that light fixture when the clerk wasn't looking. I also use it to re-create my family, specifically my mom, dad, and sister. Because otherwise I'd be totally alone.
And being alone wasn't an option, at least not then.
"Is this a recon op?" asked Willy, the natural born leader of my gang.
"Yes," I replied, passing them Bluetooth earpieces and phones so we could communicate. "You and Dana, come with me. Joe, you watch this door and give the signal if anybody comes through. Emma, you go up to the main floor and keep an eye on things. If you spot anything that looks like a trap, we want to know about it."
"Aye, aye, Cap'n!" Joe saluted.
I released the lock with a micro-RF broadcast from the palm of my hand. "Let's go."
Willy, Dana, and I hustled down a hall where we found three doors, a small, narrow window in each. We spread out and each peered through one. Mine was dark.
"Over here," Willy whispered, a dim, bluish glow visible through the glass. "One… two… three!"
Defenses ready, we swept into a space that appeared to be a projection booth of some kind.
We were looking down into a theater. Rows and rows of teenagers wearing headphones and holding video-game controllers sat transfixed, eyes glued to monitors built into the backs of the seats in front of them. A stage at the front was filled with riot police and soldiers, and—
Wait a minute! The figures onstage weren't moving. They were just mannequins. But from here, they looked as lifelike as any you'd find at Madame Tussauds wax museum.
Even weirder: intermingled with the police was an assortment of what I'd technically define as thugs, monsters, and all-around bad guys. It looked like the GC might've hired the best special-effects team in Hollywood to put this production together. It was an eerie scene, and it was about to get even eerier.
I looked closer and now could see that a black bag rested near each player's feet. I zoomed in my alien-enhanced vision on one of the screens. They were all playing what appeared to be Crown of Thorns IV, doing battle with video game–sized versions of the thugs onstage.
"Maybe they're beta testing Crown of Thorns V," I speculated. I was pretty certain I'd never seen the levels they were playing, and the graphics were even better than what I'd seen out on the showroom floor.
"Maybe," said Dana, "but what's the deal with the creepy mannequins onstage?"
"Haven't figured out that part yet," I confessed.
It all became clear in a moment when every game display in the theater flickered. Now the players were fighting an on-screen police officer or soldier. Then, after a few minutes, a bright red icon flashed:
CHANGE WEAPONS CHANGE WEAPONS CHANGE WEAPONS
In almost perfect synchrony, the kids took weapons from the black bags at their feet. Then, we all held our breath as we watched the armed teenagers charge boldly down the aisles to the stage.
"What the—?" Willy began, as Dana let out a startled cry. But the sounds of gunfire below drowned out any possibility that she'd blown our cover.
In seconds, the good guys had been reduced to smoking, stinking puddles of melted plastic and wire. But if that weren't disturbing enough, I noticed something else: the monsters onstage had been left completely untouched.
The players looked around, almost as if they were in a daze, and a few even slumped to the floor. But some of the more alert ones started circling one another, and I could tell we were seconds away from an all-out brawl.
"I don't think those were regular guns," Willy commented.
"Whatever," said Dana, shaking her head. "That is just sick."
"It's even sicker than you think," I agreed, as I ran some quick math. There were hundreds of millions of GC games and consoles in the world. If the company was able to just flick a switch and turn every player into an armed killer…
"Let's get out of here," I said, just as the screens flashed another message:
GAME OVER GAME OVER GAME OVER
The brainwashed players collapsed to the floor.
AS THE FIVE of us casually strolled out the front door of the Game Consortium—acting like we hadn't just witnessed a dress rehearsal for a massacre—I turned around and looked up at the hulking, looming, skyscraping GC Tower. I couldn't help imagining the eyes of the demonic duo and their subhenchmen following my every move.
"I gotta admit, those games were amazing," Willy was saying. "It was like I was playing inside a dream. The way you controlled your avatar almost just by thinking—"
"My personal theory," interrupted Joe, "is that they're using the games to destroy society by making people so hungry they can't think straight. I mean, is it me, or are you guys about to pass out from malnutrition? Quick, let's get some tempura!"
I raised an eyebrow at him. No level of danger or seriousness ever stops Joe from obsessing about food. The boy must have a forty-gallon stomach.
"I want miso," Emma chimed in. Even she, our most seriously peace-freaky friend, had gotten scarily sucked into the GC's first-person shooter games.
"Guys," I told Joe and Emma soberly. "You didn't see what the rest of us saw in that room. We've got two aliens a couple of steps away from wiping out the entire human species by means of a sinister plot to turn video-game players of the world into nonvirtual killing machines."
Dana's face was still ashen. "He's serious, you two. It was bad. Let me tell you."
"First things first," I said. "It's getting dark, and we have to go find ourselves a secure place to spend the night. Then we'll grab some grub and get these two caught up."
I walked over to a nearby glass-and-chrome bus shelter and scanned the route map. The GC building is located in the Nishi-Shinjuku district of Tokyo. It's a gleaming, bustling, ultradense corporate neighborhood with fancy retail and restaurants around the edges. We needed someplace a little quieter, a little less crowded, a little less likely to be frequented by Number 7 and Number 8's minions.
"Keihin," I said, spotting a sprawling, industrial-looking area on the map down along Tokyo Harbor. It seemed like the kind of place that would have plenty of good spots to hide, and not too many people—or aliens.
"Get on," I said, quickly materializing Pasmo fare cards and handing them out as a bus pulled up. "We've got a bit of a ride ahead of us."
"If I lose my mind from hunger," said Joe, "I'm blaming you."
"You lost your mind a long time ago," Dana quipped.
"I hope it's a scenic route," said Emma. "Apart from Number 7 and Number 8 being here, I'm loving what I've seen of this country so far. It's so… foreign."
I knew just what she meant, I thought, settling down by a window near the back of the mostly empty bus. Although, technically speaking, everything is foreign to me. I am, after all, quite possibly the universe's most displaced orphan. I clutched my arm to my chest as a wave of homesickness washed over me. I call it homesickness; yet I barely have any memory of what my home was like.
I turned and looked behind us out the bus window, hoping to hide my stupid emotions from my friends. The sinister GC Tower still loomed above us, and I again wondered if Number 7 and Number 8 were in there. Probably, I figured. The only things that have been constants in my life are the monsters I'm fated to kill—or die trying.
That and feeling sorry for myself, apparently. I needed to get a grip. What was that lesson I had I learned in my last martial arts training session? Something about how if your emotions are getting in the way, you need to tie them to what's going on around you. You need to link them to something practical and immediate.
Like the problem of six aliens masquerading as tattooed young thugs who got on the bus at the next stop.
IT MUST HAVE been Bad Human Disguise Day here in Tokyo, because those dirtbags wouldn't even have passed for human in a Halloween parade for blind space rangers.
Never mind forked tongues. These guys apparently didn't know that human knees bend forward, not backward—and that most folks don't have long, hairy tails. Most of them had tucked their tails up their shirts, but the biggest one left his hanging out the top of his leather pants. They clambered aboard like so many overgrown insect-Labrador hybrids and gathered around a tired-looking family of four seated at the front of the bus.
I turned up my hearing (it's a shame you earthlings can't do that), so I could listen in on what they were saying. They were joking among themselves in a horrible attempt at Japanese.
"Nice haul tonight," said one of the shorter ones.
"Not bad," said the tallest and strongest looking of the thugs, the one with the tail hanging out. He also seemed to be the one with the most tattoos—dragons and shogun swords were all up and down his arms and neck. I suddenly realized what they were going for with their gangster exercise clothes and slicked-back hair: they were pretending to be Yakuza, the ruthless Japanese version of America's mafia.
"But remember, we're not just supposed to be collecting revenue; we're supposed to be acquiring targets for the next hunt."
"You mean like these guys?" said the one wearing the gold-brimmed New York Yankees cap, elbowing the father of the unfortunate family next to him.
The big one leaned over and snuffled at the side of the father's head as the rest of the family sank into their seats in terror.
"Ah, what luck!" he shouted, suddenly wide-eyed and excited. "These are the ones that got away!"
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