Friday, January 30, 2015 3 comments

Scarecrow 2.0 (#FridayFlash)

Image source: openclipart.org
“Hi, Allie,” Bob said into his cellphone, turning to shade himself and the phone from the summer sun. The corn wasn’t high enough for shade just yet.

“On the way back,” his wife told him. “I saw something interesting at the feed store, though. It might help with the crows.”

“Sounds good.” The crows had been especially bad this year. Bob was afraid they might eat up the whole crop before it was ready to pick. Not that the rats were much better, mind you. Or the raccoons.

“You at your best right now?”

“Yup. Out standing in my field.” This was their little running joke.

“Good. Anyway, I got this flyer. I really think you should call.”

“Will do.” When Allie said I really think you should, there was always an unspoken or else.

• • •

“So here’s the bottom line.” The young fella was earnest enough, but he talked kind of quick and his outdoor clothes didn’t look comfortable on him. “We set up a Scarecrow Two Point Oh system for you. You let us know how it works, and let us come on your property to maintain the thing. Maybe once a week, unless something breaks. If it damages your crops or your property in any way, we make it right.”

“There’s gotta be a catch,” said Allie. “What’s in it for you and your people?”

“Well, ma’am, we do need to field-test the system,” he admitted. “You can do a lot on a test plot, and we fixed some problems that would have had you taking a shotgun to it.” That got a chuckle from Bob. “But we won’t know for sure how well it works until it’s deployed on a real, working farm. We’re sure enough about it to try it, now. If we thought there was a good chance it would damage your crops, we’d still be testing it on our own plots.” He slid a paper out of his folder. “This is the contract.”

Allie looked the contract over. “Huh. Not that legal gobbledygook? This looks pretty clear. Maybe we can work together after all.”

“Great.” The visitor gave them a happy smile. “Just show me a place to put the system, one where there’s lots of sunlight, and I’ll get to work.”

“You’ll need power, right?” Bob asked.

“Nope. It’s all solar-powered. Even we know there’s no outlets out in a cornfield.” All three laughed together.

• • •

A week later, Allie and Bob were congratulating themselves for taking a chance on this “Scarecrow 2.0” thing. The robot patrolled the cornfield and blasted varmints with its laser. Even better, it cleaned up after itself, depositing dead critters in a bin, where Bob counted them up and sent the tally to SC Research. Its best day was the third, with 147 kills; the tally was declining now, but Bob figured it was making a dent in the varmint population and finding fewer targets.

But by the end of the third week, Bob was seeing telltale signs of feeding again. There were only a few critters in the bin each day. “I think we need to call ‘em up,” said Allie.

“Okay,” they heard over the phone. “We see it in the telemetry. It’s tripping a ‘low battery’ fault, then it’s not getting much of a charge in the base station. Probably a defect in the charging system. We’re scheduled to come out tomorrow, we’ll check it out.”


“Holy sh—holy mackerel,” said the technician, wobbling atop a stepladder. “The solar panels are covered in guano.” He took out a rag and wet it with his water bottle. “Man. I’ve never seen one like this,” he grumbled, wiping bird crap off the panels.

Once the panels were cleaned, the charging system jumped right back up to normal, making the technician as happy as the farmers. “Yeah. Keep an eye on this, okay?” said the technician. “Maybe squeegee the panels every other day. I guess the engineers will develop counter-measures to keep that from happening.”

The next morning, Bob went out to check on the Scarecrow. He took a cellphone snap of what he saw, then called the company again. “I got a picture,” he said. “The damn crows are sitting on the solar panels and holding their wings out. It’s like they know what to do or something.”

“This is the kind of real-world info we were hoping to get,” said one of the engineers, after taking them off hold (Allie figured they were cussing the crows). “Sounds like we need to come up with better counter-measures than a wiper. But hang in there, we’ll beat this yet.”

Allie hung up the phone, looking pensive.

“What is it?” asked Bob.

“Well…” Allie trailed off, looking out the window at the cornfield. “They’re gonna come up with something to keep the crows off the solar panels, right? Makes me wonder what the crows will come up with to beat that.”

Monday, January 26, 2015 2 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 6

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5



In the weight room, Blink found Captain Heroic waiting for him. Nixi was already there, puffing as she jogged on a treadmill. To his surprise, Sarika came in behind him.

“Hi!” she said, giving Blink that smile.

“Hey,” he replied. Sarika was wearing sweats, but he was too busy trying not to look like a dork to check her out anyway.

“Let’s get started,” said Captain Heroic, tapping at a clipboard. “I want to see what you two are capable of before I concoct your workout regimes. Nixi’s been here for a week already, so I have her working on her stamina first. We’ll all be up before breakfast for a morning jog, by the way.”

Sarika moaned, and Blink joined her. We have that much in common, a hopeful voice told him.

“Nothing strenuous,” the old superhero assured them. “Just something to work up your appetite for breakfast. Okay, let’s get started with some stretches.”

“What do you think he’ll have you working on?” Sarika whispered as they sat on the floor, grabbing their feet.

“I walk pretty much everywhere, so I’m not in that bad of shape,” Blink whispered back. “Probably weight lifting. What about you?”

“I see a lot of time on a treadmill in my future. I don’t walk or run much.”

“But you probably won’t need much weight training. That backpack looked heavy.”

Sarika giggled. “Twenty kilos, maybe. I bet your bookbag for school is about that heavy.”

Blink did the mental calculation—forty-four pounds was about half of what he’d guessed, but… “That’s ten pounds heavier than my bookbag.”

“Not that much heavier. Not even five kilos.”

“Okay,” said Captain Heroic. “You guys feeling limbered up?”

“Sure,” they both said. “Jinx,” Sarika whispered.

“Great. Let’s start you out on the weight machines, then we’ll try you on the exercise bikes.”

The two of them were able to lift a similar amount of weight, but Blink strained to keep up with Sarika. This is stupid, he thought. There were several girls at school that he knew were stronger than him, but he didn’t want to look weak in front of Sarika—or Nixi, who was watching from the treadmill.

The exercise bikes left him feeling a little more sure of himself. Captain Heroic adjusted the resistance, but Blink set a comfortable pace that he could manage for a long time. Sarika puffed and gasped, and stopped pedaling after a few minutes to catch her breath.

“All righty, then,” said Captain Heroic. “I think I’ve got it. Sarika, we need to work on your stamina. I’ll put you on a treadmill with Nixi, and maybe the two of you can keep each other going. Blink gets weight training. I’ll work up your training programs this afternoon, and you’ll get started tomorrow. Remember that jog in the morning. I think Ms. Ma is waiting for you in the rubber room.”

to be continued…

Friday, January 23, 2015 3 comments

Break a Leg

Tuesday night, we were sleeping snug in our bed… and the phone rang. I said “Tuesday night,” but it was technically Wednesday by then. Whatever.

It was BrandX on the line. He’s been staying with the father in law for a while, as they both tend to be up during late hours. But the old guy was making a bathroom run, and his “non-skid” slippers lived up to their name rather than their adjective, if you get my drift. THUD. By the time we got there, BrandX had pulled a chair around and got him off the floor. He had landed on his side, banging his shoulder, elbow, and hip all down the right side. There wasn’t much problem above the waist; the wife popped a bandage on his elbow where it was scraped a little. But his leg hurt, and he couldn’t move it much.

Wife called 911, and sent me home. They were going to take him to the hospital to X-ray his leg; but he refused, saying he would go in the afternoon if his leg wasn’t feeling any better by then. Of course, he backtracked on that one when the time came, but by mid-afternoon yesterday it was clear he needed to have it looked at.

And I got the call: he’d broken his hip. Oh joy. When you’re in your late 80s, surgery is always a dicey proposition, and this was going to need some help getting put back together. So they scheduled the surgery for this afternoon. Wife sent an amusing shot of some of the prep, including an awesome tinfoil hat:

“He’s ready for liftoff,” said the wife.
Good thing I was working at home today; the wife usually watches Mason, but I lined up Jam to deal with him… and then she remembered an interview she had at 2pm. He was mostly okay (except for the last half hour) until Daughter Dearest arrived to take over.

The father in law was all put back together after a few hours, and now the wife is on her way home. Him… he’s staying. The non-nutty sister is staying with him tonight, so I don’t have to worry about dealing with Mason tomorrow morning. He doesn’t fly, which is good because he’ll set off metal detectors from now on.

Friday can’t get here fast enough. Not that I’ll get much rest this weekend either.

Monday, January 19, 2015 4 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 5

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1 | 2 | 3 | 4



Shortly after Nixi left, a dude in a security uniform found Stevie in the cafeteria. “The Professor says to come back to the Sim Room as soon as you finish lunch.”

Stevie’s first thought was rentacop, but the guy wasn’t being rude. But… “Sim Room?”

“The big room on F-2. You know how to find it?”

Stevie shrugged. “Yeah.”

The security dude left, leaving Stevie to wonder why it had that name, but he figured he would find out soon enough.


When Stevie stepped through the double doors, he thought at first that he was in the wrong place—except that Professor Zero was waiting for him. “Welcome to the Simulation Room, Blink,” he said.

“Where did all this stuff come from?” Stevie asked, waving at the buildings and trees that turned the huge room into an indoor town.

“It’s all modular,” the Professor explained. “The buildings actually have only three sides, and they fold in for storage. Cranes in the ceiling deploy the pieces as needed. We can configure this room for a variety of simulations, and have it ready in a matter of minutes. Are you familiar with the concept of a staging area?”

“Not really.”

“Think of it as a mobile headquarters. If there’s a situation that requires a superhero, we’ll have a staging area set up. We try to gather as much information about the situation as we can before sending anyone in. Our staging area is over here.” Zero led him to a table, sheltered from the fake town by portable barricades and two trucks, and pointed to a map. “How would you get into this house, assuming that people across the street are watching, without them seeing you?”

Stevie studied the map. “I guess I’d try popping over to here.” He pointed at a spot a few houses down from the target. “Then I’d go through the back yards and pop inside that way.”

“That might work. Are you up to trying it?”

“I’ve never gone that far, but I don’t see why not.”

“Oh, wait.” Zero handed him a headset. “Put this on. We’ll need you to communicate with the staging area.”

“Okay.” Stevie slipped the headset on, then pulled his hood over it, becoming Blink. “Now you see me…” He looked down the street, and found the place he wanted to go.

And there he was. He ducked away from the street and rounded the back of the house. Even forewarned, he did a double-take at the missing back wall, but scanned across to the house he wanted. One pop took him behind the house; another pop and he was on the second floor, sneaking a peek out the window.

“I’m there,” he whispered. “One of the guys in the house across the street is looking back down your way.”

“Nicely done, Blink,” Zero replied. “Fourteen seconds. Come on back.”

“Okay.” Blink popped directly back to the staging area, startling Professor Zero and his two assistants.

“It only took you one teleport to come back?” Zero asked. “How many did you use to get there?”

“Three. One to get to the place I pointed at earlier. I ran to the back and popped across to the house you wanted me to go in, then I popped inside. I knew where the staging area was already, so I just went straight back.”

“Ah. So you need to see where you’re going?”

Blink shrugged. “Sort of. I can pop in and out of houses, though. I did that when I got Frank Crain out of the Blackuras’ place.”

“So how did you figure out what you can do?”

“I didn’t. I just do it. I was thinking on the way here, it would be cool if I could pop myself to the beach. Mom, too. But she’d freak out.”

Professor Zero nodded. “Good idea, not letting your mom know. Have you tried to figure out what you can’t do yet?”

“Uh-uh. I haven’t really tried to push the limits, yet. I don’t want to pop into the middle of a wall or something.”

“Prudent. Any idea how far you can go, or how often you can use your ability?”

“Not yet. What I did just now is the farthest I ever went.”

“Do you want to try going all the way down to the other end and back?”

Blink shrugged. “Sure.” He looked down the long street… and then he was standing at the far end. “I made it,” he said into his headset. “No problem.”

The assistants, standing behind Professor Zero, whispered among themselves. “I’ve seen it, but I still can’t get used to it,” said one.

“At least we’re functional, not just staring and drooling like with Miss Siles.”

“Yeah.”

“I suppose we’ll have to go outdoors to test your distance limits,” Professor Zero spoke into his headset. “But I expect if you can see your destination, or can accurately visualize it, you can send yourself there regardless of distance. The trick will be to find out how often you can do it, and what conditions might limit it. Come on back, that takes care of today’s test cases. Conditioning and Self-Defense will wrap up your day.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 No comments

Writing Wibbles: Chomp?

So, there’s an interesting blog post out there.

Nora Roberts tells her critics: Bite Me.

Wow. Just wow. Apparently, someone left some silly (but rude) comments on her Facebook pages, and as they say around here, she “didn’t cotton to that.”
The reader is not my employer, my teacher, my mother. This is not my hobby, this is my profession, and in this profession I have an editor. I welcome her constructive criticism. I have an agent. I welcome hers. Readers, having those opinions that will vary dramatically from one to another? Not welcome. Not asked for. Not accepted. 
Because you use a sink do you get in the plumber’s face and advise him how to fix it? … If the plumber isn’t doing the job to your standards, find another plumber. …
A book doesn’t come with a suggestion box, and the writer is not obliged to sculpt a story to your specific needs. 
Readers read. Writers write. Readers can voice their opinions in appropriate areas, to their friends, to their bookclub and so on. But those who insist on coming into my spaces with their negativity are going to be called out for it.
A friend of mine on Twitter pointed to the blog post and said in effect, “Nora Roberts is the only woman writer who can get away with that… any other woman would have a shitstorm on her hands.”

Well hey, I’m a guy. I might as well use that male privilege thing for a good purpose for a change, right? So I’ll just say: I can see where she’s coming from. Even if I wasn’t writing my own stories, I’d get it. I’ve had people who know less than I do about something try to tell me how to get it done, whether it be fixing a pipe or running wires or what have you. There’s nothing that irks me more than someone who can’t, or doesn’t want to, do something but feels free to tell you how UR DOIN IT W0RNG.

But reviews? Reviews on review sites (or in the reviews section of a book page) are pretty much sacrosanct, and I think Ms. Roberts agrees in the last paragraph I quoted. Not everyone will like a story, and that’s okay. If everyone liked the same kind of story, then only one kind of story would ever get written. Reviews are (or should be) for other readers, to help them decide whether a particular story is going to suit. The common wisdom is “don’t respond to reviews at all,” and some writers don’t even read their reviews.

On the other hand, a writer’s blog (or Facebook page) is a place for writers and readers to meet and discuss. That “don’t respond to reviews” thing doesn’t apply on those spaces. Someone wants to get snippy with Nora Roberts in her space, and she has every right to respond.


There are other spaces where readers and writers can get together. I’ve actually had the most interaction with general readers (i.e. non-writers) in the forum on my Amazon author page. I certainly wouldn’t mind some (polite) back and forth here on the ol’ blawg, but I’ll take what I can get.

Where do you like best to interact with writers and readers? Floor’s open…

Monday, January 12, 2015 4 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 4

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1 | 2 | 3



“City Hall gets an abbreviated version of this,” said Professor Zero, as Stevie filled out a form. “They only get the basics. Nothing that can identify you. We’re going to put you on inactive status for now. You’ll still be registered as a superhero, but we won’t call on you when there’s a general mobilization.”

“What’s that?” Stevie asked.

“It doesn’t happen often,” Zero replied. “It’s when we call up everyone for a major operation. Like the one against Republic Industries last fall?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Right. Since you’re inactive, you won’t be called on unless it’s absolutely necessary. When you finish college, we’ll move you to active status and then you’ll be a working superhero.”

“Okay.”

Zero picked up the form and looked it over on his clipboard. “I have all your stats. Now, can you tell me about when you manifested?”

“Oh, sure. Me and Chris and Lashaun were hanging out at the park, and some dumb high school kid came over and started giving us crap, telling us to leave. I told him to act his age instead of his IQ.” He paused, as Zero chuckled. “So yeah, he told me to meet him after school the next day so he could teach me a lesson. Whatever. I wasn’t going to go there, but he caught me on the path going toward my house. He shoved me up against a tree, and went to punch me. But I—I don’t know how it happened. I wanted to get out of the way, and next thing I know I was standing next to the tree. The high school kid hit the tree with his fist, then I pushed him down and ran. I think he broke his hand, the way he was yelling.”

“Ah. A stress situation. Manifesting under stress is fairly common, but school’s a stressful place for most. We may never figure out why you manifested so early, but it probably doesn’t matter. Next up, your physical.”

Stevie knew what happens in a physical, but it was still totally embarrassing. The nurse gave him an understanding look, and got the worst part over with as fast as she could. Getting stuck for blood was almost okay, after that. Then he had to get on a treadmill and run until he was out of breath while they checked his pulse.

After the physical, the nurse let him follow her to the cafeteria for lunch. Everything looked suspiciously healthy to Stevie, but he made do with a burger and a side of corn. Coming out of the serving line, he automatically looked around for Lashaun and Chris, but remembered that this wasn’t school. Professor Zero was gone, probably doing work stuff, and Captain Heroic was missing. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he ate lunch by himself—

Wait. There was the girl—the one that was Professor Zero’s niece—oh yeah, Nixi. By herself. He would have never had the nerve to do this at school, but here? I’m a super, he told himself again. I can do this. He carried his lunch tray over. “Hey,” he said. “Can I sit here?”

Nixi looked up. “Sure.”

“Thanks.” He laid his tray on the table, across from her, and took a seat. “I’m Blink.”

“Yeah,” she replied. “I kind of figured.” She gave him a thin smile, enough to show she wasn’t being rude.

“Not many kids around, huh?” He dug into his burger. It didn’t taste like Mom’s, but it was better than the burgers at school.

“Just us. And the girl you came in with.”

“Sarika? Yeah. When I saw you there, I was surprised she wasn’t here, too.”

Nixi gave him a sour look. “I’ll bet. She’s been assigned to some other department, one I never heard of. You probably won’t see much of her.”

“What? Oh. No, I’m not… I don’t like her like that. I was just wondering, is all. We rode here together with Captain Heroic.”

“Yeah. Some people get all the breaks. Money, looks, the works. It’s not fair, sometimes, you know?” She picked at her food, not looking up.

He laughed a little. “You’re not ugly or anything. Besides, Mom said that good-looking people are usually a—jerks.”

“So I have a great personality,” she grumbled.

“You could have told me to go sit at another table. That would have been… uh, good-looking.”

She snickered. “Yeah. My name’s Nixi, by the way. But with an X, not two Ks.”

“I know. Captain Heroic told me.”

“This is gonna take some getting used to. It’s like we’re all in a little house, we know everybody else’s business. I think I saw your file on my desk, so I’m gonna have to enter all of that this afternoon. Then I’ll know all sorts of stuff about you. How did you end up getting your superpower, already?”

“I don’t know. It just happened.” He told her about the high school kid; it was already becoming just a story he could rattle off at will. “I tell everyone else I just ducked.”

“Hey. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I saw the news reports about you, how you stopped DeVine’s caper. How did you know he was going to be there?”

“I didn’t know, I was just there.” Stevie saw the curious look Nixi gave him. “I was just thinking. I figured I wouldn’t get disturbed, sitting in a locked bank vault, you know?”

“You’re a better person than me.” Nixi talked around a mouthful of food. “I’d have been tempted to stuff my pockets with cash.”

Stevie forced a laugh. He had been considering the exact same thing, of course. “The thought did cross my mind. But DeVine kinda interrupted me. Then Ultra Woman came along.”

“Yeah.”

“So you know all about me. What are you doing here?”

Nixi held up a finger, chewing up the rest of her food. “I’m setting up an intranet,” she said at last. “The last contractor deployed a real cluster—it wasn’t very good. I thought at first I might be able to tweak it up, maybe re-code a few pieces, but now that I’ve gotten into it…” She trailed off, tangling her fingers in her hair. “Jeez. I have to toss the entire thing and start from scratch. And these guys called themselves professionals? A middle-schooler could do better. Will do better. I just hope I can get the first cut done before school starts back in, and I can VPN in and fix anything they find after that.”

“Sounds like a lot of work.”

“Yeah. And I’ll be dealing with some other stuff. Data entry, that kind of junk.” She stood. “And I gotta get to it. Good talking with you. I guess I’ll run into you some other time.”

Stevie watched her go. That went well, kind of, he told himself. He talked to a girl, and didn’t act like a dork. He didn’t think he had, anyway. It would be nice if they could eat lunch together every day. She talked about computer stuff that went over his head (what did “VPN in” mean?), but it was still good to have someone his own age to talk to.

Monday, January 05, 2015 7 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 3

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1 | 2



“Blink, I presume?” Professor Zero asked, approaching the golf cart. “Welcome to Zero Point. You had a good trip, I hope?”

“Uh… sure.” Stevie glanced at Captain Heroic, who was looking away. Your show, in other words. I’m a super. I can do this. “Thanks for, uh, inviting me. This is totally awesome.”

“The pleasure is mine,” said Zero. Next to Stevie, Captain Heroic gave Stevie an approving nod and smile. “Grab your bag. The good Captain and I will show you your quarters, once we’ve shown you some of what we have planned for you. I’ll admit, though, I was sorely tempted to convince you to skip the rest of the school year so we could get started sooner.”

“That would have been okay by me,” Stevie laughed as they walked. “Middle school totally sucks.”

Professor Zero laughed with him. “Believe me, I do remember those days. Structured education is a special hell for anyone of above-average intelligence. Speaking of which, how are your grades?”

“Good enough. I aced Geometry, and got As and Bs in everything.”

“Then you’re not just coasting through your classes. That’s good.” Zero opened a pair of double doors, leading into a vast room. Snap, and floodlights showed it to be as big as the middle school’s football field, including the bleachers. “You’ll be spending a lot of time in here, Blink. I’m sure you know we’ll test your teleportation ability, and much of that testing will happen in here. If necessary, we’ll conduct some tests outside. But we’ll use this area where possible. We can control the conditions better, and it gives us more privacy.” He shut the doors.

“Over here,” Zero continued, “across the hall, is the classroom. Your training here is part charm school, part public relations, and part law enforcement. Some people are naturally comfortable facing the public, but it’s a skill that can be learned. You’ll need to know how to deal with the media, answering questions without giving away things you don’t want them to know. For example, the few questions I asked you earlier could help someone narrow down your secret identity. Your grades are good enough, or almost, to put you in the honors program, which would weed out eighty percent of the student body.”

Stevie blushed, and Zero laughed. “Not that you gave away much. It’s pretty well-known that supers tend to be intelligent. There are exceptions, but they’re rare and mostly Type IIIs like the good Captain here. But Cap’s a smart guy, too. You do know the super types, right?”

“Yeah,” said Stevie, “Captain Heroic told me about them. I’m a Type I, someone born with it. A Type II is a lab accident, like Miss Siles. Type IIIs are regular people with gadgets.”

“Ah, good. And Cap’s report about how you rescued your classmate tells me that you at least understand the fundamentals of being a superhero.” Zero opened another door down the hall; this was a workout room, and Stevie had never seen some of these machines. “Part of your training is physical. Even a Type I needs to be in good physical condition. Not only do you need to be able to hold your own in a fight, regardless of your special abilities, you need to have the stamina to outlast your opponents. The Masked Warrior who traveled with you here will be training you and several others in hand-to-hand combat techniques.”

“Cool.”

“It’s something I hope you won’t have to use for a while. Experience tells us that being a superhero is a full-time job. If you’re out at all hours, or cutting classes to fight crime, you’ll soon find yourself falling behind. We don’t want that, especially at your age. But the more you know now, the better chance you’ll have of staying out of the spotlight until it’s time to take your place.”

Zero led them to yet another room, more cluttered than Stevie’s room on a particularly bad day. “This part of your training, I hope you will find fun in the end. It will certainly be frustrating to begin with. But Improvisation is the most important learned skill you can have. You’ll not only learn to build and repair gadgets from junk laying around, you’ll learn to keep your head in a crisis. As a superhero, you’ll have your share of crises, trust me. Captain Heroic is a master at this, and he’ll be your instructor.”

“A lot of the things I used in my work, I first improvised,” Captain Heroic added. “When they worked, I refined them and added them to my toolkit. But I’ll save the rest of the speech for tomorrow.”

“I’m sure young Blink appreciates that,” said Zero, leading them to an elevator. “Let us proceed to his home away from home for the next six weeks, though.” He turned to Stevie. “Level R-3. The button’s about midway up.”

Stevie looked at the huge array of buttons, all with different letters and numbers. None of them were in order. He finally located one that read R3, and pressed it. “How many floors does this place have?” he asked.

“Not as many floors as there are buttons,” Zero replied. “By the way, you will press F-2 to return to the floor we just departed. The elevators are part of the defenses here—if an enemy does manage to get in here, he would probably assume that P-7 would take him to my quarters.” He pointed at the button on top. “However, it drops the elevator into the holding cells and keeps it there until Security can take over. So be very careful to press either R-3 or F-2 when you’re in the elevator, or you’ll have an embarrassing moment to add to your journal.”

“I don’t have a journal,” said Stevie.

“A journal is waiting for you in your room,” said Zero. “You need to spend some time every evening, writing your impressions about the day into your journal. By the time you’re home, it should be a habit. Preferably a daily one. Most days seem to have little important going on, but you’ll learn that every day is important in some way.” The elevator slowed and stopped, and Zero led them down the hall.

“What if Mom sees it?”

“She won’t.” Zero brought them to a stop at a door marked R306. “This is your room, Blink. We need to key it to your palmprint, though.” Professor Zero stuck a card into a slot above a grey rectangle. “Put your hand there.”

Stevie did as he was told, and the door popped open. “Your door is now keyed,” said Zero. “And that’s a key you can’t lose or lock in your room.”

Stevie chuckled, then dropped his bag on the bed and checked out the room. It looked like a hotel room—there was a private bathroom, a small fridge (stocked with snacks and soft drinks, he learned later), and a big window with curtains over it. “Looks nice,” he said.

“Your journal is on the desk over there,” said Zero.

Stevie checked it out; it had a battered-looking cover. But when he opened it, he found it concealed an iPad mini. “Wait,” he said. “This is mine?” The last word came out in a squeak.

“It’s a specially-modified version,” said Zero. “The journal app is only visible when you’re touching the device, and it has a secure link to the Zero Point network. There’s a Bluetooth keyboard already associated with it in the drawer. You can use that if you can touch type.”

“Whoa.”

“We have time to figure out how you won it,” said Captain Heroic. “Maybe some kind of drawing or contest.”

“Plenty of time,” Zero agreed. “But for now, we have more to see. We need to register you, and give you a complete physical. I want to establish a baseline for your conditioning. That should take us to lunch, then we’ll begin testing your ability this afternoon.”

“Yeah.” Stevie closed the cover, wishing he could just sit here the rest of the day (or the week) and load up the iPad with stuff. This is a dream, he thought. In a minute, I’ll wake up.

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