We make it back to the street where we’ve set up a safe zone just before nightfall. The sound of a sniffle draws my eyes behind me. The paralyzing effect from the Hound’s scream has worn off, so the three girls that stupidly got themselves involved in this are walking between myself and Gai, while Ayako takes the front as a vanguard should something pop out.
Saegusa looks like she’s on the verge of crying again. I don’t know what they’ve been through since they got here, but my attempt to find out was rebuffed by Ayako and Gai. They apparently have something against wantonly reading memories of people they considered friends and uninvolved.
Ayako looks over her shoulder to three of them and takes on a gentle tone as she addresses the crying girl. “We’re almost there. You’ll be safe then.”
Unfortunately, her words serve as the cue for the loud-mouthed one to start asking questions. “Can you guys tell us what’s happening here? Where are we? What was that exploding thing you did before?”
Ayako points to me. “Shinji will do the explaining once we get all of you squared away.”
I blink. “What now?”
“Your arm is injured and we need to get the supplies, so you’ll be watching them and the other survivors.”
Fear finds its way into the Saegusa’s eyes when she realizes that she’s going to be separated from the two heavy-hitters of our little group. “Y-You’re not going to be there?”
Ayako gives the girl a reassuring smile. “Between the two of us, it shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes to get back where we started and retrieve our supplies. We’ll block the exit again so nothing will get in, just to be safe.”
The fact that she looks a little relieved when she finds out she doesn’t have to rely on me solely is a little insulting considering the pain my arm is in because I put myself out there for them. But, focusing on the more pressing issue, I shoot a telepathic message to Ayako.
‘So, to what extent am I telling them and the others?’
‘Give them the truth about the cards and their circumstances. But be gentle. People usually either try to deny it or panic in their circumstances since they just want it to end, and I’ve seen some commit suicide before.’
‘I’m more concerned with the fact that they saw us using our powers and will be just as afraid of us as they were the monsters when they settle down.’
Her expression shifts. Ah… I see, it’s happened before. ‘That’s why you’re going to explain about PSI too. They’ll be less likely to act that way if they understand they’re one of us as well. But if you need to defend yourself, I won’t hold it against you.’
“How many others have you saved?” Himuro asks, breaking into the telepathic discussion between us.
The number Ayako gives is about seventeen with them. Over half were the ones who managed to get themselves thrown into a pod and then freed by us, coming to about nine. The other five had been actively running like these three. We guided them to the very building we came to a stop at a minute later.
Ayako uses her telekinetic hands to move a large piece of debris that blocked the entrance, set into place when Gai brought the nervous wreck of a Salaryman inside. There’s a staircase going down into a corridor underground that ends in a steel door with an eye slot. It looks sketchy, but Ayako assures the others they’ll be safe here again and ushers us into the staircase before she shifts the rubble back into place.
“Is this an underground bar or something?” Makidera asks as she stares at the sign, trying to make it out in the dark as I knock on the door.
“It’s close enough. The building is mostly in one piece where it counts and sound-proof, which means it’s well-insulated. Given we don’t know how long we’ll be here, that’s a necessity since most of the Taboo we’ve seen so far track by sound and we don’t want to freeze to death.”
Plus, it looks like it would have been an elegant place of sorts. I can imagine a soft tune playing through the speakers as a hostess ran the bar for customers who just wanted to relax a bit and let the world outside of these walls drown out. Yeah, we can pass it off as an underground bar as long as they stay out of the back rooms until we can hide or destroy everything that said otherwise—though I personally think that they shouldn’t really care as long as the beds were still intact, since it meant they didn’t have to sleep on the floor.
The eye slot opens after I knock again. A pair of eyes look into mine before it closes and the door itself opens to reveal a tall guy with red hair. He reminds me a bit of a thug, despite the fact that he was cowering when we found him.
The stink of cigarette smoke slams into me like a wall when I enter. I trace the source to the three people off to one side, taken from one of the pods. There was an older girl clinging to a guy wearing sunglasses, both of whom seemed college-aged. Next to them was a tough-looking man who was in his 30s at a guess, sucking on the half-lit cigarette in his mouth.
I was not going to sit here and deal with that stench. “Put it out or get out. Your choice.”
He shifts the cigarette and steps forward like he’s going to cause problems. It would end poorly for him considering I’ve killed things bigger than him in the last few hours. Fortunate for him, the sunglasses guy places a hand on his arm to stop him from getting bounced.
“Just do it, Shibata,” he says to the man. “Don’t want to make things worse, do we?”
The tough guy grumbles under his breath about respect but listens to his younger companion and puts it out with his shoe. Sunglasses then takes a step forward. His hands are raised to show he doesn’t mean to cause trouble.
“Sorry, my friend here is just a little concerned about our situation and wanted to take the edge off a little. Not all of us are as… gifted as you and your friends seem to be, going by the stories we’ve heard from the others here, and we’re still confused. You understand, right?”
“Keep your friend in check then,” I warn him. “The other two are a lot more tolerant than I am, but until they get back I’m the one calling the shots here. Got it?”
“Crystal clear.” He gives me a slight bow of his head and then gestures to girl next to him. “My name’s Sakishita by the way, and this is my girl, Marina.”
Unlike him, who seems to be awfully relaxed all things considered, she clearly looks like she’s on the verge of having a panic attack. Her clinging to him is for security then. “Baby, I want to go home.”
“Just relax, babe. I’m sure this guy will tell us how to do that.” He looks up to me and gives me a smile that annoys me. “Right?”
“Yeah, I’ll explain that once these three get seated.” I direct the Track Trio over to a table with a long seat against the wall that could fit the three. “Get comfy, this’ll take a while.”
Himuro and Makidera head over immediately, with the latter sitting with her back straight and posture rigid. Even in this situation she remains uptight. On the other hand, the former just flops down ungracefully and exhales as though she’s relieved to get off her feet.
Saegusa is the odd one out. She hesitates, looking between the seat and me. “Umm…”
She bites her lower lip and grabs the hem of her track jacket nervously before she inhales and bows her head. “I’m sorry, Matou-san.”
I try to figure out what she’s done to warrant an apology, but nothing comes to mind. She’s too timid to do something like prank me or talk ill behind my back. “What for?”
She looks at my arm. Remorse colors her eyes. Guilt. “I always thought you were scary in school, but you still jumped in to help us and got hurt. So…”
“Oh that. Don’t apologize for something that isn’t your fault.” If anything, it’s Makidera’s fault for getting caught. And really, I was more worried about what would happen with Ayako if I didn’t save them. “This isn’t even as bad as my first trip all things considered.”
“Even so, thank you for saving us.” She raises her head and gives me an appreciative, innocent expression that wouldn’t be out of place on Sakura’s face when she was younger. Before I knew everything that I knew and did everything I did….
I look away. “Fine, you’re welcome. Now go sit with the others, so I can get started.”
She scurries over to their side and takes a seat next to Makidera, who gives her a slight smile while she looks somewhat nervous at the attention she’s gained from the others—not all of it goodwill, given she was holding up the explanation. In particular, there was a group of girls across from this trio who looked annoyed more than anything.
I was fairly sure that were also high schoolers considering their clothes were somewhat standard of a uniform, though they weren’t exactly wearing them in the proper style with their coats tied around their waists. They were the ones from the first pod we saved and were less talkative given everything they went through, so they shouldn’t cause any problems for those three. Still, it did remind me that there was a somewhat varied mix of people that we’d saved to this point.
The last of the pod people were a trio of guys that looked college-age like Sakishita, sitting in the third row of seats against the wall. One of them wore a set of glasses and was fiddling with his phone, which wasn’t working. The second had a set of headphones resting around his neck. The last one of that group had a wool cap over his head.
At the edge of the counter, sitting on the bar chair, was a black-haired man in a suit that was sitting with his elbows propped up on the table and covering his eyes. He was shuddering, tear stains marking where he’d let his fear spill out. Clearly a salaryman in over his head.
A few seats from him was a woman maybe in her mid-20s. She wore a standard outfit I’d expect from someone who worked a part-time job at a convenience store chain. The majority of her attention was fixed on her own calling card, rather than her surroundings.
Then there was the black-haired girl with a ponytail, dressed in a sports jacket and jeans. She had a cloth pressed against her cheek from where she’d been injured, a slight swelling and bruising. Unlike most of the others, we found her actually attempting to defend herself when she ran into a Taboo. It didn’t work out, but it was clear she was a fighter.
Last was a scraggly guy dressed in a jump-suit that had paint stains over it. He looked like he didn’t care much about his appearance, and his hair was long enough that it obscured half of his face. He was sitting on the floor with one hand on his knee, watching all of us in a way that creeped me out.
I take a seat at the closer end of the counter and pull out my calling card, holding it up for them to see as I get started. “Since you’re here, you clearly have one of these. And if you’ve read the back of the cards and had the dream, you know that this is the future—”
“How much did it cost to set it all up?” asks Cellphone from his seat, interrupting me. He makes a flourish with his hands to our surroundings. “Where are the cameras?”
I raise a brow at the stupidity. And I’m not the only one, given that everyone shares the sentiment. Really, the only exceptions are Saegusa, who’s too nice, and the Salaryman, who looks almost hopeful at the thought of this being a set-up. Poor fool.
“Are you an id—” I catch myself before I call him an idiot. Not a good idea right now to actively antagonize someone else after the tough guy a minute ago. “I get you’re skeptical because you didn’t see the bodies before you got thrown into a pod dragged here, but it’s not. Otherwise, how do you explain everything?”
“Movie set. And some buff extras to throw us into the pods.”
Himuro tilts her glasses up as she peers through the lenses with a more refined look than the rest of us are giving him. She still sheltered the same thoughts as us though, just better masked. “I sincerely doubt that this is some elaborate movie set.”
“And those things weren’t human,” Ponytail adds, tilting her head over to me. “Didn’t react like one when I hit a nerve cluster, and I saw his friend tear one in half without so much as a scream. And it was still moving until he smashed it in the chest afterwards.”
She sets down the cloth and straightens her back as she addresses me. “Just Nami is fine.”
“Those things are called Taboo by the Veterans, and they can survive a lot of punishment unless you hit them in their core and smash it. Whatever they are seem to play into how the future became this way, and I believe that might be part of why we were summoned after the ringing began.”
“That ringing was a pain to deal with,” Sakishita says, tapping his ear. “I tried drowning it out with music and all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t stop. I thought I was going to go deaf.”
I shake my head. “It was on the back of the card that you had a set amount of time to answer or you really would have died. Anyone who doesn’t answer the summonings does, likely to keep it a secret and to enforce participation. It’s part of the contract and we haven’t found a way out of it.”
The Salaryman jumps out of his seat at that, as though offended. “I didn’t sign a contract! Even if I did, what kind would allow for this sort of thing!?”
“The kind that kills you if you don’t obey it. When you accepted the card, you established a contract with that bird-man thing that we call Nemesis Q to change the future.” I tap my head and then my heart. “That’s what that sensation of barbed wire coiling around your brain and heart and digging in was. You’ve all felt that, right?”
Surprisingly, they all looked at one another in confusion until Saegusa shifts in her seat and raises her hand. “Um… it felt kind of like a ribbon to me.”
“Mine felt like a silken cord,” Himuro adds.
“A kimono sash for me,” Makidera claims.
The others give their own descriptions. Not one of them had the barbed wire treatment, though there were gems like piano wire and chains. So Nemesis Q apparently just hated me that much.
“Either way,” I continue. “Once that happened you were bound to the terms of the contract you made, which was to change the future—this future. If you try to break the rules past a warning, those constrict and kill you. Those cases of Sudden Death Syndrome all over the world are likely the result of that.”
I pause a moment to let that sink in. I don’t want to rush in or give them too much information all at once. In fact, I’d prefer it if someone else took the reins, but Ayako is still a good distance out.
The silence breaks when Himuro’s curiosity gets the better of her. “Presuming that is the case, that we’re in the future, can you explain how we got from our time period to this one?”
“If I had to guess, that contract created a bridge that allowed for our souls to leave our body and be displaced them in time. Our bodies are still back in the past, unconscious but still alive. Once the trip is over, we’ll snap back to them.”
“So all those rules are real then?” asks the woman at the counter as she rises out of her seat. “If we die here, our bodies back in the past die too?”
“That’s right, Miss…?”
“Miss Kitano, the damage to the soul is reflected onto the body. Any wounds you sustain here end up hitting your real body all at once when it jumps back and if you die here, you die there.”
She lowers her eyes. “My brother had one of these cards on his desk the day he died. It looked beat-up and worn. Does that mean one of those monsters killed him?”
If his card was as beat-up as Ayako’s then the guy was definitely an Active Drifter. “…When did it happen?”
“It was a few days ago. I took the train to my brother’s apartment in Setagaya to find him slumped over at his desk with a beat-up calling card like this in front of him. I thought he was asleep since he was still breathing, so I didn’t try to wake him as I cooked dinner for him since he worked hard… and… and…”
Considering the fact that her body was trembling as she held her free hand to her throat and how the color drained from her face as she trailed off, I’m presuming he didn’t just drop dead either. Still, if it was a few days ago, that would explain why he wasn’t here now. There must’ve been a mission that we weren’t a part of.
I float a Mind Jack over to her and gently inserted before I pulled on her memory and—
The apartment is small overall, the sort of place that a part-timer could rent with a small section in the front to serve as the kitchen, with a few cabinets, a refrigerator, and pantry. She enters through the door at that end, her key jangling as she pulls it free of the lock. She shuts the door behind her as she calls out into the darkness. “Nii-san?”
There is no answer, even as her eyes take a moment to adjust and she spots his figure at the desk. It lies against the back wall, underneath the window, in the middle of the room. The futon is folded on the right and the television, a small thing on a stand, is on the left and turned off.
“Don’t tell me you fell asleep while studying?” She huffs as she sets the bags of groceries down on the counter and goes over to his side. Lying with his head on the desk, the calling card is in front of him with his phone adjacent to it. She spots a traveling bag by his legs as well, leaving her to wonder if he planned on going somewhere or was waiting for someone when he fell asleep.
“You shouldn’t sleep at the desk,” she tells him as she tries to wake him by shaking his shoulder. When that gets no response, she tries harder. There still no response leaving her to get worried now. She checks his pulse and find that it’s still strong, so she brushes it off as him sleeping deeply and begins to cook.
As she cooks, she thinks of her brother fondly. She thinks about how he moved out of the house in Hiroshima when he was younger and how she often came over likewise, trying to see him despite him telling her not to since it was dangerous for someone her age to traveling alone on the train. He was a large part of her life, someone she cared about dearly, and so she didn’t feel a burden for helping him out like this since he tried so hard in her eyes—going so far as to make his favorite meal despite being a slight drain on her own budget.
Then there’s a crash. She looks over to the desk to see her brother had fallen out of the chair and was sprawled on the floor. Blood runs freely from beneath his clothes, a deep shade of crimson that spilled out from gashes torn in his flesh that she could barely make out. Then there was his throat, a visceral mess that reminded me of a piece of raw meat with a chunk torn out by a ravenous dog I once saw when I was overseas at the boarding school.
Despite that, he’s still alive. There’s a fleeting moment of life, a flicker in his eyes as he tries to move his mouth to say something. But that fleeting moment fades with the light in his eyes and his head turns to the side, leaving the blood pooling in his mouth to trickle out.
She’s stunned. Her mind takes a moment to grasp was truly happened in that moment as the card she eyed on the desk disappears from her view, crumbling from existence with the sound of shattering glass. The sound acts as a trigger and causes her to start screaming as the full realization sets in that her brother had died horribly, and a flood of emotions starts pouring in.
Nii-san! Be okay. Let me be dreaming. Nii-san! Wake up. Don’t leave me. Nii-san! Niisan! Niisan! Nii—
—I manage to pull myself out of her memories before I drown in her despair. It’s amazing she’s putting on a façade of being merely sad right now considering it had only been a few days. But what the hell was that?
For me, reading someone’s mind is different from reading their memories. When they’re actively thinking, it’s like listening to their thoughts or I can see what they see by actively reading what they perceive as it comes. But when it’s a memory, it’s like flipping through the pages of a book—though I could see glimpses of images if I really wanted to, sort of like taking a passage from the pages and turning them into a film.
That time was different. It was almost like I was there. Like in my… in my nightmares. Was it because the first time I was in the past, but this time I was in the future? I shelve it for later when I hear a startled gasp from Saegusa and notice how terrified she was as she listened to Kitano talk.
“—it was like some kind of large animal mauled him to death, the sort of thing seen on a nature show. The police originally thought I had done it and was in shock, until the autopsy showed that whatever it was that tore into him couldn’t have been done by a human. I wanted to know what happened so badly, then I was visited in my dream and told there were answers if I took it.”
Saegusa isn’t the only one looking horrified as she finished. Marina, the Salaryman, those three high-school girls, share in her terror. The rest at least looked disturbed by the implications of dying here without anyone realizing what happened. Except for the creep on the floor.
He was smiling even wider.
The Salaryman loses his composure at last. He rushes over to me, knocking both his chair and Kitano to the floor in the process of grabbing me by my shoulders and shaking me like a can of spray paint. “I can’t afford to die like that here! Get me out this instant!”
Nami helps Kitano up to her feet again and glares at him. “You’re the oldest one of us here at a glance, so why don’t you act the part and calm down?”
“Shut up!” he snaps at her. “I’m not like the rest of you. I have a wife and child and family and career waiting for me!”
“Let…go,” I warn him through gritted teeth. Leaving aside the fact that I liked personal space, he was hurting my arm. “Now!”
He doesn’t. He just keeps demanding that I get him out and that he didn’t care what happened to the others, making things worse by panicking. Not to mention he’s spitting in my face as he does so, which is disgusting and further pisses me off.
…Well, Ayako did say I could defend myself. I grasp his wrist with my good hand and get ready to use Strength-Rise to snap it like a twig. But before I could make it happen, the guy with red hair grabs him and pulls him away.
“You’re not the only one scared, but that doesn’t give you the right to act better than the rest of us!” He forces the older man to the floor and pins him into place. “You can stay like this until you settle down.”
The Salaryman struggles to get back to his feet, but it’s just not happening. Red Hair is clearly stronger and he’s got him pinned in a way to where he can’t get leverage. As far as I was concerned, he could stay that way for a moment.
Kitano takes a seat again with Nami’s help. She doesn’t look hurt, but she’s clearly still upset. I consider my approach carefully as I wipe the spittle away and sent a message to Ayako about her brother.
‘I knew him,’ Ayako sends back through the connection we have. ‘Tatsumi and I ran a mission or two together, but he worked with the other Drifters around the Tokyo area. When we get back I’ll have Issei check on the others, but if he’s dead then…’
They’re dead too. I had already come to that conclusion, but I can feel the bitterness in her mental voice as she trails off. Nothing I can do about that except keep the peace here for now by addressing these two first.
I start with Kitano. “Your brother was probably one of the Active Drifters who chose to fight because he wanted to change the future, so you didn’t have to one day wake up to a world like this. He has my respect for that. It won’t bring him back, but we’ll do our best to see that you get out of this alive.”
I then look over to the Salaryman, still writhing beneath Red Hair. “As for you, I get you too. You didn’t know what you were signing up for and it puts your livelihood and family at risk. But if you panic, you’ll die. If you want to get home, stay calm and listen to what I say instead of freaking out. Got it?”
His lips purse thin, but he nods and stops struggling.
“Flip out again and you’re going right back on the ground,” Red Hair warns him as he gets off of him.
The Salaryman rises to his feet and dusts himself off, silently looking disdainfully at the thug-looking high-schooler who’d pinned him down. The feeling was mutual, and not just between them. He hadn’t earned a lot of friends with that stunt just now.
My eyes span the room. They’ve seemed to calm down somewhat, or at least realize the situation better. “To get back home, we need to wait until Nemesis Q reappears. He usually assigns the Active Drifters some kind of task. If it’s to reach a location, we’ll escort you. If it’s to kill something, that’s our job. Either way, once we’ve completed it, we’ll go back to our bodies in the past. The moment you get back, you’re going to contact a number we’ll give you so that we can see about teaching you to control your powers.”
“You mean like what you and the others can do?” Sakishita asks as I take a seat on the counter again, his tone doing nothing to hide how excited he seemed at the prospect despite how much of an annoyance it was to the two next to him. “We get them too?”
“Yeah, that’s part of the contract. If you survive your first trip, you gain powers shortly after you wake up. It’s unpleasant and involves a fever, nosebleed, and more, but they grow in strength over time. We call these powers PSI.”
I decide to demonstrate just to get the point across for the skeptics. I don’t want to reveal that I could potentially read their minds, nor would I try again after that last time, so it’ll have to be telekinesis. I look over to the bar chair that was knocked over by the Salaryman and make a gesture for it to move while focusing my mind and energy enough to get results—I don’t need as much effort as I did with the chain for this.
It floats in the air and lands next to the man upright, startling him enough to jump. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy that reaction after he manhandled me. But I keep my expression schooled as I continue. “Take a seat, this’ll take some time to explain properly.”