Copyright © 2011-2014 by Kevin Weinberg
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, and the United Kingdom Copyright Act of 1956 and 1988. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Illustration and cover by Daqri Combs
As the basketball hurtled through the air and landed into Jack’s unaware hands, he froze in terror at the nine heads that turned to him. Some wore a look of expectation, others a lustful scowl.
“Move it, Harris!” Barker demanded. “You’ve got the ball!”
Jack’s stomach filled with acid, and his heart raced in his chest. Why were they playing basketball again? And what kind of ridiculous drill was this, anyway?
Butch, Reggie, and a cherry-blonde girl whose name Jack didn’t know, all charged at him with their eyes focused intently on the ball. Reggie’s carrot-like face seemed to glow with the prospect of stealing the ball, though Butch appeared more interested in punishing Jack as opposed to winning. The gargantuan Reinforcer’s jaw tightened in anger. He had a look that said, “I’m gonna get’cha, Jack.”
“Pass the ball, you dolt!” Emma cried. She raised her hands into the air and waved.
It’s not fair, Jack thought. I’m not a dolt. I’m just inexperienced in sports.
Jack hated playing basketball. He hated it in gym class, at the park, and during lunch break, so it was no surprise that he also hated it at boot camp. To Jack, basketball was a boring, tiring sport—at least in real life. Everything always seemed so much easier and more fun in NBA 2k14. On Xbox, all he’d have to do was press a button to pass the ball, but with the way the three trainees were rushing at him, it was going to take a lot more than a button press for Jack to avoid humiliating himself.
Sergeants Barker and Gracie watched from the sidelines, calling out helpful instructions equally to both teams. They’d been pleased enough with the obstacle course results to keep Jack and Emma’s group together, so it seemed like, from then on, Jack would be seeing a lot more of Gracie’s group. Emma, an abnormally tall golden-haired girl who Jack suspected hated his guts, had nearly fainted when she’d heard the announcement earlier that morning, and she’d been doubly upset to find out she and Jack would be playing on the same team. Standing taller than any of the other girls—the boys too, for that matter—she had a natural advantage.
The gymnasium floor squeaked as the three trainees closed in on Jack. Things weren’t looking good. But what was he supposed to do? He searched frantically around him, trying to find a way to pass the ball to Emma, but he was surrounded. Everyone was out of his reach.
“I’m coming for you, Harris,” Butch said. The oversized Reinforcer clearly had a strong dislike for Jack, especially since they’d clashed on the first day of camp. His shadow was so large that it covered Reggie and their blonde teammate.
Jack shook, and his arms trembled. He could hear his friends Kordell, Sergio, and Billy shouting at him to pass, shoot, or do anything other than stand around like an idiot. But with Butch’s massive body now only inches from Jack’s, he remained frozen in fear.
Butch bore down on him with both his arms extended and his fingers curled, as if in imitation of a creature from an old monster movie. He charged at Jack like a wild animal, and Jack reacted without thinking. He was on edge, unable to evaluate things properly. Butch was going to kill him!
Without realizing he was doing so, Jack dropped the basketball and gripped his right hand into a fist. Acting off reflex alone, he lashed out at the bulky Reinforcer. The use of power had been forbidden during this exercise, so without Reinforcement, Butch was no different from any other pumped-up, bulky teenager. Even as Jack’s fist slammed into the right side of Butch’s face, sending the much larger boy staggering backwards, he knew he’d made a big, big mistake.
Butch was pushed a few steps back, but he seemed like he’d be able to recover himself, at least until he slipped on someone’s sweat and grunted as he fell on his back. “Ugh,” he moaned. Even his moan sounded like a giant’s bellow.
The sound of a loud whistle startled Jack. “What in the hell was that, Harris?” Barker roared. “Did you just assault one of your group mates?”
Jack glanced first at his fist and then down on the shiny floor, where Butch lay on his back with amazement in his eyes while he looked up at Jack.
He gulped. “Yeah, I think so, but it was an accident.”
“An accident?” Barker asked incredulously. “You just hit Private Butchenson in the face by…by accident?”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Jack fought with everything he was worth to stifle a laugh. Butch’s last name also had the name “Butch” in it? Jack felt his cheeks puff with air and he had to stare at the ground to prevent himself from erupting in cackles.
His name is Butch Butchenson, Jack thought. That’s awesome.
“I got nervous,” Jack said. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to do it.”
Barker paraded over to the center of the court. He knelt down and offered Butch a hand up. The boy looked dazed, but otherwise unharmed.
“You okay, son?” Barker asked.
“Y-yeah. Harris just caught me off guard is all.”
Barker nodded. “Do you want to let this slide, or do you want to make an issue out of it?”
“An…issue?” Butch rubbed the side of his face and gave Barker a questioning look.
“He hit you,” Barker explained. “So, if you’d like we can fill out a few forms and—”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it. I ain’t no snitch.”
Butch grabbed Barker’s hand, and the Sergeant pulled him to his feet. As he rose, he shot Jack a dangerous, vengeful glare. Jack knew this would cause him problems later. There was no way Butch would let this slide. And if Butch made himself Jack’s enemy, then Reggie was sure to follow. Thankfully, Jack could spot reassuring looks in the eyes of Billy, Sergio, and Kordell. Jack had befriended the three the moment they’d met, and since then, Jack and the three trainees had something of a bitter rivalry with Reggie and Butch.
As Barker made his way back to the sidelines, he paused and pointed a finger at Jack. “Don’t do that again…or else.” He motioned for Butch to walk over to the side and he handed the boy the ball. “Normally, I’d give you foul shots, but that’s not the point in this exercise. Let’s not forget why we’re all here.”
Keeping his eyes on Butch but addressing the players, Barker continued, “The goal of this exercise—and many to come—will focus on teamwork and coordination. You’re not just here to prove your worth to me, but to prove your worth to each other.”
At Barker’s words, the trainees on the two benches opposite each other leaned in closer, and Jack, along with the rest of those on the court, relaxed their tense postures and listened. Jack knew why. This was the first time Barker had mentioned their reason for going through the harsh, physically and mentally tiring training. Originally, Jack thought he was on some important mission, or so his mother had deceived him into believing, but now he knew the truth—he was here to become a better Psych. Yet since arriving several days earlier, the trainees had been put through grueling exercises, to the point where the purpose of it all was buried underneath the need to keep breathing.
“I see I’ve got your attention,” Barker said with a grin. “You all want make it through this, don’t you?”
“Sir yes sir!” shouted both Barker’s boys and Gracie’s girls.
Barker nodded. “Well, no one goes at this alone. I can tell you from experience that the world you want to enter is not a gentle one. In the coming days I will push you to your physical limitations, but I’m also going to teach you something even more important.” He pointed to each basketball hoop. “Unless you can work with one another, you lose. And that’s in this world. Here, at camp, losing means not winning at basketball. In real life, losing can mean death.”
Jack had to admit that the sergeant was right. Of all the trainees present, he alone knew what it meant to be on a team, a fact that would probably send the majority of the trainees—including Jack’s friends—into a jealous rage. He’d obtained what they all wanted. Even Billy, the nerdy-looking Telepath who Jack had met on his hike to the camp would probably grow bitter if he learned the truth.
The night prior, a night Jack would always remember as the ‘Eve of the Toilet Cleaning’, Barker had explained a few things. Unlike Jack, who was already accepted on a team, towards the last day of camp the Psychs here would be evaluated based on performance, and any who were deemed unworthy would be turned down. Juliette was the only other trainee aside from Jack who’d been pre-accepted, which was likely why she hid the fact as well.
Speaking of Juliette, I can’t wait to see her at lunch today. Oh man, I wonder if she’s gonna wear those denims again. The tight ones with the—
“Eww,” Emma said, backing away from Jack. “Why are you making such a creepy, weird face?”
Jack croaked. He really needed to learn more self-control. He blinked away whatever weird look had been in his eyes, and he waited for Barker to continue the game. Instead, Barker and Gracie walked towards each other and began whispering among themselves.
“Listen up,” Gracie said, “we’re taking a break from the game. We’ll work on your teamwork a bit more tomorrow, but…” She snapped her fingers at the ten trainees on the benches, who looked as if they were dozing off into sleep. They jumped to their feet and stood at attention. “We can’t have you lounging around and getting lazy. We’re going to do some cardio next.”
Jack wanted to fall down and die. Why did it have to be cardio? He knew what they intended, too. The basketball court only took up a third of the gymnasium. There was a room filled with treadmills and weight-lifting equipment.
“May I ask a question?” It was Billy’s voice. The boy who reminded Jack of Adam readjusted his thick glasses. “Ah, sir,” he added.
“Go ahead,” Barker said.
“We’re on our third day here if you count the day we arrived. Why are we using indoor facilities when you’ve made us run an obstacle course yesterday? I don’t understand the transition.”
“Excellent question,” Gracie answered. “Yesterday we wanted to get a feel for what you’d do as a group. Today, we wanted to get a sample of how you work together as a team, and now, we want to see your individual performance. We’ll be making charts to track your progress, in a way we simply cannot do out in the open—heart rate, speed, etcetera. We’ll be getting an idea of where you’re at, and how to bring you to the next level.”
Did she just say level? Jack wondered.
Now here was something Jack actually knew about. He raised his hand with such a passion that he was brought to his tiptoes. “You have a question, Private Harris?” Gracie asked.
“Yeah. Umm, so you mentioned leveling, right? So I was wondering how many experience points we need to level up. Also, can I be a Necromancer?”
Gracie turned to Barker, who shook his head. “Don’t look at me,” he grumbled.
“Are there any…other questions? Good, then please follow Barker and myself."
Jack puckered his lips, his mood soured. No one ever wanted to answer his questions, which were totally important and relevant.
As the eighteen trainees followed the sergeants into the adjacent room, Jack risked a peek at the one boy who didn’t bother to tag along. Jack still didn’t know the kid’s name. He had red hair and a rotten demeanor. Already he was something of a mystery to the camp, and Jack had heard several trainees whispering about him.
He’d been excused from today’s exercise, and so far, neither Barker nor Gracie had asked him to participate in anything. In fact, Jack couldn’t remember him doing a single productive thing since the obstacle course, where he’d dragged a girl by the hair through one of the more daunting obstacles.
He didn’t sit on a bench with the others. He sat on the basketball court floor with his back leaning against the wall and his legs pressed into his chest. In his right hand, he clutched a chain that coiled around each of his fingers, and in his left, he twirled a blade of grass between his thumb and forefinger. As Jack passed him, the red-haired boy gave him a dirty, hate-filled glare. It wasn’t the first, either. Though Jack had never seen him offer warm looks to anyone, the boy’s gaze turned particularly dark whenever it settled upon Jack.
“Don’t get comfortable here, Jack,” he whispered. Jack stopped, and a chill trickled down his spine. This was the first time the red-haired boy had spoken to him.
“Hey, what did you say?”
“I said, don’t get comfortable here. I plan on sending you home back to your mother—in an urn.”
Jack felt his eyes widen. Was the kid threatening his life? But why? And how did he know Jack’s mom?
“W-what are you talking about?”
Slowly at first, the boy’s lips formed into an outright sneer, and he leaned his head back against the wall, relaxed. “You heard me. I’m going to kill you. You, Jack, won’t be leaving here alive. Just thought I’d let you know in advance. It makes for better sport.”
Jack couldn’t respond. The words caught him off guard. “W-why? I don’t understand. What did I do to you? Why do you—”
“Let’s go, Harris!” Barker shouted. Jack was now the only one other than the red-haired boy still on the basketball court. “Stop talking to Private Stephens and get over here!”
Jack knew better than to make Barker wait. But before he scrambled to rejoin the other trainees, he whispered, “Your name is Stephens?”
“That’s right,” the boy replied. “Rex Stephens, and the first chance I get, I’m taking your life.”
Jack couldn’t afford another moment’s hesitation. He made his way through the court and into the other room, his mind muddled and alarmed. This wasn’t the first time his life had been in jeopardy since being thrust into the Psych-world, but it was the first time anyone had offered such a callous look while promising his death. The worst part of it was that Jack had no idea who this “Rex” even was, or why he hated Jack.
Maybe it’s someone I played against in Call of Duty? No, no, that wouldn’t explain this. I couldn’t have owned him so badly that he’d want to kill me. I’m not even that good. Maybe he’s an old friend from school that I forgot to add on Facebook? No, I’m pretty sure I’d remember him. Damn, what did I do?
At any rate, Jack had more than enough to worry about for the time being. He already wasn’t a fan of treadmills, and somehow Jack knew that Barker was about to make him hate the God-awful machines even more.