The the hallway carpet of the Luxor threw up coughs of dust with each concussion. Shannon was on the floor, on her side, with her hands over her ears. She was too exhausted to curl up or find better shelter. Her free room was destroyed by a missile strike the day before and she had been determined to spend the rest of her leave crawling the various 'experiences' that Vegas had to offer, but even she had hit her limit.
"You should get up." A man stood over Shannon. He wore a full gladiator costume. His bulging muscles glistened. She thought it must have been corn oil. You could still get that from the LA supply lines.
"I'm done," said Shannon, pressing her cheek into the carpet.
"You can't be done," said the gladiator. "You're our last defense."
"No," moaned Shannon.
"Come on soldier. This place isn't safe any longer." He reached down and brushed her hair from her face. "Got a place to stay?"
"Why?" asked Shannon.
The gladiator pulled her up by her shoulders then slung her arm around his shoulders and set her upright.
"Why...this? What am I fighting for?"
"Some people just don't like to see other people being themselves I guess. Best I can tell is that if they have to be miserable, they want everyone else to be miserable too. You're fighting for freedom. For happiness."
"This is not happiness."
Two overweight, sternly grim looking women bustled past wearing Edwardian clothing. A man wearing full biker leathers and a voluminous beard followed closely.
"Look," continued Shannon, "they're not even paying attention to the war, to what's going on outside. They've just escaped into a fantasy. All of them. All of you!" She screamed the last at the diminishing figures as they scurried down the hall.
"Shhh," urged the gladiator.
He took her to the nearest elevator and pressed the down button. The elevator came quickly and was empty. He pushed her through and leaned her against the wall and pressed the button for the lobby.
"It's their right," said the gladiator. "The pursuit of happiness in whatever form they wish it to take. Besides, in what other war in history have people had the chance to escape, if even for a few hours at a time, its ravages and horrors, so completely?"
Shannon thought about this then started laughing.
"What?" asked the gladiator.
Her laugh faded and she looked up into his eyes with an old sadness.
"I came back here to escape, and I couldn't. When we were advancing across the Colorado river two weeks ago, there were...the faces...there was this playground in a small town. There was a pile of bodies, children heaped up in a corner of the fence. They weren't piled there. They ran there, huddled, and were burned."
The power flickered in the elevator and then it went dark. The car slowed to a stop. The gladiator pressed his hand to her shoulder.
"I saw many of my friends die in battle, and because they were fighting it somehow didn't hurt as much. But after seeing those children, all of it hurts. I can't escape any longer. Like I said, I'm done."
There was silence for a moment, and they could both feel the dusty staleness in the air.
"You can't. You just can't," said the gladiator in a small voice.
"If you're still in it, sign up. Go fight. See for yourself. Our side might still have a chance at winning," she said. "But my war is over."
The lights came on and the car started moving again.
"I don't know if I could. I don't think I have what it takes to be a soldier."
Shannon laughed again.
"You must, considering that getup."
"Oh this. I get paid for it. I act out other people's fantasies, not my own."
"Oh. You're one of those," said Shannon. "Well then, you have more to fight for than the rest of us."
The gladiator looked down at his sandals to hide his shame. Shannon considered apologizing for her coarse words, but came to the conclusion that she didn't really care. The elevator slid finally to the lobby, and the doors opened onto a busy scene, full of litters and IV drips. Many of the hotels had to take on the duties of makeshift hospitals. Most of the litters were filled with soldiers flown in from the front, but there were also many civilians who were victims of the frequent missile attacks lobbed from Salt Lake City or Phoenix.
They picked their way through the rows of beds and went back through the old gaming rooms. Where one-armed bandits once stood half a century ago, there were the doors to the reality rooms, which was a bad name for them considering they were anything but.
"No," said Shannon feebly.
"You can rest here. You're a soldier, you have unlimited credit."
Shannon shook her head in protest but the gladiator found an empty room and pressed the button to open the door. He shoved Shannon inside, then closed the door behind her. The room was a silent cube bathed in gentle blue, the light coming from all the smooth surfaces. She stumbled to the middle of the room and slumped down in a heap, her head hanging.
"Please state your destination," said the room in a soft voice. The voice repeated its query when Shannon didn't answer.
"Nowhere," said Shannon.
"That is not a valid destination." The color of the room shifted briefly to pink. "Please restate your destination, or if you would like a list of popular options, please say 'menu'."
Shannon sat quietly. The color of the room began to pulsate subtly, intended as a prompt for its occupant, and it had the effect of irritating her.
"Take me to when and where humans aren't awful to each other."
"I do not understand your request. Please state your request as simply as possible."
"Take me to the future."
"There are several programs that are representative of the future. If you would like a list of these, please say 'list future'."
"That's not what I...never mind."
"Would you like to create an original program set in the future? Our scripting language is easy to learn and use, and is free. You can even earn royalties on any program you create and release to the public. If you would--"
There was a moment of silence.
"Please state your destination."
"I want out."
"The door is located behind you. Thank you for using--"
"That's not what I meant. I want OUT!"
"I do not understand your request--"
"If you would like to invoke the mute mode--"
"If you would like to invoke the mute--"
The cube was completely silent. The walls pulsed. Shannon let herself spill out completely on the floor, her limbs spreadeagled. She looked up.
"Gimme a blue sky with clouds."
The cube obliged, and floated her in the sky free of any sight of ground. Shannon tried to relax, tried to think of nothing but the sky around her, but the charred gawping faces of the children came back to her, then the sight of wildfires on the horizon in the night, set by the enemy, then the eviscerated torso of her commanding officer...
"Give me darkness."
The cube darkened but not completely, replacing the clouds with a glittering Milky Way.
"No. The kind of darkness you find in a cave deep in the Earth."
The cube went completely dark, but there was the sound of water dripping. Shannon tried to focus again. She visualized the drops as rings that expanded around her, but in the darkness she also felt hands on her uniform, pulling and tugging.
"Help us," said the children. "We're burning."
"I can't," said Shannon. "You are already dead."
"So are you," said the children.
Shannon shook her head.
"There's nothing I can do."
"But we're burning."
Their fingers dug into her flesh and all of her skin went prickly.
"Give me a playground."
The cube generated a generic looking playground from the middle of the 20th century. The smell of freshly mown grass was on the air with a hint of autumn. There was a light, cool breeze. The playground was deserted, and the swings swayed gently. Shannon sat up and straightened her uniform.
"Unmute. Why are there no children?" she asked.
"There are no children," said the cube enigmatically.
Shannon puzzled over this.
"Why are there no children in this destination?" she asked, hoping her query was more precise.
"Because children do not exist."
"I do not understand your request."
Shannon unsteadily found her feet.
"Why do children not exist?"
"They have not been created."
Her heart pounded.
"I have to create them, don't I?"
"Would you like a tutorial of our scripting language?"
Shannon turned around and looked for the faint shimmer that always outlined the doors of the reality rooms. It was there, and she slowly exhaled in relief. The gladiator, she thought.
"I'm not dead then."
"I do not understand your request--"
"Yeah, yeah. Mute."
Shannon took in the playground again. She tried to imagine live children running around, screaming with glee, but the image wouldn't hold in her mind for more than a second at a time. She walked to a swing and sat down on its narrow wooden seat. She wrapped her arms around the chains and leaned forward, looking at her combat boots in the dusty ruts underneath the swing.
"I hate being manipulated," she said aloud. "I don't care if it's meant as a favor."
The door in the wall opened, and the gladiator came in again, and stood just inside.
"I'm just trying to help you," he said.
"I understand," said Shannon. "It's your job. It's more than that though isn't it? It's who you are. Who you were bred to be."
"One of those. Yes."
"What the enemy hates the most."
The gladiator walked over to the swingset and sat down in the swing next to her. He took off his helmet and rested in his lap.
"I feel responsible, in a way, for this war," he said.
"It's not your fault," said Shannon.
"If my kind didn't exist, this wouldn't have happened."
"No, that's not true. War will always happen between people. I guess I'm a cynic though. It's ironic, isn't it? Your kind was meant to be a more peaceful branch of humanity, neutered of its anger, prejudice, and unintentional pugilism. Maybe it's my kind that needs to be exterminated."
"Don't say that. Please. We are the same, except for a few swapped out genes."
"Of course you would say that," chuckled Shannon. She started to swing back and forth, and the gladiator followed suit.
The sky suddenly went pink.
"Power has be interrupted," said the room. "Emergency reserves will last for five minutes. Please exit the room at your earliest convenience."
They both stopped swinging and slowly came to a rest.
"We should go. This hotel won't hold out much longer," said the gladiator.
"Yeah...we should," said Shannon, lost in thought. "Thanks for trying to help."
"I'm sorry if you felt 'manipulated'."
"It's fine." Shannon stood and so did the gladiator. "I guess it did help a bit. I can go back now, knowing there is someone to fight for. Someone who cares."
The gladiator wrinkled his forehead and looked like he was about to cry, but then he redonned his helmet, stood stiffly, and saluted her.
"No need for that," said Shannon, her face reddening, but with a growing smile.
They walked out of the cube and it returned to its placid state of blue.