I have never been one to give in. This is why, today, I am determined to win.
With my joystick held firmly in my right hand and the fingers on my left arranged on my keyboard, I gaze through my virtual reality goggles and wait for the clock to count down the beginning of the match.
Five, I think. Four.
“Three,” I whisper. “Two.”
One, the game displays.
A cannon fires, and me and twenty-four other players are randomly loaded into the world of Dystopia.
Fortunately for me, the game has spawned me into a location that is bound to be filled with resources.
Unfortunately, that location happens to be the Ashen City.
Cursing, I take a slow, deep breath as I realize my predicament—as I watch the airborne debris the city is named for rain down around me. My teeth sink into my lower lip. My eye twitches. My fingers instinctively tighten around my joystick. A blossoming panic fills me as I consider my surroundings, and though I want nothing more than to pause and consider my options, I don’t have time to dawdle. This early in the game, everyone who happens to be in the immediate area will be scrambling for resources. Any sound, including what will eventually be gunfire, will attract attention, and if the wrong kind of monster is in the area…
I shake my head.
I can’t afford to freak myself out. Sure—I’m a bit uneasy, considering the Ashen could be right around the corner, but I’ve faced worse before. Just not in a ranked match.
A ranked match, my conscience reminds me, that could change your family’s lives forever.
With a nod, and several careful breaths, I flex my fingers around my joystick and begin to move my character into the city.
The ash falling around me is mesmerizing. Beautifully-rendered by my computer’s graphics card and glistening in the faint gray light piercing through the clouds, it descends before me like snow in a desolate world as I wander in search of weapons, armor, and anything else that could possibly be of use. While walking, and surveying my surroundings, I scan up and down, left to right, at the high places where computer glitches could have dropped random guns and the low corners where ammo might be hiding, all with the intent of surviving.
At this point in the game, it’s crucial to find something to defend myself with, even if it’s something as simple as a hunting knife. But going into houses—where most of the loot is likely to spawn—spells its own dangers. Who knows who or what might be waiting, or worse, hear my entry as I break in?
I am just thinking this over when gunfire cracks in the distance.
A flash of red text appears on the side of the screen a moment later, displaying those two infamous words no one wants to hear.
For someone like me—who is desperate to make my way into the regional championships for the chance at a one-million-dollar prize—I can only imagine what having that chance taken away must feel like.
In an ordinary world, some would have considered Dystopia just a game—something that kids played to pass the time or to channel unwarranted aggression or angst. But for me, it’s a chance to potentially lift my family out of poverty.
This notion, and the haste at which the game is already progressing, compels me to do the one thing I have been hesitant to do: enter a nearby house.
I advance slowly, carefully, watching my surroundings out my peripheral, listening to any sound that could alert me to danger.
When I reach the door and find it unlocked, I think I have it made.
What I find inside is nothing short of a goldmine.
A semi-automatic rifle, bullet-proof armor, a magnified scope, and a single grenade greets me almost immediately as I turn to face the procedurally-generated living room.
“Bingo,” I say, stepping forward.
Something appears out the corner of my eye
I duck instantly, then spin to face the living room windows.
Someone is outside. Whether or not they know I’m in the house I’ve yet to determine, but if I don’t hurry, they’ll likely discover me.
After sneaking forward and grabbing the items, I roll my thumb over the buttons arranged on the side of my joystick and click the option that opens my character’s inventory.
I equip the items.
The door opens.
Spinning, I raise my gun, only to find that the player character is wielding a knife.
Panic, and a bit of desperation, consumes me.
I fire my weapon.
The player goes down.
Then I run.
Bleeding damage will finish the player off. That is why I didn’t eliminate them. The problem now is I’ve just discharged my weapon, and monsters and player characters will soon be zooming in on my location to take me out.
I burst into a quick sprint, using the shadows of the buildings to mask my advance as I make my way toward the junction in the road. There will be places to hide—places I could technically wait out the early parts of the match to let the more desperate players weed themselves out—but I also know I can’t hide forever. The game will eventually force us into the center of the world by spawning more and more monsters into the map, and when that happens, there’ll be nothing I can do.
As I reach the crossroads, I am just about to round the corner when I grind to a halt.
Ahead, there are Ashen.
The zombie-like creatures with their gray skin and red eyes immediately focus their attention upon me as the sound of my footfalls echo along the concrete beneath me.
Then they begin to move.
I can outrun them. They’re too slow to actually catch me individually, but if they somehow manage to back me into a corner—or worse: a dead end—I’ll be screwed.
For that reason, I don’t hesitate.
I equip the grenade, draw its pin, wheel my arm back, then throw.
Bolting down the street, I don’t bother to mask the sound of my footsteps—knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that the sound of a grenade exploding in the city will draw the attention of everything, living and not. Breath tight in my throat, fingers tensing from the pressure I’m imposing upon them, I wait for the grenade to go off and inspire chaos upon the map.
A moment passes, then two.
I have just rushed into a nearby alley when the explosion occurs.
It rockets the area in a cacophony of sound, causing windows to shatter and the rumbling beads in my joystick to quiver. The Ashen, whose moans had once been a persistent noise behind me, have quieted, and all that remains is silence.
It won’t be long before something happens.
Once more ignoring my need for caution, I burst into a sprint. I run through the alley and tear into a side street, only to spot the river that will lead to the forests beyond.
I slam my fingers on the keyboard, drawing my character to a halt.
It is here that I come to stand before the woods all players know and fear—who only with the best weapons and armor enter its depths to avoid other player characters that inhabit the world.
Bushes begin to shift when I am about to turn and make my way along the river’s edge.
I swallow, exhale, stare.
Then I see it: the Lobo, all fur and claws and teeth, raising its ghastly lupine head from the bushes to growl at me.
I raise my gun.
It shrieks, then launches itself toward me.
I pull the trigger on my joystick in an effort to cut it down—
—only for the lights to go off, the screen to suddenly go black, and the furnace channeling heat into the apartment to groan to a stop.
“No!” I scream, tapping my keyboard and pulling the trigger on my joystick. “No!”
Regardless of my frantic attempts to bring the game back to life, there’s absolutely nothing I can do.
A rolling blackout has occurred.
The power has gone out.
And I have just effectively lost my last chance to secure my qualifications in the Dystopia leader boards for the regional championships.
I want to scream again. I want to cry. I want to throw the virtual reality goggles at the wall—but it won’t fix my problem. It won’t make the power come back on.
It won’t heal my sick mother.
As I pull the virtual reality goggles from my head, tugging along with it strands of baby black hairs from my temple, a sigh passes from my lips. My heart begins to silence its thunderous drum in my chest.
“Sophia!” I hear my mother weakly call. “Sophia!”
“I’m coming, Mama!” I call back.
I don’t want to move from my seat. I want to sulk in my defeat, as premature and unfair as it happens to be. But at the same time, I can’t let my mother go without attention.
With that in mind, I rise from my office chair and turn to make my way across the living room of our one-bedroom apartment.
My approach is cut off by the sound of my seven-year-old brother’s feet padding across the hardwood flooring as he rounds the room divider that separates his space from the rest of the apartment. “There’s no heat coming out of the vents,” he says.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Is Mama gonna be okay?”
“Mama will be fine, Diego. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of her.”
He frowns once more, obviously unsure. I reach out to tousle his hair only to tilt my head toward the single bedroom in the distance, whose door is open but whose interior is shrouded in darkness. “Give me a minute to make sure she’s okay. Then I’ll make us something to eat.”
“Okay,” he says.
After taking a deep breath, I turn and head toward the bedroom.
My mother is lying in bed, just as she has been for the last six months. With three blankets and a comforter pulled up to her chin and a portable heater resting nearby, she appears to be waiting out a storm the likes of which we have never seen. Her eyes are open, wide and alert. Her body is trembling, cold and feverish. And worse yet: she’s always short of breath—has been since she took ill all those months ago—and the local doctors can’t explain it. Of course, they can hardly do a thing, not without the medications the government offers only to the wealthy.
“Sophia?” my mother asks, drawing me from my thoughts. “Why is it so cold?”
“The power went out, Mama.” Stepping forward, I part her sweaty hair from her brow. I consider the glass of water at her side and frown. “Why haven’t you drank your water?”
“Too… cold,” she manages through a series of shivers.
I sigh. “Hear. Drink some.”
She starts to argue—at least, at first, telling me no and I’ll be okay—but I manage to prop her head up and get her to swallow a few sips before she refuses to drink anymore.
When I finally lay her head down, she looks me in the eyes and says, “Will you go?”
“Mr. Scott’s apartment?”
“Please, Mama,” I say. Don’t make me. Mr. Scott is so… so… mean.”
“But I’m so cold, Sophia.”
I close my eyes, defeat clouding my heart. “Okay,” I say, unable to refuse my mother in her weakened state. “I’ll go.”
My mother closes her eyes, though whether she’s fallen back asleep I can’t be sure. She’s still trembling, but even then, that doesn’t mean she’s awake.
I turn and make my way out of the bedroom without so much as another look back.
Diego cuts me off halfway. “Are you gonna—” he starts.
But I cut him off by saying, “I have to go.”
“Mr. Scott’s apartment.”
He frowns. “Can I go with you?”
“No. You can’t.”
“Because you need to stay here in case Mama needs you.”
His frown deepens. “I want to go,” he says.
“One of us has to stay here,” I say, lowering myself to his level to look into his beady brown eyes. “You really don’t want to go talk to mean Mr. Scott, do you?”
“No,” he admits, dropping his eyes.
“All right.” I pat his head. “I’ll be right back.”
My younger brother watches me with sad eyes as I don my coat and make my way out the door, his gaze ever-so-haunting. There’s literally nothing I can do to alleviate his concerns. I know he feels lost when I leave, especially with our mother being so sick, but I can’t allow her to suffer—even if most of her discomfort is caused by her reoccurring fever. It just wouldn’t be fair, especially since this illness doesn’t operate in the same manner others in the past have.
That is what I tell myself as I head down the block of single-bedroom apartment units toward the main office, which Mr. Scott has converted into a multiple-bedroom suite. My teeth chatter from the relentless cold, while my fingers find solace under my arms—the only warmth that seems to exist in this world. The dreary gray sky is filled with clouds only a shade darker, and I briefly wonder if it will snow.
I shake my head.
Even if it did snow, I wouldn’t get the chance to enjoy it. I’d be stuck inside, taking care of Diego and my mother, waiting for the power to come back on.
Upon reaching Mr. Scott’s door, I take a moment to consider what I’ll say to the mean middle-aged man, then lean forward and knock.
It is as if he expects me. The door is open instantly, and his eyes—cold and mean and blue like the darkest waves of the ocean—are watching me. “I already know the power is out,” he says. “What do you want?”
“Sir,” I reply, attempting to swallow my nerves down. “My name is Sophia Lynn Garza. The one from apartment 7? I’ve… come to ask if you have any extra hand warmers.”
“Hand warmers?” he scoffs. “Why do you think I’d have hand warmers for someone who hasn’t paid their rent?”
“Sir, we’re still waiting for the GAC—”
“Excuses, excuses.” He shakes his head. “That’s all I ever hear from the people here. Excuses.”
“Please, sir. I know we haven’t turned in the GAC yet, but please—spare a few hand warmers. Even one would go a long way in helping my poor sick moth—”
“Go away,” the man says as he starts to close the door.
I reach out to press my hand against the wood.
He narrows his eyes once more. “You’d do best to get your hand off my property.”
Immediately after I draw my hand away, he slams the door.
There is little I can do but pull in a breath and close my eyes.
Standing there, I curse the world and all its worth. It isn’t our fault that the Government Assistance Checks haven’t come in yet. They’re always slow to arrive, especially in the slums of the city. How can I control what someone else does?
Someone clears their throat when I’m just about to leave.
I jump, startled.
“Excuse me,” the voice says. “I couldn’t help overhearing.”
I turn to face the speaker.
The young man, who can’t possibly be much older than my own fifteen years, watches me with a pair of golden eyes that remind me of honey. Concern lights his dark features. He purses his full lips.
“Sorry?” I ask, unsure if I’ve heard right.
“I was just coming by to ask about the power when I heard… well…”
“Everything?” I frown.
He nods. “Yeah. Everything.”
“I’m sorry. I was just trying to get some hand warmers for my mother.”
“I have some.”
I blink. “What?”
“I said I have some,” he replies with a smile. “I could give them to you, if you like?”
“I couldn’t possibly impose.”
“Why not? Your mother’s sick. Right?”
“How do you—”
“It’s no secret that she’s fallen ill. Most of the people in the slums have the Bite now.”
I shiver—not from the cold, but the name. The Bite. Though thought to have been caused by mosquitoes, the local doctors haven’t been able to find a source. It’s harsh, long-lasting, and deadly, which is exactly what this illness is. Which is exactly why I sought out Mr. Scott.
Which is why I’m considering asking this stranger for help.
“You’re… Leon Gray,” I say after a moment. “Right?”
Then it comes back to me—our time in primary school together. We’d been in the same grade, but never the same classes. Each of us had different teachers, different schedules, and though our paths had crossed only a few times, it’s been well over a year since I’ve seen him in person. Why, I can’t be sure. From what I understand, he only lives a few units up from us.
Swallowing, I clear my throat, only to offer a meek, “Are you sure?”
“About the hand warmers? Yeah. Come on. I’ll take you to my place.”
Though I barely know him and wouldn’t risk following a stranger unless in the most extreme circumstances, I’m desperate. Besides—his parents are bound to be home. It’s a Sunday. The Grays would’ve been at church this morning, praying for friends and family and a better tomorrow. Surely they’ll be waiting for us when we get there. Right?
I shake the thought from my head and allow Leon Gray to lead me a few units down from my own. When we come to apartment 10, he opens the door and calls, “Mom!”
“Yes, sugar?” a pleasant voice replies. “Where are you? And be quiet. Your father’s taking a nap.”
“I’m here, Mom. And okay,” he says as he stamps the frost off his boots. I do the same simply out of courtesy.
“Do you have someone with you?” A woman peeks around the corner. She steps out to reveal the dough she is stirring within a simple ceramic bowl. “Oh. Hello there, dear.”
“Hello,” I manage, lowering my eyes.
“Is she one of your friends, Lee-Lee?”
“We used to go to school together,” Leon replies, the hint of annoyance in his voice likely caused by the juvenile nickname. He turns to regard me for a moment before returning his attention to his mother. “This is Sophia Garza. From apartment 7.”
“Oh! Miss Garza! How’s your mama doing, honey?”
“I brought her here to give her some hand warmers.” Leon starts into the house. “Is that okay?”
“Her mama’s sick, honey. Of course it’s okay.” Mrs. Gray watches me with sad, sympathetic eyes. “Go get her the hand warmers, Lee-Lee. And Sophie, dear, you come here for a minute.”
I nod and move forward as Leon disappears into the depths of the apartment, which is sectioned off into separate rooms with dividers like our own. His absence, brief as it happens to be, is unsettling. I already feel like a stranger here. What could his mother possibly want?
In the small kitchen, she turns to face me. “Do you need anything?”
“No,” I reply. “Just the hand warmers.”
“I mean… do you need food, child? Someone to help you cook?”
“No ma’am. I don’t.”
“Are you sure? Because I can help you cook something if you need it. We have to go out front and use the burn barrel to cook the biscuits, but I’d be happy to send some home for you and your little brother.”
“I have no way to repay you.”
“There’s no need to repay me, honey.” The woman laughs and sets the bowl of mixed dough down. “We’ve got to stick together here at the Sunset Suites. Am I right?”
I nod, though hesitantly at that.
About this time, Leon has returned with the hand warmers. He holds the packages carefully, as if any slight movement will cause the chemicals inside to activate. “These should help until the power comes back on,” he says.
“They better hurry up and fix it,” Mrs. Gray says. “Otherwise we’re going to have a whole lot of people freezing tonight.”
I don’t even want to think about that. Rather, I reach out, accept the hand warmers, and say, “Thank you, Mrs. Gray. I’ll come back for the biscuits.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Leon says.
He leads me back into the cool winter, and unlike what I expect, he walks with me toward my apartment unit—his hands in his jacket pockets and his eyes set to the ground below him.
“So,” he says, after a moment’s hesitation. “What’ve you been doing to pass the time now that you’ve been out of school?”
“Honestly?” I ask, turning to face him. “Gaming.”
“Ah.” Leon smiles. “I had to cut off my internet because my family needed my GAC.”
“I feel guilty that I haven’t been giving my mom mine.” A twinge of embarrassment flutters about my ribcage. “I mean, I use most of it to buy food for me and Diego. The little bit I have squirreled away was to keep the internet on and to upgrade my hardware, but you know how long that takes to save.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Honestly, Leon…” I close my eyes and sigh. “I wanted to place.”
“In the regionals. So I could maybe win the million.”
“Oh.” He frowns. “Wait. You said wanted to?”
“Today was the last day to place in ranked. My computer went out during the blackout. During one of my qualifying matches.”
“I’m sorry.” I can tell from the way his eyes fall that he’s unsure what to say. “I can only imagine what that must’ve felt like.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” I reply. I shove my hands into my pockets alongside the hand warmers as we come to stand beside my apartment and lift my eyes to face him. “I mean… being out of school and all… I thought I’d try, you know? It’s not like I can go get a job until I turn sixteen, and that doesn’t happen until next week.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me. You do what you can to help your family.”
“It just doesn’t seem like it’s enough.”
There’s nothing either of us can say in response to that.
I reach up to run my hand through my long dark hair, then reach for the doorknob. “Thank you for the hand warmers. I’ll come back after I’ve tended to my mother.”
“All right,” Leon says as I push the door open. “Oh, hey. Sophia?”
“Don’t lose hope. Okay?”
“Okay,” I reply.
I close the door behind him.
In a world like this, it’s hard to have hope sometimes. It’s even harder to keep going.