Jeremy Sanchez’s hands shook as he handled the envelope. He had almost fully expected a rejection, but the contents of the letter were too fat for that. Or were they? Still, he hesitated before he ripped into it.
“What is it?” Lamorak’s voice, which spoke clearly from the back of his mind, was mechanical and alien, yet it was the most comforting thing in Jeremy’s life.
Jeremy scanned over the letter and the paperwork that were inside the now destroyed envelope. “The Rooks. I think they’re saying they’ll give me a provisional membership.”
“Just provisional?” Lamorak asked. He would be scoffing if he was capable of such an emotion. “We almost single-handedly exposed the Sahara Corporation and stopped them from opening up the Veil of Tears.”
“I think they do it to everybody,” Jeremy said as he re-entered the house, not realizing his stepbrother Fernando was within earshot in the living room.
“What’s that?” Fernando – or as he demanded everyone call him, “Nando” – asked disinterestedly.
“Uh, just…I joined a Professor Lore fan club,” Jeremy said, hoping Fernando wouldn’t look up from his phone and come over to grab and skim through the contents of the letter, as he might have done.
Fernando snorted. “Figures you’d be into that kiddy crap.”
Jeremy should have countered by pointing out that Fernando was a year away from going to college, but he still read fantasy and sci-fi novels for middle schoolers. He knew, though, that this was the worst possible time to let matters escalate. “Where’s Luis?”
Jeremy froze up when Fernando stood up. Instinctively Jeremy tried in vain to hide his letter and its contents behind the back. Instead of grabbing for it, though, Fernando “playfully” slapped him against the head. “You’re losing it, bug. Dad teaches two classes tonight.”
“Oh, right,” Jeremy said, choking down his anger and ignoring how the voice in his head literally growled. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“And what else is new?” Fernando said, heading into the kitchen. “Oh, don’t forget to take the trash out today.”
“What? It’s your turn!”
“It’s called delegating, bug,” Fernando called from the kitchen, the tone of his voice a sneer. Jeremy stormed up to his room.
“I cannot wait until the day I can turn into Galaxy Knight right in front of his fat face and then throw him through a window or something,” Jeremy thought. Lamorak answered calmly, “Pride is the warrior’s worst enemy.”
“I know, I know,” Jeremy answered in his head. “The Rooks have a no-hiding-your-identity-from-family policy, anyway…”
“And, at any rate, soon he will be undergoing the four-year rites of adulthood the bourgeois and elite ranks of your culture thinly disguise as advanced education,” Lamorak observed.
“And I can’t wait,” Jeremy said aloud. “Anyway, since Mom’s going to be at work and Dad’s at the college, I guess we can go out on a mission today.“
Lamorak was silent for a few minutes while Jeremy scanned his phone for news, and then suddenly spoke up. “You just received a communication from Dr. Bilatz.”
“You mean an e-mail?”
“As you say,” Lamorak said. “It sounds like Dr. Bilatz needs our help again.”
Jeremy sighed. “I hope he hasn’t ripped the fabric of space and time again,” he said. He had to read over the e-mail three times. The word that stood out each time was “the Exile.”
“How should we respond?” Lamorak asked, with a hint of timidity in his voice.
Jeremy fished out his special watch from the drawer on the nightstand. Lamorak made him promise he would never keep it on him, especially not when he went to school, but it still felt weird keeping the watch that could teleport him anywhere in the world and to sundry dimensions in a cheap piece of furniture. “We go and show the Rooks we can bag one of their regulars.”
In one minute, Jeremy was still standing in his bedroom. Then one minute later, he was standing at the end of a long, gravelly driveway that winded up a mountain and ended at a large metallic gate, flanked by two stone satyrs. Behind it was a massive gothic castle.
As they walked up to the castle, Jeremy wondered, “Why on earth did Dr. Bilatz set up his main laboratory in a scary castle in the middle of Nowhere, Colorado?”
“If I recall correctly, he said something about ambiance. Also the castle was reportedly haunted and he wanted to investigate the physics of post-biological survival as a side project. May I suggest we suit up?”
“Right,” Jeremy said, silently cursing himself because this was not the first time he forgot to fully activate Lamorak just when he was about to step into danger. With a thought, the ring Jeremy wore glowed and suddenly he was surrounded by an aura of purple energy that took the shape of Lamorak’s own form, a knight in armor that looked like he had walked out of an average person’s imaginings of Europe’s High Middle Ages.
“PASSWORD PLEASE.” An electronic voice chirped out of seemingly nowhere as they stepped near the gate. Jeremy was surprised that the gate had not been left open for them, but he supposed it was possible that Dr. Bilatz had been in some way incapacitated. According to the e-mail, he had just been robbed by a telepath, after all.
Lamorak read the password to Jeremy, who recited the numbers back awkwardly. He didn’t know exactly how Dr. Bilatz’s security system worked, but he had a vision of nothing left of his body except a small, smoking crater in the ground if he messed up too badly. “7069 zeta xi 891705 tau iota gamma 62875231486.”
The gates opened with a melodramatic creaking. Across the threshold was an elaborate garden, split precisely in half by a literal yellow brick road. On the left was a scene of classical gray statues that reenacted the Greek philosopher Archimedes defiantly contemplating a mathematical diagram under the glare of a Roman soldier about to slay him. On the right were statues playing out the execution of the occultist Jacques Cazotte by guillotine during the French Revolution. The theme was the destruction of knowledge by thoughtless brutality, or so Dr. Bilatz once told him.
Inside was not some cold, sterile scientific complex but a Baroque palace with a chessboard floor and walls and high ceilings in shades of gold and black. Jeremy called out for Dr. Bilatz, but there was no answer, not even from any of Bilatz’s assistants.
Jeremy began climbing a grand spiral staircase downward into what he knew was Dr. Bilatz’s main laboratory.
“You do realize…” Lamorak began.
“What?” Jeremy asked in his mind.
“If you do join the Rooks, you’re going to have to start working out regularly and perhaps even sacrifice Oreos.”
Despite the situation, Jeremy scoffed aloud.
The central laboratory looked little different from the main hall and the residential rooms, just with computer terminals and technical equipment interspersed and in some cases built into mosaics and statuary. Jeremy stopped at a terminal that was part of a body of a classic European Gothic gargoyle. Without him asking, Lamorak took over Jeremy’s fingers and skillfully hacked into Dr. Bilatz’s mainframe so quickly and gracefully Jeremy’s conscious mind could not keep up.
“I’m scanning the raw data from security and there is absolutely nothing of note, much less anything related to a break-in by the Exile. Also…” Lamorak became ominously silent.
“What’s wrong?” Jeremy whispered aloud.
“Dr. Bilatz is away in Addis Ababa for a conference and has been for this entire month. I suggest we teleport away immediate-.”
“Lamorak?” Jeremy whispered. Then he nearly shouted, “Lamorak?”
Jeremy reached for his watch and began inputting the coordinates for home. Without warning, though, he could no longer feel or even see his watch. With the speed and uncertainty of a nightmare, he was suddenly once again pounding on the closet door while he heard Fernando laughing at the other side of the door. Jeremy was once more choking back his frustrated sobs and threatening to tell Fernando’s dad, who was then about to become Jeremy’s new stepdad. Still, he knew he wouldn’t because he was terrified of Fernando and knew what Fernando was capable of doing when his father was away on campus and his mother was working. And that was only if they would even believe that Fernando, who was a straight A student and was flawlessly polite to all the adults in his life, could be such a bully.
Even though the closet was barely big enough for two people, Jeremy stopped hitting the door when he became aware that someone was standing behind him. Not only was that person behind him, but he was standing several feet away, even though that shouldn’t have been physically possible in the space.
“As someone who knows a thing or two about sibling rivalry, you almost have my sympathy,” the voice of the Exile said. “Almost.”
Jeremy whirled around and saw the Exile in the black and gray cloak he usually wore. Apparently the cloak was a mark of shame in his homeworld. On Earth, he made it into something of a badge of warped honor.
“Lamorak, enact the psychic assault protocol now!” Jeremy screamed.
The Exile chuckled amiably. “Don’t excite yourself. It’s too late.”
“Lamorak!” Jeremy shouted. “I need you now!”
The Exile suddenly dropped the almost amiable façade and practically growled in anger. “What did I just say?” Before Jeremy could react the Exile shoved him through the closet door. Instead of a mocking Fernando and a carpeted hallway on the other side was a half-collapsed temple out on the Jordanian steppe. It was the exact spot where Jeremy as the Galaxy Knight, along with half the Rooks, managed to stop the Exile from summoning some mad, forgotten Babylonian god.
“What did you just do?!”
The Exile sneered. “A computer virus uploaded to this laboratory’s online network, perfectly calibrated for an alien AI consciousness dependent on a human mind. Prodigy is going to want me to thank her periodically for the next 50 years, but it’s so worth it, don’t you think?”
As he backed away, Jeremy tripped over a collapsed column half-buried in the ground. He knew he was inside his own mind, but the fresh bruise he felt on his buttock definitely seemed real.
“What did you do to Dr. Bilatz?”
Rolling his eyes, the Exile replied, “Try to keep up. I’m not after Dr. Bilatz. I’m after you.”
Suddenly, the Exile was holding a shotgun that appeared from nowhere and began pointing it right at Jeremy. “This is a tad less imaginative than I like to be, but I’ve got better things to do with my day and would like to wrap this up. Goodbye.”
Jeremy closed his eyes. Even though he was not quite sure if the Exile could kill him in his mindscape, he was still absolutely confident that this was the end of his life. The reality that his career as a superhero could end this way had always been in the back of his head. Facing the reality in the form of a gun was very different, so different that he could not really comprehend it until now.
Then there was a sound of flesh cutting and the Exile whimpering. The familiar purple-energy broadsword that Lamorak usually wielded when in his physical form was sticking through the Exile’s stomach. He gurgled and whimpered, as if trying to say something, before he slid forward and collapsed to the ground. In compliance with dream logic, the Exile’s body crumpled into dust and blew away, even though Jeremy felt no wind.
Lamorak reached out and Jeremy grabbed his hand and stood up. To his embarrassment he realized his eyes were stung with tears. “Thank God it’s you, Lamorak. He was…he was…”
Lamorak’s embrace felt like being hugged by a life-size plastic figure. Still, the gesture was very much welcome. “I know. It will be alright now. He must have wanted revenge for the last time you and the Rooks thwarted him.”
“What a lunatic,” Jeremy sighed. He had been instrumental in defeating the Exile’s scheme, but he was hardly the one involved. “We better get back before Mom gets home or Fernando notices I haven’t taken the trash out.”
“Oh, the watch…” Lamorak said, his robotic voice betraying a hint of concern.
Jeremy looked down and there was a dent on the edge of the watch. “Oh. Do you think it might have damaged the teleportation apparatus?”
“Possibly,” Lamorak answered. “But if so, it will only be minor damage. I should be able to affect repairs right here.”
Jeremy sighed in sincere relief. “Thank God. Here you go.”
The instant he handed the watch over to Lamorak, everything changed. Instead of Lamorak standing before him, it was the Exile, who triumphantly held the watch before him like a trophy. They were also no longer in the Middle East, but back in Dr. Bilatz’s laboratory.
“That was really easier than it should have been,” the Exile said, laughing. It was not the menacing laughter that Jeremy always expected out of lifelong supercriminals, but the laughter of someone who had just pulled off a smart move in a card game. “It looks to me like you’re not even Rooks material, Galaxy Knight.”
The Exile started walking away and waved with one hand while messing with the watch with the other. “Good luck getting back home.”
Jeremy closed his eyes and called on Lamorak to appear on his own and stop the Exile, more than he ever wished for anything in his life. Suddenly a blurry figure, which looked like a video game glitch manifested in reality somehow, appeared close to the floor and grabbed at the Exile’s legs, tripping him.
“Destroy the watch before he can focus and use his powers,” Lamorak’s voice hissed in Jeremy’s mind as the deformed figure of Lamorak kept wrestling with the supercriminal. “I will not be able to manifest in this form for long.”
“But I won’t get home and my family will know-“
“Please, you can’t let him have it,” Lamorak pleaded.
You have to act like a hero, Jeremy sternly told himself as he joined the fray and tried to wrestle the watch out of the Exile’s hand. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but he thought he could feel the Exile telepathetically clawing his way back into his consciousness. It was this fear that gave Jeremy a strength beyond even his normal ability. He slammed the watch against the floor repeatedly with a demented energy. The Exile screamed in rage while broken pieces of precious alien technology flew everywhere. At least Fernando will now find out I’m a superhero, Jeremy thought bitterly.
Panting, Jeremy tried to stand up, but his legs failed him. “Don’t bother,” the Exile said, also audibly exhausted. “I just managed to make your brain temporarily forget how legs work.”
The Exile stood up. Lamorak was now gone from view. Jeremy tried to crawl away, but the Exile was quickly on top of him, grabbing at his hand.
“Leave me alone!” Jeremy shouted. A part of his mind thought how this wasn’t playing out like any encounter with a supercriminal he ever managed. He kept trying to resist, but the Exile managed to grab his hand and violently jerked the ring off his finger.
Jeremy realized what the Exile was doing and screamed, even pleaded with him to stop. The Exile held the ring up and looked at it, almost admiringly. “So this really is the source of your power.” Pulling his body with his arms, Jeremy tried to reach the Exile but he slowly walked back, mocking him. “I did my homework, you see. And you’ve been way more open to the public than you should have been. I don’t know your real name, but I do know your ‘Lamorak’ is an artificial intelligence copy of a dead alien mind. Centuries ago, there was some interplanetary peacekeeping force that was betrayed and destroyed, and the survivors uploaded the dying minds of their greatest champions to these rings so that their legacy could live on. Plus they could keep fighting for the sake of civilizations that enter perilous periods in their technological and social evolution in conjunction with the minds of heroic natives. Or something like that, right?”
“Please,” Jeremy begged.
Faintly, Jeremy could hear Lamorak’s voice. It was barely coherent, but he could still make it out. “I’m so sorry, Jeremy. I know – I know what he’s about to do. Please listen to me.”
“And they adapt to the culture of whatever native they choose to enter a symbiotic relationship with, and hence we had Galaxy Knight,” the Exile chuckled.
Lamorak kept speaking. “Don’t let this break you. Don’t let this change you. Just keep-.”
“Shame, really,” the Exile said just before he dropped the ring to the floor and stomped on it several times, until the glass on the ring was utterly shattered.
Jeremy felt not only Lamorak’s voice but his very presence fade from his mind. Even though he felt exhausted, both physically and mentally, he still found the strength to scream one more time, “You murdered him!”
“Your Lamorak was just the memory of a ghost, if that,” the Exile said with an infuriating matter-of-factness, nonchalantly kicking what was left of the ring that once contained Lamorak’s essence across the floor.
“You murdered him,” Jeremy repeated, this time in a whisper.
The Exile shrugged and began to walk away. “You’ll be able to walk again in five minutes, at most.” With that, he was out the door.