The towering metal construction of the Skateway loomed over him as he walked towards the edges and the exit. He could already see the very top of the grandstand ahead, where the crowds sat to watch the skaters on racedays. The walls captured every small sound and bounced it around, so that echoes were continually born and died, even from his soft-soled Adibastards. He considered re-engaging them as skates but his legs were achingly tired and he didn’t fancy trying to skate to the exit, where Damien would be waiting. At least he’d know that Bryan had managed to skate 7’48; that was a small consolation.
Water splashed nearby and Bryan turned his head, puzzled. The rain had slackened off a little while back, so the Skateway should have been nearly dry by now; the sheer metal surfaces didn’t hold the water, and contributed to the increased danger: the Skateway had sections that could flood in less than five minutes, and an unaware skater could easily get caught and drowned. The fatality record for the Skateway was updated pretty much every month. A stream of water jetted out from the top of a Skateway tower. These were pylons that stretched up to three hundred feet above the track bed and were used for vertical races. They had spiral slopes that intertwined around a central core, and the skaters would race head-to-head, one on each track attempting to reach the top first. The tracks came close together at several points, and there were three symmetrically place points where they intersected and crossed-over. These proximity points allowed pushing, shoving, and general gamesmanship and the Skateway tower challenge wasn’t supposed to happen unless the crash-mats were out to protect racers coming off worse in a squabble.
Bryan slowed, puzzled now. There was no reason for water to be coming off the tower; there was only him and Damien at the Skateway now. He watched as the water jet slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether. No-one appeared at the top of the tower though, and finally he started walking again. A shout from the exit made him look up and force himself into a jog.
Thirty seconds later he could see the exit and Damien, who was grappling with two men, both taller and bulkier than him. Damien swung at one of them, just missing his face, and then the other grabbed him from behind, his arms snaking over Damien’s and pinning them back. Damien’s face contorted and he tried to kick backwards, but the other man now punched him in his stomach, and Bryan almost doubled up in sympathy. Damien seemed to go limp, his face suddenly white, and Bryan tried to run faster to catch up to them.
“Skateway locked,” boomed the mechanical voice from the PA system. All around Bryan the air seemed to gel suddenly and he was pushed – almost squeezed – backwards several feet until the air loosened its grip again and he was stood just inside the Skateway’s forcefield wall. He punched at the air, which caught and slowed his fist. Beyond the transparent wall Damien was being dragged towards a flight-car.
“Unlock!’ shouted Bryan. “Unlock!”
“Denied,” said the mechanical voice. “Conditional unlock instigated.”
“Unlock is only permitted to those who race the Skateway in six minutes or less,” said the mechanical voice. “Conditional unlock instigated.”
Six minutes? Bryan’s heart sank and his knees felt weak. His calves, which had been longing for him to sit down and rest felt like they were burning again, just thinking of trying to complete the course. That was nearly two minutes faster than his best-ever time. How could he race the Skateway that fast? He looked over at Damien and saw that he had been bundled in the flight-car now, and the door shut behind him. The two men were going round opposite sides of the car to get in and drive away. What choice did he have?
“I’ll race!” he said, his voice quivering slightly.
“Challenge accepted,” said the mechanical voice. Moments later a lifter sank down; a small but heavy platform that flew on predefined paths and carried racers from one part of the Skateway to another for competitions, mostly so that they were fresh at the start of the race. Bryan stepped on, and it lifted up.
“Skateway shutdown initiated,” said the mechanical voice. “Forty seconds to close.”
Bryan was looking at the flight-car, watching as the front-doors slid shut and the car lifted off into the air straight away. Where the hell were they taking Damien?
“Thirty seconds to close.”
He blinked, and looked down. The Skateway is shutting down? Shutdown meant that everything would switch off. Including the forcefield walls!
“Twenty seconds to close.”
And the lifter. He didn’t look, he just jumped. The higher the lifter got, the further there was to fall. He fell for long enough to wonder what was taking him so long to hit the ground, then something solid smashed into him, jarring his whole body and knocking the wind out of his lungs.
“Ten seconds to close.”
He felt himself start to slide, but nothing worked, nothing wanted to move. He could taste iron in his mouth, probably blood. His arms felt weird, as though they weren’t quite there any more. His back was a molten column of fire, and his legs just felt heavy. There was a screech, flesh against wet metal and something tugged at his face.
Two seconds later the bang of the lifter slamming into the steel structure of the Skateway was enough to knock him unconscious.