It was one of those days. He couldn't help but wondered why he even climbed out of his bed. Maybe he was just getting old and his body couldn't take this kind of abuse anymore and this heat; it was just too much. He could feel the sweat pouring down on his back and his aching muscles spasmed up with every step he made. His labored breathing sound awfully loud in his ear.
A violent shove sent him to his knees; his aching, probably broken ribs protested, making him feel nauseous. His head swam; from the lack of water in this South American jungle's heat combined with consciousness. His muscles burned from the strain, and his arms felt kind of numb in their restraints.
"Get up Cross," his abductor growled, jabbing him good naturally with the butt of his gun in a way to encourage him to move. Judson Cross, world renowned explorer and treasure hunter, threw one of his infamous glares at his tormentor. To tell the truth it wasn't working too well at that moment. Who knew why? Maybe it had something to do with his bloody image or it was just too early and ruined the effect. Of course it could be because his vision swam in and out of focus with his ever throbbing headache. Really these guys needed to learn the finer points of kidnapping; after all you couldn't beat someone into unconsciousness then expect them to hike through a jungle. It was just impossible.
He swallowed the bile that threatened to come up as he climbed to his feet; it was slow and painful process, his legs weren't really cooperating, only his abductor's strong hold kept him from keeling over again. It would have been plain embarrassing. He closed his eyes in the vain hope of gaining control over his wobbling legs and spinning head. Not that it help much.
He spent a few minutes wondering what had become of his team; he wasn't sure if they had lived or died. He could only hope for the best. His throat closed up and faint shivers ran down his abused body when he thought about his team's fate. What wouldn't he give for Mac to appear just now? It was a bittersweet thought. He was well aware that even if his team was alive, they would have no clue where he had been taken, or why. Even if they found out where he had been taken, he had a feeling they would never reach him in time.
There were just too many ifs. It seemed his fate rested solely in his own hands. He needed to think up a possible escape plan and he had a feeling he needed to find it fast. Dread set in as his abductor's grip tightened on his hand as he was forcefully pushed toward their destination.
Another half an hour of forced march thought the jungle saw them arriving at the ruin of an ancient temple; it was carved into a small hillside. Over the years, vegetation had overrun the once magnificent building, and its walls were discolored by the jungle's climate. In spite of this, the carving and magnificently detailed statues were clearly visible.
Judson took in the beauty of this place, with the eloquent carving and the slightly dulled images over its walls. Even in his condition he could feel the mystery which surrounded this place as they moved steadily towards the main entrance of the temple. He didn't notice immediately when his abductor stopped as he was so mesmerized by what he saw. There was something strange about this place, it felt almost sinister. He turned around slowly, taking everything in; he cocked his head sideways. There was something in the way the statue's head stood.
"Where is it, Judson?" his abductor's angry growl shattered the silence around him.
"I don't know." The sentence wasn't even fully out of his mouth before he found himself on the ground. Shit, he felt like his head was about to explode, and something warm trickled down the side of his head; he reached up with shaky hand to touch it. As he pulled back his fingers, he saw they were covered in blood. "Fuck Morison, I said I don't know yet. We just got here," Judson rasped out through parched lips.
The other man's lips twitched into an evil smile as he knelt down before Judson; his grey eyes shone with malice at the wounded man.
"Don't get too cocky, Cross," the man sneered. "While I need you alive, it don't mean in one piece."
He knew Morison's type all too well and knew Morison would do anything to get his grubby little hands on any priceless artifacts, and nothing would stop him from reaching his goal. If Judson wanted to have a flying chance of escaping, he needed to keep as intact as humanly possible. Still he couldn't help himself; a familiar but shaky, cocky smile flashed over his face as he answered.
"Whatever you say, Morison."
He didn't see the fist coming; it only registered when his body connected with the hard ground. He stared stunned at the yellowish dirt under him as it was discolored by the blood which trickled from the corner of his mouth. It occurred to him that maybe he should learn to keep his mouth shut as a form of self-preservation. Nah, you can't teach old dog new tricks. Despite everything he chuckled.
He raised his eyes from the floor, and that's when he first noticed it. Where before he had seen only solid walls now he could make out a faint footpath into the cave. "There." He pointed towards the cave. He was hauled up unceremoniously to his feet by Morison's goons and escorted towards the temple's entrance.
His body shivered this time though not from cold or from fatigue, but from sheer apprehension. His stomach knotted up in discomfort with every step he made towards the temple. His sense screamed at him in warning to not to enter, to turn back and leave the place behind.
But it wasn't an option this time.
Flashlights illuminated the cramped passage; it wasn't easy to maneuver on the slippery surface with Judson sandwiched between two men. The one behind him clicked his tongue in frustration when Judson staggered for the third time, stumbling into either of them.
"This is not working, Morison. He can't stay upright like this." The man's Eastern European drawl echoed in the small place. Judson could almost image Morison frowning at this statement while he cowed him with narrowed, calculating eyes. There was a pregnant pause as they waited for the man's decision.
"Let him loose. If he tries to run for it, shoot him," Morison drawled from behind Judson. "Just in the leg, mind you. I still need him alive."
Judson tensed up as he felt the man behind him come closer but he relaxed slightly when he felt the man cut his binds. As soon as his arms were free, Judson pressed his left hand to his aching ribs while he used the other to help to support him. While he was steadier he still stumbled occasionally as he moved toward his destination in this dark, definitely man-made tunnel.
A good five minutes later, they reached the end of the tunnel. The cave was naturally illuminated from above by the shifting in sunlight. In the center of the cave stood two pools with a two-faced stone figure separating them. Even from where he stood Judson could see faint scripture on its foot. Judson was forcefully shoved forward towards the pools. He needed to shift his weight to stay on his feet while his left hand curled protectively over his aching ribs in the hope of lessening the damage if he fell after all.
"Get to work, Cross." Morison's voice was pure evil, and even if Judson wasn't facing the guy, he knew the man was smirking at him. He had a bad feeling about this. He needed to find something soon which will help him escape. Maybe he could trick the man into drinking from the wrong pool, he thought. "Just to make sure you won't try anything foolish, you will be the first to test it."
Is he a mind reader or what?! There goes plan A, Judson thought.
Judson didn't look back at the gloating men; he couldn't afforded it. His eyes flickered over the walls in the hope of seeing some more writing, instructions or a clue that could save his life. His gaze settled on the sculpture and he studied the carving on the stone statue. It wasn't that he couldn't read it, it was just that he wasn't sure what to make of it. On one side only one word stood proudly despite the fleeting years, Sa'kuah'i, which roughly translated mean Gift of time.
His frown deepened, a nagging feeling in the back of his mind whispered at him to stay away from that pool. He limped around to the other side of the statue; it read Punishment of time. Damn, which was the right one, the writing said one thing, his instincts the other. There was no way he could find out which one was the right this time yet, on the other hand his intuition had never let him down. He rubbed the bridge of his nose as he studied his surroundings; the walls, the statues, the way the light illuminated the cave. Suddenly an idea flashed in his mind and in one instant he was sure. He knew which one would bring life and which one death.
A shot whizzed past his leg, it whipped up the dust before him and he jerked back reflexively, grimacing from the sudden movement.
"So which will it be, Cross." Morison's mocking voice shattered the silence in the cave when Judson didn't answer immediately; he couldn't help but add, "Or the great Judson Cross isn't that great after all?"
Judson slowly turned toward the man and grinned. "You know what they say, Morison. Gossip tends to exaggerate." The man's eyes narrowed dangerously as he held his gun in Judson's direction.
"Which one? Or shall I choose for you. For me it doesn't matter as I will have my answer one way or another."
Judson's hazel eyes flickered over to the man before he answered. "That one says Gift of time, and this one says Punishment of time."
"Then let see if the legend is true." Two of Morison's men stepped up behind Judson, grabbing his arms and keeping him securely locked between them.
"It's really not necessary. You could just let me go." Judson made a last half-hearted attempt to save himself as he was dragged toward the pools.
"Oh, I am afraid it's really not an option. We must safeguard ourselves, you must understand." Morison walked up to Judson during his little speech, and nodded with his head toward the Punishment of time pool; he watched with morbid amusement as the lean treasure hunter was thrown into it.
As Judson was thrown into the pool, he sank under the water, reflexively he snapped his mouth shut, and tried to surface. Tried was the operative word, because he couldn't. Strong hands pushed him under again and again. He desperately grabbed the hands holding him down, trying to pry them off him but time was working against him; his lungs slowly started to burn from lack of oxygen. His flailing hands lost their grip. Then he lost the fight; his lungs filling up with water as his mouth opened in hope for a gulp of fresh air. Then the world around him slowly slipped away as he lost consciousness.
When he regained consciousness, his pain-filled scream echoed in the cave, and his body spasmed with each wave of new agony; it felt like his body was tearing itself apart. Each breath felt like thousands needles. His pain-clouded mind registered that he was on the cold ground beside one of the pools and if he really concentrated he could made out faint sound of laughing from nearby. He forced open his eyes but everything seemed blurry for his unfocused eyes. After a few second he caught sign of Morison and his men standing near the other pool. One of them was filling up a canteen, taking a sip from it before offering it to the others. He was sure it was a bad idea but for a life of him, he couldn't remember exactly why. His eyebrows frowned in concentration as he tried to piece together where he was and why.
The pain suddenly intensified, Judson squeezed his eyes closed as nausea built deep in his throat and his heart started to race. He suddenly felt lightheaded, and before he lost consciousness, his last coherent thought was what if he was wrong after all.
The next awaking was drastically different from the first. While he still felt nauseous and was a bit lightheaded, the awful pain was definitely gone. He laid down on his back and stared up the ceiling while he tried to make his body cooperate, so he could see his surrounding better. It was very quiet after all, and that never meant good.
It occurred to him after a while that he was still alive. A small miracle if anyone asked, seeing how his last few days had run so far. Not that he was complaining, not much anyway. It was a stupid thought really, he would admit, but there was a while when he thought he really would die there.
He turned his head with great effort to his left where he last saw his companions. Judson huffed in frustration when wheat blond hair fell into his eyes, obscuring his vision. He paused. Wheat blond hair?
"What the...?" He reached up to touch the lock, tugged on it and yelped in pain. It was HIS lock of hair. He frowned as he couldn't even remember when his hair was last that type of blond. It was impossible, but it hurt when he pulled on it. His mouth felt awfully dry.
He couldn't help but gasped when he first noticed how utterly small and young his hands looked. He knew subconsciously that it was his hand as he could feel it, move it. He moved his finger to test it but it looked nothing like the last image he had of it. Just what the hell was going on? His sluggish brain tried to process what was going on but the buzzing in his ears got worse by every minute; his whole body shivered. His eyelids suddenly felt very heavy and he could no longer keep them open. Absentmindedly, he noticed his hand had fallen to his chest. He felt so tired. His vision swam and darkness claimed him again.
Mackenzie Previn and Gabriel Patterson crashed through the jungle before them. They breathed hard in exertion from the hard tempo they kept since Judson had gone missing and their ship had gotten blown up a few days ago. They hadn't rested since they realized Judson was gone, and they had done everything to find him. When they finally found a lead, they were several hours behind. They tried to lessen the time gap between them but it wasn't easy to track Judson's abductors through a damn jungle, not even for Mac.
Their hearts beat faster when they reached the temple, and Mac's gaze flickered over the small clearing, reading the sign like one would read a book. When she noticed the sign of struggle she saw red knowing that those bastards had hurt Judson. She fisted her hand so tight her fingernails drew blood.
"Where are they?" Gabe gasped beside her while he wiped sweat off his forehead.
"They went in there." Mac pointed toward the cave's wall.
"Are you sure? All I see is a solid wall."
"Same as me. But they definitely went that way. Come on, we are close, this sign is less then two hours old."
They made it through the narrow corridor and when they didn't hear anything they stepped inside the larger cave. Several bodies littered the cave's floor, most of them were shrivelled up and seemingly lifeless, but there was a small blond boy laying on the far side of the cave. Where that Judson's clothes? The boy's groggy hazel eyes opened and met hers. It was all it took for her to recognize him for, while the face looked younger, it was definitely her friend's. She just stood there staring at the child while her mind tried to made sense of what she saw.
"Judson?" Surprise was clear in Gabe's call as the young man hurried to Judson's side. It prompted her to move as well.
After everything they had seen over the years it really shouldn't have surprised him that everything seemed so much larger or, well, that he had been downsized a bit. He stared, mesmerized by his own body as it got smaller and younger. He felt a moment of panic before his scientific mind kicked in and started to analyze what he knew of the fountain of youth legend of this region, and what happened to him so far. It took a bit of time for Mac to snap him out of his musing.
"Judson, are you alright?"
"Yeah, sure. It's just fascinating." Mac raised an eyebrow at him in disbelief. Judson couldn't help but grin at the familiar expression. "Well it's this or I start to freak." She chuckled and shook her head at him. She nodded with her head toward the dark haired man as she spoke.
"Gabe just wanted to know if it would help if you take a slip from the other pool. Maybe all it will take is to drink from it to regain your old... look."
"I doubt it, Mac. Even if it did, I don't want to risk it, seeing what happened to them." Judson nodded toward the bodies. "But we should take some with us from both, maybe it will help to find out what caused this." His voice sounded a bit too hopeful even for his own ears. Gabe licked his lips and asked the question they were all dancing around since they were reunited.
"What will we do now?"
Silent settled heavily around them.
"Well, we need to get back to the ship, and try to find a way to change me back, hopefully the sample will help. Until them, we need to come up with a plausible cover story about where my older counterpart has disappeared to, and from where I came from."
"Uhm, Judson. I am not sure how to tell you this but your ship... well it was blow up."