A few months ago, I set out reach a wider audience with my books before they even came out. My plan was to release a free ebook of sample chapters (more than you would generally get with Amazon's "look inside" or with Smashwords' samples). But, as I soon found out, not many distributors allow free samples, so that left my plan dead in the water. Still, not one to give up quickly, I've decided my blog is the next best place to post my sample chapters. So, without further ado, here are the sample chapters for my upcoming novel, War Town. Coming October 24th to an online retailer near you! (see links at bottom of post)
Copyright: 2016 Mitch Goth
No portion of this book may be reproduced or reprinted in any medium, or by electronic, mechanical or any other means without the express written consent of the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any references or uses to real world events, people, products or places are used in a fictitious manner. Other characters, events, or places are products of imagination and any resemblance to actual people, places or happenings is purely coincidental.
For twenty straight minutes, I stared down at the ticket in my hand. War Town’s opening day, and I had a ticket. We were just a few miles out and I was still struggling to believe it.
“Hey Olly, how much longer you think we got?”
I looked over at the source of the voice. Mikey looked at his phone as he steered the car with his other hand and the other half of his attention. With any other person, I would have scolded them for looking at their phone while driving. But I knew Mikey Fischer well enough to know how good he was good at multi-tasking. I also knew that no matter how many times I told him not to do something he would always do it.
“Can’t be much longer.” I shrugged. “A few minutes maybe.”
“I hope so. I can’t take this suspense anymore.”
“It’s not like we haven’t seen it before, there’s pictures of it all over the internet.”
Mikey drummed his fingers against the wheel. “Well, yeah, pictures from the outside. I wanna know what the deal is inside. Besides, no way pictures do a justice for this place.”
I paused for a moment and watched my friend’s movements. His finger drumming went on and he bounced a little in his seat. His excitement looked like it was about to burst from him. He stuck his head out the window, letting the wind whip through his thick, brown hair.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“Just to do something, I guess. I’m getting antsy.”
“I can tell.”
“Come on, how can you not be stoked for this? War Town is gonna put Oklahoma to shame!”
I smiled. We had taken more than a few trips to the big paintball tournaments in Oklahoma during college. It would take something like a God to one-up those battles, or at least someone with a great vision and a lot of money. War Town was a case of the latter.
“If anyone’s gonna shame the Oklahoma games, I suppose Jackson Merrus would be the one to do it,” I said.
Mikey shook his head. “Here you go again with that guy.”
“What? He’s an important person.”
“And to anyone in the state of California in a hospital where the SmartBot trials are being done.”
“Do those robo-doctor things even work?”
I chuckled. “Robo-doctors? In that sense, no they don’t work at all. As diagnostic nanobots, yeah they do. How haven’t you see them yet? We work in the same hospital.”
“I’m a paper pusher, Olly. The last time I heard about those things was when I was completing the paperwork to bring them to our hospital.”
“You should visit the trial ward one of these days. They’re quite something.”
“What do they do again?”
“They diagnose patients by passing through their body, either through their gastrointestinal tract or circulatory system. When we bring them out, they can decipher if the patient has a disease as long as it is part of their ever-expanding database.”
“Witchcraft if you ask me. And they work?”
“Well they’re still in trial, but I’ve seen them work quite a few times.”
Mikey’s brow wrinkled. “I’ll have to check ‘em out for myself I think. You geek too much about them and the dude who made them. You seem like a biased source.”
“Geek? I don’t geek.”
“Oh?” Mikey shot me a smart look. “How many times have you name-dropped Jackson Merrus in the past week? Hell, the only reason I know that dude’s name is because you say it all the time.”
“How am I not supposed to get excited about med-tech visionary who is also a crazy adrenaline junkie? That doesn’t happen often. Besides, not only are those SmartBots going to make my job a lot easier once they make it out of trial, War Town is gonna make my free time a lot greater."
“Okay, easy there, your man-nurse is showing.”
Man-nurse, I always hated that term. I had gotten a lot of odd looks and whispers since I started work as a nurse. You would think that in modern times a male nurse would not be such a big deal.
“I’ll bottle it all up, just for you, Mikey,” I said.
Mikey was right, I had been talking about those SmartBots and Merrus a lot. The closer the War Town opening got, the less I could hold it back. A city-sized paintball arena built by the greatest mind in medical technology was not something I would let slip my mind. It would be impossible really. I was reminded every time I went into work.
A deep pothole shook me back to reality. I glanced out at the barren desert expanse ahead of us. With a close eye, I noticed ripples forming in the horizon. The silhouette or War Town was budding up in my vision.
Mikey’s fingers drummed again. “Oh man, I can’t wait to just rage in this place!”
“Same. I can’t wait to suit up and fight again.”
“Wear stronger sunscreen this time, bro. It’s been two weeks since our last game and you’ve still got those tan lines on your eyes.”
“When are these things gonna go away?” I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the light lines rolling across my skin. Protective goggles would do that to you.
“Chill out, surfer boy. I’m just messin’ with you. No one’s gonna notice.”
Surfer boy, the only term I hated more than murse. I understood why people called me that, young tan guy with shaggy blonde hair and sky blue eyes, I certainly fit the description. Still, it made me seem like I was a dumb jock type of person. I’d never even touched a surf board.
“You know I hate it when you call me that,” I said.
“Simmer down, Olly, go lay in the sand or catch some sick waves, brah.”
“Don’t worry about those tan lines, you and I both know those are far from the worst thing you can get from this game.” Mikey looked at himself in the mirror, pointing at the scar under his right eye. After eight years it had faded, but I could still spot it. “You remember that?”
“Yeah, how could I forget?”
Back when we were in junior year of high school, Mikey and I went to LA’s biggest paintball tournament. Skipped school to go to it too. Literally five minutes after we head in Mikey took a hit right to the sweet spot below the goggles. If I had gone through nursing school before then, I’d like to think I would have done more than laugh at him.
“Man, our parents pissed at us.” Mikey grinned. “My mom still tells me every chance she gets that ‘That game will kill you kids!’”
“Never stopped us.”
“Because we’re gonna live forever,” we both chimed simultaneously.
“God, we were dumb back then.” Mikey snickered.
After a few more minutes of driving that little ripple in the horizon became a seemingly endless expanse of chain-link fencing surrounding a gargantuan complex of artificial urban wasteland protruding out of the sandy California basin. Mikey was right, no amount of pictures would ever do a justice for War Town.
Merrus limited the grand opening to only one thousand tickets. Even from the edge of the parking lot I could tell more than that showed up. After five minutes of searching for a spot, Mikey found the closest one he could. The entrance still looked to be over a quarter mile off.
“Jesus, I thought this was exclusive,” Mikey said as we got out of the car.
“I think there’s people here hoping that a buyer doesn't show.” I pointed to the main line formed beyond the entrance and to the clots of people sitting beside the fences, waiting for someone to give them a shred of hope.
“Who the hell wouldn’t come to this if they got tickets?” Mikey laughed as he grabbed his gear and paintball gun from the trunk. He tossed my gear and gun to me.
Compared to Mikey’s gear, it looked like I was carrying nothing more than a few pads and a mask. Mikey was about forty pounds heavier than me, all of that in muscle, and he towered a solid four inches over me. From the outside it probably looked like David and Goliath had settled their differences and walked it off.
The walk towards the back of the line was slow. Our pads kept us going at a snail’s pace. Neither of us cared though, we were both too enamored with the place to care just how long we took to get there.
“How big is this place again?” Mikey craned his neck despite there being nothing tall to look over.
“The website says ten square miles.” I looked down both sides of the fence. The complex extended as far as I could see both ways. “I believe it.”
“Jesus Christ. It had to cost that Merrus guy a fortune to build this place.”
“Somewhere in the nine figure range I’m sure.”
Mikey shook his head. “That dude is crazy.”
By the time we reached the line it was shortening. The sun was still fresh in the sky and still every ticket-holder able to make it was already there. I was sure we would be early, but we ended up with the last of the arrivals.
I looked ahead through the sea of people towards the entrance. A large sign welcomed everyone to War Town in bold red letters. Below the bright sign was the ticket booth, or rather, booths. I squinted and noticed colors marked each booth, Red and Blue. Above each color was a ticker to keep track of how many people were on each team. I had never seen anything like that before, but in a game of that size they had to find some way to make sure the teams were as close to even as possible.
“What team do you want to be on?” I asked.
“What teams are there?” Mikey looked over to the front gates. “Red and Blue?”
“You wanna do same teams or different?”
“Have we ever done same teams, Mikey?”
“Figured I’d ask.”
It was true. For as long as we had been friends, Mikey and I never once played paintball on the same team. We liked going against each other in combat too much. Although in War Town it probably didn’t matter. With five hundred people on each team in a place the size of a large town, the chances of us coming against each other was minimal.
“So which team do you want?” I asked.
“Red is calling my name,” Mikey replied.
“Okay, I guess that makes me blue then. Blue is the better color anyway.”
“We’ll just see about that.”
A new voice entered our conversation, “You’re picking teams already?”
We both turned to a girl right in front of us, bright-eyed with a giddy smile, looking at us and awaiting an answer. Beyond her there was a short, muscular man giving our conversation a side-eyed glance.
“Yeah,” I replied. “We always like being on opposite teams, so it’s good to figure it out ahead of time.”
The girl’s smile widened. “Oh really? My friends usually stick together, but blue is my favorite color, so I might go with that regardless of what they pick.”
“Where are they at?” Mikey asked.
Her smile dwindled. “I got here a little late, they’re further up the line. They’re supposed to text me when they get through so I know what team they’re on.”
The short man giving us the side-eye turned the rest of himself in our direction and chimed in, “I hoped this would just be a giant free-for-all. Wouldn’t that be something?”
“That sounds like chaos.” The girl laughed.
“Sounds like fun,” Mikey said. “Maybe they’ll do that next time.”
“Teams make more sense for the price of the ticket,” I pointed out. “You wouldn’t want to drop a couple hundred dollars on a ticket just to be taken out in the first couple minutes. With teams everyone lasts longer.”
“Makes sense.” The short man gave a shrug. “I still wanna go for a free-for-all here if they ever have one later.”
While the line moved forward, Mikey and I made casual conversation and small talk with the people around us until the red welcome letters were staring right down at us and we were in their shadow. Up close, War Town looked far more foreboding. Almost every building was made from cement. There were a few wooden structures, but it all looked like an abandoned military bunker. Whatever the tournament had in store for us, I knew it would be epic.
It came to be our turn at the ticket booths. I looked up at the tickers above each color. Red needed just twenty more players, Blue still needed thirty. I looked behind us at the rest of the line. There looked to be the exact number needed behind us. The faces in the crowd hoping for a no-show hung low.
“See you on the other side, bro.” Mikey held out his fist. I bumped it with mine as he made his way to the Red Team ticket booth.
I walked to the Blue booth and fed my ticket into a machine. It was strange to see a ticket booth without an actual attendant, but I figured the best place to have a machine for that would be a place constructed by Jackson Merrus. After it processed my ticket, the machine unlocked the floor-to-ceiling turnstile and let me in.
The moment I walked through the gate, the other end of the booth dispensed a small Blackberry-like device, blue arm bands, and a blue clip to go around my gun. I clipped the blue plastic to the barrel of my gun, slid on the arm bands, and took the device. The screen showed a map of War Town and my location just beyond the front gate.
“Sky blue looks scary and intimidating,” Mikey said mockingly.
I looked up to see him a few feet away, sliding on his arm bands and attaching his red clip. “Blood red, how cliché,” I quipped. I looked down at my arm bands. “And I think this is more of a robin’s egg blue.”
Mikey rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say.” He raised his vision and pointed to something behind me. “I guess that answers the question of how we’ll all be getting around.”
I turned around and looked over the blue-clad sea of my team members and saw what he was pointing at. About a football field away from the crowd on my side was a large fleet of what looked like trolley cars. Each of them had exteriors painted in our shade of blue. I looked back and saw beyond Mikey’s crowd a fleet of red trolley cars.
“This place is amazing,” I said.
“Can you imagine doing a drive-by in one of those things? Just getting like five or six guys blasting out the sides as we rolled by? Epic.”
Before I could agree, a series of high-pitched tones came from loudspeakers above the ticket booths. I looked to the booths themselves to see the last few people trickling in. There were no tickers on our side, but I assumed they both read an equal five hundred.
“Attention! Attention!” the speakers let out a robotic female voice. “War Town has reached capacity for this round of gaming.” There was a collective groan and hiss from those still on the outside. “All players must board their team trolleys now, as they will automatically depart in ten minutes. I repeat, all team trolleys will depart in ten minutes. They will take all players into the center of the city where there will be a short tutorial. Gameplay shall commence at ten o’clock. Good luck.”
I set down my pads and took out my phone. Just after nine-fifteen. My foot tapped and my hands shook. Those minutes would go by like eternities, I knew it.
“Okay, man, see ya.” Mikey held out his fist again.
I bumped his knuckles against mine. “See ya.”
He headed towards the Red Team trolleys and I picked up my stuff and headed towards the Blue Team ones. As I walked with the crowd, a swift wind came through from outside the fences and I breathed it in. It was the crisp, warm air of mid-spring. Perfect weather for war. My favorite time of year.
The ride took about ten minutes before we reached the middle of War Town. All the way through, I couldn’t stop myself from looking at everything the place offered. There were buildings of all sizes and a realistic cityscape to go with them, complete with a grid street system and numerous alleyways. Along with all the buildings, large blockages and barricades dotted the roadside, some styled to look like sandbags or cars while others were just simple cement walls. The deeper we all went, the more surreal it all became.
By the time the trolleys made it to the town center my head was spinning. There was so much to take in all at once, so many things that could not have been any better. It was paradise, and it went on as far as I could see.
In the middle of the city sat a large park. It was the only place in War Town I had seen at that point that had grass and trees. It wasn’t until we came off the trolleys and walked over it that I realized the foliage was all fake. Jackson Merrus was willing to build an entire city dedicated to paintball, yet he wasn’t willing to build a park with real plants and trees.
Across the park space, I saw the Red Team getting off their trolleys and walking towards the center. I held one of my pads in my teeth to free my hand to check my phone. Nine-forty. There was still twenty minutes left where the teams could be civil.
I made my way to the front of the Blue Team crowd as we moved closer to the center of the park. Stuck in the middle of the faux plant life was a large cement rectangle, looking almost like an altar. A thick white line divided the park in half. As I got further in, I realized the line continued further and went down streets going both directions. A line to divide the city right in half.
By the time everyone had reached the middle I had made it to the front and center of the Blue Team crowd. I thought about the time, only twenty minutes left until game initiation. The team dividing line was just inches in front of me. On the other side of it stood the whole Red Team army. I thought that maybe front and center wasn’t the best place for me.
Just as I padded up one leg, the high-pitched sounds rang out again from loudspeakers spread across the park. I stopped what I was doing and looked up. As I did, my eyes found Mikey near the front of the Red Team crowd. We nodded at each other and exchanged cocky smiles.
“Good morning War Town players,” the robotic female voice said. “If you would please direct your attention to the buildings to your left and right, you will receive a short introduction by War Town’s creator, Jackson Merrus.”
My lips spread into a wide smile. I saw Mikey roll his eyes at that announcement. I looked to the left and saw a large screen lowering off the side of a tall building. Another screen was lowering down from a building on the opposite side of the park.
A projection activated. A young, smiling face showed up on the screen. I knew that long, strong-jawed face and chaotic head of black hair anywhere. Jackson Merrus had appeared.
“Good morning to all those lucky enough to be the first contestants of the War Town arena,” Merrus’s voice came through the loudspeakers and echoed off the buildings looming over the park. Applause and cheers came from the crowds. I wanted to cheer, but found myself too enamored with Merrus’s virtual presence. “I’m sure you’re all eager to begin your massive paintball game, and for that I apologize.”
My smile dissipated. Apologize? What on earth was he talking about? I watched his expression melt into seriousness.
“I am an adrenaline junkie myself,” Merrus’s projection went on. “Just like all of you, I would have loved the opportunity to play a round of paintball in the War Town arena. Unfortunately, I have not been truthful to you. I did not construct War Town for paintball, or any other popular sport a creative mind may envision for it. My city has an important, yet narrow purpose.”
Worried mutterings washed through the crowd. An emptiness opened up inside me where excitement once was. I looked over at Mikey, he looked as confused as I felt. Everyone looked puzzled, some even scared.
“Now, this next point some of you may already know,” Merrus continued. “On the digital mapping devices you all got, if you zoom out you will see a small dot on the screen indicating your team’s home base. What you all don’t know is what those bases are. On far sides of the map, deep into each team’s side of the city are tall hotel buildings. Within each hotel are five hundred small rooms, complete with beds, individual food rations, running water, and clothing with your team color.”
The nervous murmurs evolved into a mess of confused comments. Some people spoke loudly, already to the point of almost yelling. Others remained quiet with their words, either too frightened or too uncertain to speak any louder.
I looked back to Mikey. His confusion had shifted into fear, I could see it in his face. My mind moved that way too. Merrus was talking nonsense, but if he was telling the truth about our bases then he had to have something in his head. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it was.
Merrus’s face changed yet again. His mere lack of a smile became the slightest of frowns. His neutral gaze became lower and darker. Nothing made any sense, but I had a feeling it was about to.
Merrus continued, “After this speech concludes, the trolleys will no longer be automated and be open to player control and direction, which will allow both teams greater mobility for strategic attacks and swift infiltration of enemy territory. I suggest your first trip be to your team’s hotel, just to see I’m not lying. Or, if you prefer, you can pay a visit to the fences. After the trolleys left, the War Town perimeter fence and front gate turnstiles were connected to an electrical current of one hundred and fifty milliamps. Any aspiring electricians in the crowd may know that is a fatal shock.” Merrus raised a finger and wagged it from side-to-side. “I do not recommend touching.”
The conversations fell further into chaos as voices became louder. The whole mass of people shifted and swayed. Fear took over the crowd, and Merrus still had more to say.
“If anyone thinks that they are smart enough to get over my fences, I promise you that is not a sound idea. All buildings are much too far away to jump across, not like you would survive the fall. Even if you think of a way to bypass the fences, I have rigged the entire city with micro-cameras, the same technology I used in my SmartBots, which any medical practitioner is most likely aware of.”
A lump rose in my throat. Why would he use his life-saving technology to play some human ant farm game? The Jackson Merrus I saw on TV and read about in the press was a man dedicated to helping people, saving lives. That same man appeared before me in the middle of War Town, claiming that he turned his gaming arena into a deadly prison cell. It was impossible. It had to be some kind of joke.
“What will I do if anyone tries escaping the perimeter of War Town before the game is over?” Merrus asked rhetorically. “Let me show you.”
Suddenly, the concrete altar quaked. I backed away, as did everyone else close to it. The slab shook until the concrete cracked and fell away. After only a few seconds, the altar had broken down to unveil a large mechanical device encased in thick panes of glass. Atop the former altar was a long, thin screen displaying nothing but blackness.
“The device in the center of the park is a small nuclear weapon, constructed by yours truly. I hope you enjoy it. The device is capable of erasing all of War Town from existence in a fraction of a second.” People screamed and cried out over Merrus’s calm explanation. “When this recording ends, the timer on the device will count down. The timer will stop when the game is completed. If it reaches zero, all of you will be vaporized. If I witness anyone attempting escape from this place before the conclusion of the game, I will trigger it remotely. Easy to understand, yes?”
Crowds on both sides were plunging into chaos. Merrus’s voice was hardly audible over people screaming. Some cried. I was still waiting to hear the whole story, to understand just what the hell was going on.
“I’m sure all of you are wondering just what the point of all this is,” Merrus said. “Well, if you take a trip to your team hotel you will find a large metal door in the basement. On the other side of that door is an expansive cache of weaponry. Now, I don’t mean more paintball supplies when I say that. I mean real metal guns firing real lead ammunition, the kind that kills. The goal of the game remains the same: one team must eliminate the other. You have until this Sunday at ten in the morning to complete the game with the weapons provided for you. If one team does not eliminate the other in that time the nuclear device will eliminate you all. I suggest you all dump your paintball gear, it is no good against real ammunition. Good luck, and let War Town begin.”
Merrus’s feed cut. Less than a second later, the screen atop the bomb lit up and began counting down. People around the bomb screamed and ran the opposite direction. Panic enveloped the crowds and people scattered. I stayed where I was, I had no idea where I wanted to go.
Once the crowds dispersed as people ran for the trolleys, a select few of us remained. Mikey was one of the people who stayed put. With slow, careful steps we approached each other, looking at one another across the dividing line with solemn, confused expressions.
“This all can’t be real, can it?” Mikey asked, his voice nearly inaudible.
I looked around to the other people approaching each other at the line. So many friends, family members, and couples all joined with separate teams to fight each other for fun. Suddenly the fun disappeared, and they were stuck on opposing sides. There was one couple only a few yards from us. They looked to be in their late teens. A tall skinny boy with long dark hair on the Red side, and a short, equally thin girl with blinding blonde locks on my side. Even with the distance between myself and them fear showed clearly in their faces. Just like Mikey, they were both hoping that none of it was real.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
By the time I got to the Blue Team hotel, all hell had broken loose. Dozens of people sat on the sidewalk, in the street, and in alleyways by themselves. Many sat in the fetal position. I didn’t blame them. Ever since that countdown started, my heart had been slamming against my ribcage as if its dying wish was the see the light of day.
The hotel itself didn’t make me feel any better. It was the tallest building around, by far. It took up over half of an entire block and stood ten stories above the street. Just like all the other buildings in the city, the hotel had no windows, only empty panes. When I first entered War Town, I figured the lack of glass windows was to keep people safe from serious harm. Now I didn’t know what to think.
Unable to stomach the sorrow outside, I headed through the front doors and into the large open room that stood as the lobby. The moment I walked in I understood why people had gone outside. Distraught people filled the whole space, crying, trying to get answers that would never come. In the corners sat groups of people all sitting down and weeping into their cell phones, trying their best to explain what was happening to whoever was on the other end.
I pulled out my phone and checked for a signal. It was weak, but I had some. I even had some data service to work with. Without a thought, I opened my contacts and scrolled down to my mom’s number. That was where I stopped. What would I even tell her if I called? What would I say if she asked anything? Everything was still a confused mess. The people huddled in the corners all bawled into their phones and I didn’t want to be like them. I put my phone away and leaned against a nearby wall.
My heart was beating even faster than before, exacerbated by all the yelling and sobbing. All I wanted to do was slide down to the floor and break down with the rest of them, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t just sit alone and hope for answers to come.
“Attention!” a voice boomed through the chaos. “Attention everyone!”
The source of the voice was a muscular man with a large, shaved head calling out from atop a table across the room. People were taking notice, but a lot of loud conversation and hysterics continued. I pushed myself off the wall and took a few steps towards the man on the table. He looked like he had himself together, the only person who was somehow calm.
The man cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’ve got a group of people here ready to take a trip down to the basement to see what there is down there. Anyone who would like to join us is welcome to. We all want answers to what is going on and we’re all scared, but it’s important to stay calm and collected. We’ll all be just fine if we keep our heads.”
After the man’s speech I was expecting someone from the crowd to resist, but no one did. The man on the table was a powerful speaker. He even got me convinced that everything would be okay in just those few short sentences.
Once the man stepped down off the table, me and several others followed him as he headed for the main stairwell across the room. As we moved through the crowds, more caught up. By the time I reached the basement stairs, there were at least fifty people behind me, all searching for hope.
I moved through the hoard as we all descended to the basement. Before I could get far through the crowd, everyone stopped in their tracks. I craned my neck above the heads in front of me. Right at the base of the basement steps was a large metal door, just like Merrus had said. It looked like the door off of a safe or an industrial refrigerator. The man from the table stood in front of it, motionless. People called out for him to open it.
After some tense moments of waiting, the man grabbed the handle to the massive metal door and pulled it open. A light flickered on inside the room. The crowd moved again and I made my way through them to get to the front. Once the cries and screams came, I stopped trying to move forward.
The room beyond the door was just as expansive as the lobby, but a grid of gun racks and ammo shelves split it up. I wanted an answer to what the hell was going on and I got it. We all got it. It just wasn’t the answer we were hoping for.
I trickled in with the rest of the front section of the crowd, scanning through all the weapons. There were so many. I had no idea where to start. There were racks of shotguns, hunting rifles, machine guns, and shelves full of pistols of every variety imaginable. I approached the pistols.
My knowledge on guns was the same as my knowledge on space shuttles: I knew they existed and what they did. I didn’t understand how they did what they did, nor did I ever expect I would have to operate one. Unfortunately, I wasn’t looking at a shelf of space shuttles to fly. My eyes locked on a buffet of pistols, from old fashioned revolvers to a few that looked too futuristic to be operated by humans.
Without thinking, I picked one up. It was like I had just picked up a boat anchor. The thing was so heavy and cumbersome. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could shoot accurately out of something so massive. The weapon shook in my hands as I tried to look down the sights. I didn’t know if that was because of the weight or because of the fear-laced adrenaline pumping through my veins.
“Looks kinda big for you,” a familiar voice said. I turned to see the man from the table approaching me with a small, kind smile. It wasn’t until then that I realized just how tall the man was. He looked to be as tall as Mikey, if not a bit taller. He also looked a few years older than everyone else, closer to thirty than twenty. “Try this.” He handed me a pistol from further down the line. As soon as I held his choice in my hand I set down the boat anchor.
“What is this?” I asked. Compared to the other gun it was like I was holding a gun-shaped feather. “It doesn’t even feel like metal.”
“It’s not, it’s polymer. A lot lighter than metal,” the man said. “That’s a nine-millimeter round. There’s a whole crate of ammo for that along with spare magazines on the opposite wall. Be sure to get nine-millimeter. Putting the wrong bullet in a gun will do a lot more harm to you than whatever you’re aiming at. The name is Wade by the way, Wade Walker.”
“I’m Olly Rourke.” I looked down at the gun in my hand. “You know a lot about this stuff.”
Wade chuckled. “Maybe I should have introduced myself better. Sergeant Wade Walker, United States Army.”
“That makes a lot more sense.” I breathed out a long, shaky sigh. “So what do you think about all this? Do you think this is for real?”
“I’m not sure about the situation.” He reached over and tapped his knuckle against the gun in my hand. “But that’s real, doesn’t get any realer.”
“And the game? Do you think Merrus was telling the truth?”
“I don’t have an answer for you on that one, Olly. But if he wasn’t spouting lies, I don’t want to be the one caught without a gun by my side.”
The rest of the morning burned away slowly, a dim ember from a once lively inferno. The adrenaline in me wore off fast once I left the basement. I spent a lot of time milling around the lobby, trying to keep my emotions at a distance. After several hours of failure, I opted to head upstairs and find a room for myself.
I chose a room on the fourth floor. It was the closest I could get to ground level. It was a tiny space, but equal to all the others. There was a slim twig of a bed and a micro dresser filled up with blue shirts of various sizes and one-size-fits-all pants. Beside the dresser was a short stack of boxes filled with dry food rations and a small first aid kit.
A cramped bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower attached to the main room. I found it astounding that Merrus cared enough for the players to add those amenities. He wanted us to die, but not to sacrifice our hygiene.
With nothing else to do, I sat down on the bed and took a breath. I felt the weapon at my side. Wade helped me find extra ammunition, clips, and a holster for it. The lead and polymer at my hip weighed down my whole being. I tried to keep it out of my head, but couldn’t. I could see myself holding it, aiming it, firing it, stealing away some poor soul.
My whole body trembled as I slid my phone out of my pocket. Anything to get rid of the images already playing in my mind. I scrolled through my contacts and stopped at my mother’s number. Once again, I paused with my thumb over her name.
If I called her, it would all be real. Part of me still clung to the idea that it was a joke, that the fences weren’t really electrified and that there wasn’t a small nuclear weapon in the middle of War Town. I didn’t want it to be real, but if I called her and heard her weep for me that’s what it would become. I put my phone away and sunk my head into my hands.
A shuddering breath fell from my lips and my vision became blurred by budding tears. I forced myself off the bed and moved the open window pane. The pleasant spring breeze did what it could to ease my thoughts. I closed my eyes and let it envelop me so it was the only thing I could feel. Behind me was a cement-walled room no larger than a prison cell without so much as an electric light to replace the sun when darkness fell. Out the window was a panoramic view of the place where I would probably die. A solemn cement jungle, an urban canvas waiting to be painted red.
I took one more gasping breath of the spring wind before opening my eyes and moving away from the window. If I stayed in that room any longer, it would kill me. I had to get out. Before I left, I squeezed into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t see the tan lines on my face anymore. The darkness in my eyes overshadowed their presence.
With a careful hand, I drew my pistol out of its holster. I couldn’t aim my arms straight out without pressing hard against the back wall, but I lifted it far enough up to look down the sights at myself in the mirror. The black eye of the barrel bore into me, embedding itself in my soul. The weapon shook in my grip and slid across the sweat on my palms. I put it back into the holster once I felt myself get queasy.
My weakened legs led me out of the bathroom and to the door. Before I left, I paused and looked at a small magnet attached to a metal panel on the door. Lime green letters stated the room was vacant. I flipped the sign around, showing red letters: OCCUPIED. My room’s sign fit in with every other door, each showing off bold vermilion letters. Once I marked my room, I wasted no further time and went downstairs.
The muzzle of my weapon in the mirror clung to my memory. I had never held a real gun before, but working in a Los Angeles ER taught me enough about what they could do. Gunshot wounds were common at my hospital, a weekly occurrence at least. They were ghastly things, jagged holes that tore through a person’s entire physical being. I had seen countless of them and they still frightened me every time they came in. I wondered how the War Town players would react to seeing one for the first time, maybe even on themselves. If I wasn’t prepared, they wouldn’t be.
Everyone in the lobby was just as somber and depressed as I had left them. People wept openly while others tried their best to hold their emotions back. Every head hung low. The only difference from before was that every frightened soul had armed themselves.
Players that looked to be not even out of high school toted weapons as tall as they were. Innocent, melancholy faces were the backdrop to large assault rifles, Uzis, and Tommy Guns, instruments of murder from all places and times. It was a disaster lying in wait to unfold and that was the point.
I stepped outside hoping to find a somewhat nicer atmosphere to linger in. It proved to be a disappointment. There were less people curled up in the streets, but it wasn’t any less depressing. People milled aimlessly around. Others sat on barricades and in nearby trolley cars. Some sat together, but nobody spoke. There wasn’t anything anyone could say.
Through the sea of low faces outside the hotel, I spotted a familiar silhouette in the shadows of an alleyway across the street. She sat on the ground leaning against the wall, hugging her legs to her chest and staring down at the concrete.
With long strides I made my way across the road and into the desolate alley and sat down beside her. She took a moment to realize I was even there, and when she did she only looked up with terrified eyes and mouthed a hello.
“Hi,” I breathed. “I remember you from the line this morning.”
It was the girl with the bright, happy eyes and the contagious smile. The one who said she would choose the Blue Team because it was her favorite color, regardless of the choice the rest of her friends made. By the looks of it, the rest of her companions were together on the Red Team. She was all alone.
“Yep, that’s me,” she spoke in a whisper and held out a hand. “Ashley Milt, biggest idiot in all of War Town.”
I shook her hand. “Olly Rourke, someone confused as to why you think you’re an idiot.”
Ashley scratched at her head, trying to run her fingers through her tightly tied brown hair. Her fingers drifted over a streak of light blue strands on the right side of her scalp. She moved her hand down and rubbed her forehead in frustration. “Why shouldn’t I? All my friends are on the Red Team. I should’ve just gone with them. Now I’m stuck on the wrong team in a game that suddenly isn’t a game anymore.”
“There’s a lot of us with friends on the other side,” I said. “My best friend is on the Red Team.” I slid out my phone again to check for any messages from him. Nothing. “I hope he’s okay. I’m sure he is, and I’m sure your friends are okay too. They’re just worried about us, I'm sure.”
“I know.” Ashley looked up at me, her hazel eyes stained with intense anxiety. They looked completely different from the lively, almost golden irises I saw while waiting in line. “It scares me, having them on the other side.” She sucked in a large gulp of air. “Your friend, do you think you can do it?”
“What do you mean?”
Ashley stumbled with her words, “Do you think you have it in you to kill them?”
I felt my heart shatter inside me. My chin quivered at the mere thought of raising my gun against Mikey. “No way,” I said. “No way I could ever do that. What about you?”
“Nope.” Ashley stifled back tears. “I don’t have it in me. I don’t think I’ll be able to hurt anyone, much less my friends.” She reached around her side and brought back a small machine gun, pointing it up to the sky. “But that’s what we’re here to do I guess.”
“Don’t think like that. This has all just gotta be a sick joke.”
She shot daggers at me and pulled something from her pocket. A small piece of metal that glistened even in the low light of the alley. A bullet. “Is this a joke? This is a real bullet.” She held her gun up higher. “This is real gun. I know it’s nice to think that all of this is still just a joke or a game, but this is for real. It’s all for real. That means we’ve got two choices.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “Turn our guns on our friends or on ourselves. I’m coming around to the second idea.”
I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye. “No. I know this is scary, I know this is unbelievable, but you can’t think that way. The second you go down that road there’s no going back. This is hard to understand and deal with, I know that. All anyone wants right now is to get out of here, and you can. There’s only one way you will for sure die here, and that’s if you do it to yourself. Everyone wants out, but that is no way to do it.”
Ashley set her weapon aside. “Sorry, I’m just confused and scared right now.”
“I know. We all are.”
Just then, pops and bangs sounded through the air, echoing from far in the distance. At first I wasn’t sure what they were. It didn’t take long for me to understand. Gunshots. I slid my legs in close to myself, into a position much like Ashley. We both sat and listened.
People stirred in the street. Sounds of swift walking and puzzled conversation soon devolved into running and hollering. The pops and bangs got louder and closer together. Wherever that battle was, it was reaching a climax. The game had begun.
The distant gunfire only lasted a few minutes, but by the time the pops stopped echoing Wade was already gathering people to check on what happened. The last thing I wanted to do was go out to wherever all those shots came from, but I still agreed to go when Wade asked. As far as I knew, I was the only person on the Blue Team with medical experience. If someone got hurt, it was my duty to help.
Less than five minutes after the final shot rang out a group of us were jumping into a trolley to leave. There was me, Wade, the short guy I had talked to along with Ashley in the line outside War Town, a lanky, brown-haired fellow, and a burly Asian man. None of us had any idea what we were heading into or just how prepared, or rather unprepared, we all were.
“Ryan,” Wade asked the short man, “is this everyone?”
“I think so, yeah,” Ryan replied. “Everyone else spouted excuses not to go.”
“They’re all just a little shook up still. Let them take their time,” Wade replied as he worked at the controls of the trolley.
While I waited for us to move, I looked back at the alley where Ashley was. She was still sitting there, but no longer huddled into herself and she looked like she had moved closer to the mouth of the alleyway and out of the shadows. Her face still spoke of great sorrow. She looked like she needed a friend. We all did.
A voice called in my direction, “Hey, dude, what’s your name?”
I turned to see Ryan looking at me with a smart, suspicious squint. He was scanning me up and down as if looking for faults in my character from physical appearance alone.
“Olly Rourke, and yours?”
“Ryan Kurtman.” His eyes dipped down to the gun on my waist. “Why such a dinky little pistol?” He held up his weapon, a large machine gun. An AK-47, if my rusty gun knowledge didn’t deceive me. “You might be better off with more fire power.”
“I don’t think so.” I shook my head, not wanting anything to do with the conversation.
The trolley jolted and chugged forward and Wade moved to the back with the rest of us. He sat down beside Ryan and gave him the same once over that Ryan had just finished giving me.
“Why are you hassling Olly?” Wade asked.
“Just wonderin’ what he’s doing going along with us with such a tiny gun,” Ryan replied.
“Well, Olly is a medical professional. Are you a medical professional?”
Ryan grumbled. “No.”
“I didn’t think so.” Wade patted Ryan hard on the shoulder. “Leave the kid alone, will you?”
After that minor altercation, no one spoke. Wade returned to the front to direct the trolley towards the source of the gunfire. We spent a few minutes scanning the streets, hoping to find where the skirmish had taken place. We hoped that all we would find were shell casings and the listless smell of gunpowder, but we weren’t that lucky.
Wade drove the trolley in a maze-like pattern as we all scanned our respective sides of the road. After about ten minutes of searching, we stopped at an intersection and movement came from behind me. I turned around just as the tall, brown-haired man stood up and pointed down the street, exclaiming that he found it. We all looked the direction of his finger and our collective soul sank to the floor.
Two bodies lay in the street about three blocks down. Ribbons of blood drifted over the curvature of the pavement and pooled on the curbs. Wade turned the trolley and ran it in that direction. We got out about a block shy of the scene and approached. Before we could get far, someone sprung out from one of the nearby barricades, waving their arms frantically.
“Stop! Stop!” a young man yelled. Just when people raised their guns at him, a shot rang out and the man crashed to the pavement.
We all threw ourselves behind barriers. Everyone drew their weapons and aimed them down the road. I touched at the handle of my pistol, too disoriented to remove it from the holster. Weak moans flowed through the scene as the sound of the gunshot wore away. I peeked out from behind my barrier and saw the player who had run at us, a Blue Team member, shot in the leg. Behind him, four Red players armed with rifles and shotguns moved out of hiding.
“Who the hell are you?” Wade’s voice boomed. He stepped out of cover, M-16 assault rifle up and ready to fire. Behind him followed Ryan, also aiming his weapon.
“We don’t want any trouble,” a Red player armed with a shotgun called back. “We were just trying to find our way to the fences when your team jumped us. All we did was defend ourselves.”
“Is that true?” Wade looked down at the wounded man in the street.
The young man didn’t respond. He writhed and moaned in pain. I forced myself to move out from behind my barrier and approach him. Part of me expected one of the Reds to shoot me down right away, but they didn’t. Nobody shot anyone. I kneeled down beside our wounded team member.
“Look, I want to help you,” I said, “but you’ve gotta tell us what happened first. Did you attack the Red Team?”
The Red player from before chimed in, “They said that we were in the wrong part of the city, like this is gang shit or something.”
“Nobody asked you anything!” Ryan sneered.
The Red players raised their guns. My hand tightened around my pistol, but I still couldn’t bring myself to draw it. I looked down at the wounded man, he was staring back at me with wide, frantic eyes.
“You’ve gotta get me out of here,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“I’m working on it,” I said. I glanced down to his leg. My mind went back to all the gunshot wounds that came into the ER. I’d dealt with enough of them to know that leg couldn’t be saved. “It’ll be okay.”
“Why don’t we all just walk away from here and call it done,” Wade said. “Let’s just go our separate ways before more things go bad.”
“Fine, you first!” the Red player suggested.
Ryan moved to the front, a few steps ahead of Wade. “Hey, we’re offering you a chance to live. Take it.”
“Get out of here now!” Wade’s tone had raised to yelling.
I looked up at him and could see the white of his knuckles around his gun. His knees shook and lip twitched. Out of everyone there I expected him to be the most collected, but he looked about ready to explode.
“Okay, I’m not gonna stand for this.” The Red player reloaded his shotgun with a loud, intimidating pump.
Before the sound of the shotgun clicking back into place could come, a sudden, deafening blast of noise ravaged my ears. Someone started shooting. I looked towards what I thought was the source of the noise to see the blasts were coming from Wade’s weapon. Our calm leader had started a gunfight.
I cowered down on the ground, too frightened to move. The hand of the wounded man beside me grasped my shoulder with enough strength to pulverize diamonds. He tried to yell something but I couldn’t hear anything over the blasts.
My eyes forced themselves shut as I got closer to the ground. I felt the man’s hand jolt, as if his whole body convulsed. His grip went loose and fell away from my shoulder. I didn’t need to look to know what had happened, and I didn’t want it to happen to me. Staying close to the ground, I lunged for a nearby cement barricade. Once I was behind cover I forced myself to draw my pistol and tried to gather my breath.
A bullet struck the cement slab and shattered my concentration. My heart tried its best to break my ribs and my ears screamed in pain as the battle went on. Tremors overtook my muscles and I couldn’t bring myself to move, much less aim my weapon and fire.
Just as quick as it had started, the shooting stopped. A horrifying silence lingered after the final shot. I looked out to the street and saw the body of the wounded young man. He had another hole in his chest, right through the heart. Besides him, the lanky man we had brought along was motionless in the street with what looked like a shotgun blast in his chest. Two Red players were dead, the other two were hobbling the other direction, injured in the fight.
Through the intense ringing in my ears, I heard Wade and Ryan exchange comments. It sounded like a lot of frantic questions. The two got into a short argument as my hearing returned.
“That’s the point of this game, Wade,” I heard Ryan say. “We can’t just let ‘em go.”
“Fine,” Wade said, “do it.”
Ryan raised his weapon towards the fleeing Red players and fired a long blast. The sound shook the focus from my vision and stole my hearing away again. By the time I regained composure enough to stand, everyone else was lowering their weapons. I looked down the street to see the remaining two Red players flat on the sidewalk.
Only ten seconds after I had stood up, I leaned back onto the cement barricade and vomited. Ashley was right. It wasn’t a joke. That wasn’t a fairy tale I could hang onto anymore.
“Olly!” Wade called out.
I looked up and saw him helping the Asian man back to the trolley. A gash in his side sent blood dripping down onto the street. I stepped towards them, footing too unsure to keep up.
“Jesus Christ,” Ryan said, looking back at the scene, “that was messed up.”
My breathing turned to gasping as I processed what had happened. I holstered my weapon. “Oh God.” I felt my stomach slithering up my throat again, but choked it back down.
“Olly, come on, we’ve gotta get back, you’ve gotta help this guy,” Wade said. “We’ll send for the dead. I don’t want them out here like this. We’ll take the Reds in too if we have to.”
“What? Why?” Ryan asked, sounding almost disgusted.
Wade replied, “It’s the least we can do for the first of the dead.”
When we returned nobody asked about what had happened. I figured they heard the gunfire just fine and needed no more explanation. People looked at us with empty eyes and I sensed they were counting us, noting who didn’t come back.
I had to move quick through the sea of solemn faces, as I had my first wounded player to tend to. The burly Asian man had no trouble walking, but from the trolley to the lobby he never once leaned all the way up. I didn’t blame him. The bullet only grazed his side, but left a sizeable gash.
The man sat himself in a far corner of the lobby, far away from the concerned onlookers. He slid down the wall until he was on the ground, tucked near one of the lobby’s darkest corners. His placement didn’t make treating him any easier, but it was where he wanted to be and I didn’t feel like making him move again.
With a first aid kit someone had brought downstairs from their room I did what I could with the man’s injury. Despite being minor as far as bullet wounds went, I had a hell of a time working on it. The jagged wound was near impossible to stitch together, and with no anesthesia for him, the man felt every poke of the needle and jolted every time it pierced the skin.
Progress was slow, but twenty-five stitches contained the wound. If the bullet created any internal bleeding there wouldn’t be anything I could do, but I didn’t tell him that. As far as the man knew his troubles were over, and I figured if he believed that then it would be true. With only tiny first aid kits to work with, positive outlook would have to go a long way.
“Okay, that’s it.” I leaned away from the man’s side after ending the last stitch. “How do you feel?”
“Like shit,” the man said, tucking his bloodied shirt down. “But, hey, thanks man.” He extended a hand.
I gave his hand a firm shake. “No thanks necessary, it’s what I do.”
“What’s your name, friend?”
“Olly, Olly Rourke.”
“And you’re a doctor?”
The man chuckled. “Male nurse? Well, I guess I shouldn’t be making fun. If you weren’t here I’d be dead or close to it by now. My name is Poh, Gabe Poh, in case you were wondering.” Gabe ran his hand over his short spines of hair. “Can you help me up?”
“I think it might be best if you rest there for a while,” I replied.
“Come on, man, supposedly there’s someone who’s able to charge phones and I need power. Please?”
“Fine.” I extended a hand and Gabe snatched onto it, using my weight to pull himself back up the wall and to his feet.
“Thanks for everything man, hopefully I don’t gotta come see you again.” He hobbled away, but paused after a few steps and turned back. “Hey, does this seem right to you?”
“Does what seem right? The game? Hell no.”
“Not just that. Does killing other people because some dude on a big screen says so sound right?”
I frowned. “Well, no, but what other choice do we have?”
“Find the guy from the screen, that Merrus dude.”
I stifled a laugh. “Find him? You wanna find Jackson Merrus? How do you expect to do that? We’re in here and he’s out there.”
“Who says he’s out there? Maybe he's in here with us, watching from far closer than everyone thinks.” Gabe approached me again. “Think about it. If this dude spends millions of dollars on a fake city for his death game why would he watch from some other place far away when he could do it here? Here would be the best place, the cops won't come in and get him and take him away from watching.”
Gabe made far more sense than I was comfortable hearing. What if Jackson Merrus was in War Town with us? If Gabe was right and he hid away somewhere in the city, then if we found him the game could end. Still, if Gabe was wrong, we would waste time and energy going out to find someone who was never there. We would risk our lives for an illusion of hope.
“That sounds like a stretch.”
“Stretch or not, it’s better than killing other players, people who might just be our friends.” Gabe hobbled away.
I didn’t have time to think about Gabe’s words for long, as a familiar booming tone overtook my sense, and the senses of everyone else in the room. Wade Walker once again stood on a table in the middle of the lobby, addressing everyone in grand fashion. All eyes were instantly on him.
“For those of you on the Blue Team who are unaware, I led a group of us out to investigate the sounds of gunfire not far from here earlier,” Wade explained to the massive crowd. “While out performing that investigation, we encountered a bloody scene where members of the Red Team had killed some of our team members.” Gasps and mutterings flowed through the crowd. “We came in contact with those Red Team members, engaged in a short battle, and left them all dead.” A mixture of cheers and further gasping went through the room. “I would just like to say that this is not a game. This is not a joke. People have died on both sides. This is a situation of life or death, kill or be killed, and it looks like there is no other way out.”
The crowd soon became an ocean of confused conversation. Some people wept for themselves and for others, some went into anger-fueled outbursts, while others hung their heads and remained still. Deep down we all wanted to hang on to the belief that it was some twisted joke, but that wasn't true. There was no game, only death, and it was our job to survive.
Wade called out to the crowd to keep calm, but I knew a point of no return when I saw one. There would be no reigning in those people for quite a while, and I wanted no part of it. As the people in the lobby went back and forth between fury and sorrow, I slid across a far wall and out the front door. The large glassless windows in the lobby made sure there was no escape from the sounds of chaos, but I was fine with having it all be out of sight for a little while.
The moment I stepped out onto the sidewalk I ran back into Gabe, who was sitting beside a streetlight, waiting on another familiar face to complete her work. Ashley sat beside Gabe and toyed with wires she took from the base of the light after opening a panel on the side. With nimble hands she touched wires together, stripped their coatings, and tested their electrical reactions to each other. The whole time she worked I stood nearby and watched, mesmerized by her ability.
Without speaking a word, Ashley held out a hand to Gabe and he gave his phone to her. She picked out the charging port on the phone and with her other hand steadily inserted a mess of stripped and intertwined wires into the charging port. I moved back, expecting the phone to overheat and explode or something like that.
No explosion or catastrophic failure came. The screen lit up and the phone began charging. I stifled a small laugh. It was an amazing sight to see.
“Oh wow!” Gabe exclaimed. “I didn’t think it’d actually work.” He took his phone from Ashley.
“Keep the cords in the port,” she said. “That’s the only way the phone will keep charging.”
“That was something else.” I approached her and smiled. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
Ashley smiled back at me. “Well, I didn’t learn to do that specifically, but I just completed my electrician apprenticeship back home. I never thought I’d use that knowledge to break open streetlights for phone charging though.”
“Funny how life works sometimes.” I looked up at the light. The streetlights were the only source of electricity I knew of in the city. Merrus must have wanted us to spend every hour of the day and night fighting the other team, and wanted it all to be lit up enough for him to see.
“So Gabe tells me you saved his life. What’s the story on that?” Ashley looked down at him. His charging phone enamored him too much to hear his own name.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” I replied. “I fixed him up when a bullet grazed his side. Nothing major.”
“Wow, are you a doctor or something?”
“No, I’m a nurse,” I said and waited for her to laugh.
“That’s still helpful,” she said without a single snicker. “Around here you might just save hundreds of lives.”
“If hundreds of lives need saving, I’ll try. But there’s only so much I can do with the supplies I’ve got.”
My mind wandered back to the young man in the street. Even with modern medicine he would have lost his leg. With nothing more than first aid kits to work with, his chances of survival beyond a day would have been slim. There would have been no way to prevent infection even if the bleeding stopped, and that would have taken him in hours without antibiotics. He was most likely a lost cause, but I would never get the chance to know if I could have saved him.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Ashley waved a hand in front of my face and brought me back to reality. “You look how I felt earlier.”
I remembered just how sad and lonely Ashley looked sitting in that shadowy alley alone. She had so much on her mind, so many things contributing to the dark cloud hanging over her, hanging over us all. Now she looked like a different person. A sliver of life had returned to her eyes, and she showed off a slight but present smile.
“There were things I saw at that battle that I would have rather not seen,” I said, being as vague as possible. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine. Do you wanna take a walk or something somewhere, take your mind off things? I strolled around after you all left and it helped me a lot.”
“Okay. Where though?” I looked around. All I saw were tall cement buildings and desolate urban landscape.
“What about to the fences? We could look out to the real world. That might be helpful.”
“Could be, or it could depress us even more.”
“You never know if you don’t try, Olly.” She grabbed my hand and led the way. “Come on, let’s go.”
After we reached the fence, Ashley and I stood and looked at it for a long time. It was strange. On the way inside it was easy to forget the tall, chain-link barrier was even there at all. Now, from the inside, it was a sight impossible to forget. There were so many things I wish I would have noticed before I walked in. If I had taken the time to get up close to the fence, I would have seen the thin electrical wire snaking through the metal links. If I hadn’t been so excited and took a moment to gauge the situation I was going into, things would have been different.
We had taken the trip to the fence to gaze out beyond it, but everything on the other side of the links was a blur. The outside world was a distant dream obscured by a tall, death-laced barrier of reality. My mind begged my eyes to turn away from the fence, but my eyes remained transfixed. I looked down both ways several times, mesmerized by the terrifying sight of our prison continuing far beyond my vision.
I felt a nudge to my arm. Ashley had torn her gaze from the fences and was looking at something else, something beyond the links, towards the parking lot. I followed the direction of her eyes and saw the far end of the parking lot alive with activity. There were large vans with tall antennas jutting out of the tops, and numerous police vehicles with blue and red strobes flashing on them. It had only been a few hours and already War Town was becoming a media circus.
“Good to know the news crews are here already,” I said sarcastically.
“Yeah,” Ashley replied. “Can you blame them though? On the outside of these fences, this game must seem so unbelievable, so interesting.”
“God I wish I wasn’t in here,” I admitted, trying my best to slide humor into my tone. In reality, there was no humor to it. I wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch that fence, to climb it and escape War Town and the death that came with it.
It took all my self-control to not wrap my fingers around that electrified metal. I wouldn’t be able to climb the fence, but at least it was an escape. My hands balled into fists in my pockets.
“I wish I could do something about it,” Ashley said.
“Can you?” I asked as an ounce of hope bubbled in my heart.
“No way. I never learned enough about fences to do anything about this. Besides, I’d need to find where the power is being generated and Jackson Merrus most definitely put it somewhere far away from here.”
My hope dwindled and I let a sigh fall out of me. “Yeah, probably.”
“Even if I was able to kill the power to the fence, we’d be trapped here by the bomb. If what Merrus said is true, and he’s got cameras everywhere, if I even tried to toy with it that would be the end for us.” Ashley kicked up loose dirt with her shoe. “Do you think he’s really got this place wired up like that?”
Before I answered I took a moment to look around. I scanned the walls, the fence posts, every structure in view. The micro-cameras Merrus Technologies created would be far too small to see unless you were inches away, but I felt compelled to check anyway.
“I’m certain this place is covered in those cameras,” I replied. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in anything Merrus said. He had the resources to make every aspect of the War Town death game possible, and he was just brilliant enough to be insane. “You’re right. There’s nothing we can do to cheat this place. We’ve just gotta play the game.”
Ashley let out a shaky breath. “I can’t believe this. When I woke up this morning, nothing like this even crossed my mind. I never thought for a second I could die here, that I could die today. Now I’m stuck here looking out to a place no one can get to, wondering if someone will put a bullet in my back while I stand here staring out to the real world.”
I looked behind us and back to the streets. Nobody.
“What’s out there for you?” I asked. “Who’s waiting for you in the real world?”
“Family, but that’s obvious. I’ve got a lot of friends still out there, people smart enough not to come with the rest of us here. It’s funny, some of them are into paintball too, and they were so jealous when they found out I got a ticket. I bet they’re not jealous anymore.” Ashley pulled the hair-tie out and let her deep brown locks drape across her shoulders. The streak of blue in her hair shined like a strip of the ocean itself when it meets the midday sun. She ran her fingers through her hair and took long, slow breaths. “There's a career out there for me. I had a job all lined up after my apprenticeship. I was supposed to start next month…” her voice faded. Her fingers stopped moving atop her head.
“You’ll make it out of this,” I said. “It’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.”
All I wanted to say was that we would all make it out alive, but all wasn’t something I could say. The sight of the bodies in the street flashed in my head. We wouldn’t all make it. Even if the game ended that second, some people wouldn’t be walking out.
“Don’t lie, Olly, it doesn’t make anything any better.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” I replied. Working as a nurse, I spent a lot of time comforting people when they needed it, telling them what they needed to hear. I didn’t know what Ashley needed to hear, what I needed to hear. This wasn’t sickness, War Town was not a hospital, and we were not patients. We were pawns.
“What about you? What’s waiting for you on the other side?” Ashley changed the subject.
“Not much.” I chuckled even though it wasn’t funny. “Family, a few friends from college and high school, a small apartment in Los Angeles, and my nursing career.” To someone just entering adulthood after college, that list didn’t seem all that bad. To someone counting up their reasons to survive a life-or-death battle, it was pitiful.
“At least you’re living in the city. I’d much prefer that to Lancaster.”
“Come on, Lancaster is a nice place, and L.A. isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are plenty of times I’d love to get away from the big city life.”
“Lancaster isn’t the best escape from that, you know. It’s not what most people would consider small.”
“Smaller than Los Angeles.”
Ashley smiled. “I suppose.”
Just then, an invasive voice broke through the calm. “Excuse me! Excuse me!”
Both of us looked towards the source of the sound to see a heavily made-up woman in a pantsuit trudging towards us, microphone in hand and camera crew only a few steps behind her. A pin on the woman’s blouse had a decorative number eight on it. The local Channel 8 news crew.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Would you mind answering a few questions?” the woman stopped just inches shy of the fence.
“If you’re fine with us standing about right here,” Ashley said. “I don’t wanna get any closer to that fence than I am right now. It’s electrified to kill. You know that, right?”
“That’s journalism for you,” the woman said, not stepping away from the fence.
“I’m guessing we’re the only people you’ve found at the fence so far?” I said.
“Well no, there’s that girl down there,” the woman aimed a thin finger to our left, towards the front gates. “She doesn’t want to say anything though.”
We turned around and, sure enough, there she was. About a hundred yards down the way stood a short, stick-thin, redheaded girl with a shotgun on her back. Upon keener inspection, I noticed two red arm bands. Before I could react, the girl looked over to us.
I wrapped my hand around my pistol but didn’t pull it out. Ashley pulled her gun off her shoulder and raised it up. The newswoman hollered for help, but we paid her no mind.
She stood and stared at us for ten seconds before moving. Without making a single move towards her weapon, the girl took three long strides towards the fence and stood still. Less than a foot stood between her and the fence. That was when I understood what was going on.
“Hey! Wait!” I took my hand off my gun and ran towards her.
“Olly, what the hell are you doing?” Ashley asked, but I was already too far gone to answer.
The girl looked up and saw me running towards her. As I got closer, I saw just how emotionless and cold her gaze was. She didn’t reach for her weapon. Instead, she turned back to the fence and touched her hands to the metal.
Instantly, she convulsed and fell to the ground. When I made it to her, the dust around her body hadn’t even settled. Before I even knew what I was doing, I was on top of her performing chest compressions.
Sounds closed in. Ashley called for me, with every word her voice got louder. She was running towards me, but I didn’t look up from the body. Fast footsteps shuffled towards us on the other side of the fence. The news crew was rushing up to the scene. Still, I didn’t look up and kept at the compressions.
With every count of compressions, I hoped for anything. No life came back to her. The girl’s body remained limp and lifeless no matter how hard I tried.
Ashley slid to a stop beside me. “Is she dead?”
I stood up, careful not to buckle my weakened knees. “She’s gone.”
“Oh God.” Ashley stepped back and covered her agape mouth with her palm.
The newswoman’s voice pierced my eardrums, “Are you getting this?”
I turned around to see her and her crew filming the whole thing. Once again, she lingered just inches from the fence. It was like she hadn’t seen what had just happened, like all she cared about was getting death on tape.
With fury exploding in my mind, I acted. I drew my weapon and aimed for several feet above the woman’s head. One shot went off. Three more followed. My ears pounded. Before I could fire off any more, the strong arm of Ashley came down on my weapon, knocking it to the ground and scaring me from my rage.
The news crew was far off by the time I regained enough focus to see them. A dozen police officers hid behind their vehicles and aimed their weapons at me. I turned to Ashley. Her eyes were wide and frantic.
“Olly, what the fuck?”
I let a breath out of my lungs and everything I had just done came back to me. My knees gave out and I fell to the dirt. The first shots I fired in War Town were towards civilians on the outside. Before I could crumble completely into sadness, the same strong force that knocked my gun down scooped me up by the arms. I looked up to see Ashley wearing a far sterner gaze than before.
I picked up my weapon and followed her without a word. There was nothing that could be said, other than War Town was getting to me. I wasn’t ready to say that out loud.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that Mikey contacted me. When he called there was fear in his voice, and I knew he could hear it in mine too. I still hadn’t shaken off what happened at the fence, what I did at the fence. He said he wanted to meet in person, on the roof of the building we both watched Merrus’s projection on, so no one would notice us. I remembered the building well, at least I hoped I did. War Town was no place to get lost.
On the way up the stairs towards the roof, I had to stop several times. The building wasn’t very tall, but whenever my hand brushed against my weapon I felt nauseous. Ashley tried to comfort me after what had happened, but it didn’t work. Even hours later my heart still raced and my hands still shook.
The moment I walked out of the stairwell and onto the roof, I looked all around for Mikey. When I didn’t see him, a shiver of dread went through me. What if I went to the wrong building? What if he got attacked by a Blue Team squad on his way to meet me?
To help ease my mind I looked off the edge of the building and down into the park. It looked a lot smaller from above. Through the thickets of trees was the rubble of the cement altar, and the bomb in its clear box sticking out through the destruction. The numbers on top went on counting down.
A door opened behind me. I spun around and saw Mikey’s smiling face coming towards me from a stairwell entrance across the roof. He looked lively, given the situation at least. We gave each other brotherly embraces as soon as we got close enough. Through everything that had happened during my first day at War Town, it was calming to know that Mikey had made it through.
“Jesus, man, can you believe this?” Mikey’s smile faded and revealed a contained terror.
I looked out onto the expansive concrete landscape. “No, I can’t.”
“Part of me is still saying it’s fake, that none of this crap is happening.”
“It’s happening, Mikey. Turn that part of your brain off. It’ll end up getting you killed.”
“You’re right, you’re right.” Mikey took a breath and stared out at the horizon with me. “I’m sorry I took so long to make contact. I’ve just been busy dealing with this, calming down, picking a weapon.” He pulled a short shotgun off his shoulder and held it in one loose hand. “You went minimalist?”
“Yeah, that's me.” I didn’t take my gaze away from the view. I wanted to forget my weapon was even there. “Are you sure you can handle that gun?”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Have you shot it yet?”
“Yeah, I have. It’s jolting, but I’ll get used to it.”
“Have you…” I trailed off before I could finish my question.
“Have I killed anyone?” Mikey finished the sentence for me.
“Yeah.” I nodded and turned to him.
He tossed his shotgun back over his shoulder. “No, I haven’t. You?”
“Did you hear about the gunfight that already went down?”
“I was there,” I said. Images of blood and bodies in the streets filled my head.
“What? Did you say you were there?” Mikey’s voice went wild, but his expression died. I had only ever seen that face on families of patients the hospital couldn’t help. It was the face of someone who wanted to scream, but couldn't work through their shock.
“Yeah, I was there. If I remember right, both sides lost four players, four people.”
“What was it like?”
Bullets flew, but I didn’t duck. Blood struck my face, but I didn’t flinch. Death was all around me, but I didn’t falter. I stood there and remembered. Hot lead and shrapnel turned the air into a bloodbath. The only thing anyone could hope to hear over the blasts of gunfire were screams.
“It was hell, Mikey.” I swallowed hard. “It was nothing but hell. The whole time I kept thinking I would die there. I thought that at any moment a bullet would go just the right way and hit me in just the right place, and that would be that.”
“Jesus Christ.” Mikey sighed and rested his hands on his knees. “Are you okay?”
“In what sense?”
“No. This place will kill me, and it doesn’t even have to get me shot to do it.”
“Come on, Olly, don’t say things like that. I need you here. People need you here. You’re a nurse. You can help people.”
Nurse. The way he said it made me shudder. His tone was dry of humor, and no jokes followed the statement. He called me a nurse, and he said it seriously.
“You need me?”
“Yeah, dude, of course I do. You’re my best friend. This place isn’t something you can get through on your own, you know? I need you, man.”
I looked at the red arm bands. “You need me?”
“Yeah, I just said that. What’s up, Olly?”
“We can’t both live, Mikey,” I tried to say it bluntly, but that didn’t make it any better. “The point of the game is for one team to survive. We can’t both live.”
Mikey ran his hands over his face and shut his eyes. “Don’t talk like that. We don’t have to think about that, not yet.”
“It’s true though. I don’t want it to be, I don’t want to think about it, but I can’t stop. If this game is supposed to end without that bomb going off, then we can’t both walk out of here.”
I expected the argument to go on, but Mikey said nothing. He walked over to me, head to the ground. For a moment I thought he would hit me, but he hugged me. Mikey hugged me more meaningfully than he ever had before. I understood why and hugged him back. For all we knew that would be the last time we would ever talk. We had to make the conversation good.
“The sun is getting low,” Mikey said as our embrace came apart. “We wouldn’t wanna be going around these streets when it’s dark.”
I nodded. “You’re right, we both need to be heading back to our hotels.”
“See you tomorrow?”
For a moment, I paused. Before War Town that was just a common goodbye. Within the game though, it was a promise. A promise to survive, to make sure that wouldn’t be the last time we would see each other.
“Yeah, see you tomorrow.”
After that, the two of us stood there and looked at each other. I didn’t want to leave yet, and I knew he didn’t either. He was my best friend. I wanted to protect him. We wanted to protect each other, but we couldn’t. I wanted to go with him to make sure he made it back safe, but that would be a death sentence for me. We had no other choice than to go our separate ways.
I turned to head to the stairs. The moment I did, I felt Mikey’s large hand land on my shoulder. Without turning around, I stopped and listened.
“You stay alive until the end, you hear me?” Mikey nearly pleaded. “I don’t care what you’ve gotta do, but stay alive until the end. Promise me that.”
“I promise to try, only if you do too. Promise?”
His hand slid off my shoulder. “Promise.”
The loneliness didn’t truly set in until the sun disappeared. When night fell my heart rate slowed down to normal. Everything I had experienced sunk in. The moon was full, the street lamps were bright, but the darkness was strong. All the memories from the day swallowed me.
The first night was a cold one. Wind whipped through every thoroughfare and slid through the wide windowpanes with ease. There was no escaping it. People ripped apart the nearby wooden buildings by hand. It was slow, hard work, but it got done quick.
By the time the last remnant of the sun had faded, fires dotted the street in front of the hotel. I wanted to find one to sit by, but everyone seemed grouped up already. As I searched through the fires, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out to see that my mother was calling me.
I paused and pondered for a moment while the phone went on buzzing. My thumb slid across the screen, disconnecting the call. I couldn’t, not yet. Still, I forced myself to do one thing, the only thing I could do and still remain composed.
My thumbs tapped against the screen and printed out a short text message: “I’m okay. Can’t call right now, but I’m okay.” I hit send and took a look at my battery. It was in the yellow zone. I shut down my phone and looked to the crowds again. At the fringe of the fire groups, I saw Ashley sitting with another familiar face, Gabe, if I recalled correctly. With swift steps I started over to them.
“Well hey there,” Ashley turned and smiled, the light of the fire making the shadows dance across her joyful expression.
“Hi.” I sat down beside her and looked to Gabe, “How’s the wound?”
“Doin’ a lot better, thanks,” he said. “It’s staying together.”
A new voice entered the conversation. “Excuse me?”
We all turned. The source of the soft question was one of the most peculiar things I had ever seen: a girl, no older than a junior or senior in high school, with disheveled blonde hair and a dark sapphire gaze. On her back she carried a rifle almost as tall as she was.
“Yeah?” Gabe asked.
“Is there room at your fire for me?”
“Of course,” Ashley answered. “Come on and sit down. What’s your name?”
The girl took the gun off of her back and set it down on the pavement before sitting beside it, across the fire from the rest of us. “Catherine Camus,” she said, “but all of my friends just use my last name.”
“You all alone here, Camus?” Gabe spoke forwardly.
Her head dipped. “I came with friends. They’re all on the other side though. From what I hear, there’s a lot of people like that on both sides, people who’re all alone, having to worry about friends on the other side. I chose blue just to be different, I thought it might be fun, but…”
“But it’s not fun anymore,” I finished her sentence. “I’m the same way. My best friend is over on the Red Team.”
“My friends are there too,” Ashley added.
The mood turned solemn quickly. I wanted to change the subject but wasn't sure what to say. For a moment, we all sat there in silence and stared down at the fire. It didn’t take long for someone to come through for me though.
“Can I ask about that thing?” Gabe pointed to the rifle Camus had brought with her, what I only then recognized as a sniper rifle. “Why did you pick that monstrous thing out of the stockpile?”
“It’s not that monstrous,” Camus replied. “It’s a brand new Turkish .308, state of the art scope and design. It might be big, but it’s lightweight for what it is.”
Camus’s response made me raise an eyebrow. I looked over to her and saw her looking down at her weapon with an eye of admiration. She knew so much about her gun. All I knew about mine was what Wade told me.
Gabe chuckled. “Wow, now I’ve gotta hear the story behind you.”
“Oh, why are we suddenly so personal?” Camus gave a smart grin. “Why don’t you tell us yours?”
“Gladly. The name is Gabe Poh. I live in this little town nobody’s ever heard of a ways north of here. Well, I don’t so much live there as go there for supplies. I live on a big plot of country land my grandparents left me. There's solar panels out there, big stashes of food, water, everything I need. I only ever go into town every six months. I started playing paintball to keep cabin fever at bay, and to be ready if anything legit ever went down. Guess that wasn’t such a crazy idea.”
“You’re one of those doomsday prepper people?” Ashley chortled.
“Oh, yeah, laugh it up. But who’s the most prepared for all this War Town crap?”
“Wade Walker,” I said.
“Whatever.” Gabe rolled his eyes before turning his attention back to Camus. “So there, what’s your deal then?”
“Don’t pressure her, Gabe,” Ashley said.
“It’s okay,” Camus replied. “The reason I know so much about my gun is that, well, I’m a bit of a gun-nut. In the best way, I promise. My friends and I are all part of a sharp shooting club. I’ve been practicing shooting since I was little. I always thought I’d use it to go to the Olympics or something, not this.”
“Nobody was expecting this,” I said. “That’s the worst part.”
Camus looked between Ashley and I. “What about you two. What are your stories?”
“I’ve got this.” Gabe leaned close to Camus and pointed a finger at Ashley. “She’s some kind of electrical savant or something.” His aim turned to me. “And he’s a man-nurse, although I shouldn’t joke. The dude basically saved my life earlier.”
“Wow.” Camus smiled. “You both probably have your hands full around here.”
Ashley nodded. “Yeah, there’s so many things I wanna try to help with around here. I already figured out a way to charge phones for those who need it, but I think I can do something with those trolleys. If Merrus programmed them to only ride at a certain speed, I could override those things and make them travel as fast as we need, highway speeds maybe.”
Gabe laughed. “See, savant.”
“I guess we’re all helpful around here, in our own ways,” Camus said. “Who would have ever thought we’d use what we learned in life for this?”
After that, another saddened silence fell over us. The fire popped and sent sparks into the heavens. With collective interest, we watched the specs of light rise and fade away far short of the sky.
“We could do a lot of good with what we’ve got over the next seven days,” Ashley spoke up, breaking the silence.
“If we make it that far,” Gabe replied.
“Damn it, Gabe, don’t say stuff like that,” I said.
Camus addressed Ashley, “Speak for yourself on that one. You’ll be able to keep people’s phones charged, keep them connected with the outside world. All I’m gonna do with my skill is hurt people, kill people.”
“Don’t feel bad, Camus,” I replied. “We’re all in this. We’re all feeling that same way.” I remembered the street battle. It was true. We were all in it together, but somehow that didn’t make it any better.
“I understand that,” she said. “I know it’s something that needs to be done, and it won’t just be me doing it. We’ll all be doing it, all for the same reasons. I’d like to think that I’ll be strong enough to accept it at some point in all this.”
I admired Camus for saying that. She wanted to accept it, to become normalized to the War Town system. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. In my mind, I was better off spending each day in crippling stress than becoming used to the blood and death of it all. That wasn’t the best way to survive. We all knew that, but Camus was the only one of us brave enough to face facts.
“Hey, guys,” Wade’s voice broke through the calm. He approached our fire and looked down at all of us.
“What’s up?” Gabe asked.
“Ryan and I are looking for people willing to help us set up a defense outpost tomorrow. Shouldn’t be too difficult, but better to be safe, right?”
We all nodded.
“How many have you got so far?” Camus looked up at him, her blue eyes sparkling from the light of the fire.
“Not many.” Wade sighed. “They’re all still scared, and I don’t blame them.”
“I’ll go,” she said.
“Really?” Wade grew a shocked smile.
I swallowed and hoped my voice didn’t crack, “Me too.”
“Me three,” Ashley said slowly.
“Wow, why are you guys so gung-ho?” Wade asked.
Camus answered first, “I don’t want to be scared anymore. I want to understand this, and what needs to be done, so I know what to do to survive.”
I came next, “I’ve already been out there, I know what people are afraid of. They’re afraid of getting shot. They’re afraid to die. If I can keep anyone from dying out there, then that’s something I need to do.”
“Are you sure that’s smart?” Gabe asked. “You’re, like, our only medic.”
“If I’m not out there, there’ll be no use for me here. Gunshots need help right away. I can’t sit around here and wait for the wounded to come back, a lot won’t come back.” It was a dark thing to say, but it was true. Battle needed me more than the hotel did.
“What about you?” Wade looked to Ashley.
“I’d rather be out there than sitting here scared, waiting to die.”
“Good.” Wade gave us a proud nod. “Gabe?”
“Yeah, I’m not goin’ out there,” Gabe replied. “I wanna spend my time looking for ways to beat the system rather than beat the game. Merrus can’t win, and if we go around killing each other that’s what’s gonna happen. I’ll be looking for a way to beat him, not the other team.”
“Fair enough,” Wade said. “I’ll see the three of you tomorrow.” He walked off without another word.
“Well, there you have it.” Ashley let out a worried sigh. “Field work starts tomorrow.”
“You think it’ll be okay?” Camus asked.
I took a deep breath and tried my best to trust my thoughts. “It’ll be just fine.”
If you're suddenly dying to read the rest of War Town (I sure hope so!), the ebook version is out now! Get it on Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble. Leave your thoughts in the comments :)