The Jordan International Airport was the busiest place Ronny had ever seen. Growing up in Newfoundland the only time he had seen even half as many people in one place was once during a trip to St. John’s. This was much different. He was surrounded by people from all walks of life, all races. It wasn’t necessarily the crowd alone that made him feel uncomfortable. It was the staring. Every eye in the airport was trained on Ronny.
Mostly, Ronny was a pretty average kid, he was smart, alright to look at, and his skin had a distinct green tint. That last part is where the mostly came in. Ronny had known all his life that he was a mutant. The problem was that anyone that laid eyes on him knew as well. He had been hesitant about flying into a public airport, but he had finally relented with the hope that Freedom City, a place so accustomed to heroes, would be more accepting of his appearance. That was not turning out to be the case.
His eyes were drawn to a huge banner that read “Visit your wild side at Freedom City’s Hanover Zoo! The largest in the state of Maryland!” just below the ad stood a large man holding a sign above his head with the words “Claremont Academy” written in black sharpie, like you see in the movies. The man was dressed neatly in a driver’s uniform, with a Claremont name tag that read “Robert Smith, school bus driver”. Everything about him seemed brand new. Next to him stood a teenager of obvious Asian descent.
Ronny approached the duo.
“You must be Ronny Yorkes.” said the older man, “I’m Bob. I’ll be your driver to the school.” He motioned to the teen. “This here is Taw-shy… aw, heck! I can’t pronounce it!”
“Toshihiro Takeda.” corrected the boy. As he spoke he bowed politely, “It is an honor to meet you.” Checking his urge to glance again at the boy in front of him, Toshihiro kept his eyes focused on the ground. It was only after he finished bowing that he allowed himself to take in who was in front of him. The boy’s skin had a slight green hue unlike any he had ever seen before. That matters little, he concluded, making a mental note that others at this academy might share similar appearances.
Toshihiro appeared lithe, almost graceful. Every motion he made was very efficient, almost as though it was practiced. His hair was jet black and his eyes a deep brown. He seemed to be much more accustomed to the crowds than Ronny, focusing intently on what he was doing at all times. He tucked away a manga he had been reading.
“Uh… thanks, I guess! It’s nice to meet you too!” replied Ronny, with a sheepish grin.
“Well, I’m sure you boys are tired from your flights, so I don’t want to keep you any longer than I have to. Plus, we’ve got quite a few more of your classmates to pick up yet, so we best get a move on.” With that, the three headed out towards the parking garage.
“First stop, The Golden Star Hotel!” the bus driver nearly shouted, as they arrived at a string of huge pristine buildings. They had been traveling for a while and Ronny and Toshihiro had been able to take in some of Freedom City.
The city was very modern. Every building seemed to be brand new, and very well kept. They had traveled over the Pramas bridge after leaving the airport and it had afforded them a great view of a huge watefront multi-level market that Bob had called the Pier Two Shopping Center. The city was abuzz with monorails darting back and forth, each one seemingly more packed with people than the last. Every restaurant and shop seemed to be full to the brim as well. Now they were pulling up to the fanciest hotel either of them had ever seen.
“This here is The Golden Star Hotel, one of the most prestigious hotels in Freedom City, and the favorite haunt of Freedom’s visiting rich and famous.” said Bob, almost excitedly. “I’ve never actually been inside.”
The lobby was lush with ornate decorations and was big enough to park a 747 inside. It’s appearance struck Toshihiro in particular. Here was a prime example of the waste that occured in the West that his sensei had warned him about. Near one of the many lavishly furnished lounging areas sat a boy of about seventeen chatting away loudly on his cell phone.
When Ronny spotted him he whispered dumb-founded to Toshihiro, “Holy crap! That’s Vincenzo Armani! He’s famous!”
The boy, being from Northern Japan, had never heard of this ‘Vincenzo Armani.’ The boy certainly didn’t look old enough to be famous.
“I’ve got to go, my ride is here.” Vincenzo looked up at them as he finished his conversation, sliding his finger across his stylish phone. “Hello gentlemen, I’m Vincenzo Armani, and you must be my new classmates.” he said with a charming smile.
“I’m very pleased to meet you Mr. Armani,” eeked out Bob, obviously star-struck, “I’ve never actually met a real-life celebrity before.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Mr…” Vincenzo searched the uniform, “…Smith, I’ll walk you through it, I promise it’s painless.”
Vincenzo was tall for his age and in great shape. He was the kind of attractive that it sometimes seemed like only famous people could be. He had carefully styled blonde hair, and was dressed sharply. What really grabbed your attention though, was his eyes. They shimmered with an almost other-wordly golden coloring.
“I’m Ronny and this is Toshihiro, we’re on our way to The Claremont Academy too. We just came from the airport.”
“It’s nice to meet the both of you,” Vincenzo replied, “I arrived last night, so my father put me up in this hotel. Sort of drab in here don’t you think? Anyway, I think we may want to get going, I can see some sharks circling. My luggage was shipped separately to the school, so we can leave anytime.”
As they made their way outside to the bus, several people began to appear with cameras and cell phones at the ready.
Their next stop was another airport. This one was much smaller than the first, with only the occasional traveler moving about, luggage in tow. It seemed to be geared more towards commuter and business flights than the commercial and international flights of Jordan International. They passed by a tasteful sculpture of a few abstract jets flying around a wireframe globe that said “Welcome to The Jameson Airport.”
Erik Skarsgard casually looked up from the curb as he saw the Claremont Academy bus approaching. He had been waiting for a few hours since his flight time from Baltimore had been bumped up. Erik didn’t mind, he liked being alone. Alone was predictable, alone you could trust.
He picked himself up off the pavement and brushed off his dusty jeans, discarding his empty Amp energy drink can to the side of the road. His clothes looked as though they had worn out their welcome long ago. He swept his pale blond hair to the side, out of his eyes, revealing two icey blue irises.
The bus itself was a marvel. It reminded him of those tour buses rock stars owned. The outside was mostly done in stainless steel, with red and white enamel accents spelling out “Claremont Academy”. There was a large stylized Raven accompanying the text. Stepping inside, he could see it was built for comfort. It had rows of individual seats set up like a charter bus, and each seat was lined with a velvety material that looked very plush.
The driver gave Erik a smile that was maybe just a little to big as he introduced himself. “Hi there, you must be Erik. I’m Bob, have yourself a seat, we only have one more stop.”
They drove west along the northern bank of the Wading River then finally crossed back over another bridge to the south. They turned into a residential area that looked like it had seen better days. These were the type of houses that had all been built to the same plans, to accomodate some manufacturing boom or another a few decades back. Now it was typical lower-middle class America. Small nicely trimmed lawns in a row, occasionally pocked by the overgrowth of a foreclosed one.
They rolled to a stop in front of small but well kept up house. In the drive sat a concrete truck with a logo on the side that read “Hero Concrete Co.” next to a caricature of a dancing cement mixer with a cape. Through the screen door to the house a young man could be seen hugging his parents and saying his goodbyes.
James’ Mother was having a hard time letting go of her little baby. She was your typical housewife, the kind that could either melt your heart with a warm embrace, or tear your apart with a cross look.
“You’ll be sure to call us every week?”
“It’s a boarding school, Mom, plus it’s only over on the other side of the city. Nothing bad’s going to happen okay?” pleaded James.
“I know it’s just ever since… well, you know… I worry about you!”
“I know you do Mom, I love you, I’ll see you at parent’s day.” James turned to his father.
“Son, you go have a good time, learn a lot, and stay out of trouble.” said his dad, gruffly. His dad was a blue-collar working man. He had callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, and believed that the only way to a fulfilling life was through a good day’s work. “We’ll miss you.”
“I love you, goodbye!” James gave them each one last hug, then grabbed his bags.
James Stone stepped through the door out into a bright sunny August afternoon. He was tall, and very solidly built. He had a jaw like chiseled granite and looked every bit the part of the high school jock. His hair was brown and done into subtle spikes. He was very plainly dressed in a tee shirt and jeans, but wore a small bracelet on one wrist.
James climbed into the bus and gave a quick wave. “Hey everyone, I’m James.” he said with a smile.
“All aboard!” the driver playfully shouted, “Next stop, Claremont Academy!” The bus went over a bump that was more bark than bite. A loud ‘clang’ could be heard, but there wasn’t much movement in the vehicle itself. This bus must have had a great suspension. He reached over and adjusted the radio which began to loudly pump out the latest from the Black Eyed Peas. “…ergy like a billion watts. Space be boomin’, the speakers pop. Galactic comb, we missed a spot. We bumpin’ your…”
Ronny looked around the bus, checking to see which kids he was sitting by.
Ronny had taken his seat near the back of the bus. He was on the driver’s side a few rows in front of Toshihiro who was two rows from the back.
Vincenzo was on the passenger side, about six or seven rows from the front, behind James who was seated in the first row.
Erik sat behind the driver, near the middle of the bus.
Smirking, Ronny ducked behind his seat. Time to get this school year started off with some fun. Quickly taking the form of a cat, Ronny stalked to the seat behind Toshihiro.
“…lights and then turn them off. If you bring that don’t make you stop. Like the jungle we run the block. No one ro…” More bumps.
Toshihiro was relaxing in his comfy bus seat, when he noticed a strange sight. A smallish darkly colored housecat had just run by, headed to the seat behind him. He hadn’t noticed a cat on board when he arrived, why would there be one here now? Although, he thought, the boy called Ronny had appeared to have vanished. There was only one way to be sure. Calmly and quickly, Toshihiro assumed a meditative posture, slipping into the state of awareness his teacher had called ‘Zen’ Stance. Such practices had previously taken him days, hours at the least. But practice and patience had made the act now effortless.
James turned in his seat to face his new companions. “So, uh.. Are you guys from Freedom City? ‘Cause I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of you before. Though it is a pretty big city.”
Erik turned from the window and looked at the rest of the bus. “New York.”
Ronny nimbly leapt to the seat behind Toshihiro. He sat there for a moment, reveling in his feline stealth. Then he shifted into a tiger. He leaned over the seat so his head was next to Toshihiro’s, and released a low growl, quiet enough so only Toshihiro could hear.
“HOLY FUCK!” Then in a flash of light and with a loud pop the bus begain to smell of ozone. Erik was no longer human but looked as tho he was made of lightning! He let off a small bolt aimed to stun the tiger.
For a moment the world had a blue tint as the vaguely Erik shaped electric entity sent a crackling bolt of electricity which passed over the seats to the tiger at the back of the bus. The tiger, unaware of the impending assault, took the full force of the blast, but it seemed to do little more than singe his fur a bit.
Ronny quickly shifted back into his natural form. “Dude! Watch where you’re throwing those things! Somebody seriously could get hurt!” The look of shock and hurt on his face was replaced by a wide smile, and Ronny burst out laughing. “You should have seen the look on your face, though! It was awesome!”
“YOU BOYS BETTER SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP OR I PROMISE YOU’LL NEVER MAKE IT TO CLAREMONT ALIVE!” bellowed Bob from the front of the bus.
Erik quickly powered down and scrambled for his bag. He was nude after burning his shirt and pants off in his display. After puting on a “new” set of pants he turned and sat. Profanity still pouring out of his mouth that would have made Omega blush.
After seeing the display, a wry smile came over James’ face. “Oh yeah… This is gonna be a fun year.”
Suddenly, the radio grew very quiet. “H-Hello? Can you guys hea…” Bob the bus driver quickly reached over to the dashboard and switched it off. “Those crazy DJs!” He exclaimed.
The bus began to pick up speed.
A thought seemed to grow in the boys’ minds all at once. It came at first like a nagging feeling, then they each realized someone was trying to make contact with them. My name is Arianna. Don’t react. I’m a telepath. You can’t see me right now because I’m hiding. The driver isn’t what he appears to be. He knocked me out and locked me in one of the compartments below the bus with some sort of device that kept my powers from functioning. I’ve only just broken free, and I’m sitting behind you, invisible.
Realizing the radio just tried to make contact with the students to be and was quickly stifled, James began to get just a little freaked out. Pointing at the Radio and speaking with haste he asked, “What the heck was that? Why’d you shut it off?”
“That was the sad state of modern radio today.” replied Bob. “Back in my day we used to have real music on the airwaves, not a bunch of jokesters pulling crank calls all day long.”
“How come you started going quicker?” James asked uneasily, subconsiously touching the bracelet on his wrist.
“Picking you boys up took a little longer than I expected, you wouldn’t want to be late for your orientation would you?”
Toshihiro turned to Ronny, whispering so that no one else could hear. “I knew I sensed something was wrong. This girl was right below me. Also, I cannot sense a human presence in our friend the bus driver.”
Ronny frowned. “What should we do? If he isn’t part of Claremont, then… who is he?”
“First thing we need to do is let everyone know as quickly as possible, in case they haven’t figured it out already. Can you take care of that?”
Ronny nodded, his eyes wide with fear and anticipation. Was this some kind of test for Claremont? Would they not let the failures into the school? Ronny didn’t want to think about that. His parents had worked so hard to send him here, he couldn’t let them down. And of course, there was always the other option; that this wasn’t a test, but something else. Something far more sinister.
Ronny shifted into the form of a mouse and scurried towards the closest kid.
Vincenzo shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The bus driver sure was driving aggressively! The bus was swerving in and out of lanes and cutting off other cars with no regard for road safety.
Toshihiro and Arianna noticed something far more disturbing. The driver’s face had contorted with some sort of wicked resolve. It was as if he was readying himself to do something terrible.
They passed a sign on the side of the road that clearly indicated Claremont Academy to be in the opposite direction of where they were headed.
Crap! Something was seriously wrong with this bus trip. Time for Ronny to take action. Shifting from mouse to a spider monkey, Ronny scurried up to the front of the bus and with a shriek, leapt into Bob’s lap.
Ronny scurried all over Bob the bus driver, clawing and biting as he went. The man was cold to the touch, and wherever Ronny broke his skin there was no blood. Ronny grabbed at Bob’s face, pulling back his lip until the flesh began to peel down his chin. Beneath the thin layer of skin was a polished stainless steel endo-skeleton. Bob was some sort of robot! The fake driver pressed a large button on the dashboard and metal shutters began to clammor down, covering every window on the bus except the windshield.
Bob’s eyes lit up, glowing a bright red, as he casually stood from the wheel and turned to face the students, with Ronny still busily climbing all over him.
He didn’t even flinch as the driver of a large SUV in the lane to the right honked his horn angrily while swerving to avoid the bus, which was now drifting into his lane.
“You children should have just let me drive you off the bridge,” said Bob. “Fighting me will be a much more painful way to die!”
To be continued…