Ready or Not...
rating: +19+x

2021


January

Site-79: Yumegēmu, Tokushima, Japan


The air was still, and the light was strange. It was late afternoon, but the sky was black, and the landscape was… fuzzy. Unclear. The roar of the departing helicopter was muted; he glanced up at it, and swore that in the moment before it vanished into the low cloud cover its rotors became a solid disc.

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I didn't think the nexus reached as far as the Site.

Allan J. McInnis examined Site-79: a sheer rectangle, ten storeys tall, peppered with windows. The windows were dark. A single door gleamed at the end of the walkway which began at his feet, at the edge of the helipad. The gleam diffused, and he realized someone had exited the building; the gleam vanished, and he realized that someone had closed the door.

"Director McInnis?" The dim landing lamps revealed the other man as a Foundation agent. "Chief Kuroki, security." The chief was a well-built, fairly tall Japanese man with no hair and a no-nonsense expression.

They shook hands. "Pleased to meet you," said McInnis. "Where did all the light go?"

Kuroki shrugged. "Some nexuses are like bad weather, no telling what they're gonna do. You know how it is." McInnis did know; Site-43 was itself in the middle of a nexus, an area of high sustained anomalous activity. Every one was different.

Every one was dangerous.

"It doesn't usually reach us," Kuroki continued. "But there's no predicting a genius loci." Nx-58 was unique; it was simultaneously video game and dream logic themed, and nobody knew why.

They headed through the gloom to the door. There was a keypad set into the brick wall; Kuroki typed in a long numeric code, and there was a click. He smiled apologetically at McInnis. "If you'll loan me the password, sir, I'll use it to set the lock."

McInnis raised an eyebrow. "I'm supposed to give the password to the double agent. Did something change while I was in transit?"

Kuroki nodded. "We're not hunting moles anymore; the mole is hunting us. I'll explain once we're inside."

McInnis could read expressions very well; Kuroki looked determined, but honest. "Very well." He leaned down and whispered the password in the chief's ear.

Kuroki tapped up a storm on the keypad, and there was a low beep. He opened the door. "After you, sir." He gestured into the darkness.

It was very dark. McInnis stepped onto the limin of the sheer wall of black, and had just enough time to realize his mistake before Kuroki pushed him through and slammed the door behind him.

He took a deep, steadying breath, then exhaled. "Well," he said. "Damn." He forced himself to close his eyes; it could take up to half an hour to acquire proper low-light vision, and the sooner —

There was a flash against his eyelids, and he opened them. The space he was standing in was still an undifferentiated shade of pitch, but a series of glowing words and symbols now filled his vision. He tilted his head from side to side; the marquee was two-dimensional, like a television screen display.

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"Excellent," he announced flatly. "What could be better."

He committed the unfamiliar company name to memory just in time for it to wink out of existence. He heard the wasps-against-glass tinkling of fluorescents sparking to life, and a greyish light filled what was now recognizably a waiting room: four walls lined with chairs and tables, a security checkpoint with a glass screen, a closed door with a placard reading MENU, and various pieces of furniture in a shocking state of disrepair. The chair cushions were rotted, and the tables were caked with grime. There was rust in the air, and he had to fight the urge to hold his breath.

The floor was covered in what looked like tiny leaves: brown, wrinkled, and alternately dried or moldy. They crinkled and squished beneath his shoes as he walked to the nearest doorway and peered out at the seemingly endless maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

"Hide and Seek," he muttered.

"Guess which part we play," a tired voice behind him muttered back.


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"How long has this been going on?" McInnis whispered, as they crept into the barren staff room. He carefully shut the door, the one labelled MENU, behind them.

The haggard, unshaven, still bald security chief shook his head. "Days. Weeks? Don't know. Time doesn't pass when he's not around." Kuroki grabbed up a backpack from a mouldering couch.

"When who's not around?"

Kuroki withdrew a crude model of a handgun from the pack. "If you're in here, you met him already."

McInnis sighed. "He looked like you."

Kuroki nodded. "He wasn't me. I don't know who he is, but…" He gestured at the desolation around them. "This is his dream. Or his game. Or both."

"I thought the Site was a safe distance from the nexus."

Kuroki was examining the gun model carefully. "It is. Whatever's going on, it's not just Yumegēmu doing it." The town of Yumegēmu was coterminous with Nx-58, much as Sloth's Pit, Wisconsin was with Nx-18.

McInnis noticed a single newspaper article pinned to a bulletin board, and walked over to look at it. A date — 1981/05/22 — was scrawled in the margin in red pen.

Toyomachi Entrepreneur Secures

Investment Capital

Toyomachi native Shinoda Souma has always wanted to make video games, but he never had the time, the technology, or the money. After ten years of rigorous service with the Special Forces Group, however, he finally has all three.

"Opening up my own studio in my hometown is the best decision I've ever made," he beams. "I was proud to serve my country, but I'm ready to put military life behind me and do something creative. To add something to our culture, instead of just protecting it." Souma believes that video games are Japan's most important contribution to world media today, and he's got plans for his fledgling company. He's risking it all on this venture, having secured a substantial sum of investment capital from an anonymous silent partner.

"Togenkyo is my dream," he explains. "I'm going to start small, but once I've got the skills and a reputation I want to really test the boundaries of the medium. I have this idea for a role-playing ga

The words were changing even as he read them. Synonyms tagged in and out at random. The grammatical structure flexed and twisted. Before he could finish reading, the characters were all Japanese. A moment later the scrap of paper was blank.

"Bizarre," he whispered.

Kuroki walked up beside him as the paper disappeared, now wearing an expensive-looking MTF headset. "You set up for wireless?"

McInnis nodded, tapping his right ear. "High security band seven."

Kuroki turned a dial on the side of his headset, turned away, and whispered "Can you hear me?" McInnis heard it loud and clear, and whispered back "Yes."

Kuroki turned back to face him. "Not really into British ASMR, but it's better than him hearing us." Kuroki tapped the bulletin board; McInnis saw that what had once been cork was now a flat brown slab. He reached out to touch it, feeling the cold smoothness of polished stone.

"Time to get going," said Kuroki. He walked into the adjoining office; McInnis followed him, noting that the door was labelled SETTINGS.

This room was sparsely furnished: a computer terminal on a dusty desk, no chair. Kuroki leaned on the desk, and McInnis noted that the dust was not disturbed by his hand. McInnis was disturbed by this. The terminal was working, however, and what it displayed was simple enough.

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Kuroki looked hopeful. "Think we can shut this mess down?"

McInnis tapped the arrow keys, counting the spaces. Forty-one. Well well well. He shook his head. "It's definitely the password, but your doppelganger took it. He was obviously prepared for this."

Kuroki grimaced. "Then we've got a long trip ahead of us. I hope you're a hiker."

"I was in the swimming club at Eton. But where are we going? I can just call in on my transmitter, and get the second password."

"We're going to the comm centre," said Kuroki. "Because your transmitter won't work."

McInnis bristled. "Of course it will work. Why wouldn't it work? It was designed by my two best engineers."

"These engineers," said Kuroki. "They magic? They magic engineers?"

"No, but—"

"Won't work," Kuroki grunted. He looked down at the desk; he lifted his hand, and examined it. There was no dust on his skin. He examined his gun again; it was no longer recognizable as such. It looked like two black rectangles stuck together at an angle. "We need to move. Now."


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The hallway beyond the foyer was darker than it had been when he'd looked just minutes prior, and he realized he could no longer hear the hum of the lights or air cycling in the vents. Kuroki had produced a pair of flashlights, and as they made their way toward the main office block McInnis marvelled at the complete lack of particulate matter floating in the beams.

"We're moving away from him, aren't we?" he asked softly.

"Yes." Kuroki kept his eyes fixed forward. "The farther we get from him, the hazier the details become. I think he needs to concentrate on the setting, to make it real." He showed McInnis the gun; it now resembled an L-shaped Tetris block. "If this thing starts looking like it can shoot real bullets, you need to start running."

Kuroki claimed the gun contained three bullets; he also claimed to have hit their mysterious foe with the other fourteen, to little or no effect. He further claimed not to know what had happened to the rest of the Site personnel, or whether this actually was the real Site anymore, or what the purpose of the game might be. He was, however, quite well-versed in its mechanics.

McInnis peered into the murk; the beams only penetrated so far. "What's the danger in getting too far away from him? I presume that's why we're in such a hurry."

They reached a door marked, more sanely, OFFICES. Kuroki tried the handle, but there was no action at all. He leaned back, and kicked it open; a few unlikely shards of plaster fell to the floor, fell through the floor, and vanished. "Things stop working," he explained. "Lose enough detail, and doors stop being doors."

"Could that happen to us?" They flashed their lights into the cavernous space beyond.

"No." Kuroki set his mouth in a grim line. "He's not imagining us. And anyway, they'd get to you first."

"They?"

Kuroki jerked a thumb over his shoulder. McInnis shone his light back down the hall…

…illuminating, in the far distance, a spray of white pinpricks floating in the air. He was seeing reflections from a sea of eyes, eyes set into the skulls of pale white figures shuffling back and forth at the edge of the light's reach.

Dozens of them.

"Gameplay mechanism," Kuroki spat. "The edge of the functional space is full of those fuckers, and they're not friendly. Keep your enemy close, but not too close."

Once they were both in the office block, McInnis shut the door firmly. The lock clicked.


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"Why do you think the comm center will be any better?" McInnis wasn't sure they should be whispering at each other, no matter how silently, but there was something oppressive about the endless expanse of flat-shaded cubicles.

"Video game logic. If you need to place a call, you need to go somewhere specifically designed for placing calls. Everything else won't work. Phone lines will be cut, cell phones will have no reception, et cetera." They passed a cubicle with a single yellow Post-it Note, blank, stuck to the side. "As long as the destination is reasonably distant —and this one is — and we encounter resistance along the way — and we probably will — success is virtually guaranteed."

Virtually. McInnis frowned. "What kind of resistance are you expecting?"

Kuroki didn't respond.

"Kuroki? What kind of resist—" He noticed the look on the chief's face, and what it was directed towards. There was a scrap of paper on the carpet in front of them; McInnis knelt down to look at it. Another newspaper article, dated in the same manner as the first: 2000/02/19.

Togenkyo:

Under New Management

The silent partner is silent no longer. After an emergency executive meeting Friday, Togenkyo chairman Shinoda Souma has been stripped of his position. He's been under fire for years due to the ballooning production costs and ultimate commercial failure of Ikigai, the role-playing game he'd dreamed of making since the company's foundation in the 1980s. That foundation was built on investment capital, and the investors have finally called in the debt. They demanded his ouster, and lacking the cash to make the problem go away, the board acceded.

While Shinoda is expected to remain as lead designer at the company he created under the new regime, an anonymous source at Togenkyo claims that the majority shareholder has "big plans" for the sleepy backwater of Toyomachi. Vast swathes of real estate have been gobbled up, and the town has been re-branded in an effort to make it a Mecca of Japanese game development. The mysterious new owners have tentatively renamed it "Yumegēmu," suggesting at a foreign connection; they might want to pick a name that actually makes sense in Japanese if they want to blend in better.

As he finished reading, he could actually see the ink shining in the flashlight beam. He noticed the fibres in the carpet for the first time, saw tiny lines of colour wind and unwind through them, and tasted a sudden burst of dust in the air. He glanced at Kuroki's belt, and saw a gleaming new Glock 17 hanging from it.

He stood up. Kuroki was looking over the edge of the nearest cubicle; it now had a desk and chair in it.

Then there was a computer on the desk.

Then there was a—

"Run," Kuroki whispered.


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They flew through the solidifying offices, rust and rot shredding the desks and cubicles all around them, flakes of orange dust peppering the floor tiles, granular and crunchy underfoot, smearing into the substrata of mouldering plant matter. What is that plant matter? They heard for the first time a steady thrumming of unseen machinery in the unseen ceiling, fan blades slicing the air in invisible vents. Dustmotes danced crazily in their flashlight beams, which finally revealed a wall and a closed door ahead.

McInnis ran faster and faster, heavy footfalls behind him, Kuroki's terrified face to once side. He stole a glance back at their pursuer and saw a thin male figure wrapped in white linen, a vast pike with a nasty glinting blade over its shoulder — flakes of something soft and pink tumbled from the edge like rain — and a high-tech cyclopean visor painting them one after the other with a shaft of cold white light. He looked where they were running again, and saw the white light fall on the door. It sharpened, clarified, became more obviously real as the apparition's attention fell over it.

Kuroki struck it, McInnis threw it open, and they flung themselves into the stairwell.


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They were supposed to be heading up, so by wordless agreement they headed down instead. One flight below, flashlights off, they waited breathlessly for the sound of the door reopening; in tune with the blood hammering in their ears, they heard their nemesis rushing up the stairs above them. They stood stock still in the dark, clutching the railing as their only link to the real world, while the padding footsteps faded gradually away.

They flicked their flashlights back on. Detail was already leeching out of the environment, but McInnis noticed a file folder under Kuroki's boots. There was a single sheet of paper inside, brightly coloured. The text flickered between English and Japanese, so it took McInnis a few moments to read it all.

Imperial Japanese Anomalous Matters Examination Agency

Record of Dismissal: Agent Tsunoda Yori

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Tsunoda Yori, Kitsunetsuki, is found incapable of continuing to serve the Empire in his capacity as an Agent of IJAMEA. Internal assessment of Agent Tsunoda suggests that the events of Operation Shippai resulted in irreparable psychological and emotional damage. As his abilities make amnesticization impossible and neutralization undesirable, he is to be placed into a reserve capacity and allowed, under monitoring, to resume civilian life.

He handed it to Kuroki. "Kitsunetsuki?"

Kuroki glanced at the sheet, which was now entirely covered in Japanese characters, and rolled his eyes. "Folkloric term. IJAMEA uses it for some reality benders."

McInnis nodded. "They didn't know how to take it out of him, and they didn't know if they might need it some day, so they let him go. Under watch. Do you think…" He pointed up the stairs. "Do you think that's him?"

Kuroki shrugged. "Makes as much sense as anything else."

McInnis stared at the paper, begging it to explain itself. "I wonder what it means. What all these files are even doing here."

"Files…" Kuroki slapped his forehead. "Of cou—"

The sound of a door opening and closing somewhere above them cut him off, signalling the creature's exit from the stair well. It was safe to ascend again. In fact… McInnis peered at the next landing below them, and saw pale white figures detaching themselves from the pale white concrete walls. They peered back up at him with blank expectancy.

Kuroki crumpled up the now-blank sheet, and tossed it down the stairs. The figures ignored it. "Come on."

"He doesn't seem to be in a great tearing hurry," McInnis remarked as they crept steadily upward.

Kuroki's brow furrowed. "He was even slower before you came. But he doesn't need to be in a hurry; this is his dream. And he doesn't want to be; this is his game."

McInnis remembered telling Sokolsky that he didn't know anything about video games, and felt an unaccustomed rush of ire. "I don't suppose you know what genre this is?"

Kuroki looked thoughtful. "Until a few moments ago, I thought it was straight survival. I was hoarding food, collecting supplies, staking out places to rest and heal. It never occurred to me that I wasn't really getting hungry, or tired." He looked haunted. "In retrospect, I think it's actually survival horror."

McInnis shrugged. "What's the difference?"

Kuroki actually smiled, though his eyes were still wild and hollow. "You don't sleep, and you don't eat. You set up saferooms, manage your routes, solve puzzles… and read backstory in conveniently-placed files."

"Ah." McInnis rubbed his neck. "Do you think he knows the files are here?"

"I think they're from his subconscious. However he's doing this, it's equal parts game and dream. If we're very, very lucky, there might be something in those files we can use."

"And if there isn't?"

Kuroki looked grim again. "I don't know much about fighting games, but I don't see us giving much trouble to an ex-IJAMEA agent with a naginata."


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"How much further?" McInnis asked, as they mounted yet another landing.

Kuroki glanced at a fuzzy placard on the wall. "Comm centre is top floor, so… twenty minutes."

McInnis stopped walking and pointed at the placard. "Seventh floor. There's only ten."

Kuroki nodded, gesturing up the stairs. "Yeah, but we're gonna need to take the elevator."

The word 'why' died on McInnis' lips as he shone his light up the stairs and saw that the next landing was completely blocked off by a pile of rubble and broken filing cabinets.

"Video games," said Kuroki. "The straight approach never works."

McInnis walked back to the landing, and tried the door. The handle moved, but the door wouldn't budge. "Fantastic. Did you know this was going to happen?"

Kuroki shrugged. "I had a pretty good idea."

"Will the elevator be working?"

"Almost certainly not. We'll probably have to find the electrical control centre."

"And that'll be up here somewhere?"

"No, it'll be on the first floor. Or in the basement."

This time McInnis actually reached out to grab the chief's shoulder. "Then why on Earth did we walk all the way up here?"

"Because we had to see this. Whichever route we took first was always going to be blocked; we just collapsed the waveform. If we'd tried the elevator, odds are it would've had power, but it would've also malfunctioned halfway up. I'd much rather a busted stairwell than a plummeting elevator. I'm only guessing we'll need to turn it on, but it's an educated guess. And the power room probably didn't even exist until we found this mess, since we'd have had no reason to go looking for it."

McInnis tried not to huff. "That doesn't even sound like video game logic. I've seen enough video games in the old Arcadia files to know that they at least make gestures towards logic and continuity."

Kuroki smiled thinly. "Survival horror doesn't always. Dreams don't ever."

They stood there for a moment, staring at each other. Then they headed back down the stairs.


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They'd just reached the fourth floor landing when they heard it: the shrill shriek of an unlubricated hinge, from somewhere below them. Wordlessly they exited the stairwell into a hall of glassed-in offices.

They walked in silence, attempting a sort of feline tread, wincing every time their shoes squeaked on the linoleum tiles. McInnis felt his leg muscles ache with the effort to not break into a run. He noticed the deep bags beneath Kuroki's eyes, and wondered whether the man really hadn't needed sleep or whether he'd simple decided he couldn't afford it. The image of Kuroki passed out in some dark corner while the white-wrapped spectre stalked the halls for him sent involuntary shivers down McInnis' spine.

They didn't hear the whine of another door swinging open and shut, so it took them a moment to realize what was happening. The incessant buzzing of tension in McInnis' skull blended so seamlessly with the rising hum of the air conditioner that he didn't even notice the difference. The gloom seemed to deepen, and he realized far too late that it had taken on definition. The space in front of them had been flat black before, but now their flashlights cast shadows with character and dynamism. The gun on Kuroki's belt was…

…Kuroki was running, and so was he. They were operating on pure animal instinct. Though their now-heavy footfalls resounded through the hall, McInnis could distinctly hear the rustling of bandages behind them. He glanced over his shoulder, which he knew he shouldn't do; the eerie figure in white, his searching electronic eye, the petals they're petals falling from his glinting weapon.

The floor was slick, and they both nearly slipped and fell. The rotten matter that carpeted the entire Site was now alive and vibrant, the same pink blossoms their pursuer was somehow generating.

A branching path ahead: a door, and an open stairwell. McInnis headed for the latter, but Kuroki grabbed him in mid-run and steered him for the door. "Veer left," Kuroki hissed. "He'll chase me."

They burst through the door, and the chief slammed it shut hard behind them. McInnis turned left and ran pell-mell down this new, sweet-smelling office corridor. What was that smell?

The door slammed open again with a shattering BANG and CRUNCH, and McInnis chanced another look back. The door had struck the wall and bounced back, obscuring his view of both Kuroki and their opponent.

So it will chase him, because it won't even see me. Fast thinking, chief.

A wooden office door lay across the hall ahead, next to an open elevator shaft. The wood was rotten, the glass was cracked; the hinges had rusted away. He ducked into the empty doorway and skidded to a stop in the middle of the room, colliding roughly with a paper-strewn desk and knocking the contents to the floor with a soft rustling sound. The papers drifted across the office in the breeze provided by a metal desk fan, which had suddenly—

No.

The whole world sharpened, came into focus as he heard the footsteps in the hallway and the sound of metal scraping against plaster.

No no no.

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