When Hana woke up, something had been taken from her. Something that must run in the veins of any Isekai Manager. Something she would fight to recover.
On the wet floor around the well, she rested with her eyes toward the ceiling, and Takeda rested above her. The beautiful young soldier, his beautiful wet body and beautiful black hair ran water on her swimsuit… at least that’s how Hana perceived it.
It was a cold night, and all this wet mess should’ve made the manager tremble her arms and chatter her teeth. But, somehow, Takeda’s presence made Hana warm.
Above her chest, the unconscious soldier rested his head with his lips touching the skin of the young manager. The human’s warm breath heated the steerlean woman’s body, made her cheeks red and beat her heart faster.
Ba-dum, Ba-dum, Ba-dum…
She grabbed the soldier’s suit and pulled him towards her. Takeda’s head stopped by Hana’s face. She hugged him and pressed, hoping that her love for him filled the gap in her soul. It didn’t work.
Takeda moved his fingers, so Hana pretended to be unconscious. With eyes slightly open, she watched the soldier hold his head in pain. He moved towards the well and leaned on the bars around it. The soldier was wearing his suit. An all-black tight uniform that covered his body from the tip of the toes to the neck. Hana shut her eyes when Takeda looked at her.
“Hey, you!” He extended a leg to poke the manager.
“Oh!” Hana ‘woke up’ holding a hand against her forehead. “What happened? Where am i?”
The soldier looking from above had a knife spiked against his heart. A wound that would’ve killed him again if not for the blessing of the well. “I need your help.” He pointed to the well. “Drain the well, quick! Before they arrive.”
“They?” Hana’s sweet voice sounded dizzy and she squinted as if had trouble seeing.
“It’s a raid!” Takeda said.
The manager didn’t understand what the man was talking about. But something in Takeda’s urgency was telling her that an adventure was coming.
An adventure which none steerlean should be able to experience. An adventure that doesn’t leave time for anything. That would exhaust the already exhausted manager and wouldn’t let her enjoy more moments like that one seconds ago. Understanding that her chance had passed, she thought:
I should’ve held his hand.
Twenty-six hours earlier.
Adventure is a human privilege. On The Building there was only work.
It was work when Hana was even smaller than 5’1. It was work when her hair was blonder, her eyes bluer and her face appeared to be drawn with more circles than lines. It was work during the rigid classes in the academy. And became work officially when she was appointed to the job of managing isekais at just sixteen of age.
If she was a sixteen-year-old human, she could’ve been in one of those medieval worlds right now, holding a staff and enchanting healing magic surrounded by the irregular walls of a cavern.
But she wasn't, so she swam to the top of the well and exited it in a push. Water ran from Hana’s body to the ground, making the borders of the well like the ones from a pool.
Hana had never seen a pool. All she knew were the things humans told her with enthusiasm. The manager didn’t get the hype towards a hole filled with water. She worked with holes like that every day and, by the end of her shift, couldn’t even bear to look at them.
The young manager walked to the floor grids ahead, just six feet away from the well. Below the metal grids, dryers blew hot air upwards.
“Hana!” A well-known female voice came from behind, crossing through the ‘Zooom’ of the dryers to be heard. The manager left the dryers and turned just in time to see Konomi yawning, which made her yawn too. “Last insertion of the day?”
“Yes, I’m leaving now. Do you want somethi-”
“Hana, my dear hard-working manager.” The supervisor approached with open arms. Konomi had a smooth voice, always talking like it was a lullaby to a baby. She hugged the manager, who rested her head at the veteran’s bust. A bust that Hana would envy, if Konomi wasn’t too nice. Embraced with a comfortable cuddle, the sleepy manager could easily rest.
“Thanks again for your work.” The veteran said before releasing Hana.
Hana moved towards the exit of the ‘Hall of Portals’ and took her coat from one of the hangers on the wall. “You’re coming?”
“No.” Konomi nodded towards the other two managers who were finishing their insertions. “I’ll wait for them to finish so I can drain the wells.”
“Want me to wait and help you?” Hana put on her shoes.
“No, I can handle it. You already worked a lot today. So, get as much rest as possible because tomorrow we’ll have more work to do.”
There’s always more tomorrow, Hana thought. The care Konomi had with the manager was only one of the many elements that constituted her ‘maternal aura’. Hana missed her parents after they were transferred to a distant floor. Seeing Konomi everyday relieved this feeling, even though the supervisor was just six years older.
“Goodnight!” The veteran waved.
“See you tomorrow.” Hana waved back and crossed the double doors to leave the hall of portals. The manager walked with that kind of sleepiness that makes you want to sleep as soon as possible to not lose it.
The walls surrounding Hana across the corridors weren’t irregulars like cave walls. They were modern concrete walls, straight, perfect, smooth and beige. Walls that were more useful than visually appealing.
The Building had a labyrinthine structure. Or, like one of the humans that Hana inserted commented: “A Hospital structure”.
Beige corridors after beige corridors, white ceiling after white porcelains, not even one exit. No windows, no landscape, no decorations. A place without illusions. The rooms through the corridors worked like mini-landscapes, but helped too little. After all, even the wooden doors were identical.
When she was a child, Hana had trouble finding her way through the floor corridors. Almost every steerlean kid had the same problem. But, sooner or later they would have to memorize their route. After all, they would spend a lot of time at the Building, more specifically their entire life. So, as soon as the paths lost their mysteries, the Building became just like its colors: boring.
Before leaving for the dorms, Hana passed by the restroom. There, she changed her clothes, putting her uniform (swimsuit and lab coat) on the blue lockers after finished. In white pyjamas, the manager faced the mirror and noticed her dark circles. Then noticed her creamy-yellow hair, her weak-blue irises.
If the Building was a little more colorful, Hana would have believed she was being drained. Humans and steerleans looked almost the same. What differed them was the tiredness inside and, of course, the ability to perform ‘insertion magic’.
Behind her, the restroom doors split open. Through the reflection of the mirror, Hana watched Shizuku enter. Not minding the manager’s presence, the nurse changed to a pair of black pyjamas.
“How was today, Shizuku?”
The young nurse washed her face on the sink, then ran a wet hand through her seaweed like green hair. “Great!” said with a sadistic smile. “A human girl arrived saying that couldn’t believe what she did in her last life and all of that crap. So, a grabbed a hammer and a stake an-”
“Why don’t you tell me tomorrow?” Hana opened the restroom doors ready to leave.
“Oh… alright.” Shizuku's eyes sparkled when she talked about her ‘healing methods’, and, if you let her continue, drool would escape from the corners of her lips. “Sleep well…” The mad nurse said, already losing her excitement.
Hana left and moved to the dorms. She opened the door with care to not wake any of the two hundred sleeping there. Then, crossed by bunk beds rows before finding hers. The bed attracted Hana’s body like a magnet, and, as much as she wanted to let be pulled, the manager didn’t want to wake up the girl sleeping above. So, she laid down with care.
Even before she covered herself, her eyelids shut and she slept. The Building was an impossible thing, and it’s tradition turned it into a tyrannical figure, but an essential one.
CLACK! The lights above turned on in a snap. Another day was starting in the Building. Almost every room there looked the same, with four beige walls, white ceiling, and yellow ceramic tiles, varying only the sizes of the rooms. The area of the dorm, for example, was large enough to fit about a hundred bed-bunks fairly spaced from each other.
Hana opened her eyes and looked at the clock on the wall. The object said six hours had passed. Hana’s fatigue said forty-five minutes at best. Laying on the bed, the young manager sighed her frustrations, so she could get up and work another day without its weight over the shoulders.
Every time the lights snapped on, it felt as if the Building was talking to her. “Hey! Duty calls!” The walls seemed to say.
And every day Hana left the bed, she was saying: “I’m ready for the sacrifice.” She understood her duty, and would only worry about teaching it to the little girl sleeping on the bed above. Hana had to guarantee that Miyu understood the Building’s call and answered it the same way.
What relieved Hana was that Miyu was past the ‘every-time-asking-something-age’. She wasn’t past the ‘fall-of-the-bunk-bed-age’, though. Hana watched her sister fall in a blur before hitting the ground in another snap.
The manager didn’t rush to help the red-haired girl. Falls like that wouldn’t hurt any steerlean. At least not one who follows the cafeteria diet.
“Huh!?” Miyu rose in a jump, and her confused eyes danced through the dorm. “I dreamed…” she said to Hana, “that I jumped in a well.”
Hana laughed, “Yeah, keep dreaming”. The manager folded her bed sheets. In the dorm, many did the same. Including Miyu, who had just climbed the bunk bed again. The recently cleaned sheets let out a scent of lavender that Hana loved.
Of all the things brought from other worlds, Hana liked the ones that had perfume. She found them to be way more interesting than pools, for example. Living in a place without flowers, that was her only way to feel like she was holding one. At that moment, it was as if the whole dorm were filled with lavenders. Whatever ‘lavender’ was.
“And this time the dream didn’t end when I jumped on the well. I even remember fighting goblins. I used a red hood, and attacked with two knives. I would jump on the goblins and stab them until they were dead.”
“What a lovely dream!” Hana smiled irony. “You sure that wasn’t a nightmare?”
“It only became a nightmare in the end. The goblins killed me and threw my body in a pit.” Miyu jumped from the bunk bed and landed with confidence. “But this isn’t over. I’ll dream again and get my revenge.”
“Yeah, yeah. Now grab your uniform, so we can go. I don’t want to wait in line to use the restroom.”
If Hana followed the argument that colors define personality, so the shining red of Miyu’s hair made the girl confident and energetic. In the Building, what glowed were the people. And if that boring beige box wanted to drain Miyu’s colors just like it did with Hana, it would have to try twice as hard.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. There’s no academy today.” Miyu said.
“What? Really?” Hana said.
“My teacher got a cold from her husband, who got a cold from one of the humans. The virus was in his clothes, or something like that.”
“You aren’t lying to me, are you?” Hana rested her hands on Miyu’s shoulders and locked eyes with the girl.
“Of course not! I would never!”
“Well, you lied to me about skipping classes and moving through the vents.”
“I only did that because you refused to accept that moving through the vents is faster than movi-”
“I don’t care! Stop doing this sort of thing. It’s weird.”
Hana glanced at the clock. Time passed as she thought about what to do with Miyu. She could just leave the girl in the dorms. But, knowing how energetic her sister was, she could bet that Miyu would leave the place on the first opportunity. “Come work with me. Just today.”
“For real?” Miyu's eyes shone right above her white smile.
“Of course. Now let’s go. I’ll show you how to be an Isekai Manager.”
After a quick stop by the cafeteria to have breakfast, the sisters went to the Hall of Portals to begin ‘their’ work. On their way there, Hana noticed the urgency in which other employees moved.
Her coworkers rushed through the corridors in lab coats, guiding humans to the infirmary - the manager was also dressed in her uniform (a lab coat and a blue swimsuit). The atypical movement filled the corridors and forced the sisters to dodge while walking.
The hall of portals was to the south of the floor, while the cafeteria was in the center, and the dorms to the north. The area of the hall was even bigger than the dorms. The sisters crossed the double doors leading to the place and watched the scene that was revealed.
The floor of the hall was covered in white tiles, just like the restroom. The white ceiling rose way taller than the ones from the corridors. The four beige walls were too, of course. On the floor, organized in three columns of four, were perfect circular holes filled with water.
The wells had a depth of sixteen ft – water on twelve of these - and a diameter of seven. The inside walls of the wells were made of metal. And, outside of it, metal bars prevent anyone from falling.
All that water released a strong and almost toxic chlorine odor that filled the place. The only thing worse was the all-time ‘zoooooomm’ coming from the dryers. Hana naturally ignored all of this and kept her attention in the portals. The Building was the destination of any human that just died on the isekai worlds, and the wells were their doors.
“There’s too many today.” Hana watched as the humans squeezed to leave the crowded wells. Around the portals, humans who worked on the Building helped to get the ‘isekai humans’ to the infirmary.
The manager noticed a tighter crowd around one well in particular. Some men crouched around the portal, others leaned on the bars, but all of them kept their curious eyes on the water. Between them, Hana noticed Konomi’s pink hair.
The manager approached the group, opening space to see whatever was in the well. She then noticed that not even one human appeared on the portal, and, worse, the water was black. “A dead world!?” Hana refused to believe what was happening.
Konomi turned when listened the manager’s voice. “Good morning, Hana. And yeah, it looks like a dead world.”
Miyu approached the well and ran a hand through the black water. “It looks cooler like this.”
“I woke up to fill the wells as usual, and noticed the water becoming black as it filled this one.”
“That’s supposed to be almost impossible.” Hana said. “When was the last time? Five hundred years ago? Are you sure that’s not just a disconnection?”
“It could be. But…” Konomi nodded to the humans coming out of the other portals, “what it seems is that a world really died, and now his dead humans are being spit through the other wells.”
“Didn’t the analysis team see this coming?”
“We can predict a lot of things.” One man of the crouched ones rose, and Hana recognized the dark-blue hair and the glasses. “That wasn’t one of them.” Ishida said. He was the chief analyst, and his team was responsible for keeping an eye on the isekai worlds. “Something must have destabilized the nucleus of the world and it exploded, or something like that.”
“This is an emergency.” Hana said. “Shouldn’t the Administrator have already sounded the alarm?”
“That lazy woman didn’t even open the gates to the other floors, and that should’ve happened three hours ago.” Ishida moved away from the well towards the exit. “I’ll send my men to find her. You managers can drain the well now, before any of you gets confused and ends up inserting a poor human bastard there.”
Ishida’s words raised a question in Hana’s mind. The manager raised her voice to be heard by the man, who was ready to burst through the exit. “What happens if we insert someone here?”
Ishida stopped for a moment and said: “The person dies… forever.” Then he left, and the doors slammed behind him.
Miyu pulled her hand out of the black water. “Could’ve said earlier…”
Right on the side of the well, built in the floor, was a number pad and a red button under a glass cover. Konomi crouched near it, and typed a password. The number tiny screen of the number pad glowed green, and the glass that covered the button opened. The supervisor then pressed the button, before locking the cover again.
“There’s nothing we can do here.” Konomi said, watching the black water lower until the well had only black drops at its bottom. “In a couple months the Building will probably find a new world to connect to this well. It happened the last time. Meanwhile, we have to insert the arriving humans into other worlds. I’ll find someone to cover this well, then I’ll come to help with the insertions too. If we work hard, we should be able to settle this by the end of the day.”
“Can’t we just ask for the other floors to help?” Miyu approached the well borders, stretching her neck to look at it. “It would be quic-AH!”
“The other floors are having the same problem.” Hana pulled Miyu back by the hand, as the girl almost fell on the hole. “They have the same twelve worlds we have here. That’s the only way the Building can deal with so many deaths. Imagine what would happen if, instead of hundreds, we had just one floor dealing with so many humans.”
“Oh… yeah, it makes sense.”
“Didn’t you know this? I’m pretty sure they teach it in one of the first classes.”
“They probably did. But I found them too boring, so I skipped.”
Hana sighed, “Of course you did.”
The group began to disperse after Konomi left. While they waited for a nurse to bring the humans for insertion, the sisters walked around the hall, helping to organize the movement.
A couple minutes later, a tall green-haired nurse entered the hall, followed by ten humans, instead of the usual pair. “Hana!” Shizuku waved.
“Look! It’s the torturer auntie.” Miyu pointed to the exit.
The manager moved fast, “Those are mine?” she said watching the women and men in the group. They seemed sacred, and one of them kept babbling something like: “She’s like a necromancer… a necromancer nurse…”
“This day has been wonderful!” Shizuku smiled creepily and her eyes began to glow. “I’m able to experience new group methods. I tried one th-”
“Can we talk about this later?” Hana said. “We’re in a bit of a rush right now.”
“Oh… of course.” You could see the enthusiasm escaping from the nurse’s deep voice. A perfect voice for the nights in which they told horror stories at the dorms.
“What about the clipboard with the data?”
“No clipboard this time. I’ve already sorted the humans into specific groups to save time. Everyone on this had spent their past life in a medieval and magical world. So, put them in a modern or ancient one. Here,” Shizuku nodded towards Hana, and the group fled to the side of the manager, “they’re all yours”. Shizuku let out a sadistic laugh as she left. “Now back to the fun.”
“Follow me please.” Hana said and moved. “Now pay attention, Miyu. When humans die and arrive at the Building, they recover all the memories of their last lives. That’s why they have to be taken to the infirmary first. To treat the shock.”
“Wait,” Miyu said, “if they died in the world, shouldn’t they have arrived here dead too?”
“The blessing of the well prevents that.”
“I’ve heard that name before.”
“The blessing is a magic who envelops a human who traveled through the portals and heals him. So, when they arrive here, they’re fine.” Hana stopped by a portal and talked to the human coworkers, who were getting the ‘isekai humans’ out of the water. The workers acted fast to make space for the insertion.
With only water in the well, Hana pointed her open hands towards the hole. The waters shone in a faint white. “What I’m doing now it’s called freezing the well.” The manager said to Miyu.
“I know this one.” The girl mimicked Hana’s stance. “You just got flow magic on the waters. As if you wanted to hold them still. My teacher told us that. I got this! You can let it go now.”
“Of course! Who the hell do you think I am!?”
Hana laughed and slowly withdrew her magic until Miyu was the only one holding the freeze. “Everyone inside the well, please.” The manager nodded, and the humans jumped on the water.
As much as Hana questioned Shizuku’s work, she had to admit that all humans treated by the nurse were always fully cooperative during the insertions. The manager didn’t remember one time she had to use her taser to control an aggressive human. She still carried it… just in case. “Anyone here going through the first insertion?”
“Me!” A scared teenage girl raised her hand.
Hana crouched near the well to talk to the teenager. “You don’t need to worry. I’ll use magic on the water, and a white flash will come from it. It won’t hurt you. Not a single bit, ok?”
The girl nodded.
Hana continued, “After the flash you’ll be reborn as a baby in another world. You won’t remember anything. The trip to this other world will take forty-eight hours, and you’ll be asleep during that. During that time, we may perform an extraction maneuver, if we find that something went wrong with the insertion.”
“Something wrong? What kind of wrong?” The teenager said.
“Like you being reborn as a slime, or a spider or anything like that. But don’t worry, that’s almost never going to happen. I’m just saying so that, if it happens, you don’t get scared. Everything will be fine.” Hana smiled at the girl.
“Ok.” The girl was still scared, but at least smiled back.
“Let’s go then.” Hana moved back from the edges of the well and pointed her hands at the well again. “Miyu, I’m holding the freeze now. Release it so I can make the insertion.”
“No,” Miyu said, “I can do this too.”
“An insertion? With ten humans?”
Hana released her magic again and watched Miyu trying an insertion for the first time. “Let magic flow through the waters,” the manager instructed, “as if you wanted to form waves in it”.
Miyu clenched her teeth, forcing her magic against the well. Tiny waves formed on the water, growing as the girl struggled. Then, a white light surged from the bottom of the well. Sweat ran down the girl’s forehead, and, feeling weak, Miyu let her arms fall.
Hana acted fast, raising her hands and ‘taking the reins’. The waters shook with the manager’s magic, and that white light grew in a flash, that filled all the hall for a second. Then, the light faded, revealing a well with water, but no humans.
“God dammit!” Miyu frowned. “Why is that so difficult?”
“Don’t worry… you were pretty close… actually.” Hana crouched. The panting manager sweated as if she ran a kilometer.
“Are you fine?”
“Yes. It’s just that an insertion with that many people tires you.” The manager took off her lab coat, revealing a blue swimsuit. “But we aren’t finished.”
Hana gave the lab coat to Miyu, jumped on the well and swam to its bottom. There, she checked for any humans left. Seeing that the well was indeed empty, she swam back to the top and exited the portal in push.
“We always have to check?” Miyu said.
Hana walked into the metal grids ahead. “Yes. It’s a safety protocol.” The dryers turned on and began their ‘zooming’. A few seconds passed, and Hana dressed her lab coat again.
“So that’s what managers do?” Miyu sounded disappointed. “I thought it was more… cool.”
She doesn’t get it yet, Hana thought. The manager was afraid that, by bringing Miyu with her, she had harmed the girl’s understanding process. Afraid that, by confronting Miyu with the truth, she would have the girl refuse it.
Hana’s little sister didn’t have that ‘manager personality’, and Hana knew that. She wouldn’t be sad if Miyu chose to be an analyst or a nurse, though. As long as Miyu chose something. “Yeah,” The manager said, “you’ll get used to it”.
“What do we do now?” Miyu walked in circles around one of the wells. Humans emerged from the waters as she watched.
“Get out of there… You’re disturbing the workers.” Hana leaned on the beige wall, panting. The academy training gave the blonde manager a tight body that looked good in a swimsuit, and enough physical endurance to do her job even on the toughest days. That particular day was tougher.
Hana found it symbolic that hearts beat faster when you were trying your best. As if you were more alive at the moment. As if it was telling you: “Yes. That’s the right path”. The manager thought the heavy breathing and the sweat were a little too much, though. She would get the same message just by the heart.
Luckily for Hana, the alarm had sounded. That was just ten minutes before, when she was finishing her tenth insertion. Which meant that Ishida had probably found the Administrator. Just seven minutes after the alarm, a group of retired managers came to help, and, now, an old lady was alternating insertions with Hana.
“Now we wait for Shizuku to bring the next group.” Hana said. “You sure you’ll wait?”
“I’m only leaving with you.” Miyu said.
Hana sighed. “If you are really doing this, pass by the cafeteria and bring us something to eat.”
Miyu approached with a smile. “Only if you let me go through the vents.”
This again? Hana could put up a battle against her sister’s weird habit, if she wasn’t too tired to care. And Miyu’s loyalty also softened the manager’s heart, so Hana decided to let this one pass. “Fine. Just do it carefully.”
“Yes!” Miyu raised a clenched fist. “I’ll be right back.” The girl rushed towards a lateral wall. Ran over it and jumped to get her fingers on the opened air duct. Then pulled herself up into the passage.
Hana watched in a paradoxical mix of pride and disappointment. On the edge of her vision, she noticed a confused old lady. The retired manager fixed her eyes on the duct. “What the heck?” She said in a matured voice.
“Yeah,” Hana let out a nervous laugh, “she does that”. The manager heard voices coming through the hall exit, so she moved, taking this opportunity to leave the old lady’s eyes.
A tall woman passed the white double doors, leading a group of black suited men. She wore a thick lab coat over jeans pants and a bottle neck sweater. The piece molded itself around the perfect shaped body, highlighting the already big bust of the Administrator and making thinner her already thin waist.
Her hips swung like one of those hypnotic clocks. And, as it seemed, it was working. Everyone stopped to watch the woman pass. The women stopped because it was the Administrator, the mysterious leader of the floor. The men stopped because... well, you know why.
On the other hand, the woman didn’t seem to care. She raised a hand to hide a yawn and had sleepy eyes behind circular glasses. The fact that Konomi was too nice prevented Hana from envying the supervisor’s body. The same logic couldn’t be applied with the Administrator even if she was god’s purest saint. And yes. The Building’s residents had a god: The Building.
Behind the Administrator and leading the black line of men, was Fukahori. The captain of the “World Adjustment Squad” yelled instructions to the men following him. “…And for Christ’s sake! Don’t. Forget. The. FLOAT!” The middle-aged man was a soldier, a big and strong one. The spiked hair and the badly shaved beard matched his grumpy personality.
The group approached a well by the end of the hall and stopped. Fukahori kept talking. “If the insertion goes wrong, and we end up in the deep sea instead of a desert, I don’t want anyone like: ‘Oh no, captain! My float doesn’t work!” He put a hand on his waist. “Right here, look! There’s a ring tied to a string. Pull that ring, if it moves, your float is fine. But don’t pull too much, otherwise it will trig-”
RIIIP! A sound like that of fabric being teared came from one of the soldiers. A man’s memory suit inflated into a big ball. The soldier couldn’t move as his arms and legs were absorbed into the float. Fukahori sighed, covering his face with a hand. A second later and the embarrassed soldier deactivated the float. The ‘supposed to be tight suit’ was now baggy.
Fukahori took a deep breath. As if he wanted to cage his anger in his lungs to not let it pour on the embarrassed man. “Soldier, go get another suit. Quick.”
The man took off his suit, and rushed through the exit wearing only pants. From what Hana had observed, that was just one more adjustment insertion. The human soldiers would be inserted into the world sometimes to prevent a nuclear war, sometimes to kill someone who would spread a deadly virus, or like they kept saying: “To adjust something”.
Hana was ready to move, when her vision angle changed and she saw a particular soldier in the group. The black-haired human held a serious expression and appeared to be around Hana’s age. Takeda was his name.
Ba-dum, Ba-dum, Ba-dum. If our hearts really tell us when we’re on the right path. Then, the message Hana received was a dangerous one. That wasn’t the first time Hana had seen Takeda, of course not. She had eyes on the soldier since she was twelve.
What was just a crush, grew stronger every night Hana fantasized a date with the human before sleeping and, eventually, became an irresistible love.
He’s going to be inserted too, Hana thought. Depending on the mission, he may return just months later, maybe years. A lot can change in so much time. I should talk to him now… No. No! This is wrong! And someone will definitely notice. But if I lose my chance now…
Drowned in her own thoughts, Hana didn’t realize that was already moving. That her love had guided her to the man. When she snapped out of it, Hana realized that she was right in front of him. For how many seconds were they locking eyes before Hana even noticed? She didn’t know.
Ba-dum, Ba-dum, Ba-dum...
Red cheeks on both faces, and confused looks around them. The soldiers were looking, the managers were looking, the humans were looking, even the Administrator was looking. That was indeed dangerous.
Ba-dum, Ba-dum, Ba-dum as the eyes weighed over Hana shoulders.
“Sorry!” She said, “I wasn’t paying attention”, then turned to go in the other direction. That was enough to disarm the ‘watchers’, who came back to doing whatever they were doing before. She moved towards the exit of the halls, deciding to leave the place and only come back after Takeda was inserted.
Yes, that’s what I’m going to do, Hana thought.
Then she turned back to Takeda. The confused soldier observed Hana approaching again. She stopped in front of him and gathered her courage before talking. “Hi. I’m Hana.” As soon as she spoke, the eyes came back to weigh on her shoulders, so she acted. “I want to… ask some questions.”
“Q-questions?” Takeda said. He seemed to be feeling the same pressure.
“Yes! I was looking for someone who could tell me about the memory suits.” She ran a hand over Takeda’s suit…over his abs, more specifically. Realizing what she had just done, the manager opened a nervous smile.
WHAT AM I DOING WHAT AM I DOING WHAT AM I DOING, she thought. Hana couldn’t see herself there, but knew that her face was red hot as if steam would come out of her ears at any moment. “I-I’m a manager, you know… So, I think I should know more about the suits. A-after all, who knows when I’ll have to perform an adjustment insertion? I must be prepared, r-right?”
“Yeah!” Takeda smiled in an obvious attempt to make the situation look better. “What you want to know?”
Would you go in a dat- Hana had to fight hard to prevent her thoughts from coming out. “About the travel time. I’ve heard that, when you’re using a memory suit, it only takes ten hours to arrive at the world, is that right?”
“Actually, it takes twelve hours.” Takeda was obviously trying to sound as formal as possible. “It’s one of the properties of the memory liquid.” Takeda pointed at a little transparent tube that circled his suit and carried a fluorescent green liquid. “This liquid also prevents us from becoming babies when travelling to other worlds. That way we can go, do our job and return immediately to the same floor.”
“Oh! Really!?” Hana said, even though she already knew all of that. “Well…” The manager searched for another topic, but nothing came to mind. Around her, time seemed to pass slower. Everybody’s eyes were still over the two, even though the pressure wasn’t the same anymore.
Then someone burst through the doors. “I’m back, captain!” The embarrassed soldier said in a new memory suit.
“Good! Let’s go!” Fukahori's loud voice broke the weird atmosphere as if he had set the time back to its natural flow. The eyes dispersed, and Hana let out a relieved breath, feeling the weight coming out of her back.
Behind Takeda, the soldiers jumped on the well and the Administrator prepared to perform the insertion. “I have to go now.” Takeda said. “It was good to meet you, Hana.”
He turned to join the soldiers, but Hana grabbed his suit. “Wait.” She said, “I have one more question.” The manager locked her eyes with Takeda one more time. “When you return, can we talk more…” Hana swallowed before continuing, “…you know… just the two of us”.
Takeda widened his eyes, letting his expression show to the manager that he understood what she meant. “To talk about...?”
“…Insertions…?” Takeda gulped.
“…Yeah?” Hana kept touching her index finger together while waiting for the answer. During that couple seconds that anteceded the verdict, the time seemed to have slowed yet again. When Takeda answered, Hana could believe that a celestial light shined behind him. As if a higher being was blessing the moment.
“Alright….” He said, and something exploded inside Hana. A mix of relief, joy and excitement. For a couple seconds, she found herself in a field of sunflowers, even though she didn’t know much about how one looked. White clouds mashed in the blue sky, and the wind fondled her cheeks.
“… I have to go now.” Takeda said, and his voice pulled Hana back to the Building’s reality.
“Yeah!” Hana said. “See you later!”
Takeda nodded and turned back to the well. Hana held one hand against the other and kept still, trying to contain her excitement.
“Oh no…” Takeda said. Hana moved her eyes to the human, who had stopped in front of the well. No one was there anymore. The Administrator had left without realizing that she forgot one soldier. The ‘celestial light’ Hana had seen was just the insertion flash. “Can you help me here? The soldier said to Hana.
“Of course!” The manager moved fast, and Takeda jumped into the waters. Hana held a freeze and, in flash, performed the insertion. The white light engulfed Takeda’s body and, when decayed, he wasn’t there anymore.
Hana jumped into the waters and, instead of swimming, hugged her arms and legs to let her concentrated weight sink her. She hit the bottom of the well with a smile. There, where the water muffled every sound, she let out all her joy in a long “Yeeeeees!”
If anyone stepped next to the well, they would see a young woman moving arms and legs in irregular patterns and probably think that she was drowning. When the excitement and the breath started to lack, the manager swam back to the surface. She felt lighter, even though her body was now filled with a feeling of peace.
She pulled herself out of the waters with a serious face, to guarantee that no one suspected anything. However, someone to her right watched with detective eyes. Arms crossed, Miyu squinted to look under Hana’s acting.
“Oh, you arrived.” Hana shook her body to release some of the water. She was already tired of using the dryers just to jump on the water minutes later.
“No. I was here during the whole conversation.” Miyu stepped closer to the manager before saying in a lower voice, “You know relationships between humans and steerleans are prohibited, right?”
It was 2 a.m. when the human flow finally started to slow, and the sisters found the time to have dinner. They didn’t eat much; the tiredness took most of the hunger away, even though Hana loved rice and fish.
“How many are left?” Miyu's sleepy voice came after a big yawn.
“Five groups of ten.” Hana said.
The sisters sat on one of the tables in the cafeteria. It was only them in the echoing silence. The white lights were still on above them. The lights were always on. Hana listened to the sound of the vents, a ‘zooom’ very similar to the dryers' noise, but quieter.
“That’s your fault, you know…” Miyu moved the trays to the side, then rested her arms on the table and her head on the arms. “When those ladies offered to help, you should've accepted. But you’re always like: ‘No! Don’t worry about me! I can handle this!”
“You talk like you are different.”
“There is a difference. I do it, so I can succeed and look cool after. You do it to not cause any trouble.”
“You should go and sleep. Tomorrow they’ll probably have a substitute teacher at the academy, and you must be well rested… You’ve already lost enough classes.”
Hana watched as the girl with the face hidden behind the arms pointed blue eyes towards her. “What’s his name?” The voice came muffled.
“… Who are talking abo-”
“Don’t even try. I’m your sister. You can’t fool me. I’ve seen you observe that human soldier multiple times, right here at the cafeteria. Just tell me the name.”
“…” Hana fled Miyu’s eyes again and was now in silence, staring at the beige wall. She heard her sister sigh.
“You can trust me; I won’t tell anyone.” The red-haired girl said. “I can even help you. I know some dark corners in the floor; a knowledge I got from moving through the vents. I can show them to you, if you want a place to kis-”
“It’s Takeda! His name is Takeda.” Hana said, eyes still fixed on the wall.
The lack of reaction forced the manager to move her embarrassed eyes back to the red-haired girl. Miyu had a smug smile and let out a “heh heh”.
“And we won’t do what you were about to say. We are just going to talk a little, that’s just it. Now wipe that stupid smile of your face.” Hana grabbed a little cup by the trays. The cup had four reinforcement pills. She offered one pill to Miyu. “Here.”
“I would rather have the reinforcement milk.”
“You’re twelve. It’s about time for you to switch to the pills.”
Miyu sighed again and took the pill from Hana’s hand. The girl moved the pill to her mouth and swallowed it. What Hana didn’t notice at the time, was that Miyu faked all of this. The girl returned her head to the table, and the echoing silence filled the place once more.
The manager put her pills in the pockets of her lab coat, thinking that she could just eat them tomorrow. She also thought about using the excuse of ‘I was having dinner’ to slack off a little. But then she glanced at the clock on the wall.
The more time I waste here, the more it will take until I can sleep.
“Why…” Miyu said in a serious voice. “Why do you think I couldn’t perform the insertion? Am I not good enough?”
“It’s not that.” Hana ran a caring hand over her sister’s red hair. “Most of the students your age can’t even freeze a well. Besides that, transporting ten people at the same time it’s way harder than it seems. You saw how hard I was panting after just one insertion. I was actually surprised that you almost did it.”
“I see…” Miyu’s voice sounded weaker as the sleepiness took over.
Hana raised her eyes to the ceiling, imaging it to be transparent and seeing the floors above her. “But, maybe, there’s another reason. You see… we’ll live forever in this Building without exits. While humans live countless lives and countless adventures, we’re prohibited to use the wells. We live just one life. A life of sacrifice.”
Hana’s mind flashed childhood memories from when she watched her parents wake up early to work. “And, as much as it may sound dumb now, that’s way better than one hundred lives. To sacrifice yourself without expecting a reward, that’s truly beautiful. Sacrifice makes you bigger. Makes you something that’s more than just a fragile steerlean body. Makes you better. Only when you understand what it's like to be prepared to sacrifice yourself for another one that the well start to answer your call. That’s why I think you c-.”
Hana stopped, noticing that Miyu was already sleeping. The manager heard steps and turned her head to see Konomi approaching.
“I’m here to ask you a favor.” The pink-haired woman said. “I’ve finished my insertions and saw that you still have some left.” Konomi's soothing voice was even more calm as the woman was clearly tired. “Could you drain the wells for me?”
“I’ve shut off the water system just temporarily. To make sure that nobody tries to fill that dead world. I’ll turn it on again early tomorrow. Just make sure to drain the wells only when the insertions are over, otherwise you won’t be able to fill them again, ok?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
“Thank you again. I promise I’ll repay you someday.”
“You’re going to change now? Could you take Miyu with you to the dorms?”
Hana watched Konomi guiding the sleepy girl away from the cafeteria. Ironically, the manager’s biggest sacrifice wasn’t waking up early every day to work until late at night, or never being able to leave the Building. It was having to lead her sister through the same path.
Hana went back to the hall. It was 4 a.m. when she finished her last insertion and began to drain the wells. One by one. She typed passwords and pressed red buttons. She was already in her dry lab coat, ready to leave.
Hana arrived on the farthest well of the third column, and observed her reflection on the water. That day the Building had probably drained a little more than colors, maybe even a few years of the manager’s life given how tired she felt.
But, it was a good day, she thought. Hana crouched and tried to imagine the world behind the waters of that well. The same well where Takeda was inserted. She tried to imagine the soldier walking under a blazing sun and over the yellow dunes of a desert. She tried to guess what his mission was and how much time it would take.
I want him to return right now, she thought.
The manager extended an arm, reaching for the number pad. But a white light on the bottom of the well stopped her. The light grew fast, and Hana checked to see if someone was using magic. But she was there alone. A blinding white filled the hall, and the manager protected her eyes. When the light decayed, Hana felt something grab her ankle.
A ‘invader’ hand escaped from the shining waters. With great force, it pulled Hana towards the well. Hana fell back against the ground near the edge of the portal. The manager moved her arms, holding the bars that circled the well.
“A human?” She said. “Why would the Building send one this late?”
Another hand emerged from the waters. Back there, Hana was too confused to notice the black suit that dressed the arms. The second hand fell down on Hana’s left thigh, grabbing with intent.
“Huh!” Hana blushed. It was a red of anger and embarrassment. “You aren’t a human! You’re a pervert!” The manager shook her legs trying to get rid of the pervert’s grip, but he pressed harder. A black-haired head passed through the waters as the pervert used Hana as a stair to get out of the well.
The hands moved again. One slid through the manager’s body and gripped her waist. The other one moved towards Hana’s bust, that was when she decided it was enough perversion. She grabbed her taser in one of the pockets of her lab coat and electrified the pervert.
The electric current ran through her body, and she cursed her stupidity. Hana heard the man cry-out in pain, but he just wouldn’t release his grip. Now, a torso emerged, and Hana started to kick her aggressor. The taser fell on the pool formed around and below Hana by the turmoil. The object let out fire sparks and smoke.
Even with all the kicking, the pervert continued to move. Hana couldn’t do anything. Because she didn’t take the reinforcement pills, she was now weak to fight. And, even though she had the pills in her pockets, by the time she grabbed one, the man would be on top of her.
Hana shut her eyes; pressing the eyelids as if that made her more protected. She felt the man’s cold and wet body crawling over her and heard him panting. Five seconds passed while the scared manager waited for the attack, but nothing happened. Slowly, Hana opened her eyes to, just then, notice the memory suit and the familiar face.
“Takeda?” She said, and the soldier collapsed over her body.
Hana didn’t even have the time to understand what was happening. The damaged taser let out an electric charge that ran through the pool into the wet bodies of the two. The manager cried out and everything went black.