A metal support beam fell on Dr. Fujiwara. It caught me in the shoulder, but I deflected it with the hard part of my bodysuit.
Pain shot through me. I crawled over to check on Dr. Fujiwara. He was unconscious but alive. I cursed under my breath. He muttered something, but I didn’t listen. I had to get him out of here before the whole area collapsed.
I activated the adrenaline pads on the side. My heart raced. I lifted the doctor up on my good shoulder. The ground quaked all around. I knew that tons of earth would soon fill the room, with those monsters to follow.
I looked down. On the ground I saw those four, black-sleeved papers that the doctor always carried around. They were from Colonel A.L. The doctor always said they were important. I grunted and slipped them into the satchel wrapped around the doctor.
I’d have to ask for an explanation someday. For now, I had to save the doctor’s ass.
The domed lockdown doors were shutting. I ran with the doctor through the opening and stumbled on the other side. Behind us, one of them dashed through the cascades of rushing soil and vaulted for the slim opening. Setting the doctor down, I turned, braced myself, and slam-kicked it right under its fanged maw. Its red eyes shuddered and it staggered back just as the doors sealed on it.
I panted and leaned back against the concrete wall.
Just another day at work…
I tugged the doctor along.
I’d been doing this for ten years. Ten years as the government’s (what remained of it) golden girl against the monsters. Ten years of training in experimental weaponry and close-quarters combat. Ten years since the invasion.
They ate people from the inside out, devouring their souls before their bodies wasted away in hopelessness. That was the way my mother went.
The troops finally caught up to us and took Dr. Fujiwara away. I kept the doctor’s satchel.
My eyes lingered after the doctor. I felt like something was tickling in my mind. The further he got from me, the stronger the sensation. I decided not to shrug it off. I followed where the troops took the doctor.
The halls had seen better days. The lower levels looked more like a dungeon than a refuge for fallen Tokyo-7.
The infirmary was full, as always. I hovered by Dr. Fujiwara’s side, nursing this strange feeling I had around him, till a young nurse shooed me away. I still lingered and checked myself in the mirror.
The shoulder which had been hit still had a dark mark where the suit was doing its job fixing my injury. The painkillers and lingering adrenaline had taken the edge off.
I felt so tired. I scuffed my blue and black boots. I ran my covered fingers through my red hair. I felt like I’d been beaten up and run for a mile. I leaned my head back.
I had one of the nurses put down a roll-out bed for me near the doctor. I looked over at him. I was sure he’d be awake before long. I clutched the doctor’s satchel to me like a pillow. The Colonel was sure to be pissed that I didn’t report in.
I didn’t care. I needed this.
Sleep didn’t come easily. The glimmers of the monsters flashed in the blackness. I’d gotten used to that. I kicked as a reflex.
I never usually dreamed but pictures flowed into my head like when I was hooked into the battle weapon interface. One was of an old dungeon from ages ago. There was a forest. An old village. A city with a school. People laughing and smiling. And a hotel with people dressed up as the strangest things.
The images made no sense to me. But, in every image, I felt Dr. Fujiwara nearby. Dr. Fujiwara administered my training. At most, he was my friend. But they said my focus was better when he was near. He always treated me fairly, like his equal, and not just a kid who was good at killing monsters.
I opened my eyes slowly and looked down at the satchel. The pictures in my head made me think of the images in the satchel.
The Colonel recently drew up the images for us as some kind of ‘tool’. I’d never looked at them, but others told me what they were. I thought it was silly to keep images of me as a schoolboy and a dark ruler or something. They were both things I would never be.
The communication officers laughed about it and everyone else forgot. The doctor’s images were ridiculous. A busty girl in a Chinese dress and a catgirl. The Colonel said they were part of a secret project. I kept them because those were the orders, at first. But the doctor liked them, so that made keeping them easier.
I rummaged through the side pockets and found some food. I apologized to the doctor and ate one of the drier rolls.
The dark mark had faded. My shoulder felt fine. A familiar voice coughed. I didn’t have to look to know it was the Colonel. Her long, black hair shimmered at the edge of my vision. Before she could ask me, I reported back to her on the incident. I expected she already knew all the important details.
She folded her arms in front of her. Her face was as cold and still as always. She nodded once and said, “And I’m glad you have the papers and Dr. Fujiwara. You’ll need both when the time comes.”
I stood and stared her down. “What’s so damned important about these papers?”
She looked back at me and asked, “How much do you remember of your life before you came here?”
I related to her about my mother at first but she cut me off. “Never mind.” I narrowed my eyes, just speaking without thinking, and said, “And I remember a hotel with people dressed up.” It was just a dream, but I wanted to say it.
The Colonel whirled around. Her eyes were wide as she asked, “Was it a convention…an anime convention?” I shrugged and admitted, “Actually, I just saw it in a dream…” And I recounted the other images.
I felt ready to apologize but the Colonel waved her hand. “But you know it. That’s the point….it could be time. Yes. And exposure to the paper. Could be. What else?”
I told her that was all I really remembered. But an image flashed in my head of the Colonel in a black dress. It was such a random and silly image. Sure, her uniform was black, but I could never even imagine her in a dress.
The doctor groaned, and I rushed over to his side. I squeezed his hand. He softly said the word, “Neil” as his eyes fluttered open. The name didn’t really mean anything to me, but the Colonel gasped and leaned over the bed. I watched the Colonel carefully.
I spoke to him. “It’s me, Norna. Are you okay, doctor?”
He looked up at me in a way I’d never seen before. He tried to say something but then he shook his head and blinked. He cleared his throat and said, “I guess the experiment was a failure.”
The Colonel leaned over the bed and said with a slight, strange smile, “No. The experiment is right on track. When you feel up to it, doctor, I need to show you something.” She glanced over at me and added, “Both of you…”
It wasn’t long before the doctor’s head injury was taken care of by the nurse and we were both on our way with the Colonel.
She led us towards central command, the heart of the military operations against the monsters. Between the gray consoles moved technicians not much older than I. The one we all called CT, because of the Christmas tree-colored lights on his console, hummed about his work with a classical music record spinning on his desk player. He told me once that it was something his friend saved when humanity had to retreat underground. CT’s fingers danced to the music.
The Colonel led us to her office. It looked the same as always, so sparse. I noticed there was a single sheet of paper spread out on the desk. I helped the doctor over to a chair. The Colonel sat at her desk. She folded her hands in front of her mouth and said, “Let’s get down to it. I know both of you just arrived here from a parallel realm. Your names were once Neil Drake and Mayu Fujiwara.”
I narrowed my eyes at the Colonel and asked her, “I was…a female version of the doctor?” I looked over at the doctor. His eyes were prying at the Colonel like she was a scientific riddle in his lab.
The Colonel raised a finger from her folded hands. “I don’t know which of you was who before. But I assure you that you just arrived in this universe, despite all the memories you may have to the contrary.”
She gestured with her finger to the doctor’s satchel. “If you look at the images that I made, you will travel to another universe. But, until now, I had no idea if my creation would bear fruit. I wonder if the other Norna and Dr. Fujiwara merely traded places with the two of you…well…no matter.”
One of her hands slid over to her desk and she came up with a gun. I took a step back and Dr. Fujiwara froze as she set it on the table. She continued, “My skill as an artist on normal paper is tolerable, at best. But with the special paper those images were created on, my skills are amazing. And it’s all for naught…because I can only draw for others and never myself.” She turned the gun on the table and set it aside.
She looked right at me. “Only someone else can make an image for me. That could be any someone else. But it takes an innate skill combined with exposure to the energy of the paper for someone to make images that will send the owner of the image to another universe. And that’s what I want from you. I want out of here.”
I rushed ahead when the Colonel looked down. I reached out for the gun, but she was a little faster. I brought my padded arm around and across her neck. I used my leg to pin her. She coughed hoarsely as the gun smashed against the concrete wall.
I told her bluntly, “Want whatever you like…but no weapons.” I looked back at the doctor. He winced. The Colonel coughed and said, “You don’t know what I’ve been through…and I don’t ever want you to have to.”
I glared back. “I know enough…”
She shook her head and looked at Dr. Fujiwara. “No…you don’t. But fine…no weapons.” I let her up and she picked up the paper on the desk. She showed it to me. “This is my ticket home. One of you just needs to draw it.”
I set my feet. “How?”
She pulled open a drawer. I tensed my muscles, ready to move if I had to. She laid out a set of colored pencils, paints, and pens. A low vibration shuddered through the ground.
I turned my head and asked, “What’s that?”
The Colonel answered, “Motivation…the creatures must be challenging our defenses. From what I saw…the base may not last an hour before we are overrun.”
I shook my head slowly. “I can fight them. We can hold them off until the others launch a strike.”
The Colonel pressed her face against her hands. “There are no others. Not for the last week. I’ve kept the news quiet but that’s why you two were attacked. They were testing our defenses with greater numbers. There’s no stopping them. There is only escape.”
I clenched my fists. “Escape for you but what about everyone else?”
“You may immerse your images in water and redraw your fate but I don’t know if it’ll work.”
I looked down at the Colonel’s blank paper. I felt strange around it. I felt like it was whispering to me in words I couldn’t quite hear. I turned away. “There must be a way to fight back.”
The Colonel sighed. “There is no fighting. No matter how many you destroy, more and more will just keep coming.”
I clenched my covered fists. “So long as I have breath, I will fight for humanity…and those I care about.” I only glanced in Dr. Fujiwara’s direction. I thought I felt a memory but it seemed to pass somewhere far from me.
The Colonel bowed her head and said, “You draw an image by focusing on the paper and asking it to create what the recipient has in their thoughts. That links the artist to their goal.”
Her eyes glanced up and she added, “I shall immerse your images in water while mine is drying. It will take you an hour to have images that might…perhaps…take you home. Once created, the images must not be looked at for thirty minutes. I’d give you more advice…but failed paths are not worth emulating.” The Colonel’s eyes looked so worn and tired. Every shadow clustered in them.
I felt for her but also felt for every person left. Their lives were entrusted to me and my machines. I felt the darkness tighten a little around me. I flexed my shoulders and told the Colonel, “I’ll try to do what you ask…then I will fight.”
I stared into the blank image. Dr. Fujiwara was invited to join me. He shook his head a little. I smelled the fear and confusion in his gaze. I didn’t understand any more than he, but I knew I had to move forward if I wanted to survive.
I looked deep into the blank image. I listened to the Colonel. I looked into her eyes as she told me, “I want to go home.”
I listened to her words. They rippled through the air and through me. The doctor seemed to shudder as well. We both went for the art supplies. Unconsciously, our hands flew at the paper. I blanked out for a bit. The doctor’s hand motions never clashed with mine. We worked together like when he gave me instructions in my fighting machines.
In what seemed like a moment, the image was done. I looked down to assess it, but the Colonel swiftly covered it and hid it in a black sleeve. She clicked a timer in her desk and nodded to me.
I handed over the four images to her. Using a stored supply of water and two pots, she slipped the four images in. Despite being immersed in water, the paper remained dry. The edge glowed and the art wavered, but the works were otherwise fine.
“Go,” said the Colonel. “Get as much time as you can.”
Dr. Fujiwara first went to work ordering the non-essential workers and refugees to evacuate to the lowest section of the complex. It was hardened and was sure to buy the survivors at most two months of survival time with the supplies and a nice big bomb to seal the main shaft. And there was drilling equipment if anyone wanted to try to get out the back door.
Not that there would be anywhere left to go.
The technicians clamped me into my machine. I took a breath and waited for the systems to sync with my brain. The machine had been so beaten up the last time that the repairs weren’t finished and I only had twenty minutes of batteries.
Not that I needed more than that to make sure the bastards begged for mercy.
I fired the rockets and rose through the opening bulkhead doors in the ceiling. Just behind me, the first ones were sliding shut.
I swung my arms back. I took a long breath. I could hear Dr. Fujiwara in my ear.
“Don’t be reckless, Norna.”
“I’ll be fine. Trust me.”
Dr. Fujiwara’s voice softened. “I do. Come home safe...”
I burst through the top bulkheads. The monsters swarmed all over the opening. I swung my arms through them and launched them in all directions. Those that fell through were torched by the defense systems.
The whole outside was ravaged. The skies were reddish-black with the sharp glow of their eyes. Vicious teeth reached out. They consumed everything and their hunger never tired.
I clenched my jaw, bowed my head, and went to work.
The primary rockets took care of some of the little ones. The big ones dodged. I hit the thrusters and pounded them against each other until they were a black, inky mess. The energy cannons tracked them as they darted away and tried to sink their jaws into my main jets. I smiled as my spike launchers cleaved through them.
And they kept coming. They poured over everything like an erupting ant hill I’d seen as a kid. They bit, clawed, and fought to get their empty mouths into me. I shifted the jets down and roared past the ground. I extended the front blades and sliced my way through the dense lower level of them.
I could see them gnawing the ground like a mighty blob of blackness with angry eyes. I could feel they were clinging. I tried to shake them. I rolled and pushed the engines.
For every one I threw off, three more seemed to latch on. I skimmed the ground closer than I usually dared at speeds which made me light-headed. I turned to my left. The display flashed a pale red light and a purple one.
The rushing landscape seemed to slow. As I sat there, I felt like I was remembering something from long ago. I felt like it was returning to me all at once. It crushed me like a tide falling from all directions.
I couldn’t breathe. I braced myself in the capsule and shifted the jets the other way. Flailing beasts spiraled into each other. I knew they were just dazed but it was no less satisfying.
The memory that flooded me was just images. I had no context to give it. It was like my dreams. I hoped it meant something good.
I checked the battery timer. I’d been hitting for long enough. I was about to go to emergency batteries. I launched all my remaining weaponry except for one last salvo of flash projectiles.
I turned and pushed the machine high and through the swarm. I cursed the bastards one last time and leaned back. I cut everything and aimed my landing like a diver. I kept a streamlined position.
I waited to hit the button that would signal the doors to open. The half-heartbeat before, I launched the salvo right into the doors. They exploded like the sun and I dove right through the brightest part. Computer warnings screamed about the batteries and the heat.
I signaled the doors to close in the next instant. In front of me, one bulkhead opened. Behind me, they sealed. The sealing doors were getting closer and I was running out of batteries.
I brought the arms and legs close. I didn’t want to push the jets. I wanted to save them for the very end. I tried to think heavy thoughts.
The door sliced through a creature that held the end of my leg. That was too close. I gave one press of the jets. I just slipped through.
The last bulkhead loomed. It was almost shut. I used the last of my batteries, held my position, and braced myself.
The last door separated the legs of my machine. The lower half sealed instantly with a rush. I spun through the launch bay and slammed into the wall.
With satisfaction, I noted a last, screeching creature flattened between me and the wall.
The systems took care of the fires. After setting the self-destruct and giving the machine a kiss goodbye, I blew the escape bolts and tumbled to the ground. I ran for the door and locked it behind me.
It was all I could do. I hoped it would be enough.