“What are those reports Mikey was giving to Sky?” asked Zack as he stepped into the elevator with Weston and Madison.
At that, Madison became a little uneasy. “A cyber attack. I heard it interfered with a signal during a video meeting, but – it's a hacker delivering a threat.”
“Wow, a hacker,” said Weston, startled. “Have there been incidents where hackers intrude into Gladiators?”
“There have been,” said Madison, as the lift stopped on the fiftieth floor and they stepped out. “Even now, we're testing Gladiators' resistance against hackers. Especially malicious hackers.”
After five minutes of gloating at the sight of the city on the glass passage towards the dome, they came into the dome as a blast of cold air brushed past them, and they saw a shadow jumping backwards from another shadow. The first shadow was in the middle of exchanging a bow for a sword at his waist. That seemed like something complicated to do, but he did it.
"Chris!” Madison called. The first figure only twitched at her voice, but still kept his eyes on the second shadow. Then he turned and sprang off the arena with a sharp movement, and the other shadow vanished.
Then he signalled to a girl who sat up on one of the seats as he came over to them.
“Really, you scared me there,” he laughed. Then he turned to Zack and Weston. “Hello.”
“Hi, I'm Zack,” said Zack.
“Sky's brother? I kept an eye on you the first day you were sent into the hospital, you know,” said Chris, grinning at him. “I was trying to link you to Gladiators.”
“Uh – that means I can Gladiate at the Dome now?” Zack asked.
“Go ahead when you want to,” said Chris.
At that moment, the girl appeared. Zack suddenly recognized her as that girl he ran into and who gave him the directions to find his brother. She recognized him too, and when she saw him, her eyes widened.
“I'm sorry about being rude the other day,” she gasped. “I don't mean to snap and attack you like that, but the errand was a rush job, so I was worried about returning late. The project your brother and my mentor were working on was something important that I have to help with.”
“You guys know each other?” Weston asked, looking from him to the girl.
“No, we just ran into each other,” said Zack. “I don't even know her name.”
“I'm Astrid Lansing, assistant to the chief programmer,” said the girl. “The chief, and my mentor, by the way, is Madison.”
“-Who fixes all those bugs in the game, right?” said Zack.
“Yeah,” said Astrid. “I'm under her training.”
“Astrid also wants to be a programmer,” said Weston. “So . . . I guess you could say that she's one of the few lucky young prodigies to be invited to work at the Synchron Organization. She's a quick learner, and she's already in charge of the newest battlefield of the virtual reality world. I'm surprised you even know what Madison does, Zack.”
Zack shrugged. “You two know each other already? Astrid and Weston?”
“I run into him once in a while,” said Astrid.
“I still think of her as a weirdo who runs around for everyone doing errands,” said Weston.
Astrid smacked him in the back.
“You're in the middle of the Reflection program?” Zack turned to the arena with a glance at Chris.
“That's right,” said Chris. “We're giving this a try, since Sky was going nowhere. And so far, even I'm going nowhere, but I'm faring way better than he was.”
Then Astrid stepped forward. “Say, Zack, Gladiate me.”
It was more of a command than a request, and was said so abruptly that there was a moment of silence before Zack got it: a pulse of energy was emitting from her.
He slowly smirked. “Accepted.”
“Huh? What? You're going to Gladiate?” said Weston, startled. “But you just got out of hospital, Zack!”
“I'm fine, see?” said Zack, going for his Gladiator key. “Anyway, even a little fight couldn't hurt.”
The key morphed into a sheathed sword and Zack tied it to his belt with a leather cord.
“We're going to use the arena,” said Astrid.
“Okay,” said Madison.
“Can't you stop them?” asked Weston.
Chris grinned, and Weston almost froze in surprise at the nature of the smile: challenging, eager, brash. “Why stop them? They're not going to anyway. You would accept if you were him, won't you, Weston Ingram?”
Weston almost flinched. “How do you know my name?”
“You were pretty famous for a hot temper in that Dome next door, and I did a little research on you, since you got him to a hospital fast. Your reputation and money sure did a favor.”
“Your point being, rich people are lucky?” said Weston.
“My point being, you're a good friend to Sky's brother. Thanks for getting him to the hospital fast.”
Weston almost turned red at the misunderstanding, just as the arena glowed and flashed a light on the ground, and Madison opened a wall of hologram screens complete with keyboards as Zack and Astrid stepped into the arena.
Zack drew Galadhar and turned to face Astrid, studying her and her sword. Astrid's sword was white, with a silver blade, and gold feathers carved onto the hilt. It was slender, and slightly shorter than Zack's.
The Gladiators' clothes shifted and changed, Zack in Galadhar's easy emsemble, Astrid in a sleeveless dark green coat, a pink dress, and brown boots.
“What's the name of your weapon?”
“Archaeryx,” said Astrid and smiled.
Zack blinked, before gasping, “What the hell?!”
Before he could say another word, Astrid sprinted straight at him.
With a gasp, he managed to block the sword. Astrid dealt two blows against Galadhar with Archaeryx before springing backwards and slashing at the air in front of her.
There was a flash of light, as yellow energy sliced right at him.
Zack was barely able to dodge it, but did escape it.
“Energy?” he asked.
“HYAAH!” Astrid yelled, swinging her sword at him.
Gritting his teeth, Zack blocked and parried, then returned and thrust his sword at her.
But she was equally agile and sidestepped from his thrust while swinging her sword upwards and smacking up his sword.
Then she sprang backwards and raised her sword.
At that, sparks of gold light erupted around her and Zack blinked again, squinting at what those lights were.
With a wave of Archaeryx, Astrid sent a flight of them towards him.
Zack gasped and sprang aside, dodging them and then dropping to the floor as they flew over him.
“Why'd you dodge?” asked Astrid, with a light smile. “They're feathers, right?”
Zack couldn't help feeling indignant. “Feathers?! As if! They're blades!”