8 June 2017

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SCENE 14 – The Wasteland, pt. 1

The Boreal Express, through all the wild twists and curvy turns it makes along the tracks, finally ends up at a station, where the train descends to a halt, its wheels winding down by the glass platform – hissing out steam.

A few of the attending gnomes come by, unlatching the carriage doors. The children come out, stepping down and gazing outward – already captivated by the baroque atmosphere the sights have evoked.

The Conductor steps in front of them all.

Amidst the hundreds (if not thousands of kids) who are organized into groups by the gnomes, looking like they're ready for an organized march - Utena spots Anthy in the distance (knitting a cantrip with Chu-Chu), popping out behind Nanami and Stevie.

"Utena, what happened?" Anthy asks. "Was Shinji always on the train? Did you help him find his ticket?"

She tells Anthy about chasing the silhouette of the Conductor above the train and all the events after that.. besides the passionate kiss she shared with Shinji. "There's something bigger going on that the Conductor isn't telling anyone else," Utena adds.

The Conductor is waving for everyone's attention, before taking a boom mic from a gnome and gets his voice amplified. "Well! We have made our trip – there is a ceremony where you get to meet Santa Claus, but.." He checks his pocket watch. "We have about an hour to spare, lucky us, because of my wonderful and efficient scheduling."

"What are you suspecting?" Anthy asks, hushed. She trusts Utena's gut feeling more than anything, like the time when Kyouichi Saionji set a trap in the hallway in a vain effort to 'win' Anthy's heart back, even outside of a rose duel.

"Why would Santa Claus pick hundreds of children to take to his North Pole? Look around – the domes, the crystal spires – this is incredibly advanced technology; and I'm pretty sure we're not in a dream."

"Maybe Santa is feeling especially generous? He wanted to see the children, to remind himself why he's gifting the Christmas spirit?"

"We look like the only ones here who are over 12.. oh, I found Shinji alright. He's landed a new job looking after the train engine." Utena spots the fey boy clambering out of the Conductor's caboose, having two steaming cups of mocha at once.

The Conductor waves his hands. "Now, now, if you'll follow me, it will be my absolute delight to show you tots how presents are made, and how each of you children get chosen to be on Santa's good or naughty list. Get into formation – groups of 16, four by four, we need to be organized so no one dilly-dallies."

Some gnomes accompany the batallion of kids; it takes a few minutes for them to get them all sorted, before the Conductor whistles, and the shuffle of footstep movement carries Utena and Anthy along.

"Boy oh boy, I wonder what kind of spy satellite tech they've got!" Stevie goes, before tugging at Nanami's sleeve. "Don't you want to know if you can spy on your crush or not? You're past the age where cooties apply, I know your heart must be bubbling for someone special!"

A brief blush washes over Nanami's face. Touga.. my big brother Touga! She sighs on the inside. "I do.. but that is totally none of your business Steve."

"I'm just curious, that's it – I don't know what it's like to be in loovee, me being 8 and all. But I read up that it drives all the girls and boys crazy with hormones."

Nanami gives Stevie a good long glance; he's bubbling up and down, gitty with pure excitement. Then she says, "You need better hobbies," before letting out a giggle – she can't help how adorkably charming Stevie gets.

/

In the surveillance station, the gnomes peer over the monitors, where each screen flips from one perspective to the next every few seconds.

"So far, our program is going as intended," the chief security reports to the supervisor, handing a tablet which holographically projects the statistics. "We counted 1,696 children, and the Conductor hasn't broken a sweat. Oh, he's improvising a tour of our production facilities.."

"A tour!?" The supervisor gives the monitors a glare.

"Sir, he's on time with an hour and three minutes to spare."

"Jolly good."

/

As the accompanied children cross through the gate, light glimmers from the landscape of living crystals. A civilization of Gnomes and Elves – like ants, they are seen walking along the branches, or in some places, gathering to see the children from afar.

Some of the crystal clusters would split away, with each separate globules flying off to service a different existing cluster, or to reform entirely in another place.

Service Gnomes skid between the clusters on web-like rails – escorting freight cargo.

The Conductor leads the children to a very large platform inside a tower. Not everyone will fit at once, so the ones behind get to watch the process where the Conductor rolls his hand through a watery control device, and a bubble is formed, lifting those on the platform up in zero gravity, and carrying them afloat to one of many huge connecting tubes – they stretch from the diameter of the snow globe to the very centre.

Utena glances at the bubbles and all the children who float around in them. She thinks she sees a girl who looks like a young version of herself, spinning around and colliding with other kids.

In her head, imagery flares up – the roses she was lined up with in the coffin, the cruel starkness of glancing at her parents' graves. Crying miserably to herself every night in the foster care place, alone, and when the figure skating programmes come on TV, she feels a pang in her heart – would she find Spike Spiegel again, enrapturing her world with total delight?

There has to be another time.. I want to see him again, watch him dance again, hear every single word out of his mouth like silk again..

I can't bear the painful reality of being alone.

I don't want to be alone anymore..

So she ran away, when it was supposedly lights out, and everyone was supposed to be asleep in their cots. She'd looked up someone in the phone book whose name was listed as Spiegel, S. – listed with the address. And that could just be him – she tried calling the number, using her one free phone call privilege, only to be met with an answering machine message – a woman: "Hi, you've reached the Spiegels. We're sorry we can't reach you at the moment, but if you'd like to leave a message, yatter away!"

Maybe Spike had found a fiancée and he's married. Perhaps she would find him once more, and tell him everything that's happened with her, and..

(the perfect Christmas I cherish in my heart)

That was the one hope Utena hung onto – that lit her mind in that time of total uncertainty. She didn't bother leaving a message, knowing full well the attendants could hear her, so she just hastily wrote the address on a slip of paper, and glanced at the map. 1176 Ichinomiyacho, Kokubu, Fuefuki.

It was barely within walking distance from the orphanage.

That dinner, Utena ate whole-heartedly from the rice and grub, never mind that it tasted bland, even with the other girls and boys noticing – she'd need the energy, and a bit of courage to go during the night.

Her heart was racing, as it did back then. For the first time in a long while, her thoughts brimmed with liveliness. She kept Spike's face at the forefront of her mind, for all the handsome features and his warm, understanding eyes.

When it was on the verge of curfew, Utena waited in the downstairs washroom.. and waited. For that chime which announced another night confined to the cots. It felt like forever, the seconds rushing through her pumping veins. But there the chime went, and she had to act fast, the caretakers would scrounge up to the top floors to do a head count..

Utena ran out the maintenance door on the side of the orphanage, and with her jotted, hastily drawn map, she faithfully followed the street corners, away from that stone-cast building looming with its deep shadows in the dusk - getting closer to her Spike.

She was panting, the humidity of the Spring and all the cicadas chirping. Passing by a few teenage smokers by a bus stop.

It was a modest neighbourhood, with the suburbs cast in white under the street lights. Utena hastily glanced at the house numbers, finding 1173.. 1175..

She turned around to the other side of the street and saw Spike's house, looking gloomy behind the darkness of the tree-cast shadows.

"Spike!" she went, not caring about anything else, as she unlatched the gate and hastily ran up the steps to the door, and rang it. Her fingers ramming the doorbell for all it's worth.

Then she saw the window lights turn on.

Someone's inside!

She was waiting, and then the door opened – Ikari Shinji comes into her mind..

"Hello? Utena-sama! Wake up!" Anthy rubs Utena by the shoulder – it's their turn for the bubble ride.

The bubble is inflated around the platform, and soon everyone in it is carried off, the bubble caressing the platform before letting it go.

From the viewpoint of the gnomes and elves watching, it looks like a stream of giant blown bubbles, with the people in it like bouncing Skittles.

The zero-gravity for Utena is like being in an elevator rushing down, except the sensation fully awashes her, liberating her temporarily from the entire weight of her body, the butterflies in her stomach, and feeling a rush of total euphoria across her senses.

She gets bumped by a boy, and the motion has Utena bouncing back from the membrane walls, and she can't help laughing and giggling from the motions.

"Chuuuu..!" Chu-Chu is dangling off of Anthy's flowing hair. The petite monkey is so unused to the zero-gravity, before he gets flicked off by Anthy moving her head, looking around – and he is tumbling in a daze.

It's like having your entire centre of gravity being disrupted, and what looks like the ground is a vastly spanning wall – no, a ceiling.

In Shinji's bubble – "Get me off this ridee!" he goes, fits of laughter escaping him.

The Conductor simply stands stoicly, as his body rotates anyway and is knocked aside by a group of kids who have the idea of holding hands in formation.

"Newton's third law aglore!" Stevie pips, before his glasses let loose from his face and he gropes for them.

/

Everyone is in a wonderful daze by the time the bubbles have set in a hangar. Pink gas emits from the floor, which rids them of the sense of vertigo as a few uniformed gnomes arrive through the doorway.

"I heard you want to do a tour of our gifting facilities?" one of them asks the Conductor.

"Yes.. I doo," Hans von Hozel goes – tapping his foot as if the sands were slipping out of the hourglass. Some sweat seems to have grown under his chin, which he tugs at his collar. "I was thinking you'd be readily available."

"Oh, we are.. yes, we are," the gnome goes, glancing at his other comrades. Then speaking more boldly: "We've been expecting your arrival Herr Hozel. Come, come! We are just preparing our last batches of gifts, this is an opportune time to see!"

Utena has been under the impression of being led through a look-don't-touch tour, a boring if not mildly interesting spectacle that she's been led a few times through school field trips. If you're lucky, you get to touch a few things, hands-on, but otherwise it's how Utena easily tunes out of the conversation.

Then, more pertinantly, it hits her. She realises the scheduled nature of the whole North Pole visit. There'll probably be some snacks and food along the way, and if they're lucky, actually see the jolly old fat man himself, with a huge, huge lineup of who gets to talk with him on his lap.

But she'll never really get to have her one-on-one moment with Santa. The way he ignored her pleas when she really needed a miracle to set her life right again. All he can do is give out shoddy material gifts for these kids who don't know any better.

She gulps. Her only option is breaking free – slipping off from the group and search for Santa.. yes.

As the Conductor and the gnomes finish chattering in front of the scattered kids, more thoughts rush through Utena's mind. She can't just rush off on her own – the radically advanced technology is enough to discourage her by intimidation (you're awed by it in Star Wars and the Fifth Element, but actually using it is a whole different story).. she'll need some help.

Utena goes and taps on Anthy's wrist. "Anthy – I'm going to run off from this tour."

"What?"

"I have to find Santa, on my own terms. He is why I've been haunted for a long while."

"Utena.." Anthy is instilled with Utena's sense of urgency.

"Will you come with me? Help me find him?" Utena is asking her with an utmost sincerity – and of course, after glancing at the children who are being indulged now by the factory gnome, Anthy nods yes.

"I'll help you, Utena-sama," Anthy goes.

Utena is almost on the verge of hugging Anthy – before she catches Shinji, separated from her by children who are almost a header shorter than either of them. Her heart is drawn to him. But his attention is caught by the factory gnome's words.

Then the Conductor lets out a shrill whistle; the gateway before everyone is opened, and the following shuffle is like a wave of forward motion, carrying Utena and Anthy along with it.

June 2017

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