The 50th floor of Silver Wing Tower. Jinro and his 12 teammates emerged from the gaming room. Everyone was so tired they could collapse. Ten of the 13 would have dropped dead if they hadn't had assistants or the specially assigned medical staff to hang onto.
Dorrian sat down with help from his assistant. "It's OK if Boss Fang isn't around, but what about Zuo Yu?" he asked.
"He's got an assignment. He logged on from home. He has to go out with boss after logging out. It's easy for him pick up a tail if he stays at the office." Dorrian downed a glass of water and rested while he received a medical checkup.
This was the level of treatment that well-endowed companies could afford. Pro gamers were different from amateurs in that their workloads were much heavier. Their physical conditions had to be closely monitored. They were tracked by dedicated staffers every day. All the pro gamers had to worry about was gaming. The rest was taken care of by their backups. This was the difference in treatment between pros and amateurs.
Dorrian accepted the towel his assistant passed to him and wiped the sweat from his face. He was famished and exhausted. "I never felt this tired at HWR. Even I feel the pressure, let alone Schwarzer and the others," he said with a laugh of resignation as he shook his head.
Dorrian's assistant had been with his boss at Silver Wing for some time now. He knew the pressure Dorrian spoke of wasn't pressure to climb the individual or team rankings or career advancement. Fang Zhao never spoke of rankings or point totals. He all but ignored the team ranking, but he scheduled tasks for his team on every workday. There were tests, including written ones, and assignments to be completed inside the game. Those who didn't pass faced heavy punishments. What Fang Zhao repeatedly stressed was this: the bottom line during the Period of Destruction was survival. Regardless of what you wanted to do, you had to figure out how to survive first.
It seemed as if Fang Zhao wanted to squeeze every ounce of potential out of them. When they were gaming, not only were they stretched physically, their brains never saw any rest. When they were on break, they were thinking about all sorts of background knowledge about the Period of Destruction that Fang Zhao had passed on, especially tips on weather prediction and picking up small details in your physical surroundings. Fang Zhao was adamant that they would come in handy later.
Many pieces of information could be found in history books or writings from the Period of Destruction, but not everyone could finish reading all these books, and even if you memorized the key points on paper, you might not be able to flexibly put them into practice in reality. Meanwhile, Fang Zhao excelled at using real situations in the game to illustrate his points.
What impressed Dorrian the most was their encounter with the destructive forces of nature two days ago. Fang Zhao had warned them about situations like that and had taken advantage of the scenario to teach them how to observe changes in their physical environment.
That day, a massive storm with wide coverage had hit the entire southern part of Yanzhou in the game. Districts 50 to 100 had been affected to varying degrees. District 79, where the team was located, wasn't the hardest hit; that fate had fallen on folks in districts 60 to 70. Only about 10 percent of the players online at the time had survived.
Before the storm, many players had thought they could escape unscathed by just going offline when they came across a natural disaster they couldn't weather, but when such a moment arrived, they realized they were too naive.
They couldn't go offline.
All they could do was watch the horrendous disaster unfold. Some players even had the privilege of being blown into the atmosphere for a truly first-hand experience of the destructive power of Mother Nature.
Just as folks were thinking they would get offline earlier in the future when things didn't feel right, the players who survived realized their experience levels had skyrocketed.
Not from killing monsters.
Nor completing missions.
But as a reward for surviving a terrible natural disaster.
The system awarded experience points by gauging the players' coping skills, their location, and their ability to avoid the storm. For example, players who survived a previous storm in Yanzhou, especially survivors in sectors 60 to 70, saw their experience levels hit five digits and received bonus points in the five-digit range.
That kind of point bump usually required days of non-stop monster killing for the average player. For most players who were decently armed, hitting 10,000 points would take a week of killing or even longer.
So many players who weren't online or had gone offline early on regretted their decisions. Why did I leave early? Maybe I would've had a stroke of good luck and survived a natural disaster, which would have raised my experience level significantly. That would be like getting paid for doing nothing.
But this was also a tough call for players. If they died during a natural disaster, they would be docked major points. Only if they survived would they see a major bonus. Going offline was the safest move. Players who were more conservative usually chose to go offline.
Even though the Silver Light team wasn't located at the center of the storm, they weren't far away. After barely scraping by under the leadership of Fang Zhao, every team member saw their experience level and points total increase by the thousands.
"This is just the beginning. A natural disaster of this severity was considered peanuts during the Period of Destruction," Fang Zhao told his team afterward.
But the reason Fang Zhao put so much pressure on them wasn't because he was carrying out orders from Silver Wing senior management. For some reason he was intent on passing on all his knowledge quickly, especially to vice captain Jinro, conducting special training sessions for him after the team went offline.
Dorrian once asked Jinro in private if Fang Zhao planned on leaving the team soon. If Fang Zhao left, then he would change his plans. The reason he and his teammates stayed was because of Fang Zhao. His presence shielded them from a lot of hassle, so they could focus exclusively on gaming and not have to worry about miscellaneous matters.
Dorrian's priority was to enhance his skills while having a good time. That was also why he never complained despite being worked to death every day; he knew this training was good for him. The knowledge Fang Zhao passed on would enable him to do well even if he jumped ship.
But if Fang Zhao left Silver Wing or if he stayed at Silver Wing but was reassigned to other projects, Dorrian had no reason to stay. Jinro told him not to worry. He said Fang Zhao indeed was grooming Jinro to take over the team because he was about to take an extended leave—not because of a transfer but because he had to fulfill his military service requirement.
Dorrian was dumbfounded for some time when he got his answer. After pondering the matter more carefully, he realized that yes, their boss was only around 23 or 24 years old. Fang Zhao was more than 10 years younger than him, a fresh university graduate of a year or so. It was just that Fang Zhao's behavior made Dorrian completely ignore his actual age. No wonder Wang Tie hadn't been able to acknowledge his mistake. Fang Zhao could pass for an older man in anyone's eyes.
No one could avoid military service, and the longer the delay, the more factors came into play, especially after one started working. Work would likely get busier as the years went by, and the work assignments more pressing. That was also why so many people chose to serve when they were enrolled in university. The saying "procrastination is deadly" was absolutely on the mark.
Quite a few celebrities had been exposed as not having served at the peak of their fame, when their careers were in full bloom. There was not much room for maneuver under intense media criticism. When they would return from military service a year later, they could no longer re-establish themselves in the entertainment industry.
It was best to serve in the military early. From a gaming perspective, if you took the long view, "Battle of the Century" had just been launched. Going out of action for a year wasn't a big deal. Considering Fang Zhao's abilities, even if his ranking dropped, reclaiming the No. 1 spot wasn't out of the question.
Not to mention that Dorrian often got the impression that Fang Zhao didn't take the game that seriously. He had been quite engaged at the outset, but as the days passed, he'd spent less and less time gaming. But every time Fang Zhao got online, he underwent a total transformation. He was a completely different person, as if he had gone crazy.
Two months after the launch of "Battle of the Century," Fang Zhao was still the world No. 1. The other top players would only have a shot at overtaking him once he started his military service.
Meanwhile, the subject of Dorrian discussion was headed to his favorite paper shop.
Zuo Yu was his driver as usual. He had just gotten offline not too long ago, but he was in better shape than Jinro and the others, so he wasn't so weak as to not be able to drive.
Fang Zhao got a call from Wayne en route.
"I wanted to discuss the publicity video again. Have you found a cameraman? I looked into a few of the better cameramen on our payroll. They're all engaged right now, but it shouldn't be too difficult to reassign them." Wayne was in a hurry.
Since their discussion in Duan Qianji's office, Wayne had been reflecting. Was he losing vision? Was he getting more and more narrow-minded, so much so that he wasn't as charismatic as someone who had graduated from university a year ago? That feeling became even more acute after Jinro and the seven others signed with Silver Wing, so Wayne had decided to regroup. He couldn't only focus on short-term gain.
Wayne now had a new goal. He was going to build a truly professional e-sports team, not the type to simply kick ass and cash out. His model was the business-minded e-sports clubs. He wanted to build a sustainable e-sports team within Silver Wing.
The only thing was that gaming teams were typically launched with much fanfare. He had his team, but other teams held mass pledges and released publicity videos before the launch of the game. These were all moves that raised the stakes and boosted branding. Silver Wing would no doubt sign more gamers, so they had an image to maintain. If they skipped the mass pledge, at least they could manage a video, no?
The only thing was that Fang Zhao wasn't happy with the work of the few Silver Wing cameramen that Wayne had shortlisted. He'd wanted to look elsewhere. Wayne had to wait for word from Fang Zhao. He had called today for an update.
"I've found the right guy, but he hasn't agreed to the shoot yet," Fang Zhao said.
"Who? Who is it? As long as he strikes your fancy, we can offer more money. Is he fully booked?" Wayne was curious now.
"I don't want to scare you," Fang Zhao said with a laugh. "He's not a professional cameraman, but he's the right person for this shoot. I should be hearing back today. I'll let you know his answer tonight after I head home."
"Oh, which big shot is this? You can't rattle me. Kid, you're always so mysterious. Professionals aren't good enough for you—and yet here you approach an amateur. But as long as he's the right fit for this shoot, I'm open to it."
Wayne felt reassured after hearing Fang Zhao's response, but he couldn't help wonder who Fang Zhao had lined up after hanging up.
In the meantime, Fang Zhao's car had arrived at the paper shop.
This wasn't Fang Zhao's first visit. He picked a design among the new additions and grabbed one of his regulars. He was going to write the score for the team's publicity video himself.
Fang Zhao paid for the scoresheets and was about to leave when a young man entered the shop carrying an instrument case. When he saw Fang Zhao, surprise and emotion consumed his pubescent face. He smiled shyly and bowed politely. "Teacher Fang."
Fang Zhao glanced at the young man, signaled Zuo Yu to wait in the car, and then turned his attention to the student. He pointed to a lounge area in the shop and said, "Mr. Huo Li, shall we have a seat?"
The student who had just been reserved and shy suddenly froze. He gave Fang Zhao an incredulous look, as if he had lost it.
Fang Zhao ignored him and proceeded to the lounge area. "Like I said, no amount of disguise works on me."
Wang Tie, who had disguised himself as the student, wore an expression of utter shock, as if he had met an alien. He scanned Fang Zhao from head to toe. He was still in disbelief—the aura Fang Zhao projected now was completely different from his aura in the game.
Were they really the same person? Multiple-personality disorder?
Wang Tie was absolutely baffled. "How on earth did you recognize me?"
Fang Zhao didn't answer, responding instead with a laugh. Wang Tie felt like he had been attacked by a frosty breeze. He was so pissed he kept shivering, He wanted to move his chair back.
People were difficult to read, and people from the Period of Destruction were especially complicated. Fang Zhao had been able to survive the apocalypse for nearly 100 years and climb to a leadership role. Of course he had a sharp eye.
Back then, Fang Zhao had come across quite a few folks with even better disguises than Wang Tie. His ability to see through disguises was honed from years of experience and superb judgment, as well as instincts that were much stronger than Wang Tie's.
But Fang Zhao didn't say any of this out loud.
Wang Tie had come here today to verify something. He didn't want to admit that he hadn't been able to unravel Fang Zhao's fundamental character the first time they'd met. Wang Tie was so confident that he wasn't willing to admit that he had misread Fang Zhao, so much so that he'd ignored his instincts when the name "Fang Zhao" flashed in his head when he'd seen Fang Zhao's face in the game. He'd refused to believe the answer, so he'd figured AliveAfter500Years to be one of Fang Zhao's relatives.
Wang Tie was avaricious, full of himself, and a bit arrogant. He felt he had lost this round of battle. He'd even started doubting his own ability. On the matter of Fang Zhao, he'd branded his investigation a failed mission.
Fang Zhao chatted with Wang Tie in a box seat inside the lounge area of the paper shop for about an hour. An hour later, still in disguise, Wang Tie left, wearing the emotional expression of someone who had just had a heart-to-heart with his idol, and drove away, but after leaving the shop, Wang Tie's excitement vanished, replaced by mixed feelings and a sense of failure.
When he got home, Wang Tie got another call from Qian Cheng asking for an update.
This time, Wang Tie didn't fudge, saying upfront, "I'm passing on this assignment. Per our agreement, I'll refund you twice my fee."
Qian Cheng was too stunned to react. "What?"
Wang Tie's response was too shocking. Qian Cheng took a few seconds to recover. "You really have no way of nailing down his true identity?" he asked.
"Oh, I know who he is, but I can't tell you right now. But I can tell you one thing."
Qian Cheng's ears pricked up. "What?" He wasn't going to miss a word.
"People can transform themselves," Wang Tie said in a resigned tone.
Qian Cheng: "..."