SIDEKICK SQUAD, BOOK TWO — Bells Broussard thought he had it made when his superpowers manifested early. Being a shapeshifter is awesome. He can change his hair whenever he wants, and if putting on a binder for the day is too much, he’s got it covered. But that was before he became the country’s most wanted villain.
After discovering a massive cover-up by the Heroes’ League of Heroes, Bells and his friends Jess, Emma, and Abby set off on a secret mission to find the Resistance. Meanwhile, power-hungry former hero Captain Orion is on the loose with a dangerous serum that renders meta-humans powerless, and a new militarized robotic threat emerges. Everyone is in danger. Between college applications and crushing on his best friend, will Bells have time to take down a corrupt government?
Sometimes, to do a hero’s job, you need to be a villain.
“Ten weeks?” Emma’s hologram is positively indignant, and her heart-shaped face is scrunched up in horror. Bells can’t see anything other than her face in the projection above his wrist, but he knows her arms are probably crossed and she’s about to—yep, there she goes. A little furrow pops up between her eyebrows, as it does whenever she’s annoyed. “Bells, that’s almost the whole summer!” The hologram flickers in and out as Emma moves. She shakes her head; her curls bounce.
“I know. I know. I just—it was a last-minute thing. I mean, I was on the waitlist and then someone dropped out, and it’s a really cool opportunity, with a scholarship and everything! I’ve never been in the North; it’ll be so cool!” Bells grins, hoping his excitement will be infectious.
“I know it will be cool and I’m happy that you got into this art program, but I wish you would have told me! Ten whole weeks without my best friend! What will I do?”
She’s pouting, and Bells sighs. The effect of the Emma Robledo pout can be devastating. He touches the holo, and it blips, distorting the image. Emma does the same, and the tiny blue pixels of her fingers reach for his.
A pang of longing courses through him. He’s going to miss her terribly. It’s awful lying to his friends about where he’s been these past few summers. Last year, he told them it was a soccer camp. The year before that, he said he was visiting his cousins in the California region.
“Well, you have volleyball practice and aren’t you learning to drive? I mean, you haven’t stopped talking about it since your moms agreed to teach you, and they were gonna get you your own car, right? And Jess—”
“Jess! Have you told Jess?” Emma shrieks.
Bells barely has time to shake his head before Emma rolls her eyes and flicks at her wrist, and then he hears another comm link connect. Jess’ face blooms out of shimmering blue light.
Jess waves, and her ponytail bobs. “Hey! Are we still on for movie night?”
“No,” Emma says. “Bells is leaving us for ten weeks!”
“What? Why? When?” Jess frowns. Her hologram glitches and flickers, and the sound fizzes in and out. The reception in the Tran household is always shoddy for some reason.
He starts over. “I got accepted to that summer art program in Aerial City. You know, very prestigious, dorm rooms, classes every day, field trips to museums…”
“What program? I didn’t even know you applied to one!” Jess raises her eyebrows.
“Uh… I didn’t know if I would get in.”
That much is true, but there’s no art program. The fictional summer camp does sound cool, but not as cool as what he’s actually going to do, which is learn how to be a hero.
The desert landscape looks completely different; it rains so rarely he’d almost forgotten what a storm looks like, how the skies go dark and let loose an endless torrent of water. Thick with loose red soil and other debris, rivulets rush through the canyon to form a vicious river that gathers speed as it races ahead. The land is so parched that the rain barely touches the surface before it slimes into a slick pathway.
Bells is exhausted, but he has to keep running.
His feet hit the ground with muddy splashes, and he nearly slips. It’s hard going, especially as the gray skies turn an ominous, roiling dark.
The sun is setting. He’s running out of time.
Squinting through the darkness, Bells can barely make out the cluster of buildings ahead that marks the outskirts of Andover. He glances back, and that is a mistake because he can see, steadily advancing on him, the chunky steel bodies of the robots with their gleaming mirrored panels.
“Surrender now,” commands the closest one, its cold electronic voice muffled by the falling rain, as it hovers toward him. It’s barely visible in the dark—just an ominous square shadow lit by a few blinking lights on its panels.
Bells laughs, thankful that the new robots have hovertech and are much slower than the wheeled models. It’s a small comfort, though. He can’t run forever.
Through the rain and thick gray clouds, he can barely see the glimmering lights of the only building that has full power in the storm: Andover Memorial Hospital.
The robots are too close; they’ll catch up to him before he can get to safety. They must be tracking his body heat; there’s no one else out in the storm.
Bells ducks into a niche in the canyon wall. It’s out of the rain just enough to give him relief from the storm.
Thunder cracks, followed by a flash of lighting, but it doesn’t seem to come from the sky.
Another roar of thunder and more lightning… Bells shakes his head.
Nothing at all natural about this storm.
Though he’s exhausted from running, he hasn’t shifted much today and he’s got plenty of power left. The expanse of power burns bright within him, but it’s no use. No disguise in the world could fool a robot programmed to detect body heat.
Bells eyes the rising water in the gully and looks up at the gleam of the robots close on his heels.
Cold, cold, cold, it’s going to be cold. Bells jumps in anyway. Mud squelches beneath his feet, and something pokes him in the thigh. In a never-ending swirl of movement, ripples spread, each one barely having time to form a circle before it’s pelted by more rain.
The water is moving too quickly and some gets in his mouth. He’s dizzy. His head aches with a throbbing pain, and it’s all he can do to stay upright.
He inhales sharply through his nose and ducks his head under the water.
Bells loses his balance; the world tilts in a chaos of water and noise. The drumming of the raindrops intensifies.
He grabs handfuls of mud and coats his body with it. Will it be enough? Will it work? It’s too dark to make out anything above the water, to see if the robots have passed. The current pulls him along until he hits something hard: a pile of rocks trapping mud and sticks and debris, and now one very muddy and miserable Bells Broussard, who can’t hold his breath much longer.
Bells bursts out of the muddy stream, gasping for air. The rain pelts him mercilessly as he struggles, swaying in the current, trying to keep from washing away. He’s still covered in mud, but it must not mask his body heat, because the robots are still coming.
The closest one advances upon him; its square body hovers near. It whirrs, intoning, “Surrender now, Chameleon. You must answer to the League for your crimes.” Wicked-looking arms with crackles of electricity sparking at their ends emerge from the robot’s torso.
The mud isn’t hiding him. His heart is still beating; blood and panic course through his veins. All he can do is shift. But what good is the power of a shapeshifter if he’s going to be caught in any disguise, by his own body heat, since he can only change himself?
Myself and everything I touch, Bells thinks. The mud is too flimsy, but it doesn’t have to stay mud.
He thinks about cold and hard and unforgiving steel, strong and protective, like armor, and the mud surrounding him slowly gives way to something new. Come on; you’ve got this potential, Bells coaxes. He feels the metals in the earth, the smatterings of iron, and calls them to become more. He uses every ounce of strength he has left.
The water rushes past him; he’s solid, anchored to the ground with a pillar of iron wrapped around him.
The robot stops, whirs; its panel blinks as it processes what’s happening.
Bells holds his breath.
The robot flies away. It continues down through the canyon, and the others follow suit. Every minute or so one of them commands, “Surrender now, Chameleon,” but the order fades into faint echoes as the robots go farther and farther into the Unmaintained lands surrounding Andover.
Bells lets out a sigh of relief. He holds on to the shift. Maybe the robots can detect a heat signature from miles away.
“And so the amazing Chameleon stands steadfast in his armor, awaiting the right moment to plan his escape,” Bells announces in an overly bright voice. His laugh is cold and bitter.
Bells groans. His nose itches, and he can’t move to scratch it. His hair is ruined, gone frizzy from the rain, and his clothes and shoes are a mess. In addition to the constant rhythm of the rain, he can hear creatures scuttering around deep in their burrows.
He can’t enjoy the first time he’s shapeshifted an inanimate object so quickly; he can’t be proud of himself because he’s so miserable. He doesn’t know how he’s going to get out of this, or whether his friends are okay.
Worse than anything else, all over the country, every household that has one of the new MonRobots is in danger. How many unsuspecting people have robots just waiting for the chance to attack?
Bells never imagined when he got his powers that one day he’d be cold and miserable and on the run—the most wanted villain in the country. Everything seemed so different then, so filled with hope. He envisioned a glimmering future where crowds would cheer for him, comic books would be written about him, and he would inspire people to do good. He’d thought he’d be a hero.
I am a hero. They just don’t know it.
The rain doesn’t show any sign of letting up; if anything, the storm seems to be getting worse. Thunder roars in the distance, and the water in the streambed is rising. Bells shivers. His stomach growls, and his eyelids are drooping, but he can’t fall asleep. Otherwise, he’ll lose the shift, and the robots will find him.
It’s going to be a long night.