It only took a few minutes for the two of them to make their way back through the crowds, down the elevator, and to where the sky bridge to the hotel was. But that was as far as they could go – the sky bridge was off and a large crowd had gathered. They could hear sounds of fighting and shouts from the center of the crowd, but couldn’t see anything.
“What’s going on?” Cian asked a random person. They only glared at him and moved away, ignoring his question.
“Hey, what’s up?” Vanna asked another Rastlin in the crowd.
“Humans causing trouble again. Best try to make it to another exit.” they replied, stepping away from Cian and through the crowd.
A gunshot echoed, followed by three more. Several people started screaming, and the crowd panicked.
“Shit, we need to get out of here.” said Vanna, looking around frantically.
People were being pushed against the walls and trampled as the crowd tried to get away from the commotion. Cian put on his helmet and shielded Vanna as best he could as they tried to get away from the violence – she had left her armor and guns in the hotel room. More gunshots and the telltale flash and sound of a laser being fired added to the chaos, and soon the sickening smell of blood and burnt flesh was in the air.
The high pitched sound of coils charging was the only warning before someone opened up with a rotary Gauss cannon. Red hot pellets tore through the crowd as those in the path of it screamed in agony. Several shots pelted Cian and one hit Vanna in the leg. Cian used Surpass Limits to boost his attributes, scooped up Vanna, and ran. He took several hits to the back of his armor before vaulting over the bar into a little ice cream shop in the middle of the path. The glass was all shattered, but the metal of the bar was holding. The terrified employee was huddled under the cash register, hyperventilating.
Metal barriers and security force shields suddenly popped up all around the walls and ceiling, blocking off entrances to stores. More came up a hundred or so feet down both paths leading out, trapping everyone who hadn’t gotten out in a roughly 30’x200’ tunnel. More gunfire sounded as others pulled weapons and joined in.
“Lord help us!” someone shouted. Others screamed incoherently.
Cian set Vanna down and huddled down behind the ice cream bar with her, inspecting her leg. The bullet had missed the bone, but had left a gaping hole straight through her calf that was bleeding freely. He channeled his Mend ability on the wound. It was the first time he had used it since his interaction with the Weaveborn artifact, and it looked different – more defined. Instead of being a blurred silver strand, it looked like a stream of fine glowing dust left his hand and entered the wound. The wound closed, and a silvery cloud drifted back up and seemed to vanish back into his skin.
Vanna looked relieved. “Thanks. For that and the quick thinking, you saved my behind. Guess I shoulda brought the armor. You okay? Felt you take a few rounds.”
Cian could barely hear over the screaming and sounds of gunfire. “I’m okay. The armor held. What is going on? Where do we go now?!” he said frantically.
Vanna tested her leg against the side of the ice cream bar. “This is prolly the best spot for us till the fighting dies down, we aint gettin’ through those security fields. Probably two human guilds fighting. Been goin’ on ever since humans showed up here two years back. The patrol tries to keep the peace, but it’s hard to police folk who value money more than their own lives and can come back from the dead.”
“Yeah. I didn’t know it was this bad. No wonder people hate humans.” said Cian.
Cian peeked over the bar. Survivors were laying on the floor and huddled against the walls and behind other shop stands. Bodies were scattered everywhere, draped over benches and piled up near the far force field. The man with the rotary Gauss cannon was standing in the open near the far force field. It was a monster of a gun, sporting eight barrels and a heavy drum full of pellets. He was heavily armored, but his armor had taken a beating and he was bleeding from several holes in the suit. He was firing off bursts of fire at several groups who were hunkered down behind impromptu cover – concrete planters, flipped over carts, benches, and piles of bodies. They kept popping up and pelting him with various small arms fire. His opponents were mostly armored humans, but a few shoppers in plain clothes had pulled guns and joined the fight.
Vanna peeked over the bar. “Yeah, it’s a guild. See the white ‘A’ insignia? Looks like his buddies are all down, I count seven dead with the same logo. Most of the ones shooting at him have that red ‘V’ logo. I count five still up, at least ten down. A dozen others helping shoot at him. He drew the rest in when he opened up with that damned rotary cannon.”
Cian noticed the insignia. He remembered seeing both of those markings before on the recruitment section of the forums. “You’re right, I’ve heard of them. The white ‘A’ with five stars around it is a group that call themselves the Aces High. The red ‘V’ with the blood drips is a group called Voracious. I knew guilds had rivalries, but I didn’t know they fought in the open like this.”
The one with the rotary cannon shouted “Cowards! Come and face me like men! I’ll kill you all!”
One of the guys with a V logo shouted back “You already lost Gumbo! Even if you somehow live through this, you’ll be chased out system by the Peacekeepers from all the penalty points! Who brings a minigun into a mall? Stupid! We win! Hahahahahahaha!” he laughed maniacally.
“You attacked first, and I’ll put you all in the ground for it! Aces High don’t play, we’re gonna bury your entire guild!” shouted the man back at them. He jammed some kind of syringe into his leg where the armor had been shot away and started limping toward the nearest group of opponents. They were hiding behind a concrete planter, two armored with the Vs and three civilians in plain clothes.
“Help! Please, anyone, help!” someone shouted.
Cian looked over and spotted a young couple with a small child behind a flipped bench. All three of them had been shot, but the boy looked to be near death. The mother was calling for help while the father tried frantically to stop the bleeding.
“Here.” Cian handed Vanna his revolver and jumped back over the bar, headed toward the couple.
“Watch your back!” said Vanna.
More gunfire erupted as the man they called Gumbo made his way to the ones hiding behind the planter. He was running now, and opened up with his rotary Gauss cannon again as he made it there. Within seconds, all five of the ones behind the planter were dead. The man had taken many more shots and was losing blood fast, but it didn’t seem to slow him down any.
Cian took a stray shot in his side, but made it to the woman asking for help. She screamed at first, but he held up his hands “I’m here to help!”
“If you can help, please.” the father said, letting him to his son.
The boy had a hole straight through his lung. Cian put his hand on it and channeled Mend into him – instead of the clunky individual starts and stops he was accustomed to, he simply willed it to heal and poured power into it in one steady stream. It took 150 Willpower, but when he was finished the boy was breathing easy again. He used another 75 stopping the bleeding on the parents’ wounds.
Both of them stared on in awe. The father quietly said “Thank you.” and the mother embraced him, crying.
Cian looked around and saw many that were dying. They might be NPCs, but they felt real enough to him. He decided to do what he could, and started moving between them and using his abilities to stabilize as many as possible. Bullets were still flying and ricocheting unpredictably, but he moved quickly and ducked from cover to cover.
Gumbo had killed most of his opponents by now, but was missing an arm and had a hole in his helmet. He looked like he should be dead, but he propped his gun against a barrier and slammed another injection into himself. He took several shots of laser fire as he reloaded his gun.
As he approached the last group of five that had fired at him, four of them threw down their guns and surrendered. The fifth was one from Voracious, who jumped up and started firing his laser rifle into a hole in Gumbo’s chest armor. A high pitched whine sounded as his gun started firing. Slugs pelted the one with the rifle’s energy shield, then tore through his armor. Gumbo kept firing, and quickly cut through the other four who had been behind the barrier.
“No mercy! Death to all who oppose us! Aces HIGH!” shouted Gumbo. Blood gushed from a chest wound and he dropped to his knees, spent. “Who else?!” he shouted, waving the gauss cannon over his head weakly.
Cries of the dying was the only reply. Everyone who had been involved in the fight was dead. The only other human left alive was Cian, but Gumbo didn’t pay him any attention.
Cian was getting low on Willpower already, but he pressed on. Vanna had puled a trauma kit from somewhere in the ice cream stand and was helping stabilize people. Several others who weren’t too injured saw what they were doing and moved to join, but most still cowered behind cover and waited.
The entire fight had taken less than five minutes. It was another three before the barriers dropped and a response team of thirty heavily armed and armored Peacekeeper soldiers marched in. They pulled Cian away from a woman he was healing and confiscated his weapon, which still hung on the holster on his back.
“Wait! Can’t you see he’s helping? This woman will die without him!” screamed Vanna.
The soldiers simply pushed her away wordlessly and herded Cian toward the center of the area. Cian tried to speak, but one of them hit him with a taser to make it known that words weren’t allowed just yet. They moved him over to where Gumbo was.
Gumbo had removed most of his armor and had been using an expensive trauma kit to seal all of his wounds and clumsily give himself a blood transfusion with his one remaining arm. The soldiers pushed Cian over next to him and stood around in a perimeter near them as others moved to check on the wounded and dead.
“’bout time you bots arrive. Voracious attacked us right in the middle of the mall! My boys are all dead. But I’m sure you’ll pin this shit on me. Don’t look at me like that, I got the credits. I’ll pay the fines.” said Gumbo. He seemed to read something for a moment, and continued “Over nineteen thousand penalty points? That’s uncalled for! They shot at me first! I’m not responsible for collateral damage in self defense!”
“Dude, you fired an automatic weapon into a crowd and killed dozens of innocent bystanders. Are you a maniac?” said Cian.
Gumbo seemed to notice Cian for the first time. “Who the hell are you? They got human NPCs now?” asked Gumbo, looking Cian over.
Wait, this guy was talking to him. Cian saw his chance to finally get someone to help – not exactly the best situation, but when else was he going to do it? “Uh. No, I’m not an NPC. The game screwed up. I’m stuck in my pod and can’t log out. Actually, can you submit a help request for me? I’ve been trying to get help for a while but everyone thinks I’m an NPC.” said Cian.
“Wait, you mean you’re a player stuck in th…” Gumbo started, but he suddenly froze mid-word. His mouth was open and his tongue had just stopped in the middle of the ‘th’ sound. His eyes were staring ahead.
“Uh, you okay?” asked Cian.
A Peacekeeper without a helmet walked up. He had a circle insignia with two right-facing chevrons in it on his armor over his left breast, probably showing rank, but Cian wasn’t familiar with it. The others stepped aside to let him pass and stood at attention for him.
He pulled out a scanner and ran it over Gumbo. “Player Gumbo. You have been involved in the deaths of seventeen other players and at least fifty civilians, plus property damage on the structure. Pending investigation, you may not be charged with the deaths of the active combatants. You will be held until such a time as your penalty expires or you pay reparations. If you come peacefully, you will not be harmed. If you resist, we will use deadly force.”
He then moved to scan Cian. He ran it over him several times, tapped it a few times, and tried again. He looked at Cian and at the scanner, and seemed nervous. “Uh… Player. You will be detained pending investigation into these matters. Please provide your name and number of penalty points received from this altercation.”
“He didn’t do anything! He was helping!” Vanna shouted over the soldiers. Several other voices joined in, insisting that he had helped.
The woman whose boy he had saved shouted “He saved my son!”
One of the soldiers interrupted, “Sir, his weapon hasn’t been fired recently. He was found tending to the wounded.”
The Peacekeeper officer attempted to scan Cian again. “Regardless, you must be detained pending an investigation. Please provide your name.”
Cian was confused. Gumbo was still frozen like a statue, and whatever scanner this guy was using wasn’t picking up his player information. Yet he was still treating him like a player. Was this guy a game master? Maybe some of Vanna’s paranoia was rubbing off on him, but he didn’t want to drop his name if he could avoid it. “Uh, I received no penalty points from this altercation. I’m sorry, I’m having some difficulties with my interface. Are you a game master? I need assistance.”
The officer was still trying to scan him and seemed increasingly nervous. “Yes. I am a game master. Please remove your headgear and provide your name, player. Assistance cannot be provided until I have your name and likeness.” he insisted.
Now Cian was even more suspicious. If he really was a game master, he would have full access to his in-game name, real name, and any other information – he should even be able to pull up his vitals and see that something was wrong with his pod. And what the hell had happened to Gumbo?
At that thought, Gumbo suddenly jerked back to life. “ee game. Er, what? What was I saying again?” He paused to read something, and continued “Whoa, is this for real? A billion credit quest reward for offing one guy? Bonus quest! Freaking JACKPOT!”
The officer blanched and stepped away, talking quietly in his comm. The rest of the soldiers seemed confused.
“Are you okay? What are you talking about?” asked Cian.
Gumbo didn’t seem to hear. He quickly pulled three syringes out of his bag with his one arm, jabbed himself systematically in the leg, shoulder, and neck; then suddenly jumped at the soldiers. With a feral look on his face he barreled through and past them, going for his Gauss cannon that had been set aside nearby.
One of the soldiers fired at him, and everything went crazy. He took a few rounds to the chest, but kept moving – amped up by whatever combat drugs he had injected into himself. As soon as his hand wrapped around the rotary cannon he flipped the switch to cycle it up, pulling the trigger a split second later. He swung it around in an arc as it spit dozens of rounds. Several of the soldiers fired back, but most dove for cover.
Cian turned to run through the soldiers as a round pelted into the back of his helmet. Gumbo was firing full auto at Cian, tracking him as he ran through the crowd and hitting soldiers and civilians alike who got in the way.
The soldiers ignored Cian, trying to fan out and fire back at Gumbo without getting in the way of friendly fire. Their rounds were tearing Gumbo apart, but he just kept shooting. Bullets pinged off cybernetic implants in his head and chest, encasing his vital organs and spine. Others penetrated the metal, but failed to take him down.
As Cian ran, he saw Vanna motioning to him from one of the stores nearby and ran for it. She ducked inside to avoid the wild gunfire following him, and Cian used the last of his Willpower to boost his speed and dashed madly for the entrance.
Gumbo finally dropped to their sustained fire, and the Peacekeeper officer managed to get the soldiers attention. He shouted something about the fugitive escaping, and the soldiers turned their attention to Cian.
“Stop or die, player!” yelled the Peacekeeper officer at him.
Cian kept running, he was almost into the store.
The soldiers opened fire, sending white hot pain through Cian’s back and legs as the rounds tore through his armor.
Cian dove and slid into the store like a runner stealing home plate. A bullet pinged off his head mid-slide and his vision swam.
Vanna grabbed him and jerked him out of the line of fire, pulling him up and through the aisles at a frantic pace.
Cian’s health was falling rapidly and his sight was fading. Blood poured out of his back and down his legs. He channeled his Mend ability to try and stop the bleeding as Vanna drug him along, but that put him at negative Willpower and only made his vision blur more. Still he kept channeling, going deeper and deeper into negative Willpower but keeping himself moving.
They turned down an aisle near the back of the store and the man whose child Cian had healed earlier was waiting, holding open a hidden hatch and beckoning for them to come.
Cian stumbled down the steps into the hidden basement of the store, then fell down.
“Is he dead?” a timid child’s voice asked.
“No, help me move him!” said Vanna.
“He will be if we don’t get him help!” said a woman’s voice.
The last thing Cian saw was the worried face of the mother of the child he had healed.