Ground Level

 

Part One

 

* * TAICHI * *

 

The forest is quiet.

That's your first clue.

Even on the surface, even given that most of the earth's living creatures got wiped out within weeks of it happening--things should never be this quiet.

"I think this is where I found it," Jun says.

I jump--I'd completely forgotten she was there.

"Keep your voice down," I whisper. "We don't know what's out there."

"Dude," Daisuke whispers back. "Wouldn't it be better to just mind link? We wouldn't make any noise--"

"Dai," I said patiently. "That would be using magic. And if there is loose magic around here, that would set it off. Like lighting a match in a petrol station--"

"Oh, yeah," Daisuke says.

"You know, for a little brother you sure are thick--" Jun says peevishly.

Daisuke opens his mouth to defend himself. I intervene before they can attract the attention of everything in the vicinity.

"Daisuke's idea was good--except for that one small detail he overlooked. Now, we should move carefully. Keep alert for anything that doesn't feel right."

Instinct is very important if you want to survive out here. We, the ones who are left, have got pretty good on relying on instinct. It's about the only warning you get up here . . .

The forest is pretty ordinary. I'm not even sure it can be called a forest--given that it's growing in the middle of what used to be a town. The road is cracked by numerous tree roots, and most of the buildings have trees growing out of them. Their walls could be hiding any number of things . . .

The forest itself is unusual. Seven years ago, this was a thriving metropolis, full of people, machines, tourists--now, its home to trees that look like they've been there a good fifty years at least. This is one of the most immediate changes caused by it--the landscape got warped beyond all recognition in the early days. That's why so many people died--

"Oh!" Jun said, and stopped walking.

"What's the matter?"

"This is where I found it. Only . . . "

"There's nothing here!" Daisuke sounded annoyed.

"Quiet," I told him. "It may still be around here." I turn back to Jun. "What did it look like?"

"It was just a pool on the ground. All purpley and mottled," Jun's shaking her head. "I don't get it. I mean, it can't just walk away--"

"Something must have absorbed it," I said.

"Like what--oh, gross!"

"What is it Dai-chan? Oh, ewww!" I swatted Jun to remind her to be quiet.

"It's just a skeleton. You've seen them before."

"I know--but they're usually not that fresh."

I have to agree it isn't the prettiest thing I've seen. Like someone's halfway finished meal-- "Quiet--see if you can hear anything."

Jun leans back against a tree and we stay as still as possible, listening out for anything unusual--

I know there's something not right here. The atmosphere is all wrong. No animal noises, no birds . . . and then there's that heavy oppressive silence.

It's as though we're being watched very very closely . . .

A light breeze blows my fringe into my eyes, and I bat it out of the way frowning.

The feeling of something being wrong is stronger than ever--

Wait. The breeze--it should have rustled the leaves too. Yet there was no noise--

I look up at the treetops. They're perfectly still . . . even as another breeze stirs the forest.

Why would that be? Unless . . . the trees are watching us?

I look around the clearing . . .

Now that I think of it, the trees do seem slightly closer together than they were. As I watch an oak sends a root trailing over the ground. What could they be doing unless . . . the skeleton.

"Run!" I grab Daisuke and haul him after me, jumping over the oak root and out of the circle of trees.

"Dude--what--" He doesn't have to finish his question. A large branch is suddenly in front of us and I'm unable to slow down enough to stop from tripping over it.

A root winds itself around my ankle.

Daisuke's eyes widen as more follow, breaking the surface of the ground to wrap themselves around us.

"I thought they only moved that fast with time lapse photography--"

Jun screamed.

"I think this is a bit more serious than time lapse photography, Daisuke. Get your knife out."

The roots were tough, and hard to cut through. Fortunately they weren't that fast--

"Daisuke! Taichi! Do something!"

"Jun, we kind of have our hands full," I said, slashing at the vines that were twining around my legs.

"And I don't?"

"Hey!" Daisuke sounded outraged and I looked up to see why. "You can't do that to my sister, you stupid plant!"

"I don't think plants have ears--" I said, all the while staring at Jun. Or rather where I guessed Jun was--it was kind of hard to tell, there were that many vines wrapped around her.

"Don't worry Jun! We'll get you out of there!" Daisuke had finally cut himself loose from the vines.

"Go for the bases," I told him, still working on getting myself free to help. "If you cut them off near the top they just regrow.

Even taking my attention off the vines for a moment had an effect; the vines had a strong hold on my knife hand and even as I struggled to get it loose the thick vines wound around it. I struggled ineffectually against them with my free hand but my nails did nothing against the tough vines. They tightened painfully about my arm.

"Ow!" And before I was even fully aware of it there was fire flooding all my senses. I lashed out in rage and the vines fell away before me.

"Dude!" Daisuke said, staring as I stood up.

"Step away from the vines," I said, concentrating on speaking clearly--I did not want to be misunderstood. Daisuke nodded, not taking his eyes off me as he backed away.

I turned my attention to the vines that held Jun.

This was more difficult. Rather than just hitting out at what constrained me I had to be careful of not getting Jun. The results were no less effective. Vines fell back to reveal

Jun, clothes torn and scratched.

"Jun! Are you okay?" Daisuke ran to her as she fell forward.

I had to smile. The way those two carried on, you'd think it was all they could do to be on the same world. And yet, whenever something happened to one of them, they were like any other brother and sister--

Oh God, I miss Hikari--

"I'm fine apart from my ankle--I think they broke the skin."

I concentrate on pulling my power back inside of me and when I'm sure its in check join Daisuke in peering at Jun's injured foot.

"That doesn't look good."

"A bit of broken skin, what'll that do?" Jun climbed to her feet and immediately winced.

"You can't walk like that," I said.

"If I can't walk, how will I get back? Short of getting a piggy back ride."

I looked at Jun speculatively. "You don't look that heavy--"

"Hey! And just what are you implying?"

Daisuke was snickering.

Jun and I glared at him. "What?"

"Oh nothing. It's just that Taichi giving my older sister a piggy back ride is something I never thought I'd see."

"Oh don't even try and be humorous, baka. Just run ahead and tell Izzy to make another warning sign."

"Suggest code 3," I added.

"Code 3--Carnivorous trees. Got it," Daisuke was running off immediately.

Jun hissed as I moved my weight. "Sorry. That hurts more than you were letting us know, doesn't it?

"Yes."

Jun is silent as I get her onto my back and then adjust her so I can carry her.

"It won't be long. We'll be back at camp and Sora can fix that up for you."

"Don't try and make me feel better, Taichi. We both know the risks of getting a cut around magic."

"Maybe that won't happen. After all, you weren't in contact with direct magic--just the tree."

"I think I might be allergic," Jun said, a quarter of an hour later. "My skin's itching all to pieces."

"Don't scratch it," I said. "My mother used to say that all the time to me. Whenever I fell into anything."

"Did that happen often?"

"You don't want to know how often."

A few more minutes then, "You know, I can't even imagine you having a mother and being an ordinary kid. All that doesn't seem real anymore."

"It's only been seven years," I reply.

"I know. But it seems like this has always been how it is. Us. The surface. The Magic. Living everyday as if it could be the last. You know once I was a little girl who played dress ups and dreamed of finding a handsome prince--look at me know."

"I used to think of nothing else but soccer. Then it happened--"

"What do you think actually happened?"

"I don't think anyone knew for sure. That's why they tried to cover it up. But something went wrong . . . "

I'm glad to see the next corner. Not far beyond this is the perimeter fence and then home--a five star hotel, would you believe it. We've cleaned out most of the debris and made a very nice base. The many rooms of the hotel worked to our advantage. It's like a rabbit warren, full of passages. If we're attacked we can scatter and hide, easy.

I quicken my pace. "I'm taking you straight to Sora."

Jun doesn't protest. "Taichi? Can I ask you a favour?"

"Depends. What is it?"

"Don't tell Daisuke about this, okay? Not just yet."

 

* * YAMATO * *

"What do you think sunlight feels like?"

I look up as Hikari comes in through the right hand tunnel, not even saying hello. "I donít remember," I tell her, setting down the book Iíd been pretending to read. It was something about the new things they expected to be able to do with the Machines. I didnít really have a reason to be fond of those stupid things.

Itís not exactly a picnic, depending on machines for every-day living. Itíd be awfully hard to breathe underground without them, first off. And Ė insert sarcastic tone here Ė how on earth would ordinary people survive without their reading lights? Personally, I think Iíd rather take my chances with whateverís up there on the ground level. If Taichi, Takeru, and the others survivedÖ

Thatís the thing, though. After seven years, I have no way of knowing if they did survive. Or what they survived as. The atmosphere was said to do awfully strange things to ordinary people.

I miss my little brother. I hope heís all right.

Hikari clicks on the kitchen lamp. Itís pretty cramped in our compartment, so sheíd probably do fine with the little reading light Iím using, but she looks at it for a moment and sighs. "I wonder if they even have sunlight up there. After everything thatís happenedÖ"

"Oh, they probably do." I clicked off the reading light. No need to be careless with the energy we had. No matter how much they wanted us to believe the Machines supplied boundless electricity, I couldnít Ė not with Hikari working there every day.

We depended on people for our energy supply now, if that makes sense. People got hooked up to those big junk-heaps we called the Machines, and they powered whole cities that way. It makes me feel queasy, just thinking about it. I donít know how Hikari can let them do that to her. Sheís a lot braver than I could be, thatís for sure. Maybe a lot more reckless, too. Taichi rubbed off on herÖ

Then again, I havenít seen Taichi in seven years, so how would I know that?

Hikari was literally all I had left. You died younger down here than you would if people lived above-ground when it was still safe up there. Both my parents were gone, and Hikariís had died before our brothers had been sent up to the surface. We shared a cramped little compartment, on a fairly low level Ė which was good, I suppose Ė and tried to pretend that we were really brother and sister. I couldnít turn into Taichi, and she wasnít Takeru, but we got by.

"What makes you think so?" She turns that perceptive brown-eyed gaze on me, a startling sense of Ďknowingí put behind her gaze. "For all we know, itís getting worse up there. Thereís no way of knowing."

"No one bothers to check." I snort. "For all we know, everythingís back to normal. Weíd never know it, down here. They think weíve got everything, but itís all so stupidÖ"

She studies me silently for a moment, then speaks again. "Are you still planning to go up there?"

"Soon." I say the same thing every day, but when have I ever acted on my words? Iím caught in a cycle, just like every other moron in this stupid city. And I know Iím afraid to see whatís up there, even as Iím dying to know at the same time. "I want to see how Takeruís doing. If heís still alive, that isÖ"

"Do you think theyíre still alive?" She says it as if we donít talk about this every day. Like she expects a different answer or something. Itís been years, and she still asks.

I canít give it to her, though. "I donít know. Maybe."

The first few times, she cried. Now, she nods. "When are we going?"

I sigh. "Whenever it seems like a good time."

I say that every time she asks, naturally. I think sheís started to think that it will never seem like a good time. Iíve begun to wonder about that myself, actually. I want to go and see my brother. I want to get back to being above the ground, instead of rotting away in a metal cave some thirty miles below it. But thinking about something and actually doing it are two entirely different things.

She tilts her head, and then surprises me by breaking our odd little ritual. Instead of agreeing and starting on her food, she tells me, "Yamato, we need to go before the week is up."

I look up, a little startled but mostly curious. "Why is that?"

She shrugs. "I met a girl at work today. Her name was Miyako. Do you know her?"

I shake my head. Iíve never even heard the name. But then, that doesnít mean a thing. Iíve met lots of people whose names I canít remember. "I donít think so."

"Well, she knows you. And she knows what youíre doing." Hikari sinks slowly into the seat beside mine, not looking at me. "I didnít say a word, Yamato Ė I donít know how she knows. But she does. She approached me about it today."

"So?" I raise an eyebrow. "What can she do? Itís not like theyíd actually care if we left. Thereís not enough room down here in the first place; theyíd be glad for the extra space."

"She doesnít want to stop you, Yamato," Hikari explains, halting my instinctive string of defensive arguments. "Far from it, actually."

I give her a cool look. "Then what does she want?"

Hikari sighs. "You wonít like it," she tells me.

"There are lots of things I donít like." I shrug. "I donít like these metal cages they call Ďhomesí. I donít like those Machines that use people as energy sources. And I definitely donít like how they sent both of our brothers Ė and a whole group of other children Ė back up to the surface to deal with whatever danger is up there. Now tell me."

"All right." Hikari smiles a little. "Miyako brought the subject up in private, and she had a request for you. Thereís someone that she wants us to take up to the surface when we go."

I stare at her for a second, wondering if she might be joking. The expression on her face quickly assures me that she is not. "No," I say flatly, scowling. I havenít even fully decided whether I want to go. There is no way Iím including others! Before long weíd have a whole army with us!

"Iím not certain who she wants to send with us, but she seemed fairly urgent, Yamato," Hikari tells me, a strange look on her face. She seemsÖ almost as if she thinks that this is somehow important. I know, though, that she has been changed somewhat by the illness that kept her from being sent to the surface with her brother Ė and prompted my brother to take her place.

"Urgent how?" I ask, meeting her gaze.

"WellÖ" Hikari hesitates for a moment. "She seemedÖ nervous. As if what sheís planning is something that could get her into quite a bit of trouble. Iím not really sure what it means, but I think we should at least hear her out."

I frown. "You donít think that the person she wants us to take is herself, do you? If sheís run into some kind of trouble with the lawÖ" I donít finish that, but Iím sure Hikari knows that Iíd rather not have this whole thing turn into an escape from justice for various criminals.

Hikari shakes her head, still looking thoughtful. "NoÖ I think itís bigger than that, Yamato. I donít think sheís doing this for her own safety. I think sheís risking her safety, and itís making her afraid. But she really seems desperate to have us agree."

Iím not sure I like the sound of that. I donít know this ĎMiyakoí, and Iím not certain what motivates her. She works with the Machines, so thereís no way of knowing if her interests are exclusively hers, or if they might be more theirs. For all I know, this could be some super secret government project. I donít think Iíd like to be mixed up in politics for a trip that I havenít even fully decided to undertake.

"I donít know, Hikari," I answer, still frowning. "It doesnít seem like a very good idea, including others. We could end up with a lot of company, not all of it welcome."

She shakes her head. "I donít think so, Yamato. I think this is something of a private problem. The way she actedÖ it was like she didnít want anyone else to know. But she seems pretty concerned. If it is illegal, I think itís illegal in a good way. Know what I mean?"

I sigh. "You mean some kind of holy crusade? HikariÖ"

"No, but itíd be something humane, or she wouldnít bother," Hikari retorts. "I think we should listen to her. Whatever sheís dealing with, itís probably important."

"All right." I gave in. Who could function in the face of that kind of persistence? Hikari had already made up her mind, and it'd be hard to get her to give that up. "Weíll talk to her. Why donít you try and get her to tell you exactly what she wants from us? Iím not promising anything until I know just what Iím getting into."

She gives me a soft smile, the kind that will get just about anyone to do whatever she wants. "Thank you, Yamato. I have a feeling that this is the right thing to do."

But not necessarily the smartest, I think wryly to myself. "Great."

Hikari shrugs, and smothers a yawn. Sheís tired Ė but then, she is always tired. Working with the Machines is a strain. I pretend not to see the dark circles under her eyes, but I think itís wearing on her. Thatís just one more reason to take her away from this place. I know sheís strong enough to handle it, but I donít want her to have to.

"Make sure you ask the right questions," I remind her. "I donít want this ĎMiyakoí tricking us into agreeing to more than we want to. Be careful."

She smiles again, looking up at me. "I have a better idea than that, Yamato," she replies. "How would you like it if I arranged it so that you could meet Miyako Inoue?"

 

* * KEN * *

She's staring at me again.

I push her out of my mind and concentrate instead on the minute impulses that run through my body. Each one has a different meaning--a tiny intricate language of technical detail that only I can understand . . .

It tells me everything.

The level of the air conditioning in the upper levels.

I turn it down a notch, redirecting the power to the herbarium where the latest crop of plants are being sown. The artificial light has to be exactly so.

The air filters . . .

A compartment on level two has blown. It's the same one that's been giving trouble all week--probably the propeller screw again. I alert the floor manager to the problem, with a thought.

She's still looking at me.

Annoyed now I reach out and find the console nearest to her. I'm not used to communicating directly with people not in my immediate day to day routine. I concentrate a moment before the right access code presents itself and I'm able to override the monitor.

I form the words I want to appear on the screen and send them, most of my mind still concentrating on my duties.

I do not believe staring at me is one of your prescribed tasks.

She starts, then looks around the floor. All of the other techs are busy with their work. Unobserved she raises her hands to the key board and types back.

I've been hoping you'd contact me. We need to talk.

Talk?

What on earth could--I pause, bringing up a personnel file--Inoue Miyako have to talk about with me? Ichijoji Ken, the maintainer of the city. No-one talks to me without clearance from the councillors.

You've got to listen to me. This is important. You do know just talking to you could be enough to get me relegated to the upper level.

That's true. Which makes me curious as to why she's doing this at all.

Miyako, get to the point. What is so important that you're daring to talk to me?

She's hesitates, tucking a strand of purple hair behind her ears before she types a response.

Your life.

. . .

There's an urgent summons from Coucillor Levin.

He wants a meeting of the other councillors as soon as possible. I scan through their respective schedules and pull together a time that they will all be available. Then I notify all of them.

Code 3--now that was interesting.

There hadn't been any marked instances of unrest among the upper levels lately . . .

Everything has been running according to schedule. Except of course Miss Inoue.

If you are going to continue to distract me I shall notify the room manager--

Hear me out! Please. After all, what I have to say affects you. If you call the floor manager now, you'll never know.

And that would be a bad thing?

A message from another Chancellor replying to Levin. It's encrypted. I forward it directly to the most secure connection.

The weeks requests for lower living spaces have been filed. I sort them automatically, crosschecking them against work performance records and personnel files and send them on.

All the while I'm acutely aware that Miss Inoue is sitting at the console waiting.

Damm her.

She's got me interested.

Make it short.

The tech manager is coming her way. She leans over the screen and pretends to be entering in data from a collection of forms beside her. I wait until the manager is out of the way.

Well?

There's information about the machine--the programme they haven't told you.

What is this about?

The machine--me--is all I've known my entire life. And she thinks I don't know it?

The forms require my attention--I vent my annoyance by finishing them off quickly. To tell the truth, I'm happy with people as numbers and information and in my opinion the sooner Inoue Miyako returns to being simply an entry in a data log, the better.

You're wasting my time--

Here me out! They're training someone to replace you--

Ishida Hikari. I know. She's there as a precaution in case something goes wrong.

No. She's there as the replacement for when you wear out.

What?

There appears to be an anomaly in the system. Miyako did not type what I thought she just typed . . .

I check but the words stay the same.

That's impossible.

This city needs me. The machine was built around me to my exact specifications, the shield itself depends on my, my energy, my control.

What exactly are you trying to pull, Inoue? I know the machine--

Then you know it's wearing away at your strength? You're sixteen--the rate you're going now you have a year to live.

I do not know what you intend to accomplish but it isn't working. I'm not scared by your tactics. Good day, Inoue.

I return the screen to its normal mode and turn my attention back to my tasks. Incoming data has hit a low so I direct my attention to the shield protecting the city from the polluted surface. This is the most central of my tasks . . .

All the same, I know she's still there.

Watching me.

* * DAISUKE * *

"There they are!" I bound ahead of Koushiro Ė or Izzy, thatís his nickname Ė when Taichi comes in through the front entrance carrying my sister. "I told Izzy about the signs, Tai! Are we taking Jun to see Sora now?"

Soraís our healer. Thatís because sheís got different powers than Taichi, who can attack and stuff. She can heal. Like scrapes and cuts, and even broken arms. No matter what, she can make you better. The only thing she canít do is heal bad magic in you. We lose a lot of kids that way. They donít always die, even though that happens a lot. Sometimes theyÖ change.

They usually end up attacking us then, too.

Our base right now is an old hotel. Itís not a permanent base, though. We have a whole bunch, because we canít stay in them for very long. Things change around an awful lot where we live. I donít know if itís the same with the rest of the world, because we canít travel all over it. But I know that where we are, things are always changing. It can be perfectly safe one minute, then suddenly everythingís a war-zone. Also, the things that got changed by magic donít like us much. And when they attack, we usually donít have enough people to fight them off, so we have to run. Because of that, weíve got lots of bases all over the place. When one gets too dangerous, we move to another. They never stay dangerous forever, so we can come back later on.

Right now, the hotel is pretty safe. After today, though, we might even have to move again. But you never know for sure until something attacks, or weíre in danger.

I think Iíve forgotten what itís like to not be in danger.

"Is Sora busy?" Jun asks me, as I fall in beside Taichi. "This isnít all that important, Dai. I hope you didnít bother her."

"Nope!" I grin at her. She looks a bit pale, and Iím worried, but I donít want her to know that just yet. "She wasnít doing anything. I think weíre the only ones in trouble today!"

"Thatís good to know." Taichi laughs, but he doesnít sound as pleased as he should be. "Our trouble was enough." He looks at Izzy. "I donít want anyone going near that area, so put the signs a few meters before you hit the swamp."

"Right." Izzy nods, and leaves us at the top of a worn-out staircase. The floorboards creak strangely, but Iím used to it, so it doesnít bother me. We head for the room Sora uses to heal people.

I donít know why she really needs a room, but thereís a huge flat board thatís raised off the floor in there to lie patients on, and Sora doesnít like people milling around while she works. I guess it makes sense; itíd be hard for someone who was hurt to relax if there were a bunch of kids walking around watching curiously while they got healed. I donít think Iíd like that much.

Taichi walks into Soraís room without knocking and manages to make it look like what heís doing just has to be more important than whatever he mightíve interrupted. Iíve tried to copy that, but Iím not as good at it. People usually call me rude.

Then again, what Taichiís doing usually is more important than anything else. Taichiís our leader, after all. Heís in charge of most of the important stuff.

"Letís see it," Sora says immediately, sounding professional. She was expecting them, because I told her they were coming. Taichi sets Jun down on the board so Sora can look at the cut.

"Daisuke," Sora says suddenly, looking up at me. "Can you get me a cloth? Something free of magic, please."

Cleaning a cut with something thatís got magic stuck to it is usually a bad idea. Itís worse than dirt, and if it gets in youÖ I nod, and turn to race out of the room.

Itís hard to race anywhere in our base for very long, because there are always people around. Some of them, I know really well, and some of them are just people who survive with us. Weíre not the only group of kids, so some of them are even cast-offs or deserters from other groups. Sometimes weíre more in danger of being attacked by other humans than we are of the magic and the monsters. And being one of the nicer groups means we get a lot of kids joining us. They donít get picked on with Taichi as the leader.

"Agh! Hey!" I run into something that moves. "What do you think youíre doing?"

I back off. "Oh, sorry, TB," I say in a sarcastic tone when I realize who it is. Takeru wasnít my favorite person when we first got up here, so I used to get his nickname wrong on purpose. Itís actually TK. But you wouldnít catch me calling him that.

"Where are you going in such a hurry?" Thereís no real nastiness in his voice. Living up here, you have to rely on each other just to stay alive at all, so weíre all pretty close. Of course, Iíd never actually say I think of Takeru as a friend. Heís nice enough not to make an issue of it.

"I gotta get a cloth for Sora," I explain. "Junís hurt."

"Oh." He nods, then holds out a hand. "I was going to help Iori get the younger kids cleaned up, but youíll probably need this sooner, so here." Heís holding a cloth.

"Thanks." I take it, and smile. "Catch you later, TO."

He laughs, and Iím off toward Soraís medical room again. Takeruís thoughtful and nice. I used to think I hated him because Taichi always looked out for him, more than the others Ė and more than me. I think itís because he left Hikari behind, and now Takeruís like his little brother. But I really, really wanted that position myself, so I got jealous. It was stupid, but I was just little, so I guess itís okay. I donít get jealous about it any more.

I hope Junís all right. I know how dangerous it is when you cut yourself around here. Itís like an opening into you, and if some of that bad magic gets in there, Sora canít get it out. But usually, she can heal it up before any magic gets in. Iím not as worried as I would be if that wasnít the way things went, most of the time.

" Ė might be a way to counter it," I hear Taichiís voice say, as I get near the room. I stop for a minute. Spying on people isnít nice, but I learned a long time ago that no one tells me anything important. The only way people will ever tell me whatís going on is when they donít think Iím there to hear it.

"No." Sora sighs. "Iíve done this for seven years, Tai. I would know."

"Then what?" I can hear Taichi starting to pace. "Weíve stopped this sort of thing before. Remember last year, when Mimi cut her finger on that Ė ?"

"Taichi." The tone of Soraís voice stops him. "That was different. And, if you remember, I had to take the end of her finger off to save her. How long do you think Jun could survive without that foot?"

I hear Jun laugh a little, weakly. "Iíd be dead before the day finished."

I feel cold, and put a hand over on the wall to stay standing. Iím shaking now, and my heart pounds hard. I concentrate on how loud it sounds in my ears instead of what I heard. Concentration. That is something I know how to use.

In the room, Taichi has stopped pacing. "Well, weíll have to try and think of something! Iím not going to sit back and just let this happen!" He sounds frustrated. "Itís insane!"

"Insane or not, itís what happens up here!" Sora snaps. "You think I like it any better than you do? I agree when you say that we need to keep looking for something thatíll help, but realistically, itís not likely that weíll find it."

"Sorry," Taichi mutters. "And youíre right. But I donít know how Iím going to tell Daisuke."

"Donít tell him yet," Jun says. "You promised."

"Fine. But I donít like this."

I back away from the door, dropping the cloth and hardly noticing. Then I run.

My room is on a higher level than Soraís, so I have to run up the stairs. I donít think anyone notices; someone is always running around. I donít want people to notice that somethingís wrong, especially if Taichi wants to keep Junís condition secretÖ I blink back tears. Concentrate. My first lesson on the surface. The tears stay back.

I slam the door to my room. No oneíll think thatís strange. I think theyíd be more worried if I didnít slam it. Then I cry. I fall on the bed, and bury my face in the pillow, and howl. No one can hear, because the pillow muffles it.

Weíve lost people before. I mean, some of the kids lost brothers and sisters, and cousins, and close friends. I lost people I knew, too, but never my sister. I always thoughtÖ Jun was invincible. Like Taichi, and Sora, and IzzyÖ and a whole bunch of others that I could list, people whoíd been with us from the start.

Jun and I have never been apart.

And now sheís going to die.

I howl some more.

But concentration is still my first and best lesson. Iím not doing anyone any good by crying, and you canít just do useless stuff when youíre trying to survive. So I stop after a few minutes, roll over, wipe my eyes, and try to think straight. Concentrate.

When my mindís under control, I sit up and look around the room. I know thereís nothing I have that can save Jun, but there just has to be something! Sora doesnít have anything, or sheíd have used it. Taichi doesnít have anything, or heíd have said something. So thereís nothing in the base that can help my sister.

So, I think to myself, staring at the wall in determination, Iíll just have to find something somewhere else!

But where?

Not on the baseÖ not anywhere nearÖ not where we could find itÖ Was there some place we hadnít been, or we couldnít go? MaybeÖ If there wasnít anything on the face of the earthÖ

"Then thereís something thatíll work beneath it!" I throw myself off my bed, suddenly hit by a brainstorm. They might have figured out something thatíll clear magic out of someone, down there! Theyíve got doctors and scientists, and all kinds of genius peopleÖ Iím sure they could do it!

I decide to forget that theyíd driven us away from where the entrance to their tunnels were, seven years ago. Or how theyíd done itÖ

But that doesnít matter. I need to save Jun! And if they know how to do it, then Iím perfectly willing to risk my neck to get them to tell me. Iím sure if I concentrate enough, I can keep myself safeÖ

Concentration is important for what magic I have. Iím supposed to be able to move stuff with my mind, but itís hard. Not only hard to make it happen, but hard to stop it from happening when I get angry or upset. I learned how to concentrate, and I canít ever forget it.

I usually just do stuff the normal way, though.

Hastily, I scribble out a brief note for Taichi and the others. They need to know what Iím doing. Of course, I donít actually think theyíll find it until after itís too late, but thatís why Iím actually writing it. If I thought theyíd find it soon and come after me, I wouldnít write it at all.

When Iím done with the note, I just leave. Thereís nothing I need to take with me. Not much can stop magic. The only things that can keep me safe are my feet.

Iím a real good runner now.

Nobody stops me when I leave. People walk in and out of our base all the time. I do it so often that hardly anyone cares. Theyíd probably care if they knew what I was doing, but they donít know, so I can walk out without anyone giving me a second glance.

Still, I can only feel like Iíve gotten away with it when I get out and away from the base. Then I have to think about staying safe to find a cure for Jun. It wonít help her if I get hurt or killed on the way.

Now, I can only hope that no one noticed I wasnít supposed to be leavingÖ

"Daisuke!"

Uh-oh.

I turn around and face Taichi. Not much point trying to get away. Itíd be dangerous and he runs faster than me. "Hey Tai!" I greet him, trying to act like nothingís wrong. I just hope he didnít see my noteÖ

"I saw your note," he says, as soon as heís caught up to me. I stop smiling, and he looks me straight in the eye. "You know how dangerous this is, Daisuke. What makes you think theyíll just give you the cure?"

I shake my head, fighting back tears. "I canít just sit there! Sheís my sister! If thereís a chance I can save her, I donít care. Youíd do the same for TE, donít pretend you wouldnít!"

He nods. "Thatís true. But you remember what happened seven years agoÖ"

"I donít care," I say again, stubbornly. "You might have more important things to do, fine. But sheís my sister. Iím gonna do whatever I can to save her, no matter what!"

"Okay, okay." He gives me a faint smile. "I understand what youíre doing. I donít really like how youíre doing it, but I know why. And I canít say I approve, but Iím not going to stop you."

I felt elation rushing through me, and relief. "Youíre gonna let me go?"

"Yeah." Taichi pats me on the shoulder. "But just remember one thing: theyíre dangerous. They donít like us, and if they think youíve been changed by being up here, theyíll probably like you even less. Donít let them see that youíve got any kind of powers. Okay?"

"Okay!" I agree, enthusiastically. Considering how hard it is for me to actually use my powers, I donít think thatís going to be a problem. And I can control it if I get mad.

"All right. Good luck." He gives me another pat and turns around to head back, only pausing once to say, "Be careful." Then heís gone.

Taichi never was good at good-byes.

I shrug a little, and then turn away from the base and head off into the open space again. I still have a long way to go, after all. A very long way.

 

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