BILLY NOBLE AND SUPERHERO TRAINING CAMP

A novel by Connie Maugh Copyright © Connie Maugh, 2001 All Rights Reserved.

BILLY NOBLE AND SUPERHERO TRAINING CAMP by Connie Maugh

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CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER CHAPTER

ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT NINE TEN ELEVEN TWELVE THIRTEEN FOURTEEN FIFTEEN SIXTEEN SEVENTEEN EIGHTEEN

The Monster Under the Bed CASA Summer Camp Decisions, Decisions Sergeant Faycepuntcher Sergeant Bonesnapper Friends CODE OF HONOR Breakthrough Bort’s Letter Ug has the Answer Lights Out Points Time to Prove Animal Attacks The CHASE Flyboys The Flotches’ Botch The Cadets

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CHAPTER ONE THE MONSTER UNDER THE BED

Billy’s squad split up for the first time, tending to the different chores to which they had been assigned. Kermit was on the opposite side of the hill from the camp tending to the rhinoceroses, elephants, giraffes, lions and tigers in their stalls (a chore he vehemently opposed, feeling it was beneath him, which is why he was assigned it). Taylor was feeding the horses in the barn across the field from the other animal pens. Ug and Billy were washing and refueling the supercharged race cars for their next use, in the giant garage near the entrance gate of the camp. Bob was doing the same with the fighter jets at the far end of the camp. Al and Joey helped unload a cafeteria re-supply truck in the middle of main camp; and Bort had volunteered to unload another re-supply truck somewhere farther out, near the warehouses. Who is Billy? Why does he have a squad? At which camp, you ask? My apologies. Allow me to start from the beginning, then, so we are on the same page. People (and calendars) say that summer in America begins every year on June 21st, but for Billy Noble and millions of children like him, summer actually begins a little earlier, sometime in May or early June, on the last day of school. That too is where our story begins…in the minutes before a certain summer commenced, in a year that would change the life of Billy Noble and the world forever. Billy was riding on the school bus for the last time— yes!—at least for a couple more months. The younger kids were hanging out of the windows, screaming their heads off singing, “School’s out, School’s out, teacher let the bulls out!” but Billy was hardly paying attention. He wore a smile from ear to ear, thinking about the great surprise he

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had for his mom. That was all he could think about. In only two more stops, he’d be home to spring it on her. Other kids on the bus were talking in small groups under the singing: discussing where they’d be going this summer on vacation. For some, it was Six Flags; for others, Disneyland. Still others talked about Europe, which required a serious plane ride. Flying over the ocean! Billy couldn’t even imagine. The air on the bus was electric. Everyone was bursting with excitement and the endless possibilities this summer would bring. None more than Billy Noble. Finally, they arrived at his stop. He got off the bus, saying his goodbyes to some classmates and to the bus driver, Henry. Billy crossed the street in front of the bus and when he touched the other curb, the bus lurched forward. A gust of wind pulled up the tuft of hair on the very top of Billy’s head, a tuft that never stayed down for very long. Billy licked his hand and mashed it down himself. “Force of habit,” his mom would have said. It was something he did without even thinking about, every time the wind blew, because it was always happening to him. That’s why some of the kids at school gave him the nickname he hated, a name he was anxious to make them forget. They called him “The Rooster.” Billy’s book bag was slung over his neck crossways but felt light as a feather. There was hardly anything in it—a few pencils and markers from his desk, and his report card. Normally, Billy would be taking his good old time getting home with a report card, not that his mom seemed to care one way or the other. The report card would usually make the book bag feel heavier that it actually was. The report card was usually full of C’s and B’s, Billy’s best work. In fact, Billy could only remember one time that he got an A in the history of his life. It was in gym class, when the gym teacher died. The teacher didn’t die in the actual class, mind you. He was showing the students how to climb the rope, when, half-way up the rope, the teacher had a heart attack, dropped out of the sky and fell to the mat like a sack of potatoes, with a series of quick, flat thuds. (Less noisily, though, than Billy might have otherwise imagined.) Billy had the good sense to keep the other kids away and sent the class’s fastest runner to get the principal. The teacher was rushed to the hospital and ended up being okay. He had a mild heart attack, from which he recovered almost immediately, and, miraculously,

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no broken bones. The teacher was discharged a day later, and given a clean bill of health. He thanked the hospital staff for their excellent care, walked out the front door of the hospital and got hit by a bus because he didn’t look both ways before crossing. He died instantly. (And, now, every time Billy saw a city bus, it was a cruel masstransitory reminder to look both ways before crossing.) The principal didn’t want anyone to be too distraught over the poor teacher’s passing, so he gave everyone an A in gym that quarter. On report card day, usually, Billy’s mom would glance at the thing, sign the back of it and hand it back saying, “My boy—the very average C student,” which Billy never fully understood, but it never made him feel like doing cartwheels either. Not this time! Billy’s mom had made him a promise at the beginning of the quarter, and Billy had every intention of holding her to it. The promise was this: if Billy got all A’s on his fourth quarter report card (which everyone, including Billy, sincerely doubted), his mom would let him go to Camp Canoe for two whole weeks! Bow and arrow practice, swimming (Billy didn’t know how to swim yet but looked forward to learning. It would be a critical part of his making the Olympic Swim Team, which he foresaw in his future), canoe races, fort building, tracking wild animals! It was too much. Everything Billy always wanted to do but never got the chance to try. He held up his end of the bargain and on that last day of school—that first afternoon of summer—he went from walking to racing home to collect. The wind blew loose his rooster tail hair again but Billy was running too fast to bother. No kids could see it now, and anyway, some things were more important than dumb nicknames. Billy’s front door swung open. Billy flung himself through the doorway as if a gust of wind had pushed him from behind. He slammed the door behind him, dashing toward the kitchen. “Easy mister!” yelled his mom from the kitchen. “What are ya tryin’ to do, break it?” “Mom mom guess what,” panted Billy, trying to catch his breath. Billy’s mom was sitting at the kitchen table across from her friend Becky. “Hey there sport,” Becky said. “Hi—” breathed Billy, nodding his head. “What’s that?” Billy’s mom answered. “You broke the door?”

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Billy glanced quickly at the front door. It was fine. “No,” he said. “Look.” Billy was trying to hand his mom the report card from his bag. Billy’s mom glanced at the card. “That’s nice,” she said. NICE? Thought Billy. “No LOOK!” Billy said. Billy’s mom looked at it again. Becky peeked over her shoulder this time. “Wow,” said Becky, sounding like she meant it. “It’s nice honey. Now leave me and Becky to talk.” “Mom, it’s straight A’s,” said Billy, and they were straight too. His teacher drew them straight as an arrow for him. “Great kid. Good for you,” his mom said. She clearly wasn’t getting the point. “Mom, you said if I get all A’s that I could go to Camp Canoe,” replied Billy. “It starts next week,” he reminded her. There Billy stood, in all his glory. Two whole months of doing homework before going out to play—every day!—two months of going over the test answers he missed with the correct ones, just like his teacher showed him, skipping his favorite TV shows to study even harder the night before a test, sometimes even the night before that. Can you believe it? It actually paid off! “In spades,” his friend Randy would say. Billy felt like an actor waiting to receive an Academy Award, when the TV screen shows him smiling in his seat, where the spotlight is on him. It felt like a swarm of bees was buzzing around his heart. His throat tightened here at the moment of truth. It felt like his mom was taking forever; it was happening in slow motion. She blinked, and handed the report card back to him. “Sorry kid,” she replied. “No money for fancy vacations this year.” Billy was stunned. This couldn’t be happening. “Not in the cards this year,” his mom said. Billy wanted so bad to say, “What? But you PROMISED;” but he couldn’t say it. Billy felt a hard lump form at the bottom of his throat that wouldn’t let him say anything. His eyes started to sting and it hurt too much to swallow. Billy made a dash for his bedroom, dropping his book bag as he ran. He knew as soon as he blinked, tears would be running down his face. He ran so fast he didn’t hear

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his mom say to Becky, “Kid thinks I’m made of money…. What are ya gonna do?” “What can you do?” replied Becky. Billy slammed his bedroom door. He dove onto his bed and lay there with his face buried in his pillow. He lay like that for a long time without moving. He was so mad! And hurt, and disappointed. He wanted to march right back out to the kitchen and let his mom really have it. But Billy was also smarter than that. He knew that way would only take his situation from bad to worse. He finally flopped over and sat up on his bed, already planning the delicate sales strategy he’d have to use on his mom. He just had to get to Camp Canoe. Billy had to wait though, until Becky left. Trying to talk sense into his mom in front of Becky was Big Mistake #1. Becky would just sit there saying, “Aw, poor kid,” over and over, and snickering to his mom and saying, “C’mon Judy, cut the kid some slack, let him go,” which would get him NOWHERE, and make it worse on him later. His mom would be on the rampage later screaming, “How dare you embarrass me in front of company? Make people think I’m a bad mother!” Billy could hear his mom now. “Embarrass me! Embarrass my friend. People start saying I didn’t teach you any manners!” Billy tried distracting himself by reading a library book he’d checked out on Jeff Gordon, his favorite racecar driver, but even Jeff’s four championships couldn’t take his mind off the problem at hand. Finally, after what seemed like all afternoon, Billy heard Becky leaving. Billy’s mom knocked on his bedroom door then peeked her head in. “Billy, Becky asked me to go to dinner with her tonight. I’ll be back late, and I want you in bed and asleep when I get home. You hear me?” Billy nodded. He still didn’t have the right words yet. “There’s leftover liver and onions in the fridge,” she said. “You can put it in the microwave for two minutes and it’ll be ready.” “Mom…?” asked Billy. “I don’t have time now. I’m running late as it is,” she said, without listening to what he was going to say. “Be good,” she said. She closed the door behind her.

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Billy didn’t see his mom again that night. She forgot to say goodbye when she left. Uninspired as he was by the idea of eating liver twice in the same week—in the same year for that matter—Billy skipped leftovers and made himself some peanut butter crackers as a snack instead. Billy sat in front of the TV and washed down the crackers with a glass of milk and, just his luck, there wasn’t a thing to watch. Even Scooby Doo wasn’t dooing it for him on this lousy evening. He decided to turn in early, exhausted by his overwhelming defeat. He fought off a few Cavity Creeps® with his toothbrush and prepared to hit the sack. Billy had two interesting ways of going to bed. In the first one, his mom would lead him by the hand (which was rare) and escort him right into bed. Billy would always let his mom lead a little, though, because if the monster that lived under his bed had an appetite for fresh legs, he’d get his mom’s legs first and Billy could run for help. Otherwise, if the monster got Billy’s legs first, they would be like a snack to him and probably just make the monster hungrier. The second way, the way he usually went to bed, was what he did on this night. Billy got a running start from the bathroom and took a giant leap. He looked like Michael Jordan leaving from the foul line for a slam-dunk. One arm was in the air, like Jordan, even though Billy didn’t have a basketball or anything else in his hand, one leg led the other. He looked like a flying letter K. Billy landed in the middle of the bed, and took his time getting under the covers, now that he was safe. Sometime in the night, Billy was awakened by a noise. He was groggy, still half-asleep, and thought it was probably his mom getting in. But as he woke, he listened close, and he didn’t hear any noise coming from her room or the kitchen or the bathroom. He heard it again. It was a tiny tapping, coming from… underneath his bed. Billy froze, too terrified to move. His muscles felt sticky like drying glue. He kept his eyes closed and concentrated real hard on listening. Maybe it was a scratching. Maybe it was a monster— surely it was a monster!—trying to claw its way through the floorboards. It could have been a ripping sound—the monster was making his way through the carpet!—then a wooden creaking sound. Billy’s heart felt like ice water was being pumped through it; it took his breath away.

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He waited, still frozen. Then…a BANG! Billy tried to yell out but he couldn’t catch his breath. Silence followed. Billy knew there was a monster under his bed. His mom always said he was crazy, but here was proof if he ever needed it. With still no sign of his mom, Billy decided he needed to get out of there, pronto. He couldn’t do it slowly. If he got out of bed one leg at a time, he knew the monster would grab his leg and pull him under. Then he’d be finished. No Camp Canoe, no Billy. No, what Billy needed was a quick getaway. He couldn’t hesitate. Billy scrambled to his feet atop his bed, ran the length of the mattress, jumped off the end, and landed by the door. He yanked on the door and the door was stuck. This would be the end of him, he was sure. Billy didn’t dare turn around. Monsters, he knew, typically didn’t attack from behind. They wanted you to see them to feel the full force of their terror; but they were also not big on waiting around for you to face them either. This is all standard monster knowledge, of course. Billy yanked one more time on the door. It swung open and he dashed out of the room. He ran straight for his mom’s room. He didn’t even knock. His mom wasn’t home yet; he just knew it. The bed was made and Billy didn’t smell smoke like he usually did when his mom came back from dinner with Becky. Billy thought for a moment. Who knew when she’d get home? That monster was in his room now. He’d have to do something about it right now. And without Camp Canoe to look forward to (Billy hadn’t totally given up on his mom yet, but the first few hours were the most critical, he knew, and he regretfully faced the fact that he probably didn’t get to her in time), Billy figured what the heck. He turned back and soldiered on toward his bedroom. Billy made one stop on the way. He grabbed a flashlight from the drawer in the kitchen. His bedroom door was still open. Billy crept quietly along the hallway to his doorway. He carefully reached his hand around the corner, without even knowing what was in there! The monster could be just standing there waiting for Billy so the monster could rip his arm right off and eat it in front of him! What was he thinking?

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He flipped on his bedroom light switch. Billy quickly drew his hand back to safety; and he stood with his back against the wall as light shot out of his doorway and stuck to the wall in front of him. Billy got on his hands and knees. He turned on the flashlight and peeked in with his flashlight in the doorway. He was looking underneath his bed, trying to flush out the monster, maybe scare it over to the closet where he could barricade it. He spotted something under the bed all right, but it wasn’t a monster. It looked like nothing more than a piece of rolled up paper. Billy crawled across the floor on his elbows and knees with the flashlight, like a soldier under a barbed-wire fence, and under his bed to investigate.

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CHAPTER TWO CASA SUMMER CAMP

Billy flashed his light on the paper. to the floor. It read: To: Master William Noble From: CASA

It was tacked

Dear Master Noble, You have been chosen and are hereby cordially invited to attend try-outs for admission to the Extra Exclusive, Powerfully Prestigious, Excitingly Elaborate, and Super Secret CASA Summer Camp. Please report immediately for registration and orientation. Cordially, The Staff of CASA But what was CASA? He’d never heard of anything by that name. If it were an Indian name, something like Camp Canoe, he wouldn’t have known. Billy knew Indian names like Cherokee, Apache, and Miami, but no CASA. Also, Billy realized, this wasn’t some sick joke by his mom. It was not her handwriting on the note. Billy had to get rid of the note before his mom found it, whatever it was. He pulled out the tack holding the note and a square of carpet—of his floor!—disappeared. Actually, it swung down in front of him. It was a trap door!

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Billy watched the paper float back and forth and down lazily, like a feather, to where? Billy had no idea. His whole house was only one floor, with no basement and no cellar. Or was there? Billy flashed his light down the hole in his room. Through the hole he saw a wooden staircase. At the bottom lay Billy’s formal invitation to CASA. Billy scampered from underneath the bed and quickly changed out of his pajamas into jeans, his Jeff Gordon tee shirt, and sneakers. He shut his bedroom light off, closed his door (in case his mom came home while he was investigating) and crawled back underneath the bed. The hole and wooden staircase were still there. This was no dream. The wooden steps creaked under Billy’s feet. His flashlight pointed the way down a narrow drafty cold stone hallway. At the end of the hallway, Billy saw a thin rectangle of brilliant white light frame a giant dark door. Was this the monster’s own home? Billy walked on, more curious than afraid, to the end of the long hallway to find out. Billy had to stretch to reach the giant iron circle of a door handle that he lifted and pushed. The door was so heavy, it felt like people were on the other side of it pushing back, trying to keep Billy out. Billy put his shoulder into it and pushed with his whole body. It finally started to move and the brilliant light in the room immediately blinded Billy. His eyes finally adjusted to it, and he saw just what a room it was! The room, which reminded Billy a tiny bit of his school cafeteria, stretched away as far as the eye could see. Billy would have believed he was standing outside in front of ten football fields if it wasn’t for the ceramic tile under his feet and the high ceiling over his head. In the middle of the room were the long thin cafeteria tables—dozens, maybe hundreds of them—with the bench seats attached. Those tables made two parallel lines that ran the length of the giant hall, starting right in front of where Billy stood and continuing until Billy could see no further. From above, they looked like the double-yellow lines in the middle of a road. Children Billy’s age were seated at the tables. The children were holding three-ring binders, flipping through them from back to front and side to side. Almost everyone had their head buried in the binders, and those that didn’t were laughing and shouting and pointing out particular things in their binder to the other children around them.

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Billy listened intently, but couldn’t make out anything the boys and girls were saying. Billy looked around, and up, in wonderment and noticed that on the outsides of the table rows, giant booths were set up, each booth manned by a man and a woman. Above each booth hung the flag of a different country. The closest one to Billy, to his left, was the American flag. Next to that was the Maple leaf flag of Canada. Billy didn’t recognize any other, but it looked like there was a flag (and a booth) for every country in the world. Hanging under each of the two flags he knew, was a sign that read: REGISTER HERE. Billy noticed that each booth had a double-file line of kids in front of it. Each man and each woman behind the booth held a clipboard, checking off names, and handed binders to each of the children. The American booth’s line had dwindled to a trickle of unregistered children, and Billy walked up to the counter to figure out what he needed to do. “American?” the woman finally asked Billy. He nodded. “Name please?” “Billy Noble,” said Billy. The woman smiled at him and flipped through a few pages on her clipboard. “Ah, here you are Billy.” She checked off his name, turned around and gathered some things from a table behind her, and handed them to Billy. “This is your orientation packet, Billy. It is an introduction to everything we’re doing here this summer.” Billy had a dozen questions he wanted to ask, but he didn’t want to look lost or confused (which he was), so he didn’t ask them. “They’ll be making an announcement shortly, Billy,” the nice woman continued, as if she was already answering his first question, “So grab a seat at one of the tables. Sit tight and look through your packet. If you have any questions after the announcement, you can come back up and ask me.” “Thank you,” said Billy. He felt a little better now. “Oh, by the way,” the woman added, “try to sit at one of the tables near the American or Canadian flags. They make the announcement in every language, and you’ll want to be close to where they’re broadcasting in English. Okay?”

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Billy nodded and smiled politely, still too overwhelmed to make decent conversation. “Beg pardon,” said a girl’s voice in a British accent from behind Billy. Billy turned, expecting to hear more from the nice woman, but it wasn’t her. She was busy checking off more names at the booth. Billy looked to his side. Standing next to him was a cute blonde girl in pigtails, but she wasn’t looking at Billy either. Her face pointed in his direction, but her eyes were looking away, maybe searching for someone at a distance. “Pardon,” she said again. Billy looked around and realized he was the only person within twenty feet of the girl. “Me?” asked Billy. “Yes, you,” said the girl. “Could you please help me to a seat?” “Uh…sure,” answered Billy. “What’s your name?” “Agnes. Agnes Clentch.” “I’m Billy,” he replied, and couldn’t figure out why she still wasn’t looking at him. “Give me your arm,” said Agnes. Billy stuck out his hand and Agnes fumbled for it, felt his wrist, his elbow, and locked her arm through his. They looked like the boy and girl statue that stands on top of wedding cakes. “I’m blind,” she said. “In case you didn’t notice.” “Oh,” said Billy. “Oh, I see.” He cringed right after he said it, embarrassed, uncomfortable. His senses were now on high alert. Agnes giggled. “That’s a good one,” she said, giggling again. “I hope you can, or neither one of us might find a seat, shall we?” Billy looked at Agnes with a mixture of shock and respect. How could she joke about something like this! Billy nodded. Then, of course, he realized Agnes couldn’t see him nod, and agreed, “I guess so.” “Tell me what’s going on,” said Agnes. “I’m dying to find out.” Billy told her about the flags and the kids at the long lunch tables, and now, he noticed, almost all the seats were taken. Billy took a long look around. He noticed what he hadn’t before. There were kids of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities, in all manner of clothing: lederhosen (the corduroy shorts and suspenders combo of Germany), long onepiece robes, turbans, girls in veils, and kimonos.

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There too were children seated next to the tables in wheelchairs, in shiny silver leg braces and crutches. There were kids with only one leg or one arm, and deaf children talking back and forth to each other with their hands, in sign language. Billy searched the tables. He found two open seats. As he approached, he saw two people he recognized: Austin Westlake, the star pitcher of the Devils, Billy’s little league baseball archrivals, and Cody Serpenski, the linebacker-captain of Billy’s school football team. Austin was busy poking a kid in leg braces with the poor kid’s own metal crutch. Cody, who they called “Snake,” dangled a binder above a kid in a wheelchair, just out of the kid’s grasp, as the kid lunged for it. These two guys were Trouble Incorporated. Billy knew Austin firsthand, having been shaken down for lunch money, or noogies, or wedgies, on more than one occasion. Austin, from his perch on the pitcher’s mound, led Billy’s league in hit batsmen. His trademark was a fastball to the ribs. Billy received two or three of those heaters himself. As for Cody…Cody was so mean even his own parents called him Snake. Billy searched frantically for somewhere else to sit, but he found nothing. He approached the dastardly duo cautiously. (He would have tiptoed past them if he thought it would have helped.) Maybe they wouldn’t see him. Austin and Cody noticed, all right, and stopped in mid-poke. “Rooster Noble!” they chimed together. Billy winced, still arm in arm with Agnes. Instinctively, Billy mashed down his rooster hair with his free hand. “Is that your giiiirrrrrlllllfriend, Rooster?” Billy didn’t make eye contact with them (when you made eye contact, one of them would always say, “What are you lookin’ at? Right before they pummeled you); but Billy didn’t look away either. “No she’s not my girlfriend Austin,” said Billy, as safe as he could. Billy helped Agnes onto the bench seat and the two troublemakers realized that Agnes was blind. “Of course she’s your girlfriend. Only a blind girl would go out with you. “Hey blind girl, you know you’re goin’ out with a cockadoodle Rooster?” Austin and Cody elbowed each other, laughing, obviously pleased with themselves.

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“Yeah,” said Cody. “You should be thankful you’re blind.” This broke them up even further. “I am grateful. That way I don’t have to look at you two jerks,” said Agnes. For once in their young cruel lives, Trouble #1 and Trouble #2 had nothing to say. Agnes had accomplished in one deft retort something that had, to this point, eluded parents and educators across the state. She had shut them up. Billy almost let go a sharp chuckle and he was glad he fought it back. Laughing at Austin and Cody was unheard of, at least by people who wanted to live. Billy picked up his binder to hide his face, just in case he cracked a smile. Agnes had already begun reading by rubbing her fingers over the raised dots. Agnes’ binder was in Braille. Billy’s cover read: The CASA Summer Camp What was CASA? Billy wondered. Was it an Indian name? Was this going to be like Camp Canoe? Could anything be as good as Camp Canoe? Billy got his answer as soon as he opened his binder. As good as Camp Canoe? No way Bub. This was way better. In fact, this was the greatest thing Billy could ever dream of (and in fact, he had dreamt of this more than a few times). Billy’s heart was doing somersaults inside his chest. On the first glossy page inside the binder, Billy learned what CASA stood for. It was spelled out for him on the page: The

Crimefighters And Superheroes Academy
Summer Camp

Could this be what Billy thought it was? Billy was too excited to read. He frantically flipped the pages in his binder, back to front, front to back, almost ripping them from the rings.

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The pages were sectioned off in four or five blocks, one on top of the next. Billy focused on the pictures next to the captions (a paragraph or two each describing the camp’s activities). Children were flying!!!!! Children were using X-Ray vision glasses, casting webs, piloting fighter jets, in high-speed pursuit of criminals in supercharged race cars, fighting off mind control, duking it out five-on-one against surly-looking henchmen, swimming lead with a sea of animals in attack formation, even deflecting bullets! It had them all! Billy flipped back to the first page, ready to read now. He was not only going to read it, he was going to soak it in through his very pores, when the announcement piped through the loudspeaker overhead. The walls became a giant wrap-around television screen, and a tall older man was seen walking up to a microphone at a podium on a stage. “Children of the world, welcome,” said the man at the podium. “Welcome to the Crimefighters and Superheroes Academy’s Summer Training Camp!” The place erupted. Children were screaming, cheering, clapping as loud as their hands would let them, stomping their feet, banging on the tables. The announcer waited a long time for the cheering and noise to die down. Then he continued. “Congratulations on passing your first test of Crimefighters’ School, going after the monster under your bed. “My name is Doctor Ligonier Boscov. I am the Dean of the Academy. The reason you are here today is because you have lived your life according to the Crimefighters’ and Superheroes’ Code of Honor, without even knowing what that code is, or that it exists at all. “You have been chosen for your intelligence, or your physical prowess, or your mystery-solving skills, or because you try harder than anyone else. You have been brought here for many reasons, but you are here for one purpose. “The world is more dangerous than ever. Our superheroes are busier than ever fighting crime and doing battle against the forces of evil. They need your help. “They have created The Crimefighters and Superheroes Academy to train people like you, for just that purpose. This is the first time in the history of the world a task of this magnitude has been undertaken. You are the very first class.

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“You are in the Academy’s Summer Training Camp. A training camp has been created for each age group, and the other locations are scattered, each as secret as this one, all over the world. “You will be introduced to the rigors and demands you will face as an Academy Cadet. In the next four weeks, you will determine if this is something you will want to do, because this “job” is for life. “Additionally, we will be determining for you whether or not you have what it takes to make it through the Academy, and onto a life of fighting crime in all its forms. “Only the very best of you will qualify for an appointment to the Academy, which will begin training cadets this fall. “Now, for those of you who think these next four weeks will be all fun and games, I assure you they will not. “Summer training camp is designed to test your resolve, your dedication. It is a series of physical and mental challenges. There are daily calisthenics and physical training, as well as long hours of classroom and laboratory study. Homework is given in every class every day and is due the very next day. “If you have breezed through the binder without reading the captions, I will inform you that there will be no flying, no X-Ray vision training, no deflecting bullets, or anything else like that in the next four weeks. Those classes are taught only at the Academy, not at the Summer Training Camp. “Those of you not interested in working harder than you ever have before, there are exits in the back of this room. Leave your binders on the tables, you won’t need them back in your ordinary lives, and I thank you for your time. Please leave now.” For a second, Billy wondered how Camp Canoe would match up to this. It only took a second for him to realize this is where he wanted to be, flying or no flying. Amazingly, about half the kids got up and headed for the two back exits. Austin looked at Cody and said, “C’mon Snake. No flying or deflecting bullets? Let’s get out of here. We can have more fun at a basketball camp than this stupid kids’ stuff. Who ever heard of going to school in the summer because they want to?” (Of course, Cody had been to summer school last year because he had to, so he would be eligible for football.) Cody agreed and they got up from the table.

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Billy couldn’t believe it, but he was glad and relieved too. He kept his head down, hoping Austin and Cody would blow right past him on their way out. They stopped dead square in front of him. “Later, chumps,” said Austin. “Yeah, I’ll go keep your mom company, now that your dad’s not around anymore,” said Snake. They started to walk away and Billy mumbled, “You wish Cody.” The Trouble-Two stopped dead in their tracks and turned around. “What did you say Rooster?” What was Billy thinking? He was a dead man now. It would take years of Academy training before he’d learn how to fight off these two galoots. Billy kept his head down. “I’m talking to you Rooster,” spat Snake. “He said you wish, you jerk,” said Agnes. “What’s the matter, are you deaf?” Both boys fumed with barely-controlled fury. “You got her for protection, Rooster?” “Afraid to fight your own battles, punk Rooster?” This situation was getting out of control. At that moment, one of the adults approached Austin and Cody. “Leave if you’re leaving, boys. You’ll see your friends in a couple of weeks,” the man said, smiling, having no idea what he walked into, or saved Billy from. Cody leaned in quickly before he left and whispered, “You’re a dead man, Noble. We’ll be seein’ you soon, punk.” Finally, trouble left. It took a few minutes for the hall to clear out, which was okay with Billy, because it took that long for his heart to leave his throat and find its way back down into his chest, and then it needed time to stop hammering against his ribs. Billy was ashamed of himself but glad Agnes couldn’t see him right now, and how rattled he looked. He was still so nervous he was almost shaking. “You really held your ground with those two,” said Agnes. “You must be a real tough guy yourself, or maybe you know karate or something.” Billy wanted to tell Agnes he barely knew how to spell “karate,” let alone do it. He didn’t think Agnes was being sarcastic, or insulting him. It didn’t seem to be her nature. He just didn’t know what she meant by any of it. Doctor Boscov stepped back up to the podium.

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“Congratulations to those of you who stayed. You’ve passed your second test. We like to root out the quitters and slackers and what we call the “disaffected youth” right away, and it is hard to tell who they are just from test scores or sports scores. “My last announcement was a trick, to test you. “Let me say first, that those who left were sprayed on the way out with a mist that will make them forget everything they saw and heard, starting with the invitation under their bed. And if you wash out, you’ll forget about this place too. “Now, back to what I was saying before…you will practice: swimming in attack formations, X-Ray vision, deflecting bullets, and yes, even flying! The giant hall burst into applause and cheering and screaming that turned into a wild roar. After the cheering died down again, Doctor Boscov wished a final good luck to everyone and told them to open their binders to the back page where they’d find a letter and a number, (Billy’s was J-1260), the number of the cabin they would be living in for the next few weeks. Agnes’ number was T-300, so Billy helped her find another person going to T-300 and said his goodbyes to Agnes, as her cabin was in the opposite direction of his own. Billy walked out the front door by himself, and tried to follow the signs posted outside the giant hall, and follow the map in his binder. He walked along an ordinary summer camp road (if any summer camp were ordinary) near the woods, but it was dusk and getting harder to see anything. To Billy, the wooded path before him looked like the color was draining out of the world, becoming black and gray. Billy approached another signpost at the boundary of the main square. He turned right like the painted wooden arrow sign told him (the one labeled J-1260), toward his new home. I better hurry, thought Billy, before it gets too dark, and I get lost in the woods.

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CHAPTER THREE DECISIONS, DECISIONS

Then, Billy remembered something extremely important. Billy had been so caught up in the moment he forgot one very important thing, or rather, one very important person. As soon as he started into the woods, that person popped in his head like a firecracker: his mother. Billy’s mom would be home from dinner with Becky any minute. She might even be there now. He’d have to get back and check in at least, to tell his mom what was going on, and how he would spend his next four weeks. About fifteen minutes of light remained before the sun would slip below the horizon for the night. Billy had to hurry. He jogged back to the closest building. He tried the doors. They were locked. He peered in, looking for someone to help him. It was getting darker. He rushed back to the giant hall, holding his binder and flashlight close, the only building he suspected would still have people in it. Billy went into the great hall through the same door he’d exited before. The lights were still on. “Hello?” sang Billy. He waited. No answer. “Hel-lo?” Just his echo, then silence. If Billy didn’t get back, his mom would be furious. He’d never be able to do anything ever again. That’s how she was—for no reason, sometimes, she’d just put her foot down and her word became law, just like that. Billy, for sure, would not be able to enjoy camp—even superhero camp!— without letting his mom know where he was. He walked through the great hall toward the back exits, the same doors Austin Westlake and Cody Serpenski passed through a short while ago.

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Then Billy remembered the consequences. Doctor Boscov said that anyone passing through those doors would forget this camp, and superhero training, even existed. The choice was tearing Billy apart: stay, and risk the worst punishment ever by his mom, or leave, and forget about the greatest place he had ever been, and give away his chance to become a real live superhero, saving the world, flying, all of it. Billy squeezed his eyes shut tight. This was the biggest decision of his life. His conclusion: he could not, no matter how much Camp Canoe was becoming an unlikely possibility, no matter how hard he worked for straight A’s, no matter how many times his mom broke promises to him, he couldn’t do the same to her. (Remember, Billy promised to be in bed and asleep when she got home.) “Right is right,” Billy always said, even though sometimes right didn’t always work out for him like he had hoped. Billy opened his eyes, grabbed the door handle of the back exit door and pulled. He was saying goodbye to everything he had worked for, everything he had ever dreamed of! But right is right. What he saw when he opened the door scared him half to death. Behind the door was a solid brick wall. Maybe it was magic. “I see,” thought Billy. “It looks like a brick wall, but you walk through it and it takes you back to the underground hallway to your bedroom. What a neat trick!” Billy pressed against the wall with his fingertips and the wall did not move. Nor did his hand disappear through it. “Oh, I see, you probably have to walk through it—then you disappear,” Billy thought. So he stepped right into the wall and smacked his head and fell backwards, to the cool tile floor. “OW!” he yelled. This wall was for real. Billy rubbed his forehead and tried pushing the bricks individually, hoping a secret lever would pop out, or the whole wall would spin about its middle. None of that happened. Billy ran to the other rear exit door and found another, identical, brick wall. He tried all the same tricks on it (except trying to walk through it again. Billy was determined to get back to his mother, but he wasn’t stupid). Nothing worked. The brick walls blocked his exits, and that was that.

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Billy started to rationalize. (“Rationalize” means you start to convince yourself (or others) that what you’re doing, while you know it’s technically wrong, is okay. And you begin to use words like “technically.”) He got straight A’s. His mom promised that if he got straight A’s, he could go to summer camp. His mom said that the reason he couldn’t go to summer camp was that she couldn’t afford it, not because she didn’t want him to go, or because he didn’t deserve to go. Now, he was at camp and it was free. (Certainly his mom could afford FREE.) He had tried to leave, not once, but twice! What else could you ask of the poor kid? This bit of lawyering in Billy’s head made him feel better. He exited the giant hall through the front door, and found himself back in the courtyard of camp buildings. Everything outside was colored dirty yellow. The courtyard was lit dimly by yellow lights on telephone poles around the quad, barely enough light to help Billy find his way to the wooden arrow sign at the end of the road, the one that pointed toward his cabin. Beyond the dimly lit courtyard and buildings, it was pitch black. Night had fallen, and it wasn’t getting up. Looking past the courtyard, into the woods, Billy could barely make out the giant trees, let alone the path through them, yet this is where he needed to go. Billy readjusted the binder in his left hand and—wait a minute, he had totally forgotten about the flashlight in his pocket. Yes! Let there be light! Billy turned on his flashlight and pointed his way in front of him, sweeping it in slow movements from side to side, hosing the path ahead of him with light as he started into the woods.

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CHAPTER FOUR

SERGEANT FAYCEPUNTCHER

Billy walked about two hundred yards, long enough to be considered “deep” in the forest. It was so deep that the darkness rushed toward him to fill in every available square inch the instant he’d shine his light somewhere else, so deep that the blackness surrounded him on all sides, from the top (there was no moonlight this night), and even around his feet. Billy had walked this deep into the forest when the flashlight—the only thing between him and danger—conked out. He dove off the path into the weeds for cover. Billy waited until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was no way he’d come this far to be eaten alive by monsters, or face some other, more gruesome, end. At the far end of the forest, Billy saw a tiny bulb of light in the distance, enough light to turn his view of the forest from pitch black to dark purple, and enough light to give him the courage to continue ahead. Billy steeled himself against the possibility of animal attack, of being torn limb from limb, and ran as fast as he could in the direction of the tiny circle of light ahead. He was putting trouble on notice. As they say in the navy: forget the torpedoes, full speed ahead! The run lasted sixty-five seconds, which is a long time when you’re in a sprint for your life. Billy ran right to the front door of J-1260, his new home. The light from inside the cabin was large and bright, the same light that had guided Billy on his way. Billy knocked on the cabin door and opened it cautiously. He walked inside. The cabin was as simple and spare on the inside as it looked from the outside. Against the two side walls, rows

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of stacked bunk beds lined the floor. The middle of the room was left open, like a large aisle. Boys Billy’s age were settling into each of the bunks. Billy walked forward until he found an open bunk. He worked in silence making up the bed as he watched the instructor (also a boy his age) show the boy next to him how to make up the bed military-style. The instructor tested the boy’s bed by bouncing a quarter on the end of it. The instructor was wearing green army pants and a long-sleeve button-down shirt. His head was covered with a round wide-brim brown hat. The instructor was speaking in a language Billy couldn’t understand, in harsh tones, perhaps Russian or German. The instructor noticed Billy. He reached in his pocket and handed Billy a small soft plastic orb. The instructor, in harsh broken-English, said, “Wilhelm No-bull?” Billy nodded, looking in the boy’s eyes. The instructor tapped his ear, indicating to Billy that he put the soft rock in his ear canal. Suddenly, the boy’s forceful gibberish piped through Billy’s head in, oddly enough, English, with a Texas drawl. The small device was some kind of universal translator; but translated by a Texan? “William No-bull,” Billy heard translated. “I am Drill Instructor Faycepuntcher. Don’t eyeball me bowa! From this blessit moment forward, you will speak to me only when—stand at attention when I’m addressin’ you bowa!” Billy straightened up. He threw his arms down and glued them to his sides. His feet were likewise glued together. Drill Instructor Faycepuntcher kicked his foot in between Billy’s, opening Billy’s feet slightly. “Heels together, feet at a forty-five degree angle, bowa. From now on, you will address me as Sergeant, and you will start and end Ever’thing you SAY with Sergeant, do you underSTAND me BOWA?” “Sergeant, yes sergeant,” said Billy. “I can’t HEAR you!” “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT!” Billy screamed. “Hit the rack, boy. Reveille is O-five-thirty. The senior drill instructor will take you through morning drills. Is that clear, No-bull?” “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT!” “Carry on then.” Billy saluted the sergeant and the sergeant reached out and knocked Billy’s hand away from his head.

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“You don’t saLUTE me BOWA. I’m a SERgeant. I WORK for a livin’. You gettin’ this No-bull?” “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT!” shouted Billy. Billy scooted under his covers as Sergeant Faycepuntcher spun away, looking eagerly for someone else to scream at. Billy didn’t dare ask whether or not he could get word to his mom that he was okay here at camp. Not in this hostile emotional climate, brother. At least not until Sergeant Faycepuntcher cooled down a bit, which, who KNEW when that would be? What would Billy tell his mom? WAS he safe here with Sergeant Faycepuntcher? This was maybe the only person he feared more than his mom, and the kid was his own age! Sleep came fast and furious to Billy that night. When his head hit the pillow, he realized just how exhausted he was. Sleep overtook him like a happy feeling, and he was in dreamland in two seconds.

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CHAPTER FIVE

SERGEANT BONESNAPPER

Billy opened his eyes a minute later, or so it seemed (in reality, it was six hours later), to the sound of cymbals crashing. The infernal clanging startled Billy (and the others) from what had been a deep sleep. “ON YOUR FEET LADIES!” sounded a forceful, young boy’s voice. Billy opened his eyes to see a half-pint Billy’s age in military fatigues and a drill sergeant’s wide-brim hat, stride purposefully down the middle aisle banging a metal garbage can lid off its can like a cymbal. The can was almost as big as the new drill sergeant. It was a wonder the kid could even hold the thing, let alone swing it around in his one-man marching band. “GOOD MORNING MY BEAUTIFUL BABIES!” said the little tyrant. The tyrant then flung the can and lid down the aisle and they skidded to a stop against the far wall with a final “CRASH!” “EVERYONE SLEPT OKAY, I HOPE!” The tyrant was smiling generously, which made everyone nervous. A tall bleary-eyed recruit with shaggy hair in his eyes near the end of the cabin, a kid with obviously no sense, whispered to the boy next to him, “Actually, I could use a few more hours, myself;” then smiled like a big dope. The drill sergeant heard the murmuring, spun around, and double-timed it over to the shaggy-haired boy’s bunk. Every boy, at this point, was standing at attention in front of his own bunk.

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The half-pint boy drill sergeant got right in the kid’s face and yelled as if he were angry that a kid this dumb didn’t deserve to be this tall. “WELL. WHO IS THIS TALL DRINK OF WATER WE HAVE HERE?” Shaggy was silent. “I SAID, WHAT’S YOUR NAME PUKEFACE?!” “Joey Thomson.” “SERGEANT FAYCEPUNTCHER! DIDN’T YOU TEACH THESE PUKES HOW TO ADDRESS ME?” Sergeant Faycepuntcher ran across the room and stood at attention behind the tyrannical drill instructor. “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT.” The tiny dictator turned again to the shaggy-haired boy. “LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN PUKER. WHAT’S YOUR PUKEY NAME?” “SERGEANT, RECRUIT THOMSON, SERGEANT!” “THAT’S BETTER PUKEFACE. IT’S MY PLEASURE TO MAKE YOUR ACQUAINTANCE, RECRUIT WATERGLASS,” screamed the drill sergeant, although Thomson and the others were skeptical of this. “RECRUIT WATERGLASS, AWFUL CHATTY THIS MORNING, AREN’T WE?” “SERGEANT, NO SERGEANT!” “GEE WHIZ, WATERGLASS, I LIKE YOU ALREADY. HECK, YOU CAN COME OVER MY HOUSE AND PLAY DOLLIES WITH MY SISTER!” “Hoo-kh,” exhaled Recruit Thomson. The half-pint drill instructor had socked him a mean one in his gut. Thomson doubled over in agony and desperately gasped for breath. The drill sergeant turned around and addressed the group. “I AM SERGEANT BONESNAPPER. I WILL BE YOUR SENIOR DRILL INSTRUCTOR FOR THE NEXT FOUR WEEKS. “YOU WILL HATE ME BECAUSE I AM HARD; BUT I AM FAIR. I DON’T CARE HOW DUMB YOU ARE, OR HOW UGLY YOU ARE, OR HOW POOR YOU ARE, OR HOW FAT YOUR MOMMA IS. “YOU ARE ALL EQUALLY UNWORTHY OF MY BELOVED ACADEMY, UNTIL YOU PROVE TO ME OTHERWISE. “AND TO SHOW YOU HOW MUCH I LIKE CHATTY RECRUITS, YOU PUKERS CAN DROP AND GIVE ME TWO HUNDRED!” The boys were stunned. “ON YOUR FACE, PUKERS!” The boys dropped in unison in front of their bunks in the push-up position. “AND, EXERCISE!” The boys did push-ups for most of the morning. Welcome to boot camp. After the pushups, Bonesnapper marched them over to the cafeteria. He told them to eat as much as they could

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in five minutes (that was all the time they had for breakfast that morning) and laughed when the boys exited the cafeteria fat and happy. From their dopey smiles, it was obvious their brains were swimming in a stew of bacon fat, ice cream and chocolate cake (no one, it seemed, chose any of the “healthy” options). Except for a boy named Kermit. He only ate a small hunk of cheese and a thin slice of bread. Bonesnapper then took them on a ten-mile run on a full stomach. Five boys cried and six others puked just like Sergeant Bonesnapper hoped. (Billy, luckily, did neither. He held onto his meal and his tears, but just barely.) Three of the pukers quit that morning. (Also like Sergeant Bonesnapper had hoped.) On and on it went like this all day. Billy wondered how often Batman had to run ten miles on a full stomach. (Probably not often.) After lunch, they cleaned. The cabins, the inside of the buildings, the bathrooms, and the classrooms (even though they hadn’t had any classes yet). Billy wondered how often Aquaman scrubbed toilets. (Probably not often.) Billy began to think that maybe his mom was behind this camp after all. She was always harping on him to clean up his room. Could this be her cruel joke, when it was all said and done? Could Sergeant Bonesnapper have been a friend of hers? That night, after the exercising was over, none of the boys said a word to each other. They were too exhausted from the hardest day they ever had. They went right to sleep. The next day they went through the same drills: pushups, sit-ups, breakfast, running, lunch, cleaning, more exercises, another run, and then finally, dinner. Five more boys quit that day. Billy’s cabin was starting to look empty.

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CHAPTER SIX

FRIENDS

That night in their cabin, after Faycepuntcher and Bonesnapper left, the boys broke the tension by making conversation. I guess you could say they were trying to make friends with one another. Although, maybe under these harsh, mentally taxing circumstances, calling them “friends” might be a stretch. Certainly the boys Billy met were friendly (except for one), but Billy hadn’t yet become close to any of them, or they to him, because Billy never knew who would be quitting next. The boys he was temporarily calling his friends were more like co-survivors, which in its own way is a sort of friendship. There was a general sweeping feeling of goodness Billy got when he saw or spoke to these new friends, a feeling that he (and they) might actually make it out of this tough camp and onto the Crimefighters and Superheroes Academy in one piece. It was a feeling of hope, and a comfort to him, for any tough job is made easier when you have good company to help you with it. But it wasn’t until that third night when the recruits start to get to know one another. On one side of Billy’s bunk was Joe Chin, from China. On Billy’s other side was Kermit. Kermit was from France. He didn’t talk much other than to mumble under his breath. He barely gave the boys his name.

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Next to Kermit was Ug. His full name was Ugre Gruelislav (pronounced Oogree Groolislahv). Sergeant Bonesnapper disparagingly referred to him as Recruit Ugly. The boys mercifully shortened it to “Ug” because they were afraid to call him Ugly. (Even though Ug was friendly, he looked at you as if he were trying to figure out which limbs he wanted to rip off you and beat you with.) Plus, Ug started every sentence with, “Ug,” or at least that’s how it translated. Even the universal translators couldn’t find the right way to express how Ug spoke, so it translated as simply “Ug.” The boys called him “Ug,” and he seemed to like it, as if it translated back to him as a compliment, or a show of respect. (Who really knew? Only Ug would know for sure.) Ug was from a country in Eastern Europe called Bludletvia. Ug was short and stocky like a bull, or a wild boar. He wasn’t fat by anyone’s measure, to be sure, but his elbows didn’t touch his sides; they hung out beside him like he was always getting ready to charge at you (which, he was); and he had no neck that the boys could easily identify; his massive shoulders simply surrounded the back of his head. It was almost laughable how pale Ug was, as if he walked around and simply DEFIED the sun to tan him (which he did). Ug wasn’t TOO short by anyone’s standards, but even Ug was thankful that another boy took the top bunk and let Ug have the bottom one. Climbing and jumping did not look like two of Ug’s specialties. Ug looked like his specialties were smashing things, running through walls, bending iron bars with his teeth, and generally putting a hurting on all comers. Oh, and eating. Across from Billy was a boy they called Bob. Bob was a tall bony reed of a boy from Africa. His full name was Baa’baa Umbutu Ninimi Bubu Tukini, which Sergeant Bonesnapper graciously shortened to “Bob.” Bob, for some reason, had a natural dislike of Ug, and Ug for Bob, and yet no one could reasonably figure out why. Their countries weren’t rivals, so far as anyone knew, and they were both good boys. They were just as opposite as two people can be, and they seemed to resent each other for that fact alone. Often, they barely kept their emotions in check, as if at any time one would spring upon the other. They didn’t because they managed a tiny bit of respect for one another, of what each boy was trying to accomplish here. Both boys seemed to find something in common with Billy and neither boy wanted to be thrown out of the program for something as silly as fighting with another recruit. (Plus, secretly,

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each boy thought the other would be dropping out any day now). And so they palled around in Billy’s circle of friends, even though they eyed each other suspiciously at all times. Alberto Bondiga, their other friend, bunked next to Bob. Alberto was from Mexico, and everybody called him Al. Al was the most easy-going one of the bunch. Like Chin, he never spoke much. Al went about his business like a young professional accepting the hard work as part of his daily checklist of things to do. During that first night of conversation, Kermit wanted to tell Al it was okay to talk in Spanish, because their earpieces would translate for them, but Al never had much to say, and Kermit didn’t care if Al spoke anyway. Kermit was happy to observe as Al did, and puff on his brown candy cigarettes. (These were tiny tubes of bubble gum that, when you puffed on them, they puffed out a thin cloud of white flour that looked like real smoke but wasn’t.) Al and Joey hung out with the boys in complete silence. Every minute or so Kermit would grumble some new complaint under his breath, and puff angrily on his candy cigarette. Then there was Bort Flotch. He too was pale but not as pale as Ug. He too had size but not as thick as Ug in the shoulders and chest. Bort was tall, but not as tall as Bob. Bort looked like he could have passed for Billy’s brother, or maybe his long-lost cousin. Bort was from West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, or so he said. (His funny-sounding accent made people suspicious he was American at all. The boys asked him if his parents had immigrated, but he said no. They too had lived their whole lives in West Mifflin.) Yet Bort didn’t once speak about the Pittsburgh Steelers, or how lousy the Pirates would be this year, which made Billy dubious. Billy had cousins from West Mifflin, and that’s all they ever talked about. In fact, the one time in his life he visited West Mifflin, that’s all anyone in the town talked about: people at the mall, at the gas station, on the TV, even the pastor at church brought it up in his sermon! So either Bort was lying, or he was from West Mifflin but wasn’t a Steelers fan, which would make him even more suspect, possibly even a Communist. Bort tried to avoid talking to the other boys, but not like Kermit, and not like Al and Chin. Bort didn’t talk to them because he felt they were the enemy. He was the only boy from whom you got the impression he HOPED you would fail, and couldn’t wait until you were dismissed from the

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program, as if there were only one spot open, and he’d be doing anything to keep you from getting it, even cheating, which would get him expelled too, but you got the impression he didn’t care about that either. Bob and Ug began to spar verbally. Ug disliked Bob’s height and slim build and Bob disliked Ug’s squat barrelchestedness and pasty white skin. They were thrown together for the first time—each boy was new to the other— and they weren’t sure how to make the best of it. Finally, Bob and Ug argued about which country was more dangerous. (Both of their countries had man-eating tigers, wild elephants, giant poisonous snakes, and so on.) Bob said, “Oh yeah? Well, in my country, we first outrun the tiger, then lay in wait for it as we spring a surprise on it.” “Ug,” Ug began, “that is cowardly. In my country, we would stand face to face with the tiger and provoke it to attack us, and when it did, we would first dislocate its shoulder, then stand on its hindquarter until we heard the snap of its back leg breaking.” “It’s no wonder,” snapped Bob, “that so many tigers we capture smell like people of your country.” At that moment, Joey tapped Billy on the shoulder and motioned for Billy to take out his earpiece and listen to the two boys argue without translation. “Ug, OH YEAH?” began Ug, but Billy didn’t hear the end of it. Billy heard Ug say: “Borgle clack splorg. Bulpclack. Sploog. Splack. Porkspignot. Hockblauchkum. Crandlscpakborg. Tonkinflaksmiggleshk.” Bob replied, “Mumu nana mama tutu tee wanana ma nana bibi bi smoot!” By this time all the other boys had removed their earpieces and were laughing so loudly now that it drown out the noise of Bob and Ug’s argument. Bob and Ug stopped arguing and asked around about what was so funny. When they were told, neither boy cracked a smile, which made even Kermit laugh, which was rare. Even Al smiled, which was even MORE rare. All in all, it became a bonding experience for the boys, one of their first, and the first real sign that all the boys—even Bob and Ug—were going to be friends.

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Except for Bort. Bort didn’t take out his earpiece, or laugh, or join in the festivities. In fact, he wasn’t even there—and no one knew where he was (or even noticed he was missing). He walked in when the laughter died down and said, “What are you idiots laughing at?” Kermit bristled at that question. Kermit’s response to Bort was to mumble something under his breath and puff on his brown candy cigarette. The boys’ rap session ended abruptly when Bonesnapper, awakened by their laughter, threw open the door to the cabin, and in short order, had everyone in exercise clothes and on the ground for two hundred push-ups. Then, Bonesnapper led the boys of J-1260 on a ten-mile run before they finally went to bed.

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CHAPTER SEVEN CODE OF HONOR

The next morning, after the lightest of breakfasts (the boys had learned that lesson quickly), then three hundred pushups, six hundred sit-ups and six hundred mountain climbers (mountain climbers are exercises where you get in a push-up position and run in place while your palms remain touching the ground at all times), Billy and the boys of J-1260 had their first class. Sergeant Faycepuntcher was the teacher. He handed out booklets to the boys that had a plastic cover labeled “The Lucky 13.” Faycepuntcher explained to the boys that the Lucky 13 were the thirteen precepts on which the Crimefighters and Superheroes Academy was based—it was the CASA Code of Honor. Any violation of the code meant immediate expulsion as well as six weeks of shame. The recruits were charged with being as familiar with the 13 as they were with their own names. Understanding, and putting into practice, the Lucky 13, Faycepuntcher explained, was probably the most important thing they could learn at camp, at the academy, and, possibly ever. Faycepuntcher recited the first precept for everyone to hear. He read: “The Crimefighters and Superheroes Academy Code of Honor: I will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do. Then he read the other twelve precepts too. Sergeant Faycepuntcher also had the boys recite the CASA Pledge to the World. In unison, the boys said: “I pledge to the world that I will lead by example, and my example will be the best it can be.”

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“People are chosen at ALL ages, bowas,” Faycepuntcher said. “Even children need savin’ from children their own AGE sometime. “Bowas, you know this as well as I do, there are incidents you face ever’ day that grownups have no place in —some things need to be resolved child to child, and ARE ever’ day, without grownups ever knowin’. That’s where you come in now, bowas. “You have been chosen to try out for my beloved Academy based on how well you lived according to the Code of Honor—before you ever knew what that code was. Hear this now, for I may not say it again for a while: congratulations to you boys for doin’ so. Now that you know the rules, this is how you will live, or you will leave.” Just then Sergeant Bonesnapper entered the classroom. Everyone, including Faycepuntcher, jumped to attention. Bonesnapper, for the first time since they met him, wasn’t there to make them exercise. He was there as an instructor. Sergeant Bonesnapper explained to the boys that they were being scored for an Academy appointment, 2000 points minimum were needed to get into the Academy. Here’s how it broke down: 1000 Points for completing all physical training in a timely fashion. (“Timely fashion” was a phrase to be determined at the discretion of Bonesnapper and Faycepuntcher.) 100 points for mastery of the Jet Fighter Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the CHASE Supercar Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the Gravity Room Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the SHIELD Technology Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the Helicopter Rescue Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the Land Animal Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the Sea Animal Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the Mind Control Seminar; 100 points for mastery of the Martial Arts Seminar; And finally, 300 points for the gauntlet, a final test that would be a combination of all the events previously mentioned. Recruits would team up in squads of eight to complete the gauntlet, a team event as well as an individual one. Bonesnapper also made it clear that points could be taken away from the recruits at any time for any reason by the drill instructors.

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Bonesnapper, much like Faycepuntcher, desiring to show his affection and close bond with the recruits, only made them do two hundred seventy-five pushups and six hundred fifty sit-ups before they ran five miles to their next class.

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CHAPTER EIGHT

BREAKTHROUGH

Sergeant Faycepuntcher led the boys on a run that ended in front of one of the buildings of the main compound, the place where Billy spent time wandering around that first night. “Your second class, bowas,” said Faycepuntcher. Billy and his running mates were led into the building. The inside looked like a big gymnasium, not bigger than the giant hall, but certainly bigger than Billy’s school gym. There were bleachers stacked twice the height of a man on two opposite walls. The boys stood at attention in a straight line. Faycepuntcher explained to the boys that from now on, they would be given instruction in each type of superhero activity that Bonesnapper had laid out for them during their first class in addition to their physical training. But the instruction would be given, “on the fly,” meaning that they would be getting experience by doing it themselves. They might, at any time, have their training interrupted to fight actual crime and so it was more important to be introduced to every activity rather than practice only one or two of them, as their services were critical to the world, as the current superheroes were busy as could be fighting their own crime. “Just look at any of the superhero newspapers—what adults call “comic books,” and you’ll see what I mean,” said Faycepuntcher. Faycepuntcher then pulled Billy aside.

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“Put this on, No-bull,” he said, handing Billy a black elastic jersey and black running shorts, and black wristbands, the cotton kind that tennis players use to catch sweat. “Should I change in the locker room?” asked Billy. Faycepuntcher bore down on him. “No-bull, don’t go tryin’ my patience, bowa. Pull them over your clothes.” Billy did. Faycepuntcher walked over to the bleachers and picked up an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), then said to Billy, “Now Run,” as Faycepuntcher aimed the powerful weapon at Billy’s chest. Billy’s eyes almost pop out of his head. Can Faycepuntcher mean what Billy thinks he means? His arms level off the weapon. He most certainly means something. Billy takes off toward the opposite exit, across a gym floor made of wrestling mats, slowing Billy’s escape. Billy zigs and zags, and turns around, determined not to get shot in the back. There’s no way he’d make it across the gym floor in time. Maybe this is another test, Billy thinks. Maybe Billy has to face his fears head on. Billy looks right into Faycepuntcher’s eyes as he fires the weapon at Billy. Billy sees the muzzle flash. He hears the report. It cracks through the gym so loudly that it could have shattered the glass windows if they weren’t reinforced. The next events unfold in slow motion. Billy sees the boys in line all wince and put their hands to their ears, to try and muffle the sound. In addition to the loud echo, Billy also hears a quick high-speed whizzing, like a jet fighter streaking across the sky overhead. (It is the sound of the grenade rocketing through the air toward him.) Billy sees the grenade coming at him, as it gets closer. He can make out its spins and its shape. It slows down so much it looks like it’s hovering in front of him in mid-air. Suddenly, right before it hits Billy in the chest, the grenade is flung backward, like a yo-yo, and it sticks to one of Billy’s wristbands, where it comes to rest. Faycepuntcher fires again. Billy hears the same deafening sounds. He watches the grenade slow down as it reaches his chest and is attracted like a magnet, backward to his other wristband. Finally, the shooting was over. Faycepuntcher turned to the boys and said, “See here. What No-bull is wearin’ is called SHIELD.”

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Faycepuntcher went on to explain that SHIELD was a type of protective clothing for superheroes that throws up an instant force field to oppose the force field created by high-speed objects. It wasn’t slowing down the grenades but repelling them. That was why the magnets in the wristbands were able to attract them, because they’ve been slowed enough to be attracted to the magnetism in the wristbands. SHEILD clothes were technology based on subject called quantum physics, which would take too long to explain it all here in detail, even if I could, which I cannot. The concepts at work are counter-intuitive (which means the opposite of what comes natural) to everything you’ve ever known. For example, if you press your finger into a pool of water, the water gives way and lets your whole hand through. But when you slap the water, the water resists a little more, and makes it harder for your hand to get through. When you really slap the water, your hand only makes it about two inches into the pool. And when something REALLY REALLY hits the water hard, like an airplane, the surface of the water REALLY REALLY pushes back, acting like a brick wall, and the airplane will break apart. The water doesn’t know the plane is going to smash into it until the very second the plane does. It’s like the water (and the SHEILD clothes) find a way to use those forces against themselves, in the most basic of SHEILD technology explanations. Faycepuntcher also explained that, while SHIELD repels plastic bullets, the magnetic wristbands will not attract them. Therefore, make sure to get out of the way, because the SHIELD clothes would be flinging plastic bullets in all directions, and at that point, it would be every man (or woman) for himself. That was one of the current drawbacks of SHIELD. Areas that remained uncovered, like the head and feet, were vulnerable. (For purposes of demonstration, the SHIELD uniform was shirts and shorts, but when it came to their actual crime fighting uniform—the one they’d receive at the Academy, the SHIELD garment would be a long-sleeve elastic shirt and leggings worn under the outer costume, to cover everything but the face and hands and feet.) Faycepuntcher made one very important announcement. “Bowas,” he said, “Now, I don’t want you tryin’ this out on each other. YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT!” everyone answered.

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“Because,” Faycepuntcher continued (and this is even more important to you reading or having this story read to you), “This technology ONLY WORKS WITH REAL SHIELD CLOTHES, MADE AT THE ACADEMY. YOU CANNOT GET THESE CLOTHES ANYWHERE ELSE BUT THE SUPER-SECRET ACADEMY, and you will not get to wear these clothes until you graduate from my beloved academy. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT!” everyone yelled. “If I hear any of you are takin’ shots at each other, understand that the clothes WILL NOT WORK UNLESS ACTIVATED BY ME! So, you will be wounded, or dead, FOR REAL! “If you survive, you will be BANISHED FOR LIFE from this program and you will never get to be a superhero, or fight crime in any way. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT,” everyone agreed. “GOOD.” Recruit Thomson was so impressed with the demonstration (although he still hadn’t learned any sense) that he blurted out, “Ooh, me next!” Sergeant Faycepuntcher was talking to Billy, telling him to take off the SHIELD demonstration clothes, when he spun around to Thomson and said, “Sure, Waterglass, you’re next…right after the company gives me TWENTY PUSHUPS for you mouthing off! The company groaned, but, thankfully, not loud enough for Faycepuntcher to hear. Faycepuntcher had turned back to Billy whose knees, from the scare, had turned to Jell-O and who was struggling just to remain standing. One boy leaned over to Recruit Thomson and whispered in a harsh tone, “Nice job, Waterglass.” “MY NAME’S THOMSON!” yelled Recruit Waterglass. Faycepuntcher spun again. “Okay, FIFTY PUSHUPS!” he said. Billy tried to step out of the uniform but couldn’t balance on one leg and fell flat on his back in front of everyone. The boys burst out laughing. Faycepuntcher replied, “Okay, Let’s make it an even HUNDRED!” The boys dropped to their faces in a row and started pushing the ground. Billy did not. Faycepuntcher helped him off with the practice SHIELD clothes and could see that Billy was in no condition to do pushups. Billy was white as a ghost and his eyes were bulging out of his head. Faycepuntcher said, “Why don’t you go ahead and run laps around the gym until they’re done, loosen up your legs a little.”

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Billy fell on his first few steps, but he got back up and started jogging immediately. Faycepuntcher saw it and laughed to himself. Billy jogged, glad no one was shooting at him, SHIELD or no SHIELD. But yes, the jogging did loosen up his legs and let the Jell-O in his knees harden again; and it helped him to relax, helped him to ease the shock that SOMEONE HAD JUST FIRED GRENADES AT HIS CHEST AND HE LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT! THAT HE HADN’T EVEN GOTTEN A SCRATCH! THAT SOMEONE HAD THE GALL TO CALL THIS PRACTICE! Practice they did. Faycepuntcher gave everyone a turn in the jersey and shorts, firing two grenades at each boy except for Ug. Faycepuntcher lined up Ug in front of a Civil-War-era cannon, to show how versatile SHIELD was, and fired a cannonball the size of a cantaloupe at Ug’s gut. Ug was wearing SHIELD goggles, and stood his ground with his arms back in their “set” position. Ug looked like a rock formation with a face. He repelled the cannonball like the bare-chested fat bald man in that famous video, and smiled when the cannonball dropped at his feet (too heavy to be held by the wrist magnets). He was thinking: “Ug versus cannonball, Ug wins.” Faycepuntcher had everyone running laps until each boy had tested the SHIELD clothes. And when everyone was done, Faycepuntcher lined up the boys at attention and awarded them their first award, a canvas patch in the shape of a shield that said, simply, “SHIELD,” and stayed around their arm by an elastic band sewn to it, worn over the shirt. (Faycepuntcher told them to wear it over their uniforms at all times from now on.) Faycepuntcher congratulated the recruits on their accomplishment—and by that I mean he made the platoon only do one hundred bodybuilders (bodybuilders are exercises where you crouch down, jump back like you’re going to do a pushup, jump your legs back underneath you in a crouch, then stand up again). That was Faycepuntcher’s way of congratulating you on something: more exercise. Then they jogged over to the mess hall (cafeteria, to us) for lunch.

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CHAPTER NINE

BORT’S LETTER

Then came lunch. Billy’s platoon had the wobbly-knees. No matter how easy it looked, practicing SHIELD took a lot out of you. They jogged to the mess hall, which made them feel a little better, yet most of the boys were still very pale. Billy and his platoon didn’t need any encouraging following their first rule of lunch (EAT LIGHT). None of them were hungry in the least and each of them just picked at their food, including Ug. (Remember, now, for Ug, “picking at his food” meant that he only had two helpings of everything.) Except for Bort. Bort ate ravenously, like he might never see food again and even ate off the plates of some of the other campers (without their permission, of course). Watching Bort Flotch eat with such gusto made the boys even less hungry, which in turn made Bort even hungrier, and so on, in a vicious cycle that didn’t end until lunch was over. On his way out of the mess hall, Billy spotted Agnes Clentch. This was the first day Billy’s platoon had eaten with other campers, and the first day Billy had even remembered there were even girls in the camp. Perhaps the worst of it was over, he thought. Billy walked over to say hello, and on his way, he noticed that the other campers were staring at him. Boys and girls at their tables looked at him as they whispered to each other. Some looked, then turned away when he caught them looking. Some nodded their heads respectfully. People around him cleared a path to let him walk through. Billy looked around the cafeteria. The same thing was happening to Joey, Ug, and Bob, and even Kermit, the only one who didn’t seem to notice or care.

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“Hey, Agnes,” said Billy. “Billy?” “Yeah,” he replied. “How are you?” she asked. “Good. Camp is tough, but good I guess. How ‘bout you?” “Great. I’m in C.I. with Raj here.” Billy nodded at the Indian boy in a wheelchair sitting next to Agnes, finishing his lunch. “C.I.?” asked Billy. “What’s C.I.?” “Counter Intelligence,” said Agnes. “We spy on people trying to spy on you.” “A spy, huh? Pretty cool,” said Billy. “A counterspy. I listen for trouble and Raj develops the gadgets for me to listen and for other people to watch.” “Like that guy from James Bond movies that puts ejector seats in cars and stuff?” said Billy. Raj was trying to be modest, but that was exactly the guy he wanted to be. “At the Academy, that’s what I’ll study. For now, I’m learning how others have developed what has come before us, you know?” said Raj. “Like SHIELD clothes?” asked Billy. “Yes,” Raj said, and waited as if he expected Billy to comment. “You got your SHIELD, didn’t you?” asked Agnes. “Yeah, how did you know?” “Everyone has been talking about it,” she said. “Haven’t you noticed people looking at you funny?” “Yeah, I have,” said Billy. Raj and Agnes laughed. “Can I touch your SHIELD patch?” asked Agnes. “Sure,” said Billy. “What’s the big deal?” Billy leaned over and stuck out his arm and Agnes moved her hand over the letters on the canvas arm patch. “Amazing,” Raj observed, but Billy had no idea what he was talking about. “You still don’t get it, do you?” Agnes asked Billy. “Get what?” he replied. “You are going to be a superhero. Everyone in your company training right now. You are going to be the people in the streets actually fighting crime.” “So are you,” said Billy. “The rest of us will be supporting you,” said Agnes, “but you are the superhero. That’s why everyone is staring at you. They’ll probably stare at you like this for the

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rest of your life. They’re seeing an actual superhero in the flesh.” “I’m not one yet,” said Billy. “To them you are. You are the reason we are all here, Billy. To work for you. You have a big responsibility. You’re a celebrity now.” “Oh,” said Billy. “Well, I have to get back. I wouldn’t want to be late for afternoon exercises.” The three children said their goodbyes and Billy headed back to J-1260. When Billy got back to J-1260, Sergeant Bonesnapper was behind the cabin watching Bob, Ug, Kermit, Chin, and Al do mountain climbers. Bonesnapper glanced Billy’s way as Billy was heading into the cabin, as his friends tried not to puke. “YOU WANT SOME OF THIS, RECRUIT ROOSTER?” (Billy’s hair had resurrected that nickname once again. He just couldn’t shake it.) Billy slipped into the cabin before Bonesnapper changed his mind and made Billy exercise too. Billy closed the door and listened closely up against it. Bonesnapper, mercifully, had re-diverted his attention to badgering Billy’s friends outside the cabin. In an effort to make friends with Flotch, Billy went over to Bort and sat down on the bunk next to his. “Beat it,” said Bort, without even looking up to see who it was. Bort was concentrating on writing something on a piece of paper and using his left hand to cover the paper. “Hey Bort,” said Billy. “Whatcha writing? Is that your diary?” “What idiot writes in a diary, you idiot No-bull Rooster?” I write in a diary when I can, at home, Billy thought. What’s so wrong with it? Billy said, “It looks like a letter;” and came up behind Bort. “HEY IDIOT! KEEP YOUR EYES ON YOUR OWN PAPER!” yelled Bort, and Billy pulled back and held his breath, sure that Bonesnapper would burst into the cabin and have Flotch and Billy doing mountain climbers and bodybuilders and dive bombers and pushups and every other thing to wear them out for raising their voices, or on general principles. “Geez Bort,” said Billy. “I was just sayin’…” “If you must know,” said Bort, because even he was breathing shallowly in fear of Bonesnapper, “I’m writing a letter to my dad, so leave me alone.”

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“Excellent!” said Billy. “I didn’t know we could send mail to our parents. I’ll tell my mom all about camp. Where did you get the paper from?” Billy knew that they hadn’t been issued paper yet. “From Don’t worry about it Rooster.” “Then where do you mail them at?” asked Billy. No one had mentioned mail to him either due to their super-secret location. Bort looked up from his writing like if he told Billy where, maybe Billy would leave him alone. “I slip it in with the main office’s mail.” “But no one ever told us we could do that,” said Billy. “But no one ever told us we couldn’t,” replied Bort. Billy was quickly losing interest in conversation with Bort. Billy got this sinking feeling in his gut that the more he talked to Bort, the more he was somehow involving himself in something illegal and would somehow be taken down with Bort, because you always got the feeling that Bort was going down for something and that he’d love nothing better than to take you down with him. Billy walked past Bort as Bort continued to write and Billy glanced at Bort’s paper. At this point, Billy didn’t even care what the letter said, but his eyes found paper anyway. He only saw it for a second or two, so he didn’t read the whole thing, but what little bit he saw would change his life forever. The paper said: SHIELD clothing, stored in building 234 FLIGHT Rings, in building 653 WHISPERING listening devices, in building 28 See you Monday. Your son, Bort Billy was shocked. He took a few steps backward and staggered into the bed behind him. Bort looked at Billy. “Did you see something Rooster?” “N..uh, no. See what? Like what would I see?” said Billy nervously, but Bort knew Billy was lying.

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“That’s good. ‘Cause if you did, you would have invaded my privacy, and that would get you expelled. So I guess we’re even.” “Right,” Billy said. “I guess we’re even then.” “Good. ‘Cause I wouldn’t want to be you if you ever messed with me. You understand?” Billy nodded his head slowly. “Good. Then we understand each other.” Bort folded and sealed his letter in an envelope and placed it in his footlocker at the end of his bunk and locked the footlocker with his padlock. That very moment, Sergeant Bonesnapper burst into the cabin. “NOBLE, YOU PUKER. WHAT WAS THAT RACKET ALL ABOUT?” Billy stood at attention in front of another bunk. “Sergeant, Nothing sergeant.” “NOBLE. WHY IS YOUR PUKEY FACE STANDING IN FRONT OF RECRUIT CHIN’S BUNK?” “Sergeant, I was talking to Recruit Flotch, Sergeant.” “WELL GEE, NOBLE, YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE CHATTY RECRUITS. WHY DON’T YOU GET OUT THERE AND JOIN YOUR PUKEY FRIENDS FOR SOME EXERCISE!” “SERGEANT, YES SERGEANT!” replied Billy, and doubletimed it out the cabin door, joining his friends in time for pushups. “I’M KEEPING AN EYE ON YOU, PUKER,” Bonesnapper said to Flotch. But he allowed Bort to stay in the cabin and let his lunch properly digest.

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CHAPTER TEN

UG HAS THE ANSWER

In the locker room while the boys changed for dinner, after another long day of demanding physical training, Billy watched Bort head to the mess hall for dinner. Billy remembered their earlier exchange and what he read of Bort’s letter. Billy was conflicted. On the one hand, he felt like he should tell SOMEBODY SOMETHING about what he saw, the precepts of the honor code Bort had violated (like: I will not lie, cheat, or steal—heck, it was only the first precept). In fact, the honor code DEMANDED that Billy report Bort’s letter, the illegal leaking of super-secret information on certain CASA technologies and the storehouses of where these supplies were kept. On the other hand, nobody likes a rat. How would the other guys look at Billy? Would it be with contempt? Could they trust him? Or would they be afraid he would betray them too? Billy was just starting to make friends here, for the first time in his life. Bob, Ug, Kermit, Al, and Joey were friends he wanted to keep for life. What if they found out Billy was keeping Bort’s crime a secret? Would that alienate Billy forever? Billy approached Ug with his dilemma as they walked from the locker room to the cafeteria. Ug was the most approachable in this situation because Billy could pretend it was about someone else, and Ug would never suspect that Billy was describing Bort Flotch, the only bad guy they had met so far. Ug would never “catch on,” because, apparently, “catching on” wasn’t very big in Bludletvia. “Ug, buddy,” Billy began as they walked. “I have a question for you.”

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Ug smiled broadly. It was rare in his country that people asked him questions of ANY kind, knowing that he was unlikely to have any answers about anything, except perhaps wrestling or the pain-affliction arts. In fact, QUESTIONS were rare in Bludletvia, let alone answers to them. “Ug,” Billy continued, “what do you think would happen if you saw someone committing a small offense and you didn’t report it?” “Ug, Billy! I haven’t seen anything like that, I swear on my left kneecap!” Ug replied. “I know you haven’t, Ug. I’m saying, what if you saw something like that? What happens then?” “Ug, well in my country, there is no such thing as a small offense. First of all, the evil-doer would be smashed in the teeth with a steel bar, and I would have two fingers broken for witnessing it and not doing anything against the bad person.” Billy was starting to sweat again. SMASHED IN THE TEETH? Billy gulped a big breath of air for support. “Okay, but what if you only thought it was a crime, but no one got hurt yet and maybe nothing comes of it?” “Ug, ah yes,” Ug replied, “What you Americans call “jumping the gun.” Well, of course I would want to take proof with me to the authorities, because in my country, people who report false crimes are poked in the kidneys with a long stick until the punisher grows tired of your weeping.” POKED IN THE KIDNEYS? Thought Billy. Remarkably, Ug had given him the answer. Billy needed proof that Bort was doing something to undermine CASA camp. Billy needed that letter, the letter Bort locked in his footlocker. “Thanks, Ug. That helped a lot,” said Billy. Ug smiled at Billy again. Camp was certainly doing something good for everyone, possibly even making Ug smart. Wouldn’t his parents be pleased? Problem number one was solved: Billy would rat on Bort. Problem number two, however, would be a task: intercept that letter before it got mailed.

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

LIGHTS OUT

Billy hurried through dinner, less hungry than he’d ever been, and more focused. He was on a mission. He made a beeline to his cabin, trying to beat Flotch back and do what he had to do before anyone would know. The cabin was empty. Everyone was still at dinner. Then it hit Billy. Flotch’s locker would be padlocked! How would he break into it? Billy sneaked over to the locker and noticed—wait a minute—the padlock went through the latches, but it wasn’t pushed together! It hung there open! Billy was sure he’d seen Bort lock it right after lunch. Billy agonized over his next move. He was about to violate, not only one of the precepts of the Code of Honor, but THE VERY FIRST ONE! It would certainly get him thrown out of camp, and forbid his entry into the Academy. Billy never got the chance to steal anything, because at that instant, he felt something solid smash the back of his head; and then, just as suddenly, Billy’s lights went out. Billy didn’t know how long he was out cold, but when he woke, Sergeant Bonesnapper was standing over him. “WELL. SLEEPING PUKEY! HOW NICE OF YOU TO JOIN US! “I’M SURE YOU’RE GOING TO EXPLAIN TO US, PUKEFACE, WHY YOU WERE NAPPING IN FRONT OF RECRUIT FLOTCH’S BUNK!” Billy jumped, unready for the throbbing he’d feel in his head. It felt like a hatching baby bird was trying to peck its way out of his skull. “Sergeant, yes sergeant!” said Billy. He was wrestling, in his mind, with telling Bonesnapper about the letter.

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“WELL THEN, PUKER. WE’RE ALL EARS!” said Sergeant Bonesnapper, which was true because even Billy’s friends were standing around waiting to hear this one. Only Flotch had no interest in the proceedings. Billy replied softly as to not worsen the throbbing of his head, “Sergeant, this recruit witnessed something that he would like to speak to the senior drill instructor in private, sergeant.” Bonesnapper looked at Billy sideways, like Billy was crazy. “THIS BETTER BE GOOD, RECRUIT ROOSTER. OUTSIDE WITH YOU, DOUBLE TIME!” Billy quick-stepped outside and Bonesnapper was following him. “INSTEAD OF STANDING AROUND, LADIES,” Bonesnapper said to the boys, “WHY DON’T YOU DROP AND GIVE ME TWO HUNDRED WHILE I’M GONE.” The boys in the cabin, Flotch included, dropped to the floor and started pushing themselves up. “THIS BETTER MAKE ME ALL WARM AND FUZZY INSIDE,” yelled Bonesnapper at Billy, once they were outside. “Sergeant,” Billy said calmly…and told Bonesnapper everything: the letter, Bort’s plan to mail it with official office mail, even Billy’s own plan to break-andenter Bort’s foot locker. Billy also told him that someone knocked him out from behind, and that is why Bonesnapper found him where he did. By this point, Faycepuntcher had appeared and was listening along with Bonesnapper. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE DOING HERE?” Bonesnapper asked Billy, and by that he meant that Billy’s accusations were serious, and did he know they would get one of them (Billy or Bort) thrown out? Billy nodded and said, “Sergeant, yes sergeant.” Bonesnapper looked at Faycepuntcher and said, “HANDLE THIS;” and Bonesnapper marched back into J-1260. “No-bull,” Faycepuntcher drawled, “I shouldn’t have to tell you this, you DOPE, but two wrongs don’t make a right. You understand me, bowa?” Billy nodded in shame. “But since you didn’ actually do anything wrong—except maybe wait too long to tell us about this—I cain’t thowe you outta here—as much as I’d like to, just from your own stupidity. “Then agin,” Faycepuntcher reflected, “like my momma used to say, ‘If stupidity was a crime we should all spend a night in jail at one time or another.’ Same goes for criminal thoughts, I suppose.

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“Since you didn’t break any of the Lucky 13, your butt is safe for now.” Billy and Faycepuntcher went back into J-1260 to find the boys had stopped doing pushups. They stood at attention in front of their bunks. Sergeant Bonesnapper was in Bort Flotch’s face reading him the riot act. Bonesnapper flung open the footlocker and started rifling through Flotch’s stuff. He found the letter. “WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE, PUKER?” the sergeant asked Bort. “Sergeant, it’s a letter to my dad, sergeant,” Bort said. “HOW DID YOU PLAN ON SENDING THIS LETTER, PUKER?” “Sergeant, I thought that if we ever got to send mail, then I’d send it sergeant.” Indeed it appeared Bort was telling the truth. Bonesnapper inspected the envelope and noticed that it was addressed to: Mr. Bort Flotch, Sr. 666 Glenny Lane West Mifflin, PA 15122 It bore no postage stamp, nor did it reveal the camp’s secret location. It was merely return-addressed: From Bort Flotch, Jr. Bonesnapper tore the letter out of the sealed envelope and read out loud to everyone: “DEAR DAD, CAMP IS FUN. I WISH I COULD TELL YOU WHERE IT’S AT SO YOU COULD VISIT, BUT THE LOCATION IS TOP SECRET. IT IS VERY HARD WORK, BUT REWARDING LIKE YOU ALWAYS SAY. SEE YOU SOON. YOUR SON, BORT” Bonesnapper was fuming mad—at Billy. “ALL RIGHT, PUKERS, TIME FOR A FIFTEEN-MILE RUN FOR RECRUIT ROOSTER WASTING MY TIME,” barked Bonesnapper. “RECRUIT CHIN, LEAD THEM OUT ON THE SHORT COURSE!” “Sergeant, yes sergeant!” replied Chin, and the boys jogged single-file out the door to the road course with which they had become so familiar. Bonesnapper grabbed Billy’s arm and pulled him aside. “I ASSURE YOU, YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS,” said Bonesnapper,

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yet mysteriously he didn’t take any points away from Billy, or dismiss him from the program, which was his right. Billy kind of wished he’d had—that way he wouldn’t have to be worried about what surprise punishments from Sergeant Bonesnapper lay in store for him.

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CHAPTER TWELVE

POINTS

The next morning, after a ten-mile run, three hundred pushups, seven hundred sit-ups, three hundred bodybuilders and four hundred fifty mountain climbers, Billy and the boys of J-1260 headed toward their third seminar and got a big surprise when they got there. Seated in one of the desks—in fact it was the middle desk in the front row—was a girl. But this was no ordinary girl. She wasn’t wearing a sundress, or patent leather shoes, and didn’t have ribbons making pigtails of her hair; she wasn’t wearing anything pink, or playing with dollies or an EZ-Bake oven. No, this girl was dressed exactly like Billy and his squad, and she jumped to attention beside her desk when the drill instructor entered the room. Bonesnapper acted as if he expected her to be there and he introduced her to the squad. Her name was Taylor Nicole, and she was from a country called Chuknolvia. Billy and his boys filed into desks. Billy sat closer to her than anyone else. He realized that she was taller than everyone except Bob. Worse, she was pretty. Worse, Billy couldn’t take his eyes off her. Bonesnapper watched Billy and put an end to the romance (temporarily) by having everyone welcome Taylor to their ranks. (And by welcome, I mean he made everyone, including Taylor, do one hundred fifty pushups beside their desks.) The boys marveled at how well Taylor was keeping up. (Each boy was practicing what is called “peripheral vision,” spying Taylor out of the corner of his eye as she did the pushups like them, not girly pushups from her kneecaps, and wasn’t crying or anything. Nor did she ask the drill instructor for a quick rest break.

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Everyone marveled, that is, except for Ug. Ug most certainly didn’t care, or even look Taylor’s way initially. Ug was enjoying his pushups as always with a coy little smile on his face, wishing somehow Bonesnapper would make them do pushups forever. Then, Ug suddenly realized these pushups were a chance to display his finest attributes to Taylor as Ug presently approved of Taylor’s obvious own strength, as she did pushups with as much ease as Ug did. Ug’s only concern was that she looked thin, perhaps undernourished, certainly underfed in any case, but that would be resolved with a few Bludletvian feasts she would cook for him. Ug knew that Taylor, after watching him do pushups, would have no choice but to conclude that Ug was the most qualified as a choice of mate, so he pushed with evermore glee and pride of purpose. After this, the only thing left to do would be to have Taylor drop-kick Ug in the chest, then Ug could drag her away by the foot and the Bludletvian mating ritual would be complete; and Taylor would be his forever. Meanwhile, Bob was suffering. Pushups were his worst event. He wasn’t sweating, because Bob was in superior cardiovascular condition, but he was exhausted nevertheless. Noticing Taylor sapped his strength as well. Bob was admiring her height and how she’d perfectly compliment him on a long run. They’d run and run and run together forever, and their exceptionally tall children would run along behind them. Her strength, and the ease with which she did pushups, troubled him, but not enough for him to lose sight of the big picture of them together forever. At the same time Al and Joey each imagined a life of quiet solitude with Taylor: seated side by side with her in comfortable living room chairs as their thirty children played at their feet; Kermit knew for sure she would swoon at his feet once he showed her the ways of amour. Bort glanced at Taylor only for a split second, enough time to realize he disliked her as much as he disliked the Billy and Billy’s friends, perhaps slightly more, and didn’t think of her further. After the pushups, Faycepuntcher reviewed their performance in the SHIELD seminar. (The boys noticed that Taylor was wearing a SHIELD patch of her own on her arm, a patch identical to theirs.) They were starting to figure it out. Taylor wasn’t there to mend their socks or offer mating opportunities, she was going to train with them, become one of them. Perhaps she WAS one of them. Good grief! Did the surprises here NEVER end?

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

TIME TO PROVE

The SHIELD review ended. The boys (and one new girl) worked their way through fifty dive bombers (dive bombers were pushups were it looked like you were about to smash your face into the ground but pulled up at the last minute), two hundred sit-ups, and three hundred bodybuilders. They ran five miles to a side of the camp they had never seen before. In the middle of nowhere stood a giant airplane hangar and two criss-crossed runways. The recruits were taught how to fly the fighter jets housed in the hangar (thrust control, turning, take-off and landing, and firing guns and missiles). Their first contest was ready to begin. (As Superheroes, they would be using real guns and real missiles. But for the purposes of this training exercise they would use computer-animated guns and missiles—blips on a screen—and “getting shot down” would only appear on their computer monitor, directing them to land their craft and end their day of flying.) Billy climbed up into his craft, put on his helmet and was strapped in the seat by an assistant. Once strapped in, Billy saluted his second and gave the pilot’s thumbs up, and pushed the START ENGINES button on the console in front of him. Billy slid the helmet shield over his eyes and a whole new world emerged. Although he hadn’t taken off yet, the ground was far below him, like he was sitting on top of a giraffe’s head. He was aware of the screaming roar of the jet engines blasting behind him (and all around, for he could see rest of the squad’s fighter jets spread out on the tarmac around him) but the noise was muffled and in the background of his attention.

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Through his built-in earphones, Billy heard Faycepuntcher’s voice say: “ONE HUNDRED points for everyone you take out. Minus one hundred points for gettin’ taken out yourself. This drill is ever’ recruit for himself. Straighten up, recruits, and fly right.” They made a single-file line for take-off. Joey was going first when out of nowhere Bort cut him off. Bort’s plane clipped Joey’s wing and a bank of red lights flashed on Joey’s front panel. His plane was disabled. To add insult to injury, Bort’s plane was fine and Bort was in the air first. Joey was a “dead stick,” sitting helpless on the runway. Billy watched it happen and could do nothing to help; he was farther back in line. Billy directed his squad to go around Joey, and quickly Taylor and Kermit were airborne. Al pulled up beside Joey in his jet and had him hop in. They’d have their first dogfight together. Ug suddenly realized that his plane would have to leave the ground, something all Bludletvians, especially all Gruelislavs, were inherently against. They were terra firma people, meant to live at their own pace on the ground. A bright idea popped into Ug’s head. (Bright for Ug, anyway.) He threw the thrusters on FULL, turned around, and hurtled down the runway in the opposite direction, heading directly for Bob’s plane. Billy watched Bob take off in front of him and before he could react, Ug’s plane slammed headfirst into Billy’s, automatically activating Billy and Ug’s ejector seats. Billy and Ug were now grounded, their planes totaled and out of the competition before they were two feet off the ground. As he was parachuting back to earth, Billy flipped up his helmet visor to see a very satisfied Ug floating down out of the sky next to him, smiling as he watched the other fighter jets streak to and fro in the air over their heads. Then Ug made matters worse. He looked like he was trying to tell Billy something, maybe apologize. Billy parachuted in closer (like he was taught) to better hear Ug over the roar of the engines, and Ug vomited all over Billy’s face. Vomit oozed down the inside of Billy’s helmet until he was on the ground. The two boys were reduced to spectators, watching the fighters race overhead, swooping and streaking all over the sky.

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Taylor made quick work of Kermit and the team of Al and Joey, and Bort made quick work of Bob. There were just two left. Bort rocketed past Taylor at a weird angle and as she turned to give chase, she became caught up in his jet-wash, causing her to lose control of the yoke and hurtle sideways in a flat spin. Her plane was unrecoverable, and she was forced to eject. Billy watched the canopy of Taylor’s plane fly off and saw her parachute open, as she floated to Earth safely. Bort was the last recruit in an operational fighter, and scored a competition-high three hundred points (for disabling Joey, Bob, and Taylor). Taylor got second with one hundred points (two hundred for Al and Kermit minus one hundred for getting taken out herself); Ug took third with zero points as he took out one plane (Billy) even though he never left the ground, and then got taken out himself. Joey, Al, and Bob tied for fourth place with minus 100, for getting taken out. Billy, too, had minus 100 points until Sergeant Faycepuntcher took another fifty points away because Billy didn’t even move his plane one inch, so Billy ended up in last with minus 150. Each recruit unstrapped himself from the seat and took off his helmet. Bort swaggered by Billy in a show of bravado and whispered to him, “Nice flying, Ace,” as he passed out the door of the giant hangar. Taylor followed behind Bort, still furious, but snickered at Bort’s snide remark. Billy was triply worse off for the whole experience. Ug continued to smile, lost in his own pride of smashup derby, oblivious to Bort and to the fact that his “bright idea” wasn’t exactly what his instructors had in mind for fighter jet training. You could begin to see how each recruit (we can now call them superheroes-in-training) was beginning to flesh out his own course of study in the Academy, if he made it that far. It was clear wherever Ug ended up he wouldn’t be fighting crime more than a few feet off the ground. That was for sure.

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

ANIMAL ATTACKS

After a grueling ten-mile run meant to loosen up their legs and five hundred pushups meant to loosen up their arms, the recruits were introduced to their next competition: communication with wild animals to foil a crime. Kermit protested that talking to wild beasts was beneath him, so Billy went first. Bort handed Billy another soft plastic earpiece. This one translated animal noises into words. Billy put it into his ear hopped over the fence into the grassy clearing. The animals rambled and loped toward him, grunting and snorting and generally making wild animal noises, which was all Billy heard. His “translator” was translating nothing. The whole point of the exercise was to calm the animals and convince them you were friendly, but Billy realized no one had told him precisely HOW to do that, and he had no idea what the animals were saying. Billy glanced over toward his squad and noticed Bort Flotch was holding his stomach, doubled over trying to hide his laughter from the drill instructors. Bort set him up, sabotaged his earpiece. All the sudden, talking to, let alone commanding, wild animals seemed ludicrous! On they stampeded toward Billy: elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, lions, tigers, and a few wolves. Billy stood his ground, but right as he was about to be trampled by every breed of animal in the jungle, Billy screamed at the top of his lungs, turned tail, and ran, just steps ahead of the animals. Billy was still high-tailing it when the animals, in unison, skidded to a halt in front of Billy’s original

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position. The animals began to graze and wander around dumbly, as if waiting for some sort of stage direction. Sergeant Faycepuntcher blew a soundless whistle (soundless at least to human ears). The animals turned and calmly jogged back to their original starting positions. When Billy hopped back over the fence and rejoined his squad, Sergeant Bonesnapper, not one to reserve his opinion, looked at Billy and said, “NICE. WAY TO GET NO POINTS AGAIN, PUKER. “MINUS TEN FOR NOT GETTING ANY POINTS, MINUS TEN MORE FOR RUNNING AWAY, AND MINUS ANOTHER TWENTY FOR RUNNING LIKE A GIRL. “GEE WHIZ, PUKEY-BOY, THAT’S AN INSULT TO GIRLS. YOU GIVE ‘RUNNING LIKE A GIRL’ A BAD NAME. MINUS ANOTHER TEN POINTS.” Bonesnapper found someone else to badger. Billy escaped with only minus fifty points. Great, Billy thought. After two events, I’m two hundred points in the hole. Now he would need 2200 points to make the Academy (and since he hadn’t yet scored any points, it wasn’t looking good). As Billy walked back to his friends, he passed Bort, and Bort whispered, “Aaaaaaaaaaah!” and pretended to run, mocking Billy’s theatrics of a few seconds ago. Ug went next. Ug was so excited to take on the animals, he cared little for what the exercise was actually designed. Nevertheless, this was Ug’s event. He was as comfortable with large wild animals running straight for him as you or I would be washing our hands or smiling. Because it had been a while since Ug was in this very situation (remember, he’d been away from Bludletvia for almost a week now), it made him MORE nostalgic where he stood, which made him even MORE eager to work this situation like only he could. The animals stampeded. Ug squatted and braced his arms at his sides, his “ready” stance. Ug’s animal translator was working, but he ignored it. He totally blocked out the animals conversing as they approached: “Why doesn’t this guy talk to us?” one giraffe said. “Where does he want us to go?” asked a rhinoceros. “This kid looks like he’s going to attack US,” said a lion. The animals, in full stampede, skidded to a halt inches from Ug’s nose. Ug sprang to life, reaching under the rhinoceros in a one-armed lunge (in wrestling terms

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it’s called “shooting the leg”), locked onto the rhino’s ankle (if that’s what you call it) and turned over the large animal. Ug was almost underneath it as he felled the beast and the rhino landed square on top of him with a THUD that shook the leaves off the trees. The squad, drill instructors included, gasped as the three-ton beast flopped on its side and squished Ug in the process. Only Ug’s tiny feet were visible under the enormous animal. Before anyone could react, the rhino continued to roll. From underneath the heavy beast emerged Ugre Gruelislav, perfectly intact, unharmed, and still locked on to the animal’s ankle (or whatever you call it). Ug wore a thin smile of victory on his face. The squad cheered and applauded wildly. Even the two drill instructors laughed. Sergeant Faycepuntcher had to leap the fence and physically remove Ug’s hands from around the rhinoceros’s ankle (or whatever you call it). Ug finally yielded, climbing through the two slats of the fence every bit the conquering hero. Ug embodied complete contentment of the kind one gets, for instance, after putting away a huge Thanksgiving meal. Ug felt even better when Taylor shot him a smile. But why hadn’t she dropkicked him yet? He wondered. Bob went next. He ran and ran and ran (in the wrong direction) so far ahead of the animals, no one could find him. The boys just weren’t getting it. Kermit stood with his back to the animals. He wouldn’t face them. It was beneath him. He stood puffing on his brown candy cigarettes, mumbling to himself and making sweeping gestures with his arms to no one. After these questionable performances, Al and Chin each did a workmanlike job of corralling the animals and convincing them to stand single-file (as were the actual instructions). On Bort’s turn, one of the giraffes bent down and bit him on the leg. All of the animals looked nervous and uncomfortable around him and would not get closer than twenty feet (except for the biting giraffe). Taylor made the horse duck its head as it galloped near her. She caught hold of its mane and pulled herself up on the horse’s back. She rode it bareback and circled, squared, then lined-up the other animals. Taylor, Al, and Chin were the only recruits to score points. In fact, Faycepuntcher gave her fifty extra points for calming the animals after Bort’s failed attempt.

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The squad ran fifteen miles, did six hundred pushups, seven hundred sit-ups, and eight hundred bodybuilders, and then went to dinner. After dinner, the recruits marched only two miles to the classroom where Faycepuntcher explained to them where they had gone wrong with the animals (and virtually all of them had). Because of their poor performances (except Taylor’s), Bonesnapper made them do nine hundred dive-bombers and one thousand mountain climbers before he sent them to bed.

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

THE CHASE

The next morning, after breakfast, eleven hundred pushups, fourteen hundred mountain climbers, and a twentymile run, the squad got an opportunity to sit, in performance racecars called “supercars.” Faycepuntcher led the squad into another oddly designed two-story building that was a bank of racecar garages, like the ones in NASCAR speedways across the country, but more elaborate. The squad filed into the row of cars. Billy put on the helmet that sat to the right of the driver’s seat. (It couldn’t be called the passenger seat because there was no seat there, just like, Billy recognized, actual NASCAR racecars.) Billy strapped himself in the five-point safety harness, and started the one-thousand-horsepower engine. Another instructor led the supercars to the start/finish line on the racetrack, a winding, hilly road course. At the line, Billy saw his friends in cars next to him. Billy was at one end of the starting line, Bort at the other, and in between them were Billy’s squad. From left to right: Billy, Bob, Ug, Kermit, Taylor, Al, Joey, and Bort. Through the helmet, Billy heard Faycepuntcher’s voice pipe in: “ReCRUITS, there will be TIMES when you will be called upon to pursue and stop an evil-doer who has commandeered civilian ground transport. We call this THE CHASE. “Three HUNDRED points for whoever crosses the finish LINE first. One HUNDRED points for ever’one who knocks somebody out of the race. Minus one hundred if you get knocked out.

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“You will see on the road in front of YOU a green STRIPE that will show you the way, and how to get there. “Since I have not designated anyone the villain here, this exercise will be a simple race to the finish. First one to cross the finish LINE wins. Also, you will be tryin’ techniques to stop or slow your fellow recruits. In other WORDS, it is ever’ recruit for hisself.” Suddenly, the instructor pulled from behind his back a green flag on a small stick. Bort takes this as a sign to go and floors it! The flagman waves the flag and the race is on! Billy mashes the gas like his hero Jeff Gordon and his car shoots out ahead of the rest; Bob is close behind. At the other end of the line, Bort cuts his wheel hard sideways so that his car cuts diagonally across everyone’s lane, on an angle to where Billy will be. Joey runs into Bort from behind, Al slams into Bort’s rear wheel, causing fender damage on both cars; Kermit nails Bort and the impact blows out Kermit’s front tire. Luckily, Taylor stalls her car (popped the clutch out of first gear) and Bort zooms in front of her without any contact. Finally, she gets it started again and lurches off, squealing and smoking the tires, as she is inexperienced with a standard-shift car. Bort is still moving diagonally. He clips the right rear of Ug’s car, causing Ug to fishtail and Taylor passes Ug on the right. Meanwhile Billy and Bob open up a fivecar-length lead on the pack. The phosphorescent green streak leading the drivers races ahead of them on the track and dives to the right. In order, it’s: Billy and Bob neck and neck, followed by Bort, Taylor, then Ug. Al jumps out of his car back at the start/finish line and pops the hood on Joey’s car in an effort to help him back into the race. Al lifts the hood and leans back as steam billows out from underneath. Al sees the radiator hose has popped off. Joey will be in the race in no time. Kermit climbs out of his car, screaming in French and throws his brown bubble-gum cigarette in Bort’s direction and walks around his car to assess the damage. Al tightens the hose and he and Joey run over and help Kermit change his flat tire. (Kermit remains standing, puffing on another candy cigarette, mumbling to himself.) Meanwhile, Billy and Bob are approaching the first turn. Billy knows from his NASCAR road course experience that they will not be able to take that first turn side by side; Bob is on the inside of him and will bounce Billy out

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of bounds. Someone has got to back down so they can take the turn single file. Billy backs off the throttle—but so does Bob! They were both thinking the same thing! Neither man makes a move. Finally, Billy speeds up just before he has to lean heavy on the brakes and negotiate the 90-degree right turn. Bob dives in behind him; He and Bob make it through safely. Whew! Bort is making up ground fast thanks to Billy and Bob’s indecision. He negotiates the first turn well and is in hot pursuit. Taylor and Ug follow into Turn 1. Taylor is going too fast, she locks up the brakes and Ug gives her a hard tap from behind, sending her car in a fishtail to the right…but it helps her! She slams on the gas and is through Turn 1. They race down the next straightaway but Turn 2 approaches too fast and Taylor misses a shift—she slams on the brakes again and Ug goes rocketing by her—but too fast! He doesn’t negotiate the turn and slams headlong into the soft-wall technology out of bounds. Taylor finally finds the right gear and slowly makes her way past Ug and is off to the ess curves ahead. The netting on Ug’s driver’s door comes down and he crawls out. He’s okay! Ug takes off his giant helmet and fireproof head sock and takes a deep breath. (He’s glad to be out of another speed event, thank you very much.) Billy and Bob negotiate the ess curves into the first hairpin turn. Billy takes the turn a little tight and Bob makes a pass on the outside! What a great move! They race up their first hill, Bob in the lead, Billy right behind and Bort slowly filling up Billy’s rearview mirror. Billy dives to the inside and gets a foothold on Bob’s rear wheel—Bob has to give him some room. They fade to the left almost side-by-side. Bort makes up precious ground. Into the next turn they are side by side racing full on. The green stripe dives to the left up ahead, but neither man is giving an inch this time. Finally, Bob backs off the throttle and begins downshifting and Billy retakes the lead going into the turn. Bort is a car-length behind Bob. They rocket down the second-longest straightaway, Billy, Bob, and Bort right behind him. Into the next turn, a hairpin right, Billy is leaning heavy on the break and downshifting quickly. Bob does the same, and Bort rams him from behind! Bob can’t stop in

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time and slams in to the soft wall in front of him. He’s out of the race! Billy gets through the turn and Bort tries to tap him but he just can’t reach. They approach the ess curves. Billy begins to pull away. But wait! Bort cuts through the grass, missing the ess curves completely! He’s shortening the distance. He may take the lead! Through the last curve, Bort’s car hops back onto the pavement and Billy just gets by him to retain the lead. They fade to the right, approaching the last turn of the course. Billy has to slow down. It’s a pretty substantial turn and he knows Bort is going to ram him. Bort pulls up near his door and gives Billy a little tap, then backs off as the boys take the last turn single file. But Bort speeds up and rams Billy from behind! Billy’s car goes careening toward the wall. At the last second he cuts the wheel and taps the wall sideways, keeping up his speed. Bort slips to his inside and steals the lead from him. Down the front stretch they race! The finish line is just ahead. Bort is leading, but Billy pulls to his inside. Billy gets as far as the door and Bort cuts him off. They make contact! But Billy doesn’t lose any ground. They rocket the last few dozen yards. Billy is gaining on Bort by inches. They’re neck and neck to the finish. Bort swerves to bump Billy for the last time, but Billy pulls ahead and wins the race by a nose! Bort taps his rear fender and sends Billy spinning—a cheap move, but to no avail. The race is over. Billy is the champ! A minute or so later, Kermit crossed the finish line. With a furious but otherwise okay Bob in the passenger seat, Taylor crossed the finish line slowly, and her transmission fell out of the car, scraping the track underneath her. She ran over it with her rear tire. The tire blew out. This was not her event. Al and Joey crossed side by side. Ug decided to walk back the way he came and approached the finish line from the opposite direction. Everyone congratulated Billy except for Bort. The recruits were given a quick rest and water break. Bonesnapper and Faycepuntcher took them into the film room where they analyzed (and criticized) their performances at length. Billy’s performance was the most criticized, in spite of his win. Faycepuntcher was especially critical of his

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approach and exit out of the last turn. Billy remained unfazed. He knew that Bort was coming hard to ram him and it caused him to take the turn wider than he would have liked. Bob leaned in and whispered to Billy, “Gutsiest move I ever saw, man.” Billy acknowledged him with a nod as the evaluation continued. Before long the evaluations ended and they were off (jogging, this time) to their next training camp challenge.

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

FLYBOYS

Faycepuntcher escorted the boys and girl into another giant room that looked like a huge deck overlooking an even bigger dry swimming pool. (By huge I mean like thirty football fields huge.) It was an empty pool that looked like a giant bowl. Billy looked up. The ceiling mirrored the floor. The ceiling was a giant upside-down bowl (if the bowl was the size of three football fields)—a concave structure like the rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. The room looked like Billy was standing in one section of a giant carton of eggs with the eggs missing. Each recruit wore a new part of their uniform, a ring on his (and her) finger given by Faycepuntcher, although none of the recruits had any idea what the ring was for. (It hadn’t been awarded to them as part of their CHASE. That was for sure.) “This, I’d say, is what y’all been waitin’ for,” said Faycepuntcher. No one knew what he was talking about. Faycepuntcher directed Billy to run toward the giant empty bowl and leap into it. Billy did. One leg cleared the balcony, and was pulled down, as if by a strong magnet, to the side of the bowl. Billy’s other leg, in motion, was pulled down likewise. Billy’s feet clung to the side of the bowl like magic, like he was stuck sideways in the bowl like a human dart. Faycepuntcher directed the rest of the squad to do the same. They did. They too stuck to the side wall like Billy. They fanned out to Billy’s left. To prevent themselves from tipping over, they leaned back on their heels, in a weird kind of half-sitting

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position. Everyone had an uncomfortable look on his face, like someone had broken wind. Except for Ug. Ug was smiling, reveling in his current iron-legged status. Even though he despised any height above his head, Ug was reveling in glorious gravity. Ug was an earth guy if you haven’t learned that by now, and here he stood, virtually glued to it (even if he was practically sideways). This additional gravity, to Ug, was like the glory of finding five dollars in your jeans you didn’t know was there. Faycepuntcher broke the news. “This is what we call a gravity room. Of course, every room has gravity. Except in this one, we control the gravity, for purposes of you bowas [Faycepuntcher continued to call them “boys,” even with the addition of Taylor], for you bowas to practice your FLYIN’!” For the rest of the boys and girls, this news was received with gladness in their hearts. For Ug, it was as if someone had filled his heart with a glass of ground up sewer rats. Ug’s smile bent down into a frown as quick as a steel bar in his hands. As much as Ug loved for his feet to be touching the ground is as much as he hated for them not to be touching the ground. Faycepuntcher explained that the ring on each of their fingers changed gravity in the same way that air flows over and under an airplane wing causing “lift” or flight, the same way air flows over and under a major league curveball causing it to “break.” It wasn’t like flying, really. It was more like being pulled in a certain direction, like when your mom grabs your hand and drags you toward a store you don’t want to go into. Flying with these rings left you with that sort of sensation. I would explain the process in greater detail here if I could (which I can’t) but it would fill up ten volumes and you would have to teach physics at a good college to understand it. Faycepuntcher directed Billy to raise his ring hand. Faycepuntcher clicked a button on a hand-held remote control and Billy shot straight up toward the ceiling. Billy smartly lowered his arm so he wouldn’t crash into the ceiling, but not slowly enough. He was jerked out to the side in the direction of the ring. Billy put his arm down at his side and shot straight down—heading right for his squad mates—like he had been dropped out of an airplane. Before he could smash into the ground, Faycepuntcher clicked another button on his remote

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control and Billy floated effortlessly to the ground, touching down like a feather. Billy caught his breath. Faycepuntcher introduced their first guest speaker, a B-list superhero named “Flyboy.” Flyboy flew into the room, startling everyone, even buzzing near Faycepuntcher a little closely. Flyboy explained that his job as a superhero was to fly patrol around major cities and report to other superheroes about any suspicious activity. He said that he would be one of the instructors at the academy, if they made it that far. Flyboy dazzled the squad with his skills in a fifteenminute show of aerial acrobatics, speed, and maneuvering, giving the recruits tips on how to control their balance and direction. Then, he let the recruits practice flying. Ug shot off the ground and slammed arm-first into the ceiling. His fist was stuck in the ceiling, and as Flyboy flew up to release him, Ug looked down and vomited all over everyone. Flyboy got it the worst. After a quick clean up, Flyboy continued to school the recruits on the finer points of flying, buzzing near them, helping them out and correcting their mistakes. Next, Flyboy led them in a flying snake, a single-file formation, so that each recruit could learn while doing. After a few minutes in the air, Flyboy brought the squad to the ground. With their rings turned off, the boys and girls felt as if they lived on a planet with gravity ten times stronger than our own. This made Ug feel a little better. The recruits realized how physically demanding flying was. Next, Flyboy set up an obstacle course. He pulled dozens of rings like donuts out of a bag and threw them into the air. They stuck in the air, hovering at different heights and different angles. Then, Faycepuntcher handed each recruit a stick, and explained that the recruits would have to retrieve the rings, flying against each other and the clock. When a recruit filled his stick with rings, he would then land, give the rings to Faycepuntcher and return to the sky to retrieve more of them. (Faycepuntcher, after crediting each recruit with their rings would then throw the rings back in the air, to be retrieved again by the recruits.) The contest was on! Billy shot straight up and collected three rings off the bat. Taylor did too and so did Bort.

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As Bob was about to ring his first one, Ug flew into his stomach, fist first, and knocked the wind out of him. Bob landed and caught his breath and was off again. Al, Kermit, and Joey collected a few, and were bumped by Bort, causing them to get caught up in each other’s gravity-wash and forcing them to land. They were, however, able to give rings to Faycepuntcher and take off again. Bort and Taylor landed and both gave a stick full of rings to Faycepuntcher. As Billy was landing, Bort shot off the ground again and Bort slyly smacked his stick, knocking off all his rings and the rings shot up into the sky again, without Billy getting credit for any of them. This continued for another fifteen minutes; Bort bumped Taylor once, knocking the rings off her stick; and one time Bort flew beside Billy until no one was looking and jabbed Billy in the ribs with his stick. Recruits collected rings as they bumped each other and sometimes went spinning as a result of getting caught up in another’s gravity-wash, until Faycepuntcher blew the whistle. The recruits landed softly and the rings were totaled. Bort was the winner (even though he played dirty pool, no one docked points from him as he was able to convince Faycepuntcher and Flyboy that all contact was incidental); Taylor took second. Kermit, Al, and Joey followed in that order. The only person Billy was able to beat that round was Ug, mainly because Bort kept knocking the rings off Billy’s stick before Billy could have his rings counted, and because Ug kept acting like a flying fist, flying into people and the ceiling, and the floor, hardly bothering to collect any rings. (In fact, Ug only collected one, and that was pure luck. He happened to be flying past it and it got caught on his stick. Even though Ug was not fond of flying, he reasoned that if he had to fly, he’d rather fly one way and not have to change direction all the time.) The seminar ended without any other physical training. Even the instructors knew that the recruits were exhausted from flying, more exhausted then they’d ever been. They only made Billy’s squad do one thousand four hundred pushups and three thousand three hundred sit-ups before they went into the film room and reviewed their first hour of flight.

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

THE FLOTCHES’ BOTCH

Our gang finally got a rest from all the physical training (which is not to say they got a break from work). You see, what the children didn’t know (but the instructors did) was that flying, if you were watching someone else do it, looked fun and easy and effortless, like watching a good swimmer streak through the water like a fish. But, like swimming, the effort was a brutal assault on your muscles and your cardiovascular system. It was an exhausting workout, more than any other physical training the recruits had yet come up against. It would be like jumping on a trampoline for an hour then getting down and trying to jump on the ground. It’s almost impossible. Instead of just tired legs, every muscle in your body is tired. As I started to say before, Billy’s squad split up for the first time, tending to the different chores to which they had been assigned. Kermit was on the opposite side of the hill from the camp tending to the rhinoceroses, elephants, giraffes, lions and tigers, in their stalls (a chore he vehemently opposed, feeling it was beneath him, which is why he was assigned it). Taylor was feeding the horses in the barn across the field from the other animal pens. Ug and Billy were washing and refueling the supercharged race cars for their next use, in the giant garage near the entrance gate of the camp. Bob was doing the same with the fighter jets at the far end of the camp. Al and Joey helped unload a cafeteria re-supply truck in the middle of main camp; and Bort had volunteered to unload

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another re-supply truck somewhere farther out, near the warehouses. After this first brutal week of work, the recruits were beginning Phase Two of their training, learning how to work together as a team; and the first requirement of any team was good communication. Although they were separated by distance and hills and buildings, they had the ability to communicate with each other. After the Gravity Room seminar, each recruit was given a new earpiece, one that translated each other’s native language as well as performed as a two-way radio. (They were also given capes, as their uniform continued to grow.) The communicators worked by saying the person’s name you wanted to speak to, which activated their two-way feature and allowed them to answer you. Billy asked Ug if he wanted to drive the refueling rig down to the pumps and fill it up with gasoline. (As it turned out, Bort, who was in charge of the refueling, had not topped off the refueling truck like he was supposed to, so Billy had to drive the farthest distance across camp to get more fuel, then drive it back and refuel the cars.) Ug said that he would rather not. Ug was opposed to any speed faster than walking, even if it did entitle him to drive a big rig for a few minutes. Anything that took Ug’s feet off the ground for any amount of time was the enemy in his eyes. Billy jumped into the rig and drove it to the refueling pumps on the other side of the camp near the fighter jet hangar, leaving Ug to change the oil in each supercar while he was gone. On his way past the rear of the camp buildings, Billy saw Al and Joey unloading trucks, beeped and said hello to them. Farther along, past the warehouses, Billy saw another truck, a bakery truck, with its back open, pulled up to the loading dock of another building, loading rather than unloading supplies. Billy noticed that Bort Flotch was supervising the loading of the truck. Bort was smiling and laughing along with the helpers as they loaded the bakery truck full of boxes of equipment. Billy said, “Hey Bort,” real friendly-like into his two-way as he drove past him and tooted the rig’s horn. Instead of giving his standard scowl, or smiling and saying hello back (which, admittedly, would have been suspicious too), Bort looked real nervous and pretended he didn’t see Billy even though Billy looked right into his eyes as Billy rumbled by him. It was one of Bort’s standard suspicious

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looks, which could mean nothing, or it could mean everything. Who knew? Billy continued on to the fuel depot. Billy was making polite conversation with the refueling quartermaster, when the quartermaster said something about this being a busy week and it was only Monday. A curious notion struck Billy. Billy suddenly remembered Bort said, in his letter, he would be seeing his dad today. The recruits had yet to have any visitors. Billy, the squad commander, hadn’t been informed that Bort would be visiting with his dad at all. The strange look Bort just gave him was the same look Bort gave him when he was writing that letter to his dad, the one that explained where all the top-secret equipment was stored, in the very storehouse Bort was standing right now! Immediately, Billy put it together. Why would a bakery truck be loading or unloading in a weapons storehouse?!!! Bort’s planned robbery with his dad was going down right now! If their advanced crimefighting technology got into the wrong hands, criminals could take over the world! Billy had to act fast! Billy couldn’t drive the refueling truck back. It would be too dangerous to go speeding through camp in a truck carrying a thousand pounds of gasoline. Taking one of the fighter jets wouldn’t help either. They simply flew too fast to be effective in this case. This was a ground mission. Billy needed help. “Bob, where are you?” Billy said into his two-way. “I’m by the fighter jets, finishing up here,” said Bob. “Bob, I need you. Bort’s dad is robbing storehouse seven. We need to block the truck from leaving the camp!” Bob was off in a flash, doing what he loved, running. He shot like a bullet past Billy toward the center of camp, toward the front gate. “Taylor, where are you?” asked Billy into his two-way. “Stabling the horses,” her voice answered in his ear. “Forget it. I need you on horseback down at the front gate now!” “But Billy, they’re almost—“” “Now! This is your squad leader speaking!” Billy answered her. “Kermit, where are you?” “Feeding the beasts,” said Kermit’s voice. “Let them out. Let them run, right now. They’ll follow Taylor down the hill.” “My pleasure,” Kermit responded. He walked over to the main barn gate and said to the animals, “Live free you

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filthy beasts!” His animal-translating earpiece was in. They understood, and thundered out of their stables down the hill, running after Taylor, who was on horseback. She saw the stampede and galloped on, staying ahead of the thundering herd. “Ug,” Billy said. “I need you to park as many cars as you can in front of the front gate. There’s a bread truck with Bort’s dad in it trying to escape! Hurry!” Ug walked out of the garage and saw the truck approaching. There was no time to be driving cars around. Ug had another idea. Ug would stop the truck by himself. (It was only a bread truck, after all.) At that point, Bob caught up to the truck and was running beside it. He yelled for the driver (Bort’s dad) to stop. He did not. Bob pulled out a knife and jammed it into the rear tire. The tire quickly blew out. Bob was still running beside it. The flying rubber struck Bob in the face and chest and knocked him over, sending him tumbling away. Taylor made it down the hill with every animal from the barn trailing her, and set up a living road block about fifty yards from the front gate. Ug stood at the front entrance, in front of Taylor and the animals, squatting down and cocking back his arms in his traditional confrontation stance. As exhausted as he was, Billy had no choice but to fly to his squad. He raised his arm and fist and shot off into the sky and began his pursuit from overhead. He contacted Al and Joey on their two-ways and had them converging on the front gate with plastic ties. As the truck approached the gate, Bob got up and gave chase again! The squad was converging on that front gate: Taylor and the animals ahead, Ug already there, Bob, Billy, Al, and Joey coming from the all angles. As the bread truck raced toward freedom, Bort’s dad slammed on the brakes, locking them up, and skidded to a halt right at the edge of his only escape route. He was ditching! The passenger, a man in his thirties, jumped out and ran for the woods. Al and Joey ran him down and flung themselves at him from behind. They hit him in the back and behind the knees and dropped him to the ground. They had him hogtied in no time. Bort’s dad jumped out of the driver’s side and came straight for Ug. Ug squatted down further and smiled. He was in his glory. This is what Ug lived for.

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Bort’s dad crashed into Ug. Bob jumped into him from behind, sandwiching the criminal between him and Ug. The three men were sent into a violent somersault. They rolled around until Ug took hold of the situation (and each man’s leg) and stood on Bort’s dad’s back with one leg and Bob’s back with the other, holding each man’s ankle in one of his hands as Ug faced the opposite direction. Both men were incapable of moving from this position. (At this point, Ug thought that Bob’s sprint toward the gate meant that he was in on the heist. Ug still hadn’t learned to trust Bob. Ug would not let go of Bob’s leg either.) Billy dropped in out of the sky, completely exhausted, and watched as Al and Joey hogtied Bort’s dad, as they argued with Ug. Ug wanted Bob handcuffed too, until Billy cleared him. Ug wouldn’t listen to anyone but Billy. Billy convinced Ug that Bob was indeed on their team, and not one of the burglars, and Ug finally let go of Bob’s ankle. Bob popped up off the ground and had a few choice words for Ug, but at that point, was too tired to fight with him further. Ug pulled off Bort’s dad’s shoe and sock and held up the bottom of his foot for the world to see. On the bottom of Bort’s dad’s foot was a scar in the shape of an S. “Ug, I knew it!” Ug exclaimed, in his first real outburst of emotion, yet no one else knew what Ug was talking about. At that moment Doctor Ligonier Boscov arrived on the scene and took control, directing Billy’s squad to put the two criminals in a room by his office until the authorities could arrive and take them away to jail. While a few instructors were sorting out the stolen goods and the whole situation, Doctor Boscov asked Billy to accompany him to his office while his squad waited outside.

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

THE CADETS

Billy walked to Doctor Boscov’s office with his head down the whole way. Using his flight ring without permission! Loosing the animals! Pulling his squad away from their assigned duties! This would be Billy’s end. He would be expelled for sure. In the office, Doctor Boscov took his place in the giant chair behind his desk and said calmly, “Tell me, Billy, what happened.” Billy explained the situation from start to finish. He started to apologize when Boscov put his hand up and interrupted him. “Listen, Billy,” said Doctor Boscov. “I know what you did. You broke every regulation in the book in the name of fighting evil.” “Here it comes,” thought Billy. “Here’s where he boots me out.” “You went on instinct, Billy, didn’t you?” asked Dr. Boscov. Billy nodded. “That’s something that we want you to get used to doing, Billy. It’s something we cannot teach you, but can encourage it from you if it’s in you to begin with. “You see, what you did was right. You took action based on evidence you had and your gut instinct for identifying wrongdoing.” Billy looked up and into Dr. Boscov’s eyes. Did he just say what Billy thought he said? “Our instinct is all we have, Mister Noble. This is not a perfect world and we are not perfect people.

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“You acted honorably against an evil act and led your squad into battle with the forces of evil. Quite well, I might add. “That is why you were appointed squad leader in the first place. You probably don’t know this, but Sergeants Faycepuntcher and Bonesnapper both recommended you for squad leader. They saw something special in you, and how the other recruits were naturally drawn to you. They think quite highly of you, I’d say.” Bonesnapper and Faycepuntcher thinking highly of Billy? Was Doctor Boscov off his rocker? “It is important,” Dr. Boscov continued, “that you continue to act on these instincts. Certainly mistakes will be made, but mistakes are how you improve yourself. Don’t you agree?” Billy nodded about a hundred times in a row but still couldn’t make words to say something. Billy’s instincts took hold again and suggested to him that, while it looked like he was in good standing with Doctor Boscov and the CASA Summer Camp, it might be a good time to ask if he could contact his mother. She was probably waiting patiently to unleash a raging hurricane of anger at Billy the next time she saw him. Doctor Boscov told Billy that his mother had been contacted when Billy accepted the CASA Camp invitation. She knew of his whereabouts, and she said that she was very proud of him for his accomplishments. “MY mother said that?” asked Billy. Surely Doctor Boscov spoke to the wrong woman, thought Billy. “She would have said more,” answered Doctor Boscov, “but she said she was late for an appointment with someone named Becky.” Yep, that’s my mom all right, thought Billy. He spoke to the right lady. Doctor Boscov then walked over to his office door and ushered in the rest of Billy’s squad. After congratulating each of them on their fine work, Doctor Boscov asked Ug to explain why he was so interested in the bottom of Bort’s dad’s foot. “Ug,” Ug began, “he looked like he was from Scamovia and the scar on his foot proves it.” “Where’s Scamovia?” asked Billy, and for sure, no one else in the room had heard of Scamovia either. “Ug,” Ug continued, “Scamovia is a village next to my home, Bludletvia. The only people that live in Scamovia are criminals and lazy people that tried to steal from the hardworking citizens of Bludletvia.

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“When we catch someone stealing in Bludletvia, we banish them and mark their foot with a scar so they have to suffer more on their painful long walk to Scamovia.” “Ug,” said Doctor Boscov, “you shouldn’t have stood directly in front of that truck. It could have run you over.” Although Dr. Boscov was unsure if it would have or wouldn’t have, after the rhino incident. “Ug,” Ug said, “I knew he would stop because all people from Scamovia are weak and cowardly.” “That’s not why!” Bob interjected. “They stopped because I punctured their tire, and how far would they have gotten on three tires?” “They stopped,” Taylor interrupted, “because they saw my road block and knew they couldn’t pass.” “Who let the animals out?” Kermit mumbled, and puffed on a fresh candy cigarette. “Children, please,” said Doctor Boscov. “Does it really matter why?” Each child secretly thought, “Yes, it does.” “By the way, recruits,” said Doctor Boscov. “We have to leave now that our super-secret location has been compromised. Camp is now officially over for us this summer.” The recruits groaned and shook their heads in disbelief. “What? Where will we go? Some of us haven’t qualified for the Academy yet, Doctor,” said Billy, unwilling to face the worst disappointment in his life. “Oh, I almost forgot, thank you for reminding me Recruit Noble. Because of your individual bravery and quick action against the forces of evil, Billy Noble, you and every recruit in your squad—except for young Mr. Flotch, of course—every one of you has secured your appointment to the Crimefighters and Superheroes Academy this fall.” “Secured?” asked Billy timidly. “You’re in,” answered Doctor Boscov. “All of you. You made it.” Doctor Boscov smiled at the children and they almost fell out of their chairs from the shock of his announcement. At that moment, one of the arresting officers knocked on Dr. Boscov’s office door and poked his head in. “Excuse me,” the officer said, “we’re going to transport the prisoners to jail, and the juvenile to a detention center.” “That’s fine,” answered Doctor Boscov. “Thank you officer and good day to you.”

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As the officer left, the children were anxious to have one more question answered for them. Billy decided to grant his squad their wish. He knew each of them was dying to know. “If there’s nothing else, Doctor Boscov, my squad and I have some cleaning up to do before dark, so…” “Yes, of course, CADET Noble,” said the doctor. “I’ll call you in a few minutes with your new assignments. We have to evacuate the camp immediately for safety reasons and I’ll need your squad’s help in mobilizing some of our gear. But you’re dismissed for now.” “Yes sir.” “Oh! One more thing, CADET,” said Dr. Boscov. “All of you must come up with a superhero name for yourself before you enter the academy. That is how you will be known from now on.” “Yes sir. Thank you sir,” said Billy. The recruits— check that—the CADETS stood at attention and saluted Doctor Boscov and made their way out of his office. Once out of the building, they ran in a pack toward the police cruiser holding Bort Flotch, Sr. before they could even celebrate. Bob leaned his head toward the back window and said: “Excuse me, Mr. Flotch, but, we were wondering, could you tell us the reason you slammed on the brakes there?” Bort Flotch, Sr. leaned toward the window slowly and said: “Scram you brats!” as the cruiser pulled away, driving out of the camp. Billy laughed at his friends, hard. They realized how silly and selfish they’d been. They just foiled their first crime and now they were going to fight over the credit? How absurd! Each friend began to laugh harder and harder as well, until all of them were doubled over in a heap in the middle of the compound, as the instructors and the other children diligently moved around them to and fro, packing all the important equipment—including themselves— for evacuation. A few hours later, Billy mustered his squad in front of the fighter jet hangar. All the equipment had been packed and shipped off. They were super-fast in their evacuation, and the only things left to evacuate were the fighter jets themselves (which only Billy’s squad could fly) and the squad themselves. Billy’s squad was reduced to seven (after Bort’s arrest) and there were five good jet fighters (three were totaled but Joey’s was repaired, remember), so two of Billy’s squad would have to double up.

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Billy invited Taylor to fly with him, but she insisted on piloting the jet. Billy hadn’t yet flown a fighter jet and wanted the experience. Taylor went with Kermit and Ug flew with Billy. Billy gave his squad a brief rousing speech thanking them for believing in him as their squad leader and for their individual acts of courage and steadfastness in the face of evil, for it surely took every one of them to foil this crime. Then he led his squad, in their fighter jets, down the runway and off into the wild blue yonder, to their next super-secret location.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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