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Tower of Jewels

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They cleared out an airlock and stopped so Akira could scribble some diagrams in his notebook. It was a small compartment, too small to fit all eight of them at once. They had to leave the backup members of the party in the previous airlock while Akira worked out which switch opened what doors when. He had declined Haru and Makoto’s help. “I’m certain I can do this,” he said, sounding more confident than his numerous failures to lead them to the next area could justify.

Next to Haru, Makoto sighed. “At the very least, it’ll be good for your spatial awareness,” she said.

Haru felt, strongly, that Akira should let someone help him with the navigation, but this was the one aspect of his leadership that she might call typical, for a boy, with his bravado and the refusal to ask for directions. She would have liked to step in, but neither Makoto nor Morgana wanted to say anything to Akira, perhaps from prior experience. So Haru and Morgana practiced high fiving each other instead.

“Keep your back straight!” he said, crossing his little arms over his chest. “All feet on the ground! Stop thinking I’m cute!”

“You could never be cute,” Haru said, barely resisting the urge to poke his tummy. “You’re the definition of boyish charm!”

“That’s never going to win Lady Ann’s affections,” Morgana said, and sighed. She held her palm up and he jumped up to hit it. “Firm up your palm!”

“Like this?” she said. She straightened her fingers. He smacked his paw into her hand and this time it made a firm clapping sound, the way the others’ hands sounded when they switched turns. “You’re so good at this. You must’ve practiced a lot.”

“Nya~et,” he said, pushing his chest out. “It came naturally to me, of course. But everyone else was miserable! Except for Panther and Queen, and you. But there’s a long way to go until you’re ready to use it in battle.”

“I understand,” Haru said.

“Really?” Makoto said, looking over her shoulder. Against the blackness of Metaverse space, her scarf was a warm, deep gray, and her hair, a medium brown, almost looked as though she went to a salon to get it colored. Haru knew without having to ask this was not the case. Some people were born with their most desirable characteristics ready to reveal themselves with the slightest change of perception, or temperature, or angle. “It’s just a high five. Anyone can do it.”

“Tsk, tsk,” Morgana said. “It takes pizzazz and panache to turn something as lame as a high five into a stylish baton pass worthy of a Phantom Thief. I’d expect Queen of all people to know better.”

“High fives are not lame,” Makoto said sharply.

“Please, I’m almost done,” Akira said.

“You have plenty of natural talent, but you’re too cute,” Morgana said. He had his paws on his hips. Haru had to resist mirroring his pose. “Cuteness is the death of style!”

“It’s a wonderful branding strategy,” she said. “And life wouldn’t be worth it without cute things. Like you, Mona. And Queen, and Joker, too.”

Akira looked up at her and tugged at his bangs. He wasn’t blushing like he would have if he were outside the Metaverse; had she said that to him on the rooftop, he would’ve turned pink at the ears and looked away. He was a different person in different worlds. Ann and Makoto were like him in this respect, but Ryuji and Yusuke were the same both in and out of the Metaverse, and Haru felt like herself no matter where she was.

“I think I have a way to the end of this,” Akira said. “Haru, can you let the others know we’ll be waiting for them through the omega door?”

“Don’t send a lady to do your dirty work, Joker,” Morgana said, and his tail puffed with indignation.

“It’s all right,” Haru said. “I like going through the doors. Whoosh! It’s like being in a pneumatic tube.”

“Pneumatic…” Akira made a face. “What are those?”

“It’s a delivery system invented in the early nineteenth century,” Makoto said, and her eyes flashed with satisfaction at remembering it. A teacher had mentioned it during social studies as part of his lecture on American spaceflight programs. It was almost certainly not part of the standard curriculum and had more to do with the teacher venting his personal pet peeves than communicating anything of importance to them, but Haru was pleased at how quickly Makoto had picked up on it and how it felt like something private between them, even if the teacher had dropped this factoid to every one of his classes and would now put it on their exam. Makoto went on explaining how it worked while Haru took some deep breaths. It always helped to breathe in deep before ejecting oneself into space, even if that space was mostly cognitive void.

The part she liked least was just before she was sucked into space. The pressure, at first, was extreme. It always felt like her skeleton was trying to race ahead of the rest of her, the muscles, the nerves, the fat. When she was a child, her father had taken her to the science museum. An exhibit about black holes had entranced him and frightened her. “Let’s say you enter feet first,” her father had said, and a vein in his temple bulged and his face turned blue with excitement. “You’ll feel your legs stretching out. As you look down—and it will be harder to do that, as your eyes elongate—you’ll see your toes going from chopped meatball to linguine—then poof, they’ll swell up into udon noodles, before turning into spaghetti.”

He hadn’t said that. She was imagining it. She was trying to make her father’s Shadow make sense. He had probably been bored. He liked to be entertained, and the museum they had gone to had been for adults. It was very somber. Haru couldn’t remember why he had taken her. Culture, destiny, free tickets? He loved free things. He had probably taken many bribes.

The other thing she disliked was the change in pressure. Her ears popped painfully. The first few times she had been so surprised that she gasped and expelled all the air from her lungs. It was only a few seconds between airlocks, but the sensation of her lungs crumpling, her sternum pulling towards her spine, her abdomen and chest seizing as they tried to inflate her lungs by force, had been so unpleasant. They all had to spend a few sessions curled up on the floor, crying out in pain, while Joker tried to feed them or administer medicine. He was the only one who never seemed affected.

It had been very difficult for her to get used to it, but once she did, she enjoyed it. If she turned away from the spaceport, she faced black, featureless space, a near-total darkness. It was easy to imagine herself as the only thing there, a planet or space station unto herself. No one knew how she had come to be there. Like a star, she had appeared as though by magic: no mother, no father, no point of origin that anyone could trace.