They were on the second floor when it happened.. The first floor had been easy.
As the elevator doors parted, Sherman bounded ahead of the team as if invincible. No one commented – a tank's gotta do. Darla and the others pushed their way out of the 'vator and followed him down the ugly orange and brown corridor.
“I think I know this map,” Rita remarked to no one in particular. “There are some offices on the left and a cafeteria further down on the right. The Jerx usually pounce from the cafeteria.”
She was right. There were no Jerx in the offices.
Sherman may have triggered an alarm. He had the mass of a refrigerator, and wore size twenty boots. He was good at some things, but sneaking up was not one of them. One thing he was good at was making any room or tunnel feel small. He loomed.
Five Jerx piled out of the cafeteria door and went for him with an assortment of blades and guns. He grinned at them and launched into action. Their slugs dented his body armor, but he swung one massive arm, knocking two Jerx off their feet and slamming them into the corridor's wall. The other arm punched straight through the body of a third Jerx, which was a slight problem – the body weighed down his arm for a second. He grunted, leaned on his right foot, and spun, whipping out the left in a kick that crushed the skull of another Jerx, and shook the impaled body off his arm. Four down.
Or was it? One of the first two Jerx to fall was getting up. Sam fried him with a quick fireball as the fifth Jerx re-thought his odds and fled down the corridor for backup.
“Craptastic,” muttered Rita. She preferred to take groups one at a time, but Sherman was one of those overconfident tanks who would fight the entire building just for the glory of it. She stretched out her hand and froze the fleeing Jerx to the floor while Sam finished off the recumbent Jerx with firebolts.
The frozen Jerx struggled in his block of ice, trying to reach the staircase in front of him. Sherman growled and swung a football-sized fist, shattering the ice with an ear-splitting KRACK! that sent chunks of ice and bad guy bouncing off the walls. A couple of fingers and a foot bounced in their encasing shards down the steps into a large open area.
Sherman charged down the steps roaring a battle cry. Darla rolled her eyes and glanced at Rita. “This is the bumpy part.”
There were four groups of MOBs in the large room. Stomping forward to meet a group, Sherman lumbered too close to another group and it got serious. By the time the others scrambled down the stairs, he had eight hostiles aggroed on him already.
Rita froze some of them, while Sam blasted the rest. By then Darla had her swords out and was whirling into a couple of them behind Sherman. She activated her Time Stretch and the room slowed down around her. She danced a lethal ballet, her blades flashing out to slice and dice. Rifling-spun bullets buzzed by like slow motion bumblebees. She twisted and spun, letting most pass by harmlessly, ignoring the mosquito bite impacts in her right shoulder and her left thigh. Her blades reached out for more hostiles.
Sam threw a fireball. Not the best attack in these close quarters. When it exploded part of its area-of-effect scorched the third group of Jerx and they joined the fun. Now the odds were fourteen to four, not so good.
Sherman yelled defiance and punched another Jerx off his feet. But he overdid it – the guy landed in the fourth group, and now the team was in trouble. In the last few seconds, they had eliminated four hostiles, but now Sherman was the center of a mass of maybe ten or twelve assailants. Even a tank can be overwhelmed.
Rita froze the baddies on Sherman and got their attention. Three of them jumped her and backed her into a corner. Sam kept blasting away as another three shot and stabbed him. But casters, the 'glass cannons' of gaming, are squishy and need to keep their distance. The Jerx crushed him at close range in seconds.
Time stretch ended. The action around Darla sped up with little warning. She tried to fight her way toward Sherman, health dropping with every second. Behind her Rita went down, riddled with shells from frosty and pissed Jerx.
Darla's swords slashed another Jerx as she fought forward, ignoring the impacts of more slugs. Now it was two against nine. Jerx howled, slashing and shooting in a frenzied froth of happy rage.
Darla's strength failed and she collapsed before she reached Sherman. He went on flailing gamely, but he fell a few moments later. The Jerx relaxed and prowled over the bodies of the defeated heroes.
“Well, that went well – not,” said Sam's voice.
“Anyone got a rez?” Sherman inquired. “We got half of them, so it shouldn't be as hard to clear the room now.”
“Sherman, how many times have I told you NOT to run down stairs without us?” Rita demanded. “You know stairs almost always mean a big room of hostiles.”
“Chill,” he advised. “We'd be fine if Sam hadn't aggroed a group.”
“Maybe,” Sam admitted. “But it didn't help when you punched a guy right into the fourth group. Last nail in our coffin, bro.”
“Boys, boys,” Darla sighed. “What do we do now?”
“We resurrect and keep going,” said Sherman.
“Not me,” said Rita. “I've got an exam tomorrow. Sorry, guys, but this is taking too long. Toodles.” Her avatar vanished.
“Shit,” Sherman groused. “She always drops out first. Little pebble of the avalanche of quit-ness.”
“It'll be even harder without her holds,” Sam pointed out. “Maybe we should call it a day. It's after midnight here already.” His body winked out as Rita's had, teleported back to the base.
“He's right, you know.” Darla told him. “And when he logs, we are way too shorthanded for this mission's level.”
Sherman groaned. “This mission would have leveled me.”
Darla sighed. “Look, I know you don't want to hear this, but we need more bodies.”
“I hate large teams,” the tank grumbled. “And you know why. Bigger teams argue more, goof off more, and take longer to assemble for missions.”
“Well, you're gonna have to learn to bend,” Darla told him. “I know you like small teams, but we need a healer. It would have made the difference between winning and a total team wipe tonight. Unless you like dying a lot.”
“All right, all right,” Sherman growled. “But you better find us a good one. A lame doctor is worse than none at all, trust me. You spend half your time worrying about keeping him alive so that he can keep healing. Squishalicious.”
Darla shrugged. “I'll see what I can do,” she said. “But do me a favor? Try to remember you're not immortal. You charge right in like a god of war. You really need to let us get positioned before you engage.”
She logged and and sat up swinging her legs over the edge of the link bed and stretched. Enough. Sherman was a pretty good tank but a little of him went a long way. Hitching up her jeans, she padded down the stairs to the diner.
The smells of cooking oil, spices, and hot metal greeted her as she reached the bottom of the stairs. The place was not quite empty – there was a guy at the counter and a couple in a booth in the corner.
She glanced out the windows. Outside, a gray sky squatted and brooded over the baking streets. For a moment she wished she was wherever Sam lived. Midnight sounded a lot cooler than this Florida afternoon. A police cruiser floated by, its nullifiers humming, the enforcers inside looking even more bored than she felt. Even perps were taking the day off in this heat.
Manny was working the grill. He looked up and wiped some sweat off his forehead. “You finally back on duty?” He flipped a couple of burgers over, listening to the sizzle, as he glanced back at her, one eyebrow raised.
“I guess so,” she said, watching him slide two perfect medium wells onto their buns. He nodded toward the couple in the corner, and Darla took the hint, picking up the tray and taking the order over to them. “You two need anything else?”
The woman looked at her burger doubtfully. “I won't ask if it's edible,” she remarked, “But is it safe?”
The man laughed. He had a nice laugh, Darla thought. And he was built well enough to get away with a bad laugh. She could see this because he was bare from the waist up. The guy looked like a W3 veteran. His bare chest glowed with old-style holographic tattoos, the multi-layered deposits flashing rainbow-hued solid images of an eagle fighting a snake. Battle of Mexico?
“Relax,” he advised his date. “No one dies of coronaries anymore. They fixed that years ago. All of this yummy-naughty food is back in style. Live a little.”
His date hesitated. “He's right,” Darla told her reassuringly. “The PEGbots finished their clinical trials last year. Clogged arteries are going where the dinosaurs went.”
The woman's face clouded. “PEGbots?”
Darla smiled. “Medical nanotech. They coat the tiny robots with polyethylene glycol. It makes them a little bulkier but it keeps them from being attacked by your defenses long enough that they can do their job.”
The guy looked impressed. “I can't believe you just knew that,” he said. “Are you in med school?”
“Not really. I've just been, ah, keeping up with the medical research in a vain attempt to keep my dad alive. He hates 'textured vegetable protein'.”
“Don't believe her,” Manny grunted from the grill. “She's just afraid I'll die and she'll be stuck running this place by herself.” He flipped another burger over and smiled as it sizzled.
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