When his alarm went off, Naota was staring at the ceiling, watching the slowly lightening shadows. He lazily climbed out of bed and shut off the alarm. There was no rush. Deep blue light spilled into the room, diffused by the curtains. He picked his way over the piles of junk on the floor, casting but a quick glance the dark pre-dawn shadow under the window. Haruko's bass had lain quiet for five years and lately he had stopped bothering to wipe the dust off. He had waited for her, of course. At first, certain she would come back at any minute for some new adventure, like she had said. But time passed, assurance became concern, fear, desperation, anger, acceptance. There was no next time. She was just sparing the feelings of a stupid kid. It made perfect sense now that he didn't have to live through it.
His school uniform laying sloppily over his lean frame, Naota picked up his bag from the space where Canti used to sit. The robot had wandered off two years ago while buying cigarettes. At the time, the idea of a robot with a smoking problem made no sense, but the Lord of the Black Flame seemed to miss his sole apostle. Without waking the rest of the family, Naota slipped out of the house and into the morning fog of Mabase.
He wandered through the darkened streets lethargically. There was nothing out there worth hurry. Mabase was still asleep, and for a moment he could revel in the tranquil solitude. There was no one else here, so he owned the town by default. Presently, he found himself on the Mamimi's old bridge. He imagined he could almost smell the lingering tobacco. Halfway through the span, he stopped to look out down the river. The dark shape of the Medical Meccanica building was still there, resting on an angle. The lights had long gone out, the siren's tone a distant memory, the smoke forgotten. No one mentioned the plant anymore, they didn't even seem to see it.
The sound of a motor bike engine glided up from behind him. Nao' didn't react. A motorbike sneaking up on him no longer stirred any fear in his gut. Or excitement. The headlight caught and refracted in the water droplets hanging around him. He glanced over his arm to show he had no reason not to look at a passing motorbike. The bike passed him without giving up any details of the rider. The engine changed pitch and faded.
By the time Naota met Ninmori in front of her house, the morning mist had burned off, and Mabase had woken up. "Good morning, Naota." She greeted, blowing past him in confidence he would follow. He let her pass before falling in beside her leisurely.
"Morning, dear." He replied, letting himself sound tired. "Now, we have a long day ahead. Two tests, physics and literature, plus student council after school. So hurry it up." She ordered, never looking back.
"You're student council president, not me. Why am I there again?" Nao' wondered fruitlessly. Ninimori hadn't slown down at all since entering high school, quickly conquering every clique and club her ambitions fell on, and that included Naota.
"Because, for one it wouldn't be right for the President to be single. And as a leader, people need to see I have the support of my boyfriend." She had made her intentions clear Freshman year, and he had seen no strong reason not go along. And he couldn't deny she was an attractive girl.
Nao' shook his head. "Taking lessons from you father again"
"After the old man managed to get reelected after that affair business? I'd be crazy not too"
Naota nodded. "It was a fucked up year, least of all because of the affair"
"I don't know what you're talking about, the affair is the only thing I can remember from that year." Ninimori steam rolled ahead. "Now, physics was always one of your subjects, so I'll need you to text me the answers." She didn't notice the slight falter in Naota's step.
"You don't remember anything else from that year? Nothing extraordinary or amazing?" He asked warily. She stopped, turning around to glare at him.
"Don't be childish Naota, why would anything amazing happen to us? And what makes you think I wouldn't remember it?" Ninimori was surprised at the thoughtful way Naota looked at her, like he was looking inside her head for the first time.
"Nothing, forget it dear." He said looking away.
A lecture on advanced mathematics. Naota sat almost horizontally in his chair at the rear of the class. It takes only a few moments for the teacher's words to fade into the dull murmur, like a pond too stagnant to erode any new wrinkles in his brain. His buddy Masashi elbowed him in the side. "Jeez, why can't you pay attention in any class? I mean, I know I don't, but I'm a godamn genius. Your grades, however, aren't really inspiring me"
"I don't know really." Naota said, gazing out the window. "I guess it just doesn't seem important compared to the rest of the stuff going on in the world."
"Oh? Stuff like what?"
Nao' shrugged. "Like.. diseases and famines and wars and such." And astral beings stealing worlds and giant irons killing free thought he added mentally. "Hey.. do you remember anything from 6th grade"
"6th grade? Can't say that I do.."
After school he walked Ninimori home. Her parents were out on a political function. They made time in her parent's bedroom. He left after she made it clear she had work to do.
He started toward home in a grey light. The roof overhead had closed off the sun, and promised rain. Something light, with no lightening or thunder to entertain.
He dreaded this part of the day. No school, no Ninimori to act as a distraction. Nothing but time to think before he fell asleep. Before he reached the end of the block, the familiar stirring creature in his gut began to pace, spreading quiet desperation with each step.
Haroku had gone, and she had taken the outside world with her. No, not the world. The universe. There was nothing left here except a safe, normal life as a sane member of society. But that was no longer possible.
He spent many nights wondering about the effect those four months had on him, but could be sure of one thing. Ever since she left, polite society was no longer a source of normalcy for him, it was a prison cell. Every day he lived pretending there was nothing extraordinary out there, the stronger the lock became.
Haruko, Canti, Medical Meccanica.. Lately he had come think of them of something of a dream. A dream that changed him irreversibly, but a dream none the less. No one remembered them, no one seemed to care. And if he was the only one who remembered, what did that leave him with besides a guitar he couldn't play? A hairline fracture between him and the world. Like a glacier about to fall off an ice flow.
The creature in his gut flexed its claws. Either they were real or Mabase was. There was no middle ground. Urgency and fear began to seep into his lungs. He could see the cold grey sky. He couldn't see them, their faces indistinct in his recollection. He stood in front of his house and fought down the urge to just keep walking. Nothing amazing happened here. Except, now it was true.
Dinner. Mild Curry. His best efforts to find the legendary Little Prince Curry brand had been thwarted. He couldn't even find anything spicy enough to taste good. His father was holding a lecture about some anime again.
"And so he had to die, so that his brother could become the lead character.." He stated emphatically. Naota braced himself to ask a question he already knew the answer to.
"Hey Dad, do you remember that house keeper we had a while ago"
Kamon looked surprised at the interruption. "House keeper? We've never had enough money for a house keeper, Nao'." He turned back to his dissertation. "Now, the real symbolism is in the drill.."
Naota rolled into bed, unexhausted by the day. Hands behind his head, he stared at the ceiling. The quiet dark of his room was the only place he could be sure she had existed, hear her voice, feeling her weight in the bunk above his. Outside his windows, the stars floated brightly in that great dark ocean. One shone brighter than all the others. He reached out and tried to grasp it in his hand. When he lowered his hand it was still there. Nothing Amazing.
When he slept, he dreamt of a girl with golden eyes.
You haven't been practicing, have you Takun? She loomed above him, eyes filled with mischief. I don't want to, it's stupid. A hand clutching a beer can pointed at him. You gotta learn, Takun. Why? I'm not gonna play, it's embarrassing! She grabbed his arm and hauled him up the steps. I swear your brain really is gone, nothing in there but junker robots.
World blurs, the scene changes. She's across the room, and there's a hint of some melancholy in her eyes he can't begin to understand. What did she say? You're the one I saw first, Takun. The phrase plays itself out again and again until it forms a smooth groove in his mind. Blur, change.
You don't understand Takun, you have to learn. If you don't you can't do anything! She explains in exasperation, sitting down the on bed next to him. His guitar smooth and still unfamiliar in his hands. You don't make any sense! It's just a guitar! She leans in close, alcohol on her breath, grinning conspirtarly. Hey. If you promise to practice, I'll tell you secret.. Blur, change.
Waking slowly, unfamiliar scent in his nose. Eyes open, something soft and pink filling his view. Aware of the warmth and the arm draped across him before he understood. Somehow thinking it wasn't right, lingering only a precious, too short moment. You looked cold, she grinned evilly. Was she mocking him? It didn't matter. Shift, blur. A voice sounding clear in the maelstrom of shifting memories, like a voice in the eye of a hurricane.
Okay, but don't tell anyone. It's all real real secret, Takun. Ever hear of String Theory? No? Hokay. 'Slike this. She slurred slightly. First, accept that Time and Space are in fact things that could be interacted with. Okay. Accept it? Accept it! Alright. Now. If you could bend them enough, you would see the grain, what they're made of. Strings, one dimensional objects. Strings not unlike.. a single bass note reverberated through his brain.
Thousands of tiny strings shot out from the blur of lights, twisting and assembling into his fingers. His hand took shape, and the wires corkscrewed to form the muscles in his arm. The strings tightened and pulled him into the wall of the hurricane.
The unmistakable pressure of being inside Canti. Connections are made, the light above his head blinks on. Staring at a Medical Meccanica robot through the rifled barrel. No fear, no thoughts but the urge to explode out, smiling, and relieve the pressure. The time has come and the world rushes by and the wind in his face and he is unleashed and there is only the urge to keep accelerating until he breaks through the speed of light itself. And she is warm behind him and the Vespa is loud, drowning out the waves below the road. The sun is setting and the gold light is drawn in and purified in her eyes. The strings tug on his completed arm and he flies back into the storm.
Disoriented, but the voice continues uninterrupted. If you know how to play, how to manipulate the strings, things change. Like mebbe Acceleration isn't Change in Velocity over Change in Time anymore, but Change in Velocity times Half over Change in Time, ya see? No? Lemmie put it this way.. In this guitar is the ability to alter every constant and function you know. Learn it and you can do the impossible, see the invisible. A million wires bind together, forming legs, organs, a torso. He can feel every nerve and muscle, trillions of parts united with a single purpose for the first time. He smiles even if there is nothing to smile with. The strings spiral together to form his heart. But something is changing, strings of a different color fly toward him from every direction and wrap around his heart, squeezing. His chest is finished and he can no longer see but only feel the pressure.
And another twinge upwards and he breaks into the wall once more. He rips himself from Canti, his body glowing red with NO and fire scalding his veins. The pressure on his heart increases as he knocks the terminal core into the air. The strings controlling and comprising his body pull him at breakneck speeds through the air towards her. Guitar in hand, they crash together and are knocked apart. Again and again they strike, circling each other, being knocked apart less each time. He can hear her voice, echoing through time and space and mind to reach him.
Of course, the you can't change the entire universe that easily. It only applies to you, or things you have a strong connection to. Some say even people. His heart was in a vice, but still he fought on, desperate to be done before the fist around his heart clenched shut. They shot through the air. The strings in control of his body guiding him, like a fish in a river. Propelled by fear of the crushing squeeze on his heart, he strikes and her bass flies out of her grasp.
You know what I'm saying to you Takun? That it can only alter things you give a part of yourself to?
She waits for his next move. Every cell and every fiber in his body pull him toward her, toward this one, specific moment in time and nowhere else. His heart struggles weakly against its cage.
Takun.. This guitar.
He stops in front of her. Gold eyes blaze with a glorious madness. This guitar is.
He leans forward and kisses her. The strings around his heart clench shut, and he is done.
This guitar is.. A world away on the edge of his bed she smiles wickedly as the trap is sprung. This guitar is.. The wires that built his body explode. YOUR SOUL!
The siren's yell penetrated his brain and ripped him back into the real world. Naota shot upright and swung out of bed without a pause. "No way, no way in hell!" He said hopefully, bounding out to the balcony. The red lights glittered on top of the Medical Meccanica plant! Thick smoke rolled outward and over everything in its path. Triumphant laughter erupted from Naota's throat.
With out a second thought he got dressed in a hoody and jeans and slung Haruko's bass over his back. An insane grin on his face, he sprinted from his room to the balcony that over looked Mabase. He leapt on to the rail and stood with his back to the world. With his arms open, he let himself fall into the fog.
He fell for what seemed like minutes before his feet hit the pavement. Laughing merrily, like a prisoner making his escape, he sprinted into the smoke.
When he stopped for breath, the smoke around him thickened until it was almost solid, then was blown away. Two men in disdainfully worn suits stood in front of him, eyes invisible behind large orange aviators. "Look at this kid, has his guitar ready and everything. He knows what's up, man." The closest one said, nodding. His partner smiled.
"Toold you the file on him was right. He probably knew before we even showed up"
Naota eyed them like a child expecting a Christmas gift. "So, are we going soon?" He asked simply.
The first suit laughed. "Hiiiigh speed man. Even knows what we're up to. Downright motivating." He checked his watch. "Well, if you don't need us to explain it, I guess we can grab the ship out in Babylon and sky out whenever"
"Hold on man, got some legal nonsense to take care of." Suit 2 said, reading from a folded piece of paper. "Do you, Naota Nandaba, acknowledge that if you agree to come with, you cannot bid goodbye or contact anyone who previously knew you in anyway"
Naota nodded. "And my family?" He asked.
The suit threw the piece of paper away lazily. The scrap went up in a small explosion as soon as it hit the ground. "People disappear all the time. Besides, like they're gonna find your ass. Ready"
Naota adjusted the sling on the bass and nodded. "Yeah, let's go." Suit number two walked up and placed his hand on Naota's head. "Say fair well to home, kid. No one can follow where you're headed." He said, pushing his glasses up on his face.
"See you in hell!" Naota promised to the empty streets. There was a short, barking laugh, and all three disappeared in a pulse of red light in the fog.
"This life's a game. Let's play for higher stakes." - Ben Nichols - Tobin