Unexplained blackouts and memory losses have plagued 17-year-old Thorne for weeks, but wild Internet rumors about alien influences don’t add up any better than his medical tests. Math is like a first language for him, though, and he’s all too willing to try things in secret, so when a mysterious formula points him to Death Valley, he decides the theorem’s worth testing. Lying to his dad about where he’s going, Thorne takes off on a motorcycle road trip alone.
He’s not alone long. Sixteen-year-old Em, who’s been stranded at a freeway rest area, soon persuades him to give her a ride. The cops come after her as a runaway, but the police aren’t as scary as the mounting evidence that Thorne’s problems indeed come from out of this world. Strangers call him by name and tell him to hurry.
His motorcycle seems to be the only thing he can control. Still, it’s not fast enough to outrun the alien threat that’s hacked into his head. He begins to receive remote commands to take risks that threaten both his life and Em’s. Fighting to ignore the alien impulses, Thorne pushes on toward the valley. If he can’t reach the tentative haven it offers, he’ll never return home to his family again — let alone protect Em or the love growing between them. And the aliens will target his kid brother next.
With help from an underground resistance network, Thorne and Em reach Death Valley, where they make contact with military scientists who perhaps can break the aliens’ grip. The secret installation they find soon looks more like a prison. But Em is learning to stand up for herself, and while Thorne fights the aliens, she battles more mundane threats for them both. Pooling their talents, they earn freedom and take control of their lives while striking a blow against the alien attackers that will help keep Thorne’s brother safe, too.
The aliens had been at him again. Thorne knew it before he lifted his head. The sideways view of the driveway, hard up in his face, told him he’d fallen — the second time in three days. Grass poked his cheek.
He sat up fast, without checking to feel if anything hurt. Oil fumes stung his nose. His motorcycle gleamed red in the sharp morning sun, waiting for him to finish an oil change it didn’t need. He’d gotten as far as removing the filter before he blacked out, and only the grass at the edge of the driveway had kept him from cracking his head. His elbow, not so lucky, throbbed where it’d banged on the concrete. He bent it. Oil oozed down his wrist. The used filter was still cupped in his palm. From the amount of dirty oil soaking into his sleeve, he’d been out for at least two or three minutes.
“Shit.” Thorne flung the filter away and pulled off his hoodie to mop the Castrol from his hand. He shot a furtive glance toward the house. The bay window’s curtains were open, but Dad was neither standing behind it nor charging outside, demanding to know why Thorne was napping on the concrete. That was a break, anyhow. Dad wouldn’t have laughed when Thorne blamed it on aliens.
It wasn’t aliens, of course. That idea, scrounged from a useless Internet search, was as stupid as blaming the devil for making Thorne lie about where he was going. Alien mind control was a placeholder, like x in an equation, for whatever was actually wrong with his head. For a while, Dad had worried that x = brain tumor, but Thorne had put up with every test his father could order, and all of them had found jack. So the last thing he needed this sunny fall morning was a dad in a panic for more useless tests.
A dead leaf crunched in the grass to his right. Thorne spun. It was only the neighbor kid, Xannie, still in her pajamas and a few feet away. She stood there alone, without Thorne’s little brother, who hung at Xannie’s house on days when both Thorne and Dad would be gone. Of course, Wynn had been pissed at Thorne that morning. He’d even blown off the chance to help with the oil change. Good thing, too, or he’d have gone screaming to Dad.
Xannie’s front porch was empty. No faces, not even Wynn’s, in the window. Thorne wondered if Xannie’s mom was as careless with Wynn, but just this once, he didn’t care. People on the island usually ignored weird behavior, what with all the granolas and artists around, but if Corinne had seen him slumped on his driveway, she definitely would’ve given Dad a report.
“Hey, Xannie. Where’s Wynn?” He got to his feet. She only stared with those big, mournful eyes. Wynn was seven, but Xannie wasn’t older than three. Maybe she’d seen him fall, and it’d scared her. “Uh… I was checking out what the worms see. You ever do that?”
Xannie, who normally never shut up, bounced on her legs like a chubby piston.
The road behind him was silent, but Thorne glanced for cars down the block. For weeks the news had been too full of kids running into traffic. This early on a Saturday, their street was empty, but he shifted his weight to the balls of his feet in case Xannie darted and he had to catch her. He helped teach the Kickstarters class at his martial arts school, so he knew how fast these little guys could motor.
Xannie raised one stubby finger to point at him. Accusing.
Thorne felt heat rise up his chest. Hell if he was going to let a three-year-old embarrass him. He waved to the bike. “I was changing my oil,” he said. “Want to help?” If Wynn saw them together, maybe he’d come out and forgive his big brother.
Xannie’s lips pulled away from her tiny pearl teeth. Thorne figured her tongue would poke out at him next, but a ticking noise rose from her like a bomb. “T-t-t-t-t…”
Thorne stiffened. Was she choking? She’d never stuttered before. Her eyes blinked with each tick and she hadn’t stopped bouncing, like a cheap wind-up toy that didn’t quite work.
“Xannie, where’s your mom? I think—”
“Tirty-six.” The words she’d been pumping up burst out at last.
“Oh, yeah?” he said, relieved by her squeaky voice, even if the blinking and bouncing continued. Maybe she was taking a dump in her pants. “I like thirty-six, too. Six squared. You’ll be the only pre-schooler with exponents down. You know what number comes next? It’s a good one. A prime.”
Her face remained blank. “Twen-seven.”
Thorne’s smiled dropped. Had Wynn taught her this? He didn’t think Wynn knew the GPS coordinates. Of course, it wouldn’t have been the first time his little brother had known things he shouldn’t.
The front door of Xannie’s house flew open and her mother rushed out. “Oh, Jesus, there you are.” With the swing-footed gait of a woman not used to running, she thundered over and scooped the little girl up. “Xan Amelia! You stay in the house or with Wynn!”
Wynn trailed behind, scowling, a piece of toast in his hand.
Despite her quick change in elevation and her wobbling head, Xannie kept eye contact with Thorne. The intensity of her stare gave him goosebumps.
“Torn,” she told her mother and pointed again.
Thorne was just glad the number sequence had stopped. “It’s okay,” he told Corinne. “I was watching so she didn’t run off.”
“Thanks. There’ve been so many lately. It’s scary, you know?”
Thorne knew too well. It’d killed one of the kids at the dojo. But he didn’t want to talk about that with Corinne. Despite her thanks, her gaze held a hint of distrust, that “you teenaged boys are all perverts” look. Thorne knew a few guys who deserved it, but he resented it from a neighbor whose lawn he mowed.
“Yeah,” He turned back to his bike. “Might want to get her a leash.” It slipped out.
Corrine managed a smile. “I’ve thought about it. ‘Cause it seems like one day she can’t hold a cup by herself and the next she’s downloading apps to my phone.” She headed back to her porch, where Wynn stood glaring at Thorne. “You want to come say goodbye, Wynn?”
“More like bad-bye,” Wynn growled. He jumped off the porch, skipping the steps, and dodged Corinne to approach Thorne. “I’m supposed to go with you.” His face knotted tighter.
Thorne grabbed a rag and wiped oil from the filter well. “You can’t, monkey-man. You’ve got to be ten to play paintball at Kenny’s field. Hand me that filter.” He nodded toward the Fram box on the driveway.
Wynn ignored it. “That’s not where you’re going.”
“Sure it is.”
Wynn wasn’t buying it. And why should he? He’d known where Thorne had to go before Thorne did. That’s what had made up his mind; he was going for Wynn, not just himself. But he couldn’t say that.
He picked up the new oil filter. They always looked so clean straight out of the box. He hated to mess it up.
“I could tell Dad,” Wynn said.
Thorne gauged how real that threat was as he tipped a little oil into the filter and slicked its rubber seal. Around and around his fingertip slid. He kept his voice low. “You won’t, though.”
“But you won’t.” Thorne spun the new filter into place. “I’ll bring you a map.”
“You might not come back.”
Thorne resisted the urge to crank on the filter. “Why wouldn’t I? You’ve been playing too much Insurgency, dude.” He replaced the drain plug. “Want to put in the new oil for me?”
Wynn narrowed his eyes at the quarts sitting nearby as if he’d rather boot them into the street. Without another word, he returned to Corinne, who was waiting on him.
Thorne wanted to kick a quart of Castrol himself, but the damn thing would probably split, and he’d already gotten oil everywhere but where it needed to be.
Corinne herded Wynn through her open doorway and gave Thorne a wave. “Be careful on that thing.”
He’d heard that advice way too often to answer. He just upended the open quart into the funnel.
Even after Corinne took the kids back inside, Thorne’s neck prickled as though they were watching. Then again, so many doctors had snooped around in his head that he felt that way most of the time anymore. At least his headache was gone. He always felt good again after the blackouts.
A Navy Growler from Oak Harbor blasted over the treetops. The rattle of the jet’s power jarred Thorne into motion. The Navy was right. Speed was a weapon. He finished the oil change as fast he could. He’d been stalling, no doubt, but he needed to get this trip over with.
The garage door swung open, and Dad’s black Beemer backed out alongside the motorcycle. The car’s tinted windows — pretentious, like Dad — prevented Thorne from reading The Great Surgeon’s expression.
Dad got out of the car, leaving the engine purring. The tie he only wore to the hospital flapped.
Thorne braced himself for the inquisition. He didn’t know why the two of them didn’t cancel to zero when they were in the same room. He had the negative numbers for all of Dad’s traits: straight, dark hair against Dad’s yellow kinks, silence for Dad’s noise, a six-pack where Dad had a two-scotch-a-night belly. The surgeon had to be good with his hands; Thorne was better with his head. But he’d gotten Dad’s tall gene with his Y chromosome. That sum on the Y-axis seemed to be all that kept them from mutual annihilation.
“You still messing with that oil change?” Dad came around to check on Thorne’s work. “You need Maintenance 101 again or what?”
“No,” Thorne said, glad Dad wasn’t checking the relative size of his pupils. The usual condescension he could handle. “I just got to talking with Wynn and Corinne.” He closed the oil drip pan for recycling later.
“You put oil in the filter? And on the seal?”
“I’ve done this before, Dad. You don’t have to teach me how to use a condom again, either.”
Instead of bristling at Thorne’s smart-ass answer, Dad laughed. “You must be feeling better. Good. I won’t ask how often you get the chance to use one.” With his loafer, he nudged Thorne’s oily sweatshirt where it lay on the concrete. “I hope you’re neater with those, though. The cleaning lady’s going to think you’re a slob.”
“I can do my own laundry, if she doesn’t like it,” Thorne said. If he came home to need laundry done at all. He pitched the dirty hoodie into the garage.
Dad watched it flop to the spotless cement, but instead of bitching at Thorne to go pick it up, he frowned at the used oil filter, which still lay in the grass. “Are you feeling better? You’re not usually messy. Spills, clumsiness, uncharacteristic behavior — those can be symptomatic.”
“I’m fine, Dad. A lot better.” The effort of lying kept the impatience out of Thorne’s voice. “The filter just had more in it than I expected.”
“All right, well, I’ll let it slip this time.” Dad’s wrist flicked. He still wore a watch. “I’m late. Starting to think I should just move my office to Children’s.” He buffed an invisible spot from the Ducati’s windshield. “Have fun camping with the guys from the dojo this weekend.”
“Uh, yeah.” Though he wanted to meet Dad’s eyes, Thorne couldn’t. “We will.”
Awesome truly awesome. How do you pick from such talent? These writers have me excited about writing, but I have course work to do and manuscripts to edit!