The night was black out here in the countryside. Only complete darkness was visible outside the window. Even the pitiful illumination of the overhead lights above her head was enough to blind her. She blinked in their harsh fluorescent glare.
Despite herself, she continued staring out of the bus window, desperately hoping for the first glimpse of her destination; for the first sign that her journey was nearly at an end.
She shifted nervously in her seat, clutching at the small bag that contained everything she had left in the world. For she didn’t dare go back.
They were waiting for her there, at the place she had called home as recently as twenty-four hours ago. Something hadn’t felt right, and she had known that she had to leave, right then. So she took a precious minute to stuff a few things into a bag, and off she went to the bus station.
Sure, bus travel wasn’t at the level of comfort she was used to, but it was cheap, and she had very little money left. She was afraid to access her accounts, in case they would find her through the transaction.
Even better, the bus was basically anonymous. On airplanes and trains, you had to fill out forms, give your name, provide proof of your identity… but not with a bus. She had just purchased a ticket on the first bus leaving for Utoland, and stepped onto it, barely looking back at the only home she had ever known.
It shouldn’t have been her home. She should have gone with her sister.
So much had happened, and her sister needed her help. Wasn’t that what sisters were for? Especially twins. She and Ivory had that special connection people whispered about: the ability to know what the other was feeling, and in some instances, thinking. The ability to understand something of what was going on with the other.
Since Ivory had moved away, that sense of closeness had disappeared. Ebony had wanted to stay in the town of her birthplace, moving among the circle of friends she had had since childhood, but not her sister. Ivory had wanted to go to the biggest, brightest city of them all.
Ebony sighed, a silent tear trickling down her cheek as the bus trundled down the highway, through the dark night. She needed to find her sister. She needed to know that they were still close. But most of all, she needed to know that Ivory was still alive.
She attempted to push the terrible thought from her mind, but it wouldn’t let go. It clung on with a tenacity she hadn’t expected, circling through her head over and over.
She needed help. And she knew that she could get that help in Utoland.
The bus went over the top of a large hill, and as it crested the peak, the bright lights of Utoland City came into view. A quiet murmur arose from the other passengers, as they roused themselves from their fitful slumber, anticipating their arrival.
Ebony smiled softly in relief. At last… at last she could find help. And she had managed to arrive safely.
But as she shifted slightly in her seat, she caught a glimpse of a man looking at her. She couldn’t recall seeing him board the bus, but his features and clothing were non-descript. In fact, the only thing that made him remarkable was the way he was staring at her.
His eyes were cold, as if his soul were made of ice.
A sudden shiver of fear ran down Ebony’s spine. What if that man was following her?
Given her sad financial state, she had planned to walk to the ISO buildings from the bus station. It was across town, but she had the rest of the night, and the offices likely wouldn’t be open until morning. Now she had to consider other, more costly options.
Of course, she might just be paranoid. The tiniest part of her wasn’t entirely certain that she was being followed at all. In fact, this part of her mind was screaming at her for being so stupid as to abandon her home. But the rest of her… the rest of her knew better.
She knew too much. They would never allow her to reach the ISO.
She watched the man out of the corner of her eye as the bus moved through the outskirts of the city. His gaze never left her, and he watched her with an intense scrutiny that had her nerves screaming.
With a screech and a hiss, the bus pulled into the station, coming to a stop at a clean, brightly lit terminal station at the edge of town. Ebony leapt up, even before the vehicle had stopped moving, pushing down the aisle to ensure that she disembarked first. The other passengers glared at her and shouted rude remarks, but she barely heard them. She raced off of the bus as if the devil himself was after her.
And in a way, he was.
These people represented the devil, didn’t they? They proudly wore his sign, and followed his bidding. Ebony had always been afraid of them, but had never thought that they would touch her life in quite this way.
She ran into the terminal, scanning for an exit. She saw a sign for taxis and moved in that direction, only to discover that another man was outside.
He was wearing a trench coat, and green pants.
Green pants… she knew that their uniforms were green. Goodness knew, she had seen them often enough on the news reports, but she had never expected to see one of those green-uniformed men in the flesh.
Of course, it could just be coincidence. They was only green pants after all… but Ebony was on edge enough to be wary. She thought she saw the man from the bus entering the terminal, and knew she had to move quickly.
Her eyes lit upon the sign for the Ladies’ Room, and gratefully she rushed inside.
The restroom was empty; only a few stalls and sinks were there to greet her.
And a window.
A window… it was high on the wall, but if she climbed onto a sink she could reach it. It was just big enough for her to squeeze through. If only she were brave enough.
As it turned out, it was her cowardice that forced her through the small opening. What she wasn’t brave enough to do was face the men back in the terminal. More than anything else, death terrified her.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t thought her plan through very well, and she ended up landing on her head, inside of a garbage dumpster. Someone had recently dumped a lot of old newspapers, and she was relatively unhurt. Scrambling out of the metal container, Ebony clutched her bag to her chest and ran.
Ebony wasn’t sure if she was even running in the right direction, but she was no longer certain that she would be able to walk to the ISO by herself. She had to hide, and get a taxi there in the morning.
She heard footsteps behind her, and she moved faster.
The footfalls came more rapidly. There were two sets… no… three.
She was being followed. All attempts at pretense were gone now.
“You can’t get away from us!” she heard one of them cry. “Stop! We only want to talk to you!”
Ebony didn’t listen. She knew what kinds of ‘talking’ these men were famous for.
“Stop, bitch!” yelled another, “If we have to chase you all over this damn town, you’re going to pay for it!”
She ran harder, her feet pounding the cracked sidewalk as she anxiously searched for somewhere to hide.
The entrance to a shabby trailer park was on her left. Quickly, she turned into it, racing amongst the few occupants who were still awake. She heard the men follow, and she began ducking and weaving around the trailers.
Her movements confused them for awhile, and Ebony thought she could hear their footsteps growing more distant, but she didn’t stop.
She had to keep going.
The trailers weren’t so close together now. In fact, there was only one more at the edge of the area, and beyond it was a fence. Perhaps if she could just get over the fence, she could hide in the bushes.
She dashed around the last trailer, her lungs bursting with the unaccustomed effort.
Only to crash into a brick wall.
At least, it felt like a brick wall. But the wall grabbed her, and kept her from falling down.
“Are you all right?”
Ebony looked up into the face of the man who had spoken. She couldn’t see him very well in the dark, but he didn’t look like one of them. She had run into him, and he was holding her up against his hard chest.
She started to frantically pull away, but then she heard voices behind her. Turning, she realized that her pursuers had caught up with her.
The man in front was the one from the bus. The two men behind him wore trench coats. One of them had fallen open to reveal his green uniform underneath.
Ebony’s knees began to shake. She was exhausted. She could run no further. She would never reach the ISO now.
“She’s not worth the trouble.” the man from the bus called. “Just walk away.”
It took Ebony a moment to realize that he was talking to the man who was holding her; the man she had just run into.
Perhaps he could help her. It was a long shot, but Ebony had to do something. If this man left her, she would be dead.
“Please…” she whispered to him. “Don’t let them…”
“Shut up!” the man with the open trench coat shouted. “Don’t talk to him! He doesn’t want to hear your lies!”
Ebony felt the arms holding her moving. The man was placing his body between her and her pursuers.
“Get out.” her sudden protector hissed.
The three men began to laugh.
“Who the hell are you?” asked the man from the bus. “You don’t want to get messed up in this. Just leave now and we’ll let you keep your pathetic life.”
He approached her protector, only to cry out as an iron fist met his face.
Ebony could barely comprehend what happened then. Her protector moved so fast, she could barely see him strike, but in a few seconds, her three pursuers lay motionless on the ground.
The man who had saved her grunted, disgustedly kicking at them, before one by one picking their bodies up and tossing them into the bushes. When Ebony looked at him, he gave her a quick answer.
“Don’t want their friends to find them.”
Ebony was taken aback. She hadn’t thought about that. Perhaps there were more. Maybe she still wasn’t safe.
She was still in danger.
The man emerged from the bushes, brushing has hands off against his jeans. He walked over to Ebony, speaking in a quiet voice.
“Do you need to call someone?” he asked her. “My trailer is just over there. You can use the phone.”
“Yes…” Ebony stuttered. “I… I need to call a taxi, please.”
“Sure.” the man replied, gently but firmly taking her arm and leading her away from the area.
As they walked, Ebony looked up at the man’s face. He didn’t look like one of them, but he had certainly dealt with them well enough. She shuddered, thinking about the brutal efficiency with which he had brought down her pursuers. Still, he was helping her, and at this point she didn’t have any choice but to accept.
He walked her over to a corner of the park, to a non-descript trailer that looked like it had seen better days.
“Want to come inside?” he asked, taking his hand from her arm.
Under any other circumstances, Ebony would have run from any man who took her to a remote place and asked her to enter his home. But looking around, she realized that she didn’t have much choice. Where else was she going to go? If the man were going to hurt her, he would have done so already.
Besides, this man was obviously more powerful than her pursuers. Could she get away from him, if she tried?
Reluctantly, she nodded her head.
He turned, opening the door, allowing a warm yellow light to spill out onto the dilapidated steps that led up to the entrance. The interior was shabby, but clean.
“Come on in.” the man said wryly, stepping inside without even looking to see if she followed. He pulled off his leather jacket, revealing a t-shirt with the number two emblazoned on it.
Timidly, Ebony crossed the threshold. There wasn’t much more to see from this angle than there had been from outside the door. The trailer really was incredibly small.
“Have a seat.” the man gestured to a worn table and a pair of wobbly chairs. “I was just about to make some coffee.”
“Thanks, coffee would be very nice.” Ebony said, her fear beginning to leave her.
With the same quiet efficiency he had used to fight off her attackers, the man prepared the hot, steaming liquid, and poured it into two ceramic mugs. He moved over to the table, handing one cup to her.
Casually, he sat down, leaning back in the chair with a strange look on his face.
“I’m Joe, by the way.” he offered. “Joe Asakura.”
“Ebony.” she introduced herself, holding out a slim white hand. “Ebony Shiratori.”
“Nice to meet you, Ebony.” Joe replied, a strange smile on his face as he leaned forward to take her hand. “Tell me, why is a nice girl like you being chased by Galactor?”
“I…” she wasn’t sure how to respond to such a direct question. “I have to get to the ISO.” she replied. “I have information for them.”
“I see.” Joe said, quietly sipping at his coffee.
His lack of response encouraged Ebony to speak a bit more.
“I need help.” she admitted.
“That much is obvious.” he drawled, staring at her for a long moment.
“As it happens,” he continued, playing with a bracelet on his left wrist, “my father works for the ISO.”
“I could take you there, if you’d like.” Joe offered.
Ebony looked carefully at Joe. There was careworn look about his face. Its lines were hard, as if he had lived a tough life, but there was something behind his eyes… something she instinctively felt that she could trust.
“Thank you.” she said.