The League of Extraordinary Grade-Schoolers

Chapter 1: Nancy’s Power

When eight-year-old Nancy Clancy stepped out the door to visit a neighbor on a Friday afternoon, she wasn’t expecting to be attacked by a giant robot.

Nancy had just come home from third grade, but after dropping off her schoolbooks on the dining room table, she headed out the door again to see Mrs. DeVine, who had invited her for tea. Mrs. DeVine was a severe-looking but kindly old matron who lived in the fanciest house in the neighborhood: she had a front gate of cast iron entwined with roses, and a yard full of flowers. Her house brimmed with the most interesting things—brocaded drapes that hung to the floor, cushions of silk, divans nestled in bay windows, cabinets loaded with eggshell china, paintings of dignified but mysterious gentlemen, and elegant porcelain dolls too delicate to touch.

Many children might be afraid of a house so full of breakables, or intimidated by Mrs. DeVine herself, who stood tall and straight, with a down-turned mouth and a head piled high with white hair. For as long as she could remember, however, Nancy had been taken with Mrs. DeVine and fascinated with her ornate and treasure-filled home. The other houses up and down the street were all white and boxy and nearly indistinguishable, and all had neatly trimmed but unadorned yards. Only Mrs. DeVine’s house stood out, beautiful and old-fashioned, and Nancy loved it. She loved everything fancy. She always had, and she was determined that she always would.

Nancy was still in the clothes she had worn to school, which today consisted of a white dress with four layered flounces of cotton decorated with embroidered strawberries. She had a pink boa around her neck and a string of plastic pearls. On her wrists, she wore six bangles. Her reddish hair, which grew in tight ringlets, she wore in a pile atop her head—in imitation of Mrs. DeVine. Today she had decorated it with four butterfly hairclips, three bow-shaped barrettes encrusted with fake rubies, a plastic tiara studded with fake diamonds, and a hairband with fuzzy antennae like a butterfly’s.

This outfit was plain by Nancy’s standards, but she had to, as her mother put it, “tone it down” when she went to school.

Today, Nancy led by the hand her little sister JoJo, who was still in preschool. Just a week ago, the two of them had spent a night at Mrs. DeVine’s house while their parents were out of town. Although JoJo didn’t share Nancy’s fascination with DeVine or her obsession with fanciness, she loved to tag along after her sister anyway.

Nancy and JoJo were holding hands and skipping along the sidewalk, trying to avoid the cracks, and Nancy was wondering what kind of tea Mrs. DeVine would serve today, when a metal monster dropped out of the sky. It landed fifty yards away in the middle of the street. One of its huge, squarish feet cracked the asphalt, and the other crushed a Buick, the car alarm of which sent up a futile wail. The robot’s head was a squat dome, silver in color, jutting up out of its blockish torso. It turned a gigantic, glowing red eye directly at Nancy and released a low, ominous hum.

Nancy was too shocked to speak or cry out, but she had the presence of mind to seize the lingering baby fat on one arm and give it a hard pinch, just to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. JoJo, however, released a frightened scream, turned, and ran.

Perhaps, like a vicious dog, the robot interpreted flight as a signal to attack. With shocking speed, it lurched forward and reached with a gigantic arm. A claw shot out on a long stalk, seized JoJo around the waist, and yanked her into the air.

Now Nancy found her voice. “JoJo!” she screamed.

The robot took a step forward, kicking aside the crushed Buick as if it were nothing but an empty tin can. The car slid across the street, rode up over the curb, and knocked over a fire hydrant, which spewed water high into the air. The water plummeted down like a hard rain, and Nancy was soon soaked.

She almost turned to run herself, but she couldn’t bear to leave her sister, who screamed and flailed in the monster’s grip. Nancy couldn’t do anything at all, so she simply yelled, “Let her go! Let her go, you … you … you beast!”

She prided herself on a vocabulary considerably larger than that of the average eight-year-old, but now words failed her.

Still holding JoJo in its clutches, the robot raised its free arm. A giant tube extended from its wrist, a tube with a great, gaping hole on its end, a hole that pointed directly at Nancy. Somewhere in the back of her brain, some still-functioning part of her terrified mind identified this as a weapon, and it told her, move!

She still didn’t run, but she did jump sideways, and she smacked her face hard into a white picket fence, a blow that stunned her and dropped her to the ground. It also saved her life: the heavy slug that blasted from the robot’s cannon passed over her head, close enough to take one of the wire antennae off her hairband. It hit the sidewalk just behind her, unleashing a burst of concrete chips that knocked her forward onto her face.

Her nose was bloody, and her head blazed with pain. Fear and horror rose out of her stomach and overwhelmed her, but she had just enough sense left to realize that, in another second, she would be dead.

Her life flashed before her eyes. It was very short, and an inordinate amount of it involved playing dress-up.

Someone yelled, “Nancy!” For a moment, she thought it was her mother, but it was actually Mrs. DeVine, who grabbed her hands and yanked her to her feet. Nancy was terrified, mostly because Mrs. DeVine was in a gray tracksuit with white running shoes, an outfit more drab than anything Nancy had ever before seen her wear.

“Nancy!” Mrs. DeVine said again.

Nancy blinked twice, tried hard to clear her head, and then screamed, “My sister!”

Mrs. DeVine picked Nancy up and ran—she ran faster than Nancy would have imagined she could. She had never seen Mrs. DeVine run before. She ran straight through the cast-iron gate entwined with roses and straight up the steps of her Queen Anne house. She kicked in the front door and bolted through the living room, sitting room, and dining room, right into the kitchen.

There was a girl there, a girl a few years older than Nancy, with bright red hair hanging to her shoulders. She wore a blue windbreaker and threadbare jeans, the cuffs of which she’d rolled up around her ankles and held in place with rubber bands. What struck Nancy most of all, however, were the girl’s eyes—cold and blue and keen. They bored into Nancy’s face. They were like a hawk’s eyes, eyes that missed nothing.

“Cam,” Mrs. DeVine said quickly, “get a picture, and then get out!”

The girl, her face sober and unreadable, merely nodded. She bounded to the front door, looked out at the menacing robot, and then bounded back. Nancy couldn’t see how the girl could take a picture when she didn’t have a camera, but she didn’t have time to think about it: Mrs. DeVine reached behind the refrigerator and pulled a lever on the wall. With a hum, the floor opened beneath their feet, and then they dropped into darkness, as if they were plummeting down a pitch-black waterslide.

The slide deposited them in a cart such as miners used in the movies. Cam dropped in with them. With a screech and a buzz, a motor started up, and the cart zipped down a track through a rough-cut tunnel of stone. A few buzzing yellow lights hung from the roof and lit the way.

Mrs. DeVine held a radio to her mouth. “Blow the tunnel,” she said.

Behind them sounded a deafening boom, and the cart lurched precariously on the track. A cloud of gray dusted followed them as they barreled onward into the darkness.

Nancy found her voice again. “My sister!” she screamed. “My sister!” She tried to crawl out of Mrs. DeVine’s grasp, tried to jump out the back of the cart.

Mrs. DeVine held her firm, but grunted when one of Nancy’s shoes connected with her thigh.

“Judy,” said Mrs. DeVine sharply, “deal with this!”

There was another girl in the cart with them, one Nancy hadn’t noticed. She was about Nancy’s age, but where Nancy was short and chubby with round cheeks and thick legs, this girl was tall and lanky. She too had bright red hair, but hers was wild and shaggy, as if she hadn’t seen a comb in weeks. Her face held a deep frown, and her hands held a bottle and a kerchief. She poured some clear, pungent liquid into the kerchief and then clamped it over Nancy’s mouth and nose.

“Nappy time,” Judy said.

Then everything went black.

 


 

Nancy awoke with a headache that hurt so much, it made her cry. But that wasn’t the only thing that made her cry: the memory of her poor little sister rushed in like a tidal wave and drowned her in grief.

She lay on something hard and cold, and tears ran down her face.

“You’re awake,” said a voice—a girl’s voice. Nancy turned her head to see the one Mrs. DeVine had called Judy. She had on what looked like black Capri pants decorated with purple tiger stripes, and above that she wore a grungy green T-shirt that proclaimed in faded letters, “I ATE A SHARK.” Over that, she had carelessly thrown a white lab coat, into the pockets of which she kept her hands. She slouched.

Nancy tried to speak, but her mouth was painfully dry.

“Here,” Judy said. She turned to a counter, picked up a glass of water and two pills, and turned back again. “Take two of these, and call me in the morning.”

Nancy slid her tongue around until she found enough spit to speak. “I … I can’t take things from strangers—”

Judy shrugged. “It’s your headache.”

The headache was like a succession of hammer blows. Nancy took the pills and gulped the water.

Judy poured her another glass from a nearby sink. After Nancy drank it, she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think.

“Where am I?” she finally asked.

“Don’t know,” Judy replied. “I don’t know much more than you do. One of their underground bases, I guess. They’ve got several.”

“Who are you?”

“Name’s Judy Moody. Yours?”

“Nancy Clancy.”

They were silent for a moment, but then they both burst into subdued giggles, though the laughing made Nancy’s headache worse.

With a groan, she sat up. She was on a metal table, so she dangled her legs over the side. “Are you supposed to be a doctor or something?”

“Or something,” Judy answered. “I’m gonna be a doctor, y’know, after I grow up—just like Elizabeth Blackwell. I’m gonna find medicines in the rainforest and cure ucky diseases. And what are you supposed to be?”

“Huh?” Nancy felt her head and realized that she still had her tiara, her hairclips, and most of her hairband. “I’m just Nancy,” she said, “but I like to be posh—that’s fancy for, well, for fancy.” She lowered her voice, glanced left and right, and added confidentially, “But sometimes I’m a super sleuth.”

Judy chuckled. “Like DeVine’s freakshow, Cam?”

“Cam?”

“Yeah, you met her, right? Solved thirty-three crimes, or something like that.”

Nancy blinked, and her mouth fell open. “I only solved one!”

Judy shrugged. “That’s good, though. I’ve done a bit of detecting, too.” She pulled a hand from a pocket and jerked a thumb at herself. “I saved a police dog once, and I foiled some jewel thieves, probably.”

“And you ate a shark.”

“Yeah.” Judy laughed.

Judy’s clothes were decidedly plain for Nancy’s taste, but now she now saw that Judy did have one piece of jewelry: on the index finger of her left hand, she wore a huge ring. It was plastic painted to look like a silver snake entwined around a gigantic, oval stone. The stone was a bluish green, the color of a placid sea.

Nancy swallowed a lump. She loved jewelry—costume or real, it didn’t matter. “May I see your ring?” she asked.

Judy looked pleased, and before Nancy’s bewildered eyes, the ring brightened to a light blue, like the sky at midday.

Nancy’s mouth fell open again.

“It’s a mood ring, natch,” said Judy with a cocky grin. “It tells me what mood I’m in. Here, try it out. Just stick it on and wait a few seconds.”

She slipped off the ring and handed it over. Nancy slid it on and watched. Slowly, the ring changed, first to black and then to a bright, pleasant yellow, the color of honey.

Judy nodded. “You’re nervous. No surprise, I guess.”

“It’s marvelous,” Nancy whispered. “I’ll have to get one myself when I … I … oh no …”

She buried her face in her hands and sobbed. For a moment, she had forgotten about JoJo, about the monster that might even now be attacking her home and terrorizing her mother and father. That forgetfulness struck her with a stab of guilt, like the twist of a knife.

Judy put a hand on her shoulder and gave her an awkward pat.

“My sister!” Nancy sobbed. “That thing! It took my—”

“I know,” Judy said quietly. “I know. They also took my brother.”

Nancy stopped crying. She looked up into Judy’s scowling eyes, but couldn’t quite read what she saw there.

“C’mon,” Judy said. “Let’s go meet the others.”

 


 

They stepped out into a broad room with gunmetal-gray walls. On one side stood a bank of computer screens and blinking lights, like something out of the science fiction shows Nancy’s dad sometimes watched on TV. A ring-shaped light glowed in a ceiling two stories overhead. It was depressingly drab, but in the center of the room, Mrs. DeVine, looking as calm and severe as ever, poured tea from a painted pot into six eggshell cups.

Cam, her freckled face stoically blank, sat in a chair near the computers. There were two other girls in the room as well: another redhead, about Nancy’s age, sat against a wall with her hands in her lap. Even skinnier than Judy, she wore a pretty yellow summer dress above bicycle shorts and worn-out sneakers. On her face was a cheerful but vapid grin. She was almost Cam’s opposite: where Cam’s glittering eyes were keen and hawkish, this girl’s eyes were dull and empty.

Next to her, wiggling on her chair and kicking her bare feet, was a little girl in a stained yellow T-shirt and shorts. She looked to be about JoJo’s age. Her messy chestnut hair hung straight to her shoulders, and over her bright blue eyes, she wore a large pair of glasses in purple frames.

Nancy’s best friend Bree also had purple glasses, though she only wore them when she was reading. When she first got them, Nancy was so jealous that she started reading in the dark in the hopes that she would eventually need glasses, too. But Bree’s glasses were elegant, cat-rimmed and half-framed, whereas this little girl’s glasses were huge and thick and perched awkwardly on her button nose.

The little girl was prattling as she swung her skinny legs. While she poured tea, Mrs. DeVine occasionally nodded and went, “mm-hmm,” a sound adults made when they weren’t quite listening but were pretending to.

“My first boyfriend was Ricardo,” the girl was saying, “because he smiled at me in class. Only too bad for me, cuz I catched him chasing other girls, so I pushed him down and sitted on his legs, but he didn’t chase me no more, so after that we were just regular. I hated that meanie Jim, though, cuz he was a big meanie-mean pants, but he gived me a super-mushy valentime one time, so I winked at him real pretty. He said he was only mean because he didn’t want nobody to know he liked girls. Then we were friends. I liked Warren lots and lots because he was so handsome, just like a movie star, but he was a crybaby, and he was Lucille’s boyfriend anyway.”

She paused for a few seconds and then added, “The end.”

“Mm-hmm,” said Mrs. DeVine as she poured tea. “Sounds like you had quite the love-life in kindergarten.”

The girl with the vapid grin looked up and blinked a few times. “I love life,” she said. “Who doesn’t?”

Nancy adored stories of amour—that was a fancy, French way of saying love—and ordinarily would have enjoyed hearing a first-grader babble about her boyfriends. But right now she wasn’t in the mood, and she still had Judy’s mood ring to prove it: the ring had turned a deep, dark black, and Nancy could easily guess that meant she was miserable.

Mrs. DeVine looked up and smiled. “Ah, Nancy, you’re awake. You’re just in time for tea, dear.” She lowered her eyes and added under her breath, “Five redheads. Oh my land—”

Judy grinned and elbowed Nancy. “One of the perks, I guess. My parents would never let me drink tea.”

Nancy trembled. For a moment, she tried to imagine a life without tea. She couldn’t do it.

She swayed on her feet. She said, “Mrs. DeVine …?”

Her voice trailed off. She didn’t know what she wanted to say, but she couldn’t have said it anyway, because a thick lump formed in her throat.

“You’re looking a bit peaky, dear,” Mrs. DeVine said, “but that’s nothing a little chamomile won’t fix.” She set down the teapot, placed a cozy over it, and swept a hand around the room. “Welcome to headquarters. Everyone, this is Nancy Clancy. I’ve been observing her, and I believe she can bear the primary solution. Nancy, let me introduce you. You’ve already met Judy Moody and Jennifer Jansen—”

“You can call me Cam,” said Cam, her voice as emotionless as her face.

“Your name is Jennifer?” Nancy asked. “I thought Cam was short for Cammie.”

“It’s short for Camera,” Cam replied, but she left that cryptic remark unexplained.

Mrs. DeVine gestured to the wiggly little girl with the purple glasses. “This is Junie Jones—”

“B,” the girl said, sticking out her lip and crossing her arms. “You forgot my B.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I meant Junie B. Jones—”

“What’s the B stand for?” Nancy asked.

Junie B. scowled and looked away. “Beatrice,” she muttered.

“Ooh, how fancy! I don’t have a middle name, but I sometimes write it as ‘Nancy M. Clancy,’ just because it looks so elegant. Do you like your B because it’s elegant?”

“No,” Junie B. replied. “I just like B and that’s all.”

Finally, Mrs. DeVine swept a hand toward the girl with the vapid grin. “And this is Amelia. Amelia Bedelia.”

Amelia waved.

With a hiss, a tiny door opened in the far wall, and a little dog walked in. It was Jewel, the dog Nancy had often seen peeking out of Mrs. DeVine’s purse.

“Looks like the entire group is assembled,” Jewel said in a growly voice.

Nancy’s mouth fell open for the third time that day. “You can talk!” she shouted.

A quick glance told her none of the other girls were surprised. So they had met Jewel already.

“Come and sit down, Nancy, dear,” Mrs. DeVine said. “We have a lot to explain, and your tea is getting cold.”

Nancy’s legs felt like rubber. They wobbled as she walked forward, so Judy propped her up and helped her. Nancy gave her a quick, grateful smile.

A lopsided grin formed on Cam’s mouth, and her sharp eyes glittered. “Looks like even grouchy Judy can be nice when she has someone she can treat like a patient, hm?”

“Shut up,” Judy snapped. “I’m practicing, cuz I’m gonna be a doctor. What are you gonna be, a human hard drive?”

Cam shrugged her shoulders and chuckled quietly.

With a few swift, nimble jumps, Jewel made it onto a chair and then to the top of the table. She lapped from a teacup briefly before she said, “Cam, you best plug in. We need to get started.”

Judy gently pushed Nancy down into a seat and then sat beside her. Nancy stared at the yellowish brown tea in her cup, which displayed her reflection. She saw puffy red eyes and a childish pout. Her hair, normally kept in a neat mound of ringlets, stuck out in several directions. She looked a frightful mess and was suddenly self-conscious.

Cam reached toward the computer bank, picked up what looked like a heavy set of headphones, and set it on her head.

Mrs. DeVine sat down on Nancy’s other side and said, “That device can read signals from the hippocampus. Do you know what that is, Nancy?”

Nancy shook her head. Normally, she loved learning new words, but now she wasn’t in the mood. “Is it like a hippopotamus?”

Mrs. DeVine smiled. “No, but good guess. It’s part of the brain, and it has to do with memory. Cam here has a very unusual hippocampus.”

Cam closed her eyes, and her formerly unreadable face suddenly looked serene, as if she were in a deep trance. “Click,” she whispered.

Click? She really was like some kind of machine.

On one of the screens, an image formed: it was the street in front of Nancy’s house, viewed from Mrs. DeVine’s front yard. The image was blurry, and it was weirdly distorted, as if taken with a fisheye lens. Nonetheless, Nancy could see the cast iron gate and the flower beds, and towering over the street was that terrible robot with little JoJo in its clutches.

Nancy tried to reach for her teacup, but her trembling fingers knocked it over instead, and a brown stain swiftly spread across the tablecloth.

Mrs. DeVine ignored the spill. “The technology isn’t perfect,” she said.

“Yeah,” Cam added, her eyes still closed. “It’s a lot clearer in my head than it ever is on the screen. See that sign in the yard across the street?”

“It’s just a blue blur,” Jewel answered.

“I can read it,” said Cam. “‘Vote Headly for Mayor.’”

“Is this what you meant,” Nancy asked, “when you wanted her to take a picture?”

“Cam has a photographic memory,” said Mrs. DeVine, “which means she can remember exactly what she sees, in all its detail. What we’re seeing now is what she saw from my doorway.”

“Click,” Cam said, and the picture changed. Now it showed a street Nancy didn’t recognize, and there were buildings in strange shapes with little round windows under charming gables. In the distance, she could make out the Eiffel Tower, so that told her this was Paris. She felt a brief pang of longing—she had always wanted to visit the City of Lights—but then she felt a pang of fear, as there was another huge, terrible robot standing in the street: it was punching its fist through a roof, sending shingles high into the air.

“This is from last week,” said Mrs. DeVine. “They’ve been attacking all over the world, and it’s been rapidly draining our resources to keep it covered up.”

“Perhaps we should go ahead and let the public know,” Jewel said after she again lapped at her cup. “We can’t keep this a secret forever, especially if Pink keeps attacking prominent places in broad daylight like this. We can’t afford to have agents spending all their time implanting false memories and bribing the press.”

“We can’t go public until the girls are implanted and trained,” Mrs. DeVine replied. “It’s too risky.”

“Click,” said Cam, and the view changed to one of a smashed, burned-out house. A fire crackled in one corner of the picture. The yard was a trampled mess of mud. In the background was another monstrous robot, but it was walking away, and it had a little boy clenched in its metal fist.

“Three days ago,” said Mrs. DeVine, “in Virginia.”

Judy hung her head.

“This is horrid,” cried Nancy, “which means bad—especially bad! Can’t we do something to stop them?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Mrs. DeVine replied. She rose from the table, walked to a wall, and punched a button hidden there. After a loud beep and a long hiss, a panel opened, revealing five hypodermic needles. They glistened in the cold light.

The lump reappeared in Nancy’s throat. She hated getting shots.

Judy perked up. She slipped a hand into Nancy’s, and Nancy at first thought it was for comfort, but then realized that Judy was sliding the mood ring off her finger. Judy stuck the ring on her own hand, and the color changed to a bright purple.

Nancy leaned on the table and was too distraught to care either that she had her elbows in the spilt tea, or that putting elbows on a table was bad manners.

So all Judy cared about was doctor stuff. She didn’t care about Nancy’s little sister. Maybe she didn’t even care about her own brother. All she cared about was giving out pills and playing with needles. Suddenly, Nancy felt an intense dislike for Judy Moody.

It was an uncomfortable, alien feeling. Normally, Nancy liked almost everybody. But she detested Judy—yes, detested was the word—and even though she felt a faint, uneasy guilt, she had no desire to make the detestation go away.

Judy looked eager and Cam looked emotionless, but Amelia and Junie B. both scooted away from the needles with fear on their faces.

“What are those?” Amelia asked. Her voice quavered.

“They contain nanoprobes,” Mrs. DeVine replied. “Do any of you know that word?”

They all shook their heads, all except Cam.

“It’s a fancy word for very small robots,” said Mrs. DeVine.

“Robots?” Nancy jumped out of her seat and slammed her hands onto the table, making the eggshell china bounce.

“These are good robots,” Mrs. DeVine said soothingly.

“They’d have to be really small robots to fit in there,” Amelia said, rubbing her chin.

“Are we sure we have the right children?” Jewel asked. “I agree Nancy and Cam are matches, but we need to be sure before we expend anything on the others. We only have five solutions, after all.”

“The other agents—”

“Are not infallible,” Jewel snapped.

“I agree,” said a strange, high voice. The tiny door opened again, and in stepped a frazzled black and gray cat with unkempt fur.

Judy jumped out of her chair. “Mouse!” she cried.

The cat dipped its head. “Hello, Judy.”

“You talk, too?” Judy shouted.

“Of course.” Mouse sat back on his haunches and licked a paw. “Want me to make you some toast to go with that tea?”

Judy slammed her fists into the table and turned her back on everyone. She had her arms crossed, but Nancy could see her left hand, and her ring had turned black.

Mouse chuckled. “Judy’s in one of her famous moods.”

“Agent Parallax,” said Jewel, “or Mouse, as you’re now called, why are you here? What do you have to report?”

“Judy’s ready for implantation,” Mouse said, pausing momentarily in his licking, “but I recommend we reject Amelia. She’s damaged.”

Amelia leapt to her feet and patted herself all over. “Where?” she asked. “Where am I damaged? How bad is it? Do I need a repairman? Is it as bad as my old bike?”

Mouse’s eyes twinkled. He looked decidedly smug, and Nancy felt another twinge of intense dislike.

“I have scars,” Amelia added, heedless of the stares she was getting. “I got this little one on my chin, see? That’s from when I wrecked my bike. And I got this one on my arm.” She pulled up a sleeve. “That’s from another time I wrecked my bike. And there’s this one on my leg.” She pointed down at a swirl-shaped scar between her sock and her bicycle shorts. “That’s from the other time I wrecked my bike—”

“That’s nothing. Check this out,” Judy announced, shrugging off her lab coat and rolling up one shirtsleeve. “This is from when I fell while chasing the ice cream truck. I kinda like it cuz it’s shaped like a pizza.”

Junie B. snorted. Amelia giggled. Nancy shuddered in disgust; she didn’t have many scars, and she didn’t want them. If she did have them, she certainly wouldn’t show them off.

Another animal walked in. This one was a large, shaggy dog of uncertain breed.

“Finally!” cried Amelia. She dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck.

“I vouch for Amelia,” Finally said. “She’s ready for implantation.”

“Hmm,” said Mouse, tilting his head and giving Finally a sidelong glance, “not letting your emotions get in the way of your judgment, are you, Agent Apsides?

“And what about you, Agent Parallax?” Finally replied. “Is your affection for your emotionally volatile charge clouding your judgment?”

“Not as much as your affection for your autistic charge is clouding yours.”

Mrs. DeVine cleared her throat and clinked her teacup loudly against her saucer. “Stop it, both of you. I accept Amelia’s candidacy, and that puts an end to it.”

“We only have one chance at this,” Jewel muttered. “The nanoprobes will not be able to make her condition go away.”

“I said drop it. Motherboard indicates that she’s a match. We’ll trust its judgment when we can’t trust our own.” Mrs. DeVine walked to the wall and pulled out the tray of needles. “Judy, I assume you’ll want to do the honors.”

Judy stared at the needles, but she no longer looked excited. Her eyebrows came together in a scowl. “Where—?”

“It’s intramuscular,” Mrs. DeVine replied. “In the hip, like an EpiPen. Nancy’s is the red one; we’ll start with her.”

Nancy’s chair clattered as it fell. At the same time, Junie B. shrieked, and her feet slapped against the cold metal floor as she sprinted to the big, closed door and pounded on it.

“It will all be over in a moment,” Mrs. DeVine said over the sound of Junie B.’s wailing.

“Do me first,” Cam suggested from her seat, “so the younger kids can see—”

“I’m afraid not,” Mrs. DeVine replied. “Yours is going to be particularly … intense.”

Face still impassive, Cam nodded.

Judy swallowed and, hand trembling, picked up the needle marked with a red band. She cleared her throat before she turned to Nancy and said, “You’re … you’re just gonna feel a little pinch.”

Nancy ran to Junie B. and threw her arms around her.  Junie B. trembled. She was almost as small as JoJo. Nancy’s mind went back to last Saturday night when she and her sister had stayed at Mrs. DeVine’s house; Nancy had wrapped her arms around JoJo to comfort her and help her sleep. It seemed so long ago, another life in another world, when Mrs. DeVine was just a kindly widow doting on the neighborhood children.

Nancy could never go back to that now. She clutched Junie B. to her chest and released one loud, painful, wracking sob.

“Judy,” she pleaded, “don’t do this! Please! Why are you helping them?”

Judy loomed over her, needle raised. Her face was in shadow, but the needle’s tip caught the cold light and glittered like a star. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled as the ring on her finger turned a deep, dark blue like the sky in the east at sunset, “but I want my brother back.”

She jammed the needle into Nancy’s leg, and Nancy screamed.

It was more of a punch than a pinch, and the pain quickly spread, leaping in waves. She was on fire. Her skin turned red and hot, her face swelled, and she choked on her own tongue. She hit the cold floor and writhed, dragging her curled fingers across her clothes. Junie B. was screaming.

Nancy heard fabric rip, and then she heard incoherent shouts. Judy was on top of her, tearing open her dress and trying to give her CPR, but Mrs. DeVine grabbed her collar and yanked her off. Desperate, mad, unable to breathe, Nancy reached up and tried to claw out Judy’s eyes.

Then her vision swam with gray spots, and all she could hear was a loud, long whine like the sound of a malfunctioning machine.

Gray, she thought, how I hate gray.

With everything else, that thought faded. Swiftly and silently, the gray spots grew together and turned black.

 


 

Nancy once again awoke on a cold table, but this time, her head didn’t hurt. Surprisingly, nothing hurt, and her body was relaxed. She was calm—perhaps because she was emotionally spent.

She raised her head, half expecting to see Judy looming over her again. Instead, she saw Judy lying on a table nearby, eyes closed. Her arms were by her sides, and the mood ring was still on her left index finger, but it looked different: the silver setting no longer looked like plastic, but instead glinted like real metal. The peacefully sea-green stone glowed with a faint light.

Nancy blinked a few times, sat up, and touched her face. The puffiness around her eyes was gone. She swallowed. Her throat wasn’t dry. She felt as if she had just awoken from a full night of deep sleep. Her dress, however, was ruined, and now hung open in tatters.

She gingerly touched her right hip, where Judy had stabbed her with the needle. She felt a small, tender bruise. That was the only thing that hurt.

Nancy climbed down. At the same time, across the room, Junie B. sat up on another table and rubbed her eyes. She lowered her hands to the table’s lip and then hopped to the floor.

Junie B. left behind a curious pair of handprints, and Nancy felt her heart quicken. Quietly, she stepped to Junie B.’s side to get a closer look, and she saw that Junie B’s hands had left a deep impression in the steel, as if it were merely wet clay.

Nancy ran a finger over the indentations. The metal was hard, unyielding.

Junie B. frowned. She pushed her glasses up her nose and then opened and closed one hand, staring at it.

Groaning and muttering, Judy sat up. Her hair hung into her eyes and stuck out at the back of her head like a crazy set of spikes. Amelia, blinking and rubbing her temples, sat up, too. That left only Cam still out.

Cam groaned quietly in her sleep.

A door hissed open, and Jewel and Mrs. DeVine walked in. Mrs. DeVine carried a computer tablet. “Oh, good,” she said, “most of you are up. I’ve got your readouts, and it looks like we’re five for five. The nanoprobes are replicating nicely, and we have full integration. How do you feel?”

Judy crossed her arms, and her ring went dark. Nancy simply turned her back.

She heard Mrs. DeVine laugh quietly. “Well, I didn’t expect you to be happy with me.”

Cam groaned again, rolled over, and fell heavily to the floor. Judy quickly went to her side and knelt over her.

Cam opened her eyes and, with Judy’s help, shakily rose to her feet. “My head,” she whispered, putting a hand to her forehead.

Mrs. DeVine ran a finger across her tablet. “How’s your memory?” she asked.

After another groan, Cam muttered, “Click.” Then she closed her eyes and again said, “Click.”

She was silent for a few seconds.

“Mrs. DeVine,” she said, “the sole of your left shoe is coming off. Nancy is wearing two butterfly hairclips, and the right antenna on her fuzzy hairband is missing. Judy’s ring is black. Junie B.’s glasses are skewing slightly left. I can see the word ‘iteration’ on your tablet, but can’t see anything else because of the angle—”

“Looks like your photographic memory is still working,” said Jewel. “I’m glad. There was a ten-percent chance that you’d wake up psychotic, but since that didn’t happen, you should see about a thirty-percent increase in your I.Q.”

Cam rubbed her temples and winced. “When does the headache go away?”

“That we don’t know,” Mrs. DeVine replied, “but you’d better not take anything for it until the process is complete.”

Cam leaned heavily against her table, eyes still closed.

Junie B. clutched Nancy’s hand, and Nancy gasped at Junie B.’s unexpectedly powerful grip.

“What happened?” Junie B. whispered.

“I don’t know,” Nancy whispered back. “They put something in us.”

“Tiny robots,” Amelia said, holding out her hands and staring at them with her mouth open in wonder. “Are we full of tiny robots?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. DeVine.

“Why?” demanded Nancy.

“You’re about to find out. Come.” She headed back toward the door.

“No!” Nancy shouted. She stamped a foot. “Tell us! Now!”

Mrs. DeVine turned and gave her a severe glare. For a moment, Nancy quailed. Mrs. DeVine had never looked at her like that before.

“Very well, Nancy, I will tell you. We did it so you can save the world.”

 


 

Again, they were in the room with the computer banks. Again, they were drinking tea. Nancy actually drank hers this time: it was Earl Grey with extra lavender, one of her favorites. Junie B. sat close to her and slurped from her teacup.

Nancy clutched her ruined dress around herself. She now had enough presence of mind to watch her manners: she sat up straight, and she stuck her pinkie out as she sipped, just as she’d been taught.

Finally and Mouse were at the computer, sitting on tall stools and tapping buttons. Under happier circumstances, Nancy would have laughed at that image, but now she wasn’t in a laughing mood.

Mrs. DeVine, with her own saucer and cup of tea cradled in her hands, sat in an egg-shaped chair that somehow floated mysteriously a few feet above the floor. She drifted back and forth as if carried on a breeze only she could feel.

“There are two extraterrestrial species that have colonized your planet,” she said. “Having adopted your language, we have chosen to call our race the Keplerians.” She paused to sip her tea, and her teacup clinked as she lowered it back to her saucer. “We are symbiotic, in a way. We use dead humans and sometimes animals as hosts.”

Nancy swallowed. Her fingers trembled, and she almost spilled her tea again.

Mrs. DeVine gave her a small, sad smile. “I’m sorry, Nancy, but the real Mrs. DeVine died before you were born, in the same accident that took her husband. I repaired her body and assumed her identity.”

Judy squirmed in her seat and glanced at Mouse. “My cat—”

“You knew your cat when it was just a cat,” Mouse said, not looking up from the computer. “I took its body after the car hit it.”

“What?” Judy cried. “What car?”

“The one you never knew about,” Mouse replied.

Junie B. stuck out her tongue and tipped up her cup to get the last drop. Nancy reached over and dabbed a napkin on Junie B.’s mouth and chin. “What’s the other species?” Nancy asked.

“Parasites,” Mrs. DeVine replied, her mouth turning into a thin, grim line. “They could take non-living organisms as hosts, just as we do, but they prefer living ones. We have been in a shadow war with them for many years, and until recently were able to keep them contained to a few isolated locales. For the most part, they were limited to remote mountainous regions where they were certainly dangerous, but couldn’t threaten humanity as a whole. But, unfortunately, a new colony ship unexpectedly crash-landed in a densely populated area—and now the parasites have infected a much more resourceful host.”

“They seek out single-minded individuals,” Jewel explained from the middle of the table, where she lapped at a teacup of her own. “Fanatics, obsessives, monomaniacs. Such individuals typically have lower resistance.”

“I was watching over you, Nancy,” Mrs. DeVine added, “because with your single-minded devotion to all things fancy, you appeared to be a prime candidate.”

Nancy felt her heart pound against her ribs.

“In fact,” said Mouse as he flipped a series of switches on his console, “the epicenter of the infestation is someone with a psychologically similar profile.”

Junie B. rocked back and forth in her chair. “Yeah, only guess what?” she said loudly. “I don’t know what all those big words mean, actually, so—”

“I’ll explain later,” Nancy muttered, though she didn’t know all those big words herself.

On one of the screens appeared an image of a little girl with brown pigtails. She wore a blazingly pink sundress and a sunbonnet of the same color. With a beatific smile on her face, she skipped through a field of pansies. In her right hand was a wand tipped with a bright yellow star.

“There she is,” said Finally, “our enemy, and the enemy of all mankind. Formerly, her name was Pinkalicious. Unfortunately, the parasites took over her mind, and she now goes by the name of Pink Vicious.”

“The parasites maintain the fanaticism of their hosts,” said Mrs. DeVine. “Because Pinkalicious loved all things pink, Pink Vicious is determined to turn the entire world pink.”

Finally hit a button, and a new image popped up. This was a city street, another place Nancy didn’t recognize. Rows and rows of houses, all of them pink, filled the screen. The street was pink, the grass was pink, the street signs and lampposts were pink. Even the sky overhead was a faint shade of pink.

“It … it is rather pretty,” Nancy whispered. She sipped her tea and considered. “But just one color is too plain.”

“This is in Slovakia,” said Mouse. “We managed to contain it. We evacuated the area on the premise of a chemical spill. But we won’t be able to maintain this kind of secrecy for long.”

“Pink Vicious is the master of the robots that attacked you,” Mrs. DeVine said as her floating chair slowly settled to the floor.

“Why?” asked Nancy. “What could we do—?”

“Unfortunately,” said Jewel after a few more laps at her tea, “Pink Vicious has got word of our project. We have developed a synthetic symbiont that can combine with living humans without destroying or taking over their minds. However, it is very particular about the individuals it can successfully inhabit. We’ve been seeking viable hosts, and Pink Vicious has been trying to track us down. We have five prototypes so far—or, I should say, we did have them. They’re in your bodies now.”

Nancy’s heart beat faster, and her palms turned clammy. She quickly set her cup and saucer down so she wouldn’t drop them.

“We Keplerians are rather frail,” said Mrs. DeVine. “Even after we’ve repaired the hosts we use, they are still quite limited in function. These new, synthetic symbionts, however, if combined with individuals who are young and healthy—”

“But we’re just kids!” Nancy cried.

“I’m afraid the prototypes are only compatible with children,” Mrs. DeVine replied with a sigh. “Perhaps, in the future—”

“None of us agreed to this!” Nancy shouted as she rose from her chair. Her knees wobbled.

“I did,” said Cam quietly. She sat against a wall with her head tipped back and an icepack over her eyes. “They explained everything to me already, and they told me the risks. But for the rest of you, there wasn’t time—”

Nancy clenched her fists. “Time! There’s been plenty of time! Mrs. DeVine, you could have told me everything—!”

Mrs. DeVine, with a small, sad smile, shook her head. “No, Nancy, I’m afraid I couldn’t.”

“What if I don’t want this? What if I say no?”

“We can’t afford to let you. The world can’t afford it.”

“But—!”

“You don’t have a choice,” Jewel said quietly. “You’re carrying the symbiotic nanoprobes, the only ones of their kind. They will give you power, and you must use it. It is your duty to stop Pink Vicious, or not only your sister and your parents, but all the world, will die.”

Nancy sank back into her seat.

The teacup broke in Junie B.’s hand, leaving her holding only a handle and blinking in confusion as the rest of her cup dropped and shattered, sending tiny shards skidding across the table. Some of them landed in Nancy’s lap.

Junie B. turned the broken handle over in her hand, staring at it.

“You’ll have to learn your own strength, Junie B.,” said Jewel.

A Klaxon blared, and a red light flashed from the ceiling. Everyone jumped up. Cam, with a grimace, let the icepack slide from her face.

The words “INTRUDER ALERT” flashed across the computer screens.

“Lockdown!” shouted Mrs. DeVine. Heavy clangs and thuds reverberated through the floor.

“How did they find us so quickly?” yelled Jewel.

“They must have traced the tunnels,” Mrs. DeVine replied. “We need to get the children to the surface. Come!”

She rushed to a wall, touched it in some rapid, secret combination, and a hidden door whispered open, revealing a dark tunnel beyond. “Move!” Mrs. DeVine shouted, but in the next moment, she was on the floor, grasping her neck as blood spurted out. Nancy clapped her hands to her mouth.

Judy skidded across the floor in a baseball slide. She grabbed Mrs. DeVine’s arms and, grunting, hauled her back from the doorway. Then she stuck her fingers in the hole in her neck and pinched her jugular closed.

Nancy thought she was going to gag, but she didn’t have long to think, because the table exploded. Fragments of wood, fine china, and silverware ricocheted around the room. Instantly, Nancy was on her back, stunned. She could hear Junie B. howling.

Monsters burst out of the tunnel. They had thick, shiny black bodies, four arms, and huge, jagged horns jutting from their heads. They were like enormous stag beetles that had taken on a vaguely human shape. In their hands were blunt rifles that glistened like chrome.

“Surrender or die,” one of them snarled. It squeezed its trigger, and the rifle barked. Nancy’s ears rang. The computers against the far wall shattered in a shower of sparks, and Finally and Mouse both fell writhing to the floor.

Nancy crawled. Rubble bit into her hands, into her stomach. She didn’t know where she was going, and she was sure she’d be dead in a second.

“ROAR!” someone shouted, and Nancy dared to raise her head.

The roar came from Judy Moody. She was on her feet, fists clenched, with her tattered lab coat fluttering around her knees. She pointed her left fist at the open doorway, and a great ball of blackness burst from her ring. It crackled as it whizzed across the room, struck one of the big beetles, and burst.

Green guts, smelling like raw sewage, splattered Nancy’s clothes. Junie B.’s wailing got louder.

Nancy lowered her face to the floor and felt tears streaming down her nose. “Wake up!” she screamed, pounding a fist against the unyielding floor and cutting her hand on broken china. “I just want to wake up!”

Then Mouse was at her side, and his whiskers tickled Nancy’s ear. “If you want to survive,” Mouse said, “use your power.”

“How?” Nancy sobbed.

“You already know how. It’s in you now. It’s in your body, but also in your soul: it’s the power you’ve always had, but now it’s amplified!”

Nancy blubbered, and more tears gushed from her eyes. “I don’t have any power! All I’m good at is dressing up! All I can do is wear fancy clothes and paint my nails and—”

“That’s it!” Mouse shouted. “That is your power!”

Something welled up in Nancy’s thudding heart, some great energy yearning to be unleashed. Trembling, she raised a hand. She could feel something, some strange words, forming in her mind.

She cried out, “Habille-moi dans des vêtements de fantaisie!”

Pure white light surrounded her. She lifted into the air. She tipped her head back and gasped as a feeling of serenity flooded her. She was hardly aware as she languidly spun around and around. Out of nowhere, new clothes materialized on her body: a pink skirt full of chiffon petticoats, lace-topped knee-high stockings, a laced-up bodice, and a white silk ascot. She could feel some kind of hat sprouting out of her head.

Her feet touched the floor—or rather, her toes touched. She looked down and gasped when she saw that she was in ballet slippers—no, not ordinary ballet slippers, but pointe shoes. Nancy took ballet lessons, but she had never danced en pointe. It took years of careful training, yet here she was, balanced on the tips of her toes with no pain or trouble at all.

“Use your wand!” cried Mouse.

Judy, still yelling the word “roar,” was blasting more spheres of dark energy from her mood ring.

“Hurry!” Mouse shouted. “If Judy stays like this, the darkness will devour her!”

Nancy looked down at her hands. She held an elaborate wand of ivory studded with diamonds and topped with an enormous, heart-shape ruby that shimmered like water and glowed like fire. Her heart swelled again. She swung around in a pirouette and sang, “Sugar is sweet, but justice is sweeter! In the name of goodness and beauty, I am Magical Girl Fancy Nancy!”

She gasped, and her face grew hot. She clapped a hand over her mouth. “What did I just say?”

The huge beetles turned her way. With a snarl, one of them raised its rifle.

Nancy pointed her wand and yelled, “La lumière de la beauté!”

Light burst from her wand and filled the room. Nancy felt something drain from her, and her knees buckled. The light lasted only a second, and then it disappeared.

She collapsed.

“Nancy!” It was Judy who caught her and cradled her in her arms. Nancy blinked sleepily as warmth filled her.

“What happened?” Nancy whispered.

“I don’t know,” Judy whispered back, “but those monsters are gone. You did something, and they just evaporated!”

Nancy smiled, but she couldn’t keep her eyelids open. As she slumped in Judy’s grasp, she heard Jewel’s calm voice say, “DeVine’s braincase is intact, so I’ll ship her out for repairs. She’ll live. Agent Parallax, Agent Apsides, transport the children to Base Delta and begin preparation for deployment.”

Before she fell asleep, Nancy realized with a sting of dread that the nightmare wasn’t over.

It had only just begun.