Chapter 10 (or, “Keeping It All Straight”)
Tama’s head was spinning.
First, the ground had opened up in an earthquake, taking Rhiannon under -- and Jason had jumped in after her. Then, the spiky-haired Korean had arrived with a girl who seemed to be transparent, who had then jumped into the same hole Rhiannon and Jason had been in before. Thankfully Jason had deployed his barrier before jumping in, but…
None of this was making sense. Everybody else seemed to be speaking another language. He had anticipated this mission would be easier since Sarah had said so, and because Isabel and the others had faith in him. But right now, he felt less like a leader and more like a spectator.
The ground shook again as the plastic looking girl with the billowing dress jumped into the sand, and Tama closed his eyes. He was still recovering. Any time the ground shifted under his feet, he felt the familiar fight or flight system take effect. It was as if he was back in his apartment building, back in the war, trying to protect his siblings. He wanted to run, to grab his friends and get away from where they were. But they were on mission.
That wasn’t an option.
“Are you okay?”
The words were familiar, in the usual Japanese cadence, without the slight accent most of the other kids now had. He turned and saw her -- had been expecting her from a long way away, but she was standing next to him. There was a bit of a gap -- Japanese people didn’t like invading other peoples’ bubbles -- but she was close enough to answer.
“Why do you ask?” he asked her. A strange response, from a Japanese standpoint, but Tama had been too influenced by his friends to be solely that at this point.
Erika gave Tama a smile. “You were so sure before. But you’re quieter now. Your friends are doing all they can. I wouldn't worry about them. It takes a team to save the world," she said.
Tama thought about it -- Jen was talking with Rhiannon, and Jason had jumped in after her before. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. "I've always kind of been the leader, but I don't know what that means right now."
“Well, just do whatever you’ve done before. I'm confident your friends trust you. That's what friends have to do in order to be successful.” Erika gave a slight bow. “I’m not sure if you actually know my name. With all the chaos that has happened, I don’t think we’ve really had a proper introduction. I am Tomoyaki Erika...apparently the person you chose to save this world.”
“That is true.” Tama gave a bow back. “I am Matsumoto Tamasine. It is very nice to meet you.”
“Tamasine...is that a loan word? It doesn’t sound Korean.”
“No, it’s Japanese. Honest.” Tama drew the kanji in the air with his index finger. “Tamashii-ne. But my friends call me Tama, since that’s a mouthful. Most everybody does, these days."
“Regardless of the origin of your name, it’s very nice to finally meet you, Matsumoto-san.” Erika’s eyes looked past Tama and to the Korean boy, who was shouting something into the pit. “I hope Canberra’s okay.”
“What’s with the plastic girl and the holes in the ground?”
There was hesitation, and then “You can call me Erika. I don’t mind, I guess. Anyway, Canberra’s just using his Glass Girl to defeat the Psycho Kitchen hidden away in the sand. Darned villain cards always show up when we’re not expecting them. You know about Digital Merge, right? You have to.”
Most of what Erika was saying was going straight over Tama’s head. “What?”
“Digital Merge. It’s a card game to see who can save the world the fastest!”
And all Tama could think about was the show he had seen with Kiiroka Jaci, and how Erika had mentioned she was saving the day, and all he could say was “This is a card game?!?”
"It's doing a very bad job of just being a card game right now," Erika noted, but Tama could barely hear her. Saving the world in a card game. Saving the world in a card game???
"When there is a villain card in play like Psycho Kitchen," Erika said, "then you need to pool your resources to get rid of it before it causes too much damage. We've only got the Glass Girl card for now, but..." She was quiet for a moment. "This world seems to have brought Digital Merge to life. The Glass Girl is acting just like she would if she was a card. She's following Canberra's instructions. You're the one who knows about what happened to this world. Do you think it was natural for the card game to come to life? Is this all real?"
Tama took a moment to think about it. If Dvorak had really been activated by Rhiannon's computer -- and who knew how that had happened? -- then this was all real. But if this was real...then that meant that Canberra and Erika and the kids who played the game might just have an advantage against Dvorak. Wherever he was. "Erika-san, you said you play the game as well, right?"
"I do. I'm apparently one of the best players. Canberra is definitely better than I am, though."
"Okay. Canberra has one of his cards. Do you have any clues on how to find any of your cards? Any hints at all?"
"I don't --" Erika snapped her fingers. "Onibi! Do you know what an onibi is?"
"Yeah. It's a card, but it's based off of a Japanese legend. Onibi are small sentient balls of fire that like to circle around and play games. They're friendly, but if a human gets too close, they will steal your soul. They only obey their master's whistle."
"Kind of like hitodama?"
"I guess so." Erika puckered her lips and did her best to whistle. It took a couple of tries, but then it came out, long and clear yet muted. Erika tried again, and again. "I'm not a good whistler," she told Tama. "This works so much easier when all I do is draw the card and don't have to pay attention to the flavor text!"
Tama had never played a game like Digital Merge -- his Tokyo had been too busy for anything more than the traditional hanafuda -- and he didn't know what she meant by 'flavor text,' but he just tried his best to follow along. "So if you whistle for the hitodama, they will come?"
No sooner had he said that than they did. Before Tama could react, two little blue balls of fire came out of nowhere and were floating over Erika's baseball cap. She looked up and smiled. "Well, hello!" she said with a chuckle. "You heard me."
The onibi balls floated around Erika's head, almost as if they were excited. Tama watched as Erika took her hat off. "Are you happy to see me? Because I sure am happy to see you."
The two fire balls flew around in a circle. Erika turned to Tama. "I'm sorry. It's just -- this game is really important to me. It's close to everybody here. So when I actually see one of my cards for the first time, it means a lot. Do you have anything like that?"
"Not really. But I understand how something that's not real can be real to you. What are you going to do with the onibi?"
Erika grinned. She whistled again, and the two onibi came to rest in front of her face. "You need to help Canberra's Glass Girl against the Psycho Kitchen card. Do you think you can do that?"
The balls didn't make any noise, just hovered in front of Erika's face. It was seemingly enough of an answer for her. "Okay!" she said with a pump of her fist. "Onibi! Descend and face-off!"
Without any additional warning, the onibi flew past Erika and Tama and into the hole that the Glass Girl had disappeared into. It got the attention of some of the others, and Canberra looked back at Erika. "Were those onibi?"
Erika shrugged. "Gotta love flavor text. Anybody else have any ideas?"
"I think for now it's just the Glass Girl and the Onibi," Rhiannon noted. "If the roll is lucky, you'll be fine."
"That's great and all, but how do we roll a dice for a real world edition of Digital Merge?" Canberra asked.
Tama snapped his fingers. "That's where we come in. The communicators' power is going to the Glass Girl. Does the dice roll just add power to the Glass Girl and the Onibi?"
"That it does," Rhiannon replied.
"Then we're set." Tama grinned. "Descend and face-off, Dealey Five!"