Read Olympus now.
Karl crouched in the emerald gloom, silently preparing to sprint.
Twenty feet of grass and low brush separated the boy from instant death—or instant glory. He could see the armored ridge of his dragon’s backbone, and he could hear its thunderous snore. From here, if he were incredibly lucky, one lunge could pierce the creature’s heart. But luck is scarce in Olympus.
Seven days of cunning and patience had led him to this forested glade in the farmland of Argos. Beyond the long, sloping horizon sparkled a wine-dark sea, crowned by a brooding, eternal presence: the Mountain. It was breathtaking—but Karl hadn’t come for the view. He had to strike the dragon down while it slept. He waited for its next snore, then began to ease the gauntlet from his battle-hand. Stealth must be his armor now. One clink of metal on metal, and he would have more flame than bronze could stop.
He licked his lips, unconsciously clenching and unclenching his sword-fist as he awaited the next rumbling peal. His fingers tiptoed down the golden haft of his sword, gripped it, and eased it out an inch—no, half an inch. Half a whisper sighed out of the scabbard. Karl froze. Had the serpent heard it?
Was there any hesitation, any acceleration, in the monster’s breathing? Then, suddenly, he heard a bang of wood on wood—above him, behind him, and to his right. He swiveled on one heel and looked up. There was nothing there; nothing but the oddly geometrical green of trees on Olympus. But from inside that green leafiness he heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps: the thump, thump of sneakers on wood; the tap, tap of a lighter footstep descending a staircase. His ears led his eyes after the invisible footsteps, half expecting feet and legs to emerge from the bottom of the branches.
But none came; instead, about three feet above the ground, the footsteps stopped, and he heard one word. “There!” It was his brother Jacob’s voice.
“What in the world!?” The second voice, higher-pitched and incredulous, still seemed to come from the depths of the tree. Oh, great. A girl.
“He’s been like this for months.”
Jacob, Karl’s younger brother (by about ten minutes, Jacob insisted), was hardly an identical twin. Where Karl was proud and brave, Jacob was intelligent and sly. He hovered about the edges of Karl’s life, looking for a chance to show him up. Such chances rarely came. But this was his perfect moment. Jacob stood on the stairs of his suburban basement and surveyed the scene. There, kneeling on the concrete floor, was his brother Karl in a cybersuit; and here, leaning over his shoulder, was a girl who, amazingly, had never seen such a thing before.
Any of Jacob’s classmates, of course, would have known the cybersuit in a flash—half the ads kids saw these days were pushing it. (“Olympus—it’s not just a game. It’s the new reality!”) But to someone who wasn’t up on modern teen culture, it must look pretty bizarre, especially in the dim light of a single red light bulb hanging from a rafter. Would a healthy American teenager strap himself into mechanized body armor dangling from an overhead boom? Would a normal kid writhe and twist on the floor, struggling with invisible enemies? Well, of course. But she didn’t know that.
Back in Olympus, Karl frantically tried to get rid of Jacob. If the dragon overheard his voice, it was all over—and there was nowhere for him to hide this time! He waved his hand furiously at the trees and bushes, motioning for silence. The female voice floated out of the greenery. “Is he having a fit?”
Desperate, Karl remembered sign language. He and Jacob shared a grandfather who could only talk through signs. Slowly and deliberately, he spelled out “D-R-A-G-O-N.” Then he added, rapidly and rudely, “Shut up!”
Jacob announced, a pompous note in his voice, “That’s sign language.” Then, more cautiously, “Do you know sign language?”
“A little—just from watching the interpreters at our church.”
Interpreters? Karl wondered. Church? Who was this girl? What was she doing in his basement?
She continued. “But I couldn’t follow that. What did he say?”
Jacob weighed this new opportunity. Too rich! “Well, you see,” he began, “He thinks he’s a dragon. That’s why he’s not saying any words.”
Enraged, Karl jerked his thumb out from under his chin, signing, “Not!” Then he slashed his finger across his throat.
The girl asked, “Does he want us to be quiet?”
“Oh, no,” Jacob said. “He’s afraid we want to cut his head off. It’s a very advanced case of paranoia.”
The girl’s voice was concerned. “Paranoia? That sounds serious! What are your parents doing about this?”
“Dad can’t do much about it,” Jacob said, with a fair imitation of a heart breaking. “The doctors say it is curable, but the therapy is terribly, terribly expensive.”
Seething with fury, Karl turned his back on the ghostly voice of his maddening brother. The dragon snored on—but then the dragon, unlike Karl, was completely in Olympus.
Steeling himself, Karl slid his blade from its sheath. Even in the green darkness, it shone. After so many days of stalking the quarry, he would not let his brother’s taunts distract him. Maybe he could even profit from the situation—his microphone had to be picking up some of this chatter, and the beast was still sleeping soundly. Perhaps he could risk moving a little closer. Succeed, and he would be among the richest heroes of Olympus. He would collect everything this dragon had taken from other, less skillful, players. Fail, and he would be dead—and after that Dad would kill him when he found out what happened to Karl’s lawnmower money.
He parted the underbrush with his blade and advanced cautiously. “Now what’s he up to?” The girl’s voice asked. “He’s walking, but he isn’t going anywhere. And what is that thing he’s strapped into?”
“Well, you see,” said Jacob, “that harness he is wearing is for his own protection. His convulsions get so violent that if he weren’t strapped in, he would have slammed right into a wall.”
It was eerie to have two bodiless voices trailing after him. They bobbed along, passing harmlessly through tree branches. He was close enough now so that hot breath from the dragon’s mouth bent the tall grass in front of him. He stopped and thought.
He couldn’t be more than six feet from that maw rimmed with teeth. There had to be a better place. He turned right and worked his way along the flank of the creature. The female voice broke in. “He turned! What’s he doing now?”
“Disorientation. It’s a side effect of the medication, they say.” Jacob had a glib explanation for everything.
He had gone about half the distance he judged to be safe, if anything could be called safe when you are sneaking up on a dragon. He was debating how much further he should go when the question was decided for him. Karl stumbled over the dragon’s tail. The rolling thunder of its snore ended in a startled and unexpectedly shrill yelp. Karl would have frozen in surprise if he hadn’t been so busy falling down.
It was the fall that saved him. Had he hesitated, that first bolt of flame would have roasted him. As it was, he tucked himself into an ungainly somersault and rolled back up on his feet. By this time, his mind was back in gear and he dove for the cover of an ancient fallen tree. He only half saw the dragon’s tail, thick as the rotten trunk he hid behind, lashing through the grass where he crouched a moment ago. One touch of that tail and his legs would have been pulp. Sulfur-yellow flame sizzled through the air. A pine took the blast, exploding into a fireball.
Karl gathered his strength, then leaped from his place of concealment towards the general direction of the beast’s hide. As he flew through the air, the blade of his sword began to glow and took on a life of its own. It thirsted for the dragon’s blood as much as he did. Humming and crackling with a power beyond mere mortals, the tip carved a deadly curve, and wedged its point between scraping scales on the great green side of the beast. Then Karl landed, head and shoulders first, on the sword hilt. The blade went home. The creature shrieked, wrenching its body in a great arc of agony that hurled Karl again through the air again. He seemed to have spent more time off the ground than on it in the last minute and a half. Karl smashed into the brush, still clutching his enchanted sword. Trees were snapping left and right as the lashing tail splintered the forest. The dragon’s great, gasping bursts of flame set the underbrush on fire ablaze.
The girl – Karl had almost forgotten about the girl in the struggle – shrieked. “Something’s wrong!”
“It’s the convulsions—sometimes they last for hours.”
He had wounded the monster, but how badly? Should he run for it, hoping the creature was too weak to fly? He forced himself to think, pushing through his adrenaline. If he had wounded it severely, he should stay to finish it off. You don’t get drachmas for leaving a sick beast to die by itself. But what if it wasn’t mortally injured? Well, then there was even more reason to go for the deathblow. Dragons were notorious for keeping a grudge!
The blasts of flame were stuttering, losing their force. Was that weakness, or was it a trick? Dragons were clever. He tried to remember what he had heard about dragon flame. It was hard to concentrate with the trees crashing around him and the flames roaring overhead.
He uprooted a tuft of grass and hurled it into the trees to his left. The dragon went for it, rearing up to send a blast of foul-smelling flame. So it had had been faking! But now, for one moment, its chest and belly were exposed. This part he did remember—the old man at the nearby farm had said the heart lay just above and between those powerful forelimbs. He had paid good money for that tip. He hoped it hadn’t been wasted. Karl was getting tired. He lunged once more across the open ground clearing, choked now with curling green smoke. Again, the blade did its work. The dragon’s heart, powerful enough to drive so great a beast, practically exploded as the sword pierced it. Karl was blasted backwards into the ferns. The tail lashed just over his head in the death-throes of the mighty serpent.
As Karl lay on his back in the brush, waiting for the monster to finish dying, Jacob’s chatter again penetrated his consciousness. “He’s resting peacefully now. They say that’s a good sign — but it hardly ever lasts.”
Karl had long since had enough. He reached up and loosened the chinstrap on his helmet. As he pulled off his helmet, Olympus vanished. Inside the visor of the headgear, two tiny video screens still showed the green forest and twitching dragon. From two earpieces one could hear the faint tinny sounds of burning farmland. He set the helmet carefully to his side. He was lying flat on his back in his basement, on a Friday afternoon in November, looking up at Jacob and a girl. “Jacob! You are dead!” he roared.
His brother had already started backing up the stairs. “Look at that, he’s cured! It’s a miracle!” Jacob scrambled up the basement stairs with remarkable speed.
Karl found himself staring up into the wide blue eyes of the girl. Wow! he thought. “Hi,” he said.
“Hello,” she replied, cautiously. She waited to see whether he would begin to hiss or merely start chewing the furniture. After an uncomfortable pause, she asked, “What on earth is going on?”
“Who cares about Earth?” Karl asked, eyes glowing.
She bolted for the stairs.
The girl was fast.
She got halfway to the stairs before Karl could draw breath to yell after her, “I just killed a dragon in Olympus!”
That seemed to work. At least she paused and poked her head down over the rail. She stared at him in silence, framing questions and then rejecting them. Finally she spoke. “What’s Olympus?”
Karl was shocked. “What’s Olympus?” he laughed. “That’s a joke, right?”
“You know, Olympus, like in the ads? Olympus, like at the video arcade? Olympus, like, everybody at school is talking about Olympus?”
“I’m homeschooled,” she said, cautiously.
Now he was really shocked. He figured that Jacob had brought this girl from school to show off the cybersuit. But one of those homeschoolers? That would explain the church stuff. He eyed her critically. She didn’t look too strange—in fact, she was pretty. But where had she come from? “What are you doing in my basement?” he demanded. “Who are you?”
“I’m Nancy Avery,” she replied. “My dad is upstairs in your father’s office, installing some computer equipment.” He just goggled at her. “I’m here, helping him.” He still stared. She retreated one step. “I came downstairs when your brother Jacob started telling me about you.”
“What did he say?” Karl snorted.
Nancy got one foot onto the bottom step. From there, she had a clear path up the stairs. “He said he had a twin brother they kept locked in the basement.”
“He said that?” Karl roared.
Nancy skipped part way up the stairs. She considered escaping altogether, but he hadn’t moved since they started talking. She guessed it was still safe enough. “I didn’t believe him, at first, but then he brought me down here, and … there you were.” There was an awkward silence. “Well, what was I to think?” she asked, a little defensively. “What is that thing, anyway?”
“This is my cybersuit,” Karl answered proudly.
“Cybersuit,” she said slowly, trying the word on her tongue. “Jacob said it was an automatic straitjacket.”
Karl scowled. “That insect! I’ll get him for that.”
Nancy was getting more curious. “What does it do?”
“Here, let me strap you in. I’ll show you how it works.”
“No way!” said Nancy, taking another step backwards. It was bad enough to face the lunatic brother in the basement.
Now he wanted to strap her into this—this thing. He didn’t move, though, so she stopped on the stairs. He didn’t look immediately dangerous. “Can’t I see what’s going on without getting into anything?”
“Normally you could, but the monitor is on the blink.” He pointed at a dead flatscreen that hung beside the suit. “Sorry about that.”
She peered into the blank screen anyway, then turned back to Karl. “Just tell me how it works.”
“Well,” said Karl, “You strap your arms in here, and slide your hands into the gauntlets.” The “gauntlet” was a five-legged spider with electronic pockets for each finger. “Buckle up the leg straps and slip on the helmet.” The helmet looked more like headphones and a pair of glowing goggles. “Every movement you make in the suit goes through that computer over there.” He pointed into the red gloom of the darkened basement. “Wait a second,” he muttered. “Let me switch the overheads on.” He moved slowly, being careful not to frighten her, and flipped a switch on a post at the foot of the stairs. A long row of fluorescent lights hummed and flickered, and the room was flooded with bright, cold light.
Karl pointed to a sleek bronze-colored box in the corner. “Here’s the main computer unit. This baby is wired into the Internet with a terabit modem. It can download an entire alternate universe in twenty seconds!”
“Oh,” said Nancy. Light finally dawned. Maybe he wasn’t crazy after all. “And is that alternate universe this Olympus you keep talking about? Olympus is a video game?”
“Not just a video game!” protested Karl. “A place of wonder and mystery. Gods and heroes, magic and monsters. You should try it, really!”
So the mad brother in the basement was just a teenager with a new toy. The slight thrill of terror drained out of her, leaving her empty and oddly disappointed. “Sounds like a video game to me,” said Nancy disdainfully. “Just a very expensive one.”
Karl gritted his teeth. “You sound like my dad.”
There was a thump of footsteps overhead, and a voice called out, “Nancy!”
“I’m down here,” she answered, “In the basement.”
The door opened, and lanky legs appeared at the top of the stairs, as Nancy’s older brother descended. He always reminded Nancy a little of their collie—long and thin and not totally with it. He seemed barely awake, peering about through glasses that dangled at the end of a long, thin nose. “Oh, there you are,” he said. Then he blinked and looked around the basement. “What’s all this?” he asked.
“Hi, Noah,” said Nancy.
“Hey—is that a cybersuit?” Noah gawked.
“It sure is,” Karl boasted. “I bought it myself.”
“Wow,” whistled Noah. He trotted down the stairs and eyeballed the suit. “We should bring Dad down here,” he said to Nancy. “He’d love this!” He turned to Karl. “Dad’s into computers and stuff,” he explained. “Can I try it?”
Nancy sniffed. The adrenaline was draining away quickly, leaving her in a bad mood. “I suppose boys have nothing better to do than to play around with video games.”
Noah responded mildly. “Nan, this is a lot more than a video game. This is the door into virtual reality. It’s—it’s an Imagination Station. With these cybersuits, anything can happen.”
Karl nodded. The girl might be from another planet, but the brother seemed to be an Earthling. “It’s magic. This is the wave of the future.”
“Dad says that by the time we’re his age, we may spend most of our lives in these things,” Noah said, awkwardly fitting one foot into a boot.
“Not me!” Nancy exploded.
“I mean, we the people,” Noah explained, slipping one fist into a gauntlet.
“Your father said that?” Karl gasped. “I wish he would talk to mine. My Dad hates anything that has to do with a cybersuit. He says it’s a total waste of time.” He strapped Noah into the suit and slipped the helmet over his head.
“Wow!” came Noah’s voice out of the suit. “This is amazing!”
“Look over to your left. You should see the dragon I just killed.”
“Hey! That’s pretty extreme,” Noah said. His legs pedaled through the air. He went through the motions of walking without going anywhere, because the suit was suspended off the ground by a metal boom. “This beast is at least forty feet long!” He bent over to look at the dead dragon in the other world. Then he stood up and turned around, slowly. “The graphics aren’t very realistic, though.”
“What do you mean?” asked Karl. “They aren’t perfect, of course, but they’re pretty good.”
“Well, then why are all the trees red? And why is the sky black?”
“The trees are green, and the sky is blue!”
“Funny—it doesn’t look like that. And why is everything shimmering and swirling like this?”
“Olympus doesn’t shimmer. What are you talking about? Give me that helmet!” Karl ripped the visor from Noah’s head and placed it on his own. Now Noah’s face stuck out of the suit; Karl’s body stuck out of the helmet. “Oh, no! It’s a forest fire! Run! Run!”
“Run where?” asked Noah, looking around the basement.
“That way!” yelled Karl from inside the helmet, pointing left. “No, no! Jump over that log!” He groaned. “Too late!”
Noah was surprised to find himself sprawling in mid-air. He staggered up and kept running.
“Now go right!” yelled the helmet. “No, hard right!”
The cybersuit slammed into something invisible. “What was that?” Noah asked, stunned.
“A tree. A burning tree! And a burning branch just fell on my head. Get it off!” Karl was waving his hands, beating on the helmet, so Noah imitated his motions. He waved his hands through the air until Karl shouted, “Stop wasting time! Run!”
Noah began jogging in space again. “Just point which way you want me to go,” he said helpfully.
Karl waved frantically to the left, then to the right, then threw both hands up in the air in despair.
“Straight up?” asked Noah. “Can I do that?”
“No—it’s hopeless,” Karl despaired. “We’re surrounded by flames.”
“Oh,” said Noah. “Can I stop running?” He stood still. Then the suit began to wobble from side to side. “What’s happening?”
“Everything’s burning,” moaned Karl.
Noah was surprised to find himself toppling over gracefully to the left. The cybersuit went rigid. The helmet went dark.
Karl took it off. “Oh, great,” he mourned. He started to unbuckle Noah. “We just died. There go five thousand drachmas! There goes my odyssey!”
“Drachmas? Odyssey?” Nancy couldn’t understand his distress. “What’s the problem?”
Karl slumped against the wall. “An odyssey is like a quest … a mission you go on to gain levels. I killed the dragon, but I forgot about the forest fire. Now I have to start all over.”
Nancy tried to sympathize. “And that’s—bad?”
Karl groaned. “I’ve been working on this odyssey for three weeks. I had accumulated tons of glory for Ares and some sweet weapons.” He reached for his hip, then wailed, “And I lost my sword!”
“Gee, that’s too bad,” sympathized Noah. “But it was great! I mean, except for getting burned to death.” He looked at Karl, who seemed really distressed. “And losing everything.” Karl slumped against the wall. Noah gulped. “Hey, I’m sorry about the forest fire.” He hesitated. “Was it my fault?”
“No,” sighed Karl. “I mean, yes and no.” He walked morosely over to one wall of the basement and flicked on a large monitor. It hummed to life, revealing an inferno of flame. He stared into it. “I should have remembered that the dragon had set the forest on fire. Once you put the suit back on, you were right in the middle of it. If I had put it on, I would have had the same problem. But that was three long weeks of effort, and all of it is gone. I’m going to have to start over.”
Noah emerged from the cybersuit. “You want some company?”
“Hey, you want to? Sure! It would be a lot more fun with two. Or three!” he added, looking at Nancy.
“Oh, no, not me,” retorted Nancy, tossing her head regally. She instantly regretted it—her untamed locks had a bad habit of getting in her mouth when she did that. It was hard to look regal picking curls out of your teeth, but she tried.
“What a colossal waste of time.”
“Look,” reasoned Noah. “You’ve prejudged this thing. What does Dad say about new things?”
“Dad says we should test everything, and keep that which is good. But that can’t include video games!”
“You watch!” replied her brother. “This is worth trying out!”
“Oh, sure,” snickered Nancy. “If Dad says I should, I will—but…I just know he isn’t going to tell me to play some video game!”
“Fine,” said Noah. “Let me talk to him about it. He’ll say yes!”
“Great,” answered Karl. “We’ll need two—maybe three—cybersuits, so we’d better go down to the video arcade. There’s a whole wall of them down there.”
“The video arcade?” Nancy yelped. “No way is Dad going to take us to the arcade!”
“We’ll just have to ask him,” Noah answered optimistically.
“You’ll have to ask your Dad, too,” Nancy said to Karl.
“Oh,” said Karl, with a sinking feeling. “Right. Dad.”
Karl waited until Mr. Huber got home that night.
Then he waited until he was in a good mood. That didn’t happen until after dinner—Mr. Huber’s business was important to him, and when things weren’t going particularly well, everybody knew it, and things hadn’t been going well for a while. There was some big deal involving hydraulic activators that none of the family understood, except that they all wished it were over.
Supper was quiet. Mr. Huber spent his time chewing or muttering about Indonesian idiots and brainless bureaucrats. Karl and Jacob weren’t speaking to each other. Their grandfather sat silently at the foot of the table in what was once their mother’s place. But she had died of cancer years before, and Grandfather Huber had been unable to speak since Siberia.
But when his father went into the study to check out the computer equipment the Averys had installed, he was more than pleased—he was delighted with his new “Executive Battlestation.” His whole office was now one integrated electronic workspace.
“What do you think, Karl boy?” he asked. Mr. Huber still had a trace of an accent. He and Grandmother Huber had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain back in the bad old days of the Cold War. “Now, this is a man’s machine—not like that boy toy of yours in the basement.”
Karl winced. This wasn’t starting well.
“Now with this, you can be anywhere in the world. The real world,” he emphasized. “You can use this to make money in Tokyo or make friends in London.”
That looked like an opportunity. “I made a couple of new friends today,” Karl said.
“Oh, really?” his father said. He swiveled his chair around to look at Karl. “That’s good, Karl. You spend too much time locked up in that straitjacket of yours. You should get out more, see people.”
“Yeah, right,” gulped Karl. “Well, actually, I was going to ask you if it was all right to go out to the mall with these kids.” He hurried on before Mr. Huber could ask for details. “You see, their father put in this computer. Their names are Noah and Nancy. They were here at the house while he was installing it. We got talking, and…well, Noah’s a really cool guy.”
His father raised his eyebrows. “And Nancy?”
Karl turned a little red. “Um. Well, she’s pretty cool, too.”
“Sure, Karl,” his father answered, expansively. “It’s about time you starting spending time with the young people.” He smiled at his son—it seemed like the first smile in weeks.
Karl decided to go for the big gamble. “You know, Dad, I was thinking about a way to spend a lot more time with kids my age and maybe make some money, too.”
His father looked interested. “Spend time with kids and make money? How’s that?”
“Well,” Karl continued, “I thought about, maybe, a small business for kids.”
“Great!” applauded his father. “You’ve been spending all your money on that computer toy in the basement. It’s about time you started making some again.”
“Actually, I was planning to use the computer stuff in the basement as a way to make money.”
Mr. Huber’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?” he snapped.
Karl hesitated. Maybe this wasn’t a good time for this, after all.
“What is it?” his father demanded.
“Um, I thought I could buy a second cybersuit and open, like, an arcade in our basement.” Somehow, just saying it out loud made it sound like the world’s dumbest idea. One look at his father told him it was worse than that.
“No!” his father thundered. “Now, Karl, this foolishness has gone far enough!”
Karl flinched. “But, Dad,” he objected. “Why not?”
“Because I say not, that’s why!” Mr. Huber was never subtle when he was crossed. “First, you waste all your money on these toys. You have your lawnmower business, but you quit it to spend all your time at the arcade. Then your rider mower you sell!” Karl looked surprised. “Yes! I know of this! Then in the basement you stay all the time, like a mushroom! You are going down the tubes, Karl, on this fantasy world of yours! You may not throw good money after bad! I forbid it!”
Karl braced himself against the fierce flood of words. “Dad, it won’t lose money—I promise!”
“Ha!” bellowed his father. “You think every kid is a dumbhead like you are!”
“I’m not dumb,” Karl cried. “I know what I’m talking about. Lots of kids would pay good money to play Olympus.”
“Then you’re a pusher, that’s what you are. You’re a junkie, and now you want to make these other kids junkies. No! This has gone too far. No, you may not bring another suit into this house! And as for the suit you already have—I forbid you to play with it. No more of this game under my roof!”
“No! This is my house. These are my rules!”
Karl stared at his father, distraught. When Mr. Huber laid down the law, there was no appeal. He was the father, and he always expected—and always got—obedience. Karl knew he would not change his mind, but he made one last attempt.
“Just tell me why, Dad,” he begged. “Just tell me why not.”
“Why? Because this game of yours is a waste of time. And time is money! Look at me. I use each minute of my time; I don’t waste it. Since I came to this country, I don’t stop working. And look where it’s gotten me!”
Oh, great. Karl rolled his eyes. The poor boy from Czechoslovakia routine. He was in the middle of getting yelled at, and now he was going to be bored to tears, too. He tried to force himself to look respectful.
“Look at me, Karl. I’m not the little poor boy from Prague anymore. I’m a man—a successful man. But you—you play in your fantasy world. I know all about fantasy worlds. I was born in a fantasy world. It’s a trap! Big words, big promises—but all you get is the big lie or the bullet.
Dad’s losing it, Karl thought to himself.
“It’s a trap, Karl. The only thing that works is work. Hard work! In your fantasy world, nobody works. Under the Communists, nothing worked.”
I knew it, Karl thought. Somehow he had to get to the Communists.
“I saw it with my own eyes! The government built all the apartments. From seven until three every day, these builders would tap away with their hammers. Why should they work hard? If they did nothing, they got paid—in useless paper. If they did a lot they got the same. Why bother? They had a saying. ‘We pretend to work and the government pretends to pay us.’ The houses they built were rotten—rotten!”
“What does that have to do with Olympus?” Karl protested.
“You listen!” Mr. Huber could see it in his mind’s eye. “I still remember when my family moved into our apartment. We had waited years—since I was born—to get an apartment. Then we moved in, and everything was wrong. There was a drawer for the forks and spoons. The drawer was too short for the spoons!” He held up his gnarled hands. “The drawer was this long!”
Now he was really getting hot. “But these workers—they didn’t do this by accident, these short drawers and things, when they built these rotten houses. They built them wrong on purpose!”
Karl rolled his eyes, involuntarily. Everything’s a Communist conspiracy to Dad.
“As soon as we moved in, my Papa says, ‘This drawer we must fix.’ He goes out to the builders, working on the apartments next door. He asks them, ‘Is there anyone of you who can a drawer fix?’ Yes, yes, half a dozen of them say yes. They will come after three, when their work for the government is done. And they do come. They fix everything—the drawer, and a closet door that won’t close, and everything else they built wrong on purpose. Only they make us pay them under the table—on the black market, you know—and in American dollars.”
After all these years, Mr. Huber still felt the injustice of it. “Then they worked hard! And we paid real money for it. That’s what matters, Karl. Don’t get caught in this game!”
Dad’s really reaching, Karl mentally groaned. Everything he doesn’t like is just like the Communists. When will he learn that communism was history? “A grand social experiment,” his teacher at school had called it. To hear Dad talk, you’d think it had been an evil empire. He wanted to yell, “Dad, look at the map! Wake up! There isn’t even a country called Czechoslovakia anymore!” But he didn’t dare.
“Everybody promises you fantasies. But they all lie! You can’t get anything in this world—this world, the real world, not your pretend world—unless you’re smart or rich. When Olympus makes you rich, you come back to me and talk. Until then, don’t let me hear that word in this house!”
Karl looked whipped. “Yes, sir!” he said, bitterly. He stumbled through the door and almost tripped over Jacob in the hall. “Get out of my way,” he hissed.
Jacob waited until the door was closed. “Whoa, brother,” he whispered. “That was a hot one!”
“Oh, leave me alone,” Karl snarled. He fled down the stairs to the basement. The dim red glow of the watchlight was on, but most of the light came from the video monitor that peered into Olympus. The forest fire had burned to ashes with only occasional coals glowing in the darkness. It was night there, but an enormous moon flooded the ash-covered landscape, bathing the basement with soft silver light. Karl stared into it, and hot tears blurred the moonlight.
The basement door banged, and Jacob slithered down the stairs. “So, what are you going to do now?”
“What can I do?” Karl fought back tears. “Dad has forbidden me to play Olympus anymore.” He stared at the floor. “I guess I’m going to call Noah and Nancy and tell them we can’t go to the mall tomorrow.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Jacob lightly. “He said it was fine for you to go to the mall with Noah and Nancy.”
“What—were you listening the whole time?” Karl demanded angrily.
“Well, didn’t he?”
“Yes…I guess he did.” Karl thought about it. “But so what. What do we do when we get there—stare into the monitors? I can do that here,” he intoned bitterly.
“No, you’ll play Olympus, just like you planned.”
“But Dad said I couldn’t,” answered Karl.
“No, he said, ‘My house, my rules.’ The mall isn’t his house.”
“That’s not what he meant,” grimaced Karl. “He meant I couldn’t play any more.”
“I didn’t hear that,” argued Jacob. “He said, ‘When Olympus makes you rich, you come back to me and talk.’ How can you do that if you can’t get into Olympus?”
Karl considered that. Jacob was normally a pain, but for once he seemed to make sense. “You mean,” he said, slowly, “if I can find a way to play Olympus—outside the house, of course—and can make money at it….”
“Then you’ll have done just what he told you to do,” concluded Jacob.
Karl thought about that. Finally, he exclaimed, “You’re brilliant!”
“Not brilliant,” Jacob answered modestly. “Just logical. As long as you’re in this house, Dad is in charge.”
Karl stared into the screen, deep in thought. “Yes, that’s true. And once I’m out of the house—”
Jacob stood in the shadow close behind him. “Once you’re out of the house, Karl, anything can happen,” he whispered.
His eyes glittered in the dim red darkness.
The mall was emptying out for the night.
Weary clerks hid behind the shelves and displays, hoping the last stragglers wouldn’t find what they were looking for. Footsore shoppers trudged toward the parking lot. But the video arcade was still jammed with kids scrambling for a few last moments of action before night pulled the plug.
Bright flags and fake flowers decorated all three stories of the mall, and even at ten p.m., its vaulted spaces were lit brighter than day. But the arcade door was like the entrance to a dark cavern, tucked back out of the way on the lowest floor. From the arcade’s depths came beeps and boops and death rattles. Intense young faces hung in the darkness within, lit from below by phosphorescence. Kids were still swiping credit cards and shoveling coins into the games three minutes before closing time.
A group clustered around one station. An exceptionally intense young face flickered in the flashing screen. Immediately behind it, to his left and right, were two other faces, one coarse and red, one pale and almost blue. These two cheered him on.
“Get him, Wheeler,” urged the pale one. His eyes glittered—intelligent, ferocious.
“Yeah, mash ‘em, smash ‘em!”
The boy they called Wheeler worked the controls like a concert pianist, playing some strange new instrument that produced shrieks and thuds. He sat in a wheelchair on a platform specially built for that purpose—federal law prohibited discrimination against the handicapped. Wheeler did not believe in wasting money; he had put his coin into the slot almost an hour ago and had accumulated enough extra lives and bonus points to play until dawn. But that could not be, for the darkness of the arcade was shattered as the house lights went up and the manager called out,
“Time, please! Mall’s closing. Time to go home!”
Wheeler’s fans complained bitterly, cursing at the manager. But their hero sighed resignedly, let go of the controls, and watched his character in the game die a dozen passive deaths. Then he backed his wheelchair carefully down the ramp. His red-faced friend looked at his watch. “Oh, man!” he groaned. “Look at the time! My old man’s gonna kill me!”
“You say that every night,” Wheeler remarked, rolling his eyes. “You aren’t dead yet.” The spectators scampered out of the arcade, leaving Wheeler and the manager behind.
The manager was shutting down machines and emptying out the coins into a heavy canvas bag. The boy in the wheelchair was the last customer. The manager ignored him for a while, but finally spoke. “Your mom’s pretty late tonight, kid.”
“I can leave,” Wheeler answered quickly. “I’ll go out to the parking lot.”
“No, no,” the man replied. “She’ll get here. I don’t want her worrying about you.”
“I can take care of myself,” the boy retorted. But their conversation was interrupted by the sound of heels clicking down the empty corridors of the mall. A tall, weary woman in her thirties hurried into view and broke into a relieved smile when she saw the boy.
“There you are, Simon!” she said, her tired eyes brightening as she saw her son. “I thought you might have given up on me. I’m real sorry, Jack,” she apologized to the manager. “But there was this one customer who took all night to make up her mind, and she wasn’t about to let a little thing like closing time make it up for her!” Her tasteful clothing concealed the fact that she was house detective for the largest department store at the mall.
“It’s no problem, Sheila,” he answered. “You’ve got a good kid here.”
“Thanks, though,” she said gratefully.
“Hey, I owe you still,” he grinned. “These kids were robbing me blind until your boy told me about the software bug on the Olympus game.”
“Yes,” she answered wryly, “he knows that game inside out.”
“Well, not inside out,” he laughed. It was a clumsy attempt at a joke, but there was something about this woman that made perfectly boring men try to be clever. Sheila wished they wouldn’t. She shot an apologetic look at her son and forced herself to smile.
Jack saw the look and knew his foot was in his mouth. He tried to pull it out, “Because, you know, he’s never been inside one of those suits.” He thought about cracking a joke about a wheelchair-shaped suit, but decided against it. The kid was pretty sensitive about the subject. Go figure, all his friends called him Wheeler. If you could call them friends. Whatever.
Desperate to say something that wasn’t stupid, he managed to gulp out, “How he knows so much about that game beats all.”
“Thanks for watching Simon, Jack. I’ll see you on Monday.” Eager to escape the so-called conversation, Mrs. Morrison hurried them out of the arcade and through the darkening mall. They crossed the nearly vacant lot to a battered station wagon. Wheeler hoisted himself into the passenger seat, automatically gritting his teeth at the effort. Mrs. Morrison opened the tailgate, folded up the chair and swung it inside. Then she climbed into the driver’s seat and buckled her seatbelt. She crossed herself before turning the ignition key. The car sputtered fitfully to life.
The headlights pushed twin poles of light out through the thin November fog that hugged the empty parking lot after dark. Mrs. Morrison stole an anxious glance at the stony face of her son, his eyes lancing straight ahead into the darkness like the headlights.
She took a breath, then forced a small, sarcastic laugh. “How he knows so much about that game does beat all,” she mimicked.
“If he only knew,” her son sighed, not taking his eyes off the dark road ahead.
“If he knew,” she said, trying to lighten the mood, “he’d wonder why we don’t own this mall instead of barely scraping by from week to week.” She flashed him a smile. “If I had a million dollars, I’d buy the mall, and put Jack on back parking lot cleanup detail.” She didn’t really mean it … Jack wasn’t that bad, but this was an old game of theirs.
“If I had a million dollars,” her son replied in a distracted monotone, “I’d buy you a fur coat.”
“ ‘But not a real fur coat, that’s cruel.’ ” Mrs. Morrison half-hummed the old song lyric, leaning her shoulder over to bump her son’s. His lips pulled up into a smile, but his eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking, still lost in thought.
Until the light changed, there was no sound except the tink-tink-tink of the left turn signal. Then, as the car crunched forward, Wheeler stirred, and broke the silence. “A kid killed one of Dad’s dragons today,” he said. His eyes left the road, and flickered sideways to watch her expression.
Her face froze. “Oh, really.” She forced a little smile. “How do you know?”
“News travels fast in Olympus.”
“Are you sure it was one of his? They must have hundreds of programmers working there these days.”
“I know his stuff,” Wheeler insisted. “I remember when he wrote his first dragon program. I couldn’t have been more than eight.”
“You were seven. We were in our first apartment in Cambridge.”
“Seven, then. He let me debug it.”
“He let you play with it. He wanted to show off to his first-born son.”
“I debugged it!” her son said emphatically. “I ran around it in circles and tied its neck in a knot. I know more about this game than anybody but Dad.”
Mrs. Morrison said nothing. What could she say? They’d had this conversation, in various forms, a thousand times. No matter what her husband had done to – or not done for – their family, Simon worshiped him. She dreaded what might happen when he turned eighteen… or before, if Ray ever wanted to pretend to be a father again. The court had given her custody because he didn’t want it, not because she deserved it. She knew that—the accident had been her fault and the breakdown that followed had been her weakness. It was only Ray’s contempt for his crippled child that kept him in her care.
For now, at least, it was Sheila and her son against the world. But Simon’s devotion to his father’s invented world of Olympus grew stronger year by year, not weaker. What if when he got old enough, he left her to join his father’s world? What if Ray hurt him again? Or – worse yet, she asked in dark, honest moments – what if he didn’t? What if Simon liked life with his father more than living week to week on a single mom’s salary? What if—
“What if I could get in a cybersuit, Mom?” her son’s voice broke her dark train of thought. “I could make some serious money at it.”
Mrs. Morrison shook herself, returning to the present, and what her son was saying. “Money? How do you make money off that game?”
“You can make a lot of money,” Wheeler explained. “You can cash out your drachmas for dollars. That guy who killed the dragon would have made hundreds.”
“He got burned up before he could collect the loot,” Wheeler admitted. “From what I heard, he wasn’t even in the suit, but the virtual pain module shut him down.” He shook his head. “He would have made a lot of money if he had stayed in his suit.” He sighed. “You need serious powers to kill a dragon, but apparently you don’t have to be smart.”
The car crept forward through the night. They both sighed.
Wheeler said, “I wish I had been in that suit.”
“Simon, don’t start that.” This wasn’t what she wanted him thinking about.
“If I were, we wouldn’t be sixty thousand dollars in debt.”
“We aren’t,” his mother retorted brightly. “Not any more. I’ve paid off almost half of that. Why do you think I work two jobs?”
“Okay, well I still wish we weren’t in any debt. And I wish I got to see you more often.”
“Me too,” she admitted. Her eyes still stared straight ahead, but the streetlights reflected off her tears.
“It’s okay, Mom.” His mother hurt too much to burden her with more sorrows. As far as she knew, he was doing all right. His grades were okay—high enough to keep her from worrying, low enough to not make any waves. His peers at school didn’t know how to deal with his handicap and his intellect. Take that stupid nickname, “Wheeler.” Talk about politically incorrect! Still, they respected his skill at the games. That was something. Better to be “Wheeler, the game genius” than “The loser in the Pity Chair who makes us all look stupid.”
Her pain was why he kept his own pain bottled up inside. Simon Morrison had been his father’s pride and joy before the accident, breakdown, and divorce. Now he was nothing—just one more box of junk his father had left behind that final day. Now all that Wheeler could do was hang out at the arcade, impressing other gamers with useless skills. But he kept coming back, peering through the monitors into Olympus, looking for his father’s fingerprints in a world he could not enter.
18 months earlier, in Olympus
Poseidon enjoyed being a god. His muscles rippled like the waves above him as he sped through crystal seas. Schools of dolphins rode attendance on their king—if he let them. His dolphins could outswim anything underwater; anything but him! This was his world, to sculpt in any way his fingers chose.
It hadn’t been easy, but divinity was definitely worth the effort. He had started at the bottom: short, weak, and clueless, like every other newcomer to Olympus. Every adventure added to his knowledge, every battle added to his strength or sent him back to the beginning. He hadn’t lost many battles. He had taken his time right from the start; he had planned on becoming a god, not serving them. He planned to leave his mark on this world.
Every player who entered Olympus knew the goal, although not everybody sought it. At its heart, Olympus was really a massive, global game of “King of the Hill.” Strap on a cybersuit, climb the mythical Mountain, defeat a member of the Pantheon in single combat, and take that god’s place as one of the six top players until somebody else repeated the process. But everyone had to start at the bottom, and nobody had ever made it to the top without choosing some god whose help enabled them to complete the quest.
He burst from the waves and surfed the breeze instead, picking up speed as he willed himself higher and faster. His body streaked between the sea and sky towards a distant rim of green. Moments later, that rim resolved into the individual peaks of Troy, his island realm, the source of his power in the game. Troy’s masses made him strong.
Each of the six deities ruled a realm, called a “polis,” so choosing a god meant choosing one polis of the six, too. Back when Poseidon had been a mortal, trying to choose, Athens had seemed right for many reasons. Athena was strong that season, and intellectual magic was powerful. Spells and potions were easy for him, and couldn’t be stolen or lost like enchanted objects. He definitely wanted wizardly powers, not the bodily strength or beauty that Ares and Aphrodite offered, or the cosmic coincidences that Zeus and Hera had to give. That meant Poseidon was the god he had to kill and Athena would have to help him do it. So he presented himself at her temple in Athens and devoted himself to her service, for a time.
It was an investment, and a good one. Gamers who wanted his help knew they had to make it worth his while. He saw smoke rising from a hilltop far below him and he smiled. It was a sacrifice to him, Poseidon! They might be slaughtering virtual bulls on virtual altars, but real money flowed from their credit cards to his account. Multiply that by a million eager gamers and it really added up. All this for playing a game! There were professional quarterbacks who didn’t earn what he was making. It was good to be a god—really good.
The challenge now was to hang on to what he had achieved. Every player in Olympus wanted what he had, and was heading for the Mountain for their shot at it. The ads in financial magazines encouraged it: “Olympus: it’s not just a game! It’s a goldmine.”
He loved the challenge. The real skill wasn’t in picking off individual players who might become a threat—that was all too easy, in his opinion. A god could cast any spell, strike any blow, and survive a million mortal blows. A god could take any shape (or none at all) and become any size. A god could spy on any part of Olympus and could appear and disappear at will.
In a game with millions of players, however, it wasn’t the individuals that mattered. The hard part was the god-on-god game. Athena wanted his share of Olympus’ magic. There was only so much soul-force in the game: what he got, she didn’t, and vice versa. It was the same with bodily powers: Ares and Aphrodite competed for the physical force available. If all the women became beautiful, the men weakened. Zeus and Hera shared the cosmic powers. When thunderstorms raged overhead, farms and forests trembled. When the skies grew calm, the fruitful earth held sway.
Poseidon was skilled enough to undermine the goddess he had chosen as a mortal, but too clever to do so. Athena had been playing for too long and was getting lazy. She had helped him up the mountain without realizing he might really make it to the top, and when she turned on him at the very end it was too late. He had launched that last, best spell before the previous Poseidon could prevent it. Now that he was one of the six ruling players in the game, however, keeping an under-performing Athena on her throne was in his best interests. If a new player climbed the mountain and took her place, it would affect Poseidon’s rule, and almost certainly for the worse. He needed her weak enough to keep him strong, yet strong enough to make their shared soul-force the dominant power in Olympus.
So far, he seemed to be succeeding. Zeus was far and away the strongest god in his own right, but at Hera’s expense. The fields of Olympus were brown, the woods bare. The force of nature was wasted on thunderstorms and hurricanes. All sizzle and no steak, in Poseidon’s opinion.
Magic, by contrast, was increasing everywhere, not just in their two polises. His own realm, that fleet of storm-tossed islands crowned by the towers of Ilium, had always been a treasure-house of enchanted objects, just as Athena’s forests were a library of lore. Since he took over, however, magic had been stealing into other cities: a mage here, a mystic there. And those were just the ones who showed.
Magicians knew they took their chances in other realms. The player-versus-player engine in Olympus protected most players from most others by keeping devotees of one god from harming a fellow worshipper. Hera’s servants didn’t kill each other, and most people in Argos followed Hera, so Argos was peaceful enough, most of the time. Let a stranger come from Crete, however, or a player who served no god at all, and he had to be on his toes to survive.
Since Poseidon had taken over, his servants played a double game. Troy’s magical treasures were finding their way into hands all over Olympus. Zeus and the others weren’t paying enough attention. As long as they got their sacrifices and surcharges, they didn’t care whether the helmet their hero was wearing was enchanted. But Poseidon did. Devotion was a choice. Players could switch allegiances. His aim was to keep his profile low while his influence expanded across Olympus. He was confident that when heroes finally had to choose between massive muscles or a javelin that never missed, Ares would lose and Poseidon would win.
He soared higher and higher until the blue of the sky was below him and all was black above, except for Olympus itself. No matter how high one flew, the highest crag of that peak was always higher, even for the gods. The gods were players, too: masters of Olympus, not its makers.
Poseidon smiled to himself. It was good to be a god—for now.
Syrup spilled from Mark Avery’s fork as the last bite of his breakfast reached his mouth.
“Your waffles are delicious,” he announced to his wife. It dribbled from the “H” on his faded college t-shirt down to a modest potbelly.
“I see that.” On maternal autopilot, Cassie slapped a napkin over her husband’s shirt. Mark was many things – intelligent, genial, creative – but not observant of the little details around him. That was her domain, and she pecked his forehead with an amiable kiss as she dabbed the syrup off his shirt. “You don’t need to wear them, though.”
“If Dad didn’t get syrup on him, it wouldn’t be Saturday morning,” Noah asserted.
Mark leaned around his wife to survey the sunlit breakfast table with deep satisfaction. He treasured the slow pace of Saturday mornings. Noah, his first-born, was working on his third stack of waffles. Where he put it all, no one knew, for he never seemed to gain an ounce, even as he shot up toward six feet tall. April, his baby girl, still struggled some with cutting up her breakfast, and the tip of her little pink tongue stuck out a bit with concentration. And then there was Nancy, who, some days, seemed to demand four fathers’ worth of attention but was worth every bit of the effort.
He tilted his head back to look up at Cassie’s face. Where others might have seen a gently aging housewife, Mark still saw the stunning research assistant whose looks, energy, and intellect had scared off the other students. But even then, Mark never let reality slow him down. Twenty years ago on the college quad, it never occurred to him that young and lovely Cassandra Reynolds might not care for a pudgy, geeky graduate student.
“That,” he said to his wife, “just can’t be beat. Compliments all round to chef, waiter, and busboys.”
“You say that every week,” she dimpled. “Ready to pay the bill?”
“Right,” he deflated. “Yes, I suppose I am. What’s the list this week?”
“There are the usual chores, of course,” his wife responded. “Nancy’s got laundry, Noah’s got trash, and April’s going to help me with the dishes.”
“And I won’t break any cups this time,” declared April with conviction.
Mrs. Avery pulled a little notebook from her jumper and flipped it open. “Then there are our bigger projects.”
Mark winced and put a hand on Cassie’s arm. “Uh, honey? I told you about taking the kids to the mall, didn’t I?”
“No, I don’t think so.” She flipped through her notebook and cocked her head. “Nothing I wrote down. Does Noah need new jeans again?” Noah had been known to outgrow new clothes before sunset.
“Uh, no.” Mark looked like a beagle who knew it had been bad. “I’m taking them down to the mall to play Olympus.”
Cassie’s grip on his shirt tightened reflexively. “I beg your pardon?”
He disentangled himself, just in case. “Well, they asked me for permission to go to the video arcade with the Huber boys.”
Mrs. Avery goggled at him. “And you said, ‘yes’? You know what I think about video games!”
“Yes, I do,” he answered. “And I agree with you. They are a mind-rotting waste of quarters.”
“You mean dollar coins,” Noah noted. “You can’t play a video game at the arcade for a quarter anymore! Plus, most of them just work by credit cards anyway.”
“Right,” said Mr. Avery. “A mind-rotting waste of dollar coins and credit cards. But what we’re doing today is more of a sociology experiment than entertainment.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. Her eyebrows furrowed down into the danger zone. The girl who had scared off an entire history department could still be pretty intimidating, even after a couple of decades.
“Well, Noah got to try out Karl Huber’s cybersuit. You know, the Hubers, where I was working yesterday. He was very impressed with the technology. Tell your Mom about it, Noah.”
Noah stepped into the breach. Usually, Dad and Mom were on the same wavelength, but every once in a while they got into one of their “discussions” (usually about history or technology), and Noah considered himself unofficial referee and mediator. “I was really surprised,” he said, “by the total experience. The graphics weren’t all that great—sort of like Saturday morning cartoons—but I felt like I was in a whole new world.”
“And what was in that whole new world?” prompted Mrs. Avery.
“I was only there a minute. I just saw the dragon that Karl had killed. But the dragon had set the woods on fire, so I burned up before I got a chance to do anything.”
“What do you mean, you burned up?”
“I was in the middle of a forest fire. I tried to run out of it, but the suit collapsed and everything went dark.”
“You had to be there,” Nancy interrupted. Once Nancy interrupted a conversation, it tended to stay interrupted.
“Noah, you looked really goofy, running around that basement… Well, at least until you fell over. Hey, did it hurt at all?”
“Nope. It was weird—my eyes and ears told me I was burning up, but I couldn’t feel anything.”
“Hmm, that’s true,” mused Mr. Avery. “A suit like that wouldn’t transmit pain, would it? I wonder…” He leaned over and fished a napkin off the counter and started sketching on it. He had a bad habit of lapsing into engineering in the middle of conversation.
Mrs. Avery refused to be distracted. “So, there was a dragon?”
Noah took another bite of waffle and nodded.
“What do you know about this game? Is there a lot of magic in it?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Avery, still scribbling on his napkin. “Tons. Lots and lots of occult stuff.”
Nancy looked horrified. “There is?” She turned on Noah, indignant. “Did you know about this when you put that suit on?”
Swallowing, Noah raised his hands in objection, “Whoa, there! Yes, there’s magic in the game. It’s based on Greek mythology. I think going straight to ‘occult stuff’ might be a little harsh.” He shot his dad a skeptical look. If Noah had been wearing a whistle and a striped shirt, Mr. Avery felt sure his son would have called a foul.
“If there’s any magic, then it’s occult stuff by definition!” said Nancy.
“No,” replied Noah evenly, “ ‘Occult stuff’ would be trying to practice real magic in the real world. Game magic is different.”
Mr. Avery was about to object, but Nancy spoke first. “Noah Atticus Avery, I don’t understand you! Mom and Dad have always kept us away from any kind of magic stuff, game or not. Dad would never buy one program that had wizardry in it. They wouldn’t even let us watch Mary Poppins when we were little because Dad said she was a witch.”
Nancy’s exasperated blue eyes turned from her brother to her father. Yesterday in the car, she had, at first, simply refused her father’s invitation to go play Olympus the next day. She had been downright shocked to discover that it was less an invitation than an assignment. Now, her unwillingness boiled over into vocal protest. “This whole thing is ludicrous, Dad! Talk about your mixed messages. Why, after years of magic-free entertainment, should we suddenly go to the video arcade and shove dollar coins into some sword and sorcery fantasy game?”
She stopped. He sketched. “Hello! Dad! What’s wrong with this picture?”
“Nancy, don’t disrespect your dad!” Mrs. Avery had strong opinions on a lot of subjects, but children honoring their fathers was near the top.
Nancy gulped. “Sorry, Dad.”
“Manners aside, I’d like to hear the answer to Nancy’s myself.” The look in her eye said, Go on, Avery, and this had better be good.
Mr. Avery composed himself. “Let’s take a look at this picture.” He turned to address his wife. “Suppose, dear, that we got a chance to send the kids to the remote parts of New Guinea on a missions trip. What would they see when they got there?”
“Palm trees, mostly,” said Mrs. Avery. She knew better than to fall for his traps. Give him a starting point—any starting point—and he would win the argument. And she was too good a debater to make that mistake.
“Okay, yes,” he said. “And a lot of bare skin, and idols, and cruelty, and witchcraft, and disease, and death. But would we keep them from going because of that?”
“Maybe because of the disease and death.” But she could already see where he was going with this.
“You know what I mean.”
“Well, no, we wouldn’t keep them from going because of that,” she admitted. “But let me ask you a question.”
“Fire away,” he said. Nancy and Noah watched the conversation like spectators at a professional tennis match.
“You won’t let our kids go down to the movies. But suppose we did send them down to the Omniplex to see the latest summer smash. What would they see?”
“Probably a lot of naked savages. Rape, torture, murder, profanity, and death,” repeated Mr. Avery. He wasn’t up on popular culture, but he felt sure it was a safe bet.
“Ah ha!” said Mrs. Avery. “So are you suggesting we send them to the movies?”
Noah looked hopeful. He had long felt his parents’ no-going-to-the-movies stance was extreme, and thought there might be a change in the wind.
“Not at all,” answered Mr. Avery. “There’s a difference between movies and missions.” He turned to Noah. “Do you know what the difference is?”
Noah pondered. “Mission fields are the real world.”
Mrs. Avery pounced. “Exactly! So, Mark, are you saying that this video game is the real world?”
“That wasn’t the difference I would have picked,” Mr. Avery complained, “but that’s okay. I can work with it. Nancy, what’s the difference between the characters in the movies and characters in this Olympus game?”
“Hey, I don’t know,” Nancy protested. “I loathe video games. I’d rather match socks any day. Stick with Noah—he got us into this.”
Mr. Avery turned to his son. “The characters in Olympus are real people,” answered Noah. “I mean, most of them. At least, the players are.”
April had finished sawing up her waffles, and joined the conversation. “What is this ’Lympus, anyway?”
“It’s a game people play, sugar,” her father answered.
“So why don’t you like it, Mom?”
“It’s a bad game, honey.”
“So why do you like it, Dad?”
“I didn’t say I liked it. But I think the older kids could learn a lot from seeing it.”
“Why?” April tipped her little blonde head to one side like a puzzled parakeet.
“Sometimes when people play a game, you find out what’s really in their hearts,” Mr. Avery explained. “And what Mom doesn’t like is the bad stuff in people’s hearts. If the people were good in their hearts, the game would be good, too.” He cocked an eye at his wife. “Right?”
“Probably,” said Mrs. Avery, “but why does that make it a good idea to take our children down and put them into this?”
“Sociology isn’t pretty, sweetheart,” said Mr. Avery, “And it’s a lot cheaper to shove a few dollars into a video game than to buy a round trip ticket to New Guinea. By the end of the morning, I suspect that Noah and Nancy will see how truly savage human beings can become!”
“Oooghhh,” said Nancy. She had visions of cannibals dancing around a giant boiling pot. “How revolting!” She looked down at her plate. “I wonder if I should have eaten such a big breakfast.”
“Or,” said Noah, always the moderate, “we might have a fun time running around exploring a cool virtual world.” He regarded Nancy dispassionately. “It doesn’t always have to be so dramatic.”
But Mrs. Avery was not one to quit an argument on less than a knockout punch.
“If you want savage, I’m sure you can get savage. But what about this wizardry stuff? I mean, why do we want our children exposed to magic of any kind?”
“I’m so glad you asked that,” said Mr. Avery. He poured himself another cup of coffee and took a sip before he answered. “Magic is a subject I take very seriously. As far as I can tell, there are several reasons to oppose magic. Can anybody guess what they are?”
“Because there’s no such thing,” said Nancy. “Is there? If there is, then the Bible forbids it!”
Mr. Avery looked at Noah expectantly. “Because,” his son said slowly, “in real life, some people would be too wicked to be trusted with the kind of unbridled power magic offers.”
“Not just some people. All people. Now, in Olympus, there is magic, so that knocks out your first reason, Nancy. As for the second, I think once you two see what bad people do with magical powers, you’ll understand why God forbids it.”
“But it’s different in a game,” Noah objected. Everyone waited for him to go on. “Well, I know you never let us play games with magic in them, but I’ve been thinking… Dad, in a game, there isn’t magic or not-magic. It’s all just the rules of the game.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, if it isn’t real, and everybody knows it’s all a game and it’s just pretend, why does it matter? Like, take your old PacMan game. There are those little ghost guys in PacMan, right? But we don’t boycott PacMan because it’s haunted by evil spirits.” Warming to his theme, he continued, every bit his father’s son. “In lots of games with magic, it seems like magic is just part of the rules, like gravity is one of our rules. Mom, you love Tetris. But it doesn’t operate true to the rules of gravity. Do you forbid it because it distorts God’s plan for physics?”
Mrs. Avery raised her eyebrows in surprise. “You’ve thought a lot about this, haven’t you, Noah?”
Skirting the question, Noah continued. “Or take Nancy’s fencing team. Fencing is just a formalized way to pretend to kill people. But God forbids murder!”
“True,” his father answered, “but my problem is with temptation. Playing at magic makes people want it to be real. Nancy doesn’t want to kill people.”
“But I could if I needed to!” Nancy growled, brandishing a sticky butterknife. When her parents had told her she couldn’t get a horse at age ten, they had looked for other activities. Soccer had bored her. Piano had driven her crazy. She had been mortified by the leotards at gymnastics. At first, she had hated fencing, too, but her teacher had goaded her into taking practice seriously, and now, five years later, she had worked a deal that put her on one of New Jersey’s varsity fencing teams.
“The Bible says you commit murder every time you get angry,” Noah argued, “and Nancy gets angry all the time. How dare you put a sword in such a hand?” Noah felt inspired. Touché! he thought.
“That’s an interesting point, Noah.” Mr. Avery was impressed by his son’s argument, if a little concerned about where it had led. “But consider this: the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. How dare I give you an allowance?”
Noah opened his mouth to respond, then closed it and sat back, clearly unsatisfied.
“Mark, this may all be true as a matter of theory,” broke in Cassie, her eyes lingering on her boy, “but you’re being inconsistent.”
“Me?” Mark Avery couldn’t stand to be inconsistent, and his wife knew it. “Where am I being inconsistent?”
“If all this is true, why won’t you let them watch magic in movies?”
“Oh, there’s all the difference in the world!” he answered. “In the movies, one author is weaving magical forces into a work of art. No matter what magic is like in real life—”
“There isn’t any magic in real life!” interrupted Nancy.
“But that’s not the point. No matter what magic is like—or would be like—in real life, the author of a movie makes it seem, well, magical! But if real people are given magical powers, magic must inevitably be what it really is. And that, my dear, must always simply be a projection of what is inside the human heart.”
“You’re really going to do this?” Cassie sighed.
She nodded, resigned, and turned to her children. “Noah, Nancy, go with your father.”
“Hey, wait for me!” squeaked April.
Mr. Avery laughed. “Baby girl, I’m not ready for you to learn how bad people can be.” He got up, and dug the van keys out of his pocket.
Noah rose, looking thoughtful. Nancy tossed curly hair out of her face, and tramped towards the door. “Great! Let’s go face the savages!”
The Averys picked up Karl and Jacob in their old forest-green Previa.
At the mall, early birds were just starting to stream across the parking lots. These were serious shoppers, single parents trying to cram a week’s worth of errands into a two-hour window. Though the mall was usually the hangout of choice in the New Jersey suburb, not many kids were there now. Late night movies and Saturday morning cartoons took a toll on socializing.
But even this early, the video arcade was a different story. It was already filling up, and there were two or three kids in line at some of the more popular games. Mr. Avery shook his head in amazement at the graphics and action. “Believe it or not,” he said to Nancy, “I can remember the very first video game. ‘Pong,’ it was called. Or maybe ‘Tank’ was first. They’ve come a long way since then.”
“The cybersuits are in the back,” Karl said. Sure enough the whole back third of the arcade had been walled off into cubicles with a central corridor down the middle. Eight booths waited to take explorers to another world. Four of them were already full. “This is great,” said Karl. “Another five minutes and we couldn’t have all gotten in together.”
He blocked the corridor between the suits with his broad shoulders so that nobody would swoop in to snatch one, and cast an uncomfortable look at Mr. Avery. “Uh, thanks for driving us. If you want, we can meet you at Barnes and Noble when we’re done.” He thought Mr. Avery looked like a bookstore kind of dad.
“Very generous of you, Karl,” replied Mr. Avery with a smile, “but I love educational television.” He nodded towards the monitors that showed what each player saw within the game, and winked at Nancy and Noah.
“Uh, okay, whatever.” Karl turned to face the others, feeling sheepish. He wasn’t used to talking about Olympus with adults around. “So, since this you guys’ first time in the game, you’ll start outside of town, with a quick tutorial on how the game works. Since Noah and I managed to get me killed off in the wrong realm, my hero has re-spawned back in the Crete city center.”
“Re-spawned?” asked Nancy incredulously. “That’s a word?”
“Spawned,” Jacob echoed. “Like a frog.”
Karl glowered at Jacob. “It’s just a word for starting back where you came from. The point is, you’ll have to come and find me. Once you’re in, just head towards the center of the city. I’ll meet you by the Great Fountain.”
“Miss Tour Guide?” Jacob raised a hand sarcastically. “Is that by the Great Men’s Room or the Great Ladies’ Room?” Nancy choked on a little laugh.
Karl glowered. “You’re so funny, Jacob, I could die.”
Noah was shocked by the look on Karl’s face. Or kill, he thought.
Karl pressed on. “You won’t need directions. Just make sure you say ‘Crete’ when the game asks where you want to begin.” He put his hand on the latch of the nearest cubicle. “Step in here, Nancy.” The hatch opened. A red ball overhead filled the room with a dull unearthly light. Mr. Avery peered in through the open door.
“Like crawling back into your mother’s womb,” he murmured.
“Here, let me strap you in,” said Jacob, sidling up next to Nancy.
“I’ll do it,” said Karl, pushing Jacob to one side. Mr. Avery cleared his throat behind the two brothers. Both swung around, a little guiltily, and backed away from Mr. Avery’s daughter. Nancy kicked off her ballet flats and stowed them at the back of the cubicle.She stepped into the mechanical boots, cold to the touch. Her father adjusted the poles of the legs so that the knee joints were the right height. He buckled the waist strap, fitted the shoulder-pads on, and put her hands into the gauntlets. “Flashback to your first trip in a car seat,” he joked.
“If the seat was made by some crazy robot.”
When he secured the buckles on the chest piece, the suit whirred softly and Nancy’s feet lifted off the ground. A bundle of pipes and cables connected her suit to an overhead boom. The unpowered cybersuit had been stiff and awkward, but once activated it was strangely graceful. Nancy hovered in her straps, bare feet gently resting on the insoles of her mechanical boots.
“Good luck, sweetie,” he said, and kissed her forehead before lowering the helmet over her eyes.
Nancy waited in the darkness. It’s quiet, she thought. She had the same knot in her stomach that she got the second before a roller coaster takes off.
Music! Wild, ancient, pagan music filled the void. Then, a million miles away, an intense point of light appeared and raced toward her. It rushed on, faster and faster, and exploded into a storm of color which swirled about her. Thunder rumbled everywhere, vibrating through her body. The sound rolled and rose in pitch until she realized it was not just noise – it was a voice, and the voice was the size of the cosmos. “OLYMPUS!” it proclaimed, with a lightning flash. She shied away from the light and noise, surprised at how small and vulnerable she felt.
“Olympus!” it boomed again. “Mountain of the gods!” The seething colors swirled, gathered together, and fell downwards like rain, settling themselves into a shining city. As the scene resolved out of the raining light, she saw domes and spires, carved from the stone of an immense mountain, rising ten thousand feet above snowy white plains below. She realized, with a sick lurch, that she was dangling in midair. Panic grabbed at her, but growing up with Noah had taught her to be calm in a crisis. Noah’s lanky frame and absent mind were a recipe for trouble, and she prided herself on not getting shaky until after the ambulance left. She took one sharp, deep breath, and spoke sternly to her pounding pulse. “Stop that! Slow down now!”
Her heart calmed as the roar continued. “Here immortals reign, until you take their place! Conquer the mountain, defeat a god, and rule the world of Olympus!”
Her quick mind was never occupied by any one idea for long—not even the idea of imminent virtual death by falling. The all-male sales pitch had struck the wrong chord. “You just lost half your market,” she told the Voice. They should have a different intro for girls, she thought. Or anybody with good taste. She imagined surfing into a perfect beach on a seashell, with mermaids singing a welcome. And I’d much rather have a chance to make something beautiful, or live in a palace by the sea, with friends – with a prince, perhaps – than defeat a bunch of old gods.
While these thoughts passed through her conscious mind, far below, in the forever-wide snowfield, there was a flash of green. She squinted at it, and then saw what it was: a great dragon, rising from the whiteness, pumping its wings and screaming up at her with an unearthly cry.
They were losing her half of the market for sure. “Seriously!?” Nancy cried. Then her stomach dropped as she plummeted towards the city and shrieking dragon, which reached for her with its massive claws. She gave a little scream, and tried to roll away. As she rolled, the dragon shot past, and her fall slowed. She found to her surprise that she wasn’t falling anymore, she was floating, circling slowly among the glistening pinnacles of the city’s towers.
Flying was better than falling. Much better. I feel like Wendy! Then, with a little laugh, Where’s my Peter Pan? The music had turned from drums to a lilting panpipe and harp, undergirded by the massive strains of a majestic orchestra. It was beautiful. Maybe these Olympus people had some class after all. As if on cue, the voice chimed in. “Olympus!” it announced, “Behold the city of the gods!”
And now, at last, Nancy was astonished and delighted. When she thought of video games, she pictured her dad’s Donkey Kong or her mom’s Tetris. But this was like flying through a big-budget movie. She had to admit that it was beautiful, and beauty spoke strongly to Nancy.
She banked left, and soared past row after row of columns in a sparkling colonnade. A hundred-foot fountain erupted with the swelling music, then dropped away into tiny cataracts, falls, and cascades, more than she could count, rushing down waterways throughout the city. Nancy saw hanging gardens, lush and cool At every level that met her eye, the mountain was graceful with arches, terraces, great square mansions open-faced to the sea, walls, domes and pillars and little winding streets, and a great square that could hold thousands. It was as though all the great ruins of Ancient Greece and Babylon and Egypt had been resurrected to full glory and placed, one on top of the other, in a majestic city. She was dwarfed by it, small as a dinghy on the sea, floating among vast and gilded ships, a fleet under full sail. Its immensity took her breath away.
She had been drifting down, but now she rose, spiraling up towards a temple at the back of that great square, at the highest point of the city. She could only guess at its size. Adrift in the gentle air, she glided through columns that would have made redwoods look like matchsticks, into the dim silence of the interior. As her eyes adjusted to the sudden shade, she saw innumerable flickers of flame. Thousands – no, millions of candles covered the floor of the temple. Their dancing light cast a red-gold glow that showed, impossibly far above her, a painted scene covering the stadium-sized ceiling beneath this temple’s dome.
She saw an impossibly tall woman painted there, her outstretched fingers sending green swirls towards a half-woman, half-spider. Armies clashed beneath a sky of painted fire, and in the smoke above them a mountain-size man with a scarred face smiled. She saw a ship tossed on a painted storm, wrapped in rain and waves sent by a piratical giant; and she saw the inky tentacles of some creature of the deep rising towards the hapless sailors. There were scenes that would have been beautiful – farmlands, jungles, glowing sunrises and sunsets – but they were dotted with the terrifying tales of myth, and half-clothed gods and goddesses poured out their wrath and blessing on the people who served them, who slaved for them. To Nancy’s restless, sensitive mind, pity for those mortals came swiftly.
“Behold the gods!” the Voice proclaimed. “Behold Zeus, their king!”
In the center of the ceiling was a massive, white-bearded figure. Nancy recognized the face of God from the famous painting in the Sistine Chapel. But instead of reaching for the finger of a man, painted electricity crackled from the tip of this god’s finger—lightning that incinerated the ground below, where mortals looked up at him in awe and terror. Nancy was revolted by this pagan parody of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
“Do you dare to challenge the gods?” rumbled the voice, the way thunder would if it could whisper.
“I’m warming up to the idea!” she ground out through clenched teeth.
Indignant or not, Nancy was still floating, unable to slow down or change direction. The adrenaline of her fall and the beauty of the city had drained away, and now she felt the weight of this eerie place, and the hair prickled on her arms and the back of her neck. She floated midway between ceiling and floor, and out of the darkness, she realized figures were looming. Six figures, each a Statue of Liberty in its own right, stood in a circle, of which she was now the center, a dangling speck the height of a statue’s eyelid. She rotated in place in midair, with time to consider each stone face.
“Six gods,” the voice rolled. “Six immortals wrestle for glory and power over all Olympus. These gods were once mortals like yourself, but now…” the voice dropped away in awe.
Now, thought Nancy, Six kids somewhere are playing God. How awful.
“The gods of the cosmos: Zeus and Hera,” the voice intoned, as Nancy was turned to face the statue with the white beard. She glared at him. His blank stone gaze was imperial, like Caesar or Napoleon or… “Stalin!” she hissed.
“Zeus the All-Father, god of storms. His lightning is feared throughout Olympus, and he rules the plains Polis of Crete. Those who devote themselves to his worship gain great favor with the world of Olympus, are able to hide themselves and find those they seek. He wrestles for power with Hera.”
She was turned towards another cold face, this one of a woman. Hera was regal, mature, with carved hair piled immensely high on her immovable white forehead. To Nancy, for whom mythology had been a favorite subject since childhood, Hera was almost worse than Zeus. In all the stories she was horribly manipulative, and used her power to punish the innocent merely out of jealousy or selfishness, whereas Zeus at least showed some justice. “Hera, goddess of nature. All that grows pays homage to her, and she rules the farmland Polis of Argos. Those who devote themselves to her worship gain powers over the earth and over growing things.”
“What do they have to pay for it, is what I want to know,” said Nancy. She continued to rotate in midair to face another woman, whose large stone eyes were almost covered by bangs. Her face looked calculating, intellectual, and deadly serious.
“The gods of the soul: Athena and Poseidon. Athena, goddess of spellcraft. She rules the ancient forest Polis of Athens, and all learned magical lore belongs to her. Her followers are masters of the spoken words and bottled potions of power.”
“So you’re a witch,” Nancy snapped at the goddess. She didn’t have to sit through this passively. “I liked you, in the stories. You weren’t cruel, and you helped people with your wisdom. But I wish you hadn’t turned Ariadne into a spider just because she could spin better than you.”
The goddess, of course, said nothing. Nancy was spun about again. “Poseidon, god of artifacts. His Polis is made up of the stormy islands of Troy. Every amulet and enchanted thing in Olympus is his. Those who devote themselves to Poseidon have magic always at their fingertips.”
“Magic words and magic objects. What a pair you two are for controlling people’s souls!” Nancy said to them, defiantly. Poseidon had the face of a pirate-god, with a carved eyepatch covering one eye and a trident-beard on a narrow face. Where Zeus and Hera had looked regal, Athena and Poseidon just looked cruel.
For the last time she was turned about, to face Aphrodite and Ares. Nancy gasped and blushed as the voice began again. There could be no doubt, from this carving, what the makers of the game had in mind when they built Aphrodite.“The gods of the body: Aphrodite and Ares. Aphrodite—”
“That’s indecent!” she cried to the voice, scandalized.
The voice went on relentlessly. Nancy had begun to equate it with an electronic museum guide. “—Goddess of love, and of the Polis of Cyprus, the jungle paradise. Though her love is peaceful, her jealousy, once aroused, is greatly to be feared. Her followers are given beauty and agility.” The lips of Aphrodite were opened slightly in an eternal pout or kiss, but her heavy lids were drugged and threatening in their sensuality.
“I’m sorry Noah had to go through this,” said Nancy. The thought prompted her to add, “If you try to do anything to my brother, you shameless—I’ll—!” She broke off in mid-thought as the program rotated her to face the last of the gods.
“Ares, god of war.”
He had a carved mohawk, rising like the high plume of a Grecian helmet. His face was handsome and arrogant, though marred by a long scar, and it expressed bloodlust—the gleam of battle and glory was in his eyes.
“Oh,” said Nancy. “You.” For, secretly, something about Ares in the stories had always appealed to her. She half-longed for adventure and glory like his. She admired heroism and honor, integrity, the charisma of leadership, and warrior strength to protect the weak. What she saw in his face was none of those things. In this stone Ares she saw the strength of manhood gone wrong, devoted all to selfish self-glorification. Fleetingly, it occurred to Nancy that Karl reminded her of Ares.
“Ares rules the desert Polis of Sparta. He has great power over the death of heroes. His followers gain unmatched strength with which to slay their enemies.”
The end, thought Nancy. Then, in a mental mimicry of the electronic museum guide, Please observe the exit signs located to the right…
She sank down towards the floor, covered in its countless candles, the gods seeming to grow as they towered higher and higher above her. “The six gods are locked in an eternal struggle with one another to rule the greatest measure of Olympus,” thundered the voice. “Each has power beyond imagination. Will you rise to the heights of Olympus?” As the voice spoke, a wind whipped the flickering lights below, rising from a gentle breeze to a roaring gust that blew out all the candles at once. Nancy was once again in total darkness.
“Will you come to challenge the gods, and take your place in the Pantheon? It all depends on you.”
Nancy stood perfectly still, strangely aware that the voice’s last words had stirred up something within herself; but she didn’t know what it was, or how to frame a response.
“Any hero may challenge the gods,” echoed the voice in the darkness. “But all must begin … at the BOTTOM!” On the last word, Nancy found herself shot, as from a bow, out through the columns of the pitch-black temple. The city blurred below her as she careened madly out, out and away from its walls. Then, all that was below her was empty air and that endless expanse of white a thousand feet below, and she was falling again.
As she plummeted towards the whiteness far below her swirling mistily, fear surged again and she screamed against her will. That’s not snow! The mountaintop was poking through the clouds! She must be miles from the ground. The sky above her was almost navy blue, so dark that stars were visible. But it wasn’t night. A white-hot sun burned fiercely down on the shining city and on the blindingly white cloud tops. And then she was engulfed in them.
Almost instantly, the feeling of falling passed away in that white nothing. Nancy was glad; she’d had more than enough of falling for one day. In that no-place, she heard another voice, very different from the first. It was dispassionate, not clearly the voice of a man or of a woman. While the other had boomed everywhere, so loud she thought she would go deaf, this one seemed to hiss from nowhere.
“Where will you start your journey?” it murmured in her ear.
She spun around in that blank nothingness, trying to fix her eyes on the speaker that seemed to be breathing down her neck. “The desert of Sparta?” the voice whispered. “The forests of Athens? The paradise of Cyprus?” How long had she had been falling – was she falling? “The stormy islands of Troy?” murmured the voice dispassionately. “The farms of Argos? The plains of Crete?”
That was it! “Crete!” she shouted, feeling foolish and just wanting the voice to stop. “I want to start in Crete!”
Instantly, and with a supersonic boom, she emerged from the clouds, only to find land and sea and sky spinning around her as she hurtled at the ground. She screamed again and clenched her eyes shut. I just want the falling to stop! There was a tremendous thump. Then everything was still.
I’m dead, I know I’m dead, she thought.
But dead people don’t hear voices saying, “Hey, Nancy, snap out of it! C’mon, this is great!”
She opened her eyes. She lay flat on her back in tall yellow grass, and there was her brother, Noah. At least, it was sort of Noah. The long lanky legs were longer and lankier; his glasses teetered precariously at the end of his nose with no visible means of support, with lenses twice their normal size. It was a caricature of her brother dressed in a white toga that made him look skinnier and goofier than she had imagined possible.
“Wow, Nancy,” said another voice behind her, “you look terrific.”
She sat up cautiously and turned to see Jacob’s computer-generated face on a shorter, wider body than Noah’s. If Noah resembled a collie, Jacob was more like a goat. His nose was a trifle long on Earth; in Olympus it was practically a snout. She almost expected him to start bleating.
She realized she was staring at the boys and suddenly grew self-conscious. She scrambled up from the brown dust and examined herself. She, like the others, was wearing a toga. She couldn’t see her own face, of course, but she eyed her arms and legs critically. Not so bad, she thought. She’d seen skin like that in Disney films. She tossed her head, and a mass of glossy auburn hair cascaded over her shoulders.
“You look good,” Noah confirmed, a twinkle in his eye. “You should dress in a bedsheet more often.”
Nancy wished she had a mirror but pretended to ignore both Jacob and Noah. “Yes, well… that introduction was ridiculous. I’d like to talk to the people in charge of that floating tour,” she sniffed. “And what’s with all the falling? Nobody told me I was going skydiving!”
They stood high on a slope above a city and the sea. A sprawling city spread out below. Even from this distance, they could see it was built of gray, unfinished stone, squat and scattered-looking. The highest building was just a few stories tall, but what the city lacked in height, it made up in massiveness. It seemed to go on forever, with no pattern of organization, except that every large building had a multitude of smaller buildings clustered close under its shadow, like mushrooms growing beside a fallen log. . Had Karl been there, he might have told them that this was a city built to withstand the furious storms that crashed constantly across the blighted plains of Crete. The Mountain loomed above all, just a blue shadow from this distance, its top hidden from view by a slowly swirling stormcloud.
Jacob was about to say something when everything went strangely out of focus, and Nancy heard that voice again – not the booming thunderstorm-voice, but the dispassionate whisper that was neither male nor female. Here, standing on firm, if imaginary ground, it was much less disconcerting. “Welcome to Olympus, hero,” it murmured. “I am the Oracle, your guide in this world.”
The air in front of her shimmered, and she saw a face suspended in midair. No, not a face, a mask. Where eyes should be were empty holes, through which she saw the bright Olympian sky. The mask opened its hole-mouth and continued to speak. “You have had a long journey from the realm of mortals to this world of Olympus. If you seek fame or wealth or immortality, you have taken the first step on your journey.”
Nancy sought nothing of the kind but the voice droned on. “Olympus is easy to play, but hard to win. Nobody needs special knowledge to begin, but everyone can use all the help they can get. To access the help features, make an ‘O’ with the fingers of your hand and bring it up to your eye.” The face disappeared.
Nancy touched thumb to forefinger and peered through it. All she could see now was the mask, surrounded by a luminous haze. The Oracle spoke. “To begin your journey, walk downhill towards the city of Crete, and keep your eyes open – Olympus is a place of wonders, but it is not safe.”
The haze cleared away, and Nancy blinked at Noah and Jacob who, from their expressions, had just had a similar vision.
“That was weird,” said Nancy. Noah nodded agreement.
“Lame, you mean,” Jacob snickered. “’I am the Oracle! You can use all the help you can get!’” He fell on his knees and made a giant “O” with both arms. “Tell me of the dangers, O great Oracle!”
The words were barely said when he fell on his face, knocked flat from behind.
“Jacob?” Noah swiveled on his heel and stopped to stare. The boy was pinned to the ground by what looked like a shimmering golden ribbon. As they watched in horror, it pulsed and moved, like living syrup, and curled upwards towards the back of his unprotected neck.
“What’s that?” Nancy demanded, then cried out again. Something hit her ankle—hard! She bent to knock it off and saw a sparkling ribbon wrap itself around her foot and circle up her leg. “What is it?” she shrieked. “Get it off!”
She tried to peel away the shining membrane, but to no avail. It swirled around the folds of her toga, binding her legs together. She toppled to the ground.
As Jacob struggled in the grass next to her, a curve of gold hissed across the tips of the grass and Noah jumped. It circled round and darted at him again. He shimmied sideways and it missed, but a second ribbon had risen, cobra-like, from the grass to join it.
Jacob’s face was now covered by translucent yellow slime, but he writhed onto his side and got one hand free. Pulling the hand up to his shrouded face, he formed an “O” and held it to his eye. Nancy understood and did the same, and just in time. The yellow had almost reached her wrist.
She looked and saw the mask of the Oracle. “You have encountered the Grass Sprites of Crete. Defeating these will advance you from level zero to level one.”
Jacob was turning blue beneath the golden film that coated his face.
Three sprites were after Noah. The living slime was above Nancy’s waist and rising fast. She clawed at it, fruitlessly.
The Oracle lectured on, unhurried. “Grass Sprites attach themselves to living organisms and wrap them in a membrane which cannot be broken by transverse force.”
“Transverse force? For goodness sake—Noah! Translation please!” Not for the first time, Nancy was grateful that math and science fascinated her brother.
“Did you say something, Nancy?” Noah yelled, waving frantically at the creatures.
“Transverse force! What is it?”
The Oracle continued. “Percussive force causes these membranes to disintegrate.”
“Noah!” Nancy’s temper, never very well governed, snapped. “I’m being attacked and my brother isn’t paying attention!”
“I’m a little busy here!”
“Can’t you just—oh no, you don’t dare!” Nancy shouted, as a Sprite streamed towards Noah’s face. “I need him!” Without thinking, she slapped at the Sprite. To her brother’s amazement, it crumbled into dust and fell away. Nancy grabbed Noah’s shoulder, shook him, and demanded, “What is percussive force?”
“Um, it’s what you just did. You know, percussion. Like beating a drum. Didn’t you notice?”
Nancy looked blank for a moment. “Oh.” And she began to slap vigorously at the sheath that struggled to encase her neck.
“You have a remarkably one-track mind at times; did you know that?” Noah clapped two hands together on an incoming sprite and watched it pop like a golden puffball. He grinned. In a moment, he had dispatched a third attacker.
“Do something about Jacob!”
“Oh, right.” Noah rolled across the grass towards Jacob, who was starting to go rigid. “Sorry about this, pal.” He slapped Jacob full in the face. There was a pop and a whoosh and Jacob gasped in fresh Cretan air. Nancy was smacking at herself all over, as if beset by bees. A shower of golden dust shimmered around her.
Noah was the first to remember the Oracle. He circled thumb and forefinger and peered through it. “Congratulations,” intoned the mask, “you have just defeated your first enemy, a Grass Sprite, and have moved from a level zero to a level one hero. Continue to battle stronger foes in order to gain experience and increase your levels.”
“This is ridiculous,” Nancy panted. “Grass Sprites?”
After catching their breath, they started for the city. Nancy glanced around her nervously. Jacob tottered downhill. Noah pondered physics. “Jacob,” he asked, “you’re wobbling a bit—from lack of air, no doubt. Were you really unable to breathe with that thing on your face?”
Jacob stopped and stared at Noah. “Now that you mention it, no. I think I took a couple breaths. Maybe there wasn’t really anything over my face?”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Noah agreed. “I don’t suppose they intentionally build cybersuits to choke people to death. And if that’s the case, why are you wobbling? Is it just adrenaline, or fright, or is the suit programmed to make you as weak as you would be after an attack like that?”
“It’s the suit,” Jacob answered—a little too quickly, Nancy thought. The conversation lagged, and they trudged towards the city wall in silence. The city had looked low from their vantage point on the hill, but as they approached, it became clearer that it was simply massive. And so were its guards.
“Whom do you serve?” the left-hand of the two guards at the city gate demanded.
Noah formed an “O” and asked, “Operator?” Nancy smiled and flashed her brother a thumbs-up. Jacob rolled his eyes.
The Oracle appeared. “There are six gods of Olympus. Every citizen must choose one of them to serve. Those who serve no god are known as wanderers—”
Noah dropped his hand. “Nobody,” he told the guard. “We’re wanderers.”
Both guards drew their weapons and advanced one menacing pace. “Wanderers?” roared the right-hand guard. “You dare to enter the city of Zeus without his protection?”
Nancy formed a hasty “O” of her own. “What happens if we enter the city without Zeus’ protection?”
“Those who devote themselves to the service of a god are safe from that god’s followers. If you enter the city of Zeus without Zeus’s protection you risk attack at every moment.”
A thundercloud immediately formed on Nancy’s face. Noah, seeing it, smiled politely at the guards. “Could you gentlemen give us a moment?” He grabbed his sister’s hand, ignoring her annoyed protest, and invited Jacob to join their huddle with a jerk of his head. When Nancy passed on what the Oracle had said, Noah reasoned, “If we say we serve Zeus, we’ll be safe in this city. If we don’t, pretty much anybody might attack us at any time.”
“Might?” Nancy asked. “Or will?”
“I don’t know,” Noah asked.
“It’s no big deal,” Jacob said. He turned toward the guards. “Who do you guys want me to serve?”
“This is the city of Zeus,” they chanted in unison.
“Okay, I guess I serve Zeus, then.” The guards merely glowered at him in silence. “I said, ‘I serve Zeus,’ ” he repeated, louder.
“Don’t tell us,” said the guard on the right. “Tell the Oracle.”
Jacob rolled his eyes hugely. “O Great Oracle,” he intoned, forming the sign, “I serve Zeus!”
The moment the words left his mouth, a thunderclap shook the ground. Fierce winds howled, and storm-clouds suddenly swirled above their heads. Nancy recognized the thunderous voice from the introduction as it bellowed, “Behold the servant of Zeus!” On the last word, a lightning bolt streaked out of the sky and incinerated Jacob. Nancy shrieked.
The lightning bolt blew Jacob to atoms, but as Nancy lowered the hands she flung up to shield her eyes, she saw Jacob reassemble. Only now he was somehow more than before. He was a head taller than the two of them now, and his body rippled with new muscles. His face, goat-like before, now had a computer-generated nobility. The siblings glanced at each other, eyebrows raised.
Jacob looked down in surprise and flexed his newly-chiseled bicep. “Huh.” He stole a glance at the other two, took in their startled admiration, and grinned up at the guards. “I definitely serve Zeus.”
The guards hadn’t moved so much as an eyebrow. Nancy supposed they had seen it all before. The one on the left jerked his chin towards her and Noah. “And these other two?”
“They’re with me,” Jacob answered.
“They may still be attacked at will.”
Nancy opened her mouth, but Noah jumped in before she could say anything. “We understand. Thanks.”
They pushed their way towards the center of the city. The crowds were like nothing they had ever seen. “It’s a carnival freak show!” Noah commented, and he was right. Much of the mob consisted of drab little people who scurried everywhere through the streets, but they were not what caught the eye. There were hulking figures clad in bronze who clanked past like tanks. Black-bearded men with bulging muscles towered over the three teens, naked blades clutched in ham-sized hands. Squadrons of slaves bore mysterious women in silks aloft on satin couches, while other women wore more weaponry than clothes. Blades were everywhere: daggers, sabers, scimitars, bows, axes, rapiers, broadswords, pikes, spikes, tridents.
“I don’t usually feel so short.” Noah had always been taller than his two little sisters and had long ago passed his mother’s height, but Crete had him looking up at Jacob and craning his neck at even larger warriors.
“It’s the game,” Jacob explained, drawing from his memories of Karl’s endless droning on about Olympus. “People pay to power up. You can be as strong as you want.”
“Or as beautiful,” Nancy added, wryly. How many supermodels could one street hold, she wondered? And how much would it cost to look like them? Privately, she took back her criticism of Olympus’s marketing team.
“It gets weird, though,” Jacob commented. “Everybody wants to top everyone else, so you get impossible combinations.”
Nancy’s eyes were still following a woman whose hair shimmered, practically glowing in every rainbow shade. “Not a fan of tie-dye tresses?” she asked.
“I prefer redheads,” said Jacob, pointedly eyeing her hair.
Had Noah been paying attention, he might have noticed Nancy’s sudden confusion. But his eyes were elsewhere. “Look at the guy by the big fountain—he probably spent his college savings on those biceps.”
Nancy glanced at the tall dark figure ahead of them—then stared. So did Jacob. “Or the money from his lawnmower business,” he exclaimed. “That’s Karl!”
Nancy would have said that Karl Huber in his basement was okay, in his way; tall, athletic, alert. Karl in Olympus was electric. As they came within his range of vision, Nancy saw him grin and wave at them. “There you are! I was about to come looking for you guys!”
Her heart skipped a beat, which made her furious. “So this is what video games do for you, Karl,” she snapped. Karl, who didn’t know her well enough to interpret the tone, looked annoyed. Noah, however, raised a brotherly eyebrow. She blushed and turned away. Interesting.
Jacob saw his chance to score some points. “So, big brother, you look like you’re on steroids. What did you pay for those delts?”
Karl refused to take Jacob’s bait. “Some of us don’t need to buy muscles, Jacob. I earned these enhancements by playing the game.”
“Oh, so you’ve earned your enhancements.” Jacob feigned admiration. “I’m so impressed!”
A troop of slender acrobats jostled past, their music making it impossible to hear one another, and Karl motioned them to follow him into a quieter corner of the square, in the shade of a leather-vendor’s awning.
“I don’t understand,” said Noah, when they talk again. He was by now deeply interested in the mechanics of the game. “I thought I killed your character. How come you’ve got enhancements?”
Karl answered immediately, happy to show off his knowledge. “Well, it’s changed. When Olympus first started, you started from scratch when you died. But people got fed up and began to quit the game. Now you lose whatever you had on you, but not your skills or status.”
As the three young men stood talking, Nancy had plenty of opportunity to compare them. On earth, Karl and Jacob were ten minutes and half an inch apart. In Olympus, they were on entirely different levels. Jacob had grown taller and stronger when he called on Zeus, but he still looked like a high school athlete next to a professional quarterback. Karl was a champion of Zeus, a noble of Crete. Jacob was just an average citizen. Noah, meanwhile, was a godless, city-less wanderer; inexperienced, un-enhanced, just one step above the nops who filled the streets.
Karl caught Nancy’s wondering gaze, and basked in it. Her cartoon self in Olympus was, in his opinion, a step down from the Nancy he had met she on earth: mere software couldn’t capture her natural sparkle. But still, this was a richly satisfying moment. Yesterday, Nancy had been so quick to criticize. Today, she was in awe, and rightly so.
Jacob was not so quick to pick up on Nancy’s fascination. When he did, he was less than pleased. Couldn’t she see this was all just an illusion? Was she shallow enough to fall for this comic book superhero stuff? It was time to redirect the conversation.
“So you’re enhanced or whatever,” Jacob blurted. “Tell them about those people, O Wise Karl. Are they un-hanced?” He pointed to the little folk who scurried everywhere in the noisy, jostling crowd.
Nancy peered out from the shade of the leather-vendor’s awning to study the drab people in the streets of the crowded city. They were cartoonish, like everyone else, but there was a deeper difference. Where many of the players were tall, strong, or beautiful, these people were just … well, goofy. Some were fat, others bald. Still others were more awkward and gangly than Noah. She saw bulbous noses, stringy hair, gap teeth, everything she presumed people would get into Olympus to leave behind on earth. She tried to catch the eye of a mousy little girl who skittered past, to no avail. “I was wondering about that, too,” she said to Karl.
He shrugged. “These are nops.”
“Nops?” Nancy echoed. “What’s a nop?”
“ ‘Non-Players.’ They’re computer-generated characters,” Karl replied. When Nancy continued to look blank, he supplied, “Not real people.”
Nancy stared harder at a passersby and then at the three boys. “Is it just the size that tells the difference?” She wanted to ask if it was their general ugliness, too, that set them apart, but that sounded unkind.
“Not always,” Karl answered. “Most nops are shorter than most real players, but there are tall nops and short players so you can’t depend on size alone.”
“So how do you tell?” Noah asked.
“That’s easy enough,” said Jacob. “Take, for instance, her.” He pointed at a squinting, elderly woman carrying a basket full of apples. Jacob thrust out one foot, and she stumbled over it into the street. She landed in a puddle, splashing half a dozen people all around her. A few tall players pointed and laughed. The short people took no notice, but marched mechanically on. The woman crept about on muddy knees, gathering up apples into a muddy basket. She never so much as turned her squinting eyes at Jacob.
“Jacob!” exclaimed Noah and Nancy together. Nancy immediately bent to help the old woman, shooting a glare over her shoulder that Jacob found extremely irritating.
“She’s not an old lady,” he said, defensively. “She’s a computer image.”
Karl looked carelessly at the bent figure of the old nop, but then he noticed Nancy’s expression. “Jacob, you shouldn’t have done that.”
“Oh, why not? Do you feel for her poor electronic knees? Want me to get her a virtual band-aid?”
Karl hesitated, but when Nancy shot him the grateful look reserved for a champion of the defenseless, it spurred him on. “It was cruel,” he said, sternly, rolling his shoulders back and standing ramrod straight.
“Oh, puh-lease!” said Jacob. “You can’t be cruel to a computer. This whole thing is just a game. As you very well know!”
“You sound like Dad.”
“Well, Dad’s right!” Karl and Jacob glared at each other.
Aware that she had helped to cause the argument, Nancy made an effort to pacify it. “Jacob—” What could she say? “I understand that you were trying to make a point. It’s just that…” She wanted to excuse the action, but could not. Fortunately, Noah came to his sister’s aid.
“Nancy is a little sensitive about stuff like that. But no harm done. What’s next, Karl?”
Karl frowned. Trust Jacob to mess up Olympus. “Let’s go visit a shop. I need a new sword, and Nancy’s a girl, so shopping should be right up her alley.” He flashed a grin at Nancy, who smiled back. Karl didn’t notice (though Jacob and Noah did) that Nancy’s smile was ironic. Noah permitted himself an inward chuckle. You have a lot to learn about my sister, buddy.
Karl led them through the jostling crowd down the street and to the door of a shop called Bolt of Fortune. The shopkeeper met them at the door. He was dark and lean and had a greedy look about him. Karl hailed him. “Ho! Shopkeeper, my good man!” he called, slipping into the booming hero’s voice he used when he roamed the roads of Olympus. “We need provisions for a long journey, and arms to protect ourselves on the way.”
“Ah, is it a journey now, young master? Not a foreigner, are you, with your wanderer friends?”
The shopkeeper shot a keen glance at Karl, who hastened to reply, “No! No, I serve Zeus. We all do!” Nancy, fortunately, did not hear—she was still gazing at the crowd. A man and woman of stunning appearance were locked in intimate conversation across the street, and Nancy wondered what they were saying. Their manner was clear enough. It was like a scene from a movie…
The shopkeeper bent double, pressing his palms together. “Well, then. Welcome! Presuming you have drachmas in your pockets, that is.”
“But, assuredly, my good fellow,” replied Karl, restored quickly to heroic nonchalance. “What fool would darken the door of a shop if he had no gold to lighten it?” It was a good line, and Karl knew it. Before he bought his cybersuit, he had spent hours in Olympus mini-games and chat rooms.
The shopkeeper ushered them in. “Fools indeed,” he sighed, “but there seem to be more and more of them every day, who come seeking goods and then not paying for them.”
“Now how can that be?” asked Karl. He turned to Nancy, who had distractedly entered the shop with a slight sigh. “When you put your coins or swipe your credit card into the cybersuit, you get ten drachmas for each dollar.”
Nancy nodded politely. Karl could see she hadn’t gotten the point. “So,” he pursued, “You’ve got a bag of gold there at your belt.”
Nancy looked down. Sure enough, a hefty little bag dangled from her waist. “Oh!”
Karl smiled, satisfied. “When you run out of money, you’re out of the game. So don’t spend it all.” He turned back to his host. “Don’t tell me they’re letting people into Olympus without any money?”
“Yes, by Zeus’s thunder,” said the shopkeeper. “Don’t ask me how, or why. I wonder what these young barbarians will do to my shop!” Nancy looked nervously out the door at the bustling street. “Oh, there’s no harm now,” said the shopkeeper, “They won’t come while it’s day. It’s the night-time that’s the problem.”
Nancy turned and looked curiously at the little old man. “Is he real?” she whispered to Jacob. “Don’t kick him or anything! But I want to know.”
Jacob shrugged. “He acts real enough,” he whispered back. “But what kind of dummy would pay to play a game of being a shopkeeper?”
“Enough of my troubles,” the shopkeeper was saying to Karl. “It was foolish of me to doubt a young hero like yourself. Welcome to my shop!”
The chamber, lit by pale sunlight that filtered through high-set windows, was packed with goods for sale. A ladder leaned up against one wall, where shelves groaned under the weight of armor and weapons. Two tall cabinets in the middle of the room were packed with copper-bottomed saucepans and great red sausages, round yellow cheeses and long loaves of bread. A curtain hung down one wall of the shop, and Nancy caught a fascinating glimpse on the other side of satin and silk, in great soft bolts of cloth or all made up into dresses.
“I need a sword, “ said Karl. He couldn’t help boasting a little. “I crossed all of Cyprus to get my last one.”
“Cyprus? Aphrodite’s land is where I go for silks, not swords. What took you there?”
“The short-cut into Troy.”
“Troy! Was it a magic weapon, then?”
“It took out a dragon.”
“Where is this blade, young hero?” wheedled the old man.
“Burned in a forest fire. I was distracted at a key moment.” Karl looked pointedly at Noah, who looked pointedly away.
“And you have been killing a dragon, mighty one!” the shopkeeper flattered. “I don’t know that I’ve got anything in my store that would impress a dragon-slayer, who risks foreign lands and deadly monsters!”
Karl hoped Nancy could hear the gratifying respect in the old man’s voice. Jacob hoped she didn’t. “Oh, I’m not looking for an enchanted weapon today. Just something to defend myself against human vermin.”
“Human vermin?” bristled Jacob. He glared at Karl. “I could use one for that.” The shopkeeper directed them to a rack of swords against one wall.
“And how about you, miss?” the shopkeeper asked.
“Oh, nothing really,” said Nancy. “I’m just looking.”
“Why look when you can try?” he asked. “I have robes from Cyprus. Believe me, they know a thing or two about garments in the land of Aphrodite!”
“I don’t think Aphrodite and I would agree about much, and certainly not about clothes.” Nancy remembered all too well her visit to the temple. However, she didn’t want to offend the shopkeeper. “Still, I came to look—I may as well look!”
The shopkeeper pointed her to a rack of robes, which quickly confirmed Nancy’s opinion of Aphrodite in particular and the world of Olympus in general—but fortunately even these designers had conceded something to the hardships of travel. Though nothing could be called really practical, Nancy found a loose, flame-colored silk blouse and a pair of brown leather pants that fit more loosely than a second skin. She looked around for a dressing room. The shopkeeper saw her confusion, and hammered on a wooden partition, shouting, “Hey, you girl! Get in here!
Nancy thought he was talking to her until she heard a frightened, scrambling noise from behind the wall, and then a tall girl in a tattered dress tumbled out. “I’m sorry, sir,” the girl apologized. “I was just resting, sir.” The shopkeeper glared at her. “You’ll rest on your own time! You work when this shop’s open, do you understand? Or I will take you down to the market again.” He raised one eyebrow. “You know what I mean?” The girl nodded helplessly. “Step in here and show this young heroine to a changing room.” Resentment smoldered in the girl’s eyes, but she took a step toward Nancy. The shopkeeper snapped his fingers. “Now!”
The girl led Nancy into the dressing room, but Nancy was troubled. She examined her companion. Dark skin and hair. Wise, sad eyes. Taller and much more beautiful than Nancy; she must have leveled up. Why, then, was she cowering before some old shopkeeper? “What’s your name?” Nancy asked.
“Lately, it’s been ‘Hey, you,’ ” the girl answered. “I don’t think my master cares.” She sighed wearily. “You can call me Sophia.”
“Why are you here?” Nancy asked. “This is supposed to be a game. You can’t be enjoying this!”
“Oh, I am happy here,” Sophia smiled. “I love serving my master.”
“Are you sure?” Nancy asked. “Why don’t you come with us?”
“I couldn’t leave my master,” Sophia said, still smiling. “I wouldn’t. I’m here of my own free will.”
There was something odd about her eyes, Nancy thought. Then it hit her. She must just be another computer-generated character. What real teen would pump coins into Olympus to be bullied by that old shopkeeper? But if she was a nop, she was the tallest and best-looking one Nancy had seen yet. For a second, she thought about tripping the girl. Don’t be ridiculous! It’s none of your business. With an effort of self-control, Nancy turned to the mirror, and the slave girl stepped up with the pile of wonderful clothing. In addition to brilliant orange silk and soft tan leather, there were knee-length boots in a darker brown, and a belt, and a cloak of deepest indigo blue with silver clasps in the shape of a swan. Sophia also brought a long dagger with inlaid etchings (deer running along a forest path) that Nancy loved at once.
Noah would have been intrigued by how the Olympus software handled changing clothes, but Nancy didn’t care. One moment she was in a toga, and the next she was completely changed. She marveled at her reflection. It was she, undoubtedly Nancy. And yet, she was a fantasy adventuress, something between priestess and pirate. Not much, really, compared to the supermodels in the square, but even Nancy had to admit it to herself: she looked lovely.
She emerged from behind the curtains to find Karl and Jacob examining their new swords. Each was eyeing the straightness of the blade and testing the sharpness of the point. But they almost dropped their weapons when they saw Nancy.
Karl drew in his breath. “Wow!” he blurted. Nancy dropped her eyes so that he wouldn’t see how that one word made her stomach flutter. “Turn around!” he ordered. She turned. Jacob bit his lip. One look at Nancy’s shining eyes told him she didn’t want to be reminded that her outfit was just an electronic illusion. Well, if she wanted to suspend her disbelief, he might as well play along. He knelt in imitated reverence. “You will be a goddess of Olympus, Nancy – Aphrodite herself! …and when you are, my sword will be yours.”
Nancy blushed and protested, “I’m not going to be any goddess! Definitely not Aphrodite.”
Karl frowned. Couldn’t she see what a little faker Jacob was? “You’d better get a sword, first,” he snarled at his brother.
Jacob continued smoothly, his flattery directed at Nancy. “I will choose a sword worthy of your beauty.”
“Pick a sharp one,” Karl muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” snapped Jacob, still on one knee.
“It means that one of these days you’re going to trip up somebody who knows how to fight back!”
“Are you still fussing about that?” Jacob asked, standing up.
“Oh, no, I’m just trying to protect you!” said Karl. “I mean, somebody might try to take a swipe at you.” He demonstrated with a vicious slice that missed Jacob’s stomach by inches.
“Karl!” protested Nancy. “Stop that!”
“Oh, I can protect myself,” Jacob said, dropping back. He brandished his new cutlass.
“Are you sure, little brother?” asked Karl. He towered over Jacob.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” said the shopkeeper anxiously. “Save your little argument. Dead men don’t make good customers!”
“It’s all right,” said Karl. “Winner buys both swords.”
There was murder in his eyes.
Nancy was horrified.
Had she started this? I should have stuck with the lousy toga! “Noah, help!” she cried. Noah was talking with the tall slave girl, but one glance took in the flashing swords, the murderous looks, and Nancy’s frightened eyes. He sprinted across the shop.
Karl lunged at Jacob. His sword was bigger, his reach was longer, and he was far more skilled than his level one brother. There was no way he could miss—but the sword stopped an inch from Jacob’s chest. Jacob gasped in surprise, relief, and confusion.
Karl howled, “I should have known!” and hurled his sword into the floor in disgust. The tip found a crack in the floorboards and it stood vertical, vibrating with the force of Karl’s fury.
The air shimmered as the Oracle appeared unbidden, facing Karl. “Potentially lethal altercations between devotees of a single deity may not proceed without mutual assent.” Jacob tried to make sense of the sentence as the mask rotated towards him. “Do you consent to combat?”
“It means I can’t teach you a lesson unless you agree, you idiot. You devoted yourself to Zeus, and so have I. Other people can attack us, but we have to agree to duel! Consent, you weasel! Or else wait till we get home!”
Jacob’s mind was racing. I could breathe. There wasn’t anything over my face. He shot a glance at Karl. He can’t really hurt me. The tip of Karl’s new sword was three inches deep in the oaken floor. He shot a glance at Nancy. At last, he lifted his eyes to the Oracle. “I don’t want to hurt my brother,” he sighed, “But I have to accept.”
The Oracle vanished in a flash of light and Karl hurled himself at Jacob. He might not have a sword but he had still had height, weight, and brute rage. Jacob flung up his sword to defend himself but Karl ignored it. His chest hit the flat of the blade as he slammed it back on Jacob in a flying tackle.
The cluttered shop came to Jacob’s rescue. The heel of his sandal got caught under the handle of a mace. Karl’s momentum carried him into a waist-high stack of helmets while Jacob slithered out from under him, one foot still stuck to the floor. Both brothers struggled to stand.
Jacob might be shorter, weaker, and less skilled, but he finally had his blade pointing in the right direction. The advantage was now his. Karl circled just out of reach of that bronze tip, looking for another opportunity.
Now it was Karl’s turn to take advantage of his environment. The shop was crammed and Karl hurled anything that came to hand at Jacob. Veils and tunics fluttered through the air. Grecian urns shattered against the wall. Jacob ducked and wove and kept his furious brother at arm’s length.
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen, please!” cried the distraught shopkeeper.
There was a method to Karl’s fury. Though Jacob kept his body—and his blade—between his brother and the sword still buried in the ground, the shop was full of weapons. Karl plucked a trident off the wall and the tide of battle turned.
“Stop it!” Nancy shouted. The brothers ignored her, and she cast a desperate look to her brother and the shopkeeper.
The shopkeeper threw up both hands with a wail of despair. Noah advanced towards the storm of deadly bronze. Suddenly he hesitated, and then ducked behind the tall shelves in the middle of the shop. “Noah!” Nancy shrieked at her invisible brother. “You coward!”
The shelves began to sway, then teeter, and then they toppled; smashing down on top of the dueling brothers. Karl and Jacob were flattened underneath a mountain of sausages, copper kettles, and broken crockery. Noah stood where the shelves had been, coolly surveying his handiwork.
“Get me out of here, you moron!” came Karl’s muffled voice, buried under a mound of red and black pottery.
“Ow, I can’t move,” whined Jacob’s voice from beneath a wheel of cheese.
Noah turned gravely to Nancy. He frowned. “Coward?” he asked severely.
Nancy scuffed the tip of her sandal of the floor in her meekest manner. “I’m sorry.”
“C’mon, help me excavate Cain and Abel.” They hoisted the shelves off Karl and Jacob, lifted the brothers up, and dusted them off. Noah was careful to kick both sword and trident to the deepest pile of wreckage, just in case Karl was still in a fighting mood. Before anyone could say a word, the shopkeeper appeared with a grim look on his face.
“So, winner pays for both swords. Who pays for half my store?”
Jacob smiled weakly. “Do we get a bulk discount?”
“You’ll need it.” He stuck out his lean palm.
“Awww,” whined Karl, “don’t take everything! We just got here!”
“And you’ve made a royal mess of things, too. You’ll get no pity from me.”
“But if you take all our money, the game will be over!”
“You’re breaking my heart.”
“Great,” spat out Karl. “There goes the morning.”
“Yes,” returned Jacob, “and whose fault is that?”
“His,” Karl accused, turning on Noah. “What did you interfere for?”
“Interfere!” gasped Nancy. “You were trying to kill Jacob!”
“Yeah, well that’s what this game is all about. It’s a race to the top. Survival of the fittest. Kill or be killed.”
“But he’s your brother!” Noah objected.
“That’s certainly not my fault.”
Nancy was appalled. “You’d kill your own brother?” She turned to Jacob. “How can you sleep at night?”
“Oh, he hasn’t got the courage to really do it,” hissed Jacob. “He needs his fantasy world so he can pretend he’s brave!” With that, Karl flew at Jacob again. This time there were no weapons, just two oversized boys clawing and scratching and rolling on the floor of the shop.
Karl, far stronger than Jacob, easily rolled him onto his back. He gripped Jacob’s throat and methodically set in to kill him. Jacob clawed and scratched at Karl in vain, but could not break his brother’s murderous grip on his throat.
Things got worse when the old shopkeeper pulled a sharp knife off a rack and advanced on the brawling brothers. Nancy cried out, sure he would kill them both. Instead, he merely sliced the belt on Karl’s robe and plucked off his coin pouch. “Bye, bye, dragon-slayer,” he said, and Karl, suddenly penniless, flickered, shimmered and vanished. Jacob flopped like a beached fish for a moment before the shopkeeper divested him of his coins, too.
When Jacob disappeared, the old man turned to the Averys. They meekly untied their pouches. “We’re really sorry about the shop,” Noah said.
“And the bad behavior of our… friends,” Nancy added. “Dad warned us about this.”
“Come back soon,” the shopkeeper said, sarcastically. The last thing Nancy saw in the game was the dismayed face of the slave girl who, no doubt, would be left to clean up the mess.
A universe away – or was it only a few feet? – back in the video arcade, Mr. Avery peered through the monitor into Olympus. He smiled sadly at Nancy’s words. “Computer technology and human nature,” he said to himself. It wasn’t a hard call. He opened the door to Nancy’s cubicle and lifted the helmet off her head. She gazed up at him in the murky red light.
“Oh, Daddy,” she said, “take me home.” He unstrapped her from the suit, stooped to pick up her shoes from the floor of the cubicle, then met Noah in the corridor.
The car was filled with silence. Karl sat, hunched and miserable, in the passenger seat. He glared down at his phone, thumb flicking fiercely at an Olympus app, pretending to be unaware that none of the others was willing to sit next to him. Noah, Nancy and Jacob sat in the back, each thinking his or her own turbulent thoughts. Mr. Avery drove in silence, framing and then rejecting what he should say to the boys’ father. He could have saved himself the trouble. When they pulled up to the Hubers’ somber brick two-story house, Mr. Huber’s car was gone. Karl got out, but Jacob stayed in the car, looking fearful.
“Don’t leave me with him!” he cried.
“Oh, come on, I’m not going to hurt you!”
Nancy took Jacob’s arm. “Dad, we can’t leave him with that bully! You heard him in the game… ‘wait til we get home.’ He could be in danger!”
Noah rolled his eyes. It was just like Nancy to find some way to make a painful situation worse.
Mr. Avery looked unhappy. “Is your grandfather at home?”
“No,” Karl answered shortly. “Dad’s taken him to the doctor. He’s got an appointment every Saturday.”
Mr. Avery sighed. “Are they likely to be back soon?”
“Dunno. It’s a clinic. Cheap, but sometimes they sit around all morning waiting their turn.”
Mr. Avery’s face fell. He turned to Jacob. “What do you want to do, Jacob? Come with us?”
“Yes,” Jacob whimpered. “I don’t fancy being strangled again.”
“This is ridiculous!” Karl protested. “It was a game! He’s just playing for sympathy.”
“Don’t worry,” Nancy said. “You can come with us.” Jacob shot a smug look at Karl. Karl’s hands flashed a sign language word that Jacob refused to translate, slammed the minivan’s door, and stomped off into the house, the back of his neck burning red as the bricks of his house.
Mr. Avery waited till the front door shut and the lock clicked with an air of finality, then hesitated behind the wheel for a moment. “I don’t feel good about just leaving him.”
“He’ll be okay,” Jacob insisted. “We’re home alone lots of the time.”
“It’s not that,” answered Mr. Avery. He paused, obviously unhappy.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. He’ll just go down to his cybersuit in the basement. You heard what he said; he wants to keep playing his game.”
“If you can call it playing,” interjected Noah.
“I suppose a few more minutes in his fantasy world won’t do much more damage,” Mr. Avery rationalized, still glancing into his rear view mirror as he pulled away from the house.
“No more damage than he did me. He can stay in his precious fantasy world for all I care.”
“Noah and Nancy, when we get home,” said Mr. Avery, “I’d like to see a few pages of commonplace book notes on your experiences. Jacob, do you mind just waiting around our house until your father comes back?”
“Do you suppose Karl will call to let us know when they return?”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“You want to talk about what happened back there?”
“I guess that’s just as well,” Mr. Avery said, sighing again. “I should talk to your father first. Would you like to write down your thoughts? It might be helpful. After all, you could call that a pretty traumatic experience.”
I could, couldn’t I? Jacob thought, slyly. Then what Mr. Avery had said caught up with him. “Write?” he asked, incredulous. “What is this, school?”
Mr. Avery glanced in the mirror at the boy’s shocked face, and smiled. “I’m sorry,” he chuckled. “I guess you’re not used to homeschoolers. With us, the learning never ends.”
“Ugh,” groaned Jacob. “What a life!”
Mrs. Avery and April greeted them at the door. One look at her son and daughter and the sober face of her husband assured her that Olympus had not set its hook in her children. Jacob cast an appreciative eye over the Avery’s home. It was a low ranch in a less impressive part of town than his house, but he instantly liked their home more than his own. The Huber house was two stories of brick with a manicured lawn that ran right to the house’s edge. The Averys’ home had cheap siding and branches poking out of the gutters, but it also had flowers growing profusely all around the house. They were surrounded by weeds – Cassie Avery loved gardens, but hated gardening – but the peonies and impatiens thrived anyway. When he stepped through their front door, he was immediately met with the smell of bread and a general impression of lively clutter. Disorder spilled over every horizontal surface – tables covered in mail, chairs covered in books, floors covered in mismatched rugs and discarded little girl’s socks. He loved it. It was the opposite of his own home, always ramrod straight, pin-neat, and silent as a shrine … unless there was shouting.
“Sorry it’s such a mess,” apologized Mrs. Avery.
“Oh, no,” stammered Jacob. “It’s … it’s really fine. Our place is way messier than this.” He meant it as a polite lie, but as he said it, he felt it was somehow true.
While Mr. Avery followed his wife and into the kitchen, Noah sank into the ragged plaid armchair by the fireplace, pulled a pencil out from the cushion under which he had stashed it, put his feet up on the family dog, and stared into space waiting for inspiration. Nancy curled up on the window seat, drenched in sunlight. She needed warmth. Her heart was still chilled by the morning’s experiences.
It took Jacob a while to realize that they were serious about writing down thoughts on Olympus. He finally took the pencil and lined paper they offered him (the top sheet decorated by April’s stickers) and started to write. “That bully Karl. Showing off again.” Here, Jacob’s cramped, sharp handwriting was interrupted by a smiley face sticker and another sticker that proclaimed GREAT JOB! “Worst. Brother. Ever. Karl has to be so high and mighty. But now Nancy has seen his little fantasy world, she’ll likes me instead.” Three stars surrounding a daisy that said YEAH! “So what if he’s bigger and stronger? Sure, he can beat me up, but I’m smarter than he is any day. Give me some time and opportunity and I’ll show Mr. Champion a thing or two.”HOORAY!
Nancy started three different times, then tore the sheets from her notebook and pitched them into the fireplace. She and her father had long ago figured out this arrangement – her first drafts had started many a fire on chilly evenings. She was just starting a fourth page with the words, “On Beauty and Being Just Plain Awful,” when the phone rang.
“Avery household. Oh, hello, Dan,” she heard her father say, a note of caution instantly springing into his voice. “I thought Karl would have told you. Jacob’s here with us. What? We dropped Karl off at your house about an hour ago. You haven’t seen him?” There was a pause. “Well, Jacob said he would probably go to the basement and play his video game.” Nancy could hear Mr. Huber’s angry response all the way across the room. “Oh, dear. Dan, I didn’t know you had told him he couldn’t. Neither of your boys told me anything about that. Still, I hope he’s down there in your basement right now.” He listened. “Sure—go ahead. I’ll wait.”
Mr. Avery turned to Mrs. Avery, worry etched across his forehead. “Dan hasn’t seen Karl anywhere. I knew I shouldn’t have just left him there. Not after…” He was interrupted by an angry voice on the phone. Mr. Avery listened, and his face grew pale. “A note?” he asked. “What does it say?” His eyes widened. “Oh, no!”
He looked up at Cassie, his hand over the receiver. “Karl ran away!”
The November sky was an iron ceiling, and it had begun to drizzle.
As the Averys pulled up, Mr. Avery saw Dan Huber standing in the driveway, seemingly unaware of the elements. But his mood clearly reflected them. “What’s this, Avery? Where’s my boy?”
“I don’t know,” Mark Avery confessed as he climbed out of the car.
“Don’t give me that! You took him this morning. You’re responsible for him!”
His shoulders hunched against the cold drizzle, Mark stopped the man short with a long look. “Dan, I’m here to help.” His carefully-chosen words escaped his mouth as puffs of steam. “I think I understand how you feel. Your family is being threatened – but I am not your enemy. Don’t start this by attacking me.”
Dan opened his mouth to answer and then stopped. He worked his jaw, biting back harsh and angry words. “Somebody is going to pay for this,” he ground out.
“Somebody already is. You are, and Jacob is, and, most of all, so is Karl.”
Dan scowled. Mark’s voice was quiet. “Getting mad at me won’t bring Karl back.”
Karl’s father towered over Mark Avery like a bull preparing to charge. But slowly, his shoulders slumped. “You make sense, Avery,” he admitted. He raked one hand back through his graying hair. “I could use some sense right now.”
“Okay, then.” Mr. Avery gestured the kids out of the car. Noah obeyed promptly, Nancy more slowly, and Jacob lagged behind. Mr. Huber’s anger had frightened the kids, but now that it had passed, the man already looked defeated. Mr. Avery eyed his dejected figure and the three shrinking teens. Time to take charge. “There’s plenty to do, gang – let’s start by getting out of this rain,” he said.
One by one, they filed into the cavernous front hall of the Hubers’ house. Nancy looked around and tugged the sleeves of her cardigan down over her wrists. The house struck her just as negatively as it had the day before. It was all right angles, furnished sparsely and lit with bright, energy-efficient, corkscrew light bulbs. The wall opposite the door was dominated by a black-framed print of Ansel Adams’ Moon and Half Dome. The carpet showed lines where it had been vacuumed in a methodical pattern. The only relief from the Spartan rigidity were strangely incongruous curtains at the windows – delicate blue flowers trailing over cream muslin. There was a woman here, once, Nancy thought.
“In here,” Mr. Huber said, leading them into the utilitarian kitchen. Nancy wondered, if she were to pull open the stainless steel refrigerator, how many half-empty takeout boxes there would be.
“First of all, I’d like to see this note,” Mr. Avery requested.
The note read,
I’m out of here.
Your house, your rules.
When I come back
you’ll be proud of me.
“What is this supposed to mean, Avery? ‘My house, my rules?’ This is a reason to run away? It doesn’t make any sense!” Mr. Huber thundered.
“You don’t have any idea what this is about?” Mr. Avery pressed.
“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you?” Mr. Huber wheeled on his younger son. “Jacob, does this mean anything to you?”
Jacob cleared his throat, “I—” he began, but he was saved by a tall, stooping figure entering the room. The man’s presence commanded attention. He had long, hollow cheeks and a high forehead wreathed by white hair, but what made Jacob’s grandfather unforgettable were his eyes. They were the gentlest, most patient eyes Nancy could ever remember seeing. Aslan eyes, she thought.
Fixing his gaze on his son, Grandfather Huber’s bony hands rose as he nodded towards the Averys and lifted a thumbs-up with his open palm. He plucked an invisible thread with the fingers of his right hand, then flashed his fingers and thumb in a movement too quick for Nancy to follow.
“Not now, Vater,” barked Mr. Huber impatiently. When his father kept his quiet eyes locked on him, he groaned, and shot a defensive glare at Mr. Avery. “Three years I am taking sign language, but these teachers are useless. Amateurs! Jacob, boy, what was it he said?”
Jacob carefully kept from rolling his eyes. “He asked if the Averys are here to help us find Karl.”
“Of course they are! What, Vater, you think I am inviting friends over to watch football?”
Mr. Avery cleared his throat. When every tense face was turned to him, he lifted Karl’s note. “Whatever this is supposed to mean, it’s clear he’s gone and doesn’t expect to be back for a while. But he can’t be that far away—yet. If we can find out what he took, it will help us guess where he’s going. And we have to do it fast if we’re going to catch him.” He scratched his chin. “Let’s split up. Kids, you check the basement. See if there are any clues around the cybersuit. Then check Karl’s room. See if you can tell what clothes he took, see if he took any money or his favorite possessions. Dan, we can check for bicycles, sleeping bags, tents, or anything else he might be using.” His eyes flicked uncertainly to Jacob’s grandfather, but the man inclined his head in a slow nod, and left the room as quietly as he had come in.
They regrouped in five minutes. “Some stuff in the basement is missing,” said Jacob. “His GamePlay magazines and a notebook that he kept with maps of Olympus in it.”
Noah had searched the basement with Jacob. “I checked out his equipment. He hasn’t used it since he got home. And, for what it’s worth–I found out why his monitor hasn’t been working.” He held up a neatly severed computer cable.
Mr. Avery inspected it. “Looks like he cut it himself.”
“Right. Now I don’t feel so bad about burning him up.” Jacob said nothing. He knew that Karl had cut it two weeks ago, after Jacob had spent an evening watching him play and then mocked him mercilessly to their peers at school the next day.
Mr. Huber didn’t care about hardware. “I looked upstairs. His phone is gone, of course. So are some of his clothes. His favorite shirts, his sweatshirts.”
“How about his toothbrush?” asked Mr. Avery.
“I didn’t check.”
“He rarely uses it,” Jacob lied.
“Where does he keep his money?” asked Mr. Avery.
“His top drawer … I didn’t think to look. I’ll be right back.” Mr. Huber ran up the stairs.
“He didn’t take his sleeping bag or his bike,” reported Mr. Avery. He stepped over to the computer. Two clicks opened a browser. A few keystrokes opened the history file.
Mr. Huber came down the stairs, “His money is gone,” he announced.
“Here’s where some of it went,” responded Mr. Avery. He pointed to search results for ‘taxis.’ “We won’t catch him on the road. But we should be able to find out where he went with this.” Mr. Avery flipped open his phone and dialed. “Yes, hello,” he said quickly, “we’re trying to track down a run-away here. Did your company send a cab to 12148 Comello Court in the last two hours? Write that down, 12148 Comello Court. Check your records and call me back if you did. I have to call every other cab company in town.” He gave his number and hung up. Then he started dialing the next number.
As he waited for the second cab company to answer, he turned to Mr. Huber. “Did he take a knapsack or anything? What shoes was he wearing?” Karl’s father went off to check. Mr. Avery was on the eleventh cab company when the phone beeped in his ear. “Thank goodness for call waiting,” he muttered and switched to the incoming call. It was the Brown Turtle Cab Company. Yes, they had picked up a young man at that address over an hour-and-a half ago.
“Where did you take him?” asked Mr. Avery urgently. His face fell at the answer. He hung up the phone and said, “Let’s go. There’s no time to lose.”
“Where did he go?”
“The bus station!”
The two cars raced through suburban streets toward the city center. Each minute seemed an eternity. Jacob rode, sunk into the leather passenger seat of his father’s silver Taurus, waiting for the storm of anger to break. But his father was strangely meek. Mr. Avery had exerted a remarkable influence over him. Jacob wasn’t sure he liked it. “Dad, what are you going to do to Karl when we catch him?”
“You mean if we find him,” his father sighed. “Who knows if we’ll do that?”
“You’re just going to let him get away with this?”
“I’m not going to let him, but I don’t know if I can stop him. He could be anywhere by now.”
“Come on, Dad, this isn’t like you!” Jacob urged. “You’re not going to let a kid make a fool of you, are you? In front of all these Averys?”
“I’ve already made a fool of myself.”
Got that right, Jacob thought. “I don’t think so!” he said. “I think Karl’s the fool.”
Mr. Huber spared Jacob a raised eyebrow and a sidelong look. “You trying to get him in trouble, Jacob boy? He’s already in plenty of that.”
“No, I don’t want to get Karl in any trouble,” Jacob lied. “But you know how stubborn he is… first he plays Olympus after you told him not to, and now this? It’s like he’s playing at run-away just to mess with you!”
“That’s true,” his father agreed. “He shouldn’t be messing with me.”
“Nobody messes with you – you’ve gotta show him who’s boss!” Jacob hesitated. “What are you going to do to him when you catch him?”
“He’ll wish he’d never been born,” Mr. Huber answered, through clenched teeth.
“How about beating him ‘till he can’t sit down?” Jacob suggested.
Mr. Huber frowned at his son. “Jacob, what are you saying? I’ve never hit you two. I’m not going to start now.” Abruptly, he yanked the gearshift and gunned ahead to cut off a carpool van. “But by the time I’m done with him, Karl will wish he could get off with just a beating!”
Jacob’s only response was a slow smile.
Mr. Avery took a shortcut and pulled up to the bus station first. “Noah, Nancy,” he barked, glancing in the rear-view mirror at his daughter, “when we park, run right to the loading dock and charge onto the first bus you see. Tell the driver we’re looking for a runaway. Check every seat, and I mean every seat! If he sees you coming he’ll try to hide.” He thought for a minute, “Check the restroom, too.”
“What if there’s somebody in it?” squeaked Nancy.
“Cope,” Mr. Avery laughed. He pulled up outside the bus station, flipped on his flashers, and double-parked the car. “Let’s go!” he shouted. Mr. Huber pulled up right behind him. “Dan!” Mr. Avery shouted, “I’ve got the kids checking the buses. We’ve got to go in both doors separately, or he’ll see us and run out. I’ll take this door and you take the far one.” Mr. Huber charged down the sidewalk, and they burst into the bus station simultaneously.
The station was a squat building with a dingy drop-ceiling. A janitor with a pail of dirty water fought half-heartedly against the grime, but it would take more than disinfectant to overcome the atmosphere of despair. Defeated-looking women sat slumped in the chairs, while babies, wearing only pampers, played on the grubby floor at their feet. Old men slouched in the cheap vinyl benches as if they had grown there. One mound of boys clustered around an old-fashioned zombie-shooter video game in one alcove; another group hovered like flies around an ancient boom box mercilessly pumping Party in the USA into the stale air.
Mr. Avery raced down the length of the waiting room, scanning each seat. He peered under hats, through glasses, and scrutinized the size of the body underneath the externalities of coats and jackets. Karl was not there. He hastened to the ticket window. A bored-looking clerk on a stool was snapping bubble gum. “Has a kid come through here in the last hour-and-a-half?” asked Mr. Avery.
The clerk laughed. “Kids? Yeah, buddy, lots!”
Mr. Avery waved Mr. Huber over. “Do you have a picture of Karl?”
“Sure,” he answered. “In my wallet.” He pulled out a family portrait, in which a group of respectable suburbanites peered into the camera. “It’s a little old,” he apologized. “My wife was the one who arranged for stuff like this.” Mr. Avery noted how much younger the boys looked, and how pretty the late Mrs. Huber had been. “But it’s this one,” he continued, pointing at eight-year-old Karl’s face. “This one!” he said, holding it up to the clerk.
The clerk pursed his lips. “Aaah,” he groaned, “my eyes ain’t too good.” He took the wallet and squinted at it. “Why, what’s the problem? Runaway?”
“Yes,” sighed Mr. Huber.
“Well, we get a lotta runaways,” the clerk mused, philosophically. “Maybe half our business. People always runnin’ away from somethin’ or other.” Suddenly he shook himself. “Look, white kid, black hair, y’know…that’s not a lot to go on.”
“He had a knapsack,” Mr. Huber volunteered, desperately searching for some scrap of information to rouse this man’s memory.
The clerk laughed. “Every kid’s got a knapsack. Leastways, every kid who comes in here!”
“Maybe he paid with a check, or credit card, or something we could look up?” Mr. Avery attempted.
“No,” countered Mr. Huber, forlornly, “he didn’t have a credit card. He would’ve paid cash.”
“Cash and a knapsack…” the clerk began, then shook his head.
“But how many buses have left here in the last hour and a half?” questioned Mr. Avery.
“Well, we have ‘bout ten, twelve buses an hour. I guess, fifteen. Eighteen, maybe.”
“All right,” groaned Mr. Avery, “we’ll just have to do what we can. Do you have a schedule for the buses that left here?” The clerk leaned over and pulled out a stack of beige, aqua, and lavender leaflets.
“Here you go,” he grinned. “There’s one for every bus that comes through here.”
Mr. Huber stared helplessly at the stack. “Now what?” he asked.
“I should have asked this first, but you did call his phone, right?”
“Of course I did!” Mr. Huber snapped. “Straight to voicemail, ten times in a row.”
“Then it’s time for the police. We’ve done half the detective work, now we need an All Points Bulletin!” He flipped open his phone and dialed 911.
A toneless voice answered the phone, “Emergency, “ it said.
“Hello,” barked Mr. Avery, “I’ve got to report a missing person.”
“Child or adult?” droned the voice.
“Child, “ Mr. Avery snapped. “A teenager. I’m calling from the bus station, and he’s gotten on a bus, but we don’t know where he’s gone.”
“Did you ask the bus company which bus he took?”
“Yes, it could have been any one of ten or fifteen. I need you to put out an APB to find him, and get the cell company to track his phone.”
“How long has the child been missing?”
“About two hours,” Mr. Avery guessed.
“Was the child abducted by a stranger?”
“No,” retorted Mr. Avery, “we’re calling from a bus station. This teenage boy got on a bus, and has run away.”
“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t report a missing teenager until the teenager has been gone at least 48 hours.”
“But I’m calling from the bus station,” exclaimed Mr. Avery, “and this boy has run away! He’s on one of fifteen to eighteen buses. I need his cell located and for the police to check these buses to see if they can find him. And I need it now!”
“I’m sorry,” the voice repeated. “We don’t report missing teenagers until they’ve been gone at least 48 hours or been abducted. You’ll have to call back in 48 hours.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?” cried Mr. Avery.
“You say the child has been gone for two hours?”
“Yes,” Mr. Avery replied, with resurrected hope.
“Well, then, you can call back in 46 hours, sir. Have a nice day.”
The line went dead.
Mr. Avery snapped his phone shut savagely. Just then Noah and Nancy raced through the station doors. “He’s not in any of the buses,” shouted Noah.
“We checked them all,” said Nancy, “even the bathrooms. And… Dad, about the bathrooms. Can I get out of here real quick? ‘Cause there’s a gentleman who’s kind of upset at me.” She looked nervously behind her and then dashed out the bus station doors. It was none too soon. A beet red man in a business suit, clutching a briefcase, came puffing through the station doors. He glared furiously around the room.
Despite himself, Mr. Avery chuckled. “I told her to cope,” he reminded himself. “That’s my girl. Now I need to do some coping, myself!”
He turned to Mr. Huber, “Okay, it looks like we’ve done all the damage we can around here. We don’t know where Karl is, but we do have a list of places he could be. 911,” he waggled his phone in disgust, “was worse than useless. Let’s go back home and see what we can do from there.” He led the way out onto the sidewalk where a burly police officer was just placing a ticket under his windshield wiper.
“Officer!” shouted Mr. Avery. “Maybe you can help us. We’re trying to catch a runaway. He just slipped through our fingers here at the bus station, and we’re trying to catch him before he gets off the bus. Can you help?”
“Yeah, sure,” said the officer. “I’ve heard that one before. Look, you got a ticket because you double-parked, okay? You want to drop people off at the bus station, you gotta find a parking place or pay the fine.”
“Honest, officer. Can you help us? I called 911 but they say they can’t even report him as a missing person until he’s been gone for 48 hours.”
“I don’t know nothing about missing persons,” said the officer. “I just do tickets. You wanna contest your ticket, you come down to traffic court.”
“I don’t want to contest the ticket. I don’t care about the ticket,” said Mr. Avery. “I want to find a runaway teenaged boy.”
“Well, I suggest you call 911,” said the officer. “I just do tickets. Have a nice day.” He walked away.
Mr. Avery stood on the sidewalk, head bowed, defeated. Nancy came up beside him, unsure of what to say. She took his arm and leaned her head on his shoulder. Absently, he stroked her hair. Noah stood awkwardly beside them. He thought about saying, “It’s not your fault,” but he knew his father too well for that. God, help my dad.
His father began speaking, almost mechanically. “He took his knapsack. Took his money. Took a bus. Don’t know where. We don’t know where on earth Karl is going. But…” Suddenly, his voice took on feeling. “Took his magazines. Took his notebooks. Took his money. There’s only one place he could be going!” He straightened up, new hope in his eyes. “I know where he’s gone!” he said.
“Where?” exclaimed Mr. Huber.
One year ago, in Olympus
An immensely vertical wall ended at a mathematically perfect plane. The city at the peak of Olympus was silent, lifeless—until one slim hand found a grip on the glass-smooth, knife-sharp edge of stone, and then another. A head appeared, alert, darkly beautiful.
She studied the scene. Here, at the height of the empty city, the flawless obsidian square reflected the glowing temple at the far end, black stone mirroring black sky. Nothing moved. The girl swung one leg up over the edge and corkscrewed onto the square, her small movements echoing hugely in the deathly stillness of that place. She pulled on a cord and a small bundle slithered up after her.
She tugged at a loop and opened her bag. Moments later, she struck a spark upon a heap of shavings and cupped the flare against a wick. Scented oil and a small clay pot completed her lamp. She pulled a stick of green wax out of her bag. She held it to the lamp’s flame until it softened; then, stooping, drew. The smooth black floor around her flame was soon starred and crossed with mystic marks.
She gazed up at the jet black sky of Olympian night and swiveled slowly on one heel. She found what she was looking for and jabbed the wax down on the ground, then scrawled the shield and spear symbol that everywhere means “male”—or, on the peak of Olympus, means “Ares.” She smiled, circled the symbol, and then ruled a line from it to her lamp. Trapped!
She repeated the process, this time marking the location of a brilliant light not far from the sun, whose glare could not affect the sky so high above sea level. The time she formed the cross and circle of Aphrodite’s mirror—and chained it just as purposefully to her lamp.
Zeus was next—the bright green point of light far to the east. The king of the gods was reduced to an equation, too.
She frowned, studying the stars. Hera, goddess of the fertile earth, was not subject to astrology. Athena, goddess of wisdom, was the source of the girl’s power, not its subject. But where was Poseidon? She had easily found the planets Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. But Poseidon’s planet, Neptune, was not visible.
She paused on the brink of the precipice, calculating. At last she shrugged. Picking up her bag, she rummaged in it, then pulled out a handful of powder. She drained it through her fingers onto the lamp. Choked by the power, the flame flickered, guttered, turning first red, then blue, then flicking through the colors of the rainbow as it smoked. Wiping off her hands, she strode towards the temple. “Death or glory!” said her face. The stillness wrapped around her as she crossed the square and climbed the steps to the arched temple entrance.
A sea of candles glowed on the smooth floor that stretched in front of her for acres. Their flickering light illuminated the mural of the gods, just barely discernable impossibly high above her. The limitless interior of the temple was dominated, however, not by the painting or the candles, but by the circle of six stone gods. Each marble figure was hundreds of feet tall, their faces almost lost by distance. She picked her way through acres of candles and columns to the center of the vast domed space. She looked upwards. There, impassive in their cold stone, the gods gazed at each other in silent council. She had never felt so small. And this time there would be no thunder-voice or flying introduction to save her. It was her and the gods.
“Showtime,” she said, as much to hear the sound of her own voice as anything. She stepped to the closest plinth, carved with olive branches, and pressed her hand against it. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the stone where she had touched it shuddered and blazed with blinding light. She stepped back quickly. The stone olive branches bent and swayed, becoming green and alive. The marble feet blushed with the color of living flesh, which ran up the ankles of the statue. The great woman’s sail-sized robe swayed, taking on a rich green-gray color. Light, color, and movement raced upwards towards the statue’s face. And then the eyes came to life.
“Who summons me to battle?” called a high clear voice, and Athena, the size of a colossus, craned her neck to peer at the floor of the temple. Her eyes burned with gray fire.
“Not to battle, but for blessing, mother,” the tiny figure at the altar answered back. “I am Sophia, your servant. I come to challenge another god, not you. I come to ask for favor as I fight.”
“Sophia?” The goddess gazed at her. “Sophia! I remember you. Have you really come so far so soon?”
“This far, this soon. Today will tell whether I join you in Olympus—or not.” The girl paused. “The choice is yours, great mother.”
“Mine? The battle belongs to you!”
“The battle may be mine, but the power is yours. Your spells have given me power over nops and players. I need power over gods!”
The great head tilted, her interest piqued. She raised a hand the size of a dragon to brush dark waves of hair back from those burning eyes – a very human gesture. “Tell me what you want.”
“The shield and spear of Ares!”
“The – my child, you overestimate my powers!”
“No—you underestimate mine. I have cast a spell of confusion on him. Ares will be helpless to act until my lamp runs out of oil. Bring me his weapons!”
Athena laughed. “How have you come this far knowing so little? You cannot cast a spell on a god.”
“I have used the most powerful spells in Olympus,” Sophia said.
“And I have bound him by his star.”
This stopped Athena cold. A look of dawning admiration spread over that titanic face. She knelt down to look more closely at Sophia. “To mix a mortal spell with the power of a god’s planet… You say you used a lamp?”
Sophia smiled, bowing her head. “I have studied your ways very closely, Great Mother.”
“My child, if this is true, and you ask for the spear and shield of Ares, you shall have them.” The giant figure vanished. Seconds passed and then a round red disk and bloody spear clattered on the ground before Sophia.
Athena reappeared, delighted. “You have my blessing, daughter, and the weapons of the god of war! Ares cannot tell his right hand from his left … I must remember this spellwork of yours! Is there more that I can do for you?”
“Yes—since you ask. I have bewildered Jupiter and Venus, too. Bring me Zeus’ lightning and the mirror of Aphrodite.”
Athena stared. “You are bold, young one!”
“I have to be,” Sophia sighed. The cold finality of that answer both aroused and quenched Athena’s curiosity. She vanished and returned. New implements appeared at Sophia’s feet.
“Is that all, daring daughter?”
“All,” Sophia answered. “Thank you.”
“I suppose I have to leave, for you to challenge another,” Athena said, “For the rules are fixed: only one god could appear at once. I wish I could see you in action. I’ll see you soon enough, I suppose—either here as victor or starting over down below.”
“You’ll see me if I win,” Sophia answered, “but not if I lose. If I lose this time, I lose everything.”
“You’ll quit the game? Come now, don’t give up so easily!”
“Quit? Give up?” The girl’s response was fierce. “That’s not me.”
Sophia did not answer. The goddess opened her mouth, closed it, and stepped back on her plinth. She raised one hand in parting. “Be wise,” she said, “and – as one player to another – good luck.” The warmth and color drained away, and all that remained was a towering statue.
The girl watched the towering figure freeze into a statue, then—gently—grasped the lightning at her feet. She started walking towards another statue. “I hate luck,” she sighed.
Poseidon was far from Olympus when the summons came. He floated in the depths and stared in unfeigned wonder. Lights moved back and forth below him where no lights ought to be. The seas were his by right, as surely as the many peaks of Troy, yet here was something he had never seen. What could it be? How could it be? He was about to dive further to explore, when he felt a tugging upward and away, an irresistible pull to the Mountain. A summons was a summons, while the enormity growing in the deep could wait. He hurtled towards the unseen sky above.
The gods move fast. He shot through half the rainbow as he rose—from black to violet, indigo, dark blue, then every shade of green, then blinding white of spray and sky as he burst out of the sea. In less time than it takes to say his name he reached the temple and filled his marble flesh. “I am Poseidon!” he cried and stepped forth from his plinth. “Who dares to challenge me?”
The voice was small and far away. Poseidon elaborately stooped down to study the slim dark figure at the altar. “And who might you be?”
“It is not who I am that matters,” the girl responded, “but who I will be. I summon you to battle! When we are done, I will be nobody—or Poseidon!”
“You want to be Poseidon?” The god seemed taken aback. “But you’re a girl!”
“It’s none of my business, of course, but have you ever thought of challenging a goddess?”
“I can challenge whoever I want. This is America!”
The god chuckled, not unkindly. “That, dear child, is highly debatable.”
“I’m nobody’s dear! And I’m not a child!”
“Touchy, touchy!” Poseidon laughed, more sternly. “You won’t tell me your name.” He lifted his trident. “Your gender is your business. We won’t discuss your age or race. That doesn’t leave us much to talk about.”
“There’s always the weather,” Sophia muttered grimly.
“There is! Lovely weather we’re having, don’t you think—holy Church of England, what was that?” Poseidon leaped as if he had been stung by hornets.
“Lovely weather,” Sophia growled and hurled another bolt of lightning. She had the advantage of complete surprise and the deadliest of weapons, but Poseidon had not conquered Olympus yesterday. He had tangled with Zeus before, and knew his weapons better than any mortal player.
Offense is the best defense, even for immortals. Poseidon battled back, hurling his trident at the tiny target. To his surprise, it bounced. “I say!” he gasped. “Zeus’ lightning and Ares’ shield?”
“Yes,” she said, and hit him with another bolt.
“I must confess, I am impressed,” he volunteered, staggering backwards, then took a step towards her. “Do you have any more tricks up those lovely sleeves of yours?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” she smiled, and pulled out Aphrodite’s mirror. “I dare you to repeat that sexist line.” She hurled another bolt.
He staggered back again, no longer laughing. Poseidon took this game seriously, and the girl – intriguing as she was – had begun to present a real nuisance. Nor did he take kindly to her defensive attitude. Curling his lip haughtily, he threw his head back and took another step towards her. “Do you have any more tricks up those lovely sleeves of yours?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” she crowed, and pulled out Aphrodite’s mirror. “I dare you to repeat that sexist line.” Another bolt hit him where it hurt.
He staggered back again, no longer laughing. He took a step towards her and repeated, “Do you have any more tricks up those lovely sleeves of yours?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” she smiled, and pulled out Aphrodite’s mirror. “I dare you to repeat that sexist line.” She hurled another bolt.
He staggered back again, head reeling, and heard himself repeat himself again. Again she pulled a mirror from her sleeve and launched the lightning. That line had been lame the first time he said it. He really wished that it would stop. But it didn’t.
In a penthouse high above Manhattan, a businessman pulled off his helmet. “Janice!” he called. “We have a situation.”
An efficient-looking secretary tripped into the room. “A situation, sir? What kind of situation?”
“A surprising, situation, my dear.” He released the straps that held him in his cybersuit. “I seem to be stuck.”
Janice peered into a monitor that showed Poseidon in Olympus.
“—to repeat that sexist line.”
“Do you have any more tricks up those lovely sleeves of yours?”
As lightning struck the god in the monitor, Janice looked severely at her employer. “Lovely sleeves?”
“Trust me, pet, I have been regretting that phrase ever since I said it the second time. That little witch used my own words to trap me in a recursive loop.” Janice looked nonplussed. “A computer term. Once I repeated myself, she somehow looped my input back so that Olympus uses what I said to control my character instead of what I’m saying.” She still looked mystified. “It’s like those movies where someone tricks a surveillance camera to show the same scene over and over.”
She brightened. “Oh! Like in that episode of ‘The Badge’ with Mort and Tre-Z.”
Now it was his turn to look mystified. Current American television was not his strength. “More or less,” he hedged.
She cut to the chase. “You can’t make it stop?”
“Not from here, apparently. My suit is locked into that regrettable sequence you see there—and, unfortunately, that little loop includes a lot of lightning. It’s brilliant, really! I know my trident has tricks that no mortal has seen, but I never imagined Aphrodite’s mirror was capable of this.”
She looked again. The giant figure on the screen reeled back, covered in writhing electricity. “Ouch!” she sympathized. “That must hurt.”
“There’s no actual pain involved, of course,” he explained, “but it’s doing a lot of damage. We may be in a spot of trouble.”
“Trouble?” she asked. “We?”
“If I can’t find a way to stop that cycle, she’s going to take me out.”
“Take you out? But then she’d take your place!”
“Yes, she’d take my place, along with all our income—the money that funds our project here.” Janice gulped. “But I wouldn’t worry yet, my love. That bolt of hers is doing damage, but it takes a lot to kill a god.”
“How much, sir? I just bought new furniture—on credit!”
“It takes one mortal blow for every follower. Last time I checked there were roughly four hundred thousand loyal Trojans. At a couple hundred lives per lightning bolt, she still needs several thousand cycles to wipe me out.”
“Yes—but what’s to stop her?”
“That.” He pointed out the window at the setting sun. “I may be stuck in a loop, but she seems to be actively controlling her character. She’s in a cybersuit somewhere, making the same moves over and over.”
“How does that help you?”
“She can’t stay in her cybersuit all night! At the rate she’s going, I expect to lose my last hit point near four a.m. Unless she’s in Hawaii, there’s no mall in America that stays open until then!”
“What if she isn’t in America?”
“She’s American, I’m sure. But,” he paused in thought, “she might not be in a mall. Let’s boot up some supernatural powers and track her down.” Poseidon’s palatial office held more than a cybersuit. A desk as big as a Buick sat alone in a sea of expensive carpet. He sprang into a leather swivel chair and took control.
“Here we are … ah, the name of my all-too-worthy opponent is Sophia Marshall. Age—well, a child, of course. Location, that’s what we need. A time zone, at least!” His fingers flew. He sighed with satisfaction. “New Hampshire. Good! A few more hours and she’ll be shutting down.”
“What if the mall keeps her suit going?”
He hadn’t thought of that. Local Girl Takes On A God! They might send news crews out to cover it. “Mall owners are businessmen,” he said. “And there are laws.” His face hardened at the thought of bribes or threats. “Let’s figure out which mall we’re up against.”
That’s when things got frustrating—again. Try as he might, the software would not locate her precisely. He checked out every mall and licensed arcade in New Hampshire, then threw in Maine, Vermont, and half of Massachusetts. Nothing.
“Maybe she has her own suit,” Janice suggested. “I hear they’ve started selling suits directly.”
He checked out every cybersuit shipment to zip codes beginning with zero. Cambridge, Massachusetts had a lot: MIT had several dozen, with even more to various high-tech-sounding sites. Nobody in New Hampshire or Maine had bought a suit of their own.
“Any luck?” asked Janice.
“None at all!” he answered. “She must be somewhere, but I’ve hit a dead end. Not in a mall, not in a licensed arcade, and no other cybersuits in northern New England. Where the deuce is she? If I can’t find her, there’s nothing I can do to stop her. As long as she’s got enough endurance –and she does seems to be a young lady of impressive fortitude – she has got me beat.”
“Unless something intervenes,” Janice hoped.
“Unless, I guess. But how could that happen?”
“What the blank is happening here?” screamed Jonathan Dabney. “I step out for one blanking meeting—one unprintable bleep of a meeting—and some player hijacks my suit?”
“Not your suit as such, Mr. Dabney,” a flustered technician tried to explain. “Just your ability to function in the game.”
“And your lightning,” a second tech amended.
“Yes, and that,” the first admitted.
“My lightning?” Dabney thundered. “I’m Zeus! Nobody takes my lightning!”
The technicians blinked and stared. Dabney roared again. “Don’t just stand there gawping! This is my universe and I’m still god. Somebody is going to pay!”
The first tech raised his hand. “What is it? This isn’t some bleeping school, Jones!”
“Smyth, sir. With a ‘y.’”
“I don’t care if it’s Jones with a ‘q’! Put down your blanking hand and tell me something useful!”
“You can’t change your location, sir, but you still control the weather.”
“I’ve lost my lightning, blast you!”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry about that sir, but that’s not all the weather, sir. There are tornadoes, typhoons, hail, hurricanes—“
“You’re right!” Dabney slipped his visor over angry eyes. “There are! And as long as I’m a god, everybody’s going to pay for somebody’s sin!”
Far below the top of Mount Olympus, the clouds began to boil. Waves slammed against the rocky coast of Troy. Trees toppled in the forests of Athens. The grass of Crete lay flat against the ground, prostrate before the force of the storm. On the still crag of Olympus, the full fury of the raging winds were gentle puffs of air. A million candles flickered in the temple at the top. One went out.
“I dare you to repeat,” said Sophia in a rote, sing-song voice, “that sexist line.” For the four hundredth time she hurled a bolt of lightning. Distracted, she snatched a glance around her. Why were the candles flickering? Something wasn’t right.
At the edge of the precipice the puffs of air were stronger. The little lamp guttered in a breeze. In a cybersuit on Earth, Jonathan Dabney felt the difference. “Things cleared for a second there … something’s working!” he shouted. “Double whatever you’re doing!”
Janice stared into the monitor. “Something’s happening, sir!” she called. “Get back in the game!” Poseidon scampered for his suit—and just in time. A sudden gust blew out Sophia’s flame.
“I’m free!” Dabney roared. “And now you’ll pay!” He tried to storm the temple, but the rules were the rules—only one god at a time could fill that space. Zeus could not take Sophia on directly, but he could take back his lightning—and he did.
“I dare you to repeat that sexist line,” Sophia said, and hurled – nothing. Her empty hands held no lightning.
Poseidon took a step in her direction. “I would not dream of repeating such a thing,” he said, and smiled. “It was in bad taste, I apologize.”
“You broke my loop!” she cried.
“Well, someone did. I can’t take the credit, Miss Marshall.”
“My – you know my name!” She scrambled back, stooping for another weapon. Her fingers closed on Ares’ spear.
“Yet, strangely, that is all I know.” Poseidon seized his trident and advanced. “Who are you, Sophia Marshall? More to the point”—he jabbed at her with his three-pronged weapon, long as a ship—“where are you?”
She answered with a thrust of Ares’ spear, which he parried. The conversation lagged as weapons flashed. Poseidon, weakened by hundreds of hits, was able to block her blows but could not land his own. Every attack he made was blocked by the impenetrable shield of Ares. The battle might have ended in a draw—until the shield of Ares vanished.
The end was instantaneous. The trident strike which failed so many times succeeded all at once. Sophia was both pierced and pinned. Poseidon, victory assured, shrank down to human size and stood beside her on marble floor. “Well fought,” he said, stooping to lift her head. “Well fought, and well-nigh won!”
“Lost,” Sophia gasped. “Lost forever.”
“Don’t take it so hard,” Poseidon smiled. “It’s just a game.”
“Not any more,” she said, and shut her eyes in death.
Karl stepped down from the bus and looked around.
In the early-fading November light, he saw a drab town, tucked away in charcoal shadows between New Hampshire pines. A long brick mill building stood beside the shallow river, but the windows were all gaping holes. The only business that looked like it was booming was the satellite dish outlet. It was hardly the place one would expect to find CyberCamp.
Karl pulled out his GamePlay magazine, held it up to the bus stop light, and read the ad for the fortieth time. “Heroes and Champions!” it trumpeted. “Come to CyberCamp and LIVE in Olympus!” And sure enough, there was the address: Salmon Falls, New Hampshire. Karl pulled out his phone automatically, then stopped. He hadn’t turned it on since leaving home, just in case, and he wasn’t about to let himself be tracked down now. A single street lamp, dancing moths circling its light, illuminated a pay phone dangling from the cinder block walls of the bus station. Karl stepped over to it, shoved in a few coins, and dialed the number on the ad.
After just one ring, a pert voice came on the other end of the line. “CyberCamp! May I help you?”
“Uh—yes. Uh—my name is Karl, and I’m at the bus station, here at Salmon Falls. How do I get to CyberCamp from here?” Please don’t tell me I have to walk.
“Do you want to enroll in CyberCamp?” asked the voice.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Karl. “That’s why I came here.”
“No problem, then!” chirped the voice. “We’ll send a car right out to pick you up. How will we know it’s you?”
“Oh. Well, I’ve got black hair. And a knapsack.”
The voice laughed. “They all do.”
Karl bought himself a Coke and nursed it, watching beads of sweat trickle down the cold can as time crawled by. Finally, a sleek blue van pulled up out of the night with CyberCamp blazoned on it in futuristic lettering. The driver wore a crisp, starched uniform. It reminded Karl of Star Trek, somehow. But it clashed with the tobacco stained teeth and the devil tattoo on his bicep.
The driver leered at Karl. “Ya got anything else besides that there back pack?” he asked, and spat out the van window. Karl shook his head. “Then get on in.”
The boy clambered up into the front passenger seat. The van squealed away from the curb and roared down the blacktop. They sped through the darks streets of sleepy Salmon Falls, past a “House of Pizza” and a run-down Citgo station that advertised “Cold Beer” and “Nite Crawlers” as well as gas. Soon the two-lane road ran through forest, interrupted occasionally by granite cliffs where the road cut too deeply into the native hillside.
Karl’s chauffeur wasn’t much for conversation. “Is it far to CyberCamp?” Karl finally asked.
The driver shifted his wad of tobacco and grunted. He pointed with his chin at the road ahead. “Right up there.” There were buildings of some sort, but all Karl saw was a “U-Store-It” franchise: row after row of low cinder-block buildings surrounded by barbed wire. He wondered how much excess junk the people of Salmon Falls must have to keep such a business going. The driver saw his gaze and laughed. “Not that,” he snorted. “Up there.”
A modernistic structure gleamed ahead, just past the razor wire surrounding the storage sheds. It lit up the night sky with brilliant spotlights reflecting off each curve of the chrome and glass building. Karl breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, here was something that looked like what he had expected … although he had imagined there would be more to it than one single-story building. Maybe there were more buildings in the woods behind it. The van pulled off the road and up to the doublewide glass and chrome doors. Karl grabbed his knapsack and jumped from the van, glad to leave his unsettling chauffeur behind.
He walked up to the front desk, where a young woman was filing her nails. “Hi,” he stammered. “I, uh, called a few minutes ago. My name is Karl.”
“Oh, hello, Karl!” enthused the woman. Karl recognized her voice: she had answered the phone. “We’ve been waiting for you. We just need to arrange for payment, fill out a few forms, and you can get started!”
“Payment,” echoed Karl, a bit anxiously.
“There are three basic payment plans,” twittered the receptionist. “We can just take an imprint of your credit card, if you wish.”
“Oh. I don’t have a credit card with me.”
“A lot of our guests don’t,” she murmured sympathetically. “We also have a ‘Work-Study’ program.”
“What’s that?” asked Karl, hopefully.
“There are people who will pay you to be a character.”
“Pay me? To play Olympus?” Karl grinned. This seemed too good to be true.
“You may have noticed that the computer-generated characters can get a little boring,” she explained. “Some of our wealthier customers are willing to pay extra to have a real human being help them in the game.”
“Would I get to play my own game, or would I be stuck in theirs?” Karl queried.
“To be honest, you’d be required to assist them full-time,” she admitted.
“Sounds like slave labor, to me,” Karl grunted.
“No,” she answered. “Slave labor is quite different. And much worse. In the Work-Study program, you are paid well to serve someone who is rich and powerful.”
“I didn’t come here to serve,” Karl insisted. “And I don’t have to. You said there were three options.”
“The only other option is for us to take whatever cash you have, convert it into Olympian drachmas, and let you play until it runs out.”
“But I do get a chance to earn my own drachmas, don’t I?”
“Of course you do,” she answered, “but you are taking a real risk. Since CyberCamp is a 24-7 full-immersion experience, losing your last coin doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the game. If you run out of money, you could be sold in the slave market.”
“If I run out of money,” Karl echoed. “But that’s only going to happen if I mess up, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Hey, no problem!” exclaimed Karl.
“How much do you have?”
“Only ninety-six dollars,” he admitted. “But that’s okay for a start. I’ve gotten started on less that that. I played for three weeks on forty.”
“Okay,” she answered doubtfully. “That would be nine hundred and sixty drachmas, and you might make it on that. But I would really urge you to consider the Work-Study program. It’s far more reliable.”
“Not me,” snorted Karl. “I came here to play my own game, not somebody else’s.”
“Well, let’s fill out those forms, then.” She handed him a clipboard and a pen luminously marked “CyberCamp.”
Karl glanced at the clipboard. It asked for name, address, date of birth, parents’ name (if under 18)…. He hesitated. The woman behind the desk smiled helpfully at him. He cleared his throat. “Is it really necessary for me to fill in all this stuff?”
She looked knowingly at the knapsack and leaned conspiratorially toward him. “Would you rather not bring your parents into this?” Karl nodded, a little guiltily. “Don’t worry,” she soothed. “We get a number of young people whose parents aren’t supportive. In fact, we have a lawyer right here on staff to make sure your rights are fully protected. I’m sure Attorney Sparrow can take care of any problems you may have in that regard. Would you like to talk to her?”
Karl gratefully agreed and found himself ushered into a corner office that looked out, not onto the narrow highway, but into the uncut splendor of the pines, silver in the light of the waning moon. Two walls were lined with leather volumes in tan and maroon, and a Harvard Law diploma filled a frame between two windows. Attorney Sparrow looked up from a manila folder, bulging with faxed documents and yellow paper covered with a spidery scrawl.
“Karl,” she said graciously, and rose. She walked around the desk, waved the receptionist away, and showed him a deep, leather seat. The high back rose up over his head like a throne. He expected her to retreat behind her desk, but she pulled the other chair around to face him, and sat down. “Karl,” she said again, simply. “How good to meet you.”
He couldn’t tell if she were young or old. Her hair was jet black, drawn severely back, and tied with a thin black ribbon. There were lines around her eyes, but they might not have been the lines of age. They were the eyes of a woman who had seen more deeply into the world than was quite safe. She wore a suit of green that was almost black, and if he had known anything about clothes, he would have recognized it instantly as being enormously expensive.
“I don’t know much about you, Karl, but I imagine you know even less about me. Let me introduce myself, and then you can tell me as much—or as little—as you wish about yourself.”
She stopped. Karl looked at her. He finally realized that she was actually waiting for him to agree to this. “Uh, okay,” he nodded nervously. “Sure.”
“I don’t know if you’ve bumped into many attorneys yet, Karl, but a lot of us have a pretty bad reputation.” She smiled at him. He smiled timidly back. “Most lawyers deserve that reputation, you know. A lot of them are in it for the money.” She pointed at the diploma on the wall. “At my old law school, they said there were two kinds of students. There were those who went to Harvard expecting to become fat-cat corporate lawyers, and then there were those who decided to become fat-cat corporate lawyers after they got there.” She laughed: a small silvery laugh at herself and all those other lawyers. Karl laughed a little, too.
“I was almost one of those students, Karl. I think I would have been, but something happened to steer me down a different path. I began to see that the law was simply an instrument of power. One day I asked myself: could I become just one more of those lawyers who turned the spigots of power off and on for those with the money to pay for it?”
She waited, expecting some response. Karl wasn’t used to grown-ups who did that. He gulped. “Uh, so you decided you couldn’t?”
She laughed, delighted. “Yes, Karl. I couldn’t. I couldn’t just be one more lawyer who helps the powerful maintain their power. I saw that someone had to strike a balance. I chose to become a lawyer who helps the powerless.”
She sat quietly; hands folded in her lap, and gazed at Karl. “And who do you think are the truly powerless in our society, Karl?”
He folded his hands in his lap, nervously imitating her movements. He hadn’t really been expecting a quiz. “Well, I guess that depends,” he began.
“Oh, Karl!” she laughed. “You really don’t know, do you?” He shook his head. “Children,” she breathed. “Children are the truly powerless. I realized I had to speak for the children.”
“Oh. That’s really great.” He wasn’t sure where this was going.
“Do you realize, Karl, that in the eyes of the law, you have no right to make your own decisions until you turn eighteen?”
“No,” frowned Karl. “I guess I hadn’t really thought about it. I mean, usually Dad pretty much decides what our family does.”
“And did he decide to send you to CyberCamp?” she asked, ever so gently.
“No.” The monosyllable hung in the air a long time. “I guess I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
Ms. Sparrow didn’t blink or lean back. The lines around her eyes drew tighter in a smile. “Well, that depends,” she answered smoothly. “Under the law, you have no right to make your own decisions—but you do have the power to determine who decides.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone is going to have to decide whether to let you stay here at CyberCamp or to send you home. Would you rather have that person be me, or your father?”
“I don’t know,” Karl hesitated. “Would you let me stay here? Because I know my Dad wouldn’t.”
“Of course I would let you stay here, Karl,” she laughed. “Remember—I’m on your side.”
“Well then, sure, I’d rather have you decide.”
“Making that happen isn’t too complicated,” she assured him. “But first, come with me. Let me show you what CyberCamp is really like before we decide.” She led him out of the office, down a shining corridor, and into a large white room with a cybersuit in the middle. Karl’s eyes widened in admiration and longing.
“Oh, wow!” he exclaimed. “Is this—”
“Yes,” she answered. “The second-generation cybersuit. Our facilities are one of the first places in the country they’re available to young heroes. Your first-generation home suit is a toy compared with this model. All yours does is mimic the gross body movements, with a glove for fine finger control. But look at this!” They stepped closer to the suit. Karl’s suit, and the suits at the arcade, were clunky, robotic-looking machines. They looked like exoskeletons, with buckles, joints, pipes, and cables. This looked like something from a space opera. Instead of joints connected by rods, it was a full suit, made of leather and embroidered cloth. Karl touched it reverently. He had seen pictures of the second-generation suit in GamePlay, but to actually touch one…
Ms. Sparrow opened up the suit and pointed to the inner lining. “There are thousands of actuators inside the suit here to simulate every sensation.” She handed Karl the helmet – he actually got chills as he took it – and went to a panel on the wall andprodded a touchscreen. “Close your eyes,” she commanded. He did. “Now smell,” she said.
Karl sniffed. “Pine trees!” he exclaimed.
“Wait a second,” she responded. “Now smell again.”
“The sea!” He opened his eyes, amazed. “That’s incredible!” He looked curiously at the wires that led away from the suit. “What are these tubes?” he asked.
She looked down modestly. “This suit is designed to allow you to literally live in Olympus. There are certain, ahem, bodily functions which must be dealt with.”
Karl blushed. “I see. Too bad you can’t eat in Olympus, too.”
“Normally, you’d be right,” she said. “But here at CyberCamp, we specialize in the impossible. Why don’t you put on the suit?” He did so, eagerly. As he put on the helmet and his feet lifted off the ground, he felt the light tension of the suit all around him. To his surprise, instead of the Olympus introduction, he saw a computer-generated version of the room he was in, including a digital Ms. Sparrow standing quietly beside him.
“When was the last time you ate?” the virtual Ms. Sparrow asked, sweetly.
Karl thought about this. He suddenly realized how long it had been, and hunger roared up out of the pit of his stomach like a tiger. “Breakfast,” he groaned. “And that was just a bowl of corn flakes.”
“How would you like a steak dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh vegetables and a deep dish apple pie?”
“Would I!” he roared. She touched the wall again, and a panel opened, revealing a steaming tray on a shelf.
Karl peered into the shadows and saw butter melting into the fluffy white potatoes, and a steak so large it flopped off the plate on either side. “No way.”
“Our chefs specialize in matching the culinary delights of Olympus,” said Ms. Sparrow. “But there are some textures and tastes that are difficult to match with any food on earth, so we’ve come up with something truly special.” She held up what looked like a complicated mouthguard. “This may look a bit bulky, but you won’t even feel it once it’s in … it will actually simulate tastes and textures unique to only Olympus!”
Karl took the offered mouthpiece and fit it to his teeth. She was right, once it was in, he barely knew it was there. “This is going to be truly excellent,” he drooled.
“Let’s get a few details out of the way, then, so you can get started on your new life in Olympus!” said Ms. Sparrow. “I’ll call Terry to hook you up to the suit while I run back to my office and get your file.” A virtual version of the tobacco-stained driver (minus tobacco stains – he actually looked pretty cool through Karl’s visor) swaggered in the doorway. Karl’s flesh recoiled from his touch, but Ms. Sparrow had darted out of the room. Mercifully, Terry was skilled at his work, and Karl was sealed inside the cybersuit before Ms. Sparrow returned. “Comfy?” Ms. Sparrow smiled down at him. She pulled out the clipboard and filled in “Huber, Karl” on the top line. “Shall we just fill in the CyberCamp address for your home?” she asked.
“Sure,” agreed Karl. He licked his lips. “Couldn’t we fill this out while I eat?”
“Oh, no,” she smiled. “No, that’s to be your first meal in Olympus. We want to make sure you get the full experience. We’ll hurry, though, okay?”
“Okay,” he sighed.
“Now, as to your parents.” She put the pen down on the clipboard. “For me to be able to make the decisions for you, you’ll have to be a legal ward of the State.”
“What does that mean?” asked Karl, uncomfortably.
“In this county, it means I would make all decisions for you.”
“I thought you worked for CyberCamp,” he said, a little troubled.
“I do. CyberCamp is my client. But like most lawyers,” she said, “I have more than one client. I also work for this county’s Department of Children and Family Services.”
“Can you do that, though?”
“As long as there is no conflict of interest, Karl, it’s just fine,” she answered. “But let’s make sure of that, all right?” Again, she actually waited for his assent before she went on. It was unnerving. “This county has hired me to represent children who are wards of the State. The county simply wants what is in your best interest, Karl. Now, you believe that CyberCamp is in your best interest, don’t you?” He nodded. “And of course, we here at CyberCamp believe that, or we wouldn’t be in business, would we?” He shook his head. “So it looks like everybody is in agreement here, doesn’t it?”
“Except my dad.” “Except your father,” she agreed, soberly. “Now, to transfer you from his authority to mine, we have to establish that he has acted or failed to act in a way which has caused, or might cause, any physical or mental injury.”
“What does that mean?”
“If you want to go to CyberCamp,” she answered, “it means you have to remember something your father has done to you—or refused to do—that caused you pain or suffering.”
“Well, he’s never beaten me or anything like that,” said Karl.
“Has he ever gotten angry at you?”
“Oh, sure. He’s got a temper.”
“Have you ever felt afraid of his anger?” she probed. Karl didn’t know what to say. “I don’t mean have you ever thought he would injure you. But has he ever been so mad that you imagined he wanted to hurt you?”
“I guess so,” Karl said. “I mean, sure, sometimes I thought he would like to knock my block off.”
“Tell me about those feelings, Karl. Imagine yourself in front of him. He’s really angry now, Karl. What is he saying?”
“Um … I don’t know … ‘You dumbhead,’” he offered weakly. He felt foolish.
“Is that really what he calls you?” She looked grieved, and very sympathetic. A fountain of self-pity welled up within Karl.
“’You dumbhead!” he reiterated, his voice growing firmer. “You pusher! You think every kid is dumb like you!’” It felt good to let the anger flow. And Ms. Sparrow wasn’t judging him … she looked at him luminously, listening, understanding.
“Don’t stop there, Karl. Don’t just remember what he said in the past. Remember how it makes you feel. Remember what he would like to do to you. What would he say?”
“I’ll pound your dumb head in, you dumb kid! I’ll smash your cybersuit and make you eat its pieces! I’ll pull out all its wires and wrap them around your neck until your eyes pop out!” Karl warmed to his theme. “I’ll punch your face in, ungrateful boy! All my life I work and work, and you play in your basement all the time!”
“And how does this make you feel, Karl? What does this make you say?”
“Help! Get me away from him! He hates me! He wants to kill me! He doesn’t understand me!”
His voice broke off. To his own surprise, there were tears on his face. He rubbed glistening cheeks against the shoulders of the cybersuit. The attorney glanced up at the video cameras in the ceiling. Their little red lights told her that her work was well done. She coughed quietly. “I can see this is a painful subject,” she said. “I don’t think I need to trouble you any more. I hope I haven’t spoiled your appetite.”
Karl gulped. He felt ashamed of himself, crying like a baby in front of this stranger. But she didn’t seem to hold it against him. And no, she hadn’t spoiled his appetite.
She touched the wall again, and the room and digital Sparrow faded and swirled, dissolving into the familiar grasslands of Crete – of Olympus. The graphics were even more realistic than in his suit at home. “Oh, wow!” he exclaimed. “This is great!”
“Ready for your supper?” she asked.
“Yes!” he almost shouted. “I mean, please!”
She lifted the steaming tray off the shelf on the wall and looked at it, then at him. In the virtual room, Karl had seen a feast. In Sparrow’s hand, a mound of grayish paste lay heaped on a soiled plastic slab, beside a greasy spoon. She set it on a mechanical arm, which swung it in front of Karl’s helmeted face. He dug in, and a smile wreathed his exposed lips.
Karl pushed back the empty plate, leaned back in the rough-hewn olivewood chair and rubbed his stomach.
To live in Olympus, he thought to himself. To eat, drink, and sleep Olympus! He looked around at the room, breathing deeply in delight. He could feel the room, really feel it. He felt pressure from the chair on his back and warmth from the roaring fire pit. He had never felt hot or cold in Olympus before, only air-conditioning in the mall or his basement. But now, his face was warmed by flame, and he could smell the hazy smoke that concealed the raftered ceiling. A dozen stone tables served revelers all around him. Karl would have sworn he knew every inn the great city of Crete held, but Ms. Sparrow had apparently deposited him at one he’d never encountered – and it was terrific. The food, which had looked good on earth, was divine in Olympus. He couldn’t believe that he had tasted Olympus. He knew it was all a simulation of flavors and textures by a fancy mouthpiece as he swung in a cybersuit in New Hampshire, but the Minotaur Filet was like nothing he’d ever eaten.
The service isn’t bad either, he thought appreciatively, as the girl with the wine jar came by again. The wine, he was sure, was fake – no way would they really serve alcohol to minors – but though the drink wasn’t intoxicating, he wasn’t so sure about the girl who poured it. She was obviously a lower-level player, but she had bought some great look upgrades. Her hair cascaded around her face in gentle curls, and she walked with a swaying step that commanded admiration.
“More wine?” she dazzled him with a smile as she poured, not waiting for an answer.
“Sure!” Karl wanted her to stay around for a little longer, and looked for something to say. “Dinner was delicious – my compliments to the chef!”
“You certainly looked like you were enjoying it! Must be some suit you’re wearing, if you can taste it.” She leaned against the table, apparently as willing to talk as he was.
“Nothing but the best,” he boasted. “I’m at CyberCamp, and I plan on living Olympus to the fullest.”
Her eyes opened wide in admiration. “No! CyberCamp, really?” With a slender hand, she spun the chair beside him around and perched on it like an exotic bird. “I’m Pelliope. What’s your name?”
“Karl. Karl Huber.”
She frowned. “That doesn’t sound like a very Olympian name. Don’t you want to try something more Greek?”
“Huh?” he said, confused. “But that’s my name. My real one.”
“Oh!” she laughed, throwing back her head so her white teeth shone and Karl saw her long, graceful neck. “You’re one of those players.”
“One of what players?” he demanded, instantly on the defensive.
She placed hand on his. He could feel its soft warmth. “Now, now, no need to get riled. I mean, you’re not a social player, are you? Before you came to CyberCamp, you had a suit in your basement at home and you only came into the game to go on odysseys, fight beasts, go to the arena, that kind of thing. You don’t talk with other players much. Am I right?”
Mollified by her light tone, Karl relaxed as he realized she wasn’t making fun of him. “I only have a couple hours to play every day,” he said. “My dad doesn’t want me in the suit too much, so I mostly just come into the game to get stuff done.” Wow, he thought, that sounded lame. Daddy won’t let me play. “But,” he said, “that’s why I’m at CyberCamp now. To get the whole experience.”
“Oh, good!” she cheered, as if he had just said something profound and heroic. “There’s so much more to the game than just fighting. Most of my best friends are in the game. There’s a whole social aspect that you’re totally missing… Karl.” She said his name like it was a long-cherished joke between just the two of them. She leaned forward conspiratorially, and Karl smelled her perfume. “I’d do something about the name if I were you.”
“So Pill-eye-o-pea isn’t your real name?”
“Ugh, if it was, I would run away from home. It’s good for a game, but who could show their face at school with a name like that?” She saw a cloud pass over his face. “What? Did I say something wrong?”
“No, nothing,” he said. “I just need to figure out what I’m going to do next.”
“Get a new name? Karlos isn’t bad, for a start. Maybe Karletes…”
“Names are fine, but I’m talking big picture.” She gazed at him, and he drowned in her eyes. That look made him want to tell her all the brave and daring things he was planning. “See,” he said, “I’m getting ready to climb The Mountain.”
Pelliope gaped at Karl in unadulterated wonder, and she wasn’t the only one. At his words, the guests nearest them had fallen silent, eyes turned to Karl in admiration, evaluation, curiosity. He sat up straighter, enjoying the attention. Pelliope clutched at his hand. “Are you sure you’re ready? You know if you lose on The Mountain, you have to start from scratch, don’t you?”
“Of course I know that! But that’s why I started playing this game. I’m not one of those players who just sits around accumulating gold – I’m here to win. I’m going to climb the mountain and conquer Ares himself!” And when I’m a god, I’ll get a cut of every sacrifice every player makes. I’ll make thousands – millions, maybe – and then we’ll see who’s the dumbhead.
A strong wind gusted through the open window. The fire guttered and spat, and the guests cheered for Karl. Pelliope led them, beaming at him. As the cheering died down, she lifted the wine jar and re-filled his glass, which was still mostly full. “Another drink for the hero!” she said. “It takes real guts to tackle The Mountain. And,” she looked at him from under heavy lashes, “some real money.”
Karl frowned. “Yeah, money…”
“That isn’t a problem for you, is it?”
“Well, I kind of gambled a lot on a dragon hunt. In Argos.” He paused dramatically, and was rewarded with the impressed look due a hero who crossed borders in pursuit of a monster. “I killed the dragon, but lost all my equipment due to… unforeseeable events.”
“Don’t you have money in the Great Marketplace? A champion like you must have quite a bank account.”
“Uh, not really. I’ve always played a pretty lean game. My dad…” his voice trailed off. Dad again!
“Well,” she purred, “I’m okay with numbers. Maybe I can help you figure out how to make it work?” She pulled out a charcoal writing stick from a pouch at the belt of her toga. There was a piece of parchment on the table – “House Special: All You Can Eat – Minotaur Fillet with Seared Octopus and Gravy.” She grabbed it and flipped it over. Karl didn’t think she could scoot her chair closer to him, but she did. He felt himself go warm, and didn’t think it was from the fire. “So, what do you need to buy?”
He cleared his throat, and attempted to do the same with his head. “Well,” he began, “I figure I can pick up a lot of equipment other heroes have left behind when they died on The Mountain. But to start, I’ll need a basic sword.”
She wrote Sword: 300 drachmas. “You probably don’t want to go cheaper than that. Any less and you’re just getting cheated. And we wouldn’t want that.”
He nodded agreement. “Some armor, too, if I’m going to make it past the first Labor.”
Armor: 200 drachmas. Pelliope hesitated, and cocked her golden head at him. “Normal or enchanted?”
He frowned in thought. “Just an enchanted helmet,” he said slowly. “I should be able to get by with that.”
Enchanted Helmet: 400 drachmas.
“And then I’ll need to pay the fee for the ship to The Mountain.”
Transportation: 100 drachmas.
It was all adding up too fast for him. “What are we up to?”
She scribbled a quick sum. “One thousand drachmas.” Karl’s face fell. “I don’t see how you could do it for less,” she said apologetically. “How much do you have?”
“Nine hundred and sixty,” he sighed. “I guess I can just go hunting to earn the other forty.”
She smiled sympathetically, then wrote 960 in large letters on the parchment, circling it three times with a thick outline. Her eyes flicked up and over his shoulders, and Karl thought he saw her wink. He turned his head to see if she had spotted an acquaintance in this social game of hers.
What he saw was the tall, bearded innkeeper shambling over to his table with a smiling face. “Good evening to you, my dear sir,” he said. “Did I hear you’re planning to climb The Mountain? My congratulations, my congratulations indeed.”
“That’s right,” said Karl, setting aside his disappointment about the forty drachmas. He’d earn it soon enough, and for the moment – well, Pelliope was right, being a little more social wouldn’t hurt anything.. “Your minotaur fillet was delicious. And the service,” he smiled at Pelliope, who smiled sweetly back, “is first-class.”
“Oh, it comes only of picking the finest ingredients and employees,” said the innkeeper. “We pay top drachma for the best we can get, and of course, our customers are always happy to pay for quality.”
“Pay?” said Karl, sounding surprised as he looked down at his empty plate. “Oh! Right, pay,” he conceded. Another couple hours of hunting down the drain. “Well, what’s the bill?”
“You ordered our special, tonight, my dear sir,” answered the innkeeper. He reached down to lift the piece of parchment Pelliope had just been figuring on, flipping it over, “and the special tonight costs nine hundred and sixty drachmas.”
“Nine hundred and sixty drachmas?” Karl gasped. “That can’t be right!”
“Only the finest ingredients,” the innkeeper repeated. “Look, the price is right here in front of you.” He pointed to the paper Karl had been figuring on. It clearly read, “House Special: All You Can Pay – 960 drachmas.”
“But that’s everything I’ve got!” shouted Karl.
“What a coincidence,” chortled the innkeeper. “I guess that’s why it’s the special.”
Karl stared in consternation, then rounded on Pelliope. She beamed at him with her most winning smile. “You!” he bellowed. “You… you tricked me!”
“Well, I don’t just get paid to pour the wine,” she chirped sweetly, and tossed her golden curls over one perfect shoulder.
“I’m not going to pay!” roared Karl. Pelliope rose to stand behind the tall innkeeper, just in case.
The innkeeper’s eyebrows lowered. “Now, my dear sir,” he argued, “Here’s a sign that makes it perfectly clear what the price is of the food you just ate. Here’s the plate that is clearly empty. And here you sit with nine hundred and sixty drachmas at your belt, and you tell me you’re not going to pay. I am shocked — shocked! – that this new generation has no sense of obligation or responsibility. Janos! Ikades! Come here!”
Two enormous attendants lurched out of the kitchen, one wiping his hands on a filthy towel, the other carrying a stalk of celery and a glittering knife. Both were obviously players who had spent considerable time on the physical element of the game. Karl wondered what they were doing in a kitchen, with the part of his mind that wasn’t given over to betrayed rage. “Boys, this customer is having a little trouble loosening his wallet from his belt. Would you mind assisting him? Ikades, give him a hand. Janos, cut through that pesky cord!”
Ikades gave him a hand, all right — a meaty fist to the jaw which knocked Karl backwards, sprawling, onto the next table. Dishes and guests went flying in all directions. Karl was shocked – it hurt! Not as much as it would have in real life, Karl guessed, but the suit had actually constricted and pummeled him on impact. He had played Olympus for months — he had died, several times over. But he had never experienced genuine pain in cyberspace. There are thousands of actuators inside the suit here to simulate every sensation. He hadn’t realized just what that could mean. Apparently, feeling Olympus could have its downside.
He hoped Ikades had a second generation cybersuit as he grabbed a chair and tried to smash it over hulking cook’s head. But Ikades snagged the chair with one hand, effortlessly hoisting chair and boy off the ground. Then he hurled him backwards, toppling several customers who were scampering out of the way.
Karl lay limply on the dirty floor, surprised again by the reality of the pain and surrounded by bones and half-eaten vegetables. The crowd of guests watched with approval as Janos stooped over him, the point of the knife at his throat. “Vot vas it you vanted me to loosen for him, Boss?” he grunted, hopefully.
“No, no — just the belt,” said the innkeeper. “You have to control yourself, Janos.” He turned to Karl. “Janos spends too much time chopping vegetables, my dear sir. Sometimes he gets a little eager.”
The knife flashed, and Karl felt his belt loosen. Janos handed the wallet to his master. Karl lay on his back, waiting to disappear. To his surprise, nothing happened. The penniless Karl finally staggered to his feet. I won’t run out of money, he had assured that perky CyberCamp receptionist. But here he was, out of money and still in Olympus – it was something that had never happened to him before.
They had betrayed him, cheated him, beaten him, and they had taken his precious drachmas, but he was still determined to cling to his pride. “Innkeeper,” he said sternly, “I have a bone to pick with you.”
“What is it?” the innkeeper asked, suspiciously.
“Your food was tasty enough,” said Karl, “but I was wrong about the service here – it’s awful.” He shook his head reprovingly. “Look at this floor.” He pointed to the broken crockery from the overturned table. “ I can’t, in good conscience, leave a tip.”
He pulled himself erect and staggered toward the door. The innkeeper looked at him shrewdly, and chuckled. “You,” he laughed, grudgingly, “may make it yet. You’ve got pluck. But listen, let me give you a tip.” Karl turned to face him. Pelliope had disappeared, probably off to ruin someone else’s life. The innkeeper smiled grimly. “You’ve had a little taste of Olympian business practices. But you don’t want to taste Olympian justice. Here you haven’t got a drachma to your name. You’re feeling sorry for yourself, and you’re wondering what you’re going to do. Well, don’t even think of stealing something.”
“But what am I going to eat?”
“Ah ha!” snapped his host. “I can see you already were thinking about it.”
“I don’t even have a sword to hunt with – I’ll starve!” Karl protested.
“I know what I’m talking about, my dear sir,” insisted the innkeeper. “There are worse things than starving! Now get out of here!” Janos and Ikades moved menacingly toward him.
“Fine,” retorted Karl. “My compliments to the chef. And tell Pelliope to go to Hades.” He limped out the door into the street.
Looking around, he saw that he was on the main street of the great city of Crete. A few doors down, the red light of the setting sun washed over a hand-lettered sign: The Bolt of Fortune. It was a part of town he knew well – why had he never seen this inn before? He turned to regard it, then gasped … the door he had just been thrown out of was cold, dark, and boarded up, with a sign that said, “Hexed. Keep Out.” He stopped and stared, jostled by the bustling passers-by in the always-crowded Cretan street.
Mind reeling, he tried to make sense of what had just happened. Minutes into his great adventure, he was penniless, tossed out of a non-existent inn into a game in which a player needed money. He wandered towards the center of town, trying to figure out what to do next.
Then he heard a voice calling him from the other side of the crowded way. Someone was pushing his way through the mass of computer-generated humanity. It was Noah.
“Karl! Hey, Karl, it’s you!” shouted Noah. He did a double-take at Karl. “Whew! You’re a mess. What happened?”
“I’m not sure – but I think I just got gored to death by fillet of minotaur,” said Karl. Then he checked himself. “Hey, what are you doing here, anyway? I thought you didn’t like this place.”
“I don’t, particularly,” Noah answered. “But I came looking for you.”
Karl started back-pedaling. “Get away from me!”
“Now look,” began Noah, patiently. “What can I possibly do to you? What, you think I’m going to grab you by the neck and pull you out of a video screen back in your basement? Get real!”
“I guess that’s true,” Karl admitted, relaxing a little. “There isn’t much you can really do, is there?” Then he became suspicious all over again. “But how did you find me?”
“Logic,” sniffed Noah. “Pretty obvious you ran away. Pretty obvious you were upset about Olympus. Took all your magazines and stuff. We tracked you to the bus station. You could have gone anywhere from there, so where do we look for you? Los Angeles? Chicago? New York? Course not! So we came to Olympus, and I’ve been sitting around here for hours and hours, waiting for you to show up.” He yawned and stretched a little. “It gets really monotonous, you know. The same little old woman with a brown basket goes by here every three or four minutes. Look, there she is again!” A withered woman in a stained, faded toga trudged past them, heading out of the market place. “These computer-generated characters aren’t much for company. It’s good to see you instead!”
“Well, I guess I’m not sorry to see you, either,” admitted Karl. “So, now what?”
“So now, I’m supposed to make sure you’re safe and then see if you need anything. I mean, your dad’s afraid you’ve sold yourself to white slavers or something.”
“Yeah, right,” said Karl, bitterly. “As if he cared. He deserves to worry. For a while.”
“But seriously, are you in any danger? On earth?”
“No,” snorted Karl. “I’m fine. I mean, my body’s fine. Olympus-wise, I just got cheated out of all my money, and I could use a thousand drachmas or so. I can earn it back the hard way, but it will take forever. I spent months getting to this point…” his voice trailed off. He wanted to climb the mountain, not work his way up from Grass Sprites again.
Noah checked his belt. “Well, I don’t have a thousand—but I could bop out of Olympus, swipe a credit card, and bail you out.”
Karl brightened up. “Hey! Would you?”
“No problem,” replied Noah. “Please hold the line.”
Although Karl had played the game for months, it was still fascinating to watch someone leave Olympus. The ritual was always the same. The hands went up to the chin, fumbled, then lifted slowly up above the head. Once the cyberhelmet had been removed on Earth, the body on Olympus began to shimmer, then disappear. It took about three seconds to vanish completely.
Karl watched Noah go, then stood nervously pacing the street. Then, right where Noah’s figure had been, a ghostly flicker appeared. It solidified rapidly, and sure enough, a bag of gold hung upon the belt.
Karl turned toward it, but realized something was wrong. This figure was much bulkier than Noah. He stared at the face as it appeared. “No!” he shouted, and started to run.
It was Mr. Huber.
Four people watched Mr. Huber eagerly as he stood, awkward in the cybersuit.
The black helmet swiveled left and right as he tried to get his bearings. Then, suddenly, he shouted, “Karl! Karl!” Clumsily, he began to run, “Come back here, boy!”
“Oh catch him, catch him!” Nancy cried. Noah bit his lip. Mr. Huber’s arms and legs pumped as he tried to push himself through invisible bodies in a crowded street. Then, abruptly, he stopped, looking all about him. “Karl!” he shouted again. He thrashed around in circles. “Karl!”
“Looks like he’s lost him,” Jacob whispered.
“What do we do now?” Nancy exclaimed. Mr. Huber slid into a steady jog, looking from side to side as he went. But it was no use. His breath came in short gasps, and he drew to a halt.
“I can’t find him,” he groaned. “He’s gone.” Mr. Avery helped him lift the helmet off his head. “He was this far away from me,” he roared, holding out his arms as the cables attached to the back of the suit lowered him to the ground with a hiss.
“It’s okay, Dan,” said Mr. Avery, setting the helmet on the ground. “Even if you had caught him, what could you do?”
Mr. Huber glowered as he wrenched the gauntlets from his hands, “Teach him a lesson or two.”
“A lesson that would have just driven him further away,” corrected Mr. Avery. “We can’t force him to come back.” He stopped and thought. “Noah, you said he’s got no money. How much difference does that make in this game?”
His son scratched his head. “It makes a big difference. You can’t get a sword or food or anything without money. Actually, I don’t even know how he’s still playing – at the mall, as soon as we lost our money we were out of the game.”
Mr. Avery’s forehead creased. “Interesting. Well, right now, we just have to be patient. We’ll find him.”
Mr. Huber snorted despairingly. “It took him five seconds to lose me in that cartoon circus! How are we supposed to find him again?”
“What if we went back to the video arcade and each got a suit?”
Noah looked over at his sister, surprised. “I thought you hated that place.”
“I do,” she shuddered. “It gives me the creeps. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Mr. Avery nodded. “I think you’re onto something there, Nancy. What time does the mall open?”
“About ten, I think. We should double-check, though, since tomorrow’s Sunday.”
“Sunday. I forgot about that,” frowned Mr. Avery. “We need to go to church.”
“Church!” snorted Mr. Huber. “You let my son run away, and you’re going to church?”
Mr. Avery bristled. Maybe if you had gone to church, your son wouldn’t run away! Mark took pride in his flawless church attendance record, although he wouldn’t have admitted it to himself. “My family goes to church.”
“You’re saying there’s something wrong with my family?”
Mr. Avery was about to state the obvious when Noah intervened. “How about it we leave someone here in the cybersuit all night?”
His father took a deep breath and counted to ten. He rubbed his receding hairline. “That’s a good idea.”
“It’s not bad,” admitted Mr. Huber.
Noah looked back and forth between two men and their egos. “I volunteer to spend the night in Olympus.”
“Karl won’t trust you twice,” his father said.
“Let me do it,” suggested Nancy. “He’ll come to me.”
Mr. Avery thought about that. “I don’t think so, baby.”
She pouted. “What could happen to me in Olympus?”
Mr. Avery and Mr. Huber looked at each other. Mr. Avery’s nostrils flared. “No!” he said, emphatically. “It’s a very bad idea, Nancy.”
Noah pulled at his face with the palms of both hands and a weary expression. “Dad, it’s a videogame. She won’t be in any danger of—”
Jacob interrupted, his eyes fixed on a spot on the wall. “I’ll do it,” he said in a flat voice. “Karl won’t run away from me.” He looked up. “Last time I was in Olympus he tried to kill me. Think of me as…bait.”
“He tried to what?” asked Mr. Huber.
A shadow of a smile flickered across Jacob’s face, and was instantly replaced by a grave expression. “Mr. Avery, you won’t let Nancy go. Dad, he’ll just run away from you or Noah. I’m the best one for the job.” After some hesitation, the two fathers agreed that Jacob’s logic was sound. Nancy protested and Mr. Huber pressed for more details about the trip to the mall as they strapped Jacob into the cybersuit.
“It’s getting late,” said Mr. Avery, uncomfortable explaining the events at the arcade, and eager to get his little girl home. “We’d better go. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
After they had gone, Jacob told his father the whole story of the fight in the shop – how Jacob had been trying to help Karl see the foolishness of the game, and how Karl had just flown off the handle and attacked him. “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything, Dad,” he sighed through his helmet, seated on the edge of an invisible fountain with a martyr’s dignity. “When he had me down on the ground and was punching me in the face, over and over and over again, I remember thinking, ‘Dad was right. This game is doing terrible things to my brother.’” He choked artfully, his voice constricted by emotion he didn’t feel.
“You did the right thing, trying to help him,” Mr. Huber assured his distraught son. “We need to get him back, get him safe from all of this.”
“I don’t know,” Jacob sighed. “He seems pretty far gone to me.”
Mr. Huber was silent for a while, sitting next to Jacob in the darkness. They stayed that way for a long time, the silence only occasionally broken by a soft query from Jacob’s powerful father. “Can you see anything?” he would ask. Then after a while, “Is he there?”
Finally, Jacob had enough. “Dad,” he said, “I’ll let you know if I see him, okay? If Karl hadn’t cut the monitor cable to hide from us, you could see everything for yourself.”
“Maybe we’ve got another cable somewhere.”
“Good idea! Why don’t you go look?”
Mr. Huber stomped upstairs, stomped around upstairs, and stomped downstairs again. “I swear we’ve got every kind of cable except for that one. What’s going on?”
Jacob sighed. “Nothing!”
His father sat on the steps, drumming his fingers. Jacob shifted his weight.
“How about now?”
“Dad, what do you want, a blow-by-blow commentary on the crickets? There’s nothing going on!”
Mr. Huber fidgeted for few more minutes, then at last gave up. “I’m going to bed,” he grunted. “Promise me you’ll tell me if you find him.”
“I promise, Dad.” Jacob listened to the heavy step of his father’s shoes, the tell-tale creak on the top stair. Now he was alone in the basement. “Finally.”
Everyone but Jacob might have gone to bed on earth, but it was just getting really dark in Olympus. Must be on California time, Jacob thought. He had a thousand drachmas at his belt. Now he had to find Karl. First things first, though.
The streets were still full. Olympus, filled as it was with kids connecting from every continent, never slept. Towering heroes and lovely women stalked across the square. Near him, a group of well-armed citizens were having a heated discussion in what sounded like Mandarin. Skirting the group, he approached a burly guard. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “I’m looking for a weapons shop – the ‘Bolt of Fortune’?”
The guard gave him one condescending glance. “You’re a citizen of Crete, aren’t you?”
“Uh, yes. I am.”
“Then use your Wayfinding Skills and find it yourself.”
Jacob knew a dismissal when he heard it and walked away non-plussed. He lifted circled fingers to his eye. “Oracle?” he asked.
The city around him faded to the background as the mask of the Oracle appeared, silent, hovering, expectant.
“Um… how do I use ‘Wayfinding Skills’?”
The empty mouth-hole opened. “To the citizens of Crete, Zeus has granted a piece of his all-knowing power. Merely point thus—”unbidden, the cybersuit lifted Jacob’s arm and pointed with two fingers “—and declare what you’re looking for. You will be guided in the direction of that which you seek.”
“Will I, now? Well, that is excellent.”
Jacob dismissed the oracle and pointed with two fingers. “ ‘The Bolt of Fortune,’ ” he said, and noticed that his words weren’t played back in his headphones. Apparently nobody else heard him in the game while he was using this skill. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, his gauntlet tugged sharply to the left, and he found himself pointing down a small, familiar-looking side street.
“This is going to be so useful.” He jogged down the street, grinning.
He reached the weapons shop, where the shopkeeper was just closing up after a long day. “Hey, wait up!” Jacob called out.
The lean man wheeled with a force look of weary patience, which turned openly hostile when he saw Jacob. “What, you again?” he growled.
“Good, you remember me,” smiled Jacob. “Do you remember my brother, too?”
“Ha!” laughed the shopkeeper bitterly. “Who could forget little Mr. Winner-Pays-For-Both-Swords?”
“Have you seen him tonight?”
“Oh, sure,” the old man answered bitterly. “He came by here begging. Wanted a sword, but he didn’t have a drachma to his name.”
“Funny you should say that,” said Jacob. “I came to buy a sword for him. And I’ve got plenty of drachmas.”
“Well, it’s closing time,” snapped the man. “Come by tomorrow, I’ll be happy to do business with customers who leave the shop standing.”
“I’d be happy to pay extra for quick service. Tonight. Tomorrow will be too late.”
Grumbling a bit, the old man unlocked his door. “So you want a sword for your brother? Well, he’s a bit taller than you, so we’ll have to find one a little bigger than you would need.”
“You misunderstand me,” said Jacob. “I want the sword to fit me.”
“But I thought you said the sword was for your brother?”
“It is for my brother,” Jacob answered, significantly.
“So that’s how it is,” the other responded, his mouth set in a grim smile. “Can’t say you’re breaking my heart. But it costs double for dirty work.”
“Double or triple, I don’t care. Just give me a sword with a razor edge.”
The shopkeeper pulled down a glittering cutlass. “I think this was the blade you were testing earlier. Found it buried under ten big cheeses, a pile of Spartan armor, and what was left of my favorite crockery.”
“That’s good,” said Jacob. “I’ll take it.”
His money bag considerably lighter, Jacob stepped back into the dark street, cutlass at his side. “And now for the main event,” he mused, and lifted two fingers. “Karl Huber,” he whispered. The gauntlet tugged forward.
The gauntlet led him through side streets to a small side gate in the wall of the city that seemed to be unguarded. “Outside the city?” Jacob asked the gauntlet. It pulled him through, out onto the endless grasslands lit by the Olympian moon.
Jacob was not impressed by Karl’s fantasy world. He thought it was stupid that no matter where you were in the game, you could always see the Mountain rising above everything. Even at night, when it should have been hidden from view, the dwelling place of the gods towered above him, illuminated by its halo of clouds, which glowed at night with an inward fire. Jacob took it in – he had gotten by in life by carefully taking everything in – but his attention was not on it. He was scanning the isolated trees that rose like sentinels out of the swaying grass.
Many a time they had played hide and seek when they were younger. Jacob would always try to blend into the scenery, but Karl had a habit of climbing the highest tree he could find. Jacob scanned the horizon. “Ah, there it is,” he said, with satisfaction. “That’s the one.” He didn’t even need to consult the gauntlet.
He jogged across the sloping plain to the tree. Big strong branches low down — nice wide fork at the top — it might have been designed with Karl in mind. It was too dark for him to see to the top, but Jacob did not hesitate. He swarmed up the tree, cutlass bumping his side as he climbed. It was nearly black inside the deep shade, but he was confident Karl was there. Then he spotted a dim hump bathed in darkness near the trunk. “Found you,” he called out. There was no answer. “Pretending you’re not there?” asked Jacob. He drew his sword and poked the dark shape. “Tag! You’re it.”
“Ow!” squealed Karl, and swore. There it was again – pain, searing pain! “How did you find me?”
Jacob chuckled, “Your precious game led me right to you. Not that I needed it… all I had to do was stand under the tallest tree and listen for you breathing like an ox.”
Stupid! Karl thought. He had forgotten that Jacob had devoted himself to Zeus, and could track him. He’d have to be more careful in the future. “Okay,” he said, “So you found me. Congratulations. But you’re not going to get me to come back home!”
Jacob chuckled. “Why would I want that? I’m loving all this.”
That stopped Karl short. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you idiot, that without you hogging the limelight at home, it’s my time to shine. When you’re home, everyone buys your hero act. ‘Have a second helping, Karl. Have an A-plus, Karl. Have a trophy, Karl. Oh, you big strong boy, thank you for mowing my lawn!’” He snorted in disgust. “Now you’re out of there, and better yet, you look like a moron. Dad’s disgusted with you and perfect strangers are rushing all over town trying to find you.”
Karl said nothing. Jacob pulled himself one branch higher. “And speaking of strangers who are perfect, isn’t Nancy something?” he gloated. “Good-looking, smart, a little naïve … she’s a pretty big fan of me right now, and she thinks you’re a great, big, bully. Which just goes to show that she’s perceptive, too. You’re a bully, and she has stars in her eyes for me, the noble, virtuous brother who’s going to save you anyway. You think I want you to come home? I’ve got everything I want with you gone, Karl. I’m just here to make sure you don’t make it up.”
There was silence in the blackness as Karl digested this. He had expected begging, pleading, or force. This was the last thing he would have thought of. Maybe it was just reverse psychology. “You’re just trying to trick me,” he replied, a little doubtfully. “You want me to come home.”
Jacob’s voice came out of the darkness, deadly serious. “No. I’m here to make sure you get whatever you need to go far, far away and never come back.”
Karl hesitated again. Okay, if Jacob was going to play this game, he would call his bluff. “Fine,” he said. “Then I could use some money.”
“I’ve got about five hundred drachmas, right here on my belt. How much do you need?”
Karl shifted on his branch, trying to get a better view of his brother’s face. He couldn’t see anything. “How much can you spare?”
“It’s Dad’s money. You want the whole thing?”
“Hey, excellent,” replied Karl. “Yeah.”
“Okay,” responded Jacob. “Then just say, ‘I’m sorry, Jacob, for all the times I’ve treated you like a pig, Jacob,’ and I’ll hand it over.”
Oh, so this was it. He’d been through this with Jacob before. He wasn’t going to start on this little routine. He chose his words carefully. “I’m sorry, Jacob, for all the times you’ve acted like a pig.”
“I’m not sure you got that quite right,” said Jacob, mildly. “Try it again. ‘I’m sorry for all the times I’ve treated you like a pig.’”
“Oh, I forgive you,” Karl answered graciously.
“Ha, ha. Real funny,” snarled Jacob. “But you’re not in a real good position to be funny, are you? ‘I’m sorry, Jacob, for all the times I’ve treated you like a pig.’”
“I’m sorry, pig, for all the times I’ve treated you like a Jacob.”
The sword flashed in the darkness. “Ow!” yelped Karl. “Stop that!”
“This isn’t the best time to be cracking jokes. You can either have the carrot, or the stick. But you’ve got some apologizing to do. I have two things you need – money and the point of this sword. Until you start apologizing, you’re not getting any money. So start saying you’re sorry, or…” the curved edge of the cutlass caught the moonlight.
Karl considered that. He hated to admit it, but Jacob was probably right. “Do you really think I’ve treated you like a pig?” he asked, finally.
“All the time.”
“Like when?” Karl asked sincerely.
“Oh, gosh, I don’t know,” Jacob spat, “How about we start with you trying to strangle me to death in Olympus this morning?”
He had a point, Karl thought, and not just at the end of his sword. “Well, I’m sorry for that.”
“You should be!” There was bitterness in Jacob’s voice. “Nevertheless, I appreciate your sincere apology,” he said, “and I want to reward you for it. Here.” There was a clinking sound. Into Karl’s open palm fell one gold drachma.
“One drachma?” asked Karl.
“Yup,” said Jacob. “I’ve got four hundred and ninety-nine more for you, too. And I’m ready to hand them over, one apology at a time.”
Karl lurched forward, grabbing Jacob by the collar of his toga. “I haven’t done anything near that much wrong!” he exploded.
Nose to nose, Karl could finally see Jacob’s eyes. They gleamed with cold fury, suppressed for years. “Oh, yes, you have,” he hissed, his voice trembling with barely controlled rage. “And I remember every… single… time.”
Karl shoved his brother away, disturbed by the crazed look in his eyes. His skin was crawling, and as Jacob scrambled to keep his grip on the tree branch, Karl swung back up to the higher branch he had been on earlier. “I got one gold piece. That’s all that apologizing to you is worth.” He stopped, then continued, angrily. “If you really want me to apologize,” he said, menacingly, “maybe I should work up some fresh material. If you’re paying a drachma for me giving you what you deserve, how much would it be worth to you to know what I really think of you?”
“What do you really think?” laughed Jacob, leaning forward, the moonlight full on his face.
“I think you’re a sniveling little boy whose mother left him all alone in the big bad world.”
Jacob leaned back as though slapped, his laugh dead on his lips. “She didn’t leave me,” he said, stiffly. “She died.”
Karl’s voice continued in the darkness. “She left you all alone in the big bad world with your big bad brother and your big bad father.”
“She didn’t leave me!” Jacob choked out.
“Oh, right,” said Karl. “Sure. She comes to you every night and tucks you in and kisses your ittle-wittle face on the pillow.”
“Shut up!” Jacob screamed.
“She’s gone, Jacob. She left us. Get over it.”
Blind with rage, Jacob lashed out with his cutlass. His brother roared with pain. “Ow! Cut that out!”
“Cut what out?” screamed Jacob. “Your tongue?” He climbed toward Karl. “I’ll do it! I’ll cut your tongue out!”
“Get away from me, you little freak,” shouted Karl. He kicked at Jacob’s arms, but the sword snaked around the trunk, biting into his thigh. Karl tried to scramble out of reach. He went higher, but Jacob was right behind him, nipping at his feet and ankles with the deadly sword. Going up was no escape. The trunk of the tree was his only protection, and it got smaller as he climbed. “Hey, back off!” Karl exclaimed. “I didn’t mean it! This is just a game, Jacob!”
The branches were thin near the top of the tree. Jacob’s tormented face appeared in a shaft of moonlight as he climbed. The expression frozen there drove real fear into Karl’s heart. This was not just a game. That sword might be just virtual, but the pain was real, and the crazy hatred in Jacob’s eyes was much too real.
“I’ll cut your tongue out like they did to Grandpa!” Jacob shouted.
Karl always shuddered at the thought of Grandpa’s mutilated mouth, but there was no time for that now. Jacob was crazy with rage, and he was swarming up behind him with his sword. Karl knew what he had to do.
Karl had never committed suicide before, and he wasn’t very good at it.
The first forty feet went smoothly enough, as he plunged through the upper branches of the tree. But then he bruised his way into a large limb which broke his fall. He slid sideways, trying to get his breath back, and then toppled from branch to branch until he stopped, dangling like a wet towel from a limb too thick to crack. There was pain, plenty of pain. His whole body was a sheet of fire. But although it would take him a while, in the game, to recover his health points after such a fall, no cybersuit could simulate the internal injuries he would have sustained in the real world. Karl was still very much alive.
So was Jacob. Cries of rage from above made that all too clear. “You won’t get away from me!” he screamed, climbing down hand over hand from above. Karl couldn’t see the ground below him, but there was no time to be cautious. He slithered off the branch and fell another fifteen feet or so into the grass. “You can’t hide!” Jacob shrieked. “You can’t!”
It seemed Jacob was right – the tree stood in the middle of the wind-scoured plain of Crete, hundreds of yards from the city or any other shelter except the gently swaying grass. But Karl had played the game longer than Jacob, and he knew the benefits of being a follower of Zeus. He glanced upwards – his brother was coming down fast, but had to pause to look for handholds. Karl ran a few paces in the grass, and threw his hand over his head. “Zeus, hide me!” he whispered. Then he simply vanished from sight.
Jacob was blind with rage as he slithered down to the ground, searching for his twin. Karl, mere yards away, tried to force himself to breathe silently. It was difficult, for his bruised ribs were in agony. Jacob raved up and down, jabbing his sword into the high grass and chopping at shadows. Karl kept waiting for the Oracle to interrupt him with a request for permission to battle. Then he figured it out. We never finished our battle in the shop, Karl realized. The Oracle thinks we’re still dueling … there’s nothing stopping that sword from running me through. Karl silently hugged the ground, creeping behind a scrubby thorn bush.
Jacob soon tired of flailing at shadows. Suddenly he stopped, straightened up, and hooked at the air with two fingers. Karl smugly watched him clawing at the air. It’s about time Jacob called on Zeus, he thought. Fat lot of good it will do him. What Jacob didn’t realize was that his new wayfinding skills came from the same source as Karl’s concealment – and Zeus’ power would not betray itself.
“I hate you, Karl!” Jacob screamed into the darkness. “I hope you broke your spine just now!” He slashed at the grass wildly with his cutlass. Silver stalks tottered to the ground. “You’ve only got one drachma, and I hope you starve to death, slowly!”
Karl had not thought about really starving to death. He wondered if CyberCamp would really let that happen. How far would things go before they took him out of his suit?
“Maybe he did break his spine,” Jacob muttered. “Maybe he’s out of the game. That’s why I can’t find him!”
Then Jacob gave himself over to rage. Alone in his basement on Earth, alone on the barren plain in Olympus, there was nothing to hold him back. “Go ahead, die on me!” he screamed. “You’ll be back! And don’t even think of coming to Dad for help. I’m going to tell him what you said about Mom.” He slashed at Karl’s bush, lopping off a branch that held a single rose. Jacob stood still, shaking with rage, and caught his breath. Then he went on, “Dad still loves her. When he hears what you said about her, you’ll regret it. You’ll wish you had starved to death if he gets hold of you!”
Karl winced. Each of the Huber men had a different way of dealing with the loss of Mrs. Huber. Jacob idolized his mother’s memory. Karl put her out of his mind. Mr. Huber, however, could be almost violent in his grief. Karl knew his father worked too hard, and knew it was partly to take his mind off the gnawing ache of her absence, even seven years after she was gone.
“You’ve got nothing, Karl! No sword, no armor, no family, just one stupid drachma. You’re going to die, and your death will be just as stupid as you are, trapped here in your stupid game!” Jacob speared the bush, jabbing his blade deep in its woody stem. He tried to pull his sword out, but it stuck. He wrenched it sideways. With a “snap!” it broke in half right over Karl’s head.
“No!” Jacob raged. The shopkeeper had known he was new to the game and had unloaded a worthless weapon on him. Jacob hurled the stub of his sword at the ground in disgust. It stuck upright, a mute monument to failure. He slumped to his knees and buried his face in his hands. “Why? Why can’t anything go right?” Far away, there was an eerie cry in the night, as if some nocturnal Olympian beast was answering him. Jacob lifted his face and shuddered. “All right, so I was trying to kill him. But he deserved it! You heard what he said about my mother!”
Crouched a few feet away, Karl watched in stupefaction. Who is he talking to?
“My mother…” Jacob gazed at the cross-hilt of the sword as it stood buried upright in the dirt in the moonlight, reminded of another monument in a different world. His voice took on a softer tone. “My mother.” He looked around and picked up the single rose he had lopped off the thorn bush. Then he laid it reverently in front of the sword, as if he were laying flowers on a grave. “Mother,” he whispered. “You heard what he said about you. I had to do it.”
This is weird, Karl thought.
“Help me, Mother,” Jacob prayed. “Help me find Karl!”
Karl rose to his feet, gritting his teeth against the pain as the suit reminded him again of his fall. Then he dropped his invisibility and flung himself at Jacob in a flying tackle.
Jacob yelped with surprise at the impact of the blow. There was no pain, just a jolt. He twisted around to see what had hit him, and then Karl was upon him like a raging bull. They scuffled back and forth in the moonlit grass. Jacob had an unexpected advantage this time, for Karl’s cybersuit faithfully transmitted each punch, gouge, and scratch as pain, while Jacob’s suit only registered the gross motor movements as Karl forced him into the ground. Even so, Karl was a champion of Olympus, and it was only a matter of moments before he had Jacob pinned on the ground.
Jacob wasn’t staying still though. He writhed and spat, cursing, trying to bite Karl’s hands. “You’re crazy!” Karl yelled. Jacob’s only response was an animal cry of pure rage. Their struggle had brought them next to the broken cutlass, and Karl reached out one hand for the shattered blade. He held the jagged bronze before Jacob’s eyes. “Get a grip, you freak,” he hissed. “Quit it, or I’ll cut your throat.”
“Go on and do it, then,” Jacob gurgled. “Get it over with. ”
“I wouldn’t lower myself,” Karl retorted, haughtily.
“You can’t get any lower. You already spit on your own mother’s grave.”
“That’s not true!” Karl protested, sword still raised.
“You mocked her memory,” Jacob answered, with hot tears in his eyes.
That hurt. Karl paused for a long moment. “Maybe I said some things I shouldn’t have, back there,” he admitted. “But I would never mock Mom.” Karl withdrew the blade a little. “I miss her. A lot. But I don’t…” he looked for the words, “I just don’t worship her.”
“I don’t worship her,” protested Jacob.
Karl snorted, “Hey, you’re the one who was kneeling on the ground praying to her just now.”
“I wasn’t praying to her!”
“You asked Mom to help you kill me!” Karl yelled.
Jacob couldn’t deny that, so he spat back, “You deserve it!”
“I’m her son, too!” Karl shouted, shaking his brother until his teeth rattled.
Jacob hadn’t thought about that. “But … but you don’t love her,” he protested as the shaking stopped.
“I do love her,” Karl growled. “But she’s not around anymore.”
“Not around you,” breathed Jacob, in a tone that raised the hair on the back of his brother’s neck. Karl shook Jacob again, but gently, this time, trying now to reason with him.
“Jacob, if Mom can hear you – which is freaky to start with – you think she would be proud of you for trying to kill me? You think she’d be happy with you?”
Jacob digested his brother’s words in silence. Would she?
Taking advantage of Jacob’s distraction, Karl reached down and cut the cord of his brother’s money bag, carefully plucked out one coin, and laid it on his brother’s shoulder. “I’m leaving you one drachma,” he explained. “I need the rest.” He levered himself up and stood looking down at his brother, aware that he was not the only one whose words had struck home. Some of what Jacob had said made sense… sort of.
“Listen, Jacob… to make it fair, I really am going to apologize, this time.” Karl took a deep breath. “You’ve been acting like a low-down, slimy, no-good snake in the grass. Now I see that you’re a seriously troubled low-down, slimy, no-good snake in the grass. I know you and Mom were close. I wasn’t, really—I was usually trying to get Dad to notice me. When she died Dad stopped noticing pretty much everything. You remember what that was like.”
Jacob sniffed, but nodded. Both brothers brooded for a moment. Karl continued. “I know I talk about being your big brother all the time, but you know I’m just kidding, right?” Jacob said nothing. “Well, now I wish I had acted like one.” He fell silent again. “I can’t say been much of a brother to you at all. I wish I had. And now…” Karl looked up at the sky, searching for words, “now I think it’s too late.”
There was a heavy silence, broken only by Jacob sitting up and putting his head against his knees. A hard, silent sob shook him. Karl rubbed the back of his neck, disturbed. He added, “I hope you’re happier without me, Jacob – you and Dad. I wish you the best. I really do.”
Then Karl stood up and vanished into the darkness.
“…And $4.99 is your change,” said the clerk as he stuffed a bottle of Children’s Tylenol into a crinkling plastic bag and handed it to Mr. Avery.
Mr. Avery, Noah, and Nancy had dropped off Mrs. Avery and April at home before coming over to the mall. April had come down with a bad cold overnight, and Mrs. Avery happily volunteered to stay home and care for her baby girl rather than diving into “that ridiculous fantasy game.”
“All the same,” she had said to Mark as he deposited April’s small, hot body on the living room couch, “go get that boy back. And pick up some more cold medicine on the way. We’re going to run out.”
Mark threw the medicine into the space between the seats, flipped open his phone, and fumbled for his keys. A short, sharp phone call from Dan Huber had informed him that no, Jacob had not seen Karl the night before, and yes, they were already at the arcade, in cubicles Two and Five. Dan also asked whether they had a nice time sitting around in church singing their little songs. Mark snapped the phone shut and drove.
Now, Mark and his two older children blinked in the dim light of the video arcade. “Cubicle Two,” Noah said, pointing at the monitor. “Looks like Jacob’s checking out side streets of the city.”
“Here’s Five,” called Nancy. “There’s Mr. Huber, in the Great Square.” The monitor showed an over-the-shoulder view of the player inside the cubicle, and the Olympian Mr. Huber swung his head from side to side in the crush of animated figures, searching for his son.
“Doesn’t look like they’ve had much luck,” sighed Mr. Avery. “You two had better get in there and help them.” His children stepped into the only two free cubicles as their father swiped his credit card and punched in ten dollars on each one. “Don’t spend any money!” he called, then was alone. His children’s Olympian versions materialized outside the “Bolt of Fortune,” got their bearings, and started heading towards the Great Fountain and Mr. Huber.
Avery walked down the arcade corridor, peering into various monitors. There were his children, Jacob, and Mr. Huber. Over the cubicles occupied by strangers, he saw a tall dark-haired boy fighting a giant spider in a tropical rainforest. There was a girl with blue skin and green hair in a temple, weaving in some complex dance which ended in a burst of light and color and a shout. He peered into the cubicle to see a young brunette whooping and pumping her fist. What is that about? One monitor showed a figure trying to guide a small, crowded boat through water that seemed to be all driftwood and shark fins. The last monitor showed a thickset man playing dice with other rough figures in a shadowy tavern.
“If you’re waiting for a turn, he’s going to lose his money in another minute or two.”
Mr. Avery, surprised by the voice, turned to see a pointed face studying the last monitor he’d been looking into. The speaker was a boy about Nancy’s age, with an upturned nose and hooded gray-green eyes. He leaned on the arm of the wheelchair in which he was seated contemplatively, and nodded up at the monitor. “I know that guy,” he said of the gambler. “I’ve told him a million times that he shouldn’t gamble in Olympus. The house always wins.”
“Thanks,” said Mr. Avery, surprised by the strength of the boy’s voice. He spoke like an expert, whose opinion brooked no refusal. “The sooner I can get in, the better.”
“In the middle of a big odyssey, huh?”
“We’re trying to find a runaway,” said Mr. Avery, impressively.
The sandy-haired boy didn’t even blink. “Oh, the runaway odyssey. The nobleman’s son, right? You’ll find him blindfolded in an enchantress’s dungeon, usually far up north. Have to fight a few Gore Bulls to get to him, probably.”
Mr. Avery was bewildered. “What? No, no. Nothing like that. I’m talking about the real world. That man, in Cubicle Five – his son ran away to play the game, and we’re trying to find him in Olympus.”
The boy’s eyes widened. Now he looked truly impressed. “He ran away to Olympus? Awesome!”
I don’t know about that, Mr. Avery thought. “You want to help us try to find him?” he asked. This kid obviously knew something about the game, and that could come in handy.
“Yeah, I wish,” said Wheeler. “They’ve been talking about making a wheelchair-accessible cybersuit for years now. Still no dice. I guess handicapped kids aren’t a big market.” Mr. Avery was surprised by the bitterness in the boy’s voice. It was as though he felt personally slighted by this oversight. “But what about my buddies?” the boy continued. “They know Olympus. Have them help you look.”
“If you paid for their game, they’d shoot their grandmother.”
“If they know Olympus, it would probably be better than having me play,” Mr. Avery mused. “It’s been a long time since I played any video games, much less something like this.”
“Just wait, then. Rick here is about to lose any second. Watch for the double sixes.” Together, Mr. Avery and the boy in the wheelchair turned back to the monitor that showed the hulking figure rolling dice. The man across the table from him took the dice, shook them three times between long, bony fingers, then cast them on the table. They pitched around, then stopped, both showing six. Mr. Avery looked at his companion in surprise.
“House always wins,” shrugged the boy.
A few moments later, the cybercubicle door burst open, and a short, thickset boy with a red face and red hair stormed out. “Arggh,” he said. “I don’t know why I waste my money on this!”
“Hey, Rick, you want to keep playing?” called the boy in the wheelchair.
“Oh, yeah, sure, but I got no coins!” Rick snapped. “I’m telling you, Wheeler, this game is such a rip-off!”
Mr. Avery pulled out a picture of Karl they had found and printed late last night. “Help me find this kid, and I’ll pay your way.”
“Huh?” said Rick, surprised. “You’ll pay to keep me playin’?”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Avery. “If you’ll help me find this guy.” He held up the picture of Karl.
“Like, a reward or something?” Rick asked. The boy squinted at the photo in the gloom. “Hey, isn’t that the Cretan guy who killed the dragon? I’ve seen him! He’s been around.”
“Right,” answered Mr. Avery. “And he’s somewhere in Olympus right now. We just have to find him!”
Rick grinned through a mouthful of braces. “So, it’s like a manhunt.”
“Well, be sure and put in some extra cash for my portal spell to get over to Crete.” Rad stepped back into the cubicle and shoved his helmet back on. “Start her up, Mr. Man.”
Mr. Avery swiped his credit card through the machine. “This is getting expensive,” he muttered to himself.
He stepped back into the corridor where the boy called Wheeler perched. There were now five people hunting for Karl. The monitor outside each cubicle showed a different scene, but none of them included Karl. Mr. Avery settled in to see how Nancy was doing. She was interrogating one of the nops in the Great Square.
“Have you seen anybody pass by here?” she asked.
“No,” the nop answered promptly. He was a hunched old man with an enormous white mustache. He squinted up at her through his one eye with an expression of courteous good humor.
“Not anybody at all?” She was surprised.
“Not a single person,” said the nop.
“What about him?” she asked, pointing at an armor-clad player clanking past.
“I didn’t see him.”
“What are you, blind?” she snorted.
“Yup,” the peasant replied. She waved a hand in front of his face, and he blinked.
“You’re not blind!” she argued.
“Oh, yes I am.”
“Are you deaf too?” she asked, sarcastically.
“Yup, stone deaf,” he answered cheerfully.
“That can’t be true,” she groaned.
“Oh, it is.”
Nancy was way beyond frustrated, “Are you telling the truth?” she demanded.
“Yes I am,” the peasant answered. Then he stopped and thought. “No, I’m not,” he said. Then he stopped and thought again. “Yes, I am,” he faltered, then, “No I’m not…yes I am…no, I’m not….”
Nancy stared in disbelief, threw her hands up in disgust, and left the peasant still talking to himself. “Yes I am no, I’m not….”
“What’s going on?” wondered Mr. Avery, just as confused as Nancy.
“Oh, that,” Wheeler laughed. “Yeah, that would be strange until you figure it out.”
“Figure what out?”
“He can’t tell the truth,” said Wheeler.
“I beg your pardon?”
“He’s a Cretan nop – a computer-generated character. All the nops in Crete are incapable of telling the truth. Whatever they say, it has to be a lie.”
Mr. Avery’s forehead knotted as he worked this out. “So, she asked him if he was blind,” he said slowly, “and he isn’t… so he says he is?”
“Right,” said Wheeler.
“No matter how obvious the answer is, he’s going to tell a lie?”
“You got it.”
“But what if he doesn’t know the answer?”
“He still has to lie. He’s a computer-generated character, so if the computer knows the answer, he’ll say the exact opposite.”
“Well, that’s it!” Mr. Avery cheered. “That’s all we need!”
“What do you mean?” asked Wheeler. Just then another cybercubicle opened up, and Wheeler’s other friend, who had apparently lost to the spider in the rainforest, stepped out.
“Come on over here. Watch, I’ll show you!” He elbowed past the disgruntled teenager, slipped into the cybersuit, wincing as he pushed his credit card into the slot. He pulled the helmet over his face, obviously ready to jump straight into the game. He found himself confronted by darkness, and then the music and color of the game introduction.
“Help!” he yelled, as a voice that was half thunder boomed “OLYMPUS! Mountain of the gods!” He waved his hands blindly. “Hey, um…” he hesitated awkwardly, then called the boy’s nickname. “Hey, Wheeler! Is there any way to skip this introduction?”
Wheeler leaned close to the cubicle door, and yelled, “Just say, ‘Oracle, take me to Crete!’ ”
“Oracle, take me to Crete!” exclaimed Mr. Avery. The breathtaking view jerked, faded, and resolved into the rolling grasslands he had seen so many times through the monitors. He set off at a run downhill, towards the city. Wheeler watched in approval as he slapped at the Grass Sprites without breaking stride and charged past the guards without declaring allegiance to a god.
Wheeler was impressed. “I didn’t know you could do that!”
Mr. Avery ran through the virtual streets, shouting, “Hey, Nancy, Noah, Jacob! Dan, and — what’s your name — Rick! Come here!”
Five frustrated seekers gathered by the great fountain. “I think I know how to find him,” exclaimed Mr. Avery. “Watch this!” He grabbed a passing peasant, “Hey, you!” he commanded. “Have you seen Karl Huber?”
There was a pause, then the nop answered, “Yes.” He was a short, cross-eyed youth with a cheerfully stupid face.
“Oh, Dad, don’t believe a word he says,” groaned Nancy. “These people are crazy.”
“Not crazy,” Mr. Avery laughed. “Just liars! Did he leave town?”
“No,” the nop answered.
“Which way did he go? Uphill or downhill?”
“Great! Thanks!” said Mr. Avery, “Let’s go!” Noah, Nancy, Jacob, and Dan (strangely dwarfed in the game by his Zeus-devoted son) stared at Mr. Avery in confusion as he began jogging toward the downhill gate. He paused, and turned on his heel. “Wait a second,” he said, calling out to the nop. “You want to earn some money?”
“No,” smiled the peasant.
“Then come on!” called Mr. Avery, and the cross-eyed nop cheerfully fell in behind him. Mr. Avery took off, and the bewildered group joined him.
Nancy tried to keep up with her father as he ducked and wove through the colorful crowd. “Dad,” she panted, “have you lost your marbles? I thought these people were crazy, but you’re just as bad.”
“Oh, you’re missing it, Nancy.”
“What do you mean?”
“These nops aren’t crazy, they’re just liars.”
“Well, I could see that!”
“No, I mean, they lie about everything. Everything they say is false.”
“Everything?” Nancy asked. Her forehead wrinkled just like her father’s had done, then she chewed her lip. Finally, light dawned. “Oh! So that means we should do the opposite of whatever he says, right?” She thought about this. “Let me try. Hey…Nop!” She stopped. “That doesn’t sound very polite. Um, Excuse me, what’s your name?”
The peasant hesitated, “Hercules,” he finally said.
“Is that your real name?” Nancy asked, doubtfully.
“Oh, yes,” he answered.
Nancy was skeptical. “Is Zeus your real name, too?” she queried.
“Yup, it is!” the peasant beamed.
“How about Jack-in-the-box?”
“That’s me,” answered the peasant.
“This is very frustrating,” Nancy sighed.
“Not really,” the peasant grinned.
“Let me help you,” interrupted Mr. Avery. “Sir, what isn’t your name?”
The nop replied at once. “Ajax.”
“Ajax is really your name?” Nancy asked.
Nancy groaned. “If he says Ajax isn’t his name, then it must be his real name. This is driving me nuts! I asked one of these peasants if he was blind and he said yes. I got really mad, and accused him of not telling me the truth. He said yes, he was telling the truth, then no, he wasn’t, and on and on. I got so disgusted I just left.”
“It’s a classic logic puzzle,” Mr. Avery explained. (He didn’t mention how bewildered he had been until he had been clued in by a stranger.) Mr. Avery loved ideas, whether they were his own or someone else’s. “See, you asked him if what he was saying was true. And he hadn’t been telling the truth. So he had to lie, and said it was true. But you didn’t ask him if he had been telling the truth, but if he was telling the truth right now. So when he said he was telling the truth, all of a sudden, that was a true statement.” Nancy goggled, but her father continued merrily. “Well, he couldn’t very well tell you something true, so then he had to tell you the opposite, and said he wasn’t telling the truth. Which was also true. Naturally, he couldn’t tell the truth, so he had to switch back to what he had said before….”
“Stop!” groaned Nancy as they passed through the city gates. “I’m getting dizzy.”
It was mid-afternoon when Karl woke up with a start, disoriented. He squinted at the digital world around him, and tried to rub his bleary eyes. The fingertips of his gauntlets felt the visor of his helmet.
“Right,” he grunted. “CyberCamp. Olympus.” He sat up. He had never woken up in a cybersuit before, much less after the kind of dreams he had been having. He had been climbing up the Mountain, but he slipped and was hanging on by just his fingertips. Then he was falling, but not alone –Jacob was with him, bound to him with chains of golden drachmas. Jacob was crying, “You killed our mother,” and Karl tried to say he hadn’t, but no words came out and they never stopped falling…
Right. Olympus. He held his hand in front of his face, and was glad to see that he was still invisible. After leaving Jacob lying in the grass, he had walked all night until the moon went down and then dropped where he was to sleep. Now it was day. Late in the day, he realized, as he looked up at the sun. The grass waved around him, making a shushing sound as the wind moved it. A passing Grass Sprite tried to latch onto him, and he swatted it absently. It was time to get a move on; he had Jacob’s coins – his father’s coins – and he planned to use them.
He set out purposefully back towards town. Zeus let people find things easily, but he also let them hide themselves, and Karl had worked long and hard to make sure he could stay invisible as long as he liked. He had four hundred and ninety-nine gold pieces, and he was going to figure out a way to get to the top of the Mountain on that. The grass parted around his invisible body, as though a man-sized wind was opening a space between the tall stalks at the pace of a determined march.
As he walked uphill, he kept a sharp eye on the other players, solitary or clustered in groups, which dotted the landscape. One was almost never alone in Olympus, and now was no exception. He saw new players battling Grass Sprites for their first experience points, heroes riding back into town on giant black horses with the trophies of their quests, saw trading parties driving out of the gates, loaded down with goods and doubtless bound for the sea. Then, something caught his eye. A company of walkers was moving up the road toward him. He thought at first they were just headed in his direction, so he veered left. After a moment, they veered left, too. It couldn’t be! But it was – his father, Jacob, and the three Averys, accompanied by what looked for all the world like a nop. How had they found him? He swung around to the right. Marco, he taunted silently. He was almost past them when they suddenly paused, swung around, and started running towards him. “How the–!” Karl gasped. He turned and sprinted away.
He had the advantage. He was invisible and had just awakened from a refreshing sleep; they had been walking fast all day. He was running out of desperation, too. But there were a lot of them, and for some inexplicable reason, his invisibility barely seemed to slow them down! It’s Jacob cheating somehow, I just know it. He raced up a low hill, hoping that he could find a hiding place of some sort when he cleared the ridge, but there was nothing beyond it but grass, as far as the eye could see. A complacent nop plodded toward him on a horse.
Karl set his jaw. Jacob might know where he was, but this Cretan certainly didn’t. Karl ran invisibly up beside the rider and slapped his ankle. The rider leaned over in the saddle to look at his foot. Karl grabbed his long, green cloak, pulled it upside down over his ears, and jerked him out of the saddle. He sprang up in the stirrups, wheeled the horse around, and galloped away. “Sorry about that,” he called back over his shoulder.
The horse was a fine steed — much too spirited for a nop. It had both endurance and speed, and raced down the highway, putting miles between Karl and his pursuers. As they disappeared over the horizon, Karl dropped his invisibility, laughing. Catch me if you can, Jacob.
The sun was going down in flames beside the Mountain in front of him when Karl caught a whiff of the Olympian sea. Smell! These new suits are amazing! As he crested the hill, he saw the Seaport of Crete behind high walls. He had visited the seaport dozens of times in the game. It was smaller than the Great City of Crete, but where the capitol sprawled and hugged the ground, the seaport rose with towering, forbidding walls. It was still Cretan – rugged, thickset, massive – but higher, more decorated and metropolitan. Almost everyone who traveled to Crete from the other six polises had to pass through this port. A perfect place to get lost in.
A crowd bustled around its commanding gates, as people hurried to get in before the titanic bronze crossbars were lowered for the evening. He spurred the horse on. He had to get those gates between him and his pursuers!
He was just in time. The guards had begun to close the enormous doors as he rode through them. He entered the city, and watched them bar the great gates behind him. “Finally!” he breathed. “Safe!”
The guards finished their task and turned away from the gates. The smallest was over seven feet tall; the largest must have been twelve. They must have been hired as guards from Sparta, where size and muscle knew no bounds. It was dangerous for a hero to cross borders, but these heroes were obviously beyond fear of attack from Cretans. As Karl stared in unapologetic awe, the largest giant marched straight toward him with a dark look.
The boy tried to back away, but he was still on horseback, and the horse wouldn’t budge. The giant reached Karl, and peered down from his height upon him. Karl was a tall Cretan, but he was nothing next to this Spartan giant. Then he reached out one enormous fist, seized him by his neck, and hoisted him clean out of his saddle.
“Thief!” he thundered.
The rest of Sunday had been a long day for the Averys, Jacob, and Mr. Huber.
“Are we going the right way?” someone occasionally had asked Ajax, who had confidently assured them they were not. The monotony was only broken by sightings of other passing heroes, half-hearted attacks by Grass Sprites, easily slapped away, and – once – a wild bull that had injured Mr. Huber before Wheeler told them how to defeat it. They were only just coming in sight of the Great Seaport when the house lights came up and the manager called that the arcade was closing.
“What will you do now?” Wheeler asked as they filed wearily out of the cybercubicles.
“Come back tomorrow,” said Mr. Avery doggedly.
“I have school,” said Jacob.
“You have to find your brother,” Mr. Huber corrected. “We’ll be here.”
“Maybe I’ll check in on you after school,” Wheeler smiled. “You guys are better than TV.”
They spent that night in their own beds, but returned to the arcade as soon as it opened the next morning. On a school day, they had the place to themselves, and when they reentered Olympus, the gates to the city were just opening. They nervously slipped past the giant guards and followed Benjamin’s misdirections all the way to a vast stone fortress in the center of the city. “Is he in that building?” Nancy asked the peasant.
“No, ma’am,” Benjamin answered, sadly.
“Can we break in there?” asked Noah.
“Rats,” muttered Nancy. “He’s in there, and we can’t get him out. Stuck again.” So they waited, impatiently, as the sun climbed higher in the Olympian sky.
Nancy kicked the heels of her sandals against the stone bench where they sat and watched the people around her. As in the Great City, the people were incredibly varied – actually even more so here in the Seaport. In the Great City, no matter how tall, short, muscle-bound, or slender the players had been, they all shared a certain similar look, like a family resemblance. But now, starting with those enormous guards and continuing on through the crowd, she saw truly strange-looking characters. On the road from the docks to the taverns, she saw piratical figures, all hooks and peg legs and braided beards, staggering up the street, laughing lustily. There were women who made the ladies of the Great City look like the state fair beauty queen at a Miss Universe competition. She saw people walking through the crowds with their skin literally glowing, enveloped in a cloud of what she could only assume was Olympian magic. And above it all towered the grim figures of the gigantic guards.
Noah had noticed it too. “Some crowd, huh?” he asked, conversationally. “I was just looking at them! They make the city look tame.”
“It’s because it’s a seaport, I think,” said Noah. “It only makes sense that you’d get people from other parts of Olympus passing through here.”
“I thought it wasn’t safe to be out of your own – what’s it called? – Polish.”
“It’s ‘Polis,’ and I guess there’s safety in numbers here.” Noah’s eyes followed one of the characters with glowing skin and eyes glowing like green light bulbs. “It’s pretty amazing.”
“It’s pretty expensive,” growled Mr. Huber, who had apparently been listening to their conversation. “How much are we spending just to watch the scenery? This isn’t even a game. Yesterday we walk all afternoon, today we sit and do nothing? Some fun!”
Mr. Avery frowned. “You have a point, Dan. Sitting here isn’t doing Karl or us any good. Ajax, are you sure none of us can go in the fortress?”
The nop looked up in thought, pausing in some internal calculation. “Yes.”
Mr. Huber sat up. “You mean we can get into the fortress?”
“Yes.” Which, of course, meant no.
Mr. Avery rubbed his head, and wished that Wheeler kid was still around. “You said you’re not sure that none of us can get into the fortress, which means that you are sure that at least one of us can get into the fortress. Is that it?”
Again, the pause. “No.”
“Okay, then! Which one of us can go in?”
Ajax pointed at Mr. Huber, Mr. Avery, Nancy, and Noah. “You, you, you, and you.”
They all looked at Jacob, a head taller than any of them, like a college student among high school freshmen. He looked confused. “Me? Why me?”
“You’re not a citizen of Crete,” said Ajax. “This isn’t a secure building, and you don’t have to be a citizen to enter it.”
Mr. Avery smacked his forehead. “Of course! Jacob, you joined Crete when you devoted yourself to Zeus! This is an official building – it makes sense that citizens would be allowed to go in while we unbelievers have to stay out here!”
Mr. Huber stood up quickly. “That’s it? That’s all we have to do? How do we become citizens?”
Noah showed him how to summon the Oracle, and a few seconds later, Mr. Huber was once again taller than his son. Olympus looked almost as good on him as it did on Karl – he was broad-shouldered on earth, and it translated in the game into a truly impressive figure. He may have been small compared to many of the heroes passing by the fortress, but the Averys now felt very small beside the two hulking Hubers. “Come on,” he said. “Do it too, and let’s go get my boy.”
Mr. Avery shook his head. “Sorry, Dan. I’m not comfortable letting my children call on Zeus. You two will have to go in alone.”
Mr. Huber rolled his eyes hugely. “Fine, Avery. That’s nice. Sit out here. Sing some hymns while you wait.” He stalked off with Jacob in tow, through the enormous doors that had seemed so impassable moments before.
The interior of the fortress was severe, but stately, lined with guards less massive than those outside, but heavily armed and looking like they meant business. Mr. Huber approached a man seated behind a huge book in the center of the great hall in which they found themselves. “Are you a human player or a computer?” he demanded without preamble.
“A human player,” the bespectacled man assured him.
“Oh, good,” Mr. Huber sighed in relief.
“Dad, that means he might still be a computer. He’s lying.”
“But – oh, yes.” Mr. Huber frowned. “What color is the ceiling?” He pointed up at the golden tile above them.
“Sir, I do not have time for foolish questions,” snapped the man behind the book. “Please make your inquiry and I will direct you to the appropriate wing of the Hall of Justice.”
This was no help. They still didn’t know whether he was a nop or not. “We’re looking for Karl Huber,” said Mr. Huber.
The man consulted the book, which was written in a script something like Greek and something like random scribbles. “Karl Huber is in the Wing of Honors, which is down the hall to your left.” They looked left, and saw a brightly-lit hall which ended in white stone staircase going up. Automatically, they both looked right, and saw a dark hall, ending in a black stone staircase going down. Over the entryway was a sign that read, “Wing of Punishments.”
Jacob leaned towards the man. “Are you telling the truth?” he asked.
“I do not have time for foolish questions,” he repeated, dismissing them with a sniff as he pointedly leaned over the book and began writing.
Mr. Huber looked around in frustration. “There has to be some way of finding out where he really is!”
There is … as long as he’s not hiding, Jacob thought. Behind his back, he lifted two fingers and whispered, “Karl Huber.” He felt the gauntlet tug sharply toward the Wing of Punishments. Aloud, he said, “Dad, I think we should split up. Why don’t you go into the Wing of Punishments and I’ll check out the Wing of Honors?”
Mr. Huber considered this, then shook his head. “If I know my boy, he’ll be getting honored in this game. He spends enough time in it. You go right, I’ll go left.”
“Whatever you say, Dad.” Jacob turned, and followed his tugging gauntlet with a smile. Punishments, huh? Just as it should be.
Karl had spent the night in a dungeon. It was pitch black, so all he knew about it was that it was cold, hard, and wet. Between the fear and the rats, he got very little sleep. The night seemed endless. He only knew morning had come because his cell door was flung open. There, a guard was silhouetted by the light of a guttering torch. “Up, thief,” he barked. This was not a giant, but Karl was defenseless and the man held a cruel sword, so Karl stood and let himself be led up the dripping staircase.
The guard led him down a long, torchlit hall. He passed door after door, and in each chamber as he passed, he caught sight of what looked like courtrooms. Most had trials in progress. Karl caught snatches of the proceedings as he passed by. “…accused of causing another player irritation and distress…” “…as evidence, this sword…” “…sold secrets to the king of Troy…” “…swear on the wrath of Zeus…”He saw players in chains, players in judges’ robes, players seated in juries. I never realized how big this place was. He had heard of Olympian justice – high-level players could earn special experience and skills (not to mention drachmas) by taking turns as judge and jury of players who caused other heroes grief. This could be okay, he thought. I was the one who was cheated at that lousy inn! Any reasonable judge or jury will take my side.
The guard forced Karl to climb stair after stair, spiraling up from the depths of the dungeon to the heights of the mighty tower that dominated the city. They passed a window with each successive turn of the stairs, and Karl watched the buildings dwindling away below them. There were narrow streets that sloped down toward the harbor, which was crowded with shipping around busy, bustling piers.
At last they reached their destination – a narrow black door, so high above the sea that he could barely make out the sound of the crashing waves below. The guard pounded three times on the black wood, and then, with a boom, the door swung open.
Karl didn’t know what he had expected, but it wasn’t this. He was led into a small circular chamber, which had no windows and would have been as pitch black as his dungeon if it hadn’t been for magical lights swirling gently in the high ceiling, like animate stars. He was led to stand in the center of the room. There were low benches around the sides of the chamber, and before him a raised platform with an imposing black chair, almost a throne, set upon it. Behind the chair, the wall was covered with an enormous painting of a woman’s face, so Karl felt as though he were being held between the thumb and forefingers of a giant’s fingers and scrutinized by those window-sized eyes. He felt he had seen the face before, but couldn’t place where.
The only other person in the room was the guard. Karl looked up at him. “What now?” he asked. The guard ignored him, and straightened his back, shouting as though to a vast audience, “We call upon our honored judge, Themis, the giver of the laws of the gods and justice.”
A thunderclap shook the room. The lights circling Karl’s head swirled and swarmed, then plunged down towards the chair and gathered together. They congealed into a shining figure, blinding in brightness. Karl raised his hand to shield his eyes – then, the stars were back above him, and he blinked at the figure on the raised chair. She wore a green robe, so deep in color it was almost black. Her dark hair was pulled severely back. She leaned forward, and, in a disappointed tone, said, “Karl.”
It was Ms. Sparrow.
Karl stared. Subconsciously, he realized that the neither old nor young eyes fixed on him were the same as those painted on the wall. This chamber of stars was clearly her place. He lurched forward. “Ms. Sparrow, you have to help me! I—”
The guard cuffed him on the back of his head with the hilt of his sword. “Disrespect! You will refer to the judge by her Olympian name of Themis!”
Ms. Sparrow – or Themis – waved her hand dismissively, still focused on Karl. “I’m very unhappy to hear that you have resorted to crime within the game, Karl. Let’s hope that this is all a misunderstanding.”
“It is!” he practically shouted. “I was—”
But Ms. Sparrow wasn’t looking at him anymore. She addressed his guard sharply. “Is the prosecution ready?”
A familiar voice answered, “Yes, your Honor.” Karl turned to look at the speaker. The prosecutor stood behind an ancient wooden table, wearing a grim look. And the prosecutor was also Ms. Sparrow! Karl rubbed his eyes as the prosecutor stated the case against him. “This chamber will prove that the defendant, Karl Huber, did intentionally, willfully, knowingly, and recklessly both seize and deprive this chamber’s witness of one valuable article, to wit, a horse. This chamber will prove that the defendant, Karl Huber, did also intentionally, willfully, knowingly, and recklessly seize four hundred and ninety-nine drachmas by use of deadly force. This chamber will therefore prove that the defendant, Karl Huber, is guilty of grand larceny and armed robbery and must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
Judge Sparrow looked severely at Karl for a long moment and then shook her head. “How does the defendant plead?”
“Uh,” Karl gulped, trying to think. He tried to remember the cop shows he had watched on TV. “Don’t I get a lawyer?”
The judge frowned and turned to the prosecutor. “Has the defendant retained an attorney?”
Prosecutor Sparrow answered harshly, “No, your Honor.”
Judge Sparrow looked critically at Karl. “Why haven’t you hired an attorney?”
“I — I just got here, Ms. Sparrow. I mean,” he cringed away from the guard, “Themis, your Honor. I have a right to a lawyer, don’t I?”
The judge pressed her fingertips together, and thought. Finally, grudgingly, she answered. “This chamber will appoint you an attorney.” She clapped, and there was a crackle of lightning from her hands. “Guard! Bring in the Public Defender.”
The black doors boomed as the guard strode out. In a minute, he came back with the defense attorney. It, too, was Ms. Sparrow. “What’s going on?” Karl demanded, bewildered.
Themis (or Ms. Sparrow), the Public Defender, stepped up to the table on the left side of the courtroom. “The defendant pleads guilty, your Honor.”
“Wait!” shouted Karl. “I didn’t say that!”
“Your attorney represents you,” chided Judge Themis. “Order in the Court!”
“No!” protested Karl. “I want to talk to my lawyer!”
Defense Attorney Themis cleared her throat. “May I approach the bench, your Honor?” Defense Attorney Themis, Prosecutor Themis, and Judge Themis huddled together at the judge’s bench, whispering, and looking furtively at Karl. Finally, Judge Themis frowned, and gave in. “Court will recess for five minutes while counsel confers with her client. Five minutes!” She clapped once, lightning sparking from her palms.
Karl’s lawyer led him through a concealed door into a small dark prisoner’s cell behind the chamber. “You’re just making this difficult,” Themis said.
“But I’m not guilty!”
“Not guilty?” she snapped. “Everybody knows you stole the horse.”
“But I had to! It was a matter of life and death!”
“I’m not sure Judge Themis would agree.”
Karl was practically frantic. “What about a jury?” he begged. “I’m sure a jury would understand.”
“A jury,” the attorney answered thoughtfully. “You have a point. Perhaps a jury would be more understanding than the judge. I’ll see what I can do.”
There was a pounding on the cell door. “Time’s up!” thundered the guard.
They returned to the starlit chamber. Karl’s lawyer rose to speak. “The defendant pleads not guilty and requests a jury trial, your Honor.”
Judge Themis glared at Karl. “A jury trial will do nothing but prolong this matter needlessly,” she retorted.
“Nevertheless, your Honor, the defendant has an absolute right to a jury trial and requests one.”
“Very well,” the judge muttered, darkly. “Guard, bring in a jury!”
Karl fidgeted as the guard left the room. Then the door swung open again, and twelve jurors filed out. Karl moaned. Every one of them was Themis. “You may proceed,” the judge intoned. What is this? Karl wondered. What have I gotten myself into?
“This chamber’s first witness,” announced Prosecutor Themis, “is the merchant whose horse was stolen. But this chamber waives its first witness.”
“Very well,” the judge answered. “Dispense with the first witness.”
“What?” asked Karl.
“Silence!” roared the guard.
“I mean, objection, Themis, your Honor!”
“It’s your counsel’s job to object,” Judge Themis said sternly. She turned to the Public Defender Themis. “What’s the objection?”
“Frankly, your Honor, I haven’t the faintest idea,” Defense Attorney Themis answered, primly.
“Why don’t they have to question the witness?” Karl demanded.
“The witness is a Cretan,” the judge answered in a matter-of-fact tone, “and Cretans always lie. Next witness!”
Jacob had followed his gauntlet down the halls of the Wing of Punishment, but something seemed to be wrong. No matter how many times he consulted his Wayfinding Skills, he always wound up at the same dead end – a dusty piece of wall hung with a picture of a frowning woman with cruel eyes and black hair. Maybe Karl’s been turned into an ugly portrait as punishment, he thought.
He hadn’t told anyone about what had happened Saturday night. The scene kept replaying in his mind, over and over again – Karl, smugly mocking him, driving him into a fury. Karl, knocking him to the ground and saying he pitied him. Pitied! Karl, taking his money and disappearing so that no Wayfinding could help Jacob find him.
Jacob had mostly kept quiet as first his father, and then the Averys joined the search. Why tell them about Wayfinding Skills that were useless while Karl remained invisible like the coward he was? Better to keep them up his sleeves until they could impress and win him points. In the meantime, using the nop seemed to be working well.
He ground his jaw. Karl had maddened and humiliated him last night, making a fool of him and his mother. And then he had said he pitied him. Jacob had a knot in the pit of his stomach that he refused to acknowledge as shame – Karl would pay for the other night.
Just then, the scene around him went hazy, and the face of the Oracle appeared before him. “Jacob Huber,” it said in its flat, not-male-or-female voice, “the records of Olympus show that two nights ago you had four hundred and ninety-nine drachmas removed from you by another player. Do you wish to bear witness against the player who stole said drachmas from you?”
“Bear witness? Like at his trial?”
Jacob smiled. This day was getting better and better. “Yes,” he said. “Oh, yeah, definitely.”
“What?” Karl exploded as the doors burst open and the guard led Jacob into the room. Jacob tried to take it all in – the spinning stars, the room full of what all seemed to be the same woman. He avoided Karl’s eyes as the guard pointed him to a bench below and to the left of the woman who had to be the judge.
“Do you, Jacob Huber, swear by Zeus and Themis, in whose chamber of stars you testify, to tell the truth on pain of death and eviction from Olympus?” asked the guard.
Jacob was still dazed. “Huh?”
“Just answer yes or no,” the guard replied. “Do you swear to tell the truth?”
“Oh. Uh, yeah,” Jacob mumbled. He began to understand where he was. His eyes flicked upward to meet Karl’s, and a flurry of emotions crossed his face.
“This chamber may question its witness,” the judge announced.
Prosecutor Themis stepped to the bar. “State your name for the jury,” she commanded.
“I’m Jacob Huber,” he answered. “Who are you … all of you?”
The prosecutor was annoyed, but she did not want to antagonize her witness. “My name is Themis, young man, and I am the Prosecutor for this chamber, and for the justice of the gods.” She smiled patiently at him, and waited until he gave her a weak smile in return. “Now, is there anyone in this courtroom that you recognize?”
He looked at the defendant, standing, hands bound, in the center of the chamber. “Yes,” he answered. “My brother, Karl.”
“Can you identify Karl?”
Jacob pointed. “Him.”
Prosecutor Themis dictated, “Let the record reflect that the witness pointed at the defendant, Karl Huber.” A quill pen held by no one industriously scribbled out the words on parchment. Themis went on. “Cast your mind back to the night before last,” she said. “Do you recall seeing the defendant on that night?”
Karl felt a cold thrill run down his spine as Jacob locked eyes with him and said, “Yes, I do.”
“When you met up with Karl, did you have any money with you?”
He fingered the one drachma in his pocket that Karl had left him. “Yeah, I had money. A whole bag of it.”
“And when you and Karl parted, did you still have that money?”
Jacob shook his head. “No.” He pulled out the one gold coin. “This is all I had left.”
“What happened to the rest of your money, Jacob?”
“He took it. He stole it!”
“No further questions, Themis, your Honor,” the prosecutor concluded, smugly. She turned to the defense attorney. “Your witness.”
The trial was short. The Themis leading the identical jury read off the verdict: “Guilty As Charged.” A black-robed executioner led Karl out of the room. He was disturbed, but not surprised to see who it was.
“Themis – ” he hesitated, then whispered, “Ms. Sparrow, what is going on here?”
“Karl, Karl,” she answered, reprovingly. “I am shocked to find that you have resorted to stealing.”
“Me stealing? You put me into the cybersuit and gave me a meal without telling me it was going to take every penny I had!”
“If you will recall, Karl, we generously offered you the Work-Study Program. If you had taken that, you wouldn’t be here, now.”
“Look, I didn’t come to Olympus to be somebody’s servant,” he argued.
“Well, that’s ironic,” she said, and her face corkscrewed into a tight smile. She held up her hands, shaking the sleeves of her robe so her arms were free to the elbows. Themis clapped once, and lightning crackled from between her fingers, then resolved into a long golden sheet of parchment. Written across the top in block, Grecian-style letters were the words “Deed for the ownership of one Karl Huber.”
“I’m afraid that now you’re going to be somebody’s slave.”
Jacob didn’t see Karl again.
The guard led him wordlessly back down the winding staircase and into the great entrance hall and left him there. Jacob avoided the eye of the frowning man behind the giant book and slunk out of the fortress. There was his father, waiting with the Averys by the wall, just out of the way of the traffic, which had increased considerably as the day wore on.
“Did you find him?” Mr. Huber said. “You were gone long enough!”
“I found him,” Jacob replied casually. “Bad news is, he’s gotten himself in trouble.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” his father growled. “Where is he? Why didn’t you bring him back?”
“I found him in a courtroom,” he said dramatically. “He was on trial.” They stared at him. “As soon as I walked in, he shouted ‘that’s my brother!’, which was apparently a pretty stupid thing to do, because they were just looking for someone to identify him.” He continued, enjoying the rapt attention of the group. “They made me swear to tell the truth and all that, and then they just asked me if I recognized anybody in the courtroom.” He visualized the moment. “I pointed out Karl. That was about it.”
“What happened next?” Nancy butted in. “What happened to Karl?”
“Oh, Karl,” Jacob said. “Well, he was convicted.”
“Convicted of what?” his father demanded.
“Theft. He stole some stuff.” Jacob hesitated, then brightened. “Like, that horse, remember?”
“Was he sentenced?” asked Mr. Avery.
“Yeah,” Jacob answered. “He’s going to be sold. They dragged him out of the courtroom, heading for the slave market.”
“Slave?” roared Mr. Huber. “Nobody makes a slave of my son!”
“So what are we waiting for?” Nancy asked. “Hey, Ajax, which way is the slave market?”
“Up there,” Ajax answered, pointing up the sloping street.
“Yeah, right,” retorted Nancy, and they headed down the hill in the opposite direction.
The seaport was packed. Several grand galleys were pulled up along the docks, where slaves loaded cargo under the sharp eyes of soldiers. Half-naked nop beggars milled about, hoping that one of the crates or boxes might slip and spill some food onto the cobbles. Players acting as merchants and guards moved purposely about from point to point, while vendors and peddlers hawked their wares to the busy crowd. Grim Spartan giants loomed head and shoulders above the milling tide of people, keeping order by their mere presence.
To the left was an ugly sight — a slave market. A platform loomed six feet above the street. Crude iron chains with heavy manacles were spiked into vertical beams to keep the merchandise secure. In front of the platform was a wooden box with comfortable seats and a brightly striped awning. “That’s for the paying customers, I’ll bet,” Noah observed.
“This is outrageous,” Mr. Avery spluttered.
“What are you complaining about?” Dan Huber retorted. “It’s my son they’re selling.”
“I object to this whole business,” Mark answered. “Slavery’s not a game!”
Noah counted a dozen stations where slaves would soon be chained and scanned the size of the audience. “What I can’t figure out,” he ventured, “is how they get enough slaves to make any profit on it. You’d have to be crazy to stay in the game as a slave!”
“Crazy or desperate,” his father muttered with a sideways glance at Mr. Huber.
The auction was due to start any minute. The vendors with the daintiest delicacies jockeyed for position near the striped pavilion. A troupe of jugglers began performing right in front of the slave platform. Elegantly dressed customers drifted in one by one.
Across the square, a sound of drums and pipes emerged from one of the galleys. A huge man thundered down the gangplank. He was swathed in gaudy silks of a dozen different colors and designs. Jewels studded his tunic, and golden chains clinked with every move. He stepped into a litter carried by eight slaves who groaned beneath his bulk as they carried him across the crowded market to the slave pit. One look at his body revealed that he was immensely strong. One look at his face showed that he was also immensely cruel.
He took the chief seat in the buyers’ box and clapped his hands. The auction began. One by one, eight prisoners were led up onto the platform and chained to the heavy wooden posts. Karl was the seventh. He looked wretched, but seeing his family and the Averys only made it worse. He buckled, and sagged in the chains like a dead man. The guard cuffed him with the butt end of a spear, and he floundered back up, a case study in misery and humiliation. They were much too far away to be able to speak to him. Mr. Huber tried to catch his eye, but Karl would not look.
The auction started off briskly enough. Noah tried to decide whether the auctioneer was a real human player or a computer-generated character. He didn’t think any real human could speak so quickly—but auctioneers were famously fast. But why would any real auctioneer spend his time in a video game?
Human or not, the auctioneer did his job well. The first scruffy-looking fellow sold for two thousand drachmas. The guards jerked his chain out of the bronze rings and led him off stage. The auctioneer handed an illuminated parchment manuscript to the new owner. “The deed, I suppose,” Mr. Avery said sourly. Then he cheered up. “Hey,” he said, “why don’t we just buy Karl?” They pooled their resources. Between them all, they had almost ten thousand drachmas.
“Excellent!” exclaimed Noah. “We’re in luck!”
Mr. Avery was not so optimistic. “I’ve heard that luck doesn’t always work out in Olympus,” he cautioned. “That big boy in the purple pajamas hasn’t started buying, yet. This may not be as easy as it looks.”
“Luck nothing,” growled Mr. Huber. “Those drachmas aren’t cheap . We’re wasting real dollars on this fantasy.”
The next prisoner was a girl, the only one on the platform. She was young and dark and beautiful, but her eyes had a hunted, haunted look. Nancy gasped. It was the girl from the weapon shop!
The big slaver leaned forward and licked his lips as the bidding began on her. Other bidders started off eagerly but faltered as the numbers rapidly climbed from two, to four, to six thousand drachmas. It came down to a bidding war between “Purple Pajamas,” as Nancy thought of him, and one elegant figure in a white toga near the back. When it became evident that the big man was willing to bid any amount, the white-clad gentleman sighed and bowed resignedly. The auctioneer banged the gavel on eight and a half thousand, and the girl was dragged off to the big slaver’s ship, fighting her guards every inch of the way. The slaver watched her go with a look that Mr. Avery’s skin crawl.
Three more scrawny young men went without incident. They looked like the kind of kids that hang out at the video arcade, Nancy thought. Then it was Karl’s turn. “One fine young man, suitable for domestic work,” the auctioneer read from his list of goods. “Fresh, too — he’s never been owned before. He was just convicted this morning, and, as you can see, is in the peak of health.”
“Convicted of what?” one customer called out skeptically.
The auctioneer looked a bit embarrassed. Definitely human, Noah thought. “Stealing,” he admitted. “Perhaps domestic work would be beneath him. But just look at these muscles. Imagine this lad as a gladiator in the arena. He’ll pay off every penny you invest in him.”
“Sure — if he doesn’t rob you blind, first!” the skeptic retorted.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” the auctioneer sighed. “I sell muscle and bone, not virtue. If you want to buy a saint, you’ll need to find a different market. Now this lad here,” he went on, looking carefully at his list, “claims he was innocent. He stole a merchant’s horse, but he said he was running for his life at the time.”
“Oh, right,” the heckler shouted. “What’ll he do with my horse? He’ll be out of my place in a minute.”
“Perhaps you should be more firm with your slaves,” the auctioneer answered, grimly. “If you’ll notice, we professionals don’t depend on the good character of the merchandise to keep them around.” He prodded Karl with the butt end of his whip, and the boy strained against the iron manacles. “Now, if anyone out there wants a slave instead of a house-guest, the bidding opens at one thousand!”
The bidding started well enough, but slowed at about three thousand. Mr. Avery lazily raised a hand. “Three thousand,” called the auctioneer. “Do I hear thirty-five hundred?” A tall, thin merchant waved. “Thirty-five hundred. Who’ll give me four thousand? Four thousand for a nice young boy.” No one moved. “Four thousand,” the auctioneer repeated. “Look at these muscles! I can’t believe my ancient ears. Nobody wants a healthy slave in peak condition?”
Nancy tugged at her father’s sleeve. “Come on, Dad, bid!” she whispered.
“Shhh!” he hissed back, fiercely. “We mustn’t look too anxious!”
But the big slaver had noticed Nancy‘s eagerness. He delicately raised one finger. “Four thousand from the great lord,” the auctioneer crowed. “There’s at least one person here who knows manflesh! Do I hear forty-five hundred?”
Mr. Avery did everything he could to act as if he couldn’t care less, but he was up against a professional. The slaver knew Nancy wanted Karl, and in his supremely bored existence, that was reason enough to bid all night. He signaled to the auctioneer to unchain Karl and parade him around the stage. He liked what he saw, and actually opened his lips. “Five thousand,” he whispered.
“Five thousand,” the auctioneer exulted. “Nobody knows them like the gentlefolk. Here’s a man who can spot the best slaves Olympus has to offer. And speaking of offering, who’ll give me six?” The tall, thin merchant knew when he was beat, and dropped out. It settled down to a contest between Mr. Avery and the big slaver… a contest which Mr. Avery knew he would lose from the outset. But at least, he thought, he would make Karl’s new owner pay through the nose for his prize.
“Sold, for ten thousand drachmas, to the noble lord in imperial purple!” the auctioneer finally announced. He bowed all the way to the ground as he handed off the deed to Karl’s new owner. Karl was prepared to resist, but a whole band of soldiers led him off to join the girl slave in the galley. Nancy watched carefully to see where he would be put.
“Maybe we could stow away,” she suggested to her father.
“We’ve got to try something,” he agreed.
The auction was over after the next lot, and Mr. Huber pushed his way to the box where the big slaver still sat, draining a goblet of wine. “That’s my son!” he called. “That’s my son you just bought!”
“So?” leered the slaver, carelessly. “Do you have any others for sale?”
“But you can’t do this!” cried Mr. Huber.
“But I just did,” observed the slaver. “What, precisely, do you intend to do about it?”
“We’ll take him by force, if we have to!” Karl’s father shouted.
“Oh, really?” laughed the slaver, amused. “Which ‘we’ did you have in mind?”
Mr. Huber leapt over the railing that separated him from the slaver, sending an amphora of expensive wine crashing to the planks. Guards edged forward but the big man waved them back as he rose to his feet. Mr. Huber may have been a head taller than the Averys, but he was head and shoulders shorter than the man-mountain before him. Huber was too fighting mad to care—he reared back and head-butted the slaver right in the solar plexus, knocking him back into his chair which toppled over backwards. Two huge sandals waggled helplessly for a moment in the air. The empty goblet rolled across the floor to Mr. Huber’s feet.
Mr. Huber grabbed the heavy bronze goblet and charged ahead. He vaulted onto the upturned chair, pulling himself up by the huge upside-down legs like a tree. Then he shoved the legs out of his way and sprang. He came straight down, feet first, on the huge purple chest and started hammering away at the slaver’s head.
That was too much for the guards. They rushed forward, so Mr. Avery, Noah, and Jacob rushed in. Nancy tried to follow them, but a slim white hand restrained her. She turned and saw the gentleman who had lost the bid for the slave girl beckoning her. “You won’t do any attacking them,” he argued. Something in his expression held her back.
It was a good thing. The massive man knocked Mr. Huber off his chest with one blow, then surged to his feet. “Who are you, peasant?” he roared. “How dare you assault Our person?”
Mr. Huber may have been flat on his back but he was still full of fight. “I’m that boy’s father!” he shouted. “I’m taking him back!” He scrambled upright, but guards seized him from behind.
“So We see,” the giant sneered.
“Tell these thugs to let me go and you will see!”
“Are you trying to threaten Us, little man?”
“I’m getting my son back!” Dan Huber writhed fruitlessly against the iron grip of the Spartan warriors.
Mr. Avery could see this was going nowhere. “May I interrupt?” he broke in.
“By all means,” the big man answered.
“Sir, we have a problem. We’re trying to get my friend’s son back.”
“So you wander around Crete attacking innocent strangers?”
“Innocent?” Dan Huber roared. “You just bought my son!”
“So? Slavery is legal in Olympus. Your son was up for sale because he did something or other—” An attendant whispered in his ear. “—because he stole something or other. He’s guilty. You should have taught him better.”
Mark Avery tried again. “You’ll have to pardon us,” he appealed. “We’re new here—“
“We do not have to pardon anyone, peasant. Ignorance of the law is no excuse! Justice is swift in Olympus and your little party has broken a lot of laws in a very little time.”
This isn’t going well. “I’m sorry, sir. You’re right, of course,” Mr. Avery apologized. “It’s just that we need to get Karl back.”
“So unplug him,” the slaver laughed.
“We can’t,” Mr. Avery replied. “He’s run away!”
The elegant gentleman turned to Nancy. “What’s that?” he whispered.
“Ran away?” The big man seemed amused. “You couldn’t make him mind on Earth so he ran away to Olympus? That’s rich!”
Mark Avery gritted his teeth. “I trust you’ll help us get him back.”
“Why should I help you?” There was cold steel in the big man’s eyes.
“You can’t keep him!” Dan Huber and Mark Avery said the same words at the same time. One roared them in anger. The other was pleading for mercy.
“Can’t?” The slaver’s voice grew cold. “You’d be surprised at how few things We can’t do.”
“If you won’t do the right thing out of common decency,” Mr. Avery began, “there’s always the law.”
The cold voice got colder. “Which law?”
“Lots of laws! I know there’s something about harboring a runaway. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor, maybe?”
Noah had spent a week at Constitutional Law camp. “You’re interfering with his parental rights!”
The slaver turned his attention to Noah. Unenhanced by devotion to any deity, Noah’s head barely reached the giant’s abdomen. The slaver grabbed him with one hand and lifted him to face him. “And just what do you propose to do about that?” he hissed.
“Ask nicely?” Noah gasped.
“Request denied!” the titan roared, and flung the boy away. Noah cartwheeled crazily through the air over Nancy’s head, across the busy wharf, and into the bay where he sank like a stone under the weight of his weapons.
The guard holding Noah’s father didn’t expect his reaction to this assault. Mark Avery grabbed a brawny arm and flipped the seven-foot soldier over his back onto the planks. He grabbed the goblet Dan Huber had dropped and clobbered Dan’s guard with it. “Let’s roll!” he shouted.
The two fathers combined had little skill and absolutely no finesse, but they attacked like twin grizzlies that had been robbed of their cubs. The guards stabbed at them from behind but the two men didn’t care. It takes longer to bleed to death than they needed to knock the huge man down. Dan Huber locked his arms around the giant’s throat and screamed directly into his enormous ears. “Give me back my son!”
“This could get ugly,” the elegant stranger whispered to Nancy. “Take cover!”
It got ugly fast. The huge purple figure on the ground got even bigger. He had been eight feet tall but now was nine – ten – twelve feet and still growing. Growing and glowing: his skin shone with an internal light and sparks crackled from his fingertips. The spectators fled for cover or fell prostrate.
“What’s happening?” Nancy cried, as lightning filled the sky above them.
“Your friends are brave,” the stranger answered, pulling her to safety behind a wall, “but a little overzealous. This isn’t going to turn out well.”
“Who is that guy?” she panted, peering around the corner at the man-shaped mountain of flame that now filled the entire slave market. Her father and Mr. Huber hung onto the purple collar—they could not hang onto a neck the size of a redwood trunk.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Her rescuer seemed surprised.
The titan rose, still growing, and grabbed one father in each hand. Lightning filled the sky, and thunder spoke. “You dare to challenge Zeus!” The two men convulsed in his electric grip. “This is Olympus!” Zeus shook his tiny enemies, scattering blood and sparks.
The world that whirled around Mr. Avery was going dim. Even the thunder sounded faint. “Your sons have made their own choices. They will pay their own price!”
Mark Avery was out of the game but Dan Huber heard one more sentence before his visor went dark, too. “As for you two—you are banished forever!”
Mr. Avery unhooked one wrist and fumbled for his wallet. “Reboot!” he shouted. “We’ve got to get back in there!” Mr. Huber heard him speak but made no move to restart his game. Instead, he wearily climbed out of the cybersuit and emerged from his cubicle.
The game would not accept Mr. Avery’s money. “Account suspended,” a cool female voice announced. “Terms of service violation.”
“We’re beat, Avery.” Dan Huber leaned his back against the flimsy corridor wall as the adrenaline drained from his body. “We’ve lost him.” He slid to the floor, head slumped on his knees.
Mark crawled out of his cubicle and looked down at Huber’s bowed head. It seemed hopeless. Then he spied the monitor across the corridor. Lightning still filled the sky and the wharf was on fire, but the monitor showed Jacob’s hands reaching out to hoist Mr. Avery’s soggy son onto a deck. “We’re not beat yet,” he cried. “We’ve still got kids in the game!”
To be continued. Click here to be notified when the new chapter is posted.