Chapter 1: The Sudden Black Orb

Milo stood at the crest of the hill in the woods, gasping for breath, staring down at the giant black orb that hadn’t been there yesterday.

The Orb was big – the size of a pickup truck at least, although the bottom third was buried in the earth as if the Orb had plunged from the sky and smashed into the wet ground at the bottom of this gully. It was a deep, solid black, with no reflections that Milo could see. And the air around it was strangely quiet, as if the Orb was sucking the sound out of the air. So it was a really weird thing to be sitting in the woods behind the Otisville Middle School.

This wasn’t here yesterday, Milo thought. The idea spun around his mind like a brick in a washing machine. This wasn’t here yesterday, THIS WASN’T HERE YESTERDAY. Milo knew the Orb hadn’t been here yesterday because he had taken this exact shortcut home from school, even though his mom told him to not to. The route ran through some undeveloped woods between the Middle School  and Milo’s house, which Milo’s mom seemed to think was dangerous for some reason. He wasn’t sure what she was afraid of exactly – teenagers? deranged maniacs? – but the woods were empty as far as he could tell. What he had discovered was that the woods were an excellent escape route when other kids were chasing you. Which is why he knew with absolute certainty that there had definitely not been a giant black orb here yesterday.

Milo listened. He didn’t hear anyone coming through the woods behind him – that was good. Then, before he even realized he was doing it, Milo found himself skidding down the slope towards the Orb, kicking up dust and gravel. It sounded shockingly loud to his ears. He was vaguely aware, as he moved, that a bunch of things on his body hurt. His abdomen ached and the side of his face was throbbing from where he’d gotten punched and the knuckles of his right hand felt swollen and sore from trying to fight back. It would probably all hurt a lot more later, but right now all he could think about was the Orb.

Milo reached the bottom of the gully and, cautiously, stepped closer to the Orb. Down here it loomed much larger. There were no seams in it at all, no scratches, no hint of age or damage or decay. It was so black it was hard to look at, like an optical illusion. One second it felt like you were looking at a giant black ball and the next it felt like you were looking into a deep, bottomless pit. The closer Milo got to it, the quieter everything became, until he could hear his own heartbeat in his ears, and yet he felt as though the Orb thrummed with energy. Something about it just felt deeply wrong.

Even weirder, Milo could see around the edge of the Orb there was a peculiar halo, which shimmered like heat coming off a summer road. It had a strange magnifying effect, making the trees behind it look thicker at the base. Fascinated, Milo inched even closer, and he might have kept going until he bumped his nose into it, but just then a crow swooped down and surprised him by shrieking “CAW!” It was almost like a warning from nature itself – Beware the Orb! – except that it wasn’t. It was just dumb luck that this bird decided to land on top of the Orb at that moment.

But as the crow landed, a weird thing happened: it landed in slow motion. Milo felt like he was going crazy for a second. But no – as the crow got closer to the Orb’s surface it flew more and more slowly, even as it seemed to grow bigger from the orb’s magnification effect. Milo could see the graceful sweep of the crow’s wings as they flapped to and fro at about one-tenth the speed. Slowly, the crow’s feet unfurled and extended as it prepared to land. It reminded Milo of nature shows he watched on the Discovery Channel where they showed an alligator bite a deer in ultra-slow motion – except here he was watching it in real life.

At last, the crow landed and seemed to freeze into position, like a statue. Milo could feel his heart racing in his chest. Was the crow frozen solid? Or was time so slow for the crow now that it would be another decade before it flew off again?

Milo picked up a pebble and, experimentally, tossed the pebble into the air and caught it again. No slow motion here. Milo looked at the pebble in his palm and wondered for just a moment what exactly the hell he was doing. Then he chucked the pebble at the crow.

It was an unusually good throw for Milo. In fact, it was too good – it looked like the pebble was going to nail the crow in the head, and for a split second Milo felt bad. But just as the pebble reached the magnified aura around the Orb…it slowed down. For a moment Milo thought it looked like a tiny asteroid, spinning in space. Almost imperceptibly, the crow tilted its head so that its black eye locked onto the incoming pebble. Then, in slow motion, the crow reared back, coiling up its body like a spring. The bird seemed to grow exponentially as its wings unfolded. The crow lifted itself up off the surface of the Orb, even as Milo’s pebble spun towards it, creeping along through the air inch by inch. As the crow rose it began to move faster and faster, finally popping back into normal speed as it escaped the orb’s aura and flew up, up, and disappeared over the tree canopy, cawing in annoyance. Meanwhile Milo’s pebble floated dreamlike through the space where the crow’s head had been a minute before.

This was now, officially, the weirdest thing Milo had ever seen.

Previously, the weirdest thing Milo had ever seen was on a school field trip down to the city, where from the bus he had watched a homeless man pull a rotten banana from a garbage can and bite into it, skin and all. The brownish-yellow pulp had splurted out the back end of the banana and oozed down the man’s hand, and every kid on the bus, including Milo, all went “EWWWWW!” at the same time. But the banana incident now seemed downright ordinary compared to the sudden black Orb.

Milo took a step back. He wondered what happened if he got close to the radius of the Orb and his own time was slowed down. He was scared to find out…and yet, he was surprised to find he was also a tiny bit curious.

Then, from behind him, Milo heard a branch snap. He whirled around. Now he could hear footsteps in dry leaves, then voices. Milo couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he had a pretty good guess.

The 3 Cobras were coming.

They sounded angry. Milo was suddenly fully aware of every place on his face and body where he’d been hit, throbbing in protest. Telling him to run.

Milo felt a cold nervousness rise up from his guts – a fight or flight response. He knew he should make a run for it – if he hurried he might still be able to slip out of the woods and make for home. Of course, they would be waiting for him again tomorrow – but Milo couldn’t worry about that right now.

No, the strange thing was, Milo suddenly realized he didn’t want them to find the Orb. He didn’t know where this thought came from – it wasn’t like the Orb was his. But Milo was positive that the Orb wasn’t just weird, but important somehow. He didn’t want anyone else – especially the 3 Cobras – to find it.

Well, enjoy that thought while the Cobras beat you to a pulp, another part of his brain piped up. It was true – Milo only had a few seconds before the Cobras would come into view. He realized instantly that stopping in the gully had been a mistake. He was exposed down here. If he didn’t run away this instant it would be too late – they would beat the living daylights out of him. Milo felt his heart beating thickly in the back of his throat. There was no more time to think about it. He could hear them coming over the rise. Milo had to run or fight.

I wish there was someplace I could hide, Milo thought.

And the Orb opened.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: 3 Cobras