Chapter 13 (or, "Learning The Rules")
"Don't mind me for my stupidity," Isabel asked as night fell on their group, "but how do you actually play Digital Merge?"
Isabel and Tama had pooled their resources together to create a camp for the night. Isabel had coded a huge tent, while Tama had made the provision for five sleeping bags. Their communication devices had changed the surrounding sand’s molecular structure to make it plastic -- not perfect for sleeping, but good enough considering the circumstances. They had been able to desalt the water from the ocean, as well as catch some fish and start a fire. Apparently Dvorak wasn't so evil that he wanted them to fail in their mission initially. He had given them a fighting chance.
But then again, as Tama reflected, he could just be waiting to strike at the right moment, when they had their guard down. This was Dvorak they were talking about. You could never assume anything about Dvorak.
"Digital Merge is a pretty simple game to pick up," Erika said as they sat around the campfire and ate the fish Isabel had prepared. "The idea of the game is that you have to save the world better than your opponent does. Each player contributes one of their own playmats -- their home base, so to speak -- and hazards happen in that area. The player chooses a select few heroes that they use to overcome these hazards. They use a vehicle to get around town, and sometimes, supervillains like the Psycho Kitchen pop up and you have to defeat those as well." She paused. "The vehicles aren't cards, though, so I'd be curious to see how they would exist in this world. Maybe they don't."
"You know. Cars, trains, boats, buses, roller coasters that come in sideways..." Erika grinned and removed her hat. "General modes of transportation. Some cards are mounts, though, and they can carry heroes. Like the Sea Horse, or the Mulana fire hero. The possibilities for that can be pretty endless. Hero cards are fixed -- there are exactly two hundred regular heroes -- but gift card packs are released all the time, which add new and exciting chances to the game."
"Gift cards?" Tama got the image of boxes wrapped in ribbons and bows.
"Yep." Erika took a bite out of the fish. "When you confront a hazard or defeat a supervillain, you get gift cards." She paused. "I wonder why Canberra didn't get a gift card for beating Psycho Kitchen. I know I didn't. Does that mean there aren't any gift cards here?"
"Beyond me." Kyara sighed and laid her head on her friend's shoulder. "I'm trying to follow along, but this isn't making any sense."
"I know." Erika turned to Tama as Joliar and Kuchi stopped running around the fire and returned to their owners' laps. "Matsumoto-kun?"
Tama's attention turned to the girl. "Yes?"
"You had mentioned before that I am the guardian of this world. But I think the exact definition of that has yet to be revealed. Do you mind explaining?"
"The world you live in is colliding with another," Isabel cut in before Tama could explain. "Because of that, your world needs a guardian to ensure that it survives the collision. That's you, Erika."
"You remember the voice we heard in the green room?" Tama finally edged in.
Erika nodded. "They mentioned some of this to everybody earlier. I'm the one who can get the world back. But I still don't understand my role."
"That voice belongs to our number one enemy," Tama continued, thinking of how Dvorak had almost totally messed up his own reality, and the formation of his group, until Jen had stepped in. "He's gonna try to stop you from fixing the world. We've dealt with him before."
"A couple of times," Isabel said with a sour look on her face.
Erika nodded. There was an intent look on her face. "So what should I do to beat him? Assuming such a feat is actually possible."
“Well, collecting the cards should help us,” Isabel noted. “As we saw before, they can fight most of our battles for us in this world. It even seems as if Dvorak is wanting us to find the cards and challenge him with them. That should be your primary plan for now.” Isabel turned to Tama. “We, however, need a plan should this all be for nothing. We know how Dvorak operates. That’s why I talked to Jen before he and Rifka left.”
“You did?” Tama must have missed that part.
“I talked to him alone. I told him to see, in his spare time, if he could code something with his communicator that would alter reality. Jen can’t override Dvorak’s world, but he can do things like give more power to the cards Erika and the others are using. Quite technically speaking, he could find all the cards for us if he coded everything right, but even Jen said that would take longer than two weeks for him to code. Mostly because he doesn’t know all of the cards.”
“But he’s gonna work on a failsafe?” Erika asked.
Isabel nodded. “Just in case we can’t save the world. He’s not to be trusted. At all. Let’s get some sleep. This has been the longest first day of a mission ever.”
Everybody agreed and went into the tent. Kyara and Erika sat their makeshift sleeping bags together, while Nathan picked out a corner. Isabel slept by the opening, and Tama...Tama couldn’t get any sleep at all, so it didn’t matter.
He finally exited the plastic green tent and found himself on the neverending sands of the long reaching desert. They hadn’t left yet, which was understandable as it was only their first day. The big purple sky was dark and filled with millions of stars, each one clear as crystal. It looked as if he could see the stars forever. It was nothing like the Tokyo he had left behind, and no part of QWERTY’s headquarters was properly outside. They did have outdoor simulations, but they didn’t give the vastness this did.
Had Dvorak created this reality? There were things about that man Tama would never understand. Why wouldn’t he just leave them alone? Did it have to do with Isabel? Or did it have something to do with him and the Dealey Five?
Tama knew it was Erika by her voice. He turned around. “Look up.”
And she did, and Tama watched as she removed her hat and stared up at the sky in awe. “That...that’s beautiful,” she muttered. “I never get to see the sky like this.”
“Neither do I,” Tama said, then added, “Did I. I once lived in a Tokyo as well. No matter which dimension you go to, Tokyo is so bright you cannot see the stars.”
“Until now.” Erika’s eyes weren’t on Tama at all, but he couldn’t keep from blushing. “You said you’re from Tokyo?” she continued.
“I’m from a Tokyo much different than yours.” And Tama told Erika all he could, of the streets and buildings and subway systems and the summer festivals. He told her about when the bombings started happening and how his family stayed inside all the time. He told her of his parents, of Hideko -- but not of how she died -- and how he had saved Miyuki the night the city had been bombed.
In return, she filled in the gaps. She talked about when she had moved to Tokyo from the north, and how she had made friends at her school. She made constant reference to Joliar, the electronic rabbit who was sleeping in the tent next to Kuchi. The more she talked about her life, the more it reminded Tama of the world he had left behind.
She grew quiet. “Does your world exist anymore?”
“No.” Tama sighed. “Actually, my world got absorbed into Isabel’s world.”
“Yeah. Isabel’s best friend was the guardian, and I don’t blame her for doing what she did. She basically erased my world, but it wasn’t very good to begin with.”
“It was still your world.” Erika was silent for a moment, eyes toward the stars, and then, “If your world was erased, then how are you here?”
He felt a pit in his stomach. “I got lucky, Tomoyaki-san. I got really lucky.”
Erika laughed. “For the last time -- call me Erika.”
“Okay...Erika.” His own eyes went up to the stars and stayed there. “Isabel says that those brave souls whom QWERTY notices can be pulled from their dimension to be members. It happened with Isabel -- she sacrificed herself to keep Dvorak away from her friends. I like to think I was asked to be a part of QWERTY because I saved my sister. But I sometimes wonder...why was I asked and not other people? Regular acts of bravery happen every single day.”
“That they do. And I’m sure you could think about why you were picked for years. What matters is that you were picked, and that you’re here now.”
“I hope you’re right, Erika. I hope you’re right.”
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