The voice in her head was eerie. It brought no warmth to her ears and did not vibrate in her skull. Yet it sounded with an artificial echo, the calm feminine voice sounding almost like a computer. The words, too, had sounded like something that a computer might say.
“Systems merge. 25%.”
Samantha covered her right eye with her palm, which was sweaty and gross from stress. Her visible eye was directed at the floor. Again, she called out meekly to the voice in her head, "Hello..? Who is speaking?"
But there was no response. Whatever voice it was that echoed through her thoughts, it did not respond to her directly. She kept her head lowered, even as Shugo approached her and touched her shoulder. "Sam? What's wrong?"
She was too scared to look at him and chose instead to keep her gaze floor-bound. He sounded worried.
[Of course he's concerned. I'm hearing voices. That’s worrisome] Samantha thought to herself. People who heard disembodied voices often had something wrong with their heads. There was already a hungry dragon for them to worry about and now she was adding to their concerns. [They've got enough on their plate as it is, so I should keep my mouth shut…]
Well. Maybe not about the voices. It was too late now that she had said something. She knew it was pointless to try to retract her statement or pretend she was joking.
[But at the very least… I don't have to tell them about the delusions.]
'Delusion' was the word Samantha was going to use to describe what she was seeing. Since Shugo and Mikale were not reacting to the sights, she deduced that neither boy could see them. If they only existed to her eyes then they were probably fake, and therefore, were best described as 'delusions.'
She exhaled a nervous breath. Slowly, and with some difficulty, she lifted her head to look at Shugo. Concern was clear on his face. But there was something else hovering to the side of his head. Right above his left ear. She had seen something like it before, too.
It was a hit points bar, like in video games. A short yellow line, held within a white rectangular border. The yellow bar was less than half the length of the rectangle. When Shugo tilted his head, the bar followed along. It seemed attached to him somehow.
Seeing it made her shudder. There were already so many crazy events to unpack right now. This apparent hit points bar was not helping.
[I have to be seeing things.] Samantha scolded herself. Hit points did not exist in real life. Clearly, her stress at seeing the dragon had pushed her to have fantasy game delusions. [This must be my brain's coping mechanism. To escape the fact that this is real, my brain is trying to pretend that this is all a video game. I just need to calm down.]
"Sam?" Shugo's voice broke an awkward silence. So deep in her scared thoughts, Samantha had briefly forgotten to breath. She gasped in surprise and even took a step back from him. When she broke the contact, Shugo retracted his hand from her shoulder and let her keep the space between them.
"Sammy, what's wrong?" Mikale echoed Shugo's concern, his back still against the metal door, "Shugo? Is she okay?"
"I don't know--"
"Yes!" Samantha blurted out, cutting Shugo off. She couldn't let them know that she was seeing things. They would only worry more. The situation that they were in was pretty dire. All three of them would have to pull equal weight to get out of it. This was not the time for Samantha to seem incapable. If the two boys decided to split Samantha's share of the burden, she knew they would be overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion. Then they would all surely die.
[This coping mechanism thing is my burden. They're probably scared to insanity too.] She had to keep it to herself. Samantha had to tell herself that it was not real and would go away once she felt better.
"Sorry… I thought I heard voices, because…" Her voice trailed off. Lying was bad and she could never lie to Shugo. He could see right through her. She needed a clever distraction instead. "The door was locked."
Shugo stayed worried. "Yeah. That's why I had to use the keys, obviously."
"But we just walked out of school maybe… Ten? Fifteen minutes before the bang." She continued, "The janitor doesn't lock the school until after every club member goes home."
"Oh!" Mikale gasped, "That means someone locked the front door."
It took Shugo a moment longer to connect the dots. After all: "Of course someone locked the door. Doors don't lock on their own— Ooh."
If they had arrived to a locked door, that meant that someone had purposefully locked the door before they got there. In other words, "Someone else must have had the same idea as us, and hid in the school. There might be other students here."
"Exactly. I thought I heard someone speaking." Her distraction had both worked and been productive. "We should look around to make sure. Safety in numbers, right?"
"Yeah, good point." Mikale agreed. Though he sounded convinced of the idea, he didn't step away from the door just yet. In fact, the dark haired boy gave it an uneasy look. "Should I stay here and guard the door while you look? What if the dragon comes back?"
"Hmm…" Shugo hummed in contemplation, "That's a good point… The last thing we need is that dragon locked inside with us."
A stone dropped in Samantha's stomach. Merely thinking of that dragon threatened her calm with a storm. If she was already scared enough to hallucinate, Samantha knew that she needed to be incredibly careful with her mental state. What use would she be to her friends if she had a mental breakdown?
And yet, equally frightening was the idea of separating. If they did as Mikale and Shugo seemed to be suggesting, that would mean leaving Mikale to guard the door. Alone.
Her gaze cautiously focused on Mikale's face. Was he even in any shape to fight a dragon? Just like with Shugo, she could see one of the hitpoint bars by his ear. It was also yellow, but significantly lower than Shugo's.
[Does that mean they're both tired? Or injured? I don't see any blood.] Her thoughts drifted. Then she bit her lip, closed her eyes, and tried to get a grip on reality. [No! It's not real! Don't think about it!]
Samantha opened one eye just a crack. [And yet…]
Curious, she looked at the door. Her question was simple: [If I can see hit points on people… What about the door?]
As soon as the question had formed confidently in her mind, a new bar appeared. This one was almost twice the length of the boys', and it was completely green. If she believed these hit points bars— Which she knew that she shouldn't,— Then the implication was simple: The door was twice as strong as the boys. It could take more hits from than dragon than the two boys combined.
"Saaam?" Again, Shugo had to pull her out of a daze. Samantha flinched and snapped both eyes open. Focusing on the hit points bars made it really hard to focus on reality.
[Obviously. Because they're a delusion, and reality is reality!] She scolded herself internally, then smiled nervously for Shugo, "Uh-huuuh?"
Though she tried to swing her voice upward into a playful note, it instead cracked. Stubborn about her act, Samantha kept the fake smile frozen on her face.
Shugo stared at her for a few seconds. Then, with a long sigh, he broke through her lying heart, "You're trembling like a leaf."
"…Oh." Samantha whispered, "I… I am."
"You are." He affirmed calmly.
She felt her shoulders sinking. "… I'm a really bad liar, huh?"
"Yup." He affirmed again.
All three teens became awkwardly silent. They were all liars, after all. They had to lie to themselves in order to stay sane.
Mikale sensed it first. This wasn't the time to address the truth. Otherwise, they would all break down and become as useless as zero.
"I'll stand guard." He decided, "You two should go see if anyone else is here."
"Nuh-uh." Samantha shook her head, "You're coming too. We can't leave you behind."
"But… The door." Shugo reminded her, seeming to agree with Mikale's noble decision.
"The door will be fine. What difference is a teenage boy gonna make to a dragon anyway?" She countered. The boys’ shoulders seemed to droop at the truth in her words: They weren’t strong enough to fend off a dragon. The three of them were at that creature’s mercy if it tried to come after them again.
"Besides,” Samantha jabbed her thumb towards the door, “It held up this long, so it must work.”
“Okay, you’ve made your point.” Mikale said as he stepped away from the door, “We’ll go together.”
“Right. If nothing else, we need to find a place to hide.” Shugo added. He took his phone out of his back pocket and scowled as a realization, then holding it up for the other two to see. There a web-like crack across the screen, which had gone black and did not respond to his touch. “My phone’s out. What about you two? Have you gotten texts from Usagi?”
Mikale and Samantha glanced awkwardly at each other. Then Samantha shook her head, “I think I would have heard a text alert if I did….”
“During all of that? I doubt it.” Shugo snapped back. The frustration in his voice made his two friend flinch, then retrieve their phones with guilty looks on their faces. Of course Shugo would be worked up about Usagi. She had left early to prepare for their game and they didn’t know if she was safe or not.
[There are a lot of people I’m worried about.] Samantha thought, [But I can’t get distracted. I’ll go insane with worry if I don’t focus.]
“Ah. My phone is working.” Mikale said suddenly, pulling all attention to him. He held up his phone with its working screen, then flicked through menus until he found his text message log. “I don’t see a message from Usagi… And the signal bar is zero.”
“Ugh…” Fists clenched at his sides, Shugo hissed in annoyance, “She was just ten minutes ahead of us… What if she found that dragon too?”
It hurt to see Shugo so worked up over his twin sister. Mikale and Samantha were both only children, so they had never properly understood the bond between the twins. Furthermore, neither Mikale nor Samantha were on great terms with their parents. They could only imagine the turmoil wrecking havoc in Shugo’s head at that moment. He had a household and family to worry about, which neither Mikale nor Samantha could relate to.
Still, even if it was only through stretches of her imagination, Samantha could try to understand. She imagined how worked up she would be if Mikale and Shugo weren’t with her right now and how frantically she would be looking for them both. In that sense, she recognized that she was immensely lucky to be caught in this nightmare while they were both in reach.
“It’ll be okay, Shugo. Like you said… We need to hide, right? I’m sure Usagi found somewhere to hide too.” Samantha started slowly, reaching out to take his hand. Shugo was trembling just slightly. “The military will probably go out and like… rescue us and all that, right? We just need to buckle down until then?”
“Right…” Shugo tried to agree, “Sorry, I just—”
“No sorries for being worried.” Samantha huffed softly, “Now come on. Who knows? Maybe Usagi came back to the school too. I’m sure she understands as well as I do that school is poison for dragons.”
There was a tired half-smile in response.
Then a distant scream, echoing through the hopeless corridors.