“Got any ideas?” I asked Keith quietly. The discarded glowsticks from Allison’s first attack were still burning bright, and they cast weird shadows across his face.
Keith dropped down to crouch beside me. “Why do you think I do?”
“You said you were gonna be my spotter, right? Warn me of upcoming traps and dangers? I gotta think you’ve got a few ideas.” I hacked up a ball of phlegm that had been choking me and spat it out into the trees.
“Allison fights like you better than you do.”
“I’m pretty good at reading people. You fight like a robot, but I don’t think that’s because that’s who you are. That IS who Allison is. You read as many after-action reports from other players she’s “killed” as I have, you get a sense for someone.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I haven’t said this in a while, but you’re seriously weird.”
“She’s a machine, you’re trying to be one. I’ve got no idea why, but that’s what I see.”
“And that has WHAT exactly to do with me beating her?” I was getting annoyed, and was starting to think Keith’s car door might be locked when he tried to get in.
“You can’t beat her playing a good imitation of her. If you’re gonna win, you’ve got to stop that, start playing like yourself.”
“Thank you Rhonda Byrne,” I snapped. “What do you MEAN?”
“Who are you?” Keith replied. “Who were you before you started acting like her?”
I took a breath and tried to relax my mind, tried to get it to fit around what the whacko next to me was saying.
“Dammit.” I rose. “Ok. Here we go”
I grabbed up one of the glowsticks and shoved it in my bag, and then moved quickly up the path. The trees grew closer and closer around us, and a smell of…cheese…filled the air, and then we were in the main flower gardens. Small sheds rose from the ground across the garden, and concrete paths lined with tall bushes and flowers led between picturesque clearings. I reacted without thinking and took a snapshot at someone sprinting down the path towards us. They became aware of our presence there when the water impacted their shirt. I advanced methodically down the path, nozzle whipping over the angles, covering every possible ambush point. I turned the thinking down to point where my consciousness was like a first person shooter.
Reflex, move and shoot.
At the arched entrance to another garden, a woman was standing, covered behind the tall bushes, trading shots with someone inside. I splashed her against the side of the head, rounded the corner into the garden and fired three shots, driving her attacker to cover behind the edge of a bush. I shifted my aim over a hair and held down the trigger, pushing the water through the leaves and into their shirt. I stepped out of the garden, back onto the path, and kept moving.
The edge of the garden we were on looked down into the valley from the opposite side we’d been seeing. A rustic wooden fence strung between the church and the gazebo kept people from falling down the steep grade.
I looked around, plugging the variables into my calculations.
This was it.
I reached into my satchel and pulled out the glowstick, and gave it a powerful underhand loft into the air. “Hey Allison!” I shouted. “Bring it!”
I led the way over to the church and turned the handles of the double glass doors. They opened, and we walked into the cool, shady interior. Those white plastic chairs formed an aisle down the center to a podium. Behind the podium were two more doors, leading out onto a small deck. The air was oddly still despite the screens over the windows that made up each side.
“Well.” I dropped into one of the chairs and turned to look at the door. “Now we wait.”
Keith walked over to the podium and gripped either side like he was either going to rip it up and throw it at me or deliver the most hellfire-and-brimstone-speech ever given. The beard really did make him look like Obi-wan. “And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’”
I stared at him, confusion gradually growing hotter and more painful. “…the hell?”
“My favorite verse,” he said simply. “Genesis thirty three five.”
“What are you talking about? Why…?”
Keith pointed out the glass door. “We’re about to have company.” Then he retreated to the farthest back corner of the church, bringing his camera up to eye level.
I shook my head to clear it of errant thoughts, and stalked towards the doors, threw one of them open. I stood as much behind it as I could, Vanquisher pointed towards the lawn outside.
Allison stood a few yards outside the doors, what looked like the CPS Two thousand I’d seen earlier held loosely by its carrying handle. “Hey Sam.”
“Any reason for us to talk?”
“None at all.”
She brought the long cylindrical water gun up with remarkable speed, stepping away as I blasted liquid through where she was standing. Her return fire splattered all over the door next to me, and then she was weaving all across the lawn, never retreating, always coming closer.
Mist blew across my face in large drops, and as much as it pained me to do so, I retreated back into the church. Allison took the door in an instant, posting up behind it and sweeping the interior with water.
I threw myself to the floor and pulled myself into the cover of the chairs, then elbow-crawled to the podium. I put my back to it and pumped back to full pressure, then leaned out to take a shot at Allison. It was a simple matter for her to duck back behind the doorframe, and I didn’t have a good angle anyway.
Trapped. Keith had said I had to stop playing like her. Smart. So I had, apparently. I’d started playing like an idiot.
I rose and fired over the podium at the door, keeping Allison pinned outside. I didn’t have a chance in hell of hitting anything, but that wasn’t the point. I had to put as much distance between myself and her as I could. My back hit the doors behind the podium, and I reached behind with my left hand to fumble with the knobs.
I fired off one more burst at Allison, and then dropped behind the podium again, repressurized.
I was trapped.
My plan had been to escape out the deck doors at the back of the church, climb down the hill and into the valley again. Now, I couldn’t get out at all.
Well, that wasn’t true. The windows were only covered by screens. But the side facing the visitor’s center was thickly wooded – dive out that way and I’d be a sitting duck for Allison. Dive out the right side, and I’d likely do a barrel roll down all the way down into the valley, probably get hurt.
I looked around for Keith, maybe he had some advice. He was gone, Allison must’ve let him out. Water skipped off the floor by my feet, and I one handed the bullpup soaker around the side of the podium, took a few shots without looking.
Play like yourself.
I tried to imagine what it would be like bouncing and falling down that hill uncontrollably.
Like pushing the car up to a hundred and fifty, looking deep down inside, I could honestly say I didn’t care what happened to me.
Screw it, let’s go. I’d drop a couple bucks for the screen on my way out.
I stood, expended the whole pressure chamber at the door, pushing Allison back behind cover. I pushed off explosively, two long fast strides to the right and then I propelled myself upwards, hitting the screen with my shoulder and ducking my head.
The shatter of glass was as loud as gunfire. So that was why the air had been so still…
The strike of my head against the glass was like hitting concrete, and my thoughts scattered as I went airborne out the window. The resistance of the glass retarded my jump, and I dropped quickly onto the slope.
Covered with manicured grass, the steep slope should’ve been soft. It wasn’t. I felt every rock, every stick, every rise and fall in terrain. Every impact of my body against the ground.
By the time my wits had returned enough to consider doing anything about my descent I was most of the way down, and I weakly tried to cover my head to no success.
I hit the path with a jarring impact that flopped me limply in the woodchips.
I tried to raise my head and didn’t have the strength. Every part of me hurt, so bad it didn’t hurt at all.
I couldn’t muster up the conviction to care. Maybe I’d gotten my wish.
My head fell back to the ground and the world faded away with loud rush.
I walked out of the hospital onto the busy Phoenix street.
I felt numb.
Well, they say knowing is better. At least I knew why my hands had been shaking.
I opened my cellphone and punched up my contact list. There were people who could help me feel better about this, or at least take my mind off it. And right now, I was going to meet them in a bar.
The Mexican soldier draped a piece of black cloth over the driver’s side rear view, then walked around to the other side of the semi’s cab and did the same thing on the passenger side. Apparently they were following John Callan’s instructions that I not find out the cargo to extremes.
He’d told me that if I stepped out of the cab I’d be shot, making sure I couldn’t look behind the truck probably seemed logical to them.
I could feel the vibration of the trailer’s door sliding up, and then boots hammering the floor inside.
I was sitting in the cab of a semi on pain of death, on the wrong side of the Mexican border, while soldiers loaded an unknowable cargo into the trailer. If I was caught hauling whatever it was, the police unit that had contracted me would disavow all knowledge of my actions.
The things we do for money.
I set the army bag down on the church floor with a heavy clunk and leaded against the podium. “Hey.”
No one answered.
“So…we gotta talk. The guy out in the lobby says you’re responsible for all the good in my life…I guess that means you’re responsible for all the bad too. Not my mistakes, those are mine, I made ‘em. But mom, dad, Austin all dying in front of me, this…thing in my head? Yeah, if you’re responsible for it all, you’re responsible for it ALL, you feel me?
“Last few years, I kinda…declared war on you. I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me. For what you’d done. For what you MADE me. And you’re kinda hard to reach, so I tried, really tried to piss you off.”
I sighed, tried to think of what to say, thought of how ridiculous this was. “I stacked my sins to heaven, I guess I hoped that the sight would offend you. And still you ignored me.
“Recently occurred to me that if I was trying to offend you, I guess that means I believe in you. Things kinda got put in perspective recently…and I am sorry. I ain’t gonna ask you to forgive me, I wouldn’t forgive me, and I don’t think you’re that nice anyway. But I really do hate that I wasted the short life you gave me trying to make you ashamed of me.
“I know it’s too late for me, I can’t be helped, I can’t be saved. But those kids can be. From a life even worse than mine. So I’m gonna go out tonight and do my best, and leave the end in your hands, where it’s always been. Do what you want with me, I’m yours. Help me or stop me, it’s up to you. Just please…”
I’d been talking fast, nervous. I stopped, took a breath. “Please don’t let me die before I get them out of there. After that…” I smiled. “I’ll see you soon.”
I picked up the bag. The contents inside settled with a clunk, and near the top, the heavy black welder’s mask slipped out and fell to the floor with a clatter. I set the bag down again and picked it up, turned it over. Polarized black lenses over the eyes, flat from the bump of a nose on down. Matte black. It looked like some sort of ancient death mask. Tonight that was probably symbolic of something. I’d just bought it to protect my face from shrapnel.
I tucked the mask back in the bag and walked out without a backwards glance.
The world came back in haze, blurry becoming clear in patches. The night sky overhead was only differentiated from the blackness behind my eyes by the big full moon. Allison was far down the path, getting nearer. I could tell it was her from the moonlight shining on her almost albino-colored hair.
I could move my head and my hands, and I rolled my head from side to side, looking around. My satchel had come off during my descent, and was laying well within arm’s reach. The Vanquisher was nowhere to be seen. I reached out and dug my hand into the bag, pulled out the Triple Shot. Looked like it was still intact. I pushed it down until it was concealed next to my right leg, then let my head roll to the side, and closed my eyes.
After a moment, crunching footsteps approached, and then I could feel someone staring at me.
“Hi Sam,” Allison said.