"Did you hear that planet Baiji has come under attack?"
"You mean the planet that was the center of attention a while back after discovering the new power ore?"
"Yes, yes, yes! I heard it's a terrorist attack."
"So be it. It's no big deal."
For many folks, Baiji was a faraway planet, and what happened there didn't affect their daily lives. In addition, this was not the first terrorist attack in the history of mankind. They didn't pay much attention. As for the handful of folks who followed political and military news, even they went about life as usual when they learned about the attack from their friends. At most it was a fallback conversation topic during social gatherings, and they would make a perfunctory donation to the military on Memorial Day. That was it.
But this time, things were different.
"You've heard of Fang Zhao, right? The dude who was the top-ranked player in 'Battle of the Century'? He is performing his military service on Baiji at the exact sentry post that was attacked. I heard that he was broadcasting live at the time and his signal was cut off. He might have been hit. They still don't know whether he's alive or dead."
For many gamers, both professionals and amateurs alike, Fang Zhao's departure from gaming was a sad development. The void at the top was a frequent subject of discussion in online gaming forums. Now the global rankings for "Battle of the Century" were a full-on slugfest day in day out, with the former No. 1 and No. 2 both out of action. Fang Zhao had to serve in the military, and Marshall had decided to focus on his professional shooting career instead. Now that the two strongest players were out of the picture, everyone else naturally went all out trying to advance their rankings.
Given the prevailing dynamics, gamers would bring up Fang Zhao from time to time and reminisce about his stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the first six months after the game had launched.
When Fang Zhao had announced he was quitting gaming to serve in the military, some had cheered and others had mourned the news. Likewise, news that the location where Fang Zhao was serving had been attacked by terrorists sparked mixed reactions. Some folks wished for Fang Zhao's death so that their competition would be eliminated for good, while others prayed for Fang Zhao's survival. A third group just followed the latest developments for the heck of it.
Regardless of their motivations, none of the gamers were in the mood to play anymore.
Fiery Bird noticed that the number of gamers online playing "Battle of the Century" was much lower than usual, and the figure was continuing to dwindle over time, especially after channel S5 played the footage it had received from Baiji. Everyone had gone offline to watch the video.
The Project Starlight team of First Frontline and the rest of the editorial team were hard at work. All their phone lines were busy. Meanwhile, Kevin Lin slowly transmitted a few text, sound, and video files back to headquarters.
After watching the first video Kevin Lin sent, they knew this was a prime opportunity for their publication.
Indeed, for any profit-making organization, their business interests came first. Naturally, they were concerned about the situation on Baiji and whether there were any survivors, but they cared more about how the incident could benefit the publication.
"The second video has been edited. We've received 98 percent of the third video."
"Boss! Another internet TV channel from Muzhou wants to buy our footage."
"The third video has been downloaded in full. I'll start editing."
The editors at HQ considered some of the footage that Kevin Lin sent redundant, so they took it out and made other edits before airing the final cut on S5.
"Kevin Lin's gonna become a star," one of Kevin Lin's colleagues said as he observed S5's viewership numbers skyrocketing.
"He's already a star," another colleague said while pointing at his computer screen and wearing an astonished expression.
On his screen was Kevin Lin's social media account. His last status update had been posted before he had taken off for Baiji: "About to take off!"
The post included a photo that also showed Fang Zhao and other fellow passengers.
The number of comments on the post had already exceeded 1 million. Concerned viewers noticed Kevin Lin's account displayed in the S5 videos.
Kevin Lin had interviewed celebrities and politicians in the past, but no matter how much he had self-promoted and embellished, he had never gotten anywhere. Now, a disaster had turned into a blessing in disguise. His follower numbers had reached a level that made many fellow journalists jealous. Even if it was a temporary bump, people were still jealous.
The military chose not to disclose the latest updates it had received. All they said was that the situation on Baiji was under control and that the military base was secure. That was all. So if viewers wanted to find out more details, they had to tune in to S5 or regional internet TV channels that took the S5 feed.
The first video S5 aired explained what had happened. Not just Kevin Lin, but Fang Zhao, Fan Lin, and the other researchers also appeared in the video. The second video showed the appearance of a monster.
The beast was no stranger to gamers who were playing "Battle of the Century," even if it belonged to a species they weren't familiar with. The monster's savage face bore a striking resemblance to the beasts in the game.
The banging on the door not only unnerved the people in the bunker, it also spooked the viewers watching the video. This wasn't a movie. It was cinema verité, real footage from the planet of Baiji. They didn't know what they would see next, which gave their nerves a roller-coaster ride.
Good thing the door was firm enough. The beast was also distracted by other noise, so the online viewers could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
The third video was also edited, but not by First Frontline's editors. Kevin Lin had cut a portion of the film before he had sent it. He had edited out the footage of Fang Zhao pulling out his gun. Conscripts were not allowed to carry arms without permission. The footage would reflect poorly on Fang Zhao. Kevin Lin knew Fang Zhao had pulled out his gun as a last resort. As a brother from the trenches, Kevin Lin was a loyal comrade. Even if Fang Zhao hadn't said anything, Kevin Lin never would have aired the footage.
So the third video started with a close-up of Kevin Lin's bloody and dusty face. He sat in a corner, sighing repeatedly and rubbing his face before going on camera. His eyes were bloodshot, weary with concern and fear.
"Fang Zhao..." Perhaps it was dehydration and the pressure, but Kevin Lin's voice was a bit hoarse. He paused shortly after starting his sentence.
The online viewers became even more anxious.
Yeah, where is Fang Zhao?
The viewers could see the lab technicians behind Kevin Lin, but there was no sign of Fang Zhao. They thought he was simply off-camera, but Kevin Lin's tone of voice seemed to suggest otherwise.
Countless viewers stopped what they were doing in anticipation of the rest of Kevin Lin's sentence.
Kevin Lin cleared his throat before continuing. "Fang Zhao headed out. He said he wanted to take a look."
The viewers froze. Some bitched that Kevin Lin was a tease. What the hell are you doing gasping for breath before he finished his sentence? The pause made us think that Fang Zhao had sacrificed himself in combat.
Something doesn't sound right.
He headed out?
Fang Zhao left the underground bunker?
What for? To kill a few monsters? Does he think this is a f*cking game?
Also watching the footage was Great-Grandfather Fang, who was so startled he got out of his chair. "Nonsense! What can a young conscript who's never seen real combat do? Does he have a death wish?"
Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother were angry and anxious. None of their old comrades had any concrete word on Fang Zhao's status. All they could offer were updates on the base. But all the two elders cared about was the latest status of Outpost 23. The only source of news about Fang Zhao was S5's video footage. All they could do was wait.
They actually tried contacting First Frontline directly for their full footage, but they couldn't get through. First Frontline wasn't based in Yanzhou, after all. While Great-Grandfather Fang had connections in Yanzhou, his influence didn't extend to Huangzhou. They didn't have a direct line to First Frontline on short notice, and the publication's customer service hotline was overwhelmed with calls. Grand-Grandfather Fang wanted to take a number but gave up after he saw that the queue was in the tens of thousands. Lord knew how long that would take.
Thankfully, they didn't have to wait long. Fang Zhao appeared in the next video. Not only did he return to the bunker safely, he brought with him a wounded comrade.
Many folks breathed a sigh of relief, but before they could relax, Fang Zhao headed out again.
Great-Grandfather Fang gasped for breath. "Why, why, why is he going out again?"
During the period Fang Zhao was gone, the video showed Kevin Lin and a few others who were only lightly injured treat the wounds of the rescued soldier. They did the basics. His wounds were too severe and there was only so much they could handle.
But the wounded soldier, Walker, didn't stay silent. He didn't know if he was going to make it, so Kevin Lin filmed him giving a blow-by-blow of Fang Zhao's rescue attempt.
A gamer watching the video beamed. "That is to say that Zhao-god killed two monsters?"
"Fang Zhao was such a badass in the game. He couldn't fare too poorly in reality, right?"
There were dissenters. "Did you forget about the earlier news reports? The virtual world is different from the real world."
Some people were only cocksure online, whereas in reality they were pussies. Entertainment news items casting gamers in an unfavorable light had surfaced in the past. For example, an entertainment magazine broke the story of a superstar fighting-game player who was hospitalized after getting the crap beaten out of him by a small-time black street thug. There was also the shooting gamer who tried to play hero in real life only to be killed instead.
Regardless of the controversy, everyone wanted to know how Fang Zhao fared. Did he come across any monsters or terrorists during his second outing? Was he injured? Was he still alive?
When Kevin Lin finally got through to Yan Biao and learned that Fang Zhao was safe and that backup had arrived, the online viewers couldn't help but cheer as well.
But S5's live broadcast broke off abruptly again at that moment of rejoice. Just as viewers started bitching and threatened to file complaints, they saw the following line appear on their screen: "Live signal connecting."
The previous footage had all been delayed. What they had witnessed had happened earlier. Now that there was a live signal, who cared about taped footage?
The viewers stopped whining and stared at their screens.
Their screens flashed "successful connection" and then Kevin Lin's bloody face appeared, but this time, his grim, unsettled look was gone. Now he was emotional, ecstatic.
"Someone is here to pick us up, finally!"
The camera swung toward the entrance to the bunker. A small team of soldiers filed in. They carried out the heavily wounded while Kevin Lin and the others followed on foot.
Kevin Lin kept filming, capturing on camera the charred interior of the outpost and the bodies of several monsters. Some of the footage was too graphic, so Kevin Lin reminded viewers: "Our channel is only suitable for viewers 15 and older. Please switch channels if you're under 15. Parents, please check if any children in your household under 15 are sneaking online."
"I'm gonna track down Fang Zhao now. I wonder if he's injured," Kevin Lin said as he followed the soldiers.
He was flooded by daylight when he left the sentry post. He took a deep breath and scanned his surroundings when he saw the flying transports dispatched from the main base and the other reinforcements, then approached a soldier who looked familiar.
"Excuse me, have you seen Fang Zhao? Where is he?"
"Fang Zhao? He's over there. Someone took him to get a change of clothes," the soldier responded.
"New clothes? What for?"
Kevin Lin was about to press the soldier for details when he saw Fang Zhao disembark from a freight transport.
Fang Zhao had changed into a uniform similar to the outfit worn by the sentries and held a gun. Kevin Lin had seen Yan Biao with the same gun.
"Fang Zhao, what's this all about?" Kevin Lin asked.
"I'm heading back into the woods for cleanup. A few monsters escaped into the forest."
Before Kevin Lin could respond, he heard Bie Liao shout, "Hey, Fang Zhao! Time to go!"
Fang Zhao cut the conversation short, signaled to Kevin Lin that he was heading out, and dashed toward Bie Liao and his team.
Fresh from a hard-fought battle, the sentries still gave out a subtle killer's vibe. They met onlookers with icy stares. There were only about a dozen of them, but they projected a formidable presence.
Kevin Lin found himself stopping to admire the soldiers unconsciously. These soldiers are the real deal .
Fang Zhao didn't stand out in Bie Liao's team at all. Instead, he blended in perfectly, as if he had always been one of them.
The camera kept following Fang Zhao. Viewers could see him in uniform, boarding a flying transport with the other soldiers. The flying transport took off toward the forest. Kevin Lin stayed focused on the aircraft until it was reduced to a blip.
Shortly after that scene appeared on S5, the world-famous gaming publication Rising Dragon put out a news item about the elusive Fang Zhao.
The headline was "Virtual vs. Reality." The accompanying graphic was a combination of two pictures. To the left was Fang Zhao's avatar in "Battle of the Century," AliveAfter500Years. To the right was a screen capture of Fang Zhao standing with a few other soldiers during the live broadcast. Fang Zhao was wearing combat fatigues and carrying a firearm in both pictures, but these were two different contexts. The outfits and gun models were also different, but the subject was the same.
The backdrop on the left was the Period of Destruction some 500 years ago. The backdrop on the right was present day. One was a made-up world, the other real.
The contrast of the two contexts gave readers a big kick. It also sparked inexplicable feelings of worship among many gamers.
The brilliant juxtaposition was soon reposted by many other gaming publications.
Quite a few professional gaming clubs bemoaned the fact that Fang Zhao was in the headlines yet again. Didn't this guy retire? How come he's an overnight sensation in gaming circles again?