Chapter 3 – Running for His LifeSnatching Braxden’s shoulder, Cindy forced him through the metal door. As darkness surrounded him, a wet, musky odor of moss and dirt circled his nose. His knees scraped the roots that had grown into the dug-out tunnel. After a deep breath, he crawled forward.
He worked his way forward as the pounding near the doors roared into thunderous booms. Furniture clacked against the walls and floor, growing faint as he went deeper into the tunnel.
Small LED lights flickered every few feet until he saw the brighter light of the Blue Star. Scrambling to his feet, he glanced around. The house was at least a hundred yards away. The three storage barns stood between Braxden, Cindy, and the space pirates.
Four of the pirates marched outside the house. From his new vantage point, Braxden saw them clearly. They were taller and thicker than regular men with bodies that glowed blue. He recognized that they couldn’t be real men, but some kind of weird holographic human.
Uncle Duncan struggled as the holographic pirates yanked him toward the ship. The one-armed man, the only human among them, yanked a pistol away from his belt and aimed it at Uncle Duncan’s midsection.
“Run, Braxden!” echoed over the farm before two white explosions exited the pistol’s end.
The one-armed man put the pistol back in his waist and Uncle Duncan’s body collapsed onto the ground.
Braxden yelled, but Cindy covered his mouth with her hand.
“Quiet,” she said.
Hateful cries bubbled through his chest. Uncle Duncan rolled on the ground before he stopped moving. Two guards stepped over Uncle Duncan’s lifeless body while a third grabbed his arms and drug his body back toward the house.
Cindy took a second glance. Her expression darkened as she turned toward Braxden. Her body flickered like an old computer monitor. “I’m nearing my range,” she said. “I won’t be with you for much longer.”
She grabbed Braxden’s wrist, and they dashed toward the forest. As the world blurred, he fumbled over his legs. He wanted to stop, to cry, or to yell, but he couldn’t. Nothing would matter. Nothing would help. Uncle Duncan was dead.
“You have to keep going, Braxden. Don’t think about turning around to fight. You need to live. One day you can fight back, but only if you live.” Cindy said the words over and over as they ran.
Her body flickered again, and Braxden’s wrist slid through her hand. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“I’m attached to the farm. I can’t go too far outside the perimeter. My computer systems are back with Duncan.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not a real person. Thousands of Cindy computer systems exist in the galaxy. I’ll live longer than any human. C’mon, this way,” Cindy whispered.
They dashed through the rows on the far side of the farm. The windmills spun, and tiny blinking lights guided them. As the forest sprung up in front of him, his heart battered his chest into pulp.
A distant whistling sound entered the air. Braxden stopped. His head swiveled to look behind him.
In the darkness Cindy’s eyes tightened. “Go!”
He took off running again, his hands wiping away the burning tears. After slamming into a tree near the forest’s edge, his arms wrapped around the rough bark. A fearful giggle tickled his throat. He had made it.
“Cindy, I made it. Cindy, I—”
Silence blanketed the world. His breath and heartbeat rang in his ears. He spun around toward the farm. A robot made from three circles spun around Cindy’s waist. It analyzed her with a red laser before her hologram burst into a million glowing particles.
“No,” he gasped.
He couldn’t breathe. He could barely think. Knees wobbling, his hands tightened over his stomach. Both Cindy and Uncle Duncan were gone, just like his parents. He had no one.
Two more whistling sounds pinged the air and joined the first. Three circles the size of hula hoops rolled toward him. A small light blinked on the side of each one.
As soon as they noticed him, they sped up. Bits of grass and dirt clouded the air behind them.
His body shook. “Live, find help, live…”
He dashed into the trees. Long grasses and thorns tore at his ankles slowing him down. The darkness thickened because the Blue Star, the only light in the night sky, was blocked by drifting clouds. Tripping over an exposed root, he slammed into the ground. He fumbled up only to trip three more times.
He couldn’t see. His flashlight would only draw the ring robots’ attention.
The light splash of water tickled his eardrums—the river. Uncle Duncan had made an aqueduct from this river to power the house. Centering his mind, he mapped out where he was.
If he could make it over the river, maybe the robots wouldn’t be able to follow. If nothing else, maybe they’d get swept away.
Changing directions, the sound of the river grew into a thick noise like heavy wind. He emerged from the trees and saw the fast-moving river sparkling underneath the Blue Star. He gazed into the sky. A wad of saliva thickened in his mouth as he watched Neverworld’s silhouetted planetary body slide across the sky. Every three days, the planet eclipsed the Blue Star. The world around him was about to go black and cold for thirty minutes. He had to get rid of these robots.
His gaze searched the bank. A few yards down was Uncle Duncan’s fish trap. With a rope stretched across the river, his uncle had set two nets on both sides to catch red salmon. The area was shallow. He could make it.
Braxden zipped along the muddy bank, his boots sticking in the gooey mud. After grabbing the end of the rope, he took a deep breath and jumped into the cold water.
The icy temperature shocked his legs and back. Splashes attacked his face and arms as he waded out into the river while his feet shuffled on slippery algae. With a tug on the rope, he managed to pull his head and torso above the water. His mouth opened. Water sputtered from his throat, and his lungs collapsed trying to force the excess liquid out.
Braxden waded forward. Every so often he checked Neverworld’s position in the sky. It wouldn’t be long before he was completely blind.
A whirring sound spun his head around. The three ring robots rolled around on the riverbank. They wasted no time. The first jumped into the water and was swept away immediately. The panels on the other two blinked wildly.
Before he reached the center, the other two fell flat on the ground and spun. A second later they were airborne. Hovering low over the stream, they flew a few feet from his head.
Trying to keep his feet underneath him, he struggled along the rope. His heart hammered inside his chest.
The robots descended trying to surround his head. He plummeted into the icy water. Using the rope, he tugged along. Lungs tearing inside his chest, he surfaced. The rings dropped, attacking his head like vultures while his free hand fought them off. After taking a deep breath, he ducked back under the water.
One of the robots dived into the stream. Its metal body looped around Braxden’s head and neck. A moment later, its spinning increased. It lifted out of the water, trying to rip Braxden out with it. His fingers pulled tight on the rope, but little by little, he lost his grip. His hand released, and he fumbled over inside the heavy current with the robot around his head and his left shoulder.
Fighting to get free, tiny tentacles shot into his skin stabilizing him. It was like a hundred agonizing bee stings. As the river’s current tossed them to and fro, he tore at the surface of the water and sucked in the largest breath he could to keep from drowning.
The thunderous roar of the waterfall tapped his eardrums. He splashed around toward the noise. His eyes stared at the water’s end and the sprinkling mist.
He waved his arms and kicked his feet as the current twirled around him. He pulled on the robot’s edge, and the water underneath him disappeared. Weightlessness overtook his body before a scream ripped through his throat.
The robot’s tentacles tore away as Braxden and the robot separated.
He slammed into the pool at the waterfall’s base. Lungs collapsing, his breath bubbled out. Rolling through the chilly darkness, he surfaced on his back with his face toward the sky. The last twinkles of the Blue Star lingered in his gaze.
The robot exploded. A bright orange flash widened over the river. It extended for a few seconds and flared before shrinking as a thick boom echoed through the water.
As waves of heat slammed into his face and chest, Braxden dived. A few seconds later, Braxden resurfaced and turned toward the waterfall to see bits of the robot burned in a heap on a boulder. A few metal parts drifted on the current, along with a few oil fires.
The twinkling stars rolled and faded, and the sky disappeared into blackness. The last of the Blue Star’s light faded behind Neverworld’s shadow. As he spun around, diminishing waves of light flickered over the shore line, illuminated only by the robot’s fire.
His tired bones creaked out of the water. Every part of him was sore. Fifty white strings hung from his face, neck, and shoulders where the robot had tried to capture him. As he ripped them off, stings tore at his skin.
He trudged up the bank, wavered and collapsed.
But it wasn’t over.
The last robot’s whistling sound slammed into Braxden. Whipping to his feet, he gazed at the waterfall. The last robot appeared over the top and floated down toward the fire.
As he dashed into the trees, he stretched forward, but his energy was gone. His legs stiffened as invisible pudding gummed around his ankles.
Light from the fire vanished behind the trees, and complete darkness enveloped him.
With nervousness creeping into his veins, Braxden smacked into something hard and tall. Grasping at the sharp edge of a rock wall, he twisted into the darkness. As the whistling strengthened, a glowing ring descended from the sky. The nearby trees and grasses brightened into a pale blue with a flash of pink.
His heart pounded rough and heavy in his chest.
As he grabbed a branch off the ground, the ring robot descended. Breaking away the offshoots, he made a long switch. With a whirring, the robot whizzed down. Braxden swatted it back, but it zigzagged through the air, darting at him.
A bright light radiated from the robot, so bright he could barely see. Closing his eyes, he listened for the constant low whir. When the robot swooped down, he swung the branch with all his might and connected. A crack echoed over the water, and Braxden opened his eyes. After spiraling through the air, the robot crashed into the rock wall. Yellow flames burst from the metal interior.
As the last of his energy left him, the switch fell from his hands. His lungs wheezed. With a wobble, he pulled himself up right.
Before he caught his breath, a dark figure emerged from the shadows. Without a sound, it dashed through the small clearing. It moved like nothing Braxden had ever seen: fast, agile, and small. It took all of his strength just to focus on it.
In the flickering yellow, Braxden noticed one sharp green eye and another angry white eye. With a twirl, the figure kicked him across his temple. He fell backward and glanced into a girl’s face. She stood over him as the firelight brightened for a moment before the last of the flames went out, and his mind faded into darkness.
Chapter 4 – His Worst FearA long, slimy tongue rolled across Braxden’s cheek. The shock cracked his eyes open.
As the Orange Sun shone bright overhead, heat pressed into his skin. He focused on an oblong face with two dark eyes and lots of tiny sharp teeth. Spirals of black laced the sides of the white face, neck, and torso. The animal cocked its head to the side and licked him again across the mouth.
“Hey!” Braxden spit into the air, trying to remove an gross taste of fresh tomato and rotted meat.
“Nova, come here,” a happy, almost chuckling, voice said.
The animal drew back onto four tails that were long like a cat’s but furrier like a fox’s. Curling four tiny paws into its stomach, the animal turned toward the voice.
Braxden glanced over, too.
In the shadows of a tree, two girls that looked around his age stared at him. The tallest one had long, brown hair with red streaks throughout. Most of her hair was loose around her head but braided at the shoulder. Fury blasted through him when Braxden noticed her eyes. One iris was green, but the other was almost completely white.
“You!” he screamed at her. “Why did you kick me?”
He struggled to stand, but his arms were tied behind his back and attached to a tree.
The tall girl walked into the light. With a round, tanned face, her green eye sparkled in the sun over a thin nose and small lips. A red shirt with beige shorts and black tights covered her body while gray suede boots lay loose on her feet. His gaze locked onto the two holsters at her waist, complete with knives, and a small looped pouch on her back with some kind of metal stick protruding from it.
She stomped within three feet of his face. “Why did you lead the pirates to us?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
The tall girl yanked the knife out of a sheath on her calf. The blade flashed as the knife neared his throat. “You wanted revenge on us, didn’t you? Admit it.”
“Revenge for what?” he asked.
As she examined him, her eyes tightened. His shoulders weakened as the tip of the blade slid gently across his throat. He gulped and stretched his head back.
“Um, I don’t think he knows,” the other girl said.
Braxden’s gaze landed on the other girl as she strolled out with her arms behind her back. She was dressed similarly to the tall girl, except with lots of orange and peach, several buttons and pins, and only one knife. Her hair was a tangle of dark brown curls. A knitted hat covered the top of her head with two cat-like ears sewn into the pattern while her plump cheeks were covered in stickers. Her skin was a light brown, but it wasn’t tanned. He quickly surmised that she was Latina or from one of the planets in the Puerto Rican sector of space.
“Know what? You guys aren’t making any sense,” Braxden said. “I’m trying to get away from some evil space pirate. I don’t care about some stupid revenge.”
“Told you he didn’t know,” the shorter girl said. “Now what do we do?”
The tall girl sheathed her knife, stood, and shrugged. “I guess we leave him.”
He yanked on the restraints. “Leave me?”
“Do we have to?” the short one asked.
“We don’t have any place for him. And… he’s a boy.” The tall one sneered.
“A boy? What’s that supposed to mean?” Braxden asked.
“C’mon, let’s get back to the others,” the tall one said.
They took a few steps back, and the small one twisted around. He widened his expression, trying to look as innocent and helpless as possible. Maybe the small one might help him. After placing a half-hearted grin on her face, the small one shrugged. “Let’s go, Nova.”
Angling around, the animal released a whine, but uncurled itself and followed them.
“Hey!” Braxden screamed. “At least untie me.”
They disappeared behind the thick foliage, and their footsteps grew faint in the distance. Fury rocked his bones. As he wiggled against the rope, it sliced into his wrists. After kicking the ground, he murmured to himself, “Girls…”
Braxden sat for at least twenty minutes, staring into the distance. His stomach chewed on emptiness, squeezing and tugging on air. Meanwhile his heart burned and his mind raced. What had happened to Cindy? Was Uncle Duncan really dead? They were all the family he had.
A scraping caught his attention. Twisting uncomfortably, he leaned his head out as far as he could, hoping that he could pick up a few sounds. The girls might have come back to free him. That’s what nice people did. Why would they just leave him out here?
“Capture Drone is destroyed,” a deep voice said. “Last transmission indicated the boy was in the area.”
Crap-o-la. The pirates.
Scrambling backward, Braxden searched for a place to hide. His arms pulled on the constraints, trying to break free, but the more he tugged the tighter the knots became. As the pirates neared, he wiggled back and forth. His mind buzzed to know the type of knot looped around his wrists. Pushing his back as close to the tree as possible, his fingertips slid over the rope’s edges.
The more he studied the knot, the more he recognized there was nothing fancy about the way the rope was tied. It had to be a basic slip knot. He had been tied with the same method someone would use to catch a rabbit. How could he be so stupid? No wonder the tall girl wasn’t worried about freeing him.
After stretching his wrists apart with a slight wiggle, the rope loosened. Soon, he was able to get one hand out. Twisting around, he yanked the other one from the rope.
Boots crunched the forest grass. With his breath locked in his chest, he tracked backward. As quietly as possible, he snuck through the brush away from the pirates. He lowered his head and worked his way away from the stream, up the ridge, and back toward the house. Maybe this was what Cindy wanted. If the pirates separated, there might be a chance he could get help.
Before he reached the edge of the farm, dark smoke covered the sky. His nose itched and his lungs ached. The sooty remnant of ash lingered on his tongue.
Leaping on a tree trunk, he pulled himself up. Right outside his house the spaceship sat on the once grassy plain. At least a dozen glowing holographic pirates walked around with tools examining the area. At the edge of the farm, two pirates with blowtorches set fire to the crops and windmills. Near the front, a burning body lay at the edge of the house near the small bridge.
Tears welled in his eyes. The last of his family was engulfed in flames. He hadn’t known Uncle Duncan that long, but his uncle had been nice to him. Braxden’s gaze fell to the place where his room had been. All of his stuff, pictures of his parents, his GameMouse, everything was gone. And without the equipment in the house, he couldn’t contact any help. Even Ms. Sloan lived over two hundred miles away.
He had failed.
He bit into his lip and stared at the endless dark smoke engulfing the moon of Rison. He didn’t know what to do. He had no one.
His stomach squeezed. He needed food. The girls had to have food. They had to be the ones that stole their supplies. That must be what the taller girl thought he wanted revenge for. Cindy would scold him for feeling sorry for himself. She wanted him to live. He had to keep going.
Sliding down the tree, Braxden backtracked to the edge of the ridge. From there, he searched for a sign. After fifteen minutes, he found a set of tight claw marks about five feet high on one of the maple trees. The pirates might not notice it, but he knew the plants and animals of Rison like the back of his hand. He was a plant and soil scientist’s—uh, farmer’s—nephew, after all.
As the Orange Sun beat down on him, he dashed through the woods. Near the canyon, two pirates crept through the trees. They had found the same trail—crap.
He cut across the path and sped through the thicker trees to the south. He needed to catch up to the girls and warn them about the pirates. Luckily, he was well rested. Unluckily, he was still hungry. With every step his stomach screamed inside his torso.
His feet slammed into the thick grass. Drifting about seventy-five yards out, he changed course to run parallel to the pirates. He didn’t know how far the girls had traveled, but the memory of the crop circles flashed to his mind. They had to be heading back toward whatever made them.
As he dodged trees and jumped over rocks, he understood how the girls had done it. They must have entered the moon’s atmosphere on the far side. Once they were a few miles away, they probably dipped into the canyon and used it to travel unseen. After anyone on the farm headed to sleep or away, the girls would zoom in, grab as much stuff as they could, and blast off. But something happened, something went wrong. The pirates must have found them. The two girls must be scouts, sent to see if anyone was following or on the trail of the thieves.
Braxden dashed up a little hill and found a clearing. After lifting his binoculars to his eyes, his gaze slid over the plains. In a few seconds, he spotted the two girls and the four-tailed animal. They were still about a mile away from what appeared to be a small cargo ship. The two pirates walked about one hundred and fifty yards behind the girls.
Braxden didn’t waste time, and dashed down the hill. He only wished he had taken his airboard last night. If he had, he’d be there in a heartbeat. It was still at the house, probably burning into dust.
It took him a little over a minute to close the distance. He thought about calling out, but the pirates might hear and the tall girl would probably slice him in two with that knife before he got the chance to explain.
Forcing a wad of saliva down his throat, his eyes closed for a second. He needed a plan to get the tall girl to listen without being sliced into confetti.
Thirty yards away, the tall girl noticed him. She yanked her knife from its sheath. After the knife twirled around in the air, she grabbed the tip of the blade. Before he could think or speak or scream, she flung the knife. A flash of light announced just enough of its presence before a wave of pain blasted up his left arm. Warm blood oozed down his skin as the knife thudded into a tree.
Continuing forward, he ducked his head. With quick movements, his arms wrapped around the smaller girl. With a yank, he pulled the smaller girl backward and almost slid into the ground. The tall girl stood five yards away while the four-tailed animal held its ground on a tree trunk. White and black fur spiking, it hissed.
“Let her go!” the tall girl said, her face darkening.
“Wait, listen,” Braxden said.
“No, you listen.” She pulled out another knife, this one from behind her back. “I don’t miss often. You don’t want to take chances with me.”
He studied her face and her sharp eyes. She wasn’t playing. The trickle of blood running down his arm was a great—no, awesome—warning.
“There are pirates,” Braxden said.
“Whatever. You’re lying.”
“There are. I’m trying to warn you.”
The short girl bit into his hand. He yanked it away from her mouth and waved it to calm the sting. He had never met girls so violent before.
“Maybe we should listen to him,” the short girl said.
“Why? He’s probably lying.” The taller one’s face twisted into a scowl.
“We don’t want to lead pirates back to the camp. Wasn’t that the whole point of our adventure? Can’t we just take five minutes to see?”
He reached around his back and held up his binoculars. “Here, use these.”
The tall girl marched over and snatched them out of his hand. “Where?” she asked.
Braxden pointed behind him.
She put the binoculars to her eyes and made a few quick adjustments with her fingers.
Deep breaths echoed in his ears and hot air shot from his nostrils. His arm and hand sent pulses of pain into his confused brain. Without thinking, he rewrapped his arms around the other girl in a soft hug.
“Uh, you can let me go now,” the shorter one said.
“Oh, yeah.” His cheeks heated, and he released her from his grip.
She wiggled free and stood up straight. After dusting herself off, she gave him a grin and followed it with a head shake. The four-tailed animal jumped onto her shoulder and tightened itself around her upper body. After she petted it, she tapped the taller girl on the shoulder.
“So?” the short girl asked.
“Two of them,” the tall girl said before letting the binoculars fall to her side. “And they have at least one of those ring robot things.”
“See, aren’t you glad we listened? Boys aren’t so bad. He’s a good one.”
The tall one eyed him. Something in her stare sent shivers into Braxden’s chest. “The only good boys are dead boys.”
He fumbled backward. His arms rose slightly. “Hey, I take offense to that.”
The short girl laughed, but the tall girl rolled her eyes.
“Take all the offense you want,” the tall one said. She ran over to the tree and retrieved her knife. Braxden tore off a piece of his shirt and wrapped his arm. Afterward, he covered the blood stained ground with leaves.
“Over here,” the short one whispered. Braxden and the tall girl dashed over the roots of a large tree. The far side was just enough room for all three of them to fit and not be seen.
Less than two seconds after they were settled, the pirate footsteps vibrated the ground beneath them.
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