“We’re here,” Nicole said as we pulled into the parking lot. I folded the papers I’d been studying and uncurled my legs from beneath me. Mouse had found a veritable goldmine of information on the girl; there was a lot to learn.
I couldn’t see the sun through the pouring sheets of rain. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought it to be the middle of the night, due to the gloom that settled so heavily over everything. I slipped my shoes on and tucked the laces down the side, not bothering to tie them. I climbed out, slammed the door behind me and sprinted for the covered walkway surrounding the mall.
From the way Mouse had explained it, I’d been expecting the place to be full of kids. I’d been a little embarrassed about the idea of competing against people half my age, but we really needed the money.
Stepping inside, I was shocked to see a room full of grown men, stretching and warming up.
We walked into the registration area, weaving between the people scattered around the room.
“Heya,” the young guy behind the desk greeted. “You here for the competition?”
I nodded, smiling.
“Great.” He eyed us warily, his gaze settling on Briana’s sandals. “Have you ever done this before?”
“We’ve never used these guns, no,” I responded.
He seemed a little shocked.
“Are you sure you want to enter? It’ll cost you two hundred bucks for the team: it’s a waste of money if you’re going to get knocked out in the first round.” He sounded like he was trying to dissuade us.
“Trust me, we’ll be fine,” I murmured, giving him a smile to back up the confidence in my voice. I silently prayed I was right. We couldn’t afford to lose two hundred dollars.
He sighed, shook his head but handed us the enrollment forms nonetheless. “You need to pay and hand those in over there.” He pointed at another desk by a door lit with blue lights.
“What’s our team name going to be?” Mouse asked, staring at the sheet in her hand.
“The Sphinx,” Nicole said with a hint of laughter. “Or is it the Sphinxes? What’s the plural?”
“I don’t know,” I wondered aloud, “how about the Chimaeras?”
We filled the papers in before handing them, and our not-so-hard-earned cash, over to the guy behind the other counter.
“The Chimaeras?” His face screwed up in disgust. “Why’d you name yourself after a fish?”
“It’s not the fish.” Mouse was trying not to laugh. “It’s the mythical creature.”
“Sure, whatever.” He obviously wasn’t convinced. “And you’ve never played before?”
“Nope,” Nicole replied.
He gave us the same look as the first guy. They both thought we were stupid. “So, I need to show you how to use the suits?”
We all nodded in unison.
He led us through the blue-lit door into a dim room with a blue glow along the walls. The suits were hung over thick pipes. Those with red lights on the shoulders on the right, green on the left.
He demonstrated how the suits were to be worn and adjusted, explaining the sensors and how to operate the gun. It was basic and I had to admit I couldn't wait to get going. The only issue was the cast on my arm.
The gun required a second hand for a button at the front to enable the trigger. The cast prevented me from gripping the barrel of the weapon properly.
We removed the suits and were led back to the registration area again. I dragged Mouse to the car, dashing through the rain. With her help, I cut the cast from between my fingers and thumb. She used the heavy-duty pair of scissors from the first aid kit to hack away chunks of plaster. It let me move my fingers and grip things more easily, while leaving the rest of my arm enclosed. The cast would be okay to come off in a couple of days anyway, and boy, was I looking forward to it. The itch was driving me mad!
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” The worry was evident on her face.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’ll leave the rest of the cast on. Besides, it wasn’t my actual hand that was broken.”
She just rolled her eyes.
We returned just in time for the briefing. There were sixteen teams and it was a knockout tournament. We’d be in the last match of the first round against a team that called themselves The Savages. Seven teams would have already been eliminated by the time we played.
There were six on their team. All of them looked to be in their late twenties, and all were dressed in blacks and grays.
Casting my eyes around our group, I had to laugh; we wore sneakers, except Briana, but our clothing was not what could be called inconspicuous. The other team eyed us over and amusement lit their faces.
“Head start?” their captain offered, obviously underestimating us.
I smirked. “Yeah sure, go ahead.”
He laughed, caught off-guard.
The same guy went over the rules with us again before we were released into the black-lit maze. We let them in first before following the guide’s instructions to find our base. The siren sounded, and the games began.
We worked our way around the maze in pairs, one on point, one providing cover, as we were trained. Each pair took a different route through the dark walls.
It probably wasn’t fair—not only had we trained for this sort of event our entire lives, but our senses and reflexes were at least twice as good as theirs.
The music in the darkened hall pounded, but I concentrated, focusing my ears until I could differentiate the sounds of heart beats and foot falls from the music. I listened carefully, leading Mouse in the direction of our prey.
I heard them coming and crouched. They came around the corner, about ten feet in front of us. I fired, hitting them both on the smallest sensors on their shoulders and earning us the highest possible points for the kill. The two I’d just ‘killed’ swore and ran back to their base so their suits would reactivate.
We moved forward again, and again we heard them. This time they were hiding, trying to set a trap. I crept toward the corner before dropping to my belly and crawling low along the ground. I lay in the middle of the passage and yelled. They bounded ‘round the corner, thinking they had me. My aim was true and I shot them straight in the chest causing the lights of their suits to extinguish.
After fifteen minutes the siren sounded again for half time. I pulled myself to my feet and we made our way into the registration area again. There were water bottles waiting for us, plus the opportunity to watch replays of the game so far so we could study our opponents. The other team gathered around their screen, trying to figure out our strategy. We relaxed.
The second half went as badly for them as the first. Their study of our technique had offered no fool-proof method to defeat us.
We thrashed them—there was no other word for it. The computer screen showed the team scores, as well at the individual. Every time someone hit another player on the chest, that person earned one thousand points, two thousand if you hit an opponent's gun or shoulders and one hundred thousand if a team destroyed the other team's base.
Not only did we take their base, but not a single one of their players had managed to gain any points. Everyone else was confused about how some random girls had come in and beat a ‘world-ranked’ team.
We were shocked that this game had enough of a following for teams to have ‘world ranks’. The opposition fumed, especially the joker who’d thought to give us a head start. “You said you’d never done this before!”
“We haven’t,” I responded coolly. “It’s tactics and common sense, not rocket science.”
No one else came near us, leaving us to watch the other bouts on our own.
Our next two games came and went in much the same fashion, although the third game wasn’t a complete white wash. Briana was shot twice in the chest, which resulted in her throwing a right royal hissy fit.
The last game wasn’t difficult either. They wouldn’t know that we could hear them. It didn’t matter how quietly they breathed or cautiously they moved. We walked away with the two thousand dollars, which was a huge relief for our pockets.