When they arrived at the locker room, there was a fresh set of blader gear sitting next to an empty locker. The breastplate had large holes in the back for his wings.
“Wow, a suit of blader gear made for sentients,” Mikaen said, picking up the breastplate, “and what do you know? It just happens to be my size. How convenient.”
There was a sudden flush in Jek’s cheeks, telling Mikaen everything he needed to know.
Mikaen wasn’t really surprised; he had suspected that Jyle was probably going to spring this on him at half-time. The impending Ronisgald mission aside, Jyle had been eager to help Mikaen find something non-combative to do with his life.
“So,” said Jek as Tirinia helped Mikaen strap on his armor, “I hear you’re leading a group of shadows to Ronisgald.”
Tirinia flashed Mikaen awarning glance. Mikaen gave her a subtle nod. No one had said anything to him about needing to keep Council information secret, but it still seemed somewhat questionable.
“Don’t worry,” said Jek with a laugh, “I already know about your plan. I hacked into the intercom before the Council started.”
Mikaen stared at him for a long moment before asking, “Did you tell your father?”
“Nope. For one, I’d have to admit I was listening in on the Council.” Chuckling, he added, “Second, I’d have to admit I stole his cyberdeck to do it.”
A smile crept across Mikaen’s face. “You’re definitely your father’s son.”
“Yeah well, I was thinking-”
“Okay, slamm fans! Grab your snacks and get back to your seats! The match will continue in two minutes!” Jyle’s magnified voice reverberated through the locker room.
Nodding, Jek looked at Mikaen. “Ready?”
“Almost.” Tirinia held the blader gauntlets out to Mikaen. As he slid his arms into the gauntlets, she slipped between his arms and gave him a kiss. “Be careful … but have fun too, okay?”
“I'll do my best, Tyr.”
With a final smile, Tirinia slipped out of his arms and left the locker room.
As Mikaen stretched a little to make sure he had a good range of movement, Jek suddenly blurted, “I want to come with you to Ronisgald. You said you needed a tekker, right? I'm every bit as good as my father, probably better.”
Before Mikaen could object, Jek added, “You don’t have to answer right now. Just think about it during the match, okay?”
Mikaen grinned despite himself. “Okay, but you should know that I don’t impress easily.
“Right.” Jek nodded. “We’d better get out to the field.”
They were almost out to the field when Jek suddenly stopped Mikaen. “Oh, I forgot to tell you: no magic.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Pretty much anything’s fair game, short of deliberately causing injury, but you can’t use any kind of magic. Only matches in the Center League sanction lifestream manipulation.”
“Yeah, Jyle said something about that. No magic, got it.”
As the doors opened onto the field, everything went silent. No cheering crowds, no Jyle announcing, not a peep other than the sound of the occasional bird. Mikaen looked around, but couldn’t see a trace of the arena aside from the door.
The other members of the Muonsol Marauders were waiting for them near an abandoned gas station.
“That’s Leeroy and Travers Jenkins,” said Jek as they approached, “Don’t bother trying to figure out which is which, they both look and act the same. Those guys leaning on the gas pump are our bladers, Yenk and Tryan. Jacob and Lenne are our tekkers, and the pretty redhead sitting on the trash can across from them is Shelle. She’s a blader too, one of the best in the league.”
“You found another blader!” said Leeroy or Travers (Jek was right; they both looked the same), “Whoa! He’s got wings too! Most excellent!”
“Is he any good?” asked Shelle.
“Everyone, this is Mikaen.” Jek said, “He’s an old friend of my father.”
“Mikaen? The sentient dude who took on the Galden Security Force and that dragon mech?” Yenk shook his butter-blonde head. “By the Creator, Jek! You weren’t kidding about getting backup, were you?”
“Combat’s one thing,” Lenne said, scratching her chin, “Is he a good blader is what I want to know.”
“One of the best.” Jek assured her
“Then why ain’t he on a team?” asked Shelle, putting her gauntleted hands on her hips.
A little miffed, Mikaen started to reply but was cut off by Jek. “Not the time, guys. We got about a minute left. Helmets on!”
As everyone put on their headgear, Jek continued, “We’re doin’ great so far, but be careful! We can’t afford another player loss.”
“Still not sure if we could afford this one.” Shelle muttered just loud enough for Mikaen to hear.
“Shelle, Yenk, you’re on point. Tryan and Mikaen, stay on guard. Everyone else, just keep up the good work, okay?”
As they broke, Yenk and Tryan flanked Mikaen on both sides.
“Been playing long?” Yenk asked casually as they skimmed across the ground.
“All my life.” replied Mikaen, grinning. “Though our equipment wasn’t quite as good as this.”
They took up their positions: Yenk and Shelle standing close to where the kyons were hovering while Tryan and Mikaen stood a good distance behind them.
As they waited, Mikaen glanced around the area. It had been a little while since his last visit, but he still remembered Bridges like the back of his hand: they were standing in a court in the center of the school, half way between the teams’ respective headquarters.
The kyons began to glow brightly. Jyle’s voice came through a speaker in Mikaen’s helmet, saying, “Everyone ready? 3 … 2 … 1 … GO!”
The kyons flew into the air. Every blader rushed forward, save Mikaen. In his experience, it was better to tag one of the people who grabbed a kyon and wait for an opportunity to steal it.
Seeing a heavily-built Brigade blader grab the kyon on the right, Mikaen quickly rushed after him. After a few seconds of sprinting, the overdrive function of the tek-boots kicked in, allowing him to skim across the ground.
The heavy-set blader rushed toward the old band hall, stopping once to bat aside Yenk. Mikaen stayed behind him, his eyes glued to the kyon. As they neared the building, Mikaen quickly shot ahead of the brigade blader and swung around on a pole that had once held a canopy over the walkway. With a bat of his energy blade, he knocked the Brigade blader off balance and snagged the kyon.
It was a strange sensation; Mikaen couldn’t tell he was holding anything, but at the same time he could feel the strangest tingling sensation spreading throughout his whole body.
Shelle came from nowhere and deflected an energy burst that would have hit Mikaen had she not been there.
Spinning about, she shouted, “What’re you standing around for? Head for their HQ before one of their damn tekkers pings you!”
“Right.” Shaking his head, Mikaen moved toward the football field.
By the time he reached the edge of the football field, the large blader was hot on his trail. Mikaen wasn’t surprised; in fact, he was counting on the blader’s pursuit.
As they started down the track that encircled the football field, Mikaen curled into a ball and rolled through a hole in the chain link fence. The metal edges scraped against his armor, but he managed to pass through without injury.
The big blader was so close behind him that he had no choice but to try and duck through the hole as well. Perhaps realizing that he’d never fit through the hold, he tried to jump over the fence a moment too late. One of his boots caught on the railing, sending the massive blader smashing into the ground.
Grinning, Mikaen continued along the bleachers toward the Brigade’s HQ. Stopping the blader was one thing, but he knew he it would be foolish to think that was all that stood between him and the Brigade guardian.
As he suspected, a watcher emerged from the stands the moment Mikaen leapt back on the track. Unencumbered by a kyon, the watcher moved toward him at an alarming speed.
Mikaen may have been inexperienced in the game of slamm that Jyle had invented, but he knew plenty about the old training exercise. When an opponent is faster than you, the key was to outmaneuver him.
Mikaen headed straight for the nearest rail, the watcher following closely behind. As the watcher raised a bladed hand to take him out, Mikaen tossed the kyon high in the air and skidded to a halt
The watcher’s swing bounced off Mikaen’s instantly recharged energy shield. With a backhand of his energy blade, Mikaen sent the watcher hurtling toward the rail. Unable to stop, the watcher crashed into the railing.
Kicking off the rail just inches from the watcher’s head, Mikaen leapt at the falling kyon. Once it was within range, he gave it a whack toward the concession stand.
The Brigade’s guardian didn’t move quite fast enough. As the kyon soared past him into the goal area, a loud siren shot through the air.
Mikaen felt a surge of satisfaction at his score. He knew wouldn’t get away with that tactic again, but he had more tricks up his sleeve.
His knowledge of the city proved most useful as he popped in and out of hidden tunnels in the school and the surrounding grounds. Sometimes he was followed, but many of the tunnels were apparently unknown, small surprise seeing as no one on Vinta or Earth had spent as much time in Bridges as Mikaen and Jyle.
Jek proved to be an excellent team leader. When he wasn’t calling out orders, he was giving away the positions of the Brigade from the roof of the Marauders’ HQ. His aim was exceptional; he once pegged a Brigade blader between the shoulder blades from across the school grounds.
It was a hectic match, but the Brigade was pulling just a bit ahead. The score indicator in Mikaen’s helmet read that the Brigade was in the lead by eleven points.
A little after the third quarter, Mikaen was on top of the old gym when he spotted a Brigade blader circling around the stadium, one of the Jenkins boys closing in fast from behind.
Rushing over to where the two would pass, Mikaen boosted up into the rafters beneath the bleachers and waited for the pair.
Whichever Jenkins it was managed to clip the blader’s leg, tripping him and sending the kyon shooting into the air.
Mikaen quickly grabbed it and slipped away before the Brigade blader could rise.
As he rushed toward the enemy HQ, feeling confident that he had a clear shot, a blue burst of energy missed him by a hair. He quickly hid behind an old ticket stand, glancing around to see where the shot had originated.
Something hit him in the back, knocking him forward. The Brigade watcher who had been hiding behind the stands skated past Mikaen, bouncing the kyon in the air between his sabers.
Quickly picking himself up, Mikaen hurried to reclaim the kyon. The watcher was technically faster, but couldn’t move at top speed as without a reserve gauntlet to hold the kyon she could only bounce it between her blades. Mikaen stayed on her as she rushed down the football field on a path straight to the band hall.
Mikaen was just barely able to reach out with his saber and smack the kyon back at himself while it was in midair. Catching it in his gauntlet as it fell, Mikaen made a run for the the Brigade HQ.
Hearing the slightly higher-pitched hum of the watcher’s tek-boots uncomfortably close, Mikaen decided to risk a shot. He blasted the kyon at the concession stand, though he could tell by the rate of deceleration that it would be easy to block. Sure enough, the Brigade guardian caught it easily and shot it back.
Mikaen made a dive, as did the Brigade watcher, but Jenkins who got there first. He swatted the kyon toward his twin, who had just emerged from the stands and heading toward the Brigand’s HQ. The other Jenkins brother easily knocked it past the confused guardian.
“Nice!” Mikaen called after them as they skated away. Behind him, the guardian shouted something in another language that sounded impolite.
“Mikaen,” said Jek’s voice through his helmet earpiece, “Get to the cafeteria and give Yenk a hand! He’s getting blitzed!”
“On my way.”
The cafeteria was near the middle of the high school campus, just in front of the kyons' starting point. Most of the entrances had long since rusted shut, but the main doors were mostly glass that had long since shattered.
As Mikaen drew near the walkway that led to the starting circle and the cafeteria, it suddenly occurred to him that he had met no resistance. If they were blitzing Yenk to get the kyon, they probably had someone watching to keep out any backup, probably a tekker.
He was so intent on keeping an eye out for trouble that he bumped into Shelle.
“Watch it, scrub!” She snapped, steadying herself on a nearby bench.
Mikaen bristled; scrub was the term used for a knight-in-training. “What’s the situation?”
She gave him a look that he could feel it through her face mask. “What’s our situation? Yenk’s getting pounded, that’s the situation.”
He stopped her as she moved to go around him. “Wait! They might have a tekker waiting to snipe us.”
She shook off his grip. “Yenk’s in trouble, and Tryan’s already getting dogged near our HQ. We need to move, now!”
He tried to stop her again, but she tore free from his grasp and dashed toward the cafeteria.
A few moments later, Shelle came hurtling back around the corner, hit the side of a building, and fell to the ground.
“You okay?” He asked; shield or not, being thrown into a brick wall had to hurt.
“I’ll live.” she grumbled as she got to her feet.
Mikaen peeked around the corner for the smallest second.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” he said as the inevitable kinetic blast broke what was left of a nearby window. “They’ve got a tekker at the other end of the walkway.”
“Let’s rush him! He can’t get both of us.”
“Nice strategy. I guess that means you’ll take point?”
Shelle glared at him. “Do you have a better idea?”
Mikaen pointed to the walkway cover above them. “This extends down the entire length of the central walkway. If we’re quiet, we should be able to get close without being noticed.”
A sly grin spread across her face. “The stealthy approach. Not bad. Not bad at all … but how are we going to get through the doors?”
“Forget the doors. I know another way in.”
They both boosted up to the top of the metal over the walkway. He hoped the tekker hadn’t heard the wobble of the sheet metal from their landing.
They moved quickly along the support struts. To Mikaen’s relief, there was no sign of the Brigade tekker.
“Okay, so how are we getting in?” She whispered.
Mikaen moved over to a large wood-carved emblem of a cardinal that hung on the side of the building. The emblem swung aside at Mikaen’s touch, revealing a hidden entrance.
“I’ve never seen that before. How did you figure that out?” asked Shelle, sounding both impressed and annoyed.
The inside passage was cramped, but there was enough room for them to get through … barely. Moving as quickly as they could, they followed the passage through the now-defunct air conditioning system until they were standing on a lighting platform above the cafeteria stage.
They carefully went down the rickety old ladder and slowly moved to the edge of the curtain. Peeking into the cafetieria, they saw Yenk, looking desperate as he moved toward the stage. The two Brigade bladers were advancing from the aisles of the cafeteria, effectively blocking off any possible escape routes.
Taking up positions on either side of the stage, Mikaen and Shelle waited until they could hear the bladers jeering at Yenk.
Nodding at Shelle, Mikaen slid under the curtain and shot toward the nearest blader as fast as his tek-boots could take him.
As the tekker guarding the door let loose a burst of shots from his gauntlet, Mikaen quickly dove behind the enemy blader. The tekker was so intent on Mikaen that he accidentally blasted his own blader, knocking the large fellow across the room into an old chalkboard that still displayed the last meal that had been served.
Shelle slid beneath a table, came up behind the last blader, and sent him flying into the old snack bar. Mikaen grabbed a hanging loop of leather and pulled a steel shutter down over the snack bar, trapping the blader inside.
Shelle took possession of the kyon from Yenk. “I’m sure you won’t mind if I take this off your hands.”
“No problem.” He said before another kinetic blast sent him diving for cover.
Mikaen rushed at the door, activating his energy saber as he made for the tekker.
The tekker took a shot, but Mikaen deflected it toward a Brigade watcher who had just tried to get inside the cafeteria. The blast hit him full in the chest, sending him flying. Left alone with three Marauder bladers running straight at him, the enemy tekker turned tail and fled.
“Support to HQ!” Jek’s called through the intercom, “We need some defense over here!”
“I got it,” Mikaen told Shelle, “You go with Yenk.”
“Yeah. Good luck.” The two hurried off toward the stadium as Mikaen started toward the old band hall.
Even from a distance, Mikaen could make out the figures of Jek fending off the other two Brigade bladers and a watcher. The kyon bounced off Jek’s twin gauntlets like a pong pellet. The bladers were relentless, however; no matter how Jek tried to angle it, they always managed to intercept the kyon and fire it back.
As he drew nearer, Shelle’s voice said, “Yo, Mikaen! The other kyon is heading your way!”
Mikaen turned just in time to see the plasma ball rocketing through the sky toward the HQ. He leapt in the air to intercept, forgetting that the slamm kyons were not the rubber balls they had used as kyons back on Earth.
The kyon blasted him back, past the Brigade players and mere inches away from the HQ.
It took a second for the enemy bladers to realize what had happened, but when they did, they both started for Mikaen, only to suddenly get knocked aside by energy bursts from the approaching Marauder tekkers.
“Mikaen!” said Jek, “Toss it here!”
Jek took the two kyons and slammed them together, merging them into one massive kyon.
“Attack run!” He shouted before starting forward as fast as his tek-boots could carry him. Mikaen followed, not exactly sure what was happening.
“Bladers incoming!” Shelle shouted through the headpiece.
Sure enough two bladers rounded opposite corners of the old gym and headed toward Jek to intercept.
Mikaen skimmed by Jek and headed toward the first. The Brigade blader took a swing, but Mikaen ducked the blade and shoulder checked the guy through a nearby car window. He turned to deal with the next, only to see Jek leap over the fellow, spinning with a grace Mikaen could not help but envy. The blader's blade came within inches of the Muonsol guardian, but Jek managed to twist around just enough to avoid the glowing weapon.
Jek landed neatly against the side of the building before kicking off into mid-air and landing neatly on the now-confused blader's head. Another kick, and he was rushing forward again.
Mikaen moved to follow, but felt the hit of tekker-fire. His shield protected him from most of the impact, but there was surely more to follow. Fortunately, Jek seemed to have been expecting this, as he was now heading toward the bleachers. It gave them cover from the energy fire, but not from the two Brigade watchers now heading their way. The bladers had regrouped as well, and were catching up with them.
And then they were gone, knocked aside by Tekker fire. Mikaen could barely make out the form of one of the Marauder tekkers on the roof of the cafeteria.
Mikaen rushed the remaining Brigade watchers, his sudden charge making one slip and crash against the door of an old restroom. The other ducked around, only to get batted aside by Shelle.
“We're clear!” She told them as they rounded the last of the bleachers and approached the concession stand. “Take the shot!”
“Got it!” When Jek brought his gloves together, the kyons seemed to merge together into a larger kyon. The Brigade guardian dove aside as Jek fired the combined blast with enough force to blast clear through the other side of the stand. The kyon hit the concession stand, blasting through the old building hard enough to shatter what windows remained.
“Nice!” Mikaen said as the rest of the Marauders turned to head back to base.
Jek froze abruptly in the middle of his victory jig. “What?!” he asked suddenly, putting one of his gauntleted hands to the side of his helmet.
Mikaen asked, “What? What is it?”
“The match’s over.” He pulled off his helmet and said, “We won by disqualification.”
“Disqualification?” Mikaen said, surprised. “What did they do?”
“the Brigade had split screens in their headgear. Dad just intercepted the frequency.”
Everyone seemed angered by this, none more so than Shelle. She threw down one of her gauntlets, “Son of a bitch! I knew something was going on.”
“I don’t understand.” Mikaen said, lifting off his own helmet and following the other.
Leeroy asked, “Ever play a first-person shooter?”
“You mean like a video game, right?”
“Yeah, well, ever play a death match on a split screen?”
“A few times, but wasn’t very good at it. Jyle kept looking at my screen …” Mikaen stopped, suddenly understanding their meaning. “Ah, I get it. How could they do that?”
Travers thumped Mikaen’s helmet. “Hidden mini-screen in their headgear.”
Leeroy chuckled. “Didn’t help them much, did it? I mean, we still whooped their sad scrub butts!”
He and his brother started taking swats at each other. They were still at it when the group reached the entrance. Jyle was waiting for them, looking a little disappointed.
“Great match, Marauders,” Jyle said, clapping his hands, “Sorry it had to end like that. Still, Mikaen did pretty good though, eh?”
“You kidding?” Yenk slapped Mikaen on the shoulderpad, saying, “The guy’s a natural!”
Shelle shrugged. “He’s okay, I guess.”
“Okay? Just okay? The dude threw Yasik. The guy’s a friggin troll!”
As the two bladers continued arguing, Mikaen slowed down so he was walking in stride with Jek.
He glanced at Jyle, who was clapping the other members of the team on the back as they walked past him out of the arena. Shelle gave the Cygros a sharp glare that made him opt to just give her an encouraging smile.
“Well?” Jek asked in a low tone. “Good enough?”
“All right, I’m impressed. You managed the team well, and bouncing off that guy's head was a pretty slick move.”
“So I can come along?”
Mikaen sighed. “Fine. You’d probably just follow us anyway. Meet us at the stables tonight.”
In a low tone, Jek replied, “No good. Dad’s already started posting guards there. I think I might have another way, though.”
Narrowing his eyes at the young idestan, Mikaen asked, “And when were you planning on warning us about this?”
Jek grinned back at him. “As soon as you let me join your group. Oh, don’t give me that look. I was going to catch you and the others before you reached the stables.”
“I’m seeing more of Jyle in you all the time.” Mikaen shook his head, unable to suppress a smile. “Okay, fine. What’s the plan?”
“Meet me at midnight in the royal garden, underneath the oak tree.”
Mikaen wanted more information, but seeing Jyle approaching, he said, “We’ll be there.”
“So, Mikaen!” Jyle asked, “How was your first official game?”
“Short. Fun, though.” Mikaen replied.
“It’s sad that people cheat. Still, it would be more unfair if we just let them continue as though nothing had happened.” Jyle paused for a moment before saying, “Say, you did great out there. I was wondering if …”
“Let me guess; you want me to be on the Muonsol Slamm team.”
“No, I want you to form your own team in Homestead. After this business with Ronisgald, of course.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding.” Even as the words escaped his lips, he nevertheless found himself sizing up some of his friends in Homestead for positions. The vuestan were smaller than most humanoids, but they were also much faster and more agile.
“Homestead’s wanted to join the Slamm League for ages, but every time they assemble a team, they get crushed. You know the game-”
“Not really,” said Mikaen.
Jyle amended, “You know enough about the game. You can help them play their strengths. I know they’d make a good team if they just had a good leader.”
“Can’t say I’d look forward to playing against you.” Jek admitted, “But it would be fun to have a new team in the league.
The idea had definite appeal. Playing slamm was closest Mikaen had felt to being back on Earth since he first arrived on Vinta. The name 'Homestead Heroes' floated innocently across his mind.
Mikaen was distracted from his current train of thought as Tirinia approached in guardian slamm gear. Without warning, she gave him a kiss that made the Marauders start whooping.
His face burning, Mikaen said, “So I did okay then.”
“Yeah, good enough.” She said, giving him a teasing smile. “I was hoping you’d show me around a little. You must know all sorts of shortcuts in this arena. Besides, I’d love to see if you could get a kyon past me.”
Jyle shook his head, smiling. “Well, you two have fun. I’ve got some things to attend to.”
“Come on,” Tirinia pressed, grabbing Mikaen’s arm and pulling him toward the city, “Show me everything.”
“Hey, wait up!”
Jek and his team approached, still in their gear.
“What’s up?” asked Mikaen as they skated closer.
Jek shrugged, “Well, we’re all in gear, and with Tornado Tyr, we have enough for two small teams. We figured we’d keep playing for a bit.”
Still a little red, Tirinia pulled her helmet on, saying, “Fine, but I’m on Mikaen’s team. You scrubs better give me a challenge.” Without another word, she rushed off into the city.
“Tornado Tyr, huh?” Mikaen asked, his eyes on Tirinia as she zoomed away.
“Yeah.” Jek rubbed the back of his head. “During her first year, she pulled off thirty-seven attack runs, eleven of which were unguarded. Just smashed through everyone in her way.”
Mikaen smiled as he pulled on his helmet. “Well, this should be interesting.”ns184.108.40.206da2