I stood and flipped the table on its side. Dishes clattered, and spilt coffee splashed to the floor.

“Everybody, into the kitchen.” I pointed my finger at the Samoan and added as much bark to my voice as I could. “Lau, you’re in charge. Get them moving. Move. Move. Move.”

From a far corner, fog billowed from an unknown source and the distinctive sound of the hounds released for the hunt echoed throughout the room.

I grabbed June by the collar, lifted her from her chair, and shoved her toward Lau. “You help him. Go now.”

Her face froze, lips thin, and teeth clenched.

Lau didn’t waste any time. He grabbed June around the waist and slung her over his shoulder. “Everybody follow me to the kitchen.” His booming voice remained calm.

I left the room clearing to my big friend and placed my palm on my pistol. Fog continued to cascade from a distant corner and the bark and howls of the dogs increased. I took a knee behind the upturned table and waited for whatever was about to unfold.

A half-minute later, Lua had the handful of people from the chow hall moving toward the back of the room. Once everyone was through the kitchen door, he passed June to someone else and took position at the entry.

Strobe lights flashed from several locations, causing me to force my eyes to focus. The undeniable silhouettes of massive dogs shone within the fog. The hounds barking was drowned out by the blaring of a horn. It’s sound so loud it concussed against my skull.

I still hadn’t see any orange X’s. These were my approved targets. A thought flashed throw my mind. Was the note a ruse to see if I would follow the rules to the point of failure? Maybe I should discredit the rules and make my own?

It didn’t take me long to decide.

Strobe lights flashed in sequence to the horn. My head throbbed. I aligned the pistol sight on one of the strobe machines and pulled the trigger. I was rewarded by a burst of light and realization that one of the machines no longer operated.

I couldn’t see the horn, so I shot another strobe.

Several hounds darted through the fog. They appeared more shadow than solid. I mentally set the beasts aside and looked for the last flashing light source. It crumbled into pieces after I gifted it with a couple of .45cal slugs.

The horn fell silent. My head pounded, and spots clouded my vision. I slipped down behind the table and changed magazines.

Lau remained in the doorway. His arms crossed. A stern expression chewed his face. He nodded, freed one hand, and pointed deep into the room.

I looked around the table and nearly choked when I saw the apparition. It was me that stood in the center of the room. June on my left and Lau on the right. I looked to the kitchen door. Lau was still there with his arms crossed.

Looking back into the room, orange X’s formed on the chest of my illusions. It was unnerving to see myself as my own target.

The horn blared again.

I aligned the gun sight and fired.

With a knot in my stomach, I watched myself collapse to the floor. The apparition twitched a couple of times before lying still. Several hounds ran over and sniffed the body.

The images of Lau and June walked toward me. I separated a piece of my mind from the false reality of the scene and fired at the two targets until my pistol ran dry.

June’s and Lau’s specters lay dead. Dogs mingled around the corpses.

The horn ceased to sound.

All was quiet. The room remained dark, lit only by the light coming through the glass exit doors. The three bodies and dogs gathered in the center. Their translucent shapes ebbing and flowing with the fog.

I reloaded my last magazine and waited.

A voice echoed from a loudspeaker. “Cease simulation. Ironstone, stand down.”

One of the doors to the hall opened and Chief Shadow entered. His long gray pony tail bobbed as he walked toward me. He stopped about twenty feet away.

I kept my pistol low to my side, unwilling to holster the firearm. This may still be part of the test. I didn’t know. So far, everything I’d seen about this place was absurd. We were training in an old shopping mall and eating short-order food like a bunch of children at summer camp. My little voice remained quiet. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the threat being over, or if it was toying with me to see what I would do next.

My head hurt. The realization of this drill cranked up my stress further than I thought. It was me I shot and my new friend Lau. It didn’t seem right.

Chief spoke. “If an orange X appeared on my chest at this moment, would you fire?”

I answered without thought. “You bet.” I aimed Holly at the possible target.

He didn’t move, not a finger or foot, eyes locked to mine. “Lau.” His voice strong and commanding. “Lau, get everybody out of the kitchen out here. Make it fast.”

Lau looked at me.

I kept my pistol on Chief and spoke to Lau. “Go ahead but keep them behind me.”

He started pushing people out of the kitchen and had them lineup along the wall. Chief Shadow never moved. We held each other’s gaze.

Once all the people were out, he spoke,” Ironstone, would you shoot now? There are a dozen people here to whiteness your actions.”

His question surprised me. Did witnesses change how I operated? I’d always been a do something and not worry about what other people though kind of guy. Here I was pointing my weapon at what may be a living human being. A potential target, but maybe not.

Chief said, “the question made you think didn’t?”

I kept the pistol on target. “The fact that your voice seems to come from you and not the loudspeaker makes the decision a bit easier, but I assure you, if an orange X forms on your chest, I’m putting you down.”

“Good.” Chief smiled. “Even with all these witnesses?” He raised one hand to indicate the ensemble along the wall.

“The note in my pocket says I’ve been ordered to protect them.”

“Are you sure you have bullets in your weapon?”

Again, it was a logical but strange question. I mentally ran through my last actions with the pistol. “Six and one. I’m good.”

A mischievous grin pinched the corners of his lips. “Simulation is complete.”

The bodies and dogs ceased to exist. The room lights came back on and fog stopped billowing from a far corner.

“Not over till I say it is.” I kept my pistol aimed at him.

Leave a comment Rye IronstoneHe didn’t move. “I assure you, the drill is over. Finish your meal and get everyone to the firing range in twenty minutes.”

My stomach churned. This drill or simulation, or whatever you wanted to call it, stunk. It was another head game intended to screw with my mind.

I lowered my pistol, though didn’t holster the weapon. “Did I pass?”

“There is no pass. Either you fail, or you don’t, and you will eventually fail.”