Chapter 15 (or, “Disasterville”)
"Do me a favor, Jen?" Rifka asked as they led their group.
Jen's face was glued to his communicator, watching the map function as it drew the area around them. They had left the beach about an hour ago and had walked through a shallow forest, and were now standing on a cliff...or, rather, they would be if Jen would stop and realize where he was.
He pressed another button, and the map saved. The blinking icon in the top right hand corner meant that the image was being transported to Isabel and the others. That way, they could all add to the map. GPS functions would mean that he could track the other two groups no matter where they went. That just left Rikimo, but he didn't count her as a problem just yet --
"Glory to our Soviet homeland!"
He jumped and turned. "Why did you say that?"
"Figured it would get your attention. Did it?"
Jen found himself to be quiet for a moment. It did get his attention -- but in a different way than he would have hoped. Talk of the Soviet homeland reminded him of his past life, living in China and making up for his older brother's past. Jen had never met Qiang Guo, but he still knew that his presence had a huge impact not only on his family, but on him as well. It was because of Qiang Guo's death that Jen himself was so good at coding and at school. He was trying to fill the void his gege had left.
It then reminded him of Tama...his sort of adopted new older brother. Tama was with Isabel and Erika right now, who knew how far away. Thoughts of Sovietdom reminded him of one more thing: Rifka. Russia and China had vastly different histories and cultures, but in Jen and Rifka's world, they had both been united under the Soviet banner.
Jen realized he had been humming a tune, an old song from the Soviet Republic. He stopped. The time for all of that was done now. The Chinese here had never heard of anything called Soviet, or communism. At least, he didn't think so. He would have to ask later.
"Jen? You're in a trance now. Jian Liang?"
"Everything okay?" Rhiannon asked, catching up with Rifka and Jen. Henry, Liana, and Sierra were quick behind.
"We're just deciding where we should go next," Jen said as his eyes went back to the GPS unit on his communicator. "Waiting for an update to my map."
"I might be making a false assumption here, but I think I know where we should go next." That was Henry Rakisu, all the way in the back of the group.
Jen turned to Henry. "I am the one with the map, and therefore, I know where I'm going," he said, not knowingly in Mandarin.
Henry was the only one who understood him; he wilted. "Sorry."
"Uh, guys..." Sierra pointed ahead of herself. "No offense, but it looks like that's where we should go next."
"I keep telling you, I'm the one with the map --" Jen almost dropped his communicator when Rifka turned his head to the left, looking out across the vast vista below the cliff. "What's that down there?"
"That's where I suggested we go," Henry said, in a quiet and unassuming Japanese voice.
"Oh. My dearest apologies. Let's go there," Jen said, tapping the location into his communicator map amid Sierra's pumped fist and happy "Yatta!" "There's a slow descent in the cliff ahead. From there, we'll be able to journey to that spot. Sound capable?"
"That it does," Rhiannon said. "Komari, make sure all members of our party are online and fully refreshed."
"Understood." Komari hadn't left Rhiannon's side the entire time. She closed her eyes, sending mental online messages to the other navigators in the group. Liana's Akita dog Jackgave a polite 'wan' bark in agreement, Sierra's purple budgie Parapara tweeted, and Henry didn't say anything but turned to his shoulder. Upon closer scrutiny, Rifka realized Henry's navigator was a ladybug.
"Its name is Ladybug," Henry said with a chuckle. "Not very special, I guess. And she doesn't talk. But she gets me."
The group then took the path down to the mainland, toward the area Sierra and Henry had both pointed out. From up in the air on the cliff, it had looked like a small town of sorts, with tall buildings and green trees. A town was promising, as the group had not yet found a place to stay for the night.
Ahead of them was a thick forest with a long and winding path leading through it. Jen told the group which way to go by using his GPS function, and Rhiannon kept their minds off the maze by talking about Digital Merge and how she had created some of the cards.
Jen and Rifka stayed quiet, listening to Rhiannon's tales about this Great War and how she had played a small role in ending it. As a very important computer programmer, she had worked late into the night to make sure the Eastern Asia forces won. Jen knew exactly what Rhiannon spoke of -- it wasn't that long ago that he had done those same late night coding sessions for the same man who had ruined their world.
After the war, Rhiannon had thought up a series of heroes in her head that represented all that the East Asians had worked for in the war. She had found that a lot of their mythology and beliefs were the same, no matter what language they spoke or what their own nationalities were. She had worked together with investors and gaming experts, and Digital Merge -- the merge of Korea, Japan, and China over time and space -- had been born. It hadn't been super successful at first, but withn time, Rhiannon's presence and Canberra's charisma, plus Kiiroka Jaci picking up coverage of the game on her show, had helped to make it extremely popular among the younger crowd.
Rifka found the story fascinating. She wondered if Jen did as well.
The forest cleared away, and there was a gate leading into the city. Rhiannon pushed it open easily, and together, the group walked in without a sound.
The most peculiar aspect about the town was that there weren't any people in it. The streets themselves were desolate and empty, like the town had been closed for the day. The sun was now going down, which added to the uneasy atmosphere. A pathway led to the town's center, which had a fountain and a huge building that had to be city hall.
"This looks awfully familiar," Rhiannon noted. "Could this be...?"
"I think it is." Henry nodded. "This is Disasterville, the city we have to protect in Digital Merge games. The city itself has come to life."
Jen looked over his map and registered the locations he could find: the high school, police station, park along the sides of the town, hospital, fire station. As the GPS set up the town's layout, he discovered two things: that the layout was exact, down to the town itself being in a square layout; and that the locations were mirrored, as if they really were two playmats against each other. The town was split in two sides, with the fountain and the city hall in the middle. The elementary and high schools were mirrored, as were the fire and police stations and other buildings. There were even two identical abandoned buildings on each edge of town.
"What are those?" he asked Rhiannon, pointing to the map.
Rhiannon took a quick glance. "That's where the team leaders set up their headquarters," she said. "For gameplay. It's where the heroes have their base."
"Oh." Jen nodded, as if he understood.
"Could somebody please tell me just what is going on here?"
Everybody turned to the source of the voice. The first inhabitant of the town had come out to see who the newcomers were. It was a woman -- a girl, really -- who had short dirty hair under a bandana. She was dressed as a farmer, with blue overalls on and a plaid shirt underneath, with work boots completing the ensemble.
"The master of turbines, Latasha," Rhiannon thought out loud to herself. "Go figure. One of my own cards lives in this town."
Before Rhiannon could say anything else, the entire ground shook beneath their feet again. Instead of being a simple earthquake as before, small holes opened up, and moles poked their heads out of the ground. They took one look at Rhiannon, smiled, then burrowed back underground, causing more tremors as they went.
"The Moles of Molten Lava," Henry told Jen and Rifka. "Another villain card, like Psycho Kitchen. We'll have to beat them if we stand any chance of sleeping tonight."
Rifka sighed. This was getting to be quite the day.