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"We're trapped! Oh God, somebody help us."
An explosion jolted the cavern. Dan Larson shielded his head against the rocks and debris raining down from the ceiling. A moment later, he saw Tim Madison hobbling through the dust cloud, clutching a fresh wound in his side. Tim motioned weakly with a bloody hand for Dan to follow him. Tim took a few steps and collapsed.
Dan scampered to his side. "Get up!" he hollered, coughing. "Get up!"
"We..." Tim wheezed, "gotta ... out."
Dan grabbed Tim by the shoulders and shook him. "Stay with me, Tim. Don't you dare die on me."
Tim lifted his head to focus on Dan's dirty face. "Where's ... Jamie?"
Dan's lower lip quivered and he looked down. "Dead."
Several more explosions rocked the cavern. Tim;s eyes rolled upwards as the roof and walls came down, burying the two of them under tons of granite.
"Turn it off!" the aged Thispan snapped. He waved two large claws in the air, his red robe swirling at the movement, and jerked his beetle-like head away from the giant screen. "I've seen enough."
A younger Thispan flicked off the monitor.
"This is the boy's future, elder Krill," the younger Thispan said. "What is your decision?"
Elder Krill aimed his large compound eyes out a triangular window at a gas nebula, which floated against the glittering backdrop of the universe. His antennae twitched. "Billions of lives are at stake. What choice do we have? We must train the galactic warrior."
"I disagree," the younger Thispan tried to argue, snapping his claws together.
"You, Kiztax? You who saved the Wert civilization from civil war, when even I objected from interfering? You would stand aside as Earth is destroyed? You would allow the twenty-third universe to fall to the Tarnacki?"
"Yes," Kiztax said. "To save us. The time for action has passed. The future is unalterable. The Tarnacki must be quarantined in the twenty-third universe. They must not be allowed to spread into ours. With all due respect, elder Krill, we cannot change a major event that has already occurred in the timeline without the risk of opening a hole. A hole could destroy everything. We must seal the portal while we still have the chance."
"No, Kiztax," elder Krill said, "I do not agree. My conscience cannot accept this senseless destruction. We will offer humanity one last chance. One hope for rescue. You are the most qualified to train the Earth's galactic warrior, but I will replace you with another, if you so desire."
"That will not be necessary," Kiztax said stiffly. "I am sworn to the code of Kvtraty. I accept this assignment with honor and will initiate the fractoring to retrieve the Earth's galactic warrior."
Tim jerked awake, gasping for breath. A fierce vibration rattled the windows and shook the house. Beneath his sheets, his whole body tingled. The clock on his nightstand showed 6:15 A.M., but his alarm for school hadn't gone off. Strange. An eerie stillness fell over him. His eyes focused on random objects in his room. His cluttered desk. The model airplane with the broken landing gear. The seventh grade homework papers strewn on the floor. The CD case for the video game, Tomb Raider.
Tim rose slowly from the bed, put on a T-shirt, stepped into his jeans, and gently pulled open his bedroom door. He snapped to a shocked standstill, blinking his eyes. The wallpaper in the hallway, normally blue, had turned red. The carpet had become black. The change was impossible.
Something thumped softly behind him.
Tim spun around, saw what had caused the noise, and stumbled backward in terror, flattening his body against the wall. The large intruder had a humanoid body with a short, leathery tail, and lobster-like claws instead of hands. Its greenish-purple head was beetle-like, round and smooth, with wide, compound eyes and short, sharp mandibles. Poking out the top were two segmented antennae.
"My name is Kiztax," the intruder said. "But you may call me Kiz. I am here to escort you to our training facility where you will prepare for your assignment."
Tim felt his mouth drop open, but no words came out.
"As the chosen galactic warrior from the third planet, located in the Ocea system of the twenty-seventh quadrant in the twenty-third universe, you have been selected by the Thispen High Council for this seventh mission. To facilitate your training, you have been separated from your linear existence by a process called fractoring. Your dimension will not age while you are away. You dreamed this assignment on the last sixteen evenings to condition your subconscious to accept this reality. The dreams are the first stage of your preparation." Kiz waved a claw over Tim's head. "You will now remember them in full."
Tim's mind suddenly whirled with an array of dazzling images, as if a movie had switched on in his brain -- spaceship with shiny walls, long corridors and vast open spaces; hissing alien fighter crafts, a massive canyon; devastating destruction and death.
"We must leave immediately," Kiz said. "Fractoring creates a temporary, unstable annex in the space-time continuum. Every second you remain in this state of half-existence adds to the risk of a rip in the fabric of this universe."
"But ... " Tim's voice came out as a scratchy whisper. He couldn't stop his arms and legs from trembling.
"I will explain more once we are on the schardru. Please, follow me."
"But ... "
"No time for questions."
Tim followed Kiz out of the house, blinking in the white sunlight. It was hard to grasp the scale of the scene before him. The entire neighborhood had stopped as if frozen in time. Brady, the neighbor's obnoxious collie stood silently, for once, with his nose glued to the ground. A few feet away a bird hung in midair as if tethered to the sky by an invisible string. The front lawn was red, and mounds of green clouds dotted a milky sky. Neighbors' houses were colored pink and blue instead of their usual brown and gray. The leaves on the spruce tree across the street had turned orange.
"We are experiencing problems with the colorization adapter of the time-distortion analyzing sequencer," Kiz explained, noting the stunned look on Tim's face. "But the Council believes its function is secondary to the urgency of this assignment."
Kiz walked swiftly to the end of the driveway and down the sidewalk. Tim followed, taking in the bizarre scenery -- a squirrel in mid-scamper, a rabbit as still as a photograph, bees hanging silently above black flowers, cars motionless in what otherwise would have been early morning congestion around the construction in the right lane of Watson Street.
A sound like a bat hitting a baseball. A silver triangle about the size of a parking space and thin as a pane of glass appeared overhead.
"What do you want from me?" Tim asked, gazing skyward, feelings of dread curling his stomach.
"You will understand your role once training is complete."
"What about school? I ... I have a history test on Monday."
"Only a few seconds will have passed when you return to Earth." Kiz rotated his head to look up at the triangle. "Training begins now."
A brilliant light flashed from the triangle's underbelly, and Tim and Kiz lifted off the ground.
"Wait!" Tim exclaimed, flapping his arms wildly with no effect on his movement upwards. "I didn't agree to this."
Kiz didn't respond.
A few seconds later, they drifted into a tube and drew even with a platform, dropping onto it as gently as two soap bubbles. A door whooshed open, revealing a wide, brightly lit corridor that appeared to go forever.
"Come," Kiz said, stepping through. "There is no time to waste. The other galactic warriors are already gathered in the main hall."
"Hold on a second." Tim held out his hands. "I'm not ready for this! I mean ... fifteen minutes ago I was asleep in my bed, and now ... I mean, why should I help you?"
Kiz turned and clasped Tim's arm. "You must do this for everyone on your planet. The Council has knowledge of dangerous things that will occur. We will teach you these things in the order that most assures your success at overcoming them." Kiz let go of Tim and swung around to continue down the corridor. "To tell you anything more at this time will jeopardize your assignment and everything the Council has worked toward."
Tim took a cautious step forward, felt his weight return, and then took another step. He glanced back at a swooshing sound in time to see the exit seal behind them.
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