THE ICARUS REVERSAL
Completely disoriented now, even more so than usual after changing back, Jamie looked around wildly, taking in her new surroundings in a state close to hysteria.
This room was similar to the first one she'd found herself in, lit by a kind of glowing white plastic which made up the floors, walls and ceiling. It was square-shaped and considerably larger, however, and instead of one circular table there were three, laid out in a triangular fashion. There was also a total of thirteen plush chairs arrayed around the tables, which were much more cafeteria style than the first table had been.
A metal door was set in one wall, while the opposite wall boasted a black television-type screen. Underneath the screen at about waist-level was a two or three foot deep indentation. Both features ran the entire length of the wall.
Scattered around the room were the kids she'd seen at the start of this nightmare. Some of them, anyway.
Nearest her were the little dark-haired boy and the kid with the cratered face and weird black robes. His creepy yellow eyes were red and watering, and he was glaring across the room at the Asian kid in the ninja costume, who seemed to be glaring back. She also had the tall, very well-built boy with the blond crew cut and green eyes standing next to her table, wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt.
The ninja kid had that freaky alien with him, the one in padded leather with the brown skin and wrinkled forehead. On his other side was another teenager wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt. He had blue eyes and wavy blond hair. To his left was a younger, smaller blond-haired and blue eyed boy in jeans and a striped summer shirt, with a knapsack.
At the five person table near the wall with the black screen were both of the two remaining girls. One wore jean shorts with a yellow top and a backward baseball cap, while the other was auburn-haired and had on some kind of strange, futuristic-looking one piece garment. There was the brown-haired boy with the bowl haircut and also the guy with the really long blond hair and the stone-age outfit. Finally there was the red-haired boy in the sandals and tunic. With a snarl that teen lunged at the long-haired kid, but before he touched his target there was a flash of light and the redhead was somehow hurled away from his victim and onto the floor, skidding to a stop just before he hit the wall.
“ THERE WILL BE NO VIOLENCE OUTSIDE THE BATTLEFIELD!” Archon's electronic voice thundered. “ THAT IS WHY YOU HAVE BEEN RELIEVED OF YOUR WEAPONS . THIS IS YOUR TIME TO REST AND REGAIN YOUR STRENGTH. ANYONE WHO TRIES TO HARM ANOTHER BEFORE YOU ARE RETURNED TO THE BATTLEFIELD TOMORROW WILL BE STOPPED.”
Groaning the redhead slowly picked himself up off the floor again. Meanwhile the girl in yellow moved to stand defiantly between him and his victim, while the brown-haired boy seemed to be making sure the shaken blonde was okay.
“ CONGRATULATIONS ON SURVIVING YOUR FIRST DAY!” Archon continued, in a more moderate tone. “ I KNOW YOU ARE HUNGRY, ESPECIALLY AFTER MISSING BREAKFAST AND LUNCH. GO TO THE WALL OPPOSITE THE DOOR AND SAY THE NAME OF WHATEVER FOOD YOU WOULD LIKE. I WILL EXPLAIN YOUR LIVING ARRANGEMENTS AFTER YOU HAVE EATEN.”
The alien acted first, striding over to the wall and calling for, “A roasted targ and a bottle of blood wine!”
With a shimmer a platter piled high with meat appeared in the gap, along with a large corked bottle. The crew-cut kid was next, ordering a coke, burger and fries. Slowly, warily, everyone else moved to the opening to get their food.
Everyone, that is, but her. She wasn't hungry at all, which could mean only one thing. Jamie closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Then she opened them again, pulled out a chair, and sunk listlessly down into it.
She didn't remember what had happened, of course. She never remembered what she had done while Changed. She didn't even know who or what had managed to kill her back home! The last thing she remembered was Changing in the woods. Whatever had happened after that, she had ended up here, and had apparently accounted for at least one of the absent kids.
The wave of guilt which swept through her at that thought also ignited a hot, defensive anger. It wasn't as if she had asked to be like this! She was the victim here, not the villain. What could she have done after she realized what was happening, turn herself in? Yeah, and get locked up in the loony-bin if she was lucky. If she was unlucky, if they believed her, then she'd end up in a government lab. What kind of life was that?
Everyone around her had starting eating ravenously except for the little dark-haired boy. She noticed in a distant sort of way that he was just drinking from a mug.
It was the quietest dinner she'd ever been at, the only noise being the sounds of chewing and silverware scraping together. There was no conversation at her table, or at any of the others. What could you say to people you had to kill, and who were trying to kill you?
One by one everyone finished eating. When the last person leaned back from his plate-the crew-cut kid at her table, who'd gone back for seconds-Archon spoke.
“ YOU HAVE EACH BEEN ASSIGNED LIVING QUARTERS.” A map flashed up on the screen. It showed the cafeteria at the top of a T-junction. On the left passage were seven rooms, three on each side and one at the very end. Each was labeled with a name, which Archon also proceeded to read off: Lanius, Josh, Madeline, Solan, Will, Shin-Ren, and Kenny. The opposite branch had rooms labeled Morthos, Jamie, Justin, Colin, Alexander and Jo.
“ IN EACH ROOM IS A BED, EXTRA CLOTHES, AN AREA TO WASH YOURSELF, THE MEANS TO DISPOSE OF YOUR WASTE, AND A SCREEN LIKE THIS ONE WHICH WILL DISPLAY ANYTHING YOU DESIRE. THIS SCREEN WILL ALSO INSTRUCT THOSE OF YOU UNFAMILIAR WITH SHOWERS, FAUCETS AND WASTE DISPOSAL IN THE PROPER WAY TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THESE AMENITIES.”
The lower part of the T lit up, with each of the five rooms flashing as Archon mentioned it. “IN THE CENTRAL PASSAGE IS A ROOM WITH A SWIMMING POOL, A WEIGHT ROOM, A GAME ROOM, A BICYCLE TRACK, AND A ROOM WHICH WILL SIMULATE COMBAT. AGAIN, ANY INSTRUCTIONS NEEDED TO USE THESE FACILITIES WILL BE PROVIDED THROUGH THE SCREEN IN YOUR ROOM. YOU ARE FREE TO SPEND YOUR TIME HOWEVER YOU WISH, SO LONG AS YOU DO NOT ATTEMPT TO INJURE ONE ANOTHER. FAREWELL!”
“Wait a minute!” the teen in the plaid shirt protested. “Why are you doing this to us? Who are you?”
There was no answer. The brown-skinned alien, who had for some reason pulled his chair away from the table and faced the wall while he was eating, snorted. Rising he started toward the door, as did a few others.
Before they could reach it the brown-haired boy stood and spoke in a voice which carried across the room.
“Listen to me! My name is Justin Stewart. I'm a prisoner here, just like the rest of you, but I am NOT playing Archon's game. I won't kill for his pleasure! None of us should! We may be his captives, but that doesn't mean we have to be his slaves!”
“Today I met Solan,” he indicate the long-haired boy, “and Jo,” and he pointed to the girl in the yellow shirt. “The three of us didn't try to fight each other. We talked. We agreed that we wouldn't commit murder for Archon. What do the rest of you say? Who else here is with us?”
A number of those present, Jamie included, looked around nervously, expecting Archon to punish Justin. The seconds dragged by with nothing happening. Then the redhead boy rose, walked over to Justin, and spat in his face.
Justin recoiled in disgust, instinctively wiping the spittle away. A couple of the kids laughed while the redhead turned away with a sneer and headed for the door. The Asian kid followed him and the two dark-haired boys at her table also stood up to leave. The crew-cut blond did the same, still chuckling. “Try to at least give me a fight when I catch up to you,” he urged Justin before walking out.
The other two blonds hadn't moved and the alien stood staring at Justin with an indecipherable look on his hideous face. The petite brunette in the one-piece costume, who had to be Madeline, piped up.
“I don't want to let HIM tell me what to do, but what's next? Do you have any plan for getting us out of here? Or killing Archon?”
Justin took a deep breath. “No,” he answered directly. “Not yet. If we work together, though, and pool our abilities we might be able to find a way to escape.”
“And while we search for this way you want us not to kill each other?” That was the alien, his voice gruff and deep.
“I want us not to kill anyone! We can stop the other kids without murdering them, and maybe we can convince them to join us.” Justin's voice trailed off as the alien did an abrupt about face and marched from the room.
Madeline was frowning. “Let me know if you come up with something solid,” she said. Then she literally flew to the door! Everyone seemed surprised at that, though the boy Solan flinched more visibly and violently than anyone else.
Jamie realized it was time for her to go too. She couldn't go along with this. Turning into her wolf form was the only way for her to protect herself. That was why she hadn't hesitated in the tunnel when Archon had given her the power to voluntarily assume it. And as a wolf she had no choice about who she attacked.
She made her way out the automatic door and into the white-paneled passage, turning right to go to her assigned room and once again thanking God that she didn't have to remember anything she did while she was Changed.
Justin seemed disappointed with the results of his little speech. Well, what the hell had the idiot expected?!?! His plan was short-sighted and dangerously naïve. And even if everyone had agreed to it, did he think Archon would just meekly accept their defiance? The kid was lucky he hadn't been struck down on the spot!
The fact that Justin hadn't been punished, however, seemed to indicate that Archon was going to let this farce play out. In that case the best thing for him to do would be to go along with it, at least for now.
The only other kid who hadn't left was the blond teen in the plaid shirt. He got up and went over toward Justin, and Kenny quickly followed, leaving his backpack under the table.
“I'm Josh Kirby,” the kid said, holding his hand out. Justin quickly shook Josh's hand.
“I'm Kenny Venders,” Kenny offered next, also shaking Justin's hand.
“Thanks for staying,” Justin said as greetings were exchanged with Solan and Jo. All five present sat down around the table.
“First, do we all agree that we don't want to kill anyone?” Justin asked. There were nods and affirmations from the other four present, making Justin smile widely.
“Great!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “That's our big advantage over the others. They're all out for themselves, but we're not. We can protect each other.”
“Protect each other how?” Kenny asked. Here was one his two reasons for putting up with this nonsense.
“Tomorrow Archon will probably split everyone up again. We have to do our best to find each other so we can fight off our attackers as a team. Once we beat them we might be able to convince some of them to join us.”
“Like the boy we met?” Solan asked skeptically. “He just tried to choke me, and he spat on you!”
Justin grimaced. “They can't all be like him.”
“You talked about pooling our abilities,” Josh noted. “What can you guys do?”
Kenny unconsciously leaned forward. This was his other reason for being here: information.
“Have either of you ever heard of the Power Rangers?” Justin asked him and Josh. When they shook their heads he took a deep breath.
“Archon hasn't just taken from us from Earth. He's taken us from different dimensions ! Solan comes from an ancient Greece where there really are centaurs; I'm from a world where a group called the Power Rangers uses alien technology to defend Earth from extra-terrestrial threats. Jo is from the same world and she's one of three heroes known as the Beetleborgs.”
“And you're one of these Power Rangers?” Josh asked intuitively.
Justin nodded and Kenny couldn't restrain himself any longer. “And what “alien technology” do you have?” he asked, not bothering to hide his scorn.
In response the brown-haired teen twisted his right wrist and a device simply appeared there! It was affixed to his arm by a strap and appeared extremely high-tech. He and Josh both craned their necks to get a better look at it.
“This is my morpher,” Justin explained. “It lets me access the energy of the Morphin Grid and use it to transform myself. Usually when I morph I grow to about six foot two, my strength increases by a factor of ten and my armor makes me almost invincible. I've taken laser blasts to the chest while morphed without getting hurt.”
Kenny couldn't take his eyes off the morpher. The thought of all that power, locked in that little machine . . . if he could get hold of it and use it, then no Immortal would be able to stand against him! Not MacLeod, not Amanda, not even the legendary Methos! Here was the answer to the curse of his child's body!
So caught up was he in the glorious possibilities that he missed what Josh said next. He did, however, catch Justin's reply.
“No, Archon altered it. When I morph I still get my uniform, my helmet and my Turbo Blade, but I don't grow, I don't feel much stronger than normal, and my uniform is normal clothing instead of the armor it usually is.”
And just like that his newborn hope died. Why hadn't the miserable snot-nosed brat mentioned the new limitations on his morpher in the first place?!? Why had he bothered relating what the machine usually did if it didn't do it now? Damn him!
“And even though I've still got my civilian power, I can't become a Beetleborg,” Jo put in. “Archon handicapped both of us,” Jo concluded bitterly.
“The guy who attacked Solan and I only had a trident and a net,” Justin pointed out. “If I'd been able to fully morph he wouldn't have stood a chance.”
“I've still got my Time Warrior powers, but maybe that's because they only work once every twelve hours. Although they didn't work at all when I tried to use them to get out of here,” Josh confided ruefully.
“ Time Warrior? What can a Time Warrior do?” Justin asked excitedly.
“I've aged metal to the point where it disintegrates. I powered a communicator by myself and once I reduced this warlord to a baby by touching him. I've traveled through time and space and even taken other people along with me.”
Justin was staring wide-eyed at Josh, and with ample reason. Assuming this kid was telling the truth, his powers were incredible! It was a good thing he could only use them once a day in the Battlefield. Given his limitation it made sense for him to seek the protection of a group, one which could protect him after he used up his powers.
It made a little too much sense, actually. Was it possible Josh was playing the same game he was? Only pretending to go along with Justin? It would be worth keeping an eye on this one, just in case.
Justin was babbling on about Josh's abilities, asking about their source. Josh explained that he was born with them, though he hadn't been able to access them until he had his adventure through time. Justin was clearly bursting to ask about that, so Kenny decided he had better step in before they got bogged off on a useless tangent.
“What exactly can the two of you do?” he asked Jo and Solan.
Jo cracked her knuckles and then with her right hand picked the entire table up. “I have super-strength,” she announced smugly.
And SHE was complaining about a power reduction?!? How was he supposed to compete against this ? It was the damned Game all over again! Once more he was the smallest and weakest, with every possible enemy above him. Sourly he shifted his gaze to the last person present.
“I'm fast for my age and I've had some training with a staff,” Solan offered in a noticeably defensive tone.
That was it? That was nothing! Was the kid lying to hide what he could really do? Kenny didn't get that impression. The boy looked embarrassed, or maybe ashamed; he looked like he was telling the truth. Certainly none of the others doubted his story for a second. Justin had an expression of nauseating sympathy on his face, while Jo was carefully avoiding looking at Solan.
“Maybe you can do more than you think,” Josh offered. “I didn't know I was a Time Warrior until a few months ago.”
Probably in an attempt to change the subject Justin turned to him and asked, “What are your abilities, Kenny?”
What to tell them, what to tell them . . . well, if they believed Solan's account, maybe they'd swallow this one too.
“I'm the best one on my middle school boxing team,” he announced. Justin nodded, the worry flashing across his face so quickly that Kenny almost missed it.
“You said you met one of the other kids today?” Kenny inquired.
“Yes, the red-headed one who attacked Solan. I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen. I ended up having to burn his net and knock him out.”
“Did either of you see anyone else in those tunnels?”
“I didn't see someone, I saw something ,” Josh reported. “It looked like a cross between a wolf and a person and it did its best to rip my throat out. If I hadn't been able to fend it off with a torch I would've been toast!”
“Archon didn't say we'd be fighting anyone except each other!” Jo protested.
“I don't think we are,” Justin said slowly. “He wants us to kill each other; why would he send any kind of animal after us? Whatever you saw was probably . . . one of the other kids.”
“So like a werewolf?” Josh queried.
Solan's gaze traveled across the grim faces of everyone at the table. “What's a werewolf?” he asked.
“It's a person who turns into a wolf, or a wolf-human creature,” Justin explained. “They're supposed to change forms during the full moon, act very savage, and they're vulnerable to silver. They're also not supposed to exist.”
“Like you thought gods and centaurs didn't exist?”
There was no sarcasm or censure in the question, yet Justin winced slightly. “Yeah, Solan, just like that. That's why we have to be ready for anything tomorrow, because there's no telling what the other kids can do.”
“What about after tomorrow?”
“If we can get the others over to our side Archon won't be able to continue with this contest. Maybe then he'll let us go. Also, we need to see if we can find a way into his control room. I worked with a lot of the Rangers' technology and I might be able to figure out how to operate Archon's tech.”
The group mood lightened at this announcement, which struck Kenny as absurdly optimistic. He remained seated for another half hour, hoping to find out more of interest, but the discussion veered into personal lives and family. Standing up and retrieving his empty backpack he explained that he was tired and needed to go lie down. Justin asked if he wanted one of them to go with him, probably more out of concern for his feelings rather than any actual fear for his safety. Given the example Archon had made of the red-head it was unlikely anybody would take the risk of getting physical. No, he was safe until tomorrow, and then he could take advantage of the protection offered by these idiots. Overall it was as good an outcome for the day as he could have hoped for.
You couldn't fault the guy for wanting to go lie down. Josh's head was spinning too, and he'd had way more experience with weird stuff than poor Kenny.
Although they lived in what to him would be more than a decade into the future, it sounded like Justin and Jo's world was pretty much like his own in most ways, which made the few contrasts all the more jarring. Ordinary towns living under constant attack, protected by teenagers empowered through magic or super-technology . . . it was just too wild! Then again, if that was wild, what did you call Solan's world? Too bad he hadn't read more Greek mythology while he had the chance.
A part of him chafed at the way the conversation had drifted away from their plan of action for tomorrow. At the same time it felt great to finally be able to talk with other people about his journey through time, to share his memories of Azabeth and Prism. Jo kind of reminded him of Azabeth. She had the same tough attitude and courageous exterior. How deeply did the resemblance run? Would he have a chance to find out?
Justin was pretty cool too; the two of them actually had a fair amount in common. They were both only children, they'd both lost their mothers, and they were both the smartest kids at their schools. He hoped like hell he'd be able to find Justin and Jo tomorrow; together the three of them would make a great team!
Solan and Kenny, not so much. They were definitely screwed when it came to the power spectrum of the kids here. That his Time Warrior powers worked only once every twelve hours sucked, but how bad would it be to have only your boxing skills to rely on, or worse, to have nothing?
He really was a lot like Drew.
She could see that now. They shared the same sense of responsibility, the same protective instincts. The way he had taken charge, trying to rally everyone and get them all to work together, was exactly what her brother would have done. Knowing that helped her miss Drew just a little bit less.
She wished now that she hadn't been so harsh with Justin when they first met. She honestly hadn't meant to be, but this whole situation was pushing her right over the edge.
For now, though, she could forget about where they were. She could sit here and trade tales with her teammates, listening to what they'd done and filling them in on what she had accomplished. She could even laugh at some of Justin and Josh's stories!
He had spoken the least of anyone here, except for Kenny. When they'd all encouraged him he had told them about his village and the Centaurs he grew up with. He had detailed his one real adventure with Xena. After that he had no more to say.
Nothing in his life could compare to theirs. They came from a time of miracles, filled with wonders that he could scarcely have imagined. Cars, television, morphers . . . Mt. Olympus itself could not have been more awe-inspiring than the world they described. It was an Elysian Fields for the living!
And Justin, Jo and Josh were among its heroes. Like Xena, they used their might to defend the weak and fight the oppressors. They were only a year or two older than he was, yet they were so far beyond him, in every way. He had none of their abilities or experience. He had never saved anyone; he didn't even really know how to fight! If they were a team, like Justin had said, then what use was he? What could he possibly contribute?
They'd talked for hours now, and Justin didn't want it to end. He'd missed this so much; the companionship, the camaraderie. Having people to talk and laugh with, people he didn't have to hide anything from. Even his close friendship with Nico had been burdened by his need to keep the truth about his being a Power Ranger a secret. Then, when he and Dad had moved away from Angel Grove, Nico had been left behind along with the rest of his life.
Saving the guys from Astronema at Storm Blaster's insistence a few months ago had given him an all too brief taste of what he had longed for: the chance to see his friends and to actually BE a Ranger again.
Afterwards he'd been excited and on edge for weeks, thinking another call to action could come at any time. But none had. He had never heard from them again, not even during this latest, massive attack. He had sprung into action anyway, trying to live up to the idea of “Once a Ranger, Always a Ranger”, and he had ended up here.
Now he was finally part of a team again. No, more than just a part; this time he was the leader! That was nearly as frightening as their current situation. He was a Blue Ranger, not a Red one. He'd never been in charge before, not even back when he had been the only veteran on the team. Yet what choice did he have? Solan, Kenny, Jo and Josh were all looking to him for guidance and he couldn't let them down. It was his duty and responsibility as a Ranger to keep them safe.
And he liked them! They were already his friends. How ridiculous was that? After all the months of loneliness, making friends this quickly and in this place felt like a particularly cruel cosmic joke.
It was tempting to spend the rest of the night talking, but that would have been stupid. If ever they needed a good night's sleep, it was tonight. God only knew what tomorrow would bring; they had to be as well-rested and alert as possible.
“I think it's time we went to our rooms and got ready to go to bed,” he announced, dealing a sudden death blow to the happy mood around the table.
“Why?” Josh asked.
“I'm not even tired!” Jo protested.
“We have to try to get to sleep early tonight. Tomorrow Archon is going to throw us back into battle and we've got to be at our best.”
Josh nodded in agreement, while Solan still had his head hanging down, as though studying the table. Jo scowled, but rose up from her seat along with the boys. As a group they moved to the door, which opened to reveal a T-junction identical to Archon's map. The corridor wall and floors were polished metal with only the ceiling composed of the luminous plastic. The lessened light meant it seemed more like early evening than the high noon of the cafeteria.
Josh gave him and Jo both a high five, while Solan shook their hands. They then headed down the left corridor, while he and Jo turned right. They came to her door first, a metal portal bearing a name plate which slid into the wall at her approach. She turned a surprisingly shy smile on him and Justin couldn't help smiling back.
“See you tomorrow,” he said quietly, and with a nod Jo disappeared into her room.
Justin's own door also opened at his approach and he entered his new quarters with an air of trepidation. What he found inside startled him.
The bedroom was a twenty-five by twenty-five cube. At the right center wall was a bed with a pillow and comforter. At the center of the back wall stood a wooden desk, a chair and a cordless computer screen without keyboard or tower. At the left wall near the far corner was a bright metallic bureau with three drawers, and preceding it was an open doorway into what was presumably the bathroom. The floor and walls were carpeted, while the ceiling was an exceptionally bright type of light-plastic.
The surprising aspect was the room's coloration; aside from the desk, chair, bureau and ceiling everything was a varying shade of blue. The bedspread and pillow were both a dark navy blue, while the computer casing was a light powder blue. The floor carpeting was cobalt blue and the wall carpeting was sky blue. It was very soothing and comforting, and that was the whole problem.
Accepting the Power of the Morhpin Grid led to a minor psychological side-effect: color affinity. A Ranger's own color quickly became his or her favorite, and most Rangers always wore at least one article of clothing bearing their Ranger color. Fortunately being blue made it pretty easy for him to find something each day.
Color affinity was a relatively obscure part of Power Ranger lore because it had little positive or negative application. The color would make a Ranger feel better, but that was all. There was no way to use color affinity against a Ranger in battle. And identifying a Ranger from among the civilian populace by his or her predilection for wearing a certain color would be a virtually impossible task, requiring weeks of observation of everyone in the city, and still holding no promise of definitive results.
The fact that Archon apparently knew of color affinity was profoundly unsettling, raising the question of exactly what else their captor knew. How deeply had he researched his victims? How prepared was he for what they could do?
Despite his psychologically calming surroundings it was a long, long time before Justin relaxed enough to fall asleep.
Will exhaled as he smoothly controlled the bar's descent toward his bare chest and inhaled as he pressed it overhead again, finishing his fifth set of twenty reps with two thousand pounds. Perspiration shone on his face, but so did a tight, satisfied smile. Working out like this every day was the thing he had missed most from his life at the lab. In the three weeks since his escape he'd only once come across another gym, and he had been there for all of five minutes before he had to break that fat idiot's neck. Of course that had been a lot of fun too; it was what he had liked best about being away from the lab.
In the outside world there were no ever-present guards armed with tasers, no failsafe knock-out gas system, and no one who could tell him what to do. Oh, people had still tried to order him around: the fat guy, those two cops, the man with the dog and the pretty dark-haired woman. But they had been weak and hadn't known what he was capable of. He had shown them, though; he had shown them all.
Except for the team of five sent to hunt him. They'd known exactly what he was. He'd barely escaped the first time, got one of them the second time, and the third time he'd killed two more plus he had the blonde female by the throat while he faced off against the last one. The next thing he had known he was in that circular room with the other kids.
Racking the bar Will rose up and sat on the edge of the bench. He was breathing heavily and was virtually drenched in his own sweat. Since it was his favorite he had saved bench-pressing for the end of his hour long work-out, using everything else first. The equipment here was every bit as good as he was used to, and it had felt great to fully exert himself again.
“Are you going to use that, or just sweat on it?”
Startled Will turned his head toward the voice. One of the girls was standing near the door, arms folded. Jo was her name, and she was one of the idiots who didn't want to kill. A sneer curled Will's lip as he walked over to her and stood staring down at her contemptuously, treating her to an intimidating close-up of his sculpted chest and arms.
“Don't drip on me!” she snapped, walking around him and over to the bench press. Will turned around to follow her progress, silently fuming. How dare she treat him like that? What did she think she was even doing here? When she lay down on the bench and took hold of the bar he couldn't keep from snorting. Hadn't she noticed how much weight was on there?
As the question went through his head she released the bar, presumably in order to lighten it. Instead she simply laced her hands and cracked her knuckles before grabbing the bar again. The she pressed the two thousand pound bar overhead ten times.
Before Will's disbelieving eyes the little girl did a total of fifty bench-presses. How was that possible?!? She exhibited none of the powerful muscle mass which defined his form. Her arms were too thin and underdeveloped for her to be lifting so much!
Rising Jo plucked her cap from where she had hung it on the bench and again replaced it on her head brim backwards. She was a little out of breath, but betrayed no other signs of effort. “You should be careful not to overdo it,” she advised. “Don't try to take on more weight than you can handle.”
Will nearly exploded in rage. Only the memory of what had happened to the red-head in the dining room kept him rooted in place. She answered his murderous glare with a look of pure defiance as she went over to work the leg press machine. She kept it on the setting he had selected and pumped out fifty leg-presses. When she was done she got up to go, wearing a look of unbearable self-satisfaction. He longed to wipe that smug expression from her face! His fists clenched as she passed by him and he could tell from her stance that she was ready for him to jump her.
As the door slid open and she walked through it he thought of a way he could humble her. Yes, that would be perfect! He had been allowed to do it at the lab until he was eight, after which it became pointless. It should be allowed here, provided he didn't try to hurt her.
“Afraid to really test your strength?” he challenged.
She stopped dead and turned around. “Test it how?” she demanded.
“Arm-wrestling,” Will answered.
There was no table for them to use, so they sat down on opposite sides of the weight bench. The two clasped hands, Will's larger hand swallowing up Jo's. As their simultaneous count reached three each one threw everything he or she had into it. The two hands trembled in mid-air, the product of science striving against the product of magic. And slowly, the product of magic began winning.
For the first time in six years Will's arm was being forced down, regardless of his frantic efforts to change the situation. Jo soon had leverage on her side, and after that no matter how hard he tried he could not halt, much less reverse, her progress. Lower and lower his arm went until his hand was at last forced to the bench.
Jo released him as a triumphant grin broke over her face. A red haze fell over the world and Will's hands made it to within a millimeter of her neck before the white flash knocked him on his ass. He scrambled up and lunged forward again, but the next concussive flash was considerably more powerful. In too much pain to get back up, Subject W-III (nicknamed “Will”) of Project: Hercules could only watch in silent, impotent fury as Jo stared down at him and walked out without a word.
She made it three-fourths of the way back to her room before the reaction hit her. She fell back against the wall and slid to the floor, her legs suddenly too weak to support her. Sitting there she took several deep breaths.
All she'd wanted to do was work off some of her energy so she could sleep. Weight-lifting seemed the perfect way to do that, and anyway it was an activity she had come to enjoy since gaining her powers.
She could have backed out of the room as soon as she came in and saw him sitting there on the weight bench, but that would have been running away. She wasn't going to retreat from some boy ! So she went on with her work-out, and showed him he didn't intimidate her a bit. When he wanted to arm-wrestle her she had felt a quiver of nervousness, but she still hadn't backed down. She had given it her best and had proven that she was the stronger one. That part had been great!
It was what had happened immediately afterward which had left her shaking.
He had been so fast ! She'd barely registered that he was attacking her before he was on the floor. The second time he'd actually turned two midair flips before he hit the ground. She'd looked down to make sure he wasn't going to come after her again, and that's when she had seen it.
His eyes were poisonous chlorine green and they were filled with a blood-freezing hatred. Never had she seen so much loathing from anyone, not even Mega-Nukus! If he had gotten hold of her he wouldn't have just beaten her up; he would have killed her.
It shouldn't have affected her so badly. Hadn't Archon announced he wanted them to kill each other? Wasn't the whole point of teaming up with Justin and the rest to keep themselves from killing and being killed? Somehow, though, it hadn't seemed real until she had looked into Will's eyes.
Better that he didn't find her here. On unsteady legs Jo made her way back to her room. Putting the pajamas she had found in the bureau back on again she slipped back into bed and the ceiling once more fell dark.
Sleep still refused to come, leaving Jo to toss and turn restlessly. She was tired enough, but her mind refused to shut down. One thought in particular kept coming back: the fact that she had been about to die on her world. She'd be dead now, if Archon hadn't taken her away. How could that possibly be? How could all the fun and excitement of their two year-long adventure as Beetleborgs have ended like that? She was one of the good guys, and the good guys didn't die, damnit! They didn't!
That was why she and Drew and Roland had never once talked about death; they hadn't even regarded it as a possibility. Here and now, though, she knew differently.
Had they ever really been heroes, then? Or were they just kids who didn't understand what they were getting into?
Jo ended up staying awake even longer than Justin.
Colin had regained control of himself the moment he had appeared in the dining hall. Since then he had been trying to contain his fury and indignation. That he, the prophesized Anointed One, should be the slave of that miserable human! It was an outrage! How had the mortal managed it? Colin had never even heard of a spell which could control vampires in that way.
However it had been done, there was only one appropriate punishment for the child's offense. Nothing would please Colin more than to kill Morthos slowly, over a period of days. To come within sight of him again on the Battlefield, however, would be to risk falling back under his control.
Colin ground his fangs in frustration. If only he had the Master's tomes perhaps he could find a way to identify and counter the warlock's spell, but they were back at the factory in Sunnydale.
Wait, what was it Archon had said at dinner about the computer? Hadn't he said the screen would show you whatever you wanted to see?
Excited Colin leapt from his bed, sending the ceiling blazing back to life and causing a flash of pain to shoot through his half-healed chest. The wound would have been fatal to a mortal, but vampires were much more durable and their bodies mended swiftly. By morning it would be fully healed, as the caltrops wounds already were.
“Show me the contents of the books in my lair,” he commanded, and tiny icons of each book appeared on the screen before him. With an enormous grin Colin verbally indicated one of the icons and began to read the reproduced text.
Solan's sleep was plagued with nightmares. In one of them the flying girl from the dining room looked at him and his throat closed up again, just as it had when that other little girl had almost murdered him. Lanius, by contrast, slept with the assurance of one who had long ago accepted the possibility of perishing the next day; his dreams were of the success of Spartacus' rebellion and the burning of Rome . Shin-Ren dreamed of returning home in triumph, while Jamie was torn apart by a huge, wolf-like beast in the landscape of her mind.
Alexander also dreamed of victory; Will had a nightmare about being trapped back in the lab for the rest of his life. Kenny, Morthos, Madeline, Jo, Justin and Josh had no dreams that they would remember.
And so the first day drew to a close.
To be continued in Chapter 4Back to the Academy