With Arashi in tow, Ageha walked up to Tsubasa’s workstation in the enormous NGC laboratory. “What’s up, calling us here so early?”
Tsubasa rotated her swivel chair to face him. “The new artificial joints are ready for installation.”
A number of other researchers were busy typing or conducting experiments in their designated areas. The place looked like a gadget workshop out of a spy movie, only expanded many times over.
“That was fast. Is it that easy to develop new tech?”
“Of course not. I’ve been working on it since I examined you in Minnesota. I was stuck for a while, but I had a breakthrough recently.”
“So what makes it better than what I have now?”
“Shock resistance. I used a new joint structure designed for that. The flexible nanocarbon material is cutting edge too. You’ll be the first person in the world to use something like this.”
“The first? You mean even Gen hasn’t thought of this?”
Tsubasa’s childlike face wrinkled in annoyance. “That old fogey develops technology for the general public. His goal is to make the cutting edge commonplace and then go a step beyond again after that. I, on the other hand, am a weaponsmith, like my father and his father before him. Unlike Gen, my goal is to make the best possible product for the customer.” She brought up a 3D image of the artificial joint on the large laboratory screen. “This is built for you alone.”
“If it’s so great, why not make it for Saya and Arashi?” Ageha glanced at the cute mute beside him, who was distracted by the fire resistance experiment happening at the adjacent station.
“Because it’ll have the reverse effect. The joints don’t absorb impact like the old ones. The new model works by dispersing the force to the rest of the body.”
“Isn’t that pointless? Alloy limbs themselves are practically indestructible. It’s the human parts that need protection. You’re saying these things will carry the impact to those parts.”
“That’s true for other people, but you have alloy core muscles. The force will travel from your limbs to your torso and then disperse to the rest of the body. Because the energy flow is directed to the metal fiber muscles, your vulnerable organs are protected. Maybe others can use it once I develop the design more, but the current model is exclusively for you.”
“Then why did you call Arashi here?”
“Because I finished making her new sniper rifle.” Tsubasa pointed to the corner of the lab where an excessively long sniper rifle was displayed on a rack. “It’s even more powerful than the old one. It should easily pierce the metal plates of those armored soldiers. I also added a scope designed for extremely long distances, making it useful even with her bionic eye.”
Ageha watched Arashi jog to her new weapon like a kid rushing into a candy store. “You make guns too?”
“Unlike Gen who specializes in cybernetics, I’ve studied and have experience making various weapons. Guns aren’t my specialty, but I can do a thing or two. Speaking of which, I also upgraded your armor. To enhance neck flexibility, I added an impact detection system. The neck armor locks into place when a powerful force tries to move it.”
“Like a seatbelt?”
“You could say that, but it’s not nearly that simple or cheap. Unlike before, you won’t need to lean or twist your body to look around.”
“That’s actually really cool. I can finally look up and down without looking like a pervert humping the air.”
“I also made you a new helmet reinforced with lightweight alloy. Assault rifles won’t even dent it. But don’t expect much against anti-materiel weapons like Arashi’s new rifle.”
“That goes without saying.”
Taking advantage of Arashi’s absence, Ageha broached a sensitive topic. “How about that other thing?”
“The power cell overload system?”
“The what? I’m talking about the thing I asked for.”
“Oh that. Thanks to your excellent work as a guinea pig, both items are complete. I’m still working on the gun to make it more durable. I’ll call you again once that’s ready.”
“Use it only as a last resort. One mistake and you’re dead. No, even proper use will take away years from your life.”
“I never planned on living long anyway.”
“That’s great then.”
“You really have a way with words.”
“Really? I thought I was bad at the subtleties of human communication.”
Case in point.
“What’s that overload thing you mentioned?”
“That was supposed to be a surprise.” Tsubasa brought up a new image on screen. “It’s not ready yet. I’ll call you back for installation on a later date.”
The diagram displayed the technical specifications of the power cells contained in his artificial skeleton.
“Okay. What does it do though?”
“Mechanically, alloy muscles are capable of much more than their standard output. Aside from the pain triggering limiter placed on commercial models, there’s a built-in cap in the power cells for energy efficiency and to prevent overheating. I added the option to intentionally bypass this limiter, giving your ARMS extra power in exchange for more energy. It pairs up perfectly with your special request. Just remember that it’ll release a lot of heat, so use it sparingly.”
“How much power?”
“It hasn’t been fully tested, but theoretically, several times normal.”
“That’d kill me.”
“Not with the new joints.” Tsubasa looked away and mumbled, “I think.”
“I heard that.” He held his chin while contemplating the utility of the upgrade.
“Oh, and the eyes on your helmet glow red while the overload system is engaged.”
“Like the armor, the helmet is built to help release heat from the overload system. It detects internal heat spikes and opens the facial vents and plate fans for air circulation. As a bonus, it lights up your eyes. The higher the temp, the redder they get.”
“Why the hell would you add such a pointless function? I’ll stand out like a sore thumb if I use it for stealth missions.”
“You won’t need the overload system for stealth infiltrations. It’s a last resort when cornered.” A look of inspiration flitted across Tsubasa’s face. “It’ll also intimidate your enemies and give you a psychological edge in dire situations.”
“You came up with that reason just now. I wanna know why you went through the trouble of building that in the first place.”
“Boss’s orders. Kaika asked me to make you look more badass.” Tsubasa made air quotes around that last word. “I didn’t understand what she meant, so I researched the term on the net. After countless hours scouring through images and discussions about the topic, I came up with the idea of glowing red eyes.”
I wish she could use that diligence somewhere else.
Ageha shrugged. “How’s the battery life for the overload system?”
“Absolutely terrible. It depends on use and remaining cell power, but probably a few minutes at best. Again, not fully tested.”
“Why do you keep giving me untested stuff?”
“You’re the only person who can test them. Unlike Gen, I do my best to cater to your specific needs. I did my best to give you some options for a rainy day. Stop complaining.”
Ageha noticed a trail of dried drool on her chin. The bags under her eyes and disheveled hair were also pretty standard for Tsubasa, but she really had been slaving away to finish all of his requests as quickly as she could. Tsubasa might be slovenly in her personal life, but nothing could be further from the truth when it came to work.
“You’re really persistent with that ‘unlike Gen’ thing, huh?” He reached out to her face and buffed away the saliva with his thumb.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Tsubasa handed him a data chip.
“My analysis on the armored suit blueprint Kaika sent me. The armor works by dispersing impact. The segments joining the plates carry the force to the rest of the armor sections. That’s why even high calibre rifle rounds don’t go though. Blunt strikes are also rendered ineffective. Blades won’t do a thing to the alloy coating.”
That sounds familiar…
“You stole their technology and used it on the joints?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“It’s obvious with the timing of your ‘breakthrough.’ Admit it, you copied-”
“I’ll dissect you.”
He knew she meant it and raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, it’s just a miraculous coincidence. So how do I beat them?”
“The design has a flaw. It’s excellent at dispersing normal applied force, but terrible at resisting pulling force. Even though I say that, it’s not really a flaw per se. The armored suits were designed for firearm combat. The engineers didn’t consider someone getting close and having enough power to pull the plates off.”
“I can work with that.”
“That’s why I told you.”
“Wait, wouldn’t that mean my new joints have the same problem?”
“That’s why I built them out of special nanocarbon. They should be just as tough as the ones you have now. The material is prohibitively expensive, so the armored suits don’t use it.”
“So you did steal-”
“Alcohol or Formaldehyde. Choose how you want your organs preserved.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Thought so.” Tsubasa tapped on her keyboard to bring up an image of a mechanical frame. “The suits move using an internal exoskeleton, which is inferior to ARMS in terms of power. Do you wanna see the speed and flexibility comparisons?”
“Don’t bother. I’ve seen them firsthand. I’ll take a look at the data later.”
“You can go for now. The operating room needs to be prepared. I’ll have someone call you when it’s ready. And take that girl with you before she shoots something or someone.”
Ageha turned around and saw Arashi looking around the room through her scope. The researchers kept ducking each time she swung the muzzle their way. He fetched the hyperactive Arashi and dragged her to the exit. Tsubasa got up and followed them to the door.
“Wasn’t the operating room on the other side?” he asked.
“Why would I go there?”
“To prepare for the operation.”
“My assistants can handle that. I’m heading back to my room. It’s too hot in here. Especially with that stupid fire test right next to me.”
“Then just turn down the AC temp.”
“I tried that once, but the other researchers filed a complaint. The problems of working with people!” She repeatedly tugged on the lapel of her buttoned-up lab coat to fan air inside.
Ageha recalled the incident at Tokyo station. “Are you naked under that coat again?”
“Of course not. I’m wearing underwear.”
“I guess that’s an improvement.”
Tsubasa opened up her coat. “See?”
“…I only see socks.”
“Socks are underwear too.”
“Are they? I’m actually not sure.”
Arashi chipped in from the sidelines. “I keep my socks in my underwear drawer.”
“Now that you mention it, me too. But Saya keeps them separate.”
Tsubasa crossed her arms. “That’s actually one of the greatest debates in the scientific community.”
“Amazing!” said Arashi.
Ageha lightly flicked her forehead. “Don’t believe her.”
“Hmm… You’re not panicking like you did at the train station,” said Tsubasa. “Explain the inconsistency in your behavior, Subject Cyborg 009.”
“Did you just call me by a code number? I’m not your lab rat.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Anyway, please explain.”
“We were in public back then. This is Kai’s private lab, so I don’t care if you feel the need to expose yourself. I’ve seen it all many times before.”
Someone tapped on his shoulder.
Ageha turned around and saw Saya standing in the open doorway. “…Since when?”
“I only caught the ‘I don’t care if you feel the need to expose yourself. I’ve seen it all many times before,’ part.”
“Who cares about that? More importantly, do you think socks are underwear? Apparently that’s a big debate in the scientific community.”
“Is it now?”
“Before you do anything, I can explain.”
“You don’t have to. I’ve known about your former relationship with Tsubasa-san for a while now.”
“…Did Kai tell you?”
“No, Tsubasa-san did when I gave her a tour of the facilities.”
Tsubasa, birthday suit still exposed, stared at him in wonder. “Was it a secret?”
“I’m not angry, Ageha. Everyone has a past. What’s with that look?”
“You’re taking this better than I expected.”
“I guess I am.” She revealed an enlightened smile, a perfect fit for her elegant features. “Ojousama is famished and asked me to call the three of you for brunch.”
“In Tsubasa-san’s quarters. One of Ojousama’s ideas. I’ll let her explain.”
“Are you okay with us barging in, Tsubasa?”
“Kaika owns the building. I can’t exactly stop her.”
The group moved to Tsubasa’s room. It was as large as a two bedroom apartment and had a spacious living area. The kitchen, which featured a wide island counter, also doubled as a dining area.
Kaika waited for them on one of the stools, tapping a finger on her crossed arms. “Finally!” With an impish grin, she hopped down and placed her knuckles on her hips. “Now we can begin the lover’s brunch cook-off!”
Ageha closed his eyes and shook his head. “Okay, what brought this on?”
“Then get something to eat. Why do we have to have a cook-off?”
“I knew you’d say that, but it still pisses me off.”
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of losing to Saya.”
“I’m not gonna fall for such obvious taunting. I’m a professional chef. Saya is a great cook, but we’re on different levels.”
“That’s why you get a handicap. You can only use the ingredients in Tsubasa’s pantry, while Saya will prepare her dish in the building’s closest fully equipped kitchen. She’ll have access to everything there.”
That’s actually very…
“Now that I have your attention, I’ll explain the other rules. Time limit is twenty minutes. Arashi, Tsubasa, and I will be the judges. We’ll conduct a blind tasting. The winner gets to give one order to the loser.” Kaika pushed the other judges into the bedroom. “Just put the finished plates on the counter and knock on the door. Then we’ll come out and sample the food. Don’t forget to make portions for yourself and your opponent. This is also our brunch, after all.” She shut the door behind her.
“Then I’ll be heading to the third cafeteria kitchen,” said Saya.
“Okay, just send me a message when you’re there.” Ageha brought out his phone. “I’ll start the timer once you’re ready.”
“That won’t be necessary. The walk will take less than six minutes round trip. I can finish my dish with the remaining time.”
“Awfully confident, are we?”
“I checked Tsubasa’s pantry earlier.” Saya took out her mobile as she stepped out of the room. “Time starts now.”
Realizing what Saya’s ominous line meant, Ageha rushed to the kitchen and checked the fridge. After a minute spent ransacking the pantry, he lined up everything he could find on the counter.
Canned salmon, yogurt, eggs, cereal, milk, oranges, salt, pepper, sugar, instant coffee, old dry bread.
Ageha lamented Tsubasa’s college frat boy diet.
There’s no oil.
That was the biggest disadvantage. Without fat, he could not fry or saute.
At least the kitchen has all the basic equipment.
I can work with this.
He brought out a large pot and filled it with hot water. While waiting for it to boil, he juiced the oranges, beat the eggs, opened the canned fish, and cut the bread into small cubes. The croutons developed a crunch under the broiler as Ageha prepared his custard mixture. He checked the time while pouring the pale gold liquid into single-serve cups.
I was worried I wouldn’t have time to steam, but I’ll make it.
Time passed by in the blink of an eye. Ageha lined up his covered plates on the kitchen island counter. Before the final minute ticked away, Saya entered the room with a cart carrying her creations. She then placed her own set of covered dishes beside Ageha’s.
After a few knocks, the judges came out and took their seats.
“Let the judging begin!” Kaika unveiled the dishes in front of her.
Ageha almost fell over in surprise.
Saya’s dish was a plain sunny side up egg: no condiments, no garnishes, nothing.
“What’s the meaning of this?” He could not hide his irritation, nor did he want to.
Saya brandished a confident smile. “Wait until after the judging.”
Arashi was already done eating both dishes.
“At least taste the food,” said Ageha. “You’re supposed to choose which is better.”
Tsubasa and Kaika, on the other hand, carefully nibbled on Ageha’s much fancier looking dish.
Kaika dissected it with her fork. “Delicious, but more than that, very creative. This fish-shaped salmon ‘croquette’ has a good combination of flavors and textures. Instead of frying it in oil, the yogurt and salmon filling is coated in rice puff cereal. This gives it a nice crunch while keeping it light.” She picked up the small cup on the plate and slurped down a spoonful of the golden custard. “Making steamed egg in twenty minutes takes a lot of guts, and it really paid off here. It’s perfectly cooked, and the coffee-dusted crouton topping fits the brunch theme. The sweet citrus sauce on the plate gives the dish a professional look and also adds a refreshing zing that pulls everything together.”
Tsubasa also finished tasting the different parts of Ageha’s plate. “This is good.”
The two judges were completely silent while tasting Saya’s dish. That was enough to confirm the result of the contest. He did not feel happy about winning over a sunny side up egg, but a win was a win.
Kaika glanced at the other judges. “Please point to the dish you like better.”
Tsubasa pointed to his dish without hesitation. However, Arashi and Kaika aimed their index fingers at Saya’s plate.
“Judging from your face, it looks like Saya won,” said Kaika.
“Bullshit! There’s no way a fried egg is better than my dish.”
“Try it before complaining,” said Saya.
Ageha grabbed his utensils in a huff and took a bite. It was a fried egg, seasoned nicely, but that was all.
There’s a strange aftertaste…
Ageha dropped his knife and fork on the table.
What is this..?
He lost power in his limbs as everything went dark. The last thing he felt was Saya supporting his body with hers.
When he woke up, bright lights attacked his pupils through his eyelids. Having undergone numerous ARMS transplants in the past, he immediately figured out he was on an operating table. He tried moving his arms and legs, but they did not budge. Raising his head, he checked his body.
Not a shred of clothing was on him. He was not bound either. The fact that he could move his neck meant he was not paralyzed.
“You’re finally awake,” said Saya’s voice.
He turned to his right, where she was sitting cross-legged on a chair, staring at him. Only a thin blue hospital gown covered her body.
“I had no chance of winning against you in a fair match, so I made use of my own specialty. I bought the judges.”
“Not that. I’m talking about why I’m on an operating table.”
“I got the contest idea from Mitsuki. I won the cook-off, so you have to obey my command, remember? I just went a step further and made sure you’d do as I say.” She slowly approached him, like a panther stalking its prey.
“You’re not making much sense. First, can you explain why my ARMS are immobile?”
“Tsubasa-san drained your batteries for the operation. Don’t worry, I also got her permission to use the operating room before the actual procedure. She’s not going to operate on flesh, so there’s no risk of infection.” Saya spun in place, giving him a glimpse of her bare back and buttocks inside the loosely fastened hospital gown. “How do you like it?”
“It’s very nice, but I think there are more pressing issues at hand.”
“No there aren’t. Arashi, you can come in now.”
Arashi entered the room right on cue. She was wearing the same thing as Saya.
“This is making less and less sense.” He rested his head back on the table. “Is this a dream?”
Saya’s face showed up above his, blocking the bright ceiling lights. “Lucky for you, it isn’t.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Sorry, but I’m not feeling too lucky right now.”
She chuckled. “Did I overdo it? It’s a rare chance to tease you. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Just tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m giving Arashi her belated birthday present.”
“I decided to share you with her. I spent a long time thinking about this, and this is my conclusion. She’s like a sister to me now. I can’t let her suffer, not after hearing that confession.”
His private conversation with Arashi in the sewer came to mind.
“How did you know about that? Did Arashi tell you?”
“Sort of. Her earpiece was on the entire time.”
“That can’t be. I saw her turn it off. She touched her ear and-”
“I was just scratching my ear,” said Arashi. “It was itchy… because of the goggle band.”
Had he not been lying down, his jaw would have hit the floor.
“Besides, I’d rather be present than worry about what happens during your hugging sessions with Arashi while I’m not there.” Saya approached the operating table while beckoning Arashi over. “Come here.”
Arashi, her face redder than a blood orange, hesitantly walked over and stood on the other side of the table, facing Saya. She fidgeted in place without meeting Ageha’s gaze, desperate to hide her embarrassment.
Ageha reflexively gulped. “So I’m about to be raped?”
“That depends on you. If you really don’t want to do this, just say the word. We’ll stop and forget all about it. That’s what Arashi and I agreed on. I’ll get down on my knees and beg you both for forgiveness. Just to be clear, this was entirely my idea. It took a great deal of persuasion to convince Arashi to go along with this, so please don’t blame her. So, what do you want to do?”
“Is that a trick question?”
“No. I’ve never been more serious.”
Because of her stoic face, Saya usually appeared to be levelheaded, and she often was. However, she occasionally went berserk whenever an idea got stuck in her head. This was clearly one of those times. Unfortunately, that did not make her any less serious about it, and as such, Ageha had to seriously consider it as well.
Ageha looked at Arashi. “Is this really what you want?”
Without facing him, she took peeks at his face by darting her eyes to the side. “I love you, Ageha. I’m happy that you treat me as family… But I don’t want to be your little sister. I want more. Even so… to be honest… I’m a little scared.”
Afraid of losing her place. Afraid of moving forward. Afraid of his touch. Afraid of what she would become after everything.
She was young. That was natural.
Ageha found his answer.
“Sorry Saya. I’m gonna regret this as soon as I say it, but I can’t let her do this.”
Saya frowned. “Why?”
“I don’t see Arashi that way.”
Arashi’s head snapped left to face him, a heartbreaking expression on her face. It was a look she could not make just a year ago. Ageha felt a strange warmth filling his chest as he realized just how much she had grown since that time.
“I… understand.” Saya took a few steps backward and knelt on the floor. “I’m sorry-”
“Wait for me to finish,” said Ageha. “I don’t see her that way… but I’m happy about her feelings for me.” He focused on the teenager. “I don’t want to hurt you, Arashi. If possible, I want to grant your wish, but I don’t want to decide something this important on impulse. I know it’s unfair of me to ask this, but can you give me some time? I promise I’ll find an answer that will satisfy everyone.”
Arashi placed a hand on Ageha’s arm, but he could not feel her heat because his cybernetics were drained of power. She nodded twice with a satisfied smile.
Saya got to her feet. “I have no complaints if she’s fine with it.”
Ageha made a wry smile. “You come up with the craziest schemes, you know that?”
“Must be Ojousama’s influence.”
“Sorry. For wasting all this preparation.”
“Don’t be. Arashi and I are going to undergo cybernetic nerve adjustments, so we’re supposed to change into this anyway.” Saya tugged on her gown, revealing a glimpse of her perfect thighs and what was right above them.
“…I’m regretting this already.”
Arashi glanced at his crotch and tilted her head. “Are we doing it after all?” She raised her arms, reaching for the knot at the back of her gown.
“No! While I’m still sane, can you two please get out and tell Tsubasa to get in here?”
Saya pinched his cheek and pulled it like a warm rice cake. “Arashi is an exception. No other affairs, not even with exes. Got it?”
“Good.” Saya let go of his slightly sore cheek and gave it a fleeting caress.
As the two girls turned to leave, Ageha had to confirm one last thing.
“So we agree I actually won the cook-off, right?”