This was going to be the worst summer ever.
Monica glared at the people around the campfire. She was an expert at things being the worst thing ever. For example: summer camp. More specifically: Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. Also: the people in the camp.
"Everything makes so much sense if you think about it in terms of how psychic powers were used," some boy in an oversized trench coat was saying to anyone who would listen. "Like, it wasn't a magic bullet, it was just being controlled by telekinesis. And the--"
"Could you hold still for a moment?" a girl in a suit asked him. She took out a cellphone and pointed at him, pressing a button. "Okay, carry on," she said, walking back to her spot on a log.
A kid with glasses in the front row was pestering a girl in a cat hat who was roasting a marshmallow. "Hey--" he said. "Can--can I have a marshmallow?"
"No can has," she said, clutching the marshmallow bag to her chest.
Monica sighed. "This is going to be the worst summer ever," she said, burying her head in her hands.
"Tell me about it," the boy next to her said. She raised her head and looked at him--hair in his eyes, guitar by his side, and not a hint of a smile on his face. "I'm Skye, by the way."
"Monica," Monica said, a slight flutter in her chest. She resisted the urge to check her hair--her pigtails looked like pompoms at the best of times, and she was sure the humidity was making them frizz even more. "My Mom made me come here when I accidentally blew out all the power in the house."
"Cool," Skye said, flicking the hair out of his eyes.
All the lights went out. Even the fire seemed to dim a bit. A single spotlight hit the main stage, illuminating an empty patch of wood.
"At this camp," a disembodied voice echoed, "you will learn to harness your psychic powers. You can be the world's greatest leaders, fighters, entertainers. You can learn the powers of telekinesis, levitation, pyrokinesis, mindreading, clairvoyance, and psychic shielding. If you can master all of these powers, you, too, can become a Psychonaut. I did it in one day. Let's see what you can do."
The trees above the stage rustled ominously.
"My name is Razputin Aquato, lead agent of the Psychonauts and Head Counselor of Whispering Rocks Psychic Summer Camp." The trees rustled again, and a man dropped out of its branches, executing a perfect double backflip before landing in an extremely photogenic pose. He grinned rakishly.
"But you can call me...Raz."
The entire camp burst into wild cheers. Psychokinetic fireworks shot through the air. Hats were tossed by specially created hat-tossing machines. Several campers fainted.
"You ever heard of him?" Monica asked Skye, her voice deliberately cool and disaffected.
"I'm new here too," Skye said at the same time the kid in glasses squawked, "What?!?"
"Now come, my young psicadets! Let's go set things on fire with our minds!" Raz shouted, beckoning to the campers.
Everyone cheered again, even louder than before, and rose as one to chase after Raz.
A tall man with large muscles and an even larger hat walked to the front of the stage and held up a hand. "One moment," he said, and looked at a list on a clipboard. "First year campers, names: Quentin Schrute, Bergan Taylor, Skye Dempkowski, Sully Bluestone, Jane Smith, Monica Jones, please stay for remedial training. All others, sorry for delay, please continue with the burning things with mind and the howling like lost hyena trapped in mongoose hole."
Monica watched as all the other campers raced off to have fun and she was stuck with five losers--well, four plus a kinda cute emo kid.
"My name is Mikhail Bulgakov," the man said, his Russian accent nearly tripling as he said his name. "I am Psychonaut agent currently on probation as camp counselor in charge of training little firsties." His eyes grew distant. "Half deadly double knee squeeze, double deadly half knee squeeze...such a small difference." He focused on the kids again. "No matter. Sleep well tonight. Tomorrow, training begins."
He walked away, leaving the six kids staring after him in stunned silence.
After a moment, the girl in the kitty hat said in a plaintive tone of voice, "Eff tee ell."
Monica didn't know what that meant, but she agreed with the sentiment.
This was going to be the worst summer ever.
After breakfast, the kids were gathered on the porch outside the main lodge. "Come," Counselor Mikhail said, motioning to the campers, "sit in circle like making ring for spontaneous wrestling match, with legs crossed, please."
They settled, Skye casually lowering himself next to Monica. He nodded at her. "Hey," he said, flicking the hair out of his eyes.
"Hey," she said coolly, looking in the opposite direction.
"Please, less with the flirting, more with the sitting," Counselor Mikhail said. Monica flushed and scowled. "Now. You must say. What is your purpose for being here?"
Everyone looked at each other in awkward silence. "Monica Jones," Counselor Mikhail prompted.
She scowled harder. "My mother made me come here." She paused under Counselor Mikhail's expectant stare. "And I guess I want better control over what I do."
"Skye Dempkowski," Counselor Mikhail said.
Skye flicked the hair out of his eyes. "Greater empathic abilities."
"Bergan Taylor," Counselor Mikhail said.
The girl in the cat ears hat perked up. "Grate lolz!"
"Bergan means she wants to have fun," the kid in glasses said.
That was the kid in the trench coat. "Mind-reading," he said, so quickly there wasn't a pause between the question and answer.
The girl in the business suit and tight bun said, "Mind alteration" as she examined her cell. Bluestone surreptitiously inched away from her.
"Hmmm..." Counselor Mikhail said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
"I'd like--" the kid in the glasses began.
Counselor Mikhail clapped his hands. "No no no. I see problem now. This is all small picture thing. You do not want these things to have these things. You want these things to accomplish ultimate goal."
He paused for dramatic effect.
The kid in the glasses' face lit up. "To become a Psy--"
"To defeat bear," Counselor Mikhail said fervently.
A very different kind of silence fell over the group.
Monica found her voice first. "To what?"
Counselor Mikhail lifted a hand. "I know, is hard. First you must understand bear, outwit bear, overcome bear. But one day, you will defeat bear. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not for many year. But one day, you will. Defeat. Bear."
The kid in glasses hesitantly raised a hand. "Um, is this some kind of meta--"
"And now, we run," Counselor Mikhail said. "Quickly now. All must complete five circuits of camp or none will get lunch. Those who fall behind will be used to demonstrate wrestling techniques. Techniques are only occasionally fatal."
With that, he stood up and started jogging. The campers were very quick to follow.
Monica found herself keeping pace with Bluestone, who not only managed to jog in his trench coat without breaking a sweat, but also had enough breath to talk endlessly about his pet theories.
"In the poorer districts of Rome, sure, the fires could spread, but the upper class areas were far too spread out for it to be effective, even under a heavy wind," Bluestone was saying.
Monica had enough breath to say, "Uh-huh."
"Not to mention how the pewter dinnerware in the houses were found melted, and the burning temperature of the construction materials was well below the flashpoint for pewter, which can only indicate that some outside force was artificially raising the temperature."
"Uh-huh," Monica gasped. She didn't really care, but he was the only thing distracting her from how she wanted to curl up somewhere and die for a while.
"Really, the idea that someone, perhaps Nero's secret troops or the religious dissidants, employed some sort of pyrokinesis seems almost obvious in hindsight," Bluestone said proudly. "Frankly, I'm surprised nobody's realized it until now."
"Yeah, that's great," Monica said, and concentrated on not passing out.
"Very good work," Counselor Mikhail said as the campers lay sprawled across the grass. "You have earned your lunch of hamburgers and french fries. Enjoy."
He set down the tray of food. Everyone grabbed what they could without thoughts of self-control or looking cool.
Monica took one bite and froze. Around her, the five other campers mirrored her expression. Chewing as calmly as she could manage, she swallowed, cleared her throat, and asked, "What the heck are these?"
"Are Russian hamburgers. Are better, good for you. Instead of lettuce, are cabbage. Instead of tomato, are beets. Instead of bread, are potato." He motioned to the pinkish fries. "Instead of potato, are also beets."
"I thought potatoes were okay!" Monica determinedly did not whine.
Counselor Mikhail cocked his head. "I do not follow."
Monica gave up and took another bite. It was as revolting as the first.
After lunch, Counselor Mikhail stood in front of his campers and said, "This morning, you have all worked very hard with your running and building strong legs crucial for defeating bear. As reward, this afternoon we will take easier sort of training."
The kid in the glasses lit up. "Do we get to practice psychic--"
"We will work arm strength and grip," Counselor Mikhail said. "Is much easier, only need two limbs, just get to hang there. Is like vacation." He looked very pleased with his generosity. "After that, more running."
"I'm going to write a song when this is all over," Skye said, flicking the hair out of his eyes and adjusting his grip on the pole. Monica noted that he was only slightly less cool than usual when hanging for dear life from a pole extended over a pit of jagged rocks. Counselor Mikhail probably wouldn't let them die if they fell. Probably.
"Well, when I get feeling back in my fingers," Skye amended.
"Cool," Monica said, and yes, it was difficult to remain detached and disaffected with your arms over your head, but damned if Monica wasn't going to try.
"I think I'm going to call it The Only Difference Between Summer Camp and Martyrdom is How Much Your Parents Pay For It." He flicked the hair out of his eyes again. "It's still a work in progress, but I think I'm onto something."
"Hang in thur, BB," Bergan laughed, and almost fell.
"I think my legs are going to fall off," Monica panted during the afternoon run. Even Bluestone was too out of breath to talk, and that was saying something.
"Is funny thing, running," Counselor Mikhail said while he jogged backwards in front of the group. "Is good for cardiovascular and strong lungs for yelling wrestling moves, but there is saying 'Do not need to run faster than bear, just need to run faster than person next to you.'"
He held up a finger.
"Not true. Need to run faster than bear, or neither will catch and wrestle bear. This is very obvious flaw in saying."
Monica debated the pros and cons of breaking into tears.
The next morning started out terrible, as usual.
"Oh God why does it have to be running?" Monica sobbed.
Her complaints didn't seem to deter Bluestone, her de facto running partner. "The idea that we could reach the moon using a computer system barely advanced enough to play Pong on is almost laughable," he was saying. "The feedback system for landing safely on a surface with one-tenth the gravitational force of the Earth would have been enough to overpower the system, never mind the delay in transmission when they are in orbit and the complex calculations needed to achieve proper thrust and maneuvering during takeoff. However, a careful combination of shielding and telekinetic powers would easily allow--"
"Hello, headquarters?" Smith said calmly into her cellphone. "I'd like to request operation type one-one-alpha-zeta-swordfish for one civilian tonight potential threat code omega-blender." She paused. "No, no, he's probably an independent, but it's best to check headquarters for any potential leaks just to be safe."
She clicked the phone shut.
Bluestone blanched and sped up until he was matching pace with Counselor Mikhail.
Monica stared at Smith, whose expression was as bland and professional as her outfit.
"That's not a real cellphone," Monica said.
Smith ignored her.
"No really. I can see the candy inside."
Smith flipped open her cell again. "Make that two civilians."
Lunch was tacos. Having learned from past experience, Monica sniffed hers warily before asking, "What are in these?"
Counselor Mikhail nodded his approval. "Are special Russian tacos, very healthy. Instead of lettuce, are sauerkraut. Instead of tomato, are beets. Instead of hot sauce, is vodka."
"Just kidding, is more beets."
Monica had never thought she'd be lifting weights at summer camp, but she figured philosophically that it wouldn't be the worst summer ever without it. Besides, it wasn't so bad--there were an odd number of campers, so while Bluestone and Smith were working together, she could watch Bergan spot Skye at weights.
"You should write a song about this when we're done," Monica said while Skye struggled under the weights.
He puffed something that sounded like interest.
"You could call it I Lift Weights, not Consciousness," she suggested. "Or whatever."
He settled the weight onto the holder and sat up, flicking the hair out of his eyes. "Yeah, maybe," he said with a little smile, and that lifted Monica for the next hour.
Monica took his place on the bench. Next to her, Bergan also laid down on the ground and mimed at lifting weights.
"Invisible barbell?" Monica asked. She had gotten used to Bergan's odd speech patterns.
"Invisible partner!" Bergan corrected, and laughed herself sick.
Skye was floating in the air with his right elbow hooked behind him around his left knee.
"This is half deadly double knee hook," Counselor Mikhail explained, motioning with a pointer to indicate the various things of note. "If properly executed, will pop knee and elbow, disabling physical and mental defenses, only half deadly. Do not confuse with double deadly half knee hook."
Please don't ask please don't ask please don't ask Monica whispered.
Smith raised a hand. "What does that do?"
"Is almost the same, except elbow wraps around neck first, causing lack of blood to brain and too much blood to heart, heart explode, very messy, need new shoes." Counselor Mikhail shook his head and said to himself, very quietly, "Such small difference," and then he shrugged.
Monica decided to take Thursday off, so she made her way to the Nurse's office with a good excuse and a miserable expression.
The nurse was telekinetically painting her nails while flipping through a magazine.
"Nurse Bubai," Monica said in her most pathetic voice, "I don't feel so good."
"Oh God what," Nurse Bubai said, rolling her eyes. "Are you going to throw up?"
"Are you going to faint or break out in hives?" she asked.
"Are you sick enough to have to lay around here all day but not sick enough to have to notify your parents or send you to a hospital?" she asked blandly.
Monica thought about it. "…yes?"
Nurse Bubai waved at the other side of the cabin. "Cots are over there. You want a magazine?"
"Yes please," Monica said, snagging a copy of Generic Fashion.
"Whatever," Nurse Bubai sighed. "I figured it was about time one of you'd want to get away from Raz. He's such a total dork, you know?"
"Actually, I'm one of the ones with Counselor Mikhail," Monica said.
"Oh you poor kid," Nurse Bubai said, and floated a thing of nailpolish over to Monica. "Here, I think the teal will go with your skin tone."
"Thanks," Monica said, and hummed happily as she prettied herself up. The nurse was content to ignore her for the most part and gossip on the phone with someone named Franke.
During one of the lulls in conversation, Monica gave the nurse an inquisitive look and, after dithering a moment, said, "You know, some people were saying that Counselor Mikhail is really a member of the Russian mafia besides being a Psychonaut."
Nurse Bubai paused to consider that. "Actually, I think it's the Italian mafia. Long story."
The day was actually pretty awesome, and consisted mostly of reading magazines and gossiping with Nurse Bubai. A bell rang at five, and the nurse said, "Okay, I'm no longer getting paid to be here, time to go."
"Bye," Monica said, wondering if she could weasel her way into a little more time away from the normal camp.
The phone rang. "Oh God what," Nurse Bubai said, and picked it up. "Yeah? What is it, Raz? No, I don't think so. I don't see it here. No, really, I'm looking in the closet right now and it's not here," she said, not looking in the closet at all and rolling her eyes at Monica. "Sorry, bye now."
"Can I…" Monica said. "Can I be you when I grow up?"
Nurse Bubai smiled at her and said, "You could be so lucky."
Ten minutes from the end of the morning run, Monica jogged up to Counselor Mikhail and offered to go help get lunch ready so he could lecture while she set up. She veered off towards the main lodge before he could say no.
"Excuse me," she said politely to the main in the silver chef's hat--was that tin foil? Whatever. "Do you know where the food for Counselor Mikhail's group is being kept?"
"Over there," the chef said, pointing to a tray of what appeared to be hot dogs, only they were much pinker than usual.
"Thank you," Monica said sweetly, and hipchecked the tray onto the floor. "Oh, shoot. Would you mind making some replacements? Maybe…four hamburgers, two cheeseburgers, one veggie burger, one fish patty, six fries, five chocolate milkshakes, and a diet coke?" she rattled off quickly.
"Okie-doke. How do you want them?" the chef asked, flipping the raw patties onto the cold grill.
"Medium rare," Monica said, tapping her foot. This was probably going to be a while.
The chef tipped back his tin foil hat, there was a brief zapping sound, then he was levering perfectly cooked hamburgers onto buns.
"Neat trick," Monica said.
"Thanks!" The chef beamed. "It's nice that they give me something useful to practice my powers on, and I don't mind because sometimes the cows say mean things about my mom."
Monica ignored that and gathered up the food. Sure, it had been a little extra work and she'd been forced to interact with the weirdo chef, but when she appeared before her group with a tray of Real Food, she was a God.
After lunch, when Counselor Mikhail was about to announced the afternoon's litany of tortures, Monica raised her hand and said, "Counselor Mikhail, I was thinking. Since we're at a summer camp for psychics, maybe we should learn some psychic powers, or go into a psychic world, or something."
Counselor Mikhail pointed at her and bellowed, "Excellent initiative. Very good. In this case, we will go into my mind." He held up a hand. "Please note, strange things can happen in mind. You can see odd things, unusual things, disturbing things, but do not worry, I will make sure you safe. Probability of death, less than ten percent. Okay?"
Before anyone had time to respond, Counselor Mikhail reached into his pocket and removed what looked like a tiny wooden door. He slapped it on his forehead. It opened.
"Please be holding on tight to your seat," he said, and with a sound like slurping the last of a milkshake from a cup, Monica felt her consciousness get sucked out of her body and land somewhere else.
The 'somewhere else' seemed to be a very large, very blank space with four other bewildered kids.
"There's…not much here," Bluestone said, scratching his head.
"Is his consciousness really so empty? Or maybe his emotions are so powerful he has to keep them locked away?" Skye asked, almost in admiration.
"Invisible brane," Bergan said and Monica silently agreed with the assessment.
"Well," Monica said diplomatically, "we're here, we're safe, and there isn't a barbell or running track in sight. I say we just chill out here and waste the rest of the afternoon in peace."
"Anyone got a deck of cards?" Smith asked in a friendly monotone.
"Actually…" Bluestone said, hesitant for once, "I'm pretty sure that time passes much slower in the mental realm compared to the outside. We could spend hours in here and it might only be a few minutes out there."
"Dammit," Monica said, with feeling.
"But that's not to say it doesn't have its advantages," Bluestone said, enthusiasm building again. "For example, I'm pretty sure that the only way cryptographers were able to crack the Enigma Machine was to place them in a mental world for what seemed like months but was actually oh crap please put the phone away I promise I'll shut up," Bluestone said, backing away from Smith.
"No, actually, I'm impressed," Smith said, and smiled for the first time. "We could use that idea."
"Hay u gais look!" Bergan shouted, pointing to a speck in the distance. She ran towards it, laughing out loud.
Monica shrugged. "Might as well," she said, and they trailed after Bergan at a more sedate pace.
Halfway there, Bergan came running back yelling, "Oh Em Gee, it's a bear, GET IN THE CAR!"
They stopped and looked at each other. Skye said, "I always thought the bear was a metaphor."
"It could be," Smith said. "We are still in his brain."
"I always thought he was referring to the bears they used to have in camp," Bluestone said. "You know, before that psitaneum explosion in the woods eight years ago."
"Let's go look. If nothing else, maybe we can learn something that'll help us distract him when he wants us to do something really insane," Monica said.
As they got closer, they could hear some music with a really strong down beat. Skye started to bob his head with it until he shook his head, forcibly making himself stop.
And then there, in front of them, was the bear.
"It's…dancing?" Bluestone asked. "Why is it dancing?"
"This has got to be the most idiotic thing I've ever seen," Monica said. "What good is this? Ugh." She thumped her foot on the floor and cupped her hands next to her mouth. "Hey! Counselor Mikhail! We want out!" She looked around. "Anyone see an exit?"
Smith tapped her shiny black shoe on a trap door near the dancing bear. "Will this do?"
"We did come in through a door…." Bluestone mused.
"Then again, it could lead to Counselor Mikhail's subconscious, or buried thoughts, or other dark recesses of his mind," Skye said. Everyone winced.
Monica noticed that Bergan was holding her thumb against her nose, and quickly chimed in, "Not it." She was followed by "Not it," "Not it," "Not--dammit!" by Smith, Skye, and Bluestone, respectively.
Bluestone opened the trap door and peered inside it warily. "If I don't make it, there's a notebook in a manila envelope under my bunk mattress. I want you to find it and--"
"Burn it. Understood," Smith said.
"What? No! Ah, never mind," Bluestone said, and jumped into the door.
They all waited, listening intently. "No screaming, thud, or evidence of Counselor Mikhail's inner thoughts. Bluestone's either safe or dead," Smith said, and jumped neatly after him.
"Bonzai!" Bergan said, and jumped through the door.
Monica and Skye shrugged at each other and followed suit.
She landed back in her own skin in the same place she'd been before getting sucked into Counselor Mikhail's brain. Counselor Mikhail was still in a trance, but the other kids were groggily returning to their normal selves.
"Come on," Bluestone said--first out, first recovered. "Let's go hide at the boathouse before he wakes up."
And while they all ran off together, Monica thought that maybe, just maybe, this might not be the worst summer, after all.
Head Counselor Raz gathered everyone into a super secret laboratory under the geowhatsit pyramind thingy. Or whatever. Skye had brought his guitar and Monica hadn't really been paying attention to the name.
Head Counselor Raz jumped off the top of the spiraling staircase, executing a perfect triple jackknife spin before landing on the large and vaguely frightening laser science beam piece of equipment. The whole camp cheered--well, almost all of the camp. You could tell who Counselor Mikhail's campers were by the fact that they were the ones staring nervously at the red light that had just started blinking on the machine.
"Campers!" Head Counselor Raz announced. "Welcome to the end of week one of summer camp! So far we've had levitating dance parties, played invisible hide-and-seek, set things on fire with our minds--sometimes even intentionally, right Malik?" He winked at a kid in the audience.
The kid looked a little sheepish, but he was smiling when he said, "Right, Raz!"
"So today, we have a special campwide challenge in store! I've set up an obstacle course in my mind, and the first group to figure out all the challenges and make it to the goal will be the winner! Are you all ready?"
The cheers of the campers drowned out Monica's protest that her group hadn't technically learned any psychic abilities yet, and then Head Counselor Raz was turning on the machine, drawing them all into his mind.
She landed in a…circus? Monica looked around. Big tent, three rings, trapeze, tightrope wires, nets, some weird thing in the corner blowing balloons…okay she didn't know what that was, but everything else screamed "circus."
"It makes sense," Smith said, smoothing her already immaculate hair. "Lead Agent Razputin's dossier said that he grew up in the circus."
"My guess is we should be aiming…there," Monica said, pointing to a big neon green sign high up on a pole. "Or whatever."
Some kid she didn't know bumped into her on his way to a ladder. "Sorry!" he said. "You're the new kids, right? Don't worry; this should all end when someone hits the goal, so you guys just sit tight and wait for one of us to win it, okay?" He ran off, leaving a fuming Monica behind.
"Oh, it is so on. Let's go," she said, running for the nearest ladder and trusting her teammates to follow. All the other campers were already partway up the obstacle course.
"Wait," Smith said, and pointed to Bluestone.
He was ignoring them all, eyes up and scanning the different paths, and Monica thought she could actually see his weirdo pattern-seeking brain kicking into overdrive. "That way's a dead end. We want to go…there." He pointed to a smaller ladder in the corner.
They raced to the ladder and started to climb. It might just be ego talking, but Monica thought that they were doing much better than the other teams. Bluestone picked the best paths, Monica called out orders, Smith kept them in line, Bergan was their fearless frontrunner, and Skye made the group at least 10% cooler by his very presence.
Besides that, they all seemed faster, better at climbing, quicker at running, so their route up the ladders, across the ropes, around the corners on the trapeze, all went by in a blur.
They reached the top of a platform that held six person-sized canons, all aimed at the net below the glowing green sign. They all climbed inside. "Ready to win this?" Monica asked as the fuses burned down.
"Eff tee doubleyew!" Bergan cheered.
Just before the canons went off, they all flipped over backwards, aimed at six red target signs on a wall.
"Eff em ell," Bergan said darkly, and then the canons went off and Monica blacked out.
When she woke up, she was in a shopping mall. She looked around in awe. "I always knew heaven'd be like this," she said to herself, and laughed a little. "Where is everyone?"
She peered down the main walkway, but it looked like she was the only normal person here. There were other shoppers, but they were kind of glowy and two-dimensional, and they moved around in regular, repeating patterns.
"Excuse me," Monica said, reaching out to touch one of them. It disappeared with a pop.
"Those are just figments if your imagination. Oof. They're not real," some boy said. Monica's head rose up with a start. "Um. Little help here?"
Monica noticed something moving in one of the clothes store, and then she realized there was a boy in glasses helplessly tangled in a rack of clothes. She moved to help him.
"So you think we're in someone's mind?" Monica asked, unhooking a clothes hanger from the kid's shirt.
"I'm pretty sure we're stuck in your mind," the kid said. He plucked a more intimate piece of clothing off of his shirt and blushed a little.
"How do you know it's not your mind, or Raz's?" Monica asked, mainly because she was feeling difficult.
"Number one: I already escaped from my mind. Number two:" He pointed to a big pink neon sign outside the store's entrance. It read Monica's Mall.
"Well. How do you know I'm Monica?" Monica asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
"Because I'm in Counselor Mikhail's group?" the boy said. "Remember? Quentin? You borrowed a pen from me at registration, and I held your feet during the first day of training with Counselor Mikhail?"
Quentin sighed. "It's okay. That's kind of my thing, making people not notice me. We think it's a subconscious manifestation of my power. I'm lucky my mom remembered me long enough to sign me up for camp."
"Oh." Monica blinked a few times. She still didn't remember. "I'm sorry?"
"S'okay." Quentin shrugged. "It has its upsides, sometimes. Now, can we figure out a way to get out of here? I've got smelling salts, but I think that's only good for one of us."
Monica took another look around the store and noticed something that looked promising. "Exit signs?"
"Works for me." They set off together, following the signs.
"So, what are--ooh, cute top!" She focused again. "Sorry. What's the upside to being not noticed?"
"Well…" Quentin said coyly. "For one thing, nobody noticed that I never showed up after the first day of Counselor Mikhail's training, right?"
Monica froze, then whapped Quentin upside the head. "Jerk."
Quentin laughed. "Yeah, maybe."
He pushed open the door the exit a crack, and they peeked through together. It led to a big warehouse behind the mall, filled with boxes and boxes of clothes on conveyor belts. There were little men with briefcases and thick-framed glasses running around the floor.
One of the little men ran through the crack in the door up and up to Monica. It said "NO" in a funny, mechanical voice, and raised a stamp in its fist.
"Look out!" Quentin said, and punted the little man into the wall. It broke apart into little glowing balls, which faded away after a few seconds.
"What the heck was that?"
"Bad news. Beyond that? I'm not entirely sure what they do, but they were in my mind, too, and they really hurt if they hit you. Just give them a good kick and they'll leave you alone." He put his hand back on the door handle. "Ready?"
Monica nodded, and the two entered the back room. There was a bright door in the back that somewhat reminded her of the escape hatch in Counselor Mikhail's mind.
They jumped on the conveyor belt heading towards the exit. As they neared the back of the room, they saw a line of robots that looked very much like Monica, only twice as large and entirely made of metal. Each box of clothing paused as it reached the robot, which scanned it with a red beam of light.
"Cool," the robot said in a monotone, and let it pass down the line.
"Cool," it also said about the next box, which also passed safely.
The next box was deemed, "Cool."
The next box slid up. "Ugh. Uncool." The robot's cutely manicured hand turned into a laser pistol which shot the box, disintegrating it into a pile of dust.
Quentin blanched. "And here I chose you first because I thought your mind was the most normal!" He smiled weakly and gave Monica a little wave. "Sorry. Good luck." And with that, he disappeared.
"What? Where did you--" But she didn't have time to yell because it was her turn to get scanned.
The red light went off. "Oh no no no, honey," the robot tsked, its steel wool pigtails bouncing as it shook its head. "A babydoll shirt over capris? With your height? That's a definite fashion disaster."
"What?" Monica said between clenched teeth. She didn't even care about the laser being pointed at her. A giant psychic hand popped up behind her.
The hand swung forward and slammed into the robot, knocking its head off its shoulders.
"Come on," Quentin said, reappearing and tugging at Monica's arm. "Let's get going before the others come after us."
He dragged her through the doorway while she yelled, "Anyone else want to criticize my fashion sense? Come on! I'll take you all on!"
"Man, my mind is such a jerk!" Monica fumed. "It's so judgmental and stuck up and obsessed with what's cool and--" She noticed Quentin was smirking. "Oh, shut up." She looked around--they were in a long, suspended hallway with many weird doors along its sides. "Where are we?"
"Dunno. I'm pretty sure that one's the exit," he pointed to the biggest door, "and the others lead to people's minds, but other than that, I'm kind of guessing."
"You're still doing pretty good. Don't think I forgot that invisibility trick." She pointed an accusing finger. "How'd you do that, anyway?"
Quentin blinked innocently, but gave that up after a few more seconds of accusative finger. "We all have the ability; you just need one of these merit badges to give you permission to use it here." He slung the backpack off his shoulders and pointed to the patches.
"Levitation…invisibility…pyrokinesis…you earned all of these?" Monica was impressed.
"What? No, I stole it off the same kid I ganked the smelling salts from." He gave her a cheese-eating grin.
"Another advantage to never being noticed?" Monica asked, and thwapped him upside the head again.
Quentin coughed awkwardly and said, "I'll take what I can get. Now you've got the raw power thing down, so should we help Bluestone or Smith next? Bluestone's the smartest, but Smith is pretty sharp too and much less easy to distract, so she might be the most useful to--"
"We free Skye," Monica said.
"But he--" Monica's face allowed no question. "Fine, I guess he'll be of some use helping the others. Somehow. Maybe."
It was easy enough finding his door--it had big music notes carved into it, and besides, they felt an instinctive push to go towards doors of people they knew.
Monica pushed open the door and nearly went deaf.
She didn't know what was worse--the drums that shook her bones, the tubas that rattled her teeth, the high-pitched accordions that she could hear no matter how hard she pressed her hands against her ears, or the fact that they all were playing polka.
"What's going on?" she yelled.
Quentin yelled something back, but she couldn't hear what he said.
She stomped away from the instruments by the entrance to where things were marginally quieter.
"Where is he?" she yelled.
Quentin pointed to a platform way up high. A big sign above it stated "Dempkowski's Polka Party." Monica gave Quentin a look that said "You've got to be kidding me," and he shrugged to indicate he had no better ideas. The main source of the problem was that, unlike Raz's circus tent, there were no obvious ways up.
Monica frowned in thought, and that plus the noise were enough of a distraction that she didn't notice the little men in glasses walking up behind her.
Two of them grabbed her hands and swung her around in a circle. She had enough time to puzzle at the fact they were wearing lederhosen, and then she was being flung at a large, open tuba.
She righted herself just in time to see the two of them coming at her and Quentin turning invisible again. "Oh no," she said, executing a perfect reverse thumb grab on her two assailants, "You do not get to invisible your way out of this one!" She threw one of the little men at a drum and the other at the empty spot where Quentin used to be.
This accomplished three things: the little men both burst into little balls of light, the drum made a huge noise as a large musical note floated up into the sky, and Quentin turned visible again.
Monica held out a hand. "Backpack," she demanded. Quentin pretended not to understand. "Back. Pack," she repeated, enunciating the words so he could read her lips, and he sadly shrugged the backpack off and put it in her hand. She glared at him one more time, just for good measure.
She glanced at the patches again. Clairvoyance, not really useful…Concussion Blasts, whatever those were…Psi Blasts? Awesome. She dug into all of the frustration she'd felt for the past week and turned it into firepower. Five little men in lederhosen exploded into light. It was glorious. "Yeah!" she yelled. "I learned that one from a camp chef, how do you like that?"
With no more things trying to attack her, she turned her attention to the skies. What had one of the patches said…Levitation? Worth a shot. She concentrated and pulled out a little sphere of light. She stood on it, balancing unsteadily, and mentally pushed herself into the air.
She got about three feet before she fell back down again.
She tried again, and made it maybe three and a half feet.
Her third try ended with her butt on the floor.
"Why couldn't it have been Flight?" she griped, giving the patches another look to see if anything sparked an idea.
In the meantime, Quentin had walked over to the giant drum and was inspecting it thoroughly. He gave the drum head a little tap and a giant musical note popped out of it and floated up. Making a face, he jumped and wrapped his arms around the note, letting it lift him up. "Monica!" he yelled, and wiggled his eyebrows at her when she looked up at him.
"Nice," she said, and gave the drum a mighty thump. Another musical note floated out, and she latched onto it as well.
They floated up, up, up, until the sound of polka music was far, far beneath them. Monica wished the note would move faster; her arms hurt and she was in a hurry.
"I think I see a flaw in my plan," Quentin said from above her.
"I think our strength here is related to our strength out there. Not like our muscles really matter, but our belief that our muscles are strong make them strong," he said.
Monica looked up and noticed that Quentin was really struggling to hold on. "Quentin?"
"And I've skipped pretty much every PE class I possibly could…" he said, and fell.
"Quentin!" Monica yelled, making a wild grab for him as he fell past, but she missed him completely and almost fell off herself.
He disappeared before he hit the ground.
"Dammit, dammit, dammit," she kept repeating for the next five minutes.
Skye was happily bopping his head along to the music when he reached the top. He quickly wiped the smile off his face and brushed the hair into his face so he could casually flick it out of his eyes. "Monica. Good thing you showed up; I don't think I could stand this music for much longer."
Monica rolled her eyes and jumped off the floating music note, which popped like a bubble. "Come on. Is there a door anywhere around here?"
"Really, this polka's not my thing at all!" Skye insisted.
"Focus. Door." She found one between the bratwurst stand and the beermaiden figment. "Let's go," she said, and dragged Skye through using telekinesis.
"Um…" Skye said. Monica looked at him impatiently. "So, about that polka thing…."
"Whatever," Monica said. "We've got three people to break out of their minds and we're already a man down. The plan is to find their door, sneak into their mind, find them, find the door out of their mind, repeat. Once we've got everyone, we can go through the big door. Can you think of any powers you'd like to use? I've got pretty much all of them."
"Tell me if you decide. Do you see any doors that look kind of familiar?" They walked down the hallway together.
"That one!" Skye said suddenly. "That's got to be Bergan's!"
"Sounds good," Monica said, and opened the door with a big paw print on it.
The world was in black and white, and tinny piano music played in the background.
[Where do you think Bergan is?] Monica asked--or tried to ask. Instead of speaking, the words she said showed up on a placard in front of her. [Huh?]
[That's really weird.] Skye's sign read. [Testing. Chrysanthemum. She sells seashells by the seashore.]
She was saved further testing when a large bipedal cat wearing a top hat and monocle strolled up to them. [Pardon me, good sirs and/or madams] read the cat's placard. [Would I be correct in assuming you are looking for our beloved mistress and/or leader of this land, Lolcatia?]
[Yes, thank you] Monica emoted politely.
[Right this way, sirs and/or madams] the cat messaged, then turned for them to follow, tapping its cane at a steady pace.
He led them to a very large, very long white cat stretched along a piece of metal. A ladder extended down from its side, and the three climbed up and sat on its back. [I hope you find our monorail system both comfortable and convenient.] read the guide cat's sign. [There ought to have been a service car with various confections for you, but sadly, we have already partaken of all the comestibles. Our deepest apologies.]
[That's fine] Monica's sign read. [We ate before we got here.]
[Very well.] The monorail cat pulled into the station. [I must leave you here. Please feel free to leave any questions/concerns/complaints/circle one with the manager.]
[Wait! Where's Bergan?] Monica's sign asked.
The guide cat drew himself up to his full height, placing a paw over his heart. [She is in our tower, watching our people.]
They looked up and saw a tower rising high into the sky. Monica despaired a little and prepared herself to climb.
[Pardon me, sirs and/or madams] read the sign in front of a large white cat sitting on its hind legs next to the tower. [Would you care for a lift circle one yes/no]
[Yes, thank you] Monica's sign said, and she neatly sat herself on one of the cat's extended arms. Skye hopped onto the other one. Slowly, the cat began to stretch itself into the sky.
[Monica, I really hope you don't hold what you saw in my mind against me] Skye's placard read. [Polka is so not me. I don't care about its hypnotic beats and infective rhythm and the subtleties of the…]
Monica looked out over the world below. It was actually very cheerful, very helpful, very vibrant for all that it lacked color, and it made her feel a little bad about the state of her own mind. It also made her think about Quentin, a little, and wonder if he was okay. He probably was. Maybe. Sure, the camp was run by crazy people, Counselor Mikhail especially, but they wouldn't let kids get seriously hurt, would they? And it looked like Counselor Mikhail had actually been training them all along, giving them discipline and strong minds and bodies, like in that movie about that guy who taught that kid stuff. Or whatever. She sighed and looked back at Skye's placard.
[…so I was hoping you wouldn't tell anyone about…]
The long cat reached the top of the tower.
[Thank you] Monica and Skye's signs both read.
"Sorry, our princess is in another castle!" Bergan said cheerfully, and laughed. "Just kidding! I wasn't sure if I should leave and go find you guys, or stay put and wait for you to find me." She giggled and opened a hatch in the ceiling. "Come on, let's go find the others!"
She climbed through, and Monica and Skye both followed, tumbling up out of the hatch and back to the line of doors.
"Smith and Bluestone are the only ones left. Can you find their doors anywhere?" Monica said as they walked down the aisle.
Skye sidled up to Monica. "I think my next song is going to be called There's a Reason These Doors are Unlabeled, You Just Haven't--"
"Yeah, that's not really going to work on me anymore," Monica said, shutting him down.
"Thur!" Bergan said, pointing at a door marked with yellow caution tape.
"Is that…Smith's?" Skye asked.
"Feels kind of like Bluestone's," Monica said.
But that didn't matter, because Bergan was already kicking down the door and rushing in.
The world around them was made of newsprint, everything typed in a bold courier font that left smudges on Monica's fingers when she rubbed them on the wall. The strangest part of it, however, was how all the names and dates on the papers were blocked out by censor bars. Even the photographs had black bars over the people's eyes.
"It's kind of creepy," Monica said, winding her hand around a yellow plastic strip that read "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS" in big black letters.
"Where do you think ████ is?" Skye asked, and blinked in surprise at the muted word.
"Let's hurry up and get out of here," Monica said, and followed where the plastic line led. Bergan rocketed ahead of them and stopped when she reached a big knot of yellow plastic strips. "This place is worse than ████."
"Do you think ████ or ████ is inside?" Skye asked.
"We'll see," Monica said, and used her Telekinesis to pull on a thread at the top of the knot. The knot fell apart, revealing Smith and Bluestone inside.
They were making out.
"Oh for the love of--" Monica began, gagging a little.
Bergan walked up to them. "I c wut u did thur," she said, getting up close and personal while grinning manically. That, at least, got them to stop.
"Oh. Excuse me," Smith said, tidying herself. "We were just--"
"--looking for the ████," Bluestone finished.
"O rly?" asked Bergan, a sly smile on her face.
"Yes. Well. Let's go," Smith said, and walked to a heavily armored door beyond the fallen knot. She typed in a 7 digit code, and the door slid open. They all walked through, back into the hallway, and then through the main door and out to freedom.
When they were dumped back in the camp, Quentin was waiting for them outside. "Hey."
"Visible frend!" Bergan cried, and gave him a hug.
"You're okay!" Monica cheered.
Quentin held up the smelling salts. "Good for one person's exit, remember?"
Monica hit him upside the head again. "You jerk, I was worried!"
Quentin ducked and protected his head, laughing. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Smith frowned. "This is…"
"Quentin," Monica introduced. "He's the sixth member of our team."
"I'm not very memorable," Quentin said. "It's a thing I do."
A random camper running by noticed them. "Hey, you guys finally made it out! Took you long enough. Most of us have been here for, like, hours."
Monica debated setting his hair on fire, but got distracted by a glowing pink thing behind him. "Um. What the heck is that?"
"Sweet! A mental cobweb! I can totally get a card for that!" He took out what looked like an old fashioned vacuum cleaner and sucked up the cobweb. "Thanks! Later."
"Wait," Monica said. "What?"
"A mental cobweb," Bluestone said. "It's a remnant found in the neglected corners of a person's mind, which means…"
"…we're still in someone's mind," Smith finished in a dark monotone.
"…dammit!" Monica said, again, with feeling.
"I used a smelling salt to get here, so that's not a way out," Quentin said.
"Should we start trying doors?" Skye suggested.
"There's only, like, a hundred of them in camp," Monica said, her eyes landing on a cave opposite the geodesic whatsitcallit. "No, there's only one way out of here for us, and I think you know what I mean." She strode towards the cave, and the intimidating growl that came from within only made her blood boil hotter.
She took the backpack off her shoulder and started ripping off the patches.
She handed the Clairvoyance one to Bluestone. "You're our strategy guy. You find out what it's going to do and tell us how to react."
"Got it," Bluestone said, pocketing the badge.
She gave Skye the Pyrokinesis badge. "Time to prove you've got emo depths in you, polka boy."
"I'll show you what I've got," Skye said, flicking the hair out of his eyes.
Bergan got the Levitation badge. "You're the fastest of us, so run circles around it and keep it distracted, okay?"
"For grate justis!" Bergan said, and laughed.
She gave the next badge to Smith. "I'm not sure what this does, but it's got something to do with fear or confusion, and there's noone scarier than you."
"Mission accepted," Smith said, a vaguely frightening glint in her eye.
At last, Monica pressed the Invisibility badge into Quentin's hand. "Don't bail on us," she warned.
"I probably won't," Quentin said, and disappeared.
Monica fingered the Psi Blast badge. "As for me, I've got a week's worth of bad food, hard labor, and total frustration to blast out."
They all took positions outside the cave. "Okay, guys," Monica said. "Let's go. Defeat. Bear."
Counselor Mikhail beamed at his campers. "Am so proud, like mama bear on first day baby bears leave nest."
"You six have earned Honorary Psi-Cadet In Training badges," Head Counselor Raz said, handing each of them a patch. "Congratulations!"
"So what does this badge mean?" Monica whispered to Bluestone, who was the most likely to know.
"Absolutely nothing," he whispered back.
"Of course, I am going to have to ask for your other badges back, until you earn them for real," Raz continued. All the kids groaned. "But at the rate you guys are going, that shouldn't be long at all!"
"Hey, shouldn't there be six of you?"
"Where's Quentin?" Monica whispered to Bergan, who shrugged.
"Wait, where are my goggles?" Raz said suddenly, hands patting at the blank spot on his forehead.
"Never mind," Monica whispered again.
Raz quickly excused himself and ran off in search of his elusive headgear.
Counselor Mikhail moved to the front of the group. "This week, you have learned many important things. You have learned teamwork. You have learned ingenuity. You have learned many effective techniques with which to take down bear. You have also learned that there are many hidden layers to the mind, very secret places few can go."
"Wait," Monica said. "So the camp simulation was really just the inner workings of Head Counselor Raz's mind?"
"This is true," Counselor Mikhail said.
"Wow," Monica said. "Nurse Bubai was right. Raz really is a giant dork."
Counselor Mikhail leaned in, as if to share a secret. "Now, if you would like, you will be allowed to see inner workings of my mind." Before they had a chance to agree, he slapped the door on his forehead and drew them all into his mind again.
The world was blank except for the dancing bear.
"What?" Monica was very put out. "This is exactly the same!"
"No," said Counselor Mikhail. "Look closely. Bear is now wearing hat. Is very silly, this inner part of my mind."
Monica looked around her. Bergan was dancing wildly with the bear. Skye was happily tapping his foot in time with the music. Quentin was gone again. Bluestone and Smith were off…she didn't want to think about it. And she was left talking with Counselor Mikhail.
Yes, it was official.
This was the worst summer ever.