An evil force threatens Earth. Novice heroes must outplay the mastermind behind it…

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Outplayed

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Boredom has become a terminal illness for the people of Earth. They are slowly losing interest in everything, including themselves.

Curiosity is the cure, but the evil mastermind responsible for the epidemic stands in their way.

An inexperienced team led by Charcoal, an inhabitant of the planet Syl’Vael, must try to outplay the clever villain that always seems to be one step ahead. Only then can the imagination of Earth be restored.

Excerpt

Show Excerpt from Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – The Planet Syl’Vael

Syl’Vael. The word just sounded right to Charcoal. It was one of the few his species, the Aviair, had not taken directly from the English language. Charcoal took in a deep breath, admiring the view of majestic, towering trees, where the Aviair made their home. He walked to the edge of the deck that jutted out from his room, glancing over the side to see the fog that blocked all view of the surface.

  Charcoal unsheathed his retractable claws on his hands and feet to make sure they were ready. He examined his sharpened claws, checking for cracks or any small debris in them. Seeing none, he climbed up on top of the deck railing. He swayed a moment before gaining his balance, causing his delicate, C-shaped ears to unconsciously retract until they were flush with the side of his head. He took a deep breath and stood still for a moment in the afternoon sun, soaking in his beautiful treetop homeworld.

  Then he leapt off the railing out into the open air. Charcoal closed his eyes, trying to calm his pounding heart, and he spread his arms out like wings on either side of him. With a single thought, the top skin on his arms unfurled like a roll of wrapping paper, as did a layer on both sides of his torso, and one on each of his legs. As they unrolled, they released a chemical that opened special slits in his clothes, allowing his extra skin to flutter beside him like streamers in the wind. The wingflaps, as they were commonly known, fluttered only an instant before bonding together, creating a solid glider wing on either side of Charcoal.

  With his eyes still closed, he focused on the sounds of the wind currents using his special retractable ears. He could feel the warm sun on his head, and he could hear the wind that would be coming from the south, as it gently pushed his left side. Judging the direction, he turned slightly to his right and drifted lazily on the wind toward his intended location: an entanglement of branches covered with a thick spread of vibrantly colored moss, and topped with a light dusting of flowers, known as a branch meadow. But as he neared his target, he heard the wind current flowing unnaturally, and he swerved to his left, narrowly avoiding one of the gigantic trees. Readjusting his course, he managed to land on the branch he was aiming for.

  As he landed, he reversed the glider wing process, causing his wingflaps to wrap themselves around their respective body parts. His ears extended out to a twenty-degree angle from his head, much like the position of human ears. And then, using a combination of hearing and memory in place of his eyes, he navigated around the flower-filled branch meadow. When he maneuvered to what he believed was the right spot, he bent down and picked a flower. Instantly, he could tell it was the right one. The stem of the rippleblossom flower had a distinctly soft yet rumpled feel to it.

  Satisfied, Charcoal turned around, and retraced his steps out of the branch meadow. He took a deep breath, knowing he had only finished half of his planned course. Then he retracted his ears to protect them from the wind, and leapt off the edge, unraveling his wingflaps again.

  This time he steered himself toward the tree he had barely avoided earlier. Extending his retractable claws, he snagged the tree’s thick bark. It was getting harder and harder to keep his eyes closed, but he knew that if he wanted to improve, he needed to practice using senses other than his eyes. So he forced his eyes to stay shut and climbed up and around the tree until he was on the opposite side.

  Once he had gained the height he needed, he leapt off and glided homewards. As he got closer Charcoal could feel the wind moving around his open bedroom window, and he adjusted his course slightly, aiming toward it.

  Suddenly, he felt something small attach itself to his left arm. Charcoal shook his arm hoping the little parasite would fall off, but it remained firmly attached. Charcoal grimaced. The creatures known as air mites were not dangerous, but they were incredibly annoying. Their feet created a tickling, itching sensation on the skin that made it quite difficult to focus on anything else. Despite the distraction, Charcoal knew he had to focus on getting through the window or he would be left with a nasty bruise. He tried to ignore the itching, tickling feel that made his arm twitch involuntarily. However, just like everyone else who had an air mite hitch a ride, Charcoal realized that flying in a straight line was an impossible task.

  So seconds away from the window he shook his arm violently causing the air mite to fly off and Charcoal to lose control. He tucked his arms in at his sides effectively closing his glider wings, and dove through the window, grazing his left shoulder. He tumbled to the floor, but almost immediately stood up. He had done it! He had managed to fly to the branch meadow and back with his eyes closed, while picking up a flower for Breeze on the way. He grinned to himself. Gliding with his eyes closed was improving his navigational abilities by leaps and bounds. At this rate he would be able to pass the flying portion of his end-of-the-year test with ease. And to top it all off, he had a flower to give to his younger sister.

  He brushed his bluish-white skin off, wishing it was a different color. The air mites were intensely attracted to his sky-colored skin, which had caused him to be swarmed once before. Charcoal shuddered at the memory. However, even the disturbing thought of the parasite cloud couldn’t stifle his excitement. He was so excited he almost didn’t hear his mother setting the table downstairs. But as he was about to head down, he heard movement. He turned to stare at his empty bed.

  “George, I know you’re there.”

  A lizard-like quadruped unveiled itself on Charcoal’s bed. With an annoyed hiss it walked out to Charcoal’s deck and laid down, becoming completely invisible again.

  Charcoal rolled his eyes at the family pet Fibber’s lazy attitude. Then Charcoal remembered hearing his mom set the table and he hurried down the wooden stairs to where his family was just sitting down for dinner. His mom gave him a very-close-young-man look, but she let it go.

  “Daddy has an important announcement!” his little sister blurted out. Her skin was a light green that reminded Charcoal of light filtering through leaves. It was quite a contrast to their parents much darker, bark-colored skin. Charcoal could see his little sister’s delightful, brilliant green eyes glowing with excitement.

  Then Charcoal noticed his dad’s excited face. “What is it?” he asked, already guessing the answer.

  “I got my name today!” Charcoal’s dad said.

  The whole family beamed at him. Charcoal knew he had been waiting and waiting to get a replacement for the string of numbers that had masqueraded as his name for so long.

  “I am no longer JX-123,786. I am now,” Charcoal’s dad paused dramatically, “Spruce!”

  “Welcome, Spruce!” Charcoal’s mom said.

  “Yay for Daddy!” Charcoal’s little sister shouted, “We can still call you Daddy, right?”

  “Of course you can, Breeze. Except now, I have a real name that other people can call me instead of JX-123,786.”

  “Just like how we call Mommy, Mommy, but her real name is Nutmeg?”

  “Exactly like that,” Spruce said.

  In his head, Charcoal started a countdown. He knew what was coming. His little sister was a curious sort, and she would want to know about the names. “5, 4, 3…” Charcoal thought, guessing how long it would take her to ask the question.

  But before he could reach two, his little sister asked, “Daddy, how come you and mommy didn’t have a name until now, but me and Char have had a name our whole lives?”

  Charcoal grinned. “I saw that question coming a mile away.” Then he settled back in his chair, ready to hear his dad’s answer. He knew it would be interesting since his dad never managed to tell the story quite the same way every time. Although, because this was Breeze’s first time hearing it, Charcoal hoped his mother would make sure the facts came out straight.

  “Well, a long time ago,” Spruce began, “There used to be only two kinds of people. Those who worked and those who did not. The ruling class and the working class. The ruling class had been in charge for as long as anyone could remember, which wasn’t saying much since there wasn’t a lot of thinking going on at the time.”

  “Spruce,” Nutmeg corrected gently, “You know what it was like. We didn’t have a choice.”

  “Yes, dear,” Spruce conceded, “You’re right of course. We were not stupid. Rather, we were oblivious to anything besides working, including our own names. And as I discovered afterwards, the ruling class was in much the same boat.”

  “But how could the ruling class control the working class if they were both so unaware?” Breeze asked.

  “Quite simply,” Nutmeg answered. “Like your father said, the entire working class knew nothing else. There were no families or schools. They didn’t know how to read or write, they didn’t know how to communicate, they didn’t know how to form plans, they didn’t know how to rebel. All they knew was how to mine. They didn’t really comprehend what they were doing or why, but they didn’t care. Their entire life was mining.”

  “And that’s what makes the whole situation so strange,” Spruce added. “The two classes were so wrapped up in their own goals, they functioned entirely separate from each other. The working class did not need any urging from the ruling class to mine. Nor did the ruling class have any need for what the working class was extracting. Zelonium, as we now know the mineral, was not pretty. It looked much like a rock with a very dull purplish tinge to it. And, even more befuddling than that, is the fact that Zelonium is useless!”

  “Wait a second, Dad,” Charcoal said, noticing a discrepancy, “I thought you said before that Zelonium was useful?”

  “What your father means,” Nutmeg said, grinning at Spruce’s embellishment, “Is that Zelonium was useless to the ruling class. Not useless in general.”

  “Exactly,” Spruce agreed, not the least bit bothered by his error. “So for the longest time we nameless Aviair mined Zelonium, dutifully giving it to the ruling class, not intending to question where it went or what they did with it.”

  As Charcoal’s dad said the last sentence, Charcoal felt an alarm go off in his mind. There was something he wanted to ask, but he couldn’t seem to figure out what it was. There was only one thing to do in this situation; go to his memory palace. As soon as Charcoal considered the memory palace, he was instantly transported to an amazing structure that existed only in his mind. His claws clicked on the reflective white floor as he followed the path that he always followed. He dragged his hands along the wall to his left, feeling the three grooves that rose and fell along the wall, making his hand sway up and down. He followed the grooves until he reached a doorway. Charcoal paused. It contained an old wooden barrier made up of rickety looking boards with a hole in the bottom left corner just big enough to fit through. He smiled. It was the entrance to the very first room in his memory palace, but it wasn’t the room he was looking for, so he moved on. Even as he eased across a small ledge that overhung a spiky-looking canyon, he could hear his father continuing the story.

  “But everything they knew,” Spruce said, “changed one day with the arrival of something no Aviair had ever seen before. Not the working class, not the ruling class. I remember that day well. I was about as old as you are now, Breeze. The new arrival was a spherical device that had arms extending out from it, which did many different things. The adults at the time simply ignored it and continued mining, but the children like myself felt something we had never felt in our entire lives. Curiosity. It burned in our minds. It consumed our thoughts like kindling in a fire. Suddenly extracting minerals was not the only thing we knew. There was something else. A new experience. A new part of the world we had never understood before.”

  “Is that where Charcoal’s name came from?” Breeze asked.

  “Yes,” Nutmeg answered, “We named him after that first intense burning of curiosity.”

  Charcoal sheathed and unsheathed his pointer finger claw as he navigated through his memory palace. In his mind, he hopped across three sturdy lily pads, slipping on the third one as he did every time. He barely caught himself before he hit the floor, but the tumble caused him to notice a square button on the ground with an ancient-looking question mark engraved on it. He gently pressed the button before planting his feet on either side of the antique device. With a loud creaking sound, the section of floor he was standing on detached and rose upward, transporting Charcoal to his question room. But as the makeshift elevator traveled upward, the groaning and creaking sounds began to transform into the words of Spruce’s story.

  “We had no way of knowing what curiosity was or how to get rid of the feeling, so it persisted,” Spruce said seriously. “And not long after the strange object’s arrival, it started to slowly modify itself—adding pieces here, taking them away there. Our curiosity about the new object grew so much that we began to abandon work just to watch the device build whatever it was building. Doing anything instead of mining was unheard of, but for the first time in our young lives we had found something different and we wanted to know what it was, even though we didn’t really have a concept of knowing. It wasn’t long before the device finished its creation, which was a thin platform-shaped object that hovered in the air steadily. And if you stood close enough to it you could feel this soothing breeze. It made you forget all about the mines…”

  “That’s why I’m named Breeze,” Breeze said cheerfully.

  “Exactly,” Spruce said.

  “Hey, Dad?” Charcoal asked while quickly navigating his memory palace to find the right question.

  “Hmm?” Spruce responded.

  In the memory palace, Charcoal ducked a flock of flying chickens, and crawled through a mini-cave that was filled with sightless creatures, before he managed to collapse onto a park bench that was complemented by a gentle breeze that seemed to come from nowhere in particular. It was the last scene that jogged Charcoal’s memory and prompted him to say, “What was the breeze from? Did you ever find out?”

  “Yes, actually,” Spruce replied, “It was an early anti-gravity device that created air currents by forcefully moving air through itself which made a small air cushion the device could rest on.”

  “Hmm. Interesting,” Charcoal said, storing the information away for later. In the question room, he moved to the next scene which had an ugly cardboard box taped over the top of a beautiful painting. Once again the strange image reminded Charcoal of a question he had intended to ask, but this time he decided it could wait until his dad had finished the story.

  Spruce began again, “For many days the new device remained there—hovering, never moving—until most forgot about the device and mining consumed our lives once again. Many forgot about that burning feeling I’m sure, but I didn’t.

  “Nor did I,” Nutmeg added.

  “It stayed in the back of our minds until the day of our planet’s liberation. That day was another average day with no thought of anything except our work…”

  “You mean besides us thinking about the burning feeling?” Nutmeg corrected, with an amused expression on her face.

  Spruce turned to her, and seeing her smile, he smiled. “Okay, okay, so there were some other thoughts going on, but you get the picture. The majority of people were not thinking about anything aside from mining. But it was on that seemingly average day that the floating device activated, and beings began appearing out of thin air in what we now know was a rescue attempt via teleporter. The beings began trying to communicate with us, which was hopeless for everyone except some of the children—the children whose minds had been stimulated by curiosity. They realized something was going on with these new creatures while the adults continued to try and mine as though it was just simply another day in their dreary existence. The rescue team, which was from Earth, combined with a rescue team from the hidden civilization of Tris captured the ruling class, and after locking them away, began trying to bridge the gap between those who could learn to talk and those who were still lost in their world of work. The first success was with the group of children whose curiosity had been piqued by the strange device. Their young minds soaked up the alphabet and the words the Earthlings and the Tris tried to teach them. Soon the children were able to speak the language and explain to the rescuers all that had happened. I’m proud to have been in that group of children.”

  “Yay daddy!” Breeze shouted.

  “As was your mother,” Spruce finished.

  “Yay mommy!” Breeze shouted again.

  Nutmeg smiled contentedly.

  “Anyway,” Spruce continued, “as I was saying, the children were so eager for more knowledge that they learned quickly, and soon they were able to help the grownups in learning the new language. The Tris disappeared back into hiding soon after the rescue, but the Earthlings stayed and continued to help our planet grow and thrive. They were the ones who gave us our numbers, and later our names.”

  A puzzled look crossed Breeze’s face, “Why didn’t they give you names first?”

  Spruce grinned at his daughter’s honest question. “Because there were too many of us. The numbers helped them keep track of everyone. And eventually, over time, they did give us names.”

  “Why didn’t you pick your own like you picked mine and Charcoal’s?” Breeze inquired.

  “Your mother and I felt honored to receive a name from the Earthlings even if it meant we had to wait for them.”

  Nutmeg nodded. “Our names serve as a reminder of Earth’s kindness toward us.”

  “What were the Earthlings like?” Breeze asked.

  “Well, there were three of them.” Spruce replied. “Apparently Earth only sent three since that was the typical number for a first-contact team, and with that few people it was more likely to appear less threatening to us. However, they did send a newly promoted general named Robert Jefferson, who, I believe, is the youngest to earn the rank of general since the early 2000’s. As I understand it, his job was to make sure the rest of the first-contact team was not in serious danger. The others were Daniel Clydesdale, who was some type of linguist, and Brittany O’Neary, who was a psychologist.”

  “What’s a linguist?” Breeze asked.

  “A linguist is someone who understands different kinds of languages, Bri,” Nutmeg responded.

  “What do they look like?” Bri asked.

  “Linguists or the Earthlings?”

  “The Earthlings,” Bri replied.

  “Well,” Nutmeg responded, “you’ll be able to see for yourself when they come to visit Syl’Vael.”

  “Are they coming today?”

  “No, not today,” Spruce said thoughtfully, “but soon. They are coming on the twenty-third, I believe…”

  “Uh, Dad,” Charcoal said, “Today’s the twenty-third.”

  Spruce looked at his watch, “Then we’re meeting them at Tree Bark in five minutes!”

  Nutmeg gasped. “Oh, no! I shouldn’t have made dinner!”

  Everyone rushed to put the dinner away.

  “What about George’s dinner?” Charcoal asked.

  “He’ll be fine until we get back, Char,” Nutmeg replied.

  “Hurry, hurry,” Spruce said urging the others outside. “We have just enough time to get there if we leave now!”

  Charcoal and Bri raced out onto the front porch while Nutmeg put away the last dishes.

  “Come on!” Spruce shouted, “No time for public transportation.” Spruce leapt off the porch, dramatically opening his wingflaps and catching the wind.

  Charcoal and Bri copied their father, as they leapt off the porch and opened their glider wings to catch the wind and soar out into the empty space between the trees.

  Nutmeg quickly shut the door behind her and leapt off the porch as well, speedily catching up with her family.

  Charcoal looked at her, amazed as always. No matter how far behind she started, his mother always seemed to be able to catch up.

  As the family glided down to the restaurant they would be eating at, Charcoal steered over to his father to ask the question he had been saving for after the story. “Dad? What happened to all that Zelonium? What did the ruling class do with it? What could they possibly do with that much Zelonium?”

  “I don’t know. They still haven’t found most of the Zelonium we mined. And to be honest with you, Char, I think that’s because the ruling class had no intention of keeping it for themselves. My theory is that they were delivering it to someone else who knew how to use the stuff. But no one knows for sure since the ruling class didn’t remember any more than the rest of us. In fact, that’s why they aren’t locked up anymore, and why I think there was some outside source collecting the Zelonium.”

  “Why would someone do that?”

  “Greed, maybe. I’m not really sure, Char. There’s too much we don’t know.”

  They flew in silence for a bit. Then Charcoal spoke again. “What about the Tris? You never say much about them.”

  “That’s because I don’t know much about them either, Char. They came in, fixed the situation, and left.”

  “Why didn’t they stick around?”

  “Maybe they value their privacy.”

  “Then why did they even bother coming in the first place?” Charcoal questioned.

  “I’m not sure, son.”

  Charcoal was silent a moment, still processing the information.

  “I know their names,” Spruce offered, knowing how much his son valued little bits of information.

  “You do?”

  “Yes, that’s all I know about them, but yes. Their names were Sslick, Nerisssa, and Ressk. Oh look,” Spruce said, “Here we are.”

  The family glided down, gently landing on the deck of what was fittingly the first restaurant on Syl’Vael, Tree Bark.

  An elderly Aviair greeted them at the entrance to the restaurant. “Welcome, JX-1…”

  “Actually, I received my new name today, Oak. I am now Spruce.”

  “Congratulations, Spruce,” Oak said, “and I see you’ve brought your lovely family with you.”

  Breeze beamed and Charcoal stared at his feet.

  “Well, I say this every time, but,” Oak paused and in a deep announcer-like voice said, “Welcome to Tree Bark!”

  The family ooh’ed and ah’ed as they stepped into the fabulous restaurant. No matter how many times anybody went, it still managed to be an impressive sight every time. The floor was polished oak, and it reflected the sun streaming through the woven vine walls in a dazzling display of light.

  Breeze tugged on Nutmeg’s sleeve. “Mom, can we sit by the Hollow? Please, please, please, can we?”

  The Hollow was not actually a hollow in a tree. It was more of a hole. The hole was covered with transparent steel, so that diners sitting on top of it felt as though they were floating in mid-air. The window in the floor allowed a beautiful view of the sky and trees below, or at least the fog below, which sometimes was all that could be seen. The Hollow was by far the most popular place in the restaurant, and it was full the majority of the time. Nutmeg threw a questioning glance at Spruce who responded, “That’s where I asked for. The humans seem to enjoy the view as much as we do.”

  Nutmeg said yes to her daughter, but Breeze was already distracted with something else, and it took her half a moment to remember what she had just asked. Then, realizing the family was sitting at the place she had chosen, she cried out, “Yes!” and after a moment, “Thank you, Mommy.”

  Though Charcoal was quite thrilled they got to sit in the Hollow, which was a favorite of his as well, he was more concerned with meeting the humans. His father said that they had a similar dinner with the humans a few years ago and that there was nothing to be frightened of or worried about. This did not help calm Charcoal’s nerves very much, and the fact that they all had children of their own as well bothered him more. If it was a dinner with all adults, it was easy to blend into the background. However, when there were other kids, you were expected to talk to them and be friendly, which for a shy Aviair like himself was a problem. He self-consciously rubbed his stomach. It felt like it was full of Simmers.

  Thinking about something normal, like Simmers, calmed him down a bit. Charcoal recalled the Simmer he had been trying to tame for weeks now. It was totally black, an odd color for Simmers (who were mostly red, fiery orange, or in some cases, yellow). All Simmers were rock-like creatures with little leathery wings, and they had the ability to light their bodies on fire, which was a defense mechanism to ward away larger-winged predators. This was what first caught Charcoal’s eye. The black Simmer’s fire burned brighter than any other Simmer Charcoal had ever seen. And, unlike other Simmers, it had the ability to regulate how brightly it burned. Charcoal had been entranced by the control it had over its flammable abilities. Charcoal had fed it Plummets, which were odd little bugs that seemed to run into everything they could find until they finally plummeted to the ground, hence the name. This had warmed the Simmer up to Charcoal, and soon he had it eating out of his hand. However, it was still skittish, and if Charcoal twitched a finger, it would hurriedly fly off, leaving a trail of smoke behind as it ignited itself. Charcoal’s worries melted away as he continued to think about Scorch, his little black Simmer.

  As he neared the Hollow, his thoughts were interrupted by the greetings of the adults. He politely greeted everyone that greeted him and hurried to the smaller table where the kids were supposed to sit. The Simmers quickly returned to his stomach as he waited for the arrival of the others, though he tried to hide it.

  Charcoal checked his pockets for anything of interest. He realized he still had the flower for Bri. He would have to give it to her later. He really didn’t want to give it to her in public.

  As he looked around, he realized the only humans in the restaurant were the ones they were having dinner with. He stared curiously at the adult humans. They all seemed to be lethargic and very indifferent. “That’s interesting,” Charcoal thought. Then he noticed one of the couples.

  They seemed to be unaware of all the others at the table aside from each other. They were holding hands across the table staring deeply into each other’s eyes. Charcoal noticed his dad trying to get their attention with a greeting. The couple steadfastly ignored him. Charcoal’s dad soon gave up and went to greet the other humans. “Strange,” Charcoal thought. The couple hadn’t given any sign that they had noticed Charcoal’s dad. “Were they really staring so deeply into each other’s eyes that they wouldn’t notice Dad? Or is there something else going on?”

  “What are you staring at?”

  Charcoal jumped slightly and turned to his right to see who was talking. A small robot was hovering in the air next to him. Its head was small and white, accented by two orange squares which were its eyes. The head was attached to a white rectangle that also had orange accents in the shape of lightning bolts. On its back two jets were positioned, which let out a purplish-bluish pulse. The jets looked much like they had previously been the robot’s legs, and had been folded backwards to create the jetpack.

  “Pardon me, but I asked you a question.”

  “Oh, sorry,” Charcoal said, slightly embarrassed. “It wasn’t anything, really. Anyway, I’m Charcoal. Who are you?”

  “Ah, Charcoal. That is somewhat counter-intuitive is it not?” the robot said, gesturing to Charcoal’s blue-white skin.

  Charcoal shrugged. He was used to people being confused by his conflicting skin color and name.

  “Well, I am a Rythex C-24 model designated ZS-5388, but most people call me Z.”

  “A Rythex C-24!? Which version?”

  “Which version? Nobody has ever asked me that before.” Z hovered a little higher, “I am Version C, which is the better of the three.”

  “I know. A and B had so many bugs.”

  “Yes, but as a C, the only bug I have is the contraction bug. I cannot pronounce any contractions, which is a bit of an annoyance. As for the rest of the bugs, though, they managed to fix most of them for the C’s. Why they put those other ones out in the market I will never know.”

  Charcoal chuckled, “That sounds like humor. Do you have an emotion chip?”

  “Yes, though it is very crude. It allows for basic levels of all emotions.”

  “Wow. Who do you belong to?”

  “He belongs to me,” came a voice from over Charcoal’s shoulder. “The name’s Jill.”

  Charcoal, startled for the second time that day, turned to see an Earth girl standing behind him. She was fair-skinned, blond, and tall for a girl, only an inch or two shorter than Charcoal, who was five-foot-eleven. She stood with an air of confidence, but not of overconfidence.

  “What’s your name?” Jill asked.

  “Charcoal.”

  “Charcoal, hmm? That’s kind of counter-intuitive isn’t it?”

  Charcoal shrugged. “I guess. Do you take karate?”

  “Yeah,” Jill said surprised, “How did you know?”

  Charcoal pointed to Jill’s hands, “You have small callouses on your knuckles, and bigger ones on your pointer finger and middle-finger knuckle. Those kinds of punches are only taught in fighting styles like martial arts and sometimes boxing. You’re obviously not a boxer, which leaves martial arts.”

  “But how’d you know it was karate?”

  “Karate is the most popular martial art. That was just an educated guess.”

  “Wow.” Jill was silent for a while.

  Charcoal shuffled his feet. People were never sure what to say after he did that. It made him wonder if he should stop. Then again he tended to do it without much conscious thought.

  “Your dad’s Spruce, right?” said Jill.

  “Yeah. Who’s your dad?”

  “Chuck O’Neary. He’s the big one with the orange hair. My mom, Brittany, is the tall blond one. She actually went on the mission to your planet.”

  “Oh,” Charcoal said, blushing slightly, realizing it was her parents he had been observing.

  Z, noticing Charcoal’s uneasiness, said, “Charcoal and I were just talking about my emotion chip.”

  Jill looked surprised, “Really? How do you know about that?”

  “Well, I’ve read about it. I’ve wanted a Rythex for a long time but I could never afford one because of the price of importing. The teleporters probably have high fuel costs or something.”

  “Are you kidding? Those teleporters use almost no energy. It’s just the retailers trying to get extra cash off aliens who they think don’t know what they’re doing.”

  “Aliens? Who are they?”

  “Well, that’s what people call you. It basically means you aren’t from where we are, so we’re aliens to you too.”

  “Oh,” Charcoal said, glancing around hoping for something to break the uncomfortable silence that followed. Then he noticed two boys walking toward their table. “Hey. Who are they?”

  “Them? That one on the left in the sweater vest and glasses,” Jill paused taking in the unmistakable, one-of-a-kind glasses, “That’s Peter Clydesdale. And that one,” she gritted her teeth, “Is Quinn. That’s what everyone calls him. His full name is Quincy Jefferson, but nobody I know except his dad ever calls him Quincy. The rest of the world just calls him Quinn. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some ‘issues’ to talk over with him.”

  Jill went over to intercept Quinn. Peter, after a greeting to Jill, came over to the table.

  The brown-haired boy greeted Charcoal, “Hullo. I’m Peter. Who might you be?”

  “I’m Charcoal.”

  “Ah, Charcoal. That’s slightly counter-intuitive isn’t it?”

  Charcoal sighed and shrugged.

  “So you’re Charcoal? As in Spruce’s…” Peter gasped. “Is that a Rythex C-24!?” Peter’s eyes widened and he began to dash toward Z.

  Z looked frantically at Charcoal and then flew to take cover behind him. “Jillian warned me about him,” the little robot said, pointing at Peter. “He is a maniac!”

  “Is that fear?” Peter asked eagerly. “You must have an emotion chip. Let me look at your mechanics, or your programming. Just one line…” He then began chasing Z around Charcoal who was completely flabbergasted by the whole ordeal. All three, however, were stopped completely by the commotion not far from their table.

  “I’m not really bothered by gum in Z’s internals,” Jill was shouting. “I’ve cleaned it out enough times to become a professional at it. I’m not really bothered when the door to my closet seems to disappear and look like it’s part of the wall. It usually isn’t too difficult to find. But when you reprogram Z to fire paint at me, when I’m training, right before an exam at my martial arts school… That really bugs me!” Jill yelled angrily, emphasizing each word.

  Z chuckled. “Bugs. Programming joke.”

  Peter chuckled silently.

  Quinn stared across at Jill. He was slightly tan and almost as tall as Jill. He had a black t-shirt with a picture of the Milky Way. Quinn brushed back his black hair and shrugged. “I warned you when you beat me up last time that you would regret it.”

  “I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t put that…”

  “Excuse me. Is there a problem?” the waiter for their table said.

  Jill and Quinn glanced at each other, and after exchanging looks of this-isn’t-over-yet, both shook their heads at the waiter.

  “Good. Now would you like to order?”

* * * * *

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