"It only works on wild animals."
"So it would only affect Percy," Annabeth reasoned.
"Hey!" I protested.
"Kidding," she said. "Come on. Let's get out of this filthy truck."
We stumbled out into the desert afternoon. It was a hundred and ten degrees, easy, and we must've looked like deep-fried vagrants, but everybody was too interested in the wild animals to pay us much attention.
We passed the Monte Carlo and the MGM. We passed pyramids, a pirate ship, and the Statue of Liberty, which was a pretty small replica, but still made me homesick.
I wasn't sure what we were looking for. Maybe just a place to get out of the heat for a few minutes, find a sandwich and a glass of lemonade, make a new plan for getting west.
We must have taken a wrong turn, because we found ourselves at a dead end, standing in front of the Lotus Hotel and Casino. The entrance was a huge neon flower, the petals lighting up and blinking. No one was going in or out, but the glittering chrome doors were open, spilling out air-conditioning that smelled like flowers—lotus blossom, maybe. I'd never smelled one, so I wasn't sure.
The doorman smiled at us. "Hey, kids. You look tired. You want to come in and sit down?"
I'd learned to be suspicious, the last week or so. I figured anybody might be a monster or a god. You just couldn't tell. But this guy was normal. One look at him, and I could see. Besides, I was so relieved to hear somebody who sounded sympathetic that I nodded and said we'd love to come in. Inside, we took one look around, and Grover said, "Whoa."
The whole lobby was a giant game room. And I'm not talking about cheesy old Pac-Man games or slot machines. There was an indoor waterslide snaking around the glass elevator, which went straight up at least forty floors. There was a climbing wall on the side of one building, and an indoor bungee-jumping bridge. There were virtual-reality suits with working laser guns. And hundreds of video games, each one the size of a widescreen TV. Basically, you name it, this place had it. There were a few other kids playing, but not that many. No waiting for any of the games. There were waitresses and snack bars all around, serving every kind of food you can imagine.
"Hey!" a bellhop said. At least I guessed he was a bellhop. He wore a white-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt with lotus designs, shorts, and flip-flops. "Welcome to the Lotus Casino. Here's your room key."
I stammered, "Um, but..."
"No, no," he said, laughing. "The bill's taken care of. No extra charges, no tips. Just go on up to the top floor, loom 4001. If you need anything, like extra bubbles for the hot tub, or skeet targets for the shooting range, or whatever, just call the front desk. Here are your LotusCash cards. They work in the restaurants and on all the games and rides."
He handed us each a green plastic credit card.
I knew there must be some mistake. Obviously he thought we were some millionaire's kids. But I took the card and said, "How much is on here?"
His eyebrows knit together. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, when does it run out of cash?"
He laughed. "Oh, you're making a joke. Hey, that's cool. Enjoy your stay."
We took the elevator upstairs and checked out our room. It was a suite with three separate bedrooms and a bar stocked with candy, sodas, and chips. A hotline to room service. Fluffy towels and water beds with feather pillows. A big-screen television with satellite and high-speed Internet. The balcony had its own hot tub, and sure enough, there was a skeet-shooting machine and a shotgun, so you could launch clay pigeons right out over the Las Vegas skyline and plug them with your gun. I didn't see how that could be legal, but I thought it was pretty cool. The view over the Strip and the desert was amazing, though I doubted we'd ever find time to look at the view with a room like this.
"Oh, goodness," Annabeth said. "This place is ..."
"Sweet," Grover said. "Absolutely sweet."
There were clothes in the closet, and they fit me. I frowned, thinking that this was a little strange.
I threw Ares's backpack in the trash can. Wouldn't need that anymore. When we left, I could just charge a new one at the hotel store.
I took a shower, which felt awesome after a week of grimy travel. I changed clothes, ate a bag of chips, drank three Cokes, and came out feeling better than I had in a long time. In the back of my mind, some small problem kept nagging me. I'd had a dream or something ... I needed to talk to my friends. But I was sure it could wait.
I came out of the bedroom and found that Annabeth and Grover had also showered and changed clothes. Grover was eating potato chips to his heart's content, while Annabeth cranked up the National Geographic Channel.
"All those stations," I told her, "and you turn on National Geographic. Are you insane?"
"I feel good," Grover said. "I love this place."
Without his even realizing it, the wings sprouted out of his shoes and lifted him a foot off the ground, then back down again.
"So what now?" Annabeth asked. "Sleep?"
Grover and I looked at each other and grinned. We both held up our green plastic LotusCash cards.
"Play time," I said.
I couldn't remember the last time I had so much fun. I came from a relatively poor family. Our idea of a splurge was eating out at Burger King and renting a video. A five-star Vegas hotel? Forget it.
I bungee-jumped the lobby five or six times, did the waterslide, snowboarded the artificial ski slope, and played virtual-reality laser tag and FBI sharpshooter. I saw Grover a few times, going from game to game. He really liked the reverse hunter thing—where the deer go out and shoot the rednecks. I saw Annabeth playing trivia games and other brainiac stuff. They had this huge 3-D sim game where you build your own city, and you could actually see the holographic buildings rise on the display board. I didn't think much of it, but Annabeth loved it.
I'm not sure when I first realized something was wrong.
Probably, it was when I noticed the guy standing next to me at VR sharpshooters. He was about thirteen, I guess, but his clothes were weird. I thought he was some Elvis impersonator's son. He wore bell-bottom jeans and a red T-shirt with black piping, and his hair was permed and gelled like a New Jersey girl's on homecoming night.
We played a game of sharpshooters together and he said, "Groovy, man. Been here two weeks, and the games keep getting better and better."
Later, while we were talking, I said something was "sick," and he looked at me kind of startled, as if he'd never heard the word used that way before.
He said his name was Darrin, but as soon as I started asking him questions he got bored with me and started to go back to the computer screen.
I said, "Hey, Darrin?"
"What year is it?"
He frowned at me. "In the game?"
"No. In real life."
He had to think about it. "1977."
"No," I said, getting a little scared. "Really."
"Hey, man. Bad vibes. I got a game happening."
After that he totally ignored me.
I started talking to people, and I found it wasn't easy. They were glued to the TV screen, or the video game, or their food, or whatever. I found a guy who told me it was 1985. Another guy told me it was 1993. They all claimed they hadn't been in here very long, a few days, a few weeks at most. They didn't really know and they didn't care.
Then it occurred to me: how long had I been here? It seemed like only a couple of hours, but was it?
I tried to remember why we were here. We were going to Los Angeles. We were supposed to find the entrance to the Underworld. My mother ... for a scary second, I had trouble remembering her name. Sally. Sally Jackson. I had to find her. I had to stop Hades from causing World War III.
I found Annabeth still building her city.
"Come on," I told her. "We've got to get out of here."
I shook her. "Annabeth?"
She looked up, annoyed. "What?
"We need to leave."
"Leave? What are you talking about? I've just got the towers—"
"This place is a trap."
She didn't respond until I shook her again. "What?"
"Listen. The Underworld. Our quest!"
"Oh, come on, Percy. Just a few more minutes."
"Annabeth, there are people here from 1977. Kids who have never aged. You check in, and you stay forever."
"So?" she asked. "Can you imagine a better place?"
I grabbed her wrist and yanked her away from the game.
"Hey!" She screamed and hit me, but nobody else even bothered looking at us. They were too busy.
I made her look directly in my eyes. I said, "Spiders. Large, hairy spiders."
That jarred her. Her vision cleared. "Oh my gods," she said. "How long have we—"
"I don't know, but we've got to find Grover."
We went searching, and found him still playing Virtual Deer Hunter.
"Grover!" we both shouted.
He said, "Die, human! Die, silly polluting nasty person!"
He turned the plastic gun on me and started clicking, as if I were just another image from the screen.
I looked at Annabeth, and together we took Grover by the arms and dragged him away. His flying shoes sprang to life and started tugging his legs in the other direction as he shouted, "No! I just got to a new level! No!"
The Lotus bellhop hurried up to us. "Well, now, are you ready for your platinum cards?"
"We're leaving," I told him.
"Such a shame," he said, and I got the feeling that he really meant it, that we'd be breaking his heart if we went. "We just added an entire new floor full of games for platinum-card members."
He held out the cards, and I wanted one. I knew that if I took one, I'd never leave. I'd stay here, happy forever, playing games forever, and soon I'd forget my mom, and my quest, and maybe even my own name. I'd be playing virtual rifleman with groovy Disco Darrin forever.
Grover reached for the card, but Annabeth yanked back his arm and said, "No, thanks."
We walked toward the door, and as we did, the smell of the food and the sounds of the games seemed to get more and more inviting. I thought about our room upstairs. We could just stay the night, sleep in a real bed for once....
Then we burst through the doors of the Lotus Casino and ran down the sidewalk. It felt like afternoon, about the same time of day we'd gone into the casino, but something was wrong. The weather had completely changed. It was stormy, with heat lightning flashing out in the desert.
Ares's backpack was slung over my shoulder, which was odd, because I was sure I had thrown it in the trash can in room 4001, but at the moment I had other problems to worry about.
I ran to the nearest newspaper stand and read the year first. Thank the gods, it was the same year it had been when we went in. Then I noticed the date: June twentieth.
We had been in the Lotus Casino for five days.
We had only one day left until the summer solstice. One day to complete our quest.
17. WE SHOP FOR WATER BEDS
It was Annabeth's idea.
She loaded us into the back of a Vegas taxi as if we actually had money, and told the driver, "Los Angeles, please."