From time to time, some random steerlean kid asked about the exits. It happened in the cafeteria the most (the only place in the whole floor that humans and steerleans had to share) and became a kind of monthly event.
The kid’s question was only heard by those who shared the same table, but their expression rippled through the cafeteria in some kind of chain reaction.
It always happened the same way. The child would ask the question, and the table would fall silent. This sudden silence would feel weird to the neighboring tables, and those in these tables would turn to check the first table, as if to make sure it was still there.
But, once the neighbors crossed eyes with the people on the ‘question table’, they knew exactly what happened. And then, they were the ones to fall silent. This sudden silence would feel weird… you get it. This reaction repeated itself until the people on the farthest table also had their eyes on the ‘question table’.
In this specific case, the kid was a girl. “Dad, where’s the sun?” Hideko said. She was ten at the time. After eating, she used her empty plate as a canvas and used sauce to ‘draw’ some kind of landscape on the plate.
Every night before sleeping, her mother used to describe the worlds she had travelled to Hideko. The girl’s drawing was based on one of these descriptions. It was Hideko’s way of remembering her mother, after the Building sent the woman on an adjustment mission. What Hideko didn’t know at the time was that this mission wouldn’t end.
She painted the sun with a yellow sauce. Yellow just like that one lock of her hair. Yellow just like her father’s whole hair.
Hideko used lettuce leaves to make a field under the drawn sun and split toothpicks to make a house on the field.
“The sun?” Her father’s voice was deep and calm.
Hideko didn’t know if the sun had a voice, but, if she had to guess, she would say that it would sound just like her father’s. She moved her plate towards her father and pointed to the ‘sauce sun’.
“The sun. It’s outside, isn’t it?” She said, and just then realized the silence and how everyone was looking at them. It was a weird feeling, that of fearing the silence. After all, scaring pranks were usually so loud.
Her father didn’t answer her right away, and the silence extended for some more seconds. Hideko felt that she had to say something to fix whatever she had said wrong, or at least to fill that frightful silence.
“It’s outside. Why can’t we leave here to see it?”
“It’s because we can’t.” Her father finally answered, but that didn’t seem to disperse the silence or release the pressure on their shoulders. The eyes were still there, waiting and judging.
“It’s that because we don’t have doors to leave?”
Her father laughed out loud. It was a crazy laugh that echoed in the cafeteria. He leaned his body towards Hideko, as if he wanted to be heard just by her, but raised his voice. “No. Actually, we have plenty of doors to leave this place. They are big circles dug on the ground and filled with water. We call them wells. Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to leave.”
Whispering followed her father’s words. Whatever he said made the neighboring tables uneasy. The eyes weighing on her shoulders now moved restless. But, for some reason, Hideko’s curiosity was stronger. For a moment, she forgot those around her and focused only on her father’s answer.
“Why not?” She said.
Her father looked deep into her, but it was Hideko who saw through him. She saw pure honesty in his eyes when he said: “I ask myself this every single day.”
“They…” A brother stopped by the body in the blood pool. Hideko couldn’t see past his gas mask, but she guessed he had an angry smile behind the cover. Every brother, including her and Ishida, wore gas masks to protect themselves from the gas that still flowed through the vents.
“They killed the hound.” The brother's smile grew into an angry laugh and his voice came out muffled. “We infiltrated a village, held fifteen people hostage – because our leader didn’t allow us to kill them -, set fire to a forest and ran for thirty minutes just to trap this… thing and here it is... DEAD!”
Around the body, some small, cylindrical and red capsules. Five of them. The angry brother kicked one of those capsules, the object flew and stopped by Hideko’s feet.
By her side, Ishida observed the ‘crime scene’. She expected him to, at least, look away from all that blood and the destroyed corpse. After all, the man had lived his entire life in the Building and hadn’t seen death before.
But, contrary to what she expected, Ishida fixed his eyes on the scene, seeming more fascinated than disgusted.
Well, she thought, if I had to spend my entire life working, I would be attracted to death too.
“That is our fault, right? We spread the gas after all.” The analyst said. “Maybe someone took the chance and killed him while he was drowsy.”
“No. His species is immune to the gas.” Hideko leaned to get the shell on the ground. “Not immune to bullets, though. You three,” Hideko nodded to the brothers, “see if you can find the gun”. And the brothers moved.
The desertic world had firearms, and, even though their technology wasn’t as advanced as the technology the Building stole from other worlds, Hideko recognized a bullet when she saw one.
Ishida gave her a serious look and Hideko didn’t quite get it. She dodged his eyes, but he didn’t give up. Now, she asked herself if she had said something wrong. “The-there is a gun, right? Don’t even dare telling me just now that you people have some kind of magic that allows you to shoot this from your fingers, or we’re going to have a problem.”
“No. We don’t have this kind of magic power. And yes, there is a gun. But I think we have a problem either way.” Ishida left Hideko’s side and moved towards the body. He crouched and checked the suit pockets. “The adjustment soldiers don’t carry guns. Just knives.” He took two of them from the pockets and showed them to Hideko.
He continued: “The steerleans don’t carry guns either. We just use them during academy training. The rest of the time we keep them locked in the arsenal just in case someone threatens to…”
“Attack the Building?” Hideko smiled.
“Yes.” After checking the suit, Ishida began undressing the corpse to salvage the suit. “The memory liquid wasn’t affected. We can still use it.”
Hideko turned her eyes away. Seeing a corpse was fine, but seeing a corpse naked would probably give her nightmares. Turns out I’m the dodgy one.
“What I want to say is: The only person in this entire floor who has access to the arsenal is the Administrator. If she somehow found out about our plan, the gates are already open now, which means we have two hours before the other floors wake up to throw as many steerleans as possible into the worlds.”
Hideko heard the flap of Ishida’s coat and saw the analyst covering the corpse with it. “We’re not throwing anyone in the wells.” She said. “That’s not how things work. I’ve already told you that.”
The lights flicked.
“Turn away for a moment.” Ishida flapped the suit. “I’m going to change.”
“What if I want to see you changing?”
“Then I would have to re-evaluate the trust I’m putting on a pervy leader.”
Hideko laughed, then turned away just like Ishida asked. She faced a beige wall, of course. “You’re really putting this on? With blood and guts on it?”
“What do you suggest I do if we have to leave immediately? Ask for them to wait so I can change to the memory suit and jump in a well?”
“You’re acting too smug for somehow who’s going to smell like shit in a couple of hours.”
“Help me here.” Ishida’s voice sounded just behind Hideko, and she took that as a signal that she could turn back. If she ignored the blood and the holes on the suit, she could even say that Ishida looked good on it. He turned his back to her. “There are two zippers close to my armpits. Open them so I can discard the sleeves.”
Hideko opened the zippers and the suit sleeves fell down. “Now that’s new.”
“Most of the adjustment soldiers don’t know about this either. Fukahori is a simple man. He’s more concerned about teaching his soldiers not to screw up a mission than telling them how to disassemble the suit.”
“The captain of the adjustment squad of this floor. A big guy with a sharp beard and a loud voice. He went on this mission too.”
“Big guy, huh? I remember him now. He told us he was going to kill us once he had the chance.”
“I wouldn’t bet against it. He’s a man of his words.” Ishida leaned and detached the piece of the suit that covered his shins. “So, what about we leave before he returns?”
“We’re not leaving now.”
Ishida sighed. “That’s the second chance I gave to you not sound dumb.” The light flicked. “It seems even the Building agrees with me that extending this mission is foolishness.”
“No. I think he recognizes how right I am and it’s scared that I might be able to defeat him.” Hideko raised her eyes to the ceiling and waited for the lights to flicker, or for something to happen, but the Buildind didn’t answer.
“We have to convince them.” Hideko moved, using her memories to lead the way to the dorms. “There’s no point in forcing them through the wells, doing this would only make them averse to us.”
They entered a long corridor and saw two brothers checking something on the ground. One stood by a destroyed wooden door and the other one collected some kind of white fabric on the floor. “A lab coat?”
“Precisely.” The brother with the pieces of the fabric approached.
Ishida reached out for the fabric. “That’s not the Administrator lab coat. She uses a thicker one she ordered from the floors above to use as a blanket whenever she feels sleepy.”
“So, turns out I was right after all?” Hideko moved past the brothers to continue her walk to the dorms. “Keep looking for the gun. If you can’t find it, just head to the dorms.”
“Unless the adjustment soldier that returned stole someone’s coat, I would say we are dealing with three people here.” Ishida followed Hideko. He gestured three fingers while explaining. “The Administrator; The adjustment soldier that escaped; Another steerlean that could be a nurse, or an analyst or an isekai manager.”
“A miserable person, rain or shine.”
“…I’m an analyst too. You know that, right?” Ishida sighed. “What I’m saying is that we have to reformulate our plan, before they appear and gun us down.”
“I don’t see why we should care about the Administrator or the unknown steerlean. The gas did the trick and we are probably going to find them sleeping by the corridors anytime soon. The only one who could have a gas mask is the adjustment soldier.”
“I’ve checked the suit pockets. Whoever killed the hound also stole his gas mask. I never thought I would say that, but the Administrator is probably wide awake by now.”
They entered another corridor and, from there, could see the double doors of the dorms. The doors were halfway open because a sleepy body rested between them.
He probably noticed the gas and tried to run.
“Five hours more before they wake up.” Hideko said. They approached the door, dodged the sleepy body and entered the dorms. The light coming from the corridor gave them a glimpse of the room. Inside there, others steerleans that tried to flee the gas now rest in their pyjamas on the floor.
Ishida moved his hands, feeling the walls to find the light switch. “No!” Hideko held Ishida’s arm. “Let them sleep peacefully. It is their first day off after all. Let them enjoy it.” Hideko approached the closest sleeper and moved to drag him. “Go find the others. Tell them to guard the gates, in case the Administrator appears. If you think she’s going to beat you, order a brother to come get me, and I’ll deal with her.”
“I’ll split them in a line. To make the communication easier.” Ishida moved to leave. Hideko carried the sleeper to an empty bed and threw a blanket over him. When she returned to grab another one, she saw Ishida at the door. The man observed her with serious eyes. White light on his hair and glasses.
“If I told you that the gates were open, the Administrator was coming and all the brothers were defeated, you still wouldn’t give up, right?”
Hideko smiled. She grabbed two men and carried them on her shoulders to the bunk beds. “Right. I’m too close to give up now.”
The corridor lights flicked.
“I’m not doing this, Hideko.” Ishida said. “The moment I see that we’re going to fail, I’m leaving the hall and jumping in a random world.”
“I knew that the moment you put on the suit.”
“My dream of leaving this place came before you, and, even though you are the one that is making this possible, I’m still putting it before you. I hope you can understand that.”
“I can definitely understand that. You see, my dream isn’t to escape this place, but to free these people. That’s why it makes no sense for me to leave now.” Hideko had finished putting people back to their bunk beds and now she sat in a chair with her face turned to the steerleans.
“I’ve removed the trackers from the suits used by the adjustment squad. This includes the one you’re using now. If you change your mind, you can just flee. They won’t be able to find you. You’ll have time to plan another attack.”
Ishida left to the gates, leaving only silence behind. Hideko observed the steerleans sleeping, noticing the dark circles under their eyes. “Ishida, my dear, I’ve planned too much already. Now it’s time for action.”