Virtual Ghosts by Adam Gaylord [sci-fi]

Virtual Ghosts by Adam Gaylord

They crouched low, plasma cannon fire raking across the other side of the barricade. Dust and bits of concrete rained down as Dylan took stock of what was left of his troop. They’d lost Williams in the scramble, so they were down to four. And Rodriguez was in bad shape. She sat hunched against the half-wall cradling a rifle in her good arm, the other hung limp by her side, blood dripping off her fingers onto the blacktop. He duck-walked over and took the rifle, handing her a pistol instead. She barely reacted. He motioned her ahead, silently directing her around the far end of the barricade. Without hesitation, she scrambled into the street, pistol at the ready.

Dylan counted, “3…2…1…”

Rodriguez spasmed as bolts of white hot plasma tore through her body. He stood and brought her rifle to bear, dispatching the trio of distracted aliens with three short bursts. The last of the bug-like creatures hit the ground just as Rodriguez did.

An uneasy silence settled over the street. Wisps of smoke rose from Rodriguez’s broken form as he walked over and crouched by her side. He wondered if somewhere out there, someone was fighting to be with her—maybe a brother or a boyfriend. The notion filled him with pity, both for this possible unknown soldier and for himself, so he set it aside. He picked up what remained of her ammunition: only one grenade and half a clip of shells. It would be enough. There wasn’t much further to go.

He signaled Jenkins and Knox, the two remaining soldiers, forward toward the center of the city and the alien hive. His official mission was to find and destroy the Queen, the alien leader whose bulbous abdomen’s prodigious production threatened mankind. All other attempts had failed. He and his troop were humanity’s last chance.

Dylan couldn’t care less. He had his own mission, his own queen to find.

Their approach was largely uneventful. Dylan dispatched a handful of alien grunts and Knox took a little plasma scoring. His face was pretty messed up, but he trudged along without comment. That’s what his unit did. They fought, lived, and died according to Dylan’s orders. And they did so without complaint. It was their place. It was what they were for.

They crested a hill and Dylan’s heart raced as his objective finally came into view: an unassuming building reduced mostly to rubble, just one among hundreds in what used to be New York City. She waited for him there. He knew it as certain as he knew he couldn’t save her.

He halted in the middle of the debris-strewn street, Knox and Jenkins crouched behind him, weapons raised as they nervously scanned the roofline for snipers. Dylan just stared ahead into nothingness, the world around him fading like an old memory.

“What am I doing?” he asked no one, panting with effort that had nothing to do with the grueling pace of war. “Am I really going to put myself through this again? Why?” he growled. “What’s the point?”

A woman’s scream sliced through the silence and Dylan’s doubt. He found himself running toward its source, back in the moment, back to his mission, his angst forgotten. Weapons fire echoed around the canyon of crumbling buildings, the sharp report of rifles mixing with the high shriek of plasma pistols. And all the while, the horrified scream repeated, filling the moments between barrages with terror.

He cleared an overturned bus, his troop right behind him, and found the remains of the third battalion trading fire with five times as many alien grunts across a battered causeway. The few remaining humans fought valiantly, but even as he approached, two more fell. The grunts had them pinned down with a pair of tripod-mounted plasma cannons.

“Flanking maneuver! Concentrate fire on those gunners! Take ‘em out!”

Jenkins and Knox took up positions behind the shell of a burned-out car and Dylan engaged his plasma shield, one of the pieces of alien hardware he’d picked up along the way. The shield would repel plasma pistol fire for a short while, but if the grunts got those cannons turned, he was toast. He charged forward: “Now!”

His troop unleashed on the gunners, several falling before the rest could figure out from where the new attack was coming. Dylan closed the distance quickly, but it was only a few steps before the aliens had recovered enough to return fire, plasma bolts hissing off the shield. Jenkins and Knox dropped two more gunners, but were forced to take cover as the aliens unleashed their own barrage. Fallen gunners were quickly replaced and the cannons swung around to meet Dylan just as he hurled Rodriguez’s grenade into the nest. He dove forward, pulling the shield over his back like a tortoise shell. A blue-hued fireball raked over him, the force of the explosion amplified by the detonation of the plasma cannons.

The battle dissolved into chaos. With the cannons destroyed, the spine of the alien force was broken, but there were still enough grunts for the death throws to be agonizing. And, no doubt, reinforcements were on their way. Bullets and plasma shrieked overhead as Dylan belly-crawled toward the alien position, the shield quaking with every impact, its protective energy nearly spent. He glanced back just in time to see Jenkins take a plasma bolt to the teeth. “Dammit,” he growled. Jenkins body hadn’t hit the ground before Dylan’s shield failed with an orange flash. He rolled to his right and curled up behind a low pile of rocks, plasma scoring the ground mere inches from his feet.

He was trapped. All he could do was cower and listen, hoping enough soldiers remained to finish the grunts before their friends arrived. Out of the fight, the woman’s terrified screams once again filled his ears. “I’m coming!” he called back. “I’m coming!”

Slowly, the firefight abated, the ratio of rifle fire increasing over plasma pistols. The soldiers were winning, at least for the moment. Dylan chanced a glance over his minimal shelter and saw that only three grunts remained. He lay on his back and raised his rifle, emptying a clip in the alien’s general direction. Not one round hit its target, but the tactic did just what Dylan had intended, distracting the grunts enough for the soldiers to pick them off in quick succession.

Silence reigned over the street for only a brief moment before the scream tore it asunder. Dylan scurried toward its source, pushing past a soldier ranting about the massive force closing on their position. “Holly!” he called out. “Holly, I’m coming!”

He found her as he knew he would, dust-caked and sitting on the ground in a cove of rubble, her knees hugged to her chest, her blond hair tangled and clinging to her tear-streaked face, her rifle lying with a full clip a few feet away. She rocked back and forth, her scream dissolving into babbled speech. “I can’t go on. I’m sorry. I’m too scared. I can’t go on. I’m sorry.” She repeated over and over, her pleading in rhythm with her rocking.

He crouched, gazing deeply into sky-blue eyes that looked right through him. “I know, baby. It’s okay. You don’t have to. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” He wanted so badly to throw down his weapon and hold her, to take her into his arms and never let go. But he couldn’t, and he knew it.

He waved over the two remaining soldiers of the third battalion, Knox following with a limp.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” one soldier pleaded.

Dylan ignored him. “You, there. You, there.” He positioned the soldiers on either side of the entrance to the cove. “Knox, you’re with me.” Without a word, the last of his troop hobbled over and positioned themselves between them and the approaching danger. “Please, just give us as much time as you can,” Dylan asked in a low voice, his eyes never leaving Holly’s. Knox didn’t react, his rifle trained on the opening to the cove.

A barely perceptible hum tickled the air. Knox cocked his head and the soldiers traded glances, but Dylan ignored it, lost in Holly’s eyes. The hum steadily intensified to a low rumble, then an insistent roar. It wasn’t until the bits of concrete that littered the ground started to tremble that Dylan reacted. They were out of time.

“Holly, baby, I’m sorry.” His words and her pleading barely audible over the din. “I miss you so much. I’m so alone and it’s all my fault. I’m so sorry.”

Holly just kept rocking, just kept pleading. The noise was deafening now, a cacophony of marching feet, rolling treads, crunching concrete, and alien battle cries.

And then, suddenly and for just a moment, all was silent. Holly’s pleading cut off, her eyes wide with fear. The approaching force stopped, having settled into attack position. The world paused and, for just a moment, they were alone. It was just he and his wife, together like they had once been, like they should be.

Then the air around them blazed with plasma fire.

Knox fell almost immediately. Then one of the soldiers. Then the other. Holly screamed as plasma bolts pounded into his back, the force knocking him to the ground. As his vision faded he saw Holly join him in the dirt, her face turned his way, her beautiful blue eyes staring blankly ahead.

“Holly, I’m sorry!” he screamed. “Holly! Holly, no!”

Still screaming, Dylan tore the Virtual Reality goggles off his head, chucking them across the room where they hit the wall with a loud crack. He sent an empty whiskey bottle shattering after them, then a lamp, then whatever else he could get his hands on until he ran out of things to throw. He collapsed back onto the couch, his eyes coming to rest on the only object to survive his fury: a delicate silver picture frame resting on the center of the coffee table. A happy couple looked back at him, the groom handsome in his tux—even though the rental’s sleeves had been too short—the bride resplendent in her gown, an heirloom handed down from her grandmother. They looked so happy. Her sky-blue eyes sparkled. Spring flowers adorned her blonde hair.

Spring? He knew that outside the drawn curtains, the leaves of the maple they’d planted in the front yard were brilliant red. Had it been such a short time? He racked his brain, the whiskey fogging his memory.

He remembered her excitement when she got the callback. They’d practiced her lines for hours. When she came back from the audition dejected, he’d comforted her. But, it was a trick. She got the part, her first paying gig out of acting school, and with a major VR game producer, no less. He’d never been thrilled with the role. Her character was meant to be cautionary; a warning against succumbing to fear. To her, it was an opportunity to show off her range as an actor. To Dylan, it was the wrong part for the strongest woman he’d ever known. But he’d been smart enough to bite his tongue and be genuinely happy for her.

The night after the shoot, they’d gone out to celebrate. Her favorite restaurant, her favorite dish, and a couple bottles of wine later, he had insisted he could drive home. He never saw the stop sign, or the truck that barreled into the passenger’s side of their car. He’d come around to the screech of metal as paramedics cut them out of the car. Fading in and out of consciousness he’d tried to make them understand. Leave him. Help her. That’s all he’d wanted.

The rest was a series of snapshots, out of focus and out of order. Their car, the passenger side completely caved in. Police officers. The ceiling of an operating room. Her parents. A closed casket funeral. The paramedics pulling what was left of his wife from the wreckage.

The image of her broken form burned his mind’s eye. He scurried clumsily over to the pile of debris against the wall and dug out the VR goggles. An ugly crack marred the housing, but the goggles themselves seemed unharmed.

He needed to see her again, whole and beautiful. He put the goggles on and powered them up.

Words appeared before his eyes. “Start New Game?”

He shuddered, stumbling back to the couch. His hands groped blindly for the bottle he’d tucked between the couch cushions. He found it, removed the cap, took a long pull, and then set it carefully on the table.

Then he hit the Start button again.

 

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