“M-Mary, what are you doing on the TV?” JC blurts out, dumbfounded.
“What the hell,” I mutter, trembling as I stare slack jawed at the identical copy of me withdrawing inside the building.
“I guess it isn’t impossible,” he says. “It could be your own subconscious creating an opportunity for you to protect yourself.”
“But that declaration…”
“Right,” he mutters, squinting. “That sounded like a challenge for anyone to come and find you. And that copy just went back inside the safety of that building, while you’re vulnerable.”
“But anyone that’s after me would be focused on the fake me in that building, right?” I ask, peering out the window warily.
“Logically speaking,” he answers, staring at the TV. “But she just told all the NPC’s in this world that she— rather, you, are responsible for the storm. Like I’ve mentioned, we can’t predict their reaction. Either way, it’s dangerous for you to be seen by anyone. So, maybe that was actually a declaration of war against you....”
I look around, trying to organize my thoughts, and realize something. “That hostess downstairs… there was a TV down there, right?”
“Yes, there was,” he answers with a fearful expression mirroring mine. “We should leave. Now.”
I take one last glance outside before hurrying down the stairs into the lobby. The hostess is nowhere to be found, and a reporter on the TV rushes down the street in a panic. “Just now, from the building’s garage a silver classic car has sped away. We do not know if Mary Reid is in the car, but chaos has ensued regardless. Many are making chase after the car, while much of the crowd are attempting to enter the building. It’s an unprecedented sight, but it seems the winds are pushing the crowd away from the doors, scattering them around the plaza.”
“This is bad... She’s turning the mob loose on the city,” JC says, grabbing my hand. “Let’s find the back door.”
We locate the exit and hurry down the back alley. After several turns, we find ourselves in a maze of alleyways. Before turning another corner, I look back to see several suited men running in our direction. I tug on JC’s hand and nod, alerting him. He speeds around another corner before clicking his tongue with a frustrated expression.
“There’s a few more down the alley we just passed that were casually dressed, so we’ve got your enemy and the NPC’s on our tail,” he notes through choppy breaths, focusing on the crossing pathways. Several groups of people appear from different alleys, forcing us to change direction several times. Finally, we run into a dead end at the back of a building with a shipping dock.
Ten or fifteen NPC’s close in on us as we look around for an escape path. Before they reach us, JC grits his teeth and leads me up a flight of stairs before kicking in the back door on the building’s dock. I stagger inside and bend over to catch my breath while he finds a metal rod to jam in the door’s handle, and proceeds to lean against it while surveying the facility.
Seeing him relax, I naturally follow— and it hits me. My legs, head, and chest are pounding, aching, and burning all at once. I lift my shaking hands off my knees, a cold sweat seeping down my arms.
I’m struggling hard to breathe, and my chest feels like it's collapsing from the inside, while a sharp burning sensation comes up my throat. Having gone from the cold rain to this stuffy warehouse, my skin crawls, desperate for hydration. Someone begins beating on the door, and JC snaps his gaze back to me.
“Hey, are you okay? Can you move?” he asks, furrowing his brow as he leaves the door and places a hand on my shoulder.
“I… I think I’ve dealt with this since the operation,” I answer, gasping for air.
“Operation?” he asks, wide-eyed.
“It’s about what I remembered,” I reply, my vision blurring as the rapping on the door overloads my senses, making me nauseous. “I’ll explain later, but I need water.”
Suddenly, my consciousness fades out, drowning out the sounds of incessant beating along with JC’s voice. Without warning I’m thrust into my bed, my back and chest so hot and stiff it’s a struggle to move. I inch myself to the mini fridge beside my bed, take a bottle of cold water, and drink while applying a cold wrap around my ribs. After a minute I struggle to my feet and withdraw an electrode stimulator from my nightstand, applying it to six points on my back.
This allows me to drag my feet into the bathroom, where an ice bath is already prepared. I remove the wrap and stimulator and submerge myself in freezing water with a sigh of relief, helping myself to a bottled sports drink.
After minutes in the ice bath, my body relaxes enough to move normally, allowing me to dry off and get dressed. When I look in the mirror, I see JC’s frantic face amidst the fogged glass, and my eyes go wide.
“Living with half a heart, this became my daily routine,” I mutter, unsure if the silent figure in the glass can even see or hear me. “I grew up with a heart condition and a blood and vitamin deficiency, because I have weaker circulation than the average person. I had to exert myself at a minimum and perform regular bodily maintenance just to keep up with everyone else.”
The face in the mirror goes still, as if listening to my story. “And this was only before I was taken, and had half of my heart removed,” I continue, staring at the sink's running faucet. “Since then, it’s been much harder. Because of that, I’ve grown stronger mentally. I know my limits and how to adapt. I just need some water, I think. My body doesn’t feel as weak in this world, so I should be able to manage.”
“Got it,” he says, snapping me out of my daydream and bringing me back to the hot floor of the facility where I’ve collapsed. “Come on, let’s get somewhere you can rest, and I’ll look for water. Then we can lose these guys.”
I nod, and he helps me up before leading me down several levels of rickety platforms and stairs. Finally, we reach the main floor of the facility cluttered with roller conveyors and old machinery. The lighting is significantly worse down here, so JC turns his phone light on and leads the way until we find a forklift haphazardly parked against a conveyor and a clutter of metal beams.
JC gestures up, before helping me into the elevated cab. “I’ll go find water and get back as quickly as I can. Stay here until you hear my voice, okay?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer before taking off into the dark. I climb to the driver’s seat and try to control my breathing. Looking out the busted window, I realize the forklift had crashed, as if someone had run into the beams and left it leaning over the conveyor, which prevented it from falling. This makes it even harder to breathe as I realize my own panicked movements could cause the forklift to tip over. In addition, I fear JC left me here fully aware of this.
As the panic in my chest reverberates down my arms, I notice several sets of footsteps coming down the stairs, drawing nearer with every pained breath I take. As the clanking gravitates to me, I realize it’s my labored breaths serving as the beacon. Sweat coats my face, but I can’t tell if it’s hot or cold. I muffle my breath, but my shaking limbs are no longer under my control. I can only watch the black suits close in around me, pistols drawn.
The world that’s supposed to be under my influence has become exactly like my nightmares. Rather, it’s far too similar to what I’ve experienced. The only difference is that I don’t know exactly what they want to take— my freedom, or my life itself.
It’s somehow relieving to see their guns and internalize my end. I’ve been tortured long enough by the thought of endless agony, unable to die yet unable to live freely. So, the thought of a life or death situation feels liberating.
If I go all-out here, the worst that can happen would be my death. If I die and fail this game, at least Mirei has a chance. And if I live, and conquer this world, it means my freedom. Most importantly, I can’t allow the loss of my freedom again, to be subjugated to the endless cycle of suffering.
So that’s it, I decide. I’ll either live free or die. “Sorry JC, but I can’t wait around like a sick child. There’s too much at stake, and I shouldn’t have relied on you to begin with.” I calm my frenzied nerves and take hold of my shaking limbs. Grasping hold of the emergency handles above me, I kick at the control panel until the forklift’s weight shifts forward. With a heave, I push it down while the suits attempt to scatter.
They’re too late. The lifted forks impale two of them through their backs before grinding into the floor, creating a trail of sparks amid a pool of blood. Finally, the head of the machine capsizes with the shifting weight, crushing the other two men before they can dive out of the way.
Somehow, I manage to keep my grip throughout the crash. Despite severe nausea, I’m able to shake the cobwebs from my head and relax my tensed muscles. Thanks to the adrenaline coursing through me, I climb out of the sideward machine.
The stench of blood coats the air, forcing me to hold my breath. I want to avert my eyes from the maimed bodies, but I need something. Ignoring what smells like burning wires, I dive into the carnage between the forks and retrieve the pistols of the two impaled men from the pool of blood. My hand brushes by a tattered blue beret, which triggers even worse nausea. I suppress vomit, tears filling my eyelids as I flee without another look back.
My legs somehow bring me to the end of the assembly line, where a set of bulkheads lead to another section of the building. The slight gap between them suggests JC has gone this way, but I hesitate to follow. I look back to see at least ten plainly dressed NPC’s pouring down the stairs toward me. They either don’t notice or don’t care, but the crashed forklift has erupted into flames, and the blaze is already spreading down the long assembly line.
With a gulp, I reluctantly pass through the bulkheads and run across a well-lit room, before reaching what looks to be the building’s lobby. Several windows offer me a priceless reward in the form of the stormy outside world. I gaze outside while catching my breath, until a sudden greeting wakes my nerves.
“Mary, you’re here!” JC’s voice rings out with genuine concern, but I fight against the warm feeling it gives me. Baring my teeth, I raise my trembling hand and point one of the pistols in the direction of the man entering from a branching hallway.
“Mary,” he says with wide eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“You knew the forklift was on the verge of falling, didn’t you?” I press, forcing my facial features to remain tense.
“What?” he answers weakly. “It wasn’t in the best shape, but what choice did I have? I didn’t think you could go on another second. What happened? The NPC’s shouldn’t have caught up already. I thought for sure I’d make it back in time, I promise. I wasn’t planning on abandoning you, Mary…”
While he continues his uncharacteristic rambling, I finally notice the bottle he’s been holding, and lower the gun. “O-oh,” he stammers, frantically outstretching his arm. “See? I got this just like I said I would.”
“Yeah… I guess you did,” I respond, my tightened expression falling apart as I drop to my knees. “I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have doubted you.”
“It’s okay, I understand,” he says in his usual tone as he rushes to hand me the opened sports drink. I meekly take it and gulp it down, immediately recognizing the taste. The electrolytes wake my brain up, combating the lethargy sweeping over me after losing adrenaline.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” he says with a smile, pulling my arm over his shoulder and taking the gun from my hand.
“Why didn’t you just do this in the first place?” I mutter as he opens the front door.
“I’m sorry,” he responds awkwardly. “I honestly thought the only option was to let you rest. I really miscalculated; I know that…”
“It’s okay… but how could you know this was my favorite drink…” I mumble, averting my gaze. The booming chaos of the storm fills my ears as we step outside, dark clouds circling overhead.
Rain pounds us as we walk beyond the building’s cover. Several groups of people are approaching from either side of the street. We exchange brief glances before raising our respective pistols in either direction.
The groups hesitate, but don’t seem to have any intention of fleeing. For a moment we stand in silence, and before either of us can make a move, a car races down the street toward us. The silver classic car comes to a skidding stop right in front of us, and the doors are flung open. Without hesitation, we turn our guns on the open doors and fire repeatedly. Expecting to find more bloodied suits, I’m left in shock when several shadows dissipate into the rain.
“What was that...” JC mutters while catching his breath, gripping my arm tightly to combat the blistering wind.
“They’re the same as in the deep dream world,” I respond, struggling to breathe again.
“Let’s go!” he cries, rushing me into the backseat and diving into the driver’s seat before the mob of NPC’s can close in.
The tires spin rapidly as he throws the car into drive. As he accelerates, he bowls over several of the NPC’s who’d run into the street. Keeping composed, he maneuvers the car down the road at breakneck speed while I hunch over, nursing my drink.
“Now you understand what I meant about the NPCs’ volatility, right?” he says.
“Yeah, I do,” I answer. “But the suits and the shadows… We can’t exactly call them the same thing, can we?”
“You’re right,” he says. “It’s frightening to think that something that fantastical has transcended wavelengths… I honestly have no idea whether that’s the nature of the dreamscape at play, or if you've started to bring the planes together…"
Suddenly, a loud booming sound bellows from behind. Despite having almost no strength left, I whirl around in my seat as the building we’d just left explodes into a conflagration of smoke and flames.
At that moment, the car’s radio connects, and a voice comes through channels of static. “Breaking news! A production plant to the east of the Dansen Emporium has just gone up in flames! Again, that’s a plant to the east of the Emporium, the direction the silver car assumed to contain Mary Reid was seen travelling in. There’s no information on the cause of the explosion, yet. As this could likely be a case of arson, we advise everyone to be on the lookout for the silver classic car that was seen leaving the Shibutani Group’s Dansen Emporium just moments ago.”
“Dammit… who are these people?” I cry, staring as the fire spreads over the entire block, creating a hellish contrast with the dark sky.
“Seems like their plan was to get us in this car,” JC replies, failing to mask the panic in his voice.
“A ploy to direct the entire city’s attention on us,” I reply, clenching my fists around the emptied bottle.
“That, or they really want to direct attention away from the Dansen Emporium,” he replies.
“Hm,” JC drones, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “But this Shibutani Group… I suppose the Dansen Emporium is a subsidiary of theirs. The name sounds familiar."
“I feel like I know the name from somewhere too, now that you mention it,” I mutter..
“No matter who they are,” he says, “they’re obviously pulling the strings on this fake you, and they’re also connected to those shadows. I don’t know what that means, but we need to be careful. This world is throwing everything imaginable at you, Mary, and it seems like it’s sink or swim from here on out.”
“And we’re swimming right to the end,” I mutter, dropping the bottle and clasping my hands together. Right then, my phone vibrates. My heart leaps and I snatch it, but the display betrays my hopes. Instead of her, a string of text messages from a different number comes.
You shouldn’t be so careless with your life, you know?
Preferring death over being taken captive is foolish and selfish.
Your heart is connected to mine, so if you die, I will too.
I know that might sound fine to you, but it shouldn’t.
I’m not any more fake than you are, so if either of us dies it’s over.
You understand? We must coexist here.
That’s the curse we were placed with when our heart was separated.
So, stop fighting and let them take you.
We’ll win if we become one.
That’s what you’ve wanted, isn’t it?
To become whole…
The phone falls from my hands and bounces next to the bottle on the floorboard as I clutch my chest, my breathing coming to an abrupt halt.