Falling from the Moon

A "Please Save My Earth" fanfic

By Natalie Baan

 

Chapter 18
(released 12/25/01)

 

 

Issei glanced up as the door peeled back again, and with some relief he saw Haruhiko and Tamura framed in it. As they entered the room, Tamura's gaze leaped to Mikuro, who was standing next to the jump platform in pleasant if slightly bemused conversation with Hiragi and Shusulan. The man's tense expression eased somewhat. Haruhiko just smiled and murmured something too low to hear. They moved toward the platform, and Mikuro, acknowledging their approach, nodded a laconic greeting.

"Great. Now that everybody's here, can you all get on the platform?" Shion swept the group with a sour look, which was mainly for Issei and Mikuro. He'd already suggested a couple of times that those present should get into place--something about calibrating the machine for them--but Issei had managed to get Shusulan and Alice embroiled in a discussion of some past life incident, and the second time Mikuro had come right out and asked, with deliberate blasÚness, /What's the rush?/ Shion had backed down. That as much as anything had sounded a warning note, making Issei glad he'd listened to his instincts. Considering that Shion otherwise was abuzz with almost manic intensity, darting about his last-minute preparations and giving orders imperiously, for him to shrug the matter off was disquieting. Still, everyone had made it to the tower safely, and once they were all on the platform, they were practically home. Even so, Issei loitered while the others ascended the stairs, Mikuro letting Sakura precede him, Jinpachi and Hiragi bringing up the rear. He waited until Tamura and Haruhiko were near enough to reach the platform before Alice, who was still hovering next to Shion, and only then swung onto the steps himself.

He didn't really believe that Shion would make good on those threats to leave any latecomers behind--but he wasn't certain. The hatred Shion held for Shukaido ran very deep.

And actually, he realized nervously, it was assuming rather a lot to think that Shion wouldn't leave /him/ behind, if he made himself too much of a nuisance. He wanted to think better of Shion than that--he was fairly sure Shion liked or at least tolerated him well enough not to put his life at serious risk--but nonetheless he felt safer once he'd taken his place, easing in between Mikuro and Shusulan. The base's platform was much bigger than the jury-rigged device on Tokyo Tower, but even so they all stood clustered together at its center.

"You too, Alice." With a smile, Shion straightened above the control terminal, which he was floating in midair to use, and held out his hand to her. They brushed fingertips, her tender expression a quieter reflection of his, before she stepped around the terminal and headed for the stairs. Shion watched her go, and Issei saw briefly in his eyes the stark gaze of another time and place, staring inward onto a dark night of stars and loneliness. Then Alice began climbing to the platform, and Shion bent over the terminal, hair falling over his face.

As Alice arrived among them, the machine hummed to life, a barely perceptible sound. Lights of various colors flickered, casting faint, multihued shadows. Hiragi cleared his throat. "Ah, so everything's in order for the self-destruct?"

"Of course." Shion's voice rang out above the platform's muted noises, cool and supremely confident. "It's simple. Once the transport's finished, the jump platform will shut down. I've reprogrammed the shutdown procedure to send a signal to start the timer. Three minutes later, the timer sets off the charges. /Boom!/ End of moon base."

"Is three minutes enough time?" Shusulan whispered to Issei. Arms crossed, she fidgeted, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "I mean, I know the teleport is pretty much instantaneous, but it still feels like we're cutting it awfully close."

Issei shrugged and gave her a weak smile. "I don't know. I guess he doesn't want to leave any more margin than he has to, just in case something else decides to break down." The thought made him even more uneasy; he wished they could hurry up and go.

As though his wish had been a signal, Shion made a final adjustment, then slapped one hand against the console in barely controlled exuberance. "That's it! We're out of here!" Leaping to the ground, he bounded clattering up the metal stairs and fetched up against Alice's side, wrapping his arm around her waist. Issei caught a crackle like a scatter of sparks--<*anger, resentment, a blurred ache of inarticulate loss, confusion*>--and he glanced toward Jinpachi, who was staring at the two of them. Jinpachi's gaze began to turn, and Issei quickly looked away before their eyes might happen to meet. Swallowing past the tightness in his throat, the habitual pang not yet overcome, he focused on Shion and Alice instead. He reached out, letting Shion's excitement fill his mind with a swift-moving turmoil, rapidly changing, hard to grasp but immensely powerful.

Was it the strength of Shion's emotions that made them so perceptible, Issei wondered. Or was it leftover resonance from having been in synch before, during those two mental links they'd shared in the last few weeks? Or--and a shiver went through him--had his own abilities grown stronger from the use they'd been getting? Maybe, he thought, it was some combination of all three. He could almost make out the shapes of things that were moving beneath that surface, that were building, gathering into one growing rush as though being sucked into the narrowing eye of a vortex.

"/Computer!/" Shion called, voice pitched to carry to the audio pick up. "Initiate program '333'!" The platform's thrumming intensified, and as they were engulfed in sudden light Shion's mouth stretched into a wider grin, his eyes feral. They glanced across Issei's and snagged, a catch of recognition, time slowing as the veil of clouds and shadows was briefly torn--

--<*a swelling thrill, a surge in the gut like hunger or nausea, a clawing eagerness, a choking, paralyzing fear as the plan unfolds once more in his mind: the jump platform set to cut three of those just-scanned patterns out of its transport, leaving them behind, alone.*>

<*The minuscule bomb planted among critical wires to ensure that there will be no second transport, at least not in time to escape.*>

<*The stunned look that he can imagine on his enemies' faces, so brief, so sweet, and with the anticipation a crushing pressure closing around his heart, guilt and terror--it's real, it's really happening, a true finality, there's no going back*>--

And as the light began to break the room into a shower of shining motes--Sahches perception of what otherwise would be a mere blur--Issei drew in a breath, eyes widening. Looking into Shion's face, he both saw and sensed the realization that he /knew,/ and with that <*defiance and rage, piercing anxiety, shame*>--

The platform's hum plunged, becoming a grinding moan that sank in steady decrescendo. As the room's dissolve reversed itself and their surroundings flickered back into being, Issei found his pulse thundering, felt his stomach lurch, the floor returning beneath his feet with a jolt, as though he'd misjudged a step. Shion snapped his head up and stared at the machinery above them, his gaze a flat, startled question. Then the jump field projector's light winked out, and they were in darkness, blind.

From the terror that blasted into him through his synch with Shion, Issei knew that this was not part of any plan.

There was a click, and a dull yellow light came on over the door. Everyone was silent, breath held, for the beat that told them the main lights weren't coming on. Then that breath escaped them in a buzz of confusion and dismay.

"What the--"

"What just happened?"

"Shit--"

"/NO!/" Shion leaped straight up and vanished--reappeared on the projection unit above them and plunged his arm into that loose cage of metal and circuitry up to the shoulder, searching, gasping, <*no, no, no, got to get it before it goes off!*> Issei staggered against the platform's rail and clutched at it, slamming his mind shut on Shion's urgency and the bewilderment and fear flooding from the others. Dazed, he tried to fumble after what was immediate and actually happening, and what was only an intention.

"/Oh, God!/" Shusulan's screamed, her voice a shock of clarity. "/The self-destruct timer! THE PLATFORM SHUT DOWN!/"

Issei's gaze shot to her and then, as the full impact of those words hit him, snapped back up to Shion. Whipping his head around, Shion stared at the tower's wall as though seeing through it, wild indecision in his eyes, even as his fingers continued hunting among the machine's wires. There was a flicker of abrupt absence, and Issei glanced that way to see Tamura lunging forward, hands grasping at air.

"/Haru-chan!/"

Issei's mind went blank--it felt like he was floating, waiting for the next wave to rush in. Overwhelmed, he could only watch as Tamura glared about in helpless distress. On the other side of the platform, Hiragi broke for the steps and half-jumped, half-slid down them. He sprinted to the wall and flipped the intercom's switch, setting it for base-wide transmission. "Shukaido, where are you?" He paused, listening. Issei could hear nothing. "Shukaido--report!"

"I- I'm here!" Haruhiko's voice crackled out of the speaker at last. "I've got it!" Issei realized his chest was aching, and he let out an almost-sob of breath. He wasn't alone, as everyone else sighed and slumped at their reprieve. Above them, scarcely audible, Issei heard a different exhalation from Shion, a soft "hah!" of triumph and relief. "I'm holding the timer still. But I don't know how to shut it off! I could find the crystal by its vibration, but it's dark--I can't see anything. How--what should I try to--"

"/No!/ Tell him not to mess with anything--just keep it frozen!" Shion sprang from the top of the jump platform and disappeared. Issei could only assume that the small bomb there had been defused.

"Shion just teleported," Hiragi was saying to the intercom. "Is he with you?"

"No...."

"Damn it!" Jinpachi stepped up to the edge of the platform, not far from Issei, and smacked the metal railing with his fists. "Isn't there something we can do?"

"I don't know." Jinpachi looked at him, gray-blue eyes anguished with frustration, and Issei felt time start again, moment following moment, and himself not just a witness to events but part of them, with Jinpachi and all the rest--he needed to clear his head, to figure out if there /was/ anything that could be done. He glanced around, trying to reorient himself. "Uh, Tamura-san--wait!" Alarm seized him at the sight of Tamura striding purposefully toward the platform's stairs. "Don't go down there! When Shion fixes whatever's wrong, Haruhiko-kun can get back here in a second. But if the halls are dark--"

"He's right." Mikuro was peering into some remote distance, his eyes far-focused. He'd rocked onto the balls of his feet, as though poised for a spring. "I can feel him. Don't do anything reckless, Tamura-san." Tamura hesitated, already on the steps, then cursed under his breath but remained where he was, though still visibly yearning toward the door. Issei looked at Shusulan, who stood trembling, both hands clapped over her mouth as though they were all that kept her scream from continuing, her eyes huge and terrified above them. Awkwardly he held out his own hand in hesitant reassurance.

"Shu--"

She stared at him over her fingers, then squeezed her eyes shut. He knew her well enough from their close friendship in that other life that he could see her gathering herself, struggling to control the hysteria to which she'd always been prone. Her eyes still closed, she lowered her hands at last, clasped them hard against her chest. Issei's heart ached; he wanted to hold her, or Jinpachi, to be held himself--<oh, Kami-sama, Sahjareem, I don't want to die, don't want any of them to die, they're all too important to me, please, please-->

With an effort, he swallowed back panic. Bracing himself on the railing, he held onto its solidity.

<It's too soon. It's too soon to fall apart. We might still get out of this.>

<If Shion can only fix what's broken....>

A minute crawled by like a slow, many-legged insect, ticklishly disquieting to watch, followed by another one. At least, Issei noted with shaky hopefulness, they hadn't blown up yet. He thought of Haruhiko, alone in the chill darkness of the lower levels, his concentration the only thing keeping them all from destruction, and winced in sympathy. Hiragi remained by the intercom, occasionally murmuring encouragement, calming small talk, while Jinpachi paced and Alice stood motionless, her eyes closed like Shusulan's but with a glimmer of tears running from their lashes and down her cheeks, the knuckles of one hand pressed to almost imperceptibly moving lips. She might be praying, Issei thought--he hoped she was, because the prayers of a Sahjaliann were as good a request for a miracle as anything else he could think of. He kept his mind sealed, afraid that he might still be keyed in to Shion and dreading a crushing blow of failure too much to risk opening himself to a flare of success. So he was as surprised as anyone else when Shion appeared next to the control terminal, dropping out of the air and onto the floor. When he saw Shion's expression, though, he didn't need telepathy to know what the news would be. He froze, feeling that faint hope falling away, growing more remote, just like the Earth turning far off across a black gulf of outer space.

"What is it?" Hiragi had stepped a little away from the door, releasing the intercom. His voice was taut, quiet--he must have guessed something was wrong when Shion returned without the lights coming back, Issei realized, and he was keeping the shock of whatever had happened from Haruhiko, on whom their lives still rested.

"The generators went." Shion's gaze was like distressed crystal, brittle and translucent, just barely holding intact. Taking a faltering step, he caught at the terminal, then slid down until he was on his knees, palm pressed flat against its metal side. Issei glimpsed peripheral movement--Alice hastening past himself and the others on the platform, slipping around Tamura on the narrow stairs. "Not just the main generator, but the back-up too. We're on battery power--and /that's/ depleted. Moisture from the plants must have corroded some of the cells." Lifting his other hand, Shion passed it over his face, pushed his fingers up into his bangs. "Normally, as soon as the base went on emergency power a distress call would be beamed to the nearest space station," he went on with thin, distracted calm. "Now--" Alice sank down next to him, her arms folding about him, her hair sweeping forward around them both. His fingers closed on the sleeve of her coat and knotted briefly. Then he straightened, twisting away from her enough to look outward.

"There's no way we can fix it with what we've got here." His eyes shifted from one face to the next, lingered on Issei's. "I'm sorry." There was no sharpness, no defensive edge left to those words, just a simple admission from someone who'd hit the limits of power at last--and of all the unchildlike looks he'd seen on Shion's face, Issei thought, this was somehow both the most adult and the least uncanny.

"What--what are you saying!" Jinpachi's cry broke into the paralysis that was settling down over them all. Hands locked around the railing, he wrung at it as if trying to twist it in between his fingers. "What about the jump platform!"

"The platform takes a /lot/ of power." Turning his head, Shion laid it against Alice's shoulder, closing his eyes with a sigh. If Alice was trembling, Issei couldn't see it; he saw only the flex of her arm as it tightened minutely about Shion. "If we drained the batteries completely, we'd be able to transport 120, maybe 130 kilos. It's just not enough." Jinpachi bent forward, his jaw clenching. Somewhere in the background, Issei heard a choked moan escape from Shusulan. He felt hot, then icy--everything was strange, as though he was looking out from his body while his mind was someplace very far distant, turning and turning the situation like a puzzle piece that just wouldn't fit.

"/Shion!/" Jinpachi lifted his head and fixed the pair on the floor with a look that blazed brilliant and clear, burning with a fierce, almost bitter determination. "Take Sakaguchi-san with you and go back to the Earth!"

"And Shusulan," Issei added quickly into the silence that followed. Vaguely he wondered how he could sound so serene when something inside him was starting to gibber, seeing a way out and watching it close, when he was astonished at Jinpachi's decision--but fear and wondering were also in that far-off place, along with the part of his mind that still labored over the prospect of dying. Right there on the moon base, in that moment where he was, an extraordinary clarity had begun to come over him. He offered Shusulan a glance and smile, saw tears standing in her eyes, which had gone wide. The sight struck him so sharply that he had to look away. "The three of you should make it under the weight limit, right?"

Shion was staring at Jinpachi, and Issei could see plainly the unspoken /whys/, the speculations chasing each other behind those pale lilac eyes--a dilation, an instant of real acknowledgment as Shion recognized Jinpachi's proud and painful sacrifice. Then Shion lowered his head, a faint smile curving his mouth.

"No," he said.

As Jinpachi tried to stutter out some protest, Shion added, quietly but distinctly, "I'm not leaving anyone behind here." Issei understood enough to hear what wasn't said: /the way I was left behind./ Shion glanced at Alice, his face bright with love for her and with the peace of that resolution, in such contrast to the twisted-up hate and shame of before. "I'll send the girls back, though, of course." Alice shook her head, made a soft negative sound, and fear crept into Shion's expression again. "Alice!"

"I'm not leaving either." Smiling, she wiped at her cheek, put her hair behind her shoulder, then laid one hand lightly over Shion's. Her voice quavered only a little as she added, "We'll all go back together. Right?"

/Together/--she was talking about reincarnation, Issei realized with a dull shock, of going back to the Earth in death to start all over again. Stricken, he looked at Shusulan. "Shu?"

"/Idiot!/" The cry tore out of her; bitten off, it twisted into a sob. She raised her hands once more to cover her face and the tears that had started to flow down in earnest. "How could I go back--how could I /ever/ go back and--/how could I look at the stupid moon again!/" She collapsed, shaking, her hair spilling onto the floor as she bowed her head to it. Issei went to her and knelt, rested one hand tentatively on her back, felt the shudder and jerk as she gasped for breath. He wished he had some better comfort to give her. Her sobs echoed from the high walls, and in one of the lulls between them, he heard Mikuro exhale, long and with finality. Everyone else was silent.

At last, Hiragi cleared his throat. "Should--should I call Shukaido back here, to be with us at the end?" Glancing up, Issei saw him by the intercom, ash-pale but still steady, his fingers hovering over the switch. For a moment, nobody answered. Issei looked down through the platform's railing at Shion, who was staring into space as though watching the inevitable drawing nearer, and wondered if he'd even heard. Apparently he had--his gaze refocused, slid across the other people in the room, each one lost in private thoughts. Crossing Issei's, it paused as though searching for answers, for some sort of wordless communication.

Slowly Shion's eyes went wide.

"That's it." They widened further, were paired with an incredulous, rapidly growing grin. "/That's it!/" Springing to his feet, he stared at his clenched, trembling fists, teeth bared in a ferocious hope that was nearly gleeful. "The mental link! If we all join together, combine the ESPers' powers, then use that to augment the jump platform--"

"What--!"

"That's impossible--"

"They work on the same energy principle!" Shion's voice crackled with inspiration as he whirled around the corner of the control terminal, flipped a switch to return it to life. "And with the synergy factor--oh, there's no time to explain it! Everyone, hurry and get back on the platform!--Alice, go, now." She stood, took a hesitant step backward, then turned and fled up the stairs. Tamura moved off them to let her go by, then swung up onto the bottom step again and waited, watching the doorway, where Hiragi spoke softly and urgently into the intercom, telling Haruhiko their plan. With a start of self-recollection, Issei slipped his hand under Shusulan's elbow and tugged her upward. Still sniffling and trying to catch her breath, she scrambled to her feet. Turning, he saw Jinpachi with his back to the rest of them, staring at Shion, who was floating above the terminal, fingers darting across the keys like birds skimming over a stream as he set up the platform's new program. Seeing the slump of Jinpachi's shoulders, the almost imperceptible droop of his head, understanding twinged at Issei. He went over and laid one hand on Jinpachi's arm.

"Come on, Jinpachi." Jinpachi met his gaze, and Issei saw bewilderment there, a dull, uncomprehending anger at having been passed by yet again, the surrender he'd worked himself up to out of both pride and a genuine sense of what was right--even not knowing all of Shion's story, those nine years of abandonment and suffering on the moon--having been for nothing. Smiling, Issei tightened his grip, wishing he could put his arms around Jinpachi and knowing it was impossible. "We need you," he said instead, drawing Jinpachi away from the railing. "Help us all get home."

"If this can just get us to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere," Shion was chanting, a low, breathless mantra, "if it can get us /close/ to the atmosphere, somehow I can get us the rest of the way, I know it--"

"Yes!" Haruhiko's voice came thinly through the intercom, answering some question of Hiragi's. "I understand. Tell Shion--tell him I'll hold the timer. I'll keep it from going off till you all get clear!"

"/What?/" Tamura was incredulous, appalled. "Haru-chan, no!"

"/IDIOT!/" Shion screamed over his shoulder at the intercom. "/MORON!/ Get up here! I need you in the link!"

"Wait, Tamura-san." Mikuro was already balancing on the railing. Launching himself up and out, he disappeared. There was a tense pause, moments ticking by, with only silence from the intercom. Shion cursed quietly, edgily, and the terminal sounded a short string of chirps, equally soft, part of some test sequence. Without warning Mikuro and Haruhiko solidified in the center of the platform, Mikuro's hands firmly locked onto Haruhiko's shoulders. Haruhiko looked pale and scared, his expression torn between fading defiance and relief.

"All right--that did it!" Shion shot up from the terminal, blinked out, and reappeared at Alice's side. "We're going /now!/"

"Everyone, make a circle!" Issei commanded hastily. "Take hands!" Jinpachi was on his right, a warm, anxiously sweating, familiar grasp; Shusulan had his left hand in a deathgrip, her nails digging in, not quite hard enough to cut. Hiragi came pounding up the stairs, panting, and flung himself into the remaining gap. "Close your eyes, and think about home as hard as you can." There was no time for entrainment and trance, not with the self-destruct timer already running--the single-minded force of their will to live would have to be enough.

<Don't think about those numbers counting down toward the bombs' explosion.>

<Don't think about the thousands of kilometers of vacuum standing between you and the Earth.>

<Only think about home.>

<About HOME-->

*He flings his mind wide--and there they are, there is Shion, a midnight whirlwind, air and darkness, power and determination, welcoming him in this time, their thoughts one controlled gyre, gathering the others. There is Haruhiko, a cool, gentle shimmer that belies its strength, its depths, a torrent that lifts itself higher, pure in uncompromising release; and Jinpachi, catching light once more, what was lost already forgotten in a fierce kindling of urgency, excitement, vehemence, the heat of an ungoverned flame. Mikuro as well--strange to them but not so strange, his presence solid and unshakable, almost tangible, like a sun-warmed stone, an impenetrable shade, a landscape of barely tapped resources, a secret opening up to them. *

*Himself the medium, drawn thin, all those energies passing through him like lightning seeking a path to ground, atom by atom, a charge as wide as the field of sky and yet contained, channeled--*

*And the others, lacking power but not the longing, the wild need, life seeking its preservation: Shusulan a desperate incandescence, scintillating at ragged edges; Tamura resolute, stubborn, yet despite his grimness cheering, like a turn in a well-walked road leading to some familiar place; Hiragi making a forthright effort, pouring out all his concentration--and behind the rest, elusive but mysteriously omnipresent, as though entwined with the very air, a pulse as boundless as the perpetual round of seasons, as simple as the circular ripples rushing outward from a water drop's fall, a latent, dreaming potential, the essence of a Sahjaliann.*

*They are all moving into one now, wound together under Shion's direction and joining with the building energy field of the jump platform, a blindingly complex pattern woven in the contraction of a single heartbeat.*

*Light bursts around them as the interface is torn open, as they reach toward the Earth.*

*And they leap--*

 

* * * * *

 

Yakushimaru Hokuto jerked his head up, put his feet on the floor. He didn't know what had startled him. It was like waking right after someone had called for you to get up, and not remembering the exact sound of their voice or what they'd said. His mouth dry, he stared at the animated characters bouncing about on the TV screen, barely registering their movements, a familiar icy prickle creeping up his arms and along the back of his neck. It was like a scarcely perceptible breath of cold, an insubstantial reaching out from another world that he only ever felt around one person.

"Mikuro?"

 

* * * * *

 

Hajime couldn't stand it anymore. He was knotting his sneakers' laces when his mother came out of the kitchen, anxiety creasing her face, making her look older than she was. "Hajime?"

"I can't just wait around here!" Grabbing his jacket, he stuffed his arms into it, was still shrugging it on as he whipped out into the hall, pulling the door closed on his mother calling his name again, her voice a note higher, more urgent. He headed for the stairs, rather than the elevator, and went down them fast, the rapid-fire rhythm of his feet fitting his restless energy. He didn't want to worry his mother more than she already was, but sitting and doing nothing was driving him nuts. At least he could go for a run around the neighborhood, see if anything was out of the ordinary.

Alice was missing. The knowledge kept replaying itself inside his head. She'd been gone since the previous afternoon, although they hadn't realized it at the time. They still might not have known it, except that his mother had run into Suzihara-san at the market--they knew each other from some club or other--and it had immediately become apparent that Alice had not, in fact, spent the night at the Suzihara house, as she'd said she was going to.

Alice had /lied/ to them. That was what Hajime couldn't get over, the realization that had given him the first sinking feeling that something was going on under the surface, and probably had been for quite a while.

Rin was missing too, gone from his bedroom sometime the night before Alice had vanished, which was why Kobayashi-san was taking shelter in Hajime's mother's kitchen, the two women drinking tea and fretting and trying to stay calm for each other while waiting to hear some word out of the police. It didn't take a genius to make the connection. Had Alice found out that Rin was gone and set out in search of him? That was what Hajime's mother thought. It was likely enough--Alice did have that weird, almost compulsive sense of responsibility where the brat was concerned--but Hajime wondered. Could the two of them have met someplace and gone off /together?/ He'd gotten hold of the number of that guy who was always calling for Alice, but Ogura-kun had been out too, and the second time Hajime'd called he had managed to winkle out of Ogura-kun's mother that /he/ was supposedly staying over with a friend as well.

Coincidence? Somehow Hajime didn't think so.

His mental ramblings had carried him down the last stairs, through the apartment building's lobby, and out the back door. He paused on the concrete terrace, looking uncertainly up and down the street. In the distance, the park was a dark smudge against the streetlights, bare branches overlaid on each other until they blurred into one long, shadowy mass. The sight caught at him with an almost painful tug--that familiar, living place, the kind of place that he knew would call to Alice--and he lit out for it, started to run, clearing the short steps to the sidewalk in a single leap, putting all further thoughts from his mind except for one.

/Neechan./

/Where /are/ you?/

 

* * * * *

 

He's standing in the main hall, near the foot of the stairs, gazing at the plants that reach toward the skylights and the large window set in the Earthward-facing wall. There's a profusion of them in this room, stripped away only from narrow, makeshift paths: grasses and things like small palm trees and the more light-loving flowers, orchidlike blooms with long, feathery pistils, designed to catch airborne pollen in an insectless world. They /are/ beautiful, they fill some part of him--the child? the scientist?--with wonder and delight, but they disturb him, too.

He remembers those years alone, seeing them grow and spread, tearing at them sometimes in his frenzies, and then at the end just letting them go, watching them fill the rooms where there had once been moving, speaking, laughing, breathing people--people who had vanished into memory, leaving only him.

There had been times when he'd hated them, but nonetheless he'd clung to their green presence.

They had reminded him of Mokulen, of how she'd loved them, understood them, and how they had risen, yearning, to her song.

"What is it, Rin-kun?"

"Nothing," he lies past the constriction, the fist of knives inside his chest. Alice's steps are quiet, unhurried, any echo muffled as she drifts up, pauses at his side. "I was just thinking--these plants are survivors, aren't they?" He fingers the edge of a grass blade as wide as his hand, draws back abruptly. "I mean, they're /tough./ Look at the way they've adapted even to conditions like these: no soil, very little water, sometimes not even any light." His gaze sweeps the greenery, uneasily admiring. "The way they fight to stay alive, no matter what."

"I don't know if it's quite like that."

"Huh?" He glances up at her. Alice cocks her head as she considers the plants. Her hand lifts to rest on his shoulder as though unconsciously, her arm a sheltering curve that draws him nearer.

"When you say that they fight to live--for them, it doesn't feel like that. It's more that they leave themselves open to the possibility of life. And then, because they're so ready to live, they'll take any opportunity as a gift. A tiny crack is enough for a root hair to catch hold in. If all they have is a few drops of condensation, they'll be content with that." She smiles, wistful. "Life carries them, even when it seems impossible, because they're so much in service to it. Because they just are what they are. Nothing other than that."

He turns his head, buries his face in her side, his fingers curling into her sweater. He can feel the start of her breath, her hand on his shoulder half-rise, a bird arching its wings, hesitating on the verge of flight. "Rin-kun?"

/Oh, Alice!/ --he wants to live like that too, without fighting so hard, without always having to claw his way up from the shadows. He wants to be out in the sun somewhere, running, laughing, this place, all that old pain forgotten. But he just can't stop. He can't stop grabbing after everything that was denied him, can't stop shoving aside whatever stands between himself and happiness. The plan lays itself out in his mind once more, a single sweep clearing his world of hatred, danger, that enemy who's become so confusingly bound up with solace--but it's a respite that doesn't last, part of his own self-fulfilling prophecy, a brief, lying comfort that he'll destroy before it can be torn away again.

/This time, he won't lose./

Straightening, he tilts his head to smile at Alice, a smile that shows little of the ache that pulls at his face, that burns behind his eyes, the ghosts of unshed tears still waiting for a kiss.

"It's time, Alice," he tells her. "It's time to go home."

 

* * * * *

 

Somewhere between presence and absence, they find that their eyes are open. Or maybe it's one person's eyes through which they're all seeing. Joined as they are in the mental link, such distinctions mean little. The stars shine through bodies that don't exist in the physical world; they're a chain of constellations strung across the void, still clinging together, hand clasped in hand. Wonder and terror surge through them as they see the Earth's unfathomably vast, cloud-swirled curve rolling away beneath them, seemingly so close, and yet far out of reach. They struggle to hold to the interstice, to hover just outside existence while they spill like a slow rain of meteors toward the air. There's no wind through which they fall, no awareness of motion, only the sense of an already nearly unbearable tension, a pressure that, if they were in the normal universe, would surely verge on pain.

Suspended at that boundary, trying to stretch an impossibly drawn-out teleport even further, they begin to notice vibrations: scarcely comprehensible forces that their human perceptions translate into sound. There's a shrill thread of friction, the stress of bent and eluded space as it tries to crush the jump field's flux; a syncopated rhythm, nine pulses racing in intricate pattern, as though, in this in-between place, they had hearts to beat; a faint choir of brilliant, far-off tones that are sustained unceasingly, right at the very edge of hearing--<*the stars, the stars!*> although no one is quite sure who first thinks it--and below the rest, nearer but so dense as to be impenetrable, one solid note, a dark noise.

And as they reach forward, carried by a desperation that gropes after even one more kilometer, that tries to muster one last push to span the gap, a single heartbeat stutters in its cadence.

--<*don't fail now, no, don't fail us, don't let go!*>--

It falters once more, strained beyond endurance, <*and he is sorry, so sorry that he hasn't more to give them, that even now such grace has been denied.*> One consciousness flickers, starts to gutter out, the mental link fraying around its fading light, <*scattered threads of grief, loss, panic,*> and realization breaks like the dawn still long-hidden behind the Earth's horizon, <*can't do it, not going to make it, we're all going to die here*>--

--<*No.*>--

That low, dark tone rises, swells, lifts swiftly toward an unheralded climax, and they can hear that it's not one note but an infinitude: the music the clarinet dreams of, remembering the reed; the ardor of life quivering in struck and vibrant strings; the ringing of uncast bells, shimmering, liquid; the drumming within the stone--and more, too many to distinguish, and yet, behind those voices, just one soul. Singing, it soars to meet them and is answered, or perhaps is answering itself, replying to its own prayer, its own wish. It surrounds them like a thunder of wings, a huge outward rush as though a dropped stone has broken the surface of the endless black waters of space, and for an instant they can feel its power, sacred, immanent, and timeless, before the wave of song closes over them and carries them away.

 

* * * * *

 

Issei awoke lying on grass. Curling his fingers into the dry, shriveled blades, he lay still and stunned, then inhaled sharply, opening his eyes. A yellow-tinged twilight from distant streetlamps was falling around him, the shadows of the bare trees through which they shone striping the ground, in places overlapping to make tracks of deeper, wider darkness. Not the moon base, not vacuum of outer space, not anything that looked remotely like an afterlife--he pushed himself up on his arms and with immense relief saw the others: Shusulan on hands and knees not far from him, Hiragi unsteadily trying to help her rise, Alice tilting in a slow sideways fall--fainting?--as Jinpachi, partway to his feet, lunged to catch her. "/Alice!/" Shion bent over her as she half-lay against Jinpachi and brushed hair out of her face, the gesture tender and alarmed. A few steps from the rest, Haruhiko swayed between Tamura and Mikuro, held upright by their strong grip on his arms. His eyes blinked open, startled, his lips moving in a soundless question before he straightened, supporting his own weight, uncertainly at first, and then with greater confidence. He started to reach for his chest, hesitated, and let his hand fall, still with the wide-focused, astounded stare of someone who'd just found himself in the last place he'd expected to be. There was no sign of the clenching pain Issei remembered all too well from the mental link.

They'd made it back to Earth.

/They were alive./

Rolling over, Issei sat up, then realized the ground was cold. Getting to his feet, he dusted himself off as he glanced around. He thought he knew the neighborhood, despite the darkness and a lingering disorientation--it looked like a park not far from his school. He shivered, not entirely from the chill, as he wondered at how they'd crossed that last stretch of space. The memory of exactly what had happened was already starting to fade along with the effects of the mental link; he had a feeling that whatever the power that had touched them had been, it was more than a simple telepath like himself could ever hope to grasp alone.

<A miracle,> he thought, awed, watching Alice stumbling back toward consciousness, Jinpachi and Shion hovering defensively on either side of her. <Well, I'm not going to second-guess it. Sahjareem's blessing, or some strange ESPer synergy, or something else--I'm just glad that it happened.> Glad was too small a word; he felt a vibrancy, an electricity, as though everything had been given extraordinary new life, even the frost-nipped grass beneath his feet. He tilted his head back, felt the tingle of early winter in his lungs, on his face and hands, and he smiled at that blank, black sky, the last sliver of waning moon not yet risen.

<Now that I know what it's like to have no future in this life, to be faced with dying again--living it for myself feels more important than ever.>

"/Alice!/" A dark-haired boy came hurtling up the shallow slope between the trees, just as Jinpachi was lifting Alice to her feet. Issei felt a twinge of power and glanced aside to see deeper shade where Mikuro, Tamura, and Haruhiko had been: an ESPer trick of light through which he could dimly sense those three making a strategic retreat. Looking the other way, he met Hiragi's eyes. Hiragi nodded and grabbed his backpack from the ground, wordlessly urging Shusulan to do the same, before drawing her quietly and swiftly into a bank of shrubbery. Shusulan caught Issei's gaze, and he felt worry, her uncertainty--he flashed her a quick smile before she was pulled out of sight among the branches, then turned reluctantly back toward the rest. Jinpachi was making a desperate attempt to put some normal spin on the situation, not helped by a groggy, thoroughly incoherent Alice. The boy looked from one to the other in disbelief and frank suspicion. Below that exchange, partly concealed from the boy's view by Alice's skirt, to which he was clinging like any other small child, Shion was silent, seemed unusually subdued. He glanced at Issei, and it was like a shutter opening to a ray of light: a question Issei heard quite clearly, as though it was spoken inside him.

<**You won't tell?**>

Issei blinked, then remembered their burst of mental synch back on the moon base, that glimpse into Shion's fierce vindictiveness and anguish. It seemed like another world--it had been, he realized. Everything was different now, or could be, if they'd just let it. Gently he answered, <*no,*> and felt the lift in Shion's spirits, a pure, unfeigned relief and the admission that slipped out with it, softer than the question, involuntary, but all the more honest for that:

<*Good.*>

<*I was wrong.*>

The contact dimmed as Shion's attention shifted away from him, but Issei could still sense a subtle connection. He was sensitive to the others, too, now that he was thinking about it; even the ones who'd left felt present in some indefinable way. Was it the mental link, he wondered--had fusing them all so completely left some trace of that bond behind in him? He touched fingertips to his heart, brushed them against his temple, uncertain, then bowed his head, overcoming that disquiet.

If being open to his friends and fellow travelers was the price he'd have to pay for all their lives, he'd gotten off easily.

Raising his head, he smiled once more, then sighed and started forward to help Jinpachi get extricated from an increasingly tangled and improbable explanation.

 

* * * * *

 

The moon rose at last, shortly before dawn, a pale, barely present curve just visible through the gap in the curtains. From his bed, Rin watched it appear, still wakeful at the tail end of tearful reunions and frantic questions--most of which he hadn't actually had to be present for, his mother having hustled him off at the first opportunity, in some desperate attempt at a return to normalcy, but he'd followed the whole thing clairvoyantly until everyone had wound down, the grown-ups no wiser than before, and Alice had been released to go to her room. He'd closed himself off then, shutting out the sight of her unrolling her futon, getting out her nightgown, and he was alone once more.

No. Not really alone.

And as he gazed at the moon, it was just an orbiting satellite of the Earth, a chalk smudge against the night sky, no longer a prison even of his thoughts. He felt again that quietly amazing release, the gift of second chances. The past couldn't be erased, but at least he hadn't compounded its horrors with the wrong of cold, deliberate murder.

It was one thing to try to kill someone in a fight, in the passions of anger or fear. But /that/--

Whether they deserved it or not, whether he hated them or not--in the end it was irrelevant. He'd chosen for himself, and not for them. And having saved himself after all, having found the limits of his fall, maybe the way was open for him to become the person he wanted to be, rather than the person he'd been made.

Thinking about the future, he turned onto his side, pulling the covers up to his chin.

Soon, he fell asleep.

 

 


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