Hal’s body stiffened, its skin blackening and shrivelling. Beyond his headlights, Jay saw the John’s trucks stop. A John pointed towards him, and he heard shouts of alarm. Over his bumper, tentacles of flesh ripped from Hal’s body, flailing in the headlights. Smoke poured out of Hal’s skin. The thing—no longer Hal—reared its head. Its mouth fell open and it’s jaw detached, dangling and twisting in the air. An unearthly shriek pierced the night. The Gulkons stopped fighting and stood, staring at the transformation.
Jay felt his heart grow cold. He recognized that cry. He’d heard its 16-bit equivalent all spring. It was the final boss of Krave III. He popped his head out the window and he yelled:
Hal’s body grew, lengthening and hunching, flesh hardening into a cocoon. The skin around Hal’s face pulled taught, then burst into a hideous, glistening membrane. His lidless eyeballs, two piercing orbs, swivelled back and forth. His mouth sharpened, and teeth jutted out from his jaw. A glowing red brain expanded with each rhythmic pulse.
The Maga Froid threw its arms down into the hood of the car. Stretching its legs, it lifted up to its full height, towering into the sky. Even in its 16-bit form, the Maga Froid spurred Jay’s adrenaline. Now it was real. The unbeatable boss.
“Get out of here!” Jay screamed. The John’s trucks squealed as they swerved backwards. A ping of bullets rained across the squad car’s frame. Jay crouched behind the dashboard and swung open the driver’s door, tumbling out onto the ground. With spindly fingers, the Maga Froid lifted up the car and flung it out into the darkness. There was a moment of silence, followed by a hideous squeal of metal.
“Move back! Follow me!” He shouted at the encroaching trucks. The Johns ignored him, their attentions consumed by this hideous new monster. Their shotguns boomed, their gunfire disappearing into the Froid’s brain as it screamed. A hideous gurgling sound welled up in its mouth. Then its head snapped back, lurched forward, and a stream of bile burst from its mouth, pouring over one of the trucks. Steam hissed as the truck dissolved.
Jay ran, desperate, into the shadows of A-Court. The moon was lower now, plunging the school in deep shadow. Under the darkness, Jay stumbled, feeling his way with his hands, desperate to escape the awful screams. The John’s tiny, futile rifle patter diminished, and the chirp of crickets grew. Jay’s heart pounded, and he prayed no Gulkons awaited him in the darkness. He rounded A-Court and fell into the open courtyard. A faint breeze caught him. Grass glowed in the open patches of moonlight.
A new sound grew. The dim, steady hum of an engine. Above that, voices. He pushed himself towards the sounds, moving into the small forest surrounding Tutorial. Pine boughs scratched his face, then fell away. The smell of exhaust was thick. A haze of smoke wafted into the light that spilled out the window. An extension cord through a crack under the glass pane, down to a small red generator that hummed on the ground. He heard the low murmur of Colin’s voice, and he nearly collapsed in relief. Thank god.
In two bounds he was up the ramp. He heard another voice now, higher and louder. It was Shayna’s, and she was yelling.
“--touching anything else, until Ms. Rotchkey or someone who knows something—”
Jay flung open the door. Colin stood in the center of the room, facing Shayna. He was in a state of partial undress, wearing a tanktop and boxer shorts. Though Colin was several inches taller than Shayna, and nearly a hundred pounds heavier, Shayna was in his face, eyebrows flaring, finger shoved in his chest. Mike sat at his desk, wearing a suit of armor, plasma rifle laid his desk, scratching at a worksheet with a yellow pencil, ignoring them. Olaus, also armored, feigned a study of the cat posters in the corner. Marlene shifted, uncomfortable. Bill was attaching a minigun to his wheelchair frame. Stevie stared at the computer with an uncharacteristic frown.
When Jay entered, everyone turned. He blinked at Shayna.
“Shayna. What the eff?”
Shayna swivelled her anger onto Jay. “I’m not okay with all of this. I think it’s pretty reasonable to suggest that maybe we stop messing with the fabric of the universe.”
“Hal’s coming. He’s a Maga Froid now.”
Colin eyes widened.
Shayna stepped up to Jay. “A what?! Nobody is touching that computer until an adult comes.”
“The adults are all dead, Shayna. Everyone’s gone. Dunam’s. It’s just us. So you have two choices. Stay here and be a team player. Or go look for an adult.”
Shayna stared at him. She opened her mouth to protest and Jay pointed to the door. She shut her mouth and crossed her arms, fuming. Jay put a soft hand on Stevie’s shoulder. “How’s it going?”
Stevie showed him the screen. The Build was centered over the parking lot.
“We’ve been watching your progress.”
“How are the Johns?”
Stevie’s face fell. “Not good.”
Onscreen, the pixelated Maga Froid lifted a truck and threw it into the baseball field. It sailed through the air, hitting the ground and bursting into flames. He saw four Johns left, firing at the oncoming Gulkons, pushing back towards A-Court.
Alone in the parking lot, a single figure strafed back and forth, firing bullets into the Maga Froid. Stevie moused over the avatar. It was Jeremy. A swell of Gulkons encircled him. Jeremy spun in circles, firing bullets all around. Jay leaned in to watch.
“C’mon Jeremy. You’re our last hope.”
The Maga Froid extended a long arm. It swooped down and grabbed Jeremy, lifting him to its mouth. Then Jeremy was gone. There was a moment of silence.
Jay turned to Stevie. “Can we kick him out of here?”
“If we can get him out of The Build, I can password protect the program. He won’t be able to make any more changes. But we have to get him out, first.”
Jay nodded. “We have to kill him.”
Colin’s eyes were wide. “Kill the Maga Froid?”
“It’s just another boss. Like King Koopa, or Shredder, or Dracula.”
“It’s the Maga Froid. You said he was unbeatable.”
“That was in a moment of intense frustration. You think we’d really go the summer without beating it?”
“Now’s your chance.” Stevie pointed at the screen. The Maga Froid was moving towards A-Court. Hundreds of Gulkons dashed past it, falling onto the school and tearing through its walls.
“So what do we have?”
Colin pointed to the pile of weapons they’d pulled from The Build.
“This.” He beckoned to the window. “And I was thinking I might use that.”
The trees around Tutorial swayed in the early morning breeze. Twenty feet away, nestled between two small pines, barely touched by the light of Tutorial, was a Gulkon Power Suit. It was tall, the height of the Gulkon Enforcers, human in shape. Its sides were a smooth, crafted metal. One hand terminated into a plasma rifle. The other gripped a five-foot Gulkon Power Blade that was bigger, even, than the one they’d had at prom. Jay whistled. It was even more beautiful than anything in the Krave III manual.
Jay placed a hand upon the soft mound of Colin’s shoulder.
“Godspeed, my friend.”
Jay bent over the pile of weapons and pulled out a rail gun. It was his favored Krave III weapon. Light and smooth in his hands, it felt somehow wonderfully familiar. He slid into an armor pad that hung loose at his sides, then he turned to Tutorial.
“Guys… this town sucks. This high school sucks. The Johns suck. But they’re all we have. Let’s win ‘em back.”
Stevie beamed. “Okay!”
Colin bent over Stevie and, blushing, gave her a peck on the cheek. Stevie spun around and wrapped her arms around Colin’s neck, and gave him a big, proud kiss. Shayna scoffed.
“When did this happen?”
Jay turned to her, sternly. “Leave it.”
Through the window, Gulkon howls grew louder. He nodded at Colin. “Go suit up.”
Colin stomped through the door. Out the window, Jay watched his friend step gingerly through the dew-covered grass around his bare feet. The outside world wasn’t so dark anymore. The stars faded as the blackness of the night shifted to the blues of dawn.
Colin rubbed his exposed shoulders, shivering as he stepped into the Power Suit. Jay watched it clamp down around him. He took a tentative step forward, and the suit stomped with his body. Colin spun, giving a practice swing. The Gulkon Power Blade cut through the trunk of a pine tree, toppling it. He held out a fist and gave Tutorial a huge, metallic thumbs up. Jay returned his thumbs up.
“Alright. Move out.”
Jay waved Mike, Olaus, Shayna, and Marlene down the ramp. Bill Twatchky’s wheelchair bounced behind them, it’s minigun rattling against its armrest. Through the trees, snarls and barks mingled with sounds of destruction—smashing glass and bending metal.
Gulkons were everywhere, swarming the school. Scouts were up on the C-Court roof, sinking long claws into wooden shingles and tearing out chunks. Gulkon Grunts covered the parking lot, slamming fists into the remaining cars. A Grunt lifted up the batmobile and flipped it onto its side, blowing out its windows. There was a pounding against the C-Court wall and then the cement burst, and Grunts and Scouts writhed out through the hole.
Plasma flashed across the parking lot with metallic-sounding discharges. Enforcers stomped around the corner. And a thick hoard of Gulkons swarmed over the farthest hill, crossing the baseball field.
Jay lifted his rail gun, centering on the long, terrible head of a Scout. He let the weapon drift with the creature’s movement, then pulled the trigger. The weapon gently kicked and gave a satisfying click. A vapor trail streaked through the air. Through his scope, he saw the Scout’s head burst in a thin spray of goo. The Gulkon’s body tumbled forward and lay still.
The heads of the Gulkon Grunts swivelled round at the noise, turning on the Tutorial kids. Marlene screamed, Mike yelled in defiance, and then they were shooting. Olaus washed the parking lot with plasma, disintegrating Grunts. Shayna pointed her grenade launcher into the air, raining metal cartridges with a steady ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk. The balls bounced off the ground and exploded, ripping Gulkon flesh and spinning limbs across the asphalt. Bill sprayed his mini-gun, pushing his wheelchair forward against the weapon’s kick. Jay pulled back the bolt of his rail gun, raised it to his eye, and fired again.
The hoard came furious, rushing them from all sides. Jay dropped his rail gun, picked up a mini-gun, and walked into the parking lot, holding down the trigger. Bullets spat out, white hot insects that kicked over Gulkons with a touch. Jay swung the gun back and forth. Lines of Gulkons tumbled over, falling into piles. Yet still more came.
Jay could hear them in the trees now—Scouts leaping through branches behind them.
His small army pushed towards C-Court as the monsters surrounded them. One Gulkon Grunt got so close, he could see the cracked rivulets of its skin. He heard shouts, followed by deep, resonant booms. Johns D, H, W and A ran around the side of C-Court, firing their shotguns and rifles.
John W turned in surprise and shouted, “Jay! Get to Jay!”
They fired through the fray. Gulkon corpses now covered the parking lot. Jay motioned to a last, lone truck, and Olaus and Mike climbed into its bed, plunking down a mini-gun from its side, and sitting down like a bunker, blasting the Gulkons surrounding them. Colin burst through the pines, flames shooting from the jepack on his back, hovering over the ground, towards them. He thundered down in the thick of the creatures. They swarmed around him, clawing his armor, biting its metal. He swung his Power Blade around in a circle, cutting the creatures in half.
Shaking, Marlene climbed the retaining wall and leapt onto the C-Court roof. She shot three surprised Scouts, then dropped down, drawing her legs to her chest, curling into a ball, even as she blasted the Enforcers rounding the building’s corner. Shayna followed, taking a running leap onto the roof, rolling, then barking orders at Marlene.
“Get up! Get closer to the edge! You want a better angle.”
Marlene squealed and crawled towards the edge. Shayna ran to the side of the building and fired shots down onto the Gulkons. The Gulkons, which only moments ago seemed endless, were thinning. Only a dozen flushed the C-Court parking lot at a time, and the Tutorial kids mowed them down. Where, Jay wondered, were the rest?
Jay leapt onto the roof and placed a hand on Marlene’s shoulder, startling her.
“How are you doing?”
Marlene shook her head and squealed again. Shayna walked over, pointed at Jay’s gun.
“You’re holding it wrong. They shoot better like this.” She demonstrated.
“No, they don’t.” He walked to the edge of the building. Charred holes pierced the rooftop and he had to step carefully to keep his footing, balancing on an exposed ceiling joist.
“Do you hear anything?”
Marlene paused her reloading.
“I don’t hear nothing...”
Shayna strained, desperate to get the right answer. “I hear… I think I hear…”
“I don’t hear anything either.”
Shayna shouldered her grenade launcher and walked alongside Jay to the far side of the roof. The morning was quiet now. The Gulkons had stopped their advance. As they neared the edge, Jay saw them crowded in the courtyard. Hundreds. Staring up at him. As he approached, they moved, shuffling outward, making an aisle. Something slithered down the middle, towards them.
“Shit.” Jay muttered. “Here we go. Colin!”
The hideous head of the Maga Froid erupted from the Gulkon hoard. Its lidless eyeballs swivelled to Jay. He sighted his rail gun and fired. A vapor trail pierced the air, and the bolt disappeared soundlessly into the Maga Froid’s brain. Marlene leapt up, hosing the monster with plasma. Shayna’s grenades exploded against the creature, without harming it. The boss monster straightened up into the sky. It looked like a giant black millipede as it wiggled its dozens of tiny legs.
The Gulkon hoard watched the Maga Froid, backing out of the way. The monster bent, slithering over the ground, then onto the C-Court wall. Two massive pincers unfolded from its jaws, slamming into the side of C-Court, gaining purchase and pulling it up onto the roof. Jay dropped his gun and ran back, leaping over the gaping holes.
“Get away! Go back!”
Through the corner of his eye, he saw Marlene following. Shayna ran backwards, firing.
“For Todd!” She shouted, spraying the creature, who reared up over her.
Jay stood before the two girls, lifting his rail gun, firing into the Maga Froid’s brain.
“You have to jump!”
Shayna leapt off the roof and hit the ground, rolling. Marlene hesitated.
Marlene stared down, and climbed awkwardly over the edge, slowly lowering herself. The Maga Froid loomed over them. Jay stood over Marlene, firing his rail gun, hitting the Maga Froid between the eyes without slowing it. It’s head snapped down.
Jay felt its pincers wrap around his waist, its grip crushing so he couldn’t breathe. His head swam with pressure. The ground lifted away and the dark, red cavern of the Froid’s mouth grew. Down below, he heard faint yells, and the renewal of fire power as Bill, Olaus, Mike and the Johns fired their weapons into the Froid.
The creature’s mouth opened, and a deadly gurgling noise bubbled out. Laughter. Jay felt himself slipping into unconsciousness as he awaited to be drenched in bile.
Somewhere off to his left, the air whistled, and their was a mechanical clicking sound. He turned. Behind the spots in his eyes, he saw a dark shape blast through the air. He caught a glimpse of Colin’s face, twisted in rage, as he charged with his power suit.
The Maga Froid’s head jerked back, ready to blast Jay in bile. Colin slammed into its brain, knocking the Maga Froid sideways. The creature sprayed bile, missing Jay and covering the rooftop.
Jay felt the pressure disappear from his waist. His vision returned and he felt the cold rush of air. He was falling. He hit the edge of the roof and rolled down, falling another fifteen feet into the gravel behind C-Court. He tried to breathe, but felt daggers in his lungs. He sucked air in loud gasps, his eyes swimming. From up above, he heard Colin’s grunts and the sickly rip of flesh as Colin plunged his blade again and again into the creature’s head. The Maga Froid screamed. Jay forced himself up and ran out into C-Court, joining the Johns and Tutorial. The Gulkons poured around the sides now, the full force of their hoard pressing in for the final assault. Up on the roof, Jay saw the dark form of the Maga Froid swivel its head, snapping, and knock Colin from the air. His power suit tumbled downwards, falling onto the roof, out of Jay’s sight. The Froid’s pincers flew outward, and then stabbed straight down. In his mind, Jay had the sickening image of Colin impaled. The creature was too strong. Hal had hacked the rules to ensure victory.
But two could play that game.
“Fall back!” Jay shouted. The Gulkons were everywhere now, relentless. Two scouts pounced John D, and he disappeared under the creatures. On the roof, the Maga Froid was bending down over its quarry. The Tutorial kids stepped slowly backwards, moving towards Tutorial. Jay ran up the path, screaming,
He saw her open the window. Above the drone of the generator, he heard her voice.
“What’s the damage output of the Maga Froid?”
Stevie’s head disappeared inside. Without waiting for her response, Jay climbed up on the railing of the Tutorial deck, and leapt onto the roof. He heard Stevie’s voice below.
“10,000 damage per hit.”
“Okay.” Jay could see the Maga Froid curling around the downed figure of Colin, it’s head lifting back for its bile attack. “Give Colin one million.”
Jay heard the clattering of Stevie’s fingers on keys. Over the pine tops, he watched creature rear back and spray its bile down. Jay saw a sudden flash as Colin grabbed the Power Blade off the roof. He sliced through the Maga Froid’s body, then rolled out of the way of the bile, which sprayed over the roof. Jay saw him crouch, gripping the Power Blade in both hands. His jetpack fired, and he shot straight up, holding out his Power Blade. His body smashed through the Froid’s head, bursting out through the top like a giant bullet.
Viscous purple liquid sprayed out of the hole, onto the roof and splattering the parking lot. The Froid’s body wobbled in the air, then toppled over.
The Gulkons stopped, turning, staring. Mike and Olaus mowed them down Gulkons where they stood. The creatures scattered, dashing off into the dawn. Jay ran to the edge of the roof and dropped down. He flung open the Tutorial door. Stevie sat at her computer. She turned, her smug smile growing. For the first time, Jay was happy to see it.
“Does this mean—?”
“Yep. Locked out. Nothing more he can do.”
Jay exhaled. “You’re sure? He can’t make changes?”
“We’re password-protected. We saved Dunam.” Her smile faltered. “What’s left of it.”
Jay relaxed. Everything was quiet now, except the hum of the generator. He looked out the window. He could see parts of the parking lot through the pines. The sky was shifting now into beautiful golden hues. A heavy metallic clomp climbed the Tutorial ramp, then Colin flung open the door. He had to duck for his power suit to fit through the doorway. Viscous purple slime slid down the sides. He gave Jay and Stevie a shy smile.
“Colin... you beat the game.”
Colin chuckled softly and raised an eyebrow.
“Did we cheat a little?”
“No more than Hal did. C’mon, how do you feel?”
Colin flexed his Power Suit.
“Like I have a big damage output.”
Stevie leapt from the computer. “Also, more hit points.”
She wrapped her arms around Colin’s neck, kissing him cheek. Jay smiled.
“Alright, stop with the sexy talk.”
More footsteps ran up the ramp. Olaus, Mike, Shayna, and Marlene stepped through the door. Bill rolled after in his wheelchair.
“I think we got ‘em.” Bill offered. “The Johns are chasing down the rest.”
Jay glanced at the wall clock. 5 a.m. Beneath his chest armor, his prom jacket and shirt were still wet and freezing. He slunk into his Tutorial desk, exhausted.
“Stevie… is Liz around?”
Stevie turned back to the computer and pointed.
“She’s right here, watching.”
Stevie nodded at the desk before Jay.
“Can you bring her back?”
Stevie started to type.
“Let’s see, I— Hmm.”
Jay turned. There was something in Stevie’s voice.
Stevie pointed at the screen. Jay looked over her shoulder. The others gathered behind him. Stevie zoomed in on the screen. It hovered over a slice of forest, past town. The trees were swaying in their normal looping animation. Everything looked normal. Except, in the middle of the screen, there was a small square of neutral grey. Jay nodded.
“Is something… wrong with the monitor?”
Colin leaned in. “It looks like… nothing.”
The grey square jumped. The surrounding squares were grey now, too. The forest was slowly disappearing.
“I thought he couldn’t make any changes?”
Stevie clicked over to the black command console. The code wasn’t moving.
Jay felt his blood run cold, realizing,
“No. He’s not making changes. He’s wiping his whole hard drive.”