The Game: Chapter 5

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Chapter 5

Every direction looked the same: dying trunk after dying trunk, bark sloughing in lumps, dead leaves carpeting the floor like broadloom the color of an arsonist's hoodie. Nothing chirped, buzzed or even breathed.

The brutal sulfuric taint was worse than anything James had ever experienced. Casey's solution was to tie a handkerchief around her face like she was about to rob a stage coach. Kanade didn't seem bothered.

Kanade and James walked shoulder to shoulder where the trail was wide enough. Casey was in front, peering around every tree for ambushers, gingerly favoring one leg.

"Is she okay?" James asked.

"She wrenched a knee pulling away from those pygmies," Kanade said. "I fixed her up as much as I could."

"So you can heal as well. Within limits I suppose, if she's still limping."

"Her leg is fine," Kanade said, brow knitting, "but the human mind is strange. The pain won't disappear just because the torn ligament did. Not for people like Casey."

"Like Casey?"

"She plays with the injury modifiers off. It helps her focus."

"The injury modifiers do what exactly?"

"Well, this is a game. It's only realistic to a point. If you get hurt, you don't feel pain." Kanade reached out and pinched James hard on the cheek. From the whiteness of her knuckles she was squeezing with all her might, but all he felt was numbness.

"Nussing," he said, as well as he could out of one side of his mouth.

"See?" Kanade released her hold after a brief grin.

"Casey changed her settings?"

"She set the threshold to maximum, which makes your body's pain responses realistic. If you're old or at risk of heart failure, the game won't let you even change it. You could die from shock."

It was hard to believe someone took the game so seriously as to turn off the safety mechanisms and risk death—however unlikely—just for realism. It wasn't on the level of live-fire military exercises, but it seemed pretty close.

Casey halted at a narrow section of trail, leaning between two decayed saplings, one arm around each for support. Golden bangs stuck to her forehead. She pulled the bandit mask off in favor of breathing room. "Dang it, where's the bad guys?"

"It is a little strange." Kanade tapped her lip. "I'm worried about the others."

James leaned against a tree. Its bole was smooth against his back, all the bark having dropped to the ground. The forest was in its death throes. "You think the enemies are concentrated on the other teams?"

"Hoggin all the fun," Casey said, with a moue of indignation.

"It would be nice if that's all it is," Kanade said. "We should keep moving." She touched James and Casey with her white nimbus of energy. Casey's back straightened and her breathing smoothed.

"Yahoo, that's my BFF." Casey pumped a fist, then sang, "I won't let you down, never let you hit the ground—"

"Long as I'm around, got your back, keep you safe and sound," Kanade finished, spinning with one arm in the air and one extended, a move that Casey mimicked exactly, ending in a slap of hands and a synchronized giggle.

"That was way too coordinated for spur of the moment," James said.

Casey grinned. "Din'tcha know? Me 'n Kana got our own band." She threw an arm around Kanade's shoulder and leaned in, doing the V for victory like a pitcher-catcher team photo. "We're gonna be big time, dude!"

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