THE ICARUS REVERSAL
There were only three other people present. That was the first thing which struck Alexander when he appeared in the dining hall. He and the others all stood around a single table with four chairs, placed in the center of the room
To his right was the vampire, crying and holding his left sleeve closed. Given the amount of blood which appeared to be seeping through the cloth, Alexander could only assume that the boy's hand had been severed. It was a crippling injury, and one which might well seal the creature's fate regardless of its other abilities.
To his left was Kenny, wearing his backpack and looking none the worse for wear. This came as something of a shock to Alexander, since he hadn't expected Kenny or Solan to last out the day. Given their lack of any real combat skills they'd been fortunate to live through the first day, let alone the second.
Also unexpected was the expression on Kenny's face, which seemed to be one of angry frustration. Shouldn't the human be relieved that he had once again survived unscathed?
Across from him Justin stumbled forward and fell against the table. The Ranger pushed himself up with a visible effort and Alexander noticed a disturbing dullness in the teenager's eyes. Justin's entire face was slack, either with exhaustion or something else, and on his left temple was a blood-encrusted bump which looked markedly more serious than Alexander's own head wound.
The boy's gaze swept from one side to the other, taking in everyone present. He let out a sob and pulled the chair before him out from the table, half sitting and half collapsing on it. He raised his head to stare directly at Alexander, and spoke.
“Kenny is a traitor; he killed someone today and then he tried to kill me.”
Kenny ?!? He turned toward the human incredulously and Kenny responded with an open sneer. He had dismissed Kenny along with Solan as a useless weakling, blithely assuming that the human was telling the truth. He had been tricked. He'd been lied to by a cowardly, dishonorable human and he had believed those lies! With a snarl he stepped toward Kenny, whose sneer only widened.
“Neutral ground, alien! You can't touch me!” the blond boy taunted.
With an effort Alexander restrained himself. The traitor was right. He would not suffer the futile humiliation of trying to take his vengeance now, not when he knew Archon would stop him. Tomorrow, however . . .
“Tomorrow I will cut you apart like a targ!” he promised, and was pleased to see Kenny's sneer vanish. The human turned away and walked past Justin to the replicator. Alexander sat, not yet certain he would be able to keep anything he consumed down. The vampire was still engaged in binding his wound as best he could, while Justin was slumped forward across the table, his hands covering his face.
Kenny was the only one who ate, and once his meal was finished he quickly left the dining hall. The vampire had departed almost immediately after downing a large mug of blood, so he and Justin were alone.
The Ranger had barely moved from his previous position and Alexander wondered what damage the head injury might have done.
“Justin?” he said questioningly. He repeated the human's name more forcefully and the covering hands slipped away. Justin looked at him with open despair, as if nothing mattered anymore.
“What happened to you today?” he asked. For a moment he thought Justin would refuse to tell him. Then the adolescent took a deep, shuddering breath and began to speak. In a flat monotone he related the encounters with Morthos, with Kenny, and with the vampire. He mentioned only the bare facts, including nothing else in his delivery; it was a bit like hearing a computer speak.
As he listened Alexander experienced a number of emotions. Relief that his illness had been a temporary condition brought on by the altitude; surprise and pleasure that Justin had finally killed one of their enemies; exasperation that the Ranger had felt the need to talk to Kenny about it, as though he were confessing a wrong-doing; anger at Kenny's cowardly treachery; sheer disbelief that Justin should be stupid enough to then release Kenny instead of running him through; and reluctant admiration at how Justin had managed to survive the efforts of the traitor and the vampire, crippling the latter in the process.
Justin's last words faded away into silence and Alexander sat quietly, absorbing what he had been told. Only one question remained to be answered.
“So why are you sitting here in grief?”
Justin's jaw dropped open and with widened eyes he stared at Alexander in apparent wonder. His mouth worked soundlessly for a few seconds before he spoke at an unnecessarily high volume.
“How can you ask that? Haven't you heard a word I've said?!?”
“I heard everything you said,” Alexander confirmed with some annoyance. “I heard nothing to explain why you sulk here in misery.”
“Kenny was just using us! Solan is dead! And I killed someone! I shoved a dagger through his heart! And when he died I wasn't even sorry; I was glad !”
“Kenny will pay for his treachery, Solan was always going to die here, and killing is a natural action for a warrior!” Alexander all but shouted. “By Kahless' sword! Did you feel this guilty over the monsters you slew? The Peranatrons you killed?”
“Piranahatrons,” Justin corrected. “No, but that was different!”
“How was it different?” Alexander demanded.
“They were evil!”
“And Morthos wasn't?”
“They weren't human !” Justin insisted emphatically.
The two boys stared at each other in silence for a handful of heartbeats and Alexander felt his face flush with his growing anger. He rose to his feet and leaned over the table toward Justin. His voice was soft now, but with a honed, lethal edge to it.
“So you can only kill those not of your race? Humans never kill each other?”
Justin tried to say something, but Alexander raised his voice and talked over the Ranger.
“Open your eyes and see how humans have acted! How many humans have tried to kill you here? Kenny's deception, his cowardice, his dishonor . . . THAT is humanity!”
“That's not true!” Justin swore, jumping up and facing Alexander. “We're not like that!”
“You're just too blind to see it, you fool!” Alexander asserted contemptuously.
“If you were right you wouldn't even be here! I'd have killed you after I knocked you out!”
Alexander barely stopped himself from trying to crash a fist into the human's face. He glared at Justin furiously before whirling and storming out of the dining hall.
If he were a human he was sure he would have died by now. The blood loss or the shock of his injury would have finished him. As a vampire he was able to survive, but even with the much less active nerve endings of the undead the pain he felt was like nothing he had ever experienced before.
With much effort he had managed to tie off the stump with one of the light summer shirts he had found in the bureau of his room. The makeshift bandage was soaked with his blood and looking at it seemed to make his suffering worse.
He had been maimed ! He would never be whole again, not as he had been. How could something like this have happened to him?
Again and again, in anguished incredulity, his mind turned to horrified contemplation of his injury. On the few occasions when he was able to think of something else he mainly considered Kenny. Sparing his life had been the right thing to do; they did need to work together if they were going to have any chance of surviving, especially now. Of course Kenny would turn on him eventually; maybe after they killed the last competitor, maybe even before that. All he could do was stay alert and cautious, and try to betray Kenny first.
The blond boy had been genuinely afraid when Colin was about to kill him earlier today, so there had to be some limits to his ability to heal. The next time he killed Kenny Colin would use the child's own sword to cut him into as many pieces as possible. Such damage would hopefully overwhelm Kenny's regenerative powers.
In a few of his more lucid moments he worried that he was repeating the same mistake he had made with Spike, relying on a traitorous ally to help him deal with an enemy. That was the course of action which had almost gotten him killed before. Under these circumstances, though, what else could he do?
By the time Kenny got back to his room he was seething with unbridled rage. He had been so CLOSE ! If only they could have killed Justin his position would be near to perfect; he would have Alexander as an unsuspecting dupe and Colin to help take down Alexander. He could see numerous ways such a scenario could end in him being the last survivor, the winner of the tournament.
Instead Justin had managed to stay alive and had warned the alien almost as soon as they reappeared. Everything had fallen apart in that instant. How was he supposed to kill the two of them now, when they knew he was after their heads?
He had managed to slay enemies through stealth alone in the past, like Dalman Ross and the super-boy, but going that route was always a risky last resort. If you got caught sneaking up behind a known foe you would be forced to face him head-on and given Kenny's physical limitations that was practically suicide.
Obviously there was no chance of taking Justin or Alexander if they saw him coming. He was neither a swordsman nor a fighter, while they were both. He would have to run, and he had seen today that he couldn't outrun Justin. Could he outdistance Alexander? Maybe, with all that heavy leather armor the alien wore, but he wouldn't bet on it.
And when they did catch him? Surely even Justin would see reason and kill him now, and Alexander definitely would. If they beheaded him, it was all over. If not, there was a chance he could catch them by surprise later, assuming they weren't around to see him return to life.
Wait, though, Justin had seen him up and walking around after receiving the sword wound. Justin would know he had some kind of healing power and he would share that information with Alexander. Armed with that knowledge, why wouldn't they decapitate him, to be safe?
With a scream Kenny seized his mauve pillow from the bed and hurled it across the room. He pounded furiously at the mattress, taking out all of his fury and frustration and terror on the inanimate object. He continued with his tantrum until he'd utterly exhausted himself and lay panting on top of his bed.
He would not die here, at the hands of mortal children . HE WOULD NOT ! He had survived the Game alone for over eight centuries; somehow he would find a way to win here as well.
He still had his alliance with Colin. There was no doubt that his vampiric ally was a double-edged sword, but he had known and accepted that from the moment he had proposed their partnership. The creature's loss of a hand would impair its effectiveness, but would probably also make it feel more vulnerable and thus slower to turn on him.
Could the two of them together kill Justin or Alexander in a fight? Maybe, but again he doubted it. Even wounded and whipsawed between them Justin had still managed to come out on top-twice! The next time . . . the next time they would have to both come at him at once.
Kenny closed his eyes and felt sick when he considered how dangerous that idea was, how risky. After having spent so long avoiding risk he could barely believe what he was contemplating. Yet if today had shown him anything it was that he could not afford to let his enemies seize the initiative. Every time he had given Justin time to think and react the Ranger had beaten him. So instead of delaying they needed to charge their foe from two directions at once, in the hopes that he would neither be able to deal with them both nor be able to kill either of them.
It was an extremely hazardous plan, though not as suicidal as it might have seemed at first blush. Immortals and vampires were much harder to kill than normal humans; they could take what would be mortal blows to ordinary people and still survive. He was relying heavily on their unnatural fortitude, perhaps too heavily, but he couldn't think of anything better. In a straight-up fight this tactic would probably be their sole hope of winning.
Which meant he had to do everything he could to avoid a straight-up fight, but he'd known that from the very day he had become an Immortal.
Even after so many hundreds of years the occurrence of his epiphany remained as vivid and sharp in his memory as ever. The moment he had realized that he simply could not compete in the Game, that his unchanging child's body would never be big or strong enough to allow him to successfully duel adults.
In his despair he had blurted out the truth to Amanda, mourning that he would never be able to use a weapon and was going to die. She had reassured him that he did have a weapon: his innocence.
He had taken those words to heart more than any others which had ever been spoken to him, before or since. After they'd become separated he had used his innocence to win charity from travelers he met on the road, often gaining food and sometimes coins from his begging. Then he had met Frederick Holt of Saxony , another Immortal.
A big, hardy man with red hair and a red beard, Frederick had lulled his suspicions by approaching him peacefully and promising to take care of him. He welcomed Kenny into his home and had a bedroom prepared at once. That evening Kenny had eaten better than he had in months, while Frederick entertained him with tales of adventure. He had retired to his soft bed in a glow of foolish happiness, overjoyed to have found a new mentor.
His gluttony at dinner, however, led to the most painful stomach-ache he had ever endured. He had thrashed on the mattress for hours, trying vainly to get to sleep. It had been past midnight when his door had opened and he had seen Frederick creep quietly in, sword in hand.
Through his shocked horror Kenny had retained just enough of his wits to pretend to be sleeping. He had lain there, unmoving, for what seemed like years of agonized anticipation as Frederick approached his bed. Every instinct had screamed at him to MOVE, to run or fight, but he remained still. He waited until he could feel Frederick looming over him and smell the sour odor of the man's sweat. Then he had acted, opening his eyes and driving his fist into Frederick 's groin with all the force he could muster.
It still wasn't a powerful punch, but hitting at that point it didn't have to be. Frederick had let go of the sword he had raised back over his head and it had clattered to the floor as the wheezing man doubled over and clutched at himself.
Kenny had leapt from his bed and seized the metal chamber pot, which he had then smashed into Frederick 's skull. The treacherous Immortal had dropped to the floor like a stone, out cold, and Kenny had made sure he would never awaken. Wholly unused to using a sword, it had taken him five tries to completely sever Frederick 's head from his body. Once he had he experienced for the first time the mixture of agony and ecstasy which was a Quickening.
It had left him so weakened that he hadn't been able to escape the now-alight house before catching fire and burning to death. To this day his burning remained the greatest agony he had ever felt, though his recollection of it was cloudy. He probably could not have remembered the experience clearly and remained sane.
He had healed and revived before he was buried and had managed to escape without being seen. Naked, without a single possession, he had run off into the woods.
Although his body would never mature, that was the night he had grown up and become an adult. He had stopped looking for someone else to take care of him and had realized that he needed to take care of himself. He had accepted that his life would be hard and unpleasant, that survival and not comfort was the most he could hope to achieve. And he had at last understood the basic, fundamental truth that to be an Immortal was to seek to win the Game. That was the only thing which truly mattered: being the last one left, the recipient of the Prize. Whatever interfered with the pursuit of that overriding goal had to be cast aside and abandoned. Anyone who tried to argue otherwise was at best a self-deceiving fool and at worst a liar.
It was the former which he'd made a career out of preying on: naïve idiots who couldn't seem to grasp the fact that Immortals were all natural and eternal enemies of each other. In the end there could be only one. How much clearer and more simply could it be put?
In that respect and most others Archon's tournament was actually no different from the end phase of the Game; it was like the Gathering in microcosm. That was undoubtedly one reason he had done so well up until this point. With his greatest weapon lost to him, however, his prospects for tomorrow were bleak.
Even if he did make it out alive, he'd be going right back to the Game. That hadn't bothered him a few days ago. On the contrary, then he'd been longing to be back on Earth looking for empty heads to take. He hadn't yet thought about where that would eventually lead him. For almost his entire existence he'd been focusing on staying alive one day at a time. Not once had he troubled himself to look down to the end of the road. Why should he, when it was so unlikely he would ever reach it?
Now he did think about the final days of the Game. His current situation seemed to offer a horrifyingly clear portrait of what that time would be like. There were only four of them left here and everyone was desperate to survive, dispensing with any previous reservations in order to kill whoever they needed to. When there were only a handful of Immortals left worldwide, the same thing would happen. None of them would be able to continue indulging in the wishful fantasy that their existence would continue forever. All would be forced to confront the brutal reality that this was it: the time had come to kill or be killed. In such an atmosphere even pious, self-righteous hypocrites like MacLeod would be forced to at last abandon their pretenses and act in their own interests.
What would he do then? When the sentimentality and stupidity he so relied upon were gone? When every Immortal left was ready to immediately kill any other Immortal he or she encountered? What would he do?
The throbbing pain in the side of his head had eventually subsided to a dull albeit persistent ache. The shuriken wounds in his torso and shoulder were hurting him less than they had yesterday. His inability to focus, to keep his thoughts on a single subject, had for the most part abated. He was not thankful for this; on the contrary, being able to think clearly only let him more fully reflect on the magnitude of his own errors.
Since the first evening of this hellish contest he had committed himself to protecting his new friends, to saving as many lives as possible, and to ending the fighting without any further bloodshed. At all three of those tasks he had failed.
His friends were dead. He hadn't been there to protect them, and he might even have helped get them killed. Wasn't he the one who had urged everyone in his group not to kill, no matter what? Had that restraint played a part in Jo and Josh's deaths? If he'd told them to defend themselves at all costs, would they still be here now?
Then there was his refusal to teach karate to Solan, the most vulnerable one among them and his first new friend in over a year. All of his reasons for saying no had seemed good and logical at the time. Now, though, the possibility that he might have taught the Grecian boy something which would have made a difference gnawed mercilessly at him.
The only other member of his original group who hadn't died was Kenny, but then Kenny was no friend. The angelic-looking blond had been using them, and he had never once suspected it! He had put the other boy's surliness down to sublimated fear arising from their grim circumstances. Instead it had probably been ill-disguised hostility, which he had misinterpreted. It was another mistake on his part, and again one which might have ended up killing one or more of his friends. All three days Kenny had claimed to have met no one, yet there had been blood on his hand today. Who did it belong to, and whose blood had Kenny shed on the previous days?
Lastly there was Alexander, about whom he didn't know what to think, especially given what had happened earlier. That, too, was his fault.
Last night after dinner Justin had gotten a rough idea of the kind of racial and warrior pride Alexander possessed. He had realized then that it would be a bad idea to ever remind Alexander of how he had beaten the alien teen in combat. Yet today he had thrown that defeat in Alexander's face, and why? Because he couldn't stand listening to what the other boy was saying.
It had all been so simple when he first became a Turbo Ranger, so black and white. The aliens were the bad guys and the humans were the good guys. He had killed countless attacking monsters and Piranhatrons and had never once felt so much as a twinge of remorse; he had never experienced the slightest doubt as to the rightness of his actions. He and the rest of the team were fighting the good fight, doing their duty as Power Rangers by defending the innocent people of Angel Grove from Divatox and her minions.
Then he had been brought here, and it had seemed obvious to him that Archon was the real enemy. He was the one who had saved their lives only to kidnap them and force them to try to kill each other. Justin and the other contestants were Archon's innocent victims, and they obviously needed to band together to defy him.
Justin had believed wholeheartedly that he could forge the contestants into a united front, that even those kids who were misguided enough to want to follow Archon's sick instructions could be persuaded otherwise. He had based his every action on that belief, and he had steadfastly ignored the mounting evidence to the contrary.
In spite of his one hundred and sixty I.Q., he had been completely unable to wrap his mind around the concept that a majority of the other contestants might never join him, no matter what he did. That they might be determined to get through this ordeal by being the last one standing, just as Archon wished. He had placed his species up on a pedestal, exactly as Alexander had accused him of doing. He had put his faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity.
He had been wrong. Wrong to place such faith in his own species, wrong to believe he could bring the contestants together. He couldn't; too many of the other contestants were committed to surviving by killing everyone else. He could no longer deny that fact, yet he still struggled in vain to understand it. How could they be so willing to murder other kids at Archon's command?
Not that his own hands were clean, not anymore. He had killed a human being today and he hadn't even felt bad about it! So how much actual distance was there between him and the others?
These thoughts went through Justin's head as he sat silently at the dining hall's sole table. He hadn't left his seat since taking it after being transported back here. With everything having collapsed around him-his friend's lives, his plan to save the contestants, one of his foundational beliefs about mankind- he could muster neither the will or the energy to move. It was almost as if his grief and despair were physically weighing him down, keeping him pinned to his chair.
When the door opened Justin flinched violently and immediately looked up. Alexander stood in the doorway, seeming equally surprised to see him in the room. Justin realized that the tear tracks from his weeping were still visible on his face, but he couldn't really bring himself to care. It didn't matter now; there was no one left that he needed to stay strong for.
Alexander scowled at him as the Klingon moved to the replicator. He barked out his order and soon reappeared in Justin's line of sight carrying his plate and his cup. The alien put his food and drink down on the table, pulling out the chair across from Justin and sitting down. He was glaring and opening his mouth to say something when Justin spoke first.
“I'm sorry about before,” he apologized. And he was sorry. He had deliberately sought to hurt Alexander earlier, and the alien didn't deserve that. Admittedly repenting of this mistake seemed like an almost meaningless gesture given the scale of the wrongs which had been committed over these past few days. Nonetheless it was something good which he had the power to do, and given the paucity of good he had accomplished, that alone made the apology worthwhile.
It seemed to catch Alexander flat-footed, and the alien actually gaped at him before regaining control.
“Have you finally come to realize the true role of a warrior, then?”
“I thought it was to defend the innocent, but everyone I've tried to defend here has died. I failed them, and I failed to get anyone else to oppose Archon, except you.”
“Because everyone else lacked honor!” Alexander insisted hotly. “Honor is what drives a true warrior: his personal honor, the honor of his House, and the honor of the Empire. He fights to uphold all three, and he will die before disgracing them.”
Honor. Alexander spoke the word as if it was the most important thing in the world, as if it explained everything and answered every question. Maybe to him it did.
But not to Justin.
“You have always spoken of death as though it was the worst of all things, something to be avoided at any cost. Klingons know that death cannot be avoided. It comes to us all, and it is by the manner of your death that you are known and remembered. One of our most ancient sayings is, ‘Today is a good day to die.'”
To Justin, who had spent his career as a Ranger trying to keep himself alive and keep others from coming to harm, it seemed a morbid and defeatist point of view. The important thing was how much you were able to help other people while you were alive, not how you died, and to not make every effort to avoid death was to fail to sufficiently value life.
He didn't say this to Alexander. They were simply too different in their outlooks to ever agree, and he no longer had the confidence necessary to espouse and promote his own beliefs. Not after seeing how blind he had been, how stupid. In his heart he now had to question so much of what he had thought and believed to be true. How then could he argue with Alexander?
“What are you going to do tomorrow?” he asked instead.
“What will you do tomorrow?” Alexander inquired, turning the question back on him. “Will you kill those who seek your death? Or do you still hope to turn them from their path?”
Justin closed his eyes. He had no hope for the vampire or for whatever Kenny was, not anymore. They wouldn't stop until he was dead. If he didn't kill them, they would kill him.
The thought actually held a certain dark appeal for the teenager. Why should he get to survive, when everyone else had died under his leadership? Going through the rest of his life having to remember those he'd failed to save was a burden he wasn't sure he could shoulder in any case. If it ended here, though, he wouldn't have to. The misery, the guilt, he would be free of it all. To simply give up was tempting, moreso than he could ever have understood a mere three days ago.
It was also selfish. It would leave Alexander standing alone against two killers. It would mean inflicting another loss on Dad, on top of Mom's death. It would mean betraying the oath he'd taken before Zordon when he had first become a Ranger. He had failed horribly in his duties already, and he could not compound that with a final, deliberate failure.
Maybe Alexander had a point about how important the manner of one's death was after all.
If he was to live, though, Kenny and the vampire would have to die. Could he do that? Could he look them in the eye and take their lives?
For the vampire the answer was yes. It disturbed him that the creature was in the form of a child, but killing it would really be little different from slaying one of Divatox's monsters.
Kenny was a different story, though his amazing healing showed that he wasn't human either. Could Justin kill him? Kill the boy who had betrayed and used him, who might have killed some of his friends?
Part of him couldn't believe he was even asking himself the question. It would have been unthinkable to him before he had come here! What he had endured and lost in this place, what he had done, had changed him. He had already taken one life to save his own, and he was afraid that he could do it again.
“I'm going to kill them,” Justin answered, his voice breaking in the middle. The enormity of what he was saying made him tremble, but Alexander looked surprised and pleased.
“And when they're dead, will you kill me?” Justin persisted. Alexander had only promised to spare those who didn't attack him, and had only committed to that for as long as other aggressors remained. Once Kenny and the vampire were dead, there would be nothing to stop him from assaulting Justin and playing out the final act of Archon's disgusting game.
If he was willing to restrain himself, however, then the two of them could still defy Archon together. He didn't know what their mysterious captor would do then, but the idea of defeating him by refusing to fight carried with it a wild, explosive thrill. Whatever happened to them next would be worth that moral victory, that moment of successful defiance.
Alexander frowned, staring at Justin intently. The Ranger remained quiet, letting his alien ally think. He couldn't guess what Alexander's answer would be. Minutes passed with excruciating slowness before Alexander spoke.
“You have seen me turn away from the table to eat.” It was a statement, not a question, but Justin responded anyway.
“Yes, I have.”
Alexander nodded. “I have done that because there is another favored saying among my people, ‘Drink not with one's enemies.'”
Even as Justin was processing this statement Alexander lifted the hunk of meat up from his plate and tore a huge bite out of it, washing the mouthful down with whatever was in his cup
That night, for the first time since being brought here, Justin fell asleep almost immediately. Partly it was due to how very tired he was, in all senses of the word. It was also because much of the stress and worry which had kept him awake on prior nights was gone.
The reason for this was that Justin's greatest fears had already come to pass. Aside from the loss of his own life everything he was afraid of had occurred. The worst had happened, and nothing the future held could possibly be as terrible as what he had already suffered.
Or so Justin believed.
To be continued in Chapter 8Back to the Academy