I'm woken up by the sickening sensation that only comes from having rolled out of bed, the momentary loss of gravity pulling me from my sleep instantly. I brace for the impact of the floor, but instead find myself on something soft the moment I realize what's happening. I'm still in bed? Did I dream about falling? I try to remember what my dream had been about, but my mind is as blank as the ceiling I'm staring at. There's something off, though, even the ceiling tells me that much. It looks dingy and faded, the lighting is all wrong. My bed was against the wall before, wasn't it? Why isn't... why isn't my bed against the wall-
I sit bolt upright, my pulse thundering it's off-kilter beat into my eardrums, and I struggle to make sense of the unfamiliar room around me. My bed is a gurney, or a cot, something metal and utilitarian, and around me is a cage of glass and metal, I think, what the he-
"Calm down", demands a voice from behind me.
My heartbeat redoubles, my vision swims, as I spin around to face him. "Wh.... the.... what the hell?!"
As I thumb vision into my eyes, I begin to make out the silhouette of the man behind... some kind of control board? He's thin, and tall, his dull brown hair shaggy and unkempt. He hasn't shaved in at least a week. He wears a threadbare lab coat over otherwise casual clothes, but overall the entire outfit looks tattered and worn.
"Not what. When. When the hell. It's October the 7th, 2021. The where hasn't changed. This is still technically your room. Easiest way to get you here. Now come on, the door's unlocked." He turns, and walks through the doorway just behind him.
I've been abducted. I've been abducted from Yamaku by a crazy hobo with an elaborate set. My delayed reaction finally catches up, my anger and indignation slamming home just as he begins to close the door.
"You could have-"
"Given you a heart attack?", he finishes from outside with a dry chuckle. "Yeah. I know. Now report to the auditorium. Class is about to start." The door clicks behind him.
I struggle to dress as quickly as I can, happy to have found my uniform placed just outside the weird... glass cubicle thing that surrounds my(?) bed. This clearly isn't my room, even though it has the same dimensions. The walls are stained and crumbling, the lights are off, even my sparse furniture is gone. In it's place are electronics that look like they were cobbled together from a scrapyard, loose wires and exposed circuitry heaped in piles atop battered laptops and duct-work. I see a couple of large canisters marked 'oxygen' and 'argon'. The rest is completely foreign to me.
I stop at the door, hand on the knob. Whoever this man is, he's managed to bring me... wherever I am, but apparently trusts me enough to go along with him. I suppose if he had any ill intent, he could have acted on it already. In any case, staying here won't get me anywhere. As much as it irks me to play into such an obvious, cliche situation, there's only one path available to me right now.
I open the door to the hallway, and it's again a kind of aged and worn-down version of my own dorm hallway. As I make my way to the auditorium, I see no one else, only more of the same faded decor. Graffiti and trash litter some of the rooms, broken windows and long-since-raided desks and cabinets. The school has no power, but the setting sun still manages to light my way.
Outside the auditorium, I see a tabled stacked with name stickers. Each reads;
Hello! I'm dating:
...and the "this is all a dream" argument was just given a lot more credence. I'm not dating anyone, though, so I ignore the pile and step into the darkened auditorium; the hushed roar from inside is the only normal thing about this whole weird situation. Since most of the seat are occupied, I slide into a row towards the back, moving towards the center... and stop dead.
I'm seated in the seat ahead of me. Which is to say, my clone is. I am. The person next to him is also me. The person next to him is me. My eyes dart across the gathered assembly, seeing the same messy brown hair in row after row, each whispering among themselves.
Oh my God, I've lost my damned mind.
"Hey", comes a voice to my right, the Hisao nearest to me attempting to grab my attention. "Don't worry, you get used to it."
"....Do I?" I manage, getting only a casual shrug in response.
"Well, I did, didn't I?" His nametag says 'Saki Enomoto'.
I'm about to ask who the hell Enomoto is, and why this is apparently so damn important, when the sudden light of a projector catches my attention. The man from before stands at the podium, and the hushed conversations around me slowly die down. I recognize him now, despite the distance. It's obvious, of course. It's me, in my mid-twenties. I find myself irrationally happy to know I live that long, before the more reasonable parts of my brain promptly shut the line of thought down in self-defense.
The projector is only a blue screen, but before long it's replaced by an image; that of a branching flow chart. At each fork, there's a single, cryptic line of text. 'Tour', 'Not/Cute', 'Running', 'Risk'... I spot a 'Library (Hanako)' fork, and I vaguely remember hearing the name a few days earlier. Looking at the branches, I see 'Introduce' and 'Apologize'.
I remember! Hanako Ikezawa was the scarred girl in the library! And I... introduced myself normally, didn't ? I considered apologizing, but I didn't want to draw attention to her reaction, I thought it would be rude. My eyes trace the line backward, to 'Risk', only now realizing what it refers to. I played defensively. I've always been defense-oriented. Sure, Hakamichi may have wrecked me, but I think playing aggressively would only have made me lose faster.
As I'm matching these events to this bizarre map of the last few days, the Hisao at the front addresses the assembly.
"Gentlemen, we stand at a crossroads. We always have, and it's possible that we always will. We are among the few, the precious few, whose choices shape the realities we live in." He gestures at the chart with a pointer. "Ikezawa. Tezuka. Hakamichi. Satou. Ibarazaki." He punctuates each name by slapping the pointer against the canvas, landing on a different branch each time. "These are the realities left to us. Many more have been lost. Takahasi. Kurai. Suzuki. Miura. Katayama. Enomoto."
I glance over at... myself, sitting next to me. His hands clench at the last name.
"Our universes are unstable, and unlike most, our actions, our decisions, are enacted across a hypothetically infinite number of parallel continuities from a given point." He slaps the pointer against the first branch, one labeled 'Tour'. "This point. There might have been more previously, but these realities are collapsing. Some of you here tonight are new. Some of you have been here for many years. To those who are new, I say this: You are the hub to which other's realities connect. You are their anchor. It is your, no, our choices that ensure their continued existence. We are not Gods. I posit that we aren't even special. I think I speak for all of us when I say that the people in our lives are more impressive by half. No, I believe this is simply a quirk of probability, a universal constant in an equation that exists in every timeline."
With a click, another image slides into place, one of me, smiling beside a rail-thin girl with silver hair and piercing red eyes, standing in front of the bizarre contraption I saw around my bed earlier.
"The Katayama effect, named after the women who theorized it's existence, as tested by one Hisao Nakai. Ha... one." The same chuckle is issued simultaneously from a couple dozen mouths, and the result is deeply unsettling. I'm really not in a laughing mood, personally. "It was the Katayama faction who breached the barriers that separate our universes. They were the first Hisaos to discover their nature, and they were the first Hisaos to fall. The nature of this machine has been explained to us, so that we can continue the fight in their absence. I'll put it bluntly; we are under attack."
The image changes, this time to a blocky, blurred image of what appears to be myself. "This is the best photo we have of him. All we know is that he is one of us; a Nakai. Pictures taken of this Hisao exhibit strange properties, often changing or vanishing. We believe this Hisao is literally a 'Schrodinger's Cat', that he originated in a universe that has since stopped existing. It shouldn't be possible for a Nakai to exist independently of the timeline he hailed from. The paradoxes and contradictions should have erased him long ago. Yet somehow, he remains, and even more frightening is that we don't know how to stop him. He doesn't exist, so he can't exactly be killed. He's like a software glitch, a bug in the code of the multiverse."
A group of hands all rise, and he nods to them. "The Hakamichis. The closest Hisao may ask."
"If we can't beat him, how do we fight?" The rest of the Hisaos labeled 'Shizune' nod in agreement. "You can't win a game if the opponent has such an unfair advantage."
"Well, we aren't defenseless. He can't be stopped, but he can be deterred, sent back to wherever it is he recovers for a time. The difficulty comes in finding him. Fortunately, there is a method; by gathering all of our selves into a single universe, it should theoretically force him to do the same, leaving him nowhere to run. It also protects each of us from having to fight him one-on-one. We've managed to work out ways of disrupting his influence for a while, and the older versions of us are trying to work out a way to keep him from reappearing when we do. For now, just worry about manning the defenses here."
More hands go up. "Yes, Satous. Again, the closest."
"Have we tried talking to him? Do we know what he's after?"
"Sadly, we do. This Hisao wants nothing more than the annihilation of all other realities. We don't know if it's a result of his degraded state or simply madness, but all attempts at negotiation have failed. He simply invades, kills the native Hisao, and vanishes, leaving the associated timeline to collapse. Invariably."
Whispered conversation erupts around the auditorium, and more hands. "Ikezawas have the floor."
"Can the damage be restored? Can we regain access to the universes you mentioned?"
The leader breaks into a smile. "In a rare bit of good news, yes. As long as a native Hisao exists to provide a 'save state', we can find the universe he originated from and return him when it's safe. Though the Katayama's may be gone, there is hope for most other timelines. In fact, we recently managed to acquire a very early Hisao. We hope that continued extractions might yield the 'original' Hisao, the one who made the first choice, and use him to re-map the multiverse. Perhaps we could even find a way to preempt Iwanako's confession. Who knows? Any other questions?"
Only a few hands, this time. "Oh, it's rare to see the Tezukas with a question."
"Who did you end up going to the festival with?"
He rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "I, ah.... I fell off the roof...."
It's only a week after I was brought to 'Root Yamaku' that we're attacked. I guess the collection of Nakais ensured that it would happen sooner or later. The still-powered PA system crackled a warning to all Hisao, battle stations are quickly manned. My post isn't terribly important, since my recent time in the hospital has left me with less stamina then my older selves. For now, I'm just sitting in a makeshift trench as older Hisaos pass out weapons. I'm handed a bizarre gun that would look futuristic if it wasn't obviously assembled in a work shed. Conventional weapons aren't all that effective, I'm told. "Remember: aim for the heart. It's the quickest way to put him down." I nod at the Hanabro, who smiles at me. "Don't worry about it. We've all got people to go home to. You will, too." I smile back, happy to know that despite my heart, I have a future. I have enough futures to last me a thousand lifetimes.
I bring my binoculars up to get a better look at the figure on the horizon, only to wince at the instant headache. It's like looking at a real-life Picasso, or an Escher. Conflicting views compete for my attention, only a few points making it through the resulting visual noise. He's thin, but wiry, and I have no doubt that he's in even better shape than the Track Club Nakais. He's also armed to the teeth, the guns apparently not subject to the same rules that apply to their wielder. His uniform, the traditional Yamaku white and green, are dirty and torn. I ignore the headache, and for a moment, I see him.
He's crying, but otherwise his face (our face, whatever,) shows nothing but raw fury. He strides towards the school, fearless, checking his equipment with all the practiced ease of a professional mercenary. The only other thing that sets him apart from the countless Hisaos around me is the burnt, tattered scarf around his neck, fluttering dramatically behind him. A scream is carried on the wind, full of rage and despair, the lone howl of a broken man, as though heard through a cheap, waterlogged speaker:
"YOU GOD DAMN FEMINISTS!"
And we're back.
"I wish I could convey to you just how socially inept I am, but I can't."
"I think you just did."
"No, I really, truly haven't."