“Come on, pass it you wimp!” Malak shouted from across the arena. Jonathan raised an eyebrow and looked over at Maya who shrugged.
“He’s eager to lose, isn’t he?” Jonathan let out a light hearted laugh as he gripped the worn stick in his hand with padded hands. Maya shrugged, brushing her red hair away from her face. Most of it was bound behind her head but a few strands had broken free and were falling into her eyes. She blinked against the sun and sweat stinging and blurring her vision. Like Jonathan she wore a set of makeshift pads that were probably about as effective as corrugated paper, and a plastic helmet with a set of symmetrical holes running from front to back to enhance ventilation. Today was different; they normally played on the same side but through luck of the draw they’d ended up on opposite sides of the Cagem arena. Malak slammed his stick against the ground, the plastic scoop slapping the steel arena floor and reverberating through the bowl-shaped space. Jonathan shook his head and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Maya made some comment that was quickly drowned out by the sound of the roaring crowd in the stands around them. This wasn’t a sanctioned match but whenever Malak and Jonathan squared off, crowds were sure to show up. He seemed especially smug at having drawn Maya for his own team.
“Looks like the power couple isn’t together today!” Malak shouted, laughing. “You’re dead meat, Mulgrew!”
“He talks a lot,” Jonathan said to Carlos, next to him.
“Man just focus on the game, would you?” Carlos snapped. “He likes to go left, we can snap the ball away from him and-”
“Too late!” Jonathan watched as Malak veered left, just as Carlos had predicted, his hover-skates screaming against the metal bowl as he dodged in and out of the padded barricades. Jonathan quickly cleared the barricade poles and shot straight for Malak as a teammate shot the ball across the area, straight toward Malak’s waiting scoop. He reached his scoop forward, extending his arm as far as humanly possible, leaning forward as far as his skates would allow without sending himself tumbling against the arena. In he shot, straight, like a shot, veering just slightly to keep up with the steady trajectory of the ball. He drew back his stick, keeping his eye on the ball and ready to scoop at any second. Just a little closer and he’d-
Suddenly, he let out a brief scream just before the wind was knocked from his chest; a shoulder plowed into his midsection, sending him barreling across the arena and bouncing against of the barricades, his stick clattered against the ground as he struggled to keep a grip on the shaft.
“What the hell Maya?” He glared at his friend who grinned back, wiping a strand of hair from her face again and giving a slight shrug.
“It’s still a game, Johnny!”
“Oh, you little-” Jonathan was quickly cut off by the whoosh of the hard plastic ball shooting past his head, inches from his ear as it blasted toward the center of the arena, toward the goal. There was a loud ‘ding’ as the ball passed through the barrier and vanished beneath the pedestal, down the tube and into the tunnel system beneath the arena. In a moment it would emerge from one of the four openings and the game would start again.
“Don’t help him!” Jonathan shouted.
“She’s on my team, Johnny boy!” Malak shouted from the center-goal. He pounded his stick against the ground, the rest of his team did the same, shouting in some ort of primal scream. Johnathan looked around to the rest of his team. Useless.
“Don’t just stand there, do something!” Johnathan shouted to Carlos.
“Like what?” Carlos demanded.
“Play the game!” Johnathan screamed. “See the round ball? Don’t let it-”
Just as he spoke, a fwoop announced the exit of the ball from one of the openings, it cracked against his helmet, causing him to stumble backward and nearly drop his stick. The game was on again; the eight members of each team sprung to life, jolting across the arena in pursuit of the ball. It was just three inches across, white and scuffed; easy enough to recognize, hard as hell to catch. He took pause for a moment, surveying the scene round him. Players were moving in all directions, Carlos shot up the side of the bowl and moved parallel to the ground as his stick scraped the floor, ready to catch the ball at a moment’s notice. Another, smaller girl rushed the center, screaming as she went. Jonathan stood there for a moment, the lev-skates holding him just two inches above the floor of the arena, they bobbed a bit under his weight. He pressed the gripped toe of his shoe to the ground and gave it a drag, propelling himself forward, quickly toward the edge of the bowl. A few more pushes and he was off; faster and faster and faster until the world and the players around him were a blur. He dodged an arm here, a stick there, and at one point ducked to evade an actual punch. He thought he could here Malak shouting at him as he shot up the edge of the bowl, his feet scraping the sides as he shot past the lip, suddenly free of the constraints of gravity for just a single moment in time. He drew his knees to his chest for a moment, allowing himself to somersault through the air, and then, assisted by the lev-skates, he kicked hard, pushing against the side of the bowl and propelling himself inward, across the arena, toward the goal. It was there, just as he’d predicted; the ball was hanging mid-air, all he had to do was scoop and slam it right into the goal. He hung upside down, his eyes laser-focused on the white sphere as it rotated slowly. His muscles tensed and his hands gripped the shaft of the stick, ready to bring it to bear, ready to grab. From the corner of his eye, he could see the stands, the cheering spectators, their shouts reduced to a dull roar as his senses slowed, but he also saw Zema, the tiny black haired girl snaking her way through the crowd, toward the player box where Malak’s leather satchel sat unguarded for the moment.
She’d stood in the back for the start of the match and waited for the optimal moment, which seemed to be now as Johnathan was practicing his ridiculous acrobatics. She grinned and moved forward, snaking through countless legs and pushing past several full grown adults until finally she descended from the last bench and ducked beneath the railing that separated the rest of the arena from the player box - the staging area that the teams used just before game - just before they slid onto the arena floor supported by those green glowing hover boots. She paused for a moment, looking out in envy as Johnathan was unceremoniously wacked from the air by Maya’s stick just before he could land his scoop on the ball. He let out a ragged scream as he flopped to the side and wiped out three of his own team before bouncing against the bowl and rolling down, coming to a brief rest at the bottom as Malak scored yet another goal.
Zema looked on in wonder, imagining how it must feel to wear the lev-skates, to float weightlessly in the air, to move without friction. It must be like flying and she couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to take them off. She’d asked Maya to try them on once, but of course her ‘feet were too small’ and she would ‘just hurt herself’. Lost in thought, she stood there in the box watching the players move rapidly in seemingly random directions until suddenly a voice shouted in her direction.
“Hey! That bitch is stealing my stuff!” Malak had stopped moving and pointed a finger in Zema’s direction. For a moment she’d completely forgotten where she was and what she was doing, but now she was standing here, Malak’s satchel in hand and in full view of his Cagem team. She locked eyes Maya for a split second and then turned, letting her feet and pure instinct lead the way as she bolted up the ramp and toward the edge of the Cagem arena, Malak and his team in tow.
Johnathan coughed and worked his way to his knees, winded and glaring at Maya who was already bolting, stick still in hand as she propelled herself forward.
The Cagem arena had been built atop a condemned building; the frame comprised of composite wood boards, the bowl simply think strips of metal that had been welded together and reinforced, brought up piecemeal over the course of several years. Sometimes it was a wonder to Johnathan that it even held together. The thin metal bellowed beneath his hands as he scrambled to his feet and pushed off, allowing the frictionless lev-shoes to hurl him forward, toward the edge of the bowl in pursuit of Maya and the others. He didn’t have nearly enough momentum to propel himself out of the arena, so he instead pushed as far as he could and then slammed his palms onto the lip, pulling himself upward and rolling across the gray composite wood. Seconds later he was on his feet, hovering just a few inches above the wood and shooting forward as quickly as the lev-skates would allow. He vaulted over the railing, hot on Zema’s tail and winced as he endured a three foot drop that he would have much rather taken in regular shoes. His arms shot out as he tried to maintain his balance, his two feet trying to shoot out in different directions and grabbing at nothing. Using the toe of his left shoe he stabilized himself and vaulted forward, a frictionless ride toward the edge of the building, moving faster and faster as he gritted his teeth and shot across a pair of wooden planks that spanned this building and the next, bridging a gap that he probably shouldn’t have peered down at as he crossed. His stomach lurched as he cleared the gap and shot across the next building, taking a right around a piece of machinery jutting from the roof top and pushing himself into a crouching position as he neared the edge. Ducking under a length of silver pipe, he pushed up in the next motion, leaping atop another pipe an riding the length down the building, bridging the next rooftop and intercepting the group of Cagem players attempting to close distance between themselves and Zema. They were on another rooftop, opposite of him running in the same direction. He cursed silently as he looked for a way to cross, wondering what he’d missed. The Cagem players were gaining on her, Malek in the lead. He watched as Maya quickly shot up behind them, cracking one of the players in the head with her stick; he flew out of control and attempted to gain purchase on the rooftop as his lev-shoes spun him out of control. He finally fell backward, slamming his back into the rooftop as his legs shot up into the air. That was why you kept the stupid boots to the arena - this was insane. There was barely any leg movement, just his full one hundred and twenty pounds barreling forward in direct defiance of the laws of physics as he attempted to keep a grip on his direction. Then it happened. Zema caught his eye from the opposite rooftop and hurled the satchel in his direction as she veered away. The leather bag spun away end over end as it traversed the cap between buildings. Johnathan made his decision in a split second and in any scenario it was the wrong decision. He took a flying leap from his building, hurling himself into the void, stick extended. His stomach lurched as he left solid ground and the lev-shoes emitted a high pitched warning beep as they made a vain attempt to find something to push against. They were useless this high up.
He seemed to hang in the air for five minutes, maybe even ten as he brough the stick to bear, the scoop intercepting the leather satchel in a movement that seemed to take forever. Then, all at once, he fell, stick in hand, satchel in scoop, and his arse plummeting toward the hardcrete. He raised his eyes skyward, staring at the scoop as if it could somehow break his fall and then, all at once he extended his legs and slammed feet-first into the ground. The lev-shoes broke his fall, but not by much, and a rising air cushion propelled him forward, shooting him down the alley and into the street.
With a grunt and pathetically withdrawn scream, he slammed into a rusted out car, long since dropped to the hardcrete from its now defunct lev-boosters. He sprawled across the hood, flopping end over end and slamming into the hardcrete. The satchel fell, bouncing against his head to add insult to injury.
“Come on!” He shouted as he briefly nursed a bloody knee that peeked out from beneath his shredded pants leg. He stumbled to his feet, less than gracefully as he tried to maintain his balance. Finally, he allowed his feet to drop back out from under him, dropping to the hardcrete and slapping the lev-shoes a few times. The soles buzzed a few times, and then the neon-green running lights died. They weren’t going to do well as running shoes but it was better than floating everywhere like an uncoordinated ice-skater. Standing up, he wove through a line of dead cars and stumbled onto the sidewalk, satchel in hand; another alley stood in front of him, offering plenty of hiding spots.
“You have some nerve, Mulgrew,” Malak’s voice boomed from the alley ahead. They’d beaten him here, somehow. Malak stepped forward, out of the mouth of the alley, out of the shadows that concealed him. His stick still in his right hand, tapping against his right palm. He reached up, grinned as he discarded the helmet and threw it against the ground. On Johnathan’s left and right Malak’s Cagem team approached, sticks in hand, slow and steady. In that moment, Johnathan wondered what the hell had happened to his own team? Where was Carlos? What about Maya? Zema had an excuse, she was tiny.
As he stood there the stinging in his knee reminded him that he was vulnerable, the air teased the open cut and blood dripped from his pant leg. He gritted his teeth and looked from his left to right. Three on one side, four on the other, Malek straight ahead. He didn’t have much time to contemplate a plant of attack as one of the players on his right side swung their Cagem stick, catching him in the side of the knee. He screamed, bellowing at the top of his lungs as he stumbled forward, nearly dropping the satchel. Then another, this one across his stomach, and another across the back of his head. He dropped to his knees, a spot of blood forming on the hardcrete below him. One drop. Two drops. Three. Another stick came down, this time on his back. He plummeted to the hardcrete, hands scraping the grain and slicing open as they splayed out in front of him. A steady trail of blood followed each palm as he dropped, letting out a cry of pain.
“Guess you ran out of nerve,” Malak stepped forward, Johnathan looked up, face bruised and too hurt to move again. Johnathan coughed and sputtered, trying desperately to command his body to move but Malak raised his stick above his head. Dammit Maya, he thought. Just as a string of curse words passed through his mind, he saw her. A small, feminine shape shooting through his field of vision, crouched and gliding on the lev-shoes. She moved fast, the stick jolting forward and cracking against his knee. He dropped instantly, slamming into the ground and letting out a heavy oscillating scream as his stick clattered to the ground in front of him. The three players on his left looked around nervously but it didn’t last long. Another small shape flew out from their right, cracking one of them on the head and knocking him on his stomach. A second hit and the girl on the right fell onto her side. The remaining players spread out quickly; Maya flew in, taking a swing at the biggest one but quickly found herself overpowered. It had been a good try, really.
Malak grabbed his stick and used it to support himself as he struggled to his feet, towering over Johnathan and preparing a final strike. It was over. And then it wasn’t. He arrived quickly; not on lev-shoes but on his own two feet. There was no fancy sliding, no clever movements, just his arm and a rusted steel pipe. It shot out faster than Johnathan could have swung his stick, catching Malak in the side and knocking him three feet to the right as if he were a rag doll. He crumpled onto the ground and the figure stood over him. The remaining players looked to the man, looked to eachother, and then scattered as Malak did the same, scrambling to his feet and running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
The man sighed slammed the end of the pipe onto the ground, leaning on it for support.
“Jonathan Mulgrew,” He said in a scratchy voice, leaning forward and glaring at the four of them. “Maya Ten, and you other two little shits. I ain’t ‘ow many times I got to tell you. You’re gonna do stupid? Then you’re gonna do stupid and ain’t none can stop you, but don’t get caught doing stupid!”
“Old man,” Johnathan coughed and struggled to regain his feet. “All you do is stupid!”
“Is that the truth of it then?” The Sand laughed and banged the copper pipe against a nearby car. “Then tell me how’s it that I’m the one standin’, and you’re the one layin?”
He let out a bellow that reverberated through the alley, Mariel groaned and rested against one of the old cars while Maya moved forward to help Johnathan to his feet. As he regained dominance of the vertical, he frowned and perked his ears. His curiosity turned to horror as the sound of an oscillating siren tore through the Zone, blasting in between buildings and filling up the air around them like a flood.
“We have to go.”