Twelve-year-old Jake McQuade had never flown a military helicopter behind enemy lines, but it really wasn't all that hard.
Sure, bad guys kept firing machine guns and mortars and Hydra rockets at him, but Jake and his chopper dodged all the incoming fire.
"Well done, son!" said the general strapped in beside him.
"Just using my math and geometry skills, sir."
"Now we need to go rescue the hostages!"
Six pulsing green dots throbbed on the holographic display projected on the whirlybird's windshield. They showed Jake the precise location of the hostages: trapped behind the walls of a heavily armed desert fortress the helicopter was heading to.
A nasty new fireball erupted on Jake's right. Another near miss. He jerked the joystick to the left.
"Warning," said the on-board computer. "Fighter jet on your tail. Prepare for missile attack."
"Two can play at that game," said Jake. He punched in a string of code-an algorithm he'd actually written himself-that would command his starboard Sidewinder missile to execute a complex backward, loop-the-loop, boomerang shot that no chopper pilot had ever dared attempt before.
"If the next missile hits us, son, we're toast!" barked the general. "Toast!"
"Hold off on the marmalade, sir!"
Jake punched the launch button.
The rocket streaked away in a blistering plume of white. It arced up and over the helicopter, flipped back around, and surprised the enemy jet with a direct heat-seeking hit to its tailpipe.
"Woo-hoo!" cried Jake, doing a quick arm-chugging, hip-swiveling chair dance.
"Well done!" shouted the general.
"Math and physics, sir. Math and physics."
A two-note danger signal blared.
"Fish sticks!" shouted the general. "That was our final weapon!" More angry warning lights throbbed up and down the control panel. "The bad guys still have rockets, mortars, and a tank!"
"Good," said Jake.
"Their tank, sir. We're gonna borrow it!"
Jake tapped another string of code into the chopper's on-board computer. Up until a few months ago, all he could tap were one-finger text messages with lots of emojis so he didn't have to spell so many words. But then, overnight, things changed. Jake McQuade became supersmart.
"I can hack into the enemy's system data through heat emissions, then use the thermal sensors of my computer to transfer command and control of that tank's weaponry to me!"
"But the enemy tank is a T-26-Z-the heaviest ever built. It's stuck in the mud. It's run out of fuel. It can't move."
"Temporary problems, sir. Which, by the way, are way more fun than math problems. Time for a mic drop."
Jake deployed the giant superhydraulic electromagnet positioned underneath his helicopter's belly. The thing was straight out of a scrap metal junkyard. The "Big Grabber" was standard equipment on this, the most sophisticated chopper in the military's secret arsenal. It's why Jake had selected it for this mission.
"It's all tangents and vectors from here, sir. And yaw. Can't forget the yaw. It's in all the flight manuals."
Jake flawlessly executed a deft series of moves. He heard the solid, metallic THUNK the instant his heavy-duty magnet snagged the ginormous tank and hoisted it up off the ground. The thing swung from the helicopter like a forty-ton yo-yo.
Jake, of course, still had to evade incoming mortar rounds. And a few more rocket shots. But avoiding those blasts was a simple matter of three-dimensional point-plotting. Finally, at precisely the right moment, and compensating for the arc of the dangling tank's swing, he fired.
The tank's turret gun blasted a hole in the side of the fortress wall.
Jake fired again.
The hole became a tunnel.
Jake swung the tank sideways. With the flick of a switch, he turned off the electromagnet. The T-26-Z flew away and cratered into the desert floor.
Free of the tank's weight, Jake could easily maneuver the helicopter into position for a soft landing.
The six terrified hostages rushed out of the escape tunnel and climbed into the chopper.
"Well done, son!" said the general. "You just set a new world record for Gunship Air Battle Extreme!"
Jake heard a buzzer sound. Bells rang. A crowd cheered and chanted his name.
He peeled off his headset and virtual reality goggles.
Up on the giant video screen in the hotel ballroom, his name was at the top of the leaderboard!
"The smartest kid in the universe has just defeated the world's smartest computer!" announced the emcee onstage with Jake.
Triumphant whoop-whoop music blasted out of concert speakers. Jake waved at the six hundred gamers and fans crammed into the ballroom of the Imperial Marquis, the hotel where his mom was the events coordinator. In Jake's humble opinion, this e-games competition, the first Zinkle Extreme Masters Tournament, was the best event his mom or the hotel had ever hosted.
A dozen hard-core gamers had just gone up against the Zinkle Virtuoso, the smartest, fastest, most artificially intelligent computer ever created by legendary tech whiz Zane Zinkle. That's why there were a dozen names on the leaderboard. But jake mcquade was all the way up at the top!
"Smart thinking with that tank, Jake!" said Grace Garcia, joining Jake onstage. Grace was another seventh grader at Riverview Middle School. One of the smartest. Definitely the prettiest. At least that's what Jake thought, even though he was too chicken to tell her. "You were amazing!"
Jake's pale, freckled face went code pink. Grace had that effect on him. When she smiled and her eyes sparkled, Jake blushed.
"Who loves ya, baby?" Now his best bud, Kojo Shelton, was on the stage. Kojo was smart and funny and, for whatever reason, loved to stream TV shows from way back in the 1970s and '80s, including one he'd stumbled across called Kojak.
"We might be soul mates," he'd once told Jake. "He's Ko-jak and I'm Ko-jo. Sure, he's a bald, old Greek dude and I'm a handsome, young Black dude, but come on-we both dig Tootsie Pops."
"Who loves ya, baby?" was Kojak's old catchphrase. It had quickly become Kojo's new one.
"I'll tell you who loves him," said Grace. "This whole crowd. Jake, you were fantástico!"
"Gracias," he told her, because he'd recently become fluent in Spanish. The Spanish he learned the old-fashioned way. Studying. The stuff he knew to win the video game? A lot of that came from the jelly beans. The Ingestible Knowledge chewables that only Grace, Kojo, Jake, and their absentminded inventor friend, Haazim Farooqi, knew about.
"What're you going to do with the prize money?" Grace asked.
"Donate it to charity, of course," said Jake.
"Awesome. Pick your charity and I'll match your donation."
Jake might be "the smartest kid in the universe," but Grace Garcia was on the short list for "the richest kid in the world," on account of her family's buried treasure, which the three friends had discovered while working together to save their school. Sure, Grace spent a lot of her money on sneakers (including some very colorful Air Jordans), but she also supported more charities than Jake could count, and he could count pretty high. One of the jelly beans had made him a math whiz.
A slender young man in blue jeans and a black turtleneck snaked his way through the mob crowding the hotel ballroom floor.
The man, who had a security detail clearing the way for him, wore glasses with round, invisible frames and looked like he trimmed his shaggy bangs with a toenail clipper. Jake recognized the man immediately. Zane Zinkle. The head of Zinkle Inc., makers of Zinkle computers, zPhones, zPads, zBox gaming systems, and tons of software. Zinkle was also the mind behind Virtuoso-the supersmart quantum computer that Jake had just defeated in the head-to-head video game competition.
Zinkle was the most famous bazillionaire in the high-tech world. He was bigger than any of the brainiacs out in Silicon Valley. And he was only twenty-nine years old.
Zinkle was trailed by a team of eager assistants, all of them dressed in blue jeans and black turtlenecks. One guy was toting a giant cardboard check made out to Jake McQuade. A check worth twenty thousand dollars.
"Dag," said Kojo when he saw the check. "You sure you want to give all that money to charity?"
Jake looked to Grace. She smiled.
"I know an animal rescue group that could really use the help," she said. "They find homes for cats and dogs."
"Yeah," said Jake, smiling back. "I'm all in, Kojo."
"Cool. That's what I'd do, too. Especially for, you know, cats and dogs. Love me some cats and dogs."
Zinkle, his security detail, and his staff made their way up onto the stage.
"Congratulations, Mr. McQuade," said Zinkle, adjusting his glasses with his pinky.
"Thank you, sir."
"Would you like to pose with the check now?" asked a woman in his entourage. Her glasses matched Zinkle's.
"Not now, Christina!" Zinkle snapped.
"Of course, not now, sir. I meant later. Whenever it's convenient."
Zinkle turned back to Jake. His smile looked like it hurt his face.
"Jake, you are the first gamer to ever defeat Virtuoso. We're going to have to analyze what went wrong with its AI this afternoon, aren't we, Christina?"
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir."
Zinkle's smile broadened. "I must say, Jake, your move with the tank was extremely . . . unorthodox."
Jake shrugged. "I improvised. Zigged when Virtuoso probably figured I'd zag."
Jake's little sister, Emma, a nine-year-old fourth grader, squeezed her way through the crowd. Their mom was with her.
"Jake? My friend Avery wants a selfie with you," said Emma. "She's your biggest fan. Don't ask me why. . . ."
"Emma?" said their mom with a laugh. "Be nice."
"I'm just busting his chops a little, Mom. Somebody has to or he'll get a big head."
Jake grinned. "Come on, Emma. Let's go take a selfie with Avery. Catch you later, Mr. Zinkle."
With Emma leading the way, Jake followed his family offstage.
"Sorry you didn't get your picture, Mr. Zinkle," said Grace. She grabbed the giant cardboard check. "Thanks for this."
"If you still want that photo," said Kojo, handing Zinkle a crisp business card, "have your people call Jake's people, which, hello, is me, baby. I am the Man's main man."
Kojo and Grace followed Jake.
Zinkle narrowed his eyes as they strode away.
"Where's my car?"
"Why is it outside? I need it. Now! Get me out of here!"
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir."
The burly security guards wedged their way through the crowd, plowing a path to the exit.
Zinkle pinky-adjusted his glasses again.
And muttered Jake McQuade's name over and over and over, all the way out to the street.
A few days later, Jake, Kojo, and Grace were in the dressing room of a television studio where Jake was about to appear on the hit game show Quiz Zone.
"The mayor loves Quiz Zone," Grace had told Jake a few days earlier during social studies. "If you go on the show and win, I guarantee she'll want to meet you."
"And if she wants to meet you," added Kojo, "she'll need to schedule a meeting with us to talk about our recycling project."
So Jake had accepted the invite to do the game show. Now Grace was smearing goop on his face.
"He has to wear makeup?" said Kojo, crinkling his nose.
"It's a TV show," said Grace. "Everybody on TV wears makeup."
"Even the soccer players?"
"That's different," said Jake.
"How?" asked Kojo. "I watch soccer on TV. . . ."
"Kojo?" Grace said firmly.
Kojo held up both hands in surrender.
Jake was about to compete against the two all-time Quiz Zone champions: college professor Dr. Zelda Melinger and former professional pinochle player Danny Fontaine.
Millions of viewers (including the mayor) would be watching. It was must-see TV: the smartest kid in the universe versus the world's smartest adults.
"You nervous?" asked Grace.
"A little bit," said Jake. His eyes darted around the room to make sure nobody was listening. "What if the you-know-whats wear off in the middle of the show?"
"The jelly beans?" blurted Kojo. "Are those the you-know-whats? Mr. Farooqi's jelly beans?"
"Kojo?" said Grace.
"Sorry. Forgot we were still going incognito about Haazim and his, uh, confectionary creations."
"Mr. Farooqi doesn't want anybody to know about his IK experiments until he can replicate the you-know-whats he gave Jake," Grace reminded Kojo.
"Actually," said Kojo, "he didn't give the you-know-whats to you-know-who."
It was true. Jake had found an unmarked jar of jelly beans in what was called the greenroom of his mother's hotel conference center. It was where speakers waited before they went onstage. That night, there'd been a major scientific symposium taking place in the ballroom. Jake was hungry. He saw the jelly beans. They weren't labeled with anybody's name. No one was around to claim them. So he scarfed down the whole jar. Less than half an hour later, he was instantly intelligent.
A TV tech wearing a headset knocked on the dressing room door. "Ready, Mr. McQuade?"
"Uh, yeah," said Jake. "I guess."
"Great. Let's head out to the set."
"Good luck!" said Grace.
"Just be you," encouraged Kojo. "The new, smart you. Not the old, lazy you."
Jake followed his escort into the brightly lit studio and waved at his mom and Emma, who were in the front row of the audience bleachers. Grace and Kojo took seats next to them. Jake shook hands with his competitors, Dr. Melinger and Mr. Fontaine.
"Good luck, kid," said Dr. Melinger, the college professor.
"You're definitely going to need it," sniped Mr. Fontaine, the pinochle player. Both returning champions had smug sneers on their faces. Jake was a cockroach, and they were the shoes about to squish him.
"Don't let them get inside your head!" coached Grace from the bleachers. "It's already crowded enough in there."
The game show's theme music started up. The studio audience applauded. The famous host strode to his desk to introduce the contestants. Jake had to stand on a wooden box. He was too short for his podium.
"Here's our first Quiz Zone question," said the host. "Contestants, please buzz in if you know the answer-but kindly wait until after I finish reading the entire question."
Jake fidgeted with his buzzer button. His hands were sweaty. He knew sweat glands were particularly numerous on your palms and under your armpits. When you're feeling stressed, nerves activated these sweat glands. When those nerves overreacted, it caused hyperhidrosis.
Jake hoped hyperhidrosis would be the answer to the first question.
The host read the question off a card as it appeared on a studio monitor.
"John's father has five sons. Alan, Blan, Clan, and Dlan. What did he call his fifth son?"
The pinochle champ was the first to buzz in.
"Mr. Fontaine?" said the host.
"Elan," he said confidently. "The five names obviously follow a logical alphabetical progression, A, B, C, D. So E-lan would be next."