The dense wilderness was ominous and silent. Thick trees and crippling underbrush stood out everywhere, swallowing and choking any spaces for movement. The ground was moist, and the humid air was heavy and swollen. In the midst of all of this there were no cries of wildlife; no birds trilled and no cicadas whirred. The stillness that denied the presence of creatures also gave the jungle its own, vibrant sort of life. A life that would stalk in the high grasses, its tail swishing in anticipation. A life that was hungry.
Adam Prime took a deep breath of the gagging air with a thin-lipped smile. He’d been bruised by that last attack, but not incapacitated. His fingers dug little trenches in the mucky soil. His jumpsuit was stained in green, black, and brown from his attempts at subterfuge. But despite his filthy state, he felt victorious.
“Is that the best you can do, Trader?” he crowed.
Adam was crouched in the foliage, icy eyes peering out through the brush with triumphant glee. He wasn’t camouflaged well; his pale skin and hair kept him visible through the dark branches and sufficient light. Evan and Charlotte had yet to spot him, for all of their grand projecting. Only Nathaniel had spotted him, and even after that, his attack had been less than impressive. That didn’t stop him from continuing to move, doing all that he could to bring another assault. Adam laughed softly.
He reached out in his mind, and with a slash of his hand he willed the ground beneath Nathaniel to shift, and the other boy fell to his knees with a cry of shock. Adam laughed and pounced forward, hurdling low branches. Nathaniel turned and tried to send back a mental defense, but it was too late; Adam was upon him, binding him down with a deal of effort. His will overpowered Nathaniel’s, and his friend was unable to move.
“Stop squirming,” Adam said, winking. Nathaniel grunted sourly, but did as he was told. Adam raised his head. “Bull! Princess!” he cried out, mocking the others with nicknames he’d hung upon them. “I have your ally! I think now would be the time to surrender, unless you want him to die!”
He winked again at Nathaniel, who responded by rolling his eyes. “Come on, now, I know it’s a bit theatrical, but without you, they don’t even have a puncher’s chance.”
“Your problem is always the same,” Nathaniel said through gritted teeth. “Just because you’re the first doesn’t mean you’ll always be the best.”
Adam laughed. “Hush now, little one. You can lecture me on being the best after I decide it’s time to let you go.”
“There’s still two of us!” came a shrill, defiant voice. Charlotte was significantly less talented than Adam, but her stubbornness knew no match. She had the height of her Celestial father, but the coloring of her human mother. She also carried a chip on her shoulder, being one of the few female Hybrids in Camp Alexandreta.
Evan, meanwhile, said nothing. It was actually hard to tell that he was a Hybrid at all, as he had inherited all of his human father’s characteristics. He was tall and broad of shoulder, with curly black hair and a thick jaw. His eyes were hazel, perhaps with a touch of his mother’s amber, but otherwise he seemed totally normal. He did bear some telepathic abilities, though they were very raw and not incredibly strong. He was kindhearted, and therefore, a target for many of Adam’s pranks.
“Well, well, the she-devil can count!” Adam replied, laughing. “And Bull, what say you?” He paused, his smirk widening. “As usual, our Bull remains silent! By all means, Princess, make your move! I’m waiting ever so patiently!”
“You really can be quite full of yourself, did you know that?” Nathaniel remarked. He was beginning to sound grumpy. “You think you could ease up a bit? It’s muddy down here.”
Adam wagged a finger at him. “No such luck, Trader. Mud washes off. Of all people to ease up on out here, I’m afraid you are at the bottom of the list.” He cocked his head to the side. “I don’t fault you for trying, though. Deception is a new thing for you.”
“Not deceptive, Adam. It’s just kind of gross down here.”
“Mmm hmm. Be a good boy and hush for me, okay?” Adam was crouching and listening intently. He knew that Charlotte would bring her best. The girl was nothing if not determined. He lowered beside Nathaniel, peering about for the slightest hint of someone nearby. “They are getting better, you know. I can see it. But they aren’t close to us, Nathaniel. I don’t know if they ever will be.”
“You told me to hush. Am I supposed to respond to that?”
Adam responded with muffled laughter.
He heard something shift nearby, and he released a prepared defense. An unseen force rushed past him, missing entirely due to his defenses, and he threw his will forward, and Charlotte let out a unceremonious shriek of disappointment. Adam lunged forward, and he could see her, and his will was ensnaring her, holding her down. She desperately fought against it, but the look in her eyes was already one of defeat.
It was then that something projected in Adam’s mind – a hideous, bloodstained face, screaming in agony and terror – and he flinched. His will remained strong on Charlotte, and he was gasping for breath. What in the world? he thought, pushing the image away, and then something huge and powerful was lifting him from the ground and throwing him forward. Adam had time for a howl of dismay before landing in a boggy pile, his pale face and hair a ruined mess. He tried to lash back at the force holding him, but then something else joined it, and he was bound. He growled in frustration.
There was a shift in the bushes in front of him, and a broad-shouldered boy with curly hair and an honest face was looking down upon him with an expression of mixed satisfaction and curiosity. Nathaniel and Charlotte brought up the rear. Charlotte wore a smile of victory, while Nathaniel simply shook his head and smiled down at his friend.
“Didn’t think Evan could take your eyes off of the prize, did you?” Nathaniel asked, breathing heavily. Charlotte laughed, and gave him a high-five. Nathaniel’s head tilted as he looked down upon Adam and winked. “You totally ignored him. To your defeat, I might add.”
“Clever Bull,” Adam groused. Evan only shrugged his shoulders.
“You once said that our greatest strengths should be our primary weapon,” Evan replied. “I might have brought a knife to the gunfight, but you forgot about me.”
“Stabbed me in the back, did you?” Adam inquired.
“Don’t complain because we finally took you down,” Charlotte retorted. “You knew it would happen soon enough. You can’t be that arrogant.”
Nathaniel laughed. “How well do you know him?”
“Ouch. Your words sting, Trader,” Adam spat, but he couldn’t hold onto his frustration. Soon they were all laughing. Adam admitted defeat, and Charlotte and Nathaniel removed their binds from him.
They walked through the forest, soiled and winded, and toward a door, nestled against an outcropping of rocks. Nathaniel took the handle – a huge, brass, hooked contraption – and twisted it. As the door opened, cool air and stale light spilled from its opening, bathing them in the comforts of their home. They stepped through and into a hallway.
The interior of Camp Alexandreta was a long, naked, beige hallway, devoid of any sort of decoration. Adam often joked that Alexandreta was a place where creativity went to die; in truth, there was a lot of encouragement to be creative, despite the blandness of most of the wings. The quad, for instance, had a lot of different activities going on, with the Hybrids doing all sorts of things to keep themselves brotherly. But here, in the training area, it was all about business, and there was no place for anything to stand out and distract the Hybrids from their studies.
Nathaniel pulled the door shut, and they turned to face Dr. Crow and a pair of other men, both holding clipboards and writing furiously. Dr. Crow looked displeased. “Is that what you think the purpose of the training room is, students?” he asked with raised eyebrows. “To plod around and see how hard you can hit one another?”
“I figured better in the training room than in the cafeteria,” Adam quipped. Charlotte covered her mouth, and Evan and Nathaniel snorted laughter.
“Prime has jokes. Always jokes.” Crow grumbled. He stood before the first Hybrid, glaring up at him. “But Prime doesn’t have as good a handle as he thinks on blocking out mental distractions, or Prime would have been able to handle Evan without the slightest problem.”
“Doctor,” Nathaniel began.
“No, not now, Nathaniel,” Crow said, holding up his hand. He was still glaring at Adam with disapproval. “You are the strongest one here…for now. In time, some of the others will probably surpass you. The more time you spend showboating will only make it harder for you to master the basics. How do you expect to fit in with life on Earth if you can’t block out images? If you’re in a crowd of people, how will you even manage to not stop and gape at them all as you hear and see their thoughts?”
“I won’t reach out,” Adam said stiffly.
“You won’t have to!” Crow bellowed. “Humans project thoughts without even trying, and there will be so many of them it will overtake you. All of these gifts you so casually perform for us will be next to useless if you’re standing around, staring at everything pouring in on you.” He shook his head. “I’ve told you before, Adam, and though I doubt you’ll listen, I’ll tell you again: I’m not here to make sure you’re the strongest Hybrid. I’m here to make sure that you will be able to adapt and live amongst the humans.” He sighed. “Try to remember that.”
Crow and his companions turned and walked away, the others still writing furiously and Crow giving them terse responses to any questions. Nathaniel, Charlotte, and Evan looked at one another, abashed. Adam wouldn’t meet their questioning gazes.
When one of them finally spoke, it was Nathaniel, like always. “Adam, we’re sorry.”
“For what?” Adam replied. He gave them all a leisurely smile, and hoped that they weren’t probing his thoughts to see the anger that was raging inside of him. “Crow’s never liked me. He never will. You think I’m worried about what that old goat has to say? Please.”
In no time at all, they were all laughing and joking again, heading back to their rooms to change out of grimy jumpsuits. Evan suggested raiding the cafeteria to see if any of yesterday’s dessert was still in there. Charlotte talked about getting back to studying, much to the chagrin of the others. Nathaniel didn’t suggest anything; like usual, he was just happy to be in the company of friends.
Adam laughed and jibed at the right spots, telling Evan his idea was great and giving Charlotte a look of disapproval at the thought of studies. He threw and arm around Nathaniel casually and gave his best friend a brotherly hug as they sauntered along the hallways. But in the depths of his heart, Adam felt a hot bitterness, as the words of Dr. Crow replayed over and over.