Chapter 0. Put
[ Day 0.03.02 ]
He had been shot at least twice. Wearing a patterned shirt, a combat vest, and a grim smile, the man padded along a smoky hall, gripping his .45 with both hands like they do in the movies.
Shafts of light played against sounds of a running fight. Shouts, cries of anguish—and laughter—echoed with sizzling twangs, cracks, and bangs as if a time warp had merged sci-fi battles, a gangster war, and a gunfight at the OK corral.
From behind came a muted, gritty crunch. He whirled, raising his weapon.
A security guard faced him—hand on holstered Taser but with no vest or laser gun.
The man raised his hands to surrender, then gave the common signal for silence by crossing pursed lips with the barrel of his plastic .45.
The guard said, “Hi, Neil.”
They exchanged smiles.
Striding past, the guard whispered, “Watch your back.”
The mistake was to think about it. By the time he turned to look, he had been shot again.
He shifted his gamer’s vest to a less irritating position.
Hurrying to the Atrium, his face betrayed surprise and fear as The Machine materialized through the haze. It rolled toward him, staring with its tablet screen face, and raising a plasma weapon.
He jerked his .45 to aim, but its blaster winked before he could fire, and the shooter bleated, “Trust your feelings, Neil.”
Neil fired. His weapon gave a hollow click instead of the sick but reassuring blam. He ducked past, heading toward the next stairwell as his .45 re-armed. A peek behind showed the machine backing away, its blaster pointed at him for another shot. This time he managed to dodge, but as the machine swiveled around the corner, someone else shot him. He dashed up the stairs.
At the top he studied a security camera aimed at the wrong door and disappeared into its usual field of vision.
Barely a minute later he slipped away, switching his blaster to his other hand, and then stuffing an edge of shirttail under his belt.
Neil looked up from his desk in the shipping dock. The hall door had banged shut.
“What the…?” he said as a man dashed past.
“Hey, you!” Neil called as the man disappeared out the Receiving door. He looked at his own shirt.
Before he could settle back to work, a company security team barged in. One officer planted himself between Neil and the Receiving door. The other demanded, “Where were you?”
“I don’t understand. I’ve been here.”
“Not all the time, though.”
“No, I did hit the head.” 
“Yeah, we checked,” said a third guard, coming in. “Nothing good in the restroom, Sarge.”
“Where is your gaming equipment,” the sergeant demanded.
“What equipment? I didn’t play.” Neil smiled nervously.
“Don’t give me that. You were in the hall, dressed as a gamer. We have video.”
“But I didn’t play.” Then he remembered. “I did see someone run past that might have looked like me. He had a shirt like mine. And a gym bag.”
The first guard showed his cell phone and whispered, “Sarge, this is Neil. The guy I saw earlier had to be an impostor. His teeth were all the same.”
The sergeant ordered the outside door secured, and suggested strongly to Neil that he talk with The Man and The Machine. “I’ll show you the way.”
“The way” included a half-hour wait at the company’s security desk while Doctor Little digested his AI machine’s report of the laser tag game. It was lively reading although Doc was the only human to read it.
“Dr. Little? TM2?” the officer said, ushering the worried receiving clerk into the boss’s office.
“I’ll be brief, Neil,” said Dr. Little as he watched his employee’s face without appearing to be careful about it. TM2 rolled to a better spot and watched Neil’s face with obvious care. “But I’ll need you to be open with me. Okay?”
“How could the intruder have known what clothes you were going to wear?”
“What?” The clerk got flustered but did not appear to be inventing a story. “I don’t know… unless…”
Man and machine waited for the rest of it, which Neil appeared embarrassed to admit. “Well,” he mumbled, “… I don’t have a big wardrobe…”
“Do we buy that, TM?” Doc asked when Neil had gone.
“Yes,” said the machine. “I have just examined my Data Matrix and scanned a few security videos. He wears the same sorts of things every day. It appears that he has duplicates of some shirts and slacks. Anyone familiar with his routine could assemble a matching collection. He may wear different things in the evenings and on weekends. Do you want me to check?”
“No. It’s too late...
“Nothing stolen?” Little said, fingering the machine’s report. “I find that hard to believe.”
“An inventory of prototypes and other sensitive materials shows correct, Doctor, and no sensitive files were accessed during the game.”
“I’ll bet they did get something,” said Little. “Whatever it was, it was small. Does IMINT show what it could have been? Archive all records of this day. We need to check it in detail.”
“If they did not get anything, Doctor, there is the other possibility. I shall check that as well, but it naturally takes more time.”
 “Hit the head”: military slang for visiting the restroom, the loo, the W.C., etc.
 IMINT: Military jargon for Image Intelligence, i.e., the analysis of images for clues.