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216pps
ISBN 978-0-557-02466-7

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Chapter 3

   A fireball was headed in their direction. She was wearing only the protective suit you started with on level one, no armor, but this wasn't level one. Which level it was, he didn't know anymore, but it wasn't one. She was still too shocked to move. He put himself between her and it, praying his armor would hold out. A moment before the fireball hit, he noticed he had left the visor up.
    BLAM!
    He could feel the heat on his chest. He stumbled back into the woman, his eyebrows singed and smoking.
    "Move your (bleep) (bleep) will you?!!"
    "Where?!" she screamed back at him. She was several inches shorter than him, and thirty pounds lighter.
    He fired off two rounds with the shotgun and a Suit went down.
    "There!" He pointed towards an open doorway behind and to the left of them, the other hand holding the smoking shotgun at the approaching Suits. "Through that door."
    They both ran, him holding back to stay behind her. He felt another fireball hit him in the back. Thankfully the armor back there was in better condition than the front, the fireball glancing off and causing him only to stumble.
    They made it to the doorway and inside. He closed the door. When it latched shut, the overhead light came on. They were in a small antechamber. Marble benches ran along both long walls. They sat down close to the door.
    "What the (bleep) is going on here," she said, looking him over from head to toe, "Storm-Trooper?"
    He took off his helmet, placing it on the bench beside him. He laid the shotgun across his lap. Belts of shotgun shells were strapped across his chest in an X-pattern. Having been hit in the chest numerous times by fireballs he still did not understand why the shells didn't explode, but was grateful they didn't. A small knapsack for food hung from his waist on the right side, a canteen on the other: both empty. He nudged his head her direction.
    "Name's Alec. And it's a video game. Only," he looked up and into her eyes; they were brown, deep, pulling, "it's not a game anymore."
    "That's a no brainer, Storm-Trooper. But what game is it?" She paused, looking around the room. He didn't answer. "I don't recognize the level, but those Suits, your armor. This is "Alien Battle Cry" we're in, isn't it?" She was shaking, her eyes darting from him to the door behind him and back.
    "No. It's more like a hybrid of a lot of games. 'Battle Cry is one of them though. A major one," he explained. "And the name's Alec. Alec Harrington. And yours?"
    She looked at him carefully. He had to be real. He was sweating, bleeding, and he stunk. "How long you been here, Alec? And where is here?"
    Alec shrugged. "I don't know the answer to either question. All I've been able to figure out is this is some sort of computer generated world we're in. Miss?"
    "Vaughn. Theresa Vaughn. I'm from Chicago."
    He looked around the antechamber. There was a door at the far end. The walls were a dusty brown color that was seamless to the other end except for windows which were high and near the ceiling.
    Each window was arched on top, light coming through the side they were on, the opposite window dark. The ceiling was at least fifty feet up and arched like the windows. The surface was polished to a gloss finish, reflecting the chamber in a concave abstractness that reminded Alec of an Escher etching. Their only choice was the far door.
    "Nice to meet you, Theresa. We better get moving," he said as he rose. "They know we're in here and will be trying to join us." He removed the pistol from its holster and handed it to her. "Aim for the head. It'll take less shots."
    She took the gun as she stood, "Thanks for the hint." She checked the clip. "Got any more?"
    He reached to the small of his back and pulled out two more clips. "I don't use it that much, so I don't carry much ammo for it." He handed her the clips, then reached back to the bench and put on the helmet. He left the visor up so he could talk to her since she didn't have a helmet and no intercom. "We need to find your armor. It should be around close by. Another shotgun, too." She was terrified, he could easily see it. He wondered if she could see his just as easy. "Ready?"
    "Yeah."
    They trotted to the far door.
    "Stay back 'til I get it checked out."
    Theresa nodded.
    Alec slowly opened the door, holding his gun at waist level. He peeked through the crack, then listened. Nothing. He opened the door until it stopped. His heart leaped, then he saw that the adjacent wall had stopped the door and not a Suit. There was only one way to go, to the right.
    He stepped out into the passageway and scanned the area quickly, looking for movement or Suit color. The milk white hallway was empty, but appeared to stretch endless. He turned to Theresa. She was holding the pistol stiffly at arms length at the other door. He waved at her to join him.
    "You stay behind me. And I mean right behind me. Not more than two steps, okay?"
    She nodded.
    He could see the blind faith in him in her eyes. "And easy with that thing. It's loaded."
    "I know how to handle a gun. I took classes."
    "I'm impressed. But how about relaxing a little, eh?" Alec said as calm as he could. "You'll last a lot longer if you keep a cool head."
    "I'm terrified!" She blurted. "And..disoriented. This makes no sense."
    "I know. But you've got to control your fear," Alec said. "Right now we've got to finish the level, then we can relax for a while and I can tell you what I know."
    "Relax, he says. Your standing there in full armor and a shotgun. I've got this lousy pistol and a jumpsuit and you suggest I relax. (bleep) off, Storm-Trooper!"
    Alec stood there quiet, understanding her outburst. He knew the fear and confusion. He opened his mouth to try some soothing words when he heard the door at the other end of the antechamber open. He pulled her further into the hall with a jerk and ran back inside the antechamber, closing the door behind him. Both these doors opened inward, meaning the Suits could and would follow them. He had to put a stop to this group here and now.
    Theresa was left alone in the unexplored passageway, the sounds of the battle booming through the door like a bass speaker. ...

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