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Tipping Point

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"Now I know you, Joe." James' words slurred a little and his eyes gleamed. The orange lamplight refracted into Joe's glass as he swirled the tumbler. Less than an inch of whisky lay at the bottom of what had been a new bottle. The good stuff; Joe'd been saving it for a rainy day. "I know you," James said again. "You're a soldier, a patriot. You didn't suffer all that shit in the jungle just to be a slave."

"We don't know it's gonna work like that," protested Joe, same as he always did. "None of us knows squat about how this thing'll end."

The table shook under James' glass as he slammed it down. "You think if someone like Grayson or Slan Quince wins ultimate power it's going to be anything else?" He took a breath, then asked more softly. "Or what about someone like Sarah Lowell? That was your first clean up job, wasn't it, Joe?"

Joe knocked back the remained of his glass and poured himself another double. Eight years ago, and he still woke up out of a dead sleep sweating, sure he had blood on his hands. "You know it was." James had been his mentor then too; he had held Joe back when he'd wanted to go after Lowell with a gun and an axe. "They're not all like that. Liza wasn't. She was an okay kinda gal."

"To Liza Grant," James toasted. His glass hit Joe's a little too hard. "May she rest in peace."

That was the last of the whiskey, but Joe didn't feel stable enough to get another bottle. "I hate the young ones," he said. "They die so fast, and..." he stopped. He couldn't figure out what the worst part of it was. Liza had been twenty seven, and had only lasted as long as she had by keeping her head down.

"And they haven't got the Game in their hearts yet," James finished for him. "It's like watching a real person die."

"Immortals are real people."

"You know what I mean. I'll get you an old one next time, someone quiet."

"Yeah, I do." James was right too. The older ones felt different, apart somehow, but Liza had reminded Joe of his sister back in her college days. And Joe knew who'd killed her, and had done nothing. "She didn't stand a chance." He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, James had leaned across the table, his gazed fixed on Joe.

He sounded stone cold sober. "Joe, whoever wins the Game will be a man who was able to butcher his entire race, men women and children. It won't matter if they wanted to fight or not."

"James..." Joe started, his blurry thoughts trying to catch up to the sudden change in tone.

"And the worst part will be that we saw it coming. We're going to record our own end, every damn detail." James slummed back in his chair again, staring at the table between them.

Joe sighed and reached across to pat James' hand. "Jesus, James, if I'd remembered what a sad drunk you were, I would have asked Lee over." It took a couple of goes to lever himself up, and he wobbled unstably before catching his balance on the back of the empty chair. "The booze's gone, and it's time for bed."

"Sure, Joe," James said. He still sounded lost.

It felt like long, exhausting work to get James installed in the guest room and to haul himself into bed -- he needed to remember to get his legs off before he got smashed -- but when it was finally done with, Joe couldn't sleep. He stared at the ceiling and thought of the butcher who'd killed Liza. He wondered what it would take for the best man to win.

Joe didn't know how much more watching he could bear.