“Is everyone okay?”
Quin regretted the question the moment he asked it. Of course they’re not okay, he thought. They just saw two people die. Not simulated deaths, real ones. Nobody answered him. They just all stood around in a loose group, breathing heavily and trying to comprehend what they had just witnessed.
Timothy was unharmed. Jordan and Clyde had received a few bumps and bruises, but, overall, they were fine to continue. Blair checked on them, tears streaming down her face. Quin hated to see her like that, but now wasn’t the time to console her. He had to pull everyone together.
“We have to keep moving if we want to make it through this,” Quin said. His confidence was not what it had been when they’d started. Everyone looked when he spoke, but no one made immediate action.
“Why?” Lauren asked. She didn’t seem to be trying to undermine him. She just seemed genuinely curious. “Why do we have to keep moving? Look what happened when we did. Why can’t we do what that other group was doing and set up some traps around the door and ride out the storm?”
It took Quin a moment to answer. Why did they have to keep moving? But then he remembered. “We are being scored here, graded. They are watching our every movement and deciding if we’re worthy enough to make it to Phase 2. After five rounds, only half of us will move on.” Everyone was listening to him now, actually listening. Quin’s confidence was quickly building back up. “With everything that is happening here, and I don’t mean just here, in simulation, but I mean everywhere in this stupid building, I don’t want to see what happens to those who don’t make the cut.”
Everyone looked around nervously, as if they too had forgotten that it was all a test, that their performance in the simulation mattered. Within moments, everyone was together and ready to keep moving forward.
“All right, boss, what now?” Sam said. She was tough, and Quin knew it. She was the type of person that Quin wanted to be on the right side of, a person that he hoped he wouldn’t have to be adversaries with in future rounds.
“I think we should go see what happened with that fight downstairs, make sure everyone on our side is okay and take out any hostiles that are left.” Quin said.
Everyone agreed and got back into formation. They kept the line up almost the same, except Timothy moved up beside Quin, Clyde and Kevin moved up as the front shields, and Davontaye shielded the rear alone.
They moved slowly down the stairwell. Every step echoed, making a stealthy approach impossible. They approached the door to floor 20. Kevin grabbed the door and pulled it open quickly, with everyone taking cover behind it. There was no explosion or immediate gunfire. Kevin thrusted his shield out into the open doorway, hoping to spark any reflex gunfire. Nothing happened. He peeked around the corner.
“I think it’s clear. We should go check though,” he said. Slowly the group moved back into formation. As they entered the doorway, they found themselves walking into a concert hall. Rows of stadium seating lined the floors, and a large stage sat in the back. The ceiling looked high above them, but Quin knew it had to be an illusion.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” Quin said.
They started walking down the main walkway toward the stage. They scanned each row of seats as they passed by. As they got closer to the stage, they heard some groaning. They all stopped to listen, unsure if it was from allies or enemies. Kevin and Clyde kept their shields up. As they rounded the corner of the final row, they saw four people lying on the ground. Only one was still in simulated gear. The rest were in their grey suits, eliminated.
“Well, we won. But I guess I shouldn’t have been so rude when you blew up my trap,” said one of the eliminated guys. “I should’ve invited you to stay and fight. We heard the commotion up there, thought you guys were goners. Moments later, we got overrun. Only Julie survived.” He pointed to the girl still in her combat gear. She was holding her side, seemingly in a lot of pain.
“How’d you guys get eliminated? You don’t look hurt,” Jordan asked.
The same guy replied. “I got shot in the chest, and they both got shot in the back.” He pointed to the other two teammates. They waved and laughed.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” Sam asked.
“It did. Still feels a little bruised, but the simulated pain goes away a few seconds after you’re eliminated. Julie is the only one trying to ride out the pain.” He laughed as he looked back at Julie, who was clutching her side. Her face was beat red, trying to hold her breath in hopes she could hold the pain along with it. “It’s okay, Julie, just call it. You can’t fight in that state. Don’t put yourself through the pain. We have four more rounds to make up for this loss,” he said, trying to encourage her. “She’s a tough cookie, that one.” He laughed again.
“Shouldn’t you guys be heading to the elevator?” Quin asked.
“We’ll get there. We know Julie’s gonna give up soon, might as well go out as a team,” he said. He seemed to be treating this like just a game. He was a good sport. Quin didn’t think his nonchalant attitude would get him very far in the Prism, but he kept further comments to himself. The man spoke again. “You guys better get going too. You only have an hour left in simulation.”
“Right, thanks,” Quin replied. “Let’s move, guys. They’ll be all right.” They got back in formation and returned the way they came.
“Where are we going now?” Timothy asked.
“I don’t care,” Quin answered. “There’s no way of knowing. Anyone could be anywhere. Trying to predict the unpredictable will just lead to an undeserved swelled ego or depression. Let’s just go where our feet take us and hope for the best,” Quin said. “Clyde and Kevin, you’re up front. We’ll follow you wherever you go.”
“Yes, sir,” they joked in unison. They led the group back to the staircase and headed down. Quin hoped they were being led into a situation that would keep them alive, both in simulation and for real, for the next hour.