Chapter Eleven: Defrost

Ageha stared at the light on the ceiling of his hospital room. He had just finished going through several examinations. He clenched his right hand several times. He could still feel the sensation of warping and snapping bones. It did not evoke any disgust or joy in him but merely satisfied his curiosity, like when he found out what dolphin skin felt like during a visit to an aquarium before.

“I didn’t sign up for this!” yelled his father.

“Shikimi-san, please calm down,” said Ageha’s doctor, who wore the typical white coat.

“How can I be calm!? My son seriously injured six students! With that thing you attached!”

“Let me remind you that you were the one who asked us to help your son.”

“Yes, I did. But this doesn’t count as help, does it!?”

Ageha listened in on the conversation. He had never heard his father sound so angry. He had seen many unknown sides of his father since he lost his arm. He did not know if his father’s change was due to guilt from having been unable to protect him or anguish from potentially losing the successor to his culinary heritage.

“You have to understand that this is an unprecedented and unpredictable situation for us as well. The prototype cybernetic limbs are designed to induce pain when the user exceeds normal levels of exertion. Using force this far beyond human capability should have produced enough pain for the user to faint. It is not easy to overcome the limiters in the first place. You have to will the limb to move beyond normal operating parameters. It is impossible to misuse by accident.”

“I’ve heard those excuses! Why did this happen then?”

“After conducting several tests, I have concluded that your son has an incredibly high pain threshold and tolerance. This must have allowed him to bypass the limiter.”

“Don’t blame my son for this! You were the ones who built something so dangerous.”

“The strength that the cybernetic arm can exert is inherent in its design. It works much like human musculature, only with lightweight alloy fibers instead of protein. The disparity between the durability of the two materials is irrevocable. We can only prevent abuse by adding limiters, like the one I mentioned earlier.”

“Your limiters are defective. How else can you explain what happened?”

“Like I was saying, Ageha is special. This has never happened with any of the prototype test subjects before. In fact, we would like to keep Ageha under close observation and maybe conduct some more tests-”

“Who in their right mind would leave him to you?”

“We are not asking for your assistance without compensation.”

“Nothing you could possibly offer-”

“Your son will need maintenance for his right arm. Also, he is in puberty and will grow quickly, so it will need to be replaced periodically.”

Ageha’s father could not argue when the facts were cruelly presented.

“Three years,” said the doctor, who was calm throughout the entire dialog, as if he had expected this outcome.

“What?”

“Let us get research data from him for three years. He will live a normal life. We just need him to come by for examinations weekly. We want the data from his peculiar case in order to prevent similar incidents in the future. In exchange, aside from servicing his arm, we will have all the charges filed against him due to the incident dropped.”

Fear surfaced on his father’s face. Ageha understood why because he also just now grasped how frightening a group they were dealing with.

“You can do that..?”

“It is within our power, yes.”

Ageha’s father took a deep breath and feebly sat on the chair. He looked down and rubbed his forehead, his elbows resting on his knees.

“I will do it.”

The reply came from an unexpected source. The two men looked at Ageha.

“What did you say?” asked his father.

“I want to do it.”

“Ageha, you don’t understand. These men are dangerous.”

“I understand. But this is the only way. I… don’t want to lose this.” He gripped his right arm with his left hand.

Ageha’s father could not say anything.

“I will take that as an affirmative answer,” said the doctor curtly.

“Wait, I-”

“Please, Father.”

Ageha’s father had rarely denied his requests since the accident. Even after Ageha attacked his fellow students, his father never blamed him. As the accident was investigated, he found out what kind of treatment Ageha had been put through. He probably thought that they deserved it.

“…I understand. Kanou-sensei, we will agree to your proposal.” The father locked eyes with the doctor. “But please understand that if I see any untoward actions on your side that could endanger my son, the deal is off. Also, you must keep to the time limit.”

“Of course. We will not have anything over you after three years anyway. Cybernetic limbs, propelled by Ageha’s cooperation, should be on the market by then.”

The doctor stretched his hand out, but Ageha’s father ignored it. To his father, this was probably not an agreement between gentlemen but a coercion. To the boy who had already tasted power, it was the optimal outcome.

 

***

 

“How are you feeling?”

“Nothing unusual, Kanou-sensei,” said Ageha.

“It’s a bit early, but you seem to have hit the end of your growth spurt, so this should be the final replacement.”

“Yeah, I started growing early.”

“You’re plenty tall. You were already a big kid when I first operated on you. I didn’t expect I would be looking up when we talk in just three years.”

Kanou checked the shoulder connection of the ARMS he had installed on Ageha. This was their final meeting, so he wanted to make sure there were no errors.

“It looks like there are no problems.”

Kanou Gen had a good relationship with his experimental subject. It was ideal for research but not intentional. Kanou looked at Ageha’s eyes.

Lifeless, just like me.

They meshed well, not because he tried to be cordial with the boy, but because they both had numbed emotions. Kanou understood his own vitality had been sapped from years of soiling his hands, but the boy was only sixteen. This abnormality interested Kanou.

“Can you remove the pain inducing limiter on my arm?”

The question caught the doctor by surprise.

“Why?”

“Even if I can endure it, pain is still a pain.”

“So you intend to use it beyond normal capacity?”

“Yes.”

“For what?”

“Whatever I find the reason to.”

“You do understand that’s illegal?”

“It’s not like it’s our first time.”

The boy was right. In order to advance artificial nerve research, Kanou performed many borderline and, on occasion, outright illegal experiments. Ageha knew because he was the subject of most of them. These experiments were naturally a secret from his father. His abnormality had been an indispensable asset for Kanou, but that was no longer the case.

“I don’t see why I should. ARMS are already in commercial production. The data I can get from you is redundant.”

“I’m part of the reason why ARMS are out in the market now.”

“Asking for gratitude from me is meaningless. You should know that by now.”

“I know.” The light in Ageha’s eyes changed.

So it was not a request but a threat.

Ageha was privy to information that could trouble Kanou and his superiors, but the boy was deeply involved as well. He would not get away unscathed if such knowledge came to light. He would also be targeted by NGC. Kanou knew that Ageha was too rational to actually do that.

However, that personality trait applied to Kanou as well. All risks should be eliminated. A little tweaking operation was a small price to pay.

I wonder if he read that far?

“Okay. In exchange, you have to make sure you do not get caught due to this modification, and if you do-”

“I don’t know anything.”

Kanou did not trust people. It was something he, having one foot in the underworld, could not afford. However, he trusted probability. The chances of Ageha betraying this promise was miniscule. The boy has never broken his word in the three years he had known him.

“Let’s get started then.”

 

***

 

Soon after Ageha entered culinary school, his grandfather died.

“Go to your grandfather’s house and check if there are any things of value.” His father’s command came from Ageha’s mobile terminal.

“Can’t you go yourself? I’m busy with school.”

“You know I hate that place.”

“But I hardly knew the man, thanks to you.”

“He’s dead now, so I don’t see the problem.”

“Sousuke, we need you in the kitchen!” shouted someone from the background on his father’s end of the line.

“I have to go. The house is close to your university. I’m counting on you, okay?”

The call was cut before Ageha could reply. He sighed as he pocketed his terminal and walked to his next class. He had hardly seen his grandfather when he was alive, much less spoken with him. This was the root of his hesitation for this errand. He felt that he was about to ransack a dead stranger’s home.

He headed to his grandfather’s house after finishing his last class for the day.

“I can’t believe how clean this place is considering he lived alone.”

Ageha scanned the large estate. It was land that had been inherited for several generations of their family. The main building’s architecture was traditional Japanese, and a fairly large storehouse stood apart from it. Doing as Sousuke instructed, he entered the large one floor structure and checked the rooms.

In his grandfather’s room, he saw military uniforms and medals displayed on the wall. He heard from Sousuke that the man was one of the last war veterans. There had been no major wars for decades, but it appeared that his grandfather was a soldier to the end.

I can’t blame father for running away from all this. I wonder what his reaction would be if I brought home those medals.

Sousuke’s father wanted him to join the army. However, it was now a pointless occupation with no honor and rampant corruption. Sousuke rebelled, aspired to be a chef, and succeeded. The two never reconciled.

It’s ironic how he goes on to force his culinary legacy on me. It’s a good thing I actually like cooking.

Ageha found cutouts of old newspaper articles in one of the desk drawers. He scanned some of the headlines, which read, “Sustainable Fusion Achieved” and “Unlimited Energy Changes World Economy.” He wondered what his grandfather was thinking when he collected information on the breakthrough that brought prosperity to the world and an end to international conflict.

Was peace his victory, or his enemy?

No one could answer that now. Ageha stopped his train of thought when he realized its futility.

Finding nothing to bring back, Ageha finished his sweep of the main building and moved to the outlying storehouse. He used the key he found in his grandfather’s room to open it. In contrast to the rest of the estate, the interior of the storeroom was dusty and had spiderwebs decorating the corners of the ceiling. He switched on the light and observed the objects in the room.

What immediately caught his eye was something that no one would expect to find in a residence storage. A military exoskeleton stood at the far end of the room.

I knew he loved war, but this is pretty big for a souvenir. Is this even legal?

Ageha approached the machine. It was plugged into a charging unit. Out of curiosity, he pressed the activation switch.

“Please input data source.”

Ageha raised an eyebrow in response to the request. He searched the machine for something that fit that description and found a panel with various input slots. Thinking that there was nothing to lose, he checked the shelves and desk in the storeroom. Inside the desk drawer, he found numerous data chips with labels, such as “Knife Combat 2”, “Stealth Movement 3”, and “Grappling -Ground- 1,” on them. With his curiosity piqued, he plugged one of the chips into the appropriate slot on the exoskeleton.

“Activating training program Knife Combat 1. Please equip the exoskeleton.”

Ageha hesitated. He did not know if the machine was safe. All he knew about exoskeletons was what he had learned in history class. They were training machines used during the war to preserve the combat expertise of elite soldiers.

It was not curiosity that pushed Ageha to follow the voice instructions of the metal contraption. Since the time he went berserk in the school courtyard, most of his emotions had been anesthetized, but that did not mean he did not feel anything. He still believed in doing what was right but had been educated by society on how powerless he was. He was forced to swallow his rage whenever the unfairness of the world slapped him in the face.

Isn’t this the same as my right arm?

He knew that he did not have enough power with just one cybernetic arm. Punching someone you did not like was only a shortcut to jail.

But what if?

What if he had the fighting skills? What if he had not one, but two cybernetic arms? Legs? The possibilities exploded inside him. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and woke up parts of him that lay dormant for years.

“Equip procedure complete. Please give the command to start when ready.”

“…Start.”

His frozen heart started beating once more.

 

 

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