Friday, January 23, 2009

Minor Delay

I'm in the process of moving back to Vegas, so there might not be an update this week.  It's still a possibility, but I doubt it.  Have no fear though, there will be one next week.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Adept Tales 09 "Marie"

   The hooves of Fane’s stallion fell silently on the rooftops of the abandoned buildings surrounding the Dead Zone.  He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the girl, sitting surrounded by the strange vagrants, eyes distant, clutching a blue doll; featureless except for its button eyes and yarn mouth.  The meandering masses seemed to draw warmth from her presence despite the fact that she didn’t acknowledge them, or anything as far as Fane could tell from their brief encounter; her only communication a small silver bracelet with the name ‘Marie’ engraved on it.  Now he searched her out again at the behest of Joshua, but so far he’d had no luck.

   He’d searched the area where he first saw her, but to no avail.  He felt she was close though, as if he could feel her calling to him from the dark.  A ridiculous notion, he thought.  Why would she call to him?  Had she even noticed him there before?  He judged her to be no older than maybe 15, but the look in her eyes held something older.  Something forged by suffering.  How quick such things could age us. 

   So now he broadened his search, galloping from the rooftops in hopes of spying her wondering down one of the lonely alleys, perhaps searching for him as he did her.  “Get a grip, Fane,” he scolded himself to the open air.  He stopped briefly, straining to hear signs of life from the empty buildings below.  Somewhere in the distance he heard glass shatter and a wave of urgency and need nearly knocked him from his horse.  Directing his mount he leapt from the roof to the alley below and sped toward the sound, but as he approached where he thought it originated, the feeling subsided.  “Nerves, must be nerves.”

   He continued on the ground, slowly, searching for the source of the noise.  Nerves or no nerves it was the first clue he’d been given and it was better than nothing.  He moved along remnants of businesses long dead; there shells corroding, glass windows caked with dust where they weren’t already cracked or vacant.  As he rounded a corner he thought he caught movement through one of the plate glass memorials.  As he approached he heard a deep and threatening voice boom from inside, “So you’re the little bitch that’s been setting them free.”  Fane strained to see through the murky glass.  There she was inside a cavernous abandoned waste being backed into a corner by large mass of muscle and menace, “Guess we’ll have to do something about that.”  Fane only saw the hulk start to grab the girl before he was crashing through the window, galloping hard to save her.

   As the shards cleared from his vision he saw the surprised and angry look on the man’s face, piercing with eye’s of pure black.  He had the girl by the neck in one giant hand as she grasped at his arm trying to stop him.  Fane saw part of her shirt ripped and fury overtook him.  He charged at the figure making him drop the girl to dive out of the way.  Before he could recover, Fane turned, unsheathed his sword and planted it into his chest, pinning him to the ground.  Darkness like blood flowed from his chest, eyes and mouth as he let out a scream sending waves of terror and despair into the hollow shell of the room.  Before the feeling could overtake them the sword grew bright, light like the sun beating back the darkness.  The brute screamed again, but this time in his own terror.  Not waiting to see if he’d recover, Fane quickly swept up the girl and fled.

   He rode to outrun the devil with the girl clutching him with one arm and the strange doll with the other.  When it seemed he’d gone far enough he stopped and eased himself and the girl to the ground.  He held her as she shivered; eyes more distant now then they had been before.  “Are you alright?” he asked, though he didn’t expect an answer.  “It’s okay.  Everything’s alright now.  We’ll take care of you.”  He smoothed back her hair and looked into her broken eyes, “I’ll take care of you.”


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Adept Tales 08 "And then there was a Rose..."

   The view outside his window hadn’t changed but the apprehension inside him continued to grow.  It seemed to Joshua that all he’d done recently was wait.  Wait for the right moment, the right vision, the right path.  Now he was waiting again.  This time for a meeting he wasn’t sure he wanted to have, a feeling that was becoming all too familiar.

   The call from Slo so soon was unexpected, but what he said was even more so, “He wants to meet you.”

   “But I thought Agony didn’t like authority,” he replied hopefully.

   “He says he’ll make an exception this time.  Seems like maybe he’s heard of you.”

   So he waited.  Waited to see what Agony had heard.  Waited to see why he was so interested in meeting Joshua.  He figured it couldn’t be good, but he was confident he’d read the patterns right.  Agony was the right guy.  He needed him.  So he waited.

   The report from Fane had done little to distract his thoughts, but the girl did interest him.  Something about her seemed to fit into the pattern too, but how, he wasn’t sure yet.  He supposed again he’d just have to wait for Fane to bring her.  He let out a heavy sigh and returned to his desk.  Perhaps work could keep his nerves at bay.

   The buzz of the intercom nearly knocked him out of his chair.  He realized he’d been straining, waiting to hear the indication that they were here, so when it finally struck, it hit him like electricity.  Renee ushered the men in with a look of concern at the intimidating Agony.  A nod from Joshua as he rose from his desk seemed to put her at ease as she retreated, closing the door behind her.

   He approached Slo, shaking his hand, but Agony didn’t even acknowledge him, instead taking in the office d├ęcor.  “Nice digs,” he said, more to the air then to Joshua.

   “Thanks.  Please, have a seat.”  Joshua returned to his desk as Slo sat.  Agony continued his casual investigation a few more moments before seeming to decide he was satisfied, taking the seat next to Slo.

   “So you’re the famous Joshua Williams.”  Not a question, but a statement, his attention and scrutiny finally falling on Joshua.

   Joshua fought the urge to squirm under his gaze, “That’s interesting coming from you.  I wasn’t aware I was famous.”

   “In certain circles.  You’d be amazed how far word can travel.”

   “And what word is that?”  Joshua leaned back; fingers arched together much like Slo had done upon their first meeting.

   Agony shrugged, his demeanor beginning to shift into a friendlier persona, “Depends who you talk to.”

   “Rumors and speculation travel far too I suppose.”

   “Exactly.  So I figured better to go to the source.”  Agony’s eyes focused intently letting Joshua know that despite the bravado he was expecting answers and if he didn’t like the ones he got, there could be trouble.

   “Fair enough.  So why don’t you tell me what you’ve heard and we can set the record straight.”

   “Well let’s see.  The most common one is that you’re raising an army of some sort.  To what end depends who’s saying it.  Some say to battle the Vendot.  Others say it’s to take over Sage or maybe start a competitor.”  Agony leaned forward, forearms resting on his legs, hands grasped together. 

   Instinctively Joshua followed suit, using his desk instead for support.  “Interesting.  What do you think?”

   “I think you certainly have the resources.”  He shrugged again, “Of all, those are the least crazy.”

   “It gets better?”

   Agony chuckled, “A bit.  Some say you’re some kind of messiah here to usher in a new age or possibly a demon bent on destroying it.  Or that you’re thousands of years old and have some hidden knowledge or power beyond the rest of us.  Other variations weave in and out, but that’s the gist.”  With that he leaned back, crossed his arms and waited, watching Joshua.

   Joshua sighed, stood and walked back to the window behind him, “The view hasn’t changed…” he mumbled, wondering to himself how much he could tell Agony.  He turned his head and really looked at Agony for the first time.  He was large, intimidating, not the kind of guy you’d want to meet in an alley.  But under it was shrewdness rarely seen.  Intelligence burned behind his eyes, melting away Joshua’s doubt.  Everything, he had to tell him everything.

   He turned and leaned against the glass, hands clasped behind him, “How much do you know about where we come from?  Why we can do the things we do?”

   “Just the pre-recorded Sage spiel; some mystical energy they call the Shine lets us see the Spirit Web which allows us to manifest reality, yada, yada, blah.”

   “Right, but what you don’t know is where the Shine comes from.  Our world, our reality, is actually part of a binary dimension; two worlds intertwined, destinies interlocked.  In our sister reality the Shine is as abundant as oxygen, and like oxygen in our world, just as necessary.  Through a gateway between the worlds, the Shine once flowed freely into ours.”

   “Another world, huh?  I’ve been to just about every corner of this planet and I’ve never seen any other world.”

   “I wouldn’t expect you to have, but we’re getting to that.”  Joshua pushed away from the glass, returning to his chair, “Legend has it that when both worlds were created, the other dimension, called Jar-Din, was a land of chaos.  Unlike our world, Jar-Din wasn’t supported by a Spirit Web.  The Shine was all, and the only stabilizing factor was the whim of those who inhabited it, but as most primitive creatures do, they fought and battled, all trying to be the dominant force.  Things continued this way for countless eons, until the rise of man.

   “When the first cavemen peaked out of their caves to marvel at the sun, so did our ancestors rise out of the Shine.  Man, as well as these early Adepts, evolved in thought and socialization, but continued to war and vie for power.  Then around 12 or 15 thousand years ago, around the dawn of human civilization, one Adept was born unlike the rest.  His power was greater than any before him.  Not so much that he could dominate all, but enough that the others heeded his words.  He saw that the chaos in their world was tearing it apart, and while he watched it sink into the abyss, this world was thriving.”

  Agony rolled his eyes, boredom playing plainly on his face, “This is all fascinating, but could we get to the point?”

   Joshua straightened, demeanor turning stern as his presence filled the room.  Slo, who to this point had been almost invisible, stirred slightly, unable to fully resist.  “You came here for answers, and I’m giving them to you.  If I’m boring you, perhaps we should call it a night.”

   Agony raised his hands in front of him as if to show he was unarmed and harmless, “Sorry, sorry.  Please, continue.”

   Joshua settled back, lowering the tension in the room but still dominating its environment, “As I was saying, this Adept saw our world thrive and also saw why; the Spirit Web.  It bound our reality together, gave us purpose and direction; a framework to build upon.  Jar-Din was not so lucky.  Its structure and environment was constantly changing; shifting sometimes moment by moment.  Drawing together his closest allies, he devised a way to give his people a stable foundation.  Together they created a kind of government called the Garden of the Rose, with him as the sovereign Rose and his allies the Body of Thorns.  For two thousand years they successfully maintained a base reality, and peace and prosperity flourished.

   “But all things have their opposite, the Shine being no different.  Hidden away in the dark was the Shade; a force of destruction and evil.  A young Adept named Vorlok became obsessed with the Shade.  Its power and influence corrupted him and led him into a campaign against the Rose and his Thorns.  He named himself the Black Winged Rose, and gathered his own followers, calling them the Vendot.”

   Agony straightened, interest now taking over, “The Vendot?  As in the Vendot?”

   “Not exactly, but yes.”  Joshua continued, “Chaos engulfed Jar-Din once again.   War spanning thousands of years broke out.  In the end, the Rose knew he would lose.  Vorlok was too powerful.  So he and his Thorns devised the only plan they had left; they’d run.  Flee to our realm and slam the gateway closed behind them.”

   “Turn tail and run. Always a good plan,” Agony’s sarcasm was not lost on anyone.

   “You might not think that way if you ever came face to face with the full power of the Shade.  It’s not that it’s more powerful than the Shine, per say, but its power is rooted in destruction and death.  The Shine, as a rule, is not.  They were simply unprepared for what was unleashed.”

   “Right, whatever you say.  So they ran and I’m guessing joined their inept cousins here?”

   “Yes.  Or as many as survived.  Unfortunately, the Rose and many of the Thorns didn’t make it, dying defending their people as they fled.  Leadership fell to a Thorn named Saige.”

   “Saige?  Like ‘Sage’ Saige?”

   “He was the inspiration for our friendly neighborhood Adept Police, but no.  The Sage of today has little in common with Saige the man, but then again, they have different challenges.   Saige’s priority was to integrate his people into our world.  With the gateway between the worlds closed, he knew eventually the Shine in our world would dissipate, leaving them nearly as inept, as you put it, as the rest of mankind.”

   Slo broke his silence, “But the Shine’s all over, right?  So that means the gateway’s open?”  Joshua and Agony both looked at Slo as if he'd sprouted a second head.  “What?  I’m sorry, didn’t realize this was a private conversation.”

   Joshua recovered, nodding, “Yes, or more likely the doorway is cracked.  If it was all the way open Vorlok would make his presence known.

   Agony turned back to Joshua, “You mean he’s still alive?  Even after all this time?”

   “Sure, why not?  You should know from experience actually killing an Adept is a difficult task.  How do you kill something that can be anything?  Someone who can bend and change their reality?  The only real way to end an Adept is to remove him from reality.  Or deprive him of the Shine.  No, it’s more likely Vorlok is alive and well, and more powerful than ever before.”

   “Enter the Vendot,” Slo said in a half snicker.

   Joshua nodded, “That’s what I think.  I’m not sure how exactly, but I think Vorlok has found a way to spread his influence into our world.  In theory he can’t escape until the gateway’s fully opened, but a crack…maybe he found a way to get something through.  Honestly I don’t know, but the Vendot are out in force and the gateway is opening, proof by the presence of the Shine.”

   Agony considered the information, “Okay, so that brings us up to date, but you still didn’t answer any of my questions.”

   Joshua smiled, “True I haven’t.  But we’re not quite up to date yet.  Before they started their mass migration, the Rose and his Thorns knew there was a chance some of them wouldn’t make it, so they devised a way to pass the power of the Rose down through the generations.  One Thorn was charged with protecting the line, keeping its existence secret from all others, watching and waiting for the Shine to return and the Rose to be reborn.”  Joshua could see the thought form on Agony’s face, “No, I’m not the Thorn, and I’m not the Rose either.  So that answers two of your questions.”

   “That it does.  But then who?  Or better yet, how do you know all this if it was supposed to be a secret?”

   “The answer to both of those questions is the same: my father.  He was the one sent to watch over the line of the Rose and he’s the one who told me what I’ve told you.”

   “But if he was here how did he survive without the Shine?”

   “It’s not unheard of, though rare.  The Shine never fully disappeared.  There were places where the last remnants pooled.  We would recognize them today as places of spiritual significance or mysterious origin.  Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and others; some well known, others not.”

   “Okay, say I buy it, if your pops knows where the Rose is, what’s the problem?”

   “That is the problem,” Joshua leaned back, eyes going out of focus as he accessed painful memories long buried, “He died.  A long time ago.”  A shiver went through him as he pushed the pain back into the abyss of the past.  “He taught me what he could, but never revealed the location of the Rose.  So to answer another of your questions, I am raising an army.  Kind of anyway.  We search for the Rose and any evidence of our forgotten past.  We try to uphold the ways of the Rose and his Thorns, striving towards cooperation and prosperity to all.  I admit I’m a poor substitute, my knowledge being limited, but we have to start somewhere.  In the end I believe the Rose is our only chance in stopping Vorlok and restoring us to our true birthright.”

   “Fair enough.  But now the million dollar question: why do you need me?” 

   This was the real question.  The one Joshua dreaded answering the most.  It was something he’d never told anyone, because if the wrong people found out, everything could be lost.  He hesitated involuntarily, willing himself to pull the words out.  He thought for a moment perhaps this too was part of his father’s design; preventing him from giving away too much.

   “My father left a kind of coded message behind.  A puzzle that once solved will reveal the location of the Rose.  The next clue is the Vendot; or rather something they’re up to.  I need you because no one on my team could even get close to them.  I need someone who can, someone like you.”

   Agony thought for a moment then abruptly slapped his hands down on the arms of his chair, stood and said, “Well alright.”  With that he turned and headed for the door.

   Joshua called after him, “You’ll help us then?”

   Agony stopped just before the exit and said, again more to the air then to Joshua, in a tone filled with its own pain, “I don’t know that I believe in any great and powerful Rose who can save us.  But I believe in the evil of Vendot.  And you’re wrong; I have seen the power of the Shade face to face.”  With that he was gone, leaving Joshua with a mixed feeling of getting what he wanted but not sure the price of pain in Agony’s voice was really worth it.


Update on Updates

So, my pseudo-new years resolution is to post at least one Adept Tale a week.  My personal deadline is Sunday at midnight of each week.  Today's story is done and will be posted later tonight, so so far so good!


Sunday, January 4, 2009

"FLI and the Illusion Generator" Part iii

Feels like it's been a million years in the making, but here it finally is.  I'm still not sure I'm totally happy with it, but honestly I was tired of thinking about it.  I'm ready to move on to the next chapter.  Hopefully in the future updates will be more frequent, but I make no promises.



For a moment there was nothing but white.  Agony stood lost in a void of light.  Then Slo appeared before him.  Without taking his eyes off Agony he said into the void, “Wiz, load the street.”  The world began to shift around Agony.  The distance between him and Slo stretched as a street appeared between them.  On either side of the street buildings and cars manifested.  Within seconds he was standing on one end of what appeared to be a regular city street with Slo on the other end. 

   He judged the distances to be about 100 yards give or take.  Behind Slo was a building signifying the end of the fight zone.  A quick glance behind showed the same behind him.  Agony was struck by the reality of it.  Just as G-Wiz had said, the setting seemed real.  Except of course that the street was isolated with no roads crossing it.  To the sides through the buildings he could see a large brick wall; another boundary he supposed.  From across the distance he could see a sly smile play on Slo’s face as he slowly backed up and disappeared into the building behind him.

   He felt the shot cutting through the air seconds before he heard the crack of the rifle.  Agony quickly sidestepped and dove behind a nearby car.  Another shot screamed through the windshield and out through a side window, shattering both.  He cautioned a glance in the direction he thought the shot had come from; there, in the 3rd floor window of a building just down and to his left, a pale figure silhouetted the frame.  It resembled Slo, but Agony knew it wasn’t him exactly.  In their world location and physical presence could be fuzzy sometimes.

   Cautiously Agony moved along the right side of the car, making his way to the shattered side window.  Another shot rang out, but it hit somewhere nearer to where he was.  Good, he didn’t see me move.  Reaching through the bullet opened window, Agony tore a piece of upholstery from the car’s front seat.  Sitting now against the car in what he figured for the moment was a safe spot, he tore the cloth into one long strip.   He moved back toward the gas cap, removed it and started feeding his makeshift fuse into the tank.  He lit the other end with his Zippo and moved back to the open window.  With a hope and a prayer he quickly reached into the car, shifted it to neutral and began pushing it toward the building.  Shots rained down on the car as it moved, but Agony’s position was covered.  He knew in reality what he was doing was probably impossible, but that’s what he loved most about being an Adept.  It didn’t matter so much what was real, only what you wanted to be real.

   With one final shove he sent the car careening on its own momentum toward the building.  Agony rolled to his right as flame struck gasoline sending a spectacular explosion of smoke and fire into the Slo-shadow-sniper’s hideout.  He wasn’t so sure the impromptu bomb would actually take out the sniper, but that wasn’t really the point.  Now hidden in the cover a smoke Agony sped across the street, through an alley to the back of the side buildings.

   The back alley was fairly typical of what he expected to see, except for the towering brick wall to his right, but along the buildings were an array of fire escapes, cardboard boxes and dumpsters.  Great place for an ambush, Agony thought, and almost as if he manifested it himself, his thought came true.  From behind a nearby dumpster another shadow version of Slo rolled out with an M-16 trained on Agony’s position.  As the muzzle flash burst a hail of bullets, Agony stepped left, using a fire escape as shoddy cover.  Next to him on the wall he saw a ‘No Parking’ sign; Perfect.  With one fluid motion he ripped the sign off the wall and sent it sailing through the air at his pseudo-opponent.  The spray of blood and the humorous way the head flew into the air was probably a bit much, but he enjoyed the theatrics of it.  He didn’t have much time to enjoy the scene before a door that hadn’t been there a second ago opened next to him.

   The first thing he saw was the knife, but hand-to-hand was more his specialty.  He locked the arm attached to the blade and swung yet another Slo Soldier out into the alley, slamming him hard against the towering brick wall.  The knife went flying as Agony brought up his knee, driving the figure’s midsection into the wall yet again.  As he doubled over from the strike, Agony, still holding the arm, twisted him down and around so he was kneeling with Agony behind him.  A quick twist of the neck and the figure went still.

   As fun as this all was, Agony could tell neither man was gaining ground.  Slo could sit in that building at the end of the street all day, sending wave after wave of hit men and nothing would be accomplished.  He had to get to that building; he had to get to the real Slo.  Slo must have noticed too, because as Agony continued down the side alley, no more shadow-puppets attacked.

   Still on alert Agony peered around the corner of the last building.  He could see that the wall continued, forming a rectangle of brick around their playground.  The building Slo had entered was only one story, so the threat of another sniper was small, but there didn’t appear to be a side entrance.  The only way in was the double glass doors at the front.  Not the easiest thing to sneak through, but then Agony wasn’t much for stealth in general.  

   He moved along the front of Slo’s stronghold and inched his way to the doors.  Trying to stay as covered as possible, Agony looked through into the building.  Through the glass doors was what appeared to be a reception area.  The lights were off, but he didn’t sense any movement directly on the other side.  He figured the door would be locked, but to his amazement it wasn’t, as he opened the doors and went in.

   The room was typical of many office front desks; a large desk along the opposite wall, chairs and small tables aligned along the other walls and throughout the open floor.  To the right of the desk was a door, the only one he could see.  As he approached the door he saw a small device bridging the gap between door and doorframe.  A bomb?  Really?  Agony sighed to himself and inspected the devise.  All and all it was a pretty impressive set up, but he still made short work defusing it.  He appreciated its presence though, as it meant there wasn’t likely to be anyone too close on the other side.  Of course not knowing what was on the other side still made going through risky, but what choice did he have?

   He cracked the door enough to peer through.  Laid out beyond the door was a maze of cubicles.  Great, a call center.  He pushed through and rolled to the nearest partition.  A barrage of pistol fire bit into the door swinging automatically closed behind him. He hadn’t actually seen Slo, but he knew it was him this time.  Agony could tell by the repetitive blasts that Slo was using two handguns, firing them alternately like they do in the movies.  He stayed low and moved along the cubicle walls trying to find a path to the back of the room where the shots were coming from.  

   As he came to an open cubicle he heard something clang onto the desk and fall to the floor: a grenade.  Quickly and almost without thought, Agony grabbed a paper clip, bent it out straight and inserted it in like a pin.  Again he was struck by the lunacy of the act, but still it proved successful.   He slipped the now diffused grenade into his pocket and tried to keep moving, but Slo was doing a good job of keeping him pinned down.  When a bullet grazed his arm, Agony decided he’d had enough.

   In one fluid motion he stood, grabbed a nearby monitor and lobbed in the direction of the gun fire.  He saw Slo duck the flying screen as he began making his way over and through the cubical maze.  As he moved, Agony continued with a barrage of office equipment, throwing anything that wasn’t bolted down; chairs, keyboards, monitors, a stress ball.  Anything and everything to keep Slo from getting any more shots off.  

   As he got closer to his goal, he couldn’t help but notice the stoic calm that Slo possessed.  Even as he ducked and dodged the onslaught, his expression never changed.  He gave no hint of frustration or concern.  He simply avoided the projectiles, moving in an attempt to regain the high ground.  Even as Agony made his final leap, tackling Slo to the ground, his face never betrayed him.

   Everything seemed to change in an instant.  What was before almost a friendly exchange turned into an all out brawl.  The two crashed into each other with force enough to shatter the windows around them.  Each landed devastating blows to the other as their dance continued across the floor.  Agony was pouring everything he had into the fight and still Slo matched him, still eerily calm as if this were just another day at the beach.  But he could feel him weakening; feel his resolve start to slip.  He just hoped it was enough.

   He left nothing behind now, trying to capitalize on his opening, funneling all his focus into subduing the other man.  But his rally didn’t last.  It wasn’t so much that Slo rebounded as he began to lose his own resolve.  He felt Slo’s will crash into him repeatedly, parallel to the blows he produced, and felt himself slip.  Felt Slo gain the advantage.  Felt it all begin to slip away.  

   For a moment there was nothing but white.  Agony stood lost in a void of light.  Then Slo appeared before him, panting and out of steam.  He stood, hands on his knees trying to relearn how to breathe.  Agony was on the ground, leaning against a cubicle partition, but he couldn’t remember how he got there.  Slo’s head slowly rose as the men’s eyes met.  Agony could almost feel Slo’s apprehension, but his face still seemed at home.  With a burst of energy the forces of nature charged at each other again.  What was left didn’t even have windows to shatter. 

   As the two titans continued, all semblance of G-Wiz’s reality began to melt away; reduced to rubble and ash.  Agony was beyond exhaustion, operating off pure nerve.  He couldn’t imagine Slo had much left either, but still they fought.  When the piercing sound cut through his mind he thought it was over for sure this time.  He was almost relived as he clutched at his ears, trying to keep his brain from leaking out.  He saw Slo too now on his knees in much the same manner.  He only had a second to wonder what was happening before it all disappeared.

   When his vision finally cleared he was kneeling in the wrestling ring across from Slo.  G-Wiz was franticly clicking away at his ringside console, an expression of pure terror plainly playing across his face.  Slo stirred and tried to speak, but his voice didn’t seem to be working at that moment.  Agony could relate.  He was pretty sure he couldn’t scream even if he was stabbed with a hot poker.  Slo managed to clear his throat enough to get out in a rasp, “Wiz…what happened?”

   The kid looked up from his console with an expression of pure shock as if the dead had just spoken, but the shock quickly faded under waves of relief.  “Holy shit, I thought I lost you.”

   Slo tried to regain composure as he used the ring’s ropes to help him to his feet.  “What happened,” he repeated.

   “You guys crashed the system.”

   “What?”  Slo nearly collapsed again with surprise, “How the hell did we do that?”

   Mimicking Slo’s ascent, Agony pulled himself to his own feet, “See, I told you there was no way to predict everything.”

   G-Wiz gave Agony a quizzical glance, “Well, yea, I guess.  I just never imagined that happening.”

   “Never imagined what happening?” Slo asked.

   “A tie.”

   Slo and Agony turned to each other, both now with shocked expressions, the first indication Agony had seen that Slo could be shocked.  Agony watched as Slo’s eyes became bright and shiny and he could imagine his looked much the same.  G-Wiz could do nothing but stare, mouth hung open, as both men burst into laughter.