The Secret War
CHAPTER 1 Fighting Gravity
Jack hustled through the streets of Empire City with a baseball cap pulled down low on his head, the brim nearly covering his eyes. He was hoping to avoid being recognized, but he didn’t make it five blocks before a woman and her son stopped him on the street.
“Excuse me,” the woman said. “I’m sorry to bother you but . . . are you Jack Blank?”
Jack sighed and took off the baseball cap. Some things were no use fighting. “Yep. That’s me,” Jack said with a weary smile.
The woman clapped her fingertips together as she bobbed up and down in a little happy dance. “I knew it!” she said. “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!” Jack shot nervous glances to his left and right, looking to see if anyone else had noticed her and, by extension, him. The woman seemed to pick up on this and quickly regained her composure. “I’m sorry, I never do this. Ever. But do you think I could trouble you for an autograph?” she asked. “For my son?”
A redheaded boy about Jack’s age, maybe a little younger, smiled eagerly up at Jack and held out a notebook and pen. “Sure,” Jack said, reaching out to take them both. The woman and her son looked slightly familiar to Jack, but he couldn’t quite place them, so he kept the autograph simple and just signed his name. He handed back the notebook and continued on his way, but the celebrity sighting had not gone unnoticed. Jack had to sign a few more autographs and take pictures with another half dozen or so people before he could finally break away, shaking his head in wonder at how much his life had changed in the past year. He had gone from unwanted orphan to suspected alien spy to national
treasure. It still amazed Jack how normal it now seemed to live in a city filled with superheroes, ninjas, androids, and aliens. As crazy as it sounded, he’d gotten used to all that fairly quickly. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to fame, though. Especially not his kind of fame, which he considered to be completely undeserved. None of Jack’s fans knew the whole story about him.
Jack was grateful for the friends he’d made since coming to the Imagine Nation—people who didn’t give him any special treatment. The general public might have already considered him a great hero, but Jack knew he still had a lot to learn on that front. His teachers knew it too, which was why he still had to attend regular classes with his friends, or, in the case of the School of Thought, irregular classes.
School of Thought classes didn’t take place in a single building or according to a standard schedule. They were taught by the Inner Circle, the most powerful heroes in Empire City, a group that was also charged with governing and defending the Imagine Nation. Jack’s teachers were the guardians of the secret roaming island where all the fantastic and unbelievable things on Earth originated.
They could hardly be expected to run their school according to some arbitrary schedule. Stendeval, the oldest member of the Inner Circle and the only living person who knew all of Jack’s secrets, always said that life didn’t happen according to a schedule. The world was a classroom. Life was an education. Classes met whenever the Inner Circle called for them, and took place wherever they saw fit to teach. That morning Jack’s lessons were being taught in SeasonStill Park.
SeasonStill was the unique park at the center of Empire City where the winds of all four seasons blew at the same time. Jack broke into a slight jog as he made his way there. The simultaneous convergence of all four seasons produced something exciting and unique, even by Empire City’s standards: Waiting for Jack in the heart of the park was one of the world’s most inviting and alluring wonders—Gravity Grove.
Gravity Grove existed outside of the standard four seasons. The grove was a featherwisp tree orchard surrounded in equal measure by Summershore Stretch, Winterwind Way, Spring Falls, and Fall Springs. The singular temperature created by such a unique enclosure created the
one-of-a-kind climate in which a featherwisp tree could grow. Featherwisps were gigantic trees with thick, black trunks curving up into the sky, and long, strong limbs that wove into and around the arms of neighboring trees like fingers in folded hands.
The tree’s dark black branches were empty save for the bright fuchsia featherwisp blooms. These very special flowers lined the trees’ branches like cherry blossoms, with thick petals that fell up, not down. Featherwisp blooms didn’t care much for the laws of gravity and saw that it was suspended in and around their general vicinity. The presence of so many blossoms in one place created a full-fledged antigravity zone in the center of the park. The flowers were attached to the trees in such great numbers that they would have lifted the entire orchard up into the air if not for each tree’s powerful roots. Complex networks of strong roots dug into the soil like iron claws. Gravity Grove wasn’t going anywhere.
Jack arrived at the center of the park and found the others high up in the trees overhead. He reached up to the lower branches of the closest featherwisp tree. Even the lowest branch was still too high to reach, but the
lightest of jumps, just a little flick of his ankles really, was all it took to get up there. Gravity, or a lack thereof, did the rest. At the apex of Jack’s first jump, just at the point where he should’ve started going back down, he kept rising, levitating the rest of the way up to the branch. When he got there, he grabbed the tree’s limb with both hands and pushed down. With a whoosh he soared upward toward the others. Featherwisp blooms drifted up into the sky all around him as he flew up to join his classmates.
On his way up Jack saw that today his class would be taught by Hovarth, the warrior king of Varagog Village, and Chi, the sensei Circleman of Karateka. The two Circlemen couldn’t have looked more different. Hovarth was a burly mountain of a man, covered with furs and chain mail. He carried multiple swords, axes, and knives. In the grove they all floated weightlessly while strapped onto his back and belt. Chi was a slender ninja with a graceful athletic build who wore a simple karate gi and carried no weapons. A master of countless lost styles of martial arts, Chi was a weapon all by himself.
Jack always looked forward to Chi’s and Hovarth’s classes. Their tests were generally the equivalent of a
superpowered gym class, stressing physical fitness, endurance, and hand-to-hand combat. It was school, but it was fun, too. That was the Inner Circle’s trick to keeping students thinking about their lessons long after class was over. The School of Thought followed a demanding curriculum that ran students through a grueling mental and physical gauntlet, but Jack had to admit, it was a pretty exciting ride. School of Thought students got to do a lot of cool stuff, the combination of which taught them not just skills, facts, and figures, but a new way of thinking, a philosophy of heroism that Jack and his classmates took with them everywhere they went.
“Jack! Good of you to finally join us,” Hovarth shouted when Jack reached the top of the tree. The Varagog king floated in midair, while Chi and the students all hopped around from branch to branch.
“I’m sorry, Hovarth,” Jack said. “I got stopped like six times for autographs on the way here.”
“No excuses,” Hovarth said. “You should be used to that sort of thing by now. How do you expect to handle yourself battling supervillains if you can’t even handle a crowd of starstruck admirers?”
Jack apologized again and went to join his classmates. There was no arguing with Hovarth. Jack had been stopped for autographs hundreds of times over the last year and could have been on time if he’d simply left for class earlier. The real reason Jack was late had nothing to do with his fans. The truth was, he’d been distracted and rattled ever since he’d connected with his parasite. When it came time for this class, he’d almost forgotten entirely.
“No matter,” Chi said. “You’ve penalized yourself with your lateness. You’re it.”
A huge flying object rushed past Jack, sending him spinning head over heels as if he were strapped into a gyroscope. He reached out wildly, struggling for something to grab hold of. When he finally steadied himself, he saw a giant flying serpent with a long, winding body weaving through the trees. It had wild eyes and flowing whiskers and looked like a paper dragon from a parade come to life. The dragon carried a small Asian boy named Zhi Long, a young student from Karateka who had recently been named to a seat in the School of Thought. Zhi was a year behind Jack’s class and was
the only student admitted in his age group. He had the power to summon seven different mystical Chinese dragons into battle.
“Sorry, Jack,” Zhi said, circling back around. “I couldn’t help myself. It’s not every day you get to buzz the great Jack Blank.”
“Hello, Zhi,” Jack grumbled. “I didn’t realize you’d be in our class today.”
“Keep your eyes up, lad!” Hovarth called out from the sidelines. “Always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t think you know the battlefield . . . know you know the battlefield!”
Jack nodded and looked around, spotting Allegra, the silver-skinned Valorian girl who was probably his best friend in Empire City, and Skerren, the young swordsman from Varagog Village. He also saw Trea, a School of Thought student who was one year his senior. Just like Zhi, Trea was the only student in her year, but in her case it was because the other students in her class had all dropped out. Trea came from Hightown and was something of an “on-demand triplet.” She had the ability to split into three separate individuals, each with a different,
extreme aspect of her personality. Trea One, who went by T1 for short, was always supersmart but had a huge ego. The second Trea, T2, was incredibly strong but dim-witted. The last one, T3, was a wild card. Jack had seen her be hyper, happy, mean, depressed, silly, and more. He knew that anything was possible when it came to her. Chi was trying to teach her to balance her multiple selves, but so far it seemed she wasn’t there yet.
“What do you mean, I’m it?” Jack asked Chi.
The ninja master of Karateka fitted an arrow with a long blue ribbon tied to its end into his bow. He drew back the string and fired the arrow into a tree trunk far below the floating students. “The tree with the arrow represents safety. Students! Your goal is to get to the arrow before Jack can tag you out. Whoever can reach the arrow first, wins.” Chi paused and looked at the students hovering in place. “Begin!” he ordered with a clap of his hands.
The moment Chi’s hands came together, three more dragons ripped through the grove, looping through the air like roller-coaster cars. They swirled around Jack, each of them missing him by mere inches. Their scaly, snakelike bodies glowed in bright reds, yellows, and oranges. Zhi’s
dragons did his bidding, and he was using them to throw Jack off his game pretty effectively.
“C’mon!” Jack shouted. “There’s nothing up here for me to use my powers on. This isn’t fair.”
Hovarth laughed. “Combat doesn’t care about fair and unfair, Jack. Battles go on either way. You have to be ready for them, with or without your powers.”
“Use your environment,” Chi said, floating gracefully through the trees. “Adapt. Machine powers are not your only talents. The human body and mind are powerful machines in their own right. If your powers desert you, you still have yourself to rely on.”
Jack nodded again and went to work putting Chi’s advice into action. He thought of the dragons as part of the environment and grabbed one by the tail as it rushed past him. He held on tight as it pulled him through the air and then whipped around suddenly to shake him loose. Jack let go, and the dragon sent him flying straight at Allegra. She stretched her liquid metal skin to avoid him, but he was going too fast. Jack shot right through her, splitting her in half at the waist. Little mercury-like droplets of Allegra’s midsection floated through the air like bubbles.
“Allegra is out!” Hovarth said.
“That was fast,” Skerren said.
“What can I say?” Jack asked, smiling as he coasted through the air. “I am the great Jack Blank.” Allegra shot him a fierce look. “Kidding!” he added, putting up his hands.
“Ha-ha-ha . . . ,” Allegra replied as she pulled herself back into one piece. “Don’t get cocky. You haven’t won anything yet.”
Jack drifted into a defensive position, guarding the tree with the arrow. Allegra was right, winning this game was not going to be easy. Skerren, Trea, and Zhi could all use their powers up in the trees, and what’s more, they outnumbered him. Still, Jack had one advantage. His opponents weren’t working together. Only the first person to reach the tree would win the game, so they had no incentive to help one another. Jack could use that against them and pick them off one by one. He smiled to himself. There was no doubt about it, classes in the School of Thought were fun. It was just what he needed to get his mind off things.
Jack went after Zhi next. Chi’s young protégé was good, but Jack had a full year of training over him. Zhi was
young and inexperienced, and what’s more, he idolized Jack. He kept sending his dragons after Jack like he was trying to prove himself by beating him physically, when he should have just flown down to the arrow on the dragon he was riding.
Jack leaped from his tree branch out toward a flying dragon and used it as a springboard to jump to another branch that was higher up and had been out of reach. He grabbed hold of that branch and swung around like a gymnast on parallel bars to land right on the back of Zhi’s dragon, mere feet away from the young dragon rider. Zhi took the beast down in a nosedive trying to shake Jack off, but it was too late. Jack was already upon him.
“Zhi is out!” Hovarth said as Jack tagged Zhi and jumped off the dragon. He got off just before it turned around to fly back up, keeping his strategic position between Skerren and Trea and Chi’s arrow. So far he was following Chi’s instructions about using the environment to his advantage very well. The value of that strategy was not lost on Skerren. Using his swords, he chopped off tree branches and threw them down at Jack, trying to knock him out of the way and clear a path to the arrow.
“Is that all you’ve got?” Jack said, needling Skerren as he dodged branch after branch. “Don’t tell me that’s the hardest you can throw!”
Jack knew that Skerren would normally be able to throw the tree limbs much harder, but the zero-gravity effects in the grove were slowing them down and bringing them back up before they could come close to hitting him. Skerren angrily chopped a big, heavy branch off and put all his weight behind thrusting it down at Jack. It came crashing through the trees like a falling piano, breaking off dozens of little branches along the way.
“Is that hard enough for you?” Skerren yelled as Jack jumped out of the way, just barely avoiding the branch. The branch would have knocked Jack out if it had connected, but instead it turned out to be just what Jack needed. When the branch changed directions to float back up, Jack saw it was big enough to hide behind. He rode the branch up, concealed beneath it, and jumped out at Trea, surprising her as he passed her by. She had just enough time to use her powers and split into three identical versions of herself before Jack tagged her out.
“Trea is . . . one-third out,” Hovarth said after some deliberation.
The Trea that had gotten tagged kicked the large severed branch in frustration, hard enough to crack it in two. Judging from the damage her foot had done to the massive tree branch, Jack knew he had tagged out T2, her strong version. That meant that the supersmart and wild-card sides of Trea were still left. He wondered who the wild card was going to be this time.
Meanwhile, Skerren was making his way down to the arrow. Jack grabbed one of the severed branches and threw it at Skerren, which sent him floating back up the tree. Jack scampered down the tree trunk he was closest to and reclaimed the low ground, guarding the tree with the arrow. “You’re gonna have to do better than that,” he told the other students.
“We have to work together,” one of the Treas, presumably the smart one, told Skerren.
“Only one of us can win,” Skerren replied.
T1 shook her head back at Skerren. “Oaf,” she muttered. She looked over at her other self. “T3,” she called out. “We’re awfully high up, don’t you think? I’d hate to
think what would happen if for some reason gravity suddenly came back and we all fell. . . .”
A look of intense fear came over the wild-card Trea’s face. “Could that happen?” she asked.
“Anything’s possible,” the supersmart Trea replied. “In fact, I heard that one time up here . . .” T1 leaned over and started whispering into the ear of her wild-card self. A look of pure terror came over T3’s face as T1 recounted what Jack assumed was some horror story about falling from the trees and dying.
It was all T3 needed to hear. She started rushing down the tree, not caring about the arrow, not caring about getting tagged out by Jack . . . not caring about anything but getting down. It appeared that T3’s most prominent personality trait this time was fear. Perhaps an extreme fear of heights. She rushed down recklessly, slamming right into Jack and knocking him off balance. She was tagged out, but Trea was still only two-thirds out of the game by Hovarth’s count. It was a good move by Trea, sacrificing part of herself to take Jack out.
Jack floated up helplessly until he could grab hold of another tree branch. Meanwhile, T1 and Skerren used the
opportunity to head for the arrow. They were both well past Jack by the time he regained his footing. Trea had the lead on Skerren. She was about to grab the arrow when the wind blew the ribbon tied to its end up toward Jack. He grabbed hold of the ribbon and ripped the arrow out of the tree, pulling it skyward. Allegra and Zhi cheered from the sidelines as Jack grasped the arrow and stabbed it into the tree behind him. “Hey!” Trea shouted. “You can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Jack asked. “Chi said the tree with the arrow represents safety. He didn’t say it had to be that tree.”
Skerren and Trea were speechless.
“Very good, Jack,” Chi said. “Very good indeed. Skerren! Trea! If neither of you can reach safety, Jack wins the day. Do you concede defeat?”
Skerren straightened up. “Never,” he said. “Never in my life.”
He and Trea were both down below Jack, who floated in front of the arrow. Once again they had to come through him, but it looked like this time they were going to try something different. Trea pulled Skerren close and talked quietly, covering her mouth so Jack couldn’t hear.
Skerren appeared to hesitate, then nodded, agreeing to follow her plan.
Skerren and Trea came up at Jack together, but from opposite sides of the grove. “Some fights you can’t win, Jack,” Trea said. “This is one of them.” It didn’t take Jack long to realize what she was talking about. He was going to have to choose between them. Guarding the tree in the center, he would eventually have to commit to either going right or going left. Whomever he went after, the other one would easily reach the arrow. He couldn’t win. The only question was, which one of them did he want to beat? Jack had to hand it to Trea—that T1 side of her was every bit as sharp as Skerren’s swords. He wanted to win, but if he could beat only one of them, he wanted to beat her. The upperclassman. It didn’t happen that way, though. On the way up Skerren slipped while jumping off a branch and got turned around, completely missing the next branch he reached for. He sailed upward, out of control.
Jack couldn’t believe it. Skerren? Slipping? He was like a monkey in those trees and as agile as a cat everywhere else. Before Jack even had a chance to react, Skerren was
all over him, coming in on his right. Jack grabbed him. “I got you, Skerren,” he said, steadying his friend. It was just the opening Trea needed to come in from the left and touch the arrow tree. Game over.
“We have a victor!” Hovarth said, clapping. “Trea! Trea wins!”
“Of course I did,” Trea said, clutching the arrow like a trophy. “I’m older.”
Skerren frowned. “By a year.”
“That year made the difference,” Trea replied.
“Right,” Jack said. “That and the fact that Skerren slipped.”
“What are you trying to say?” Skerren snapped at Jack.
“Uh . . . nothing,” Jack replied. “I was going to tag her out until you got in the way. That’s all.”
“Don’t feel bad, Skerren,” Chi said, joining the students in midair. “Sometimes a sacrifice is the only move one can make. In chess, pieces are regularly surrendered so that others might advance. It’s simply good strategy.”
“Right, pawns are sacrificed for queens,” Trea said with a smirk.
Chi looked at Trea, lecturing her with a stare. “Trea,”
he said after a moment. “Clearly you still need to work on balancing your multiple personalities. Otherwise you wouldn’t be lording your victory over someone who helped you win.”
Trea’s smile vanished. “Yes, Master Chi,” she said, looking down.
Skerren looked back and forth between Trea and Chi. “I didn’t help her win,” he said. “I slipped.”
“Of course you did, lad,” Hovarth said, patting Skerren on the shoulder. “That’s not important. The important thing is you had a common goal and worked together. I’m proud of you.”
“I’m serious,” Skerren protested. “I slipped!”
Jack couldn’t help but smile. As much as Skerren had loosened up around him in the last year, he remained as competitive as ever. Especially when it came to Trea. Jack was about to tease him about it a little more when his powers picked up on an airship approaching from the west in the skies over Winterwind Way. “Guys, we’re about to have company,” he said as the ship flew into place, hovering above the grove. Jack watched as a small door on the bottom of the ship opened and a lone figure jumped
out . . . without a parachute. Seconds later Blue’s massive frame came crashing through the treetops, breaking branches left and right.
“Look out below!” Blue shouted on his way in.
Jack and the other students scattered out of the way as Blue came busting into their outdoor classroom. He barreled down through the trees like a truck that had driven off a cliff, but the antigravity field caught him in its invisible net. Seconds later he was drifting up through the featherwisps, lighter than air.
“Sorry to drop in on your class like this,” Blue said to Hovarth and Chi. “I didn’t mean to distur—ah, who’m I kiddin’? I love this antigrav stuff. Couldn’t help myself.”
“Blue, are you crazy?” Jack said. “You could’ve gotten killed jumping out like that for no reason.”
“It wasn’t for no reason,” Blue said, looking around for his sunglasses and finding them floating in the air next to him. “It was for fun. Besides, this forest has been fighting gravity as long as I can remember. It ain’t giving up on my account.” Blue smiled and put his sunglasses back on. Both lenses were cracked. “Oh, man,” he said, taking them back off and examining the damage.
Hovarth cleared his throat loudly, impatient for Blue to explain the meaning of his interruption.
“Right,” Blue said, turning his attention back to the two Circlemen. “Like I said, sorry to just barge in on you guys, but I need to borrow Jack, Skerren, and Allegra. If you’re all through here, that is.”
“What’s going on?” Jack asked Blue.
“We got trouble in the Real World, kiddo,” Blue replied, jerking a thumb up toward the airship. “Gotta fly.”