Monday, May 21, 2012

The Lightning Thief - Chapter 16



Chapter 16

 WE TAKE A ZEBRA
 TO VEGAS
 
 The war god was waiting for us in the diner parking lot.
 "Well, well," he said. "You didn't get yourself killed."
 "You knew it was a trap," I said.
 Ares gave me a wicked grin. "Bet that crippled black-smith was surprised when he netted a couple of
stupid kids. You looked good on TV."
 I shoved his shield at him. "You're a jerk."
 Annabeth and Grover caught their breath.
 Ares grabbed the shield and spun it in the air like pizza dough. It changed form, melting into a bulletproof
vest. He slungit  across his back.
 "See that truck over there?" He pointed to an eighteen-wheeler parked across the street from the diner.
"That's your ride. Take you straight to L.A., with one stop in Vegas."
 The eighteen-wheeler had a sign on the back, which I could read only because it was reverse-printed
white onblack, a good combination for dyslexia:  KINDNESS INTER-NATIONAL: HUMANE ZOO
TRANSPORT. WARNING: LIVE WILD ANIMALS.
 I said, "You're kidding."
 Ares snapped his fingers. The back door of the truck    unlatched. "Free ride west, punk. Stop
complaining. And here's a little something for doing the job."
 He slung a blue nylon backpack off his handlebars and tossed it to me.
 Inside were fresh clothes for all of us, twenty bucks in cash, a pouch full of golden drachmas, and a bag
of Double Stuf Oreos.
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 I said, "I don't want your lousy—"
 "Thank you, Lord Ares," Grover interrupted, giving me his best red-alert warning look. "Thanks a lot."
 I gritted my teeth. It was probably a deadly insult to refuse something from a god, but I didn't want
anything that Ares had touched. Reluctantly, I slung the backpack over my shoulder. I knew my anger
was being caused by the war god's presence, but I was still itching to punch him in the nose. He
reminded me of every bully I'd ever faced: Nancy Bobofit, Clarisse, Smelly Gabe, sarcastic
teachers—every jerk who'd called me stupid in school or laughed at me when I'd gotten expelled.
 I looked back at the diner, which had only a couple of customers now. The waitress who'd served us
dinner was watching nervously out the window, like she was afraid Ares might hurt us. She dragged the
fry cook out from the kitchen to see. She said something to him. He nodded, held up a little disposable
camera and snapped a picture of us.
 Great, I thought. We'll make the papers again tomorrow.
 I imagined the headline: TWELVE-YEAR-OLD OUTLAW BEATS UP DEFENSELESS BIKER.
 "You owe me one more thing," I told Ares, trying to keep my voice level. "You promised me information
about my mother."
 "You sure you can handle the news?" He kick-started his motorcycle. "She's not dead."
 The ground seemed to spin beneath me. "What do you mean?"
 "I mean she was taken away from the Minotaur before she could die. She was turned into a shower of
gold, right? That's metamorphosis. Not death. She's being kept."
 "Kept. Why?"
 "You need to study war, punk. Hostages. You take somebody to control somebody else."
 "Nobody's controlling me."
 He laughed. "Oh yeah? See you around, kid."
 I balled up my fists. "You're pretty smug, Lord Ares, for a guy who runs from Cupid statues."
 Behind his sunglasses, fire glowed. I felt a hot wind in my hair. "We'll meet again, Percy Jackson. Next
time you're in a fight, watch your back."
 He revved his Harley, then roared off down Delancy Street.
 Annabeth said, "That was not smart, Percy."
 "I don't care."
 "You don't want a god as your enemy. Especially not that god."
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 "Hey, guys," Grover said. "I hate to interrupt, but ..."
 He pointed toward the diner. At the register, the last two customers were paying their check, two men in
identi-cal black coveralls, with a white logo on their backs that matched the one on the KINDNESS
INTERNATIONAL truck.
 "If we're taking the zoo express," Grover said, "we need to hurry."
 I didn't like it, but we had no better option. Besides, I'd seen enough of Denver.
 We ran across the street and climbed in the back of the big rig, closing the doors behind us.
 The first thing that hit me was the smell. It was like the world's biggest pan of kitty litter.
 The trailer was dark inside until I uncapped Anaklusmos. The blade cast a faint bronze light over a very
sad scene. Sitting in a row of filthy metal cages were three of the most pathetic zoo animals I'd ever
beheld: a zebra, a male albino lion, and some weird antelope thing I didn't know the name for.
 Someone had thrown the lion a sack of turnips, which he obviously didn't want to eat. The zebra and the
antelope had each gotten a Styrofoam tray of hamburger meat. The zebra's mane was matted with
chewing gum, like somebody had been spitting on it in their spare time. The antelope had a stupid silver
birthday balloon tied to one of his horns that read OVER THE HILL!
 Apparently, nobody had wanted to get close enough to the lion to mess with him, but the poor thing was
pacing around on soiled blankets, in a space way too small for him, panting from the stuffy heat of the
trailer. He had flies buzzing around his pink eyes and his ribs showed through his white fur.
 "This is kindness?" Grover yelled. "Humane zoo trans-port?"
 He probably would've gone right back outside to beat up the truckers with his reed pipes, and I
would've helped him, but just then the trucks engine roared to life, the trailer started shaking, and we
were forced to sit down or fall down.
 We huddled in the corner on some mildewed feed sacks, trying to ignore the smell and the heat and the
flies. Grover talked to the animals in a series of goat bleats, but they just stared at him sadly. Annabeth
was in favor of breaking the cages and freeing them on the spot, but I pointed out it wouldn't do much
good until the truck stopped moving. Besides, I had a feeling we might look a lot better to the lion than
those turnips.
 I found a water jug and refilled their bowls, then used Anaklusmos to drag the mismatched food out of
their cages. I gave the meat to the lion and the turnips to the zebra and the antelope.
 Grover calmed the antelope down, while Annabeth used her knife to cut the balloon off his horn. She
wanted to cut the gum out of the zebra's mane, too, but we decided that would be too risky with the
truck bumping around. We told Grover to promise the animals we'd help them more in the morning, then
we settled in for night.
 Grover curled up on a turnip sack; Annabeth opened our bag of Double Stuf Oreos and nibbled on one
half-heartedly; I tried to cheer myself up by concentrating on the fact that we were halfway to Los
Angeles. Halfway to our destination. It was only June fourteenth. The solstice wasn't until the twenty-first.
We could make it in plenty of time.
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 On the other hand, I had no idea what to expect next. The gods kept toying with me. At least
Hephaestus had the decency to be honest about it—he'd put up cameras and advertised me as
entertainment. But even when the cameras weren't rolling, I had a feeling my quest was being watched. I
was a source of amusement for the gods.
 "Hey," Annabeth said, "I'm sorry for freaking out back at the water park, Percy."
 "That's okay."
 "It's just..." She shuddered. "Spiders."
 "Because of the Arachne story," I guessed. "She got turned into a spider for challenging your mom to a
weaving contest, right?"
 Annabeth nodded. "Arachne's children have been taking revenge on the children of Athena ever since. If
there's a spider within a mile of me, it'll find me. I hate the creepy little things. Anyway, I owe you."
 "We're a team, remember?" I said. "Besides, Grover did the fancy flying."
 I thought he was asleep, but he mumbled from the cor-ner, "I was pretty amazing, wasn't I?"
 Annabeth and I laughed.
 She pulled apart an Oreo, handed me half. "In the Iris message ... did Luke really say nothing?"
 I munched my cookie and thought about how to answer. The conversation via rainbow had bothered me
all evening. "Luke said you and he go way back. He also said Grover wouldn't fail this time. Nobody
would turn into a pine tree."
 In the dim bronze light of the sword blade, it was hard to read their expressions.
 Grover let out a mournful bray.
 "I should've told you the truth from the beginning." His voice trembled. "I thought if you knew what a
failure I was, you wouldn't want me along."
 "You were the satyr who tried to rescue Thalia, the daughter of Zeus."
 He nodded glumly.
 "And the other two half-bloods Thalia befriended, the ones who got safely to camp ..." I looked at
Annabeth. "That was you and Luke, wasn't it?"
 She put down her Oreo, uneaten. "Like you said, Percy, a seven-year-old half-blood wouldn't have
made it very far alone. Athena guided me toward help. Thalia was twelve. Luke was fourteen. They'd
both run away from home, like me. They were happy to take me with them. They were ... amazing
monster-fighters, even without training. We trav-eled north from Virginia without any real plans, fending
off monsters for about two weeks before Grover found us."
 "I was supposed to escort Thalia to camp," he said, snif-fling. "Only Thalia. I had strict orders from
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Chiron: don't do anything that would slow down the rescue. We knew Hades was after her, see, but I
couldn't just leave Luke and Annabeth by themselves. I thought ... I thought I could lead all three of them
to safety. It was my fault the Kindly Ones caught up with us. I froze. I got scared on the way back to
camp and took some wrong turns. If I'd just been a little quicker ..."
 "Stop it," Annabeth said. "No one blames you. Thalia didn't blame you either."
 "She sacrificed herself to save us," he said miserably, "Her death was my fault. The Council of Cloven
Elders said so."
 "Because you wouldn't leave two other half-bloods behind?" I said. "That's not fair."
 "Percy's right," Annabeth said. "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for you, Grover. Neither would
Luke. We don't care what the council says."
 Grover kept sniffling in the dark. "It's just my luck. I'm the lamest satyr ever, and I find the two most
powerful half-bloods of the century, Thalia and Percy."
 "You're not lame," Annabeth insisted. "You've got more courage than any satyr I've ever met. Name one
other who would dare go to the Underworld. I bet Percy is really glad you're here right now."
 She kicked me in the shin.
 "Yeah," I said, which I would've done even without the kick. "It's not luck that you found Thalia and me,
Grover. You've got the biggest heart of any satyr ever. You're a nat-ural searcher. That's why you'll be
the one who finds Pan."
 I heard a deep, satisfied sigh. I waited for Grover to say something, but his breathing only got heavier.
When the sound turned to snoring, I realized he'd fallen sleep.
 "How does he do that?" I marveled.
 "I don't know," Annabeth said. "But that was really a nice thing you told him."
 "I meant it."
 We rode in silence for a few  miles, bumping around on the feed sacks. The zebra munched a turnip. The
lion licked the last of the hamburger meat off his lips and looked at me hopefully.
 Annabeth rubbed her necklace like she was thinking deep, strategic thoughts.
 "That pine-tree bead," I said. "Is that from your first year?"
 She looked. She hadn't realized what she was doing.
 "Yeah," she said. "Every August, the counselors pick the most important event of the summer, and they
paint it on that year's beads. I've got Thalia's pine tree, a Greek trireme on fire, a centaur in a prom
dress—now that  was a weird summer...."
 "And the college ring is your father's?"
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 "That's none of your—" She stopped herself. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."
 "You don't have to tell me."
 "No ... it's okay." She took a shaky breath. "My dad sent it to me folded up in a letter, two summers
ago. The ring was, like, his main keepsake from Athena. He wouldn't have gotten through his doctoral
program at Harvard with-out her.... That's a long story. Anyway, he said he wanted me to have it. He
apologized for being a jerk, said he loved me and missed me. He wanted me to come home and live with
him."
 "That doesn't sound so bad."
 "Yeah, well... the problem was, I believed him. I tried to go home for that school year, but my stepmom
was the same as ever. She didn't want her kids put in danger by liv-ing with a freak. Monsters attacked.
We argued. Monsters attacked. We argued. I didn't even make it through winter break. I called Chiron
and came right back to Camp Half-Blood."
 "You think you'll ever try living with your dad again?"
 She wouldn't meet my eyes. "Please. I'm not into self-inflicted pain."
 "You shouldn't give up," I told her. "You should write him a letter or something."
 "Thanks for the advice," she said coldly, "but my father's made his choice about who he wants to live
with."
 We passed another few miles of silence.
 "So if the gods fight," I said, "will things line up the way they did with the Trojan War? Will it be Athena
versus Poseidon?"
 She put her head against the backpack Ares had given us, and closed her eyes. "I don't know what my
mom will do. I just know I'll fight next to you."
 "Why?"
 "Because you're my friend, Seaweed Brain. Any more stupid questions?"
 I couldn't think of an answer for that. Fortunately I didn't have to. Annabeth was asleep.
 I had trouble following her example, with Grover snoring and an albino lion staring hungrily at me, but
even-tually I closed my eyes.
 
 * * *
 My nightmare started out as something I'd dreamed a mil-lion times before: I was being forced to take a
standardized test while wearing a straitjacket. All the other kids were going out to recess, and the teacher
kept saying, Come on, Percy. You're not stupid, are you? Pick up your pencil.
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 Then the dream strayed from the usual.
 I looked over at the next desk and saw a girl sitting there, also wearing a straitjacket. She was my age,
with unruly black, punk-style hair, dark eyeliner around her stormy green eyes, and freckles across her
nose. Somehow, I knew who she was. She was Thalia, daughter of Zeus.
 She struggled against the straitjacket, glared at me in frustration, and snapped, Well, Seaweed Brain?
One of us has to get out of here.
 She's right, my dream-self thought. I'm going back to that cavern. I'm going to give Hades a piece of my
mind.
 The straitjacket melted off me. I fell through the class-room floor. The teacher's voice changed until it
was cold and evil, echoing from the depths of a great chasm.
 Percy Jackson,it said. Yes, the exchange went well, 1 see.
 I was back in the dark cavern, spirits of the dead drift-ing around me. Unseen in the pit, the monstrous
thing was speaking, but this time it wasn't addressing me. The numb-ing power of its voice seemed
directed somewhere else.
 And he suspects nothing? it asked.
 Another voice, one I almost recognized, answered at my shoulder.Nothing, my lord. He is as ignorant
as the rest.
 I looked over, but no one was there. The speaker was invisible.
 Deception upon deception, the thing in the pit mused aloud. Excellent.
 Truly, my lord, said the voice next to me, you are well-named the Crooked One. But was it really
necessary? I could have brought you what I stole directly  —
 You? the monster said in scorn. You have already shown your limits. You would have failed me
completely had I not intervened.
 But, my lord —
 Peace, little servant. Our six months have bought us much. Zeus's anger has grown. Poseidon has played
his most desperate card. Now we shall use it against him. Shortly you shall have the reward you wish,
and your revenge. As soon as both items are delivered into my hands ... but wait. He is here.
 What? The invisible servant suddenly sounded tense.You summoned him, my lord?
 No. The full force of the monsters attention was now pouring over me, freezing me in place.Blast his
father's blood  —he is too changeable, too unpredictable. The boy brought himself hither.
 Impossible! the servant cried.
 For a weakling such as you, perhaps, the voice snarled. Then its cold power turned back on me. So ...
you wish to dream of your quest, young half-blood? Then I will oblige.
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 The scene changed.
 I was standing in a vast throne room with black marble walls and bronze floors. The empty, horrid
throne was made from human bones fused together. Standing at the foot of the dais was my mother,
frozen in shimmering golden light, her arms outstretched.
 I tried to step toward her, but my legs wouldn't move. I reached for her, only to realize that my hands
were wither-ing to bones. Grinning skeletons in Greek armor crowded around me, draping me with silk
robes, wreathing my head with laurels that smoked with Chimera poison, burning into my scalp.
 The evil voice began to laugh. Hail, the conquering hero!
 I woke with a start.
 Grover was shaking my shoulder. "The truck's stopped," he said. "We think they're coming to check on
the animals."
 "Hide!" Annabeth hissed.
 She had it easy. She just put on her magic cap and dis-appeared. Grover and I had to dive behind feed
sacks and hope we looked like turnips.
 The trailer doors creaked open. Sunlight and heat poured in.
 "Man!" one of the truckers said, waving his hand in front of his ugly nose. "I wish I hauled appliances."
He climbed inside and poured some water from a jug into the animals' dishes.
 "You hot, big boy?" he asked the lion, then splashed the rest of the bucket right in the lion's face.
 The lion roared in indignation.
 "Yeah, yeah, yeah," the man said.
 Next to me, under the turnip sacks, Grover tensed. For a peace-loving herbivore, he looked downright
murderous.
 The trucker threw the antelope a squashed-looking Happy Meal bag. He smirked at the zebra. "How ya
doin', Stripes? Least we'll be getting rid of you this stop. You like magic shows? You're gonna love this
one. They're gonna saw you in half!"
 The zebra, wild-eyed with fear, looked straight at me.
 There was no sound, but as clear as day, I heard it say: Free me, lord. Please.
 I was too stunned to react.
 There was a loud knock, knock, knock on the side of the trailer.
 The trucker inside with us yelled, "What do you want, Eddie?"
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 A voice outside—it must've been Eddie's—shouted back, "Maurice? What'd ya say?"
 "What are you banging for?"
 Knock, knock, knock.
 Outside, Eddie yelled, "What banging?"
 Our guy Maurice rolled his eyes and went back outside, cursing at Eddie for being an idiot.
 A second later, Annabeth appeared next to me. She must've done the banging to get Maurice out of the
trailer. She said, "This transport business can't be legal."
 "No kidding," Grover said. He paused, as if listening. "The lion says these guys are animal smugglers!"
 That's right, the zebra's voice said in my mind.
 "We've got to free them!" Grover said. He and Annabeth both looked at me, waiting for my lead.
 I'd heard the zebra talk, but not the lion. Why? Maybe it was another learning disability ... I could only
under-stand zebras? Then I thought: horses. What had Annabeth said about Poseidon creating horses?
Was a zebra close enough to a horse? Was that why I could understand it?
 The zebra said,Open my cage, lord. Please. I'll be fine after that.
 Outside, Eddie and Maurice were still yelling at each other, but I knew they'd be coming inside to
torment the animals again any minute. I grabbed Riptide and slashed the lock off the zebra's cage.
 The zebra burst out. It turned to me and bowed. Thank you, lord.
 Grover held up his hands and said something to the zebra in goat talk, like a blessing.
 Just as Maurice was poking his head back inside to check out the noise, the zebra leaped over him and
into the street. There was yelling and screaming and cars honking. We rushed to the doors of the trailer in
time to see the zebra gal-loping down a wide  boulevard lined with hotels and casinos and neon signs.
We'd just released a zebra in Las Vegas.
 Maurice and Eddie ran after it, with a few policemen running after them, shouting, "Hey! You need a
permit for that!"
 "Now would be a good time to leave," Annabeth said.
 "The other animals first," Grover said.
 I cut the locks with my sword. Grover raised his hands and spoke the same goat-blessing he'd used for
the zebra.
 "Good luck," I told the animals. The antelope and the lion burst out of their cages and went off together
into the streets.
 Some tourists screamed. Most just backed off and took pictures, probably thinking it was some kind of
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stunt by one of the casinos.
 "Will the animals be okay?" I asked Grover. "I mean, the desert and all—"
 "Don't worry," he said. "I placed a satyr's sanctuary on them."
 "Meaning?"
 "Meaning they'll reach the wild safely," he said. "They'll find water, food, shade, whatever they need until
they find a safe place to live."
 "Why can't you place a blessing like that on us?" I asked.
 "It only works on wild animals."
 "So it would only affect Percy," Annabeth reasoned.
 "Hey!" I protested.
 "Kidding," she said. "Come on. Let's get out of this filthy truck."
 We stumbled out into the desert afternoon. It was a hundred and ten degrees, easy, and we must've
looked like deep-fried vagrants, but everybody was too interested in the wild animals to pay us much
attention.
 We passed the Monte Carlo and the MGM. We passed pyramids, a pirate ship, and the Statue of
Liberty, which was a pretty small replica, but still made me homesick.
 I wasn't sure what we were looking for. Maybe just a place to get out of the heat for a few minutes, find
a sand-wich and a glass of lemonade, make a new plan for getting west.
 We must have taken a wrong turn, because we found ourselves at a dead end, standing in front of the
Lotus Hotel and Casino. The entrance was a huge neon flower, the petals lighting up and blinking. No
one was going in or out, but the glittering chrome doors were open, spilling out air-conditioning that
smelled like flowers—lotus blossom, maybe. I'd never smelled one, so I wasn't sure.
 The doorman smiled at us. "Hey, kids. You look tired. You want to come in and sit down?"
 I'd learned to be suspicious, the last week or so. I figured anybody might be a monster or a god. You
just couldn't tell. But this guy was normal. One look at him, and I could see. Besides, I was so relieved to
hear somebody who sounded sympathetic that I nodded and said we'd love to come in. Inside, we took
one look around, and Grover said, "Whoa."
 The whole lobby was a giant game room. And I'm not talking about cheesy old Pac-Man games or slot
machines. There was an indoor waterslide snaking around the glass elevator, which went straight up at
least forty floors. There was a climbing wall on the side of one building, and an indoor bungee-jumping
bridge. There were virtual-reality suits with working laser guns. And hundreds of video games, each one
the size of a widescreen TV. Basically, you name it, this place had it . There were a few other kids
play-ing, but not that many. No waiting for any of the games. There were waitresses and snack bars all
around, serving every kind of food you can imagine.
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 "Hey!" a bellhop said. At least I guessed he was a bell-hop. He wore a white-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt
with lotus designs, shorts, and flip-flops. "Welcome to the Lotus Casino. Here's your room key."
 I stammered, "Um, but..."
 "No, no," he said, laughing. "The bill's taken care of. No extra charges, no tips. Just go on up to the top
floor, loom 4001. If you need anything, like extra bubbles for the hot tub, or skeet targets for the
shooting range, or what-ever, just call the front desk. Here are your LotusCash cards. They work in the
restaurants and on all the games and rides."
 He handed us each a green plastic credit card.
 I knew there must be some mistake. Obviously he thought we were some millionaire's kids. But I took
the card and said, "How much is on here?"
 His eyebrows knit together. "What do you mean?"
 "I mean, when does it run out of cash?"
 He laughed. "Oh, you're making a joke. Hey, that's cool. Enjoy your stay."
 We took the elevator upstairs and checked out our room. It was a suite with three separate bedrooms
and a bar stocked with candy, sodas, and chips. A hotline to room service. Fluffy towels and water beds
with feather pillows. A big-screen television with satellite and high-speed Internet. The balcony had its
own hot tub, and sure enough, there was a skeet-shooting machine and a shotgun, so you could launch
clay pigeons right out over the Las Vegas skyline and plug them with your gun. I didn't see how that
could be legal, but I thought it was pretty cool. The view over the Strip and the desert was amazing,
though I doubted we'd ever find time to look at theview with  a room like this.
 "Oh, goodness," Annabeth said. "This place is ..."
 "Sweet," Grover said. "Absolutely sweet."
 There were clothes in the closet, and they fit me. I frowned, thinking that this was a little strange.
 I threw Ares's backpack in the trash can. Wouldn't need that anymore. When we left, I could just
charge a new one at the hotel store.
 I took a shower, which felt awesome after a week of grimy travel. I changed clothes, ate a bag of chips,
drank three Cokes, and came out feeling better than I had in a long time. In the back of my mind, some
small problem kept nagging me. I'd had a dream or something ... I needed to talk to my friends. But I
was sure it could wait.
 I came out of the bedroom and found that Annabeth and Grover had also showered and changed
clothes. Grover was eating potato chips to his heart's content, while Annabeth cranked up the National
Geographic Channel.
 "All those stations," I told her, "and you turn on National Geographic. Are you insane?"
 "It's interesting."
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 "I feel good," Grover said. "I love this place."
 Without his even realizing it, the wings sprouted out of his shoes and lifted him a foot off the ground, then
back down again.
 "So what now?" Annabeth asked. "Sleep?"
 Grover and I looked at each other and grinned. We both held up our green plastic LotusCash cards.
 "Play time," I said.
 I couldn't remember the last time I had so much fun. I came from a relatively poor family. Our idea of a
splurge was eating out at Burger King and renting a video. A five-star Vegas hotel? Forget it.
 I bungee-jumped the lobby five or six times, did the waterslide, snowboarded the artificial ski slope, and
played virtual-reality laser tag and FBI sharpshooter. I saw Grover a few times, going from game to
game. He really liked the reverse hunter thing—where the deer go out and shoot the rednecks. I saw
Annabeth playing trivia games and other brainiac stuff. They had this huge 3-D sim game where you build
your own city, and you could actually see the holographic buildings rise on the display board. I didn't
think much of it, but Annabeth loved it.
 I'm not sure when I first realized something was wrong.
 Probably, it was when I noticed the guy standing next to me at VR sharpshooters. He was about
thirteen, I guess, but his clothes were weird. I thought he was some Elvis imper-sonator's son. He wore
bell-bottom jeans and a red T-shirt with black piping, and his hair was permed and gelled like a New
Jersey girl's on homecoming night.
 We played a game of sharpshooters together and he said, "Groovy, man. Been here two weeks, and the
games keep getting better and better."
 Groovy?
 Later, while we were talking, I said something was "sick," and he looked at me kind of startled, as if he'd
never heard the word used that way before.
 He said his name was Darrin, but as soon as I started asking him questions he got bored with me and
started to go back to the computer screen.
 I said, "Hey, Darrin?"
 "What?"
 "What year is it?"
 He frowned at me. "In the game?"
 "No. In real life."
 He had to think about it. "1977."
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 "No," I said, getting a little scared. "Really."
 "Hey, man. Bad vibes. I got a game happening."
 After that he totally ignored me.
 I started talking to people, and I found it wasn't easy. They were glued to the TV screen, or the video
game, or their food, or whatever. I found a guy who told me it was 1985. Another guy told me it was
1993. They all claimed they hadn't been in here very long, a few days, a few weeks at most. They didn't
really know and they didn't care.
 Then it occurred to me: how long had I been here? It seemed like only a couple of hours, but was it?
 I tried to remember why we were here. We were going to Los Angeles. We were supposed to find the
entrance to the Underworld. My mother ... for a scary second, I had trou-ble remembering her name.
Sally. Sally Jackson. I had to find her. I had to stop Hades from causing World War III.
 I found Annabeth still building her city.
 "Come on," I told her. "We've got to get out of here."
 No response.
 I shook her. "Annabeth?"
 She looked up, annoyed. "What?
 "We need to leave."
 "Leave? What are you talking about? I've just got the towers—"
 "This place is a trap."
 She didn't respond until I shook her again. "What?"
 "Listen. The Underworld. Our quest!"
 "Oh, come on, Percy. Just a few more minutes."
 "Annabeth, there are people here from 1977. Kids who have never aged. You check in, and you stay
forever."
 "So?" she asked. "Can you imagine a better place?"
 I grabbed her wrist and yanked her away from the game.
 "Hey!" She screamed and hit me, but nobody else even bothered looking at us. They were too busy.
 I made her look directly in my eyes. I said, "Spiders. Large, hairy spiders."
 That jarred her. Her vision cleared. "Oh my gods," she said. "How long have we—"
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 "I don't know, but we've got to find Grover."
 We went searching, and found him still playing Virtual Deer Hunter.
 "Grover!" we both shouted.
 He said, "Die, human! Die, silly polluting nasty person!"
 "Grover!"
 He turned the plastic gun on me and started clicking, as if I were just another image from the screen.
 I looked at Annabeth, and together we took Grover by the arms and dragged him away. His flying shoes
sprang to life and started tugging his legs in the other direction as he shouted, "No! I just got to a new
level! No!"
 The Lotus bellhop hurried up to us. "Well, now, are you ready for your platinum cards?"
 "We're leaving," I told him.
 "Such a shame," he said, and I got the feeling that he really meant it, that we'd be breaking his heart if we
went. "We just added an entire new floor full of games for platinum-card members."
 He held out the cards, and I wanted one. I knew that if I took one, I'd never leave. I'd stay here, happy
forever, play-ing games forever, and soon I'd forget my mom, and my quest, and maybe even my own
name. I'd be playing virtual rifleman with groovy Disco Darrin forever.
 Grover reached for the card, but Annabeth yanked back his arm and said, "No, thanks."
 We walked toward the door, and as we did, the smell of the food and the sounds of the games seemed
to get more and more inviting. I thought about our room upstairs. We could just stay the night, sleep in a
real bed for once....
 Then we burst through the doors of the Lotus Casino and ran down the sidewalk. It felt like afternoon,
about the same time of day we'd gone into the casino, but something was wrong. The weather had
completely changed. It was stormy, with heat lightning flashing out in the desert.
 Ares's backpack was slung over my shoulder, which was odd, because I was sure I had thrown it in the
trash can in room 4001, but at the moment I had other problems to worry about.
 I ran to the nearest newspaper stand and read the year first. Thank the gods, it was the same year it had
been when we went in. Then I noticed the date: June twentieth.
 We had been in the Lotus Casino for five days.
 We had only one day left until the summer solstice. One day to complete our quest.

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