By Chris Grabenstein
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IT SHOULD'VE BEEN a perfect night.
I was out for a midnight stroll along a dark, deserted highway, somewhere in the middle of Kentucky. Billions of stars were scattered across the sky like sparkling diamonds on black velvet. The air was so crisp and clear I could see the Milky Way. I could also pinpoint several of the planets I've visited during my dangerous days on Earth as the Alien Hunter. It's true. I may only be a teenager, but I've racked up some serious intergalactic frequent flyer miles working my way through the list of Alien Outlaws on Terra Firma.
Quick CliffsNotes: Terra Firma is what we friendly neighborhood extraterrestrials call your planet. The alien outlaws who are here to destroy it? They basically call you guys "dead meat."
Anyway, I had recently taken out Number 2, the second-most heinous, foul, and all-around evil creature on The List, so I should've been feeling pretty good, right?
You'd think I'd take a victory orbit around your planet or dump a cooler of ice water over my head, the way athletes do when they win the Super Bowl or the World Series.
There was only one problem: After you take down Number 2, guess who's left?
You nailed it: Number 1.
Everything I had ever done in my life had been leading up to my next and most powerful enemy.
It was finally time to take down the top dog. I needed to eliminate, once and for all, the abominable alien who looked like a slimy, NBA-sized praying mantis (which is how he earned his nickname, The Prayer). If you're wondering how this overgrown, bug-ugly insect became Number 1 on my hit list, the answer's easy: he was the ruthless monster who brutally murdered my mother and father twelve years ago back in Kansas. I was three at the time, but trust me, I remember each and every gory detail.
So, as I was walking along that peaceful highway in the middle of the night, a certain '80s hair-band tune was blaring through my head: "The Final Countdown." That's the 1986 rock anthem with the synthesized keyboard riff that gets blasted through stadium speakers right before the biggest sports games of the season.
Because this was it. My last round in the ring. My NCAA finals. My sudden-death overtime. The big test all the little tests had been leading up to.
So I wasn't just out for a starlit stroll, even though the night sky was full of hope and promise and wondrous far-off worlds. I was out there racking my alien brain, trying to formulate some sort of plan to take down Number 1—a plan that didn't include me dying.
The way my parents did when they went up against the six-and-a-half-foot-tall insectoid with the bulging, plum-colored body and stringy red dreadlocks dangling down between his antennae.
Oh, yeah. Number 1 is a real charmer.
Suddenly an air horn blared behind me.
I whipped around.
A speeding tractor trailer came roaring up the road out of nowhere.
I did the math. Analyzed the trajectory.
The answer wasn't good: the 18-wheeler would be plowing into me in the blink of an eye.
IN THE NANOSECOND before I joined the bugs splattered all over the big rig's engine grille, I tried to stop the truck by using my imagination.
That's right. My imagination.
I was born with the strange ability to rearrange material at will. And being able to create whatever I need, whenever I need it, is a superpower way better than shooting sticky spider webs out of your wrists, beaming infrared rays from your eyeballs, bending your rubbery body, or flying faster than a speeding bullet. Hey, if I want to do any of those things (and a billion others) all I have to do is imagine myself doing them.
You might have trouble buying into what I'm talking about. The power to create and manipulate the atomic structure of objects around me (including a mammoth Mack truck) is completely, well, alien to you earthlings. But it's just part of who I am. Kind of like having blue eyes. Only much more useful.
Anyway, in the split second before being splattered, I decided to put a ten-foot-thick steel wall between me and the monster truck.
I'd also make sure the truck driver was buckled in tight and that he had deployable air bags. Hey, I didn't want either one of us ending up as tomorrow's blue plate special at The Roadkill Café.
I concentrated on the image of the steel barricade, hard. I have to be totally focused on what I'm creating to pull off even a simple transformation like this one. But in terms of difficulty, blocking oncoming traffic with an impenetrable wall is the kind of atom scrambling I can usually do with both hands tied behind my back.
But not that night.
The truck slammed into me. Sent me flying.
There was no ten-foot-thick steel wall. Just ten tons of pain and agony.
I hit the asphalt. Then double sets of steel-belted radials crunched across my legs. I heard my ribs splinter and my finger bones snap.
I have never felt such excruciating pain.
Not even when the late Number 2 turned me into a tumbling boulder and sent me rolling down the jagged side of a molten mountain.
Something had gone horribly wrong. My creative powers? My amazing imagination? They'd failed me. Big time.
As I lay moaning on the pavement, slipping in and out of consciousness, I remember thinking, "How did this happen? How could this happen?"
I had been fully focused. I was totally rested. My powers were completely charged and ready to rock.
But I couldn't even conjure up a simple wall?
How could it happen?
And then I heard a terrifying voice screeching inside my head.
A voice I remembered from when I was three years old, hiding behind an old water heater in the basement of my Kansas home.
How do you think it happened, Danny Boy?
It was him.
It was Number 1.
GETTING TO NUMBER 1
WHEN I FINALLY woke up, I was in a strange and sterile place.
A hospital. More specifically, a hospital bed.
I creaked open my aching eyes (yes, even my eyelids hurt) and saw an IV pole with drip bags hanging off it. Some kind of pump with a glowing LED readout was clamped to its side. Behind the pole, on a rolling cart, a blipping screen charted the rhythm of my heartbeat.
My bed had guardrails and buttons for moving the mattress up and down—just like in those Craftmatic Adjustable Bed commercials I've seen on late night TV when I'm checking out the Syfy channel to see if they've gotten things right.
"Well, look who's awake," said a soft voice above me.
I craned my head to the right and saw a nurse dressed in scrubs with a stethoscope draped around her neck. I tried to activate my zoom vision to read the nametag pinned to her chest (usually my eyes can do a 128:1 telephoto push), but all I got for my efforts was a dull, throbbing headache and some blurred double vision.
"I'm Nurse O'Hara," she said with a smile. "It's so good to see your beautiful blue eyes, Daniel."
"Where am I?"
"The hospital. Intensive care."
I tried to sit up.
"Now, now," said Nurse O'Hara as she gently eased me back down into the bed. "You mustn't push yourself, Danny Boy."
"I said, you mustn't push yourself…"
"No. What did you call me?"
I remembered hearing Number 1 call me Danny Boy. In my head. Right after that Mack truck plowed over me with nine of its eighteen wheels.
Nurse O'Hara's smile broadened. "Forgive me, Daniel. I'm very Irish." She bent down and gave me a sweet hug. "Saints be praised! You're alive!"
Three doctors (well, three people in white lab coats with their names embroidered over the breast pockets) stepped into the room.
"Good morning, Daniel. We heard the good news," said one who looked like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical correspondent on CNN. Only this Dr. Gupta had an even brighter, wider smile.
"It's a miracle," said Nurse O'Hara, wiping a tear from her rosy cheek.
"Indeed," said another one of the doctors, who looked like the extremely happy cousin of that other TV doctor, Dr. Oz.
"Definitely," added the third doctor with a toothy smile. She reminded me of the lady on Grey's Anatomy.
Okay, I watch a lot of doctor shows on TV. Human anatomy fascinates me. (You guys have screwy plumbing.) Besides, my alien brain operates like an iPod with unlimited free downloads. But right then, I didn't have time for smiley doctors. I needed to drag my butt out of bed and go hunt down Number 1.
"Thanks for the hospitality, guys," I said. "But I need to hit the road."
I went to tug the IV needle out of my arm. Four pairs of hands restrained me.
"No, Daniel," said the Dr. Oz look-alike. "You need to rest."
"I can't. I have a job to do."
"Your only job, young man," said Nurse O'Hara, "is to get better. You were in a horrible accident."
I laughed a little. "Yeah. That happens to me a lot."
"This is no laughing matter, Daniel," said the female doctor. "You've been in a very deep coma."
Okay. Ms. Grey's Anatomy had my attention. "A coma? For how long?"
She glanced at the one I called Dr. Oz. He nodded his head, giving her permission to tell me the awful truth.
"Over a year, Daniel. You have been unconscious for thirteen months."
"THIRTEEN MONTHS?" I blurted. "That's impossible."
The doctors shook their heads.
"We've spent a lot of time together, Danny Boy," said Nurse O'Hara. "I strung twinkling lights in the window and hung ornaments off your IV pole, hoping the visual stimulation might…"
"No," I said, sitting up in my bed. "This is crazy.…"
I saw Dr. Oz bury his hand into the hip pocket of his lab coat and fiddle with something. None of the doctors were smiling anymore.
"Look, I appreciate everything you've done for me. But if I've been stuck in here for thirteen months because of that little fender bender out on the highway, that means I'm way behind schedule."
Okay. I was starting to panic. Supercharged adrenaline was pumping through my veins. The steady beep-beep-beep on the heart monitor picked up its pace. If I had been out of operation for over a year, that meant Number 1 and all the other alien outlaws roaming around Terra Firma had basically been enjoying a free ride, with no Alien Hunter to slow them down. I couldn't even imagine what kind of dirty deeds my nemeses had been up to in my absence, and as you know, I have a very vivid imagination.
I decided I didn't have a choice.
I needed to get out of this hospital as quickly as I could and resume my duties as the planet's protector.
So I did what had to be done.
I had to confess who I really was and what I could really do.
"Okay," I said, "this is going to sound extremely strange. You might even think I'm a little insane. But hear me out."
Every medical professional in the room was staring at me like I was nuts.
"I'm an alien."
Okay. Now they were staring at me like I was loonier than a tune.
"Excuse me?" said Dr. Oz.
"I came to Earth from Alpar Nok."
"And where, or what, is that?"
"It's a planet. In a galaxy far, far away."
"Like in Star Wars?"
"Exactly!" Good. They understood. "I came here to protect your planet from other, evil aliens and—well, not to brag, I have incredible powers."
"Like Superman?" said Dr. Gupta. "I believe he came to Earth from a distant planet as well."
"True, but Superman's just a comic book, Doc. I can actually do things."
Dr. Gupta arched an eyebrow. "Really? And what exactly can you do, Daniel?"
"Lots of stuff. Okay, your stethoscope? I can turn it into anything you want."
"Yeah. I can rearrange matter at the atomic level."
"Well, Danny Boy, I'd like a diamond necklace," said Nurse O'Hara, tapping her stethoscope. Her smile had slipped into a sarcastic grin. "From Tiffany's."
Hey, if I had to perform a few quick parlor tricks to earn my ticket out of this place, I was game.
I concentrated on the shiny knob at the end of Nurse O'Hara's stethoscope. I figured I'd turn it into the Hope Diamond. That's a 45.52 carat deep-blue gemstone, housed in the Smithsonian, that some say is worth a quarter of a billion dollars. A little over the top? Sure. But I needed to prove my point, fast.
I focused hard. I even squinted.
But nothing happened.
Nurse O'Hara tsked her tongue.
Fine. If these people wouldn't let me out of the hospital, I'd teleport myself out of the place. I'd zoom off to London, maybe Paris, or Tokyo.
Only that didn't work, either.
Dr. Oz took a step toward the bed. "Daniel…"
I shot up my hand and stretched out my fingers.
"Don't come any closer, sir. I've just put up a pulsating electromagnetic force field."
"Is that so?" He took another step. Nothing happened.
I was definitely starting to freak. Something was seriously wrong. Had all my powers seeped away while I was out for the coma count?
"Wait," I sputtered. "I've been lying in this bed too long. My powers have atrophied.… Weakened. But they'll come back. You'll see. Tomorrow. Maybe the next day. I'm not really sure because I've never experienced a total power drain before. Usually, there's a residual…"
Two burly orderlies the size of linebackers barged into the room.
Dr. Oz nodded toward my bed.
"Young Daniel here needs his rest."
Remember how the doctor had reached into his pocket? I'm guessing that's when he'd summoned the security goons.
"No, wait," I said to the two no-neck body builders. "I'm warning you.…"
The big men lunged toward my bed.
I had no choice. I didn't want to hurt the muscle-bound bedpan boys, but when I'm attacked I instinctively fight back.
But I couldn't budge.
The two men pinned me down.
Dr. Oz jabbed a hypodermic into my thigh.
I yelled out once.
Then I swirled down a rabbit hole of darkness.
SOMETIME LATER (I just hoped it wasn't another thirteen months), I was able to open my eyes again.
It was my turn to smile.
Much to my relief, my home buds from the planet Alpar Nok—Willy, Joe, Dana, and Emma—were standing in my hospital room. They were my best friends since forever.
"You guys," I whispered. "This is awesome. Thanks for coming!"
Apparently, my subconscious had summoned my four friends during my deep, drug-induced sleep, because in my current predicament being alone wasn't the best move.
Oh, one thing you need to know: When I say I summoned my friends I don't mean like a rich guy summons his butler by ringing a dainty little dinner bell. I mean that I conjured them up. Joe, Willy, Dana, and Emma are now one-hundred-percent purely products of my imagination.
Hang on. That doesn't mean I spend my time talking to people who aren't there. When they're around, everybody can see them, hear them, and, in Joe's case, smell 'em. (What can I say? The guy loves chili dogs. With cheese and chopped onions.)
The real Joe, Willy, Emma, and Dana are all dead, which meant I would've been flying solo in your world if it wasn't for my incredible ability to manipulate atomic nothingness and turn it into the best friends a guy ever had.
Seeing the four of them huddled around my bed in that hospital room made me feel totally pumped. For one thing, I knew I'd have backup when I took on Number 1. For another, if my friends had materialized for me, that meant my creative juices were flowing again.
"You guys," I said. "You have no idea how good it is to see you!"
"Same here," said Joe. "Now that you're awake, maybe they'll bring you some real food instead of dripping beige gunk down your nose through a tube. I could really go for a gallon or two of chocolate milk. And how's the pizza in this place?"
I grinned. My friend Joe? His stomach is a bottomless pit.
"It's a hospital, Joe," said Dana, who—just to bring you up to speed—is my dream girl and soul mate. More about that later. Trust me, it gets complicated. "They only serve Jell-O and cottage cheese."
"Why?" said Joe. "Don't they want anybody to get better?"
"You guys?" I said. "Can we talk about food later? I've got work to do. You need to help find my laptop—The List." I hadn't seen my backpack with the alien supercomputer since my accident. It had critical info on all the alien outlaws on Earth, including The Prayer. I couldn't hunt him without it.
"I know," said Emma, the gentle earth mother of my gang. "The school's been keeping a list for you, and it doesn't look pretty. A whole year's worth of homework." She shuddered in fear.
"And math?" said Willy, the group's natural-born leader. "It got ugly this year, Daniel. It turned into calculus!"
I was confused again.
"Willy, what are you talking about? I need to take care of Number 1."
"Okay, where's your bedpan?" asked Joe.
"Great, you guys," said Dana, rolling her eyes. "I so want to witness Daniel's bodily functions at work."
"Don't worry about the homework," said Emma. "You'll catch up, Daniel. You've always been the smartest kid in class."
"Except riding your motorcycle in the rain," said Joe. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to bust your chops, buddy, but that was just dumb."
I shook my head. Tried to clear out the cobwebs left over from whatever drug Dr. Oz had needled into me.
I noticed a bunch of GET WELL SOON! balloons tied with ribbons to the foot of my bed.
"All right, kids," said Nurse O'Hara as she marched into the room. "We don't want to wear Daniel out. He's had a rough night.…"
"Aw," moaned Willy. "We just got here.…"
"Yeah," said Emma. "And Daniel just woke up."
"Out, the lot of you," said Nurse O'Hara. I noticed she was smiling again. "Don't you kids have homework to do?"
"Yeah," groused Joe. "High school's a beast."
"High school?" I said. "Willy?" I motioned for him to move closer so Nurse O'Hara wouldn't hear what I said next. "I don't go to high school."
I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn't going nuts.
"You've been in a coma," Willy went on. "But now that you're awake, your butt'll be back in homeroom before you know it."
MY STRANGE DAY kept getting stranger.
My next little surprise? An unexpected visit from my family—my mom, my dad, and my little sister, Brenda.
Quick recap, just so we're all up to speed here: I don't have a family anymore. I am, basically, the galaxy's number one orphan. As you already know, The Prayer murdered my mother and father when I was just a kid. He also masterminded the near-genocide of my home planet, Alpar Nok.
Is it any wonder the repugnant insect freak is the top target on my List?
Anyway, in the past I've been able to summon my mother and father back into temporary, artificial existence, just like I do with my four friends. In fact, my mom and dad were even easier to conjure than Joe, Willy, Dana, and Emma. And sometimes, like whenever I needed them most, my mom and dad just appeared.
But during my battle with the demon Abbadon (Number 2 on The List), I cast the ashes of my father and mother's immortal souls to the four winds. They can't come back to help me anymore, no matter how much help I might need.
As for my little sister, Brenda?
She's definitely not real. How could she be? She was never even born.
When Number 1 killed my mom, she was pregnant with the baby that would have become my little sister. That's right—The Prayer snuffed out my mother's life as well as the little life growing inside her.
Brenda, aka Pork Chop, never actually existed except in my imagination.
"Oh, Daniel," said the woman who looked like my mother. She was tall, blond, and pretty. She was also weeping. "You came back to us! "
"We were so worried," said the man who looked remarkably like my father. "We thought we'd lost you. Our house hasn't been a home without you, son."
"Actually, I thought our home was pretty awesome while you were gone," said the girl who was supposedly my sister. "I had the upstairs bathroom all to myself."
"Pork Chop!" said my mother, raising her eyebrows disapprovingly.
"Sorry," said my annoying li'l sis. "I'm just joking, Daniel. I really, really missed you, too. Not!"
I couldn't take it anymore.
"Who are you guys?" I said.
My father grinned. "That's an odd question, Daniel. We're your family."
"Don't you recognize us?" My mother's voice was quavering.
"He's still a little groggy," explained Nurse O'Hara, who had come into the room to adjust my IV bags. "It's to be expected. He's been unconscious for over a year. Who knows what sort of wild dreams he might've had while he was under?" She tapped the side of her head.
Yeah, Nurse O'Hara thought I was nuts. I guess I should've felt insulted but I didn't.
Mostly because I was starting to think the same thing.
My father sighed. "We've spoken to your doctors, Daniel."
"Did you really tell them you were from another planet?" my little sister said with a laugh. "I guess that would explain why you dress like such a dork."
"Okay," I said. "You guys tell me. Who am I?"
"You're our one and only son, Daniel," said my mother, taking my hand in hers. "You are Daniel Manashil. You go to high school. You have four amazing friends.…"
"One of them's your girlfriend, Dayyy-na!" said Brenda in a singsong voice. "Well, she was your girlfriend before you were stupid enough to ride your motorcycle in the rain. Now I think Dana might be dating Willy."
"What?" I said.
"Well, you can't expect her to wait forever.…"
"No. What are you people talking about? I don't go to high school.…"
- On Sale
- May 3, 2016
- Hachette Audio