Hideko opened her eyes and observed the fluorescent tubes above. A lock of hair blocked part of her vision. It was a blonde hair lock, the only one in her brown hair. She let the white light bathe her, but it couldn’t. It had no intensity, no heat, no life. It was just another soulless object in the room, when it could be something more.
“Your sun is… disappointing.” The light flicked as she said.
Hideko stood on the bottom of a well. The knife that killed her still stuck on her chest, while the blessing of the well tried to heal the wound. She took a deep breath, and a poignant odor of chlorine scratched against her nostrils.
“It was your sun too.” Ishida stood above, on the edge of the well. “Do you remember?”
“Yes and, if my better sun hasn’t burned my steerlean memories yet, I’m pretty sure this well should be filled with water.” Hideko climbed the ladder to leave the well.
“The suits were improved while you were exiled. Now you can come through a dry well wearing a suit.” Ishida said. By his side, one of his subordinates stood curious about the woman. They both wore lab coats.
She ignored them for a moment, wandering her eyes by the hall of portals. It was exactly like how she remembered: White tiles, beige walls and no exit. Tight. Silent. Opressive. She heard only the noises of the vents.
If the Building had a face, Hideko was sure it would be a square one. One with no striking features in its straight lines. One so apathetic you want to punch it just to see if it reacts.
Hideko smiled at the wall and then turned to smile at Ishida. He tried to resist her smile by holding a half-angry and half-tired face. The same every steerlean had which was a result of their restricted lives. Hideko was there to change exactly these steerlean lives, so she may as well begin by changing Ishida.
“I’m happy to see that you steerlean half didn’t affect your death trip or your memori-”
Hideko laughed at the man. “Rejoice, brother!” She hugged his legs and lifted him. “By the end of this week we should be running, fighting and enchanting over mysterious landscapes in another world!”
“What are you doing? Put me down!” Ishida’s order came with the same embarrassment that made his cheeks red. “There are people seeing.” He referred to the man next to them.
“I’ll hug him too.”
“Huh!?” The man took a step back as if preparing to flee.
“Smile, Ishida!” Hideko said. “You’re the one making this operation possible. You’ll be idolized by generations and generations as the man that brought freedom to the steerleans. So, smile!”
The chief analyst let out an embarrassed smile, but a true one. “You’re an idiot.” Being called an idiot was Hideko's first victory at the place. She put the man down, and watched the beige walls with a smug smile. That was her way to tell the Building that she was going to win.
“How are you so strong?” The analyst composed himself.
Hideko took the knife out of her chest and threw it away. The blood-stained blade fell next to another knife that didn’t only look exactly the same, but was actually the same object.
He really escaped. What was his name again? Hideko thought. I think it was… Takeda!
She waited for the blessing to heal her wound. It felt… disturbing, as if someone was scrapping her skin and then stretching it to close the gap. After checking to see if the wound was completely healed – and it was, not leaving even a tiny scar -, she flexed her biceps.
“Training!” She answered Ishida. “And reinforcement milk, which you guys collect from my world every month.” Hideko moved to the floor grids ahead. But the dryers didn’t work. “Broken?”
“…Yes. Happened last week. We’ve already asked for the central floors to send someone to fix it.” Ishida’s answer didn’t match his eyes. He seemed as surprised as Hideko that the dryers were broken, and even his glasses couldn’t hide this.
“Let’s just hope we leave before they arrive.” Hideko didn’t question him, but decided to play the analyst’s games. The man had just helped her reach the Building, Hideko knew she could trust him.
“Anyway, we have problems here.” Ishida crouched near the well and pressed a red button on the ground, but nothing happened. “We can’t fill the well to bring the others in.”
“But you just said that they could come in as long as they had the suits.”
“Yes. But only one every thirty minutes.”
Hideko moved her eyes to the two knives on the floor and nodded. “So, it’s been thirty minutes since the first one came? Weird, I could swear that my death trip was immediate.”
“Why didn’t the first one wait for us? I would send a man to search for him, if I haven’t sent one to check the water system already.”
“The first one didn’t wait because he isn’t one of us.” Hideko’s mind flashed images from when the soldier appeared in the desert and died seconds later. “We let one squad adjustment soldier escape.”
Ishida’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t say anything.
“Tell me what you’re thinking.” Hideko laid a hand on Ishida's shoulder. “Trust goes both ways, you know...”
“I think you screwed up.” Ishida jumped on the well. He checked the pipes inside the hole. “We have to fill this well and bring our ‘brothers’ to help find the Administrator. And we have to find her before 8 a.m., when the other floors open the gates to the stairs. As long as we keep our gates closed, the other floors won’t be able to stop us.”
“We have three hours.” Hideko watched the clock on the wall to her right. “That must be enough time.”
“Daiji!” Ishida called his subordinate “Go to the cafeteria and bring as many gallons of water as you possibly can. We’ll have to fill this well the old way if we don’t manage to fix the water problem”, and the man moved.
Watching Ishida give orders to others made Hideko happy and a little proud of herself. She knew that she had picked the right one to help her, even though Ishida’s personality didn’t exactly match the one of a leader in her world.
Leaders in the desertic world were like its sun. On the other hand, Ishida’s determined, serious and cold attitude was perfect for the Building. As if he was built by the cage to destroy it.
“Let’s not underestimate the Administrator.” Seeing that there was nothing wrong with the pipes, he climbed the ladder to leave the well. “She’s a slippery one. Don’t let your guard down, even when we find her, she’s a strong fighter too.” Ishida moved to leave the corridor, and Hideko followed.
Passing by the corridors, Hideko’s mind flashed childhood memories. The passages looked exactly as she remembered, even though she had lived on another floor. Back then, she ran wild through beige corridors. A nosy child checking every room to see what’s inside. Now, she felt as if the walls were moving to crush her.
The lights in the corridor flicked when they moved through the corridors. Hideko lived ten years in the Building before being exiled and, during that time, never saw the lights flick. Maybe, after so much ‘dealing with the dead’, the Building was beginning to pile up its ghosts.
“It has not changed a bit, huh?” She slid her fingers on the wall. “It’s exactly the same color.”
“We can’t change. We tried, but the paint doesn’t stick.”
“So, it’s true, huh?” Hideko observed a wet trail on the floor leading to the cafeteria, but chose to ignore it. “My father used to tell me how the Building only allowed certain changes, but I thought he was exaggerating.”
“He wasn’t. And I would even say that the Building has some kind of conscience. This way…” Ishida moved left into a corridor, instead of walking straight into the cafeteria, “…we have to check the water supply first. The man I sent it’s taking too long, and I’m starting to wonder if something happened to him.”
“A conscience, you say?” Hideko raised her eyes, imagining the other floors above the ceiling. If the Building was truly a ‘living’ being, then she liked to think that they were two parasites crawling through the Building’s entrails.
“What I mean is that some Building rules aren’t… logical. For example, ten years ago, we sent a collection squad into the worlds to bring food, clothes and other goods. In one of those worlds, a soldier dies hugged to a crate storing rice, and another soldier dies hugged to toys. The first soldier reached the well with the crate. The second reached with nothing but his memory suit.”
A door slammed to their left. No one was near it. Ishida kept moving, “Don’t worry.” He said. “It’s just the wind. Anyway, you could think that the Building only allows food to be brought from other worlds. But then we tried to bring candy, chocolate, soda… Nothing reached the Building.”
They reached a circular space; An intersection that connected corridors leading to other directions. Four drinking fountains aligned on the wall to the right. Right on the side of the fountains, one long table with fruit baskets. Hideko recognized some fruits. The ‘oddly shaped ones’ were probably from other worlds.
“They say this space was built two thousand years ago.” Ishida gestured towards the walls. “Here, on the center of the floor, you can still build stuff. Maybe tear down a wall to build another nursery. Maybe tear down a wall to build another analysis room. But, once you get near the ‘borders’ of the floor, nothing moves. One hundred nails will bend in half before you manage to get a painting on the wall… As if the Building was trying t-”
“To keep you in.” Hideko stopped, and Ishida stopped looking back at her. “As if it was trying to give you just the minimum for you to do your job. As if it was putting away everything that could distract you from your duty. As if it was stopping you from creating an exit.”
The light flicked one more time.
“I think it doesn’t like you.” Ishida observed the fluorescent tubes above. “The light flicked when you arrived, and keeps flicking everywhere you go. It never flicked before. I don’t remember the dryers being broken this morning either. And the vents…” Ishida pointed to the open vents on the wall. “The noise got louder when you arrived. You only didn’t notice because you’ve just returned.”
“It's funny. Passing by the corridors just now, I felt like the walls were moving to crush me.”
“Maybe they were.”
Hideko smiled. She liked him. She remembered her father for a moment, and the noise of the vents filled into the silence. Her father's voice in her head repeated the same phrase: “That’s what I ask myself every morning.”
He was probably in a jail hundred floors above. A puny old man with a long white beard. Like Ishida, he had a taste for talking, and liked even more to talk about things people didn’t like to talk about. This taste made him the Building’s only prisoner.
No… Hideko thought. Everyone here is a prisoner.
“If the Building has that much power, why ‘he’ didn’t reject my death trip?” Hideko said.
“Maybe ‘he’ doesn’t have all this power.”
“Which means he can be defeated.”
“Or perhaps he wants you here, so he can defeat you and show to everyone what happens when someone tries to go rogue. Maybe he already won, and we haven’t realized it yet.”
“If that’s really the case, I’m ready to prove to him that he made a mistake. And, if he doesn’t want this to happen, he better move his walls faster.”
Ishida smiled. That was Hideko's second victory at the place.
A man’s scream came through the corridor ahead, and the two ‘parasites’ ran towards it. As they rushed through the corridor, the lights flicked no more. 50 ft ahead, they could see the entrance to the water supply. A metal door locked the room, and a number pad on the wall needed a password. No one was near it, and no other corridors connected to the entrance. On the walls, just opened vents. The room was a dead end.
As they reached the metal door, they saw a name tag dropped on the floor. “It’s from the man I sent earlier.” Ishida typed the password on the number pad, and the metal door opened. Hideko entered first and checked the room. No one was there either.
In the room, many pipes and valves connected to bigger pipes and valves. Hideko approached a big red valve at the center of the tangle of pipes and turned the valve on.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Ishida left the room and observed the entrance. He, just as Hideko, couldn’t imagine how someone kidnapped his subordinate and simply vanished.
“Well…” Hideko said. “I just died and now I’m here.”
Ishida put the name tag in his lab coat. “We can fill the well now. Let’s bring the brothers in.” As he said, Hideko moved, but stopped seeing that Ishida didn’t follow. He squinted looking at the woman. “How does death feel?” He said.“It doesn’t.” Hideko moved again. “It’s the after-life that sucks.”