Chapter 2:

LEVEL 2: My Other Life

CREO: Game of Creation

“Kai!”—My mother’s voice. 

I switched back to my natural senses and was back in my old, familiar room. Same worn-out bed, desk where I never studied, poster of MiYU I’d be taking down soon, tree blocking my window from the outside world. This was where my physical body spent the vast majority of its time for the past two years. The rest of the time was spent in the rest of our little outdated house in the middle of nowhere.

I shuffled out into the hallway. After long sessions in the digital world, I sometimes struggled to work my physical body properly. This body, unlike my avatar’s, was scrawny and weak. My hair was getting in my face, my feet tripped over each other. I’d been logged in for… I checked the watch that was always around my wrist, my constant connection to the other world, the better world. Shoot—three days straight. The effects of the nutrient capsules would be wearing off.

I stumbled into the living room, the light from the windows stung and I had the worst headache. Mom placed a generous serving of soba in front of me at the dining room table and I ate my fill.

“I saw your match on TV… I’m sorry.” Mom said, her eyes trained on the dishes she was washing rather than me. Everything she did was old-fashioned. She was probably the only person in the country that still washed dishes by hand, and on top of that, she still used one of those clunky TVs. Normal people just log into the other world.

“Whatever…” I slurred. “How’s stuff here?” Mom sighed.

“I know CREO’s important to you, but you have to stop doing this to yourself. Maybe going virtual was a bad idea…”

“Mom, we have this discussion every time I come back. There’s no point in going someplace to go to school, I’d rather be virtual. Anyway, it’s safer there…”

“But look what you’re doing to yourself!” Mom had stopped washing dishes and was glaring at me more seriously than usual. She never raises her voice. What was the big deal?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You’re always in the other world, playing that game, meanwhile you’re killing yourself here. You haven’t left the house once since—”

“So what?!” Now I’d raised my voice. “Maybe that’s what I want! Maybe I’ll go full virtual.”

“Kai…” Mom had tears in her eyes. I’d made my own mother cry? “Don’t talk like that. I know this world is hard sometimes. It’s not always fair. Its rules aren’t as defined as in a game, but don’t give up on it. You know the Harada family down the road?”

“Weren’t they going to lose their farm or something?” I usually don’t listen when she talks about the neighbors—why should I care about people I don’t know and never see?

“They did, so yesterday they came by to say they were moving to the digital world, the whole family.” I admit, hearing that made my stomach churn. Going full virtual meant going into the other world permanently and donating your physical body to science.

“Even the kids?” I asked. Mom nodded, her face a contortion of grief and disgust. It was a growing trend. Most everything was automated in this world. I lived in a little farming community nestled between two mountains in Fukui prefecture. All the farming was done in automated greenhouses, so people weren’t really needed anymore. The few of us who stayed were only there because the transport network connected us to mostly any city in a matter of minutes. When I still went to physical school, it was in a city almost a hundred miles away. Less and less of us went as the years went on, switching to virtual. I finally convinced Mom to let me switch the first time we saw a rocket hit the defence grid over the school. Speaking of which…

The sirens sounded—the TV, and our watches flashed a warning message. We barely noticed. It was a near daily occurrence. This world was filled with war and hatred. Was it so wrong to prefer the better world online?

“Promise me you’ll stay for a while.” Mom said once the siren stopped, her voice so soft it was hard to hear.

“I promise.” I said, just as quietly. “That loss was pretty bad, so maybe it’s best I stay away for a while anyway.” I said with a strained, bitter laugh.

I took my first shower in quite a while and cut my hair short so that it looked a little more like my avatar’s. Mom probably wouldn’t let me dye it red. In another year, I’d be 18 and that wouldn’t matter anymore, but for now, Mom’s word was law in this world.

I noticed the notifications on the upper left corner of my vision.

—My corporate CREO sponsor dropped me, no surprise.

—Rin, the only person in the physical world I could kind of call a friend, gave her condolences.

“Let me take you out somewhere, cheer you up \(*)U(*)/” She was always adding those dumb emotes.

“No thnx” I responded. “U know I don’t go out.”

“If u change your mind, u know where to find me.” She texted after a long pause. “U don’t have to be afraid, y’know.”

I closed the chat and rushed into my room. She didn’t get it, no one did. I was a ghost, lost to this world, nothing more. I was a loser who’d failed in the one thing he was good at. Yet I was still alive. I’d heard someone once say there were two sorts of people in the world—those with a purpose, and those who haven’t found theirs yet. I feared I was the dreaded third option—someone without a purpose to find, someone who’s already failed.

I laid on my bed and tried not to think, but of course—my failures, my fears, Pluton’s voice—they all echoed in my head. If I wasn’t good at CREO, if I wasn’t the best, then what was there for me? I got another dreaded notification—surely Rin wasn’t still trying to bother me. I barely remembered what she looked like in person; it’d been over a year. To my surprise, it wasn’t Rin, but the CREO server. I tapped the air in front of me where the notification appeared and Kuu the cloudbear appeared in its place.

“Huh huh! Hi, KAI! Hope you enjoyed the national championships!” I wanted to strangle it—too bad it didn’t have a physical body. “The team at CREO would like to offer you a special consolation prize, as the second ranked player in Japan. Huh huh!” That stupid laugh…

“What do you want?” I asked, prepared to dismiss it with a touch of the end call button.

“Oh, don’t be like that!” The stupid bear floated around me, its eyes growing big, trying to be cute. “You’re a valued member of the CREO community! As such, we want you to test out the latest update to the CREO program before anyone else.”

“I’m sick of CREO, and I’m sick of you.” I was about to dismiss Kuu when the thing shouted in panic and grabbed my arm. It was… fluffy. “How…?”

“Huh huh! Sure you don’t want to try the update? You’d have a leg up on the competition. Not even Pluton knows about it yet.” Sizing up a virtual avatar was a difficult task—Kuu was just a program, there’s no way to know if it’s hiding something or lying to me, the perfect poker player.

“Alright…” I said. Kuu spun around in the air, triumphant.

“Downloading!” it said. I tapped on my watch and prepared to enter the virtual world once more. Just for a little while.