Revisions Revisited

For the longest time, I have been struggling with the end of Dr. Fixit’s Malicious Machine. It’s been eating at me, and kept me from working on the sequel like I should have. A recent review concurred with my concerns, and yet I still couldn’t put my finger on the exact reason why the end seemed… so flat. Then, one night, I finally realized it — it’s all about the character! Trevor, AKA Guts, wasn’t acting like he should, so his character development wasn’t working either. The character development glitch messed with the storyline, the action… everything. So I fixed the scene that didn’t work, and that led to fixing the entire end! I’m SO much happier with the revisions! I’ll be uploading them to Createspace soon, but for now…

For those who have already bought the book and want to see the changes, I’m posting them here so you don’t have to buy a new copy. Please let me know what you think of them. CAUTION: If you haven’t read the book and are planning on it, DON’T read beyond this paragraph. The revisions are of the END of the story, and thus contain spoilers. Thanks! 🙂

Chapter 17

A Dangerous Gamble

I don’t know how many twists and turns we navigated – through busted-up streets, under broken-down bridges, in-between hulking, glass and iron skeletons of buildings – before we finally got to the edge of downtown Nil. All I know is that with every turn, we ran into more and more Kids. They were everywhere. I’d thought the Crows were a big army but now I knew better. In comparison to the full population of Nil, the Crows were nothing.

There’s always more where they came from, Dr. Fixit had said. And now I believed it!

Finally we came out to an open area that overlooked a bay full of swirling rapids. To one side, a huge bridge had been broken in half, and now lie in the dark water like a dead body.

The bridge reminded me of my own city back on Earth, and I was suddenly struck with a bunch of questions. Who had lived in Nil before? Had they been like the people on Earth? Going to school and work? Having parties and holidays?

And what happened to them all?

It was hard to think about. After all, what if Nil had been my home? My bedroom with trees growing out of the floor? My street destroyed? My family split up and at war with each-other?

It made my gut hurt.

Papercut turned around when he realized I’d stopped walking. “We should check ‘an see if Roach an’ Glory made it there yet.”

I nodded, still staring at the bridge. “Yeah… that’s a good idea.”

“I should go alone,” he said. “We don’t want Fist seein’ ya.”

“Okay,” I said, turning to him. “I’ll wait here. Is it far?”

Papercut pointed away from the bridge, on our side of the water. “The battle camp’s a ways that way, by the cliffs ‘cross from Igh Schoo. I’ll be back inna while. Don’t worry ‘bout the Kids. They won’t mess with ya.”

As Papercut hiked off, I lay down to rest a little bit. Having taken a nap in the egg, I didn’t expect to fall asleep…

“Guts! Whatcha lyin’ down for? We gotta go!”

I sat up with a start in the dead grass overlooking the bay. Looking up, I saw Papercut holding his hand down to help me stand.

I took it. “How long was I out?”

“I dunno. What’re ya doin’ sleepin’ at a time like this? We gotta get ta the battle camp now!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Fist’s got Roach an’ Glory locked up, an’ he’s lookin’ for us. He knows we double-crossed him.”

“How?” I asked. “Wait… does he know about Turtle then?”

Papercut shook his head. “Not that I heard, anyhow. But we gotta rescue Roach an’ Glory. He’s plannin’ on blowin’ ‘em up!”

My eyes went wide. “What?”

“He’s gone totally loony!” Papercut said. “Lucky I ran inta some Crows ‘at Roach  an’ Glory turned ta our side ‘fore they was caught. They told me ‘bout it ‘fore Fist saw me.”

“So they were able to convince some of the Crows at least?”

“Some, yeah. Not lots though. They turned ‘em over ta Fist ‘stead.”

“Crud! So… what’s the plan?”

“Plan?” Papercut laughed. “I ain’t got no plan. What’s your plan, Guts?”

“Don’t you guys ever make your own plans?” I groaned.

“Not when we don’t gotta.”

I rolled my eyes. “Gee, thanks.”

Crawling on our stomachs to the edge of a low hill overlooking the Crows’ battle camp, we were able to spy from a pretty safe distance. They had set up inside an old trainyard. A lot of the dented, rusted boxcars were missing their doors, and most had lost their wheels too. Among them, a few campfires burned here and there, though mostly the place was lit by torches shoved into the ground. Crows were everywhere. Some were doing crazy exercises that were probably supposed to be like boot camp drills, but really just looked like a bunch of kids trying to do P.E. without a teacher. Others sat by the fires, chewing poop gum and sharpening their rusty knives. A few lay inside the boxcars, taking naps in their temporary homes.

“They set the place up fast,” I said. “They couldn’t have gotten here very long before we did.”

“Yup,” Papercut said. “That’s why Fist chose the trainyard. Easy place ta make camp.”

Just then, I spotted him. Fist stood on a round platform at the center of trainyard where the trains used to be turned. His hood was up like always, his face covered in shadow. He towered over two Kids who knelt in front of him, guarded by Snot and his sledgehammer from behind. They were far away and their heads were down, but it was still way easy to recognize Turtle’s black braids… and my sister’s crazy brown hair.

As we watched, Fist said something I couldn’t make out. Tab looked up at him and said something back.

Then Fist leaned down and hit her.

In my whole life, I have never gotten so mad so fast.

It was like my brain snapped. The thought of calming myself down didn’t even enter my head as I scrambled up and started running towards the battle camp at full sprint. Papercut hollered something behind me, but I couldn’t understand him over the angry roar in my mind.

Even if I had, nothing he said would have made a difference anyway.

It felt like a split-second eternity before I found myself on the turntable, facing Fist. He was a whole head taller than me, and tougher and stronger in every way. I didn’t care. I didn’t even pause.

I punched him in the head so hard he fell down.

“TREV! NO!”

I heard Tab’s voice the same as I had heard Papercut’s, like a whisper through the roaring fire in my head.

And I was way past being talked out of it.

I leaned down to punch Fist again, but he jumped up before I had a chance to land another blow. I’d taken him by surprise. That had been my only advantage, and now it was gone.

Before I had a chance to pull back, Fist smacked me in the cheek with his open hand. I staggered, but stayed on my feet. I refused to show weakness even though my cheek felt like it was on fire. That had knocked enough sense into me to stop my attack, but I was still fuming as I glared up at the bully who towered over me under the orange sky.

“So, the great hero’s come back ta save his sister, huh?” Fist sneered. He flexed his hand into a spiked hammer and held it up. “How ‘bout I made your dumbface inta a uglyface?”

Snot laughed, and it was like a dam broke.

The other Crows who had gathered around us started laughing too, pointing and jeering at me like I was some freak of nature. And suddenly it was like I was on the playground all over again. Alone and hated by everyone.

The roar started up in my ears again. I gritted my teeth. A deep growl came from somewhere nearby. It was a moment before I realized it was coming from me.

“Well, Dumbface? Whatcha waitin’ for?” Fist said, stepping back with a smirk. “Ya started this, so let’s finish it.”

Still growling, I flexed my fists at my sides.

“NO!” Tab screamed.

I stepped up to Fist, but he threw a punch before I had a chance. I barely dodged it, tripping under his upraised arm and falling on one knee. The crowd gasped. Most of them cheered.

As I tried to catch my balance, Fist punched me in the side. I fell hard, wincing in pain.

The crowd roared.

I didn’t even have a chance to roll over before he kicked me in the same side, doubling the pain and taking my breath away. Red clouds washed over my sight, and my anger vanished.

I covered my head with my arms as Fist leaned over me.

“Ya wanna beg for yer life, Dumbface?” he whispered.

I blinked the pain-haze from my eyes and looked up at him. He was so close I could see that his face was covered by a black rag-mask under the hoodie.

But that wasn’t the only thing I saw.

Fightin’ don’t fix fightin’. It just leads ta more fightin’.

Books’ words rang in my mind as I realized in a split-second that there was only one way to survive this, and it had nothing to do with my own fists.

I reached up and ripped Fist’s mask off.

I only got a glimpse of the whole tattoo that covered his cheek before he punched me again, and everything went black.

Chapter 18

Death from Above

I didn’t really expect to wake up. When I did, I kind of wished I hadn’t.

I hurt. Everywhere.

“Trev! You’re awake!” Tab said, kneeling by my side. She smiled, then smacked me upside the head.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“You promised not to do anything stupid,” she reminded me. “You broke your promise.”

“To save your life,” I said.

“I don’t remember making any terms about lifesaving,” she said. “What were you thinking? You could have gotten yourself killed!”

“I was thinking I had to get Fist out of the picture,” I said, pushing myself up on my elbows with a groan. I was lying in one of the boxcars on a bed of rags. My head had been bandaged with more rags so that I couldn’t see out of one eye, and my shirt had been taken off, a big bandage wrapped tightly around my waist.

Turtle and Papercut walked into the boxcar.

“Bout time ya woke up,” Papercut said. “I got some bad news.”

Great. More bad news.

I looked at Turtle. “Why aren’t you at the Net Nest?”

She bit her lip. “I just got back. I ran here fast’s I could when I heard ya was hurt.”

“Did you turn off the bombs?”

“Yeah she did,” Papercut said. “But the plan didn’t ‘zactly work the way we ‘spected. Ya coulda told me ya was gonna just let him beat the crud outta ya.”

“You saw it, right? Fist’s face? You saw?”

Papercut glanced at Turtle. “Yeah, Guts. I saw. We all saw.”

I closed my one good eye. “Thank God.”

“It’d been great if ya woulda told me he was a Teen,” Papercut said. “It was all I could do ta keep the Crows from killin’ him right there.”

I opened my eye again, surprised. “You protected him?”

“I figgerd we could use him somehow,” Papercut said with a shrug.

“So where is he now?”

“He run off,” Turtle said. “Somea the Crows went ta find him, but it’s like he turned inta air.”

“Prob’y went back ta Igh Schoo,” Papercut said. “Traitor.”

“But then he’ll tell the Teens about the bombs,” I said. “They’ll attack us just for having them!”

“Don’t matter anyhow,” Papercut said. “The Crows already dropped one just ‘fore we got here.”

I looked at Turtle. “I thought you said you turned them off!”

“I did,” she said. “But I wasn’t fast ‘nuff I guess.”

I looked at Tab, but she didn’t seem devastated by the news. “So… Mom and Emily and Books..?”

“They’re fine as far as we know,” Tab said. “We got lucky. Fist made Snot drop the bomb, and he missed.”

“He… missed?”

They nodded.

“You know,” I said, lying back down on my rag-pillow. “All this stress can’t be good for me.”

Tab laughed.

“We ain’t safe yet, Guts,” Papercut said. “The Teens ain’t just gonna let us go after that. They gotta make a point ta the other Kids ‘a Nil that we can’t go ‘round bombin’ ‘em like this.”

“They’re gonna get us,” Turtle said. “Get us real good.”

I certainly can’t have you stopping my glorious war.

Remembering the doctor’s ominous words, I looked at Tab. “They’re right. Dr. Fixit won’t let it end like this. He’ll send the Teens.”

She nodded. “Then we have work to do.”

I winced a little as she helped me stand, but already the pain wasn’t as bad. Then again, I had always been a fast healer.

“The Crows need a leader now, Guts,” Papercut said. “They’re lookin’ at you. We all are.”

I sighed. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“Who else?” Turtle said. “You’re Guts an’ Glory! Ya gotta lead us!”

I looked at Tab. She bit her lip, then nodded.

“We started this, Trev. We have to finish it.”

“What about not wanting to get involved in Nil’s war?” I asked.

She snorted. “I think it’s a little late for that, don’t you?”

I looked around at the Crows. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess it is.”

Papercut smiled. “Good.” He stepped aside and opened the boxcar door. “So, lead us already.”

I took Tab’s hand and squeezed.

“For Mom.”

She nodded. “And Emily.”

We looked at each-other. Then, at the same time we said, “And for Nil.”

Together we walked outside to a hail of cheers. Once again the crowd of Crows roared names over and over again. Except this time, the names were ours.

Kind of.

“GUTS! GLORY! GUTS! GLORY!”

Taking a cue from their previous leader, I threw my free hand up in a fist.

The Crows went silent.

“Creepy,” I whispered to myself. I cleared my throat. “By now you all know that your former leader was an imposter. Fist was not a Kid, but a branded Teen. He hid himself from you for this long, but I’m not hiding.” Dropping Tab’s hand, I reached up and unraveled my head bandage, throwing it on the ground. “Look at my face. Like many of you, I have scars. But I don’t have a tattoo!”

The crowd roared again.

“Things are going to change now. No more scaring other Kids. No more bombing Teens. From now on, the Crows are a defensive force only.”

They looked at each-other, confused.

“Uh, Guts? What’s defensive mean?” Papercut asked from behind me.

“It means we’re still going to protect Kids from Teens, but not by hurting them,” I said.

“Then how?” a small voice asked from the crowd.

“By being smarter than them,” Tab said. “By building walls and defenses against them. We have to protect the little ones, not leave them alone to fend for themselves because we got killed running into a fight we can’t win.”

I nodded. “Bullies hurt. Heroes defend. We’re not bullies. We’re heroes. And it’s time to act like it!”

Cheers rang out again just as Roach pushed her way through the crowd.

“Guts!” She threw her arms around me.

I winced. “Ow!”

“Oh!” she jumped back. “Sorry! I’m just so glad you’re okay!”

“I will be,” I said. I turned to face Papercut and Turtle. “I’m calling a meeting. We have plans to make.”

“Anybody know what the Teens are going to do first?” I asked as we gathered back in my boxcar. Tab, Papercut, Roach, Turtle, Shark and Snot were all there, though Snot didn’t look too happy about it. But with that sledgehammer of his – not to mention his anger towards Fist – I decided it might be a good idea to give him something productive to do.

“They’ll send Buzzbots first,” Turtle said. “They always do that, no matter what we done wrong.”

I nodded. “Okay, then what? I don’t think buzzbots are enough this time.”

“The Teens’ll come then,” Snot said. “After the buzzbots got us squirmin’ an’ hurtin’ on the ground. Cuz it’ll be easier ta beat us up.”

“An’ maybe more ‘an that,” Roach whispered.

The Crows looked at each-other, and not even Snot could hide the fear in his eyes. There was no way they could know what Dr. Fixit planned for them, but seeing their faces, it seemed to me that they had a pretty good idea anyway.

If they die, they die.

Dr. Fixit wasn’t just going to make the Teens hurt the Kids. Not this time.

“No!” I said. “The Teens won’t hurt you. Not this time, and not ever again. We’re going to end this war once and for all. Here’s the plan—”

A shrill scream suddenly cut through the boxcar wall, stopping me mid-sentence.

Together, we rushed outside.

“What’s—?” I started.

“Buzzbots!” a Crow screamed, running past us.

“It’s too late!” Roach said. She pointed towards the water. “Look!”

A massive dark cloud of buzzbots was headed straight toward us. It was at least ten times bigger than the one that had chased me, Tab and Books from the mall

“What’re we gonna do?” Snot said.

Not taking my eyes off the buzzbot cloud, I loaded my gun with a red ball. “We’re going to get rid of them, that’s what. I just wish I knew how far this shoots.”

“The balls go ‘bout half a block,” Turtle said. “I was there when Books tested it.”

I grimaced. Half a city block. I had to let the buzzbot cloud get at least that close to us in order to shoot it. And I was going to have to make this shot count. At the rate the buzzbots were flying, if it didn’t get all of them I wouldn’t have time to load again.

“Get behind me,” I said. “You don’t want to get hit by this thing.”

Tab and the Crows stepped back as I took aim. The cloud was now about a block away from where I stood, the front bugs having already passed into the outlying edges of the trainyard. It took every inch of courage I had to not shoot at the buzzbots too soon… or even just run away. But I remembered little Blaze, and all the little Crows who would be hurt by those evil robotic wasps if I didn’t stop them, and I held my ground.

“Uh, Guts? They’re gettin’ pretty close,” Papercut said.

I didn’t answer. Every inch of my concentration was on the buzzbots.

Closerrrr.

I tightened my finger on the trigger as the buzzing became almost unbearably loud.

Closerrrr.

Then, I pulled the trigger.

BzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZAAAAAAAAAP!

When the buzzball hit the swarm it was like the loudest, brightest fireworks display I’d ever seen or heard. I dropped to the ground instantly, covering my ears as a million electrified bugs BZZZZZZZd and POPOPOPOPOPed until I was sure my eardrums were bleeding. What made it the very worst was the LIGHT. Red firebolts as big as Mars lit up the world until all I could see behind my closed eyes was a blinding red haze, and all I could feel was an evil little Zeus beating the inside of my skull with tiny red lightning bolts.

And then I felt the first sting on my cheek.

Somehow, I pushed myself to my feet. Still holding my ears, I screamed as loud as I could to the others.

“They’re not all dead! RUN!”

I took off as fast as I could. I could barely see where I was going through my red-headache haze, but I only had to know I was headed away from the camp. As I broke out from behind the last row of boxcars, I saw the dark blur of trees nearby and made a beeline towards them.

I had just broken through the treeline when I realized something that almost made me trip over my feet from shock. The red zaps hadn’t gone away! Every time before when I’d used my buzzball gun, the electric streaks had winked out fast. But these were still going strong.

Why?

I slowed down just enough to look back without tripping over my feet. What I saw almost made me fall anyway.

I don’t know if they’d adapted or what, but somehow the buzzbots had defied the buzzball zaps, and all of them were still alive. Not only that, but now the main mass of them was crawling with deadly red streaks of buzzball lightning!

I’d created killer buzzbots from nightmare city!

And they were headed straight for me.

All of this I saw in the split second before I turned on my heel and started running double time.

I had no idea where I was going, but at the moment I really didn’t care. A thought flickered into my terrified mind for a moment. Something Books had said about the buzzbots – besides that they weren’t supposed to kill Kids. But the thought disappeared before I could finish it. I’m not sure why. Maybe the sudden stings all over the backs of my legs and arms had something to do with it.

BzzzzzzzZZZZZSTING!

BzzzzZSTING!

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzSTING!

I tripped on something and fell on my face, skidding to a stop on my chin in the dirt and dead leaves that littered the forest floor. I knew then that I was toast, so I covered my head and waited for the main mass of buzzball-charged bots to get to me.

I just hoped I’d die fast.

BzzzzzzzZZZZZSTING!

BzzzzZSTING!

STING! STINGSTINGSTING!

My last thought was to hope that the Crows were safe.

Chapter 19

Offense and Defense

STING!

STING…

sting…

poke…

… poke… poke.

“Hey Guts. Ya ‘wake?”

Without opening my eyes, I pushed the hand away. “Yeah. Stop pok—”

Wait, I thought suddenly. I’m alive?

I sat bolt upright, opening my eyes to the tiny-tinkly sound of a million dead buzzbot bodies sliding off me.

They were dead. All of them. And I was alive!

“How?” I asked, wiping the rest off.

“How ain’t ya dead?” Turtle said, grinning down at me. Next to her, Papercut crossed his arms over his chest, and Tab looked down at me with an expression that seemed to be fighting between pride and anger.

Papercut whistled. “Now I see why they call ya Guts!”

You call me Guts,” I reminded him.

Squatting beside me, Roach poked my arm again.

“Stop it! I’m alive, okay?” I looked up at Turtle. “Yeah. That’s what I meant. Why aren’t I dead?”

“The buzzbots died ‘stead,” Turtle said. “Ya ran till they puttered out.”

I slapped my forehead. “That’s right! Books told me they die on their own if you run long enough. I totally forgot!”  I looked around at the massive heap of tiny bodies surrounding us. “That’s what I’d call perfect timing!”

“We followed ya’ far’s we could, but the buzzbots got inna way,” Roach said, standing up and giving me her hand. “They all left with ya.”

I took her hand and pulled myself to my feet. More buzzbots rained off my clothes, falling to the ground with the sound of tiny wind chimes.

I looked at Tab. “Heh. Probably because I shot them.”

“Ya think?” She shook her head as if to say ‘I give up’, then leaned down and picked up one of the dead buzzbots. “These ones are a different color. They’re orange instead of green. I wonder if Dr. Fixit found a way to make them immune to your gun.”

“Or make them use my gun to be even worse than they were before,” I said with a shudder. “At least the ones that got to me weren’t charged by the buzzball.”

Tab dropped the bug. “Ugh. Don’t remind me how close you came – again – to dying, okay?”

“The Teens’ll be comin’ now,” Turtle said. “We gotta get back ta the camp.”

It took us only a few minutes to reach the trainyard again. The place was a total mess. Crows ran everywhere, screaming and crying. Some of them were huddled together in boxcars. The ground was littered with abandoned swords and knives.

I put my fingers in my mouth and blew.

Everyone stopped and looked at me.

“Listen up, Crows! The buzzbots are gone, but we’re still in danger, and it’s time for you to earn your feathers. The Teens will be here any minute, but I have a plan. Get ready to defend this camp!”

With a resounding cheer, the Crows ran to gather up their weapons.

I turned to my friends.

“Is there such things as walkie-talkies in Nil?”

Papercut nodded and pulled a small black radio from one of his pockets. “We don’t got lots, but Fist found ‘em an’ Turtle fixed ‘em ta work. Us moth-riders use ‘em ta talk when we’re ridin’.”

I turned to Turtle and Roach. “So you have them too?”

They nodded, pulling their own radios out. None of the walkie-talkies looked like much – they seemed to be made more of duct tape than plastic – but they would do.

“Can I use yours, Papercut?” I asked.

He handed it to me.

“Okay,” I said, hooking Papercut’s walkie-talkie to my belt, “we have to split up, but we’ll keep in contact with these. Keep off of them unless it’s totally important though, okay?”

They nodded.

“Turtle, you’ll be in charge of the main group of Crows. Have everyone work together to build the biggest wall they can around the middle of the battle camp and stay there. No matter what happens, don’t let the Teens get anywhere near the little Crows… the sticks, I mean.”

“Ya got it, Guts!” She ran off, shouting orders.

“Roach, you need to pick about six other Crows that you think would be good at it, and train them in riding the cockroaches.”

“There ain’t ‘nuff time for that!” she said.

“You’ll have to make time,” I said. “You’ll be the first line of defense against the Teens. All the other Crows will be counting on you. Don’t hurt the Teens if you can help it, but keep them away from the camp. Got it?”

Roach nodded and ran off without another word.

I turned to Papercut and Snot. “You two are coming with me and Tab.”

“Same plan then?” Papercut said as they followed me out of the camp.

“Mostly,” I said. “But come to think of it, there’s no way Dr. Fixit will just let us walk into his fortress. He won’t be fooled by some fake tattoos either.”

“So how do we get inside?” Tab asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. We just have to just look and see what our options are.”

“What?” Snot said, running to keep up. “You’re goin’ ta Igh Schoo? Are ya nuts? An’ you’re just gonna leave the Crows now? Ain’t ya our new leader or ain’t ya?”

“I’m not abandoning the Crows,” I said. “The Teens are brainwashed somehow. I just know it. Maybe there’s something inside we can use to unbrainwash them before they have a chance to hurt anyone.”

Tab smiled at me. “But first we have some rescuing to do.”

We passed under a boxcar that Turtle was lifting onto another one with her magnetic gauntlets. I glanced back, and suddenly it felt like everything – the boxcar, the Crows, my family, my entire world – was about to come crashing down on me.

Still, I nodded, trying to convince myself I was as confident as I pretended to be.

“Exactly.”

It turned out Igh Schoo was a school. A high school, to be exact. Or it had been, before whatever destroyed Nil had happened. I looked at the worn, broken concrete sign in front of the blackened brick building, and shook my head at my own stupidity.

“Igh Schoo. High School. Duh,” I said to myself, noticing that the H and L at the beginning and end of the sign had been worn away.

The Teen fortress sat on an island in the bay just big enough to hold it. It was four stories tall, its bricks almost totally hidden by ivy and moss that grew all over the front walls and windows, now boarded up so that it was almost impossible to tell where the brick ended and the glass used to begin. A set of crumbling concrete steps led up from the main body of the island to a pair of large wooden front doors. These had been criss-crossed with metal sheets, giving them the look of a castle gate. The roof was flat, save for a clock tower that rose one more floor above the rest, its ancient yellow face cracked and broken.

Behind and above the old high school, the stormy orange clouds of Nil hung heavy in the sky. Dozens of Teens patrolled the flat roof with their blimp-guns, and what looked like hundreds of spiky black balls bobbed around in the dark waters of the surrounding bay.

“What are those?” I said, pointing down. We lay on a small rise facing Igh Schoo, as flat to the ground as we could on our stomachs. Here, the banks were more like cliffs, the water having turned to churning rapids far below.

“Mines,” Papercut said. “They’re so nobody can get ta Igh Schoo inna boat.”

I nodded, my eyes going to the only visible way to get inside the building. A wide, metal bridge had been constructed between the mainland and the front steps of Igh Schoo. It was highly patrolled, with a pair of big Teen guards pacing back and forth on the ground at both ends, as well as sharpshooters sitting in high metal towers that had been constructed to match the bridge on either side.

As I watched, the great doors of Igh Schoo swung open. Wave after wave of Teens flooded out, marching down the steps, crossing the bridge, and heading towards the old trainyard. They marched in perfect procession, their guns held to their chests like Civil War soldiers at attention, their faces expressionless.

Silently, I begged whoever was in charge of the universe that Roach’s front line was ready.

“So?” Snot whispered as we watched the last of the Teen army make their way across the bridge. “What’s the plan, Guts? Or do ya got one even?”

Papercut smacked him upside the head.

“I don’t know,” I admitted in frustration. “The place is like Fort Knox.”

“Fort what?” Papercut asked.

I was about to answer when we heard a low scraping sound from behind. I whipped around, pulling my buzzball gun out, loading it with a red buzzball, and taking aim.

There, the same forest I had lost the buzzbots in stretched out, following the cliffline. My eyes scanned the shadowed bushes under the trees until I saw what had made the noise. A giant flat rock lay among the briars just to our right.

And it was moving.

Chapter 20

Catacombs

As I studied the rock my mind whirred with possibilities, all of them bad. Was it another monster-bot sent by Dr. Fixit to finally take us down?  Had the Teens planted landmines that looked like rocks to detonate whenever a Kid was too close to Igh Schoo? Was it some kind of deadly Nil bug I’d never seen before camouflaged to look like a rock?

“I have way too many enemies for an eleven-year-old,” I muttered.

The rock tottered and fell back as a pair of black-gloved hands threw it aside. They quickly disappeared, replaced by a small, whirling helicopter rotor. As it rose from the darkness where the rock had been, I saw a person dangling under it, holding on to the metal straps at his shoulders. His head was covered in crazy blond hair, his eyes concealed behind thick goggles, and his nose and mouth covered by a yellow bandanna. As the copter pulled him completely free of the hole, I noticed that his tire-covered legs were dripping water from the knees down.

“Echo,” he whispered, landing softly in the grass on his booted feet. “Copter!”

“Copter!” the spiderbot on his back echoed, and the whirring blades snapped back into their compartment near its patchwork metal head.

My eyes went wide in happy surprise.

It was Books!

It was all I could do to keep myself from jumping up and screaming his name excitedly. Tab was way ahead of me. Pushing past us, she crawled on her stomach towards him.

I followed as quietly as possible.

“Books!” she whispered as I joined her. “You escaped!”

He jumped, then looked down at the bushes. He pulled his goggles up, searching around until he saw us.

Then he smiled.

“Guts, Glory! Whatcha doin’ here?”

“Shh!” I hissed. “Get down! Teens!”

He looked around nervously, then squatted near us.

“How did you escape?” Tab asked, glancing at the big rock. “Are there tunnels down there?”

Books nodded. “The Teens’ locks’re dumb. It was easy for Echo ta pick it, but it took me forever ta find my way outta the dungeons. The place’s like a maze.” He looked closer at me. “Woah, Guts! What happened ta your face?”

I touched my eye gently and winced at the pain I’d almost forgotten was there. “Me and Fist kind of got into it…” I started, then glanced back at Papercut and Snot. “It’s… a long story,” I finished lamely.

“Was there anyone else in there with you?” Tab asked Books hopefully.

He nodded. “Some weird Teen girl was inna cell next ta me. She ain’t got no tats, but she ain’t no Kid for sure. Anyhow, she wouldn’t top askin’ ‘bout ya. I told her everythin’ I knew, but she kept talkin’.” He huffed. “I was glad ta be rid ‘a her when I ‘scaped.”

I looked at Tab and she looked at me. We were both thinking the same thing.

“Did she have long brown hair?” I asked Books.

“And blue eyes?” Tab said.

“And freckles along her nose?” I finished.

“Uh… yeah,” Books said. “Ya know her then? I thought she just cared ‘bout ya cuza the prop-cy.” He shook his head. “Ya sure got some weird friends.”

“It’s Mom!” Tab said. “Trev, it has to be! And she’s still alive!”

I nodded. “Books, can you lead us back there?”

He glanced at the hole he had just come out of. “That was Mom?” he asked. “The one ya said was so great?”

“Yes!” Tab said. “Please help us rescue her!”

Books grinned. “I said I’d help, didn’t I? I ain’t goin’ back on my word now.”

I almost whooped with joy, except that would have surely brought the Teens. But it was really hard to keep my excitement inside. Mom was alive! And Books knew exactly where to find her!

We were so close!

“Ya wanna be real quiet though,” Books said. “Cuza the monster an’ all.”

My excitement drained out so fast I felt like a popped balloon.

“Uh… monster?” Tab said. “What monster?”

“It guards the dungeons,” Books said. “I ran right inta it. Lucky I’m so little. I was able ta hide inna crack in the wall till it left. It’s big an’ smelly, an’ it wanted ta eat me.” He shuddered.

I looked at Tab. “Great. More surprises from the great and wonderful Nil, land of poo.”

That’s when Books looked towards Igh Schoo and saw the Crows. He made a face. “Are they comin’?”

“Yes,” I said. “They’re… well… I’m… Fist…” I sighed. “You can trust them, Books. I promise.”

He narrowed his eyes at the Crows. “Do you trust ‘em Glory?” he finally asked.

Tab nodded. “They’re not bad, Books. Not like I thought at all.”

“K,” he said. “That’s good ‘nuff for me.”

I turned to the Crows and waved them over.

“There are catacombs below Igh Schoo,” I said as they crawled up to us. “Books just escaped, so we’re following him back in.”

“Whatsa caty-comb?” Snot asked.

“Tunnels,” I said. “Dungeons crawling with monsters.”

“One monster,” Books corrected.

“Sounds good ta me!” Papercut said with a grin.

“Keep your weapons ready,” I said. I turned to Books. “How dark is it down there?”

He pulled his goggles back down. “Plenty. I hadda use my lights the whole time.”

“Okay so get out your goggles too,” I said to the Crows. “But if I say ‘off’, turn the lights off right away, got it?”

They nodded and pulled their moth-riding goggles over their eyes.

“Keep close to me, okay?” I said to Tab.

She frowned. “Do you think I can’t handle myself? I’m just as tough as you are, Trevor Tate. Just because I don’t want to fight doesn’t mean I can’t if I have to.”

I snorted. “I know. But you don’t have any lights.”

“Oh.” She blushed. “Yeah. That.”

“Okay,” I said, putting my own goggles on. “Lead the way, Books!”

We climbed single-file down a slippery, slimy old ladder into the tunnels. The bottom of the ladder was about five feet from the ground, so we had to drop the rest of the way. Hearing Books’ splash-landing before I dropped, I at least had an idea of what I was getting into.

Though I didn’t expected the water to be quite so deep.

It reached to my knees, and it was freezing! Of course it made sense when I really thought of it, being so close to the bay and all. Still, a dry trip would have been nice.

As Papercut and Snot splashed to a landing behind me, I flipped my goggle lights on and looked around. The walls were rounded concrete, cracked here and there so that it looked like the whole place could collapse any minute. A metal pipe ran straight into the darkness along the ceiling on either side, marked here and there by old, splintered lights that had long since lost their electricity. On one side of the tunnel floor, an upraised concrete ledge rose above the rushing water. Books turned on his goggle lights and stepped up on it.

“Gotta walk here,” he said. “The water ain’t good for ya. Can ya smell it?”

I nodded, feeling my face go green as I realized what he meant. I recognized this place from city planning lessons at school. It was a sewer. This wasn’t just bay water – it was poop water! I jumped up to the ledge beside Books, trying not to think about what was still hanging onto my boots and pants.

We walked along the ledge for what seemed like ages. Books said the tunnels were like a maze, and he wasn’t kidding. We made so many turns that I knew I could never remember the way back. And yet Books had memorized it. How?

The Specs’re the smart Kids…

Yeah. Really super smart. Way smarter than most kids on Earth. Turtle and Books would have both been celebrities for sure, if they lived there.

A long, low growl suddenly broke into my thoughts, freezing me where I stood.

“Uh… what’s that?” Snot asked behind me.

But I knew the answer before Books even answered.

The monster had found us.

Chapter 21

Choking on the Stench of a Cyborg Minotaur

Since Books said there was no other way in or out of the dungeons, I took the lead as we entered the area. We were as quiet as possible –the only sound we made was the splashing of our feet as we sloshed through the ankle-deep water, and we couldn’t help that. Here there was no dry ledge to walk on, and the ceiling was way lower, too.

As the tallest of us, Papercut kept brushing the ceiling with his head. Water droplets constantly rained down on him and Snot, who walked in the back. Snot didn’t say anything – probably for the same reason we were all being so quiet – but he gave Papercut some pretty evil glares from above his gas mask.

The tunnel we had entered ended in a “T”. Books turned left, just as the walkie-talkie on my belt blared out in static.

“Guts! Ya there?”

I fumbled for the walkie-talkie, and almost dropped it in the sewage at my feet before grabbing it with both hands and pushing down the button.

“SHHH! Yes, I’m here,” I whispered harshly into the mic. “What’s up, Roach?”

“Ya told me ta only talk ta ya if it’s ‘portant. Well, I guess this’ ‘portant.  The Teens’s here.”

“How many roach-riders did you find?” I asked.

“Not lots. Mosta the Crows’re scared ‘a ‘em.” She snorted, and I could easily imagine her rolling her eyes. “But I got three good ‘uns, an’ we’re holdin’ the line just likeya said ta.” She paused. “Guts… there’s lotsa Teens. An’ I mean lots. Our roaches’re scarin’ ‘em good but I dunno how long that’ll last, ‘specially if we can’t let ‘em eat ‘em.”

I nodded. “We saw them come out of Igh Schoo. I think Dr. Fixit sent every Teen he has at you.”

“Whadda we do, Guts?” The fear in her voice was easy to hear, even through all the static.

“Hold for as long as you can,” I said. “Don’t hurt the Teens, but give Turtle enough time to build that wall higher than high.”

“Then what?”

“Then…” I realized I had no real plan to stop the Teens. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But I promise me and Glory will find a way to stop them before they can hurt you.”

“K. But… what if ya don’t, though?”

I didn’t want to think about that. “Let’s just hope we do, okay?”

“If the Teens get in, we gotta stop ‘em no matter what, Guts,” Roach said. “We can’t just let ‘em beat up the Sticks.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ll stop the Teens before that happens. Just hold the line, okay?”

“K.”

The static came back, then there was silence.

“She’s right,” Papercut whispered as we started walking again. “We can’t let ‘em hurt the Sticks. They’re too little ta defend themselves.”

“I know.”

“Then –”

I looked at Tab. “We’ll come up with a Plan B. Just in case.”

She nodded.

“When?” Snot asked. “The Teens’re gonna break through fast.”

I just bit my lip and kept walking. I didn’t have an answer to give.

The first thing I noticed about the dungeons was the smell. It hit us way before the map said we had even gotten close. It was like a disgusting mix between a dead badger and a heap of rusty cans.

I stopped walking. Books ran into me.

“What gives?” he whispered. “Ya see somethin’?”

“Can’t you smell that?” I asked. “It’s like dead metal.”

“Metal ain’t never been ‘live, Guts.”

I rolled my eyes. “You can’t tell me you don’t smell that.”

I looked back and saw three completely blank faces. Tab was the only one that seemed to be affected by the smell like I was. She had already pulled her gas mask down over her face.

“Come on,” I said. “I know Nil doesn’t exactly smell like roses most the time, but this is horrible.”

Books shrugged.

I shook my head and turned back, but we only got a few more steps in before the smell was so bad I could hardly breathe. I knew it was going to make me look like the biggest wimp ever, but I couldn’t help it. I had to stop again.

“Snot,” I said through shorter and shorter breaths. “Can I… borrow… your gas mask?”

To my surprise he pulled it off his face without a word and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said, strapping it on. Instantly I could breathe again. I took a few gulping gasps through the respirator, then started forward, sloshing further into the tunnel which seemed to be getting smaller with every step we took.

Soon Papercut had to squat to move at all, and the rest of us were brushing our own heads against the ceiling. Water droplets wiggled down the back of my neck like tiny leeches, making me shiver more and more with every step.

Finally we saw a dim light ahead.

“Out,” I whispered.

Clicking our goggle lights off, we started forward again towards the flickering reddish light. One more turn in the tunnel and we found ourselves in a small cavern lit by four torches in each corner. Like the rest of the sewer, the dungeon was wet all over, its rocky walls slick and slimy and its floor covered in water. Though thankfully, here it was much shallower, only reaching to the tops of our booted toes.

At the far end of the room were two prison cells carved out of the rock and enclosed by thick, slimy iron bars. One of the doors was open. I sloshed over to the locked one and peered in.

The firelight just barely revealed a figure there, lying on a dry, straw-covered ledge in the back of the cell. I glanced around and decided to take the chance of turning my goggles back on. Lit up, the prisoner was easy to recognize. My heart skipped a beat when I saw her face.

It was Mom.

She didn’t move, even when my bright lights washed over her. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks were thinner than I remembered, and her skin was way too pale. Her hair was dirty and wet, her clothes filthy. I had never seen her look so gross before in my life.

She looked… I couldn’t get myself to even think the word.

“Mom?” I croaked. I cleared my throat. “Mom!”

“Is she okay?” Tab whispered from behind me.

“I don’t know,” I said. I turned to Papercut and Books. “Someone pick that lock. I don’t care who—”

My words were cut off by a deep, guttural growl that gave me an instant case of the willies. Tab pulled her bow off of her shoulder and notched an arrow, looking at me.

I nodded at her and I loaded my buzzball gun. Slowly, we both turned around.

Books and Papercut were in the same spot as before, but now their heads were turned the other way, towards a huge shadow hulking in the corner.

Right between us and the escape tunnel.

Snot had completely disappeared.

As my goggle lights passed over the monster, it gave out a huge roar and jumped straight at me, shoving Papercut and Books against the slimy sides of the cavern. I pulled my buzzball gun out, but I was too late. I didn’t even have a chance to load it before the monster swiped with a wicked claw, smacking the gun out of my hands. It landed with a splash next to Papercut, who lie on a dry ledge that surrounded the cavern. On the other side Books mirrored him.

Neither of them moved.

Thinking fast, I ducked down and ran under the monster’s legs towards the tunnel. I didn’t make it very far before it swiped at my back, throwing me against the wall right next to the entrance.

Tab screamed.

All the wind was knocked out of me for a moment. I felt like I was drowning in the air. In that split second, I knew with a horrible certainty that I was going to die.

The monster came at me again. Slowly this time, so that I could finally see the details of its face in my goggle lights as it leaned down, almost nose-to-nose with me. It was hideous. Most of it was bull-like, with a wide, wet black nose, large, muzzled mouth, and tufts of dirty black and white fur. But here and there, beaten metal plates had been pounded into the face as well, creating a patchwork of fur and metal that the worst case of Teen acne couldn’t hope to compete with. And where normally there would be large, liquid cow eyes, the monster stared out at me through two very different orbs. The right was the piercing, hazel eye of a human. The left, a sickly-looking yellow-orange lightbulb screwed directly into the skull. A pair of curling, reddish horns sprouted from either side of its head just above the spindly, hairless ears.

It looked familiar somehow, but the horror of it kept me from realizing why for a moment. Then it hit me.

The monster was a cyborg Minotaur!

Its horns brushed the ceiling as it stood full-size, glaring down at me with its mismatched eyes. The upper half of its body was as bull-like as the majority of its face, except that the shaggy forelegs ended in a pair of metal pinchers instead of hooves. The lower part was entirely robot: its waist was a rusty pivot that ended in four powerful metal legs.

It huffed and snorted. I felt like a dog-toy just before playtime.

I closed my eyes. The Minotaur charged again.

At that same moment I heard the sound of glass shattering against the rocky wall behind me.

The Minotaur groaned. Something splashed.

I opened my eyes, peering through a sudden haze of gray smoke. The monster had stumbled back away from me in the water. It stood firm on its robot legs, but its human eyelid was heavy, and its upper body swayed back and forth sleepily.

I glanced back and saw one of Tab’s arrows floating in the shallow water by the wall. The shattered red Christmas glass surrounded the shaft like shards of confetti.

I was really glad I still wore Snot’s gas mask.

“Trev!” she called from across the room. “Get your gun!”

I didn’t think, I just ran. Again, I ducked under the monster’s legs, taking the closest path to my weapon.

As I leaned down to pick it up I heard two very different sounds behind me. The first was the by-now distinctive growl of the Minotaur. Even sleepy-sounding, it made my skin crawl.

The second was another scream, but this wasn’t Tab.

“Trevor! No! Run away! Go! Now!” Mom screamed from her cell.

I can’t, I thought as I loaded my gun with a red ball. Sorry Mom. I can’t leave you like this. I won’t.

The Minotaur growled again as I turned to face it.

It wasn’t sleepy anymore.

Chapter 22

Mom

The Minotaur charged almost before I could bring my gun up. I didn’t have a chance to aim.

I fired blindly.

The monster howled as the red buzz-bolts lit it up. Almost at the same time, they engulfed the floor, moving from the monster to the water I stood in like fire follows gas.

I jumped instinctively, thinking that I was totally electrocuted. Then I realized that if I had the time to think that, I wasn’t dead. I didn’t have a chance to wonder about it, though, since the Minotaur hadn’t even slowed its attack. It was still after me in full-force, only now it was covered in lethal electricity.

This was turning out to be a really bad day.

I tripped back against Mom’s cell bars as the monster’s giant body barreled towards me. I couldn’t go any father back.

The Minotaur screamed again.

It stumbled.

It fell.

The giant hairy body slid through the water at me. Frothy waves washed over my toes as it skidded to a halt only inches away. I loaded another red ball, but soon I realized it wasn’t needed.

The Minotaur was dead.

The red electricity winked out, leaving the cavern dark again.

For a moment all I could think about was my own heavy breathing. Then, Mom’s arms reached through the cell bars.

“Trevor. Tabitha.”

I turned to her and hugged her tight. It didn’t matter that the metal bars were straining against my chest so hard that I was sure I was already bruised. It didn’t matter that she smelled like months-old raw meat. It didn’t matter that I was soaked to the bone.

All that mattered was she was there. With me. Alive.

She hugged me back without saying anything for a long time. But then finally, she pulled away to give Tab the same hug.

That’s when I remembered Books and Papercut. I ran to Books first, kneeling along the ledge and shaking his shoulder gently.

“Books?”

He groaned, then pulled up his goggles, looking at me with sleepy brown eyes. “Wha… what happened?”

“I killed the monster,” I said.

He grinned. “’Course ya did.”

“But… I’m kind of confused about something. The buzzball electricity lit up the whole room when I shot the monster. I know water’s a conductor for electricity, so I should have been toast. But I wasn’t. Any idea why?”

“Then why’d ya shoot it, ya dummy?” Books asked.

I rolled my eyes and helped him stand. “I wasn’t exactly thinking of science class at the time.”

Books pointed at the boots he had given me. “Gadget made ‘em ta resist ‘lectricity cuz we work with it so much. That’s prob’ly why ya didn’t get buzzed.”

I glanced down. “So if I’d fallen into the water…”

“Ya’d been toast.”

I shuddered and looked back at Tab.

“I was standing on the ledge,” she said. “I know water’s a conductor, too. And I did think about it.”

“Gee, thanks for warning me,” I said dryly.

She shrugged. “I figure you know what you’re doing.”

“Since when?” I asked.

She just shrugged again.

I waded across the room to Papercut. Books followed me.

I knelt down to shake the Crow, but before I had a chance to touch him he jumped up, pulled a paper knife out from somewhere in his clothes and pointed it at me.

“I ain’t talkin’, ya hear?”

I leaned back. “Uh… Papercut? It’s me? Guts?”

He blinked, then dropped the knife with an embarrassed grin. “Heh. Sorry Guts. Musta hadda dream.”

“I think that’s the absolute worst thing I have ever gone through in my life,” Mom said.

“No offense Mom, but you didn’t… really… do anything,” I said.

She smiled sadly. “Exactly.”

I looked at Tab. She shrugged.

“A mother always wants to protect her children,” Mom said. “Funny. I always knew this day would come, so you’d think I’d be okay with it. But then again, I thought you would be older and stronger. I thought… I thought we had more time.”

“What are you talking about, Mom?” Tab asked.

She looked past us, towards the exit tunnel. “I never explained. I thought there was time.” She shook her head slowly and looked at us with teary eyes. “And now I have even less time to tell you what you have to know. This is going to be hard to believe…”

“Mom, we followed you through a bathtub to a totally different world with giant bugs and superkids,” I said. “I think we can handle it.”

She laughed. “Yes, I guess so.” She took a deep breath. “We aren’t from Earth. None of us. I grew up in Nil –”

“Wait. You’re a Nil Kid?” I said, shocked.

She chuckled. “I told you this would he hard to believe. But yes, I was a Nil Kid, once upon a time. The smartest Spec Nil had ever seen. Or so Dr. Fixit told me. Of course, by the time I was working with him, all my memories of being a Kid were gone.” She bit her lip, looking at Books and Papercut. “I’m sure you have wondered why the Kids of Nil don’t have any parents.”

I nodded.

“It’s because they were made in a lab. We were made in a lab. Dr. Fixit made all of the Kids of Nil. He created us to someday grow up and become his grand army. Some he gave strength to. Others, brilliant scientific minds. But all of us are super-soldiers, left as toddlers to grow up fierce and strong in the harsh environment of Nil.”

“Wait,” Tab said. “Does that mean… me and Trevor..?”

Mom shook her head. “No. Dr. Fixit didn’t make you.”

“But—”

“I made you,” she said. “Dr. Fixit was grooming me to be his second in command. He made me for that purpose from the start, and gave me the brainpower to back it up. He taught me everything he knew, including how to make the Kids. Over time, he eased his control over my mind so that I could work better on my difficult tasks for him. With my mind freed, I started to see how things were in Nil. It wasn’t long before I knew things were very wrong. Secretly, I set up my own lab away from Igh Schoo and started working on my own Kids, ones who would someday rise up to overthrow Dr. Fixit and free the Kids and Teens of Nil. The first was a boy. I made him strong and fierce, and poured into him all my frustration, anger and pain. He was going to be the champion of Nil and save the Kids and Teens from Dr. Fixit’s iron-handed rule…”

“What happened to him?” I asked. I was shocked and excited, and scared and confused all at once. A brother! I had a big brother! I could hardly believe it!

Mom looked away. “When Dr. Fixit makes a Kid, he puts a marker into their DNA. It’s like a time-bomb, but much more subtle. That’s what turns the Kids into Teens on their thirteenth birthday –”

“Nil Kids don’t have birthdays,” I said.

“They have them,” she said. “They just don’t know when they are. That’s why it’s like a timebomb. When it turns on inside them their face tattoos appear, and their minds are erased, given over entirely to The Machine.”

“The Machine?” I asked.

Mom nodded. “I’ll get to that in a second. My point is, I left that marker out of my first Kid. The part that would take over his mind, anyway. I left the tattoo in, though, so he could infiltrate the Teens when he came of age. The tattoos represent rank in the Teens, so I gave him a Commander tattoo so he could lead forces against Dr. Fixit.” She sighed. “But I put too much anger into him. Too much fear. I couldn’t control him even as a Kid, and he ran away into Nil when he was seven years old. That was twelve years ago.”

“He’d be nineteen now,” Tab said.

Mom nodded. “During his time with me, I created a second Kid. I knew by then that my firstborn was flawed by too much negativity, so I put into my second all my hopes and dreams. Instead of angry and bitter, I made her gentle and kind.” Mom sighed. “Too gentle and kind. Emily had nothing in her to do the job that was required. She had no motivation to fight a moth, let alone Dr. Fixit.”

“Emily?” Tab said. “Seriously? But she’s so bossy!”

Mom smiled. “She learned a few things on Earth, and she grew to be the young lady she is today. But for Nil, it wasn’t enough. I was getting desperate. Dr. Fixit was starting to suspect me, and my firstborn running away didn’t help. That’s when I realized that I needed both fearsome fearlessness and warm wisdom. Only together could they defeat Dr. Fixit’s Machine.” She gently patted us on the heads. “That’s when I made you.”

“The prophecy!” I said. “You wrote it!”

Mom nodded. “Dr. Fixit caught me while you were still only babies floating in your incubators. I thought fast, telling him that I was creating his greatest champions of all. He believed me, but I was still very worried for you and Emily. It spent the next two years looking for a safe place to take you until you were old enough to return. In my studies of the stars, I found Earth. It took a lot of work to create a stable portal there, but in the end I succeeded. I wrote the prophecy and spread it to the Kids of Nil, as a promise that we would return and save them someday. Then I took you away from here, and erased all memories of Nil from Emily’s mind. I thought we were safe. I thought there was time. But Dr. Fixit found us before you were ready, and now he wants his champions back.”

“You left our big brother behind,” I said, feeling my temper start to grow. “How could you do that?”

Mom looked at me with sad eyes. “Trevor, I had no choice. I had no way of finding him, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. All I can do is hope that he’s alive and well somewhere out there, and happier than when he left me so long ago.”

“What’s his name?” Tab asked.

“I don’t know,” Mom said. “I never gave him a name. In Nil, Kids earn their names, and I wasn’t going to take that right away from him. I regretted that decision after he ran away, which is why I named you Guts and Glory, and gave your sister the name Spirit. But on Earth those names are strange, and we needed to blend in. So I changed your names to Trevor, Tabitha and Emily when we got there.” She pointed at the freckles just under her eyes. “And I covered up my botseer tattoos with a more natural look.”

“What’s a botseer?” I said.

“It’s what the Specs are called when they become Teens,” she said. “Our tattoos are tiny cogs just under our eyes. We’re smart for one reason and one reason only – to take care of The Machine. It controls all of the Teens and bots in Nil, and serves as a radio signal for Dr. Fixit to watch and control his city. Everything is done through that thing. Destroy it, and you will free the Teens and save the Kids.”

I looked at my buzzball gun. “I think we can do that.”

Mom shook her head. “No. It can’t be harmed that easily. If it could, I would have done it myself long ago.”

“Then how?” Tab asked.

“When I made you, I left the Teen marker out of you two as well,” she said. “But I added something else. Dr. Fixit doesn’t know about it.”

“What is it?” Tab and I asked at the same time.

Mom smiled sadly. “The only thing on Earth or Nil that can destroy that evil Machine.”

Chapter 23

Heroes and Villains

“Remember when I said that both of you are needed to defeat Dr. Fixit?” Mom continued. “That is literal. You two were created to be the end of The Machine itself. When you touch it together, the marker I included in your DNA will activate, sending a virus to destroy it from the inside out.”

“As in, blow it up?” I asked.

Mom nodded, biting her lip as tears came to her eyes again. “I thought there was more time…”

“Mom?” I asked. “What… what’s wrong?”

“It’s the prophecy,” Tab whispered. “Their sacrifice shall be the price for our forever freedom.” She looked at Mom, wide-eyed. “If we blow up The Machine while we’re touching it—!”

“You will blow up, too,” Mom said. “Yes. But I never imagined that you would have to do it as children! I thought there was more time! So much more time…”

“You knew we would have to die to do this!” I yelled, suddenly white-hot with anger. “You knew, and you never said a thing!”

“Yes she did know my dear little Guts. And now, so do I,” a new voice said from behind me.

I turned around, and stopped dead in shock.

Emily stood just inside the exit tunnel with two Teen Soldiers behind her. She wore a flimsy white dress with gold encircling her waist and neck. Her long blonde hair was pulled back from her forehead with another gold belt, and over her eyes she wore a long-nosed half mask. Under it, seeming to run down her right cheek like a red teardrop, was a tattoo of a blood drip.

“No,” Mom whispered from behind me.

“Yes,” Emily said, wading through the water towards us. “You didn’t really expect your plan to work, did you Mom?” Emily smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes, which looked red behind her mask.

“I am not your mother, Dr. Fixit,” Mom said between her teeth.

My jaw dropped. “Dr. Fixit?”

Dr. Fixit laughed through Emily’s mouth. “Yes, my dear Guts. Did you really expect me to actually live in Nil? Horrid place! Full of dirt and bugs. Just, ew! No, as your mother told you, I control my empire with my Machine. Usually all I have to do is watch through my camerabots, but every once in a while I have to make a more… personal… appearance. That is what my Mindseers are for.”

“Dr. Fixit has taken over Emily’s mind,” Mom whispered to us. “Don’t trust a thing she says.”

“Yes,” Dr. Fixit said through my sister’s mouth. “And Emily has come in rather handy, despite the fact that your mother didn’t tell her a thing.” He nodded at Mom. “Very smart of you, my dear little Botseer, to keep from her mind those things you wouldn’t wish for me to know. Too bad you just told me yourself, even if you didn’t realize it.”

Suddenly I felt horrible for being mad at Mom. Of course she couldn’t tell us her plan! She had to keep it safe from Dr. Fixit!

The doctor looked at me through Emily’s red eyes. “I now know that I must destroy one of you, at least. But I still see so much potential in you, my boy. Without your sister, you won’t pose any kind of threat to my Machine, so I have decided to give you one last chance to prove yourself to me.” He looked at Papercut and Books. “Lock up the tall brat, but bring the little one with us. I’d like a witness to tell all the Kids of Nil that their precious Guts and Glory have been defeated.”

Emily spun around and left the room as Dr. Fixit’s Soldiers raced in and threw Papercut into the empty cell. Then they grabbed me, Tab and Books and drug us through the tunnel.

I didn’t even get a chance to tell Mom I forgave her.

The Teens were dragging us up a long, steep set of concrete stairs when my walkie-talkie blared on again, Turtle’s voice screaming from the other side.

“Guts! They’re comin’!”

In the lead, Dr. Fixit stopped and turned around. “What was that?”

“My walkie-talkie,” I said. “Please let me answer it?”

Emily’s eyes narrowed, but finally Dr. Fixit nodded. “Only because I want you to think well of me, Guts. Go ahead and speak with your little friends.”

I wiggled out of the Soldier’s grip and pushed the talk button. “Roach’s line broke?”

“YES!”

I swallowed hard. “How’s the defensive wall?”

The static flared as I released the button. Turtle’s voice came in and out, like someone trying to yell through a tidal wave. “… done… one bit… too low… bombs…”

I pushed the button again. “Wait. What did you say about bombs?”

“… built… just in case… Teens… sticks…” The line went dead.

I looked at Books. “Is she saying what I think she’s saying?”

He nodded. “Pretty sure she built more bombs ta protect the little Crows.”

“But that’ll just make things worse!” Tab said.

Dr. Fixit chuckled. “Well, well, well. So you’re monitoring my little battle, are you? Mom certainly gave you some brains. And the Kids still have their bombs? Good. That should make things all the more interesting.”

He snapped Emily’s fingers and started up the stairs again. The Teens drug us behind, up – up – up all the way to the hallways of Igh Schoo. Inside, the Teen fortress didn’t look much like the school it used to be. Its wide halls were still brown-bordered below, white above, and its floors were still made of hardwood, but that was the end of anything recognizable.

The floors were creaky everywhere. In more than a few places they were torn up and splintered too. And some boards were even completely gone, leaving gaping holes into a dark somewhere I didn’t want to think about. The walls were a busted mess, some with holes so big that the classrooms beyond looked more like parts of the same giant room. Here and there the ceiling was held up by big metal beams that hadn’t been part of the original building, and the staircase that centered the front hall had fallen down at one point and been sloppily replaced by rebar ladders.

Teens were everywhere, mostly running back and forth on mysterious errands, though some stopped and watched us with blank faces and red eyes as we passed.

Dr. Fixit led us to a set of old double doors. As we followed him through, I realized right away that we were in the old school auditorium. The original theater seats had been torn out, replaced by a gaping hole in the center of the floor so deep that I couldn’t see the bottom.

Standing around the hole were five Teens, each tattooed with small cogs below their eyes. They wore the same clothes as everyone else, with the exception of a large leather brace wrapped around one forearm. Attached to the brace was a copper keyboard which they typed on endlessly as they stared up at something.

I followed their gaze, and my jaw dropped.

Attached to the ceiling high above, was a monstrosity that made everything else in Nil seem like a teddy bear in comparison. The body was made of dark, splotchy copper mixed with rusted steel and rotting iron. It was spiraled like a gigantic mining drill, though somehow still seemed to tremble and squirm, reminding me of an enormous maggot. Long, black rubber tubes snaked down from the body in different lengths like the tentacles of a monstrous squid. Some ended in ragged cuts to the rubber, others in wicked-looking metal claws, but all of them were covered in metallic barbs, and all of them were moving – wiggling in the air in a kind of horrible slow-motion that made me sick in my stomach to watch.

The Soldiers pushed us to our knees from behind as one of the Botseers finally turned to face us.

It was Gadget.

Books gave out a sharp cry, but didn’t say anything. I was sure he really wanted to, but even I knew talking was a bad idea just then, and Books was way smarter than me.

“Ya honor us by your visit, great Doctor,” Gadget said, giving Dr. Fixit a short bow.

Emily’s head nodded. “Yes. Yes I do.”

“Didya come ta check on The Machine? It’s runnin’ in perfect order, I swear.”

Emily’s eyes glanced up at the monstrosity above. “I’m sure it is, Botseer. I am here to ensure it remains so. Do you know who these brats are?”

Gadget looked at us. I saw no recognition in his eyes as he shook his head. “No, mighty Doctor. I guess they must be ‘portant, though.”

“Very,” Dr. Fixit said. “This is the legendary Guts and Glory. They’re here to destroy my Machine.”

Gadget’s eyes grew wide, then he glared at us. “The Machine ain’t lettin’ that happen.”

Dr. Fixit spat a laugh. “Of course not, Botseer. I brought them here so they could see the might of my Machine. You and your fellow Botseers will give a demonstration on the girl. But first, I have a little test for the boy.”

“We’re ready whenever ya give the order, Doctor,” Gadget said.

Tab whimpered. I grabbed her hand and squeezed. There was no way I was going to let anyone hurt her. Especially not with that horrible Machine!

Dr. Fixit turned to one of his Soldiers. “Bring in the prisoner!”

The doors opened at our backs and another pair of Soldiers came in, dragging someone between them. At first I thought it was just another Teen and Dr. Fixit was giving me the same “test” that Fist had. Then they threw the Teen to the floor in front of me, and I knew it was way more than that.

The prisoner was Fist.

I’d only seen his face for a moment, but I would know those steely green eyes anywhere. His head was shaved so that he was almost bald, the tribal tattoo along the right side of his face stark against his many freckles. His nose was long and slim, his thin mouth set in a straight line of defiance.

The moment I saw him, my anger shot up to red-hot.

As I struggled to keep it under control, Dr. Fixit leaned in to me. “I know what drives you, son,” he said softly. “I see it in your eyes. You need to protect those you love. I know it, because I feel it too.”

I glanced at Dr. Fixit’s Emily-face. “We’re not the same,” I said through clenched teeth.

“We are more alike than you could ever dream, Guts-my-boy,” Dr. Fixit said. “Think about it. What would you do to protect the ones you love? How far would you go?”

He pointed at my buzzball gun.

“Just how willing are you to do the right thing?”

I glanced from the gun to Fist and back again.

“I destroyed a world,” Dr. Fixit said, “to protect the ones I love. Sometimes the hero looks like a villain to everyone else, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a hero.”

I looked at Dr. Fixit in shock. “How did you know—?”

He smiled, and for a split-second it seemed as if Emily had come back, the smile was so real.

“Because I wanted to be the hero, too.”

I looked back at Fist. “He’s a bully…”

Dr. Fixit nodded. “That cannot be denied. So, what does a hero do to a bully, Guts?”

I stared at Fist, and my anger grew even more as I remembered everything he had done: He’d terrorized the Kids. He’d bombed the Teens. He’d threatened to kill everyone I loved in one way or another.

But worst of all, He’d hit Tab.

I took my buzzball gun from its holster and loaded it with a red ball.

“Trev! No!” Tab yelled. “Don’t do it! You’re better than this!”

My fingers flexed on the metal grip.

Sometimes justice hurts. Sometimes the hero has act like a villain.

“You don’t have to do this,” Tab said. “You’re a hero, not a bully!”

I paused.

From somewhere deeply buried inside my anger-hazed mind, my own words to the Crows echoed back at me.

Bullies hurt. Heroes defend.

I looked at Dr. Fixit. “What the difference, then?”

Emily’s red eyes blinked. “The difference?”

“Between a hero and a villain? If a hero has to be a villain sometimes, what keeps him a hero?”

“His actions make him a hero,” Tab said. “A hero is never a villain. Never.”

“No! A hero does what he has to do,” Dr. Fixit argued. “It’s why he does the things he does that make him a hero.”

I looked down at Fist. “His actions make him a villain.”

“So shoot him already.” Dr. Fixit said. His soft voice had cracked into a growl.

With every ounce of strength I could muster, I swallowed my anger. It felt like swallowing swords, but I did it anyway.

I did it.

I stared down at the worst bully I had ever known, and I swallowed those sharp, thorn-swords one by one.

Then, like a nightlight during the darkest of storms, Mom’s words came back to me.

I made him strong and fierce, and poured into him all my frustration, anger and pain…

And I realized the truth.

The Teens are not our enemies. They’re our…

“Family!” I gasped.

“What?” Dr. Fixit asked.

I turned my buzzball gun on him. “Your actions make you a villain, too.”

Emily’s eyes went wide, then narrowed into slits. “You wouldn’t dare harm your precious big sister.”

I shook my head. “No, and I won’t harm my big brother, either.”

Tab gasped. “Wait… Fist?”

I nodded and glanced down at the Crow Leader. He glared up at me.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” I asked, though I knew the answer already. “You’re Mom’s lost son.”

He snorted. “An’ here I thought ya was a dumbface. How’d ya figger it out?”

I looked back at the real villain. “The Teens have to obey Dr. Fixit when they turn thirteen, because the Machine controls them. But you,” I looked at Fist. “You’re still a Kid.”

“Yeah, so?” Fist said.

“The only way for that to have happened is for you to have been made without the DNA marker that turns Kids into Teens,” I said. “Only one Kid was left on Nil who fits that description. My big brother.”

“Wow,” Tab said. “And I always thought I was the one good at clues. I’m impressed!”

Fist scowled. “I ain’t your brother, Dumbface.”

“Yes you are,” I said “You remember Mom. You remember being her Kid.”

“I ain’t been her Kid for a long time.” He snorted. “’Sides, you’re her special hero-babies, ‘member? I’m her mess-up. Her mistake. I ain’t nothin’ ta her no more.”

“You’re wrong,” Tab said. “Mom loves you and misses you. She’s worried about you.”

Suddenly, my walkie-talkie blared to life. Through the static Turtle’s voice was in full-panic mode.

“Guts! The wall’s broke… they’re comin’..!”

Dr. Fixit smiled with Emily’s lips. “They will die, you know. The Teens will kill the Kids with their guns. The Kids will kill the Teens with their bombs. Unlike you second-hand creations, MY Kids know what’s important. War is who they are. It is all they know. And you can’t stop that.”

I flexed my fingers on the buzzball gun, still pointed at Dr. Fixit. “We can try.”

“That will kill your sister, boy,” Dr. Fixit growled.

I pulled Snot’s gas mask over my face and jerked my thumb towards Tab. “Yeah, but this won’t.”

Without hesitating, Tab pulled her own gas mask down, notched an arrow, and let it fly…

… straight at Emily’s feet.

Remember how I told you she’s smart?

Dr. Fixit crumpled like a pile of dirty clothes onto the ground as the arrowhead broke and smoke filled the rest of the room, knocking out the Botseers, the Soldiers… even Fist and Books.

I looked at Tab. She smiled.

Then the Machine gave out the biggest, loudest ROAR I had ever heard.

We looked up to see it still hanging on the ceiling, but now its tentacles whipped through the air in a frenzy, their slimy barbs flashing in and out of the smoke.

“YOU WOULD DEFY ME AGAIN AND AGAIN!” Dr. Fixit’s voice boomed from its center. “DO YOU NOT KNOW WHO I AM? WHAT I AM? YOU CANNOT STOP ME!”

“So you’re in the Machine now?” I yelled up. “Don’t you have a body of your own, Dr. Turd?”

“Tevor Tate!” Tab hissed. “Language!”

Instead of answering, the Machine screamed out another ROAR that shook the room. With another screeching-howl, the mining-drill of its body started turning, faster and faster until it looked like nothing but a blur of green slime that whipped off the spinning surface in every direction, splattering the walls, the floor… and us.

“Eew!” Tab wailed. “Not again!” She looked at the Machine, then at me. “What do we do?”

I opened my mouth to tell her I had no clue, but I was drowned out by a new noise, this one like the screeching of a million rabid rats. I looked up to see the Machine backing up into the ceiling! It flew up and out, leaving a perfectly round window to Nil’s orange sky.

Tab grabbed my arm. “It’s going to the Crows, Trev! I just know it! We have to stop it!”

“I know!” I looked around frantically. Without the Machine, the room was pretty bare. The floor was littered with passed-out Teens, but not much else. “But it’s not like we can…”

Then my eyes fell on Books.

“…fly…”

Echo was still strapped to Books’ back.

“Echo, down!” I called, hoping the spiderbot would listen to me.

“Down!” Echo echoed, and jumped off Books’ back.

“Back!” I called.

Without hesitation, Echo jumped up onto my own back and wrapped his tentacle-like spider legs around my shoulders and waist. He wasn’t heavy at all, like I expected since he was made of metal. Maybe about as heavy as my own school backpack at home.

“Echo, copter!” I called.

The spiderbot’s compartment flew open, the blades popping out and whirring just above my head. Before I realized it, my feet were off the ground.

“Woah!” I waved my arms to get balance. “Echo… uh… just hover for now!”

Tab shook her head. “Good idea, but Echo’s a one-person copter.”

“I can carry you,” I said.

She gave me a look.

“Just… trust me, okay?”

Tab looked up at the hole, then back at me. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded.

“But if you drop me, so help me Trevor Tate…”

I grinned in spite of everything. “What, you’ll haunt me?”

“That’s not funny.”

“I promise I won’t drop you,” I said seriously.

She glared at me, but wrapped her arms around my neck anyway.

I hugged her close. “Echo, up!”

“Up!”

Tab gave out a tiny whimper and dug her face into my shoulder as Echo’s blades caught the smoke-filled air, pulling us through the ceiling-hole and into the cloud-choked sky.

Chapter 24

The End

We didn’t clear the building right away like I expected. Instead, we rose through a smaller room on top of the auditorium. Echo had to dodge and weave between the ropes and chains strung all over the place like a spiderweb-hammock. A rusty rebar ladder lead up from the hole to a thin, crooked walkway hammered into the brick wall about halfway up. It wasn’t until Echo turned and I saw the enormous, rusted clockworks on one of the walls that I realized we were in the old clock tower I’d seen from outside.

Then we rose above the Machine’s garage, following the monster itself.

From behind it looked about the same, with its thrashing tentacles surrounding the still-whirring blade in the center. But when Echo finally caught up with it directly above the Crows’ camp, I saw what had been lurking above us the whole time.

The Machine looked like an enormous metal squid, and its torpedo-shaped body was covered in more than slime. All over it were round, yellow-glassed windows that looked like bulging sores. But the very worst thing was the enormous double-barreled guns hanging from its underbelly, like enormous claws ready to strike.

… straight at the heart of the Crow’s Battle camp.

As I watched in horror, the guns slowly turned. I looked down to see the Crows looking up, their dirt-streaked faces terrified.

You are the only ones who can stop The Machine.

I looked at Tab. She looked at me. I know she saw the same fear in my eyes that I saw in hers, but there was only one choice. We could save them all. We had to.

Slowly, Tab nodded.

“Echo, fly to the Machine!” I yelled. “And HURRY!”

“HURRY!”

As Echo flew close beside the slimy body I heard a weird sound like a low hum with a beat behind it. I looked down at the guns. They were glowing a bright green. The hum became a screech. The glow brightened.

We were out of time.

Together, we reached out to touch The Machine.

Chapter 25

After The End

Behind my closed eyes, I saw a bright flash. I winced, waiting for the explosion…

…that never came.

Instead, there was a short puff of air like cotton shooting out of a potato gun, and the green light faded to nothing. I opened one eye then the other to see all the tentacles drop, swinging dead below the body. I looked down at the guns. Their glow had died as well.

That was all. No boom. No explosion. No death.

“Did we do it wrong?” Tab asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. Maybe there’s a time-release?”

“Mom would have told us that.”

I nodded, pulling my hand away. “Well, at least it looks like it’s not working anymore.”

Suddenly there was a long, low groan. The Machine shuddered.

I felt my stomach drop. A split second later, the Machine dropped too. Right out of the sky.

“RUN!” I screamed at the Crows. They scattered just in time as the Machine fell to the earth with a ground-shattering BOOM. It threw up a cloud of dust that washed over the ground like waves, and covered the whole sky, us included.

Coughing on the dirt, I called out to the spiderbot on my back.

“ECHO, DOWN!”

“DOWN!”

“Trevor! Tabitha! My babies!” Mom came running towards us as Echo’s blades snapped back into his head. She grabbed us into a tight hug. “My babies! You’re okay!” Oh, I always wondered and hoped that the Machine wouldn’t actually blow up, but I assumed the worst!” She looked back towards Igh Schoo. “Is Emily…?”

“She’s back at Igh Schoo, but safe. Dr. Fixit went into the Machine after Tab put everyone… to… sleep..?”

That’s when I noticed something really weird. The Crows were gathered around us, smiling and laughing and full of relief, but the Teens…

“Are they dead?” Tab whispered. She looked with me at Teen bodies lying all over the ground. They looked like they had dropped where they stood, some almost on-top of each-other.

Mom shook her head. “They had just broken through the wall, and had gathered us together in this spot. They were guarding us, I think, so the Machine could finish the job. But then, when Machine stopped, the Teens dropped to the ground at the same time. I checked some of them. They’re only sleeping.” She looked at the Machine, now a broken hunk of metal lying in the crater it had made. “I can only imagine that their connection to it was broken so suddenly that they shut down. I’m hoping they awake soon.”

“How did you escape the dungeons?” I asked.

Mom grinned at me. “That Papercut Kid is pretty handy with his paper.”

I laughed. “Dr. Fixit sure underestimated us, didn’t he? He never even took away our weapons!”

“He is extremely egotistical. I’m sure he didn’t see them as any kind of threat.”

“Well he was wrong, wasn’t he?” Tab asked. She looked around. “Is… everyone… okay?”

Just then, Papercut, Turtle and Roach pushed through the crowd.

“I’d say so,” Mom said, laughing. “You saved the day! Guts and Glory, heroes of Nil!”

A cheer went up through the crowd. Above their voices, Roach started to chant.

“GUTS! GLORY! GUTS! GLORY!”

The crowd took up the chant, and somehow, this time it didn’t feel so embarrassing.

Not so embarrassing at all.

Chapter 26

A New Threat

Suddenly, Books burst through the crowd, pushing Crows aside like they were made of paper.

“GUTS!” he yelled, running up to me. “Guts, the Teens’re all down! They’re DOWN!”

I smiled. “I’m glad to see you’re okay. But yeah. Mom says they’re down because the Machine is down.”

Books looked past me at the hunk of metal-squid. For a second, his eyes went wide. Then he closed them and shook his head hard.

“That’s great, but I mean Gadget’s down too! An’ your Emily! They ain’t wakin’ up, Guts. Nonea ‘em. I shook and shook Gadget but he won’t move!”

“What about Fist?”

“Nah. He run off, sayin’ he don’t need no family.”

“Fist wasn’t Machined,” Tab said. “Remember?”

“But then why is Emily down?” I looked at Mom. “Didn’t you keep the marker out of her DNA too?”

Mom nodded. “But Dr. Fixit was able to make her into a mindseer somehow despite that, so she was under the influence of The Machine when you broke it.” She looked at Books. “Who’s Fist?”

“Our brother,” I said. “We found him.”

Mom gave out a tiny choking cry. “My boy? You found him?”

I nodded. “And we’ll find him again. I promise.”

Mom looked past us towards Igh Schoo. “Yes. Yes we will. But for now, I have another of my children to attend to.”

She looked at me and Tab. “And I believe you have some celebrating to do.”

Celebrating?” Tab asked doubtfully. “Now?”

“With Emily passed out like that?” I agreed. “And Dr. Fixit maybe coming to get us all?”

“Yes,” Mom said firmly. “Your followers need you. They need to feel that this is a victory against Dr. Fixit, even if the war has yet to be won. The best way to fight the darkness is to burn the brightest light you can.” She smiled. “Teach the Kids of Nil how to have fun.”

So that night, Tab and I put together the closest thing any Nil Kid had ever had to a party. There were no balloons or streamers. No cake or ice cream. No presents. But we had music, thanks to some overturned rusty pots and the Crows’s voices, and we had campfires, and we had poop gum that tasted like s’mores.

As the other Crows danced and laughed around us, Books, Papercut, Roach and Turtle joined me and Tab at the fireside to talk about our adventure.

“Yeah, Snot was real mad when we found him,” Papercut said with a laugh as we passed around the s’mores-gum. “He got caught by the Teens on their way ta the dungeons while he was tryin’ ta escape the monster. He’s still whinin’ ta everyone that’ll listen ‘bout how he coulda took the monster if he wanted ta, an’ how he’da got himself outta the cell anyhow without our help.” Papercut snorted.

“I’m glad you got him out anyway,” Tab said. “I don’t want to think about what Dr. Fixit was planning to do to him.”

“But we beat Dr. Fixit,” I said. “He wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”

“Not yet anyway,” Tab said quietly.

“Do ya think he’ll come ta Nil now?” Turtle asked after a moment of worried silence. “I mean, he won’t just forget ‘bout us, will he?”

I sighed. “No. Tab’s right. He’ll come here himself to get his control back. I just hope he’s far enough away that it’ll take a while.”

“Well, let’s worry ‘bout that when we gotta. For now we’re havin’ a party!” Papercut stood up. “Ya know, Guts, ya was right ‘bout parties bein’ pretty neat.” He laughed. “Course, there ain’t no Teens ta mess it up.”

Turtle and Roach laughed with him as they stood up. Roach turned to us.

“Ya comin’? That dancin’ stuff looks fun. I wanna try it.”

I looked at Tab. “Maybe in a few minutes.”

After they left, Tab, Books and I stared into the fire for a while, not talking. Finally, Tab shook her head.

“I wonder why they still hate the Teens?” she said.

“Hatred takes a long time to heal,” Mom said, walking up to us. “They’ve been at war with the Teens for as long as any of them can remember. Give them time.”

“Speaking of Teens…” I said.

Mom’s fire-lit face was grave. “I spent hours at Igh Schoo, examining Emily and some of the other Teens there. They’re the same as the ones here, and now I fear it’s worse than I first thought. The Machine left nothing of their original personalities when it took control. They’ve literally lost their minds.”

“Emily too?” I asked.

Mom nodded. The tears in her eyes reflected the firelight.

“But… does that mean there’s no hope for them at all?” Tab said.

Mom looked up at us with a tiny smile. “There’s hope, but it’s slim. Dr. Fixit didn’t create The Machine all by himself. He had help. But the one who helped him is now very, very old. If she is even still alive, she would be in Noc.”

“Noc?” I asked.

“Yes,” Mom said. “That’s where Dr. Fixit puts all the older people who can’t serve him anymore. It’s a terrible swamp, full of deadly creatures. Some say even zombies. But you have to find Dr. Fixit’s old partner there, nonetheless. She’s the only one who might know of a way to reverse the processes.”

Mom glanced across the fire at Books, who had sat quietly staring at the flames the whole time. Her frown deepened as he looked up at her. “And I’m afraid that I have even more bad news. If you don’t find a cure soon, one by one on their thirteenth birthday, every single Nil Kid will suffer the exact same fate.”

THE END

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