Friday, September 25, 2009

Chapter 122: Disambiguation

~ Jaden stood unmoving, his heart in his throat and his entire attention fixed upon the vague shape of Takyle's arm in his peripheral vision. As if in slow motion he saw her arm begin to withdraw from her pack and in her hand he caught the blue glint of gun steel. Beside him Andrew started to spin away, smoothly pulling his knife as he turned, and Jaden followed. He saw a look of surprise falling over the faces of the officers behind them.

"This has to be quick. This has to be quick or we could be in big trouble."

Jaden and Andrew reached the two men at the door before they were able to finish opening their mouths to shout a warning. Jaden gave a quick chop with his left hand to knock the hand of the officer in front of him away from his weapon and then followed up with another blow to the man's windpipe. The soldier gasped and clutched as his throat, vainly struggling to get a breath. Beside him Andrew already had the other man immobilized with one arm trapped behind his back and a dagger at his throat.

As Jaden and Andrew had moved on the guards, Takyle had crossed the room and spun the commander's chair around to use him as a shield, pressing the barrel of her gun to his temple. By that time the third officer had turned around and reached for his own gun. He looked panicked as he tried to decide how to act.

"Order them to stand down and keep quiet," Takyle hissed at the commander. "Do it now!"

"Do what she says," Cmd. Tucker ordered, his voice breaking slightly from the gruff monotone he had been using. Jaden almost laughed. The man was scared; he wasn't going to offer much, if any resistance.

"Disarm them, Andrew," said Takyle, retaining her hold on Cmd. Tucker. Andrew quickly pulled the guns of the two officers held by Jaden and himself and then gestured at the third officer.

"Hey you, slide your sidearm into the middle of the room and lie down on the floor with your hands behind your head." When all three officers were on the floor Takyle turned Cmd. Tucker to face her.

"Alright then, now I feel like we can talk." ~

Monday, September 21, 2009

Chapter 121: Untenable

~ The slight unrest that the look in Cmd. Tucker's eye had given Jaden was growing more concrete by the second. He caught himself nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot and forced it to stop. Thankfully Andrew was already on the issue.

"Commander, just who are the Caltens?" he asked.

"They are the enemy."

"And what did this...other race is it? What did they do to start this war you're fighting?" At that the commander turned around once again.

"They exist." The commander stared Andrew down, cold fervor marking his features. "For now." Andrew held the man's gaze for a few moments and then lowered his eyes. As soon as the commander turned away Andrew glanced pointedly at Takyle.

"We have to do something," he whispered, keeping his face pointed straight ahead so that the officers behind them couldn't see his mouth moving. Takyle looked around hesitantly.

"Who's to say we're supposed to interfere?"

"This is genocide we're talking about, Takyle! And we made it possible with those codes. I'm going to do something." Andrew glanced over at Jaden.

"I'm in!" Jaden whispered. Takyle nodded.

"Ok, you're right. What can we do?" Andrew took a quick look over his shoulder to place the two other officers. They still stood stoically on either side of the door. Andrew lowered his voice even further.

"We have to get that chip back. I don't know if the commander is armed, but the other three definitely are, so we need to take them out first."

"The two behind us are watching for something to happen," Jaden warned.

"And if we allow too much noise others might come in here. We need to make this fast and quiet."

"I've still got the thing I found in that desk," murmured Takyle without taking her eyes from the screens across the room. "If I can get it out..."

"Ta," said Andrew aloud. "Do you have any more of the pain tabs the medic gave me in your pack? My stomach is getting pretty sore." Takyle had never carried any of Andrew's medicine and it only took a split second for her to catch on.

"Uh, yeah I think so... Let me look." As Takyle slipped her backpack off and began to unzip it Andrew glanced at Jaden and made a quick motion to indicate what he needed to do. Jaden gave one minuscule nod in response. He felt his heart rate begin to increase and his legs tense in anticipation. ~

Friday, September 18, 2009

Chapter 120: Preemptive

~ Just as Jaden placed the chip in Cmd. Tucker's hand the man glanced up to meet his eye and in the back of Jaden's mind a warning started to sound. As the commander inserted the computer chip into an adapter, and then into the console in front of him, Jaden quickly backed up to were Andrew and Takyle were standing, glancing around as subtly as he could. One member of the escort was typing busily at a second console about 12 feet away and the other two stood flanking the door, their eyes fixed on Team 6. Jaden looked to Andrew but he was busy watching the commander. Jaden cleared his throat nervously.

"So uh...what are you guys going to do with that chip, Commander?"

"We're going to win a war, thanks in no small part to your help," Cmd. Tucker answered absently. Jaden glanced back to Andrew to see if perhaps the longshot plan to get Andrew's attention with just his tone of voice had worked. With great relief he saw that it had; Andrew was giving him a quizzical look. Now that Jaden had his friend's attention he realized that he had no idea how to communicate his vague feeling of disquiet without attracting suspicion. He tried doing it with just a significant look and a twitch of his head in the commander's direction, but if anything that only increased the look of confusion in Andrew's eyes.

"Who is this war with?" Jaden asked.

"A group called the Caltens," said the commander.

"What started it?" For the first time since Jaden had given him the chip the commander took his gaze from the screen in front of him to shoot a quick glance back over his shoulder.

"It was a complex political situation, I doubt I could explain it properly."

Jaden watched as a series of maps scrolled across one of the console screens. He swallowed his timidity.

"Well why don't you try." By this time both Andrew and Takyle had their attention on Jaden, and Andrew seemed like he might be working out what Jaden was getting at.

"Look, I don't really have time for this right now. I assure you all of your questions will be answered later," Cmd. Tucker snapped impatiently. Andrew spoke up.

"Yeah, I don't think that will be good enough. I think we have some questions that you should really answer now. What are you going to do with that?"

The commander spun around in his chair to finally face them.

"We're going to use it for a weapon that we've been working on for a very long time now. Millions of our people have died in this war and this strike will put an end to it! Now be quiet so we can finish the job." ~

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chapter 119: Elemental

~ Before either Takyle or Jaden could reply to Andrew the box beeped again and a second panel popped open. After a short pause Andrew reached into the tiny compartment and pulled out a green and silver computer chip, snugly fitted into a clear protective case.

"Maybe we did do the right thing. Wonder what this is for," he said, passing the chip to Jaden.

"There is nothing else in the "instructions" that we were given," stated Takyle, leaning back.

"Well then maybe we're supposed to give this to Cmd. Ready-With-Information, now that we've gotten it out of the box," Jaden suggested.

"Could be." Takyle rose from her seat and crossed the room to open the door. In the war room the activities were still ongoing and it took a moment for Takyle to locate Cmd. Tucker and catch his eye. When she did get his attention he quickly strode over and immediately demanded an update.

"Well? Did you get it open?" Takyle paused a moment before answering.

"Yes...yes we did."

"Good; where is the chip?"

"In here, but may I ask you what it is for?" Takyle inquired. The commander tilted his head impatiently.

"I'll do you one better than that; bring the chip and you can come along and see for yourself." Takyle nodded and gestured for Jaden and Andrew. As they left the side room and followed Cmd. Tucker across the floor of the war room three other officers fell into step behind them, keeping a respectful distance, but very obviously not just coming along for interest's sake. Jaden felt himself stiffen slightly in either nervousness or excitement. He glanced over at Andrew to make sure that he had noticed as well. Andrew met his eye for only the briefest of moments and it was more than enough to let Jaden know that he was aware of their escort.

"Play it cool and see what happens," Jaden thought to himself. "This could be nothing."

On the opposite side of the room the commander led the entire group through yet another door, but this one into a chamber with several large control panels set against three of the walls. Cmd. Tucker sat down in front of one of them and held out his hand without looking at any member of Team 6.

"Give me the chip," he ordered. At Takyle's nod, Jaden stepped forward and placed the tiny piece of plastic and metal in the commander's open hand. ~

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chapter 118: Opperant Conditioning

~ Without another word Cmd. Tucker spun on his heel and marched off toward a door in the far wall. Takyle glanced back at Andrew and Jaden; they both shrugged.

"Let's go," she said, turning and walking quickly to catch up with the commander. At the door he stopped and turned around.

"This job I have for you is of the utmost importance. Do you understand?"

"Sure, why not," said Andrew blandly. The commander shot him a scorching look.

"I'll need to know that you are going to give this your all," he said, this time addressing Takyle directly.

"I'm sure we'll do our best, Cmd. Tucker; why don't you go ahead and tell us what the task is?"

The commander tightened his lips and opened the door, stepping into the small room ahead of Team 6. He waved to a table set in the middle of the bare floor. In the center of the table sat a nondescript black box and a thin file folder.

"There are instructions in that file. Read and follow them." With that the commander turned around and left the room, closing the door behind him.

"You know what I like about that guy?" said Andrew. "He's so succinct. Abbreviated even. You see the point up ahead on the horizon and, bam, he's already there!"

"Alright Andrew, let's get to work," interrupted Takyle. Each of them took a chair around the table and Andrew flipped open the file.

"Ok, at the top it says Department of Cryptology and then under that there's a bunch of gibberish. It must be a code."

"And we have to break it?" guessed Jaden.

"Looks like it."

"Here," said Takyle. "Let me see." Andrew pushed the file across the table to her and she scanned the document quickly. "This could be a simple substitution code, in which case this shouldn't be too difficult. I know for a fact that e, followed by t and then a are the letters used most often in the English alphabet, so let's start by substituting those for whatever letters appears most often here." Takyle pulled out her pen and began tallying letters in the first few sentences of code.

"Ok, it looks like the three letters used most here are g, r, and u, in that order, so I'll sub those out and from that it's pretty obvious that these words are all 'the', 'an', or 'and'." After saying that Takyle fell silent as she quickly figured out the rest of the letters by simple trial and error.

"Alright, it says to press down the first two and the last of the small buttons at the same time to open the front panel of the box." Andrew pulled the box that was in the middle of the table toward him and flipped it over in his hands. On one side he located a row of small black buttons and pressed pushed the three that Takyle had indicated. With a near silent whir a panel above the buttons raised itself exposing a row of colored lights and three more rows of buttons.

"Ok, now what?"

"Now...input the initializing codes?" Takyle looked up. "Was there anything else in this file Andrew?"

"No, just that sheet of paper."

"Well, there has to be something else. Right under that is says 'Warning: Termination will ensue if proper initializing codes are not entered.'"

"Termination of what exactly?" asked Jaden quietly.

"Don't know. Hopefully not us. So let's figure this out." The team fell silent as they thought. Jaden felt his concentration slip, and he allowed his mind to wander, dreamlike, through memories. Suddenly he jerked and sat up straight.

"Hey! That scepter that I found in the dessert sim right before Andy got stabbed had numbers on it!"

"Who has it?" asked Takyle.

"I did have it, but we've switched stuff around since then," offered Andrew, slipping his pack off and looking through his gear. "Yup, still got it! And you're right, there are numbers etched on it." Andrew laid the scepter on the table. "You think that those numbers are the code?"

Jaden leaned over to look into the open panel. "Well, the numbers on the scepter are in three groups of eight, and the box has three rows of buttons inside, so maybe each bunch of numbers corresponds to one line of buttons?"

"Seems like that could be the case, but is that a chance we're willing to take?" asked Takyle. "You know, what with the "warning" and all."

"Well I don't have any better ideas," Andrew said with a shrug.

"Ok...let's do it."

Andrew bent over the box once again. "So, you're thinking that these buttons represent the numbers zero to nine from left to right, Jay, and each of the number strings is entered on its own line?"

"Yeah, I mean, it seems logical doesn't it?"

"Sure, I guess. Ok, so the first line of numbers is 38661942?" ask Andrew, his hand hovering over the buttons. Jaden glanced at the scepter to confirm the digits for Andrew and nodded. Andrew gingerly pressed the first button and the lights began flashing red. He quickly but carefully finished the other seven digits and pulled his hand back. The lights flashed yellow once and then went back to blinking red.

"Is that a good sign you think?" Andrew asked, looking up to get the second string of numbers.

"Maybe," said Takyle. "Keep going."

"75204019," Jaden read off for Andrew. Again the lights blinked yellow once.

"Ok, last one," said Jaden. "65523960."

As soon as the last button on the last line was pressed the blinking lights sped up disconcertingly for about a second and then all turned to solid green. With a final small beep the entire box went dead. For several moments Team 6 sat still, waiting. Finally Andrew spoke up.

"Huh... Well that was anti-climatic. Did we do something wrong?" ~

Monday, September 7, 2009

Chapter 117: All The King's Horses

~ "Yep, I heard it that time," confirmed Andrew.

Takyle quickly started up the stairs again, this time bounding up two at a time with Andrew and Jaden right on her heels. Within 20 seconds they had reached the top landing of the tower and crashed through a loose wooden door that stood a foot ajar. Seamlessly they stumbled into a bunkered war room, officers and orderlies bustling in and out around them. Men in various breeds of uniform shouted at one another across maps and sand tables, a din of hurried conversation all around them. Screens and monitors, some of them being continually updated with line after line of data, lined the edges of the room over banks of computers.

"Hello," stated Andrew, breathlessly.

"What the hell?" demanded Jaden. No one in the war room seemed to care at all that they had come bursting through the door. For that matter no one seemed to have even noticed them.

"Excuse me," Takyle said to a passing officer. He didn't pay her any mind. "Excuse me," she said louder, snagging a young man in crisp khaki's by the elbow.

"Ma'am, yes ma'am?"

"Where are we and who's in charge here?"

"I'm afraid I can't answer your first question ma'am, that's classified, and you'll need to speak to Cmd. Tucker to be debriefed." The young man snapped off a quick salute and started to turn away but Takyle maintained her grip on him.

"Hang on there Zippy, where's Cmd. Tucker?"

"Over there, ma'am," answered the soldier, pointing to one of the sand tables where a man was gesticulating wildly to what was clearly a subordinate.

"Thank you," Takyle said, releasing the soldier to go about his business and starting across the crowded room. Andrew shot Jaden a look and they followed, both of them keeping a hand on their daggers and a watchful eye on the men moving around them. Not a single person seemed concerned with them at all, but Jaden and Andrew weren't about to take it on faith that that would remain the case. When they reached the sand table Takyle brusquely addressed the man behind it.

"Cmd. Tucker." The man didn't look up.

"What do you want?" he asked rudely.

"I want you attention for a moment," she replied in a scathing tone. At that the commander raised his eyes. He looked slightly taken aback but only briefly before his eyes narrowed and he looked Takyle up and down critically.

"Well, you've got my attention now and I've got precious little time to waste so what the hell do you want?"

"We were told to come to you for debriefing," answered Takyle, matching the commander in impatient, no-nonsense attitude.

"Team 6?"


"Well it's about time you got here! Come on, I've got a job for you." ~

Friday, September 4, 2009

Chapter 116: Reprise

~ It was not long at all before Team 6 reached the tower and discovered, neatly tucked away in the shadows cast by the massive wooden legs and framework, a media station. While Jaden and Andrew stood looking around warily, Takyle touched its screen and it began to hum quietly. Lighted text and a map blinked into life on the dark green background and she quickly scanned the dots on the map.

"Looks like there are three other teams on this level now and eight teams are somewhere behind us. Two teams are ahead and all together six teams are out of the race so far... Four people are dead and it looks like all but five of the teams have at least one injury serious enough to declare here."

"And look at that, we're one of them," Andrew stated blandly, reading over her shoulder.

"Well I wonder which of us they could be referring to?" Takyle answered. "Come on guys, let's climb."

"What do you think could be up there?" asked Jaden as they started up the rickety, wooden steps.

"Rapunzel?" guessed Andrew.

"If that were the case then shouldn't we be on a hair-powered elevator or something?" said Takyle. Jaden nodded.

"Yeah, but in the story I think you had to call to the maiden, and we didn't do that, so we have to walk up." Takyle shook her head regretfully.

"Damn. Oh well, lessons learned."

Jaden began silently counting stairs and got somewhere past 150 before he lost track of his tally and happened to look up. Through the sparse, dilapidated scaffolding that supported the steps, Jaden could see the vast, mountainous terrain stretching spectacularly out away from them in every direction. From this high up the thorny shrubs and sharp rocks covering the slopes were smoothed over and in the new light of day everything looked fresh and clean. Jaden opened his mouth to ask Andrew why the hell they didn't bring a camera, but caught himself.

"It's not real, moron." He shook his head and kept trudging up the stairs.

"Hey, don't be too hard on me, I've never seen anything like this before!"


"Yup," answered Andrew.

"Think there are really places like this?"

"Like this fire tower?"

"Yeah, well, all of it. This," said Jaden, gesturing outward to everything surrounding them.

"Yes, I suppose so. Not a lot of places like this left, but there are some." Andrew paused on a landing to take a deep breath before tackling the next flight. "Ever been to Yellowstone?"


"It's amazing," chipped in Takyle.

"Yes, 'tis. We should go there sometime if we ever get out of this friggin' race," said Andrew. Jaden suddenly grabbed Andrew's arm to stop him.

"Quiet! Did you hear that?"

"What?" whispered Andrew. Jaden stood perfectly still, head cocked to the side. There it was again.

Shouting. ~