Chapter 2: A Stranger in His Own Home
Enzan opened his eyes slowly. The ceiling above him was covered with long shadows, and the light wasn’t as strong as it had been that morning. Enzan wondered briefly how long he had been sleeping to cause such a drastic change in the light source. Then he wondered if he was still trapped in the nightmare he had been having.
The voice of the speaker immediately answered Enzan’s question. With a sigh, he sat up.
Rockman smiled slightly. “Do you feel better, Enzan-sama?”
“Yes,” Enzan replied. It was halfway true. His head felt clearer and his body was full of energy. However, the knowledge that he was still here, with Hikari’s navi calling him “Enzan-sama,” Hikari’s scary mother breathing down his neck, and wearing what had to be Hikari’s pajamas unnerved him and dampened his mood. “Rockman,” Enzan said. “What time is it?”
“It is 3:30 in the afternoon,” Rockman replied promptly. “Your mother left the medicine on the desk as you requested, if you still feel the need for it.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. How long was I asleep?” Enzan asked.
“Approximately ten and a half hours, Enzan-sama,” Rockman said immediately.
Enzan rubbed his eyes. He had wasted the entire day sleeping. His father had drilled into him that laziness meant the loss of precious hours, hours that could be used to conduct business. It was one of the few things that his father had taken the time to teach him. Enzan sat up and climbed out of bed, dismissing his memories before they could cloud his judgment. He looked around the room, taking in his surroundings again.
“Rockman, tell me what day it is,” he said as he headed for the closet.
“It is Thursday,” Rockman answered.
He shifted through the clothing, boxes, and dusty books in the closet. The day was what he could remember; making the possibility of this being a dream less and less, a conclusion he had reached earlier but had been reluctant to accept. That only meant that Enzan had to consider other theories, but at the moment, he couldn’t think of any. He wasn’t panicking yet. That could wait until he was completely awake.
“Enzan-sama?” Rockman called.
“What?” Enzan said irritably.
“W-What are you looking for?”
Enzan paused and looked back at the navi. Rockman was cringing and staring at down again. The slightest unpleasant inflection in his master’s voice sent the blue navi shaking, and Enzan made a note to treat Rockman carefully from now on. “I’m looking for my clothes,” he said, trying to make his voice gentle.
Rockman eyed him. Enzan got the feeling his change in tone had only made the navi suspicious. “They’re under your bed, Enzan-sama, where they always are.”
Enzan thought Rockman had put some emphasis on the word “always,” but the navi’s face was blank.
So even he knows that I’m lost in what’s supposed to be my own room, Enzan realized. He went to the bed without a word and knelt by it. He pushed his blankets aside, revealing drawers. Enzan had no doubt that they contained clothes, just as Rockman had said.
“Rockman, tell me what’s going on for the rest of the day,” Enzan said a he rummaged through the drawers. Fortunately, the clothes in them were in styles he preferred, not anything like that silly bright vest Hikari Netto wore all the time. Enzan picked out some clothes identical to the ones he usually wore. They were well taken care of, but worn, and his camouflage pants had frayed cuffs.
So my observations about the pajamas last night can also be applied to the rest of these clothes, Enzan thought, frowning. He dressed quickly, putting on the clothes by memory as his mind raced. But that doesn’t make sense. Hikari may not be the son of a rich man, but with the job his father has, his family should be well off. Why would these clothes be so worn, if I have indeed taken Hikari’s place?
“You have nothing scheduled for today, Enzan-sama. Your mother wished me to tell you that she has made you both lunch and dinner,” Rockman said, interrupting his thoughts. “They are waiting downstairs in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, Rockman,” Enzan said politely. “I am hungry.” He unplugged the PET from the charger and walked toward the bedroom door. He paused by the closet, reached in, and pulled out a red vest. Feeling more like himself, he made his way downstairs, moving slowly to take in his surroundings. He caught glimpses of rooms through half closed doors, but there were more closed doors than open ones, and Enzan wondered how to explore the house without making Rockman suspicious.
Fortunately, downstairs was less confusing, consisting of a living room at the bottom of the stairs. Enzan could easily see the kitchen from the living room. This isn’t a very big house, he thought. Maybe Hikari isn’t as well off as I thought he was.
He walked into the kitchen and found that it was larger than he thought it would be. Sitting on the table was a lacquered box. The wood it was made from was stained dark, and there was a simple flower design on the lid.
“An obentou!” Enzan said with surprise, studying the lunch box.
“Yes, Enzan-sama,” Rockman said. “That is your lunch. Your dinner is in the refrigerator.”
“Where is Hi—my mother?” Enzan asked, looking around. He had seen no sign of the woman, something he was grateful for, but it never hurt to know whether or not she would show up without warning. He had barely recovered from her last appearance.
“Your mother is at her job,” Rockman replied. He no longer seemed surprised by Enzan’s ignorant questioning. Enzan wondered if it was because the navi had decided to deal with them, or if he had adjusted to answering them without showing his surprise.
“Her job?” he repeated. That’s funny, he thought. I could have sworn Hikari’s mother didn’t work. She wouldn’t have to, with the money her husband makes.
“Yes, Enzan-sama,” Rockman said. “Her job.”
This time the emphasis was definitely noticeable, but Enzan ignored the urge to glare at Rockman. He sat down at the table, propping up Rockman’s PET next to him by instinct, and opened the lunch box. Neatly packed in it was a good-sized portion of food. Enzan’s stomach growled as his eyes took in the sight, and he reached for the chopsticks without hesitating.
Rockman clapped his hands sharply.
Enzan rolled his eyes, but pressed his hands together as well. “Itadakimasu,” he said, making a pained face. Even if the navi feared him, Rockman didn’t hesitate to remind Enzan to say the traditional polite phrase before eating his meal.
Why does Rockman fear me? Enzan found himself wondering as he dug into his rice. He had given the navi no reason to show such fear, yet Rockman nearly quivered in his boots whenever Enzan spoke. It was odd, for the Rockman he knew was confidant, and had never shown fear in the face of battle. Why would the navi be so different now? Could it have anything to do with that punishment he mentioned? Enzan wondered. That didn’t make any sense either, Rockman volunteering to punish himself just for something he said. Nothing made sense anymore.
Everything was so different here, wherever here was. Enzan had already ruled the dream theory out, and sudden transportation to a parallel world was too farfetched. As long as he kept it simple, he could reasonably figure this out. The problem was, he had nothing to go on. No one else seemed to remember the way things should be. Why?
His eyes drifted around the kitchen, coming to rest on a picture frame. He suddenly dropped his chopsticks and got up from the table, ignoring Rockman’s alarmed questions about his actions. He picked the picture frame up and stared at the photo inside. Staring back at him was Hikari Yuuichirou, Hikari Haruka, and… himself. He was in the picture too, with Hikari’s father leaning an arm on his shoulder. He was smiling, and his eyes were shining happily.
When was the last time I smiled like that? Enzan wondered. He couldn’t remember. His life was so full of the stress of being the vice president of a company, and his spare time was spent practicing netbattling until he nearly dropped with exhaustion. He never had time to be that happy.
The picture looked like it wasn’t more than a year old. I can’t do this on my own, Enzan thought as he set the picture down. I need Rockman’s help, even if he won’t believe me. Otherwise, I’ll never find my way home.
“Rockman,” he said, turning around.
Enzan started to say something; then he paused. His body had satisfied its hunger, and now he found another essential need had arisen. “I… um…” Enzan stammered. He couldn’t last much longer; he had to spit it out. “Where’s the toilet?”
… … …
The man wearing the black suit walked down the halls undisturbed. He was noticed by all who passed him, but they made obvious efforts to avoid him. The ordinary workers knew all about the black suits. If you ever crossed one, you would disappear, like you had never existed. If anyone protested, they would disappear too. Rumor had it that they became part of the project in the other part of the building, a part that only the black suits could access. No one knew what the project was, but the rumor stated anyone who became subject in the project would come out as something other than human, if they came out at all.
If you listened to rumor, the world would cease to exist, thought the man in the black suit.
Yet the workers had good reason to fear the black suits and the experiment the large building housed. The machines used to power the experiment needed the workers to run them, but there were plenty of people looking for work in the economic slump that had befallen the world lately. All the machines needed were people smart enough to run them, but not smart enough to figure out what their purpose. That was an easy task, for not even the Net Agent in disguise had figured out what the machines were for.
The disguised Net Agent slipped into a room that had been carefully made to look like an extra storage room. In the corner was a box which said Human Waste Disposal Cleaner on the side. The man in the black suit, the Net Agent’s disguise, had pointed out that such a product didn’t exist, but the other Net Agents had argued it would make others avoid it.
It didn’t make the situation any less humiliating.
The man carefully pulled at something on his neck. For a moment, it resisted, but then the mask came off smoothly, revealing dark hair held back by braids, large and watchful eyes, and a face which was too feminine to belong to a male. The “man” rubbed her face carefully. The last time she had removed the mask, it had taken half her skin with it. This time it had come off cleanly, but there was no harm in checking.
She pressed a button on the side of the box, and it unfolded to reveal the communications device. A light was blinking, indicating that contact had already been made. She quickly connected the audio, angry with herself for keeping her partner waiting.
“Agent Black, what is your status?”
“Very funny,” Miyuki said dryly, adjusting the connection. “I didn’t intend on being late.”
“I realize that,” Saloma’s voice replied.
Miyuki couldn’t risk making a visual communication in fear of the signal being detected, but she could sense Saloma’s emotions through her voice. “What happened?” she asked, feeling a cold sensation spread through her body. It was something bad, she could sense.
“The more we uncover about this new organization, the worse it gets,” Saloma replied. “I’ll fill you in on the details when things calm down, but they’ve made two separate attacks on the Science Labs mainframe in unison.”
“Our defenses weren’t expecting that, and they took heavy casualties,” Miyuki finished.
“Yes. Several custom net navis were deleted, and their remaining irreplaceable data was stolen,” Saloma said. She sighed, the sound carrying loudly over the communication device. “They did not break into the mainframe, but they came very close, and now our defenses are cut in half.”
“Could it have anything to do with the project?” Miyuki asked, rubbing her hands. She missed holding her crystal ball. It helped her make her predictions only in distracting her customers, but its presence was comforting and it added to her preferred image.
“That was what we were hoping you could tell us,” Saloma replied.
Miyuki sighed. “They keep the project under such close wraps; even those in the inner circle to the project are only fed bits of information. All I know is how things are going inside of it, and how the ‘subject’ is doing, as they refer to him.”
“The poor kid,” Saloma said softly, her voice immediately sympathetic. “Imagine being trapped in something like that.”
“Well, whatever its purpose is, I won’t find it out at the pace I’m going,” Miyuki replied. “We may have to depend on the subject to figure it out for himself.”
“He has a name, Miyuki,” Saloma said sharply.
“In this place, names are dangerous,” Miyuki said quietly. “The wrong one will get you killed, if you’re not careful. For his sake, we had better keep his name out of this.”
“True,” Saloma said softly. “Well, I’ll contact you once we get more information.”
“And I’ll contact you if I find out anything more,” Miyuki replied. She shut the machine off without saying good-bye. She had heard something outside the door.
Getting her disguise back on went quickly, as if had been designed to, and she hid the device. The doorknob rattled, and Miyuki tried to find a place to hide.
The janitor, an old man known to his fellow workers only as Honda, opened the door, only to stop in surprise. A man in a black suit was standing in the middle of the storage room. Honda froze, remembering the warning his superiors had told him about the ones who wore the black suits.
“I was looking for the lab room,” the man said stiffly. There was a device in Miyuki’s mask that automatically deepened her voice, and she was grateful for it. If she had to fake a deeper voice, she didn’t think she could last a day.
“Of course,” Honda said nervously, bowing. “Y-You won’t find that room here.”
“I realize that,” Miyuki said coldly as she walked passed the man. Inwardly, she wanted to comfort him. His shaking reminded her uncomfortably of her own hidden fears.
Author’s notes: An obentou is a lunch box, in case that wasn’t clear. Itadakimasu is a polite phrase that is always said before a meal and is very, very hard to translate. My dictionary translates it as “I am about to partake (In a meal),” which is another example as to why my dictionary should be burned for its written stupidity. “Agent Black” is a play on Miyuki’s last name, Kuroi, which is Japanese for black.