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uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Mon Apr 23, 2012 12:14 am
I leaped off the bridge, slicing into the slimy river water, the impact taking away my hiss of profanity. I kicked to the surface and shown my flashlight around My heart fell as the Surefire illuminated a branch drifting in the current, a messy collection of weeds and trash.
My fingers brushed over the back of the massive dollhouse and my breath left me as the flashlight showed me a nursery, the miniature crib dwarfed by the head of a recently cut rose.
Bones cracked as Keith flung me bodily across the rooftop aisle of the parking garage to crash into a concrete wall. He was bloodied but unstoppable. I was bloodied and crawling.
I limped back across the Walnut street bridge, hand pressed to the hole in my thigh, river water dripping off my face like tears, my chest filled with an emptiness that somehow managed to radiate crushing sadness to every atom of my being.
I rolled over in bed and stretched, opened my eyes. White pillow, brown headboard. I kicked the sheets off and savored the feel of air against my bare skin. Not that it was much cooler than being covered.
What idiot hadn’t turned on the AC?
Oh yeah, that’d be me. The slight ache behind my eyes told me I hadn’t been thinking much too clear when I’d gotten back to the room last night.
Partying with a fake ID at Coyote Ugly will do that to you.
I sighed and rolled over to face the ceiling. Nightmares again. Memories, more like. The two concepts were closely related. Just one more scar that I carried away from last August.
I pushed it to the back of my mind and tried to think of what I was going to do today. Walking seemed like it carried a high probability of happening.
Knocking interrupted my wandering mind, and I rolled my head to the left. Past the chairs, past the floor lamp. There was the door. Heavy mahogany, brushed steel locks.
I rolled off the bed, my feet starting to itch as soon as they hit the almost industrial carpet. I took a step and realized I was in no state of dress, much less a state of dress to greet guests. I tugged the sheet off the bed and wrapped it around myself a couple of times, tucking it under my armpits like a bath towel.
Putting my eye to peephole in the door showed me that the knocker wasn’t room service come to put a mint on my pillow. I sighed and opened the door. Austen Vaet stopped, mid-knock, as I leaned against the frame. “Yeah,” I said.
“You know what time it is?”
“Too early,” I growled.
“Your brother’s already on his way to that internship, so it’s your job to entertain me.”
I just glared at him.
“That is why you drove all the way here, isn’t it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Today, Sammy. The contest. Remember?”
I hate that nickname. “Oh yeah… What time is it?”
“Starts in like an hour or so.”
“Dammit…” I straightened and walked back into the room. My bags were sitting by the window, and I stopped to take a look at the morning scene beneath me. The parking garage across the street was full of cars. Next to it the open air opera hall saw some use as a shortcut between streets. The road below bustled with walkers and cars and construction personnel, all hurrying under the acidic glare of the sun. Painfully bright. Across the rooftops, the Denver skyline practically shimmered with heat haze.
I crouched carefully so as not to lose my hold on the sheet, and rummaged through my duffelbags, gathering clothes.
“I think you should wear this,” Austen said. I looked over my shoulder to see him sitting on the bed, proffering the black dress I’d worn to the party last night.
“Can’t really run too well in that,” I replied.
He raised his eyebrows in a shoulder-less shrug.
I stood, my hands full of clothes. “Back in a few.” I walked into the bathroom and locked the door behind me.
The reflection in the mirror took me by surprise, as it always does. After the events of last summer, I’d felt the need to make a break with the past, so I’d cut my hair. Cut it to chin length myself, and hadn’t done much besides maintenance since. It was wavy and tangly all the time and I didn’t care. I could look in the mirror and not automatically be reminded of standing in front of a hotel room mirror in Green Bay Wisconsin. That was all that mattered.
I carried a couple other mementos from that summer. A thick line of scar in the middle of my right thigh – after getting released from the hospital, I’d tried to treat the gash caused by the broken glass embedded there by my trip through a church window, and ended up with a serious infection. Two half-moons were permanently marked in my right forearm, courtesy of my fight with an insane man named Keith.
I rotated my left arm through a few wide circles. That same fight had left me with nerve damage in my shoulder, a constant feeling of tingling weakness. The arm and joint were as strong as ever though – the competitor I’d choked into unconsciousness in last week’s cage fight hadn’t been able to tell I’d ever been hurt.
“How do I look?” I asked Austen when I stepped out of the bathroom a few minutes later.
“Hot. And not like it is outside.”
“Thanks awfully.” My only concession to the upcoming contest was a two-piece swimsuit, mostly hidden under black cargo pants that rode low like I was wearing an old-west gunbelt, and a dark olive green vest that I left unbuttoned. Ventilation was the order of the day, and I liked the look the outfit conveyed. Combined with the Ray Bans and heavy boots, I looked positively thuggish.
“You’re ready already?” Austen asked, surprised.
“I can go back in and play Angry Birds on my phone if you want me to take longer.”
He snickered. “My experience, a woman says ‘a few minutes’ it means pull up a chair and find a football game that’s just started.”
“That’s idiotic,” I said. “No one needs to take longer than ten minutes to get ready to go anywhere.”
He gave me a weird look as we walked out the door. “Preach it sister.”
I’d actually locked the door when I remembered the one thing I never go anywhere without. “Hang on, I’ll be back momentarily.”
I unlocked the door and went back in. My satchel was sitting on the corner desk, and I slung it, thought about it, and dropped the Touchpad it contained on the table. Wouldn’t need it, didn’t want the weight
Its other contents I did want. In another attempt to distance myself from the previous summer, I’d shelved nearly everything I’d carried for that painful twelve hours. New tech, new toys, new me. The knife was a Benchmade Infidel, not a thousand dollar Sandshark. The flashlight was Elzetta, not Surefire. The Cav Arms medkit had gone the way of the dodo and I’d built one instead. The phone was Nokia Windows, not the beater flip I’d carried for years. I’d traded one Vortex for another, and now carried a VMX3 magnifier. Dad’s little gift was the only constant, it went everywhere the bag went, which went everywhere I went.
I rejoined Austen in the hallway and relocked the door. “Breakfast first?”
He shrugged. “I already ate, but yeah, if we got the time.”
The halls and walls of The Curtis hotel were muted pastels, cones of soft light shining from the ceiling to illuminate the posters covering the walls of each “themed” floor. The theme for this floor seemed to be “eclectic.”
I murmered a Spanish “Good day” to the janitor as we passed, and he returned it enthusiastically. Glad I think that someone was speaking to him in his first language. We waited by the elevator door, and I fidgeted as the car rose to meet us. It wasn’t that I was nervous, I don’t think. I just haven’t spent a day hanging out with JUST a guy in a long time.
Especially one that I didn’t know too well. I’d planned to get to know Austen a lot better once college started, but…it wasn’t that I’d lost interest…things were just different after last summer.
The lobby, thirteen floors lower, looked like the entrance to a nightclub. Some sort of retro nightclub. The décor was big and bold, pastels and brown, muted lights and muted colors. The windows were tinted to darken the atmosphere, but they did nothing to hold back the acidic light from outside. I led the way, and we walked past the legion of suited employees and out onto the street.
The Raybans fought the sunlight, but it was still overwhelmingly bright. I blinked behind the shades, letting my eyes adjust. To the right was the giant performing arts center. Left was the hustle and bustle, dirt and grime of the downtown streets.
I’d noticed a small café on the lower level of the performing arts center, and I motioned Austen along. Past the corner bar and across the street, and we were nearly under the awning. The building consisted of several opera houses joined together, an arched canopy protecting passerbys walking from one to the other, or just generally cutting through. There was a little café cut into the base of one of the massive buildings, and it looked like they were open. I needed food.
Austen stayed out at a sidewalk table while I went inside and ordered. The place was specifically designed to look like a nineteen fifties greasy spoon, right down to the corrugated metal and neon design elements, and the retro posters on the walls. Even the seat covers were pink leather.
I ordered and stood at the bar while the frazzled middle-aged woman behind the counter got everything ready. The windows were of course tinted, but the sunlight cut right through. I took a moment to look over Austen without him knowing. It used to be I saw something, and I went for it. I didn’t fall into the stereotypical female behavior of dicking around on something, getting emotional, arguing in circles and against myself…I went after it and either won or lost. And if I saw something I wanted, I usually won it.
Now…what did I see? Austen, his rangy frame slouched in a wireframe chair, squinting pensively into the sun while a hot breeze shifted his dark, shaggy hair and tugged at his blue t-shirt.
Now…what did I want?
I registered sound, and looked over my shoulder to see that frazzled woman pushing a plate at me. I grabbed it, dug in my bag for money, and tossed a twenty on the counter.
Austen just stared at me while I ate. Shoveled was more like it, scrambled eggs and ketchup, hash browns, and lots of buttered toast. I pulled my little med-kit out of my bag, sorted through it for Tylenol, and threw it back with the orange juice. Between that and the starch, I had a pretty good start on clearing out that head-ache.
“What’s up with you?” Austen asked, breaking into my noisy enjoyment of the food.
“Like myself a traditional breakfast,” I said, raising the glass. “Cheers.”
He just stared at me with an expression that read “I’m waiting, dumbass.”
“As in what happened last night.”
I stared back. “You were there, you saw.”
“Some businessman in a suit grabbing your butt warrants a slap or a drink in the face. You put him in an are-en-cee and bounced his head off a wall. Damned lucky three people not me or your brother heard him say he was gonna follow you home, or you’d be in cuffs right now.”
“I’m sensitive?” I offered.
He snorted. “Like hell you are. Those sunglasses aren’t completely opaque, Sammy, I can see your eyes.”
“Yeah. You’re looking at me like I’m a thing, not a person. Just like you’ve looked at everyone since we all met up the other night. You’ve figured out six different ways to kill me just sitting at this table.”
I stayed silent. There was no response to that. I ate more hash browns.
“Your brother told me what happened.”
I looked up, with haste. “What’d he tell you?”
“You nearly got killed last summer and – “
I snorted. “Not hardly.”
“Hurt bad enough that you called nine one one. Hurt bad enough that they found you unconscious and bleeding in a bathtub. What was the total extent of your injuries? Internal bleeding, serious concussion, skull fracture, broken ribs, nerve damage in your arm…and that doesn’t include all the minor crap you did to yourself earlier that day, or the entire bottle of Jack Daniels you drank.” He paused, probably winded from recounting the damage Keith had inflicted on me.
“I didn’t make that call,” I said by way of rebuttal.
He flipped me the bird. “Someone did and you were the only one there. But that’s not the point. You ever think of talking to someone, getting some help? You were the victim of a serious crime. That can change a – “
“You really think I have post traumatic stress disorder?” I practically shouted it at him. “Terrific. I’ve never even been to Afghanistan, how would I pick that up?”
Austen just stared at me. I stared back, unwavering in my obstinacy. Eventually, a hint of a smile tugged at his face, and he shook his head, sat up straighter. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
“I guess the point I was getting around to – besides the fact that you should probably talk to someone about getting your headspacing adjusted – is that I don’t want to be running around today with someone who’s gonna go off the reservation at a moment’s notice.”
“I will. I’ll do crazy, stupid, irresponsible, self-destructive stuff. I gotta go ‘off the reservation’ to win, I will. You got a problem with that…” I let my voice trail off, the encouragement to walk away implicit.
Austen ran his hands over his face. “Wonderful.”
“It’s me.” I grinned ruefully.
He stood. “Then I probably should spend the rest of the day watching that Showtime Weeds marathon in my airconditioned hotel room, while you spend the day running around in hundred degree heat.”
“Then again…what the hell.”
I gathered up my plate, silverware, and glass and stood as well. “That’s the spirit.” I returned everything to the frazzled woman inside – there were no customers besides me, why was she frazzled? – and headed back outside.
“Given your penchant for doing ‘crazy stupid, irresponsible, self-destructive stuff’ I probably shouldn’t show you this,” Austen told me as we crossed the street back to The Curtis.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“You’ll see.” We ducked into the shade of the built in parking garage, and followed the sloping concrete floor down. The lights were greenish, and the floor was almost slippery with a combination of polished wear and condensation.
“I’m parked over there,” I said, pointing across the first level.
“Yeah, but we’re one down.”
“This” was a pair of motorcycles. “You know how to ride a sportbike?” Austen said, a trace of unease in his voice.
“Oh yeah.” The grin was apparent in my voice.
“Then we’ll use these. Good gas mileage, maneuverable, and separate.”
“What, I don’t get to ride with you?” I said with a hint of a pout.
I could tell from the flick of his eyes in my direction he was thinking about me sitting on the back of the bike, my arms wrapped around him. I liked knowing I had that effect.
“You get to use your brother’s,” he continued. “Suzuki Hayabusa. VERY powerful. It will get away from you if you let it.” He threw the keys, and I caught them, gave them a quick once over, and pocketed them. The bike they belonged to was sleek, angular, looking almost like a dagger with wheels.
Austen smiled. “My baby.” He patted the other bike, a more traditional looking cycle with exposed machinery and an angry demeanor. “Harley Night Rod. I keep telling your brother, if you’re gonna get a cycle, its gotta be a Harley.”
“Good to know you’re not too self-destructive. Both up in my room.”
I checked my phone. “We’re closing in on the intro. Let’s go upstairs, you get the helmets, I’ll get my guns, we’ll get this show on the road.”
The lower level elevator – which played really annoying nineties girl-pop - took us up to the back of that retro lobby. We waited in front of a bank of elevators, people milling around. Most of these people were here for the competition. I wondered how many I would see later on.
The doors dinged open, and I pulled Austen aside, letting the car fill before the two of us stepped in. Most of the buttons were already lit on the control panel. I pushed “thirteen” and the doors slid shut.
The Latino guy in the Broncos jersey standing next to me stretched past and punched another button. I looked over at him. “How’s it going?” Making conversation.
He shrugged. “Mezzo mezzo. You?”
I tilted my head, a shoulderless shrug.
Austen and I nearly sprinted down the hallway to the stretch of rooms the three of us had rented. People were now up, moving around, quite a few of them drawn by the competition. I dipped my keycard into the lock at my door and stepped into my room. Still hot. There was a pile of bags below the window. Most of them were leather duffels. One was a green canvas army bag.
I unzipped it and pulled out the contents. One Vanquisher. One Triple Shot. Both filled last night in a pleasant, Crown induced haze. Two 16oz water bottles, purchased from a vending machine somewhere in the maze of streets I w’dalked to get back to my room.
The bottles and the pistol went in my bag. The rifle got slung over my shoulder.
Here we go again.
Austen was just stepping out of his next-door room as I pulled the door shut. He handed me a helmet, solidly weighted, glossy black reflecting the muted lights and soft colors. A red Spartan brush ran down the centerline. My eyebrow rows from behind the Ray Bans. He held his up. The brush was blue. “Your brother’s idea.”
A quick trip down to the third floor in that brushed metal elevator car, and we filed out into a hallway full of people. Tables lined the walls, vendors standing behind them watching over their wares. The crowd seemed stuck in quicksand between the tables, moving slow, holding in place, conversing or looking at the goods.
The noise level was approaching “ruckus.”
“What do you think I should get?” Austen asked, his voice a near-shout in my ear. I shrugged to indicate the rifle on my shoulder. “This.” I shrugged the other shoulder to draw his attention to the butt of the pistol poking out of the satchel. “And this.”
I turned side-on to the crowd and shouldered over to the nearest table, Austen following in my wake. This table was covered in those dumb pump-action might-as-well-be-syringe waterguns that parents buy for their kids on big sandwich board cards at Walgreens and get filled with sand because the little cretins don’t know any better. I shuddered at the thought and wended my way through the throng to the next table.
This was more like it. Bigger guns, soakers that could actually throw some liquid around. I pointed at the spread. “Buy something. Mine are called a ‘Vanquisher’ and a ‘Triple Shot’ if you just wanna get copies.”
“Thanks.” He turned to look at the table, scratching his chin. I shrugged and headed towards the conference room door.
I knew the drill from last time. Get your picture taken, give them your cellphone number, sign away your right to sue them, promise to behave… pretty standard stuff. This time I had to hand over a check from my checkbook, and there were a few paragraphs about property damage that I didn’t remember from last time. I smiled at the memory.
Austen started the intake process just as I was finishing up, and I waited for him just inside the conference room. There were enough people in here that if I sat down, he’d never see me again.
“What’d you get?” I asked as we found chairs. He had a rifle slightly bigger than mine hanging from a sling by his side. “It’s called an Expedition. Cost a pretty penny.”
“Yeah, they do.”
“Pistol like yours.” He patted his cargo pants where the heavy water pistol rode in a side pocket like a drop-leg holster.
“You’ll like it, it’s worth the money.”
“Shhhh now.” He pointed at the stage.
Bob was walking across it.
Did this guy own no other clothes? Sneakers, jeans, linen shirt, red hat, sunglasses. Or was that like…a uniform…for these events?
I’d met Bob and probably given him several small heart attacks when I won the last uSoak even last August. He’d presented then, and had been the VIP in an escort challenge during the last two hours of the game. He’d not been a fan of my “win at all costs” methods, but had signed over the check that had paid for my Mazda nonetheless.
I raised my hand as he adjusted his Bluetooth headset, waved wildly. Bob didn’t notice at first. When he did, I could see his face fall. He actually took a step backwards. Pinching the bridge of his nose over the sunglasses, he shook his head, regained his composure, and began talking.
I rolled my eyes. This was going to be boring. I fished the earbuds out of my satchel, plugged them in, and started blasting the latest from Gaga.
When watching Bob walk around the stage and gesture to a dance-pop-from-a-post-op soundtrack got boring, I started flipping through web pages, hitting the blogs, doing my clothing research. I had to stay in Vegas to go to design school, couldn’t follow my brother’s footsteps out to Cali. Kinda funny, the two guys in the family head to opposite sides of the country, the only girl stays local. The fact that I don’t fit stereotypes makes that just hilarious to me.
So engrossed was I in the series of tubes that I didn’t even notice people standing up until Austen nudged me with his knee. “Time to go.”
I stood, gathering the rifle from the floor, and put my headphones and phone back in my bag. I looked up again just in time to see Bob cut through the crowd in my direction.
“Aw shit,” I muttered.
“Samantha Callaway,” he said. “You again.”
I grinned. “Yeah, me again.”
“Ruining one of my events wasn’t enough?”
“You didn’t object enough not to sign that check over to me. Couldn’t have ruined it too bad.”
He rubbed his face like he was trying to erase the remains of a bad nightmare. “The only reason you got the check was because it was too late in the game to stop you, there was no one left, you’d ‘killed’ them all.” He put “killed” in finger quotes and still managed to make it sound morbid. Bob looked at Austen. “You with her?”
Austen nodded. “Yeah.”
“Do you truly comprehend the level of trouble you are opening yourself up to? Really?”
Austen grimaced. “I think I’m starting to.”
Bob looked me square in the eyes, as much as the sunglasses would allow. “You’re the reason we shortened this game from eight hours to four. Contestants can’t do nearly the damage in half the time. We’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
“I’m sure you will.”
He cast one disapproving glance over his shoulder before disappearing into the crowd.
“What’s that guy’s problem?” Austen asked, an eyebrow raised.
“I ruined a Green Bay Packers luxury box and made his insurance rates go up. He bought me a car in return.”
I looked around at the throngs of people. “Let’s get to the bikes before the main event starts.”
Instead of squeezing into the already packed elevators, we took the stairs, descending round and round through the depressingly boring concrete tube. It spilled out into the little elevator lobby in the parking garage that brought us up to the main lobby.
“How are we going to communicate?” Austen asked, tapping his helmet.
“How do you guys do it on the road?”
He snorted. “One of us speeds ahead and motions the other over?”
“You got a Bluetooth cricket?”
“Yeah, who doesn’t?”
vWe crossed to the bikes. I cinched the rifle sling closer, rotating the gun so it road tight across my back. I put my sunglasses in my bag, took out and put on a pair of leather gloves, clipped the cricket over my ear and activated it, dialed Austen’s number, and then dropped the helmet on over my head.
The world constricted to just me in a fishbowl, a not-overly-large window keeping me from complete blindness. I flipped up the shaded visor and the color adjusted to normal. A shake of my head assured me that the helmet fit decently well. Crashing wouldn’t be fun, but I’d survive, probably.
I took a breath and turned the key in the ignition. The engine revved in a machine-gun stutter that turned into a whine, and I looked across at Austen. We must both look ridiculous in these Spartan helmets. His bike roared to life, dropping down into an ominous hum.
“Can you hear me now?” His voice projected directly into my brain.
I walked the motorcycle out of the parking spot and then pulled my feet up. Just like riding a bike, it all came back to me. Hell, it WAS riding a bike.
The parking garage was a bunch of underground lots connected by ramps, all cycling back up to the surface. We drove around and around, up and up, until the incline stopped and the darkness gave way to daylight. I stopped at garage doorway, half in sun, half in shade. Austen stopped next to me. “Where to go?”
“Waiting for instructions.”
No sooner had I said it than the cricket beeped in my ear, and incoming call wanted to intrude into our conversation.
I said: “Answer.”
I thought: “Here we go again.”
Re: uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Mon Apr 23, 2012 7:05 am
Wow, what a story for a first post. I'm assuming this is just part 1 of a series. Looking forward to reading the rest. Welcome to WWN!
Re: uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Mon Apr 23, 2012 3:50 pm
Why is this on here and not at Barns and Noble for 20 bucks? This is amazingly well written, I can tell it is going to be some battle! Can't wait for part 2!
Re: uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Mon Apr 30, 2012 12:05 am
The following takes place between 10AM and 11AM
The voice was male, pleasant. He said “The clocktower” and then disconnected. I shook my head, and was immediately reminded of the unfamiliar weight of the helmet encasing it. Austen’s voice echoed through my head. “Where are we going? What did they say?”
“Something about a clock tower.”
“You didn’t see the clock tower?”
“No, should I have?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a landmark. I’ll lead.”
I hate following, but I had no idea where I was going, so I really didn’t have a choice.
He roared out of the tunnel, hanging a left on the sunny street, and I did a same, trailing. The light at the intersection was red, and we stopped. Impatience and anxiety tugged at my brain. I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING.
That “something” manifested as a stream of people with waterguns poured out the front door of The Curtis, scattering in different directions. I could see the action and the approaching crowd in my rear view. Fights broke out as the crowds moved. Multiple objectives, that would split up the competition. Good.
I waited until the fastest group got parallel to me, and then I dipped my hand into my satchel, pulled the Triple Play, and blasted the whole sidewalk in one long sweep. The light turned, and we were moving again, leaving behind five soaked players who had no idea what the hell had happened.
“Chalk up five for me,” I said into my helmet.
I recognized the building on our left, the Denver Federal Reserve. I could see the private security agents patrolling the parking lot with their German Shepherds and M4 rifles. Probably necessary since they had thirty million dollars in a glass case just inside the door, but very few other corporations get to play with automatic weapons on US soil…
Austen slowed to a stop for a bus that was crossing a tiled street. The whole length of the road running perpendicular to ours was paved in dark but muted tiles. Trees sprung from planters set into the middle of the street, and tables – some for eating, some for chess – were scattered about in the shade. People sat, stood, walked, biked. completely unhindered by traffic except for the occasional public transpo bus or – far down the road – the occasional horse and buggy.
“Let’s circle around,” Austen said. “We gotta take a left and you can’t drive on this street.”
“You can’t,” he responded, an edge of wariness creeping into his voice.
“Dammit Sam! You – “
I took the left and sped ahead, as fast as was advisable in a pedestrian area. No one seemed to mind. I kept to the side of the road, away from the more populated central line containing the benches and tables. Across the broad street, a wide concrete patio stretched the length of the curb, even more tables set out for the glass-fronted restaurants the lined the deck. Massive umbrellas shaded the tables, but with this heat, all they did was keep you from sunburning, not from sweating.
Up ahead I saw the clocktower that the voice had referred to. Stretching towards the sky, sitting right at the corner of a grassy park, it had the blocky look of an industrial building from the fifties or sixties, though the ornamentation around the upper windows hinted at a more interesting past.
I checked the rear view mirror, saw Austen a few yards behind me. I could picture his disapproving grimace behind the mirror black of the helmet. My attention returned to the world ahead of me, and on pure instinct I flicked the bike right, through an unoccupied hole in the center of the mall. A table brushed my leg in passing, and then I was through the line of trees and furniture and in the other lane. The bike took the curb with just a slight bump, popping up onto the sidewalk. “Samantha, I swear to – dammit!”
I smiled ruefully at the voice in my ear, and dropped off the curb a few yards from where I’d ridden up on it, crossing the street in front of the cars putting on the brakes at the stoplight. My little maneuver had put more distance between me and the crowds behind us. I popped up on another curb and rode the bike a few yards onto the grass before shutting it down and deactivating it in what felt like one motion.
My right hand dropped the key into my satchel while my left yanked the sling on my Vanquisher, bringing it around to my front. I strode across the lawn, feet moving a measured cadence, arms tucked in, body bent over the back of the Vanquisher.
I was moving.
I was in an arena where I controlled the action.
I was in the ZONE.
Or maybe not.
A thick stream of water crossed my path, oddly colored through the tinted visor of the helmet. “To your right,” Austen said, his voice tight. I turned, Vanquisher leading, just in time to see a liquid bolt snap into the shooter’s chest and explode off his t-shirt in a cloud of mist.
“Got him for you,” Austen said. “We need to talk.”
“Later,” I replied. “I told you I did stupid stuff.”
There were vendors set up on the street sides of the tower, some sort of fried meat shop on one side, and a guy at a piano on the other. Closest to the meat stand, I strode over, gun still up. There were a few people waiting in line, and they backed up when they saw me. “Oh yeah…”
I pulled the helmet off with my left hand and let it hang. I could always one-hand the Vanquisher.
“Clue?” I asked, waving the water gun.
The proprietor looked up from flipping some small, unidentifiable meat patty and gave me a stare like I was nuts. “What?”
“I’m the Yousoak game. My first clue is ‘clocktower,’ do you have any idea what the next clue is?”
“Hey, lady, I’m in li – “ A middle aged woman in the crowd complained. I turned to and stared at her. Not a hostile stare. Not an unfriendly stare. Not a “I’m going to eat your kidney with fava beans and a nice chianti” stare. Just a stare. Just a stare that said I’m more important, don’t bother me.
“Oh yeah…” The owner’s voice trailed off. “Piano man around the corner has it. Coordinates or a telephone number or something like that.”
I walked out of the line I’d butted into without even a look back, and walked around the enormous planter on the corner. Austen was standing by the piano – tie-dyed a horrendous rainbow of colors – and he gave me a brilliant smile that quickly morphed into something more rueful as he realized he was supposed to be mad at me. “Got it!” He waved a piece of paper in the air.
I approached. “Well, what does it say?”
He pointed at the lawn we’d crossed. “Apparently there are fountains over there?”
“Why aren’t you running towards them?” I called back over my shoulder as I started sprinting. I could see the fountains from here.
I pitched my helmet at my parked bike. Didn’t need to be wearing it right now.
My fast stride ate up the green lawn of the park and popped beads of sweat from every pore on my body. Full sun and high temps. I thought Denver was supposed to be cold.
The grass gave way to a sand colored concrete amphitheater, steps descending into a bowl, the center of which was a fountain. Or rather: Many fountains. Dozens of blocks of that same sand-colored concrete jutted up from the ground, most of them overflowing sheets of water. Slim paths led between the pillars, channels for cut along each side to allow people to walk without getting their feet wet.
I stepped into the maze.
Close, confining, shaded. Finally, shade. I ran a hand through my hair and found it wet with sweat. Hadn’t even been outside that long.
I pushed the Vanquisher down on its sling and drew the pistol from my bag, knelt for just a moment to fill the tank in one of the channels. Holding it down low, I wove between the pillars.
I don’t know who was more surprised to encounter a fellow combatant, myself or the young woman I ran into. About my age, wearing shorts and a Broncos jersey, holding a mid-sized Super Soaker. The water gun was held at sort-of low-ready, and I stepped in close as she brought it up. She struggled for control of it, and I clinched, stepping closer and trapping it between us. With a twist and a shove, I angled us in the direction I wanted, and pushed her back against one of the pillars. Water cascaded over her, and for good measure, I brought the Triple Shot up with my other hand and fired it at her neck. I caught backblast from the explosion of mist, and it felt good.
Then I moved on.
I didn’t know what I was looking for. A piece of paper? Another one of those memory chips that they’d used last time? A chalk drawing?
Up top would provide a better vantage point.
On the outside of the forest of pillars, I stepped up onto one of the shorter blocks, then another taller block nearby. The next block was a few feet away, and significantly higher up in the air. I tucked the pistol back in my bag, looked around for trouble – none apparent – and jumped. I caught the edge with my fingertips and hung there for a minute. Looking down I gauged about a five to six foot drop. I pulled, an overhand pullup, and when I’d gotten enough of my body above the edge, I pushed up, seamlessly bringing myself to my knees on the block, and then to standing. I looked around. Most of the pillars were this height, and most were gushing water. I could hop from pillar to pillar like some kind of real life Mario Bros game, or I could…
The tallest of the pillars was not gushing water, and was not a far jump at all. Standing on top, I turned, scanning the terrain. Beautiful. One side of the park was shops, green awnings protruding above tinted glass doors set in the lowest level of an off-white almost colonial architecture building. Behind me was the clock tower and the lawn. The concrete jungle extended off on the other two sides, canyons of concrete and black glass rising up hundreds of feet in the air.
There. Written in chalk on the top of a pillar was a telephone number. I pulled out my phone, disconnected from Austen, and dialed the number. The same male voice answered. “Ramon, Yousoak.”
“Samantha Calloway. You’ve got a clue or directions or something for me?”
“Writer’s Square,” he said and then hung up.
“Could’ve been nicer,” I muttered.
Water arced past me, and I ducked, dropping the phone into my bag with my right hand, pulling the Vanquisher up from my side with my left so that by the time my hand was out of the satchel, the pistol grip was waiting. I swiveled in a crouch, trying to track where the shot had come from. The outside of the jungle of pillars, just on the outside edge.
I pulsed the trigger three times, hit him twice. No more threat. I turned to look back at the clock tower. Austen was waiting patiently by the bikes. So that’s where my backup was.
A quick look over the edge, and I absorbed the fall onto the concrete path with bent knees. I wove through the stone forest and started sprinting as soon as I was out. “Oops” I said, as I hurtled a homeless guy sleeping on the steps out of the amphitheater. Then it was a dead run back to the bikes.
“Writer’s Square,” I said breathlessly to Austen.
A quick glance around showed no active threats, and I pulled the map up on my phone. “That way.” I pointed down the street past the clock tower, away from the direction we’d come.
“Let’s go.” He pulled the helmet down and swung a leg over his bike. I held out my helmet. “While I’m there, can you run my helmet back to the hotel? I need peripheral vision and two hands free.”
He pulled his off. “You can run it back if you like. I ain’t gonna be responsible for you getting brain damage.”
“Austen.” I hardened my voice and my gaze.
I called him back so he could hear me swearing at him the whole ride back.
“Quite the pottymouth you’ve got,” he said with a chuckle after one blast of profanity.
“You’re wasting my time and risking money,” I growled into the headset.
“You’re risking your life, Sammy.”
I wove between the trees of the 16th street mall, hopped the curb in front of The Fed, and turned the corner. “I look like I give a damn?”
“I can’t see you, so I can’t tell.”
The light was green and I was crossing from the sidewalk anyway, so I just darted across the road. I jumped off the bike in front of The Curtis and ran in.
My fidgeting was positively manic as I waited in that 60s nightclub-esque lobby for the elevator to descend. Once inside and alone, I stabbed the button for my floor violently and then whirled and threw a punch into the corrugated metal wall. The boom must’ve echoed up and down the elevator shaft it was so loud. Pain blazed in my knuckles and I hissed through bared teeth. “Son of a bitch!”
I hate feeling useless. Helpless. I HATE waiting.
The floor was bathed in soft yellow light that was supposed to be soothing. Two seconds of standing in it and I was even more freaking aggravated. I sprinted for my room, dipped my card in the lock, took two long steps to drop the helmet on my bed, and slammed the door behind me. The wait for the elevator was even more aggravating than it was previously. I hopped from foot to foot, burning off nervous energy, staring at the door like I was staring at an opponent I was about to fight.
I fit through the doors before they were barely even open and continued hopping as the elevator car descended.
Arms pumping, rifle and bag banging against me, I dashed through the lobby and nearly tipped the bike over – still there, thank goodness – in my haste to get on it. I stabbed the key in the ignition and burned out, spinning the bike around and speeding into the street. Intersection was clear and I hung a left at the corner by the Federal Reserve, speeding past that spiked fence and the machine gun guards. I darted across Arapahoe, moving with but much faster than the traffic. Statue on the right announced Skyline Park – wait, wasn’t that where I just was? – and then I was speeding past some black glass monstrosity that looked like an alien monolith.
The building passed in a moment, and I didn’t even bother to slow down for the red at Lawrence Street. I just blew through, horns fading instantly behind me. Writer’s Square, up here and to the…right. Condos, luxury apartments, whatever they were, to the right large angular living spaces sat elevated above boutique shops and restaurants and…was that a burlesque club? Adobe colored brick made up the squat mall-type complex, contrasting sharply with the stately brick bank across the street, ornately ancient apartments just a few yards past that.
To the right, the shops slash apartments hybrid gave way to a courtyard, and I hung an unthinking turn, threading the needle between two parked cars. The tires bumped on the curb, and I was off the bike in an instant, pocketing the keys and ripping the Vanquisher around and up into my hands. Shaded tables cast islands of shadow on the hot white concrete, pink umbrellas overhead. Writer’s Square was pretty much deserted at this time of the morning, just a few artistes sitting around tapping on Apple products, enjoying coffee that was titled with so many syllables you nearly chipped a tooth ordering it.
I swept through and I’m pretty sure the aura of violence following in my wake caused their artfully manicured pencil moustaches to curl up in a defensive reflex.
The courtyard narrowed to an alley, zigzagging between the storefronts with doors open to the hot summer air. An odd collection of merchants, there was a smoke shop, a Subway, a mortgage firm, and one store that sold nothing but chocolate covered raisins. Bronze statues were set into the corners, and since the guy taking cover behind the half-a-nude-man-chipping-himself-out-of-granite display wasn’t Austen, I shot him. He shook his head, confused as to where the “killing” shot had come from, and then stood. “Watch out!” he shouted, and his shouting did no good, for I was already drilling a stream of water into his buddy’s side and chest as he turned to face me from behind a statue of a Native American woman.
Quick, decisive action. Not even a fight.
Whoa. Maybe a fight. Water streaked past my head, heading back the way I’d come. I strafed for a storefront, pressing myself against the glass, making my profile as thin a target as I could. Didn’t see my opponent, so I fired a scatter of shots towards the mouth of the alley and moved ahead at an angle and at a run, dropping in behind a circular metal rack full of last year’s fashions. I stared straight ahead into a particularly bad offender, and wondered why anyone had ever worn it.
“Sam? Is that you?”
I angled out from behind the clothing rack and peered down the alley. Austen, in a crouch behind a sculpture of three kids playing golf.
Scanning for threats, I stood. Sweat slicked my skin from the recent furious movement, and my heartbeat in my ears sounded like my running footsteps a moment ago. “Why were you shooting at me?”
“Didn’t know it was you.”
“Next time, confirm. You find the next clue?”
“Nah, got in a shootout with these yahoos. There were three more before you got here.”
“Good job.” I wasn’t even paying attention. I scanned the sides of the alley for writing. For boxes that might contain memory chips. For anything. “C’mon, start looking, we’re almost out of time.”
Austen gave me a weird look, shook his head, and jogged back down the alley, checking out the displays and storefronts.
I let the Vanquisher swing down to my side and pulled the pistol. While the rifle was fully pressurized it probably needed a refill. I walked slowly, sweeping every square inch of the alley with my eyes. I emerged onto the Sixteenth Street Mall, the big glass shopping and eating complex ahead. “Anything?” I asked the cricket.
“Nothing so far.” Austen replied.
Around me where abstract art sculptures, planter installations, benches, and fountains. I held my phone up and checked the screen. No GPS dot telling me where to go. Damn. The time said a couple minutes to the hour though. Not long. That didn’t make much sense though…there hadn’t been an hourly goal. Weird.
I’d figure it out when I found where I was to go next.
I started sprinting among the planters and benches. The few people – mostly elderly – that I passed looked at me like I was a disturbance. Back and forth, back and forth…they wouldn’t have buried a clue in one of the planters, would they?
I leaned on the railing next to a fountain to catch my breath. The vest was open and provided ventilation, but it wasn’t like there was cool air movement. Any movement was making me sweat. “Anything?” I asked again.
“Still nothing.” Austen’s voice was close, and I turned to see him sauntering over. He leaned on the railing at the base of the fountain, just a few feet away.
“Got any ideas?” I asked. I felt stupid. He sighed and looked back down the Mall.
“Besides keep looking, no I…”
He pointed over the railing. The fountain was five broad steps set into the slope of the concrete. Water sprayed skyward at the top, and then flowed down the steps to a grate at the bottom. The whole thing was surrounded by the railings we were leaning on. And right on the second to last step someone had arranged pennies in an arrow pointing across the street.
“That can’t be a coincidence,” Austen said.
“Yeah, probably not.”
Across the street was the big shopping center. “Tabor Center” the sign read. Restaurants on the bottom level, looked like shops on the second level. No busses were coming, so we walked across. Both of our phones beeped, and I checked mine. I had a new notification, and pulling it down revealed a glowing dot on a map of the street, just ahead. Unfortunately, I couldn’t zoom in any further. It was ahead, that’s all they were saying.
“We should split up, cover more ground,” Austen announced. “You wanna take the ground or second floor?”
My rock beat his scissors. “I’ll check the restaurants,” I said. “Give a call if you get into trouble. Not like last time.”
“I wasn’t in trouble.”
“Yeah yeah, whatever.”
Austen headed for the door to the second level mall, and I jogged down to the corner. A blue bucket sat right in the middle of the sunlit pavement. It’d probably all evaporated by now.
The reality was no, however, and I filled there.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned, staring across the top of the Triple Shot at some college kid wearing a reflective green vest over normal street clothes. He had a neck beard and tribal tattoos on his arms and he backed up. “Whoa…dude…hold on…” he drawled out.
I brought the water gun down and returned to filling. “What?”
“So…I’m like, from, Green Peace, and I was wondering…do you want to help save the tigers?”
I screwed the cap on the Vanquisher. “No, Charlie Sheen needs their blood.”
The Cheesecake Factory sat on the corner, the first of the string of restaurants, and it smelled REAL good as I walked in. Busy too, for this time of day.
Re: uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Sun May 06, 2012 11:42 pm
The following takes place between 11AM and 12PM
I wended my way through the tables, keeping my eye out for colored plastic. Didn’t see any. I approached the counter and waited for someone to step over, thinking I had an order. I tapped my fingers on the counter, growing impatient. “C’mon,” I growled under my breath. “C’mon.”
No one appeared.
So I hopped the counter. A one handed vault over the edge, and I headed towards the back of the restaurant. I got intercepted among the aisles of food preparation equipment by a blue-shirted employee. “What are you doing? You can’t be back here!” I looked the little woman up and down. “Yousoak?” I asked.
“You have a clue or something for me. Telephone number, directions, memory chip? Anything like a clue?”
“Jeremy!” The woman hollered, “We got a clue?”
A muffled voice answered from further back. I couldn’t tell what it said, but she could. “We don’t have a clue.”
In more ways than one.” I turned on my heel and walked out.
Two Yousoak participants were walking in. They’d just stepped through the door when they saw me approaching. It took them a second to process what they saw. They were checking me out because, well, because I’m me, and then they saw the watergun and their eyes widened and I angled the Triple Shot up from the satchel, shot the one on the left twice in the gut, stepped forward and turned while pushing the pistol up into eye level to shoot the one on the right three times in the chest. They were still fumbling to get their slung water cannons up into play by the time my finger had danced out its quick rhythm on the trigger.
I walked past them and out once more into the hot summer sun.
The salad place next door was much more pleasant. Dark, aged wood and soft, bland contrasting pastels gave it a slightly – and oddly – Asian feel, while the lush potted plants and unobtrusive but still audibly noticeable fountains reminded me more of a botanical garden than a restaurant just one pane of glass away from scorching heat. I pulled off my sunglasses, folded them and hung them from my swimsuit top. They banged in an irritating way against my abs as I walked, but it was dark enough that I didn’t want to be wearing them.
“Got anything for Yousoak?” I asked the clerk. He was a middle-aged guy who looked like he took pride in taking down your order perfectly. Working retail food service and he was as starched and pressed as a boardroom executive. Were those diamond cufflinks? Those were huge.
He cocked his head, quizzical. “Your pardon?”
“Yousoak, that contest that’s going on today.” I held up the Triple Shot. “With Super Soakers?”
He shook his head. “I apologize, but no. I’ve had a couple people in here asking though.”
“Thanks.” I smiled and headed out.
No shootout at the door this time, and it was just a few yards of weaving between outdoor tables and chairs to get to the door of the next restaurant. I looked up at the sign and smiled, and walked in. The pub’s theme was dim lighting, heavy furniture, sports memorabilia, and eye candy in short plaid skirts and tied-off white shirts. They said it was Scottish, I contend schoolgirl, but whatever works. I stopped in the doorway, searching the low-lit interior for anything like a watergun. The high backed booths didn’t offer much visibility, but I satisfied myself that that no one would be shooting at me from the tables.
“Table for one, or will company be joining you?” The server had walked in from the outside patio area, I assumed because she saw me standing there casing the joint.
“Not here to eat right now, sorry. You guys got anything for Yousoak?”
She shook her head. “You’re part of that?”
No, I’m carrying a kids’ toy around Denver because it’s my own personal Halloween. “Yeah. Got anything? I’m looking for clues to the next assignment.”
“That’s so cool!”
I’m not buying anything right now, you don’t need to try and sweet talk me. I waited.
After a moment, she shook her head. “You’ll have to talk with the bartender, I just got here.”
I smiled. “Thanks.”
The bartender was mixing something, his back to the bar, so I leaned on the counter, elbows on the cool wood. He turned, did a double-take at seeing someone where he wasn’t used to seeing them, and set the drink further down the bar in front of a businessman. Returning to me, he set his elbows on his side of the counter and leaned forward, mimicking my pose with a forest of beer taps in between. “Hey.”
He had an angular face and a disarming smile. A couple of years older than me, not too bad. They hire pretty people to work here for every position, I’ve found. “Hey.”
“Can I get you something? No, wait…let me guess…you like…something sweet, or with Red Bull.”
“Only when I’m gonna need a lot of energy. I was told you could help me, I’m looking for something for Yousoak? A clue to my next assignment?”
“Nah, nothing like that, sorry.”
“My pleasure.” Another disarming smile and he turned back to his work.
I walked out and stopped, gave my eyes a moment to readjust to the brightness. Maybe sunglasses would be a good –
A waterfight broke out across the street, combatants dancing around, water flying left and right, looking like silver in the sun. I pushed the Triple Shot into the satchel and pulled the Vanquisher up and into my hands. This was going to be fun.
I advanced on the fight, my footwork deliberate and paced. Halfway across the street I pulled the trigger on my first target. A little longer beam than I had intended lanced out and snapped into one fighter’s side. By the time he was looking for his assailant, I’d moved onto the next target. Click click click on the trigger and one center of mass hit, one glancing hit to the arm, and one miss. There was a “You are here” map of the downtown in a ten foot tall plastic frame between two planters in the middle of the tiled street and I broke for it, posting up along the side.
Shouting and shooting out of my sight, and I switched the Vanquisher to my left side, rotated out around the other side of the sign. It was dripping with water.
The teams had weeded themselves out while I was taking cover and transitioning. There was one left, and they were running for the Applebees next to the restaurant I’d just left. I didn’t bother to transition back, I just started sprinting after him. My feet pounded the marble tile, and I one-hand vaulted the waist-high fence surrounding their patio area. I landed perfectly, hit a deliberate stride, bent over the Vanquisher. Two shots to his back and two explosions of mist that rolled in droplets through the still air.
I sidestepped a table and inside. Again, low lighting, dark furniture, lots of prints on the wall – but movies not sports, and there was a distinct paucity of eye candy, female or male.
The bar was a circular piece of furniture in the center of the building, counterspace and barstools and cabinets hanging glasses above. There was a guy tapping away at a slider phone in the center, and he looked up as I approached. “Hey, what can I get for you?”
Seemed everybody thought I was older than I was, even if I wasn’t showing them my fake ID. I was ok with that. In ten years, I’d probably wish it was the opposite, but right now it was convenient.
He shook his head. “Had some people asking, but no. And watch the water, you start shooting paying customers, you’re leaving.”
“I’m leaving now.”
He returned to the phone, and I stalked out, scanning for threats. I’d stepped out of the shade and into the sun when I heard Austen in my ear. “A little help here?”
“Where?” All senses alert and go, if they hadn’t been before.
“In the mall, I don’t know where. I’ve never been here before.”
“Ok, I’ll be there soon.”
I sprinted for the doors Austen had walked through, working the Vanquisher’s pump to make sure I was ready for trouble. I stepped through the aquamarine glass doors and came face to face with a spiral staircase. My feet hammered the metal steps and looking up I saw the second level and an art deco sculpture hanging from the ceiling. On second thought, I didn’t know if it was art deco or not, but something that ugly and crazy can only be called art deco.
I swept up onto the second floor of the mall, and didn’t see any stores. There were no stores. How can you have a mall with no stores? All I saw were yellow pillared halls and a shoeshine bench.
A guy with a watergun walked out of a side hallway and my three shots were instinctive, requiring absolutely no thought. At this distance though, there wasn’t much in the way of accuracy. One blast caught though, left side of the abdomen. “Already out!” he shouted and headed the other way. Austen’s work maybe?
I turned the corner into that side hallway and found myself at the back of a bank. A huge bank. The tellers’ desks were an island in the middle of the vast blue-carpeted floor. At the edges of the room, doors led to – presumably – meeting rooms and conference areas and vaults. The room was ringed in pillars about ten feet out from the walls. Overhead, a skylight let in all the brightness but none of the heat of the day.
All of this I kenned in a moment as I paused at the threshold. It was only a pause though, only necessary so that I didn’t head into this hive of violence unaware. I couldn’t see Austen, but given that water was being traded between the pillars at the front of the bank, I could reasonably assume he was up there.
My boots thudded softly against the carpet as I strode for the front of the bank. As I was moving, Austen strafed out from behind a pillar, heading for the cover of the tellers’ desks, shooting all the time. I dropped down to a crouch by the counter to avoid taking friendly fire, and then his shooting stopped as he crouched on the opposite side. I rose and started moving again, fast for the front of the bank.
A woman stepped out from behind a pillar and I pulled the trigger, held it down long enough that we were connected for a brief time. By the time the tail end of the stream had snapped against her I was moving off on a different vector, having taken unaimed water from two other pillars. I pulled through the trigger over and over, hammering the stone with packets of water. In my peripheral vision I could see Austen stand and fire, and his shots obviously had more effect, as the guy I had been shooting at abandoned his post.
I readjusted my course, water tracking through where I had been headed, coming from the far side of the bank. I posted up next to a pillar, transitioning the Vanquisher to my left side while peripherally watching Austen having a long-range and ineffective firefight with his covered target. I jacked the pump a few times, brought pressure back to full, and rounded the pillar.
My father would consider my footwork impeccable. Heel to the floor, steps constant and short, balance stable. Eyes on target. I was on the outside of the pillars ringing the interior and when the shooter stepped out, I strafed back to the inside of the pillar ring shooting as I went. They stepped back behind cover, and I stepped up to a pillar, transitioning the Vanquisher back to my strong side. A quick glance back showed Austen safely out of range, rifling through papers in the center of the tellers’ desk ring.
I took a breath, held it, and when my opponent rotated out I squeezed smoothly through the trigger and the quick blast of water burst into mist off his left pectoral.
“We’re clear!” I shouted to Austen as I ran back.
“And I’ve got it!” He shouted back, clearing the counter with a one-handed vault. He waved a piece of paper in the air.
“Let me see.”
He held it up, and I punched the numbers in on my phone.
“Hey. Sam Calloway again. We’re in a bank, just got this number. Next assignment?”
“I’m sending the location to your phone now.” And then he hung up.
“Could’ve been nicer,” I muttered.
I glanced at my phone. A dot somewhere further down 16th Street. “Where are you parked?” I asked Austen.
“Side entrance to the mall, why?”
“I’m parked at Writer’s Square. Next objective is further down sixteenth. Looks like the end of it, I’ll catch up with you there if not before.”
“Got it.” He grinned at me, lopsided, before breaking into a sprint that took him out the front door of the deserted bank.
I stood for a moment, processing that grin and how it related to the butterflies that had just spontaneously started flittering around in my stomach. I shook my head and ran for the back door. Tile floors and stucco walls passed in seconds, and my feet hammered the steps down down down. I saw waterguns ahead as I burst through the doors back out into the stifling air, and I snapped off a shot at one woman while I was on the run. It hit her in the neck – a fact I saw while I kept moving past – and I pushed one fighter back with a flurry of misses while he stood at the very edge of effective range. I kept running.
The entrance to Writer’s Square approached, and when water flew my way, I ducked down to a crouch beside a planter. A fight was raging in the alley, participants ducking and juking moving spastically to dodge the streams of liquid flying back and forth. I shrugged out of the sling and transitioned the Vanquisher to my left side so I could lean around the planter and take shot, but at the last second I obeyed the warning bells in my head and I sprawled, rolled, fired twice into the abs of the guy I’d held at bay moments before.
Rising, I ran at the fight before me. All but two participants had been knocked out of the competition and they weren’t expecting the ferocity of the fight I brought to them. I dodged from cover to cover, shooting at each of them in turn, distracting them from fighting each other.
I shoulder-checked one of the rolling clothing racks into one of my opponents, knocking them sprawling, using my stumble as a strafe, painting a line of wet across a window, an enemy, and another window. I shrugged myself back upright from leaning against the rack, rotated around, and tapped two shots into mist against the chest of the guy struggling to push the pile of hangers, cloth, and metal frame off himself.
I didn’t stay around long enough to register his complaints, I just started moving again. The sunglasses tapped out an annoying tattoo against my stomach, reminding me that they should be on my face and protecting my squinting eyes from the sun baking down on me. I shifted the Vanquisher back to my right side as I cleared the alley, and I saw movement in my peripheral vision, turned and blasted the rest of my pressurized water into the chest of a man drawing a bead on me.
My right hand left the grip, dove into the satchel and came out with my Triple Shot, and I pushed forward through the hanging sling, my left hand dropping the Vanquisher over my head and coming up to meet my right on the pistol. A textbook Sonny Puzikas transition, practiced hundreds of times, though with different tools.
The transition served me well as another enemy appeared from behind a “You-are-here” sign on the corner, and I let loose with three hits and two misses.
I twisted the key in the ignition and roared off. Right on Larimer and I sped past the entrance to an underground parking lot. I paused for just a moment at the corner. Tall building on the right, an Overland Outfitters on the ground floor. The mall I’d been fighting in just ahead. Left was the objective. I hung a left on 16th and cranked the speed up.
The buildings flew past – a blur of materials, contrasting surfaces, and architectural styles. Shiny towers were replaced by artistic looking store fronts were followed by concrete block businesses after which appeared ancient looking hotels and restaurants. The tires ate up the turquoise tile, and the speed of my passing caused others to stare – pedestrians, the driver of a horse-drawn carriage, once I even had to dodge a bus. I don’t think anyone was used to seeing a massive motorcycle on this street.
The bike bumped over train tracks and then the street ended in a broad concrete park. Ahead, massive cables stretched down from a white pillar like rigging from a mast, anchored into the steps of a pedestrian bridge over a train yard. I slowed, weaving among planters and bollards. Huge business buildings on the left, to the right a vast parking lot surrounded a distant building that looked either like a train station or a capitol building.
Another bike, a Harley, was parked at the base of the steps. I smiled and parked next to it, sprinted up the stairs while pumping the Vanquisher back to full. Without the wind from my swift passage to cool me, the blazing sun once again started pulling sweat from my pores. The sweat-soaked blue t-shirt Austen was wearing told me he was finding the heat equally intolerable. “Find it?” I asked.
He crossed to a planter and started brushing the flowers and bushes aside. “Not yet.”
The bridge angled across space, connecting the flat floor of the downtown district with the rich-looking apartments overlooking the train tracks from the high side of a hill that appeared to stretch for miles in every direction. The bridge was eye-hurtingly white, from the supports and stanchions to the cables and mast above. The planters were white, the fencing was white, even the floor was a pale concrete.
I checked my phone, and the dot seemed to be ahead. “I think what we’re looking for is off the bridge,” I told Austen. “I’m gonna check ahead.”
“I’ll stay here, keep looking.”
I crossed the bridge, quite honestly surprised by the emptiness on either side after the close, confining canyons of the downtown. The tracks stretched off on both sides into the hazy morning air, a wall of space separating the downtown from the more residential area ahead. Even the buildings before me seemed smaller, shorter, more…normal. I descended the steps and looked around at the courtyard between two buildings. Water bubbled somewhere nearby, the gentle sound of a fountain. A wide planter sat at the base of the stairs, greenery somehow growing despite the constant sun. Against the brown brick of the building on the right, a woman in running attire stretched.
The cricket in my ear rang, and I said “Answer.”
“Trouble,” Austen said. “Like, five, trying to come up the steps.”
My heart quickened, quickened again when I saw the orange mylar flag stuck in the dirt of the planter. I dashed forward and grabbed it, dropped to cover behind the brick as water reached for me. I shoved the flag in my satchel, leaned out around the side, and fired. Four, spreading out in the courtyard. Overlapping fields of fire, none grouped together where I could hit more than one at once.
Water splashed off the brick, driving me back to cover. I pumped, made up my mind, and rose, shooting, adjusting aim, rotating fractionally to acquire new targets. No hits, just suppression fire, and I turned and ran up the steps, dropping into cover behind another planter. “How’s it looking?” I shouted.
“Austen’s answering “BAD!” exploded in my ear and I reached up to tap the cricket. A head and torso appeared above the top step, and I fired. They dropped below my line of sight and the water skipped off into space.
Trapped and outnumbered between two opposing forces. This was not a good place to be. I glanced back just in time to see Austen, behind cover, splatter water into a runner who tried to make a break for the deck of the bridge. I flicked my eyes back to my side of the bridge, fired off three more blasts, no hits.
We couldn’t fight here.
We couldn’t win here.
A crazy thought…Austen might be secondary to their goal of getting ME.
I rose, fired for suppression, and sprinted for the middle of the bridge. I pulled the flag out and waved it in the air. “I’ve got it! You want it? Really want it? Come and GET IT!”
Austen looked at me from where he was crouched by a planter. “What?!”
I ran for the railing, one-handed the vault, and dropped onto the suicide fencing a few feet below. I staggered at the fall, and jumped another short fence
This drop took my breath away.
I hit the metal roof of the train car hard enough to jolt pain up from my feet to my shoulders, and I sprawled forward. Water pelted down around me, and I rolled to my back, fired upwards, unleashing a storm of water. I played the stream over the suicide fencing like a can of spraypaint, hitting two shooters. The stream dropped off to a trickle, and I scrambled to my feet. There didn’t appear to be a ladder affixed to the side of the train, so I just sat and slid off the edge, another, found myself in another sprawl, this time face down in gravel, my arm numb from banging off a rail.
Shit, my glasses were toast.
I staggered to my feet and started running. I bounced off the chainlink fence, kicked the toes of my boots in the holes, and scrabbled up. I dropped over onto the other side, and sprinted for the stairs. Another crouch, this time by the railing, and I quickly pumped back to full pressure. “Call Austen Vaet.”
The phone rang for a second, and then Austen came on the line. “Sam, you ok?”
“Yeah, you got some coming down to you.”
They didn’t have cover coming down the stairs, and none of them were stupid enough to try jumping like me. I pulled through the trigger over and over again, the shots rapid-fire as a machine gun, my torso pivoting to track each of them. There weren’t as many of them as I remembered, but there were enough. The railing took water, but not as much as I gave.
I walked past the defeated team and up onto the deck. The opposing team was descending the opposite side, “dead” at the hands of Austen or the team I’d just taken down. “Austen?”
A hand appeared over the railing on the side I hadn’t jumped from, and he hauled himself over. “Are you nuts?!”
“I told you…”
“Don’t you ever do that again, you hear me! You could’ve been hurt or killed in that little stunt and I…”
My stare caused him to pause.
“You done yet?” I asked.
“No.” He was shaking he was so mad.
“Yes, you are.”
Austen fought a grin. “Where do we go next?”
I pulled the mylar flag out of my satchel, stretched it out. “Contemporary Art Museum” was written on it.
I shrugged. “Got me.” I pulled the phone out and started punching letters into Bing. “Not far, follow me.”
The contemporary art museum was lateral to our position, roughly a block over, and we wove the bikes slowly along the twisting street between the tall buildings. People were milling around in front of one of them, eating at concrete tables, smoking. They looked weirdly at the two of us.
We crossed the street and found ourselves in front of the museum. A very nondescript building, it looked only slightly more upscale than the building it grew out of – some sort of cannery or warehouse looking place, which itself grew out of some really upscale apartments. We parked the cycles and walked in.
I noticed the shade first. The long, slightly upward sloping hallway was as dark as twilight, cool air brushing gently against my sweating arms and neck and upper body through the open vest. I unhooked the sunglasses from my swimsuit top, looked at the cracked lens, and threw them in the first trashcan we passed.
A right turn, and there was a greeter’s desk. The receptionist in the tuxedo smiled at us. “Are you here for Yousoak?”
“Yeah,” Austen replied. “Any idea where we should go?”
“The roof. You’ll want to be careful though, there are three other teams in the museum. One arrived just before you as a matter of fact.”
“How do we find the roof?” I asked.
“You’ll just have to explore. Be careful when you round this next corner though, there’s a lip on the floor, and if you’re not watching where you’re going, you’ll trip and fall in the pool.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Austen said.
I don’t know how he thought that tripping on the floor was a possibility. Though the yellow light came only from one paper globe hanging from the ceiling, there was enough light to by which to see the pool. It took up the majority of the floor, the black surface rippling slightly with the transmitted concussion of our footfalls. A multi-level dock that looked like it had been constructed from old pallets stood out of the water. It was dim enough that I had to use my flashlight. The Elzetta lit up the room like a spotlight. There was a dark doorway on the left, and a hallway on the right. I headed for the hallway.
“Gonna call it right now,” Austen said. “We ain’t gettin’ to the roof this way. Gotta go through the rest of the museum.”
The hallway had a metal door at the end, “Exit” sign glowing red in the gloom. We turned around and headed for the doorway.
Like in the Port Plaza mall last year, I ran into a wall that gave. It was a shock, for a moment. Instead of plastic sheeting, this was a heavy velvet curtain. I pushed it aside, held it for Austen. The room beyond was pitch black except for a faint jaguar face flashing on the far wall. Modern art, I swear. I flashed the Elzetta around the room. Just curtains.
Walking out of the jaguar room, I ran into someone. Someone with a water gun. We recognized the danger immediately. My eyes went as wide as his, and instead of trying to struggle with him in a small space to get my gun clear – as he was trying to do – I used the environment as my weapon.
I dropped my shoulder, grabbed the backs of his legs, and took the shot. The tackle landed him on his back in the water – “dead” right there – and I rolled over him, coming to my feet in the two inches of water.
All hell broke loose as another team entered the room, moving professionally, fast, low over their guns. I pulled the Vanquisher to my shoulder, and watched as Austen shredded them with a high volume of fire, waving the stream over the entrance to the pool room like a highly directed flame-thrower. They didn’t even get a chance to get a shot off, their eyes adjusted to the light just in time to get tagged out.
We moved fast back into the lobby and up a flight of stairs. Austen mirrored my movements, rotating around the corners and keeping his gun aimed either straight up the steps or up and off to the side. Railings protected the empty space cut from the center of the building, and over the cut I could see into some of the other second story rooms. The first room we entered was empty except for some stones in random geometric shapes. An emo-looking kid sat in a chair pushed up against a far wall, reading a book. A striped bowler cap sat on his head and a can of PBR sat on the floor next to the chair.
I considered shooting him – ironically, of course – because he was a hipster.
I decided against it.
On the other side of the room, the doorway led left or right. Right led to an exhibit behind the one we’d just left. This one had a muted TV flashing war scenes to a crowd of empty chairs. I raised an eyebrow at it, shook my head, and headed left. Left was a short dark hallway and then a room full of LCD screen showing thermometers and birdhouses.
“What is it with modern art?” Austen said.
“Damned if I know,” I muttered.
That one wasn’t the weirdest. The weirdest was a dark room with hole cut in the baseboard through which vaguely cartoony music played. Austen stopped to read the plaque on the wall. He snickered and motioned me over. “You’ve gotta read this.”
I did. “What the shit?”
“Life, death, impermanence, and animation. Who’da thunk it?”
Outside that room were two flights of stairs, one up, one down. We went up. Two people, a man and a woman were coming back down. They looked surprised to see us. They were even more surprised to get soaked. A flurry of snapshots from me and a couple of longer lasting streams from Austen, and we moved past them.
The room at the top of the steps was a riot of weird architecture. It looked like someone had decided to make a platformer game in real life. Weird structures and surfaces rose out of the floors, waist high in some places, short enough to only snag an ankle in others. The walls were covered in graffiti, most of it either profane or self-pitying, the ugliness of the words contrasting with the cheery sunlight streaming in through the windows to illuminate the cacophony of off-angles.
The walls dripped with water, proving we were on the right path. There was a short hallway with 2 doors just off the entrance to this room. I cleared both quickly – tiny bathrooms.
Austen was standing at one of the windows, on tiptoe. Small but numerous, they wrapped around the room at about nose-height, making getting a good look outside nearly impossible. The sounds of violent movement were impossible to mistake however.
The room was U-shaped, wrapping around the block of space taken by the bathrooms. The other leg of the U was dominated by poster size prints of ugly ink-blots. Maybe Rorschach tests? I couldn’t see anything in them other than oil spills.
Glass doors dripping with water opened onto the roof. Ahead of them, a full-size bar was enclosed in a cubicle of aquamarine glass and teak, probably used for hoighty-toighty art functions, full of self-loathing born-to-the-middle-class artistes.
That described me. Maybe I could make a few hundred thousand dollars if I dressed in bad-but-high-art fashion, scribbled nonsense or splashed paint randomly.
On second thought, I didn’t hate myself THAT much that I was willing to debase myself by acting like a pretentious moron.
We stormed out onto the roof. I took right, Austen took left.
The world looked like a first person shooter to me. Bent over the back of my gun, the stock pulled into my shoulder, I took in everything over the fat plastic profile of the nozzle.
Movement on the other side of two glass walls, and I rotated around the corner, blasted an explosion of water vapor off some guy’s chest. Liquid streamed past me and I ducked, dropping down behind one of the few table-and-chair sets that dotted the small deck. A quick transition to my left side, and I leaned out. The shooter was standing there, looking for a clean shot at me through the right of table legs and chair arms. He had one, but so did I. He reacted too late, and I connected us with water.
I scrabbled to my feet, sweeping among the tables. Movement ahead and I dropped again, this time to a sprawl, as someone one-handed their gun over the table. I elbow-crawled around the table I was covered behind, and rolled to my side, hosed down the forest of furniture between us. Maybe some water would get through.
It didn’t. I could still see the person crouched down.
My satchel – such a usual and ordinary presence at my side that I paid it no mind – was much more in mind now that I was laying on it. I shifted my hip off it and decided I needed to win this fight, not lay here in the hot sun and sweat.
Hadn’t used this trick in minutes…
I pivoted to my back and kicked both feet into the frame of the nearest chair as hard as I could towards my enemy. It bounced across the deck, slamming into the table-and-chair set that was protecting my opponent. He kind of staggered back from the impact, and I rocked to my feet, crossed the distance in a sprint, ducked around the table as he shot at my approach around its right side, and leaned over the top to shoot him in the gut as he aimed around the left.
“Clear!” Austen shouted as he walked around the bar.
Re: uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Mon May 14, 2012 12:04 am
The following takes place between 12PM and 1PM
I stood there, sides heaving as I panted like a racehorse with the exertion of sudden, violent movement in brutally hot, still air.
“Find the next clue?” I asked.
“Yeah, got it right here.” He pulled the phone from his pocket and it beeped as he pressed send.
I filled at a blue barrel while he talked. I considered climbing into the blue barrel. I could feel my skin burning.
The phone beeped and I felt Austen’s hand on my shoulder. I turned. “Over by the capitol,” Austen said.
“Where’s that?” I’d just gotten into Denver last night and knew only where The Curtis and Coyote Ugly were.
I don’t know why we weren’t paying attention. Perhaps because we thought the fight was over now that we’d gotten our next objective. Maybe? Something like that? Normally I don’t let my guard down like that, but I was thinking about that hand on my shoulder. Where Austen’s head was, I can’t say, but I suspected he didn’t live right on the edge of adrenaline like I do.
We rounded the bar and were heading back for the graffiti room. Water exploded through the doorway, splattering the glass walls of the bar, and taken by surprise, we exploded into movement, heading to our right. I got a glimpse of multiple people stacked up inside the room. A big team. To the right were two planters, desert plants growing out of scorched dirt at crazy angles. There was a short walkway between the edge of the roof and the outside of the graffiti room. Past the planters, the roof ended in a wrought iron fence and a drop-off. High-end apartment decks beckoned to me across ten feet of empty air, escape tantalizingly close, yet so far. I looked down. Two, three stories down to a courtyard. Grills and lawn furniture, all enclosed between buildings on three sides and another fence on the right, looking out onto the street.
A streamer of liquid zipped past, and Austen yanked me behind the cover of a planter. I leaned back out and drilled water into the chest of whoever had shot at me.
Being stuck with Austen in the confined corner between the fence at the edge of the roof and the planter was not the worst place I could imagine being, but right now I wanted out.
“Not a lot of places to go,” Austen said, like he’d read my mind.
“Not really, no.”
He leaned past me and fired a few quick blasts, backing them up, then slid back into cover. “Ideas?”
“And I’m not gonna like it, am I?”
I grinned. “Not at all.”
I stepped out of cover, expended all my water pressure in a screen of suppressive liquid, and then slung the Vanquisher, turned, and ran for the fence. Austen’s eyes widened. “Sam, wait, don-“
I jumped, planting my feet between the wrought-iron spikes, and then jumped again. The satchel and Vanquisher banged against my sides as I flew through space. I didn’t even have time to think about the drop below me – one moment there was solid surface beneath my feet, the next there was nothing. And then I slammed into the railing of a suspended deck with enough force to jolt the breath out of me. My hands caught the top of the railing though, and I heaved myself up and over, falling flat on my face on the carpeted two-by-fours. I rolled to my back and stared up at the sky, my heart hammering in my chest as it climbed down from the back of my throat. “Get over here!” I shouted. My voice was hoarse, and I tried it again.
A moment later, the deck shook like it had been hit by a missile, and Austen hauled himself over. “Son of a bitch. I’m never doing that again.”
He helped me up, and I moved to the door. “If you see them, shoot.”
The door was locked, and I applied my full weight and muscle to the handle. There was a cracking noise, and the door wasn’t locked anymore. I ducked inside as the first drops of artificial rain began to fall. I stood behind the glass patio door and pumped back to full pressure while Austen covered behind the angle of the railing. I leaned out and unloaded in the direction of the shooters while Austen scrambled in, slamming the door shut behind him.
We stood there a moment in the empty kitchen, just looking at each, other breathing hard.
I looked around. Small kitchen slash dining room. Nicely decorated. No one home, since they hadn’t come running when I broke the door.
I crossed to the sink, unscrewed the cap from my Vanquisher, and filled. Austen did the same a moment later. “Gotta be a way out downstairs,” Austen said.
I think we were both feeling a little shock at that moment, over the escape and the death-defying stunt that had brought it about. The apartment was small, and I crossed to the front door, unlocked it.
I locked the door behind us, and we found the stairway down. Our feet pounded the soft carpet, and the stairway ended in a solid metal door. It wasn’t locked, and led into the brightly lit, concrete box of an underground garage. Halogen lights above, sun streaming in through half-open crank out windows set into the wall at ground level
There was a small computer mounted to a pillar that appeared, by its proximity, to open the garage door. I ran over to it and examined the interface. I tapped the “Enter” and “Escape” buttons a few times, to no avail. The card swipe reader mounted next to the keyboard appeared to be the only method of access.
I swore under my breath and punched the computer. The metal housing didn’t even register the powerful impact, but my knuckles blazed.
I turned back to Austen. “No way out.”
He pointed at the windows. “Right there.”
We had to stand on the hood of a Geo Metro – seriously, people still drove those? – to get at a window, and it took both of us muscling it to push it open to a point where we could fit through. On the other side there was cedar mulch, green grass, and then a retaining wall dropped off to the elevated sidewalk next to the street. I got my elbows on the windowsill and heaved myself upward, aided by a boost up from Austen.
At that moment, wiggling through the window, I kind of wished I was wearing a skirt.
I rolled to my feet and stuck my arm back through the window, gave Austen a pull as he scrambled and dragged himself out.
Over the retaining wall was the sidewalk, elevated several feet above the cars whizzing along under a professionally grafitti’d bridge. The road led out of the downtown, in the opposite direction we needed to be going. The grass extended around the apartment building and the museum, and we sprinted for the front of the building where we’d left the cycles. The thick carpet of green ended abruptly at the dusty gravel parking lot, which was similarly incongruous next to the very normal street.
I hopped on the cycle and took off, not even waiting for Austen to put on his helmet. His choice, his waste of time.
As I roared down the street, I put a hand up to the Bluetooth cricket, the heel of my hand over my mouth. “Call Austen.”
After a few rings, he answered. “Yeah.”
“You’re the only one who knows where to go.”
“Fifteenth to Colfax. We’re on Fifteenth right now.”
I grinned. “Then catch me if you can.”
The scenery passed in a blur, Writer’s Square, Skyline Park, the back of The Curtis…the myriad little shops and stores and gigantic skyscrapers all falling to my shoulders as I darted between the other cars cruising this glass and concrete canyon, a racket of horns the soundtrack to my furious ride.
The wind of my passage whipped at my vest and my hair, cooling me considerably but doing nothing to protect me from the heat of the sun. I should’ve put on some sunscreen. Or asked Austen to put some sunscreen on me.
I smiled at the thought and turned onto Colfax. There was still plenty of time.
To my right were several broad parks, each with a different feel. Immediately to the right were huge columns and arches bookending a garden slash walkway area. Very Greek or Roman vibe coming off the area. Another park, a slightly forested grassy lawn sat between the gardens and the capitol. The capitol was huge, a multi-wing monstrosity of ancient-looking, weathered gray brick looking down from the top of a hill, topped with a gleaming gold dome. In olden days it could’ve been a castle or a prison.
“Where are you?” I heard in my ear.
“Pulling up in front of the capitol, there’s a statue up here.”
There was an empty walking path arching up to a massive memorial in front of the castle, and I squealed right onto Lincoln from Colfax, turned left immediately, hit the curb with a bump and slowed my roll as I cruised up the shady concrete track.
I parked the Suzuki in front of the memorial, took the keys and started pacing, waiting for Austen to show up.
There was nothing to indicate a clue around the statute of a pioneer with a musket. Nothing on the steps or in the entryway of the capitol, and I was pretty sure they weren’t going to have us interrupt a legislative session with a waterfight. More’s the pity.
The Harley rumbled up and parked on Sherman Drive, the short street that closely ringed the building, and Austen got off, bike-locked his helmet to the steering column. “You’re insane, you know that?” he shouted as he walked towards me.
“You would be too,” I said. I don’t talk about it. I don’t even think about it. But I hate people thinking I’m crazy for no reason. I have my reasons, boarded up in my head behind a wall of my own design. No matter what I do, I don’t ever scratch that wall.
But that doesn’t mean those reasons aren’t still there. Doesn’t mean they haven’t affected the rest of my life.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“At least I make up for it by being hot, right?” I asked, changing the subject.
Austen rolled his eyes and smiled, shook his head in disbelief.
“So, where is this ‘over by the capitol?’” He pulled out his phone and showed me, the dot blinking on the map.
I backhanded him playfully in the chest. “You moron, that’s not here, that’s down there!” I pointed down towards the parks.
“You see how small this screen is? They’re close.” He pivoted and unleashed a blast of water that splattered off the chest of someone approaching us from an arc that would’ve taken them right behind us. Their partner dropped down behind the cover of a car bumper, and I fired for suppression. “Think that’s our cue to leave.”
We ran. Down down down the steps towards Lincoln Street. I liked riding the cycle better than running. Cooler. The trees on the capitol lawn provided some good shade, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
We emerged from the shade onto the sidewalk, the sun glaringly bright off the baking concrete. I had to squint to see, but what I saw was beautiful, green manicured lawns, tall buildings, a well-cared for big city.
Austen and I both turned, fired back up the steps at our pursuer. Both streams fell short, and he ducked behind a tree. I started running again.
“Sam, wait!” Austen shouted.
A car screeched to a stop inches from my hip and I pounded on the hood, kept sprinting. Didn’t even think about a twenty five mile an hour meeting with two tons of metal. Didn’t even register.
Across the lawn, three people with water guns moved to meet me, and my footwork slowed, became more deliberate. I engaged them from stand-off range, hitting the closest at the longest distance I could. I’d angled towards them, and now I broke left, heading for the concrete paths that crossed Civic Center Park. They angled to meet me and I hurtled a hedge, dropped to a crouch, and then stood to blast a stripe of dark across one pursuer’s orange shirt.
I spun, looked him straight in his green eyes, and for a semi-second before he pulled the trigger, I knew the third one had me dead to rights.
Mist exploded off the side of his head, whirling in fractal patterns through the hot, muggy air, and I dropped again to a crouch, fired a blast into his gut.
Austen peered over the hedge at me. “You good?”
I stood, scanned for threats. None with Super Soakers, but the center path of the park was heavily trafficked, and I slotted many of the walkers into the category of more physically dangerous threats. When you go out of your way to look like a gangsta, like someone who idolizes criminals, I put you in the same category.
Some people need to stop trying so damn hard to stereotype themselves.
We walked through the park, staying close. I’d rotated the Vanquisher down to my side on its sling, and let my right hand hang on the satchel.
I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t even worried. I was calculating, I was analytical, I was professional. People lounged on the park benches, playing cards, arguing, drinking out of bottles concealed in paper bags so worn they might as well have been cloth. One person snorted a line of coke off the lid of a garbage can. Casual, unneeded profanity mingled with herbal smoke in the air.
Past the main path and I heard a wolf whistle, saw a guy stand from leaning against a nearby tree, start walking towards us. “Hey baby.” His ghetto drawl was further interrupted by the toothpick he was chewing on.
“Yeah you baby, c’mere.”
I felt Austen’s hand on my arm, felt his pulse through his fingertips.
I just looked at the guy.
Like the diner who’d glared at me when my phone interrupted his meal on the worst day of my life, I just looked at him.
He turned and walked away.
“Your pulse didn’t even rise,” Austen said quietly.
So we’d both been taking each other’s measure at that moment. “Yours did.”
We crossed another, less-trafficked street, and walked across a much broader lawn, heading for the park bookended by those columns. Flower gardens separated the lawn from the path, and we skirted them, stood on the concrete, some type of government building facing us a few hundred yards of empty space away. A similar distance on the right were columns and a pool, same distance left columns and an amphitheater. Behind that stood a building that was riot of non-Euclidian angles and non-ordinary colors. Probably a museum of some sort.
“Let’s see that map again.”
The dot was over towards the amphitheater, and we broke into a jog.
Ahead of us, the concrete bowl rose up in steps, massive columns ringing the round edge. Lion faces were set into the walls, and water streamed from their mouths, dropping in to shallow basins. At the entrance to the amphitheater, we broke apart, I went right, Austen went left. I took the stairs two at a time. There were actually two rows of columns, supporting a thick stone roof, and I swept through rows, moving from side to side, covering behind alternating columns. Movement ahead, and I ran forward headless of strategy.
Someone stepped out from behind a pillar, water gun leading, and I rotated in my run, blasted water off a Cincinnati Bengals jersey. I emerged through into an open archway, turned to look down into the amphitheater. A woman, running, an orange mylar flag in her hand. “Austen, get her!”
Water sailed past me and I sidestepped, dropped to a crouch and returned fire, tagging out the bald guy advancing on me. I stood, pumped back to full pressure, scanned three hundred and sixty degrees.
The running woman was leaving the bowl of the amphitheater, and Austen unleashed a blast that splattered her back. He held down the trigger longer than was necessary to confirm the “kill” the stream connecting them for probably two seconds.
She kept running.
I sprinted down the steps to the ground level and started chasing after them.
“Hey!” Austen was shouting. “HEY! That’s ours! You’re out!”
She kept running.
She broke right, heading off the concrete onto the grass. Arms pumping like a marathon running, I angled towards her, trying to cut in on her vector.
And then Austen did something surprising. He hadn’t been far behind her at all, and he put on a burst of speed, closed to within arm’s length, and tackled her.
It was a beautiful takedown, and I slowed to watch.
Momentum would not be denied, and they bounced and rolled across the grass. She kept hold of the flag though – she was out, what did she think she was going to do with it?
She got to her feet, Austen rising right behind her, and she would’ve taken off, except he kicked out, sweeping her back down with one leg behind her knees and one in front. Grabbing the hand with the flag, he rose to a crouch, stepped over her, and fell backwards. One foot still under her, one foot over her stomach, his grip stretched her arm out and kept her pinned down. With his free hand he dug the flag from her grip, and then he let go and rolled away, coming to his feet as she did.
While I didn’t think she posed him any threat, I closed and stepped between them. The woman was breathing hard, glaring at Austen. She was dressed all in black, small but big-boned, blond hair cut short, and had a look like a raging bull on her lightly-freckled face. I recognized her from somewhere. Maybe. She looked so familiar.
“You were out,” I said, trying to muster my most calming voice. “Out.”
Surprisingly, she started swearing at us in Cuban. I’ve spent enough time hanging out with my brother Daniel at our grandparents’ home in Florida to know the language and how it differs from the Spanish I hear in Las Vegas.
“Estoy de mala hostia,” I replied.
She glared at us and then stalked away. Where did I know her from?
I turned back to Austen. “What were you doing?”
He grinned. Taking a page out your book. Seemed like what you’d do.”
“And you woulda called me reckless or crazy for doing it.”
He called the number on the flag and listened for a moment. After returning the phone to his pocket, he pointed across the park, off to the side of the capital. “Over there.”
“Time to run again,” I said, mock-dejected.
We ran again. Our footwear clopping against the flagstones, my bag banging against my hip. Our rifles weren’t banging against us because we were holding them – I think after the woman in black, neither of us was planning on taking a “kill” on faith.
Approaching the pool, we took fire from the columns on the far side. Water lanced past, hissing through the air. Austen broke left, and I dropped down to crouch by the concrete retaining wall of the pool. Looking over the edge, I could see a figure standing in the angle of one of the massive stone pillars along the right side of the arch, water gun peaking around the edge.
The architecture on this side consisted of massive stone arches and then a half-circle of a double row of columns wrapping halfway around the outside of the concrete walkway surrounding the pool. The shooter was on the right side. A glance to the left showed me movement among the columns on that side – likely Austen.
I fired back, keeping my opponent’s mind on me. My shots skipped off the stone columns, but I didn’t mind – it gave him something to think about.
There was a shout from the arches, and I rose, skirting the pool and running low towards where Austen should be, pumping as I went.
The shooter was crossing the street, Austen having taken his place. “Up high,” I said as I approached, and Austen high-fived me. Colfax serpentine around the very outside edge of the downtown, park on the right, massive buildings on the left. The one we were running past appeared to be a combination exercise studio, museum, and newspaper publisher. A guardrail divided lanes of traffic, and before the crowded intersection, I vaulted the divider and sprinted to the other side. The sun was way overhead and the building provided at least a little shade. I could feel my skin burning in the direct rays. Austen caught up as I ran, and we stopped on the corner, taking a breather in the shade for a few seconds, letting the traffic pass, and trying to figure out where to go.
Austen checked his phone again. “United Nations Park?”
There were two parks in our line of sight. Immediately across the street was a small one build almost on an island between streets. A sculpted fountain appeared to show prominent figures from Denver’s history. Probably not United Nations Park.
Beyond that, across another street, was a park terraced into a hill. I could make out a Subway restaurant at ground level and…was that a bus pulling out of a garage? Had they built a park over a bus depot?
We sprinted through the small park, guns up. It was crowded with pedestrians and nobody appeared to have a Super Soaker, but it was possible they were playing it low key. Mist sprayed from the fountain, and felt tremendously good on my bare arms.
Across another street, and we stood on the sidewalk below United Nations Park. My stomach rumbled at the thought of getting some Subway. A black cut set into the side of the hill beckoned mysteriously. It was so shadowy I couldn’t even see garage lights down there.
“I’ll take right side,” Austen said.
He ran for the corner and disappeared around the side of the hill.
The idea of charging a hill did not appeal to me. Too many military battles have been lost that way. I didn’t see anyone up there, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there.
I started running.
I powered up the side of the hill, my feet stomping on the concrete steps. Large, polygonal planters were set into the top of the hill, little lawns surrounded by cement paths. The planters were full of trees, enough to create a forest effect, and I had to wonder if the paths had been cut into hill, or the trees had been planted there.
Looking for a flag was going to be a nightmare.
And to top it off, there was already a war going on up here.
Someone shot at me from behind the meager cover of a very thin tree, water sweeping towards me. I broke left on the path, moving out of the angle he had. I dropped to one knee as soon as the attack ceased and fired back in quick pulses as he moved around the tree. Splatter splatter, one down. A guy in a Theory Of A Deadman shirt ran down the path towards me, heedless of where he was going, shooting over his shoulder. One shot center mass and I sidestepped, missed three shots at his opponent, snapped a fourth blast into her abs. A sixth sense screamed “DANGER CLOSE” and I leaned over the railing and fired five times as soon as I saw the guy at the base of the hill drawing a bead on me with a water gun I’d encountered last year. I’d nicknamed it “The Clinton Model” due to its shape, and had used it for sniping off a pier. He dodged three streams of water, walked face first into the fourth, and was so surprised by it he’d stopped long enough for me to drill him in the collarbone with a fifth.
No one else shot at me, so I dropped to a crouch and pumped back to full pressure. Water sloshed about the bottom of the tank when I was finished, perilously little left. I’d have to refill soon.
The trees were thick, and I stalked among them, Vanquisher pulled in tight to my shoulder, eyes looking along what could be considered a primitive sight-line.
Leaves rustled with the peculiar noise of a stream hitting them, and I whirled and dropped, shooting back, tagging out some hipster looking guy. I’d think waterfights and money would be too popular for that crowd to want to participate.
The area ahead seemed clear, so I angled towards my opponent, crossed the small, wooded planter he’d been shooting from, and found myself on a broad deck. Tables and benches dotted the surface, and here the trees were planted right into holes cut in the broad deck. Railings protected walkers from a drop into the bus lanes below, and at the far end, a staircase led down along the side of a skyscraper to the street below. Austen stood in the center of the deck, looking bewildered.
“You’d think our next clue would be in plain sight, wouldn’t you?” he asked as I approached.
“You would think,” I said ruefully.
“Nothing here. I shot it out with like five guys looking for it, and I’ve checked all the chairs and tables and trashcans. Nada.”
I growled, annoyed. “I’ll check the Subway, call you if I find anything.”
I ran for the stairs down, checking the walls on both sides for chalk-scrawled messages. Nothing. Street level and I found myself among the pedestrians. Quite a few of them. I kept my eyes up, my senses extended for any threat.
A roundabout was set into the pavement, allowing the buses to turn around and head back up Sixteenth. More tables and benches and trees dotted the sidewalk around its perimeter. I’d check those if I struck out at Subway – I couldn’t believe that Usoak would make us descend into the underground bus garage.
I sprinted along the sidewalk, dodging walkers, and yanked the Subway door open. Dammit. Shoulda just come here first. A telephone number was written on a big orange banner pinned to the back wall. I punched the digits into my phone, shifted the phone to my left hand, and stepped out of the way of the door.
“Hi, I’m calling from a Subway underneath United Nations Park?”
“Give me a minute.” I heard keys being punched on the other end.
The doors burst open and a man and woman ran in, water guns in hand. Off the angle of the door, they missed seeing me as they entered. I pulled the Triple Shot from my satchel, shot them each in the back as they passed. They whirled at the contact, and I waved with the gun in hand.
“I’m sending a picture and coordinates to your phone now,” Ramon stated. “This man is inside the Barnes and Noble on Sixteenth. Shoot him and he’ll give you the last objective.”
“Thanks.” I hung up and called Austen. “Meet me back at the bikes.”
“See you there.”
I shouldered through the door and started running again.
After my fight with Keith last summer, I’d spent a significant amount of time rehabbing. EMTs had found me passed out in the bathtub of my hotel room, the water colored red with blood. The injuries Austen had listed this morning were all real, and I’d spent several days in the hospital. I’d had to go back in a few weeks later after the cut to my leg got infected. Besides that was physical therapy for the damage to my left arm. Most fights on TV, people get slugged, thrown through windows, tossed around like ragdolls, and they’re up-and-at-‘em next week if there aren’t reruns in between. Real fights are expensive and messy.
Once my damaged body had dragged itself back into some semblance of normalcy, I’d started working out again. Like a madwoman. Climbing, running, lifting weights, and then back in the ring. I’d started college in the spring, and every spare second that I wasn’t studying, I was pushing myself to run farther, run faster, lift more, stretch further, hit harder.
Which was why – outside of the burning heat and stifling humidity – I felt damn good today. I felt like I could run forever.
I sprinted across the intersection during a lull in traffic and ran up the path leading to the capital. Austen was already there, helmet on. He didn’t take it off, but the Bluetooth was on and he was dialed. “Question for you,” I said, breathing hard.
“Last time I did this, every mission took about an hour. Today, nobody’s keeping track. You have any idea why that is?” The bike shook and whined underneath me.
“You weren’t paying attention during orientation. The whole thing is designed to take about four hours. There’s no time limit, you just have to call in four or more times before they’ll give you the final assignment. See what you learn when you pay attention in class?”
We were turning off Sherman at that point, onto Colfax. I made an illegal right onto Broadway, Austen sighing disapprovingly via Bluetooth as he followed me. Onto the divided street of Sixteenth again and the canyon of the city was whipping by once more. “What’s the objective?”
“Shoot some guy in a bookstore.”
“Yeah. Last one before the finale too.”
“We really have a chance to win this thing, don’t we?”
“I’d bet on us.”
Re: uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Mon May 21, 2012 12:10 am
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.”
Re: uSoak Denver 2012
Posted: Mon May 21, 2012 12:38 am
AFTER THE END
Highlight to read
The bar was loud. And crowded.
From the outside, this place didn’t look like a dirty shack on the inside. It looked like another door set into the third floor of the Denver Pavilions. Inside the walls were plywood, the ceiling exposed supports and wiring, the lighting was pink neon bar signs, and the décor was sports and alcohol memorabilia. Normally I don’t like crowds, but I could get over my paranoia of getting a knife in the back. The company made up for the solid mass of people around the table. We’d been sitting and laughing and talking and flirting and drinking and eating for a good two hours now.
“Good nachos.” I had to lean forward for Austen to hear me over the din. They’d replaced the fries with nachos about half an hour ago.
“Very.” He took a drink from his tumbler, refilled it from the frosted glass bottle.
“So what’s wrong?”
He grimaced, smirked. “Trying to figure out how much trouble I’d get in if my teachers could see me sitting in a bar having a drink with a eighteen year old. I AM going to school to be law enforcement after all.”
I ate a nacho, washed it down with burning liquid. “Live a little.”
“They aren’t bearing TOO heavily on my mind right now.”
“Good, ‘cause I’d hate for you to be distracted when I get up on the bar and start dancing.” There were a couple of women dressed like cowboys up there right now. I figured I could put them to shame.
Austen chuckled. “Are you crazy? Why would you do that?”
“Eh. Living a little. Want you to watch.”
“And why do you want me to watch?” He had a smile on his face, enigmatic.
I matched it, didn’t say anything.
“You do realize, we are normally separated by a couple of states.”
“Yeah. I look like I care?”
“Unless I’m way outta line, all day you seem to be behaving like you’re under the impression that’d be good circumstances for a relationship.”
“You’re not out of line.”
“It’s not good circumstances. Not that I wouldn’t like it to be. I just don’t want to see you hurt. I was in a long distance my first year of college. It got ugly.”
I grinned. “Haven’t you heard, I do stupid and reckless things?”
“Cage fighting and jumping between bridges is in a slightly different realm. You should find yourself a nice guy at your college.”
“Yeah, no thanks. I got kind of a reputation back home.”
He rested his chin on his hand. “Oh really? What kind?”
“Cold and violent.” I said it very straightforwardly. It was a fact. You don’t keep to yourself except for contact sports and make many friends.
“You should see someone about that,” Austen said.
“Yeah I know, post-traumatic stress disorder, you told me earlier. It ain’t that, trust me.”
“So what is it, Sammy?”
“None of your damn business.” I said it vehemently as the wall appeared in my mind.
“It’s gotta be something.”
“No it don’t. I want to change the topic now.”
“You wanna get up on a bar in front of dozens of people and dance for me, and you won’t tell me something important about yourself? You really are crazy. How much worse can it be than getting beat up last summer?”
I summoned up the courage to actually admit this. After not even thinking it to myself for nearly two years, it took some bravery. “Fine. Ok.” I took a breath. “Umm. Something happened. Something that could’ve been prevented. And I…I took care of it, only way I could see ending well for anybody. I shouldn’t have, I know that now, and I wish…well, I’d do anything to take it back. But I did it. My boyfriend…Tim…he didn’t take it very well. Not very well at all. Last year, he…” I had to pause. The wall was coming down, plaster and wood crumbling to my feet. “Last year he called me. First time he’d called me in months. Cut his wrist and died while I listened.”
I had more control than I thought I would when I finished speaking. I’d expected the telling of that tale to reduce me to a wreck. It didn’t. The wall was in pieces around my ankles and I wasn’t even breathing hard from tearing it down and fighting what was on the other side.
Austen looked at me. “Damn. Wow. I’m…I’m sorry.”
My voice was flat. Normal. “Me too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go find the little girl’s room.”
I was washing my hands when the door opened. A Latino guy stepped through, attired in jeans and the dark blue jersey of the local football team. “Wrong door, dude.”
He leaned against the frame as the door swung to closed. “No it’s not.”
I smirked, straightened, shook water from my hands. “Yeah, it is.”
“He doesn’t have to die too.”
Shock at the words blasted through my slightly fuzzy mind. As did the knowledge that I recognized this young man. The hotel elevator. Mezzo mezzo. The voice. Ramon, yousoak.
It didn’t surprise me that this situation going sideways didn’t surprise me.
I played dumb. “What?” My right hand, hanging loosely at my side, slide into the satchel. My thumb found the activation slider of the Infidel as my fingers wrapped around the knife, and to distract Ramon from what my right hand was doing, I pointed at him with my left. “You know what, just go! Get out of here, you perv.”
He laughed. “Not hardly. I just wanted to let you know that Austen Vaet doesn’t need to die with you. As long as you stay away from him, he’ll stay alive.”
“That sounds like a threat.” Anger pounded the blurry from my bloodstream, my muscles tightening for action.
“Just a promise. An observation actually, that someone asked me to relay to you.”
I lunged forward, the knife blade extending as my hand drove towards Ramon’s midsection. He moved like a snake striking. His hand gripped mine, yanking it out and away while pulling me in close. He crowded me against the door, left hand coming up to slam my face off the grimy wood while his right pulled the knife from my grip. The slim edge found my neck, and I got both hands on his arm, pulling it away slightly.
“Get away from Austen,” he said. “Whatever you feel for him, it doesn’t matter. He’s an innocent in all of this. I will charter you a helicopter to your brother in Estes Park tonight if you will just walk away. He doesn’t need to die.”
His arm was strong in my hands. I pulled at it, using little muscle, testing the resistance. My nose was bleeding, blood on my lips and chin. My head throbbed.
“He’s not gonna die,” I said, venom in my voice. “If you or anyone else try to hurt him…I’ll – “
“Sam, please, just stay away from him. This isn’t his fate.”
I tugged that arm down with all my muscle and shifted to the very inside of his elbow, pushing the arm back up as he compensated, redirecting the blade. The point should’ve slid into his neck, but all it did was draw a thin red line on the skin, and now he was the one fighting my strength. As he pushed the blade away, I ducked out from under his open arm and swept out his leg, dropping him to one knee. With the same movement, I put both hands behind his head and bounced HIS head off the door. A LOT harder than he’d done to me.
Ramon went down, groaning.
“Don’t touch anyone with a weapon,” I growled as I retrieved my knife from his limp fingers. “They know where it is and can plan accordingly.”
I stood over him and tapped him on his broken nose with the blade. He moaned and cupped his face with his hands. “I’m coming back in here to clean up in ten minutes. If you’re still here by then, you won’t be when I leave again. And if I see you outside of this building…” I tapped his chest with the point. “Got the point?”
I didn’t wait for an answer, just pulled the door open and walked out, back into the chaos. There was a heavy hollowness where my heart used to be, anger ringing it that I was determined to erase. Austen stood when he saw me, shock clouding his face. “Sammy, you ok?”
I didn’t answer, I just walked over and kissed him.
Eventually, he applied gentle pressure to my arms and pushed me away, looking at me strangely. My blood was on his lips.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
He closed his eyes for a minute. “I got the answer to that question I was asking all day. You really are crazy. Sociopathic in the classic sense.”
“Yeah, but right now I wanna put Jackyl’s ‘The Lumberjack’ on those massive iPod speakers in the hotel and dance for you. Forget the bar. Which do you find more intriguing?”
He smiled ruefully. “I’m gonna regret this, aren’t I?”
I grabbed the bottle on the table and the two tumblers. “I’m leaving now. I think the only thing you’re gonna regret is not coming with me.”
Austen shook his head. “What are you doin’ Sammy?”
“Flipping fate the middle finger.”
The afternoon sun shone through the canopy of palm leaves above, turning the ones nearest the middle of the atrium to a greenish gold. I sat the table in the middle of this serene hotel, hyperventilating into my phone. “Tim, no. Please no.”
There was a thick, wet ripping noise, and a groan. “Damn…”
“TIM!” I shouted. The whole atrium looked at me. “Tim, call someone, please!”
There was a throaty chuckle from the other side of the phone. “No thanks. And don’t you bother either. By the time the call gets routed…” the unspoken statement hung in the air.
“Tim, I’m sorry. I love you, please, don’t…”
Labored breathing came from the speaker for a few long moments. “It’s getting dark. I can’t see,” Tim told me. He sounded so calm.
There was a rustling noise like he’d set the phone down.
Ten minutes past on the clock before I hung up. I’d eaten the sandwich and now I downed my drink, one long gulp. Tears I didn’t remember crying streaked the blood on my bruised, messed up face, stinging the abrasions put there a few hours ago.
I picked up the plate and glass and walked unsteadily over to the softly lit bar. I set them down and flipped my fake and my credit card on the counter. “The bottle.”
The cute, blond bartender looked at me weirdly, unsure of whether to call EMTs for me or for the disaster she thought I was about to create. “I don’t think I should.”
I pointed at the plastic. “Do it.”
“You sure that’s the best idea?”
“Missy, in the last twenty four hours I’ve run like fifty miles, jumped off a roof, gone through a church window, watched someone try to drown a little kid, jumped off a bridge, been the victim of a violent assault, and learned that my boyfriend slit his wrist. So I think it’s an absolutely capital idea. Now if there ain’t any law keeping you from selling it to me knowing I’m gonna drink it, I want the bottle.
“And I want it now.”
I drank a quarter of it in the elevator ride up to the room. The glass walls looked out on the atrium, lit by the slowly sinking sun, dust motes hanging in beams of sunlight in the still warm air. I went to the old room for my stuff. Standing in front of the bed in the near darkness, I remembered Keith walking in on me.
“If you tell him what I told you, you’ll put the idea in his head even sooner. If you call him and don’t tell him, he’ll get angry and hang up, and will not return any more of your calls.”
I walked into the bathroom, put my hands on the sink, and stared at my reflection in the mirror. I wanted to break the glass, spiderweb it with cracks and flaws until it never looked like me again.
Must do something, can’t do anything. Dammit.
I ran my hands through my hair, clawing at my scalp, tearing up the scabs that had formed since Keith had beaten me. Dammit.
I turned on the tub’s faucet, drank another quarter of the bottle while it filled. I couldn’t lift my left arm high enough to get my tank top off, so I cut it off with the Sandshark. My pants were crusty with dried blood, and I threw them at the trashcan. My movements overreaching and sloppy. I scrubbed at the wound on my leg with a washcloth until the scab came away and fresh blood rolled out and down my bare leg. Must disinfect. I poured whiskey on it and the burn felt good.
My satchel was…somewhere. Forget it. Another drink. The bottle was empty and the puddle on the floor didn’t match the amount that had been in the bottle when I poured it on my leg. Much smaller. Huh.
I leaned on the counter and looked at the figure in the mirror. Not so beautiful now. That was good now that Tim was gone. I stood up. I was on tv. Someone had forgotten the vertical hold. No. Horizontal was side to side. The young woman in the mirror was unsteady on her feet, staggering in place. She was weak and broken and I didn’t want to look at her. The glass bottle was made of stronger glass than the mirror. Its impact spread white lines across the reflection, pieces falling to the counter.
I levered myself into the tub and slid below the surface, letting the liquid hold me close. My eyes stung as I stared through the distortion of the water above me. I looked down the length of my body. The water was turning somewhat pink by my still bleeding leg.
I widened my eyes and heaved a sigh, blowing bubbles through my nose. The water was warm. Good to relax. Time to sleep, finally.
I woke up.
My mind was still reeling from my dreams, and I stared at the dark ceiling until I no longer felt the burn of water in my nostrils.
I rolled to right and swung my legs over the edge of the bed, sat up. I didn’t feel like I was drowning any more. I just felt about three different kinds of fuzzy. All of them good. All of them great. I smiled.
There was a tumbler half full of vodka on the nightstand and I took a drink. It felt like water to my throat and burned good in my stomach.
I rose quietly and walked over to the small window, looked out at the night-time scene of sleeping Denver. Pinpricks of light penetrated the black canvas above and below. Above, stars. Below, the lights of business and houses. A few of those lights crawled, the headlights of people wishing they were home. Far out in the Rockies, someone had erected a massive illuminated cross. Immediately below, the halogen emergency lights of the parking garage across the street cast acidic white on the concrete, and the streetlights created cones of orange in the road. A million twinkling lights lit up the Performing Arts Center. Below, a few straggling pedestrians crossed one street or another, heading to or from a bar or a hotel or a better time. I backed up a step or so - no need to be giving anyone below a great view - and continued admiring the landscape.
Such a beautiful scene. So peaceful.
I took another drink, grinned again at the fuzzinesses I felt.
I stepped away from the window and shuffled carefully through the unfamiliar darkness to where I remembered leaving my dress and boots. I gathered those up and headed for the bathroom, shutting the door and turning on the light. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel depressed when looking at myself in the mirror.
I ran cool water on a washcloth and wiped myself down, and then dressed. I slipped out of the bathroom, and shuffled to the door, reached down and felt around the inside of my satchel. My fingers brushed my Infidel and I grabbed that, felt for the room card and grabbed that too. I cracked the door, edged out around it, and closed it behind me.
This time of night, the halls were empty. Silent as a tomb, any errant auditory intruder soaked up by the carpet. I FELT like an intruder, and I was a paying guest.
I crouched, tucked the keycard into one boot, clipped the Infidel to the other. I could’ve just taken the whole satchel with me, but in this city of hippies, I knew that the police would frown on a half-drunk eighteen year old girl carrying someone else’s handgun. The Infidel was fine. Not like I was gonna need it.
There were service stairs nearby, and I descended round and round the concrete tube, my boots clattering on the stone. The service stairs terminated on the third floor, and I took the elevator down to the parking garage. Like the garage across the street, the halogens lit the vast, echoing space in harsh white light. I strode across the floor and took the ramp up.
After yesterday, after last night, I needed to be alone for a while. I needed to walk, to let the feelings – such as they were – fade. From the window, I’d seen people walking, so there wasn’t a curfew in place. Walking the streets of Denver would be a peaceful way to reset my mind.
I stood at the exit of the parking garage, looking out onto the massive, ornate building across the street. City building? Bank? Left or right?
I chose right.
Out here, at street level, the night seemed to glow with all the lights of the city burning around me. The Office bar illuminated the street, and within I saw people sitting on the low, chic couches, sharing prissy drinks out of small glasses. Ah well, they looked like they were having fun.
Ahead was the Performing Arts Center, huge open-air hallways connecting equally massive opera halls. Banners hung from the arched glass ceiling, shifting subtly in the faint warm breeze. They advertised plays and concerts and musicals, a world of art and culture I didn’t know.
At the convergence of the three hallways stood a massive sculpture, undulating seaweed or an abyssal kraken, I couldn’t tell. Looked kinda cool I thought as I approached, my boots clipping against the tile, the echoes diminishing as they bounced off the walls of the vast, lonely building.
Standing at the base of the sculpture, I read the dedication plate. Something about energy. My mind was still fuzzy, and I didn’t care too much.
Suddenly I was aware I wasn’t alone.
I’d been able to feel the emptiness before, the solitude, the isolation. Now…now the hair stood up on my neck, the reaction of a rat under the gaze of a snake.
I turned and looked back the way I’d come. A young Hispanic man stood in the middle of the wide hallway, the downtown stretching away behind him where the Performing Arts Center ended. Ramon. He looked better than when I’d left him in the women’s restroom of Coyote Ugly. He’d traded in his bloodstained jersey for a cleaner shirt emblazoned with a shark.
A slow swivel of my head showed me two women standing a few dozen yards down the right hand hallway. One was black, dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt and flipflops, frizzy hair piled up on her head. She waved brightly at me, a seemingly irrepressible smile visible on her face even at this distance, happiness radiating from her. Her companion was smaller, wearing a denim skirt and tanktop that were the picture of immodesty. Green highlights wove through her black hair, and her tea-colored skin covered lean, shifting muscle. Even from yards away, I could feel the tidal pull and allure that smoked off her. To men, she must be irresistible.
Another turn of my head, and I smiled at the sight I saw straight ahead. The buzz of alcohol evaporated as adrenaline surged. My body screamed two options – fight or flight.
There was no way in Hell I was running though.
A few yards away, he smiled. “Hi Sam.”
He hadn’t changed in the past year. I think he was even wearing the same clothes as when he beat me into the ground, as when he threw a child named Rose off a bridge, as when he first took my picture on Renard Island. Khaki shorts, hikers shoes, and a ripped gray t-shirt all worn like they’d been worn for a year. Same “big” dirty blond hair and close beard. Same honest, open look on his face.
I crouched and pulled the Infidel from its clip on my boot. The spear-shaped blade snicked into existence at the end of my thumb and I strode forward.
I felt good.
I felt great.
A happy grin spread across my face. “Oh it’s on now. It’s on like Donkey Kong.”
Keith stopped me in my tracks with eight words. “I did it once. I’ll do it again.”
I laughed. “I’ve learned a shit ton since last we met, and this time, I’m armed.”
“Last time I took you right up to the edge of incapacitation. This time I’ll take you right up to the edge of death.”
“That’s not a very good plan, considering how valuable you think I am.”
He grinned. “You’ll recover.”
Inside I was fuming at myself for leaving my satchel behind. It might’ve put me in prison or on the run, might’ve ruined my life, but I wouldn’t have hesitated to burn Keith down, right here in public.
“I did a pretty good job on Ramon a few hours ago. What makes you think I ca – “
Keith cut me off. “Contrary to what you think, I don’t want to hurt you. I will if I have to, if it’ll make a better point, but I don’t lay awake at night dreaming of ways to break you.”
“You sleep? I don’t see it.”
“Occasionally. Sometimes. Maybe. Now, Austen Vaet, him…I’d like to go a few rounds with. He hurt someone I love this afternoon, and that does not endear him to me.”
“You love? Again, I don’t see it. Who?”
“Blond woman, dressed in black. Threw her on the ground and nearly broke her arm, or so she tells it. She might have been exaggerating, she doesn’t like to make it sound like someone got the better of her.”
I thought back to tomboy-ish competitor who’d refused to give up the flag. “Wouldn’t really say he hurt her…”
“I’m possessive. A little oh see dee. Crazy protective of her actually.”
“Crazy I’ll go with, that’s a good one.”
He smiled gently. “You’re standing thirty feet away and you’re still trying to stab me.”
I matched his smile, mine cockier. “Words is all that works at this distance. Come closer, I’ll try putting into practice what works better. And if you go anywhere near Austen, you have no idea the – “
He cut me off with a wave. “I may not like him, but I’m here to save his life.”
“Remember the spear being trimmed? Get away from him.”
“You heard the last man you loved die. You’ll get to WATCH Austen go.”
“He’s pretty tough, so am I. I think we can handle anything.”
“You can’t. You couldn’t even handle me.”
“That has yet to be proven.”
“I’m not kidding Samantha. You have one choice here, walk away from him or enjoy his company until he dies violently in front of you. I would hate for you to look back at this moment and realize that you chose wrong, well after the choice has been played out.”
I closed my eyes, clicked the knife closed, and returned it to my boot. “Dude. Why do you keep bothering me?”
“It’s my job.”
“Oh that’s right, you’re an angel, God told you to.”
He snorted. “Not hardly. You think God cares?”
I raised an eyebrow. “I was kinda hoping.”
“You love, or even like the hammer you use to pound nails? It’s like that. I care though. I like this place, I want to see it put back together right.”
I spread my arms to encompass the city around us. “Looks put together right to me.”
“It’ll be broken soon.”
I snorted. “You’re nuts.”
“How many times have I been right so far?”
“Just the once.” My glare could’ve cut steel.
“Well, trust me when I say that the path you have to walk ends in death for all those you walk with.” He was so nonchalant about delivering these pronouncements and threats, it was infuriating. Ludicrous. I turned away. Raised my hand in a wave. “Whatever dude. Stay away from me.”
Ramon moved to intercept my path of travel, and I smiled, felt my heart racing up once more. “Let’s dance,” I said with a happy growl.
“Samantha, wait.” Keith’s voice behind me sounded tired.
“What will it take to make you believe me? What can I tell you?”
Ramon was still standing in my way. It’d be simple enough to move him. And I’d enjoy it. I have way too many guy impulses, and this is one of them – if I can’t fix or fight a problem, I’ll find another to fight. I turned back. “Why me?”
“Your pardon?” Keith had moved closer, standing by that octopus sculpture.
“Why me? Why do you keep bothering me? Why did you stalk me, why did you hurt me, WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE NOW?” The deserted halls of the Performing Arts Center echoed with my shout.
“Because you’re special, Samantha,” Keith replied. “You fight hard because you are afraid of losing nothing. Do you really think that history will be changed by accountants and printer repairmen? There’s a type that we pick. Fighters. Warriors. People who can change history instead of surviving it.”
“I’m gonna change history.” I snorted. “Keith, you really are off your rocker. How the shit am I gonna change history?”
“Have you ever heard the name Riann Lin? Nick Franks? Sandra Boxleitner? John Callan? Justin Santos? Have you ever heard of The Gray Man?”
“I know of an Allison Franks. You remember her. Hot blond chick. Supposedly I act like her, but she’s better at it? She related to Nick?”
Keith smirked. “Not yet. Those are just a few of the names of the people whose lives you will impact in your short time here on earth. Because of you, some of them will live. Some will be born. Some will die.”
“My short time here on earth? That a threat?” The rage I’d felt had never really left, but now its flame burned hotter.
“No, just a prediction. Just like my time here is short. We both have a lot to do in very little time. That’s why we keep an eye on you. We make sure you’re safe, make sure you’re staying on the right path.”
I advanced, and I could feel the muscles in my body tense as my anger flared higher. Just give me one reason. One reason, that’s all I want. Give me a reason to do this again.
Keith stood his ground as I approached but finally backed up, either from the proximity, or from the inferno he saw raging in my eyes. He maintained eye contact though, I had to give him credit.
“I want you to get this through your head, you little psychotic weirdo freak. I. Have. No. PATH. Leave me alone. Stop threatening me. Stop threatening my friends. Just leave me the hell alone!”
Keith tilted his head to the side, like he was having a hard time understanding. “Why are you under the impression that any of this is your choice?”
I glared at him for a minute. Such a short time, but such a long time to maintain eye contact. There was no reasoning with him. I turned on my heel and walked away. Again Ramon moved to intercept. I kept walking, and he put his hand on my chest, pushing me back. “Take your hand off, or I take it with me,” I said in a menacingly soft growl.
He didn’t even both looking at me, just completely ignored me while looking over my shoulder at Keith. He cocked his head at some command, and then backed away.
“You made the right call,” I told him in the same soft voice. And then I headed out, back the way I’d come. I stopped at the entrance to the halls of the Denver Performing Arts Center. A look over my shoulder confirmed what I’d guessed. The halls were deserted.
The warm wind blew lightly through the concrete canyon of Curtis Street, rattling a plastic soda bottle in the gutter, brushing at my hair. The fuzziness, the happiness that I’d felt at the conclusion of the previous day was gone.
Here I was yet again, alone, staring out at a city. The world works in strange ways.