Bullets continued to hit their barricades and fly over their heads. A few people in the group screamed, helpless. Some still hadn’t even figured out how to use their Sphere and were defenseless.
Once Quin had Blair safely beside him, he tried to think up a plan. He closed his eyes and listened to the gunshots, trying to figure out where they were coming from. They seemed to be together. He noticed he’d forgotten to grab his free grenade, and he pulled his Sphere out and quickly retrieved it. There wasn’t enough material leftover in his sphere for anything else anyway. He pulled the pin on his grenade and listened one more time. He released the lever and let it cook in his hand for a few seconds. He threw it blindly, hoping he hit his target. The grenade exploded with a loud bang. Quin was stunned by the noise but quickly recovered. He pulled his pistol from its holster and stood up.
Jordan was quicker. She stood up first and shot the remaining two enemies in the chest with her assault rifle. They disintegrated into the white material that the simulation was made of. The third enemy was nowhere to be seen. After a quick look around the area, they assumed the grenade blast had gotten him.
“I think we’re clear,” Jordan said.
“Yeah, so what now?” Blair asked. She had holstered her pistol and now held a shotgun in her hands.
Everyone looked to Quin for an answer. He wasn’t sure why, he’d never stepped up in any way to be the leader. He just seemed to have some kind of energy that made people gravitate towards him.
“Okay, well…” Quin hesitated. “I guess we need to decide whether we go up or down. We also need to make sure we have a plan and roles for everyone: close range, snipers, stealth units, sentries, et cetera.” The more he spoke, the more confident he became. Everyone was listening to him and hanging on every word he said. “First thing, up or down? Show of hands for up.” He held his gun up in the air with one hand, pointing the barrel at the ceiling.
Slightly more than half the group raised their hands. There was no need to vote for down. He nodded. “Up it is,” he said. “Who hasn’t figured out their Sphere yet?”
Three people raised their hands, two men and a woman. “What are your names?”
“Lauren,” said the woman.
“Clyde,” said the first man.
“Kevin,” said the other.
“Timothy and Blair, go take everyone else and watch the entrances. Jordan and I will help these three get some weapons,” Quin said.
They did as they were told and split into groups to watch the doors. Quin and Jordan quickly taught the three people how to get their weapons. Hopefully they know how to work the weapons, Quin thought. There wasn’t time to teach them that.
Once they were armed, Quin called for everyone to gather again. “Okay, we are going to go up the stairwell that those three guys came through. Who doesn’t feel comfortable shooting a weapon?” he asked. Quin scanned the room for hands. Kevin and Clyde both raised their hands. “Perfect,” Quin said. “Access your Sphere like I showed you and purchase a ballistic shield. You can get rid of your big weapon and just keep the pistol. I need two more people to volunteer for shield duty.” Two more men raised their hands, one of whom was the one that Alice had been fighting with. He’d been quiet since she’d been eliminated. “Names?”
“Davontaye,” said Alice’s teammate.
“Barry,” said the other. He was large, but not in a muscular way. Quin hoped he wouldn’t slow them down, but he didn’t say anything. Maybe he would be fine. Quin was the last person to judge a book by its cover.
They also switched to shield and pistol. “Great. Next, shotguns. Who has one?” Blair and another girl raised their hands. “What’s your name?” Quin asked the other girl.
“Sam,” she said confidently. Sam was tall and looked strong. She had a blonde ponytail that hung neatly down to the middle of her back. She was a very pretty girl, but that just made her more intimidating.
“Okay, that’s great.” He noticed a girl in the back who he hadn’t yet addressed. He pointed to her. “What’s your name?”
“Niomi,” she said, barely loud enough to hear. She had olive skin that seemed to have no flaws, and she was very small. She carried a semi-automatic rifle just like Alice’s. It looked way too big for her. Hopefully she would be useful.
Quin nodded at her. “Okay, here’s the plan,” he said, addressing the whole group. “We are going to go up the stairs in twos. First will be two shields, side by side. Davontaye and Barry, that’s you. Behind them will be Blair with her shotgun. Keep your barrel up and sticking right between their shields,” Quin said. He gave her an apologetic look for bossing her around. She returned a quick smile to show him that she understood. She looked proud of him. “Behind her will be myself and Niomi with our rifles.”
Niomi clutched her rifle a little tighter at the mention of her name. Quin noticed her apprehension but continued. “We will have the same setup watching our rear, with Clyde and Kevin as the shields, Sam behind them, followed by Lauren and Jordan. In the middle will be Timothy. With the dual pistols, he should be able to easily support either side.” Quin winked at Timothy. “At least, if he knows how to use them.” Timothy gave him a smirk back.
“All right. Let’s move!” Quin yelled. They got into formation, then entered the stairwell.
The stairs were wide enough for them to easily file in by twos. Barry’s size made it a little tighter to fit with Davontaye, but they still managed to leave just enough room for Blair to squeeze her shotgun between their shields.
They moved up the stairs as quickly as possible. Quin had strategically put Barry in the front so he would set the pace. They could only go as fast as their slowest person. They skipped the next two floors and decided on the third floor from theirs, floor 20. There was no real reason to this decision, it just felt right. Davontaye slowly opened the door. As he did, there was a click, shortly followed by a loud explosion right on top of Davontaye. Everyone screamed, and then there was silence as they all waited for the dust to settle. It finally did, and Davontaye still stood where he was. He seemed more shocked than anyone that he was unhurt.
Inside the room they heard someone yell, “Seriously? It was a friendly. They ruined our trap!” His complaint was quickly followed by groans from the rest of his group. “Find your own floor!” he yelled.
Davontaye slowly closed the door, looking like he’d seen a ghost. Other than a few scratches from the debris, he looked fine.
“Are you okay?” Blair asked.
“I… I think so, yeah.” Davontaye touched his body all over, ensuring everything was still attached. Once he was done, he chuckled. “Cool.”
“Let’s keep moving then,” Quin said.
They moved up to the next floor. Before they opened its door, Quin told them the plan. “When we go in, Kevin and Clyde will swing around to form two identical groups. We will split up and clear the area. “Timothy, you’ll take cover by the door and guard it.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Timothy said.
Quin nodded to Davontaye, who opened the door, a bit more carefully this time. When he opened it, nothing happened, no shouts, no gunfire, nothing. They entered quickly and formed their two groups. This room was set up like a forest. Small trees rose to the ceiling, and green grass spread across the floor. The ceiling was fashioned to look like a sky. Birds chirped, bees buzzed, and the sound of a stream filled the room. None of those things could be seen; they were all just noise in the room. The groups separated and went to either side of the room. Timothy put his back against a tree and watched the door with both of his pistols held out in front of him.
After two minutes, they’d cleared the entire room and met back at the door. They filed back into their original lineup and exited. They made their way to the next floor. As they neared it, they heard footsteps running down the stairs above them. The shields were at the edge of a landing, everyone else on the stairs behind them.
“Hold,” Quin whispered.
Blair readied her shotgun. She was the only one in a position to do anything. Davontaye and Barry both pulled out their pistols and held their shields with one hand, putting their hips into it for support. The footsteps got nearer.
A group of four rushed down and stopped when they saw the group. Blair blasted her shotgun. It echoed through the whole staircase, making Quin’s ears ring. One of the guys disintegrated. Davontaye reached around and fired a shot with his pistol, striking one in the arm, but not eliminating him.
Now there were footsteps coming from below them. They were going to be surrounded.
Blair let off another shot, taking the leg off one of the enemies. He fell to the ground. He pulled out his gun and fired underneath Barry’s shield and shot him in the leg. There was a girl with them, and she saw the opportunity and kicked Barry’s shield. Barry fell backwards. His weight prevented anyone from holding him up, and he caused a domino effect. Blair was able to step out of the way, so Barry fell back onto Niomi. Timothy couldn’t step out of the way either and was knocked down along with Jordan and Clyde. With an opening presented, Quin didn’t miss a beat. He shot the injured man on the ground and the girl who’d kicked Barry. The last person aimed their barrel right at Quin. Quin realized he couldn’t turn his gun fast enough. That was it. He heard a gunshot and then saw a hole between the enemy’s eyes. He looked back to see Sam crouched with her shotgun hanging loose in one hand and her pistol in the other, pointed at where the last enemy had stood.
They hurried to help their comrades who had fallen down the stairs. Groans echoed through the stairwell. Barry was clutching his leg. Timothy and Jordan were already on their feet, prepared for the intruders coming from below. Clyde was a little bruised up but was quickly recovering. Where was Niomi? She couldn’t have gone far.
“Niomi?” Quin looked around. “Everyone set up facing down the stairs. Shoot anything that moves.” They heard a door open and close below them, followed by a lot of gunfire. The people below them must have entered floor 20.
Now that the threat was temporarily gone, Quin focused his attention back to Barry and saw a hand sticking out from underneath the big man’s back.
“Oh, my god,” Quin said. “Niomi!” Quin rushed to lift Barry’s body off of the girl. “Help, please, he’s on top of her.” Five people jumped in to help while the others kept watch. Even with six people, they struggled to lift him off. Niomi was lying on her back, no longer appearing to be in combat gear, just her grey suit. Both of her arms and legs were bent in the wrong directions. A bone was sticking out of her left knee. The right half of her rib cage seemed to be collapsed completely. Blood, real blood, slowly flowed out of her mouth, pooling onto the floor.
“Holy shit.” Lauren covered her nose and mouth. “Oh, god, she’s dead. Like, for real dead.”
Quin tried to calm everyone down before there was chaos. “Let’s go back to the forest room and regroup,” Quin said. “We have to leave her. Barry, can you walk?”
“I don’t think so, man. I think I’m out of this one,” he said. He paused for a moment. He accessed his Shell menu, and a few seconds later. his armor disappeared, leaving him in his own grey suit. “I’m going to get someone to come and get me here. You all get to safety. I’ll be good.” But he didn’t look good. He was fighting back tears.
Quin didn’t think it was from his leg, either. He looked devastated that he’d fallen on a girl and killed her. “It wasn’t your fault,” Quin said, trying to console him. “You did the best you could.”
“Yeah, right,” he said. “You guys should get going.” He stared straight up at the ceiling. He seemed to be in a daze.
The group went down the flight of stairs, back to the forest floor. Just as Quin was about to enter, he heard a scraping noise from where they left Barry. Quin turned and looked just in time to see Barry fling himself off the railing and fall between the staircases. The group heard every crash as Barry’s body hit the railings on the way down, eventually ending in a subtle smack that echoed loud enough for them to hear twenty-one stories up.