The next day began early. Saidrin had everyone up before the crack of dawn, preparing weapons and supplies for the search for the enemy encampment, if it still existed. Alaiyna had not slept that night, and from the dark circles under both Saidrin and Ethan's eyes, she assumed they hadn't either. One deathly glare from Ethan gave her the answer. They had been up, discussing their brother.
She didn't blame Ethan for being angry with her for not telling him. She had been following procedure, yes, but that didn't take away the fact that this was information concerning a missing loved one. She shot him an apologetic look, knowing it wouldn't do anything. She wasn't heartless, she just couldn't bring her heart into this if she was going to succeed. After all, she had lost loved ones in here too. But, unlike her captain and his brother, she did not have the chance of finding out what happened to them like they did.
She quickly made her rounds of the group to ensure they were doing what they were supposed to, then headed to the table where Saidrin was pouring over maps showing the layout of the city.
"How accurate are these?" she asked, moving beside him.
"I'm not sure. They're from my brother's mission; they were the last living team to be through here." He grabbed a red marker from the table and drew a big circle around one of the buildings. "This is where we are. I think. I can't know for sure, but I cross referenced these maps with the information gathered when we flew in last night. Unless the layout of the city has changed drastically since the map was drawn, this is our starting point."
Alaiyna looked over the map and sighed. The city was massive. It could have easily been New York with the size of it. "Where do we begin?" she muttered, half to herself. She turned and looked at Saidrin. "This is a ridiculous amount of space to cover… I hope you're not in a hurry to get this mission over with."
Saidrin took a deep breath. "I know." A small crease appeared in his forehead, indicating the stress he was feeling. It was only the first day, he reminded himself, but he still couldn't help feeling a little overwhelmed. "We'll cover the far section of the city east of here today. See how much ground we can take in, and then use that to map out how much space we can cover after that." He ran a hand through his hair and glanced at Alaiyna. "You think we should split into two groups or stick together?"
"Stick together. At least for today, until we find out what kinds of things we might be facing. We stand a better chance fighting off attackers as a team." Alaiyna could hear the little voice of her conscience snickering. She paused, contemplating that snickering conscience. As a group, they were also sitting ducks. It was a tough call. "On second thought split up. We go as one big group, and we're going to be drawing a lot of unnecessary attention to ourselves. At least in two groups, we'll have smaller numbers."
Saidrin nodded and gave a grunt of acknowledgement, not looking up from the map.
Alaiyna watched Saidrin as he mulled it over for a moment, waiting to ask what the two teams would be. His decision, at least in her mind, would speak volumes about the strength or weakness of his true leadership skills. She already knew who should lead the second team – she and Ethan, but if Saidrin, out of fear of losing more family took Ethan to his own team, there would be issues. Not that she doubted his strength, but he had been awfully… quiet and contemplative since she had brought him Darrin's letter. Going from experience she knew, grief could take everyone only one of two ways – to losing their focus and strength, or to becoming more determined to move on and achieve whatever it is they were looking for.
"I will lead team A, I want you to take team B, Ethan will be your second in command," Saidrin said, the monotonous tone from the other day returning to his voice. "Any preference to who you take?"
Alaiyna hid a small smile. She would have nothing to worry about, as far as his leadership skills were concerned anyhow. "I think we should take Trina… I don't know how she managed to fool them at the academy that she was at least 17, but she seems to be a little frightened as reality dawns on her."
Saidrin nodded, glancing at her. "She seems to be forming quite an attachment to you Lieutenant… be careful."
I think the danger is more in me forming an attachment to her, Alaiyna thought, though did not bother voicing that to Saidrin. The girl was fast becoming like a younger sibling to Alaiyna – it had been so long since she'd had the opportunity to be an older sibling, and she found herself missing it. Trina was exactly the type of girl she had expected her sister would have been like, had she ever had one. Maybe it was that the young girl had the same personality and driven courage her brother had had.
"I know," she replied quietly, glancing over at Trina, who was at the moment being shown how to properly pack up her supply sack by Ethan. "I think though, we've more to fear from what could happen if instead she decides to alienate herself once she has seen just how bad it can get."
Silence was the only response Saidrin provided her. Either he agreed, or he wasn't even listening anymore. He stretched out his arms, linked his fingers together and cracked his knuckles, a habit he had developed during training. It helped give him that last moment to take a relaxing, deep breath before embarking on some difficult task.
"Okay, I want you to take Ethan, Trina and Justin. We've got an uneven amount of people, but you and Ethan are our two best fighters, so I will be left a little short-handed. Which is why I'm taking the other four."
Alaiyna felt a twinge of jealousy that once again, Zephyra would be at Saidrin's side. Not that she was developing any feelings for Saidrin, but she hated that the stereotypes of the gorgeous girls were always true. Not that she didn't consider herself pretty, but she knew compared to the beauty of a Greek goddess, she appeared to be rather simple. Add to that the brains and skills of Zephyra, and she knew that none of the men in their party would ever pay attention to her over that woman. She sighed, realizing the teenage-mindedness of the thoughts, and shoved them to the back of her mind. Jealousy had no place in the line of duty.
"How do you want to do this then? Are we going to keep an open line of communication between the two groups?"
Saidrin sighed and leaned against the wall, his arms resting behind his head. "I don't know. Damnit! If only we knew whether there was any danger, or the sophistication of the creatures we are looking out for, or any of that. An open line of communication could be dangerous if they're advanced enough to tap into radio signals. But on the other hand, without one… we're not going to even know if the other party is alive until we return."
"Maybe we should set up some check-in times so that we only communicate at those times very briefly, unless there is an emergency in-between those points."
"Agreed." Saidrin moved back to the table and picked up his marker. He drew two lines out from their starting point, and drew a large circle around each. "Those are the areas both teams will cover. I'll take the one to the left; your team will take the one to the right. We will check in every 2 hours, and meet back here at 0400 hours."
"Sounds good," Alaiyna replied. She picked up her compass off the table, and retraced Saidrin's circles and lines on her own map. "Let's get moving then."
With a nod from Saidrin, Alaiyna returned to the other team members. "Ethan, Trina, Justin; get your packs, we're searching together. The rest of you, get ready to leave with Saidrin." Without another glance in the other team members' direction, specifically avoiding looking at a certain team member, Alaiyna slung her pack over her shoulder and headed towards the door.
Saidrin was exiting the office as she passed, and he grabbed her hand. "Be careful, Alaiyna," he said softly.
As they began to move out, Alaiyna shook her head at the ridiculousness of such a request and response. It was always the same, whether or not someone intended to actually be careful, and the caution of the person never truly played any role in the outcome of the situation. Any caution she executed would not actually prevent them from being injured if that was what the lines of fate had set out for her team.
Trina pushed open the shipping bay door and glanced back at Alaiyna, waiting for the nod of approval before walking through.
"Make sure your guns are loaded and ready. We don't know what we're going to encounter out here," she told her team, removing the lock and checking her own ammo on her gun as she spoke.
Alaiyna braced herself for a blast of sunlight as she stepped through the door, but was surprised to find very little light. The sky was grey, void of any actual colour, and she was unsure what exactly was causing the dim light; it certainly wasn't the sun.
The scene that greeted them was not at all what she had expected. It reminded her of a scene from War of the Worlds, or any other movie where the earth was completely destroyed and left in ruins. Dust and debris were everywhere, and buildings were crumbling wherever they stood; only their strong foundations helping them to remain standing.
"What in the world happened here?" Trina asked, eyes wide.
"Probably the same thing that's happening in all the other games," Justin muttered, walking over to something he spotted on the ground.
Alaiyna craned her neck to see what it was, even though she knew he would show her. He picked it up and walked back to the group.
"Apparently this game simulated everything, including every day devices," Justin mused as he held up a Blackberry phone. The phone seemed primitive compared to what they actually used nowadays, but had been one of the more advanced devices at the beginning of the new millennia.
Justin pressed the power button, emitting what sounded like a delighted grunt as the device actually powered up. "Excellent," he said. "I might be able to figure out something about what happened, based on if the owner sent any information or anything prior to the destruction of the city."
"Good work," Alaiyna said, glancing back at the base for a moment. She pulled out her map, and looked around. "Alright team, lets' move out."
They walked for what seemed like hours, not talking much between them. As they moved through the city, they saw bodies upon bodies of scorched and mutilated humans, and destruction everywhere. It was like being stuck in a nightmare. Still, amongst everything, they had not yet found a single clue that could lead to what had happened.
There was a rustling sound from the rubble behind them and Alaiyna whipped around, drawing her gun and pointing it in the direction of the noise. She held completely still as a young woman grasping the hand of a boy, no older than four, emerged from behind the crumbling wall of an old convenience store.
The team stood in silence and watched as Alaiyna slowly lowered her gun. The boy had begun whimpering softly, clutching his mother's hand.
"Who are you?" Alaiyna asked, keeping her weapon out, but lowered just in case.
"My name is Sarah. This is my son, Pierre," the woman said, a tremble in her voice.
Alaiyna stepped forward cautiously, motioning for her team members to close in behind her. "What are you doing here?" It was probably a safe bet that these were two survivors, but one could never be too sure. It was safer to find out by asking, then to discover the hard way that these were in fact the very monsters to be afraid of.
Pierre was pale, shaking from cold and terror; his mother appeared as if she had not eaten a proper meal in ages. Her once blonde hair was now a grayish colour, probably from all the dust and debris everywhere. Still, if these were survivors, the age of the boy did not make sense.
The young woman glanced at Alaiyna's gun, and stepped forward, looking in between the group of people watching her and her son.
"I came here 12 years ago, with my high school boyfriend," she said quietly. "It was his graduation present to me… a day in the V-Centre."
Alaiyna nodded and holstered her gun. "And what's the story with the boy?" she asked, nodding towards Pierre.
"He was born four years ago… shortly after his father died."
"I'm sorry," Alaiyna replied. Although her heart swelled with sympathy, she tried to not let it show. Now was not the time to go soft. "My name is Alaiyna. We're part of an organization of militia rescue teams searching each and every game that was created. You can come with us back to our safe house; we'll hopefully be leaving here in a couple of days."
The boy moved closer to his mother. Sarah did not look convinced.
"You don't know what you're up against," she said slowly. "The team that came here before… we were going to seek their help, but they were destroyed before we could get to them." There was sadness in her voice, and it was clear that she was still shaken up by the event.
"Do you know what happened to them?"
"The same thing that happened to everyone else…" Sarah glanced down at her quivering son. "But I would rather not speak of it in front of Pierre. He comprehends a lot more than a child should."
"Ma'am, it's time to check in with Captain Saidrin's squad," Justin interrupted.
Alaiyna nodded respectfully at Sarah and turned to Justin to collect the walkie talkie. "Stay with Sarah and the boy." Without a backward glance, she headed across the street, and cautiously climbed over the rubble into another run down store.
"Alpha-leader, this is Bravo-leader, come in. Over."
"Come on…." Alaiyna muttered. "Alpha-leader, this is Bravo-leader. Come in, over."
Nothing but static again. This did not seem like a good time.
"Alpha-leader this is-"
"Alpha-leader here, I read you," Saidrin's voice. "No need to panic lieutenant."
Although there was a hint of teasing in his voice, Alaiyna found herself more irritated than amused. "I wasn't panicking. Found anything yet?"
"Funny you should ask."
She waited a moment, and found herself irritated that Saidrin was teasing yet again. "I thought we agreed to make this short."
"Alright, alright. Try to have a sense of humour lieutenant. We found ourselves a ship. Zephyra is working on getting it up and running now."
There was a pause. "Correction, she has it up and running. Elsie's pretty sure she can fly this thing. There's room enough for all of us on –"
"About that," Alaiyna cut him off. "We have two more passengers to add to that list."
"Yes sir. A young woman, and a four year old boy, born here. The father was killed prior to the boy's birth."
"Good job lieutenant. What's your location?"
"Four miles east of the base, on the main street. Amongst the rubble of what looks like might have once been the town centre."
"We should be there shortly. Over."
Alaiyna turned off the radio, and ran back over to the others. "They have a ship, and they'll be here shortly."
Ethan looked surprised. "They found a ship? One of ours?"
"I don't think so," Alaiyna replied, shaking her head. "He mentioned something about Elsie being sure she could fly it… meaning it's not familiar."
It was then that Sarah cleared her throat. "I don't think it's the wisest idea to fly a ship here… it will attract them."
All three team members looked at her quizzically.
"The creatures." Her voice was barely above a whisper. "They were not part of this game to begin with. It was a futuristic world war scenario game, which included warships designed after ships in movies such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But it wasn't long before they came. Creatures of everything you could ever imagine, evil to the bone. They killed everyone, and the war became real."
She paused, and pulled her son close. "The game's weapons did nothing to them, and the few that survived the attacks, tried to find a way to fight them. It wasn't long before most of the survivor's were captured."
Alaiyna listened, trying to convince herself this wasn't just some story out of a movie. But it was difficult. What this woman was saying did not seem as if it could be real. There was no such thing as demons and fairy-tale creatures.
"Five of us managed to find a place to hide underground, only coming out in search for food… but one by one, we were picked off. I can't tell you if there are any survivors remaining anywhere else in the city… however, my son and I are the last one's remaining of the five."
Ethan let out a deep breath. "If that's the case… we're going to have to modify that ship with our real world weapons if we want to stand any chance." He paused, glanced back at Alaiyna a moment, then spoke again. "Do you know anything of the last rescue team that came through here?"
Sarah nodded slowly. "They were killed immediately upon arrival. The creatures were waiting for them."