Monday, December 31, 2007

Chapter 21: Hardly a Decision

~ Jaden coughed self consciously.

“Um...Hi...I'm Jaden. McAllister.” Väinämöinen stared at him. “I, um...What can I do for you today?” Väinämöinen smiled.

“I think, that you should really be asking what I can do for you, young one,” he said.

“Alright. What can you do for us?” asked Jaden.

"He's always one to please," muttered Andrew from behind him. Väinämöinen leaned forward on his staff.

“I can abstain from killing you where you stand.” Jaden nodded thoughtfully.

“That'd be nice. I think we can all agree that we'd like that. Right guys? We'd like that?” He looked back over his shoulder and his comrades nodded their agreement with vigor. “So...What now?”

"Now you complete a task for me or you die." Väinämöinen made it sound like they had some sort of choice in the matter. Jaden raised one finger.

"Could we have just one second?" He turned around and leaned in towards Andrew and Takyle. "Is this guy the challenge or are we supposed to do his task?" he whispered. Andrew shrugged, Takyle shook her head.

"I don't know. Is there even any way to tell? Maybe we should just go along with it." she said. Andrew seemed to mentally cast around himself for an alternative, but finally conceded.

"Let's keep a very close eye on him and pretend like we're just going along with it." Without really meaning to, Jaden started to smile. He turned back to Väinämöinen.

"Allright, what are we supposed to do?" Väinämöinen stared into his eyes for what felt to Jaden like a very, very long moment. He jerked his head toward the path and began walking.

"Follow me."

"Ok, you're the boss!" Jaden called. He paused for a moment for Andrew and Takyle to draw even with him before starting after Väinämöinen. He grinned at Andrew. Andrew shook his head.

"You're as subtle as a train wreck."

"Less nuanced though." Jaden added of himself.

"Way to pull that name out of your butt by the way. How do you do that?" asked Andrew

"I dunno, it just came to me is all. An epiphany if you will." Jaden shrugged. "Guess I just have grace under fire!"

"Oh yeah, definitely! Grace is the first word I think of when I imagine you under fire."

"Lords above!" Väinämöinen yelled back at them. "Don't you all ever stop talking?" ~

Friday, December 28, 2007

Chapter 20: A Turn for the Worse

~ The approach to the hill was long and tiring. Jaden discovered that walking through tall grass was far from effortless, the long strands reaching up to entangle and slow; previously unnoticed briers pulling at clothing and vainly trying to reach skin. By the time they reached the edge of the woods that marked the beginning of the foothills, it was nearing noon and all were ready for a break.

They made the concession of retiring under the trees for a few minutes while they ate an early and cold lunch. Jaden felt a little jumpy and anxious to be back on the move, and even though they didn't say it, Andrew and Takyle seemed to share in that sentiment. Again they set off, again moving silently. It was uphill going now, but in the darkness underneath the thick pines the ground was largely clear of undergrowth and walking was easier. Here it wasn't really necessary to rotate marching order so that no one person had to always break trail, but they continued to occasionally switch point position anyway, if only to give a bit of variety to the scenery.

Andrew continually, almost obsessively, checked his compass, making minor adjustments to their direction. Jaden passed the time with day dreaming in one half of his mind, while using the other to keep watch. Takyle marched silently, determinedly, focused. Jaden thought that they must have been hiking for hours now. He checked his watch and found that it was only a bit after 1. Damn.

Then, without a hint of a warning, Takyle, who was now in front, stopped in her tracks. Jaden bumped into her, and Andrew only just realized in time to keep from, in turn, lurching into him. Ahead of them a form was materializing. Jaden automatically unbuttoned the sheath strapped to his thigh and rested his hand on the hilt of his dagger. Both he and Andrew moved forward to stand on either side of Takyle.

The shape before them shimmered and turned solid. It was a man. A man wearing long violet robes and holding a tall wooden staff with what appeared to be a large, semi-translucent jade ball held to the end by a taloned foot. His white beard flowed down his chest, long enough to touch his waist. His eyes were glittering, piercing blue. It suddenly occurred to Jaden that he was experiencing being "trapped" in someone's gaze.

"Huh," he thought.

But seriously, the live-sim was capable of creating things so convincingly real that they would be able to persuade you into believing that you were the fake one. Why would the creators of this particular stage use talent like that to create a stereotypical wizard of all things? And in an environment as natural and untouched as this one on top of it.

"Must have been fantasy geeks."

The wizard raised his staff and spoke with a booming voice.

"Hark travelers! What brings you to this place?" Takyle looked back and forth at Andrew and Jaden, but getting no better ideas immediately, decided to go for honesty.

"We spotted a building on this hill, and have come to find it. Who are you?" The wizard narrowed his eyes at her.

"If you do not know who I am already, than you are unworthy to know."

A spark lit itself in Jaden's mind. A memory. A faded image in a book of Finnish myths. A wizard in violet robes, a copper knot hung around his neck, a jade staff held at his side, using his magical voice to sing an enemy to sleep. Jaden stared at the old man before him. Nearly hidden by his beard, Jaden caught the glint of copper lying against the side of wizard's throat beneath his ear, also hung with a fine bronze knot.

"Väinämöinen?" he asked in disbelief. The wizard smiled, just missing benevolence.

"Now here is a young man who is worthy of looking upon my face," he said. Takyle and Andrew stared at Jaden.

"How did you know that?" demanded Takyle in a whisper.

"Lucky coincidence," Jaden muttered back.

"Well use your lucky ass to find out what he wants!" tossed in Andrew.

"Uh, yeah...sure thing."

Jaden nervously cleared his throat and boldly stepped forward. ~

Monday, December 24, 2007

Chapter 19: On the Road Again

~ Jaden quickly gathered his dried clothes and repacked his belongings. He gulped down a cup of instant coffee that Andrew offered him and a chalky tasting protein bar.

“The breakfast of champions, ey?” said Andrew. Jaden rolled his eyes.

“Oh yeah, definitely.” Andrew kicked dirt over the now dead fire pit and hoisted his pack onto his back.

“You guys ready to go?” Jaden looked back and forth between he and Takyle.

“Where are we going exactly? Do we know what to do next?”

“Well,” said Takyle. “We really don't know for sure what we're supposed to do next. That com terminal turned back into a stump after we used it last night you know; but I did spot a building near the top of that hill.” She pointed to a hill far off to the South. Jaden squinted into the distance.

“And how exactly did you see that? I don't see a thing.” Takyle nodded.

“I saw some smoke rising this morning; you can locate it with binoculars..”

“Oh,” said Jaden. “Good going.” Andrew picked up Takyle's backpack and helped her put it on.
“Alright then,” she said. “I guess we're ready to be off...” Takyle looked around herself at the plain, splashed with golden morning light, fast growing busy with the waking birds. “Doesn't really feel like we're in much of a race anymore, not here anyway.”

“Yeah, you just feel that way because we're not in immanent danger...That we know of.” Andrew grinned wickedly.

“Thanks for that cheerful image Andy,” said Jaden. “That just does my soul good.”

The trio set off towards the South, walking single file through the tall grass. Andrew's joke in mind, Jaden kept an observant eye turned on his surroundings. He was determined not to be surprised again. Better to assume that everything in their environment was malicious. Ahead of him was Takyle, and in front of her, Andrew. They all walked in silence and Jaden noticed that neither of his companions were just staring at their feet either. Suddenly Andrew broke the silence.

“You know what I need? I need one of those things that you put one cup of coffee on. You know, one of those tiny hot pads to keep it warm at your desk.” Takyle turned around to shoot a look at Jaden.

“Yeah, because you spend so very much time at a desk,” she said with an ill-concealed laugh in her voice.

“I might some day. And when I do, I'm gonna get me one of those little cup warmers.” Jaden did laugh aloud.

“Andrew, if we win this thing, I will buy you a little cup warmer.” Andrew squared his shoulders and lengthened his stride.

“Well then let's pick up the pace, by golly!” ~

Friday, December 21, 2007

Chapter 18: Pulling it Together

~ True to Andrew's word Jaden did find a small rushing stream not far from their camp site. He took a good look around before approaching the bank, identifying the fastest route to the hills, should the water suddenly begin to rise. Setting down his kit, he knelt beside the creek and bent over the water. The rushing sound filled his ears and for a moment an artifact of his panic tried to take him over. Not without difficulty he fought it back down and swallowed the huge lump in his throat.

“Weakling!” he reprimanded himself. Andrew had no trouble getting back in the water. And almost dying a second time. He decided he needed to get over it.

Jaden scooped up a bit of the icy water in his cupped hands and splashed it over his face, rubbing it from his eyelids. He pulled off his shirt and took a bar of soap from his kit, working up a bit of a lather between his hands and rubbing them over his chest and up his arms. He shivered as a cool wind rushed past him. Up the bank from him he heard a rustle and spun toward it. He saw Takyle's black hair and relaxed.

Jaden? You down here?” she called.

“Yeah, over here.” She turned toward his voice and he saw that her eyes were tightly shut.

“I'm not looking, just wanted to locate you.” She snickered quietly.

“I'm not naked, Takyle. I'm not a polar bear,” he said.

“Oh, well I will look then.” Takyle opened her eyes and walked over to him. Jaden carried on with his half-bath, fairly sure that he wasn't blushing. He rinsed the rest of the soap from his torso, getting only a little water on his pants, but still more than Andrew had on his. He pulled his black t-shirt back over his head and turned to Takyle, standing on the bank behind him.

Ok. Your turn.” In response she raised an eyebrow and grinned.

“You never said it had to be reciprocal.” Jaden pulled out his razor and a small tube of shave gel.

“You're really going to renege on account of a technicality like that?” he asked.


“Well...Ok then,” he replied. He quickly shaved and ran his fingers through his hair, anxious to get back to camp and put his warm, dry long-sleeved overshirt back on. A couple of feet upstream from him Takyle had begun to brush out her hair. She pulled it into a ponytail on the back of her head and smoothed down the sides with a bit of water. It gleamed blue in the morning sun. She washed her face and splashed water onto her arms, checking that under her fingernails were clean.

Jaden repacked his kit and stood.

“I'm going to head back to camp.” Takyle looked up.

“If you'll wait for just a second more, I'll be done.” She gave her face one more rinse and shoved her stuff back in her little bag, pulling out a little bottle of lotion as an afterthought and squeezing some on her hand. With the free hand she zipped up her bag and rose. As they walked back she rubbed it into her face, arms, and hands.

“Aloe. Keeps my skin from chapping.”

“That's...good to know,” said Jaden. There was a long silence before Takyle looked to Jaden again.

“You don't like me much,” she stated, calmly and assuredly. Jaden shot a quick look at her face. She seemed to just be making light conversation.

“I...I don't not like you, Takyle. You're boss...” She nodded and they continued.

“Andrew's a pretty good guy,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah he is.”

They reached the top of the rise blocking their view of the camp and Andrew came into sight.

“Well it's about freaking time, guys! I mean hell, how long does it take you all to wash up? You'd think it was a difficult task or something!” he called up to them as he shoved his dried spare clothes into a sealable bag. Jaden and Takyle looked at one another. Takyle raised an eyebrow.

“Yup,” said Jaden. “He's a sweetheart alright!” ~

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chapter 17: Rise and Shine

~ Jaden woke up before the sun cleared the horizon, the eastern clouds splashed with hues of orange and pink. He lay there motionless for several minutes while birdsong drifted from the forests and out across the plain. A pair of swallows danced overhead.

"This is way too peaceful," he thought. He wondered why Andrew wasn't up poking around, he was always awake first. That was when he looked over and noticed that the sleeping bag across the now dead fire from him was empty. He sat up with a start.


"What?" Jaden turned around and there Andrew was, just sauntering towards him over the rise of a hill. Jaden's irritation flared.

"If you're going to go wandering about why don't you tell somebody for pete's sake! What if something happened? It's not out of the question, we are in a competition afterall!" Andrew remained maddeningly calm and happy.

"That's cute Jay, you were worried about me. You do care. Anyway, there's a little creek over that way." He pointed in the direction he'd just come from. "It's awfully cold, but not so bad that you can't clean up in it if you want." Jaden then noticed that Andrew was indeed freshly shaven, his hair neatly combed and slightly damp. He would think of personal hygiene at a time like this.

"A time like what?" Jaden asked himself.

"Shut up," he replied. He pulled himself up and grabbed his bag of "Pretty Boy Stuff", as he and Andrew called their hygiene kits, from his pack.

"I'm, uh, gonna go clean up then," Jaden informed. Andrew didn't look up from his digging in the coals for a bed of live embers.

"You have fun with that." Jaden started to walk away. "But not too much fun!" Andrew hollered after him. Jaden heard Takyle's muffled snap from deep within her sleeping bag.

"Quit yelling for crying out loud, what is wrong with you people?" ~

Friday, December 14, 2007

Chapter 16: When the Bough Breaks

~ Jaden squinted around himself for another dead branch to use for kindling. Here under the trees twilight had fallen fast and it was quickly becoming impossible to define solid objects from the normal lurking shadows of a pine forest. Tucking his hatchet into his belt Jaden gathered up his last armful of wood and headed back toward the plain where the others waited. He stepped out of the trees' cover and slowed to a halt. Below him was their camp, Andrew already had a fire started and something was simmering for their supper. Takyle sat on her sleeping bag, prodding the flaming logs with a stick. The scene was downright cozy, an island of light, but that was not what had halted Jaden.

Above him stretched an endless expanse of stars, jewels shimmering in the chill night. Out across the plain the moon, barely a thumbnail crescent, was just beginning to rise from behind one of the darkened hills in the distance. In the North a tiny splash of pink, overlain by a faint, twisting ribbon of green painted the horizon. A shadow of the Aurora Borealis.

Jaden set down the branches he was carrying and sat down beside them. He lay back in the grass and reveled in the sky, drinking it in, pulling it towards him, allowing his soul to expand to meet it, crossing the void, filling the space, turning, floating, alive...

A faint wind whispered through the grass, caressing his face, causing a shiver to run up his arms. Above him the pine boughs rustled in agreement.

"This is not real," his mind told him. "I do not care," he told his mind.

Below him he heard Andrew call his name. Realized that he could not be seen hidden in the darkness as he was, and that he'd been gone far longer than it should take to gather a few more pieces of wood. The spell was broken. He stood up and took one last look around, and then, almost regretfully, continued on down the slope to his teammates.

"Soup's on, Jay, you might want to hang up your wet clothes to dry first though," Andrew counseled, while using a spoon to poke at his simmering pot of...stew? Takyle spoke up to contradict him.

"I took the liberty of doing that for you, Jaden," she said.

"Um, thanks." He sat down with a sigh on top of his sleeping bag and accepted the steaming aluminum bowl that Andrew passed to him. He stirred the suspect looking contents for a moment and took a somewhat hesitant bite.

"Hey Andy, this isn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Thanks!" Andrew gave him an exaggerated glare across the fire.

"You love my cooking you little squirt, and it's a hell of a lot better than anything you can do!" Jaden shrugged and took another bite. What the man said was true.

The meal was finished in what Jaden would classify as companionable silence. When he was done he pulled out his journal and leaned close to the fire for light. Takyle scooted over to sit next to Andrew and when Jaden next glanced up she was leaning into him, his arm around her shoulders, as they silently gazed into the fire. Jaden quickly looked down again. A small, but instantaneous knot had formed in his belly.

Takyle and Andrew had grown increasingly close over the past few months and Jaden found their newfound intimacy to be intimidating. He wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but he was fairly sure that he was actually jealous. Afterall, Andrew was his best friend, why couldn't Takyle find somebody else? Somebody that Jaden didn't know... He wrote in his journal:

I know that Takyle has known him longer than I have, and thus has more claim on him than I do. That doesn't change the fact that I don't like it. ~

Monday, December 10, 2007

Chapter 15: The First Fallen

~ Dazzling.

Yup, that was definitely the word Jaden would use to describe this place. The meadow looked liked it had been taken straight out of a frigging fairy tale. He glanced behind him again to make sure that no wolves or trolls or anything were sneaking up on him. On his left Takyle cleared her throat.

"So uh...What now?" she asked. The three spun around as one when suddenly, off to their left, what was formerly a rotting stump on the edge of the forest morphed into a media station, complete with com screen and uplink ports. Andrew took a step backwards.

"This place is seriously giving me the creeps," he informed them. Jaden stared at him.

"This place is giving you the creeps? As in this sim we're in right now?" Andrew nodded. "So the dark echoing chamber with the huge chasm where we almost drew our last breaths in this world you were perfectly comfortable in, but this paradise-like rolling plain set amongst purple foothills has you scared?" Andrew punched him in the shoulder.

"I didn't say scared, jerk, I said creeped out. I expected something bad to happen to us in the last place."

"Hey guys," Takyle called to them from the media station. "You think you can knock off the ever so impressive manly banter for a few minutes and come over here?" Apparently she had turned the thing on. Green letter flashed on the screen.

Scroll down for message.

Takyle did.

Congratulations Team 6. You have made it to the first check point. Rest here for the night if you choose. Scroll down one page for a map showing where you have been and the progress of your competitors.

Takyle quickly scrolled down again and scanned the positions.

"Twelve teams are exactly where we are it seems. Five are back in that room, two of those seem to have injured parties, but are not stopping. One team is disqualified," she read off.

"Why?" asked Jaden.

"One of their members is dead...One team is not in the two places on this map. They must have already gone on to the next level. Which raises the question of whether or not we're going forward today? I personally find that I am quite worn out, and the sun is setting." She pointed at what was evidently supposed to be the Western sky, whose soft fluffy clouds were beginning to be tinged with pink.

Jaden nodded his agreement. "And it sure would be nice to be able to dry out our clothes."

"Alright then," said Andrew. "Seems as if we've made our decision. Jay if you'll start getting some wood laid up, I'll fix us something for dinner. Boss, do you want to try to make some sort of frame to hang our supplies that need drying on?"

Before parting ways to get started on their assigned tasks they each changed into their only suit of blissfully dry clothes, all carefully facing in a different direction while doing it. In his mind Jaden thanked Andrew for telling him to bag at least one set. It occurred to him that he should tell him that.

"Hey Andy-"

"No, you may not borrow my underwear to sleep with Jaden."

Nevermind. Jaden put his wet shoes back on and headed for the woods with his hatchet. ~

Friday, December 7, 2007

Chapter 14: Surprising Progress Made

~ Andrew rubbed his bruised forehead thoughtfully.

"Water look lower to you guys?"

Takyle gazed out over the huge chamber.

"Yeah, yeah it does actually. It must still be draining through that door. I wonder if that's a good thing? What are you doing there Big Guy?" Jaden glanced up from his writing.

"Oh, I'm just logging what we've done so far." He checked his watch and jotted down the number. Andrew smiled.

"How are we doing then?"

"Well, we've all almost died, some of us more than once, and we've been in here for nearly three and a half hours now. I don't know if that's good or not. I wonder how the other teams are getting along...If we did something wrong we could be significantly behind."

"Eh," Andrew waved a hand in a motion that came off as flippant and lethargic. "I wouldn't bet on people doing any better than us, after all, we rock pretty hardcore."

Jaden gave him the sceptical eye. "Oh yeah, hardcore, rock, definitely, like friggin' geologists."

Takyle leaned over the edge of their shelf and peered down at the door.

"Hey guys, I can see a good two feet of the door now, this might just be our answer after all." She grinned at Andrew. "So perhaps you didn't get knocked out for nothing." Andrew was staring off into the distance.

"I once had a cactus that was named Bill...," he commented quietly. Takyle looked a little baffled and a little worried. Jaden stifled a laugh painfully. At the sound of his snort Andrew shook his head a little and caught Takyle's expression.

"I...You mentioned the water and that made me think of him- it. Made me think of it." He quickly transferred his attention to Jaden's notebook. "How's that logging going there Jay?"

Takyle shook her head silently and leaned back against the wall with the only book she had brought, a worn paperback, in hand. She kept an eye on the water level and it fell fast. Before long she felt that the time had come to rally the troops for another push.

"Better get your stuff together, I think we're just about ready to see what's behind Door Number 1," she said.

After they had re-secured their equipment they descended one by one down onto the wet floor from their perch using Takyle's rappelling rope, still anchored to the rock wall. Once on the bottom she tugged one tail through and re-coiled it at her belt.

Together the three of them turned to the open door. It was dark and forbidding. Jaden lit his flashlight and took point with an impressive show of non-cowardice. His first thought was that the beam from his torch did nothing to penetrate the deep shadows at all. With every step that he took forward though, the tunnel seemed to become a little bit brighter, until, in a surprising and unnoticeable transition he was standing in bright sunlight. Andrew and Takyle stood blinking to either side of him. Before them stretched a rolling, sun-dappled meadow, ringed by distant wooded hills and dotted with flowers.

"How- What the heck just happened?" asked Jaden. He turned around to look back through the doorway, and found it to be...missing. All that was behind him now was the edge of a shadowy pine forest. "Whoa. That's...interesting..." Andrew spoke up from his side.

"I'll say." ~

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chapter 13: Desperation

~ Just as Andrew disappeared beneath the water Jaden felt a stab of panic. He smothered it quickly, before Takyle could notice, regulating his breathing carefully to keep it normal. From where she sat feeding rope through the anchor hook, she couldn't see over the edge of the rock like he could. She could hear what came next just fine though.

There was a muffled thump and a louder rushing noise as Jaden saw a funnel forming on the surface of the water. The rope dangling over the ledge went suddenly taut and began whipping through Takyle's hands. No thought in his mind Jaden lunged for the rope. Frantically gripping it, trying to at least slow it. It burned his hands but he was able to finally stop it. Takyle regained a handhold and together they began hauling back. The pull on the thing was tremendous. Jaden thought that if Andrew was still on the other end then the pressure must surely be killing him. Not that there were a lot of other courses of action available to them.

They gained another foot and Jaden noticed that the rope in his hands was wet. They must be making progress then. Suddenly the pressure lessened and there was nothing but dead weight on the line. Whatever was on the end of it, and Jaden was frightened to look lest it not be Andrew, had broken the surface of the water and escaped the down drag.

"Jaden, have you got it?" Takyle screamed at him breathlessly. He nodded without a word and she released her grip. The extra weight made the rope slip a couple of inches through Jaden's hands, but he acclimated and recovered it fast enough. Takyle scrambled to the edge.

"He's unconscious Jaden! Oh, I can't reach him, bring him higher!" Jaden hauled on the rope with all his might and Takyle finally was able to pull Andrew's limp body back up onto their tiny ledge.

"Andrew! Andrew can you hear me?" Takyle's voice broke as she lowered her face to Andrew's, now horrifically pale, to see if he was breathing. Jaden grabbed one of his wrists and felt for a pulse. It was there. Weak, but definitely there. Takyle looked up at him and he thought that her eyes looked wet.

"He's still breathing."

"Turn his head, he might have water in his throat!" Jaden ordered. A low moan came from Andrew's mouth and his head turned of its own volition. Jaden scrambled to his head.

"Andy! Andy? Can you hear me?" Andrew drew one gasping breath and then his eyes cracked open. He choked once.

"Yes I can hear you. Who couldn't?" Takyle collapsed back on her heels.

"Oh thank God!"

Andrew sat up rubbing a growing knot on his forehead.

"What the hell happened?" He asked groggily. "Last thing I remember is unlatching the door and it went banging open and then the water started rushing through...I must have been slammed against the frame..." He looked at Takyle, as if for confirmation.

"We pulled you up," she said weakly.


While both of his friends sat there silently, contemplating life he figured, Jaden pulled out his med kit and began preparing an ointment and bandages for Takyle's badly rope burned hands. His own hands shook just a little. Apparently his panic had been warranted after all. He could have done without those 45 seconds of sheer, unadulterated terror to validate it to him though. ~

Friday, November 30, 2007

Chapter 12: Water Works

~ Jaden lay on the rock shelf, propped against the wall, gasping, occasionally choking up a bit more liquid for kicks. He kept a close eye on the rushing water to make sure it wasn't rising anymore. He felt that his paranoia was not only justified, but extremely well placed. So much for a simple solution.

Neither Andrew nor Takyle had spoken yet, Andrew seemed to be taking stock of their current situation though. All three miraculously still had their packs on, water logged as they were. Patting himself down Jaden found that he was missing his pocket knife and a pen, the only things on his person that had not been secured. He looked around the chamber. Water covered everything. The entrance doorway and the two springs that they had themselves released from the rock were immersed. Takyle scooted to the edge and looked over.

"Uh, guys...You're gonna love this, I think we may be on top of the exit." Andrew lay on his belly and hung over the ledge to get a better look. Jaden grabbed his legs protectively to steady him. That was all he needed, for Andrew to go and get himself killed falling in again.

"What do you see Andy?" Andrew's response was succinct if not genteel.

"I see the top of the fracking door! Damnit all to hell!" He pulled himself back up. He looked...disappointed and angry. Jaden felt like he should say something. He just couldn't think of anything.

"This is a ledge above the door. I can see about 4 inches of it that are not under water." Andrew's voice was flat and cold. Takyle sighed.

"It just couldn't be as simple as us almost dying and then moving on could it? For cryin' out loud!"

Jaden finally thought of something to say.

"Maybe it's not supposed to be this hard. Did we do something wrong?" For a minute Takyle looked at him like he was crazy, and then she nodded.

"I suppose that's possible. Even so, this shouldn't be a dead end. You're supposed to be able to get through no matter what strategy you take as long as you keep from dying. And we're not dead."

"Yeah," Andrew cut in. "But I don't see any other doors do you?" Silence settled around them. Jaden shivered.

"Maybe...Maybe we're supposed to open this one," he offered reluctantly. Simply thinking about the possibility that he'd have to get back in the water definitely rubbed him the wrong way. Andrew adopted his grim determination face.

"I'll get down there and take a look. Maybe it can be opened." Jaden felt like he should volunteer himself to go instead. Dread washed over him. He began to open his mouth but stopped when he saw the look that Andrew was giving him. It was the big brotherly sit-down-and-shut-up-while-I-do-this-thing-for-us look. Jaden did. Gratefully.

Takyle hauled her sodden rappelling gear out of her bag and drove an anchor hook into the granite while Andrew silently donned the harness. It was better than nothing as far as safety went.

Without a word he dived back into the water. ~

Monday, November 26, 2007

Chapter 11: A Bonding Experience

~ It occurred to Jaden that the chasm seemed to be filling faster than one might expect for a space of that size. He began to wring some of the water out of his shirt and stopped when he realized the stupidity of that move. He leaned out to check the water level again. It was rising even faster now. Faster than he was necessarily completely comfortable with. He looked to Andrew. He was several feet away, checking that the things that needed to stay dry in his pack were bagged and secure. He was, for all intents and purposes, oblivious. Jaden walked over and nudged him with a foot.

"Uh, hey Andy? You wanna come take a look at the water?" Andrew stood immediately.

"What's wrong?" He looked down and Jaden didn't need to explain. "Jay, get your pack on. And take your shoes off and put them in it," he called as an afterthought. "Takyle! We gotta move!" She came running from the front of the chamber where she'd been idly inspecting the entrance door.

"What? What's going on?" Andrew pointed down.

"Get your pack boss. Things might get a little wet here in a minute."

Team 6 stood there in a line on the edge of the precipice waiting for the water to meet them. It sped upwards, causing the floor beneath their feet to begin trembling again. It spoke its displeasure at its confinement with a dull, malicious roar. Almost there. Almost free.

For a split second Jaden saw the water crest just above the chasm edges, then, finally realizing that it was no longer bound between stone walls, it came rushing outward. Jaden very nearly lost his footing and was only saved by the fact that Andrew grabbed his arm and pulled him forward, into the churning depths.

For a second they swam, for a second Jaden thought that their idea was a great one. For a second he thought that this really wasn't so bad afterall.

Abruptly a current grabbed and jerked him downward, under the murky water, tearing, relentlessly tugging, at the same time sweeping his body to the side. In that moment Jaden thought that he was going to die. He was thrown with bone-jarring force against a rock wall and pinned there.

"Use every resource handed to you..."

He began edging his way up the wall he was trapped against, held there by a crushing weight of water. He had no idea where he was going. His lungs burned. He thought that he must have been underwater for at least an eternity by now and wondered how he was still alive. He felt like needles were being shoved into his eyes. He moved another couple of inches up the wall. He wondered if he might actually be working his way down. He thought about turning around. He couldn't take it any longer. Against his mind's every command his body rebelled and opened his mouth, reflexively gasping in. His starving lungs filled with shockingly cold water. Sharp pains stabbed his chest from the inside out. He hoped that his body regretted its rash action, and would learn from this experience. His legs began to go weak and he closed his eyes against the stinging liquid.

A hand latched onto Jaden's upper arm with a painful death grip and dragged him upwards. His lungs decided to give it one more shot. He choked and desperately drew a breath. A breath of air this time. He opened his eyes to see Takyle, still gripping his arm, holding his head above the water, and Andrew holding her. He coughed again, his lungs finally able to rid themselves of horrid liquid, and grabbed ahold of a jutting granite platform, pulling himself upward onto it. He hauled Takyle up behind him, and then Andrew.

Then Jaden, there on hands and knees on that tiny ledge, threw up and blessed God and life, and Takyle and solid ground, and all good things that did not involve water. His companions seemed to be engaged in similar activities. Jaden thought that he would never drink another drop of water ever again. ~

Friday, November 23, 2007

Chapter 10: Easy Come, Easy Go

~ Andrew stood for a long, long time, gazing into the abyss, as if at any moment the solution to their first conundrum would appear in big neon letters, shining out of the darkness. Jaden explored what remained on their side of the room. Solid flooring stretched from the door they'd entered through, now firmly closed, to the chasm, about 20 yards apart Jaden estimated. From side to side the chamber was at least triple that, the chasm spanning the entire thing. The ceiling high, high above was obscured by shadow. The entire thing was far from well lit when it came right down to it.

Jaden ran his hands along the walls, searching for some kind of clue, or key, or...something. Anything really. He found nothing but a patch of wetness seeping through the wall from minuscule fissures, sticky with a bit of algae. He rejoined his two companions.

"I didn't find anything but a trickle of water, for all that's worth."

Takyle and Andrew looked at each other.

"Water?" they asked in unison.

"Yeah, a tiny bit coming through over there." Jaden gestured behind himself at one of the side walls. Takyle looked excited.

"If there's a stream behind the rock...Jaden, that might be it." She grabbed her pack from where she'd set it on the ground, jerked the bindings loose, and pulled out a folding pickax.

"Show me," she ordered and Jaden didn't hesitate to usher her over to the place. She ran her hand over the wall and, finding where the most water was coming through, had at it with the ax.

Andrew, not waiting for orders, immediately headed for the opposite side of the room to look for any more water near the chasm at the other end.

"I found another patch of water over here! I'm going to start working at it," he yelled across to them. Neither Jaden, who had since begun utilizing his own pick, nor Takyle took the energy to acknowledge Andrew's shout.

It didn't take long at all for Jaden's arms to get tired of swinging the ax again and again, taking the constant percussive blows of metal against solid granite, and surely Takyle was just as worn out. Jaden's thoughts began to read futility into the seemingly endless exercise and he silently cursed and threatened the wall.

"Oh you had better have a hell of a damn good bit of water behind you, or I swear I'll...I'll...You'll be so sorry!"

Takyle interrupted his mental seething by waving her hand for him to stop for a moment. They stood still and studied the wall. Oh yes. There was definitely more water coming out now. A steady little stream flowing down onto the floor. Jaden grinned at Takyle and they began again with renewed vigor. The amount of water seeping out continued to increase, by more and more noticeable amounts.

Suddenly and without warning a large section of weakened stone gave way under the water's pressure and Jaden was knocked to the ground by the powerful jet as the water came gushing out. It splashed the ground all around and flowed over the jagged edge of the floor, cascading out of sight. The echoing roar of water in the room doubled as, at the other end, Andrew got the same result from his assault on the far wall.

Mopping water out of his eyes, Jaden went to stand by Takyle and peer over the edge, watching the water disappear into the shadows. All that there was left to do was wait and see what came of their labors.

They waited. And waited some more. The water continued to pour out of both walls into the divide. Jaden played a few games of tick-tack-toe with Andrew, made possible by wetting their fingers and drawing on one of the dry patches of floor. Takyle sat on the edge looking down.

"Hey guys. Come over here and tell me if I'm crazy." Jaden crawled over to her and followed her gaze. If she was crazy, then he was as well. Out of the dark he could definitely see water swirling and glinting. The chasm was filling up. Andrew let out a whoop and slapped them both on the back.

"Yeah! It's working! It'll be full in no time and we'll swim right across." Takyle grinned at his enthusiasm.

"That wasn't so bad," she remarked. ~

Monday, November 19, 2007

Chapter 9: Momentary Triumph

~ Jaden skidded to a halt just inside the door. He was fairly sure that he even gasped, though he wouldn't have admitted it. He knew instantly that they must have stepped into a live-sim because there was no way that the architects would have built an antechamber this size behind every door. They literally couldn't have, the thing was enormous. Takyle had not paused and was already a good ways into the thing, Andrew two strides behind her. Which turned out to be a very lucky thing when the floor fell away beneath her feet.

Andrew leapt forward with shocking agility and, grabbing two handfuls of her pack, hauled her back from the precipice onto firm ground. She regained her footing faster than Jaden thought he would have been able to and they both scrambled away from the still widening chasm. What remained of the stone floor trembled as huge chunks of marble cascaded into the abyss, thunderously reaching their ends somewhere far out of sight. Andrew still had a grip on Takyle with one hand, and she wasn't complaining.

"Oh my...Shit...I wasn't expecting that." She laughed and it sounded forced. Jaden was sure that he heard a tremble in her voice. Andrew didn't say anything, just stood there looking grim. Jaden felt compelled to fill the silence.

"Well...That was...Guess this is the first obstacle then." Andrew shot him a look that was a little sarcastic, and a little amused. Takyle recovered enough to be biting.

"Yeah? Really? Cause falling into a dark echoing abyss wouldn't, ya know, be fatal or anything."

Jaden surprised himself with a ready retort.

"Oh, ha freakin' ha, Takyle. Incidentally, I think that you should definitely continue to take point, you know, play to your strengths and all that." Out of the corner of his eye he could see a grin attempting to creep over Andrew's face. Takyle narrowed her eyes at Jaden, wavered on the edge of declaring all-out war, and took the highroad. She turned to gaze across the divide.

"How are we going to cross?"

Jaden felt a little bit satisfied because she'd backed down. A little bit more the lesser man for taking the bait offered him.

"And winning!" the satisfied voice protested. He squelched that voice. "This isn't about winning," he mentally reprimanded. "It's about getting along and getting through this alive and together." Jaden looked at Andrew. He had that you're-lookin'-crazy-but-I'm-not-gonna-say-anything-about-it-cause-it's-none-of-my-business expression on his face. Jaden cleared his throat and closed his mouth. He hadn't realized that it had been hanging open.

Andrew neared the jagged precipice cautiously and peered down into the darkness. Takyle, unsurprisingly, kept her distance. Jaden touched her arm.

"Sorry," he murmured. She had the class not to make a big deal out of it. She nodded her acceptance and reciprocation of the sentiment. ~

Friday, November 9, 2007

Chapter 8: The Roar of the Crowd

~ To say that the building was enormous would be an understatement of magnificent proportions. The colossus stretched into the sky like it was trying to reach God himself. Across the front of the building the words: "Fourth Triennial Bilken International EPIC Race" were emblazoned in a tasteful font. EPIC stood for Endurance, Perseverance, Ingenuity, and Courage. Jaden found the acronym a bit on the cliched side. In front of the building stood a huge bronze statue of Warren Bilken holding in one hand a 3-D version of the race logo, and in the other, what looked from a distance to be the world. Water bubbled up around his feet and splashed into the large marble reflecting pool surrounding the flattering effigy.

Jaden looked around himself at the massive crowd kept at bay by velvet ropes and hassled Marines. They had fallen quiet. Or, at least as quiet as a mob of that size can. He looked to his left and right, up and down the line of competitors. Twenty teams of three vying to make it through the building, constructed specifically for this purpose, and get to the top alive and on time. The place was full of real and live-sim obstacles. In past years the survival rate for the race was about seven in ten, the injury stats, not healthy to dwell on.

Each team was ushered to a door in the front of the building by a "Race Official". Opening ceremonies were over. The race was about to begin. Jaden nervously tightened all of the straps that he could reach on his gear. He felt Andrew's hand on his shoulder and he looked up. Andrew smiled at him.

"It's go time Jay. You ready for this?" Jaden fought down the urge to vomit and answered honestly.

"I don't know," he said. Andrew never broke his calm gaze. He nodded. Jaden thought he understood.

"You don't have to operate alone anymore," said Andrew. "We're a team." Takyle stepped forward and touched Jaden on the other elbow.

"That we are. We're gonna do this."

The RO in front of them was given the signal and he pointed a remote at their door. Jaden realized that the crowd's former murmurings had grown back into a roar as one by one the teams were given their start. Even over that Jaden heard the lock click in their own door. In the distance he heard the announcer shouting over the speaker system that team six was clear. He looked down at the topmost patch on his arm. 6. Takyle was moving towards the door as it swung inward. Andrew was beginning to follow, his hand still on Jaden's shoulder. Jaden looked back and saw a man in the throng waving a hotdog, and then he was inside and the man and his food were out of sight.

This was it. ~

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Chapter 7: The Excitement Begins

~ Thud!

Jaden landed hard on his back, but leapt back to his feet pretending like it didn't hurt. Score one for lessons learned from street gangs. He circled Andrew, crouched low, looking for an opening. He got it by accident. He stumbled in a manner that must have looked like a feint and Andrew reacted accordingly. He covered to the right and Jaden dived in from the left knocking Andrew clean off his feet.

That was how their sparring usually went. Fairly well matched, but neither perfect. Andrew actually knew how to fight. Jaden was willing to think outside of the "rules of engagement". Takyle could beat them both handily.

Jaden flopped down on the floor beside Andrew and crossed his arms around his knees.

"I'm happy we beat the sim this morning," he panted cheerfully. Andrew didn't seem that delighted.

"It was luck. We're no better than we were," he pronounced dismissively.


Three months later:

Mr. Bilken walked down the line of competitors shaking hands and dropping doubtlessly insincere good luck wishes.

Takyle rocked back and forth on her heels, looking unnaturally flushed. Jaden scuffed the edge of his black shoe on the pavement. He looked at his compatriots. He thought that they all looked quite spiffy in their matching black race outfits. Takyle looked nervous and excited, Andrew looked serious and focused. Jaden wondered briefly how he himself looked. Warren Bilken reached them and shook each of their hands firmly. He murmured something about "all the best", Jaden murmured something by way of thanks before the next race sponsor grabbed his hand and pumped it energetically.

Jaden wondered how successful they could be in the race if all the competitor's elbows were worn out. They'd already been standing for two hours listening to speeches from a variety of people, most of which Jaden hadn't heard of before. Finally, finally, finally, they called for the teams to gather their supplies. Jaden snatched his pack and hefted it over his shoulders, he checked his utility belt one more time, and then turned to check Takyle's gear from behind her as Andrew checked his.

Jaden suddenly felt very, very nervous. ~

Friday, November 2, 2007

Chapter 6: Issues to be Surmounted

~ When Jaden and Andrew arrived at lab building 16-E, Takyle was in the lobby talking on her cellphone and looking extremely irritated.

"No, I told you. I did submit those papers. Yes, they were yellow. I have my copies right here in my bag!" She slapped the side of her attache case for emphasis and knocked it off of the high side table it was resting on. She didn't notice. "Ok, fine! Let's pretend that I'm wrong and you're right. What do I have to do to get our sponsorship back on line?" She was quiet for a long time, nodded twice, and murmured a vague assent. She rallied her civility, thanked the poor soul on the other end of the proverbial line, and hung up. Andrew picked up her bag and, dusting it off, offered it back to her.

"Trouble?" he asked.

"Yes, MedFord seems to have changed its mind about sponsoring us in the race. I did turn in the necessary forms."

"Perhaps they were just lost in the shuffle?"

"Perhaps. Either way I'll have to go over there and try to get it straightened out," she said.

Through all of this Jaden stood a little off to the side feeling particularly awkward. He wasn't sure if he should be paying attention to the goings on or purposely attempting not to eavesdrop. He ended up going for a kind of half and half approach, looking at Takyle and Andrew, and then at the floor, and then back at them, and then out of the window, and so on. Takyle caught his eye on its next pass over her. She raised one eyebrow.

"Good morning Jaden. Sleep well?" Jaden nearly fell over. Sure Takyle had been nice to him before, but she was his boss, and it was always tempered by the constant undercurrent of what Jaden took to be dissatisfaction with most of his actions, or lack thereof as the case may be.

This, this was downright friendly. His eyes darted to Andrew's face for guidance. It was unreadable. He opened his mouth and, to his relief, a fairly coherent and pertinent response came out.

"Thank you, I slept fine. How are you today?"

"Great." Jaden wasn't sure if she was responding to his question, or commenting on his response to hers. He didn't need to worry about it though, as she immediately turned back to Andrew and picked up her conversation with him.

"I'll leave a little early to go down to the MedFord office this afternoon. For now, let's get busy and try to get through at least one sim before I go."

"Do you want me to go to MedFord with you?" asked Andrew.

"No, I'd prefer you to spend your time working with Jaden." Again Jaden felt like he shouldn't be listening in, but they were moving towards one of the long corridors of lab entrances by that time, so he just trailed along behind. The two ahead fell silent and Andrew dropped back to walk beside him. He felt better. He was still trailing Takyle, but now at least he was trailing with Andrew.

"Will you two pick up the pace?" Takyle barked over her shoulder. "We haven't got all day!"

Andrew shot a look at Jaden and pantomimed patting down his pockets.

"I must have left my day on the bureau drawer!" ~

Monday, October 29, 2007

Chapter 5: Commuters

~ Jaden walked to the subway with Andrew in companionable silence. He buried his hands deep in the pockets of his thick fleece jacket. The air was getting colder every day. Later in the morning it would be beautiful out but this early, in the lee of the skyscrapers, with the mist still earthbound, it was downright chilly. He shivered and tucked his chin deeper into his collar.

Andrew began talking about something. Something to do with a vector and an impermeable field force or...something. Jaden tried to understand it, nodding and murmuring assent occasionally, knowing full well that Andrew didn't really need, or expect, him to actually process it all. He just wanted to talk it out, and he looked less crazy talking to Jaden than if he were just chattering away to himself.

Soon enough they were descending into the darkness and boarding their transport. Jaden wished the walk was a bit longer and the ride was a lot shorter. It was tedious and tiring and crowded and it always smelled like a mixture of really old french fries and dirty socks. At the other end, after an eternity of jostling, they were spit out along with everybody else and they rose into the light once again. By the time they were back up on the street Jaden had already sealed up and put away any personal thoughts he might have been indulging in and fixed his attentions on the work that they had to do that day. The transport stop was only two blocks from the Live-ulator lab buildings, in a much classier part of town than where Andrew and Jaden's apartment was.

Jaden judged the wealthiness of a place by the size and number of windows it sported. Live-ulation International Inc. Office Headquarters were made primarily of windows. Tall and tinted and continuous but for flashy chrome frames all around the building. Arranged in back of that building were more buildings, slightly smaller, with slightly fewer windows, but still impressive. Those were where the actual Live-ulation labs were.

The inventor and patent holder to the Live-ulator still held offices here, though he didn't spend a lot of time in them anymore. Most of his time was taken up with figuring out new ways to spend the fortune he'd made. He was stuck between a rock and hard place because it just kept growing every day. A sad tale indeed.

With his invention Warren Bilken had revolutionized the world. A simulation that was real. A constructed alternate mode of being if you will. What went on within a Live-ulation was as real as when it was experienced outside. Since the system actually interfaced with a subject's brain it essentially had control of their body. If you fell in a Live-ulation, it hurt. If you had sex in a Live-ulation, well, hopefully you'd brought a tissue. If you died in a Live-ulation, you were dead.

The only appreciable difference between the live-sims, as they were known, and real life was that in a sim you had a safeword. If you had the sense to use it in time, you could actually be let out if you got into trouble. Obviously the use of Live-ulators required extensive waiver signing.

They were expensive to rent, but not so much so that an average middle class family couldn't go on a "vacation" at least once a year. That was, in fact, what the the live-sims were most employed for. Warren Bilken had single-handedly put more than a few tourist-dependant countries out of business. ~

Friday, October 26, 2007

Chapter 4: Close Quarters

~ That night Jaden fell into bed with a sigh of pure exhausted bliss. He lay awake for a moment, listening to Andrew clattering about in the bathroom. He didn't know how the hell one man could make so very much noise with one toothbrush, but Andrew always did.

The rooms that they shared were small and far from luxurious, but Jaden was happy with the arrangement. He had a bed. And he had food. Beds and foods were good. Andrew exited the bathroom in pajamas, set the alarm clock, and clambered up into the top bunk.

"Night Jaden."

And he had a friend. Friends were good.

"Night Andy." The last thing Jaden was aware of that night, was a warm and fuzzy feeling. Possibly from the coziness that Andrew's big brotherly attitude inspired in him, possibly because of the flannel sheets that he'd just gotten out of the dryer 15 minutes ago.

The first thing Jaden was aware of in the morning was Andrew kicking him in the face as he disembarked from the bunk.

"Ow! Andrew! Be careful!" Jaden clutched his nose and swung out with one fist in retaliation. He barely clipped the back of Andrew's leg, who didn't even seem to have noticed.

"Sorry about that Jay. Oh well, time to get up anyway." Andrew proceeded on his way to the little kitchenette without another glance at Jaden, who was left to roll about in the covers and feel his face gingerly to see if anything was missing. Nothing was, so he got up.

He staggered into the shower thinking, as always, that if someone really had to feel as grumpy and awful as he did every morning, then they should have at least had a really good time the night before. He glimpsed himself in the mirror and saw a dark shadow quickly forming under his left eye. Wouldn't you know it? He'd been proud of getting through both sims yesterday without actually getting hurt and then someone goes and gives him a black-eye while he's still in bed? You can't make that kind of stuff up.

All wrongs in the world were forgiven however, when he finally got to the kitchen and found that Andrew had made blueberry waffles for breakfast. He even had whipped cream.

"Andy," Jaden said between mouthfuls of sweet, fluffy, savory, toasty, sticky pure awesomeness. "If I were gay, and you were gay, I would marry you." Andrew shrugged and rose to rinse his own plate off.

"Eh, if I had a dime for every time I've heard that."

Jaden, busy as he was floating between levels of heaven, didn't ask Andrew what he would do with all of those dimes. ~

Monday, October 22, 2007

Chapter 3: Hierarchy

~ Jaden stood in front of his rented locker toweling himself off. Andrew sat on one of the benches to the side, already fully dressed. He was always done before Jaden, and Jaden wasn't completely sure how.

He turned self consciously to his locker, painfully aware of his scarred back. Jaden had plenty of scars, but those were different. Most of the rest he'd gotten in the Live-ulator. The ones on his back though, those he hated. Those he had reason to hate. Andrew broke into his thoughts with a chuckle.

"Dude, you look so manly with all those scars." He put special emphasis on the word "manly", deepening his voice considerably and grinning in a singularly admiring way. Jaden quickly pulled a clean shirt over his head and turned to face Andrew.

"They're all from mistakes Andrew. They're not something to be proud of." Andrew shook his head and, putting the subject aside, stood.

"Ready to hit the cafeteria then? Takyle will join us there." Jaden snatched up his jacket.

"Yeah, let's go." At the door he faced Andrew.

"Hey can I bum five bucks from ya?" Andrew let out his deep, and Jaden thought, sincere, laugh and kept going. Jaden took three running steps to catch up with him outside.

"What am I going to do if I ever really need money from you?" Andrew's face got comically serious.

"You'll beg," he informed Jaden. "Or give me some type of sexual favor. If you were good I'd pay you for that."

"Oh gee whiz, thanks a lot. Good to know that I've got options. Incidentally," Jaden added after a pause. "You act like I've never serviced a man before." Andrew quickly raised one finger to stop him.

"Ok, that's just awkward." Jaden grinned again, and this time it seemed a bit more natural on his face.

"Awkward is what I do best Andrew."


Takyle was already at the cafeteria and had claimed a table by the time Andrew and Jaden made it through the line. Jaden approached her confidently, at least on the outside.

"Hello again Takyle." She nodded curtly in response. He sank into a seat across from her. Not out of the line of fire yet.

Takyle Carlyle (and Jaden knew for a fact that she cursed her parents every day for saddling her with that name) was as tall as Jaden with a commanding eye and black hair. Next to her, Jaden's hair looked dirty brown. It was so black that it looked a little blue sometimes. Jaden always had the urge to touch it whenever he saw her. He had suppressed that desire successfully thus far. He wondered briefly what exactly would happen to him if he did do that. He looked up from his sandwich when she addressed him a moment later.

"So today was a bust...again."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Sorry about that," he added as an afterthought by way of repentance. Takyle remained cool.

"I have to leave for a meeting with the Wellcraft Association in less than an hour. Are you going to run the simulation again this afternoon?" It was worded like a question, but her tone suggested otherwise. Jaden shared a split second look with Andrew. The latter cleared his throat quietly.

"If I may Takyle? Being in the live-sim for very long stretches of time is tiring at the least, and possibly damaging, as well you know. Are you sure it's a good idea for us to give it another run today?" Takyle's eyes were fixed on Andrew but Jaden got the distinct impression that she was not addressing him alone. Quite the contrary.

"Of course I know the dangers. I also know that we are nowhere near ready. I can only afford to rent the Live-ulation lab for another week. It's not cheap you know. We have to get as much time in with it as we can. Any risks you take in it will not be greater than what we'll experience in the real thing. But if you're having second thoughts...?" Andrew never blinked. He gazed back into her eyes and in Jaden's mind the image of a mongoose and a viper, mutually locked in a stare rose to the forefront. Andrew spoke with more seriousness than Jaden had thought him capable of.

"Of course boss. We'll try it again and see if we can get farther this time. Of course that'll be hard without your skills though." He cracked a tiny smile and Takyle turned her gaze on Jaden. He silently nodded his assent to his dish of applesauce and once again wondered why he put up with this. Once again he reminded himself.

"For the profits." ~

Friday, October 19, 2007

Chapter 2: Saving Grace

~ Jaden desperately felt all around the panel one more time before giving up. There seemed to be only one thing to do. He said the safeword, "Kennedy", and his field of vision was flooded with white light. After a moment his eyes adjusted to it and he saw someone moving towards him.

"Way to go Jaden. Way to completely back yourself into a corner. If you'd waited in the room for two more minutes, me and Carlyle would have gotten to you and we might have won for once."

Jaden still sat on the floor, shirtless, drenched in sweat, waiting for Andrew to shut up. He was compact and lithe in build, longish hair dark enough brown that it was often mistaken for black, penetrating brown-green eyes rimmed by thick lashes. His features were memorable and on the strong side. Largish nose, full lips, high cheekbones, wide jawline.

Andrew was (in more ways than just physically) comfortably opposite. Tall, skinny, freckled, with red auburn hair, a long nose, and ice gray eyes. He stared down at Jaden for a moment.

"Well aren't you going to say anything?" Jaden raised an eyebrow in response.

"Not until you help me up, that's for damn sure." He held up a hand and Andrew took it and hauled him to his feet. Jaden walked over and retrieved his shirt from where it had landed across the empty white room.

"I don't regret it. I couldn't have known when, or even if, you'd get to me. I had to do something."

"Jaden, that's your problem. That's what's stopping us. You're part of a team now. You have to learn to trust your mates and remember that you don't have to operate alone anymore." Jaden nodded absently.

"Carlyle very angry?" he asked. Andrew shrugged his bony shoulders.

"Eh, no more that usual. Wanna get some lunch?"

Yes, Jaden decided that he did want some lunch. No reason to face up to Carlyle on an empty stomach if it could be avoided. He nodded again and pushed the dagger he'd been holding the entire time into the sheath on the back of his belt.

"Yeah, yeah actually I do." As they made for the door Andrew shot him the look that, without fail, foreshadowed a joke.

"Nothing like clockwork precision teamwork to give you an appetite, ey Jaden?" Jaden's mouth turned up in an awkward kind of grin.

"Well if that's the case, then I'm starving!" ~

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chapter 1: In a Cold Dark Place

~ Jaden McAllister slipped the knife back into its sheath and finished pulling the ropes from his ankles. He didn't know why the hell he'd been left his dagger, or why his hands had been tied so loosely come to think of it, but he got the impression that he'd find out quite soon. Too soon.

A short panel in the wall began to slide open and he rose to his feet in one fluid, continuous motion. Disconcerting scratching noises were coming from the other side of the quickly widening gap. He used his last free second to scan the room again. Nothing to take cover behind, nothing to climb. Jaden once again unsheathed his dagger. Looked like he would have to stand and fight.

A lioness came gliding out of the little door, as silent as a shadow, hugging the wall. The opening closed behind her as she circled Jaden. He turned with her, his thoughts racing.

"What is this, the dark ages? Am I to be martyred? What's next? A gladiator match? I can't kill this; it's a protected species!"

Just as Jaden decided that the lone lioness probably wouldn't attack him another panel began to grind open. His decision was split second and final. As soon the second lioness slunk out to join the first Jaden ripped off his shirt and flung it up at the moving camera head high above that had been tracking him all this time, hoping to God that it would catch on something. With a silent Hail Mary on his lips, Jaden threw himself at his only hope for escape.

What he heard behind him was the scuffling of the lionesses, who had deduced the escape plan of their only potential prey and had decided to make a last ditch effort at conquest. The muffled bump of the panel closing shut them off abruptly, leaving Jaden in absolute darkness. He groped around himself to try and establish bearings. He could feel the blood thudding in his face and neck and realized that he was breathing quite hard. He felt hot all over and his bare chest was slick with sweat.

Knife still to hand he began crawling along the tunnel he'd dived into. It turned out to be quite succinct, ending perhaps eight feet later in a cool metal door. He ran his hands over and around it. No handle, no gaps. It occurred to Jaden that he'd be royally screwed if another lioness was let through this way.

"Or if they let the two in the room back in," the voice of logic reminded him dismally.

"Well this is just fan-damn-tastic," he said aloud. ~