“And the winner is: the X-Crewwww!” Vic’s announcement blared forth from the portable speaker system set up around the end of the course.
Jet pulled his face out of the mud and managed to look up just as Outré rolled across the finish line. “Dude!” he exclaimed, turning the word into a curse as he pounded his fist on the ground. However, this just splattered more of the soft mud into his face; so instead of relieving any of his anger over the loss, it further dampened his spirits. “Dude…” he said again, more weakly this time, before lowering his head back to the ground. He couldn’t bear to see the X-Crew showered with all the glory after all he had put into this race.
“Jet! Jet, are you all right!?” Luge cried as she and the rest of the Xtreme Team came running out to him.
“I’m fine,” he said half-heartedly.
Mogul pulled the mountain bike off of his friend and untangled his legs from the frame.
“Well, on the plus side, that was one impressive crash,” Cliff said as he helped Jet up.
“Dude! What are you makin’ jokes for!? We just lost our second match in a row, and you know those X-Crew jerks cheated again to take it from us!” Mogul shouted.
“Easy now,” Cliff said calmly. “We don’t know that they cheated.”
“Really? Then how is it that they just happened to go around all those hidden logs and pits out there when we ended up in every one of them head first!?”
Cliff sighed. He knew that Mogul was probably correct in his assumptions. After all, the mysterious pony named Shard had warned them of similar dangers on the last course, but this time he had not made an appearance to offer any more advice. Regardless, they couldn’t risk a fight at this point. “Chill out,” their leader said. “We don’t have any proof, and you remember what Mr. Yanus said about fights.”
Mogul ground his teeth together, and those present could practically see the steam rising from his head.
“Dude, right now the only facts we have is that they won and we lost,” Jet muttered.
“It wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Luge added as she motioned to Blade and Bungee, who were both covered in nearly as much mud as Jet was, and were just as worn out.
“We obviously didn’t try hard enough,” Blade said. “Every time we’d get ahead, there’d always be something else in our way.”
“Now we’re the only team without a win,” Bungee said dejectedly.
Cliff suddenly threw up his hooves and stepped into the center of the group. “Look, everyone has just got to calm down and focus. Yeah, we might’ve lost in New Pony, and now here at Buffalo Bend, but tomorrow we’re moving out to Sweet Water Springs for the next round and we WILL win there! One way or another, we are not going to let this stuff get us down and take away our edge! Yeah, the X-Crew is probably rigging the courses, but that just shows you that they can’t beat us with their own skill! They have to cheat and they’re still just barely coming in ahead of us! Next time, we win, they loose, got it?”
“Yeah!” Bungee cried out.
The others were less enthusiastic but still murmured their consent and nodded in agreement.
“Now let’s go get cleaned up and get ready for tomorrow. We roll out at seven.”
“Wow,” Luge said jokingly to Cliff as the others moved off towards the trailers, “did you ever think of joining the Army?”
“Shut up,” Cliff replied and gave her a friendly shove.
* * *
Later, the six of them were all gathered in their ESL-supplied coach that had become their home-away-from-home and would continue to function in this capacity for the remainder of their time with the organization. The vehicle was a huge self-contained house on wheels with a small kitchen, dinning room/living room, six bunk rooms, a large bathroom, and even a storage area in the back for all of their gear. Each of the teams was given one of the vehicles to use as their base of operations during the tour.
As for the rest of the workers required to keep the games up and running, they were supplied with more modest accommodations while the sets and electrical equipment were dismantled and loaded into several trailers. This is what the technical crew was busy with at the moment because, in the morning, all of these vehicles would roll off to the next venue in a long winding caravan. If the ESL went over as well as planned, the tour schedule would take them all over the continent, meaning they would have to repeat this process every couple of days. While this arrangement might not have seemed like the most desirable one, everyone involved was still too excited to become disgruntled with it just yet. In fact, rumors were beginning to surface that they might even take a tour overseas!
“I say we go over to their trailer tonight and have a little chat with those X-Dorks,” Mogul was saying as he pounded his fist into his open hoof.
“What part of ‘get in a fight and get thrown off the tour’ don’t you understand?” Luge asked him.
“I didn’t say ‘start a fight’,” Mogul said. “I said ‘have a chat’.”
“Don’t they mean the same thing with you?” Bungee commented as she reached into the refrigerator for a drink. Jet began laughing from his seat at the round table in the corner but didn’t bother looking up from his hand-held video game.
Mogul was about to make some rude comment involving the game, but just then Cliff stepped into the room. “Even if you could hold your temper, Mogul, I doubt they would.”
“Great, so then we get them thrown out.”
“Dude!” Jet agreed. Luge just shook her head with a sigh.
“I also doubt Mr. Yanus would be so quick to punish them,” Cliff said. “You saw the way he treated them the last time; it was like WE were the ones at fault.”
“You think he’s playing favorites?” Luge asked.
“Oh, that sounds like fun,” Bungee said as she stared out the window. “What are the rules?”
Ignoring their strange companion, Cliff said, “Hey, you were all there. You saw it just as well as I did.”
“Yeah, and just the other day I bumped into X talkin’ to Yanus over at the supply trailer when I was- looking for wax for my board.”
Jet snickered again, “Yeah, ‘wax’. Dude, you were looking for the camera chick, Misty!”
“Dude, I’ve seen you lookin’ at her!”
“Makin’ googly eyes before the run today,” Bungee added.
“Shut up!” Mogul pounded his fist on the table. “And what about you and Kadin?”
“Oh, he’s cute,” Luge said.
“I know, isn’t he?” Bungee added.
“I was tryin’ to make a point here!”
“That you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the X-Crew?” Blade asked as she tried to control her own laughter.
“No!” he snapped. “X was talkin’ to Yanus, and the punk started to pick a fight with me right there in front of that stiff suit. Then Yanus chews ME out and tells ME to take a hike.”
“Everybody. Everybody, just chill,” Cliff said in a serious tone. “So, Mogul,” Cliff paused and then continued, barely able to hold his own laugher in now. “Did you ever find any board wax?”
“No, I swiped Jet’s.”
Jet suddenly stopped playing his game and looked at Mogul with a look of shock on his face. “Dude, I was looking everywhere for that.”
The banter and laugher continued for a little while longer before they settled down enough so that they could address the matter at hoof.
“Back to the matter at hoof,” Cliff said, still stifling a chuckle.
“Right, the X-Crew is cheating and we have no proof,” Luge said
“Um, do we even know that it is the X-Crew?” Blade asked timidly.
Mogul replied in a gruff tone, “What, you think it’s the Blade Runners?”
“Well…they did win the first match, and they came in second this time. Since neither us or the X-Crew finished the first race, that does put them in the lead.” Everyone was silenced by this new revelation as they let it sink in. They had never considered this possibility before, but the ramifications of it were dire indeed. None of them wanted to believe it, but what it now implied was that they couldn’t trust anyone.
“Let’s stop this line of reasoning right now,” Cliff said. “If we keep it up, we’re not even going to be able to count on each other.”
“Dude, Mogul did steal my board wax.”
“Stop your cryin’,” Mogul said. “I’ll get you some more. Maybe.”
Luge spoke up next. “What we know is that X knew about the pit on the first race, and the X-Crew didn’t hit a single trap on today’s. The Blade Runners were in the same boat as us today, and the first time they just got lucky because Cliff and X were in the pit already.”
“Plus that Shard guy told us about the X-Crew cheating,” Bungee added.
“And just who is Shard anyways?” Mogul asked. “Some nut job sneakin’ around in the shadows talkin’ about traps and conspiracies? I beat ya’ he’s the one who’s riggin’ it.”
“Why?” Luge asked.
Cliff agreed, “Yeah, what’s his motivation? Set traps on the courses and then tell the X-Crew AND us about them the first time and then only the X-Crew the second time? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Then it HAS to be the X-Crew,” Mogul said. “Let’s go over there and bust some heads.”
“No head busting,” Cliff said firmly. “I’ll go talk to Mr. Yanus and see if he can do anything about it. They may be his favorite team, but even he can’t overlook cheating.”
“I’ll come with you,” Luge added.
On his way out the door, Cliff paused and turned to the others. “Keep an eye on Mogul and make sure he stays out of trouble.”
“Dude! You can count on us,” Jet said with a salute.
“Yeah, definitely the Army,” Luge said under her breath.
Cliff heard her, however, and stuck an accusing hoof at Jet. “Stop that!” Meekly, Jet lowered his hoof as Cliff left the coach with Luge behind him, giggling softly.
Once they had gone, Bungee stepped forward and said, “Oooo, spooky. All these conspiracies and mysteries and stuff; it’s just like who killed JFK... except without the motorcade... or the snipers...” She trailed off at that point, lost in her own thoughts.
“Or even a clue what’s going on,” Mogul muttered.
Blade slumped down in her chair, “Now I’m bored. Do we have anything to do?”
“We put away all the gear and everything’s ready for tomorrow,” Mogul replied. “It’s our own time to kill now.”
“Hey, I know!” Bungee suddenly jumped up. “I’ve gotta go over to the Blade Runners’ bus.”
“Kadin invited me over; he said something about a song or something.”
“Kadin,” Mogul chuckled.
“Hey, why don’t you go find that camera girl you like?” Blade said with a grin.
“Dude, Mogul wouldn’t want to go see her,” Jet said.
“Thank you,” Mogul replied.
“Yeah, she’s too busy putting all her camera stuff away; he wouldn’t want to disturb her.”
“You little-“ Mogul jumped out of his chair and lunged at Jet, but the wise-cracking pony was already well out of range.
“Why don’t you guys come along and hang out?” Bungee asked. “It would be fun.”
Mogul scoffed at the idea. “I don’t want to hang out with the competition.”
“Dude, I’m almost at level twenty-five!” Jet replied, holding up his video game. “I can’t stop now!”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“I’ll be fun!”
“I don’t really-“
Grabbing Blade’s hoof, Bungee pulled her out the door. “You need to get out more and meet new ponies.”
Once the two girls were gone, Mogul and Jet were left on opposite sides of the table. All of Jet’s attention was directed at the video game in his hooves while Mogul slouched down in his chair and stared at the wall. He just couldn’t put the events of the last few days out of his head and the anger down inside was beginning to boil up again. Across the table, as Jet got further and further into the game, he was squirming around more and more in his seat as he pushed the buttons intensely. The soft but rapid tapping, along with the incessant beeps coming from the game, filled the quiet cabin. Mogul began drumming his hooves on the table top as he stared more fiercely at the wall.
Finally, he couldn’t take it any longer and slammed his fist down. Jet nearly jumped out of his seat. “Dude!” he cried out as his game began to play taps on its tiny speaker.
Mogul jumped out of his chair and began pacing back and forth across the small room. “Argh! I can’t take it any more!”
Jet sank back into his chair, eyes fixed on the game screen. “Dude,” he said, close to tears, “I was that close, level twenty-five, I almost made it.”
“I’m going over to find out what those X-Jerks think they’re doing!” Mogul cried as he leaned on the table with both hooves.
Jet looked up. “But Cliff said we had to keep you out of trouble…” He quickly glanced around the room, only now realizing he was alone with Mogul. “I have to keep you out of trouble,” Jet clarified.
“Then you better come along, cuz I’m goin’ over there one way or another!” Mogul replied and stormed out of the coach.
For a moment, Jet stayed planted in his chair, not entirely sure what to do. Eyes fixed to the table top, he was frozen in place. “Dude!” he cursed and then ran out of the coach after Mogul.
He caught up with his hot-headed companion not at all far away and hurried to get in front of him. Size to size, Jet was no match for Mogul; but he wasn’t going to let something bad happen if he could help it. “Dude,” he said, “think, you’re gonna get in trouble.”
“I’m not gonna start a fight; I just want to talk,” Mogul said without even breaking his stride. “Just gonna talk.”
“But I don’t think they’re gonna wanna talk,” Jet pleaded with him.
“Then they get to listen.”
Seeing how successful he was so far, Jet decided to change tactics. “Dude, you’re outnumbered. Six to one. They’ll rip you apart…”
“I’m not gonna fight,” Mogul said again, “but if THEY wanna fight, you got my back, right?”
Jet stopped in his tracks and Mogul went right past him. “Me!? I don’t wanna fight!”
“A little late to back out now,” Mogul muttered over his shoulder. “We’re here.”
They had, in fact, arrived at the X-Crew’s coach. Smiley and Alex were outside of the vehicle, loading up some of their gear in a box. At first they did not notice the two ponies from the Xtreme Team, but that changed soon enough.
“Hey,” Mogul said as he walked right up to the two X-Crew members, “I wanna have a little chat with you guys.”
Smiley looked up from his work where he was crouched down next to the box and slowly straightened up to his full height. Jet stayed well behind Mogul, much like Alex did behind Smiley.
“Well, look what we have here,” Smiley said with an evil grin. “If it isn’t two of the Losers. Tell me, how does it feel to be a loser?”
Mogul did not back off one bit; in fact, he stood his ground all the more firmly as a result.
“Funny, I was gonna ask you how it felt to be a cheater,” Mogul replied.
A bit of Smiley’s cockiness slipped from his face at that, but only a bit. “Cheater? You think I was cheating out there? I’d never need to cheat to beat an amateur like you,” Smiley said.
“Really? Then how is it that your team just happened to know where every obstacle was out there today?”
“I’d have to chalk it up to skill, but I’m sure you wouldn’t know anything about that,” Smiley said. Then, without turning his head, he spoke to Alex, saying, “Why don’t you bring the others out here? I think X might like to talk with this guy.” Then, back to Mogul, he added, “Seriously, it’s just bad form to blame your own failures on someone else.”
“We know your game; we’re on to you. You might as well just admit it now and save yourself the trouble later.”
“Dude, I think we should go…” Jet was saying from behind his comrade.
“Chill out, Jet,” Mogul said and motioned to the door of the coach as the other members of the X-Crew came filing out. “I want to have a chat with the head man himself.”
“Dude…” Jet muttered but his protest fell on deaf ears.
In short order Dragon, Alex, Outré, Max, Smiley, and X had all formed a ring around the two Xtreme Team ponies. “So,” X said with his sadistic smile plastered firmly on his face, “I hear you want to have a little chat with us. You claim we’ve been cheating?”
“Claim nothing, I know for a fact that you guys are up to some seriously underhanded stuff,” Mogul boasted.
“Oh, really?” Dragon asked. “And what kind of proof do you have?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Mogul chuckled.
“I knew I should have gone with Bungee…” Jet muttered to himself as the X-Crew closed in around them.
* * *
The obvious first choice to look for Mr. Yanus was his office; but Cliff and Luge quickly discovered that this was not necessarily the case, as he was not there. Even his annoying assistant was not lurking in the shadows, so they were forced to wander around the grounds looking for him. Everyone they asked seemed to have seen him no more than five minuets before and that he had just left. When they went to the next place he had supposedly just gone, they were again presented with the same beliefs as to Mr. Yanus’ whereabouts. Eventually, without having seen so much as a glance of the stallion, they ended up back at his office trailer in a confrontation with his assistant who was now there.
“We’re here to see Mr. Yanus,” Cliff said to the gray pony sitting at the desk before him.
“Do you have an appointment?” she asked as she adjusted her glasses and looked down at her planner.
“No,” Cliff replied. “I don’t have the time to mess around with that; we just need to talk with him.”
“Mr. Yanus is a very important pony; you can’t just barge into his office whenever you want.”
“We don’t want to ‘barge in,’ we just want to talk,” Luge said.
“I’m sorry, but he’s in a meeting right now and won’t be finished for some time.”
“We can wait,” Cliff said sternly.
“Mr. Yanus has other matters to- ” she stopped short as the door to Mr. Yanus’ office swung open. Backing out of the room was Vic, the announcer, who was, as always, sharply dressed.
“-all I’m sayin’ is that I don’t get it. Now baseball, football, those are sports; this stuff is like a carnival complete with its own freak show,” Vic was saying but had finally turned around and caught sight of the two athletes. “Oh, hi,” he added with an insincere smile.
Mr. Yanus, who was coming through the door right behind Vic, had noticed Cliff and Luge a moment earlier and perhaps saved himself from an equally embarrassing moment. “We’ll finish this later,” Yanus said to Vic, who quickly disappeared out the door.
“Shadie, what are they doing here?”
The mare behind the desk stood up and said, “I was just about to send them away. They wanted to talk to you.”
“The X-Crew,” Cliff replied before Shadie could, even though they had never gotten the chance to tell her why they were there.
“What about the X-Crew?” Yanus asked as he stepped out of the doorway and a few steps closer to the two.
Both Cliff and Luge glanced over at Shadie; but she was standing her ground, and Mr. Yanus didn’t seem to even notice her presence.
“We think they might be cheating,” Luge said.
Yanus’ eyebrows raised in a reserved sort of surprise. “Really?” he asked. “And what led you to this conclusion? I hope you’re not so upset over today’s outcome that you’re trying to blame them for your own failings.”
“Far from it,” Cliff said. He could already feel his collar beginning to warm up. “We simply have reason to believe they might have rigged today’s course.”
“What sort of reason?”
“We were told by a- ” Luge started to say, but Cliff spoke up and cut her off.
“-by an anonymous source. And frankly, after today’s run, we were more than a little curious as to whether or not it was true.”
“Interesting,” Yanus replied as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll have to look into this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”
“We’re… glad to help,” Luge said with a meek smile.
“Well, good; now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do before we head out tomorrow.” With that, Yanus turned around and headed back into his office, closing the door behind him.
“And I believe you two should be running along, as well,” Shadie said sternly.
“Yeah,” Cliff said. “Oh and look at that, the sun’s already going down; we better hit the sack early tonight; good bye, see you later, have a nice evening.”
Luge waved to the scowling mare as Cliff pulled her from the trailer that acted as Mr. Yanus’s mobile office while on the road. Outside, the sun was indeed beginning to set as the two ponies made their way across the grounds. They took their time as they made their way around the trailers and roadies who were still scurrying about on various tasks.
“So what was all that about?” Luge asked. “Why didn’t we tell him about Shard?”
Cliff shook his head slowly back and forth. “I don’t know, but there is something about that guy that I do not trust.”
“Yanus? Or Shard?”
“Either. Both. Take your pick. We have to sort through this before we tell him everything. I just have a bad feeling that something sinister is going on here.”
“Sinister, huh? THAT bad?”
“Yeah, THAT bad.”
“And remember how hard we had to work to get here in the first place?”
“I know; ain’t it great?”
“So what’s the plan now?”
“I guess we’ll have to hope that Mr. Yanus finds something.”
“And if not?”
“If not, we’ll just have to play that much harder.”
“And here I thought we were going to be having fun.”
“You’re not having fun?” Cliff asked. “I’m having fun. This is fun.”
“Now you shut up,” Luge replied with a shove of her own.
“Well, here we are, home sweet home,” Cliff said, stopping outside of their coach.
“It sure sounds like they’re having fun in there,” Luge said. Even on the outside with the door closed, they could hear the music playing loudly on the inside.
“I just hope that means they managed to stay out of trouble,” Cliff said. Sweeping the door open and giving a mock bow, he said, “After you.”
“Why thank-“ Luge began to say but never finished her statement. They stood frozen in the doorway- the sight that greeted them was not quite the one they had been expecting. Inside the coach’s living room were gathered ten ponies in various stages of recline. As soon as the door had been swung open, all of them stopped talking and looked towards the door, leaving as the only noise that was heard the music blaring from the stereo.
“What’s going on here?” Cliff stammered.
Bungee jumped up from her seat amongst the group and stumbled forward. “Don’t worry about it, boss; we just invited the Blade Runners over for a little party!”
“Yeah,” Mogul added. “It was the least we could do after they saved my butt back there.”
Both Luge and Cliff were dumbstruck. Too much information was being thrown at them too quickly. Instead of clearing up the situation, it only made understanding that much worse. Mogul, sitting in the corner, looked as though he had just been through a war. His eye was blackened and the rest of him was a mess; but yet he was smiling broadly and raising a toast with Gryphon, who was sitting next to him.
Gryphon, who was quite possibly the largest pony Cliff had ever seen, smashed his own glass into Mogul’s, spilling most of the contents of both glasses onto the table. Laughing heartily, he said, “Yes, my little friends here got themselves into a bit of a scrape, but we pulled them out!” Putting his foreleg around Jet, sitting on the other side of him, the massive pony nearly strangled him.
“Wha-what do you mean, a bit of a scrape?” Cliff asked.
Pushing himself out of Gryphon’s grip, Jet exclaimed, “Dude! Stupid here thought he’d go pick a fight with the whole X-Crew!”
“I was just gonna talk,” Mogul said in reply, “but then those two laughing hyenas of theirs, Alex and Max, grab Jet and hold him down while the other four pound the crap out of me.”
“Yeah, but then we heard all the commotion from the Blade Runners’ coach and went to check it out!” Bungee exclaimed.
“And then we busted their heads!” Gryphon added.
“Once they let go of Mogul and Jet, the X-Crew weren’t willing to throw down with all ten of us,” Nikita said. “They’re really just a bunch of chickens when the rubber hits the road.”
“Mogul! You’re gonna get us thrown out!” Luge exclaimed. “You can’t go doing stuff like that!”
“I would not worry about getting thrown out,” Valentina spoke up with her thick accent.
“Yeah,” Trajan added. “They had the nerve to threaten us with that one during our little stand off- until we pointed out that it was ten against six and it would be their word against ours.”
“So what, we’re just going to pretend it never happened and forget about it?” Cliff asked.
“Well, Mr. Yanus never has to know about it,” Nikita said. “But I kind of doubt the X-Crew will ever forget.”
“I can’t believe this,” Cliff muttered. “I told you guys to stay out of trouble and what do you do? You get into trouble. You know, Mogul, if we didn’t need you in this competition, I’d be tempted to throw you off our team anyway!”
“You’d never get rid of me,” Mogul said with a smile. “Without me, you don’t have a chance of beating the X-Crew out on the field!”
“You just keep telling yourself that,” Cliff said, finally allowing himself a smile of his own. “But now what are we supposed to do?”
“Oh, I think that’s pretty clear,” Luge said as she pulled him into the room with the others.
Standing up in the back and holding his guitar aloft, Kadin finished her thought. “PARTY!”