Hello, there! Once again, your arrival is timed perfectly. I just completed filling out my bracket for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. No, of course you can't see it! As you have doubtless already guessed, it is nearly perfect. Obviously, I could correctly predict all 63 games, but I don't want to call undue attention to myself in the dozen or pools in which I participate. That's precisely the reason I appear to have all these research materials laying about. I want visitors to think I've put a great deal of effort into constructing my winning entry, when in reality I merely spent a few hours in deep consultation with my cracked crystal ball. Well, of course it's unfair! But it's also a convenient avenue to generate some quick cash, which I can then use to, you know, benefit humanity and so forth. At any rate, enough of this idle chit-chat. Let's get down to business. Just slide that pile of newspapers out of your chair and make yourself comfortable. It's time to make contact with the infinite and see what will happen in the next episode of Survivor. Yes, I am beginning to see a few rather unexpected words taking shape deep in my crystal ball. Apparently, the title of this week's episode is

Mortar Seats That Fly

It's late morning on Day 16 at Jaburu Camp. Deena is quietly tending to the fire, scowling and shaking her head as she tries to ignore the loud moans emanating from the shelter. Jenna is sitting across from her, dark circles under her eyes. She yawns. "I wish she'd keep it down," Jenna says. "As soon as Alex got busy this morning, she just hasn't stopped. That's why I left the shelter. Nobody's getting any sleep with that going on."

Deena nods and rolls her eyes. "It's just inconsiderate," she says. "There are other people in this camp, you know." She draws a deep breath and stands up. "I guess I'll go check on her. That's what she wants, anyway." She walks to the shelter and peeks inside.

Shawna is alone in the shelter, laying on her back with both arms covering her eyes. She's groaning and thrashing around, seemingly in a great deal of pain. When Deena clears her throat, Shawna abruptly cuts off a moan somewhere in the middle and sits up. "Is Alex back?" she asks excitedly.

"Not yet," Deena says. "Still out gathering firewood, I think. You all right?"

Shawna slumps to the floor of the shelter and grips her stomach with both hands. Her eyes squeeze shut and she groans in pain. "No," she gasps through clenched teeth. "Not all right. I'm dehydrated and sore and dizzy. I don't think I can make it another three weeks. I'm at the lowest point I've ever been in my life. I'm scraping rock bottom and digging even deeper. I can't breathe. I see spots. My tongue is swollen. And the voices. The voices! They're driving me crazy. Bugs, bugs, bugs! Get 'em off me!"

From the campfire, Jenna calls out, "Here come the guys."

Shawna's eyes pop open and she quickly sits up again. "How's my hair?" she asks perkily.

"Big," Deena growls and stalks away. Joining Jenna at the campfire, she watches as the men emerge from the forest. They're carrying no firewood at all. Instead, Rob and Matthew have their hands full supporting a slumped-over Alex between them.

Shawna, who has tied a ribbon in her hair, bolts from the shelter and runs to Alex. "What happened?" she cries. "Oh, why couldn't it have been me?!"

"We were cutting firewood together," Rob says. "You know, flexing our muscles and all that." He looks anxiously at each of the three women, hoping he can get there in time should one of them happen to swoon. "Anyway, I guess he wasn't paying attention, and he wound up lopping off two of his fingers with the machete."

"Eugh, gross!" Shawna says, backing away from Alex a little bit. "Actually, I'm glad it wasn't me."

"What happened to the fingers?" Deena asks. "We should try to do something with them."

Rob looks nervous and uncomfortable. "Well, um, about that. So Matthew and I figured there were two fingers and two of us, and so - "

"You ate them?!" Jenna exclaims.

"Hey, believe me," Matthew says, "they weren't nearly as good as they might sound." He bares his reddish teeth in a friendly manner.

"Listen," Rob adds, "if you guys are jealous of that extra protein we got, we could hack off some more fingers while he's still in shock. He won't notice the difference."

The ladies chatter in disbelief. They splutter their outrage at the very idea and scold Rob for his foolish suggestion. Then they grow silent and look at each other searchingly. "Yeah, all right," Deena says. "Let's do it."

As Alex slowly emerges from his stupor, the ladies gobble down the last of their surprise morning snacks and bury the remains. Alex stares down at his fingerless left hand, bound tightly with his buff. "Hm," he says. "Cool. Chicks dig stumps."

Rob shows up at that moment with news that the Reward Challenge is ready to begin. The group heads off to Challenge Beach, where they get their first look at Jeanne-less Tambaqui. Deena and Jenna stare angrily at Heidi and Christy, realizing that the women are now down 6-5. Heidi tries vainly to reassure them by winking, nodding, and delivering the thumbs-up sign all at once. Instantly, the other women know that Heidi sold them up the river and make a mental note to boot her as soon as strategically possible after the merge.

Jeff arrives and greets the teams. He spots the moist red fabric at the end of Alex's arm and yelps in surprise. "Great Scott!" he cries. "Alex, we need to airlift you out of the game right now!" He produces a walkie-talkie from his pocket and screams into it. "Little Bear to Puppet Master, we need the med chopper. Send Skupin One to Challenge Beach now!"

"No!" Alex yells. "I'm fine! Seriously, I'm fine. I want to stay in the game. This old thing?" He holds up his left hand and laughs. "It's just a flesh wound! Have at you!"

A helicopter appears overhead. Mark Burnett is at the controls, staring at Jeff curiously. Jeff appears to be deep in thought. He finally looks up and shakes his head at Burnett. "Never mind," he says into the walkie-talkie. "This might work out all right for ratings after all." Burnett gives a wild-eyed but approving nod and flies off.

"OK," Jeff says. "Today's Reward Challenge will test your ability both to create and to solve tricky little puzzles. We tried to come up with a good way this relates to the Amazon, but honestly it just doesn't. If one of you thinks of any old weak tie-in, though, let me know so we can go back and edit it in before the show airs. Anyway, each of you has a piece of paper with the Survivor logo on it. Your first task is to take these scissors and cut the paper into twenty pieces. Try to make your cuts as complicated as possible because the next step is to deliver your chopped-up picture to the other tribe so they can solve it. First team to solve their puzzle wins the reward. Wanna know what you're playing for?"

"Yes!" Rob says earnestly. "Yes, Jeff. I very sincerely do want to know what we're playing for. I can't go on without knowing."

Jeff raises an eyebrow, not entirely sure whether or not to make Rob do pushups. In the end, his vanity wins out. "All right, I'll tell you." He holds up a box with a picture of himself on the front. "It's a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of me. I know how boring things can be in camp so I thought you guys would like the first copy of my new line of Probst Puzzles. Neat, huh?" He grins excitedly.

The Survivors are very quiet. Somebody coughs. "Um, Jeff?" Rob says. "Please tell us the pieces are made out of Doritos."

After Rob finishes his pushups, the tribes are all set. "Survivors ready? Go!" Scissors flash as the two tribes set to work carving up their pictures. Because Alex can't hold and cut at the same time, Jaburu gives him the scissors so he can just chomp away with the blades while the rest of the team guides the paper. After both tribes are done cutting up the picture, Alex and Christy run over to retrieve the pieces from the other tribe. Alex trips over a little rock and tumbles to the ground. Unfortunately, he's still carrying the scissors. His right ear flies off and lands softly on the ground beside him.

"I knew it!" Butch exclaims, punching a fist into the palm of his other hand. He turns and looks into the camera. "Let that be a lesson for all you kids watching at home."

Jeff reaches for his walkie-talkie, but Alex shakes him off and puts the ear in his pocket. "I'm fine, Jeff. Really." As the two tribes work to solve the puzzles, it becomes obvious that Jaburu is distracted by Alex's missing ear. Tambaqui wins the Challenge easily. Jeff proudly hands them the Probst Puzzle and congratulates them warmly.

Roger pries the box open and pops a piece into his mouth. "Not bad," he says. "Kind of cardboard-like. Probably'd go well with manioc."

"I get one of the dimples!" Dave calls as his tribe departs, munching away on puzzle pieces. Crestfallen, Jeff snarls at Jaburu to head back to camp, then slowly trudges off into the forest.

Back at Tambaqui, Heidi is frantic. She saw the looks Deena and Jenna gave her at the Reward Challenge, and she knows her fate is sealed when the tribes merge. She signals Dave to join her for some "wood collecting." Dave scoops up a handful of puzzle pieces and heads off to chat with Heidi. "What's up?" he asks with his mouth full. Today, he's wearing a plain black T-shirt which reads, "Rocket scientist by day, sophisticated love machine by night."

"Dave, you gotta protect me. When we get to the merge, those girls are going to be out for blood. You promised me I could be number four in your little group. You promised me!"

"Yeah, sure, baby," Dave says. "Number four or number seven. Somewhere in there, depending on how many guys make it to the merge." He crunches one of Jeff's eyeballs.

"If you promise I'll be number four, I'll take my shirt off."

Dave coughs and spits out cardboard. "You've got yourself a deal," he croaks.

Some time later, when the two return, only Dave has any wood. "Did you bring anything for the fire?" Butch asks. Dave and Heidi shake their heads.

"Go get some firewood then!" Roger yells from the shelter.

As Heidi heads off, Butch stops Dave. "If we lose Immunity, she's gone, right? We're keeping Christy, aren't we?"

"Absolutely," Dave says with a devilish grin.

Next day at the Immunity Challenge, Alex appears to be missing his right arm. Jeff sighs and looks at the heavens. "Now what?" he asks him.

"Just a little crocodile-related mishap while I was fishing," Alex says sheepishly. "No big deal. Play on."

"All right then," Jeff says. "Today's Challenge will give you an opportunity to demonstrate your skills in the important survival-related area of being catapulted across the Amazon River. Behind me are a set of chairs made out of mortar. Not the most aerodynamic substance in the world, I grant you, but it's all we had. Each of you will take a turn sitting in one of these seats and getting propelled into the air by the device you see over there." He points at a giant slingshot. "The tribe which sends one of its members the furthest wins Immunity. Everybody understand?" They all nod and head off to grab a mortar chair. Jaburu elects to have Shawna sit out the Challenge. "Survivors ready? Go!"

Jaburu loads Alex into the slingshot first. The remaining four members of his tribe strain to pull him back into position. As they're struggling in this way, Jeff pipes up. "By the way, I forgot to mention that you may have to contend with the piranha if you don't manage to completely clear the river." This announcement startles Jenna, who inexplicably lets go of her part of the slingshot. Everybody else tries to hang on to their part, but one by one, they all lose their grip. Alex and his chair squirt lamely into the river just a few feet away. Immediately, the water begins churning. Alex manages to thrash his way back to shore, but not before the piranha claim both his legs for their lunch.

"OK, now really, that is it!" Jeff yells. "I'm pulling you out of this game!"

"NO!" Alex roars, hop-dragging himself over to Jeff so he can put his head at Jeff's feet. "I'm begging you! Leave me in. This is the adventure of a lifetime, and I'm having fun. Seriously. I'll be fine. See?" He grins and winks at Jeff. Shawna sighs pleasurably and passes out.

"Well...all right," Jeff says. "But if you suffer one more injury, even a nosebleed, I'm getting you out of here."

"Deal!" Alex says and slithers off to help his tribe complete the Immunity Challenge.

Heidi goes next for Tambaqui, and by curling into a tuck position in her chair, she's able to fly all the way across the river. She rolls free of the chair as it shatters on the far bank. Jeff climbs in a canoe and paddles across the river to bring her back. "Tambaqui has the early lead!" he announces.

Subsequent efforts by both tribes are equally as successful in that nobody lands in the river. Finally, Jaburu is down to their last hope: Matthew. If he doesn't clear Heidi's mark, which has stood up throughout the competition, his tribe will lose. He nods confidently at his tribemates as they load his seat into the slingshot. "Don't worry, guys," he says calmly. "We'll be fine."

Jeff glares at Matthew suspiciously. The other members of Jaburu (except Alex, of course) pull the slingshot back and release it. Matthew powers majestically into the air and appears to soar like an airplane, well past Heidi's mark. Like a flying carpet, his seat glides deep into the forest before settling gently to the ground. Matthew, who is now covered in a fine sheet of sweat, takes a moment to collect himself before emerging from his seat, turning to the opposite shore, and bowing deeply.

Jeff wants to flag Jaburu for some sort of foul, but he can't figure out if Matthew really broke any rules. "OK, Tambaqui, you have one last chance." Dave is scheduled to go. He's sitting on the ground, rapidly scribbling equations in the sand. "Come on, Tambaqui, let's go!" Jeff calls. "I'll disqualify you, I swear. Don't think I won't!"

Dave calls his team over and hurriedly gives whispered instructions to everyone. He then settles into his chair. The team pulls the slingshot back and points it at the exact angle described by Dave. "OK," Dave murmurs calmly. "Now pull it just a little further back. Thaaaaat's it. And.....now!"

The tribe releases him, and Dave powers into the atmosphere, leaving a thin vapor trail behind him. He's far above the trees now, just a speck. Minutes later, a distant crash is heard as his chair lands deep in the forest. Matthew turns white and looks like a ghost...and a skeleton at the same time. He hangs his head in defeat.

Half an hour later, a bruised Dave emerges from the forest. He's limping and his clothes are shredded. His plain black T-shirt is in pieces and can't be read. Dave looks down and says, "Oh. It said - "

"Tambaqui wins Immunity!" Jeff shouts. "Jaburu, I'll see you at Tribal Council tomorrow night."

The next evening, Jaburu arrives, pushing Alex along in a homemade wheelbarrow. Shawna weeps softly as Matthew and Rob maneuver Alex out of the wheelbarrow and onto a stump. Alex pleads to stay in the game. He tries to demonstrate his value to the team by rolling off the stump and capturing a spider in his teeth, but his efforts are in vain. He's voted out 5-1. The dissenting vote was completely blank since Alex couldn't reach the voting table and wouldn't have been able to write anything, anyway, but everybody knew it was his. After quenching Alex's torch, Jeff gives him a hand by tossing him into the Aloha Booth, where Alex delivers a tearful farewell and bitterly curses his teammates for holding a few little surface scratches against him. "I can still play this game!" he cries. "This is so unfair!"

And now the visions are gone. Time to settle in and watch some basketball. And just because you've been such a reliable customer, I'll give you a little hint for your office NCAA pool: Arizona's going to win. See you next week!

Your comments are welcome. E-mail paulie@fansofrealitytv.com.

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