Chapter 11:

LEVEL 11: Reality's Not So Bad

CREO: Game of Creation

Stunned and feeling lost, all I could do was sit and watch as any hope of advancing was pinned on Lucy. Adam sat next to me, similarly quiet. Too many questions swirled in my head, racing to be the first to my lips. Adam beat me to it with an unprovoked answer.

“I don’t know.” He said with a quiver in his voice. “I don’t know what I am, why I can do those things, or why I’m here.” I didn’t respond to him at first—I glanced around—Teo didn’t seem to notice our discussion. To the others, nothing looked out of place. The glitches, or whatever it was, even Adam’s entrance into the battle was completely erased from the feed everyone else saw. All they knew was I lost.

“Why do you think I entered this thing?” I whispered to Adam. “They dragged me into something big and I intend to find out what.”

“Am I a burden to you?” Adam looked like a lost puppy, his head down, his body scrunched tight as if he were shivering.

“You’re… a mystery. And maybe an asset.” Adam didn’t look reassured. I patted his shoulder—he flinched as I did. “Hey, relax. Whatever’s going on, I won’t let them do anything to you. You’re my creation, after all.” I felt his shoulders relax. The way I presented myself to him was far cooler than how I was truly feeling. A war raged on within me, between the forces of fear, anger, distrust, and even excitement. Part of me wanted to step away from it all, give Adam to CREO and wash my hands of it. But I knew that wasn’t an option. Like it or not, I brought him into the world—he was my responsibility and he didn’t deserve to be discarded.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s newest world was proving formidable. Her opponent found himself down a rabbit hole, having to answer various riddles in order to get out. If he got one wrong, it was another step closer to ‘off with his head’. Our lucky break was the guy wasn’t too bright—while he wasn’t beheaded, he did outlast the time limit, giving the win to Lucy. She didn’t even need to win in her opponent’s CREO to take the match for us, but she cleared the post-apocalyptic obstacle course with ease.

Rather than Lucy coming back to us, we were taken to her in the center of the virtual arena with the other 5 teams in our bracket. Each of the other brackets had finished simultaneously, prompting Kuu to appear, its voice echoing throughout cyberspace.

“The preliminary round of the International CREO Tournament has concluded! Thank you to all the participating teams. The final tally of scores is as follows—” Kuu then morphed itself into a scoreboard showing each team’s final scores and placement, with the advancing teams highlighted. I scanned the middle of the standings, where we were most likely to be, and to my delight, we were one of the highlighted teams (the second lowest scoring team to advance, but a win is a win). Lucy spotted our slot a moment later and cheered, bringing each of us into a big hug and obligatory selfie.

“I can’t wait to meet you guys in person!” She said. I’d almost forgotten about that unusual detail. The idea of playing CREO in physical venues raised a heated debate in the community, with the majority clamoring that it was a stupid idea—why go out into that world when we have a better, more accessible one in the virtual world? Some brought up that they can only be their authentic selves in the virtual world, that their avatars were their truer forms and to force themselves into their physical bodies was unfair or even cruel.

“The next phase of this historic tournament will take the wonderful worlds of CREO to the physical world!” Kuu said, reforming itself next to the scoreboard. “For the first time, you will showcase your skills and the potential of virtual creation to new audiences in venues all over the old world! CREO is about possibilities—show the world your possibilities! For progress and creation without limit.” Something about the phrases it chose unsettled me. ‘For progress’ was the same thing S3 told me about whatever ‘experiment’ they associated with Adam. Speaking of which, he bunched up close to me, acting like any other kid when he’s scared. I’d asked him before why Kuu creeped him out so much, but he never gave me a straight answer—just a feeling, he said. Whatever feelings we held, elation, concern, and everything in between—we had a tournament to prepare for. The real fight was to begin in two weeks in the island city of LianHua.

For someone who left his house once within two years as a matter of principle, the idea of flying across the sea to a foreign city and interacting with strangers I’d never met was a troubling prospect. While I wasn’t a hardliner ready to digitize myself at the first chance (at least not yet), it wasn’t a secret I felt more comfortable in my avatar’s body than in my own. For one thing, I had no idea how to interact with people face to face. Never exactly went well at school, or anywhere else in the physical world. The weight of the ordeal I was about to undertake, on top of the mystery that was my traveling companion, left me in a depression the whole day after our victory, wasting the hours away in my dark, safe room. Until Adam opened my curtains and dragged me out, with help from my mom.

Before I could process what was happening, I’d been kicked out onto the street, Adam standing beside me wearing a backpack and his favorite dinosaur hat.

“Take me to Tokyo.” He said.


“We’re gonna be in a big city, right? I wanna know what to expect.”

“Can’t you read about that stuff?”

“You know it’s not the same. Besides, we both know you could use some practice in the real world, too.”

“Real world?”

“Is this not the real world?”

“Sure it is, but it’s weird that you think so, considering you were created somewhere else.” Adam shrugged and started trotting off toward the transit station. He had a bad habit of ending conversations after they got a tad uncomfortable, and a worse habit of forcing me into whatever he wanted without a word of my input.

The commute to Tokyo was a long 15 minutes or so. The buildings were taller, lights brighter, and streets more crowded than I remembered. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I found myself clinging to Adam as we weaved through the crowds.

“There’s still this many people?” I said.

“Not everyone lives online like you.” Adam said, guiding me by the hand into a gaming store in Akihabara. “Think they’ll have SP2 games? I like the old stuff.”

“I so don’t get you.” I let go of his hand and collected himself. “How are you so calm? Why are you acting like a… like you’re…”

“Human?” Adam didn’t look at me, just browsed the rack of 40-year-old games marked at outrageous prices.

“I didn’t mean that.”

“I know I’m not human, but how else am I supposed to act?” He stepped away from the rack and headed back toward the entrance. “Nothing good here.” We went back onto the street and he rushed off again, forcing me to chase after him. “Arcade!”

“Adam, wait!” We put our serious conversation on pause for me to school him in some rhythm games. Every time I tried to get him to slow down, he found something else to grab our attention until, after a movie, a street performer and posing in front of Tokyo Tower, we ended up at a fast-food joint, eating cheap burgers as the beginnings of a June rain shower pattered against the window in front of us.

“Did… you have a good time today?” I asked, desperate to think of something to say. Adam nodded without saying anything. “Good burger?” Again, just a nod. “Anything else you want to see?” Adam took a long sip from his drink before finally looking at me.

“Kai, do you think I don’t belong here? That I should stay in CREO where I belong?”

“Of course not.” I answered more quickly and forcefully that I expected. For the longest time I did think he belonged in CREO, that he was just a glitch imposing himself on my life, yet I told him he belonged in this world? Adam looked surprised, too. “You’re here now, aren’t you?” I tried to justify myself. “Besides, I… don’t want you to go. You’re a pain, sure. You’re annoying and nosy, and talk too much…”

“I get it.”

“But before you came along, I figured there wasn’t anything worth seeing in this world. I still prefer the other world, but reality’s not so bad, I guess.”

“Even though I beat you in that fighting game?” He said with a chuckle.

“Eh, it’s not perfect.” Adam pressed into me in a hug—barreling me off of my stool and landing us on the floor. Other customers stared at us as we laughed together under the counter, french fries in my hair, my buddy by my side.

We had a lot of fun rushing through the rain. By the time we got back home, it looked like we’d dived into a pool. My hand grasped the handle to the front door, the rain pouring behind me, when I paused and flashed Adam a mischievous grin.

“Wanna do something else fun before we call it a day?” Adam nodded rapidly.

“Of course!”

We ran through the empty streets, howling and making dumb noises as we went. Our destination was my old middle school—the only one in town. At the school gate, the lock was infamously easy to pick. The kids with reputations always used to brag about sneaking in after hours, though I’d never had the courage to do it myself. I led Adam across the field to the pool, the part of gym I always hated the most, not because I disliked water, but because I was always reminded how inferior I was to everyone else. The scrawny quiet kid in the back finally doing something fun for once—I jumped into the freezing water and emerged with a gasp—refreshed for the first time in a long while. A splash accompanied Adam when he jumped in and we swam around as the rain came down from above. Adam hopped out and found a water polo ball and we tossed it around until we saw a flashlight peeking around, followed by a crack of lightning in the sky. Time to get out.

We laid down for bed, having dried ourselves (well enough). It was the most exhausted I’d been in years, even counting all-nighters working on CREO.

“Hey Kai?” Adam said from the futon (we took turns with the bed).

“What’s up?”

“Thanks. I don’t know about you, but that was more fun than CREO ever was.”

“I don’t know about that, but you’re welcome.”

“Do you feel better about going to the tournament?”

“Maybe, but that’s a little different—it’s in the country that fires those rockets, the Han People’s Republic. I have no idea what to expect there.”

“Why are they at war with us?”

“Some stupid politics stuff. LianHua is supposed to be an independent city though, so I guess it’ll be ok. Just be careful and stay close to me.”

“I will. We’ll face it all together.” I smiled and turned over to sleep.

“Right, goodnight.” I heard the sheets rustle and something warm brush up against me.

“Goodnight.” Adam said with a yawn as he snuggled next to me in my bed. Any other day I’d have kicked him out, but I made an exception and we drifted into a deep, restful sleep.