Chapter 13:

LEVEL 13: The Battle of LianHua Part 1

CREO: Game of Creation

It wasn’t a hologram, or augmented reality, but something else that enveloped the room, expanding it, transforming it into not just a stadium, not just another game of CREO, but a living, breathing world. Behind us were the spectators—about 1000 invited guests packed into semicircular lecture hall seats. Before us was my opponent’s world, stretching out for what looked like miles, replacing the wall that had once been there. My opponent was the hometown hero, Wei Fang, the top-ranked player in Asia.

“Hope you’re ready for the challenge of your life.” He said to me, our bodies changing to that of our avatars as soon as we stepped into the arena. He looked like a colorful lion, with a mane of fire—the sort you’d see dancing around a New Year’s parade in Chinatown.

“Hope you’re ready for the surprise of your life.” I said, eliciting cheers from my teammates as they watched from the audience.

I soon lost sight of the crowd, instead enveloped in a storm afloat a small raft in a restless sea. Text appeared above me reading ‘find the three jewels to quell the storm’ coupled with a time counter ticking up. It was a good old-fashioned scavenger hunt, just in an unorthodox setting. When you’re in the middle of an ocean, where would you hide something? Underwater, of course. After fighting some sea monsters, I quickly found two of the jewels, one in a cave, another in a shipwreck. The last shined from the top of a towering island, guarded by jagged rocks and the most intense portion of the storm yet. As I climbed, something silver shined past me, long and smooth… like scales. Anticipating the danger, I jumped before the dragon could sink its teeth into me. Its thin body slunk through the air like a piece of cloth rather than a mythical beast. Up the mountain I rushed, past the dragon’s torrent of attacks. I’d almost reached the top when the creature cut me off and appeared ready to unleash its fire. Then it didn’t. A quiver in the ground, or perhaps the world itself, followed by a strange blinking, the hallmarks of a coding error. Only, this was Update Alpha—the dragon should be sentient, rather than coded. It’d do me no good to dwell on it. In the momentary relief, I grabbed the final jewel and at once we were returned to the stadium. Wei’s face would’ve been hilarious if it hadn’t been sad. My conquering of the dragon had nothing to do with his skill, and I couldn’t help but feel dirty about it.

Did Adam do it? I wouldn’t put it past him. He cheered with our teammates, looking innocent enough, but his powers were mysterious and I couldn’t be sure. On to my world—a survival world that looked like a forest of polygons. The idea for the look came when I was playing a mid-1990s video game with Adam. White rectangles representing snow fell onto the simple plane with leafless trees stretching infinitely. My victim was soon surrounded by wolves made up of blocks and prisms, their eyes glowing red as the rest of their white bodies blended in with the ever-thickening snow. There were infinite wolves, each with their own minds, each working together as a pack—a perfect usage of Alpha’s possibilities. They were infinite—it was just a matter of how long Wei could survive. 1 minute, 2, 3.

Then it all stopped and everything changed. The world shook, just as Wei’s had before. Everything looked doubled for a moment, then blinked out, leaving the two of us standing in darkness. Even the sound cut out (I’d been playing the trashiest J-pop I could find, as a distraction tactic).

“What is going on?!” Wei said with a furious roar. “I knew doing this in person was a stupid idea, full of bugs!” Another quiver—stronger, like an earthquake. Or an explosion. A hand grabbed my arm.


“Come on, it’s not safe!” His breathing was fast, his eyes wide.

“What’s going on, what…” The darkness blinked away and we were in the stadium once more, only the audience was replaced by empty seats—only the players remained, huddled together looking terrified. In the corner of the room were our ‘escorts’, knocked unconscious and tied up. A loud bang sounded, followed by another shake.

“Kai, you alright?” Lucy asked, sitting on the floor with her arm around Teo, whose expression matched that of a little kid separated from his parents in a haunted house.

“I’m fine, just tell me what’s going on!” As an answer, the doors at the top of the grandstand opened and a woman wearing a face mask, dressed all in black, entered flanked by two men armed with umbrellas. By the look of them, they were students at the university.

“Hello, sorry for the commotion.” She said, taking off her mask. “I am Janet Zhou, leader of the Student Liberty Movement.” Her lieutenants were busy moving the knocked out guards onto a go-kart and cruising off with them. “Your tournament was the perfect opportunity to take action, so…”

“You! You scoundrels!” Wei interrupted. “How dare you interrupt us, for such a stupid thing as a protest!” Janet smirked at the comment.

“Sorry, but we aren’t going to just lay down and give up everything we believe in. I doubt they let any of you know what was really happening in this city, the true contents of the National Security Act. It’s the end of opposition, the end to freedom of expression. We were promised a free society, now we’re just supposed to accept that freedom being stolen?” A young man with glasses came in from the hallway—the same one I saw protesting outside, the same one that called me earlier.

“J, we’ve secured positions all around campus. You should see how many cameras they’ve got trained on this place.”

“Perfect.” She turned to us once more. “You all are free to leave—we’re not interested in taking hostages. Those guards earlier are getting dumped out on the other side of our secret tunnel off campus.” We all lined up to follow Janet’s number two—Seth, who would lead us to the secret tunnel. We passed lines of desks, chairs, and bricks stacked into barriers at each of the entrances and in front of every window. The students looked like makeshift soldiers, their armor closer to that of a baseball player than of a militant, their weapons mostly slingshots, bows, and curtain rods. Some carried shields that were likely once garbage can covers. One guy even wore a cape made from a curtain ripped from the student lounge. This almost comical sight was soon snuffed out when smoke bombs and flash grenades were unleashed. Out of the windows, a line of police vehicles and even tanks sealed off the campus from the rest of the world. The protesters wouldn’t budge when asked, and so the war for the school began. As the fighting began, we rushed through the halls, past the faces of the students readying for a battle they knew they couldn’t win.

“Seth.” I called. “You called me last night. What did you mean by artificial humans?” Seth stopped in a dark, quiet corner of the campus, allowing us all to catch our breath. He kicked the ground.

“That technology you’re playing with was developed in part here. First, it was certain politicians—they’d go missing for a while, then reappear and suddenly have totally different positions, closer aligned with the government. They’d go from opposing the move to virtual to rallying for it. Media organizations went from reporting on government scandals to covering them up. Then it happened to one of my friend here at the university, then another. We’re all terrified. You have no idea the power you’re messing with.” I couldn’t help but glance at Adam. Another loud bang, this time in the direction we were heading in. “The tunnel!” We sprinted outside to where the tunnel lied, now on fire. “How could they do this? We were promised safety for anyone who wanted to leave.” Seth got a message on his walkie-talkie. “They’re arresting them too? Those dirty liars! What do we do now…?” Seth paced around, looking unprepared for the brutal realities of warfare. If he was unprepared, the players who’d been dragged out into this conflict they had no party in were in a state of panic. Even Lucy, who always seemed to take everything as it came with a carefree smile, was instead nervously messing with her hair and jumping at any little sound. The only one who looked calm, who seemed superhuman, above the fear of us mortals was my creation—Adam stared into the fiery tunnel looking curious more than anything. Then, he reached out his hand and water rushed out, filling the tunnel and extinguishing the flame. We all stared at him in shock. He shrugged and smiled.

“It’s CREO. Think of this as a CREO world and you can create.”

“M-maybe you can, but—” I shut myself up by growing a tree from nothing. “We really can create here…” It was an incredible feeling, like I’d unlocked a superpower. Seth’s walkie-talkie lit up with screams and shouting.

“They’re storming us already?” He said with a choke. He ran his hands through his hair and sat down at the mouth of the tunnel, looking defeated. “I thought we’d be able to put up some resistance for at least a day or two. At this rate, we’re all going to prison. Game over.”

“Maybe we could help?” Adam said. I immediately grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him aside.

“What are you talking about? We’re not getting dragged into this—do you want us to get arrested?”

“We have the power of CREO, we could help them.”

“Why would you want to help them? They’re opposing artificial people like you.” I was more on edge than I realized—I should’ve known saying that would upset him.

“That’s all I am, after all?” He mumbled. “I want to prove I’m more, do something only I can. Here, I thought you’d want to show off with me.”

“Adam, playing in a tournament’s one thing, but this…”

“Let’s help them, Kai.” Teo spoke up. “It might be dangerous and scary, but Adam’s right. Just until everyone has a chance to get out.” Out of his palm grew a prism, first just made of lines, then taking shape into a shimmering, metallic structure, reflecting each of our faces. Wei Fang and his teammates scurried into the tunnel.

“You’re all insane! We’ll report you for this!”

“Cowards!” Lucy called after them. Another explosion sounded back at the front of the campus. I sighed and started running in that direction.

“Alright, so long as we get to show off.”