The sticks flew out of Mr. Gunderson’s hand as a black shape swooped between the four of them. “Watch out!” Tom yelled. He thrust out both his arms and pushed both Stacia and Stevie out of the way.
“Space ninja!” shouted Stevie.
“They’re not space ninjas!” said Mr. Gunderson, but half-heartedly. He had stumbled backward, but was now up on one knee and fiddling with some of the things he had on the ground.
Tom whipped out his machete and peered around in the trees. “I can’t see it!”
“It shouldn’t even be here!” said Mr. Gunderson. “They don’t like trees. Or any plants, for that matter. Something related to photosynthesis, I think.”
“That’s all well and good,” said Tom, “but what’s going to help me– look out!”
It swooped down again from on high, seeming to aim straight for Mr. Gunderson. Tom reached and swung at it, causing it to dodge and disappear once again.
“Ah hah! That should do it!” said Mr. Gunderson. He stood, the metal cylinder in his hand once again. Just as he did so the creature came flying directly at his face, tentacles spread and green eyes flaring. Mr. Gunderson pointed his cylinder at it and out sprayed a fine, yellowish mist, which glowed with a phosphorescent light. As the creature was pelted with the mist, it disintegrated, the spray eating through its body.
“Whoah,” said Stacia. “That was totally cool, Mr. Gunderson.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” said Tom breathlessly.
“You totally took out the space ninja, Mr. Grunderson!”
“They’re not space ninjas,” said Mr. Gunderson absently. “In any case, I didn’t expect one to come after us out here. I suppose they are running out of things to feed on, but they probably sense us.”
“Hold on,” said Tom. “How do you know all this, Mr. Gunderson. It’s like you’ve seen these things before.”
“I have,” the older man replied grimly. “It was long ago. And far from here. But this is not the first time our world and the world these things come from have touched.”
“But how is that possible? If they’re like the sticks…”
“Well, they’re not always like the sticks. Or maybe they are, if the sticks are bent like a bow rather than in a straight line. It’s… Well, you need to be able to think about physics at a completely different level. I don’t know if there’s a good way to make it make sense to you kids.”
“I’m good at physics,” Stacia volunteered.
“Not this good,” said Mr. Gunderson.
“And how are you so good at it, Mr. Gunderson?” asked Tom.
Mr. Gunderson met Tom’s skeptical gaze for several seconds before speaking. “Let’s just say that I haven’t always been a hardware store owner and leave it at that, okay Tom?”
“Yeah, I bet he studied how to fight ninjas with monks in Tebi– Tibi– um, that T place! Didn’tcha, Mr. Grunderson?”
“Do you even know where Tibet is?” asked Tom.
“Uh huh! It’s over in Europe!”
“You’re such a dork,” Tom sighed.
“What’s important,” broke in Mr. Gunderson, “is that we realize that these things are not of our world, but there are ways we can fight them. They don’t like light, but it seems like light alone isn’t usually enough. It takes something different. The phosphorescent liquid from the glow sticks worked on this one, but I have a feeling they’ll adapt.”
“Yes, they are linked somehow. And just like a virus changes when it encounters something that can combat it, these do too. But not perfectly. We just need to keep ahead of them, that’s all.”
“What about the zombies?” asked Stevie.
“They’re not really zombies. They are people, but the creatures secret a… venom might not be the right word. It takes control, brings whatever it touches and coats into their network. That explains the mechanical constructs as well?”
“The what?” asked Stacia.
“The robots!” said Stevie.
Stacia put a hand on Tom’s arm. “Thomas, what are we going to do about my dad?”
“I can answer that, young lady,” said Mr. Gunderson. “But I’m going to need all of you to be very brave. Are you prepared?”
Tom nodded resolutely, gripping Stacia’s hand and smiling at her.
Stevie grinned. “You’re gonna teach us how to fight the space ninjas?”
“They’re not– oh, whatever. Yes, Stevie, you’re going to learn how to fight space ninjas.”