The Lightning Thief – Chapter 16: WE TAKE A ZEBRA TO VEGAS

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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 didnt get yourself killed. “

  “You knew it was a trap,” I said. 

  Ares gave me a wicked grin. “Bet that crippled blacksmith was surprised when he netted a couple of stupid kids. You looked good on TV. “

  I shoved his shield at him. “Youre 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 slung it across his back. 

  “See that truck over there?” He pointed to an eighteen-wheeler parked across the street from the diner. “Thats 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 on black, a good combination for dyslexia: KINDNESS INTERNATIONAL: HUMANE ZOO TRANSPORT. WARNING: LIVE WILD ANIMALS. 

  I said, “Youre kidding. “

  Ares snapped his fingers. The back door of the truck unlatched. “Free ride west, punk. Stop complaining. And heres 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. 

  I said, “I dont 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 didnt want anything that Ares had touched. Reluctantly, I slung the backpack over my shoulder. I knew my anger was being caused by the war gods presence, but I was still itching to punch him in the nose. He reminded me of every bully Id ever faced: Nancy Bobofit, Clarisse, Smelly Gabe, sarcastic teachers—every jerk whod called me stupid in school or laughed at me when Id gotten expelled. 

  I looked back at the diner, which had only a couple of customers now. The waitress whod 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. Well 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. “Shes 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? Thats metamorphosis. Not death. Shes being kept. “

  “Kept. Why?”

  “You need to study war, punk. Hostages. You take somebody to control somebody else. “

  “Nobodys controlling me. “

  He laughed. “Oh yeah? See you around, kid. “

  I balled up my fists. “Youre 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. “Well meet again, Percy Jackson. Next time youre in a fight, watch your back. “

  He revved his Harley, then roared off down Delancy Street. 

  Annabeth said, “That was not smart, Percy. “

  “I dont care. “

  “You dont want a god as your enemy. Especially not that god. “

  “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 identical black coveralls, with a white logo on their backs that matched the one on the KINDNESS INTERNATIONAL truck. 

  “If were taking the zoo express,” Grover said, “we need to hurry. “

  I didnt like it, but we had no better option. Besides, Id 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 worlds 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 Id ever beheld: a zebra, a male albino lion, and some weird antelope thing I didnt know the name for. 

  Someone had thrown the lion a sack of turnips, which he obviously didnt want to eat. The zebra and the antelope had each gotten a Styrofoam tray of hamburger meat. The zebras 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 transport?”

  He probably wouldve gone right back outside to beat up the truckers with his reed pipes, and I wouldve 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 wouldnt 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 zebras mane, too, but we decided that would be too risky with the truck bumping around. We told Grover to promise the animals wed 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 halfheartedly; 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 wasnt until the twenty-first. We could make it in plenty of time. 

  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—hed put up cameras and advertised me as entertainment. But even when the cameras werent rolling, I had a feeling my quest was being watched. I was a source of amusement for the gods. 

  “Hey,” Annabeth said, “Im sorry for freaking out back at the water park, Percy. “

  “Thats okay. “

  “Its 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. “Arachnes children have been taking revenge on the children of Athena ever since. If theres a spider within a mile of me, itll find me. I hate the creepy little things. Anyway, I owe you. “

  “Were a team, remember?” I said. “Besides, Grover did the fancy flying. “

  I thought he was asleep, but he mumbled from the corner, “I was pretty amazing, wasnt 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 wouldnt 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 shouldve told you the truth from the beginning. ” His voice trembled. “I thought if you knew what a failure I was, you wouldnt 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, wasnt it?”

  She put down her Oreo, uneaten. “Like you said, Percy, a seven-year-old half-blood wouldnt have made it very far alone. Athena guided me toward help. Thalia was twelve. Luke was fourteen. Theyd both run away from home, like me. They were happy to take me with them. They were . . . amazing monster-fighters, even without training. We traveled 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, sniffling. “Only Thalia. I had strict orders from Chiron: dont do anything that would slow down the rescue. We knew Hades was after her, see, but I couldnt 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 Id just been a little quicker . . . “

  “Stop it,” Annabeth said. “No one blames you. Thalia didnt 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 wouldnt leave two other half-bloods behind?” I said. “Thats not fair. “

“Percys right,” Annabeth said. “I wouldnt be here today if it werent for you, Grover. Neither would Luke. We dont care what the council says. “

  Grover kept sniffling in the dark. “Its just my luck. Im the lamest satyr ever, and I find the two most powerful half-bloods of the century, Thalia and Percy. “

  “Youre not lame,” Annabeth insisted. “Youve got more courage than any satyr Ive ever met. Name one other who would dare go to the Underworld. I bet Percy is really glad youre here right now. “

  She kicked me in the shin. 

  “Yeah,” I said, which I wouldve done even without the kick. “Its not luck that you found Thalia and me, Grover. Youve got the biggest heart of any satyr ever. Youre a natural searcher. Thats why youll 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 hed fallen sleep. 

  “How does he do that?” I marveled. 

  “I dont 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 hadnt 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 years beads. Ive got Thalias 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 fathers?”

  “Thats none of your—” She stopped herself. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. “

  “You dont have to tell me. “

  “No . . . its 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 wouldnt have gotten through his doctoral program at Harvard without her. . . . Thats 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 doesnt 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 didnt want her kids put in danger by living with a freak. Monsters attacked. We argued. Monsters attacked. We argued. I didnt even make it through winter break. I called Chiron and came right back to CampHalf-Blood. “

  “You think youll ever try living with your dad again?”

  She wouldnt meet my eyes. “Please. Im not into self-inflicted pain. “

  “You shouldnt give up,” I told her. “You should write him a letter or something. “

  “Thanks for the advice,” she said coldly, “but my fathers 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 dont know what my mom will do. I just know Ill fight next to you. “

  “Why?”

  “Because youre my friend, Seaweed Brain. Any more stupid questions?”

  I couldnt think of an answer for that. Fortunately I didnt have to. Annabeth was asleep. 

  I had trouble following her example, with Grover snoring and an albino lion staring hungrily at me, but eventually I closed my eyes. 

  * * *

  My nightmare started out as something Id dreamed a million 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. Youre not stupid, are you? Pick up your pencil. 

  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. 

  Shes right, my dream-self thought. Im going back to that cavern. Im going to give Hades a piece of my mind. 

  The straitjacket melted off me. I fell through the classroom floor. The teachers 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 drifting around me. Unseen in the pit, the monstrous thing was speaking, but this time it wasnt addressing me. The numbing 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. Zeuss 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 fathers 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. 

  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 wouldnt move. I reached for her, only to realize that my hands were withering 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 trucks stopped,” he said. “We think theyre coming to check on the animals. “

  “Hide!” Annabeth hissed. 

  She had it easy. She just put on her magic cap and disappeared. 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 lions 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 well be getting rid of you this stop. You like magic shows? Youre gonna love this one. Theyre 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?”

  A voice outside—it mustve been Eddies—shouted back, “Maurice? Whatd 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 mustve done the banging to get Maurice out of the trailer. She said, “This transport business cant be legal. “

  “No kidding,” Grover said. He paused, as if listening. “The lion says these guys are animal smugglers!”

  Thats right, the zebras voice said in my mind. 

  “Weve got to free them!” Grover said. He and Annabeth both looked at me, waiting for my lead. 

  Id heard the zebra talk, but not the lion. Why? Maybe it was another learning disability . . . I could only understand 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. Ill be fine after that. 

  Outside, Eddie and Maurice were still yelling at each other, but I knew theyd be coming inside to torment the animals again any minute. I grabbed Riptide and slashed the lock off the zebras 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 galloping down a wide boulevard lined with hotels and casinos and neon signs. Wed 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 hed 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 stunt by one of the casinos. 

  “Will the animals be okay?” I asked Grover. “I mean, the desert and all—”

  “Dont worry,” he said. “I placed a satyrs sanctuary on them. “

  “Meaning?”

  “Meaning theyll reach the wild safely,” he said. “Theyll find water, food, shade, whatever they need until they find a safe place to live. “

  “Why cant 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. Lets get out of this filthy truck. “

  We stumbled out into the desert afternoon. It was a hundred and ten degrees, easy, and we mustve 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 wasnt sure what we were looking for. Maybe just a place to get out of the heat for a few minutes, find a sandwich 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. Id never smelled one, so I wasnt sure. 

  The doorman smiled at us. “Hey, kids. You look tired. You want to come in and sit down?”

  Id learned to be suspicious, the last week or so. I figured anybody might be a monster or a god. You just couldnt 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 wed love to come in. Inside, we took one look around, and Grover said, “Whoa. “

  The whole lobby was a giant game room. And Im 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 playing, 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. 

  “Hey!” a bellhop said. At least I guessed he was a bellhop. He wore a white-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt with lotus designs, shorts, and flip-flops. “Welcome to the Lotus Casino. Heres your room key. “

  I stammered, “Um, but. . . “

  “No, no,” he said, laughing. “The bills 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 whatever, 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 millionaires 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, youre making a joke. Hey, thats 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 didnt 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 wed ever find time to look at the view 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 Aress backpack in the trash can. Wouldnt 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. Id 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 hearts content, while Annabeth cranked up the National Geographic Channel. 

  “All those stations,” I told her, “and you turn on National Geographic. Are you insane?”

  “Its interesting. “

  “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 couldnt 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 didnt think much of it, but Annabeth loved it. 

  Im 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 impersonators 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 girls 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 hed 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. “

  “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 wasnt 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 hadnt been in here very long, a few days, a few weeks at most. They didnt really know and they didnt 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 trouble 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. “Weve 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? Ive just got the towers—”

  “This place is a trap. “

  She didnt 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—”

  “I dont know, but weve 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?”

  “Were leaving,” I told him. 

  “Such a shame,” he said, and I got the feeling that he really meant it, that wed 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, Id never leave. Id stay here, happy forever, playing games forever, and soon Id forget my mom, and my quest, and maybe even my own name. Id 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 wed gone into the casino, but something was wrong. The weather had completely changed. It was stormy, with heat lightning flashing out in the desert. 

  Aress 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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