Chapter 01 – When KO lost his way . . .
“Hey. Where’d you go?” The soft, brittle voice pulled him from his thoughts, bringing him back to the present . . . to this unhappy now.
“Now, what was I saying? Right. I put your winter clothes in the suitcase under my bed,” she continued, somehow finding the strength to say all of the important things she needed to before… “Take out those sweaters and wear them when it gets cold. Promise me you won’t forget.”
He nodded his head in agreement, seeing the worry on her face.
She stopped, swallowing with difficulty. “I cooked your favorite dishes. They’re in the freezer. Take them out one by one and eat it whenever you want. There should be enough to last you for a while.”
“Ma!” he protested, aghast that she had cooked for him when she should have been conserving her strength. “You know I can cook for myself!” Over the past couple of years, he’d stepped up and cooked on those days his mother had been too ill to even get out of bed.
“I know you can take care of yourself,” she murmured in an appeasing tone. “I just wanted to do this for my little man.” She laughed softly, the laughter soon turning into coughs that tore at her throat. “After all,” she managed to eke out, accompanied by ragged breaths. “You’ve been taking care of me, haven’t you?” she murmured hoarsely. Her fingers plucked restlessly at the blanket covering her body.
He looked at her silently, his fingers clenched into tight fists, his body stiff in the chair. She was disappearing right before his eyes, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. There was nothing he could do to hold on, even when he knew that he wasn’t ready to let go.
“You were my guiding star from the moment you came into my life,” she whispered to him minutes . . . . hours later. The love she was feeling wove through every word, suppressing the hints of pain that had been bleeding into her words through sheer will.
Those words were soft pebbles, dropping into the pool of silence that had fallen between the two, creating ripples. The ripples grew so much so that he feared the ensuing waves would drown him in the end.
And she would no longer be here to save him.
The two were in a hospital room, surrounded by other grieving family members, other terminally ill individuals. But for now, it was just the two of them awake at 3 o’clock at night.
She had begun to speak, desperate to tell him all of the things she considered so important. But exhaustion had won out, and she had fallen silent once more. The only sounds in the room now were the beeping of the machines. It was the nature of her sickness; the pain ebbed and flowed, pulling her away for long stretches of time.
But the child sitting at her bedside, his eyes trained on her every movement, was there every time she surfaced. He had a slight build, his skin shallow, as if he spent all of his time inside. His clothes were old, but well cared for, evidenced by the precise stitches along any tears.
His eyes never strayed from the bed. Despite the fact that the disease had eaten away at her until there was almost nothing left, she was still the brightest thing in his universe. That horrible disease had stolen away the bloom in her cheeks, it had stolen her special smiles, it had stolen her caresses. She had been a carefree soul, a woman who would rather laugh than cry no matter what happened. She barely had the energy to move from her bed now, unable to even speak most of the time.
The effort she made now weighed on his heart, but he knew that time was running out. That was why, despite the pain it clearly caused her, he had silently listened to her speak today, treasuring each word.
When she fell into an uneasy slumber once more, he sat back, closing his eyes for a moment. Shifting restlessly in his uncomfortably chair, he prayed to whatever God was up there to not take her away. Not yet. Even if all that was left behind now was a mere shadow of what had been before, he still needed her desperately. It always had been the two of them against the world. She was his anchor. What would he do without her?
She murmured suddenly, forcing her eyes open. She could barely get the words out, but he could see that she was intent on speaking.
He wanted to listen, he wanted to so much, but he couldn’t selfishly hold on any longer. “Ma,” he said softly, swallowing carefully around the lump in his throat, “Sleep now.” His face was expressionless, but the hands that reached out to hold hers were secure and loving. She would know that she had been loved till the last.
“You were my wish come true. The star that fell in my lap,” she murmured disjointedly. “I’m sorry.” She stopped talking, tears, that were never far away, beginning to fall from her eyes. She gazed at him, her eyes still speaking of the love she felt for him. The pain of leaving him, the ache for the knowledge that he would be left all alone in this world.
She tugged at his hand, pulling him up to stand next to her bed. She reached up and cupped his cheek lovingly, her little man. The one who had become the caretaker, the strong one in their family unit of two. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you all the opportunities you deserved,” she said.
“Ma!” he protested, “You gave me everything that I needed.” The words were said to comfort her. He had no words, nothing any longer to hold on to. He’d prayed and hoped that God couldn’t be so cruel as to take away the only person that he had in the world, but that hope was gone now. Not when it meant holding on to her when living would only give her more pain.
“I love you. Remember that,” she said for the umpteenth time, closing her eyes. She had been saying those words ever since the diagnosis, repeating them daily, her fear that once she left he wouldn’t hear them again.
He had never found it easy to open himself up to the world . . . to people. He was stoic, his intelligence setting him apart from all of his classmates. His interests had further isolated him, her stubborn interruptions the only reason that he ate on time or went out to play. It was her fault that she hadn’t encouraged him to be more social, but it was too late. The only thing she could do now was to remind him that she had loved him till the last.
“I’m so proud of you! You’re top of your class again. What did I do to get such a smart son?…”
He stared at her closed eyes, watching her breathe, wondering every moment if it would be her last. The anxiety grew inside him, the ache too much for his young heart to bear.
“Eat your food. Put that book to the side. I don’t slave over a hot stove so that you can ignore the food and ignore me while you eat it. Dinner time is a time to eat and talk to people. And no, you cannot go to the internet café. “
His eyes were pinned obsessively to her face, her eyes now closed in sleep. The lines that the continual pain had etched across her features had eased away.
“Come with me.”
“Look at the weather. It’s so beautiful outside.”
“Yeah. Very sunny.”
He looked to her chest as she took those small breaths.
“Let’s go out and play! Give that to me.”
“Ma! You can’t throw books like that!”
“Sorry! But we’re going out now. No more excuses. I’m not going to leave you alone.”
But his eyes were on the machines when she took her last. They were on them as the quiet beeps turned into alarms going off, but it was the silence . .. where he should have heard her breaths . . . heard the rustle of the sheets when she moved . . . that silence was the loudest. His eyes reluctantly turned back to her, not wanting to confirm what his heart already knew.
She was gone.
And he was all alone.
Chapter 02: When He Disappeared . . .
Sitting in his small, dark room, he stared at the glowing computer screen and waited. He was logged onto the game, his character standing on the Captain’s Deck as promised. A crowd had gathered in the vicinity, but there was space around him, as if no one dared to come any closer. He waited and waited. Minutes turned into an hour, but he didn’t come.
In that dark room, he sat back in the chair with a sigh. How was he supposed to feel right now? It wasn’t as if he’d been abandoned, it was just a game. A game. Playing Fantasy Planet had happened on a lark.
He’d spent the past couple of years staying away from computers, not wanting to create the kinds of problems he had with his last hacking job. His actions had caused someone’s death, which had K.O., the hacker, go from being a famous black hat hacker to someone notorious. The backlash in all of the dark forums had been severe, but he’d had his defenders, as well, those who had pointed out that the hack could not be blamed for the suicide of a company’s CEO.
None of that had mattered though, because it did nothing to alleviate the guilt he had felt, the guilt he still felt. Not wanting to continue in that same vein, seeing his soul becoming darker and darker over time, he’d stopped. In fact, he’d told himself to forget how to even use a computer.
Years had gone by, and the need to go back had become too strong to ignore. Computers were in his blood, his need to look . . . to use that tool overriding his resolve to stay away. He began working nights at the cyber cafe to alleviate some of it. He spent his shifts renting out time to customers, cleaning up stations and fixing any broken computers. Working there had been enough for a while, until it no longer was.
Hearing the nightly conversations around him, he had allowed himself the right to play a game, master it . . . and, in that way, allow a little social interaction into his life to fight against the loneliness that had begun to gnaw at him on a daily basis. A passing comment from a cyber café customer had turned him to this particular game. He’d been reluctantly fascinated by this world, and, for the first time in his life, he played pretend.
A sudden burst of noise from the speakers brought his attention back to the computer screen. He watched his figure, now standing alone on the deck. The crowd had disappeared, the captain going back to his cabin after a final commiserating comment. He was alone once more.
In the past month, he’d met the Heavenly Healer character, clearly just a little kid, but a kid who’d been irritatingly fascinated by his online name. Shou Ke Zhai Xing Chen. To the kid, the name was majestic.
“I’m so proud of you! You’re at the top of your class again. What did I do to get such a smart son? Oh yeah, I just plucked him from the stars.” The Hand that Plucked the Stars. Her hand. She’d loved him, and to her, he had been a guiding star.
She would say those kinds of things to him all the time, but he would only grunt in reply. She’d been the reason he was even halfway normal. All of this, doing something else besides hacking, it was for her, as well. She had worried. He’d known that she had worried, but he’d been too focused on his goals to truly care. Growing up, he’d wanted to learn all he could, intent on earning enough money to make his mother’s life easier. He had refused to waste his time on trivial matters.
She was gone, and he no longer had to work so hard. So, when he used that name in this game, he was striving to relive a moment of closeness to the only goodness in his life. When he’d lost her, he’d lost his direction. He hadn’t allowed anyone close, not since his mother’s death, and the need for human contact had been slowly driving him insane.
For the first six years after her death, he’d perfected his hacking skills, becoming one of China’s famous black hat hackers. It was the only thing he had left, but having achieved infamy hadn’t been enough to satisfy him. Nothing would have stopped him, nothing had, not until the death that still weighed on his conscience. He’d shut down for two years, but had eventually come back to computers.
His eyes flickered to the screen, seeing the jeers and general mockery of the crowd that still appeared on the message board; the comments had been fast and furious on his screen as the minutes had ticked by.
He’d been abandoned and everyone knew it in the community, hurting the reputation he had built over the past few months. None of that mattered to him. Who cared about strangers? It was the abandonment of the one he had begun to consider a friend that mattered most of all.
“We’re going to be friends.”
“Yes we are.”
. . . . . .
He hadn’t thought about it, but the kid had become a friend. Someone who confided in him about his troubles, about wanting to learn computers and how his parents wanted something else. A kid who listened to him when he urged him to do what made him happy. To be courageous.
“Let’s go on a quest together. You’ll need my help at the asteroid belt.”
“I’ll have your back.”
. . . . . .
A friend who was there whenever he logged on, ready to play and back him up.
“Let’s get married. Come on. Everyone’s doing it!”
. . . . . .
“Promise to meet me on the Captain’s Deck. I’ve put in a request for a wedding to be held by the Captain at 1400 Hours. You’re going to be sorry if you’re not there.”
“And how are you going to make me sorry?”
. . . . . .
A friend who wanted to forge this bond. He’d been surprised, but had ended up saying yes.
“Hey, so someone said something to me, and I wanted to check with you . . .”
“Are you a guy?”
. . . . . .
He stared at his hands, as they sat poised over the keyboard, but he had nothing to type, nothing to say and no one to talk to. He forced his fingers to slowly relax, resting them on the keyboard. He’d kept his promise, but that boy hadn’t. That little kid had become important without him realizing. And now he was gone.
His fingers flexed involuntarily on the keyboard, but he controlled himself. He knew the kid’s server. Under the Moon of Chang’an. After doing a little bit of research, he even knew the Province where he lived. If he wanted to, he could find out everything. He could track him down, but then what?
He abruptly went into motion, shutting down the computer and turning off the screen. He pulled out the wires, and wrapped them around the equipment. There was no point in doing anything. The person on the other end had chosen to end their friendship. He would accept that.
There was no point in holding on. Not to him. Not to the game. Not to the job. And no point holding on to computers.
. . . . . .
He hadn’t touched a computer since.