Rise of the Robot Army
Miles Taylor was a superhero, but he still had to wake up for school.
Miles dropped his hand heavily onto his alarm clock. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, his mind filling with thoughts of what the new school year had in store for him.
If eighth grade was anything like seventh, he wasn’t particularly excited. Rising with the sun. A slapdash breakfast of cereal or toast. Trudging downstairs to wait in front of Cedar Lake Apartments for the bus that was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and too smelly year-round. All for the privilege of spending the next nine months at Chapman Middle School, taking tests, getting homework, and dodging run-ins with local football god and scourge of nonathletic kids everywhere, Craig “the Jammer” Logg.
But at least he was a superhero. Hard as it was sometimes for Miles to believe, he really was. Not a dress-up-for-Halloween-and-pretend superhero. A living, breathing, pound-bad-guys-into-the-dirt superhero. He was the Golden Great. The Halcyon Hero. Atlanta’s Twenty-Four-Karat Champion. He was Gilded, the only for-real superhero the world had ever seen.
Miles rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom mirror. He frowned at his reflection. It’d be nice if looking back at him was Gilded, the barrel-chested, six-foot-plus exemplar of good. Instead, all he saw was an average eighth grader from suburban Atlanta who presently had a particularly painful zit asserting itself on his nose.
Miles would’ve liked to tell the world that he was the hero who, for the past year, had kept Atlanta safe. It was Miles who’d foiled robberies, doused infernos, and even flown apart a tornado. It was he who’d saved the greater Atlanta area—and the rest of humanity—from planetary annihilation at the hands of Lord Commander Calamity and his horde of alien, lizard-monster warriors called the Unnd.
(Seventh grade had been a busy year.)
But Miles couldn’t let anyone know those things. Letting anyone know was the ultimate no-no. An
old man—the man who’d clandestinely served as Gilded for decades; who’d captivated the minds of every man, woman, and child; who’d been the focus of newspaper articles, TV reports, and comic books beyond number—had told Miles so. He’d warned Miles with his dying breath, imparting that one piece of wisdom before giving Miles the golden cape and changing his life forever.
The golden cape. The source of all of Miles’s powers. Miles smiled as he remembered the way he’d felt the first time he’d clasped the cape around his neck. It had transformed him from a nobody into the ultimate somebody. It allowed him to fly, run faster than the eye could see, and lift . . . Actually, he wasn’t sure how much weight he could lift. He’d hoisted a full water tower once, but he hadn’t been able to find anything heavier to test himself against.
He’d definitely tested his toughness, though. He’d been punched, hit with a baseball bat, and shot by an alien death ray without shedding a single drop of blood. With the cape, Miles could do anything.
Anything good, at least.
Miles brushed his teeth and spat a glob of toothpaste into the sink. The Gilded cape came with a catch. A safety feature. It granted powers to him only if he used it for good.
Simple enough. Like everyone else, Miles wanted to be a hero, didn’t he?
Sure, but also like everyone else, Miles wanted to be rich, famous, and have a packed social calendar. Too bad the cape didn’t let him use it to acquire any of those things. Miles had learned that through trial and error (mostly error) and with the help of his best friend and confidant, Henry Matte.
Miles walked to his dresser. He took socks from his sock drawer, jeans from his jeans drawer, and a T-shirt from his T-shirt drawer. (Collared shirts were hung in the closet, where they wouldn’t get creased from being folded. Like everything else in his life, Miles liked his clothes to be just so.)
Whenever Miles saw his organized clothes, he was reminded of Henry. Probably because Henry had never organized anything in his life. Miles thought of how he’d tried to keep secret that he’d become the new Gilded. He’d almost made it one whole day. But he had figured out very quickly that he needed help. Henry, a super-genius Gilded fanatic whom Miles had crossed paths with in a school bathroom, turned out to be just the kid to give it to him. Together, they’d figured out how the cape worked, and they’d been a team ever since.
It was because Miles understood what the cape
would and wouldn’t allow him to do that he combed his mouse-brown hair and pulled on his socks, jeans, and T-shirt at the same speed as every other kid ever. It was also the reason he didn’t use the cape to dash to Vermont for a stack of those flapjacks with fresh maple syrup he’d heard about and was instead going to start the new school year with an ordinary breakfast of Cheerios and milk drunk from a glass. Because why bother with having to wash a spoon?
Miles grabbed his backpack and opened his bedroom door.
The glorious sounds and aromas that greeted him indicated this morning was going to be anything but ordinary. He heard the popping of bacon frying in a pan, accompanied by the cheery whopwhopwhop of eggs being whisked in a mixing bowl. And he’d eaten enough Southern breakfasts to recognize the scent of biscuits baking in an oven.
These were things Miles hadn’t enjoyed since before his mom had traded in him and his dad for a moneyed accountant and moved to South Florida. After that, meals had been handled by Mr. Taylor, the innovative culinary mind who’d invented the concept of cereal served in a drinking glass. Not that Miles blamed him. A master electrician at Atlanta Voltco, Hollis Taylor worked long hours to keep the roof of
their cramped, two-bedroom apartment over their heads. That left little opportunity for playing chef. Nevertheless, maybe he’d found time to up his game.
Stomach growling, Miles bounded down the hall toward the kitchen. “Dad? Do I smell country ham?”
When Miles saw who was doing the cooking, he stopped short. It wasn’t his dad at the stove. It was the next-door neighbor, Dawn Collins.
“Good nose,” Dawn said, beaming. “Big day today, Mr. Eighth Grader. I told your dad I thought you could stand to start your morning right.” She tipped a mixing bowl full of beaten eggs into a frying pan coated with a rich sheen of melted butter.
Mr. Taylor looked up from setting the table—Dixie plates and folded paper towels arranged with care. He rubbed a hand through his trimmed beard and shifted his feet. He seemed to get fidgety whenever Miles saw him and Dawn together, an increasingly common occurrence of late.
“I finally took Dawn up on her offer to fix us a meal. Isn’t that neighborly of her?” Mr. Taylor locked eyes with Miles and nodded at Dawn, as if to prod Miles into giving a proper show of thanks.
Miles didn’t need the prodding. “Absolutely.”
Even before Mr. Taylor had become friendly with Dawn, Miles had liked her. She had a generous smile and made the best sweet tea he’d ever tasted.
She was also the only person who’d welcomed Miles and Mr. Taylor when they’d moved into Cedar Lake Apartments the summer before Miles started seventh grade.
Up until a year ago, Dawn had been married to a no-account named Tom Collins. The last time Miles had seen him was the morning he’d overheard Mr. Collins berating Dawn for botching his breakfast. Worried for Dawn’s safety, Miles had put on the cape for the first time and burst into apartment 2G as Gilded. He’d explained to Mr. Collins in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t to be mean to Dawn ever again. Mr. Collins had lit out that afternoon, Dawn happily went from Mrs. to Ms., and Cedar Lake Apartments was all the better for it.
Watching Dawn drain bacon, stir eggs, and pull biscuits from the oven with ease, Miles couldn’t help wondering if her treatment of Mr. Collins’s breakfast had been a show of defiance. She definitely knew how to drive a stove.
“You two sit,” Dawn said, turning off the burners. She carried the frying pan to the table and spooned eggs onto the plates.
You didn’t have to tell a Taylor twice. Miles plopped his backpack on the floor and was reaching for his fork even before his butt hit the chair.
“Everything looks great, Dawn.” Mr. Taylor
smiled hungrily, pushing bacon and two biscuits onto his plate. He raised his plastic cup of orange juice. “A toast. To a breakfast that isn’t toast.”
Miles clunked his cup against his dad’s. “I’ll drink to that.”
“Wait!” Dawn shrieked.
Mr. Taylor jolted and dropped a forkful of eggs onto his lap.
“I forgot the finishing touch.” Dawn hurried to the freezer. She reached in and pulled out an ice cube tray. She cracked a pair of cubes shaped like peaches into each of their drinks. Dawn’s prized collection of novelty ice cube molds was ever growing, and she seemed to have one for every occasion. If she was keeping her trays in Mr. Taylor’s freezer, things were getting serious.
“Peaches?” Mr. Taylor asked, plucking the eggs from his work pants.
“August is National Peach Month,” Dawn said with a grin. “We do live in the Peach State, after all.”
Mr. Taylor shrugged. “Good enough for me. Sit down and join us. Miles and me can’t polish off this spread by ourselves.”
Dawn looked around hesitantly. “Um . . . where should I sit?”
Mr. Taylor had purchased their tiny dinette set for fifteen dollars at a garage sale because the full dining table from the old Taylor homestead was too big for the apartment. The set had come with only two chairs. This was the first time they’d ever needed a third.
“Shoot,” Mr. Taylor said, frowning. “Here, take my spot.” He started to stand.
Dawn placed a hand on his shoulder, easing him back down. “Nonsense. I need to leave for work anyway.”
Dawn had recently earned a coveted waitressing spot during a shift with better tips at the Biscuit Barrel just down the street. Sinking his teeth into a piping-hot, scratch-made biscuit, Miles wondered how long it’d be before the manager wised up and had her switch aprons with the cook.
“You’re on your own for cleanup,” Dawn said. Then she leaned down and pecked Mr. Taylor on top of his head. With that, she was out the door.
Miles and his dad sat in uncomfortable silence. Mr. Taylor wouldn’t look up, but Miles could tell his cheeks were burning red enough to fry eggs over easy. Mr. Taylor was embarrassed, like a kid caught smooching his girlfriend beneath the gym bleachers. Hollis and Dawn, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
It was kind of awkward, Miles seeing his dad dating. Like he was peeking through a window at something he wasn’t meant to watch. But it was kind of awesome, too. “It’s okay, Dad,” Miles said. “She’s really nice. She’s amazing, actually.”
Mr. Taylor sat back in his chair, relieved. “She is, isn’t she? Heck if I know what she wants with me.” He smiled a bemused smile that Miles understood meant he was kidding but wasn’t kidding, too. “Wooing girls has never been my strong suit. Just ask your mother.” He leaned over his plate and forked a hunk of country ham.
“Think she can make corn bread?”
Corn bread was a Taylor favorite. Miles’s mom had tried to make it once, but she’d baked it dry as a clay brick.
It wasn’t that Miles’s mom was bad. She was his mom, and he loved her. She and Miles’s dad just weren’t good together. No one was to blame—things just worked out that way sometimes.
Last Friday, when Miles had had his weekly phone call with his mom, he’d told her about Dawn. It had felt weird to talk about it with her, like he was telling her that her replacement had been hired.
Everyone deserves to be happy, she’d said.
Part of Miles wished her idea of happiness wasn’t
married to a CPA seven hundred miles away.
“I think Dawn can do just about anything,” Mr. Taylor answered.
Mr. Taylor was entitled to happiness, too, and Miles truly hoped he’d found it. Sitting at their tiny table with a heaping breakfast between them, Miles thought about how far they’d come together. For the first time in a long time, everything seemed right with the world. Miles had a genuinely positive feeling. About himself. About life. About everything. The Taylor boys could take their lumps, but you couldn’t keep them down.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” Mr. Taylor said. “About school.”
Positive feeling: gone.
“Summer break is over. I gave you a lot of leeway these past three months, but it’s time to get back to focusing on your studies. The days of being a superhero all the time are over.” Mr. Taylor glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. “Eight twenty-two a.m., and I’ve already said something completely ludicrous. That might be a new record.”
Right. In addition to Henry, Miles had also revealed to his dad that he was moonlighting as a superhero courtesy of the golden cape that—literally—could do no wrong. Miles remembered the stupefied expression on his dad’s
face the first time he saw Miles transform. It was the total opposite of the way his dad looked now, talking matter-of-factly about Miles’s one-of-a-kind pastime over breakfast. Miles probably wasn’t supposed to let his dad know, but he didn’t beat himself up about it. Who was to say the old man who’d passed the Gilded mantle on to him hadn’t ever told anyone? Sure, he’d instructed Miles not to, but grown-ups were notoriously espousing the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy.
Besides, Miles hadn’t had much choice. It was either let his dad know on the spot, or be forced to head for the hills with him and Dawn when the Unnd had attacked the city last fall. And anyway, there were more than seven billion people in the world, but Miles had told only a measly two. All things considered, he had a pretty good average. He hadn’t even told Josie Campobasso. If that wasn’t a heroic show of restraint, what was?
Josie. If there was one person Miles wanted to let in on his secret, it was Josie. She was the most perfect girl to ever set foot—
“Miles? Are you listening?” Mr. Taylor asked.
“I said, when seventh grade ended, you and I made a deal. I’d lay off and let you have the summer
to practice with the cape. Get more comfortable with the heavy workload of looking after the city, so you could be ready when something really bad happens. Tell you the truth, I couldn’t be prouder of how you’ve done. But you’re in eighth grade now. Your last year before high school. I want you focusing on your schoolwork first and foremost. Let the police and fire department handle what they can. Your job is to handle what they can’t. And only what they can’t.
“You do that, and when the big things come up, I’ll cover for you missing school. Which, unless I’m mistaken, makes me the only dad in America who’ll help his thirteen-year-old cut class. Remember that come Father’s Day.”
“I know it’s not easy, Dad. Dealing with me being Gilded. So thanks.”
Miles meant it. When it came to fatherhood, this was seriously uncharted territory. It wasn’t like Mr. Taylor could go to the library and check out The Single Parent’s Guide to Raising a Superhero.
Mr. Taylor set down his fork. “I understand you have important boots to fill—Lord, isn’t that an understatement—but I want your word it won’t get in the way of school any more than it has to.” Mr. Taylor held forward his hand. “Let’s shake on it.”
In the Taylor household, shaking hands sealed an agreement tighter than a presidential signature.
Miles clasped Mr. Taylor’s hand. “I promise, Dad.” He felt a pang of loss. A few months ago the summer had seemed to stretch out in front of him like an endless highway. Now all that road was in his rearview. How had it gone by so fast?
Mr. Taylor went back to his breakfast. “Good man. After eighth grade comes high school. After that, college. Not a bit of that is negotiable. Because, unless there’s something you’re not telling me, being Gilded isn’t ever going to put food on your table.”
Another truth. For all the cape’s abilities, making money wasn’t one of them. Using it for personal profit was another no-no. All the comic books, toys, and other merchandise based on Gilded were done without consent. Henry had explained the legalese of it to Miles. Something to do with Gilded being a public figure like the president, so his likeness wasn’t protected. It sounded fishy, but what was Miles going to do about it, file a lawsuit?
“But what if—”
“I don’t want to hear it. My tax bill hasn’t gone down, so I’m guessing that means there’s still cops and firefighters in this town. Let them do what they get paid to. You think dispatch sends me out every
time someone needs to replace a lightbulb?”
“Darn right, no. I handle the big jobs. Everyone else can pitch in on the rest. That’s what I expect of you.”
“All right,” Miles said glumly. “I will.”
“I expect so. Don’t forget you gave me your word on this. A man doesn’t have his word—”
“—he doesn’t have jack.” A tried-and-true Hollis Taylor proverb. Right up there with “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it” and “If you don’t like Johnny Cash music, I don’t want to know you.”
Miles pushed his half-eaten breakfast around on his plate. All this talk of not being Gilded had ruined his appetite. He stood from the table. “Speaking of school, I’d better get going. The bus will be here soon.”
“You sure?” Mr. Taylor looked surprised. “No telling when we’ll eat like this again.”
“Yeah. I’m not hungry.”
“You go on, then. Have a good day. As for me”—Mr. Taylor reached for Miles’s plate—“I vow to not let this good bacon go to waste.”
Miles picked up his backpack. The backpack that went everywhere he did. The backpack that held far
more than books and notebook paper. He settled it onto his shoulders, feeling the soft hum of its contents against his body.
All his worries vanished. No matter what else happened, he was Gilded. And as long as that was true, nothing could ever go wrong.