Chapter 14:

LEVEL 14: The Battle of LianHua Part 2

CREO: Game of Creation

Lucy and Teo were on evacuation duty, shuttling the students and innocent medical volunteers out through the tunnel. They created little creatures to help—dragons and tigers serving as their protectors as they cleared a path through the campus as it rapidly descended into the chaos of a wartime fortress. Adam and I found ourselves huddled in a makeshift trench, crouching behind a wall of desks, the fluorescent lights of the police vehicles shining across the bridge into the city from our position in front of the student center.

“Can you keep them from storming us?” Janet asked, loading a firecracker bomb into a slingshot and aiming at the enemy frontline.

“We can hold them off for a while, but we’re not hurting anyone.” I glanced at Adam and he nodded, aiming his finger in the air and firing—a grand display of fireworks erupted. In the confusion, I erected a series of intertwining metal structures—like a modern art display blocking the advancement of an army. The enemy forces did not appreciate it—in response, they opened fire and advanced, cutting down my creations with embarrassing ease. I guessed hastily made CREO material was no match for physical material, even if it was just non-lethal pellets.

“My turn!” Adam jumped out from the barricade and summoned particles of water that clumped together, first a little, then a lot—until a wave crashed over the police line and flooded the field.

“Get back over here!” I pulled him by the shirt back behind the barricades just as a smoke bomb went off in front of us. “This is…” the smoke made me cough. “This is too dangerous—go back with Teo and Lucy.”

“I’m fine, you’re the one who needs my help.”

“Do I?” My next creation was three birds—white and made of fire, just like the phoenix featured on LianHua’s flag. This display elicited raucous cheers from the protesters. It certainly pissed off the police forces.

“Disperse immediately!” A voice called over a megaphone, repeating the message several times in English and Chinese. The students around us were mostly not wearing watches, therefore no instant translation.

“It’s so they can’t track our movements or listen in on us.” Janet said, anticipating my question.

“But aren’t you…?” She held up her bare wrist.

“I’m at the top of my class, I speak 6 languages.” She said in Japanese with a smirk.

Adam and I worked together to wire the bridge with deterrents—spikes, water-spouts, sleeping gas bombs—the standard array. For all the enemy’s blustering, they seemed intimidated enough by our display to back off from their attack.

“We should meet up with Seth and check in on the inside.” Janet beckoned us to follow her back into the student center.

The sheer number of barricades, both complete and being constructed from bricks, umbrellas, and any object the students could find, was staggering—it was a real fortress now. The lines of barricades and Molotov cocktails in the halls were soon replaced in the dining hall by the massive crowds of students getting supplies, both necessities like food, and war provisions like building materials, masks, gloves, anything to protect themselves. We met up with Seth and the others at the student line on the roof.

“We decided it’s a better position up here, less vulnerable.” Seth said. Teo and Lucy were eating pre-packaged sandwiches with a group of students.

“Are you guys alright?” I asked them. They nodded.

“Mission accomplished, we got a lot out.” Lucy said.

“But all those downstairs…”

“They’re choosing to stay.” Janet said. “This is our home, y’know. We aren’t soldiers, we don’t want to burn anything down or cause any trouble, we’re just students. We stay because we believe we have to do something and send a message.” Most of the protesters were dressed in the sort of clothes you’d wear on any normal day—t-shirts rather than body armor. The whole campus was locked down, ready for a siege that could come at any time. It was terrifying and perplexing any time I stopped to think about it, but CREO was having a real-world impact, whether intended or not, and it felt good to be part of that. Then our watches glowed red and Kuu appeared.

“You are engaged in illegal activity in violation of CREO’s terms of services. Cease and desist immediately, or your access to CREO services, including NPC element 78335001, will be suspended.” They’d take Adam away? Adam got close to Kuu, closer than I’d ever seen him get to it, a scowl on his face.

“I’m sick of you bossing us around.” He snapped his fingers and my watch went blank. Kuu disappeared, but Adam didn’t. “Nothing but empty threats.” He said.

The night turned to day. The news was reporting on protester clashes all over the city, inspired by the university battle. As the days wore on, and clashes continued, the situation became dire—many of the students, some of whom were actually high-schoolers caught up in the excitement of the struggle—had no choice but escape, as it was apparent the government wasn’t going to give up, and the message of the protest was mostly accomplished. Problem was, there were no safe escape routes, as any official route out was guarded, and any guarantee of mercy from the police was worthless as soon as they went back on the promise and arrested escaping protesters. While I’d lost the ability to create when Adam destroyed my watch, the others helped create everything from escape motorcycles positioned on a nearby bridge that students would propel onto with ropes, to full protective suits for those who escaped through the sewers.

“I miss my bed.” I said to Adam. We sat alone in the same auditorium everything started in. “I know you want to help, but…”

“It’s OK.” Adam’s head drooped and his eyes were half-closed. “We got to play rebel, that’s good enough for me.”

“Even after this, you still like this world better than where you came from?” Adam smiled and gestured out the doors with his thumb.

“Listen, you hear the music?” I strained my ears.

“Can’t say I can.”

“The chatter of the students, all fighting together, the sounds of their preparations—it’s all in rhythm together. Even in a bad situation like this, people come together and do amazing things. That’s what this world is all about. Online will never replicate that.” His optimism was blinding, so unlike anything close to my worldview. It was foolish, naïve, childish, yet I envied him. I wanted to see the world like that, as a great collaboration, a star built by everyone together to shine away the darkness.

“People work together to do stupid, awful things too.” I said, determined not to get pulled into misguided hope just to be disappointed again. “Look at the what the students are fighting—it isn’t one bad guy pulling the strings like in some manga, it’s a whole system, and there are countless systems just like it everywhere you look—hurting people and stealing away their hope.”

“That’s why it’s important to stand up and do something good, because stuff matters in this world. In the virtual world, everything’s artificial. Nothing dies, nothing really lives, it’s all a play and we’re just players acting it out. In this world, people can change things. They live and die and decide things that make a difference in their lives and those around them. You don’t see how that’s special?”

“How old are you again? You’re talking more like a philosopher than a kid.” Adam glanced away from me.

“If only I could be a normal kid.” He spoke with such bitterness, I almost apologized to him, though I wasn’t sure what for. Frantic footsteps and the creak of doors heralded Seth, who beckoned us with an arm.

“Trouble.” He said. We rushed through the halls, now mostly abandoned—the smell of smoke mixed with dust greeted us as discarded supplied littered the floors, like the surrendered war-bunkers of the last century you see in textbooks or boring documentaries. Janet, Teo, and Lucy waited for us on the roof. On the other side of the bridge barricade were a series of red glowing eyes, drawing closer into the police spotlights.

“M-my wolves?!” They were the same design as my CREO wolves from the tournament. Alone they weren’t much, but as a pack…

“What’s that thing behind them?” Lucy asked. Another pair of eyes glowed from behind the wolf pack. It was something taller than the wolves. As it stepped into the light, I could make out the shine of armor, the outline of a billowing cape, those purple eyes…

“Plu—” He was upon us before I could even utter his name. His otherworldly screech piercing the night.