Chapter 40:


Red-Black Course

Just as its name implied, the Old Chateau apartment complex was a condominium with a rich history, dating even centuries back from the current times. However, even with such a proud tradition, the building that once was reserved only for the upper class of society had become merely a shadow of its former self.

A paintjob that had long faded, revealing large spots of cement. Moss growing well over the building. Chipped brick walls and a cracked porched. A rusted and brittle gate. If anything, it looked more like an abandoned house… or rather, skyscraper, since it still stood well over twenty stories.

With all of its infamy, it wasn’t a surprise if Zain immediately thought that he got the wrong address as he reached the destination. However, looking at the address box once more, he came to the sad conclusion that it was the correct place.

Why would that guy tell me to come to this dump? Is it something that much of a secret to keep, so much that he had to go his way to an abandoned house?

Zain clicked his tongue in annoyance and pushed open the gate.

Though the young man was delicate in his strength, the creaking noise that the rusted gate caused was still terrible for the ears. Having goosebumps all over him, Zain gritted his teeth and continued.

To his surprise, inside were people. And not just any people; actual working people, though they weren’t exactly the friendly type.

Standing behind the old, splinter-filled reception desk was a middle-aged man wearing a faded, torn suit, not even bothering to keep up a smile. Down the hallway next to the elevator was the bellhop, in the same shoddy-looking clothes and wearing the same unenthusiastic face.

“Can I help you?” Upon seeing the young visitor, the receptionist spoke with a dull voice.

“Yes, I was wondering where number 200-A is,” Zain took a light bow and politely asked.

“Twentieth floor, the first room to your right,” the middle-aged man answered. “Mister Zain, I assume?”

“… Yes, I am. Did Jack tell you beforehand?”

“I don’t know what you did, kid, but it’s not every day that that guy brings a visitor,” the man squinted his eyes at Zain as if trying to scrutinize a clever villain in disguise. Although Zain was technically a “villain” before, that kind of gaze still made the young man uncomfortable.

“Thank you for the information,” quickly bowing to the receptionist, Zain made his way to the elevator and pressed the button for the twentieth floor.

After another dull minute of elevator music, the young man finally reached his destination. True to his previous directions, on the first door to his right was a small plate that said “200-A”.

Zain knocked on the door, which rocked hard as if it was about to fall as soon as his fist made contact. Immediately, there was an answer, but the voice was nothing like he had expected.

“Coming!” A female voice called out.

When the door opened, standing in front of Zain was a young woman in her twenties, with the same long, luscious blonde hair that the warden in question had.

“Um…” Zain could only mutter. Never in his life did he expect this kind of situation to happen.

“You’re Zain, right?” The woman let out a charming smile. “Don’t worry, you got the right place. Come in, we have tea.”

Even as he had situated himself nicely on the worn-out couch, with a cup of lovely, steaming tea in front of him, Zain couldn’t help but feel even more awkward at the situation. However, he couldn’t just ask the woman about Jack right away, lest he ruined her hospitality.

Thankfully, the lady in front of him was smart enough to see through his awkwardness. Letting out a light chuckle, she gestured:

“Oh, right, where are my manners? I’m Jack’s wife, Lucy. Pleased to meet you, Zain.”

“Um… the pleasure’s all mine, Miss Lucy,” Zain nodded. “So, about Jack…”

“Oh, he should be home soon,” the woman, now Lucy, answered.

Another moment of awkwardness ensued between the two. Thrust into an unfamiliar scene, Zain kept on fidgeting around. If it was a trap like Mike and Mitch had been worried about, he could have just overpowered it easily with his nanobots, but not in front of someone seemingly just an ordinary housewife. But even that information was still not certain in Zain’s mind. Was she really just a housewife? What was she planning? Was she in cahoots with Jack to set up on him?

However, Lucy was more observant than Zain expected. While the young man was still glancing around, she had already given him a reassuring smile:

“Don’t worry, dear. I know all about you, as well as what happened between you and my husband. He’s called you here just to talk, no ulterior motives. I can guarantee you that.”

Just as the words left her mouth, another clanking at the door’s lock sounded, signaling another person had returned home. Following the slow turning sound of the knob was a cheerful, energetic shout from a small girl:

“Mama, I’m home… Oh? Look, Daddy, we have a guest!”

“Oh, it seems that we do,” following the girl was finally the voice that Zain was familiar with. “Elaine, can you play in your room for a while? He’s Daddy’s important friend, after all.”

“Okay!” The young girl let out a toothy grin as she quickly ran across the hallway, so fast that Zain could only see a blurry flash of yellow passing the living room where he was.

A few seconds later, Jack entered the room.

After all that time in the Infinite Prison, Zain was too used to the man in a warden’s uniform. So now, as Jack appeared in a casual white T-shirt and frayed khakis, Zain couldn’t help but feel rather weirded out.

Jack, meanwhile, disregarded the young man’s questioning eyes, and instead turned to Lucy:

“Dear, can you keep Elaine company for a bit?”

“No problem, honey,” Lucy nodded. “Take all the time you need.”

As the woman disappeared from the premise, Zain could finally regain his composure. And immediately, the young man let out a smirk at the former warden in front of him, as if to let out all of his previous awkwardness and frustration:

“Friend, eh?”

“I can’t tell her my real job,” Jack answered. “She only knew me as a police officer… Though, I guess now there’s nothing to worry about.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve seen the place,” Jack gestured around. “Your thoughts?”

“Never thought you’d be a cheapskate,” Zain sipped on his tea while delivering a sarcastic comment. But the man in front of him paid no mind to it:

“It’s not strange for you to think that. After all, no one expected a Colonel, an esteemed officer with the pivotal task of manning the Infinite Prison to live in poverty, right?”

“… No, not really,” Jack’s words finally caused Zain to soften up as the young man finally dropped the attitude. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Jack sighed. “It’s always been like this for me. Officers are paid dirt, Zain, but back then, we were happy despite that. You know why?”

A light shake of the head, along with a pair of curious eyes from the young man, waiting for the warden to continue.

“Before, I really believed that I was serving justice; that I was doing good to our world… until that day a year ago. You know what I’m talking about.”

“Bold of you to directly mention that,” Zain sounded normal, but his grip on the teacup tightened. A bit looser on his restraint, and Zain could shatter the cup right then and there.

“After the fourth game, I was already in doubt. But I went through with the Commander’s plan, because I truly thought that sometimes, justice cannot be served without sacrifices… that even if I have to dirty my hands, it’s for the greater good…”

Never had Zain seen Jack’s eyes like this before. Eyes filled with sadness and regret, those of a man that had lost everything.

“… What happened?”

“Did you know why we’re still alive even after that explosion?” Jack suddenly changed the topic.

“What? … Uh, no, not really. Though now that you mention it… how did you survive?”

A bitter laugh came from the warden.

“I don’t even know. There was a blinding light, and the next moment I realized it, I was lying on a pile of rubble. And yet, I had not even a scratch or a bruise, as if…”

“Magic, right?” Jack’s story caused Zain to remember just one thing from his past, and it was the only thing that he still hadn’t gotten any leads up until this point.

“… Yeah, magic,” Jack had also realized the significance of that single word. “But how did you know what I was about to say?”

“It’s a hunch from my past. But do continue – what happened next?”

“… As I looked around, Bruce was the same, and so was Love. The only casualty was…”

Jack then stood up and grabbed a small box from the shelf behind Zain. Before the young man could ask, he had already opened it and revealed a scorched plastic stick, only around half the size of his palm.

“Superintendent Rose was in critical condition… and passed away a week after. There wasn’t even a funeral for her; after the incident, we just rebuilt the prison as if nothing had happened.”

Out of the wardens, Rose and Jack were the ones with that Zain could come to somewhat of an understanding after the games, and so, even if she was still an enemy, the young man couldn’t help but feel sorry for the ill-fated woman.

“But you know what’s the worst part of it? After we rebuilt it, everything just… stopped.”

“Stopped? What do you mean ‘stopped’?”

“I mean ‘stopped’, completely,” Jack let out a sigh. “There hasn’t been any prisoner for a year now. Everyone else was let out, no matter how severe the crime.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Zain raised his brows. “That place only housed shitty crimes that you guys made up to fill up trainees for the Course, right? If they’re free now, then good riddance.”

“It’s not that simple,” answered Jack. “While I admit that many were sent to prison wrongly, and they should have been freed from the start, the Infinite Prison is still a true prison. Murder, genocide, terrorism… actual criminals were still aplenty among the inmates. And the Commander… that man… just let them all loose. I tried to stop him, but he threw me away like I was just dirt. And now the one in charge is that bullhead, while the robot officers now only target you. This… this isn’t what I was promised...”

“And? You’re desperate enough to go to me, right? What are you planning?”

“You know that Bruce is behind that tournament you’re participating in, right?”

“Hard not to notice that idiot. So what?”

“I don’t know the exact detail, but they’re planning something. Something big. But the only lead I have is this.”

As he finished his words, Jack picked up the remote on the table and turned to the side to turn on his TV. Immediately, a familiar scene appeared before Zain – another footage of the most famous player in the world, Leonardo di Messeo.

“Do you know where exactly did the Red-Black Course take its inspiration from?”

“I thought it was a specialized training regimen for space-time travel?” Zain let out a puzzled look. The idea was mentioned to him by Mike not long ago, but back then, Zain had dismissed it right away. Never would he have thought that it would return once again.

“It was a specialized training regimen,” Jack nodded his head. “But the games themselves were directly drawn and designed from NLS. And this is the main issue.”

“Issue? How so?”

“This is just a speculation of mine, but…” Jack hesitated for a bit, glancing over at Zain as if both wanting and not wanting to continue at the same time.

“On with it, man,” the young man clicked his tongue in annoyance.

“What if the Course wasn’t the only regimen the Commander thought of?”

“What do you…” Zain was about to ask, but the young man soon stopped. There was an idea that came to his mind, but if it was true, then the result would be larger in scale than anything else he’d seen before.

“It can’t be… right?” Zain looked over to Jack.

“You know that the Commander is also the current World President, right?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard.”

“Do you know who invented Neural Link Sports?”

“Don’t tell me…”

“Yup,” nodded Jack. “Though the technology came from his former best friend, the idea for Neural Link Sports came from none other than Mutsuhito Ryuuhan himself.”

“… But that doesn’t make sense. The incident with me only happened seven years ago. I thought…”

“This game has been famous for decades now, I know. But that’s the scary part: if this game was thought of that long ago, what exactly was Ryuuhan thinking? What urged him to make it, to create the Infinite Prison? And why is he pushing the boundaries even further now, blatantly promoting it with this tournament? That’s what I want to know… so can you help me out?”

“Since this involves me anyway, you have yourself a deal.”

“Perfect,” Jack nodded, giving Zain a small card. “Here’s my contact. We’ll exchange any information we might find in the future.”

“Sounds good to me,” Zain stood up and offered a final handshake as a goodbye. “Here’s to finally a good partnership.”

“Looking forward to it.”

As the young man stepped out of the door, however, a yellow blur dashed out from the hallway once more, and before he knew it, standing in front of him was a blonde girl around four or five years old, with eyes clear as the blue sky.

“Mister!” The girl excitedly shouted. “Are you that friend Daddy has always been talking about?”

“I’m so sorry…” following her was Lucy’s regretful voice. “But she kept insisting that she get to look at you…”

“No worries, I don’t mind,” Zain lightly patted the girl’s head, before kneeling down to face her and answer her question. “You can say that.”

“Hah, I knew it!” The girl eagerly smiled as bright as the sun. “You are that hero protecting everyone from the bad robots! Hey, mister, does Daddy help you with your job? He’s a police officer, you know!”

“… Yeah, he does,” before the girl’s spirit, Zain could only let out a gentle smile. “Your Daddy is the best officer in the world.”

As Zain got out of the apartment and returned to the main road, only then did the young man tapped on his ear, where a small device was cleverly hidden behind his hair. And instantly afterwards, a nagging voice boomed into his eardrums:

“Zain, what the hell happened?” Shouted Mike. “Why did you turn off the earpiece halfway through? Didn’t we agree to catch him off guard and strike him down?”

“Don’t worry, he’s safe,” Zain concluded and turned off the earpiece once more, leaving a confused Mike on the other side.

For the first time, the young man looked back at the scenery behind him. Taking another gaze at the dump of an apartment complex behind him, Zain let out a satisfied smile and finally left.

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