I'd Rather Be Surfing

Several times after that encounter, Jason thought of saying "No, Roland—I do love you, I do!", throwing his arms about him, and kissing him right on the lips, as he never had. Then, he remembered the Mysteries and perished the thought, at least for the time being. Come to think of it, Jason hadn't hugged or kissed anyone since he'd left Earth. He'd always exchanged such pleasantries with his family on a daily basis, and the absence, now that he was conscious of it, irked him. Why hadn't this occurred to him before? Because, he realized, he'd been struck with far worse kinds of emotional pain. The agony of simply not being able to tell his family that he was alive and well, as they thought he wasn't by now, dwarfed his little wish for hugs and kisses. And anyway, the silent, subtle affection that he and Roland shared, simply by enjoying each other's company, was almost as good.

Naturally, Jason wanted to answer those questions of his. He tried the most direct route. "Why were you so adamant about rescuing the Hoonians?" he asked.

Roland looked at Jason strangely. "Because they were innocent people in need, of course."

"But why did you want to rescue them?"

"I just told you."

"No, I mean, why would you want to rescue 'innocent people in need' so much?"

Now Roland looked at him very strangely. "Because I'm an able-bodied man. It's my duty."

"'Duty'? How did you get such a duty?"

"By being born and growing up, how else?"

"You… realize that there are plenty of other able-bodied men who don't believe they have such a duty, don't you?"

"Well, yes." said Roland, annoyed. "Not everyone does what he's supposed to do."

Jason shrugged. Obviously, solving the Mysteries wouldn't be nearly such a straightforward affair. Since Roland himself seemed not to know the answers, Jason would have to figure them out the hard way: over time, through careful observation. Then, once he'd confirmed that there was nothing to fear, he could literally embrace Roland, wholeheartedly. How long would it take? Not too long, Jason hoped.

One day, when the sun was at its highest point, another ship appeared on the horizon. Now, to Jason's eyes, the "Argo" seemed smaller still, as this new arrival was yet larger than any watercraft he had seen before. No name was painted on its hull. Its bow was pointed directly at the "Argo"'s.

"Now we're really in for it." Talbot sighed. He, Roland, and Jason were standing together on the bridge. "We're nearby Jilothus, a nation notorious for the pirates it employs. There is no doubt in my mind that this ship hopes to plunder the "Argo"."

"There's barely anything here to plunder." Roland pointed out. "They're sure to know everything about the "Argo", including its rather low treasure-to-soldier ratio. I doubt they'd want to take on twenty-nine battle-mages for what few valuables we have on board."

"There's that gold you got." said Jason.

"It isn't much, relatively speaking." said Roland.

"But we should talk to them before jumping to conclusions, anyway, right?" asked Jason.

"That's probably a decent idea." said Talbot.

So, Jason turned on the radio and stated the "Argo"'s name and business, then asked for the other ship's.

"How adorable." a deep, scratchy voice replied, dripping with sarcasm. "We have forty sorcerers. Surrender now and we will spare all of your lives."

Jason gulped as Talbot abruptly took the controls himself. "I've got a better idea: " he snarled: "surrender yourself, immediately, and Gyeeds will consider lightening the sanctions it will inevitably level upon all of Jilothus. It may even conveniently forget to arrest you, if you are especially cooperative."

"So much for the easy way. Prepare for battle."

Talbot sighed. "Here's hoping they're bluffing." He stood there for a brief moment, looking wistfully out to sea, and then rushed out of the pilot-house shouting "Mages, ship-to-ship defense!" Roland and some soldiers followed him without hesitation.

"Oh dear, oh dear." Jason muttered. "Gunther, can we take this? If they aren't bluffing, we're outnumbered by eleven."

"It looks grim to me." said the captain. "I might be able to outmaneuver them."

Jason watched with horror as not only the "Argo"'s but also the other ship's mages assembled. While he couldn't count the enemies from this distance, there sure seemed to be a lot of them. The smell of his own fear, that characteristic stench caused by a particular form of perspiration, assaulted his nostrils.

"Hold to defend!" Talbot shouted, and not a moment too soon, as a hail of projectiles—big green spheres of plasma, crackling with power—immediately rose up from the pirates' hands and arced towards the Argonauts. The Argonauts cast a single spell in unison, and a huge, red, diagonally sloped sheet of energy appeared and hovered in the air before the "Argo", keeping its position relative to the ship as the latter moved. Each sphere hit the shield, exploding in great bursts of light and in several cases leaving a hole behind. These holes were repaired with more spells.

"Split roles, antipersonnel offensive!" Talbot commanded.

Now as some Argonauts maintained the shields, others fired their own projectiles through the holes as the holes were created. The pirates had their own shield up, now. They fired small, quick shots that invariably left holes, keeping the "Argo"'s shield-repairmen, if you will, busy. They spread their strikes out as much as possible rather than targeting a single area.

"They're trying to tire us out, boys; we can't let that happen! Focused strike, maximal power!"

At the admiral's command, the Argonauts who were shooting all fired, in tandem, at a single spot on the enemy's shield. The result was a huge gap that the pirates couldn't patch up quickly enough; the Argonauts fired again and two men were struck, each burnt to a crisp—the first casualties of the battle.

All this time, as the two ships headed towards each other, Gunther had been slowly, carefully steering the "Argo" to the left, planning to sail right past the enemy craft and easily escape. Now, the vessels were a few ship's lengths away from each other, and thanks to the great speeds at which they were traveling, they were sure to zoom by each other in a matter of seconds.

Or rather, they would have, were it not for one small snarl. When the pirates saw what was about to happen, they abandoned their old formation and gathered in a line on one side of the ship. Together, they conjured an enormous net, a ship-sized spiderweb of yellow light, that hung in the air directly in the way of the "Argo". Instantly, Gunther switched on the reverse engines at full throttle. But the ship's momentum was so great that it flew ahead anyway, right into the net. The edges of the web stayed where they were in space, but the center parts stretched so much to accommodate the "Argo"'s massive hull that the edges lined up with the very middle of the ship. The force of the collision was so great that everyone on board who wasn't strapped down to a chair (like Gunther) fell to the floor. Meanwhile, the Argonauts' shield passed through the web as if it hadn't been there.

The reverse engines, along with the potential energy built up by driving into the net, eventually sent the ship backwards. In the meantime, though, the pirates had managed to line up their ship to be parallel to the "Argo" and directly adjacent to it. Now that the vessels' cibium skirts ground against each other, it was safe to teleport from one to the other, and so pirates swarmed aboard the "Argo".

What followed was one of the ugliest scenes Jason had seen thus far in his short life. The men teleported to scattered places all over the deck and wreaked havoc with the Argonauts' careful formation. It was every man for himself; the ship was a wash of multicolored projectiles, shields, and even monsters that had been magically created—like scorpions the size of tigers, who scurried about on six legs, occasionally plunging their mighty stingers into foes. Quite fortunately for Jason, the pirates left the pilot-house alone, at least for the moment.

Earlier, when the two belligerents had been some distance from each other, the Argonauts had had a decent chance of winning even if they'd fully engaged in combat, rather than fleeing; though they'd been outnumbered, Talbot's expert tactics might've saved the day. Now that the Argonauts and the pirates were in full melee, Jason and friends were doomed. In that kind of chaos, tactical tricks were nearly impossible to pull off, and the individual soldiers came to the forefront. Besides, the enemy hadn't been bluffing; they plainly outnumbered the Argonauts. It was thus not very long before Talbot cried "We surrender!"

Everything came to a halt. Now Jason—and everyone else—could really see the carnage that had resulted from this battle. The ship was littered with the dead of both sides, some burnt to ashes, others with blood streaming from countless wounds, still more torn to pieces. Jason felt weak. Seeing the lifeless face of a boy he'd known well, he abruptly crumpled to the floor in a dead faint.

When he came to, he found himself lying on a hard cot in a prison cell. Yes, a prison cell! It was a claustrophobic, windowless room, featuring four plaster-covered walls, a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, a barred door, two cots, a bucket, a cellmate, and nothing else. From what Jason could see past the door, the cell seemed to be at the end of a corridor that continued to the left.

Jason looked at the cellmate. It was Meredith, an Argonaut and solider. Meredith was fifteen years old, though he looked younger. His small, subdued face and his soft-spoken manner made him look timid, though in fact he wasn't. He considered Jason something of a clown. At the moment, he was sitting up on his cot, swinging his legs back and forth while watching the other boy. "Are you awake, Pup?" he asked.

"Ah… I think so, yeah." said Jason, heaving himself up with his hands. He stood up, glanced around the room for a moment, and declared "Well, it sure beats being dead."

"Man, you're an optimist."

"That's one way to think of it. So, tell me, how did we end up here?"

"The pirates got us all together and brought us here. How else?"

"This prison is on the pirate ship?" Jason asked, raising his eyebrows.

"No, we're in Jilothus."

"Oh. What happened to the "Argo"?"

"They brought it to the port here."

Jason nodded. "And… uh… do you know if Roland is still alive?"

"Yeah, barely! He's in another cellblock. Even after Talbot said we'd surrendered, he just kept on pouring out attack spells. Some of our guys had to restrain him until he calmed down." Meredith shuddered. "Emotion mages are scary."

"Not nearly as scary as the sight of that battlefield." said Jason, shuddering himself. "Do you have any idea of how many people died?"

"Eight on our side, five on theirs."

They were both silent and solemn for a while. Jason thought. So much death, so much senseless slaughter! When he and Roland and Talbot had spoken of how they'd inevitably encounter trouble over the course of the journey, it had almost seemed like a joke. He had believed, on some level, that all those mages were mostly there to scare off anyone who might threaten them. And perhaps that really had been the idea; no one had expected to get in a fight. No one had expected to die. Any confrontations that happened were supposed to have been like the one with Thorm: brief and bloodless. Yet reality was once again uglier than fantasy.

At any rate, Jason, ever the pragmatist, eventually took to sniffing around the cell in the hopes of discovering something of interest. Meredith rolled his eyes.

"Only one person other than you and me has been here in a while." said Jason. "I assume that's the guy who brought us here. So, the people who last occupied this cell left at least a couple of days ago. And I'm pleased to announce that that bucket was washed no more than an hour ago."

"I saw them wash it." Meredith grumbled.

"See, I was right!" Jason stuck his nose between the bars of the door and sniffed. He could smell eight other Argonauts in neighboring cells, whose names he listed off. "Smells like they grouped us by age. All the teenagers are here."

"Listen, Pup, you can keep your amazing adventures in the world of scent to yourself, okay?"

"Amen." said another Argonaut.

"Yeah, yeah." said Jason. "You guys are just jealous of my super powers. But, uh… seriously, now. Does anybody know why in the world those pirates attacked us in the first place?"

"To loot the "Argo"." said a seventeen-year-old. "Duh."

"But there's—there was—barely anything on it to steal! They knew that; the media's been following our exploits. If our valuables were the only things about our ship that appealed to them, they wouldn'tve been willing to endanger their own lives by attacking us."

"Maybe they wanted the "Argo" itself, then." somebody else said. "Ships are worth a lot."

"Hmmm…" said Jason. "Maybe. Yeah, that sounds reasonable. Now, why did they put us in this prison?"

"What else would they do with us?"

"Send us back to Gyeeds! 'Cause I'm sure they've incurred Stanley's wrath by imprisoning us."

"Here's hoping."

"Quiet down, kids!" called an unfamiliar voice. Jason heard and smelled the man coming, then saw him appear before the door. He was a young man, apparently a guard. He wore a navy-blue uniform, though he was, of course, unarmed. The guard inspected Jason and Meredith critically for a few moments, as if he suspected them of hiding something, then turned and walked away.

A few hours passed. At one point, the guard brought a tray of exceptionally flavorless food to Jason and Meredith, which they ate gratefully. Otherwise, there were few distractions to pass the time. It wasn't even clear what the time was, since there were no windows in sight and the guards had confiscated Meredith's wristwatch, along with his reagent pouch. Every so often, Jason would spontaneously recall the bloodshed he'd witnessed, and his own blood would run cold.

Who was in charge of the Argonauts' fate now? The Jilothic government, Jason supposed, assuming those pirates were government-sponsored. More importantly, what did they plan to do with the Argonauts? Meredith said he hadn't noticed any clues to that mystery while the pirates brought them here, so Jason could only speculate. Perhaps the captors would release them at some point; more likely, they had something less pleasant in store. Jason figured it would be wise to escape this place, if possible, before he found out the hard way.

The only way out of the prison was down this corridor. And the only way Jason and Meredith could ever get past the door was to wait for a guard to open it. Thus, the time to escape was when the guard brought them food: he came alone, and he had to open the door all the way to give it to them, so as long as he could be dealt with, Jason could at least escape the cell.

It seemed inevitable that violence would be necessary somewhere down the line. Although Jason might be able to trick the guard into bringing them somewhere out of the cell, they'd eventually have to get out of the prison proper; all the exits were sure to be guarded, and nobody was stupid enough to let them out of the prison. So, they'd have to fight their way out. Since Meredith was a mage, this was actually plausible: all he needed was one of the guards' reagent pouches. And once he could cast spells, he could free the other Argonauts. Should anything go wrong, he could always teleport out. In fact, because of that, the plan could be made very simple: Jason and Meredith would wait for the guard to come with food, disable him, take his spell components, and free everybody else. Then, they'd all disappear in a proverbial puff of smoke.

Jason whispered his plan to Meredith. "Well," said the latter, "there are a lot of guards here. And are you sure we could take down one of them with our bare hands?"

"Sure we could. There's two of us and only one of him, and we'll have the element of surprise. He won't be able to cast spells while we're both attacking him."

"But he looks pretty buff. I'm not very strong—they let me be a soldier 'cause I'm a good Will mage—and you're just a shrimp."

"A shrimp, indeed!" Jason scowled. "Look, do you wanna wait and find out what they're gonna do with us?"

"I guess not." Meredith admitted. "Let's do it."

An hour or so later, the lights abruptly snapped off. Except for a few rays of light shining from the left side of the view from Jason's cell, it was pitch-black. Jason tried to sleep, and even succeeded to some extent, but his intense anxiety and fear about the past, present, and future kept him from getting much rest. After some time, Jason was rudely awakened and blinded when the lights were suddenly turned on again. By degrees, his vision returned, and he mentally prepared himself for what he and Meredith were about to do.

As expected, the guard showed up to serve them breakfast. He opened the door. As he was setting the tray down on the floor, Jason and Meredith tackled him. The guard shouted and writhed about, trying to shake the boys off. He was almost successful, especially with Jason, but Meredith proved to be a tenacious wrestler. Eventually, Meredith somehow managed to swipe the guard's reagent pouch and then pull off a stunning-spell right in the man's face. The guard fell limp, and the two boys ran out the door to find somewhere between seven and twelve more guards rushing down the hallway.

The cells containing other Argonauts were lined up against the left wall, but Meredith didn't have the chance to free them: hostile spells were already sailing towards him. He hastily threw up a shield, just in time to save himself and Jason, and then tossed as powerful a projectile as he could back at his foes. The guards easily deflected this and retaliated with such force that Meredith's shield was instantly blown to bits. The blast sent the teenager through the air backwards. He hit the wall at the end of the corridor and crumpled to the floor, unconscious.

Jason was horrified. There was only one thing to do; crazy as it was, he had no choice. He broke into a run and barreled down the hallway, straight towards the guards. Strangely, they didn't cast any spells; they only stood there and watched him. Other Argonauts, seeing him zoom past their cells, cheered "Go, Pup! Go, Pup!" Jason was filled with wild hope. As soon as he was close enough, he leapt into the air before the nearest man, fists flailing. But then, the world turned upside-down as the guard delivered such a kick to his belly that the puny boy spun through the air. He landed on his back with a thud, the wind totally knocked out of him.

"Pathetic." said the guard. He picked up Jason by the ankle with one hand, dragged him along the floor, and hurled him into his cell. Meredith was relieved of the reagents he'd stolen, then tossed inside likewise. The guard picked up his comrade's limp body, walked out of the cell, and closed the door. "Try that again and we'll give you something a whole lot worse than a couple of boo-boos." the guard remarked. Then he walked away, whistling.

"Aaagh." Jason moaned, painfully hoisting himself onto his cot. Nothing was broken, but he was covered with bruises and small wounds. His whole body ached as it never had before. He'd never gotten into a real fight before today; he decided that, if he ever got out of here, he never would again. Especially not with nine grown men.

Eventually, Meredith woke up. The first words out of his mouth were a defamatory remark aimed towards Jason's mother.

"You went along with it." Jason pointed out.

"Shut up." said Meredith.

They both did.