Deep Into the Game
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23 chapter twenty-three
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Deep Into the Game
Author :Saul_Tanpepper
© Webnovel

23 chapter twenty-three

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We meet underwater and join hands. The scene around us is surreal: A panoramic movie of zombies drifting down into the darkness below. They lurch and twist at us, looking like dying earthworms dropped into a child's bucket. They remind me of autumn, of rotting leaves sinking into a lake.

Then I remember the old video stream Reggie found one day while searching through some archived footage from the first part of the century: people falling from a burning building, plummeting to the ground, dropping, dropping, until the whole building collapses into a ball of dust that reaches to the clouds and turns the sun red.

"Is this real?" I'd asked, horrified at the images. "This can't be real."

Ashley asked her G-ma Junie about it and G-ma Junie told her to hush and never bring it up again. "Destroy the video. It's illegal to speak of things that happened before."

We slip between the falling bodies. It's easy to evade them. They can't swim. They only drift down, and then they slip along the bottom as the current catches them.

I remember the one that attacked me on our way in. It had acted differently. It seemed like it knew how to swim. But maybe that's just how I'm remembering it.

Is it still alive? Is it lying on the bottom of the tunnel somewhere, unable to move because of its severed spine? How long could it stay there like that? Forever? Would the fish eat it?

The pile of zombies directly beneath the overpass is so large that they continue to rain down. The seething mass writhes and splashes, bodies disengaging themselves as the zombies struggle against one other. We don't stick around to watch. We swim quickly past them and they ogle back at us, looking almost resentful, their mouths gaping and their tongues lolling out. Their eyes black with death, full of longing and hunger.

Earthworms, I tell myself. That's all they are.

Except earthworms don't want to eat you. At least not while you're still alive.

The current gently pushes us forward. Already it's very weak, suggesting it'll turn soon. We'll end up fighting it again the closer we get to Manhattan.

We enter the same tunnel we came through earlier. Between the six of us, only two flashlights remain. Reggie holds one as he leads the group into the darkness. The rest of us form a chain, each holding the hand of the person in front: Reggie, Ashley, me, Kelly, Jake, and finally Micah in back. He holds the other flashlight. We push ourselves to the limit, kicking hard with our flippers to get away from that terrifying place.

I'm thirsty and tired, faint from hunger. My feet hurt and my knees burn from all the running we've done. My arms ache from swinging the axe. I can't see very much, and what I can see is blurry.

But I don't want to see. I keep my eyes closed and concentrate on kicking and for once I'm glad that Reggie is the one leading us out. He's always been the physically strongest among us.


We arrive near the place where the zombie attacked me. I only know this by instinct. Or maybe I imagine Kelly's grip tightening on my hand. I keep my eyes closed. It makes the time pass quicker. Soon. Soon we'll be home. I never want to come back.

I concentrate on my breathing—in and out and in again—timing my kicks to keep the rhythm going. The beat becomes a part of me, a part of my own living rhythm, until I no longer have to think about it.

Images gradually creep back into my mind, so slowly and stealthily that I don't realize it at first. The zombies in the store, the way their heads exploded like sacks of flour, like they were so old that they'd completely dried up inside. How could they still be…alive?

The ones that attacked us after we'd returned to where our gear was hadn't been like that. The faster ones. One of the zombies Kelly had beheaded had made a wet squelching sound when it fell. A thick, deep red fluid had oozed from its neck. It was a fresh zombie.

I shudder.

Reggie stops a couple times, both times asking us via Link if we're all okay. Kelly notices that I don't have mine and gives me a curious look. I shrug and hold out my empty hands. He types something into his screen, then shows it to me:

<< LOST? >>

I nod. He shakes his head. I'll need to figure out how to explain it to the Department of Citizen Registration when we get back. The questionnaire for a lost Link is over a thousand questions long.

The second time Reggie stops, I notice the drag on us. The current has stopped pushing at us. And while it isn't yet pulling us back yet, the lack of assistance combined with our fatigue is slowing our progress. We've depleted our energy reserves.

I'm especially beginning to feel it, since I didn't eat earlier. My legs cramp. There's a stitch in my side. Any adrenaline I'd been running on has long since evaporated away.

Micah gives Reggie an impatient look and gestures at him to keep going. We quickly reform our chain and carry on. We don't know how much longer our cartridges will last. Once more, I close my eyes and let the others guide me.

The minutes pass. Then I feel Ash and Kelly release my hands. I open my eyes, thinking we've reached the end. But everything's still dark, except for the two beams of light, spreading out.

I push myself toward the source of the closest one. Jake's face emerges from the gloom. I grab his hand and hold on. He stops and looks at me, confused, tension filling his face.

He holds up his Link and types:

<< BLOCKED >>

He reads my frown immediately, since I have no goggles to distort my eyes. Gripping my hand once more, he points downward with the light. Below us is the faint outline of the rear of the old bus we'd passed on our way in.

I look up again. The debris dam looms over us, tall and massive. It stretches all the way to the ceiling and spans the tunnel from one side to the other. A large tree trunk pokes through it, its stunted roots looking like a gorgon's head, a nest of unidentifiable flotsam trapped within its tentacles.

Jake swings the light over to the side. I'm barely able to make out Kelly and Reggie. They're at the opening we used earlier, but now it's blocked. I can see them trying to move something. Ash and Micah hover nearby with the other flashlight. Reggie must have given Jake his light to locate another opening.

I urge his hand to point the beam over the surface of the logjam once more, looking for another way through. Below us, a stream of mud eddies out of a narrow gap beneath the bus. In just the few seconds we hover there, the cloud spreads up to meet us.

A new alarm rises up inside of me: the current has shifted.

Jake realizes this too. He yanks the light away and swings it back up at Reggie and Kelly. They've got a corner of what looks like a box spring mattress and are pulling at it, trying to pry it loose. Jake makes an urgent noise with his throat, but we're too far away for them to hear it. I begin to kick my way up toward them.

I reach Ash just as I start hearing a soft plinking noise below us. I look down and see Jake urgently banging the handle of his knife on the flashlight, trying to alert the others. Ashley hears it and turns, inadvertently shifting the light in Micah's hands away from Kelly and Reg.

Just then there's a low grinding noise, massive and ominous. I feel it in my bones, and I sense, rather than see or hear, the pile beginning to shift, the low grinding of several tons of material moving against itself, pushed forward by the strengthening current, unrelieved now that its only opening has been obstructed.

Jake makes that urgent sound in his throat again, but Kel and Reg don't hear. He swims past us and stabs them with his light. They keep working on pulling the mattress free.

Now I see the first fingers of muddy water beginning to surge past them. I grab Ashley's arm and pull her away.

Her eyes narrow at me in confusion. She pulls back.

A loud metallic moaning sound comes from the bottom of the pile. The bus lurches. Ash makes a sound in her throat. I gesture that the boys need to hurry.

Jake reaches Kelly and pushes him away. They begin to wrestle with each other. Reggie turns and stares as if they're crazy. His body stiffens. He watches them do their slow motion fight for a moment before he tries to separate them.

Something shoots through the small opening. It wraps around Jake's head. He tears it away and tries to see what it is, but it slips from his hand and disappears into the gloom. Kelly takes the opportunity to move away.

I wave my arms, but they don't see me. Jake grabs Reggie and points down, but Reggie can't see what he's pointing at; it's too dark. Behind them, the mattress bulges out. Jake points again and waves his hands in a sweeping motion. Reggie shakes his head. Jake gives up and tries Kelly again.

Behind them, the mattress twists. Suddenly, it shoots out of the gap, hitting Reggie in the back. A bubble of air escapes his mouth and his mask sinks away. For a moment he looks unconscious, but then his head whips around and his hands go to his throat.

I dive downward into the darkness, not knowing where I'm going, only moving by instinct. I sweep my arms around until I feel something light brush against the back of my hand and I stab at it until my fingers wrap around the tube connecting the cartridge to Reggie's mask. It seems like a miracle, but I'll take it. I turn and kick my way up.

Reggie is still struggling. He's drifting away toward the darkness, but nobody else sees him. Kel and Micah are moving to the opening. They see that it's clear again. Jake swims up to them, still gesturing.

A series of thumps comes to us from all around. They echo dully and ponderously, sounding like they're coming from the other side of the heap. A loud scrape follows. Everyone stops what they're doing to look around. Everyone but me and Reggie.

I swim desperately toward the gloom, towards Reggie's fading ghostly shape. I get one last glimpse of his eyes just before he disappears: they're wild and bulging behind his goggles.

I hear the sudden release of air and I know Reggie's using the air in his goggles. There's another release. Then a third. How many more before it's empty?

I need to find him.

Kelly's suddenly there, pulling me back toward the opening. He spins me around. I see Micah hanging onto the edge of the metal cage, kicking against the current, casting his light inside to see if it's clear all the way through. The mud swirls through in thick clouds. But the current looks too strong. Even if it's wide enough for us to swim through, how can we?

I push Kelly away and turn. I kick into the darkness.

Then the light turns toward us. I see Reggie up ahead, his hands clasped over his mouth, his cheeks bulging. His eyes lock on me, and the mask in my hand. He kicks weakly, but he's still drifting further away.

I finally reach him. He clutches me desperately. Even starving of air, his grip is like steel. I thrust his mask into his face. He takes it and exhales explosively into the canister, then inhales. The canister wheezes from the force of his breathing. I fear he'll burst the bag inside.

In he breathes. Out. Repeating the cycle as I try to tow him back toward the heap. But it's against the current. It's like towing a boulder through quicksand.

Reggie recovers enough to help me. Finally we reach the opening. Items are falling all around, tumbling down around us or being swept up in the rush of water through the gap.

Kelly's got his Link out. He flashes the screen at us:

<< 2 DANGERUS >>

He points back the way we came.

Ashley shakes her head. She grabs for Kelly's arm and misses, tries again, grabs his ankle. I can see her shaking her head vehemently at him and pointing in the other direction. There's no way she's going back to Long Island.

I feel Reggie push against me. He's still shaking, but stronger than he was even just a moment before. His recovery is amazingly quick. He grabs the edge of the metal cage and pulls himself into the opening.

The urgency is clear in Kelly's eyes, but Ashley takes the opportunity to jockey her way into the gap. The current pushes her back and she somersaults. But then a hand shoots through the opening and grabs her, turning her around. The gap shifts; the cage begins to crumple.

Micah grabs me and shoves me toward the opening. Then Kelly follows me. I pass Reggie inside, wedged in a tiny recess. He helps us through. Just in front of me, I see Ashley's flippers disappearing out the other side.

Something flutters past my face. Then something else drags across my arm, scratching me. I kick and strain and grab onto anything that'll keep me from sliding back. I'm acting on adrenaline. We all are. There's nothing else left.

I push and pull and kick. Then I shoot through the opening and find calmer water. Ash returns with a pole. She pokes it through. Kelly grabs it and pulls himself out.

There's a loud rumble and everything shifts several feet. Ashley loses her air and lets go of the pole. I take her place while she recovers.

Just as the entire debris pile shudders, Micah emerges. There's a loud crack and a rumble and the cage collapses upon itself. Micah's flashlight gets ripped from his hand. It tumbles away, then winks out. Complete darkness descends over us.

Someone grabs me. A Link screen glows, showing me Kelly's face. He pulls me clear of the pile.

Jake! my mind screams. He never made it through.

Kelly points. I catch a glimpse of Ash holding her Link before her, the mask now back in her mouth: she's trying to put her goggles on. Micah's helping her.

I don't see Reggie or Jake.

Then Reggie appears in the faint glow of Ash's Link. We join them, clustering close together.

<< JK? >>

We all shake our heads.

Reggie types:

<< CANT STAY. CANSTER FAILNG >>

Kelly shakes his head. He points at the pile and begins to swim toward it. But then he stops and turns. He pushes his mouthpiece deeper in and sucks. Panic rises in his eyes.

I can also feel it. I don't know if it's just because Reggie mentioned the canisters failing or if it's actually happening, but I'm suddenly feeling light-headed, just like I did on the way over. There's a dull pressure behind my eyes and I fight the urge to breath deeper and faster. How many more breaths do I have left?

I snatch Ash's Link and quickly scroll through it to find Jake's contact. Pictures of people flash by, some I recognize, others I don't. One goes by so fast that it doesn't register at first, someone I know. Someone Ash shouldn't.

Then there's Jake's image. I ping him.

There's no response.

Micah grabs Ash's hand and pulls her, but I won't let him. I try Jake's Link a second time.

Still no response.

Now we have no choice. We'll all die if we stay. Even if we leave now, we might not make it.

Then Ash's Link lights up.

<< DON'T LV ME >>

Micah shakes his head. There's no way through the dam. Jake's on the other side, but he can't reach us. And we can't reach him.

Ash crumbles, but Reggie grabs her arm, shakes her, points frantically. We need to go!

We form a chain again. I take one last look back, hoping for something, some sign that Jake has found a way through. I think I see a flash of light. I stare for a moment, but there's nothing but darkness.

We swim on in total darkness. I can't know if I'm crying because my tears just melt into the filthy, salty water. And yet I do know. I'm crying because we've left Jake behind.

And yet I swim on.

One by one, our cartridges fail. We share the rest between us until all we have left is the one unused one that Micah still had on his belt. And still we haven't reached the opening.

We each have to be wondering, with the five of us using it, will it last?

Reggie guides us with his hand on the wall of the tunnel. We pass the one mask between us: front to back to front again.

And then, just as it begins to fail, the darkness in the tunnel lightens just a tiny bit. I'm half delirious by then, starved of oxygen, exhausted, grieving. We all are. But it's not the light of the tunnel opening we see, it's the light from Ash's Link receiving one final message:

<< IV GONE BAK >>

We each see it, but we don't stop to think about it. Survival is paramount—our survival. It's the one thought we all share and can't argue about.

But now a second thought settles in, a doubt, waiting for the first moment when it can capture our full attention: How can we just leave Jake behind? How could we live knowing we did?

We can't.

We have to go back.
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