I crept down the darkened hallway, just a few feet at a time, searching desperately for my prize. It had to be near. Ocean's Heart in Ocean's Walkway; look for the spray that refreshes. Here I was, in the basement of the Ocean Engineering building. I had scoured all the other floors. This was the only place left.
Then I saw the obvious hiding place. It was a water fountain, one of the ancient metal clunkers that still lurked in the dark corners of MIT. It was open in the back, where the pipes ran in; plenty of space to hide a three-by-five index card. With my pulse quickening, I walked over and reached in behind the fountain. Sure enough, I felt a piece of paper back there, taped to the fixture. I pulled it off and looked at it, squinting.
You have been poisoned. You are conscious, but paralyzed -- you cannot move or talk. Duration: Until further notice. Roleplay accordingly.
I stood there for a moment, stunned. The card wasn't supposed to say that. It was supposed to say `Item card: A pendant with a honking big blue diamond'.
I blinked. The text didn't change. Slowly I sat down on the cold floor and stared at the card.
It was a worthy trap, but it depressed the hell out of me. Someone had found the Heart of the Ocean first, and had left this little present for whoever came behind. That someone was probably the Order Of Prescient Scientists, my opposition. If they found me here, they would use what I knew to track down my team -- the Department of Heuristics. Then they would use the Heart to build their doomsday device, the Cosmic Kludginator.
Tomorrow's newspaper, the Century City Star, would announce my death. Omar Gahd (played by Sean Bradley) was found dead yesterday. Cause of death: a nine millimeter brain hemmorhage. Mr. Gahd is survived by the various agents of whatever secret organizations he was involved in; but as he appears to have been interrogated, this state of affairs may not last for long.
I'd been in the Assassins' Guild for seven years playing games just like this one. I was, despite the ludicrous amount of time I spent roleplaying, about to get my Master's degree. I had drifted from high school to college, drifted from nerdy isolation into this quirky community of gamers. Now the current was carrying me away, carrying me into the Real World of business suits and cubicles and waking up with the sun.
This wasn't the way I'd imagined it happening. Poisoned, truthed, and terminated. What a pathetic way to go.
I pressed my eyes shut, hoping to hear something as they approached the corner. Still they said nothing. Finally they rounded the bend, and -- disaster. In the lead was my old pal and rival Chuck Adams. Right behind him, looking nervous, was Wendy Barnes, a rookie. I had no idea what Chuck was up to. Wendy had already blown her cover. She was the leader of the Supreme Tribunal Advocating Righteousness.
Chuck put up his hand and stopped, looking at me warily.
"What is it?" Wendy whispered.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Chuck's face go sour. "Hey you," he said. "Are you in the game?" I was on the ground, sideways, in the shadow; he didn't recognize me.
"Yup," I answered.
I said nothing. Chuck walked toward me tensely, his shoes making almost no noise on the floor. The plastic barrel of his brightly colored disk gun tracked me as he began to move past. I did my best to remain absolutely still. He knelt, his gun still pointed at my chest, and waved his free hand at me. "All right, I First Aid you. What's your condition?"
"Paralyzed," I said, not particularly hiding my disappointment.
"Ho-ho," Chuck chortled.
Step one: Check for an ambush.
A helpless body in a hallway is fine bait for a trap; so Chuck stood up and crept farther down the hallway. There was a stairwell twenty feet away. Chuck crouched behind a gas cylinder and watched the entrance.
Step two: Go through his pockets for loose change.
Without looking back, Chuck spoke to Wendy. "Veppon," he said, using her character's name, "go through his pockets for loose change."
Wendy's brow furrowed. "Huh?"
She came over and sat next to me. "I search you," she said.
I started going through my pockets for item cards and other game stuff. Out came my gun, and my other gun, my throwing knives (made of styrofoam, of course), more guns, my cash, you name it. "It's from The Princess Bride," I told her.
"The quote. `Go through his pockets for loose change.' Ever seen it?"
"Never heard of it," she said, looking through my stuff.
There's nothing like playing Assassin with freshmen to remind you just how old you are.
"Got all his stuff?" Chuck asked.
"Has he got any Insta-Truth on him? Vial with a blue sparkly liquid?" That would have been a coup for Chuck. You got extra style points for taking someone down and then interrogating him with his own truth serum.
Step three: Killing Blow.
"All right, KB him and then we should get out of here."
Wendy looked at Chuck. "What?"
Chuck stood up and began to stride toward me. "Here," he said as he walked. He stood over me and made a karate-chop motion. "Killing blow, one, two--"
"Hey! I stop you!"
Chuck looked at her like she had two heads. So did I. "What the hell?" he said.
"We can't just kill him like that, Mister Pumpernickel. We're good guys!"
"Commander Veppon..." he said in a long-practiced sincere-yet-patronizing voice, "sometimes we have to shoot people, okay? The game is called Assassin."
"I'm a good guy, and I won't let you kill a helpless man just because you can," she said.
I sat there, silently cheering her on for dear life. Come on, babe, be a good guy, take Chuck out of here.
Who am I kidding? He's gonna eat her for lunch.
I could see lightning flashing in Chuck's mind. "All right," he said. "You're the boss, I'm just a lowly commando. You want to leave him, we leave him."
Lowly commando my ass. He had somehow fooled her, probably in the first ten minutes of the game, into thinking he was one of her agents. Oh, Commander Veppon, I'm so glad I found you -- I'm a lost STAR agent... Newbies fell for that kind of thing all the time.
They walked away, still arguing softly. I realized, to my amazement, that Wendy had left all of my stuff in a neat stack right in front of me. None of it really mattered; all of the things I cared about were stashed above a ceiling tile halfway across campus. Still, it was a nice thought.
God protect her, I thought to myself. She'll need it.
A shadowy figure came around the corner, gun drawn. He looked down the corridor and saw me lying there. "Sean? Is that you?" It was Mike Tennenbaum, one of my DOH agents. I realized I'd been holding my breath in; finally, with great relief, I let it out.
Mike came closer. "Sean?" I made eye contact and shrugged slightly. "Oh, shit, Sean, I can't believe this... we're so screwed, so screwed." Mike was the excitable sort. Frantically he began looking through the stack of item cards next to me.
I sighed. "I'm breathing, by the way."
"What?" Mike looked up. "Shit. I First Aid you--"
"Paralyzed," I said. Finally.
He put the cards down. "Paralyzed. Paralyzed..." He pulled out the game rules and began pawing through them. He got to the section on poisons and read it. "Shit, shit, shit... antidote, must be. Who the..." He paused. "Okay, this is going to suck, but I don't see any choice." He stood and pocketed my items. "I pick you up."
I stood and put a hand on one of his shoulders -- the universal `he's carrying me' signal. Mike shuffled along, cursing under his breath. While carrying me, he couldn't go faster than a walk, and he had to keep both hands free. If anyone were to leap around a corner and open up on us, we'd be helpless.
We made it out of the basements safely, and trudged over to the common room. It was populated by eight players; they perked up when Mike came in with me.
"Excuse me," Mike said as people started to jabber. "I found this guy..." He made a show of looking at my name badge. "Omar Gahd, paralyzed by some kind of poison. He was in the basement of the Ocean Engineering department. Anybody got a paralysis antidote?" He looked around. "Vial with pink sparkly liquid? Anyone?" He made his way over to a table and tossed me onto it. I dutifully sprawled out on the tabletop.
"Omar Gahd! Where'd you find him?" someone asked, feigning breathlessness. Eyes rolled all around the room. Some pun names did not wear well with repeated use.
"Basement, Ocean Engineering, like I said before," Mike said.
"How do you know he's paralyzed?" another player asked suspiciously.
Well, if you read the rules, anyone with First Aid can figure that out, duh...
"I'm a doctor, Craig," Mike deadpanned. "We do that."
"Look," Mike said. "I need an antidote to heal this guy. Does anyone have it? Pink sparkly?"
My recovery was interrupted by the wild goose chase du jour. A clatter of running footsteps came down the hall, and then Brenda Price appeared in the doorway. "Hey guys!" she said. "I just saw the Yakuza mob in Fourteen West. I think they're truthing someone! Come on!" The room emptied out, all except Mike and I, in what seemed like a split-second. If anyone had the antidote, and was holding out for a better deal, we'd never find out.
Their motivation was understandable. Bursting in on a truthing in progress was usually considered a good excuse to gun down everyone in the room and ask questions later. A good gig if you could find it, but they would probably run their asses off for nothing. Jennie Wilson was running the Yakuza. There was no way they'd get the drop on her.
"Crap," said Mike. He started digging into his sheets again. His character, Maury Payne, was a doctor. If anybody could pull something out of thin air to help me, it was him.
I arranged myself more comfortably on the tabletop.
Mike's face showed sudden inspiration, and he started shuffling through my items. He pulled one card out of the stack and put it on the table in front of him. He went through the remaining items again, and then searched through his own. He pulled out three more cards. "One short. Damnit." He sat down at the table. "Okay, I start pulling out test tubes and stuff." He began to slap more cards down. He also took out a pack of playing cards.
In Assassin, when you are supposed to be doing something that takes time and distracts you -- like mixing chemicals -- the Gamesmasters like to make you do something that takes time and distracts you, like Solitaire. It could have been worse. The year before, I'd had to play Dizzybat and do a three-legged race as part of the Olympics mechanic. Out-of-shape twenty-five-year-old grad students are not ideal specimens for Dizzybat. I got creamed, but it was fun to watch.
As Mike began to grind his way through his Solitaire game, Theresa Hunter walked in. She was one of the Gamesmasters. "Hi, guys," she said. She looked at me. "Still paralyzed?"
"Sucks to be you." She looked at Mike's setup. "Bizarre chemistry experiments?"
"I'm trying to make the antidote. I'm one part short, but I can set everything up and put it in right at the end, right?"
"You sure can," she said.
"I hate Solitaire," Mike said. With a grimace, he swept up his cards and dealt them again.
Bitch, bitch, bitch. The hallowed Assassin tradition.
Theresa's mouth curled up in a wicked grin. "Aww, poor baby..."
Soft footsteps, quick and steady, sounded in the hall. Mike looked up from his cards and stared at the doorway. After a moment, I saw a friendly face -- Alicia Lee, another DOH agent.
"You guys are so blown," she said. "I met the mob going to bust the Yakuza, and they're all sure you guys are working together."
"I'm a doctor," Mike protested. "Just because I bring someone in--"
"I'm just saying what I heard," she said. "So what's the deal?"
"I'm trying to synthesize the antidote, but I need a dose of..." He looked at his notes again. "Uh, antacid tablets or airplane glue. Got any?"
She shook her head and pulled some cards out of her fanny pack. "What the heck do you use antacids for?"
"If you go to the amusement park and go on the alien 4-D spaceship ride, you feel sick. Minus two to martial defense for four hours unless you take some."
"Huh. What's with that?"
"I think it's a real alien four-dimensional spaceship," Mike answered.
"Do we want it for anything?"
"Not that I know of."
"Should we blow it up?" she asked.
Mike shrugged. "I was gonna ask Sean," he said, looking at me.
"Are antacid tablets a common?" she asked, turning to Theresa.
"Sure are," Theresa said.
Alicia whipped out an ability card and showed it to Mike. "I use `Walking Pharmacy'. Here."
Mike looked at the card. "... any one ingredient of common or better availability." He looked at Theresa. "Does it work?"
"Okay. I feed it to him," he said, standing and stepping over to me.
Theresa nodded. "All right, Sean, you're awake."
Alicia started putting her stuff away. "Anything else before I split?" she asked.
"The Heart is gone," I said. "The basement of Ocean Engineering was the last step, but OOPS probably got there first."
Mike sagged. "Oh, great."
"We're behind," Alicia said.
"The spaceship ride was sponsored by an OOPS front company," I said. "It's probably one of their research labs, experimenting on the whole game. Blow it up."
"Now you're talkin'," Alicia said.
"Get lost before someone sees you here," I said to her.
"Aye aye, captain," she said. She turned and jogged out of the room.
"Are you all right?" Mike asked me as she left.
"No," I said. "My ass is flat from sitting on the floor for three hours, and I'm hungry as hell. I'm getting some food."
Alicia, Mike, and I stood in a stairwell, going over our rapidly dwindling set of options. "Rob Marks is the OOPS Commander," Alicia said. "He found the Heart, and he planted that poison for you." She looked chagrined. "He's been on to both of you guys since you showed up in the common room together."
"Jesus," Mike breathed. "He tried to get me to walk off alone with him last night. I almost went for it..."
"Does he know about you?" I asked Alicia, holding a palm-sized mirror around the corner to scan the hallways. There was nobody in sight.
"I don't think so."
"All right," I said. "There's nothing left to do but search and destroy. If the Heart's on him, okay. If not, we try to truth him to find out where it is. So don't shoot him more than once." One shot to the torso would leave the victim unconscious and dying; you could still pump him full of stimulants to wake him up and interrogate him. Two shots was instant death.
"Where do we look for him?" Mike asked.
"We have to catch him en route or catch him building the Kludginator," Alicia said. "Where's he going to build it?"
I sighed. Rob wasn't a creature of habit; that was one of his strengths. "Any empty room on campus." I thought for a moment. "Okay, I think we'll have to spread out. If you find him, and get a decent shot, take him; if not, tail him and then get the rest of us."
"All right. How do we meet?"
I looked at my watch. "On the hour, every hour, at--"
Alicia put up her hand. Our hushed conversation grew even fainter. "Did you hear that?" she whispered.
I shook my head, and peeked around the corner with the aid of my mirror. Nothing. I changed hands and looked the other way. "Unbelievable," I said softly. "Rob. And some friends."
"How many?" asked Mike.
"Five plus him."
Mike had his worries to hold on to. Alicia had her ruthlessness. "Anyone we care about?" she asked.
I softly rattled off the names. "Anyone? Last chance." It was like passing judgment. Nobody answered me. Guilty, sentenced to be shot. I planned furiously. They were coming on quickly; too quickly to set up anything fancy. I gestured at Alicia. "Get behind 'em." She padded down the stairs and disappeared.
I pulled out two of my disk guns and carefully inspected them. Having your gun jam during a shootout was a disaster; I was taking no chances. I had five guns on me. Mike only had one. I handed him an extra. I didn't dare check on Rob again, even with my mirror. We'd have to listen and guess at the timing. Surprise and terror were all we had going for us.
The moment arrived, and I sprinted out into the hallway, spraying a hail of plastic disks in front of me. We cut them off in mid-conversation. One girl at the head of their mob had her gun out, and she got three shots off at me before she went down. Disks are slow, and they curve like frisbees; if you keep your cool and your balance, they're easy to dodge.
Rob and two guys stampeded like cattle, leaving one rearguard and two corpses behind. With just one guy left in the way, my reaction was pure instinct. Rob Marks was running down the hall, and I had to get him.
I sprinted after Rob, hoping to bury this last guy in disks, but we hit each other. He got it in the chest and I got it in the arm. The rule said that if you're hit in the arm, you have to go down and drop everything, but then you can get back up. I had no time to spare; I did an ungraceful bellyflop, dropping my guns on the floor. One bounced away and the other was shattered underneath my hip.
I rolled and lurched back to my feet, digging another gun out of my pocket. Rob looked back as he fled, and that sealed his fate. Just as he turned, Alicia came up the stairs he'd been heading for. She hosed the lead guy easily, and tagged Rob in the back as our last enemy ground to a halt. He unleashed a cloud of disks at Alicia, forcing her to back into the stairwell. Then he looked at me.
It was even odds if he just rushed one of us, but this guy had forgotten about escape. Instead of attacking, he lowered his gun and shot Rob -- two shots to the torso, a guaranteed kill. Then he put his gun up to his own head. "Suicide!" he yelled, invoking an old rule -- you can always take yourself out -- and shot himself.
I slumped. He'd done the perfect thing to screw me. I couldn't interrogate Rob now. If the Heart had been stashed, then we had nothing.
I turned around. "Mike--" He was lying on the floor. "Oh, come on--" I ran back to him. "Are you shot?"
"Two hits to the chest," he said.
"Two?" I asked incredulously. "She only got three off. You ate two of them?"
He sagged, beads of sweat rolling down his face. He looked at his killer. "Good shooting," he said.
Lying on the floor, her limbs splayed out theatrically, she managed to shrug. "Good luck."
Mike looked up at me. "You still telling me you don't believe I have bad luck?"
"I take it back," I said. "You have bad luck, and it's rubbing off." I'd been shot in the arm. I needed a doctor within one hour, or I'd bleed to death. My name was on the `known spies' list, so going to the hospital was right out.
I sighed and looked around. "Everyone got chest hits?" The corpses all nodded. I called out to Alicia. "I got an arm hit. Can you get me some of that First Aid mojo?"
"Yeah, boss, got it," she answered. She stopped going through Rob's stuff and sauntered down the hall toward me.
"Mike and Donna are the only doctors in the game," I said to her. "Have you even seen Donna tonight?"
"Not for a couple of hours," she said. "I First Aid you. Got an hour." She held up an item card between two fingers. "And a diamond." A honking big blue diamond, to be exact. I took it from her hand.
"It was on him?" I exclaimed.
"Yup. Looks like you won after all."
"Damn. Kind of takes the sting out of bleeding to death."
"What's the op, boss?" she asked.
I didn't hesitate. I gave the Heart back to Alicia. "We loot these guys, you take the diamond and run for the edge of campus. As soon as you've mailed it to Switzerland, come meet me in the common room. I'm going to look for Donna."
"Plan!" Alicia sprinted off back to Rob's end of the hallway.
I searched everyone on this side, ending up with a wad of item cards the size of a small novel. Sadly, there were no drugs I couldn't identify; no alien healing devices, and no high-tech medical gear. I did find the plans for a time machine and a Martian-English-English-Martian dictionary, but I had no use for junk like that. I stuffed it all in my coat pocket, just in case I needed something to trade.
"Anything good for fatal nosebleeds down there?" I called.
"Nope." Alicia stood up. She was done.
"All right," I said. "Book. I'll see you soon."
"Sure you don't want to just walk out now?"
I shook my head. "It's my last game, man. I can't walk out bleeding to death."
"Okay. See ya." She took off.
I leaned against the wall, relieved. Alicia had the Heart; it was as good as in the bank. Now I began to feel the welt on my hip where I'd destroyed my disk gun, and the muscle in my arm that I pulled when I did my Flying Leap Of Death. I got the shakes all over as my adrenaline began to drain away.
I looked at the ghosts of my fellow characters. They began to rise and take off their badges. Each one wrote a description of his wounds on the back of his badge. The badges would sit here, waiting for some poor sap to find them and come running back to the common room in a panic. I ought to have hidden or destroyed the bodies, but I just didn't have time for that.
"Nice game," I said to them. "See you all at wrap-up."
I began to walk back toward the common room. Those ghosts, behind me, had it easy. Their heaven would be full of pizza and the carbonated beverage of their choice, and rest for their tired bones. For those of us who were left behind, to continue in their absence -- the chase for glory was still on.
"Excuse me," I said. "I'm bleeding. Does anyone know where Donna -- excuse me, where Doctor Kvakk is?"
Steve and Laura looked up lethargically. "Not for a while," said Steve.
"Commander Veppon?" I asked, looking at Wendy.
"Yeah, I know where Kvakk is," Wendy said, flipping her book closed with a careless motion of her hand. "Off getting brainwashed by the... " She grimaced. "... the Secret High Assembly for the Domination of Evil."
"Oh," I said.
Wendy rolled her eyes. "I feel so stupid. All along, Crusto Pumpernickel was the SHADE commander, and now he's brainwashing all of my STAR agents." I was right; Chuck had been playing her all along.
"All but you," I said.
"I can't be brainwashed," she said, shrugging. "He didn't even come and kill me. Just ignored me."
"Part of the game, dude," Steve said. "You'll get better."
"Gonna go get him?" I asked.
"Like I'd ever find him," she said. "He's been around here how long, three and a half years? And I've been here for three months." She sighed. "I'm just no good at this. I had my gun in my backpack for half the game before someone told me I should have it somewhere I can draw it fast."
"I mean, we learn, Wendy. C'mon." I felt bad for her. Good guy. She'd played it to the hilt. The game was supposed to be fun, and I owed her a big one. "Look, the game isn't about sitting in the common room and waiting for Chuck to come here with all your brainwashed agents and toast you. It's about going out and getting him. You know who he is. It's a small chance, but you could win. You could win -- that's what it's all about."
"I thought it was supposed to be about playing my character," she said.
"It's about both. Come on. Anita Veppon, Commander of the Supreme Tribunal Advocating Righteousness. Does someone with a name like that ever give up? No way."
"Well, yeah, but..." I could see the conflict in her. The repetition of her team's ridiculous name brought the barest hint of a smile to her face.
"Here, look," I said, "I'm bleeding to death, and I owe you one for not letting Chuck waste me in the basement. Don't go out quietly. I'll help you look for him. Give it one last shot. What do you say?"
"Really? You'll help? But I didn't think you were a good guy."
"I'm a..." I thought quickly, trying to figure out an angle in my character sheet to justify going off to involve myself in Wendy's private war. "I'm a sentimental guy. You know, I just owe you one." I looked at my watch. "I bleed out in forty-six minutes. How about it?"
"Okay!" She got up and started heading for the door.
"Whoa there. We have to get ready." I looked at Theresa. "I'm going to blow my last drop ship right now. Can you bring the box of guns in?"
"Sure thing," she said.
I turned to Steve and Laura. "C'mon, guys, let's go waste SHADE."
Steve didn't budge. "I dunno, man. We're gonna have to crawl everywhere, and he's gonna have defenses out the wazoo."
"What are you waiting here for?" I asked. "Do you still have plots going?"
"What about you?" I asked Laura. "We'll get guns, rocket launchers, grenades, the whole works."
"I was going to just go home in half an hour," she said, shrugging. "I'm waiting for a ride."
"Oh, come on, people," I said. "Don't just--"
"Hey!" said Wendy. "This is SHADE we're talking about. They're against everything that's good about humanity. Okay? It's right in their name. That means we all have to band together to fight them."
"Well," Steve said, "they're your enemy, not mine, and they creamed you."
"That was yesterday!" she said. "Now we need a new alliance. And we've already started to form it. I've got Omar Gahd right here; he's a big time..."
"Traveling Bible Salesman," I said, smiling.
"... And if you join, then there will be four of us. Four is enough to take SHADE down. And what else are you going to do?" She looked at Laura. "Are you going to go home?" She looked at Steve. "Are you going to sit here and wait to get brainwashed?"
Now she stepped up on a chair, with a sudden fire in her voice that left me floored. "Are we humans or animals? Are we assassins or Student Government weenies? Yes, there are only four of us, yes, SHADE has five brainwashed STAR commandos--"
"Five?" I asked, horrified.
"Five!" she said, firmly, still rolling along. "But think of all of the billions of people who are depending on us! Think of the glory if we succeed against the odds! They'll never expect it! And..." Wendy paused, her fist in mid-pump, scrambling for a closer. "And if the Assassins' Guild should last for a thousand games, players will always say, `This was their finest hour'!"
I looked at Steve's face. It was like stone for a second. But then he broke into a laugh. "Okay, sure. This I have to see." He stood up. "I'm in."
Wendy looked at Laura. "How about you? Are you up to the challenge?"
"Um... sure, why not?"
"Great!" Wendy fished through her pockets and pulled out an ability card. She flashed it at us. "My speech is inspiring and makes you all want to help..."
I started waving her off with my hands. "Uh, too late, kid, we're already inspired--"
"... and you're all immune to knockout gas for the next hour."
"Right you are!" I said, putting my hands behind my back. "Knockout gas immunity all around."
Theresa came in with a box full of armaments -- disk guns, styrofoam pellets, Nerf launchers, the works. She sat it down in front of me.
"Black helicopter shows up," I said. "Everyone take whatever you want out of the box." I dug through it for a packet full of item cards. "Okay, anyone not have a flak jacket?" I dealt them out. "Ultrastim. Here, everyone take one."
People became distracted from ogling the guns as I filled their hands with items. "Insta-Truth. Here, it's Christmas in Century City. Monowire. Everybody take some. Backpack--" Hmm. Backpack nuke. They don't need that.
On the other hand... I sat it down on the table in front of me. I couldn't figure out who to give it to, but we might have to use it.
"Right. Whoever has less than four disk guns, take some."
A finger tapped me on the shoulder. I jumped. It was Alicia.
"Ah, hi," I said.
She looked at all of the stuff that we had loaded ourselves down with. "Are we invading Mars?"
I didn't have time to keep up appearances. "Donna's off being brainwashed, along with the rest of STAR. It's Chuck, so I figure he's probably in the basement of the Humanities Library."
"Oh," she said. "I see."
I slid the box over to her. "Here. Load up."
Alicia picked through the wreckage. She was already well-armed. When she was done, Theresa stashed the box back in the game control room.
I looked at my watch. "Thirty-eight minutes. Let's go."
"I admit she's cute and perky," I said. "But I really am too old for crap like that."
"Oh, come on..."
"I'm twenty-five, Leesh."
She stopped and looked back at me. "Really?"
"Yeah." I shrugged. "I'm about to get my Master's. Remember?"
"Huh," she said, with a grin. "That is pretty old."
With a smirk still on her face, she turned away, speaking softly. "Froshling saves your ass in a hallway, so you decide to pay her back by leading a suicide attack on Chuck in his prepared position. You could have Alzheimer's for all I know."
"Going out in a hail of disks," I said. "The way God meant it to be." I thought for a while. "She's a good kid. You should have heard her speech. She really had fun there. I've always wanted to stand on a table and rally the masses like that."
"You? I thought you just liked to shoot people."
Our hallway jogged right, skirting the edge of the building. From huge frame windows we enjoyed a view of a good chunk of the campus. We walked forward nonchalantly until we reached a section where the lights had gone out. From there, we could observe in peace without presenting a glaring silhouette. Alicia pulled out some binoculars -- real ones -- and began sweeping nearby buildings.
"I dunno," I said. "It just makes me wonder if I was missing a part of the game all this time."
"Oh, please," Alicia said, making a gagging motion. "How long ya got?"
"Twenty-two minutes," I said.
"Okay." She scoured the nearby buildings. "Are you really quitting after this game, or just talking?"
"A month from now I'll be working nine-to-five downtown," I answered.
"So... you know, I'm supposed to get a life, like a real person."
"Like what?" she asked. "Dinner parties? Football games?"
"Now you're just being nasty," I said with a chuckle, but it was a front. I kept asking myself the same question. Drift in, drift out... to where?
"I bet you're gonna be bored right out of your skull," she said. Then her right hand, holding the binoculars, froze. "If you're gonna flake out, make it at least half an hour from now."
"You could regret that time limit if we find Donna," I said.
"I don't think so," Alicia replied. She handed the binoculars to me. "Hume Library, northeast corner."
I put my eyes up to the lenses and stared through. At the base of the Humanities Library, just outside a doorway, sat Donna Case. She was leaning back against a wall, limbs splayed.
"Look three windows left, basement level," Alicia whispered.
I shifted the binoculars. The window was dark, but inside, I could see a splash of light from an adjoining inner room. Chuck wouldn't be dumb enough to run a brainwashing operation in a room with an exterior window, but there were only so many interior rooms to choose from.
Eleven o'clock on a Saturday night. That light could have been any number of other things -- but then the odds of Donna being there on the front steps would have been even longer.
Doctor Notta Kvakk, may she rest in peace. So much for getting patched up.
"What do you think?" Alicia asked. "She tried to escape?"
Chuck was cunning, fiendish, and in the context of an Assassin game, a sadist as well. I shook my head. "No way. Not unless Chuck wanted it. Not once he got her here."
"Think Wendy was wrong? Maybe Donna came over here to stop him--"
I swept the binoculars left and right, then up. "She's bait," I said. "Chris Wallace, fourth floor, northeast stairwell. Yakking on his cellphone."
"Can he see Donna from where he is?"
"Yup," I answered.
"Talking to Chuck," she said. "So what's the op?"
"You go waste Chris as soon as he hangs up, take his cellphone, then meet us just inside the southeast entrance."
"Now?" she asked.
Fifteen minutes. Come on, Chris. You're paying roaming charges, for Christ's sake.
Still he talked.
"Who's that across the yard?" Wendy asked. She couldn't recognize Donna from here.
"Dead, whoever they are," I said. "We have to run in, no matter what. No stopping to search anyone."
"Okay," she said. "Mister Gahd, I just remembered, you left something on the table in the common room."
"An item card?" I asked.
"Huh." I searched my memory. We'd blown out of there pretty fast after emptying out the chopper, and it had been nothing but running and sneaking since then.
"Crap," I muttered.
"I left a nuke in the common room."
"A nuclear weapon?" Wendy asked, alarmed.
"Yeah." I looked at her. Her eyes were wide. "I screwed up. Look, if I don't make it out, make sure to go back there and get it before anyone does anything with it."
Theresa, who had come with the mob when we cleared out the common room, was almost crying in her effort to hold back her laughter.
I looked back outside. Chris was still talking.
"You should be more careful than that," Wendy said.
"Yes, mother," I muttered.
"Nuclear bombs are dangerous, Mister Gahd--"
Chris flipped his phone closed. As he began to clip it onto his belt, he suddenly whirled. "Move!" I said. I carefully opened the door in front of us and sprinted across the yard.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chris go for his gun and drop. Then Alicia's face was in the window. So far, luck was with us.
I hit the steps and dragged the heavy door open, partially screening Donna's face. I waved everybody through. The last thing I wanted now was for Wendy to decide that she had to do something about the fact that I was toast.
Once we were inside, I rattled off instructions. "Okay, Alicia and I go first. If they have sentries, Alicia bags them with throwing knives. Wendy, you're flat out after me. Take a blasting charge; if they lock the door you'll have to blow it. Steve -- right before we go, you call Chuck on Chris's phone. Laura--"
Steve put up his hand. "Chris's phone? What do you mean?"
Alicia bounced down the front stairwell at heart-stopping speed. She held up Chris's phone.
"Laura," I said, "you have all the grenades. As soon as we're into the room, go to the door and start chucking them. Okay?"
Alicia handed the phone to Steve. Eight minutes. I would only need two. I knew this building like the back of my hand, just as Chuck did. I carefully eased the basement door open. Three of the four basement doors in the Library building were creaky. Only this one was silent. We crept down the stairs. I noted with approval that Wendy had replaced her sandals with nice, quiet sneakers.
A quiet door. The ventilation system is loud down here. A jog in the hallway goes to the door -- and then who knows.
Time. I looked at Steve. "Dial." He hit a button on Chris's phone. I waited half a second, and then we were gone.
As Alicia rounded the corner ahead of me, she cocked her arm and flung a knife. I passed the corner while it was still in flight. There was one sentry. He reacted late to the incoming knife, but it was still easy to dodge. Away from the door, like a good doobie. Thank you. He lost his balance, stumbling across the hallway. One of his shoes squeaked; then I heard a cellphone ringing.
Another knife -- right into the chest of the stumbling sentry. He fell to the ground, being careful not to lead with his gun. The plastic guns cost two bucks; by smashing it he might have alerted Chuck. But he didn't.
The cellphone rang again. Wendy had been slow off the mark; she was still coming down the hall.
"Hello?" I heard. Then a pause. "Hello?" I was still careening toward the door, slowing as fast as I could. There was no window on the door. Chuck was talking on the phone. It was perfect; we would be at the door and shooting before anyone reacted.
"... reception," I heard faintly. Then the doorknob clicked. Change of plan. The door opened, and Chuck stepped onto the threshhold, doorknob in one hand, cellphone in the other, shocked beyond words to see his sentry lying on the floor.
He tried to duck back into the room, but I bounced four disks off him as he fell back. "Down!" I cried. Alicia was the first to the doorway, but she was greeted with a flurry of disks. They tagged her in the leg; she used her momentum to tumble past the doorway. I ground to a halt just before it.
There was chaos in the room as people began to shout at each other. I looked at Alicia. She was lying on the floor, gripping two disk guns.
Cover me, I mouthed. She nodded.
I backed up two steps, going out slightly into the hallway, to give myself a better angle on the door. Then, as Alicia elbowed her way into the doorway, I sprinted forward. A steady roll of clicking disk guns announced her suppressing fire. I skipped over her outstretched hands, over Chuck's prostrate body, and into a row of chairs. I made a hell of a bowling ball.
It was like Omaha Beach in there; obstacles all over the place and disks whizzing right past my face. Everybody was well-covered except for the four poor saps who were getting brainwashed. They were right in the front of the room, in a nice neat row of chairs, blindfolded and cringing. In the back, atop an A/V cart, sat a big box covered in aluminum foil, with a set of rabbit ears -- stripped off an old TV set -- attached to the front. It was pointed at the brainwashing victims.
"Hey!" Wendy yelled from the doorway. "This is Anita Veppon speaking. Lay down your guns and I'll let you live!"
From behind Wendy, Laura started throwing grenades in, but she was, I realized, a lefty -- which made our side of the room the only one she could really reach. I waved her off, and took a couple more shots at Chuck's beleaguered troops.
"We want safe passage out of here!" one of them yelled, even as he flung a little beanbag in my direction. "Knockout gas!"
"No effect!" I said as the beanbag bounced off a wall near me, drawing an inventively profane reply.
"I'm going to arrest you!" Wendy yelled into the room. "But I won't give you the death penalty!"
"Let us think about it," the guy said.
Something clicked in my mind. I could smell a delaying tactic a mile away. Delaying his death, or --
The chalkboard. 11:13. I checked my watch. 11:12 "Shit!" I exclaimed. "Brainwashing finishes in less than a minute! Laura! Grenades! Hit the brainwasher!"
"It's a heavy metal box," one of the Gamesmasters yelled. "You need a blasting charge!" And I thought: Grenades won't work. I have nothing on me. Alicia is hobbled. We are so hosed.
So there was only one thing to do. I coiled and sprang up, running across the room like a lunatic, filling the air with disks and yelling incoherently. "Veppon! The box! Go for it!" I got only halfway there before I got it in the other arm. I spun around and lurched; I ate four more shots as I fell to the ground. My last thought as I expired, staring at the ceiling, was Watch it -- it's a shooting gallery, try to keep your head down --
But dead men tell no tales, and they certainly shout no warnings.
"Come on!" I heard. There was a veritable thundering of feet from the doorway. First came Steve; he blazed away with two guns and was cut down within seconds. Then came Laura. She dove into the room, as I had, and came up throwing. But her throw was short, and she was pelted with disks as Wendy flashed behind, item card in hand. As Laura fell to the ground, the bad guys shifted their fire toward Wendy; but she was fast, and she was crazy, bouncing off chairs like a pinball. The little plastic tracers never caught up to her. She lunged for the shiny box and slapped the card on top of it. Then she spun, bounced off a wall and hit the deck. "Fire in the hole!" she screamed.
"Halt!" cried the Gamesmasters.
The cauldron of yelling and clicking finally grew quiet. The living froze where they were. The dead slumped in their places.
"There's a huge explosion." said Theresa. "If you have any abilities for surviving explosions, get 'em out."
I didn't bother. Wendy fished through her pockets. Nobody else seemed to be in luck. Theresa looked at Wendy's card and whispered to her. Then Theresa looked at the other Gamesmasters. "Ready?" she asked.
From the front of the room, a blindfolded player spoke. "So, ah... are we brainwashed now?"
Theresa shook her head. "Nope. Fifteen seconds to spare." Her fellow Gamesmasters nodded. "Okay. Everybody inside the room, unless you know otherwise, you're unconscious until further notice. Okay? Three -- two -- one -- resume."
Wendy, who had returned to her place on the floor, slowly and warily rose up. "Hello?" she said. "Is everybody okay?"
"Get the guys," Alicia said. She'd been just outside the room when the brainwashing machine blew. "Just throw a grenade over there, in case they're faking."
Wendy looked at her. "I can't do that!" She marched over to the other side of the room, gun drawn, and looked over the unconscious bad guys. "I tie them up," she said to the Gamesmasters.
Theresa waved her hand. "You tie them up. They're tied up. Congratulations."
Wendy came over to me. "Oh, Mister Gahd -- I check you."
"Dead," I said, shrugging.
She checked the others. The four people in the brainwashing chairs were just knocked out. Steve and Laura were gone. Alicia had fifty-four minutes to live. "We'll find Doctor Kvakk," Wendy said.
"She's dead. Her body was outside," Alicia said.
"You mean -- You mean that Mister Gahd--"
"Came in here even though he didn't have a chance? Just the kind of guy he is." Alicia made a great show of unsteadily getting up on one leg. "I gotta go."
"Commander Veppon," Alicia said, affecting the awful weariness of the soon-to-be-dead, "I'm on the known spies list. That means you're supposed to arrest me and interrogate me. I'd appreciate it if you'd let me get a five minute head start, under the circumstances."
Wendy was crestfallen. "All right. I'm sorry, Miss Lunibin."
"Yeah. Good luck." Alicia began to hop down the hallway.
Wendy looked at me and sagged. Then she breathed in heavily. She looked through her item cards; she found nothing of interest, and tossed them on the table.
"Hey, Sean," she said, "are you playing in next term's game?"
"The rat race starts in a couple of months," I answered. "I'm retiring."
"Retiring?" she asked. "Why?"
I shrugged. "I'm graduating. Getting a job, moving on."
"I'm not actually... moving anywhere. I'll be working downtown."
"So, you could play after work, couldn't you? Nobody plays during the day anyway."
"Sure," I said, "but normal people don't shut down the rest of their social lives for ten days to play a game like this."
"And you want a normal social life?" she asked.
I began to feel uncomfortable with Wendy's questions. "It's what you do," I said, gesturing with every phrase. "You play games, then you graduate, then you go into the Real World and do Real World things."
"So, is that what you want, or what you're supposed to do?"
"Hey, I don't know," I said, a little more sharply than I needed to. My adrenaline was running down and I was starting to feel the inherent vexation of being dead. "It's Saturday night and I've had twenty hours of sleep in the last week. Ask me about something else."
Wendy was quiet for a moment. Out of the corner of my eye I looked at her face, feeling guilty. Her expression was curiously unmoved. "I was going to ask if I could be on your team next game," she said.
The question was irresistible; it always had been. I was suddenly relieved that Wendy had not let the conversation end with my retort. "I don't know," I said, hedging. "What's the game?"
"Errant Crusade. The sack of Constantinople in 1204. Low-tech, lots of politics." She shrugged. "Maybe not your kind of game, I guess."
"No automatic weapons or rocket launchers, that's for sure," I said. I thought about it and nodded. "But you could probably use a bodyguard."
"Really?" Her face brightened.
"Yeah. Why not?" I said. It was the second time in the last week that Wendy had induced me to do something crazy. I began to think that she had a real future in this game.
"Great!" She was struck by a sudden thought, and walked over to me. "Hey, I search you."
"Good call," I said. I had been wondering when she would think to loot my bloody corpse. I dug through my pockets and handed her the hoard of mostly useless items I had accumulated.
She began to shuffle through them. "Smelling salts!" she said, looking at Theresa. "Will this wake them up?"
"Sure will. But you need one item per person you want to wake up."
"All right!" Wendy proceeded over to Chuck. She was rewarded with another vast pile of item cards. Then she did everyone else. She picked out just a few cards and left the rest scattered on the ground. The room looked like New York after a ticker-tape parade.
She went over to one of the brainwashees and waved one of the cards under her nose. "Hey, Cherry Sunday. Smelling salts. I wake you up," she said.
Sunday perked up and pulled off her blindfold. "Commander Veppon!" She stood up and saluted.
Wendy woke up the other three. Their smiles were silly and broad. Each of them asked her for orders.
"You," she said to Sunday, "interrogate those guys. Find out if there are any other SHADE projects that we can blow up."
"Yes, ma'am," she said, turning. Then she stopped. "Uh, ma'am, I don't have my Insta-truth, or anything."
"I left at least ten doses on the floor in here. Get to it."
Sunday, the ice cream magnate, saluted and began to crawl around the room, looking at item cards.
"Borscht," she said to another, "go to the STAR base, fire up the communications, and fix up the defenses. If you find anyone there, shoot them."
"Yes ma'am!" Itzum Borscht, the famous Russian Master Chef, sped off.
"Blitzer," she said.
"Yes ma'am!" Darth Blitzer, the terror of the National Football League, came to attention before her.
"You keep asking to be sent on a search-and-destroy mission, right?"
"You are to wait five minutes, and then go find Miss Poterina Lunibin, and arrest her. She's on one leg so you shouldn't have any trouble catching up to her. Use deadly force if you need to."
Blitzer's face fell. "Alicia Lee?"
"You asked for it. Move."
Blitzer nodded, took in a deep breath, and left.
Wendy had one agent left -- Justin Case, the world-class Actuary, another newbie like herself. "How about me?" he asked.
Wendy looked around. Everything was well in hand, or dead. As her eyes crossed me, she caught herself. "Oh yeah. Go back to the common room. There's a nuclear bomb sitting on one of the tables. Go take care of it."
"Uh... take care of it?"
"Yeah, just tear it up and throw it in the trash."
Case looked at Theresa, bewildered. "Does that work?" he asked. "Can I just get rid of a nuclear bomb like that?"
"Yeah, that works," Theresa said.
That's why I love this game.