Ground Level

 

Part Three

 

TAICHI

 

"Please Tai?"

"No."

"Please Tai?"

"No."

"Pretty please?"

"Mimi!"

She blinked brown eyes prettily at me. "What?"

"I am not going to say yes, just because you keep asking," I folded my arms. "No means no."

"But Tai," she protested. "It's not like it will take that long. And you're not doing anything anyway."

"I happen to be thinking," I said stiffly.

"Moping," she corrected, alarmingly accurate. "And no, I haven't been in your head. It's obvious to even the little kids you're upset." She turned me round so I could see where the kids were playing, under the watch of Iori. She was right, they did seem to be more listless than usual.

"Come on, Tai. It'll cheer them up, I'll get a decent bath, and it might even make you feel better."

I allowed her to tug me to my feet. "Oh, all right."

"Yay!" Mimi cheered, throwing her arms around me. "Oh, thank-you so much, Tai!"

The hotel had a large swimming pool in an outdoor courtyard. When we found it, it had been pretty disgusting--all overgrown with weeds and junk. But Izzy and Mimi between them had found the chemicals needed to clean it out--they'd even come up with a way to fill it with fresh water from a nearby stream. The result was an obvious success.

I pulled off my shirt and dumped it by the side of the pool. I kept my shorts on--I had an audience, of not just Mimi but the little kids too.

I grumbled a little bit, just for show. I actually relished opportunities such as these in which I could use my power without having to worry about hurting anything.

"Are you just going to stand there all day?" Mimi asked.

I grinned. She'd moved just close enough to the edge that--

"Auurgh! Tai! You did that on purpose!"

"Did what, Mimi?" I blinked in feigned innocence. "Did I get you wet when I dived in?"

"I'm drenched!"

I smirked, treading water. "Hey, this isn't so bad. It's not cold at all. I don't think you need me Mimi--"

"Aw," one of the littler kids protested. "But it's so much better when you do the water for us."

I grin at him. "Is that so? Well, in that case, I shall get to work."

The kids cheer.

I lean back in the water peacefully.

They're such good kids. All of them are young, kids born on the surface to parents who were in no way ready for them. Most of their mothers were young, younger than Takeru. They didn't choose to become parents--there are no methods of birth control on the surface. If the kids survive the first month or so, they're usually abandoned by mothers who can't cope--a lot of girls have started coming here, especially after the news of Sora got round. They usually keep theirs--but more don't. The little one, who smiled at me?

We just found him, alone in the middle of nowhere, no food, nothing.


That people could be so heartless, especially after all we've been through--our own abandonment by the underneath.

It really makes me mad.

And that is what I need.

My power comes most easily when I'm angry and I'm angry now.

It's not fair that these kids just got left.

It's not fair that their mother's didn't have any help, any choice.

It's not fair that so many of us died.

It's not fair that Jun is dying now.

It's not fair that Daisuke probably won't come back--

The water around me is boiling now. I increase that heat, driving it out to the edge of the pool so that all the water is warmed through. It feels good to vent my anger like this, wear it out and not hurt anybody.

When I stop, my head feels clearer. Perhaps Mimi was right. I did need this.

"Yay! Thank-you Tai!"

"Thank-you!"

The kids cannonball into the water happily. Mimi follows a bit more sedately, swimming over to me.

"How are you?"

"Feeling better," I admit.

"That's good. I was beginning to worry. Tai . . ." she sighs, gently touching my cheek. "None of us want to loose Jun, but you don't have to take responsibility."

She always surprises me. I should be used to this--after all, her power of reading people's emotions has been with us since the early days. But still . . .

"Thanks Mimi. But she is my responsibility. You all are."

"Maybe, but we make our own choices. Don't forget that."

I leave her and the kids and climb out of the pool. Takeru and Iori are watching disgruntled.

"Can you remember how long it took us to convince the kids they needed to be cleaned and to get them in the pool?" Iori said.

"We should have got Taichi to help us, obviously," Takeru smiled.

"Obviously," I smirk. "You're back from patrol?"

"Yeah. I thought you might like to tell Koushiro to move those warning signs. Where they are now, they're hidden by the trees, we almost didn't see them."

"Great," I sighed. "Izzy!"

He's appropriated a room to himself in order that he might work without being disturbed on whatever his current project is. Whether it be his collection of maps, his notes on everything we need to know for survival, taken from the books we've scavenged for him, or the machines he builds us, like the pump he made for the pool, he's always working on something.

I'm not that surprised when he doesn't answer immediately. He often gets caught up in his work.

"Izzy?"

"Tai," the reply comes from somewhere to my left. A few moments later, Izzy appears wincing as he walks over to us awkwardly. "I've been sitting down too long."

"What was it this time?"

"Looking for ways of helping Jun. True, none of the medical journals we have contain anything about magic, but I'm sure that if I look hard enough, I'll be able to find a parallel treatment, something that can help--" He breaks off, noticing my expression. "Tai, is something wrong?"

"Where did you put the warning signs I asked you to put up?"

"About the trees? In the swamp, exactly like you said."

Just what I'd thought.

"They're not there now," Takeru said. "The signs are definitely amongst the trees."

"But there were no trees in the swamp," Izzy protests.

"Do you think someone moved the signs?" Iori asks.

"Either that," I say, heading for the wall. "Or the trees moved."

The hotel has a wall built around parts of it, another reason it makes such a great base. From here we post sentries and stuff. I climb up onto the wall, Izzy and the others close behind me.

"This isn't good."

"No," Izzy agrees. "Not at all."

"Tai? I think they've moved--even from when we saw them," Takeru said. "You can't even see the signs now."

I looked at the trees. Slowly but surely, they were surrounding us.

"What do we do now?" Iori asked.

"We call a meeting. And make sure no one goes anywhere near the swamp."

 

By the time we sit down to that meeting, a bare few hours later, fresh signs have been posted and Izzy is hard at work on what he calls project Herbicide. Everyone is present, down to the smallest children, and even they listen gravely as I outline this new threat. They're young, but that doesn't stop them from knowing danger when they encounter it.

"I hardly have to say that the swamp is out of bounds. Be very careful when you go out, and I think it would be wise if you were all to travel in pairs."

"When are we going to evacuate?" one of the kids asks.

I sigh. "We're not--for the moment, anyway."

"So we're just going to stay here and let them surround us? That's insane!" One of our newer arrivals, one that I suspected had a view to taking my role as leader, stood up. "You're going to endanger our lives for no reason?"

"There's a reason," Sora said tiredly. "Jun."

That startled him into silence.

"She's too sick to be moved," our healer continued. "And this is where Daisuke will come back to."

"If he comes back at all," our would-be leader wasn't giving up easily. "And look, Jun's as good as dead anyone. No-one gets better from a wound like that--"

"Maybe Jun will be the first," Takeru said. "She's one of us, we can't just give up on her."

"Anyone who doesn't agree with my decision is of course free to leave at any time," I said. "But as long as there's a chance of her recovery, I'm staying with Jun."

"It's not as if we'll be sitting ducks while we wait, either," Izzy added. I had to smile at that 'we'--of course I knew I had the support of most present, but it was good to hear it. "I'm working on a form of spray we might be able to use to keep them back."

"Mixing chemicals and magic?" Mimi sounded worried. "Are you sure about this?"

"I wouldn't use it until full safety checks had been made," Koushiro assured her. "And until then we do have another weapon we can use against the trees."

"What's that?"

I grinned. "Fire, of course."

Another of our newer recruits stand. "I don't want to seem rude, but is that all? It's my turn for sentry duty, and unless there's anything else really vital I should wait for, I'll go now."

"Actually there is. Daisuke went back to the underground to ask for help with Jun. We don't know what will happen to him, whether they'll help or not. But I want all you sentries to keep and eye out for Dai and anything from the underground--we don't know how they'll react. I think we should be careful."

"You think we might be in danger from them?"

All the eyes in the group are on me. They know I've never lied to them. I won't either.

"I don't know. We haven't had any contact with the underground for seven years. They may have changed. They may not. But given how they've treated us in the past--I'm choosing to be cautious over being unprepared."

There are nods, most seem happy with my decision.

"The meeting is over, you are free to go. But please, everyone--be careful."

 

YAMATO

"Well, no, youíre right." Miyako gives me a sheepish little smile. "He doesnít believe me, so heís not happy about going. But I didnít have time to try and convince him. Plus, he didnít want to listen to me, anyway."

I sigh. "Great. So weíre going to have to travel around alone up on hostile ground, carting around a sullen spoiled brat whoís going to fight us every step of the way, and never mind the fact that weíre trying to save his life. Iím thrilled. Thanks a lot."

"You donít want him to die, do you?" Hikari asks, with a level gaze. She takes a contamination suit from Miyakoís arms and starts to put it on over her clothes. "This is for his own good, even if he doesnít believe that."

"Besides, heís been living in a machine for practically his whole life," Miyako adds. "Heís used to routine and order. This wouldnít go over well with him, even if he believed us. Itíd be hard." Her face hardens. "Another reason to hate what theyíve done to him."

"Yeah, I know." I grab my own suit, then glance at the other. "Donít tell me Iím in charge of dressing Mr. Loveable there. I wouldnít be surprised if he had skin like ice; itíd match his charming personality."

Miyako smiles. "I doubt it, Yamato. The temperature is kept as perfect and constant as possible for him Ė important as he is." She bends down next to Kenís prone form. "Donít worry about it, though; Iíll get him ready."

I nod and pull the suit on. Thereís a small bit of mechanical junk right around the chest area thatís supposed to purify and renew the air inside the loose plastic. It has little tubes that connect it to the suit, but everything is completely airtight Ė of course. Strangely enough, the suits are not the grey outfits typically worn by surface guards, but a clear vinyl plastic casing that has gloves and boots attached. Theyíre built to step into, so the neck part is wider than my shoulders. A hood of the same clear plastic fits over the top and fastens securely to the rest.

It feels like Iíve just been put into an extra-protective plastic sandwich bag.

However, itís great for moving around.

"Are these the new models?" Hikari asks. Her voice is a little muffled, but she doesnít look strange in the new suit at all. Itís just like someone drew an outline around her. "I heard they werenít ready yet."

"Oh, theyíre ready," Miyako assures us, finishing with Ken. "I made sure of it before I even spoke to you, Hikari. They could last years up there, as long as the filter in the front isnít damaged."

I look down at the mechanism. "Does it filter pollution out of the air outside?"

"No. It filters the air inside the suit," Miyako explains. "Like a tree would. Donít worry about it, Yamato. Everything is taken care of. If it is too dangerous, youíll be re-admitted, providing your suits are intact."

That makes me feel better. Itís stupid, but Iím more willing to take on this whole journey thing now that I know I can come back if I want. ItísÖ less real, somehow. Less serious.

"I have a contact whoís agreed to get the three of you out," she continues. "Heís a doctor who works near the surface, and he can make sure that Ken wonít be able to escape you somehow."

"Do I need to ask for him?" I get the feeling theyíd want a reasonÖ

"No. Heís meeting you." Miyako hands Hikari a small piece of paper. "Thatís the compartment number and the code for the intercom. Itís on Level One. Heíll take you to the Ground Level safely."

"Thank you," I tell her. It seems inadequate, but I donít quite know what else to say.

"Thank you," she replies, with a smile. "Now youíd better get out of here before your extra passenger wakes up again." She lifts Ken up a little. He looks even paler beneath the contamination suit, somehow. His hair has a luminescent blue glow to it thatís strange and oddly pretty. Sleeping, heís actually fairly attractive, and you can almost think heís just like any other teenager.

Strange, how being awake can change a person so much.

I bend down to take him from Miyako. Itís not a habit of mine to carry around drugged sixteen-year-olds, so it feels a bit weird. Heís so limp, it almost feels as if heís something inanimate, except for the heartbeat and steady breathing.

Itís actually just a bit frightening how easy it is to compare him to something thatís not alive. He is the Machine, I remind myself. He doesnít even see himself as being alive, not really. And he carries himself like heís an android of some kind.

I felt a wave of pity for Ken Ichijouji. It seemed like such a sad, lonely way to liveÖ

"Letís go, Yamato." Hikari smiles at me.

I return the smile, caught in one of those odd moments where I feel truly grateful for what I have. I know that Iím alive, and humanÖ I have Hikari, and other people, around me Ė I donít have to just live and breathe for a machine. It puts things into perspective, thinking like that.

Five minutes later, Iím walking down another tunnel after Hikari, with Ken slung over one shoulder like a sack of flour.

Scratch that. A sack of flour has more personality.

"Are we going to be walking around for hours again?" I ask my foster sister. "Because I donít think Kenís going to sleep that long. And as much as I might enjoy knocking him out, it might just make those headaches he was complaining about worse."

"It wonít be long," Hikari promises. She smiles. "I wonít be trying to keep you from figuring out where we are this time, so we wonít have to take so many unnecessary turns."

"You know, blindfolding me and spinning me in a circle would have the same effect, and itíd be faster," I tell her, raising an eyebrow. "You didnít really need to go to all that trouble."

Hikari shrugs. "We had time. Miyako wanted us there at a certain point in the day, so that none of the technicians would be around to interrupt. I chose to use the extra time to lead you around in circles."

"I noticed." I snort. "Oh well, no use talking about it now. Done is done."

"Here." Hikari leads me to a machine thatís a bit like an elevator. "Weíre going up to Level One," she tells me. "Our contact works closer to the surface than we do."

I step into the machine and let Ken slide to the floor. Heís got very little muscle or fat, so heís not that heavy Ė but heís still fairly tall, and that makes up for some of it. "So why does this guy have to live so close to the surface, if heís such a great, important doctor?"

The level you live on in the underground indicates how wealthy or important you were. Because of Hikariís importance to the order of the Machine, we live Ė or lived Ė on Level Five, well below the surface of the earth. Level One is just one step down from living on the surface Ė Ground Level. It means youíre either poor, or youíve made some fairly powerful enemies.

Iím hoping for the first, in this guyís case. The second might cause problems.

"He doesnít live there," Hikari explains. "He lives on Level Three Ė or so Miyako tells me. Heís a research doctor, though, and his specialty is the study of how to cure wounds involving magic. Thatís why he works so close to the surface. If his field advances far enough, humans might even be able to live up there again some day."

I canít even imagine that. Itís been way too long.

Thereís a buzzing sound, and the doors to the elevator machine slide open smoothly. "Here we are," Hikari says. "Now, letís go see him." She walks off briskly down a tunnel, and I have to scoop up Ken in a hurry to follow.

As she promised, itís a much shorter journey to the doctorís working compartment than it was to Miyakoís. We turn down a few side tunnels, then come out into a fairly wide hallway. There are numbers on wall beside the key panels that line it. Itís more ordered and obvious than the area weíd been in before Ė probably because this field isnít as secretive as Miyakoís was.

Hikari stops at one of the key panels, and types in a short code. We wait a few minutes.

"Hello?" a voice calls, through the small speaker at the bottom of the panel. The guy sounds either extremely tired, or very upset about something.

"We were sent by Inoue Miyako," Hikari answers him. "My name is Ishida Hikari. Iím here with my brother Yamato and a friend Iím sure youíll know of. She told us youíd be able to get us where we want to go."

"One minute."

It hasnít even been twenty seconds before part of the wall slides away. A tall man stands there, smiling faintly. Surprisingly, he looks like he might be only a year or so older than I am. I was actually expecting an older guy Ė donít ask me why. He also has a pair of glasses like Miyako, but his are small and fairly classy Ė he looks very professional.

Except for the troubled look thatís all over his face.

"Come in," he tells us, stepping aside. The door closes behind us as we do. "Iím Dr. Jyou Kido." He holds out a hand for us to shake.

We go through the formalities, and then I manage to get a look around. The room is small and very neat Ė much like Miyakoís. The computer is smaller, and there are bookshelves lining the walls, though. Again, there is a second key panel on one of the walls. Jyou isnít an independent worker, either.

"Miyako probably told you that Iíd be able to get you and the Ichijouji boy to the surface," Jyou begins, sparing a brief glance for the boy slung across my shoulders. "I have something thatíll keep him from making some kind of outcry Ė you wonít be able to carry him out without the guards noticing that something is wrong. Weíll have to wait until he wakes up to give it to him, though." He sucks in a breath, as if heís not finished talking but isnít sure how to go about telling us the rest.

I have a sense of foreboding. "What else?"

"Well, itís nothing relating to the plan Miyako had worked out," Jyou tells me, hesitantly. "But somethingís come up, andÖ I need to ask you another favor." Hastily, he goes on, pushing up his glasses nervously. "I understand that youíre already doing quite enough, but I was hoping you could help me on this. It would help someone who was in quite a bit of troubleÖ"

Hikariís eyes soften immediately, and I sigh mentally. Great. Does this guy know her or something? Jyou couldnít have said anything that wouldíve gotten more of her attention.

"Whatís the problem?" I ask, a hint of resignation in my voice.

"I was called to the surface about an hour ago," Jyou begins, relaxing a little once he realizes that Iím not going to freak out at him. "They told me there was a boy from the surface who wanted help from a doctor for his injured sister. I went up there Ė in a contamination suit, of course Ė and he told me the problem. I gave him instructions on how to cure the injury, and thought thatíd be the end of it. HoweverÖ" He pauses.

"HoweverÖ?" Hikari prompts.

Jyou sighs. "My superiors werenít interested in actually helping him. They were using me as a distraction, so that they could sneak behind him and knock him out. I wouldnít have gone if Iíd known this, butÖ theyíre planning to experiment on him to see how humans affected by the atmosphere can deal with things that would kill a normal person."

I can feel my temper flaring again, and make some effort to keep it in check. Iíve just been given more and more reasons to despise ordinary human beings today, havenít I? "So what did you want us to do?"

"Weíll take him with us," Hikari promises. "If you show us where he is and how to get him out, weíd be glad to bring him back to the surface with us." She looks back at me. "Yamato, itíll help us, too. If heís from the surface, heíll be able to help us once weíre up there."

That makes sense. "All right," I agree. Like Iíd be able to refuse without looking totally heartless, at any rate. "Weíll take him." I frown, as the thought occurs to me that this might even be someone I knowÖ TakeruÖ "Does he have a name?"

Jyou nods. "Daisuke was the name he gave us. He didnít have any reason to lie about that." He looks grateful. "I appreciate this, Yamato. Youíre doing me a huge favor here."

I shrug. "No problem." DaisukeÖ that sounds vaguely familiarÖ

"Daisuke!" Hikari snaps her fingers, and her eyes light up. "Donít you remember him, Yamato? He was one of my neighbors, back when my brother lived with me. You and Taichi knew his sister, didnít you? Jun?"

Oh, rightÖ "Yeah, I remember."

"So, he might be able to lead us to Taichi!" A brilliant smile spreads across her face. I canít help but share in her excitement, too Ė just a little.

"I guess he might."

I hope so. Because if we can find Taichi, then we can find Takeru as well.

If theyíre both still alive.

 

KEN

Taichi.

There's that name again.

Fog clouds my memory. I try to push past it. Taichi--the name is familiar, I just don't know why. I automatically reach out to access the personnel files--they're not there. I panic, reaching out to find my communications link to find out what has happened to my data files--

They're not there.

None of my ports are there--

Either the whole system is down, or something has gone wrong with my hardware--or, and I wince as memory comes rushing back--I've been kidnapped by the dupes of a lunatic technician.

"Just great."

"Looks like Sleeping Beauty has decided to join us at long last," Yamato's voice comes from somewhere above me. I wince, sitting up slowly, and notice as I do that there is a plastic layer around my skin. So they do plan on taking me up to the surface in a suit. I suppose that's something to be grateful for.

"Ken," a new figure leans in front of me. "I'm Dr. Kido. You can call me Jyou."

I eye the hand he holds out to me in distaste. He doesn't seem at all perturbed as he puts it away. "Hikari mentioned you were complaining about the lights in the tech room giving you headaches so I've prepared some migraine pills for you to take with you."

"So kind," I say.

"Sarcasm," Yamato observes. "So he can display emotion."

I'm seriously beginning to dislike these people. "You are tearing me away from the life I'm happy with and you expect me to be happy about it? Just you wait--when the council finds out about this--"

"Oh, I almost forgot. Hold him still for me, will you?" As Yamato holds me down, the doctor takes a syringe and a vial from his desk. "Let's see now . . . " My suit is rolled back to give him a clear patch of skin. I wince at the sharp pain of the injection. "There now. You can let him go."

"What was that?" I demanded, rubbing my stinging neck.

Yamato has similar thoughts. "An injection is going to help us get him past the guards?"

"You'll see," Jyou says, carefully replacing the vial. He's a man of orderly habits--if he wasn't helping kidnap me, I think I might have approved.

Instead I sulked. Kido Jyou . . . I'd have to remember that so that when I find a way to escape these fanatics, I can report him to the Council. Of course, I no longer have access to my memory files--how do ordinary people remember things?

"I've found him," Hikari said suddenly. She was sitting at a monitor at a desk. "Project GL1--security minimal."

"Of course--they don't think that anyone knows about him yet."

"Minimal security is still security--do you have any idea how we can get him out?"

"My pass as a doctor should give me access to his level. If we're lucky, the guards on his floor won't have been told about him, and I'll be given access to carry out a checkout like I would for any regular patient. Then I can bring him back here--"

"Shouldn't someone go with you?" Yamato asked. "In case he decides to blame you for being captured?"

This conversation makes no sense . . . however, if they're going to send someone to go with Dr Kido, then that's one less person watching me . . .

"I'll go," Hikari said immediately. "If it's the same Daisuke I know, then he'll remember me."

"Are you sure about this?"

"Yamato, I will let nothing happen to your sister," Jyou promised. "If Daisuke appears ready to harm us, then we won't enter his cell."

"I suppose that's all right then. And what am I to do with Mr Sociable, here?"

I dislike them all, but I dislike Yamato immensely.

"He won't be a problem," Jyou said. "He's going to take a nap." He leant towards me, watching me closely. "He's feeling very sleepy."

The hell I was. I opened my mouth to tell him that and yawned.

"Lie down here and nap--you'll soon go to sleep."

I wasn't tired--I wasn't--another yawn came and I could no longer resist.

"What was that?" I heard Yamato ask, but his voice seemed to come from a long way away . . .

"I injected him with a drug that induces a reaction in humans similar to the post hypnotic state. Are you familiar with any work on chemical simulations of brain function?"

"So what you're saying is that it's like he's been hypnotised?"

"It will wear off in a few days. Until then, if you give him a command as I did before, he should feel impelled to follow it."

Yamato's voice sounded a bit . . . concerned. "A drug that powerful--aren't the consequences of its use a bit--"

"That's why hardly anyone knows about it. I'm sure I can count on your secrecy, Yamato. By the way, like the hypnotic state it can be resisted. Watch Ichijoji carefully. If there is a way to bypass it, I'm sure he'll find it."

"Just great." Yamato did not sound happy.

How did he think I felt about it?

I sighed drifting off to sleep. I could fight it, I would show these lunatics they could not just ruin my life--

I fell asleep.

I don't know how much later it was before I managed to pull myself from fitful dreams, back into some semblance of wakefulness. I didn't sit up. I stayed very still, straining with my ears to hear any sound that might tell me where Yamato was--

My ears weren't that great--I'd hardly ever had to rely on them before. I fumed. That was another thing these morons had to answer for. Connected to my machine I had sense and abilities far beyond the range of normal human skills--my body was limiting and next to useless without my programs attached. But all the same--my ears did not pick up any sound. I sat up cautiously.

Yamato was not immediately in sight. I looked around the room and spotted a shadow moving up and down the corridor outside. Pacing was one of the ways the techs dealt with stress or worry--If Yamato was so occupied then I had a chance.

Jyou's office, tidy as it was, did not display anything that useful. I scanned the surrounds, looking for anything that might help me. Medical journals, books, samples taken from the surface, a treatment unit for contamination suits and . . . a box full of what looked like tracking devices.

I stole a look towards the door. Yamato's shadow was nowhere in sight--this could be it. As noiselessly as possible I crossed to the box, took a tracker from the top and returned to my seat. With another glance towards the door, I settled down to examine my prize. It was the sort used to track animals from a central source but with a bit of tinkering I could easily change it to be picked up from the central computers in the city. Providing of course that I could keep it hidden from the others long enough to use it.

Footsteps approached quickly. I pushed the device down amongst the pillows of the sofa and settled back, trying to look as though I'd just woken up.

"And this is my office. We'll get Ken and Yamato and then get you out of here as soon as possible."

"Sounds good, dude, but what about the guards?"

"Jyou is going to distract them." Hikari sounded like this was all organized. I hated to admit it, but if she was involved it probably was--so unless I could find a way to smuggle the tracker out my fate was sealed.

"Yamato? Look whose here." Hikari entered Jyou's room. "Yamato?" She looked at me. "Where did he go?"

I shrugged. "I thought he was here."

The person who'd followed Hikari in stared at me. "Who's that?"

"This is Ken. We'll explain."

He blinked at me, dark eyes still fastened on me curiously as he tried out my name.

"Ken? Why's he wearing a suit--is he coming with us?"

"Only under protest," I said. Our mystery companion's face radiated puzzlement. And dirt, I might add. He was probably the untidiest person I had ever seen. His hair looked like it had been cut with blunted scissors and his clothes were torn. Honestly, he looked as if he'd just walked in off the surface.

"This is Daisuke. He's from the surface," Hikari said.

That would certainly explain his skin tone. He's darker than anyone else in the room--honestly, he looks like a savage. I turn back to Hikari. "And this is what we've got to look forward to?"

"Huh?" Daisuke blinks, uncomprehending and pain flashing across his face for a second.

"Daisuke, why don't you sit down?" Hikari said, moving him towards the sofa where I happen to be seated. I'd go somewhere else--but that would leave the tracking device in the open so instead I scoot over as much as I can.

"How are you feeling?" Jyou asked. "Are there any ill effects from the guardsí treatment of you before?"

"No . . . stupid guards. They didn't have to do that," Daisuke rubbed his head. "But that stuff you gave me made my head stop spinning and it doesn't hurt half as much now. You really are good for a doctor--"

"I try," Jyou says, his smile quickly fading. "It was all I could do, to make up for what happened before--"

"Dude--that wasn't your fault!" Daisuke protests. "You were trying to help--and you could get in a lot of trouble for this--"

"Daisuke is right." Hikari says. "What'll you do? After Daisuke escapes, the guards will know you were involved--"

"Miyako has a fake record and personnel sheet prepared for me, in the event of something like this happening. I'll be fine," Jyou says, beginning to gather bags together. "You have enough to worry about yourselves. Where's Yamato?"

"Here. I'm sorry," Yamato has returned with a pack slung across his shoulder. "I was getting worried--thought I'd eavesdrop on the guards, see if anything had happened to you. Then I found these." He holds up the front of the pack, to display a set of surface guns. "Neither you or Miyako have provided us with weapons, and we don't know what we're up against--"

Jyou nods. "Now this is the Daisuke you've heard so much about--"

Yamato smiles, sticking out his hand. "Oh, that Daisuke. Long time, no see, huh."

Daisuke laughs. Really laughs, doesn't just go through with the motions like the techs. He's got no compulsion about showing his emotions at all, he's so unsophisticated . . .

"Yamato. Dude, you're going to need those weapons. My sister is still mad that you and Taichi wrecked her favorite shirt--" The laughter is suddenly gone from his face.

"Daisuke?"

"She's sick. Really badly sick. And I've got to get back to her quickly before it's too late-"

Yamato touches his shoulder gently. I wince. Even through the protective suit I would not want to be touching . . . that. "We'll leave as soon as possible. Okay?" He looks to Jyou. "Have we got everything we need?"

"Take these packs with you. They contain everything you need for survival. And you put these boots on overtop of your suit. The surface is a lot harder to walk on then the underground--"

Yamato hands me a pair of boots. "Put them on," he says. I scowl, but still under the compulsion of the drug, do as he says. They fit perfectly--what, did Inoue Miyako spend the last five years planning this or something?

Wait a minute . . .

Everyone else is busy . . . I shift a little as if I'm moving to better put on my boots then bend down to adjust the fit.

No one noticed.

"Let's get this show on the road, then," Yamato says. "Come on, Ken."

I stand obediently.

"Thanks for all your help, Jyou," Yamato shakes hands with him. Hikari follows, adding her thanks, then Daisuke impulsively decides to hug him . . . Good thing he was wearing a contamination suit.

I trail after my abductors noiselessly. They may have control over me . . . but they can't control my thoughts.

Or the tracking device now hidden in my boot.

 

DAISUKE

The noise is going to drive me crazy.

I mean it. Thereís a loud, constant buzzing, machine-y sound thatís all around us, and I canít escape it no matter what I do. I try to put my hands over my ears, but I can still feel it. How on earth do people sleep in this place?

"Are you okay, Daisuke?" Hikari asks me, looking at me in concern.

"Yeah." I make a face. "Dude, how do you get used to that noise? Itís likeÖ a million mutant bees getting ready to attack! Iíd never be able to relax!"

"Mutant bees." The new guy Ė Ken Ė whoís walking ahead with Yamato makes a kind of delicate noise like heís so above the rest of the world. "This place sounds more charming with every passing minute." Heís looking at Yamato, not me. "Is every human up there like him?"

Thatís not nice at all.

"Is every human down here like you?" I shoot back, trying to be as insulting as he was.

He turns and looks at me with cold blue eyes Ė or, maybe theyíre more violetÖ "Humankind could only be so lucky. If every human were more like me, we wouldnít be wasting time with foolish expeditions like this."

"And everything would really be a bundle of laughs then, wouldnít it?" I scowl at him. He turns away, sniffing in a dismissive way, like Iím not important enough to argue with.

Why is he so mean? I didnít do anything to him! Is there something wrong with the way I look? Maybe itís the way I smell. The way I talk? Why does he hate me? I donít hate himÖ even though heís said some mean things, I still think heís really neat. His eyes are really nice, slanted and deep and a really pretty color. I think his hair would be like the one piece of silk that Mimi had with her when we first went to the surface. I remember that I never got tired of running it through my hands, over and over. It felt so smooth and soft and neat. Eventually, she just let me have it, and I kept it in my pocket all the time until it wore out into nothing. But I look at Kenís hair and my fingers itch like I can remember what it feels like.

If we can be friends, maybe some day heíll let me touch his hair. Iíll bet itíd be just like that silk.

"Daisuke?" Hikari moves over so she can talk with me. I look away from Kenís hair reluctantly and turn towards her. She has this hopeful look in her eyes. "Youíre going to lead us to my brother, right? When we get to the surface?"

"Yeah, no problem!" I give her a confident smile. Actually, Iím not sure. You never know what might have happened, and if I get back to the base and Taichiís gone, Iíd have no idea where he went. Weíve got a ton of different bases; Iíd never know which one heíd decide to go to. "Iíve gotta get back to Jun. Taichi wouldnít leave my sister."

Well, he wouldnít want toÖ

Hikari smiles. "Oh good. I canít wait to see my brother again!" She gives me a little sideways glances, and then asks, almost shyly, "Is Takeru there with you as well?"

"Uh huh." I wonder if Hikari still likes Takeru. Itís been seven years; could you really like someone for that long? Back when we were kids, I had the hugest crush on her, so that kind of thought wouldíve made me mad. But now I donít care. Too much happened between then and now.

Kenís skin is paler than Hikariís, I notice. I wonder where he lived, that he stayed so pale. He looks almost white, like the ivory jewelry one girl had. I really like it. Somehow, it suits him. Heís thin and delicate and tall, and I like it. Iíve never seen anyone who looked like he does.

"I never got to thank him," Hikari says, sounding wistful. I have to tear my eyes away from Ken again to look at her. She looks a bit sad, but thereís a warm expression in there somewhere, too. "He went to the surface himself, to save me. But I never thanked himÖ" Abruptly, she changes the subject. "How are you all doing up there?"

I grin. "Weíre still alive, and that means weíre doing good. Thatís what Taichi tells me, anyway. As long as you live through the day, itís a good one. Lots of kids die up there, you know."

"Iíd want to be the first to go, if I were subjected to that for an extended period of time," Ken remarks suddenly, from ahead of us. I bristle, and go to respond.

Yamato beats me to it. "Do you just not have anything pleasant to say?" he asks coolly. "Or is this your Ďhappyí mode?"

Ken frowns. "Excuse me if being kidnapped and forced into such a counter-productive activity upsets me. I donít exactly relish the idea of becoming a savage like thatÖ" He indicates toward me with a brief motion of his head, and his hair swishes nicely around his face. Like silk.

I feel a well of hurt gathering around in my chest area. Why is he so mean? I just wanna be friendsÖ I never said anything mean, or threatened him. Did I? I search back through the period of time since I met Ken. Nothing. I donít understand at all.

"Here we are," Yamato announces suddenly. Up ahead is a wall. I blink. WhatÖ?

"UmÖ dude, thatís a wall," I point out, scratching my head. What does he expect us to do, walk through it? I find myself wondering if the people down here have all somehow gotten Junís powersÖ

"You are either stupid or extremely ignorant," Ken tells me, frowning as if Iím some bug that heíd love to squash under his boot. "I hope that I never become so ignorant. I canít imagine how youíve managed to survive on your own for so long."

That really makes me mad! Heís lived in the underground for his whole life, safe and cozy and not in any kind of danger, and he accuses me of being incapable of surviving? "Let me tell you something, you jerk!" I say angrily, keeping a tight hold on my powers. "Iíve been out on the surface for the past seven years, dodging magic and monsters and things that probably wouldíve eaten me alive Ė literally. Iíve survived quicksand and polluted swamps and carnivorous trees and mutant grizzly bear attacks. Iíve helped to grow my own food and Iíve saved so many other peopleís lives that I canít even count them. And you sit here in your fancy underground, all safe and happy and not even knowing what the word danger means, and youíre telling me that I canít survive on my own? Youíre stupider than you think I am!"

I stop there, breathing heavily and feeling a lot better. It feels good to get that off my chest. Really good. I glance at Ken to see if it had any effect.

His expression hasnít changed through my whole tirade. Heís gazing at me coldly, and I stare right back defiantly. "Emotion like that is a waste of time and energy," he tells me, after a moment. "You could be putting both of those to better use."

Yamato rolls his eyes and sighs. "Weíve got a long way to go with that one," he mutters.

"You wonít be getting far," Ken tells him. "I can promise you that."

"Weíll see." Hikari has been pressing buttons on the wall, and she steps back at that moment. I nearly jump when a part of the wall slides away. She laughs. "Donít you remember sliding doors, Daisuke?"

Oh yeahÖ "Sorta."

"The guards are just up there." Yamato points up a little, and I can see where they stand. Itís really weird to be looking at this tunnel from the other side of it. He turns to Ken. "You are going to walk quietly with us when we move past them, and you wonít say or do anything that will give us away. Understand?"

Ken looks like he wants to punch Yamato, but he just nods. "Yes."

"Good." We start forward.

The guards look at us as we make our way out toward the exit. They barely give Yamato, Hikari, and Ken a second glance, but thereís open hostility on their faces when they look at me. Guess Iím just too cool to forget.

"Do you have clearance to take the surface boy out?" one of them asks, eyeing my suspiciously.

"Naturally." Yamato gives them a cool grin, and hands them the pass Jyou gave us. One of them swipes it through some kind of mini machine on the wall, and scowls. Yamato raises an eyebrow at him. "Everything should be in order there. Can we be on our merry way then, gentlemen?"

The guard shoves the coded pass back into his hands. "Get going," he says Ė not too kindly.

We move on past them, and Iím back home.

The machine noises are gone. I sigh with relief. It was so tight and small in there; I didnít even realize how tense that made me until I got back outside and felt free again. It was way too confining underground; I donít know how people can stand itÖ

"Itís soÖ big," Hikari whispers, sounding a little frightened. I look at her, and see that sheís staring up at the sky, eyes wide. "ThereísÖ thereís nothing there. Itís allÖ open."

Yamato looks nervous, but not as much as she is. "Itís going to take some getting used to," he admits. "We can handle it. I adjusted to living underground before Ė I can do the same for moving back up here."

I look around. Everything seems normal to me. Itís strange to think that theyíre uncomfortable out in the open like this; it doesnít make sense to me. I can hardly stand the underground. How can they prefer that to this?

"I donít understand how you can function like this." Thereís a note of panic in Kenís voice. I look at him, and his eyes have gone a little wild. "How can you live, having no control of your surroundings? Thereís nothing to reach out forÖ thereís too much open spaceÖ anything could be thereÖ" Heís breathing so fast, it sounds like heís going to have a heart attack or go into a major panic. "Itís all out of control!"

"Itís okay." I move to put a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he jerks away.

"Donít touch me! Iíll have to stay in this god-forsaken place forever!" He shies away from me, cringing as if I have a horrible disease thatís passed by touching.

"Dude, youíre wearing a contamination suit!" I tell him, annoyed. "It doesnít matter if I touch you. And Iím just trying to help!"

"I donít want your pity. I want to return to my proper surroundings as soon as possible."

"Youíre not returning," Yamato says, in an irritated voice. "So just be quiet. Are we going to start heading back toward your base now, Daisuke?"

I shake my head. "No way. Do you know how dangerous it is to travel at night? Weíre gonna have to camp out for the night." I give them a grin. "I hope you guys know how to climb."

Yamato frowns. "Why?"

"Because we need to get to high ground if weíre gonna be sleeping. Plus, itíll be dark and Iíll need lots of open ground around me to see if anythingís coming." I try to look deadly seriously, like Taichi can when heís explaining something important. "Iíll stay awake and keep watch, okay?"

Hikari looks around nervously. "Is it really that dangerous?"

"Yup!" I answer cheerfully. "But you get used to it, donít worry. After a while, it even gets kind of exciting." I turn and start off toward the high place Iíd found earlier. "Come on, letís get going."

They follow me. Not even Ken says anything. I can see him out of the corner of my eyes, though Ė heís got his arms crossed tightly, and he looks miserable. I wish I could go say something nice and maybe put an arm around him, but I remember what happened last timeÖ He obviously doesnít like me much.

Why, though? I like him. I like him a lot. Heís good to look at, and he talks in such a neat, precise tone, itís actually nice to listen to, even when heís complaining. And I donít think heís a bad person for complaining. Heís just scared, like I was when I first got up here. I didnít want it much more than he does now.

I wonder why he has to come, if he doesnít want to.

Maybe Iíll ask Yamato or Hikari about that later.

The high place is sort of like a low cliff Ė itís got a swamp full of quicksand on the side where it slopes up evenly, though, so weíll have to climb up the steeper way. Itís only a few feet, and there are plenty of hand and foot holds. I scrambled up quickly and reach a hand down to help the others.

Yamato makes it up with help from me, after a few attempts. Hikari readily accepts my hand, probably because she learned from watching him struggle. When I look back, though, Ken is just standing there.

"Come on, Ken!" I urge, holding out a hand. "Climb up."

He looks at me like Iím insane. "I canít climb that."

"Itís not that hard." I grin at Ken, hoping to encourage him. Not like any friendly attempts Iíve made have helped at all. "Hikari and Yamato managed okay. Come on, you put one foot up on that ledgeÖ"

"Iíll fall," he replies flatly, staring at the ledge with extreme distaste. "This is dangerous."

"Okay, then Iíll help you." I scoot over and hook my legs around some dead roots from a thick plant that isnít visible anywhere on the surface. The roots have been there forever and Iíve used this place tons of times, so theyíre not a danger. I lean over the ledge and hold out both arms. "Come a little closer. I canít reach you."

He stares at me, expressionless. But whatever drug Jyou gave him has to be working still, because he moves over so that I can reach him.

I hook my hands under his armpits. This is the first time Iíve been able to touch him, and he does not look happy about it. Heís glaring at me. I decide to ignore that. "Put your hands on my shoulders, and brace your feet against the cliff when I lift you up, okay?" I tell him.

He looks as if heíd rather stick a live snake down his throat, but he does what I say. Heís really warm. I like the closeness; itís nice and he feels soft. I wish he didnít have the suit on. Trying not to think about that, I lift him up off the ground.

Heís not very heavy, but Iím not exactly the stronger person I know, either. Itís hard, and I can barely manage, but I somehow get him up over the edge of the cliff. He gets to his feet with as much dignity as he can muster, and moves as far away from me as possible.

I sigh. I donít get it. Whatíd I do?

Yamato and Hikari both have fire-starter things in those packs that Jyou gave them, but I donít let them start a fire. Itíd be like a beacon, and weíre trying to keep out of sight of things that might want to attack us. But they have blankets tucked into little bundles that they can use to keep warm.

I donít need a blanket.

Ken complains about the cold, but no one listens. Weíre getting into a habit of ignoring him, I think. I still feel sorry for him; heís practically turning blue, and heís shivering. But I canít do anything, because he wonít even let me near him.

I have to ask what I did. I just canít stand it any more.

I wait until Yamato and Hikari are asleep. I can tell they are, because theyíre relaxed and they breathe heavy. I can also tell Ken isnít, because heís still shivering and muttering under his breath about what heíll do to everyone who forced him into this once he gets back to wherever it is he came from before.

I walk over and sit near where heís sleeping, still mostly concentrating on listening for movement around us. I wish Mimi was hereÖ "Ken?" I say softly. Forgetting not to, I reach out to get his attention.

"Donít you dare!" he hisses, eyes flashing angrily. "Get away from me!"

I pull back my hand. "Sorry," I say, feeling hurt and confused and wishing I could be angry so it wouldnít be so painful. I swallow, and go on with what I wanted to ask him. "Why do you hate me? What did I do?"

"I donít hate you as long as you keep your distance," he replies coldly. "Is there a purpose to this conversation? I donít appreciate having my breath wasting talking for no reason."

"I wanna know why youíre always so mad at me," I say. That was what I asked, wasnít it?

"I hate this place," he answers shortly. "I hate everything about it, and youíre part of it. I donít want to end up like you, dirty and ignorant and a complete savage. Itís the worst thing I can possibly imagine for myself. I want to go back and access my data programme and punish everyone who even thought about subjecting me to this. I donít want to waste my breath talking with you." He turns his back toward me.

"But I like you," I say, real quietly. Iím not sure if he hears me. He doesnít answer, either way. "I donít understand why we canít just be friends. I donít understand why you hate me."

He says nothing.

I watch him for a moment, then turn away and concentrate on keeping watch for danger.

 

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