Mihara leaps into the air, barely escaping the fireball that should have vaporized her. It blooms into a screaming marigold below her, coaxing water vapor out of the marsh.
It had to be Marshlands, she inwardly seethes as she splashes down in muddy water and tries to peer through the steam blanketing her vision. And of course I get matched with a pyromancer.
“Once again, Rōnin avoids getting flame-grilled by the skin of her teeth,” broadcasts the invisible announcer. “Had she reacted one heartbeat too late, she might have paired well with some Teriyaki sauce and a bowl of rice.”
Mihara’s fingers curl around her katana. She glares down at the sweat-stained brow and muddy cheeks glaring back from the blade, and thinks of how ironic it is that she chose the Player Name “Rōnin” when there’s someone she’s fighting for.
Someone that won’t last the end of the year if Mihara doesn’t win the grand prize.
“Show yourself, you cowardly mother
fucker lover!” she yells.
The Automated Censorship System beats her to it, which gets a snide remark out of the announcer and an echoing laugh out of her opponent on the other side of the mist. It’s ridiculous how a game like Player vs Player clamps a gloved hand over pottymouths yet features about as much bloodshed as a slaughterhouse from the twenty-first century.
Not that Mihara is complaining. She pinpoints the origin of the laughter and launches herself in that direction, kicking up grimy water in her wake. The mist parts and there he is, a bearded face sitting atop flowing red robes. A hand dripping with flames rakes the air, so Mihara sidesteps it, the heat kissing her cheek. Her heart is a wardrum beating out a tune of fury as she cleaves his head clean off his shoulders, sending a crimson geyser into the air to rain back down on her.
Mihara’s world soon becomes thick with applause resounding from the packed arena seats and the announcer’s cry of “Rōnin advances to the next round!”
Those words echo in her ears well after she logs off and rips the Virtual Reality headset from her face. She lies there with the stench of mildew in her dusty apartment, as long as it takes for her adrenaline-flavored breaths to die down. It’s not real, she reassures herself as sweaty fingers grip the bedsheets, even though she can still feel the flames dancing on her skin and the shadow of every blow she’s taken since her first match.
To think there was once a time when a decent VR experience required motion tracking and ample room for movement. Nowadays anyone with half a roof over their head can just lie down and upload their consciousness into whatever online simulation they please, every minutiae of sensation just as vivid and terrifying as their real world equivalents.
A sharp Ding! jolts her to her senses. She glances at her tablet. Seven new messages from the nursing home.
He’s getting restless. Please come ASAP.
With a sigh, Mihara wriggles into a jacket and steps out into the streets of Neo Tokyo.
Ty grunts as he rips one of his knives out of the fallen archer at his feet. The body disappears from the scorching hot sand a few seconds later; evidently, his opponent isn’t too keen on staying to congratulate him.
“Plague advances to the next round!” declares the announcer as the crowd goes wild. Ty chose a Player Name that strikes fear before the fighting begins, that burrows into his opponents’ heads like a disease. Like his assassin knives have done time and time again.
Before logging off, he greets his fans at the virtual lounge. Ty has drawn in viewers like ants to honey ever since his first match, no doubt because he’s the only contestant of foreign blood able to go toe to toe with the locals. It’s for the same reason he has just as many haters, and the fact that he’s a certain kind of American doesn’t help.
He removes the VR headset to find a cup of instant ramen on what passes for the coffee table. Fumiko is there, grinning expectantly, and how can Ty not scoop her up in his arms and give her a big wet smooch on the cheek?
“You’re the best, sugarcube.”
Fumiko scurries back to her makeshift bedroom in the kitchen. Ty fills the ramshackle house with the scent of chili oil and artificial pork as he slurps up the noodles. It’s always jarring to leave the virtual world and watch his muscles deflate with his superhuman reflexes. Sometimes he pretends that the arena is all he has, and there aren’t any duct taped windows or naked mattress springs waiting for him.
Or loan sharks. He still remembers how Fumiko was silent for three days straight after a drone followed him back home and shone a blood-red dot over her heart. Yes, a machine making threats—but the greasy voice that rang from its speakers was all too human. Ty had picked up Fumiko and relocated to another rank corner of the slums the day after. VR headsets don’t come cheap.
Ty props up his outdated tablet on the table and picks a live match at random. What he sees makes the broth go bland.
Life was simple until now, or as simple as life gets in the slums: he was going to blaze through the competition one by one, snatch the grand prize, and watch Fumiko’s face light up the way it used to when her mother was still around. But the way this woman clad in samurai garb is fighting, this Rōnin, twists a dagger of cold, hard doubt into his soul.
A chill skitters down his spine when the pyromancer is decapitated like a novice, which he clearly isn’t. Rōnin vanishes from the arena without even waving to the ecstatic audience. Ty loses his appetite.
He finds Fumiko lying on a moth-eaten mattress, her milk-bowl eyes gazing longingly into a portrait of the Governor. He knows she’s thinking of how good those robes would look on her. Lately she’s preferred that over the family portrait, the only remaining remnant of her mother.
Ty sits beside her. “All good, sugarcube?”
“Daddy, when do I get to go to school?”
“When Daddy wins the grand prize. You can be anything you want afterwards. Maybe even the next Governor.”
There’s a parental restriction on the family tablet to prevent Fumiko from being scarred for life, so instead of spectating Ty’s matches all she can do is sit quietly and... hope.
“Promise you’ll win, Daddy?”
Ty takes a deep breath. “I promise.”
Fifty billion. That’s how much yen Mihara will walk away with when this blows over. Every digit is painted in bright red across the ceiling of the training chamber so that she has a reason to get up every time she’s knocked flat on her back. Like right now.
“Worthless,” chant the computer-controlled opponents closing in on her. “Pathetic. Useless. Weak.”
“Shut up,” she shrieks as she leaps to her feet and lets her katana dance through flesh. The faceless figures drop like zapped mosquitoes, liquid crimson pooling around their bodies.
Panting, Mihara surveys her work. All dead in a single stroke to a vital region.
But one of them makes her breath catch. She stalks over and watches facial features materialize over its disembodied head: a familiar chubby nose, vein-streaked cheeks, pitch-black eyes that plead for help through a shimmering curtain of moisture…
“NO,” she yells, flinging the VR headset to the side. It takes a few breaths to gather that she’s in the dim waiting lounge of the nursing home; a few other guests shoot her disapproving looks.
“Is everything alright, Mihara-san?” asks a nurse that appears at her side.
“I… yeah. Can I see him now?”
“He’s not lucid at the moment, but maybe seeing family will change that.”
The nurse leads Mihara down a corridor and into a stuffy ward that reeks of antiseptic, even though it’s routine at this point. It’s been five gruelling matches since the pyromancer a few days back; she’s had to chop down several more elementals, fellow weapon-users and even a beastmaster. Mihara herself is the samurai class because she needs that simple sense of finality in watching a head being separated from a body, even though it makes her want to throw up every time. Visiting her little brother has been one of two things roping her sanity together; the other can usually be found at the bottom of a sake bottle.
His pitch-black eyes stare at nothing in particular, yet they seem to reach out to Mihara, urging her to hurry up.
The robot caretaker on the other side of the bed hums to life. “Status: deteriorating. Estimated life expectancy: less than—”
“Power down,” instructs the nurse before Mihara’s day is ruined. The machine fades away, and sometimes Mihara wishes the world would do the same.
“Don’t worry,” she whispers as she pecks a cheek strewn with veins. “I’ll win for us. We’ll get you cured. Heck, with fifty billion yen, we’ll do more than that. We’ll make you better, stronger, happier than ever before.”
Mihara likes to think that her words have gravity, that these visits are just as revitalizing for him as they are for her. When she gazes into his face she sees a bank account bled dry, a college tuition flitting away on tiny wings, a lifetime of family assets gone in a puff of smoke. Just like their parents.
She sees no other option.
Grand Finals is tomorrow, which means there are less than twenty four hours before Ty either makes Fumiko’s life or watches it shatter into a million hopeless shards. Tonight she insists on going to their favorite ramen shop to celebrate him making it this far, and of course he’s only happy to oblige.
“For Plague-san, on the house,” smiles the chef over the counter as he starts heating a pot of dashi. If only his reputation could get his daughter free tuition.
Ty relishes every broth-soaked noodle. This place is his favorite because it still believes in handmade cuisine, rather than the soulless concoctions vomited out by machines. It takes him back to simpler times, when he didn’t have a fanbase lapping up every drop of blood he spilt or have to cry himself to sleep without Fumiko noticing.
One wall of the shop is adorned by old school framed portraits, sweaty faces gasping for air above mostly empty bowls. Ty’s picture was taken back when his family of two was a family of three, and if he stares into it long enough he can feel the kiss she planted on his cheek after he annihilated the spicy ramen challenge. Of course he did; he grew up in Louisiana before travelling the world to find greener pastures, only to find love instead. For a while, the world was... perfect.
“I can always take it down,” offers the chef.
“No.” Ty flicks a teardrop away. “It’s fine.”
A young woman in a biker jacket removes her helmet and sits at the counter two stools away. Ty wonders if she recognizes him as well as he recognizes her. As if in silent reverence, the chef hands her a bottle of sake before disappearing into the kitchen.
“You’re not going to win,” murmurs Rōnin after a good swig. She never looks up, so Ty doesn’t either.
“And why’s that?”
“Because I have everything to lose.”
Ty glances at Fumiko, who giggles by the fish tank in a far corner as she watches colorful shapes dart about. “Me too.”
The two final contestants sit there in silence, not quite enjoying each other’s company but not quite resenting it either.
He’s fast. Faster than Mihara has seen in the match replays she’s scrutinized for hours on end, faster than she could ever have dreamed.
Faster than… she is.
I won’t lose, she seethes as a knife whizzes clean through her ear, and she has to grit her teeth against the pain to stop herself from screaming.
I won’t lose, she reminds herself as she deflects a second knife, only to have a third knock the air out of her lungs and a fourth cleave the katana out of her palm.
I won’t lose, she consoles herself as Plague towers over her, fresh knives materializing between his fingers.
“After a nail-biting struggle,” cries the announcer, “it looks as if Rōnin has finally been brought to her knees.”
Grand Finals transpires on a flat platform suspended over a black void. No muddy water or sand or special terrain of any kind; just two Players in a duel to the death and the electric roar of an audience crackling through the air.
An audience that will never know the broken, battered girl cowering beneath Rōnin’s facade.
Plague wears an assassin cloak of pristine white, which bestows him an appearance seesawing between divine and incorporeal. The ghost of an angel, here to take Mihara’s life. He draws the hood back, and it’s then that she can see it in his eyes: the same resoluteness, the same fire fuelled by the fate of a loved one.
She gazes up at this man and sees… herself.
Not that it stops her from lashing out. “Go
fuck love yourself.”
“That’s Rōnin for you, folks,” chuckles the announcer. “Swears like a sailor even when facing defeat.”
It’s a distant echo to Mihara, same with the cheering audience. The only thing she truly senses is the frigid kiss of a blade on her neck.
“Thank you, Rōnin.”
It’s the last thing she hears before her life gushes out of her throat and she’s sent spiralling down into the cold, cold void.
The pain doesn’t fade long after she wrenches the VR headset off and sobs until her lungs ache.
“Are we going to school now, Daddy?”
“Not so fast, sugarcube. We’re going to the award ceremony. Daddy’s about to get the grand prize; he promised he would, didn’t he?”
Fumiko giggles from her perch around Ty’s shoulders. “He did!”
It’s the morning after the match against Rōnin and the streets of Ikebukuro are brimming with fanfare. Before Ty gets anywhere near the podium at the center of the crowd, a tattooed woman whose left arm is a patchwork of cybernetic implants looms over him. He hands her his VR headset. She checks for his Player ID before waving him through.
“You rock, you know that, Plague?”
The crowd that’s come to spectate is too big to only be comprised of those filling up the seats in the virtual arena; people that have been watching from their tablets at home are among those screaming for Ty’s autograph and making a point about how kawaii his daughter is.
He sees Rōnin perched on the second-place podium and misses a step.
“Daddy, be careful!”
The young man in third place nods in acknowledgment; Ty ignores him as he assumes his place at the top. A medal kisses his chest and the same announcer dives into a speech about perseverance or something equally hollow, but Ty is numb to everything except the sight of Rōnin standing dishevelled like a tree one winter short of withering away. To think this is the same girl that declared war against him in a ramen shop, and glowed like a cherry blossom while doing so.
Get it together, man.
With a grin and a pat on the back, the announcer places a gift card in Ty’s palm. All that’s left to do is scan it with his tablet, and Fumiko’s future is set.
As everyone disperses, Ty’s gaze follows Rōnin’s path down the platform, where a gaunt figure in a wheelchair awaits her.
Ty freezes. He’s seen those pleading, lifeless eyes before, but on a different face. A face that was stripped of its beauty one patch of skin at a time as the veins set in. Fumiko has gone still around his shoulders and he knows she’s reliving the same cursed memories.
The gift card is cold in Ty’s palm, the medal heavy around his neck. He won fair and square, so why can’t he bring himself to redeem fifty billion yen?
“Daddy, put me down!”
As soon as Fumiko’s tiny feet find the ground, she snatches the gift card out of Ty’s grasp and sprints down the platform.
A collective gasp runs through the remaining spectators when Mihara whirls around to find a little girl holding out the grand prize.
Her gaze finds Plague still standing on the platform, ten paces behind the girl. His face is set as he nods.
Mihara wants to chuckle. Or scream into the void that has held her hand during her darkest moments. Instead, she settles for breaking down on the spot and letting years of anguish stream down her cheeks to pool around her knees. The girl falls into her and they embrace, two souls joined in silent understanding.
None of it’s fair. But Mihara sees no other option.
Ty feels strangely whole as he picks up Fumiko and gives her a smooch on the cheek.
The audience is ecstatic, and it’s been a while since Ty has seen his daughter’s face glow like this.
For now, it’s enough.