Monday, July 12, 2010

Chapter 132: Sidetracking

~ Takyle glanced desperately from screen to screen in front of her. On the right the two hyenas that had fallen on their first wounded brother were still busy with their dinner, and the two remaining hyenas were working their way around Jaden, looking for an undefended angle. On the left was Andrew, still pinned down by the leopard. Takyle felt she was getting the idea of what the girl had so dryly called "the game", and it terrified her. Still, not playing was an even worse option than interfering, and so she interfered.
"Get away from the bodies," she willed Jaden, and when she saw him start to edge away from the two dead hyenas she turned her attention to Andrew. The wind and birds didn't work; what else could distract the big cat?


Andrew saw the leopard twitch once, and then again. Its tail flicked in annoyance and it lifted one paw, as if something on the ground were irritating it. And then Andrew saw it: ants. Big red ants were climbing over the dirt at the leopard's feet, and they were beginning to bite.

"Oh hell", thought Andrew.


Jaden maneuvered himself around the media station and edged several feet backwards, trying to keep all the live hyenas in his line of sight. He felt a pressure to hurry and do something before the two eating had had their fill.

"Of course, at that point, perhaps they'd just leave," he tried to tell himself.

"Fat chance."

A droplet of sweat stung Jaden's eye and he used a sleeve to quickly swipe his face. One of the hyenas that had followed him dodged around toward his right. Jaden swung his hatchet as he retreated another step, barely missing the animal's head. Its jaws snapped on air, frightening in their power. It advanced again, while the other hyena of the pair began slinking around behind Jaden.

"Crap. Crap, crap, crap," Jaden's mind chanted helpfully as he tried again to cut the second hyena off by backing away. Suddenly Jaden felt his heart leap to his throat as a hare came bursting out of the undergrowth behind him and shot in a zigzag pattern for the nearest cover. It had startled the hyenas as much as it had Jaden, and he was pleased to see that as it ran past them, no more than a tawny blur, both of them jumped back. Jaden grabbed the distraction, leaping forward to deliver a hard blow to the nearest animal, a chop to the nape of the neck. He felt the blade strike bone, and quickly chopped again, this time feeling the blade go deeper, between the vertebra, slicing through flesh and integral nerve. As before, after a strangled, heart wrenching cry, and a short, futile struggle to get away from the pain, the animal fell and at least died quickly, if gruesomely.

Jaden hurriedly stepped away from the bloody corpse and found that the other hyena who had been trying to circle him had backed away, choosing to observe from a short distance. After a moment of contemplating Jaden, it seemed to decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble and wearily moved away to join his two brothers over the carcasses of the fallen. Jaden waited for a moment to be sure that they were fully absorbed, and then edged back over to the media station and snatched up his pack before moving away as quickly as he thought safe.

“Stupid computer.” ~

Friday, July 9, 2010

Chapter 131: Impellere

~ "You say I have to play the game, but I don't know what to do," Takyle reminded the girl in as scathing a tone of voice as she could work up.

"That is for you to discover yourself," said the girl. Takyle opened her mouth to respond but at that moment she saw one of the hyenas that was in Jaden's blindspot to his left begin to rush in.

"Oh! Turn around!" she gasped and to her amazement and relief, Jaden did just in time.


Jaden caught the hyena under the jaw with a hard upwards kick and heard the sickening crunch of bone.

"Him or me, him or me," he reminded himself as the animal gave a cry that sounded disconcertingly similar to a human scream and stumbled back looking dazed, its lower jaw hanging slack and crooked. Long strings of blood and saliva began running from its broken mouth as the hyena shook his head, as if trying to rid himself of the pain. In a vicious display of savagery, three more of the hyenas jumped forward, two of them falling on their wounded brother, mercilessly ripping huge chunks of flesh from its neck and shoulders, while the third went for Jaden. Jaden tried another kick, but the animal shied away just in time to be missed, ducking it's head and charging back in towards his weight bearing ankle.

Like an independent thought, Jaden felt a voice, an instinct telling him to chop straight down with his hatchet, toward his own leg. Mindlessly, in the heat of the moment, Jaden followed the direction, having fought too much to risk ignoring it. With a solid thunk, the think blade was buried in the hyena's neck, severing its spinal cord. Jaden jerked the blade out and a thick gout of blood spurted up as the hyena sank, twitching, to the ground, finally lying still with its bared teeth inches from Jaden's shoe.


Andrew stayed near the ground, hoping against hope that if he remained still enough the big cat would simply grow bored with him and leave. He could feel the ache of muscle exhaustion setting into his back and thighs, but he held. Just when he began to think that his nerves couldn't possibly take another moment of the tension, a sudden. violent gust of wind blew through the grass, startling up a bevy of birds. At the rush and whir of wings overhead, the leopard whipped its huge head around to watch, held by its predator instinct. Andrew grabbed the split second distraction and used it to put his knee under himself to take his weight. Before he could do anything else, the leopard's eyes were back on him, focused with all the intensity of before and then some. The birds had only inflamed its desire for the kill. ~

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chapter 130: Type A

~ Jaden froze in place and reminded himself in Andrew's cool voice not to panic. Emerging from the grass in front of him in a wide arc were half a dozen large spotted hyenas, each easily standing three feet high, stalking forward. One of the burly animals drew up its lips in a silent snarl, baring bone crushing teeth.

"Oh God, oh what the fuck am I going to do now?"

"You're going to remain calm."

"Easy for you to say, you're safe inside my head!"

"Oh shut the hell up, for crying out loud, what the hell is wrong with you, you raging moron?!"

Jaden backed slowly away from the advancing hoard until he bumped into the media station just behind him. He quickly decided that this was as good a place as any to make his stand, and shed himself of his backpack. He briefly considered trying to get on top of the media station, but chose to remain on the ground where at least he knew he could fight effectively, rather than try to scramble up and balance on the steeply slanted screen.

With one hand Jaden unsheathed his dagger, and with the other he pulled his hatchet from it's holder on the side of his pack, flipping and locking it open with two smooth movements.

"Alright dogs, gimme what you got," he muttered under his breath.

"Actually, though the Spotted Hyena does share some characteristics with the canid family, it is really not a relative of the dog."

"Shut the hell up!"


Takyle whipped around to face the girl.

"What the hell is this? What are those things?" she demanded. The girl nodded calmly and coldly.

"Those are hyenas, approximately half a dozen of them. And your other friend, the tall fellow, is facing a leopard."

"Why? Why are you doing this to us?"

"You chose this."

"What?! You know what, nevermind. Put me back, put me back now!" Takyle overruled her fear for just a moment to move toward the girl menacingly. The girl didn't even blinked, let alone back away.

"You cannot. You must control the game."

"What game?!"

"This game. The game with the animals... If you want your friends to live you must control the game. We will play together."

With that the girl turned back toward the images hanging in the void, and with a growing urge to panic, Takyle slowly turned with her. ~

Friday, March 12, 2010

Chapter 129: Succinctly Screwed

~ As Jaden drew nearer to the media station, he slowed to a walk, glancing around himself cautiously. There was nothing to hear over the waving of the tall grass in the wind, but his mind kept telling him that it could not be that easy.

"You're just going to walk right up to the station and that will be the end of the level? You just happened to stumble upon it because you picked exactly the right direction to go on the first pass?"

"What? What do you want from me?"
he demanded of himself. "Want me to turn around and go back. I'm being careful, now shut up already."

"Fine. Whatever. But it couldn't be this easy!"

Jaden sighed a bit more noisily than he intended. "I'm insane. I am frigging insane," he muttered.


Takyle stared at the two huge images in front of her. Both of them showed a view from far above. The screen on the right held Jaden, walking across the grass, toward what she couldn't tell. The picture on the left was clearly of Andrew. At first she thought the image was a single shot, he was so still. In front of him, nearly hidden in the grass, Takyle could barely pick out the shadowed form of some kind of big cat.


Despite Jaden's forebodings, he couldn't help feeling a sense of elation as he stood in front of the media station.

"I did it. I found the thing. Now just to find the on switch." He tentatively pressed one of the keys on the board and was pleased to see the screen come to life and words begin to fade forward.

"Look out," he read, immediately glancing around. When he found nothing but the unchanged, rolling grasses, he turned back to the screen. The words had disappeared and were being replaced.

"Watch your back." Jaden turned again, just to be doubly sure no one was sneaking up on him, but the plain persisted in being deserted.

"What the hell?" he asked aloud, expecting the words to change again, but they did not. In a minute the message faded away and the screen darkened. Jaden tapped the keyboard, with no response.

"What the bloody hell..." he asked again, his voice trailing off as he turned around. ~

Friday, March 5, 2010

Chapter 128: Double Jeopardy

~ Andrew crouched low, eyes fixed on the leopard's face, pointedly taking deep, slow breaths and trying to keep his heart from racing. Now that the big cat knew Andrew was aware of its presence, Andrew's experience with nature programs told him that there would be no more stalking. Andrew was suddenly very sympathetic toward the nervous, twitchy little deer that never stand a chance of getting away.

"Once the prey is on to you the only real option is to charge while there is still the chance of capture,"
Andrew thought, knowing full well that the slightest move on his part would trigger the chase instinct and that would be it.

"Well when you can't run and you can't hide, what possibilities are you left with?"

Andrew tensed his fingers around his dagger.

"I'd prefer not to have to go with that option..."


"Come with me," the little girl said, holding her hand out to Takyle. For a moment Takyle hesitated, then stepped forward and reached out for the pale fingers. As soon as the girl's smooth, cool skin brushed against hers Takyle felt the ground whirl around her dizzyingly. Everything but the child seemed to streak away and she was left standing on a rock, surrounded by starry sky and vast emptiness. Takyle gasped in fear at the sudden, disorienting change and stood frozen in place, too terrified to near the edge of her rock.

"What the hell did you just do?"

"I've taken you out of the game."

"It looks like you've taken me out of the freaking solar system!"

"Are you frightened?" the girl asked calmly.

"Hell yes, I'm frightened! What do you expect when you just go and slap someone on a floating hunk of rock out in the middle of space?"

"You are easily frightened," the girl stated blandly. Takyle gaped at her.

"Look here, Red. I didn't ask to be transported to another dimension. Quit speculating on my fear levels and tell me what the fuck is going on already!" The girl never even blinked at Takyle's escalating rage.

"You must complete a task. You will control the game."

In the blackness in front of Takyle two transparent squares appeared, growing and stretching until they merged to comprise a rectangle the size of a wall. Two pictures began to fade onto the clear slabs and when the images were solid enough to make out, the only sound in the eternal emptiness was Takyle's sharp intake of breath. ~

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chapter 127: On the Veldt

~ Takyle took a surreptitious look around the rolling grassland, but there was no one else in sight. She took a tentative step toward the girl.

"The game within the game? What's that supposed to mean?" Takyle demanded. The girl laughed her starched laugh again.

"It means whatever you want it to mean," she said, shrugging her thin shoulders.

"You're going to have to do better than that. Tell me what you want, and while you're at it, if you know so much, tell me what I want." The girl shook her head.

"If you want answers you must play the game," she insisted. Takyle stopped herself from outright sighing in exasperation, but couldn't keep it out of her voice.

"Fine. What game? Tell me what you want!"


Andrew whirled again to a rustle behind his back, desperately searching for the source of the sound. With his knife clutched in his right hand, he fumbled to get his radio out of his belt with his left. In his haste he managed to drop the walkie talkie once it was free of the pouch and he cursed under his breath as it hit the ground with a soft crack. A quick glance down revealed that the radio had struck a rock at his feet, its back cover jarred open from the impact and the batteries knocked out.

"Shit!" Keeping his eyes up, he stooped down and felt for the batteries and the scattered parts of his radio. He cast his eyes down for a moment to pick up the plastic back cover, and when he looked up again his heart fell to his gut. Staring, unblinking, out through the stalks of grass a pair of orange eyes bore through him.

Andrew made every attempt to keep his breathing in check as around the eyes he made out the spotted and unmistakably feline face.

"Alright... Alright, stay calm. The important thing here is to stay calm. No sudden moves," he thought to himself. He exhaled slowly and shifted his weight to carefully rise to his feet. The big cat's eyes followed the minute change in his body and Andrew stopped.

"Ok, maybe no moves at all." ~

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chapter 126: Interplay

~ Jaden crested a hill and in the distance saw a speck of white. For a moment he stood still, shielding his face with one hand against the glare of the sun, unable to even tell if his eyes were deceiving him, let alone what the object was. He finally decided that there most definitely was something there. Jaden glanced back to the direction he had been traveling, and then again at the object in the distance. He waited in conflict for only a brief second before deciding that he needed to find out what it was.

"After all, you have no real reason for continuing in the direction you were going. You picked it at random!" his mind told him as he started across the plain toward the white speck. As he grew closer the shape resolved itself into a box, and then finally into a media station.

"Yes! I rock," Jaden murmured to himself as he quickened his pace. This had to be what he was supposed to find. Why else would a media station be set out here?


Glancing up from the brambles that she was picking her way through, Takyle caught sight of a flash of red disappearing into a shallow dell. She shook her head as if to clear her vision. She could have sworn in was a young girl. Takyle ran up the hill after her, only slowing near the top in order to peak over into the hollow. There was nothing there, but as she straightened and turned she heard a laugh. She spun to her right just in time to see the same glimpse of loose red cloth and flowing auburn hair disappear for a second time.

"The hell?"

Again Takyle followed, again to find nothing. Just as she turned around to go back to her previous path she heard a voice behind her, small and innocent, yet strangely passive for the words.

"Please help me."

Takyle spun toward the voice to find a girl, 13 or 14 years old from the looks of it, standing only a couple of yards behind her on the declining slope.

"Please help me. If you help me I will show you what you're looking for."

"How do you know what I'm looking for?" asked Takyle. The girl laughed again with the same passive voice.

"I am the game within the game. I know all the secrets." ~

Friday, February 19, 2010

Chapter 125: The Unknown

~ Andrew stood up from re-tying his bootlace, and immediately pulled a pad of paper, a pen, his compass and a stick of gum from his utility belt. After folding the gum into his mouth, he started a crude map on his notepad, sketching in the identifiable characteristics within his sight. Without further ado he aligned his compass to North, marked down his heading on his map, and headed off, singing quietly to himself.

"Joy to the world, all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me..."

Half an hour later, as Andrew moved to the fourth stage of his grid search, he fell suddenly silent when he heard a twig snap behind him. For a moment he stood frozen, concentrating hard, wishing for Jaden and his near bionic hearing. The only sound that greeted him was the whispering of the prairie grass in the wind. Andrew had dismissed the sound to his imagination and started forward again before it hit him: just the wind? What happened to the cricket song?

He spun around, searching the tall grasses behind him for movement, but all he could see was the waving of the dry stems. For a moment the wind stilled and in the distance he could hear oblivious birds singing. Again he whirled when he thought there was a rustle to his left, but he found nothing there either. He stood with his feet set wide, pulling his dagger with one hand and fishing with the other for his radio. He felt him legs and back tensing as the silence around him seemed to deepen.


With a sigh and a shrug Takyle pocketed her radio and, judging from the position of the sun, struck out in a Southwesterly direction. She walked briskly, pushing her fatigue, her throbbing cuts and bruises, and the deep ache in her limbs to the back her mind, forcing herself to not slow down.

"Why are you so devoted to winning this?" Andrew had asked her two long years ago.

"I want to. I have to."

"You know there's a very good chance we'll lose?"

"If that's the attitude you're going to bring into this I'll find someone else," she had informed him coldly.

"Why am I so devoted to winning this?" Takyle asked herself, trekking up yet another rolling hill.

"Ask yourself that when the race is over," she murmured harshly. ~

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chapter 124: Solitude

~ Jaden blinked and looked around himself. By all appearances he was standing in a rolling meadow... Alone.

"Andy?" he called, as loudly as he dared. When he got no answer he tried again. "Anybody?" Still no one answered. He quickly pulled off his pack and unzipped one of the front pockets, dumping out a couple of nutri-bars in his hurry to get at his radio. Jerking open the zip-lock bag it had been protected in, Jaden flipped the radio on.

"Team 6, this is Jaden, please respond." A moment passed and Jaden repeated his call. There was silence for a second more before the radio crackled.

"Takyle here, where are you and is Andrew with you?" With Takyle's message Jaden was simultaneously hit with relief and fear.

"Andrew isn't here and I don't know where 'here' is. I'm in some sort of grassland or something."

"Me too. Give it a minute, maybe Andrew will key in." Takyle advised calmly.

As if called by prophecy that second the radios buzzed one more time and Andrew's voice came through, tinny and distant sounding.

"Team 6, Andrew here, please respond."

"We're here Andrew," Takyle answered.

"Oh, thank Ishvara," said Andrew.

"Andrew, do you know where you are?" Takyle interrupted.

"No clue."

"Ok, then I'd guess that this is an independent level."

"Is that normal?" asked Jaden.

"Not extraordinarily so," said Takyle. I remember them putting one in six years ago."

"Oh, okay."

"So what, Boss?" asked Andrew. "Explore but maintain radio contact?" Takyle was silent for a short moment.

"Yes, that would probably be best. Be careful."

"Yes Ma'am," Andrew and Jaden both answered.

"Good. Takyle out."

"Ditto," chimed in Andrew, and Jaden's radio went quiet. He tood a deep, calming breath and then tucked the walkie talkie into one of the pouches on the back of his utility belt. Swinging his pack back onto his shoulder, he took another look around. A bush bearing pinkish flowers grew a few yards to the left. Not as good as a tree, but it would do as a landmark.

Jaden snapped one of the branches off and lay it on the ground, pointing in the the direction he intended to go first.

"I'll call it "North"," Jaden murmured to himself as he started off. As he walked, Jaden kept up a running commentary under his breath, partly to cement anything that might be of importance in his memory and partly just to fill the void of no one else to talk to. He found himself tending toward mildly disabling continual curiosity about what his surroundings might signify.

"Those rocks are sort of in an arrow shape. That's encouraging."

"Wind to my back, that's always a good sign."

"The sun's still high so there's probably more than enough time to finish whatever this is before dark."

"A pair of geese flying in the same direction that I'm walking; How could that be anything but a good omen?"

"If a grasshopper jumps out of the way when you're walking... What does that mean?"

"Shut up," his mind ordered.

"Fine, geez! What's your problem?"

"No really. Shut up."

And so Jaden did. ~