Chapter 12:

LEVEL 12: The Mysterious Island City

CREO: Game of Creation

The day had come—airport day. First were the obligatory hugs and kisses and hundreds of reminders to stay safe, brush our teeth, and so on from Mom. Adam loved the attention, while I just wanted it all to be over.

“How long’s the flight? Will we get a movie? What’s our hotel room like?” From the trip to the airport, through security, up to our waiting to board—Adam asked constant questions, running off by himself, making my life a nightmare. Me being the socially awkward mess that I am, it was all I could do not to turn back and hide under my bed. The feeling was intensified when a familiar face flagged us down.

“Kaito! Adam!”

“Rin? What are you…?”

“Visiting a friend in Vancouver. You’re headed to the tournament, right?”

“He’s freaking out.” Adam said, prompting a light smack on his head.

“Am not. Just not used to this.”

“It’s not so bad once you’ve done it a few times.” Rin said. “Who knows? You might end up seeing the world in a different light.”

“Or appreciating my room, and the comfort of the virtual world more.” This time, Adam smacked me.

“Where’s the excitement in that?” He said. Rin giggled.

“Well, have a safe trip. And have an open mind, Kai—you’d do well to listen to your cousin.” She headed to her gate, leaving Adam staring at me with a smug look and his arms crossed.

“Hear that?”

“Oh, shush—I’ve lived in this world a lot longer than you.”

“Doesn’t seem like it—you ever even fly before?”

“We never had the money to go anywhere. Besides, I’ve made more stuff worth seeing in CREO than the real world will ever offer.”

“We’ll see about that. There’s no dinosaur museum in the virtual world.”

“Actually, you can take a virtual tour—” The intercom announcing our boarding interrupted me.

“Look, there’s the city!” Adam pointed out the window with a bounce as I gripped my seat in terror as we landed.

The first thing we saw out of the gate was a gun. Two armed guards dressed in pale green uniforms trained their gazes on us like we were inmates transferring prisons. Then Kuu appeared.

“Welcome to LianHua! Your lodging arrangements are set—so if you will please follow your escorts.” I wasn’t about to argue when there were guns around. We were led into a car with no windows (not creepy at all), then out we were ushered onto the driveway of the most expensive looking hotel I’d ever seen—a series of fountains lit up in the red and white of the LianHua flag surrounded the building, which towered at least 30 floors. The guns made it a little hard to be amazed, though.

At our room door, Kuu appeared once again.

“We hope the artificial passport acquired for Adam was free of issue.” I hadn’t even thought about it. “At 9:15 AM, you will be escorted to the campus of the LianHua Institute of Technology, venue of the International CREO Tournament Round of 16: Bracket B. Matches begin at 8:00 PM, you will have until then to practice and confer with your team.”

“Can’t I see them now? WhiteWitch messaged me—she’s already here.” I asked.

“At 9:15 AM, you will be—” I shut the door on it, preferring not to listen to its repeated message. Kuu reappeared in our room. “That’s not very polite.”

“Since when did you have feelings?”

“As I was going to explain, CREO has yet to gain approval from local authorities to allow you out and about freely. For tonight, please enjoy the suite. Room service and any other amenity are free of charge, courtesy of the tournament. Perhaps if you win, you can celebrate in the pool downstairs, but until then…” Kuu finally dissipated itself and we could catch our breath.

“What’s all the security about? What are they afraid of?” Adam asked.

“Who knows? This is why I’ve never been interested in visiting anywhere.”

“Not everywhere’s like this, right?”

“Compared to the freedom we have online, anywhere’s restrictive.” Adam shrugged and gestured around our room.

“Can’t get a room like this online.” He took off his shoes and jumped onto the massive bed, bouncing around as we inspected the place. The biggest TV in the world—nice start. Fully loaded fridge and snack pantry. Even the bathroom was bigger than our living room back home. The balcony topped it off with a high rise view of a thousand city lights along LianHua Bay.

“Yeah, the room’s pretty awesome, I’ll admit it.” Adam was entering something onto a tablet on the nightstand.

“Room service? Ooh, they’ve got so many kinds of cake.” My first urge was to tell him no, then I remembered it was all free, and after the welcome we’d had, we deserved to live it up a little.

“Get all of them—we’ll try them until our stomachs hurt.”

“That’s the spirit!”

I retreated into the bathroom and called Lucy and Teo.

“Yeah, not much for welcomes, but it’s fine. We’ll see each other in the morning.” Lucy said.

“I’m still flying.” Teo said. It’d probably be a rough morning for him with that jet lag.

“Just get enough sleep, both of you.” Lucy said. I pictured Teo rolling his eyes with me as we hung up. I got another call then, from a number I didn’t recognize.

“Do you value justice?” The voice asked.

“Who is this?”

“The voice of LianHua. Whatever they bribe you with or tell you, know that our rights are under attack, and whatever happens, it’s in the name of liberty.”

“What are you talking about? I’m hanging up.”

“They’ll replace us with artificial humans.” I paused.

“Artificial humans?”

“People who speak out, people who don’t fit in with their government’s vision, are cast out, scorned. They disappear and eventually get replaced. Don’t be a pawn in their beta run.” Before I could respond, the voice was replaced by static, then cut. An automated voice read out:

This call has been halted due to misinformation, in violation of the National Security Act.

The voice read it in Chinese, but thanks to the wonders of my watch, I saw instantaneous subtitles with any language I heard.

That was a weird call. I wanted to write it off as just that, something weird, nothing else, but the phrases ‘whatever happens’ and ‘artificial humans’ kept sticking in my head. Shaking my head, I decided not to think about it until I had an ungodly amount of sugar in my body. Upon emerging from the bathroom, I found Adam laying against a wall of pillows in his underwear surrounded by cakes, cookies, bags of chips, bottles of soda, and just about any other junk food you could think of.

“You joining me?” He said with his mouth full.

“You save the chocolate ones for me?” Adam held up a plate. I settled next to him and we fattened ourselves while we made fun of bad local movies with the subtitles off, at some point entering a sugar coma and passing out.

If I were to ever describe a knock as aggressive, that knock fit the description. It was several loud, head banging knocks, followed by a shout from one of our ‘escorts’ informing us we had 5 minutes. We groaned as we attempted to move. Lack of sleep converging with a raging stomach ache was never a good combo in the morning.

“Adam, go tell them to give us a little more time. Say I’m in the shower.”

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Don’t feel like it.” I turned over, desperate to cling to any extra bit of sleep. Adam hauled himself up and cracked the door open, imparting my message.

“You will leave at 9:15 exactly, even if it means dragging you out of the shower as-is.” The escort said.

“Ok, I’ll tell him to take his time.” Adam said with a chuckle—clearly the image of me being dragged out in front of everyone ‘as-is’ was amusing to him.

“Nope, that’s not happening.” I said, finally getting myself up. “Get your clothes on.” Adam had laid back down on the bed, still in his underwear.

“If you wanna make an impact, wouldn’t this stand out as a uniform?” He said, straining not to laugh mid-sentence.

“Fine, see how that goes for you—I’m already dressed.” I said as I popped my head through my shirt.

“I was just kidding.” Adam snapped his fingers and was fully dressed in an instant. Lucy had suggested we coordinate our outfits, like a uniform. I wore a light gray sleeveless v-neck shirt with my player logo on the chest, along with black shorts that had red stripes along the sides and a pair of white shoes that were sturdy enough for walking around for days on end, but comfortable enough to wear without socks. Adam wore an identical outfit, but with the addition of his TEAM CAPTAIN hat.

At exactly 9:15, we were out the door and packed into the windowless car and at exactly 9:22 AM we arrived at the Institute of Technology—a sprawling modern university campus, the sort of placed I’d never get into in my dreams. For all their efforts, they couldn’t hide the protesters on campus—their slogans chanted through megaphones as the swarm of students waved signs and symbols. The voice that stood out to me was a familiar one—the same one that called me the night before. I wasn’t about to ask the guards if I could join the protest so I could ask questions, though.

Waiting for us in the lobby were a brunette girl with circular glasses and freckles and a tall, muscular dark-skinned boy, his face partly covered by his messy mop of dark brown hair. We knew who they were because they were dressed the same as us, only Lucy substituted the shorts for a skirt and added stockings, while Teo wore full-length trousers, though in the same style—black with red stripes along either side.

“Kai, Adam!” It was odd to hear Lucy’s voice in person, unfiltered and untranslated. “You look no different from in CREO, Adam.”

“Of course! I’m special after all.” He spoke in such perfect, effortless English, I got the sinking feeling that I’d wasted many hours languishing in English class for nothing. He turned to Teo, who looked about as tired as you’d expect after flying from the other side of the Earth. “Teo, quer algo para acordar?” (Teo, want something to wake up?) He nodded, his eyes widened in surprise at hearing someone address him in Portuguese. Adam handed him a stick of powder candy, the stuff that’s responsible for countless childhood sleepless nights.

“Obrigado, Adam.” (Thank you, Adam) He graciously ate the candy and looked a little better afterwards. Teo’s voice sounded younger than I expected. Despite his size and scary looks, I suspected he was the youngest of our group other than Adam—maybe 14 or 15.

We were led to an auditorium with a strange pit set up in its center. Who do you think greeted us there?

“Welcome! You have 10 hours to develop CREO worlds using our latest hardware, which will then be used in combat at the central Esports auditorium tonight.” Kuu said. We’d already been briefed on the rules, but it was still a daunting task to come up with something winnable in so short a time. I wouldn’t waste time or hesitate. I came here to win.