Monday, June 30, 2008

Chapter 75: Beautiful Irreality

~ Team 6 followed their escort down three hallways and up a flight of stairs before he stopped in front of a white door.

"Alright, here's your exit," he told them in a bored monotone. Takyle gave him a quick nod, and stepped through the door with Jaden and Andrew just behind her. As one, Team 6 stopped in their tracks just inside.

The doorway had deposited them right in the middle of a bunch of wooded foothills. Above the hills, shining silver and gold in the evening sun, towered huge mountains, capped with snow. The entire scene was breathtakingly beautiful.

"Whoa," said Andrew, in an awed voice.

"And you'll need this," said someone from behind them. They all jumped at the voice, having already forgotten about their escort. He was leaning through the door, which from this side looked like nothing except a frame, freestanding on the hillside. He was holding out a map. Takyle took it from him and he nodded and closed the door. It popped out of existence, leaving them alone in the shadow of the mountains. Takyle studied the map.

"Looks like we're going to climb the mountain, guys." She rolled it back up and stuck it through her belt. "Let's make time while we've still got daylight. Seems that we've got a bit of hiking to do before we even get to the mountain.

"Oh boy, more walking!" Jaden's mind cheered sarcastically.

"Endurance. This entire race is about endurance," he reminded himself and fell into step behind Andrew. As he plodded along through the forest, he allowed his mind to drift and enter what Andrew called his "meditation coma". Years ago Jaden had found that while he was doing a repetitive activity he could slip halfway into a trance-like state and hold himself there, whilst still remaining aware enough to carry on with what he had been doing. It wasn't the same as sleeping, but it was at least somewhat restful. At this point, Jaden was exhausted and it didn't seem like that was going to change any time soon. He'd take what he could get.

The team continued walking for a little over three hours, taking only two short breaks. When it was too dark to efficiently navigate through the woods, Takyle called a halt in a small glen.

"Why don't we make camp here, eat something, and sleep for a while?" she asked. Jaden stared at her. Did she really think that anybody was going to disagree with that? He dropped his pack onto the ground behind him and began to sink down. He stopped when he saw Andrew pull out his hatchet, presumably to gather firewood. Jaden pulled himself back up.

"No, Andy, I'll do it. You need to rest." He knew that Andrew must be in pain because instead of arguing, he handed over his hatchet with a grateful nod.

Jaden walked a short distance away and shone his flashlight around the woods bordering their little clearing looking for a fallen tree or large branches. He quickly located a few and Takyle joined him in hauling the wood back to where Andrew sat, mixing water with some kind of powder in a little tin pot. He looked up from what he was doing as they dropped the firewood in a pile to the side.

"Great. As soon as you guys get a fire going we can have..." He picked up the empty packet and read the label. "Dehydrated, nutrient infused, chicken flavored, extra calorie, complete protein carbohydrate meal."

"Oh yum, my favorite," said Takyle, dryly.

"Andrew, don't we have a little gas, camp burner?" asked Jaden.

"Why yes, yes we do. But I saw no reason to break that out when we were making a fire for warmth anyway."

"Yeah but, we're not actually building a fire. This is a sim. We just think we are."

"And so we'll actually be eating our slop, I mean, ehem, p.c. meal cold when we think it's hot. But since it doesn't actually have to be cooked it doesn't matter." Andrew smiled. "It's all in your brain," he said in his 'creepy voice'. Jaden shook his head and sat down by his pack.

"I don't want you guys to get the impression that I'm not enjoying myself in this race here," he said. "But I'll be honest with you, I'll be delighted when we're out of it."

"Oh you don't mean that!" Takyle said in a mock scandalized tone as she stood up and put her lighter back in her pack. "Day to day life will be so boring for you after all of this is over Jay."

"Yeah, maybe." He pulled off his boots and rubbed his feet. "But I think I'll be able to live with that."

Andrew suspended his little cooking pot over the fire that Takyle had started.

"I'll be happy to get back to school. I'm having a blast at this, but I do miss it," he mused. Takyle sat down on her unrolled sleeping bag and nodded thoughtfully.

"Yeah, I guess I do too... Never thought I'd hear myself say that!" She smiled. "Guess maybe I'm growing up, guys."

"Uh oh, better watch out, pretty soon you'll be getting all "responsible" and stuff," warned Andrew.

"Nah, I wouldn't dare," she replied. For a while they sat in silence, staring into the hypnotic flames of their small campfire until Andrew stirred the now steaming gruel one last time and pulled the pot away from the flames.

"Get out your mess kits, folks. Soup's on." He grimaced as he spooned a portion of the meal onto the plate that Jaden held out. "I'll tell ya, the real world might be boring after this, but the food won't be! While you're eating this imagine that it's prime rib with a baked potato or... something... that's actually good..."

Takyle dug in her pack and tossed Jaden and Andrew each one of the apples that she'd taken from the dressing room.

"Here. At least this time we can have some real food for dessert anyway."

Andrew grinned. "Hey, awesome. Thanks."

"Thanks Ta." Jaden raised the apple to his nose and breathed in. He didn't think that as long as he lived, he would ever get tired of the smell of a fresh apple. Never, ever. ~

Friday, June 27, 2008

Chapter 74: A Definitive Victory

~ The surreality of Jaden's calm little world crumbled around him. As the make-up people swarmed onto the stage one last time to check the faces of their charges, Jaden looked around the room. His eyes trailed over the studio audience and he imagined that each and every one of them were staring back at him. An irrational fear began rising in his stomach, slipping up his throat, choking him. He quickly diverted his gaze to across the stage, and he once again felt the nervousness being infused with anger.

Cal was giving him such a look of belligerence that Jaden very nearly came out from behind their console to go give the man a piece of his mind. He thought better of it just in time though. Slitting a man's throat in front of a studio audience probably wouldn't be the smartest thing he could do, so he stayed where he was and settled for just glaring back.

The lady with the clipboard gave Elwin a countdown and they were suddenly back on the air.

"Hello again America!" gushed Elwin. "What a fantastic show we've had here today, with our two teams running neck and neck all this time, fighting til the very end! Now here we have scores that are exactly even and the ball is in Team 5's court for the tie breaker! It's still anyone's game. If Cal of Team 5 can't give a satisfactory answer for this last question, the points could easily be stolen by Jaden over there in Team 6. Are we ready to finish this, teams? Alright, let's play!

"Cal, for the win, what use does a monomer have in my day to day life?"

From the way that Cal smiled, Jaden instantly knew that he had the answer. If he was correct then there was nothing at all Jaden could do to save this.

"Well Elwin, monomers are the molecules that can bond together to form polymers. Of course you use polymers every single day in plastics, and even certain proteins in your body." Cal grinned at the host and the audience, knowing full well that he had just won the day for his team. Elwin tried for suspense.

"Well Team 5...Does our great audience here think that that sounds about right?" he asked the crowd. They cheered in response. Jaden felt sick.

"As the saying goes...the audience is always right! Congratulations Team 5, that is correct and that makes you the winners today!" The crowd roared. "Now let's take a look at what your special prize is going to be!" Elwin waved his hand one more time at the screen behind him.

"Your team has won a mini-vacation from this very taxing race! For 18 hours you'll be put up in the best accommodations right here in our facilities, with the finest foods and spa treatments provided by our sponsor, Maelow Spas and Resorts! Obviously, so as not to disadvantage you to the rest of the teams, when you re-enter the race you will get to skip the level above this one. Well done!" Elwin turned to the audience.

"Let's also give a big hand to our other contestants, Team 6. They played a great game. Thank you all for joining us here tonight for That Sounds About Right, and please continue to tune into the RBC network for more special EPIC Race updates and gameshow editions! I'm Elwin Longtwig, have a great night!"

Elwin bowed to the audience and then shook the hands of Team 5 as the theme music played and the cameras took their long roll-away shots for the credits. Jaden turned away in disgust and he caught sight of Takyle. She was keeping her face straight, but he could definitely see her eyes sparkling happily.

Joel came and escorted them off the stage and back to their dressing room.

"When you're packed up and ready to move on, just stick your head out into the hall and there will be someone to take you to the exit," he told them, before pulling the door shut behind himself and leaving them alone. Jaden immediately turned to Takyle and she broke into a grin.

"Why the hell are you so happy? We lost! To those douche bags!" He would have been yelling, had his teeth not been clenched.

"I'm happy because I would bet money that they're going to take that little break that they've won. And that means we have a very good chance of getting ahead of one more team that's in our way of winning." She smiled happily and began to peel a banana from the bunch on the coffee table.

"Yeah, and if you'd been listening you'd have heard that when they get done with their cute little break they get a free level and they'll be rested!"

"I did hear that. I don't really think that the next level will take us any 18 hours so we'll still be ahead, and rest is overrated anyway. Now let's move out." Takyle threw the banana peel away, and opening her pack, placed several apples and cookies in it.

Jaden shoved his spare uniform, freshly laundered thanks to Karen, into his pack. He silently went into the bathroom and after he'd rinsed his make-up away in the sink, inspected his eye once more in the mirror. It was still inflamed, but the swelling seemed to have gone down a tiny bit.

Andrew took his turn at the sink and then stood by the door until Takyle and Jaden was ready to go. As they pulled their packs on he cleared his throat quietly. Jaden and Takyle both looked up at him. It occurred to Jaden that he'd been completely silent since they'd exited the stage.

"We lost because of me. I'm... I'm sorry," Andrew told them quietly. For a moment they both just looked back at him.

"Meh, it was a gamble." Takyle gave a shrug. "That's what the game is about. We all bluffed at some point. Could have been any one of us. Don't give it a second thought." She headed for the door. "Now let's make good on this possible head start that we've been thrown while we still can."

Jaden went to follow Takyle out into the hall, but paused in front of Andrew. He didn't look like he 'wasn't giving it a second thought.' He looked more like he was kicking the crap out of himself for it.

"She's got a point, you know," Jaden said to him. "Somebody once told me that you can't ride a bicycle looking backwards. He was right." Andrew stared back at him.

"That was me. And at the time I was talking about an actual bicycle."

"Yes, but it applies here too. Of all the times I made mistakes that would have cost us the race when we were practicing, you always told me to just keep going and make the best of what I had."

A long moment passed as Andrew just gazed silently at Jaden. Or at least in his direction. Jaden could see Andrew's thoughts behind his eyes. Takyle stuck her head back in the room.

"Are you losers coming or not? We've got a race to finish here." Andrew finally broke from his reverie.

"Yeah, we're right behind you, Boss." As they followed her out into the hall Andrew patted Jaden's shoulder.

"Quite the pep talk there. Have you thought about going into motivational speaking career-wise?"

"Uh no, not until this moment. Think that's a possibility for me?"

"Yeah, I can kinda see you rocking that. And you wouldn't be working for The Man; that's always a plus."

"Oh yeah, totally. That's not really an option my high school counselor ever brought up to me, but I can see it. Jaden McAllister: Motivational Speaker and Etiquette Coach. It does have a ring to it, I have to admit," mused Jaden, his faced impressively contemplative.

"Is the etiquette thing just for kicks there?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Okay, yeah that's cool. Etiquette is hot. You could get a lot of chicks with that one. Lot of young men looking up to you as a hero-type," mused Andrew.

"Oh, sure! Definitely."

Up ahead Jaden saw Takyle shaking her head.

"You guys are insane," she said over her shoulder, but Jaden could hear her smile in her voice.

He hoped she was right about the head start thing. ~

Monday, June 23, 2008

Chapter 73: Ineffective

~ At the first break for commercials Joel came rushing out on stage with the make-up lady in tow. He fussed with Ta's hair and then he waved a hand at Jaden's face.

"That bite thing is still way too visible. Do something about it!" he demanded of the girl next to him. Jaden immediately took a step back and warded off a brush with a raised hand.

"No. It is fine, Joel," he commanded firmly. "My eye is sore and I do not want anyone else messing with my face, understand?" Joel didn't have time to argue, as the clipboard lady was frantically waving him and the other crew members off of the stage.

"Welcome back!" chirruped Elwin to the camera, like some insanely happy cricket. "If you've just tuned in, you've arrived right on time for our shows' signature game: That Sounds About Right!

As Elwin went on to tell the audience all about the game and its rules, which happened to be almost exactly the same as the rules for Define It, Jaden caught himself tuning everything out and letting his mind drift.

"You should be paying attention," his mind admonished him. "This could be important."

"Eh, I've seen the show before. I know the rules."

"Still, you could be given valuable additional information."

"But I'm so tired. I just want to-"

"Jaden." He jumped at the sound of his name, and then he realized that Elwin was back in his podium and gesturing at the board. "The first round goes to you. For 20 points. Here's your question:

"While you are watching a lunar eclipse, a man leans over to you and says that the moon has now reached penultimate totality. What does he mean?"

For a moment Jaden considered trying the bluff again, but decided against it. Cal looked relatively smug after hearing this one. Jaden quickly ran through an explanation of totality and penultimate, all the while thinking that if he kept getting questions like these, winning would be easy. As Jaden had suspected, Cal agreed with his explanation and the score went to 50/20.

The game drug on and Jaden found himself becoming more and more detached. That fact wasn't exactly hurting his performance though. The fog that settled over him seemed to put a surreal, sharper edge on his focus and drown whatever anger and nervousness he had left in him.

"Vin, I'm looking for a quick egress. Tell me where I can find it."

"Takyle, for 20 points, please give an example of a tautological statement."

The scores hovered irritatingly close, Team 5 never quite pulling even, but coming dangerously close. After a round boringly devoid of bluffing, when it came to Andrew's turn he took a chance to widen the gap between scores.

"Andrew, please describe the effects of hysteresis."

"Hysteresis is a medical condition that affects only women. One of the effects is a softening of bones, and typically it causes yellowed skin and hormone imbalance. It usually only occurs in women who have already gone through menopause," Andrew explained.

Jaden looked over at Team 5 to catch Vin's response. He didn't know what hysteresis was himself, but he figured that if Andrew was bluffing, it was a pretty good one.

Vin didn't think so though. A grin spread over his face and he punched the red button in front of him.

"Ooh, we have a rejection!" exclaimed Elwin excitedly. "Vin, you are correct; Andrew's explanation was not satisfactory. You have a chance to steal those points if you can describe for us the effects of hysteresis."

"That I can Elwin," said Vin, smugly. "It's when an effect lags behind a cause. Like a piece of iron being magnetized. If you have a system with hysteresis, it means that you can't tell the output just by looking at the input of that moment, you have to see the input history to make a prediction. That is hysteresis."

"That is correct!" cheered Elwin. And just like that, the scores were even.

"This is just getting more and more exciting," Elwin gushed. "Both teams are doing extraordinarily well, and we have ourselves a tie coming up on the end of our show! Don't go away, we'll be right back after this short break!" ~

Friday, June 20, 2008

Chapter 72: A Sure Thing

~ Elwin took his place behind the clear podium in the middle of the stage and gestured up at the board.

"Team 6, play starts with you. For ten points Takyle, you're word is... Reprobate." The word appeared in large, red letters on the screen. "Please define it."

Takyle cleared her throat and spoke with certainty. "Reprobate can be used in three ways. As a noun it means a person who is morally reprehensible. As a verb it means to condemn something or someone. As an adjective, like the noun, it describes something as being morally objectionable."

"Well that was very thorough. Team 5, time for you to judge. John, this one is for you to decide. If you reject the definition, press your red button, if you accept it, the green one," directed Elwin. John considered his options for just a moment and then pressed his green button.

"Team 5 has accepted Takyle's definition and that is... Correct! Team 6 has taken first blood with this ten points. Team 5 of course hasn't earned any points from this, but they've not lost any either. And now it is their turn, and they have a chance to get even.

"Team 5; Vin, your word to define is: Clandestine, also worth ten points." Vin cleared his throat.

"Uh, clandestine. It means like if something is under the table, or in secret."

"Well isn't he just terribly clever and articulate," thought Jaden to himself. Andrew accepted Vin's brief definition and Team 5 gained ten points. Jaden set his teeth and tuned out everything in the studio except for the host and the opposing team. He stared across the expanse of the stage at Cal, sizing him up.

The man's broken nose was swollen and red from the fight earlier that day and he looked nothing short of determined. Elwin gave Jaden his word: Dendrite. In the split second before Jaden opened his mouth to answer, he decided that Cal didn't seem the type that would know technical or anatomical terms that well.

"A dendrite is a kind of stone structure that you see in caves. That's what you call it when a stalactite from the ceiling meets a stalagmite on the floor and it makes kind of a pillar. It's a dendrite." Jaden nodded casually at Elwin, hoping to God that Andrew and Takyle had kept their wits about them and not given his bluff away with a glance or facial expression. He didn't dare look at them now.

Cal seemed to be caught. Jaden watched him closely. Inside he felt like cheering. It was immediately obvious that, even if he didn't believe the one Jaden had given, Cal wasn't sure of the correct definition himself. At this point he could call Jaden's bluff if he wanted to, but if he did that he'd have to give the true definition himself. Rock and a hard place.

Slowly Cal reached forward, closed his eyes, and pressed the green button on the console in front of him. Elwin gave a theatrical gasp and wince as a loud buzzer went off and red lights flashed.

"Oooh, I'm sorry Team 5, but you've been had! Congratulations Jaden, that did sound about right, and the score is now 30 to nothing!"

Now Jaden felt it was safe to look at his teammates while the crowd cheered. He grinned and Andrew returned it. He mouthed the words "well done" to Jaden before turning back to face the host. Elwin gave the real definition of dendrite for the edification of the audience, and the show went on.

One more round of Define It was played, so that each member of either team had a chance to both judge a definition and give one. Team 5 rallied, putting up a good fight, and in the end the score was 30 to 20 but still in favor of Team 6.

"That first game was nothing short of rousing!" exclaimed Elwin, with insufferable cheerfulness. Jaden gritted his teeth. Apparently Team 5 wasn't going to go down easily, but there were going down. He'd see to that. ~

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chapter 71: Parameters

~ Elwin Longtwig swept back to the middle of the stage followed closely by the center camera.

“Alright then! Now that we've met our competing teams, let's take a look at where they fall on the map compared to their rivals in the race. Jimmy, can you pull up the map for me please?” Elwin gestured behind himself at a large flat square up high on the stage's back wall. Immediately a large but crude diagram of some of the race levels appeared on the screen.

“Now, as all of you know, the map we display here only shows the race stages up to this point. Obviously we don't want to give anything away about the future obstacles for the contesting teams.

"You'll also note that even though two teams seem to be on the same level, they could be facing quite different obstacles, depending on what paths they choose to take. There are many, many different ways to get through each level, some being faster or easier than others. What paths teams choose to take largely depends on their individual skills, and whether or not they even noticed other possible routes. That having been said, let's see how Teams 5 and 6 are doing.”

With that word, another version of the map appeared, identical except for this one had a bunch of little orange dots on it.

Ok then, here we have Teams 5 and 6.” Elwin gestured to the map and two small labels appeared on the map with the team numbers pointing to two of the dots. “As you can see there are eight other teams on this level as well, four of them taking part in other shows as we speak, to be aired on this network! There are another five teams still in one stage or another of the previous level, and two teams that are not on this map because they have already moved on to the next level, which we're not showing here.

“It is my unfortunate duty to let our viewers know though that Team 10, who had a member get injured on the first level, dropped out of the race during the previous level. Also, even worse, Team 3 was disqualified from the race, as their leader was killed while attempting to overcome one of the race obstacles also in the previous level. The second team this year to have had such a fatal accident.

"Teams who have injured members, but are remaining in the race are Teams 18, 14, and Team 6, who we have here with us right now.

“Now that we've had our progress report, let's play That Sounds About Right, beginning with one of my favorite games: Define It! Let's review the rules of play:

“One player of one team will be given a word to define. They will either define it correctly, or make something up that is convincing enough to bluff their opposing team. Either way, their definition will either be rejected by the opposing team, or accepted by it. If the definition is rejected by the opposing team, that team will be given a chance to give a correct definition, taking the points for themselves. Should they call rejection on a definition that is already correct, they will lose as many points from their total as the first team gained for the answer.

“The only remaining possibility is if the opposing team should fail to reject a false definition, then as many points as the word was worth will be taken from their total score and given to the team with the bluff, plus the original point value for the word, giving the team with the bluff double rewards.

"Are we all clear on what's going to happen?” he asked, looking from one team to the other. “Yes? Alright, let's play!” ~

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chapter 70: Innermost Desires

~ Much to Jaden's relief, the audience was finally hushed by the clipboard lady and they took on a collective air of expectancy. She showed them the prompts for "applause", "laugh", and "silence". They responded to the signs like so many trained seals. Good audience. Have a cookie.

A man who Jaden recognized as being the host of the show entered from the left side of the stage and began shaking hands with the members of Team 5. The man's name was Elwin Longtwig. Every time Jaden heard the name he fully expected it to be attached to an elf. Logic said that he must be human, but Elwin's hair was fashionably shaggy, effectively hiding the upper halves of his ears, so Jaden could never be one hundred percent sure.

Elwin crossed the stage and, starting with Takyle, shook all of their hands, introduced himself as the host, and wished them the best of luck. He then conferred with the lady with the clipboard and apparently it was decided that the time had come to start taping the show. He took his place in the middle of the stage and she ran around giving last minute instructions to people. She checked the stage one last time and then the cameras were rolling and the crowd was cheering heartily at the "applause" sign, throwing in some extra screams and whistles for kicks.

A camera on a dolly was pushed across the stage for a long panning shot ending with a close up of Elwin, who was giving a really dazzling example of the Game Show Host Grin.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to That Sounds About Right!" The audience once again erupted into applause. Elwin had some fans.

"Thank you for joining us again here tonight for another installment of our special series of EPICsodes!" Takyle shot Andrew and Jaden a look and rolled her eyes.

"Let's meet out two teams of contestants!" said Elwin with incredible perkiness, striding across the stage toward Team 6, never taking his eyes from the camera lens. "Here we have Team 6! Hello there!" Team 6 nodded back at him. He moved to the end of the counter, furthest from the audience and leaned over to offer his microphone to Takyle.

"Takyle Marianne Carlyle! Leader of Team 6 and also a private sponsor for your team." Takyle nodded her agreement to the statement. "You come from New York, as do both of the other members of your team actually, and you're currently working on a degree in business administration at the prestigious Frenner University." Elwin made a quick reference to the cards in his hands. "And if your team happens to be the winners in the EPIC Race, you will be splitting your winnings between the World Wildlife Fund and investing in your family's business."

"That's correct," said Takyle.

"Anyone you'd like to say hi to at home?" asked Elwin.

"Um, hi mom and dad." Takyle gave a vague wave at the camera.

"Fantastic, good luck!" chirped Elwin and moved down to Andrew.

"Andrew Allen Vienna, hello there."

"Hello," said Andrew, flashing Elwin, the camera, and the entire audience a quick, charming smile without looking awkward at all.

"Apparently, you spent the summer of your junior year in high school, all three months of it, surviving alone in the Appalachians! Is it true!?"

"Uh, yeah. I like to hike," said Andrew, casually.

"You'd have to!" The audience laughed good-naturedly on cue. "Did you learn anything from that experience, not all that long ago actually, that has helped you in the race?"

"Knowing how to bathe in streams is handy." More laughter.

"Alright then, it says here that should you win, your share of the prize money will go to paying off the student loans that you do have already, and paying the rest of the way through college. It would also be used to finance graduate studies at MIT."

"That's right. If they'll take me, that is." Third round of laughter.

"Great to meet you Andrew, best of luck with all of that!" Elwin flipped to his next card and moved down one last time to stand in front of Jaden.

Jaden's mind raced, wondering what the hell they would see fit to tell about his life? All the members of every team had been interviewed before the race, that's where this information was coming from. He tried to remember what he'd told the interviewer. Nothing that was very specific, surely.

"Hello Jaden Edward McAllister, how are you doing?"

"I'm well, thanks," said Jaden into the microphone, pleasantly surprised that his voice did not shake at all.

"According to what I have here, you are one of the youngest race contestants, having just recently graduated from your senior year in high school with honors. You're a bit of a history buff and you enjoy reading and spending time with friends." Oh yes, that was pretty vague.

"Yes, that's correct."

"Should your team win you would like to pay for a university degree with your share of the prize money, and also learn how to sail. A nautical buff as well then?" Oh yeah, and there was that detail.

"Um, yeah, kind of."

"Well that's just great; good luck to you!" Elwin crossed the stage, all the while talking to the camera. "And now to meet their rivals: Team 5!"

As the members of Team 5 were all introduced in much the same manner, Jaden felt his anger begin to doggedly creep back up inside him. He shoved it to the back of his mind. There was no time for that; he needed to concentrate. The excitement was about to begin. ~

Monday, June 9, 2008

Chapter 69: Never Hurts To Be Prepared

~ The clipboard lady hustled the team through the passage and out toward the stage. The stadium style seating formed a half circle around the stage, the rows of chairs already packed with people. The noise in the studio was bordering on overwhelming, and Jaden's thudding heartbeat did nothing to help him.

Before he was clear of the cover of the passageway, Jaden paused for half a beat to check for possible escape routes. His eyes found three doors, all of which were clearly labeled as exits, plus the two halls leading from the left and right sides of the stage. There was also the thin fabric wall that made up the background for the stage. He was fairly confident that if worst came to worst, a quick slash with a knife would create yet another handy way out.

Despite his elevated respiration and heart rate, Jaden still had the distinct feeling that the team was not in any immediate danger and he was fairly confident in that impression. He glanced at Andrew and found his teammate's eyes to be casually sweeping the crowd and studio area. It may have looked like nothing more than muted interest, but Jaden knew that Andrew wasn't missing a single thing. That was a comfort.

Jaden took three deep breaths and ordered himself to relax. As usual, his body obeyed him. He felt the tension in the muscles of his shoulders and neck ease. His heart quieted.

The clipboard lady directed them to stand behind a long counter that was situated at an angle to the audience. Across the stage was another counter identical to theirs. On the front of each the name of the show was emblazoned in shining letters. That Sounds About Right.

The first thing that Jaden did was reach for the two big, palm-sized, red and green buttons directly in front of him to see what they did. Takyle, who was standing next to him in front of her own buttons, caught his hand half way there.

"No. Leave it," she ordered firmly. From her tone of voice Jaden half expected her to pull out a spray bottle and squirt some water in his face as well, but she didn't. He looked up in time to see the team they would be going up against enter from the opposite side of the stage. His mouth dropped open. It was the back-stabbing, illogical, and freakishly aggressive Team 5.

"What the hell?" he demanded, angrily. Due to the noise of the crowd, he didn't think that anyone heard him except for Takyle.

"Chill, Jaden. This doesn't change anything," she warned.

"Like hell it doesn't! They stabbed Andrew! They shouldn't even still be in the frigging race!"

"There is no rule that says you'll never be pitted against another team," she reminded him in a fierce mutter. "They were trying to win, and so are we. They did nothing technically wrong. If you're angry, then use that to beat them in this task."

"Yes, because rage-fueled game show contestants always win," the voice in Jaden's mind retorted sarcastically. He glared across the stage at the other team, but none of them were looking his way. The fact that his death stare was lost on them made him a little bit madder. Someone laid a hand on his shoulder and he angrily whipped his head around to see what they wanted.

Andrew stood behind him, with half a smile painting his lips. He leaned a little closer.

"As flattering as your righteous indignation on my behalf is, Jay, can I give you a word of advice?" Jaden nodded silently, feeling his anger begin to simmer away under the humor in Andrew's eyes. Andrew lowered his voice one more notch, as if what he was about to divulge was of the utmost secrecy.

"Being angry isn't going to help anything. Pretend that they're just another obstacle in this race and move on. They don't matter." Jaden stared into Andrew's eyes for a moment more, then finally nodded.

"Alright. I'm sorry." Andrew shook his head.

"Don't apologize; you didn't do anything wrong. Just help me win this thing, ok?"

"You got it," promised Jaden, and he meant it.

Takyle had moved down to the end to give Andrew room to talk to Jaden, and after that short conversation, she remained where she was, leaving Andrew in the middle. Jaden banished what remained of his anger from his mind, and once again practiced breathing to regain his calm. Andrew noticed and waved his hands in front of himself, illustrating the flows of energy. He began to drone in a horrible nasal monotone.

"That's right, balance your chi. Breathe the negative energy out, let it escape. Now draw the positive energy into your core being. Feel the forces of the energy invigorating and awakening you. Feel the good health expanding outward. Once more together now."

Jaden laughed aloud at the voice. Apparently Andrew held some power over his rage because it was now not much more than a memory. He did, in fact, feel invigorated. He felt ready to take on whatever this stage of the competition had to offer.

Andrew smiled at him and nodded.

"We've got this in the bag, buddy." ~

Friday, June 6, 2008

Chapter 68: The Agony of Waiting

~ Jaden paced up and down, attempting to disguise his nervousness for restlessness, or maybe even excitement. He didn't figure he was probably doing that great of a job.

"You ok there, Jay?" Andrew asked him.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good. I'm cool," said Jaden absently, beginning another trip to the far wall.

"Cause you look a little..."


"Well I wasn't going to say it. But since you did..."

"I don't know, Andy... I've never really been around a lot of people like this. I didn't think that I minded audiences, but the truth is I really don't know. And this show... Andy, I've seen it and those questions they use are hard!" Jaden looked at Andrew for some bit of reassurance, or maybe just acknowledgement. Takyle spoke up from down the hall, where she was looking at a rack full of props.

"Dude, it'll be fine. Just ignore the people, and if you know an answer give it. You're a smart guy; you'll do great." She went back to what she had been doing, as if that completely settled the matter. Andrew tilted his head a little.

"Yeah she's right you know. It'll be fine." Jaden wasn't really convinced, but he did stop pacing. He tried his best to lean casually against the wall like Andrew was doing.

"I knew this girl one time," said Andrew. "It was back in high school. We went on a couple of dates actually. I am completely serious when I tell you, she had a trench in her back yard. She would always go out there to talk on the phone and stuff and she would pace up and down. I'm not exaggerating one bit, this thing was a good 10 feet long and at least a foot deep. You could like, break a leg in it if you didn't know it was there. She was a little OCD."

Joel came running back over and the three members of Team 6 regrouped in front of him to hear what he had to say.

"Ok guys, we're almost ready for you. They're just bringing in the new studio audience, and we'll start taping just as soon as we get everybody set. Now, you know what to do right? Remember what I said about the introductions? Fantastic." He paused for a minute to fuss with Takyle's bangs, then stood back and looked them all up and down.

"Oh, I really wish you people would have gone for the wardrobe change, but that's cool. It's ok. It'll be fine." The look on his face said that his definition of "fine" was probably a good deal less optimistic than the dictionary's.

A woman with a headset and clipboard came out from the passage that was labeled "Stage, Left Wing", and strode over to them.

"Team 6? Are they all set?" she asked Joel. He nodded, pausing to pick a speck of lint off of the sleeve of Andrew's jacket.

"As ready as they'll ever be," he informed her with a sigh. She gave a curt nod, checked something off on her clipboard, then addressed the trio.

"Great. Follow me please, we're ready for you on stage." ~

Monday, June 2, 2008

Chapter 67: It Must Go On

~ Jaden woke with a start when something touched his arm. He jerked upright and gasped as a pain shot up his back.

"Whoa there buddy, it's just me," said someone, in Andrew's voice. Jaden's vision cleared and he realized that it actually was Andrew.

"Joel still isn't back so we figured we might go try to find somebody, at least have a look around."

"Ok, let's go." Jaden murmured blearily as he stood and stretched, wincing again at the tenderness of his back and shoulders.

"You alright there?" Andrew asked him and not for the first time Jaden marveled at his friend's powers of observation. Andrew noticed things like little twinges in people's facial expressions. He was just good at...people stuff.

"Yeah, I'm ok. Just a little stiff. Are you sure we're supposed to leave here?" asked Jaden. Andrew shrugged his shoulders.

"Nobody told us not to."

"And if they come back while we're out?"

"Ta's leavin' a note" said Andrew, throwing a thumb back over his shoulder. Jaden looked around him, and sure enough, there was Takyle, scrawling her signature on a torn out page of her notebook. She placed it in the middle of the coffee table and stood up.

"We'll only be gone for a few minutes," she said. Jaden picked up his pack and pulled it over his arms. Andrew opened the door and looked up and down the hallway. The way was clear so he slipped out, Takyle right behind him and Jaden bringing up the rear. The team maintained their silence as they carefully made their way down the long hallway.

At the moment Jaden did not feel like they were in any danger, but out of habit he kept a watchful eye on the open hall behind them. Better safe than sorry. In Jaden's experience, being surprised was never a good thing.

They passed several racks on casters, hung with any sort of clothing you could imagine. Near one corner there was a long couch with faded upholstery next to an antique refrigerator. After a minute, Andrew held up a hand from up ahead for them to stop. Jaden and Takyle automatically fell into a crouch up against the wall. After a moment Jaden heard what Andrew had. There were people talking, up the hall and around the corner. Andrew waved them forward and as they drew closer, Jaden heard and recognised Joel's voice emphatically explaining to some poor sod why his choice of a certain stage prop was insanely stupid and how, if he ever wanted to actually get an important job, he'd have to find some taste somewhere.

Andrew turned around and led them back to the last corner they had taken, and instead of going right, they took the left hall this time. The end of it widened into a small lounge with several couches, a television, and a coffee maker with a stack of styrofoam cups beside it on a table. A couple of people were sitting around the room, talking to one another. One man looked up, his eyes running over Andrew's uniform.

"Team 6, huh? I heard you guys got in. Shouldn't you be back in your dressing room?"

"We got tired of waiting so we decided to take a bit of a stroll, see if we couldn't find somebody to talk to. You don't happen to know of someone who might be able to tell us when we're going on, and what show we're doing, do you?" The man pulled himself up out of his seat by the arms of the chair and walked over to the doorway. He pointed back the way they came.

"Go down this way and the, let's see, that'd be 5th door on your left is the stage manager's office. He might be able to tell you something. If he's not in there then you should really probably just wait in your dressing room for somebody to come get you."

"Ok, thanks a lot man." Andrew shook the fellow's hand, and they again backtracked to the door he'd indicated. Takyle knocked on it, then waited, and knocked again. After a moment she turned around.

"He doesn't seem to be here. Shall we just go back and wait?"

"I guess so," Andrew agreed, reluctantly. "I just hate wasting time like that when we're on such a tight schedule." Just then Joel came scurrying around the corner.

"Oh for goodness sakes, there you are! You better be awfully grateful I was able to find you so quick. Why did you leave the dressing room? Come on, come on now! We haven't got all day! You're about to go on!" Joel hustled them back down the hallway and past their dressing room, through two more rooms and finally into an area that could definitely be identified as "backstage". Joel checked his watch, said something to a woman striding past, then turned to Team 6.

"Alright then. The show that you'll be going on is called 'That's Sounds About Right'. Are you familiar with it?" Team 6 all nodded silently at him. "Fantastic. Then this shouldn't be a problem for you. Now once you're on stage the host will introduce each one of you individually and tell some interesting fact from your life. Is everybody clear on that? Once that has happened for both teams on the show, we'll take a look at the current positions of all the teams in the race. Any of you have stage fright?" Team 6 all shook their heads no. "Great, because there's a full studio audience." Joel smiled serenely. "Ready to go on then?" he asked. Team 6 nodded again.

"Wait right here for a moment," Joel commanded them as he spun around and ran off in search of something or someone. Andrew turned to look at Takyle and Jaden.

"I swear, whenever that man is around me, my jaw just freezes up. I couldn't get a word in if I wanted to." Jaden nodded, absently.

"Yeah, me too," he said. Takyle smiled sweetly at them.

"Some people would consider that a good thing," she said, quietly. ~