Keith had two fingers pressed to my neck, checking my pulse. “You ok?”
I put a hand to the back of my head, felt beneath the hair. Sticky with – but not soaked in – blood. My head pounded and my legs hurt. I inventoried every body part I could think of. Nothing felt damaged beyond repair.
“You hit your head,” Keith explained as I rose unsteadily.
“Mama said knock you out,” I muttered.
“This game is battering me to pieces and it’s not even half done.” It was true. Scrapes, cuts, strains, now a knock to the head that had induced some absolutely terrifying hallucinations. I was having fun, but this was taking a major toll.
I took a few steps and got my balance. “What’d I miss?”
“Not much. You were out for maybe a minute.”
Huh. My nightmares had lasted way longer than that. I looked up at the tower. “What was I doing before I fell?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Say five random words.”
“Five random words is the accepted diagnostic for global memory loss.”
Keith thought for a moment.
“Any five words, really.”
He thought for a moment. “Clinic, shake, flower, infant, boat.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. His blank, bearded face was unreadable, but there was no way he could be poking fun at me. I had to think back to recall what he said completely. “Boat, baby, flower, shaking, hospital.”
“So what was I doing?”
“Pulling a box off the roof of the clocktower.”
“Oh yeah…” I raked my hands through the dead leaves and debris in the flowerbed, eventually snagging a small jewelry sized box. I ripped it apart and quickly dialed the number on the piece of paper inside. “Terrace Room” the voice said.
I tapped the “Disconnect” button and stared at the phone, still groggy. “That was helpful.”
“Where are we going?” Keith inquired.
“The Terrace Room,” I replied. “Wherever the hell that is.”
“Terrace would seem to indicate elevation to me.”
I shook my head in an attempt to clear it and immediately wished I hadn’t. “Gotta find a mall directory.” I checked the digital clock on my phone. “We don’t have much time.”
“Even less,” Keith commented, pointing down the hall to the main courtyard. Lights flashed along the walls, bouncing off the storefronts.
“Aw crap,” I muttered.
The tower I’d fallen from stood at the center of a smaller courtyard. Ahead was a shuttered storefront for some world-goods-store, and a hallway heading back to the center of the mall. Behind us lay another hallway. Far from the skylights and the occasional lit neon pillar, it was crowded with shadows. Straining my eyes into the darkness I could make out shutters meeting counter-tops. Food court.
We moved quickly and quietly down the hallway. The blackness was so thick it was like fog. I nearly ran into a wide, arch-shaped plastic sign and stumbled away, only to turn back. “Directory,” I whispered.
I threw a quick look over my shoulder. Cones of light cast by the flashlights were sliding over the walls of the courtyard I’d fallen into. Close. I’d have to risk it. “Get ready to run,” I told Keith.
I pulled the Surefire out of my bag and took a breath, then flashed it at the bottom of the sign. In the dark, the flash of light was blinding, and my eyes took a second to adjust to the small print. Shouting behind me, and I scanned the directory quickly. Most of the names had been scratched off or simply removed. Dammit – wait, there it was. Younkers, fifth level.
I clicked the light off and the chase was on.
We sprinted through the hallway, past the shuttered storefronts, most of the signs or decorations still on the walls, and as our pursuers flashlights skipped over every surface, I got a glimpse of the restaurants that had inhabited this end of the mall before out of control deficit spending, inflation, and apathy took their toll. McDonald’s, a place for Asian food, one that looked like it had a nautical theme…
There were glass doors at the end of the hall, and Keith and I both hit them shoulder first, bursting out onto a street. Hot, humid air slapped me in the face and immediately started drawing sweat from my pores. Above us was a skywalk, shadowing the roadway, giving the impression of a tunnel. I could see street lights and buildings and bushes on either end, but underneath it felt like I was in a mine. Ahead, the skywalk connected to another building. I scanned the glass doors and storefront for some clue as to whether or not it’d be open.
THE store I needed to be in.
I stopped in the middle of the street and turned back, Keith skidding to a stop a few feet away. He must’ve been in excellent shape, he wasn’t even breathing hard. I pulled the stock of the Shot Blast into my shoulder and bent over it, eyes to the poor excuse for glass. “You might want to get some pictures of this.”
He seemed jarred by the idea, but then realized he should probably grab his camera.
The doors ahead opened, and I exploded into movement. I drilled a blast through the doorframe at the edge of my effective range, pivoted and splashed a long stream of water off a pane of glass as someone slammed the door shut, put another one inside the mall and against their chest as they opened the door again. Sidestepping, I kept pumping, hammering out blasts of water as I moved.
Three to go.
I ducked, shooting from a crouch as return fire blasted overhead, and stitched someone from groin to nose with three vertical shots in six quick movements.
The remaining two scattered, moving backwards and splitting, and I kicked out of my crouch, sprinting for one, pumping out stream after stream of water, mostly misses. One did catch them between the shoulder blades as they half turned to one-hand a pistol back at me, and I turned my attention to the other, skidding to a stop and turning so suddenly it was almost a jump.
Heavy streams of water reached for me as they stood still to shoot, and I dodged one on side, shooting as I did. Thank goodness these guns had better battlefield longevity than the shotguns they were modeled after.
I came up against that capacity as my assailant darted left, running parallel and opposite to me. My gun quit spitting water, and I pulled it down and to the side with my left hand, right going for the pistol in a classic, instinctive transition.
Left hand came up to the grip and I stepped forward as I took the stance, shooting ahead of my enemy’s intended path. They ran right into the reaching end of the stream, and I let the gun drop to my side.
No hostilities continued, and I shouldered through the Yonkers door, Keith right behind me. Looked like it used to be women’s clothing. I wasn’t here to shop, I was here for the escalator ahead. Two, crossed right next to each other, an up and a down.
I dodged between the displays, boots slapping the tile, thumping in the carpet, slapping tile again. I button-hooked with a hand on the escalator railing and took the clanging metal steps two at a time.
This was NOT helping the pounding in my head.
Each level was roughly two stories tall due to the tall ceilings. I didn’t stop, just kept taking a hard turn at each new level and heading up the next dead escalator.
I bent double at the top, sucking in still, ancient air. My head felt like it was going to explode, my eyes like they were going to pop out of my head, and my pulse like it was going to deafen me. Sweating hard was an understatement. I leaned against a wall and surveyed the scene as Keith came up a second behind me, slowing from a sprint, relaxed and unfazed by the strenuous exercise. Probably had a resting pulse rate of two beats per minute.
The glass walls gave me an excellent view of the city, which I appreciated just as soon as my vision stopped pulsating and swimming. A dot the size of my fist was spray painted on one of the windows. The downtown buildings were monochromatic darks and oranges, the colors cast in circles or cones by the streetlights. The variation in building height was pathetic, but hey, not everywhere can be Sin City. The river moved sluggishly, a ribbon of oil black, just barely visible between buildings.
The restaurant had probably been nice once. Tables were draped with silky looking table clothes, each with a small lamp centerpiece, and an art-deco bar took up one side of the room. I had a momentary vision of men and women in fine clothes, huddled around the intimately lit tables while snow fell outside the windows and Christmas music played in the background, waiters ferrying bottles of wine and expensive dishes between the couples and the kitchen.
I felt a sudden pang of sadness. This room had been full of life once. It had entertained, glowed with an aura of enjoyment, rang with laughter and the clink of silverware on china. People had been happy here. People. Had been. Happy. I clenched my jaw.
There was a sign next to the coat rack, probably at one pointed had advertised the soup-of-the-day or something. Now it just held a white chalk number. I called it and the voice at the end of the line said “Ten PM assignment. Circles” and hung up.
Given the penchant of the game’s designers for putting the clues on the walls, I walked over and checked out the dot on the window. Beyond the fact that it was spray paint, there wasn’t much I could divine about it.
“Perhaps you should stand here.” I looked back. Keith was gesturing at a similar dot sprayed onto the carpet.
I walked over to the dot, placed my feet on it, and stood on a line with the dot on the window. It covered one of the glassed in staircases of a parking garage a few blocks away. “Huh. Neato.”