The Game: Chapter 3

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Chapter 3

The world went black.

Panic ensued. There was a moment of nauseating upheaval, like an astronaut's first moment of free fall around the earth. James had an irresistible urge to tear the headset off and scream. But his hands wouldn't move.

His hands weren't even there.

Then, just as suddenly—calmness. And the darkness was just dark.

At the leisurely pace of a weekend stroll, a new world began to form.

Sounds: chirping; the sigh of a subtle breeze; dimly and distantly, a tinkling of water; closer by, a high-pitched growl.

Scents: blossoms; pollen; a hint of ozone, like a storm rolling in—or like one had passed, and what remained was the freshness of forgotten rain.

At last James could see, shielding his eyes against a brilliant but lowering sun. Ahead was a clearing which held a garden planted with flowers, among which flew a living kaleidoscope of butterflies. In the center of the garden was a stone fountain, graceful in its lines and in the gentle spray of water it produced.

Something in his jeans pocket started buzzing.

A cell phone. On the screen, a flashing message.

Welcome to Shattered Land! To access system options, communicate with distant users, or to exit the program, utilize this personal communication device. Enjoy your stay, and remember to play responsibly!

James poked around on the screen, then looked down at himself. Wrangler jeans in a fantasy world?

Beneath a tree whose willowy branches spread wide before drooping to head-height, a sound came again: midway between a growl and a bark, assertive, but high and thin. A puppy as guard dog.

James put the phone away and walked toward the sound. A small animal bounded into view, worrying at a stick on the ground, just like a dog. But it certainly was not a dog.

For one thing, it had six legs; for another, it was bright blue, with the bioluminescent sheen of something from a National Geographic documentary. From the way bark was sloughing off the stick, its teeth were sharp.

Intimidating, if it hadn't been the size of a Chihuahua.

"Come on, bring it here," said a voice.

The animal gave an anthropomorphic chuff of acknowledgment, picked the stick up, and waddled toward whoever had called. James rounded the tree to have a look.

"That's my good boy. You're my good boy, aren't you?"

A young woman sat against the tree, dappled in shade. Her jet black hair fell in a wave to her shoulders. She wore a simple cream summer dress over white tights, legs crossed like a child during story time. The tiny blue animal nestled in her lap, rubbing against her hand.

"Okay, go get it!" She threw the stick and the creature shot after it with a sinuous side-to-side motion.

Then the girl looked up at James. "Hello!"

"Hi." Awkward. "Uh, I'm—"

"James Kirkpatrick?" She pushed off the tree and stood, smiling.

"Yes."

"Donald said you'd be coming." She held out a hand and James shook it. "I'm Kanade Aizawa."

"That's a musical name. Figuratively and literally."

Kanade's large eyes widened. They were as black as her hair. "You speak Japanese?"

"Not fluently, but I spend a lot of time with Japanese shows and comics."

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