The Hadley house seemed much busier than it should have been with only three people in it, mostly due to Ru’s mother. Ms. Hadley always left an article she needed buried in a pile or her press badges in odd places, not easily remembered. Pizza was the order of the night, which Ru and Jayson never objected to. Ms. Hadley pinned a slice between her own teeth as she went for her shoes.
Ru chewed absentmindedly, rummaging through a book she’d checked out from the library. It was the oldest book she could find on the history of Quarterhill, from the school library, not very old. Jayson leered across the table at it. “It’s rude to read at dinner, you know.”
“Don’t the teachers ever yell at you when you don’t take your hat off inside?” Ru retorted.
“It’s a secret.”
“OK,” Jayson replied through a mouthful. “Hey, want some seafood?”
“Jayson, don’t do that,” Ms. Hadley groaned.
“Hey Mom?” Ru turned away from her book, just in time to catch her mother before she scuttled off to another room. “Who is that guy up on Main Street who’s always yelling at everyone?”
Ms. Hadley rushed out without answering, then returned with a folder and set it on the counter next to the empty pizza pan. “Older man? Blond, lives across from the park on Cardinal Street?”
“Yeah! It’s a tan house with a big porch.”
Ms. Hadley frowned. “Why do you want to know about him?”
Ru was taken aback by her mother’s alarmed expression. She didn’t especially want to give away she’d been talking to a stranger. Her mind worked quickly. “My friend Kenna lives by him and she’s kind of scared of him.”
“He’s just angry about town politics, hon. He wouldn’t hurt your friend.” Ms. Hadley sounded like she was trying to convince herself. “He’s a veteran, so try and show him a little respect, OK? Jan’s going to be over in a little bit. I’ll see you in the morning. Love you.”
“Bye, Mom,” Ru and Jayson answered in unison.
Jan had been their sitter before Kelly, before getting a full-time job at a factory. Ru was looking forward to seeing her again. Jan told Ru as many useful things about Mr. Hadley as Mr. Faraday did.
“What’s Mom doing today?” Ru asked after the garage door had hummed shut.
“Breaking news,” Jayson said. “Something about the President.”
Ru let her pizza slice sink to her plate. “I wish she could stay for dinner more.”
Jayson shook his head. “Yeah, but then we wouldn’t be eating pizza. It’s be like brussels sprouts or something.”
“Mom hates brussels sprouts. She wouldn’t make us eat them.”
“She’d make us eat some vegetable.” Jayson picked up his last piece. “Why’d you ask about that guy?”
“He said something weird to me today. Remember this?” She touched the eagle pendant. “It might be his.”
“Really?” Jayson was quiet for a moment, then asked, “You ever seen him in a red coat?”
Ru’s mind prickled. “Why do you ask?”
The front door creaked open.
Their eyes darted towards the door, then to each other. Ru got up and stopped before she even left the kitchen. The door was open wide, the cool evening air pouring in around a woman on the front porch. With the porch light off, Ru couldn’t see much about her. The woman had long hair in a high ponytail, and a long coat that waved oddly in the wind, as if it was made of something stiffer than cloth.
“Hey, you’re not Jan,” Ru said sharply. “Go away!
The woman held out a hand. “You forgot these.”
Jayson started towards the door, but Ru blocked him with an arm. The stranger turned her hand over, revealing a sparkling red crystal. “Oh!” Jayson said. “That’s not mine — wait, how do you know I turned that in?”
The woman took a step forward and opened her mouth to speak.
Her voice was engulfed by blue light that suddenly burst from her chest. Her body was swallowed in a silent flash. Ru yelped and nearly knocked Jayson over as she jumped back. The wind pushed the door open again.
“One is yours, of that you are well aware,” the Blue Star said. Light wisped off its surface like thick steam.
The crystal lay on the floor. Pendants, just like the one Ru had around her neck. Jayson, without a trace of fear, approached them. He picked up the red crystal. A wolf’s head. As soon as he straightened, a thin beam shot out from the core of the Star and grazed it, as well as Ru’s pendant. She stood frozen, but felt nothing, as if the beam was simply light. When the beam vanished, Jayson’s pendant had changed. It was a round symbol, a silver four-point star surrounded by four white, feathered wings, supported by a gold hoop and held together in the center by a red gem. She lifted her own pendant and saw the same symbol, only with a blue gem.
“Follow me,” the Star said.
“Why?” Jayson demanded.
“You are in danger.” The Star’s voice was calm but stern. “You will gain nothing by hiding here. Your door was locked when I arrived.”
There was no doubt in Ru’s mind, for once. Jayson, however, stood where he was, his eyes shadowed by his hat. At last, he smiled. “Well, since we’re dreaming, we might as well go.”
Ru knew the Star was anxious. She did not know how. It was the same feeling when she understood it was looking at her, even though it had no face. Was that woman still in there somewhere, just behind the light, or had the woman just been a disguise for the Star? It floated down the driveway and Ru walked after it. She heard Jayson close the front door before he caught up.
Her head was fuzzy, warm, her feet light. There was no sound. Ru realized just how much she could usually hear at night, cars, crickets, dogs barking. There was complete silence now. What more, all light was blue. The streetlights were a dull navy, porch lights dim and icy, shining on the street like moonlight on snow. Even the stars, peering out from the gaps in the thin clouds, were all tinged with blue. All wind had died. It had to be a dream, like Jayson said, but despite her clouded head she was aware. It felt real. Every leaf resting in the grass was clear to her, every brick and tile of the houses they passed. She pinched her own arm with her short, uneven nails. The pain was sharp, but the world did not change.
The Star approached a tall gate. Ru vaguely recognized it as the gate in front of Breckenridge. Colleen waited behind the gnarled iron vines. Her ever-present dolphin pendant was no more, replaced with the same winged symbol Ru and Jayson had received. The gem gave off a glow that illuminated her face just a bit.
“Colleen, what are you doing out here?” Ru asked in a low tone. “Won’t you get in trouble?”
Colleen’s voice seemed to be coming from a more distant person. “I had a dream. It’s all happening here. Even my pendant turned into — this.” She sounded sad but accepting.
“I fell asleep after I got to my room today. All we need now is –” she raised her head. “–a little boy with red hair.”
“OK, look. I’m not little.“
Randy sauntered up to the group. “The other pendant belongs to him,” the Star told Jayson.
Ru’s face fell. “You had to bring him?” she grumbled at the Star.
The Star smiled an invisible smile. “It was not my choice.”
Randy took the dragonfly pendant with some hesitation. When the Star changed it, it blazed with neon green light. Randy looped it around his neck without questions.
“We must go to the Quarterstone.”
“But the gate’s locked,” Colleen said.
She jumped as the bulky lock at her hand gave a piercing plink, and the gate groaned as it inched open. She took a small step outside, biting her lip, looking all around, and rushed to Ru’s side. As if Ru could do anything to stop the Breckenridge house mothers, should they see Colleen leave, or the Star if it had ill intent.
The Star lead them through the botanical gardens, through the tunnel that went to the back of the visitors’ center. Even the forest was silent, no tourists, no owls. The children huddled together as they walked towards the Quarterstone. A gentle ivory light shone from the end of the hedge tunnel, just barely visible beyond the fires of the Star. It was the stone itself. It was radiating enough just enough light to touch the tops of the trees. Sort of like an Aurora Pool, Ru thought, it looked like a lake of light on the ground.
“What you know as the Quarterstone,” the Star said, “is known elsewhere as a gatestone. You are the only ones in the city who can use it. Stand on it.”
All but Randy hesitated. He shot the others an annoyed look. “Isn’t this the part where people disappear?” Colleen asked.
“Who cares?” Randy laughed. “The legends say the Star sounds like a monster. Obviously that isn’t true.”
“We have little time,” the Star urged.
“Come on,” Randy said. “Even if no one ever hears from us again, we’ll be the only people in town that know the truth.”
“If we’re not disintegrated,” Jayson said in a disturbingly calm voice.
Randy gestured towards the Star. “We already know the Star exists now. You can’t tell me you don’t want to know more.”
“It’s a dream,” Jayson said flatly.
Ru rounded on him. “If you’re so sure it’s a dream, why are you worried about being disintegrated?”
Jayson opened his mouth, but Colleen spoke first. “It’s not a dream. I know what a dream feels like from the inside. Whatever happens to us here is real. That’s why we should be careful.”
The Star shifted. Ru didn’t like it. It seemed to be scanning the trees, and though any nervousness she had was numbed by the pendant, her imagination was in full form. Anything could be in that dark forest beyond. She stepped up on the stone. Jayson eyed her placidly, then did the same. Colleen was the last, cringing as she placed her second foot on the stone. Stepping on the stone had not been forbidden by park authorities, but Ru recalled a legend or two mentioning it was bad luck, along with some dubious examples to go along. A man’s car was stolen from the parking lot after he’d walked over it. A child playing on it tripped and broke an arm. Ru’s mother said to stay off of it, and her first step felt like she was climbing up on the kitchen table.
The instant Colleen’s foot touched down, wind gushed in from all directions. The trees whipped into a fury, leaves fluttered and spun around them as the stone’s glow intensified. Ru cried out as fire burst up from the edges of the stone, a high, flowing circle of glistening flame that seemed to be all colors at once. Pressure built, the wind changed direction, coming from beneath them instead of swirling around them. Ru felt lighter than ever, almost as if her shoes were lifting off the stone. A white beam of light shot into the sky.
All the noise, light, and wind died away. Ru was facing the outside of the stone now, her back to her friends. She was suspended in the air a few inches above it somehow, everything frozen. Then the suspension broke, and they stumbled away from each other. The Star was gone.
The first thing Ru did was look up, and her breath caught when her eyes found the sky. Even blocked by a cover of long, broad leaves, the sky sparkled with an intensity she had never seen before, even in her dreams. The air was thicker and warm, and carried the scents of salt water and strange flowers.
“What happened?” Colleen gasped. “Ru?”
“Wait a minute.” Randy was looking to the sky too. “Where are we? The park?”
They all inched forward, squinting at the foliage beyond the stone. The ground was sandy and soft, dazzling in the intense starlight. There was a small clearing nearby, surrounded by short, leafy bushes and trees with slim, limber trunks. A path ran off into the woods, and beyond there were small yellow lights like frozen fireflies.
“These look like palm trees. Sort of.” Ru scrutinized the leaves above. “Quarterhill is too far north for those.”
“This is the only continent of the planet Iresca.”
A light flared up behind Jayson. As Ru’s eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, she made out a large hummingbird in the center of the light, perched on top of a bush. It had a long, flowing, curled tail and tiny black feet, and prismatic feathers that gave off a sharp glittering glow. It watched them out of one white eye.
Jayson turned slowly, trying not to scare it. “I think this bird just said something.”
“Parrots talk,” Ru pointed out. “I don’t see why other birds can’t.”
Jayson lifted the bill of his hat and leaned towards the bird. Its head twitched upward to meet his eyes. “Parrots don’t glow,” he concluded.
“Neither do glass necklaces,” Randy said.
“I’m a lytra.”
The voice clearly came from the bird. It sprung into the air, its wings becoming a blur. The higher it flew, the brighter its feathers glowed, until it dissolved into a light like the Star. Ru shielded her eyes.
“You may call me Fuse,” it said. It had an accent that mostly affected its vowels, but there was something familiar about the way it spoke. “I see I disturb you as I am. This may help.”
The bird flashed, and the light fell away in sparks. Glowing feathers littered the ground. In the bird’s place stood a tall, charcoal-skinned human. Ru had never seen a person like this before, slender but sturdy, rainbow eyes, squarish fingers. Colleen gave a small whimper, and Ru noticed she was wide-eyed and paler than ever. So much for not being disturbing.
“I first ask that you listen to my story,” Fuse said, “And what will be yours. No one will notice you have left your homes.”
“That’s supposed to make us feel better?” Jayson scoffed.
“As I said, you are no longer on Earth, but the planet Iresca. It orbits a star on the opposite side of the galaxy, which you call the Milky Way. We know it as Kelsilde.” She swept her hand in an arc over her head, tracing the stars. “Kelsilde is part of a system of twenty galaxies.”
“Isn’t that the Local Group?” Jayson said.
“The Accilean System,” Fuse corrected. “I represent this galaxy in a council that is dedicated to protecting the system and guiding its people to live their best lives. You have been called here because we need you.”
Somehow, she looked all four of them dead in the eye at the same time. “Your planet, which we call Skae, is outside the system. It is the one sleeping planet within the twenty galaxies. Because you are outside the system, you are the only ones who can help us. You have been chosen to be Skaeya-cyu – ‘flying fighters,’ as you would say. Warriors who protect the System from invaders. Through the System, you can harness power to aid you, power you never thought possible on your planet. It is not an easy task, but you will not be alone.”
The four responded with a silent stare.
“This is a pretty good prank,” Randy snickered. “How’d you do the special effects? I bet Joe could never come up with something like this.”
Prank, dream, the words did not fit right in Ru’s head. They were obviously in a completely different place, and she trusted Colleen’s judgement about dreams. “We’re just kids,” she said at last. “How can we defend galaxies?”
Jayson was already wandering off. “No thanks,” he said, “I don’t really want to dream about being a superhero.”
Fuse’s voice rose in a frightening way, and startled Jayson into looking at her again. Ru saw tears brimming at the edges of her eyes. “Please, don’t go. I know it is a lot to ask of Skaeyans your age, but we truly do need you.”
Colleen, surprisingly, was the first one to speak up. “It isn’t a dream. We should listen.”
Jayson crossed his arms. “OK, let’s say we’re not dreaming somehow. Ru brings up a good point. Why kids? Why not Secret Service agents or the Army or police? Why not you?“
Fuse quickly regained her composure. “Members of the Accilean Council are not allowed to fight. I cannot answer for the others. I do not choose the Skaeya.”
Jayson’s scowl deepened.
“You don’t seem to realize how serious this is,” Fuse said. “If you refuse to become our guardians, then you, everyone on your planet, everyone in this galaxy, will certainly die.”