CHAPTER THE FIRST: AWAKENING
"Sakura wake up!" Otomi shook the lithe woman. "Sakura, you're falling asleep." Sakura's eyes opened and searched the room before her, each one as deep and beautiful as the ocean. Otomi's wide face fell into view. Her eyes suddenly bulged and she jumped in her chair, almost knocking it over. Her arms shot out to steady herself. One grabbing the corner of her desk, and the other Otomi's lab coat.
Otomi placed one of his own hands over hers and chuckled. "Be careful Sakura, you almost hurt yourself." His voice was gentler now, and he smiled at her good-naturedly. Otomi was wide, in every sense of the word. Not fat, just wide. His face was square and strong, and would have been attractive if his eyes weren't set just a little too far apart. With his broad shoulders and large build he was often considered frightful and a ruffian, but Sakura knew Otomi for what he really was: a big nerd.
"I can see that, Otomi, why did'ya let me fall asleep?" Sakura snapped back. She was always harsh with her tongue, and probably more so towards kind hearted Otomi, though she never meant to be.
"I'm really sorry, you just looked so peaceful there." Otomi blushed and quickly straightened himself out. He adjusted his lab coat and walked back over to his desk.
Sakura blushed herself, but pinched herself as she felt her ears grow warm. She ran a hand through her sandy brown hair and focused once again on the computer screen before her. "God knows I didn't mean ta, but it's just soo-o boring staring at this here chart all day." Her eyes traced the different colored lines as they ascended and descended on the back-lit screen.
Otomi shook his head. With her school girl whining and southern drawl his partner did not sound like the brilliant scientist that she was. He watched her over his own monitor for longer than he probably should have. She was the most beautiful woman to come to work on the Hybrid Reflection Program. She was the most beautiful woman to come into Otomi's life ever. The already muted colors of the office around them seemed to all blend into a massless gray in her presence. But just as he was a gentle giant, she was sharp-tongued and brash belying all her lithe beauty.
She picked up her dark rimmed glasses from next to the computer and pushed them up her nose. She then jotted some notes down on a clipboard hanging on the wall to her left. This made easy being as she was left-handed. Her eyes traveled from the paper back to her monitor, then up to Otomi's.
"What the hell do ya think ya are doing?" she snapped. "Don't ya have something more important to be doing than staring at me all starry eyed and shit?" Otomi quickly averted his gaze and concentrated on the chart running across the computer screen before him.
But before either of them could really get back into the flow of their jobs the door to their minuscule office burst open. Richard stood there panting, his shoulders heaving with each breath. "Quickly, one of you turn on the news!" He yelped between gasps.
Sakura grabbed the remote and flicked on the small black box that hung in the corner of the room. They all watched impatiently as she flipped through the stations to the local news channel. A round faced woman smiled at them from the screen. Her red hair was pulled back into a tight bun that was horribly unflattering.
"The victim was found among the trash outside the back door of the bar. Foul play is suspected but the police have yet to reveal as to how. The medical records show that his death was by heightened brain deterioration, though a case like this is virtually unheard of in a person as young as this." The reporter informed the room, blandly smiling through the whole story. The tag on the bottom of the screen read: "Man in 20's found dead in alley."
Sakura wheeled her chair back and turned to face Richard. "What does this have ta do with us exactly, hun?" Richard pointed at the TV.
"Did you hear the cause of death?"
"Heightened deterioration of the brain?" Otomi stated.
Richard nodded. "Just like the test subjects." Otomi and Sakura both squirmed uncomfortably at that particular statement and glanced at each other.
"Ya saying that this is related to Reflective Consciousness and us?" Sakura questioned. "I mean the deterioration of brain cells could have been brought on by any numbah of things. Drinking by the looks of it."
"No, Professor Romanov was at the hospital when they brought him in." Richard insisted. "As soon as he saw the body he called the lab. He is absolutely sure that this death was caused by Reflective Consciousness."
Sakura stood up from her desk and walked over to the TV, turning it off by hand. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's get the hell down there!" Otomi jumped to his feet and the three of them ran out of the office. By the time they reached the lobby of the skyscraper their laboratory called home they had shed their lab coats for jackets, and three more assistants had joined them. Outside they were all able to pile into the large white van that belonged to the laboratory, with Otomi sitting in the far back. Richard wasted no time getting them to the hospital, a couple times they even feared being pulled over due to his reckless driving. But they all made it in one piece.
"Sakura." The sound of her own name made her pause. The others were already ahead of her, almost to the elevator that would take them to the ground floor of the parking garage. She spun around quickly and scanned the cars for another person. But it was silent, only sleeping mechanical beasts staring back at her with blank eyes.
"Sakura, come on!" This time her name came from up ahead, where the others were waiting in the elevator for her.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" she snapped back. Sakura gave one last glance around her surroundings and then gave a little sprint to the elevator.
But right before she could join her colleagues she heard it again. "Sakura." Stop. She turned to her left and that's where she saw him. Standing with his legs apart and his arms hanging at his sides. But he disappeared behind a black SUV before she could make out any details about the person. She quickly changed directions and ran for the SUV.
"Sakura!?" Otomi called after her, but the elevator door was already closing between them.
Sakura took the corner around the SUV too hard, and almost fell over herself. The man was already at the far end of the garage, standing in an open doorway. Instead of running away though, he stood and waited for her. Sakura paused long enough to take her heels off, then ran for the doorway.
"Hey ya, wait!" She called out as the mysterious man turned and disappeared through the door. She sprinted through the door and saw that beyond as a stairway. Taking the steps two and three at a time she ran up them. The metal cold on her toes, covered only in pantyhose. Above her she heard the door to the roof floor open and slam close.
Reaching the top landing Sakura reached out for the door handle. Her hand hung in the air suddenly she didn't feel like opening the door. She didn't want to see what was beyond it. For the first time in years Sakura was scared. "What's wrong with me?" She shook her head to clear the illusionary feelings and pulled the door wide open. The wind beyond blew through, pulling all of her hair away from her face.
"Who are ya?" Sakura yelled at the man standing on the edge of the roof. In the afternoon sunlight she could finally make out his appearance. Younger than she had original thought, he was around her age, maybe a little younger. His skin was darker than hers with a tinge of olive, giving him an ethnic look, but not one that she could place. His clothes were odd as well. He was dressed in a dark brown tunic and pants, both loose fitting and light. A similar cloak hung around his shoulders, clipped under his chin with a swirling gold brooch. He wore a white turban on his head, hiding most of his face in shadow.
"Who are ya?" Sakura asked again.
The boy's lips curled into a smile. "Stay away from this Reflective Consciousness Project. Shut it down." He took a step away from Sakura, until he was standing at the at the metal fence that surrounded the roof. His cloak blew in the wind bringing his scent to her nose. Musky and like wild flowers, it was like nothing she had smelled before.
"Wha- What do ya mean?" Sakura was confused, her mind was racing, trying to grasp at something she could hold onto, something she could understand.
"You don't know what you're getting yourself into. You people could never understand this." With those words the man gripped the fence and jumped over the edge. Sakura yelped and ran for where he had jumped.
"Hmm, this is definitely not what I had expected." Sakura spun on her heel to face the boy, now standing behind her.
"What the hell is going on here!?"
The boy laughed. Something both lyrical and cruel. "This is what you wanted. Don't you see? Reflective Consciousness."
The breeze had changed. Now coming in from the south it was warm and carried with it the smell of roses. Fresh blooming roses, that grew on the edge of a brook. The man took a few steps away from her, his leather moccasins padding lightly on the cobble stone path.
"Is that a cafe?" He asked her. He was pointing up the hill that rose up to crest with a large red building. The building was build from rich red bricks with towering limestone carved into mythical shapes crowning it. Three towers rose from the roof, each ending in a golden spire, reflecting the light of the sun. Hidden among trees, oaks and weeping willows, at the foot of the mansion on a white veranda stood a gathering of wrought iron tables and chairs. A number of people were seated and enjoying the wonderful weather with warm tea and freshly baked cookies that Sakura and the man could smell from the foot of the hill.
"Y-yeah it is." Sakura found herself answering. Why was she here? What was this place?
"Come, let me show you." The man turned and strolled up the path to the mansion. "Do you know where we are Sakura Rose?"
"Y-ya said this is the Reflective Consciousness, but how can that be? How are we in someone's Reflective Consciousness?" She pondered. Her feet were following the man on their own.
"Because I am a Soul Key, Sakura Rose. This is my ability." The man replied. His voice cool and collected. "In fact I am the last Soul Key."
"That's not possible, Souls do not exist." Sakura shook her head, clearing it again. "Ya must have drugged me, I'm in some fucking comatose delusion."
The man laughed and stopped at the top of the stair way that lead to the cafe. "What do you think the Reflective Consciousness is? This is the Soul, Sakura Rose, this is your Soul to exact."
Sakura froze mid step. What was he saying? What was he telling her? "What are ya talking about?"
"This is your Soul. This mansion is the form your Soul has decided to take, it must mean something pretty important to you. This cafe too, though I believe in the Human Plane these two places are not connected, your Soul has decided to place them together on the Soul Plane. See the people there, the ones drinking tea? They're called shadows. Memories of acquaintances that you have long since forgotten. But your Soul hasn't. They now populate it as shadows. By the looks of it you must be left-handed too, being as your Soul has reversed a number of things to make it easier for you, like the fact that all the shadows here are left handed as well, to avoid elbow bumping."
"This is absolutely ridiculous! I'm not listening ta this." Sakura covered her ears, feeling suddenly childish.
"I'm showing this to you to warn you. Tell your team you need to stop this research. If general public became able to travel through Souls, through the Reflective Consciousness the results would be disastrous. This must be stopped at all costs!" The boy demanded. "You have no idea what you're getting yourself into!"
"Go away! Get out of my head!" Sakura screamed. The boy walked down the steps towards her.
"What I did to Roberto Gruud could be done to thousands of others if you don't stop this." he whispered to her.
"Ya! Ya are the one that killed the man on the news. When the Reflective Consciousness is damaged it permanently damages the brain."
"Exactly." He crossed his arms. "Don't worry, Roberto was a villain, a brute and a thief. He deserved his ending."
"Who are ya to dish out divine judgment?" Sakura accused.
"Who are you to mess in other people's Souls?"
And then Sakura was alone. Standing on the roof, the wind tossing her hair about. She sank to her knees and took deep breaths of air. What was that? Had it all been a dream? Who was that man?