Prologue The road wound along the countryside, nearing the house. It was no ordinary house, more a mansion that could be seen as soon as the cars rounded the corner. Huge and sprawling, it had four floors and sat on fifty two acres of land, mostly hillsides and forest. The yard was a splendid mix of fruit trees and flowerbeds that had been coaxed so that even the expensive and sought after rare varieties of roses and tulips and daffodils, each a championship strain, somehow managed to look wild and overgrown without losing a casual elegance. It was a garden jungle, complete with pet peacocks roaming the grounds and calling out in sharp mews. The occasional tiered pond trickled softly, koi and carp swimming about and shimmering in the sun where it peeked through the apple and pear and cherry and plum trees. There was a large parking circle, but even this was rather splendid, a lovely trellis covered in fancy honeysuckle and wild wysteria arched over the parking circle and attracted all manner of buzzing bees and flitting ruby throated hummingbirds. A long, flagstone path wound from the parking circle to the front door, which opened into a small foyer complete with coat and bag hooks. Two maids arrived to take the guests' things to their rooms; they were to stay the night. This had been their uncle's house, and it seemed he had spared no expense. The halls they found themselves in passed parlors and sun rooms and dining halls of all sorts. One room, door cracked open, seemed to be home to a rather elaborate pool table and several other bits of fun. There was even the latest holographic console for gaming and watching television. Another room was dark but for the lighting from what appeared to be walls made of fish tanks and tables and clocks, also full of live, tropical fish. The guests were lead through a door that opened onto what could be mistaken for the back yard, if back yards were totally enclosed by the rest of the house. This indoor arboretum was closed and carefully regulated so that something was always blooming. This time, it was the crab apple trees, flowering beautifully in pinks and whites with hints of purple. The ground was covered in blue phlox, and the guests and their parents were guided to take a seat in the center of this arboretum, where the sun shown down through the slightly green skylight. A woman in a smart looking suit came walking through the trees, oddly barefoot. Her strawberry blond hair was cut short and stylish, and her suit, instead of being somber and grey, was covered in a pattern of apple blossoms and golden delicious apples. Her jewelry was gold, as well, but simple. Small stud earrings, a golden chain with a heart of diamonds, and a golden bracelet. Her nails were perfectly manicured and pedicured. She held out a remote and clicked a button. Part of the ground rose up, revealing a holo viewer. It was left off for the moment. "Hello," said the woman, turning to face the guests. "My name is Susan George, and I am the executor of Filbert Ash's will. Your uncle was a dear man, with a wonderful sense of humor. He is missed and loved. Now, I know not all of you necessarily knew him well, but those who did should appreciate the eccentricities of his will. I do hope you will consider carrying out his final requests." She turned on the holo emitters and stepped back as Uncle Filbert, sitting on a beach chair somewhere in New Oahu, filled the holo viewer. "Hello, darling nieces and nephews. I wish I could have seen you all one more time before I passed. I've done you the favor of breaking the will up into chunks, so you only see the chunky bits that apply to you personally. If you wish to see the rest, talk to dear Susan and she will play them for you. "You are each wonderful people. I can't necessarily say the same for all your parents, who have managed to irk me on several occasions. There are probably rumors that I've left each of you a sizeable inheritance. Well, for once, the rumors are correct! Satoru, Jacques, James, Samara, and Rohdey, you have each inherited five million credits from my personal estate. Or rather, you will inherit this amount, provided you carry out my last request. "You are to go on an adventure. I was always quite fond of comics and always wished my childhood had been like Johnny Quest's or something wonderful. Well, you all are a bit older than the boy adventurer, but not too old to enjoy a series of wonderful adventures that will lead you to rely on one another and hopefully pull this family back together. You will be going to twenty worlds and completing twenty adventures. These will be fully funded adventures that will not take away from your inheritance. To further sweeten the pot, not only are you excused from all schoolwork, but you will be going without your harpies, er, I mean, parents. You will also be given a small amount of your inheritance at the completion of each adventure. Say, ten thousand credits. And when you complete all twenty adventures, you will get the remainder, and one hell of a party! Sound good? "Good. Here are the rules: "Number one. No help from outside sources. You will be traveling with Susan and a retinue of helpers. They can give you subtle guidance and fetch you the odd thing, but YOU must solve the adventures without them giving you any real help. "Number Two. You must work together. If one of you decides to quit, the game is over. "Number Three. You must complete the challenges in order. No skipping and coming back to any. "Number Four. Be on your best behavior. No causing an international or interplanetary incident. "Number Five. No cheating. Creative problem solving is welcome and encouraged, but trying to cheat or play outside of the rules will get you disqualified. Trying to break the game will get you disqualified. "And finally, Number Six. No parents. You will be given all the help and guidance you need without your folks there to help you out. You can still call or message them, but they cannot go with you. Any parent trying to sneak along or caught on the same worlds as their children will disqualify the whole lot. To make this a bit more fair, all parents are being given an all expenses paid holiday to Fairweather Three, the resort and spa planet. "So. That's really it. Talk it over and decide what to do. If you are all up for the challenge, notify Susan and she will give you the rest of the details and arrange your travel for you. Remember, I love you all. Take care, and Hail Eris!" The holo emitters powered down and the viewer sunk back into the grass, meshing perfectly as if it had never been there.