"What are you doing?"
He could feel the sweat gathering under the collar of his shirt. "I'm thinking."
"But you can't place that there. Not without modification."
Michael turned his head slowly to assess his partner. They were supposed to be allies in this operation, but could he trust him? If Michael couldn't deliver, would he be replaced? He knew there were others waiting in the wings, more experienced, better qualified colleagues just a text message away. No, it had to be him. He couldn't disappoint.
He stared his accomplice down: one intense look should be sufficient to knock the confidence back, reveal any weakness Michael should know about, but the returning gaze remained steadfast, serious, and unsettlingly familiar. Michael, to his horror, blinked first.
"Fine." He took a deep breath through his nose. Released it slowly. Reminded himself who ran this mission. "What resources do we need?"
His partner took over operations, his fingers moving deftly across the command center buttons with no hesitation. Two swift swipes brought them to a communications hub Michael hadn't known existed, where they were suddenly contacting someone with the alias dark_poison. No visual: just an avatar of a dragon with devil horns. Who was this guy? Michael didn't like it. Not one bit.
"Hold up. Do you even know who this is?"
"Have a little faith." Wait. Was that a smirk?
Michael sat back, studying the mission from a new angle. What was he missing? This was simple geometry. A child could do it. He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to keep it together.
"Got it." His partner rejoined him, some sort of bundle in his possession.
"What is it?"
"Custom map." He spread it out before them, pixelated lines weaving between landmarks and code. Michael scanned it rapidly, attempting to make sense of it before they ran out of time. His partner did the same, eyes moving across the information with unwavering concentration.
"And now?" Michael had never attempted to execute a plan with so little preparation. It left him unnerved.
"Now we just need to input…" Suddenly his associate wavered for the first time. Michael sat up straighter, eyes moving from the map to lock in on the fingers on the command center, which had faltered. What was this? A vulnerability he hadn't seen?
His partner sounded sheepish. "How do you spell 'system'?"
Michael allowed himself a smile. It was fine; Sucre hadn't been able to spell well either. "S-Y-S-T…"
The fingers started flying again; in less than thirty seconds, they'd retrieved the data needed, and in less than a minute more, his partner had decoded the map. The two of them made their way across the terrain, sometimes creeping, sometimes flying. Once, they ducked behind what seemed to be a rock, Michael struggling to keep up. "Almost there?"
"Almost there. Watch out for hostile mobs of…never mind."
Michael spun belatedly, then bit back a new wave of frustration; his partner had already deflected the threat effortlessly. Needing only one hand to protect them both from additional foes, he pointed to the target indicated on the map. A few more seconds, and it was over. Michael released a pent up breath as they spun to a stop, safe. His shirt stuck to his back, and his hands felt clammy.
His partner raised one hand in triumph for a fist bump, then gave Michael a funny look. "Are you okay?"
"Of course." He struggled to look casual.
"Because that was only adventure mode. Not hardcore mode."
"I know, I…" Had he just blown it? Would he be bypassed on the next mission? The thought was unbearable.
His partner paused, evidently reaching for some tact. "Did you…watch the YouTube tutorials I sent you?"
"I watched." The learning curve was steep after four years isolated from any new technology.
"Because I used all my screen time for that."
Michael changed the subject. "Where did you get that ax you used on the monster thing?"
"I made it." He pushed some more buttons. "See? Here."
"And the sword?"
"Traded it." "Not with dark_poison, I hope."
"No, with Brandon. From school."
Michael frowned in concentration again, trying to conjure Brandon in his mind. Mentally, he scrolled through the list of names and faces he'd been studying. "And from soccer, right?"
"No, that's Brayden."
Not to be confused with Bryson, who was in chess club. Or Tyson, a.k.a. Ty, in car pool. Michael took another steadying breath. Maybe he needed to plaster all their photos onto a wall, connect the dots.
Mike bent to turn off the Xbox console, then offered a smile that managed to make Michael's heart stop. "It's okay, Dad. Maybe learn Minecraft first, then memorize my class list."