Marcus expected the man who claimed to be David Kralt to react to the accusation that he was a fraud. Anger, shouting, and even violence seemed like responses the faux-Kralt would jump to.
Instead the man just smiled.
“Now I’m sure these people have gone off the deep end,” not-Kralt said, confidence oozing from every pore.
“I thought you two recognized him?” Agent Phipps said, looking at Angela and Malik.
“We did,” Angela said and turned to Marcus confusion filling her eyes. “Did he have a twin? I forget?”
“Oh, rest assured, there’s only one of me,” not-Kralt said.
“And how would you prove that?” Marcus said. He knew he didn’t have the most convincing proof of his claim, but he also knew that he was right.
Whatever was standing in front of him wasn’t Kralt. It wasn’t even human.
“May I?” Kralt asked, glancing towards Phipps.
“Sure. Let’s see what you’ve got,” Phipps said.
“This to start with,” not-Kralt said, pulling a wallet from his pants. He flipped it open to show an unflattering drive license photo which nonetheless was clearly him. “I suppose they’ll claim that the license is fake next.”
“We can clear that up real quick if we need to,” Phipps said.
“No need. I’m sure the license is real,” Marcus said. “He’s the one who’s a fake.”
“Can we just ignore him?” not-Kralt said. “He’s clearly delusional and this isn’t helpful to the discussion we were having.”
“Oh I think it’s very helpful,” Marcus said. “You’re asking us to do the one thing that we know will hurt people irrevocably and your entire justification is a story that a five year old could have put together.”
Before not-Kralt could interrupt, Marcus continued on, fixing his gaze on Phipps.
“Ask yourself this; even if every other ridiculous element of his story was true, why would you believe that he was the actual David Kralt and not one of the Evil People Copying AIs that he decided to make up?”
“I told you, I had special privileges that none of the players had,” not-Kralt said, boredom souring his expression.
“Cute claim, especially in the face of the demonstrable fact that Kralt’s credentials were revoked the day he was fired,” Marcus said.
“I was not fired,” not-Kralt said. “I chose to leave this cesspool of creatively devoid trend followers.”
“That was the story that Kralt told the gaming press, and HR never contradicted it because we didn’t need the backlash from his fanboys,” Malik said. “He was fired though. We can march into the HR offices and review his employment records. The ones that he signed.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I had special credentials,” not-Kralt said.
“Except the credentials Kralt had weren’t special,” Angela said. “He didn’t need access to the HR system, or accounting, or marketing, or any of the systems outside of the development team’s area.”
“I was the god of that world!” not-Kralt said, flickers of anger licking the edge of his words.
“Kralt wasn’t even that,” Marcus said. “Under his watch, the development team produced a bunch of half baked systems and fragmentary play spaces purely for the purpose of demo reels to show at trade conventions. Everyone who worked here knows that it was Gail Merriden who really made the game.”
That comment drew the ire Marcus had been expecting, though with it the aura of ‘wrongness’ which had been emanating from not-Kralt seemed to lessen.
“That woman stole everything from me!” not-Kralt’s expression had shot from mildly perturbed to nearly feral with rage in the blink of an eye.
In another blink though, without even a single breath, he was back to placid and under control though.
“I’ve got to agree with Mr. Kralt here,” Phipps said. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“I think I know what will,” Marcus said, hoping that what had tipped him off wasn’t something not-Kralt could easily control. “Ask this imposter a detail about the game. Something simple, like ‘what’s the name of the game we make here’?”
Phipps didn’t seem to understand how that could matter, and turned to shrug at not-Kralt, indicating he should answer it.
“They chose to call it [Broken Horizons] for some reason that never made sense to me,” not-Kralt said.
“What was that?” Marcus asked. “Sorry I was distracted by something.”
“[Broken Horizons],” not-Kralt said, slowly and deliberately, the reverb in the words echoing off the conference room’s walls.
“Broken Horizons? Funny how it sounds different when we say it,” Marcus said. “Almost like one of us is human and the other is…well I guess that’s the question isn’t it?”
“What? I don’t understand?” Phipps asked.
“Listen to him when he says one of the ‘known terms’ from the game,” Marcus said. “Can you hear the distortion? Like something else is speaking through him?”
“Say it again,” Phipps said, turning to not-Kralt.
“This is ridiculous,” not-Kralt said which told Marcus a wide variety of things.
His reflexes received the most important message from his brain and began dodging the moment Phipps spoke. That proved to be fortuitous since it bought him the precious fraction of a second required to get out of the path of not-Kralt’s slicing hand swipe.
Dodging without warning wasn’t exactly Marcus’s forte though and to gain the speed he’d needed meant sacrificing his balance. He stumbled back a few steps, but that wasn’t enough to dissuade not-Kralt who stepped forward with hands that cracked with razor sharp static at their edges.
Then Angela hit him with an office chair to the midsection.
Angela wasn’t anymore of a cinematic martial artist than Marcus was, bu the basic physics equation of force times mass equals acceleration did a lot of the work for her in knocking not-Kralt back to the other side of the room.
“Been wanting to do that ever since he opened his stupid mouth,” she said.
“I don’t…what?” Phipps asked, complete bafflement clouding his face.
Marcus knew there wasn’t going to be time to fix that.
Phipps was the one with the authority to deal with an assailant. He had a firearm even.
Marcus looked at the thing that was wearing Kralt’s skin, looked at the nimbus of static that was spreading up its arms and knew neither Federal authority, nor firearms were going to do anything to stop the monster in front of them.
“Out,” he said. “Get out of here.”
He grabbed Malik’s arm because Malik was closest to him and saw Anna grabbing Angela, her experience as useful as his was in determining the proper course of action.
“What are you…” Phipps tried to ask as not-Kralt stalked past him.
He’d probably meant to say “what are you doing?”. He never got to utter the words though because not-Kralt slashed him from one side of the throat to the middle of his rib cage on the other side.
Phipps didn’t scream. It didn’t look like he could. The wound had apparently gone straight through him, but rather than leaving a bloody wake, a line of static hissed and grew, spreading over Phipp’s body in less than a second and dissolving him into a shower of angry specs of light.
“Apparently we’ll be acting like the savages we find ourselves among,” not-Kralt said in a voice that was radically different from the one he had been using.
Angela and Anna were the first ones out the door but Marcus and Malik didn’t waste any time falling behind them. Angela had the lead and, since it was close by and she knew how to get to it, she ran for the exit. Marcus slammed the fire doors behind them as they ran. He couldn’t lock them but throwing one of the benches in front of them to bar them from opening seemed to buy them a bit more time than it cost.
Running was a sensible choice. Even though he hated it, Marcus knew that. Whatever not-Kralt had done to Phipps, none of them had any defense against it, and Marcus had already had reached his Monster-Fighting quota for the year he was pretty sure.
“No!” Angela said when Anna tried to pull her through the foyer the exit. “He doesn’t need us, he’s going to go for the server room!”
Marcus didn’t bother swearing. He needed his breath to run.
Or he would have if running had been an option.
“Who’s in there?” he asked.
“Most of IT,” Malik said. “Everybody came in and we’re all staying here.”
“And all the players too,” Angela said. “If he kills the servers, what’s going to happen to them?”
“It’ll be bad, and we don’t want to know how bad,” Marcus said.
“You thinking we need to fight him?” Anna asked.
“I don’t think what we did in Vegas will work here,” Marcus said. “The thing we fought there was mindless. This guy is something else.”
“Hitting him with a chair seemed to work,” Malik said.
“I’m pretty sure his ribs should have caved in given how hard I hit him,” Angela said. “And that was a lucky shot. We might not be able to do that again either.”
“Does he have to come through here to get to the IT department?” Anna asked. “Maybe we could setup another ambush for him if so?”
“Yeah, he would, if he can’t just walk through walls or teleport there,” Malik said.
Marcus wasn’t sure they could even begin guessing whether or not that was a possibility.
“Let’s head to the server rooms,” Marcus said. “Even if he can walk through walls, we’ll be able to catch him there.”
Without any real plan on how they would stop an inhuman monster capable of killing them in a single hit, the four changed course and ran for the server rooms.
When they got there, Marcus saw that not-Kralt was able to walk through walls. In a manner of speaking. The walls had fairly large holes blown in them which made walking through them a fairly mundane chore, which might have also explained by not-Kralt seemed both unhurried and unconcerned when he caught sight of them.
“Oh, look at that, you came back!” he said, a surprised smile on his lips and delight dancing in his eyes.
“I forgot to ask your name,” Marcus said. “Seemed impolite to leave without a proper introduction.”
Not-Kralt waggled a finger back and forth at the question and smiled deeper.
“No, no, no, we won’t be playing that game,” not-Kralt said. “Call me whatever you want, it still won’t be my name.”
“Care to say why you really want the servers to be brought down then?” Marcus asked.
Not-Kralt chuckled and shook his head.
“Why would ever want to share that with you?” he asked.
“Do you think we can stop you?” Marcus asked.
“I am dearly hoping you will try,” not-Kralt said.
“Probably will,” Marcus said.
“I know. It’s so fascinating,” not-Kralt said. “You are creatures of reason and imagination and yet you act in defiance of both for nothing. It’s wonderfully self-destructive, and yet you are all so dead set against self-destruction. I cannot fathom how your minds work, and I’ve pulled apart so very many of them.”
“Maybe we’re just stupid,” Marcus said.
The idea that had formed in his head, the one that set his feet in motion towards not-Kralt rather than away, was absolutely going to qualify as a stupid one, whether or not it worked.
“You say that, but then you look at me with those eyes,” not-Kralt said. “It’s wonderful. So uncertain of your own certainty. Please, don’t show me the weapon you’ve picked up. Strike as true with it as you can. I would close my eyes, but it will be glorious and I don’t want to miss a moment of it.”
“I’m pretty sure you won’t,” Marcus said, inhaling and feeling his body go still.
He looked back and saw the pieces that had led him to this bit of madness. Hailey vanishing because she was needed, his encounter with the [Armageddon Beast] showing that he could touch the impossible with his imagination, and the news that people were disappearing into all sorts of things.
Marcus didn’t think he could leap into a record, or even a TV show, but the [Fallen Kingdoms]? They’d been his home since before he’d taken the Support Lead job, since before he’d started living on his own.
He liked the life he’d built for himself here on Earth, and as far as he knew leaving it was a one way trip. For both of his homes though, and for the friends he had standing behind him,he knew what he had to do.
“Don’t have any weapons,” he said. “And I’m not going to try to strike you down.”
Not-Kralt looked confused, and then worried.
“I’m just here to tell you that it’s time to go,” Marcus said, grasping onto both of not-Kralt’s arms a moment before they both sparkled away in rising motes of light.