Ground Level

 

Part Two

 

TAICHI

 

"Dai's done something stupid, hasn't he."

"Huh?" I blink. To be honest, I'd thought Jun was asleep. Sora had advised rest and given her a bit of that herb mixture that she and Izzy had spent ages researching, to help her sleep. She'd been so quiet.

However, she’s awake now.

And waiting for an answer.

"Uh, what makes you think that?" I stall weakly.

"Easy. He hasn't been to see me in ages . . . and then there's the way Sora's been acting, chattering away to me like a lunatic, as if she's trying to distract me, while you've been quieter than Iori." Jun levels herself up, so she’s resting on one elbow. "So spill, Taichi. What has my idiot brother done now?"

If I've learned anything over the years it's that arguing with a Motomiya is next to useless.

"He left yesterday, to go get help for you."

Jun snorts. "And where did he think he was going to get that? Unless--not back to the underground--"

"Jun," I take her hand. "He's going to be careful."

She stares at me. "He didn't--Taichi, they'll kill him--"

"Shush, calm down," I tell her. "Daisuke can take care of himself--"

"NO HE CAN'T!" I take a step back as Jun turns on me. "This is Daisuke we're talking about! My little brother!"

She looks as though she can't decide whether she wants to hurt someone or burst into tears. I decide to chance the former and put a hand round her shoulders.

"He's not as reckless as he was, and he knows the dangers."

"But even so, the underground . . . does he really think?"

"Why not? It makes sense--we don't have the skills or the answers. They might."

"They didn't have the answers seven years ago," Jun leans against my arm like she needs the comfort. "Taichi--what if--" the questions trails off. "You remember."

I do.

I would much rather I didn't.

Seven years ago.

There were hundreds, maybe a thousand of us kids. We were the parentless ones, the idle mouths that were supposedly draining the city's resources. Most of our parents had died from exposure to the magic, another reason to want us gone. We were being herded--there is no other way to put it--out across the wasteland surrounding the entrance to the city, with the city guards following us on four wheel drives, nice and safe in their climate-controlled protective suits while we walked. If we stopped or lagged behind, as many of us were starting to do, they stopped too and forced us to continue.

We'd already walked farther than most of us had walked in our lives--and on terrain that was new and hard. The sun stung our eyes, still used to the half light of the tunnels.

Everything was different. The sky so high above--the wide open space, the intense feeling of insecurity. Already a few kids had broken down sobbing. The guards had roughly forced them back to their feet and yelled at us all to keep on moving. I think I'd have been terrified--if I hadn't been worried about Takeru.

Somewhere among the rush, somewhere in the mass of pushing bodies I'd lost Takeru. He'd been trailing beside me one moment and then, when I looked back, he was gone.

I didn't know what had happened to him, whether someone had simply pushed in front and he'd lost me, or whether he'd been one of the ones that couldn't keep up and had dropped back--

I had to find him. He'd given up his whole life for Hikari, and I had to make that up to him. I also had to make it up to Yamato--

"Takeru!" There was no question about it. He had to be all right. I wouldn't let it be any other way. "Takeruuu!" Although I was getting annoyed looks from the kids around me, I yelled again. "Takeru!"

"Taichi? Taichi!"

"Daisuke?"

He was an old neighbor of ours, from back when we still had parents. I pushed over to him.

"You all right?"

That hadn't been what I'd intended to say, but something about him had made me pause, my flippant greeting unsaid.

"I've lost Jun!" Daisuke blurted. "They separated us and now I can't find her and no-one here knows where she's gone and I can't find anyone I know--"

"It's okay." On closer inspection those dirt smudges on his cheeks look a lot like tear stains--"Hey!" I get jostled hard from behind.

"Keep moving!"

"Come on, Daisuke. Sooner or later we'll have to stop for a break and then we'll find your sister," I pulled him after me. "In the meantime, stick close to me and I won't let anything happen to you. Okay?"

"But what if she's not all right?" Daisuke said, hand tightly fixed to my sleeve.

I laugh. "Your sister? Nah, Jun can take care of herself. Remember that time we were playing soccer in the service tunnels and she fell and tore her favorite shirt?"

"She says you pushed her," Daisuke said but he's sounding a bit happier.

"Pushed her? I was on the other side of the field! But that didn't stop her giving Yamato and me hell for weeks--"

I don't know what else I said as I continued to push through the moving crowd. I think it worked. Daisuke looked a bit more confident, although he didn't let go of me one inch.

"Okay, we'll take a break here!"

The guards stopped their vehicles and talked among themselves. Most of the people around me just sat down where they were. I would have liked to have joined them--my feet were ready to drop off!--but with most people sitting down, now was the perfect time to find--

"Takeru!"

"Taichi!"

If Takeru is surprised when I pull him into a hug, he doesn't show it. "Don't ever wander off like that again, you got it? I was worried sick!"

"I'm sorry," Takeru apologizes immediately. "This big kid pushed in front of me and I couldn't see you anymore."

"That's okay," I ruffle his hair. "Just mind you keep close to me." That reminds me of Daisuke, still hovering at my side. "You remember Daisuke, don't you Takeru?"

"Yes," Takeru smiles. "Hi Daisuke."

"Hi."

I look at them. They're no more than nine, both of them. They must be exhausted. "Why don't we take a break now, and look for Jun later, Daisuke? No use in getting tired out--besides, she might even be looking for you."

Daisuke nods slowly. "I guess."

"It's so quiet out here," Takeru says suddenly.

"Quiet?" Daisuke and I look at him as if he's gone nuts. There are kids crying and talking and shouting all over the place--

"Well you know," Takeru shrugs. "There's no machine noises."

He's right--I hadn't even realized it before but it's been missing all along. "Well that suits me! Now I won't have to try to sleep over top of it at night!"

"I guess--" Takeru doesn't sound convinced.

"Oh come on, Takeru, who knows what living without machines is like? You might like it."

"Without machines?" Daisuke sounds worried.

Way to go, Taichi, they'd probably never even thought of that.

"Yeah. Like . . . camping."

"Camping?"

"I was four when it happened and we had to go underground. Before we did though my parents took us camping. We built a fire and slept in tents and it was fun!"

"Line up and we'll give you a drink!"

"Hey, you two to stay here and rest. I'll bring you back a drink."

The line's quite long but I get in fast. The guard lets me take two cups when I explain I'm getting them for a friend.

"Thanks Tai!"

"Yeah, thanks Taichi."

"No problem," I pat Takeru's head again, then rejoin the queue.

This time though I'm out of luck. The guard remembers me from before and refuses to give me a drink. Nothing I say does any good and in the end another guard just comes and lifts me bodily out of the way and dumps me several meters away.

I get up, scowling at the guard's back. Honestly, does it hurt them to give out water? On the bright side neither Takeru or Daisuke saw that so maybe--

"Excuse me," I blink at a short red headed kid who has placed himself in front of me. "I couldn't help but notice what happened before. It's highly unfair that you should be disadvantaged for taking care of your friends so--" I blink again as he pulls out a canteen. "Would you like to share my water?"

He doesn't need to ask twice.

"Thanks a lot," I tell him, when I return it. "How did you get that?"

He shrugs. "It struck me as the sort of object it would be fortuitous to have on the surface. I brought quite a few useful things with me."

"Yeah, me too. I didn't expect this though," I look around at our group--we look like bedraggled refugees. "I should get back to Takeru and Daisuke."

"Yes, you probably should. It was nice meeting you, uh--?"

"Taichi. Yagami Taichi."

"Delighted to meet you. Izumi Koushiro."

"Uh--you don't want to join us, do you?" I ask, impulsively.

"It would probably be advantageous to all," he replies. "I feel that if we intend to survive, close networking will be vital."

"So I should take that as a yes?"

Takeru and Daisuke welcome Koushiro readily. Daisuke's disappointed that there is still no sign of Jun but Koushiro's comment that he's almost certain he saw a girl of Jun's description waiting in line for the water makes him happier.

"What do you think's going to happen to us?" Takeru asks.

"At some point the guards will probably just leave us and then we'll be on our own. Well, with whatever creatures the surface is home to--"

"Let's not think about that one until we have to, huh?"

"Hey," Daisuke says suddenly. "What's that kid doing?"

A boy a bit older than me had been working his way surreptitiously past the guards. He was now quite clearly heading towards the city.

"I do not approve of his choice of actions," Koushiro said. "I'm sure there's no chance of his being allowed back in the city."

"What do you mean?"

"Well the surface is polluted, right? Now that we'be been out here, we're polluted too so there's no way they'll want us back--"

"We could sneak in--" Daisuke's standing up--he's not going to try it--

"Don't," Takeru says. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

"I think the guards have seen him."

I stand too. Koushiro's right--the guards are going into a huddle. "Do you think we should warn him?"

"If we're wrong and the guards haven't seen him--"

The guards interrupt then.

"Right you lot, pay attention. This is the end of the road. From here on in, you're on your own. Don't expect any help from the city because you won't get it. And if you come back—" He's got a gun, and it's aimed at the kid--

He's not going to--he wouldn't--and then I realize he is.

I grab Daisuke and Takeru by their shoulders and spin them around, sort of pulling them towards me as I do so they end up with their faces in my shirt, and I'm holding onto them as if I can protect them from this and there's this enormous noise and he staggers and falls . . .

He doesn't get up again.

Someone screamed, and quite a few people are crying now--

The guard turns back to us. "Keep moving. You can stop when it gets dark, but if you try to come back--"

"What do we do?"

"We keep moving," I tell Takeru with gritted teeth.

Honestly, that kid didn't deserve that--none of us deserve that--

"What happened?" Daisuke asks, hesitating.

I pull him after me. "Don't look back."

"A capital suggestion," Koushiro doesn't sound so good. I look at him and he's pale--

"My hat!" Takeru yelps as his hat goes tumbling off his head and flies back towards the guards.

"Come back! Takeru--" I take off after him. The guard has his gun trained on him—"Takeru!" I pull him out of the way.

"He was just trying to get his hat!" I tell the guard. "He wasn't doing anything!"

"No one goes past this line," the guard said.

"But my hat--" Takeru protests. "Yamato gave it to me--its special!"

"Please?" I add. "It's a present from his brother--it's very important to him--"

"Oh fine." The guard puts down his gun. "But only the little one can go past."

"I'll wait right here, Takeru," I call. The guard and I give each other looks then turn away.

A brown haired girl is trying to argue with one of the guards. "But you don't understand! I do have parents! I'm not meant to be here, this is all a mistake!"

"Sure," the guards are not exactly sympathetic.

"But you must listen to me! I demand to be taken back to the base--"

I see the guards exchanging looks. "Bout time for another example?"

"You said it."

Oh no.

"Hey, there you are!" I grab a hold of the girls hand. "I've been looking all over for you! Now why don't you come and join the others--" I tug her away from the guards.

"Hey! I'm trying to have a conversation here--"

"It's going to be an extremely short conversation unless we go now--" I say, still tugging at her arm.

"Hey, Taichi! I found my hat!"

"That's great, Takeru--can you grab her other hand?"

"Hey!" the girls squeals as we succeed in dragging her after us. "Let me go!"

We release her as we reach Koushiro and Daisuke.

"Just what were you doing?" she demanded.

"What do you think? Saving your life!"

"My life was fine until this happened! I'm trying to go home and you--"

"Mimi?" Koushiro said faintly. "Tachikawa Mimi?"

"Huh?" Mimi blinked. "Oh, hi Koushiro. You're here too?"

"But why would you be here?" Koushiro wonders. "Your parents are fine."

"I know," Mimi nods. "And I was trying to explain that to the guards until this moron here--" she glared at me--"Interrupted."

"The guard was about to make another example out of her." I explained. "So I thought I'd do her a favor and save her life--of course, if I'd known she was going to be this whiney I wouldn't have bothered--"

Thwap.

I put a hand up to my stinging cheek. Mimi folded her arms.

"I'm not whining."

"Be that as it may, I'm afraid Tai was probably right. The guards won't let you back to the city now Mimi, no matter how many parents you have."

"What do you mean?"

"If you're out here, you're polluted, see? You can't go home, simple as that." Daisuke informed her.

Mimi gaped at us then burst into tears.

"I want my mother and father! I want my air-conditioning!"

"Hush," Koushiro told her. "You'll be all right."

"We'd better get moving again," I told the others. We did so. I tried to distract Takeru and Daisuke from what had happened and let Koushiro comfort Mimi. For one, it seemed to make him feel better. Two, I wasn't about to risk another slap like that. She could really hit.

After another hour a lot of people stopped walking. There seemed to be a debate about what to do next. Some thought we should keep walking until night like the guards said, some that it wouldn't matter what we did. We sat and watched two older boys who seemed to be contending for leadership of our group push each other around.

"What do you think we should do, Taichi?"

I chewed my lip. "I'm not sure. I think we should just wait till we know what we're up against--"

"Excuse me," a girl with light ginger colored hair said. "I'm looking for someone for a friend of mine. His name's Daisuke--"

"Motomiya?" Daisuke jumped up. "Are you looking for me?"

In answer the girl turned around and yelled. "Jun! I found him!"

"Daisuke!" Jun grabbed Daisuke in something between a hug and a strangle--"How dare you go off and scare me like that--"

"You were the one who went off, not me!" Daisuke protested. "Let go!"

"But anything could have happened--" Jun looked as if she wasn't going to give up on this.

"But it didn't! I was with Taichi--"Daisuke proclaimed as if that made everything all right.

"Listen you--" Jun launched right off into a lecture. Takeru and I snickered until the girl who was with Jun poked me.

"That was nice of you, taking care of Daisuke like that. He could have got really scared by himself."

"Yeah, well, he's a friend."

"My name's Sora. Do you mind if I hang around? I don't know anyone else here."

"That's fine by me," I said. "How do you others feel?"

"We could always use another sensible person," Koushiro said.

"I like her," Takeru nodded.

"Mimi?" I asked. "After all, you're in this too."

She blinked, wiping back tears. "Really?"

"As long as you don't plan on slapping me again."

"As long as you don't plan on calling me whiney," she said with the first smile I'd seen from her.

"Daisuke, Jun? You in?"

They broke off arguing.

"Of course we're in," Daisuke said.

"Then it's settled. No matter what happens from now on, we stick together, and we look after each other. Deal?"

The six of them answered unanimously. "Deal.'

 

"We survived," I tell Jun. "Remember that? We learnt how and we survived. Daisuke will be fine."

"You need to sleep," Sora says. "Give my herbal remedies a chance to work."

Jun smiles weakly, knowing as we do that there's not much Sora's herbs can do than merely delay the inevitable, but lies back down.

"See you, Tai."

"You too."

Tai, Sora uses the mind to mind contact that was a byproduct of our powers. She must have something important that Jun can't hear, to be using it at all--Yeah?

Next time you come to visit Jun, try not to touch her okay?

I swallow . . . if she's that bad--How long do you think?

A week, maybe ten days. Unless Daisuke gets back in time.

And the chances of him returning at all are slim.

 

 

YAMATO

"This way."

I follow obediently after Hikari, down a side tunnel. I have to duck to get through it, and I suspect that it isn’t used often. I still don’t know where we’re going. Hikari spoke with Miyako, and then came back to lead me down a twist of metal caverns that seem to go nowhere. For all I know, we’re going to this ‘Miyako’ person’s personal compartment. Hikari was adamant in her refusal to tell me where, exactly, we were going.

I can’t help being curious, though. And suspicious.

"Down here." She leads me into a downward sloping cave that goes to the right. It feels almost like walking in circles, or maybe spirals – we are going down, after all.

Then we reach another left turn, and we’re twisting about again.

I gave up trying to follow the many turns and tunnels a long time ago. I think that I’m supposed to be confused – that might even be the purpose of the complicated path we’re taking. Hikari – and, I’m almost positive, Miyako as well – does not want me to know exactly where I am. I’m starting to wonder if it’s even a part of the city. It might be a separate area that can only be reached through all of this twisting and turning around underground. That would explain the hours we’ve already spent in the steel tunnels. I wouldn’t be so irritated if I actually believed that was the reason. No, they’re trying to confuse me, I’m positive. I would have preferred a blindfold; this is a waste of time.

"We’re almost there," Hikari tells me softly. I think she can sense my irritation, but she obviously isn’t going to give me a short cut. She’s already decided that Miyako’s cause is worth undertaking, if she’s gone to all this trouble.

Inwardly, I sigh. Great.

After a moment more of walking, Hikari stops and turns to the right, where a small panel of keys is built into the cold grey wall of the tunnel. My foster sister enters a rapid series of code, fingers flickering expertly as she types. Then she stops and waits patiently. A few seconds later, a section of the tunnel breaks smoothly into a door.

I’m not surprised. Then again, this is common enough with private or restricted areas.

The room we enter is definitely not a private home. I discard that idea as soon as I take in the tiny single-room compartment. There is a small computer sitting on the desk, and various pieces of office equipment are set up neatly around the room. However, I notice one thing that belies the appearance of a simple office: there is another panel of keys at one side of the room – an entrance or exit into another room.

This Miyako person is obviously not someone working independently.

I start to wonder again where exactly we are.

There is a young woman of about Hikari’s age – or perhaps a year older – sitting at the desk. She turns when we enter, and stands to greet us. "You must be Yamato," she says to me, straight away. There are large glasses on her face, and her hair hangs in limp purple strands. Her face is attractive, though, and she’s slim and nicely shaped, despite the unflattering uniform she wears. "I’m Miyako."

I just nod.

She sighs. "I’ll get right to the point, Yamato." She pushes up her glasses and stares at me seriously. "I’m asking you to do something that would get both of us punished if it were discovered. Seriously punished."

I raise an eyebrow. That was… forward.

"But it’s worth the risk," she continues, obviously seeing the apprehension I’m trying so hard to keep off of my face. "It means saving a life. And I don’t know about you…" She gives me a wry smile. "… but it is certainly important to me."

Out of the corner of my eyes, I see Hikari nodding.

"You’re going to have to leave sooner or later, at any rate," she tells me, shrugging. "Or, Hikari is. Unless she wants to die. If you wait a few months, someone else will already be dead, and then it’ll be her turn."

"You’ve got my attention," I tell her. No need to add that the thought of Hikari being killed – or even being in danger of being killed – chills me right to the core. She’s all I have left of my brother… and she’s like a sister to me.

That’s clenched it. If what Miyako says is true, I am definitely leaving. And Hikari is coming with me. No more questions about it. The only thing left to decide is whether I really need to take this extra person along.

All of this, of course, depends on whether or not Miyako is trustworthy.

"You’re wondering if I can be trusted, aren’t you?" she asks me. Her gaze is sharp, behind the glasses. She is dangerously intelligent, I can tell. I’m going to have to be cautious if I don’t want her to trick me into something.

"Wouldn’t you?" I answer, raising an eyebrow again.

She smiles. "I might. It depends on what you would be asking me about. But I do have facts to back me up. If you’ll just take a look at these…" She pulls a few sheets of paper out from a drawer beneath her desk, then holds them out toward me. "Here."

I look over the sheets briefly, scanning rather than actually reading them. The text is a confidential report from the Mother Computer that runs our city. It’s a full description of the ‘untimely’ death of one Ichijouji Osamu, a former government worker. His job, it appears, was very similar to the one Hikari is being trained for.

I look up before reading further. "This person is already dead, Miyako. What does this have to do with whoever you want us to take to the…?"

"Keep reading," she interrupts me. "And try to remember what it says. I’m going to have to burn those when you’re finished with them, so don’t let any of it slip by you. And trust me, it is important."

I look over at Hikari, who nods. "All right," I sigh. "Fine."

The rest of the report was a description of this ‘Osamu’ person’s death. I start to understand why the file was confidential as I read it, and I wonder how Miyako managed to get her hands on it. Hacking the system, maybe. I won’t doubt that she’s intelligent enough.

Apparently, Osamu was an orphan in the care of the government. His job had been to power the Machine for our whole city – enough so that he was the Machine. He’d started on the task approximately a year before the decision was made to move all of our cities down below the surface of the earth – getting everything ready, apparently. The job he was given should have been one that twenty or more people handled together – for safety’s sake. Apparently – and this made me angry – the government talked it over before people were actually moved into the underground cities permanently, and felt that it was more efficient for one person to take on the responsibility until he or she burned out.

And that was exactly what happened to Ichijouji Osamu. Burned out. At age thirteen, he died of a heart failure.

Caused by being hooked up to a Machine since he was about four years old.

I crumple the paper in my hands. Christ, people are just getting more and more stupid! He was a kid! He was younger than Hikari! What the hell is our government system on, anyway?

"Great," I say to Miyako in a tightly controlled voice, handing back the papers. "Now that I’m completely pissed off with humankind in general, mind telling me what the hell your point was?"

Okay, so it was rude. I’m not exactly in a pretty mood after reading that. People are such bloody idiots! What the hell had they been thinking? Didn’t they know that that would happen? What kind of morons do we have running our city?

"The point," Miyako tells me simply, "is that they haven’t changed that plan just because of Osamu’s death."

I take back what I just said. People are not bloody idiots. They are bloody disgusting idiots!

"I’ve calculated exactly how long it took Osamu’s energy to wear out under the strain of the Machine," Miyako says, in a flat, practical tone of voice. "He was in need of serious medical help after eight years, six months, and eleven days. I haven’t been able to pinpoint the hour, but I’m relying on data that’s ten years old, and it’s difficult to obtain in the first place. The burn-out occurred twelve days later. However, they realized that there would be a burn-out after one year, two months, and six days. At that point, however, they had already hooked his replacement into a different sort of machine, for training."

"His replacement?" I glance at Miyako sharply.

"Yes." She nods. "They weren’t sure at that point whether it was more useful to have someone who had actually lived before being hooked up to the Machine, or someone who had been trained from a very young age to be the Machine. Osamu was their guinea pig the first time."

"And who was the second?" I ask. By this point, I’m fairly certain I have a good idea of who it is that she wants me to take along. I have a feeling I’m going to have to agree, too.

"I’m getting to that," she answers, and then resumes her explanation. "The training machine was designed to react – to its operator, anyway – exactly the way the real Machine would. The difference was that the training machine had no harmful effects on the human hooked into it – and, of course, it didn’t do anything useful. Osamu’s replacement was hooked into the real Machine immediately after the original power source died. No difference was noted by the new subject – who wasn’t informed of the switch – and everything continued as usual."

"And now… what?" I think I know what’s coming, but I give her the chance to tell me.

"And now it’s been seven years, six months, and fifteen days since then," Miyako says. "That’s why Hikari is being trained. She’s the new replacement, and she’ll take over the job in a year, when the current power source burns out just like Osamu did. Unless you take her away, where they can’t get to her."

I nod. "But that’s not all, is it?"

Miyako shakes her head. "No… but you have to know by now what I’m going to ask you, Yamato. The Machine is currently being powered by Ichijouji Ken – Osamu’s younger brother. He’s sixteen years old, and he’s been hooked up to some form of machine for fifteen of those years." She looks me straight in the eyes, her gaze intense and deadly serious. "You might think I’m being too emotional, Mister Ishida, but I do not want him to die. He’s had one year of freedom, and can’t even remember it. As long as it’s possible for me to give him more, I’m going to try."

I nod. "All right. Why?"

She seems to expect the question. "Because I like to think that human nature isn’t as cruel as they are making it seem to be. I want to think I’m better than that, but if I know about this and do nothing, then I’m just as hateful."

"Good enough." I give her a brief, humorless smile. "I’d look pretty bad if I refused now, wouldn’t I? Anyway, I’m willing to take on your crusade for a better humankind. Since I have to take Hikari anyway, it’d be pretty cruel to leave this ‘Ken’ behind, wouldn’t it?"

She returns the smile. "Thank you."

I shrug. "It’s nothing. Besides, if we have your help, we can get safety suits from you to protect us from the atmosphere."

Now it’s her turn to raise an eyebrow. "Are you planning on returning?"

"No," I admit. "Not really. But I’d rather not turn into some kind of mutant. If it’s safe, we’ll take them off later on."

"That’s a good idea," she agrees. "I’ve completed a device that should be sufficient to replace Ken for a few days. They won’t know that he’s gone until then, so if you can make it to the surface and as far away from the entrance as possible before then, it would be best."

"I’ll remember that."

She hesitates for a moment, then looks from me to Hikari, and back again. "Would you like to meet up with Ken Ichijouji right now?"

I exchange a brief glance with my foster sister, then let out a long breath. "Sure."

 

KEN

If there's one part of my work I take pride in above all else, it’s the shield, generated by a combination of machine and magical powers, that keeps this colony safe. In all the time I've been in charge of monitoring its performance, it hasn't so much as flickered. No one could do a better job than me--which is why I've been able to dismiss Inoue's remarks.

She's obviously making it up--I'm that important to the safety of this city, no risks would be taken with me. I've got the best security around me--the actual me--night and day. Which makes the fact she was able to talk to me at all slightly worrying.

I checked her records though, and she's a dedicated technician, with nothing against her apart from a slight tendency to question superiors. After much deliberation I decide not to pass the matter onto the councilors. I don't want them to think I'm easily panicked by a breakdown of routine.

I'm sure Inoue got the message that her tricks won't work on me, and that she'll give up. If she doesn't . . .

I'm scanning the shield's generators again for abnormalities, when a message interrupts me.

That itself is unusual.

Although the message is marked low priority, the only ones who even know how to contact me are the councilors, and the technicians immediately in charge of my life-control systems.

And, I learn, as I process the message, Ishida Hikari.

The message, much like Hikari herself, is economical and practical.

Ichijoji-san,

I do not wish to disturb you but if it is possible, I would like to communicate with you. Monitor 24, the tech support room 12.

Ishida Hikari.

Well although unusual, that shouldn't be any inconvenience.

I finish process of the main shield, then open the port.

Hikari.

Hello Ken-san. Thanks for replying.

Hikari still clings to the human courtesies. I see them as an incomprehensible waste of time. If a job has to be done, it should be done, no buts, ifs, or thank-yous. She still has a lot to learn.

Is there a problem?

Yes, one I require your assistance with.

There is a slight hesitation before she types the next words. I open the links to the back-up shield and begin processing that, wondering why Hikari would hesitate. She is not given to acting on impulse, otherwise she would not have been chosen as my back-up, even despite her fortuitous personal circumstances.

When her answer comes I am surprised.

My brother is uncertain about allowing me to continue in the programme. I would like him to meet you, in order that he may be able to see what the result of my training will be and withdraw his objections.

That is illogical, I reply. After all, your brother is not your actual brother and has power of guardianship over you only in name. If the Council so wished, they could override any objection he made with no opposition.

It was no circle inside the ring of techs and med staff connected with the machine programme that a great deal of Hikari's appeal as a candidate had been the fact that she was without relatives. One of the orphaned children proscribed for the surface, she'd somehow eluded deportation. Her records had not stood up to prolonged examination by the council in the course of her selection for the program. However, rather than summarily deport her, the council had decided to waive certain codes--expecting a certain amount of gratitude. The exchange had been successful so far. Hikari, till now, had been the perfect candidate.

Even so Ken-san, Hikari replies with evenly typed response. I would like very much for Yamato to withdraw his objection.

I'd previously considered Hikari one of the more pragmatic members of the city. This sudden display of unaccountable emotion was most disquieting.

It would have no significant result.

It would make Yamato happier to know I was in good hands, and it would make me happier to know he was happy.

That did have a kind of sense, even if it was based on emotion. Certainly Hikari would be able to function more efficiently without the worry of her brothers disapproval hanging over her.

In that case I will obtain clearance for you to bring him to techs room 01.

Thank-you, Ken-san.

I close the port and open another one, this time to the manager of security instructing him that Hikari Ishida and a visitor are cleared to visit me.

That done I settle back to wait. To be honest, I'm curious to see what sort of person Ishida Yamato is. He must be important to Hikari for his approval to matter so much to her. Although I've dismissed all emotional bonds as constraining and depleting of energy, she insisted on returning home every night to share meals with him, something that has slowed her process in adapting to her suit. Why then?

I have a free minute in between data transfers to satisfy my curiosity some. Yamato's profile is that of many of the new adult members of our city, born on the surface, but raised underground. Like many of the ones old enough to remember the surface, he has adapted to underground life with a fair degree of success. He holds two positions, kitchen staff on tech level 5 4 days a week, and a radio operator for the other 3 in tech room 7, level 5, in all probability a result of his father's skill in that area. A lack lustre record, he is reported to be cynical and independent.

He's also nineteen.

That would be Osamu's age, if . . .

If.

Ken-san, your visitors are here.

Acknowledged. Allow them to proceed.

I sigh, and key in the command for my visor to be detached, shutting down all but the essential parts of the program as I do so. Flicking the last switches I slide back the protective shield that separates me from the rest of the room.

The light rips through my head. I wince, putting a hand up to protect myself.

Damm the techs. I've told them the lights needed to be dimmed--they're giving me headaches more and more lately--

"Ken-san."

It takes me a moment to register the greeting.

"Hikari." Her brother stands behind her, looking at me with an expression of--what, I'm not sure. "And this must be Yamato."

"Yes. I'm pleased to meet you." He stretches his hand out.

Hikari gently pushes his hand away. "Ken-san considers this type of formality unnecessary."

"It impedes efficiency," I state.

"And Ken is nothing if not efficient."

I haven't heard the voice before, but there is something in the tone that allows me to recognize Inoue Miyako before I turn around. "Something other people could learn much from. Have you come to waste more of my time?"

Her eyes flash. "I've come to save your life."

I scan the room quickly. Darn, no techs--it must be late.

"Your scare tactics were useless before Inoue--"

"You didn't hear me out, Ichijoji. I have facts--"

"Which I am not interested in. I know the machine inside and out--I've been in it my entire life. There is nothing you can tell me about it that I don't know." I turn back to Hikari and Yamato who have been silent, during this exchange.

"I apologize for Miss Inoue. I'm not sure what she is trying to accomplish but she will be removed shortly."

"Actually, Ken-san," Hikari states softly. "We're here at Miyako's request."

I stare at her, my summons to the floor security manager unfinished. A mistake.

I yelp as under my touch the contact link goes down.

"What did you just do?"

"Closed the port. I don't want anyone to interrupt this little chat," Miyako says, hands moving fluently over her keyboard. "I've studied the machine for years, Ken. I've taken down all your communication abilities--trust me, I'm good at this. Any attempt you make to override me, I can stop."

Oh yeah?

I subtly turn my attention to rerouting a few of my data channels.

"And the point of all this is?"

"Saving your life," Miyako repeats.

"I thank-you for the kind thought," I say. "But it is unnecessary--I am perfectly satisfied with my current situation."

"For now you are," Miyako says. "But what happens when your strength wears out? You are already feeling the effects of prolonged exposure to the machine. You need more hours rest than you used to, you complain of increasing headaches--"

"That is the techs fault. If they'd just reduce the wattage of the lightbulbs like I'd asked them too--"

Yamato blinks. "But these lights are dimmed--"

"Got it!" Hikari says suddenly. She’s at one of the techs computers. "He bypassed the normal communications links, just like you said he would."

"Good. So you've blocked his messages?"

"Blocked and deleted."

I clench my fists.

--They've out maneuvered me.

"What are you doing?"

"What is necessary to save your life." Miyako starts loading things out of her backpack. "Yamato, there is some parts in that cupboard there. Bring me them."

I watch sullenly as she starts to assemble something. Hikari knows the machine--she could stop anything I try to do from within the system. Instead I look at Miyako's construction. A kind of generating device with a projector built in, and some sort of communication uplink--

"It'll never work. The techs see me everyday. They'll notice at once that I'm gone."

"Give me a little credit, Ken-san. I've been working in this room the last year. I think I know how to build a hologram that will accurately mimic your appearance long enough for this little baby to do its work." Miyako pats the now assembled machine proudly. "You're going to thank me for this one day, Ken."

"Somehow I sincerely doubt it," I tell her. I have a bad feeling about this.

"Miyako--you're not intending that we use this now?" Yamato sounds uncertain.

"It's the only way, brother dearest," Hikari says, flicking switches with a vengeance. "We have to act quickly--you know there's no other choice. We can't keep Ken out of communication for long without people noticing--"

"What about getting Ken out of here? He doesn't exactly sound as if he wants to co-operate--"

"He's getting out of here, if he has to be carried," Miyako says in a matter of fact tone.

"Carried," I said, my tone making it clear that was the only way, I'd be leaving this room. "Don't you think will be just a tad obvious, Miyako?"

"Not if there's a power failure in section 15," Miayko smiles.

"But there's still so much we need--" Yamato protests.

"I have the suits and everything you'll need stowed near the surface. Detention ward 3. Here's the access card to the block, this code here will allow you to override any door code, but of course you'll only need the one door. Cell a9."

Yamato looks at her. You can see the hesitation on his face--

"Yamato?" Hikari rises and takes his hand. "What do you think? I won't go without you--"

"It's just happening so fast," Yamato shakes his head. "I guess there's no turning back."

"Not if you want to escape charges," Miyako adds cheerfully.

Yamato doesn't seem to have heard her.

"Taichi wouldn't have hesitated."

That makes no sense to me but Hikari seems to understand, squeezing his hand tightly.

"Miyako, we're ready to go."

"Wonderful. Give me a second to make the transfer."

"If I can interrupt for just a moment," I snap--I really do not like the way this is going at all. "I am not ready to go, and I'm not going to, and even if the lights are off, I doubt people are going to not notice you carry me screaming through sector 16--"

"Then we'll just have to stop you from screaming," Hikari says with a sweet smile. I have an instant of fore-boding before I realise she's instructed my life support system to inject me with a plethora of sleeping drugs.

"You are all going to pay for this--" I say, as the drugs override my system completely. Thelast words I hear before I blackout completely are Yamato's.

"He really doesn't sound happy about this."

 

DAISUKE

It’s getting dark.

I rise up a little from my low crouch, in the bushes. They won’t be able to see me as well in the dark, and if I stick to the shadows, I’ll be an almost impossible target to hit. They won’t want to waste their bullets, not if I’m staying back and not trying to duck past into the gateway.

When I first made it back to the entrance area, I was so relieved I got really stupid. I mean, really. I actually started running forward! Luckily, I didn’t get that close, because the guards reminded me why kids don’t go near that area any more – by shooting at me. I ducked into the forest, and they kept their guns pointed that way, not even letting me get close enough to talk.

I’ve been waiting for night time so I can go try to ask for help.

I pass time by watching the guards. They talk and laugh, like what’s happening up here is some weird joke that only they can find funny. I wonder how funny they’d find it after facing a mutated bear on a rampage. That thought makes me smile, a little. I take a look at their clothes, grey contamination suits, boots, and helmets – all stuff that keeps them from being polluted by the atmosphere. It’s a funny name for them, contamination suits. Like the suits are contaminated. They should call them anti-contamination suits; that seems like it’d make more sense.

But I’m just a stupid surface kid, so what do I know?

I think it’s dark enough to sneak out… Moving slow, I slip out of the bushes and slowly approach. It’s all concentration, again. Concentrate on my movements, concentrate on my footsteps… Always concentrate. It’s super important, and I’ve never forgotten. Not after the first time…

"Is it safe to come back?" I peered into our old base, looking for any of the weird monsters that had attacked it the last time we were staying there. The place was quiet, though. "Is there magic left over?"

Beside me, Izzy shook his head. "It wouldn’t make any sort of difference if there were," he answered, a wry grin on his face. "We’ve already undergone some rather significant changes. I believe that this is as far as we can go unless it gets beneath our skin."

"Whatever you said, dude." I scratched my head, not really understanding many of the words he used, but getting the basic meaning. "You’re the genius."

Taichi figured out some time ago that we had been changed from being out in the atmosphere of the surface. For one thing, we could all talk mind-to-mind if we tried. And for another, we got weird powers. Taichi could burn stuff, and Sora could heal things. Koushiro could use lightening, and Jun could walk through anything that wasn’t alive. Mimi could tell when things were moving, even from far away, and Takeru could make plants grow faster. Up until then, they were the only ones who had powers.

"Don’t be dumb, squirt!" Jun said, ruffling my hair as she marched past me. "There’s nothing here!"

"Wait, Jun!" Taichi suddenly jumped forward. "We don’t know if – "

We knew a second later, because one of the mutated rabbits that had driven us out earlier jumped out at my sister, landing on the upper half of her body with a growl and knocking her to the ground. She screamed, then shut her mouth as fast as she could. It wasn’t a good idea to offer things with bad magic a chance like that.

"Jun!" I tried to run forward, but Takeru held me back.

"Don’t, Daisuke!" he told me. "You could get attacked too!"

"I don’t care!" I ripped out of his grip and tried again to run forward. That time Taichi stopped me. "That’s my sister! Let go!"

Jun was fighting back with her knife, teeth clenched tight to keep from screaming. The thing grabbed her hair and pulled hard, and she let out a little ‘mmph’ of pain, eyes tearing.

"Get off her, you creep!" I yelled, struggling with Taichi. My thoughts were swimming ’round and ’round…I couldn’t even think straight any more, I was angry and afraid and all that kept going through my mind, over and over, was: get it off her, get it off her…!

The sticks I’d been carrying for firewood – which I’d dropped – suddenly jerked to life, started moving. I was so angry… I couldn’t think straight, and didn’t want to. Get it off herget it offget it off…Taichi yelled as he got pelted with sticks and rocks and other loose objects. He was trying to shield me even though I wasn’t moving and yelling something at the others about getting down. I was too mad and too confused to care.

My mind spun around and did flips and twirls. I heard yelling and screaming, and I just stood there. There were black spots in front of my eyes, and my head felt light.

The creature that had been fighting with Jun let out a shriek, of fear and pain, and leaped off of her, crashing through one of the already-broken windows and running off at top speed. I watched it go, feeling really, really tired all of a sudden…

Then I fell down.

After that, I learned to concentrate.

The guards don’t even notice me coming. That’s a great way to get in a lot of trouble up here. You always have to know when something’s getting closer. Anyone in our group would’ve known I was coming before I got within a mile of them.

My heart’s beating hard; I’m scared. I don’t want to die. I’ve lived through monster attacks and real bad magic storms. If I’m going to die, I want it to be when all my friends are around and I’ve fought as long as I possibly can. I don’t want to be shot out here where no one will even know and I’ll turn into a lonely skeleton while wild mutant creatures eat the flesh off my bones.

No, no, no! I shake my head and keep moving forward. They won’t kill me. I won’t let them. Besides, I need something to help Jun. I think about my sister as I get closer and stop where the nearest shadows are. I’m very close to the ground.

Gathering up every little bit of courage in me, I call out quietly. "Are you gonna listen to me yet?"

It’s kinda fun to watch the guards react. They start, and point their guns where they think my voice came from. They’re way off. I feel more confident.

"I don’t wanna try and get in," I say, hoping with everything in me that they’ll actually listen this time. "I just wanna talk. Please listen to me."

"Talk?" One of them laughs. "Fine. Talk." He holds up his gun. "But don’t come any closer, or we’ll shoot."

I glance at the gate leading down into the underground. It’s dark and spooky. I’m not even sure I’d want to go back there any more. "I need to talk to a doctor or a scientist," I tell them, still crouched low. "Can you get one?"

They all start to laugh at that. I don’t see what’s so funny… "Oh yeah, sure, kid!" one of them snickers. "Since everyone in here is at the immediate disposal of every dirty little brat who comes by, huh?"

My fists clench, but I keep the anger under control. "I need to know how to heal magic when it’s in a person," I tell them, through clenched teeth. "Otherwise my sister’s gonna die."

None of them are listening to me any more; they’re making nasty comments and laughing really loud. All of them still have their guns pointed at where they think I’m hiding, though.

"Why aren’t you listening to me?" I shout, my fists clenching and unclenching around the loose dirt beneath them. I’m concentrating hard on keeping my magic inside. "My sister’s in trouble!"

"Yeah, and how is that our problem, huh?" one of them says, still sniggering. "Tons of you kids die up here every day. We can’t do anything about it – it’s not our fault."

"But you gotta call a doctor!" I plead, desperate and furious and really, really scared. I think about Jun, and want to cry. "I just need to talk for a minute, that’s nothing!"

"Uh huh. And how’re we s’posed to get a doctor up here, huh?" The first guy smirks at me. "They got more important things to worry about than little punk kids with sick sisters. Not one of them’s even gonna come near the surface, not for your sort!"

My vision’s getting red. I clench my teeth and try harder to keep it in, but it’s not as easy when I’m really mad. The guards cry out in alarm as their guns jump slightly. I feel fear taking over anger, and get myself controlled again.

There’s a series of ominous clicks as they ready their guns. "What the hell was that?" one of them demands, sounding very angry and afraid.

I shut my eyes and keep quiet. Taichi would’ve known what to do…

But I’m not Taichi.

Someone swears, in one of those quiet, tense tones. "Think he’s gone?"

"No way." Well, at least they’re taking me seriously. "The kid’s out there. Keep your eyes peeled. I’m going to report this." I open my eyes as the form of one of the guards disappears into the deep blackness of the gateway.

I’m screwed, I think. Damn, damn, damn! Now what?

I don’t want to leave. I still need the cure for Jun. There shouldn’t be any reason why they can’t just give it to me… I want to cry, or scream. It’s not fair! What’s the matter with them, anyway? I hate them. They’re jerks.

Taichi told me they wouldn’t tell me anything. I just couldn’t believe it. Why is there a problem with just telling me? I’d never have to come back… and it wouldn’t hurt them any! All I want is to help my sister! I don’t wanna pollute their precious underground with my dirty self! I just wanna get that cure and get back home and save Jun. So how come no one is listening to me?

"Hey… kid!"

I look up. One of the guards is looking around hesitantly. He’s a lot less rude than he was a few minutes ago. I feel hopeful again. "Yeah?"

He stares at where he thinks my voice came from. "You didn’t say your name – aren’t you going to tell us who you are? Who’s your sister?"

I think he’s trying to distract me from killing him or something.

"Daisuke," I say. Not like it’s a big deal. Ooh, they know my name. So what? "My sister’s name is Jun. Are you gonna tell me how I can save her?"

All that I get as an answer is silence.

I think I should’ve thought this over a little more. Maybe if I’d convinced Taichi to help, we could’ve made some kind of plan and got them to agree. Taichi could’ve done it. I’m sure of it, because he always knows what to do.

But I can do this… I can! It’s for my sister, and I have to!

"All right, Daisuke." A new voice interrupts my thoughts. I look up, and see another person in a contamination suit, standing near the entrance. "Come out where we can see you, and we’ll send out a doctor to talk with you."

Success! I grin to myself. Daisuke, you are the man! But I still don’t get up. "How do I know you’re not gonna shoot me?" I’m not that stupid.

There’s some talking, which I can’t hear, and then all the guns are thrown to the ground. The guards still stand ominously in front of the gateway, though – they’re ready to catch me if I make a run for the underground.

Like I want to go down there. Please.

"Okay." I stand up slowly and walk a little closer, still keeping my distance. I don’t know how close they’ll let me get before they decide I’m too close. "Where’s the doctor?"

"Come over here," the new guy urges me. "He isn’t going to be leaving the tunnel, so we will allow you to come near it and talk with him."

I walk forward a few more steps, and stop a couple of feet away from the entrance. "All right," I say, feeling braver now that I’m getting what I need. "Can I talk to him now?"

"I’ll be there in a second…"

I look toward the tunnel. A tall man is hurrying toward us, wearing the familiar contamination suit. Actually, he looks like he might be just a little older than Taichi, Sora, and Jun. He’s got neat glasses and shoulder-length dark hair. He stops near the entrance and smiles at me.

"You must be Daisuke," he says. "I’m Dr. Jyou Kido. Nice to meet you."

"Yeah – ditto." I relax a little and smile back. This guy wouldn’t hurt a fly.

I wonder if he’d last long on the surface.

"I was told that you knew someone who needed medical help," Jyou continues. "I’ve been studying the process of treating surface-related injuries, and we’ve made quite a bit of progress since you were sent up here. Can you tell me what the problem is?"

I tell him about the puddle Jun saw – in case it was important – and how the trees attacked us with their vines when we went to check it out. Then I tell him how the vines wrapped Jun up, and how her foot was cut when we got her free. "And Sora says it has magic in it," I finish. "Sora’s our healer, and she knows this stuff. But Jun’s gonna die, or it’s gonna make her a monster, unless you guys have something that’ll help."

"All right." Jyou nods. "I can help you, but you’ll have to do this before it spreads far enough to reach her heart. Then you’d have it all over her body, and there’s no way you could get it out. That’ll give you two days – maybe three."

"Two days," I repeat. It’ll only take me one to get back! I’m full of so much relief and happiness and pride, it feels like I’m gonna burst. "Okay!"

"Good. Now, by this point, her foot will have a huge, puffy wound – something really swollen," Jyou tells me. I can tell he’s using simpler words than he would usually, so I can understand. Izzy does that too, all the time. "You need to take a clean knife and cut that open. It’ll start oozing and bleeding, but you need to drain all of the pus out of there – and don’t let it touch anyone. When you’ve done that, tie a rope around the top of her leg – tightly. It’ll cut off the circulation, and that’ll stop any of this magic from getting into other parts of her body. Give it about an hour, and it’ll drain itself out of her." He shrugs. "None of us can figure out why that works, but we’ve experimented with others who were hurt that way, and they’re fine." He smiles again. "After that, bandage up the cut so that nothing can get at it again until it’s healed."

"Does… she need medicine or anything?" I shift a little, feeling a prickly sensation on the back of my neck – like a warning. But there isn’t any kind of danger around… "Like pills, or… syrup?"

"No, don’t worry." Jyou laughs a bit, but not like he’s making fun of me. "She’ll be back on her feet in a few hours, and in less than a day, she’ll be her old self again. You won’t need any kind of medicine."

"Thanks!" I beam at him, wishing I could do something to let him know how grateful I am. "Dude, I never knew doctors were so nice! You’re the best, thank you! Thank you!" I can’t help it; I laugh and jump up and down with excited happiness. I’m gonna help Jun! She’s gonna be okay! And now we can –

Something hard raps me on the head, and my vision is suddenly filled with little black stars…

"Hey!" I hear Jyou yelp, as I fall back, dazed, into the arms of one of the guards who snuck up behind me. "What are you doing? I just gave him what he came for; he wasn’t a danger! Why…?"

"You were a distraction, Dr. Kido," the smooth voice says. "We appreciate your help in capturing this changeling surface boy. Thank you ever so much."

"But… but…" Jyou sounds like he’s sputtering. My head lolls back and forth. So many pretty colors… Like a rainbow… "Why?" he demands, finally.

"We were told he may have some strange, new abilities, possibly caused by the unnatural components in the atmosphere. Our intent is to study and experiment."

"He just wanted to help his sister!" Jyou sounds really distressed. "What are you going to do with him?" My vision’s going all black at the edges…

"Observe whether or not he can endure extreme conditions. Perhaps force or trick him into displaying any new… attributes."

"No!" Jyou gasps. I blink a little, and my eyes go blurry. The lids are too heavy to lift… I’m too heavy to move… I’m picked up like a sack of vegetables and tossed over someone’s shoulder. And I’m so sleepy… too sleepy… My head hurts… "But… what if… he can’t endure extreme conditions? What if he dies?"

It’s getting blacker. I start to drift off, away from my achy head…

"Then we’ll know for next time, won’t we?"

 

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