Suspended Reality

 

Prologue

 

Something was buzzing.

It was the noise that woke Taichi Yagami from his machine-induced slumber. He'd been in a semi-conscious state when his cryo-cell was jarred open by the jolt that had rocked the small room. Even when he'd toppled out through the opening and hit the floor, the machine that had kept him alive and unaware had left the lingering effects of its magic.

But the insistent buzzing of the alarm blaring through the sound of electrical shortages penetrated through that haze, bringing him from a numbing sleep to a gradually sharpening sense of awareness.

…huh…?

His hands still felt cold. Tai slid his eyes open, his fingers twitching reflexively as he tried to blink away the haze that seemed to have covered him. The buzzing seemed to get shriller as the seconds ticked by.

Wait… where am I?

The last time he'd checked… there hadn't been a metal floor in his bedroom.

And his alarm did not sound like a warning signal accompanied by crackling electrical problems.

The cryo-cell… Tai pushed himself up a little, his muscles stiff from their period of inactivity. His memories were starting to come back, however slowly. I'm on a space buoy. With a bunch of other kids. Supposed to be sleeping blissfully… but…

Wait a minute, if we're floating around in space, how could I fall down?

Apparently, something had gone wrong.

I just fell out of my cell… He blinked some more and looked around. There seemed to be an odd tilt to the room, as if it weren't quite centered. There was a red light flashing on and off, casting dim shadows in the otherwise unlit room. Little white-yellow sparks were shooting from a piece of equipment on the other side of room, and the sharp buzzing of an alarm was making itself heard.

Tai stared at the machine dumbly. What's… going on? Did they bring us back down already?

As far as he knew… if the experiments that had led to their state of suspended animation were over and civilians were being allowed back on Earth, then there should have been supervisors around to get them out.

And that machine should not be looking like it was about to short-circuit.

"Owww… my head…"

Tai glanced over in the direction of the voice. Another of the alien-looking cryo-cells was open behind him, and the familiar form of an undersized redhead was half-sitting up in front of it, looking dazed and rubbing his head. "Izzy?"

"Tai… owww…." The redhead - whose full name, rarely used, was Koushiro Izumi - looked over in his direction, dark eyes hazy with confusion. "What happened?"

"I dunno… where are we?" The moment the question left his mouth, another one occurred to him. "When are we?"

Izzy seemed to be waking up a lot faster than he was - the redhead stumbled to his feet, and made his way over to the machine. "This does not look good," he moaned out a moment later, jumping back to avoid a particularly nasty spark of electricity.

"Forget the machine!" Tai pushed himself all the way up. "What about us? What's going on? Are we still in space?"

"Tai, you'd better start worrying about the machine!" Izzy located the keypad and entered a few commands, typing rapidly. "This is what powers our cryo-cells; it's keeping everyone else in this room alive! And if we are still in space, it's what's keeping us alive, too!"

Everyone else… Tai spun back to face the machines. There were eight in total… five still closed… three open…

Wait a minute… three?

"Ugh…" A figure that had been lying prone in front of the third open cell stirred, trying to push himself up groggily. "What…?"

"Dude! There's someone else awake!" Tai left the machine in Izzy's hands and made his way across to the new kid. He had spiky blond hair and looked about the same age as the eleven-year-old kneeling over him. "Hey… you okay?"

A pair of icy blue eyes opened just wide enough to give him a confused look. "Who…? Where am I?"

Tai leaned back. "In a malfunctioning space buoy with a bunch of kids in cryo-cells?"

"Cryo… malfunctioning!?" The blond pushed himself all the way up, eyes going wide. "What happened? Where are we?"

"How should I know? Calm down a little, will you!"

"Calm down? We could all die here!" He scrambled to his feet, and stumbled over to where Izzy was still typing frantically at the computer. "What's wrong with that thing?"

"It appears that we've been cut off from the rest of our group." Izzy's voice was steady, but there was a definite tense note to it that spoke for the urgency he obviously felt. "Our main source of power is gone, so we're left with whatever was stored in this particular machine in case of emergency. Whatever severed us seems to have caused some problems with the system - amplified when we crashed down on - "

"Crashed down!?" Tai joined them. "Are you telling me we've landed somewhere?"

"There's no other explanation - seeing as how we're experiencing gravity, and the computer tells me that the power cables on one side of the craft have been crushed by some enormous amount of force." Izzy's eyes never left the screen as he typed away, except to occasionally glance down at the keypad. "I'm trying to find a way to get the others out of those cells - the system could shut down completely at any point, and everyone still in a cryo-cell will smother to death for sure!"

"Smother!" Tai's eyes went wide as that sank in.

The blond, apparently, didn't require that much time. "TK!" he cried, in a strangled tone, and turned away abruptly to rush back to one of the closed cryo-cells, pounding on the smooth glass surface as if he could break it open with his bare hands. "Hurry up and open this thing! That's my brother in there!"

"I'm trying!" Izzy's tone was definitely strained as he typed at the computer. One of the sparks jolted him, and he jumped back. "Ow! It's… not letting me into the system to get the doors open…!"

The mention of the word 'brother' had brought the rest of Tai's memory back to him, and realization hit. "Kari!" His sister's cryo-cell had been beside his… It was still firmly shut, not even looking like it'd been jarred by the landing. Inside, he could see the form of a small eight-year-old girl, her short hair floating around her face as if she were underwater. Her eyes were closed, and she looked peaceful - asleep… "Kari, don't die!" He pounded desperately on the glass, hoping to shake it free.

"I got one!" Izzy's voice called out, the sound of furious typing continuing without pause. "Someone's door should be opening; I'm going to try and log on to the rest!"

There was a creaking-hissing noise over to Tai's left, and one of the cells pushed itself open slowly, allowing a thin girl with long brown hair to slowly topple forward and hit the ground.

That wasn't Kari's cell… "Izzy! Work faster!"

"I'm doing the best I can!" It sounded as if he were pounding on the keyboard; the clicking echoed loudly in Tai's ears, even over the constant buzzing that came with the red alarm light. "There! Two more!"

The cell that the blond boy had been pounding on suddenly gave a groan and creaked open - in perfect synchronization with the one beside it. A smaller blond boy toppled into his brother's waiting arms, and an auburn-haired girl crumpled on the ground beside him. Tai was dimly aware that the girl was one of his closest friends.

At the moment, though, that wasn't what he wanted to focus on. "Izzy!"

"Ohhh… what's that buzzing noise?" The brown-haired girl who had fallen out first sat up a little, blinking in confusion. "Where am I?" she asked, in a high voice like a singer's, still dulled a little by sleep. "What's going on?"

"We don’t have time to explain, Mimi, just get up and try to get used to moving around!" Izzy told her firmly, still concentrating on the computer. "I've still got two more cells to get open, but we'd better be ready to get out of here really fast if we have to!" Another spark of electricity snapped at him, and he flinched back before continuing to type furiously.

"What do you mean 'if we have to'!? What's going to happen!?"

Tai ignored the girl now trying to struggle her way to her feet beside him and pressed his hands against the glass of his sister's cell, wishing he could just shove the door open and free her. Come on, Izzy… You've got to get her out… The red light kept flashing, highlighting Kari's unconscious face and making her seem eerie-looking.

The sight made him frantic. "Kari!"

"Matt…" The blond's little brother appeared to be coming to - and beside them, the auburn-haired girl was stirring. Everyone looked like they were all right… so far…

"I've got them!" Izzy cried - and then let out a yelp as a particularly strong current zapped him, jerking away from the computer and clutching his burnt left hand.

Tai had only a moment to hope he hadn't hurt himself too badly, and then the cell in front of him was creaking open, and his sister's unconscious form toppled into his arms. "Kari!" He gave her a shake, suddenly terrified that Izzy had been too late, and that she'd already smothered. "Wake up!"

"Somebody please tell me what's going on!" The brown-haired girl - Mimi - stumbled over to the front of the room, her voice shrill. "Where are we?"

"We… appear to have landed somewhere." Izzy grimaced, clutching his wrist. His hand had an angry red burn on it that looked painful. "I haven't been able to determine exactly where, but from the readings I glanced at, I don't believe it's home."

"Mmm… mm?" Kari stirred - and that slight movement sent a wave of relief through Tai.

"It's okay, Kari," he said, still holding her as he looked around. All of the cells were open now, he noticed. The auburn haired girl - Sora - was sitting up and looking around with the same confusion he remembered feeling, and beside her, a tall, dark-haired boy was lying in a heap on the floor. The blond boy and his brother sat on her other side - both looking healthy and awake.

Good. So… everyone's out.

"Is anybody hurt?" Tai asked, breaking the moment of silence that seemed to have fallen.

"I… I don't think so." Sora glanced over to the side, spotted the dark-haired boy, and crawled over to look at him more closely. "He seems all right, too - he's starting to wake up."

"Ohhh, my head…" The words were mumbled out, almost right into the floor. "What's going on?"

"That's what I'd like to know," the older blond said, in a hushed voice that was barely audible over the buzzing noise still filling the entire room.

A fresh surge of electrical crackling noises emerged from the light fixture above their heads, and the red flashing abruptly ended, taking with it the buzzing noise. The room went dark.

"There goes the alarm system." Izzy let go of his wrist, and moved back to the computer screen - now their only source of light. "I don't think we can afford to stay in here much longer - especially with the amount of power we have left. This room was designed to be airtight, and even if the atmosphere out there is able to support human life, if our support system were to crash…" He left that hanging.

"So then what are we waiting for?" Mimi asked him. "Let's get out of here!"

"Hold on a second!" The dark-haired boy at the back sat up, reaching into one of his pockets and pulled out a large set of glasses, which he placed evenly on his nose. "Are you saying that we've crash landed somewhere and you guys want to just go running out there!? We don’t even know where we are! What if the atmosphere is sulfuric acid or something? We'd be dead the moment we took a breath!"

"Well, we're dead if we stay in here too long," the blond said, darkly. His brother clung to his shirt, blue eyes wide and frightened.

Tai stood up, carefully setting his sister on her feet, but not prying her hands free of his arm. She was trembling noticeably. "We're not going to get anything done if we stand here arguing about it," he said. "Izzy, is there any way you can check to see if the air out there is okay?"

"I'm working on that, Tai." The steady movement of Izzy's fingers over the keypad was strangely comforting; his even tone was even more so. "Here we go," he reported, after a moment. "According to the readings I had the database collect, the climate and atmosphere are perfectly okay for human habitation. I can't speak for the population, though."

"You mean there could be all kinds of creatures out there just waiting to have us for lunch!?" There was a note of panic in the bespectacled boy's voice.

"Would you calm down?" The blond gave him an irritated look. "There's not much we can do about it if there are - we have to get out of here. I'd rather take a chance at getting eaten than stay here and wait for my air to be cut off."

"There are things in here that I believe we should consider taking with us," Izzy continued, a faint grimace on his face as he pulled his left hand back from the keypad. Typing with it had probably not been a good idea. "For one thing, I think there may be a small first aid kit…"

"A communicator?" the blond suggested. "If we can get it working, maybe we can contact someone."

Izzy didn't look all that optimistic. "That depends entirely on how far we've drifted. We don't even know where we are right now."

"It's worth a shot, right?" Tai shrugged. "Can we do that?"

"It looks heavy," Mimi complained, looking at the computer.

"Well, we probably don't have to decide right away." Izzy kept his left hand down when he turned to type at the keypad again. "Once the door is open, we should be able to come and go as we please."

"So maybe we should get the door open now while we can," Sora suggested. "We don't want the power cutting off before that."

"I was about to do just that." Izzy typed some more. "It might be a smart idea to cover your eyes, everyone. If there is a significant amount of light outside, we should try to adjust slowly."

"Wait a second," the boy with the glasses said. "I want to find that first aid kit first. You never know when we might need something like that. I think we should have it with us."

"That makes sense." Izzy paused long enough for him to retrieve the small box, and then resumed typing. "All right, guys, get ready."

Tai made sure Kari was covering her eyes, then put a hand over his own.

There was a moment's pause, then a clanking, hissing noise as the door struggled open under the command of Izzy's fingertips. A faint, sickly pale light streamed through Tai's fingers, and he risked taking a look, squinting at the outside.

What met his eyes was not what he had expected.

"Dude! We're underground!"

"Oh no!" Mimi cried. "Now we're really in trouble, aren't we?"

"Not necessarily." Izzy moved toward the door, cautiously, taking a closer look at the red-brown rock surface that was right in front of it. "Our landing may have had more impact than I thought at first. I believe we may have produced a crater of some sort - and now we're sitting in the middle of it."

"Great." The dark-haired boy's tone was wry. "So now how do we get out of here?"

"Hey, no worries." Tai gave him a thumbs-up and a grin. "Just let me handle it. I can take care of everything."

"Why am I not reassured?" Sora commented, a bit of a tremor in her voice betraying the fact that her casual jest was her attempt to quiet her own fears.

"What did you have in mind, Tai?" Izzy asked, moving back a step to allow his older friend access to the doorway.

"Well… nothing yet," Tai admitted. "But there's gotta be some way to get out of here, right? I mean, we can always try climbing back up."

"I guess so…" Izzy bit his lower lip against a wince, still clutching his injured hand.

"Maybe I should take a look at that," the boy with the glasses said to him, coming to the front of the room with the medical kit in hand. "My father was a doctor, and he taught me how to deal with burns." He held out his hand.

Izzy offered his up for examination.

"I'm gonna go have a look around while you do." Tai patted his friend's shoulder. "Just don't die while I'm gone, okay?"

"Very funny, Tai."

"Yeah, I know." The older boy detached his sister's fingers from his arm. "Kari, you stay here. I don't want you out there if there's trouble."

"Okay," she said, in a small voice. "But be careful, all right?"

"I'll go with him." The older blond freed his brother's hands from his shirt. "I want to have a look around for myself - and anyway, we shouldn't wander around alone."

"Can I go too, Matt?" the younger blond asked, hopefully.

"No!" That came out just a bit harshly. The older blond - Matt - gave his brother a stern look. "You stay here. We're only going to be a few minutes, anyway."

"Well, come on, then, let's get going!" Tai moved out the door. There wasn't much room between the metal sides and the cliff face in front of them, but there was enough room for an eleven-year-old to slide along the side. Matt followed his lead, moving along the reddish-brown rock face with hands extended to either side.

The hand Tai had out in front of him suddenly met air instead of rock. "Hold on, I think we've found it!" He pushed forward again - and found himself backing into a reasonable sized cave.

With rounded, almost carved sides, and no end in sight.

"Whoa." Matt joined him a moment later. "A tunnel."

"A weird tunnel." Tai studied the sides. "It looks like someone built it into the rock on purpose."

"So then it has to lead somewhere." Matt actually grinned at him.

Tai returned it, feeling his spirits lift. "Maybe there are even some other people around here!" He moved a few cautious steps forward. "This looks like our best chance - don't you think?"

"Yeah, but I don't think we should go charging in just yet." Matt gave him a more serious look. "For one thing, we need to get the others first. And it could be dangerous."

"No more dangerous than sitting around waiting until we die of hunger or something," Tai answered, shrugging. "We just have to be careful - that's all."

"I guess you're right." The blond frowned. "Let's go back and get everyone."

~~~~~~

"I wish it wasn't so dark!" Mimi complained, squinting in the dim light. "I can hardly see anything - and it's so depressing!"

"Well, at least we can see," Sora said, moving beside the younger girl. "That's something."

"It's actually quite amazing." Izzy was walking just a little behind Tai and Kari at the front of the group, his left hand securely bandaged. "I haven't been able to pinpoint the source of this light - but I believe it's somehow coming from between the rocks. I wonder how whoever built this tunnel was able to manage it."

"Maybe it's just like that all the time." The younger blond - TK - was walking just ahead of his brother, who was bringing up the rear of their odd little group. "This is a different world, right?"

Kari tugged at her brother's hand. "You think that's true, Tai?"

"I dunno, but it sounds about right."

"Oh man." The bespectacled boy - Joe - groaned. "I hope they don't have some kind of radioactive element or something."

"Thanks a lot for the cheery thought, Chuckles," Matt commented dryly. "The rest of us hadn't managed to reach your level of pessimism yet - but with your help, I'm sure we'll get there."

"Well, so far we seem to be unharmed," Izzy reminded them. "There isn't any way for us to be certain, so I'm afraid we just have to move ahead and try to be as careful as we can."

"Does it seem to anyone else like we're moving uphill?" Tai asked, looking over his shoulder for a moment. "It's not that obvious, but… I dunno. It just seems like we are."

"I think you're right," Sora agreed.

"In that case, we can probably expect to reach the surface at some point," Izzy said, thoughtfully.

"Thank goodness!" Mimi sighed loudly. "I can't stand looking at all this grey! This place needs a new coloring scheme or something."

Matt snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure that was next on the to-do list for whoever built this tunnel."

Tai snickered. Matt could be kind of abrupt, but he sure knew how to phrase a snappy comeback.

"Here's a question," Sora said suddenly. "If we really are on some other world, how are we planning to get back home again?"

"Well - " Tai turned to face her as he answered, and caught the warning look on Izzy's face before he could begin. "Maybe we could… radio for help," he finished, lamely. Maybe we won't even be able to get home.

"Great plan, Tai," Matt said sarcastically. "All we have to do is build the world's biggest transistor. I'm sure that'll work."

Tai turned back to give the blond a glare, feeling a wave of irritation at his words. "Well, why don't you think of something, then!"

"Well, maybe I will!"

"There's not much point in arguing about it, guys," Joe interrupted. "We need a way home, not a competition to see who can think up the best plan."

"I think we need one of those moving sidewalks!" Mimi complained. "My feet hurt from all this walking!"

"Mine too," TK agreed. "Are we almost there yet?"

"I dunno, but we can't stop now," Tai told them. "We don't know what sort of things live here. If we keep moving, there's less chance they'll catch us, right?"

"Tai." Kari tugged on her brother's hand, bringing his attention back to the front. "There's light up ahead."

"Huh?" He looked. A faint glow seemed to be coming from around the bend in the tunnel ahead. "Hey, look!"

"We made it!" TK cheered.

"Fresh air at last!" Mimi agreed, enthusiastically.

"Wait a second, guys," Izzy said, trying to keep up as Tai quickened his pace. "That doesn't look like a natural light. It seems more like - "

"Wow!" Tai rounded the bend. "Look at this!"

In front of him, at the end of the tunnel, was a huge, circular shaped room. Gigantic stone pillars were arranged to hold up a ceiling that loomed far above the floor, giving the room an immense, majestic sort of look. Built against the smoothly carved-out walls was what looked like a set of shelves, holding various mechanical devices. And over on one side, providing a faint bluish light, was…

"A computer!" Izzy hurried across the room. The screen took up a huge portion of the wall, and the keypad had so many different buttons and functions for its use that it was the size of a large desk. Two huge machines flanked the keypad, likely the equivalent of a hard drive, and various devices sat on tables on either side, attached to the machines by wires and cables.

Looks like Izzy's idea of paradise.

"Everything's so dusty!" Sora tentatively fingered something that looked like a metallic backpack, brushing aside layers of dirt.

"It looks like no one's used this place in years," Matt commented.

"You'd think they'd have someone clean the place up a bit." Mimi picked up a steel pot and tipped it over, emptying quite a bit of dirt onto the floor. "It's a complete mess."

Matt picked up what looked like a high-tech pair of sunglasses, with strange equipment attached to the sides. "Nice shades," he said, turning them over.

"What do you think these are for, Tai?" Kari held up a pair of gloves with steel attached to the back. It had been smoothly fashioned into a dangerous-looking point that would probably sit over the wearer's knuckles.

"Put those down." Tai took them from his sister, setting them back on the shelf. "You know you're not supposed to be playing with sharp things, Kari."

From across the room, Izzy suddenly let out a startled cry.

"Izzy!" Tai abandoned his sister for the moment, rushing over to see what his friend was yelling about. The redhead was sitting on the ground facing the computer, and he was staring up at it in surprise. "Dude, what happened?"

"Did something knock you back?" Matt added, coming up on the other side.

"I… I don't know." Izzy pushed himself up again, still looking a bit dazed. Tai steadied him as he stumbled a bit. "All I did was press one of the keys. I wanted to see if the computer could be activated. It felt like something knocked the wind out of me." He put a hand to the front of his shirt, over his chest. "It wasn't really painful, just… strange."

"You think it's a built-in security device?" Sora suggested, joining them.

"Then you shouldn't touch it again!" Joe said, vehemently. "It could be dangerous!"

"Well, as I said, it wasn't painful." Izzy moved toward the keypad again, and Tai recognized the fascinated look on his friend's face. He was definitely going to be stubborn about this. "Perhaps it's simply the result of being left inactive for so long."

He pressed a finger to one of the keys again, flinching a little in anticipation of the blow that might come. Immediately, the blue glow on the screen cleared, and a series of images appeared.

"Prodigious!" Izzy said, enthusiastically. "It appears to be in perfect working order. All I have to do now is figure out how it was meant to be used." He studied the screen thoughtfully. "I don't see a pointer icon, but I'm sure there's a way to type in commands. I'll just have to experiment a bit to find it."

"With those keys?" Tai looked over his shoulder at the computer. "Those don't look like any letters I've seen."

"That's what I thought at first, too," Izzy admitted, pressing a few keys experimentally. "But if you look closely, you'll notice that the symbols are merely our alphabet with the characters inverted."

"Uh, sure." Tai scratched his head. "Whatever you say."

"How exactly is that computer working, anyway?" Matt asked, giving the thing a skeptical look. "This place looks like it's been abandoned for months. And it sure doesn’t look like they have electricity here."

"Maybe it's a really, really long-lasting battery!" Mimi suggested brightly.

"Hmm… you know, you may have a point." Izzy abandoned the keypad for a moment, and bent to take a look at the wires attached to the machines. "They appear to have power cords - which means there must be a source somewhere." He looked under the table, to where the cords seemed to be leading.

"That's not the only thing that's weird," Tai commented, turning his eyes away from the boy crawling under the computer keypad. "It's completely lit up in here - and I don't think it's all coming from the computer screen."

"It's probably the same thing that lit up the tunnel," Sora guessed. "I wonder if it has anything to do with the way the computer is powered."

"This place is really cool, huh, Matt?" TK was pulling on a strange-looking vest that was easily too big for him. "I'll bet there's all kinds of neat stuff around!"

Kari showed him the gloves she had put on when Tai's back was turned. "Take a look at these, TK."

"Kari," Tai started, frowning, "I thought I told you - "

"Here it is!" Izzy's voice called his attention back to the computer before he could finish scolding her. "This is amazing!" the redhead's voice called up, slightly muffled by his position under the table. "I wish I had the means to analyze it! It could be the find of the - "

"Dude, would you tell us what it is already?" Tai bent down to try and get a look over his friend's shoulder. "Save the genius stuff for later."

"Oh, sorry." Izzy slid back out, and held up his find.

A rock.

"Izzy…" I think he's finally gone nuts. Too much staring at computer screens… his brain must have overloaded. "That's a rock."

"Yes, Tai." The redhead was too pleased with his find to even manage a condescending tone. "I know that. But this is what all the wires are hooked up to… and it appears to be providing the power. Feel this." He held the rock up.

Tai reached out for it - and then jerked his hand back as soon as he'd touched it. "Dude!"

"Let me see that." Matt reached out as well - and jerked back the same way Tai had. "Whoa… it's shaking!"

"I believe it's some form of current." Izzy set the rock back down, under the computer. "I won't be able to determine what sort without the proper equipment, I'm afraid - but it's enough to know that it will provide us with a power source. That's all I'll need in order to get this base in perfect working order."

"Are you sure you can do that?" Matt looked as if he weren't sure whether to be impressed or skeptical.

Tai grinned. "You don't know Izzy. He's a major genius; if he says he can, then we're all set."

"What do you mean 'base'?" Mimi had her hands on her hips. "You can't seriously mean that we're going to have to live in this pigsty, can you?"

"It seems to be a safe enough place, and we don't have many alternatives right now." Izzy typed a few quick commands into the computer, and the screen responded by going blue and displaying a string of numbers and letters. "Aha! I appear to be making progress."

"Great. He's making progress." Tai rolled his eyes theatrically and turned away from the computer. "That means we could be here all day."

"Not necessarily, Tai." Izzy's tone was triumphant. "Give me a couple of minutes here, and I guarantee you'll be pleased with the results."

"Ah, whatever." He was willing to trust Izzy with all that computer junk if it meant he could have another look around. "Just let me know when you're done, all right?"

Izzy was already immersed in typing and didn't bother to reply.

"Try those on," Sora urged Matt, leaning forward to get a good look at the pseudo sunglasses. "I'll bet they're not just supposed to look good. They might be useful."

"Yeah, if we ever come across a vicious blinding light." Matt slid the visor on all the same. "They seem like ordinary sunglasses - but I think you're right. They're too heavy to be just for show."

"Maybe Izzy can figure out how they work," TK said enthusiastically. "You should ask him when he's done with all his other stuff."

"I wonder if he can find out what this does…" Sora was still studying that metal backpack.

Joe sighed. "I just hope he can figure a way to get us out of here alive."

Tai drifted away from the others, ignoring Matt's response to Joe's less-than-optimistic statement. A bunch of the stuff on the shelves seemed like weapons; it made him wonder why the place had been made to begin with. Some kind of military base? Or were they just expecting people to attack them? He wandered along the wall, idly reaching out to run his fingers over some of the dusty objects. Some of them were really weird.

If we ever need a toaster with an evil attitude, it looks like we're in luck.

In the middle of heavily stacked shelves was a strangely empty one - with only a metal box placed right in the center. Tai ignored the rest of what was between him and it; this piqued his interest.

They wouldn't give the box a whole shelf if it didn't have something really cool inside…

Glancing around to see if any of the others had noticed him, Tai lifted the lid.

Inside the box was a sword.

It wasn't just any old sword, Tai noticed, carefully taking the weapon out of the box. The blade part looked fairly big - at least as long as his leg, and about as wide. That meant it should've been heavy, but it felt light when he held it. The hilt was plain and black, but easy to grip. And at the base of the silver-grey metal of the blade, right where it met the hilt, was a strange-looking symbol.

Weird.

It was definitely a cool sword, though. Tai grinned to himself, holding it up in both hands and taking a swipe at the air. It was easy to use, but it felt authentic. Like something out of an old movie, or a video game.

Over to his left side, something moved.

Tai looked up from his new prize, startled. Without realizing it, he'd almost come all the way back around to the tunnel - and now he realized he wasn't alone in that corner of the room.

There was someone just beyond the tunnel's entrance.

Is that… a kid? Tai stared, barely able to catch a glimpse of the figure huddling in the dark. It looked like it had cat ears… But if it was a cat, why did it have that golden-skinned human face? He would've guessed that the strange figure crouching just beyond the tunnel entrance was a boy about Kari's age… but…

Does it have a tail?

Before he could study it further, though, the whatever-it-was looked up at him. He caught a quick glance of a set of wide brown eyes, and then the kid - or cat - disappeared back into the tunnel.

Weird…

"Hey, Tai!" Kari's voice brought him out of his little reverie.

"Huh?" He glanced up sharply. When he looked at the tunnel, there didn't seem to be any trace of a cat, or a boy, or a cat-boy. I must've been imagining things… He shook his head. What a weird thing to imagine…

"What are you looking at?" His sister was walking toward him.

Tai pushed all thoughts of what he'd seen aside. "Oh, nothing." He looked into the box again, and found a plain black sheath. There was a strap with it, so he fastened that around his shoulder and slid the blade back in. "Just a sword."

"Just a sword." Matt took off the visor, eyeing the weapon as Tai sauntered back over to them. "Because you sure find a lot of those lying around."

Tai shrugged, and couldn't help a cocky grin. "Well, it's mine now."

"You can't say that for sure, Tai," Sora reminded him. "What if whoever owns it comes back looking for it?"

"Dude, this place is like dust central!" Tai waved a hand around. "If someone were coming back, don't you think they'd have been back before this?"

"I think it's cool!" TK walked around Tai to examine the new treasure. "You can probably fight bad guys with it, huh?"

The older boy gave him a thumbs-up. "You bet!"

Joe didn't look quite so thrilled. "Don't you think it's dangerous to be playing around with swords?" he asked, looking apprehensive. "Especially a sword we just happened to find lying around in a place we know nothing about?"

"Dude, chill!" Tai held both hands out in front of him, irrationally worried that Joe would try to snatch away his prize. "What's it gonna do? Come to life and try to chop off my head?"

"I think it looks kind of nice!" Mimi smiled. "I'd like it better if it weren't all black, though! It needs some color, don’t you think?"

There was no chance to reply to that. "I think I've found something!" Izzy called, from the computer. "This could be exactly what we're looking for." He was still typing furiously.

Tai moved over to stand behind him - just in time to see a strange picture come onto the screen. It looked like some kind of model. "Dude, what is that?"

"I believe it's a floor plan for this base," Izzy told him, also looking at the image. "The tunnel we came in from is right here" - he pointed - "and those two rooms to the side appear to be living quarters."

"One for the girls and one for the guys," Sora mused, out loud.

"Exactly." Izzy nodded. "I believe the doors are computer-controlled - but I should be able to open them without too much difficulty. This third door, though…" He pointed toward the top of the screen. "I think it may be a way out. I'm going to open it right now." He resumed typing.

Tai settled back to wait. Knowing Izzy, it probably wouldn't be too long…

Behind him, there was a rusty-sounding groan, and part of the wall slid away. Cool air seemed to blow into the room right away.

"We made it!" Mimi seemed to forget about her aching feet, and made a dash for the door. "I can't wait to see daylight again!"

"Great job, Izzy!" Tai grinned at his friend, then turned to follow the girl.

"Hold on, guys! You don't know what's out there!" Joe hurried after them.

"Dude, lighten up." Tai stopped when he reached the door, waiting for the others to catch up to him. "You guys coming or what?" The red haired computer genius was the last to join them; he had his good hand pressed over the front of his shirt again. "Are you okay, Izzy?"

"Huh?" Izzy looked up at him and blinked. "I'm fine, Tai. Why do you ask?"

"You look like you're still shook up from that computer thing."

"Not really." Izzy shrugged. "Come on, Tai… The others are waiting for us."

"Right." Tai frowned at him, but didn't say anything. "Let's go."

~~~~~~

"It doesn't seem all that different," Matt commented, staring out at the trees surrounding the rock face their new base was built into. "It looks just like something you could see back home."

"I don't think home had two of those, though." Tai waved a hand at the sky where a red and yellow moon hung like oversized stars.

"It seems strange." The blond leaned back and stuck his hands behind his head, lying down flat on his rock. "I don't think any of this has really sunk in yet. We're so far away from home, but… it feels like we've just gotten lost on a nature hike or something."

Tai shivered a little. He didn't really want to think about how far it might be to where his parents were hanging in suspended animation. Or maybe they'd even been brought down already. Maybe they were going crazy with worry over him and Kari.

"We'll get back there," he said, lamely. Even to his own ears, that didn't sound convincing.

"Guess so." Matt didn't sound convinced either, but at least he didn't offer a sarcastic comment.

"I thought you guys would be sleeping by now." Izzy came out of the "front door" of their base, joining them by sliding up onto his own rock. "Everyone else seems to be."

"I'm not really tired yet." Tai leaned back and looked over at him. "Then Matt thought somebody should keep watch for a while, and we wanted to get some fresh air. What about you, Izzy? Why aren't you sleeping?"

"I've been looking through that computer's database." Izzy hugged his knees to his chest, suddenly looking small and uncertain. This was a totally different boy than the little genius who'd been calmly accessing their situation earlier. "I was hoping I could find something that could help us. Because…" He hesitated.

"Because there's not much chance of us getting home, is there?" Tai finished for him.

Izzy met his gaze; his eyes were almost anguished. "The computer on our section of the buoy told me we'd been drifting for quite a few years before we crashed, Tai," he said, very quietly.

Matt had turned to stare at Izzy as well. "How long?"

"A long time." The redhead bit his lip. "Over twenty years - that's as far as it recorded. It's probably a good thing we crashed; our power supply wouldn't have lasted too much longer."

"Well, we were supposed to be up in space for fifty years, weren't we?" Tai was trying not to act like he was shocked by the news. Twenty years! Technically, he was over thirty now! "Didn't they say that was how long it'd take for those scientists to do their experiments? I'll bet our parents are still in space. Maybe we can still get back there somehow before they wake up…"

"Maybe." Izzy didn’t sound all that optimistic. "I didn't find anything on how long we'd been up in space before we were knocked away from the others. And I don't know how much longer than twenty years it's been. For all I know, our parents could be…" He didn't finish that thought, staring down at his shoes instead.

The thought finished itself in Tai's head. Dead. Our parents could be dead by now. Just thinking about it made him cold all over. He looked away from Izzy, back up at the sky. How far away was Earth from there? There was no way to tell just by looking.

Matt was the first to speak. "I can see why you didn't want to say anything in front of the others."

"I had just planned to tell Tai," Izzy admitted. "He seems to be the one taking action here. I know I wouldn't be able to act so decisively. I figured it would be best to keep this from the others, but since Tai seems to be taking on the role of leader…"

"You're crazy, Izzy." Tai rolled over and laughed a little, trying to focus on something other than what his friend had just told him. "Me, a leader? I think you left your brain stored on your computer somewhere."

"Well, you have been taking the lead, Tai," Matt said, eyeing him thoughtfully. "You've volunteered yourself, like it or not."

"You guys are both nuts."

"We all have confidence in you, Tai," Izzy replied, in that quiet serious tone that he used when he wasn't hiding behind his computer screen or acting like a know-it-all. "I know I trust you - and so do Kari and Sora. The others may not know you all that well, but I'm sure they can tell that you're the most qualified of all of us."

"Yeah, and we're going to need someone to keep us together and alive," Matt added. "Since we're stuck here now."

Tai sat up. "I'm starting to think you two are actually serious about this."

"Dead serious." Izzy nodded, then sighed. "And I'm afraid Matt's right. We're stuck here." He met Tai's gaze. "Probably for a very long time."

The finality in his words made Tai's stomach sink… almost as much as the unspoken addition.

Probably forever.

 

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