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!" ~