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1000

Today I've become the Death and the Death have become me.

This happens sometimes.

I cross "Labyrinth"'s levels almost without hiding, shooting the monsters and passing the other players. The players try to avoid me too. Except those who feel offended since yesterday or consider themselves heroes.

Those I kill.

I was killed myself twice too. At the first time I've lost all my weapons and was thrown back to the beginning of the 19th, the water level. The whole team had worked here, at least 20 people, I can't imagine what "Labyrinth"'s servers manage to coordinate actions of such a crowd.

I feel offended and kill them all, one by one, catching them in the swampy growth that covers the city's water reservoir, diving and dragging them under water where I could survive longer than any of them because of leaving virtuality. To the last of them, it was Tolik if I'm not mistaken, I cut the throat with the razor sharp leaf of the alien sedge. This is something new in "Labyrinth"'s program the possibility to use improvised means.

Then I gather their gear and proceed forward.

On the 24th level, this is the bridge that connects industrial and residential blocks of the Twilight City, Alex catches up with me.

I'm finishing passing the bridge, the procedure that mostly requires the sense of balance and strong nerves than the ability to shoot well. Fortunately, I have the method proved back on the hair bridge of Al-Kabar.

The explosion bangs before me when I jump from the last slab that hangs over the chasm. The fiery whirl blossoms on the bridge, I'm thrown against the concrete parapet by the explosion blast.

Alex stands at the beginning of the level. When I look in the binoculars found in the main cache of the 20th level, I manage to examine him better. He has just a minimal gear a carbine, a rocket launcher and a couple of first-aid kits.

Gunslinger! he shouts and waves his hand.

He has plenty of loads but doesn't shoot. I don't either.

I'll make you pal! he shouts, Do you hear me? You're dead!

He follows me from the very first level and almost manages to catch up. Maybe he's a diver too, one more candidate for the Medal? My nerves start failing me, I leave the deep, catch Alex in the sight's mesh and launch three rockets one by one.

Somehow he manages to evade them and explosions thunder behind his back, ripping into pieces some poor guy who just have entered the level. Alex is stunned too though, he squats and shakes his head trying to rise. I aim the launcher again but then lower it. The anger have passed.

Cool down, you lamer! I shout throwing the launcher behind my back and leave the level. If he's not a diver, he'll get stuck on the bridge for quite long.

The monsters get to use me well on the 31st level. It's at least a couple of hundreds of them here, beginning with the weak and dumb mutants and ending with the scum flying, jumping and digging into the ground and asphalt.

I'm standing at the beginning of the level for approximately seven minutes this is the skyscraper's lobby and shoot the cheerfully gathering monsters. Carbine shells are over as well as the rockets. I throw away the useless weapons. I'm being wounded twice and have to use several first-aid kits.

The lobby's window cracks and the half transparent muzzle shoves inside. Other monsters keep running in.

I take the plasma gun from my shoulder and open fire. I have lots of energy cells, so far saving the most powerful weapon available.

The level is burning. Blue lightning bolts of my shots ruin the storeys together with monsters and other players. I burn the whole block down to the ground.

The monsters calm down. I move through the wreckage.

Several attacks more, much weaker this time.

I leave the level being empty. Very, very nasty level. The monsters are far less smart than the people despite any programmers' efforts, but they suppress by their numbers.

I was instantly killed on the 32nd level. There was a guy with winchester at the entrance and he shot me point-blank. I don't have any ammunition, I try to run towards my enemy to beat him to death with brass-knuckles, but three bullets in a row blast the remains of life out of me.

I begin the level again from scratch, without the armor and with just a single gun, as usual.

Blacked out with rage, I shoot the bastard approaching him is zig-zags, he drops his winchester and falls backwards. I start hitting his head against the asphalt, with each blow shaking out one percent of strength. He doesn't even defend himself, just mumbling cheerfully:

I killed Gunslinger! I killed Gunslinger

I take all his weapons he had too little unfortunately, and leave the half dead idiot for the monsters to lacerate.

The good thing is, this level "shopping mall" is pretty easy, a little break for those who survived the 'mincer' of the previous one. It's long rows of supermarkets and small shops if one doesn't go too far into them, there's no particular danger.

I obtain the carbine, the rocket launcher, the armor vest and some ammo. Then, not getting into fights, I proceed to the exit.

To Unfortunate damn him.

When I enter the Disneyland (the blood stained doll and a pile of little bones by the cheerful entrance), I start thinking that Unfortunate could have been saved already. This would be funny.

But Unfortunate is still here.

I look around for some time to remember the surroundings. When I passed "Labyrinth" for the last time, this amusement park was not here. The 33rd level was unpleasant but quite standard.

Unfortunate sits by the fence of "Russian Hills", huddled up I still prefer to call them "American Hills". From one side he's covered by the elegant booth with the ride control mechanisms, from the other by the wall that encircles all "Disneyland". A comfortable place, it's impossible to stalk him unnoticed. I would hide here too.

But not for so long anyway, not for more than two days.

I approach Unfortunate openly, raising empty hands. He doesn't react. Maybe he's sleeping.

Maybe he's dead.

Death in virtuality is quite an unpleasant thing. I saw one such corpse the most horrible thing was that it was "alive" continued to walk along the street, colliding with passers by, shaking, repeating last convulsions of its unlucky owner. He was shut down manually, after two hours of his channel tracing. Nasty thing is it the dead body walking in the street

But Unfortunate shivers and raises his head.

Privet! I shout Hello! Ne strelyaj! Don't shoot!

He doesn't answer, but doesn't rise the gun from his knees either.

I came to help you! I hear the rustle behind my back and turn around. Some guy with the plasma gun looks at me in shock.

I wave my finger at him and nod go on.

It's not necessary to convince him, he recognized Gunslinger and is not very eager to compete in keenness.

Let's talk! I say approaching Unfortunate, Okay? I'm your friend! Go steady!

Looks like he doesn't want anything, neither to befriend, nor to shoot me.

I squat by his side, outstretch my hand and carefully take the gun from him. He doesn't resist.

Do you understand me? I almost shout. And Unfortunate condescends to answer.

His lips move and I more guess than hear: "Yes" { in this case in Russian } At least something. The compatriot

Are you here for long? I ask carefully. Interesting, have he lost the sense of time already?

He nods. At least this he does understand.

Is your timer on?

No reaction.

I shake his shoulder and repeat:

Did you turn the timer on? Is the timer on?

Unfortunate shakes his head. Uh-oh. The worst case. I turn around most likely Guillermo watches me, and shout:

You see? He can't exit by himself! Trace his channel!

I don't quite believe in the success of this though. Thus, I'll have to drag Unfortunate to the end of the level and convince or force him to push the exit button there.

Though, it's nothing impossible in this.

Now we'll stand up and go, I say softly, as if talking to the little kid. Although, he surely might be one who managed to seize upon the desired toy in his parents' absence. This happened before. Can you walk?

An unsure nod.

Let's rest, I understand that I talk nonsense, Unfortunate 'rests' here for more than 30 hours already but I go on: We'll rest, eat and go forward. There'll be nothing terrible anymore. I'll lead you.

I take off my mask-helmet, the air is clean enough on this level and open the package with food. I give him a huge sandwich and a can of soda. The virtual food won't help his body but will give him a fake vivacity in the deep.

I take a bite, chew and look at Unfortunate. He just sits with the sandwich in his hand.

Yeah. A hard case. I wish I came here a day earlier.

Eat, I urge him. I outstretch my hand and take his mask off. The red oval from the respirator stays on his face. Otherwise, it's a pretty nice face, a normal, not a standard one: the blond young guy, just his eyes are tired and dim. Come on! I encourage him.

He raises the sandwich to his mouth and starts chewing slowly. Good. A piece for Mommy, a piece for Daddy, a piece for Uncle Diver Maybe he's really just a little kid?

My name is Gunslinger. What's yours? I ask. He doesn't answer, too busy with his food. How old are you?

The last question is a serious offence. Everyone is equal in virtuality. If he has at least a little experience in Deeptown life, he'll certainly answer Oh, HOW will he answer!

But he's silent.

Hard work is ahead.

Well, the prize isn't small either. I wouldn't ever exchange it for precious "Labyrinth"'s half a million. It's impossible to buy the Medal of Complete License a single case like this would immediately ruin it's value.

Feel better? I ask Unfortunate. He nods. Very good. Stand up.

He raises submissively and I return him his gun. This is not more than just a symbolic weapon on 33rd level, but at least he'll feel himself more confident. I really want to believe in this.

And now let's go, calmly and confidently.

I'm an idiot.

I forgot about the 'grabber' demon around the corner, forgot how Guillermo demonstrated it to me. I walk along the "American Hill"'s fence, stepping like in the parade.

And surely the demon grabs me cheerfully with his long hand, rakes me up and raises into the air. The demon looks like a stomp, covered with tentacles baobab's stomp most likely. The toothy mouth is in the center of it, strong seven fingered paw grows from the butt, now turning me over in the air, kneading, turning me into an accurate, one-bite meatball.

The Unfortunate's gun whispers: "Tak-tak-tak", shooting the charger out at the monster.

Hanging in the air, I have time to be amazed by his strange posture: the body bent forward, his shoulders drawn back, the gun is in outstretched left hand.

It's impossible to kill the demon with this weapon.

But the paw suddenly stops breaking my ribs, weakens and I fall from the three meters height right down into the greedily opened gob.

To my great luck, the monster can't chew and swallow anymore. I scramble out of the stinking hole trying not to look at the teeth at least ten centimeters long. There are shreds of clothes on them. Not mine.

I'm covered with saliva and it hisses on my armor vest. I wipe myself with tufts of yellow dry grass, then pad to Unfortunate. He's relaxed, sluggish and barely alive again.

It appears so

Thanks, I mutter, press the first-aid kit to the hand, it clicks injecting the medications and disintegrates. Pretty well was I crumpled.

You're welcome, Unfortunate says quietly but clearly. Though, this name doesn't quite fit him anymore. To kill the demon with a gun!

Theoretically it's possible though. "Labyrinth"'s creators declared many times that one can kill any monster with a gun or even by the brass-knuckles. Theoretically. If one knows one single super-vulnerable point on the monster's body.

But I haven't heard about such deeds yet.

I drop the winchester from my shoulder and give it to Unfortunate. He takes the weapon melancholically.

I'm armed with the launcher. It's only four loads there, but we'll try to get more now.

What is your name? I ask.

No answer.

What the hell let you be Unfortunate then.

"Disneyland" is made beautifully. I Dunn whether it copies any real park or only embodies the fantasy of game designers. But the monsters riding the view wheel, throwing the fireballs at each other must have been born in somebody's sick mind. The sight is so amusing that I look at it for a couple of minutes before shooting a rocket at the wheel's pivot. Explosion and it falls on it's side slowly. Debris flies at least 20 meters high.

I look at Unfortunate askance: will he appreciate the show?

Not in a freaking bit.

Let's go, I growl. Looks like I start to get used to my silent companion.

We pass the water rides. There's blood in the pools instead of water. Some boats sliding along the purple smooth are filled with sitting skeletons, others are empty. The nasty shrilling screech is heard mechanisms were not made to work in this type of liquid.

Disgusting.

And over there the whole family of mutants: two adults and three little ones in bright flower patterned dresses, made themselves comfortable for the picnic. On the small gas stove they fry a piece of leg in leather boot. I waste one more rocket. They don't even try to run: those are not a fighter monsters but ones created just to pump up the dread.

I wish I could find the one who created all this vileness and kick his ass. Not in virtuality.

We'll soon be there, I say to Unfortunate. You do pretty good.

He nods, as if with slight gratitude. Why did "Labyrinth"'s divers waste so much time?

The guy proceeds great.

Together we deflect the attack of the flock of petty flying monsters. Unfortunate shoots sparingly and keenly, leather wings break, clumsy bodies fall down and burst.

Let's go, I say.

It's only by the big concrete field with small cars sliding along it where the little delay happens.

There's a little kid in one of the cars, a little black boy. He steers trying to dodge from three mutants that drive him across the field with screeching laughter. Once the kid passes close to the fence glancing at us with utter terror.

Unfortunate raises his carbine.

This is not a player, I explain tiredly. This is a part of the program. Some bonus points. You rescue the child, take him to the safe place and get some weapon or an armor as a bonus. Let's go, no need to waste the time.

But Unfortunate had obviously lost the contact with reality completely. He starts shooting.

Three shots three mutants. They try to fight back throwing fireballs at us but Unfortunate is quicker and much more keen.

The giant spider crawls out from somewhere attracted by shooting sounds and starts pouring on us the bursts from the machine gun implanted into his muzzle. I have to meddle. Two rockets under the cat's tail { wasted. ;-P } more precisely: under the spider's mandibles.

The silence falls, just the kid who have got out of the car squats and cries.

Let's go, I decide. Now nothing is left but to bring the kid to the shelter and take the well earned ammunition.

We walk through the fence torn by machine gun fire and pad to the boy. I lag slightly, pick at the spider's remains with my foot trying to figure out whether it's possible to use his machine gun.

Slime, chitin and iron debris. Nothing to look for.

Unfortunate approaches me holding the kid in his hands carefully and I feel sympathy to him involuntarily. He's a fool, turned off the timer and got lost in the deep, but he's a nice guy after all.

Where are your parents? I ask the boy hoping that the proggy is not too complicated and I won't have to waste the time for persuasion and care. The boy silently points at the building nearby. Thanks God

We approach the building, I keep the launcher ready, Unfortunate is not battle-worthy.

The entrance looks suspicious to me, the door is torn from its hinges and screeches, even if there's no wind. Behind it is full darkness. Windows are covered with blue moss from inside.

There? I ask. The boy nods. I raise my foot above the threshold.

I'm sorry the boy whispers clearly, they said that they'll let Mommy go if I

In the last instant I manage to jump back and the jet of fire misses me. Something is heavily moving inside the building and rolls on the floor. I launch my last rocket in there.

An explosion bangs, but sounds only become louder after it. The boy screams, breaks free from Unfortunate's hands who tries to hold him, but the kid scratches his face, slips down and rushes into the door.

Mommy!!! his thin scream can be heard followed by the muffled champ and the silence falls.

What a nice walk for beer it was I mumble dragging Unfortunate by the shoulder out from the building. He seems to be ready to storm inside after the boy, right into the welcoming gob of the unknown monster.

Why? he whispers, turning to me, Why did he do this?

It's useless to explain him the logic of "Labyrinth"'s creators, he obviously takes everything what's going on seriously.

They forced the boy to lure the passers by into the ambush, I say,

They threatened to kill his mother. That's why he submitted.

Unfortunate stays quite for some time as if thinking over my words. Then asks:

And why did he rush inside?

At least now my ward have become a little more talkative.

He was afraid for his mother.

We need to help them, says Unfortunate gripping the carbine more comfortably.

He's definitely ready to crawl even in the devil's gob.

They're already dead! I shout, They have perished, believe me!

He believes and lowers the weapon. Thanks God he doesn't insist on revenge for the poor kid.

We go further.

I have an empty launcher, the Unfortunate's winchester has 10 loads at the most. Aren't we armed great? What a beautiful walk.. And when I notice the guy standing in some 100 meters from us with the corner of my eye, my mood becomes even more lousy.

Knock him off, I command. Unfortunate turns to me in surprise.

Why?

Sure. If he believes in reality of events he would never shoot at people. What a nice guy.

Give me the weapon! I insist, looking at the stranger intently. Is it Alex or not? Gee, how I need my binoculars now

No! says Unfortunate firmly and hides the winchester behind his back.

I even don't want to argue with him, I just stand and watch the alien. He studies us too for some time, then steps behind the building's corner and vanishes.

Looks like it wasn't Alex.

Let's go, my grief you

In half an hour our situation improves a little. The purple clouds in the sky disappear opening the evil Southern sun. We're almost near the exit from Disneyland. Unfortunate managed to deflect the attack of two spider-like monsters, I find the loads for the launcher and the plasma gun with one energy cell. The life becomes better.

We take a break in the shade of the ruined pizzeria. This time I don't have to ask Unfortunate to eat. He chews the last sandwich very concentrated, I watch him. I don't need food, but at least he could offer to share it, lamer

Why did you want to kill that man? asks Unfortunate.

I don't dare to tell him that his gear would be useful for us.

He could attack us.

No. Dick is good.

Dick?

Yes. He tried to help me. This morning.

My brains screech in strain.

So, one of "Labyrinth"'s divers watches us? Without interference, without offering help. All this is odd.

Is Anatol good too? I launch a probe.

Unfortunate shakes his head energetically, but doesn't try to explain the reasons for his dislike towards the second diver.

What about me? this becomes interesting. Unfortunate stops chewing and thinks.

I don't know yet, he concludes. Then adds in apologetic tone, Most likely, good.

It's better not to stop the talk. I carefully take Unfortunate's hand and say:

Do you understand that everything around is virtual reality?

Yes.

Perfect. This is half of success.

Hey kid What is your name?

I can't say, he confesses with obvious regret.

Are you sure?

I can't.

Kid, you're in virtuality for one and a half day already. this is much, very much. Your body is tired, it requires rest, food, water

I really hope that my voice sounds insinuatingly, like hypnotizer's.

I need to exit, he agrees.

I'll help you, I promise again, We're already close. but if something goes wrong, it'll be easier to help you by other means.

Unfortunate swallows the remains of sandwich and looks at me questionably.

Tell me your Net address, I ask, "Labyrinth" will inform your providers, they will send a guy who will eject you from the deep manually. There's nothing shameful in this, I swear, it can happen to anybody.

No, this is impossible.

Listen to me If you are so shy about what happened, or fear something I'll personally come to you. Wherever you might be. I'm a private party. I don't care about "Labyrinth". I just want to solve your problem! Do you believe me?

Yes.

Then tell me the address for a moment I think that I've won. I'm really ready to jump out of the deep, to buy the plane ticket and go to Unfortunate's home, even to the Sakhalin [Island] or to Magadan.

No.

Annoyed, I hit the wall and hurt the finger bones.

Then stand up! I command.

The exit from Disneyland is made inside the mirror labyrinth. The labyrinth inside "Labyrinth" I start feeling dizzy imagining this inclusion of virtual spaces.

Okay I say when we pass the stone statue of the moustached old man with the pile of some sort of ad brochures in granite fingers. The statue watches exiting players sadly. I'll go in front of you. You'll keep close behind, okay? And try to notice the enemy first, you have keen eyes.

All right, says Unfortunate.

We enter the mirror labyrinth. In the beginning it's just a corridor with mirror walls, then it begins to branch, alternating with columns and I lose orientation completely. There's ten pairs of divers and Unfortunates around me. The world breaks into pieces, rotates and flows.

Shit.

It's absolutely different from the mirror labyrinths they like to show in cheap sci-fi movie tales. It's impossible to confuse reality and illusion, no matter how directors try.

Here it's no difference.

I think about leaving the deep, though it'll not help: the detailed illusion will be replaced with the schematic one, that's all.

Careful, Unfortunate! I warn, mechanically calling him by the name invented by Guillermo.

He doesn't protest.

We wander in the labyrinth for twenty minutes and finally enter the big hall.

It's a mirror one also: 13-edge prism. Computers are installed along the walls. It's the exit!

And just under the ceiling there are small balconies where monsters stand in pairs. I haven't seen those before big bulging eyes, long hands holding carbines firmly, scaly bodies.

Except this, they're quite human-like.

Get back! I shout, and Unfortunate seems to try to jump back into the mirror corridor.

But at this moment monsters open fire.

Bullets pierce the mirror floor, sharp needles stick into my body. I shoot at random at one of the balconies, clearly understanding that only one of them is real, all others are just reflections.

The fiery whirl, the hall overcasts with a smoke. The shots are thundering, my right hand is wounded, I jerk with pain, throw the heavy tube of the launcher at the left shoulder. I don't even have time to exit virtuality.

And Unfortunate rushes back.

We stand side by side, shooting at the damned mirrors and they shatter with mocking jingle. I'm wounded one more time, scream but continue shooting.

The last rocket doesn't find its aim too, I throw the launcher up, at one of the still intact balconies, hit it the glass! grab the plasma gun and make the hard choice between the last two targets.

Wrong choice.

The blue fiery blast hits the dimming mirror.

The energy cell is empty.

One of the monsters is dead, either hit by the shot or just badly cut by the shattering glass. But the second one continues shooting. His carbine is aimed straight at me and he hits the trigger.

Unfortunate covers me with his body.

The whole volley hits him and he sinks down. The monster recharges his carbine, quickly, with experience. and I stand frozen, unable to comprehend what happened. And anyway, I don't have anything to answer with, I don't have any loads.

The shot thunders right above my shoulder, deafening me. The fiery sphere flashes on the balcony, burning the monster down to ashes, splashing tenacious threads of charges in all directions trying to find any other target.

BFG-9000.

The weapon that I failed to get in my hurry rush through the levels.

I even don't look who was shooting and bend down to Unfortunate.

His face is a bloody mask, the chest is torn by the bullets but he's still alive five farewell seconds given by the game.

Reflection he whispers.

I wipe the blood from his face and rise.

The husky guy in full armor stands behind me, weapons hang on him like ornaments on the Xmas tree. His face is dry and calm, breathing filter pulled down on his chin.

It's hard to kill the Alien Prince's escort guards. he says. The voice is quiet but one can feel boiling emotions under this calmness.

You're the diver I say.

You too.

The armored giant doesn't look like the guy who was watching us before.

Anatol'?

He nods and I remember divers' courtesy rules.

Leonid, I introduce myself.

"Labyrinth"'s diver nods, throwing the bulky "BFG-9000" on his shoulder.

Most likely we had met at some gathering, he just was in some other body, as well as I was though.

Anatol' pads to the Unfortunate's body, looks into his face and nods again.

As always.

He slightly kicks him as if making sure that Unfortunate is really dead.

And then I hit him on the face, hit so hard that Anatol is thrown against the wall.


| Labyrinth of reflections | c