Chapter 1

Your life had no meaning...

You had no drive or desire... no concept of right or wrong... good and evil? What did they mean to you?

All that mattered was that you followed the commands of another... you were a robot in the truest sense... you could follow orders, and do nothing else...

They lived vicariously through you... to the point where you barely even know yourself.

What is your name?

"My name is Ayaka."

What is your age?

"I am seventeen years old."

What is your story?

"I grew up in an orphanage... then I was adopted by him... I suffered, I went through horrible pain... but it was all for a good cause..."

"Ayaka! Ayaka!"

I opened my eyes, and I looked at a girl with short black hair,

"Jeez, what's wrong with you? You never sleep in class..."

When I came to, I was sitting in my desk staring at the blackboard. I looked at the girl, I had seen her before. I knew her. I had talked to her so many times... but I couldn't remember her name. Eventually it came to me, I didn't know why I should be forgetting the name of my friend.

"Ch-Chiyo?"

"You look like you've been in some kind of trance, now come on, let's go home."

I lazily took my bag and walked with her. I looked at the sea of students before me as I walked down the hall. I went over what I had to do for tomorrow in my head. Biology report, math worksheet, English workbook, we'd be given an oral test on the latest passage we'd read... was it me, or did I find myself already completing these assignments? Perhaps I had forgotten, or thought I did.

Suddenly, I felt like I've been looking at everything through new eyes. I've been studying in this school for a year, but something seems so strange. I think I know people, but I don't, I keep forgetting things, and sometimes I see weird things happening here... like that strange killer on campus. It all started ever since Mr. Kuzuki started teaching.

Come to think of it, I never noticed any of this until now. In fact, I don't know if I've ever thought about... well, anything. It felt as though I woke up after a trance. More accurately, I felt kind of like Rip Van Winkle, like I had woken up after a long dream...

"Ayaka! What's the matter? You look disturbed, are you thinking about that slasher on campus?"

Chiyo's words brought me back to reality, and I nodded hastily just to give her an answer.

"As long as we get home fast, there's no need to worry."

No... it wasn't the fact that there was a campus slasher. It wasn't that at all. It was something far greater... but what? I tried to remember the dream that I had. Somebody was talking to me... but who? I felt incredibly confused and I started to develop a painful headache. I placed my hands on the sides of my head and knelt down briefly. Chiyo just kept walking on, and then turned around.

"Hey? What's up? You look really sick." she walked towards me and helped me to get up, "Now come on, you have to get home. If you're this sick, you shouldn't stay at school too long."

I walked with Chiyo to the main gate. Other students were leaving as well, but I didn't see anything of them after they had left. No cars, no buses, nothing. I tried to get a closer look, but as soon as I stepped out of the school, everything went black.

Do you recall?

Of course you don't. You are still half dormant.

You may be self aware now... but you have a long way to go...

I call you forth, ill-fated Ghost in the Machine.

Now, awaken...

After everything went black, I just suddenly found myself walking to school. I didn't even remember dreaming, or seeing my house, or family, or anything. Wait... come to think of it, I never remembered anything like that at all. I don't remember having a home or family... why am I just forgetting all this? In fact, I've been forgetting an awful lot lately. To make matters worse, I've been having headaches all week, and they worsen day by day, until they finally buzz in my head like an alarm.

When I walked to the schoolyard, I asked myself, what season was it? What is today's date? Why was I thinking about this? Why am I suddenly questioning everything I know? All I knew was that I was wracking my brains for an answer... but when I tried to recall what season it was, I got so dizzy that I almost passed out.

I knelt down in front of the gate with my hands on my head. Then a realization came to me, all this time, I had been embracing useless information without questioning it. I had been remembering the inane only to forget what was truly important. Only now I'm starting to become fully aware of my surroundings. It was like I was nothing more than a hollow shell who suddenly developed a mind of its own, but why?

I kept looking at my surroundings, it was the normal stuff you'd see at school, the hustle and bustle of classmates, gossip, teachers talking amongst themselves. Then I realized... everyone was talking exactly the same things as yesterday, and the day before that... none of it has changed.

I tried to get up, but my field of vision became worse. I regained some of my stamina and tried to walk to class. Once again, just like the day before, there was a crowd of students in front of the school gate, and more were being directed that way, just like before. There was a boy in a black uniform in front of the gate, as I could recall, his name was Issei Ryuudo, one of my classmates. Why do I feel a strange sense of deja vu? Why do I feel like I already know all this? What's going on? What's happening to me?

Then Issei noticed me looking at him, and I lost my train of thought.

"Good morning! Lovely weather we're having, don't you think? Why do you look so surprised? We announced at last week's assembly that this month the student council would strictly enforce school rules..."

"You are going to inspect my uniform, aren't you?" I asked

"Yes. That is correct"

Issei sounded as though this was the first time he had said this, but he's been saying it all this time. The worst part was he sounded dull, mechanical, as though reading from a script.

"Ahhh!"

I let out a scream as I knelt down again. I was seized by another headache. I was so dizzy that I felt like I was being forcibly logged out of my consciousness. Then, as quickly as the headache came, my field of vision returned to normal. Issei didn't seem to notice my pain and just kept blathering on...

"First, let me check your student ID, I shouldn't need to remind you, but it should be on you at all times." He hastily checked the badge attached to my bag, and then smiled

"Great. There's no telling when an emergency might occur, and it will be a help if you have your ID."

I felt nauseous, and I knew it had nothing to do with what I ate for breakfast this morning, wait... did I even... have any breakfast? Did I think of anything before coming here?

I tried to dispel the questions and focus on the answer to the one that I knew. I felt nauseous because of my surroundings. It all seemed so mundane and repetitive. I knew real life wasn't supposed to be this way, somehow. Everything went on like a script, everything seemed fabricated... but why? What's happening to this world?

"Now for your uniform inspection."

He started circling me like a vulture and eying my uniform intently. I winced, as I had the suspicion that he was also checking me out. Maybe this was why he joined the student council.

"Blazer, check! Collar, check! Good that you're wearing leggings, otherwise I'd say your skirt was breaking regulations..."

Yup... this was why he joined the student council.

"Next is the contents of your bag... notebooks, textbooks, pencil box, not even a whiff of contraband! Your nails are evenly cut, and your hair is well groomed..."

He just kept repeating on and on... I just wanted to avoid it all. I wanted him to get out of the way, so I pushed him aside and went forward, and I wasn't nice about it either.

"...Indeed, quite remarkable. You're a model student at Tsukumihara Academy."

He just kept on talking loudly even though he was facing no one. What's happening to me? What's happening to the world? This is wrong, this isn't the school I know, it can't be!

"Hey, Ayaka?"

I saw Chiyo in the clearing.

"Hey! You're going to be late to class! Are you okay? You look awful..."

"Eh, I'm fine." I lied.

I just tried to walk to class with her. Maybe I was paranoid... maybe due to stress, I mean after all, exams are tomorrow, I'm imagining things. Perhaps if I just go to class, everything will be okay.

I walked into class to see something different from before. Normally, I'd see Shinji, who I guess was supposed to be my guy friend, surrounded by a gaggle of girls and him yelling at them for being stupid. However this time, I saw Leo Harway, the new transfer student helping out those same girls with their math homework.

"Wow Leo! How do you solve this problem?"

He stared at the problem for a minute, then proceeded to write down the solution in a flourish.

"In this case, you substitute this for this, and divide everything by x. It's the same simple equation that you used earlier."

"Woah! You're right! Thank you Leo!"

I don't understand... if she knew the answer was right, why did she ask him for help? Well... unlike someone else, this guy helps out his classmates without displaying an ounce of condescension, and I saw that someone direct a nasty scowl towards him.

"Take a look at that, Ayaka. That bunch of brown-nosing idiots will suck up to anyone who's got bigger pea-brains than theirs. Hmph, whatever, it's no skin off my back. People who are ugly inside are ugly outside too. That's why I like you, Ayaka. You're not like the other girls. You know your place, and you don't try to change it! You're like the ultimate sidekick! Keep it up and maybe I'd date you..."

Why was I even friends with this guy? Why can't I bring myself to hate him? I'd like to think he was a sleazy arrogant loser who's all bark and no bite... but I can't... in fact, I kind of feel sorry for him.

"Well, I guess. However, I've never had those kinds of feelings for you, Shinji."

"Well, of course. You probably do, you just don't want to admit it because you know I'm too good for you, ha! Smart move, but I can see right through it."

I didn't like the way this conversation was going.

"Hey, Shinji, Leo's looking at you." I tried to change the subject.

He looked at Leo for a second, and I could see him turn red in anger.

"I'll give him this, the brat is a real charity worker, laying on the charm for those sows. He's desperate to appear smarter than me, but I'm the real smart one here. I see what he's doing. That dumb little kid doesn't know I'm on to him..."

Suddenly I saw Leo glance Shinji's way. He didn't look hostile, not even mildly pissed off. He just kept looking at him, expecting a response. Shinji winced in reaction to Leo's expression, it was clear that he had been taken aback.

"Whaddya want? You wanna go?" Shinji managed to say after a couple of false starts. I didn't know if Leo heard what Shinji had been saying about him, but he got out of his seat and simply smiled at him.

"If I have unknowingly given you cause to be malicious, I would like to deeply apologize. Shinji Matou was it? I'll be careful not to upset you in the future." Leo said as he returned to his seat. His voice was calm, and he didn't sound emotional at all.

"H-hmph. He knows when to bow down to true authority it seems. I'm such a nice guy. I'll just accept his apology. Y-yeah, it's not like he ever pissed me off." If Shinji was trying to put on a calm facade, he was failing miserably.

Honestly, what was I thinking... or rather, was I ever thinking at all when I made friends with this loser? From the moment Leo came to this school, we were all entranced by him. Unlike, Shinji, Leo was filled with dignity and pride. He was noble, kind to everyone, intelligent, pretty good looking as well. Man, what I'd give to have him notice someone like me...

Suddenly, I heard the bell ring, signaling class to begin, then our teacher, Miss Fujimura came into class, just as usual.

"Phew, I made it! Good morning everyone!" just as usual, she tried to walk to the podium to teach us, but she tripped and fell.

"Ahh!"

My headache got worse. Not again... not again... I didn't want to go through this again. I knew this wasn't right. No sane person trips in the same spot over and over... it's the same mundane feeling as before... the same longing to get out of it...

"All right!" she said as she got up, "Let's begin class! All righty then... let's pick up where we left off. According to Dr. Pieceman's biography..."

Throughout the day, I kept getting headaches again and again. The same lessons as last time, the same content... the same pages for homework... it was like the teachers were stuck in some kind of groundhog day loop. Was this perhaps what was wrong with the world?

"Who here knows what amnesia is?"

The class was silent, nobody dared answer that one. However... something about that term seemed so familiar...

"It's a terrifying condition where an individual loses all of their memories! It's caused by brain damage, severe trauma, or even infections in one's mucus membranes. The section of the doctor's biography we just covered touches on this condition..."

Why do I know all this already? Why does this sound so close to home?

"The cure for such a scary condition was discovered by Dr. Pieceman. With that said, using amnesia as an excuse for forgetting your homework isn't going to fly! Lots of students tried this when I was young, and before you get any ideas, I'm still young! In fact, I'm putting that fact on the test!"

Pieceman... Pieceman... that name... why do I feel like I've heard it somewhere?

She's been saying the same things all week, but I'm only really understanding them now... even the other students were groaning at the repetitiveness of the class. Then suddenly, I saw Leo get up, as he did so, I felt a distortion in the air. I had no idea what it was, but it made me feel more sick than any of the headaches combined.

"Ms. Fujimura, oh and of course, my fellow classmates. It is time for me to leave. We will probably never meet again, so I wish you all well."

Never meet again?! What does that mean? Is Leo the cause of this distortion? Did Leo somehow plan to threaten our lives?

"Ah and before I forget, Ms. Fujimura. I think you are still young, even now. Just your presence is enough to remind me of the beauty of youth. You're a remarkable person."

His flattery still wouldn't stop, and it was getting on my nerves. Then he bowed slightly, and completely disappeared.

Miss Fujimura looked startled for a moment, but then she smiled a plastic smile, and continued to teach the class as though vanishing students were commonplace for her.

"Umm... All right then. Let's continue, please turn to page 86."

A student vanished...

A student vanished...

A student vanished and nobody seems to be fazed... nobody but me. The whole lesson was going on as though nothing had happened. The whole day was going on as though nothing had happened. I'm not paranoid, this is not my imagination. Something REALLY is wrong!

I tried my best to think. This didn't seem natural, this wasn't like the real world... and that's when it hit me... this wasn't the real world at all. I had to go, I had to hurry and wake up, or else it would be too late. But who am I awakening for? Maybe all this time... I really was asleep. Was I in some kind of trance? Is this some kind of mass illusion? I had no idea, but I had to get out.

My vision felt distorted, it was like looking at a broken television. The pictures were blurry and I could feel static all around me. I had to find out why this was happening. There must be a key somewhere, someone who can answer my questions...

Sure enough, I saw her. I had a feeling she would be able to help me.

"Ayaka? What's going on? Everything seems like a ghost town... why is there nobody around."

"Chiyo! What's going on? Students have been vanishing, Leo vanished, the school repeats the same things over and over, you may think I'm crazy, but I think this isn't the real world! Something's wrong! You must know what it is!" I sounded so desperate, but that was probably because I was.

"...Ayaka? What are you talking about? Nothing's wrong... at least, I don't think there is... I bet it's exam stress. Why don't you calm down a bit and go home-"

"Go away! Wake up while you still can!" I ran away from her and made a beeline for the first floor.

She was of no help, she was completely oblivious to this horror. I needed to find someone who was. But who...?

Once I made it to the first floor, the headaches started to intensify. Then I saw Leo... who I swear left this afternoon, and a male student running after him. Then I saw him and the other student from my class near the hallway, talking near a dead end.

"The attention to detail is quite impressive..." Leo mused, "Even the surrounding air is surprisingly substantial. If that's the case, then this world in some ways is more real than the real world it represents..."

I knew it! I knew this world wasn't real! So this is just a copy of the real world, and it'll destroy me along with it if I don't hurry and get out...

"How about you guys? What are your thoughts on this?" Who was he talking to? I thought it was me for some reason, but he didn't seem to notice me. He then turned around and looked at my classmate. His expression was completely neutral.

"Greetings. I believe this is the first time we've had an actual conversation." he addressed my classmate. His smile wasn't like before, it seemed like he was hiding something behind it... perhaps evil intentions.

"You were spying on me.. weren't you? Well, it is no matter, you may come and listen too." he suddenly turned in my direction. I knew I had been found out.

I walked towards my classmate and looked at him.

"What's going on?! You know this world isn't real... do you?"

"Not real...? Not real?! So that's why I have no memories of my past? That explains all the distortions right now?" he seemed pretty shocked, but not too much.

"I'm assuming... Leo! You know what's going on... do you? And why the heck did you vanish on us in class?!"

Leo laughed a heartless laugh, kind of like a villain in a movie would do.

"Your banter amuses me... and as for the state of this world... well. Perhaps you may be better judges of it than I... rely on your own perception, as perception is quite a subjective thing..."

"Dude, what the hell? Why won't you tell us anything?" the boy yelled at Leo.

"It is not my position to say. Well anyways, you are in luck. I have some parting words for the two of you..."

Leo cleared his throat and then began to speak,

"Attending school wasn't half bad. I've never had the opportunity to go to one until now. However, the time for fun has come to an end. I did not come here to play at being a student. No matter how enjoyable the detour, one must return to the appointed path, and for me the time to do so has arrived."

He was about to walk into the dead end, maybe through the wall? But then he stopped.

"Farewell. No, that's not right. I don't think farewell is the right word for this situation. For strange reasons, I feel like I will see you again. So I guess I should use the more congenial, see you later. Well, it's time for me to move on, I wish you both the best of luck." He directed a glance at the both of us, particularly me, then he walked through the wall and vanished.

My classmate and I both stared at the wall. For a moment, my mind seemed to be blank. Then my classmate's voice managed to snap me out of my trance.

"Hey...?"

"Yea...?"

"Maybe... just maybe... this place is the gateway to the real world..."

It seemed like a crazy thought, but I guess it was worth a shot.

"Okay. Do you want to enter first?"

"All right. See you on the other end."

He walked through the wall, and then vanished. There was no sign of him afterwards, so I decided to enter as well.

I stepped towards the wall, like my classmate, I placed my hand on the wall, expecting to be drawn in. I knew that if I went through here, I'd know everything. Suddenly, I saw a doorway where the wall used to be, and I knew what I had to do. I had to bid farewell to the false world and take my first step towards the truth.