Chapter 1: Dry Drowning
Junpei could breathe underwater. He was completely submerged in cool seawater, but his chest moved up and down and he did not drown. He relaxed and let his limbs float where they wanted, enjoying the moment of peace until two voices broke it:
“Is everything here fucking broken?!”
That last line roused Junpei enough to open his heavy eyelids, and the narrow, intense beam of light that pierced his vision made him wish he’d never woken. When the light disappeared, he recognized two people above him and heard their voices clearer than he had a moment ago.
“Oh. Oh, hi.” Akane’s hand fell on his face as gentle as a bird alighting on a wire. “Hi, Junpei.” When he tried to speak, a raspy sound came out before he hacked and clutched his chest. “Wait, wait, don’t try to talk.” Akane gently grabbed his shoulders and kept him from sitting up. She was the first thing he could make out, looking kind but serious as she sat beside him on the cot. His arms burned with the urge to resist her restraints, but he was still so damn tired… “Do we put him back in the Treatment Pod?”
Phi came up behind Akane, looking down at him over her shoulder like he was an experiment for which she awaited results. “You can if you want. He’s heavy.” She gestured with the penlight she held in one hand and the scanner in the other. “And I think the ADAM says he’s alright. Probably just feeling out of it from cold sleep.”
“If you did it right.”
“Of course I did it right, it’s the machine that keeps shutting off I don’t trust.” She scoffed and mumbled, “It’s not my fault Crash Keys forgot to pay the utilities,” but looked away when Akane glared at her.
Junpei’s eyes closed despite his desire to stay awake to eavesdrop, and after another coughing fit he slipped back under and into that dream about floating in a sea he’d never been to. When he next woke, it was because he’d slapped away someone’s touch. Akane stood above him with scanner in hand. “Sorry, did I startle you?”
“Do you always have to wake me with a surprise?”
He pointed to Aoi over her shoulder, who rolled his eyes and put his hand on Akane’s shoulder. “I’d feel better if I didn’t have to see his ugly mug.” He needed a little entertainment to take his mind off the pain expanding his rib cage, spreading more every time he tried to breathe.
Akane frowned. “...Who? Junpei, me and Phi are the only ones here.” Aoi tapped the muzzle of the golden revolver against her temple and looked rather bored as Junpei’s breath filled his chest with the pressure of a balloon about to explode, and then he started to choke as water filled his nose, mouth, and lungs.
He put up with another day of muscle tone, memory, vision, respiratory tests, another day of stumbling to the attached private bathroom in the infirmary, another day of drinking his meals while Akane hovered over him to make sure he didn’t choke, before he decided he’d had enough and unplugged himself while Akane slept in a chair by his bedside.
This wasn’t Building Q. Where Building Q had been a work of art with fine wood panels, grand staircases, and shades of red, gold, and blue, this place was made of of long gray corridors, cold metal, and the occasional splash of cyan. Despite its clinical interior, it wasn’t Dcom either. After a few minutes he didn’t have to lean against the wall to move, although hurrying to get away from the sound of footsteps was tearing the breath out of him faster than he could spare. He turned his head once when Lotus called his name and for a brief moment he did see her, framed by the staircase of C Deck, hands on her hips and yelling at him for wandering off with the Sun Key. But then she disappeared and the hallway was empty and gray again.
“Junpei, nobody’s there,” Akane had told him again and again the past day, going as far as to grab him when he started yelling that Hongou was behind her. But then why did it feel so real? Neither she nor Phi had had an answer for him except glances at one another and tight lips for him.
He pushed himself to get as far as possible before they found him again or he collapsed or both, fighting through calf-high water—or the memory of it?—for the last stretch to the closest door, and finally rested once he was in the new room.
The chapel was a perfect replica of the one in Building Q, and Junpei sat at a pew, breaths shallow but shoulders relaxed as he leaned back. His eyes scanned the room, but instead of the present he saw the past:
There was the coffin on the dais with its golden edges shining in the candlelight. A few rows ahead, June lay in her blood. It was only just darker than the red carpet beneath her. Junpei watched her bleed out, her breaths coming slower and slower, and when he turned his head at that same sound he'd futilely chased last time she was gone. The golden revolver replaced her, and he would've grabbed it if he could move. Might've been nice to handle it just once. When he’d held his work gun, he’d felt small and wary instead of powerful.
He would've sat in those memories forever, letting them rush over him until he drowned, had someone not called his name: "Tenmyouji." Hm, Phi'd snuck up beside him while he'd listened to Snake and Seven puzzling out how to get through the 9 door.
She repeated his name and shook his shoulder, and he looked at her. White hair with red roots, a blue sweater, and a silver brooch just peeking out over the small dog in her arms. She cradled it like a baby, coddling its elderly joints.
"Hey Gab," he said and reached out to pet the dog's shaggy head, but Phi sighed and turned her body so Junpei couldn't touch him.
"Answer my question." Huh, she'd asked one? Maybe while Seven was talking in Junpei’s other ear. "How long have you been awake?" She drew out each word, getting louder as she did. Gab whined and she looked at him apologetically before setting him on the floor.
Awake. What a mutable, nondescript word for what he was right now. Phi was in front of him, but Snake was behind him asking where Clover was. Phi sighed. "So, you too," she muttered, before closing her eyes.
An air raid siren screamed in his ears, and he groaned and covered them. It echoed in his head, split his brain in two, lit his nerves on fire, before cutting out. He stayed bent over, protecting himself from another blast that never came. When he looked up Phi was rubbing her temples, her eyes screwed shut. "That hurt me more than it hurt you.”
"Why the hell did you do that?" Her presence in his mind still pinched his cortex like an alligator clip.
"Because I didn't have a bucket of ice water." She folded her arms. "Are you awake now?"
He looked around; the coffin was gone and Clover no longer clung to Light at the end of the aisle. He nodded. Pieces fell into place as quickly as they'd scattered when he came in here. "Yeah. But mess with my head again and..." He didn't finish the thought. Leave work at work. "Where are the others?" Were there others? He tried to recall the brief moments between a false fire alarm in Dcom going off and waking up in the infirmary here with Phi shining a penlight in his eye, but nothing except the brief image of a coin falling end over end through the air. Or was it a die?
"Come with me, Akane’s having a panic attack over you." Phi retrieved Gab from the floor, smiling at the way he wagged his tail at her touch.
"Why would I want to see her?"
"Don’t shoot the messenger. I didn't follow you around because I was bored. She wants to see you." She turned and started walking down the aisle. Junpei followed her, telling himself it was only because she knew where they kept solid food.
He followed Phi down the hall, but not in the direction of the infirmary. They passed by a few more doors Phi said were unimportant, so he made a note to poke around later while the others slept. She kept a steady pace without looking back to see if he was keeping up, and he was grateful she couldn’t watch him struggle like some old grandpa. Gab stayed by his side, although Junpei suspected that was because he was old instead of compelled by a dog’s loyalty.
They arrived in a hall with two rows of doors on either side, like the cabins in Building Q. Phi had to turn the great handle in the center of the door with both hands before entering. They stood in Akane and Phi’s tiny quarters, where the beds were flat and could fold up into the walls when nobody was using them. This place was temperature-controlled but the dark colors made it feel cold, although he noticed patterned bedding, women’s clothing, and even a bottle of hair product that made the room feel cozier.
Akane wore a red sweater. There was no blood on it, like on all of the other Akanes, so this one was real. Her hand was cupped over her heart and she looked at him like he was one of their rabbits. “Junpei, are you alright?” she said in a little voice, and he nodded. She smiled. “I’m so glad.” Akane’d cut her hair, and now it fell right above her shoulders. Combined with her round face, it made her look too young. He could imagine her making a sudden change, thinking that controlling one tiny part of her life would make the fact that they’d woken up in another strange place tolerable. “What were you thinking running off like that?”
“Where’s everyone else?” This place was huge, and there should’ve been people passing him in the wide hallways and asking where he was going looking like death warmed over. The others from Dcom had to be here somewhere if he, Akane, and Phi were. Junpei the detective wanted to cross the room and approach Akane like a suspect: get in her personal space, lean forward to emphasize their height difference, and fire questions at her until she didn’t have time to construct a lie before the next one came.
Junpei the man wanted to say that he was glad she was alright too.
“I-I don’t know… Phi and I have been together for two months, but you’re the first person who’s come out of the other pods.”
“Months?” Pods? But one question at a time, he supposed.
Akane nodded, squeezing her hand into a fist. “Yes, we woke up here together.”
“How is that possible? It’s…” He rubbed the back of his head. “I know I haven’t seen you two in a few days, but…” He gestured to Phi, sitting on her bed petting a drowsy Gab. “Your hair was totally white last week, but your roots are red now.”
“My hair hasn’t been completely white since I woke up two months ago,” Phi said blandly, and looked up at Akane like she expected a challenge. “Just because it’s been a week for you doesn’t mean it’s been a week for us.”
“Okay, so I’ve lost eight weeks of time—”
“You haven’t lost eight weeks,” Akane interrupted. She stepped closer to him, and he leaned toward her. Akane looked into his eyes, and he didn’t look away. “Junpei, it’s been decades. Phi and I have pinned it down to 207X, but—” She jumped when Junpei burst out laughing. He wanted to laugh until his throat was raw and he couldn’t talk about this anymore or ask her any more questions he suddenly wanted no answers for. He covered his sardonic grin and laughed until he started to cough.
The coughing turned to wheezing, and finally he quieted, bent over with one hand to his chest. “Wow. That’s a new lie.” He looked up at Akane, saw her narrowed eyes and frown. “C’mon, when is everyone else gonna pop out and yell ‘Gotcha?’”
“They won’t.” Phi came to Akane’s side in a moment, angling herself so she was slightly between Akane and Junpei. “We don’t know all the details because we can’t contact the other facilities. But Akane and I know this place.” Akane put a hand on Phi’s shoulder and squeezed it until her fingernails turned rosy in the centers, but Phi persisted. “No, what’s the point in lying to him?
Junpei stood up straight. “I’d love to know that, too,” he said, and wanted to take it back when Akane’s shoulders slumped.
“This place is called a Rhizome,” Phi continued. “I’ve been to one before. They’re underground shelters on the moon.” She closed her eyes, as if for dramatic effect or to let that sink in. “And if we’re here, that means we’re in a bad, bad world.”
Junpei thought of Sigma’s constant doomsaying around Dcom, Akane’s tight-eyed promise that she’d “tell him everything” someday, and Phi’s keen knowledge of their past together. But that wasn’t enough. “One time, someone told me I was on a sinking replica of the Titanic. Real flooded decks and everything—it was convincing. Turns out I was on dry land in a building in Nevada. You can fake almost anything if you want to. Prove that you’re telling the truth.” He looked between both of them, but his eyes, as always, settled on Akane.
When Akane stepped forward Phi put a hand on her arm as if to hold her back, but Akane shook her off. Akane approached him with her back straight and stopped a few footsteps away from him. She had to look up into his face, unlike when they were twelve, the same height, and having a petty argument about who got the last of the candy. “Do you see a bracelet on your wrist?”
“Then this isn’t a plan of mine. I’m not lying to you.”
Behind him, June crooned Jumpy… in a sickly voice. He held his breath as he waited for Santa to appear behind Akane’s shoulder with a gun to her temple or a knife in his back, but instead he got Akane holding his hand. He wasn’t even aware he’d thrown one up between them. “If you can bring yourself to trust me, you can stay by my side.” She squeezed his hand and although he could easily wrench it away from her, he didn’t. She smiled like he’d just offered to walk her home after dark. “I could use a detective. I don’t have much money, though.”
June was silent. Or perhaps she was gone, as he stared at Akane and she looked at him in anticipation. He pictured a finger touching the center of her forehead and then slowly phasing through it like she was transparent. As it did her mind opened to him, enveloped him:
Choking on desert dust as she ran from a horrorshow; the stench of abandoned corpses rotting to pieces in the sun; and the eerie silence right after the detonation of a reactor, before a boom announced the end of the world. Space—empty and cold as the Earth below—passing by her on her way to that Rhizome. Pressing her forehead to her bedroom wall and feeling nothing inside.
It took him a moment to realize that hard sensation against his forehead was the floor of Akane and Phi’s room. He was on his side, like he’d rolled from his hands and knees, and Akane knelt beside him. “You’re alright,” she murmured.
No he wasn’t, Junpei thought as he curled his hand into a fist by his head. Akane had finally told the truth.
“You see what I mean?” Phi said above him. “If we’re here…” She sighed. “I’d hate to see what’s down there.” As if to underscore her point, the lights shut off. The darkness filled the room and if he didn’t feel their presences beside him he wouldn’t have known they were there. “Damn it… What is wrong with this place?” Phi tapped her foot on the floor, and the sound made Junpei want to bury his head under some pillows. Her annoyance and anxiety filled him up as if it was his own, and it took him a moment to realize he’d started bouncing his foot too. They were moving parts of the same machine, compelled to follow the other’s lead.
“Give it a minute,” Akane sighed. “It always comes back.”
“One day it won’t,” Phi said, but she stopped tapping her foot and Junpei lost the urge to do so himself. A vague melancholia replaced it, which felt more like something Akane would feel than Phi. “Right. I’m not waiting, I’m going to the control room.” On her way across the room, she stumbled over Junpei and swore. A flashlight beam cut through the darkness, sweeping over Junpei and Akane before Phi put it under her chin and lit her face like she was about to tell a story scarier than whatever was happening now. “Stay put, I guess. I’ll check on the pods on my way back.” She clicked her tongue and tiny claws across the floor announced Gab was following her before the door shut again.
Words, words, all this information and nowhere to put it amongst the ghosts clamoring for attention in all his senses. He got up and sat on a bed, raising his arms above his head as he tried to crack his neck. “Does this happen often?”
“Often enough,” Akane said from her seat on the floor. “There’s something wrong with the electricity, the radio, you name it. The only reliable things are the pantry, the showers, and the pods.”
“You keep saying ‘pods.’ You mean, like, ‘Pod People’ or…?”
“No, nothing silly like that. Like cold sleep pods.”
“...I see. So you believe we were in cold sleep and woke up in the future on the moon.” And I thought you were nuts in Building Q, he thought, only to jolt when Akane snorted and said, “And I thought you would be more open-minded after what we’ve been through.”
“...Did you hear that?”
“I hear enough, like a radio in the next room. Sometimes we catch things whether we want to hear them or not, and sometimes if we try we can make it out perfectly.”
He frowned. “Do me a favor and stay out.”
Akane didn’t reply, but no more foreign words, sensations, and emotions entered his head. They sat in darkness for an uncertain amount of time until the lights returned. He jumped off the bed; it was time to explore. “Seeya. I have to see what’s around here.”
“Don’t go alone, you’re still—”
“I’m fine! This isn’t like when I got dehydrated on the school field trip, okay?” He left before she could reply, walking quickly until he was out of earshot. He got halfway to the exit and had to brace himself against the wall, legs shaking with the effort to keep standing. Building Q flickered in his vision once more—this time the hallway right after he’d escaped from that very first room—and water dripped and trailed from from the ceiling. First in dark trickles that stained the walls, and then a roaring torrent washed out the hall. I’ll drown, he thought. The adrenaline’s gone, I can’t go fast enough—!
He dragged himself along the wall, struggling as the water rose faster than he could move, and suddenly his legs gave out and he was kneeling in chest-deep water, slipping and desperate to get back on his feet.
“Junpei!” Someone grabbed him under the arms and tried to lift him with great effort, unaffected by his sodden clothes and dead weight, but they dropped him with a splash and slumped forward, panting. “Junpei, I see it too, it’s not real.” Tell that to the water under his chin. Akane stood before him and her hand dove through the water to find his. “I can’t pick you up. I need your help.” She grabbed his hand with both of hers and leaned back with all her weight, and urged by her plea, he rose for her. Now off-balance, Akane squawked and fell backwards. He leapt forward and put his free arm around her waist to pull her upright. Energy gone, he held onto her waist and collapsed against her shoulder. “Hehe...someday I won’t need help saving you.”
Junpei’s eyes closed and he listened to the water slosh as it drained away, sucking away the last bit of strength he had to walk, to release her, to fight for some dignity.
“You two made up already?” Phi stared at them from behind Akane; Gab sat at her heels and panted softly, unaware of the tension coming from her. An icy-hot sensation prickled Junpei’s face and neck and spread down his limbs; his heart sped up. Though Phi looked impassive, her body told a different story—directly to his body.
“Ah, Phi…” Akane stepped away from his hold and he stumbled but steadied himself against the wall again. “Junpei’s just not feeling well.”
Phi looked at Akane for a long moment before shrugging and shaking her head. “I was on my way to find you two anyway, ‘cause more people are defrosting. We have five more minutes.”
Chapter 2: Mittelpunkt
Akane nodded. "Yes. Act out if you like, Phi, I'll still trust you."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Sigma’d lost his mind, and Phi considered it her job to retrieve it. “Are you ever gonna eat?”
Sigma didn’t look up from excavating the Zelkova tree’s trunk, consumed by a dried-out mulch mound. He scraped it away in handfuls on his knees, and nodded when he’d exposed a spot where the roots flared away into the soil. “I didn’t spend years cultivating this stupid thing to lose it to a mulch volcano…” he muttered, and Phi coughed and “accidentally” kicked a small spray of mulch onto him. “Hey!”
“Sorry, I have allergies. Now can we go to the pantry?” Phi put a hand on her hip when Sigma returned to the tree. “Diana’s not gonna bite you.” By the way his shoulders tensed, she knew she’d guessed accurately why he’d run to the B. Garden.
After recovering, he, Carlos, and Diana had all immediately wanted to make themselves useful. Carlos went on a fire safety inspection, Diana wanted to make sure everyone would be fed and bandaged, and Sigma had wanted to see if he could fix the communications system—after a snack. Upon entering the pantry, he’d turned and left the moment Diana waved to them, foil-bagged rations in both hands and dangling from her mouth.
“You go, you never had a problem running off—damn it, Phi! Stop that!” Sigma covered his face as dark chips bounced off of him, launched by Phi’s kick at the heart of the mound. She stabbed the mulch with her toes and tossed it back where Sigma tried to keep it out. When he swiped at her, she sidestepped him and kept kicking, and they moved in a half-circle around the tree before he caught her arm. “What is wrong with you?” He was still on his knees, with bits of mulch in his hair and collar, and Phi snorted. At least Sigma making her laugh was a constant.
Rustling in the long, unkempt grass made her turn and find Gab. “Hey bud, finished your rounds?” she said as she bent over to pet him. Gab dropped his favorite toy—a small yellow high-top sneaker she guessed he’d dug out of the supply closet—at her feet. Phi chucked it a few feet away, but instead of fetching it Gab just looked at her until she shook her head and retrieved it.
“Where does he go?” Sigma stood and shook his head but only succeeded in making wood chips fall into his shirt.
“Wanders the vents. He thinks he’s our patrol dog.” Phi knew he was just a dog, but she liked to pretend he had his own schedule. (“07:00: Wake Phi up by walking across her face. 11:00: Beg for snacks even though I just ate an hour ago. 12:00-13:30: Nap.”) “If you’re not hungry, we should find Akane.”
Sigma didn’t respond. Instead he stared into space for a moment before saying, “It is nice to have people here.”
“Yeah, but I’ll be happier to get out.” As if escaping would send them back to the Earth of 2028.
"I think that dirt suits you, Sigma," someone said behind them. When they turned, Akane smiled innocently as she looked between Phi and Sigma. "Are we ready?"
They followed her to the control room (except Gab, who’d flopped onto his stomach and settled in for his 16:30 nap). Sigma swore he understood the communications system well enough to troubleshoot. He said that after the initial Rhizome operations skeleton crew left, he'd maintained the place by himself. He added that by the end, his titles should've been M.D., MSc, Ph.D., MBA, and Esq., but neither of the girls laughed.
Where are the others? Phi thought. She didn’t have to mouth the words she wanted to transmit anymore.
The infirmary. Junpei's having another moment. They're watching him, Akane sent back. A moment where he lost all grip on reality and thought Akane's name was June and that she was dead. That Phi was Clover and someone named Seven had whole conversations with him. He'd been more lucid, but others waking up seemed to have agitated him. Once he’d looked at Carlos, jumped, and called for someone named Maria. Last night they’d found him in Warehouse A pounding on the giant metal door and screaming “Where is the DEAD?” When Carlos carried him to the infirmary, Junpei’d writhed like a fox in a trap and struggled until Diana sedated him.
Sigma didn't stop or ask how they were doing this—he didn't hear them. This was Akane and Phi's secret: that they had a private channel. That Junpei wasn't just delusional.
“What’s really going on?” Sigma’d asked her when he’d cornered her in the pantry on the first night. She’d stepped out of his grip and gave the short explanation, sans esper malfunction. She told herself it was because he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life, and trying to use this ability would make it worse. Now his mind was so open to her she knew when he was hungry and how nice he thought Diana smelled. (Phi wished he’d stop thinking about Diana.)
They arrived at control and Sigma got to work. Phi moved to help but Akane ran a hand down her arm to get her to stop. "Do you want a snack?" She offered a lemon hard candy (so she must've found either the bag hidden among Phi’s underwear or the tiny stash she hid in Gab's collar instead of medicine). They weren’t the same kind Oma had eaten in handfuls while she worked (with Phi lying on the floor of her office reading a book so they could be in the same room together), but they were good.
Phi wanted to be stubborn but she hadn't eaten because she'd chased Sigma all day. She took it and Akane's touch warmed her. Phi usually stood back in crowds, gave attempted hugs the cold shoulder, and even stopped letting Oma hold her hand when she was six. But when she'd been alone with Akane, someone as stubborn as herself, she wanted to be touched. Now that there were others that casual intimacy would probably stop altogether.
Phi cracked the candy between her back teeth as Sigma spoke to the air: “Lagomorph, respond.” He repeated himself, and then bashfully scratched the back of his head. “Oh, I guess he’s not around, huh?” Akane tittered and Phi smirked when their eyes met.
“Maybe I can help.” Phi stepped forward and made him move aside, and began poking at the console she secretly didn’t understand any more than when she’d pounded her fist on it almost two months ago. “Work with me, Majel,” she muttered as the second password screen shut her out.
“Majel?” Sigma raised an eyebrow at her name for the computer and she didn’t respond even when he murmured, “Good taste…” He gave her a string of passwords to try, both his own and things he knew were standardized across the Rhizome system. He sighed but she straightened her shoulders, not ready to give up. “You recognize that symbol, Phi.”
The emblem of Free the Soul, red and overpowering, stared her down from the large screen above her. It silenced and cut them off from people who could bring them more medicine, food, and answers. “I know.” Phi turned to Akane. "Akane, what do you remember about Crash Keys' intel on Free the Soul?"
"Things that would've been relevant about 45 years ago," Akane said. She frowned and her eyes narrowed at the screen with simmering hostility. When Phi tried to reach for her mind Akane repulsed her. "Phi, have you tried brute-forcing again like I told you—"
"Of course!" And don't talk to me like I'm your follower. If Akane heard that, she didn’t show it.
Sigma stretched. "Forget this for now. I'm more concerned about the central operations failing. Are you sure there's no way into the quantum computer room right now? It should let us override this system."
"Yes—" Akane began, but Phi cut her off.
"It's not like we tried hard." Akane’s frustration surged through Phi’s head, making Phi’s jaw tense without her consent. Big deal, she could put her ego aside for five minutes. "Sigma, come with me. We can figure out how to get into the room." She shrugged at Akane. "Go be with the others. We've got this."
"It was my Rhizome first.”
Phi turned on Akane and threw her hands up. "This isn't anyone's Rhizome now!"
"Okay, enough." Sigma put an arm between them as if he wasn't sure who would jump first. "I know you two have been alone for a long time. Things get heated." He eyed Akane and Phi heard a snatch of a furious argument he and Akane’d had in another timeline about who’d eaten the last of the canned tuna. "We can't think clearly if we're upset. Phi, let's go. Akane…” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Tenmyouji trusts you, right? And do you really think this harpy here can break the ice with the others?"
Akane nodded. "Yes. Act out if you like, Phi, I'll still trust you."
Phi bristled and almost spat back a reply about how condescending she was, but Sigma coughed and she thought better. Having one person here angry at her was better than two, especially when her true ally was here. Sigma—the old man who ate sugar packets at the diner they stopped at before Dcom because he “hadn’t had real sugar in 45 years!"—was still a Sigma she could rely on. He wouldn't discard her the second someone else came along.
Akane left and he nudged Phi gently. "She's like that. Don't take it personally. She—"
"Sigma, let it go," she said. He did. She liked this other Sigma. If the other one never came back, this one would be a decent replacement.
They didn't speak about anything except business on the way to the quantum computer. It gave Phi too much time to think about when it was just her and Akane. When they didn’t need secrets, and Akane needed her.
Phi woke from cold sleep first, shivering at the realization she was back where she'd started, but it looked like she’d gone halfway and then jumped across the diameter of the circle instead of following the circumference. Had she gone to Dcom at all, she wondered, until memories filtered in of the others: Sigma's erratic behavior, Akane's avoidance, the dread that'd exhausted Phi so much she'd had to sleep it off in Diana's arms.
Diana. If she was in a Rhizome, where was Diana? Nine pods surrounded her like an incomplete clock; she'd emerged from the pod at the “midnight” position. She'd wandered the facility and noted differences—the chapel, the quantum computer missing from control, no lions, no AB rooms and puzzles and Chromatic Doors. What the hell was this?
When she returned to the room with the pods, she'd found Akane on the floor, dizzy and weak. Phi'd felt off when she awoke in that AB room a lifetime ago, but had it been this bad? She lifted Akane to her feet, putting her arm around her shoulders so she could lean on her, and took her to the infirmary.
She didn't cry when Phi explained her theory, just nodded and walled off, becoming the professional Phi'd only known her as the whole time. “We have to get a message to the outside world,” she said, but they found the system on total lockdown.
"What do we do now?" Akane asked quietly with her hands clasped in front of her chest, and Phi wondered what to say.
"...We find something to eat. We can't focus if we're starving."
"I'm not hungry," Akane said despite her pale skin and shaky steps as she followed Phi.
"Then talk to me while I eat."
The pantry was where she remembered it, and she smiled when she found the water and rations. She'd been pulling fish, meat, soup, anything she could find when the bag of lemon drops fell out from behind one ration. She grabbed it and a memory overcame her:
"Phi, bring the candy dish over here," Oma said without looking up from her papers. Phi was bored of sitting in the office armchair playing with the strange dolls while she waited for Oma to read to her like she'd promised, so she jumped to get up. Oma took it, and then with a small smile offered one to Phi with her delicate fingers. "Try one."
It was so sour Phi coughed and spit it out immediately. It stuck to the rug, shiny with spit. Oma sighed. "Clean that up." Phi, only five, wanted to hide behind the desk at the thought Oma was unhappy with her.
Phi opened the bag, folding a drop between her tongue and cheek and let the sourness wash away the smallness and embarrassment that memory brought up.
"Gab!" When Phi turned, Akane knelt on the ground scratching Gab's head as he ate from an automatic dog feeder. A vent grate was propped up against the wall beside it. "What are you doing here? Who put you in that vent, silly boy?"
"So...maybe we're not in the future? Dogs don't live that long. And who would freeze him?"
Akane's fingers sunk into Gab’s fur like he was an anchor. "Maybe." Her stomach growled and she flushed. "I'm really fine."
Phi thrust a salad ration into her hands, even though she thought Akane had no reason to be insecure if that was the reason she was refusing food. They sat and ate on the floor in companionable silence, and it was funny how Akane picked out the radishes daintily and set them on the floor behind her thigh like she was afraid of offending the salad. Gab ate the pieces of meat Phi offered him, and pressed himself against her thigh when he was tired.
When they'd exhausted options, Phi was left with the other decisions: when to sleep, where, when to shower. Akane seemed elsewhere, and Phi settled for putting them in the lounge the first night to sleep on the sectional sofa, head-to-head despite their efforts to give the other space. Gab snored when he laid on his side. Phi curled up in a ball so he could lie at her feet. She was so tired she thought she'd fall asleep in seconds, but she laid awake far too long, staring at the low lights over the bar.
When she did sleep, she had a dream about nuclear fire. She lost her breath as she ran deeper underground to shelter, feeling like a coward as tears ran down her face. She was alone in the room when she woke, and for the rest of the night she sat up, too uneasy to sleep.
They’d killed another day eating out of ration boxes, petting Gab, and sleeping on the couches before realizing the crew quarters still had mattresses. After settling into their rooms, Akane would read in the library and Phi would poke at the gadgets in the lab and they’d reconvene to learn that they still knew nothing.
When Phi’d found the gym hidden at the end of one floor it’d been a lifesaver to keep her bones and mind from decaying. One day, Phi pounded the treadmill until the soles of her feet ached. She stopped only when she stumbled and her knee locked, barely turning off the treadmill in time to avoid falling. She needed somewhere to put the energy, and lifting medicine balls didn't cut it. But her muscles protested, and announced that that day’s workout was over. Her hair and skin petitioned for a shower.
Phi stripped down and left her clothes on the bench in the shower room. It had both stalls and a larger communal shower with a drain and a gutter all around the room. She stepped into the communal one and turned the first dial she grabbed. Cold water blasted her front and she shrieked, jumping backward and covering her chest from the impact. She reluctantly got under the lukewarm spray and rinsed off, trying to protect her hair because the color was fading fast without her normal shampoo and touch-ups. If space had no hair dye she was going to be pissed. The water didn’t help her tension, which ramped up when she stepped out of the flow and cold air enfolded her. She put her arms around herself, shivering, and when she looked around for a towel realized she hadn’t grabbed one.
Still hugging herself, she stepped out of the shower and right into Akane’s line of sight. Akane stood in the doorway, and her mouth and eyes opened wide as portholes before she yelped an apology and darted back into the gym.
Phi barked in shocked laughter, then flushed all over as she realized what Akane’d accidentally done. She redressed in her workout clothes, feeling disgusting but just wanting to escape to her room. Still wet, she slipped in the hall and almost fell, but hid in her room soon enough. Couldn’t she find any space here? What would it take to be left the hell alone?
A knock. “Phi?”
“I’m really sorry.” Akane walked away when Phi didn’t answer her. They didn’t meet again until the next day, and Akane bumped into her in the pantry. “Oh…”
“Do you recognize me with clothes on?” Phi said with more boldness than she felt. She looked at her food instead of Akane, but flushed when Akane giggled.
“...It certainly woke me up. I’ll wear a bell around my neck next time.” Akane heated up a meat ration and ate it with more gusto than normal. Neither addressed the incident (Phi thought she might choke on her food if they had). “Maybe we should stop eating on the floor.”
They moved to the library for meals, because it had a desk big enough to sit at. Akane said she liked sharing a table with Phi. Even when Akane and her brother had been busy running their organization they’d eaten dinner together every night.
When Akane turned her room into another office, Phi let her move into hers, grumbling but quietly enjoying the presence of another person at night. This place was huge and held only sinister memories for her. Akane told her more about her life, her brother, and Junpei. Phi learned that she loved trying new tea and didn’t like salty food, that she’d been to Singapore, and she thought her brother was the smartest person she knew.
“Do you miss Sigma?” Akane asked her one night after lights out.
“I think we’ve gotten more done without him than we would with him,” Phi said with a hint of humor. “But he’s a good person. What kind of question is that?”
“You don’t talk about anyone from your life. Is Sigma your only friend?”
“He was a huge pain in my ass during the AB Game.” Phi put both hands over her stomach and took deep breaths. “And I still trust him more than anyone at Dcom. Why are you so curious about me?”
“I just want to understand you.” Akane chuckled. “And you can act aloof, but I know you think about him a lot. ‘Oh, I wonder what stupid pun Sigma would make if he saw this cat?’ and ‘Ew, this swimsuit poster is still here? At least Sigma would like it.’”
“You don’t know what I think.” Phi denied it because she had to if she was going to get any sleep tonight. Did Akane know that every night, Phi lived a different life in her dreams? Her big brother swung her around in a circle to make her laugh, she made a wish on a clover that she’d escape this ship, and she giggled at how soft the bunnies were as they snuffled against her palms for more food. She burned alive. And every night her name was Akane.
“But I do,” Akane swore, and Phi rolled over to face the wall.
After she and Sigma were unsuccessful at opening the electronic locks to the quantum computer room, Phi decided she’d had enough and would throw herself back into her study: a part of the library she’d sectioned off by hanging a set of sheets between a tall chair and a bookshelf. She sat on the floors amidst piles of books, her notebook, and an old journal that had been in her pocket when she woke up. It was hardcover, scuffed, and labeled with masking tape with “Liebchen” written in blue ink. The handwriting was familiar as ever: Oma’s. It was written partially in Latin and partially in German, that language Phi associated with passive-aggressive muttering and old lady griping about noise or messes. When she was frustrated about the mysteries outside, she hid here and would try to translate it with several reference books, dictionaries, and memories. Oma’s handwriting crowded every page and she’d drawn little dividers between sections with European-order dates or small doodles of butterflies or flowers. It was a tiny journal to begin with, so it was a slow process to decipher words, translate, and try to figure out what she meant from very literal translations.
She was in the middle of a page when the sheet rustled and she sighed. “This is my study.”
“Akane told me that,” Diana said as she came in anyway. She knelt down beside Phi. “Sorry, I just wanted to see how you were doing.” She looked around at the books but kept her hands in her lap. “What’s this?”
“Do you like to read?” When Phi didn’t respond, she reached for one of the stacked books. “Mittelpunkt, huh?” She’d butchered the pronunciation. “...It’s all in German. Do you know how to read it?”
“Not well.” Phi twirled the highlighter she’d been using to cross-reference words in the journal with words in the grammar book she had open. “I’m trying to translate this, but it’d be easier if I could just hear it read. For some reason it clicks when I hear it.”
“What got you into it?”
“My foster mother spoke it.” She was already referring to her in the past tense. “She never taught me, but I could understand her a little. Latin was more my thing. Well, some of this is in Latin. Still doesn’t help.”
“I can read to you.”
Diana began, and Phi cringed listening to her stumble through foreign phonemes and syntax without the proper cadence of a grammar she didn’t know, but by the end Diana was giggling at herself. “Did that help?”
“You sounded like you were being punched in the stomach.” Phi couldn’t help a smile. Diana noticed and giggled harder.
“I can do it in an accent.”
“Please don’t.” Diana started anyway, in a ridiculous accent she must’ve gotten from a film, and before she knew it Phi was laughing. She put a hand to her forehead and laughed until her voice broke, and Diana laughed alongside her, and for a moment they forget their situation.
After they’d calmed down, Diana handed her back the journal and quietly said “Phi? Can I ask you a weird question?”
“...I’d really like a hug right now.”
Phi hesitated, but then scooted closer to her and opened her arms, unsure whether to move forward. Diana leaned in and clung to her so tight she gasped. Phi put her arms around Diana’s back and held her, letting herself be swept up in Diana’s emotions: visceral fear of the unknown, worry that her mother was waiting up for her back home, and the relief that Phi hadn’t pushed her away. She almost held on tighter when Diana finally leaned back. “There, now we can do anything. Thanks, Phi.”
“Uh-huh.” Phi looked back at her books. “I...I need to focus on this right now. I’ll see you later.”
“Oh...yeah. See you, Phi. Don’t forget to eat.”
Phi savored the time alone, using it to hide her face in a book and try to clear her head of any remaining feelings from Diana. She started when Akane spoke behind her: "Phi?"
Phi didn't turn to look at her. "This is my study."
"I know. You took my blankets to make the door." Akane’s nails clicked as she tapped them against the bookshelf. "What changed just now?"
Phi still didn’t look. "What do you mean?"
"You didn't eat dinner with me."
"I was hungry earlier."
"Is that so?" Phi's hands trembled like someone else was shaking them—and Akane was. "... I'm sorry I was so blunt earlier." Phi's eyes widened and she finally looked at her. Akane averted her eyes and squeezed her hands together to hide the shakes. "I know you only want what's best."
"I'd like to." Akane looked at her with a strained smile, mask cracking. "I'd like to think we're friends now. I'd miss you if we stopped spending time together."
Phi looked at her journal. "Well...maybe if you let me pick dinner from now on. You eat like a rabbit." She pushed her bangs behind her ears—bangs growing out into shaggy pieces that never stayed put. She'd probably look like Gab soon. "I guess it'll be different with more people around."
"Yes, but it'll be less lonely."
"So what'll it be, Akane?"
"You mean, meat or soup?"
Phi scoffed. "Sure." She looked down at Oma’s journal before setting it aside. “You know, promise me one thing."
"That you won't lie to me."
Akane bit her lip and Phi felt her indecision, guilt, and worry all at once. "I swear. No matter how bad it gets, I won't lie to you." Phi stood and they shook on it—despite the fragile doubts swirling in her head, origin point unknown.
Thank you so much for your support so far, it means a lot. You can follow me on Twitter @junpeidoll for progress updates and general ZE fun. (eta 2/23 for typo)
Chapter 3: Trick Shot
Diana set up a game of 8-Ball and took the first shot, calling it correctly and chuckling when he whistled. “Let me know when you want to call it quits, Carlos.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Diana broke her crackers into smaller and smaller pieces until crumbs scattered across her lap. She frowned and brushed them onto the floor, but nobody looked at her. They looked thrilled as she was with their supper of crackers, evaporated milk, and spaghetti from self-heating cans. Once the cooking equipment in the pantry malfunctioned that morning, they had to make do.
Maybe it would’ve been better to let everyone resume their usual routine of “fend for myself and eat alone” tonight, but she thought having company might liven them up. She’d gotten the idea from Akane and Phi after stumbling on them chatting in the library over food, and how for a minute they seemed more relaxed than anyone else here. So today Diana invited everyone to eat with her in the pantry at 17:00, and to her surprise people trickled in.
Their silence and then—at her prodding—stilted conversation sunk the hope that this was a good idea. Carlos said good afternoon, and Diana and Akane were the only ones who returned it. “Has this can had a bad day? Because it’s getting pretty heated,” Sigma cracked, but Junpei grunted and took another sip of his beer.
“Did anyone do anything fun today?” Diana sounded like her mother during the awkward meals they’d had right after Diana left David the first time. They’d meet at a chain restaurant and exchange ‘Can we pretend everything's okay?’ small talk in strained voices. Diana always had stock answers: she was thinking of getting a haircut, work was busy, and yes she was getting enough sleep.
Phi threw her a bone: “I think I know what’s wrong with the rehydrator. I’ll try to fix it tonight.”
Phi answered with a mouthful of spaghetti. “Yeah. That’s all I did today. Sigma, why don’t you tell us what’s new with your soaps?”
“You make me sound like an old woman,” Sigma grumbled. “And I worked out. I bet I can bench you.”
“Your pants are on fire,” Akane said, and smiled at Sigma when he stared her down across the table.
“Carlos?” Diana turned to the man beside her, silently begging him to help her out.
Carlos rested one elbow on the table and pressed his fist to his cheek. When she first met him, Diana saw a clean-cut man with a face she would trust even if she met him in a dark alley, but now his hair was mussed and he’d picked his cuticles bloody. “Nothing to report.” He stuck his spork into his untouched food and stared into space for a moment before shaking his head.
The party was quiet until Akane said, “Junpei, you really shouldn’t be drinking with the way you’re feeling right now.”
Junpei rolled his eyes and took a long swig of the beer that hadn’t left his hand since they sat down. “Are you a doctor now, too?” He looked at Phi, who sat across from him, staring. “What? I’m an adult, this is how I blow off steam.”
Phi drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “Really? Because you act like a 12 year-old.”
“Like you can talk.” Junpei pointed to her own alcohol. “You look like your mom had to sign a permission slip for you to go to Dcom—”
“Junpei!” Akane said, overlapping with Sigma’s “Hey!”
Phi didn’t blink, snap at him, or roll her eyes. “My mother doesn’t care what I do.” Phi got up from the table and left the pantry. Sigma stood as well and glared at Junpei—who shrugged—before following her.
“Why would you say something like that?” Akane said, kicking off another round of quiet bickering between the two. Diana left, leaving it in Carlos’ hands if he cared to do anything about it. She wanted to see if Phi was okay.
Though she had to cover a distance—it felt like she passed a million doors before she heard voices—she overheard them talking around the corner near the control room.
“I’m not going to be responsible for what I say the next time he speaks to you that way.”
“I didn’t ask you to stick up for me.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because I don’t care about Tenmyouji, and I don’t need everyone else to think I need protecting.” Phi lowered her voice and Diana had to crane her neck to hear her say: “And you should be worried about what comes out of your mouth. You should’ve played dumb when Diana wondered how the ADAM worked today.”
Not for the first time, Diana was confused by Sigma. What did Phi mean? “I’m trying. Please believe that.”
“Try harder.” A sound like Phi was tapping her boot against the floor. “Need my help in the control room?”
Diana pressed herself against the wall and listened to them walk in the opposite direction. Once they were gone, she resumed breathing and put a hand over her chest, trying to regain the equilibrium she had before listening to that conversation. Her chest tightened when she thought on Sigma’s pledge that he was trying, and it made her...sad. She wanted so badly to talk to someone and felt crushed by the weight of grief and secrets.
She jogged to the rec room to clear her head, thinking playing pool by herself would help. She wouldn’t have to look cheery or tease out anyone’s feelings. She wouldn’t have to think about anyone else. She could be Diana.
That plan fell through when she found Carlos studying the card house he’d erected on the Craps table. (Upon inspection, Diana noticed a politely-worded note on the table asking everyone to please leave it alone if they found it.) He didn’t notice her as he raised a card, stared at its face, and shook his head before picking up another one. He startled and dropped his card when she greeted him. “Oh. Hi.” He ran a hand over his hair and pressed it passably neat.
“Did you start that today?”
“Yeah. I didn’t want to say at dinner, but I’ve been obsessed with it.” He nodded to her. “Sorry, did you wanna play cards?”
Diana looked at it and admired his handiwork. The little house was carefully structured and she imagined him laboring over it all day. It’d be a shame to destroy it. “No, I like pool better.” She crossed the room and grabbed a cue. “Wanna play?”
Carlos looked around her, eyeing something, and she turned to see the weapon-bearing suits of armor. When she turned back to him, he still stared at the suits as if they’d leap forward and cut his head off any moment. “Sure…”
“I don’t think they can use those weapons.”
“That’s not the problem.” He didn’t explain his unease, but did take the cue she offered.
Diana set up a game of 8-Ball and took the first shot, calling it correctly and chuckling when he whistled. “Let me know when you want to call it quits, Carlos.”
“No way. We never did get to play each other in the tournament.” Diana wasn’t worried. In the first round of the Dcom tournament, he’d scraped by against Eric, winning by virtue of the fact that Eric’s innings consisted almost entirely of fouls. This game didn’t look like it would be any better for him, as he scratched on the first shot. “...That was just bad luck.” His bad luck continued for several innings, until he sighed and hung his head. “I’m down but not out,” he swore, but she watched his shoulders tense as he handled the cue, and his eyes narrow and mouth tighten as his game continued to sour.
“Um… Are you still having fun?”
Carlos stood up straight, considered the table, and shook his head. “Not really.” He scratched the back of his head. “It’s not anything you did. I swear I’m not a sore loser. It just hit me that I’m here trying to forget my problems when Maria’s worried sick about me outside.”
“Is she your wife?”
“No, my sister.” His face relaxed as he talked about her. “She’s my world. I take care of her, so I need to get back as soon as possible.” He told her about his family, and every time he spoke of Maria he’d smile or laugh. Diana let him go on, until she knew what Maria’s favorite flavor of Jell-O was and that she’d been born without wisdom teeth. He coughed suddenly and rubbed his throat. “I think that’s the most I’ve said in a week.”
“At least you were talking about something normal.” Diana thumped her pool cue’s collar against the floor and frowned. “Do you think anyone is coming?” Diana didn’t know she was going to say it until she did, and she turned her head away. “Sorry, that’s really pessimistic.”
“I hope so.” Carlos sighed. “But I don’t know for sure. The only reason I haven’t tried harder to escape on my own is because I can’t leave you guys behind.”
“Of course. ‘First in, last out.’” Carlos’ normal easy smile faded. “Something is bugging me though.”
“Phi and Akane’s timeline has a discrepancy.” Akane and Phi said it’d only been a few days between themselves, Junpei, and Diana, Sigma, and Carlos waking. “It’s only been a few days, so why is Phi’s hair so red?”
Had her hair been that red at Dcom? Diana put a hand under her chin. Of course not. When they’d met Diana thought Phi’s short bleached hair made her look like a scruffy kitten that warmed up once fed. But no matter Diana’s opinion, Phi’s hair was completely white when they met a short time ago, but now dark red roots showed no matter how Phi styled her hair.
“...And she and Sigma know how the machinery works here.” Diana remembered the conversation between Phi and Sigma she’d overheard. “Carlos. Let me tell you something strange.”
Thank you once more to my beta Shan, and all of you readers. Chapter 4 will be a bit, but I'm excited for it and hope you are too!
Chapter 4: Receiver of Wreck
Akane walked the pods in a circle, touching the last three containing people. "They thawed."
it's been two years, 'sup? unbeta'd, thanks to everyone following this.
As Junpei tried to talk about Baccarat, Seven ignored him, preferring instead to stand in the corner and watch the infirmary door. “You know it’s an uncountable game? I’ve tried.” Seven grunted and didn’t look at him. Junpei shrugged and rearranged the snack bags scattered around him on the bed as if he were back in college instead of trapped in here. Although was he trapped if he’d shut himself inside?
There were too many people in the crew quarters: everything they thought and were pressed in on him and here in the low light of the infirmary, sitting on the bed farthest from the door behind the partition, he at least had a moment above water. His head hurt like he’d smashed it against a wall and he wobbled worse than Gab when he tried to walk, but insomnia did that to a person. His head buzzed with exhaustion and when he slept he dreamt of all manner of catastrophe.
“But we saw what Free the Soul can pull off, right?” Junpei tucked his feet under the hospital-neat sheet. Diana changed his bedding every day whether he’d slept here or not, old habits she’d laughed with no smile. “They had jars of people,” he murmured. “And the pods. They could make this place easily.” He nodded and searched the nearest bag for a speck of cookies inside. “You and me Seven, we could escape from here.”
Did people go crazy or did they choose to accept crazy? Nobody in Junpei’s delusions were angry at each other, or distrustful, or lying. If they were assholes, they were predictable assholes. Good company in their own way. But when footsteps entered the room, he looked up and Seven was gone. He almost called for Akane when another woman spoke: “...But they must have a reason, right?” He could picture Diana twirling the ends of her hair now, like she had when she and Akane thought he was asleep and had argued about how to treat him.
“Like what?” Carlos sighed. “I’m not sure what they’d gain from this, but Akane’s lips are sealed.”
“So are Phi’s, and Sigma runs away from me.”
“...You don’t think Gab would help us if we found some cheese?”
Diana gave a weak chuckle. “I…” A fluttery sigh, and then a heavy sound of footsteps.
“Diana?” It sounded like he set her on the bed on the other side of the partition. Junpei willed himself to be very still and quiet, and told Clover, perched on the foot of the bed, to do the same. “What’s wrong?”
“...My head hurts,” she said, sounding far away. After a moment of breathing she said, “It was like this when Phi hugged me.”
“Can I have your hand?”
Beside Junpei, Santa and Clover nudged each other as if to say things were getting interesting. Heat consumed Junpei, like he had opened a door to a raging fire, and he clutched his head and tried to press his face into his knees. He called up the sensation of cool water on his face, saltwater on his tongue, and the heat abated. He sighed.
High, sharp strings cut through the dull roar of water in his ears. The strings grew louder, piercing, until his heart raced and anxiety spiked. Junpei grimaced, and getting to his feet wobbly, he followed the distress call, swimming through the sounds and ignoring Carlos and Diana's surprised calls.
Someone was calling for him and no one else. As he trailed through the halls, June close behind him, the cabins phased in and out of view and he asked her where Snake could be.
"I don't want to think about it," she admitted, coming up alongside him, and even he turned to look at her, her hair had no bun, no flowers, her clothing was her faded sweater dress. "Junpei?"
"You followed me?"
She folded her hands. "Well, yes," she said with certainty like she considered it an irrelevant question. "You're feeling better?" The blood on her chest disagreed.
"I hear something." He turned to go, but she followed him like Gab when he smelled a treat.
Now you wanna talk to me. "A person." He listened closer, and his breathing shuddered, his limbs locked as if he were shut into a space so small he'd suffocate if he tried to breathe. "They're in a pod."
Akane looked down the hall, in the direction of the pod room, and nodded. "We'll go."
In the room, the feeling got so bad he wanted to collapse. Akane reached for him but he turned away. She walked the pods in a circle, touching the last three containing people. "They thawed." She frowned.
"You can't feel that?"
"...Something like music. Strings?"
"Yeah... And they can't get out. They're trying to escape the pod." His fists hurt from someone pounding on the inside, the right so painful he felt like it was damaged. He stood, approached a pod, and attempted to turn the dial to unlock it but it stuck fast. He leaned into it with his whole body and put his knees into lifting, and still nothing. This thing was heavier and more solid than Seven. Akane tried, so close beside him he could feel her warmth, and still nothing.
No noise from within, but the struggle inside put aching pain in Junpei's bones. "Sigma might know what to do right?"
Akane nodded, clasping her hands over her chest. "Let's find him." Before she left, she put a hand on the pod and she and Junpei had the same thought: We hear you. We're coming.
For a moment, the pain eased.
"You're kidding me," Sigma muttered, pulling his tool away from the panel he'd been fiddling with. "This emergency release is tamper-proof."
"Can you find another way?" Junpei shook his hand out and hissed; his bones jostled under his skin.
"Restore power to this pod. That's the main problem. The other two?"
"The same." Akane stroked one she hadn't left since they entered. "...Will the life support work without the main power?"
"For a time." Sigma shut the panel and glared at the machinery. "But we need to restore it immediately. The pods can be overridden by the control room computer, like most things here.” He stroked his chin. “Wasn’t the brightest design choice in hindsight, but nothing I can do about that. If you want to help, stay with these pods and keep an eye on them for any malfunction while Phi and I try one more time to get into the computer.”
Following his advice, Junpei ended up watching the oxygen levels on one pod while Akane unscrewed the emergency stop hatch on another, sighing and fiddling with the same equipment Sigma had earlier. Junpei tapped on the pod with his knuckles, picking up a staccato beat to amuse himself, before Akane coughed and when he looked up she was frowning at him. “I’m checking to make sure they’re conscious,” he said, and went back to tapping. “Hey! Can you hear me?” No answer either in his head or from the pod. When he looked back at Akane, she shook her head to confirm.
“...What if they’ve already lost oxygen?” Akane said, standing up to check the monitor on the pod she watched. She put a finger to the reading and stared at it like she was willing the level to raise.
“Don’t think like that—if they can send thoughts, they’re fine.” He tilted his head and tried to call up those strings from earlier, and in response crystalline notes rang in his ears. “See?”
Akane smiled at him like he’d just given her a bandaid for a scraped knee. “They’re fine. For now.”
“Why so cynical?” Junpei said, aware of the irony of him asking. He reached for the coffin’s keypad before it faded away and he was jabbing at a blank space. “Akane? When did you get your mind back? I’m so sick of this and I think Diana’s losing it too.”
He shrugged. “I dunno. She was just talking to Carlos about you guys and then she had to lay down and said she felt ‘like that’ when she touched Phi.” He turned around and leaned against the pod, bracing himself with both hands. His knees twinged from the pains of confinement and his throat felt tighter, but it wasn’t his throat. “So what haven’t you told them?” He’d never been a movie or novel detective, interrogating suspects and being a big man. Even if he had, he knew any hardened detective would break trying to get a straight answer from Akane Kurashiki. His eyes followed her as she walked in a circle around the pod, avoiding his gaze, and then she started pacing the room. Silence, like flowing water eroding rock until it forged a gap wide enough for a boat to pass through, might do the trick in wearing her down.
He remembered when they were kids, walking home from the park before it got dark. They lived in two different parts of town so he’d walk her to her train, both chattering the whole way about school and playground scuffles and TV shows. When they arrived he’d wave goodbye with the confidence he’d see her again tomorrow.
She had a beautiful smile.
Akane considered his question for a long time without looking up at him. Her expression was solemn before she smiled. “I guess it was naive to think they wouldn’t find out. We wanted to have a plan before we told them, and lying was a spur-of-the-moment decision. How did you find out?”
“They were talking in the infirmary when they thought they were alone. They wanna know what you and Phi are hiding.”
Akane nodded. “Then once these three are free, we’ll tell them the truth.” She shook her head. “And deal with the consequences.”
Junpei didn’t think he wanted the answer to his next question, but if she was volunteering information like water, why not? “Have you told me the whole truth?”
She looked hurt. There was a time when that face made him want to hold her; now he felt a twist of both guilt and distrust in his gut. “Here? Always.” Her left hand squeezed into a fist. “Junpei, I wanted to tell you so many things before,” she said with June’s face and her lilting voice.
You had your chance at Dcom. I want to give you another but I don’t know… “Okay.” The room flickered and the old chapel sprung up around them. Junpei clutched his head, rifling his hands through his hair, and turned back to the pod and slammed a fist against it.
“They can’t feel it!” Meanwhile, he felt everything so much. He drowned and burned and bled and worried about people he’d never met and puked at the scent of human viscera thick in the air all around him. He punched the top of the pod again, and cried out when real pain exploded in his fist.
In a moment, Akane was beside him, wrapping herself around his left arm and holding him fast in an unexpected strong grip, glaring up at him. “Stop it! I don’t believe this is you!” She stumbled when Junpei pulled away from her like he was jumping out of a snare trap at the last second.
He cradled his right arm as it throbbed and he watched Akane tear up, start to sniffle, and shake her head as she rubbed at her eyes. She lost mental control for a nanosecond and he felt humiliated, ashamed, and so, so lonely for his best friend.
Before either had to move forward in the scene in their own personal drama, a piercing alarm made them both cringe and cover their ears. Junpei followed the sound to the pod he’d struck and the screen now displayed an error message: “Critical System Failure.” The warnings scrolled across the screen so fast he had trouble keeping up with the English text, and seeing his pause Akane pushed in. “Oh no—life support is shutting down and oxygen rates are dropping fast.”
“Does it say how long it has?”
“Five minutes,” she said. Better than eighty-one seconds, he thought before a second and then a third alarm sounded.
“Shit, shit, shit!” He stooped to reach the emergency release and tried to yank it out; it bent but didn’t give, indifferent to the danger it existed to prevent. “Come on!” He pointed to the door. “Get Sigma and anybody else you can find. We have to break these things open.”
She nodded at him over her shoulder and ran. Junpei, frantic, tried the other two releases to find the same problem, and remembering the storage room down the hall had industrial materials including a crowbar, he ran. He could make this trip in two minutes, he’d already spent one, which left them with two minutes to—
Nobody dies today, a quiet voice told him, and he nodded. Retrieving the crowbar left him throwing materials across the floor, counting seconds, and then he raced back to the pod room to find Akane made it: Sigma, Carlos, and Diana had followed her. Sigma was focused and quiet, prying the releases with small tools. He plugged a handheld tablet into the machine, going back and forth between swiping on that and manually working with the releases.
Junpei tugged on Carlos and shoved the crowbar into his hands. “You, push!” he ordered and pointed to the pod beside Sigma. In a moment Carlos was following Akane’s direction to pry up from the bottom, and putting what seemed like his entire weight into the lift.
Diana looked from pod to pod, lost as to what to do, so Junpei gently lead her by the shoulder to the last pod and told her to watch the vitals of the occupant. Then he turned to Akane: “Where the hell is Phi?”
“She’s trying to fix what went wrong with the computer!” Sigma answered for her. He looked back at the handheld and groaned. “Will you just work?” he addressed it.
With a clang and scrape, Carlos stepped back from the pod he was working on, shaking his right hand out. “I can’t get a grip! Somebody find another tool and help.”
“Fuck it!” Junpei ran to his side and crouched down, gripping the corner of the pod with both hands. “You pry, I push. Now!” Carlos complied and together they struggled with the unyielding pod. His palms burned and fingers squeezed in agony, but he refused to give up—and then he choked, gasped, and lost strength in his knees and fell to the floor. He put a hand to his chest, panting and the harder he tried to take deep breaths the more his chest constricted. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!
“You need to listen to me,” Diana said over the chaos in a stern nurse’s voice. “You can breathe. In through your nose, out through your mouth…” She was talking not to Junpei but to the pod she pressed both hands to, looking at it with urgency. “In through your nose, out through your mouth,” she repeated, calmness honed by years of practice. “You’re not in danger.”
“Junpei, help me!” Carlos said, but Junpei felt fainter and fainter and black spots bloomed in his vision. He cupped his mouth and nose, trying to subsist on his own breaths, and now Diana’s words flowed through him and the person who could hear her through a metal shell. They didn’t matter, his heart was going to explode before he got out of here and it was too dark and and and—
“Yes!” A melodious, victorious beeping as the pod Sigma worked on began to raise its top. “Carlos, Akane, grab the pad on your ends and enter…”
“We’re almost there, we’re almost there,” Diana reassured the person locked in. Junpei wanted to faint just to escape the agony of trying to hold bursting lungs in his chest or avoid vomiting from the ringing ears and effort.
The next thing he realized was he was on hands and knees on the floor, again, gulping and coughing in equal measure, wheezing on every exhale. The others, focused on the new arrivals, didn’t notice him and it took him half a century to feel stable enough to stand up and focus his eyes enough to see the happenings around him.
On his far left Sigma cradled someone smaller and pink—no, just pink-clad—in his arms while Diana felt their pulse. “Hey there,” he said. “Clover, look at me. You’re okay now, we’re going to take you somewhere safe.” Clover reached up and covered Sigma’s face with her hand, and judging by his relieved laugh Junpei could guess she was acting more like a teenager grumpy about being woken up than a dying person.
Carlos was struggling with his patient, trying to hold them down to keep still in their pod. “Wait, you’re not strong enough to get up on your own—” and then he grunted and whipped his face to the side when the other person clawed at him, leaving bright red nail marks on his skin. Junpei would’ve helped him, but the last sight made him hustle to the third pod.
At first all he saw was Akane’s back, shoulders shaking as she pressed her face to Santa’s chest, his shirt so tight between her hands it might rip. Then her crying went from wordless to a broken pattern of hiccuping sobs, and despite that Santa didn’t respond to her unspoken plea. Despite the black eye and yellowish bruising on his neck and jaw, Junpei had never seen such a peaceful corpse. He kept his eyes fixed on Akane as he moved to touch her back in a pitiful attempt at comfort. His hand froze when the corpse lifted his own and patted her head, shushing her with raspy but affectionate sounds.
Akane kept crying as Aoi pet her hair, the kind of uncontrollable happy tears she used to be prone to as a girl that Junpei never understood. “Good morning,” she got out, pressing her cheek to his, and Aoi, with great effort, put his arms around her back and held her as tight as he could.
Chapter 5: Words, Wars, and Symphonies
Aoi crossed his arms and sighed. “Say we felt adventurous: How far away is the nearest Rhizome?” Sigma’s mileage wasn’t discouraging or encouraging, and he dropped the final bit:
“It doesn’t matter, there’s no gear.”
Title is def from Panic! at the Disco's "Let's Kill Tonight," a Highly Relevant song for Aoi in this fic. Local Woman Has Written Ahead This Time And Swears to Update Sooner.
Unbeta'd, thank you for reading. ETA 8/7/19: Can I say I love my readers? I adore my readers. your comments + 50 kudos blows my mind and your comments inspire me to make this story better and keep going. You guys are amazing.
Aoi had a friend in middle school who often bemoaned that “some people are born lucky.” Aoi found it tone deaf even at thirteen, but he guessed he could complain as much as he wanted to now. Waking up in the Rhizome—among other things—proved to Aoi he was not one of those lucky people.
But Akane was here, so that somewhat balanced things out. She was asleep in her bed with a blanket curled around her shoulders where he’d smoothed it over. She looked so young, from her shorter hair to her shadowed eyes. He regretted making her worry even though it wasn’t his fault. He bent over and kissed the crown of her head, murmuring ‘Silly,’ and went to go. He kept the light on for her, even though the system would dim it after ten minutes without detecting motion.
In the hallway the little bleached chick leaned against the opposite wall, arms folded and staring at the ceiling. She’d been stuck outside waiting for them to finish talking. Akane wouldn’t kick her out so Aoi could room with Akane and his ego was wounded (but he knew he was too old for that). “Thanks,” he said.
“Mm.” She entered the room without looking at him. Dog padded behind her before she shut the door. Akane, Dog, and Girl were a golden trio and rarely apart. Seeing Akane with a friend her own age was sweet; the last time that happened was in elementary school. He was surprised Junpei wasn’t glued to her side. Junpei was neutral towards Aoi, but then he didn’t seem to realize anyone else was real. There was a word for that but it escaped Aoi, like memories of his time before here.
He didn't know enough about the others—the tall guys and the redhead—to care. But the Fields… Before waking up here, during their confinement, Light punched him in the face leaving his lovely new bruises. Clover punched him too in the infirmary and now he and the Fields were grounded from interacting. They hit hard, those Fields. Light had broken his hand from it. Redhead said the treatment pods were broken now and couldn't heal anyone so Light was stuck recovering the old-fashioned way. He projected constant irritation from wearing the prosthetic arm longer than he should to compensate for his broken hand. But so far he and his sister had stayed quiet about what Clover knew about the Rhizome; why Aoi didn’t know, but he would take advantage.
His head hurt too much. It was bizarre, Aoi knew he had a life before this but his memories muddled with bits of lives that weren’t his: hot days in Reno, muttered German, surreptitiously wiping away blood after a misplaced needle.
The harp. He grumbled and gingerly rubbed his jaw, hissing when he pressed on the bruise. He didn’t want to seek out anyone who’d punched him in the face. Not yet. He wasn’t ignoring what he and Light did have to discuss. First he needed a cigarette. Patting his pockets, he realized he had none; he’d probably had the last stolen off of him by said person who punched him in the face. This was bullshit.
Aoi roamed the supply room looking for nicotine but only found cessation patches. Yeah right. He was gonna need smokes to survive the next couple of decades; that thought gave him pause and his hand, still holding a box of cookies, paused midair. He and Akane couldn’t stay here, not for decades or for a month. When he asked Akane why she held off on leaving, she said it was to wait for everyone to wake up and he’d smiled because that was just like her. Now that seemed naïve.
Well, Aoi was here, time for them to go. He would nudge her to start packing tomorrow. For now he wanted the cookies in his one hand and one of those canned pastas on the top shelf, but it was just out of his reach even if he leaned up. Impatient, he put one foot on the bottom shelf and the cookies under his arm and started to climb, grabbed a can—and then his foot hit empty air and, surprised, he slipped and fell.
He didn’t hit the floor; someone caught him and when he looked up he saw the blond guy looking down. “You okay?”
“Put me down, I’m not your bride.” He did so and Aoi glared at the shelf. Traitor. “Thanks. Who are you again?” Aoi retrieved the cookies for later use and kicked the pasta so it rolled under the shelving.
“Right, right.” Felt familiar. Aoi ignored the thought. “How long you been here?”
Carlos shrugged. “How long have any of us?”
Akane knew it had been a few months, but Aoi didn’t need to talk yet. He’d told her to keep sitting on that, though he lost authority over her years ago. She did what she liked. “You smoke?”
“Then I’ll take my leave.” He felt disgruntled and tetchy and didn’t want to embarrass himself. He could retrieve his but he didn’t want another fight with Light.
“Wait—” When Aoi didn’t, Carlos touched his shoulder. “You’re Akane’s brother. Is she acting like herself to you?”
“Yes,” Aoi said cautiously. “She’s fine.”
“You sure? She seems disoriented. Not as bad as Junpei, but she doesn’t know it’s been a few months.” He explained his and Diana’s—the redhead, Aoi learned—logic, and Aoi played it off but felt creeping dread. Angry, desperate people were dangerous. A thousand Aois knew that. He wouldn’t let Akane be the focal point of that venting. In terms of responsibility, there were two other people he knew he could shift blame to: Junpei and the girl—Phi, he remembered then. (The one who could’ve saved them a lot of trouble by bleaching her hair.) Probably Sigma too but Aoi didn’t know if he could lean on any personal, not professional, loyalty to Akane like he could with the other two.
Thinking, Aoi threw out the easiest name: “Maybe Phi knows. Wasn’t she with Akane first?” He shrugged and watched Carlos’ face.
Carlos had the good faith of someone who had never committed clandestine operations. He nodded. “Alright.”
“Is there a party in here?” Someone called from the door. There was the next one he wanted to see. Junpei’s hair was wet and he had a motorcycle jacket he was fond of draped over his shoulders.
“Junpei! How are you?” Aoi hurried to him, took his arm and, slightly bending it, walked him out of the room. Junpei struggled but Aoi held on to him. “I need something for Akane,” he said in Japanese.
“Go find Phi and Sigma,” Junpei said, glowering, and pulled away. “She doesn’t want anything from me.”
“About Phi—what do you think of her?”
“Do you think she’s close with Akane?”
“I guess.” Junpei pulled the jacket tighter around himself. He looked tired and sallow and the dark jacket against his skin accentuated it, but at least he was having a coherent conversation. Earlier he’d pinched both of Aoi’s cheeks hard and announced, ‘Shit, you’re real.’ “They were together first and she’s usually with her. Why?” Junpei was predictable in that he couldn’t let go of any mystery; it was useful and endearing. “Oh. You need to see if she’s loyal?” He looked exasperated. “How can I—”
“Be quiet. You know what the others think?” He said so and Junpei nodded.
“Yeah I know, Akane said. She already said she’s going to say something.”
Oh, Akane. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“No but it’s her, you can’t make her do anything.” Junpei sounded the tiniest bit fond for a moment. “How does Phi figure in?”
Aoi laid out his line of thinking, and Junpei listened with occasional interjections. It felt like when they were in various rooms in Building Q, in sync for the moment. “So. Can you do this for her?”
Junpei waved him off. “I’ll just do it to avoid drama. I’ll talk to Phi. You deal with Sigma.”
“Good.” He offered a hand to shake but Junpei just looked at it, scoffed, and went in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until he reached the B. Garden that Aoi realized Junpei had stolen his cookies.
Junpei was a thief but he had been true: Sigma was in the dirt caring for a tomato plant with promising fruits. His gardening apron was painted to look like a cat’s face. He jumped when Aoi greeted him.
“Oh. Hi.” Once again Aoi’s handshake was refused. “Sorry, dirt. Does Akane need something?”
“No, I just wanted to talk.” Aoi felt one slipper skid in the dirt and he wished he’d changed into his boots in here. “I need your opinion Doctor.”
The old man sobered at that address. “Is there a maintenance emergency?”
Just the one where you and Phi nearly killed me, Aoi thought but held his tongue. “How long do you think this place can support nine people without replacing supplies?”
“About a year, including the time that’s already passed,” Sigma said automatically. “I’m familiar with the needs of this facility and its occupants. Nine people is already a stretch for our resources and a year is generous. It assumes we eat two meals a day and shower less.”
Aoi would pass on the latter. “And how would you get out?”
“Now? The outer door in the PEC Room has been sealed, and same with the doors in the warehouses. There is a delivery entrance that a person could crawl through to the surface, but it depends on how adventurous you are.” To get the hell out of here Aoi would crawl through glass. “You can try if you want, but I don’t recommend it.”
Aoi crossed his arms and sighed. “Say we felt adventurous: How far away is the nearest Rhizome?” Sigma’s mileage wasn’t discouraging or encouraging, and he dropped the final bit:
“It doesn’t matter, there’s no gear.”
Aoi schooled his face. “Like no equipment for a long trip, or none at all?”
“None.” Sigma looked tired from too many nights puzzling over the problem. “Like everything here, they aren’t where they should be. There’s no suits, oxygen, or navigation that I can find.”
“And no way to get more yet.”
“Well, yes. If I could contact the outside world I would.”
Aoi couldn’t see a picture coming together, just a bunch of separate puzzle pieces with complementary details and colors. It was up to him to see how they fit together. Akane began this and now he would finish it and make sure as many people escaped as safely as possible. But mostly Akane, whoever she cared about, and the one other person he’d promised to look out for.
He kept Sigma talking for a bit, then waved and thanked him. He slipped again when he went to leave and swore.
“I understand,” Sigma called after him, “that you want to get out of here. But I wouldn’t do it alone.”
“Who says I’m leaving alone?” Aoi said without looking back.
Aoi crashed at some point during the daytime hours and woke up around dinnertime. He laid in the dark room—Junpei’s abandoned room as he lived in the infirmary now—for a bit listening to two people talking in the hall outside the crew quarters, their voices carrying although he couldn’t quite make out the conversation. He could only hear a man and a woman.
What would it have been like to be alone here for so long without other human voices?
When someone knocked he rolled over and buried his face in the pillow, groaning. He thought they’d go away, but after the third bout of loud rapt knocking he cussed and went to the door.
Clover was standing there, height added by her piled up hair, arms crossed. “Finally.”
“What’s up?” he said warily. She and her brother were the wild cards so far, isolating themselves to the point where nobody had seen them in a day (yet food disappeared from the pantry). She had no reason to approach him as a friend.
“Listen, I’m only going to say this once: Thanks for helping my brother.” She toed the floor. “Now stay away from him.” Before he could respond she hurried down the hall, hands in fists but head high, accomplished. Aoi didn’t understand either Field. He’d wanted to talk to her anyway but now wasn’t the time.
“Tell him I want my cigarettes back!” Aoi called after her, but it didn’t matter anymore. There was no way that walking chimney hadn’t gone through all of them by now.
"So." Aoi kicked his legs against the bar. "When this blows up who are you most worried about?"
“Who knows?” Junpei said. “Everyone’s a virtual stranger to me.” He stirred his drink again and again—vodka rocks, although he weighed the vodka and bourbon equally in each hand for a minute. They’d reconvened to discuss what they knew and it devolved into drinking and talking about nothing. Junpei was good at that.
“What about Akane? I thought you were her hero.”
Junpei rolled his eyes, but his expression was tinged with hurt bitterness. “Me and her are different.”
“She’s not so different,” Aoi said quietly. “She still likes stupid jokes and cake and cute little animals. She’s still smart.” She was the girl he loved and wanted to see happy more than anything. He was willing to interfere a bit. Junpei wouldn’t protect her still if he didn’t care. “Maybe you’re the one who’s changed.”
“Maybe that was the best thing I could’ve done after everything that happened.”
Aoi didn’t take the obvious bait. He looked impassively at Junpei before putting his glass to his lips and tilting his head back to swallow. Forget that apology. He wasn’t looking to be forgiven and he never would.
Last night he put a hand on Akane’s head, making her look up at him from behind her hands, and said, “Hey. He’s a guy. We’re kinda dumb when it comes to feelings. Give him time and he’ll come around.” Then she’d just looked at him like when she was little and she thought he was humoring her worries that Santa wouldn’t be able to find them if they moved. She was always such a skeptical little kid, so smart.
She didn’t believe him now either and he was scared that would be their undoing.