In the far future, Earth has abandoned large scale warfare in favor of the tenuous peace found inside Paradigm: a global, massive multiplayer online virtual reality environment. Neighbors, coworker, even friends from the other side of the world all compete in a unified campaign built to satisfy humanity's thirst for blood.
Brett leads one of the most elite teams within Paradigm, but when he gets an offer to join the ranks of the developers' leadership, he discovers a dark secret that flips the whole world upside down.
Minutes pass, then minutes quickly turn to hours as we wait, huddled together behind the planters. Every few minutes, Kira prods me impatiently and urges me to try contacting Red, but no response comes.
“We’re burning time,” Kira finally says after almost three hours. “He’s not coming. We have to go before they blockade the marina. Not to mention, every second we’re out in the open increases our chance of getting caught.”
I tap my toes impatiently and look down the promenade and side streets, but even as I look, I know Kira’s right. Red isn’t coming.
“Alright,” I admit defeatedly. I come to my feet and am about to help Kira up when the snapping of automatic fire peppers the silent promenade again. We duck down and wait, but the gunfire only increases in intensity.
“We can’t stay here,” I caution. “We should have enough cover if we make our way down—”
Just as I’m about to get back up, a fighter flies gracefully overhead, its powerful engines sounding as if they’re ripping the air in two. It has a completely black fuselage, broken only by the tinted, dark red glass of the cockpit and the lettering on its side reading A.G.I.L.E, with the trademark stylized star trailing behind. Then, from the east, come two more fighters, both bearing the marks of the FSND, their bellies open to reveal racks of missiles inside.
The flash of gunfire rips my attention from the sky and down towards a platoon of soldiers that have just emerged from a group of armored transports. A few of them rush for cover behind the buildings along the promenade, while others drop to the ground and begin firing at some unseen opponent, their weapons popping like the sound of a tree branch cracking.
“Brett, let’s go!” Kira cries out, knocking me in the side. I look at our surroundings, searching for an escape route.
“Where do we go?”
The shop on the promenade’s corner suddenly bursts into fragments and collapses, struck by a cannon shell. Kira ducks and waits as large pieces of the shop smash into the ground and surrounding structures, then she opens a display with a map of the area.
“If we head down the promenade we’ll be going backwards for just a bit, but we can curve around and bypass the fight here,” she says, pointing out the locations on the map. Several more fighters thunder overhead, spewing strings of bullets at each other.
“But what if they’re more spread out than that? What if they take up the whole block?”
The planter next to Kira’s head cracks as a bullet strikes it. She flinches away and swears, then closes the display.
“Just move! Just move! Get inside! Go!” she shouts as bullets bite the air around us.
I scramble away from the planters without further persuasion and rush into the restaurant, trailing only seconds behind Kira. The windows on either side of us shatter as bullets whistle by, dropping a hailstorm of glass to the ground.
We weave between the tables inside the restaurant, hurrying past elaborate showcases of antique tableware and local artwork.
“Back there! There’s a door!”
Kira flies forward, pushing and kicking chairs out of the way as she runs. Just as we’re making our way down a small set of stairs into another seating area, a shout emerges from the entryway.
“You! Down! Down!”
I turn around just long enough to see a lone soldier running towards us with her weapon raised. She fires two shots, both snapping perilously close to my head. I yelp and throw the nearest plate, which soars harmlessly to the left of the soldier and shatters against the wall.
Kira grabs me by the shoulder and drags me behind the wall of the next room, then pulls her rifle out from behind her back and returns fire.
“Get to the door! I’ll be right behind!” Kira orders as she replaces the magazine. I turn and look around the room, but can’t see any exit. It’s a dead end.
“What door? We’re stuck!” I shout over the thumping of Kira’s rifle.
Bits and pieces of the wall fly into our faces as bullets chip away at the corner. Kira flinches and pulls her rifle back.
I fight the instinct to panic and quickly scan the area, looking for any means of escape. There’s an emergency exit along the wall just outside our room, but getting to it will place us right in the line of fire.
I’m in the middle of formulating our escape when suddenly the world itself seems to shatter to pieces. The walls and ceiling collapse, blowing out every light and glass pane instantly, and Kira and I are thrown backwards by the force, flung like dirty clothes across the floor. Dust and debris swirl frantically around us as the shriek of grinding metal penetrates the air for what seems like an eternity.
Finally the commotion ends, leaving us in darkness with our ears ringing.
“Brett?” Kira manages to croak in between coughs.
I lift myself up from the table I’ve fallen against and search through the blackness to find her.
“I can’t see you. Keep talking,” I answer tentatively.
A light from a display appears, illuminating Kira’s face, which is dirty and speckled with blood from countless small scratches and cuts. I touch my face and feel the sticky wetness of my own blood.
“Come over here,” Kira calls out.
I inch forward, moving cautiously to avoid the shattered glass, sharp edges, and other bits of detritus scattered across the floor.
“Hey, wait,” Kira whispers sharply.
I pause. The light from her display turns on another figure lying prone just a few feet from us.
Just barely in her grasp is a rifle, its cold metal frame reflecting sharply in the light. Her helmet has flown off, revealing a mess of tangled black hair, patches of which have become soaked with blood. She doesn’t seem conscious, or at least she doesn’t betray any sign that she’s aware of our presence, and besides the occasional trick of light, she doesn’t appear to be moving at all.
“Is she dead?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
We creep forward until we’re by her side, then Kira grabs the soldier's weapon and hands it to me.
“She’s breathing,” Kira mentions. “She could wake up at any time. Let’s get out of here.”
“How?” I counter. “Out exit is blocked.”
“I don’t know. Maybe we should throw some plates at it. That seems to be your solution to things lately,” she snips.
I give her a disapproving look, then stand up and examine the room, using my own display to light up the area.
I shake my head. We’re definitely trapped. The ceiling’s caved in, leaving a large pile of debris piled up by the way out. It’s a miracle we survived, I think, now that I can see the area in greater detail.
I move to inspect the rubble, but only make it several steps when the soldier's rifle in my hand clicks, and the firing chamber locks open, releasing all the ammunition inside.
“Woah, hold up.”
“What? What’s happening?”
I showcase the rifle and the pile of rounds at my feet.
“What’s wrong with it?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I can’t get it to budge,” I say as I try, fruitlessly, to lock the mechanism back into place.
“It’s mine. It works for me only.”
Kira and I turn around quickly, letting our lights fall upon the soldier, who’s leaning up from the ground, one hand holding her head while the other grasps a bayonet.
“Give it back,” she continues in a thick accent.
“Yeah, right. Okay,” Kira scoffs, and raises her rifle. “How about you drop the knife?”
I take a few tenuous steps forward, then the firing pin closes with a snap. I stop and look down at the weapon.
“There’s a chip,” the soldier grunts. She brings herself to her feet, but groans in pain and drops quickly back to the ground.
“A chip? Where?”
The soldier massages her foot and turns to me with an uneven smile.
“Why don’t you guess?”
“Oh please. Enough of this,” Kira snaps. “Drop the knife.”
The soldier hesitantly lowers her weapon to the ground, an unamused expression on her face.
“You shoot me? Then what?” she demands.
Kira stares at her with a stumped expression, but still maintains an unwavering grip on her rifle.
“Just leave her. We have her gun. She can’t do anything to us.”
I move away from the standoff and test the boundaries of the caved in areas. From what I can see, we’re entirely sealed in, confirming my suspicions from earlier. And other than the muffled sound of crackling flames, the air is dead and heavy.
“What’s the story, Brett?” Kira calls out.
“I don’t know if there’s a way out. Not an easy one, at least,” I reply dolefully as I attempt to shake one of the concrete slabs of fortified framework. “I think that’s the smell of jet fumes, too. That can’t be good.”
“Must have been.”
I shove another portion of the collapsed ceiling, but it refuses to give an inch, even after putting my full weight behind it. I try shoveling dirt out of the smaller cracks, but it takes forever to make even the smallest progress.
“I could help?” the soldier offers gruffly.
“Why would you want to?” Kira questions with an indifferent, yet unflinching expression on her face.
The soldier shrugs her shoulders and continues tending her foot.
“We’re all stuck together. Same boat.”
“You’re injured,” Kira points out, though her tone seems more pitiful than dismissive. She slings the rifle along her shoulder and leans down to inspect the soldier’s foot herself.
“Don’t pretend to care,” the soldier snarls, her eyes alight with cold fury.
Kira throws her head back with an affronted look and stands to join Brett.
“Screw her,” Kira mutters. “Let the cripple suffer. How are we getting out of here?”
“I think our only option is to dig our way out,” I suggest, throwing a sideways glance at the soldier. “If we both work on it together, we should be fine.”
“Alright, let’s do it.”