Bitter 299

The idea of an Off switch inside the game wasn’t that surprising. It would be a kind of failsafe in case something went wrong. Britta didn’t know exactly what it did or how it was operated, but she could see that there would probably be a good reason it was there.

Allowing the NPCs to have access to it made less sense. Why give them the option to commit mass suicide?

She assumed it wasn’t something the devs had arranged. No, this very much felt like Nigel’s handiwork.

He probably had his reasons, but Britta had no idea what they might be. She didn’t even understand why the Mayor and Gabriel Garbolum would want to control the button. They could use it to threaten others to do what they told them — Follow my orders or it’s lights out! — but it would be a strange kind of threat where they would end up killing themselves, too.

It was the sort of ploy you would expect of a supervillain. You’d have to be certifiable to get people to think you’d really go through with it.

Were the Mayor and Gabriel Garbolum that crazy? It was certainly a possibility. It was also possible there was more to it. She only had a small amount of information so far. There was a Keystone. It was powerful enough to end the world. That was good to know, but not necessarily all there was to learn about what was under the mines.

What she did have, though, was access to someone who had been down there and had seen it with his own eyes.

“Why did you help them?” she asked Roman.

The tired-looking dwarf bowed his head. He didn’t seem too pleased with the choices he’d made in his life. It was almost as though regret was a tangible force squatting on his shoulders.

“I was foolish, aye. They weren’t quite the men they are now. Younger, brighter, I considered them my friends. When we discovered the Keystone, my son and I, we understood what it could do, but not what we should do about it. If we boarded up the tunnels and pretended it wasn’t there, someone else would eventually discover it. And if we told others, it was bound to make people nervous. Who knows how’d they react? All I knew was that it was a dangerous thing to leave unattended, so I went to my friends for advice. A mistake that cost me my son.”

He looked up sorrowfully. The room was completely silent, waiting for him to continue.

“They told me to make sure no one else knew. They said it would start a struggle for control of the mine. Fighting, killing — it would turn sour quickly. And they were right. It was just them that did the fighting and killing.”

“And the kobolds?” asked Britta.

“Sell the mines,” said Roman, “and make sure the new owners weren’t the type to dig deeper. Let them sit on top of that… thing. Let them prevent anyone from finding it. It seemed a plausible way keep that kind of power out of the hands of those who would use it for ill gain. But I had already failed. I had put it into those hands myself.”

“But they wouldn’t actually use it, would they?” Britta looked around to see if anyone thought otherwise. She was met with blank expressions. “If they use it, they destroy themselves.”

“It doesn’t just cause total destruction,” said Roman, “it can cause it piece by piece.”

Now it made more sense. It could turn off sections of the world. A weapon of localised extinction.

“That’s terrible,” said Dad. “Why would anyone put something that unbalanced inside a game.”

Britta nudged him in the thigh, which was as high as her elbow could reach. “Obviously, we have to stop them both,” she said, quickly moving things on before any awkward questions were asked about what ‘game’ Dad was talking about. Can’t we get them to turn on each other?”

If the fight was limited to the two men, and they managed to eliminate each other, that seemed like it would be the best outcome for everyone.

“Aye,” said Roman, “but how? Far safer to bring the whole thing down. We planned for this, everything is ready.” He sighed deeply.

“Give the order, sir,” said Rusty, valiantly ignoring the eye-daggers aimed at him.

“What about your son?” said Britta, not ready to take the doomsday option. “Why is he down there?”

Roman’s mouth tightened. “I’m not sure. One of them killed him, maybe both. Why they brought him back, I do not know.”

“They didn’t bring him back,” said Britta. “The kobolds did that. If he isn’t under their control, perhaps he can help us. What did he want from the Mayor when he went to see him? He wasn’t happy with what you’d done, was he?”

“No,” said Roman. “He believed we could use the Keystone for good. Harness its energy. I told him it was too dangerous. No one should have control of a power that terrible. It would take only a small mistake to bring a catastrophe down on us all.”

It felt to Britta like there had to be a way out of this that didn’t require simply imploding the mines and burying everyone alive. It would solve the problem, but in the most crude way possible. There had to be a more elegant solution.

“Let me go in there,” she found herself saying. “Let me see if I can stop them.”

“And how will you do that?” asked Roman, not sounding like he would believe her even if she did have an answer.

“I don’t know. But I can try.”

Roman looked in turn at the dwarves sitting either side of him. They didn’t say anything, just nodded their big bearded heads.

“Very well,” said Roman. “If you manage this, you will have earned the gratitude of the Dwarf Nation. You have until first light.”

It was an odd feeling, to have the fate of the world in your hands, even if it wasn’t the real world. The weight of responsibility felt real enough. It was hard to remember it was a game.

As they were escorted out, Dad leaned over to her. “Nice one, sweetheart. Gratitude of the Dwarf Nation… there’s got to be at least a magic hammer in this for us. Mjolnir here we come!”

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