Chapter 31 (or, “The Red Giant”)
Erika watched as her entire world unraveled in front of her. Within seconds, Kyara and Nathan were gone, as well as the Roses card and Isabel. Tama had grabbed her by the arm and had started running away from the card and Isabel. What was that girl thinking? She couldn’t be left alone like that, ready to fight against a card without any heroes by her side.
She wanted to be done with this world. She wanted to go home, to have everything return to normal. More importantly, she wanted to stop Tama from running away.
“Hold on for a minute,” she said, making him pause far away enough to no longer see Isabel and the Roses, but close enough to hear if something went wrong. “I want to see what’s going on.”
Tama shook his head. “You heard what Isabel said, Tomoyaki-san. We need to keep moving. We need to go to Disasterville.” He pulled out his communicator. “Do you need to listen to the message again?”
Erika shook her head. “It’s just...I don’t know where my friends went. And Joliar --”
Erika turned as she heard a familiar voice. Joliar bounded toward her like a real-life rabbit, jumping up Erika and onto her hat. Erika felt herself tear up. “You’re okay!”
“Yeah, that girl and the Roses card just disappeared like that.” Joliar made a clicking noise with his teeth. “Can you believe that?”
“The villain cards are being used by Dvorak to make us disappear,” Tama reiterated. “We need to stay away from them, at least until we can get back to Disasterville. Rifka is back there with Rhiannon, but I don’t know where Canberra and the others are. It was good for us to split up before, but we don’t know what Dvorak’s next move is.”
Joliar crawled down to Erika’s shoulder as she gave Tama a worried look. “I’ve never heard of this Dvorak man.”
“He’s the same man who put us all here, the man who was talking out of Rhiannon’s tablet that day in the green room. I’m sorry. I haven’t been as honest with you about this as I should be. Maybe I should start over.” Tama sighed. “Let’s walk and talk.”
“I chose you to be the guardian of your world because you fit all of the criteria, Tomoyaki-san, but more than that, I chose you because I felt you could live up to the expectations. You don’t have a lot to fight for in the real world, but you still have an immense amount of bravery and commitment. That’s needed in a guardian. Normally, the job of a guardian is rather easy, though it still requires you to think outside your comfort zone. Basically, reality as you know it is changing. You and I are from completely different universes. It’s like…” He drew on his small knowledge of Asian gaming culture from his old world. “Does Digital Merge have expansions?”
“It does! It releases new cards all the time.”
“Okay, so you’ve got the Salamanga card. Let’s say there are two separate Salamanga cards. They’re both Salamangas, but from separate expansions. One might have a different attack or power or whatever than the other. That’s how reality is. Universes are like bubbles, and there are different versions of reality in each bubble. Sometimes, those bubbles split apart and form new bubbles. And sometimes, the bubbles collide together. When that happens, instead of both of them popping, we need to make sure they form one bubble. That’s what’s happening to your world, and that’s why I’m here.”
Erika thought to herself as she walked with Tama through the forest. “So my bubble world is colliding with another bubble world?”
“Yep. Normally, a representative from each bubble is picked, and those representatives talk about what they want to keep in the bubble and what they want gone. In this case, there’s nothing in the other bubble, so we picked you to help the bubbles pop together so that your reality stays exactly the same. It’s just...with Dvorak in the picture, it’s making things much more complicated.”
“Just who is this man, anyway? You seem to not like him a whole lot.”
Tama debated just how much to tell Erika. “A while ago, my world’s bubble collided with another bubble. Most everything from my world disappeared, including my Tokyo, my family and friends. I was one of five people who survived -- the others are with me right now. We’re all a team. But even back then, Dvorak was trying to stop us from coming together as a team. He’s always had it out for us. This is our first mission, and I believe it’s because we are here that he’s decided to step in and play games with us.”
“So he has history with you.”
“Very much so. Your world would still be colliding with another, and we would still have to pick a guardian, but if it weren’t for Dvorak, we wouldn’t have to deal with Tokyo disappearing or any of these villain cards. I’m sorry for that.”
“It’s not your fault he’s such a meanie.” Erika tried to give Tama a smile. “One way or another, we’re stuck in this together. Let’s make our way to Disasterville. I’ll feel better once we’re back in Rhiannon’s company.”
They covered a lot of ground on their way across the land. Erika didn’t have any cards that were optimal for riding on, so they made their way by foot, searching high and low for cards that could help them get to Disasterville faster. Tama kept the map up on his communicator and kept watching it, eyes on their location and how close they were to Disasterville. It wouldn’t matter how long they had traveled if they didn’t get to Disasterville on time. Tama could only hope that somebody from Canberra’s group had made it back in one piece, as he could see Jen and Rifka’s signals on the map but not Jason and Rosa’s.
He had considered pressing the Colemak emergency button several times, but what could that do now? This was up to them. They were the emergency line. He knew that Sarah, somewhere, was monitoring this mission. If Dvorak won, he and his friends would go back to headquarters to be retrained. It wasn’t like they could lose their jobs.
But he would feel guilty for whatever happened to Erika and her friends. She was a charming girl -- cute, as well -- with a spitfire stubbornness and the belief that everything was beautiful despite the circumstances.
They still had two tents in their inventory, but the first night spent out in the wilderness was too disheartening for both to spend alone. Erika felt miserable without Kyara, and Tama wasn’t getting any sleep worrying about his friends and the situation they were in. They started sleeping in the same tent -- in opposing corners, with Joliar in between them.
When Tama couldn’t sleep, Erika would tell him stories about the world she once knew. She told him how huge concerts were held in the park, about the lines on the ground that people followed when they walked and the huge technological infrastructure that ran under Japan’s streets. In return, Tama told her about wireless technology, something not yet developed in Erika’s world, and about the constant wars that plagued the Allies between Soviet powers and terrorists alike. Five days in, he told her about Hideko, how he had rescued Miyuki, the night his world had folded and he had become part of QWERTY. They then discovered that the sakura trees bloomed in April, the rainy season was always right on time, and udon tasted better than soba in the summer -- things that were the same, no matter what Japan you were in.
It made Erika homesick. And it made Tama even more willing to fight for her world.
“I’ll be honest,” he said the night before they were scheduled to arrive in Disasterville. “We’re not supposed to have this big of a role in saving the day. It’s just that, since Dvorak has reared his ugly head, we need to own the situation more and make sure it’s not derailed. Pun not intended.”
Tama just shook his head. Some things weren’t meant to make sense to her.
They had gathered a fair amount of cards while traveling. As they made their way across a particularly sparse area, they found the Quarry of Iron Knights, a group of ten knights who used their stones of sword to rage against enemies of all shapes and sizes. They found the Pupils of the Storm, one of Rhiannon’s ultra-rare air cards, while walking past a stream. The students listened to Tama as he lectured about the different types of clouds, and they practiced throwing lightning bolts at trees in preparation for a final standoff against Dvorak. The Three Legged Crow of the Sun had been flying overhead, and Erika had made friends with it as it had joined her team. A forest fire had brought the Firemen of Bravery to the forest, strong men who were part fire, part water type.
But the most inspiring was when Tama and Erika finally reached the desert again. They had taken the long way around the forest and had consequently come across a volcano they hadn’t run into before. When Erika had met the Red Giant for the first time, it was like coming home in a way she had forgotten. She had lost Kyara -- temporarily, maybe permanently -- but the Red Giant had always been a reminder that there was hope in the world.