Ground Level


Part Four




"They're getting closer."

"I know, Iori, I know."

We're standing on the wall again, watching this newest threat--trees, for crying out loud. Trees that are slowly creeping up on us at the rate of 15 millimetres an hour. If it wasn't for the fact that we couldn't move because of Jun's condition, this would seem funny, in a twisted sort of way--I mean, trees.

"Can you tell what they want?"

Iori is an enigma. When our powers started developing--mine and Koushiro's in particular-- the large group we were travelling with didn't want anything to do with us, and threw us out--they were scared of us, what we could do. It didn't matter that we'd never harmed them, and had even risked our own lives numerous times for them. We were a threat. Sora, Mimi, Daisuke, Jun, Takeru, even a few others left the group to stick by us--and that's when we found Iori. Probably the same thing had happened to him. He wouldn't tell us. He refuses to tell us how he got his magic either--but he can talk to creatures that have been warped by the magic, can sense their thoughts and presence, like Mimi does for the rest of us.

"They're trees, Taichi. They want to eat and grow and put down roots."

It takes a moment, and then I snicker. "Cute. Anything else?"

"I'm sensing a particular hunger . . . I think the encounter with Jun gave them a taste for blood. Our blood."

"Why am I not surprised?"

"They're seeking to surround us. They've worked out that we're easier targets if we can't escape."

"Yeah?" I scowl at the trees. "Well, we'll see about that, you overgrown toothpicks!"

Iori sighed. "They're trees, Taichi. They can't hear you."

"I knew that."

The quickest way to locate Koushiro is to ask Mimi. I've never inquired whether the fact that the brown haired girl always knows where he can be found is a peculiar manifestation of her powers, or has a more mundane, yet more romantic explanation. I suspect the latter. It's none of my business but if I'm right, then I wish them the best of luck, or whatever you're supposed to wish people who've found someone to share their lives with.

Do I sound wistful? I don't have time to wish for things that won't happen, I've got a family to protect.

Mimi is working on clothes for the kids, sitting in the room before Sora's. She announced a long time ago that since she was the only one who knew anything about clothes that she would be in charge of them--she's done a remarkably good job, teaching herself to sew, and cutting down the clothes we scavenge to fit us. We found an army base years ago that's been the main source for most of equipment, including our clothes--the material is tough and durable, and once adjusted for us by Mimi, practical too. Now, if she'd only stop trying to cut my hair--

"Koushiro took some books and went out the back with a couple of the new kids. They don't want to be disturbed," Mimi said. "I think they're working with chemicals so you might want to be careful."

"I'll bear that in mind," I said, and went to look for our technology expert. Like Mimi predicted he was directing a couple of the new kids in the mixing of some vile looking stuff in a trash can.

**How's it going?** I asked, choosing to communicate by thought--I could see that all three wore protective cloth over their mouths.

**We appear to be making progress,** Koushiro barely looked up from the mixture. I'd have been offended if I didn't know that faced with a problem he devoted all his attention to it until it was solved.

**We found a recipe for an organic herbicide in one of the books,** Koushiro's volunteers offer. **Although we don't have all the ingredients it gave us an idea of how to set about making one.**

**We found some old plant sprays and that in the ground-keeping shed. We're pretty certain it will work.**

**But we need to test it. Get me the canister.** Koushiro commanded, and received an ungainly looking pack. I watched, bemused as part of the liquid was poured into it.

**What is that going to do?**

**As far as we can tell it’s a spray pack,** Koushiro explained, shrugging the pack onto his back. **We're going to use this to trial the effectiveness of the mix.**

**Need a hand?**

**I was hoping you'd ask.**

Leaving his volunteers behind to clean up and make sure no one went near the mix, we headed out. The trees we even closer now--

I shifted uneasily as Koushiro sized up likely victims. **Kou-kun, you have thought about the effects of this stuff on the land, right?**

**You mean, about what would happen if it got into the soil and our gardens, and our water, right? As long as we keep it out of the gardens and a long way from the river banks we should be all right. All the same, after we get out of this, it might be a good idea to let this base rest for a couple of years. The spray would be unlikely to cause long term harm, being organically based, but we don't want to take chances--ah hah. I think we have our test case.**

An oak had slightly separated from the rest. **If you say so. What do you want me to do?**

Koushiro adjusted the spray pack then turned to face the plant. **Stay upwind, observe the plant's reactions and intervene in the event of unforeseen happenings.**


I watched as my friend got the spray device working then directed it at the plant's roots. I swear, that oak was trying to look innocent . . .

**Here goes nothing,** Koushiro pushed the release button.

For a moment nothing happened. **Well?**

**Give it time--after all, we are dealing with trees--**Koushiro reproved, slowly circling the plant. **It may not happen instantaneously--**

The ground beneath him erupted into frenzied activity.


He staggered back towards me, and I pulled him out of the way of the roots. We stared at the twisting mess.

**We appear to have found an effective weapon against them** Izzy's thoughts sounded breathless. **See the way some of the roots are no longer working?**

**Don't get too close--I have a bad feeling about this--**

A feeling that was justified as the ground tipped beneath us. The writhing of the roots sent us tumbling head over heels towards the mess of roots.

"This is not good!" Izzy gasped.

"So use that spray or something!" I snapped. A root was busy trying to wrap itself around my waist. I was just as busy trying to unwrap it. "What are you waiting for?"

"Taichi, if I use it now, I'd poison you!"

"Oh." I was glad I'd brought my knife. "Hang on--" I got myself loose the joined him--he was struggling with a cluster of roof that had caught hold of the spray pack--being on his back, he couldn't see to dislodge them.

"Taichi, I can not help but feel that now would be an opportune time to test the effectiveness of our powers in preventing the spread of these carnivorous vegetables."

"What vegetables?"

There was a familiar crackling noise--I dived out of the way as Koushiro summoned his powers. There was a sharp flash and then the smell of singed roots. I looked up to see him brushing a bunch of burnt roots off the spray pack.

"That was most refreshing," Koushiro said. "Taichi, I trust you are unharmed?"

"A little more warning before you toast things, please?"

"I warned you--"

"Dude, you could have said 'Let's fry these weeds' and I'd have understood but vegetables--"

"That is the correct scientific form--"

The ground tipped again and we mutually decided to put our argument on hold.

"I'm out of the way now--spray at leisure, Izzy."

The tree really did not like that. We retreated out of the reach of the lashing branches and watched as its roots twisted and rent the ground.

"We'll have to wait and see what the eventual effects are."

"It doesn't seem to make the other trees very happy. I think they've moved away from it." I paused. "Do you think we have enough spray to make a ring around the base?"

"I'm not sure--that would take a lot of spray. There's also the fact that we can't be sure how effective it will be applied directly to the ground--"

"Yes," I said. "I'm going back to the base."

We didn't have a lot of options. Koushiro and my powers were the only ones that would be any use against the trees--and our usual weapons weren't that good against them. Arrows and spears were out, knives only good at close range--We'd have to leave the base. The only question was how long could we put it off?

"Takeru! You're just the person I'm looking for!"

Takeru looked up from sharpening his knife. "Yes, Tai?"

"I need someone to go to the south-west base, make sure it's okay for use. Think you're up to it?"

"Sure. That's only a half day from here, isn't it?" Takeru said, frowning suddenly. "We're not going now, are we? What'll happen when Daisuke comes back--"

Not if. When--Takeru truly is the optimist of our group.

"We're not going now. I just want you to go, check it's okay for use and get it ready for the rest of us to move into once Daisuke's back, and Jun's able to travel."

Takeru smiles. "I should take some supplies with me, right?"

"And some of the older kids. It's about time they learned to scout." I think of the children. "Tana, and Lee, and any of the other's you think are ready. And get someone else to go with you as well--"

Takeru nods, looking up at the sky. "Getting a bit late--we might make this an over nighter, what do you think?"

"Just be careful," I tell him.

"Taichi--when am I not careful?" He smiles, sheathing his knife and going to get the supplies he'll need for the journey.

I smile. That he was not actually my little brother stopped mattering a long time ago--I'm as proud of Takeru as if I'd raised him personally. I wonder what Yamato would think if he could see his little brother now--tanned from numerous scouting expeditions, strong from all the battles we've fought, hardened by our environment. Would he even recognize him? Some times I try to work out what Yamato would look like now, by studying his brother's face--it's an impossible task. The surface has changed us so much. There's nothing left in the sturdy sixteen year old who will take a half-day march easily in stride to remind me of the nine year old who clung to my hand seven years ago--and even less to remind me of the twelve-year-old who let him go.

It's like trying to see Hikari's face in my own--Impossible.

In fact, it's probably a good thing they can't see us--since being changed by the magic, a lot of the other groups have shunned us--we're not the only ones, like this, but we're the only ones who are known to welcome those with powers. Another reason we have to move around so much.

Which reminds me.

I find the paint and board Koushiro uses to make the warning signs and head out of the base. Daisuke's going to need to know what's happening. If he comes back.

I'm not Takeru. I can't not doubt--while we've been up here on the surface learning to survive, who knows what life down there in the cities has been like? And although I'd like to believe it's been easy and safe, for Hikari's sake, I can't help but be worried--for Daisuke's sake.

I'll wait though. I'll wait until I know there is no chance for Jun--and no chance for Daisuke. Although I believe that he is as well equipped to survive as the rest of us, this is the underground we're talking about.

If I had the chance, the opportunity to go back, and not get stuck in a decontamination unit or something, would I?

I used to think I would, just to see Hikari and Yamato again. But I don't think I'd like to stay there . . . Up here, it's dangerous, sure, but you can feel the sun. At night, the stars come out, and if we have a bonfire lit, Mimi might sing and the sound stretches up way up into the night air . . . and you get breezes which you never get underground, and the air hasn't been breathed by a thousand other people.

It doesn't make much difference anyway. I'm not going to get the chance.

I find a good spot, none too obvious for the sign. Daisuke will spot it though. It's the usual place that we use to indicate to each other whether or not we're using a base. It's hard deciding on a message that will tell Dai what he needs to know, that won't tell anyone else too much. The last thing we need at the moment is a bunch of unexpected visitors who've decided that if we're distracted by dangerous trees then now is the perfect time to move in on our territory.

Eventually I just decide on 'DANGER-CODE 3' in the hope that he'll remember our conversation about Koushiro and the signs.

The sign posted I return to the base.




I wave vaguely to let Hikari know that I need more sleep. It can’t be time to get up yet. I haven’t heard the buzzer that tells me the Machines are being set into ‘active’ mode. It’s so quiet… too quiet…

"Yamato, dude, you gotta get up."

I blink rapidly and let my eyes stay open. There’s grass in front of my face. Oh.

"Morning, Daisuke," I say, yawning, and roll over. "Nice morning. Just a touch early, don’t you think?"

"We can’t waste light." Daisuke half grins at me. Up all night, and he looks wide awake. He’s crouched next to me, one hand on my plastic-encased shoulder to shake me awake. He notices me looking and pulls it back. "Sorry."

"Don’t worry about it," I tell him. "I don’t mind being touched. It’s Ken who’s so sensitive about it."

A brief flash of unhappiness passes over his face. "Why is he like that? Is it something I said? He says that he hates this place, and he hates me. But I don’t understand…"

I take a look at his face – open, honest, and very trusting – and sigh. He can’t understand that kind of resentfulness because he’s never felt it – would never feel it – himself. But, I’ll try to explain it anyway… "Ken wasn’t what you’d call a normal human being," I begin. "You remember the Machines that you heard when we were underground?"

He nods. "Duh, they were so loud I couldn’t possibly forget!"

"Well, they run the whole underground. So they’re pretty important." I grin wryly at that. Pretty important… Yeah, they’re only what keep everybody alive down there… I have a real talent for understatement. "And Ken was in charge of keeping them running. You could say that he was the Machine. He’s been doing that sort of thing his whole life, so this is a huge change. He’s not going to adjust well right away, no matter what we do or say."

Daisuke appears to think about that. "But why is he up here if he’s so important?"

"Because it would’ve killed him," I explain. "Another year, and he’d be dead. He still doesn’t believe that, but it’s the truth. The Machines would’ve drained him completely. It happened to the first person who ran them. Hikari was training to be Ken’s replacement, and that’s how we found out."

"So he’s running away?" Daisuke guesses.

I laugh. "No, we’re carrying him away. He’s being dragged kicking and screaming – figuratively speaking, of course."

"Oh." Daisuke’s eyes light up with understanding. "So he doesn’t want to go because he liked being the Machine, and he doesn’t believe you when you say it’s going to kill him."

"It isn’t going to kill me." Ken isn’t looking at us, but his eyes are open. He looks as sullen as he did before; obviously, sleep hasn’t sweetened his disposition noticeably. "That’s a foolish notion. I’m far too important. They need me alive. Inoue was planting those false rumors herself in an attempt to get me out of the city. I can’t even imagine what her reasons might have been."

I sigh. "Yeah, good morning. I slept well, thank you. How did you sleep?"

He looks at me coldly. Ken does not like me at all, I can tell. He’s less hostile towards Hikari. Then again, it’s difficult to be hostile toward Hikari. Ken manages it because he’s so darn good at resenting us all. I have to admit, he is quite talented at sulking.

Now there’s something to be proud of.

"Horribly, if you must know." He tugs the blanket closer to him. "I was attempting to make up for that, but it’s impossible with your infernal chattering going on."

"We have to get up anyway," Daisuke cuts in. He stands up. "We’re wasting light. You’re always saying we shouldn’t be wasteful. Here’s where I really do believe you. We gotta get going."

"Wonderful." Ken makes no move to get up. "I get practically no sleep, and I’m expected to function perfectly well? That is one of the most impractical things I’ve ever heard."

"Yeah, everything I say or do is impractical." Daisuke sounds resentful. "I’ve survived up here for seven years. At the rate you’re going, you won’t make it through the day. Staying in one place for too long, especially in the open like this, is a great way to get yourself killed."

"Fine!" Ken sits up, pushing aside his blankets. "But I can’t be blamed if I fail to function properly. I sincerely hope that you are, at least, planning to allow us to eat."

"Uh-huh. Always eat in the morning." Daisuke nods. "You never know what might happen and how long it’ll be before you get your next meal."

I put a hand on Hikari’s shoulder to wake her – she’s already at least partly there, because of the noise – and then go through the bags Jyou gave us to get the nutrients that we can inject through the contamination suits. "Bon Appetite," I say sarcastically, inserting the tube into the little slot in the front mechanism. I’m going to feel hungry; inhaling nutrients is not the best way to eat.

Daisuke is just biting into a nice big apple. I wish that I could be in his place; it’s torture watching him eat. I’m extremely envious of his situation. He likes it up there; he’s used to it. He doesn’t have to worry about contamination, because he’s been exposed to the atmosphere for seven years. He has nothing to worry about where that sort of thing is concerned.

I’m not the only one watching Daisuke eat. Hikari shoots a longing glance in the direction of the apple as well, even as she copies my example. Ken is glaring at Daisuke. I think he’s trying to find something wrong in the way the red-head is eating, so he can make a comment about how disgusting our guide is. But he doesn’t get the chance; apparently, eating neatly is another safety precaution they take up there. I guess that makes sense, though.

"Well," Daisuke says cheerfully, after burning the apple core, "time to get going." He stands and dusts off his hands.

I shrug, and follow his example.

Our journey is less than eventful at first, but it’s so quiet, I can’t help but feel tense. I understand where Ken is coming from; it seems unnaturally open up here. We’re exposed, vulnerable – and there aren’t any metal walls to protect us from attacks. Danger could come at us from any side. I’m really starting to miss the comforting hum of the machines. I hated the damn things, but at least then I’d know that my safety was being taken care of.

Being responsible for my own well-being isn’t as fun as I’d thought it might be.

"There." Daisuke suddenly stops, and indicates toward a swampy area. "This is the dangerous part. That swamp goes all around our base, and we can’t skip around it. So we gotta go through. Watch out for mutated animals." He moves to keep going.

"Hold it!" I grab his arm. "What kind of "mutated animals"?"

"Any kind." Daisuke shrugs. "They’re all dangerous. Even mutated squirrels. I dunno if they could bite through those suits, but you don’t wanna take a chance. I just learned how to heal magic in a person, but you’d still be contaminated."

I can feel Ken stiffen up from where I’m standing. "You can’t want me to go in there," he says, sounding incredulous. "That is ridiculous. It’s a waste of time, and a danger to our well-being. I’d sooner be killed than contaminated. Even if that foolish rumor Inoue tricked you into believing was true, I’d still rather be there than here. At least I’d go out in a comfortable environment."

"You’re going," I tell him flatly, then turn back to Daisuke. "Why are the animals in here mutated? And, they’re all trying to kill us?"

"There’s bad magic in there." Daisuke shrugs. "If you get cut, or you eat stuff from in there, you get it in you. Then you change… and you usually go crazy. So yeah, they’re all going to try and eat us."

"Eat us?" Hikari repeats, sounding shocked. "Squirrels?"

"Uh-huh." Daisuke nods. "Mutant squirrels. Lots of people I knew got eaten. Sometimes we can save them, though. If you want, I’ll get Dillan to show you the bite mark on his arm when we get back to the base."

"They eat you alive?" I ask. I suddenly have a very bad feeling about this.

"If they catch you." Daisuke grins. "Hope you guys are fast. It usually gets pretty exciting in there."

"I’ve never had to exert myself once in my life," Ken tells him coldly. "I’m not even certain I know how to run."

"I can run," Daisuke assures him. "I’ve carried people before. If you need me to, I can carry you out. We’ll still get away, too. I’m really fast."

Ken eyes him with distaste. "I’ll manage."

Daisuke looks hurt.

"Well, if we’re going to go…" Hikari bites her lip and steps forward bravely. "Let’s go."

I’m even more tense inside the swamp. Our boots make awful squishy noises in the loose water. Daisuke’s footsteps hardly make any noise at all, but the three of us are causing quite the racket. I get the feeling that’s not a good thing.

I really don’t like the silence.

"This is really dangerous." Ken’s voice has a bit of a higher note in it, like he’s on the verge of panicking. "We should turn back immediately, and forget it. There’s nothing out there… nothing to protect us… it’s so open…"

No one answers. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Daisuke move discreetly to his side, not touching him but still being there in case he’s needed. I shake my head. The red-head is quite a character. He’s been insulted and hurt, and he doesn’t even hold a grudge. He’s even looking out for Ken’s well-being. I feel selfish for thinking so, but I’m glad he’s taken that job for himself – so I don’t have to.

We come to a narrow passage, blocked off by trees on either side. There’s room for a single person to pass through – we’ll have to go through it one at a time. I look at Daisuke.

"This wasn’t here before," the red-head says, biting his lip. Then he shrugs. "Well, like I told you, things are always changing. We’ll have to go through one person at a time, okay? I’ll go first, since I’m the fastest. Ken can stay right behind me, so I can grab him if there’s trouble. Yamato…" He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a small, sharp knife. "If there’s trouble," he explains, handing it to me. "You go last, okay?"

I don’t like the idea, but it makes sense. "All right," I agree.

"If there’s something coming, yell," he tells me. "I’ll start running, and I’ll take Ken with me. If you need to, slash at its face. Then you and Hikari run as fast as you can. If you can stay ahead of it, you can lose it. They’re not usually that bright."

"Gotcha." I give him a wry grin. "I have a high regard for my own skin. I’ll run, trust me."

"Cool!" He returns my grin and starts forward.

"Go after him," I tell Ken, when he looks at me as if to say ‘don’t make me do this’. He can’t help but do what I say; he’s still under the compulsion of Jyou’s medicine.

"Your turn, Kari," I say, using the nickname that Taichi had called her by. I’ve only called her that a couple of times before – it seemed like something a brother should say, and I wasn’t really her brother. I couldn’t take Taichi’s place. I didn’t want to.

She gazes at me for a moment, eyes very serious, then turns and goes.

I follow.

We don’t talk as we move through. I think, for the most part, we’re all pretty creeped out – except for Daisuke. None of us wants to make noise that’ll call down a mutant whatever on us.

Our boots keep squishing.

That’s the only noise. It’s making me nervous.

Then something growls.

"Um… Daisuke?" I turn, but there’s nothing there. "I heard something…"

"Shh," he tells me. We’ve all stopped, and there’s just silence.

Then there’s another growl.

"Okay," Daisuke says, very quietly. "Here’s what we’re doing. We’re going to keep walking, and try to be really quiet. When we’re out of this tunnel thingy, then we start running, and we don’t stop until we’re all the way out of this swamp. Okay?"

The serious tone of his words is enough to make me quite frightened, but I try not to show it. "All right."

"If it attacks before then, you have to do what I told you before," he continues. "If it gets close, slash at its face. Try for the eyes. Then run. Got that?"

"Yeah." I tighten my grip on the knife.

"Okay." And we all start walking again.

It’s about twenty second later when the thing attacks.

I hear it moving up behind me before I see anything. "Daisuke!"

Then I turn, and I’m facing a monster.

And I mean a monster. It’s hideous, and it doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before. It’s on its hind legs, and there’s a huge amount of girth on it. Its hands have long, sharp claws, and its face is grotesquely twisted. Above gleaming fangs, its eyes are bright with an awful kind of madness.

I don’t even wait to slash it with the knife. I turn and run.

Fortunately, the others are already running, ahead of me. Daisuke’s got Ken’s arm in a tight grip and is practically dragging the taller boy behind him. He’s still moving faster than Hikari, who is just ahead of me.

I don’t catch up to her, but I’m moving faster than Big And Beautiful behind me.

"Keep running!" Daisuke tells us as we come out of the tunnel. He turns Ken around deftly and loops an arm around his waist, lifting him off the ground. The dark-haired boy doesn’t even protest; his eyes are quite wide. I think he’s in shock or something. With Ken held securely, the red-head sprints ahead of us, leading the way.

Even running as fast as I can, I don’t think I could keep up with Daisuke. He’s probably going more slowly, so we can keep up. I’d have to run miles of practice before I could match his speed, but at this point, I want to. God, if every creature up here is like that… that… thing… This place is a nightmare! I’ve never been so terrified in my life.

Hikari is moving at about the same pace I am. I can’t tell if that thing is still behind us, but I keep running. If it is, I sure as hell don’t want it catching me. It’s enough to keep me running as fast as I can, even when my sides feel like they’re going to split open. I just want to get away from it.

"Almost there!" Daisuke calls out. How does he sound so calm? I don’t think I could talk without squeaking; I’m that panicked.

Then we’re out of the swamp and back in a bleak, empty landscape. There’s a line of thick trees a few miles ahead of us. Daisuke stops at this point, still holding on to Ken.

I force myself to stop, though the memory of that creature’s face really makes me want to keep running. "What… was that?" I manage to get out, between gasps for air.

"Mutant bear." Daisuke shrugs. "That wasn’t so bad, actually. We got pretty lucky that time."

"That wasn’t bad?" I repeat, incredulously. "I nearly died of a heart attack!"

"Dude, that’s what it’s like up here," Daisuke tells me. He looks pretty serious. "I don’t think I can remember the last time I had a day where my life wasn’t in danger at least once. It’s dangerous. That’s why we’ve all gotta stick together. It’s important."

We’re interrupted before I can reply. "Let me down," Ken says, sounding a touch breathless but still very cold. "Immediately."

"Oh – sorry." Daisuke sets him back on his feet, then releases his hold on Ken’s waist. "You should learn to run by yourself. You’re gonna need to know how, you know."

"I will not need to know," Ken snaps. "Because I won’t be staying long. And when I’m back where I belong, I will erase this entire miserable incident from my memory and never allow anyone in to see me again without first taking the proper safety precautions."

"You’re not going back," I tell him, irritably. "So just be quiet."

Hikari looks up at Daisuke with wide eyes. "So are we going to meet up with more things like that?" she asks. I think she’s about as frightened as I am – that was really terrifying.

Then again, she didn’t get a close up look. I don’t think my heart will ever be the same.

"Maybe." He shrugs. "We’re out of the most dangerous part. So the rest should be pretty…" He stops, and stares ahead of us.

"What?" I look up. "Danger?" Oh dear god, not again…

"The sign!" He looks upset. Before I can ask what he means by that, he’s running ahead. All we can do is follow. "There isn’t supposed to be one like this here. It’s…" He stops again, coming to a halt beside a small slab of board stuck into the ground in a place where I never would’ve spotted it, and his mouth falls open.

"What?" I repeat. "What does it mean?"

I get close enough to read the words printed on the front. ‘DANGER – CODE 3’ Well, that makes a lot of sense. What’s a code three?

"What does it mean?" Hikari echoes me, when Daisuke doesn’t answer.

He looks up at the line of trees ahead of us, biting his lip. "It means we’re in trouble," he answers, hurrying forward and leaving us to trail along behind. "And so are Taichi and the others."



My, my. Our surface guide is just the spring of comforts today, isn't he?

I send one last glance behind us before following the others. I do not want to face anything like that creature again. To be honest, I didn't get all that clear a look at it, but I saw enough to know that I am happier without one. The surface was abandoned for good reason, after all.

I steal a look at Hikari, following after Yamato and Daisuke. She looks pale, probably from the fright of that bear, and close to as tired as I feel . . . me, well, although I had to exercise daily to prevent my body from wasting away, I've never had to put this much strain on it. I ache all over. I just want to rest . . .

But having seen that bear, I'm not going to push the point. At least Daisuke's base promises relative safety--despite his apparent concern. I don't like to admit, but that alarms me.

Daisuke took that monster back in the swamp there with ease. He's taking the open spaces like they're nothing--he even carried me running and doesn't seem to have suffered any significant loss of energy.

And that sign worries him.

Yamato and Hikari are none too happy either. Especially Yamato--I wonder if when they were planning this little expedition, the thought that something like this might happen ever occurred to them. Probably not, they're both too set on making it here to care that we’re most likely doomed.

That still puzzles me. Miyako is convincing, I'll grant you that, but Hikari and Yamato are both intelligent people. Why would they be fooled by her obvious scare tactics? Unless--there's more going on here than I know about.

"How long till we reach this base of yours?" I ask Daisuke.

"Not long. It'd take me normally about 50 minutes from here. With you guys . . . maybe another three hours. But if the sign means what I think it means--" Daisuke shakes his head. "Dude, we could be camping out in the open again."

"What does the sign mean?" Yamato asked.

"It's hard to explain and I'm not sure exactly. I mean, we've never had to deal with magic taking this form before . . . I want to get to higher ground so I can see if I can tell what the situation is."

Hikari stumbles just then, and falls.

Yamato catches her. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine--I just missed that rock, that's all." Hikari lets Yamato help her to sit down. "I'm finding it harder and harder to keep my mind on what we’re doing."

"You're tired," Yamato tells her.

"I'm just a little unused to this," Hikari whispers. "I'll be fine--"

Daisuke speaks up. "Why don't you guys rest here while? I'll go, see if I can find a normal tree to get a view from and meet you guys back here once I've worked out what to do."

"That sounds great." Hikari says with relief.

"What if that creature comes back--or another one comes along?" Yamato asks.

"Dude, you've still got my knife, right? Well, be prepared to use it. I don't think you'll have to though--I'm bound to hear something approaching before it's even near enough to be a danger to you." Daisuke pads away near silently. "Oh, by the way," He calls back as an afterthought. "It's not really the animals you should be worried about so much as the plants."

"What does he mean by that?" I ask.

Yamato shrugs, sitting down beside Hikari. "Let's hope we don't find out. Sit down, Ken, you need the rest."

My legs obey automatically, more from tiredness than from Dr Jyou's injection. I swear, I will really make sure that he is punished for that.

"Are you okay, Hikari?"

"I'll be fine," Hikari whispers. "Yamato, how can people live here?"

Yamato pats her shoulder gently. "They just survive, I guess."

"You know," I said. "We could be back at the entrance to the tunnels tomorrow."

Both of them look at me. "We're not going back."

"Are you sure this is really what you want?" I ask them. "Whatever you believe about the underground, can it really be worse than this?"

"We haven't seen all of up here yet," Yamato replies evenly although I think he's struggling with his temper.

"How much more do you need to see to know that this is a mistake? When Daisuke returns, if indeed he does, I suggest we demand to be taken back to the underground."

"What do you mean, if? Daisuke will return," Hikari sounds angry. I think this is the first time I've seen her display this emotion. "Anyway, we can't demand anything from him now. Jyou told me he only has a limited amount of time in which his sister can be cured. We're delaying him enough as it is."

"I didn't think of that," Yamato says worriedly. "We've got a lot to thank him for."

Thank him? I clench my fists. "We are superior to that sub-human creature in every way--the very fact that we have to demean ourselves by relying on him for help should alert you to the fact that we don't belong here and should return--"

"Enough!" Yamato has not lost his temper enough to yell but the venomous tone of his whisper is worse. "I'm really getting sick of your attitude Ken. If you can't contribute something positive to the conversation, don't say anything at all, got it?"

I open my mouth to reply caustically to that, only to find my mouth shutting again.

Damn, Jyou Kido! Damn drugs!

I watch sullenly as Daisuke returns a few minutes later.

"It's not as bad as I thought. They're surrounding the base, but they haven't got to the south bank yet--it looks as though they don't know about the entrance there. So we'll be fine."

"Who's surrounding the base?" Yamato asks, assisting Hikari to her feet.

"Dude--did I tell you how Jun got her injury?"

"Jyou told me--trees that had been somehow warped by contact with elements of magic-" Hikari looks doubtful. "You're worried about trees?"

"On the plus side, they don't move all that quickly. Even Ken should be able to outrun them," Daisuke said with a smile and I scowled. "But, on the down side, it’s hard to tell a warped tree from a normal one until you're attacked by it."

"What should we do?" Yamato asked.

"Just stick right behind me and keep your eyes and ears open. I'm going to take you in the south entrance, it's a bit of a walk from here."

By this point it was all I could do just to put one foot in front of the other. We had to get to Daisuke's base soon--otherwise I would just collapse. I wonder what the others would do then. Probably leave me.

But if they'd ostensibly come all this way to save my life, they wouldn't just give up like that? I'd probably be given to Daisuke to carry--

"And now we go down there."

I blink. What look like regularly cut steps are there in the ground, sloping down to a doorway.

"What is human workmanship doing in a jungle like this?" Yamato asks the very question I'd been pondering.

"Jungle? Dude, this used to be a city before the magic." Daisuke waves a hand around. "This is on the outskirts a bit, but there are buildings and that all over the place. We were even walking on an abandoned road earlier."

"So, where do these steps go?"

"They're the back entrance to our base. It's this grand old hotel we fixed up to suit us--I'd have preferred to take you through the front way so you at least got to see the grand entrance, but the back door will have to do . . . Follow me."

I blink again as my eyes readjust to the underground light. "What is this?"

"Parking lot," Daisuke explains. "It's under the hotel--spreads out for ages. Come on, we have a way to go yet."

I'm a lot happier to follow him this time. The very fact that we are underground, with walls and a ceiling between us and any threat made me feel safer--

"Hold it right there, all of you!"

--although possibly that feeling was misplaced.

I looked at the crude weapons held by those who surrounded us. Although primitive to be sure, they would still be able to accomplish their task of killing us.

"Dudes!" Daisuke protested. "There is no need for this!"

"Bringing strangers into our base? You know perfectly well that it's against the rules."

"Go get Tai then. He'll agree with me."

The young man arguing with Daisuke grinned nastily. "He's already been informed that you have brought underground people inside the base without his permission. I'm sure he's delighted."

Daisuke scowled, then turned back to us. "We just got to wait, I guess. Don't worry, Tai's cool. He'll at least listen to us before he gets mad."

I blinked as I realized Daisuke was talking to me. "Did I say I was worried?"

"No, but you looked it."

Before I can think of a suitable reply, Hikari gives a little gasp and Yamato a whispered curse. I look around but the only thing that might have occasioned such a response is the just joining the gathering. Like the other surface people, he is tanned and sturdy looking, wearing clothes worn like Daisuke's and with an even worse haircut. There is something oddly familiar in the shape of his face and eyes. I sincerely hope this is not the Taichi Yamato and Hikari seem to have placed their hopes on--

"What's all this then?" he asks casually, taking in both the drawn weapons of the surface dwellers and us with a glance. Then he grins, spotting our guide. "Daisuke! So, I guess you were too much for the underground to handle?"

"Naturally," our companion shrugs, his tone quickly turning rueful. "Although it was a close thing. I might not have got away if it weren't for these guys."

"I see." He glances curiously at me. "Aren't you going to introduce us, Dai?"

Daisuke grins. "Well, two of them you already know--"

He glances up sharply at that, his confusion giving way to an expression of disbelief. "Hikari?'

"Taichi!" I stare as Hikari's trademark calm dissolves into tears, and she throws herself into his arms. He hugs her tightly, laughing I think--it's hard to tell, these surface people are so uncouth in their emotions.

"Hikari," He says again, pushing her away from him so he can get a better look at her, then looking behind her to where Yamato is standing wearing a grin of extreme satisfaction. "Yamato?" If anything his grin just gets wider. "Next time you decide to pay us a visit, give me a little bit more warning, huh? I'll see if I can't organize a proper reception--"

"I'll make sure we send you a computer alert," Yamato says drily, but his grin gives away the fact that he is extremely happy.

I fume. Just when I thought I had a chance of convincing Hikari and Yamato to return, this happens . . .

"It's okay," Taichi is now addressing the surface people, standing with their weapons and extremely puzzled expressions to the side. "I know them, they're not going to harm us." He turns back to me. "And who's this?"

I scowl.

"Ken," Daisuke says. "Long story."

"Well you can tell me about it inside the base, okay?" Taichi has one hand round Hikari's shoulders and the other round Yamato's. "Come on, we'll find you someplace comfortable to rest. You look exhausted--"

I'm left to trail after. I notice that Daisuke has appeared at my side again. I would love to tell him to go away, that I don't need or want him nearby but that cursed command of Yamato's is still in effect.

I have to admit though, a rest sounds very good.

There are more surface people through the doors. I falter under their curious stares--

"Are you all right?" Daisuke's got his hand on my shoulder again. This time I don't brush it away.

"The machine--people--I never got to see that many. This is too much--"

"Don't worry. They won't hurt you."

He doesn't see. I can't deal with this many people, I can't--

"Time for staring later guys. I thought we had a vegetable garden to clear, right?" Taichi's command gets rid of most of the watching crowd.

"What's going on?"

"We're making preparations to evacuate--we've put it off as long as we could. This base is no longer safe but--" Taichi shrugs.

"Jun? How is she?" Daisuke demands, suddenly frightened.

Taichi lets go of Yamato and Hikari and gabs the arm of a passing kid. "Go get Sora, bring her here. Tell her Daisuke's back." He sighs as he turns back to Daisuke. "Not good. After you left--she deteriorated quickly. Sora's not even letting anyone visit her now."

Daisuke gulps, looking terrified. "But she's got to be all right! I know how to cure her now--"

"Daisuke?" A ginger haired girl has joined us. "Oh, thank goodness you're back." She hugs him.

"Jun?" He asks.

Her face turns sad. "Come on."

"Izzy?" Taichi beckons another passing person. "Would you mind taking Yamato, Hikari and Ken to my room? See that they have everything they need and are left alone, okay?"

"I comprehend," the red haired boy nods, looking at us with interest.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," Taichi promised Hikari and Yamato. "I think Dai will need me."

"Taichi's quarters are this way," our guide says, motioning to us to follow him. "You don't have far to go--he prefers to be close to the centre so he's always easy to find."

I'm not expecting much from the scruffy haired leader, but I'm presently surprised. Taichi's room is spacious, more so that the councilor's private suites on the ninth level, and kept in relative order.

"Make yourself comfortable," our guide instructs. "I'm sure Taichi won't mind if one of you takes the bed, and I'll have more mattresses brought in."

"Hikari?" Yamato asks. "Would you like the bed?"

"I think Ken deserves it," she says. "He's more tired than I am."

I'm not going to argue with that. Although not my machine, the bed is the most comfortable thing I've encountered in my entire time on the surface. It was almost worth being bossed around by Yamato for . . . Of course I insist that the sheets are removed before I use it.

Yamato and Hikari roll their eyes, already making themselves comfortable on the mattresses brought in for them.

"There is no real need, I'm sure. The hotel itself has never been infected by magic, and even if it had your suit appears well able to protect you from it. However, Taichi will be able to use them when he returns, and I'm sure you have blankets of your own." Izzy informed me, setting up a bed for Taichi.

"Yes." Is it just me or did he sound half-way intelligent?

"Thanks for your help," Hikari says drowsily--she's already half asleep and who could blame her.

"No problem. Should you need anything, I'll be looking in on you from time to time."

It's dark when I next open my eyes. Something moved nearby--

"--all asleep. I hope you don't mind that I gave them your bed."

"It's fine, Izzy. Thanks for taking care of them."

"It was my pleasure. Goodnight."

"Come on Daisuke. There's a mattress here for you. I can take the sofa."

"Are you sure, dude? I don't want to put you out--"

"You've taken such good care of my sister and Yamato--don't you even think you're putting me out. How are you feeling?"

"I'm scared Taichi. I've never seen Jun look so bad--we did everything Jyou said, but I don't think it'll be enough--"

"Don't give up just yet. Your sister's not giving up yet."

"I guess . . . thanks Tai."

"No problem. Now go to sleep, okay? I've got a feeling you'll need it for tomorrow."

That was a reassuring note to fall asleep on. I shut my eyes, trying to fall back asleep. Tomorrow . . . I could finally start my preparations to escape. Somewhere around here had to be tools capable of altering the tracking device. I was going home.



I sit on the mattress in Taichi’s room and stare at Ken.

It’s got to be pretty early – I can’t tell, because the windows are all bordered up. It’s safer that way. I don’t care, because I can’t sleep. I’m happy to just watch Ken sleep, because he looks so pretty when he does. His face isn’t so cold. I miss his eyes, but I don’t miss the resentful way he always looks at me.

I love his hair.

Sora said earlier that she’d let me in to see Jun as soon as my sister was awake. I know for a fact that she isn’t yet – I checked about five minutes ago. I’m going to check again in another ten or so.

I’m worried, but looking at Ken makes me feel better. When he’s not insulting me or glaring at me, I love to look at him. I’m not sure if he’s noticed. Maybe, but if so, he obviously doesn’t think it’s important, or he’d say something.

I wish Jun was awake. I think I’d have to cry if the cure Jyou gave me doesn’t work. I want her to be okay. I miss her. She was bad, yeah, but Jyou said that I had two days. He’s a doctor, so he would know that sort of thing, wouldn’t he? So that means that Jun should be fine. She’ll be back on her feet in a few hours, and I won’t have to worry about her ever again. Right?


"You’re staring at me."

I blink. When did he wake up? "Um… sorry," I say, rubbing the back of my neck in embarrassment. I was hoping that Ken wouldn’t catch me. I should’ve been paying better attention.

Cold blue eyes stare back at me. "Stop it."

"Stop what?" I blink a few more times, a little confused.


"Oh." I turn my head really fast. My face is getting hot. Oh well, Ken’s like a human machine, right? He wouldn’t know about blushing and all that. Would he? "Sorry," I say again. I risk a glance over at him, and he’s watching me suspiciously.

His eyes are the nicest shade… even if they are all cold…

"You’re doing it again," he informs me, sounding even less friendly this time – if that’s possible. "I told you to stop."

"I can’t help it," I answer honestly. "Really. I don’t mean to, it just… happens."

"Ridiculous." He frowns. "Your eyes follow your brain’s commands. They don’t move about on their own. You decide what you’re staring at. Of course you can help it."

"It’s not like that!" I tell him, resisting the urge to scoot over. Moving closer to him is only going to make him more mad. "Haven’t you ever seen something that was… you know… so beautiful that… you just couldn’t stop looking at it, even when you tried?" I stumble with the words a little, feeling awkward and wishing I were Taichi so I’d know what to say.

"That’s foolishness," Ken says flatly. "You either decide to look at something, or you don’t. And don’t think I’m flattered by your assessment of my looks. I’m a tool – I’m designed to be useful, not appealing to the eye. If you can’t keep yourself from staring, I would appreciate if you left the room. I can’t rest comfortably while I’m being openly observed." He lies back down and does his best to ignore me.

I sigh. So much for flattery. Maybe he’d be impressed by gifts… If I got him some un-polluted flowers, then would he like me? Koushiro got some for Mimi a while ago, and she was so happy that she gave him a kiss on the cheek. I feel funny when I think about Ken kissing me. He doesn’t even like coming near me, and he’d never take off that suit, but I can still wish, right?

When Jun gets better, I’ll tell her all about this. She’ll tease me, of course, but she might give me some advice, too. Maybe she’ll tell me what I can do to impress him. We can sit up in my bedroom and talk and laugh about it when she’s better and everything’s safe for a while. Then she’ll tell me that everything’s going to work out and that I’m such a dumb clod that I’ll probably blunder my way into a happy ending as usual. Then we’ll insult each other for a while and end up fighting, and I’ll feel a whole lot better and everything will be normal, and I’ll go and impress Ken so much that he’ll rip off that plastic suit and throw himself into my arms and…

"I told you to stop staring at me."

I make a face and get up to leave the room. What a grouch! Jeez!

Taichi is already up when I get back downstairs. He and Izzy are standing near a window, and from the looks on their faces, they’re talking about something important and serious. I go over to see what’s up. "Hey guys."

They give me brief, tense smiles. "How are Yamato and Hikari doing?" Taichi asks me.

"Sleeping." I shrug. "But Ken’s as cheery as ever. What’s up with the trees today?" I’ve already been given a summary of what’s going on, but if there’s anything new…

"Nothing." Taichi glares out the window. "Everything’s quiet. Everything’s still. They just sit there… waiting. I don’t like it – they’ve got to be up to something." He grips the windowsill, turning away from me completely. "The question is, what?"

"An attack?" I guess.

"That seems probable," Izzy answers. "Our current problem lies in our inability to discover where and how they plan to attack us. The element of surprise could throw us off, and they seem at least marginally intelligent."

"Oh." I can’t think of how to answer that, so I don’t try. "Is Jun awake yet?"

"I think so." Taichi turns again. "It’d help if you stayed with her, Dai. If we get caught in a surprise attack, we’re going to need Sora in other places. Can you handle that?"

Stupid question. "Sure thing, Tai! I’m on it!" I dash off toward the medical room.

Jun is awake when I get there, so Sora lets me in. "Hey," I greet my sister. She’s sitting up, and I feel my spirits rise. There’s color in her cheeks, and she looks a lot better than she did the night before. "How’s it going?"

"Oh, I’m fine." Jun waves a dismissive hand, and gives me a weak smile. "It hardly even hurts. I’ll be back on my feet in a couple of hours."

"No you won’t," Sora says firmly, setting a ratty pillow down and making Jun lean back to rest her head on it. "You’ll rest for today, and then we’ll see how it’s healing tomorrow."

Jun makes a face. "Oh, fine!"

I grin and sit down on the stool beside her, feeling very relieved. "Takes a lot to kill a Motomiya, doesn’t it? We’re tougher than we look."

"Our skin is thicker than your head," Jun agrees.


We banter for a while, and then Sora ‘conveniently’ interrupts when Jun starts looking tired. "Izzy made something last night to make it easier to cut off the circulation when we want to heal something involving magic," she explains. "I think he left it in his workroom, so could you please get it for me, Daisuke?"

"Sure!" I jump up and bound out the door. "Be right back!"

Izzy’s workroom is on the east side of the building, on the floor right above the ground. I hurry down the stairs, narrowly avoiding a collision with other people a number of times. Then I run down the hallway.

Someone’s in the room; I can tell that before I even get to the doorway. I slow down and concentrate on listening. Izzy’s back upstairs with Taichi, I know for sure, so there’s someone else in there. There’s plenty of reasons why people would be in Izzy’s workroom, but I still play cautious, slowly peeking through the door.

It’s Ken. I relax, then immediately wonder why he’s in Izzy’s workroom.

Well, the direct approach is usually best… "Hey Ken!" I say cheerfully, walking right into the room. He jumps in surprise and turns to face me with a familiar cold glare.

I sigh. Cheerful as ever…

"What are you doing here?" he demands. Like I’m the one out of place!

"Getting something for Sora," I say, then try giving him an appealing smile. He frowns in return. "So what are you working on?" I move forward to look at whatever he’s tinkering with.

"That is none of your business," he replies icily, pulling it off the table and out of my sight. He’s not quick enough, because I recognize it right away. We’ve only seen about a million and one of them on animals.

I look up at him, understanding right away – for once. "A tracker?" He doesn’t answer, but continues to glare at me. I can tell he’s afraid – not that I’ll get mad or anything, because obviously I’m not that intimidating – but that I’ll tell someone and he’ll be forced to give it up. "So they’ll find you and take you back," I conclude, out loud. "Right?"

He just keeps glaring.

I swallow and meet his angry gaze, feeling torn. I don’t want him to go, and I know Yamato and Hikari would be upset if they find out I knew and didn’t tell anyone. But… if I don’t tell, maybe he’ll like me more. Maybe he’ll start to see me different, and realize that maybe… maybe…

"Are you going to stand there and stare at me all day?" he asks coldly.

I shake my head quickly. "I gotta get back to Jun. Um… but… I mean… I didn’t see anything, okay?" It sounds stupid, so I just turn and try to hurry out of the room as fast as I can. I add, quickly, "I don’t know you’re down here, either," then run off down the hallway.

I’m such a moron.

I manage, by the time I get back to Sora’s medical room, to get myself convinced that not only did I not just make a fool of myself, but that I was so cool that Ken will never be able to resist me again. So I’m smiling proudly when I hand over the new device.

"What’s got you so happy?" Jun asks, when I sit down beside her.

I shake my head. "Nothing."

"Sure." The look on her face tells me I haven’t heard the last of this, though.

We don’t get to go into it, because I start up a stream of small talk. Actually, we’re even pretty involved in a conversation about whether those trees outside will make decent building materials when Taichi comes running in, breathing heavily.

"They’re attacking our east side!" he tells us, a touch breathlessly. "We’re getting everyone to run up here, but people are getting hurt already, and we’re going to need you, Sora!"

"Right." Sora takes the device I got for her and heads for the door.

"You two stay here," Taichi tells us, but it’s too late because I just realized what he said.

They’re attacking from the east… Ken’s in Izzy’s workroom, and it’s on the east side! He’ll be in trouble, and no one knows he’s down there! Without thinking, I dodge past Taichi and run for the stairs.

"Daisuke!" Jun cries, and I hear Taichi swear, but I don’t turn around.

The building seems to be trembling, and I can hear crashes and shouts as people run for safety. I ignore it all and run down the hallway, burst through Izzy’s workroom’s door, and grab Ken around the waist before he has a chance to get mad.

"What do you think you’re – " His outraged demand goes unfinished, because whole masses of roots and vines crash through the wall, and I throw us both to the ground so we don’t get grabbed or crushed by the evil green monster trees.

"What’s happening?" Ken cries, voice sounding very frightened. His fist is still clenched tight around the tracking device.

"The tree whatsits are attacking!" I tell him, trying very hard to make sure that he stays on the ground and I’m above him so the trees can’t get him. The door’s all blocked off with roots and vines, and we can’t get out. "Stay down! I’ll protect you, Ken!" I reach for my knife.

Which is still with Yamato.

This is not good…

I beat at the vines with my arms, trying to stay hovered over Ken so he doesn’t get hurt. But I can’t do it… there’s too many… They grab and my arms and legs and waist, and I try to jerk free without letting them get at the dark-haired boy. I can’t for much longer… "TAICHI, HELP ME!"

"Hold on a second, I’m coming!" His voice sounds faint, but it fills me with relief, all the same. He must’ve followed me… "Stay down! I’ll get you out of there!"

I press down against Ken, covering him as much as I can so he doesn’t get burned…

And then fire explodes through the room, and the vines are gone.

I stumble to my feet and pull Ken out of there.

Taichi does the same thing to me when I get out, grabbing my arm and pulling my roughly toward the stairs. "What were you thinking?" he snaps, furious. "You could’ve been killed, Daisuke! Or eaten alive!"

"Ken was down there!" I protest, still holding the taller boy’s arm tightly. "I had to go save him! He doesn’t know how to take protect himself!"

Taichi’s angry eyes move to Ken. "What were you doing in Izzy’s workroom?"

"It’s my fault, Tai!" I answer quickly, before Ken can say anything. "I told him he could go there. He wanted to see Izzy’s tools. He likes machines and all that… you know? I didn’t think it’d be a big deal."

"All right." Taichi lets us go when we get back to the upper floor. "I forgive you. But do that again, and I’ll kill you both myself! I mean it!" A quick grin takes the edge off of that threat, and then he’s off to deal with the attack.

"Whew!" I relax, then turn to give Ken a grin. "That was a close one, huh?"

He’s not smiling. In fact, he’s looking at me like I’ve grown a second head. I panic for a moment, but a quick check tells me I’m still normal. "What?"

He shakes his head. "I’ve never met anyone as stupid as you."

"Huh?" I can’t believe it! I just saved his life! This is the thanks I get? "Dude, I just… I mean you… what… but…?"

"I appreciate being rescued," he tells me stiffly. "But if you expect anything in return for your silence, you’ll find yourself being sorely disappointed. I’d rather not have your help, and I’ll thank you to stay out of my business."

With that, he turns and walks away, leaving me gaping after him. My most-asked question comes immediately to mind – the one I still don’t have an answer for.

"What’d I do?"