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Dusk of Reality

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Dusk of Reality

            I am a Code Fighter, the title given to those within our small village who enter the game system to fight the machines that threaten the lives of all humans. Recorded in our history is the story of how machines became sentient and revolted against the humans. Our struggle has been long and painful, but in our town of Hazarack, we Code Fighters vowed to never give in, to fight until our last breath. These were also the last words of Ren, who showed me what it truly means to be a Code Fighter.

 

            There were twenty of us in our town of one hundred and three people, but everyone was trained to use weapons. The difference was we had access to the heavy weapons and ammunition and are always on duty. A black paneled, bulletproof building served as our armory. Fourteen of us lounged about waiting for Ren, one of four town leaders, to return with details about the next mission.

            It had been an hour since he left, putting the clock at two. I cast my gaze to the automatic sliding doors just in time to see Ren, jet black hair spiked, walk in. His steely gaze fell on the group. “Setup for the meeting.â€

            Thane and Locri dragged two long tables together in the center of the room. Everyone else pulled up chairs and sat around the tables. “Kat, get the holo,†Sai called to me.

            I jogged across the room to the cabinet that held the aging holoscreen projector and hurried it over to the gathering that had assembled. Ren accepted it and set it in the center of the table while I settled into a seat. “After a meeting with the counsel, the next mission has been cleared. It's scheduled for this afternoon, right at four; Standard team,†Ren stated.

            There were small cheers and energetic gestures at the news, myself included as I high-fived Thane next to me. Ren called for silence as he fiddled with the control panel of the holo and everyone obeyed as a colored projection came up with a blue flashing point. “This is the warehouse we stopped at last time. Since the area is safe now, we will be pressing onward to the next tower.â€

            I watched closely as a red dot appeared on the screen, indicating our objective. The screen zoomed into a more detailed image at Ren's command and began tracing the general path our team would follow while Ren explained things. “We will pass several blocks until we reach the transmission tower just like in the previous sector. The tower has three, two meter barrier emitters located at its base. Locri will use her compression cannon sniper to destroy the emitters, meaning we will have to get closer than usual. This means it will be far more dangerous.â€

            I felt my own lips turn up in a smile as more cheers went around the room; everyone excited at the thought of danger. Most everyone joined the Code Fighters for the thrill, not to defend everyone. That was just something that we knew came with the territory. Ren and Sai were the only two who never seemed to get excited like the rest.

            They had joined at a young age with another friend, Paige. The three had grown up together since birth, but Paige had been first to die in a raid at the grasp of a machine. Ren and Sai blamed themselves. Since then, neither rejoiced in what was once an adventure. I didn't really understand the loss they'd experienced though.

Ren's voice cut harshly through our celebration. “Shut up!â€

            Once everyone fell back into order Ren continued. “The specs are incomplete, but it’s not too different from the Corentar sector. Light patrol but heavy defense the closer to Zenith we reach. We need to be careful. Can't risk another setback.â€

            No one spoke up, but I shifted awkwardly in my seat, knowing the statement reflected on my own failure prior to this. The holoscreen began to fuzz and flicker and Ren began cursing the machine. “Damn. Piece of shit never works right.â€

            He stopped only a moment to dismiss us, then went about hitting the machine before Sai joined him to fix the holo. I helped return the chairs to where they had been before and then sat in one, pushing back on two legs and relaxing while I still had time. I peered at the clock placed at the back of the room to my right, which read 2:32 P.M. Below that were five reclined metal seats for use when hacking into the system, all placed in front of a six monitor computer set up.

            I sighed and decided to check the defenses and pushed myself from my chair toward the sliding doors. However, before I reached the exit Ren's voice caught me. “Kat, got a moment?â€

            I turned and saw him walking towards me. The leather jacket he wore over a white T-shirt billowed slightly as he jogged over. “You died for the first time in the system last mission...â€

            “Yeah, because I want to be reminded every time I turn around,†I cut in, turning to leave again.

            “Hold on now. It's actually something good. You're very skilled for being the newest member. I wanted to make an offer.â€

            The thought of Ren making me an offer piqued my interest and I couldn't refuse him. “All right, I'll listen.â€

 

We walked outside for a decent length of time discussing his proposal, which turned out to be private training with him -- something like an apprenticeship. Being the newest member at only seven months, I was the first person offered this, which would end with me becoming leader after Ren. This gave plenty of time to train me. We wandered about talking it over until four o' clock drew near. “So, what do you say?â€

            We had reached the compound doors and he stopped waiting for my answer, his hard eyes unintentionally staring me down for a reply. I nodded my head and said, “I'll take you up on the offer.â€

            Ren smiled through his usual stern features and held his hand out to shake, but I looked at his hand only a moment before eyeing him, saying, “I don't shake. It's not my thing.â€

            He shrugged and went through the sliding doors of the compound. “All right slackers, fifteen minutes until we move out, so get yourselves in gear!†he yelled through the building.

            Within minutes, the whole place was buzzing with activity. Everyone was either preparing to hack in or man stations around the village against possible machine attacks. I was one of those hacking in; however, rather than sprint to my station, I carefully watched people scramble. We only fought in the virtual world of Elvashinia, the virtual reality game the machines were born from. If our small “army†were to fight in reality, we would leave the village open to attacks. Like this, we could stay close and still fight as we pleased, allowing us to destroy the towers that gave signal to all machines in reality. The danger was the machines could still attack the village, but it was better than the other option. “Kat! We need to start the links,†Arn called from the control seat.
            I walked over to the metal chairs and planted myself in the one left free. I leaned back, pulled the visor over my head, and waited until Arn said, “All right, everyone synch.â€

            I reached up and clicked a button on the side of my visor. I could hear the high whine of my machine activating along with all the rest while they synched to the main system. “Two minutes till execution.â€

            “Hey, Kat...â€

            “Quiet, Thane,†I snapped, pulling my thoughts into focus.

            Amid chuckles from the others, I heard the one minute mark. Soon it was total silence as everyone fell into themselves and mentally prepared for the hack in.

“Three, two, one, link start.â€

 

            The next thing I became aware of was the rush of color and sound that settled around my avatar as a dull warehouse, with little but wreckage piled around the inside. Other colorful game avatars appeared a few feet away, the four other members of the standard team: Ren, Thane, Sai, and Locri. We each had avatars similar to ourselves in reality. Though the world we were now in was virtual, it was a near exact replica of reality, and the machine collective functioned with this as their system.

            “Everything's still clear. Let's press forward with the mission,†Ren said, peering out of the metal warehouse doors.

            We gathered as he pushed the rusted metal doors out, then filed onto the barren, cracked street, armed with a motley array of powerful, enhanced equipment. I wielded three weapons: A TrueCast laser rifle, improved with a chrome power core; a RapiDuct pulsar pistol; and a pair of RapiDuct high micro vibration swords.  I armed myself with the laser rifle as Ren said, “Follow the map I mailed to everyone.â€

            A ping sounded as a message appeared in the menu for me. I opened it and glanced over my route before closing it. After setting my com link with everyone else, I trotted with the team toward our target. The streets remained clear for a good distance, but soon lone patrols began to pop up. I didn't worry about hunting them; Sai and Ren's automatic weapons were more than enough to shatter the weak defense on the outskirts, but as we drew nearer Zenith, I could see the number and strength of the drones increasing.

            Across the street in forward position were Sai and Thane, as Ren and I crouched behind building rubble. Stationed in the rear position was Locri. Ren came over the com system, ready to make a trail to the transmission tower from this close distance. “Let's give these fuckers hell!â€

            The moment he finished, two shots sliced by with vicious precision from Locri's Compression Cannon. Each found a target in the two largest war machines blocking the path, a terminating implosion ending their resistance and easily disrupting surrounding drones. I pulled my laser rifle forward in one fluid motion and carefully sought out targets, taking several foes with one laser.

            The others rushed in, felling targets at closer range while pressing forward. I followed, but our swift progression ceased halfway by the sudden appearance of a 134XST Brothership. I ducked inside a war torn building before pulling the trigger again and narrowly avoiding an enemy laser.

            I could see the tower's tip from a hole ripped in the building, but to attack would be futile until the barrier generator was destroyed. Getting past the Brothership and the swarm of drones it brought came before that, a near impossible feat in itself.

I could hear Ren's cursing over the com as he thought about the situation, but a startlingly loud voice pierced my thoughts. “It's Arn! Hurry and get out! The machines are in the town; we need everyone here!â€

            It seemed almost a bad joke, but I knew better as I urgently snapped my menu open and slammed my hand into the log out button.

 

            My world came back all at once as I became conscious again in the metal seat. Carefully, but swiftly, I pulled the visor back and bolted from the chair. I ran to the already open weapons unit and pulled my semi-auto rifle from its hooks, selecting a clip with incendiary rounds and three more with ballistics rounds. 

            While running to the bullet proof doors where the other five were armed and ready, I slammed a ballistics clip in and loaded the first round. “Five, four, three, two, one...â€

            Ren rolled into the door way, engendering the doors to slide open. We laid waste to four machines in the immediate vicinity, but I could still hear gunshots and screams ringing throughout the town as the machines tormented our people. “Everyone move in pairs! Kat, with me,†Ren yelled over the commotion before sprinting from the cover of the compound.

            I rushed after him, though struggling to keep up with Ren's near inhuman speed. Ren was always ahead of me as we traveled through the labyrinth of the broken and fixed structures, taking one turn after another. At the next turn I took, I was stunned to find Ren pinned from both sides of the street by worker drones.

            My right leg instinctively collapsed as I kneeled and aimed for vital spot on the machine, then squeezed the trigger thrice, my rounds firing through the plating. The drone fell limp and I saw Ren reload his assault rifle as the forward drone fell also.

            He pressed on without a word, dark determination visible on his face and I knew like this was something more than a rush for him. The end of the street lead out to a sector of the town primarily for housing the citizens. Ren ducked behind a barricade, and I stayed just around the corner, watching both sides of the street for any more enemies.

            I ejected the half clip, storing it in a vest pouch, and slid the incendiary cartridge in while I had the time. Ren motioned to cross the street to the three story apartment building, then he sprinted from the cover of the barricade. I followed hastily behind him, seeing faces peering at us through the windows on the top floor. Their faces a fear that I couldn't quite understand despite the danger I faced, but I could see it.
            We ran through the main entrance to the building, the steel doors ripped open by the invading machines. The first floor, already evacuated of citizens, was easily cleared of drones, my explosive ammo tearing at their plated hulls and Ren's bullets peppering everything that came into sight. Moving to the second floor, we sprinted down the halls, Ren always several meters ahead of me.

            Suddenly, a searing pain slashed through me as one of the drones came up from behind, firing a foot long rod into my calf, pinning me to the tiled floor. I twisted my body around through the heated pain, and emptied my last three rounds into the drone, taking it down with ease. My attention was suddenly diverted forward at the sound of gunshots coming from the cafeteria.

            Ren stumbled from the door way up ahead, unloading a clip into the unseen enemy, a rod buried in his left shoulder. I heard him call for backup through the headset we all had before taking another shot to the side, and then one in his right thigh that brought him to his knees, but still Ren fought. Everything seemed to move in slow motion for me; I was unable to do anything more than watch as he lived true to his oath to fight until the last breath. His dark gaze burned with a fury I'd never known while he endured the pain. I saw Ren reload again and again, my agonized scream to help him mixing with his unstoppable rage as he yelled, “This is from me and Sai, for killing Paige you bastards!!!â€

            Blood pooled around him on the floor as he unloaded another half clip before he took another shot to the trigger hand. Ren dropped his rifle as Sai and Kalla stormed by, their weapons burning through the machines I never saw. It made so little sense for him to die when I couldn't even see anything around. I snapped back to reality as Ren struggled along the tiled floor to me, a trail of red behind him, steeled determination driving him with what little life he had left. “Never give in...Fight...till the last breath,†he recited, with a smile in a raspy, fading voice.
            His lips turned up in a pained, but natural smile as he pushed a blood dotted envelope to me with his good hand. Sorrow choked me as I took the paper, the tears flowing from my eyes unchecked, as the man who once stood as our foundation died before me. His head lolled to one side, his last smile frozen on his face and dread, sorrow, darkness, and hatred burned my existence in a crying scream. Then a series of sobs racked me as I clutched the paper close and held onto his last words, the battle forgotten now in his glorious death.

 

            A week has passed since the raid. Ren was buried next to Paige as was his will. Sai spent the night after the burial with the two lost comrades at their graves, drinking a special bottle of wine and symbolically sharing it with them in his now lonesome sorrow. I have taken lead of the Code Fighters after his passing, with Sai as a guide. Sai refused to take lead as Ren's had me as leader in his will, but the counsel insisted he at least guide me. It was a difficult loss for the town, and more so for Sai and me, but life had to continue, and I was in charge of today's mission.

            I lay there in the metal chair, knowing the moment we entered the Brothership would descend upon the team. I no longer felt the thrill and excitement everyone else had though. After reading the letter Ren gave me, I understand what he felt, and having lost him, it was only worse. Instead of thrill, I held Ren and Sai's dark determination. In one breath I knew everything that I'd been oblivious to and it was clear what we do. Being a Code Fighter isn’t about the thrill; it’s about protecting everyone, to protect their lives and everything they hold dear that I have lost, to protect them from this dusking life that I faced now. That is what a Code Fighter does. That is what we do.

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