Chapter One: Counterpoint

I still didn’t know what was going on. I remembered walking through night-markets in Shinjuku, eating fried octopus and watching neon lights ripple in the air over thousands of crowded locals and tourists alike. I remembered seeing a light, intense and enormous, then hearing screams and the pounding of feet on pavement. I remembered waking up in this room.

There were others, maybe a few hundred. No one had talked me or answered my questions. Not even when I had yelled or beat my hands against grey walls until my fists bruised and bled. The others had just sat and watched, twirled the ends of their sashes in their hands or laid back on beds protruding from the floor. I became accustomed to silence.

Several more newcomers had appeared in the room since I first woke up. I hadn’t seen them arrive. How was that possible? They must have arrived while I was sleeping, awoken to their new reality just like I had. Each arrival wore similar clothes—white, loose fitting but durable robes, like a uniform or a gi from a martial arts studio, cinched by different coloured sashes. I counted four: blue, red, green, purple. To pass the time, I tried to find patterns, segment the colours between girls and boys, by age, by hair and skin colour, by height or weight. I’d always been good at patterns, but I saw nothing.

Nothing made sense. I would have gone crazy if not for the chimes. One for a meal, two for a snack. Three chimes to indicate a bathroom break, followed by the materialization of a door—or a dematerialization of a part of the wall—and a hallway flickering with hazy illumination. Before yesterday I’d never seen anything appear or disappear in such a way, but I didn’t care about spectacles or illusions or physics. I focused only on keeping sane, fighting the disassociation assaulting my mind. The chimes offered routine, and I clung to them.

I listened to four chimes while laying on my bed, and then the room went dark with the thunk of powerful lights being deactivated. Immediately, the stars far above the windowed ceiling revealed themselves and began to twinkle. My eyes drifted to a large orb, bright and blue, and I played with one thought before falling asleep: Where am I?


Things changed in the morning after the breakfast chime. Our food trays disappeared into the ground, fizzles from existence like the coming and going of the bathroom door, and then the room moved. It had been rectangular, cavernous, like a warehouse storing sacks of flesh and blood. Now it became square and squished, the ceiling so close I could reach up and touch the glass of the window. It was cold—very cold—and I pulled my hand away.

Murmurs filtered through us, whispers and questions revealing fright and dismay. Our nature brought us together and we huddled as close as possible for several hundred bodies. Then four doorways materialized, one for each wall of the square. Behind each door stretched a hallway lit up by a different colour, one for each of our sashes: blue, red, green, purple. Five chimes rang, and the murmuring became a crescendo of confusion. No one moved to the hallways. Everyone stayed huddled in the middle of the room. Some yelled and swore, cussing at no one in particular. The five chimes rang again, and the square shrank. A girl screamed, and a young boy began crying. An older boy knelt beside the crying boy in an attempt to provide comfort, the first display of kindness I’d seen. Still, no one moved. The chimes rang again. The square shrank, the walls so close those of us on the outer edges of the huddles mass could brace against them.

The implications were simple, so we started shifting to the hallways matching our sashes. I gripped mine by the dangling end and raised it in front of me. The material was soft, but when I tugged at each end I could sense its toughness and tensile strength. I let it fall to my side and then end bounced against my knee, then I walked to the edge of my hallway. A girl stepped next to me and I looked at her, measured her. She appeared about my age and stood a foot shorter. Her oval face ended in a point at her chin and she set her jaw firm, framed by long black hair and bangs that did not entirely hide green eyes, narrowed and angry.

“My name is Ikko,” I said.

The girl shifted a glance but did not respond. I contemplated her for a moment before turning away and stepping side the hallway. My gi tinted green under the lights and I walked forward into a future I did not understand, to a destination I did not know. I looked back to see the others with green sashes follow me, led by the black-haired girl.

We walked straight ahead for a long time. The hallway never turned or curved. The floor under our feet was cold and smooth, formed by the same polished metal from within the room. So were the walls, which had no doorways or seams. Claustrophobia set in, and the sounds of breathing grew more laboured and rapid. More of us cried, pleaded for parents and familiar faces, horrible despair echoing through the tight corridor and infecting my calm. I tried to resist the temptation to give in to the agony of the unknown until the very end.

I was saved by the end of the hallway. When I stopped and pressed my palms against the door, I closed my eyes and squeezed out a single tear. I wiped it away with the end of my sash, then turned to the mass of bodies who had stopped behind me.

“We are here,” I said.

“Where is here?” The black-haired girl spoke with no emotion in her voice, cold as the ceiling that had sheltered us from the stars. I had no answer, so I gave none. Instead, I pushed against the door. It did not swing open or give way, but it dematerialized as the others had done.

Another room opened before us. It was circular and ringed by a series of bed stacked three high. In the middle of the room I saw several chairs and tables, and upon those tables various contraptions made of a shimmering metal. And furthest from the door, a man sat at a desk. He also wore a gi—green, not white like ours—wrapped by a white sash. The man’s hair was tied up in a knot atop his head. His eyebrows were thick and bushy, and a single strip of beard fell from his lip below his chin. When we opened the door and entered the room, he stood from his desk and clasped his hands behind his back.

“Welcome, Greens.”

The others fell into a flurry of motion and noise, running to them man and screaming, slamming their palms down on tables and kicking chairs. They wanted answers, they said they deserved answers, and they were right. I demanded answers, too. Why had we been brought here? Where was here? Who had brought us, and when would we return?

But the man offered no answers. He simply watched, silent, unmoving. Eventually the screams petered out, the disorder quieted, and the Greens began laying on bed or sitting in chairs. The stink of defeat sat heavy in the still air of the circular room. Only then did the man speak.

“I will return in seven days.” A door materialized behind the man’s desk. He left and the door dematerialized, replaced by smooth, polished wall, leaving us alone with each other and the tables and the strange metallic contraptions upon them.

“This is bullshit!” An older boy yelled at the wall and returned to disorder. Many joined him in throwing the contraptions around the wall and overturning furniture. I watched but did not give in to my emotion. Instead I called upon a stream of calm running through me, focused on self-control. I remembered kneeling in the grass while a gentle breeze flowed through my hair and rustled cherry blossoms. The memory was fuzzy and fragmented. How long ago had it been? How long have I been here?

“You seek zen.” The black-haired girl stood next to me. She, too, removed herself from the chaos of the Greens who rejected their reality and expressed themselves with rage.

“Where are you from, Ikko?”

“My family lives in a small city in the north—Kakunodate—and I grew up in and around there. More recently I moved to Tokyo proper to pursue further training.”

“Training for what?” she asked in earnest.

I hesitated to tell her the truth, because my family and friends believed my pursuit to be foolish. Most refused to support me. Some would not even talk to me any more. They had preferred for me to focus on education and career, to become a salaryman like my siblings and cousins. But I had never developed that interest, had never wanted to follow that path. I had chosen for myself and accepted the consequences.

“In the ways of bushido and samurai.”

To my surprise, the girl did not scoff or shrug. She did not cast judgment or seek to lecture me on honouring my family’s wishes. Instead, the girl crossed her arms and kept her eyes on the chaos unfolding in the circular room. Then she spoke.

“My name is Hatsue. I am from Osaka.”

I’d never been to Osaka, nor anywhere else in the country other than my small village and the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo. “What’s it like?”

“Osaka?” She bit her lip and tugged at one the curving strands of hair that framed her face. “Vibrant. The people are friendly and the city is alive. And the food is amazing.”

“Do you eat away from home often?”

“I must, as I am a chef. My speciality is soba noodles, which I make from scratch every day.”

I was impressed. Though I lacked experience in my own country, I understood its culture deeply. Crafting soba noodles was a thorough and detailed process. It took meticulous and time-consuming attention. Hatsue was an artisan. Nothing like me. No pattern.

“Why do you think we are here, Hatsue?”

She finally turned to look at me, uncrossing her arms and gripping me gently by the arms. “I have been asking myself that question for two weeks.”

Two weeks? Hatsue had been here much longer than me. “How many of you were there when you woke up?”

“A few, maybe a dozen,” she said.

“Did you speak with anyone?”

“No. No one seemed eager for conversation. We were all to confused and frightened, and that disarray only continued as more and more people began to appear.” She paused and cocked her head. “I remember when you arrived. You were among the last.”

I squeezed my eyes. “I remember a bright light, and screaming.” I opened my eyes. “We ran.”

Hatsue nodded, recognition in her face. “I also saw a light. We also screamed and ran.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know. Does it matter?” She shook her head. “We are here, and that man is returning in seven days. We are called Greens and there are a number of puzzles scattered about the room. Maybe we should keep our focus there until the man returns.”

I squinted, inspecting Hatsue’s eyes and the corners of her mouth. “You are exceptionally calm. Perhaps you would be interested to the ways of bushido.”

At last, Hatsue smiled. “Perhaps I have been. Come,” she grabbed my hand,” let’s go talk to the others and try to figure out what it is our hosts expect from us.”

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