Authors: Wesley King
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For Samantha Goodwin,
The Bravest and Most Daring Adventurer
ONAH BLINKED SEVERAL TIMES BEFORE
he realized she was not going away. He took one last extra-long blink, just to be sure, and then opened his eyes. Still there.
“Ready to wake up yet?” she asked politely.
“No,” he replied.
She smiled and nodded. “Okay. I can wait.”
Jonah frowned and looked around the room. It was small and mostly empty, apart from a cot tucked against the wall. The walls themselves were made of rusty-looking gray metal, and a few dim light panels flickered on the ceiling, casting everything in an eerie white glow. Jonah wondered why he was sitting on the floor. It was hard and cold.
When he finally turned back to the girl, she was still just smiling patiently and staring at him like he was a new pet. She seemed a little odd.
For one, she was wearing what could only be described as a uniform. It was a faded brown color and far too big, but it had a belt and a black patch sewn onto the chest.
The patch said
in red letters. That was strange enough for someone who must have been about eleven years old. But she also had on a pair of broken glasses, was wearing bright red lipstick, and had wild brown hair tied up in bunches, like a porcupine having a bad hair day.
“Who are you?” Jonah asked.
She stood at attention and saluted. “Willona the Awesome, at your service.”
Jonah raised his eyebrows. “Your name is Willona the Awesome?”
Jonah looked around the room again. “And where am I?”
Fantastic Flying Squirrel
Jonah rubbed his forehead. “The what?”
“I heard you,” Jonah said quickly. “Why am I here?”
Willona smiled happily. “Because you have been specially selected to join the Incredible Space Raiders from Space. You should be honored. There were only two hundred members chosen from the entire solar system. And you were the last! The extra-special recruit. That's why we gave you such a good room.”
Jonah looked around. “This is a good room?”
Willona shrugged and gestured behind him. “Well, you got a window.”
Jonah slowly turned around. His eyes widened.
He wasn't leaning against a wall. It was a window. The
reflection of a small, skinny boy with a mop of messy hair and bright green eyes was staring back at him. Behind that reflection, and behind a few inches of extra-thick glass, was outer space.
And sitting in that, now small in the distance, was the familiar blue-and-green ball that was Earth, where his big white-bricked home with a long black driveway and neatly trimmed lawn stood at the end of Eleventh Drive.
Jonah stared out the window for a moment and then turned back to Willona.
“What is the
Fantastic Flying Squirrel
?” he whispered.
Willona smiled. “Come with me.”
â¢Â Â â¢Â Â â¢
Willona led Jonah down a long hallway made of the same dark-gray metal as the room he'd woken up in. Dusty old light panels ran along the ceiling, and most of them were flickering ominously or out altogether. Large steel double doors with black-and-yellow stripes blocked the hallway farther ahead. There was no plush carpet or nice pictures or anything else Jonah was used to seeing in hallways on Earthâjust identical gray doors lining both walls, all with little grooves for handles. There were lots of those.
As they walked, kids in overlarge brown uniforms kept marching by or popping out of open doorways. Every one of them grinned at Jonah and saluted crisply.
They looked normal enough, besides the uniforms and the fact that many were holding long metal pipes
like weapons. They were all kids, the oldest only about fifteen years old. Most were wearing ratty old sneakers, but a few had no shoes at all.
“This hallway is called Squirrel Street,” Willona said, gesturing around them. “It's where every Space Raider lives. But you see those big double doors with the warning stripes? Squirrel Street continues on the other side of it, but we can't go there unless ordered by a lieutenant or the commander, because that's the next sectorâthere are four sectors total. This is Sector Three. It's clearly the best sector, which is probably why they put me here.”
Jonah felt he should sit down. She patted one of the identical gray doors.
“Most of these doors lead to bedrooms like yours, but we also have bathrooms and, of course, a cafeteriaâone for each sector.” She glanced back. “Are you all right?”
Jonah shook his head. “No.”
“That's okay,” she said. “It's a lot to take in.”
It wasn't the fact that they were in space that was so perplexing to Jonah. In the year 2156, space travel was fairly common. Humans had overpopulated Earth fifty years ago, and they now also lived in domed colonies all across the solar system. There was even a colony on icy Pluto. Jonah had never been on a spaceship before, but his parents had.
What was confusing was that the only people he had seen on this ship were children, and they were marching
around like they were the crew. That had to be illegal.
“Where are the adults?” Jonah asked.
Willona laughed and kept walking. “Adults? The ISR doesn't need adults.”
Jonah frowned as a boy with red hair saluted and walked by.
“Who are you people?”
“Ah,” Willona said, “I should probably explain.”
She stopped in the middle of the hallway and pulled a notepad out of her uniform pocket. Adjusting her glassesâeven though there were no lensesâshe turned to the first page and started reading.
“ââWelcome, recruit. You're probably wondering where you are.'â” She looked up and smiled. “I really should start with this.”
Willona continued reading.
“ââFour years ago scientists on Earth made a groundbreaking discovery. They found new life.'â”
“I never heard about that,” Jonah said.
She glanced up at him. “May I continue?”
“Sorry,” Jonah murmured.
“ââThere was just one problem: The life they found was not friendly. They called them the Entirely Evil Thingsâor the EETs. The EETs come from a starless part of our galaxy called the Dark Zone. The scientists observed black ships flying out of the Dark Zone, and whenever the EETs found a habitable planet, they landed and
proceeded to consume all life. Earth sent a ship to the Dark Zone to make contact, but they never heard from it again. Since then, we've stopped trying to talk.'â”
Jonah didn't like where this was going.
“ââOn that day, Earth came up with a new plan. The Incredible Space Raiders'âthat's usââwere selected to travel to the Dark Zone and destroy the Entirely Evil Things.'â”
Jonah paled. “But we're just kids.”
“Exactly,” Willona said, looking up. “The EETs prey on our weaknessesâour fears and mistakes and worries. An adult has too many. And so the ISR is made up entirely of children: those pure of heart and full of noble intention.”
She returned to her notes.
“ââIf we don't stop them, the Entirely Evil Things will spread across the universe, consuming everything in their path. And so you, noble recruit, are now officially a member of Earth's last defense, and you are tasked with saving humanity from evil.'â”
Willona closed the notepad and met Jonah's eyes.
“And that is not the only danger we face,” she whispered, looking around the hallway. “The
is home to two other forces of evil. The first is Captain White Shark and his crew. They were hired by Earth to take us to the Dark Zone, because only a crew so evil could ever survive there. There are rumors that they kill Space
Raiders for fun. Not sure if it's true, but I wouldn't be surprised.”
Jonah felt his knees wobbling.
Willona leaned in. “But that's not the worst thing on this ship.”
“It's not?” Jonah murmured.
She shook her head. “We call it the Shrieker. It roams the hallways, coming and going like a shadow. You'll hear it in your sleep. What is it? We don't know. A ghost, maybe. An alien creature. A monster. But it's not human, we know that. And it preys on Space Raiders who venture outside the safety of Squirrel Street.”
Willona stood up straight.
“This is a dangerous ship. But we are Space Raiders, and our only job is to survive long enough to get to the Dark Zone and save the universe from evil. Do you accept your noble task?”
“Wellâ,” Jonah said.
“Excellent,” Willona cut in. “Shall we?”
She continued marching down the hallway, and Jonah hurried to catch up. They walked past a second, smaller hallway that joined up with Squirrel Street. Gathered at the entrance to the hallway were ten Space Raiders standing in front of a tall boy with dark hair and serious brown eyes. He was giving them a lesson.
“The EETs are big,” he said, “but they have trouble hitting a moving target. You have to be fast, and when
the time comes you have to attack even faster.”
He started swinging his metal pipe back and forth in a complex pattern, and then he suddenly lunged forward, stabbing at an invisible enemy, shouting, “Take that, fiend!” As he did, the other Space Raiders followed him in perfect synchronization. They looked very impressive.
For just a second, Jonah thought it might be nice to be on a team. He'd never been on one before, other than the Science Club, and they definitely didn't get to use weapons, unless you counted the time Jonah's experiment blew up and turned his partner's face green. But these kids looked like a real team: They followed orders and worked together and were probably friends, which wasn't really like the Science Club either. Jonah didn't have a lot of friends. Actually, he didn't have any. Taking one last look at the group of kids, he hurried after Willona, who was already well past the hallway.
“For the next week, you will be in training,” Willona said as he fell into step behind her. “I call the program Space Raider Training 101.” She stopped and handed him a sheet of paper. “Here. I've prepared you a syllabus for Day One.”
1.Â Introduction to the ISR
2.Â Tour of Sector Three: Refreshments Available
3.Â Break (Naptime?)
4.Â Uniform Fitting
5.Â Bonker Training with AlexâNO ADVENTURING
6.Â Orientation Session: Ship Schedule
7.Â Rules Pop Quiz
(Pretend you didn't see that)
9.Â Bedtime: I DO NOT Tuck In
Jonah frowned as he looked over the syllabus. He had so many questions, it was hard to pick just one. But there was one thing Willona had said that had kind of stood out.
“How do you know the Shrieker preys on Space Raiders?”
Willona just started marching again, and Jonah jogged after her.
“How do you know?” he asked again.
Willona hesitated and looked at him. “Because it's already eaten seven of us.”
EVEN? JONAH WHISPERED, FEELING HIS
knees wobbling again.
She nodded and put her hand on her badge. “May they raid in peace. And that's just on this trip. We are the seventh batch of Space Raiders to travel to the Dark Zone.”
“What happened to the first six?”
Willona paused. “We'll find out when we get there.” She patted Jonah's shoulder. “It's better not to think of it. Not until you're trained, anyway. Come on. We have a lot to cover.”
They walked by an open doorway, and Jonah saw two girls standing beside it, talking quietly. One glanced at him and smiled. She was very pretty, with long, kind of tangled black hair, dark eyes, and tiny dimples on her cheeks.
“Victoria the Avenger,” Willona whispered. “Her younger brother, Matt, was one of the seven who were eaten. He was a good kid. I'd just finished training him.”
Jonah gave the girl an awkward smile and tried to think. How had he gotten here?
He remembered sitting by himself in his living room. His parents didn't come home from work until eight o'clock, and his older sister, Mara, was at her boyfriend's house. That was nothing new: Jonah was used to being alone. His parents worked until eight o'clock every evening, even on weekends.
And so he was sitting there by himself doing his math homework and eating a ham sandwich with mustard. That was when he'd heard a noise like a window sliding open. Jonah had looked back, frowning. He didn't hear anything else, so he continued with his math homework. He was good at math, but the current problem was a bit tricky.
Then he heard a whisper.
Now Jonah was alarmed. He wasn't an overly brave boy. He was scared of the dark and of forests, and he even hid under the covers during storms until the thunder and lightning stopped. His sister called him a baby. His father said he was “a little weak in the knees.” Even his mother said he was more of a thinker than a doer, which he assumed was her motherly way of calling him a coward.
And so he'd stood up and slowly tiptoed into the kitchen, his hands already trembling. He remembered thinking that if his parents had just gotten him a dog like he'd asked for every birthday since he was four years old, this kind of thing wouldn't happen. But his mother said a dog would just ruin their nice white carpets.
Jonah made it to the kitchen and peeked through the window. He froze.
There was a spaceship sitting in his driveway. Someone had come to his house from space. That had to be a bad thing.
“You sure about this?” he heard a man with a deep voice say.
“It says Jonah Hillcrest.”
Jonah turned around sharply. The voices were coming from the hallway.
“It just doesn't seem right,” the man with the deep voice said.
“We're already way behind schedule. You really want to double-check?”
Jonah crept toward the living room, his whole body shaking. How did they know his name? He needed to get out of here, but they were blocking the front door. The only other way was to get to the back door through the living room. He peeked in. The coast was clear. Summoning his courage, he made a break for the back door.
He was halfway there when he felt a powerful jolt hit him square in the back. His legs suddenly went numb, and he toppled face-first onto the living room floor.
“This better be the right one,” the man with the deep voice said.
“I'm sure it is. Oh, he's still awake.”
“Not for long. Sleep tight, Jonah. Time to go save the world.”
He felt another jolt, and then it suddenly went dark.
When Jonah opened his eyes again, he was here.
He stopped and looked at Willona. “Men kidnapped me,” he whispered. “I remember everything now. I tried to run away, but they shot me with something andâ”
Willona nodded. “That was the crew. They took all of us.”
“I don't understand. Why did no one tell me I was becoming a Space Raider?”
Willona just patted his arm and continued down the hall.
“They don't tell you you're becoming a Space Raider. Once you're selected, they just come for you. It's not a choice to be a hero. It's a job.”
Jonah blinked again as Willona marched down the hallway. He tried it three more times and then sighed. She just wasn't going away. Which meant he really was on the
Fantastic Flying Squirrel
. And he really was an Incredible Space Raider.
And he really had left his family behind.
Which of course meant they had sent him here. His mom and dad. They must have known. Maybe his sister, too. She did call him a constant annoyance. But this?
“Coming?” Willona called. “We have a very tight schedule. You're a Space Raider now, which means you have less
than a month to get ready to save the universe. But no rush. Just stop and think for a while. Take it all inâ”
“All right, I'm coming,” Jonah said.
He hurried after her, though he did try one more blink.
â¢Â Â â¢Â Â â¢
Willona led Jonah up and down Squirrel Street for a while longer, pointing out the cafeteria and the bathrooms and even listing the names of the other Space Raiders.
“There's Ben the Brilliant, Kyla the Courageous, Daniel the Ninjaâ”
“Am I supposed to remember all these names?” Jonah asked.
She glanced at him. “Yes.”
Jonah tried to take a better look at Sector Three as they walked. There were a few things he didn't understand. Everything looked old and worn and beaten down: The light panels weren't just flickering, he noticed nowâthey were covered with dust and grime. The doors were clearly designed to be automatic, but everywhere he looked, Space Raiders were sliding them open by hand. Even the floors were weathered and stained with oil and other dark spots that might just have been blood. Overall, it was a very unpleasant place.
“If we're saving the universe, why don't we have a better ship?” Jonah asked.
Willona looked at him in shock, covering the nearest wall with her hands.
Fantastic Flying Squirrel
is the greatest ship in the fleet,” she whispered.
Jonah frowned. “I don't think it can hear youâ”
may not lookÂ .Â .Â . the prettiest,” she said slowly, dusting her hands off on her uniform. “But it's the fastest ship in the solar system, and more important, it's very hard to spot. Considering we're sneaking into enemy territory, you're going to appreciate that. It might just save your life. Now say sorry.”
“Sorry,” Jonah said.
She rolled her eyes. “To the ship, obviously.”
“Oh,” Jonah murmured. “SorryÂ .Â .Â .
Fantastic Flying Squirrel
She smiled. “Better. Now, did you notice the side hallway we walked by?”
“Don't go down there, unless you want to be eaten by the Shrieker.”
She continued walking, and Jonah hurried after her again. They were heading to the far side of Sector Three now, past the room Jonah had woken up in.
As they walked, Willona explained that the sectors were organized by when the recruits were brought to the ship. The
started at Earth and then stopped at each inhabited planet on the way out of the solar system to grab the new recruits. The Space Raiders from Sector Oneâwhich was led by the commanderâcame
entirely from Earth, while Sector Two came from the large colonies on the moon and Mars. Sector ThreeâJonah's sectorâcame from Saturn and Jupiter's moons, and Sector Four came from Pluto and from the moons of Uranus and Neptune. Of course, everyone spoke English anywayâJonah remembered learning that fifty years ago the Commission for Human Expansion had decided that one official language would be better for human expansion, since people from all over the world would live together in colonies. As a result all humans learned English now, along with their native language.
“But I'm from Earth,” Jonah said. “Shouldn't I be in Sector One?”
She smiled. “You should. But you didn't come on with the rest of them. The ship had to go all the way back to Earth for you. Two extra weeks to get one recruit! That's how we knew you were so important. And then the crew brought you to
sector in a bag. We don't know why, but obviously you're meant to be here with us.”
“The crew brought me in a bag?” Jonah asked incredulously.
Willona nodded and kept walking. “They bring all the recruits in bags. Regular people don't know about the ISR, Jonah. They would panic. This entire program is top secret. No one can see the crew take kids off the street. Those are the rules.”
She snapped her fingers. “That reminds me,” she said, fishing a piece of paper out of her pocket. “The rules!” She handed it to Jonah. “Try to memorize these.”
Jonah frowned and took the paper. It read:
1.Â NEVER make contact with Captain White Shark or the crew. Doing so will result in exile,
the crew doesn't kill you first anyway. Which they will.
2.Â NEVER talk about where you came from before joining the ISR.
3.Â NEVER question the commander or a lieutenant.
4.Â NEVER cry or show signs of weakness outside of your quarters.
5.Â NEVER swear or insult other Space Raiders.
6.Â NEVER steal food or water.
7.Â NEVER abandon your post, unless you really have to go to the bathroom.
8.Â NEVER, EVER try to communicate with the Shrieker. It will eat you.
Jonah frowned. “Why would the crew kill us if we're on an official mission?”
Willona shrugged, considering his question. “Because they're evil. When Earth's first ship went missing, it was full of scientists and soldiers. The best in
the solar system. After that, no one would volunteer to goâexcept Captain White Shark. For some reason, the EETs wouldn't kill him or his crew. I think it's because they only like to destroy things that are good, like us. And because he can survive the trip, Captain White Shark is the only one who can take us. That's why we're stuck with an evil crew that loves to kill Space Raiders.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“But when the war is over, we'll come back and take our vengeance. Let's continue.”
Willona led him to the end of Sector Three, which Jonah knew because the hall ended at big double doors with black-and-yellow stripes and a handwritten sign saying
. Willona stopped at the last gray door on the right and pulled it open.
“These are my quarters. Before you start training, I have to give you something.”
Jonah followed her into the bedroom. It looked the same as his, except there was a pile of various items in the corner. There was also a photograph sitting on the bed. It was fairly crumpled, but Jonah saw two smiling people holding a little girl with brown hair.
“Who's that?” Jonah asked.
Willona turned around and made a noise like a squeal. She hurried over to the bed and snatched up the photo.
“Nothing,” she said quickly. “Left that out. Shouldn't even have it, actually.” She tucked the photo under her
blanket. “Nothing, though. Never mind that. Classified.”
She gave Jonah an awkward smile and headed back to the corner, where she grabbed a pen and a dusty notepad. After a quick check to make sure the pen worked, she handed both to Jonah.
Jonah looked at the notepad, confused. “I don't need a diary.”
She nodded. “Yes you do. Commander's orders. Everyone writes in a journal.”
Willona forced another smile. “It helps with the Space Sadness.”
“Space Sadness?” Jonah asked, frowning.
“Being on the ship out hereÂ .Â .Â . sometimes recruits get down. Not me. Not much. Well, sometimes. Writing helps. I know you're used to a tablet, but it's kind of nice to write. Like we're explorers on an old sea ship on Earth.”
Jonah didn't want the journal, but he took it anyway and tucked it into his pocket. “Thank you.”
She gave him a real smile this time. “It's going to get better. Trust me. You're going to love it here.” She patted his arm. “Why don't you take a break? Lie down for a bit. When you get up, you can get your uniform and start training. Jemma will have it finished by now. We need to get you out of thatÂ .Â .Â . thing.”
Jonah looked down. He was still wearing his school uniform: crisp blue pants and a matching jacket with black-and-white trim on the arms and legs. Every student at Pinewood Boys' Academy wore the same outfit. It was a very strict and very expensive private school. Jonah didn't really like it there, but his parents insisted it was good for his future. They always liked to talk about his future.
“What's wrong with this one?”
She made a face. “You almost look like an adult.”
“I think that was the point,” Jonah said.
“Well, it won't do. You need to dress like a Space Raider.” She looked up and away, as if staring at a distant sunrise. “It's not an easy life. But if we don't stand up to the Entirely Evil Things from the Dark Zone, who will?”
Jonah followed her gaze, confused. “About the Entirely Evil Thingsâ”
“I'll take you back now,” Willona said, heading for the door. She stopped and glanced back. “Can you not tell anyone about the photo?”
“Yeah, sure,” Jonah said.
She smiled. “I'm starting to like you, Jonah. Sure, you look like you're going to faint whenever I mention EETs. And you ask too many questions. And you're not very good with names. But there's something about you. I think you are special. I have no idea what that means, exactly, but it's always good to be special.”
“I don't feel very special,” Jonah muttered.
“We're all special in the ISR!” Willona said, starting down the hallway. “Billions of kids out there, and we were chosen to save the universe. Why? Who knows! Well, I'm pretty awesome, as you can obviously see, but it's not always so easy to tell.Â .Â .Â .”
Jonah took one last look at the bed, thinking about the photo, and then started after her. As far as he knew, he wasn't awesome at all. If anything, he was kind of a wimp. So why had the
gone all the way back to Earth to get him?
And more important, was it ever going to take him home?
Dear Mom and Dad,
There's a good chance I'm going to be eaten by the Shrieker or EETs. I was supposed to use this notepad as a diary, but it made more sense to write you a letter. Hopefully it will get to you one day.
I don't think it will make much sense if I explain where I am, so I won't bother. I also hear some people shouting outside, and I'm starting to think something is about to burst into my bedroom soon and eat me. So before that happens, I just wanted to say I love you. I think I was an all right kid, though I probably could have been better. I kept leaving my clothes on the floor. I don't know why. My closet was right there. I was doing my homework when I was abducted, so I guess that's something.
Also, can you please tell Mara I'm sorry I called her the ugliest thing in the universe? While I haven't
seen the Shrieker, I'm guessing it's probably uglier. Plus, calling her ugly wasn't very nice in the first place. Maybe tell her I love her too. Not her boyfriend, though. He calls me Jonie when you're not around.
Anyway, I should probably see if I can lock my door or something. I'm hoping I can give you this letter myself. If not, good-bye.
Jonah read his letter over a few times and then tucked the journal safely under his blanket, satisfied. His parents always said you should speak formally in letters, and he'd tried his best. Even the penmanship was fairly good, considering he hadn't written anything with a pen since he was seven, and even then they just did it in history class to see how people used to write. You could barely even tell his hands were trembling when he wrote it.
He looked around the small bedroom and noticed something on the wall beside the door. He got up and hurried over. It was writing. It was hard to read on the dark-metal walls, but when he got really close he could make out five different names written there.
Robert the Great was here. Go, ISR!
Imran the Intelligent stayed in this room
Adam the Titan lived here. I'm coming for you, EETs
Danielle the Dynamo was here. Best Space Raider Ever
Home of Shoen the Slick. On the way to help the first recruits!
Jonah decided to add his name to the list. There wasn't much else to do.
He was just turning away to grab his pen when he noticed more writing in the corner, away from the others. It was faded and even harder to read. Peering really close, Jonah managed to make it out:
I want to go home.
Jonah frowned. That one didn't quite match the others.
There was a knock. Jonah hesitated and then decided the Shrieker probably wouldn't knock first. He slowly answered the door.
It was Willona.
“Get some sleep?” she asked brightly.
Jonah shook his head. “Not really. Just stared out the window for a while.”
He didn't want to admit he was already using the journal.
“Beautiful, isn't it?”
Jonah turned back to the window. The endless blackness of space was rolling by, spotted with little twinkling stars. “Kind of scary, actually,” he said.
“Yeah, I'm glad I don't have one,” she agreed. She glanced at him. “Sorry. Now we have things to do. First up, you need a uniform.” Willona pulled a little silver-wrapped bar out of her pocket. “Here. I brought you a food bar. You must be hungry.”
“Yeah, actually,” Jonah said, accepting the bar gratefully. “Thanks.”
“There's a rumor going around about us,” Willona said, leading Jonah down Squirrel Street. “I said you had nice eyes, and now everyone thinks we're dating.” She looked back and laughed. “Like I have time for a boyfriend. I have a career to worry about.”
Jonah just frowned and followed her. She really was a strange girl. They headed down the hallway toward Sector Two, and once again there were Space Raiders marching around. A small group was gathered outside one doorway, talking in hushed voices.
“What was all the shouting about?” Jonah asked.
“One of the guards heard shrieking down the Haunted Passage. Whenever that happens, we all clear the hallway in case the Shrieker attacks. Can't be too careful.”
“Oh,” Jonah murmured. He was sorry he'd asked.
He peeled off the silver wrapper as they walked and
took a bite. He almost spit it out. It was dry and crumbly and tasted like kidney beans.
Willona smiled. “We also call them bean bars. But it's all we have, so you better get used to them.”
She stopped in front of a door and knocked. “Jemma?”
A girl pulled the door open and grinned. Her straw-colored hair perched like a bird's nest on her head, bright blue eyes, and freckles dotted her nose and cheeks. Jonah also noticed a few blistered burn marks on her hands, though it was hard to get a good look at them because her hands were always moving.
“Nice to meet you, Jonah,” she said, giving him a quick hug that took Jonah completely by surprise. He glanced at Willona.
“She's a hugger,” Willona said simply.
Jemma shrugged. “Too much saluting on this ship. Come in. It's ready.”
She quickly fetched his uniform from a pile on the floor. He saw another pile of badges that she was sewing with an old kit like one his grandma used to have in her attic.
“Not quite as nice as that one,” she said ruefully, looking at Jonah's school uniform. “But rules are rules.”
Willona and Jemma stepped out to let him change, and he reluctantly took off his blue uniform and slid into the coarse brown fabric. The uniform was a one-piece jumper that zipped up the front, with two deep pockets
and a black belt to keep it snug at the waist. It hung a bit loosely from his arms, but he could tell that Jemma had tried to stitch it to fit his skinny body. The pant legs had been hemmed, as had the sleeves. He ran his fingers over the ISR badge on the chest, which was an inverted black triangle with the red letters in the middle.
“You can come in,” he said.
Willona and Jemma hurried back inside.
“Not bad, not bad,” Jemma mused, looking him up and down. “A little baggy.”
“He'll grow into it,” Willona said.
Jemma smiled and scooped up the blue uniform. Her teeth were a bit yellow and crooked, but it was somehow comforting when she smiled. It seemed like she meant it.
“He looks like a Space Raider,” Jemma said. She looked down at Jonah's socked feet. “Keep your shoes, Jonah. I'll turn the rest of the uniform into a blanket.”
Jonah slid on his polished black shoes. “Can I at least have the blanket?”
Jemma laughed. “Sure. Good luck with your training.”
She bundled up his old uniform, and Jonah noticed that her sleeves had rolled back just a little. The burn marks continued all the way up her arms. He returned her smile and followed Willona down the hallway.
They soon stopped in front of another door, and Willona knocked again.
“What are we doing now?” Jonah asked.
are starting training with Alex,” Willona said, leaving Jonah at the door and continuing down Squirrel Street. “We have another lesson in an hour. And try to memorize those rules. There will be a test!” She paused. “I mean there could be. It's a pop quizÂ .Â .Â . so who knows? Maybe there won't be. But study. I would definitely study.”
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Jonah stood by the doorway as the small, shrewd-looking boy known as Alex the Adventurer laid a hand-drawn map out on the floor. There were six metal pipes leaning against the wall in his bedroom, which looked exactly like Jonah's, minus the window.
Finally, when the map was laid out and held down by four pipes, Alex glanced up. He looked like a very clever mouse. His sandy hair was wispy and a bit long, hanging down beside his big round ears. His eyes were blue and moved around a lot, as if he wanted to see everything all the time. In short, he looked like the perfect adventurer.
“Jonah, right?” His voice was squeaky. Jonah wasn't surprised.
Jonah nodded. “Yeah.”
Jonah sat down cross-legged in front of the map. Its lines were a bit wobbly, and apparently drawn with an old black pen.
“This is the
Fantastic Flying Squirrel
,” Alex said, using a metal pipe as a pointer. “As you can see, there are many different parts. Some I've seen, but some of this information has been passed down from the second and first most important adventurers.”
Jonah looked up. “You're the third most important?”
Alex swelled with pride. “Recently promoted from fourth.”
“Congratulations,” Jonah said.
“Thank you,” Alex replied curtly, though he seemed pleased that Jonah had said something. His ears even turned red. “As I was saying, there are many different parts of the
. I'm sure Willona told you about the sectors. But more important are these two.” He pointed at a long section at the top of the ship and a rectangular
section near the back. “You are not to go in these two areas. Ever. Period. Never. If you go there, you won't come back. Trust me.”
“What are they?” Jonah asked quietly.
“The top section is the bridge and the quarters. That's where Captain White Shark and his crew live. Nasty bunch. If you run into them, you're a goner.”
Jonah nodded. “And the back?”
“The Unknown Zone. Home of the Shrieker,” Alex said quietly, glancing at the door. “If you hear shrieking, run and hide. It comes fast. And it takes Space Raiders, too.”
“Willona said you've already lost seven.”
Alex solemnly put his hand on his patch. “May they raid in peace.”
“What does that mean?” Jonah whispered.
“I don't know,” Alex said. “But it seems like a nice thing to say.”
Jonah pointed at the rest of the sections on the ship. “What are all these areas?”
“The Wild Zones. No one has a claim there. Only the bravest ever enter those areas. Except this one,” he said, pointing at a hallway that ran alongside Squirrel Street. “The Haunted Passage. I go there all the time.”
He shrugged. “Because I'm an adventurer. Actually, I'm due for a scouting mission again. Might be good training. Want to check it out?”
“Not really,” Jonah said.
“Don't worryâit's safe. I've gone there four times and never seen the Shrieker.” He stood up and handed Jonah a metal pipe. “Here, take a bonker. You'll get your own when you're trained, but you can borrow this one for now.”
“A bonker?” Jonah asked, taking the pipe.
He pretended to hit something. “You know, like,
. It's the sound it makes when it hits someone. We think. Never actually hit anyone yet. Now let's get going. It'll be good for you. Get used to the ship a little.”
“I guess,” Jonah said. He really didn't like the sound of that Shrieker.
“That's the spirit,” Alex said, starting for the door. “You'll fit in just fine.”
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Five minutes later, Jonah and Alex were walking down a very dark corridor. Jonah could see why it was called the Haunted Passage. Only a few light panels worked here, and even those flickered like candles. Every footstep sounded incredibly loud in the still, heavy silence. The only thing Jonah heard was the ship's engine, which sounded like a moaning ghost in the darkness. He was already trembling.
“Cool, right?” Alex whispered.
“Supercool,” Jonah said.
He didn't want to seem like a wimp. But he'd seen
the way the hall guards looked at him when he walked by. Like Jonah was a goner.
“Where does it go?” he asked quietly.
“It leads to the Unknown Zone.” He glanced at Jonah. “You ever go on any adventures at home?”
“Not really,” Jonah said. “I went into a forest once.”
“I forgot you used to be from Earth! You're the last recruit. The special one.”