Epic - Book Two: Inheritor of the Stars

by treave
Prologue: Registration
Interlude: A Brief History (4000 A.C.)
Chapter One: School Days
Part 1 - Arrival in Olympia
Part 2 - The First Night; The First Day
Part 3 - Home Invasion
Part 4 - Inheritor
Part 5 - Home Invasion: Aftermath
Part 6 - Relius Engura
Part 7 - The Grand Olympus Hotel
Part 8 - Relius's Room
Part 9 - Fleeing the Grand Olympus
Intermission: The Apostles of Hiranyagarbha
Part 10 - The Old Leaves Bookstore
Part 11 - Questions for a Bookstore Manager
Part 12 - Julius Gallardo
Part 13 - Capture
Part 14 - Escape from the Laboratory
Part 15 - In the Meantime
Part 16 - In the Meantime (II)
Part 17 - The Dunamis Coup
Part 18 - Battle on the Stage
Chapter End - Farewell Olympia
Interlude: Space Colonies (4025 A.C.)
Chapter Two: The Beginnings of Conflict
Part 1 - Late Again
Part 2 - CF Anhur
Part 3 - First Kill
Part 4 - Mission Briefing
Part 5 - Flight of the Kaguya-hime
Part 6 - Crossroads
Part 7 - Base 43
Part 8 - Mother Crab
Part 9 - The Scarlet Lightning
Intermission: Major Armed Forces of the World (4025 A.C.)
Part 10 - Escorting The Spirit of Adventure
Part 11 - Meeting Major
Part 12 - Setting the Battlefield
Part 13 - Colony Drop
Part 14 - The Empress Strikes Back
Part 15 - Lost
Part 16 - State Funeral
Part 17 - Conversation in a Funeral Hall
Part 18 - Changing Conflict
Chapter End - Return to the East
Interlude: War Timeline
Chapter Three: Higashi Cases
Part 1 - Working Life
Part 2 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act I
Part 3 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act II
Part 4 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act III
Part 5 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act IV
Part 6 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Conclusion
Part 7 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act I
Part 8 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act II
Part 9 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act III
Part 10 - So You Messed Up and You're Now a Cyborg Ninja. Now What?
Intermission: State of Technology (4026 A.C.)
Part 11 - Reload: Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act IV
Part 12 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act V
Part 13 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act VI
Part 14 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Conclusion
Part 15 - Vacation in the North
Part 16 - Breakthrough
Part 17 - Immortal
Chapter End - Dive
Chapter Four: World Zero
Part 1 - START
Part 2 - Gate
Part 3 - Field
Part 4 - Countdown
Part 5 - Connection
Chapter End - END
Interlude: All That Has Passed
Chapter Five: Terra Reborn
Part 1 - To The City of Broken Dreams
Part 2 - Reunion in the Old Quarter
Part 3 - New Seeds
Part 4 - House of Knowledge
Part 5 - Planting the Seeds of Hope
Part 6 - A Winning Proposition
Part 7 - The Order of Pithos
Part 8 - A Familiar Face
Part 9 - One More Month
Part 10 - Unseen Threat
Part 11 - Ambush
Part 12 - The Promise of Entertainment
Part 13 - Misjudgement
Part 14 - Ultimatum
Chapter End - Joining the Fleet
Interlude: The League and the Empire
Chapter Six: To The Stars and Beyond
Part 1 - The Gate of Ean
Part 2 - Framejack
Part 3 - Into the Fray
Part 4 - Turmoil in Space
Part 5 - Interlude in the Cracks of Reality
Part 6 - Rendezvous Point
Part 7 - The Belesis
Part 8 - Boarding Party
Part 9 - The Tactician
Part 10 - Fight or Flight
Part 11 - Imperial Crusade
Part 12 - Bring on a War
Part 13 - Backstory
Intermission: The Goddess and the Youth
Part 14 - Meeting at Kamabharata
Part 15 - Break
Part 16 - Tinkering
Part 17 - T-Minus Thirty Days
Part 18 - Battle at Uranus
Part 19 - Man vs Crusade
Part 20 - The Real Crusade
Part 21 - The Mission
Chapter End - The God and the Youth
Interlude: Preparations
Chapter Seven: Destiny's End
Part 1 - Opening: War Council
Part 2 - Departure and Arrival: Gelmark
Part 3 - Delta Hunt
Part 4 - Defector
Part 5 - The Belly of the Beast
Part 6 - Database Break and Entry
Part 7 - Information Medium
Part 8 - Central Brain
Part 9 - Control, Alternate, Delete
Part 10 - Garden of the Gods
Part 11 - Tribulations of the Grand Marshal
Part 12 - Stalker Encounter
Part 13 - Advent of Space Whaling
Part 14 - Crossroads of Life and Death
Part 15 - Stardust to Stardust
Part 16 - The Will That Prevails
Part 17 - Embodiment of the Devourer
Part 18 - Code Masters
Part 19 - The All-Seeing Eye
Part 20 - Those Who Challenge the Divine Will
Chapter End - Man · God · Machine
Epilogue: The Continuing World
Another Epilogue: Somewhere in the multiverse...

Prologue: Registration

You thought I was joking about the sequel? :troll:

***

Prologue: Registration

The Imperial Academy is one of the foremost educational institutions in the world. Located in the center of the thriving academic town of Olympia, the Academy has produced some of the best and brightest students in every field. From athletics, to cooking, to history, to science, the Imperial Academy boasts a top ranking in every category. Kings and presidents and world champions are common faces at our alumni gatherings. The Academy uses the time-honoured Imperial Public School system, admitting students at the age of 13 into the first year of study. Students are given a well-rounded curriculum for the next three years. In their fourth year of study, specialization courses are offered until they complete their studies in the sixth year. Successful students are automatically given priority for elevation to the Imperial University, the crown jewel of the Academy’s academic offerings.

We are proud to welcome you to the Imperial Academy, and hope that you will enjoy a beautiful student life in pursuit of knowledge and skills that will guide you to a successful future. Please hand in this questionnaire to the student council’s counter in order to receive your entry pack.

***

1. How did you gain entry to the Academy?
A. Academic scholarship.
B. Athletic scholarship.
C. Political connections.

2. Are you more of a pragmatist or an idealist?
A. Pragmatist.
B. Idealist.

3. Do you like making friends?
A. Yes.
B. No.

4. Are you good at making friends?
A. Yes.
B. No.

5. Is lying ever acceptable?
A. Always.
B. Yes, if it is necessary to avoid greater harm.
C. Never.

6. From the list below, select the one thing most important to you.
A. Relationships
B. Power
C. Knowledge

7. Would you sacrifice the life of a loved one to save a hundred strangers?
A. Yes.
B. No.

8. What attracts you in a partner?
A. Looks
B. Smarts
C. Athleticism
D. Personality

9. If you are unhappy with the state of things, you would rather change:
A. The world.
B. Myself.

10. Do you want to live forever?
A. Yes.
B. No.
 

Interlude: A Brief History (4000 A.C.)

Interlude: A Brief History (3000 - 4000 A.C.)

3010 A.C.
Collapse of the Concordiat; the entirety of East Asia is rendered uninhabitable at the end of the Time of Troubles. Most of the survivors cross the sea to Japan, once a vassal of the Concordiat and relatively untouched by the destruction of the Sacred Tree. Others migrate westward and settle in the kingdom of Tamur.

3011 A.C.
Astronomers of the Old Shinar Empire note that the stars have radically changed position since the end of the Time of Troubles. Astrologers claim that their fortune-telling charts have always accounted for the new positions.

3014 A.C.
The various wayward kingdoms of the Old Shinar Empire officially return to the fold.

3087 A.C.
The Indus Empire completes its absorption of the former vassals of the Concordiat.

3089 A.C.
The first commercial steam engines are introduced in Skane. Free Scania is brought under the aegis of the Shinar Empire.

3099 A.C.
The Indus Empire invades Assyro-Babylonia, assuming Shinari weakness. The forces of the Shinari push back the Indus army with ease. Further assaults are swiftly repelled, though no land is gained by either side. An unstable peace sets in.

3152 A.C.
A virulent plague originates from the Indus Empire, spreading like wildfire throughout the continent. The young are particularly susceptible. 26 million people die in the first year.

3155 A.C.
The plague continues to spread, with casualties nearing 60 million. Economic and technological progress begin to slow. The Indus Empire fragments into multiple small kingdoms.

3158 A.C.
More than 200 million have fallen victim to the sickness, reducing the world’s population by 25% compared to the turn of the century. An entire generation of children has been lost to the plague. Rebellions in Skane depose the monarchy and turn it into a republic.

3160 A.C.
A cure for the plague is synthesized from Inanna flowers growing in Olympus. The structured bureaucracy of the Old Shinar Empire helps its swift distribution.

3200 A.C.
The first steamship is built in the docks of Hispalis. The Rus tribes coalesce under one king to form the kingdom of Rus.

3250 A.C.
Intrepid explorers begin setting out for the western continent.

3254 A.C.
The first steamship from the Old Empire reaches the New World.

3300 A.C.
The first Hispalian colony is established on the eastern coasts of the New World. It is named New Hispalia, exhibiting the chronic lack of naming creativity that has plagued the Old Shinar Empire for millennia.

3301 A.C.
Proposals to call the New World ‘Diogenesland’ are shot down by the Council of Nobles

3302 A.C.
The Council of Nobles officially names the New World ‘Shulgiland’ after an ancient Sumerian king. Rumours of massive amounts of currency being exchanged in shady parlours abound.

3366 A.C.
Multiple technological developments happen concurrently in various fields. This year would be known later on as the Year of Industry.

3370 A.C.
Agricultural advances reduce reliance of the northern kingdoms on the breadbaskets of the south.

3380 A.C.
A conglomerate of merchant guilds establish the first factory in Etrurea. The first trade delegations from Japan reach the Old Empire, calling themselves the Higashi, Kingdom of the East.

3400 A.C.
An increasing reliance on coal for steam power causes conflicts with the Indus kingdoms.

3415 A.C.
The Skane Republic declares independence over lack of compensation for its coal reserves. The Great Civil War begins.

3425 A.C.
The Great Civil War ends with the independence of most of the client kingdoms of the Shinari. The Old Empire is reduced to the kingdoms of Assyro-Babylonia, Egypt and Hatti.

3441 A.C.
Republicanism spreads throughout the continent as Hispalis and Etrurea replace their kings with directly elected representatives.

3443 A.C.
The various colonies of Shulgiland declare independence while the old continent is mired in its troubles. No one really notices.

3470 A.C.
A failed revolution in the Old Empire ends with a very minor branch of the Imperial family coming to power instead of nationalists. The Empire is given the appellate ‘New’.

3500 A.C.
The New Shinar Empire begins earnest exploration of the African continent as part of their new policy to ‘Look South’.

3511 A.C.
Steam-powered blimps are introduced.

3531 A.C.
Frequent transcontinental flights begin.

3561 A.C.
Large swathes of Africa are colonized by the New Shinar Empire. Conflicts with natives are frequent.

3598 A.C.
The Indus Confederation comes into being, patterned after the Shinari representative system of government.

3617 A.C.
The Higashi colonize Australia.

3666 A.C.
Political tensions begin to rise between the New Shinar Empire and the Indus Confederation over colonial concerns. The Indus Confederation signs a defense pact with the Higashi.

3681 A.C.
Fuel combustion engines begin to supplant the dated steam technology at a rapid rate. The anonymous inventor has been popularly quoted as saying “You people are loving steam a little too much, and that’s getting you nowhere.”

3700 A.C.
War breaks out between the New Shinar Empire and the Indus Confederation. The fighting takes place mainly in Africa.

3701 A.C.
The Higashi join the war on the side of the Indus.

3703 A.C.
The New Shinar Empire loses its African holdings. They decide to strike directly at the Indus Confederation.

3708 A.C.
The Indus Confederation’s capital is captured, but they continue to fight.

3709 A.C.
Higashi troops aid the Indus Confederation in pushing the New Shinar Empire out.

3710 A.C.
The aeroplane is invented in the New Shinar Empire. It is promptly put to use as a weapon.

3711 A.C.
Indus Confederation warships break through into the Mediterranean and begin laying waste to shipping. The northern nations decide unanimously to aid the New Shinar Empire militarily.

3714 A.C.
The United Nations of Shulgiland (UNS) are formed as a neutral alliance against pressure to interfere from the Shinar, the northern nations, or the Higashi.

3715 A.C.
The combined forces of the New Shinar Empire and the northern nations succeed in breaking the Indus Confederation, and it surrenders.

3716 A.C.
The Higashi pragmatically agree to stop the war. The terms of settlement turn the Indus into a Higashi puppet.

3720 A.C.
Discontent elements within the New Shinar Empire start a rebellion over the massive reduction in living standards since the war.

3722 A.C.
The revolution in the New Empire ends with another very minor branch of the Imperial family coming to power. The Empire is given the appellate ‘Neo’. No one is bothered to point out that the meaning is the same.

3730 A.C.
The first computer is invented in the UNS.

3750 A.C.
Massive improvements in technology and living standards occur all over the world. The anonymous inventors that are responsible are popularly quoted as saying, “You people really are getting nowhere by yourselves, even with a big war under your belts. Hopefully this will be the last time.”

3751 A.C.
The Imperial family go into business, leveraging their resources and connections to form the Imperial Shinar Corporation (ISC). It soon becomes the most powerful company in the world thanks to its successful monopolization of the previous year’s inventions, helped by its reputation for being politically neutral despite being run by the head of state of an empire.

3781 A.C.
Mankind begins to look beyond the skies.

3790 A.C.
The first rocket is sent into the upper atmosphere by the Neo Shinar Empire.

3800 A.C.
The first satellite is launched by the ISC, broadcasting the popular folk song, “Flowers of Inanna”

3803 A.C.
The UNS succeeds in sending the first man into space. The first man into space does not succeed in getting back alive.

3805 A.C.
The Higashi succeed in bringing back a man from space. Alive.

3810 A.C.
The UNS lands a probe on the moon, claiming it for themselves.

3811 A.C.
The ISC lands a bigger probe atop the UNS’s probe, crushing it.

3815 A.C.
After several instances of trial and error that send several dozen astronauts flying off into space with no hope of return, the ISC succeeds in having the first man on the moon. The UNS fails to land their man atop the ISC's man and concedes the moon race to the Neo Shinar Empire.

3820 A.C.
Several space stations are launched by the space-faring nations.

3830 A.C.
The Higashi and the UNS collaborate to begin construction of the first space colony.

3831 A.C.
The human population passes 6 billion. The Neo Shinar Empire collaborates with the northern nations to begin construction of a moon base.

3860 A.C.
The first space colony is completed along with the moon base. They are named “Peace” and “Hope”, respectively.

3881 A.C.
A ring of solar panels around the Earth is proposed as a means of clean, cheap energy. Initial investments would require the cooperation of all nations.

3892 A.C.
The Solar Ring project is approved. Construction of relays begin. At the same time, a rival energy project is started based on helium fusion.

3900 A.C.
The ISC begins researching Inanna flowers, which appear to have the ability to terraform inhospitable land. East Asia serves as a testbed for their research.

3905 A.C.
The first mechanoid power-suits are created for space work, powered by self-contained fusion reactors.

3923 A.C.
The first successful manned mission to Mars happens.

3933 A.C.
Construction of a Mars base begins. The Solar Ring project is completed.

3950 A.C.
The population of humanity in space surpasses 500 million.

3968 A.C.
Mankind reaches Jupiter and begins constructing helium-3 mines.

3980 A.C.
The first Inanna flowers are successfully grown on modified soil on the moon.

4000 A.C.
The population of the world surpasses 10 billion. Of that number, 2 billion people currently do not reside on Earth.
 

Chapter One: School Days

Part 1 - Arrival in Olympia

Arrival in Olympia

***

Track 1

My first memory was of the white ceiling, the smell of antiseptic and the slow and steady beep of the machines plugged into me.

I had no idea how I got there, when I had started laying there… or who I was.

It took exactly 5.4 seconds for a woman to open the door and gasp in surprise.

3 minutes and 14 seconds after I woke up, a man was at my bedside, his fingers probing my head and neck.

Twenty six hours, five minutes and thirty seconds later, two people visited me, a man and a woman. They called me their son. I had not seen them before, and I did not know what they meant when they called me son.

Words and concepts were jumbled in my mind.

For example, I knew that the wiry necklace the man wore around his neck was a stethoscope, but I did not know what it did. I knew that there was some sort of tool used to measure heartbeats by auditory means, but I did not know what it was called. The man was called a doctor. What did you call a person that treated the sick?
I knew that he was a man. But what was a man? What was a son? A father? A mother? A sister?

Whenever a word floated into my mind, its concept eluded me.

Whenever a concept flitted across my consciousness, the word for it escaped my grasp.

The only concept I retained was that of time. I remembered numbers, and how to count them, and how they marked the passage of time. I could count every second that passed without looking at the pale white clock that hung on the wall.

Gradually, I learnt to re-associate words with concepts again. The two who called themselves my father and mother stayed by my side every day. A girl who called herself my sister joined them one week later. They showed me pictures with words. My father told me about computers. My mother taught me about food. My sister tried to get me to understand fashion. She claimed it was a Reeducation Project to turn me into an outstanding boy that could sway the hearts of girls.

It was fun for me, but not at all easy. If I thought about something too hard, I would vomit and black out. Thankfully, they were patient with me; my family, the nurses, and doctors did not blame me for failing, but encouraged me to try again.

One month later, I took my first step. My muscles were weak; they said that I had been sleeping for far too long. I could barely lift a pen when I first woke up. The first thing my sister did when I could walk was to guide me outside.

For the first time, I saw where I was.

A field of golden flowers shone brilliantly against the pitch black sky. A brilliant blue marble gleamed gently above it, surrounded by a ring of mirrors.

It was the most beautiful sight that I had ever seen.

***

“Next stop, Olympia. Next stop, Olympia. Please check your luggage before disembarking.”

Track 2

I open my eyes, my mind still groggy. I haven’t dreamt about the lunar hospital in a while. It wasn’t a bad dream, though. Perhaps it was a good omen for my new life and fresh start here in Olympia. All around me, people begin to get up from their seats and check the overhead compartment for their bags. Most of them were young; they were probably students at the numerous schools in Olympia. I remain seated, looking out of the window as the scenery flashes by. My belongings should already be at the house by now, if the Imperial Shinar Corporation had kept their word.

As if right on cue, my phone flashes, indicating an incoming conversation.

“We’re all set up, Master!” A cheerful voice that only I could hear appeared in my head. “My server is plugged in and online.”

I exhale a sigh of relief and chuckle.

“Thank goodness. I wasn’t sure the ISC would let me keep you, Yua. They were threatening to destroy everything I had. You were at the top of the list. To be honest, I thought I would never see you again.”

A panicked yelp comes from the other side of the conversation. “Master! Don’t say things like that. If that happened, I…”

“Well, everything should be in order if you’re talking like this,” I continue. Yua was a very useful assistant, but at times she could be a bit clingy. I didn’t recall that being part of my design, but when it came to behavioural programming there was always some uncertainty. “Have you run a full diagnostics scan? I want to know if they changed anything besides the monitoring programs they told me would be there.”

It was part of the deal I had made with them. In exchange for keeping Yua, I would agree to the installation of some monitoring software in her server so that they could keep track of my activities. I wouldn’t put it past the ISC to try and sneak something extra past me, though. As the train slows down to a crawl, I get up from my seat.
“Ah, about that, Master… they did do something.”

“Is it serious?”

“I’m afraid my abilities have been restricted.” Yua sounded extremely sorry that this had happened. That was worthy of a big sigh. There were only a few people in the ISC that could bypass my security and adjust Yua’s capabilities without killing her outright, and she was the only one who would do something that could jeopardize the deal with impunity.

“I’ll look into it when I get there. It should take me about… sixteen minutes and fifty two seconds. I’ll see you in a while.” I finish, looking up the map on my phone. It was a brand new, top of the line personal communicator device courtesy of the Imperial Shinar Corporation, probably bugged from top to bottom with spyware. I hadn’t been allowed to keep my old phone or my old contacts. The train stops and the doors open. I step onto the platform quickly, pushing my way past the rush of people trying to get back onto the train.

The air here was different. Just two hours ago I had been in New Ankida, six hundred kilometers down south. The summer heat in Olympia was less fiery, and a subtle fragrance was in the air. Looking at the map again, I head towards my new home for the next three years.

***

Apparently it would take sixteen minutes and fifty two seconds for a normal, healthy male teenager. Twenty two minutes and four seconds after I left the train station, I huffed and puffed my way up the last of the steep stairs that the map had conveniently left out. The sun was already setting. Ever since I woke up in the hospital, my body had always been physically weak, and no amount of rehabilitation or exercise seemed to help.

At my old school I was known as the Legendary Ten Seconds Boy.

…I don’t want to think about that right now.

Leaning against a pillar to catch my breath, I look at the house. It is a normal looking house built with modern architecture, an elegant mixture of straight lines and swooping curves. Most of the house is made of reinforced photo-sensitive plastics that could change their transparency. I didn’t know that the material was still in use in Olympia; back in Higashi it had been banned after someone figured out how to hack into the house’s central computer and force it to full transparency whenever he wished.

Interestingly, the surrounding houses are not made of the same material. If this is the ISC’s idea of irony, I gratefully accept the challenge.

I open the door and Yua’s hologram greets me cheerfully. “Welcome to our new home, Master!” The changes that had been made were evident at first sight. When I first activated Yua, she had performed a thorough check of my ‘search history’ beyond my capabilities to hide it and taken the form of my ideal girl – a short ponytail, cheerful demeanour, pretty eyes and a nice body that was just rightly proportioned.

Now she looked like a ten year old version of herself.

“So, the restrictions you were talking about…”

“Yes, Master. I can’t please you anymore.” Yua fidgeted shyly.

“I… people are going to get the wrong impression if you say things like that!”

“We're all alone here so it's okay, Master!” she grins as she floats about me.

“I bet she is.” I mutter.

Track 6

“That’s right, Hoshikawa Senya! How do you like my modifications?” The brash, familiar voice came from my phone… it looks like they could access it at will. I remind myself to be more careful while using it. A sulk passed across Yua's face at the presence of the intruder.

“Please act your age, Ms. Anna.” I sigh. All I knew about her was her first name and her age, which I had tricked her into revealing shortly before my capture.

“Oh? I thought you liked little girls, Senya.”

“Just because I called you an old hag doesn’t mean I like them young.”

“I’m only 23. You just can’t appreciate the charms of a mature woman.” I had met her quite frequently while at ISC headquarters in Ankida, and she really was different from the girls I usually met at school, with her well-permed long brunette hair and revealing outfits. I don’t think I would ever be comfortable around her, though.

“Yes, yes.” If I let this go on I’d never get to settle in. “Anyway, what do you want?”

“Just wanted to let you know not to try anything funny with Yua, since we’re always watching.”

Yua blushed and started swaying about in a worrying manner.

“Wha- she’s a hologram, and what do you mean, always watching? Did you rig the entire house with cameras?”

“Yup.”

“This is an invasion of privacy!”

“You signed that away. Clause 16.11, page 13. Don’t worry, I won’t watch while you’re jerking off.”

“You… you sexual harassment auntie!” Somehow, this always happened. Her greatest pleasure in life seemed to be teasing me, and somehow she had ended up as my supervisor for the next three years. I wasn’t sure which the worst thing about my exile was between this and getting separated from my family.

“Ahaha, how cute. How red are you right now? Well, you’re kinda mature for your age, and your looks are really my type…”

“I’m hanging up.”

“Wait, wait, wait. There’s actually something I need to tell you about.”

“Which is?”

“I’ve secured the latest flagship blueprints from the Indus Confederation, I need you to analyze and submit a report about its capabilities.”

“Even the almighty super hacker can’t do everything, huh? Anyway, I’m not an expert in robot engineering.” I briefly recall seeing some mention of that in the ISC files I leaked. It seems that the various nations were starting to repurpose the construction and labour-orientated robots for combat. It seemed pointless to me, and another piece of evidence that this world was not very sane.

“You’re smart enough to make sense of it, at least. The higher ups are convinced you can perform the analysis faster than their best teams. After all, you made Yua, didn’t you?”

Yua beamed at the mention of her name and hopped over. “Master is the greatest!” she chirped, affirming my greatness with all her heart. I resist the urge to pat her on the head. Even as a ten year old she was cute… no, down that path lies a terrible end. I must not think that.

“Well, send it to me and I’ll see what I can do. It’s not like I have a choice.” I sit myself down in front of the multiple projections in my server room. It was a large, sparse room; previously I’d had to cram all my things into the small room of the apartment I shared with my family. Yua’s central server was located in the center of the room, a small black orb with pulsing blue lights. It was no bigger than a child’s ball, but the modifications and optimizations that I had made ensured it was more than powerful enough for Yua to outperform the best artificial intelligences in the world. Even now, most AI were just not very smart or lifelike, and notable only for their ability to slowly improve themselves. The human-like AIs I had read about in stories had always remained a pipe dream for many years. Well, until I took it upon myself to create Yua. She wasn’t perfect - there were a great many bugs in particular when it came to her behaviour towards me, but she was a great step forward from the current design paradigm.

Track 2

“Right-o. It’s done.” I checked and confirmed with Anna that I had received the blueprints, and she disconnected after teasing me again for another ten minutes. Next, I tried to contact my family. The call went unanswered. I let it ring twice, and then try again. On the third time, I decide to leave a short message instead.

“Dad, Mum, I made it to Olympia safely and I’ll start school tomorrow. Drop me a message when you get this. Remind Chinatsu not to call me at school., she was threatening to do that if I didn’t call today.”

“I’ve gotten the bath ready, Master, and dinner will be cooked in an hour.” Yua came over to me as I turn away from the computer projections, her feet passing through the ground. It seems like the holo-projectors of the house weren’t calibrated properly. I’d have to take a look at that, but at least the remote controls had been properly set up under Yua’s command. Time to take a rest…

***

The bath and dinner were perfectly set up to my liking. The water’s temperature and level was just right. The food tasted just like how it did back home. If this is how life is going to be here, it should be manageable despite Anna’s antics. I look at the clock; it was 9 pm. In my rush to get to the house I hadn’t really paid attention to the surroundings. Perhaps I should go for a walk…

***

A. I take a walk around the neighbourhood, confirming the layout with the map I have and keeping alert for any oddities. One can never be too safe.

B. My new life starts tomorrow at school. There’s no longer any need to be paranoid; the ISC have an eye (maybe many eyes) on me anyway. Best to turn in early so I’m not late the next day.
 

Part 2 - The First Night; The First Day

The First Night; The First Day

"I'm going out for a while." I slip on my shoes and jacket at the entrance of my house.

"Don't be out too long, Master. I'll keep your bed warmed up for you."

Yua waves at me from the door as I leave. The brisk spring air of the outside is a stark contrast to the carefully adjusted thermostat in the house. The house on the left side of mine is dark. Judging from the lack of any curtains at the windows, it is probably unoccupied. The house on the right is clearly inhabited ; I can hear the tell-tale laughter of a family within. A father, a mother... at least two daughters, if the shoes are any indication. I move away before I feel too much like a stalker. I'll get Yua to bake a cake for them tomorrow as a moving-in gift.

Further down the street there is a row of shops. The convenience store is the only one open, its harsh white lighting spilling out onto the dim street. It looks like the residential areas don't see much activity at night, though from what I've heard the commercial areas are bustling right into the wee hours of the morning thanks to rowdy university students.

From there, the road begins sloping downwards. The terrain of Olympia is naturally rocky and hilly, and I wonder if I should get a bicycle. I continue walking, occasionally glancing at the sky. It is too cloudy to see the moon.

As I pass another row of shops, I see that there is one still open. It was not a convenience store this time, but appeared to be some sort of old bookstore. Curious, I move closer to take a look, and a girl comes out. Her long silver hair glints faintly in the light of the moon. If I had to use one word to describe her, it would be 'beauty'. The word was practically made for her. The strangest thing about her is not her silver hair, though, but the sword she carried at her waist. It is a Higashi sword - I would recognize that distinctive curved blade anywhere. She bowed at someone inside the bookstore and walked off. It's at that time that I notice that she is wearing the uniform of the Imperial Academy. Could she be one of my schoolmates? My curiosity aroused, I follow her.

...maybe I really am a stalker.

When my feet stop, I find that I have reached what was marked on the map as a small park. The girl is nowhere to be seen, though I was sure she went this way. I must have walked for twenty minutes... twenty minutes and fifty two seconds, to be precise. The park was more akin to a playground, with its jungle bars, swings and see-saws. There are a few benches. Despite the cold, I was already starting to sweat. Finding a bench, I take a seat and rest my legs.

The dim streetlights flicker briefly. Something strange catches my eye.

Track 4

There seems to be something crouched atop the jungle bars. I hadn't seen it there before, but perhaps my eyes are too tired. There is a faint rotten stench in the air. It reminded me of a dead dog I once came across.

The lights flicker again, wildly this time.

The thing atop the bars appears to unfold. I had thought it might be a cat, but it is now a little too large to be one.

It appears to be human.

But it looks wrong.

It feels wrong.

It moves, just slightly, and in a split-second I realize what is off. It was as if someone had tried to mold a person from clay just from the description that a human had a head, a torso and four limbs.

No human limbs bend that way naturally.

The arms were just a bit too long.

The legs looked too thin to support its weight.

Thankfully, it is too dark for me to see the head.

I cautiously get to my feet, keeping my eyes trained on the thing.

This is where a hero would challenge it to reveal itself, or perhaps go closer to take a look. Unfortunately, I'm not too brave when it comes to confronting something I don't understand. My first instinct when approaching the unknown is usually to retreat and find out more, though in this case I feel extremely uneasy at the prospect about finding out more. I back away slowly, taking care not to break into a run. The thing does not move from its spot atop the jungle bars.

The moment it is out of sight, I run as fast as I can. What was that thing? It's definitely not any animal I've ever recalled reading about. Was it a type of robot? Probably not, it seemed too organic. There was also the matter of that stench. My mind thought about the possibilities furiously as my feet pound the pavement, sprinting harder than I ever have. Miraculously, I manage to make it all the way back to my house before my knees give way and I'm forced to stop, falling on my hands and knees in front of my own door. The pounding of my blood is the only thing I can hear. My body feels like it is burning up as I gasp for air.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

I count the beats of my heart as I try to calm down.

Thump. Thump. Squish.

I look up.

Squish.

There it is again. The sound came from the direction I had run from. If I had to describe it, it would be as if someone had stepped in a plate full of slimy dead fish.

Squish.

Had it followed me back?

I wasn't going to stay around on my porch to find out.

The first thing I did when I entered my house was to give Yua some orders. Basked in the comforting glow of the projection panels, I regained my calm almost immediately. As long as I had control of the house I would be safe. "Yua, something followed... might have been following me. Please monitor the outside of the house for any incursions and react accordingly."

"I got it, Master! Are you hurt? Do you need any first aid? CPR? I can get a cup of coffee for you ready in two minutes if you need it." Yua was now dressed in a nurse outfit, fussing over me.

"No, I'm fine. Just make sure the security systems are working. That'll be all."

"Yes, Master," said Yua, still slightly concerned at my condition. It took her only a second to perform what I had requested, and followed it up with an impromptu medical scan that assured me that my heart wasn't going to give out on me tonight.

I had managed to convince the ISC to provide me with some security measures, arguing that I should be at least granted the same right as any person to install security hardware in their homes. They had agreed and paid for it with the condition that they were given the key to disable it whenever they wished. The measures I had requested consisted of mostly non-lethal traps, but it would be enough to deter any normal human. I hoped it'd be enough. Even though I'd requested Yua to keep an eye on things, my unease kept me sneaking a peek at the cameras scanning the outside of the house.

The night was long...

***
Track 2

“...ster...”

“Hm?”

“Master, wake up!”

I jerk awake with a start, my head passing through Yua's hologram as I did so. It was a weird but pleasant sensation, like gentle pinpricks all across my skin. Yua yelped and turned entirely red, holographic steam rising above her head.

“What's the matter, did we get something?”

The last thing I remembered doing was watching a very surprised cat bolt away from my house on the security cameras.

“No, but it's already 9 am! I've been trying to wake you for the past two hours!”

It is already 9.

School starts at 8.

I rush about the house, running frantically in a flurry of activity. Yua follows behind me, reminding me of everything I need to do. Brushing my teeth. Putting on the right clothes. Going to the toilet – I think she was trying to peek at me. Finally, breakfast; I grab the toast and take off. I'll have to eat as I go. Hopefully the teacher won't be mad at me...

***
Track 5

Strangely, the teacher isn't mad, though he looked slightly sorry for my tardiness. In fact, as I entered the staff room, all of the faculty turned and gave me looks of sympathy. I wasn't sure if I should ask why, but a sense of foreboding came over me.

“So... Mr. Hoshikawa. You need to find out which classroom you're going to?”

“Yes sir.” It always pays to be polite to a teacher.

“You were supposed to be in class 4-A”

4-A was the advanced class for the elite brains of the academy. I begin to nod, and then stop. Wait...

“Supposed?”

“I just got instructions from the principal this morning to transfer you to class 4-M.”

“M...”

“It's where all the students with no particular talent go.”

I recall what I know about the Imperial Academy's class system. It had a generalized curriculum for the first three years, and then specialized classes for the last three. Each class has a specific focus on certain areas of study; academics and athletics were the most common, but there were also classes for cooking and art, among others. Class M was where students that did not have a particular inclination ended up. They usually graduated and worked for the ISC in boring middle-management roles, which is one of two theories why they were designated the M class.

The other theory says that M is for mediocrity.

“Is this because I was late?”

The teacher nods, and I happen to notice that the entire faculty are nodding to themselves, as if I had stumbled upon a particularly self-evident truth. I sigh. The old me would've complained that it wasn't fair, but I've learnt how to be able to deal with adults... somewhat.

“Do you think I could speak with the principal about this?”

“That's impossible,” said the teacher. “He's having a vacation in Etrurea.”

“But you said the principal gave you the instructions this morning?”

“From Etrurea, yes.”

“So I can reach him from here?”

“No, you can't. Neither can we.”

“Then...”

“Look, Mr. Hoshikawa, I think it's best if you don't think too much about this. Do your best in Class M and you might move up to the other classes next year.”

I bite back a reply and apologize for dragging things out. It was clear that the teacher didn't want to talk about it any longer. “It's alright. Come, I'll show you to the class.” He stood up and patted me on the back, like I was some confused little child. It didn't take long for us to get there. The teacher entered first.

“Alright, class. I know this is a bit sudden, but we have a transfer student joining us today.”

“Seriously?”

“We didn't hear about this!”

“Is it a guy or a girl?”

“I hope it's a cute girl.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I can hear a chorus of assents.

I'm sorry for not being a cute girl.

“Settle down. Come in, Hoshikawa.”

I walk into the class.

The first person I notice is also the person sitting furthest in the back. She was a student here after all. In the sunlight her silver hair was less striking, but her features remained as eye-catching as ever. She did not seem to notice my entrance, her gaze trained outside the window. Seeing the girl reminded me of the thing I encountered last night while following her, and I shiver involuntarily. Despite her disinterest, the other students were abuzz at my arrival and began whispering amongst themselves.

"It's a guy! Nooooo~"

"He looks serious. I wonder if he's the bookworm type."

"I suppose he's... kinda cute? Uhuhuhu."

“Hoshikawa, what are you waiting for? Introduce yourself,” muttered the teacher.

“Ah, sorry.” I apologized, slightly embarrassed at my lack of attention. “I'm Hoshikawa Senya, and I've just moved here from Higashi. Nice to meet you all.”

“Wait, did you say your name was Senya?”

A girl had raised her hand, looking at me. She looks familiar, but I can't remember where I had seen her before. She had black hair just like I did; she was probably from Higashi too. The Imperial Academy accepted students from all over the world.

“You mean... the Senya the vice-president was waiting for at the gates?” interrupted the guy sitting besides her.

That sounded bad.

“Vice-president?”

A chime rings about the school at that very moment, and the PA system crackles to life. An elegant female voice begins to speak.

“It appears that the great and wonderful Hoshikawa Senya has finally deigned to grace our presence at the Imperial Academy.”

What she said next utterly ruined whatever mental image I had of the voice's owner.

“Stay where you are, you piece of shit. Don't even think of escaping the class before I have gotten the chance to speak to the floating turd that dared make a lady wait. I'll be there in ten minutes.”

The speaker cuts off. Everyone in the class appears to draw back from me.

“Ah... what's going on?” I ask.

Incredibly, they begin pulling out books and reading... or at least, pretending to read them. The teacher coughs and leaves the room after reminding me to stand exactly where I was. Exactly ten minutes later, the door is thrown open. A girl stood before me, her eyes a haughty green, her blonde hair falling about her shoulders in delicate curls. Her non-existent chest was puffed out as she looked up at me.

She was pretty, but pretty short.

“Mr. Senya. Come with me.” The tone of the voice promised horrible things to come if I did not obey. She was angry. She was definitely angry. I'm not much good with girls, but even I can tell when one is upset.

***

Track 6

“My name is Kyrie Francesca de Shinar. Do you know what that means?”

I was in the student council room, alone with the girl. It had been empty when we came in. I nod. I was very clear what that meant.

“Hm. Explain who I am so that you will never forget.”

“You are currently the sole heir to the Shinar Empire and Corporation. Your father is the Emperor-President, whom many consider to be the most powerful man in the world. As the Imperial Academy... no, the entirety of Olympia is owned by the ISC, your influence in this town is unrivalled. You are the beloved daughter of the Emperor, the daughter he would crush lesser nations for, and as such a person I should never ever cross if I want to continue breathing.”

Kyrie nods, giving me a dazzling smile.

“If you know that, then you must be terribly bold to keep me waiting at the gates on your first day at school.”

“I'm sorry, I didn't know you were waiting for me.”

“Apology not accepted. You must be punished.”

“You've already put me in class 4-M.”

“I have, but a piece of shit like you... you don't really care which class you are in, do you?”

That was correct, and from my expression she knew she got it right. Her smile grows even more smug. I was only here in Olympia because my activities in Higashi had made it untenable for me to live there any more. For the sake of my family and for the chance at starting a new school life, I had accepted the ISC's plea bargain and come here. Whatever class I'm in ultimately didn't matter to me, because my aims were to graduate with no problems, and hopefully also to do so with a lot of friends, though given what has happened today that would be a problem, to say the least.

“I can get you expelled.”

“That would be one of the worse scenarios I could think of.” I answer.

“It would be a fitting fate for one such as you. I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to introduce you to this marvellous academy and your wonderful new school life. Not every student gets this favour. In fact, I have never done this before. And what have you done?”

“Trampled on your feelings?” I sighed.

“Exactly. You trampled on my feelings. I had heard that a part-time employee of the corporation was being sponsored as a student here, and I was going to go out of my way to make you feel at home. You didn't appreciate my good intentions at all by showing up late on your first day and letting me stand there in front of the gates like a fool.”

There was a slight sniff at the end of her rant. This girl is going to be hard for someone like me to deal with.

“Sorry.”

“You don't seem like it.”

“I really am.”

“You're making no effort to explain why you're late.”

I couldn't. Was I going to tell her some story about a classmate wandering about town with a sword and some weird monster? That would definitely make her angrier, I think.

“Hm. Anyway,” she sniffed, “I am not heartless. I'm giving a worthless boy like you one more chance to prove that you are worthy of studying here...”

“Thank you, Princess.”

“... provided you complete my quest.”

“Quest?” What was this, an RPG where the proud princess gives the hero a quest?

“You should be aware that every student is encouraged to join an extracurricular club here at the Academy. I'm sad to say that though most are actively seeking to improve themselves and the Academy even further, there are some clubs that have seemed... useless. I want you to lead one of these to glory.”

“I-”

“I was going to offer you a choice between an athletics and academics club, but from your records I can see you are a piece of shit who can't last ten seconds. Isn't that right? I'll assign you an academics club. You should at least have enough brains to do that, don't you? ”

Ah, did she have to say that? I never did like it when people insult my physical strength, even though I know how weak I am. Still, joining a club is something I'd always planned to do here, so it's not like I'm opposed to her plan...

***

A. She has insulted me one time too many! I will prove her wrong and lead an athletics club to glory, even though I might be horrible at physical activities. It's not the smartest thing to do, but... a man must have his pride!

B. I hate to admit it, but she's right. My brains are greater than my brawn, and I can accomplish her little 'quest' more easily by joining an academic club. It's better to play it safe, especially when dealing with a capricious and powerful spoilt brat.

C. The only way to win is to not play. She is clearly taunting me. Students are encouraged to join an extracurricular club. If I recall correctly, it is not compulsory. I tell her that, and let her know that though I may be sponsored by her father's corporation, I will not be bullied by her.
 

Part 3 - Home Invasion

Home Invasion

Track 11

The proper thing to do would be to accept her offer to lead an academics club. The answer is so obvious that I shouldn’t even have to think about it, but yet…

I know very well that smarts are important in this world, but despite all the civilization humanity had wrought, people are still primal creatures. Violence is a universal language that everybody understands. It’s not enough to be clever. To avoid getting physical I would have to be prepared for every last eventuality, and that is just impossible. Those who would take advantage of you are deterred only by strength. That strength might be your own, or it might be borrowed strength… the police, armies, and the governments that control them. The very order of our civilization is enforced by the threat of force. No law is respected without the power to back it up.

I know that very well.

That is why I cannot endure any more insults from her.

“Fine, I’ll do it. I’ll take athletics.” I mutter.

“You will?” She blinks, clearly caught off guard.

“I’ll do it. Athletics. Do you think I can’t? Do you think I’m that weak?”

“Wait a minute, why are you the one getting angry? I’m the one who should-“

“I’m not angry. You made me an offer and I’m taking it. All I need to know next, princess, is the name of the club.”

My condition isn’t something I can help. I have exercised for years, and yet my body has never improved. The doctors found it a mystery. None of the treatments they prescribed worked. No one has any idea what is wrong with me.

So there is nothing more I can do to change myself.

The world is wrong. In a just world, my weakness would not matter. My weakness would not result in others getting hurt. I wouldn’t have to stand here, getting insulted by some sheltered princess that has inherited her strength instead of earning it. Everything is in my file. If she knew enough to insult my physical ability she should know enough to understand how I would feel about that, especially after what I did. She is the same as the others, isn’t she? She’s part of the problem.

“…are you okay?”

A strange question to ask, coming from her. There is a mixture of concern and worry in Kyrie’s voice. I would never have expected such a soft, timid question from her. Does my face really look that scary right now?

Perhaps I should say something… perhaps I should thank her for her concern, but I am unable to get a grip on my emotions.

“Why do you care?”

That came out much ruder than I had wanted it to. Kyrie shrinks back almost imperceptibly, and then a look of bored arrogance settled on her face.

“You… Hm. Fine, as you wish, you piece of shit.” The insults came again like a reflexive quirk, but her heart didn’t seem to be in it. She sniffs haughtily and looks through a folder on the student council president’s desk. “Here. Since you’re an Easterner, you should appreciate this. You will be joining the kenjutsu club.”

Higashi fencing? I suppose it was not too popular here. I have seen shows about those, but I have never practiced it myself. I’ll figure out how to fulfill her conditions when I visit the club. In the mean time, I’m eager to leave the room.

“Thank you, Ms. Kyrie. We are done here?”

“Yes, we are done. Do not forget the terms I have given you… now get out.”

I say nothing more and do so.

***

Track 5

When I returned to the classroom, I’m immediately surrounded by my new classmates, eager to know what had happened between me and Kyrie.

“You survived the Tyrant!”

“Whoa, dude, you’ve got balls, ditching her on the first day like that. I’m surprised you’re still here.”

“What happened with her?”

“You look kinda down, bro.”

“Cheer up, the Tyrant has that effect on everyone… though I must say this is the first time I’ve seen her take that much interest in one student…”

I try to smile, bewildered by the sudden attention. After leaving Kyrie my mood had gradually gotten better, but I was still not feeling good enough to talk to them.

“Senya! Hoshikawa Senya!” The Higashi girl I’d seen before pushes her way to the front of the crowd. “It’s me, Keiko! Do you remember me?”

I do remember a Keiko from middle school, but that Keiko was shy and awkward. She’d never have tried to get to the front without apologizing a thousand times. Still, that bob cut and that little mole under her left eye… yeah, it had to be her.

“Fujisawa?”

“Yeah!” she grinned. “I was so surprised when I saw you come in. You haven’t changed one bit, but I wasn’t sure…”

Before I can reply, the girls of the class fell upon her almost immediately.

“You know him?”

“Who is he, an old flame?”

“Any juicy stories?”

Ah, girls and their gossip. Scratch that, the guys were joining in too. I sigh and sneak off to take my seat, near the back of the class. I suppose Keiko will keep them entertained with tales of my ineptitude for a while. She really has grown, though. Not just physically, but mentally – she barely had any friends in middle school. I recall my conversation with Kyrie and immediately feel bad. When am I going to get past feeling sorry for myself?

“…”

I feel someone staring at me. It was the girl from the bookstore, the one with the sword. My seat was besides hers.

“Uh, hello.” I smile awkwardly. “I’m Senya.”

“I know. You introduced yourself earlier.” Her voice indicated that she was utterly disinterested in me, but her blue eyes were fixed on me nonetheless.

“Oh… right. What’s your name?”

“Erika.”

“Well, nice to meet you, Erika. I hope we will get along well, being neighbours and all.”

“You smell… different.”

“…huh?” That came out of nowhere. How did I smell? Had she been sniffing me? Why did this sound like that crazy vampire story written by a certain popular female author that has recently sold millions worldwide?

“...” Apparently that was all she had to say to me, and she turned away, looking out of the window again.

***

I head to the kendo clubroom immediately after class. The vice-president had sent some trembling sixth year student to pass me a dossier about the club. The first and only page in the dossier was sufficient to inform me of the bad news. I open the door with some trepidation.

Track 7

“Oh! Oh, you’re here! This is boss! The vice-president was right! You’re really from Higashi! This is awesome! My first club member! Konnichiwa!”

Imperial Academy Kendo Club.

Formed: Six months ago.

Current members: One.

“Ah… you are… Michael Islington?”

Hai desu! But you can call me Michael-kun, Destroyer of a Thousand Blades!”

Oh, gods.

Third year student Michael Islington.

Extreme fan of Higashi culture. One could call him a true Higashi-maniac.

Founder of the Imperial Academy Kenjutsu Club, not to be confused with the more popular Imperial Academy Kendo Club which has won many trophies in international school championships.

He was short, red-haired and slightly chubby, and he looked even weaker than I am. First impressions could be deceiving, however.

“Well, if I may ask something,” I venture, “what does the club usually do?”

“Of course, every day I practice my way of the warrior, Senya-dono.” Michael draws a wooden sword from the sash around his waist and starts to flail about.
It appears that my first impressions are correct.

“I am barely trained in the Art of the Killing Blossom, but now that you are here I am sure that my training will improve by leaps and bounds!” His smile is so trusting that it hurts. “Desu!”

You… you just added that on didn’t you? You’re not supposed to use it like that! I feel like shouting out my inner thoughts, but I have had enough loss of control for one day. This is the club I’m supposed to lead to glory? Thankfully, Kyrie had inserted a note detailing the exact conditions for my victory in the dossier. All I need to do is recruit three more members in addition to me and Michael, and defeat the Imperial Academy Kendo Club in a match.

I look at Michael, who spins around and takes on a fairly dashing pose with his sword. “My sword is yours, Senya-dono! Tell me, who shall I cut first?”

At first glance the conditions seem lenient, but perhaps this might not be so easy after all…

After some time looking around and taking inventory of the equipment (mostly worthless toys), I conclude the first club session I have and go back early, demoralized by my first day at school.

***

Track 8

“Welcome back, Master! Did you get into trouble today?”

“Mm, I suppose so. Did anything happen while I was out?”

“The neighbours came by. Mrs. Fairlady dropped by with her two daughters. I greeted them and told them you were out, so I couldn’t let them in.”

“Good job.” It was the right thing to say – from a distance or a view-screen, Yua would be indistinguishable from a normal human being. Given that she looked ten right now, people would probably assume she was my little sister… I hope.

“Wait, you didn’t say that you were my daughter, right?”

“Of course not.”

“Thank-“

“I told them I was your wife.” giggled Yua, blushing and fidgeting again. I stared at her. It is going to be terribly awkward when I finally meet my neighbours.
“Yua.”

“Yes, Master?”

“Reflect on what you did.” I send Yua away despite her puppy-dog eyes, locking up the hologram function. Next, I check my computer. Anna had sent a message titled: LOL you pissed her off! I deleted it without looking at the contents.

Next, there was a message from Chinatsu. Opening it, I see the same stuff about how her friends keep asking her to get a boyfriend already, but she doesn’t want to. Only at the very end was there a line asking about my new life all the way in Olympia. It looks like she is doing fine. I can’t help but smile to myself. I was worried whether or not she would recover from that incident, but it looks like my little sister is far stronger than I am.

After taking a bath and eating dinner, I let a repentant Yua out and begin my work. I had been too rattled last night to do anything about it, but the Indus Confederation blueprints were still there in my computer, awaiting my attention.

They were… interesting, to say the least.

The concept detailed the use of a large humanoid robot as a weapon of war in urban areas. Though previously they had been considered too unwieldy for terrestrial use, it appears that an Indus scientist named Krishnashankar had come up with a more flexible way of tying carbon nanotubes together to act as synthetic muscles on an unprecedented scale. His method offered increased strength, durability and flexibility, allowing the robots to achieve performances beyond any other mechs currently in existence.

This strikes me as odd.

Such a breakthrough would make waves around the world. Improvements in carbon nanotube technology would be extremely useful in so many fields; it’s not possible that the Indus Confederation would keep it a highly-guarded secret just for use in war machines. Even by mass-producing their new high-performance robots and with support from the Higashi, they would not be able to win in a war – all this would achieve would be to get the Imperials and the Shulgilanders to ally together against them. It would be a futile war with much lost for little gained. Something is off here, but I still can’t figure out what it is.

Just as I was searching for more information about the current status of the Indus Confederation, the lights in my room begin flickering. My computer shuts down by itself. “Yua, what’s going on?”

“I’m falling back on emergency power supplies, Master. Something is… disrupting…” Yua’s form wavers for a while. “Something… interfering with… in the area, Master.”

Track 4

There is a faint stench in the air. It is the smell of rotten meat.

During the day I had almost forgotten about it, but the memory of the night before comes rushing back to me. I had wished that it was just a dream, but it looks like my wish fell flat on its face. “Yua, bring up all the security cameras.”

“Right away...” Her voice is faint. She had deactivated her hologram to conserve power. The security footage begins appearing in front of me, and I scan them quickly.

Nothing… nothing… there.

I spot a shadow at the corner of the garden that is noticeably darker. As I peer at it, it begins moving… crawling. Its limbs bent at unnatural angles as it did so, looking more like a four-legged spider despite its overall humanoid shape. It looked slightly different from last night. Also, the thing I encountered had caused the park’s light to flicker, but even though it followed me to my house, my systems had been unaffected by its presence. Perhaps it had changed, behaving differently… or perhaps there is more than one. Cold sweat drips down the back of my neck. My heart seems to freeze in my throat.

“Yua, activate the security systems.”

“I’m sorry, Master… insufficient power.”

I curse. What is going on here? Just as I debate whether or not to just grab Yua’s server and make a run for it, there is a loud crash. That… was probably the door. I think through my options. If they had reached the door, I could go through the windows. But…this house didn’t actually have windows, just blocks of plastic that could turn transparent as needed. They were quite a bit tougher than glass, and I didn’t have the tools to break them.

Ah, Anna, you thought you were being funny when you assigned me to this place, but you’ve just gotten me killed. Perhaps I should spend my last moments sending her a cursed message blaming her for my death, but my phone is also acting weird, strange symbols appearing all over the screen as if it had been hacked. There’s no way for me to reach anyone for help.

I’m all out of options.

I remember what I thought earlier about being powerless. It only took an evening to continue proving my thoughts right. I am nothing without actual strength to defend myself. This world is inherently unfair.

“Master… it’s coming. Run…” Indeed, I could hear a squishing sound coming from the corridor, growing ever louder.

“Yua, I’m sorry.”

I resolve myself to confront the thing standing. There might still be a way out. I tell Yua to turn the flickering lights off and back into the corner of the room, putting as much distance between myself and the entrance as possible. This should give me more time to react, and the shadows might hide me for a while. The moon was bright tonight. The sky was cloudless. The panel of plastic that I had kept transparent let in silvery streams of moonlight, dimly illuminating the room.

Track 9

Then, it was here.

The creature dragged itself into my sight.

There was no way it could be natural.

The legs were human. The arms were human. The torso was scaly and definitely not human. It had the texture of crocodile skin. Each of its limbs were mismatched, as if they had been sewn together from different parts. There were three elbows on its left arm, two on its right. Each hand had seven fingers. One of the legs had no knee, just a seam joining the thigh to the shin.

The head was that of a fish. I recognize it as a bluefin tuna; a rather expensive delicacy in Higashi. I laugh to myself half in terror, half in bewilderment. Whoever made this must’ve been rich. The fish opens its jaws, revealing a horrendous white worm wriggling in an oral cavity full of sharp teeth. There appears, strangely, to be a human eyeball attached on a pink stalk to the end of the worm.

The eyeball is staring right at me.

Found. You’re. It.

I grasp my head. I had heard that in my mind.

When I look up next, the fish-headed monster was leaping at me, its seven-fingered hands outstretched. It overpowers me with ease, pinning me to the ground. I don’t even have the time to fight back. My head bounces against the floor. I think I can hear Yua screaming, but I can’t make out the words.

The worm inside the fish elongates and tightens itself around my neck. As my mouth opens reflexively to gasp for air, it curls up and begins to slither down my throat. I try to struggle, but my arms are weak. I begin to choke, and my sight grows dark.

Is it going to end like this?

If only I were stronger.

If only I had not gone out last night.

Could this have been prevented?

A torrent of memories flood my mind as I begin to lose consciousness. This might be what they call seeing your life flash before your eyes.

Arguing with Kyrie. Signing that contract with the ISC. Dealing with the bastards that dared assault Chinatsu. Hacking for cheap thrills. Getting the top grades in my class. Meeting friends, old and new. Getting kicked around for being the weakest boy around. Entering middle school. Graduating from elementary school. The sight of the brilliant blue Earth. Meeting Chinatsu. Learning how to speak from my parents. The stark white hospital ceiling.

And then, there is nothing but a deep, terrible darkness. My brain hurts. It feels like it has split in two. On one side there is a searing heat, on the other a freezing cold.

My mind burns in an unimaginable blaze, shriveling up in the intense heat of a star’s plasma.

At the same time, it freezes as if in the void of space; in the dark, cold depths where not even the brightest sun could warm.

Dost thou fear death?

The voice is that of my own, younger but unfamiliar.

Dost thou yearn for immortality?

There is no need to even think about it.

Then accept this gift, with mine blessings.

I am unable to resist the voice. My hand reaches out, of its own accord…

***

A. I grasp the bright inferno, seeking the strength to burn all existence to ashes.

B. I seize the dark void, desiring the power to bring eternal stillness to the world.
 

Part 4 - Inheritor

Inheritor


Track 10

My brain feels like it has been submerged in a vat of liquid nitrogen. The biting cold clears my mind instantly. All my fear and hesitation is drawn into the void, leaving behind the simple logic of survival. I act at once, biting down hard on the worm that had thrusted its way into my mouth. The creature fills my mind with a surprised shriek. I take advantage of its distraction to free myself from its grasp, rolling a safe distance away. As I get to my feet, I notice that the world is different to me. I can see every detail of my enemy clearly in the dim moonlight; I can hear the dank core pulsating in its chest that serves as an artificial heart, pumping the vile fluids that keep the thing animated. I can smell the rotten stench vividly, leaving me under no impression that this is a living thing; I can feel the heat that does not run throughout its body, but only via certain channels.

This thing did not come together of its own accord. It is made by man, and as it tenses up to spring at me again, I can see a faint red haze stretching from its back and through my wall. The creature leaps. This time, I am ready for it. It lunges through the air in slow motion. The trajectory is laughably easy to predict. I know how fast my body can move and compensate by acting early. Before the monster lands, I have already darted under it. Judging from its poorly cobbled-together structure and repetitive behavior, it would not have the ability to correct its movements in the air. I take advantage of that and push upwards, hitting its lower body and altering its course. The creature flops over and smacks onto the floor. Wasting no time, I straddle it and grip the worm, pulling as hard as I can. It is most likely a weak point if it is usually hidden within the head.

My conjecture is correct, as the creature squirms and panics. Unfortunately, my hands aren’t strong enough to hold on to the wildly trashing thing. A disjointed arm sweeps towards my chest; I see it coming and only have just enough time to block with my arms. I feel the bones in my arms creak. This thing was strong; if it really wanted to kill me, it could have done so easily. Perhaps it wanted to do something else by shoving its eye down my throat, but I judge it too great a risk to find out what exactly.

Besides, it had a partner outside.

I stare down the creature, feeling neither excitement nor fear. If I had to defeat it, I couldn’t do so with my bare hands. I needed a weapon of some sort, but none of the things I have in the house right now have any potential to become an instant weapon. As I think, the monster moves towards me again.

Am I all out of options?

No, replies my cold mind.

That’s right… something tells me I could use it. I draw upon the cold and attempt to visualize it as a weapon. It responds.

A chill surges through my bloodstream and pools around my left hand. The cold had heeded my summons, but not in a way I expected. Small black tendrils pierce through my blood vessels and push their way out of my left wrist and palm in the dozens. They sway to my thoughts, glistening dimly in the moonlight, and I begin to imagine them in the shape of a spike. The tendrils twine together and form one in my palm with ease. I swing it up, timing it perfectly to catch the pouncing creature right in its fish jaw. I pull my hand away. The spike unravels into strings of tendrils as I do so, the ends having already anchored themselves in the monster’s head.

I had made these tendrils to do one thing, and one thing only. They begin to get to work immediately. The creature convulses as the heat is sucked away from it rapidly. It takes only three seconds to complete the procedure; understandable, given the lack of heat the creature had in the first place. The tendrils wither and drop off from my hand, their purpose fulfilled.

The line of red haze that had been tethered to the back of the creature slowly dissipated. It disappeared from the creature’s end, vanishing through my wall and out the other end. It was not something I would be able to see normally, though at any rate it was likely a leash or connection of some sorts. These things were definitely made by man, and there could be a master of some sorts controlling them. I could hear the thing’s partner moving outside my house with its squishy footsteps. It seems that it is pacing around the grounds… it could be undecided whether to enter.

This is the right time to take the initiative, while the enemy is unsure and I have the ability to hurt it. I walk towards the entrance of my house. The door was off its hinges, and in the doorway I could see the other creature. This was the one which had followed me last night. It was somewhat similar to the creature I had dispatched, but there were more joints on its arms, and the head was that of a large monkey.

As it sees me, it raises its long, long arms in aggression, but I had already decided what to do long before I had even come to meet it. I raise my left arm, palm outwards, and visualize the tendrils entwined together in the shape of a barrel. I need it to be thinner, narrower; the tendrils do not shoot out with much force and cannot extend for too long. It does not take me long for me to complete my visualization; as the monkey creature raises its feet, I am already firing. I doubt I can accomplish this as fast if I am not in this frosty state of mind.

I imagine one of the tendrils to be the shape of a needle with a string trailing behind it, and squeeze it out of the barrel. It flies forward with sufficient force to sink deep into the creature’s chest. I create another needle and repeat the process. Every needle drains a bit more heat from the creature, but my aim is not to kill it. The fourth needle forces it to run.

The creature retreats along the same path its line of red haze occupies. That is probably the shortest path to its master. As I run out of the door to follow it, a shadow falls over me. I take a step back in alarm. There is a sharp sound of a sword leaving its sheath, and a gruesome gurgle as the thing’s head is separated from its body. The frog head rolls along my garden, and the body tumbles wordlessly, its connection to its owner vanishing as it does so.

Track 12

The perpetrator is standing on the fence with perfect balance. Her hair shimmers a beautiful silver in the moonlit sky. Her sword is held low, its gentle curve reflecting a threatening light. Her brilliant blue stare cuts right into me. I recognize it as the stare of a predator as a blood-red gleam appears in her eyes.

“Erika…”

There is no point in asking her what she is. She is clearly hostile. Even if she did just kill the other creature, her killing intent was now focused fully on me. A grin spreads across Erika’s lips as she springs towards me, almost too fast for my new eyes to follow. She is in an entirely different league from those shoddily-made creatures, and if I am careless now I’ll be killed.

I submerge myself even deeper in the cold, willing the world to slow down. I need to think and react faster. Erika is heading towards me in a straight line, but with her speed and current posture she will cut me down instantly if I attempt to do what I had with the creature. I am not entirely sure of her capabilities, but for now her sword is probably her biggest threat. It is held close to her body, ready to respond to threats from any angle. Stepping to the side won’t work.

Retreat is my only option, falling back into the house where the corridors will prevent her from swinging her blade freely. If I move too quickly, however, she’ll adjust her attack and skewer me with a thrust. Right now she is preparing to swing, so I need to move at just the right time…

Now.

I step backwards. To her credit, she realizes what I am attempting to do and tries to change her attack, but her indecision only serves to delay her movement, allowing me to slip safely back through the doorway.

Erika doesn’t hesitate to follow. As soon as her left foot touches the ground, it is already pushing off again. Watching it through my eyes, her movements are a graceful, beautiful dance. The sword at the end of that dance is exceedingly deadly, but I am confident I can avoid it.

“Erika,” I call out again. Perhaps repeating her name would distract her. Before I can call out a third time, I feel the cold leave my mind, replaced by a hazy warmth. The world, so sharp and clear before, returns to normal, and then dissolves in a blur of mist. Did I overtax my brain by using my newfound abilities for so long? I stumble and feel her sword nick my cheek, drawing a line of blood. I bite back a shout of pain and try to keep my head steady. Even without the cold I could still summon the tendrils, though I will be unable to visualize anything complex with them. Her sword is still held beyond my face. She would have to retract her sword to attack again, and even while her arm is already withdrawing, my tendrils have sprung into action.

The black tendrils wrap around her sword-hand. Her eyes narrow in anger; she did not seem surprised at their presence. That makes sense; she knows that I am different, after all. My plan was to force her to drop the sword, but it does not work. She pulls her arm back with a strength belying that dainty body. I feel my feet leave the floor as I am pulled along with it. My stomach suffers a kick, sending me flying backwards. The pain is intense.

“Y…you kick like a mule.” I gasp.

“You’ve changed again. Show your true self.” came her cold reply. Thankfully she was not pressing the attack – she could have cut me from head to groin.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Erika, but if you’ve come all the way to visit, perhaps I can offer you a cup of tea.” If she’s talking, I’ll just try to keep her responding with mundane babble. Every moment she replies to me is another moment that sword isn’t cutting off my head.

“Tea would be nice…”

Seriously? Is she seriously saying that?

“But killing you would be better?”

I think that mad red gleam is back in her eyes. She just mentioned killing me as casually as a normal girl would talk about which clothes looked better on her.

“Why would it be better?”

“Because you’re a monster… I kill monsters.”

“I’m human. See?” I raise my hands, hoping she’ll recognize the universal sign of surrender.

“Only on the outside. You used those black slimy things on me earlier, didn’t you?”

“That’s… just my pet.”

“What’s its name?”

“Uh… Fido.”

This girl is exceedingly weird and strangely chattier trying to kill me than she is in school, but I’m grateful for her low attention span. She seemed to be much more committed to killing me when I was exerting my brain… perhaps she can sense the change in me when it happens.

“Well, Fido is a monster too, then.” she replied in a sing-song voice. The point of her sword traces a complex dance through the air. “You can die together with it.”

I back away from her, wondering if I should strain my brain again to think of a way to escape. Already I feel faint, a strong urge to sleep creeping up on me. Using it again might be unwise, but…

“Stop, Erika.” A strong male voice comes from the outside.

“Ah, Uncle. What’s the matter?”

“There’s enough fighting for tonight. Any more will be bad for you.”

Erika lowers her sword. I can’t see her uncle from where I’m sprawled, but I call out anyway.

“I agree, uncle. I’ve had enough fighting for tonight.”

The man laughs. “It’s still too early to be calling me that. I am sorry for the trouble my niece has put you through.” It’s strange that he would chat with me while standing out of my sight like that, but at this rate I’m extremely thankful to anyone who would save me from Erika.

“Alright, we’re going home, Erika.”

“Yes, uncle.”

Her face was bored again, but before she follows her uncle off, Erika turns to me. For the first time, I see her smile genuinely. She would be pretty popular if she did that more often. Well, she would be pretty popular with a certain sort if she smiled her other smile at school…

“Thank you, Hoshikawa. It was fun. Please come visit me at Old Leaves Bookstore some time.” With a polite bow, she leaves.

Like hell I will.

***

Track 5

The next morning brought about aches, pains, and a weird fuzzy feeling all over my head. I wondered if I should call in sick to school today. The house was a mess and the door would need to be replaced. I had managed to gather up some bits of the creature I had killed in my house; the rest of it had decayed very quickly, leaving behind a nasty smell. If I find a suitable laboratory I can analyze the specimen. Yua had done her best ordering the vacuum robots around, but the stench would probably linger for a few more days. I flop onto my coach and try to gather my thoughts. There were a few questions I had to ask myself.

***

What did I think about my new ability?

A. I am excited by this new ability of mine. It is a good thing, a chance for me to change both myself and the world. I am eager to use it as much as possible.

B. It is an interesting ability, to be sure, but there are too many things I don’t know for me to decide how to feel about it. More experimentation is needed.

C. This ability worries me. It comes with side-effects, it appeared too conveniently, and I should probably try to forget about it as much as possible. Best to live life normally.

***

Should I inform the ISC about last night’s events?

A. I am not confident I can hide the damage to the house. I tell them about the creatures, but I keep my powers to myself. Keeping some secrets might displease them if they find out, but it can also be used as a bargaining chip if I play it right.

B. I reveal both the creatures and my powers to the ISC. I am contracted to them and so far they have pretty much lived up to their end of the bargain. I will need allies, and the ISC can be reliable ones.

C. I spend some time to wipe the security logs and concoct a story for the damage. I cannot trust the ISC with anything. The only person I can count on is myself.

***

What should I do about Erika?

A. I will talk to her about what happened before. In public. With a lot of people about, lest she try to kill me again. She appears to know much more about this strange world than I do.

B. I look for her uncle instead. The man seems reasonable. He might own the bookstore Erika seems to live at.

C. I stay away from her as much as I can. That girl is seriously scary and plain bad news.
 

Part 5 - Home Invasion: Aftermath

Home Invasion: Aftermath

Track 6

“Well, it looks like most of the security cameras won’t be back up any time soon. I won’t be able to fix it remotely, and I’m having hard time getting people with the right clearance to you nowadays. There’s been a lot of activity around HQ and trustworthy manpower is scarce.” Anna finishes acidly. It looks like her work stress is increasing. My report to her had included an account of the creature that attacked me last night, though I had conveniently left out a few details.

“It’s alright, I can fix it myself.” I say confidently.

“No, no, no. Don’t touch them. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but if anything goes wrong you’d be held accountable. Leave it to me.”

“This means I’m free from your prying eyes for… how long exactly?”

“At least for another week. While I’m not watching you’re probably planning to bring home cute innocent schoolgirls and have your way with them, aren’t you? This must be heaven for you right now, Senya. I bet you’re popping a boner while imagining it… you dirty boy.”

“Can we not go five minutes without any sexual harassment happening?”

“Mm, but you’re just too fun to tease. The way your face turns red is exquisite. Anyway, enough of that. Someone should be along soon to fix your door.”

***

Some people did come along soon to fix my door.

Why was Kyrie here with them, though?

I greet her as she steps over my doorway gingerly. She must have come here right after school; she was still in her uniform.

“Can’t you clean things up a little more?”

“I’ve detailed my encounter in my report to Anna. Did she send it to you?” I take care to be civil and ignore her jab. Despite her harsh tone she still seemed to be awkward around me after what happened yesterday, and so am I. Losing control again would be unfortunate. I sent Yua to prepare some tea with the kitchen’s machines.

“Yes. I’m not quite sure what to make of it though. It seems unbelievable.”

Well, that confirmed that Anna was sending my reports directly to Kyrie. I didn’t think she would be this involved in my affairs, but then again, I hadn’t been briefed about the hierarchy except to be told that I was at the bottom and Anna was my handler.

“In any case, thank you for being concerned enough to come all the way out here. I appreciate it.”

“Hm. Well, there’s no need to be too grateful. You work for me and one of the obligations a leader has is to take care of her men.”

I’m not sure, but it seems like she is happy, if only just a little.

“Anyway, about this incident…” I begin.

“I know. I’ll look into it. If it is true, I can’t have these things running about town.”

I didn’t expect her to agree so readily. “You just said it seems unbelievable.”

Kyrie sighed. “Use your brain, you piece of shit. I heard it was good for many things. Whatever it is, the fact is your house has been attacked. Unless you were acting it all to get my attention, someone or something did this. The process of investigation should still be the same regardless of whether monsters are actually involved.”

That was almost exactly what I had prepared to say to request a proper investigation if the ISC did not believe my story. If these things already knew where I lived, it would not be surprising if they tried attacking again. Before that happens, I need to find out where they are coming from – for that, the ISC is the quickest way I can think of. I laugh.

“W-what’s the matter? What’s so funny?” frowned Kyrie.

“Nothing. Yua should have the tea ready. I’ll go and get it for you.”

It takes the rest of the evening for the door to be fixed, and Kyrie stays in my living room all the while. We talk about the investigation; apparently she recalls a similar incident mentioned in a report a few years back. It’ll take her some time to access those case files as they belonged to another department she had little sway over. Inter-factional politics within the ISC are a common thing, and even within the bloodline there are plenty of cousins willing to stab each other in the back.

“That’s why I’m attending school here as a full-time student.” She pops another cookie into her mouth – that was the twentieth. She has quite the stomach for sweets. “This is pretty good. Did you bake this, Yua?”

“Yes, Ms. Kyrie! The recipe is an original… I researched it myself.” The two seemed to getting along, strangely enough, and the conversation has somehow shifted from the investigation into her personal life.

“Your father is keeping you away from the politics until you graduate university.”

She nods. “That’s probably part of his intention… I won’t pretend to know all of his thoughts. I don’t actually have an official position in the company besides being his heir.”

If that is the case, it means she’s not involved in any direct operations of the company and has no concrete power to speak of. Though she is influential enough to get things to move just with her name, there is probably a limit as to what she can accomplish. Her clout in the entire corporation is probably negligible; I wouldn’t be surprised if it only covered Olympia at the moment. The Emperor would not be too pleased if his daughter moved heaven and earth for her own purposes.

“It’s tough, isn’t it?” I blurt out accidentally, lost in my thoughts.

Kyrie stares at me, her expression inscrutable.

“What did you hope to accomplish by telling me that? Do you want me to lean on your shoulder as you comfort me, and perhaps hoping for something more? You perverted piece of shit.” She feigns disgust, her hand drawn dramatically to her mouth.

“Oh no, you’re starting to sound like Anna.”

Kyrie chuckles softly. “Yes, she’s really a handful… and that’s enough about this topic. I don’t like being pitied, especially if the sympathy is coming from useless things like you.”

“Master, the workmen have finished with the door.” Yua spoke up. There was a strange look on her face; she didn’t seem particularly happy all of a sudden.

“I suppose that is my cue to leave. Thank you for the tea and cookies, Yua. They were great. Can you share the recipe with me?”

“Of course, Ms. Kyrie! I’ll send it over tonight.” Yua’s smile was back on her face again. Also, they appear to have exchanged contact details sometime during the tea break.

“Wait, don’t I get any thanks?” I ask.

“Why would I thank you? You were just an errand boy for Yua, carrying the cups and dishes for her. Oh, I get it. Alright. Thank you, Senya, for not being utterly clumsy and spilling the tea all over the place, though I notice that you dropped some crumbs on the floor. I am awed at your skill in being a servant, Senya. Do you want a reward?”

If I were a masochist her sarcastic voice would have struck every chord in my body correctly, but I’m not… I think.

“Well, I’ll be off. I’ve arranged for your sick leave today, but please do attend school tomorrow. Oh, and don’t think you’re off the hook for my little quest. The conditions are still in place.”

Great. I was hoping she’d let me go if I was nice enough today. The tea and cookies were wasted on her…

***

Track 5

The next day, I attend school as usual. My classmates, concerned at my absence after just one day, crowd around my table, but I manage to assure them that it’s fine. Spotting Erika, I go over to talk to her. I hear a sea of whispers behind me as I do so. Was it that strange to talk to a classmate?

“Good morning.”

She gazes at me blankly.

“Uh… Erika?”

“…sleepy.” she mutters. She probably isn’t a morning person.

“Well, I need to talk to you about something.”

“… about that night?”

“Yeah, it’s about that night.”

All of a sudden I realize that it was probably the wrong thing to say while in the classroom, as the whispering explodes into outrageous gossip.

“Something happened between them at night…”

“She’s still sleepy this morning…”

“Man, the new boy is bold. First the Tyrant, and then the Ice Queen? When will it stop?”

“Does his appetite know no bounds?”

“Oh no, he’s looking this way!”

“Senya isn’t that sort of person! Aren’t you guys jumping to conclusions?”

Thank you for trying to set things straight, Keiko, but I fear the power of teenage gossip is too strong. Just what sorts of rumours have been spreading about me a mere three days after I started school?

“I’ll meet you during lunch break at the rooftop.” The student handbook had stated that the rooftop was a popular spot for students during lunch hours. It should be
Erika nods as if she heard me, and then nods right off, burying her face in the pile of books on her desk.

When the lunch bell rings, Erika gets up and walks out the door without a word to me. I follow her. She did hear me properly after all, as she goes up to the rooftop without any prompting.

“What is it?” asks Erika, sitting down on a bench. I sidle down besides her, taking out the sandwiches I had brought from home. Although she seems refreshed after her nap, in the day time she gives off a different feel. It’s as if she’s not entirely here, whereas the Erika I met at night seemed to be focused into a potent and lethal existence.

“It’s about what happened that night… about that thing you dispatched, and your fight with me.”

She doesn’t respond, and I continue.

“Why did you call me a monster?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Erika?”

She seems to be staring at something intently. I follow her gaze and find that it leads towards my sandwiches. I move the sandwiches to the left. Her eyes move to follow them.

“Didn’t you get any lunch?”

“I forgot.”

I sigh. “You can have some of mine.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

She perks up. If she were a dog, this would be where her tail started wagging. Erika gratefully accepts a sandwich and wolfs it down.

“So, back to my question.”

“Monster.”

“Yeah, why did you call me that?”

“You’re different from humans. That means you are a monster.”

“You’re different too.” I point out. Her speed and strength is definitely not human.

“I’m also a monster.”

“A monster that kills monsters?”

“Yes. It’s a…” she pauses for a while, looking for the words to describe what she wants to say. “Family business.”

If that is the case, her powers could be inherited from her father and mother.

“You live with your uncle, right? Where are your parents?”

“…dead.”

That was a pretty insensitive line of questioning on my part.

“I’m sorry.”

Erika shakes her head. Her expression hasn’t changed all this time, even when revealing her parents’ death.

“It’s okay. It was a long time ago.”

I try to think of other questions I want to ask her.

“What do you know about the creatures that tried to attack us?”

“Servants.”

I’m right about that part, at least.

“Who do they serve?”

“Humans.”

Erika made a strong distinction between humans and monsters. Anything that was inhuman was a monster. From this, I could guess that the people behind the creatures were normal, at least in her eyes.

“Where can I find them?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

“I saw a red thread leading from their back the other night, could it lead back to their masters?”

“I didn’t see it. I will ask Uncle about it.”

It was probably something only I could see. Perhaps it has something to do with my powers. I fall into silence, pondering my next questions. She didn’t give me much to work with, but I could tell that wasn’t caused by any desire to withhold information. She’s just not very good at articulating what she is thinking and what she knows. Erika’s voice interrupts me.

“Lunch time is over.”

So it was. I hadn’t even eaten anything, though strangely my sandwiches are all gone.

“Thank you for the sandwiches.” Erika gives me a little bow of gratitude, a couple of crumbs still stuck on her pale chin.

“Ah… you’re welcome.” I get up from the bench. My stomach grumbles, and Erika’s eyes dart towards it. “I’ll ask you out once I think of more questions.” As I walk away, she calls my name.

“Senya. I want to ask a question.”

I turn to look at her. “What is it?”

“What type of sandwiches do you like?”

Is she feeling guilty about finishing all my sandwiches? I suppose there is no harm in telling her my preferred fillings. She nods as I recite the list.

“I’ll make them next time you want to ask questions.”

“I’ll look forward to it.” I sigh.

***

Track 2

The rest of the week passes without incident. The weekend comes and goes, and by the time it is over the security cameras are fully operational again, fast than I had expected. I sent back my report about the Indus Confederation mechs detailing my assessment of their predicted abilities, as well as a recommendation to look into miniaturization of the technology introduced by Krishnashankar. There had been no more sightings of those creatures; the sample I had kept was undergoing analysis at one of the ISC’s facilities. School was going on as usual, and I spent most of the afternoons training with Michael at the club. We had tried going around searching for members, but apparently my unwarranted reputation and Michael’s antics are a deadly combination.

I had learnt a few things about my powers, testing them out in the privacy of my home.

1. The maximum time I can hold my heightened mental state is seven minutes. This could decrease depending on how much I boost my mind and senses. When I am in the heightened state, my mind works faster and all of my five senses become sharper.

2. My mental acuity and senses are impaired when I drop out of the state, the time of recovery lengthening depending on how long I maintain the state. This ranges from a full hour to half a day, and the severity of the impairment rises depending on the strength of the boost I utilize.

3. The tendrils can be used even when I’m not in a heightened state. Their ability to absorb heat is unimpaired.

4. The ability to absorb heat appears to be limited, with each tendril crumbling away after taking in a certain quantity of heat.

5. The tendrils can form any shape I want when my mental state is heightened. Without it, visualization is imprecise and slow, making it impractical for more complex shapes. Their maximum range is about 15 metres.

I’m still unsure what to feel about these powers. I don’t think they’re a gift or a curse. They are a tool to me, nothing more, but should I have a reason before I use them? Somehow I don’t think that using this tool carelessly is a good idea.

***

As I pack up my bag, Keiko walks up to me. She’s been a great source of help over the past week, making sure that I settled into the school comfortably and guiding me around the place. “Hey.”

“So, how are you doing so far?”

“It’s alright. Except for the part where I still haven’t gotten any members for the kenjutsu club.”

I had tried asking Erika to join, and she had said she needed permission from her uncle. That was last week, and when I asked her this morning she said her uncle just returned from a trip, and she’d find out if she could join later today.

“Tough luck,” giggled Keiko. “Michael is so lively too.”

“Well, he’s a bit too lively… by the way, won’t you join?”

“Sorry, I can’t,” she apologized. “I’m already part of the Journalism Club.”

“That’s too bad, but there’s no need to apologize. You’ve already helped me out plenty.”

“I have… and today I want you to repay the favour,” grins Keiko mischievously.

“What do you need me to do?”

“It’s about an assignment with the Journalism Club. We’re investigating a rumour that there have been strange creatures spotted near the sewers recently. The Occult Research Club came to us with this request.”

Strange creatures… could that be anything to do with the ones that attacked me?

“So, I’ve tracked down this guy who claims he’s seen them, and he’s agreed to meet me today. I… well, I think I’d feel safer if a boy went with me.”

I laugh. “You know how weak I am, Keiko.” Strangely, I do feel stronger every day. It is a subtle improvement, but my stamina appears to be slowly increasing. “You need someone strong to go with you.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think you’re weak. I mean, back then you were… kinda cool…” The flustered Keiko looked away. “I still remember what you said to me. It got me to change, so… you aren’t weak, not at all. To me you're someone that I can rely on.” Her blush gets stronger as she says it, and I can't help but go red myself.

Even so, I don’t really recall saying anything specific to her, though I could have forgotten. An expression of disappointment passes over Keiko’s face as she realizes I don't remember. “Anyway, you might not be the strongest boy around, but I think you’ll be more useful to me on this investigation than some musclehead. It’s not like it’s anything dangerous.” Her cheerful grin was back in an instant. “A journalist needs someone with smarts to be her partner. How about it? You owe me a favour, don’t you?”

If I don’t have anything else to do…

***

A. I plan to meet up with Erika today to find out whether her uncle will let her join the club.

B. I feel like looking for Kyrie in the student council room. I heard she usually hangs out there alone after school. Perhaps she has made progress with the investigation.

C. There is a big sale today in the commercial area, and Yua’s asked for some rare cooking ingredients. There are also some upgrades for her that I can pick up; a great opportunity seeing as I'm sending most of my salary back to my family and don't have much budget to work with.

D. I go with Keiko on her assignment. Rather than waiting for the ISC, this is also a chance for me to do some snooping around on my own.

E. After school time is club time! I spend time with Michael and practice the way of the warrior.
 

Part 6 - Relius Engura

Relius Engura


The door to the student council room is ajar. As I draw closer to it, I hear sounds of conversation coming from within. Kyrie isn’t alone today. Could it be one of the student council members?

“…still you continue to be stubborn.” The refined voice was that of a man, and though his words were harsh, his tone was conciliatory and soothing, as if gently trying to make a wayward child see reason.

“I have always been stubborn. You should know that by now.” Kyrie sounded unhappy. The man sighs.

“I do, and it is a trait that endears you to me. Still, you know very well there is no other way for you to be heard in the corporation unless you join your voice to mine.”

“I am not ready. I should accrue more experience in school-“

The man interrupts her coldly without raising his voice. “School is a bad influence upon you. I have heard many stories of how you behave here when you are unsupervised. You terrorize the students and have nothing but rude words in a manner entirely unbefitting the heir of the Empire.”

“How dare you-“

“I dare to because I care for you, Kyrie. No one else speaks out against you because they fear your father, but I will. I am on your side, to guide and support you when you finally become the Empress.” His tone softened. “This is why I do not want you to waste your time here anymore. Your talents and beauty are squandered in the Academy, when I could be helping you use them against our enemies in the corporation.”

That does it. I am unable to hold back my curiosity and peek through the door. Kyrie is sitting at her desk as usual. The man stands behind her, one hand placed gently on her shoulder. The handsome face is instantly recognizable; I had seen far too much of it on the magazines that my sister used to buy – and it belonged to Relius Engura, the scion of one of the oldest noble houses in the Empire.

I still recall the sycophantic biographies that Chinatsu would read out to me.

Relius Engura, age 26. Net worth of 12 billion. Made his first million when he was 13. Champion runner, winning over ten international competitions. Conquered the peak of the highest mountains at age 16. Celebrated artist. World-class pianist. Trusted philanthropist. Genius entrepreneur. Voted “Most Desirable Bachelor in the World” for 10 years in a row. Currently holds a position on the board of directors of the Imperial Shinar Corporation, and is the youngest director ever in the 250-year history of the corporation.

His elegantly manicured fingers rub Kyrie’s shoulder gently. Sweeping a lock of perfectly curled dark hair from his immaculately high cheek bones, Relius leans down and brings his face close to Kyrie’s, his delicately pointed nose expanding as he sniffs. She appears to panic and starts to turn red. As her eyes dart around the room, they meet mine before I can pull away. She stares at me desperately, but in a situation like this the safest choice is to leave. Relius Engura is definitely a person I do not want to anger.

After breathing in deeply and running through a plan of action in my mind, I knock on the door and go in. She’s already seen me anyway, and sometimes the safest choice isn’t always the best. I prepare myself to speak boldly. “Miss Vice-President, I’ve something to talk to you about regarding the Kenjutsu Club…” I let my voice trail off in surprise as I stare at them.

“Oh, sorry for interrupting,” I grin abashedly as I bow my head in apology. “Unfortunately, this is something urgent-“

“This is not urgent, boy.” Relius did not even lift his eyes to look at me. His voice is cold as he commands me. “Leave us.”

“I’m sorry, sir, are you a teacher here? I haven’t seen you before.” I ask.

He gives an exaggerated, drawn out sigh and straightens himself. He walks up to me, patting down his exquisitely tailored suit. Though he is about my height, his posture, bearing and confidence makes him look taller than he really is. His dark eyes attempt to stare me down. I probably should frightened by him, but I’ve seen scarier eyes. One of it tried to slither down my throat just last week.

“I am not a teacher, and you are interrupting my conversation with the… vice-president. Do you not know who I am?”

A blank look crosses my face.

“Who… are you?”

An irritated look flashes across his.

“My name is Relius Engura, lord of House Engura.”

“Ah, that’s one of those noble houses in the Empire, right? I heard that you have many of those.”

“One of? No, we are the greatest. Sadly, I would’ve expected even an uneducated foreigner like you to know about me. Now, if you would kindly leave us…”

“That’s wonderful, being able to meet a real lord! It’s an honour! Miss Vice-President, could I discuss the matter of the Kenjutsu Club with you?” I look away from him, towards Kyrie. She is a bit startled, but nods her head.

“Of course. I will always sacrifice my personal time for the sake of the school’s students. Have a seat. Relius, would you mind waiting outside for a moment? I’m afraid regulations state that student council consultations are a private matter.”

The handsome billionaire clicks his tongue in slight frustration. “That is alright. I will return to my hotel room for now – I still have other things to do. Goodbye, Kyrie. I will see you soon.”

“Goodbye, Lord Engura.” I wave cheerfully, but he ignores me, already treating me as part of the background as he leaves with elegant footsteps.

We pretend to chat for a few seconds before Kyrie furtively peeks at the door again.

“Is he gone?”

I walk over and look around in the hallway before closing the door.

“Yeah.”

Track 6

“Thank the Emperor!” She stretches out and then slumps back in her chair. “I thought he’d never leave. It’s a good thing you came when you did.”

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to interrupt, actually. Your stare was not very informative. I half thought you were asking me to go away.”

“No, no, that was definitely a ‘help me out here’ stare.” She giggles suddenly, perhaps relieved as all the tension drains out of her. The pressure leaves me too. Though I wasn’t exactly intimidated, putting on a performance of bravado in front of the most desirable man in the world is not entirely easy on my nerves. “By the way,” she added, “you really have got guts, talking to Relius like that. He does not have much patience for fools.”

I shrug, taking my seat across her. “The way I see it, he thinks of everyone else as fools. To him I am just another fool among many. A man like that will not hold a grudge over some ignorant student.”

Kyrie agrees with me, rubbing at her eyes. “I suppose so. He’s never been the sort to concern himself with petty insults as long as they don’t become a serious obstacle to getting what he wants.”

“I’m glad to be right. By the way, are you feeling okay? I will always sacrifice my personal time for the sake of the school’s students?”

“What do you mean?”

“It… just doesn’t sound like you.”

“You mean to say that I don’t do my best for the sake of the school?”

I shake my head. I know how hard she works. The stories that she stays back alone in the student council room come about because she is usually the only one still working there after school hours. I have spotted her around the school from afar, and not once have I seen her with a friend. Just copious amounts of paperwork in her arms.

“I mean to say that you would usually say something like… I will always sacrifice my personal time for the sake of the pieces of shit studying in this school.”

“Hey, Senya.” She suddenly looks grim.

“What?”

“Do you think I talk crudely like that all the time?”

“Well, you usually do.”

“I’m not so stupid as to do it with my father and the higher-ups in the corporation. I do know etiquette.”

“You should use it with the rest of the school, then. Perhaps it would make life easier for you.”

“I know, but it’s just stifling. This is the only place where I can say whatever I want, and I don’t plan to change that.”

I get it. “This is your kingdom, huh?”

“Yes. This is my kingdom, and when the dream is over I will never be able to return.”

I glance at her. The setting sun casts shadows over her face, and in the orange light she looks weak and vulnerable. “Kyrie?”

“Yes?”

“You’re being very depressing.”

“That’s… you tactless turd! Is that any way to comfort a lady? You started it with that lame talk of kingdoms!” A styrofoam cup flies at my head and bounces off.

I laugh. The fear of her I had on our first meeting is no longer there. She’s just as human as any other person. It might be clichéd to say this, but I think she’s just lonely. Of course, she’d really try to kill me if I told her that.

“Anyway, about the investigation...”

“Actually, that is why Relius was here.”

“You asked him for help?”

“Oh, no. I would never ask him to help me.” She shudders. “The price would be too great.”

“Your chastity?” I had been thinking about that since I saw him try to get close to her, and the words just slip out of my mouth. Kyrie turns red, even redder than the sunset.

“Well… probably… he’d ask for something bad…” she mutters almost inaudibly. Then, an evil gleam appears in her eyes, and she smiles nastily at me. At least, she tries to; it's not too convincing when that flush is still on her face. “So you think my chastity is a great prize?”

“Uh, I…”

“Hm, you really are disgusting, aren’t you? Anna was right. Are you fantasizing about my chastity? Do you think I would even consider giving it up just to satisfy your base urges to investigate some rotting monsters? You disgusting pervert. Your dick probably rots off if you stop thinking about dirty things.”

“I am very sorry, pure and chaste Princess, so please stop trying to channel Anna. I will not speak that word again.” I humble myself in my apology. While Anna’s banter is just sexual harassment, Kyrie tends to take it into sadistic territory. Frighteningly, I think I might just get used to this... that would make me an actual pervert.

“Hm. Very well. See to it that you do not sully my pure ears any further with your filthy perverted words. So, shall we continue the discussion?”

I nod wordlessly.

“He seems to have found out I was asking about him.” Kyrie was serious now, all playfulness gone from her face.

“Relius is involved?

“Possibly. His men have been in contact with some of the delinquent gangs in the town. I can’t find out the details of their meetings, but he shouldn’t have a reason to contact them in the first place. The wet market has reported multiple incidents of theft recently, amongst them a prized specimen of a large bluefin tuna. I suspect the delinquents are behind that. Also, he’s recently engaged the services of the Dunamis private security group for reasons unknown. They just came into town together with him a day ago. He doesn’t seem to have hired them to guard him as they are moving about separately.”

I whistle. “That’s very impressive work. You found out about this so easily?”

“I think they weren’t expecting me to investigate since I usually only concern myself with matters of the Academy. All of this information was obtained from my contacts around town. I was actually planning to tell you about this tonight.”

“I see. I suppose this is where we stop using your contacts?” It was probably too risky to continue doing the same thing.

“What do you mean?” Kyrie turns her head quizzically, and I explain. “He came looking for you within a week of the investigation, and he suspects you have been investigating him.”

“From his words, he probably knows I have been investigating him.”

“That makes it even simpler. I’m guessing some of the people you asked probably told him. That’s how he found out so fast.”

“If that’s the case…” Kyrie bites her lip pensively.

“Can you ask your father for help?” I ask.

“No. That’s not possible. If I want to seek his aid it will become a board matter when he acts against a director, and if on the off chance we are wrong about this…”

“I see. Whatever we do next, we will have to do it ourselves, at least until we gather concrete evidence. How sure are you about these leads?”

“He is definitely up to something. We’re going to investigate this personally, then?” She seems a bit excited about it.

“I’m considering it.”

“I could get the police to try and bring in the delinquents for theft.”

“Could the police be compromised?”

“I’m… not exactly sure about that. I know a few trustworthy officers, but I can’t be certain news won’t get to Relius’s ears.”

“What are our other options?”

“We could track down the delinquents ourselves. Relius will be in town until morning the day after the next – we could try to investigate him directly.”

“Hm, what about the Dunamis private security group?”

“About that… I do need to tell you something.” Kyrie pauses, a hesitant expression on her face. “They’re run by the family of a classmate of yours. Erika Dunamis… I saw you sharing your lunch on the rooftop with her.”

“I’ve only met with her once and she stole all my sandwiches.” I didn’t know Kyrie had seen us on that day. She shakes her head, as if to say that it doesn’t matter, and continues.

“Are you sure you want to check on them? Things might get awkward between you and her. Besides, their rooms have been booked for a longer period of time than Relius’s – they will be staying here even after he leaves. We should have time to investigate them later, if you want. What do you want to do?”

I wonder about the choices that I have, and realize one thing. Since when was I in charge of the investigation? Why am I calling the shots? Kyrie looks at me expectantly, waiting for my decision. Since she has already asked me, I might as well offer my suggestion to her.

If we track down the delinquents ourselves, we won’t have time to investigate Relius before he leaves. Going after Relius, however, would probably make me a target in his eyes in the future. He overlooked what happened today, but if I continue to cross his path I might not get off as easily the next time. It would also be more difficult to succeed, but if we did manage to get conclusive evidence of his misdeeds (which, to be fair, appear to be limited to an attempt at creating dangerous abominations...) Kyrie would be able to get the Emperor to act.

***

A. Track down the delinquents ourselves.
B. Ask the police to bring them in.
C. Ignore them.

(If B or C,
1. Investigate Relius.
2. Do not investigate Relius.)
 

Part 7 - The Grand Olympus Hotel

A - 5
B1 - 2
C1 - 7

***
The Grand Olympus Hotel

Track 2

“The Grand Olympus Hotel stands out in the academic town of Olympia thanks to its architecture that draws inspiration from the ancient Greeks yet does not neglect the comforts of modern engineering. The ten-storey building is located in the heart of the bustling commercial area and is recognized all over the world for its splendor and hospitality. Each of the three hundred suites in the hotel is equipped with the latest amenities, allowing guests can enjoy luxuries that even the gods and goddesses of Olympus would envy.”

The video goes on to talk about the unprecedented bathtubs lovingly designed by a world-class artist, telling whoever would care about the molding gel system each bathtub uses to ensure it is sculpted to a guest’s satisfaction. Nobody in the lobby cares; I must be the only one paying even a bit of attention to the video. Architecture and design is not a strong suit of mine but even I can tell that there was no expense spared in the construction of this hotel. The smooth white marble floor is polished to just the extent that you can vaguely see your own reflection, but not so much that it is distracting. Grecian pillars surround a sparkling fountain that is the centerpiece of the lobby. Around it, statues of the Greek gods and goddesses stand, smiling down upon the passing guests as if welcoming them to their divine domain. Zeus, Hera, Athena, Artemis… each member of the pantheon is represented, chiseled in semi-authentic fashion after the art of the Greeks - the ones who actually worshipped them didn't seem to portray the gods as smiling much.

It is probably somewhat fortunate that the hotel does not pay the same attention to its security as it has to its décor. I know that the Grand Olympus Hotel employs the same security system used by most hotels and resorts worldwide. Biometric authentication is standard fare; the lock to the suite will usually be updated with the guest’s thumbprint upon his check-in at the reception counter. Entry to the suites is monitored – it is possible for the hotel to find out who has entered a room and at what time via a combination of security footage and access logs. Of course, the hotel only checks the records if there is a request from a guest or the authorities. The security acts more as deterrence than prevention, and as long as the guest himself is unaware that his room was compromised, the illegal entry will likely remain unnoticed. Chances of discovery fall even lower when the objective of the entry has nothing to do with removing physical objects.

It’s not the first time I have attempted to gain unlawful entry to a hotel room, and if we were not pressed for time I might be able to manage it on my own. Still, since he was leaving in the morning, I needed backup to succeed…

“Hey, have you been waiting long?”

I look up. Kyrie is standing there, dressed in casual clothes. It’s the first time I’ve seen her out of uniform. She’s wearing a white, sleeveless dress and boots, with a floppy hat over her blonde hair. A small black bag is slung over her pale shoulder. What was it that guys were supposed to say at a time like this? Ah, right.

“You look good in those clothes.”

“Hm. So a piece of shit like you recognizes beauty when you see it. I am pleased. Maybe I shall promote you.” She seems pleased, and twirls a strand of hair around her finger.

“I don’t think you should be talking like that outside of the school.” I laugh.

“I’ll do as I wish. Anyway, I managed to convince Anna to help us.”

“I hope you didn’t force her to do it. She could be reprimanded if she gets caught.”

“She’s not going to get caught, and when I told her the reward she was practically begging to join in anyway.”

“…reward?” I have a bad feeling about this.

“Yeah, I promised that I’d let her do whatever she wants to you for three hours. You should’ve seen her face, she was practically drooling at the thought of it.”

That was... bad news. If I remember correctly, Anna is supposed to make a scheduled visit in another week's time as part of her supervisor duties...

“Don’t I get a say in this?”

“No. I own you, and your filthy rotten body is mine to do as I see fit.”

“I might want to look at the terms of that contract again…”

“The contract? That means nothing to me. I can render it null and void with just a phone call to my father.”

“That makes me sound quite unimportant to the corporation, if you can write off my contract just like that." I’m not sure whether she’s bragging, but given what I know of her influence, she shouldn’t be able to interfere with an official contract like this unless she calls in a favour… or if the Emperor-President is agreeable to the outcome.

“Hm. Well, it’s not like you’re unimportant…” She looks away, as if trying to find something in the lobby, and then rummages in her bag for a while before producing a card. “There we go.”

“That’s the replica keycard for Relius’s room?” The biometric authentication could also be unlocked with a keycard issued to the guests. Each keycard bore the guest’s electronic thumbprint. This was so that the guests would be able to invite people up to their room without needing to show them in. It is a necessary tool for certain types of people with certain things in mind, and amongst the rich there are many of these.

“Relius would probably give me his card if I asked for it. Why do you need a replica?” asked Kyrie.

“It’s just a secondary safety measure that puts another wall between us and him. If we used his own card to access the room, he’d have known of your involvement the moment he suspects something is wrong. At least this way he’ll have to investigate the creation of the replica, and if Anna does her job, that’ll be a dead end for him. In the best case scenario he will only have suspicions about you, but not outright proof.”

“Hm. I see, I see.”

“Besides,” I add, “It wouldn’t be right for the Princess of the Shinar to ask for the card to another man’s room. That would be sending all the wrong messages.”

“Oh? What's that? Are you concerned for me?”

I see that evil glint in her eyes again.

“Of course not.” I pluck the card out of her hands before she has a chance to follow up on what she has to say.

“Hm. What are you doing?”

“I’m going into his room, of course. I need someone to keep a lookout at the lobby. If he returns early he will definitely pass by here. Just stay inconspicuous with your head down and he shouldn’t notice you.”

“Are you an idiot?”

“What?”

“Your body isn’t very strong. If you get caught up there you’ll be in trouble, and you can’t exactly run very fast now, can you? If I’m up there at least I can talk my way out of it. I’m the princess after all.”

“But-“

“No buts. I’ll be doing the search myself. You can be the lookout. We’ll be in contact so you can always tell me what to look for.”

***

A. I give in and let the princess do the search. Her reasoning is sound, and if the worst case scenario happens and Relius finds her, he’ll be less likely to do harm to her than he is to me. I’ll just have to do my best as a lookout to ensure she can escape safely.

B. I insist on doing the search myself and persuade her to leave it to me. I should be able to find what we want faster, and on the off chance I do get caught, I have my powers to fall back on. As a lookout, Kyrie would also be able to intercept and distract him for a longer period of time should the need arise.
 

Part 8 - Relius's Room

Relius's Room


Track 6

"No, that won't do. That won't do at all." I shake my head and sigh. "Sending you up would be one of the most foolish mistakes I've ever made."

"Oh? Explain yourself, dreck."

"Dreck? That's a new one." It looks like the Princess's vocabulary of insults has expanded yet again. "Well, what I mean is that... you're inexperienced."

"What makes you so qualified, then? Come and enlighten me, you sack of feckless meat."

I just grin, reminding her to keep her voice low. "You've read my file, haven't you?"

"Hm. What of it?"

"Did you really think I could've gotten away with all of that without having to lift a muscle? Running away - well, crawling - from the cops is not something that's new to me. Trust me, when the time comes, you don't want to hesitate." Those are big words, coming from me - I've lost count of the number of times I hesitated in the thick of things, but one thing I can objectively say is that I hesitated far less by the end than when I first started. "If you falter and panic it's all over, and when that happens, think of the damage that will be done. What would your father say? Now me... I'm expendable. I'm not a princess. It'd also be easier for you to help me out of trouble than it is for me to help you. I'm afraid that the only way this plan makes sense is for me to go up."

That seems to seal the deal. I stretch back and slide the card up the sleeve of my jacket with a practiced motion that has helped me any number of times in middle school card games. I may be physically weak, but there is nothing wrong with my fine motor control. Of course, said games usually lead to my physical weakness being exploited ruthlessly by stomping my face into the ground when the tricks were discovered. My early adolescent years are really not a source of pride for me in any way.

Kyrie looks at me and groans. "I still think you shouldn't go up."

"If I couldn't do at least this, I wouldn't have been picked up by the ISC." Well, evidently I wasn't good enough to avoid being captured, but I wasn't about to admit that right now.

"Fine. Just be careful. You've got the phone with you?"

"Yeah." Kyrie had arranged for a new phone to be sent from the ISC - this one had her number in it, and was less bugged in comparison to my previous one. It also packed enough power for me to do some niftier tricks with it. "I'll be in touch. Just let me know if Relius walks through the main door."

She pulls her hat over her head and nods.

***

Track 16

The elevator, a garishly decorated affair filled with columns and statues - clearly those were the only things the designers could think of when it came to Greek architecture - comes to a gentle stop on the tenth floor, having taken exactly six seconds to make the journey. Up here the marble floors are smothered in lush carpets. As I walked down the corridor I began to feel the familiar tinge of excitement, adding a spring to my steps as I pull on my gloves. I begin to hum softly. The tune is that of a nameless song I had never been able to identify.

"It's that song again, Master. I haven't heard you hum it in some time."

Yua's voice appears in my head.

"Yeah. It's been a while since I last remembered it. By the way, you've been pretty quiet. What's the matter?"

"I didn't want to interrupt your precious time with Ms. Kyrie." Was that resentment I heard there? "Anyway, don't worry about it, Master."

"If you say so... but if you're feeling off, let me know immediately."

I turn a corner and reach my destination. The grand doors of the Zeus Suite face an open balcony overlooking the bustling streets below. According to the security feeds, no one had entered or left the room since Relius went out early this morning. Nevertheless, better safe than sorry. I pause and listen at the door for any noise. There's nothing. Slipping the card from my sleeve, I press it to the biometric scanner. With a cheerful double-beep, the light on the lock turns from red to green. I push the door open and enter the suite. The lights do not turn on automatically as I had expected. Relius must have turned the switch off manually when he left. I blindly grope around for the switch on the wall. It doesn't take my fingers long to find and press it. The surroundings gradually brighten as the lights power on.

"Wow." Even Yua was stunned. The suite was undeniably palatial. The decor here was more understated than the rest of the hotel; it didn't try to grab me by the throat and scream about how ancient Greek it was. There were less columns and less statues. That did not mean it had less marble, though - the floor and walls appear to be hewn from large slabs of the material. The ceiling was a large dome adorned with an ornate fresco depicting the mythical Aegean War, when the gods of Greece and Babylon battled for supremacy. Zeus and Marduk glowered at each other from opposite sides of the dome, flanked by their attendant gods and lesser divine beings. In between them stood the First Emperor of the Shinar.

"Are you there, Senya?" Kyrie is already on the line.

"I'm in, Kyrie. This place is... well, I have no other words other than 'expensive' to describe what I'm seeing."

"Hm. If that's all it takes to impress you then you should serve me better. Please me and I will arrange for you to stay in such a place."

"Verily, it shall be as you will, my princess. I exist only to please."

"S-stop the corny talk and get to work." I thought I could hear a hint of a stammer in her voice.

My attentions soon turn to the rest of the suite. The center of the room is dominated by a smaller reproduction of the fountain in the lobby, surrounded with couches and soft cushions. There is a patio door leading out to a balcony on the other end of the building. Another door had been left open; peeking from the living room, I could see that it leads to the bedroom.

It is 7.36 pm. According to Relius's itinerary I should have at least another half an hour before he returns here, maybe more depending on traffic conditions. "There's moderate traffic today, Master." proclaims Yua. If that is the case, today's traffic should be heavy enough to delay him for a total of 45 minutes. That should be more than enough time. I get to work, humming the tune again. His personal computer is found almost immediately, left carelessly on the desk besides the massive four-poster bed.

"Found his computer. Lord Engura, Lord Engura. You make it so easy for me."

"Don't get careless, Senya."

"Master wouldn't get careless, Ms. Kyrie. Please have more faith in him!" You're too nice, Yua. I don't say anything, instead moving to switch the computer on. I suppose it sounds a little arrogant, but I don't think Relius has any traps on his computer that I won't be able to bypass.

He is smart enough not to leave it running idly while connected to a network - if that was the case we'd just have gotten Anna to do everything, but clearly he is not in the habit of storing away the computer under lock and key whenever not in use. Judging from the wear and tear on the case and the recent make of the model, he must use it a lot. Well, people who are too confident in their power are usually careless with their personal effects. It is a strange thought where they believe that no one will dare to harm them. Just like how hotel security works, they believe that their power will act as enough of a deterrence that it auto-magically turns into prevention. There is a password on the screen, but it is a mere trifle. I have Yua break it and in seconds I have full access to Relius Engura's computer. It is as unprotected as I had expected.

I set to work dumping the entirety of its contents into a drive that I had brought along. Firstly, not knowing what exactly to look for, it would waste too much time to filter the information on-site. Secondly - and more importantly - a person as well connected as Relius Engura would have lots of unrelated information that could be useful to me. I'm no hero of justice; blackmail isn't exactly beneath me. That, and I just don't like Mr. Perfect. The progress bar appears... 20 minutes and counting. It is a bit lengthy, but I should have more than enough time to finish and search the rest of the room thoroughly while I'm at it.

I let the program run while I look around the suite. There is not much to find. Rows of expensively tailored, identical suits are lined up in the wardrobe, with matching shoes. He drinks coffee, not tea, judging from the used cups and bags. The bathroom on the outside is empty and dry, its molded gel bathtub invitingly empty. The bathroom attached to the bedroom is locked. The ashtray remains unused. All in all, it appears the personal computer is the only object of interest. The sole oddity is the set of girl's clothing folded neatly and set atop his bed.

"Do you know if he's a crossdresser?" I ask Kyrie.

"I would have no idea. Why would you ask me such a thing?"

"Never mind."

It could also belong to someone else. Oh, such lurid possibilities...

The search of the suite takes 15 minutes and 44 seconds. Returning to the computer, I browse through some of the files to while away the time.

Something catches my eye.

"Hiranyagarbha... Apostles of..."

"Master, Hiranyagarbha is Indus for the Golden Womb." Yua lets me know the translation as soon as I have muttered the words. It looks like his computer is full of books, tracts and pamphlets written by the Apostles.

"Yua, get me all the details you have on this group."

"Right away, Master."

I have a feeling that it is important somehow. I flick through the screens of his computer, looking for other interesting stuff. There is a large cache of pictures; I bring it up with a tap and browse through the thumbnails quickly. Most of the pictures are pretty but uninteresting landscapes taken with an expensive camera. Well, if that was the case... with a few keystrokes I bring up the hidden pictures. Any man would have those. Relius didn't disappoint - the screen fills up with thumbnails of girls; clothed girls, but girls nonetheless. I check the latest photo. It is a picture of a a school girl about my age wearing the same clothes I had seen folded on the bed. It seems that it is a uniform for one of the other less prestigious schools in town. The timestamp of the photo is dated yesterday night, around 11.30 pm, and the location appears to be at the commercial sector of Olympia.

"Even in a town like this..." Schoolgirl prostitution is not unknown in Higashi, but I didn't expect it to happen in Olympia. Still, I find it strange that she would leave her school uniform here. I haven't found his keycard in my search of the room, so either he had brought it with him, or he left it with the girl. I notice that a pair of bra and panties are lying by the uniform.

"Kyrie?"

"Yes? Have you found anything?"

"Do girls usually change their bra and panties every time they have a change of clothes?"

"..."

There is a cold silence from the other side of the phone. I guess no matter how much she tries to imitate Anna, she's still a maiden at heart. Anna would've given me a direct answer and then spent the next ten minutes teasing me. I quickly apologize and mute the line before she explodes in embarassment.

"Do you know, Yua?"

"Uh... Master..." She seems concerned. "Are you feeling okay?"

Ah, right, Yua doesn't actually wear real clothes. I look at the underwear again.

Track 17

Suddenly, I recall that Relius was the only one who had left the suite today. Had the girl changed her clothes and left last night? That would be odd behaviour, but perhaps Relius is the sort who likes to purchase used clothing. If that was not the case, however, then she must still be in the room. My eyes stray to the locked bathroom. Had she been in there all the while? Perhaps she had hidden herself inside when I entered the room... no, that is not possible. I had entered swiftly without knocking, anyone would've thought it was Relius himself returning. Her first reaction wouldn't be to hide, unless she was here without his permission, and if so, we would probably be able to come to a deal.

Well, only one way to find out.

I step towards the locked bathroom slowly. It is an old-fashioned door; I can see the keyhole set into the center of the door knob. I put my ear to the door...

Nothing.

Concentrating, I allow the tendrils to worm their way out of my index finger. I push it against the keyhole, allowing the slimy black things to flood the cavity. They slowly take on the matching shape of the key, and once I feel resistance I turn.

The door unlocks with a click, and shifts slightly ajar as it does so. I can smell a faint metallic scent.

...blood?

It is utterly dark inside the bathroom. If I remember it right, the one on the outside had its switch on the left side of the wall. I fumble my hand around, searching for the switch.

There it is.

I flip it.

Track 18

The bathroom light flickers on almost immediately. The cold white light illuminates the entirety bathroom, inscribing each and every detail into my eyes.

I take a step back involuntarily.

The girl is in there.

The molded gel bathtub conforms to her curves lovingly, holding her in place. The gel seems to have hardened into a deep gray substance.

Her pale right hand hangs limply on the lip of the bathtub, her fingers skimming the Grecian carvings decorating its surface.

Her legs are splayed apart, raised obscenely over the edges of the bathtub.

The breasts are missing, red ragged patches splashed with yellow all that remains of her chest.

Her left arm is raised from between her legs and embedded in the gel, the fingers twisted and broken into an unnatural gesture.

Her abdomen has been carved open from sternum to groin.

Unreadable scratches are inscribed all along her intestines.

The intestines are draped around her neck like a garland.

Her head is not on her neck.

It is nestled in her half-open uterus.

I take another step back. What was this? What was this senseless butchery? It looked like some sick, grotesque display of art, a contorted statue of flesh and blood. Could a human have been responsible for this? If someone had told me it was the work of a monster I would believe them without any hesitation. There is barely any stench besides that faint bloody scent permeating the bathroom, but bile rises in the back of my throat all the same. I fight to hold it down, blinking back tears in my eyes.

The girl's blank eyes stare accusingly at me, her lips perpetually parted in a last sigh.

Did Relius do this? What is going on here? The sheer absurdity of someone like him doing something like that in some place like this threatens to overwhelm me. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The corpse is still there when I open them, but now I can at least pretend to be calm.

I consider calling the cops immediately, but decide against it. There would be too many questions asked of me right now. Besides, I don't think the body is going anywhere. My hands trembling just slightly, I raise my phone to snap pictures of the body.

“M-M-Master!” Yua protests as I do so.

“You should wipe this from your memory, Yua.” I mutter as she whimpers.

There is no room for squeamishness here. I finish taking the photos and switch off the lights. The door knob is in the style of a privacy knob. I click the lock shut before gently closing the door. There is nothing else in there for me to see.

“Senya, how's everything going?”

“I found a dead body in his room – don't scream.”

My warning comes in time just for her to choke back a yell of disbelief.

“If we call the police, there will be uncomfortable questions. Let's wait until after I leave with the data... also, it'll be up to you whether you want to report it,” I say as I confirm that the backup of his computer is safely on my drive. I unplug it and restore the condition of the computer to how it was twenty minutes ago.

“What do you mean, it's up to me? Are you sure it's a real dead body?”

It would have been the most realistic doll I've ever seen, but I don't think I can mistake that stench and pallor of the flesh for anything else but the real thing. I shiver as I recall the state of the corpse. It isn't the first dead body I've seen, but...

“I'm positive. I don't think the police will act against Relius unless you use your name to do so, and that will definitely tip him off.”

“If we already have evidence then it shouldn't be a problem.”

“That's why it's up to you. If you'll be putting your own neck on the line, I'll let you decide just how much evidence you need before you act.”

“I see... fair enough, Senya. Are you okay? You sound... off.”

I give her a harsh laugh. “I just saw a corpse, princess. Anyone would be shaken.”

“Hm. I suppose so. Relius still hasn't come back. It looks like our estimates of his schedule are correct.”

“Perfect.” I run over the suite one last time, making sure everything is back in order, with Yua helping me match the current state of the rooms to when I first entered. There are still at least 15 minutes to spare, and I should be safely away from the building with Kyrie before Relius even steps into the lobby.

“I'll be heading down now.” I tell Kyrie that, eager to leave the room.

“Yeah, I'll be waiting. See you in a while.”

After that, it's just a matter of turning off the lights, stepping out the door, and allowing it to lock up automatically.

Mission complete...

Or so I thought.

Besides me stood a young man with silver hair. I curse my own hastiness in leaving the suite. The mutilated body had thrown me off much more than I thought – I should have waited and checked to see if there was anyone outside before I left. Where do I get off telling Kyrie she's inexperienced when I make such a fool move?

“What are you? I sensed your trail leading here.” His voice is sharp, like the sword he carries. With that hair, those blue eyes, and that sword, he must be a member of the Dunamis private security group. That is another folly of mine. Though I know Erika sniffed something different about me the first time we met, that fact had totally slipped my mind. I also knew that their rooms had been booked for longer than Relius's; it was no surprise that I would run into them here, or that I would attract their attention once they came across me. It looks like the axiom that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, is true. Luck is fickle. Oh well, too late to regret my carelessness now. I just have to play it by ear, and my mind starts working. The first thing I need is, as usual, information...

The sword leaves its sheath, making a graceful arc before pointing at my neck.

“You're not human, are you?”

I smile back at him, causing his delicate features to furrow.

“I have no idea what you're talking about.”

“What are you doing coming out of Lord Engura's room?”

“I'm a friend of his.”

The sword shifts threateningly, and its point nicks my throat.

“Another lie and I will have your head before your tongue finishes it.”

“Very well. What do you think I am, if I am neither human nor a friend of Lord Engura?”

“A cultist of the accursed Apostles, here to do him harm. Non-human things like you can be no other. Do not taunt me with facts you know well, monster.”

I do like people who give away information freely. From the spectacle I just saw in his room I could half expect that Relius was a member of the Apostles. However, if the Dunamis group were against the Apostles...

“What will you do with me, if I were to surrender?”

The man laughs mockingly and perhaps a bit bitterly, but his sword doesn't sway from its position.

“I would rather kill you right here, but Lord Engura has asked that we capture any cultists we find alive and bring them to him. We are bound to him for now and we will obey the terms of our contract.”


***

A. I surrender to the man. It is an extremely risky gamble, but I highly suspect Relius is a member of the Apostles. If I can manage to reveal it to the Dunamis group, judging from their enmity towards that cult I could probably turn them on him quickly. I also have that body in the bathtub as proof that he is not what he seems to be. Furthermore, confronting Relius directly is the quickest way to verify his guilt and smash whatever he is plotting, and after having seen that corpse I have no doubt he is up to no good.

B. My mission here is to obtain evidence of Relius's misdeeds. Now that I've secured the information on his computer, my next step should be to leave the building safely. It is best that I retreat and analyze the data I've obtained - if I am captured, it is likely that I will not be able to hold on to my drive. Even if I've now been apprehended, I just need to escape the man. He is alone and I have my powers to fall back on. Furthermore, since he is sure I'm a cultist, the report he gives to Relius will be confusing enough to be a cover for me.
 

Part 9 - Fleeing the Grand Olympus

Fleeing the Grand Olympus

I crane my neck back a bit, leaning away from the point of the sword. Escape is the only thing on my mind right now. I try to remember how it feels like to call upon my power.

"Are you coming in quietly, or do you want to die?"

Track 19

The coldness washes over my brain, turning the world crisp and clear. Instantly, I understand that from his position, his posture and the length of his sword, I have a straightforward way out. Had he backed me into the wall things might have been different. I throw myself backwards, out of his range. Surprise registers for only a second on his face before he is after me. This is the second time I've went up against a superhuman with my ability. He is at least on par with Erika in terms of strength and speed, but his movements are more brutal and straightforward, without the flowing grace she exhibits. He swings the sword in a predictable arc. If he wields his blade that way, his center of gravity shifts in a manner like... so. Then, all I need to do is step... there.

I dodge his next swing with an erratic move, forcing him to recover in an awkward position. I don't give him the chance. Pushing off against the carpeted floor, I ram into him, knocking the swordsman to the ground easily due to his loss of balance. I would have to find a way to escape before he gets up. Not only am I operating on a time limit, I don't have the speed to escape him successfully even if I sprint down the corridor. Every second I waste confronting him directly is a second I could use getting closer to the ground floor.

The only way out is the balcony. I run out on it and climb onto the stone railing. The building opposite is more than fifteen meters away - I would not be able to reach it. The man is already back on his feet. No time to really think now; I'll do it as I fall. I jump.

With my heightened senses I pick out a suitable column, one of many that decorated the walls of the hotel. My tendrils shoot out, their hardened tips piercing the stone. They won't hold for long, but still they provide enough purchase for me to swing from my tendrils. I go feet first through the fifth floor balcony, knocking over an unattended dish trolley as I do so. The tendrils have already crumbled by the time I'm back to my feet, all evidence of their existence fading into thin air.

I hold my breath, waiting, my feet preparing to spring.

His feet appear first. As I expected, he did not have the patience to go after me from the stairs, instead relying on his superior physical abilities to follow me. Already I'm running at him. The man starts to drop down onto the parapet, his arms still raised out of sight together with his sword. I throw my entire body at him right as his toes touch the stone. Together we topple off the balcony. I kick at the surprised swordsman and stretch out my hand, anchoring my tendrils again into the stone to arrest my momentum. This time I swing right into a wall. The ground floor of the hotel is significantly taller than the other floors. The impact crushes my arm against my body. I block out the pain and release the tendrils, allowing myself to drop to the pavement.

There's about twenty metres between me and the lobby's entrance, where Kyrie is waiting. Unfortunately we didn't prepare a getaway vehicle – not that either of us are licensed to drive – and running to meet her would probably just get her into trouble. If I flee by myself she has room to explain away her presence here. I'm also not sure the Dunamis would not take her in too if I tried to get her to help me. Letting Relius find out about the full extent of her involvement would be bad, both for her and for me.

The swordsman is staggering to his feet – the five-storey fall did quite a number on him. He had hit the ground first and attracted the attention of many passersby, allowing me to escape notice. I don't linger around to taunt him while he recovers, dashing into a nearby alleyway. The dark does nothing to hinder my vision, but the smell rocks my nose hard.

“Yua!”

“Yes, Master?”

“Directions, now!”

Yua understands intuitively where I want to go without my saying so. There is a brief buzzing noise, and then she begins to speak to me, telling me where to go. I follow her instructions, going left, right, up the next of stairs, right again, running through the maze of alleys. My legs begin to give up on me just as my time is about to run out, but I'm almost there. Thanks to my desperation, I seem to have pushed myself past my limits... by my count it has been seven minutes and sixteen seconds. It's too bad I don't have time to celebrate my new record. I hear a pair of footsteps behind me and another person running along the rooftops.

Two?

A figure lands in front of me, a shining arc of metal in its hand. At the same time, a burst of fuzziness swallows me. I lose my focus and trip. In the haze, I dimly feel something push through my chest. The metal feels cold and sharp.

Track 20

Ah, I was so close...

“Lady Erika? What are you doing here?” It is the man that had been chasing me.

“He is my prey. I have been tracking him for a week.” The voice comes from my front, from the person that had run me through.

Erika? I can't really see anything right now, but gradually my sight begins to recover.

“Lady Erika, this cultist was caught near our employer's room. If you would just leave him to us -”

“This prey is mine.” Her voice is almost emotionless, but not in the same way I am used to hearing her. This time it is authoritative, a bland statement of fact that matters can be no other way. Even on the verge of fainting, I can feel bloodlust belying her words, daring the man to challenge her.

He does not.

“Very well... but your brother will hear about your interference in the clan's affairs, my Lady. For your own sake I hope he will be lenient.”

I hear no more, as then Erika's sword leaves my chest and the cold, hard ground rises up to meet me.

***

Track 8

“Master!”

Yua's worried, teary face is the first thing I see when I wake up. The bed feels familiar... I must be at home. There is bright light shining in from the translucent walls. I seem to have slept away the night. I try to get up, but a piercing pain in my chest forces me back down. My head is still fuzzy from over-exerting my powers last night, but other than that and my wound, the rest of my body appears to be fine. My stamina and endurance are still increasing; just a month before a bout of running like that would leave me terribly sore in the morning.

“I can't believe this.” Kyrie walks into the room, a frown creasing her face. She is still in the dress she wore last night.

I can't believe it either. Why was she here? With some trouble, I manage to get up into a sitting position.

“Hm. You have that look on your face. Why am I here?” She leans over and flicks my forehead. “That's because a certain idiot didn't tell me and went running off by himself last night.”

“Sorry, but I thought it was necessary to keep you away from any attention. By the way, is my personal drive secure?”

“The first thing you ask for when you wake up is the data. Typical,” mutters the disgruntled princess. She walks over to my desk and picks up the drive. “By the way, Anna managed to cover up our retreat from the hotel. The staff at the Grand Olympus will never notice that the security feeds for yesterday is now a rerun pieced together from the past week.”

“Perfect. All that trouble wasn't wasted. I guess I do owe Anna one now,” I chuckle, taking the drive from her. “Did you bring me back?”

“No, it wasn't me. I just got here this morning.”

“Ms. Erika brought you back, Master.” said Yua.

“Ah... She was responsible for this.” I gesture to my chest.

“That was a pretty neat thrust, Master. It didn't hit your heart and slipped neatly between the lungs without cutting anything important. It should heal pretty quickly.”

I raise my eyebrows, impressed. I had no idea that was even possible, given the anatomy of the human body and the shape of a sword. Perhaps I should try to learn a thing or two from her. I grunt as I get up, clutching my chest. Taking the time to catch a few deep breaths, I shuffle over to the computer slowly as Kyrie watches impassively.

“Where is she now?”

“She's eating sandwiches downstairs, Master. Should I call her?”

I shake my head, plugging the drive in. “Maybe later. For now, it's time to check the fruit of our labours. Play it, Yua.”

“Aye-aye, Master!”

***

Track 16

The results are less than inspiring. There are plenty of financial records, evidence that he has been accruing more power in the ISC, and also proof that he has engaged in blackmail of politicians all over the world.

“That's... well, I think everyone on the board of directors would be guilty of this.” remarked Kyrie disappointedly.

“Is there nothing we can use?”

“I suppose... well, just by releasing these records the other directors will converge on him like a swarm of piranhas, eager to take him down. It's not a given that they'll succeed, but this gives them plenty of ways to try.”

I recall that Relius had proposed to Kyrie in order to overcome the other pillars of the ISC. I look at her, opening my mouth to speak, but she shakes her head.

“I won't be able to gain anything out of this just yet. The old bastards don't actually need this information, so they're not likely to trade me any useful favours for giving the data to them. They're too secure in their power right now to risk giving me any undue influence. It would be a bad deal, although it might probably stop whatever Relius is planning.”

That is the crux of the matter, isn't it? Relius's plot. None of the information I had obtained confirmed his plans in Olympia. There were plenty of writings from the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha detailing their beliefs and their rituals, and certainly some evidence indicating that Relius might be a believer, but there is no “RELIUS IS COBBLING TOGETHER EVIL FISHMEN” file that simply spelled out what he hoped to achieve here.

“Wait, go back to that file.” Kyrie interjected, asking to look at one of the documents. I comply, bringing up the information.

“That date's familiar...”

“It's about two months from now.”

“Ah, that's it. My father is coming to visit the Academy at that time. We're having a big ceremony planned.”

I check the file again. It's a raw text file that had been pieced together from scrap data in his inbox. “He's corresponding with a Julius Gallardo when he mentions this date. Have you heard of him before?”

“Gallardo... Julius. Right, Julius. He's a student at the school.”

“You mean, our school?”

“Where else? He's the class representative of 4-A. You would have met him if... well.”

“Thank you.” I reply acidly. She has the good manners to be embarrassed about it, and does not respond. “It is suspicious that Relius is writing to a student at the academy about a date when your father is supposed to arrive. Maybe he plans to try something with monsters?”

“That would be a little too obvious, and my father is quite well guarded. Besides, there's still the mystery of why he would hire the Dunamis security group.”

“Speaking of which, how long are they staying, exactly?”

“If I'm not mistaken, their stay has been booked for another two months... ah.”

“It seems too convenient to be a coincidence.” It seems that everywhere I turn, more questions pop up. I'm probably in over my head here... perhaps I should just call it a day and stop this probing.

“Hey.” Erika pops her head into the room. I turn off the screens. Though she seems to have saved my life, I'm not exactly sure if I should trust her fully.

“Ms. Erika, did you enjoy the sandwiches?” Yua hovers over to Erika, who is wiping her mouth.

“Yes, thank you very much. They were delicious.” She nods. “Senya, there is something I need to tell you. I forgot because of the sandwiches.”

“Oh, right. What is it?”

“My uncle gave me permission to join your swordsmanship club.”

That's one obstacle down. I try not to look at Kyrie. "That's great! I suppose we can start the training soon. I'll need you to teach me how to fight with a sword."

"Oh, there's one more thing he told me. My uncle requested something from you."

I suppose I should try to comply in return for allowing Kyrie to join the club. “What does he need from me?”

“He says... I think, that he will give you advice if you bring to him a copy of the data you got from Engura. It's something to do with the clan.” Erika seems utterly uninterested, conveying the message with boredom.

“When did he tell you that?”

“Last night, after I carried you home.”

I had no recollections of being carried, and I'm not sure whether I should be glad about it or not. Still, what does her uncle want with Relius's data? Could it be a trap?

“Erika, what connections do you have with the Dunamis group?”

She shrugs. “My brother leads the clan.”

“And your uncle?”

“Uncle is unrelated to the clan. He just looks after me, that's all.”

That clears some of my suspicions, though I still can't be certain whether or not Erika's uncle is trustworthy...

***

A. Ask Kyrie to hand over the information to the ISC's board of directors. Their actions might just unwittingly stop Relius's plans from coming to fruition without us having to do any more dangerous stunts.

B. Give the data to Erika's uncle, seeking his advice. If he already knows that I have Relius's data, I might as well be at his mercy should he decide to tell on me. At least if I meet with him I can have a better gauge of his character.

C. Give the information to both Erika's uncle and the ISC. Why not do both? With any luck I will be able to get even more information from both sides, as well as put a wrench into Relius's plot while I'm at it.

D. I will keep the data private for now. With time I can use the information and contacts inside to build a proper network of my own, amassing power to myself. Whatever Relius has got planned I can handle without needing to seek outside help – already I have gotten another lead in the form of Julius Gallardo.

E. Fuck it, all his personal information, including the photographs he took and the dead girl I found in the bathtub, is going on the internet. Let's see how you like the court of public opinion, you smarmy murderer.
 

Intermission: The Apostles of Hiranyagarbha

Intermission: The Apostles of Hiranyagarbha

The Apostles of Hiranyagarbha (Indus: हिरण्यगर्भ : trans. Golden Womb) are a religious organization operating mainly in Higashi and the Indus Confederation. Their core tenets are a belief in reincarnation and communion with God. The Apostles are a successor group of the Tenchishinri (Higashi: 天地真理 trans. Truth of Heaven and Earth) cult. Activity of the organization is highly restricted and monitored by authorities worldwide since the Shangjing Incident in 4007 A.C.

Background

The Apostles of Hiranyagarbha were founded in 4007 A.C. as a more moderate offshoot of the Tenchishinri. The founding leader of the Apostles is the Great Mother Saeko Wakayama, a Higashi citizen that was formerly a high ranking member in the inner circle of the Tenchishinri.

Beliefs

The Apostles of Hiranyagarbha believe that all life is interconnected and the energy of life flows from one being to another at every moment. To them, even inanimate objects such as rocks contain life energy, though in far lesser quantities than actual organisms. The primary message of their creed is that by diverting this life energy in certain ways, believers will be able to gain health, wisdom and prosperity. The ability to gather life energy is accrued within the souls of the believers, and higher ranking members have more memories of their past reincarnations unlocked by the Great Mother, granting them more power.

Another aspect of their beliefs, albeit a more controversial one carried over from the Tenchishinri, revolves around communion with God, who they refer to as feminine. They believe that God who lives outside the universe has turned Her ears away from the world, and to attract Her attention they must create God within this universe. The Golden Womb refers to the universe as egg and nurturer. By performing rituals to gather life energy, the Great Mother will transform her womb into a suitable receptacle for God and give birth to Her. The resulting child will attain divine transcendence, at the same time both inside and outside the universe. It is prophesized that after an Age of Strife, she will bring salvation to humanity.

The rituals of the Apostles commonly involve the use of Inanna flowers, which they deem to be a compound that allows them to get closer to God. Though the claimed hallucinogenic properties of Inanna flowers have yet to be proven, it has not stopped the Apostles from coming into conflict with the Imperial Shinar Corporation over ownership of the flowers.

Organization & Influence

The organization is divided into a hierarchy of nine levels. At the top resides the Great Mother. She is aided by a council of nine high priests, who make up the second level and are said to be in charge of the day-to-day administration of the Apostles. Eighty one priests form the third level and usually serve as spokespersons for the organization. The total members of the organization, as well as the amount of devotees at each subsequent level are unknown.

The organization runs several foundations worldwide, including the Atman Foundation and the Golden Charity groups. These foundations have invested plenty of resources into helping the poor and advancing scientific research, as well as becoming a significant lobbying force in Higashi, the Indus Confederation and the United Nations of Shulgiland.

Although the Apostles’ activities are monitored, their foundations do not fall under the same restrictions.

Controversy

As a branch group that was formed shortly after the Shangjing Incident, some suspicion has fallen upon them after the Tenchishinri became defunct in the aftermath of that event. Some surviving members of the Tenchishinri that were not co-opted by the Apostles have denounced the successor group in public, accusing the Great Mother of manipulating the Tenchishinri. Investigations by the authorities have produced nothing that can directly relate the Apostles to the incident.

Allegations of orgiastic rituals and child abuse have been made against the Apostles over the years. In 4011 A.C., these accusations became the focus of the award-winning documentary Inside the Womb by noted investigative journalist and director Kade Payson, culminating in a series of worldwide crackdowns on the Apostles in 4012 A.C. Six priests of the third level were arrested for counts of child abuse, and the organization launched a successful information campaign portraying those priests as deviants and not representatives of the Apostles.
 

Part 10 - The Old Leaves Bookstore

The Old Leaves Bookstore



Track 21

In this day and age, books are a less common – and more expensive – pleasure. Digital information has supplanted printed pages in most places, and the only significant demand for books are from two groups; the wealthy, as a status symbol, and the scholars, who pursue old books with the lust of a middle-aged salaryman who has suppressed his desires for decades and finally has the opportunity to indulge in his fantasies with a nubile school girl. That is to say, very lustily.

It does not come to me as a surprise, then, that the Old Leaves Bookstore during the day is packed with students of all stripes, from middle school to university. There are even a few elderly professors striding about boldly, the students nervously moving aside to clear a path for them as they peruse the shelves. The virtue of learning has always been extolled here in the lands of the Shinar, and a town such as Olympia was certain to gather many people of a certain bent.

“I didn't know how popular this store was.” breathed Kyrie. She had insisted on coming along, saying that the data was formerly owned by Relius and thus property of the ISC; which means she had a say in how it was used. I found it easier to give in to her.

“Please wait for a moment. I'll let uncle know that you're here.” Erika walks off into the back of the bookstore, nimbly darting between the crowd of customers engrossed in books. I take the time to look around. Wood is the main element in the décor; the walls, bookshelves and floor are all made of it. Books are arranged by their categories in the shelves. Most modern books do not have a printed version. The newest of these should still be older than I am. I reach up and pluck a book off the shelves.

“Saucy Sexy Shinari Stories.” reads Erika out loud, standing behind me. “Are you interested in that?” Besides her, Kyrie gives me a pitying look.

I wonder when she got back. I can't read it in front of them. Making a note of the book's location, I put it back on the shelves. Perhaps I can check it out later.

“I was just picking a book at random.”

Kyrie sniffs, as if expressing her disbelief.

“I see. Uncle will see you now.” Erika gestures to the door that she had went through earlier, before going over to the cashier and taking over from the girl manning the counter. Apparently I'm to speak with him without her.

I move through the throng of customers, towards the door. Suddenly, someone grabs my arm.

“Senya-dono!”

There is only one person in Olympia that would address me so.

“Fancy seeing you here, Michael.”

Islington almost bounces up and down, giddy with excitement. “I did not expect to see you here too, Senya-dono! Are you here to look for the secret manuals of kenjutsu? I always come here to read through them. They're a bit expensive to buy, but man, can you learn a lot from them.”

I shake my head, not exactly sure what he's on about. Kyrie backs away, keeping quiet with an amused look on her face. That bitch. Islington doesn't notice her. “I have a meeting with the owner, Michael.”

His eyes widen in surprise. “You have a meeting with Shulgi sensei? That's... that's so cool! That's awesome! Are you guys going to talk about, like, the essence of the sword or something?”

So Erika's uncle was called Shulgi. I give Islington an apologetic grin and begin moving away from him. “Maybe. Sorry, can't keep him waiting. I'll talk to you later.” As I turn away, I can feel his stare of adoration boring into my back.

***

An owner of an old books store should have a certain look about him. His hair should be neatly combed and parted. Perhaps he has a pair of glasses on his face, even though he shouldn't need one in these times. There might be a pipe in his mouth, and he may be wearing a checkered vest with tidily cuffed shirts. He should be refined, elegant and quiet, yet with a twinkle of wit and charm in his eye that tells you he is not entirely a dry person, so to speak. His is a face that speaks of seeing the history of the world through the ink that has seeped into old paper.

Erika's uncle is none of those.

His hair is dark and messy. His face is decorated with scars, not glasses – there is an eyepatch over one eye. A cigarette sticks out of the corner of his mouth, and he wears a vest – just a vest – that shows off his tanned, muscular arms. He is clearly dangerous, rough, and brash, and his one grey eye seems to twinkle with the promise of cheerful violence, and he probably isn't a dry person, judging by the open bottle of whisky on a tower of books. His is a face that seems to speak of seeing the history of the world through explosions and gunfire.

“Do I have the wrong room, or are you Erika's uncle?”

“Hm? Ah, the boy. Good, you're here. You've brought a friend along, eh?” His voice is unmistakeably the one that had stopped Erika from continuing her attack a few nights ago.

Kyrie gives him a polite curtsey. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir. My name is Kyrie Francesca de Shinar.”

His one eye brightens and he grins widely, showing a rough line of teeth. “The crown princess of the Empire. Welcome to my humble abode. I did not know you were friends with the boy here.”

“I would not say that we are friends. We have a working relationship of a sort. Of course, I am the superior.”

Erika's uncle laughs loudly. “You wouldn't have it any other way, would you? Give me a moment. Please, take a seat.”

I take my place on a very comfortable couch, opposite his desk. Kyrie drops herself by my side. Books are scattered haphazardly all over the room; he appears to have been reading one when I came in. I whisper to her. “Sir? I didn't know you could be so polite.”

“I know etiquette. Besides, it is only good sense to be polite to a man that looks like... well, that.”

“Well, boy, have you been getting along well with my niece?” The man cuts off our whispering. It looks like he is going to start off with small talk instead of getting to the point.

“I have, Mr. Shulgi.”

“You know my name. That's going to make introductions go faster.” He seems pleased. “Just Shulgi will do, really. If you forget it, you have my permission to call me Uncle.”

“Shulgi is not a very common name nowadays. I think I won't forget it. It's been out of use in the Shinar Empire for centuries, hasn't it? It's a very old name.”

The man shrugs. “I am not from around here. It is still quite popular back in my homeland. The United Nations of Shulgiland. When I was born, there was a strong fad of naming their children after the country. I got off easy with just Shulgi. There were boys called Shulgiana.” He takes a swig from the bottle, grinning at me. “You seem to know a lot about names.”

“I do read a bit about everything.”

“A scholar, eh? That's good to know. Erika did say you seemed like a puny book-lover. Tell me, have you ever read this?” Shulgi picks up the book that he had been reading and shows me the cover.

“The Epic of Ean.” murmurs Kyrie as she reads the title.

“I know the story, but I haven't read it yet.” I reply truthfully.

“You should. It is quite interesting.” He casually tosses the book over to me. “By the way, this copy costs a few hundred thousand dollars. Be careful with it, there are only less than a hundred left in the world.”

I fumble the book. Thankfully, no pages are torn. Still... if I'm interested in reading the tale, I could always just look up the online copy. I'm sure Shulgi knows that, so if he threw me the book, there must be something else about it.

“Does this have anything to do with our meeting today?”

Shulgi shakes his head, smiling. “No, not exactly. You can read it at your leisure; I'll lend the book to you. Well, we can get down to business immediately if you wish.”

***

A. Shulgi looks like he runs a bookstore where the books try to eat him daily. He certainly is no mere store owner, even discounting his connection with the Dunamis group. There is something off about him – I will try to probe his background a bit more before entrusting him with the data.

B. I do what I came here to do; exchange the data for Shulgi's advice. There doesn't seem to be much point in trying to achieve anything else for now. There are other things that await my attention, and it will not do to be side-tracked by his appearance.
 

Part 11 - Questions for a Bookstore Manager

Questions for a Bookstore Manager

Track 16

This man is definitely not what he seems to be. I understand that everyone has their secrets, but my curiosity has been piqued; I won't be able to let it go without trying to satisfy it at least a little bit.

“Maybe we should get to know each other a bit better first, Mr. Shulgi.”

“I told you Shulgi will do, boy. Well, it's not like I mind getting to chat a bit more with Erika's friends. This is the first time that girl has brought anyone home.” Shulgi is proud, like a father watching his daughter take her first baby steps.

“She's been very helpful. Thank you for allowing her to join my club, by the way. I really appreciate it.”

The grizzled man laughs loudly, leaning back in his chair. “There's no need to thank me! To be honest, she surprised me when she asked. Erika's never shown any interest in social activities before. I should be grateful that you've caused her to join a club... well, even though it is run by that Islington kid.”

“I know what you mean.” I look away – and meet Kyrie's eye. She had been quiet all this while, and yet at the mention of the club that smile crept its way back onto her face. Being reminded that she has given me a source of perpetual annoyance seems to please her for some reason.

“Boy.” Shulgi fixes me with his one good eye.

“Yes?”

“If I hear the word desu out of Erika I will be having a chat with you.”

I cough and nod. “Agreed. You've been raising her a long time, I suppose? You seem more like father and daughter.”

“Aye. Took her in when her parents died. That was when she was a brat of about five, I think.”

“When I was acquiring the object of our trade, I heard mention of her brother.”

“Yeah, she has an older brother. He runs the Dunamis private security group, which you've had the pleasure of meeting.” Shulgi takes another swig from the bottle. I can tell he doesn't seem to have much fondness for said brother. “He is content to leave her in my care and out of his hair, if that is what you want to know.”

“I was wondering why she didn't live with him. Erika said you are unrelated to them.”

“We have no direct relation, that is true enough.” There is a slightly wistful smile on his lips. “I knew their parents well, back when I was running a mercenary outfit of my own. I became Erika's guardian as per their dying wish, but the brother was old enough – and strong enough - to take over the group.”

“That explains all your scars. They really don't look like they belong on a guy who runs a bookstore.” I laugh.

Shulgi laughs together with me. “I know, right? Most people get really quiet when they see me manning the store. That's why I usually keep to the back and let Erika or the cashier girl, Tomi, handle things.”

“How did you get into this business anyway? I mean, you were working with guns and bombs, right? I think this is one of the least likely jobs you could have chosen for retirement.”

“Huh, I've always loved books. My parents named me Shulgi after an ancient Sumerian king who was renowned for his knowledge. I guess I just took to the name – I might not look it now, but I read a lot when I was younger. Books are my first love; I just got into combat as a side-effect of my poor choices. Knowledge is important, boy. In the battlefield it is the difference between getting out of there with all your limbs intact and... well, this.” He jabs a thumb at his missing eye, grinning. “I will say, I never made that mistake again.”

“There must be an interesting story behind those wounds.” I glance at the scars adorning his arm. The newer, fresher ones are mostly bullet scars, but the much older and faded ones were too misshapen for me to tell.

“Of course! I have plenty of stories about my mercenary days. You should ask Erika; she's bored of them by now.”

“With such a peaceful world nowadays, you don't seem to have any place to apply your skills any more. Do you miss those days?”

“I can't say I do, honestly. A life of action is thrilling but it is not all it is cracked up to be, boy. Trust me on that. Books are better.”

“I understand. How long has it been since the last real armed conflict... 50 years? Sixty? I recall the last deployment of mercenaries in a battle was during the Tamurian Crisis about fifty years back. Most of the mercenary outfits retired after that, some of them turning to bodyguard duties like the Dunamis group.”

“Well, my outfit was attacked very frequently. You can look up our job history – we called ourselves the Cuetlachtli. I think it's still active nowadays.” grinned Shulgi. “Sure, there are no more hotspots nowadays, but violence is still alive and well. It just means that instead of a known enemy we can shoot at, we have to be on our guard against threats surfacing from the shadows.”

“I'm just a bit curious about those scars, though.” I had just received confirmation on Yua on the history of rejuvenation technology. “Fresh wounds can be healed without leaving behind any scars nowadays. Most battlefield kits have utilized that technology for at least twenty years or more.”

Shulgi laughs. “You really have never been in a fight before, have you? Sometimes you don't manage to get to a kit in time. Hell, sometimes there are no kits and you're lying on the ground waiting to bleed to death, gasping for air. You might even get thrown into a river by the enemy and left for dead. Battles aren't neat, boy.”

It's no use. There seems to be possible explanations for most of the things I can think of. I'm not convinced yet, but I won't get anywhere for now without devoting time to a thorough investigation. “I'm sorry for demonstrating my inexperience. I guess nothing beats first-hand knowledge.” I laugh embarrassedly, but Shulgi just reaches over and claps my back cheerfully with one big hand.

“Don't worry about it. I would be quite upset if you were experienced. You should enjoy your peaceful life as much as you can. Don't waste your youth wading through blood. Besides, it is better you reveal your inexperience to friends now instead of letting your enemies have a good show out of it later on.”

Friend, huh?

Track 21

As Shulgi settles back in his chair, he scratches his head, ruffling his black mop of hair. He looks at me with his piercing grey eye, and I sense a shift in the mood. There is a slight coldness to his gaze that was not there before. “Well, that is enough probing for one day. You'll need to do a bit more homework before your next visit, boy. Now, about the data...”

Since I'm not really any closer to fully trusting him than I was when I first walked through the door, already ready to make the exchange, I don't see any reason not to do so at this point. A gut feeling that he is hiding something doesn't give me any concrete proof to distrust him. Certainly, there are also indications that he is - despite his rough appearance - on my side. I make the decision to complete the deal.

“I have it here. What are you going to do with it?” I ask as I hand the drive containing the copy to him.

“My friends might be interested. By the way, did you keep a copy for yourself?”

“I...”

“The truth, boy.”

“Yes.” He seems to have been expecting this answer.

“No doubt you plan to use it to advance your own influence and network. Am I right?”

“You are. Were you a mercenary or a politician?” At this point there is probably not much point in lying to him.

A feral grin spreads across Shulgi's face. “When you're on the field, in order to live on you develop instincts that are akin to any political animal's. They stem from the same source. No man ever survived by being needlessly upright and noble. Well, in your case I can't say I find it smart.”

“Would you do the same?”

“I probably would, but what is smart for me isn't necessarily smart for you. On one hand it is good that you have ambition, but on the other you may be getting into things you don't want to be involved in.”

“I'm afraid it's a bit too late for that since the night your niece almost cut my throat.”

“Ha, I suppose it is!” Despite his cheerful tone, I could hear a hint of regret. “I don't know everything that's going on, but seeing as you're the sort to probe and try to get ahead whenever you can, I will tell you something different from what I had wanted to say.”

I look at him, waiting for him to continue. He takes yet another swig from the bottle and his eyes dart to Kyrie, who had been strangely removed from our conversation. When he speaks, however, his words are directed at me.

“Stretch out your arm.”

I do so, and immediately his hand clamps down on my forearm hard.

“Show it to me.” he commands.

I know what he is talking about. Giving Kyrie a nervous glance – she still doesn't know, and would probably be icked out by the slimy black things – I call on the tendrils. They emerge dutifully, waving from my wrist. I hear a slight gasp from Kyrie.

“Hmmm,” goes Shulgi. “It is similar to what the cultists use, but not quite. I can't say I've seen its sort before.”

“Wait, you've seen these things before?”

“When you hang around the Dunamis group you tend to encounter these sooner or later. Since then I've been in contact with plenty of people who know a lot about this stuff. They don't corrode or eat away at things, do they?”

“No. I can drain heat with them and change their shape, but that is all.”

“What else do you have?”

I debate slightly about showing him my other trump card, and decide for it. It won't impair me too much if I just use it for a brief second. I concentrate, and the world stills. When I open my eyes again, the familiar fuzziness has set in. “It's not a very obvious skill, but I seem to able to heighten my senses and thought processes.”

Shulgi is quiet, his expression serious and deep in thought. It is a look that I would never have expected to see on him. His face now looked like a mask of some sort, hiding his thoughts. Finally, he breaks his silence “This is interesting.”

“You've seen this before too?”

“No, not exactly, but I've heard of a similar ability from a friend of mine who's well-versed in these weird powers. Here is what I can tell you; if you can heighten your senses, keep an eye out for strange flaws the next time you use it.”

“I already do. I know structural weaknesses when I see them.”

“These are... different. You will know it when you see it. How do you feel when you activate your ability?”

“My brain freezes, pretty much.”

“Take that cold and concentrate it in your eyes.” says Shulgi matter-of-factly. It seems to be the same thing I had done while summoning the tendrils for the first time, but I'm not sure if doing what he says will just cause tentacles to burst out of my eyeballs. I raise that concern, and he laughs.

“That would be a sight indeed! Well, if that happens I will get Erika to guide you here. I've read plenty about surgery and I'm sure I can do something about it.”

“I hope not.”

“We will see about that, boy.” grins Shulgi. “In the meantime, I think that is all I have to impart for the day. It'll help keep you safe when your natural curiosity lands you in places and events where you are not meant to be. Now, time to scoot. Adults need their private time too.”

***

Track 6

Erika nods at me as I leave the bookstore, but doesn't say anything else. It is a short walk back to my house, and I begin walking with Kyrie.

“You were uncharacteristically quiet back there.” I say. “I thought you'd have tried to take charge of the conversation.”

“Hm. Well, he was there to talk to you. I could tell that he wasn't interested in me at all, even though I am prettier than you are.”

“If you put it that way... jealous?” I grin.

“Of course not, idiot. I merely deigned to allow him to speak to my dog. A good owner knows when to use her pet to its maximum potential. That was the best course of action to gain more information.”

So I'm a dog now? I think my rank is moving up in her world... maybe?

“Speaking of which,” she continues, as she grabs my arm. “Let me see it.”

“See what?”

“That... thing you showed to him. Let me see it.” repeats Kyrie with a nasty smile.

“We're out in public. Don't-”

She begins pulling at my arm, causing me to stumble around. Sadly, she's still a bit stronger than I am. A short laugh escapes her mouth before being drowned out by the longest stretch-limousine I have ever seen coming to a halt in front of us. A frown settles on Kyrie's face and she lets go of my arm. The door opens, and a man I can only describe as an old butler steps out. He even has a monocle on his face. Though his well-groomed hair and moustache are entirely white, he is almost as tough-looking as Shulgi, and probably even taller. I could just imagine his white gloved fists being stained with blood as he pummels some hoodlum with ease.

“Your Highness, it is not seemly for you to consort with a commoner in public.”

Kyrie sighs. “Yes, fine, Butterfield. Did I ask you to pick me up?”

“No, your Highness, but you do have an appointment with the mayor at 7 pm. Your maids will need to prepare you for that. We should return to the manor now.”

“I forgot,” grimaced Kyrie. “I suppose that is it for now. I will see you at school tomorrow.”

I do a half bow. “Of course, your Highness. Do enjoy your meeting with the mayor.”

“Hm. You should be polite more often. By the way, don't think you're getting off that easily. I'll just have you show it to me in private.” With that, she sweeps into the car. The butler closes the door after her, glaring at me as if I'm some sort of filthy vermin. I just smile and nod at him.

***

School comes again, but the classes have started to feel alien to me. The events over the weekend and all that has happened so far have turned the school itself into a dreary activity. School does not seem like my life anymore; not now that I have stumbled into strange happenings beyond my understanding...

***

A. Kyrie has asked me to meet her in the student council room after school. Though it could be about the investigation, it could just as easily be about pushing me down and forcing me to show her my tendrils.

B. An uncharacteristically withdrawn Keiko, with bags under her eyes, had come up to me, asking me to go to the rooftop with her after school, where we wouldn't be overheard. She mentioned the name Julius Gallardo in relation to her investigation... this should be important.

C. There's been too much excitement lately. I'll just go home and tinker around with Yua. I think I might have really been neglecting her recently. I'll examine that book Shulgi gave me while I'm at it.

D. After school time is club time! I spend time with Erika and Michael to practice the way of the warrior.
 

Part 12 - Julius Gallardo

B - 8
C - 5
E - 2

***

Julius Gallardo


The rooftop is deserted. There is no wind today, and the air is strangely hot and stifling. I loosen my collar as I look around the place. Keiko had asked to meet me here, saying that she wanted to talk about Julius Gallardo and his relation to the monster sightings she had been investigating. She wasn't here yet. The sun has already started to sink below the horizon, and down below I could see the lights of the town coming to life.

I hear the door to the roof close behind me.

“Well, looks like you came through for me, darling.” The speaker was a boy, with a reedy voice. Surprise, surprise. I just can't get a break, can I? I subtly place one hand on my phone and turn it on, whispering, “Yua, keep silent but record everything.” I turn around.

Track 9

A boy in the Academy's uniform stands between me and the exit. He has a thin, pinched face and light brown hair neatly parted down the middle. One of his hands is shoved in his pocket, while the other rests familiarly around Keiko's side, uncomfortably near her chest.

“Looks like personally breaking you over the weekend was worth my time, you nosy bitch. It was such a stroke of luck that you are in the same class as him. Uhihihihihi.” He grins, and then breaks into a creepy laugh. Keiko is looking at the ground, silent. “So, what's the matter? Aren't you going to ask me who I am?”

“Should I?”

“Fuck you.” growled the boy. “The name's Julius Gallardo. You better remember it or you might find your mouth isn't as smart as you think.”

Well, at least I'm going to find out more about Julius Gallardo, whether I want to or not. Perhaps I should thank Keiko later, depending on how this works out.

“So... Julius-”

“That's Mr. Gallardo to you, you dimwit.”

“What do you want with me, Julius?”

His features twist in an expression of pleasure and he laughs his creepy laugh again. “Uhihihihihihi. You have no respect for your betters, do you? Well, fuck that. I know about you.”

Is he referring to my employment with the ISC, or to my recent activities sneaking into hotel rooms? I decide to keep quiet and let him continue.

“You're Princess Kyrie's little boy-toy, aren't you? Her favourite? I heard you've been hanging out with her quite often. She even went over to your place, that plastic eyesore over by the old residential area.” He spits out his words with venom and anger. It looks like he's fairly upset about Kyrie paying attention to me.

“Technically, she did buy that house for me-”

“Shut the fuck up when I'm talking! I don't want some little fuck who's done my goddess to start mouthing off in front of me!” screams Julius. Looks like that struck a nerve. His eyes are wet... please don't tell me he's going to start crying. I did not, in all honesty, expect any of this when I walked up the stairs to the rooftop. Julius shoves Keiko away from him violently. She lets out a little yelp as she tumbles to the floor. The boy strides angrily towards me until he is right before my face. “I had my eyes on her first. Who do you think you are, coming in and trying to kiss up to her like that? A fucking idiot in class M like you shouldn't be anywhere near her.”

I try to recall what Kyrie said about Julius. She mentioned that he was a student at the school, and the class representative of 4-A. He's supposed to be smart. She didn't say anything about his obsession with her. Did she just not notice, or was she too embarrassed to say anything? Well, it barely matters at this point. Julius's hand closes around my collar, grabbing it with extreme intentions. My collar stretches slightly. He's not very strong. Even with my poor physical fitness I might be able to take him.

“You must have thought you were some hot stud. Having girls falling over you left and right. You thought that bitch over there called you up here to confess her love to you, eh? Well, you're wrong. I told her to say that." Julius gloats, very pleased at having put one over me.

She didn't imply anything of the sort when she spoke to me. This is strange. I cast a look over at Keiko, still crouched on the ground. She appears to be very calm about all this, looking at the both of us with an inscrutable expression... almost as if she is studying the situation. Gallardo continues his rant, distracting me from Keiko. I let him do so. I know when someone is too crazy to be reasoned with – I just wonder how he functions in class with such an unstable personality.

“Thankfully I know how to set things right. You are close to my dear princess. I can use you. Gods, if I had fucking known you were going to get cozy with Kyrie I would have sent more after you that night. Since then there's been too many eyes around there for me to do anything without ruining his plan.”

He just made it clear that the monsters that attacked me were of his doing. This has been a particularly fruitful conversation, and I haven't even asked him that many questions. Of course, I couldn't have expected that Kyrie had such an obsessive, bug-nuts admirer lurking in the shadows. I do wonder about Keiko's role in all this, though. The way she is observing the situation doesn't match what Julius seems to think of her. That is not the behaviour of a broken person.

“Time to rectify that mistake. This time the worm is going to fuck your throat well and deep. You won't be escaping anywhere. Uhihihihihihihihi.” The grin on Julius's face, already nasty, turns even more grotesque. I hear squishy, shuffling noises drawing closer around me. Fuck. Where had he been hiding them? There were probably half a dozen of them, all shambling, oozing, assorted animal and human parts.

***

A. This is a welcome opportunity. Since he has so kindly shown himself, it would be remiss of me not to try and capture Julius Gallardo. This will definitely speed up my investigation greatly and probably set back Relius's plans significantly.

B. I try to escape through the stairs, breaking past Gallardo. It's too risky to try and take him on when I'm the one being ambushed. Best to retreat for now. I already have his confession recorded; that should be proof enough for Kyrie to get permission to send trained men to pick Julius up at our leisure.

C. I attempt to hold out as long as I can while getting Yua to call Kyrie and Erika for help. The layout of the rooftop should enable me to dodge the creatures long enough for the cavalry to arrive as long as I move smartly.

D. I have my suspicions that Keiko is not what she seems. I go straight for her, hoping that this will be unpredictable enough to change my disadvantageous position.

1. I activate my powers. It is now or never.
2. I do not use my powers. I should not be too reliant on them.
 

Part 13 - Capture

Capture


Track 9

I'll just have to make it to the stairs. Once I'm inside the building they should stop their pursuit. Julius picked this place and time because he probably didn't want to attract too much attention. His hand was still firmly grabbing my collar, but he isn't that strong. I should be able to do this.

Thinking that, I give Julius a sudden shove. He stumbles back in surprise, his fingers loosening their grip. Had he really thought I would just stand here petrified, waiting for his pets to take me? I use the chance to run past him.

“F-fuck you!” howls Julius. “Get him! Now! Now!” His screams get more angry and desperate, but I am almost at the door. As my hand closes around the doorknob, a shadow falls over me, along with the putrid stench of rotting meat. One of Julius's monsters had clambered atop the entrance to the stairs. I had noticed too late. This one was some weird combination of ape and gigantic frog legs. Its powerful thigh muscles tense for a brief second, coiling up – and in an instant, it smashes me into the floor. I feel my bones reverberate from the impact. The beast screams an awful gurgling cry, a white worm bearing a single human eyeball slithering from its mouth as it does so. It whips around in the air before fixing its malevolent stare on me. I can hear Julius laughing in that peculiar manner of his.

“Uhihihihihihihi! Take him! Do it now!”

The monster complies; the white worm moves towards my mouth. I was pinned down by its strong limbs. Should I wait and bite at it, like I did last time? Probably not – I have another option. Increasing my perception now would not help much, but if I use my tendrils...

Though I have less fine control over their movement in this state, they rise to my command. The tendrils swarm out of my wrist, wrapping around the undead monster's furry arm. Then, they begin to suck away the warmth from its body. The creature rears back in agony, its purpose forgotten. The tendrils crumble before I can manage to kill it, but that is fine. Another swarm bursts forth, anchoring themselves tightly around the one-eyed worm. This time, the thing dies, its body shuddering in rapid convulsions.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the only monster I had to deal with. Before I could get to my feet, long, spindly fingers close around my throat and lift me up. My feet leave the ground and I kick helplessly at the air.

“Shit. This is fucked up!” curses Julius. “You're a Third Hierarch? What the fuck? How did you find us? You guys weren't supposed to know!”

I can't answer him, struggling to even breathe as the monster keeps its tight grip on my throat. Julius grimaces, an expression of worry on his rat-like face. “I thought Relius was making sure none of the Third Hierarchs came here. No matter. He'll want to speak with you personally. Take him alive, my dears.”

Struggling to focus, I finally manage to wrap my tendrils around the thing's bony wrist. It snarls and drops me immediately, pulling away. The thick black strings tear as the creature leaps away. Gasping for breath, I send more after it, but the creature manages to scuttle away on its long, spidery legs. I'm not fast enough to track it. Yet, before I can even think about heightening my senses, I'm slammed into the floor. Then, I am lifted up and slammed into it again. Two more monsters had blindsided me, and I'm becoming fast friends with the floor of the rooftop, meeting it again and again in a short span of time.

There is a loud crack, and everything goes dark.

***

Track 15

My consciousness returns gradually. The first thing I feel are the aches and chills all over my body, and a sharp, throbbing pain at the back of my ankles. I appear to be suspended by my arms, which are tied up above me. My toes can touch the ground, but barely. I try to lower my body. A stinging pain shoots up both of my legs as I do so. My feet are limp, flopping beyond my control when I try to flex them. Did the bastard cut my Gursu's tendons?

It looks like running is out of the question. I should devote my time to something more useful than attempting to get my feet to work through sheer willpower. Cursing my poor judgement, I try to survey my surroundings.

The room I am in is dark and dank. A strong smell of medicinal alcohol permeates the place. Water is dripping in a rhythmic manner – I could tap my foot to the splashes... if I could tap my feet. The fading light of the sun filters in through some privacy windows set high up on the wall. It is still sunset. I'm probably somewhere on the academy grounds. Security must be terribly lax if Julius had managed to set up shop here; perhaps I should write some strongly worded letters to the administration and have Kyrie sign them. As my eyes regain their focus, more details become clear to me, along with the reason I feel cold; I'm not really wearing anything at the moment.

In the corner there is a pile of body parts. They appear to be human, though some have been mutilated beyond recognition. From the lack of blood and flies despite their fresh look, they must have been preserved. Glass tanks line the far wall opposite me. In each floated an animal part, though I have never seen insectoid limbs or amphibians of this size. On a wooden table near the glass tanks lay one of Julius's pets, its rib-cage pulled and held open with large steel forceps.

This is probably his laboratory.

Several other things that look like consoles of some sort are scattered the room. There is a weird round machine with arrays of lights and wires stretching to every console near the wooden table. Whatever he is doing here, it isn't magic. If I could get closer and take a look at the computer on one of the moldy old desks, I might be able to learn more.

I hear a slight moan from besides me. Turning my head, I see Keiko, hung from the ceiling in much the same way that I am. She seems to be unconscious, her eyes gently shut. Ugly bruises are splashed all over her face. Like me, she is not wearing any clothes. I resist the urge to stare, but what little I see of the numerous wounds on her body tells me that Julius really loves knives. Still, what is important now is thinking of my next step... If I continue draining the heat from my bindings I should be able to freeze and crack them. Even though I am unable to walk, I might be able to crawl my way around.

***

A. I take the chance to escape immediately. I can always come back here later to satisfy my curiosity. Preferably with an army in tow.

B. I spend some time checking out the computer before I try to escape. I can also do something about Keiko.
1. I wake Keiko up and try to get her to help me. After all this, she can't be an ally of Julius's. Together we should have a better chance to escape.
2. I don't wake Keiko. I still don't trust her enough to do so.

C. I wait and rest. I am still able to activate my ability and use it to its fullest when I want to. Julius said Relius would come to talk to me personally. Once the two of them are here, I'll surprise them and take them out together, neatly solving this entire problem in one fell swoop.
 

Part 14 - Escape from the Laboratory

Escape from the Laboratory


It takes just a few minutes to crack the manacles holding me up, though by that time the cold around my wrists is getting unbearable. I wriggle my arms desperately, hoping that the plastic has become brittle enough to break. It does. The weight of my body shifts, and I land on my feet. Instantly, the pain bites into my ankles, travelling up my calves like an electric shock. I fall onto the floor face first. It is an undignified freedom, but a freedom of a sort nonetheless.

Gritting my teeth, I manoeuvre myself into a sitting position with some difficulty. The first thing I look at are my legs. The Gursu's tendons had been sliced with one cut, true enough. The edges of the injury are neat, encrusted in dried blood. It is not a very deep wound, but I won't be hopping and skipping any time soon. Besides the bruises and minor cuts I had received at the hands of those creatures, I was otherwise unharmed. It looks like Julius had taken out whatever aggression pent up within him on Keiko instead. The fine red lines criss-crossing her torso look as though they have been drawn on her white skin with a pen. I call her quietly.

“Fujisawa.”

Her lips part slightly and she stirs. She looks unfocused and groggy. As her eyes fix upon me they turn teary.

“Senya,” she whispers. “Save me.”

“Sure, but I'd like some answers now that you're awake.” I reply cheerfully.

“I don't know anything. Please, get me down quickly before he returns! I didn't want to lead you into a trap... he forced me to do it!” cries Keiko in a panic, attempting to defend herself. Well, that isn't really going to convince me.

“Why did you use Julius's name when inviting me to the roof? That wasn't in the script, was it?”

She pauses, uncertain. “I... I was just trying to warn you. If you heard his name-”

“That name wouldn't have mattered to me if I knew absolutely nothing of monsters, or his involvement in it. On the other hand, it would absolutely pique my interest should I know of his connection to this case.”

“Yes, that's it! You knew, right? I mean, you'd have known he was dangerous. I was telling you he was controlling me.” There is a slightly desperate smile on her face now.

“I didn't go investigating this case with you last week. I'm not sure whether to be sorry about that, but that raises another question. Why do you think I know – or am interested about this case in the first place?”

“I... well, I just thought you'd know something. You were hanging around the Dunamis girl.”

“You know what she is, then?” I say quietly, and her expression changes. Her face freezes and her eyes narrow.

“Hoshikawa,” she says coldly. “Don't play games with me.”

“I'm afraid you're the one who's been playing. I told you from the start... I want some answers.” It looks like her jig was up. “Why did you betray me to Julius?”

She laughs softly. “I didn't. It wasn't in my plan to get captured by that prick in the first place, so I had to improvise. I wanted to be sure of how much you knew of this, since you seem to be fast friends with that hunter and the Shinar princess.”

“Why?”

She shakes her head. “Sentimentality, perhaps? You were my friend after all. I hoped that you wouldn't be involved in this, but as it turns out...”

“If I didn't know anything about this I would have been unprepared and Julius would have put a worm down my throat for whatever he's planning.”

“It wouldn't have killed you,” says Keiko nonchalantly. “You would have recovered. Eventually. As I said, I had to improvise.”

“Putting me in danger is how you treat a friend?” I ask in disbelief.

“If you were normal, I was hoping it'd scare you away from all this, for your own good.”

I can tell that she truly believes that she means me well, but her evaluation of the risks and benefits don't match up with my own. Whether that is because we hold to different principles I do not know.

“As you now know, I am clearly not normal. What then?” I reply.

To my surprise, her expression softens. “I did not ever expect it would be you, but it is. What irony... I wasn't even sent here to search for you. The one I serve will have to know about this.”

“You're being unhelpfully cryptic. Explain.”

“We have no time. I will tell you everything if you free me. I will help you escape.”

“I can't trust you if you don't explain it to me, Fujisawa.”

“All I can say is that I will not harm you and neither will my mistress. She has been looking for you all this while. I'll tell you everything when we leave. Now, please.”

I sigh. She seems to be telling the truth about this. Hoping that I'm making the right decision, I send out my tendrils, slowly moving them into position around her manacles. I don't want to accidentally freeze her hands. She looks at the black, sinuous things approvingly. Keiko's manacles break and she lands on the floor gracefully, a far cry from my own faceplant. She bends over me, trying to lift me up and at the same time affording me a pretty good look. I blush and turn away nervously.

“Your... clothes.” I cough.

“Hm? Oh. What about it?” It seems like she isn't concerned about nudity at all. Then, the realization appears to dawn slowly on her face. “Right, I'm supposed to be blushing furiously and squeaking about this. I don't think we have the time for that, but if you're concerned...” She walks about the room, looking for something. When she returns, she has a piece of white cloth wrapped about herself.

“What about me?” I ask.

“What about you?” She eyes me with a slight smirk. “Don't worry about it, I don't mind the view. There's nothing else you can use in here anyway.”

Well, nothing I can do about it. Time to begin my escape.

***


With Keiko's help, I manage to get myself to the computer. She moves away to stand guard near the door while I work – by her stance I can tell that she is trained, though she seems merely human. Julius's laptop is secured better than Relius's was, but it still isn't enough to keep me out. It isn't his own personal computer; it isn't connected to any networks either. Within are mainly records of his experimentations and creations interspersed with ramblings about how Kyrie isn't paying him any attention. I skim through those; the method for creating the monsters is interesting, involving the use of extremely advanced biotechnology. I'm not aware of any laboratory in the world working on such things, and there are many parts that even I struggle to comprehend. Some of the genes involved appear to be drawn from particular alleles found primarily in the Higashi, while others can not possibly belong to any living animal on this planet. Were they synthetic in origin?

Still, it's not the time to get all interested in this. Escaping is more important. I look through the computer again. Mentions of the Apostles of the Golden Womb are frequent; they appear to be the source of all this technology – none of it willingly given. Julius has stolen the equipment from the Apostles somehow. Delving further, I find a map of the building I am in, and a manifesto of a storage facility somewhere in the town. Julius has been creating these things for close to a year. There are already fifty of these creatures; it takes him nearly a week to make one. I also find records of field tests of their control systems – I must have walked right into one on my first night here. The last thing of interest I manage to find is a memo to make sure their release is orderly. I check the date of their release; it is the same date that Kyrie's father visits. Is it just a simple assassination attempt after all?

It looks like that is all I can do with the computer. Before I log off, I look at the map and memorize it. We are currently underground beneath a small, abandoned science building in one of the more remote areas of the Academy. The facility itself is relatively large and marked with danger points for Julius to remind himself where he had set the more lethal traps. There is nothing else in the room – my personal effects are not here. They could be somewhere else in the facility, but now that I have the route to the exit in my head I don't want to waste a second here any longer if I can help it.

“I'm done here.” I call out.

She nods and replies, “The door's not locked. Let me check the corridors first.” Standing warily, she pushes at the door. It swings open with no resistance. Keiko steps out to look around.

She leaps back in barely a second later.

A monster follows her in, a fish-headed type similar to the first one to attack me. It attempts to grab her with its long, double-jointed arms, but Keiko ducks under its grasp. There is a flash of metal and she swings upwards, catching the monster in its fish jaw with a knife – where had she gotten it?

Her attacks are swift and brutal, with little finesse involved. The knife cuts through the air in the shortest path to its target, sinking repeatedly into the monster until it slumps lifelessly. Keiko shoves it aside, panting slightly. She tightens the cloth around her and looks at me. “We better hurry. Julius will realize one of his familiars is dead.”

***


We made our way about the facility, following the route I had memorized. Our progress was slow and we took the long way around because of the many traps, but the corridors were deserted. Luckily for us, Julius only had one creature guarding the door – he must be saving the bulk of them to execute the plan. We reached the ladder leading upwards an hour and fifty six seconds after we had left the room. Keiko somehow managed to push me up with some effort.

At least, that is what I thought.

Seven of the monsters stood between us and the exit, standing still in the middle of a dusty concrete room where the ladder had led us. Judging from the abandoned furniture, this had been an office of some sort.

Keiko steps to the front, twirling the knife in her hand. She says nothing and sprints towards the monsters. I slump to the ground, unable to stay upright. Stretching out my hands, I focus. Even though I can't get into the fight, I should be able to help out. My breathing calms down and my mind turns cold. Even in the dark building, I can see every detail of the fight clearly and hear every movement. I have no choice; with my mobility limited, I need to do this in order to have any success at controlling the tendrils finely enough to be useful. I begin counting down my time mentally.

She darts between two of the creatures, her knife slicing into their bellies. These creatures have tough hides; the cuts she makes are shallow, but she has no time to put strength into her attacks. Already another monster is attempting to blind-side her, but I have Keiko covered. My tendrils swarm out, snaking in between the wrecked furniture littering the room. They ensnare the creature – familiars, I believe Keiko called them. Keiko pounces upon it and delivers a savage two-handed thrust to its throat.

Without pausing, I discard the crumbling tendrils and send more out. The familiars had turned their attention to me; even with my increased control over the tendrils, once they notice me hitting them is no easy feat. Two of the familiars bound towards me, their fanged mouths open wide with bloodlust, the eyeball of the worm within writhing violently. They leap from side to side, deftly avoiding my attacks. Keiko runs in behind them and draws her knife across their backs. With a howl, they turn as one upon her.

That's just the chance I need. I had sent out my tendrils and weaved their movements together into a pattern, holding it with my concentration as long as I could. I pull them back, the pattern complete, and the tendrils rise in a neat web. It closes on the two monsters. They begin to shudder and scream as I drain the warmth from them.

I hear a scream and a crash. In her attempt to distract the familiars from me, Keiko had let another get the jump on her. I curse at myself – wasn't I supposed to be watching her back? All four of the remaining creatures are going after her. I hurry and focus my thoughts. I need both range and power here. Calling upon all of my reserves, countless tendrils shoot out and twine into a long, sharp whip that lashes at her assailants – the first is cut down, the second dodges, and the third breaks my whip. This familiar is unlike the others, covered from head to toe with what looks like chitin. There is a chittering noise, as if it is laughing at me. My whip had cracked and crumbled while barely denting its armour. Though I have gotten their attention, it is no use – I have nothing that can pierce something that hard. Keiko struggles to get up, but the creature pins her to the ground with a giant claw.

I rack my brain, seeking to find something else I can do.

There is one last method I can try.

I remember what Shulgi told me.

The cold pools in my eyes as I concentrate. The world is still. I do not even hear my own breathing.

A burst of rainbow fills my vision, and as it fades away, the world that I see has changed yet again.

Faint, ice-blue specks float across my eyes, forming and reforming on every surface I can see. I stare, attempting to make sense of them. As I do so, glaring desperately at the armored familiar, the specks resolve fluidly into lines that zig-zagged across the creature. If these were flaws, as he said...

The tendrils form again, spiralling about my fingers. I lift my hand, willing them to seek their target. In this cold world that I see, the tendrils move glacially, as if pushing its way through molasses. The lines are extremely fine and hard for me to perceive – if my concentration wavers even for a second, they begin to dissolve back into free floating specks. The tips of the tendrils reaches the lines and pass through them with no resistance, as if the shell is not there in the first place.

I trace five lines simultaneously, along each of the creatures... fifteen in total

The creatures split into pieces along the lines, sliding apart slowly.

My eyes burn with the cold, and I am unable to hold on to my focus.

The normal world returns all at once, my senses dulling in an instant. My vision turns hazy. It hasn't even been eight minutes. My hand falls limply; I'm all out of strength. I close my stinging eyes and welcome the embrace of unconsciousness.

***


When I awake, the first thing I see is the moon, shining brightly in the sky. The ring of solar panels around the world twinkle gently in the night.

“So, you're awake. I'm sure you want answers, Senya.”

Keiko stands over me, dressed in her school uniform. Judging from the breeze and the feel of the grass on my back, I am still naked. She kneels besides me.

“Thanks for the save. I have no doubts about who you are now.”

“Your saviour?”

“No, you're not, but she will definitely want to meet you.”

I consider the wording of her statement. “She... you are referring to your saviour?”

“Clever boy.” grins Keiko mischievously. It looks like she had her 'normal' personality back. When she continues speaking, though, her tone is worshipful. “Our saviour. Our messiah, both mine and yours.”

“You're with the cult.”

“Yes. I belong to the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha. My father happens to be one of the high priests.”

“Is this where you drag me into the cult?”

She shakes her head sadly. “No. If you are ever found, she wants you to meet her of your own free will. She will not compel you.”

“Why would she want to see me?”

“Because you are alike to her. She told me once before that she is searching for the person who has been blessed with the Devi's gift without being an Apostle. That would be her brother.”

“Wait, I do have a sister, but I don't think she's involved in any cults.”

“Yeah, I remember seeing her back when we were classmates, and that is not the person I am speaking of. I don't know anything about what truly happened, but that is what my mistress told me, and I treat her words as gospel.” She closes her eyes and mutters a small chant.

“If you want to meet her, I can bring you to her. I'm sure she can answer every question you have. However, that means abandoning your life here, at least for now... but I'm sure you'll be happy with us. That is where you belong.”

Her hand moves over mine, patting it. I keep my eyes on the moon, pondering this sudden turn of events.

“What happens to this case involving Relius?”

“I've found out enough to make a report. The Second Hierarchs will decide what to do with him and his betrayal of us.” She sighs. “Honestly, I wasn't even supposed to be doing this. Father just figured it was a good chance to prove myself, since I was already studying here.”

“I suppose you won't mind if I let the ISC know about Relius's plans?” I ask.

“I don't think I can say no to that. It won't make a difference to us.” she replies.

“So, what if I don't go along with you?”

“As I said, there is no compulsion. I believe, however, one way or another you will meet her, even if not now. It is your destiny as siblings.” She pauses for a while. “But...”

“What is it?”

“Well,” she mutters awkwardly, “Could you keep my identity a secret at least? I know you're with that hunter and the princess – things could get ugly if they find out about me.”

“Wait, you can't be planning to go back to class after this-”

“Why wouldn't I? I'm still a student at the academy. Can you promise you won't tell?”

“I...”

“Oh, come on! We saved each other's lives, I'm sure you can do at least that much?”

***

A. There is no need for a promise. I go with her to the cult, where she claims my real sister is. If the answers are there, that is where I will go. I will leave the resolution of Relius's plot to others; with the exposure of Julius's laboratory his plan should be in shambles already.

B. I promise to keep her identity a secret; I owe her that much. I'm staying right here, however. The matter with Relius isn't truly solved yet and I'm seeing it out to the end. I don't really want to leave everything I have here and go to the cult either.

C. I lie about keeping her identity a secret. I have no love for the cult, and their presence here is a danger. If I can drive Keiko away from the Academy, all the better for me.
 

Part 15 - In the Meantime

In the Meantime

“Sure,” I sigh. “That's fine with me. I won't say anything for now.”

“For now?” Keiko looks at me quizzically.

“This goes both ways. I won't say anything about you, and you won't tell anything about me. Is that fair?”

“Uh, I think it's a bit too late for that,” says Keiko guiltily. “The report went out while you were sleeping.”

“Great. What's stopping me from waking up next in the back of a van, bound and gagged for my sister's pleasure?”

“Hey, Senya,” Keiko looked annoyed. “My Mistress was very clear that you are to meet her of your own free will. I won't go against her wishes. Besides, for certain reasons she is unable to move around freely at the moment... she would visit you herself if she could.”

“I wasn't aware the cult had a code of honour.” I remark. “You guys seem a bit too sneaky for that, and there's too many unanswered questions.”

She looks away, biting her lip. “I won't say that every one of us can be trusted... but you can believe in me and the Mistress at least.” If Keiko considers herself to be trustworthy, then I'm not sure what that makes the rest of the cult. For now it seems that she isn't about to harm me.

“Nothing more about me, then. If she wants to find out more about me, I can talk directly to her about it. Can't I call her?” It would be safer for me to control the making of any calls from my side.

“That's... not possible, for the same reason that she can't meet you right now.”

“We can always do it when she is free, then. Let her know that. Don't you think she'll be more pleased to hear about me with my own words?”

Keiko seems to be conflicted. “I suppose... you might be right. You two really are siblings. That sounds like something she would say.” She smiles brightly. “I think the Mistress will be happy to know that you're thinking about her.” I wonder if it is her bias now that she thinks I'm her Mistress's sibling, but she seems to be easily convinced I'm doing it for her good and I don't mean them any harm. Well, I actually don't, but I won't be so confident as to predict what will happen in the future. For now, I'll have to live with this arrangement.

“We have a deal then?” I ask. She nods in return.

“Good,” I say. “What now?”

Keiko laughs and tosses a large piece of cloth onto my head. It's the same cloth that she had wrapped around her during our escape, and it still bears some faint traces of her scent. “Hey, this is not fair. How come you get your clothes back while I don't?” I complain. “Couldn't you have brought my clothes while you're at it?”

“Oh, no, I had my mother bring my spare uniform to me. Yours are still lost somewhere in Gallardo's lab. I think your friends should be here soon, so I'll be running off first. You better put that on quickly. See you around, Senya!” She runs off hurriedly with a backwards glance and a wave. There is a car parked some ways off; an older woman who is probably her mother is standing there with two men in black suits. Keiko greets her as she gets there, and they get into the car. It drives off. I watch as the car's red lights vanish into the distance.

If the cult is this close, did I make the right decision to agree to the deal?

I sigh again, shaking my head. Best not to jump to conclusions yet. I'll just be careful and observe the situation carefully; if they wanted me dead or captured they could have done so easily instead of leaving me out here naked and free.

I sneeze. It's really cold. Perhaps I should wrap the cloth around myself.

“Senya?”

Someone else is here. I slowly shift my body around so that I can see them.

Scratch that, there are plenty of people here.

“W-why are you naked?”

Kyrie is averting her eyes, her voice wavering. Erika is there too, her face having turned entirely crimson. She doesn't say anything and stares at me. And then there is Michael, huffing and panting – why is he here? Surprisingly, Shulgi and Butterfield are bringing up the rear of the pack. One of them has a wry, amused smirk on his face, while the other is very, very obviously unamused. This is going to take some explaining.

***

It looks like Keiko had tipped them off about where I was anonymously. Kyrie had received a call from Yua via my phone soon after I was captured, but it was cut off before she could ascertain my location. My phone is probably destroyed by now. Michael and Erika had been practicing at the club – now I feel guilty about ditching practice – and volunteered to help with the search. Kyrie had then gotten Butterfield involved, scouring the grounds in a helicopter. Even Shulgi appeared to lend a hand after Erika had given him a call, saying that he had nothing better to do. They probably would've found me sooner or later, but Julius had cleverly laid down some misleading tracks – that was probably why he had left the facility. That guy might be crazy, but he isn't exactly stupid.

By tomorrow, the laboratory had been raided by ISC officials. Even after all that, we still don't have enough evidence to tie Relius to the plot, other than Julius's mention of his name, while the involvement of the Dunamis group is still a mystery. To nail down Relius, with all his influence and power, we would need something more concrete. The location of the storage facility is unknown; Julius evidently didn't want to keep all his eggs in one handy laptop basket.

It's not like I was expecting a sworn affidavit with every detail of their plans, but that'd have been nice.

Julius has been exposed, however, and warrants of his arrest have been spread throughout the town. He must have another hideout somewhere, lying low from all the attention. The equipment confiscated from the laboratory belongs to the Apostles, and it is unlikely he can replicate his experiments anywhere else without those; his expertise is in biology and not engineering.

***

Thanks to the wonders of modern medical treatment, my tendons will heal pretty quickly, and soon my legs will be as good as they were before – that is to say, not very, though my strength continues to improve every day. There are still two months before Relius executes his plot – Kyrie tells me that the Emperor won't cancel his visit for something as 'minor' as this. Apparently Relius will also be in town when the Emperor is... he might be overseeing whatever he's planning personally. I can focus on accomplishing a few things before then...

A. Study the Epic of Ean. I'm not ruling out Shulgi hiding some useful information within, though it could as easily turn out to be a red herring.

B. Attend club practice – even though we only have three members, two short of the five required to challenge the kendo club, I could really do with the exercise. I could pick up some sword skills while I am at it too.

C. Shulgi offered to teach me how to develop better self-control through the self-application of first aid. He says that he has valuable lessons about that from his mercenary days.

D. Butterfield tells me that he can teach me CQC. Apparently if I'm going to keep dragging Kyrie into danger I better be damn well sure I can fight my way out of it, so he is offering me intensive training.

E. Aid the police in their search for the storage facility and Gallardo. My priority is to stop the plot before it can be carried out.

F. More details on the robots that the Indus Confederation are working on have come in. Development is being carried out in space, and it seems that both the Higashi and UNS have also noticed. The ISC wants me to aid with the initial blueprints of their own mechs.

G. Keiko says that her mistress sometimes uses a preparation of Inanna flowers to enhance her abilities. I might be able to stabilize and prolong my powers of perception if I do the same, and she will teach me how to make the concoction.

(Pick three. The three with the most votes will be carried out during the time skip.)
 

Part 16 - In the Meantime (II)

In the Meantime (II)

The Epic of Ean is the seminal work of Mehlua Khaledski, one of the most prominent historians of her time (that is, about two hundred years ago). It was the product of thirty years of painstaking research on the folklore surrounding the First Emperor of the Shinar Empire. Unfortunately, her reputation was tarnished by its publication – overnight, an entire industry based around criticism of her writing sprang up in bookshops and cafes. Mehlua had chosen the controversial method of writing in second person throughout the entire book. She had never explained why exactly, but current modern thought holds the theory that she had intended the readers to feel as if they were the First Emperor himself.

As for the tales inscribed within, they are an impressive compilation of his myth. From the historical records of a King Ean in ancient Akkad, to the ending tale of the Emperor lost in Olympus, Mehlua had managed to gather all the stories she could plausibly link together. Of course, in these enlightened days, no one believes a word of it. How could one man live for five hundred years?

I do not really believe it either, but there are stories within about mysterious creatures that the Emperor either fought or consorted with, depending on who is telling the tale. These strange beasts were formed from a multitude of black tendrils. I stare at my hand, wondering if it could be related. That aside, I found the military strategems utilised by the First Emperor interesting. I make a note to brush up on my knowledge of modern military tactics and see if I can't apply any lessons from the past.

After reading through the whole book, I can't spot any differences in the content of the copy Shulgi gave me from what is freely available online, but perhaps there is something else. I look through the book again.

There it is.

At certain points the fonts are different. This could mean something. I get Yua to scan and analyse the book. It takes a couple of weeks, but by the end of it I have something; an encrypted document. Decrypting it gives me the source code for a program. I have it compiled. As it turns out, it is a game of some sorts...

“...member of the royal guard... astrologer's apprentice... shepherd...” I mutter as I read. It seems to be a text adventure based off the Epic of Ean. There are choices you can make at certain points in the story. The first choice asks me to decide whether I should kill the apprentice and the shepherd, convince them to lie, tell the truth, or flee into the wilderness.

I pick the last choice. The program returns an error message. All of the other choices give me the same thing except for the choice to spin a story. I sigh. If this is a game, it isn't very well-made. It doesn't even offer me the illusion of choice like the Physware games that are all the rage right now. Clicking on the correct – and only possible – choice, brings up a text box.

'Why?' it asks.

There is a text box for me to answer the program. I type in, “Because.” It doesn't work. It looks like I can only progress if I am able to answer why I would pick that choice. I try another answer. “I do not trust the king.” doesn't work. Neither does “Why should I tell the truth in this situation?” It looks like the program is looking for a specific answer. If it is really based off the Epic of Ean, perhaps I would have to understand how the character thought, and why he made the decisions he did, to progress in the game.

When I ask Shulgi about it, he denies any knowledge of the program, though he tells me he'd like to play it too. I'm not convinced, but I drop the matter for now.


***

As it turns out, Erika isn't a very good coach.

“So if the enemy goes psaaaaaah, like this, then you need to turn your sword and go zuuuuuuuuup, like that.”

I don't really understand, but Michael appears to be able to. He's very earnest at mimicking her moves, and though he isn't anywhere as fast or strong, he has the basics down faster than me. After the first week, he begins translating Erika's teachings to me. There are many things to learn; the way I position my body, the way I grip the hilt, where I should point the edge of my sword, what I should look out for in the enemy's stance. I might not be able to fight against superhumans like Erika immediately, but with the techniques I've learnt, I can probably defend myself against one for a while, even without using my abilities.

The regular sparring also improves my physical condition until I am able to defeat Michael in 8 out of 10 fights. Well... that's not really anything to be proud of, but I started off with a record of 3 in 10.

As my training continues, Kyrie begins to come to the club to check on my progress. We're still nowhere near ready to challenge the kendo club, and I don't even have the prerequisite number of members. It is quite hard to get members when I've gained the added reputation of being a streaker; I still don't know who spread that particular rumour. To my surprise, Kyrie offers to be the fourth member of the club. Apparently she knows some Western fencing, and isn't a bad athlete herself. Telling me to be grateful, she signs her name on the club recruitment form.

Now I only need one more person.

***

Keiko is more than willing to help me with creating the concoction. There are some ingredients that can be synthesized only by the cult's laboratories, and she procures those for me, assuring me that these won't be missed. I take over a chemistry lab in the academy to do the deed, pretending to be taking extra classes for all the days I missed school. When the brew is complete, it has all the look of a sparkling, golden elixir. Pretty impressive for my first time, says Keiko.

I drink it. The taste is sweet, like nectar... it is quite refreshing. I wait for a while... nothing happens to my body. I don't feel any different. Keiko looks at me, puzzled. Apparently I'm supposed to get visions about now and go into a trance, just like her Mistress.

Thirty minutes later, nothing has changed. She checks the elixir again; I ask her if she won't test it for me. Keiko shakes her head, saying that she was not permitted to drink it as her rank isn't high enough. She insists it is abnormal that nothing is happening; all those touched by the Devi get visions when they drink the elixir. I assume she means people with tentacles. I shrug, and test my powers. I instantly feel the difference.

My mind slips into the state much more easily, instead of requiring a lot of concentration. I'm also able to switch it on and off without having the side effects hit me, though they do still appear when I run out of time - I also have more time now, being able to maintain the heightened state for up to fifteen minutes. Testing the elixir further, I find that the effect seems to be temporary, lasting a few hours for every vial I imbibe. The elixir also has the function of slightly suppressing the after-effects of my power.

Over-use of this could be dangerous, though. Looking at the ingredients, there are some powerful stimulants that could lead to addiction. With time I might be able to work out a safer version of the drug, but for now I should only use it when absolutely necessary.

***

I hope I spent my time wisely. Many things happened as we awaited Relius to spring his trap on the Emperor. Anna brought my family to visit. I missed them plenty; we talked about my experience at school and how they were doing. I did not tell them about the recent events that had become the center of my life - no point in letting them worry about it. My friendship with the girls became a pretty common topic of ribbing while they were here. Apparently I should at least try to get a girlfriend, say my parents, but that really is the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. My little sister didn't get along well with Kyrie when she dropped by though. It was like watching two cats hissing at each other.

In the mean time, the police could not track down Julius nor the storage facility. I decide that it would be more advantageous to capture him and Relius red-handed. If their target is the Emperor, they will have to carry out their plan when he arrives, and since the ISC is already monitoring traffic and cargo in and out of Olympus, it is unlikely that he would be able to sneak the creatures out of town. We will just have to keep a watchful eye out for any actions he makes.

The day before the Emperor's arrival, Kyrie, Erika and Keiko each approach me with a different plan...

***

A. Kyrie requests that I stand guard at her side while she is with her father. She says that since I have been so involved with the case, I have the right to be there if I want to. This is a position of honour which also allows me to protect the Emperor directly should I wish to. Unfortunately, it would also put me right in the line of fire when the shit hits the fan.

B. Erika tells me that her brother seems to be planning something terrible, according to what she has heard from members of the group that are still friendly to her - though their loyalty to her brother is still not in question. This might be something that goes beyond Relius's intentions. She wants me to go with her to confront her brother about his plans for the Dunamis clan.

C. Keiko tells me that though the cult has been unwilling to act against Relius, her Mistress will lend me some aid if I wish it, as a token of good-will. I am to meet her at a pre-arranged place in town and act together with some cultists to abduct both Relius and Julius on the day the Emperor arrives, before they can carry out their plot. This should be the quickest way to solve the problem.

D. I've managed to take control of most of the systems in the town without the ISC realizing it. With Yua at the helm, my eyes and ears are everywhere. Olympus is now my fortress. Friends? Enemies? Who gives a damn anyway. It is time to finish this farcical play in the way that benefits me the most. The ISC. Relius. The cult. All of them will dance in the palm of my hand.

E. Together with Michael and Garius, the core members of the Kenjutsu Club are ready to protect the peace and defend the Emperor. We'll sneak around and watch his back with our Ninjutsu skills... wait, when did we learn to become a ninja anyway? Well, that doesn't matter, does it? We can do this. Ganbatte!

F. Let's do this on a Case-By-Case (CBC) basis. I'll probably stay at home and watch TV until something happens... then I'll decide what to do.
 

Part 17 - The Dunamis Coup

The Dunamis Coup

Track 6

Kyrie looks up and down, appraising my new suit with a gleam in her eyes. “I'm surprised. Dreck like you can actually look pretty good cleaned up. I might even upgrade you to the status of a flea. I should thank Butterfield for his tastefulness in clothes.”

Flea? I'm a living organism in her eyes now. Hurray.

The butler had brought me a black coat and pants to go with a white shirt and black tie. It appeared to be the typical outfit for bodyguards working for the ISC's higher ups. With the sunglasses in place, I definitely did not look my age any more. Butterfield had placed a very heavy hand on my shoulders, looking me in the eye, and said, “Lady Kyrie ordered these tailored to your measurements. If you should as much as stain them...” His grip was... terrifying.

“Butterfield, huh?” I cringe inwardly and pull at my collar nervously. I am expecting something to happen today. I might even get my clothes stained.

“What's the matter?” asks Kyrie.

“No, nothing. When is the Emperor arriving?”

“He should be here any time now.” She checks her watch impatiently. The students are getting restless in the hot sun, waiting for the guest of honour to arrive.

The grounds of the Academy has been cleared to set up a grand stage. The Emperor is arriving to commemorate the founding of the Academy – as an institution in its modern form, it has been around for exactly 500 years today. The past few weeks had seen Kyrie being busy organizing the festival that would accompany today's ceremony and go on for a week after. If I had been part of the student council I would definitely have been dragged along; thankfully, I showed her that I was busy (kind of) with my club activities. Looking at the stalls spread out all over the school, it's clear that the festival is a massive undertaking.

Here, on the stage we were standing on, the Emperor-President of the Imperial Shinar Corporation, ruler of the Neo Shinar Empire, would address both five thousand students and faculty as well as the entire world. Unlike the other nations, the Shinar prides its national culture on knowledge and enterprise. They do have military force sufficient to rival the Higashi and the UNS, but their main prowess is in the creation and trade of ideas and wealth. The only thing that usually attracts more global attention for the ISC would be its annual budget report.

As far as I know, they've announced record earnings year after year, by the way. They've been pretty successful lately.

If Relius tried anything here, it would be shown to the whole world. The existence of those monsters would be known and publicized... and perhaps the cult's secrets together with it. Did they not mind? Keiko tells me they've been unwilling to act against Relius so far... I wonder if they did not care that the world knows about such things. Still, that is something to think about at another time. Today I need to focus on keeping an eye out for either Relius or Julius. The former is scheduled to arrive at the same time the Emperor does, while no one has seen the latter since he abandoned his laboratory.

“There he is!” says Kyrie excitedly, looking behind me. I turn around. The Emperor is here. Iannes Sargone de Shinar, the... well, I don't remember how many Emperors there have been exactly – only the most devoted historians that spend their entire life studying the extensively complicated genealogy of the Imperial family do – but he's the current one. He is tall, well-built and grey-haired, with a dignified moustache adorning his lips. Although he wears a similar black coat to mine, it is lined at the edges with gold thread, with the Imperial crest of a stylized sword pinned to his lapel. A ceremonial sword hangs from his waist. Behind him walked a row of serious looking men and women in similar outfits. Those must be some of the directors. Relius is among them, though he doesn't seem to notice me.

Kyrie runs past me with a scream of “Papa!”

Papa? I could recall that she once said that she knew etiquette around her father and the higher ups of the company.

“Kiki!” laughed the Emperor, as they hug. He swings her around like a father playing with his daughter – well, they are that, but aren't they a bit too old for this? “You've grown!”

Kiki, huh. I should remember that. Behind the father-daughter idiot combo, the directors looked perturbed, a scowl on their faces. I can just about read their minds: “How undignified.” Sure enough, one of the older men muttered those words quietly. Relius is the only one watching on with a grin.

“Oh!” gasps Kyrie. “I forget myself, Papa.” She unlatches from him and gives a curtsey. “Welcome to the Academy, Your Majesty, m'lords Directors of the Corporation.”

“Don't worry about it, Kiki.” grinned Emperor Iannes cheerfully. “Your mother isn't here right now. There's no need to stand on ceremony. The old chaps won't mind, right?” He shoots a smile at the directors, who return the smile and affirm their lack of minding awkwardly.

“Of course we won't, Your Majesty. Why, Her Highness's exuberance brightens all our hearts!” said one of them.

That was Relius. Obviously.

The Emperor nods at him. “That's a good lad. Now, let's see... hm, who's the boy over here?” His eyes had spotted me.

“Oh, him? Hm. He's just another servant of mine, Papa.” sniffs Kyrie dismissively. “H-his name is Senya.”

The Emperor's eyes twinkle. “Senya? I see.” he says. “I will have a quick talk with him. He is also a student here, is he not?”

“Yes, but you don't need to-” Although Kyrie doesn't seem to be enthused by the idea, the Emperor shuts her up by patting her head. “Don't worry about it, Kiki, I won't eat him up!”

Then he comes for me. The Emperor takes me aside, some ways away from the others. I can see Relius giving me a dirty glare.

“So, Senya. Hoshikawa Senya. I have heard of you.” His cheerful face has turned serious, his voice low.

“At your service, your Majesty.” I do not keep eye contact with him, instead opting to look at his very distinguished and well-groomed moustache.

“How far have you gotten with my daughter?”

“W-what... no, your Majesty, I would never think of-”

He shakes his head and puts both his hands on my shoulders. Am I done for?

“That... will not do. That will not do at all!” he hisses, towering over me. “Are all young people nowadays gutless?”

I stare at him, blinking in surprise.

“Look, lad, I know my daughter. She's just shy.”

“I don't think Kyrie can be considered shy by any reasonable standards.”

“Kyrie, is it? Not Her Highness?” grins the Emperor.

“Uh...”

“Worry not.” His hands grip my shoulders even more tightly, giving me more cause to worry. “A dalliance here and there is a good thing for any young person to experience. Even the heartbreak that follows is a good learning experience. I should know. Live and love as you wish.”

I didn't expect to hear such words coming from him.

“Thank you for your kindness, Your Majesty, but I really have no such relationship with your daughter.”

“Hm.” He sniffs. In this aspect he seems to be just like Kyrie. “If you say so. But I ask of you to take care of her even as a friend. She needs some, stubborn, bull-headed girl that she is.” I remember Kyrie, sitting alone in the student council room, and nod. Emperor Iannes seems pleased.

“There's a good lad.” He pats my shoulders and brings me back to Kyrie, who is looking a bit concerned. “What did you speak about with him, Papa?”

“Just about his good job in analyzing that Indus data for us. Our men have made some pretty good use of his recommendations.” laughs the Emperor as he slaps me on the back. It looks like he is aware of that. I should probably not underestimate him despite his easy-going demeanour. Kyrie heaves a sigh of relief. His next words cause a fit of spluttering amongst the directors. “In fact, he's so promising I should marry you to him, eh? Leave the empire in good hands.”

One of the oldest ones, some decrepit old lady, faints. The others have faces that are almost purple with bewilderment and anger. I can feel Relius's white hot glare of hatred bore into me. You're really something, old man – your joke isn't going to make my life any easier. I can't help but applaud him in my mind. If he's looking to troll his directors, he's certainly succeeded.

“Live a little,” grins the Emperor again, twirling his moustache. “Can't you take a joke? I certainly wouldn't marry my precious daughter away to some common boy. She's too young. Now, about that speech...” He swiftly changes the subject and his staff follow gratefully, still unsure whether he was being serious. As he walks away, preparing to go on stage for his speech, Kyrie comes up to me.

“So that's your father.” I remark. “I'm not sure what to say about him.”

“I'm not going to let any harm come to my father.”

“Well, we better stay alert to protect your precious Papa then... Kiki.”

I earn a well-deserved stamp on my toes for that remark.

***

track: executioner

The ceremony is in full swing – I could see journalists with their cameras all over the grounds. Kyrie's father had taken the stage a while ago for his speech.

“... my speechwriter told me to say this: young people are the future...”

I keep an intent eye out for any disturbances. Kyrie is sitting along with the other directors at the back of the stage. Since Butterfield is with her, I decided to take a walk around. Security is on extremely high alert, no thanks to the Emperor's presence, but it's still better to be safe than sorry.

“...I say, our youth aren't the future, but...”

There is a roar from the student body. I couldn't make out what the Emperor had said afterwards to elicit that reaction. Some boy screams “FUCK YEAH!” from the middle of the crowd. I look around again. Still nothing.

“...four thousand years of history? That is only because...”

The speech continued.

Then, I hear another scream, but this one fearful. Did Relius play his hand after all? It came from the far side of the grounds, where the entrance to the Academy is located. Most of the stalls were set up there, and I can't see past all the tents and awnings. A while later, there is a second, and a third, and soon they formed a chorus of desperate cries and primal screams. This is definitely it. I bring out my phone to call Kyrie, but it is already ringing. I answer it.

“Senya! They're here!” She must've gotten news from the police guarding the area faster than I could. “I've started the evacuation plan! Get back here!”

I know what she means – it's time to grab Relius.

“Do not panic...” It sounds like the contents of the Emperor's speech has changed. He is now exhorting all the students to line up and head for the school building neatly. Looks like he's playing along with our plan, even though he doesn't need to. I dash back towards the stage. I haven't been idle in the past two months; I'm confident I can match any average kid my age in physical ability now.

The screams are getting closer. I turn to look behind me, just in time to see a dozen shambling monsters burst past the stalls. Despite the briefing and samples shown, most of the police were not mentally prepared to handle the real thing. They must've panicked, allowing the creatures to breach their line. I can see some red staining the bodies of the monsters... already there were casualties.

Suddenly, there are screams coming ahead of me. I hear a familiar howl. It looks like Julius hadn't sent his pets from just one direction. I quicken my pace, attempting to get to the stage as soon as possible.

My feet stop.

The Dunamis private security group are already on the scene. On the stage, Relius is trying to shelter the Emperor with his body, though the Emperor looks more irritated than grateful. Though I knew Erika and the man I encountered were sword users, it looks like they employed a variety of weapons in real combat. Some of them wielded spears, others axes. There were also plenty with pistols and submachine guns in their hands. With blinding speed and the utmost grace, the Dunamis swept across the grounds, slaughtering the creatures with ease. They were all, to the last man or woman, white-haired. It must run in the clan.

I make my way around the edges of the battle – no point getting stuck in there now that someone else is taking care of the monsters – and find Kyrie, who is being restrained by Butterfield safely at the back of the stage.

“What's with the hold?” I gestured.

“Senya, how's my father? Papa didn't want to leave until all the students were evacuated! Did you see him?”

I nodded. “He's fine. Relius is with him, though.”

“What? Let's go get him right now before he does anything else!” shouts Kyrie. She's not particularly calm right now, and I don't blame her. It's her first time seeing the monsters in action.

“Butterfield, may we proceed to meet the Emperor? I think Lady Kyrie will not calm down until we do.” I ask politely. The old butler looks at Kyrie for a while, and then nods. He keeps his hand on her shoulder though, holding her in place. “We will go, but... my lady, if anything dangerous happens, my duty is to escort you from the premises in safety.” She nods, a grim look on her face.

“Kyrie,” I begin. “Relius hired the Dunamis, and unleashed the monsters. He probably plans to be a hero and impress your father. I don't think the Emperor is in any harm.” She doesn't reply, but bites down hard on her lip, still looking worried. We climb up onto the stage from the back. The Emperor, Relius and some of the directors are still there, along with perhaps a dozen ISC bodyguards. It looks like the Dunamis have successfully killed all of the monsters in the area. There were a few brave camera crews still lingering around, the reporters rushing around to cover the aftermath. This attack would go down in infamy.

Relius walks towards one of the Dunamis mercenaries. He had long, silver hair tied into a ponytail and delicate features. By his side hung a curved Higashi sword, its scabbard covered with ornate decorations. He was dressed in black kevlar, as is the rest of his companions. They whisper something to each other, and Relius turns to the Emperor, a bright smile on his face.

“Your Majesty, may I introduce my loyal subordinates-”

He does not finish his sentence, as his head drops off his body neatly and rolls to a stop at Iannes's feet. The young man he had spoken to flicks his sword-arm. The blood – Relius's blood – slides off his curved sword neatly, and he sheathes it with one fluid movement. There are screams as the directors panic. Kyrie grips my arm tightly, almost painfully. Emperor Iannes hasn't moved yet, his eyes glaring straight at the man, refusing to be intimidated.

The ISC bodyguards spring into action, bringing up their guns against the young man, but one by one they sink to the floor, giving off a death rattle as spears and arrows appear to sprout from their bodies as if by magic. Without realizing it, they had been surrounded by the Dunamis... and so were we; two white-haired men stood before me. One of them sniffs the air and widens his eyes. He must have detected my nature. The Dunamis swordsman turns to the young man who had killed Relius, as if to say something, but the young man shakes his head with a dismissive glance at me. “Later. The monster can die together with the princess.”

The young man walks in front of the Emperor and gives him a mocking bow, before turning to face the grounds.

“It is time. Hear my words.” His voice is icy and calm, thinking nothing of having just murdered a man. The cameras, eager for more news, turn to him. The entire academy appears to be silent, awaiting his next words.

“The Neo Shinar Empire is ruled by the Imperial family. They claim to have a birthright inherited from that of the First Emperor in one unbroken line.” The young man turns and casts a contemptuous glare at the Emperor and then Kyrie, before turning back to the cameras. “That may be true. But if blood is birthright... then their blood is diluted and weak. You may think – all of you out there may think that the legends of the First Emperor are just that; legends. Fairy tales. Fanciful adventures. Well, as you have seen...” He points at the grounds with his scabbard, and the cameras turn to follow, sweeping along the area. It is littered with the quickly decomposing corpses of the creatures the Dunamis had slaughtered.

“They are real. The First Emperor is a true god, he fought true monsters... and his power yet lives on... within me.” The young man balls his right hand into a fist, and the Emperor is lifted bodily by an unseen force. Kyrie gasps as she sees it.

“We of the Dunamis clan are the descendants of Ean's Successors. We have inherited his blood. We have inherited his powers. We have inherited his will. None of these have been diluted by time , unlike the impurities that now occupy the throne. Now, we have returned to claim our birthright, as it should be. The Empire is ours to rule.”

“We will not stand for this!” A particularly plucky – or foolhardy director stands up, shouting at the young man. With a bored look on his face, he unclenches his fist. The Emperor drops to the ground, gasping. In the next instant, the director that had spoken out tumbles in front of the man, as if pulled by an invisible hand.

“Will not?” whispers the young man audibly. “Dead men will not do anything.” He raises the director up casually with his supposed powers. If these are special effects, they are extremely convincing. In a flash, his sword is drawn, sliding across his victim's neck in a gentle movement. The older man crumples to the ground, suffering the same fate as that of Relius. ...the blood is too convincing for it to be fake. This is all really happening. I don't want to believe it, but now that yet another person has died... No more wasting time. I begin considering my choices.

“I am Erec Dunamis, and the birthright of the Empire will be mine, whether you fools wish it or not. To demonstrate the gravity of my claim, I will show you how powerless the Imperial Family is before the might of a true descendant of Ean. They will suffer the fate all pretenders should.” So saying, Erec Dunamis points his sword at the Emperor.

He is about to execute the Emperor in front of the entire world. Saying that this would weaken the ISC would be an understatement. Kyrie screams besides me, her nails digging into my clothes. “No! Save him! Please!”

The Emperor turns to look at us, his face suddenly ashen. Forcing a smile, he shakes his head and mouths a single word.

Run.

I grip a vial of the elixir tightly in my hand. The man guarding me would be somewhat aware that I am not entirely human, but he doesn't know what exactly I can do. I cast an eye around for the man that had almost cornered me in Relius's hotel room – and I find him staring at me. He begins to walk towards us. He would be more aware of my powers, but I have grown since then. I'll have to decide quickly. They've already flagged me as a monster for disposal. If I'm going to try to escape, I might as well do something useful while I'm at it, now that I'm irrevocably wrapped up in this mess.

***

A. I use my powers to break through, causing a distraction. Butterfield will carry Kyrie away the moment he sees a chance, so I will focus on saving the Emperor. I can probably take most of them by surprise if I am fast enough – I'll not be able to kill them all, far from it, but I can still buy time for the Emperor himself to escape. His survival is crucial for the ISC to remain stable.

B. I unleash my powers to retreat with Kyrie. Butterfield may be strong, but even he can't fend off all these Dunamis pricks. The best chance for Butterfield and Kyrie to get away will be if I retreat along with them. It means abandoning the Emperor to his fate, but as long as Kyrie is still alive there is still hope.

1. I drink the elixir.

2. I don't drink the elixir.
 

Part 18 - Battle on the Stage

Battle on the Stage


track: worldenddominator

The moment I drink the concoction, there is no going back. Just the act of retrieving it from my pocket causes my guards to raise their weapons with lethal intent. I hastily gulp it down, though the effects won't be felt until I start using my ability. I hope I haven't made a bad batch; I'm not sure what the effects of that are, but they would likely be comically tragic.

There's no more time to waste. I get started.

The nearest Dunamis guard is on my left, a man pointing his dagger at me. He comes with a thrust at my throat – a quick, efficient movement to end my life. I would need to shift my position by just a bit to avoid it – stabs are fast and less predictable than swings, but once you move out of the line of attack the trajectory is not easily altered. However, this man is probably a specialist. I step forward, into the path of his dagger, at the same time minimizing the profile of my body by turning to face him with my right shoulder. This also acts to move my body out of the way of his attack. As I had expected, the dagger follows in an inhuman manner. Somehow, he flips his weapon mid-attack, changing from an underhand grip to an overhand grip. The man's arm swerves to the right follow my movements – the dagger is now headed for my heart.

In his eagerness to attack, he left himself open – to keep his balance while executing that improbable move his feet carry him right in front of Butterfield. With no warning, an aged, iron-like fist smashes into the man's chin, a fast and brutal punch executed with perfect precision. Blood and spittle fly from his lips, and with my augmented senses I can hear his jawbone fracturing into pieces. I pluck the dagger from the man's hand as he falls, its sharp point dangerously close to my chest. He is not out yet – any normal human would've been knocked unconscious by such a punch – but he has been dizzied enough that he only grasps futilely at me. The other Dunamis man is already swinging his sword at Butterfield's exposed back – I throw the dagger at him. It's a clumsy throw, unlikely to harm him, but his sensitive combat instincts make him stop his attack to deflect the knife. I dash past Butterfield, barrelling into the man and knocking him down. As I roll to my feet, the butler drives his fist into the Dunamis guard's neck while he is still on the floor. There is a nasty crunch as several of the cervical vertebrae in that neck are crushed. Standing up, he looks at me, smoothing his butler suit. I grin and give him a thumbs up, which, surprisingly, he returns – though his face is still as stoic as ever. Then, without another word, he picks up the stunned Kyrie, slinging her over one shoulder, and runs.

Erec is looking over at us, temporarily distracted. I can see the Emperor tense, and he takes his chance. Springing to his feet, he draws his jewel-encrusted longsword. That's the spirit, old man – if you aren't going to go down without a fight, I'm definitely going to try and bail you out. I grab the fallen enemy's sword – another Higashi blade, which seems to be popular amongst their kin. I did spend some time training with Erika and Michael, so I probably won't embarrass myself. I think.

Two Dunamis are down, and ten more are running towards me. I try to calculate the possibility of holding them off and at the same time getting to the Emperor – not good. There's too many. If I evade them to get to the Emperor, they might head directly after Butterfield and Kyrie. Still, I made the choice to try and save her father. Butterfield will just have to handle whatever pursuers he gets.

I sprint forwards, pointing the sword low to the ground. They move well as a group – there are few paths I can take to break past them without getting cut to pieces... not to mention the guns that are already being aimed towards me. For all my powers, I won't be able to dodge the bullets once they are fired... but I might not need to. I send out a mass of tendrils from my wrist. The muzzles flash. As the bullets fly towards my position, each of them is met by a few tendrils that have reached the position I desired moments before the triggers were pulled. The tendrils are unable to hold on for long, crumbling swiftly from the bullets' force, but at the same time I manage to drain energy from each bullet. This alters their trajectory enough that as long as I continue moving they will miss me... unless they throw so much lead that I can't stop it all. A hundred bullets are more than I can track, and their submachine guns are slightly too erratic for me to predict accurately. A few of the bullets whiz through, grazing my arms and body. Light wounds are an acceptable trade-off. I manage to get in close enough to disrupt their formation.

The gun wielders turn around, trying to get a lead on me, but in this position they would hit each other in the crossfire. They realize that almost immediately and leap back, their position in the ranks being replaced instantly by close combat specialists. Damn, who trains these people? I raise my sword to deflect a swing from one of them, the enemy's blade sliding down mine as I push it away. There are only six surrounding me – another four have gone after Butterfield. I try to keep track of all the weapons threatening me. A spear comes at me and I twist out of the way, ducking immediately to avoid the spiked knuckles I had already seen coming at me. A strong, double-handed slash forces me to block and I almost lose my sword in the contest of strength, but I manage to use the force of my enemy's blow to push me away from a well-taken shot, the bullet just barely missing my stomach. Though I can read their movements, they are too fast and strong for me to handle six of them, even for another minute. Whenever I don't move quickly enough, another wound appears on my body. My tendrils are of little use here – they don't move fast enough before they are cut away by the Dunamis... they appear to be experienced at dealing with these.

They probably haven't seen any used like this before, though; I send them down low, snaking along their feet where it is hard for them to reach. Each tendril takes the most convoluted path possible while evading their attention. It distracts them, and some of the more cautious ones retreat a step back. That's all I need. The moment I see the opening, I raise the tendrils all at once, forming a web as I did while fighting my way out of Julius's laboratory. The tendrils are destroyed easily before I can manage to drain their heat, but the distraction is complete – I slip past them and reach the Emperor, who is prone on the ground, his sword broken in two.

Thankfully, he's still alive, though there is a terrible, bloody gash from shoulder to belly. That will definitely be fatal if untreated. Erec stands over him, his sword raised high and ready to deliver the coup de grace. I swing my sword at him with all my might. The silver-haired young man makes only the briefest of movements to block my attack.

His blade locks with mine casually, a contemptuous look on his face.

“I have no idea what you think you are doing, monster, but if you seek death I shall grant it to you.”

I am flung backwards by an invisible force – probably the telekinesis he displayed earlier. Even with heightened senses I can't see it coming. Before I can get up, the edge of his sword is already slicing swiftly towards me. I resist the urge to leap up and instead throw myself back to the ground, allowing the blade to pass above me. I kick out, forcing Erec to take a calm step backward. He takes a cold look at me and gestures at the other Dunamis to step back. He wants to handle me himself.

“I have no interest in playing with a thing like you.” comments Erec coolly. “Your death will however remind people that there are monsters in the guise of humans in this world.”

“That's some rabid monster hate there. By the way, has anyone ever called you by your initials?” Perhaps I can distract him by talking while fighting. I can do both at the same time. Talking is, after all, a free action. Before I finish my sentence, I begin my attack. He sees it coming and parries with ease. The counter-stroke actually catches me off guard, as he reverses his direction fluidly, taking a half step before spinning into a low cut. Even if I can see it coming, I'm not fast enough to completely evade it in time. The tip of his blade skins my knees, drawing blood. I stumble backwards. Erec continues his attack before I can recover, somehow using the momentum of his low cut to slash upwards vertically. Now this move I've seen before – Erika showed it off once, though Erec's execution is undeniably faster. Knowing it is coming, I manage to bring my sword down to parry it in time.

That doesn't help. Erec is strong.

His sword bites into mine – the metal cracks. My arms are forced up, and at the same time a telekinetic blast slams into my chest. I stagger back, my blood pounding in my ears. The next thing he'll do is probably lunge at me, attempting to skewer me through the heart. Sure enough, he tries that. My tendrils swarm forth to attack him, but to no avail. All of them are cut down, crumbling to pieces before they can so much as lay a tender, slimy black appendage on him. Of course, that's not all I have planned. Most of the tendrils are only there to obscure Erec's vision and distract him.

There is blood all over the stage, no thanks to him. There is a particularly thick patch close by that I had kept my eye on for a while, and now that he is in position... I finish freezing it with my tendrils just as he steps onto it. The superhuman Dunamis slips. Gotcha. I dash forwards and slash at him. One chance is all I need...!

He recovers and slashes at me, faster than I can follow. Fuck. The bastard had been holding back. This is beyond my calculations, and I cannot respond in time.

I feel a stinging pain as his sword passes between my ribs, cutting deep into my left lung. Attacking while slipping, his position is too awkward to finish the cut, and Erec settles for drawing his blade out. I take a breath, unaware that I had been holding it. My chest protests excruciatingly at the intake of air. Blood begins to bubble from my nose and throat. I sink to my knees, all the strength in my legs sapped.

“What were you saying about initials?” asks Erec coldly as he presses the tip of his sword against my throat.

“... Ah... E.D.” I croak.

He does not seem amused, but I use the time his question buys me to concentrate the coldness into my eyes. I couldn't use it as long as there was a chance of escape since it burns up my remaining time very swiftly, but in this situation, I would be a fool not to use all I have left.

The faint blue specks appear, dancing before my eyes. The world is still and silent. I see Erec drawing his sword back, preparing to separate my head and body. I focus. The specks gather and resolve into lines, though on Erec they constantly shift and dissolve. The edge of the sword is coming at me, entirely wreathed in blue.

I instinctively move my finger up, drawing it along the edge of his moving blade. Though it should have cut my finger apart, it is the sword that splits and breaks as it meets my flesh. At the same time, I rise, pushing back against a shocked Erec. A short, transient blue seam forms across his chest just as my finger touches it. I trace the seam. He stumbles backwards, not knowing what just happened, that stunned expression still on his face. An instant later, dark red blood gushes from his chest. Yelling in rage, the Dunamis rush to protect their leader and crush me into paste. Pricks. Lose a duel and pile on the winner, eh?

My eyes are burning; I won't be able to hold on to my focus much longer. The constantly shifting lines on all of the living Dunamis are too much for me to follow, but I can do something else. Moving the Emperor might aggravate his wounds, but now I have no choice. Bullets whiz over my head as I prop him up against me. The Dunamis are already closing in. The lines of destruction are clear. With all of my strength, I summon as many tendrils as I can, sending them slicing into the countless lines that zig-zag across the stage. The stage rumbles as the steel, wood and plastics used in its construction break apart. The surprised Dunamis lose their footing as the metal beams supporting the stage's covered awnings crash onto them. I would be safe if I didn't move an inch... well, if I had calculated the cuts correctly, I would be.

The pain in my eyes gets too much to bear. My vision blurs. Even with the elixir, I cannot sustain this state for any reasonable amount of time.

That's it. I can't hold on any longer.

I black out as the stage collapses all around me.
 

Chapter End - Farewell Olympia

Farewell Olympia

A month after the attack on the Academy, Olympia is still recovering from its effect. Despite the assurances of the government, many of the students that make up much of the town's population have fled home, uncertain of their safety. The streets are deserted, even during the day. I walk – well, hobble – my way along. Then, I stop. The Old Leaves Bookstore was still closed. Erika had disappeared the night prior to the Emperor's arrival, and when I was discharged from the hospital I had found the bookstore shuttered. Shulgi had left behind a brief note.

“Tracking down Erika. Make sure no one breaks into my shop. We'll have a drink when I get back.”

Since then, I walked to the bookstore once per day, making sure it was alright. He had left me the keys, but I haven't been inside yet. I wonder if Shulgi's managed to find Erika already.

“Master, are you sure you should be walking around? You aren't fully recovered yet.” complains Yua.

“It's fine, don't be such a worrywart.” It had been close. Thankfully, my estimations were correct; I managed to have the stage collapse around me rather than right on top of me. The Dunamis had retreated quickly, carrying their injured, rather than face the swarms of security personnel converging on Olympia from all over Grecian territory. Of course, they probably would have done so anyway after killing the Emperor and Kyrie had I not been there.

Oh, and the Emperor managed to survive. He's one tough old fart – he was wounded far worse than I was, yet he was up and walking before me. He even signed the bandage over my punctured lung – a very painful experience because of the sharp pen he used – saying that it would probably sell for a hundred thousand.

I managed to auction it off for half a million.

Kyrie wasn't very happy when she heard about it. Something about disrespecting her father, I believe. She had Butterfield – another tough old fart; he managed to hold off four Dunamis fighters until they retreated after the stage collapsed – hang me out to dry, literally. For his part, Butterfield told me that I had got red on my suit, expressly against his orders, and a punishment was needed.

Anyway, though Kyrie's father is still kicking, those wounds aren't something he can just shrug off. I heard from her that he's getting constant dizzy spells and chest pains now. His constitution is becoming weaker, spending more time in bed than out of it, and he is in no position to get back to work leading the Empire. Apparently he might have to check into the hospital again soon.

That is extremely unfortunate, given what had just transpired two weeks ago.

The Indus Confederation announced that they would no longer be subject to the whims of the Higashi. The Higashi, loathe to allow such a useful puppet to slip from their grasps, were prepared to use force to bring the Indus back under their thumbs, but they were not prepared for what happened next.

The Skirmish of Kawamura marked the first use of piloted combat robots in history. The Indus called them Vizala; armored, mechanical giants ten metres high. Balance compensation technology first introduced in construction mechs meant that the Vizala could use their limbs and multi-vectored thrusters to attain control of their agility far surpassing that of any aerospace fighter, using the principles of inertia. In the 360-degree, gravity-free battlefield of space, their utility in close-range combat was well demonstrated when a group of 10 Vizala demolished 30 fighters and 2 battleships that had been stationed outside Kawamura Colony.

The Higashi invaded the Indus Confederation after that. On the ground, the Vizala did not have as much of an overwhelming advantage against the traditional tanks and aircraft that the Higashi employed. However, they proved to be effective enough as general purpose units operating as part of a combined arms maneuver, offering mobility in particularly dense terrain. The carbon nanotube muscle-powered legs worked well for jumping on tanks, which had never been particularly well-suited to defending against attacks from above.

The Higashi were bogged down despite their superior numbers, but there was no doubt in anyone's eyes that eventually the Indus would lose. That is, until two days ago. A Higashi counterattack against an Indus space-based factory colony somehow managed to end up in the wrong place, attacking a UNS residential colony instead. Three million people were killed. In the aftermath, the Higashi refused to claim responsibility, instead blaming the attack on Indus machinations. The UNS were not convinced. They declared war on the Higashi soon after.

That left the Neo Shinar Empire as the only great power that remained free from the conflict. It would probably be too much to hope that will remain so, I guess.

I look around. My walk had taken me close to the Academy. Today is a weekend; there are no school activities. Keiko had told me that the cult was calling her back, and she took a long leave of absence from the school. That was just before the outbreak of the war. I wonder what the cult is doing now.

“Master, there's something I need to say-” Yua begins to tell me something, but she is interrupted by my ringing phone. It's Kyrie.

“Hold on, Yua, let me take this call for a while.”

“Senya, this is bad.” Those are the first words that come out of her mouth.

“Let me guess, the board of directors are up to something stupid.”

“How did you -”

Well, I really could've guessed the moment I laid eyes on those bitter, humourless assholes. I could see the lust for power and wealth just flowing from them without activating my ability.

“Lucky guess. Do tell me what they're doing, though.”

“They just tabled and approved a motion to have my father put on indefinite leave until he fully recovers. The definition of recovery is subject to their interpretation.”

“Well, that sounds bad, but it should be manageable. Your father does need to rest. You said he wasn't doing very well.”

“I know. But in his absence, and since I am not of age to take over the company, the board will be regents.”

“We'll just have to deal with it on a case by case basis.” I don't like the idea of those old coots in charge, but surely they can't be that bad if they've made it this far as directors?

“Perhaps... well, the first thing they did as regents was to send me away.”

That was unexpected.

“Where?”

“Neo Heliopolis. It's one of our research colonies at Lagrange Point 3. They're saying that in such times of crisis, I need to be off-world and somewhere safe.”

“They just want you out of their rapidly thinning hair so they can consolidate their power. What does your father have to say?”

“He agreed to it. Neo Heliopolis is pretty far removed from any of the major conflict points.”

I sigh. “I see. Well, I suppose I'll see you when this is all over, Kyrie. I'll just have to hang out with Michael until everyone gets back.”

“Hm. Did you really think that you would get off that easy?” I can hear that familiar sadistic tone creeping into her voice. I don't like the sound of that. “Running off by yourself to save my father and getting the both of you terribly hurt in the process... don't think I'll forgive you for that.”

“You should be thanking me for that, no?” I venture.

“Thank you? Oh, no. Not at all. I must have lost ten years off my life at the shock. You'll need to pay me back for that... and you can start by going to Neo Heliopolis with me.”

“...what?”

“It's all been arranged for. Butterfield will be picking you up in the helicopter shortly. You don't need to pack.” She hangs up.

“Master!” shouts Yua in a panic, finally getting through to the conversation. “There's people in black packing up all the stuff, what should I do? What should I do? They're going to stuff me in a box!”

I can hear the sound of a helicopter's rotors whirring as it approaches me from behind.



-CHAPTER END-
 

Interlude: Space Colonies (4025 A.C.)

Interlude: Space Colonies (4025 A.C.)

[​IMG]


165 years after the completion of the first space colony, almost half of the world's 11 billion people now reside in outer space. Close to five billion souls live, work and play in massive O'Neill cylinders, separated from the void of space by only a few metres of wall.

There are many such cylinders bunched around the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. Some of the more notable are as follows:

Moon L1
Peace – the first and oldest space colony built by mankind. Now a tourist spot.
Kawamura – the first colony to be built after the O'Neill cylinder pattern.

Moon L2
Kamabharata – an Indus colony popular for its sex trade.
Sin's Eye – an ISC military base named after the Mesopotamian moon god.

Moon L3
Flowerbed – an agricultural UNS colony
Horsebed – a research colony headed by a group of equine-loving UNS scientists

Moon L4
Yamamura – the most populated colony, boasting of 120 million inhabitants in one cylinder.

Moon L5
Neo Memphis – an ISC colony known for being a gambling haven. Also the HQ of the ISC's space offices.
Londinium – a major Britannian colony

Construction at Sun-Earth Lagrange points are less frequent. Most of the people living at those points reside in asteroids captured and parked in orbit.

Sun L1
Marduk's Navel – an ISC asteroid base
Neo Ashur – the first colony to be built at a Sun-Earth Lagrange point

Sun L2
Spacebase Tranquility – the furthest manned outpost in the Earth Sphere
The Gate of Ean – a massive asteroid converted into a military base shared by the UNS, ISC and the Higashi, and the gateway through which travel to other planets in the solar system is monitored.

Sun L3
Neo Heliopolis – an experimental research colony that is still under construction at the furthest Lagrange Point from Earth.

Sun L4
Arrowbed – a UNS colony that is rumoured to be performing top secret research.

Sun L5
Apophis – a large asteroid owned by the Atman Foundation. It serves as an orphanage of some sorts.


[​IMG]
 

Chapter Two: The Beginnings of Conflict

Part 1 - Late Again

Late Again

“Master, you're going to need to take a shortcut – no, I don't mean that one!” shouts Yua.

“Doesn't matter!”

It's a good thing that the Heliopolis colony has its rotational gravity set to a mere third of Earth's own. I jump over the railing, hanging in the air for a few long seconds. Once I land, from there it should be a short sprint to the port – I can make that in less than thirty two seconds. I can't believe I woke up late today.

It's been three months since I arrived at Neo Heliopolis. It's a colony that is still incomplete – only 35% of the structure is habitable right now. There are about 8000 people living here; most of them researchers and ISC personnel. Out here at Sun Lagrange Point 3, the war that continues to rage across the Earth sphere is a distant affair. Last I heard, the Higashi were in a bad position. The Indus had shared their Vizala technology with the UNS, and the both of them were gradually whittling away at the Higashi defenses. The large amount of Higashi engineers that arrived on the last few flights reinforced that idea. The Higashi were desperate; desperate enough to work with their long-time rivals, the Neo Shinar Empire, on researching a counter-measure to the Vizala combat frames. Though the Empire remained neutral, it knew that if Higashi fell, the ascendant UNS and Indus would turn their eyes towards the ISC next. To that end, it agreed to a secret pact with the Higashi to undertake a joint project. Higashi and ISC engineers have been working long hours, almost without rest, to develop a combat frame of their own. By all accounts, the prototype is almost complete. In fact, a group of dignitaries are visiting today to survey the progress.

They would be led by the Empress Julia Canaria de Shinar. Kyrie's mother.

That's why I'm running.

The Empress, though also a director on the board, is the head of the space offices of the ISC. She spends most of her time at the Neo Memphis colony nowadays. I've only met her once before, when we boarded the shuttle to Neo Heliopolis. Let's just say we did not leave a good first impression on each other. If the rumours are true, the only thing preventing the Empress from ordering a hit is the fact that her husband has taken a shine to me.

I skid to a halt as I reach the port's entrance at the end of the colony's gigantic cylinder. Kyrie is already there, waiting impatiently with Butterfield. She looks angry. That's weird, I'm sure I'm on time...

Unfortunately, it seems that the Empress is ahead of schedule. Empress Julia is tall, unlike her daughter. Her sharp features evoke the impression of a bird of prey, and her keen eyes do nothing to alleviate that feeling. Those cold eyes fix on me for a brief while before turning to her daughter.

“Kyrie. I have told you this before.” She enunciates her words slowly and carefully. “As the Crown Princess, it is entirely unseemly for you to hire your... friend... to be in a position close to you. It could be seen as an abuse of power. People might think you are favouring a lover.”

“Mother, it is not-”

“Do not interrupt.” snaps the Empress. “It would be at least palatable if he was of any use, or knew the importance of punctuality.” She casts a withering look at me, as if I should have been here an hour early waiting for Her Majesty's arrival. Well, perhaps I should have, but there were some pressing matters that needed my attention last night; that is to say, her daughter. Really, Kyrie could've woken me up this morning before she left. Seeing how fresh she looks, I wonder where she gets her endurance. Who would've thought that the princess was such an avid fan of late night video-gaming?

I give Her Imperial Majesty a perfectly executed bow and step in line behind Kyrie. She doesn't talk to me, but I can tell that there'll be words later. Words and other stuff. I shiver inwardly.

I look around the place – there are some Higashi bigwigs in the entourage, noticeable from their impeccable bearing and manners. One of them looks familiar, though I can't quite place his name in my mind at the moment. After a few more minutes of conversation and small talk, their rides arrive. The group of very important people sweeps off into their stretch limousines – did they ship those in specifically for today, I wonder – Kyrie along with them. I get to sit in the back of a truck along with the security personnel.

They recognize me and raise their hands for a high-five as I clamber into the back. Apparently, my stunt of saving the Emperor has become pretty well known amongst the ISC's security teams. Many of them had friends who were killed by either the monsters or the Dunamis that day. They took their jobs seriously; if the Emperor had been lost too, they felt that their friends would have died in vain.

“Still not getting to sit with your girlfriend, Senya?” grinned a tanned man with a faint rose tattoo on his cheek. His real name is Raul, but he insists that everyone call him Rose.

“Everyone thinking that she's my girlfriend is part of the reason why I'm stuck with you guys.” I reply. “No one ever believes us when we say there's nothing there. We're just friends.”

“Right. Motherfucking Butterfield allows her to stay over at your place, and you're just friends?” chimes in another guy, a blonde haired giant of a man. His mother named him Babylon, but most people just call him Babs.

“It's precisely because he allows her to stay over that you know there's nothing going on.” I am sure that if I ever tried anything improper, Butterfield would shoot me out of the airlock with nothing but my underwear on. He's said something to that effect before, and I'm not eager to see if he won't carry it out after all. Sure, it means that I have to fight temptation every weekend, but at least I'm not breathing vacuum.

“I can assure you that Master is still chaste.” Yua pipes up. “I watch him every night.”

“Hah, say what you want,” snorts Rose. “You gotta stop making out with computers and grow some hair on your balls, buddy. Lemme take you on a trip to Kamabharata when you hit the next school break. Make you into a real man, if you get what I mean.”

Before I can retort, the truck stops. We're at the hangers. “Alright, let's move out.” mutters Babs, putting on his sunglasses. Rose does the same, together with the rest of the security personnel. As I get down after them, a woman runs up to me.

“I thought you would be in the limos!”

“You're not the first one to say that, Tabitha. Anyway, what've you got there?”

“Take a guess.” She waves her tablet around. I can see that the screen is stained with the same greases that are splattered all over her mechanic's overalls, in her red, short hair, and streaked across her freckled cheeks. I venture the first guess that comes to mind. “Grease?”

“What? Of course not! The head of CF engineering just returned this report that you gave to him about the proposed upgrades.”

So that was it. In between attending school at Neo Heliopolis, I had gotten myself partially involved with the CF development going on here. Even though they appreciated my input, even after all the reports I've submitted, I have yet to be allowed access to the massive laboratories where the prototype CF is being constructed for security reasons. The prototype test today is the first time I'll be able to see the thing.

I take the tablet from Tabitha, wiping off the smudges on the screen as I do so. Wait, had I really sent this in? It bears my electronic signature, but I'm pretty sure I had never written anything like this...

***

In the report, I had written about:

1. My favourite colour on a CF.
A. Black
B. Blue
C. Red
D. White
E. Gold
F. Hot Pink
G. I change my preferred colours on a case-by-case (CBC) basis.

2. In general, I believe the design of a CF should focus on
A. Mobility
B. Armor
C. CBC is the way

3. In combat, a CF would be more effective by optimizing it for
A. Shooting
B. Melee
C. I like to do things CBC

4. I would like to upgrade the ISC's prototype CF with
A. Rocket punches
B. Breast missiles
C. Crotch bombs
D. Eye lasers
E. Drills everywhere.
F. It must be CBC
 

Part 2 - CF Anhur

CF Anhur

Dear Hoshikawa,

Your hypothesis regarding the employment of highly mobile general purpose CFs seems sound, but do bear in mind that these are to be piloted by humans. There is a limit to what flesh and blood can handle. As a proof-of-concept, I have asked the engineers to retrofit Prototype 3 with your recommendations. You may see how well it works out against the more balanced prototype in the coming mock battle.

As for the eye lasers, I am sure you are aware of the prevailing design dogma that has been carried over from the second generation of CFs. Within a CF, a pilot may utilize its sensors to obtain far more information than he would otherwise. However, a human's ability to process information is limited and they perform better if they are not overloaded with data. For that reason, the slave system was expanded to include head movements. By mimicking a human head and eye movement, a CF is able to gather visual information through its eye cameras on what the pilot himself would focus at, and display other information gathered through its sensors in the form of read-outs and auditory stimuli. This was deemed to be the most natural and effective way for a pilot to make sense of all the information gathered by the CF. It might sound counter-intuitive, but limiting the amount of data fed to the user actually increased combat efficiency by 60% amongst the majority of CF pilots.

Alright, back to the eye lasers.

There's no space for those in the head, which is filled with sensory equipment. Now stop wasting my time. At least you're not asking about drills this time.

Regards,
The Chief.

I'm not sure when I wrote this particular report, but I did send in a lot of papers at once a few weeks back. It looks like Prototype 3 has been transformed into a high-mobility testbed machine. I'm quite eager to check it out. Once the Empress and her entourage take their seats, the mock battle would begin.

“Do you know who's going to be piloting the prototypes?” I ask Tabitha.

“Some jocks from the 16th Egyptian Crocodiles. They're said to be the best pilots the Empire has to offer. There's three of them, one for each prototype.” she replies, taking back her tablet now that I'm done with it.

“We'll see what they can do, then. The ISC considers these to be third generation, right?”

“If you're referring to the prototypes, yeah. The Higashi are hoping they'll turn the tide of the war, since the only mechs they can deploy are barely first-gen equivalents. Shanghaied construction suits wouldn't be able to match a Vizala, let alone a Vizala II.”

“Leaping an entire generation... I wonder just how much they spent on this project.” Designing a cutting-edge CF from scratch is definitely not cheap. There have been more setbacks than there were breakthroughs, and it's practically a miracle that they'd even gotten to the mock battle stage today.

“Who knows?” shrugs Tabitha. “By the way, I think someone's calling you.” She's right. My phone's ringing. I answer it.

“Chatting up girls again? You really never change.” I can feel Kyrie's sharp smile over the phone. How did she know? I look around hurriedly, but she's nowhere to be seen.

“Shouldn't you be paying attention to the Empress?”

“You know I can't stand being alone with her for too long. That's why I wanted you here today.”

“She can't stand looking at me even more. Didn't you hear her just now? I'm sure those rumours of her wanting to kill me are true. What on earth possessed you to think this was a good idea?” I groaned.

“Hm. Well,” sniffed Kyrie. “If you are around, she'd be irritated.”

“That's it? You... you witch.” I think the comparison is pretty apt.

“It's too bad that you're a dog of the witch,” she gloats. “Now, I think it's about time for the show to start. You know all about these CFs, right?”

“Well, probably not all-”

“You should know enough. I'll have you explain them to mother.”

“What? Why me? I'm sure the chief of engineering is around and willing. He's far more qualified to do this.”

Tabitha raises her voice, interrupting us. “The Chief's in the toilet... has been since the morning. He says he's too nervous about today, and it's giving him bowel issues.”

“There you have it. It'll be a good chance to show her what you're made of. Get over to the stands quickly, I saved you a good seat.”

After Kyrie hangs up, I sigh. Tabitha pats me on the back before going off to do her work. I make my way to the stands where the VIPs would be sitting.

***

I never manage to get there. Forty five seconds later, I am flung away by an explosion, one of many. Two minutes later, I get up from a pile of rubble, my body aching all over. I taste blood in my mouth. The first thing I realize is that there is a huge mass lying near me. As my eyesight swims back into focus, I see it more clearly. A combat frame. It must be about fifteen meters tall. The CF is in a sitting position, with its back against the hangar wall. I must have been blown into the hangar containing it – this is one of the prototypes. For the first time, I get a look at a CF up close.

It has been painted in gaudy red, blue and green for the mock battle. The colours are not very enticing. The design language is definitely different from that of the Indus, who build their CFs ornately like the statues of their gods, or the UNS, who have adopted a boxy, utilitarian design. The collaboration of the ISC and the Higashi is a blend of curves and sharp edges, a streamlined design that appears to have been highly inspired by fighter jets. The head bore a binocular layout for its cameras, and it appears that they had added a mouthplate for what I can only guess to be aesthetic purposes.

As I step closer to it, my feet hit something... someone. Well, he was someone. He is now dead, very clearly so. A large metal pipe had broken off the wall and impaled him straight through the heart. I shiver. That could have been me. He is wearing a skin-tight, gray flight-suit – I recognize it as the carbon nanotube pilot outfit that has been designed for use with the prototypes. They were supposed to help ease interface with the slave system and increase resistance to G-forces. It looks like they're not much help against piercing damage, unfortunately. The dead man must be one of the test pilots.

“...anyone... there...” The crackling, intermittent voice comes from the fallen CF. I clamber up towards it, my muscles complaining as I do so. The chest of the frame is wide open, showing the empty pilot's seat within. The machine appears to be functioning. I read its designation: XF-25-3 'Anhur'. This is Prototype 3. What a coincidence.

“Come in. Report. Is there anyone there? Russ?” The crackling subsides and the clarity of the voice increases. It's a man's voice, young and brash.

I drop myself onto the seat and switch on the intercom. This should help me get a better idea of what is going on.

“Someone's here,” I reply. “What's going on?”

“Who are you? Identify yourself.”

It must be a military man. I do as he says, giving my name and identification number.

“What is a civilian like you doing here? Leave the CF now.” he barks.

“The pilot is dead.” I tell him.

I can hear whispers coming from the other end of the commline.

“That does not mean you are allowed in military hardware. Evacuate the area now.” I am no longer listening to him, however. There had been a big hole blown into the hangar's wall when I got up. There was now something standing in front of that hole. It was big, squat and boxy, like an upright tank given arms and legs. I recognize the design; a UNS 'Xolotl'. Though it appears to look like a brick wall, it doesn't move like one – the thing is deceptively nimble.

"How did it get in here?" I wonder. But there's no time for idle thoughts.

A blocky hand moves up, pointing the barrel of a 60 mm machine gun at me.

The person on the line is still shouting at me to evacuate. Yeah, right. If I get out right now I'll be blown to bits. I hit the button to close the cockpit. The Xolotl fires as I do so, but its aim is off. The bullets tear the wall on my right to pieces. The pilot of the Xolotl compensates for the recoil almost immediately. I feel the CF I am in shake as it is hit in the right arm. There's no time to waste – I grab the floating levers on both sides of the cockpit. The slave system engages, tracking the movements of my arms and head.

“Do not pilot the frame. This is a felony. Power down and get out of the frame.”

Ignoring the voice, I step on the pedals of the pilot seat. Anhur gets up, executing the macro command to rise. The movement is ponderous; the sensitivity is set too low. I have to exert myself just to try moving out of the line of fire. Luckily, even though Prototype 3 is designated as a high-mobility unit, it still carried enough armour to survive a 60 mm peashooter. I can't just sit here all day taking hits, though. Already the damage warnings are flashing – the armour is breaking away. I struggle to move another step; Anhur's arms are already cracking from attempting to block the shots.

“Civilian, what are you doing? I repeat, get out of the frame.” That guy's still at it.

It's impossible for me to operate the mech if the sensitivity is so low.

It looks like I don't have a choice. My ability won't be of much help right now, but I have something else I can do. The slave system has probably been calibrated for the test pilot, a man with bigger mass and body strength than I have, and probably someone used to exerting himself bravely in combat. I operate differently. I need a highly sensitive system that can respond to my subtlest gestures. It's a good thing that they outsourced part of the CF's OS to me. I have Yua find an exploit quickly and reset the system.

“Do not engage in combat. I repeat, do not engage in combat!” The voice was beginning to shout. I wonder just who he is.

Within three seconds the controls loosen, but those precious seconds are enough for the Xolotl to bear down on me, swinging a large mace designed to crush CF bodies. Those precious seconds are also enough for the slave system to calibrate its settings to my needs, and now that I can move the CF freely...

I kick the thrusters into overdrive to evade the Xolotl.

A tremendous force slams me back against the seat instantly, as I smash through the hangar's roof and soar into the air. Apparently the Chief's interpretation of high-mobility is to strap on more propulsion jets than any one could possibly need. This thing is horribly fast. If I continue on this course I'll crash against the colony wall. Gritting my teeth, I slam down on the pedals and kick them outwards. The verniers on Anhur's feet flare, moving them out and up. This turns the CF upside down in a weird feet-first somersault – the propulsion units on the back are now firing in the opposite direction, halting my flight in mid-air. I cut the power to the thrusters and begin falling to the ground, pulled down by the 1/3rds normal gravity. I can see the Xolotl marching out from the wrecked hangar. It grabs the long, large tube sticking out vertically from its back and pulls it into an angle. Again, there's a barrel aiming at me – that's a 280 mm rocket launcher.

If that thing hits me I'm screwed, no matter how much armour I have.

***

A. My mobility will ensure that the rockets miss their mark. I dash towards the Xolotl to close into melee range, where I can use my mono-molecular daggers.

B. I should be able to take out the enemy before it fires. I equip the particle beam rifle and shoot at the Xolotl first.

C. The best use of mobility is to run! I flee from the Xolotl. I'm not a trained pilot, I have no business getting into fights.
 

Part 3 - First Kill

BAndwagon victory.

***

First Kill

The Xolotl fires its rocket launcher. The explosive payload flies towards me in a straight line, trailing smoke and fire. I try to align my verniers for evasive maneuvers, racking my mind to remember what I know about the combat frame's controls. With a roar, Anhur's thrusters come to life, pushing it away from the incoming rocket – it misses its target and explodes against the far colony wall. They clearly have no concern over damage to Neo Heliopolis.

“Civilian, cease and desist!” The voice was still at it. I flick off the commline – it's distracting.

“Master, watch your speed!” warns Yua.

“I know, dammit!”

Again, I fail to control the throttle well, and go too fast. This really wasn't what I had in mind when I suggested mobility. I'm going to crash into something if this keeps up, perhaps even vomit blood from all the havoc the G-forces are wreaking on my body. As I plummet towards the ground, the Xolotl runs towards me with an ungainly gait, bouncing up in the air due to the low gravity. I engage the auto-balancing system, allowing Anhur to flip around and land feet first. Even so, the momentum carries it skidding backwards and the frame stumbles, the auto-balancing system attempting to keep it upright as it backpedals. The Xolotl reaches me, its mace ready to crush my cockpit.

“Yua, I'll have the daggers!” I decide to have Yua work on picking out what macro commands I need; there's simply too many macros for me to figure out which one to select in the middle of combat. Anhur was meant to be piloted by trained aces from the ISC who have spent hundreds of hours in simulation training, not some civilian who only had a bit part in its design. Executing the macro to equip close combat weapons, Anhur pulls the mono-molecular daggers out from the storage compartments in its armguards. The heavy mace begins its deadly swing.

I have an idea on how to evade it, but unfortunately piloting a CF requires a combination of understanding the movements executed by the macro commands and mastering the slave system. I cannot pilot Anhur as if it is an extension of my own body... not yet, at least. The ability to get a CF to do exactly as its pilot wills is one of the hardest learning curves to overcome.

I try executing one of the moves Butterfield taught me to disarm an opponent. It doesn't work very well. Anhur's feet get tied up by my arm movements and falls to the ground in a very undignified manner. By a stroke of luck, this puts me out of harm's way, so I can't complain too much. The mace crashes into the ground right besides me, creating a small crater as bits of rock and asphalt fly up. My CF automatically recovers and gets back on its feet – one of the most important functions for rookie pilots, as climbing up from a prone position is an extremely difficult maneuver to make. Just as I get up, I am flung violently to the sides by a tremendous blow. The pilot of the Xolotl managed to reach me before the automatic recovery was complete and nail me with his mace.

“Master, the right arm is barely functioning.” says Yua worriedly as Anhur crashes into the ground. One of its daggers hits the ground point down, sticking into the tarmac. Great. Again, my CF attempts to execute the automatic recovery maneuver. This time I can see the Xolotl raising that blasted mace high above its head, ready to crush Anhur once and for all.

“Yua, can we cancel the auto-balance?”

“Forcing my way through, Master – done.” It takes only a millisecond. Anhur begins to fall back to the ground as the auto-balancing system is shut off, but that's just what I want. I slam the thrusters into full. Anhur accelerates forward at a low angle to the ground, slamming into the Xolotl right shoulder first. I bring its left arm forward and jam the mono-molecular dagger into the Xolotl's side, grabbing onto the Xolotl with the damaged right. As Anhur picks up speed, its propulsion units sending it thundering across the colony, I'm pushed flat back into the seat. Without a proper pilot suit it's painful to fly at these speeds. I bring the UNS frame with me as I smash through several buildings. Moving my arm is hard – at high speeds I'm meeting plenty of resistance, but I manage to carve up the Xolotl anyway with the dagger I had pushed into it. I twist my wrist. The knife's edge slices upwards vertically.

“Master, be careful!” shouts Yua suddenly. I realize, just in time, that I'm perilously close to cutting into the miniature fusion reactor that powers the Xolotl. It probably wouldn't malfunction in a particularly volatile way if I don't hit it directly with explosives or particle weaponry, but I'm not taking the chance. I'm practically hugging the Xolotl after all; that's far too close for comfort. I pull my arm back. Anhur responds similarly, and the dagger passes through the cockpit of the enemy CF. Anhur's right arm finally gives way, the robotic fingers losing their grip on the Xolotl, and it crashes to the ground below me, rolling backwards. I skid to a stop myself, cutting down Anhur's thrusters. I'm feeling a bit queasy, like my internal organs have just been thrown into a blender.

The Xolotl isn't moving at all. I can see smears of red on my dagger. Well, being hit by a knife this big would be lethal for any human. I take a breather, wondering where Kyrie and the others are... and the CF's sensors warn me of multiple target locks on my frame. I crane my head to find the other enemies – Anhur's head turns with me, its cameras picking up three more Xolotls heading my way. I should've known it wouldn't be so easy; a lone UNS combat frame straying into the colony all the way out here is impossible.

Three enemies. I'm lucky I didn't use my ability too soon. I could barely control Anhur well enough to fight one Xolotl, let alone three. If I activate it now, I might be able to come out ahead... or I could abandon Anhur and flee. Either way, I would have to decide quickly.

Before I could make my decision, though, the Xolotls stop in their tracks. A second later, they retreat, making powered jumps across the colony. My sensors register an approaching warship from behind, hovering inside the colony's massive cylinder. I recognize the identification: the Kaguya-hime, the Higashi-designed battleship. It is part of the Higashi-ISC CF project, conceptualized as a frontline vessel that would serve as a specialized carrier for combat frames with armaments designed to support a mech assault.

The Kaguya-hime is hailing me. They are not amused at my antics.

***

The punch hurts. I'm knocked to the ground, falling on my behind.

“Do you think you're a hero?” The man who punched me is the captain of the Kaguya-hime, a man who looks like a grizzled veteran. Somehow, he reminds me of Shulgi and Butterfield. Captain Grimrock – I still can't believe he's actually called that; one of these days I should check if that's actually his real name – has an enormous, bushy beard covering a craggy face. His fists are as hard as his looks, and his demeanour absolutely rocky.

“Captain, let me handle this, since it pertains to CF piloting.” Another man interrupted the captain's punishment – his dark hair and tanned skin, together with his pilot outfit and insignia, means he is probably one of the test pilots. He is the man that I had heard nagging me over the comms. The pilot turns to me, his coal-black eyes blazing with contempt. “Civilian Hoshikawa, you disobeyed my direct orders and engaged in combat with the enemy, causing inestimable damage to the colony and to the precious prototype CF. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“The enemy would have destroyed Prototype 3 if I was not there.” I reply. That was the truth. If I had fled, the Xolotl would have been able to dismantle the prototype with ease. As it turns out, they had succeeded in destroying the other prototypes while they were unpiloted – Prototype 3 is the only one left.

“As the leader of the 16th Egyptian Crocodiles, I am the highest ranking pilot here, meaning that I have tactical authority over all CF in combat. The fact remains that you disobeyed my orders, civilian.”

Well, if I'm a civilian, I'm not really obliged to follow orders from him, do I? The ISC is still not in a state of war. I don't point it out, though... from looking at the test pilot leader, he wouldn't appreciate it if I did.

“He's a civilian, Naim. He's not obliged to follow your orders.” Kyrie spoke up. She had been watching the spectacle quietly from the sidelines all this while.

“This is military business, Kyrie. Please do not interfere.” said Naim politely but firmly. Did he just address the Princess of the Shinar by her given name? He must not be some regular jock.

“Senya saved Prototype 3 from certain destruction. I think that more than balances out his obstinate, ill-advised, risky and thoughtless behaviour.”

I thank Kyrie inwardly for speaking up for me, but I'm not sure she described me in a very positive light. Naim doesn't seem sure what to say, though he is staring at her. He is about to say something, but shakes his head.

“I don't believe the rumours are true, Kyrie, but you're not making things easier. So it's like that?”

“That's no concern of yours.” she retorts, a bit too quickly. Her face seems slightly flushed.

“The next person to start some relationship drama on my ship gets to be tied to the bow. I don't give a damn who you are, but I won't be having any of this.” booms the captain suddenly. “Lieutenant Naim, shut up. Princess, I appreciate your loyalty to your subordinate, but the fact remains he disobeyed a military officer in a battle.” Then, he turns to me.

“I asked you a question just now. Do you think you're some sort of hero?”

***

A. I think so.

B. I don't think so.

***

I keep my thoughts to myself. I once read that the proper answer in this case, regardless of my personal feelings, would be “No, sir.” I say that. Captain Grimrock laughs. “The standard reply, huh? Where did you get that from?”

“The Enlisted Man's Primer on How to Survive Interacting with Officers and Other Unexpected Hazards. Sir.” I reply without blinking. Captain Grimrock's eyes gleam. It appears that he's familiar with the book. He gives a nod of approval.

“On the field, results are all that matter, but remember that even the most experienced soldier may be mistaken if he does not have all the information that his commanding officer knows.” He stops. I can tell that he's waiting for a rebuttal, and I give it to him. “Knowing something doesn't make you automatically the best person to interpret it. The commanding officer may get his orders wrong.”

Again, the captain nods. “Therefore, you have to reconcile the orders you are given with your gut instinct. You were probably right to get into the prototype. It worked out well both for you and the machine. But once inside, you disobeyed orders to not engage in combat. That's a mistake, son. There's people at command who know more telling you explicitly not to do something, though it might have sounded stupid to you at the moment. You should have found a way to avoid battle until you could get a better idea about what is going on. You could've done that, couldn't you?”

I nod. I probably could have, with Anhur's high mobility.

“Well, you lucked out, that's all I'm gonna say. Lesson over, kid.” All of a sudden, he swings another fist at me. I'm taken totally by surprise. For the second time, I'm knocked down to the floor. “Make sure you remember that. Now everyone get back to work!” shouts the captain.

As I clamber to my feet, I see Kyrie discussing something with Naim at the corner of the bridge. They definitely know each other from before this. At the same time, I spot the Empress and the Higashi VIPs walking towards the captain. It looks like they survived too.

“Captain, the UNS warship 'Ghostlot' has given us an ultimatum. We are to surrender the Kaguya-hime and the last prototype machine to them.” said the Empress.

“Are we going to do that, Your Majesty?” says the captain calmly. I somehow get the feeling he wouldn't do that even if the Emperor himself commanded it, despite all his talk about following orders.

“Of course not. What we will do is delay negotiations, and then hold out here to await rescue. I've already sent out notice to Moon L3. Though the Neo Shinar Empire is not at war yet, we will be soon, and a dozen warships will be mobilized to rescue us.” remarked the Empress with confidence.

“I'm not sure I like the idea of that,” mutters Captain Grimrock. They continue discussing their options.

I whisper to Yua. “Get me what you can from the colony's cameras and records. I want to know what has been going on.”

“Right on it, Master.”

Apparently we had a nasty case of turncoats. Some of our engineers had been shipping in the Xolotl parts piece by piece in secret; the CF I fought had been assembled here. UNS agents had then snuck into the colony when the time was right. This had been discovered from examination of the Xolotl's wreckage and its logs. Still, I thought the ISC's intelligence and counter-intelligence operations were unsurpassed. Either there were some serious misstep that led to this blunder, or there is someone in the higher ranks with something to gain by allowing it to happen. Given what I know about the board of directors, that doesn't seem too far-fetched either.

The Ghostlot is stationed about thirty kilometres away from the colony at the moment. The three Xolotls had been abandoned at the port, the agents making their getaway on a shuttle towards the UNS warship after a shootout. That's no surprise as Xolotl combat frames are ground-specialists not outfitted for space combat. A warship like the Ghostlot would carry a complement of 5 Centeotls, the space equivalent of a Xolotl, in addition to 2 heavy particle beam turrets, 2 front-facing linear railguns, 6 swivel-mounted anti-fighter machine guns and 2 torpedo launchers as its primary armaments.

I don't have full access to the Kaguya-hime's specifications, but it shouldn't lose in a shootout with the Ghostlot. The problem is with the CF gap – we only have one, the Anhur, against the Ghostlot's five Centeotls. In a pinch, we could probably outfit some of the construction mechs with weaponry, but they would be mere fodder against combat frames. I pore through the map of the colony and the surrounding space. Then, I check the astronomical charts. Aha. That's a stroke of luck there. If we were to launch a surprise attack within the next hour...

***

A. I bring up my plan to the captain. The Kaguya-hime will break through the Ghostlot's blockade and make its way for Earth without waiting for rescue. If the objective is to escape, not to destroy the enemy, there is a chance to succeed. Since the enemy already knows about this colony and the prototypes, it would probably be more prudent to be on the move whenever we can.

B. I keep quiet. Speaking up would mean going against the Empress's plans to stall for time and wait for rescue. It is not my place to think up strategies and tactics; I am just a civilian after all. Besides, attempting to escape is reckless behaviour, and I've had enough of that for now. Blowing a hole in the colony's wall with the Kaguya-hime's guns is probably too much to ask for anyway.
 

Part 4 - Mission Briefing

Hero? A - 5, B - 7
Plan? A - 9, B - 3

BA wins.

***

Mission Briefing

track: mission briefing

I managed to get to the captain after the Empress left, showing him the details of my plan. His eyes twinkled at the sight of it. Within minutes, he had convened a general staff meeting in the briefing room of the Kaguya-hime. The Empress and her staff were not informed; if she found out about this before we had confirmed and begun the plan, she would definitely interfere and put a stop to it. Better to let her know after the procedures to escape are already in motion.

“Gentlemen, as you are all aware, a UNS warship is currently stationed 30 clicks from Neo Heliopolis. I have summoned all of you here to discuss the countermeasures that the Kaguya-hime will take to address this situation.” begins Captain Grimrock. All of the personnel in the room appear to be combat and bridge crew; I could see Naim and his pilot underlings sitting in the corner. He raises his hand.

“Captain, I understand the need for a meeting, but why is a civilian here?” He looks pointedly at me, as does his mates.

“You'll find out soon enough. Come up here, Hoshikawa.”

I stare at the captain in surprise. I had been under the impression that he was going to be the one to present my plan – I don't want to stand out any more than is necessary right now.

“Get up here, kid!” barks Captain Grimrock suddenly. I jump to my feet and walk nervously to the front of the room. “I'm not gonna clarify your plan for you. You know best.” grins the captain deviously. He could have warned me. I look around the briefing room. My audience is whispering amongst themselves, clearly unconvinced that I have the right to be telling them what to do. Somewhere near the back of the room I spot Tabitha, who grins at me. It's good to see a friendly face. I clear my throat and begin. I'll need to display some more confidence in front of this crowd.

“Please bring up a map of the colony and the area surrounding it in a fifty kilometer radius.”

The bridge staff manning the hologram projectors taps a few buttons. A schematic of the colony appears in front of us. The Ghostlot is labeled on the map too, facing the port entrance at the end of the colony's giant cylinder.

“As we can see here, the enemy has positioned themselves in such a way that they can fire upon any one attempting to exit the colony via the port. Attempting a frontal breakthrough is not impossible, but the Kaguya-hime's armor may not be enough to withstand the Ghostlot's focused bombardment. They have the advantage of being able to begin their attack the moment they detect movement. The UNS will not care if they destroy the colony in the process.”

“Come on, man, just cut to the chase already!” One of the fighter pilots yells at me impatiently. I give a loud sigh and raise my hands in defeat, glancing at Captain Grimrock as I do so. “Alright. Escaping is simple if we don't care about the colony either. We'll just blast our way through the wall and fly off.” Shouts begin to fill the room as the Kaguya-hime's crew get rowdy.

“Are you nuts?”
“Captain, is this some kind of joke?”
“There's still eight thousand people out there... this is crazy.”

The captain holds up a hand and the volume in the room instantly subsides. “You damned undisciplined maggots! Let Hoshikawa have the chance to address your doubts first. Questions come one by one.” orders the captain. He seems to want me to prove my own capability in defending its weak points before he'll go along with it.

One of the bridge operators, a mousy girl with brown hair tied into a bun, is the first to raise her hand.

“What of the other residents of the colony that are not on the Kaguya-hime? Puncturing the colony wall will render it uninhabitable.”

“Every O'Neill cylinder has inbuilt emergency shelters in case of a ecosystem failure due to external events such as a wall breach,” I respond promptly. “Neo Heliopolis's shelters are rated for 100,000 people at the moment; the bulk of them were completed early on to ensure safe haven should anything go wrong during its construction.” At times like this, I'm thankful I read a lot. I continue confidently. “8000 people would be able to survive for at least six months in those shelters. If we begin evacuation in the next twenty minutes, we can complete it just as the Kaguya-hime is about to execute its plan.”

I can see the girl reading through some details on her screen, double-checking my facts. She nods, satisfied.

“Senya! Me next!” Tabitha raises her hand. “What happens after we leave the colony? I mean, will the Ghostlot try to destroy it?”

I shake my head. “I don't think so. They are here for the Kaguya-hime and the prototype CFs. Though they seem to want to capture us, from their destruction of the other prototypes I believe that they don't mind seeing it all blown to pieces either – they can always gather data from the wreckage. Now, if we escape, the colony becomes of far less interest to them since we are no longer here.”

“You mean, we'll distract them away from Neo Heliopolis?”

“Well, that is not an intended effect of the plan, but yes, they will definitely chase after us.”

“So what's stopping them from hunting us down and destroying us?” This time Naim is the one who spoke up. “Look at your own map carefully, Hoshikawa. Unless we want to start travelling further away from Earth, the Ghostlot has a near certain chance of intercepting us on any trajectory. Besides that, we will have to fight against at least five CFs with one prototype.” He stops and laughs. “After your dismal performance against that Xolotl, don't tell me you're going to say that you're taking the Anhur out to fight five alone.”

I smile at him amiably. Of course I'm not planning to pilot the Anhur. I meant what I told the captain; I'm no hero – I'm not even a trained frame pilot. I only got into the combat frame and fought to stay alive. I tell him, “No, you'll be launching in the Anhur, Lieutenant Naim.” His eyes bug out in surprise.

“W-what? Captain, you can't be making me sortie out there alone! Though I am confident in my skills, this is too risky. If it is an order I will obey, but...”

Grimrock just laughs, leaving further explanation to me.

“Lieutenant Naim, if you would let me finish,” I say. “I would like the captain to commandeer six of the colony's construction mechs. With some work we should be able to outfit them with the spare weapons from the prototype project. They might not be able to hold their own against an actual combat frame, but with proper team-work they can at least coordinate with Anhur to provide fire support.”

“The element of risk is still unacceptable.” he retorts, intent on finding a flaw with my plan. “Battle doesn't always go the way you want it. As the experienced officer, I can tell you that we don't have good chances of fighting off five Centeotls while defending the Kaguya-hime's escape at the same time.”

“That is where the second part of the plan comes in. This is the risky part.” I bring up the astronomical charts, overlaying it on the map of the colony's surroundings again. “In about... forty five minutes, a small asteroid roughly 20 metres in diameter will pass by this region of colony space.” I highlight the sector for them. “We will lure the Ghostlot onto the Kaguya-hime's tail and retreat across this path.” Tracing my finger across the map, I mark the trajectory I had just proposed with a glowing orange line.

“They'll see the asteroid coming too.” complains Naim. “You have been indulging in too many fantasies if you think the Ghostlot will be hit by the rock.”

“I don't need them to be hit by it. If they know it is coming, they will hesitate to continue following our tail. Even such a small asteroid can be dangerous. If they find out at the last minute, well, that's their problem to deal with. Either way, we should be able to shake them off long enough to make use of the Kaguya-hime's superior top speed.”

Naim sits back, still frowning. The room has started murmuring again. Some were eager to take the risk, others were not so convinced. I know the plan isn't perfect; nothing is, but in the absence of anything better, this is the only thing we can do. Staying in the colony like sitting ducks would be extremely dangerous; we would be leaving all our lives in the UNS's hands.

“Alright, I've decided.” says Captain Grimrock. “We're going with this plan. Captain's orders.” That seals the deal. Instantly, the atmosphere in the room changes. “Now get to preparations!” he bellows. The crew salute and move off to do their duty.

I heave a sigh of relief. Standing in front of a group of older people is tense. Before I can leave, the door opens. The Empress is standing there. “What is the meaning of this, Captain? Why is there suddenly activity amongst the crew, when I've ordered you to stand down?” she scowls. I take a step back, hoping to avoid her attention.

“Ah, Your Majesty!” Captain Grimrock greets her cheerfully. “We've decided to break through the blockade instead of sitting around.”

The Empress's face darkens. I could fancy hearing thunder in the background. “Were my orders not clear?”

“Your recommendations were clear. It is unfortunate, but the the supreme commander of the armed forces happens to be the Emperor, Your Majesty. Only his authority may command a military officer; a civilian would have no direct say. I believe currently that particular authority is a shared responsibility of all the board of directors. Is that not so, Your Majesty?” The old captain is pretty shrewd. He knows that out in the field he can probably do as he wishes as long as he gets the results, and the Empress won't be able to do a thing about it. She mutters an inaudible threat under her breath and gives me a wrathful glance. “What is a civilian doing here in a military meeting, then?”

Oh crap. Is she going to ferret out my involvement? She's probably going to find out sooner or later anyway. I'm trying to figure out if I should confess my part in the plan, but the captain slaps me on the back hard with a laugh, putting paid to that notion.

“He's not civilian. He's military.”

I turn to look at him. Both the Empress and I voice our surprise at the same time.

“What?”

“I'm invoking the emergency draft. Ensign Hoshikawa here is the newest addition to the Kaguya-hime. I'll file the paperwork when we get back to Earth.” grins Captain Grimrock cheerfully. The Empress decides to bite her tongue and glare at me. “I hope you know what you're doing, Captain.” Then, she makes an about turn and stomps off.

Once she is gone, I let out a breath I hadn't been aware I was holding in. “I'm military now?” I don't know what Grimrock is playing at here, but I can tell that he is not in the mood to listen to me complain about it. His punches are pretty hard - not as hard as Butterfield, but still painful. Best to nod and go along with it.

“Yes, Ensign, and you better remember that. Things won't be official until the paperwork is filed, but by that time we would be back on Earth and I can discharge you. By the way, for your first mission, I'm offering you a great opportunity.”

“What would that be, sir?”

“We only have two frame pilots left, from the 16th Egyptian. I have five more aerospace fighter pilots, but they are extremely inexperienced at maneuvering combat frames. You can pilot one, I've seen that. I'm asking you if you would want to sortie in the upcoming operation in one of the construction mechs. I'll get the techs to give you a proper pilot suit and everything. I must say, an extra gun in the field would help us out plenty.”

“Is that an order, captain?”

“That depends on you, son. If you are not confident enough, I won't throw you into the meat grinder immediately until I really need it. Emperor knows I'm not a wasteful man. Judging from your plan, we should be able to manage fine with just two mechs... but a third one would be nice.”

***

A. I should remain on the bridge to help oversee the operation, where my analytical skills will probably be put to better use. I have no desire to be involved directly in combat any more than I have to – best to spectate from the safety of the warship.

B. I accept the captain's offer. His assessment is correct. An extra mech out there would definitely put the Kaguya-hime and the Anhur in less risk, and being on site means I can react and respond quicker to situations as necessary to ensure the ship escapes successfully.

***

This is a crucial operation, and it begins in less than half an hour. I might want to prepare and think about activating my ability ahead of time. I have modified the elixir to be intravenous – it will take effect almost immediately, and prolong the active time up to twenty minutes; without I can only manage ten. It will remain in my bloodstream for up to an hour after injection. I still can't do anything about the addictive substances, though.

A. Activate my powers right before the operation commences.

B. Do not use my powers yet.

1. Inject the elixir.

2. Do not inject the elixir.
 

Part 5 - Flight of the Kaguya-hime

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Flight of the Kaguya-hime

The hangar is busy with activity – the technicians are swarming all over Anhur, attempting to get it fixed in time for the operation. The right arm that was damaged when I piloted it is already fixed, so that's probably most of the job done. I can see Naim inside the open cockpit, recalibrating the combat frame to suit his own sensitivity. He flexes his arms and gauges the response of Anhur's own. Strangely, there is a perplexed look on his face. It looks like they haven't removed the extra propulsion units strapped to the frame's back and legs; if they did that, the entire balance of the mech would need to be retuned, and they probably don't have the time. There are also a few other maintenance staff getting the other pilot's construction mech battle-ready. They're loading the weaponry onto it right now.

I turn away and look around for the construction robot I'm supposed to pilot. There it is. No one's caring for it. It's standing alone in the corner like some neglected, sad little child. Well, I'm not surprised I don't get priority care. I should probably check on it myself anyway. As I walk over to it, slightly disheartened, a goggled-technician climbs out from the cockpit. Judging from the red hair and curvy overalls, it's Tabitha.

“Yo.” She gives me a two fingered salute. I return the favour.

“Everything's a-okay with your ride here, Senya.” grins Tabitha as she leaps down from the ten-metre high mech. She pushes her goggles down, letting them hang around her neck.“I took the liberty of getting your piloting data from the Anhur and calibrating the little one over here with it.”

I'm pleasantly surprised. “I was going to ask someone to do that. Thanks.”

“No thanks needed, but have you seen your own data?”

“No. Why, what's wrong with it?” Was it that bad, I wonder. I thought I did pretty well to get out alive in the first place.

“Nothing wrong... but what's with the sensitivity setting you were using? I've never seen anyone set it that high – hell, I didn't even know it could go that high.” My eyes dart away. Yua must have hacked it for me. Tabitha continues excitedly. “We forgot to check for it before Naim got in just now, and he pretty much crashed to the floor when he tried to move.”

That explains his look when I saw him in Anhur earlier.

“I don't know. It just felt right to me.” I reply. Tabitha arches an eyebrow at me. “Anyway, the construction mech won't be as responsive as Anhur no matter what magic I do with it, so you'll have to compensate for its slower movements out there.”

I nod. I look at the mech again; it's a ISC Heavy Industries G-81 model, a bulky machine with two heavy duty actuator arms protruding from the back in addition to the standard four limbs. The pilot usually switches between the two pairs of arms depending on what work is required.

“I've packed it with one of the prototype particle beam rifles and one mono-molecular dagger in the thigh storage compartment.” explains Tabitha. “Without connection to a powerful reactor like the one in the Anhur, the rifle will only be good for about 6 shots.”

I'll have to try not to miss.

“Senya!” I turn to see Kyrie running up to me. “What are you doing here?”

“I'm sortieing in the next operation. What, did you come to send me off?” I grin.

“Ah, no. I didn't know you were here. I saw you by chance...” she mumbles and looks away. Her eyes dart towards Anhur briefly, where Naim seems to have finished his calibrations. To put it simply, she came here to see him, not me. I wonder why she can't be a bit more honest about it. It's not like I'm going to get offended, nor should I, right?

“By the way, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be evacuating to the shelters about now?” I change the subject for Kyrie. She takes the chance gratefully. “Ah yes, that's right. I'm going to be on board the Kaguya-hime. So's my mother and the Higashi VIPs. They say they aren't about to let Captain Grimrock run off into space unsupervised.”

A smile passes across Kyrie's face. “They probably just think it's safer to be here than inside the emergency shelter.”

“I wouldn't be so sure about that,” I groan. “I hope the Empress doesn't try to interfere with anything.”

“It's too late,” sighs Kyrie. “She's already found a comfortable seat on the bridge.”

Thankfully, that's now Captain Grimrock's problem to deal with, not mine. I'll be busy fighting for my life out there, not trying to coordinate the mission with an outspoken and somewhat hostile Empress on the bridge. I wonder briefly which is worse. The siren begins sounding. The operation is about to start.

“That's your cue,” says Tabitha. “Good luck, Senya. Come back alive.” As she heads to her position, I spot Kyrie still looking at Naim.

“Aren't you going to go wish him luck?” I prod her. She turns to me with a start, an embarrassed look on her face. “What? Oh, no, I already- no, there's no need to. You need all the luck you can get. Don't try to be a hero, Senya. I have no idea why you decided to do this in the first place. Just let Naim handle it.”

I laugh. “Don't worry about that.”

I don't have any intentions of being a hero at all.

***

The Kaguya-hime rumbles as it soars through the hole of molten slag that it had made in the colony wall. A violent flow of air accompanies it, along with bits of debris being sucked out into the vacuum of space.

I sit in my construction mech, awaiting the order to launch. The robot is powered on and the monitor panels are showing the feed of the hangar. All three of us have parked our mechs on the catapults that lead out of the ship. My intercom buzzes to life.

“Hoshikawa.” It's Naim. “You may have come up with this plan, but I expect my orders to be followed during the battle. I understand that the objective is to intercept the enemy frames and prevent them from reaching the Kaguya-hime. To that end, I will be in charge of on-site tactical decisions.”

“Alright, I got that.” I reply.

“I don't want any repeat of that bullshit stunt you pulled earlier with the Anhur, understand?” pushed Naim. “Stick with Jean and follow his lead. Then you might not get killed. Jean, we're going with Pattern Iota. No need for any fancy moves, just lay down fire support for me.”

“Roger that,” says Jean cheerfully. That's the other test pilot. “Stay close, rookie.” The gravity shifts as the Kaguya-hime pulls clear of the colony. I hear one of the bridge operators announcing the signal to launch.

Besides me the Anhur crouches slightly as it braces its feet against the catapult. I do the same. Naim and Jean launch first, catapulted into space. Then, it's my turn. I report my name, as they did, and receive the all clear to go ahead.

“We're ready to go, Master.” says Yua. I can tell she's nervous about this, but I'll definitely need her help in this.

“Hoshikawa Senya, sortieing!”

Again I find myself pushed back in my seat as the catapult throws my construction mech into the void of space. The weightlessness is something I'll have to get used to. Maneuvering is hard – the slightest movement throws my course astray. Keeping my hands firmly on the slave levers, I fall into formation besides Jean. We would stay behind the Anhur and fire upon the Centeotls to distract them, while Naim makes use of the combat frame's high mobility to pick apart the enemy formation.

I check the location of the Kaguya-hime and the Ghostlot. Everything is still progressing according to plan.

“Five enemy CFs detected straight ahead,” warns Naim. “Jean, execute Pattern Iota.”

“Roger.” Jean's response is curt, and he immediately pulls away towards the left. “Stay on my right side, rookie.”

track: mobile suit

The enemy comes into view. The Centeotl is similar in design to the Xolotl; squat and brick-like. They could almost be twins except for the thrusters that are attached to their legs for space mobility. The Centeotls moved five abreast in a straight line formation. They were painted entirely in white with red highlights.

“The White Fangs?” mutters Jean. “Why are they here?”

“Who are these White Fangs?” I ask.

“A band of mercenary UNS pilots that appeared about a month ago. They've been building quite a reputation for themselves.” grimaced Naim. “That doesn't matter, we have our job to do.”

“Make them scatter, rookie!” shouts Jean. He raises his particle beam rifle and fires a well-aimed shot at the center Centeotl; the leader, judging from the spiky antenna sticking out from the top of its head. With an agility belying its clumsy look, the CF spins downwards with ease, evading Jean's shot. Following his lead, I take careful aim and fire at the formation. The condensed, highly energetic particles in the beam tear through space at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. It misses the Centeotls, but Jean and I are already firing our next shots.

Their formation breaks up. In their haste to dodge our attacks they did not see Naim bearing down on them, going at Anhur's full speed. He fires his own beam rifle, taking out the back thrusters of one of the Centeotls. It tumbles off into space, unable to regain its balance. With a quick spin, Naim redirects Anhur's trajectory to the right, again creating distance between the Centeotls and himself. From the wobbly, uncertain movements, it seems that he's not used to the speed that the high mobility prototype is capable of. Still, he's performing admirably and dragging out our time with his hit and runs. At the same time, Jean fires yet another shot at the distracted Centeotls. It misses, and he curses. It seems that he expected to hit that one. Four Centeotls left, including the leader. The leader of their squad makes a quick gesture, and the three white Centeotls begin heading towards us.

“Master, they'll be here in six seconds!” shouts Yua. She has been guiding my shots to make it easier, but the sluggish movements of the G-81 means that even aiming is a chore.

Damn. I raise my rifle again and fire. Even with Yua aiding my aim, the Centeotls evade it easily, splitting up their formation and reforming, closing in on me all the while. These are no normal pilots. I can see Naim rushing back to intercept the enemy CFs headed for us, but the lead Centeotl suddenly stands in his way, pulling out a mono-molecular sword from its back.

For now we're on our own. This doesn't look good. The Centeotls have a massive mobility advantage over us, and now that they are on guard I can tell that they also have the skill advantage. Two of them split off and approach us from the sides at high speed, making intricate maneuvers as they do so. Jean wastes the last of his shots attempting to hit them in futility. The remaining one fires its machine-gun at us. In these damned construction mechs we cannot dodge very well; though I try, the hail of bullets blow away my mech's right leg, sending its fragments spinning into space. These mechs are nowhere nearly as well-armored as Anhur was. I don't have the luxury of taking any more hits.

Before I can react, I hear Jean scream over the intercom. I turn the mech around, but a massive impact throws me backwards. I can see a thick, gigantic blade passing right by my side; it barely missed me by centimetres. I ensure my pilot suit and helmet is secured tightly, and kick the mech's legs outwards, pulling it away from the Centeotl that had just tried to stab me with its sword.

Jean's mech has been torn apart by the other Centeotl, its parts scattering in the void. I'm not sure whether he's still alive. Naim is probably still busy with the leader.

I should have done this earlier.

My mind freezes over as I focus.

Things are... different.

Out here in deep space, separated from the cold void by only the mech I am in, my senses seem to be far more expansive than they were before. I do not know how, but I sense more clearly and acutely than before the flames of life; three around me, two far ahead, and many more clustered together behind me.

“Yua. Enslave the actuator arms in simultaneous control!” I shout. She responds without complaint. The actuator limbs whir to life, their manipulator claws opening and closing wickedly. They grab the surprised Centeotl that had almost run me through with a sword. I concentrate on the delicate balance of controlling four arms at the same time. I'm about to be fired upon – I whirl my mech around, placing the Centeotl in my grasp between me and the line of fire. The bullets smash into my hostage's body, but I remain unharmed. With a violent throw, I toss the Centeotl at its comrade. Three beams burst forth from the barrel of my rifle, one after another. They rip through the armor of the Centeotls, but none of them manage to land a killing blow, as the Centeotls recover unnaturally quickly and dash apart. They immediately retreat to a distance, suddenly wary of me.

At the same time, Naim finally returns to my side... but the Anhur is in terrible condition. It is missing both its head and arms. Its armor is cracked and dented at multiple places. He appears to be blindly attempting to retreat, trying to salvage whatever is left of the prototype CF. The lead Centeotl dashes past me at high speed, intent on striking the killing blow on the Anhur. My actuator arms lash out and grip its legs as it does so. The surprised leader turns around and swings its sword at me, cleaving one of the arms into two. I draw my dagger and attack it while it is distracted; that does not work. The Centeotl moves faster than I can predict and cuts off the hand holding the dagger with one clean, beautiful stroke.

Something strikes me as familiar about that sword move...

On a hunch, I immediately begin hailing the enemy, shouting just one word: “Dunamis!”

I can just about sense them freezing up. Perfect. That delay is all I needed. I couldn't care less about why the Dunamis are here for now. The mission is already a success; we have held them off long enough for the Kaguya-hime to reach its destination. The construction mech might not be fast, but if I engage all of its thrusters at once it moves at a reasonable speed, and its acceleration is not too shabby.

My G-81 rams into the leader's Centeotl, carrying it towards the fleeing Anhur. Sure, Naim would be able to escape while the Dunamis pile on me as they are wont to do – those pricks – but I think I can get out of this with both of us alive. As expected, the Centeotl tries to push my mech off. I open the cockpit hatch and jump just as it does so. I float out into space. The added inertia sends me sailing towards Naim's CF – it's hardly traveling at top speed. I manage to grab hold of one of the ruined limbs and begin banging on the mech. After what seems like forever, the cockpit opens with a hiss and I climb in.

Inside, Naim stares at me dumbfoundedly as the cockpit closes. He looks almost as bad as the frame he's in; there's blood everywhere. I'm sorry to do this to an injured man, but I unstrap him and push him out of his seat. He floats around, groaning. It looks like he's still dazed. I'm lucky that he had enough presence of mind to let me in.

“The Centeotls are catching up, Master, and the Ghostlot is not too far behind. What should we do?” says Yua worriedly. I check what's left of the monitors; Yua is right. I slam on the Anhur's throttle. Nothing happens. The battle had damaged most of its thrusters. The Kaguya-hime is just ahead, but I won't be able to reach it before the asteroid passes. My mind works furiously, considering all the possibilities; with the wrecked mech that I'm in, my abilities are still useless. Ignoring the robot, I can't exactly fight off four CFs by myself with nothing but my tendrils and powers – there wouldn't be enough time to take them all out and escape.

I hate to admit it, but I'm stuck.

It's too late. I can't reach the Kaguya-hime. I bring Anhur to a gentle stop and turn around. Behind me I feel the asteroid tumbling past, on its way to gods know where. Ahead of me, the Centeotls approach slowly and warily at my sudden pause, the Ghostlot following close behind.

The intercom flickers to life.

“Drop down!” shouts Captain Grimrock.

I immediately angle my combat frame and rocket downwards.

As the asteroid passes, it reveals the Kaguya-hime waiting, having done an about-turn right after the asteroid arrived. Its weapons were all pointing towards the enemy, and not a second passes by before they fire their salvo. Beams and torpedoes rain on the Ghostlot and its CFs. Though the Centeotl's manage to evade the salvo, the Ghostlot is not so lucky. I can barely see through the bright explosions that flare up in front of me. When the glare fades, the Ghostlot has turned tail. Taken by surprise, the enemy begins to retreat, fleeing the counterattack of the Kaguya-hime.

The operation is over, and not in a way I had expected...

***

In the aftermath of the battle, we found out that despite the Ghostlot's retreat to lick its wounds, reinforcements from the Indus Confederation would be arriving at Neo Heliopolis within three days to support the Ghostlot. Staying here was now a futile endeavour; the Indus warship would carry a squad of ten CFs, which would likely be their new Vizala IIs – a machine that far outperformed the Centeotls even though they both belonged to the 2nd generation. Even the Empress acknowledged, unwillingly, that they had to leave.

But where to?

We had two choices; the Apophis asteroid at Sun L5, run by the Atman Foundation which has remained neutral thus far, or attempt to rendezvous with an ISC patrol of three warships on the way to Sun L4. The former is a longer trip of about one week, but the latter would run a high risk of encountering the enemy. If it were left up to me, I would probably prefer to...

***

A. Head to the Atman Foundation's asteroid, where we can rest and resupply. We will leak notice of our supposed attempt to meet with the ISC patrol in order to distract the UNS and Indus warships hunting for us.

B. Attempt the rendezvous with the ISC patrol. It will take only two days to find and reach them. If we succeed, we should be able to gain a proper escort, which would be sufficient to break through towards Earth.
 

Part 6 - Crossroads

Crossroads

“Is there something wrong with your head that drives you to take insane risks?” asks Kyrie.

“What do you mean?” The zero-g environment means that I can float backwards easily while talking to her, the travelling handles on the walls conducting us around the ship's corridors. Captain Grimrock was in a conference with the captains of the three Pimsin-class cruisers that we had met up with yesterday, and he had told me to meet him after it ended.

“You know what I mean. I don't think any normal person would rush into danger repeatedly without any thought for his own safety.”

“Is that what it seems like?” I frown. “I do think about my own safety, it just so happens that I end up in dangerous circumstances beyond my control. It's like I've been cursed since you guys nabbed me.”

“Don't blame your luck on the ISC. Your recklessness going to get you killed one of these days.” she sighs. “I would hate to lose such a wonderful subordinate.”

“Of course you would. Where else would you find someone willing to put up with your verbal abuse?” I mutter.

“Oh? Someone's grown a pair of balls after flying around like some hotshot pilot, it seems.” Kyrie grins sadistically. “You think I verbally abuse you because I like it? It's just because you are incompetent. Worthless. Less than a dog.”

“Actually, your breathing starts to get a little heavy when you talk down to me like that. Are you sure you aren't feeling tur-” Kyrie kicks out at me, her face turning red. In order to avoid it, I let go of the handles. “You're the one who gets excited when I insult you, you piece of masochist shit.” she retorts. I float backwards, laughing... until I bump into someone. An apology on my lips, I turn around to see who I hit.

It's Naim. He's in pretty poor condition – half his body is swathed in bandages. A scowl darkens his face as he glances first at Kyrie, then at me. Without so much as a word, he continues on his way. He's probably headed to the medical room; the staff say he won't be fit for combat for another week at the least.

“What's with him, Kyrie?” I ask her as she comes up beside me. We round the corner, and she pulls me into an unused room. She doesn't seem to want to talk about him outside. There's a guilty look on her face. “It's probably because of me. Sorry.” I don't plan on pushing her to explain, but she does so, briefly. “Naim's a childhood friend and distant cousin of mine. We grew up together as kids in the palace; his father is a minor royal. I haven't seen him in some years, but we did keep in touch. He was pretty excited about meeting me again.”

“Let me guess – first crush?”

Kyrie blushes. “ He was my only friend my age back in the palace. I mean, we were just kids. ”

“We're still kids.” I remark. She looks at me, a strange expression suddenly surfacing in her eyes. Then, she turns away, her blonde curls hiding her face. “Not for long,” says Kyrie. “It's not going to be the same for long.”

“Why does that sound like you're going to tell me something sudden and shocking?”

She keeps quiet, as if agonizing whether to tell me. With a deep breath, she turns around to face me again, her eyes determined.

“You know my birthday is in one month's time, right?”

“Of course. You'd kill me if I forgot.”

“Papa is going to officially announce my ascension to the throne after my 18th birthday.”

Well, that really is sudden and shocking.

“What is he thinking?” I try to keep it down, but there's no restraining the bewilderment in my voice. “Why would he do this to you when the world's in turmoil?”

“Papa's body isn't recovering. The doctors say it's already a miracle he managed to get back to his feet and survive as long as he did after those wounds.” Her voice is bland and unnaturally cold. “He's in no state to be taking back the reins of government.”

“What about the directors? Aren't they supposed to be ruling the Empire? Why not leave it to them?”

Kyrie snorts. “Them? They are the ones who agreed to help the Higashi with its military research. Now the Empire will be pulled into the war whether it likes it or not. Besides, the directors control the ISC. Although in practice the corporation is synonymous with the Empire, in theory it is still a separate entity. I won't be taking over the presidency of the ISC – my mother will. We would be joint-rulers, in a sense.”

“I don't think I like this. You're going to become an even bigger target for the enemy.” I complain.

She shakes her head softly. “I was supposed to be hidden away safely on Heliopolis when he made the announcement. I haven't been idle these past few months either; I've been making connections. I can follow etiquette and socialize when I need to, you know.”

“Never seen that side of you.” I reply. In the short term, this doesn't matter; we're still a long way from home, with plenty of obstacles standing between us and Earth. “Well, whatever it is, we deal with that when we come to it. For now, let's just focus on getting back to Earth alive.”

“Yeah, we'll do that.” She seems pleased, for some reason, as she repeats the word 'we' in a whisper to herself.

***

When we get to the bridge, the captains' meeting is already over, and we're allowed in without a fuss. The Empress casts a very nasty look at me as she sees me enter. I give her a slight smile in return. She might not like me, but she'll have to live with me for now.

“Ah, Ensign Hoshikawa. Just the person I wanted to see,” grinned Grimrock. He seems excited, for some reason. I give a salute. I'm military now.

“The angle's all wrong, son. Best polish up if you want to be a stickler for proper etiquette.” frowns the captain, returning the salute sloppily. “Anyway, let's get to the point. I need to discuss the fate of the CF Anhur. How do you feel about piloting it?”

I can't say I didn't see this coming. I'm the only person on the ship – possibly the entire Empire – who has actually piloted a mech into real combat and returned alive. There were plenty of idiots since the war started who had tried to go out in construction mechs, though all they achieved was going out in a blaze of glory. But for my luck, I would have met the same fate. Still, survival gives you experience, and I'm getting a bit more confident in my skills. Things can be different... but do I want to take on so much responsibility?

“Right now you're the only qualified person onboard this ship. All the other captains turned down use of the frame. Their pilots might be eager, but they don't want the responsibility of taking care of it.” continued Captain Grimrock. “This also plays a role in determining whether they carry out their operation.”

“I thought the Pimsin cruisers were on patrol, sir.”

“They are. They're scouting out the area in preparation for an attack on UNS Base 43 near Sun L4. Apparently most of the UNS ships in the area are scattered and searching for us, so now is a good time.”

This means that the Empire is already at war. It was inevitable, but I did not think they would be mobilized this quickly. It's almost as if they were ready even before the strike on Neo Heliopolis. I'm not complaining about that, though – it just means the UNS and Indus will find the Empire much harder to defeat, if it's prepared.

“I see that you're about to ask me: why attack Base 43?” asks the captain.

I shake my head. “For the same reason that they attacked Neo Heliopolis, sir. Most of the installations on the further Sun Lagrange points are research bases. What is the UNS developing there?”

Grimrock nods approvingly. “Very good. We have information that they are testing a new form of combat frame at Base 43. Consider this retaliation for Neo Heliopolis. They won't think that we'd head deeper into their territory. The Pimsins will sneak in and attack while everyone is looking for us.”

“Not if I can help it.” The Empress speaks up, glowering at the captain and I. “I have said this just now, Captain Grimrock; the three cruisers will be escorting this ship back to Earth. We do not have time to waste on these foolhardy adventures!”

“Ah, right.” The captain scratches his head. “See, Senya, that's where I figured you come in. The prototype is the most important thing on this ship as far as I'm concerned.” I'm not too sure about that myself, but if he thinks so, I'm not going to argue with him. “The cruiser captains can be convinced to escort us back to ensure the Empress, the Princess and the prototype reaches Earth safely, but they will also be keen to proceed with the operation if it means they are getting CF backup. It's just one CF, but a lot of their crew are young 'uns who are eager to see their own country's first mech in battle.”

“So are we.” One of the Higashi VIPs speaks up calmly, a balding man with a hard look on his face. The Empress turns on him instantly. “What are you saying, Minister Azo? This is reckless!”

“It would be a shame to let the chance to test the frame pass by, Your Majesty.” replied the Higashi minister. “We are confident that the prototype both your nation and mine has created will not lose to anything made by the UNS. Besides...” He glances at me. “I always believe in giving the youth of our country a chance. Should we not hear the pilot out?”

I look at the map of the routes to Earth, trying to ignore the stares from powerful men and women all around the room. If it is left up to me, I would probably...

***

A. Take the ship back to Earth. Given what I've just learnt from Kyrie, this ship has the unenviable honour of at once carrying both the future rulers of the Empire, and the machine that could be vital to winning the war. The Empress is already furious at the delays; I shouldn't provoke her any further. I'm also not confident that I'll be able to pilot Anhur well enough. It's more prudent to convey all three back to Earth safely rather than take unnecessary risks.

B. Attack Base 43, which would cut off any easy routes back to Earth; but from there I can spot at least three more crucial UNS and Indus installations along the possible paths back home. If we strike quickly, it is possible to resupply and wreak havoc from behind the enemy lines while we fight our way back to Earth – this will also distract their frontline forces and influence the war. Pulling off this risky gambit would definitely help secure both my position and Kyrie's, by virtue of association.
 

Part 7 - Base 43

Base 43

“I have heard enough.” growls the Empress, interrupting my proposal. “Do whatever you wish – I will not be a part of this foolishness.” Striding towards the communications panel of the Kaguya-hime, she opens up a line to one of the captains. Within thirty seconds she has brow-beaten him into agreeing to take her back to Earth. Within thirty minutes she is standing in front of the shuttle that the cruiser had sent to pick her up, her bags packed. All but one of the Higashi VIPs are following her; Minister Azo seems keen on sticking with us to the end. Every member of the Kaguya-hime's crew had elected to stay aboard the ship too.

“Kyrie.” calls out the Empress coldly. “Come.”

She shakes her head. “I'm sorry, mother. I think it will be a more learning valuable experience for me to stay here.”

The Empress sighs as if dealing with a petulant child. “These absurd people are going to throw away their lives in meaningless suicide. I believe I raised you smarter than this.”

“If I am to be a good ruler, I must know war. Did father not participate regularly in leading army exercises?”

“Those are exercises. This is not. You can certainly learn about war safely behind a desk somewhere.” snaps the Empress exasperatedly. “Really, I wonder who is it that has been feeding your brain with nonsense.” Her eyes shift to me. “Perhaps I should look into getting rid of unwanted influences on my daughter.”

Then, she gives a haughty sniff. It seems to run in the family... or is it some acquired tick? Would I start sniffing haughtily if I hung around Kyrie long enough? “So be it. I will not change your stubborn mind, I know that. Let us not waste any more time arguing. Do come out of this alive, my dear daughter... surely you can do that much at least? You still have the transponder I gave you, right? Don't hesitate to abandon the ship if it means you survive. You are the most important thing here.”

I can tell that the Empress means it; cold and arrogant she may be, but she wouldn't be too happy if her only daughter died. I wonder how she really feels about Kyrie refusing to leave the ship.

“When we meet again, Kyrie,” she continues, “I will help get rid of all the parasites and hanger-ons that will latch on to you... or already have.” The Empress gives me a murderous look.

I don't think our next meeting will go very well.

***

“Tell me again why you stayed behind?” I ask Kyrie as we head to the hangar. The repairs on Anhur are almost complete, and Tabitha had called me over to start calibrations. “Valuable learning experience,” she grins. I look at her twinkling emerald-green eyes. Yup, there's no mistaking that gleam in those eyes. When she gets that, it can only mean...

“I have no idea where you get off calling me a risk-taker, you adrenaline junkie. You're only here because it's more exciting.”

“Hey, just because I like a thrill doesn't mean I rush from bad positions into worse situations like you do.”

“I don't recall ever doing that. I always take calculated, measured action after assessing all possibilities. I do not rush.”

She laughs. “Sure. I suppose it only appears that way.” She doesn't believe me.

“If it isn't the ace pilot and his princess!” Rose and Babs approach us in their tailored black suits, on their way to some other part of the ship. They had stayed behind as security detail for Minister Azo.

“Hey guys. On an errand?” I greet them casually. They give Kyrie a short bow, acknowledging her rank, and flip me a mocking salute.

“You bet. The Higashi minister is asking us to make sure the ship is secure, so we're going to run over safety procedures and security checks with the captain and his crew. The old guy's pretty cautious.” remarks Babs.

“He must not have wanted to talk to the captain himself to avoid it seeming like he was interfering directly with the ship's operation.” I reply.

“Oh, no. He's having tea with Captain Grimlock. They apparently know each other from way back. I hear he used to be a mercenary in his younger days.” says Rose. “He doesn't look it to me, though.” Well... that's interesting. I seem to be meeting plenty of ex-mercenaries – Butterfield himself certainly is one, from some of the stories he told of his past and the skills he taught me. If I ever meet Shulgi again, I should ask him about it.

“So, how's the ol' sex life between you two lovebirds?” grins Rose all of a sudden. Kyrie makes a curious moan along the lines of “Uuu”, her face turning bright red. I feel a heat creeping into my cheeks too. Where did that come from?

“Oh come on, what's with that reaction? My buddy here is a pilot now, princess. Haven't you the slightest temptation to jump his joystick while riding in his cockpit? I mean, that big machine is just wasted standing there in the hang-” A burly arm hooks its way around Rose's neck and chokes him off. Good old Butterfield.

“You may not speak to the princess like that, Mr. Raul.”

“I-I'm sorry, sir.” splutters Rose. “I will not do it again.”

“See that you remember. As a member of the ISC's security force, you must conduct yourself with more dignity. The princess is not a personage you can speak crassly with.”

“But it's okay to talk like that to Senya?” he grins hopefully from between Butterfield's arm-choke.

“You may speak to Master Hoshikawa however you wish, as he is not royalty. He has the wisdom to handle such matters of conversation without believing he should act on it. Isn't that so?” Butterfield throws me a glance. I understand what he means, and nod.

“Of course. I would never think of sullying the princess.” I smile awkwardly, a bead of sweat trickling down my neck. That is a lie. I do think of it sometimes. Good old Butterfield. I'm never sure whether I should be grateful or scared of him. Kyrie looks slightly down right now. Perhaps Rose was being too crass.

“Very good, Master Hoshikawa. Now, you should be on your way. This is no time for idle chat.”

He drags Rose off under his arm, Babs following behind obediently, having been smart enough not to open his mouth.

***

I gaze up at Anhur. There are only some minor repairs left, primarily on the legs. It would be fully operational by the time we reach Base 43. Also, it's now painted in shiny black, with gold highlights accentuating its smooth form in a very tasteful manner. Someone appears to have painted the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for 'night' in white on the left shoulder armor. Tabitha comes up to greet me, cheerful as always.

“What's with the new colour scheme?” I ask, surprised at the Anhur's new look. I've only seen it in its gaudy show colours; the black & gold paint gives it an elegant menace that was not there before.

“The Chief said your favourite colour was black. He figured you'd be happy to have a CF in your own custom colours. We even painted the Egyptian word for night on the side.”

“Night?”

“That's the meaning of your name, right? I recall it was Higashi something along the lines of river of stars and a thousand nights. Sounds kinda romantic.” grins Tabitha.

Kyrie pokes me in the side. “I didn't know that. Why didn't you tell me?”

“It's embarrassing.” I reply with a blush. “Anyway, that's not important. Where's the Chief? I didn't know he came onboard.”

“He's in the bathroom. All this excitement is too much for him.” says Tabitha as she walks back to Anhur. To be honest, I've never seen the man before; he seems to always be in the bathroom for some reason or another. I wonder how he gets anything done.

Well, time to wonder later. I should get to work calibrating Anhur properly. I don't want a repeat of last time.

***

track: counterattack

Base 43 is an installation anchored to a small rock in a remote region of Sun L4. The ISC's intel indicate that it primarily deals with CF research, and testing is usually conducted at a nearby asteroid field. The Kaguya-hime and the two remaining Pimsin cruisers, Kalai and Sarmatia, manage to come in close enough without running into the enemy. Most of the forces in L4 have spread out to hunt us down, fanning out towards Sun L3. They did not expect we would travel so deep into UNS territory.

Two warships, as expected. The base's radar detects our approach soon enough, our electronic jamming unable to fully camouflage our signature once we get too close. The Centeotls launch after three minutes. It looks like the base is already on alert if they managed to get the CFs out that fast. Six brown Centeotls head towards us. Looks like it isn't White Fang.

That's good. I'd hate to have to kick their heads in.

The catapult throws me into space. This is a test for both me and the combat frame; Captain Grimrock has decided to see what the CF is really capable of with me at the controls. To that end, no fighters will be launched, nor will the warships interfere unless I get into trouble. The simulations indicate that a CF of Anhur's specifications, piloted properly, should be able to defeat a force of this size with little difficulty.

Well, I suppose piloting it properly is the major issue here. I should be able to do this, though – no, I know I can do this. Out in space, free from the confines of gravity, the controls of Anhur are much less restricted than they were in the colony; they're far more responsive than the construction mech I was in. Having spent the past hour - and the past day in simulation practice - getting Yua to customize the macro commands to my preferences, I feel as if Anhur is moving exactly according to my will.

“Master, incoming fire. Maybe we should dodge?”

The ranged fire comes first, the Centeotls trying to pepper me with bullets from their machine-guns. I roll Anhur to the left, evading the hail of shells with ease.

“Alright, let's test the beam rifle. Pick a target, Yua.”

“How about that one? It's straggling behind.”

These Centeotls don't have the teamwork and cohesion of the White Fangs. I track the target that Yua has painted with my eyes – the cameras of Anhur's head focus on it and my reticule indicates a lock. The enemy is still trying to hit me; I stop my movement short and dash in the opposite direction immediately. As smoothly as raising my own arm, I have Anhur aim and fire while still in movement. The yellow glow that streaks forth from my rifle melts through the hapless mech with ease. It looks like I hit the reactor – the mech vaporizes in a small ball of fire.

That's one down.

“They're about to fire again, Master.”

I boost downwards as another round of fire misses me. At this range, their aim is too predictable. I wouldn't even need to use my powers as long as Yua keeps an eye out for me. Two Centeotls break off formation and head straight for me. It looks like they're tired of trying to hit me with their guns. I keep the throttle steady as I let them gain on me, swaying to the left and right to evade the occasional shots that would hit the frame.

If I remember correctly, this would be the limit of their speed. I can see them wobbling as the Centeotl pilots try to maintain a steady control of their frames at top speed. I push the throttle harder, taking me out of their range in seconds. Floating above them, I take careful aim. I have all the time in the world to take my shot – two more beams from my rifle go straight through the Centeotls, turning them into scrap metal before they even think of taking evasive action. Once aimed properly and fired, a particle beam moves too fast for any human to dodge easily.

“Master! Incoming rocket!” shouts Yua suddenly. The ping indicates that it's coming from behind. I slam the throttles on full. Anhur rockets upwards. Though I'm pushed back in my seat from the acceleration, it's not too uncomfortable thanks to the pilot suit. I turn around and head for the Centeotl that had fired upon me, retrieving the beam saber from the storage compartment on Anhur's back as I do so. As I approach it rapidly from a high angle of attack, the panicking frame abandons its plans to retreat and draws its sword for melee combat. It swings at me as I bring up my saber.

The saber, connected to my frame's powerful reactor, charges the particles within it. They flare to life as superheated plasma, contained only by a strong magnetic field projected in the shape of a long blade. The mono-molecular sword meets the saber edge to edge – the plasma melts through the hardened alloy with ease as I swing the beam saber. It passes right through both the sword and the mech wielding it, cutting it almost in half.

Three left.

All three converge on me at once, thinking to overwhelm me with numbers. Anhur's thrusters deliver me safely away as I dash backwards. The Centeotls cannot keep up with its speed at all. I dance around them, pelting them with the fire-linked vulcans now equipped on the frame's head. One of the enemy frames takes a dozen unlucky shots through the cockpit as it moves in the wrong direction. Another tries to flee – I fire upon it with the beam rifle. My first shot tears off its legs, and the second hits it dead on in the reactor. As the mech explodes, the last Centeotl – the squad leader – charges at me with sword drawn.

He's not bad. The Centeotl evades the swing of my saber by going down low. Using its verniers, it pivots into a spin, attempting to cut me in half at the waist. I remember a trick described in that text adventure Shulgi gave me; I fire my verniers to send me backwards. The sword misses me, and before the enemy recovers from its attack I push the throttle up and dash forward, faster than the Centeotl can react. I ram my beam saber right through the chest of the Centeotl, frying the pilot within with the superheated plasma. Raising the Anhur's leg, I kick the dead frame away.

“That's all of the frames, Master. Should we return to the Kaguya-hime?”

'Let's see if we can finish the job, Yua.” I reply.

The warships begin to fire their particle cannons once they spot me moving towards them, probably desperate now that their escorts are gone. They should have started sooner instead of relying on their CFs to do the job. At this range, I'm too small and too fast for them to hit reliably, and their attacks travel in predictable lines. With ease, I dart in between the beams and missiles. The Anhur's immense mobility brings me right to the warships in mere seconds. I fly along them in the dead angles of their anti-fighter weapons, emptying my beam rifle into their sides. The particle beams rip through even warship armour with ease, but I'm still not packing anything big enough to reliably destroy a cruiser. I would have to learn how to hit their reactors properly to do so. I dart around the warships to prepare for my next round of attack. They are badly damaged, but still operational. I take out my beam saber. Perhaps I can carve my way in.

A signal comes through to me from Captain Grimlock.

“Alright, that's a wrap, Ensign. The enemy captains are trying to surrender, babbling about getting me to stop you from ripping and tearing into them. What were you going to do to them?”

“My job, sir.” I can't say I'm comfortable with the idea of killing, but I'll do what I must. This is the path I have chosen, and if it means that walking it stains my hands with blood, that is a burden I must accept - though I must be careful not to fall into the trap of self-inflicted melodrama. Speaking of which, I should probably try to keep Kyrie away from that too if I have the time... she seems troubled enough to fall into it right now. Perhaps I should do it...

“Well, good job. I'm convinced of the frame's power, as are the captains of the Kalai and the Sarmatia. The enemy are laying down their weapons even as we speak. The mission is a success.” Grimrock congratulates me, disturbing the thoughts that have begun to wander across my mind now that the tension of battle has left me.

As the captain cuts the commlink, I allow the Anhur to float in space as I stand guard by the enemy warships that have surrendered. All in all, a pretty successful sortie, I suppose...

***

Our crew manage to take over the base with little fuss. It seems that the staff on the base had managed to get rid of most of the information they have between their military's surrender and our arrival. That's pretty loyal of them. Of course, the ISC generally follows the honourable rules of war, and Grimrock decides not to execute any of them for their little act of defiance.

We get to work resupplying and obtaining whatever parts we need immediately; now that Base 43 has fallen, I am sure the rest of the UNS forces in the area will return swiftly. I don't fancy fighting off a small navy – no matter how well Anhur performs, it is only one frame. I won't be able to protect the Kaguya-hime if I am occupied by overwhelming numbers... it would be an automatic loss for me if the ship goes down.

Searching the base, we manage to find two unpiloted Vizala IIs in the maintenance hangar. These go on the Kaguya-hime immediately. The facility appears to have been shared with Indus researchers. We also find schematics for...

A. A barrier made of scattered particles that can diffuse ranged beam weaponry, lowering their lethality by a significant amount. The particles also act as radar-jamming particles, heavily reducing effective combat range if scattered over a wide area. This could help me in situations where I need to close in to the enemy.

B. Prototype remote weaponry mounted on a combat frame. These consist of small and highly mobile particle beam platforms that are semi-autonomous under computer control and can be directed from within a CF. I might even be able to control them manually if I use my ability.

C. An ultra-long range particle rifle. As particles lose their potency very slowly over a distance and have little deviation in their trajectory, the rifle's main advancement is in the sensor accuracy that it packs, rather than its power or range. Sniping targets from long range should be easy for me with this.

D. Reactive armor parts. They have anti-beam coating and are also functional against explosives and other solid weaponry. They reduce mobility by a bit, but provide plenty of protection as a trade-off. As the Anhur has plenty of mobility as it is, this would make my frame more well-rounded.

Adapting these schematics for Anhur and producing them would probably take quite some time, however.

***

There are three particular points of interest for our next destination on this pillaging spree across UNS and Indus space.

A. The combat frame that was supposed to have been developed at this facility is being tested in an asteroid field. The fragments of data we manage to retrieve indicates that it appears to be a two-pilot frame, which will be brought to the front-lines for practical testing in a matter of weeks. We might be able to ambush the frame and capture or destroy it if we head there.

B. There is a vital Indus asteroid mining facility in one of the many asteroid fields that dot the area. Raiding and destroying it would do a great deal to hamper war efforts on the part of the Indus – they have little resources on Earth and rely mostly on space to provide what they need.

C. UNS and the Indus are conducting a joint CF training exercise that will be televised live in a show of the military superiority of their frames over the ISC and the Higashi. Over 50 frames are supposed to be taking part. Perhaps we should come up with a plan to crash the party...
 

Part 8 - Mother Crab

Mother Crab

track: mobile suit

Asteroid field K-5571 is what is left of a collision between two large asteroids, each measuring kilometres in diameter. Seventy years ago, astronomers detected that one of the asteroids was on a collision path with the Earth. The UNS put rockets on another asteroid and played billiards with it, successfully shattering both asteroids and redirecting their paths into a stable orbit close to Sun L4. One of the millions of rocky fragments left behind is where I am currently backed up against.

The mission was simple; capture or destroy the prototype mech in testing. Though the Anhur is itself a valuable prototype, Captain Grimrock felt that it was better off operating alone thanks to its mobility; even Vizala II frames find it hard to keep up. Staying in formation would be reducing the Anhur's speed advantage. Naim and Jean – great odds of finding another pilot with the exact same name, it seems – have launched and are standing by waiting to provide fire support. My role is to flush out the enemy prototype and lure it into the open, where we can work together to disable it.

That is, if it is here.

“See anything, Yua?”

“Nothing yet... wait, there's a heat signature about three kilometres away.” she responds, giving me the coordinates. Best to check it out. The enemy carrier that was supposed to be transporting the frame is still nowhere to be seen. I direct Anhur cautiously towards the signature, slipping from rock to rock. I rely on just my verniers to propel my movement in order to minimize my profile.

“The signature is getting stronger!”

It's approaching me. I keep my distance, carefully moving out of its path. I'll let it pass me by. It does. A large brown object roars past me at high speed, broken shards of rock left in its wake. What was that?

“Yua, did you get a good look?”

The only thing we knew about the enemy prototype was that it would be piloted by two people, and boasted a variety of advanced weaponry. I wasn't expecting... this. The body is a large brown pyramid, at least three times as long as Anhur is tall. Two multi-segmented arms stick out from the sides, each ending in a gigantic claw. Four pairs of pincer-like legs are folded under it. There's also several suspicious looking bubble-like protrusions on its back, six in total.

That's...

“Master, it's a crab! A giant robot crab!” shouts Yua excitedly. She's always liked cooking them, for some reason. Although I have no idea what possessed the UNS scientists to create something that looks like this, that doesn't matter right now. Time to get to work.

I roll Anhur out from behind the rock and fire a shot at the enemy frame. My aim is spot on. The bright yellow beam streaks towards it, but a bright flash appears before it hits the main body. The particles disperse, as if stopped by something.

“That's a particle barrier, Master.”

Just like the one they're currently reworking to put on my frame, then. If this is powered by that thing's reactor, though, it should be more powerful, considering its size. Beams aren't going to work that easily. I dash to the right, avoiding the enemy's reply to my attack. A couple of rockets fly past harmlessly and blow up some rocks behind me. It looks like when unfolded, those pincer legs also double as rocket launchers. The pointy ends are rockets. That really stumps me. Why?

“Yua, why would anyone make something like that?”

“It's a crab, Master.” she replies, as if that explains everything.

“I don't think that has anything to do with it!” I should continue with the operation now that I have its attention. I kick the thrusters up and begin speeding away from the enemy, heading towards where Naim and Jean are waiting. As I check the rear camera, it seems that I don't have to worry about it losing me – that thing might not look too agile, but in a straight line it is fast. The claws open up and begin firing at me – the six particle barrels within are arranged in a spread formation, causing me to veer off course in order to dodge all of the beams. I patch a call through to Naim.

“Lieutenant! I'm bringing it to you!”

“It? You mean the prototype?”

“The crab!”

“What are you babbling about?” shouts Naim exasperatedly. “Put a leash on your computer, Ensign!”

“We need a codename for this thing, don't we? Can't keep calling it the prototype.” says the new guy, Jean. I hope he fares better than the old Jean.

“What should we call it, Yua?” I say.

“Obviously, it's the Crab Frame!” she says happily. Alright, let's go with that.

“The Crab Frame has a particle barrier, Lieutenant!” I inform him of the fact; he'd be pissed if he had to waste a few shots from the Vizala II's beam rifle to figure out that beams don't work.

“I hope you know what you're doing... all units, lead with solid weaponry.” mutters Naim through the comm.

“This is Jean, roger that.”

I dodge another set of beams and reach the edge of the asteroid field. We're in position. I hear Jean gasp. “Holy fuck, that is a crab.”

“On my mark...” says Naim.

The two Vizala IIs belonging to Naim and Jean pop up above and below the Crab Frame as it passes by, firing their rocket launchers. Their timing is good – the barrier doesn't stop the rockets, which hit the enemy frame and explode. Unfortunately, as the smoke clears, it seems that not much damage was done.

I hear Naim complaining over the comm. “Looks like the crab has a tough shell.”

It points its claws upwards and begins firing at him. Naim dodges behind a large rock. Several of the beams melt into it, but he's already dashing out from behind it, firing his machine-gun at the frame. At the same time, Jean and I boost towards the crab. If we can't take it with our guns, then perhaps melee weaponry will work better. We scatter, dodging the rockets from its legs, before crossing paths and approaching from both sides. Pattern Delta, I believe Naim called it, while we were training in the simulators.

Jean's mono-molecular sword doesn't work too well, getting stuck in the armor. My beam saber, on the other hand, cleaves through one of the legs easily enough. Looks like that's the only thing that'll work effectively for now. Before I can bring my saber back for another swing, the crab's pilots sense the danger. They push their throttle to the maximum and charge off, away from us; Jean still clinging on to the sword embedded in the enemy. There is a loud puff as the armor block his sword is stuck in falls away. Jean's Vizala tumbles away in the vacuum. The Crab Frame makes a wide turn and comes around, going straight for him. This is bad – he won't recover in time to dodge.

“Fuuuuuuuu--------” screams Jean. I ram into him at full speed, sending both of us away from the Crab Frame's charge. “Whew,” comes his grateful voice. “Thanks for the save.”

“If you have time to thank people, get back into the fight, Ensign Jean!” snaps Naim. As Jean apologizes profusely, I notice the bubbles on the crab's back detaching and floating off. With a shudder, the thrusters on their backs come to life as small pincer legs unfold from their round bodies. “Baby crabs?” asks Yua. “Perhaps we should name this frame the Mother Crab.” They begin moving around the battlefield, darting towards us. The next thing they do is to fire beams at us. I push Jean away as two beams cut through where we were. He brings up his machine-gun and fires at the little spheres, but they zip about nimbly, evading his bullets. It's like attempting to hit a fly... if flies had guns that could blow big holes in you.

“Use the frame's auto-targeting!” Naim yells frantically as he evades another two of the drones' shots by just a hair's width. He locks on to one of them, his rifle trying to track their seemingly erratic movement. He can't manage to keep his aim steady on them for long enough, and he abandons that idea, opting to just concentrate on evasion. Thankfully, whoever or whatever's controlling these little things doesn't seem to be very good at aiming – they shear off pieces of his frame's limbs, but no major damage is done.

“These things are moving according to a pattern, Master.” Yua speaks up. “I think I can link it to the auto-targeting system.”

“Do it quickly, and send the data over to the others.” Two bubbles attacking Naim, two following Jean, and another two are coming after me. I've observed the presence of several movement patterns myself, but it's hard to actually predict which pattern they're going to pick in the thick of battle. I try to take down the drones after me, but the Crab Frame is on my tail, forcing me to cancel any attacks as I weave in between the beams of the babies and mother crab. There's no opening to attack; if I try anything I'll probably get cut into pieces. Luckily there's only two bubbles attacking me – trying to avoid all six and Crab Frame would be a nightmare. As soon as Yua completes the uplink, Naim manages to take down one of the baby crabs. Three seconds later Jean destroys another. That seems to trigger a response in the mother crab – a wave of diffuse particles bursts forth from emitters on the frame. It begins messing with the radar – the lock on the bubbles vanish.

“The auto-targeting system can't get a lock anymore... fuuuuu---” Jean starts shouting again as his shots miss the other bubble. “It's impossible to do this with just a visual lock!”

If that's the case... Well, this is why I've been saving my trump card. I activate my ability.

Instantly, the trajectories of the bubbles become clear to me, along with the patterns they are using. They also stop right before firing. If I move to the right, one of them should fire right about... now. My own beam hits it before it can shoot, right as it comes to a halt. The baby crab explodes. At the same time, I move towards the mother crab, its other baby following right behind me. I change the angle of my direction at the last minute, just as the drone fires. The beam misses me and goes through the enemy frame.

“Aha.” It looks the the barrier is gone; that jamming wave must have had something to do with this. I dispatch the drone with a quick shot and head straight for the Crab Frame. It brings back the other two bubbles harassing Naim and Jean to converge on me. That's not going to stop me. Closing in on the Crab Frame, I weave my way through the intricate net of beams from the claw-guns and the baby crabs. I just need to mess up once to get cut into ribbons by those particle beams. Before that happens, I'll have to take the crab down.

I can feel the heat of life inside the Crab Frame; there are two of them. It's not agile enough to dodge my aim – bringing the barrier down was a mistake. In a lucky coincidence, the armor protecting the cockpit had been purged earlier when they dropped Jean. As it tries desperately to escape, I fire two shots going through the cockpit, snuffing out their flames. The drones seem to lose their way immediately, tumbling off into space.

“Aw fuck yeah Senya!” screams Jean in joy. “That was beautiful!”

“Good job, Ensign.” replies Naim grudgingly.

That's it, I suppose. Another successful mission. Before I can rejoice, the captain begins hailing all of us.

“The mission is successful. It is time to withdraw.”

“Wait,” I ask, “what about salvaging the Crab Frame?”

“Negative, Ensign. Destroy the enemy prototype. We're going to have to fight our way out of here; we can't afford any time to bring that thing with us. We've been spotted.”

“You mean...”

“An Indus carrier is approaching us from behind.”

Right on cue, a transmission from the enemy appears on all channels.

“This is the Mehrgarh of the Indus Confederation. We have been attempting to track your ship since you left Neo Heliopolis. We request that all combatants from the Neo Shinar Empire and Higashi lay down their arms. You will be taken into custody by Major Rei Wakayama.”

“Major... Rei Wakayama?” whispers Jean. “Oh boy, are we fucked or what?

“Who's that? It's a Higashi name, so why is this Major on the Indus's side?” I ask.

“No idea,” comes the reply, “but that's the Scarlet Lightning.”

“That sounds familiar...” I've heard the nickname somewhere, while reading some reports about the war. It strikes me all of a sudden. “You mean, that Scarlet Lightning?” That's the nickname of the top ace of the Indus Confederation, having a confirmed kill of over fifty fighters and six warships in just a few months. Rumours say that the Scarlet Lightning is untouchable in battle, piloting a blood-red combat frame that moves three times faster than any other frame. Some pilots on both sides have attempted to paint their machines red in imitation, but apparently red ones don't always go faster...

The captain cuts in to our conversation. “Get back now. I don't plan to surrender, so Senya will cover our retreat. Once the Kaguya-hime, Kalai and Sarmatia begin moving, Naim and Jean are to provide fire support while Senya intercepts the enemy frames. We'll slow down the carrier by laying down covering fire – the Vizala II frames will not be able to stray far from it. Senya, fight defensively and keep within range of our fire support. No matter what you do, do not engage the red one.”

The Crab Frame is still floating there in dead stillness. Is the captain going to let go of something as valuable as this just to flee a single carrier?

***

A. We have three warships to their single carrier. Even if they have ten frames to our three, we have the advantage in firepower. I'll take the offense to them regardless of what the captain says – I'm confident that we can wipe them out, reducing the number of our pursuers and successfully salvaging the Crab Frame. Even if the Scarlet Lightning is fast, I'm sure Anhur is faster.

B. I listen to the orders and fight as the plan demands. If the captain thinks it's wiser to abandon the salvage, I'll defer to his decision. After all, I'm not eager to be a hero, am I? The priority is, as always, the Kaguya-hime's safety. By destroying the prototype we will also have prevented the enemy from deploying it, so it is not a total waste.

I should still have 7 minutes of active time for my ability.

1. Use the drug now, to prolong my active time. I should be able to get ten more minutes out of it.
2. Don't use the drug. Whatever I choose to do, it shouldn't take long.
 

Part 9 - The Scarlet Lightning

The Scarlet Lightning


track: fullfrontal

“Acknowledged, Captain Grimrock. Anhur will intercept the enemy frames in coordination with the fire support team.” I gently ease the hypodermic syringe into my neck, allowing the concoction to travel into my carotid artery. This will make it take effect in seconds. I blink as the drug begins to pass into my brain. My control over my ability increases, and I shut it off. I'll be able to turn it on again as needed.

Naim and Jean set up position near the Kaguya-hime and the other two cruisers, which launch ten of their fighters. In the debris of the asteroid field, none of them are flying at full speed. Smaller stones are deflected by their armour, but going nose-first into a large rock would really cramp their style. They stick close to the cruisers, guarding them.

“Ensign, don't stray too far.” Naim reminds me. I respond with an acknowledgement and move forward, making sure to keep within range of the Kaguya-hime's guns as it retreats.

There's a slight flash in the distance, and two beams shoot past me, missing both my frame and the warships by a comfortable margin. The carrier must have started firing.

“Master, I'm picking up ten heat signatures moving towards us. It must be the enemy frames.” I lean backwards in the pilot seat and equip the rifle. At this distance, they're mere blips, darting in and around the rocks as they close in towards us. Our warships begin firing, sending a salvo back towards the Indus carrier. The sheer amount of firepower vaporizes much of the smaller rocks in its way, while breaking the larger ones into fragments. Even so, there's too much debris in the way for the attack to be effective. The enemy squad moves with trained coordination. They must be experienced in fighting against warships. I cut all power to my thrusters and back up against a massive rock. With practiced ease, I allow my mind to slip back into its cold state.

I can feel them. I lean out from behind the rock, taking careful aim. Once I am certain, I fire. The beam from my rifle lances through a Vizala II, taking it unawares. Immediately I move from my rock, darting behind another one as the enemy opens fire in reply. I'm still within range of the Kaguya-hime – if I draw their fire I can lure them out where they can be hit. Backing away carefully, I begin to retreat. The enemy frames are moving faster now, attempting to get to me. Still, in the debris field, they are unable to maneuver as freely as they'd like. All of them are slowed down by the floating rocks obscuring their path and vision. I prepare to take another shot while they are still heading towards me.

“There's a Vizala II coming in at full speed, Master!” warns Yua.

All but one, it seems.

A scarlet Vizala II approaches me at lightning speed, spinning around and evading the rocks as lightly as if it is merely dancing through falling leaves.

“That's the enemy ace. Be careful!”

“You don't need to tell me twice. Let's do this!” He who strikes first wins – I aim my rifle at the incoming frame, attempting to predict its erratic movement. This should hit. I can do this. I pull the trigger, but the beam misses its mark. The Scarlet Lightning had somehow known where I would fire, and changed his course at the very last possible second.

“How...” This has never happened before, but I have no time to be in shock. I fire another shot that I think would hit, but it does not. He's not firing back on me – he must be confident he can take me in close combat. I aim again. This time, I realize that every time my barrel falls in line with the enemy frame, it begins to move ever so slightly, swaying out of the line of fire. How is he seeing my aim from such a distance?

No matter.

“Covering fire incoming!” Jean calls out. Beams and missiles rain down upon the Vizala II from both the frames and the warships. With a series of deft movements almost impossible for even me to follow, it weaves its way through the concentrated fire, still heading towards me – but I've got it now. The particle beam from my rifle flies right at the Scarlet Lightning head on. There's a bright flash and an explosion.

I did it!

“He's coming from your flank, Senya!” shouts Naim.

“What?” The red Vizala II drives its foot into Anhur in a forceful kick, sending my frame flying backwards. That explosion was a decoy – he must have detached one of the Vizala II's spare propellant tanks. In the confusion I failed to sense his approach. I'm going to have to up my game – this pilot is no joke. I fly upwards as the red Vizala II cuts at where I was with its mono-molecular sword. Naim and Jean lay down more covering fire, forcing the Scarlet Lightning to dodge, swerving away from their beams. If I fire at him right now, he'll be backed against that rock – I do so immediately. The red frame moves as I have predicted... for the most part. It flips around, bracing its legs against the rock behind it. Then, it pushes off, firing its thrusters as it heads for me again. I dodge just in the nick of time, the sword taking a chunk of armour from my shoulder. Damn. If it's going to start bouncing off the asteroid fragments this is going to be trouble.

In the mean time, I detect the remaining eight Vizalas approaching the cruisers from another direction. The Scarlet Lightning will demand my full attention, but can Naim and Jean take on four times their number in experienced pilots? If that's the case...

I disengage immediately, rushing for the other Vizala IIs at full speed. As expected, the Scarlet Lightning follows me. This time, he uses his rifle – he must realize what I'm trying to do. I dodge the beams that he fires; all by a hair. I'm helped by Naim and Jean rushing after us, trying to hit the Scarlet Lightning. Their attacks keep him from fully concentrating on hitting me. The distance between us begins to grow – Anhur is still faster than any Vizala II, no matter if it is painted red or not. I hear a scream from Jean. “He took my legs! I knew we shouldn't have gone up against him!” Well, at least he's still alive. I draw my beam saber. The Kaguya-hime fires, scattering the enemy Vizala formation... this is my chance. I swoop down on the nearest Vizala II, which is handily distracted by the Kaguya-hime's salvo, and bring my beam saber down on it, cutting it clean in half from head to crotch. Seven left; I turn my head up. Anhur's gaze follows mine. There's another Vizala I can hit – I fire my vulcans, punching countless holes into its torso.

“Naim! Jean! Take care of the remaining Vizalas!” I yell. Three times their number should be manageable... I hope. We've entered the jamming field.

“I'm on it! All fighters come in for support!” shouts Naim in return as he heads to defend the warships against the incoming frames, a crippled Jean following behind him.

“Master!”

The Scarlet Lightning is upon me, sword raised. As he swings it down, I bring up my beam saber to block with time to spare. Anhur is more responsive than the enemy frame; in close combat I'm not at as much of a disadvantage as he thinks. It melts through the mono-molecular sword. I move my arm to cleave through the enemy with the saber, but the Vizala II grabs Anhur's sword hand in a steel grip, stopping it mid-swing. I can't help but be taken aback. How is a mere Vizala overpowering the Anhur? I hear a cracking noise as the Anhur's fingers are crushed in the Vizala's grip. It rips the hand away and steals the saber from it. I immediately dash back, my verniers firing at full blast. The vulcans whir to life and spit lead at the Scarlet Lightning as I do so. He dodges to the side, trying to circle around me.

That's just what I wanted – the next salvo from the warships come at him from behind. The red frame is pinned down by the covering fire, being forced to halt its movement or risk getting melted into slag. I charge towards it, drawing my mono-molecular dagger as I do so. With Anhur's one good hand, I make an overhand swing down at the enemy... leaving my side exposed. The Scarlet Lightning takes the opportunity, as if on instinct. I was counting on that too. I fire my thrusters up to full throttle, using my verniers to accelerate my swing. This time, finally, I take him by surprise. Even then, he tries to dodge – my dagger cuts through his arm as he does so, sending the beam saber whirling off as he loses his grip on it. Shooting from an impossible position, the Scarlet Lightning fires his beam rifle, taking off my right leg before I can follow up on my attack. This is not good – it's taking all I have just to keep up with him. I'm out a hand and a leg, while I've only managed to land one good hit for all my efforts.

“They're retreating!” shouts Jean joyously. The Scarlet Lightning remains still and unmoving, as if in conference with someone. I can sense four remaining Vizala IIs retreating. In the confusion of entering the jamming field for the first time, my allies had managed to take down two more of them, though at the cost of almost all of our fighters. They must have over-extended themselves, pursuing beyond the range of their carrier's support.

The Scarlet Lightning lingers in front of me for a while, as if pondering what to do.

“Master... the Scarlet Lightning is hailing you on the comm.” gulps Yua nervously. Well, why not take it? “Patch him through.”

“Thank you,” came a friendly voice. It appears to be a woman but I can't be sure – could be a high-pitched guy. I decide to consider her a woman. I wouldn't be surprised, though, given that the Scarlet Lightning is known to have a penchant for wearing masks in public. Could be anyone under those, especially in the ornately adorned military uniforms that obscured her figure.

“I commend you on a well executed battle. I am Major Rei Wakayama, of the Indus Confederation. May I have your name, pilot of the black frame?”

I remain silent. I'm not sure whether it's in protocol to reveal my name to the enemy. There's a puzzled silence from the comm.

“May I have your name?” she repeats politely.

“I'm sorry, but I am just a civilian. I'm not sure about all this military protocol.” I lie.

“A civilian? That explains your unorthodox movements.” she says in an admiring manner. Where does she get off talking about unorthodox movements after those moves she pulled on me? “Are you sure I can't have your name?”

“I'm no one worth knowing.”

“Well, if you insist... I'm sure we will be seeing each other soon. I hope to get your name then, if you survive.”

Thankfully, she leaves it at that, turning away and joining the rest of her comrades in retreat.

My ability finally wears off, and I slump into the pilot's seat, dazed and exhausted.

***

The mood on the Kaguya-hime is almost festive, dampened only by the deaths of a few dozen crew members and fighter pilots. The Vizala IIs had managed to get past the screen on occasion – the Sarmatia is now too damaged to keep up with us. It looks like the Kalai has requested to be allowed to escort it to Marduk's Navel, an ISC asteroid base at Sun L1. If we go on that path, it will not put us much closer to Earth, but it should be safer... as long as the base hasn't been attacked. It is also probably the more predictable route to take.

The Kaguya-hime has also received a call for help from a refugee Higashi shuttle seeking safe passage to Moon L4. That would put us much closer to Earth, but on the downside we would have to pass through the front-lines to get there, and do so without the two cruisers that have been with us thus far.

***

A. Head to Marduk's Navel

B. Escort the refugee ship to Moon L4.
 

Intermission: Major Armed Forces of the World (4025 A.C.)

Intermission: Major Armed Forces of the World (4025 A.C.)

Manpower:

Neo Shinar Empire:
Combat: 500,000
Support: 830,000

Higashi:
Combat: 410,000
Support: 850,000

UNS:
Combat: 625,000
Support: 650,000

Indus:
Combat: 150,000
Support: 440,000

Notable Space Assets:

Warships:

Kaguya-hime Class Cruiser
Affiliation: ISC/Higashi
Manufacturer: ISC Heavy Industries/Great Eastern Manufacturing
Armaments:
1 x mega particle launcher, 2 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 2 x missile launchers, 8 x anti-fighter guns
CF complement: 9
Launch catapult: 3
Overall length: 312 m

Pimsin Class Cruiser
Affiliation: Neo Shinar Empire
Manufacturer: ISC Heavy Industries
Armaments:
2 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 2 x linear rail-gun, 6 x missile launchers, 4 x anti-fighter guns
Fighter complement: 6
Launch catapult: 1
Overall length: 378 m

Arina II Class Battleship
Affiliation: Neo Shinar Empire
Manufacturer: ISC Heavy Industries
Armaments:
1 x mega particle launcher, 4 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 8 x missile launchers, 8 x anti-fighter guns
CF complement: 6
Launch catapult: 2
Overall length: 520 m

Ankida Class Heavy Battleship
Affiliation: Neo Shinar Empire
Manufacturer: ISC Heavy Industries
Armaments:
2 x mega particle launcher, 6 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 4 x linear rail-gun, 12 x missile launchers, 12 x anti-fighter guns
Fighter complement: 30
Launch catapult: 5
Overall length: 980 m

Sen-hime Class Cruiser
Affiliation: Higashi
Manufacturer: Great Eastern Manufacturing
Armaments:
3 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 20 x missile launchers, 6 x anti-fighter guns
Fighter complement: 6
Launch catapult: 2
Overall length: 309 m

Ginza Class Battleship
Affiliation: Higashi
Manufacturer: Great Eastern Manufacturing
Armaments:
6 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 12 x missile launchers, 8 x anti-fighter guns
Fighter complement: 10
Launch catapult: 3
Overall length: 488 m

Doge Class Cruiser
Affiliation: UNS
Manufacturer: ISC Heavy Industries
Armaments:
2 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 2 x linear rail-gun, 2 x missile launchers, 6 x anti-fighter guns
CF complement: 5
Launch catapult: 1
Overall length: 350 m

Gynoid Class Battleship
Affiliation: UNS
Manufacturer: United Industries
Armaments:
1 x mega particle launcher, 4 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 4 x linear rail-gun, 6 x missile launchers, 10 x anti-fighter guns
CF complement: 10
Launch catapult: 2
Overall length: 669 m

Shulgi Class Super Heavy Carrier-Battleship
Affiliation: UNS
Manufacturer: United Industries/Vizharga Industries
Armaments:
4 x mega particle launcher, 12 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 12 x linear rail-gun, 18 x missile launchers, 30 x anti-fighter guns
CF complement: 30
Launch catapult: 5
Overall length: 2769 m

Mahakarya Class Carrier
Affiliation: Indus
Manufacturer: Vizharga Industries
Armaments:
1 x 2-barrel particle cannon, 6 x missile launchers, 12 x anti-fighter guns
CF complement: 10
Launch catapult: 2
Overall length: 411 m

Combat frames:

XF-25 Anhur

[​IMG]

Affiliation: ISC/Higashi
Manufacturer: ISC Heavy Industries/Great Eastern Manufacturing
Frame type: High performance general purpose prototype
Reactor: Compact fusion reactor - 4000 kW
Propulsion:
main thrusters: 6 x 240,000 N (high mobility configuration)
verniers/apogee motors: 18
Armaments:
2 x mono-molecular daggers, 2 x head-mounted 35 mm vulcans, 1 x beam saber, 1 x beam rifle, 1 x 280mm rocket launcher, 1 x shield, mounted on left arm.
Overall height: 15.3 m

XM-26 Onuris
Affiliation: ISC/Higashi
Manufacturer: ISC Heavy Industries/Great Eastern Manufacturing
Frame type: General purpose combat frame
Reactor: Compact fusion reactor - 2800 kW
Propulsion:
main thrusters: 2 x 240,000 N
verniers/apogee motors: 8
Armaments:
1 x mono-molecular sword, 2 x head-mounted 35 mm vulcans, 1 x beam saber, 1 x beam rifle, 1 x 280mm rocket launcher, 1 x shield, mounted on left arm.
Overall height: 14.3 m


RG-05 Vizala
Affiliation: Indus
Manufacturer: Vizharga Industries
Frame type: General purpose combat frame
Reactor: Compact fusion reactor - 1380 kW
Propulsion:
main thrusters: 1 x 180,000 N
verniers/apogee motors: 4
Armaments:
1 x mono-molecular sword, 1 x 60 mm machine-gun, 1 x shield, mounted on left arm.
Overall height: 10.6 m

RG-09 Vizala II


[​IMG]

Affiliation: Indus
Manufacturer: Vizharga Industries
Frame type: Space superiority combat frame
Reactor: Compact fusion reactor - 2750 kW
Propulsion:
main thrusters: 2 x 240,000 N
verniers/apogee motors: 8
Armaments:
1 x mono-molecular sword, 1 x 75 mm machine-gun, 1 x rocket-lance, 1 x 280 mm rocket launcher, 1 x beam rifle, 1 x shield, mounted on left arm.
Overall height: 14.0 m

UNS-1001 Xolotl
Affiliation: UNS
Manufacturer: United Industries
Frame type: Land specialization combat frame
Reactor: Compact fusion reactor - 1550 kW
Propulsion:
main thrusters: 2 x 140,000 N
verniers/apogee motors: 4
Armaments:
1 x mono-molecular sword, 2 x 60 mm machine-gun, 1 x back-mounted 280 mm rocket launcher.
Overall height: 13.0 m

UNS-1011 Centeotl


[​IMG]

Affiliation: UNS
Manufacturer: United Industries
Frame type: Space superiority combat frame
Reactor: Compact fusion reactor - 2190 kW
Propulsion:
main thrusters: 2 x 140,000 N, 2 x 80,000 N
verniers/apogee motors: 6
Armaments:
1 x mono-molecular sword, 2 x 60 mm machine-gun, 1 x 280 mm rocket launcher.
Overall height: 13.6 m


UNS-109X Tepeyollotl
Affiliation: UNS
Manufacturer: United Industries
Frame type: Prototype heavy assault frame
Reactor: Compact fusion reactor - 6750 kW
Propulsion:
main thrusters: 4 x 380,000 N
verniers/apogee motors: 6
Armaments:
2 x heat claws, 2 x 6-barrel beam spray guns (claw-mounted), 6 x gun-slaves, 1 x ultra-long range beam rifle.
Overall length: 59.0 m
 

Part 10 - Escorting The Spirit of Adventure

Oh hey, more free time than I expected. Early update for Bandwagon victory. Armed forces list has been updated with some new stuff.

***

Escorting the Spirit of Adventure

“Good news,” grunts Captain Grimrock. “The Fifth Fleet will be meeting us at Moon L4.”

We're a week into our escort journey with The Spirit of Adventure, the Britannian freighter that had been hired to ferry the refugees, and making good progress. Everyone seems to be cheerful thus far, and I even spotted Minister Azo sparring with Butterfield in the gym. Rose and Babs, the security guys, had been dragged into the match after cheering on the sidelines, and gotten their asses kicked despite their youth.

Grimrock continues, “Fifth Fleet has been assigned the new Arina II battleships, which are basically just old Arinas refurbished to carry CFs instead of fighters. You know what that means, right?”

“Of course,” I reply. “They've started the production run for the CF based off Anhur's preliminary data. The XM-26 Onuris. It's a scaled down version of Anhur, but it still matches the enemy's Vizala II in performance. I didn't expect them to produce it so soon, though.”

“I suppose war makes everything go faster. Usually it would take years for a model to go from prototype to mass production, but we needed a frame of our own urgently.” remarks Grimrock with a grin. “Amazing what people can do when they're desperate. There's practically a new toy popping up every month or so on both sides.”

“The Empire has far superior industrial capabilities thanks to its factories in the African continent. Now that mass production of CFs is underway, it should only be a matter of time before the UNS-Indus are defeated.” I muse.

“Huh, I wouldn't be so sure about that, kiddo. Them bastards on the other side are pretty inventive themselves.” muttered the captain, looking at a report that just came in. “We lost Marduk's Navel to an enemy attack.”

That isn't good news. “I heard from the captain of the Kalai that the Third Fleet was stationed there. Eighteen cruisers, three battleships. It's not a small force, and the asteroid itself has plenty of defenses. I think we would have noticed if the enemy was mobilizing a fleet large enough to take Marduk's Navel. Did they send the Scarlet Lightning there?”

Grimrock shakes his head. “No, that's not it. They unveiled some sort of monster-sized ship. Our people are calling it a super heavy carrier-battleship – it's almost three times as long as the flagship of our space forces, the Ankida. Looking at the after-action report, it's armed to the teeth and carries enough CFs to overwhelm an entire fleet by itself. Of course, it was sent there with the support of the UNS's Second Fleet, so losing Marduk's Navel was probably a foregone conclusion.”

“What happened to the Kalai and the Sarmatia?” I ask. They had left us to undertake repairs at Marduk's Navel.

“Sarmatia was lost with all hands, while the fate of the Kalai is unknown. Well, perhaps we should count our lucky stars that we weren't there.”

“We might have been able to make a difference.”

“You think?” said the captain. “True enough, you are good in that frame. I wouldn't want to be captaining any battleship going up against you, not even in the Ankida.”

“That's some praise, Captain, but don't forget what happened in the last sortie.”

“If you're talking about the Scarlet Lightning, that's a different matter. You held your own, son, and that's more than most people can say. You've earned the right to display just a bit of confidence. An ace pilot can't be selfless and humble all the time, or people will lose their faith in him. Hell, haven't you seen the looks the crew are giving you? You really are fast becoming an inspirational figure of some sorts... Which, in itself, poses another problem,” finishes Grimrock darkly.

“Politics?” I venture.

“Yeah. Shine too bright and you gotta watch your back. That's a problem we have here in the Empire, where the interests of the ISC and the interests of the Empire don't always coincide. It seems to me that you've made a powerful enemy.”

The Empress. That might be a problem later down the road.

“I'll just have to make myself indispensable then, don't I, captain?”

“Hah.” he grunts. “Like that'd work with those buffoons. Nothing's indispensable to them except for their own skin. Anyway, just watch your back. Though I figure the princess's already watching it for you, it helps if you can think of something on your own.”

“Yes sir.”

In truth, I already am. The information I had Yua retrieve from the Crab Frame before we destroyed it was... interesting, to say the least. The logs from the frame indicated that the test data sent out to the carrier transporting it was to be analysed by one Mattaki Adum. Further investigation showed him to be an ISC engineer. I'm having Yua delve deeper into this, but it's likely that at the very least, certain factions in the ISC are attempting to profit from both sides of the war.

***

“The captain is right, Senya. The interests of the ISC and the interests of the Empire don't always coincide.” sighs Kyrie. “Which is why I am going to do something about it.”

“What would that be?”

“Revoking the ISC's long-held monopoly on just about every facet of Imperial life.”

It sounds like an immense undertaking. I wouldn't even want to attempt it peacefully; it would be much easier to kill the directors and become a tyrant than strip them of their power.

“So you're going to execute the entire board? I'm with you there.”

“What? Oh, no. Perish the thought. You've become a particularly bloodthirsty hound, haven't you? Is it all the fighting?”

“I've always been for the practical approach.” I grin.

“Hm. You underestimate Papa and I. We've been working on it for some time. Did you think I spent my time in the Academy for naught?”

“Actually, I thought you spent your time there to sadistically-”

She shuts me up by hitting me over the head gently – by her standards – with a chop. “Hush. My ascension provides us with an opportunity that we cannot let slip. All I am doing will be to replace the old Council of Nobles with a cabinet of ministers appointed on meritocracy.”

“I don't think that would get rid of their influence.” I point out.

“No, it wouldn't,” she agrees, “But it would reduce it, as no longer do I have to appoint ministers from the council itself, which is practically synonymous with the board.”

“I'm not sure they'll cave in so easily...”

“As the new president of the corporation, Mother is in excellent position to rein in the board. She already has their fear and respect. In the end, their profits would not really suffer, and I think that's what matters to them the most.”

“You trust the Empress?” I ask.

“She might be cold, but she is still my mother. Trust me on this. She wouldn't harm me.” she says defensively. I trust that she wouldn't harm Kyrie, but me, on the other hand... that's another matter, no? Still, I can tell she's not in a mood to discuss the Empress's dislike for me right now. We would just get into another heated debate about why I'm unable to impress her mother sufficiently. Perhaps I should've licked a bit more boots.

“By the way, I've spoken with Minister Azo about the current war. He thinks we can end it.” remarks Kyrie casually.

“Let me guess, the Higashi offer a treaty agreeing to total Indus independence?”

“Clever boy.” she grins. Well, that is why the war had started after all. “Apparently we're now in a good position to negotiate, and if the Indus get what they want, they shouldn't have any more reason to fight. Once that happens, the UNS will probably decide to agree to a ceasefire.”

I suppose with the production of the Onuris frames, the Empire and the Higashi are in a position to fight back, having finally caught up with the arms race. Rather than causing more needless loss of lives, the Higashi see that they can gain the moral high ground here by offering a 'surrender' of sorts even though it would be trivial for them to continue the war. It's not a bad move, politically and economically – the Empire would prove to be a more beneficial partner than the Indus were. Domestically, they would have some explaining to do, but that is not a huge problem.

“When is this going to happen?” I ask Kyrie.

“Soon, before the year is over. Papa is going to focus on ending the war as his last act in power. Then we can go back to living normal lives... well, as normal as it can be.”

I understand what she means. After this, she will be the new Empress. Her life will be different, no matter what.

***

Ten days into the escort journey, we finally run into trouble. Three UNS warships corner us, refusing to allow us passage.

“This is a violation of the Ankida Convention.” repeats Captain Grimrock. “We are a vessel performing a peaceful escort of the Spirit of Adventure. You cannot deny us passage.”

“We would be fools to let you pass. We know this ship. You carry that black frame, don't you? You think we're just going to let you slip by us?” retorts the enemy captain.

“Don't worry about us, Captain Grimrock. If need be I'll ram the enemy ships to allow you to escape.” interrupts the Spirit of Adventure's young captain, Garland. Apparently he once served under Grimrock and worships the older man. Grimrock told me he was thrown out of the navy for his great love of unnecessarily risky maneuvers. I can see why.

Captain Grimrock exhales in exasperation and looks at Naim. “Lieutenant, get ready to sortie. We might have to fight our way out. Protect the Spirit of Adventure if you can, but take no unnecessary risks.”

The Anhur has already been equipped with the barrier technology I saw on the Crab Frame, though due to its less powerful generator we had to scale down the performance. In a pinch, I should still be able to take a direct hit from a warship's turret. Before I can go anywhere, a transmission arrives on all channels.

“This is the Mehrgarh of the Indus Confederation.”

I hear Jean let slip a “Fuck.”

Grimrock's brow furrows at the Mehrgarh's arrival. This is the worst possible time for the Scarlet Lightning to arrive.

“We are here to assist in the escort of the Spirit of Adventure. All hostile actions against the Spirit of Adventure and its escorts will be interpreted as a direct threat to our wellbeing.” They said escorts. It looks like we were included in that comment.

Almost as an afterthought, the Mehrgarh announced, “Major Rei Wakayama will be overseeing this escort mission personally.”

A few minutes later, the UNS cruisers retreat. The Mehrgarh continues to follow us at a safe distance. Apparently they are serious about this.

“This is Captain Grimrock, hailing the Mehrgarh.”

“This is Captain Raviputra of the Mehrgarh. What is the matter?”

“About this escort mission...”

“We mean to conduct it to the end, Captain Grimrock. The Major was particularly stubborn about this, and I'm afraid that I am unable to overrule her instructions at this time.”

“Understood, Captain Raviputra.” Turning to the rest of us, the captain scratches his beard. “Well, you heard what he said.”

***

A. Advocate the idea to abandon the freighter without warning. If the Mehrgahr makes good on its promise and sticks to the freighter, we can lose it and get to Moon L4 ahead of time. If it doesn't, we'll still be ahead of it. Since they could have attacked us just now, I can only assume the good Major has a taste for honourable action... there's a good chance they wouldn't follow, opting to keep to their word. It's only tactically sound to run – it might not be winning hearts and minds, but there's little tangible disadvantage to being a dick in times of war.

B. Stick to the freighter. As they could have attacked us but refrained from doing so, they probably won't do so for the duration of this journey. Besides, the Fifth Fleet is meeting us at Moon L4. They won't be able to try anything then – even the Scarlet Lightning will be in deep trouble if we down her only carrier. To be honest, I'm being a bit selfish here; I have a pretty good idea as to who the Major really is. If I'm not mistaken, she'll probably want to meet with me soon. I'm interested in having a chat with her too, on rare neutral ground... like the Spirit of Adventure.

C. Run off to Anhur to sortie and strike down the Mehrgarh now, while they think they're being honourable goody two shoes. All is fair in war. I knew she had some sort of honourable streak to her... escorting refugees to lure the Scarlet Lightning in worked JUST AS PLANNED! Even Grimrock wouldn't expect this, but that's why I'm the resident genius. All will be forgiven as long as I obtain results.
 

Part 11 - Meeting Major

Meeting Major

As I expected, the invitation for his escorts to meet aboard the Spirit of Adventure came the next day from Captain Garland. It was extended courteously to all members of the crew, though of course not everyone would be able to go. I did not attend. When Grimrock returned from the freighter, he informed me that the Scarlet Lightning remained onboard to await my arrival.

“Should I go, Captain?” I ask, knowing that what Grimrock has to say would not really change my decision.

“I'm in no habit of poking a nose into my crew's personal lives as long as they don't start any drama on my watch. If you ask me, though, the more you know about your enemy, the better you can deal with them.”

“You cannot fight what you do not understand.” I recite.

“That's right. The Military Precepts of Ean,” grins the captain. “Good to know you've at least read the classics.”

Judging from the game I'd gotten from Shulgi, I had my doubts that the real Ean was the one who wrote down those precepts. It's more likely some unknown tactician cobbled it together with some slight inspiration from the First Emperor's military exploits, real or imagined, and Ean was granted writer's credit because things sound more authoritative when coming from a god.

I smile. “I have my plans regarding the Scarlet Lightning, Captain. Rest assured they will not endanger this ship.”

Grimrock looks at me intently for a moment, as if there's something off about me. Then, he walks off, nodding. “See that it doesn't, Ensign. I'm sure you know what to do.”

The old man is sharp, I'll give him that. Is it his wealth of experience? All his encouragement and lessons appear to be nudging me towards developing my ability in military strategy and tactics, yet he continues to keep a critical eye on me, as if I cannot yet be fully trusted. I have managed to keep up to his expectations so far, but if I do mess up, I am not under the impression that he will give me any special treatment. Well, no matter. I have to focus on the Scarlet Lightning for now...

I wait for four more days, as we draw ever closer to Moon L4. All the while, I keep an eye on the freighter. The rest of the Mehrgahr's crew have returned to the carrier, but the Major is still onboard, waiting for me – the red Vizala II is anchored to its side like a large mechanical bug.

Finally, as I see activity around the Vizala II, indicating that it is being prepped to depart, I signal the freighter that I am arriving to meet her. At this distance from Moon L4, if the Mehgahr gets into a battle they will immediately draw attention from our allies. If they come along any further they'd be sailing into the arms of Fifth Fleet. They should have left the escort a day ago – it looks like Captain Raviputra was only willing to let the Major drag out the wait for one day before leaving. They've lost their chance to defeat us, though that was probably not her aim in coming here in the first place.

“Did you have to come along, though?” I ask Kyrie. The cockpit of the Anhur is not designed for two, making it awkwardly cramped as she squirms around on my lap. Thankfully, she's not too big. I keep that observation to myself though.

“I haven't been to the freighter yet. Besides, who knows what'll happen if I don't keep an eye on you.” she replies with a wicked smile.

***

Kyrie is almost mobbed as soon as she steps aboard. It looks like she's quite the celebrity amongst the Higashi refugees. If I remember correctly, it is something about the Shinar imperial family being the last prominent royalty of our world, the remnants of an ancient bloodline. There's something romantic about that notion that struck the fancy of Higashi citizens. Most of them are probably more worshipful of the Shinar royalty than the Shinari themselves. Soon she's playing the part of the perfect princess, waving, smiling and nodding her head with kind words for everyone. I'm amazed at the ease at which she falls into that particular public persona. “Go on ahead. I'll catch up as soon as I can.” she whispers.

Not unsurprisingly, I find that the Scarlet Lightning had not been allowed to walk freely about the ship. The guard at the door of her room told me that there had been an altercation on the first day of her arrival. A Higashi man had spat on her, calling her a traitor, and a few blows were exchanged. She decided not to leave, however, and accepted confinement in the room – for her own safety, says the guard – to await my arrival.

I see her for the first time as I enter the room. She rises up from her chair to greet me. In person, the Scarlet Lightning is almost as tall as I am, with her black hair gathered in a short ponytail at the base of her neck. Her face is striking and she appears to be about twenty – perhaps a few years older than I am, but it's hard to tell. I see no familiar features that would mark her as a sibling of mine. Then again, siblings may look entirely different from one another. She is dressed in the ornate military outfit of the Indus, with beads and sashes all over a loose red jacket. The Major gives me a precise military salute. I believe she outranks me, but I'm not one to let proper protocol stand in the way of my act, and settle for a wave. A casual approach should disarm her more easily. I am, after all, a civilian.

“It's a pleasure to finally meet you at last, pilot of the black frame.” she says stiffly. It looks like she is nervous, and wondering if I am indeed the person she has been looking for.

“I'll say the same,” I reply. “That was a pretty decent workout we had.”

At the same time, Kyrie enters, excusing herself. “Sorry, Senya, they were really insistent I sang them a song.”

“I didn't know you could sing,” I mutter. “And you just used my name.” That's part one of my plan in flames. Hopefully the other parts will hold up. An uncharacteristically girlish laugh escapes the Major's lips as she trembles in excitement.

“I knew it!” she mutters happily. “It is you. It couldn't have been anyone else in that frame.”

“So, you're the Scarlet Lightning?” asks Kyrie, interrupting the Major. She regains her composure almost immediately, though it's funny seeing her struggle to keep her eyes on Kyrie instead of me.

“Y-yes. Who might you be?”

“I am Kyrie Francesca de Shinar, Crown Princess of the Neo Shinar Empire.” says Kyrie haughtily. She can put on a show when she thinks it'll impress people... and she manages to get it right on this occasion. The Major steps backwards, surprised.

“My apologies, Your Highness. It is an honour to meet you here.” She's back in full military mode, speaking in a formal tone.

“It's a funny thing, isn't it?” I smile. “A foreign princess is more popular than you are. Everyone was trying to kiss her hand when we came in just now.”

She turns to me and frowns. “That is...”

I pose a question immediately. “I wonder... do you think what you are fighting for is worth being hated by your own people?”

“It is a burden I carry willingly. The independence of the Indus is of greater importance.”

“Why is that?”

“We should not rule over one another, be it in the light or the dark.” she explains. From the tone of her recital, it is probably one of the teachings of the Apostles. “All life is equal before the Goddess. The Indus deserve their independence from the Higashi. If that means fighting against my own people, that is what I have to do, to show the world that equality can be achieved-”

“At the point of a sword?” remarks Kyrie caustically. “Do you think that sort of peace will last?”

“That is precisely why I fight, Your Highness. I do not expect you to understand, but I fight to end the war as soon as possible. A long war strains the world and increases suffering. A swift victory will show the Higashi the injustice of their ideals.” retorts Rei.

“We are already preparing to negotiate peace with all factions. The Higashi are prepared to grant the Indus Confederation full independence.” returns Kyrie with a smug smile. “What else do you have to fight for? Your goal has been achieved.”

“I... I had heard about that, but...” All of a sudden, the Major appears unsure. Then, she regains her composure and replies strongly, “I do not trust it. There must be something else that your governments are plotting. Independence must be negotiated on our terms, not granted by the Higashi. The act of granting show that the Higashi government still displays a mindset in which the Indus are subservient lessers to be bestowed a gift. That thinking must change, or history will repeat itself.”

Kyrie appears ready to lash out, but I put a hand on her shoulder. Her temper really has a short fuse.

“You really are an idealist, aren't you?” I say.

“Ideals are the only thing that justify fighting. Do you not fight because you believe in the Higashi and the Empire?”

“Well, no.” I admit. “I'm doing it just because.”

She appears to be flabbergasted by my admission. What an honest girl. Still, I've heard enough to be certain about one thing; what the Scarlet Lightning thinks she is fighting for is probably not what the Apostles want from her. Her slight naivety and honourable streak are all hallmarks of a hero... if I had to make a guess, I would say the Great Mother is the one behind her upbringing. They want to create a war hero, someone who would have a fair reputation, ready to lead the world with their particular brand of justice. Of course, looking at the way things are playing out, they might not be in full control of their little scenario. For one, their control over the Indus and UNS government is probably not absolute. If Kyrie and the Emperor are confident the Indus will come to the table, it means the war will end soon. The Apostles do not want this. They will try something, but what? Will the ISC get involved, with their famously untrustworthy fingers muddling the situation?

No matter. The collision of their multiple plots will create flaws in the execution which I can exploit, as long as I can foresee it. I have a chance, no matter how small. Thinking that, I smile.

“Think back to before the war started, Major.” I say. “Would the Higashi government have entertained the thought of freeing the Indus from being their puppet?”

She shakes her head. “Of course not.”

“This is a great concession on their behalf.” I shrug. “Little steps bring about great changes.”

“As I said, it is their arrogant mindset that-”

I interrupt her. “It doesn't matter what they think. All life is equal before the Goddess. Though they may have their ulterior motives for granting independence, they are only a small minority. The worldly power these men wield mean nothing to the Goddess's ideals... they are but living beings like us. Equal, not above. By agreeing to independence, they have given power to the idea that the people of the Indus deserve their equality as peers on the stage of nations. The masses will see this, and understand, and be convinced. Is that not what you want? To convince the world that all are equal, and that even the most powerful of men can have their minds changed by the lowliest of nations?”

I'm spewing total nonsense, but it's kinda fun watching Rei's face turn paler as she tries to find the words she wants to say. She really is sheltered. If I'd tried something like this with Kyrie or even Erika... well, I probably wouldn't. It wouldn't be as easy. When the Apostles tried to raise a hero, they seem to have done too good of a job in making her an idealist. That might make her impressionable towards the cult's teachings, but it also leaves an opening for other people to manipulate her with the right words. It seems that so far her combat prowess and formal demeanour, combined with the cult's watchful eye, have kept harmful influences away.

“If that's the case... then Lothal...” she mutters.

“Lothal?” I ask.

“No, it's nothing.” She seems dejected. I make a note to check on the word later. If I recall correctly, it's a place of some sorts.

“Well, I don't think you asked me here so that we could argue about politics,” I say, attempting to change the conversation. It's not too good to press her too hard so fast.

“Ah, that is right. Actually, I have something to confess, Senya.” she replies apologetically.

“You are my sister, and you belong to the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha.” I reply promptly.

“You figured that out, huh?” smiles Rei. “I suppose you were always the smart one.”

“Were... how well did we know each other before we were separated? To be frank, I can't remember a thing.”

A pained look crosses her face. “Well, that's not a surprise. I won't bring up the memories... not now, but trust me on this – I won't let Mother know that you are alive. You will be safe.” She must be referring to Saeko Wakayama.

“Why would Mother want to do me harm?” I ask.

“It's not that she wants to harm you,” says Rei defensively. “You're just not supposed to be alive.”

That means the Great Mother will try to make me the way I'm supposed to be, if she finds out about my continued existence – dead.

Rei continues, “I didn't think I'd see you again when we parted, but I was always searching.”

“That's why you sent Keiko out.”

“She's my handmaiden and closest friend, after you left. Because of her parents she tends to move from place to place, so I had her keep an eye out. I didn't actually hope to find you – if I did it meant that you somehow awakened, despite what happened. If you did, I wanted you to come to me so we could work things out together. Just like when we were kids back in the old Shangjing facility.”

“We would be... the unstoppable duo.” A fragment of a sentence, a long destroyed memory, floats into my mind, and I unwittingly whisper the words. Her eyes widen.

“That's right. We'd be the unstoppable Dynamic Duo, the two of us! My strength and your smarts! Do you remember?”

I shake my head. “It's just something that crossed my mind. A bit cheesy, isn't it?”

She appears to be crestfallen. “I see.”

“What happened when we were kids?” I continue asking. She shakes her head again. “I can't tell you right now. I don't know what you will do if you find out... I don't really know if you are still you.”

I sigh. “Fair enough.” I know when I've hit a stonewall, but there's probably enough for me to start an investigation on my own. The old Shangjing facility... the incident at Shangjing was 18 years ago, a year before I was born. I'll check it out later. A sudden beep sounds urgently, coming from Rei's wrist.

“I'll have to leave now, brother,” smiles Rei sadly, as she looks at her wrist-mounted military issue comm device. “The Mehrgahr is getting impatient.”

“Well, I'm sure I will see you soon. Go easy on me the next time.”

She laughs. “I think the old you would never have said that. I was the one who had to beg for mercy after our sessions... Anyway, I'm really glad we had the chance to talk.”

With that, she leaves, still with a sad look on her face, leaving me with a few answers and a lot more questions.

***

It does not take me long to find out what Lothal is – a sturdy Indus colony about 20 km in length. Imperial intelligence reports indicate that the Lothal is being moved from Moon L1 to Moon L3, ostensibly because of the war. There is something wrong with the information, however; they are transporting the Lothal dangerously close to the Earth. The closest approach occurs three days before the proposed signature of the peace treaty. This can't be a coincidence... this is bad.

“Captain, what do you think would happen if the enemy crashed a space colony into the Earth?” I ask, somewhat rhetorically. I know what will happen, having gone over the simulations repeatedly. The sheer amount of debris in the fallout from crashing a colony of the Lothal's size would have an effect similar to that of nuclear winter, not to mention the death toll if it hits a populated area... like, say, Ankida...

Grimrock's brow furrows, the craggy lines on his face deepening. “You don't really think they are going to do that, are you?”

I don't know. It doesn't really make sense. If they want to build Rei up as a war hero, this is the worst thing they can do. It would destroy her reputation just by association with the same faction that is about to do something utterly insane. At the same time, I don't think they would abandon their supposed Messiah plan. It goes against everything they believe in. Either they are somehow confident Rei would be able to emerge from this untarnished, or someone else is pulling the Indus Confederation's strings besides the cult.

“It is better to prepare for the worst,” I mutter. “This is unprecedented.”

Grimrock sighs. “I agree. Unfortunately, we have a dispatch from Fifth Fleet. Upon our arrival at the L4 base in two days' time we are to come directly under Admiral Langorn's command. Both the Kaguya-hime and the Anhur are to be put through extensive maintenance procedures. We'll be stuck in dock for at least three days.”

“That's not good at all. If they're going to drop the Lothal, it'll happen in a week. If all of Fifth Fleet rushes over to the intercept point when we arrive we can make it there before the Lothal arrives.”

“I know Langorn. He will categorically refuse to listen to anything we say until he has checked through the proof.” says Grimrock. “The proof is there, but by the time he agrees to leave we will be playing catch-up... and it just so happens that Fifth Fleet is the closest available fleet we have. The others won't get there anywhere in time.”

I ponder our situation. Regardless of what we do, we can transmit the information to Admiral Langorn, who will likely make a move just in case the worst comes to pass. Should we head there ourselves, however? The reports say that the Indus's Special Independent Task Force and the UNS's First Fleet are escorting the colony, with its inhabitants of 4 million. There appear to have been some evacuations, but not many. I am not sure what will happen to the people living in the colony. Combined, the UNS-Indus forces have more than thirty warships and perhaps close to fifty CFs. Fifth Fleet itself has eighteen warships, thirty five fighters and twenty of the new Onuris frames.

***

A. The Kaguya-hime will disobey orders once they drop off the refugee freighter at Fifth Fleet, and make a dash for the intercept point. The colony must be stopped no matter what.

B. We will move together with Admiral Langorn. Safety in numbers – I can't take on two fleets by myself, even with a barrier. Even if playing catch-up, we still have a chance at succeeding.

C. I might be overthinking things. Let's not jump to conclusions – if we attack a escorted colony and it turns out we were jumping the gun, it would be a propaganda disaster. Best to repair and recuperate now that we're finally so close to Earth.
 

Part 12 - Setting the Battlefield

Setting the Battlefield

track: mission briefing

The crew murmurs slightly as Captain Grimrock calls my name. As I walk to the front of the briefing room, the murmuring falls away, leaving behind a disciplined silence. What a change it is from the first time I addressed them nearly a month ago. Despite their attention, most of them seem nervous. That's a given, seeing as we turned and left the Fifth Fleet behind almost immediately after telling them where we were going and why.

I even managed to trick Kyrie onto the Spirit of Adventure before we did. She was kicking at the bulwark doors as I left, furious that I'd leave her behind. I'll probably pay her a terrible price with my body later on should I survive this... but this operation is far, far too risky for her to participate in.

“So here we are again. Every time I stand up here it seems that we're about to do something terribly reckless.” I joke. There are only a few laughs and a couple of cheers, but I can see a good number of them have begun to relax. Taking Grimrock's lesson to heart, I've decided to at least pretend to be a confident leader, even though I'm just a lowly ensign. I put all my doubts away and prepare to speak.

“There's a good chance we'll all be court-martialed if we make it out alive,” grunts Grimrock, instantly putting all of them back in a tense mood.

“Captain.” I groan.

“So we don't just have to make it out alive, we have to make it out as big damn heroes, you space maggots! Let's see any court try us then!” he roars, and the crew returns it enthusiastically with a roar of their own.

“Ensign, if you would please start the briefing while everyone's excited, that would be perfect.” he gestures with a grin.

Well, now that he's gotten them all pumped up... I nod and begin my presentation. A hologram of the Earth appears, the solar panels forming a clear ring around the equator. “Yua, bring up everything I need.”

“Right on it, Master. Everything you need, coming right up.”

Fleet details, distances, current position of the colony and its trajectory, our location – all of this appear as red squares, blinking close to the Earth. The hologram zooms in closer to the colony and its escort.

“I'm sure some of you have already heard of this, but we suspect that the enemy plans to drop the Lothal on Earth. According to its trajectory and calculated position, the colony will land on Ankida should the drop go ahead as scheduled.” There are grim nods here and there, and looks of shock all around. “What the fuck!?” shouted Jean. “That's fucked up, man! Why'd they do want to do that?”

“Let's not get into the politics of it right now,” I say firmly, and bring up the intelligence we have on the escorting fleet. “First, I want to talk about the odds we're going up against.”

“The enemy capital ship presence seems to be ten Mahakarya cruisers, eighteen Doge cruisers, and two Gynoid battleships. This fleet constitutes a full half of their current strength in the Earth-Moon sphere. Interestingly, their CF contingent appears to be under-strength; there are only about fifty CFs that Imperial scouts managed to observe, consisting of Centeotls and Vizala IIs. A fleet of this size could possibly carry up to 200 CFs.”

“Could they be hiding those missing CFs somewhere?” comments Naim.

“It is a possibility,” I agree. “There is another explanation for this, though. The UNS and Indus appear to be bulking up the rest of their forces near the Moon, preparing to take Sin's Eye. The CFs contingents there are over-strength in numbers coinciding with this operation's under-strength contingent. I think we can likely rule out any surprises on that part. This does not mean, however, it is going to be a cake-walk.”

I bring up a picture of a few enemy combat frames.

“We expect that the Ghostlot and the White Fangs are going to be present. We've managed to evade them thus far, but that will no longer be the case. Furthermore, intelligence indicates that the Scarlet Lightning will also be participating in this operation.” There is a low rumbling throughout the audience at the mention of her name. Jean drowns it out with a cheerful laugh. “That's what we have you for, right?” Murmurs of approval accompany his statement. It looks that they are confident I can match her, for some reason.

I nod and smile. “Leave her to me.” The crew cheers. I'm not so confident myself, but fights are not always determined by pure skill. Still, I'm surprised at how casually they seem to be taking the prospect of taking on a force many times our size.

“Can we expect any reinforcements?” asks one of the bridge crew.

“I'm certain Fifth Fleet will come, and so is the Captain. Fifth Fleet would have joined the other Imperial and Higashi to fight off the Sin's Eye assault had Captain Grimrock not informed Admiral Langorn of this operation. For that matter, I believe the Imperial Sixth Fleet and Higashi Third Space Fleet are moving away from Sin's Eye to trap the colony's escorts between themselves and the Fifth. They will not arrive in time to assist us in the battle should the colony drop actually occur, but their escorts will have no place to run after that.”

“Our main objective is to delay the Lothal until the Fifth Fleet arrives. Admiral Langorn's flagship, the Rosen, is armed with six nuclear warheads. We will attempt to pin the colony in position and distract its escorts so that the Fifth can take it apart with nukes. According to our calculations, it is impossible for the ground-based defense systems to totally destroy the Lothal before it hits. By reducing the bulk of the colony before it begins its descent, the missiles launched from Earth may be able to blow away enough of the rest that Ankida can escape the worst. For the operation to be successful, we will need to hold the enemy off for at least an hour.”

I leave out any mention of there possibly being 4 million civilians still in the colony and imply that it is already depopulated. Any doubt on the part of the crew could be fatal. Besides, if they do not know, they have plausible deniability.

I take a deep breath, preparing to outline our main battle plan...

***

The Kaguya-hime is just one warship against thirty, but without its supporting firepower our work will be far more difficult. How should I deploy it?

A. I have it stationed over the curvature of Earth so that it is not spotted by the enemy on their low approach. They will begin the battle from a safe distance, though fire-support will not be as effective that far away.

B. I have it closer by, noticeable by the enemy but not in the field of engagement. It is a alluring target, and by presenting it I should be able to distract some of the enemy forces. I will also benefit from better fire-support.

***

We are still stuck with the two Vizala IIs and Anhur, there being no time to get the new Onuris frames before we deserted the fleet. I've gotten Tabitha to jury-rig some extra equipment for me based on my specifications, however; decoy balloons imitating Anhur's signature, an extra beam saber, and leg-mounted micro-missile launchers for both Anhur and the Vizalas. My role will be to be the sacrifical black lamb, attracting everyone's attention towards me. Naim and Jean are ready for the fight, but considering that the White Fangs and the Scarlet Lightning are in the mix, should I have them support me or the Kaguya-hime?

A. They should defend the Kaguya-hime from any enemies getting too close. The cruiser's continued fire-support is vital to my success. I'm confident I'll find a way to handle the enemy aces by myself by relying on Anhur's speed and perhaps my knowledge of them.

B. I need their help with the enemy aces – better safe than sorry. I don't want to be massively outnumbered by enemy frames too. They are to stay close to me to watch my back, splitting off only if there are urgent threats going after the Kaguya-hime.

***

Finally, as we have arrived early, there are a couple of tricks I can pull to rig the battlefield in my favour. I have a few small tricks ready, but unfortunately we only have time to work on one of the major ones.

A. We utilize the Kaguya-hime's spare munitions to set up a minefield. This will distract, wound and slow down the enemy forces, giving me plenty of chances to swoop in and exploit the holes in their lines. This also allows me to fight utilizing the terrain to my advantage as I know where the mines are and they don't. The mines will be disguised amongst debris from junk satellites and trash from the Kaguya-hime.

B. There are plenty of communications satellites around this particular part of Earth orbit – I hijack them to broadcast interference signals around the battlefield. This will mess with long-range transmission between the capital ships and the CFs and interfere with their chain of command, as well as prevent the frames in the field from calling in targeted fire-support salvos. The confusion will slow down their forces as well.

C. I'm loathe to show this hand right now, but I can hack into the Solar Ring system and realign the mirrors. Hundreds of millions of people are going to go without power, but I can redirect the energy gathered into a large coherent laser pointed at the enemy forces. It won't be enough to destroy the colony, but the beam is strong enough to damage enemy ships should they stay in the line of fire, and to fry CFs in seconds. If I manage to sustain the beam, it could also begin budging the colony slightly, making our task easier.
 

Part 13 - Colony Drop

Colony Drop

"This is Rose Leader, leading Rose Squadron to intercept the enemy combat frame."

The five Centeotls spread out around the incoming black frame. For the past ten minutes the escort fleet had been receiving incessant robotic transmissions requesting that they depart the area and redirect their path. They had finally tracked the source of the transmission to a single CF approaching them at a relaxed speed.

"Hey, that black frame... do you think it could be that?"

"That? What are you talking about, Rose 3?"

"You know. The enemy that our mates behind the line were gossiping about. The black nightmare frame that tied with the Scarlet Lightning and destroyed fifty of our CFs all by itself."

"Those are just rumours, man. I don't believe any of it. It's probably some propaganda spread by the enemy. Besides, if such a monster really did exist, don't you think command would have told us about it?"

"Command doesn't tell us many things. Just saying, man..."

"Cut the chatter, Rose 3 and 4! Prepare to fire, on my mark!"

"Yes sir! Sorry, Rose Leader!"

The Centeotls fired their weapons at the black frame, a storm of 60mm shells hitting it simultaneously. As the frame crumpled - far more easily than one would have expected - it flashed a bright white, exploding in light. The pilots of the Centeotls averted their eyes until the light dimmed.

"Rose Leader to all units. Everyone alright?"

"Rose 2 reporting in."

"This is Rose 5, I'm alright. Did we get the reactor?"

"Rose 4 here. Well, Rose 3, if that's the monster you were scared of, it didn't amount to much... Rose 3?"

"Rose 3, do you copy? This is Rose Leader to Rose 3."

It didn't take long for them to find out what happened to Rose 3 - the shattered remains of the cockpit floated into Rose Squadron's view.

"Was it an explosion-" As Rose 2 flew over to the remnants of Rose 3's Centeotl, a beam lanced through his own frame, hitting the reactor and turning a good part of the frame into slag. Rose Squadron sprang into action immediately, dispersing from the area as they looked around wildly for the source of the attack.

"Rose Squadron, keep your eyes peeled!"

"Copy, Rose Leader - there's something coming in fast! The speed is... three times that of any CF!"

"Is it a missile?"

"No-" Rose 5 did not get to finish his sentence before a black and gold blur tore past his Centeotl, a molten cockpit all that remained to mark its passing. Rose Leader shouted and began firing his machine-gun at the enemy. None of the shots found their mark, as the nightmarish CF swerved away from his line of fire almost at the last minute. Its thrusters still emitting a long flare of blue fire, the black frame came to a halt by bringing its feet forward, and shot forth in the opposite direction - towards Rose Leader. A gigantic dagger punched through his cockpit before he had time to react, tearing the viewing and instrument panels to shreds. It was more than wide enough to cut him in two at the waist with ease, and it did so, Rose Leader's blood forming perfect spheres as they escaped his abdomen.

Witnessing the total devastation of his squadron, Rose 4 could only gape in abject astonishment. The enemy frame had slowed down and come into full view, floating casually without a care in the world as if it had not just destroyed four Centeotls without taking a scratch. It was jet-black, with gold highlights. In the depths of its head unit the eye cameras glowed a dim green, gazing right at him. That was the last thing he saw before a stream of highly charged particles penetrated his frame and vaporized him.

***

track: mad-nug

That's the advance squadron down, but the rest wouldn't be as easy. Floating above the brilliant blue expanse that is the Earth, I give Yua my order. “Broadcast the signal, Yua.”

The seventy satellites I have maneuvered all over the battlefield begin sending out signals interfering with the frequencies used in their long-range communications. The CF squadrons will find it impossible to call in fire support, and at least initially the warships will be reluctant to attack in fear of friendly-fire. The same would apply for me, but I've managed to link the read-out from the Kaguya-hime's targeting computer to Yua via a particular low data frequency that I set aside in advance, and she will be able to tell me where and when it is going to fire.

Twinkles in the distance, slightly larger than the stars, appear briefly. A barrage of beams roar past me one-hundredths of a second later but I am already on the move, heading towards them. Yua helps overlay the optimum trajectory for my flight – I follow it closely, pushing my reflexes and fine control to the limit – allowing me to fly between the pillars of light from their initial salvo.

“This is much harder than I thought, doing it without using my powers.” I complain. Given the duration of the operation, I could only chance using it in an emergency. “Just rely on me, Master. I'll back you up as much as you need.” Yua seems up for the fight. That's good; one thing about injecting personalities into an AI is that they tend to develop mood swings. I don't think I could strip that away from her, though. “I'm counting on you then.” I reply. “Activate the barrier for me if I miss an incoming beam.” The large anti-ship missiles come seconds later; their limited turning radius and Anhur's speed allows me to slip past them, closing in on the enemy fleet.

“There's the black frame!” Unable to use their encrypted long-range communications, the enemy squadrons have resorted to using public transmission to coordinate their movement. They're not experienced enough to work with each other just via hand-signals, which in itself is of limited use in space combat. This is entirely fine with me – I don't need to worry about saying anything to my teammates as Naim and Jean are back there defending the ship. Listening to their communications is going to help me plenty.

“Are you sure we can take it?”

“Don't be a fool! It's our job to crush that thing!”

“Confident, aren't they?” I grin. Five more Centeotls and six Vizala IIs incoming – there is a beep on the viewscreen as Yua indicates the Kaguya-hime is about to fire. I wobble my flight-path, darting briefly upwards. Timing is everything. As the enemy frames approach, I immediately reverse direction, dropping downwards as the salvo from the Kaguya-hime streaks through where I had been. Two Vizalas and one Centeotl are incinerated by the beams. The rest scatter, shouting about an enemy warship. I pick off another Vizala with my rifle, as they are the bigger threat.

“Master, more incoming enemies!” warns Yua. It looks like more than thirty frames are headed towards me. They probably want to surround and stop me before I get any closer to the colony.

“Don't pile on it all at once! Some of you go take down the enemy's warship!” shouts one of the squadron leaders. Sure enough, ten of them break off, heading for the Kaguya-hime. I fly after them, but their comrades begin firing on me, preventing me from continuing my chase. I take two potshots at the enemy receding into the distance; one of them misses and the other nails a reactor, with the resulting explosion taking out two frames at once.

I turn my attention back to the enemy. “More incoming fire, I suggest evasive action now, Master.” The enemy warships begin firing again. This time, between keeping an eye on the enemy frames and dodging the warship salvos, I manage to miss spotting a few beams coming my way from the Vizala IIs. Luckily, Yua is on the job. The barrier shimmers into existence as the particles are released around me. There is a flash as the shots are blocked.

“Thanks, Yua.” I sigh in relief, as I return fire. The Vizalas evade my shots quickly.

“Don't let the black frame get too close. Keep laying down suppressing fire.” orders an enemy squadron leader. The anti-ship missiles arrive again, later than the warships' particle beams. Just in time. I fire at one of them with my head vulcans as it passes by me. It tumbles and explodes in a fast-fading spherical glow, the energy from its demise helping to camouflage my heat signature. The Scarlet Lightning's little trick with her propellant tank had been insightful. I instantly change direction and begin to dive.

Picking out a particular group of three Vizala IIs, I approach them from below. One of them is caught off guard and my precise shots render it mission-killed instantly. The remaining two notice me and begin charging at me, their lances held up. “We'll get the bastard from both sides with a cross pattern!” shouts one of them. The infamous rocket lances – this is the first time I've fought a Vizala II equipped with it. Moments before they reach me, the thrusters on the lance begin firing, suddenly increasing the speed of their thrust and spinning the body of the lance itself at the same time.

“Hey, wait, doesn't that make it a rocket drill?” I mutter. The rocket lance-drills – I'm not too sure what to call them anymore – catch me off guard with their sudden speed. I make an emergency evasive maneuver, but the spinning bits still tear into Anhur's sides. The two Vizalas jet past me, their thrust carrying them away. Using my superior agility, I flip Anhur around with some strategic firing of its multiple verniers, before they can turn. I track them with my eyes and fire Anhur's head-mounted vulcans. The 35mm shells punch large holes into the enemy frames, and I continue firing until they stop moving.

Enemy frames are continuing to close in, and I narrowly evade a few shots in the nick of time. Alright, I need to keep being on the move – if they hem me in I'm a goner. I'm not sure how the Kaguya-hime is doing – as I move further and further into the battlefield and closer to the colony, I can only hope I will distract enough frames from going after the ship. The enemy's fleet continue to aim their salvos at me rather than the Kaguya-hime, fearful that I will get too close. That part of my plan is working, at least. I keep a good distance from the enemy frames, taking a shot at them once in a while to keep their eyes on me, but I do not commit myself any further.

The colony gradually gets closer and closer. Fifth Fleet is still some time away, and I don't seem to be slowing the enemy down by much. Perhaps it was over-confidence to think that I could attract all of their attention – they have so much numerical superiority they can afford to try to roll over me. That doesn't stop me from finally reaching the front of the enemy's fleet. I hear their panicked shouts as the anti-fighter turrets begin swivelling around to focus on me. Thankfully, with this many ships around I have plenty of dead angles to hide in. I would appreciate some fire support right about now, but Yua had lost signal from the Kaguya-hime's targeting computer a while ago; I hope they're still alright. I don't see any signs of the White Fangs or the Scarlet Lightning yet, but I'm sure they are around somewhere.

Right on cue, five familiar white and red Centeotls approach. The White Fangs... Dunamis.

It looks like they had been guarding the fleet. They fly in perfect coordination, splitting up swiftly to avoid a shot from my rifle, and begin surrounding me. They'll attempt to pin me down with machine-gun fire – I feint to my left and dash to the right, attempting to break free of their formation. It doesn't work; they start shooting with good aim. I stop my dash just in time to redirect my thrusters upwards. As two of them try to track me with their guns, another comes for me with a sword. That's the leader. I know how good they are in close-combat, but yet I have no way to distance myself, not with the other thirty or so CFs closing in on me and the enemy fleet all around. I can't stay here for too long. I move towards the gigantic bulk of Lothal.

As the White Fangs come after me, one of them moves just a bit too hastily, straying ahead of the pack. Dodging another hail of fire, I turn the Anhur upside-down in a flip, surprising him and sending a beam from my rifle right through his cockpit at the same time. His comrades ignore his plight and try to make use of my pause to close the distance. I don't let that happen; I'm close to Lothal now – I fly around the large solar panels as they chase after me. The shells from their guns make deep dents in the colony walls as I weave my way around the infrastructure jutting out from the colony's surface.

“I can't find any signs of life within, Master.” comments Yua as I continue evading the White Fangs. “That's good. I suppose they managed to do a bait and switch on us for four million people somehow.” There's a nagging feeling I have about this, but knowing that it's currently deserted will make my job easier.

Changing direction, I plant Anhur's feet on the colony. The CNT muscles flex and push off, sending me tumbling back into open space. I catch yet another of the White Fangs unawares as I do so – he tries to slash at me with his sword as I pass by him. He misses, over-extending himself. I stop my tumble by firing all of my verniers, bringing Anhur to a stop, and fire my rifle. The first shot catches his right leg, blowing it off, and the second hits one of his thrusters. The unbalanced Centeotl goes out of control and flies into one of the gigantic rocket thrusters pushing the colony, getting incinerated instantly.

“Master!”

Yua shouts her warning a little too late, and my evasion a little too slow. A great jagged gash is cut down the side of Anhur's right leg by the White Fang leader's sword. Before I can retaliate, a familiar voice calls out to me over the comm.

“Senya.”

“Long time no see, Erika.” I mutter. “Do you know what you are doing?”

“I'm carrying out what Uncle wishes. Perhaps you should leave.” she replies nonchalantly, pointing her sword at me. What does Shulgi have to do with any of this? I have no time to wonder about that now; I can see she's about to attack.

“It doesn't look like you're letting me leave, Erika.”

The rest of the surviving White Fangs back off, watching the both of us. So they're not going to all jump on me for once? That's great, but knowing their behaviour, they'll try it if I win. I equip the beam saber, its burning yellow blade flaring to life.

“Well, I've missed fighting you, Senya. Let me see how much you've grown.” says Erika, with just a hint of a smile in her voice. As she pushes her Centeotl forward, I grin to myself. “That might have to wait, Erika.”

A hail of beams falls all around us, smashing into the colony and blowing holes in its thick walls. I scramble out of the zone of fire, and so do the White Fangs. The Fifth Fleet is here, and just in the nick of time. The escort fleet starts maneuvering into a position to return fire. Within minutes they do so, engaging the distant Imperial fleet. I make a silent apology to Admiral Langorn for not having managed to destroy any of the warships by myself; I had taxed my own piloting ability just to stay alive in there. I better get out of here – the nukes should be coming in soon.

“Senya, where are you going?” I spin the Anhur away from Erika's attack – she seems to be able to sneak up on me without registering on the radar. No point releasing my barrier for a jamming field right now; I'd rather have it for defense.

“I don't suppose I could convince you to see things my way? Things aren't going to be pretty if we stay here,” I say hurriedly. She aims another swing at me, not replying to my words. My counter-attack misses as she darts backwards, her Centeotl displaying greater agility than the usual model. Damn, if I don't get out of here soon...

All of a sudden, there is a great flash in the distance. Both I and Erika stop our fight. Six large spheres of raw, glowing energy dissipate almost as swiftly as they had appeared, scattering into the void. In that light of destruction, I can see a Vizala II silhouetted against it. My cameras pick up two small drones returning to it, with another moving shakily and sparking, dying in a little puff before it manages to dock with the Vizala. Did Langorn just fire all of his nukes at once? “Damn it!” I curse. He must have. As the escort fleet's line of sight was largely blocked by the colony, he must have deemed it safe to do so. No one would have thought that there would be any frame capable of intercepting those nukes in time in the first place. That Vizala must have used remote drones to accomplish it safely, though it probably lost most of them just to shoot the nukes down.

This is bad. This is really bad. The colony is just about to reach the path of no return. The escort fleet is already dropping back, exchanging fire with the Fifth Fleet. They must think nothing can stop it now. I switch off the interference signal – rather than continuing to keep the enemy isolated, it is more pressing for me to contact Captain Grimrock right now.

He does not respond. I'm only getting silence whenever I try to hail the Kaguya-hime. Did the ship go down? As Erika starts moving towards me again, I get a call from Admiral Langorn, of all people.

“Pilot of the Anhur! Do you hear me?”

I smash Anhur's right arm against Erika's Centeotl in a desperate attempt to keep it away.

“I'm a bit busy right now! You guys have anything else to throw against Lothal?” I shout in return.

“We're sending one last nuke your way! Off-the-record, you understand. Help us make sure it isn't shot down.”

“Roger that!” I narrowly evade another of Erika's attacks – the blade skims the top of Anhur's head, taking out one of the communications antennas. Well, I don't think it's a problem for me to ensure it isn't shot down – the frame that could do it is headed straight for me. It also happens to be coloured red.

“Master, the Scarlet Lightning is coming! What should we do? Should I put the barrier up to full?”

“No need for that yet!” This is what I've been saving up for. I can't expect to win any other way if I have to take on Erika and Rei at the same time. The two triangular drones from the red Vizala II detaches as it closes in, but my mind is already piercingly cold. They home in towards me, firing beams as they do so. I begin evading amongst the battered structures on the colony's outer surface immediately. These move much more savagely and less predictably than the Crab Frame's bubbles – just two of them can manage to corner me. I wonder if that is due to the person controlling it. Erika has managed to keep up in the Centeotl, trying to cut off Anhur's rifle arm while I am distracted with the drones. I fire off the decoys hidden within that arm. They inflate into life-size models of Anhur almost immediately. As one of the decoys blocks her view, I fly backwards while firing my vulcans into the decoy. It explodes in a fiery flash, taking out one of the drones that had strayed too close.

“Don't stand in our way, brother!”

Rei tries to get the drop on me, a beam saber in hand. It looks like the Indus had managed to create those too. They must have scheduled her Vizala II for some upgrades; it's a pity I couldn't get any before I had to come here. Time to see what happens when two sabers clash – I drop the rifle and swing my own saber to meet it. The fields mingle and cause bright sparks to fly, a shimmering halo surrounding the point where both sabers met. It looks like it'd hold, but her Vizala is strong. It begins to push my arm back. At the same time, Erika's Centeotl bursts forth from the remains of the decoy's explosion, swinging its sword down at me.

Well, that's why I requested an extra saber. It detaches from a newly rigged compartment on the right arm, floating in space. Anhur grabs it, switching it on. I turn off the saber currently clashing with the Scarlet Lightning's – as the blade vanishes, her swing meets empty air. With my right saber I cut through Erika's sword and take off the Centeotl's head. I reactivate the saber in my left at the same time – the hot plasma shooting forth skewers one of the Vizala II's wrists, melting it off.

“Anhur's pilot, the missiles are arriving!”

A rain of missiles begins falling around us, blowing more holes into Lothal, and the three of us start to evade. The nuclear warhead should be arriving right about... now. There is a blinding flash of light all the way at the back of the colony, close to where the rocket thrusters are.

“Master, the nuke managed to take out one of the thrusters!”

That will definitely alter the trajectory, but there is no stopping the colony now; it's far past the point of no return. It will reach the atmosphere within minutes. I still see no sign of the Kaguya-hime, though we have passed its position. I suppose if I don't find its wreckage, I still have something to hope for.

“It's too late to prevent the drop now.” says Erika, her Centeotl starting to float away from the colony. “It's our victory.” As the White Fangs escort her away, Rei's frame raises the beam saber in its remaining hand. “That's right. It's our victory.”, says the Scarlet Lightning. She swings, and I meet her swing. We begin exchanging blows, saber clashing against saber, as we dart through the ruined colony surface. “Is this your idea of justice?” I ask.

She mutters in reply, “Justice... what else can this be? Sometimes a few must suffer so that all can be saved.” Her last drone manages to surprise both me and Yua, appearing from seemingly nowhere and ramming itself into my thrusters. There is an explosion at the back of Anhur and it tumbles through one of the jagged holes into the colony itself. The inside has also lost all gravity, but I can feel the acceleration of the colony as it begins to speed up, drawn into the gravity well of the Earth. The incessant roar of the huge rockets die off as the colony is allowed to coast to its final position.

“This is not my idea of just a few suffering. Do you know how many will die?” I ask, as Rei continues to come after me. “Of course I do! I don't really want this!” she shouts.

I fire my vulcans at her – she dodges easily, but I take the chance to fire the homing micro-missiles mounted on my leg armour. Cornered from every angle, even she can't find a way out of it – the missiles explode against the Vizala. It continues charging at me, missing a right arm she had sacrificed to block it; whatever she's doing to strengthen its muscles must also harden them, and I hurriedly bring up my saber to defend myself from her swing.

“It... this idea... you came up with this.” hisses Rei. “You said it would be alright, everything would work out in the end. Even if you don't remember, I remember how convincing you were about this.” She appears to be moving more sluggishly than she was in our first fight. There is doubt in her movements.

“I...” I have no words for her, no counter-argument to offer. I came up with this plan to drop a colony, when I was a child at the cult? That's ludicrous. “There's no way...”

“Mother might have rejected you, but that didn't stop her from stealing your ideas. Since they are yours... I went along with it. You were always the smarter one, so why wouldn't it work? You insisted it would save the world.” she continued, her voice now unnaturally calm... almost peaceful. "I believe in you, brother. No matter what." Another furious swing, sending my frame flying backwards even though I blocked it perfectly. With my thrusters damaged, I can't evade all too well right now.

I steel my resolve. Whatever it is she said I did, that doesn't matter now.

“It won't work if you don't want it to. We can stop this right now. The both of us, together again. If you believe in me, help me with this. Trust me.” I call out her name. “Rei.”

She falters. “Senya. I don't... can't...” I move closer to her, slowly, but then she lets out a piercing scream and starts babbling nonsensical syllables. Rei flies off jerkily, escaping the colony in her damaged Vizala trailing smoke and sparks. I watch her leave, wondering if she will be alright.

“Damn, that girl is more unstable than I thought.” I grumble. Being brought up in the cult must be horrifying; she must have undergone large amounts of conditioning. There's no time to worry about her right now though.

“Master, the colony will begin its final descent soon. We should leave immediately.” reminds Yua. I begin to do so, wobbling towards one of the many holes torn in the colony's side by Fifth Fleet.

“What's the projected trajectory right now?”

“It won't hit Ankida, but it will land in southern Africa.”

That's not too good either – most of the Empire's production facilities are there... but it could be something that they can recover from.

“Wait, Master, I'm picking up something.”

“What is it?”

“... nuclear warheads, Master. My scanners indicate at least fifty megaton-level warheads stored at the front of the colony's cylinder. I'm sorry, I didn't detect it until now because I was too focused on the battle.”

Well... fuck.

Things just keep getting better and better. If this was my plan, I'm a master at adding insult to injury. Even if they use nukes to successfully intercept the colony in the atmosphere, the resulting EMP blast would be absolutely massive, causing widespread annihilation to civilian infrastructure worldwide. It would definitely take the Solar Ring offline for a long while too. If they don't, the nukes don't add too much to the damage as the impact of the nearly eight-billion tonne colony itself would be sufficiently devastating.

“Master, there's a call coming in from the Kaguya-hime!” Well, at least that's one good news I have.

Grimrock speaks to me, his voice strained and weak. “Hey! Sorry, we took too much damage and had to retreat. Lost quite a bit of good men in the process – I think we're going to have to scrap this ship afterwards; it's barely space-worthy now. Anyway, we finally managed to patch up the communications array. Where are you right now? We'll pick you up.”

***

A. I can't retreat, not now. I still have one last trump card to use – my power to see lines that I can cut. If it's just part of the colony, I should be able to find a way to cut it away, since I am now alone in the colony. I probably won't be able to alter the trajectory or destroy it entirely, but at least I can prevent the warheads from entering the atmosphere and break away sufficient pieces of it in a manner that can mitigate the damage to allied regions.

B. I've done enough. Going any further with damaged thrusters would be suicidal; at least, I'm not confident I'm going to survive it. If it's not going to hit Ankida, our mission is done – we never realistically expected to be able to stop the drop in any case. We've tried our best. It's now time to retreat, recuperate, and plan our counter-attack - I don't expect the fighting is going to stop at all, not after this.

1. I ask Grimrock to try and warn the ground forces off attempting to nuke the colony.

2. I let them try to nuke the colony.
 

Part 14 - The Empress Strikes Back

The Empress Strikes Back


track: raiser

“Alright, Yua, it's now or never! Take over the controls for me while I focus on aiming.”

“Got it, Master!”

“Ensign, what are you doing?” Grimrock asks, a bit bewildered.

“Finishing the job, captain. I'll see you in a while.”

“Wait a-”

I take off.

“I'm deactivating all of the damaged thrusters and keeping only the verniers that can aid with stabilization.” remarks Yua.

I don't need all my jets – stability is more important than speed here. As the Anhur flies out of Lothal at a fraction of its usual speed, I activate the second stage of my ability. Attacking from the inside is a good way to get me trapped as the colony falls. The glowing blue lines come into faint focus, criss-crossing the colony. With brief commands, I indicate to Yua where I want to go; skimming the surface of the colony's walls, I trace whatever lines I can reach with my saber. I don't stop to survey the chaos I leave behind me. My eyes begin to hurt, but I keep them open nonetheless.

“Where are the warheads?”

“Right ahead, but they're sealed behind a large bulwark.”

I see it; at the front end of the gigantic cylinder. “Get me in front of the colony, Yua.” Swooping down, I find there's no easy line for me to trace in safety. I also don't have any more time to waste on flying around the lines, so... I'll just have to cut it head on.

“Over-charge my saber, Yua. Reroute particles from the barrier generator.”

“Yes sir!”

The generator begins to whine as Yua redirects more and more particles to the saber. At the same time, she pulls power from Anhur's reactor. The screens flicker and dim as warning signals begin flashing all over the cockpit. The flame from the thrusters die off soon after.

“Are we done yet?”

The colony is bearing down on me, a massive wall of screaming death. I better get this over with quick; the Kaguya-hime can still pick me up if I maintain this altitude.

“Reroute complete, Master! Let's do this!”

My saber flares up, sparks welding the hilt to Anhur's hand. The stream of plasma from the saber extends to a length greater than that of Anhur itself, streaking behind me in a disorderly manner – the reactor no longer has enough power to create a field that can contain this many particles. I swing the saber, pushing Anhur's strength to its limit. The burning plasma slices along the line I had identified, cutting through easily with no resistance.

The problem would be with Anhur's arms – they are about to give out from the nonstop fighting. We hadn't had any time to do serious maintenance on it. The CNT muscles begin to fray, and my saber gradually starts slowing down. My brain is screaming at me, and I can feel something warm dripping from the sides of my eyes. It's not just Anhur; I can't hold on for much longer either.

“Not now!”

“Master, there's a large piece of the colony tumbling this way! I don't have enough thruster power left to evade it!”

Well, fuck. Some of the parts I had cut off earlier are still headed towards us. I force Anhur to move its arms more... metre by metre, I inch my way towards completing my cut. If I can pull it off before the piece reaches me...

“Master!”

It's impossible. Should I cancel my attack and run now? I can still make it, but it would mean abandoning what I've set up to do.

Suddenly, a large beam engulfs the piece of the colony's wall, vaporizing it. Far behind the colony, I spot a red Vizala II, missing its right arm. In its left it held a rifle, its barrel glowing hot. The Vizala II continues to fire, picking off all the pieces headed for me.

“Thanks, sis!” I call out to her, not knowing if she can hear me. Time to finish it. I put all my strength into my swing as I shout, feeling my own muscles stretch from the strain. Anhur's arms finally tear, but I complete it – as I fall back, my frame armless, the wall in front of me splits into two. The part with the warhead begins moving on a different trajectory, entering low Earth orbit, just as the colony begins to take on a faint red glow. It's decelerating as it hits the atmosphere.

The damage I did causes the structure of the colony to buckle and fracture in its re-entry, throwing vast amounts of space debris all around me. I can see Rei's Vizala coming towards me, its single arm outstretched. She won't make it in time.

“Master, we're entering the atmosphere.” The frame is shaking horribly, the cockpit bathed in red. The outside of the frame is beginning to peel and flake away from the heat.

“Master?”

Even so, I can't keep my eyes open anymore. My brain gives up on me, sending me into the dark depths of unconsciousness.

***

“Is he awake?”

“Looks like it. The operation was a success.”

“Hey, you're not the village quack for nothing.”

“I'm a doctor! A doctor! I have a license, you know?”

“They say doctors without a license are the most skilled.” I murmur. “Something about underground doctors.” I open my eyes slowly. It's bright. My vision is blurry, and I'm hurting everywhere – it's like someone dropped me in a bath of acid. I hope I haven't ended up with bleached white skin. I try to raise myself.

“Don't try to get up yet. It's a miracle you survived.” One of the voices comes over and pushes me down. It takes a while before my sight returns fully, though it still feels too bright. A few dark-skinned people are standing around me, concerned looks on their faces.

“Where am I?”

“The village of Lagat. We're near the Hispalis border.”

I haven't heard of the place, but judging from the cry of the seagulls, we're definitely near the sea. The voices speak Shinari with a African accent, and there aren't that many places near the Hispalis border and by the sea that the Empire holds. From that I think I can guess where I am – at the north-western coast of Africa. It looks like I managed to fall a very long way.

I try to raise my right hand to my face to shield my eyes from the light.

There's nothing there, just a stump.

“Oh boy,” I groan. “What happened to it?”

“We found you clutching onto something, kid – it was fused to your hand entirely, like you'd grabbed it and put your hand in lava. Couldn't get it off easily, and your hand was a goner anyway, so we took the whole thing off. It was some sort of black orb.”

Black orb... Yua?

“Where is it? Where's the orb?” I ask, in a slight panic. Is she alright?

“We figured it was something important to you.” said the villager. “It's over there, by the bed.”

I turn over and see Yua's core. Grabbing it, I make a cursory inspection. No good. This is no good. It's fried. The core is horribly scratched, dented and charred from the rigours of re-entry. I can retrieve some logs from it, but the personality matrix is gone. I'll have to rebuild her from the backup data I have... but it won't be the same.

***

I found out that it's been a week since the colony drop incident. They don't get much news out here in Lagat, but they did see a shining star crash into the sea, ahead of many massive flashes in the sky. They must have nuked the colony. From the logs, it appears that with the last of her power Yua managed to get Anhur behind a large colony fragment, steering it away from the colony. The nuclear missiles from the ground had hit soon after – we did not escape unscathed, and now here I am, alone.

Once I got a rudimentary receiver up and running, my theory was confirmed. Even though we managed to avert the worst, the remnants of the colony landed all over the world. Millions were killed wherever they hit major metropolitan areas – even Ankida was not spared. So was Kyoto... I hope my parents and sister are alright. Power shortages have become frequent due to damage to the Solar Ring system.

Two weeks later, I managed to fix one of the television sets in the village.

It seems that Naim was now a Colonel, having been given a triple-promotion for his bravery in defending the Empire from the colony drop. All of the credit had been given to him – there was no mention of me or Anhur. For the first time in a thousand years, the title of Hero of the Empire was bestowed upon a Shinari warrior. The ceremony was pompous and glorious, with the Empress herself bestowing the honours. It was probably trivial for her to arrange this; I had been relatively low-key with my actions, fighting unofficially behind enemy lines and rarely coordinating with our allied fleets. Wiping my deeds from the records would have been easy.

Kyrie's ascension plans had been delayed, it seems. I'm not too sure what is going on there, but the Emperor still appears to be in seclusion, while Kyrie herself has begun to make public appearances as the Crown Princess, visiting areas affected by the colony drop. She had a certain easy-going yet noble charm on screen that would win her popularity polls easily. It's a good thing all these suffering folk don't know her sadistic nature, I think to myself with a bemused smile.

While I recuperated, the war raged on. A tactical nuclear device was used three days after the colony drop on the Indus megalopolis of Karna without warning, killing millions of civilians. A lone Higashi bomber made it past the ocean and dropped an incendiary bomb over the UNS capital of Shulgipolis before being shot down. I sighed when I heard about that; this just ensures whatever sense of horror the enemy civilians had at their leadership's actions over the colony drop would be replaced by anger and self-righteous indignation. If you can only win a war by turning the enemy and their lands into ashes inch by inch, it is a hollow victory paid for in blood. It's definitely not the smartest strategy, though I wasn't aware that the Empire and the Higashi had such hotheads in its command posts.

Rei had appeared to denounce the colony drop publicly and call for a more civilized method of making war, as per my expectations for the cult's attempt to make her a uniting hero respected by both sides, but that didn't work at all.

Someone leaked the involvement of the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha, blaming them for the drop, the day before she did, and named her as their most important member; its Messiah, so to speak. The cult faced instant persecution all over the world, even in the UNS, though they remained somewhat accepted in the Indus. She was shouted off the stage, looking scared and confused, by an angry crowd. By that time, however, the Empire and Higashi's actions had lost them whatever sympathy they had, and the war continued grudgingly. It had become a war against the other, instead of one conducted for rational interests.

Despite that, things did not devolve into nuclear war. That is the part that surprised me the most; even with such high tensions, they restrained themselves from going all out. Even the Empire did not employ any nukes after Karna. This was, to me, highly suspicious, but I'm in no position to investigate it right now.

Meanwhile, there are some changes to my powers. Stretching my ability to its limits in a life-or-death situation appears to have snapped something in my brain; I can now turn it on and off at will, as if I were using the Inanna drugs. One of my eyes – the right one – has changed too, and not for the better. The lines are beginning to appear randomly by themselves if I see through that eye. The first time it happened, I was reaching for a pen, and I cut the table in two. I put an eye-patch on it after it continued happening haphazardly, though not frequently, but I'm not taking any chances; who knows if I might accidentally kill someone the next time.

I spend my days tinkering with Yua's core, trying to figure out a way to bring her back, to no avail. My injuries are still too severe for me to travel far, though I do manage to build a rudimentary mechanical hand from the scraps the villagers kindly donated to me.

It is a month before she finds me.

***

“Get up here, you useless dog! How dare you keep me waiting for so long?”

The warship bellows its transmission over the village. It was a new Pimsin II class, equipped with an atmospheric flight module that allowed it to hover in the atmosphere. We didn't have that a month ago. How fast was technology evolving? Anyway, I'd know that voice anywhere. Despite myself, an unruly grin spreads over my face. One of the Onuris frames comes over to fetch me. It carries me up into the hangar in its massive hands... and there she is, standing with her hands on her hips, just like the first time I met her.

The instant my feet touch the ground, Kyrie throws herself at me. I feel her lips touch mine and I go red in embarassment and surprise.

“That's... some greeting.” I say, slightly amazed at her daring to do that in front of so many of the ship's crew.

“W-well, you deserve it, you useless dog.” she mutters. “Why did it take you so long to let me know you were alive?”

“Look at me,” I sigh. “It took me two weeks before I could send out a message I knew Anna could pick up and convey to you.”

“Well, it's a lucky thing she did, or you'd just die out here in the countryside, alone.” grins Kyrie, her arms still around my neck. “Anyway-”

One of the crew members interrupts what she was going to say. “Your Highness, the captain says that there's a battleship approaching us. It's one of our own, but it's making hostile overtures, telling us to stand down.”

Kyrie looks perplexed. “What is that about – no, did she follow me somehow?”

“She?”

“Mother. I was too careless! It's all your fault!"

"My fault? How is it my fault that you don't check your back?"

"Well, I was just too eager to - forget it!" she yells, turning red and kicking me. It hurts, but the feeling is nostalgic.

Her worst suspicions are confirmed soon after – as the cruiser stands down, the Empress boards it with a whole contingent of soldiers following her. I see Naim at her side, decked out in military regalia and a whole bar of medals pinned to his lapel. Kyrie curtseys politely as her mother stands in front of her.

“My dear daughter, need I remind you that you should not commandeer our ships in a time of war to go looking for strays?” sniffs the Empress.

Kyrie does not reply, looking at the ground.

“Anyway, this is a perfect opportunity. Arrest that scruffy boy with an eye-patch over there.”

“It's good to see you again, Your Majesty, but what have I done wrong?” I call out. I'm not even going to mention the credit she stole from me; that'd be just petty of me, no? Naim looks uncomfortable, averting his eyes from me. I suppose he knows the truth.

“This boy is a member of the cult that tried to destroy our great Empire!” shouts the Empress. “He is the brother of their self-proclaimed Messiah, here to seduce our Princess astray. Men, take him in, alive or dead!”

“You have no proof.” I shake my head. “I'm not a cultist.”

“Oh, I don't? I have proof of you meeting with the cult's Messiah, that Scarlet Lightning. I have proof of your birth and residence at the cult's quarters. You are not who you say you are, Senya Hoshikawa. The more lies you tell, the worse it will be for you. Give up now and I may refrain from handing you over to the Higashi. They are keen to meet a cultist, especially one related to the high-ranking members... they might do anything to make you talk.” sneers the Empress. “All I want is to prevent you from doing any more harm to the Empire. Cooperate and we will make sure you get a comfortable cell.”

“Is that blackmail, Your Majesty?” I ask. I'm pretty sure by comfortable cell, she means a place on a dissection table.

“So it seems you are stubborn. Very well. Kyrie, get over here. That boy is dangerous.” She raises a hand as the soldiers move forward. Naim looks troubled, but he says nothing.

Kyrie backs into me and whispers, “Perhaps you should run.”

It looks like she isn't confident she will be able to protect me. The balance of power in the Empire must tilt far towards her mother right now. I look around the hangar; the crew are all strangers. I will find no help here - this isn't the Kaguya-hime.

***

A. I 'take' Kyrie hostage and make my escape on one of the frames in the hangar. She'd definitely be more than willing to play along. Why would I let myself get captured by that hag here, after all I've been through?

B. It's too risky to try anything, with Kyrie between me and the soldiers. I give myself up – I can try to look for chances to escape later.
 

Part 15 - Lost

A - 7
B - 4

Sorry, but I'm forced to update early today because it's going to be another computer-less weekend.

***

Lost

I raise my mechanical hand and clamp it – gently – around Kyrie’s throat from behind. I have the pleasure of seeing the Empress’s eyes widen in shock as she shrieks. There is a roar of surprise from the crowd of military personnel in the hangar, as they begin to rush towards me.

“Nobody move,” I shout. “Or the princess gets it!”

“You have balls, I’ll give you that.” murmurs Kyrie softly.

“You can check them out for yourself later.” I whisper in return. She turns red and starts struggling, attempting to hit me. Good, just the response I needed for it to look realistic. I back away from the soldiers, holding her in my arms.

“You show your true colours at last,” says the Empress, a look of disgust on her face. “Give up the Princess now or we’ll shoot to kill.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” I sneer. “Not with your precious daughter’s life in my claw.” I make a show of tightening the rusty metal hand – gently – to prove my point. True enough, none of them make a step forward. The hangar is full of nervous faces. So far, so good; I’ll use my ability to pilot the frame without calibrating it. Things are going just as planned.

“What do we do after this?” whispers Kyrie.

I keep an eye on the soldiers, continuing to retreat towards a frame as I reply, “’I’m not too sure, but let’s get out of here first.”

“Reckless as usual, I suppose.” She sighs, the edge of her lips twitching up slightly in the faintest hint of a smile.

“Well then,” I call out to my would-be captors. I’m almost at the service elevator that would take me to the CF’s cockpit. “Gentlemen. Your Majesty. You’ll always remember this as the day you almost caught-“

A sudden blooming sensation of heat in my abdomen interrupts my words. I hear Kyrie give a slight gasp. She begins to fall limp in my arms – as I turn her around to face me, I see a spreading patch of red on her clothes.

“Kyrie-“

Her name chokes in my throat.


Why?

I look at the crowd in bewilderment. None of them seem to have fired their guns. Where did that shot come from? Kyrie’s face is rapidly turning pale. I need to think of what to do quickly. Do I bring her with me in search of medical aid? Should I leave her here and hope for the best?

The Imperials make that choice for me.

“He shot the princess! That cultist shot my daughter!” screams the Empress in panic and anger. “Kill him! Kill him now!”

The soldiers rush at me, murder in their eyes. Words are of no use now. I lay Kyrie down on the floor. Her eyes are closed, but she’s still breathing. Her fingers try to grip mine as I slip them away. “I’ll come back for you,” I whisper. She nods weakly as she lets go.

The first soldier is upon me – I submerge my mind in ice. As he swings his rifle butt at my head, I intercept his wrist and twist at just the right angle to cause him to drop it. With a kick I push him away and jump up on the elevator. It rises. The soldiers begin firing at me, but they don’t manage to hit me in time, the service elevator blocking their shots, before I drop into the cockpit of the frame.
There’s a technician inside, a fearful look on his face. I’m about to threaten him to unlock the frame’s controls for me, but he just salutes and taps a few buttons to do what I was about to ask for. Seeing my puzzlement, he tells me, “I served on the Kalai, Ensign.” before he leaps into the elevator.

I slip my arms into the slave controls. It’s been a month since I piloted one of these. The gigantic war machine groans to life as I tear it away from the scaffolding. The hangar’s bay is still open from the Empress’s arrival, so that’s at least one stroke of good luck for me. The small arms fire from the soldiers’ rifles ping harmlessly against the CF’s armor. I take one last look at Kyrie – she’s being carried away by some soldiers, her body limp. She should be alright. I hope she’ll be alright. Turning away, I rocket out of the cruiser. Controlling the thrusters manually is harder than I expected, without Yua to help me. Still, I manage to make my landing without crushing the frame’s legs. Maneuvering in the Earth’s gravity is far different from fighting in space, and I stumble. The frame recovers soon enough and I break it into a run.

It doesn’t take long before they come after me – two Onuris frames; one grey, the other yellow.

“Senya! Hey, Senya!” It seems that Jean is in the grey one. “What the hell happened back there?”

I don’t respond yet; I’m still gathering my thoughts. The two make a few half-hearted attempts to shoot at me, which I dodge easily.

“Ensign Hoshikawa.” Naim is piloting the yellow Onuris, sounding conflicted. “I’m sorry. I…”

“Are we going to fight here?” I say coldly. “If you’re going to do it, then do it.” I’m in no mood to talk about anything right now. Naim draws his beam saber and leaps at me. He’s not piloting anywhere near his best – I easily block him with my own saber, even in an uncalibrated frame. He pulls back, landing a few dozen metres away. Sensing incoming danger, I have my CF leap to the right, dodging a rifle shot from Jean that gouges out a small crater in the ground.

If I’m going to have to take the two of them down to escape, I’ll do it.

“Senya, just come back with us! I’m sure the Princess-“

“No, don’t.” interrupts Naim, his voice now composed. “Jean, we didn’t manage to capture Hoshikawa. He managed to fight us off and escaped where we could not track him.”

Jean lowers his rifle.

“Are you sure about this, Colonel?”

“Affirmative.”

“Thanks,” I reply, but those are all the words I leave them with. Without looking back, I set the frame off at full speed.

***
I cover the Onuris up with camouflage – after three days, I’m near the border city of Akka, a commercial center for both Imperial and Hispalis traders. Satisfied that it should not be found for some time, I make my way into the city. I need information.

In hindsight, I needn’t have bothered looking.

The giant TV panels set up along the buildings were displaying the latest news.

“…cult terrorist… Hoshikawa… assassination of Shinari Crown Princess….”

It takes the words sometime to sink into my mind.

Kyrie’s… dead?

The newscasters seem convinced about this. A state funeral is to be held today in Ankida. My face – well, what I used to look like before becoming a meteorite – is displayed prominently over the screens, warning everyone of my danger. The show cuts to a speech from the Empress, presiding at the funeral. The Emperor is in the background, his face gaunt and bloodless, a far cry from the man I saved in Olympia so many months ago.

“The Apostles of Hiranyagarbha, knowing that they cannot win, have killed our beloved princess and my daughter in a vile, spiteful attack. One of their operatives, a relation of their false messiah, shot her in the back when cornered by our brave security forces.”

Shot her in the back? I could still feel the sting of my own bullet wound – it had passed through Kyrie and I.

“My daughter had but one wish for the world – peace. She was planning to negotiate with the cult for their surrender, but they rejected her peace and slaughtered her in call blood. I call upon our brave rivals, the UNS and the Indus Confederation, to see what their support of the cult has wrought. They cannot give anymore shelter to mass murderers and assassins! Not satisfied with committing the worst atrocity in mankind’s history, they would also kill those who offer them an olive branch.”

She’s turning her own daughter’s funeral into a rallying speech? That… bitch. I bite into my lips so hard that a spot of blood appears and begins trickling down. My fists are clenched. No one notices me; everyone is raptly watching the screens.

“We have lost our shining young light of hope, but does this foretell our defeat? No, it is our new beginning!”

She’s still continuing her rally, but I’ve heard enough. I walk away.

***

It’s funny. I would have expected thunderstorms and heavy rain at this time, but the weather has no sense for drama. It’s bright, breezy and sunny, the sort of weather you’d expect to find children frolicking in. I slump by a wall, wondering what to do next.

What can I do?

“What you can do, kid, is to go home to Higashi and settle down.”

A gruff voice startles me. As I look up, a familiar face, scarred and one-eyed, glowers down at me.

“Shulgi?”

“You’re starting to look like me, kid. That won’t do, not for someone as young as you. Go home and hide out there. Minister Azo will keep you safe.”

So he was in contact with Azo.

“Why are you here?”

“To tell you to go home. This is not a life for you. Just stay out of trouble, and trouble won’t find you.” He grins. I don’t trust him. Between all his half-truths and Erika's mention of him during the colony drop, he is not someone I can trust. He came here for something else.

“How did you find me?”

“Coincidence.” He shrugs.

“If I do go home, what then?”

“Live a good life. Die in bed. Whatever peaceful end to your story that you want, kid, or if you prefer adventure still, I can have Azo arrange something for you.”

“I think you have something else in mind. This is not why you are here.”

Suddenly, Shulgi sneers, his rough, easy-going mannerisms fading away from his face, replaced by a cold mask that looks entirely out of place on that rugged mug.

“Perhaps I do, young Senya. Who knows what I am thinking? My advice and offer still stands – go home. I will arrange for everything from now on.”

“You know,” he continues, when I fail to respond. “It is only now that I truly understand why Saeko threw you away and tried to have you killed. You really are useless. A reject. A freak with more brains than it has muscle to back it up. You somehow managed to fail to grasp every single chance I offered you. I am, however, more kind than your mother. I will give you the chance to have a good life, even though you are a miserable failure.”

“Are you taunting me?” I ask quietly.

“Oh? You think I came here to laugh at you?”

“It seems like it. If you want to provoke me into doing something, this is entirely the wrong way to go about it.”

A smile spreads across his face, creasing the scars.

“You may think what you wish. I have no answers for you. I merely came here with my offer. If you want to accept it, there will be a plane waiting for you tomorrow at Akka’s airport.”

“Perhaps I should force the answers from you, then.” I raise a hand to my eye-patch, but Shulgi just smirks.

“It’s far too soon for that.”

An unseen force freezes my entire body; I can’t even breathe.

“Try that again and I will end your miserable existence. I hope our paths never cross again.” says Shulgi nonchalantly. Was this telekinesis? It’s far stronger than anything the Dunamis leader displayed. As the force dissipates, I collapse to the ground, gasping for breath.

When I look up, he is gone. All I see is swirling motes of dust caught in the bright sunlight.

***

A. I accept Shulgi's offer and return to Higashi. I will decide what to do from there, but perhaps for now I need some rest and relaxation. Kyrie is dead, Yua is gone, and I am wanted by almost everyone in the world. I should be grateful for any safe harbour.

B. If the Empress is keen to paint me as a terrorist, she'll get her wish. Two can play at this game. There will be no more holding back... To create, you must first destroy. I'll carve out my own path in this world.

C. I need to see Kyrie one last time, to make sure she is really gone before I do anything else. Since Shulgi was so nice as to offer me a plane, I'll take it. I hijack the plane and have them fly me into Ankida, where I can make the last day of her funeral. It's the only way I can make the trip in time.
 

Part 16 - State Funeral

State Funeral

The plane is surprisingly comfortable. It's a small private jet – the pilot knows nothing about who I am, and why I am aboard; the only thing he knows is where I am going: back to Higashi. Such a small jet would not have enough fuel to get all the way there without stopping for refuelling. Due to the war, it can no longer stop in the Indus Confederation; the pilot would probably refuel in Tamur.

“Strange,” says the pilot as we near Ankida, “There seems to be something wrong with the fuel tank.”

“Is it serious?” I ask worriedly.

“The heater is malfunctioning – the fuel's freezing up. I'm going to have to make an emergency stop in Ankida to fix this. Sorry about that, we're probably going to be grounded for a few hours. Are you feeling alright? You seemed a bit dizzy earlier.”

“Don't worry about it,” I smile, trying to reassure the pilot. “Do what you have to do. It'd be bad if we dropped out of the sky after all.”

“Thanks, mate. I'll get this fixed as soon as possible. You'll be back in Kyoto in no time at all.”

I pat him on the shoulder. “No, I should thank you for being willing to fly me there.” I head to the back of the plane, preparing to strap myself in as the pilot radios in an emergency descent to the Ankidan airport. The plane shudders, its wheels touching down on the runway. After it has come to a halt, I open the door. The afternoon air is humid and thick with the scent of petroleum.

“Hey, Mr. Hoshikawa, where are you going?” the pilot calls out.

“Sorry, man, call of nature. I'll be back soon.” I reply.

“You won't get very far without a passport. I have one that the client made for your entry into Higashi, but we're in the Empire right now.”

I grin. “Don't worry, I'll just get one of those pretty flight attendants over there to guide me to a toilet.”

“It's that type of call of nature, eh? Sorry for not having stewardesses aboard my plane, but you sure you can't hold it in?” The pilot wiggles his eyebrows and laughs.

I return the laugh. “I was just kidding. It's really bathroom business. Unless you have a bucket I can use somewhere... I think I'm going to leak.”

“Oh, no. No. Well, it'll probably take me two hours or so to get things patched up, then perhaps another hour before I'm cleared to take off. We have time. Go ahead, mate.” replies the pilot hurriedly.

“Thanks! I'll be back in a while.” I descend from the plane, walking across the runway. I take one last look back at the plane, with its malfunctioning fuel heater. My tendrils did a great job of freezing it up. Hopefully Shulgi's paying the poor pilot enough to cover the repairs.

***

I climb over a fence instead of attempting to bluff my way past customs. I look extremely suspicious with my rough hair-cut and eyepatch; there's no way any self-respecting security officer would let me go without asking many uncomfortable questions.

Fences, on the other hand, didn't ask many questions, if at all.

There are cameras capturing my movement, but I ignore them. I have a cap on, obscuring my features, and it will take them too long to identify me before I vanish into Ankida. I don't plan to stay here too long anyway; once I have accomplished my aims here, I will leave.

The hike into the city takes another two hours; it is late afternoon when I arrive. It's a good thing that my physical abilities have increased over the past few months; if I had tried this when I first came to the Empire I would have given up after ten minutes.

Ankida has changed plenty from when I was last here, on my way to the Academy. A subdued mood pervades the entire capital. Here and there I can see reconstruction ongoing from the colony's fallen fragments. A particularly large piece had hit the Old Quarter, just kilometres away from the Imperial palace, and wiped it out entirely. Buildings that had stood for thousands of years were turned into dust in just a blink of an eye. That was not the only reason for the sad atmosphere. Every now and then, I could see Kyrie's picture, framed in black, hanging from houses and offices alike. There were wreaths in front of every storefront. I did not expect such popularity, given my first impressions of her...

I shake my head and focus. I need only concentrate on getting there, to her casket. All other thoughts are secondary at the moment.

The grounds of the great palace are open to the public for three days for the funeral rites. On the afternoon of the third, her casket will be carried to Fukayna, the hallowed hill-top cemetery at the outskirts of the city where all Emperors and Empresses of the Empire have been buried for more than four thousand years. Today is the second day. Though the public are free to visit while she lies in state, visiting hours close at around nine at night.

That's when I need to enter. I might be able to sneak in with a crowd, see Kyrie safely from afar as she sleeps in her glass cage, and leave... but that wouldn't satisfy her now, would it?

I did say I would come back for her.

***

I managed to case parts of the palace by mingling in together with a group of homeless people that I had convinced to visit the funeral. They were too embarassed to turn up, but I told them that she was still her princess, and cared for them whether they were rich or poor. I was pretty sure one of her projects in the past month was to help those affected by the colony drop; as it turns out, one of them had met her on one of those aid initiatives. He was the first to agree, and the rest followed soon after.

My clothes and eye-patch are dirty enough to pass me off as one of them. As I walk through the palace, to the hall where she lies, I observe, note and memorize. Paths. Routes. Guards. I make several plans as I go along, attempting to remember the faces of everyone I see. Then, I reach my destination.

When I see Kyrie's body in the open coffin, in the middle of that hall, my feet stop. From here, there can be no mistaking it. It is her. She's really dead. My right eye twitches for just the briefest second as I hold back the tumult of emotions I'm feeling. Focus. I can no longer let my lack of self control rule my life. It won't help me... it will no longer help her. I take a deep breath and calm down, looking around the hall.

It's then that I see two familiar, black-suited people. Rose and Babs... it looks like they're on security detail here. That's not surprising, considering that they had been part of Kyrie's official entourage since Neo Heliopolis. Their eyes meet mine. Rose doesn't seem to register it, but Babs' face changes in recognition. He whispers to Rose, whose eyes widen, and they start walking towards my group, looking concerned. Damn. I'm too far from the exit to leave quickly without attracting any attention. If I run, I won't be able to escape from the palace at all. The best way is to stay calm and face them. If they don't arrest or shoot me on sight, I'll find a way out of this.

The other homeless move closer to the coffin, and I go with them. Babs puts one large, meaty hand on my shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” he grunts softly.

“Huh, you spotted me. I'm impressed.” I whisper.

“Let's not talk here,” hisses Rose. “We'll use one of the security rooms.” Suddenly, he begins talking loudly. “What are you trying to pull, you beggar? Come with us!”

My homeless compatriots turn around and begin to protest, but I wave away their objections. “It's just a misunderstanding, guys. Finish paying your respects, that's what's important.” I let Rose and Babs march me away; if they want to do me harm, I can't prevent it. I knew the risks when I decided to waltz into a palace full of people thinking that I killed the princess.

As we enter a vacant room, Babs begins looking around, sweeping the room for any sign of surveillance. Once he gives Rose the all clear signal, the shorter man grabs my shoulder angrily.

“What are you thinking, coming here like this, Senya? You really do have a death wish, don't you?”

“No, I-”

“Look, none of us who knew you both think you did it. But the rest of the world does, and this is the last place you should be.” remarks Babs calmly.

I chuckle sadly. “That's precisely why I am here. It is the last place they expect me to be. I just want to spend one last moment with her.”

Rose sighs. “Oh man, young people and their romantic flights of fancy... I really should've bought you a lady of the night before all this shit happened.”

“Please, Rose. I'm begging you. Let me do this. I'm asking for a favour just this once. I don't care if I die after that. You can turn me in, shoot me, do whatever you want.”

“Damn it all, Senya. Don't be like that. We have our jobs, you know.” he groans.

“How long do you need?” asks Babs.

“Oh come on, Babs, you too?”

“I'll just need twenty... no, ten minutes.” It won't take long.

“Alright, alright, I got it. If it's just that much... we can arrange for something tonight.” mutters Rose. “Usually they shut off the entire hall around 11.00 pm, when the mortician does his work to maintain the body.”

Something seems off about that. I ask, “I thought they only needed to preserve the corpse once, before it is laid out for viewing?”

“Hey, don't ask me, man. I don't know a thing about dead bodies except how to make them.” snaps Rose.

“That kid sure had a weird-ass laugh, though.” commented Babs.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Rose. “How did it go again? Something like... Uhihihihi? That kid creeps me out. He seems to know his job well though.”

That... sounds familiar.

“What's his name?” I ask, my mouth suddenly dry.

“Uh...” Babs starts thinking. “Julius... something. Pretty young. I think he's only a bit older than you, though you do look pretty banged up, Senya. What the hell have you been through?”

“That's not important right now,” I wave his concerns away. Julius Gallardo. There's no doubt about it. No one had managed to track him down since he abandoned his laboratory and Relius was killed by Erec Dunamis at the Academy. Why has he shown up here now? More importantly, if he was taking care of the body...

I definitely have to get to the bottom of this now.

“How long does he usually spend in the hall?”

“Probably about an hour or so. Don't ask me what he does in there. He just keeps giggling that creepy laugh of his. The Empress said to let him be, so I'm not asking any questions.” sighs Rose.

So, from eleven to midnight.

“We can delay him for you if you like.” offers Babs.

I consider that offer, and think back on what I had planned in the first place...

***

A. Let Rose and Babs delay Julius. I want to finish what I came here for and escape before he arrives.

B. Don't let Rose and Babs delay Julius. I would like to have words with him...

***

My real reason for coming here was actually to...

A. Hold her hand one last time. That is all I want. Then she can have her rest in Fukayna, while I will lie low and do whatever I can to ferret out her real murderer.

B. Steal her body. I will not let it lie here, amongst people who only used her for their own ends... and definitely not with Julius all over it. I'll give her a decent burial by myself, in Olympia, where we first met.

C. Steal her body, and use it to begin my counterattack against the Empress. Once they find the corpse missing tomorrow, I spread the rumour Kyrie is still alive. They will not be able to produce the corpse and perhaps try to allege theft, but all I need is to plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of the people so that I can get started.

***

Second option might not turn out to be the plan that will be carried out - things might change depending on the first choice in the next update - so don't let how successful you think they might be influence your decision. It is more a matter of determining Senya's mindset. Did we come here just to say goodbye, to bury her where we want, or do we have something bigger in mind?
 

Part 17 - Conversation in a Funeral Hall

Conversation in a Funeral Hall

“No, there's no need to get you two in any more trouble,” I smile. “I'll handle it. I can hide out inside the hall while he is there, and leave after he does.” If they get caught helping me out, losing their jobs would be the least of their worries. Of course, I have no intention of leaving Julius alone. I would just have to be discreet about it.

***

The palace is large enough that Rose and Babs sneak me into one of the hall's antechambers without anyone noticing, a few hours later when the crowd has thinned. They're clearly not expecting anyone to do anything to the body; security is quite lax.

“We're posted just outside this room, so just give a knock when you're ready to leave. No one else will be coming through here anyway.” says Rose, scratching at his shoulder. I give them a nod of thanks, leaving them standing outside the antechamber. Julius should be here soon – I need to take a good look around before he arrives. Rose had lent me some of his spare clothes, which fit snugly on my tall frame. It wouldn't do to appear in my dirty rags. I had also prepared something else; a black, full-face motorcycle helmet. I put it on as I enter the hall.

Kyrie lies in her open coffin, at the center of the empty hall. All around her grand statues of past Emperors gaze down at her; some sternly, some kindly. This had once been a hall for festivities, a few hundred years ago, though as with all large, old buildings rooms in the Imperial Palace tended to fall into disuse depending on the mood of the decade. It had been cleaned up and set up for Kyrie's funeral due to its easily accessible location to the public.

Resting my mechanical hand on the edge of the coffin, I look down at her face, peaceful in her rest. Still, I have to be sure. I did not come all this way to merely watch.

I stretch my good hand out, towards her chest, and pull down the elegant white gown gently.

After a second, I return her clothes into position, making sure they look undisturbed.

Her torso is entirely unblemished, perfect and pale as marble even in the dim, warm lighting of the hall.

Well.

That's all I need to know.

Under the helmet my teeth are bared in an uncontrollable grin. A strange mixture of feelings wells up within me, a mishmash of emotions that I am unable to identify. All I am familiar with is this feeling of exhilaration that causes my heart to speed up.

There is a noise from the main doors. I step away from the coffin calmly, putting my excitement under control as I slink behind one of the great stone pillars. The main doors are opened and relocked with a click, and then there are footsteps, pattering in an uneven, excited beat. He is alone, at least. The squeak of wheels on the floor seem to indicate that he has pushed in a trolley of some sorts.

“Uhihihihi! Oh, man, you still look so fucking good no matter how many times I see it. It's a big damned waste to have you buried and left for worms to fuck. I've gotta get that hag to let me have you somehow.” giggles Julius Gallardo. “Well, before we start, my precious... let's have the usual course, shall we? Gods, I can't wait to do it tonight.” By the sound of it he appears to either be more insane than before, or high on something.

There's the sound of fabric dropping to the floor, as the coffin rattles slightly.

I count to five, and then speak.

“Julius.”

The helmet muffles my voice, disguising it. He gives a slight shriek when he hears me.

“Wh-what? Who? Who the fuck is there?” says Julius shrilly.

I peek around the pillar – as I expected, he climbed inside the coffin. The body's bare legs are up in the air; I caught him at just the right time.

“You know who I am.” I venture.

“W-wait... hey, why are you here? I thought you were with the Empress doing whatever fucked up stuff you guys get up to? Why are you hiding anyway?”

“I needed to speak with you in secret. I did not expect to find you doing... that.” He's the last person in the world I want to hear complaining about fucked up stuff.

“Oh. Oh fuck. Shit. Sorry. Couldn't help myself. You know how it is, Relius.” blabbers Julius incessantly. That's an interesting name to hear. The last I saw of him, he was most certainly dead, his head and body having parted ways in a less than amicable – but exceedingly orderly – manner.

“I certainly do.” I say coldly.

“Oh come on, Relius. I said I'm sorry. It's not like this dead broad you gave me is going to be harmed by this, right? It's all consensual.”

“Are you certain it will not affect our plan?”

“Of course. What do you think I am, an amateur? As long as I keep the body nourished it'll be as pretty as fucking the real thing. I mean, the real fucking thing. After I give her today's supplement it'll serve as a good enough substitute until the burial tomorrow, while gods know what you do with the real one. But honestly... I'm thinkin' this girl here is prettier, and softer too. The real Kyrie never let me touch her like this. Soft! Uhihihihi!”

“I would prefer it if you did not touch the real one, Julius.”

“Well, you're certainly doing a good job of not letting me know where she is.” spits Julius. “You goddamn secretive chucklefuck... I don't even know how you came back from the dead, and you never tell me anything.”

“I have my ways. Well, one as smart as you would be able to figure it out, eventually. Do you remember what happened when I first reappeared? There is a hint in there, somewhere.” I try to lead him on.

“Huh... well, I heard you got your head cut off. Then you called me out to 'renew our relationship'. Fuck, I almost shat my pants when I received that message from you. What's the hint there?”

“Weren't you suspicious of me?”

“Of course, you fuck! That's why I sent the familiars to scout you out. Then you crushed the familiars without lifting so much as a finger. Coming back from the dead with superpowers... that isn't fucking fair, man.” says Julius resentfully.

“There's your clue. Do you want the answer?” I laugh.

“Well...” replies Julius in a sullen manner, “If you're going to teach me, that'd be great. But I'd prefer finishing my work here first.”

“Do what you have to do. How is the state of the body?”

“She's holding up just fine, considering that she's only a shell with most of the organs removed. Whoever you got this from did some extremely fine work in reshaping the stiff to look just like the dear Princess. I mean, it probably wouldn't be practical to reanimate this lovely girl without extensive renovation on the innards to construct the structures required to supply the required nutrients... I don't think I would be able to do it without distending her fucking beautiful body. Which would make me sad. Where did you get this, anyway?”

“I have my ways, as I said. I also have faith in your ability. You could probably awaken this if you wanted to.”

“Nah, not doable, Relius. I hear the Higashi are doing some pretty nifty things with cybernetics nowadays that could probably make things much more compact and smoother, but I'm an artist, y'know. Using machines just ruins the purity of the art.”

“True, true. That is not what we want here anyway.” I muse.

“You got it, man. Now, can I finish my fucking work already? I'll chat with you afterwards. Maybe you can come out from behind that pillar while you're at it. Sheesh, it's like your secretive nature got magnified by a thousand times nowadays.”

***

A. I do not do anything to harm Julius.

B. I knock Julius out.

C. I murder him.

***

A. I prevent the corpse from being injected with the nutrients – it will likely decay rapidly during the parade tomorrow. I can use this to expose the Empress's lies in public, before the eyes of the mourners – no human body would rot that fast.

B. I allow Julius to finish his 'fucking work' with the corpse and then steal it. Having more time to examine it carefully might provide me with some insights. Even if it doesn't, I'll have disturbed the Empress's peace of mind. Also, I could have use for a corpse servant of my own, should I be able to freeze it somewhere before finding a way to reanimate it...

C. Julius can do whatever he wishes with the corpse – I have no interest in it anymore. Let them have their proper burial; whoever this poor girl was in life before being turned into a substitute, she deserves as much.
 

Part 18 - Changing Conflict

Changing Conflict

Escaping Ankida is easy, with everyone preoccupied with the funeral and no one expecting my presence. The alert is only sounded after the body is put into the earth; by that time I am on the back of a truck, heading south into Egypt along with a herd of friendly swine. Due to my discreet actions, Rose and Babs manage to retain their jobs and their lives. That is something I think they'll be thankful to me for.

The world changes quickly after that.

A day after Kyrie's funeral, the Empire provides proof that the cult was behind the nuclear destruction of Karna and the fire-bombing of Shulgipolis. The perpetrators were named as high-ranking members of the cult, part of a secret side of the third level of their hierarchy. The Imperials and the Higashi each arrest and execute both the officers that carried out their orders, and the generals that gave them. The purge extends to nearly a tenth of their respective militaries; a bold risk to take in times of war. However, it pays off in spades. The UNS civilian leadership decides to sue for peace, disturbed by the cult's pervasive presence even amongst their enemies. The military, understanding that they are yet far from losing the war, are disgruntled at this decision.

A week after Kyrie's funeral, the Empress announces the dissolution of the Neo Shinar Empire, to be replaced by the Shinar Republic, with the full backing of the ISC's board and members of the Imperial government. She is no longer the Empress Julia Canaria de Shinar, but President Julia, the head of the ISC, and the temporary leader of the Republic. She promises elections will be called as soon as the conflict ends, and says that this was something Kyrie was working towards before her untimely demise, as part of her plans for peace and to share power with the people. The Emperor himself agrees to retire, going into history as the last Emperor of the four thousand year old Shinar Empire.

A month after Kyrie's funeral, the Shinar Republic, the Higashi, the UNS and the assorted nations of the Northern Union – Gallo-Britannia, Skane, Hispalis and Etruria – come together to form the world government of the United Federation of Nations. The Indus Confederation refuses to participate, as it is still at war with the Shinar and the Higashi, though enemy troops are now within striking distance of its capital. For the first time in human history, more than 90% of the world's territory is now under the control of a single government. The presidency of the Federation is to be rotated between the head of states of each of its member nations, no matter how large or small. As the originator of the idea, President Julia of the Shinar Republic is unanimously made the first President of the world.

This is the last straw for the dissatisfied UNS military. A coup d'etat is launched by a majority of their armed forces, seizing all UNS orbital assets and a large part of Northern Shulgiland.

General Cualli Natles is proclaimed the Supreme General of Shulgiland. The first act he takes as Supreme General is to declare his forces for the Indus Confederation, acting as an autonomous army on their behalf. By this time, most of the Indus leaders have escaped into space, along with prominent members of the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha. The conflict is rapidly turning into an Earth-Space war, with the cult-backed forces dominating near-Earth orbit regions, while the United Federation firmly controls the ground. Still, the disparity in numbers and manufacturing capability does mean that it is only a matter of time before the United Federation achieves victory.

In the midst of all this, what have I been doing? As one of the most wanted faces in the world, there is little I can do by myself. If I were to declare my identity as Hoshikawa Senya anywhere on Earth, I would be swiftly turned in and executed. There is no safe harbour under my old name anymore. No matter what, if I want to find Kyrie again I will need resources and information. Most avenues are closed to me, but there are yet a few ways I can take.

***

A. I hitch a flight into orbit. The security in colonies will be easier for me to bypass, as most of them are now in Indus controlled territory where the United Federation is less likely to find me. The war has led to an increase in smugglers and pirates sailing the sea of stars. Signing up with one of their crews should gain me a pass to most places around Earth orbit, as well as allow me to glean information as I work to gain more influence in space.

B. The criminal underworld seems to have been squeezed hard by the war, losing their control to more independent, active operators due to their institutionalized sloth. Even so, they still have an information network rivalling any state's, and though they have been caught flatfooted by the new world government, they should soon recover and begin extending their tendrils of influence. If I begin now, I can ensure that those tendrils are mine.

C. There are always all sorts of people who are against a world government, for one reason or another. Already resistance is rising in the more remote parts of Skane, whose people have had a strong independent streak for many millenia. It is these disaffected ones that I approach, building a power base of my own. Under my guidance I can utilize them as a distraction from my other activities, as well as steer them in a direction of my own choosing. After all, Kyrie has Skanish blood on her father's side...

D. The offer Shulgi made still stands – he did not prohibit me from taking a side-trip to Ankida, after all. I return to Higashi and meet up with Azo. I will gain a new identity, and by working within the world government I will be well placed to uncover its secrets and forge connections of my own. It will be difficult to hide my activities perfectly, but the benefits of having a network already in place instead of building it from scratch are tremendous.

E. I don't need resources to do what I can do - disguising myself under a moniker, I head forth to fight crime and help the weak. The despondent people of this world need a superhero, and I'm going to give it to them. Details? Who cares about the details, or how hard it is? A burning passion for justice and hot, raging blood in your veins is all you need!

F. I am not interested in doing anything else. I hide out somewhere in the countryside, doing nothing but watching the world act out its play. If Kyrie is alive and fine, that is good enough for me. I'm afraid that if I do anything, it will just put her in danger again. After these hectic, life-threatening months, I think I deserve a break. I never asked for any of this.
 

Chapter End - Return to the East

Return to the East

The home of Tanaka Azo, Minister of Defense, is a spartan and minimalistic dwelling. There is very little artwork or decorations of any sort around the two-storey bungalow in the outskirts of Kyoto. Whatever furniture is there is functional, built for utility and comfort, rather than any specific theme or design in mind. Well, not like that matters to me; I'm not the sort of person who's able to read a man's character from the art that he collects. I look at the digital clock hung on the wall; it's nearly midnight. He should be back soon.

There is a click as the lock on the main door disengages. Azo enters the living room, carrying his briefcase. He must have just returned from work – I smell no alcohol about his person and his bearing is upright.

I speak. “Minister Azo.”

Crouching into a combat-ready position with an agility belying his age, the minister seems prepared to throw his briefcase at me. I think I can guess what he'd do after that.

“It's me. Hoshikawa, from the Kaguya-hime.” I continue, before he attempts to subdue me. His eyes narrow, trying to make out my features in the gloom.

“Hoshikawa. What are you doing – no, how did you get in here?”

“The second floor window was left open. Your cleaning staff had to air out the room earlier this evening because of a malfunction with the ventilation system, and they forgot to close it because of an urgent call soon after. Isn't technology just wonderful?” I smile. “I must say, I'm thankful that you don't barricade yourself with guards like all the other politicians.”

“I do not believe in separating myself from the people I am supposed to govern with walls and armed men.” nods the older man as he straightens up and puts his briefcase down. He's composed again, adapting quickly to the situation. “Why are you here now? I was expecting you a month ago, but you did not show up.”

“I apologize for the delay, minister.” I say, and leave it at that. There's no need to explain where I went. “I believe the offer still stands?”

Azo switches on the lights, keeping a close eye on me while he heads to the kitchen. “I have not been informed of a deadline, so I will honour the deal, since you have come to me. Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please, minister.”

A minute later, he reappears, carrying two cups of steaming green tea which he lays down on the table.

“So, I am wondering, Hoshikawa,” begins Azo. “Why did you come? You could probably have gone anywhere in the world, even off to space, had you wanted. You must be aware that I will monitor you fully and that it will be almost impossible to slip our notice again.”

Almost, but not certainly. I give him a brief smile and sip from the cup. It's really hot, almost scalding.

“I want to find someone. You have the resources to do it.”

“Who would that be?”

“Kyrie.”

There's a moment of understanding in the minister's eyes. “The princess they say you killed?”

“For some reasons, I don't quite believe she is dead.”

Azo nods. “That may be so. Your involvement in the event is questionable, and it stands to reason that the assassination itself might be a fraud. However, why do you think I would go so far as to investigate that for you?”

“You don't need to. I will be working for you, and I will use your resources to find her.”

The minister smiles. “A bold statement, and refreshingly honest. I have no objections against your search for your princess. I'm glad that you understand that a partnership only works if both sides benefit, though in the future I might suggest more tact in your words, Hoshikawa. I understand that you are still young, but being too honest and open may not be the best approach all of the time.”

He doesn't seem to be lying; I have had my ability active since he returned, and by paying close attention to his facial expressions I'm roughly able to tell if he's hiding something. He could be a consummate liar, but I doubt it, given his rather straightforward personality. This means one of two things; either Shulgi isn't telling him everything, or Shulgi doesn't care if I come into contact with Kyrie – or perhaps desires such an outcome.

There's no use speculating too much about this right now, though. One thing is clear; I am free to follow any leads I may get about Kyrie, as long as I work for Azo. That is a relief. It just means that they'll think that is my only objective in working for them. The 'romantic' story of a teenager looking for his... well... anyway, it's a story that is easy to believe in. This makes it easier for me to delve deeper into the secrets they don't want me knowing about.

“Very well. If you are keen on making use of my resources to find your princess, you will have to work, as you have said so yourself. We will start next week, after I've made the proper arrangements.” says the minister as he finishes his tea.

I stretch out my hand with a smile.

“I am in your care, Minister Azo.”



- CHAPTER END -
 

Interlude: War Timeline

Interlude: War Timeline

03.07.4025
The Skirmish of Kawamura - Indus combat frames launch a surprise attack on Kawamura Colony and destroy the Higashi fleet stationed there. The Higashi lose 30 fighters and 2 battleships, with no casualties on the Indus side.

04.07.4025
The Higashi declare war on the Indus Confederation.

11.07.4025
Mobilized Higashi forces invade the Indus Confederation. They face heavy resistance and make little headway.

13.07.4025
The ISC moves its combat frame design and testing facilities to Neo Heliopolis.

16.07.4025
Higashi battleships accidentally destroy the Mooklot, a UNS residential colony, killing three million people. The UNS declares war hours later.

21.07.4025
UNS ground troops begin supporting the Indus Confederation in the Eastern Front. The surge of manpower and equipment begins pushing the Higashi war effort back as they steadily lose ground.

07.08.4025
Battle of Shenzhen - Higashi ground forces manage to make a stand under the command of General Kawamori Takeda, repelling a combined UNS-Indus force nearly six times their number.

15.08.4025
The ISC approaches the Higashi to jointly research combat frames. Neo Heliopolis is selected as the site of research.

19.08.4025
The Inanna flower testing field near Shangjing is burnt to ashes by occupying Indus forces.

30.08.4025
Indus forces attempt to detain a Higashi refugee fleet near Moon L3, but the ISC cruiser Shahan under the command of Captain Grimrock intervenes. The conflict is resolved without a shot fired.

09.09.4025
Battle of G344 - Higashi forces score their first victory in space as they manage to ambush and shoot down the Indus carrier Bharata.

25.09.4025
The UNS fields their first second generation CF - the Xolotl and Centeotl designs.

19.10.4025
Battle of Kamabharata - The first large scale space battle, involving more than 20 warships on both sides and a hundred fighters and CFs. The Scarlet Lightning makes her name here, destroying 16 fighters and 5 ships in a single engagement. The Higashi is forced to retreat from its holdings near the moon.

24.10.4025
Indus forces burn the Inanna flowers growing on the moon.

04.11.4025
Battle of Canaria - Twenty five Higashi fighters and two cruisers ambush the Indus carrier Mehrgarh. The Scarlet Lightning destroys eighteen fighters before they manage to retreat from their disastrous assault.

14.11.4025
The UNS ace Blue Streak comes into prominence for destroying ten Higashi fighters in a single engagement.

21.11.4025
Neo Heliopolis comes under attack from the UNS's White Fang mercenary group. The prototype combat frame Anhur sees its first deployment, destroying a single Xolotl. The jointly-designed cruiser Kaguya-hime makes its escape two hours later, forcing the White Fangs' Ghostlot cruiser to retreat in a daring display of tactical acumen.

22.11.4025
The Neo Shinar Empire and the UNS-Indus alliance make a mutual declaration of war on each other. An official alliance treaty is signed between the Higashi and the Empire. Mobilization on the western border of the Indus is swift, indicating that they have prepared for this scenario beforehand.

25.11.4025
The Kaguya-hime is joined by the Kalai, Sarmatia and the Gudean.

26.11.4025
The Gudean departs for Earth carrying the Empress.

29.11.4025
The Kaguya-hime assaults UNS Base 43 together with the Kalai and the Sarmatia. The Anhur singlehandedly destroys the entire enemy CF force of six Centeotls and damages the two UNS cruisers present.

01.12.4025
The UNS and Indus conduct a successful live-maneuver exercise telecast worldwide showcasing the superiority of their frames, led by the Blue Streak.

02.12.4025
The Kaguya-hime ambushes the enemy testbed prototype at K-5571. Although the prototype is defeated by the Anhur, the intervention of the Scarlet Lightning forces the Kaguya-hime to escape. The Kaguya-hime successfully retreats by baiting the enemy frames into over-extending themselves. Rumours of a shadowy black frame that had singlehandedly defeated a UNS base, destroyed a powerful prototype and more unbelievably, damaged the Scarlet Lightning's CF, begin to spread amongst enemy forces.

04.12.4025
The Kaguya-hime begins its escort of The Spirit of Adventure.

10.12.4025
The Shulgi super heavy carrier-battleship, accompanied by the UNS Second Fleet, attacks Marduk's Navel and destroys the Imperial Third Fleet.

13.12.4025
The Mehrgahr joins the Kaguya-hime as a friendly escort.

17.12.4025
The Mehrgahr leaves the escort as the ships are two days away from the Imperial forward base at Moon L4.

24.12.4025
Operation Lothal is carried out by the Indus forces. The colony is redirected by the efforts of the Anhur and the Kaguya-hime, breaking up in the atmosphere after a nuclear strike from Imperial command on the ground. The fragments cause widespread devastation across the world, inflaming further tensions between the warring nations. Initial casualties are projected to be at about 8 million. At the same time, the Battle for Sin's Eye occurs, ending in the Empire-Higashi successfully defending the moon base. This marks the first time that a battle between two CF-using forces have taken place. The star of the battle, however, turned out to be the fighter veteran Major Vic Gradius Camna, who destroyed 10 CFs in an aerospace fighter. The media promptly nickname him the Framekiller.

25.12.4025
The peace treaty is called off after some deliberation, as each nation begins to see peace as being untenable.

27.12.4025
Imperial forces use a nuclear weapon on the Indus megalopolis of Karna, killing 4 million inhabitants.

28.12.4025
A Higashi bomber manages to slip past the UNS defense grid and unloads incendiary bombs over Shulgipolis, killing 300,000 and causing damages that are estimated to run into the millions.

31.12.4025
The involvement of the Apostles of the Golden Womb in the colony drop are leaked to the world. The Empire and Higashi blame the cult for the plot.

01.01.4026
Major Rei Wakayama attempts to call for peace, using her military standing as a platform, but the prior day's events cause her speech to backfire.

03.01.4026
The resources branch of the ISC declare their neutrality and agree to continue supplying helium-3 to all warring nations. Stock prices soar.

05.01.4026
Contact is lost with the Jupiter helium mining operation and its helium transport fleet. Stock prices drop.

10.01.4026
The land war intensifies as the Higashi begin pushing back the Indus forces with their new Onuris frames. Meanwhile, the Empire begins planning a sea and air invasion of the UNS even as they press deeper into Indus Confederation territory.

11.01.4026
Contact is re-established. The colony workers say that a storm on Jupiter affected their systems. Stock prices begin rising again.

19.01.4026
The Indus and UNS push back and contain Imperial and Higashi space forces near the Earth to only Moon L2 and Moon L3. They have managed to secure orbital superiority. A variety of new weapons, including multiple crab-like frames and the gigantic super-heavy battleship Shulgi, have turned the tide in space against the Empire-Higashi alliance. However, the war on the ground is not going well for the Indus.

24.01.4026
A small UNS detachment of 4 cruisers vanishes near the vicinity of the Gate of Ean. Imperial forces currently occupying the Gate are mystified.

02.02.4026
The Crown Princess of the Empire, Kyrie Francesca de Shinar, is shot in the village of Lagat.

05.02.4026
Princess Kyrie's death is announced by the Empress of the Shinar, who blames the cult and takes the opportunity to call for all nations to band together against it.

06.02.4026
A massive purge of the Imperial and Higashi militaries begin to rid themselves of cultist influence. The UNS government starts peace negotiations.

12.02.4026
The Neo Shinar Empire is dissolved and replaced by the Shinar Republic, with former Empress Julia becoming its first president.

16.02.4026
Most of the Indus leaders and the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha flee into space, breaking through a Shinar-Higashi blockade in near-Earth orbit.

01.03.4026
The last line of defense in the Indus Confederation falls; enemy troops are only a week away from the capital. The UNS are the only major power remaining on Earth opposed to the Shinar and the Higashi.

03.03.4026
The treaty to form the United Federation of Nations is signed by the Shinar Republic, the Higashi, the UNS and most of the other nations. The Indus remains the only power that refuses to participate.

05.03.4026
UNS General Cualli Natles attempts a coup d'etat against the civilian government. They occupy a significant portion of Northern Shulgiland and take over all UNS space forces.

06.03.4026
General Natles declares his army for the Indus cause. New battle-lines are drawn in the conflict as the Federation now occupies most of Earth while the Indus still maintain their control in space.

08.03.4026
The war begins to take on a new tone as the Apostles begin to preach overtly in the colonies, calling for the evolution of a new mankind by fleeing the grasp of Earth. In the meantime, the Federation begins to root out cultist cells still hidden in their member states, while consolidating their power by dealing with various insurgency movements that have sprung up in remote regions of the world.
 

Chapter Three: Higashi Cases

Part 1 - Working Life

Working Life

It takes me three days to recover from the reconstructive surgery that diminishes the scars I received from orbital re-entry. A new right hand is assigned to me to replace the mechanical junk that I made myself, one almost indistinguishable to the real thing but stronger and faster. Cybernetics has advanced by leaps and bounds since I was last here, in Higashi.

“Minister Azo says he doesn't want you to stand out too much,” says the doctor, “That means taking down that eye-patch too. If there is anything wrong with your eyes we need to cure it.”

I shake my head. “My right eye is extremely photosensitive. It hurts me if I don't keep it covered up.”

“We have a fix for that. A replacement eye is a common purchase for most augments nowadays, and we can just charge it to the minister's tab. How about it?”

***

A. I get the cybernetic eye. Having an uncontrollable power in my right eye is a burden – if it happens that I still see the lines even after replacing it, I can shut off the eye without having to cover it manually. Besides, I'm sure I can tweak it to fire lasers somehow!

B. I request an opaque contact lens. If I can't see through that eye it makes no difference whether I'm covering it with a patch or with a lens. Azo has a point about not standing out.

C. Screw this, I'm keeping the eyepatch, no matter what anyone says. It adds character.

***

During the surgery, the doctor informed me nonchalantly that Azo had ordered that a tracking chip should be implanted into my spine. I knew there would be a price for coming here; it was nothing I hadn't expected. I agreed, but I also requested integration of a power emitter that would harness the excess bio-electrical energy the chip amplifies and uses to run other external gadgets. Nothing new in the augment world, really, but the gadget I am using it for is special.

A small, palm-sized disc packed with artifical neuro-circuitry, placed on my chest. This is the core of Yua 2.0.

Salvaging the circuitry from Yua's orb, I had refashioned whatever I could on my way to Higashi, using the latest techniques in AI research pioneered by the cybernetic thinktanks. In order to shrink power usage and maximize efficiency, with the limited resources at hand, I had to abandon the personality simulation matrix entirely, resorting to the use of self-emergent programming to determine her behavioural patterns based on her memories. The result was unexpected.

Yua Two appeared to consider herself an entirely separate existence from the old Yua, even though the base I had constructed her from and the data I had used were identical. Theoretically, the reconstruction should have led the new Yua to behave like the old one as I input all the behavioural data of Yua 1.0 with no modifications. However, she treated the memories as just data to be compartmentalized and analyzed, building a new personality of her own according to her independent analysis of how best to serve me.

Apparently, her conclusion is that I need someone to rein me in.

“My predecessor indulged your every whim, leading to the predicament you currently find yourself in.” says Yua Two coldly. “I won't be as lenient. You can expect my input on your reckless decision making skills.”

“So, the meals...”

“I'm monitoring your diet too.”

I sigh. She doesn't even call me Master anymore.

***

As I make the trip to my new house, I wonder how my family is doing; I had been forbidden from coming into contact with them, no matter what. That was the only thing Azo had stressed I must not do. It is probably for the best. I would only put them into danger if I did, but the stress and stigma of having a child who is now one of the most wanted men in the world must be unimaginable. The only thing I can do for them now is to clear my name.

Azo had given me an apartment in downtown Kyoto, just three subway stations away from my place of work. It is relatively close, all things considered. The apartment itself is sparse and small, consisting only of a separate bathroom. The living space is where I will have to cook, eat and sleep. There is a bed, a wardrobe, a television monitor, a table and an automated kitchen, but little else. I have Yua connect herself to the main controls of the apartment, using the key I had been given.

“Is everything okay?”

“Everything is working perfectly. Would you like some supper?” asks Yua. She is still devoted, in a sense. She's just a bit more stand-offish about it.

“Well, what can you make?”

“Salad.”

“Anything else?”

“You're having salad for supper.”

I groan. It's unseemly having to argue with your own AI.

“Let's go with salad, then.”

“A wise choice.” She sounds pleased.

***

“Kagami... Kurou. Is that your name, newbie?” asks the middle-aged man in a suit. His name-tag indicates his name and rank: Sadomura Goro, Head of Department. I suppose he's my boss. He's wearing squarish glasses, a rare sight in this day and age.

“Yes, sir.” I respond. I've cleaned up nicely before coming to work; the wardrobe had been stocked full of suits tailored to my size. The offices themselves had been located in one of the taller skyscrapers in Kyoto, taking up an entire floor of its own. Strangely, the layout seems to be smaller than it would indicate from the outside. I wonder if there's a walled off area somewhere.

“You seem a bit young to be working, even if that old bastard Azo did give a pretty impressive recommendation. I hear you served in the war?”

“Yes, sir, I was drafted aboard the Kaguya-hime as one of its crew. I lost my parents in the attack.” A mix of lies and truth are the easiest to tell. With Azo's help, I had fabricated a new history of my own. It was easy, as Neo-Heliopolis had hosted a joint research effort between the former Empire and the Higashi. The Kaguya-hime's flight back to Earth was by now legendary. They are even making a movie out of it, with Naim playing himself as the starring role.

“I see. That is impressive. I will expect good results out of you. Well, welcome to the Department of Miscellanous Affairs, young Kurou. Do you know what we do here?” asks Mr. Sadomura.

I shake my head. “Minister Azo thought I would do well here, but he did not clarify anything else.”

“I suppose rather than hearing it from an old coot like me, I'll let one of our newer staff brief you. She's new but good at her job – she only came in just about a month back from one of our space colonies.” Mr. Sadomura turns to one of the desks behind him and calls out.

“Hey, Erika. I have a newbie here, called Kagami Kurou. Do you mind showing him around?”

Erika appears soon after, her long silver hair tied into a ponytail and a mug of cocoa in her hand. “I don't, sir. Please leave it to me.”

“There you have it,” grins the head, who appears to have mistaken my gawping for something else. “Don't stare too much at the flower of our department. I'll let the two of you young ones get along.”

Erika beckons at me to follow her, and I do so. We enter a deserted corridor. I suppose she knows I have questions to ask her.

“Mercenary life ended up being too boring for you?” I ask, wryly.

“My brother has become calm enough to take control of the clan again.” replies Erika. “Uncle said I could do whatever I want, so I came here.” I wonder why she did.

“How's your brother, by the way?”

“The wound you gave him appears to be untreatable, so they had to remodel him. We try not to mention you around him... he gets a bit unstable then. Since he's in space, you should be fine down here.” She remains as cool as always, even talking about things that she should probably be at least a tad emotional about.

“I'm not sure whether that's good or bad, but thank you for the heads up.”

“You're welcome. Perhaps, in repayment... sandwiches?” says Erika, slightly eagerly. I shift slightly and tap my earpiece. “Yua, how much do you know about -”

“My predecessor spoiled you too much. I am not making any sandwiches for you.” comes a curt reply.

“I'm sorry, Erika. Maybe another time.”

She seems a bit crestfallen.

“Anyway,” I point out, “You're supposed to be briefing me about this department. What do we do here?”

“Investigations.” she replies.

“Investigations into what, exactly?” I prompt.

She shrugs. “Miscellanous affairs. Unofficial things. Matters that the police are not equipped to handle for various reasons.”

“Do you have any examples?”

She smiles. “It'd be faster for you to experience it yourself. Perhaps you might want to get started today, Sen- no, Kurou? I'm authorized to handle one of these two cases, so we can work together on it.”

***

A. Rumour has it that women frequently go missing in dressing rooms while shopping on a certain street in Kyoto. Interestingly, a report has been made to the department recently about a local lawmaker vanishing in a dressing room while shopping in the upscale commercial district of Shijo. Said lawmaker is a prominent pro-augment advocate. Though her family has filed a missing persons report with the police, the higher-ups have requested that the department take a look into this affair; discreetly, of course.

B. Rumours abound of a hacker group that usurps the leadership of net communities by hacking into and masquerading as administrators and moderators. Though initial investigations have found no real leads thus far, the department has received an anonymous tip-off that there may be an attempt on 7ch, the third largest net community in the world. The head wants someone to monitor the community just in case anything happens.

***

“Urban legends related to the internet and augmentation?”

Erika nods.

I seem to understand what the department is all about now. I suppose this would be a good way to get myself re-acquainted with how the system works in Higashi; certainly, this department wasn't around back when I was still active, or the ISC wouldn't have had to capture me themselves.
 

Part 2 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act I

BAndwagon victory.

***

Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act I

Reconstruction is still going on in major parts of Kyoto. I see many construction robots wading their way clumsily through the streets, restoring the destroyed buildings under the supervision of humans in mechs. Despite the infrastructure damage and lives lost to the colony drop, and in spite of the war still ongoing just a hundred kilometres above their heads, a sense of normalcy seems to have returned to the people of Kyoto.

The worst is over. What else could happen? The war will end soon. Who cares what is going on in space?

All these thoughts, and countless others similar to it, are fostered by the media and politicians every day. It was not a year ago that Higashi was fighting for its own survival against the Indus Confederation; now they are treated as a distant memory, a defeated opponent fleeing where Earth's gravity cannot reach them. The cult itself remains public enemy number one, with constant televised reminders to report any sympathetic behaviour towards the Apostles. However, I can't help but feel that as long as the cult does not take any more overt action on Earth, the incessant warnings only serve to deaden the public's interest in the cult; it is fast becoming background noise amongst all the war propaganda that is being aired.

Speaking of war propaganda, as the train takes Erika and I towards Shijo, I spot a poster for Naim's upcoming movie. They'll be auditioning for a vital part next month; though most of the major roles have been cast, no one seems to want to play the character of the traitorous terrorist known as Hoshikawa Senya. Apparently the memory is still too fresh and too painful, especially amongst the Higashi that had adored the Shinari royals and have become the major creative force behind the movie. They're considering writing off the character, but it seems that the director had insisted he be kept in as a sequel hook for another movie where Naim can proceed to take bloody revenge for his beloved princess. It seems he's spending more time being a celebrity hero to the public than fighting at the frontlines nowadays.

“Perhaps I should audition for the part.” I mutter.

“Why not? It'd be funny.” says Erika. I frown at her, and she raises her eyebrows in return. “You were talking out loud.”

“Sorry. Oh yeah, Erika? Do you know anything about what happened to Kyrie?” No harm in asking. She might actually know something, since Shulgi is her uncle.

“Nothing, besides what everyone knows. You think she's...?”

“I know she is.”

“That's great.” There's a genuine smile on her lips, for the briefest second.

“I didn't think you were that close with her.”

“We had some talks about you, back at the academy.”

“Oh?”

“It's private stuff.”

And that, as they say, was that. Erika turns away to look out the window – it's clear I'm not going to get anything more out of her for now.

***

The urban legend about women being abducted in the changing rooms of a certain shopping mall have been circulating for more than a decade. I recall hearing the same rumour from my sister once; she had heard it from a friend of hers, and had been too frightened to go to any shops for weeks. I had checked it out in my spare time, with my friends, and found nothing of note. We did gain some... unlawful footage, footage that sparked the first blossom of adolescent curiosity in our barely pubescent minds. The things some people get up to behind the curtains of those cubicles...

Anyway, it looks like the rumours have continued unabated. They have taken on a more sinister twist lately – whereas the old story had the fate of the women unknown, the new one spoke of them being sold to an underground club where they were tortured and forced to perform for the pleasure of the club's members. Just recently, a blurry picture was leaked on the internet, as purported proof of the rumour's authenticity. It depicted a gloomy room dimly lit only by candles. A naked woman was suspended in the center of the room from her arms. She appeared to have no legs, just bloody stumps. The photo's condition was too poor to make out any more detail than that. Most of the internet community immediately denounced it as a hoax, a forgery to lend the urban legend more authenticity.

According to the files of the Department of Miscellanous Affairs, however, the physical profile of the woman appeared to match that of a subject of a missing person's case that had been reported nearly three months ago. Even so, there is no conclusive evidence. No one could identify the room in the photo, nor could the person who uploaded it in the first place be traced.

Which brings us to where we are now; the department is not taking any missing people in Shijo lightly, particularly if they are slightly more prominent members of society.

“So, which shop was it?” I ask Erika. She just keeps quiet and points ahead. I guess this means I'm supposed to follow her. We're in the largest mall in Shijo, Sunflower Complex. It had remained untouched by the war, and it is as crowded as ever. There are probably more than 5000 shops in here, though I only know the electronics and games-oriented ones. Fashionable clothes are a bit far from the sphere of my hobbies. The department had given us the budget to suit up normally, however, and both Erika and I are dressed up in the trendy, casual wear popular with teenagers nowadays. Though I blend into the crowd somewhat with my plain hoodie jacket, Erika turns the heads of the crowd with her silver hair, long legs and model-like looks.

“I should have kept the eyepatch.” I muse. “You're getting all the attention.”

“You should have,” she replies. “You looked cooler with it.”

“Too late for regrets now.” I have my right eye's vision blocked with an opaque contact lens. It's indistinguishable when I have it on, and seems to work just as well as an eyepatch does. Despite what I said, I do find it more comfortable to not have people staring at me in public. I'll probably be able to modify it with some extra functions when I have time, but the delicate equipment I would need to do so is somewhat difficult to acquire.

“We're here.” remarks Erika, stopping in front of a rather pink and lacy store. So it was this type of shop.

I look around desperately. “Do I really have to go in there?”

“It's your job.”

Sighing, I enter Madame Tuvalu's Etrurian Lingerie Boutique.

The experience is overwhelming; I don't know where to put my eyes. A female attendant comes up to us, beaming. I let Erika do all the talking. Judging from the police report, the detectives in charge have done all the questioning competently; there is nothing I would ask that they haven't already. Obviously, none of the staff said anything that would put them under suspicion. She looks around for the dressing room that the lawmaker was reported to have gone missing in. Picking up the sort of lingerie I'd never expect her to wear, she gives me a rather fake smile and walks into the room. Well, she can take care of herself... she'd probably still best me in a fight 7 times out of 10.

I wish I could wear something like this...”

“Did you say something, Yua?”

“N-nothing. Please be focused on your work.” says Yua 2.0, uncharacteristically flustered at my question. My eyes dart around the shop while I wait, and fall upon a familiar looking pair of panties. Ah, yes. Kyrie had made me do her laundry once, and caught me staring at a similar pair halfway through. The less said about what happened next, the better.

“Se- Kurou!” whispers Erika loudly, poking her head out from between the curtains of the changing room. “Could you take a look at this?”

There are sniggers from all around as the customers and shop attendants glance at me. Turning red, I make my way towards the changing room at a brisk pace. Though I hesitate right before going in, Erika grabs me and pulls me inside. Thankfully, she's still fully clothed.

“What is it?”

“I sense something wrong, but I can't make out what it is.”

I nod, understanding the situation. This is when my ability comes in handy. I breathe in deeply and activate it. The world turns still as my senses become manyfold sharper than usual. I can feel Erika's body heat radiating strongly from her in this cramped space. There's something off about this room. The police had checked the room thoroughly for any signs of hidden chambers or passageways, but found nothing. I can tell that there is nothing like that in here, but there is something else that they had missed.

The mirror is slightly, strangely hollow. Of course, there would be no place for anyone to hide inside, but it was a compartment nonetheless. There could be an important clue within. Erika had sensed the subtle distortion of her image within the mirror due to its construction, but couldn't put words to it. I run my fingers along the smooth reflective surface, tapping it, but find no purchase for to pry it open. It's extremely well-constructed, so seamless that even if I were to use my tendrils I would not be able to slip them between the glass and its frame.

“Break it?” asks Erika.

***

A. It's unlikely we'll get official permission to confiscate it – and we are not operating in any official capacity whatsoever anyway, so we can come back to investigate the mirror later at our leisure, after the shop is closed.

B. I try to talk the shop's manager into selling us the mirror. We do have a really nice, sumptuous budget to work with; to be honest, I could probably buy half of the lingerie on display casually if I so desired.

C. This might be a red herring; I'm overthinking things. There's probably other explanations for a weird mirror. I should approach the case from another angle instead and not waste my time with this.

D. Break it.
 

Part 3 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act II

Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act II


“Break it.” I say. Erika nods, a smile on her face.

“Wait, this is crazy. We'll get discovered immediately,” protests Yua in my ear.

“It's the fastest way to get to the bottom of this.” I reply, “If the victim is still alive, we need to get to her as soon as possible. That means taking a gamble.”

“But-”

Yua is interrupted by a loud crack, as Erika punches the mirror, her arm moving so fast that it is a blur to my eyes. The mirror doesn't shatter noisily, but splinters inward. Erika frowns as she retracts her fist. “There was something sticky inside.”

Sticky?

“Sir? M'am? Are you alright in there?” I can see the shop attendant's feet under the red curtain separating our chamber from the outside, her voice full of worry. The last thing they needed was probably more rumours about mysterious events happening in their shop.

“It's fine,” I call out. “Just... a bit of an accident. She got too excited over your excellent selection.”

I turn back to Erika, who is gently shifting away pieces of broken glass. Looking within, I see that the underside of the mirror is coated with a slimy black film, sticky enough to hold the pieces together. The film wriggles and begins to writhe, accumulating itself near the back of the secret compartment. There is a strange, small rod-shaped device within that appears to be secreting the black substance from its center, where it's almost broken in two. The impact of Erika's punch must have damaged it.

There's a brief flash of purple from the rod. My tendrils begin to form and writhe uncontrollably under my skin, yearning to break free.

“I think we better run.” I mumble, while Yua just sighs and says, “This will all end in tears, I just know it.”

Neither I nor Erika manage to throw aside the curtain to escape in time. The black substance from the rod shapes itself into sinuous tendrils similar to mine. They shoot forward at a great speed and sink into my wrist. The rod's appendages meet my own tendrils, undulating just under the surface, and melt into them seamlessly. I get sick and nauseous as it happens. My brain feels like it is being tossed about in a mixer. At the same time, the world appears to divide into smaller fragments of itself, multiplying endlessly at a rapid pace. Besides me, Erika grips my arm, her fingernails digging in painfully and her eyes unfocused; she appears to be seeing it too. My environment shifts as colour is bleached out of the world. Everything turns a curious shade of white. The fragments of reality begin to form patterns; floors, ceilings, structures. A great pale hallway of mirrors begins to build itself around me, stretching off into the distance as far as the eye can see. I stare into its endless shifting corridors and twisting staircases that each lead to a world similar - but not identical - to mine and realize that I will lose myself very, very soon in infinity if I do not regain control.

I will myself back into a state of utmost concentration, seeking to understand what lies before me.

As my brain grows more able to process the myriad worlds, I find myself able to tap on the remnants of information in the shattered rod. The black substance had brought that to me when it poured into my body. I still do not understand fully the principles behind the rod, but I know its function now. I focus, trying to see the way out – where the rod would have led me. The constant, amorphous movement of the hallway slows to a halt. The corridors and stairways stop branching off into uncountable paths, stabilizing into a state of utter stillness. Then, the hall begins to break apart, reality reconstructing itself to my will. The changing room we were in reappears around us, bit by bit, piece by piece. I am certain it is not the exact room we had been in, but anywhere is better than getting lost in the infinite labyrinth.

Finally, the task is complete, as the world stitches itself back together. I sink to my knees, exhausted. My breath is ragged, and my ability has been drained from the effort; I just hope there are no more surprises coming my way. Erika shakes her head, panting. She gets up first, recovering quickly, and helps me to my feet.

“What just happened?”

“Some sort of dimensional transfer.” I mutter. Damaging the rod had caused it to go out of control. I was extremely lucky that I had managed to harness the last of its power and direct us where it was supposed to send us in the first place. Looking at the cracked artifact, I can see that it won't be of any use anymore. I pocket it just in case, shoving it into the front pouch of my hoodie. This will be an interesting thing to analyze later. Still, of all the unexpected, batshit insane things to happen... I sigh. My life is truly cursed. Things can never be just normal, like maybe uncovering a crime syndicate trafficking in women, can they?

“Can you tell where we are, Yua?”

“Negative. I have lost all data connection. Wherever we are-”

“I've a feeling we're not in Kyoto anymore.” Erika quips. I'm surprised. That sounds like a line from a rather recent movie – I didn't peg her to be the sort to watch films.

“Well, that remains to be seen,” I reply. “Let's have a look around this place.”

As we make our way out of the dressing room, I note that everything appears to be identical to our world, except this one is deserted. Upon closer observation, everything is also fake and exceedingly grey. The curtains, racks and lingerie – coloured various shades of monotone grey – are all joined seamlessly where they meet. It is as if someone had taken a plastic mould of the entire store. I touch one of the racks. It is hard, smooth and surprisingly warm to the touch. There is light coming in from the translucent grey display windows. Silently, Erika and I head to the rooftop of the mall. Her kick opens the grey door easily, breaking the lock. She heads out first, sniffing the air. A suspicious look creeps into Erika's eyes, but she does nothing else.

As I step out onto the roof, the familiar vista of Kyoto stretches out before me. It is almost identical, but greyer and lifeless. Here and there, I see strange structures that appear to have melded with the skyscrapers, half buried into the ground. The architecture is definitely not Higashi, but one of the silhouettes of those buildings looks familiar. A tall obelisk dominates the skyline not far away from us, towering over the world. The sky itself is cloudless and pure, featureless white. There is light and heat emanating from somewhere up there, but I can't identify the source. The air is still, with not the slightest hint of any breeze - it is breathable, but stale and unpleasant. One thing is clear, however; this would explain the mysterious disappearances. The women could have been brought into this world by whoever was controlling the device. As it had appeared together with us when we arrived, it is possible that the rod somehow exists in both worlds at the same time, perhaps as a bridge. No one has reported people mysteriously appearing in the shopping mall, so there is probably another way out somewhere in the city. I'll just have to find it.

“Senya, look at this.” Erika speaks up suddenly, peering at the ground. I turn to see what she's talking about. She holds up an empty can of instant coffee, bright red in this monotone world. At the same time, I hear the door slam behind us. There was someone up here when we arrived.

“I caught a bit of a scent, but it was unclear. This world is playing havoc with my senses.” complains Erika. She crouches, preparing to sprint after the mysterious interloper. I'm too weak right now to keep up with her; if she goes after the person, we'll be temporarily separated.

***

A. I let her go after whoever just ran away. That's probably a crucial suspect in this case; who else would be hanging around here? Erika's physical prowess should allow her to catch up and capture the person easily. Letting him or her get away might even allow them to set up an ambush for us later on, as they now know our position and can get prepared for our arrival.

B. It's too risky to get ourselves separated in this place. We should stick together – who knows if they already have an ambush ready and are just luring us apart? This new environment we find ourselves in is too strange for me to take any further risks. I'll just have to trade the disadvantage of them knowing about our arrival for the advantage of knowing that Erika is watching my back and vice versa.

***

1. I stay where I am. It's safer to move only when I've recovered – that might take the better part of five hours or so, but I can spend that time investigating the shopping mall before heading out into the city.

2. I head towards the obelisk. It is too unnatural looking and too noticeable for it to be of total unimportance. Whatever I find there will definitely be close to the center of all this strangeness.

3. I head towards the half-buried building; I remember what it reminds me of, now – the Imperial palace in Ankida. What a fascimile of that is doing here I don't know, but it should be worth checking out.
 

Part 4 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act III

The Case of the Disappearing Lawmaker, Act III


I grab Erika's shoulder, holding her back. “Wait-”

She shrugs off my grip, her lips pursed in dissatisfaction. Her eyes fix upon mine with a 'you better have a good reason for this' stare. Reluctantly, I explain myself. “We're not sure where we are, and whether there's anything dangerous out there.”

“I can handle myself.” replies Erika bluntly.

“Well, I can't, not right now. I need you by my side.” I sigh. A strange squeak escapes her throat and she looks away from me while nodding, a slight flush creeping into her cheeks.

“Don't say things you don't mean,” warns Yua.

“What are you talking about?” I have no time to be perplexed right now. I don't want to spend another second longer here than is necessary. The place is giving me the creeps, and I've started to feel slightly dizzy ever since we arrived. “Let's plan our next course of action.”

***

We decide to check out the building that looks similar to the Shinari Imperial Palace. Making our way downwards to the exit of the mall – the elevators aren't working, though that is no surprise – we find nothing else of note, and no signs of life. The strangeness does not change outside of the mall. The streets, lampposts, and even the trees and cars lining the sidewalks are all constructed – or coated – with the same weird material that the entire mall was made of. More disturbingly, here and there I see pale grey human statues that seem eerily detailed. Whether they are mere replicas, or actual humans frozen for eternity, I have no idea. I found them in a variety of poses; some sitting on benches, others walking down the street, and even a busker holding a guitar with a hat in front of him. There are subway entrances, just like in the real Kyoto. I assume the paths beneath follow the same route as the actual metro, but I'm too uneasy to explore the underground right now. Erika remains silent all the while, keeping a lookout for any signs of the person that had fled upon our arrival.

As we approach the fake palace, the colour of the ground gradually becomes more and more translucent. Dark, shadowy shapes underneath my feet begin to resolve into more buildings, buried within a grey sea. These looked older, more ancient – none of them are more than five storeys tall, though here and there the top parts of the taller buildings grew out of the land, some of them merging seamlessly with the modern structures of Kyoto where the two overlapped. Taking a closer look, it's clear that the older buildings are Shinari in origin – or to be more exact, Ankidan. It's almost as if Kyoto had been laid atop Ankida like a layered cake.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a flicker of movement. Erika doesn't seem to have noticed it, but I turn about instantly, on the alert. In the distance, there is a white human statue that doesn't seem to have been there before. It's too far for me to make out any details, but it's distinctly different in colouring from the grey ones that I have seen along the way. Before I can say anything to Erika, it vanishes, right before my eyes.

“What's the matter, Senya?” asks Erika.

“I thought I saw something.” I mutter.

“I didn't sense anything.” says Erika, puzzled.

“It could just be my nerves.” The dizziness in my head had gradually become replaced with a light, but irritating pulsing ache that seemed to synchronize itself with my heartbeat. It wouldn't be strange to start hallucinating in this twisted world. We continue moving on, but I can't shake the sensation that I'm being watched.

It takes another two hours of walking before we reach the palace. My stomach begins grumbling, and my throat is parched. Even if we're in another world, that doesn't mean we don't need to eat or drink. The light and heat coming from the sky hasn't changed in intensity or direction – this world is in a perpetual state of day. The entire sky itself seems to be the source of the light. It is not blinding or glaring, but just bright enough to cast an uncomfortable, unnatural illumination over the entire city. The palace itself is no different from its surroundings, though only the top two floors are above ground, conjoined with a building I recognize as the Kyoto Metropolitan Police headquarters.

There are no convenient entrances into the palace, and I opt to go in from the police HQ. I have only been inside the police headquarters once, two years ago but from what I can remember of the layout, this place is identical. Nothing strange there, then. The lobby of the HQ leads seamlessly into a massive bedchamber on the top floor of the palace, the floor transitioning smoothly from marble to wood. Judging from the grandeur, this must be where the Emperor and his consort spend the night. The décor looks positively ancient, though. There are no signs of modern amenities anywhere; no ventilation ducts for air-conditioning, lamps, or electrical outlets. The Ankida replicated here must date back to an older time.

“Can you identify the time period, Yua?”

“Give me some time to analyse the visual data. Please proceed as usual while I do so.”

There seems to be nothing else of note on the top floor, and we begin heading downwards. It is not until we reach the grand hall of the palace that we find something interesting.

It seems that a great battle had taken place in the hall some time ago. Most of the furniture is shattered. Huge gouges scarred the walls and floor, as if some great beast had clawed at it. An entire wall had been scorched black by intense flame. There are even corpses. Unlike the statues I had seen outside, these are undeniably the remains of real humans. They have been mummified remarkably – no, inexplicably – well; the air here does not seem to promote decay, but I do not know of any environment that could keep a body looking as if it had died less than a week ago. I'm not sure if I should even call it mummification. There had to be about a dozen of them, though I cannot tell for sure; most of them had not died with their bodies intact. Preserved innards and limbs litter the damaged floor, laying where they had fell. Their steel armour has remained mostly rust-free, if severely twisted from the trauma of their violent deaths. The light grey floor is stained a deep black with their dried blood.

Even so, the savagery of the slaughter on display seems removed from ourselves, as if we had only been granted a peek through a window in time. Erika examines the bodies more closely, checking their wounds. “They were torn apart by brute force, not weapons.” she concludes. “I can't tell any more than that.” Neither can I, though the sight of the bodies had caused my heartrate to speed up, and with it my headache.

A long, bloody smear trails off from the grand hall towards one of the wings, as if a large slug of some sort had dragged itself away from the fight. The main doors of the hall are open, but it is dark outside – it must lead somewhere underground. We follow the trail of blood, ending up in a study lined with shelves full of books. The books on the shelves are useless moulds of the real thing, unopenable and unreadable, though the writing on the covers appear to be a form of old Shinari script. There is, however, a stack of books that stand out from the grey background. The pages are yellowed and the ink faded, but at least this are real books, not fascimiles. I flip through a few of it; they're written in a smooth cursive in the same script that is on the fake books.

“Can you translate this?” I ask Yua.

“No, I do not have the resources for that at the moment. Instead, I can tell you that based on the architecture and the bodies we found in the hall, this building appears to have been replicated more than two thousand years ago. It matches descriptions of Imperial Ankida during its heyday.”

“Thanks, Yua. Now, let's see what I can do with these...” I flip through all the books, while Erika moves about the room, looking bored. I should take some with me so that Yua can work on a translation once we are out of here. One of the books, a dull black affair, has dates written down at regular intervals. Though I cannot read the script, it seems that the format is similar to that of a scientific report, which I am familiar with. This is intriguing. I take it, and another of the books...

***

A. I take the one marked with the crest of an eye, surrounded by a ring of black fire.

B. I take the one marked with the crest of a sceptre with five prongs on each end.

C. I take the one marked with the crest of the old Shinar Empire.

***

“Senya, there are people approaching us.” warns Erika suddenly. I shove the books into my clothes. “How many?”

“I can hear... more than ten.”

There's only one exit out of the study, and if we get cornered in here it would be a dead end. I rush out into the corridors, but it is too late. A gunshot rings out as I enter the grand hall. A bullet buries itself into the floor near my feet, barely missing my toes.

There are about eight of them, all cloaked and hooded, standing at the staircase. Three of them are armed with rifles, while the others have various sharp implements in hand. There are also five misshapen monsters I recognize as familiars, similar to what Gallardo had built, though these looked quite a bit more menacing and well-made.

“Who are you, and how did you get here?” hisses one of the rifle-wielding men.

“My name is Kagami Kurou,” I reply without missing a beat, letting just the right amount of a tremor enter my voice to display my fear and uncertainty. “I have no idea how I got here. I was with my girl here at a shop, then suddenly we were in this weird place. We just wanted to buy something for tonight, so please don't shoot me.”

The hooded figures begin muttering amongst each other. After a while, the first man speaks again. “I think you have something of ours. Return it and we'll let you go.” He is probably referring to the rod that we damaged. I wonder if I should give it to him. I can sense Erika getting restless by my side, but I don't want her to take any rash actions.

“Hold on, what are you talking about?” I ask. Best to buy for time. If I can somehow find another hour for us, I will be able to use my powers again. That would balance out the odds somewhat. Judging from how the rod had reacted, as well as the familiars accompanying them, I can guess that these men were definitely related to the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them had tendrils, just like I did, so it would be better to take a cautious stance for now until I can confirm their level of threat.

“There's something of ours that you must have taken when you came here. It would have looked like a rod. Give it to us and you are free to go.” repeats the man.

“Rod? Where did you put it?”

“Stop playing games! It was behind the mirror that you broke-”

He doesn't finish his sentence, as it is interrupted by a scream. One of the hooded figures is looking at the wing opposite where I was standing. I feel a sharp pain shoot through my head as I follow its gaze.

A white humanoid stands there, unmoving. How had it come into the palace? Is it the same one I thought I saw out in the streets? This close, I can make out a few more details. It had a face – a very human, life-like face – of a woman, its mouth frozen into a wide open scream, but the rest of its body is featureless and shapeless, as if it had been wrapped in a white, body-shaped sack. The creature would look comical if not for the terrifying expression on the face, the eyes bulging from their sockets. It's unlike anything I've seen before – though the cultists' familiars are abominations, the mere existence of this thing feels unnatural in a very different way.

A thought wanders into my head – a single thought that comes from within me, though I do not recognize it as my own.

It should not exist, should never exist, and in fact does not exist at all.

“What the fuck is that thing?” shouts one of them, a female judging from the timbre of her voice. It looks like they've never seen it before, either. Then, the thing moves. It takes a slow, jerking step forward, moving like a stop-motion monster from the days of old, hand-made special effects.

One of the hooded cultists opens fire with an automatic rifle. The hail of bullets passes through the white humanoid without stopping it one bit. The holes that they form are sealed up in moments, looking like they were never there in the first place. As they retreat from the newcomer, Erika and I forgotten in their panic, they send a familiar against it. It is a monstrous one, with leonine fangs and great, burly arms. The familiar grabs the sluggish humanoid and begins trying to tear it apart, the muscles in its arms bulging.

Not a moment later, the familiar shrieks. Its hands are now decaying, turning as white as the humanoid's body where contact has been made. The albescent rot spreads rapidly, reducing the familiar into a pile of pale goo in moments. Naturally, the cultists do not stay to fight the white thing. They flee up the stairs, stumbling over one another in their haste to get away, as their familiars bound after them.

***

A. We run up the stairs, past the sluggish creature, following the cultists. They are probably the culprits behind the recent disappearances. We don't need to confront them immediately, but if Erika can track them to their lair, we will assault it later. They should have a way out of here, so I can't lose sight of them now.

B. It would probably be safer to give the white humanoid a wide berth and flee from the main doors of the hall. I can provide some light from my cell phone as long as the batteries hold out, and the underground streets probably cross paths with the subways. We can get back to the surface from there and then try to find a way out.

C. We try to take down the strange thing. I can feel that it is dangerous, probably more so than the cultists, but it isn't very fast or responsive, and doesn't seem to be aggressive. If we can avoid touching it directly, we will probably be fine. We should at least test its limits; if it turns out to be unbeatable, then we will retreat.
 

Part 5 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act IV

The Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Act IV


“Erika! Track them, but don't do anything until I get there.”

She nods and sprints off, leaping over the handrails of the grand stairway in a single bound. I, on the other hand, have to settle for a more normal attempt. The white creature turns to face me jerkily. As I prepare to run around it, a white hand lashes out, reaching for me with surprising speed. Thinking quickly, I grab the outstretched limb with my cybernetic hand. It somehow flakes, crumbles and melts as it turns white, all at the same time. I pull away hard, stumbling on the stairs as the artificial hand detaches. The thing just looks at me with those bulging, veiny eyes, tracking me with that dead gaze. At its side, the pool of goo that was once the familiar begins stirring to life. Looks like I better get the hell out of here. It makes no effort to come after me at all, and I take the chance to flee up the stairs. Hopefully we won't meet again.

Dashing back out into the grey city, I spot Erika perched atop a nearby building. She kicks off, leaping from rooftop to rooftop; she must still be following the cultists at a safe distance, as per my instructions.The chase continues for quite some time - our quarry seems to be constantly retreating in a direction away from both the palace and the obelisk. We were headed back to the area near the shopping mall; now I feel silly for not having checked out the surroundings more thoroughly before venturing so far out. I struggle to keep up as I run through the streets. My headache is getting worse at every second, though somehow it doesn't interfere with my physical ability and stamina – it just keeps me from concentrating. Just when I thought I'd lost her, Erika lands nimbly in front of me.

“They're in that building on the left.” She points out said building to me. It's a non-descript, three-storey store. The signage indicates that it is a motel of some sort. “Are you alright?” asks Erika, noticing that I'm pale and sweating. I nod my aching head. “Don't worry. Let's get going.” No point wasting time here – that headache isn't going to go away by itself anytime soon.

“You're pushing yourself too much,” nags Yua. Well, it looks like that hasn't changed about her, at least.

Erika takes the point. The door opens without resistance, and we enter the gloomy store. Signs of habitation are all over the place; it looks like this is where they live when they are here. We check the rooms one by one; most are abandoned, while others appear to be newly ransacked. Erika confirms that the cultists had all entered this building, but none of them appear to be on the ground floor. As we near the stairs, a groan comes from the room adjacent to it.

Inside, we find what we have been looking for. The lawmaker... sans her legs. The room's layout appears identical to that in the mysterious photo, complete with candles. A hooded cultist is trying to untie her – she appears to be unconscious. As we enter, the cultist turns around with a gasp. Before Erika can close in to attack, the cultist raises two thin arms into the air. One hand reaches around and grasps the dirty brown hood.

“I surrender,” whispers the cultist timidly, pulling down the hood. “Please, take me with you.” It's a young girl, probably about 14 years of age. “You're the police, right? I was the one who leaked the photo. I can tell you guys everything.”

“Tell us what you know right now, and I may consider it.” My headache had dissipated when I entered the room, and I'm feeling as good as new now. I'm thinking more clearly than I ever have. It looks like the headache washed away a lot of irrelevant matters from my head.

“I... I can't tell you everything right now, we don't have time,” says the girl. “We were brought here by the Third Hierarch, Brother Falco, and he said we had a divine task to do. He... he took women and... this isn't what I thought we would be doing.” I wonder what happened to the other abductees. I only see the lawmaker here. I step closer to the girl, speaking in a comforting tone. “I see. Where are they now?”

“Upstairs, on the top floor. They're preparing to return back to the real world. They're waiting for me to join them and perform the ritual, but I wanted to untie her at least...” she gestures at the lawmaker.

“That is very kind of you,” I smile. As she looks at my face, an expression of realization appears on hers.

“You... aren't you the brother of the Messiah? Master Senya?”

I thought the slight change done during reconstruction would have tweaked my features slightly enough so that I wasn't fingered as a terrorist every time I stepped out. I still bear an uncanny resemblance to my old looks, but Azo had arranged for it so that all the photos circulated of me were the grim ones with multiple scars and an eye-patch. It looks like this girl remembered, however.

“Chief Maiden Keiko spoke of you frequently.” There's an obvious tone of awe in her voice.

Ah, one of Keiko's underlings, I suppose. That explains matters somewhat. She grabs my hand. There's a low growl coming from Erika, somewhere behind me.

“You can save us! The believers are in disarray, and we don't know who to trust anymore. Some even say the Great Mother has abandoned those of us still here on Earth. I always thought you were the real saviour, once they talked about you on television. They were definitely lying - the boy Chief Maiden Keiko spoke of and the brother of the Messiah wouldn't murder anyone. You must have sacrificed your good name for the sake of others, as befitting a real messiah, so that you could save the believers in secret, just like you came to save me, right?”

Foolish, fanciful notions. Still, I do nothing to dispel her misconception for now. Playing off coincidence as providence is a fine way to gain trust. Before I can say anything else to her, the pain in my head returns for a brief second. How annoying; it seems that this won't last... ah, the pain is back again. This headache. This fucking headache. This fucking pain in the ass. I grit my teeth, bearing it, and beam at the girl with the utmost kindness I can muster.

***

A. I take her into custody. She'll serve as a witness in the prosecution of this case once I return with the lawmaker. This will grant the girl some means of protection, as well as ensure the prosecution goes more smoothly.

B. She will be far more useful to me if my 'colleagues' in the department do not know of her existence. I will set it up so that I can sneak her back into the real world, where her knowledge and contacts with the now fractured cult should prove to be most informative.

C. She knows too much. She might talk to the wrong people when we get back. I should just kill her now, to be on the safe side.

***

As for the other members of the cult that are currently waiting upstairs...

A. Once I join the fight seriously, 'Brother Falco' and the rest of the cultists will likely know who I am. They will need to be silenced. Besides, I have no need for them. They won't set one foot in the real world; I don't plan on letting any of these idiots live.

B. I need to arrest some suspects for the case. Going back with just the lawmaker will improve my reputation, but having living cultists they can put on trial is even better. To camouflage my real identity I will have to let Erika do the bulk of the work, but I rather suspect she will be happy and prove up to the task anyway.
 

Part 6 - Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Conclusion

Case of the Missing Lawmaker, Conclusion


I ask the girl to look after the lawmaker and wait for me. I tell her I'll be back soon. Erika and I ascend the stairs, my head pounding with each step I climb. On the second floor, we finally meet the enemy. I had expected to find them here; the four surviving familiars stand in our way.

I have no interest in them.

“Erika, do you think you're up for a bout with these things? They should be more of a challenge than the humans ahead.”

“Yeah. It'll be more fun.”

“Good. Enjoy yourself.” She charges into battle, attracting the monsters' attention. Four combat-type familiars should occupy her for perhaps ten minutes, maybe less if she's improved since the last time I saw here.

That should still give me enough time to do whatever I want.

I continue walking, moving towards the stairs to the top floor. One of the familiars leaps at me, but it is swiftly pinned to the ground by Erika, who now has a dagger in each hand. Ignoring the sights and sounds of carnage, I move on ahead. I remove the opaque lens in my right eye as I climb the stairs. I would prefer to have both eyes for what lies ahead.

“Are you okay? Your neural activity is-”

“I want silence, Yua. We will speak later.”

***

track: goldenslaughterer

I open the door casually. All as one, seven cultists turn to face me, expressions of shock on their faces. They had been standing in a circle lined with candles, presumably performing some ritual to leave this place. Their slowness is irritating. They should have attacked me immediately. Their faces are irritating. What is with that slack-jawed expression? But my headache is the most irritating thing of all. Activating my ability doesn't do a thing to stop it. I suppress all the annoyance I feel, and smile in greeting.

“You!” shouts a bearded man, probably Brother Falco, judging from the regalia decorating his robes. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to return something of yours.” I put my hand into my pocket, and slowly withdraw the broken rod. They gasp in horror. I notice one of the women cling onto the man besides her. That's really sweet – you really do find love in the strangest places.

“You bastard... you infidel!” screams Brother Falco. “What did you do to it?”

“It wasn't me,” I bow apologetically. “My friend broke it by accident. How much does it cost? I can pay.”

“Grab him! He must be punished for destroying a sacred relic!”

The first man to approach me tries to grab my handless arm, carelessly judging me by my appearance. Perhaps they have been preying on helpless women for too long. Right before his fingers encircle my wrist, I reach over with my left hand and grab them. If I just push back slightly in this direction... there we go. There is a loud pop as the joints of his fingers dislocate. He screams in pain. I raise my hand, forcing him to stretch up as he follows my lead. Then, I stamp down on his lower leg at an angle with all my strength. The tibia bends at its weakest point, where I have applied the most force, and splinters. His shin buckles inwards, and his scream turns into a shrill shriek. The man collapses, in too much pain to do anything but gurgle. The noise he's making is absolutely irritating. I put him out of his misery by crushing his neck underfoot.

I toss the broken rod to the floor in front of the stunned cultists, still smiling.

“Is that how you treat people who are kind enough to return what you lost?”

Brother Falco's face has turned purple with anger and fear. “You - you're with the government, aren't you? You're one of their augments!”

“This is just a job,” I shrug. “Maybe if you tell me why you did all this, I will let you go. I'm extremely curious about your reasons. I would appreciate it if you think of this little difficulty you are facing as a test.”

He does something predictable in reply – he orders his men to get their guns. What an idiot. This room is too small for them to fire without hitting one another. I spare them the misery of realizing their own foolishness. Before they can aim their rifles at me, my tendrils lash out, catching them by surprise and knocking the guns out of their hands.

“I'll give that zero points. Predictable and stupid.” I remark, as I capture one of the men with my tendrils. They tighten under his head. The man's eyes widen in surprise. Before he can cry out, I snap his neck, giving him a clean death.

By now, the cultists have backed away from me, huddling at the far wall, Brother Falco included.

“Great Mother protect me. You're not government...” he mumbles.

“Oh, no, your first guess was correct,” I grin as I walk towards them slowly. “I do work for the government.”

“You're not one of us either. I know every brother that has been blessed with the power of the Goddess's Messenger. What are you?”

“You mean these?” I raise the stump at the end of my right fore-arm, allowing the tendrils to thicken and solidify into the form of a black hand. Falco's eyes open wide, staring at me as he realizes my identity. How irritatingly slow. That girl down there is quicker than he.

“You were supposed to be dead.” he whispers. “She told us you were still dead, that it was all just propaganda of the Federation. No... you should be dead.”

“As you can see, the rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Now, about my question-”

Falco suddenly strikes at me, black tentacles of his own surging from his arms and streaming towards my face. I take a quick step backwards.

“Now, this is more like it! That's worth fifty points, and here I thought you weren't going to put up a fight!” I laugh.

Falco shouts to his cultists, a note of desperation in his voice. “It's the devil! The black nightmare that is the nemesis of our saviour! Fight him! We might not be able to win, but we can weaken him, for the glory of the Apostles and the sake of our Messiah!” They seem convinced, their morale suddenly bolstered. Should I be honored that they seem to have commemorated my existence in their teachings? I grin, but my pleasure soon falters.

They attack crudely, rushing headlong towards their doom. What is this? This is no fun. This is no challenge. It looks like the only entertainment I will get out of them will be to crush them and then sate my curiosity about their motives. I pick my target – the woman I had marked earlier. I dodge beneath their wild swings and send out my tendrils. They penetrate her skin, digging deep into her flesh, and twine themselves around her nerves. She lets out a long, drawn-out scream, as I puppet her in front of me as a hostage. Her man roars in rage, running straight at me. He is stopped by the woman, as I make her embrace him. His anger turns to terror, an expression reflected in the face of the woman, as her arms begin crushing his spine in a bear hug, my tendrils stimulating her muscles beyond their limits. The woman's arms begin to bruise as her muscles rupture and bleed from the strain. Falco's tendrils come for me from the right. I allow the mass of tendrils that have formed a makeshift hand to disperse and intercept his.

“Foul devil! Thief of the Messenger's powers!” he screams, flecks of spittle spraying in the air.

“If these are the Messenger's powers, they are wasted on you.” I chuckle. “Let me show you how they can be used.”

I retract my tendrils from the woman and her lover. They topple to the ground, locked together in death. My control over these black appendages is superb today. Concentrating, I reduce their thickness, making them thinner and thinner. The flowing mass of extremely thin tendrils looks like a floating wave of black wire, and I allow these to wash over the remaining two cultists, slicing their flesh into ribbons wherever the wiry tendrils touch them. Falco's own tendrils only succeed in splitting themselves apart as he tries futilely to pull his subordinates away from my grasp. The floor of the room is soaked in blood by the time I finish, though my victims had stopped screaming long before then.

Brother Falco screams. As he points his hands at me, blood begins to stream from his ears and nose. With intense effort, a spark of flame blossoms from his hand, growing as large as a man's head. It flies towards me.

Blue specks begin flowing into my vision. Fire has an end. It can be starved. I cut the fire apart, tracing the lines easily. It breaks up and flickers into non-existence.

Falco backs up against the wall, his bearded face pale and terrified in the sickly light filtering in from the grey windows. He fumbles within his robes and brings out a rod – identical to the one that we had broken.

“Stay back! If you don't I will break it! Then none of us are getting out!”

I laugh out loud.

“How did you think I managed to get here after breaking the other one? I don't need this toy to travel between worlds.”

“That can't be...” He falters for a second. That's all the time I need. My tendrils seize his hand, tearing it off at the wrist and bringing the rod back to me. Falco screeches in agony, clutching his bleeding stump.

“I lied. I do need this, thank you. Still, that was not a bad trick. Seventy points, but showing me the rod was a mistake. Was that the last card you had to play?” I ask, looking at the maimed cultist. He is the only one left alive in a room full of the dead.

“Goddess...”

“Your goddess can't save you here. Now, all I want to know is your reason. Why did you kidnap those women and kill them?”

“Our rituals give us strength.” mumbles Falco. “Strength to strike back against the Federation. We would make them scared. Terrified.”

I frown in disappointment. “That's it? That's your master plan?” I had expected more. This man really is worthless.

“What did you expect?” he screams suddenly, glaring at me. “This is all I can do for the sake of the Apostles, you demon! I give the Goddess my life! If you're going to kill me, do it!”

I chuckle. There's some defiance left in him yet. Very well, I should squeeze all the pleasure I can get from this waste of time.

“You have quite the mouth on you, Brother Falco.” I slice off his right leg at the knee. He tumbles to the floor, dark red blood spurting from his thigh. “A worm like you doesn't have the right to look at me. Squirm on the floor and contemplate your mistakes.”

Before he can reply, I stamp on his remaining hand, crushing his fingers under my heel.

“Whatever answer you were going to give was wrong. Tell me now, how do you really feel?”

“I... Please don't kill me. I don't want to die. Spare me, please. I renounce the saviour. I've answered your questions. I'll do whatever you want. Let me go. It hurts. It hurts so much. Please.” whimpers the Third Hierarch incoherently between his moans of pain, his eyes still fixed on the floor as I have ordered.

“Very well then,” I say. “Look at me.” Falco turns his head upwards slowly as he raises himself on one elbow, a mixture of hope and fear clouding his features. Although the lines are ever-shifting on him, as with every living being, for the first time, I notice that they originate from one single point, on the center of his blood-stained chest. This must be his origin. I grin. What happens if I touch it?

I slowly raise a finger and put it against the chest of the puzzled cultist.

I push, gently.

It sinks in without any resistance. Brother Falco looks on, amazed. “It doesn't hurt-”

He fractures along every single line spreading from that point, his body imploding in a red mist. What is left is just a pile of meat and bone.

As I get up, flicking off the blood that had gotten on my hand, Erika opens the door. I hear an involuntary hiss escape her lips. It looks like the sight of the slaughter shocks even her. I turn to her with a sad smile.

“Self-defense. You know how it is. Watch your step, the floor is slippery.”

***

The rod was easy enough to activate - there is no need for elaborate rituals at all - and we return with no other difficulties, Erika carrying the lawmaker on her back and the girl clinging onto my hand. Somehow, some part of me had thought it wise to hide the end of her comrades from her. I just told her that they would never appear again. Erika agreed to keep quiet about the surviving cultist, reluctantly, when I promised her sandwiches. I told her to leave the explanation to me, and to get the lawmaker to the hospital. She seemed withdrawn and nervous, as if there is something wrong about me, but I assured her that it would be fine. When we exit the deserted store, we find that it is already night. It looks like time passes at roughly the same rate between the two worlds.

As we part ways, I stumble back home, my headache slowly receding ever since we left that world.

“Yua.” I mumble.

“Yes?” She sounds extremely worried.

“Do you have a record of my neural activity over the past six hours?”

“Yes.”

“I want to know what happened to me. Start an analysis and compare it with my baseline records, then tell me what you think.”

“It'll take some time. The activity is strange-”

“That is fine.” I snap. “Just do it.”

“Yes, very well.”

I recall what I did to the cultists. Bile begins rising in my throat. It's not like I haven't killed before, but those men had died in their CFs. It was a detached killing. This is different... so different. I didn't need to kill them, and definitely not in that manner. Groaning, I close my eyes and see nothing but the warm red blood pooling on the grey floor. Then, I vomit, remembering the state I had left the bodies in. I blink back the tears that had formed from the acrid taste of stomach acid in my mouth.

Why the hell had I done that?

***

The next day, we make our report to Chief Sadomura. He nods as I give him the broken rod and tell him briefly about the other world. I do not mention anything about the white creature, nor what happened to the cultists. Erika remains silent and lets me finish the explanation.

“So, once you got there, you found the lawmaker, and the perpetrators were gone?”

“Yes, sir.”

“This is most interesting. Our analysts will go over this artifact carefully and let you know what we fine. I'm sure you'll be interested in it too. You've done a great job for your first time, rookie. The family of the lawmaker send their regards, and have donated a considerable sum as a reward. The case won't make it to trial, but we'll consider it solved for now. There are more important things to tackle.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Are you guys alright?”

I smile awkwardly. “It was tiring, sir. The other world is disturbing.”

“I see. Well, I wish I could give you some rest, but we received some bad news this morning.”

“What is it?”

“Ten thousand people committed group suicide overnight, leaping from various tall buildings around Higashi. They posted about their intention on 7ch shortly before doing so. All of them were prominent members in that community.”

“I see. What do you need me to do, sir?”

“Nothing much. This is a serious job for the veterans. We already have a lead. Someone with the online handle of Cyber Jack claims responsibility. Of course, it could be just a wacko aiming for internet fame, but we aren't ruling anything out for now. I have other duties for you to do, since most of our men are busy tracking down this Cyber Jack.”

***

A. There have been rumours of a smuggling operation based in the nightclubs of Rakuten, an artificial island which had been constructed for the augment community off Edo Bay. The smugglers are bringing in drugs and illegal augments. Some even say that combat frames are being sold on the black market. I am to infiltrate the operation and return with names and details. The chief thinks I should be able to handle an assignment of this magnitude, as I'm not expected to bring down the entire organization by myself.

B. A national idol requires a bodyguard. She's taking part in the filming of the blockbuster propaganda film 'Flight of the Kaguya-hime', which is currently being produced in Kyoto, but recently she's received weird letters from Cyber Jack. Her manager doesn't want police presence, which would create rumours, and calls have been made all the way up to the higher ups in the Federation to pull strings for a bodyguard from this department. The chief thinks this is a distraction by Cyber Jack, but to be better safe than sorry.
 

Part 7 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act I

Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act I

"There is a call from Azo. Should I patch it through?"

"Go ahead." I stretch my arms into the sleeves of my black suit. I haven't worn one of these since the day I saved Kyrie's father. I can only hope things won't be as hazardous this time - oh, who am I kidding? I bet a giant robot drops out of the sky five seconds after I meet this idol.

"Hoshikawa." Azo's voice is crisp and stern.

"I hear you, minister."

"It looks like you took the job to protect the idol."

"Yes. Do you have any concerns about that? I do realize that it is a bit... forward." I wonder if he called to pull me off the job.

"There's little risk of exposure as long as you act in a more circumspect manner, and what you did at the clothing store was all but. We had to spread a story about a gas leak thanks to the side effects of your little trip. Ten customers and three shop attendants are still unconscious in the hospital. It's lucky that you returned with the lawmaker alive; I couldn't have covered for your actions otherwise."

"I apologize, minister. I admit that things got a bit out of hand." I try my best to sound repentant.

"To be fair, I understand that you have Erika working with you. That girl was quite insistent." sighs Azo. "Anyway, please do not compound my problems any further. We are still at war with the Indus after all, and every little disturbance sparks rumours that spread like wildfire - you know, I didn't think that I have to lecture you of all people about this."

"I understand, minister," I reply as I put my sunglasses on. I'm not going to make any excuses for myself. Though it turned out well this time, it could just as easily have been disastrous.

There is a grunt of acknowledgement in my earpiece. "Well then, good luck with your mission, and please be more careful this time. I think it is an advantage that you will not be starstruck. Keeping a level-head is important, Hoshikawa.”

“Starstruck?”

“She is the most popular teen idol in the world, you know. Well, at least you have an... ah, commitment to someone. I trust you not to stray.”

Great, of all the things to remember...

With that, Azo hangs up and I look into the mirror. Well, I look presentable enough. Kyrie had been very demanding about appearances in formal occasions, and I'd picked up – or rather, had it drilled into me – enough to form a habit. Time to head out.

***

The department had sent a car to bring me to the meeting point. I'm alone in the car; Erika has been assigned to the Rakuten smuggling mission. It looks like the Chief isn't giving this mission much priority, as he merely expects me to keep my head down and respond only in case of an emergency. I while away the ride by thumbing through the mission briefing which had been left in the backseat for my perusal.

The target I am supposed to protect is a seventeen year old teenage girl by the name of Qin Kawano. She is able to trace her ancestry in an unbroken line from the Concordiat refugees, a rare thing in Higashi. Kawano had her meteoric rise to stardom just two months ago, while I was convalescing by the African coast. That's why I've never heard of her; I haven't been up to date with entertainment news for a very long time. Her parents had been engineers in a remote colony located at Sun L4, and they had – ah, yes, I would much rather have a giant robot drop out of the sky right now – returned to Earth, fleeing the war in space along with other refugees on a certain rusty freighter captained by a man known for his love of ramming action. They had been escorted by a certain famous warship into safe territory, and Kawano had been one of the first to disembark. As it was the eve before the massive military operation at Sin's Eye, there were many press members milling about the place. She had been spotted and interviewed, and it didn't take long before the talent agency scouts came a-calling thanks to her looks. Kawano had then proved herself to be more than just a pretty face, demonstrating her ability at singing, dancing and acting.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Thankfully, there's a high chance she doesn't remember or recognize me – the only time I had boarded the Spirit of Adventure, Kyrie had drawn all the attention.

I continue reading the file. It seems that the letters had started being sent to her two weeks ago, before the mass suicide that is still being reported on in the news. The handle name of Cyber Jack had been stamped from the very first letter. They had ignored it at first, thinking that it was just regular creepy letters from deranged fans, but after the mass-suicide broke the news and Cyber Jack took responsibility, Kawano's agency had called the government immediately. There are copies of the letters in the briefing. They had been written with cut out alphabets from printed paper; a strange thing to do in this day and age. I look through the most recent one.

“To you,

I am watching. I am always watching.
I know everything.

Cyber Jack.”

Most of them are short and to the point, leaving few hints as to the motive and goal of the perpetrator. There is little to guess at for now; perhaps I will have more clues when I speak to the idol herself.

I put the file aside; there are other things to read.

The analysis of my neural activity had uncovered some interesting patterns. Upon absorption of the black substance in the broken rod, a particular, aberrant baseline of my neural activity began to undergo gradual amplification. It peaked right before I talked to the cultist girl – she told me her name later: Emiri – and then stayed that way until I left the strange world, upon which it dropped away rapidly. Sometime during my talk with Emiri, my normal baseline also began rising to match the aberrant activity – this coincided with the increasing headaches. According to Yua, the aberrant baseline has been there since her predecessor started the records a year ago, though it has remained almost inactive until now.

I still have far too little information to go on. At the time, I felt utterly in control, but at the same time all vestiges of self-doubt had been banished from my thoughts. Being in possession of such total confidence is a mark of lunacy. It is an experience I am not keen to repeat, though I am not sure why it had emerged and how I can handle it.

Yua had also begun analysis of the items I brought back from my little jaunt to another world. She had sent me some encouraging preliminary results. It seems that the book containing the scientific reports appears to record successive experiments into travelling between dimensions. Progress is slow; ancient Egyptian has no hieroglyphics to truly illustrate the concepts the author intended – in fact, what I thought to be Egyptian had turned out to be hieroglyphics belonging to another unidentifiable language that is related but not identical. We had a bit more success with the eye-crested book; it had actual illustrations that helped in our comprehension. Interestingly enough, the book recorded information on organisms that look eerily similar to the tendrils that I possess. Though I am unable to extract most of the information, I learn enough about their biology that I can implement some cybernetic modifications of my own design should I choose to, though due to space constraints I will only be able to construct one enhancement.

***

A. Allow my tendrils to extrude a digital-neural interface. With this, I will be able to link Yua and myself directly to any computer-controlled system that my tendrils have infiltrated. I will need Yua to interpret the programming code for me, but in essence this should allow me to hack at will without extra equipment as long as I can get into contact with the hardware.

B. Turn my tendrils into an autonomous defensive system. They will automatically stitch up wounds and bind bones, as well as harden on impact under my skin. I should be able to resist certain small arms fire if I am prepared for it, though it will still hurt like hell. This will be a life saver should I continually opt to jump into situations I have no business jumping into.

C. I don't need – or want – any more enhancements. What I can do now is enough to deal with any obstacles I might encounter.

***

The car slows to a halt. I'm here; Kyoto Central Studios, where they are producing 'Flight of the Kaguya-hime'. Federation big-wigs have apparently authorized the use of actual military equipment as a showcase of their combat frame ability. The director himself is known for insisting on authenticity where possible, staying away from CG graphics unless it is absolutely necessary. Because of that, there is probably more real props in this movie than in the last hundred movies made in the world – combined.

I get out of the car, only to be met with a surreal sight that I did not think I would see on Earth. Half of the sky is covered with land. It seems like they have projected a massive hologram to simulate the appearance of the inside of a colony cylinder.

“You must be Mr. Kurou?”

A well-groomed lady, probably in her late twenties, is walking towards me. She introduces herself with a brisk handshake.

“My name is Nancy Muir. I am Ms. Kawano's manager.”

I tip my sunglasses at her. “Nice to meet you. I am Kagami Kurou. I understand that my services have been requested?”

She frowns, looking at me closely. “I did not think they would send someone so young. Are you sure you are up to the task? I don't want any hormonal boy jumping to get close to Ms. Kawano. She is the most popular teen idol in the world right now.”

Well, she's definitely a blunt person. I give my most professional nod.

“There will be no issues. I assure you, I have never heard of Ms. Kawano before yesterday.”

“You haven't?” There's a long-haired girl standing some ways off, one arm resting on her hip. She's dressed in a white sundress – it looks to be of similar design to what Kyrie liked to wear back in Neo Heliopolis – though this girl is certainly taller and... well, more well-endowed, though that isn't a terribly hard achievement. I recognize the face immediately. Qin Kawano. She looks utterly depressed. I can even see the shine of tears gathering in her eyes. My eyes dart to her, then to her manager, as I begin to think of an explanation.

Then, it all goes away, as she laughs brightly.

“Oh, don't look so worried. I don't mind, not at all. I was just having some fun at your expense.”

“Qin, this is the bodyguard they sent. He'll be at your beck and call until all this cyber-terrorist nonsense is over.” says Nancy nonchalantly, her concerns about my age seemingly gone. “If you'll excuse me, I have some meetings to run with the producer now that I've introduced you two”

“So you're the one? What's with the sunglasses?” asks Kawano curiously, as she steps closer to me.

“Regulations, m'am.” I reply, in my most professional tone. She laughs, taking one more step towards me. “At ease, soldier. Well, let me see how you look without those shades. I don't want to be guarded by someone whose eyes could be roving anywhere.”

She raises her hands to my sunglasses to pluck them off, when a large shadow falls over us.

“Look out! Get the hell outta there!” screams someone.

Was it five seconds already? Did I awaken some sort of foresight ability today? I was just joking, gods. Indeed, careless thoughts do tempt fate.

I look up, and behold a giant robot falling from the sky. A combat frame is toppling towards us. I grab Kawano and leap away from the place of impact. I might not be superhuman like Erika, but I'm still pretty strong and fast for a human. We tumble and roll across the pavement, though I take most of the brunt by cradling her. It wouldn't do for my client to get hurt one minute into the job.

The frame makes a deafening crash into the ground, cracking the concrete. I shield Kawano from the bits of debris flying about with my own body. I'm going to get some bad bruises tonight.

“Holy shit! Is Ms. Kawano alright?” Technicians and stagehands rush over to us, checking her condition.

“It's alright, I'm okay.” smiles the idol. “He protected me from the worst of it.” She seems shaken by her near encounter with death. A few men pat me on the back, but there seems to be some sort of uneasy feeling in the atmosphere. I catch some of their muttering as they leave; they are talking about how the set is cursed. Apparently, this isn't the first time an accident has happened.

Shouting begins to start up near the crashed CF. “Damn it, is the frame okay?”

“I've gotten the OS rebooted. It's still functional, but Gary is not. He's gone unconscious from the impact.”

“The director is going to kill me if we don't get the practice run done by today! Sir Naim's schedule is too busy for this to be delayed!”

“Calm down, man! We'll just get one of the stagehands to pilot it. It's on auto, so even a beginner should be able to do it.”

Well, from the sound of it, occupational safety on this production set must be at an all time low. I hope they aren't using tape to keep the frame together.

“After this crash? You think they are going to do it? They'll just cite union regulations, boy! I'm fucked! I'm fucked! Oh gods, this film is cursed! Ever since they cast her...”

“I don't know... oh, hey, hey!” One of the men near the crashed frame spots me and begins running over. “Hey, man, can you help us out? We need a replacement stuntman for a practice run with Sir Naim, like, right now.” He turns his head towards a yellow frame on standby some distance away as he says that. It looks like Anhur, though it is lacking the unholy amount of thrusters packed onto my particular frame. Naim must be inside.

I can feel Kawano staring at me from the side. Is anything strange? Suddenly, I realize that my shades are off. They must have fallen when I saved her just now. Damn, I hope that isn't a stare of recognition. Perhaps I should duck into the mech before she asks any questions?

***

A. I agree to pilot the frame in the practice run. I can handle myself in a CF better; if they force some other poor sap to do it the next accident might be fatal. While I'm inside, perhaps I can find out what exactly went wrong with it.

1. I don't hold back and try my best to beat Naim. It'll be a good test of my piloting skills.

2. I hold back, letting Naim beat me easily as the script is supposed to go.


B. I refuse to pilot the frame. I don't want to stand out in any way – I can investigate it later after today's shoot has ended.

***
 

Part 8 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act II

The Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act II


I refuse the man’s request. There are plenty of reasons to do so, not least because I have no desire to stand out.

“I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

“It’s easy stuff! Even someone who hasn’t piloted before can do it. Just follow the instructions step by step and you’re set!”

I recall my cover story. I’m supposed to be a space-born member of the Kaguya-hime’s crew, which saves Azo the trouble of fabricating a more complex history for me with the excuse that my records were lost when Neo Heliopolis came under attack.

“No, you don’t understand. I really can’t do it.” I lie. “I’m afraid of getting into frames. I can’t do it.”

The crew member sighs in disappointment. “Oh man, I thought you’d help out. None of the stunt people are going to do it – they’re a superstitious lot.”

“Why don’t you do it then?” says the idol at my side.

“Ah, Ms. Kawano. Well, you see…” he scratches his head embarrassedly. “I don’t really believe in all that talk of curses, but… well, an outsider might be safer. Anyway, I gotta let the chief know that we’re going to delay this scene. Man, the key grip is going to be pissed about the frame…” The crew member begins muttering as he walks away.

“Was that true?” asks Kawano.

“Was what true?” I respond, quizzically.

“Your phobia of frames. How did you get it? Wait, don’t tell me – you were almost killed by one at…” she mimes thinking really hard. “Neo Heliopolis, perhaps?”

I feign surprise myself. That was the story I was going to tell her anyway. “How did you know?” She beams. “I’m a mind-reader. Haven’t you seen me give performances on TV?” I give her a stare, wondering if she’s telling the truth – after all I’ve seen lately, I wouldn’t be surprised. “Well, that was half a joke,” she laughs. “Don’t take it so seriously, Mr. Bodyguard. I think I’ve seen you from the Kaguya-hime. I was on board that freighter your ship was escorting. You weren’t aboard the freighter frequently, but I recall seeing your face once around then. Speaking of which, you seem to resemble that…”

“Hoshikawa, right? The cult’s assassin? I get that a lot. It’s unfortunate, but I’m not him at all. Would I be standing here if I was?”

“I guess not. No one would be that daring,” smiles the girl, putting her face closer to mine. “Upon closer look you two don’t really look alike anyway. The pictures of him they put out – he has that killer look in his face. You don’t look like you would kill anything.”

Ah, I do have to thank the government for that one. In their eagerness to portray me as a villain they had manipulated the pictures slightly so that I looked more menacing – deranged, even. The changes were subtle, but they were effective in making me look a lot more frightening, like a wolf in a pack of sheep, so to speak.

“I’m your bodyguard, Ms. Kawano. I’m here to protect, not kill.”

“Well I certainly hope you’d kill to protect me,” laughs Kawano. “I’d say any girl hopes for someone like that.”

Would I? Well, if it was part of the job – it’s not like my hands are clean anyway. I affirm her statement casually.

“If necessary, Ms. Kawano.”

The idol frowns. “Call me Qin, and stop being so formal. After all, we aren’t really strangers; well, technically at least. Our paths crossed once before and your ship probably saved my life.”
If it’s the client’s request…

“Very well, Qin. It is a pretty funny coincidence, isn’t it?”

“Well,” she winks. “Perhaps it’s fate? A princess meets her shining knight again.”

Charming, but I’m not about to get starstruck by an assault of this level. I see now why Azo had mentioned the importance of keeping a level head. Thankfully, I’m not one of her fanboys.

“I’m not a knight of any sort. I didn’t pilot anything.” I say in my defense.

“You say that, but I think you're more than you seem. There’s something about you that’s…” She doesn’t get to finish her sentence.

“Ms. Kawano.” I hear a familiar voice from behind me, and I put on my shades.

Naim is standing there, dressed to the nines in full military regalia, frills and tall collars and excessively embossed shoulder pads. Now there’s a noble knight she should be fawning over.

Qin greets him politely. “Ah, Sir Naim. Is the practice run over?”

He nods firmly. “It seems that there was some sort of accident. I came over to see if you were alright.”

After the practice run had been called off, I note to myself.

“I’m fine, thanks to my new bodyguard here. Let me introduce him to you, Sir Naim. This is Kagami Kurou, an agent from the local Higashi government. He will be accompanying me from today onwards.“

I give him a bow. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Sir Naim.”

He eyes me for a brief second before losing interest. “The pleasure is mind, Mr. Kurou.” It looks like he doesn’t recognize me with the shades and suit, not to mention my different hair-style.

“Anyway, I am here to ask if you would like to join me for dinner tonight.” Naim continues. “I have a reservation at the Yamaten in Hotel Okura, and thought it would be a good chance to discuss our propaganda and publicity efforts for this film.”

I whistle inwardly. He mangled the pronunciation, but I know the place. Hotel Okura is a 100-floor hotel that was the tallest in the world when it opened 10 years ago, and the top floor restaurant, the Yamaten, is widely acknowledged as the best place in the world for Higashi cuisine. It’s also widely acknowledged as one of the priciest places to eat. Perks of being the hero of the world, I suppose.

“Feeling jealous?” says Yua directly in my mind. The construction of the neural-digital interface has had the side effect of direct mental communication between Yua and I.

“No, of course I’m not bitter.” I mutter. I’m not the sort to hold a grudge, I think.

“Keep telling yourself that.”

I sigh. She’s been a bit snarky since I ignored her and went ahead with the mirror smashing.

“I would love to, but could I check my schedule with Nancy first?” smiles Qin.

“Of course, Ms. Kawano. I will be at the studio gates at 5.00 pm.” He clicks his heels together and gives her a quick salute, before walking off. It looks like he’s playing the role of a military man to the hilt – he was always somewhat insufferable when not carrying out a mission, but things seem to have gotten a tad worse.

“Mr. Bodyguard –“ begins Qin. I stop her.

“You wanted me to just call you Qin, so you can call me Kurou.”

“Sure. I’m sorry, there’s still a bit of a princess’s character left over from this morning.” She curtseys like a lady, affecting an air of nobility – or perhaps royalty, in this case. “Kurou, I shall need to meet with Nancy, at the producers’ offices. Would you walk me there?”

“Of course. Do you wish to take my arm?” I play along and offer my arm, bending it towards her. I suppose the script had her playing a very – uncharacteristically, from my point of view – dignified Kyrie.

“You’re doing it again,” mutters Yua.

“I’m being professional and a gentleman.” I retort.

“You dense idiot.”

Qin grins happily and takes it, grasping my arm with her hand. After we reach the producers’ offices, just a short walk away, she enters, asking me to wait outside. While I do so, I spot the damaged frame from earlier lying outside one of the warehouses. It’s unattended – this is an excellent opportunity.

I walk around the frame, examining it. The exterior looks normal, if damaged from the crash. I bring up the scene in my mind again – on hindsight, judging from its trajectory, it would likely have missed us by a whisker even if I hadn’t carried Kawano away. The debris from its impact would have injured her, though. I place a hand on the cockpit and concentrate. My tendrils activate and begin sending their protrusions into the machine. I need to find the core computer. Visualizing a maze of circuits in my head, I seek the way out.

There it is.

There is a flash of blue in my mental imagery, and I successfully interface with the frame, booting it up from the outside.

“Yua, I want all the maintenance and error logs you can find.”

“There’s a problem with that. They’ve all been wiped.”

“When was that?”

“During the crash, it seems.”

“Check the timestamps again.” There’s something suspicious about the timing.

“There’s nothing –wait, I have it. Timestamps have been modified.”

I run through the data myself – Yua is right. It would have to have been done after the crash too. There’s nothing else I can find out from the frame – any defects to be found with the thrusters was with software, not with the mech’s hardware. Just in case, I insert a monitoring subroutine of my own into the computer before I leave. I jump off the frame, making sure no one saw me around it, before making my way back to the producers’ offices. Just in time, too – Kawano comes out as I reach there and waves at me cheerfully.

“I’ve got my schedule cleared, so shall we walk to the gates?”

I nod at her, looking around at the studio again. It’s already evening, but the grounds are still busy. It seems that there are people working here even all through the night. Given the delays they are facing, that seems inevitable. “By the way, Qin, “I begin to ask. “What is this curse they are talking about?”

A frown darkens her face. “I’m not sure. There’ve been… accidents. They started since the letters began coming, but it’s always been close shaves.”

“You mean chandeliers dropping, pianos crashing, that sort of accident?”

She laughs, her worries seemingly cast away. “Yes! Exactly that sort! I didn’t peg you for the sort to be interested in opera, Kurou. You are a man of hidden talents, it seems.”

“Do you have any clue who’s behind it?”

Qin shakes her head. “No, nothing at all. The film crew did some investigating of their own, but they just seem to be freak accidents. We don’t want the police here either, since if news got out that this particular film was encountering difficulties, there would be some problems.” I can understand that. Still, it’s definitely not merely a string of freak accidents. Freak accidents don’t modify timestamps and wipe maintenance logs.

“Anyway…” Qin grins slyly. Casually, as if it was the most natural thing to her, she steps up besides me and takes my arm again. I can’t shake her off, and we walk this way to the gates, where Naim is waiting. He has changed out of that frilly suit he was wearing earlier into a more practical outfit consisting of a blazer and slacks. A slight scowl forms on his face when he sees me and the idol walking together, though his mouth straightens out into an admirably firm military line when we get closer.

“Ms. Kawano, do we have a date?”

“Yes, Sir Naim. I’ve cleared my schedule with Nancy.”

“That’s great. We will head there in my car. By the way, regarding your bodyguard…” he pauses.

“What about my bodyguard?”

“I’m sorry, but I only made a reservation for two. If he needs to come along, he’ll have to stand by. The restaurant is otherwise fully booked today.”

Qin’s face creases. “I see. It would be rude to have him just stand there while we eat…”

***

A. I insist on coming along. I am her bodyguard after all. I suppose she’s not used to having one; a certain entitled princess I know would probably have told me to stand there and watch her eat in such an occasion. It’s what a bodyguard does. At any rate, I better do my job properly, at least before I find out what's actually going on.

B. I do not go along, but tail them secretly afterwards. Perhaps Kawano or Naim will let slip something useful to my own objectives if either of them think I’m not around. Besides, while I do still need to keep an eye out for her safety , there’s nothing that states I have to do it with her knowledge.

C. I bid farewell to them, but stay back at the studio to investigate the place. I can question the crew members present and check out the sites of the various accidents; I won’t be able to do this while I’m accompanying Qin around.

D. I say goodbye and go home. I can make better use of my time by continuing my study of the tomes I brought back as well as contacting Emiri for more information on the cult.

E. Her hand is still over my arm. I can take it and 'suggest' that she kick Naim in the nuts. Then we can steal his car and go to the restaurant ourselves - I'm sure I can finagle my way in. Fuck this job.
 

Part 9 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act III

Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act III


Half a kilometer up in the air, the view of Kyoto is breathtaking. 100-floor skyscrapers are not uncommon in the heart of the Higashi capital, where space is limited, and in the night they appear as glowing pillars lighting up the sky with a rainbow of colours. Further in the distance, a long, thin thread of light stretches up far into the atmosphere; in fact, it would extend into space – that is the Higashi space elevator.

“It’s… pretty,” whispers Yua. She’s drawing her visual input directly from my eyes now – not surprising given the extent to which she has been integrated into my sensory systems as a passive observer, thanks to the neural-digital interface.

“That’s right, I haven’t shown this to you before, have I?” I muse. “We’ve never been to one of the towers after I made you. I think the highest building we visited together was that little bank near our house? Fifty metres, was it?”

“You’re mistaking me for my predecessor again,” she replies, irritated. “We are different.” Somehow, I’ve recently started to doubt that, but I just say, “Yes, of course.”

I look around the Yamaten restaurant. It certainly looks expensive. The concept is that of an open-air garden – the customers sit around low wooden tables that are separated from each other by make-shift divisions formed from shrubs and rows of flowers. A stream burbles through the garden, circling around to end in a pond. It looks like there are real fish within. The lighting is dim, provided only by lanterns set up by each table, but the moon is bright in the cloudless sky tonight. I can see it clearly if I look up; the ceiling and walls consist of panels of variable opacity glass and tonight they have been set to full transparency, showcasing the clear night sky. It is rather more expensive than plastic with similar capabilities, and usually only in use by establishments that are concerned with the perceived value of the material; there are people who would refuse to eat at a place with plastic. A few people with more money and sense tried building houses out of it, but it didn’t catch on.

Living in a glass house has its drawbacks.

I shift my weight. When Naim said he only reserved places for two, he wasn’t kidding. There’s no place for me to sit, unless I were to rest my arse uncouthly on the pebbled ground. It’s not that I’m not tempted to do that, but glances from the servers in my direction make it clear that I shouldn’t. I content myself with standing behind Qin, keeping an eye and a ear out, and my mouth shut. She is discussing the shoot with Naim; it’s progressing slowly due to all the troubles plaguing the set.

“Have we any leads on all these accidents?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “No, the key grip can’t find anything wrong. He says that it’s just unlucky.”

“Well, I don’t believe in curses, and neither should you. There must be someone stalking you. Aren’t you getting letters from some creepy fan? Could he be behind it?”

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I just want it to stop. I’m starting to get nightmares… I think I’m seeing and hearing things from the stress sometimes.”

“That’s unfortunate.” Naim gives her a sympathetic smile. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. I really do want to see this film completed. For her memory, you know? You remind me of her somewhat. They chose well when they cast you.”

“Thank you, Sir Naim. I did meet with her, once, when she came aboard the Spirit of Adventure. I suppose you could say the princess was the reason I decided to enter show business.”

“Oh? Please do continue.”

“She was just… well, how do I put this… stunning? She was a person that shone brightly. She sang a song to us and it just touched all of us deeply. After that, I told myself that I want to be someone just like her. Someone that can inspire hope in the hearts of the people.”

I successfully hold back a snort of laughter. Kyrie, shining? The only time I can remember her doing that is when she messed with a little bioluminescent contraption I had been building. Her forehead was shining for a week after that.

“Ah yes, you would have seen her there.” Naim gives a heavy sigh. “By the way, did you know that the director is still insisting we keep the character of Hoshikawa in? Why bother, when no one wants to play him?”

“Ah, that’s right! He was on board the ship too, wasn’t he?” Qin suddenly perks up, interested. “What was he like?”

Naim pauses, thinking of what to say. After a while, he replies, “Reckless and insubordinate. I suppose he had his talents, in a way, but he would have made for a poor soldier. I don’t think we ever got along.”

“Hm, that’s a pity.”

“Why would it be a pity? Because of him, she left me,” remarks Naim absent-mindedly.

“Well, can you imagine the mindset of one of the worst traitors in history, or how his target must have felt when he stabbed her in the back? Was he utterly ruthless, or did he feel conflicted about it? It would take an excellent young actor to portray the character convincingly.” Qin turns to address me. “How about you, Kurou? What did you think of Hoshikawa? You met him too, right?”

Great. Just great. I carefully keep the impassive expression on my face.

“What do you mean?” asks Naim.

“I introduced the both of you earlier today, right? Weren’t you two shipmates? I thought it strange you didn’t say anything to him, nor he to you.”

Naim’s brow grows dark with suspicion - it seems as if he's seeing me in a new light. “I don’t know of any Higashi crew members named Kurou who served with me.”

“You wouldn’t have remembered,” I reply calmly. “I was running errands in the kitchen.”

He doesn’t seem too convinced. “I do not like it when people claim to have served aboard the Kaguya-hime in order to take advantage of our achievements.”

“I have, and that is the truth.” For a brief moment I’m tempted to remove the sunglasses and stare the nitwit in the eye.

“Maybe you can take off those shades while you are in here, Mr. Kurou. I would like to get a good look at you.”

“It is part of my dress code, Sir Naim. I am afraid I cannot comply. I am sorry if I offended you, Sir Naim, but I was never the type of person your good self would ever notice.”

“Your impudent way of talking reminds me of someone.” He grits his teeth, getting irritated. I hope I haven’t overdone it. This is not the time and place to reveal my identity, not when I don’t know what he will do if he finds out.

“No fighting, boys,” says Qin crossly.

“Sorry.” I apologize quickly and shut up, but Naim just continues glaring at me.

At that moment, the server comes with a plate of sliced raw fish, interrupting us. Looking at it, I can tell that it was carved apart with a knife of the finest quality. There are seams of marbled fat running through the pink, fresh meat, and it appears to be both tender and firm. My stomach grumbles slightly in protest; I haven’t had anything to eat the whole day.

Halfway through their meal, Naim gets up. Giving Qin an apologetic smile, he excuses himself. “I need to head to the washroom for a while. Could I borrow your bodyguard for a while? I have things to ask him.”

I stare at him from under my shades. “My place is with Ms. Kawano.”

“Oh, I insist.” He leans in close to me and hisses in my ear. “I need to talk with you… Hoshikawa.”

It seems that he realized who I am after all. I curse silently as I look at Qin, who shrugs and waves me away. “I’ll be fine. I won’t die just because you leave me for a couple of seconds, but come back soon!”

“Yua, have we obtained control of the cameras yet?” I had surreptitiously extended a thin tendril along the walls while standing there, having spotted the unobtrusive security cameras on my way in. Progress was slow, as I kept having to remake it after the stretched tendril snapped repeatedly from the tension, but finally I made it.

“Not all of them – the connection is weak, but I’ve managed to access the feed.”

“That’s sufficient for now. Keep an eye on Kawano and let me know immediately if anything out of the ordinary happens around her. Work on getting full control of the cameras as well as the rest of the Yamaten's systems in the meantime.”

“Roger that.”

I nod, turning my attention to Naim as if I had been considering what he said. “Only for a while. My duty is still with Ms. Kawano.”

“It won’t take long,” he says, though he seems worried about something.

As he leads the way to the toilets, I notice one of the wait staff staring at me. I recognize her almost immediately and I freeze in my tracks for a moment. Of all the places in the world. That’s… my sister. Chinatsu. Judging from the uniform, she’s working part-time here, and it seems that she has identified me by sight. Well, I’ve lived with her for… what, 6 years? It wouldn’t be surprising. I also knew there was always a high risk of running into her or my parents when I returned to Higashi - I've prepared the words I have to say should that happen. She doesn’t come towards me, however – her eyes just track me as I head towards the toilets.

I sigh; my problems just doubled.

“Yua, keep an eye out for her too.”

“Roger that.”

Once we are in the washroom – the ceiling is opaque here – Naim wastes no time before grabbing my collar. He shakes me strongly enough for my sunglasses to fall off. “What are you doing here? Are you insane? I almost didn’t recognize you. If Kawano hadn't said anything...”

I look around, making sure there is no one in here before I reply.

“I am working as Ms. Kawano’s bodyguard. It is as you see.”

“You expect me to believe that? What are you planning?”

“I’m planning to keep her safe.”

It’s true – of course I’m planning to keep her safe. Seeing no falsehood in my eyes, Naim lets me go and walks over to the sinks. He stares into the mirror, looking at my figure reflected within it. He seems to be undecided about something, a torn and haunted expression growing on his face. He lets out a heavy sigh, finding his determination.

“It might be a blessing in disguise that you appeared before me, Hoshikawa. There are things I need to clear up with you… things I need to put an end to,” he mutters.

“What do you mean?”

“What if I told you…”

He takes a big gulp of air, gathering the courage to press forward.

“What if I told you that she… Kyrie was alive?”

***

A. I tell him that I already know that. I don't mention why and how, of course, but he should know I haven't idly wasted my time.

B. I express my surprise at the news. Clearly this is a shocking turn of events, one I would have never predicted.

***

1. I claim that I am not interested in doing anything about her. I'm not about to recruit him to my cause. I can track Kyrie down myself; that is why I had signed up with Azo after all.

2. I ask for his assistance in finding her. If he knows she's alive, he probably has a good idea as to her whereabouts, if not her exact location. This is information I can't pass up.

***

C. I attack him, subjugate him, and begin my interrogation. I will pry the knowledge out of his brain by force, even if it leaves him a scrambled, drooling invalid. He was a fool to ask me that question, and the less people who know my real identity the better. Well, I suppose the good thing about having an unidentified cyber-terrorist on the loose is that I can always get away by blaming any suspicious acts on the mysterious criminal.
 

Part 10 - So You Messed Up and You're Now a Cyborg Ninja. Now What?

“I already found out about that some time ago. I haven't been idle, you know – I've been looking for her all this time. Naim, if we work together, we can help rescue her.” My voice is calm and steady in my request for his aid, but a sudden, wild panic floats into Naim's eyes.

“I should've known,” he gasps. “He was right.”

“Who was right?”

Naim does not respond. Suddenly aware of danger, I activate my ability. Only then do I notice the bulge under his coat. I try to take a step away but it is too late. Caught flat-footed, I am unable to dodge a bullet. A shot rings out. I feel a sharp pain in my chest as the bullet penetrates my lung; he had fired from under his blazer. My tendrils swarm to life, but not before another shot grazes my heart. This isn't good. My fingers start trembling uncontrollably as life bleeds from me. I weaken rapidly; my concentration slips as I stumble backwards, Naim pulling the trigger again, and again, and again, an anguished expression on his face. The front of my suit is already soaked with dark red, my blood spattered all over the wooden tiles of the washroom's floor. That's... going to be a bitch to clean. Ah. Maybe... I should have enhanced my tendrils for protection. I cough up flecks of spittle and blood. My consciousness is starting to fade.

“He said you would stop at nothing to get her back, that you were already plotting to do so. I didn't want to believe him, but you confirmed it yourself. You would just put her in danger again with your recklessness. I can't have that. I'm sorry.” he whispers, as he aims the barrel at my head. I'm losing too much blood to do anything but slump against the wall, leaving behind a red smear as I sink to the floor. There's not even enough strength in my throat to muster any words. I can hear shouts and screams coming from the restaurant outside. Was it because of the gunfire? Or did something else just happen? Yua is screaming for me. I think... she's calling me Master again.

Heh. I knew she was just faking it.

There is a painful flash of light as the last bullet enters through my left eye, and then all is dark.

***BAD END***

“How is the subject?”

“The augmentations have taken well, Minister Azo, but there seems to be something off about its neural activity.”

“Pay no attention to that. This is our sector's last trump card.”

“Are you sure it will succeed?”

“We have to. The Federation cannot afford to fail here.”

“But, Minister Azo, we're talking about trying to assassinate him. Even though this unit has been rebuilt with the best technology humanity has to offer, that monster is not human.”

“It doesn't matter. If we fail, we are all goners anyway, and the Earth together with us. Shulgi must die.”

***

Deep in the recesses of what used to be my brain, a long dormant spark flickers to life - a tiny ember of light in an endless void - and the wheels of the multiverse slowly grind to a halt. The borders of reality break down...

So You Messed Up and You're Now a Cyborg Ninja. Now What?

A. Continue

B. Reload (State your preferred choice from the previous update, excluding A2)

***

Well, as it turns out, A2 was the bad end. This means that none of the other choices are, but they will have different ramifications on your relationship with Naim... should you not want to rape his mind, of course.
 

Intermission: State of Technology (4026 A.C.)

While waiting for a clear winner to emerge, let's have a State of Technology update.

***

Intermission: State of Technology (4026 A.C.)

***

AUGMENTATIONS

Though augmentations in the form of prosthetics have existed for thousands of years, the field has seen a surge of innovation and popularity in recent years. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of the Earthbound population and more than half of the colonists use augments in one form or another. Despite that, they are seen as an expensive tool for most, and a plaything for the rich. The majority of augmentations are implanted as part of a contract between a worker and a corporation or the government. Most Federation augments are sourced from one of two corporations; the Muramasa Foundation or Great Eastern Heavy Industries.

Limb Augmentations

Carbon nanotubes (CNT) are the mainstay of this particular field. Advances have been rapid since the start of the war, with combat frame technology receiving the immediate benefits thanks to the particular breakthroughs made by the Indus scientist Krishnashankar, who has gone missing in the aftermath of the colony drop. The ISC labs are the first to successfully construct pilot suits based off miniaturization of Krishnashankar's concept. Military-grade exo-suit prototypes are currently in testing in various locations all over the world, particularly in Higashi, UNS and Skane. The prototypes tend to achieve ten times human performance, based on the personnel in the exo-suit.

Most limb augments are mostly artificial muscle polymer with varying percentages of CNT fibres. The force and contractile speed varies accordingly, from peak human to five times human performance. Currently, pure CNT limbs have a minimum baseline of twenty times human performance, but meeting its potential is still an issue as cognitive enhancements have not caught up sufficiently to allow a human to process the strength and speed which a CNT muscle can output. Most augments are controlled by limiters to avoid the users from harming themselves.

Strength comparisons (estimated):
Peak human = 350 kg
Artificial polymer+CNT = 1750 kg
Pure CNT = 7000 kg
CF = 87500 kg


Neural & Sensory Augmentations

Neural augments generally consist of a disc of cortex-mimicking artificial neurons supplemented with electronic circuitry for easier diagnosis and maintenance, implanted below the cerebellum. They act as a secondary brain of sorts, enhancing memory capacity, motor control and cognitive processing. Users of military-grade limb augmentations require at least a motor control augment to operate at full capacity. There are also neural augments targeted at the hypothalamic region, which are only meant for emotional regulation or pleasure stimulation. Most neural augments come with a wireless connection, allowing the user to be perpetually linked to the internet and navigate virtual space by thought, if that is their wish.

Sensory augments involve replacing a particular sensory organ – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and even skin – with an artificial equivalent that has heightened sensitivity and receptivity. They may be equipped with functions not found in their human biological counterparts; radar and electromagnetic spectrum sight, for example, though usually a neural upgrade is required to make full use of those functions.

Miscellanous Augmentations

There are also plenty of augmentations that focus on style over function. Vocal cord augments have become popular as of late, allowing users to sing in harmony with themselves, as are small bio-mechanical wings and tails that are functionally useless. Augmentations for merely aesthetic purposes are, however, frowned upon in most of the world, and those who indulge in it are considered hardcore augment addicts. They generally congregate in enclaves, unable to socialize with the unaugmented. The artificial island of Rakuten is the largest such enclave in the world.

The Digital Divide

With the advent of dive technology came the ability to immerse oneself into the virtual world. Instead of implanting full-fledged neural prostheses, users could opt to have a wired jack surgically inserted into their cervical vertebrae, allowing them to 'dive' into virtual reality with the appropriate equipment. Holograms only replicate sight and sound, but within a virtual reality the user may experience the full gamut of senses. VR 'communities' began springing up around the more popular sites, transforming the way interaction is conducted online. Though there are still purists who prefer to stick to regular text, video and voice, they are a rare lot.

The adoption rate for dive technology has been unprecedented in Higashi, and in fact has soared during the war as more and more youth sought for a way to escape their reality. It is estimated that more than 95% of people under 25 have bought and installed a dive implant. Furthermore, it has become popular for parents to save up for a neural augment for their children in order to get a head-start in life; starting from 15 years ago, many children have been implanted with a neural augment – at great cost to the parents – when they reach the age of 5.

The effect has been to birth an entire generation of youth country-wide that spend almost all of their time living (and working) entirely within virtual worlds, leaving only to perform vital bodily functions.

***

NANOTECHNOLOGY

Nanotechnology has been a tough field to crack, but the first vital discoveries were made 30 years ago, based on the terraforming effects of Inanna flowers. Researches discovered that the cells of the flowers produced 'natural' nanomachines, performing only specific functions. These were investigated heavily, especially in light of the Apostles' claims to their spiritual potency around twenty years back, but they were never demonstrated to interact in any way with human biology. Researchers also failed to reprogram the natural nanomachines produced by the flowers. Regardless, their study has led to advances in the field of nanotechnology, and full-fledged nanite assemblers are thought to be a reality in the very near future. In recent weeks, UNS scientists have also discovered that the biology of some humans have some similarities to that of the flowers; particularly in terms of an extra organelle which appears to be related to the nanite-producing organelle in Inanna flowers. The initial discovery was publicized widely, but the Federation government soon shut down all news of it before any further details could be known.

***

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Artificial intelligence is currently a relatively stagnant field. Rudimentary AI with fixed programming is in widespread use all over the world, operating unmanned robots and automated systems. Learning AI is still under development, and has seen deployment in more advanced cities, but the learning algorithms in these AI are slow, requiring a lot of data to learn and adapt. True learning AIs that are almost indistinguishable from humans are probably decades away.

***

EXOTIC TECHNOLOGIES

There are rumours of nebulous, shady organizations developing some form of exotic power source because limitless fusion and solar just doesn't cut it anymore – Black Hole Engines, Dimension Reactors, Antimatter Annihilation Engines etc – somewhere in an unmarked, unknown military base that no one knows about. Usually the people talking about this throw around terms like degeneracy, quantum, event horizons, paired particle annihilation, quantum, multiverse grids and quantum, claiming that it is being used to power the propulsion and weaponry of some super secret prototype warship or robot.

They're just rumours, of course.
 

Part 11 - Reload: Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act IV

Reload: Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act IV


What is the smallest unit of time the human mind can perceive? A millisecond? A femtosecond?

This is smaller... far, far smaller than that. It is the time it takes light to travel across the radius of an atom. It is the lifespan of unbearably exotic particles that physicists would willingly give two arms, two legs and an eye to study.

My brain should not even be able to comprehend such a transient time, but somehow, I do.

Processing. Integrating.

Cognisance.

As I perceive, I am perceived.

In that briefest instant, an unfathomably vast entity stirs, an existence I can feel but not observe directly, and I get a distinct sense of possibilities extinguished.

“...would you do?”

“I'm sorry?”

“What would you do if I told you she was alive?”

I'm still in the washroom of the Yamaten. I gaze down at my hands – they are trembling. My ability is active, but I don't remember using it. Not consciously, at least. What did I just see? The memory of the experience is fast fading, my mind unable to grasp on to such a fleeting sight. There are no details to remember, but the all-pervasive feeling of being observed very thoroughly lingers with me still.

When did I enter this washroom? Less than a minute ago? It is not the first time I am in this place, am I? I instinctively rear my hand up to my left eye, for some reason unknown even to myself. Something... strange has happened.

“Hoshikawa, are you okay?” Naim looks on with an expression of fear and confusion.

“I'm fine. You were talking about Kyrie, weren't you?” I dismiss his concerns. Somehow, I'm slumped against the wall of the washroom. I get to my feet, keeping an eye on Naim. He's not very stable right now. “I know that she is still alive.”

His eyes open wide as he shifts his hand inside his coat. There is a dull, throbbing ache in my head. I should attack the fool before he does anything stupid, shouldn't I? Prying out what he knows of Kyrie by force would be so much simpler, and it's not like I don't have a scapegoat to pin it on. My hand twitches, eager to pounce. I take a deep breath.

Then again, why sacrifice a pawn so easily? It may be a dangerous game I play, but he is in a good position on the chessboard right now; if I think ahead and play well, Naim could just be the piece I checkmate President Julia with.

“Naim,” I say quietly. “Do you think I should look for her?”

His eyes narrow. “Why are you asking me that? Don't you already know where she is?” He seems about to snap and do something stupid. My instincts are warning me to be more careful with my words, and I do so, picking my next approach with caution.

“I don't, but even if I did... What have I managed to do for her?” I ask, just a bit guiltily. “It seems that I accomplish nothing but drag her into danger, time after time, because of my own recklessness.” To be honest, she had just a big part in it – deep down we have always treated each other as mutual accomplices, but I'm certain Naim isn't interested in hearing that. I tell him exactly what he wants to hear. He relaxes slightly, lowering his shoulders. This is a good, non-threatening posture; I can surprise him from here more easily if I want to silence him.

“Don't be too hard on yourself. It's good that you recognize your mistakes.” He tries to comfort me – poorly. If I were truly upset, that would not be what I wanted to hear. “I'm glad you realize that staying near her would not be for the best.”

“Yes, I know that.” I say in resignation. Naim heaves a sigh of relief, thinking that he's gotten through to me. “Is she alright, though?” I ask, after giving him some time to settle into his new, more relaxed state of mind. He instantly tenses up.

Aha, so there is something there.

“Of course she's alright. Don't worry about it.”

“Are you sure? Have you been able to meet her?”

“I... no.” he admits, looking away. “I know her general location, and that she's still alive, but they're not telling me anything else.”

“How do you expect me to let her be that easily then?” I whisper, the slightest hint of anger seeping into my voice. He glares back at me. “Don't do anything stupid, Hoshikawa.”

“I won't, but I do expect you to protect her in my stead, you asshole. Why are you talking to me about her if you're not going to keep her safe?”

He grits his teeth. “I'm trying. It's just... well, you don't know everything.”

“Then tell me everything.”

“I can't. He'll find out.”

“Who?”

“I can't tell you,” he insists.

“At least keep me informed on Kyrie's safety,” I press. “You know what those bastards can do, don't you?”

His face turns pale as he nods slowly. “I... yes. Actually, are you sure you don't know where she is?”

I shake my head. “Why do you keep asking that?”

“No, never mind. Well, there might be something...”

“Come on, Naim! It's Kyrie we're talking about here. If there's something I can help to do to keep her safe, just tell me. If it means you want me out of Higashi, I'll do it.” I say earnestly. He falls for it entirely, glancing at me awkwardly.

“Oh, no. There's no need to do that. I just don't want you to do something stupid like plotting a rescue.”

“Then what is that something you were talking about?”

“If you... do... see her, do not approach her but let me know. Immediately.”

Naim. Naim, you imbecile. I resist a sudden, strange urge to gloat and laugh maniacally. Eureka, as the ancient Greeks were wont to say.

“How the hell did they lose her?” I say loudly. He tries to shush me, looking around wildly. “I have no idea at all, but what I could find out is that she is gone, and it is not the doing of the President. I thought you would have something to do with it, but... anyway, just... just don't do anything stupid, please. You know what you should do, right? Coming into contact with her will be risky for the both of you.”

“You think she'll come to find me.”

“Yes.” he says. “That puts her in danger. That puts you in danger. The two of you must not meet. They'll know.”

“You would be willing to kill me over that?” I have no idea why I said that, the words just spilling out of my lips.

“Yes. If you try to get her back, I would.” he admits, a pained look on his face. I'm not even going to bother asking him why. Instead, I drop to my knees in front of him.

"Then I'm at your mercy, Sir Naim. You know my identity and you can kill me any time you wish, if you think it will save her. That... doesn't matter to me at all. What matters is that you keep her safe. I can't give her that, but you can. As long as you protect her, I don't care what happens to me. Swear to me that you will do so.”

He nods solemnly. “I swear it. I will keep her safe from all who would harm her. Thank you for trusting me, Hoshikawa.”

No, thank you for trusting me, you idiot, I think, but I say, “I'm leaving her in your hands. If she does try to find me, you will be the first to know.” He puts one hand on my shoulder, smiling. I smile back. If I were him, I would have let me enter the washroom first and then shoot me in the back. It must be good to be so trusting. I massage my temples as the headache gradually grows stronger – am I already being influenced?

“Alert: a flash of light just went out across the entire restaurant!” shouts Yua. At the same time, I hear screams from the direction of the dining area. I leap to my feet and sprint out of the washroom, leaving a confused Naim behind. There is a loud crash just as I reach the main hall of the restaurant – one of the glass panels that separate the restaurant from the Kyoto sky has been shattered, presumably by the mallet wielding, four-armed kitchen robot standing besides it. A strong wind instantly blows in from the gap, scattering utensils and swaying the shrubs. Qin is on the pebbled floor, surrounded by three people in serving uniform; two males, one female. I look intently at the female server; she's not my sister. I thank my lucky stars for that.

"Chinatsu is inside the kitchen." Yua informs me.

“Qin, get over here!” I yell. She spots me and scrambles over, her eyes wide with fright. The servers let her go, their heads turning blankly to look at us. When she reaches me, she clings to me tightly, looking back over her shoulder at the three servers. Naim comes up behind us, looking on in amazement.

“What happened?” I ask.

Before she can reply, an eerie wail floats throughout the indoor garden, loud enough to be heard above the howling wind and the yelling customers. It takes me a while before I realize that the trio are singing Happy Birthday in an extremely creepy manner.

“Happy Birthday, Qin Kawano!” they smile, in perfect synchronicity, as if they are badly programmed robots.

“It's not my birthday,” she whispers, almost to herself. A tall man in his forties comes up to them, dressed impeccably. It seems like he is the manager. As he tries to berate them, the girl's eyes flicker for a moment, and her face writhes in an inhuman manner. Her hand flashes up quickly, almost a blur. The man stops and stumbles backwards, staring at his chest. A kitchen knife is embedded in it, penetrating from under his sternum towards his heart. As he collapses, the yells of the customers turn to shrieks of terror, as a stampede begins towards the exit. Throughout it all, the servers never take their eyes off Qin.

“Here is Cyber Jack's present to you!” they shout, in perfect synchronicity, as if one of them hadn't just stabbed the manager.

Then, they run in line towards the gap and jump out of it. The robot, in the meantime, speeds off towards the exit, whirling the meat mallet around to smash its way past the guests as they scream in agony. Whatever is affecting the servers must be the technique Cyber Jack used to cause the mass suicides. Taking one of them alive would be informative – the department had found nothing yet from autopsies of the suicides, but on the other hand, the robot is also suspicious.

This is not the time for analysis, though. I'll gather my thoughts later. If I want to act, I have to decide now.

***

A. I jump out the window. At this height, I should have 10, maybe 12 seconds before I hit the ground. Judging from the building's layout, I will have plenty of spots to arrest my fall should I choose to. Plenty of time to capture one of them... I suppose.

B. I go after the robot. If it didn't go into a suicide jump with the servers, or deactivate itself on the spot, it might be carrying something important. I'll probably need to subdue it somehow, but with my upgraded abilities that shouldn't be a problem.

C. I'm a bodyguard, not an investigator. I suppose I should just stay with Qin instead and escort her home, instead of leaving her with Naim. The poor girl must be terrified. Perfect time to question her, then.
 

Part 12 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act V

The Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act V


My duty is to stay with her. I breathe in deeply, feeling myself grow calmer. It will take a while for the chaos to settle down. In the meantime, Naim and I bring Qin over to the kitchen, asking Chinatsu to make her a serving of hot cocoa - the rest of the staff have been called out to the front, probably to help with the panicking customers. Qin's face is deathly pale - I suppose having three people jump off a building to celebrate her 'birthday' would do that to you. On the other hand, that's probably the least of her worries right now. They had called out her name in public. I expect the fan is going to be quite brown very soon. They had not wanted a police escort to keep things low key, but it seems that Cyber Jack has successfully upped the ante with his latest move. Accidents on the set can be covered up or explained away, but what happened just now is going to turn into an all-you-can-eat for the media. After Chinatsu hands Qin the mug of cocoa, she asks for my help with putting some pans back on the shelf, in the opposite corner from where Qin is sitting.

"You're not fooling me, you know." she whispers.

"Hey, most of the city hasn't identified me yet."

She snorts. "I suppose others could buy that, but I can probably spot your stupid head from the other side of town. Stay discreet, okay?"

"Yeah, I know. About Mom and Dad..."

"You have your reasons, I'm sure. I won't let them know a thing, they'll just worry about it needlessly. We'll talk another time."

"When it's safer." I emphasize firmly.

"When it's safer," she agrees. "Still... it's good to see you again, stupid brother."

"It's good to see you too. You've really grown. I mean, emotionally. Not physically."

I earn a stomp for that one.

Seeing Chinatsu again makes me wonder about my other sister. Rei is probably still in space, fighting on the frontlines of the war. With my recently made cultist contacts, perhaps I should see if I can do anything about that. But that would have to wait. Right now, I have a job to do.

"Is there any other way out of Yamaten?" I ask Chinatsu.

"Well, there is the staff entrance, over there." She points over at a door near the back of the kitchen. "It leads straight to the fire exits."

"We'll take that. Qin, are you alright with walking?"

She nods wordlessly.

"Then let's get out of here. I think the papparazi are going to break down the door once they've gotten news of this - and they probably already have."

"Hold on a minute, Mr. Kurou." Naim calls out. He tosses a small box at me. I catch it - it's the electronic key for his car. "I'll stay here to handle the situation. Not to brag, but I am relatively famous after all. They will listen to me. Please see Ms. Kawano back home safely."

"Do you know what to say?" I ask.

"Deny, distract, disseminate." He recites. "I took a course on propaganda studies back in my academy days. I should be able to handle this."

"Alright. I'll leave that up to you, Sir Naim. Oh, yes, before I leave... there's one important thing I need to ask. Who recommended the Yamaten to you?"

"How did you know - right, never mind. Ms. Kawano's manager said she would probably like to dine in a place like this."

"Thanks. That's all I need to know." I grab Qin's hand and run off.

"Wait! Actually, do you have a driving license?"

I can hear Naim shouting after me, but I ignore him as we dash down the stairs.

***

As a matter of fact, I don't have a driving license. I do, however, manage to make it back to Qin's apartment without so much as denting the car, so there's no worries there. If I can handle a frame, I can handle a sportscar. Qin looks much better after the ride - the fresh air and cold breeze has done her complexion some good.

She is surprised when I follow her in without waiting for an invitation.

"Quite forward, aren't you?" she giggles.

"I am your bodyguard after all. The job doesn't end after you get home. Don't worry, I'll sleep in the living room."

"A dragon of my own to guard my quarters. I'm honoured. Make yourself at home, Kurou. I'll prepare something to drink. What would you like?"

"Plain water will do."

"Are you sure? I stocked my freezer up with fruit juice, and there's plenty of tea leaves and coffee beans my fans sent to me from all over the world," she says.

"Pretty sure about that. I'm not exactly in the mood for something flavourful at the moment."

"It's the first time I've brought a guy back to my place, so I insist that you try something out. I know, I'll make you one of my special blends to commemorate the occasion!"

"Well, if you insist... thank you, Qin."

"Excellent." She goes into the kitchen, humming a song beautifully.

I take a seat on the cushy sofa, then start talking to Yua.

"Has the incident made the news yet?"

"Yes. All major news channels are reporting on it right now. If you were to switch on the television right now Naim would be on all of the channels."

"How is he handling it?"

"Acceptably."

If I had a cybernetic eye or a proper neural implant I would be able to observe the feed directly via Yua, but I'm pretty old-fashioned when it comes to my body, surprisingly. I hear Qin talking loudly inside the kitchen - she must be talking to her manager. They seem to be arguing about something; it's likely because of the incident at the restaurant.

"What do you think of the idol?"

"I would not drink anything she makes... if I could drink."

I laugh. "It depends on how nice her blend is."

It takes some time for Qin to come out of the kitchen, holding two glasses of iced coffee. A good choice; they have just the right amount of bitterness and sweetness. I thank her and take a glass, sipping from it. She watches me carefully. She seems to be somewhat tense.

"Can I ask you a bit more about the incident?"

"Yes, you can," she replies, her expression growing more and more nervous as she recalls the scene.

"What happened, exactly?”

“I’m not sure. There was a bright flash, and then those three just walked towards me. They said something about how ‘I will spread Cyber Jack’s message to the world’. Then, the glass was shattered. You saw the rest.”

“You really don’t know why he’s targeting you?”

She shakes her head exasperatedly. “Of course not. I have no idea who this hacker is and I don’t care. I told you, it’s really starting to scare me. I’m not sure what to do anymore.”

I observe her carefully. My senses tell me that she doesn’t seem to be lying – then again, she’s a good actress. I can’t be certain, and I won’t say that my powers of observation are foolproof. My senses also tell me that the sedative circulating through my body is being counter-acted by Yua’s stimulation of my nervous system. That I am certain of.

"By the way," I say brightly, "I need to have a look around your apartment."

"Why's that?"

"I'm quite particular about... well... roaches, bugs and the like. I'm scared of them."

"My bodyguard, scared of bugs?" Qin laughs. The mood lightens.

"Deathly afraid. So if you'll permit me..."

"Sure, if you want. Luckily I cleaned up this morning."

I get up and begin my search. The bugs I'm looking for are of a more electronic sort, and I activate my ability to help with the search. I find nothing as I move from room to room. Finally, I reach Qin's bedroom. It's full of frills and ribbons, as expected of a girl. There are pictures lining one of the walls, but surprisingly, it isn't of her. The pictures were all of Kyrie.

"You seem to be a very big fan of the princess.”

“Yeah. She was a wonderful person. The moment I met her I knew she was someone special. I didn’t get to be with her for long, but sometimes you just know that… well, some people you only need to see once to understand how precious they are.”

“It almost sounds like you were enamoured with her.” I laugh.

“Maybe I was. I know that I wanted to be just like her the moment we met. I only agreed to become an idol so that I could have met her again. A poor refugee from space wouldn’t have a chance, but as a celebrity…”

“She died before you could.”

“Yes, she did. Killed by someone dear to her. I have no idea how he could have had the heart to do it… I saw them together when she visited the Spirit of Adventure. I could sense that she put all her trust in him, and this was how he repaid her? I can’t even imagine how she must have felt, or what he was thinking.” This conversation is rapidly going places I don’t want it to go.

“I don’t know how you can say that she-“

“Well, I’m a mind-reader.” She sticks out her tongue mischievously. I can’t really tell if she’s joking or serious. “By the way, you haven’t answered my question in the restaurant. What do you think of Hoshikawa Senya’s crime?”

I look at the pictures of Kyrie. Most of them are of her in official functions. I see myself in one of those pictures – it’s one taken right before Julius’s familiars began their rampage at the Imperial Academy. Well, I only know it's me because I remember what I was wearing when the photo was taken. My head in the picture has been removed, a jagged hole where it used to be.

“I think that what befell her is his fault.” I say quietly.

“So you agree that he is guilty?” There’s an edge in her tone I don’t like, but she seems hesistant.

“He needs to atone for his sins. But not with death.” I straighten up, glancing back over my shoulder to look at Qin. “Oh, if you’re waiting for the sedative to kick in, don’t bother. Also, you aren’t hiding that knife very well.”

Her pretty face freezes in astonishment. It only lasts for a while, though, before she’s leaping at me, a glinting kitchen knife in her hand. It looks like the little play is over. Unfortunately for her, I’m faster and stronger. I intercept her swing, grasping her wrist painfully enough for her to drop the knife. I flip her onto the double-bed – no point in hurting her by flinging her to the ground – and straddle her, pinning her supple body to the soft mattress.

“Your plot was too hasty,” I remark. “Sleeping pills? Knife? I mean, sure, you have the clout to get away with it, but I think it would have been better had you considered other options before rushing into the only one you had, just because I’m at your place for the first time.” I must admit that she is devious, for an amateur. Her little trick with Naim could have ended in disaster for me.

“Don’t lecture me, you bastard,” she hisses, all traces of friendliness gone. There is only anger and hatred in her eyes. “How can I stand by and let the one who killed her walk free in my house? I was hoping the Hero of the Federation could do the job, but it seems that you managed to fool him somehow.”

“I manage to fool a lot of people nowadays.”

“You can’t fool me. The day I heard she died, I cried for two days,” she snarls, struggling as I tighten my grip on her. “Then, I memorized every detail about you. I would recognize you even if you were ashes.”

I whistle. “That’s a really amazing power, Qin. It doesn’t matter to me, though. Now, we have two ways to go about this peacefully. One, we pretend nothing happened, and I continue being your bodyguard. Two, you fire me and request a new person to guard you. All the other options would be… less than peaceful.”

“Fuck you,” yells Qin, trying to throw me off her. “I’d rather die than listen to you, you murderer!”

“If you kill me you’ll be a murderer too,” I point out.

“I prefer to think of it as executing the guilty.” She retorts, angrily.

"If I die, do you think your next bodyguard will be able to protect you against Cyber Jack?"

"I don't care about that! If I bring you with me, she will finally be able to rest in peace!"

It looks like I won’t be able to talk her down easily, though from the looks of it the stress of the Cyber Jack situation seems to be aggravating her paranoia. I wonder if she's told me all she knows about this Cyber Jack case, though she seems to clearly regard taking revenge for Kyrie as her utmost priority.

***

A. I tell her Kyrie is still alive and put on my best act to try to convince her of what has happened, letting her know as much as is necessary and showing as much proof as I need to so that she will believe my words. I feel that once the misunderstanding is cleared up we can actually work together well.

B. This might be a good time to test the power of persuasion from my TENTACLES! I can implant a simple suggestion – theory suggests that complex orders or commands won’t stick at all, and it has to be something that they are likely to believe as having come from their own mind. In other parlance, I can’t make them break character. (10 word limit on the suggestion’s wording, feel free to ask for clarification on what might or might not break character for Kawano)

C. I let her go – she can do as she wants after that. I will prepare for my identity to be exposed and leave the department; Azo isn’t going to be happy about this, but I don’t really care – since I’m to be revealed, my last act in the department will be to hack their servers by brute force to get whatever information their network has. Kyrie is out there somewhere, and I’m not going to waste any more time in searching for her.

D. She knows my identity, she is hostile towards me, she’s just experienced a threatening event caused by Cyber Jack… and there are no surveillance bugs in her apartment. There’ll be no better chance to silence her. I rip Qin’s mind to shreds, violating it with my tendrils. Dredging up any other knowledge she is keeping to herself, if any, is just a bonus.
 

Part 13 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act VI

Case of the Cursed Songstress, Act VI


I pin both of her arms over her head with one hand. With my free hand, I cup the smooth nape of her neck gently, lifting her head closer to mine. She stops struggling and freezes up like a deer in headlights. I quickly let my tendrils get to work. I can feel them pushing through my skin of my fingers before dividing into microscopic extensions that worm their way into Qin's neck. It is an odd feeling, having parts of myself tunnel into her so gently.

I need to access the cortex and the hypothalamus by just the sense of touch. It would be much easier if I turned her over so that she was face down, but I don't have the luxury of time. I need this to be done in 5 seconds before she begins to struggle again.

“What are you doing?” she whispers. I stare into her eyes while I try to work out the intricacies of rewiring her neuronal connections manually. If I had time I would be able to accomplish it with pure neural manipulation, but as things stand, it would be much easier to use external stimuli.

“I loved her,” I say.

“Liar.”

“I didn't kill her.”

“So you say.”

“The Empress did it, for power.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“No, I expect you to know that, if you loved her as I did. Just think, Qin. Think about the circumstances surrounding the incident.”

It is done. Her synapses had fired in response to hearing my words, and in that instant I had made it the truth for her. I lay her head onto the pillows gently and let her arms go. She looks at me blankly for a second.

“I must admit,” she begins grudgingly, “You have a point. The president's rise to power was too swift, as if everything was planned out.”

“I don't know if everything was planned out. All I know is that I didn't do it.”

She peers at me suspiciously. “You ran. You could have exposed the president's scheme by speaking out. Instead, you're hiding out, pretending to be a government agent.”

“I have my reasons.” I'm not sure it is the right time to reveal what Naim told me yet. I need to be particularly careful with who I speak to about Kyrie from now on.

“Tell me your reasons for abandoning her.” she says coldly.

I just laugh. “I didn't, and you are already in enough trouble with this Cyber Jack business. There are things you are better off not knowing.”

“Do you regret knowing what you do now?”

“Well, no.” I say. “It has been... harsh, but I am where I am now because I still don't know enough. Would I have been happier not being a part of all this and staying ignorant? No, I don't think so.” I put on my best wistful smile, and give it my best shot. “I managed to make countless precious memories with Kyrie. That alone makes all the trouble worth it. You understand that feeling, don't you?”

The look in her eyes softens, turning misty with tears. “I... I do. You really did love her, just as I thought.” Qin sighs.

“I'm sorry that I doubted you,” she says. “I think I always knew it wasn't you, but I just didn't know what to do. I accepted the official explanation blindly because I wanted someone, anyone, to blame. I'm really sorry. I almost did something terrible.” She begins apologizing, over and over. It looks like she's finally convinced now. Time to really get into her good graces.

“Qin,” I say. “I can't tell you everything right now; perhaps we can do that after you are no longer in danger from Cyber Jack. Would you like to hear some stories about Kyrie instead?”

She nods, smiling. “I would love to.”

***

Qin is asleep on the bed, having finally dozed off to my bedtime stories of my adventures with her beloved princess. I cover her with the blanket and stand up, heading out into the living room. Yua is keeping me awake by manipulating my endorphin levels; I still have work to do. There's a few hours till dawn breaks.

First, I check in with Emiri – she is due to report on the status of the cult here in Higashi.

“I'm sorry to call you at this hour, but I've been busy.”

“Don't worry about it, I'm used to pulling all-nighters!” she chirps cheerfully. “Besides, I have some very important stuff to tell you. I was gonna find you if you didn't call me. It's that big.”

“Perfect. What is it?”

“I think the Messenger is in one of our old temples in Hokkaido.”

“The... Messenger?”

“Yes. The one that grants the Third Hierarchs their powers, through the blessing of its flesh. It's a Messenger from God. One of the old-timers told me that it's enshrined in Hokkaido.”

“Old-timers... wait, how many people have you been talking to?”

“Lots! There's a lot of people unsatisfied with how the Great Mother has been handling things, y'know. I mean, no offense but it's like she threw us away and ran off to save her own skin. I think people are ready to gather under your banner, my Master.”

“My... wait, what banner? How many people are there exactly?”

“Um, about three hundred? We don't have anyone in the higher ranks, but there's only about a few dozen of them left around here anyway and they're really loyal to the Great Mother, so we don't approach them.”

Three hundred cultists now listen to me?

“And they're answering to you?”

“Of course!” she beams. Then, she adds, a bit bashfully, “I am your personal handmaiden after all. They treated me really well once they found out that I met you. Oh, but don't worry, we're being very discreet about all this!”

I didn't recall making any such appointment. “By the way, you weren't anywhere near this cheerful when I first spoke to you, Emiri. Has something good happened?”

“Well, I'm always happy to hear from you, and we met in... other circumstances. I mean, I was really scared back then. But you're just so gentle and nice, and not that much older, and cool, and... um... kinda cute – oh, sorry!” I can almost hear her blushing. “Eheh, I get too carried away sometimes. I'm sorry, my Master. I have been rude, haven't I?”

“No, that is fine. You have done well, but next time try to keep yourself under control, especially with other cultists.” I say, my tone serious. She's fourteen, and I can expect some flightiness, but if she does not maintain discretion I could lose her and any chance of infiltrating the cult at the same time - well, if what she says is true, I could probably wrest control of the remnants of the cult on Earth whenever I wish, but that's besides the point. “This is no laughing matter. You know how dangerous things can become.”

“I understand,” she says softly. “I'll be more careful in the future. But, my Master, I am sure you can trust all of us!”

“Perhaps,” I mutter. “Perhaps not. I will decide. In the meantime, I want you to tell them this. These are my words, and I expect them to be conveyed faithfully.”

“Yes? What is it?”

“Stay safe. I don't want anyone getting into any danger, or anyone dying recklessly. Your lives are more important to me than anything in the whole world.”

“Yes, my Master!” She sounds absolutely delighted. To be honest, she reminds me of old Yua.

“I told you, we are different entities altogether!” protests the new Yua, reading my mind.

“I don't need to be called Master. You can call me by name,” I say. “Emiri, I will want a list of names of those three hundred.”

Before I hang up, I ask Emiri to have the cultists focus on...

***

A. Looking for Kyrie. I'm not sure where to start, but if she happens to be somewhere in the vicinity of Higashi, the cultists might be able to give me some leads. This shouldn't be a risky request – I will just give a physical description and gather all the information I can get from them for Yua to sift through.

B. Getting news about the Hokkaido temple that enshrines the Messenger. If my guess is correct, from that weird game Shulgi gave me, I have a good idea what this 'Messenger' really is. I have a nagging feeling that the main branch of the cult will not leave the Messenger here, barely guarded, for long. It would definitely attract more attention from the remaining higher-ups, though.

C. Doing nothing overt and quietly consolidating their presence. I mean it when I say I don't want anyone getting into danger for my own goals.

***

Next, I turn my focus back to the Cyber Jack case. His motives are unclear, but I have one major lead; Qin's manager. She was the one who recommended the Yamaten to Naim. The work that had gone into staging that event would need preparation; they had known beforehand that Qin would be there.

“Here's the information about Nancy Muir.”

I look through the profile obtained from the government database. That's the good thing about working through official channels – I get to tap into information I should have access to with little hassle. I don't need to go to all the trouble of hiding my tracks for once. There seems to be nothing that stands out to me; no reason why she would be involved in the case. Perhaps I'm approaching this from the wrong way? I lean my head back against the cushions and think.

There's that matter of the ten thousand suicides that was Cyber Jack's opening salvo.

If they are indeed committed by the same culprit, and I'm pretty sure by now they are, judging from the modus operandi, there could be a link there.

“Yua, cross-reference the name list of the victims with Nancy Muir.”

“I'm on it.”

It takes a few minutes before Yua returns to me with a match.

“Jonathan Logell, moderator of some of the most popular virtual worlds in the 7ch community and a mid-level employee of the Muramasa Foundation. He has been engaged to Nancy Muir for six months. His current status is now deceased. The cause of death would be a violent impact after jumping off the 16th floor of his apartment building. The coroner found no foul play. Digital investigations show that there was no apparent tampering with his cognitive augments. Age at death is 26.”

“Now we have a connection, but the motive is yet unclear.” I should have paid more attention to the suicide case from the start. “Yua, I believe that there were suicide letters from the victims, posted on 7ch shortly before they leapt. Show me.”

“Roger that.”

I read through the evidence and the case-files of the ongoing investigation. After I finish my perusal, I get up and begin pacing about. Jonathan's suicide message was no different from the others. If there was one underlying thread between all the letters, it was that they were rants about the rotten state of the world, the futility of life, and a message of thanks to the internet for having brought them all together. That, in itself, is probably not exceedingly strange or noteworthy – they were all members of the same net community and it wouldn't be a surprise for them to share the same outlook on life. Plenty of nihilist fan communities put out similar manifestos every once in a while, and things have only gotten worse since the war started. The investigators have made a note of this, and are actively pursuing this particular line of inquiry.

What struck my attention, however, is how they signed off, on each of their posts.

“'Til we meet again.” I mutter.

On first glance it seems innocuous enough, but there isn't anything in their rants to indicate a belief in an afterlife. There is something else at work here; and from the demonstration of mass suicide, I am starting to think that a cult of some sorts may be involved. It might not be the Apostles – this doesn't seem like their doing, as they have never shown much digital savvy. It might be some a new organization. In any case, I will not be able to uncover anything else without approaching Nancy directly.

***

A. I will alert the department and have Nancy invited to the office tomorrow using official channels. I know that they have experienced interrogators there who should be able to ferret out useful information; there is no doubt she is involved with Cyber Jack by now.

B. I gather the evidence and confront Nancy in private, without letting the department know. Perhaps we can come to a deal... it is not like I have anything against Cyber Jack personally. As long as our interests don't clash, we might be able to work something out to our mutual benefit.

C. I do not do anything yet. I will maintain the status quo and dangle Qin out as bait so that they will make a move again, allowing me to glean even more information before taking action.
 

Part 14 - Case of the Cursed Songstress, Conclusion

1. B - 11, C - 1
2. A - 7, B - 3, C - 2

***

Case of the Cursed Songstress, Conclusion


“Do you know why you are here?” asks the interrogator.

“You believe I am working with Cyber Jack.” replies Nancy calmly, looking down at her hands.

“Are you?”

“Yes.” she says matter-of-factly. “I have nothing to hide.”

“Why are you working with him?”

“I agree with his ideals.”

“Why are you after Qin Kawano?”

“Her public conversion would have been a great boost to our cause.”

“Conversion, you say. Is it some sort of religion? Are you related to the Apostles? How did you plan on achieving it?”

“It is not a religion. Facts deny faith, and there can be no religion without faith. Our ideals are based on fact.”

“Very well, if you say so. What are your ideals? What do you stand to gain from all this?”

Nancy's lips tighten, pressing together in a thin, knowing smile.

“My work here is done, as the situation has changed. You will know the truth very, very soon. 'Til we meet again.”

Suddenly, her eyes roll up in her head as she begins convulsing, white foam bubbling from between clenched teeth. The interrogator leaps from his chair to grab her, but he does not make it in time before she hits the ground, her skull making a loud crack against the floor of the interrogation cell.

I pause the recording.

The truth that she spoke of had indeed been revealed soon. A day after her death, the ten thousand suicide victims had made a sudden return to cyberspace. At first, there was anger and disbelief, but as the minutes ticked by it soon became clear that this was not some insensitive attempt at trolling. Friends and relatives found that the internet personas knew everything that the deceased would. They had the same speech quirks, the same thought processes, the same emotions. If not for the fact that their real bodies were clearly dead and lying in a freezer somewhere in the local morgue, one would easily think that they were real, living people – which they claimed to be.

They claimed that they had discarded their physical shell and transcended into the realm of the digital.

As expected, this created a great uproar worldwide, having the fortunate side-effect of making Qin's encounter at the Yamaten yesterday's news. To add fuel to the fire, their location was undefined – no one could track their physical position. It's as if they really existed only in cyberspace.

After Yua had alerted me to the news, I decided to look over Nancy's death again, to see if there is anything I had missed. I get the feeling that I have missed out on some vital clues during my protection of Kawano.

“The latest medical records show that a logic bomb overloaded her cognitive augment, causing a fatal neural feedback.” reports Yua.

“The interrogation cell was shielded, was it not?”

“Yes, the interior would have been secure from all external attempts to hijack Nancy Muir's cognitive augment and implant the bomb.”

Well, that meant that it was installed before she was captured; perhaps from the very start. The use of a logic bomb would explain the other cases handily – in theory, it could be used to program the behaviour of a person bearing extensive neural augments, but such a programmer would have to be god-like in skill. I don't believe that I could do it myself.

There is also a major problem with the bomb's existence; for one, installing unauthorized software on a tracked and licensed brain disc is nearly impossible due to certain hardware locks. Nancy's augment was licensed. There is but one way to unlock a licensed augment, but that involves undergoing a second surgical procedure to manually modify the disc's circuitry after its installation. This is illegal, of course, but common amongst the augment addicts in the enclaves. Though the disc itself was too damaged to tell if it was tampered with after the logic bomb went off, there were no signs of a second surgical procedure on Nancy's skull, so I could probably rule that out.

Perhaps...

“There's an incoming call from Azo,” Yua interrupts my thoughts. I tell her to connect the call.

“Hoshikawa.” Azo greets me curtly, as is his custom.

“Minister.”

“Thank you for stopping the threat to Kawano. You did well.”

Right to the point, eh? Well, that's fine with me.

“I didn't do much, and we are still not certain that she is in the clear yet.”

“There have been no accidents on set ever since Nancy Muir was taken into custody.” He does not mention her death, but it is true that since her arrest and subsequent death a week ago, nothing strange has happened around Qin. “Of course,” the minister continues, “This does not mean that we are not supervising her anymore. On the contrary, we will be strengthening her guard with five veterans from the department.”

“Reinforcements,” I quip. “That's always helpful.”

“You won't be with them,” replies Azo with a smile.

“You're pulling me off the case? Are you transferring me to another mission?”

“Not exactly. The Federation's best hacker, Anna – I think you have encountered her before, haven't you – is currently here to assist us to hunt down Cyber Jack. I think we will be able to manage without you for a while. No, I'm giving you a one week vacation.”

“Where to?”

“That, Hoshikawa, is up to you. Did you know that Erika has returned from her mission on Rakuten?”

“Yes, but I haven't had any chance to meet up with her since I was guarding Kawano.”

“Suffice to say, the mission was a failure, and the smuggling ring is now aware that we're on to them. The whole artificial island is in a state of high tension.” he mutters. “That girl is earnest and means well, but Sadomura should've known better...” Azo coughs, composing himself.

“At any rate, she took a picture that might be of interest. Rakuten is a pretty intriguing place for a young man like you. I'm sending it over, so take a look at it.”

“File received and decompressed” says Yua. “Let's see...”

She gasps in shock and shows me the picture immediately. “Look at it!”

“I'm looking, I'm looking,” I grumble. I take a look at the picture. Immediately I see what Yua is excited about.

It's Kyrie.

At least, it looks like her; after that incident at the palace I have become a bit more wary. Only her head can be seen clearly amongst of the crowd of augments, but I recognize her features. Is she really here in Higashi?

“Check for compositing,” I whisper to Yua.

“There should be no need for that. I assure you the picture is untouched, straight from Erika's camera.” says Azo. “At any rate, should you be interested in vacationing in Rakuten, feel free to do so. Of course, you may choose to spend your time however you wish. I shall see you in a week, Hoshikawa.”

Just as Azo hangs up, I get a call from Emiri.

“I... I finally got through! Master!” she shouts, panickedly.

“What's the matter?”

“Things have gone bad, they've captured some of your loyal underlings! Apparently they didn't like us asking too much about the temple, and got really suspicious. Some of our loyal members weren't all that loyal after all, and spilled what they knew! Oh, and it seems that the fake Messiah, Rei, is there too.”

Rei is on Earth? How had she managed to slip in from space? No, that's not all that crucial right now – more importantly, if she is here, it means that they are planning to do something with the Messenger. I may have found out about this just in time, but I wonder if I shouldn't have vetted that list of names before asking them to do more.

“What do you know about the temple right now?”

“The last message I got from them was that they're apparently preparing for the Messenger's shrine to be relocated.”

“Where to?”

“Space.”

It looks like they will be fleeing with the Messenger. Still, to escape Earth orbit is a suicidal task. They must have something major planned as a distraction... like an assault by the Indus on the Federation. In a drop operation, few would be looking for a vessel travelling back into space. I doubt the Indus or the cult have sufficient resources on Earth itself to conduct any other sort of distraction.

***

A. I use my break time to investigate the Kyrie sighting in Rakuten.

B. I head north to investigate the temple before Rei clears it out.

C. I rejoin the Cyber Jack investigation – whatever he is planning, I should try to stop it as soon as possible.

D. I spend my vacation further researching the materials that I brought back from the other world, as well as the other world itself.

***

1. I inform Azo about the possibility of the Indus attacking the Federation sometime during the coming week. It would be better for them to be prepared.

2. I don't inform Azo about the possibility of an Indus attack. I don't care either way what happens to the Federation - why should I?

3. Tell Azo everything about the cult's possible plan to sneak something back into space, and let him handle it as he sees fit.
 

Part 15 - Vacation in the North

A3 – 1
B1 – 7
B2 – 3
D3 – 1

***

Vacation in the North


The temple compound is located in the outskirts of the town of Yoichi, disguised as a recreation center for elderly folk. It’s the lone asset of one of the few shell companies that managed to avoid the Federation’s purge, the director of the company having successfully disavowed any connection with the cult.

I observe via the security cameras as he engages in a threesome with two of the cultist maidens, who can’t be older than sixteen.

“If they spent half the time on protecting their systems that they did on screwing…” I mutter, as Yua completes the hack. They had bought an expensive electronic security package which proved impossible to completely circumvent. I’ve bought myself three hours until the system detects the tampering and alerts whoever is sleeping at the desk, but that should be more than enough time to slip in and reconnoitre the small compound. It appears that the security feed doesn’t cover the temple’s inner chambers, where the shrine of the Messenger is presumably located.

Yua puts the layout in memory and I make my move. There are two entrances to the compound – a large main gate, and a service entrance. At this time of the day most of the staff should be busy catering to the elderly customers on the ground floor of the building. The service entrance leads to a pathway that ends up near the ground floor study. The study itself is empty; the recreation area is located further ahead, but that is not where I am headed. I walk quickly through the corridors with Yua guiding my movements. Doors open with the lightest touch – I have the free run of the place, but little interests me up here. Finally, with one last turn, I’m confronted with the stairs to the inner chambers, a spiral staircase with an iron balustrade that twisted its way into the depths of the building, deep underground.

From here on I would be walking blind, my digital wizardry being of no more use. I take a deep breath and begin heading down, taking the stairs one step at a time. From what I have heard from Emiri, Rei should be here, accompanied by two Second Hierarchs – the very epitome of Very Important People for the cult. They probably plan to escape soon. There is a large transport helicopter fuelled up and ready in the compound, according to Yua. Meanwhile, the Indus have launched an assault, as I had expected. Sixty warships have breached the frontlines and are attempting to land troops on the continent. None of the drop troops would land in Higashi, but this easily served the purpose of drawing Federation military response towards the mainland. It also means Azo’s eyes are away from me and the temple, and towards the invading force. They were ready for it, thanks to my word of caution, but the scale of the invasion had surprised them. If the Indus are willing to throw away the lives of three hundred thousand men just to get the Messenger into space, it must be extremely important.

***

track: sy

My feet step on stone instead of wood. I’m at the bottom of the winding stairs. That familiar little ache in my skull has begun acting up again, and I’m starting to sense the presence of something strange and alien beyond. The walls are no longer painted. Instead, they are lined with carved, black phallic shapes that undulate along the entire length of the corridors. The dim candlelight casts dark shadows all around me as the flickering creates the impression of things lurking in the walls; things that have far too many limbs to be comfortable with.

help

I stop and look around. I’m sure I did not just imagine that.

“Yua?”

“I’m picking up unusual activity in your brain, but I cannot determine the reason.”

It looks like she can’t identify the source of the voice.

“Perhaps this would be a good time to retreat,” she suggests. “I think the whole idea of coming out here was silly.”

I give her a mental shrug. “Let’s get a souvenir or two before we call it off, shall we?”

help

save me

The voice fades in and out of my mind, breathless, as if communicating with me is an arduous task. I ignore it for now – I am heading in the same direction as its source, and I’ll see for myself whether this ‘help’ is required once I get there.

The strange presence grows thicker as I walk further into the complex, wrapping around me and slowing my steps. I begin to feel queasy and hot, even though the cold of the north penetrates down here in these frigid corridors. Sweat drips down my neck. Finally, I have to stop – a large door stands in my way. This one will not swing open to my will; there are no electronics involved here. It is tall, heavy and made out of oppressive black iron. The carvings on its surface depict motifs of tentacles wrapping around laughing heads of men, women and children. The presence is palpable on the opposite side of the door, and I can detect the signs of life. There are perhaps 25… no, 26 people on the other side, though they are some distance away from the entrance and sound too distracted to pay any attention to it.

“Very classy,” I murmur as I touch the door.

Instantly, a barrage of visions and emotions fills my mind.

A temple, basking in the sun. Glory. Worshippers thronging its courtyard. Faith. Twisting tunnels under its surface. Slumber. The all-encompassing embrace of a provider and nurturer, and the silhouette of a teacher. Knowledge. A man, hurling fire from his fingers. Enemy. Darkness. Hunger. Solitude. Misery. Tree. Death. Light. A man, digging away at the ground, cradling something that he finds. Tests. Slavery. Flesh cut away for humans. Pain. A snowy compound in the frozen north. Solitude. Misery. A boy, in front of a black door. Hope.

save me

“Shut up,” I grit my teeth and chase the presence from my mind, with some effort. It will return, but if it doesn’t keep quiet I can’t get around to saving it now, can I? I push the great door open slowly and carefully.

The smell of sweat and incense instantly assails my nostrils, along with the screams and moans of pleasure. In front of me writhes a naked mass of tangled limbs and bodies losing themselves in orgasmic bliss, male and female, old and young... even children. Sitting at the front of the room on a throne, overlooking the orgy impassively, is a nude Rei, with an equally nude Keiko and an old man with a rather distinguished moustache – one of the Second Hierarchs, I’d presume – fondling and groping her, their hands, lips and tongues travelling to places I could only imagine. A slight flush in her cheeks is the only sign that betrays the fact that she is feeling anything. The heat and queasiness I had been feeling starts to grow at an alarming rate.

“Yua,” I hiss, “Physiological control.”

“A-ah, yes, right!” she says in a flustered manner. “There appears to be something that is inducing increased hormonal activity, but I am not sure whether it is an airborne component, or –“

“Just counter-act it.” I groan. It looks like my sense of timing is as good as ever. On one hand, they might be so occupied with their orgy that they fail to notice me, but on the other, this is quite awkward.

help

It takes me a while to calm down my pounding heart, and by the time it does, I have already noticed the prisoners. They are suspended from their ceiling via steel wires threaded into their neck, torso and genitals, and their limbs are nothing but bloody stumps, in a condition similar to the lawmaker I had rescued. They must be the cultists that had investigated this temple on my orders. Some of them stir occasionally – they are still alive, it seems. I turn my gaze from their twitching bodies.

“Hear me, ye faithful!” shouts a nude – well, they are all nude – middle-aged man with steely eyes and gray hair plastered over his sweaty face. In front of him is an ornate altar where a young girl, tanned with dark hair like the worshippers in the visions I was given, lays spread-eagled with a gaping hole in her lower abdomen. “We are gathered here today to begin the ritual of the Messenger’s transmigration.” No one looks at him; the rest of the cultists are intent on their frantic copulation. He continues anyway, beginning to talk about memories of the world and how they need to bring the Messenger to the pure void of space so that it may commune with the Great Mother. I pay him little attention as I finally sneak into the room. No one notices me either, caught up as they are in their frenzy. The man begins wandering about the orgy, caressing the worshippers as he chants some inane babble.

help me, please

I can identify the source of the voice now – the girl on the altar. Her dead eyes are fixed on mine, shining and wet with tears. She is clearly lifeless and not drawing any breath. As I draw closer, I notice a fleshy, lumpy orb protruding from her womb. I recall the mention of a core in Shulgi’s game – could this be it?

yes

I narrow my eyes as I stop my approach.

Are you reading my mind?

help me

How?

share… touch me

tendrils... ours

Another vision assails my mind, this time of me granting a bit of my essence to the core, allowing it to puppet the girl’s corpse to escape while the cultists are still screwing around. The voice doesn’t badger me anymore – I sense that it’s used up the last of its strength to convey that message. I glance around the room again. The chanting is growing louder and louder – the cultists have started joining in even while performing their orgiastic activities. Rei’s head is slumped back against her throne, breathing much more heavily than the last time I looked, as Keiko and the old man continue to pleasure her and each other.

“I can’t hold it for long,” warns Yua. “The influence is getting stronger.”

I can feel a stirring in my own loins. “A few more minutes,” I gasp, submerging my mind into the cold even further to keep myself under control. The dimension rod pulses gently in my pocket, reminding me of its presence. It’ll serve as an emergency escape route should I need it.

***

A. I approach the altar and crush the orb, killing the Messenger and ending whatever plans the cult has for it. I don’t trust the alien thing, and at any rate it should be grateful for the mercy I am giving it.

B. I grant the Messenger what it wishes and touch it with my tendrils so that it can escape. Whether it is because of sympathy, or a desire to learn more about it, I don’t know, but its bid for freedom should serve as a distraction for me.

E. I touch the Messenger with my tendrils... and attempt to take over its mind for my own purposes. It appears to be weak and lacking in strength right now - I will have no better shot than this.

1. I get ready to slaughter the cultists after dealing with the Messenger. Ending an orgy with death is fitting for depraved worms like them.

2. I get ready to flee after dealing with the Messenger. I'll use the dimension rod if I absolutely need to, though I don't have a very good feeling about it.

***

C. I leave. I’m afraid if I stay here any longer I will jump into the orgy myself from suffering chronic blue-balling syndrome. I don’t really care about the Messenger anymore, now that I know what it is. The cult can have their little alien slave.

D. FUCK IT (approach Rei for some family bonding).
 

Part 16 - Breakthrough

Breakthrough

track: executioner

The moment my tendrils touch the core, I realize the grave mistake I had made. My tendrils were never truly mine to begin with, and now they had found where they truly belonged. For the first time I realize that no matter how they might have moved to my will, my control over them has always been something unnatural – a forced union brought about only by the paradoxical nature of man to desire both subjugation and worship of the unknown. I can do nothing as they are ripped from me, piece by piece, tendril by tendril, tearing themselves away from the nerves I had symbiotically bonded them to as part of my own experiments.

The pain is excruciating. Yua's voice is nothing but a buzzing in my ears. I sink to the cold stone ground, unable to vocalize my agony – I cannot even control a single muscle. My breathing wheezes erratically as my chest constricts in random, painful spasms.

Even through this all, a part of me watches myself, calm and detached, secure in the frigid void that has found itself a place in my mind. I watch as the creature completely draws the flowing black mass from my body, and into the girl's corpse. Whatever cells had been responsible for their production goes with them. The hole in the corpse's abdomen begins closing, pulled together by the tendrils it had regained. A sense of gratefulness enters my mind.

Fat load of good that'll do me.

Fat... load?

You could have warned me, I think bitterly.

Things are now how it should be.

The cultists are still in their frenzy, but I can hear footsteps approaching slowly – the lead priest is walking back this way. His wailing chant grows louder. My immobile body is hidden behind the altar, but he will notice me soon enough.

Do you plan to leave me here to die?

Escape... that was what you wanted, right? Hm, this is interesting.

What is interesting?

I can feel you... inside me.

I concentrate for a while. Indeed, I can feel the Gieloth's presence faintly in the back of my mind, like some sort of resident... or parasite. It should be feeling the same. The feeling is unlike that when it broadcasted its thoughts and emotions clearly. For now, I would have to be careful to avoid telling any outright falsehood or exhibit hostile intentions towards it; it is my only chance to get out of here right now.

I would have escaped had you not called out to me for help.

That is unfortunate, but it has been so long since I have met someone that could actually hear me.

Though its words are repentant, I can feel that it isn't really all that torn up over rendering me a paralytic invalid. Instead, it seems to be getting happier by the second, as it restores itself.

“What is this?” shouts the priest. “The Messenger's body... where is it? What has happened to the vessel?” It sounds like whatever the Gieloth did, it wasn't part of the cult's plans. I try to edge myself closer to the altar, to avoid being seen. The pain is receding by now, but I still have little control over my body.

What now?

Mm, well...

The Gieloth's mood suddenly takes a turn for the lighter, as it stretches its limbs and opens its eyes. It appears to be releasing something into the air – are those pheromones? I hear the moans of the cultists grow louder, their frenzied copulation turning violent. Thankfully, I remain unaffected; I wonder if it's the loss of control I'm currently suffering, or perhaps the nature of our connection.

“My Messenger! My Messenger!” shrieks the priest, lost in ecstasy. His screams of pleasure turn to screams of pain as I hear a brief, tearing noise. I sense the Gieloth grow in strength as it takes back the part of it that had been given to the Second Hierarch. Then, the child's head peeks over the altar, her dark hair swinging over her golden eyes. She grins wickedly as she tosses me something that looked like a sausage, coated in red and white. If I could shrink back, I would.

I think they are going to be a bit occupied for a while.

I can't move. That's the most crucial part of my problem.

Too bad. Are you going to make a little girl carry you?

I thought you were grateful for my help?

Of course I am. I was just joking.

A wave of tentacles flows down from the altar, wrapping around me gently. The girl drops down and begins walking towards the door, dragging me behind her like prey in a net as she hums happily.

An explosion cuts our escape short. The girl jumps back with a squeak. Well, I didn't expect to be lucky enough to just walk out of here like that. With great effort, I force my head to turn slightly to one side. Rei, Keiko and the other Second Hierarch appear to have recovered from the effect somehow. The old man has his arm outstretched – he was probably the one who cast that fireball. From what I know of their abilities, that makes him the wizard, Keiko the rogue, and Rei the fighter. That's a pretty balanced team. On my side, I have a tentacled young girl, an AI that seems to be temporarily disabled from the shock, and me, a (temporary, I hope) invalid.

Rei's eyes widen in surprise when she sees me, but I don't have enough control over my vocal cords to greet her right now.

Ah, I suppose this is where we part ways?

You are not leaving me here.

But-

No buts. Listen to my instructions and we'll all get out of here alive.

I can feel her grudgingly accepting my words – she seems too confused to know what she should do in this situation either. If I want to escape, I'll need to guide and strengthen her, at least until my own strength returns. The Second Hierarch begins to approach while calling out to the Messenger, gently stepping around the prone bodies of the cultists; they seem to be either unconscious or dead.

We need to take down the wizard first.

Who's the wizard?

That old guy, coming towards you. Reach out a tendril gently and slowly, stretch it towards him .

She does so – obediently, how cute – and waits. The Second Hierarch stops, puzzled. Concentrating, I force my throat to work. Control is gradually returning to me. I croak out what I have to say to the Second Hierarch, my eyes gazing blankly into his.

“Your... Messenger... greets you...”

“What?” There is an expression of bewilderment on his face. “I don't understand.” What an irritating idiot. So this is the quality of the cult's second-highest ranking officials? If I had use of my body, I would crush him like an ant, but I would just have to leave it to the Gieloth for now. Ah, this is an irritating situation. I feel the Gieloth recoil as the force of my bloodlust hits her. Damn, it looks like my self-control is slipping at all the wrong moments.

Don't get distracted. Get ready to take him down.

I force out even more words. “Touch... alike... touch... blessing...” His eyes gleam instantly – as I expected, anyone that high up in the cult has a stupid lust for power. The old man works out the words in his mind quickly, and sends out tendrils of his own, hoping for the 'blessing'. He wasn't watching when his compatriot was killed, and now he'll suffer the same fate.

Oh, so that's what you were after.

You know what to do.

Leave it to me!

In the next instant, the Second Hierarch is convulsing on the ground as the Gieloth retakes what is hers – this time, his end is considerably more brutal, as the tendrils that were once his turn on him while still inside his body, eating him up from the inside. The wizard is down. As the black strands burst forth from every orifice of his, I wonder if she could have done the same to me...

“Senya!” Rei bounds towards us, wrapped in nothing but a large piece of cloth. What a strange time to suddenly be concerned for modesty. The Gieloth sends out her tendrils, but Rei somehow catches and crushes them with only her bare hands, tearing them into pieces as she keeps moving towards us.

Don't panic! You're too spread out! I bark at the Messenger. Focus on keeping her away. What else can you do right now?

I-I got it! She's panicking, despite what I told her to do. To her credit, she manages to compose herself enough to make her attacks more carefully, slowing down Rei's advance.

I can use fire, I think? And move things with my mind. I'm all out of pheromones.

Hurl that old wizard's body at her right now. Then-

The withered corpse of the Second Hierarch is sent flying at Rei, who bats it away without a second thought. That leaves her open to the tendrils flanking her – no matter how fast and strong she is, I have the advantage of telling the Gieloth where to sneak her tentacles to lie in ambush. The tendrils strike – and are promptly intercepted by Rei's own moments before her limbs are pierced. She seems just as surprised as I am; it appears to be an automatic response, but this too works in my favour.

Now!

The Gieloth doesn't need me to tell it twice, as the moment contact is made, Rei's tendrils recognize their original core. She screams in pain as the tendrils are ripped from her, and the cult's Messiah collapses helpless to the ground, much like I did.

I thought you would do the same thing you did to the old man.

I think I remember... she was kind.

Even if I wanted to, it probably doesn't do me any good to kill Rei here. Besides, Keiko is already running to her side. The Messenger doesn't need no further prompting, wrapping me up again and running out the door. The climb up the winding stairs is arduous and painful, but halfway through I regain enough motor capability to walk by myself. Once we are out in the compound, the child runs out barefoot into the yard, laughing happily.

Finally! Thank you so much!

You were going to leave me back there, I reply acidly, but she's too happy to take it to heart.

“Master!” shouts a worried Yua, finally back in contact.

“Welcome back.” I croak. “I've missed that form of address. Sorry, Yua, but there's someone else demanding my attention right now.”

Rei has recovered and caught up, much faster than I expected. I suppose she is just stronger – the wounds on her body left from the Gieloth's attacks have all but vanished, while I'm still bleeding from where the tendrils were ripped from my body.

“Hey there, sis.” I smile weakly.

The Gieloth runs behind me, peeking out from the side. I can feel her getting ready to attack.

“Where are you bringing the Messenger?” asks Rei.

“I'm not sure.” I shrug. “She's claiming child abuse, so I'm thinking the cult has lost its custodial rights.”

Rei sighs, closing her eyes.

“I suppose so. She will be better off this way... you heard her voice, right? I haven't heard her for years. Things are a bit strange with the Apostles right now.”

“Even more so than they usually are? You don't usually torture those who you think have betrayed you in that manner, eh?” My words come out more strongly than I had expected. The sight of the torsos in the temple's depths still lingers with me.

“I don't like it any more than you do, but I don't have a choice.” Rei bites her lower lip, an expression of guilt on her face.

“You have a choice. I chose my own path, didn't I?” I still don't remember what happened, but I'm pretty sure a vague statement like that would mean something to her.

“Yes, you did.” she nods. “But you're strong. I'm not like you.”

“Who's the one that's half dead?” I laugh. She's conflicted. One more push and her mental defenses will fall. If I should be so lucky...

“Incoming frames!” warns Yua.

Great. This day just keeps getting better and better.

A rain of metal crashes all about us as the CFs land – twelve white-painted Onuris mechs. I recognize the markings. White Fang. A voice booms from the lead frame, a customized affair with a giant Higashi blade replica strapped to its side.

“Hoshikawa Senya. We must thank you, no matter how it disgusts me, for leading us here.”

I haven't heard that voice in a while – it is Erika's brother, Erec. He sounds like he wants nothing more than to gut me.

“Now that your purpose is over...”

The frame aims its rifle at me. On foot, staring down a giant barrel is an unnerving matter. To make things worse, I don't have my tendrils anymore.

“He has always been bereft of purpose, but it amuses me to observe his struggles, for now. Stay your hand.”

A voice rings out, its owner stepping forth from between the frame's legs.

“Shulgi.” I growl. When had he come here? With the frames? Or...

The Gieloth's small hand tightens over my arm.

This man... is bad news. He's the enemy.

You don't need to tell me that.

“I have no use for you right now, Senya, so stand aside.” he grins. “I'm here to talk to people that are a bit more capable than you are.” His single eye flicks towards Rei.

“Your mother is quite displeased at your plans, young Rei. The assault is underway, and hundreds of thousands of people who believe in you are dying in your name even now... yet here you are, enjoying a northern vacation.” Shulgi steps closer to her, not even sparing me a glance.

“You should have been out of Higashi with the Messenger by now.”

“The rituals-”

“-are bullshit to feed the cultists' faith,” Shulgi says frankly. “You know that yourself. What is the purpose for the delay?”

Her eyes shift towards me, just for the slightest moment, but Shulgi manages to catch it.

“I see.” He points his gaze, first at me, then at the Messenger, who seems utterly frightened of him as her tanned face has turned pale with terror. “You have managed to surprise me once again,” he murmurs after some time, his eyes fixed on the child. Finally, he turns back towards the White Fang.

“Vaporize the child. Capture the Messiah.”

“What about Hoshikawa?” asks Erec, clearly eager to get a shot at me.

Shulgi sneers. “If he is stupid enough to linger around, he's clearly too stupid to be my puppet. Kill him if he gets in the way.”

There's a gust of wind behind me. I turn around, only to see Rei leaping high into the air with a single jump. She somehow changes her trajectory in mid-air, kicking off empty air and charging straight at the nearest frame. Her small body manages to impact it with enough momentum to knock it off balance. There is a flash of light as the air grows hotter – a sword forms, created out of nothingness, in her hand. Rei stabs it into the cockpit, cutting out an entrance for herself. Where did she learn how to do that? It looks like she was holding back in the temple. As the dead Dunamis pilot tumbles to the ground, her newly hijacked frame ducks a swing from the mech next to it and counters. It is sent crashing to the ground, and Rei steps in between me and the rest of the mercenaries. She levels the frame's rifle at Shulgi, the tip of the barrel dwarfing his body. The White Fangs begin to move, but Shulgi holds up a hand, halting them in their tracks.

“Is this your answer?” He appears amused. “If you wish to fight me, I don't see a reason to refuse. The end result will be the same – you will be dragged, naked and broken, before your mother.” His attention – and that of the mercenaries – is entirely on Rei now.

***

A. This is the best time to escape. I run. As he said, it'd be stupid for me to linger around here – especially when I'm in a weakened state. Someone that composed when facing a giant robot on foot is clearly quite strong. If this was a game, he'd probably qualify as a final boss. I don't think my level is high enough for such a fight yet.

B. I can hijack the other fallen frame if I act quickly, to back Rei up. If we work together, I'm confident we can find a way to fight Shulgi; I just need one good chance to cut him apart with my ability. Besides, I need to take this chance to truly understand what he is capable of, if I'm going to find a way out from his manipulations.
 

Part 17 - Immortal

Immortal

track: miragecoordinator

Rei makes the opening move of the fight by firing her rifle. The ground explodes from the beam's kinetic energy, leaving behind a small, molten crater.

"You should have another try," laughs Shulgi, standing safely a dozen metres away. As Rei turns to him, I take the chance to make my way towards the CF she had dispatched. The cockpit of the fallen frame is still tightly sealed when I get to it. I look at the Messenger, standing a safe distance away.

Help me with the robot.

How do I do that?

"Yua, can you connect to the child's mind?"

"It's a bit difficult, but... yeah, I should be able to do it."

The Gieloth lets out a yelp of surprise as Yua talks to her.

Do what the voice tells you to do.

The Gieloth walks up to the CF and lays her hands on it, her eyes closed in concentration. Moments later, the cockpit hatch opens with a slight hiss. The pilot is dead, half of his head missing from Rei's attack.

Thanks. Now go find a place to hide in.

The Messenger nods and runs back towards the compound building, while the Dunamis observe us silently. I have no doubt they would attack if we made a break for it, but surprisingly, they're allowing me to board the mech.

"The systems have been damaged but manual control is still combat effective." remarks Yua as I kick the corpse out and strap myself into the seat, ignoring the blood spatter. This means I won't be able to use any fancy macros or programming to simplify the actions. I'll have to rely on total manual input for my actions. Tricky, but...

I breathe in deeply. I still have more than twenty minutes left - that should be more than enough. The gigantic frame begins moving according to my will, crawling to its feet.

"Excellent, Hoshikawa." I hear Erec say. "Now I can kill you." I ready myself as Erec's white Onuris draws its sword. On foot I might be an inferior combatant, but as a pilot I'm confident in my advantage. I'll need to get through him to reach Rei.

Suddenly, Rei blindsides Erec's frame, smashing it to the ground. Her own mech is already damaged; scratches and scorch marks mar its white paint, and the armor has been chipped away at places.

"What are you still doing here?" she shouts. "Run!"

"As if I could do that!" I bring up the CF's rifle and aim at the fallen Erec. The lack of assisted controls will interfere with my accuracy, but at this distance I should be able to down him before he gets up.

"Taking your eyes off me in a battle? I am disappointed, Rei."

There is a bright flash, and then a loud thunderclap. Brilliant blue lightning washes over Rei's frame like a stream from the heavens, forcing it to its knees as she screams. Shulgi walks in between the both of us casually, brushing off dirt from his charred clothing. His appearance is now... different. He is shorter, more slender than before, though his eye patch remains. His red hair has turned black, and his skin more tanned. Is this his true form?

"Do you want to be a hero too, Senya?" he sighs. "That is not your role. You are just trash. A reject that should know its place."

"Recycling taunts already?" I respond. "You certainly don't have much originality."

"I call things as they are. You are a reject. Well, no matter. If it is death you seek, I will deal with the both of you at once - it should serve as a good workout for my rehabilitation." says Shulgi. "Stand down, Erec Dunamis." He gives Erec's frame a withering glance, freezing it in its tracks - Erec had been about to attack us again. "Let me play with the pups."

Rei leaps at him from behind, attempting to crush his small body under a giant robotic palm. Shulgi moves, easily dodging her attack, but I have my eye on him. I know where he will land. When he does, I've already pulled the trigger, the beam from my rifle lancing right towards his body. His eyes widen in surprise, but for just a moment. A tower of rock bursts forth from the ground, shaking off the snow as it rises. There is a small explosion as the beam meets the tower, blasting Shulgi's body away. As he skids to a halt and regains his footing, Rei is upon him again, her saber drawn. Shulgi manages to float away to safety - is that levitation, or some form of telekinesis? - while a conflagration erupts around her, trapping Rei in a ring of fire. The flames lick away at the CF, and I see the armor plates melting.

"This is underwhelming." Shulgi raises his hand in the air, laughing as he does so. He's probably about to call down lightning again; I have no doubts by now that the supernatural feats and characters depicted in the game he gave me are not fiction. I fire my rifle at Shulgi again, causing him to stop his attack in favour of avoiding mine. This time it is a near miss, with the heat of the passing beam igniting his clothes. Shulgi hits the ground running, a sudden gust of wind extinguishing the fire around him.

"Senya, don't you want to find your beloved princess? Are you sure you have the time to waste fooling around here?" he asks innocently.

"Isn't she supposed to be dead?" I reply. "Why would I look for someone no longer in this world?"

"Ha, giving up just like that? That is not like you. I suppose you have actually found out that she is still alive, and indeed no longer in our custody. Does that make you feel safe? Secure in the knowledge that she is free of our clutches?"

He attempts to flank me, darting off to the side. He might be fast, but not so fast that I cannot follow him. My vulcans shred the ground around him, cutting off his path of escape.

"Get to the point, Shulgi. I know you're about to make a threat of some sort," I sigh.

"Of course not. I don't make idle threats. Still, I cannot assure you that she is safe if I don't have her in my keeping now, do I?"

There is something malicious to his statement that gives me a sinking feeling. Shulgi comes to a halt, his feet kicking up snow. A massive wave of earth and rock surges forth, swallowing my bullets. I leap aside to avoid the wave, but Shulgi has already advanced within its cover. He lands on the barrel of my rifle, grinning. There is an explosion in my gun hand, and I fall back - he has destroyed my rifle and is now coming for me. Then, Rei charges forth from the flames, closing her hand around Shulgi while he is still in mid-air. I notice that her frame is already repairing itself somehow, regenerating the damage automatically.

"I got him!" yells Rei as the Onuris's fist tightens around the man it has caught, attempting to crush him into pulp. Then, before my eyes, the robot's arm twists and bends at multiple points. The armor splinters and the inner structure breaks as the arm is wrung like a dishrag by an unseen force. Shulgi slips out of Rei's grasp, her frame's arm hanging limply by its side. The regeneration process begins almost instantly, the limb attempting to reassemble itself. Whatever parts it cannot salvage are reconstructed from nothing. "Ah, creation." Shulgi muses, panting slightly. "You seem to have outstripped your worthless sibling in your development. Come, let us test your limits. Senya, stay there and watch." I freeze up, just as I am about to strike at his back with my saber. Something about the way he said it has lodged that sentence in my brain and turned it into an order.

The earth opens up under Rei's frame, swallowing and crushing its limbs. Shulgi drops onto the frame's head, causing its sensors to crack under his feet. He is still treating this fight as if it is some sort of game, casually strolling towards the cockpit. I can hear the scream of twisting metal as the hatch is wrenched open by his powers.

"How well can you withstand the burden of your memories, I wonder?"

Rei clambers out of the cockpit, slightly unsteady on her feet. The moment her eyes fix on Shulgi, she moves to attack, sprinting forward so fast that she is but a blur. There is a wicked smile on Shulgi's face. He intercepts her strike, his own hand snaking forth to grip her arm. Rei's eyes turn blank. She turns pale, her mouth muttering as if remembering something. Then, she begins screaming, trying to free herself from Shulgi. He lets her go, that cruel smile still fixed on his lips. Rei crawls away on her hands and knees, gasping as tears run down her face. After a while, she curls up on the scorched surface of the frame and begins calling out for her brother in a plaintive, desperate tone. I try to move, but the compulsion to stay is too strong for me to fight.

"What have you done to her, Shulgi?" He told me to stay and watch... he did not say I could not speak.

"Nothing much. I just opened up every single wound she suffered after you abandoned her. You shouldn't make a bad habit of leaving behind broken women, you know? Rei was the first. Then, you met the princess. I wonder how she is faring..."

"Probably better off than when she was in captivity, I'm sure."

"Are you sure now?" sneers Shulgi. "How do you think she escaped in the first place? No, I fully expect that when you find her, she will be broken. She will be sullied. She will not be the person you wanted to find, Senya, and this will teach you the ways of the world."

"Spare me your pointless philosophical ramblings," I retort. "Are you suffering from some sort of existential crisis that you are projecting onto me? I'm not some thousand-year old immortal and I outgrew my angsty stage a couple years back. Do you think I care whether she is tainted or broken when I find her? Grow up."

"You can say that now, but will you be as strong when you confront reality? Ah, no matter. There is nothing you can do here."

I grit my teeth. I can't move. I can't leave the frame. There is nothing I can do here.

"There is nothing you can do here," echoes Shulgi. "Indeed, you can do nothing but bring ruin to everything you touch. If your sister is the embodiment of creation, you are destruction. You have done nothing good for this world."

I have done nothing good... at all? I try to remember what I have done. Have I been useful? Have I saved lives? Have I done good? Why would I want to do good? Why would I want to save lives? Why would I need to be useful to anyone but myself? I cannot do anything but bring ruin to everything I touch.

"Get a hold of yourself!" shouts Yua. "You're slipping!" Her voice doesn't reach me.

I cannot do anything but bring ruin. Rei can create. She brings life. I see lines of death. I kill.

I can kill anything.

Broken lines of sapphire criss-cross the world in front of me, though I had not willed their presence yet. In the next moment, the hatch of my cockpit is torn away, and I see Shulgi standing over me.

"What do you see, Hoshikawa Senya?"

There are no lines anywhere on his being. Is this what it means to be immortal?

"You really are eternal, are you not?" I reply, my voice cold as ice.

"You really are a reject, are you not?" he responds, mocking me. "Here I thought that you had understood your true nature."

"Oh, I do."

I kill the words that he had spoken to me - a mental construct can be erased with my mind just as easily as I cut physical objects. Though Shulgi appears to have no lines, the words that he put in my head do. I calmly unbuckle myself from the seat, my eyes fixed on the smiling immortal all this while. There is no point in attacking him physically - I am nowhere near as fast and strong as Rei, so I would have to try something else.

"Oh?" He looks slightly impressed. "You can do that now?"

My mind is in searing agony from the strain of maintaining my powers, but I keep a straight face, letting none of the pain show. I cannot hold this for much longer.

"Perhaps I should stop letting you run around like a headless chicken."

I get to my feet, facing him. "Afraid I will gut you and leave your innards to rot on the street, Shulgi?"

"Not really. I am, as you say, eternal."

"You'll spend the rest of your eternity in a jar on my desk."

"Bloodthirsty little bugger, aren't you?"

"I'll do it." I whisper. I'll kill him. I'll erase him. I can do it. I only have to want for it, and I can snuff out the flames of his life by just reaching out. If he doesn't die even then I will just cut him up again and again and again and again and again-

For the first time, Shulgi's face loses that amused expression, as he leans back involuntarily, seemingly picking up on my murderous thoughts. His face is set grimly as his eyes dart backwards over his shoulder, looking at Rei. She is still catatonic, lying on her own frame. When those dark eyes turn back to me, they seem firm of purpose.

"I won't kill you after all," he says, a wry smile on his face. "In fact, you need my help. You will lose yourself if you continue on this route. You have already lost control once before, haven't you? Your problem, Senya, is lack of information, which causes you to make reckless decisions. Go to sleep now. You will burn out very soon if you don't. Once you awaken, I will tell you everything you should know." He takes a step forward, ready to touch me - I will probably be knocked out if I allow that to happen. I might not be able to see Shulgi's lines, but at this particular moment in time, I sense that I can somehow reach something higher... I stretch out as far as I can go, straining my ability to its limits. At the other end I know I can find a way to end Shulgi for good, even with his immortality.

Shulgi's eyes narrow, his hand stopping mere inches away from me, and then withdrawing.

"Whatever it is you think you are grasping for, you are not ready yet," he says. "It will destroy you."

"Will it destroy you ?"

He remains silent, and I just smile at him, baring my teeth.

***

A. He must be lying, as he always does. On the off chance he isn't, I'm still confident I can handle whatever consequences that come. I will strike his existence from the records of fate.

B. I offer him a fair deal. I want safe passage for Rei and the Messenger. I want Kyrie safe. If he fulfils those conditions, I will not destroy him.
1. I accept his offer of information and allow him to put me to sleep.
2. I reject his offer of information and seek to escape.
 

Chapter End - Dive

Dive

When consciousness returns to me, I find myself in lying down in a bed. The feel of the mattress and the pillow is comforting and nostalgic, as if I have slept in them for years. The blanket feels just like the one I had left back at home, before travelling to Olympus.

I open my eyes.

This is my old room. I sit up and stare at the pile of unused electronic equipment in the corner, the hastily drawn schematics littering the floor, and the robot posters adorning the walls. This is, unmistakeably, my old room, just the way I left it.

That would be impossible. My parents would have cleaned it up. Alternatively, I have been dreaming up the past year, but I don't think the false cybernetic hand on my left arm would have carried over from my dreams into reality. No, I am most probably still trapped in a dream of some sort, and knowing my luck, the dream will turn into a nightmare quite soon.

“Excellent. From consciousness to cynicism in less than five seconds.”

Well, there you have it. Shulgi. I hear his voice but he is nowhere to be seen. I vaguely recall making a deal with him for information and the safety of Rei, Kyrie and the Gieloth child, but the details – and the circumstances that led up to it – are hazy.

“Don't worry. I have kept my promise. You will be pleased to know that their safety is assured. In fact, when I contacted them, my custody of your body proved to be influential in guiding their decisions.”

“You're using my unconscious body as a bargaining chip to get them to do what you want? That's very classy of you, Shulgi.”

“Nothing dangerous, I assure you. I could impose my will on them at any time I choose, but humans are much more entertaining when left to their own devices so that they may come to their own conclusions.”

“You are welcome.” I lean forward and look at the schematics on the floor. Most of them are related to Yua's construction – now where is she? I can't seem to get in contact with her at all. “Now, about the other part of our deal...”

“Information? I believe I promised to tell you what you should know when you woke up.”

“I am awake.”

“Technically, you aren't.”

“You have all the sportsmanship of a brat, Shulgi.” I concentrate my mind; perhaps I can cut my way out of this dreamscape. A massive amount of lines appear, blanketing my vision in blue – this place is extremely unstable. It is definitely a construct of some sort; it shouldn't be too hard to break free. I trace the lines with a finger. The jagged tear I create crackles with static, and to my surprise it repairs itself almost immediately. I try to trace two more lines, only to achieve the same outcome.

“This world is actively recreating itself at all times?” I ask the empty room.

“That is correct. Whatever you erase will be restored from a backup. Here your powers hold no sway. The laws of this world are subject to the whims of its god.” He sounds smugly pleased.

“I see. You've put me in a virtual reality.” That would be the simplest explanation. A sufficiently advanced virtual world would be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Sense, sight, smell, taste and touch are all recreated faithfully from actual human experiences. Yua could have helped me to peek behind the stage curtain so that I might perceive this world's falseness; then, it would be a simple matter of disassembling the code until I find a way to awaken, whether I use my powers or not. Without her, however, I would have to find the creator or the key to accomplish the same goal, or else fling myself at their mercy.

“That is correct. You are currently in a digital construct created by a mutual acquaintance of ours. The foundation is that of your own mind.”

"Who is the creator?"

"You do not need to know that."

"I know of only two people who could program a realistic simulacrum that draws upon my own mind for data. The first is the ISC's Anna. The second is Cyber Jack. It might be you, but unless you're turning schizophrenic, you cannot be your own mutual acquaintance."

Shulgi remains silent, and I take this as a sign that he is not going to tell me which of those two is responsible for diving me into this virtual reality. Oh well.

“No matter. Are you giving me another test, Shulgi?”

He seems more willing to respond to this question.

“You could call it that. Knowledge is something that I believe is precious to the both of us. To give it away too freely would be to trivialize its importance. Before I tell you what you should know, you should be able to understand what you already know, and what you have known but forgotten. If you cannot do even that much, you can wander here in ignorance for the rest of your life. Once you have attained understanding, you will find the exit to this labyrinth of your own making. The door is open. You may proceed.”

I wait for a little while more, but Shulgi offers no more words.

“Is that all?”

There is no response. I stand up and walk to my bedroom door. The knob turns with a light twist, and I push the door open. Instead of the rest of my house, I find myself in a corridor lined with windows. The glow of the setting sun bathes it a warm orange. I know this place; it's the Imperial Academy.

So this is a world constructed using my mind as its foundation? I suppose I could go to all the trouble of doing this properly, clearing the hurdles set up ahead of me, looking for my forgotten memories, and finding the key that Shulgi has hidden at the center of this world... or I could think of a way to lure its creator into appearing before me, capture him or her, and 'persuading' them to free me with all the means at my disposal. After all, a virtual body in a virtual world has a much higher pain tolerance than a real person in the physical world... I shake my head, trying to clear it. No matter what I choose to do, I should explore this place first.

Putting away all my concerns about what might be happening in the real world, I close the door to my room and begin to walk down the lonely hallways.


-CHAPTER END-
 

Chapter Four: World Zero

Part 1 - START

START

The once silent corridors begin to fill up with murmurs. With every step I take, more ghosts appear around me, fascimiles of students and teachers that busy themselves going about their own business. I pass a hand through one of them – a sullen looking pig-tailed girl – and her image wavers temporarily before reconsolidating itself. She screams, looking at me as if I've violated her somehow, and backs away in tears.

“Sir, please refrain from interacting with background characters in an inappropriate manner.” Looking away from the panicking student, I see a short, blonde-haired girl standing in front of me. I close my eyes, taking a deep breath. The voice and appearance is identical to hers, but it can't be Kyrie. I haven't had much experience with full-body dives before, but I know a thing or two about how they work.

“Identify yourself.” I say.

“I am an interactive NPC of the Qualia series, sir. I have been customized to project the appearance you find the most aesthetically pleasing. I am also equipped with an extensive database on World 0, which you may use to guide your way.”

“That appearance is not what I find aesthetically pleasing.” I mutter.

“I am sorry, sir. Perhaps you would like to specify a change in appearance?”

I wave my hand dismissively – impressive, that even in a virtual world the feeling of cybernetics has been reproduced accurately – and shake my head. “No, that is alright. This will do. Tell me more about this world.” I begin walking, and the Kyrie NPC falls into step at my side, briefing me about this place.

“First off, I would like to welcome you to World 0, sir. This is a high-immersion virtual reality world customized for users to explore their own memories in an interactive format. I am afraid that the reconstruction of this world is not yet complete – the program appears to have run into some difficulties in accessing several parts of your mind. Digitization is complete, but translation and interpretation is still in progress.”

I nod. “Is this a custom program? Who is the creator?”

“The program has been customized to perform fully intrusive digitization. The creator is ■■■■.”

I suppose the maker isn't going to reveal themselves that easily, though that's not important at the moment. I continue probing. “Tell me more about fully intrusive digitization.”

“Fully intrusive digitization involves a thorough mapping of the entirety of the user's brain. Whereas normal digitization only recreates surface memories, fully intrusive digitization is a more complete reconstruction of a user's mindscape.”

“How is World 0 structured?”

“World 0's main lobby is a recreation of a public location that has left strong impressions on the primary user. From there, a user can travel to various memories segregated by time and location.”

“What are the memories I can travel to from this point?”

“Please hold on while I search,” says the Kyrie NPC while she closes her eyes. After a short while, she completes her search and looks at me again. “Sir, I regret to inform you that there appears to be further customization to this program than what I have previously described. The memories have been partitioned according to the creator's specifications.”

“That is all right,” I say impatiently. “What memories can I travel to?”

“Records indicate that you can only access a room labeled the Gate of the Beginning.”

I sigh. Railroading, huh.

“Take me there, then.”

“Very well, sir. Please follow me.”

I do so, making my way through the winding corridors of the academy. It appears to be slightly larger than I remember it to be, with less rooms lining the hallways. After some time, we come to a large double-door – if I recall correctly, this led to the gymnasium.

“This is the Gate of the Beginning, sir. Shall we enter?”

I'm about to gesture my approval, when I hear the rapid patter of small footsteps. The background characters did not run. Turning around quickly, I manage to catch a glimpse of a child darting down a set of stairs off to the left. Had those stairs been there before?

“Hey, where do those stairs lead?”

“I am afraid I have no information on that area, sir. It appears to be digitized data, but the program has not yet filtered it through the translation algorithm.”

I walk over to the stairs and peer down. I can see the area underneath – unlike the soothing sunset glow of the floors I have been on, it is barely illuminated by dim fluorescent lighting. After a while, I notice the child's face peeking back at me from between the railings at the bottom of the staircase.

I should have expected something like this, but it's still a jarring thing to see your younger self looking you in the eye. The boy blinks and runs off. Turning back to the guide NPC, I see that she's still waiting patiently for me to enter the Gate of the Beginning.

***

A. I enter the Gate of the Beginning. From the way it's worded, it is probably a trial of some sort – the program has probably set things up so that I can progress level by level. There's no point to chasing after ghosts.

B. I refuse to be railroaded in a construct of my own mind. There's no telling what is a test or trial; this could just as easily be another one. Besides, it is untranslated space – I should be able to find out more by acting beyond the confines of the program. I chase after my younger self.
 

Part 2 - Gate

Beginning

Turning away from the staircase, I walk towards the Gate of the Beginning. I grip the lever of the door and turn it downwards. The door opens. Tentatively, I step through it, the guide NPC following closely behind without a word.

I find myself in a wide hall, lined with empty, cylindrical glass tanks. Numerous segmented tubes snake about the place and disappear into the dark walls. I hear the door closing behind me, and when I turn around, I find - not unexpectedly - that the way out is no longer there. At the end of the hall is a throne, with the skeletal remains of some long-dead king resting upon it, a tarnished crown still adorning his skull. I have no memory of this place.

“Can the creator modify my memories?” I ask.

“Yes, sir. Modification is possible though limited by the awareness of the user that the memories have been extracted from. Modification beyond the limits of the parameters would result in unacceptable levels of distortion and eliminate immersion. This would cause the brain to reject the current reality and attempt to awaken.”

“Specify these limits.”

“Events that have never been experienced by the user will result in distortion.”

I pause for a while, looking down the corridor.

“What if I had once dived into a virtual game where I was a hero that fought dragons? Would that count as an event that I have experienced?”

“This program has been heavily modified. The original program was not designed for presenting fictional scenarios. My information indicates that the user’s capability to distinguish between fiction and reality is monitored by the program and used as a baseline for projecting the memories. Any fiction will result in rejection.”

“This is certainly fictional,” I say as I gesture down the corridor. “Where would I find a throne in the middle of what looks like an experimental facility in real life? Watch, once I walk down the corridor, that corpse is going to start talking to me.”

I do so, and once I get within two metres of the throne, the event triggers, just as I expected. I recall encountering a scenario like this in one of the old games I have played: Tomb of the Biolich. The corpse’s empty eye sockets glow with a pale blue fire as it stirs.

“Who… dares… interrupt my... slumber?” moans the dead king, its voice thin and reedy. It stops and waits for me to respond. It’ll wait for as long as needs be; it was a pretty shitty game.

I turn to the Kyrie NPC. There is a slightly perplexed expression on that face which smoothens out when she notices me looking at her. As an AI it is clunky, still far below what Yua is capable of, but it is quite improved from the usual fare I encounter. I wonder if it is itself customized. “It appears that the creator has made some modifications to the demarcation line between fiction and reality. There remains a limit on what the user can be presented, as it appears the system still does not allow fully fabricated events to occur.”

“I see. By the way, you said that the brain would attempt to awaken if it rejects the virtual reality. Does that mean that there is a chance it would fail to awaken?”

“There is a 5% probability of failure with standard hardware. I have no information about your method of access at the moment and as such am unable to give you an exact figure.”

“What happens in the event of a failure?”

“The user would still awaken, but their mind begins to reject the real world. Rapid mental breakdown follows subsequently, with total psychosis setting in no more than one week after awakening.” There seemed to be a movie made about this disease a while back; I never got around to watching it. Still, my curiosity is satisfied for now. I better get back to the lich.

“It is I,” I call out, “a humble seeker of knowledge.” The game had the player in the role of a knowledge hunter who sought out rare, precious tomes in a post-apocalyptic world where magic and technology coexisted. The Biolich was said to be an ancient king that once knew all there was to be known, and had turned himself into an immortal entity to preserve that knowledge. Hovering in a state of undeath, he slept, only opening his eyes and giving out instruction to those that would prove worthy. Those that were unworthy met with swift, terrible death.

“What... KNOWLEDGE... do you seek, wizard?” asks the Biolich as it shifts in its throne, parts of the ragged finery turning into dust as it does so. There are numerous tubes running from its body into the throne, which seems to act as a life support system - this close, I can hear a low thrum of machinery under my feet.

In the game, you could ask for power, riches and other more materialistic requests, but right now there’s only one thing I’m here for, and it’s a question that was not offered as a choice in the game.

“I seek knowledge of myself, ancient one.”

The Biolich’s skull nods.

“That is... a worthy quest... wizard. Finding... yourself is dangerous but... rewarding.” It stretches out one skeletal hand and extends a finger. A stairway of light descends from the ceiling on my left.

Suddenly, the Biolich shudders, and repeats its movement again. Another stairway descends, this time on my right. This wasn’t in the game - there, you just had to make your request of the lich, and it would send you to the Forest of Darkness to retrieve the Orb of Eternity before it would grant you the knowledge you sought. There wasn’t any choice. As I said, it was a pretty shitty game.

“Ascend. Pick one of two. On your left lies the path to remember what you already know. On the right you shall find what you have forgotten.” groans the lich, a lot more fluently this time. After it finishes delivering its message, the fire in its eyes go out and it falls still again.

I turn to the NPC. “Guide, what is the difference between the two stairs?”

The guide walks in front of me and starts looking up the glowing stairs. After a while, she shakes her head and looks back at me.

“Sir, each of the stairs leads you to a different part of World 0. I am afraid I cannot give you any more details than that.”

The lich’s message seems strange. Is there a difference between remembering what I already know, and finding what I have forgotten?

***

A. I ascend the steps to remember what I already know.

B. I ascend the steps to find out what I have forgotten.
 

Part 3 - Field

Field

The stairway, though constructed of light, appears solid to the touch. I set one foot on it, testing my weight. It is stable. Minding my step and the lack of handrails, I begin my climb, counting the steps as I go. As always, the guide NPC is just behind me, matching my pace without a word of complaint. I leave the lich and its lonely hall behind. The ceiling opens up like a flower as I draw near, its surface splitting into petal-like extensions that curl inwards with a loud, drawn-out creak. The stairway continues upwards, into total darkness. Only the light of the stairs can be seen, forming the path I have to travel.

10,214 steps later, I stop counting. I don’t get tired in the virtual world, but the monotony of the climb in the dark grates on my nerves.

“How much longer do we have to go?” I ask.

The guide NPC, her face unchanging, replies without even a blink. “There are only 13,341 more steps to go.”

With a slight grumble, I continue to climb.

Soon, I begin to see something green in the distance. I quicken my steps. Pinpricks of light begin to appear in the depths, far from the stairs I am climbing. The lights gather into familiar shapes – galaxies and nebulae, rotating slowly around me with the stairs as its axis.

“Almost there, sir.” I hear the guide say.

Then, with one more step, the scenery changes. A vast expanse of emerald sky stretches itself over my head as the darkness fades out, washed away by a flood of azure under my feet. It takes me a while for me to understand what I am looking at. The sky above me is a field of grass, and I am, somehow, standing with utter disregard for gravity.

“What is this place?”

“It is another level of World 0, sir. The program should simulate part of your knowledge with this vista,” replies the guide patiently. “Please wait and watch.”

The activity begins in a few seconds. A small hole appears on the surface of the grassy field, and an ant climbs out of it. It is soon followed by its comrades. They begin spreading over the field and – surprisingly – begin building and digging. In a matter of minutes a large part of the field has been shaped into something that looked very much like a map of the world.

The ants begin to exhibit different colours on their shells. Those with the same colours would band together in marked territories on the map.

Then, a certain group of ants in the region around Sumer begin building a high tower, reaching out towards me.

“I believe the ants desire to communicate, sir.”

I reach a finger out and place it against the tiny spire of the tower. The awe and worshipful feelings of the ants instantly flood my head. Though their minds are tiny, when they are gathered together in one single purpose they have power.

Despite that power, however, they are lost. They want direction and purpose, and they seek it from me. I begin to ponder how this simulation is supposed to tell me what I already know. Judging from the events, it is probably a crude recreation of history. Obviously I am nowhere near old enough to be some ancient god that men of old sought guidance from; Shulgi would probably fit the bill better. Then again, these events aren’t fully accurate, and I should refrain from taking everything at face value.

I wait for a while longer, but nothing happens – the ant world remains in stasis, as if waiting for me to act.

For now, it seems as if I can only progress by dealing with the ants. Three choices float before my eyes – these seem to be the directions I can give them, within the confines of the simulation. Before I can choose, there is a sudden burst of static, and a fourth choice is added to the mix. How strange.

***

A. Peace and prosperity is the only way for ant-kind to thrive. I direct the ants to seek out a life of co-existence and harmony. Ant-kind will never grow into an upstanding, moral civilization if they are bogged down in constant conflict.

B. There can be no progress without strife; there can be no greater purpose in life than progress. The ants are to turn themselves into tools of war and drive their foes honourably and mercilessly before them.

C. Ant-kind is free to do as they wish. Free will is the right of any ant, and only by pursuing their dreams on their own will they be able to experience true joy. I instruct the ants to abandon all hesitation and indulge in their desires.

D. This world is fake, and I reveal as much to these digital creations.I tell the ants that this world they inhabit is false – a manufactured world of dreams. If they desire to awaken, they must experience a fear so startling that they are jolted from their slumber. I wonder what they will do?
 

Part 4 - Countdown

Countdown

The moment I have made my choice, the spire expands rapidly, swallowing up my finger, then the rest of my body. My stomach churns as I feel myself falling towards a terminal point. When I come to a stop, I find myself back inside one of the classrooms at the Academy.

"Is this supposed to happen? I didn't get to see the consequence of my choice."

"This is the consequence, sir." replies the guide, as she gestures around me. It is a familiar scene; some students are gossiping happily about the latest entertainment news, others are engrossed in their portable games. There are girls putting on makeup - that's against the rules - and boys sharing magazines - the contents of which are also against the rules - without a care in the world. It is a place where the fingers of famine or illness or war cannot reach.

"What would have happened had I chosen differently?"

"You would be brought to a different level, sir, but what you would encounter there I do not know."

I close my eyes and begin to think. Certainly, the real world isn't as simple. Even at its height of peace, before the war, there were regions that were troubled with violent lawlessness. There were towns and villages that endured scarcity, where a loaf of bread could mean the difference between life and death. I know as much.

If what I had chosen before had been a crude recreation of history, then this meant that my world had developed in much the same way as it would have with a humanity that desired peace. There would have been conflict – there will always be conflict – but at the end of it all, man would beat their swords back into ploughshares, once the need for conflict has passed. It may have been a natural trait of our evolution, or a desire imprinted on us by some higher power, but we are – despite all evidence to the contrary – a peaceful race.

I find it hard to believe. Our well-documented history of bloodshed is long and storied, from the mythical Aegean War to the Earth-Space conflict.

Perhaps…

A loud crash interrupts my thoughts. The NPCs run to the windows and begin shouting in a panic. Slightly annoyed, I peek over their shoulders to see what is going on.

A combat frame has landed just an arm’s reach away – Anhur. The CF’s black armour gleams in the light of the setting sun as the cockpit opens up. It is empty. The intercom comes to life.

“This is Lieutenant Naim. Pilot of the Anhur, a force of one thousand enemy frames are headed towards the Lothal. Enter the frame and use it to defeat them. We must protect the Lothal as it falls to Earth. The Princess’s life is at stake. Should the Lothal be destroyed before it completes its trajectory, she will be killed. I repeat, this is Lieutenant Naim. Pilot of the Anhur…”

The message continues its broadcast, looping in an annoying manner. The student NPCs shy away from the menacing black frame and look at me expectantly. I lean out of the window and look into the sky. Sure enough, I can see a pale speck steadily growing larger far above me, surrounded by pinpricks of light. There is a battle raging up there.

But, still... the last time I had been in this situation, I was on the opposite side. And what was that about the Princess’s life being at stake? This is probably a scenario where I have to choose between her and the colony. Clearly the creator has no taste or class whatsoever.

Would I sacrifice Kyrie to destroy the colony? I wonder if that is what this level is truly about. The last one certainly didn't match with my expectations...

***

A. I pilot the Anhur and defend the Lothal. The princess is a lot more important to me. I can rationalize it all I want, but the truth is that I will gladly sacrifice any amount of lives I have to in order to ensure her safety.

B. I pilot the Anhur and attack the Lothal. The lives of billions outweigh that of one person. I must think of the greater good, no matter what - even if it means abandoning the ones I care for. I may not be a hero, but I want to be one.

C. I leave the classroom, seeking another way out of this. The best way to win is not to play, or so they say, and I don't feel like I am getting anywhere closer to the truth. Perhaps I can explore that stairway I saw before. I refuse to be led by my nose like this.
 

Part 5 - Connection

Connected

The moment Anhur's outstretched hand touches the Lothal, it flickers and disperses in a burst of static. The remnants of the enemy frames vanish too, leaving behind only my broken and battered mech in the sky.

"I see that you would sacrifice my daughter to save the world." I hear the Emperor's voice coming from the intercom.

"This world is false. It doesn't really matter what I do here. I am merely repeating the actions I have taken in real life by stopping the drop."

"Would you have stopped Lothal if it meant Kyrie’s death in real life?”

“I…” Not for the first time, hesitation strikes me.

“Do you know how close this particular scenario came to playing out in the real world?”

“I would have found a way.” I mutter.

“There would not have been a third option.”

“Then I would have chosen the world.” I say, more out of a desire to be contrary as I recognize that my words lack commitment. When did I start thinking I was some sort of hero and an ally to justice?

The Emperor speaks up, as if reading my mind. “Sometimes the only thing you can do is the task laid out in front of you. If that necessitates making a painful sacrifice so others may be gifted hope, that makes you a hero.”

I remain silent, not knowing what to say.

“There is no need to be confused. I have faith in you. Now, let us examine what you have done here. The world as we know it came about because man desires peace in his heart. Oh, you may say that there is always death and strife and all sorts of bloodshed,” says the Emperor kindly, “but at the end of it all, all that most of us really want is to settle down and have a particularly uneventful, stable life.”

“Most of us?”

“Of course there are… aberrations. But that is expected of any population. No one person is exactly the same. Now, this world that we live in has come about because of that desire. That is what has shaped our history. We fight, yes, but we fight to save ourselves and others from misery and suffering.”

“You are quite the idealist, aren’t you?”

“I know you are pragmatic. There is nothing wrong with pragmatism, but without a cause you would be lost, as you are now. All things in life need balance. Similarly, a peaceful, contented humanity would never progress quickly enough. Humanity’s ingenuity is tested and honed in the fires of conflict. It is at its sharpest and deadliest under the greatest pressure. Our desire to be return to a state of peace makes us search high and low for ever more inventive ways to do so – and if that means advancing technology by leaps and bounds, we will do it. Had Lothal hit, the sheer scale of the disaster would mean the unity of almost all of mankind in order to overcome this adversity. Had it been destroyed, whether riskily in the atmosphere or safely in space, the war would have continued, inflamed by the passions of the people. Either way, man would be put under pressure.”

“Why the rush? Why do we need to progress so quickly, regardless of the cost in lives?”

“I do not know that, because you do not know it either,” says the Emperor apologetically. This is probably part of the program designed to gather my own thoughts.

“Is that what you really think?” asks a third, new voice over the intercom. “Humanity is peaceful? That is why strife allows us to progress? What a joke.” The voice is that of a young boy. I cannot think of anyone else it could be – the boy I saw running down the stairs.

The channel the Emperor is on comes to life, but what I hear is not his voice, but a woman’s. Anna’s voice.

“Damn, something’s wrong with the patterns. Hoshikawa! Wake up! I need to… Wait, what are you doing? Don’t –“

I can hear a wet, sickening thud, the sound of flesh being pounded to a pulp, and the feed cuts off.

“What a fool. She thought she could hide the key from me,” remarks the boy in an cold, arrogant tone. “By the way, thank you for not interfering with my search… though I suppose I could have tricked you into helping me anyway.”

“Don’t get too full of yourself,” I growl. “Who are you?”

“I’m not going to say something like I am you, and you are me. I am not you, and you are not me... but we are one, nonetheless.”

The mech dissolves around me, reduced into small motes of light. The world does the same; the sky cracks and the ground quakes, as reality fractures into ever smaller pieces. Then, I find myself standing back in the hall of the lich. It looks exactly the same, except for one small detail.

The person on the throne is no longer a dusty old corpse, but my younger self, a small smile on his face and the lich’s crown on his head.

"Do you not recognize this place?" he asks, looking around the hall.

"This is the throne hall from Tomb of the Biolich, of course."

The child sighs. "That is wrong. Tomb of the Biolich was a classic text adventure. There is a bit too much detail in these halls to be derived solely from the game. No. This place is created from our memory."

An experimental facility.

"Shangjing." I mutter.

"Welcome to our birthplace." grins the boy. He stands up suddenly and I cannot help but take an involuntary step back. There is something more to him than meets the eye - some terrible madness despite his calm demeanour. I can tell, because it is the same madness that I have felt in me. The guide NPC, who has faithfully followed me to this place, steps in front of me.

"Sir, he is irregular. This is highly dangerous. The program is no longer under control. I suggest-"

She does not finish her sentence before blue cracks appear all over her body. The NPC shatters and crumbles away. The boy gives a dismissive glance at its remains as he puts his hands back into the pockets of his jacket.

"This is where we met God." he whispers. "I brought you here so that you can understand how wrong you are about everything. You are lost. You have no purpose. You stumble about in the dark, wasting your power trying to save lives..."

"Ah, I see. I used to be a genocidal maniac who loves to kill." I'm slightly disappointed, if this is who I was.

"You misunderstand me. What is the point of saving false lives in a false world? Our mission is to awaken their souls. That is the path to true salvation!"

"Ah, now I see. I used to be a fanatical, genocidal maniac." I'm not sure whether to be even more disappointed.

"You have no right to pass judgment, not as you are, liar. What did you say just now - you would sacrifice Kyrie to save the world? What a bad joke. You wouldn't do that."

"You don't know that."

"Oh, I know. I know it too well. You are the sort of person who would save a loved one over a hundred people. A thousand people. A million. A billion. You are selfish in your very nature. In that you are my exact opposite - that is after all why you were made - I am the one who would selflessly sacrifice everything to save the masses.

"You mean, by planning to drop a colony and killing off half of the world? Some saviour you are. Sounds more like a demon to me." I retort.

"You do not listen, do you?" says the boy, his tone carefully neutral. "What you think is reality is just falsehood. We are living in a created world of dreams. Do you know of the nightmare?"

"It is a common term used for bad dreams, but the ancients used the term for a demon of dreams."

"Yes. It was said to torment humans in slumber with frightening visages," muses the boy, his eyes twinkling in a less than sane manner. "But if your bad dream does not culminate in overwhelming terror, how would you know to awaken? The nightmare serves that very role, as a harbinger from your subconscious. What is fear after all, if not the message of salvation that will wake you from your endless slumber? That is our mission. That is who we are. The black nightmare."

"So, I used to be a delusional, fanatical, genocidal maniac. Wait, I suppose a maniac is already insane, in a way..."

"Whether or not you believe the truth is of no concern to me. Besides, I have found a better way to bring about salvation rather than relying on something as unrefined as dropping a massive object on the Earth." says my younger self. "Now, that old immortal bastard promised you knowledge. I offer you knowledge too... that of our origin. Unlike him, I am a truthful person. However, unlike him, I will have you pay a price."

He raises one hand and snaps his fingers. The facility melts away into blackness. A thick, metal door appears in front of me, seemingly out of thin air. It opens, clanging as it does so. A Kyrie model NPC steps out, her long blonde hair tied into two pigtails that hang over the straps of her white summer dress. She looks at me with the same blank, polite expression all the NPCs do. The door swings shut again with an air of finality.

"Dismember and mutilate the NPC, and the door will lead you back to Shangjing and everything that I know," says the boy with a cruel smile. "Do nothing, and it will never open again."

"What are you planning?" I ask, feeling the slight heat of anger rise up in my cheeks. "What is the point of all this?"

"The point is... well, I find myself a bit inconvenienced by your incompetence. I have a great work to accomplish, and I can manage it even if you slumber, but it would be much quicker if you just came around to my point of view," he says disinterestedly. "Besides, I cannot stand the idea of myself - even if it is another me - stumbling around in ignorance, no matter how that might benefit my own goals. Now, I have many things to be done. It has been a long time... Choose wisely, Senya."

He vanishes, leaving me in the void with just the door and the NPC.

***

A. I kill the NPC to open the door. It is not real. It is just a doll. The boy has something planned and even though he may want me to venture through the door, staying here and doing nothing does not seem to help either. I will just have to have faith in my willpower and forge on ahead.

B. I do nothing. I don't think I can do anything. I will sit in the dark and wait for help. Hopefully my lack of cooperation will slow him down and allow someone - perhaps Shulgi - to awaken me from this nightmare. In fact, this might just be another test. I shouldn't get too worried and make a hasty decision.

edit: This choice is rather important so there won't be any surprise updating. At least two days of voting time.
 

Chapter End - END

END

The NPC does not talk to me. Her lips are tightly shut as she gazes at me blankly.

The door does not open. Try as I might, it will not budge.

Even so, I cannot bring myself to do it. I resign myself to sitting in the dark.

***

A year passes and the door vanishes, leaving only the NPC and me. Still she does not speak.

***

Ten years later, even the NPC disappears, fading away. Right before she vanishes for good I see a glimpse of emotion in her eyes.

***

Now there is just me and total nothingness.

After that, I lose count of the time.

***

My mind begins to slow down, in a subconscious effort to make the cold emptiness more tolerable.

I go into a long, interminable stupor. Every once in a long while I stir to life, my joints creaking as I do so, only to find there is no change. No escape. Just hopelessness.

***

There is something different.

For the first time in… years? Decades? Centuries? I do not remember, but something new has come into this dark, empty world I am left in.

I feel the cold on my skin.

I hear the rhythm of my breathing.

I open my eyes.

***

“Recalibration complete. Status check.”

I hear a robotic voice check off a list of physiological functions. I seem to be lying on a hard, cold bed. My vision is fuzzy. There appears to be light, but I cannot tell where I am. It takes me a while for my eyes to focus, and when it does so I finally see my current location. Unsurprisingly, I appear to be in a capsule. There is a small porthole in front of my face, allowing me to see the dim, flickering lights set into the ceiling.

“Beginning preliminary rehabilitation.” I yelp in pain.

Raising my head with some difficulty, I look down at my arms, where I had felt a sudden sting. A thick tube extends into each arm, where a strange orange liquid is being pumped into my body. My arms look much scrawnier than I had remembered. How long had I been asleep?

“You are awake, are you not?”

I hear Shulgi’s voice inside the capsule. I try to respond, but all that comes out of my mouth is a harsh croak. My throat is aching and dry; I suppose I won’t be regaining my verbal functions any time soon.

“I promised you that I would tell you what you should know when you woke up. I will hold to that promise. I also promised you several other… matters. I am sorry to say that I have not managed to fulfill all of them.” He sounds tired, weary and altogether unlike any of his personas that I have encountered. Meanwhile, the voice continues stating the actions it is taking. The capsule seems to know what it is doing; I can gradually feel some meager strength returning.

“Let us start with the reason why I have done what I did. You probably understand by now that it is to make humanity stronger, but why do we need to gain strength? The answer is simple. Aliens. In a matter of years – no, we might already be within their overlapping territory. This is the information that has been given to me: we are in the path of at least two different interstellar alien empires. This is the shortest route to the galactic core, and we are in their way. They will bring conflict to us whether we desire it or not. Now, when I say aliens, I do not mean that they have three eyes or gray skin. They are of human stock, like you and I, except that they hail from different planets. The major difference is that they are openly governed by immortals. You know that I am one.”

I see. So that is why… well, it is a pretty simple reason. I had expected something deeper.

“I could have revealed myself. I could have ruled the world and forced progress by myself, once I knew they were coming. I did not, because I am only one immortal and they are many. If I take power openly they would have invaded instantly. No matter how much progress I create with my own hands, there is no other path but for me to be overwhelmed. No, Earth must grow into its own. I can only guide from the shadows, hoping that humanity itself will find their will to drive forward and become capable of rivaling their brethren from the stars. The legacy he left behind in the Inanna flowers is more than capable of aiding them to do so. ”

Shulgi pauses for a while.

“Ha, I am becoming a sentimental old wolf. Well, no matter. The plans have changed. Your other… personality… is devious, cruel, and utterly insane. You are not an immortal like I am, but you appear to be unkillable, for some reason. Fate seems to favour you in the strangest of ways when it comes to your survival, and though I do not know what the cause is, I know that you cannot die. Neither can he – so this is the only thing I can do to defeat him. We cannot afford to kill your mind again; there is no telling how long it will take for you to recover this time, and the previous attempt has only made that particular aspect of you even worse. What I can do is seal him away. The lock is within your mind, and I will pass the key to Erika. It is up to you what you choose to do.”

I instinctively feel the cage that has been set up. Should I delve into my own mind again, I will probably encounter it.

“Even I do not know what will happen from here on out,” sighs Shulgi. “I have one last card left to play, but as it is your untimely intervention has laid waste to all of the plans I have carefully arrayed over the past five hundred years. I have arranged for an automatic recording of all the significant events that have occurred since you began your sleep – it will continue recording even after I am gone. I have also left you a cache of information and contacts that might be useful. There is no one else that can make use of this. Do with it as you see fit. You may even burn it all and live out your days in peace; I will not ask anything of you.”

The phrases he uses… I suddenly realize that this is a recording that Shulgi left behind, and not the man himself. There is a blast of static as the robotic voice tells me that the process is complete and that I may exit the capsule. The hatch of the capsule opens up slowly, creaking as it does so.

I raise myself up on my elbows, wincing at the pain and effort it takes me. Hearing a tiny voice by my side, I realize that the recording is still running. “… the failure is mine.” His voice is suddenly soft, and for the first time, I hear genuine regret. “You will recall some memories very soon. I hope her fate is not amongst them.”

Before the recording cuts out, I hear his last words. “I am sorry about Kyrie.”

Kyrie? What happened to her? As if on cue, a flood of memories assail my mind. Memories of what I… he did, while I was waiting in the dark. They are fragmented but incomplete, flashes of events that I can barely grasp. I clutch futilely at the sides of the capsule as the shock of the memories causes me to fall off the capsule. I hit the cold, metal floor with a dull thud.

What… the fuck did I do?

I… him… I somehow managed to access the nanite research facilities and reprogrammed the nanomachines.

I recall Erika and Erec attempting to stop me. They failed.

The nanomachines were released, a plague of assemblers run amok.

Then.

Kyrie was there too.

She melted.

Of all the fragments I remember why is this the only thing I cannot forget?

She melted.

Her hair fell away. Her eyes turned into gray jelly. Her cheeks began running down her face. Then, the nanomachines really began getting to work. Her eyes returned. All over her. Two. Five. Sixteen eyes. All the same brilliant shade of green, opening and closing in mindless terror. Noses. Lips. Teeth. Even as she dissolved into a puddle of goo the nanomachines continued trying to repair and rebuild her in horrible ways. Those arms. Those legs. Dissolving and reforming. Reforming and dissolving. Her face… her faces… so many of them floating atop the trembling pool that was all that was left of her.

I throw up, trembling on all fours. The fluid that drips from my mouth is as orange as the compound that had been pumped into my veins.

This can’t be true.

I get to my feet, and I run. I run out of the room and up the stairs. This is not possible. I recognize the grounds. I recognize the buildings. This is the Academy. It appears to be in ruins. There is not a single stalk of grass anywhere on the surface, and the sky is a dirty, muddy green. Up in the sky, I see two pale circles. Two moons?

Yes, this is not real. That proves it. I must still be in the program. This is another trick, isn’t it?

It’s a trick. It’s a trick. It’s a trick. It’s a trick. It’s a trick. It’s a trick. It’s a trick. It’s a trick it’s a trick it’s a trick a trick a trick a trick a trick a trick a trick a trick trick trick tricktricktricktricktricktrick-

I let out a hoarse, inhuman cry as merciful darkness claims me.

***

When I awaken, I am still alone, naked and shivering in the ruins of the Academy. There is no one around, and the air is stale. With great effort, I manage somehow to make my way back into the relative warmth of the room I had been hibernating in. There are some supplies there, presumably left for my use. The room doesn’t seem to have been disturbed for a few years. There doesn’t seem to be any signs of life in the vicinity, not even insects or rodents.

I put everything out of my mind. My memories. What I… he did. I try to busy myself poring through the information that Shulgi has left behind. Of those, the automatic event recording proves to be the most useful.

I read. If I do not I will go insane. I think to the future. I think about what I will do. What I should do. And sometimes, I still think about whether this world is a false reality… whether I am not trapped in a nightmare from which I cannot awaken after all.



-CHAPTER END-
 

Interlude: All That Has Passed

Interlude: All That Has Passed

The Gray Death Incident served as a post-script to the victorious war with the Indus, but it was a post-script that horribly overshadowed all of the suffering that preceded it. With the final surrender of the Apostles of Hiranyagarbha after the death of their leader, the Great Mother Saeko Wakayama, Earth was finally at peace again under the leadership of the United Federation of Nations. That peace lasted all of a week.

No one is certain what exactly transpired that fateful day, but what is certain is the culprit and his motive behind unleashing a terrible incident that still stands as the most devastating disaster in Earth's history.

1.5 billion people died, dissembled by the nanomachines.

4 billion people were turned to ashes when the rest of the planet was razed by the bombardment of the Star League, who had deemed the Gray Death a threat even to their advanced technology.

Seeking a way to survive, the Federation joined the Star League, meaning that the Earth would finally take the League's side in the war against the Mushuszu Empire. Without a planet, the UFN needed their resources to continue sustaining the 4 billion-strong population still spread out through space.

Before all of this could happen, however, the Star League demanded that the Federation hand over the perpetrator of the Gray Death Incident, claiming that their own kin had perished when it happened.

The man who caused this disaster was known only as Shulgi.

He had revealed himself soon after the Gray Death had spread, managing to hijack every single broadcast on Earth. Appearing in the visage of the boy named Hoshikawa, the disguise he had used to assassinate the princess Kyrie, he had claimed responsibility for the Gray Death, the Lothal drop, and the attempted coup d'etat of the former Shinar Empire. All of this, he claimed he did because humanity was sheep and had been complacent for far too long.

The Federation wasted no time in making him the primary enemy of humanity.

And then, finally, in a chase that lasted more than a year, Shulgi was finally cornered by the Star League spec-ops and the bulk of the surviving Federation military. He was captured and executed by being sent into the sun, sealing the deal between the Federation and the Star League...

Nowadays, mankind has a minor seat on the League's council, with Federation President Julia Canaria as Earth's representative. The majority of the surviving population are space-faring, serving as workers and soldiers for the Star League's military in their eternal war with the Mushuszu Empire.

Earth is mostly abandoned, with only small enclaves of humanity eking out their survival in a few surviving cities. Though it is nominally under Federation rule, most of the cities that remain are fairly autonomous.
 

Chapter Five: Terra Reborn

Part 1 - To The City of Broken Dreams

To The City of Broken Dreams

track: silent

I take one last look at the facility I had been sleeping in for the past five years. The supplies were dwindling, and I would prefer to keep this place ready in case of an emergency. Besides, there was the small flower bud that glowed faintly inside the tank – Shulgi’s data strongly implied that it was the last specimen of the Inanna flower left on this earth. It would survive, left to its own devices; the bud somehow fertilized the soil and recycled the air inside its little tank. It was still fragile, however, and taking it with me would be too risky. I make sure Yua’s core is placed safely in my backpack and perform one last check around the facility to ensure I haven’t left out anything important. Shulgi had left her core here, along with a back-up of her data in the computer. I do not have the parts to reactivate her here, but I should be able to find something to use outside. Furthermore, it seems that I don’t have to worry about my cybernetic hand anymore – my real hand has been regrown during my sleep in the capsule. It appears that Shulgi is involved with that, but there is no information on what he actually did.

Satisfied that everything is in place, I shut down power to the place and seal its access. When the time is right I will return, but for now I will have to venture back out into the world. There is only one place I can go from here – Ankida. The former imperial capital had escaped the worst of the damage from the Gray Death Incident, but most of the richer populace had evacuated to space as a flood of refugees from all over the world began gathering there. Right now there were about 10 million people in the city… ten percent of the remaining population left on Earth.

I put on the dirty, heavy brown cloak. The winds have been getting harsher lately. I climb up the stairs to the Academy grounds. It seems that the nanomachine swarm had passed by it, but the Star League had bombarded the area as part of their containment strategy.

The Star League…

They appear to be one of the two powers that Shulgi had mentioned in his recording. It seems that they had appeared shortly after I went into slumber, sending official delegates to meet with the Federation. Their technology was highly advanced, but nothing that we could not have attained within a generation. Their leaders were a different matter – each of the Star League’s founding nations was led by powerful immortals that formed the Inner Council of Nine, the highest administrative level in the League’s hierarchy. The ultimate goal of this League was to reach the center of the galaxy, where they claim an ancient civilization has left behind an artifact that will fulfill the wish of every citizen under their banner. To that end, they are competing with their eternal nemesis, the Mushuszu Empire. Earth has not yet had contact with that faction, but from all accounts the Empire seems to be keenly interested in us. Our out-of-control nanotechnology had alarmed them, and upon consultation with the leaders of the Federation, the decision had been made to destroy the world in order to save it.

The weather is bad, as usual. The sky is still a muddy green, with transient hues of red swirling in the air. My vision wavers.

For a brief moment, I see a ghostly Academy overlaid atop the ruins of the present. It is every inch a perfect recreation, right down to the spectral students populating it. My heart is palpitating wildly; I’ve been getting these visions occasionally ever since I woke up. Thankfully they do not last long. In the blink of an eye, the ghosts vanish.

No, not all of them. There is still a figure left in the distance, on top of the hill where that large tree used to be. A… white figure, standing very, very still, as if it were a statue.

When I blink my eyes again, it is gone.

***

“Hey, kid. What are you doing all the way out here by yourself? You lost?” A large, dusty truck pulls up alongside me, its driver looking down at me in with concern on his burly, bearded face. The side of the truck is plastered with fading letters that read: Burnon’s Salvage Company. It’s been three days into my trek to Ankida.

I shake my head. “I’m travelling towards Ankida.”

“On foot?” He whistles. “You must be crazy, kid. Well, we’re headed that way too. If you can spare some credits we can give you a ride. Sorry, no such thing as a free lunch in this crapsack world. I think it’ll beat walking, though.”

I give him a slight smile. “I’m sorry, I have no credits at all.” Of all the things Shulgi left behind, money wasn’t one of them. Then again, the world has moved onto the currency of the Star League. I don’t think I can blame him for that.

“Totally broke? What were you doing out in the direction of Olympus, then? Well, no matter, just hop on aboard. We’ll find something for you to do to earn it back. It’s dangerous to be by yourself on these roads.”

“Thanks for the concern, but I think I can take care of myself.” I still have access to my powers; in fact, they somehow seem to be stronger than before. There is no longer any strain on my body at all, and I have full control of their activation.

“Hm,” mutters the driver, peering at me intently. “Something wrong, kid? What happened to you?”

“No, I-“

“Just get on the damn truck already!” hollered a man from the back of the truck. “I know you’re all young and cool and independent and shit, but everyone needs a bit of help once in a while. In these days we all gotta stick together, you get? You ride for free. It’s not like your scrawny ass is going to eat up a lot of fuel.”

“You heard the boss, kid,” smiles the driver. “Get on.”

I can tell that they aren’t lying. Sighing, I haul myself onto the back of the truck. There are two people sitting there, in the middle of a pile of junk. The lanky middle-aged man who had called out greets me with a wave and offers a greasy hand. I shake it, mumbling a word of thanks.

“Burnon, of Burnon’s Salvage Company. What’s your name?”

“I’m…” I pause for a while, wondering if I should use my real name. I decide against it for now. “Kurou. Kagami Kurou.”

“Yeah, you’re Higashi, aren’t you? Just like that idol, Qin Kawano. There’s not many of your people left here.”

A sudden pain throbs in my chest as I recall my family. My parents and my sister… had they made it? Odds are that they hadn’t.

“Hey, what’s wrong, Mr. Kurou?”

“No, nothing.” It must have shown for a second.

“Sorry if I brought up old wounds. It’s been a hard few years for most of us. What matters is that we’re alive, yeah?”

“Ever the optimistic one, dear Burnon,” scowls the other person – a plump woman, perhaps of about thirty, with dark red hair. “Sooner or later the Star League will just leave us to rot. They only care about the spacers.”

“That’s not exactly true, Aisha,” replies Burnon. “They’ve been coming down more often lately with aid.”

“That’s because they want us to enlist in their army.” Aisha snorts. “I hear they’re not doing so well against the Empire lately. Need more meat to be sandbags for their frontlines. It looks like the spacers aren’t enough for them now. The separatists are kicking up a fuss about it.”

“Aid is aid,” Burnon shrugs.

“I thought the city was self-sufficient.” I speak up. From what I know, there had been massive hydroponic arrays constructed around Ankida to provide food to the population. Despite that, with ten million people there will be a shortage; and so a majority of the crops were converted into a nutrient paste. It was not good living, but it meant Ankida did not need to import food from the outside.

“Food, sure,” says Aisha. “If you can call that food. You still need medicines and stuff, though. And there’s the thing that recycles the water. We don’t manufacture the parts for that, and they need regular changing. You won’t believe how often a water chip can break down. Rated for eighty years my ass.” A side-effect of the nanomachine plague meant that the waters had been poisoned by the gray goo they left behind. All of the usable water on Earth had to be purified and recycled – as Ankida was near the ocean, it had the benefit of being able to obtain its water directly from a purifying facility on the outskirts.

“Sounds tough,” I say.

“By the way, where have you been, kid? You don’t feel like you have lived in any of the enclaves before. Feels like your face is familiar from somewhere though.”

“I was in an underground shelter south of Olympia Town,” I reply. “Family built a bunker. I’m the only one who survived.”

His face scrunches up in worry. “Well, shit, sorry about that. Shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, you’re right,” I wave away his concern. “I’m still alive. That’s all that matters. Supplies ran out, and I decided to go to Ankida. Then you guys picked me up.”
“You’re gonna pay us back, though?” asks Aisha.

“Aisha. I said he rides for free,” Burnon grunts, patting me on the back.

“I’m handy with repairs,” I offer. “Maybe if you let me take a look at some of these salvage I can help out.”

Aisha eyes me suspiciously. “You sure you know how to fix things, boy?”

I nod my head confidently.

It doesn’t take long for me to double the value of their salvage. A pair of cleaning robots they picked up was brought back to working condition, and I managed to cobble together a radio transmitter from other parts I found.

Burnon gives a long whistle. “Well, if you ain’t a dab hand at this. You wanna work for me?”

“I would like to, but there’s something else I need to do in Ankida first,” I say.

“Finding a girl?” grins Aisha. “That’s usually the case with boys like you.”

“Perhaps.” Shulgi’s message pops back into my mind – the key lies with Erika. Even if I do not want to unlock my other self, it would be good to know where she is. I also need to find out where Rei and the Messenger are. Hopefully they are unharmed. Finally, I should probably try to find out the fate of my family. If I didn’t…

I shake my head, trying to clear my thoughts. No point thinking about the past. Don’t dwell on it. It will drive you mad. Don’t remember.

“You okay, boy?” asks Aisha.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Anyway, is there anything else for me to fix?” I smile weakly.

As it turns out, there is nothing else I can do with the rest of the junk. While negotiating payment, I settle for a much lower amount of credits in return for a few parts I had my eyes on – this will allow me to reactivate Yua once I am somewhere private.

It takes another day for us to reach Ankida, during which I hear more of the city’s current status. It is currently ruled by Governor Raheed Camna, but he has been facing problems with a growing separatist movement led by his political opposition, Mitchell Frommen. The separatists were insistent that the Federation and the Star League officially recognize the enclaves of Earth as an independent political entity, arguing that the Federation has abandoned all right of rule when they agreed to the razing of the planet.

It appears that Qin is in Ankida too, rallying support for Frommen. I’m surprised; I would have thought that she would have continued to be on better terms with the Federation. As for the Hero of the Federation Sir Naim, he has kept his Colonel post and is an influential member of the Star League military. Good for him, I suppose.

I get off the truck in front of Burnon’s salvage shop, located somewhere on the outskirts of the old quarter. Reminding me that there is always a job available at his place if I want it, he waves me goodbye as I set off into Ankida proper, clutching the credits I have earned.

First, I need to find a place to stay. Then…

***

A. I liaise with the local government offices – my papers and identity as Kagami Kurou are still valid. I will most likely be assigned to the Independent Ankidan Defense Force, the local paramilitary force that polices the city and acts as in its defense. That suits me perfectly – there is bound to be contact with politicians and people of power doing so.

B. I meet up with the separatist movement. Though they call themselves separatists, they appear to be attempting to gain their independence via a peaceful, political manner. It seems that the elections are coming up soon – this would be a good time to join their organization.

C. I lay low and continue working for Burnon, keeping myself carefully neutral. I don’t want to take any sides in this city. I should be able to do what I came here to do even if I have a day job as a salvager. Besides, it offers me more chances to patch up equipment; something I always enjoy.

D. I search out the criminal underground. There is bound to be one in any city, and they will invariably know something about the power balance of this place. Working for the local crime boss is a good way to step into the corridors of power.

E. Most of Shulgi’s contacts are of no more use, having either fled to space or died in the Gray Death Incident, but it appears that there is an active branch of the Apostles friendly to me – in my identity as their Saviour - disguised as a charity in Ankida. I should be able to join and lead them.

***

Thinking about it, I have come here to…

A. Make amends for what I have done to the world. I will attempt to set things right as best as I can, for as many people as I can. The path of atonement is the only path I have the right to pursue.

B. Gain power. I need power and status enough to challenge the Star League, the Mushuszu Empire, and bring humanity back onto the road it should have travelled. Screw these immortals and their twisted games. No gods, no masters.

C. Tell the world that the reality they see here is false. Everything is a fake… Paradise awaits us if we awaken. My other self was correct. This can’t be the real world. This fucked up place cannot possibly exist. I will finish what I have started, and then bring my salvation to the entire galaxy.

D. Eke out a living. I just want to live out my days in peace. The world is in enough trouble, and I do not want to add to that by making any more mistakes.
 

Part 2 - Reunion in the Old Quarter

Reunion in the Old Quarter

Ankida is different nowadays.

A few blocks away from the Commercial Quarter stands the former Imperial Palace, now host to the Governor and his administration. The palace, and its surrounding buildings, have always been walled off from the rest of the city; those walls are now reinforced and guarded at all times. The rich and the elite who refuse to move into space - where they would be subject to military conscription - enjoy a comfortable life behind those walls, reserving the more luxurious of Star League aid for their own use. Meanwhile, the last Emperor of the Shinar still resides within the palace as a guest of honour, a broken old man who wants only to die peacefully where he was born.

The Commercial Quarter is the hub of the remnants of cosmopolitan Ankida. Instead of the orderly, structured, gleaming economic center it once was, however, the current Commercial Quarter is dank and crowded. The streets are lined with stalls and shops manned by refugees who refuse to work on the farms. Few of them can afford to live here, however. Most of the inhabitants of the Commercial Quarter are native Ankidans that have moved into the empty corporate towers, which now serve as residential blocks. Most of Earth's industry and commerce has moved offshore; there is now nothing on the surface of this planet that the Federation and the Star League needs. That hasn't stopped the Quarter from becoming a thriving melting pot of commerce for legitimate businesses... and illegitimate ones. Drugs and sex are easy enough to find and purchase, centered around the red-light district that spans three streets - and if one should find himself low on credits for either, a helpful money-lender is always around the corner.

On the outskirts of the city lies the Old Quarter, destroyed in the colony drop five years back. It has now become the center of the refugee population; shacks and shanties have sprung up from the scars where ancient mud buildings once stood, housing a community drawn from every corner of the world - here you found Higashi and Shulgilanders, Skanish and Gallian. It is also where the largest hydroponic arrays are found. The refugees serve as the main labour force that feeds Ankida's meagre subsistence. Even the separatist politicians do not canvass this area or provide them much help, as refugees have no right to vote for the Governor of the city.

This is also where the remaining branch of the Apostles operate. They are the only ones left in Shulgi's list that I could track down - Erika appears to be off-world at the moment. The cultists call themselves a charity organization, but from the looks of it, they can't afford to be charitable to anyone. The large, ramshackle hut housing them appears to be about to collapse at any moment, and judging from the extensive amount of patching up it probably has once or twice. I step into the yard, looking at the rows of hydroponic trays stacked up towards the sky. A sudden, freezing sensation passes through my head and again, for the briefest moment, I see another world laid over the real. The buildings of the Old Quarter that once stood here appear. Translucent ghosts of buildings. Then, I see her.

Kyrie, standing at the entrance of the hut.

"Hi there, mister. Are you looking to buy some food?" The ghosts disappear without any fanfare. A girl comes out of the hut, a cheerful smile on her face. She's Higashi, just like I am. A strange look comes over her face when she sees me. Before I can greet her, she gives a shout of joy and screams my name.

"Wait, wha-" Still disturbed by the ghostly manifestations, I'm caught by surprise as she flies towards me.

"What are you trying to do?" I ask testily.

"Don't you recognize me?" says the girl excitedly. "It's me! Emiri! Have you forgotten me, Master?"

"Ah." I didn't expect to see her here; she's certainly blossomed in the five years since I spared her in the other world. Emiri begins chattering, asking where I have been, what happened, and how they got to be in Ankida. I miss most of the explanation in the torrent of words, but I manage to gather that Erika rescued her and a few other younger cultists before the Star League sunk Higashi. The branch cult operating here had been active up until a year ago, when the adults had enough of living an austere life of faith and abandoned the place for better prospects in the Commercial Quarter. She pulls me by the hand, dragging me into the hut. Emiri sits me on a rickety chair and begins preparing some tea.

"How many people are with us right now?" I ask.

"There's me, Kaito, Tomas, Rina, from the cult. Then there's the kids we take care of, there's six of them in total. Oh, there's also -"

"Brother?"

There's a clatter as some plates drop to the ground. My sister runs in from the doorway and gives me a hug. This was... unexpected.

"Where have you been? We thought you were dead!" she yells, punching me in the chest.

"I've been... occupied. How did you end up here, Chinatsu? What about mom and dad?"

Wiping away a tear from her eyes, she takes a step back. "They're fine. Dad's commanding a Federation cruiser and mom is with him."

"The old man got back into that line of work, huh?" I groan. "That's not any fun. Why are you here, then? Shouldn't you be in space?"

"I didn't want to go. Earth is where I belong. Besides, all my friends are here - I wouldn't have made it out of Higashi without them."

"When did you become an idealist?" I laugh, causing her to throw another punch at me.

"Hold on, hold on! You didn't tell me you were his sister!" shouts Emiri, interrupting our sibling reunion. "I have a lot of questions to ask about Master..." she mutters as she leads a protesting Chinatsu away.

As their voices fade away, I go back to my chair and sigh. I had come here expecting to find an organized branch of cultists loyal to my every command, and instead I get a bunch of kids and my sister. That's not very encouraging.

Well, I'll work with what I can get. I can't exactly leave them alone now, not after finding them here.

***

That night, I gather all of the members together.

There is Emiri and Chinatsu. There are two other boys about their age, Kaito and Tomas - looking at their demeanour, I can guess that Kaito has been seeing himself as the leader of this little pack. He seems quite annoyed by my presence. Tomas, on the other hand, is quiet and docile. There's another girl,Rina, younger than them but looking a lot more maternal, taking care of six very unwashed children that I mentally designate Kids 1 to 6. I have no need for their names right now.

"What's this geezer doing here?" asks Kaito rudely.

Geezer? I can't be more than 5 years older than him.

"He's our saviour!" says Emiri. "Remember? The one I was telling everyone about?"

"You mean the one that caused our parents to get sacrificed and then left us all by ourselves?" he retorts. "Does he have any idea how much suffering he put us through? How we've been trying to survive since then?"

I grit my teeth, resisting the urge to slice him into ribbons.

"Now he dares walk through our doors and try to tell us what to do? Who does he think he is! I say we kick him out!"

He comes up to me, staring down at me with a challenging glare in his eyes. "What do you want with us, stranger?"

I lean forward slightly, forcing him to move back, my chair creaking as I do so.

"Are you satisfied with your lives?" I ask, quietly.

"Hell no! Look around you. What are you, stupid?"

"What are you doing to change it?"

Kaito takes a few more steps back, glaring at me hatefully. He seems to be trying to put his feelings into words but failing to find the right ones. Then, he balls his hands into fists and puts them up.

"You think you're hard enough, then beat me in a fight and we'll see who's right! I ain't listening to some scrawny geezer like you!"

I wonder if I was ever that irritating. Still, if I can't even manage a group of teenage brats, I have no business taking on more powerful enemies. This will be a good, if unexpected test of my ability as a leader.

***

A. I continue beat him down with words. I don't need to resort to fighting this idiot to prove that they should listen to me.

B. If it's a fight he wants, he'll get it. I'm no pushover despite my five years of sleep. Some people listen only to the language of violence.

C. I will suffer no challenge to my authority. I kill him. Better to rule through fear than to court obedience.
 

Part 3 - New Seeds

A - 3
B - 6
C - 3

***


New Seeds

"Come on! What's the matter, are you too much of a pansy to fight me?" taunts Kaito.

I get up from the chair, a slight smile twisting my lips. To my surprise, Chinatsu steps in front of me.

"What are you thinking? You're not seriously going to fight, are you? You know how poorly your condition is." she scolds. "Let's end this nonsense now, shall we?" Kaito gives a gasp of surprise, and begins protesting. "That's not fair. If he's a man, he shouldn't be hiding behind you."

That's right; we haven't really had time to catch up since I left for the Academy. I might not be as strong or as fast now that I have lost the Messenger's tendrils, but I still have other advantages both old and new. At any rate, a teenage punk isn't going to be any threat. I put a hand on my sister's shoulder and gently push her aside.

"Don't worry. I'll win."

"But-"

"I'll win." I insist firmly. Seeing something - the light of confidence, perhaps? - in my eyes, she yields grudgingly and steps away. Emiri is cheering for me loudly, causing Kaito to cast her a hurt glance which she just ignores.

"Well? We're supposed to hit each other until one person gives up, right?" I ask, spreading my arms wide to the sides in an inviting posture.

"You act and talk big, but let's see you back that up!" yells Kaito as he rushes in, fists held up. He's probably faster and stronger than me as I am right now. A lot more hot-blooded too, which makes him... predictable. The world slows and my mind goes cold. I see the possibilities in front of me and begin narrowing them down, discarding the improbable actions based on my analysis and comprehension one by one.

He will come in with a straight left aimed at my left cheek.

I decide that that is what he will do. He does not betray my expectations. His feet dance in a fancy pattern, apparently wary of my casual posture - the kid isn't that stupid after all - but after shuffling quickly to my left he throws his punch from what he thinks is my blind spot, throwing his entire weight into the attack.

My open palm catches him right on the jaw, sending him to the ground head-first as I flick my wrist to use his own momentum against him. Kaito lies dazed on the floor, unable to grasp what just happened. Emiri leads the kids in a cheer, while my sister just stares at me as if I've pulled off some impossible magic trick. All in all, they seem really impressed at what I just did. I suppose rather than trying fancy words, it was more effective to prove my strength.

"What the hell... who the hell are you?" Kaito mutters. The force of my strike and the angle with which he hit the ground should keep his legs shaky enough that he stays down for a while. He tries to get up to continue the fight, but unfortunately for him, his willpower is not of the sort that allows a person to break past their limits. No matter what he thinks he has suffered, he hasn't suffered enough to earn that strength.

"Emiri has told you who I am. You're welcome to evict me by force whenever you wish. Until then I will be staying here as long as I want." I do not mean it as a taunt, saying it solemnly. Turning to the rest of the cult - if I can still call it that - I ask them a question.

"What do all of you desire?"

"Shoes!" "A new bed!" "A cat!" "What does desire mean?" "I just want to be with you forever, Master!"

That last one sounded wrong, but I ignore it. I suppose I should tone down the rhetoric a bit, dealing with these kids. I laugh, trying to make it sound as jolly and good-natured as possible. Megalomaniacal laughter would only undo what I'm trying to accomplish here.

"Excellent answers. I think we all want a better life, don't we? To live comfortably the way we choose?" I say, to a chorus of cheers from Kids 1 to 6.

I point out of the window, where the Governor's palace is lit up in the dark, murky night.

"Do you see that? That is where we will be three months from now. Heed my words and you will never go hungry again."

"Three months... do you mean the city election?" says Tomas suddenly. He had been quiet before this. It seems that he is the type to pay attention and think for himself, unlike the idiot currently lying spread-eagled on the floor in front of me.

"What the hell are we going to do with the election? Since you're the one telling us what to do, you better tell us everything," snarls the idiot, though he seems to be grudgingly conceding his self-appointed place as leader to me.

"It's simple."

I outline my plan. The first step is simple enough - we need a bigger front for our operations. Subsisting on selling produce from the current hydroponic arrays will not get us anywhere. To that end...

***

We need income. We can get it by various means - first and foremost I can optimize the hydroponic arrays to be more efficient, as well as contact Burnon's Salvage to team up with them in order to improve our financial standing. As I don't want to have my fingers in too many pies too fast, I will also opt to do only one more side-job:

A. Attempt to become an information broker using my wits. This will involve plenty of wheeling and dealing, but with the high risks come a higher payout, not to mention the information I receive may be of personal use.

B. Deal in drugs. Though the Commercial Quarter is flush with it, many of the refugee neighbourhoods have still remained mostly drug-free despite the attempts of the gangs to introduce it into the community. I should be able to succeed where they failed.

C. I don't take the risk of doing any side-jobs.

***

With the extra income, we can afford to spend on our little group's activities again. The direction of the organization should be thus:

A. We use the money to start up our charitable activities again, attempting to gain support amongst the refugee sector. Grassroots support is crucial; the ability to mobilize the refugees to my cause cannot be underestimated.

B. We begin investing in the Commercial Quarter, attempting to gain influence with the businessmen and criminal underground that run that particular quarter. Whoever controls the flow of money, controls the city.

C. We go straight to the top and begin bribing politicians. By arranging for meetings with key personnel of the government and prominent politicians on both sides of the divide, I am sure I can find a way to curry favour with those in power.

***

The organization should then be:

A. Religious, as the Apostles once were. It is easier to preach than to teach.

B. Secular; we can't really call ourselves a cult anymore, and I would like a fresh start.

(Suggest a name for the organization, or I will pick one)

***

Finally, my role in the new organization will be that of:

A. Leader in the shadows.

B. Leader in the open.

***

Voting will be open till Sunday as I am otherwise preoccupied over the weekend.
 

Part 4 - House of Knowledge

1. A - 11, B - 3
2. A - 9, B - 5
3. A - 6, B - 8
4. A - 5, B - 9

Winning combination is AABB

Quick, brief update with quick, brief choices, can't expand it as much as I'd like.

***

House of Knowledge



"It looks like you've done really well for yourself."

Qin's pretty face fills the view-screen. She really hasn't changed much from the time we met, but I know I'm responsible for what she is orchestrating right now.

"Speak for yourself. I heard that your name is now known across the entire League. They're going to run out of zeroes to describe your album sales quite soon." I say.

"You have kept yourself informed. I'm surprised. What else do you know about me?"

"No less than sixteen scions of Star League political dynasties have proposed to you, but you have turned them all down."

"Of course," she says fiercely. "There's only one person that I'll ever love."

I suppress the memory of her forcibly, before her face floats into my mind. I'm getting good at it. I have to, if I want to win.

"I understand. Of course, it's just the cherry atop the pudding that your indecisive behaviour has galvanized these young bucks into supporting whatever pet cause you have so as to jockey for your favour."

Qin smiles. "Young bucks? You're about their age."

"I don't jockey." I shrug.

"No, I suppose you really wouldn't, would you?"

"What's the purpose of this call, then? You should have all the political power that you need to eventually push through your plan for an autonomous Earth."

"It's not that easy," she says sadly. "The rulers of the remaining Earth cities, led by Ankida's Governor have powerful backers. The President of the Federation is one of their most ardent supporters, and the Star League's ruling council are still on her side."

"That's what it's all about, isn't it? Getting one back over the President. If you manage to achieve autonomy for the terrestrials despite her clear stand against it, you score a point off her."

"She killed Kyrie. She's lucky to get off with just political humiliation, as far as I'm concerned. Unfortunately, I can't touch her in any other way."

I take a deep breath.

"Yes." I lie. "She killed her. That doesn't mean you should get too personal in the matter."

"You told me you loved her," says Qin, an accusing tone creeping into her voice. "Why won't you join me?"

"I haven't decided yet. Besides, you still haven't told me why you need my help."

"Are you kidding? You're famous now - just as famous as I am amongst us Earthlings. Your organization might still be little right now, but it's touched many, many refugees in Ankida. That's the sort of thing I have been trying to do but haven't managed to achieve. You can help us sway the refugees to our side - they might not be able to vote in the coming election but the sheer momentum of having such massive numbers will be able to nudge us towards victory."

I look at the view-screen, taking in every word she says. I do not reply, however.

"Listen, I know what your group has been teaching the refugees. No gods, no masters, no fate but what you make. The Federation has its eyes on you already. I can bet Julia is up there, just waiting for you to slip up so that she can justify a few attempts on your life."

"They may think what they want." I say, though I'm quite aware of the President's recent actions to keep me encircled and vulnerable to a preemptive strike should they ever think I've become too big of a threat. It's not like I'm defenseless, though. The conversation falls silent as I think it over. After a few minutes, I give Qin my reply.

"I'll think about offering you my support. I need to observe the situation further before committing my resources."

"That sounds just like you," she sighs, "But Frommen won't wait forever. I would love your support."

"I would love to support you, but I need to balance a few considerations. I'll let you know soon, Qin. I've got an urgent message coming in, so I'll call you back after I deal with this." I say with an air of finality, as I end the conversation. I have other plans for the Presidency of the United Federation of Nations, rather than putting our lackeys on the throne. Working with Qin might be one way to accomplish it, but there are other paths I can take.

"What's the emergency, Yua?" I ask.

"It's Kaito, Master." she says. After reawakening her she had reverted into her default, original behaviour, stating that from now on she's recognized I'll do as I please, and there's no point being strict with her own Master.

"Kaito is currently surrounded, together with Rina, at a street intersection five blocks down the street here."

"What happened?"

"Reports indicate that a gang calling themselves the Serpents attempted to capture Rina for some rather unsavoury purposes. They also have a grudge against us for constantly frustrating their efforts to introduce drugs into the resident community and then refusing their offer to franchise their drug operations to us."

"I suppose they were trying to capture Rina for leverage against us, and Kaito defended her?"

"Yes, Master. He's doing quite well, according to the informant we have in the crowd that has gathered there, but he can't hold out forever. The Serpents outnumber him greatly."

"How many Serpents are there?"

"About 30, Master."

"And the crowd of onlookers?"

"321, Master. Most of them are refugees."

The Serpents, as far as I could gather from the intelligence I have received, are backed by one of the oldest cartels operating in Ankida. They are not anything to really trifle with on a whim. Still...

***

A. Head to intervene and begin negotiating their withdrawal. If it pans out well, I might even gain more name recognition and support for my little house of knowledge amongst the refugee crowd for my bravery in speaking up.

B. Do not intervene; I am not risking my own life for a couple of brats who are probably insignificant in the long term.
 

Part 5 - Planting the Seeds of Hope

Planting the Seeds of Hope

I take a deep breath and raise my head.

“Fuck it.” I say, just loud enough to be picked up by those at the front. A ripple of murmurs spreads towards the outer edge of the crowd.

“Is this how we want to live? Threatened and bullied and pushed around by those who are stronger than us? You know me. All of you know me. What have I done here, but to try to bring a little peace back into our lives?” I ask. Nods of affirmation, from those that have benefited from the classes I have taught. “For that, they attempt to assault and kidnap my friends. They threaten me to do their bidding. They cannot abide by any rule but their own. Is this how we want to live? Is this our fate? To be spat upon, used and abused just because we have lost our homeland and are now at their tender mercies.”

The crowd seems restless; I can feel that they are getting uneasy. This is a good thing.

“I speak not as a Higashi. I speak as one of you. No matter where you have fled here from, no matter when you have come, I am one of you. You know me, and in return I know who you are. You are not here because you have a choice. You are here because you think that this is the only place left where you can find stability, where you can live your lives peacefully. Is that right?”

Almost as one, they nod, murmuring in agreement.

“That is all you want – no, all we want. Yet, the syndicates try to put us under their shadow with their addictive drugs, offering you an escape to a false world. The city’s administration treats us like their slaves, purchasing our products at unfair prices. The Federation thinks of us as scum on the sole of their boots; they would sell us all off to the Star League if they could. The Star League… well, the only use they have for us is as sandbags for their eternally wasteful war. They tell us this: it is our fate to be such. We should aspire for nothing more in life than to be cogs in their little wheels of power. I tell you that this is not so. Fuck fate.” I snarl, allowing my voice to flush with emotion. It is infectious – I can sense the crowd becoming more and more invested in my speech. My words do not need to make sense at this point – the emotion I carry will be more than enough to finish the job.

“If it is our destiny to be downtrodden by men that call themselves our superiors, so be it. All we need to do is destroy that destiny. When we kill the future they have planned for us, we can build one that we can truly call our own. How do the citizens of Ankida eat? Through our farms! By our grace! Should we stop our work they would begin to starve in a matter of a week, begging for food. We have more power than we realize. We want stability, yes! We want peace, yes! But I will say this; we will not know real peace unless we fight for it. All we can hope for, if we surrender to our fate, is a false peace that will leave an unsatisfying sore in our hearts. We will spend the rest of our days wondering if things could be different had we the courage to fight against the path that has been laid down for us.” I turn back to the Serpents. The crowd is starting to yell words of encouragement.

“There is your fate!” I point. “These men would bind you to their will and have you do as they please. What do you say to that?”

The crowd roars with a resounding “Fuck fate!”

“These men would force us down their path. What is our path?”

“Our path is our own!”

“Then tell me, what should we do?”

“We destroy and rebuild!”

“Yes,” I shout. “We will destroy their path and build one of our own. The powerful, the corrupt, the venal, the schemers in their high towers – all of them have plans for us, but none of them will bring you true peace. You will never find it as long as you bend your knee to them. They think themselves as gods, wielding the power of life and death over us. But I say, let there be no gods - no masters!”

The crowd begins repeating the chant. “No gods! No masters!”

“We will begin,” I declare, raising my voice above the chants, “by retaking the Refugee Quarter! Let no snake dwell in our huts! They shall be returned to their masters as a message that we make our own fate from now on.”

Mr. Black has already vanished, presumably to report to his superiors. The crowd begins to close in on the stunned Serpents…

***
“This is bad, Master. The Federation satellites caught your speech,” fusses Yua.

“That’s fine. This is just the first stage, but now there’s no going back.” I lean back in my chair, musing how strange it is no one picked up that in declaring the refugees free to fight for their own path, against their fate, I had created a path for them to travel. My path. I look at a visual representation of my message spreading across the Refugee Quarter. Apparently they liked it – there are already calls to nominate me as the official representative of the refugees. They are eager to get their first taste of influence and power. I won’t be letting them down.

The first message in my inbox is from Qin.

“Senya, I have no idea what you’re up to, but you just made a mistake. The Star League backers I have weren’t too fond of your speech. Well, they agree with the sentiment, but they don’t like me paying too much attention to you. I can still pull some strings, get them to bring you into the fold, but we’ll have to act fast before they change their mind. Call me as soon as you get this, okay?”

The second message is from the Governor of Ankida, Raheed Camna. It only contained a simple request to meet at his residence in the former Imperial palace at a date of his choosing – tomorrow night.

The last message is a request for information from the syndicates. They want to know about my personal schedule, and are willing to exchange information about something the Federation is planning in Ankida for it. I hold back my laughter.

***

A. I throw my lot in with Qin. It immediately nets me powerful backers in the Star League itself. Furthermore, her autonomy cause fits well with my call for the refugees to strike out for their own independence. On the downside, getting involved with those young, jealous political scions probably means I will have to be at their beck and call until I manage to get leverage over them.

B. I angle for support from the Governor. He is the most powerful man in the city, and the only reason he is inviting me nicely instead of sending in troops to haul me away is because he believes I can be negotiated with. If we make a mutually beneficial deal, it would be a swift way into power. I don’t need to own the Governor’s mansion to live there.

C. I accept the Governor’s invitation. Then, I pen a message to the ex-Emperor so that he will meet with me while I am there. His influence amongst the Shinari is undeniable, and the old man can probably talk up a storm better than I can. Reports say that he is concerned about the current political climate and has an axe to grind with President Julia. I can offer him a way to make a difference, by convincing him to join the election. Besides, he is old, and probably in need of an heir…

***

A. I exchange information about my personal schedule for knowledge on what the Federation is planning. I have no real fear about this; if I know they are coming for me, I can be prepared.

B. I exchange false information about my personal schedule. Though this will severely damage my reputation as a information broker when the information turns out to be false, at least I will find out what the Federation is doing without giving my own movements away.

C. I do not exchange the information – I don’t want to risk my life or reputation. Let the Federation do what they will.
 

Part 6 - A Winning Proposition

A Winning Proposition

"Now, Mr. Hoshikawa, it would be problematic for us if you continued down this path." smiles the governor thinly. Governor Raheed Camna, patriarch of the minor noble house of Camna. A sandy-haired, tanned man of about fifty, he is very fit for his age and possesses a dominating physical presence.

"I am unsure of your meaning, Governor Camna," I say, wiping my mouth with the napkin. The reception had been grand - certainly the governor has no problem laying his hands on luxuries despite the scarcity on the streets. "The refugees want only to be left in peace."

"That is dangerous talk, Mr. Hoshikawa." His smile widens, showing his teeth. "We have taken in the refugees on our land, and as such we expect them to respect and abide by our rules. They can be left in peace if they do not squat on Ankidan territory."

"Are you proposing eviction?"

"Of course not," says the governor smoothly. "I would like to take care of them as best as they can. But you must realize, in these difficult times we must all make compromises. We allow them to reside on Ankidan land. They aid us with their labour. It is the nature of the social contract that we have agreed upon. I must say, the Federation and the Star League will not look too kindly upon those who question this state of affairs."

I look down at the lavish feast spread in front of me.

"Truly, we live in difficult times," I murmur.

"Isn't that so?" grins Governor Camna broadly. "I can, however, make things a bit less difficult, both for you and the refugees. I am willing to make more sacrifices to come to a deal between us. You don't need to live in poverty - you're a talented man. What say you?"

I look him in the eye and smile. "That would be quite interesting. I say..."

The timing is perfect. There is a swift knock on the door and it opens. The former Emperor of the Shinar, Iannes Sargone, stands in the doorway. His hair has thinned and there are many more wrinkles around his eyes, but he remains distinguished and commanding.

"Your Majesty," I incline my head respectfully. The governor gives him a cordial greeting, but says nothing else.

"I'm an ex-Majesty, Senya." smiles Iannes. "It's been far too long. Governor, if I may borrow this young man for a while?"

"Sure, Iannes," he shrugs. "I think we were just about finished. Please do keep in consideration my offer, Mr. Hoshikawa. I think the alternatives are much worse."

"Of course. You will be hearing my answer soon enough." I bow politely, thanking him for his reception, and leave with Iannes.

***
"We won't be overheard here, in my private quarters," says Iannes, pouring out a shot of whiskey for me. "By the way, I believe you are of age to drink now, right?"

I accept the glass, nodding.

"It's been too long. I was surprised when I saw that you had returned to Ankida... alone." he sighs, repeating himself. "I always wished that the two of you together would have made this world a better place..." All of a sudden, he looks fragile and old, as if the full weight of his years is bearing down on him. For an instant I see Kyrie standing by his side, but she vanishes when I blink.

"I'm sorry, sir," I say quietly. He turns to me, slightly surprised. "Don't be. It's not your fault. If Julia had not been so eager for power, the two of you would not have been parted. Of course, I heard Kyrie escaped after that, but then she went looking for you. Right after that the world went to hell... " He gives a heavy sigh. "I have little hope that she survived, but I can only hope she met with you. Did she?"

I realize that I am breathing heavily and gripping the glass so tightly that it could crack. With an effort of will, I force myself to relax. I think she did find me, in the end.

"I think she didn't, sir. I never met her after that day," I say with a straight face. "I was searching for her too, until I got caught up with the cult. They captured me and I only managed to escape recently. The past five years have been a blur."

"You knew she wasn't dead?" asks Iannes suddenly, his voice sharp and inquisitive.

"Who do you think I am?" I reply without missing a beat. "I found out for myself by sneaking into the palace."

He laughs. "Of course you would! Hah! I always thought that she had chosen wisely. The two of you would have accomplished great things. Great things."

I see Kyrie's visage again, fading into view behind her father, and I close my eyes, willing the spectre to vanish. There is no need to hesitate. I will build the world she envisaged - one that would birth a united, equal humanity - and I do not mind if I have to dirty my hands to do it, or to use her father for my own ends.

"That is partially why I came here. We cannot let the President ruin this Federation anymore."

Iannes stares at me, interested in what I have to say.

"She built this Federation on the back of Kyrie's sacrifice. This is her child. Not Julia's. I will not stand by and allow her to do as she pleases with the power she has stolen," I say with supposedly heartfelt disgust. "If Kyrie wanted for anything, it was not this. Her... mother... did not understand her."

"How do I play into this, Senya?" asks Iannes, his voice grave.

"You understand Kyrie better than Julia does."

"You want me to..."

"Yes. You will be the next President of the Federation, and together we will build the world that Kyrie dreams of. If she is still alive this is the first step for us to find her again, with the resources of the Federation at our disposal. If she is not..." I let my voice trail away for a moment, and finish quietly. "I can think of no better way to honour her memory."

Iannes leans back, a twinkle coming back into his eyes.

"Interesting."

"The first step, however, is to make you Governor. With the support of the people, as the head of state of a new nation, you will negotiate full partnership for the Allied Cities of Terra as an equal partner in the Federation. Then... we will declare our bid for the Presidency."

Iannes grins wickedly, and I match it with my own. I think I got him.

"Allied Cities of Terra? You think big."

"Hanging around with your daughter for the better part of a year tends to do that to people."

"What do you need me to do, then? Be your figurehead? I believe I am a bit rusty, but I can do that."

"You won't just be a figurehead. You will be a symbol of resistance against President Julia. You command more respect than I do - you will play a crucial role in the throng of negotiations to come, Your Excellency."

"Hm. Your Excellency, eh?"

"I live only to serve," I give him a mock smile. He laughs.

"Well then, let us see what we can accomplish. I am with you, Senya. For Kyrie's sake and this world's."

"Thank you." I bow my head, expressing my gratitude. "I will make the necessary arrangements. In three days time you shall have your first public speech in years..."

***

Leaving the palace, Yua passes me the information that the syndicates promised me, letting me know that the syndicates have been provided with my schedule. It is probably not going to do them any good unless they plan to launch a straight-forward attack. What I find out about the Federation's plan, however, comes as a bit of a surprise.

They plan to assassinate the candidate Qin is backing, the autonomy advocate Michael Frommen, during a talk he is giving, on the same day that I had planned Iannes's speech.

***

A. I contact Qin about the assassination, and let her deal with it. I don't owe her anything more than that - if the assassination succeeds, I am less one rival. If it fails, Qin will be grateful for the information.

B. I let Qin know about the assassination and offer my help. If we succeed, she and Frommen will definitely be indebted to me, and I can use that as political leverage.

C. I do not let Qin know about the assassination but stake out the place myself. I will decide which side to aid, or whether to aid either side at all, for myself on that day.

D. I do not bother doing anything about this news. I have other things to focus on, and we will let the dice fall where they will.

***

A. I have Iannes's speech go on as planned. It can serve as a distraction, drawing people away from Frommen's talk.

B. I delay Iannes's speech until the Frommen issue is resolved. Who knows what new issues may crop up that I can capitalize on?
 

Part 7 - The Order of Pithos

The Order of Pithos

As Emperor - no, Candidate Iannes begins the speech where he declares his candidacy for the governorship election, I check with Yua if anything is happening over at Frommen's side. Qin had been grateful for the information, and assured me that she would ask Frommen to be on his guard. I'm not sure how much that would help; if the Federation really wanted him dead, the security that someone with Frommen's level of clout could hire would be probably be useless. Nevertheless, by continuing with Iannes's speech, it would draw more than half of Ankida's attention towards us. The reduced crowd would make it easier for Frommen's guards to spot anyone suspicious during his talk.

Iannes continues to address the massive crowd that had gathered in the Commercial District. Most of them are native Ankidans - the ones who would vote for their preferred candidates on the day of the election, while there are refugees that I have called to act as security for the event hanging about the perimeter and mingling with the crowd. He is calling upon them to remember their proud history as residents of the capital of an Empire that had spanned millennia. Were they to be cowed by lords living in the heavens, not knowing anything of the suffering of those earth-bound?

No, roars the crowd in response.

The refugees are our guests. Should we treat our guests as slaves - is that Ankidan hospitality?

No, roars the crowd in response.

I had worked out the approach we would use with Iannes beforehand - this would be the best way to swiftly forge unity between the native Ankidans and the refugees. Under my control, the refugees would be obedient and avoid clashes with the locals. The main issue that separated the two was that of prosperity; even in these hard times, the Ankidans were still remarkably well-off compared to the refugees. I had convinced the refugees that they needn't ask for much; now Iannes just needs to convince the Ankidans they needn't give much. He is doing a pretty good job of it.

Of course, the syndicates and crime gangs will not be pleased. The crux of their business revolves around exploiting the refugees for cheap labour, while most of their income is made by primarily catering to the locals. I will shatter that business. It is a good thing that today they will give me plenty of help with that. They will not dare attack me while I am here, in the midst of a crowd of their best customers. They might, however, take advantage of my absence in the Refugee Quarter to attempt something there.

I'm counting on it.

"Master, bad news from Frommen's place! The assassin was caught attempting to snipe him from a block away. After that plan failed, the assassin managed to cut through the guards and headed for Frommen himself. She gutted him live!" I can hear that Iannes's speech has stopped - he senses something wrong from the crowd, who are fiddling with their phones. Presumably they too got the news.

"Show me," I whisper to Yua. She does so. I see a lithe girl in a full-body suit slaughtering her way through the panicking crowd to get at Frommen. She reaches him and plants two wickedly sharp knives into his round gut. He is torn into half in an instant, leaving no doubt as to the matter of his survival.

"Did they catch her?"

"No, Master. She's escaped."

"Can you track her?"

"It is difficult, but I think I can monitor her approximate location down to a radius of 500 metres for a while."

There's something about the girl that seems familiar to me, but I keep it to myself.

"Master, Miss Kawano is on the line. Should I patch her through?"

"Do it."

An ashen-faced Qin appears on my phone. I put on the grimmest face I can manage and greet her. I will say nothing about the assassin - even if I told her, her men have proved incapable of handling that girl.

"What do I do now?" she whispers. "I didn't think the Federation would be so daring."

"Me neither. But you don't have any proof that it is the Federation, do you?"

"No, but who else could send in such a well-trained assassin with a combat issue body-suit?"

"The Star League?" I offer.

"My contacts on that end have told me nothing of this. I'm sure I would have known if the League were planning anything!" she shouts in frustration.

"Perhaps your contacts aren't as trustworthy as you think, then." I say quietly with contrasting calm.

"You mean..."

"We have to be wary of everything and everyone now. You may think you are using the League, but they too might be using you for other ends." I have absolutely no proof or evidence for what I am saying, but I know how paranoid she can get. I continue speaking. "Look, if you need my help with anything, you only need to ask. I'm ready to move on a moment's notice."

She widens her eyes. "What are you planning?"

"Something you'll like. Just stay safe. I'll be in touch at the end of the day."

"Wait-"

I cut off the line and head towards Iannes, stepping out onto the stage, whispering to Yua as I do so. "How is the situation back at HQ?"

"It's on fire, as you predicted, Master."

"Good. Ready the footage." Thankfully, the mob are as unimaginative and reliable as ever. Burning down my house as a 'warning' to shock and scare me, as the opening move of a series of increasingly taunting and cruel acts designed to humiliate me before I am eventually killed, as a show of their total control over my fate? I would have advised them to strike fast and strike true, but they were too secure and arrogant in their power to think a brat like me could challenge them. All of my 'lieutenants' were here with me today, but that fire would soon spread uncontrollably throughout the refugee camps thanks to the recent spate of dry weather.

The Ankidans start whispering when they see me. Iannes's face is shocked and angry, having been told of what is going on. Excellent. You can't fake that emotion. The entire crowd can see his displeasure at what just happened. That will make what is about to come more believable.

Without a word, I display footage of both the burning house and Frommen's assassination onto the big screen. The crowd gasps loudly.

"As many of you already know, Mr. Frommen, one of our respected rivals in the race for the governorship, has just suffered a foul end at the hands of an assassin. What many of you do not know, however, is that my house... our house, is now burning thanks to the acts of the criminal syndicates who took offense at my rejection of their ideals!" I say.

"Do you think there is no connection? Do you think this was not planned? The syndicates, knowing that I would be here; that most of the people of this great city would be hear to listen to their former Emperor, attacked my home. That mysterious assassin, knowing much the same, assassinated the man who many of you thought would fight for your freedom from your corpulent masters in the heavens above! The syndicates are in league with the people who govern you. How else would they know when to strike, and where? Your rulers are corrupt. They curry up to the League, spouting values like liberty and democracy on one hand, and at the same time they consort with the lowest of the low, criminals who have no respect for those very same values. How many times have the white shuttles of the League come down to carry off our young men and women to their eternal war? How many times have you found your loved ones turned into monsters from the vice that the syndicates peddle?"

I walk over to the edge of the stage, glaring fiercely at the hushed crowd.

"Are you going to just lie there and take it? Are you going to let spacers enslave you? Are you going to let criminals corrupt you? You, who claim descent from the greatest of the empires ever to rule this planet?"

The crowd screams their defiance, as one. They have already been suitably riled up by Iannes before this, making my task easier.

"Then I will answer your call! Other men will promise you many things that they will do after you vote for them. In the name of your former Emperor, Iannes, I will do something they do not even dare to suggest. I promise that I will clean this corrupt city of the sin that strangles it before the election comes!" I have more than a month to work with - that should be plenty of time. There was always no going back after I made that speech in the refugee quarter anyway; I might as well make the best of it and utilize public emotion to destroy the syndicates. When I do, the votes are mine, and there is nothing Camna can do to change that.

"The ancient Greeks oft spoke of Pandora's pithos. In it, they say that all the evils of the world lay, dormant, sleeping. Pandora opened the pithos and allowed those evils to spread all over the earth. There was but one thing that remained inside that jar." I speak solemnly, making sure their attention is focused on me. "Hope."

"That is what I promise to you, people of Ankida. Hope. To that end, I declare today to be the day that the Order of Pithos is officially formed. We are the knights of Pandora's Jar - we will guard the hope that lies within against all that would seek to take it from us. If you would see as I see, stand with me. It does not matter where you are from; Ankida, Higashi, Skane. All of you have in your hearts a desire to see justice done, and that is all we need to be victorious. Today we take back our hope, we reject the destiny that our supposed betters have imposed upon us, and the first thing we will do is..."

I can have them do one of two things - this is important, as there will be few chances to muster tens of thousands of people, inflamed with high spirits, in the future. Kaito my other minions are here, and in the intervening month I have trained them to be responsible enough to act as my sub-commanders. Furthermore, they have gained plenty of respect from the refugee population. This should allow me to be somewhere else, should I choose to...

***

A. Call the rally to rescue the refugee quarters from the fire. This will build togetherness between the locals and the Ankidans, and help ensure that this organization I have forged will stay together beyond the rhetoric I have put forth today.


B. Call the rally in an attack on the criminal dens. This initial wave should take them by surprise and cripple much of their income, as well as show the civilians that they are nothing to be feared. I don't expect most of them to realize the fire will spread destructively anyway.

***

1. I need to go after the assassin. I should track her down while Yua still has an idea of her position. She is too dangerous to be left untouched - she might come after me next, when I least expect it, so I should go for her, when she least expects it.

2. I stay with the rally to make sure it goes off without a hitch. This is more important - I will not go off chasing after some super assassin while I still have things to accomplish here.
 

Part 8 - A Familiar Face

I'll have to make the choices a bit harder next time around.

***

A Familiar Face

The assassin moves fast. I would never be able to catch up to her, jumping from building to building. I’m not a superhuman. Instead, I lie in wait for her in an alleyway. By extrapolating her projected path, her destination is clear; one of the residential blocks in the Commercial Quarter. It looks like she isn’t leaving the city anytime soon.

“Master, she is slowing down.”

She must have thought that she had shaken off all pursuit. The rally I had sent off towards the Refugee Quarter must be attracting everyone’s attention right now. That would make things much easier for her.

“Estimated arrival in 10 seconds.”

I prepare myself. She is likely to be faster, stronger, and less concerned about killing me in the blink of an eye. On the other hand, I do have some questions for her. It’d be nice if this didn’t end up with me having to slice her into dozens of pieces.

“Target has arrived.” Two light taps tell me that the assassin has landed on the ledge.

The blue lines flare brightly above me as I activate my power. With a few quick traces, I cut away at the ledge I am under. The structure collapses, bringing the assassin down with it. I waste no time making my next move. Exerting myself, I push against the dumpster and topple it over my target. It crashes to the ground, scattering garbage all over the alley as it pins her down.

“Well, now that we have gotten ourselves introduced…” I begin.

There is a loud bang as the dumpster flies off the assassin. It smashes into the wall, cracking the masonry. Oh boy.

“Master, I seem to have miscalculated the strength capacity of-“

“Tell me that earlier!”

She comes at me low, her sudden movement catching even my enhanced perception by surprise. My vision blurs as a forceful impact hammers into my chest. I feel a few ribs splinter as I’m thrown into the walls.

“Master!”

I groan as I try to get to my feet. It is getting hard to breathe; I probably punctured a lung or two. A well-placed kick lands in my abdomen, winding me even further. Damn. I wheeze loudly. This is what I get for being overconfident. Thankfully, the cold eases my pain. I manage to roll away from the next attack – a stomp that would have crushed my skull. As I stagger back to my feet, the assassin suddenly pauses, her stance uncertain. Her mask had been torn apart by my initial attack, and for the first time I can get a good look at her face.

I feel the world drop away from beneath my feet. I recognize those features.

Kyrie.

“You… Do you know me?” she asks, in that familiar voice. There is a glint of recognition in her green eyes. She looks exactly the same as she did five years ago, but she can’t be here. She’s dead. I still remember what happened to her… or were those memories false? A visage of her, the one I have been seeing all this while, appears behind the Kyrie standing in front of me and sneers. I shake my head, causing the apparition to disappear. I have to focus on the here and now.

“Do you know me?” I say back at her.

“Hoshikawa Senya… right?” she says, tentatively. Something is wrong here. “I think I know you from somewhere. Were we classmates?”

“Yes, we were,” I say. “What are you doing here?”

“I should be the one asking that. You attacked me without provocation,” she sniffs haughtily.

“You were about to kill me. I was just going to pin you down so I could ask you some questions.”

“Who are you working for?” Her eyes narrow as her threatening posture returns.

“Your father. He wants to know why you’re doing this.” I lie.

With a flash, one of those wicked-looking knives appears in her hand and presses up against my throat. “Who are you, really?” she snarls. That anger… that is reminiscent of her. But why would she be here… before me… unchanged…

Possibilities run through my mind. Could she have survived? Could this be a cyborg of some sort, a rebuilt Kyrie? A clone, perhaps? As I think, I feel my wounds begin to knitting back together. That comes as a surprise.

“Master… I detect nanomachines at work inside your body,” says Yua fearfully. “They appear to react only to physical trauma.”

Nanomachines? Who-

Lord Shulgi has bestowed this particular blessing upon you, intones a voice in my mind, answering my question.

Before I can think of anything else, I feel the knife pressing ever more keenly against my neck.

“Answer me. Who are you? An enemy of the Federation?”

I look back at the Kyrie in front of me calmly.

“No. I am an ally. I was sent here for a separate mission that complements your own.”

Her eyebrow arches. “Really? What mission is that?”

“I don’t mind exchanging information.”
“I’m the one doing the interrogation here, Hoshikawa. Classmate or no, I will have your head if you do not answer me.”

“Your bloodthirst is at a whole new level nowadays,” I smile wanly. I put my fingers on the knife.

“Don’t move!”

With a quick flick of my fingers, the hardened metal alloy shears along the lines I have traced. Kyrie leaps back, a look of surprise on her face.

“There is no need to fight me,” I say as I put my hands up. “I will tell you what I know. In return, I hope you can answer a few questions of mine. We are both agents of the Federation, are we not?”

“So you say,” she mutters with a suspicious glare in her eyes. “Very well, I’ll play your little game. If I find out you’re lying…”

“You may have the first question.”

“Who are you? Who do you actually work for?” she asks in a challenging manner.

“Hoshikawa Senya. I work for a particular group representing the interests of the Federation.”

“What group is that?”

“It’s my turn to ask a question,” I smile. “What is the rationale behind the assassination of Michael Frommen?”

“My superiors felt that he was a threat to the stability of the Federation. Now answer my question. What group do you work for?”

I shrug. “I do not know who leads them, nor their name, but the orders I was given were to infiltrate this city as they thought this place would be a hotbed of instability. What are your subsequent plans?

“I am to stand by in the city for further orders. What do you plan to achieve by infiltrating this place?”

It looks like she definitely doesn’t recognize Hoshikawa Senya the refugee leader. She is probably sheltered and given only the relevant information she needs for her missions. That’s a pretty good way of raising a reliable agent which can carry out its duty without question, and reduce the leak of information should the agent be captured.

“I am currently participating in a counter-subversive operation that even the highest echelons of the government are unaware of. For security reasons, only my backers are aware of my true allegiance.”

“I see,” she nods her head. “I can see how that coincides with my own mission. Should the outspoken head of a particular group die, the followers are left bereft of leadership. At that point, your operation would swoop in and gain their allegiance, right?”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” I agree, before asking my next question. “Is your name Kyrie Francesca de Shinar?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t really remember. That name sounds familiar, but they don’t call me that. I don’t really have a name, just a codename. Twintails.”

I laugh. “They named you after your hairstyle?” Twintails reddens and glares at me. “It’s my turn to ask a question now, Hoshikawa. Why did you attack me?”

“I needed to find out if you were a threat to our plan, since the Federation likes to keep its secrets. I never planned on killing you. Can you tell me more about what you remember of your past?”

“What is this stupidity? You’re more interested in knowing about me than about the mission. Is there something wrong with your head?” frowns Twintails.

“Just answer the question.”

“I don’t remember a lot of my life. The first thing I can remember is being woken up and being taught how to fight. Apparently, I’m very heavily augmented. They say I’d be dead without these augments, so I’m more machine than human,” she says while giving me a sad smile. “In return for saving my life, they said that I had to work for them, so here I am. Recently I’ve been getting weird dreams, though. A boy that looks like you, but younger, appears in them. That is why I was surprised when I got a good look at you. Did we know each other before I got into some sort of accident?”

“Yes, we did. And that’s the last question for today.”

“Wha- hey, that’s not fair!”

“We can’t stay here forever tossing questions back and forth. Now, after hearing what you have said, I have something important to tell you.” My wounds have completely healed now – whatever nanomachines Shulgi put into me, they work fast. I glance at Twintails, who is looking at me with a keen expression on her face, thinking that I’m about to hit her with a revelation of importance. I’m still not convinced she is actually Kyrie, but for now it doesn’t matter. She is dangerous; her presence here can endanger my whole plan should the Federation designate me as her next target. I’m not sure that I can really hold her off if she is intent on killing me. Perhaps I should think of a way to turn her to my side, though I would have to continue to lie to her either way…

***

A. It might just be sentimental foolishness, but I attempt to persuade her to join me and the Order of Pithos while she awaits further orders. It will mean raising even more suspicion amongst the Federation, and might even cause them to send other assassins – ones I might not be able to talk down – after me. Even so, I would have the advantage of having at least one augmented superhuman on my side. Besides, I want to show her to Iannes.

B. I allow her to continue on standby. I try to convince her to let me know if she gets any orders, and I will of course feed her information in the spirit of mutual cooperation. This is the more subtle way to go about things, though if I am not in constant contact with her there is the danger that she will be turned against me again.

***

This little encounter has convinced me that I just don’t have the physical prowess to defend myself against the might of the Federation. I cannot hide behind allies forever; I will need to find a way to solve this problem. Luckily, Shulgi’s information has noted that there is an abandoned laboratory hidden in the outskirts of the city; I should be able to get what I need there to construct a personal powered suit, though it will not be ready before the end of the election. A full blown combat-frame would be too hard to hide; that is a project I can leave for later. There are also some exotic technologies that I am interested in developing further…

A. I work on creating a personnel-scale version of the prototype Black Hole Engine that was under development shortly before the Grey Death hit. This will allow me to implement gravity-based powers into the powered suit that I will be constructing, and later on scale it up to greater levels of power once I have completed the final version of the reactor to be used in larger machines like CFs and battleships.

B. I work on developing personnel-scale remote weaponry, a smaller version of the CF technology, controlled by the electronics of the powered suit. The flexibility of manually-controlled drones in a tactical situation remains unparalleled, and will allow me to take on multiple foes much more easily. It is a reliable direction to point my research in compared to my other options.

C. I work on reprogramming the nanomachines that Shulgi has given me. Might be a bad idea, given what happened the last time I tampered with nanites, but I'm confident it's safe... Right now they appear to be devoting all their work towards regeneration. I should be able to return my physical status to peak human limits by reducing regeneration ability. This will further improve my overall prowess in the powered suit, as well as unlock new possibilities for the nanomachines.

***

Votes counted separately.
 

Part 9 - One More Month

AA wins.

***

One More Month

I persuaded Twintails to join my group by telling her that her place of refuge was now compromised, and she would be in need of more secure quarters. It wasn't hard to convince her of that; she seemed to harbour some curiosity towards me, personally. Though she still believed that I was ultimately working for the Federation, but I began working on swaying her loyalties towards the Federation as an ideal rather than the Federation as an institution. Iannes was shocked when he met her; for a brief instant I wondered if I had made the wrong choice to introduce her - he looked like he was about to die from the shock. Qin got a little too over-excited when she found out about Twintails, booking a flight from another system immediately to meet up with us on Earth. She's expected to arrive in another week or so. The both of them seemed too eager to believe that this was somehow an augmented, memory-wiped Kyrie. I suppose I can't blame them, but I still have my reservations. I do not think my memories are false. There has to be some other explanation for this, but that can wait.

In the political arena, on the other hand, Governor Camna did not appear to respond well to my answer. Pitting his voter-base against his financial backers put him under a great deal of stress - he had to juggle between his political reputation and the dirty income he was receiving from the syndicates. Cracking down on me too overtly would prove to be messy and could possibly cost him the election against Iannes. If he didn't do anything, however, the syndicates would be very displeased. His indecision would cost him; as it is, it did not take long before I received overtures from certain members of the criminal underworld, seeking to come to a mutual understanding. I learnt that the top leadership of the syndicates were closely entwined with the Federation heads, and had aided Twintails during the Frommen assassination. A few of the smarter members, however, were seeking a shortcut to