“Thanks for letting me get my stuff,” Red said. The portly, white-haired man tugged at his neon green suspenders. He let them slap against his black t-shirt then reached into the small desk again. “Feels good to be myself again!” Billy, a lean man in a navy blue suit, nodded at Red.

“You need your gear, I get it. But why is your stuff in an old school on an empty Earth?” Billy asked. They stood in a condemned classroom with aged, cracked walls and floors. Obscene layers of moist dust coated every desk. When Red lifted the lid on his chosen desk the dust did not slide off; it remained affixed to the desktop. Red pulled a small, transparent rectangle out of the desk and smiled at Billy.

“It wasn’t empty when I got here.” His smile dimmed. “My partner ditched me. Without a way off the Earth, I knew I’d get caught. Hid my node,” he tapped the glassy rectangle against his head.

“Now’s a good time to remind you. No killing unless I approve it.” Red nodded.

“Fair enough. I won’t touch a Unique without your say-so, Boss.” Red straightened his back and gave Billy a mocking salute. Billy shook his head.

“Zeros too.”

“What? C’mon!” Red’s hands flew up in exasperation. “They’re everywhere and so squishy. It’s almost impossible not to kill them.”

“This isn’t a negotiation,” Billy replied. “It’s simple: If you kill anyone or anything without my consent you’ll be going back to the raft. A significantly smaller one.”

“Fine,” Red said as he hung his head. “I’m set, I guess. Let’s move on.” Billy nodded then raised his hand in the air. He wiggled his fingers and opened a tall, black portal.

“I need to assess your AlterNet character,” Billy explained. Red nodded and stepped out of the classroom through the portal. On the other side of the portal, Red emerged into a large open-air colosseum. A bright yellow sun hung in the sky, but all the seats were empty. Red’s body changed. Instead of the portly, white-haired, middle-aged man, he now looked like a portly, blue-haired clown. His ‘hair’ consisted of fine, long rubber strands in various shades of blue. His face became a ghostly, creamy white color. His neon green suspenders rested against a black leather tunic. Billy walked out of the portal and stood next to Red in the middle of the dirt arena.

“PvP?” Red asked. Billy nodded then walked away to the edge of the battleground. “Where’re you going?” Red asked.

“Out of the way,” Billy called back over his shoulder as he kept walking.

“Fire Spike!” A swordmage uncloaked next to Red the moment he used a sword skill. Red noticed a long, thin fencing foil that glowed bright orange with heat. The blue-haired clown sidestepped to avoid the attack. He raised his hand in the air as his body rotated to avoid the piercing attack. He made a fist, then his white-gloved hand inflated like a balloon. Red brought the inflated fist down on the swordmage’s head and laid the man out.

“Blindside!” A thief appeared behind Red but the clown reacted quickly. He spun around and slammed his inflated fist against the thief and sent him flying.

“Why is everyone,-” Red began to yell a question at Billy, but he was interrupted by another attack.

“Earthsplitter!” A knight appeared several feet away from Red. He used a large double-bladed battle axe to cleave the ground in front of him. The earth quaked and jutted upward as a shockwave of energy flowed toward Red. The round clown inflated both of his hands in front of him. He held his ballooned hands up with his palms out and inflated them further. The shockwave bounced off his rubbery hands and traveled back to the knight. The armored figure wasn’t ready and the energy washed past him. Its wake slammed him against a pillar at the edge of the arena.

“Why is everyone invisible?!” Red shouted his question at Billy. The lean man shrugged.

“Easy inanimates,” he replied.

“Iron Typhoon!” A ninja appeared and swung an ornamental black and gold hand fan at Red. A ball of whirling air flew at Red and grew larger as it traveled. The clown took a moment to sigh, then he adjusted his stance. He placed both feet together and shifted all his weight downward.

The gust of wind reached him and spun itself around him. Red was knocked backward, but his feet remained in place. His body remained stiff as he rose from the ground like a punched bop bag resetting itself. The wind knocked him down again; the impact made a hollow thud. After a moment on the ground, Red rose again. By the second time the wind dissipated. The ninja cocked his head at Red in confusion.

“That’s enough!” Billy called out. Half a dozen other figures appeared in the arena, then headed toward their nearest exit. Billy walked out to Red.

“I expected to be impressed, but I’m still pleasantly surprised,” Billy said. “Red, you’re definitely the right man for the job.”

“I said you could call me, ‘Red’ when we’re traveling together.” Red shook his head and grinned at Billy. “But in the AlterNet call me, ‘LaughTrack’.”

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