Chapter 5:

Before The Game

Red-Black Course

“Well, now that we've got ourselves a team, let’s go through everything again, shall we?” Rex grabbed a laser pointer nearby and pointed at the infirmary’s monitor. For everyone in the current group – Rex, Zain, Mitch, and AIDE, gathering here had become a routine, much to the dismay of the healthcare AI.

“First, the rules. Red-Black Course normally consists of four phases, each being a different game every year, right?”

“Why are you doing the explaining again? You’re the one who doesn’t know the rules,” Zain, on the other hand, shrugged at the gesture. Even if the young man had agreed to team up, he didn’t necessarily show the most cooperative attitude these last few days.

“It’s a way for me to remember. Not everything is about you, you know,” answered Rex. Ever since the two met, Rex was the only non-warden to stand up to Zain as his equal, a fact that nearly scared Mitch to death when he first saw it happen.

Anyway,” the boy continued, “normally, us inmates are supposed to play against one another first, but since… every year aside from the first, Zain is the only competitor, so this rule basically doesn’t exist. Although, I do wonder: why didn’t anyone join?”

“I told ya, didn’t I?” Mitch let out a sigh at the question. “We just don’t wanna die. Da games were brutal, ta say da least.”

“It runs deeper than that, meathead,” Zain shook his head. “That’s only a small fraction of the competition. The rest either are genuinely content with their prison life, don’t want to work themselves off for entertainment, or are forcefully withdrawn from the games.”

“Forcefully withdrawn? How come?” Rex tilted his head in confusion.

“What do you think?” Answering him was a sinister grin from Zain, sending chills down both his and Mitch’s spine. At that moment, Rex was reminded that he really did luck out against the strongest human in this facility.

Shaking his head to get rid of the irritating sensation, Rex continued. “… And now this year adds a new rule: we’re eligible to enter as a team. I’m not sure what it means, but we can certainly improve our chances of winning…”

“That’s only for you to say,” once again, Zain interrupted. “As for me, all I see is that those bastards thought of a method to get in my way again.”

“Hey! I’m not as bad as you think!”

“Is that so?” Zain raised his eyebrows and smirked once more. “Just in time as well. I’ve been wanting to see just how much you got behind that loud bark of yours.”

With a quick snap of his fingers, Zain turned to the only one that had remained quiet from the start of their meeting. “AIDE, the usual.”

“Coming right up,” the AI nodded by moving the monitor up and down. Before Rex and Mitch could ask what was going on, from inside the walls, a pair of mechanical hands had already appeared with a pair of metal helmets – although calling them “helmets” would be a bit of a stretch with them only having a frame resembling headwear.

Zain immediately took one and put it on himself, giving the other to Rex before lying down in a nearby bed.

“Suit up, kid. And meathead, you guard the door.”

“Wait, but what’s it for?” Rex tried to ask, but Zain had already closed his eyes and seemingly drifted off to dreamland, leaving the two confused individuals in the infirmary. Fortunately for them, however, there was still another to explain the situation.

“These are recreations of the virtual headsets you’ll be wearing for the games. Hook up and see for yourself.” AIDE’s digital voice sounded.

“I thought you’re a healthcare AI. Why do you know all of this?” Rex quickly put the helmet on himself, not forgetting to ask a final question. To his surprise was an annoyed sound coming from the machine, one of the few rare times it showed any emotions:

“The guy was a regular here, so he made some modifications to me a few years ago. Wasn’t a fan, but you get used to it.”

“You had it rough too, huh?” Rex exclaimed before he himself was dragged into another awaiting world also.

As he opened his eyes, before Rex was a scene that he wouldn’t even dream of seeing since he was thrown into jail. A large, rectangular field. Freshly trimmed and cut grass rustling between his toes. White lines and circles creating a soothing sight for the eyes. Two goalposts standing firm on opposite ends. A dreamlike place for all young boys.

“Whoa!” Exclaimed Rex. “A genuine soccer field! This is amazing!”

“First of all, it’s football,” a voice sounded behind Rex’s back, revealing to be none other than Zain, whose wardrobe had also changed completely compared to his normal attire, but not in the way Rex would expect.

Shoulder pads and a vest covering his torso. A skin-tight suit beneath that emphasized the young man’s muscular body even more. Goggles and a helmet to match. His look at the moment was anything but for playing soccer.

“And second of all,” Zain continued, “is this your first time in virtual space?”

“Yeah. I mean this certainly isn’t something you’d see every day, right?”

“Well, it’s no different than in the real world anyway, save for the point that you can just imagine the thing you want.”

As the words left his mouth, Zain raised his hand forward and opened his palm. Instantly, a whirlwind of digitized flashes and glitches circled around his awaiting hand, quickly into a spherical object of black and white. Before Rex could even react, the process had already been completed, and in Zain’s hand was a soccer ball that quite literally came from nowhere.

“The process still has its limits, of course,” another voice sounded next to Zain. Rex didn’t take long to figure out where the source came from, but even as he was seeing it with his own eyes, his brain still refused to accept the truth, since it was the ball itself that was talking.

A screen then appeared on the ball’s surface, and on it appeared a pair of yellow, pixelated cartoonish eyes, as well as a line of the same principle representing a mouth.

“Within this space is a database of various items available. As you think of something within the database, the helmet you’re wearing in the real world catches the electrical impulses in your brain, and then transforms those impulses into actual items.”

“… AIDE?” Rex, meanwhile, had his mind on another matter entirely.

“Who do you think it is then, dimwit?” The AI gave a stern scolding, seemingly ticked off more than ever before.

“Tch, now how am I supposed to train?” Zain, meanwhile, was upset for another reason.

“Just think of a new ball, you lazy bum. Not that hard to do.” AIDE snarked at the complaint.

After another brief moment of making a new ball, Zain then swiped his arm sideways, revealing a line of holographic frames flying around him. As the images finally stopped, his finger hovered above a certain frame and pushed down. Another digital storm whirled, this time forming into a long, sharp object.

As the storm settled, before Rex was a rather particular vehicle: its seat and structure strongly resembled that of a motorcycle with a pointed tip like a giant arrow, but its exhaust tubes were larger than any other normal two-wheeled vehicle, and it had no wheels to begin with.

“Your turn,” turning to Rex, Zain nodded his head upward as an order. “You said you’re good with computers, right? Read this.”

“Read… what?” Rex scratched his head in confusion.

“The bike. Everything around us is virtual, remember? If you can’t do even that, you’re as good as dead weight.”

“Tch. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!” Rex was never the type to be so easily angered, but around Zain, his fuse was naturally halved. Swiping his hands in the same motion as Zain did, Rex summoned forth the holographic images.

It wasn’t hard for him to successfully search for the bike of choice and acquired all of its specs in one frame. For Rex, doing things like this was as easy as eating or sleeping; as if every muscle, every nerve in his body had already memorized and repeated the actions so much that it had become a natural reflex.

“Acceleration S, initial speed S, strength A, durability C-, flight A, maneuverability B+, …” Rex mumbled to himself, but his words brought a great surprise to everyone present.

“What… exactly are you reading?” AIDE sounded in confusion.

“Huh? It’s this thing’s specs. What else?”

“But there’re only numbers on that screen. Length, width, top speed, acceleration time, …”

“No one would really understand those numbers, right? I just made them a bit easier to understand.”

“A bit?” The AI raised its digital voice. “You’ve categorized and summarized no less than thirty different numerical metrics into a handful of lettered grades! And in less than a second! That’s better than most computers, let alone humans!”

“I… guess,” Rex could only scratch his head in confusion and embarrassment before the mountain of praise. “I never thought about it too much. I just know that I know more than others about stuff like this.”

“But anyway,” the boy continued, “this thing has a ‘glass cannon’ approach. It relies on its lighting speed to catch balls in the air and make quick counters. In short, it’s an off-the-ball movement machine.”

“Well, am I correct?” After a moment not seeing Zain reacting to his answer, Rex asked, turning to the awaiting young man.

To his surprise, the answer Rex received as a paltry excuse almost as if his opposition was hiding their embarrassment due to his lack of knowledge.

"... Sure, you know your stuff, I'll give you that," Zain purposely avoided eye contact. "But you'll also have to actually ride the thing too."

"Well then, why don't you show me how it's done?" Seeing another side to the so-called ruthless tyrant brought out a chuckle in Rex as he asked for a demonstration. But this time, the act was right up in Zain's alley, causing his confidence to return in full force.

“… I’m glad you asked,” with a proud grin on his face, Zain replied. 

Zain put the ball before his bike and climbed on the machine. As he twisted the right handle, massive columns of blue flame burst out of the exhaust tubes, truly replicating the feeling of a death vehicle risen straight from hell. There was no rubber to burn on the road, nor there was any road on this giant soccer field, but the smell of burning grass from the immense heat of the bike was more than enough to make up for it. Before anyone could react, however, Zain’s show had already started.

Both man and bike came together as one, creating a line of red running across the length of the field. Sounds of the roaring engine and howling wind thundered around the space like a natural disaster. The most amazing thing, however, wasn’t Zain’s blistering speed, but rather the fact that the tiny ball was practically glued to the tip of his motorcycle even through all of that acceleration, and it wasn’t showing anything remotely akin to losing control.

“… Incredible. To keep such precise controls over the ball, flying at that speed…” Rex couldn’t help but exclaim at the spectacle before him. “Just how much did he train for?”

“Every day,” AIDE sounded. “Ever since he lost the last game seven years ago, when he was first thrown in this prison, Zain had been training non-stop every day, to perfectly master the motorcycle as if it was his own legs. The result is, well, as you’re seeing right now.”

“But then… how come he'd always lose all those older games?”

“You know the answer yourself, right?” The AI raised its voice in doubt. “That’s your bait to join him in the first place, after all.”

“… You already knew that much, huh?”

“Zain might be violent and quick-tempered, but that only shows that he’s an honest kid. You, however… You’re more of a menace than anyone else in this entire facility.”

“But that’s why I know I can trust you,” AIDE surprisingly concluded. “So, kid, what plan do you have in mind?”

Steward McOy
T.K. 月狐
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