Saturday, January 7, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter One

My name is Box Hako, and there is a voice inside my head.


Box Hako
It tells me all sorts of stories, about the way that life is.  It guides me, and it helps me, and it is very real.  It is called [Redacted] and it is a robot.  I wake up on October 1st in the hospital, staring at the ceiling.  This robot is not the same one that was in my head before.  She was called Artemis, and she was very quiet.  She always told me simple things to guide me along.  Things that I’d forget.  “You can’t go to sleep in the morning” and “It’s not safe to go out late at night”.  The common sense sort of things that everyone keeps in mind, but I never did, I never remembered.


I guess that I could call her my artificial impulse control, but she’s gone now.  I don’t remember what happened; I just know that one moment, everything was the same as usual, and the next I was here with a different voice talking to me.  Apparently it can hear Artemis still, wherever she is, and relays me her messages, but there’s a lot more to this robot.  It’s much more chatty, and much more… urgent.  It tells me things that shouldn’t seem to be true.  It tells me that if I don’t act, my classmates will suffer.  If I don’t act, my classmates will die.


I find myself believing it, when it tells me these things.  The items themselves are absurd statements, but it speaks with sincerity, it speaks with concern.  Besides, everything that Artemis ever said to me was for my benefit, so why would [Redacted] be any different?  I know that it wants to help me.  Somehow, the way that it talks… Reminds me of myself, in a way? A lot smarter, though.


Gladys Martin
That doesn’t make sense.  Whatever.  Some people would consider this a lot to process after being unconscious in the hospital for several months, but I worked through it in about an hour.  After that was all sorted out and [Redacted] knew for certain that I was going to listen to it, I open my eyes and actually let the nurse see I’ve woken up.  She is leaning over me, and unfamiliar.  This town is small, the hospital is small, I know the nurses here.  She is not one of them.  She doesn’t even look Japanese.


“Hello,” I notice as he speaks, the man standing beside her.  He’s speaking Japanese in a way that doesn’t sound foreign, but he is just as alien as she, “It’s nice to finally make your acquaintance, Box Hako.  My name is Justin Leon, and my associate here is Nurse Gladys Martin.  I’ve sure you’ve noticed the change in your headspace?”


“Of course,” I answer without moving, “It’s already told me everything.  Except for one other question I have.  Where is Artemis?”


“You see,” Justin sighs, straightening his collar.  He doesn’t seem nervous, though he’s consciously making bodily movements to seem that way.  This is routine to him, not out of the ordinary at all, but if he were stoic he would seem inhuman.  That’s how the doctor who gave me Artemis was.  That’s how a lot of people are.  I guess I notice people more than important things, “We don’t have any idea where your previous AI is.  Nurse Martin installed the new one for you, and we at Assis-co are working to locate Artemis.”


Justin Leon
“What will you do once you find her?”


“My, you are a curious girl, aren’t you Hako-san?” He chuckles, and I look away, but he answers me anyway, “Don’t worry about it, we aren’t going to harm her.  We’ll give Artemis to another patient now that she’s acclimated to working with humans.”


“You Assis-co folks always have everything planned out…” I smile.


“I’m sure you’re wondering…” The nurse speaks now, and her Japanese is, frankly, bad, “How this happened in the first place, but we don’t know.”


“That’s right,” I’m glad when Justin speaks again, because he’s much easier to understand, “Our best guess, however, since Artemis is still active and given your head injuries … Is that somebody stole her from you.  With that in mind, do you have any idea who may have done that?”


“I…” My voice is distant as I think about it.


I can tell you it was not the Doctor.


“I have no idea,” As soon as it tells me that it couldn’t be Doctor Same, who works in the infirmary, nobody comes to mind.  She was always intimidating, and there are rumors that people disappear when they go to see her, but I guess it wouldn’t make sense for even her to take Artemis. I can't think what she would want with an AI.  Maybe I’ll figure it out eventually…


“Very well.  We’ll continue our investigation, and if you discover anything, just,” He reaches into his coat then puts a piece of paper on the small table beside the hospital bed, “Call that number, won’t you, Hako-san?”


“Of course,” There’s no reason for me not to agree.  Assis-co has always been kind to me, seeing as I’d probably die of incompetence without their technology.  [Redacted] seems to want to tell me something about them, but…


That is for another day, Box.  One thing at a time.  The truth about Assis-co isn’t important right now.  You not knowing won’t harm anybody.


I guess that’s fine.


“Anyway, Hako-san,” Justin straightens up and squares his shoulders, turning to look at the door, “Nurse Martin and I should be on our way.  Your parents will want to see you now that you’ve woken up, as well.  I’ll have them sent in when I leave,” He closes his eyes with a smile, and the next words he says are strange.  They stand out as different from the other ones; his voice is smooth, like condensed milk being poured, “There’s nothing at all to worry about, Hako-san.  [Redacted].  Don’t hurt yourselves.”


I believe him.


It’s impossible not to believe him.  But that’s fine.  We won’t worry.  We’ll just fix it.


Okay.


“Box…?” My mother is hesitant as she walks into the room, as if she was unsure when told that I had woken up.  It isn’t as if she was worried about me this whole time.  I can only imagine that the worry faded after the first few weeks when Assis-co determined that they could give me a new AI and I would be fine.


“Good morning,” I greet her, and sit up.


Your muscle atrophy is low because your childhood friends have been taking turns coming here to move your limbs and keep them in shape.  You’ll have to thank them.


I will.


“Do you know what day it is?” She asks as she sits down beside the bed.  Father stays standing after he wanders in, following her.


“Yes,” The eye contact is uncomfortable, so I look at the ceiling instead, “It’s… October first.  I collapsed in July, didn’t I?  I… Missed one semester’s final exams…”


“Don’t worry about that, sweetheart,” She chuckles, “I guess I should have known that would be what you thought of when you woke up.  Your teacher’s going to give you catch-up packets that you can work through alongside your other classwork, when you have the time.”


“How’s the new AI?” Father speaks, and I glance at him.  He looks curious.  He always was fascinated with Artemis, so I smile.


“It’s nice, so far.  I’m sure it will help me catch up on the schoolwork I missed.”


“Speaking of which,” Mother pipes up again, “You don’t need to be in a rush to get back to school.  Take your time and go whenever you’re ready.  Especially if the person who… Stole Artemis is still there.”


“Maybe I’ll remember if I see them again…” You won’t, Box, but there isn’t much time.  We need to get back there as soon as possible, “I want to go back to school tomorrow.”


“Tomorrow?” Mother sounds appalled, “Don’t you understand that you’ve been unconscious for months?  Can you even walk?”


“Let’s find out,” My answer is immediate, and I half expect [Redacted] to tell me not to as I start standing. Artemis would have told me not to. This is an impulse. She always stopped my impulses, but no denial comes.


You’ll be able to do it.  It will hurt, but you’ll be capable.  You’ll have to grin and bear it if you want to improve.  We need to get to school.


I thought it was supposed to look out for my welfare?  I wonder this, on my feet.  It was right, my legs and feet do hurt, but not horribly so.  It’s soreness; like if I exercised too much, but more intense.


I am looking out for your welfare.  It would be far worse for your mental health if you needed to see all your classmates suffer.  Some physical issue is worth it to prevent the cavalcade of tragedy which would surely ensue if I were not here or you failed to listen to me.  Please.


I take a step forward.  [Redacted] is right about that, I can’t argue.  It knows what will happen, somehow, and it speaks in too much detail to brush off as a liar or a faulty AI.  I don’t know what Assis-co is capable of, after all.  A time travelling AI doesn’t seem that outlandish after all the time I spent with Artemis.  If I can have a whole robot personality living in my brain, well, surely one that knows the future isn’t that much more outstanding.


“I guess that you can…” Mom notes, staring at me, “So those girls knew what they were doing after all… I guess maybe I should start using the internet, if it can teach somebody that…” She mumbles, then with a start, waves her hands in front of herself and explains what she means, “None of the nurses or doctors here know physical therapy because it’s such a small town, you see, but your friends looked up online how to slow muscle entropy-”


“Atrophy,” Her father corrected.


“Right, atrophy, and then they did it, and you can stand up!” She claps her hands together once, then stands back up to hug me, “I’m so glad you’re okay, Box.  Your father and I were so worried, when Artemis got stolen and you were so hurt like that…” She sighs, “Apparently, the downside of getting you Artemis is that you can’t actually function anymore, without an AI, since she was an older model…”


“That’s okay, I wouldn’t want to be without an AI,” I shrug.  Really, I decided a long time ago that the AI is necessary to my survival.  Without Artemis, I’d probably need a constant caretaker, and even that might not work out since, unlike an AI in my head, a caretaker couldn’t read my mind, “And I’m sure that Assis-co will always be willing to give me another, if [Redacted] somehow goes missing too…”


“You’re always such an optimist…” Father chuckles from across the room, then walks over to join in on the hug too, at which point I fall over because, hey, my legs aren’t quite strong enough to have two grown adults hanging off of me!  Luckily, it’s not unexpected, so I’m able to land in a way that doesn’t hurt much, “Uh, sorry?”


I stick a thumbs-up into the air from the floor, then get back to my feet, which is more of an effort from the ground but still something I can manage, if just barely, “So if I’m going back to school tomorrow, can I go home with you tonight?”  I definitely want some food.  Real food.


After months of tube feeding, you’re going to want to ease back in to solids.  Nothing heavy- no cheesecake or octopus or anything like that.


Well there go my plans to eat cheesecake topped with takoyaki.  


Very funny.


“If the doctors say that you can, then of course,” Mother nods and crosses her arms while father turns to go out into the hallway and find somebody to ask.  He returns in a moment.


“They say that if you’re up for it, then you can come home, but only if you’re sure you want to so soon after waking up, but since your injuries have been healed for a while now they have no reason to make you stay,” He explains, and I’m glad for the result.  Hospitals aren’t pleasant places for the most part, so I’d prefer to be at home.


“Yes, I absolutely want to go home,” I confirm.


“Then that’s just what you’ll do,” Mom smiles at me, and she looks tired, “I’ll make you some rice, then maybe your friends can come over if you’d like?”


“...No,” I shrug, “I’ll see them tomorrow when I go back to school.  I think I’d like a little more time to get used to the AI on my own, is all.  Oh, and get caught up with you two, of course, but that is a given.”


“Alright,” Dad nods, looking away, “I would have thought you’d want to see them after months, but whatever you need, Box.”


“I was unconscious all of those months.  As far as I’m concerned I saw my friends yesterday.  Besides, as much as I love those three… they can be a bit bothersome.”


Hiromi Kaname
“You know… Kaname-san, she stopped coming by about a month and a half ago,” Mom’s thinking out loud again, “I wonder if something happened to her?  The school can’t release info to outside adults, so I wouldn’t even know if she was hurt, or if there was a falling out between her and the others…”


Don’t worry about Hiromi, Box.  Something did happen to her, but it’s something we can’t do anything about.  The important thing is that she’s still happy.  We’ll keep it that way.


I nod, “If I find out when I go back to school, I’ll let you know…”


“No you won’t,” Dad chortles, “You’ll forget, or abstain on moral grounds.”


“That’s not necessarily true!  But… This is Hiromi-chan in question, so I guess when it comes to her, I do usually end up that way,” I can’t help but laugh a bit.  It’s always been that way between the four of us; best friends keep secrets, after all, and we’ve been the very best of friends since elementary school.


Amai Oishi
Hiromi Kaname, Sayuri Kato, Amai Oishi… and me.  We’re all second years now, except for Sayuri, who’s a third year.  I think it’s because of her that the rest of us all got into Korekara Academy- it’s an invite-only school for girls, after all, so prestigious that all the money in the world won’t buy your way in.  From what I hear… all of its students are supposed to be both talented and, well, messed up.  Emotionally.


That rumor is true.


I really don’t think that I got in on any merits, though.  I’ll grant messed up, though it’s less emotional and more mental in my case; I really don’t understand the world at large, I’m utterly clueless.  I’m not talented at all, in any way, that’s what gets me.  Most people don’t know about my AI either, so it couldn’t have been the cause of my admittance.  It really must be because all my friends were invited.  I don’t know what sort of ‘messed up’ they are, since I’m not the most mature person to vent to about that sort of thing, but I do know they’re talented.  Amai inherited her family’s cafe in her hometown, near Tokyo, and now she’s head of Korekara’s cooking club.  Sayuri’s always been great with money, always landing the treasurer position on student councils… And Hiromi’s always been in advanced science classes of all sorts.


So they all belong there.  I just… don’t.


Don’t worry, Box, you do.  Just because you can’t see your own gifts yet doesn’t mean others can’t see them in you.  You’re at Korekara Academy for a reason.


--


I’m at Korekara Academy.


It is October 2nd, and it’s my first day back in class.  Everybody’s busy doing their own thing, and my own thing is working through the make-up work.  Here at Korekara, the curriculum is different.  Schoolwork is given as handouts, in written form, matching each student’s academic level in the subject.  Aside from that, it’s on us to improve, though the teachers will answer questions if we have any.  Especially my teacher.  Miss Ikimura is known as the best teacher in the school, and she watches over Class 2-2.  I’m in luck.
Sasane Ikimura


It’s only after school, however, that she comes to speak with me any further than giving me the work I missed out on.  She approaches my desk and leans against it with a warm smile.  I can see Miki Hanamura out of the corner of my eye giving a spiteful, jealous look this direction, as she always does when Miss Ikimura talks to anyone but her, “So, Hako-san, you seem to be making good progress on your make-up work.  Good job.  I should also mention that you missed the club festival, so if you want to pick an extracurricular, I’m sure anybody will let you do that now.”


“Thank you, Ikimura-sensei,”I nod.  Maybe I’ll join cooking club again like I did last year, it was nice to spend the time with Amai and learn a few things while I was at it-


You need to become the infirmary aid.


What?  Why would I want to do that?


Didn’t you say you’d trust me and do what I said?


Yes, but the doctor is scary…


That’s precisely why you need to become her aid.  It will save lives.


Can’t I at least have a moral quandary here?  Who’s lives?  How many?


Good grief, Box.  Haven’t you heard the rumors of students disappearing in the infirmary?  If you become the aid, you can stop those.  Not to mention, a doctor like that might be able to cure some bizarre illnesses.


I don’t have a bizarre illness, [Redacted], that’s just what I’m telling people.


I’m not referring to you, dummy!  I’m talking about somebody else you know.  Does the name Ryouma Kobayashi ring any relevant bells?


Right, Ryouma Kobayashi.  Nobody knows why she gets sick all of the time, something about her immune system, some genetic condition.  She’s super vulnerable to all those illnesses that are just inconveniences to the rest of us, so [Redacted] has a point here.  It could be right; if something was to happen, some weird sickness and Ryouma got it, well, I bet the doctor could solve that problem, but not if I didn’t get on her good side first.  So I go to the infirmary, and I walk in, and she’s standing there, back to me as she goes through her cabinets.


“...Hello?” I greet, quiet, and she turns.  Her eyes are daggers over the frames of her glasses and she raises her eyebrows in surprise as soon as she sees me.  She takes one step closer, click of her heel echoing in the small room, then cups her chin in her hand, eyes never moving.


Iwako Same
“It’s good to see you back on your feet, Hako-san…” The words are friendly, but the tone is not, “I have to say, I was shocked to hear that you came down with such a severe illness.  You always seemed to be in such good health…” Like a snake, yeah.  That’s how she sounds, “It almost makes me want to open you up and see if I can’t find out why… The administration frowns on me doing that sort of thing, though, so I guess you don’t have to worry.  Why are you here, anyhow?”


“Uh…” I’m not sure what to say for a moment, but I can feel [Redacted] prodding me to go on, “I’m here because I didn’t pick a club before I fell ill, and… Well, it would be a bit rude of me to try and join an established club by now, so I was wondering if you could use an aid?”


“Well that’s an odd request,” She turns her nose up to look down at me, “My other aid is a spy.  She’s spying on me.  Aside from that purpose, I cannot see why you’d want to work with me.”


“If she’s a spy why haven’t you fired her yet?” My curiosity outweighs my fear, so I ask the scariest woman I’ve ever met a seriously dumb question.


“Because she’s incompetent enough at spying that I knew she was a spy right away.  I’ll deal with her eventually, it’s on my list.  Just not a priority,” She waves the matter off and turns her attention back to me, “Why would you ever want to be an aid for me if you weren’t trying to unearth unsavory intel?”


“Well,” I chuckle, rubbing the back of my neck, “I don’t really understand why anybody would be spying on a high school infirmary’s doctor in the first place!  So I don’t know why anyone would aid for you with that purpose in mind… I just thought that, well, aiding would be better than a club for me this year, and maybe I could be a help to you!”


“Cute,” She snips, pressing her lips together as she grabs something from her desk and tosses it at me.  I catch it on instinct, then examine it.  A pill bottle? “That’s unimportant.  I was just testing your reflexes.  Very good, for somebody who’s been unconscious for months.  So I suppose you’d at least have some degree of use.”


“I can be very useful!” I’m not sure why I’m insisting on something that I don’t even want to do, but I guess I’m convincing enough, “I can do loads of menial tasks, and… Well, I can be a friendly face!  So that people don’t, you know, avoid coming here out of fear…”


“I will agree that I have atrocious bedside manner.” She frowns, then pushes her glasses up her nose, “Very well.  I suppose that allowing you to help me couldn’t turn out badly.”


“Wonderful, thank you!” I nod, holding my hands to my chest for a moment before I return the bottle she tossed to her desk, “I won’t let you down, Same-Hakase!”


“Oh I’m quite sure that you will,” She shrugs, then glares at me, “Why are you still here?  I have nothing for you to do today.  Come see me Sunday evening...” She pauses, “Six PM.  That should give you more than enough of the day to spend time with your friends, seeing as you’re so chipper, I assume that’s something which you do.”


“Yes, Same-Hakase,” I nod, then turn around, but feel compelled to look back over my shoulder and smile, “Have a nice day!”


I’m gone before I can see her reaction, but she did seem a bit put off  by the fact that I was nice to her earlier…


Well of course.  She’s used to students being afraid of her.


Now that I think about it, that’s a little sad.


Isn’t it?  Anyway, the only other thing I need for you to do today is pick up an earring that got dropped into a bucket near the front of the school.  Aside from that, you can do whatever you like, as long as it isn’t ridiculous.  I’ll stop you if you get too reckless.


Sayuri Kato
Back in the first floor hallway, I take a look around.  The cooking club is meeting today, and I can see Sayuri in the corner, but I have no idea where I’d find Hiromi.  I guess I’ll just talk to Sayuri for now, so I walk up to her, “Sayu-chan!”


“Box-chan?” She questions, looking at me in shock for a moment before smiling, rubbing her arm with a half-shrug, “You’re back… How are you feeling?”


“Pretty good!” I jokingly flex one arm, but I can’t actually keep it up for long before it drops back to my side, “I mean, for having been in a coma and all.  Walking’s tough, but not impossible!  So how have you been?  Get me caught up!”


“Well, I guess I’ve been okay… I won the treasurer position on student council again,” Her smile turns a bit sheepish, “But otherwise, I haven’t been doing much at all… Oishi-chan’s been busy with cooking club…”


“What about Hiromi-tan?  And why are you calling Amai-tama… Oishi-chan?” This seems strange to me; the four of us have been on first name basis for years now.


“Well, without you here, we just aren’t that close anymore…” She looks away, frowning, “And, Box-chan… Who is Hiromi?”


“...What?” I can’t move.


Go to the roof.


Oh, I guess I can move, and I’m moving to the roof at top speed.  Sayuri watches me go, confused, but I don’t particularly care in this moment.  I’m much more concerned with the question she posed.  Who is Hiromi?  Hiromi Kaname, of course.  Our friend.  The fourth member of our friend group, ever since we were in elementary school.  I stumble out of the stairwell onto the roof, and she’s there.  She’s standing there.


Thank goodness… Though that doesn’t explain Sayuri’s question.  And I don’t recognize the girl she’s standing with.  They’re leaning back against the tall chain link fence on the roof; that’s new.  It wasn’t there before my hospital stay.  I walk up to her, hands folded behind my back, “Hiromi-tan…?”


“Box-chan?” She sounds surprised, and looks it too, “You can see me?”


Yamiko Tori
“Of course I can see you, why shouldn’t I?  Does that have… Anything to do with why Sayu-chan asked me who you were, when I mentioned your name?” I question, stepping closer.

“Stay back,” The girl standing next to her warns, glaring at me, right through me, “Most people… Just see me standing here alone.  You must be Hako-san…” A smirk cracks her face, “Figures you’d be able to see her.”


“See her?  What does that mean?  Who are you?  What’s going on, Hiromi-tan?” I reverse those steps closer that I took.

“Well, Box-chan…” Hiromi sighs, wringing her hands, “I think it’s best… if I let Fukuro explain…  Er, I mean… Her name’s Yamiko Tori.  Fukuro is just a nickname.  Because, well, she looks like an owl,” I guess she does look like an owl.


“I heard about you, Hako-san.  Hiromi told me.  Only the pure of heart can see ghosts… And you are very pure of heart,” Yamiko explains, crossing her arms and refusing to make eye contact, “Your friend… Sayuri Kato, right?  She’s pretending.  She doesn’t want Hiromi… to have existed.  Because it’s too sad to think about how I killed her.”


“What are you talking about?” I keep moving backward, till my back is against the door for the roof.  I’m confused and, honestly, terrified.


The Delinquent Guarding The Gate (Kemuri Taino)
Box, the earring.  You have to get the earring.  Go downstairs.  Tomorrow, you’ll get your answers.  Hiromi is here.  You can see her.  Don’t worry about what the owl says.

Right, the earring.  That’s important.  [Redacted] says it is important.  Erego, it’s important.  Downstairs.  I go back downstairs without even getting an answer.  Second floor, first floor, outside.  A delinquent guards the school gate instead of the gym teacher, that’s the way it’s always been.  The teachers here don’t do much.  Let alone more than they need to.  Miss Ikimura is the only teacher who ever even stays after the last bell rings.


Up on a small ledge on school grounds, there’s a bucket.  I step up onto the ledge and fish around in the bucket.  Just like it said.  Earring.  A cross, with a purple rose on it.  I don’t know why this matters, but I have it now.  It’s like I’m not even in control of myself, when I walk out of the school.  I wanted to see Amai.


Not now.



Okay.


------------------


Hello.


My name is Apollo.  It’s nice to meet you.  You’re interested in Box’s story, yes?  It probably gets a little distracting, though, to hear [Redacted] all the time, yeah?  There’s a gag order on her real name, at least for now, so why don’t you come up with something else?  Anything you like.  For all I care, it could be a ridiculous joke.  Maybe I’d even like that.


It’d definitely be more fun than [Redacted].  So let me know, will you?  You can communicate with me through the comments section.  Box can’t hear you; [Redacted] can’t hear you.  I can, though.  That’s my purpose, after all.


Thank you.


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