When the newest leaderboard report appeared on the master display, the control room erupted in to ragged cheers. Team USA had jumped up five places since the last report. Dimple Ranhawa leapt up from her station and pelted toward the huddle of statisticians, who were already downloading the gigs of ancillary data to crunch to figure out the implications.
She arrived in time to hear someone gasp. It was Lucinda Brightside, a Texan economist with degrees from MIT and Yale who certainly wasn’t being paid what her enormous brain was worth. There were tears in her eyes. “We’re going to get the drug,” she said. “For Houston.”
Dimple didn’t need to ask which drug she meant—Houston had become a code word for a city in deep quarantine. The endless news coverage showed lurid photos of bodies lying unattended in bus stops and in doorways all over the city; the hospitals had become clogged and eventually evacuated outright.
The only treatment for the rampant fungal infection had been held up in international patent lawsuits; the parties involved had been drawn into the Alternis project to mediate a solution.
Lucinda had family there. But . . .
“What happened?” Dimple asked.
Lucinda was already scouring through the data logs. “I—I don’t understand,” she said. “It looks like the Korean team all lost a level. And . . . some other teams have too.”
Dimple’s stomach lurched. “So something dangerous is happening in Alternis,” she said.
Lucinda nodded. “But we haven’t suffered a setback. Go team.”
“We haven’t had a setback yet,” Dimple corrected. But maybe they wouldn’t. Whatever trap the Koreans had fallen into, maybe Team USA could escape it and come out on top. At long last.
Ben | Class: Elemental Mage | Level: 9
HP: 68/90 | Mana: 22/54 | Status: Normal
XP: 34,978 | Next Level: 45,000
A few moments of Ben’s life were frozen in his memory: perfect crystalline replicas where each sensation was indelibly recorded so he could relive them at any time. There were good ones that he was grateful for: the long-ago sulfuric smell of snuffed matches, the itch of his wool socks, the gentle press of his mother’s kiss on his cheek on any given night of Chanukah.
There were bad ones that he would’ve rather forgotten. The crackle of the radio and the oppressive heat as a bullet zipped by his cheek and struck the body of his jeep. And then the sound the next one made when it hit Francisco, seated beside him.
Now a new moment was preserved in his mind, far more like Francisco’s death than happy childhood holidays. The Skull King stood before him, the last member of the Korean team falling from his fingertips. The gaming idol was dead. Ben didn’t need to check a pulse or listen for breaths this time; the player’s health bar had gone to zero and flashed out.
The Skull King turned to Team USA. “Who’s next?” he asked.
A million tiny details all became permanent—the way the light reflected off the Skull King’s bare cheekbone; the shadows in the galleries overlooking the room, cordoned off by deep wine-colored drapes; the hiss of breath beside him as Etta reacted to the scene; the tang of blood pooled on the floor at the Skull King’s feet, too real and too familiar.
The monster’s health bar was still almost completely full—4,800 left out of 5,000 HP. Even the Korean team, as badass as they were, as skilled and as perfectly equipped—even they hadn’t been able to even scratch him.
Now the Skull King sized up Team USA, the four of them still crowded together in the vestibule to his throne room, and he smiled. Ben wasn’t sure how he could be said to smile, given that his face was literally a fleshless skull, but there they were. The king took a step toward them.
Dante raised his sword and his shoulders tensed. “Come at me, bro,” he said. Good boy, stupid boy, ready to dive into a fight he already knew he couldn’t win. The faces of so many other good, brave, stupid boys flashed before Ben’s eyes. The map of blood and agony on Francisco’s face, pressed forever into the patterns of dark and light behind his eyelids.
Ben shook off the cobwebs of memory slowly, painfully. He had saved a few such boys over the years, but not enough. Maybe he could save this one.
He raised his hands, preparing for the elaborate series of gestures that spellcasting required of him—in less pressing contexts, he even enjoyed it.
A collection of new monsters spawned behind the Skull King. These hounds were skeletal and misshapen, with fangs like a saber-toothed tiger. He refocused on his spell targeting the Skull King. Time to worry about smaller threats later.
But before his spell could fire: “Run!” Etta shouted. “Run, run, run!”