Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
Megs hears over the crowd. “Trust me.” Like I have a choice.
She orders us two drinks each and pays for everything. “Since you’re so worried about the cost,” she teases.
“I’ll get the next round.”
We’re stopped five times by people who want to talk to Megs before we reach an empty table.
“You’re a popular girl,” I say loudly. If the tables weren’t so small she probably wouldn’t be able to hear me. Most of the people who stopped Megs were male. Most wore green robes and the looks they gave me were less than friendly. So far no one has been introduced as the mysterious Keane and the kid hasn’t turned up either. Maybe this won’t be the disaster I’m expecting.
She shrugs. “They’re probably wondering where I found such an overgrown guy.”
“I didn’t know you were a comedienne.”
Her eyes narrow. “You don’t know me at all.”
She’s right. But I like her. I like her attitude and her strength and her hot body. I like her in a way that has guilt lurking in the back of my brain.
She’s not the girl for you
I ignore it. I’m still working out what the big deal is with this place. Past the games machines, the room disappears into darkness that not even the laser light near the DJs penetrates.
Megs slides one of the bottles across the table. I unscrew the lid and the whole thing warms up. It’s green and thick and it’s bubbling. I sniff it. The sour fumes make my eyes begin to tear up. “What is it?”
. You’ll want some to concentrate.”
She turns the bottle, where I read the ‘All natural’ label. I’m not convinced but all the ingredients are plants or herbs. Megs drains hers in one long swallow and raises her eyebrows. She leans across and takes a sip out of mine. “So you know it’s safe.” She wipes her mouth, eyes sparkling. “Trust me.”
Now there’s a challenge. I take a swig. It burns my throat on the way down and leaves me gasping.
Megs hands me another bottle. “Water to wash away the taste.”
I want the water but I don’t want to look weak. So I take a quick breath and choke the disgusting liquid down. The water that follows is clean and clear and cold in comparison. Delicious.
“Have you eaten?” Megs shouts across the table.
“Good. Less mess for later.”
“Motion sickness is pretty common.”
I swear the green drink is still bubbling in my gut. Great to know there’s something more sick-inducing ahead. I crowd watch, losing my thoughts in the persistent throb of the music.
Every time someone in green robes moves close to our table I feign extreme interest in the other direction. No one pays me any attention. Maybe coming here wasn’t so stupid. This Keane might be able to help me. This way I’ll get the lay of the land without having to reveal myself and my strange memory loss.
I look back at Megs and meet her green-eyed gaze. I’m captivated. Despite the dim light and flashing lasers I’m able to discern flecks of gray in the green, green depths of her eyes. Not just gray but shades of brown too. Is she wearing some kind of contact to make the color so brilliant? Everything around me disappears to nothing. I’m lost in those eyes, counting colors.
I lean across the table to get closer. There’s a darker ring of color dividing the green from the whites of her eyes but I can’t pinpoint the exact shade. Dark green? Brown?
Megs blinks and the spell breaks.
She laughs. “Eyes, huh? Just relax, you’ll get used to it in a minute.”
It’s the drink, not the girl. Or at least, it’s mostly the drink, because I was pretty fascinated with her before I choked it down. I lower my gaze and try to resist the urge to count the fine dark hairs on the back of my hands. She’s right. I begin to employ my enhanced focus without getting lost in the details.
I’m not sure which happens first but I notice the music has stopped and the lights at the other end of the warehouse are on. Like everyone else, I turn toward a huge room divided from the rest of the warehouse by a glass-like partition.
The darkness conceals the ceiling, if there is one. Inside there are huge boulders and scrap metal pieces drifting on unseen currents. On the floor, five small spaceships are scattered with their hatches open. The whole setup looks familiar somehow, like I’ve seen a game like this before. I blink and the hope of a memory fades.
The game resembles the graphics in so many of the games I saw at the bar, clunky games where players control spaceships and fire unreal-looking rockets to create low FX explosions in waves of descending aliens.
Without the music, the announcer’s voice carries easily over the crowd. “Could all green players report in. Game starts in ten minutes.”
Megs points to our orange wristbands. Not our turn yet. Good, I’ll have the chance to watch at least one game before having to play. The games machines around this end of the warehouse are warm-ups for the main event. I don’t bother with them. Pressing a few buttons and watching a screen won’t get me prepped for whatever controls are inside the plastic and metal vehicles.
The music starts up again, providing a soundtrack for the players to make their way to the game entrance and then follow an organizer to their ship and get strapped in. We’re not close enough here for me to see everything.
I glance at Megs and she seems to read my question. We weave through the crowd once again and nab a spot close to the glass. The partition is thicker than it seems, making the people moving on the other side a silent movie. Each ship’s about the height of me standing and wider around and has a number sprayed on its hull. What was cool from a distance is less impressive up close. None are exactly the same, and I’d bet they’ve been recently welded together from pieces of junk metal and plastic.
“Are these things taped together?”
Her chuckle bumps her arm against mine. “Pretty much, but the games are rough.”
Now, her comments about motion sickness make sense.
One by one the assistants slam and seal the hatches by smearing some kind of black jelly on the join. There’s a hum and the glass in front of me vibrates. Nothing happens with the ships.
“Do they manage to get off the ground?”
Megs nudges me with her shoulder. “Wait a second.”
The lights around us switch off and the playing arena lights up. Moments later the little ships rise off the ground in jerky movements. They dodge and dart through the crowded space, avoiding rocks and floating debris by a finger’s width. And each other. The ships seem to be steering clear of each other by mutual agreement. The tubes protruding from the body of the ship that I assumed were weapons systems aren’t being used.
I lean down toward Megs’ ear, trying not to get sidetracked studying the shining purple of her hair. “What’s the point? Are they trying to out-fly each other?”
She shakes her head and a strand of silky hair brushes against my lips with a hint of apple scent. “Gamers get five minutes warm-up with the vehicles.”
“What if you fire early?”
The lights flash off and signal the start. Ship One fires, hitting Five, and hits another from behind. Flames erupt along the jelly seal. It looks real. Hot, burning, real.
“It is real,” Megs says.
I glance down at her but she’s watching the game. Am I so easy to read?
The ships don’t get much of a chance to fire on each other before a line of green objects appear above them and move down in a regular pattern. The ‘aliens’ of the game. These fire in a regular pattern and are quickly dispatched but cause an engine to fail when they collide with a ship.
There’s a lull between the first and second wave of descending aliens. I picture LEVEL ONE COMPLETE flashing up on a screen. Ship Three takes the opportunity to strike at Ship Four. An explosion in the smaller craft’s right wing sends it ricocheting off a large rock. It smashes into the ground, causing an appreciative ‘oh’ to ripple through the crowd. This isn’t a game for teamwork. I don’t need Megs to spell out there will be only one winner.
I point to the still-burning craft. “What if the guy in there is hurt?”
“There’s an emergency lever inside, but if the player uses it they can’t play again for a month.”
After the next wave of aliens is dealt with, only ships One and Three remain and they’ve both taken hits. They circle each other, using the debris for cover. Three scores a good hit, and One crashes to the ground.
As the lights come back on people hurry out to attend to the other ships. The winner’s lifted on her friends’ shoulders and three others are able to hobble out. A small crowd gathers around Ship One. A couple of assistants have a stretcher ready. It takes two others to get the girl out of the ship’s harness. Her chin rests on her chest. Blood runs down the side of her face and seeps into her white t-shirt. She’s placed on the stretcher and carried out another exit. Even with my enhanced focusing ability she doesn’t move. At all.
I can’t help but wonder whether she landed like that or wanted to play again so desperately that she chose not to signal for help. It looks like fun, sure, but that good? Maybe there’s a decent prize.
“What does the winner get?”
“The player chooses before the start of the game.” She shrugs. “Money usually. Information sometimes.” Her eyes narrow. “Sometimes people have stuff they want to know.”
I moisten dry lips. I guess I haven’t hidden that I’m a stranger and she’s a smart girl. My gaze returns to the place the girl was carried out, my breath fogging the glass. “The loser, what’s in it for them? Injury? Death?”
“They get to play the game. A game isn’t worth playing unless the stakes are high. It’s simple, don’t lose, and don’t get hit. Play to win.”
Unexpected anticipation zings through my veins. For all my questions, I want to play. I want to play desperately, now that I know winning could help me get information. The draw of the game comes from deep within me. Have I played it before?
Megs prods me in the arm. “We’re up.”
We expose our wristbands and the crowd parts to let us through. I follow Megs’ lead and remove my jacket at the entry. I’m careful to tuck the weapon I stole this morning out of sight in the inside pocket, roll it up and leave it on a bench. I didn’t realize how much I appreciated having it within easy reach until I have nothing.
We draw lots for the ships. It’s a fresh set as the ones from the first match are in pieces. Now I get why they looked patched together. I’m in Ship Four, Megs is in One. A blond older woman and a guy about my age are the other players.
I head toward my ship with what I hope is a confident stride. It all comes to a halt when I can’t even work out how to open the hatch. The ship’s mostly a metallic gray and there are no obvious buttons or levers. There’s a welded together crack down the middle. The lumps and bumps give a little beneath my fingertips as I run my hand over the join.
“Newbie?” a young tech guy asks.
I must look as out of place as I feel. There’s no point denying it. “Yeah.”
He flashes a grin. “I’ll be gentle.”
I glance over toward Megs. She slides into her craft while a girl tech assistant readies the harness. An excited energy gives her a kind of glow. She catches me looking and winks.
“Ready, bro?” The tech guy’s waiting with the hatch open. I was too busy looking at Megs to see how he did it. I slip off my shoes. The plastic crate I stand on to get in cracks beneath my weight but holds steady long enough that I perch over the opening.
It’s pretty dark inside. I hesitate and the assistant notices.
“Slide into the central cavity and then slip an arm into each of the side pockets. It’s like a huge great suit of armor.” The tech guy chuckles at his own description. “Except it flies. And you’d be screwed if you tried to ride a horse wearing it.”
The guy might as well be speaking a different language. I understand enough to position my bare feet over the middle of the opening and drop, or more accurately, fall in. The squishy insides of the machine mold to my body on contact. When I slide my arms into the slots the guy points out, it feels like a big glove.
“I’m in. I think.”
“Cool. Can you feel the different levers in the hand compartments?”
I stretch my hands, getting a feel for all the buttons and levers inside. “Yes.”
“Make a fist with either hand and punch three times to trigger the emergency.”
The anticipation in my stomach ramps up to nerves. I nod.
“When I lower the hatch you’ll see the other emergency trigger button. Just smash your head against that one.” He laughs. “The whole thing is pretty well insulated. We haven’t lost a player permanently yet.”
The safety talk takes a while. All my competitors have their hatches lowered already. Hopefully it’s just because I’m new, not that I look like I’m going to need it.
He lowers the hatch. It’s black inside. My heart thuds and I resist the urge to stretch. There’s a beep from somewhere above my right ear and a display appears in front of my eyes.
Megs was right. One of the prizes is ‘archive access’, whatever that means. I choose it with a flick of my wrist.
The controls are self-explanatory. There are levers for up and down, forward, and back, as well as several fire buttons. Movement of the hands, head, and feet control them. A countdown timer tells me I have ten seconds to lift off. When the engine kicks on, it vibrates through my whole body. The other ships around me rise into the game space and I lose sight of which one is Megs.
I need to work this out fast. The boring warm-up time when I was watching is slipping away too fast now I need to work out how to fly this thing. The controls fit into my hands like they belong and I feel the extra levers at my feet. No wonder I needed to lose my shoes. The display is down to four minutes by the time I rise with a flex of my arm muscles, jerking up into the air. There’s none of the smooth ascension of the other ships.
I duck and send the ship into a roll. My head slams into the brace on my right, and pain radiates from the contact. What the hell was that?