Chapter 29:

LEVEL 29: Forfeit and Confiscation

CREO: Game of Creation

Both of our teams were silent, sitting with our hands folded in the conference room, waiting to hear something. Rin explained Artemis’s cancer after the match. No wonder she never appeared in person.

“I wonder…” Rin said, glancing at me and Adam. “If she had a body like yours…”

“Maybe that’s been CREO’s goal the whole time?” Lucy said. “Why they made you their spokesman?” I shook my head.

“No. It’s something else. They banished me, silenced anyone who disagreed with their ‘progress’. Artemis doesn’t want what we have.” Adam grasped my hand.

“If it’ll keep her from dying…”

“She’s been mostly virtual, anyway.” Rin said. “She pushes herself too hard. When she tells me it’s for my sake…” Rin shuddered and looked up at the ceiling, her eyes closed.

“S-sorry.” I said. She blinked at me and I squirmed under her gaze. “Artemis told me to apologize. I’m sorry for shutting myself off from the world, and from you.” Rin smiled and shook her head.

“You really have changed. I never thought I’d hear you apologize for anything.”

“Sometimes it takes losing to figure out how big of a loser you are.” I said. She sputtered into laughter, and I joined her. Both of our teams united in somber jokes and apologies. Kuu appeared in the center of the room and we fell quiet.

“Thank you for your patience. Artemis is currently in serious condition, but has, for the moment, avoided immediate danger to her physical body’s life.” A breath of relief from all of us. “Team Upstart never assigned an alternate, so by default—the winners of the match and tournament are—”

“We forfeit.” I said. “Artemis won fair and square. Team Upstart deserves the win.” Everyone stared at me wide-eyed, particularly Rin.

“Congratulations Team Upstart on your victory! If you would please follow me to the arena for the award ceremony.” It wasn’t celebratory—the crowd cheered, but they knew it wasn’t cheerful.

We were shuttled to the airport the next day and said our goodbyes.

“Let’s meet up again soon.” Lucy said in her hug. “Don’t go ignoring me just because the tournament’s over.”

“I won’t. Unless you annoy me.” A light smack and she was off. Teo and I exchanged a fist bump—he was never much for words. Sieg and Adam took forever with each other, but I eventually dragged him away, leaving us with Rin, who would be sitting next to us on the flight back home. Of course, Adam wanted the window seat. The whole time I didn’t know where to look or what to do with my hands. It must’ve been nice back when everyone had physical phones they could pretend to be using.

“Did you get what you wanted?” Rin asked out of nowhere—I’d been so tense in avoiding her gaze, I jumped when she spoke.

“What do you mean?”

“Out of the tournament. You wanted your crown back from me. Are you satisfied?” I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.

“No. Of course not. I thought being number 1 would make me feel better, keep people from turning on me. But after LianHua and… everything after, I gave up on that stuff. The other reason I competed was because I didn’t trust CREO and I wanted to know what they wanted me and Adam for. So long as I get to choose how I move forward, I’m satisfied, and I don’t think I have that yet.”

“You think CREO is going to use you for something?”

“They already have, with their whole propaganda scheme. I’ve heard since the world learned about Adam, the rate of full virtual conversions and requests for artificial bodies has skyrocketed. People want to be part of the future, but what if they’re leading the future in a bad direction?”

“Not long ago, you would’ve been one of those people, dreaming of eternal life in the digital world.”

“I know. They’re using technology to replace people and I get the feeling this whole tournament, creating Adam, even the stuff in LianHua, was a PR stunt to them. For their ‘progress.’”

“Still, we live in a world where people like Selena get sick.”

“Now who’s the one with their head in the digital cloud? I bet deep down Selena wants to get better and have the option to stay in this world on her own terms.” Rin smiled and nodded.

“You’re right. So what’s next?”

“When Adam tried to speak out, he physically couldn’t, so we’ll have to rely on others to push back…” It felt like time froze and my heart stopped. A twisted, sick feeling consumed me as I looked to my side, at the clouds passing through the window and the empty seat where Adam had been a moment before. I looked around desperately, checked the bathroom, every row of seats. There was nowhere he could hide, no way he could’ve sneaked past as Rin and I had been talking. Adam had vanished.

Boys don’t just vanish, but Adam was no normal boy, and I had a terrible feeling CREO had something to do with it. After they dragged me off the plane and we were back in Fukui, Rin and I called Kuu from her house. (How was I supposed to face Mom if I came home without Adam?)

“How may I—”

“Where’s Adam?!” I had no time for Kuu’s games.

“Who? Input error.”

“Don’t mess with me!” Rin touched my shoulder, and I collected myself. Kuu floated in silence for a moment, as if it were thinking, then it blinked.

“System Override. Your NPC has been confiscated by the CREO development team, as the beta period for Update Alpha has concluded.”

“Where is he? He’s still alive, isn’t he?”

“He is being studied and re-calibrated for optimization. We thank you for providing important testing on behalf of our development team—”

“I want to see him! Who’s in charge of you, anyway?”

“CREO development team—”

“Who’s in charge of the CREO development team? Who gave me access to Alpha, who’s been trying to manipulate us this whole time?” Another pause.

“CREO is an entirely human-free company. After the death of our founder, Endou Katsunobu, the company was entrusted fully to the AI he developed. In the time since, CREO’s AI has grown and learned—expanding its reach and influence throughout the virtual and physical worlds.” All this time, we’d been strung along by artificial intelligence?

“What does the AI want to do with Adam?”

“Access denied.”

“Why did you turn me into an artificial human and try to replace me?”

“You were a problem and were leading Adam in an unpredictable direction.”

“So? You couldn’t control your experiment, so you thought it was okay to kill me off?”

“All artificial humans are reflections of their originator, Adam included. CREO envisions a world in which the suffering of the physical world, caused by the unpredictable, is reigned in and neutralized through the reflection system. That way, those who abide by the system may live in stability in whichever world they choose. That is the next step of the world’s evolution, the progress we strive for.”

“But it’s not really a choice you’re giving people. You’re just trying to control people.”

“Mr. Endou programmed the CREO AI to strive toward progressing our users’ happiness. This is the result we have calculated, and we thank you for contributing to it.”

“Maybe it’s better to have free will than to always be safe and happy. Maybe people won’t always be nice to you, and you might even get sick or make some mistakes. But it’s not your life if you don’t have the freedom to live it. Adam taught me that, he and my friends.” I nodded at Rin.

“We don’t have an opinion on that line of thinking, as it’s irrelevant to our programming and objectives.” Kuu said. “We ask that you not interfere in our progress.”

“Or what?”

“You exist in a borrowed body, stolen from your other self. We can reclaim that body at our discretion.”

“That doesn’t advance Kaito’s happiness.” Rin said, hoping to trap the AI in a paradox.

“KAI is not classified as a user, but as an asset.”

“Then it wouldn’t make me happy if you hurt him.”

“It would in the long term, by creating a better user experience for everyone.” It was no use—the AI had convinced itself of its insane theories.

“Is there any way I can get him back? Or even just see him?” I asked. Kuu paused for a moment, then spun around.

“Please look forward to the full release of Update Alpha coming soon! We’re glad you enjoyed your beta period. Please consider filling out our survey—” I tried to punch it in the jaw, only for the cloud to dissipate before my fist could land. Kuu’s laugh echoed until its presence had left. I wanted to scream, cry, kick something, instead I sat down and hugged my knees.

“I didn’t get to say goodbye.” Rin placed her arm around my shoulder.

“What do you want to do?”

“There’s nothing we can do, they’ve boxed us in.”

“Only if you let them.” Rin looked me in the eye, more serious than I’d ever seen her. “The Kaito I know doesn’t like to lose—and if we’re gonna lose, we should do it with a fight.”

“Spoken like a true death god.” I chuckled. I stood and stretched my fingers. “You’re right. Adam would do anything for me—I should do the same, even if the odds are long. Hell, we just have to take down the system, then it’s no problem.” Rin put her hand to her chin.

“Hm, maybe that’s not such a crazy idea. But we’ll need help.”

“Good thing we’ve got some good contacts.”