It was the third day of Hedra-Hex. Many were able to stay calm about the life-threatening situation and adapted, while others broke down, either committing suicide or gone insane.
15-year old Nadiya Udovin was looking for certain items on her list panel as she wandered around the market square. She sighed, “Why is it so hard to find at least one cater shop?” She decided to look at her next reliable source; she came to the bulletin sphere and looked in the map index for food markets in the districts. “There it is!” Finally reaching a store was a bakery called Panne. Nadiya noticed a panel that floated just outside the shop reading: Now Hiring. “You can have jobs?” she wondered, surprised. As she entered the bread-baking building, the baker/clerk greeted Nadiya with sincerity.
“Are you really hiring players, sir?” Nadiya asked politely.
The baker gave a friendly look, “Of course! Would you like to work?”
“Well, I’m short on money at the moment so….yes please.”
“Do you have any cooking or baking experience?”
“Yeah. At home, I’m usually the one cookin—“
“You’re hired!” In a flash, Nadiya’s current clothing she had on, vanished and was replaced with home-style clothing and a khaki-colored apron. Nadiya was surprised by the sudden transformation.
“Don’t let me down, miss connoisseur!” the baker humored with a thumbs-up.
Nadiya stood straight and composed, “Y-yes, boss!”
20 minutes into the job, Nadiya was enjoying herself. She loved the bread-filled atmosphere, the friendly customers, and the decent pay rate. She decided that she could spend her life in the game as a baker until she could return home.
The entrance bells that hung over the doors rung, indicating a customer was coming in. Nadiya directed her attention towards the customer and bowed, “Welcome to Panne!”
The newcomer was a tad taller than Nadiya and was a composed gentleman who wore an opera-style mask and Italian attire. He came up to Nadiya with a humble attitude and removed his mask for a proper manner, “Excuse me, do you have any freshly made French Pan bread?”
Nadiya checked the stock panel and found only preserved pan bread, “Ah, no. I’m sorry. If you’d like, I could make a fresh batch for you if you’re willing to wait.”
The gentleman checked his time panel and schedule and back at Nadiya with a smile, “I would appreciate it.”
“Okay. That will be a 45-minute wait.”
The new baker began making dough at ease, being very thorough with her mixing and rolling. The customer watched Nadiya, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Nadiya,” she answered, still focused on her task.
“That’s a beautiful name, I must say,” he praised.
“Hehe, thank you.”
The gentleman observed Nadiya’s personality, “Might you be Russian, milady?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I thought so. Your accent sounded familiar so I only assumed as much. My name is Jorge Lorenzo.”
“That sounds Italian!”
“It is. I’m from Romani, Harva.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Jorge,” Nadiya greeted formally with an innocent smile.
“The pleasure is all mine,” he bowed.
“You seem very well-mannered for someone who would play a game such as this.”
Jorge leaned on the front counter, “We all have surprises.”
“Can’t argue with you there,” she laughed as she placed the doughy bread into the oven.
“Why, might I ask, have you decided to play in this world? You don’t seem like the gamer type.”
Nadiya brushed and cleaned her hands, “Ah, I wanted to use the social highlight of it to meet new people from all over Cerberus. It’s a habit of mine.”
“Ah yes. I forgot about the playlists.”
“Yeah, I just want to meet and interact with new people.”
“Well, now you have,” Jorge claimed, posing magnificently for her, making her laugh softly. He then brought up another subject, “By the way, what do you think of the situation?”
“How everyone is isolated in this world until it has been conquered.”
Nadiya thought about how she read the message everyone received the first night, “Well, I was shocked when I found out what was going on—and I was frightened too, but I came to realize that there is no use crying over it if it can be overcome in due time.” She also leaned against the counter with Jorge, “I like to think of it as a temporary home. Yes, we’re in a separate world, but why not embrace what has been given and be grateful for what you have for the time being? I’m still me. And no place will ever change who I am inside.”
There was a pause of silence that seemed to fill the room as Jorge looked at Nadiya with admiration. He smiled, “You’re absolutely right. I admire the way you think. And it seems you’re making the most of it as we speak.”
“I am,” Nadiya smiled.
“If only there were more people like you around here. I would assume this city would be quite normal to an actual standard of living.”
Just as Jorge finished talking, the oven beeped with an indication that the French Pan bread was done. Nadiya slipped on some oven mitts and collected the bread in another room. She then came back with the bread wrapped in a finely-thin plastic in a hand-basket, “Here is your freshly-made French Pan bread, sir!”
Jorge took the basket as he paid and thanked for the service. As he began walking towards the exit, he turned smiled at Nadiya, “We should hang out more.” And then he left.
It was nearly nighttime and the baker closed up shop. As his gratitude towards Nadiya’s hard work, he gifted her with a bagful of various breads and sweets as he wished her a goodnight. As Nadiya walked to her house, she heard crying from up ahead. Curious enough, she rushed towards the sound and saw a man with his hands on a little girl. With protective instincts, Nadiya ran up to the man and performed an uppercut kick, knocking the man onto his back.
He sat up, rubbing his jaw where Nadiya kicked him, “Owww!”
Nadiya recognized the man’s face, “Jorge??”
Accompanying the crying girl, Jorge explained to Nadiya how he found the lost girl crying and tried his hardest to calm her down.
“I see,” Nadiya understood, looking at the little girl. The child had short blonde hair and looked no older than six. Nadiya attempted to comfort the girl, “There there. It’s alright.” The girl kept sobbing.
“Any other ideas?” Jorge asked.
Nadiya thought of something better this time. She began to sing a Russian lullaby in a soft and gentle tone as she rubbed the girl’s head. Keeping calm with the girl, Nadiya then hugged her closely as she sang. The girl began to cry less and soon stopped to listen to Nadiya’s song, sniffling. Jorge watched, amazed at Nadiya’s talents.
The lullaby ended after six minutes and the air was calm. Jorge folded his arms, “Bravo, mistress.”
Letting go of the girl, Nadiya began to talk, “You okay?”
The girl sniffled and nodded.
“What’s your name?”
She wiped her eyes as she answered, “…S-Scarlet…”
Nadiya looked at the girl’s name panel, “Scarlet Ivanovich….she’s also Russian.”
“How quaint,” Jorge commented, as he looked around.
“Are you hungry?” Nadiya asked as she pulled out a buttermilk roll from her bag and offered it to Scarlet.
She was shy about it, but Scarlet innocently took the bread and began to nibble on it.
Nadiya smiled happily, “So cute.”
“Hey,” Jorge continued, “What do we do with her? She can’t stay here. It could be dangerous.”
“You’re right. And we don’t even know if she came here alone or with somebody.” Nadiya thought for a second and came up with a temporary solution, “I suppose I could take care of her for the night. And tomorrow, we could go search for her guardian.”
“Not a bad plan. So when should we meet up for that?”
“Actually, I was thinking you could stay at my house for the night.”
Jorge reacted childishly, “W-with you?! Are you sure you don’t want to just meet up in the morning?”
“I could but I believe it would be more pleasing for Scarlet to be with people who can keep her calm and under control.”
“Couldn’t you do all that? You saw yourself when you sang to her. You have the better potential than I do. Besides, I don’t exactly know how to take care of a kid. I never had siblings.”
“Are you saying you won’t help?”
Jorge was caught off guard, unable to make a better excuse and gave in, “Okay. I’ll stay.”
Making it to Nadiya’s house, the three made themselves at home. Nadiya sat Scarlet on her fluffy couch and then turned to Jorge, “You can sleep in the bed if you want.”
“Where will you sleep?”
“In the bed, of course,” she laughed.
Jorge’s face flustered with anxiety, “Y-you mean, we’ll be sleeping together??”
“Well, we ARE under the same roof.”
“B-but this is so sudden! And we just met and all.”
“…What are you talking about?”
“Huh?” Jorge was confused, “Aren’t we sleeping in the same bed?”
Nadiya’s face lit up red with embarrassment, “N-no! I meant there’s a spare bedroom next to mine!”
Jorge now understood what she meant and sighed with relief.
A while later, Nadiya was cooking dinner while Jorge researched on the whereabouts of the lost girl’s guardian. Scarlet watched from the couch and then walked up to Nadiya’s side, tugging on her apron.
Nadiya looked at Scarlet with a friendly smile, “What is it, Scarlet?”
“Can I call you ‘Mama’?”
Nadiya was surprised by Scarlet’s question and looked at Jorge with a blushed face and back at Scarlet with another smile, “I-if you want.”
Nadiya’s response made Scarlet smile brightly, “Mama!” She then pointed at Jorge, “And that’s Papa.”
Jorge spun around wildly with a red face, “H-HUH?!”
Scarlet kept pointing at Jorge like a statue. He looked at Nadiya who didn’t say a word and then sighed, “Okay…” His answer was less than formal but it seemed to satisfy Scarlet anyway.
Nadiya and Jorge both laughed.
After eating dinner, it was time for bed. Jorge waved to the girls, goodnight, as he settled in the spare room next to theirs. He stared at the ceiling and thought about earlier, “Papa, huh….”
Scarlet buried her head into her mother’s bosom as Nadiya held her close, soon drifting to sleep.
The next morning, Jorge got up and stretched. He saw through the blinds of the windows that it was beautifully sunny today and hoped to enjoy it later. He then waltzed to the bathroom and opened the door. A second later, he noticed Nadiya and Scarlet both in the bathtub. Nadiya froze when he saw Jorge. Scarlet also saw him and looked at Nadiya with a smile, "Mama, can Papa join us?”
Nadiya turned bright red and began throwing items in arms reach at Jorge, “C-CLOSE THE DOOR!!”
He rushed out and closed the door behind him, panting, “Crap! She’s gonna kill me!”
In the bath, Nadiya washed Scarlet’s back, still embarrassed from what just happened.
“Mama?” Scarlet said.
“Where do you live?”
“Well, I live in Novoy-Rossii in a town called Nestia. What about you? Where do you live?”
“Ca-Calica…” Scarlet had a hard time pronouncing the city name.
The girl nodded.
“I’ve been there. It’s quite a pretty city. Lots of people, lights, and gardens all around. You’re lucky!”
“What about Papa?”
Nadiya almost forgot, “Jorge? Well, he said he was from Harva so it’s quite far away from us.”
“Are you both married in real life?”
Nadiya blushed and scrubbed Scarlet’s hair, “N-now now! Let’s finish up and get ready!”
15 minutes later, Nadiya, Jorge and Scarlet were walking through town. Scarlet was playing with a toy jet in one hand and holding Jorge’s hand in the other. Nadiya saw and rushed up to the bulletin sphere and turned to Scarlet, “Okay, Scarlet, tell me: were you with anyone when you first came here?”
Scarlet stopped playing for a moment and looked down at the ground, “No.”
“Huh? Did you log in alone?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well this doesn’t help us,” Jorge said rather bluntly.
“Hush,” Nadiya responded, “There has to be some reason why Scarlet would come alone.”
“It’s more likely that she didn’t intend to come here without a sibling or a parent or something.”
“Scarlet, why did you play this game?”
“Cause I like games.”
Jorge sighed, “Do you really think her real parents were unaware of what the game was actually composed of?”
“It’s possible. Most kids nowadays play anything and everything without looking at the age rating of the game. If it looks fun, they’ll want to play it.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“But,” Nadiya continued, “This reality feels all too real for a game. The five senses are here, the textures of the land are extremely detailed to be convincing enough, and the timeframe is the same as real time. The only exception is the interface we all have with panels, set-up and rosters.”
Jorge evaluated what Nadiya just stated.
“And then there’s that three chances rule. I feel like it means something similar.”
“Well,” Jorge theorized, “the way that guy said it during the open ceremony made it sound like the chances were another way of saying lives.”
The first is your most treasured chance. Do not take it for granted. Your second is your warning. Be aware of your flaws and use everything in your power to not make the same mistake as the first. Your final chance is your last chance. It will also be the chance where you will feel at most vulnerable. If you make the wrong choice, you will never come back. No other words can emphasize enough how important your last chance is.
Now that Jorge made the connection, it did make sense. Nadiya was still confused, “If that’s true, then what happens after our third life is lost? He said we would never come back. Does he mean we won’t be able to come back into the game or…?”
Jorge finished, “Or maybe we can never come back to life…?”
Nadiya hesitated and shuddered, “T-That’s impossible! This is probably just a game! There’s no way you should be able to die in a game for real.”
“But…what if this isn’t a game?”
The idea scared Nadiya even more, standing still with fear in her eyes.
Scarlet looked at Nadiya with worry, “Mama?”
She snapped out of her “trance” and took a deep breath. She looked at Scarlet with deep concern, “Jorge, I don’t think we’re going to find Scarlet’s guardian.”
“Then what’s Plan-B?”
She sighed, “Our only option is to be her guardians ourselves.”
Jorge folded his arms and smiled, “I figured you might say that.”