The following takes place after 1pm
We actually passed the Barnes and Noble on Sixteenth. Neither of us were familiar with the city, and it was only because I remembered seeing the illuminated sign on the way up the stairs to Coyote Ugly that I slammed on the brakes in front of the Denver Pavilions. “We passed it.”
I wheeled the bike into the courtyard between the buildings, hopped off and took the keys.
Austen was a few steps behind me – having stayed behind to bike-lock his helmet – and he caught up quickly as I pounded up the steps. “Can’t let you race off and have all the fun.”
The Denver Pavilions was shaped vaguely like a capital e. Three stories tall, open-air walkways ran along the backbone and both ends, and connected it with an “island” in the middle. The third floor was mostly eating establishments, like Coyote Ugly and a place that appeared to be advertising itself as an X-rated bowling alley. The first and second floors were clothing shops mostly. And, at the far end, a book store.
We wove though the crowd, and then pushed through the heavy oak and glass doors. Immediately the smell of coffee hit my nose, sweet and bitter at the same time. My stomach growled involuntarily, I hadn’t had anything since breakfast.
The cashiers behind the counter on the left gave us raised eyebrows as we walked in. We had to look quite the sight, both of us drenched in sweat. Austen looked like the singer of a rockband, I knew I probably looked like a working girl. “Split up?” I asked.
“Yeah, once I know what this guy looks like.”
I snickered. “Oops.” I showed him the picture on my phone. Fifties, bald, stubble, photographer’s vest. “I’ll take upstairs, you take downstairs.”
“There’s a downstairs?”
“Yeah. We passed a map.”
We split up, I went right, he went left towards the stairs down. I wandered through the café area, eyeing the faces, smelling the scents of bread and roasting beans. I kept the Vanquisher at my side, pistol in hand. All these paper products around, I didn’t want to ruin any of them with errant shooting. As much as I followed the Michael Mann rule of “take clean shots, watch your backgrounds,” things happen.
I wandered through maps and travel, checked the tables by the windows. Lots of people looking at me weirdly, no bald, middle-aged men in photographers vests.
Back by foreign language, I ran into someone with the same idea as myself. They were prowling the back of the store as well, watergun in hand. Guy in a flannel shirt, jeans, rocking a Kurt Cobain look. We nodded at each other as we passed, and then I remembered I’d seen a water gun in front of him. We both turned at the same time, and I one-handed my pistol as I sidestepped around a bookcase, firing three times as I moved off the X.
I must’ve hit him because he didn’t come around the corner after me. I was surprised he’d lasted this long in the game. On the other hand, I’d neglected the threat as well.
I checked the hallway at the back by the restrooms. Figured the target probably wouldn’t be hidden back there. Wandered back towards the customer service desk through the fiction section. Since when did scifi and romance and mystery get overtaken by male-model vampires?
I rounded another bookcase at the same time someone else did, going in the opposite direction. Nearly ran into them. “Excuse me,” I said.
He didn’t move. 30s, dirty, wearing overalls and a greasy t-shirt and a Kansas City Chiefs hat.
“Excuse me,” I said again.
“Do you have a hat?” he asked.
Oh. Now I understood. “No, I don’t have a hat.” I replied.
“Can I have it?”
“May all the angels watch over you,” he announced, and then ambled back the way he’d come.
Yeah, not happening, buddy. I’ve met an angel before. And his fists. He had no intention of watching over me, he was just a dick.
I continued stalking through the aisles until I was satisfied my target wasn’t anywhere on this half of the store. I even peeked behind the counter of the U-shaped information desk, in case he was hiding back there. A very hipster looking employee wearing a gray beret gave me the stink eye and I moved on. On the other side of the café was a reference section and a kid’s department. I took a look down the escalators – Austen nowhere in sight- and moved on. The target wasn’t sitting at the tables in by the dictionaries and encyclopedias and technical manuals so I moved on to the kid’s department.
I imagined a wall in my head, sheetrock over studs and spray insulation. I wasn’t going to scratch it, take a hammer to it, or try at all to get behind it. The past lay behind that wall. Pain lay behind that wall. But I was on the right side of that wall, and the past and pain couldn’t get through.
The kid’s department was all bright yellows and cartoon characters. Snoopy fished from the arched roof of an ornate bookcase, and the riot of colors and shapes and brightness on the shelves and displays rode back through my eyes and assaulted my brain.
Our bald guy wasn’t in back chillin’ with Snoopy, so I headed back.
The phone rang in my ear and I said “Answer.”
“I’m driving him to you!” Austen said hoarsely.
“Where?” I started moving faster, weaving between the displays.
“Up the escalators.”
The bald guy in the photographers vest was at the top of the escalators by the time I reached them. He fired back down the steps at Austen, and I slowed, sighted in, and pulled through the trigger on the Triple Shot. I’d like to say he dodged, but I could’ve missed too. Either way, it added up to the same thing. The pistol in his hand swung in my direction and I sidestepped as water reached for me. I hip-checked a reference table as a silvery stream flew past my ear, and a pile of books spilled all over an Asian kid’s homework. “Sorry,” I breathed as I bounced off the table.
Our Target was off and running, heading back the way I’d come, back towards fiction and maps. I collided with Austen as he came up the stairs, and Our Target turned back, firing steadily two-handed back at this big glob of enemy. I angled right, and put on a burst of speed, heading for the information desk.
Years from now, they’d be replaying this on the security tapes. Either to laugh hysterically at my painful failure, or so they could point and say to the new hires “See! Don’t let ANYONE DO THIS!”
The desk was about short-ribs-high, and I jumped.
Most people don’t have a vertical capable of pulling something like this off.
Most people don’t spend their spare time honing their leg muscles by trying to squat weights that would make Jason Statham envious.
My foot did not catch on the edge of the counter and pitch me forward. I barely touched down and leaped again, all in one fluid motion. At this height, I could see over some of the bookcases. The world dragged me down again, and I landed in a stagger. Gravity, jealous of me escaping for a moment, turned that stagger into a fall, and I landed on my side. I aimed upwards as Our Target tracked my movement, and I unleashed a long blast that caught him square in the chest.
He looked shocked as I pushed to my feet and advanced. “Are you crazy?” he asked.
“That’s a question I’ve been mulling over all day,” Austen said. “You got something for us?”
His photographers vest rustled with plastic as he reached into one of the pockets and handed us each SD cards. “Take these to three different locations in order, and scan the Cue Are codes there. Centennial Park, the Aquarium, and Are Eee Aye. You’re not the first to get these. Got it? Go!”
That last word was good advice. A couple of people with name tags were converging. We bolted, ripping the doors open and sprinting out onto the walkways. The bikes were on the ground floor, just past the center of the “E.” We dodged through the stream of shoppers, juking left and right around the annoyed people in our path. “Hold up!” someone shouted. Water splashed off the tween couple to our left, and they shrieked.
Austen’s reaction was instantaneous. He whirled, setting himself in a wide stance, leaning over the back of his water gun, aiming back the way we’d come. I turned back too, aiming my Triple Shot back in a double-handed grip. Austen growled as he pulsed through the trigger, scattering blasts down the walkway, probably without hitting anything. No further shots headed towards us, and we turned back and ran.
Down down down the steps, and I jammed the key into the slot on the bike, slewed it around, and sped off before Austen even had his helmet on. My phone was in my hand, and I typed in Centennial Park while I drove. The map app showed me a dot far ahead, and I realized it was going to be slow going up the Sixteenth Street mall.
I took the next left branch of this urban canyon, made an immediate right, and gunned the engine as soon as I hit Fifteenth. I dodged in and out of traffic, weaving between cars, hopping the curb, burying the needle on the side of the speedometer opposite its starting place. The skyscrapers fell away, becoming parking lots and shops and apartment buildings. How many times had I done this today, raced across the downtown, watched modern buildings of glass and steel give way to old brick facades? Too many to count. Out of the more corporate end of town, the streets were lined with skinny trees and art installations, and the traffic seemed slightly less populace.
We were coming back the way we’d gone. There was where I’d parked during the Writer’s Square mission. There were the industrial-looking high-class apartments we’d passed to get to the Contemporary Art museum. And a moment later, there was the art museum. I wondered if the people hunting us were still inside, or if they’d tried to get into the apartment building after our death-defying jump.
The world shaded as the street dropped below ground level, a bridge overhead. Light, then dark, then light, then dark, then a few longer seconds of light and a flash of dark as I sped beneath the final bridge. Dust seemed to somehow hang in the shadow, a moment of peace and stillness wholly separate from the assaultive heat and sunlight beyond. Hot wind tore at my hair and I could feel my skin bake in the ambient radiation.
Apartments rose up as the street climbed to ground level, the cramped luxury boxes of the rich. I hung a hard left onto Little Raven as the block of apartments ended. Had this been a car, I would’ve made the corner on two wheels. I glanced behind to see Austen’s Harley swing through the same turn a few seconds later. So he had been keeping up…
The sound of the tires on the road changed imperceptibly as the street turned into a bridge over a full canal, and then changed again, echoing as it dipped slightly below two arched bridges.
Little Raven ended more or less in a parking lot, the cars sitting in the shadow of the huge slides and ramps and waterfalls and structures of an outdoor waterpark. Happy shouts and shrieks and the sound of falling and splashing water filled the air. I looked longingly at the waterslide nearest to me. I was so hot…
Centennial Park sat across the parking lot, ringed in wrought-iron fencing, the only opening under a long series of colonnades that provided the only shade in the garden. Figures moved frantically among the tall, maze-like hedges. Many of the contestants had beaten us here.
Austen killed his bike’s engine in the parking space next to mine. “Where to?”
I pointed at the park behind us, an orange mylar flag rising up from a flagpole at the back of the gardens, fluttering in the hot breeze. “Probably there.”
We crossed the parking lot fast, weaving between cars, keeping an eye on the people doing the same. They all seemed to be coming from or going to the waterpark, but better safe than sorry. The Vanquisher banged lightly against my leg, an unpleasant reminder that I needed to refill.
The colonnades shaded the entrance, and a long, almost Egyptian series of pillars supporting a stone roof. Past them, red gravel paths wove between hedges, bushes and flowering plants crowding the path. Reminded me, vaguely, of a certain botanical garden in Wisconsin. This thought crossed my mind analytically. I could think about that without pain now.
Blue fifty five gallon barrels sat next to each pillar. Austen stood guard while I refilled. The water had been in the sun so long it was actually warm. It still felt good on my arms though, when I dunked the guns. Dunk, pump, dunk. Full.
I heard spraying and looked up from where I’d been covering behind the bucket while I filled. Austen was stalking between the pillars, gun up. Two people walked past me, grumbling. I smiled. “Good job,” I told Austen as I took his place standing guard.
He looked at up at me, and gave me a rueful smirk. “Thanks. I just wanna get this over with.”
We charged into the gardens.
The hedges were shoulder high, and by bending slightly we avoided being seen. At least until the first intersection. I took right, Austen took left, and we cleared our corners simultaneously. I ran into someone. Literally. Collided. Our guns were between us, and I hooked the back of his leg with mine and pushed. “Hey – “ he went down and I stepped back, fired two blasts of water into his stomach before diving for the cover of the other side of the lane. Austen ducked a blast from over the hedge, and I stood to draw a bead, fired again and tagged them out. Water slashed into the greenery by my shoulder and I spun to shoot back down the lane. Press press press press. Target out with two hits to the chest. Attention back to Austen and I fired past him, a long stream that drove back the person stepping into his lane. “Time to move!”
We moved back into the central lane, each of us shooting at the pair of guys charging towards us. It was simply an instinctive reaction. Target rushing towards you, gun up, press press. They were close enough that we had to step aside or we’d be bowled over. Our feet pounded the gravel as we continued our run, and we didn’t even slow at the next intersection, just dashed right through. He kept running and I turned, backpedaled nearly as fast, laying down water in a sweep and taking out the woman who emerged from the cross-lanes. Three emerged from the intersection ahead, and we separated, moving to the edge of the lane and shooting furiously. My footwork was still impeccable, rolling forward, each footstep the same, weight evenly distributed and forward slightly over the Vanquisher. Austen and I swept paths, crossing to the opposite sides of the lane, I took the left, he took the right. We moved as a team as we shot, his movements mirroring mine. We’d taken out one simultaneously before switching sides, and now water reached for us where we weren’t, and I pulled through the trigger while aligning the rifle with my target. Hissssss and out. Austen sped up slightly and moved back to my side of the lane, pulsing out blasts as he ran. His target quit shooting.
“We are good,” I said over labored breathing.
A quick scan of the surroundings showed groups fighting elsewhere in the garden, drawing close – like we were – to the flag pole. A whole lot of people were descending on this position.
The flag pole wasn’t actually the objective. It was the massive QR code banner hung on the fence next to it. The printed instructions told us to plug the chips into our phones and scan the design. I fished in my vest pocket for the chip, fumbled it, scooped it out of the dirt. A glance around showed the groups of fighters getting closer. People shooting at you tends to inhibit your progress.
I turned my Lumia 900 over and over in my hands, looking at the edges. No SDcard port. “SHIT!”
Austen looked over at me. “What?”
“Give me your phone.”
“Can’t use mine.”
He dug in his pocket and handed me a thick black slab. I spun it between my fingers. “Where’s the ess dee card slot?”
“Take the back off.”
The hits just keep on coming. I rammed the back up and off with my thumbs, flipped the grommet up and plugged in the SDcard. I wiped sweat out of my eyes with the back of my hand and fumbled the back of the phone back on. It didn’t want to line up… there, got it.
“What’s your password?”
Austen held down the trigger of his soaker, blasted someone coming out of one of the lanes. We were gonna be overrun, and soon. “Awww hell no.”
“I’ll put a pic on it you’ll like later. WHAT IS IT!?”
He turned to look at me, eyes wide, then shook his head and turned back to the business of shooting. “Spike.”
“What kinda password is that?” I asked as I punched it in.
“Look out, left!”
I was crouched next to the flagpole, and I had pivoted, Triple Shot out before he’d gotten the “ou” out. Two, out of the lane to my left. I clicked through the trigger, a barrage of shots that they couldn’t hope to dodge, their return fire going over my head.
The background red “eye” of the OS flickered, and the screen displayed a somehow grainy yet high-def picture of the ground in front of me.
“Time to go, Sam!” Austen yelled as he fired at another pair of contestants. These he didn’t tag out, they ducked back into the lane before the water could reach them.
I held the phone up in a hand shaky with adrenaline and clicked the camera. The screen blinked, and a loading bar appeared.
“I agree!” I put one hand between the spikes of the wrought-iron and vaulted, going nearly horizontal as I cleared the points.
Austen looked around. “Sam?”
I ducked behind the heavy fabric sign and a thought occurred to me. Why not? My hand found the Infidel in my satchel, and the spear-shaped blade snicked out. I slid the blade between the bars and the rope holding the banner to the fence. The ropes parted against the razor sharp steel, and I moved to the other side as Austen vaulted the fence. He had worse luck than me.
He landed awkwardly against the fence, wincing, and my heart jumped into my throat thinking he’d been impaled trying to duplicate my jump. He jerked away from the fence with a tearing noise, his t-shirt ripping from the collar in back down to just around his front. “C’mon, ain’t got all day.”
I slashed the last rope free on the banner, pulled it over the fence, and tossed it a few feet away into the grass. “This way!”
“What about the bikes?”
“Aquarium’s over there, are ee eye is…”I pointed a massive brown building across the river. “Take more time getting the bikes than running it.”
So we ran. Behind Centennial Park was a grassy embankment leading down to the river, a concrete path leading along the rocks at the water’s edge. I kenned the terrain in a moment. No way to cross the water immediately behind us. Bridge a few hundred yards ahead. Cross the bridge, head to the Aquarium, retrace our steps back to REI. A lot of running ahead of us. Most people would try and drive it. I hoped that would give us an advantage.
The bridge ahead was two single-spans next to each other separated by several feet of open space. The path led under them to some kind of dock area, or it split and wound around a fence to steps leading up to street level. Instead of winding along the brown brick footings, we vaulted the fence and pounded up the steps.
I had purposefully dropped back, letting Austen take the lead. His torn shirt flapped open along the side, and I could see blood streaking his back. The fence must’ve scored him pretty good. Had to hurt with the way he was sweating. The way we were both sweating. Stinging perspiration seemed to head right for my eyes, and my skin was greasy slippery with wet. My pants were soaked and even with airflow around my torso, the vest was sticking to me. Austen was drenched.
Having assessed his physical condition I put on a burst of speed, passed him as we made the fence. We charged the steps, feet pounding the brown bricks, crushing the straggly plants that forced their way through the cracks in the stone into the arid ecosystem.
Obviously we took the first bridge. Big mistake. I didn’t look up from my headlong rush until we’d crossed half of it. I should’ve gotten the feeling something was wrong from the lack of traffic – Austen wouldn’t have followed me into rush hour, and I wasn’t having to dodge cars. I looked up and caught a glimpse of why.
Cars blocked the far end of the bridge, a Usoak banner unfurled on sawhorses. People stood in front of and behind those vehicles. They were holding water guns.
The new variables got plugged into the equation and I altered the angle of my run.
“Aw shit Sam, NO!” Behind me, Austen got an idea of my plan from the change in my vector.
My foot hit the sidewalk along the edge of the road.
My legs gathered under me for a jump.
My foot hit the edge of the concrete barrier along the side of the bridge.
My foot pushed off again.
I slammed into the side of the other bridge and bounced off, barely hooking my fingers over the top edge of the concrete K-rail. Good thing I kept my fingernails short or they would’ve been torn off and I’d be dropping.
I hung by one hand between the two bridges.
I looked down. About thirty feet down. Worse than water. Water would be survivable. Shallow water. Shallow water might not be.
A shadow cut between me and the sun, and there was the sound of shoes and a body hitting the ground on the other side of me.
Time to stop feeling sorry for yourself, Sam. I flexed my arm, hauled myself up until I could swing my other arm up and grip the top of the barrier. The concrete was dry, dusty, scorched hot in the midday sun. My fingers slipped on the fine grit, and Austen reached down and grabbed my wrist. “This what you meant earlier by doing something stupid?”
Between the two of us, we hauled me up, and both of us collapsed in a pile on terra firma.
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” I pushed myself up off the ground, extended an arm and hauled Austen up. Then we started running again.
Since the Usoak crew couldn’t close both sides of the bridge, the wakes of the cars zooming past provided good air conditioning. We took a left as soon as the bridge became ground, skipping over the empty lanes of traffic. The Usoak crew saw us and started running – apparently they were a challenge we were expected to face – but we were far enough ahead of them that the only way they could’ve caught us is if we’d wanted to stick around. We didn’t.
Another fence to vault on the side of the road, and we were then running down another concrete path, this one winding around the hill next to the bridge, leading to the massive Aquarium parking lot below. I stumbled on the stairs and caught myself on the railing, kept running.
Instead of heading into the parking lot, I headed for the embankment. In full sun, it was covered with people. Sunbathers, friends of people swimming in the river, walkers, dog walkers, bicyclists, people reading, and people meditating. “Where are you going!” Austen shouted as we ran.
I looked back over my shoulder. “They’ll be less likely to shoot at us in a crowd!”
He rolled his eyes and put on a burst of speed, caught up with me. “I bet when Saddam Huessein surrounded himself with human shields, you thought that was a smart play.”
If I could’ve, I would’ve shrugged.
I’d had some worry about not finding the next banner. I didn’t know the area, didn’t know the building, didn’t know if they’d make us go in and fight among the fish. But apparently Bob had learned his lesson, and we weren’t going to have to go indoors – off to the left, behind the building I spied another orange mylar flag. Good. No need to change course.
The path serpentine slightly along the embankment, the water glistening, sunlight on ripples to our left. This was a popular spot, lots of people lined the shores on both sides. And we weren’t the only ones running. Ahead of us, figures sprinting in opposite directions interrupted each other. I smirked to myself as they engaged each other in watery combat.
The flag stood in a fenced in patio area, aquamarine tiles under aquamarine table, right behind the Aquarium. The Aquarium was a massive black glass building, the sides slightly wavy, undulating like the movement of some sort of sea creature. We’d passed the waiting area, another patio out front, this one filled with people. Had to be at least an hour wait time.
I angled towards the fence and took the wrought iron in two bounds, the first jump to get my foot on the bars, the second to launch me over. Austen followed suit, probably reluctantly. At the back of the patio hung another QR code banner, with someone crouched by it, plugging info into their phone. As we neared, two people stood from behind tables and opened fire, sweeping our path with water.
I broke right, strafing away, finger working the trigger and my hand working the pump like I was running a shotgun, keeping the pressure up even as I expended it. My hip hit a table and instead of bouncing off, I let myself fall across it, rolling across the tabletop. I fell off the other side as the world whirled, taking the tablecloth with me as I fell jarringly to the concrete. I came up in a crouch, flicking the cloth off the end of my gun with a twitch. One breath composed me now that I was out of the line of fire. I aimed, stood, resettled my aim, and held down the trigger long enough for a silvery stream to connect me with my shooter. A quick pivot, and I saw Austen kick a table over, sending it crashing into his assailant’s cover. Shocked, the guy stopped shooting and ducked away, giving Austen enough time to step over and one-hand his pistol over the table the shooter had dropped behind.
I had to smile – he was becoming more like me all the time. The girl with the phone was tapping on it frantically, and now stood as we approached, firing a scatter of quick blasts at us before breaking for the river-side of the fence. I started sprinting too, angling towards her before she could get on the other side of the iron. I jumped powerfully, pulling my feet up, landing wobblingly on a table and shot her three times in the back as I strode across the table top, riding it down to the ground as it overbalanced and fell. I pumped back to full pressure, ignoring the “fallen” players as I ran over to the banner.
Austen’s phone was still in my pocket and I clicked it on, entered the password, and photographed the square digital barcode. A progress bar appeared on the phone’s screen. “Time to go, Sam,” Austen said, his voice hurried.
“Yeah, there’s like, a crowd…”
The fence was chainlink at the very back of the patio and I hooked my fingers in, dug my toes in, and scrabbled up, shaking its whole length. The opposite side of the fence was some kind of opaque green plastic privacy wall, and that made it difficult to get a good grip through the links. Austen was right behind me, and water slapped into the green plastic as we swung ourselves over. That was close.
Maintenance area. Dumpsters and generators and HVAC equipment dotted the fenced in area. Probably not an area they wanted people going. We sprinted across the baking pavement, and damn near dashed up the chainlink fence on the other side. We found ourselves on the edge of a parking lot, and I took a moment to orient myself. Far side of the Aquarium, the building between us and the REI where our running would end.
Until then, more running.
We didn’t even slow as shooters came around the building – obviously looking for a back way in. Just press press press on the trigger and they caught three quick blasts from Austen and I before they caught on that they’d run into a situation that was beyond their skill level.
In the distance, I could see the massive brick building that was REI. It looked like a castle or a cathedral. So very far away, so much running between now and there.
We flat out sprinted. The wake of our travel caused enough wind that if it weren’t for the heat prickling my skin from the inside and out, I could actually feel cool. My heart hammered and my throat and lungs felt thick with phlegm. I hacked up a wad and blew it across the parking lot as we ran, accidentally hitting a parked car. Oops. At least I could breathe again. Austen ran on my left, even with or slightly ahead. His back looked bloodier, the sweat causing the red to run in rivulets down to the waistband of his boxers.
A concession stand and a crowd passed on the right, the crowd still waiting to get into the Aquarium. Glad I wasn’t waiting in line in this heat. No movement.
Small manicured parks dotted the landscape between the parking lots and the path we’d run. Little gazebos, scrubby evergreen trees, flowers, and mulch. Had to look kinda pretty if one were to take the time to look at it. Might have to come back once this fight was done, maybe as the sun was going down. I grinned lopsidedly as I thought of walking this with Austen.
The parking lots passed in an arid blur of black desert and reflective colored steel, all scorched under the white hot sun and brilliantly blue sky.
The bridge and street were coming up, and instead of dealing with traffic, I angled right, out through the open gate of the parking lot. The street it opened onto was barely traveled, and I cut across, across another short lot, onto the manicured lawn next to the walking path. I hurtled a sunbather and ducked low under a big bundle of multicolored balloons that were straining to fly out of a child’s hand.
Austen just went around. Where was the fun in that.
Across more grass, and my feet nearly tripped over the ties of a railroad. I looked ahead. The railroad tracks ran under the bridge, paralleling the path, and apparently stopping by REI. This made more sense than dodging traffic.
That nickname grates on me. “Yeah?” The rush of air we were moving through tore at my words, so I shouted.
“We’ve got company!”
I looked back. A crowd, moving through the crowd. Crap.
Did we have any options besides keep running?
I didn’t think so.
The bridge above darkened the pavement, and then we had gang graffiti on the left and the river on the right. Our footsteps echoed crazily back down to us, reflected off the roof above, covered in crazy patterns of sunlight reflected off water. A gap of sunlight – a gap I had nearly fallen through – and then shade again. The shade was good. It was half a degree cooler than the sun, but that was something.
The train tracks deadended in two ancient, dead rail cars, and we angled off to the left, back into the sun. The front lawn of REI was forested, pines and birches, a few paths wandering between them, an artificial brook babbling somewhere nearby. The building was a few yards away, visible through a screen of evergreens. Dark brown brick with ten foot tall tinted windows every few feet. A patio seemed to wrap around to the river side of the building, tables visible at the corner. The covered entrance was off to the left, and that was the general direction for which we were headed.
Until rain started falling in the miniature forest.
Thick, sweeping streams hitting the leaves overhead, shattering against the canopy and showering down with a tapping noise.
“RIGHT!” Austen shouted.
We didn’t even bother returning fire, just bolted in the other direction. Away from the entrance, dammit. We rushed through the almost-interlaced boughs of the pines and vaulted a split rail fence onto the patio. Looking left I could see a squad splitting apart, a few heading towards us, a few heading for the entrance, a few lingering to fight another attacking force.
We HAD to get inside this building.
Around the corner of the patio, and we found ourselves in another crowd. Business types in suits, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee. Most of them looked up from their meals to stare at us. We had to be quite the surprise, quite the odd interruption.
I looked around – there, a door. Black framed, set into the brown brick. We ran for it as water slashed the crowd from…below?
The patio overlooked a multi-layer deck area along the river’s edge. Someone down there was shooting at us. Well, maybe not us specifically, but they were shooting at somebody. In my peripheral vision I saw Austen set himself in a shooter’s stance and blast the corner of the building, driving more shooters behind cover, his streams lancing over the seated crowds’ heads.
“Get out of here, Sammy!” he yelled. “I got this!”
I wanted to stay with him and help. Every instinct in me told me to. Even in a stupid game like this, I didn’t walk away from a fight. But there was money on the line, and it would help Austen more if I went and won it rather than staying and losing.
I slipped around the doorframe, Vanquisher up, reaming on the pump as I went, eyes glued front and center. I was in some kind of café, a bunch of the same business types in line for the counter.
And one guy with a water gun, standing guard. I landed three solid hits to his torso in the time it took him to look up, and then I strode past, around the counter, into the kitchen area. Racks of equipment and supplies surrounded me. An employee looked across an island stove at me in surprise. “Hey! You can’t be back here!”
I didn’t even look at him.
There was a door set into the back wall of the kitchen, and I flung it open, advanced into a small hallway. The doors on this side were likely offices, supply rooms. The door on the far side opened into a showroom.
I’ve never seen so much outdoor gear in one place before. The walls were brick, the supports rough cut lumber, and overhead, I-beams ran between the multiple levels. The floor ran on forward for what seemed like miles, easily as long as a stadium. Metal racks stretched off into the distance like Neo’s gun cabinets, precisely organized shelves of Camelbaks and shoes and knives and rope and bottles and MREs and gloves and coats and all manner of camping and hiking equipment.
It wasn’t the Kershaws and Mountain House that drew my eye though, it was the climbing wall in the center of the store. Forty feet tall, with a flagpole on top that reached to the rafters. The flag wasn’t flying, but it was black and white checked enough that I could tell it displayed a QR code.
I sprinted forward, dodging gun-metal gray racks of equipment and the disapproving glances of employees. A water gun was visible in the hands of someone to my left and I stopped suddenly, pivoted, fired twice, and resumed running before the quick hits of water had even burst into mist off their shirt.
The climbing wall was plastic, cut to look like rock, colored hand and footholds extruded from the surface. Pulleys hung from the top of the wall, ropes and climbing harnesses dangling down to the floor. There was someone climbing on it already, watergun slung over their back. I shot them twice in the back, and then I pulled my Vanquisher down and left to hang against my side and took to climbing.
Stretch, reach, flex, grip, over and over. Climbing is one of the few activities that can’t really be put into words. You can’t describe the instinctive reach for one hold versus the instinctive disregard of another, the heartstopping drop of your stomach as you jump laterally for the next position, only to find yourself hanging by fingertips, your feet pawing for grip.
I had to do this fast, and I threw caution to the wind, going hand over sweating hand up the “rock” face. If anyone below had a watergun, I was toast.
I could also be toast if I wasn’t careful. The climbing wall curved outwards the closer I got to the top, forcing me to work my holds even more carefully and with even more strain, jamming myself against the wall. I could feel ever dot and ridge in the textured handholds, and the fingers of my right hand slipped, each texture sliding by my fingerprints with agonizing slowness and speed. The fingers of my left hand dug in like claws, and I hung over a thirty foot drop by just one hand.
Get back to confidence, Sammy.
I flexed my arm, pulling myself up tighter to the wall. I nosed the toes of my shoes against the rock texture, found purchase while locating my right-hand-hold. Back solidly on the wall, I started climbing again.
I was sweating with nervousness as I reached to top of the wall, pulling myself onto the flat platform. I reached it at the same time as another woman. A little older than me, probably halfway through college. Whitebread average girl next door type. Neither of us had waterguns out. I scrambled for the Triple Shot in my satchel. She hesitated for just a moment before giving me a solid shove off the wall.
My mind was flexible. Even as gravity pulled at my back, I didn’t even bother thinking “Why me?” or “How could she do that to me?” I just thought “What next?”
The climbing ropes and harnesses were securely locked in place until climbing started, a fortunate fact I found out quickly as my flailing brought my hand in contact with nylon. I grabbed it and was jerked to a sudden stop that nearly took my arm out of its socket, swinging violently back and forth, shaking the whole wall.
I hung by one hand again, and this time instead of reaching for another handhold, I reached into the satchel, pulled out my Triple Shot, took brief aim, and played the blast over the top of the platform, hosing down the girl who’d thrown me off. She looked down, surprised. Shocked. So close – she had her hands of the rope running along the flagpole. I pushed the pistol back into my bag and locked my feet against the rope, started hauling myself up.
She hauled too.
I don’t think she wanted to be within arm’s reach. I didn’t really care. She’d played the logical play, my only goal was the money right now. I got my elbows on the edge, pushed myself up and threw a leg over, rolled to the top of the wall. Here again.
I checked each side and found a guy climbing the far side. I didn’t want to drop him thirty feet onto his back like had nearly happened to me, so I tapped him once on each shoulder. He looked up, pissed. Too bad.
I crouched at the base of the flagpole, protected by angles and height. I looked up at the flag, considered my options. Why not?
The wall shook as more people took to climbing. If my mind hadn’t been made up before… I clicked the blade forward on the Infidel and cut the rope on the flagpole, dropping the flag to me in an instant. I cut it from the rope, stowed the knife, and shoved the flag in my satchel in a ball. Where to go now? Back on the floor meant a firefight. I could stay up here and play Whackamole with climbers.
I stood, looked around for options, somewhere to go.
There. The angles played in my head and worked. I took two steps back until my heel hung off the edge, ran forward and jumped. If I missed this like I’d missed the bridge, this would truly be an ignoble way to die.
My fingers hooked onto the edges of an I-beam, and I swung to-and-fro, nearly wrenching my grip loose. I concentrated the whole of my being, all my will into the pressure of my sweating fingers against the dusty metal.
I didn’t drop.
I swung a hand to the other side, and reached forward, then reached again. Hand over hand, I moved along the beam, my feet hanging over customers and displays and empty space. My muscles burned with the exertion, holding myself up, reaching, hauling myself forward, flexing and stretching and swinging again and again. What choice did I have? I kept going.
I reached the end and reached up grabbed the iron railing in an iron grip and hauled myself up onto the third floor, dropping to a crouch on the hewn plank floor of the walkways that ringed the building.
Below I heard a shout of “She’s got the flag!” and then feet began hammering the stairs up. They didn’t have a chance.
I threw the flag down on the ground, stretched it out, and then pulled Austen’s Droid. It powered on and stared at me with a red eye. I touched the camera icon and snapped a picture of the QR code. A progress bar began to fill, and I set the phone on the floor, rotated the Vanquisher around on its sling, brought it up to my shoulder with shaking hands.
The progress bar was loading slowly while the footsteps got closer. I had a feeling that if I got shot before it loaded, I didn’t get the money. I didn’t know for sure, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
A hairline appeared above the top step I was crouched before, and I fired. They didn’t stop right away, and their movement drew a strip of wet from forehead to navel. I grabbed the phone and backed up, firing the Vanquisher one-handed at the group rounding the steps from the lower level. I played it back and forth over them, and then dashed farther down the walkway.
Someone with a watergun was coming down the walkway towards me at a high rate of speed and I turned side on to them while throwing up water one handed. With the phone in the other hand, I couldn’t get my usual stead grip. Something must’ve hit them, because they quit running and turned back. I leaned against the railing, chest heaving as I sucked in air. “C’mon, dammit!”
The phone beeped and I held it up. The screen displayed a guy seated at a desk. He was wearing a white linen shirt, sunglasses and a red leather cap. “Congratulations on winning the twenty twelve Denver YouSoak compete – oh. Oh no. Not you again.”
I grinned. “I been meaning to ask you. Linux fan?”
“How much insurance money do I owe because of you?”
I tried to think back. The last four hours and change had all blurred together. “I…I don’t think any, but I didn’t exactly leave a lot of happy people behind me.”
“There’s not exactly a happy person in front of you.”
He typed something on the computer keyboard. It mixed with the sound of feet hammering floorboards to my left. I looked over to see a group running up the steps I’d guarded briefly.
“Do I need to do anything more to win? ‘cause there’s a whole acre of people coming who think they’ve still got a chance.”
“You’re good. Just hand them the phone if they ask any questions. Which I have to ask about. You’re calling from Austen Vaet’s phone. Not technically a problem since you’re on a team together, but…?”
“Apparently Windows phones don’t have memory card slots.”
“With the regularity you win these things, you might want to consider that with your next phone purchase.”
“Who’s bank account do you want the funds transferred to?”
“Mine’s good. I’ll split it with Austen.”
If I could’ve seen his eyes behind the glasses, I would swear that was disapproving, untrusting look he’d just shot me.
The group from below approached, guns up, wary at the sight of a competitor leaning against a railing, talking on the phone, taking a breather. I don’t think they knew what to do. I held the phone out. “Too late guys, I won.”
I couldn’t see Bob on the screen as it was away from me, but I heard him say, tinnily “That’s right, Samantha won fair and square. But thank you for playing. We appreciate your participation and I hope you had fun.”
I pulled the phone back to my view and held it up in front of me. Bob had to be getting the “Bourne Identity cam” version, the way my hands were still shaking.
Water lanced sharply into my side, cold wetness playing up and down my vest. I held the phone away again and flipped the shooter off. The rest of his team was retreating, but he played the blast up and down me until his pressure chamber gave out, and then he followed. I brought the phone back and wiped water from my face.
Bob tilted his head quizzically.
“Sportsmanship is overrated.”
“I gotta do anything else?” I was getting bored and wanted to find Austen.
“We’re finished. The money has been transferred to your account.”
“How much?” The uSoak literature had been vague as to the size of the pot, promising that it would be larger than any previous winnings.
Bob told me.
“Cool beans.” I didn’t let my excitement show on my face.
“Only you wouldn’t be bouncing off the walls excited,” Bob said.
I smiled. “Thanks.”
“Thank you, Sam. This day was a huge success, and you deserve your recognition and reward. Just…try to let someone else win the next one. Please?”
“Eh, maybe. See ya.”
“One more thing.” He practically shouted it before I had a chance to hang up.
“The same offer from last time still stand. Two grand extra to write up your experiences today. We got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of views after we posted the write up you did last year.”
“Cool. Yeah, I’ll do it. Might take me a few months, but I’ll get it to you.”
“Just…please try not to be as graphic as you were last time. We really had to edit that.”
“I’ll tell the truth. You can retell it however you like for two grand.”
I had a feeling he rolled his eyes at me. “Have a good day Samantha. Congratulations.”
The video call disconnected, and suddenly I was all alone, standing on the third floor walkway of a sporting goods store. The excitement of the day was over. And I was tired. My arms hurt with strain and sunburn, my legs hurt, my abs hurt – I looked down at where my bare stomach showed through the open vest – very scraped, very bruised. I wanted to fall into bed and not move for a good twelve hours.
I found Austen out on the patio, slouched in a wireframe chair, drinking an iced coffee, sunning himself while a big dark blue patch faded into the light blue of his shirt. Had to feel good to not move and drink something cold. We smiled when we saw each other.
Speaking of something cold to drink, I twisted the top off Pepsi I’d bought indoors and took a long gulp. That was good.
Austen stood. “We win?”
I pointed at his watermark, and then at my soaked vest and cargos. “What do you think?”
His face fell momentarily, and then returned to a soft smile. “It was fun though.”
I grinned big. “You are so easy. Yeah we won, some dumbass just shot me for the fun of it after.”
He was out of the chair in an instant, crushing me in a bearhug, lifting me up and spinning me around, laughing. “YOU JERK!”
I straightened my vest when he put me down, took another drink. “How much we win?” He asked.
“Well, we agreed to give Brett twenty five percent if we won, so…” I did the math in my head. “Somewhat north of twenty dollars each.”
“How much north?”
I told him.
Austen laughed maniacally, slammed a fist on the table, making it jump and nearly spilling his coffee. “Hot damn!” He wrapped me in another bearhug, spun in a circle.
“So what do you wanna do now?”
“Get the bikes, go back to the hotel, shower and sleep.”
“Sleep? How can you sleep? What do you want to go BUY?”
I backhanded him across the chest. “Dude, you’re sounding like a girl right now.”
He giggled. “I can’t help it, I want to go BUY SOMETHING!”
“Well, let’s go get the bikes, get cleaned up, and go shopping then. You know all of Sixteenth Street is a mall, right?”
A pedestrian bridge crossed the river over by the dead train cars, and we crossed there. Below, the river was artificially divided in half by a rock and concrete isle, the side closest to REI dammed and deep, the other side decidedly more shallow. People swam, floated, frolicked in the water, or sunbathed on the multi-level decks overlooking the water’s edge.
“I got a better idea than shopping,” Austen said. “C’mon.”
He led the way down the staircase to the concrete platform next to the water, sat down and, hopping, pulled off his boots before yanking his torn t-shirt over his head. I got a chance to see the damage the spiked fence had done to his back – three deep scores running the height of his shoulderblades.
“Dude, what about your back? This is still river water after all…”
He grinned, devil-may-care, and gestured at the small crowd either in the water or alongside it. “I guarantee you none of these people are gonna get sick.” And with that, he slid in and extended his arms, rolling his neck in a stretch. “Damn, that feels good.”
He backed further into the water, leaving me space to get in. “C’mon, the water’s warm.”
I smiled, sat and removed my shoes, and then stood and shrugged out of my vest, pushed my pants down and stepped out of them. Austen looked me up and down as I undressed, a grin tugging at one corner of his mouth. I was wearing a swimsuit and it was relatively modest, but it showed more skin than some. I liked that grin of his. “Catch me!” I jumped at him.
He caught me and seemed I didn’t make any attempt to stand. He didn’t make any attempt to put me down. “You OK?” He asked quietly.
“Your stomach’s all torn up and your side is black and blue…”
“That jump earlier, and a fight last week. I’m fine.”
“Good.” He dropped, pulling me under the water with him. When we came up, he was laughing and I was spluttering, hacking, trying to get my breath back. I pushed out of his arms, got my feet under me.
“I can hurt you!” There was no malice in my words.
“But you don’t want to, do you?”
“Right now, just a little, yeah.”
He put up his fists in a mock boxer’s stance. “Hit me with your best shot!”
“Oh, you don’t want to say that…”
I shuffled my feet on the flat, concrete riverbed. Obviously this had been intended as a swimming area, a floor had been poured. The water was pec high, and nobody else seemed to be in danger of drowning due to the depth. Running wasn’t easy in water, nor was jumping, but I pushed through and jumped at him, hooking the back of his neck and wrapping my legs around his waist.
“This doesn’t seem like your best shot, but I ain’t complaining…” He said, his hands rising to my sides to hold me. I looked down at him, reached across to grab his wrist, then let go of his neck and tilted backwards. My upper body submerged, and I grabbed his ankle, hugging it to my shoulder while simultaneously levering his leg back with my hip. We crashed into the water with a splash that raised spray. I let go of him immediately and stood. He took a few seconds longer to right himself, shaking wet hair out of his face and rubbing his eyes.
“Ok, yeah. I think you could hurt me.” He laughed.
“I don’t really want to.”
“Hey kid, walk on!” Austen pointed at the deck, and a kid who’d been nosing around our clothes and waterguns ran off.
I bobbed through the water to the deck, and hauled myself out. I sat on the edge, balling up all the clothes. Austen stared at me all the time, and I grinned at him. With clothes and shoes in one hand and my bag in one hand, I slipped back in and pushed through the water to the isle. I tossed the stuff up on the thin stretch of land where a few adults lay sunbathing.
“There, no one’s gonna mess with the stuff now. Race you to the dock?” I pointed at the dock below REI.
Austen didn’t even respond, just ducked under the water and started stroking forward, arms slicing through the surface, feet kicking powerfully.
“HEY! NO FAIR!” I shouted and swam after him.
He won, predictably. With that head start and my bad shoulder, it was no contest. We bobbed at the edge of the dock, hands on the concrete, mostly floating in the warm water. I made a wide circle with my left arm, attempting for the millionth time to coax more feeling into it. “Race you back to our stuff?” I asked.
I didn’t let him respond before kicking off the wall and powering through the water.
He still beat me. He occasionally looked up. My path collided me with a family.
Austen was sitting on the concrete edge of the isle by the time I got there, and he offered his hand. I took it and he hauled me out of the water, and then sprawled back on the hot stone, pulling me down next to him. I arched my back and shoulders to get the cramps out from the fast swimming and then closed my eyes against the white hot sun burning above.
A few minutes later, Austen tapped me on the shoulder. I opened my eyes and rolled my head left. “Yeah.”
“Doing anything tonight?”
“I dunno, why?”
“Let’s go eat somewhere.”
I considered this, putting a look of mock concentration on my face. “I want to go some place fancy.”
“I can do that.”
“The wine list needs to be at least two pages, the food has to be unpronounceable, and they absolutely cannot tolerate laughing.”
He looked at me, absolutely shocked. “Serious?”
“Absolutely not. Coyote Ugly again?”
Austen snorted. “As long as you don’t choke anybody out.”
“I’ll make an attempt.” I paused. “You mind horribly if I wear the same dress that I wore last night? I like that one.”
He laughed. “It’s up to you, but I don’t mind.”
I rolled to my stomach, letting the sun bake my back. I liked lying next to someone. My eyes closed, I could feel myself drifting off after just a few seconds. It felt like I was melting into the stone I was so relaxed.
I cracked an eye, looked at Austen. “Yeah.”
“Thanks for today. This was fun.”
I reached out and put my hand on his shoulder. “It was.”