Day one and I’m late for roll call. It’s my mum’s fault as my super-suit is way too small and it is giving me a super-wedgie. I wish she’d never wangled me a place on the Superkids Summer Program but when your mum is Astro-Woman, she gets what she wants. Just ask my dad.
I squeeze into my spot between Jed and Zila. Jed rolls his eyes. I bet Jed’s never been late for anything in his whole life. Captain Protector is mid-way through his Morning Motivational and as he inspects the line he stops by me and raises a bushy eyebrow. “Late Gills, not the best of starts is it?”
I shake my head and try to look contrite. “Sorry, sir.”
“Good job your mother wasn’t late when she re-directed comet Eron from its collision course with Earth.”
I could point out that they knew about that comet for thirty years before it happened, so she would have had to have a really good excuse to be late for that one—but the deep furrows of Captain Protector’s frown suggest now is not the time for back-chat.
Captain Protector clasps his hands behind his back and continues his walk along the line. “You kids were born to save the world!”
Jed’s massive chest puffs up. Zila’s eyes are shining. I’m concentrating on holding in my belly. Lycra is a difficult material to wear. And I admit, I may have indulged in a teensy bit of comfort eating since I found out I was coming here. See, my super power is a bit lame. Basically, I can hold my breath for a really long time. How this will prove to be a world-saving skill, I don’t know.
“This summer, you will be put through a gruelling training program, so you can realise the true potential of your powers. You will push yourself beyond your limits so when the time comes, you will be ready to follow in your parents’ footsteps and protect the world.”
I can feel the excitement sparking off the other kids. Honestly, I’d much rather be at home playing computer games and squirting whipped cream into my mouth straight from the can.
Captain Protector reaches the end of the line of recruits and smooths his hair with the heel of his hand. “You will be assigned to six groups for the duration of your time in the Superkids program. You will be in direct competition with one another. At the end of the four weeks, the winning group will be awarded the greatest honour, a place in the Hall of Fame and a custom-made super-suit.”
Murmurs of excitement ripple down the line. Getting in the Hall of Fame is kind of a big deal. Iron-Fist, Brain-bender, Mum—all the famous A-list Superheroes have their pictures in the Hall of Fame.
Captain Protector picks up a clipboard. “Jed McCormack.”
Jed steps forward and shouts unnecessarily loudly, “Yes sir, Captain Protector, sir!”
Yeah, he double sirred him. What a suck-up.
“You are grouped with Zila and Gills.”
Now, I might be imagining things but I’m pretty sure that both Jed and Zila groan when they hear my name.
Captain Proctor calls out the rest of the groups. When he’s finished, he holds out his arm and presses a button on the sleeve of his super-suit. A hologram of a city fills the room. He rotates the picture around and shows a forest and a large dam and reservoir on the outskirts.
“Challenge One. There is a bomb hidden somewhere in this area. It is your job to locate it, destroy it and then race back to base.”
Race back to base? I can almost feel the chaffing. Running is not really my thing. I wish I could fly like Buzz Jennings and her group.
“Of course, that all sounds easy,” Captain Protector says with a chuckle.
Easy? The guy’s got to be joking.
“There will also be an enemy to avoid. Capture them before they capture you.”
Jed cracks his knuckles and Zila rolls her shoulders back. My stomach churns like the time I ate an out-of-date frankfurter.
“This is a simulation, but it does not mean it is without risk. Good luck to you all. Your mission starts now.” Captain Protector clicks his heels and strides out of the room.
“Now? But we haven’t even had breakfast!” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.
Captain Protector stops, slowly turns around and glares. I hope he doesn’t zap me with laser beams from his eyeballs.
“Do you think evil cares about your stomach?”
“Nope.” My voice comes out very squeaky.
We’ve been marching through the forest for what seems like days, but my watch informs me is only forty-three minutes. I wouldn’t say, at present, we are a wonderful example of team cohesion.
Zila and Jed are embroiled in a power struggle for leadership. They can’t agree on anything apart from that they have been unfairly disadvantaged by being lumbered with me.
“How is holding your breath even a super-power, fish-boy?” Jed pushes a branch out of his path.
It swings back and hits me in the face. “I don’t know.”
“And that’s it? You truly only have one power?” Zila’s eyebrows are scrunched together in confusion. I get her point. Apart from me, all kids in the program are multi-powered. Most have at least three or four super-skills. Take Jed, he is strong, fast and can stun people with his breath. Although personally, I wouldn’t be bragging about having super-human halitosis. Zila can climb anything and has incredible vision and hearing.
“Yeah uni-powered—that’s me.”
“I guess if you ever had to swim underwater to get away from an enemy it could be useful,” Zila says with a noticeable element of doubt to her voice.
I duck under an overhanging branch. “Yeah, can’t swim.”
“Can’t swim? Jed looks me up and down. “Are you sure, you’re Astro-woman’s son?”
“Even my mum has her doubts,” I admit.
A whizzing sound fills the air above us as Buzz Jennings, Leonora and Sully fly over the forest.
“That’s so unfair!” Jed huffs. “How can we keep up with them when they can all fly?”
“Huff a little more, Jed,” I say. “You never know, your breath might still reach them.”
Zila laughs but Jed looks less than impressed. “Dead-weight,” he hisses and sends another branch my way.
Before I’m able to dish out a suitable put down, a brilliant white flash fills the air followed by an ear-splitting screeching noise. A wind whips up and it feels like all the air around us is being sucked skywards. Leaves start flying off the trees and the soil from the forest floor begins to whirlpool upwards as though someone has turned on a powerful vacuum cleaner in the sky. I admit, I’m terrified.
Zila shoves me into action. “Grab hold of a tree.”
This seems like a good idea. I wrap my arms around the nearest trunk but I’m struggling to keep my feet on the floor.
There’s no way I can withstand the immense sucking force. Jed however, is planted on the ground, arms crossed, eyes defiant like an immovable man-mountain. Zila is securely suckered to her tree like a long-limbed limpet. My grip is loosening. One of my super-boots comes loose and flies upwards.
“I can’t hold on!” My feet are above my head now. “Help me!” The pull is too strong. I let go and scream at the top of my lungs. “I’m going to be hoovered up!”
A strong hand grabs hold of my arm. Jed has me in his vice-like grip.
“Stop wiggling!” he shouts.
“Don’t let go!” I plead.
Then as suddenly as it started, the wind stops, and I drop to the ground like, well, like a dead-weight.
I scramble to stand up and dust down my knees. “What was that?”
Jed and Zila are looking upwards, open-mouthed.
“It couldn’t be,” Zila gasps.
“It must be a simulation,” Jed says. “Part of the challenge.”
Zila sits down on a rock. “I dunno. It felt very real. Too real.”
I’m still not really sure what’s going on but then Jed says something that causes me to do a little bit of pee in my super-suit.
“I thought Vortex was imprisoned.”
His words hang in the air. We look at each other. Even Jed’s usual self-assured expression clouds over.
“I’m calling this in.” Zila presses one of the buttons on her cuff. The phone line crackles with static. “Something’s disrupting the line.”
“I don’t like this.” I turn to face the way we came. “We should head back.”
Jed grabs my shoulder. “But what if it is part of the challenge?”
I glare at him. “And what if it’s not?”
Zila puts her hands on her hips and flicks her hair. “If it’s not, we need to act. If that really was Vortex she’s headed to the city. We need to protect the people.”
“Is that really our job?” I venture.
“That’s exactly our job! We’re Superheroes,” Zila says.
“We’re not strictly qualified,” I remind her.
“That doesn’t matter! We were born to save the world.” Jed tilts his chiselled jaw skywards.
“You two maybe, but me?” I turn to leave.
“Let him go,” Zila says. “If he wants to be wandering around alone while Vortex is on the loose, let him.”
This is not a tempting prospect. I stop and turn to face them. “On second thoughts, maybe I should stick with you guys. Lend a hand.”
Jed casts me a withering look. “Yeah, you never know when you need someone who can hold their breath for a really long time.”
By the time we reach the city, Jed has become quite snappish. It is not my fault I’m slow—I’ve only got one boot. He shuts up when we see the carnage on the streets. Cars are lying upside down, their alarms wailing. Windows are smashed and broken glass litters the pavements.
“This doesn’t look like a simulation,” Zila mutters as she steps over a fallen street sign.
I’m carefully picking my way through the rubble so as not to step on any glass when Jed shouts over to me. “What size are you?” He’s standing outside a shoe-shop.
“Size three,” I tell him. He smirks. I’ve always had small feet for my age. He reaches in through the broken shop window and checks out a few shoes before throwing one to me. I catch it, then stare at him with my most unimpressed look.
“What?” he says as if he didn’t know. “It’s the only one in your size.”
“But it’s covered in sequins.”
Zila is trying not to laugh. I turn it around. “And there’s a rainbow on the side. It’s not very Superhero-like.”
“Put it on,” Jed barks. “It is better than slashing your feet on glass.”
He’s right, so I put it on but I’m not happy.
“Very fetching,” Jed needles.
I start to grumble but Zila presses her finger to my lips. “Shhh. I can hear something.”
She darts over to a police car that is lying on its side. She peers in through the
window then beckons us over. There’s a cop trapped inside. Jed peels back the passenger doorlike it’s a ring-pull and the cop spills out onto the floor. He’s pretty shaken up.
“What happened?” Zila
He points a trembling finger skywards. His mouth opens and shuts a few times before the words come. “Vortex—she was here.”
I resist the urge to run around screaming.
“You’re sure it was her?” Zila asks.
The cop’s eyes are wild. “She says she’s going to flood the city.”
“The dam!” Zila looks at me then Jed. “She’s going to blow it up!”
Jed adopts a wide-legged power-stance. “Not if we can stop her.”
“You look too young to be Superheroes.” There’s a noticeable air of panic in the cop’s voice. He looks us each up and down in turn, his eyes linger on my glittery footwear. “Where are the grown-ups?”
This is the same question I want answering.
“Don’t worry, sir. We have this situation under control.” Jed speaks with such confidence I almost believe him. He looks at Zila. “To the dam.”
She nods and before I can tell them I’m getting a bit of a stitch, they’re off. I stumble behind them in my mis-matched shoes trying desperately to keep up. When I catch up with them at the edge of the reservoir they are frozen to the spot, looking straight up.
I’ve seen pictures of Vortex before but, I can confirm, she is even more terrifying in the flesh. She hovers in the air, her long blue-black hair hanging down her back like frayed rope. Her black, soulless eyes stare down at us and all my instincts tell me to curl up in the foetal position and cry for my mum.
“Look!” Zila gasps. “What are they doing?”
Three brightly coloured figures flash through the sky and circle around Vortex—Buzz, Leonora and Sully. My heart hammers in my chest. They’re no match for her. Vortex throws her head back and a chilling laugh peals through the air. They charge at her but with one sweep of her arm they are sent spiralling towards the ground like a handful of jelly-beans. Vortex begins to spin round and round, getting faster and faster until she becomes a blue-black tornado streaking through the sky.
“What’s she doing?” Zila says, more breath than voice.
Vortex bursts out of her spin and nosedives into the reservoir. The waters darken and churn angrily in her wake before becoming eerily still and silent. We stare at the surface, waiting for her to reappear. My whole body is trembling and I think I might throw-up. I am so not suited to this Superhero thing. Mum and I will be having a serious chat about next year’s summer activities.
Vortex bursts back through the surface of the water and I’m so startled I scream. She rockets so far upwards she becomes a tiny black dot in the sky. And then she disappears.
And momentarily, everything seems to be ok.
The dam is still in one piece. The city hasn’t been flooded.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” I say.
Jed looks at me as though I have seventeen heads. “Gills, she’s probably just put a bomb at the bottom of the reservoir.”
“Oh. We should probably tell somebody about that.”
“We should probably do something about that.” Zila tightens her pony-tail and strides towards the reservoir.
Jed marches after her, “Come on, every second counts!”
I find myself following along behind because if a bomb does go off and the dam bursts I’m fairly certain I’m going to get more than a little damp if I remain where I am.
The climb to the top of the reservoir is up a metal ladder. There are a lot of rungs. Zila scales the wall in mere moments. I arrive puffing and sweating and with the bottom half of my super-suit buried so deeply between my bottom cheeks, I doubt I’ll ever be able to remove it.
At the top I peer across the expanse of water. It is massive. And deep.
“What’s the plan?” I ask.
They look at me blankly and it dawns on me that they haven’t worked that out. This realisation does not exactly have a calming effect. I grab Jed by the shoulders and shake him. “Come on! You’re strong and fast and have powerfully pungent breath. Surely you can think of something?” He stares at me with bulging eyes.
I point an accusatory finger at Zila. “You’re multi-powered too. Surely you can do something with your super-vision and super-ears, or your weirdly suctiony hands and feet?”
She shakes her head slowly. “Now we’re here, I don’t know what to do.”
“Unbelievable!” Panic throbs in my blood and travels around my body.
“How about you, Gills?” Jed spits my name at me. “You’re Astro-woman’s son after all. Don’t you have any ideas?”
“I don’t even want to be here!”
“You shouldn’t be here! You’ve been nothing but a dead-weight since we started this mission.”
A dead-weight? An idea begins to form in my head. “Say that again.”
“You’re a dead-weight!” Jed pokes me in the chest with an impossibly strong finger.
I look at the water. “A dead-weight.”
Jed’s face crumples into a scowl. “Why are you smiling, you freak?”
“I’m smiling, Jed, because I’ve had an idea.”
Zila raises an eyebrow. “An idea?”
“And I think it might work.”
“We’re listening,” she says.
“Stick your head in the water.”
Zila splutters. “You stick your head in the water!”
I hold up my hands. “I’m not being rude, I need you to use your super-vision to see where Vortex planted the bomb and how long until it blows.”
“Ah, I see.” She puts her face into the water and scans the walls and bottom of the reservoir. She comes up gasping. “It’s straight down where the wall meets the bottom. You’ve got five minutes before detonation.”
“Ok, there’s time. Hopefully.”
“What’s the plan?” Jed asks. All his bravado has disappeared.
“I need you to get me something heavy.”
Zila scans the area. “Over there, Jed.” She points at a rock near the bottom of the ladder.
“Can you get it?” I ask.
“Easy.” Jed holds on to the rails of the metal ladder, slides down and climbs back up with the rock under his arm in under fifteen seconds. He really is fast and strong.
“What now?” He’s not even out of breath.
“Tie it to me.”
“Four-minutes, forty-seconds,” Zila says.
“Tie it to you?” Jed looks doubtful.
I look at the water and take a deep breath. “Yeah, tie to me.”
Zila’s eyes are as wide as dinner plates. “But you can’t swim.”
“I don’t need to be able to swim. I just need to be able to sink. Like a dead-weight.”
“Like a dead-weight,” Jed repeats, a flicker of a smile on his lips.
They tie the rock around my waist and I move so my toes are hanging over the edge. I shake my head as I can’t believe what I’m about to do.
Zila checks her watch. “Four minutes twenty seconds.”
“Have you defused a bomb before?” Jed asks.
“How hard can it be?” I manage a small, hollow laugh.
Jed and Zila exchange concerned glances and I force a smile. “I’ve got to try. There’s a whole city down there that needs me to try.”
During the seven seconds it takes me to sink to the bottom of the reservoir, I try and remember every film I’ve ever seen where the hero defuses the bomb, but I can’t remember whether they cut the red, yellow or green wire. The rock settles on the floor, the bomb comes into view. And I immediately see a problem.
By my reckoning I should have four minutes thirteen seconds to diffuse the bomb.
Yet there are only three seconds on the clock.
There’s no time to think.
I reach for the first wire I see and yank it.
There’s a flash of white light and I’m thrown backwards from the wall. I guess I didn’t get the right wire.
My head is pounding, my ears are ringing and I think I might be blind.
But I’m not dead.
I blink furiously and when I can see again, I see the damage the bomb has done. There’s a hole right in the bottom of the wall and water is pouring through it. I need to plug it up before the force of the outflow causes the whole wall to crumble. I try and pull the rock over to block it up but it’s far too heavy for me.
And then I have another idea.
I stick my butt in the hole.
I’m relieved but a little surprised to discover it is quite a snug fit. It looked like such a big hole, yet my backside fits into it perfectly. Who knew my sedentary lifestyle and liking for whipped cream would prove to be so useful? Now all I have to do is hold my breath and wait.
There’s a special presentation for me at Superkids’ Summer Camp. Mum even shows up and once she finishes signing autographs, she tells me she’s proud of me, which is a world’s first.
Zila sidles up to me. “Gills, I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out why the bomb exploded early.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She presses the buttons on the sleeve of her super-suit and shows me the display 05:00
She turns her arm over. “I realised, it all comes down to point of view. I was looking at it upside down.
I look at the panel on her sleeve.
I shake my head. “I only ever had 50 seconds.”
Zila flicks the off switch. She looks up through her eyelashes and her cheeks flush a little. “Goes to show, something can look like one thing, but it’s actually something else altogether.”
My forehead crumples. I’m very confused about what is going on right now. Luckily, I don’t have to respond because Captain Protector claps his hands and demands silence for his speech.
“When I heard Gills was joining us— now I’m not proud to say this—but I had my doubts. For the life of me I could not see how holding your breath could turn out to be a world-saving skill.”
The room laughs. This wasn’t what I had in mind when I was told they’d be celebrating my achievements. He’d better get to the good bit soon.
He slaps me on the back with his huge palm and chuckles. “When we finally managed to dislodge you from the bottom of the reservoir in your too tight suit, singed eyebrows and sequined shoe, I remember thinking I have never seen a recruit look less like a Superhero.” More laughter ripples around the room and I wonder if I need to explain what a vote of thanks actually is.
“But, young Gills here has proven, that with presence of mind, teamwork and the ability to make the most of what you’ve got, anyone can save the world. Or a small city at least.”
People start clapping and I feel that the applause is both genuine and heartfelt. I could get used to this.
Captain Protector holds up his hand and the applause dies down. “We have the whole summer program to complete before we can induct a recruit into the Hall of Fame but, we cannot let your actions go unrewarded. With that in mind, Gills, we would like to award you, a brand-new super-suit, tailor-made to represent your individual super power.”
I have to say I’m delighted. No more super-wedgies for me.
Captain Protector beckons towards Jed and Zila and they present me with my prize. There must be some mistake. I look to Jed and Zila for an explanation.
Zila smiles brightly. “Don’t you think it looks like fish scales? You’ll really stand out.”
Jed slaps his hand on my back. “We thought it was perfect. And we know how much you like sequins.”
Jenny grew up in Salisbury but now lives in the North East where there are fewer Russian spies but many more Greggs. Who doesn’t love a warm corned beef pasty?
As a primary school teacher Jenny feels very lucky that she gets to share children’s stories as part of her job.
In her spare time when she isn’t writing or acting as a human climbing frame for her two boys, she can be found doing something sporty.
Jenny can be found on Twitter as @J_C_Pearson
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