Read an Excerpt
° ° ° 1 ° ° °
The Last Time For Ordinary
Ethan Blackwood prepared for battle.
In the months to come, Ethan would look back and marvel that there could be a fight in which someone didn’t get hurt . . . or his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk.
At the time, though, he did think of it as a battle. No one ever thought of it as a game—not when you strapped on six hundred pounds of nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit.
Inside his suit, he crouched on the sidelines of the Northside Elementary athletic field. Ethan and his teammates huddled around Coach, listening to his plan. Each of them wore an external frame that was stainless steel and hydraulics and orange gecko-grip-soled feet . . . except, of course, Coach. He wasn’t in a suit. For now, he was half their size, a dwarf among giants.
It was all “defensive action” this and “special team ?maneuver” that.
Really, all the fancy terms came down to setting up one last play.
This was a special repair time-out before the last seven seconds of the state semifinal soccer championship: the Grizzlies vs. the Westside Warriors. The score was tied.
Twelve-year-old Ethan was captain of the Grizzlies. It was a crushing responsibility for a seventh grader surrounded by the eighth graders on his team.
But Ethan thrived under pressure. The tougher the midterm, the more he crammed. The tighter the spot in a match, the more Ethan moved like a cat in his suit—?twisting around defenders—even making those near-half-field five-hundred-foot kicks!
Inside the formfitting cockpit, sweat dripped off the end of Ethan’s nose.
There were a few moments in Ethan Blackwood’s life that had burned themselves into his memory: a splinter that’d gone through his hand when he was four (his mom had pulled it out); winning two blue ribbons at school ?science fairs—one for the biology of the nerve, another for a robotic arm; last week at the Sadie Hawkins dance, when he’d fumbled for Mary Vincent’s hand (although technically she had taken his hand)—and this moment.
Like when he’d had that splinter, won the science fairs, and held Mary’s hand—Ethan felt burning, churning flutters deep in his stomach.
But this was different. It wasn’t just about Ethan. His whole team had a stake in this, and that made it vital that Ethan get it right. “Blackwood!” Coach Norman said. “Your head in this match?”
Ethan Blackwood looked at his teammates. The snarling-bear emblems on their chest plates stared back at him; the pressure circuits in their arms and legs twitched and hissed as if the suits were somehow nervous too.
Ethan met the dark gray eyes of Coach. “Yes, sir.”
Coach went on then . . . something about the importance of focus . . . as Ethan’s gaze drifted past him, along the sidelines of the field and the bleachers.
The cheers were completely distracting.
Ethan adjusted the filters on his targeting camera to shade the huge lights overhead that turned night into day on the field. He spotted his mom in the stands, with her golden Filipino features smiling, and Dad, with his strong Cherokee jaw clenched (Ethan had inherited the same quick smile, and the same quick-to-frown jawline). They’d be proud of him win or lose. Even his brother and sisters had come tonight: little Dana and Danny, still in diapers, and his older sister, Emma, who gave Ethan a thumbs-up.
Something was out of place, though.
Sitting a row up from his family were two strangers.
Ethan knew everyone at school and most of the opposing Westside Warrior fans, but these two students, a guy and a girl, he’d never seen before.
They weren’t in Northside’s red and brown colors or Westside’s green. Even though it was prohibited by the school’s dress code, they wore jeans and black T-shirts. The dark colors set off their superpale skin.
The boy took up space for two people in the stands— not “fat” big, but more like a weightlifter. His T-shirt looked two sizes too small and about to rip. His head was shaved, showing only a faint shadow of stubble.
The girl was thin, and she seemed to drown in her oversized T-shirt. Her blond hair stuck up in a spiky ?ponytail.
Something else set them apart. The look in their eyes was the strangest thing. Pure tension—like this was a life-or-death situation.
Well, how could anyone not be fascinated by soccer? Especially this match! But these two scrutinized everyone on the field . . . as if they weren’t interested in the game, exactly, but were looking for someone.
Coach Norman finished his final instructions (which Ethan realized he had completely blanked on) and shouted, “Break!”
Ethan instantly forgot the two strangers and snapped his head back into the match.
His teammates placed their hands in the center of the huddle with machine-like precision, raised them in salute, and shouted, “Grrrrrrrrizzlies!!”
Ethan and his team then turned to face the Westside Warriors.
Ethan should have asked about Coach’s instructions, but his parents had always told him to go with his gut when in doubt.
That was what he’d do now.
From the Hardcover edition.