At the time, my instincts told me that jumping onto the hood of a moving SUV was a brilliant idea.
After half a second of trying to find something to hold onto, I told myself I’d reconsider my instincts when I got out of this.
If I got out of this.
A voice in my ear—I hadn’t lost my Bluetooth after all. Haley’s voice, by the angry sound of it.
“Ben, what the hell are you doing?”
“I have no idea!” I yelled back, finally grabbing the roof rack with both hands and holding on for dear life, doing my best to block the windshield. The driver accelerated down the empty suburban street, jerking the wheel back and forth, trying to shake me off. I knew behind the tinted glass of this anonymous, plateless SUV were the gray faces of Slivers. Today they were supposed to be kidnapping one of Prospero High School’s nicest teachers from her home, and we were going to stop them. It wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, but we’d done it before and should’ve been able to do it again.
I looked to the sidewalks, trying to spot any other members of the Network.
There was a heavy blow against the windshield near my chest. The tinted glass spiderwebbed beneath me. The Slivers were trying to break through.
Not for the first time, I cursed The Owl.
“Everybody close on the house! They’re still on the move!” Courtney called over the party line.
“Where’s that spike strip?” Haley asked.
“About twenty feet behind Ben before he decided to go Shatner on us,” Greg answered.
The spiderweb of glass expanded as the Sliver continued to force its way through.
The next voice was impossibly calm. “If we can stop this vehicle, there’s every chance we can capture multiple Slivers at once in addition to preventing Ms. Craven’s abduction. Ben, do you think you can slow them down?”
She always asked for the impossible so reasonably.
The windshield broke open in front of me, safety glass exploding outward as a long, muscular arm with a seven-fingered, clawed hand burst through. It raked back and forth, opening up a large gash in the glass that allowed me to see the three Slivers inside. They were of slight frame with gray, hairless heads and bulging black eyes, and they had begun sprouting extra limbs and tentacles to better mangle me.
“I’ll try,” I said, diving into the jagged hole where the windshield used to be.
Their brief, startled pause before attacking was all I needed.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of the cheap stun guns Mina loved to make out of disposable cameras and jammed it into the driver’s chest. The creature shuddered violently, jerking the wheel to the side and stomping on the gas reflexively.
I forced the gearshift into neutral and pulled on the parking brake. The SUV lurched to a violent stop in the middle of the street.
So far so good.
Less good was the sound of snapping wood that came from the passenger seat as its occupant’s body began to shift. Its rib cage broke open into a giant, vertical mouth full of jagged teeth and swirling tentacles. The tentacles lashed out at me, wrapping around my arms and neck, and squeezed. The Sliver in the backseat joined in, grabbing the leg I tried to anchor myself with against the dashboard and forcing me closer to that terrible maw.
The passenger door flew open. The Sliver let out a howl of pain as Julie buried a large meat hook in its back and began pulling it from the car. Courtney wrapped her hands around Julie’s on the hook, throwing her track team muscles into the effort and hardly wincing when the gelatinous Splinter blood began to soil her neatly pressed blouse. The tentacles released me, and soon enough the two girls wrestled the Sliver from the vehicle and tased it.
The driver’s mutated arm reached across my chest and pulled the door shut. It looked deep into my eyes with those empty, black orbs. Its narrow mouth curled into the faintest of smiles as it held me pinned to the seat with that monstrous arm. Though its face was formless, its flesh waxy, I couldn’t help but feel something familiar in that smile and those soulless eyes.
“Soon,” it whispered to me in its chittering, popping voice.
A new arm burst from its shoulder, splitting into two insectoid hands that allowed it to shift gears and disengage the parking break simultaneously. I watched helplessly as Greg and Kevin finally caught up to us with the jury-rigged spike strip we’d built for just this occasion, tossing it uselessly to the ground just as the driver swerved out of the way.
I didn’t know if the Slivers were still going to try for Ms. Craven or if they would content themselves with taking me instead. Would they try to drag me to their Warehouse (assuming the Slivers had a Warehouse) and replace me, or would they kill me as soon as they found a nice, quiet place to pull over?
They weren’t slowing down. If anything, they seemed to be speeding up. They swerved down the street, aiming for the side of an old duplex. Ms. Craven’s duplex.
I took advantage of the driver’s focus to pull one arm free, fasten a seatbelt around me, and brace myself.
The SUV slammed through the duplex’s wall with a crushing impact that knocked the wind out of me and whipped my neck forward. The unsecured driver flew through the jagged remnants of the windshield and landed in what used to be Ms. Craven’s living room. The passenger from the backseat climbed over me with spindly spider’s legs, following the driver out the windshield.
A woman screamed inside.
Slowly, painfully, I undid my seatbelt and crawled through the windshield, landing on the floor in a dazed heap.
Somehow I stumbled to my feet and pulled the mini flamethrower from my back. It wasn’t much—just a kitchen lighter duct-taped to one of those recalled aerosol fire extinguishers that Mina had stocked up on, but it did the job. Flicking the lighter on, I lifted it high.
The driver had Ms. Craven wrapped in a set of tentacles and interlocking claws, lifting her off the ground. Ms. Craven looked at me fearfully, trying to cry out through the tentacle lashed across her mouth. The flamethrower wouldn’t do much good at this range, standing as much a chance of burning Ms. Craven. I was going to have to wait for backup.
“Let her go,” I said shakily. All of my experiences with Slivers so far had proved that they loved to talk. I only had to stall them long enough for Mina and the rest to get here.
The driver looked to the passenger, exchanging a low series of pops and clicks. The passenger nodded, calmly raising one of its three arms and pointing the hand at me, flat. Just like the driver, a small, frightening smile crossed its face.
I lost all feeling beneath my waist, my legs giving out beneath me. Then I could feel again—too well. It felt like every nerve in my body had burst into flames. Violent waves of nausea hit me, and my muscles no longer seemed to be my own.
Two realizations hit me at once.
First: they had a Shard we hadn’t documented yet.
Second: this Shard had remote control of human bodies.
There was shouting, and then Kevin and Greg slid through the massive hole in the wall, brandishing their flamethrowers and Tasers. Less than a second later, a sliding glass door opened in the next room, and Mina and Haley ran in to join us.
Only Aldo, Julie, and Courtney had yet to catch up.
The two Slivers looked at each other, then at us. They could have taken me easily, maybe even two of us. But five of us, well-armed as we were—that gave them a moment of pause. The driver dropped Ms. Craven roughly to the floor. Both of the Slivers raised their arms, and the driver looked at me, curling its lips into that faint, unpleasant smile.
“Soon,” it said again.
Long spikes of bone erupted from each of their chests and backs. They both began to laugh—a raspy, choking sound—as the base of each spike began to pulsate.
“DUCK!” Mina blurted, falling to the floor.
Everyone dropped, dozens of bony spikes narrowly missing us as they erupted from the Slivers’ bodies, lodging in the walls and shattering windows.
By the time we regained our feet, the Slivers were gone.
“Is everybody all right?” Mina asked.
There were murmurs of assent. Ms. Craven was on the floor, sobbing.
Finding out about Splinters is never easy for people to deal with under the best of circumstances, much less while being kidnapped by the extreme anti-human cult of Splinters that we’d taken to calling “Slivers” last fall.
Not that getting kidnapped by regular, garden-variety Splinters was all that much better.
I was confident that Ms. Craven would come out of her shock soon—she’d always struck me as pretty tough. Once this wore off, we’d be able to tell her the truth. Maybe even make her a part of the team.
Assuming, of course, she was really human.
Haley examined my scratches and scrapes. Content that I must have been okay, she smiled and threw her arms around my neck, hugging me close. I don’t know what was more uncomfortable, Haley’s weight against my aching ribs or the look of annoyance on Mina’s face.
“I’m fine,” I assured Haley, pulling away, “though that Shard they have sure did a number on me.”
“One of the ones The Owl showed you?” Haley asked.
“No, this one’s new,” I said.
“Dammit, I hate Shards,” Greg said, shuddering. I didn’t blame him; the last time we’d gone up against a Shard, it had made him feel a swarm of spiders crawling beneath his skin.
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“Hey, guys?” Aldo said over the group line.
“Did you secure the other Sliver?” Mina asked.
“Yeah, we got her. No problems there. What about yours?” Aldo asked.
“They’ve retreated. They haven’t doubled back your way?” Mina asked.
“No, we’re clear,” Aldo said. There was something held back in his voice I didn’t like.
“What’s wrong, Aldo?” I asked.
“Uh, I think you need to see this one for yourselves.”
“We’re on our way,” Mina said. “Haley, Greg, keep an eye on Ms. Craven.”
“I got some stuff that might calm her down,” Greg said, patting a pocket on his old army jacket.
“Don’t,” I said.
Greg shrugged. “More for me then.”
I followed Kevin and Mina out the front door. By force of habit, I looked up and down the street, hoping by some miracle that we hadn’t been spotted—or heard, for that matter. It was early Sunday morning, so the streets were mostly deserted. Typical abduction timing. The cops would be here eventually—a vehicle crashed through the side of a house has a way of summoning them sooner or later—but given the Prospero Police Department’s closeness with the main Splinter Council, this would all no doubt be hushed up pretty quickly.
“You’re gonna have to spend some quality time with Mina’s first-aid kit, brother,” Kevin observed.
“I’ve looked worse,” I said.
“You’ve looked better, too,” Mina interjected coldly.
“What’d I do?” I complained.
“You nearly ruined the operation. This didn’t go half as smoothly as our other interceptions,” Mina shot back.
I didn’t have a good defense for that. Ever since she’d started receiving those messages from the Owl, giving us the Slivers’ plans for abductions, we’d had a pretty good (though not perfect) track record of intercepting and stopping the Slivers before they could take their intended targets. Over the previous month and a half, we had managed to save the mayor’s son, Sheriff Diaz’s wife, and the head of the PTA from being taken without their ever knowing anything was going on. Things could have gone better this time, I knew that, but they also could have gone a lot worse.
“I didn’t have a choice. They know what we’ve been doing, and they’re being more careful. I did what I had to do,” I said.
“You could’ve been killed.”
“But I wasn’t!”
Kevin squeezed his way between us and put an arm around each of our shoulders.
“Let us not forget, my friends, that we did stop them from replacing Ms. Craven. It may have been sloppy, and she may have been needlessly introduced to our world, but we saved her. We did a good thing; the forces of evil are in check for another day. We should be celebrating!” Kevin said, smiling that easy smile he always used to defuse tense situations.
Mina sighed. “Please try to avoid unnecessary risks in the future.”
“Will do,” I said.
“There, isn’t that better than fighting like a couple o’ freshmen?” Kevin said.
“So says the senior commencement speaker,” I replied, punching him in the ribs softly.
“Hey, I’m as surprised as you guys are that I actually got the gig,” Kevin said, grinning.
“Right… so how long have you had that speech written?” I asked.
“Seventh grade, give or take a month.” Kevin laughed. “Come on, it’ll be my last chance to try to change a few minds here before I move on to the real world.”
“Freshmen don’t fight any appreciably more or less than any other students,” Mina said as if she’d missed half the conversation, looking a bit lost in thought.
“Really? Maybe we should ask Aldo,” Kevin joked.
Tall tales about Aldo’s secret second life, or third life in our case, had become something of a running joke among the Network, given his habit of accumulating even more scrapes and bruises than the rest of us in spite of spending most of his time behind the scenes, digging for information or tinkering with the equipment.
Underground cage fighting and undercover spy operations were common speculations.
This conversation did lead to one topic that had been eating at me lately: the passage of time. Of the eight members of the Network, Kevin and Courtney were both seniors and were going to be moving on from Prospero within the next six months. I didn’t know how we were going to keep the fight going without them. We would find a way to manage, Mina always had in the past, but it would be rough without Courtney’s organizational skills and Kevin’s ability to put things in perspective.
Julie, Courtney, and Aldo had dragged their captive Sliver to the privacy of Courtney’s backyard, a good five blocks from Ms. Craven’s, and by the time we caught up with them, they already had it tied up in copper wire and were threatening to touch the wire to a car battery. As usual, Julie (her jet black hair streaked with hot pink and red for Valentine’s Day coming up) smiled at us perkily beneath her thick goth makeup.
“Ya all right, Ben?” she asked, eying the scratches on my face.
Aldo’s concerned expression was unsettling. Ever since our fight with Robbie, Aldo had assumed a bravura I’d never known he had in him. He was the first to cheer any victory lately. If he wasn’t smiling…
“What is it?” Mina asked, looking down at the Sliver, which looked more human now despite the few extra limbs it still possessed.
Courtney held the end of the copper wire above the car battery with a plastic pair of tongs. “Show them again.”
The Sliver hissed something in its chittering language that must not have been kind. Courtney and Mina exchanged a glance. Mina nodded. Courtney dropped the wire onto the battery’s contact.
The Sliver screamed too humanly as it shuddered and arched what could best be approximated as its back, and the wire sparked violently. When Courtney took the wire away, it reluctantly took the face of its true, human form with a look of pure spite.
It was the face of Ms. Claudette Velasquez, my calculus teacher. That she was a Splinter was not news; we had known this for a few months.
That she was working with the Slivers was a surprise. The last time we had seen her, she had a seat on the Splinter Council.
“What are you waiting for? Kill me. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” she challenged.
“We’re not that stupid,” I said.
Ms. Velasquez looked at the battery with a mix of anger and fear. “Then what is your plan for me?”
“You’re going to tell us everything you know about the Slivers’ plans,” Mina said simply, taking the tongs from Courtney and holding them a little closer to the battery. “And when we’re convinced you’re not holding out, we’ll hand you over to the Splinter Council.”
Ms. Velasquez’s eyes went wide with genuine fear. “And if you’re never convinced?”
“We turn you over to them anyway, only we don’t tell them how remorseful and cooperative you were.”
Ms. Velasquez’s eyes scanned us, probably trying to gauge whether or not Mina was telling the truth. She must have believed her, because her body visibly slumped.
“Fine. I will cooperate. Just don’t—”
She let out an ear-splitting scream, her eyes bulging—then fell still with mouth agape. We stared, trying to figure out if it was a trick, when the flesh began to melt from her bones in thick gray rivers.
“What the… no, no…” Aldo muttered, trying to scoop bits of dissolving Splinter into one of his specially rigged containment boxes, watching with confusion as the liquid continued to evaporate after the box was sealed.
The entire Splinter corpse down to the bones was deteriorating into nothingness as the raw Splinter matter became incompatible with our world.
“What the hell just happened?” Courtney asked. “She was going to talk!”
“Was she?” Mina asked doubtfully.
“Well she sure as hell wasn’t going to die!” said Aldo, staring at the last vanishing remnants of the body. “Splinters just don’t do that spontaneously.”
“They might if they got one of those in ’em, brother,” Kevin said as he pointed to what was left of Ms. Velasquez’s deteriorating bones.
What looked like a foot-long, white caterpillar made of tumors and small air sacs disentwined itself from around her spine. Slowly, it walked away from the dissolving remains of my math teacher, shaking off bits of gray slime.
Then it started to glow a faint, pulsing white, lifting off the ground and beginning to float away like a plastic bag in the breeze. Mina grabbed it with her tongs.
“That a Splinter?” Kevin asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Mina said.
“Then what is it?” Aldo asked.
The answer hit me before Mina could say it out loud.
“A game changer,” I said. “If they’ve got themselves some sort of alien suicide pill hiding inside them to keep them compliant, we might have to reconsider our capture strategy.”
Capturing a Sliver for information had been one of our dreams ever since we started receiving information from The Owl.
Just when we thought we had the Slivers figured out, they had to come up with something like this.
I would’ve laughed if it weren’t so damn depressing.