Lightning flashed on the horizon. A breeze swirled around the Cast Members. The air tasted dusty, almost bitter, with electrical charge.
Finn Whitman, one of five kids on top of the final parade float, pointed to the far gate where the Magic Kingdom's DHI-Day parade was to pass through, where five identical kids, wearing identical clothing to theirs, stood waiting.
DHI stood for Disney Host Interactive or Day-light Hologram Imaging—depending on whom you asked—a recent addition to the Magic Kingdom that offered the holograms of five teenage kids as Park hosts. The five kids who had auditioned for those roles were typically forbidden to enter the Magic Kingdom. But tonight was special: it was a DHI celebration.
Finn sensed trouble coming, wondering if it had to do with the electronic illusions waiting by the gate.
"How weird is that?" he said, seeing himself as a hologram not thirty yards away. The Finn Whitman standing by the gate looked no different from himself, except for a slight sparkle, a glow, when viewed from a certain angle.
"It gives me the weebies," said Charlene, regarding her identical, though electronically projected, twin. She too wore a cheerleader's outfit; she too had her blond hair pulled back severely into a ponytail, not a hair out of place; she too looked slightly embarrassed to have the body of a young woman, instead of a girl. Charlene was an athlete and champion gymnast and had clearly been recruited as a Disney Host for her clean, cheerleader looks and her uncanny physical ability. She was good with people and could make friends with anyone. Most kids at school were jealous of her—but the other DHIs appreciated the skills and abilities she brought to the team.
The hologram of Charlene stood next to the hologram of Finn, but the software had all five holograms in pause, making them look more like glowing mannequins than kids. They awaited the start of the parade with the patience of the robots they were.
"We've been here before as them," said Willa, "but never with them."
"I was, once," corrected Finn. "Only the one time, and I was being chased by Security. I have to admit, it was plenty strange to see myself guiding some guests while I was also running for my life."
"What's that?" asked Philby, pointing up at the rise behind the tall boundary fence inside the Magic Kingdom.
"Cinderella Castle," answered Charlene.
"No, the gray balloon," Philby said. "It's massive."
"Looks like a weather balloon," said Terry Maybeck, who seemed to stand more than a head taller than all of them. An African American, Maybeck currently wore his hair in dreads, making him look older than the others.
The swarming clouds suddenly swallowed the large balloon.
"It doesn't make sense," said Philby. "You don't release a weather balloon in an electrical storm unless you're Ben Franklin."
"Not our problem," said Maybeck. "All we've got to do is ride the float and wave to the guests. Let's stick with the program."
At that moment, music started and the first float moved toward the open gate. The five holograms came to life, as if a switch had been thrown. They formed a line at the front of the parade, waving to the bushes, as if guests were waving back.
"Sometimes our DHIs look so stupid," Willa said.
"Sometimes?" Philby said sarcastically.
"They paid us well," Maybeck reminded them, "and we got Gold Fastpasses for our families. We've got nothing to complain about."
"And they're having a parade to celebrate our DHIs returning to the Kingdom," Finn said, "and we get to be part of it. Things could be worse."
"Who here doesn't miss the way it used to be? Before they patched the source code?" Maybeck met eyes with each of them.
Finn had been the first to "cross over" during his sleep: to wake up as his own hologram in the Magic Kingdom. Initially it had seemed impossible, but encounters with pirates and witches had made him reconsider what was real and what was make-believe. Soon, all five kids had come to the same realization: when they went to sleep at night they awoke inside the Magic Kingdom as their DHI holograms. In reality, it had not been a corruption in the software's source code but the ingenious work of a veteran Disney Imagineer named Wayne, who had needed their help. But no one at Disney knew this other than them, so recently programmers had inserted a software patch to correct "the problem."
None of them knew if Wayne could, or would, undo it, allowing them to return to the Magic Kingdom as nighttime holograms. But all of them secretly hoped he would.
"Here we go!" said Finn. "Hang on!"
Their float jerked and climbed up the sloping asphalt just behind another float carrying Aladdin and Jasmine. With all the floats strung out in a line, the kids had lost sight of their matching holograms out in front, leading the way.
The music swelled, and a man's voice dramatically announced, "Welcome to DHI-Day at Magic King-dom!" The sound of applause rose above the lush jungle landscaping.
"Keep your smiles on," said Maybeck, "and hang on tight."
But at that moment, all five kids lost their balance and stumbled into each other. Jasmine and Aladdin also slipped off their pillows as their float accelerated to close a sudden gap that had appeared in the parade line.
It took Finn a moment to spot the problem: one of the floats—the villains float—had been pulled out of the line and off to the side. The Aladdin float, and the one carrying the DHIs, had sped up to close the gap.
"What's with that?" said Maybeck. "Broken down?"
"No," said Philby. "It's empty."
He was right: the float's platform lacked a character or Cast Member. It was just an empty wooden rectangle. Below it, the Cast Members responsible for preparing the floats scurried around frantically, hurrying to get the empty float out of the way and to fill the void created by its absence.
"What happened?" Finn called down to one of the Cast Members just before reaching the gate and the adoring guests.
The man didn't answer immediately. But his face gave away his concern. "He was right there a minute ago," he mumbled, nearly drowned out by the music. "I swear he was!"
"Who?" called Finn. "Which character?"
He and the others had long since learned to take nothing for granted. Not when there were Overtakers in the Park, who wanted to gain control of the Magic Kingdom. There were no accidents here: everything happened for a reason, even if the other Cast Members didn't recognize it.
"That float should have Chernabog on it!" said Philby, shouting to be heard above the music. "Only he's not there." He turned and looked back at the empty float as they passed fully through the gate and into the Park. Finn had turned around as well. So had Maybeck.
"Who's Chernabog?" grumbled Maybeck.
Philby answered, "Only the most powerful villain Walt Disney ever created."
Finn's voice was overpowered by the joyous music and the crush of applause. "And he's gone missing? That can't be good."KINGDOM KEEPERS II: Disney at Dawn
Finn felt the quickening breeze of the lightning storm bearing down on the Park. He hoped the weather would hold off at least until the parade finished. It was an evening parade with fireworks to follow. He didn't want it canceled. It wasn't every day he was asked to ride a float in Disney World.
He kept checking the sky as the line of floats reached a view of Tom Sawyer Island. He noted that the water looked oddly green and mysterious. His four friends waved and smiled at the crowds—big crowds. All but Maybeck, who nodded with his whole body but never actually waved, his head bopping and moving to the parade music.
As their float moved through Frontierland, Finn caught sight of a girl among the crowd. She was like a beam of light or a bright star in the night sky, the way she stood out. Amid the hundreds of guests—thousands?—she had appeared almost magically. Nut-colored skin, thanks to an Asian mother and African American father; a tangle of dark hair bouncing as, running now, she kept up with the steady movement of the parade. She seemed almost to float above the ground. Immediately behind her followed Jezebel. And though they claimed to be sisters, it had to be by adoption. Amanda's skin was a rich caramel, her hair so dark brown it was mistaken for black. Jez had once had jet black hair as well, though it was no longer so. But her pale, translucent skin set her apart, not just from Amanda, but from every girl Finn had ever met; it had depth, as if you could see into and through the first layer to some part of her that lay beyond.
"Amanda!" Finn shouted, breaking a strict rule that required silence of any Cast Members on a float.
The other kids hurried over and waved enthusiastically at both girls.
Amanda and Jez waved back, glad to have been spotted. Amanda gave Finn an enthusiastic thumbs-up—or at least he thought she'd intended it for him. He hadn't seen or heard from her in weeks. She hadn't been in school. She'd disappeared the same day her sister had somehow been transformed by Finn—an event he still didn't fully understand. Jez had gone from evil twin to a sweet, even angelic, girl, all in less than a minute. Only then had Amanda dropped the bomb that Jezebel was her sister, an explanation that had never been fully clarified.
"Where did they come from?" Charlene asked. Even now Finn heard a tinge of jealousy in her voice. Or was that suspicion? There was a lot unanswered about Jez and Amanda. "And check out that hair color. Since when is she a strawberry blonde? Last time we saw her she had hair like my granny's."
"What the heck are they doing here?" Philby called out. He didn't mean the sisters.
Two big monkeys were moving in the bushes, swinging and keeping perfect pace with . . . was it possible? . . . the float. Their float.
"Since when are there monkeys in the Magic Kingdom?" Maybeck said.
"Are they wild?" Charlene asked, having noticed them as well.
Finn saw something his friends apparently didn't: the monkeys weren't following the float; they were following Jez and Amanda, keeping perfect pace with their movements.
"There aren't any primates in the wild in northern Florida," Philby said, ever the expert. Philby was a walking encyclopedia—he knew everything, and what he didn't know he knew how to research. His red hair and rock-climbing, thrill-seeking mind-set played against the geek he really was. A favorite of the girls at school, he wanted nothing to do with them. He spent his weekends with a climbing wall and a laptop.
The parade turned just then, making a graceful arc past the Hall of Presidents. The crowds thickened. Amanda's efforts to keep up with the DHI float failed. She and Jez stopped, caught in a bottleneck of Park guests. Finn waved, and Amanda waved back, but it wasn't a pleasant or friendly wave; it was more like panic.
Growing smaller now and being absorbed by the crowd, Amanda pointed to Cinderella Castle. Then sharply up. Finn nodded, hoping to communicate that he too was aware of the oversize gray balloon. But Amanda shook her head violently, as if he didn't understand. He nodded, again trying to say that he did understand. He felt constrained by not being able to shout down at her. Amanda frantically pointed toward the sky. Then she tore a leaf off a plant and pushed it against her face. Again she pointed toward the castle. Then the float rounded the corner, and Amanda was gone.
Finn looked up at the swirling, dark clouds. They'll cancel the parade, he wanted to shout. Maybe she was concerned that he and the others were so high above ground when lightning threatened. But surely the Park authorities had it under control. He wasn't worried about their safety—he just didn't want the parade canceled.
Maybeck edged closer to Finn, pushing past Charlene, who was waving two pom-poms. "What do you suppose they're doing here?" Maybeck asked, while bobbing his head and trying to keep a smile on his face.
"AWOL all this time, and they suddenly reappear for our reopening celebration. Doesn't that strike you as just a little bit odd?"
"Everything about them is odd, if you ask me," said Charlene, overhearing.
"What was with the leaf?" Finn mumbled. No one heard him.
"I like them both," said Willa, joining in. Willa looked constantly on edge. She had chocolate-colored, captivating eyes and a somewhat grating voice.
"You like everybody," Charlene said.
"So what?" Willa complained.
"It just doesn't work. You can't like everybody," Charlene said.
"Why not? Of course you can!" Willa said.
"Oh, forget it," Charlene said, shaking her pom-poms. She looked more eighteen than fourteen.
"Amanda knows where I live," Finn said. "Other-wise I might have said that they came here to catch up with us after reading about the grand opening."
"If she'd wanted to catch up with you, she'd have come by your place," Maybeck said.
"So it's you, I suppose," Finn said. Maybeck believed every girl was in love with him. "She knows where you and Jelly live, too, don't forget."
"I'm just saying the timing's kind of interesting," Maybeck said. "We know there's something strange about those two, and there just happens to be a pair of monkeys following them."
Both Jez and Amanda reappeared, staying with the parade float once again.
With Amanda stabbing the sky and looking worried, Finn pointed back, behind her, trying to show her the monkeys. But before he could tell if she saw them, he lost sight of Amanda.
"She could have been pointing to the balloon," Finn said. "Even though it disappeared, maybe they saw it too. Whatever she saw, she was . . . I don't know . . . agitated. I don't think they came here to celebrate. I think they came to warn us."
"Warn us?" Charlene said.
"About the weather?" Maybeck said skeptically. "I doubt it."
"Could have been about the primates," Philby said.
"Yeah. A couple of monkeys," snapped Maybeck sarcastically. "Now, there's something to set your legs trembling."
"Maybe they were running from the monkeys," Willa said.
"I'm not even sure they saw the monkeys," said Finn.
The parade kept moving, and their float along with it. They crossed the lagoon, heading for the Hub, the density of the crowds increasing. Cheers arose. Kids screamed out their names.
"We're rock stars," said Maybeck.
"Our DHIs are the rock stars," clarified Finn. "Let's not confuse the two."
Finn caught a lightning flash out of the corner of his eye. The storm was moving closer. He looked up at the sky to see that it was far darker than even a few minutes ago. Was this what Amanda had wanted him to see? His mind reeled with possibilities. Why had she seemed so agitated? The low clouds and swirling fog obscured any sight of the gray weather balloon. Would anyone believe him now?
Suddenly the music was interrupted. "Ladies and gentlemen!" the booming voice announced. "Welcome to the Magic Kingdom's DHI-Day celebration! Please direct your attention to Cinderella Castle, where the fireworks will begin shortly."
"Look!" Philby said, "they're cutting the parade short!"
Sure enough, the parade now hooked around the Hub, and instead of heading down Main Street, USA, for its final segment, it went fully around the Hub and back the way it had come. Finn briefly saw the five DHIs far ahead, leading the way.
Whoever was in charge didn't want the parade caught in the storm.
"Don't you think we should tell someone about that balloon?" Willa asked. "That's got to be dangerous in an electrical storm."
"They must already know, don't you think?" said Finn.
Philby said, "The string or wire holding it is tied to that window. Maybe it's some kind of experiment."
"Isn't that the window to the apartment?" Finn asked. As DHIs, the kids had previously used the castle's penthouse apartment as a hiding place.
"What if that's what Amanda was pointing to?" Finn continued. "What if she was trying to show us the balloon?"
"But why?" Willa asked.
"What's so important about a balloon?"
"Nothing the Overtakers would like more than to ruin the DHI celebration," said Philby. "What if they're trying to use lightning to set Cinderella Castle on fire or something?"
"I wouldn't put it past them," said Finn.
"We don't know if the Overtakers exist anymore," said Maybeck. "If they do, don't you think Wayne would contact us? Has anyone heard from the old dude, by the way?"
The Overtakers were a group of Magic Kingdom characters, rebels led by Maleficent, the evil sorceress from Sleeping Beauty. Their goal was to overthrow the good and take control of the Park for themselves. Wayne and others believed the Overtakers intended to imprison any characters and Cast Members not part of their group. They had been caught preparing vast dungeons beneath Pirates of the Caribbean, which were said to be for this purpose.
The DHIs were now also known as the Kingdom Keepers—one of the most popular attractions in the Park. The last thing the Kingdom Keepers could afford was for Maleficent to gain power again. They had barely stopped her the first time, and she now considered them among her greatest enemies—a distinction they could have done without.
"We should probably tell someone about the balloon," Finn said, moving to the back of the float and the small ladder there. "At the very least, it shouldn't be up in the storm."
The peculiar phenomenon that had been discovered shortly after the Disney Host Interactives had been installed in the Magic Kingdom had carried all five kids into a struggle with the Overtakers and the evil fairy Maleficent.
Wayne had showed them an astonishing three-story maze called Escher's Keep in Cinderella Castle, which led to the little-known penthouse apartment, now a secret hideaway used by Wayne.
Finn wondered aloud if the balloon might be something Wayne was responsible for.
"If Wayne's up there," Philby said, "we should go see him."
"You can't leave now," complained Charlene, waving her pom-poms eagerly for the cheering crowd.
"Cover for me," said Finn. "No one's going to notice if one of us isn't here."
"They'll notice if you aren't," Willa said. "They won't notice if I'm not."
"That's not true. Besides, I'm the one going, so I don't think it really matters."
"We never go solo. Remember what happened to Maybeck?"
Finn stopped, one foot over the rail and on the small ladder leading down. Maybeck's DHI had once fallen into a trap that had prevented the real Terry Maybeck from waking up. The so-called "Sleeping Beauty Syndrome" might have killed him.
"It was your rule," Willa reminded him. "And it was a good one. We've had no trouble since we started pairing up."
"Okay," Finn said. "So?"
"Someone's going to notice if you leave," Maybeck warned.
"Just keep moving," said Finn. "The more the three of you move around up here, the less likely I'll be missed."
"You don't actually think we're going to let you do this alone, do you?" Maybeck said.
"We're all coming," Philby said. "Here's the plan. . . ." He pulled them all into a huddle at the center of the float. "The fewest number of guests will be on the bridge to Liberty Square. We get off and start shaking hands and signing autographs like it's all part of the parade. That's also the closest we're going to get to the castle. When we make our break, we all go at once—again, like it's scripted. If we get separated, we meet inside the castle in Escher's Keep."
Lightning flashed again. A few seconds passed before the first rumble of thunder rippled through the air.
"That lightning is still some distance away from here, right?" Charlene asked anxiously.
"Closer than it was. You couldn't hear thunder a few minutes ago," Philby said. "I'll bet they're closing the rides—the mountain attractions and roller coasters. That's going to mean a whole bunch of the guests in and around the Hub for the fireworks."
"If we really saw a balloon, whether they believe us or not, we've got to convince them to check it out before that lightning gets here." Finn couldn't stop thinking about Amanda holding up that leaf to her face. Green skin? Was that the message? More than anything, he hoped they might find the two sisters. He sensed they had some of the answers.
"And if they don't care about the balloon?" Willa said.
"We're approaching the bridge, people," Philby announced. "If we're going to do this, now's our chance."
"Okay," Finn said, working his way down the ladder. The others followed.
He happened to look up at Charlene just as she blinked furiously to protest leaving the float. "We can't do this!" she said.
Her blinking revealed a subtle green shadow on her lids, which enhanced the color of her eyes.
Finn spoke what he'd been thinking—what Amanda had been trying to tell him by putting the green leaf to her cheek.
He called out to the others, "Maleficent is inside the castle. That's what Amanda was trying to tell us."
Excerpted from KINGDOM KEEPERS II: DISNEY AT DAWN © Copyright 2011 by Ridley Pearson. Reprinted with permission by Disney-Hyperion. All rights reserved.