Checking the side pouches of the pack, I found a small box with a clear sliding cover. Inside this cagarette-pack-sized box were six silvery balls, each with a pulltab like a beer can would have. From their size I guessed that they were smoke bombs. I took one out, pulled the ring, and tossed it towards the lurking figure at the next corner. I raised my pistol and took a step, preparing to charge into the smoke as soon as it came. Instead my smoke bomb exploded with enough force to knock me on my butt. I'm glad I wasn't closer than ten yards. Taking another bomb respectfully out of the box and putting it in a convenient pocket (on the outside of the body armor, thank you) I closed the box and put it in the pack. While the ringing in my ears subsided to a dull roar, I ran up the hallway to the corner where someone who had been wearing a blue and gray uniform lay splattered over a couple of square yards of floor. I noticed that the uniform was different from the soldier whose pack I now carried. Must be more than one group down here. Great, monsters and two different armies. Just what I need.
What-Ho! There's something that I do need! An assault rifle version of the pistol in my hand lying right where the explosion must have tossed it. It's hard to find women as beautiful as that big drum magazine looked to me right then. It was undamaged when I picked it up and checked it out. The ammo drum was almost full, 499 rounds. The poor sod must have reflexively fired a round as my so called smoke bomb fragged him. The shoulder strap was a bit singed, and I had to wipe some blood off of the forearm grip, but other than that the gun was fine. Mighty fine, I thought to myself as I holstered my pistol and put the sling of the assault rifle over my shoulder. Gripping it single-handedly I had perfect control since the sling put all the weight onto my shoulder. Now I understood why the two full ammo drums in the pack had been on the left side. So that you could reach back with your left hand and grab reloads. I ducked into the nearest shadow to consider my route from here. Flipping the weapon's select fire lever to a setting for three-shot bursts I tried not to think about the dead man behind me. All I could afford to think about right now was how to get out of this place alive. Up ahead I could hear something growling. It sounded very large and very hungry. I was happy that it didn't sound very close as well. Which way was the exit? All I had to do was stay alive long enough to get to the exit. How did I get myself into this?
By listening to a friend of mine. Someone who was not looking very friendly at all, at the moment, from my present point of view. Speaking of which, my point of view was liable to be that of something's lunch if I kept standing here. A paranoia that I was rapidly coming to appreciate was yelling at me to move! Now! I had to keep following the hallway. I hadn't seen any doors or open rooms to get sidetracked in. I was willing to bet they were there though, waiting for me to stumble into and get killed. No thanks. I'll take the exit, please. I could dimly make out the next corner of the hallway. It looked to be at least fifty yards up the hall. I started running again.
I reached the corner without incident. Peeking around showed the next hallway to be deserted. As I paused to catch my breath I thought about what was between this corner and the exit. I was close, really close, but Murphy's Law was worrying me. Now would be the time for my unknown, unseen enemy to pull out all the stops. No matter what I'd already gone through, it was bound to look like a cakewalk compared to getting from here to the exit. Checking my weapon, I stepped out and snuck up the hallway. I hugged the wall and peered ahead as I strained my ears for the slightest sound. I was coming to a section where the lighting strips had gone out. About fifteen yards of the hall was in darkness with the regular inadequate lighting beyond showing the rest of the corridor. I hesitated before entering the dark section of hallway, that's probably why I heard a door open up ahead. I hefted the rifle and stepped into the concealment of the darkness. Suddenly I was glad about the dark instead of fearing it. Funny how a little adrenalin can change your whole attitude. I had to find that door before something came through it. I strained my eyes and ears as I put my back to the wall and pretended to be a coat of paint. After a moment that only seemed endless I heard a faint hissing. It sounded more like steam leaking from a pipe than something breathing. Luckily it was constant. That gave my a chance to pin down it's location. To my left, on up the hallway, and behind me, on the other side of the wall I had at my back. I put my left hand on the wall and inched carefully towards the sound. My hand reached the opening, I yanked it back and froze. Two steps and a left turn would put me standing in the doorway. I took those steps with great reluctance and peeked through the doorway. I could see a dim red glow from the far wall. The room looked about thirty feet square. No sign of whatever was hissing. I couldn't tell what was glowing either. Whatever it was looked small, like a pilot light on a control panel. I eased into the room while looking around at the corners like a paranoid. Good thing too, or the solder that jumped out at me would have been the one left standing. My gun sounded louder in the enclosed space. When I searched him I found out why he didn't shoot me as I came through the door. He was armed with only a wicked looking combat knife. I also found an empty holster for a very large pistol on his belt as I was looking for the sheath for the knife. I glanced and noticed that the glow had changed from red to amber. I went over to find a cabinet set into the wall, it's doors slightly ajar. Inside I found a very large pistol that somehow I just knew would fit the holster that I mentioned. The light was coming from an indicator that read "Charging". The pistol was locked into a framework next to the indicator light. I could make out a red and a green indicator on either side of the amber one, but they were un-lit so I couldn't make out what was written on them. As I wondered how long the charging would take the amber light went out and the green came on. Written on it was the word "Ready". If I had been any slower getting here he could have shot me as I came into the room. When I pulled the pistol out of the charger a card popped out of a slot under the indicators. I muttered something about gift horses under my breath a put the card in an outside pocket. After rearranging the weapons and holsters to better take advantage of my new-found loot, I went to the door and checked the hallway. I jumped up and down a few times to check how much noise I would make when I started moving. If I found any more guns I'd have to swap them for something I already had. Three was all I could carry and use effectively. Time to go.
I move on out of the room and down the hallway, moving faster as I reached the next working lighting strip. I could see the next corner up ahead. Frankly, I was tired of corners. I wanted to find the exit so bad I could taste it. I reached the corner and found myself standing in front of what had to be an elevator. A panel beside the doors had up and down arrows and a slot that fit the card from the charger. As soon as I pulled the card back out of the slot the doors opened to show me the prettiest empty elevator I've ever seen. As I went inside, the doors closed. I used the opportunity to look at my newest weapon in the light. It sported a thumb operated slider on the handgrip as well as a safety on the trigerguard. There was also what I took to be a scope- mount angling off to the left of the barrel. There was no sign of an ejector port or clip. Considering that I found the thing in a charger it wasn't surprising. The gun looked like a .50 cal. Desert Eagle with a fourteen inch barrel. It probably threw lightning bolts or death rays for all I could tell. I put it back into the holster on my left hip. I punched the up button when I saw the elevator controls. It was either up or down and I was in the basement, so up I went. With only two buttons, one of them for where you already were, you wouldn't have much choice. The elevator rose quietly and swiftly, but for a long time. When the doors opened I had the assualt rifle pointed at them. Good thing too, because there were more monsters running towards me than I could count. I held the trigger down and hosed them. As I swept the room I could see soldiers swarming in behind the monsters. They began firing at the same time that I heard the "ping" from the assualt rifle's warning circuit as the magazine reached it's last fifty rounds. I reach back, grabbed another magazine and shoved it home, dropping the empty on the floor. Dodging around to keep oncoming monsters between the soldiers and myself was tending to save me ammo on the monsters while providing cover from the soldiers fire. I dropped to the floor behind a particularly large dead thing as I heard the alarm "ping" again. I had only one ammo drum left for the rifle, no time to reload an empty, and there were plenty more coming. Thirty, forty soldiers maybe, plus half a dozen monsters storming around, plus me and my critical ammo situation equated into a nasty zero for my life expectancy. It was time to see what Santa had brought in the form of a VLP as I was starting to think of the big pistol. I let the assualt rifle slip to the floor, drew the VLP, and thumbed the ambidextrous slider all the way forward. Steadying across the corpse, I aimed into the charging mass only twenty yards away and fired.
Such a understatement is on the order of "I dropped the Atom bomb and it went off."
"DOOM!" said the gun. A piece of the sun came out of the barrel. It flew into the mob and detonated. At least that's what I remembered seeing as I picked myself up off of the floor from where I'd been thrown. My eyes were still seared with the image of a half inch fireball trailing Cherinkov radiation turning into..? What? How much energy does it take to throw someone ten or fifteen yards further from an explosion twenty yards away? I had no answer. Everything in the room except for me was dead. Bits and pieces of partly-vaporized bodies littered the floor. Scorch marks outlining a circle ten feet across showed on the floor. I won't try and describe the smell, after all, I am a gentleman. The room looked to be a vast, empty hanger or warehouse. I shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if I'd fired in a small room. I set the slider back to minimum most respectfully when I could see clearly again. Searching the intact soldiers netted another card, four full ammo drums for the rifle, and a curiosity. I couldn't make heads or tails of it at first. "It" being a twisted tube-shape, about four inches across at it's widest to a quarter inch at what I took to be the business end, a U shaped fork. No holes, only one handgrip, and that at an odd angle to the fork. It was almost as long as the VLP and it wasn't until I found the other half of the "scope mount" that I realized that the two were meant to be mounted together as one weapon. Botheration, as if a VLP needed an upgrade. I figured out how to slide the two mounts together after a moment. They clicked shut and locked. Now what did I have? At least the odd position of the add-on's handgrip made sense now. Perfect for a forearm grip, at a comfortable angle for my left hand. As I tried the grip I discovered the trigger, if that's what it was. A button, like a single calculator touch-pad sat almost flush with the grip. My index finger fit across it comfortably. I didn't want to try it out so soon after recovering from the VLP's blast. I'd wait for another room full of bad guys. It was time to move, anyway.
Now what do I call this new combination weapon? Better wait and see what it does, then maybe something will suggest itself. I went to the hallway that the soldiers had come out of to find it ended in another elevator. Hopefully I was going up in the world. The first card that I had found didn't open the doors, but the newest one did. Once again I stepped in and hit the up button. Another express, just like the last elevator. One button for down, one for up. Since I was already down the choice was simple. Besides, the exit was at the top. That much I knew. This was a freight elevator from it's size. It was slower than the other one, but just as quiet. After a long time the doors opened to more dim hallway that ended in another damn corner. I was getting tired of corners. When I peeked around the corner I found myself facing a long corridor, almost too short to stand upright inside. Like a section of ductwork, it stretched out in front of me into the dark. Like looking into infinity, or destiny. I didn't much like it, but it was either this tunnel or go back the way I came. I shuddered and stepped into the dark, weapon at the ready.
I walked forever, or at least it seemed like forever. My head almost scraping the ceiling, elbows almost scraping the walls, on and on and on in a straight line. It must have been a mile before I came upon a corner. Two steps more brought me out into a vast open area. Leaden clouds overcast a sky with too much green coloration in it to be familiar. High walls angling toward some distant center merged with others to form a perimeter. I guessed it to be snowflake or star shaped. The center looked to be a quarter mile or more away, if it really was the center. I could hear thumping and groaning in the distance, but nothing was visible. I hefted the VLP combo, as if to give myself more courage, then turned to explore the perimeter wall to my right. If there were any doors out of here they wouldn't be out in the open. Besides, just the thought of crossing all that open space gave me goosebumps. Doors would be cut into walls, so explore the walls for openings. when I reached the first corner I got a surprise.
The walls didn't quite touch in this corner. A space barely wide enough to walk through led me into a small chamber. A switch to the left of the opening operated a door that sealed off the chamber. After satisfying myself that I could reopen the door whenever I wished I searched the chamber. It was only twenty feet across so it didn't take much time. The door made sense when I found the MRE's. Who can eat with a gun in one hand? After polishing off a self-heating beef stew, I stashed the remaining three MRE's in my pack. As I got ready to go I noticed a charger cabinet set into the back wall. I wanted to delay opening the door anyway, so I checked it out. Because this chamber was open to the sky I could see the card sticking out of the slot under the indicator lights. I pushed it back into the slot and the red light came on. I plugged the VLP into the charger after seeing that the add-on wasn't in the way. The indicator read "Discharged" then almost immediately flashed to amber then green. That didn't take long. I kept looking at the panel as if for a clue as to why I was reluctant to leave the chamber. I finally noticed a drawer set about waist high. In it was a tube made of the same material as the VLP and add-on. There was a discolored area, the same size as the mount for the add-on. Out of curiosity I laid the tube across the join between the VLP and the add-on. It exactly filled the odd twist of the add-on to fill in the gap. I nearly dropped the VLP when it gave off a short rising tone, like the first half of a wolf whistle. The tube was locked into place, I couldn't budge it. Looking closer, I could read some faint markings in the tube. "Pow-R-Pak" was what it looked to read. "Extended clip." I thought, happily. Now, it was time to go! I opened the door and stepped back into the snowflake. Keeping to the right hand wall I walked towards the center.
The distant noises got closer, louder, and clearer. Still I saw nothing. Reaching the end of the wall, I surveyed the other arms of the snowflake as best I could. There were several areas that the walls concealed from me. I gave a mental shrug and started down the second arm of the snowflake, again keeping the wall at my right. I had neared the half-expected chamber at this corner when a soldier stepped from it and opened fire on me. Reflexively, I fired the VLP. Again a .50 cal. fireball tore from the weapon. I braced myself for the shock, but the soldier simply exploded when the fireball struck. No big blast, no getting up off of the floor, no waiting for my ears to stop ringing! I remembered moving the slider to minimum after the first time I fired the VLP.
Oops! More soldiers start pouring out of the chamber like a thousand clowns coming out of a prop vehicle at a circus. I let out a whoop of joy and hose them with the VLP. In seconds I'm the only one left standing. I quickly look around and spot a mob of monsters heading my way. I run into the chamber, see that no one is in it, and cover the doorway. Maybe it's time to try out the add-on.
I lunge for the doorway and trigger the add-on. A greenly glowing six-foot disk forms at the fork of the weapon and a laser-like cone of energy leaps out from it's center like a searchlight to strike the oncoming horde. Nothing else happens so I fire another round from the VLP. This time the fireball looks to be grapefruit sized and vaporizes a half dozen monsters. The green energy-disk is a shield! I can stand and fire at will. Picking a monster a random, I name him Will and blast him, along with his truly closest friends, into stinking vapor. Three shots later and I stand alone. Grinning, I start walking back toward the center. Scorchmarks and body parts mark the walls and floor.
"Come and get it!" I yell like an idiot.
"YARRGH!!" something big yells back from somewhere out of sight.
"Stupid!!" I called myself, long with about a thousand other words that polite people pretend not to know. Reaching the end of the wall (still blaspheming, in four languages, and not repeating myself once), I quickly start into the next arm of the snowflake, running full out to the hoped for chamber at the tip of the arm. I burst into the chamber to be met with some crates and otherwise empty floor. Shutting the door, I looked for a charger cabinet. None visible, nothing but the two crates and me. The first crate was a two foot cube marked "Distilled Water" that held a dozen army canteens. I drained one and started on another before moving on to the next crate. It was unmarked, 2x2x3 feet, and held ten flak jackets (body armor), and a field medical kit. I learned I needed the latter when I peeled off the pack and body armor that I had been wearing so as to swap for new armor out of the crate. Two bleeding furrows along my left ribs showed where the captured body armor had been pierced during one of the fire-fights. I never felt a thing. I cleaned off the blood with padding from the water crate and used half the antiseptic in the medikit on the creases in my side before wrapping my ribcage with most of the available gauze. And I thought I was just out of breath from running. Who knows how much blood I'd lost? No wonder I felt drained. I ate another MRE, finished the second canteen of water with antibiotics and stimulants from the medikit, and put on two of the flack jackets. I transferred all the stuff I'd been carrying in pockets to the outside flack jacket and put on my pack. Feeling the stimulants, I grabbed my VLP and opened the chamber door. Nothing in sight, I headed toward the center again. There was a roaring in my ears, the drugs I guess. Reaching the end of yet another wall, I headed into the next arm of my snowflake. Unfortunately, something had preceded me. It was very large, very ugly, and very angry.
"Urrgul!" it cursed. "Urr-gul argh-rah ungol! ARRGH-OLL!" it added for my edification.
To describe what it looked like would require the paintbrush of a Bosch or Dali. In words, maybe combining the worst aspects of a minotaur and a shark come closest. I popped off a round from the VLP. A half-inch fireball trailed blue Cherinkov radiation straight into the thing's chest and detonated. As the smoke cleared, the thing smiled.
"Excrement!" I thought, "Excrement and Taxation!" I clarified, naming the two vilest things I could imagine. In my defence, let me state, categorically, and for the record- that I also let fly, while thinking vile thoughts, with several more rounds from the VLP. They were all of the normal .50 cal. size, a uniform half inch sunburst that only seemed to be giving the thing a decent tan for all I could see. I probably would have emptied my weapon uselessly if the monster hadn't decided to throw a fireball of it's own at me.
It gestured with it's right hand and a huge ball of red and blue fire or energy appeared, only to fly straight at me. I tensed up, which probably saved my life because I triggered my shield by accident when my left hand clamped down on the add-on's handgrip In the excitement I had forgotten the shield effect. After all, it was new to me. The last round I'd fired had yet to reach it's target when the beam projected from the shield flashed onto the monster. Immediately the half inch fireball grew to eight inches or more and flashed into the monsters chest. It screamed in agony. I could see blood spurting from severed veins as it's heart tried to pump fluid into vaporized flesh.
The shield was also an amplifier! The monster threw another fireball and I cowered behind the shield effect as the fireball struck. The shield crackled and hissed, then began to glow more intensely. The shield effect looked denser, as if it were becoming more solid. The shield was recharging itself on the monster's fireball!
I fired off two more amplified rounds while watching my shield absorb the energy of another fireball. The sharkitaur fell over (at least from the waist down he fell over, from the waist up, he was missing), it's screams echoing with finality from the surrounding walls. Uh... how can a scream come from the bottom half of the thing I just killed?
On a hunch I spun around, firing, back the way I came. Two more shark/minotaurs were stalking up. They looked angry, they were throwing fireballs so fast I thought my shield was going to get too solid to see through. I gave them five rounds rapid each. The add-on boosted the half inch sunburst from the VLP into eight-inch diameter suns. The resulting six novae blew the monsters away, along with some soldiers no one had noticed sneaking into the battle. I shut off the shield to take a look around. That's when I saw the door to an otherwise hidden chamber. Concussion from the explosions had partly opened it's hidden door. I went in and my heart skipped a beat. This was it! This was the room I'd been searching for all along. The "EXIT" sign floating unsupported in mid air was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I walked through the exit with the sound of monsters screaming for revenge echoing in my ears. I had beaten them, this time. Next time, who knows? I saved my weapons and gear in a locker showing my name, cleaned up, and decided to rejoin the rest of the world. I walked out into the mall and turned to look back. "VIRTUAL DEATHMATCH! The Ultimate Game Simulator!" read the sign over a small shop tucked in between the Sears and Radio Shack stores. I could see my friend, his girlfriend, and another couple in the waiting area, talking to some folks in line to go play. I honestly tried not to swagger as I joined them. I owed someone a bottle of Tullamore Dew, it was time for him to collect. Besides, I might be able to talk them into a multiplayer game. Judging from the line, we had time for a pizza before we could get back in.
Copyright 1996 by Dan L. Hollifield
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