These piles and piles of sand people call deserts are weird. Sixteen years had passed since Hideko first stepped into the dry world and she still thought the same - she was ten at the time. During the day, deserts are so hot they kill you. During the night, they get so cold they kill you. She found it ironic that the threat of death at any time was so… liberating.
The sun had just hidden behind the horizon - and its dunes –, and Hideko already felt freezing. But, whatever the conditions, she would never shiver.
“We’ve been waiting for two hours already.” One of the twenty men next to Hideko checked a pocket watch. “We should abort the mission for now and re-plan it.” The group encircled a tiny area at the foot of a dune.
Under the starry sky, the dunes resembled light-blue satin sheets, and the whole desert looked like a disorganized bed in which a giant had slept. Hideko gestured, and another man moved to lit lanterns. “We’re going to wait.” She said while observing the flames dancing by the rhythm of the wind. “Ishida said they would come today. So, we’re going to wait.”
Behind the group a big cage was covered with a thick blanket. The monster inside it didn’t seem to like Hideko’s suggestion. The metal cage shook, and the metal chains that pinned the cage to the ground tinkled.
“This could very well be a trap, and the adjustment squad is closing in on us right now.” The man took a cigarette from one of his pockets and approached a lantern. “I don’t trust that man. I don’t trust steerleans.”
“I’m half-steerlean.” Hideko said. “You don’t trust me too, or you just trust me half of the time?” She pointed sharp eyes to the man. “Back to your post, brother.”
The man sighed, but obeyed. Calling others ‘brothers’ felt weird to Hideko, but that was just one of the many manners she had to learn in that desertic world.
Hideko wore a standard yellow military uniform and a ragged scarf. The clothes hid a brown tanned skin. The men around also wore balaclavas, and even though Hideko couldn’t see their faces, she knew they were impatient.
“We’re going to wait at least five more hours, so prepare yourselves.” She moved the scarf to protect her mouth from the cold. “Then, if nothing happens, we’ll delay the mission and try communicating with Ishida again. Don’t let anything distract you. Not the cold, not the boredom, not the sleepiness.”
Hideko wanted her brothers to be cold. Not the body, but the mind. She wanted them prepared to execute the plan perfectly and not let themselves be carried by dumb feelings. The funny thing was that Hideko was probably the most anxious of the group.
“Don’t worry, chief.” Another man said. He clenched his fist and had a smile on his face. “We’ll take them easily.”
“I like your… enthusiasm, but remember that we don’t want them killed.” Hideko tapped her feet against the sand. “We kill them, they return immediately to the Building, ready to warn about our coming.”
She had waited and worked so much for that moment, and even as she felt she couldn’t wait more, she had to. The determination burned inside her, fighting against the wind and being even hotter than the desert during the day. She had to succeed. Not to avenge her father, but to make things right.
Two more hours passed before the adjustment squad finally arrived. Hideko saw the squad first: “Prepare!” She pointed towards the white silhouettes appearing at the center of the encirclement, right before the brothers and exactly where Ishida said the squad would appear. Hideko now knew she could trust him.
The brothers weren’t fully concentrated, but reacted fast. They approached the silhouettes that looked like men made of light.
Every brother held open arms, ready to attack. “Wait!” Hideko was there too. The silhouettes shone stronger, painting everything around them in white and forcing the brothers to squint. “Wait!” Hideko had her eyes fully open. Then, the light dissipated revealing black suited soldiers. “NOW!”
Hideko and her brothers jumped on the soldiers, grabbing them by the arms and throwing them against the ground. The adjustment soldiers didn’t even have the time to be surprised. The man Hideko held shook trying to free himself from the woman’s weight, but she had another brother helping her hold the soldier.
“What the hell is this!?” The big soldier said, trying not to eat sand while saying.
“Don’t worry, soldier. We won’t do you any harm.” In a quick glance, Hideko checked for the others. As her eyes wandered over the black suited men, the soldiers started screaming and shaking. “Hold them tight!” Hideko moved her legs over the soldier, holding him below her. “Use your weight!”
Something felt odd. A tiny disturbance in the scenario Hideko had imagined and the scene she now observed. Men held against the blue sand; Faces illuminated by the fire of the lanterns; Fluorescent green tubes around the black suits; Dunes on the horizon, and a full moon above the dunes. It was all there…
…but something seemed to be missing. The big soldier shook again and Hideko was pulled back to reality.
No distractions! She nodded to the brother that helped her, “I can hold him. Use the sleep thing”.
The brother stood up letting his hold of the soldier and took a plastic bottle out of his clothes. He opened the bottle and drowned a piece of fabric in the liquid. “The others first.” Hideko said, and the brother moved towards the other restrained soldiers. One by one, he pressed the wet fabric on the noses of the soldiers and put them to sleep.
The soldiers tried resisting, but couldn’t do much while being held by at least two brothers. “Check if they’re really unconscious!” Hideko waited for the brother to come to put the last soldier to sleep. “Then take their suits. There’s ten. I will take one. You brothers can decide the other nine. I’ll go first to contact Ishida.”
“Hey, you bastards!” The soldier under Hideko shook harder this time. “Look at me, you all!” His powerful voice dragged everyone’s attention to him. “I’m Fukahori, prophesied hero in World 2; The great unifier in World 7; The incorruptible in World 11; Turned captain of the 14th floor Adjustment Squad. And I swear to God that once I get my hands on you, I’ll tear you apart!”
Hideko knew he wasn’t lying. There was fury in his voice, and truth in his blazing eyes. But, at the same time, she felt like that was just too much, as if he was acting to encourage his soldiers.
She extended her hand, asking for the wet fabric. It was time to go. The brother handed her the fabric and she moved her hand. Just then she noticed a white light shining behind her and the brothers. Hideko turned her head and saw a standing black suited man. Another soldier had just arrived. The man widened his eyes watching the scene.
In a mere second, Hideko’s mind filled all the holes she thought to be products of her anxiety. There was indeed a disturbance. There was indeed something missing. There were only nine silhouettes and only nine men on the ground. Fukahori’s rage was not just bravado, but a distraction.
She watched the late soldier’s eyes moving as he tried to understand the situation. Her eyes connected his, and he reached for something in his suit. “There’s one more!” Hideko pointed, and the brothers moved as if their minds we’re connected.
“It’s a raid, Takeda! GO!” Fukahori growled.
The scene seemed to pass in slow motion. Under the desert night, a horde of brothers rushed and leaped towards Takeda. Arms extended and scared eyes as they reached for the soldier’s limbs.
When the brother’s hands were closer than an inch to the soldier’s body, a knife blade shone held by him, and Takeda pierced it through his own heart. The brothers fell over the soldier like a swarm of angry bees.
The sudden stop that followed the tackle was a clear message: “He’s dead.” Hideko knew even before one of the brothers said.
“He’s alive up there now.” Hideko pointed to the sky. No one knew exactly where the Building was located, but Hideko liked to think that it was up in space, watching over the worlds. “We have to move fast.” Hideko pressed the fabric against Fukahori’s nose, and the captain fell unconscious. She moved towards Takeda’s corpse and dispersed the brothers, “Grab their suits and change. I’ll take this one”.
Hideko undressed, being only in her underwear for a moment. “Nine with me. The others can begin dragging the soldier’s bodies out of the desert. We don’t want them to die from the cold…”
She put on a serious face before continuing, “If you guys keep looking at me while I’m changing, your brothers will have to carry your bodies too.” The tan lines and white skin remembered her of her steerlean half. A half that not even sixteen years of living under a blazing sun had erased.
“Thank you for showing me what it is like to be free.” She now said as if was talking to the desertic world. Her eyes traveled through the land around, observing the sand, the dunes, the horizon and the blue-starry sky. “I’ll be back soon.” Hideko closed the zipper on her chest, and a green liquid glistened on tubes around the black suit.
“I’m going!” She said to the brothers, then reached for the knife on Takeda’s chest. “I’ll show them this freedom you showed me.” She said to the world again, then raised her eyes and moved the knife.
I’ll burn down that damn cage. She felt the blade piercing her chest, and everything went black.
“It’s a raid! The building is in danger! Drain it! Quick!”
Hana felt nothing. Takeda said the building was in danger, and the manager felt nothing. In natural circumstances, Hana would rush to drain the well and try to understand the situation as fast as possible to quickly plan a defense. But the taser accident changed something in her mind and in her heart. Her sense of duty was gone, and now her movements felt numb.
The worst part was that Hana hadn’t realized it yet. Now, she just let her trust in the soldier guide her. The manager approached the well and observed it. Hana still knew that steerleans we’re forbidden to enter the worlds. But, now, a question wandered in her mind.
Why? Why can’t we leave this place?
Hana did as Takeda asked and pressed the button to drain the well. She could’ve asked the reason why draining the well was important. But she already had too many questions to ask. The first one was: “What’s happening?”
“I’ll explain lat-” Takeda cried in pain, pulling out the knife from his chest. He threw the blade away, and blood spilled over the white tiles. The colors contrast made the blood look brighter and sent a chill down Hana’s spine. She moved a hand to her chest, watching the blessing of the well seal the soldier’s wound.
Death felt close. Humans dealt with death all time, even the ones that lived and worked at the Building. Takeda, for example, had just died. Steerleans, on the other hand, had to learn how to deal with a permanent death. And this Hana felt like she hadn’t learned that yet.
“I’ll explain later. We have to move now.” The soldier moved and passed through the double doors into the beige corridor, and Hana rushed to follow him. Wet footsteps on the corridor floor as none of the two had the time to use the dryers.
“I’ve heard the raider’s leader ordering them to take our memory suits.” Takeda said. “They’re probably going to use the suits to transport themselves to this floor.” Takeda lowered his voice and moved as if a spy.
Hana had inserted a lot of spies - and a lot of humans other humans thought to be spies. After the first dozen, she learned to recognize them. They moved with caution and had eyes wide open to watch their surroundings. Young people, most of them… she wondered why.
The manager also knew that spies were supposed to be deceitful killers, even though she couldn’t conceive this idea perfectly. After all, steerleans weren’t like that. Why did the human’s worlds needed spies, but the Building did not? How would be a deceitful steelean? Those were two more questions to pile up in Hana’s mind.
“How many of them can come through a dry well?” Takeda said, pulling Hana back to reality.
“Through a dry well?” Hana said. “Only one every thirty minutes.”
“Great.” The man stopped at the corner of the corridor and leaned to peek.
Behind him, Hana mimicked his moves. “They’re not here. You were the first to arrive.”
“I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about Ishida.” Seeing that the way was clear, they moved again. “I’ve heard the raider’s leader talk about contacting the chief analyst. I’m pretty sure that they are working together.”
“Working together? Towards what?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Takeda alternated glances between the path ahead and whatever could be following them. “But what I know is that the raiders knew the exact place we were going to land. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but it seems that they waited for the squad and surprised us. They got everyone but me.”
The back-and-forth of the soldier’s eyes created a paranoia feeling in Hana too, and now her mind wandered to think about whatever monster was about to reach the Building. “What exactly are we expecting? Orcs? Giant Bugs?”
Hana ate giant bug’s limbs for breakfast. Like... literally. Everything the steerleans ate or drank in the Building was brought from the twelve worlds. Not just consumables, but every complex object the steerleans needed was brought from outside.
“Humans.” Takeda said. He and Hana exited the corridors and entered the cafeteria. The place was just like she left it hours before. Four corridors connected the cafeteria. One in each wall. The manager wondered where they’ll be going next.
As they passed by the tables, Hana’s mind flashed memories of the moment when she had dinner with Miyu, and a shock of pain ran through her head. Acute and quick. The manager leaned against one of the four pillars of the cafeteria and held a hand against her forehead.
Her mind kept coming back to the memories. But a blur hid part of the moments, and the pain kept the manager from accessing it. She knew she talked to Miyu, but didn’t remember what they talked about. She avoided the memories, being only concerned about Miyu, and how this ‘raid’ could hurt the girl. The care the manager had with her sister wasn’t affected by the accident.
“You’re fine?” Takeda said. He was clearly in a rush, but stopped to certify that Hana was ok.
Hana noticed his concern and smiled at that. “Yeah, it’s ok. Just a headache.” She took a reinforcement pill from her pockets and swallowed it. “I don’t get why humans would want to ‘raid’ the Building.” Hana said. “There’s got to be a good reason, right? Ishida too… What if we’re on the wrong side of this?”
“When I arrived at the desert, all my friends were held against the ground being stripped of their suits. Whatever Ishida and that woman are planning is going to change this Building.”
“But what if it is a good change?”
Takeda’s brief silence made Hana question what she had just said. Even before saying that, she felt as if poking a wound. She didn’t know why. She just felt it. But, at the same time, the question felt natural. Wrong and right at the same time. “What if this cha-”
“You’re kidding me!?” Takeda’s voice took an angry tone and echoed through the cafeteria. “I’ve just said to you that they attacked my squadmates. How can this be a good change? Almost every change is a bad change in this Building. You’re a steerlean and an isekai manager, you should’ve known this already.”
“But it doesn’t have to be like this, right? I definitely think we can have some changes, for example…”
Hana’s cheeks reddened and she lowered her face to hide it. “I wouldn’t mind if relationships between humans and steerleans were allowed… for example.”
The lack of reaction from the soldier forced Hana to fight her embarrassment and raise her face again. She watched Takeda moving his eyes as if to make sure that nobody was in the cafeteria. He acted fast, grabbing Hana by the waist and leaning their bodies behind the pillar.
Hidden behind the pillar, the soldier held Hana in a tight hug. The manager could feel the soldier’s hands on her waist and back pushing her body against his. Hana rested her face on Takeda’s chest and let the heat of their bodies connect. Then, she raised her red face, “A-are we really d-doing this? H-here?”
“Silence.” Takeda gave Hana a serious glance and turned his face away again.
Hana gave a soft smile. “S-so you’re a bad-boy after all, huh? It’s ok. Just be kind, ok? This going to be my first ki-”
Takeda pressed a hand against Hana’s mouth. “Shut. Up.”
Now that’s just rudeness! In Hana’s angry silence, a voice was heard. A masculine voice reaching and echoing in the cafeteria. She could only guess which corridor the voice was coming from when Ishida entered the cafeteria. By the sound of the footsteps, she could guess that at least two men were with Ishida.
They came through the corridor on the opposite side of the room and, as the sound of the footsteps became louder, they seemed to be moving towards the hall, which meant they would pass right by the side of Hana and Takeda.
The soldier matched eyes with Hana, pointed to the manager and made a circle with his finger indicating to her that they would have to circle the pillar to avoid being seen by the chief analyst and his men.
The manager nodded and held her breath. She folded her arms around Takeda to guide him when it was time to move. Concentrating on the sound, she waited for the footsteps to get closer so she could decide where to turn.
“Why wasn’t I warned about this delay?” Ishida’s voice came from up-left.
“I’m sorry, boss. But it seems like the Administrator herself performed the insertion and, as always, she forgot to update the data to the analysis team. We’ve just discovered that the Squad Insertion was delayed when we checked the world.”
Hana waited a bit more and, when Ishida was almost directly to her left, she used her eyes to indicate to Takeda that they were going right. They moved as if dancing. Two bodies connected to one rhythm. One step after the other, they circled the pillar to maintain an angle where they wouldn’t be seen.
Ishida seemed to be exiting the cafeteria when, with hands on Takeda’s waist, Hana felt her finger enter some kind of pocket in the soldier’s suit. She glanced quickly to see what it was and saw a shining blade slipping out of the suit. The knife fell, and Hana grabbed the object by the blade before it hit the ground.
An acute line of pain crossed Hana’s palm, and she sealed lips to muffle a cry. The footsteps immediately stopped, and Hana knew Ishida’s men heard her. Hiding on the opposite side of the pillar, Takeda opened his hand and Hana slowly put the knife on his palm. The manager clenched her bleeding fist to not let the blood hit the floor.
A moment of complete silence in the cafeteria. Only the noise of the vents was heard. Hana observed the subtle trail of water that ended at her feet, praying that Ishida’s men didn’t follow it. The manager took a deep silent breath and held it, fighting against the urge to let it go.
“What are you doing!?” Ishida’s voice sounded far, as if the chief analyst was already on the corridor leading to the hall of portals.
“I think I heard something.” One of his men screamed back. “Yeah, me too.” Another voice came in.
“Oh, yeah! Let’s waste more time here.” Ishida said. “After all, it’s not like we’re already late, right? Why don’t we just wait until the Administrator finds out about our plan and opens the gates to the other floors?”
“That’s just the vents! Moving, now!”
The footsteps returned after Ishida’s orders. The sounds disappeared through the corridor. When Hana and Takeda couldn’t hear Ishida’s men anymore, they looked at each other. ‘Are you fine?’ written in their eyes. They moved out of the pillar, breathing freely again. Hana would search for bandages to wrap around her hand, but before this came something more important:
“We need to find the Administrator.”