Do you remember playing Capture the Flag as a child? Were you the strategist who spotted all the mistakes your teammates made? Ever wanted to play it again, with more advanced rules, superior challenges, and greater rewards?
The forest was almost too quiet, aside from the shuddering tree in front of me. STOMP was retightening the winch on their catapult, and there was little Jess, Katie, and Laura could do. Team BLUE was almost finished.
My perch was on the other side of their treehouse from the catapult, so there wasn’t much I could do about them. My slingshot wouldn’t be enough – too little, too late. And besides, I was their enemy too.
The rope snapped.
Another boulder came crashing our way, but it didn’t have enough power behind it, bouncing a few times and losing a lot of speed before it crashed into the trunk. Despite the lack of momentum, the tree was already damaged enough. It began to fall.
Two faces peered out the fortress towards team STOMP. But it was the third member of the team, Jess who was looking towards me. I know she couldn’t see me, but she knew I was there.
“Ace? Ace, I know you’re here. We can’t beat them, even if we ran. If you get us out of here, we’ll surrender to you. Even if you don’t let us join you.”
I shook the branch I was sitting on, and she glanced upward, then sprinted back to the tree.
She put her back against the tree and leaned, slowing its fall negligibly.
“K! L!” The two heads withdrew from the far windows and extended out the near one. “Get down here!” They jumped, and ran out towards my tree.
“STOMP already has two captures, so WHISPER is getting us out of here,” Jess explained. “And we’ll surrender to him.”
Laura crossed her arms. “What about SAKURA?”
“We don’t even know where SAKURA is! And besides, WHISPER can get us out. STOMP is a bully. I’d rather go with WHISPER. If you want to tough it out on your own, go for it, but I’m out of here.”
Katie glanced between them. Her voice was quiet, especially with the tree creaking and soon to fall, and STOMP approaching cautiouslessly. “They’re beyond us. We’d best surrender. Maybe Ace’ll show us what he’s got hidden. Nobody’s even found his fortress yet.”
“And if you don’t hurry up, you’re not going to,” I growled from above them. “Get over to that evergreen if you’re coming with me.”
The BLUE team glanced up to where I was pointing, then over to the evergreen.
Jess and Katie sprinted for it. Laura hesitated, watching the tree coming crashing down, and STOMP swarming towards them, before sprinting after them.
The lowest branches of the evergreen hung only a foot above the ground, and barely stroked the ground at their longest tips. Within the branches sat a slice of an old tree, looking much like a stump.
As BLUE ran towards the evergreen, I dropped through the hollow in my sentry tree, fell into one of my underground tunnels, and ran after them, my LED flashlight glowing red against the dirt walls and wooden supports. Soon I reached the tunnel’s end and climbed upward, dodging the evergreen roots that draped the walls. I pushed the wooden slab aside, lifted up the branches enough that I could see, and called out to them.
“No need to come any closer. My judge is listening in. State your names and intentions.”
“Jess of Team BLUE, and I surrender to WHISPER.”
“Katie of Team BLUE, and I surrender to WHISPER.”
Laura hesitated, and STOMP approached. I started to retreat, pulling the slab back over my hole. Her two teammates glared at her expectantly. “Laura of Team BLUE, I surrender to Team WHISPER.”
I nod, my finger to my ear. “Did you get all that? ... Good.” I look up at the three girls. “Thanks. It’s official. I have two captures, and the three remaining teams are STOMP, SAKURA, and WHISPER. Stage Two has ended.”
Verifying my statement, a siren rose over the park, and the STOMP members looked around in confusion, then noticed me under the tree.
“What are you going to do now, Ace?” Katie asked as STOMP approached.
“Collapse this tunnel and leave it as a trap. They can’t attack me now anyways. And the judges are on their way.”
As these words left my mouth, I saw John-Paul jump out of my sentry tree, and pull off his breathing mask. He was the judge that supervised my activities.
His arrival startles Mike and Nelson of STOMP, whom he had landed behind.
“Alright, hold it there folks. No moves until Robert gets here.” He claps them on the shoulder, then walks towards me. “Nice work, kid. You coming out?”
“This isn’t really designed for it. I’ll have to use the tree.”
“Then hold up. Robert and Sam should be here shortly. Wait for them.”
I nod, pulling my breathing mask over my head and hanging it around my neck, checking to make sure the oxygen tank on my back was secure.
Sam, Team BLUE’s judge, arrived a few minutes later, followed closely by Robert, for STOMP. They confirmed BLUE’s surrender to me, and officially ended the round.
I climbed back into my tunnel, back into the sentry tree, and clambered down, not so confident in my landing as John-Paul was.
Accompanied by our judges, the three teams made our way back to the base camp. John-Paul laid his arm across my shoulders as we walked.
“You think you’ve got everything under control?”
“I’m doing well enough, thanks. Was a little worried about Laura there, but Jess and Katie acted just as they said they would.”
“You’re doing better than I expected. How’s the alliance working?”
I shrugged. “He’s helping things go a bit faster, but I’m not looking forward to Stage Three. They know this game is mostly between me and STOMP, but that doesn’t make capturing allies any easier.”
“Still won’t let them join you?”
I shook my head. “I’ve been having second thoughts about it, but they’re still nothing more than second thoughts.”
John-Paul just nodded, stuffing his hands into his jeans pockets. By now we’d reached the edge of the clearing that contained the base camp. He paused, and we stood, watching the other teams socialize, STOMP boasting, and SAKURA watching us and them from the shadows. “I know I’m not supposed to help but... is there anything I can do to help you, Ace?”
“A back door into STOMP’s hideout would be nice,” I replied with a grim grin.
He laughed. “You know I can’t do that.”
“I know,” now somber again. “I’ll need to be up bright and early...” I trailed off.
“Sure, I can make sure you’re up.”
“Not at all. It’s the least I can do to help you put STOMP in their place. And Robert too.”
“Are they getting on your case again?”
John-Paul nodded. “It’s the big man himself now too.”
“Damn,” I scowled.
“Yeah, he’s been talking. Thinks you don’t have what it takes. Almost convinced Mr. John to disqualify you, on grounds of not having a fortress. You may have to let me tell them. Show them, even.”
“I know. We’ll see.”
John-Paul shook his head. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Don’t worry about me. Just keep Robert and Mr. John off my back.”
“You take care of winning this thing and I’ll take care of that.”
“Deal.” We shook on it, again, then I retreated to my cabin, and John-Paul to the meeting hall.