Winter had not been entirely kind to the young aliens stranded on Earth. Of the four, only Arion had not suffered greatly. A loner by nature, and from a mountainous and rather cold world, he relished the winter air and the snow. He spent vast amounts of time soaring through the sky, testing his own flight ability during the harshest of blizzards, generally coming back exhilarated and "victorious over the elements", as he liked to phrase it. His appearance changed subtly during the winter months, with white streaks in his feather-like hair becoming evident.
His favorite "activity" was dive-bombing rabbits. He didn't capture or kill them, just scared the daylights out of them. It was reasonable to assume that if rabbit droppings were good fertilizer, the grass and plants in the forest would grow unusually well come spring.
Morik suffered the greatest. Having spent most of his life on a perpetual tropical world, and with no clothes, the poor camouflage-skinned youngster thought he would freeze before the world around him thawed. He spent increasing amounts of time sequestered in his room in the dome-tent. He also became increasingly surly and unresponsive to the others. It was an odd change. Arion had tended to be the abrasive one of the group, but the winter had brought out his good side. Morik, on the other hand, could have previously been described as "shy", but was now just plain reclusive. He couldn't stand the chill in the air and intensely disliked having to stay indoors all the time, having spent most of his life in the outdoors, but neither did he like the idea of wearing heavy clothes. His own body tried to compensate with a strange, accelerated hair growth. But since his hair was predominantly on his head, this had only limited effectiveness.
Still, by the time Niklas and Davy convinced Morik to wear a heavy winter suit, boots, and a scarf they'd picked up at a thrift store in town, Morik's hair was better than waist length, there was a wild gleam in his eyes, and a slight growl to his voice. He accepted the winter clothes and donned them without comment, somehow managing to get the coat and hood past all that hair (and not even catching the waistband of the pants in the really long portions), wrapped the scarf around his face, and slowly ventured outdoors. He returned some hours later without comment. After that, he would venture out roughly once a day, stay out for several hours, and return. Although Morik seemed in somewhat better spirits after this, he remained somewhat sullen throughout the winter, and nobody ever did find out where he went. He even managed to somehow elude Arion once, when the young flyer decided to keep an eye on him. "I was two thousand feet up and he still knew I was there." Arion had told Jahv and Keyro. "And I wouldn't've thought he could move that fast in that heavy suit, let alone trudging through all that snow."
Jahv and Keyro seemed largely undisturbed by the winter, mostly because they didn't venture outdoors much. Jahv was up to something in his workshop, and seemed determined to make up for the errors of some of his previous endeavors. But no one knew just what he was working on. Both aliens, generally tending to spend their time naked, had taken to wearing at least limited clothing. In Jahv's case it had a practical purpose. He'd asked Davy for a pair of overalls. He admired the extensive pockets they had. This proved useful for carrying around a variety of tools. Keyro, on the other hand, had found a Web Site that sold T-shirts with slogans, and started making some of his own when Martin gave the young alien some of his T-shirts that he had slightly outgrown. Of course, Keyro tended to wear the T-shirts and nothing else, which looked pretty hysterical, but he was reasonably imaginative with the slogans. Everyone's favorite seemed to be "Is There Any Intelligent Life On This Planet?"
But visits from Niklas, Davy, Keith, Martin, or anyone else had been few and far between. As hot as the past summer had been, the winter had been that much colder and harsher. The boys just didn't get out as much, and for everyone but Davy, it was a fair trek, and doing it by bicycle was essentially impossible. There were also security concerns. The leaves were off the trees in the forest, which as a result looked a lot more open, which meant there was that much greater a chance of being detected. So, too, might suspicion arise from a constant trail of footprints into the forest that seemingly ended at a blank spot. Jahv had reworked the camouflage of the dome-tent so that there appeared to be snow in the spot where the tent sat, and he was very diligent about sweeping any new snow off the top of the dome (actually this task generally fell to Arion, who could simply fly up to the top of the dome with a small broom). But generally, the aliens had been on their own for months.
So when spring finally arrived and temperatures quickly climbed, the young aliens were delighted when their four closest friends dropped by for a visit. Arion's feather-hair had returned to all black, Morik's mood had improved although he had kept his unusually long hair (despite unsubstantiated claims from the others that he was shedding and it was a little disgusting to find a two-foot-long hair in one's food), and Jahv clearly had an air of anticipation about him.
"My friends," he said, "I have finally completed my latest inventions."
"Oh, God." groaned Keith. "We shoulda seen this coming. I told you we should've suggested hibernation to this bunch."
Jahv glared. "Keith, I really wish you'd have a little more faith in my skills."
"Yeah, Keith." added Davy. "At least wait until something goes wrong before you condemn it."
That got a moderate laugh, but Keith wasn't kidding. "Have faith? How about your track record? You nearly get us lost in space on board a shuttle that explodes five minutes after we finally manage to get back to Earth, and just to put a point on it, you got drunk on citrus punch at a Halloween party! Now you wanna tell me why I should have faith in whatever it is you've come up with this time?"
"Well, I did get your stepfather off your case for the better part of last summer." replied Jahv politely.
Keith opened his mouth but nothing came out.
Davy whispered to Niklas, "Score one for the green kid with the antennae."
Keith scowled, but he also knew that Jahv had a point. "All right. I'm listening."
Jahv opened a small box on a nearby table. There were eight small discs inside each about six inches in diameter. "These are teleportation devices," he explained. He pressed the center of one, and a small screen and keyboard appeared on the disc. "All you have to do is type in the location of where you want to go. The device will scan for a safe place within the general area and take you there. It's got the entire planet mapped."
"Darn, and here I was hoping for a nice quiet trip to Mars." said Keith.
"I'm working on that." said Jahv.
"Leave it to you to screw up a joke." countered Keith. "Okay, suppose these do work? What good does it do the lot of you? You can't show yourselves in public, anyway."
"Ah, that's where stage two of these devices come in handy for those of us who don't blend in with natives such as yourselves." continued Jahv.
"Just what we need -- a two-stage cluster foul-up." quipped Keith.
"Keith!" snapped Niklas, Davy, and Martin almost simultaneously.
"All right, all right," said Keith, backing down. "Like I'm not entitled to an opinion."
"We incorporated holocron technology into these devices." explained Jahv. "Watch!"
Jahv pressed a few buttons on the tiny keyboard of the disc. There was a flash of light, and in the placve of Jahv stood -- something that looked like what Jahv would probably look like were he human. The skin was a normal color, and his antennae had vanished. His hair was still rather oddly upswept, but it was blonde instead of white, and ears were visible. His eyes remained rather large, but they too appeared normal. His hands still lacked a fifth finger, but overall, the illusion was remarkable.
"All we need do," said Jahv, "is put on regular clothing and we're set."
"The disc can't do that?" asked Niklas.
"Probably, but we'd rather not strain them needlessly." emphasized Jahv.
"What about Chewbacca over there?" asked Keith, indicating Morik. "I don't care how human you make him look, that fire hazard he's toting around on his head is going to be trouble one way or the other."
"I guess maybe I could use a bit of a trim." commented Morik.
"And me without the lawn mower." remarked Keith. "Okay. You've got the means and you've got the looks. But where ya gonna go?"
"We sort of hoped you could come up with a suggestion." said Keyro. "There are so many fascinating places on this planet."
"What about that amusement park on all the commercials? The one that's supposed to be the best ever!" chimed in Martin. "I always wanted to see that place!"
"What are you talking about?" asked Keyro. "What's an amusement park?"
"Are you outta your minds?!" exclaimed Keith.
"I kind of like the idea." said Niklas. "I've never been there either."
"Me neither." added Davy.
"What is this you're talking about?" asked Jahv with a fair bit of emphasis.
Keith rolled his eyes and gave up. "It's an amusement park. Been in business only a couple of years, but it's supposed to be the wildest, most incredible amusement park ever. Technology that might even impress you. It's got just about every other amusement park on the planet wondering how they managed it. Some guy named Paul Keisner came out of nowhere and had the place built. Anyway, there's lots of rides and other attractions. The place is divided into different sections, each one somewhat different. But it also tends to be very, very busy and there's always long waits for all of the rides. I don't know if we could do the whole place in an afternoon."
"We could at least look it over." said Jahv. "It would be a good test for the discs, as well as the disguise programs."
Keith realized he was the only one who seemed only slightly opposed to this. And truth be told, even he wouldn't mind seeing the place himself. But he wanted to know one thing. "How fast can those discs get us out of there if we hit trouble?"
"Instantaneously." said Jahv. "There's an automatic homing feature that'll bring us all right back here if need be."
Keith bit his lip. "I hope you're right about that. Okay, if I'm the only holdout on this craziness, let's do it."
It took about twenty minutes for the four aliens to change into passable clothes. Arion seemed the most reluctant about that, but apparently even he was bored enough with his present surroundings to go along with the plan. Morik had managed to hack his hair down to a far more reasonable level, slightly longer than Keith's or Davy's, and it actually looked halfway decent, although his long pointed ears stuck through. That soon changed when they activated their disguises. Of the four, Arion's was the only one that was slightly suspect. The disguise program apparently wasn't entirely sure what to do with the feather-like hair the boy had, and the result looked vaguely like an afro.
The teleport-discs computers had located Keisner Park without trouble, although they took a while to secure a safe location for the boys to appear. Keith remained concerned about crowds, but Davy didn't think there would be many. "This place is generally only really busy in the summer months and around holidays. This isn't either."
"How would you know?" asked Keith. "You ain't been there any more than I have."
"I read about places I'd like to visit." said Davy.
"Everyone ready?" asked Jahv. "All your discs have been programed. We should all appear in the same general area. Just press the green button. We're ready to go."
They did so, and eight boys faded from existence.
To be specific, one of the fortunately larger stalls in the men's room at the far end of Gateway Avenue, which led to the junction point for the other "Realms" of the park, as they were called.
"Jahv -- when you said 'same general area', I kind of thought we'd have a little more breathing room." said Niklas.
"Just be glad no one else was in here." added Davy.
"And don't mention 'breathing', okay?" remarked Keith. "We're in a public bathroom, for cryin' out loud. Jahv, get your elbow out of my back."
"That's not my elbow." said Jahv.
"That's more than I needed to know."
"Hey, guys, as long as we're in here..." began Martin.
"Don't even think about it." snarled Arion. "I happen to be in the direct path of the commode."
"Can anyone reach the door?" urged Keyro.
"I think I'm closest." said Morik. "Odd locking mechanism, though. But I think I've got --"
The door swumg open and eight boys tumbled to the floor in a heap.
"-- it." finished Morik.
"Well, that was probably the most unique entrance in the history of the park." remarked Niklas.
"And I hope it stays that way." said Keith. "Assuming this is the right place. Shouldn't there be park logos on the toilet paper or something?"
Just then music blared from outside, and an announcement heralding the opening of the park for another day was broadcast.
"Curious." remarked Jahv, looking at the device. "There shouldn't've been any temporal displacement, but we seem to have lost a few hours if the park is just now opening."
"Just tell me we won't be late getting home, okay?" said Keith. "As long as we're here, even I'd like to try to have some fun."
"No, no problem there. If anything, we arrived earlier than we left."
"Great." said Niklas. "Let's get out of here. If the day's crowd is just getting into the park, we can blend right in with them."
Davy and Martin were the first ones out, and Davy's prediction was accurate. There was a crowd, but it didn't seem to be a very big one by any reasonable standards. Just a few thousand people. That would likely grow during the course of the day, but most park guests liked to spend as much of the day as possible at the park.
"Where to first?" asked Niklas.
"Looks like we're on the edge of Future Realm." remarked Davy. "Anyone for the Star Screamer ride?"
"I thought the lot of you had pretty well had it with space travel." said Jahv.
"It's a roller coaster." said Davy, as the group headed into Future Realm. "But it's indoors, and it just looks sort of like you're in space."
"Interesting architecture." commented Keyro as the group headed through Future Realm and over to the Star Screamer entrance. "Looks a bit like the outskirts of Igtex Village on Rominus V."
"Doesn't smell as bad, though." added Jahv.
The boys made their way through the entrance and down the corridors within Star Screamer to the main area where they would board the vehicle that would take them through the roller coaster. A huge spacecraft model hung from the ceiling in the boarding area. "Decent design." said Jahv. "Engine placement could be a little more efficient."
"Hey, Sparky, you want to stop analyzing everything?" said Keith. "Somebody's going to notice if you keep it up. Hey, Niklas, after this, let's haul 'em over to Western Realm. I doubt they'll be able to analyze that."
"Why don't you relax and try to enjoy the place?" urged Niklas. "No one's paying any attention to us."
The boys made their way to the front of the line, and a park employee asked them how many were in their group. "Eight of us." said Davy politely. They were seated in the first four rows of the next "space vehicle" to come through.
Star Screamer was a roller coaster in a dark, enclosed environment, with projected stars whipping around the darkened walls. It has many wild turns and several fairly sharp drops. A couple of times what looked like comets and meteors seemed to soar right past or in front of the wildly careening car. At the end of the ride, Niklas, Davy, and Keith were cheering wildly, Martin had a near death-grip on Morik, Arion's eyes were spinning, and Jahv and Keyro just looked mildly confused.
They exited, Martin somewhat unsteadily, the other Earth-born boys still elated. "That was a blast!" proclaimed Keith. "Okay, maybe this was a good idea!"
"Now I'm not so sure." said Martin.
"That was supposed to be a simulation of space flight?!" exclaimed Jahv.
"No, it was supposed to be a fun ride." replied Niklas.
"Oh, good." said Jahv. "Because if you people actually drive like that on the rare occasions when you do go into space, it's no darn wonder you've never gotten past your own moon."
"You okay, Arion?" asked Keyro.
"I think I will be." replied the young prince. "But generally when I whip around like that, it's under my own power. That was an -- interesting sensation."
"I'd swear some of the imagery in there was the same sort of holographic projection used in the holocron, though." commented Jahv.
"Wouldn't that be kind of impossible?" asked Niklas.
"It should be." stated Jahv. "I'd have to analyze it more closely."
"You're not here to analyze. You're here to have fun." said Keith. "Western Realm?"
"The Runaway Wester-Trains!" emphasized Davy.
"That sounds like another roller coaster." groaned Martin
Martin just sighed. The group exited Future Realm, crossed the central hub, and made their way into the frontier-like environs of Western Realm. There was a Shooting Gallery just to the right of the entrance which caught Arion's attention. "Hold a moment. I want to check this."
"A shooting arcade?" questioned Davy.
"Marksmanship in battle, even simulated, is an important skill." said Arion. He wandered over while the others waited.
Unfortunately, the arcade was something of a disappointment. The weapons were merely infra-red projectors, which Arion's greater range of eyesight could easily detect, and the targets were mere projections, although they seemed to be holographic, but they clearly didn't shoot back. "Care to try your luck, son?" asked a park employee in a Western outfit.
"No, thank you." said Arion. "It doesn't look to be much of a challenge."
"What do you want?" joked the park employee. "Live targets that shoot back?"
Arion brightened suddenly. "Is that an available option?"
The park employee looked stunned, but managed to stay in character. "Uh, no, afraid not. But -- uh -- this should be a fair test of your skills."
"Really..." yawned Arion. He looked at one of the primitive weapons and noticed that it would require money. He turned to the rest of the boys. "Do any of you have fifty cents?"
Davy wandered up along with Jahv. "Here." he said. "You going to try this?"
"No." said Arion. "I'm going to prove a point." He deposited the two quarters, picked up the simulated rifle, and picked off every last target in the shooting gallery in less time than it took to tell. The holographic images feigned almost comical deaths, and all that was left when Arion was finished was a heap of fallen projected corpses. Davy's jaw practically hit the floor alongside the park employee's. Arion set the rifle back down on the counter and said, in an almost painfully bored voice. "At least if they shot back, it might have been more worth my time."
Arion and Davy moved off, but Jahv studied the images. "Excuse me," he said to the employee, "can you tell me what the technological basis for the -- uhm -- targets is? They appear to be a more advanced form of holography than -- than I have generally seen."
"Sorry, kid," replied the employee. "I just work here. I didn't design the place. All I know is the guy who designed the place had everything from engineers to scientists working on it. There's a book you can buy on the building of the park, but don't expect it to divulge many of the secrets. Mr. Keisner's got copyrights and legal protections like you wouldn't believe on every last bit of it."
"I see." said Jahv. "Thank you."
The group made their way over to the Runaway Wester-Trains. Martin remained reluctant to go on another roller coaster, but the more open environment, and the far larger vehicles -- comical trains with seven cars (three rows each) barreling around the track within a highly detailed Western setting, persuaded him to stay with his friends.
With eight boys, they were divided into three rows. Martin sat between Davy and Keith, Niklas ended up with Keyro and Morik, and Jahv and Arion sat together. The ride, in some respects, was wilder than Star Screamer. It was certainly more varied, with a lot more to see along the way. Towards the end of the ride, it entered a dark tunnel with uneven track. The train seemed to just miss a mine car and go careening down a second tunnel, which seemed to collapse from the force of simulated explosions. Amidst a cloud of dust, the train emerged safely from the tunnel and pulled back into the "train station". As they got off at the end, the alien kids finally seemed to be picking up on the nature of the park, and even Martin didn't seem to have minded the ride. "I think I'm getting used to these." he said.
Davy next suggested Ghost House, which wasn't too far away. It was supposed to be one of the most visually advanced rides in the entire park, although it wasn't a roller-coaster. The exterior of the place looked like something that would've scared the Addams Family. Martin was a little nervous and clung to Keith rather tightly. The initial portion of the ride was a walk-through some increasingly creepy rooms with a haunting voiceover. Eventually the group got into small moving vehicles that slowly made their way along a track, and wound their way through more of the huge "house" and outside into a backyard miasma of Halloween nightmares come to life. Martin was scared out of his wits, the other boys were getting a kick out of it -- even Arion -- and Jahv was getting increasingly analytical.
"The more I see around here," said Jahv as they emerged, "the more convinced I am that aspects of this place are simply beyond your standard technology."
Keith swore and detached himself from Martin. "If you don't knock it off and try to have some fun, I'm gonna haul you into Jungle Realm and toss you into the river of the Safari Boats! What's your problem!?"
"Yeah, Jahv, I'm with Keith." said Davy. "Besides, places like these always seem to have technology more advanced than anyplace else. That's what makes them so interesting. But it's really just how they use what's available. Stop being so suspicious and try to have some fun."
Jahv looked at Davy. "You are certain of that?"
Davy nodded. "Stop studying the place and just try to enjoy it."
Jahv sighed and shrugged. "All right. I give up. It's just how I am, I guess. I want to understand the technology. But I'll try."
"Is anyone else hungry?" asked Niklas. His stomach had growled loudly during the argument.
"Yo, right here," said Keith, "but this place is probably pretty expensive."
"Let's see what we can afford." said Davy. So the boys -- at least Niklas, Davy, Keith, and Martin, pooled whatever money they had with them. It wasn't much. About ten dollars. "That's not likely to buy much food in this place." said Davy.
"Let's see what it will get us." suggested Keith. "And I think I saw a place to cool off in Future Realm."
The group headed back in that direction, mostly checking food carts along the way. They discovered that they had just enough money to get two large containers of popcorn -- which fortunately none of the aliens was allergic to -- and two soft-frozen lemonades. Jahv and Keyro would have to find some water someplace. Fortunately, there were drinking fountains throughout the park.
The group found themselves making their way back gradually to the other side of the park, where they'd more or less started, as they made short work of the popcorn and lemonade. In Future Realm was a large area of ground-level fountains, called the "Galactic Waves". The floor beneath these fountains was soft and rubbery, and was intended for children to run through and play in. Numerous children were already running through the fountains, some fully dressed, others without their shirts, some in swim shorts. In the center was a constant mist of water on which images of stars and planets was projected.
"Now that looks like fun!" said Niklas, finishing off his share of the popcorn.
"Yeah!" agreed Davy, already removing his shirt. The two boys gave each other a stare that more or less said, "Dare ya to run right through 'em." and they took off. They got caught in several of the sporadic bursts of water, and shrieked on their way to the center. Davy had caught the worst of it, and was pretty well soaked. Niklas had caught a blast of water across his front, and his shirt, which he'd left on, was dripping.
Keith was next, at first running through until he got caught by a blast of water that soaked him head to toe. Amused more than angry, he decided to see what would happen if he sat down right on top of one of the ground-based fountains. The next time it blasted water, it sprayed out from under Keith and nearly knocked him off his feet. So he decided to try lying on his back over several of them. Unfortunately, one of the fountains was right about at his neck, and he caught a faceful of water as a result.
He got up, and started chasing Martin, who had yet to enter the fountains. Martin was fairly elusive, but the area was just too crowded, and Keith caught him by the shirt. Martin decided to squirm out of the shirt, but that was only a brief reprieve. Keith caught up to Martin again, and essentially carried the screaming-but-laughing Martin through the highest-shooting fountains.
Jahv and Keyro had run into the fountains as well, quickly followed by Morik. Arion remained uncertain, but finally realized that if he was the only one of the group to remain outside the area, he would likely be overpowered and dragged in much as Martin had been, and flying to escape was not an option. Arion had no intention of allowing himself to be treated in such an undignified manner. But neither was he really of a mind to get soaking wet. He studied the patterns of the sporadic fountains long enough to figure out where there would be a break in them, and then ran towards the center and joined Niklas and Davy in playing with the huge projection area in the center. Getting slightly sprayed with water he didn't mind. He just didn't want to get soaked.
Not long after, though, there was an outcry of some sort. Arion turned to see all eyes on Morik, Jahv, and Keyro. They were shooting sparks. Arion cursed under his breath. Something about the teleportation discs, or at least the holo-disguise feature, was obviously not waterproof.
The other boys had noticed it, as well. Niklas, Davy, and Martin stood in shock, and Keith looked about ready to swear a blue streak. Arion felt his own device starting to malfunction. He'd gotten a spray of water right against the pocket where he was keeping it. He briefly thought about flying away, but that wouldn't solve anything and would probably just make matters worse.
Seconds later, before anyone could act, Jahv, Keyro, and Morik all gave off a bright flash of light, and were then back to their alien forms. Three seconds after that, so did Arion.
"Oh, crap." snarled Keith. "I knew this was all going too well."
Keith looked around. Niklas and Davy looked like they wanted to do something, but they weren't sure what. Martin looked stunned. So did the four aliens. The rest of the people -- the reaction was mixed. Most of the kids anywhere near the aliens had backed off. Some parents were hauling their kids away as fast as they could. Other people were coming closer to see what the commotion was about. Keith spotted two park employees nearby, and they both looked like they hadn't the slightest idea what to do, as if they weren't sure if this was some sort of staged event they hadn't been told about, or something a whole lot weirder.
Keith recalled when they had left Star Screamer, there had been restrooms near the exit. It wasn't much, and it was likely to be crowded, but it was semi-secluded and in shadows. And frankly, it was all he could think of.
He raced over to Niklas and Davy. "Round these four up and head for the bathrooms off Star Screamer. Now!" he whispered to both of them. Niklas and Davy ran for the aliens and hauled them out of the area. Keith grabbed Martin and Arion, who had been furthest from the other three.
The crowd easily parted for the strange group, and as they entered the bathrooms near Star Screamer, that was pretty much more than enough to suggest to anyone in there that they would be better off seeking relief elsewhere.
"I'll chew you out about your track record on inventions later." said Keith. "We need to get out of here. Now!"
Jahv withdrew his teleportation device. "That may be a problem."
Keith just lowered his head. "Lemme guess. They're REALLY not waterproof."
"I had thought that they were." said Jahv. "But apparently not against such a soaking. They'll work -- eventually -- but they'll need time to dry off."
"How long?" asked Niklas.
"I can't imagine it would take more than an hour." replied Jahv.
"An hour?!" exclaimed Keith. "We can't stay in here for an hour! And somebody is going to get his wits about him and report what he saw."
"And this place is reaaaally good on security, from what I hear." added Davy.
Keith was thinking, not really looking at any of the others. "Jahv, you brought your backpack with you, right?"
"You still got that gizmo that made you, me, Davy, and Martin invisible that day in the Mall last summer?"
"Yes, but there's no way it can handle all eight of us." answered Jahv.
"Can it handle the four of you?" asked Keith. "Then the four of us can cover for you, and hopefully no one will pester us -- too much, anyway."
"That's -- possible. But there is a problem."
"Which is?" asked Keith, turning and suddenly noticing that Kahv was not wearing the backpack.
"I left the pack out by the fountains."
Keith bit his lip, realizing that letting loose a scream the likes of which he would have wished to right then would have only complicated matters. He sighed, and said, "Okay. Everybody wait here. I'll get the backpack and whatever else we left out there."
"What if you get caught?" said Martin.
"Then getting to the backpack won't make much difference, because they'll be on to all of us. But it's our best shot."
Keith stuck his head out of the restroom. It looked more or less safe. People had gotten off Star Screamer who clearly didn't know what was in the bathroom. Keith figured they'd probably gotten lucky that no one else had had to use it since they'd dashed into it. He saw no immediate sign of security. A few people milling around had looked a little unnerved, but no one seemed to be paying too much attention to the bathroom.
Maybe they figure it was some sort of park stunt, thought Keith. Good. Let 'em.
There was an arcade next to Star Screamer, attached to a souvenir shop. Keith decided to cut through these on his way to the Galactic Waves instead of plow right through the open area. The arcade and certainly the souvenir shop were busier, and Keith figured he was more likely to go undetected.
No one's going to figure a kid is smart enough to take a detour, thought Keith.
When he peeked out of the souvenir shop in the direction of the fountains, he spotted Jahv's backpack. It was off to the side, and no one was paying any attention to it. Unfortunately, no one was in the fountains, either. The cast members who'd been around before had shut down the fountains. Given the sparks Jahv and the others had thrown off when their holo-disguises had malfunctioned, they were probably making sure no one was getting electrocuted around there.
This had an advantage and a disadvantage as far as Keith was concerned. There were a lot less people milling around -- but it was also obvious that something in the area wasn't quite right, and that was making people suspicious.
Still, they couldn't hide in that restroom forever. Keith hoped he could get to the backpack, conceal the four aliens, and maybe find someplace to hide until the discs dried off enough to use to get them out of the area. He hoped Davy knew of someplace they could do that. Big as Keisner Park was, there had to be someplace.
He walked over as nonchalantly as possible in the direction of Jahv's backpack. One of the straps was facing up, and Keith hoped he could loop it over his foot as he walked by and keep going. He'd pick it up and carry it as soon as possible.
He'd just gotten to the pack when two Keisner Park security guards in blue uniforms and a Keisner Park Lord-knows-what in a dark suit and sunglasses seemed to pop out of nowhere. "We'd like to have a few words with you, son -- and with your friends. Where are they?"
Busted at Keisner Park. Now just how bad could a day get?
Davy was recalling everything he could think about Keisner Park. He'd read up on the place, hoping one day he'd be able to visit. He'd never figured that he'd be using that information to keep from getting caught. "Okay, if we can get out of here, there's a few places we can hide until the discs work again. There's a remote restaurant with a big lower level at the far corner of Western Realm. No one'll be there at this time of day, and it's dark and secluded."
"I am so sorry about this." said Jahv, sounding miserable. "I thought I had insulated these well enough."
"Regrets later." barked Arion. "Concern yourself with the present."
"Indeed." came a new voice. The boys turned to see the two guards and the man in the suit, standing with a miserable-looking Keith. The man in the suit continued. "You boys need to all come with us. Now."
Niklas thought of one desperate ploy. "Our parents are expecting us to meet them on Gateway Avenue in a few minutes."
"Your parents aren't here, boy." said one of the guards. "We know that as much as you know it."
The boys were taken out of the restroom and through a nearby "Security Only" door. Martin looked like he was ready to either throw up or wet himself. Keith put an arm around his shoulder. Niklas and Davy looked frightened, and so did Jahv and Keyro. Morik looked downright petrified, and Arion frankly looked like he was spoiling for a fight. If he thought the odds would have allowed it, Keith might have joined him. But both he and Arion seemed to realize that would accomplish nothing.
They eventually reached an outdoor behind-the-scenes area, and were led into a van. The back area had no windows, and no way for the boys to ascertain where they were being taken. When the van finally stopped, not long after, they were near the entrance of an office building. They were taken inside, and led to one of the larger offices. All eight were taken inside, and left alone with whoever was seated at the desk.
The large chair at the desk turned around, and a smiling man perhaps somewhere in his late 40's was seated in the chair. From the pictures Davy had seen in some books he had read, this was Paul Keisner himself. "Well, this is interesting. Two Botarans in the park."
The entire group was shocked. Jahv finally stammered. "You -- you know what we are?"
The man rose and walked over to the group, looking at Arion. "And this one would be from Korras. Royalty, I'd guess, based on the arrogant expression."
Arion just scowled as hard as he could.
"And you," said the man, looking at Morik, "are either from some species that I have never encountered before, with an astounding resemblance to another, or you're absolutely the scruffiest-looking Dorrian in the long and recently-tragic history of that race."
"So who precisely are you?" asked Jahv, trying to sound more confident than he felt.
"As you've probably guessed, I'm a Botaran." said Keisner, returning to his seat behind the desk. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an ornate pen. He twisted it and his face was transformed into that of a Botaran. Most of the facial features remained the same, although the eyes got slightly larger, his hair turned white, his skin turned orange, and antennae appeared on his head even as his ears vanished. "My real name is Pol, son of Keis, son of Neros -- etc, etc. It wasn't too hard to translate that into something a little more human-sounding."
"So how did you get here?" asked Keyro.
"Who's running this session, hmm?" asked Pol. "How did you get here?"
Keyro remained silent. Jahv wasn't sure what to say. He figured the truth was probably the best means. Granted, what he and Keyro had done, running away from home, was not looked upon very favorably by Botarans. But Pol himself had to be here pretty unofficially himself, so there wasn't much he could do about it. "We ran away from home."
Pol raised an eyebrow but said nothing. "And these other two?"
"Encountered on a later exploration." said Jahv.
"And the humans?" asked Pol.
"Friends from the start of our arrival here." finished Jahv. "Now what about you?"
Pol stood and looked out the window of his office. "I crash landed here about six years ago after running my ship through a wormhole. I landed in the desert, with no one around. Enough of the instrumentation and supplies were left intact that I was able to determine where I was, and use a teleporter to get out of the area. But I also realized that my supplies were limited and that I would somehow need to become part of human society. After a period of study and observation, I realized that my skills as a tech-developer could best be put to use in the one industry where unusual technology would not be overly suspect -- the amusement park business. I was able to present some blueprints and demonstration models to some financial backers, and built this park."
"Cripes, Jahv was right." said Davy. "The place is too advanced for current technology on this planet!"
Pol smiled. "Observant, aren't you, boy?" He directed his comment at Jahv. "Of course the place was never meant to fool other Botarans. Just humans."
"And no one suspects you of being anything other than human." said Arion.
"Of course not." said Pol. "I am viewed as a brilliant genius, but something of a recluse. No real social life. So be it. After a day in this holographic disguise, my antennae start buzzing. And of course I am a sufficiently important individual within this business circle to warrant the finest security -- that also knows enough to mind its own business and give me privacy from themselves even as they keep other people out."
"So why drag us here?" asked Jahv. "Why not just have us tossed out after our disguises failed?"
"Two reasons." said Pol. "I can sympathize with your plight. You're not as well off as I am. As children, you're less able to mingle with the people of this world and find a place for yourselves. I wanted to rescue you from possible further suspicion and capture by the wrong people."
"And saving the rep of your own park and making sure that none'a that 'suspicion' comes down on your head wouldn't have anything to do with it, right?" snapped Keith.
"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't something of a consideration." said Pol. "But from that basis, you're hardly the first -- situation -- I've had to deal with quietly around here. You're certainly the first involving people of my own race -- or other offworlders. Keisner Park has a superb, almost flawless safety record."
"Almost." said Davy.
"There's always some idiot who thinks he can stand up on a roller coaster, or climb over a safety railing, or get out of a moving vehicle, and he's not going to get hurt." said Pol. "Such matters are tended to with the utmost of compassion -- and the utmost of efficiency."
"You said two reasons." stated Jahv.
"I have no idea of what your existence is like on this world," said Pol. "But how would you like to stay here, with me? Work for me. Your own holographic disguises and your portable transmat units are quite impressive. And I could guarantee your safety."
"Does that include Morik and me?" asked Arion harshly.
"Of course. The Dorrian penchant for ornamentation would be a valuable asset to this park. And I've seen the architecture of your world. We could use design elements of that here."
"I'm not sure about this..." said Jahv. "These others are our friends. We don't even know you."
"I understand your hesitancy." replied Pol. "Look, why don't you all step into this other room?" Pol waved to a second doorway along a side wall of his office. "There's something to see in there that I believe will convince you to remain."
Jahv whipped out his backpack. "You don't mind if I run a sensor scan, do you?"
"Of course not." said Pol, smiling.
Jahv pulled out his scanner. "Reads as a large holographic grid. Like a holocron room. Should be safe enough."
"It could be interesting." said Keyro.
Pol walked over to the doorway, and opened it. "It's perfectly safe. Please, I think you'll be impressed."
The eight boys looked at each other. Arion and Keith clearly weren't convinced, but they all seemed to realize that there wasn't much alternative. If it would settle this entire issue and get them either out of this office and out of the park -- or at least have the matter resolved -- then so be it. They cautiously entered the massive room.
And Pol slammed the door behind them and sealed them in.
Keith let loose with the worst string of expletives he'd ever let fly with in his life. Arion was doing likewise in his own language, sounding like a really pissed-off hawk.
Pol's face appeared hovering above the youngsters in the darkened room. "Idiot children. I knew who you were the instant you set foot in the park. The entire place is lined with sensors to detect advanced technology. Nice landing in the men's room by the way. I suppose it could've been worse. You could've ended up in the ladies room."
Jahv cut loose with a burst of native language static that sounded no more polite than what Keith and Arion had said. "What do you mean to do with us!"
"I mean to use you to get myself off of this pathetic, backward mudball of a planet once and for all!" said Pol. "I know who you are, Jahv and Keyro. Runaways. That's a serious crime and you know it. And I have connections with one of our world's magistrates. He knows I'm here and has been prepared to keep that knowledge a secret."
"What!?" exploded Jahv. "A Botaran magistrate keeping secrets!? That's unheard of!"
"Not when it's in his best interests." said Pol. "True, I should be hauled off this world and arrested for passing along technology to a primitive culture myself, but that doesn't have the same -- social relevance as dealing with a couple of well-publicized runaways. That, by the way, will be added to the charges against you. Those four humans have no business having transmat discs. Which, by the way, won't work in that shielded room, so spare yourselves the effort."
"How could you make a deal with a magistrate!?" yelled Jahv.
"When he's my brother, that's how." said Pol. "He wants to advance in his profession, and I want to return to mine and stop playing games here. Trying a couple of runaway tech-trading traitors should be just the thing for his career, and I will be the hero who after struggling to survive for years on a backwater planet was the one that found you and brought you in, along with the local natives you consorted with. That won't be too far from the truth."
"This has got to be a bluff!" snapped Arion. "How's this --" Arion made a rude noise in his throat "--expect to get the lot of us to your homeworld!?"
"I won't have to." said Pol. "My brother is stationed on a traveling trial ship. All I have to do is summon him to the proper location."
"Yeah, right." said Keyro. "Summon him to an off-limits world."
"Hardly." said Pol. "Summon him to where we'll be appearing."
The face of Pol faded, and the floor beneath the boys began to glow.
"I don't believe this!"
"Pol!" screamed Keyro. "At least let our friends from this world go!"
But it was far too late for that.