“Come on in.” Ben said, closing the door behind Kerry.
Ben's apartment was in the far south of the City. The metropolis was so big that parts of it had their own weather patterns, and there was a noticeable difference in temperature between the north and south corners. There was a common saying that it could be snowing in the north and sunny in the south. As Kerry's bus had made its way toward Ben's apartment a light drizzle had started coming down, and he was pretty sure he'd been traveling into it, instead of it simply appearing overhead.
The inside of the apartment was messy, chairs and tables covered by stacks of games. It was at odds with the swankiness of the apartment. It was in the upper portion of a huge highrise – Out the window, he could see the City for miles in every direction – and must have cost a massive amount of money. Normally, Kerry would have been surprised to find out Ben was able to afford it, but he'd finally ran a background check on the older gamer. He wasn't kidding about being a big deal on the Circuit years back. He'd made millions, from prize money and marketing and whatnot. He must have had a real passion for gaming, because there was no way he actually needed to go into beta testing. Not with that kind of money.
Ben crossed the open floor plan to a fridge. When he opened it, Kerry caught sight of piles of frozen pizza and energy drinks. He may have had the money for the apartment, but he still had the tastes of a shut-in gamer. Ben pulled out an energy drink for himself and an orange juice for Kerry.
“Sorry.” He said when Kerry looked wistfully at the fruity-sounding concoction. “This stuff's high-end. A couple sips would keep someone your size awake all night.”
“Okay.” Kerry said. He still felt listless from everything that had happened. Ben seemed to pick up on it.
“So, trouble with your parents?”
“Everyone, more like. Even Dallas blew me off.” Kerry scowled.
“I know that feeling.” Ben took a swig of his drink and sighed. “There was a couple years where my parents refused to talk to me. They hated me for going into Pro Gaming. At the time, they just couldn't understand that I wasn't throwing my life away, I was throwing myself into it. You know?”
Kerry thought for a second, letting the words sink in. Finally, he smiled. “Yeah. I think I know what you mean.”
Ben took another drink, swirled it in his mouth. “They'll come around. Or they won't. But in the end, you just have to do what you think is right. And if you think this is the right thing to do, then you gotta do it. Maybe it is the right thing, maybe it isn't. All that matters is you do it. You can clean up the mess later, but you gotta have something to clean up in the first place. Right?”
“Right.” Kerry nodded, glad to find a sympathetic ear.
“Now, we gotta get going.” Ben said, glancing at a clock. “We've wasted a lot of time, and we really need to make it to Ashville in an hour.”
“Yeah.” Kerry agreed.
Ben turned away to grab a spare TruDive from a closet. But he half-turned back when Kerry spoke. “Hey, Ben.”
The older gamer stared at him for a second, then grinned. “It's no problem. Now, lets get going.”
Pioneer could feel the massive presence of the horde behind him. As soon as they'd arrived on the horizon, the town had sealed up tight. He glanced around expectantly, but couldn't find the one he was looking for. He wouldn't be inside the walls of the town. He knew him too well for that. There was no way he'd shut himself away from the coming action. But that meant... It meant he wasn't here. Pioneer sighed. He'd wanted that battle. Craved it. He turned to the zombies. A sad smile didn't escape his helmet. A “Lets get this over with,” did. But just before he gave the command, something moved on the horizon, black dots on the flat plain. As they came closer, he saw the younger ones go through the stages of shock at seeing the horde. Surprise, fear, uncertainty, then finally grim determination settled on their faces. But to Pioneer's satisfaction, the one he was looking for simply stared at the mass of zombies, a calm ferocity the only emotion he displayed. Pioneer grinned, and waited.
As they approached Ashville, the sight of the horde seemed to travel from his eyes straight to the bottom of Carrion's stomach. There were too many. He couldn't believe how many there were. He couldn't even begin to count them. Finally he settled on the utterly unsatisfying, “A lot.” The words came whooshing out of him, like a death sentence.
Someone ran from Ashville to meet them. Distance stole the man's face at first, but it couldn't hide the spear hanging from his back. Carrion's heart seemed to rise a little. At least he had Sasa.
The Hunter skidded to a halt next to them. “Who's the new guy?”
“Rake. Rake Mikaelis. And you are?” Rake already knew the answer, but in the face of the coming battle, he figured he needed to make a connection with his allies.
Rake glanced at the spear, then chuckled. “A guan dao. And yet you take the name of a samurai known for his swordplay?”
“Who is this guy?” Sasa grinned at Kerry in amused pleasure. “It feels like he knows everything about me, but we've never met. C'mon man, do I look like the samurai type to you?”
“No.” Rake laughed. “I suppose not.”
Sasa snickered alongside him, pulling a cigarette from his pocket. He put it in his mouth and mumbled around it as he patted himself down, looking for his lighter. “Friggin' Christ, Kerry. I loaded up my messenger and thought someone was dying.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Kerry had sent about a dozen messages to Sasa while walking, asking him to log on. “Is Marcie mad at me?”
“Mad at you? Mad at you?! She says you're the cutest thing to ever crawl the streets of the City. She couldn't be mad at you. Well, not for long, at least. Damn it. Anyone have a light?” Sader and Kerry both shook their heads. Sasa turned to Rake.
“Sure.” Smoothly, Rake pulled out a pistol and fired a single shot. Everyone froze, time seeming to stand still until a strand of smoke rose from the now-halved cigarette. Sasa, to his credit, simply looked at him with eyebrows raised. Then he took a long drag on it before flicking away the butt.
“Nice, thanks.” He smiled. “So what's going on, anyway? We got all these zed staring us down but just standing still.”
“Bad things, that's what's going on. See the guy out front, with the head gear? We want him dead. Me, specifically.” Rake walked past Sasa, done talking.
The Hunter looked at Kerry, as if asking, “Are you sure about this?” Kerry just nodded and followed Rake.
Rake approached his long-time friend-then-enemy. He completely ignored the stadium's worth of zombies just a few dozen feet away. His entire being was focused on the much more dangerous enemy. He halted ten feet away, just outside the distance Pioneer could cover in a second. To the layman, they would have appeared perfectly calm. But they could see the tension in each other. Their shoulders were rolled, feet squared, hands perfectly still aside from the odd flex. Both were ready for anything.
Pioneer made the first move, calling out. The words were dulled by his helmet. “Rake!”
“Pioneer.” Rake replied coolly.
“So, how have you been?”
“Cut the crap, Storm.” An awkward moment of silence followed. “There's no point in asking you to pack up your army and leave, is there?”
“Sorry Rake. I'm under contract. You know that.”
“Come on, Ben.” Carrion said from the side. “Lets just kill him. He can't fight four of us at the same time.”
“Ben? You never cease to amaze me Rake.” Pioneer chuckled. “You've been back six hours and you've already made friends.”
Rake ignored him, speaking to Carrion from the corner of his mouth. He couldn't turn away. Not from Pioneer. He could strike like a snake, blindingly fast before returning to stillness. Waiting for the next victim. “No. We can't do that. We don't have the lines of fire. He'll just dodge, then kill you three in an instant. And then I have four people to fight.”
“Are you kidding?” Carrion asked. His hand twitched toward his gun, but Sader put a hand on his shoulder. Carrion looked at him, surprised to find the military-trained gamer was sweating.
“No. Remember the fight with ForSaken? This is like that, but times ten. We don't stand a chance.”
Carrion looked back at Pioneer. It was in the way he held himself. The slight tilt of his head, the way his SMG hung from a strap, almost forgotten but easily within reach. He was ready. For half a second, Carrion could see the battle. His bullets flew through the air, missing their mark. Pioneer's, on the other hand, didn't. He swallowed, then nodded.
“Okay. We'll hold off the zombies, then. Rake, you handle this guy. How's that sound?” Carrion asked.
“That's the best way to handle it, yeah. Just try and keep the regulars off of me.”
“Got it. Come on, guys.” Carrion led the way past Pioneer. The hair on his neck rose as he passed the helmeted warrior. Time stood still as he waited for the burst of movement, the feel of bullets scissoring into him. Then it was over, and he was past. His breath caught in his throat. He'd never had an enemy like this one, someone who exuded an aura of such invincibility. He shook his head, brought his mind back around to the horde in front of him. With only a glance at his friends to reassure himself, Carrion opened fire.
“They're really going at it.” Rake could hear the smile in Pioneer's voice.
“They're good players. Not on our level, but the young one, he could go far.” Rake shook his head. “It's not just a coincidence you chose this moment to attack, is it?”
“Nope. I have most of the Betas on a watch list, so I can see if any log back in. You're the first. It seemed like the perfect moment to strike. It was originally planned for three months from now, but what better moment to kick up the difficulty than when the best player ever makes his return?”
A tender tone crept into Rake's voice, a sign he was yearning for the past. “I wasn't the best player. That was always you.”
Pioneer laughed sadly. “I.. I guess you have a point. Here.” He waved his hand, navigating a menu. A short barreled gun appeared in his other hand. He tossed it to Rake.
Rake turned it over in his hands. “FN Fal assault rifle, with a shortened barrel and a low profile stock. Semiauto already selected. High power, high mobility. My weapon of choice during our days on the Circuit. You remember.”
“How could I forget the weapon that struck fear into the heart of every player on the Circuit before the Revolution and inspired a thousand copycats?”
Rake smiled, running a thumb along the familiar grip. And threw the gun back. Pioneer caught it, not entirely surprised. Rake put a hand on the pistols in their holsters. “This is Undead Online, not the Circuit. Here, pistols are all I've ever used. And I intend to keep it that way.”
Pioneer returned the smile as he swiped another menu, the gun disappearing. “This is why we were such good friends. You're stubborn, but in a good way. You have integrity.”
The ice was broken. Now Rake was craving the battle himself. It was the way hardcore gamers such as himself and Pioneer connected. “Are we going to stand here all day, talking? There's a reason we're here, after all.”
“You're right.” Pioneer dropped into a low crouch, one hand extended in front of him, like the stance of an Olympic runner before a race. This was the stance that terrorized the Circuit for years and saw its owner to victory in two World Championships. This battle was going to be the real thing. “I'll make you a deal. Beat me, and I'll call off the horde, and the game will live to see another day.”
Rake drew his pistols, flicking the safeties off. He settled low himself. “I'll take you up on that deal. Make sure you're ready to pay up.”
“Oh, I am!” Pioneer shouted. “Come on, my pretty army. Lets go!”
With that battlecry, he and the horde moved as one, advancing on Rake and the heroes, the combined footfalls of ten thousand zombies like thunder in the deepening night. The battle had begun.
The walls of Ashville had taken eight weeks to build. A honeycomb structure, they stretched nearly three miles in length, completely encircling the town. They had taken eight weeks of hard work to build, and were dotted with battlements and archer holes throughout. It wasn't just a wall, it was a defensive line. When it came time, defenders could hole up inside and on top of the wall, firing through the holes at whatever was threatening the town. It was nearly impregnable. And now, as the heroes fought off the horde and its master, the walls were filling with townspeople ready to play their own part.
Pioneer seemed to skate across the grassy plain, zig zagging left and right as Rake's bullets zoomed past, always coming close but never finding flesh. He leaped into the air, getting impossible distance. He extended his leg in a brutal kick that could snap bones. Rake dodged right, letting the warrior sail past. He spun, bringing his pistols back around, but Pioneer was already there, blocking the swing of his arms with his off hand. Rake jerked free, moving left as Pioneer's gun spat fire almost into his face. He could feel the muzzle flash as a hot burn on his cheeks, the gun was so close to him. He brought his hand in low and fast, trying to slam Pioneer in the ribs. But his enemy spun away, raising the sub-machine gun again.
But this time, Rake moved in close, running just ahead of the wave of gunfire. He rolled as the line of bullets caught up, passing just over his head. He snapped back upright, already pulling triggers. There was no point aiming at this point. A split second spent looking at your guns was a split second you weren't watching your enemy. It didn't matter anyway. Rake was used to fighting like this. His bullets vectored in, but Pioneer knew how to move, was able to predict the paths. His stutter-step walk was like a dance as he wove between the lines of death. The entire time, his gun was up and blazing. Rake knew there was no dancing between the fire lines of an SMG. All he could do was keep moving. He rolled again.
And as he came up, they swiveled toward each other. In the same instant, they both pulled the trigger. They were barely six feet apart. Neither could miss from here. The triggers sprang home...
And both guns clicked, empty!
Neither paused. Instead, they sprang at each other. There was no reloading on the fly here. Half a second with your hands occupied was all it took for the other guy to close in. It was better to switch to hand to hand combat.
Rake's first punch slammed into Pioneer's waiting palm. In his mind, he knew the helmeted gamer was going to throw him. So in same motion, he brought the other hand up. This one came so close to landing a rib-shattering punch that it brushed the rust-red jumpsuit, but Pioneer managed to catch it just in time. They strained at each other, testing their strength and power. Neither could overturn the other.
“Is this... All you have?” Rake grunted. He twisted on his feet, trying unbalance his foe, but he applied the perfect amount of resistance, staying steady.
“I should say the same, old friend.” Pioneer replied. As if by pure will power, he pushed forward, slowly but surely forcing Rake back, his heels digging deep furrows in the dirt as he tried to hold on. He began to topple back...
And at the last second grabbed Pioneer by the wrists, jerking back and throwing him into the air. He turned the fall into a smooth backwards roll, spinning to face the thrown warrior. Unsteady, he began a headlong sprint. Pioneer managed to twist in the air landing on his feet, but his eyes were on the ground, trying to find his footing. And so he didn't even see the punch until it smashed into his head.
It was an earth-shattering punch. It picked Pioneer up and carried him straight off his feet. He flew back for what seemed like an eternity, shedding shards of glass from where his helmet had cracked. Finally he hit the ground, bouncing once with a hard thud before coming to a rest.
For a long second, he didn't move. Rake rubbed his arm. The punch had torn a muscle and the old numbness was like a soft ache in the bone. He half-wondered if it had been a fatal blow, but then Pioneer started laughing, still flat on his back. Like a spider springing to life, he scrambled to his feet. Rake sighed.
Pioneer rose quickly. The bottom of his helmet fell away, revealing pale skin and thin lips twisted into a manic smile. “That was good, Rake! If I hadn't had my helmet, I'd be dead. You've gotten stronger in two years.”
Rake sighed, weary from the battle and jittery from adrenaline. It was the old battle fade, something he'd come to appreciate from the years of fighting. “I like to think you've just gotten weaker.”
“Maybe.” Pioneer grinned. “Maybe. Lets play a little more.”
Pioneer fell into a headlong sprint. As many times as he had seen it, Rake was surprised by his old friend's speed. In less than two seconds, the thirty feet between them dwindled to nothing. Rake cursed, his strong arm still out of commission. He danced back, anticipating the punch.
But the punch never came. Instead, Pioneer rocketed past without stopping. Rake spun to face him, bewildered. But then he saw, and he understood. He hadn't been running toward him. He'd been running toward Ashville.
“Get back here, you devil!” Rake yelled. As Pioneer crossed the distance like a bolt of lightning, he gave chase.
It was like fighting an elephant with chopsticks. Every zombie they shot down was just replaced with two more. Carrion clicked dry and cursed, fumbled another clip into his gun as he gave up another ten feet of ground. He didn't even aim this time, he just jammed his finger down on the trigger, a long stream of bullets tearing into the horde. It barely made a dent.
“Hey, gimme some cover fire here!” Sasa yelled over the comms. Sader and Carrion focused fire on a clump of immobile zombies, tearing into them. The spearman leaped from the wreckage, nursing a dozen cuts and bruises as he backed away from the shambling mass, panting.
“There's too many!” He yelled over the sound of gunfire.
“Nah, I'd say there's just eno- Man, I can't even say it.” Sader replied, trying to lighten the mood and failing. His black hair was plastered to his forehead as drops of sweat fell from his helmet. “We don't have the ammo for this. We could run ourselves dry and there would still be enough to fill a stadium.”
Carrion groaned as he heard his gun click again. He slid his last clip from a pocket. He turned his head to find Rake and Pioneer making for Ashville. They'd managed to hold off the horde long enough to give Rake a chance. There was nothing more they could do here. “We need to fall back, let the townspeople take some of the heat. Those walls were designed for this, after all.”
“Right.” Sader agreed. Suddenly the zombies surged forward. “Whoa!”
In half a second, the horde doubled in speed. The space between the two groups dwindled faster than Carion could have imagined. Suddenly the thought of being trapped and surrounded by that crowd filled all three of them. They could feel the crush of bodies, the pins and needles of a hundred bites. In a panic, they turned tail and ran.
They were within a hundred feet of Ashville when it happened. There was no warning. Like Armageddon by lightning and thunder, thousands of bullets ripped from the walls. In slow motion, the storm of lead swarmed around them, bullets ripping by and by and by until Carrion thought it would never end. He knew the marching horde would keep a stray round from killing him, but it was little consolation when you consider it would also throw him to the ground, easy prey for the zombies.
Finally the hail of gunfire stopped. A wall of bodies was stacked five high behind them, the piled up zombies actually serving as a wall against the bullets. Carrion glanced around. Somehow, Sader and Sasa hadn't been hit either. A few seconds passed as the bodies disappeared, the game deleting the fallen to save on memory, something Carrion had never seen it brought to. But this just served to open the way for the rest of the horde. Like the pound of drums, the march resumed. And likewise, the defenders opened fire again. Carrion and the others threw themselves to the ground, the pop and zing of passing bullets loud in his ears. All they could do was lay there and wait, praying the relentless waves of bullets would keep the zombies off of them.
Meanwhile, Pioneer and Rake were weaving their way through the gunfire. They didn't pause under the onslaught, running straight into the tide of rounds, zigging and zagging, shots passing left, right, above, the bullets flying all around them. And still they ran forward.
Pioneer danced his way toward the town as the barrage ended. His way clear, he rocketed forward. The heavy wood gates loomed ahead, taller than him by three feet. He didn't slow down. He simply leaped into the air as he crashed into the gates.
Rake shook his head as he saw the helmeted warrior slam straight through the solid wood.
I was wrong, old friend. If anything, you've gotten stronger. Am I strong enough to...
He followed straight behind, jumping through the hole. In half a second, he gained his bearings. All around, people were scattered on the ground. Apparently, they'd tried to put up a fight. A door was flapping open to the right, leading into the walls. He ran for it, dropping as many of the reviving Rogues as he could on the fly.
The interior of the wall was shot to hell already, and Pioneer had only just begun. Rake could only watch in awe as he tore through the defenders inside. He was like a demon, ripping into the crowd. He used every inch of space he had, bouncing off of walls and supports as he dodged a thousand bullets. It nothing but a dance to him, and the world was his partner. His gun blazed nonstop. And then just like that, the last defender fell.
“Pioneer!” Pioneer turned to stare down the barrels of Rake's guns. He waved a hand, bringing up a menu. Instantly, the bodies of the defenders disappeared. The comment was clear. Now they could have their battle, where no one could interfere. Rake growled his next words. “This ends here.”
As one, they opened fire.
Carrion rolled onto his back, glancing back and forth between the town and the horde. In seconds, an entire side of the wall stopped firing. The zombies resumed their march, the remaining gunfire not enough to do more than slow them. Carrion scrambled to his feet.
“No. Why did they stop?” He asked no one.
“I don't know.” Sader answered over the comms. The wave of zed crested the line of bodies and, like a tsunami coming ashore, spilled across the plain.
The three backed away, but it was useless. There was nowhere to run, no way to hide. In almost the same second, the horde consumed them and then crashed into the walls.
Instantly, the world was reduced to chaos. All around, the undead were rushing. Backward, forward, there was no sense to it. The crush of bodies was cloying, like being trapped underground. Panic flooded Carrion as he spun, firing wildly. All three of them were fighting hard, the comms reduced to pants and split second screams. But then three latched onto him from behind and he fell.
He dropped one with a burst of gunfire, but then the other two pinned his arm. He bucked and twisted, struggling as hard as he could. He managed to throw one off, but the other climbed its way up his body, kneeing him in the chest. His breath left him in a whoosh, along with his ability to fight back. As he struggled to breathe, he saw the teeth close in, felt the terror of death, knew there was nothing he could do. Trembling, he closed his eyes.
Which was why he never saw the shot that saved him. But he heard the boom of the rifle. He opened his eyes. The zombie was laying on him, dead. A single shot, right in the middle of the forehead. He only knew one person who could make that shot. A chat prompt opened in his IHD. He clicked it, the single name confirming it.
“Of course.” A second shot boomed over the chaos of the horde, dropping a zombie that was creeping up from his left.
“Where are you?”
“I thought... I thought you said you weren't coming.” Tears crowded the corners of his eyes.
“I don't know if I'll ever play this game again after this, but when it comes down to it, you're my bro, and you need my help. Of course I came.”
Carrion got to his feet. “Help the others. I gotta get out of this mob.”
There was no answer, but several more shots rang out, and a yell answered them from a dozen yards away. Carrion spun as a zombie groaned from behind him. It lurched at him, but he just dodged left and started running. He fought his way through the crush of bodies, checking his weapons. A single round was in his SMG. He shook his head. He was no more use here. He dodged another clumsy attack.
And then, just like that, he was out of it. The night air was cool after the heat of the crowd, and it felt like something was lifted off his chest. He breathed in and out, clearing his lungs. He turned. The zombies were pounding on the walls, clawing at the wood and tearing off pieces. He shook his head. He wasn't sure Dallas could swing this one around.
A sound came from behind him and he turned again. A line of new zombies, Rogues this time, was approaching. There weren't nearly as many as the regulars, only a couple dozen. But leading the way was... ForSaken.
“Dallas, we have Rogues coming.”
“I'm a little...” Another shot rang out. “Busy here. But I'll get to it when I can.”
The Rogues started melting into the crowd of regulars. But ForSaken was making his way over. Carrion swallowed. The Rogue stopped twenty feet away. Waiting. Carrion nodded and received a nod in return.
For a long moment, the standoff stretched. ForSaken was calm. Carrion knew there would only be one move. He only had a single bullet left. In a flash, he remembered something, the barest trace of a plan forming in his head. Then, quick as lightning, ForSaken drew.
The moment seemed to pass in an hour. Carrion saw the gun come up, the firing pin jerk back, the flash of gunpowder igniting. Before the gun even went off, he was moving, twisting left, eyes locked on ForSaken. Then the bullet left the barrel and time snapped back to normal. He could almost feel the bullet in his chest already, but instead it cut just wide, tearing through his shirt a bare millimeter away. Without pausing, he brought his gun up and fired the last shot. ForSaken dropped instantly, blood spraying into the air from the hole in his chest. And just like that, it was over.
Carrion dropped to his knees, letting out the breath he'd been holding. He gasped for air, closing his eyes in relief. He re-opened them, staring into the starry sky.
“Thank you, Rake.”
Rake sneezed. He sniffled as he ran a check on himself and his weapons. He was behind a wooden protrusion, hidden from Pioneer. He pulled out a final clip and checked it to find a single bullet. He chuckled as he slotted it home, racking back the slide. He wanted to peer around the outcropping, get a sight of his enemy, but he knew it would be a foolish move. Once Pioneer saw, he would shoot straight through the wood to get him. He could picture the scene anyway. Pioneer was standing in the middle of the tunnel, waiting.
Rake knew Pioneer traveled light, mobility so key to his fighting style that he even weighed his clothes. He could only carry four clips for that sub-machine gun, at most. Ticking back through the battle, Rake knew he'd used three. He ran a quick calculation. Thirty-six bullets. “Well, no one said it would be easy.”
He took a deep breath. Then, with a devil-may-care nonchalance, he walked straight into the clear. Pioneer was waiting, smile visible through the shattered helmet. If the tunnel was shot up before their fight had begun, now it was absolutely wrecked. The people of Ashville could expect a long repairing process. If the game survived.
“Empty?” Pioneer asked.
“Nearly.” Rake replied.
“Still have enough to fight, I hope.”
And then Pioneer raised his gun, and the battle resumed.
Rake sprinted forward as the bullets flew. He could hear them passing just behind his head as he angled toward a wall. Jumping into the air, the bullets passed beneath him as he kicked off the wood, bouncing back toward Pioneer. He never stopped moving forward, bullets chewing up the air around him as he closed the final few feet and swung for Pioneer's face.
His enemy caught his arm easily and started the twisting motion for a full-body throw. But Rake was ready. In a single movement, he slipped out of his trenchcoat, leaving Pioneer clutching it by the sleeve. He twisted, wrapping the helmeted warrior up in it. He kicked the tied up gamer away and raised his pistol. The sights came to rest on the glass bubble and he pulled the trigger, firing the fatal shot.
Or so it seemed. In a flash, Pioneer untangled himself, swinging the coat into the air, using the weight of it to force himself lower. The world seemed to stop as the bullet tore through the coat and into his helmet, smashing the bubble. The shards flew all over as Pioneer jerked into the ground. Blood started dripping...
But it was from where he'd smashed his head into the broken glass. With a groan, he got to his feet, putting a hand to the back of his head. It came away covered in red liquid already turning silver. The helmet was gone altogether now, the bullet having shattered it but just missing him. The missing bubble revealed a handsome man. Blonde hair tumbled down to his shoulders as dark blue eyes stared at Rake in shock. He put a hand to his face, then laughed deeply.
“Now that was great! I almost underestimated you there!” He exclaimed.
Rake spat to the side. “It still wasn't enough, though.” He tossed his guns away. “I'm empty.”
Pioneer raised his SMG. Rake half-turned his head as the trigger pull came. But the gun clicked instead of going off. “Same.”
With the soft sheek of sliding metal, they both drew knives. Battle doesn't end when you run out of bullets. They slowly circled each other. “Last fight, old friend. It always came down to this, didn't it?”
“The World Championships always ended with a bang, at least.”
“This is it. Just you and me, and the end of the world.” Rake steeled himself. The talk was almost over. He could feel it in his gut, see it in Pioneer's face. The pause was full of tension.
“No one else in the world.”
And with that, the moment broke.
Rake dodged back as the knife came at his eyes. He swiped with his own, a low strike for the bottom ribs, and this time Pioneer moved away. A smile passed between them as they felt the old rhythm coming back. They charged.
The fighting was slower now, the two fighters weary. As Rake spun and twisted, ducked and weaved, he felt the exhaustion in his bones. It was a mental trick, he knew, something the brain threw up because the synapses firing were supposed to be moving muscles, even though they weren't. It didn't matter. What mattered was that he was slowing down.
In less than a minute, they were both covered in scratches and shallow cuts from where they were forced to sacrifice skin in return for life. It didn't take long for the battle to take its toll on them. They both started overextending, but Pioneer was the first to capitalize.
Rake dropped low, kicking out to sweep Pioneer's legs, but the other gamer just jumped over and slammed his knee into Rake's face. His eyes drooped as his nose went numb, but he forced himself up. Already Pioneer was pressing his advantage. His fist hammered into Rake's stomach, stealing his breath away. Growling, Rake slapped the arm away and swung. But he overextended, Pioneer dropping under it.
Rake knew immediately what he had done. He tried to bring his hand back to block, but it was useless. Too far. It's too far gone. He thought. He couldn't do anything but watch as the knife sank into his stomach. His whole body went numb as Pioneer carried him back into the wall. He distantly felt the shattering impact. From somewhere far away where the world was dark, he knew it was over. He watched as Pioneer brought his hand back, saw the punch fly, felt the impossible breaking of wood behind him as he flew out into the night. He hit the ground and it was like someone else was doing it for him. His breath caught as Pioneer stood over him.
“I'm sorry, Rake. It just wasn't enough.” Rake could only give a faint little smile. Words wouldn't come. And then world went dark.
All Carrion saw was the wall explode outward, debris spraying into the plain. His eyes picked out a shape among the wreckage. His heart dropped as he recognized Rake. As Pioneer approached the fallen gamer, Carrion charged. He raised his gun, but it clicked dry. He threw it down and kept charging. A long cry fell from his lips. “Rake!”
Pioneer turned at the sound. With a smooth motion and a sickening snick, he pulled the knife from Rake's stomach. With a deft underhand flick, he slung it at Carriall. Carrion saw it as a silver flash, then it thudded into his chest and he jerked backward, sliding on the soft grass. His breath stopped in his lungs. Hands shaking, he gripped the knife. The blade was like ice water in his veins.
“Kerry? Kerry!” Dallas' voice was distant in his ears, drowned out by a vision of the Black Rock Cafe.
“My only friends are the ones that I've made in games, like this one. So, I fight really hard because I don't want to let down the only friends I have. So, in answer to your question, it doesn't matter how hard I'm willing to fight. Because I'm not going to lose. No matter what.”
No matter what? I... I guess I was wrong.
With that, Carrion Carriall died.
Pioneer glanced at the dead gamers, then turned to Ashville. Whereas before he'd been smiling, now his mouth was a grim line. The battle was his life, but he took no pleasure in this part. Still, he was under contract.
“End it. They're all dead.” He said. And with that, the zombies broke through the walls. They poured into the town, tearing into the defenders, a dozen Rogues at their head. Pioneer sighed and sank down, sitting as he watched the almighty population counter dwindle. It didn't take long. The fateful numbers hit thirty.
And instantly, the end began. In every world of Undead Online, there is a special way for the game to die. This time, it took the form of a massive nuke beneath Mount Ironheight. As the players died and the population dropped, it gave a single beep and click, and then went off. The three mile mountain was consumed in less than a second and did nothing to contain the furious fire. The wall of blinding light began tearing through the map.
Pioneer heard the roar of the nuke going off. But he knew it would be a minute or two before it destroyed everything. He turned back to the dead gamers. “Input: Lifer. Auth: Pioneer. Bring 'em back.”
When the darkness lifted, Kerry didn't expect to find himself back in the game. He sat up at the same time that Rake did. One by one, others started appearing. First Sader, then Dallas, and finally Sasa.
As Kerry turned toward Ashville, a single tear dropped from his face as he imagined everything that was about to disappear. “It's all over.”
“Yep. It's all over. The game ends once again.” Pioneer said.
“Why?” Kerry asked.
“Why? It's my job.” Pioneer replied.
“It's your job?” Sader spat to the side. He started pawing through menus. “What a joke.” He disappeared, logged out.
Sasa pulled out a cigarette but didn't light it, just spun it between his fingers. Frosty tapped his foot for a second before speaking. “Are you happy? Ending it? Again?”
Pioneer twitched in shock or pain. Maybe both. Kerry couldn't tell. “I'm really not.”
“You sure seemed like it back there.” Kerry replied.
Pioneer sighed. “I was into it. Me and Rake. The return of the prodigal son, the long awaited battle. Of course I was into it. It doesn't mean I like ending... All this.” He waved his arms in a broad motion. “I know how much work players put into this. I was one myself, after all. But I'm under contract.”
He stood up. “But not again. After this, I'm done. I want to help build the next one instead of destroying it. Die alongside old friends instead of fighting them.” As he said this, he looked at Rake expectantly.
Rake shrugged. “I don't know, Storm. I'm torn, honestly. I'm not sure I can still call you my friend.”
Pioneer sighed again. “Well, we'll see. Next time. Will you be there?”
The gamer turned toward the approaching wall of fire. It stretched into the sky, a thousand feet tall. The entire horizon was nothing but golden light, approaching at a terrifying pace. Pioneer put his hands on his hips. “Of course. I'm Pioneer. The first.”
The flame hit, and it was over in an instant.
Kerry's eyes opened to the sight of Ben's apartment. He slipped the TruDive off, letting it fall to the floor as he rubbed his face with his other hand. On the other couch, Ben was sitting up. A curse fell from Kerry's lips as the battle – The defeat – ran through his mind again. Ben shook his head as he stood.
“Well.” He said softly. “I guess that's that.”
“That's all you have to say?” Kerry responded. His voice was quiet, but the acid in it surprised him. He tried to calm down, but anger and exhaustion clouded his mind. “That's that?”
Ben glanced at him and saw the coming storm. He moved quick to cut it off. “Kerry, stay calm.”
“Stay calm? I screwed up, Ben! I screwed up and-”
“We all screwed up. And you had no hand in it anyway. The battle you fought was completely apart from the one I was fighting. And at the end of it, mine was the only one that mattered. If anyone's to blame, it's me.”
“Only because I wasn't strong enough to be a part of that battle. If I was-”
Ben raised a hand to quiet him. He'd seen Kerry's type before. For whatever reason, they needed to blame themselves for losses that were out of their control. It was a damnable condition, but in Ben's experience if it didn't destroy them, it drove them to become even stronger. Even so...
“Kerry, shut up.”
“Because I was weak, we lost and I couldn't help my friends.”
“Kerry, shut up and listen. You didn't lose. You lost by proxy, because I lost. You think you could have changed that? You're wrong. As you are right now, there was nothing you could have done. And what's this crap about not helping your friends? Do you even hear yourself? Of course you helped! You were out there fighting alongside them instead of in the town hiding, right? There are people who would have ran away when they saw that horde. But you didn't. You stayed and fought and died alongside them. You're just going to have to understand that in the end it was hopeless. You tried, Kerry. That's all anyone can ask.”
Kerry looked up at him, tears crowding the corners of his eyes. Ben chuckled inwardly.
“Christ, kid. Don't beat yourself up about it. It's not the end of the world. It's just game over. Slide another coin in the machine, hit restart, keep aiming for the highscore. Failure's not the end, it's just a way to figure out what you should have done. You'll be stronger next time.”
Ben glanced at a clock and bit his tongue. He shook his head again. “You should get back home. I don't want the cops to show up on my doorstep. You have bus money, right?”
“Yeah.” Kerry got to his feet, his eyes heavy with withheld tears and missed sleep. He crossed to the door, but stopped when he got there. He looked back. “And Ben? Thanks again.”
Ben laughed and waved him off. “No problem. Now get going.”
Kerry spent the ride home half-asleep, head bouncing with every pothole, every stop a vague memory, the people who got on and off half-dreamed figures. As he dozed, the battle replayed through his head a last time. He felt the crush of the crowd, the cold of the knife in his chest, the feeling of loss and defeat. And then, at some point that he couldn't remember, the dreams of battle merged into dreams of discovery, thoughts and images of the new world Undead Online would become swirling through his sleep-addled head. He startled awake as the bus stopped near his house. As he woke, the dreams faded to picture and video he could barely reach out and touch. He crossed the street and opened the door.
He tried to walk quietly, but that kind of thing doesn't help much when your parents are waiting for you. As he walked into the kitchen, his mother and father were already there. His heart dropped as they waved him over. They seemed mesmerized by his mom's phone, holding up a hand when he tried to talk. Finally they passed a glance he couldn't read at each other and looked at him.
“Hello Kerry.” His mother said. He swallowed as he tried to figure out what was going on.
“Look, I'm sorry.” He blurted. “About being out so late.”
“Oh, trust me. We will have words about that tomorrow. But right now, what I want to talk about is this.”
She slid her phone across the table so Kerry could see it. It took him a second to realize he was looking at himself in battle with the horde. He looked back up at them.
“Surprised? Martha, Erin's mother, sent me a link to a streamed video. Quite a few streamed videos actually. And who do you think I saw in those streams? It turns out, your little battle was a huge event. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen those videos.”
Kerry's exhausted mind couldn't understand what she was saying, although on some level he recalled Erin was Sasa's real name. So he defaulted back to defending himself. “Look, about disobeying you-”
“Now, just listen.” His mother cut him off. “Yeah, we're angry you drove halfway across the City to who-knows-where so you could play your game. But when I was watching that video, I realized something. You're fighting your butt off! Working so hard, helping your friends like that, it sent a shiver down my spine!”
“I-It did?” Kerry asked, shocked.
“Kerry, have I ever told you how your father and I started dating?”
Kerry shook his head.
“We met in a guild in an old PC MMORPG. He had the hots for me from the beginning, but I wasn't sure about it. Finally, I told him if he could solo the hardest dungeon in our game, I'd go out with him.”
“And he did?” Kerry asked.
“It took him two weeks to manage it, and nine hours to actually do it. After that, there was almost no arguing it.” She smiled. “And this is the first time I've seen someone fight that hard in a game ever since. That intense look you get is the same one he had back then. I guess it runs in the family.” She reached over and pinched Kerry's cheek.
Now his father took over. “Which is why tomorrow you can move your TruDive back up to your room. We don't care how much time you spend playing, but if your grades don't improve and stay there, we will be having a very one-sided discussion, you and us, friends be damned. Understand?”
Kerry nodded. “Don't worry, I don't think I'll be spending much time playing for a while.”
“Good.” His mother replied. “Just don't lose that fighting spirit in the meantime. Now head on up to bed.”
He told them good night and started climbing the stairs, mind full of the last day. He collapsed into bed without changing and fell asleep immediately, dreaming of friends, enemies, and a grand new world.