As soon as classes got out, Makoto ran to an ivy-covered building behind school. That was his daily routine. He ran perfectly, without one wasted step. He ran past the other kids all hurrying to the juku across the schoolyard, opened the metal door of the school's back gate, jumped out into the street and ran full speed to the right. About thirty seconds later, he turned left at the corner of a small building just before the main street, where calligraphy classes were held. From there he went along a narrow, straight path diagonal to the building, his destination. The building was really to the left of the school's back gate, but it took him two minutes more because of the many roundabout paths. Thinking in reverse will lead to victory, Makoto reasoned. Makoto didn't go to juku immediately after school. He spent thirty minutes preparing for the Asunaro juku at the Shanburi cafe, which was in the basement of that shabby three story ivy-covered building. This was another kind of "reverse thinking" for him. The cafe was simple. All they had was double-roasted coffees, so he didn't have to worry about being seen there by other elementary school kids. Better still, it was rarely crowded at all. But the coffee was terrible. Makoto sometimes found the eraser dust he left the day before at the small table where he usually sat, working on his "Asunaro Juku Fighting Drill Book" for thirty minutes. That was his daily routine. The owner, a tall man in a red and black plaid vest always came to take his order. "I'll take the...Brazil Santos No. 2, please." Makoto ordered a different blend every day out of respect for their business--speciality coffees. "Today's coffee is double-double roasted. Is that OK with you?" The man in the vest said earnestly. He never treated Makoto like a kid. Makoto pretended to be stumped for awhile, and then said, "That'll be fine." The coffee was always double-double roasted, anyway. Everyday. They said it was charcoal-roasted but it was really like drinking pure charcoal. The truth is, Makoto had never even seen real charcoal. But the man in the vest never bothered Makoto, as long as he didn't complain about the coffee and sat at the furthest seat from the counter. Once after he began to frequent Shanburi, Makoto was asked his age. When he answered with the cheerfulness of a kid "Fourth grade," the man in the vest went back to his coffee bean trench without further questions. By the time the man came back with "Brazil Santos No. 2," Makoto had moved on to page two of the drill. That was his scheduled pace. He did not take his eyes off of the drill book while spooning generous amounts of sugar into his cup. "What is the capitol of Fukushima Prefecture?" That was a geography question Makoto couldn't answer. That's what I memorized coloring the map...He tried to remember, but that only made him sleepy. He didn't sleep until dawn the night before because he was so excited by all the talk about "Life King," an incredibly popular disk computer (disu-kon) game, which had intensive action and movement. Versions from 'I' to 'IV' apparently existed, but the publisher had made no definite announcement as to whether or not they really did. Kids found out only after they bought the game, which was a great marketing scheme for kids who love to discover tricks in everything. Everyone wanted to collect all four versions, and there were fans of rumors circulating, like "Version I has an intentional scratch on the top right corner of the package"; and "If the yellow letters of 'Life King' are a little orange, then it's Version IV." Disu-kon games got immensely popular. A Disu-kon magazine writer was asked to write something to calm the kids down, but when he wrote that there was not that much difference among the "different" versions, it didn't calm them down at all. What happened was, the kids got even more intrigued by the subtle differences. Finding a little difference made the game all the more exciting. Another big reason that the Disu-kon magazine didn't calm the kids down was that they'd already dismissed such magazines and writers and had set up their own system and players network. Early on, they'd found hidden tricks and invading techniques that were better than the official game rules. They ran that information through their network all over Japan. It was their system that discovered that Life King had four versions. After a series of rumors and incidents, the game publisher finally admitted that "scratches" and "slightly orange yellow letters" did, in fact, exist. They said "Scratching occurred at the time of the shipment of Version I," and, "The orange letters were caused by a new employee in the printing section, whose central nervous system was imbalanced." Last night Makoto was once again absorbed in Life King. Just after 11:00 p.m., he discovered that his Life King was "Version III" after seeing The Kidnapper, one of the important characters, in the lower half of the screen. That was a characteristic of Version III! he knew. Enraptured, Makoto jumped out of his room and knocked fiercely on the door of his mother's room. "Mom!! Mom!!" He screamed loudly, totally inappropriate for the small two-bedroom condo where they lived. "It's already eleven. I told you to go to bed, didn't I?" Mamiko answered from behind the closed door. "My Life King is Version III, I think, because..." Makoto kept talking on the other side of the ivory-colored door. Mamiko repeated, "there are only two members in the Osawa family, but each of their privacies has to be respected." "The Kidnapper does a lot of things in the lower part of the screen. So the point is whether or not the Drunkard has a hard time attacking him in III-4." Makoto shouted, gazing at the black rabbit doll hanging from his mother's door. "Is that right. Well..." the incessant sound of a keyboard was heard from Mamiko's room. It didn't stop despite their conversation. "You'll be surprised when you see it. You'll get it, Mom. You'll get it." Makoto walked around with his hands pushed forward and his back rounded, mimicking The Kidnapper. "He walks a little faster when he appears in the lower part of the screen, which is also a characteristic of Version III. There are just few at school or juku who have Version III. 40% have Version I, 30% have Version II, and 30% have Version IV." "So, nobody has Version III on this earth?" The door opened. Mamiko looked down on Makoto, her thin arms at her waist. "What are you doing? Are you Namahage?" Makoto felt embarassed. "It's gorilla. Give me a banana. Ba-naa-na." Makoto made a gorilla face, trying to hide his embarrassment, and made his young mother let go with a suppressed laugh as she hugged him gently as if hugging a lover. Her red knit dress and the fragrance of Diorissimo wrapped around him. "And if I make you a cafe au lait to go with that banana, you'll show me Life King III, won't you?" Lit up by these words, Makoto jumped on to her back. "I don't need a banana anymore. Please come and see. Please." Mamiko leaned back slightly and patted Makoto's back. "Hey, you're too heavy! Are you trying to kill me?" "Please come see it before you get killed." Makoto quickly jumped off her back and ran into his room. Mamiko peeled an apple as she sat on Makoto's bed and watched the screen. Mamiko was a free-lance retail sales analyst who spent the whole day working with figures transmitted from small retailers by modem. After comparing the figures to national sales' averages and adding inventory, she sent the data back to the host computer. Not many people did this kind of work on a free-lance basis, so she sometimes had a huge worklord. Since she worked on a monochrome screen until late everyday, this colorful computer game was a great diversion. "Why can't you show me The Kidnapper?" Mamiko asked. She had a piece of apple in her mouth. "It's better to see it from the beginning so you can follow it. Otherwise you won't understand the movements. Besides, you won't understand how hard I've worked trying to solve it, either." Makoto tapped at the keyboard quickly, trying to show her the opening page. "Have some apple. Or would you prefer gorilla food?" Makoto grimaced and pulled sheets of Kleenex out of the box by his desk to wipe the screen. "You want to see it or not, Mom?" Mamiko's big eyes blinked with her mouth full of apple. Makoto looked unusually serious. He shook his head like an adult and hit the start-key. Red letters came onto the black screen... Life King. It was simple, powerful and beautiful. The scene suddenly changed and a beautiful Earth emerged from the universe, and lively music added to the excitement. With the "START" sound, the scene rapidly started falling toward the Earth like a space-shuttle coming home. It went through layer after layer of the atmosphere, flames shooting from behind. The scene suddenly stopped at a bird's eye view of a room. In the room, a child, probably the main character, sat at a Disu-kon, playing a game on a small screen. Mamiko was perplexed at the abrupt change from the cosmos to daily life. With the clattering sound of the keyboard Makoto was hitting, a black band-like space appeared at the bottom of the screen. "LIFE KING...WANTS...TO SEE" The response had come quickly. 'SEE WHAT?" Makoto in turn responded quickly. Clatter...Clatter... "THE WALL." A door in front of the boy named Life King opened. Just as Makoto hit a direction key, Life King quickly moved his short legs to the wall. With a red rainhat flashing, a fat hairy-faced man came out of the dark hole in the wall. He wore a blue tuxedo. A rectangular black frame appeared above his head, where a message printed out. "DISU-KON GAME HAS A PROBLEM." After the message, the man moved around Life King with something like a conductor's baton in his right hand. Mamiko's body stiffened a little; danger was approaching Life King. "This hairy guy is Fats. He's quite strong," said Makoto, moving Life King to the bottom of the screen and hitting the 'S' key." The screen stopped a moment. Makoto immediately hit the 'B' key and the word 'BEAM' came up on the screen. The first character Fats collapsed, having suffered a full-frontal attack by the beam. The fat dead body changed into a blue spirit, which wrapped around Life King, which changed immediately into text. "DEAR LIFE KING. WAR HAS BEGUN. IT WILL NOT BE OVER UNTIL YOU DIE." "Spooky, isn't it?" Mamiko said. Soon Life King ran through the hole in the wall to the outside. He was in the woods. Moving among the trees, a couple of hollow squares appeared. Makoto, without hesitation, moved LIFE KING onto the second square from the right. Boom...boom...boom. The sound of someone running down the stairs. The screen turned dark, and a street with brightly-colored shops soon appeared. A crocodile-like monster in an apron walked along it, throwing dishes and kettles; a bear in a sweat-suit brandishing a bamboo sword; a guy who looked like a butcher jumping around with a knife. Adults became caricatures and were hideously, humorously deformed. That wierd reality must be the reason for its popularity, thought Mamiko. The Enemies were not only those on the screen. Even while Life King was walking, the screen sometimes suddenly changed to text only, showing such commands as: 'FIGHT,' 'RUN AWAY,' 'LISTEN,' or 'DECEIVE' by which a player could pick the strength, size of the enemy, or Life King. Makoto chose 'FIGHT.' Enemy characters defeated in the fight left blue crystal traces on the spot where they'd been killed and disappeared. Makoto explained it as an 'ice cube of life.' When Life King walked past the 'ice cube,' figures entered the column of 'Ice Life' on the black band. Besides 'Ice Life,' there were 'KNOWLEDGE,' 'BRAVERY,' 'TREASURE,' or 'MONEY' columns. It was too complicated for Mamiko, who was watching the game for the first time. "Hey, Makoto," Life King was about to enter a small shop. "Yeah?" Makoto kept his eyes on the screen. "If they collect the 'ice cube of life,' then what will they be?" Makoto did not answer the question. Instead he hit the T-key, waiting for a reaction from the shop-owner who was standing in Life King's way. The word 'TRICK' was flashing. "Hey, Makoto" The shop-owner returned a message: "HOW DARE YOU SOLVE MY TRICK. WELL DONE!! GO THROUGH THE WALL ON THE RIGHT." Life King immediately went to the blue wall and squeezed through it. Above him, the words 'VISION A-2' appeared and disappeared. Then there was a forest covered in brownish tones. "That was a "warp," wasn't it?" "Yeah." "Why do you warp? Is there anything good about it? So, how do you win this thing anyway?" asked Mamiko impatiently. "You're so nosy." Makoto jumped up abruptly, walked to the bed, took out a booklet from his bedside and handed it to Mamiko. "Why don't you read this." The square booklet had a glossy cover, like all those photo books you can see by the dozens at foreign book stores. There were no Japanese descriptions on the front or back of the book, but "image photos" of a boy standing in the ruins with the overhead light so bright that it obscured his face. Above the boy were the letters "LIFE KING" printed in blurred red. "It's like a magazine...from London. It's cool,"--A murmur escaped from Mamiko's lips. She always put "from London" to things she liked. Each page she turned was composed of beautiful photos like that of the cover. She rarely saw letters on any page. Makoto said without turning to Mamiko, "You'll have a better view if you read "The Legend of Life King." She found it soon and began to read. "The Legend of Life King" Life King, who had the strain of a brave king's blood in his veins, was a boy who knew how to handle a computer skillfully. Half his fingers were machines that could talk with computers just by touching them. Life King communicated with a computer every day, browsing all over the world. One day, he saw the miserable outer world on his computer screen. Magic Black, the bad king, had turned the world into a poisoned sea with his dreadful power. All the people, forests, and towns were forced to have a diabolical will. Finally, even computers, which were supposed to uphold "justice and honor" were threatened by this curse. The time had come when Life King's courage was to be challenged. Life King! Brave warrior! Please come out! Kill Magic Black and save the world!! "How come this is a legend?" thought Mamiko. She knew of no creation story about Life King or Magic Black. After the short "legend" came the opening scene she had just seen, in which a boy called Life King stood with his head turned. That was it. Why was Makoto so attracted to this simple story? Mamiko wondered, turning a page which showed the neat and luminous photos of computer games. On the left corner, there were some notes: *Go from Vision I to Vision V in keeping with the levels of Life King. Don't rush it. Take it easy. *The color of the area will change when Life King removes a curse from the area. *Drop in at every town. There are people there who will give you a clue to help you solve the mystery. You can get weapons effectively to beat the enemy. Also the command "Listen" is important in the midst of the fight. See it and you'll get a clue. *The blue stones you snatch from the enemy are "ice cubes of life." If you collect them and get a winning number, the ice level of the Life King will increase. *Press the C key (Continue mode) when the Life King dies. Because of the back-up system, you can restart from the level at his death. Whichever page she read from, she couldn't figure out what kind of boy Life King was nor where he was from, so Mamiko gave up probing further. Makoto was absorbed in a story with complicated rules and many characters with various images: cute, grotesque, funny... even though the key story line was simply to defeat Magic Black and to go back to his room. Feeling that she had gained some understanding of Makoto's absorption, from a mother's point of view, Mamiko could not help but smile. She threw the game description book on the bed and put the dish with the pieces of apple on her knee. Twenty minutes had already passed. Makoto's Life King was fighting desperately, trying to get through the park. "I want to see Magic Black." Mamiko patted Makoto's shoulder. "Do you?" Makoto did not turn to Mamiko but she knew he was smiling. Breaking free of the enemy, Life King emerged into a fountain-like place, to be met by a man with a puppy. A message was printed on the black band. "DO YOU WANT THIS PUPPY?" Makoto turned his chin to Mamiko. "They didn't mention this in the book. Kind of a tricky part likely to get him trapped." "I see. Will he set the dog on Life King?" "Nope." "Then, why don't you take it?" "No. We have to ignore it." Irritated by a Life King who never answered questions, the man with the puppy walked around, trying to attract him with something like a magnet. "The puppy is cute, but..." Makoto let the Life King run here and there. "Once I tried to get the puppy." "Oh yeah?" "Then you were stuck in the meta-world full of puppies, weren't you?" Mamiko asked him, holding out a piece of apple which had begun to turn color, to his mouth. "So, what will happen?" Makoto bit the apple. "What will happen?" Makoto answered with his mouth full of apple. "The puppy pulls the Life King back to his room." "Do you mean he warps?" "Yeah. Even a single attack on this guy leads to a 'warp.' We have to stay still until he goes away. He's as disgusting as Fats." The man with the puppy finally left. Makoto let the Life King go beneath the fountain to a big street. Cars emerged from beneath the road one after another, circling Life King with a deep buzzing noise. "Hey, Makoto!! Watch your right! Right!" screamed Mamiko. A red car rushed at Life King at full speed. Despite the warning from the gallery, Life King's right arm was torn off. "You've made a mess of it!" Makoto was not at all panicked. "No, you'll see." The torn-off right arm suddenly stood up. Thumping, it turned into a small stocky robot. "This is Half-Life, which only comes out after being beaten to a certain point. "Is it a robot?" "Yeah. It's King's right arm." "Well said," Mamiko laughed, hiding her mouth with her thin-fingered, pink-manicured hand. "Life King proceeds in the dark mystery even with his body totally dismembered." Makoto said seriously and then sighed, "Ah." "What's up?" "I suddenly forgot the hidden trick here." "You forgot?" Makoto stopped the game by entering "pause," and turned his chair around to face Mamiko. He looked like an adult, with his legs crossed. "There is a way to make two Half-Life's in one scene." "That's a hidden trick, isn't it? Usually it's no good to be defeated twice in a scene." "Of course not. Anyway, it's a traffic accident," Makoto said. "I see." Mamiko wondered which one was really the parent. "How should I do that?" "Wait a minute." Makoto jumped on his bed, reaching the bedside phone. It was for his use only. "Who are you calling this late?" Mamiko was flustered, taking the small dish from her knees and putting it on the desk, dropping a couple of apple skins on the beige carpet. "Mino-chan" "You must not. It's so late at night." Mamiko stood up. "That's OK. We always call each other late," said Makoto, having already punched the numbers into his blue telephone. "Hi. This is Makoto." The other side had picked up the phone at the speed of light. Mamiko reluctantly sat back on the bed. "Somehow my Life King seems to be Version III. Yeah. The Kidnapper stinks. I really got excited!" Makoto spoke as an adult, a real man. "Of course I'll have to check it at Drunkard but either Bizarre or Hess seems to have been taken in by A-Key." Mamiko did not understand at all what he was talking about. She could only sit and listen. "Version III with one shot, you know? So if I buy four separately, then I'll have them all in a set. Cool, huh!" Mamiko put the last piece of apple in her mouth and watched the screen. A car was about to make a U-turn aiming at Life King and his right arm, Half-Life, who were standing in the midst of the road, undaunted. "And now I am demonstrating it to my old lady." Mamiko was shocked by "my old lady." Since she divorced her husband, a TV commercial producer, five years before, she'd worked hard to create an open, independent relationship with her son. But "my old lady" ? The skin on the apple left a chilly feeling on her back teeth. "I forgot how to make two Half-Life's simultaneously on Main Street....Yeah.... next to the red car," said Makoto, waiting impatiently, holding the phone close to his ear. ".....What?" Mino-chan also seemed to have forgotten. Makoto soon gave up. "OK, that's fine, then. I'm going to ask Kino. What? Tokita? Who's that? Oh, someone in your juku? What's the number? Hold on a minute, please." Makoto gestured to Mamiko for a pen and a pad. "OK. Yes. Five-seven...Yes....Yes." Makoto made a lot of calls. First to Tokita, a friend of Mino-chan's...and then to Hoshino, introduced by Tokita...and back to Mino-chan. "It's likely to disappear. It's the first time it's appeared on a Disu-kon. I've heard it happened a long time ago on a PC. Yeah...That plan was cancelled. Why is it now?....Yeah. Well, see you tomorrow." Mamiko was quite surprised at this unusally open computer game society. "So...Makoto. You've been making more and more friends every night. How many do you have now? Well...how should I put it...?" "One thousand," Makoto suddenly turned his back to her and faced the monitor. Mamiko could not tell whether he was joking or not. "So what's happened to Half-Life?" "It's not so important now." "Not...but...?" "There's a rumor that there's a Version V of Life King. Hoshino heard about it." "Is that right? But that doesn't matter. Version III is still important, too, isn't it?" Makoto rested his elbows on the cold-looking desk, covering his head with his hands in a condescending way. "The V is a version that will not permit a second mistake. All the characters on the scene will be wiped out by a simple minor mistake. They'll never show up again." Mamiko didn't understand how shocking it was to Makoto. "They'll laugh at me if I make such a fuss about Version III." "Then, what are you going to do?" "I'll look for Version V," said Makoto, sitting back on the bed. Then Makoto called the friends whose names Mamiko had never heard before and confirmed the Version V rumor. He never turned back to face Mamiko again.
Copyright (C) SEIKO ITO , EMPIRE SNAKE BLD,INC. All rights reserved.