“Operation Mall Stroll” by Lydia Sherrer

“You know what really gets under my skin about these fu—I mean freaking spooks, Yoda?”

Derek “Yoda” Peterson, formerly of the Royal Canadian Air Force, frowned and didn’t look at his teammate, too busy examining the overhead mission map on his Augmented Reality glasses. “I don’t, and I don’t want to. But you’re going to tell me anyway, aren’t you, Crispy?”

“It’s that they don’t even know we’re here,” Crispus “Crispy” DeLeon continued, ignoring Derek’s suppressive comment. Crispy was a professional complainer, and everyone in his TransDimensional Hunter Alpha Tester team had learned to tune him out. “Like, these parasites are wreaking havoc and sucking the planet dry, and they don’t even have the decency to stomp around like God da—I mean, uh, stupid Godzilla where we can fight them properly! What right do they have to ruin my life when I can’t even punch them in the face? I wish I was back in the sandbox, man. At least there you could see, or hear, or even smell the enemy coming without these stupid glasses.”

“Well darn. Alert the press and call the Geneva Convention, Crispy has to wear glasses,” Bradley “Dasher” Hayek drawled. He was tossing his full-visor AR helmet up in the air and catching it without even looking at it, his mocking gaze fully focused on his teammate. He fed off Crispus’ griping like a particularly handsome and wicked symbiote, egging his friend on with cutting sarcasm, something Derek tried to discourage but had mostly given up on. “You’re acting like the HUD in our combat helmets doesn’t exist. And what about night vision and radar interfaces? This gaming tech is way better than anything they gave us in the Corps. Besides, I’ll go fight wherever they wanna send me, as long as it doesn’t have sand. Don’t care what or how I’m fighting. I’ll do it naked with a caveman club if it strikes their fancy, long as there’s no sand.”

Gregg “Beans” Santoro, who was busy rummaging in a compact backpack with red piping and a big “TransDimensional Counterforce” patch on it, looked up with a grin. Some people thought Gregg was called “Beans” because he’d be as slender as a beanpole if it weren’t for the muscle he worked so hard to develop, making him simply lean instead of skinny. But it was really because Gregg’s favorite pastime was eating beans—or really any food at all, the cheaper, the better. It meant he thrived on military rations like pond scum thrived on sunlight. It was awe-inspiring, really, but as Gregg always said, “when you grow up dirt poor, everything tastes like paradise.” He looked Bradley up and down and said: “Gross, Dasher. Nobody wants to see your butt-ugly birthday suit. Those spooks would drop dead at the sight.”

“Beans!” Bradley gasped in mock horror. “You take that back. My birthday suit is perfection incarnate—”

“It wouldn’t matter, Dasher, the spooks don’t even have fu—freaking eyes to see it. It’s not fair!”

“Oh, shut your piehole, Crispy. Natural selection isn’t fair, or did I miss the memo where alien parasites from another dimension have to send out a survey and rate their victims’ preferences before they move in and take over? Gimmie a break.” Bradley stretched out his legs and leaned back, still tossing his helmet. There wasn’t much to stretch out. He was on the compact and muscle-bound end of the physical spectrum, which is one reason he hated running so much—thus the name, Dasher.

“Come on, man, you know what I mean. It’s just hard to get all, you know, pumped up to go fight invisible energy parasites.”

“That’s what the AR interface is for, dipshit. Why do you think we keep these geek types around, like Yoda? Knew they’d be good for something one day.” Bradley grinned and leaned far enough over to slap Derek on the shoulder.

“That’s Captain Geek to you, Dasher, and don’t you forget it,” Derek said with a good-natured smile, though he still didn’t look over. He was almost done reviewing the mission parameters that scrolled past his vision.

“Yeah, Captain of the fu—freaking Geek Squad—Man, I hate this!” Crispy burst out, throwing his hands in the air, then grabbing the seat bar next to him as their airbus wobbled on a patch of air turbulence. The gusty spring night over Washington D.C. was threatening a thunderstorm, which Derek sincerely hoped didn’t materialize. It would be just his luck if they had to fight spooks in a downpour.

“What? Still sore that Colonel Bryce told you to clean up your potty mouth because we’re gonna be around a bunch of prepubescent baby gamers fresh outta the cradle?” Bradley goaded.

“I don’t get it! It’s not like they’re little angels. Have you heard kids these days? They cuss worse than Jimmy Ski did back when we were in Kabul.”

“We’re not in Kabul anymore, Crispy,” Derek said, finally flicking his eyes to clear his display and looking over at his men. “We’re civilian gamers now, and TD Hunter is a family-friendly game. So suck it up, buttercup.”

“I still can’t believe they turned our spook locator interface into an AR game,” Gregg said, zipping up his backpack and grabbing his own helmet. “And they’re really going to let kids fight the spooks? With no age requirements or anything? What was the Brass thinking?”

“That CIDER forces are about a billion people too few to eradicate an invasion on this scale, Beans. And kids are already fighting. They’ve started recruiting civilian beta testers. Word is they moved the game launch up to June.”

Crispus, who was in the process of aiming one of his electric blue game control batons at Bradley, paused mid-motion. “But they’re, like, shielding civilian players or something, right?”

Bradley took advantage of his teammate’s distraction and lobbed his helmet at Crispus. In a flash, Crispus caught it with his free hand, redirected its momentum, and whipped it back at Bradley, the precise movement belying his whiny demeanor.

“Of course not, dimwit,” Bradley said, acting like he hadn’t just barely caught the helmet before it gave him a black eye. “It’s not like we have millions of blackout suits to hand out to every pimply teenager who wants to play. Plus, that’d be admitting the players are in danger in the first place.”

“They’re not,” Derek said firmly. “At least no greater danger than the general populace, who we can’t protect anyway. The game AI will have the spook population fully mapped out before game launch and it’ll run interference to keep players away from the dangerous ones. Now everybody put your helmets on. I want you all in the team chat stat, we’re a minute out from our stop.” While they’d been lucky that their public transport airbus had been empty—not surprising for the middle of the night—operational security dictated that they switch to subvocalization before mission go.

“Why do we have to wear these stupid full-visor things anyway?” Crispus said, frowning at his. “If I’d wanted to look like a dweeb I woulda been a pilot.”

Derek glanced at his wife, Sonia “Click” Peterson, who already had her helmet on, hiding her long blond braid and cold blue eyes. With her graceful body, long of limb and leanly muscled, she was about the furthest thing from dweeb-looking as you could possibly get. They’d met on their first deployment and had carried on a passionate romance in virtual before they’d finally gotten out of the same chain of command and were able to make things official in the real. She wasn’t much for banter when she was focused on learning a new weapons system, and like the rest of them was very practiced in tuning Crispus out.

“We’re going to be fighting a Sierra Class boss,” Derek said. “We can’t wear full blackout suits, but these helmets will shield our most important bits”—he tapped his head—“and keep our faces hidden. We’re headed for the National Mall. I don’t care if it is the middle of the night, intel says there are stream drones hanging around twenty-four-seven since the incident. The Brass would have an aneurysm if our faces showed on the news streams.” He followed his own command and replaced his AR glasses with the full-visor helmet, making sure the others did as well. His new display lit up, syncing effortlessly with his LINC implant, and he did a quick check around his menu icons, making sure the micro-motion controls were the same with this new unit as with previous versions.

“Fu—freaking insane, man,” Crispus’ subvocalization sounded in Derek’s helmet speakers. “I am not a fan of this no suit thing, though. What if the civilian betas stumble onto a boss without knowing it?”

“The AI has blackout protocols for those situations, and the really big bosses avoid most populated areas anyway. The players won’t be able to see or engage with bosses until way later, and by then we’ll have the tech to reliably take them down. At least that’s what the lab coats say.”

“The coats always lie,” Crispus grumbled. “They’re just saying that to keep the Brass happy.”

“Doesn’t matter one way or the other, Crispy. Once the game launches, our mission is to just be gamers. Learn the system alongside the players. Integrate into the community. Now gear up, we’re landing.”

The airbus slowed as if on Derek’s command. His team held onto the various bars and poles for balance as they swung their compact backpacks on and slid their blue batons into the thigh pockets of their TD Counterforce issued high-performance athletic suits. Compared to most military uniforms and gear, the stuff they got as undercover gamers was the height of luxury—a luxury Derek was determined to enjoy.

It wasn’t every day you got to collect a military pension and get paid as a private contractor to be a professional gamer at the same time.

Thank you, CIDER.

The Coalition for Interdimensional Dark Energy Research was a front for the global military alliance attempting to locate, study, and eradicate this wave of invading 'other' dimension entities that seemed to feed off of the worldwide energy infrastructure. The scientist types had only discovered the spooks’ existence in the last decade, and it’d only been in the last few years they’d drawn any meaningful conclusions about their behavior based on the increased tracking data. By the time the scientists realized what was going on and alerted the military that the spooks were affecting the electrical grids, the exponential multiplying had already started and the invisible, undetectable-without-specialized-equipment alien parasites had spread over the globe.

CIDER had roped in Tsunami Entertainment to program a cutting-edge interface so the grunts could see and track the spooks, since that was the first step toward destroying them. Derek guessed that somewhere along the way, desperation met innovation and someone at a much higher pay grade than him had greenlit the civilian-paramilitary-through-gaming-interface idea.

As far as the public knew—or, at least anyone who paid attention to gaming news—TransDimensional Hunter was simply the greatest of a new generation of Augmented Reality games, and Tsunami Entertainment was only making gaming history, not trying to save human civilization. Besides, if civilians knew that the billions of dollars Tsunami was pouring into promo ads was actually taxpayer money, there’d be rioting in the streets. It wasn’t like CIDER could tell everyone the game was the only hope for humanity’s survival. Mass panic would be no better than mass riots.

The things you knew.

A year ago, none of his team had had a clue. But then Derek had been notified of a special assignment looking for active duty volunteers with “gaming and AR interface experience,” and he’d jumped at the chance. Gotten Sonia in on it too. Them ending up in a multi-nation coalition and getting to work with some old American buddies they’d fought beside years ago in Afghanistan was icing on the cake.

The being-read-in-on-the-probable-end-of-the-world part, on the other hand, was like the cherry on top for someone who hated cherries and wanted to burn them.

All five of them had been “retired early” from active duty as a cover and reassigned to CIDER’s multi-national Alpha Tester unit based on their training performance and gaming scores. There were Alpha Tester units all over the world in every participating nation, but since no one had invented teleportation yet, it was the North American units that got the most hands-on practice with Tsunami’s developing tech. All members of the military already had standard military LINC implants, so getting up and running with the prototype gaming interface was pretty painless. Working with Tsunami Entertainment and their techs had so far been an absolute pleasure. Some days Derek could even forget the fact that they were developing novel weapons with novel technology that the lab coats understood about one percent of, and would probably give them all terminal cancer in a few years. Or turn their brains to mush. As long as they managed to wipe out the spooks first, it didn’t really matter.

“Man, I wish we could just load up in a couple Condors and zap these spooks from the sky,” Crispus complained as they stepped out of the airbus into the wind and spattering rain. The multi-level platform was the closest airbus stop to the National Mall, where Derek and his team would be meeting the four other CIDER Alpha Tester teams masquerading as civilian gamers.

“The particle blasters are too short range. The last time they tried that, the spooks swarmed the copter before it could pull away and shorted out its systems. We lost two Alpha Testers in that crash.”

“I know, I know. Maybe we should let the lab coats try blasting these spooks in the wind and rain themselves. Maybe that’d motivate them to invent stuff faster.”

“Why would they do that when you’re already so good at it, Crispy?” Sonia’s amused alto voice joined the conversation as she brushed past the guys and came level with Derek. They started jogging down the platform steps together. “The team weapon system looks good, Yoda. I can see why they won’t roll it out to the civilians until they qualify as Hunter Strike Teams. The particle expenditure is massive. It’s logical they’d reserve it for the highest skilled teams going after the bosses. What I don’t understand is why they don’t divert all the game development money into massive assembly production of particle cannon drones.”

Derek shook his head. “The bottleneck would be drone pilots. I heard they’re still working on the auto-targeting algorithm. Its accuracy is sorely lacking once the spooks start swarming and it has to evade. As soon as it's operational I’m sure they’ll field attack drones to assist the Hunters, but they’re probably worried they won’t be able to get the program going before things hit critical mass. Besides, you can’t explain swarms of drones attacking invisible monsters. Swarms of gamers, though . . . ”

“I suppose it’s too big of a risk to put all our eggs in one technological basket. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve logged hundreds more shooting hours than I ever did on the Counter Sniper Team,” she subvocalized. She switched to her private channel with Derek as she continued, “Plus I get to spend all day gaming with this really sexy guy I know who looks great in AR glasses.”

“You mean Dasher?” Derek replied on the same channel, his wide grin hidden by the helmet. “I’ll be sure to tell him you said so.”

His wife’s head turned his way, likely shooting him a suppressive look from behind her visor “You’re lucky we’re not playing Warmonger right now, eh? You deserve a good fragging for that comment.”

“Don’t blame me, dear. You’re always more accurate when you get feisty, don’t try to deny it.”

Sonia didn’t try, and the rest of the team let the silence settle as they fast-walked down Independence Ave, heading west toward the Washington Monument. It was mission time, and no matter how his team bantered, they were as professional as they came, and he was proud to lead them.

The National Mall was mostly deserted, though a few lonely figures were visible under the streetlights, out and about for who knew what in the middle of a soggy, cold night. The spattering of rain had stopped, but Derek’s LINC unnecessarily predicted that the heavy grey sky above held the promise of more.

“We’re almost to the meeting point, team. Has everybody memorized the updated mission brief? Any questions before we make contact?”

“Come on, Yoda,” Gregg drawled. “You sound like you don’t think we can multitask. I don’t know about you, but I always concentrate better when Dasher and Crispy are arguing in the background like two horny baboons.”

“I’ll show you who’s a horny baboon,” Bradley growled.

“Heads up, boys,” Sonia said, and the guys fell silent as they spotted the other Alpha Tester teams waiting up ahead.

Hugo, the default name Tsunami had given the game AI, notified Derek of an incoming voice chat request from the other teams, and he accepted it with a double blink. Derek already had his app controls programmed into his TD Hunter tester profile, a long list of standard eye and jaw movements militaries had been using the world over long before next-generation AI came along. He didn’t have anything against Hugo, but Derek was an old dog and there was no point learning more new tricks than he had to.

“Evening, ladies and gentlemen. Nice night for a stroll, don’t you think?” Derek said, using the assigned greeting phrase listed in the mission brief.

“The Mall is always ripe for a stroll—good grief, who comes up with these crazy code phrases?” came the voice of one of the other team leaders labeled AlphaTester9. “I’ll bet the desk jockeys make them cheesy on purpose, then giggle about us being forced to say them out loud.”

Derek chuckled. “Fallu, what are you doing in the field? I thought they’d pulled you to work the Game Tactical department because you have such a pretty face.”

“They did,” Steve “Fallu” Riker said with a laugh. “But I was in D.C. to deliver project updates today when this spook boss popped up out of nowhere, so they threw me in with the emergency response team. Can’t say I’m complaining, got me out of a really boring meeting.”

“You’re a lucky bastard is what you are, chum. We’re about to make history.”

“How’s that?”

“We’re going to smoke this boss with no casualties. Do you hear that everybody? No casualties on my watch. That’s an order.”

All of the twenty-plus Alpha Testers present had their AR helmet on, but Derek could hear their grins in the “Yessirs” and “Roger thats” which sounded in the group chat.

He knew most of these Alpha Testers personally, since they’d been working together testing equipment and tracking down spooks for months. Some used first names, some went by their old military nicknames or shortened gaming names they’d been known by for decades already. But in the beta version of the TD Hunter app, everyone was labeled by their Alpha Tester designation.

He was AlphaTester1. Numero uno.

In this time of history being made—if anyone survived to read the history—it seemed like an honor he didn’t deserve. At the time they’d all been given their designation, though, he’d just happened to be the hapless schmuck who didn’t move fast enough to the back of the line when they started handing out the first round of experimental gear. As anyone who’d ever been in the military knew, being first was usually a punishment, not a reward.

He’d tried his best to live up to his designation, and his team had done him proud. They were good soldiers, and even better gamers—and despite Crispy’s appearance of gloom, every one of them loved their job.

It beat the sandbox, anyway. By a lot.

“All right everyone, listen up. There’s been some updates to the original mission brief so here’s the current situation: At approximately three o’clock this afternoon, five people in and around the Washington Monument suddenly collapsed, and many more developed sudden nausea, headaches, and various other minor neurological symptoms. Fortunately, it was a wet day, so the tourist crowd was thin. It could have been a lot worse. First aid was rendered, but two of the civilians remained unresponsive and died on the scene.

“Because of the sensitive location, CIDER already has the entire D.C. area covered by drones, so the Sierra Class spook lit up the global map right away and tripped all sorts of alarms. Embedded units in emergency response, capital security, and GForce Utilities were notified and able to run interference from the get-go. Security evacuated the area and GForce released a statement about malfunctioning node equipment and how an unshielded pulse unfortunately shorted the pacemaker of one victim and triggered a seizure episode in another who had a prior condition. So far none of the media is running it as anything but an accident, though they’re raking GForce over the coals for it, the poor bastards. The gossip streams are another matter entirely, but none of the really influential ones have used the word ‘aliens.’ Yet, anyway.

“The official word is that the node in question has been disconnected from the network and they’ll remove and replace it tomorrow. So tonight is our one and only window to take out this boss before more drastic—and public—measures have to be taken. As you can all guess, that would be a disaster for the TD Hunter program as well as CIDER’s mission in general. So, let’s not fail, eh?”

There was a restless shifting of bodies and several nods among the helmet-clad Alpha Testers.

“For your information, the node has not been turned off, and in fact more power is being shunted to it to keep the spook boss in place. It would be an unmitigated disaster if it started roaming around downtown D.C.. If you’re wondering where the node signal is coming from, it is right smack in the middle of the monument.” Derek pointed up and over toward the peak of the Washington Monument rising above the trees a good five hundred yards away. “That, at least, should keep the spook sticking close to this cordoned off area.” The yellow and black road barriers and streams of police tape flapping in the nighttime wind were all around the large grassy area encircling the monument. To the north, Derek could see the shining lights of the White House, which was, no doubt, empty of anyone important. Had the President been in residence earlier that day, he and any other politicians would have been evacuated the moment CIDER detected the Sierra Class entity.

“So that’s the civilian situation on the ground. All embedded units know about our mission tonight and will be running interference in case any enterprising police unit or secret service member decides to get nosey. The bright blue game batons and gaming helmets should throw any media or civilians off the scent. But even so, try not to look too uptight—that means you, Iceman. I know you’re new around here but drop the parade rest.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Yoda, son. Just Yoda. We’re gamers here, out for a midnight stroll on the mall.” Derek swept his gaze over the assembled Alpha Testers. “As for the spook situation, we’re lucky. We detected the boss early, and it doesn’t seem to have attracted too large of a retinue yet. The latest scan, which was about ten minutes ago, showed three rings, maybe a couple hundred guards max. They’ll give us a good workout, but nothing to be worried about. The reason CIDER central command scrambled all five of our teams is the boss. For those lucky enough to not have been there, the last time Alpha Testers tried to take on a Sierra Class, they didn’t have enough firepower and it got really, really pissed. It caused a city-wide blackout in Winnipeg and managed to surprise one of the teams with a lateral move that put them in its shadow. We lost Omen, and his teammates are still undergoing rejuve treatment and physical rehab to reverse the neurological damage. None of that had to happen. We’re not going to repeat that mistake.

“Our plan of attack depends entirely on what the boss does. Some are more mobile than others. Some have long-range defenses, others don’t. Our initial goal will be to sweep up the guard rings all the way around so we have time and space to probe the boss’ defenses before we go all in. Generally, bosses don’t attack without being provoked, so as long as we have good fire discipline, we should be fine. With that in mind, rules of engagement are to let the spooks come to us as much as possible. The boss is camped out on the monument, so keep a good hundred yards away. We’ll let Hugo give it a good scan while we’re sweeping the rings, then regroup and see what intel its got for us.

“Alpha Teams Two and Three,” he said, pointing at the team leads, “you’ve got the right flank. Four and Five, you’ve got the left. My team will be in the middle. Once we clear one side, we’ll retreat, circle, and clear the other side to stay far away from the boss as possible. Questions?”

There were none, and Derek directed the teams to spread out and proceed to their starting locations on the south edge of the mall. He’d already marked them on the shared map that appeared in the top left corner of everyone’s AR display. Once all units were in position, they could drop into combat mode together and attack.

“Man, I don’t see why we even need this stupid game app,” Crispus subvocalized on their team channel. “Why don’t we just blast the whole area with these dark-matter-whatsit particles and call it a day?”

“If you can see them, they can see you,” Sonia intoned, keeping pace on Derek’s right, while Bradley, Crispus, and finally Gregg walked in a line on his left. “Did you even pay attention when the techs explained how it all worked?”

“Are you kidding me? I don’t speak geek. I just kill stuff.”

“We use their own particles against them,” Gregg butted in cheerfully. “Every time a spook dies, their transdimensional particles are gathered and their polarities reversed—or whatever the 'other' dimension equivalent of polarities is. I don’t speak geek either, but I heard this really dumbed down version from Charlie who heard it from one of the lab coats who was pulling out his hair trying to explain. Anyway, to gather, use, and direct the particles, our equipment has to operate on a level that makes it visible to the spooks. So, when they attack, they’re not actually attacking us, they’re attacking our batons. If we just sat there and did nothing, they’d overload our equipment and it’d melt. The suits we normally wear shield us from the particles. The weapons won’t work if they’re shielded, and the most effective range is pretty much melee. We are but humble avatars, bearing our particle-shooting batons into battle.”

“I still say we should use robots,” Crispus grumbled. He stepped around a tree as they reached the Mall’s grassy edges, almost to their starting point.

“Come on, Crispy, that’d be like tying a gun to a lamb and throwing the lamb at the lion, bonehead,” Bradley said. “Even I understand that. The spooks feed off electricity, or the electromagnetic spectrum, or whatever. We’d have to build combustion-powered robots without any electrical components, and then how would the stupid things operate? They need a brain to aim and shoot.”

“This sucks,” Crispus said, his gloomy tone expertly translated by his subvocalization sensor.

“Cheer up, Crispy,” Derek said. “At least you get to shoot things that aren’t shooting back. With bullets, anyway.”

Crispus perked up. “Oh, yeah. That’s fun.”

Derek kept a close eye on his overhead as well as looking up and down the line, ensuring everyone was in place before he gave the order to drop into combat mode. Until that moment of activation, the TD Hunter app was merely a training app with a player’s hunting record, scores, and inventory of items and weapons collected, along with giving the players access to the AR training tutorials, tactical forum, and customer support. Once they activated their batons, though, their particle detectors would go live and they would both be able to see and be seen by the spooks—or the TransDimensional Monsters as they were supposed to call them, to stay in character as innocent beta testers.

He’d work on that another day. Tonight, he was going to focus on keeping his people alive.

“Everybody ready? Good, on my mark.”

As one, the five Alpha Teams dropped into combat mode and started pounding away at the swarms of spooks that appeared out of nowhere around them.

The CGI gaming overlay transformed indistinct masses of particles into roaring, towering, vicious monsters that would send any normal person screaming and running the opposite direction. The various spooks were lined up in three rings around their “boss,” the tallest of them towering above the humans’ heads and mostly obscuring their view of the many-tentacled boss camped out on the Washington Monument. The surrounding “guards” formed a “barrier” across the manicured mall lawn that the Alpha Teams would have to destroy before they could deal with the boss. Of course, spooks were as insubstantial to humans as humans were to them, so Derek could’ve walked through them just fine if he’d wanted to. But that many spooks would short out his equipment with extreme prejudice as soon as it was visible to them, and he couldn’t destroy a boss while being swarmed.

“Taking out their aerials,” Sonia’s precise voice said on their team channel, rising above the bedlam of spook noises. Spooks didn’t actually make noise, but the game added them in based on the type of spooks detected nearby. It added realism and helped players keep tabs on threats in their immediate area. “I only see a handful of Kongamatos and twice as many Tengus. There’s a big flock of Rocs above the monument, but they don’t look inclined to join the party.”

“Fire at will, Click,” Derek told her. “Coordinate with Alpha Two and Five if we need additional overwatch.” He was busy methodically one-shotting every spook in range with twin pistols, his preferred baton configuration. He’d been over the moon when the Tsunami techs and military lab coats had gotten together and come up with these omni-polymer game controllers that could house the particle emitter while also morphing into a wide range of life-sized weapons, both ranged and melee. From pistols to cannons to sniper rifles, knives and swords and even lightsaberlike weapons, the electric blue batons could do it all. He wasn’t at all surprised at the incredible hype the TD Hunter game ads were generating. It was a genuinely fun game to “play,” if you put aside the possibility of running afoul of a boss and having your brain melted in your skull.

“I still don’t like this fancy game overlay,” Crispus said, his gloomy tone at odds with the swift, precise movements he used to destroy one spook after another. He switched weapon configurations seamlessly to match each successive attack, as if the blue poly-morphing batons were mere extensions of his will. “I liked it better when they were gray blobs. This flashy CGI stuff gives me a headache.”

“I love it, haha!” Bradley crowed, sweeping his CGI fire-spewing cannon in an arc and mowing down spooks as he went. “So much more satisfying seeing their ugly, bloodthirsty faces right before they go boom. Who wants to fight lame floating amoebas? These TD monsters are way more fun. Orculls, Spithra, Managal, Rakshar—who comes up with these crazy names? And look at that cute little Manticar! Heeeeere, kitty, kitty. Come to papa!” he sang. His switched his fire from bolt to incendiary ammo and started raining down hell on the decidedly not little kitty. The howling, vaguely lion-shaped thing with three huge scorpion tails arching over its back bounded toward them at a furious pace.

Crispus let out a string of curses—so much for self-censorship—and rolled to the side just in time to avoid being run over by the beast. Derek poured fire into the Manticar’s flank as it skidded and turned. Before it could bring its scorpion tails to bear, Crispus had already rolled under it and was stabbing it machine-gun style using twin blades that shimmered and glowed with CGI plasma in Derek’s AR vision.

For a moment, the CGI overlay of the massive Manticar flickered, revealing the formless blob of spook particles underneath that was whipping tendrils of its essence toward him and Bradley. Then the entire thing exploded in a shower of sparks, the CGI overlay’s version of spook death, which honestly wasn’t that far from reality. Underneath the fancy explosion effects, the spook’s cohesive particle essence would have expanded rapidly and dissipated into the air, only to be harvested by the devices in their game batons, as well as larger versions of the same technology inside the many CIDER drones hovering overhead.

Some days Derek could barely wrap his mind around the enormity of what Tsunami Entertainment had accomplished in barely a year. The Tsunami team, headed by CEO and world-famous game designer Robert Krator, had conceptualized and programmed algorithms that integrated with CIDER’s particle technology to the point that it could detect, measure, and assign different particle types and amounts across the battlefield, simulating and regulating in-game functions like globe shielding, armor protection, power levels, and various augment capabilities like specialty ammo. And that wasn’t even counting the seamless visual overlay presenting a cohesive and vivid game world—well, mostly seamless. The techs were still working out the kinks, and they had better work fast. There couldn’t be any flickering glitches like the one they’d just seen if they wanted to keep the civilian players in the dark.

All in all, the TD Hunter game was a mind-boggling, history-making thing of artistic and technological beauty, one that Derek appreciated more and more each time he used it. It made fighting an alien invasion . . . well . . . fun.

Heck, might as well enjoy humanity’s last gasp if that’s where things were headed.

A blue bolt zipped past Derek’s head and nailed a fast-moving Yaguar mid-leap.

“Thanks, Click.”

“None needed, Yoda. There’s a sink full of dirty dishes at home with your name on it. No way am I going to let a spook eat you until after you’ve done the chores.”

Bradley’s snicker sounded in Derek’s ear.

“Careful, Dasher, it’s easy enough to switch the name on that pile of dishes. I have free rein to handle team discipline, and you sound like you’re begging for a character-building exercise, eh?”

“Aw, come on, boss. I thought we were gamers, right? How am I supposed to get into character without a little smack talk?”

“Smack talk is fine, as long as there aren’t dirty dishes waiting,” Derek said with a grin.

“I’m not doing your dishes, Yoda, but can I volunteer as taste-tester when Click is cooking?” Gregg’s voice joined them. He was busy sweeping up a crowd of Orcull and Spithra that had been drawn to the fray from behind their backs. The lower-level spooks of Delta and Charlie Class, as rated by the TD Hunter app, were so insignificant they barely deserved notice. But if they were allowed to swarm, it could cause equipment malfunction.

“Only if you like eating weird vegetables,” Crispus called, adding his two cents while shooting up the huge, lumbering Jotnar in the third and final line of guards that had come into view around the boss.

“You only think they’re weird because you think everything green is weird, Crispy,” Sonia retorted. She kept close to Derek, picking off any high value target she could spot while Derek kept the area around them clear and covered Bradley’s right flank.

“Vegetables are weird. You tried to feed me boiled fiddleheads once. What kind of crazy alien plant is that? If I’d wanted to eat plants, I woulda been born a cow.”

“Crispy steak!” Bradley chortled.

“Shut the f—” Crispus’ retort was drowned out by a sudden, keening shriek that made Derek flinch. A jaw twitch lowered his game volume to almost nothing and he tapped into the aerial view of the battlefield, courtesy of the CIDER drones overhead. He muttered his own curse.

“Alpha Teams, be aware spook boss is not happy. Looks like it caught some fire, or it’s just cranky we’re disintegrating its—WHOA!”

A massive tentacle whipped out from the curling mass of appendages at the boss’ “head” and slammed down on top of Alpha Team Two, who had drawn closer to the monument than they should have as they engaged the innermost guards. Three of the team members staggered back like drunks, as if the insubstantial tentacle had messed with their inner ear in some way.

“I SAID KEEP YOUR DISTANCE!” Derek roared. Adrenaline shot through him, and he increased his rate of fire to insane levels, trying to vaporize the remaining spooks between him and the other teams so they could get this whole operation over with. The unaffected members of Alpha Two pulled their staggering teammates back down the gentle slope up to the monument, fighting spooks as they went and drawing the last ring outwards with their retreat.

If Derek had hoped they would be left in peace to finish sweeping up the mobs of spook minions, he was sorely, sorely disappointed.

“Foxtrot, foxtrot, foxtrot!” Bradley chanted, backpedaling and almost running into Crispus as he avoided a second descending tentacle.

They shouldn’t have been in range, no boss they’d ever seen could move that fast—

“Hunters,” Hugo’s voice cut through the din, “be advised this entity has just exhibited teleportation capabilities. It moved approximately fifty yards in under a second. Based on scan analysis and current behavior, I have designated this entity as Scylla, a Sierra Class-1 TDM with Pummel and Crush attacks along with short range Blink abilities.”


Derek tuned out Crispus’ incredibly lurid commentary as options flashed through his brain.

Retreat, call off the op, and wait for backup? The boss spook could decide to hightail it across miles of inhabited area, or go camp on some other node in the middle of the city.

Dig in and hope they had enough firepower this time to kill the boss before it killed them? Unacceptable, too risky.

Make up new tactics on the fly and hope the spook didn’t have any other tricks up its tentacles?

Well, this has turned into a right old gong show, Derek thought, and gave the order.

“All teams, spread out evenly and make a roving clockwise circle around Scylla. Don’t give it any one group more tempting to attack than another. Stay just in cannon range. All tanks and snipers focus fire on the boss, everyone else finish mopping up the guards. And stay moving. Don’t stop for a second. Stationary targets are dead targets, eh?”

As Derek and his team started jogging to the left, firing as they went, Hugo’s brisk voice informed them: “Now adding whistling sound effects to mark tentacle location and distance. Higher and louder indicates closer proximity. Anything descending from above will trigger a visual proximity warning at ten yards. I am mapping and marking the entire entity to better track its pummel attacks, estimated completion time four minutes and thirty-two seconds.”

“Alpha Teams, I want your tactical people on spotting duty. Use your team channels. Don’t let this bastard take anyone by surprise.”

It was an impossible task, and even as he gave it, Scylla blinked again, disappearing and reappearing almost on top of Alpha Three.

Back up, back up!

Tentacle overhead!”

It’s got a ranged attack, watch out for plasma jets!”

It was controlled chaos, with tense calls and orders snapping over the group channel as many Alpha Testers acted and reacted too fast to bother checking which channel they were in before subvocalizing.

Within minutes Derek was sure of two things:

One, they were hurting the boss spook.

Two, the boss could kill any one of them in an eye blink if things went south.

They simply didn’t know enough about its range and capabilities, and had no time to find out.

It was do or die, now. He’d put his life on the line for his countrymen many times before, and was ready and willing to do the same for humanity.

But not today, if he could help it.

“Put on your big boy runners, Dasher, and move!” he hollered at Bradley, whose sideways jog as he kept his cannon trained on the boss was not fast enough.

Not fast enough.

“Hugo, what’s the interval between Scylla’s blinks? Is there a pattern?”

“There has been an average of ninety seconds between each blink, plus or minus two seconds, with no deviation thus far.”

“Blink range?”

“Nothing over fifty yards and nothing under forty.”

“Good. Add a visual field on all overhead maps with a fifty yard radius red ring around Scylla, and a ninety second countdown beside the map, make sure everyone is notified and on alert during the blink window.”

“Activating now.”

A countdown halfway through the ninety second window appeared at the top of Derek’s display, and the new red ring around Scylla showed that only half of his teams were safe.

“Alpha Four, Alpha Two, get out of blink range, now! Everyone else, smoke this bastard so we can go home. I have dishes to wash, or so my wife tells me.”

“Atta girl, Click!” Steve’s enthusiastic voice came on the group channel amid many panting chuckles and calls of “hooah” and “oorah.”

Four blinks later they were all still alive, though several times a team wasn’t fast enough to dodge a pummeling tentacle. One member of Alpha Five had to drop a baton when it gave out under the spook onslaught and caught fire, quickly melting to a twisted pile of plastic. Despite their rigorous conditioning, Derek could tell many were beginning to tire from the brutal pace and constant juking back and forth, rolling, and jumping, especially people like Bradley who had never been great runners in the first place.

At least they weren’t loaded down with fifty plus pounds of armor plate, ammo, and equipment like they’d endured on a daily basis in various combat zones around the world.

Small mercies.

“Based on previous Sierra Class boss encounters, I estimate Scylla is at roughly twenty-one percent health. Particle use is up seventy-three percent. Every drone in the area is diverting all available power from the network into your systems. I estimate you can continue at this particle usage level for another six minutes and fifteen seconds.”

“Tell me we’ll have enough,” Derek panted, making sure he was speaking to Hugo alone.

“Unknown, but based on total usage in the last fifteen minutes, I estimate it is fifty-seven percent likely you will.”

May the odds be ever in your favor.

The quote came from one of Sonia’s favorite old movie series, though why she liked it so much Derek had no idea. Maybe because it showed war for the truly horrific tragedy it was, something every veteran the world over knew. There were no happy endings in war. Only survival with varying degrees of scars.

“Yoda, it’s heading for the Potomac River!”

Sonia’s cry snapped him back to the moment and he widened his peripheral focus to take in their more distant surroundings.

They’d started out around the Washington Monument. The first blinks had been in random directions, but the last few had all been southwest, toward the tidal basin between the National Mall and the Potomac River. They were barely a hundred and fifty yards away from where Independence Avenue Southwest curved around the northern edge of the large basin. The spot was famous for the iconic pictures taken there under the Spring cherry blossoms while looking across the water to the Jefferson Memorial in the distance.

If it got out over the water, it would be out of their reach and it could continue, unmolested by all but the CIDER drones, to the highway where traffic zoomed past even at this time of night, or to the river, where it might continue north or south out of range of their weapons. They were already pushing things by shooting at fifty yards, a distance where far too many particles dispersed and were lost, lowering the destructive power of each shot by magnitudes. They likely could have destroyed Scylla already if they’d been able to attack at melee range from the get go.

Choices, choices, many choices. All of them bad.

But he knew what to do: balance the risk; take a chance; accept the sacrifice.

“All teams, converge on the southwest perimeter fifty-five yards out between Scylla and the basin. Ignore all lower level spooks. Focus firepower on the boss.”

“Oh—good—I can—stop running—soon,” Bradley wheezed.

“Be thankful this isn’t Jurassic Park, Dasher,” Sonia said, amusement tinging her perfectly even words.

“You are—an unnatural—freak—of nature—Click.”

“It’s my boiled fiddleheads, chum. You should try them sometime.”

“I’m with—Crispy—on this one. I’ll stick—with meat.”

The Alpha Teams converged with twenty seconds to spare before the next blink. Derek didn’t waste brain space hoping their maneuver might scare the boss back the way it had come. Operating on the assumption that it was attempting to flee the area in response to grave injury from their particle bombardment, it was possible it would shy away from the concentrated firepower now hosing it down from the very direction it was trying to flee.

Or, with all of its attackers in one tidy spot, it might decide to make an easy end of things.

It chose the latter.

They barely scattered in time to avoid the thrashing tentacles and plasma jets aimed their way, and at Derek’s command they regrouped at fifty-five yards again, now backed up almost to the water’s edge.

“As soon as it blinks, all teams charge and attack at melee range with maximum damage weapons. We’re going to end this thing before it can get out over the water and go wreak havoc somewhere else,” Derek said, knowing what he was asking of them.

There was a moment when all that could be heard was the muted howls of the spooks and the high-pitched whistling of Scylla’s tentacles.

“It’s been a great run, Yoda,” Steve said, sounding nearly as fresh and unworried as Sonia.

“Shut your gob and shoot, Fallu.”

“No, really, it’s been an honor. What American soldier hasn’t dreamed of going out in a blaze of glory with an illustrious Canuck leading the charge? The irony makes it all the sweeter! Wouldn’t you say, gang?”

“Absolutely,” Gregg piped up over the hoots and laughs. “Let’s do it again sometime soon.”

“You’re all a bunch of useless hosers. Now get off the group channel and fight.”

They didn’t have time for anything else. Scylla blinked, and then it was right there in front of them, tentacles headed down in great sweeps while plasma jets filled the air with flashing light.

Not a single Alpha Tester hesitated.

They charged as one and got in among the tentacles, slashing, shooting, and dodging with manic energy. They had ninety seconds to destroy the boss before it either blinked right on top of them, or out over the water where it would quickly be out of reach. They might still destroy it, but it would be a long and wearying chase that would likely draw too much attention, and could cause civilian casualties in the process. Derek was certain whatever media drones had been hanging around were recording their fight, even if their handlers wouldn’t review the footage until the morning.

Sixty seconds to go, and Derek stopped wasting time dodging Scylla’s attacks, focusing instead on making every strike count.

Thirty seconds and he fought the rising nausea and dizziness that his shielded helmet could only partially protect him from. His batons were blazing hot in his hands, but he kept swinging.

“See you on the other side, eh, love?”

“I’ll be there,” Sonia replied, their exchange on a private channel. “And you’re still washing the dishes.”

“Yes, dear.” Derek smiled.

Ten seconds to go and pride swelled in his chest, seeing every one of his teams fighting to the last man and woman. He threw everything he had at the monster, muscles burning and breath coming in gasps.

And just like that, Scylla exploded. Derek's visor darkened, but the flash still nearly blinded him, and he felt a wave of nausea and buzzing from the rapidly expanding storm of particles.

“All teams, exit combat mode!” Derek snapped.

The sudden silence was deafening. Through the ringing and his still-wonky vision, he made himself say, “Good work, teams.” He kept his tone professional, despite the knee-weakening relief mixing with all that adrenaline still pumping through him. Some of the Alpha Testers less concerned with appearances were whooping and giving each other high-fives and hugs on the grassy basin shoreline. The team leads checked in, reporting personnel and equipment status as Derek looked around, ensuring everyone was upright and ambulatory.

A strong hand descended on his shoulder, giving him a hearty slap.

“No casualties, just like you ordered, Yoda.”

“No thanks to you, Fallu,” Derek said with a good-natured jab to Steve’s ribs. His friend topped him by a good six inches, but Derek was used to his own middling height. He wasn’t bothered by men like Steve, who used their physical advantages to protect others, not advance their own pride and position. Steve was good people, and Derek was just glad he’d have another day to trade friendly jibes and maybe even get in some quality merc-ing time with him in Warmonger.

“Boss, please tell me this isn’t what we’re gonna be doing after game launch? The equipment testing stage was so much more relaxing.”

“It’ll be worse, Crispy,” Derek said with a rare, wicked smile. “We’ll have to play without all our shortcuts and unlimited resources. We’ll be lowly Hunters, starting from zero just like the other players. So I hope you’re up for some grinding.”

Crispus groaned theatrically and wandered off to gripe to more sympathetic ears.

Steve threw an arm around Derek’s shoulder.

“Didn’t have time to mention it before, but you won’t believe what I heard today. Krator told me he’s gonna approach Larry the Snake to beta TD Hunter.”

“Wait, you mean The Larry the Snake? Warmonger Larry?”

“Yup. And you won’t believe who Larry is in the real. I spewed a mouthful of bourbon all over my screen when I saw her profile.”

“You’re shitting me. Her? Larry the Snake? That foul-mouthed, ruthless old fox?”

“Oh, yeah. And that’s not even the best part. Wanna guess how old she is?”

Derek groaned and rubbed his temples with one hand. “Stop being a wad and just tell me, eh?”

Steve told him.

He nearly fell over.

Copyright © 2023 by Lydia Sherrer

Lydia Sherrer is the award-winning and USA Today best-selling author of urban fantasy series Love, Lies, and Hocus Pocus—the Lily Singer Adventures. “Operation Mall Stroll” is set within the universe of TransDimensional Hunter. The first novel in the series, Into the Real, was cowritten by Sherrer and New York Times best-selling author John Ringo. Book two in the series, Through the Storm, is available Nov. 7.