Chapter Fourteen: The Serpent

Mashiro turned the doorknob.

Locked, of course.

A few minutes earlier, Ageha removed her bindings and left her in a barren room. Plain white walls surrounded her. The only furniture, a rectangular table and a pair of chairs, sat in the center. If not for the bright lighting, it would be a typical interrogation room.

Mashiro checked under the table for listening devices and on the ceiling for cameras. She found none. Having nothing to do, she sat on a chair and slumped on the table.

Now’s my chance.

While hiding her hand from view, she pressed on the side of her left breast. After feeling around a bit, her fingers found a small round chip underneath her skin. She pushed on the edges for a few seconds to turn the hidden tracker on.

That should do it.

The device was a product of her kidnapping experience. It was turned off by default to get past any signal sensing devices. Mashiro felt glad she took the extra precaution. When they switched vehicles an hour ago, Saya Saionji checked her body for any active signals but failed to find the hypodermic tracker.

Now all I have to do is wait for help.

And wait she did. Having no watch or phone, she could not tell how much time had passed. She guessed around two hours had passed since entering the room, but boredom may have skewed her estimate.

The door swung open. Kaika walked in and shut the door behind her. She took the seat across from Mashiro and watched her face.

“Are you going to kill me?”

“You’d already be dead in that case. I have something else in mind.”

Images of brutal torture flashed through Mashiro’s mind.

She gulped down her fear and glared at her captor. “I’m not telling you anything.”

“I didn’t plan on asking any questions. You can just listen if you want.” Kaika bowed her head. “First, I apologize for the rough treatment. We had no choice.”

“You had no choice but to tie me up and gag me?”

“That was for your own safety. You could get shot if you moved around, and the gag prevented you from accidentally biting your tongue. Saya’s driving is a little aggressive.”

“Bullshit! You injured so many of my guards. Your sniper blew away their limbs! Some of them might be dead!”

“My team tried their best. I asked them not to kill anyone, but they had to defend themselves. I’d like to remind you that your guards also used deadly weapons. They almost killed two members of my team.”

“I never authorized them to use lethal force.”

“But they did. That’s just how battles are, Mashiro. You can’t make people care more about the lives of their enemies than their own. You don’t need to make excuses for that. Doing so is nothing but hypocrisy.”

Mashiro bit her bottom lip. She understood reality, and it sided with Kaika’s words.

“However, Arashi is alive thanks to that hypocrisy.” Kaika bowed again. “Thanks for saving her.”

“…Anyone would’ve done it.”

“Not me.”

“That’s because you’re evil.”

Kaika laughed. “Maybe. I’m curious. How did you know it was a trap?”

“I thought you didn’t plan on asking questions?”

“Okay. Then let me guess…” Kaika poked her own chin with a finger. “Makoto Kaburagi was already awake.”

Mashiro’s poker face crumbled.

“I got it in one try!” Kaika clapped to herself. “Don’t worry, I don’t plan on doing anything to him. I don’t even know where he is. I’m impressed, though. Even the staff at Tokyo Medical Center think he’s asleep there. That’s quite the cover up, as expected of Americans. Was it all a trap? No… Using others as bait isn’t your style. I see. You really care about him.”

Mashiro unconsciously held her breath. Kaika had hit the nail right on the head.

Makoto was currently in Tokyo, but not as a coma patient. He had woken up weeks ago. Mashiro was keeping his recovery a secret from everyone, including her father.

She had wanted Makoto to lay low while recovering from his injuries, but he would not listen. In the end, she had convinced him to stay away from the battle with Kaika by telling him he was her trump card. Mashiro had let him follow her to Tokyo and had given him the receiver of her hypodermic tracker, the last resort she had never intended to use.

Mashiro jumped through a lot of hoops to keep him out of danger, but that all went to waste. Now, he was her only hope. She could only wait for him to contact the armored troopers and come to her rescue, risking his life in the process.

I really am a hypocrite.

Mashiro scowled at Kaika for making her realize an ugly part of herself.

“No need to be hostile. We have the same goal, you and I.” Kaika placed her elbows on the table. “The world has become dull because of wealth and peace. The human race lost its desperation to survive, and everything stagnated. People became content. That sounds good when you hear it, but in reality it’s a terrible mindset. My father was a good example. He feared taking risks and focused on keeping his throne. Since I took his place, I pushed cybernetic technology farther in one year than he did in a decade, and NGC is bigger than ever. Humans are like sharks. If we stop swimming forward, we die.”

“So you’re planning on starting a world war to fix that?”

“Oh, not bad.”

“You’ve been circulating ARMS to militaries and establishing ties with political figures all over the world. It wasn’t hard to guess.”

“Congratulations. You’re correct.”

“And you’re insane.”

“Am I? The word ‘war’ may sound terrifying, but it’s not like countries are going to nuke each other. No one wants mutual destruction. War is an impetus for change, be it positive or negative. The last major war proved that. Robotics and medicine developed eight decades ago are still being used now. In that short period of conflict, technology advanced more than it ever has since. People worked harder, desired for progress, and dreamed of the future. I’m sure that war saved more lives than it spent in total.”

“Human lives aren’t currency.”

“That’s not what I meant. Putting aside the debatable benefits of war, I think a powerful trigger, one that shakes the core of humanity, is necessary to change how people think. Most people believe this rusted and rotten world, where children die from starvation while politicians parade around in luxury, is utopia. They need a reminder that this world is no paradise.”

“I see you’ve read my speech. But our goal isn’t the same. My objective includes the how. The ends don’t justify the means. Sacrifices are necessary, I’ll give you that. But some things must be held sacred, like human lives. There are other ways to change the world.”

“Like yours? I did some digging, and it seems your campaign isn’t doing so well. You’re too naive. Did you really think talking is enough to change people? Do you realize how many years it takes for something like that to happen? Bigotry took centuries to get noticed despite how obviously wrong it is. How about apathy? How do you intend to convince people who are happy and content to change anything? Why would they?”

“You’re wasting your breath. It’s true my campaign failed, but that’s because I didn’t pay enough attention to it. That was my fault, not a sign my methods are wrong. If you ask me, you’re the naive one. You’re giving up on ways you haven’t even tried. You’re just a child pretending to be an adult after reading a few books.”

Kaika closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if calming herself. “Ageha was right. Lecturing you won’t change your mind. You leave me no choice.” She stood up and walked to Mashiro while dragging her chair behind her.

Mashiro regretted answering truthfully. She should have pretended to be receptive and bought time until Makoto arrived, but the die had been cast.

She prepared herself to fight for her life. “Are you going to kill me now?”

“Nope.” Kaika placed her chair beside Mashiro’s.

“Then what-”

“I’m giving up.”

“…On what?”

“I’m giving up on starting a war.”

For a moment, Mashiro thought her eyeballs fell out of their sockets.

“I understand your surprise. Let me tell you a story. Oh, I moved closer so I don’t tire my throat out. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Uh, no, go ahead.”

Kaika sat down about a foot away from Mashiro. “A few months ago, my closest friend gave me a choice. Do I continue on my current path? Or do I stop and go back? Since then, I’ve been searching for an answer with no success. Maybe I’ve been putting it off in fear of losing something. Your stubbornness forced me to make a choice.”

“I’m not following.”

“Do I look like a hero to you? …That was a rhetorical question. You don’t need to look at me like I’m an idiot. As you guessed, I have no interest in the good of humanity or the world. Then why do you think I’m so intent on changing it?”

“I can’t presume to know how a lunatic thinks.”

“That’s one of the problems with people. They automatically label something they don’t understand as wrong or insane, when in fact, that mysterious thing is often no different from them. My motive is quite simple, and it’s something everyone, even you, shares.”

“And what would that be?”

“Validation.”

“…That really is simple.”

“Right? People work to prove their worth. You pursue your justice to prove your beliefs to yourself and the world. I planned a war to confirm my value.”

“I can’t be the first person to say you went a little overboard.”

“Of course. Ageha told me the same thing a while ago. Thing is, I’m not a normal person. Even a genius like you can’t be compared to me, and I’m not being arrogant. I was literally raised to be on top. I was a product of a single coincidence: being born a prodigy and Karasuma Nikaido’s daughter. You can even say I’m a machine programmed to succeed. As such, I aimed for the largest goal I could find, which was changing the world in two years. I found anything else boring.”

“That’s too much…”

Kaika pouted like a child denied candy. “Don’t be mean. I tried to do it in one year, but it was impossible.”

“I meant your goal is too much! What kind of life-planning is that!? ”

“Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m giving up on it because of you.” Kaika’s friendly aura turned sinister in a split-second. “You little bitch.”

“Says the midget.”

“I’m a loli. There’s a difference.”

“Forgive me for not believing your sudden change of heart.”

“It’s not sudden. Ageha doesn’t want to kill you, but I couldn’t do it without him because of your armored unit. If I let you live, you’re going to tell your father about me, irreparably ruining my plans.”

Shikimi-san doesn’t want to kill me?

Why?

“You can kill me now. I’m right here.”

“I can’t. I made a deal with Ageha. He helps me kidnap you, and I convince you to join me. If I fail, you get to live. If you’re alive, my plans will fall apart. I have no choice but to give up. I like challenges, but winning is a prerequisite. Fighting a lost battle isn’t my thing.”

“Why are you so attached to Shikimi-san?”

“…You’re not gonna believe me, but what the heck. Borrowing his words, we’re… family. It’s something I never had, and I surprisingly like it. If waging a war means destroying that, then I’ll give up.”

Mashiro could understand the feeling. The fear of losing Makoto made her question her resolve every single day since he almost died. People did not exist for goals alone. Humans needed something to support them. But after seeing Kaika in action, she doubted the girl’s humanity.

“I don’t believe you. How can you just throw away your goal so easily?”

“I’m not throwing it away. I said so earlier. War is but a method. The goal is changing the world. So that’s what I’ll do, but this time from the other side.”

Mashiro shook her head, eyebrows furrowed. “What other side?”

Kaika crossed her legs. “Do you know General Walker?”

“I met him at a party a long time ago. What about him?”

“He’s planning a coup, and I’ve been helping him with it. Now I’m going to stop him.”

“Wait, wait, you’re going too fast. Why is he planning a coup?”

“He wants to fight. Most military people do. And they’re not satisfied with one-sided massacres against untrained rebels and terrorists. The world is too peaceful for them right now.”

“Why are you going to stop him? Isn’t he your ally?”

“Allies are as permanent as snowflakes. You should know that much.”

Mashiro recalled Rodin’s betrayal and nodded. “But that doesn’t explain your motive.”

“Are you purposely being daft? If not, I wasted my time telling you my story.”

“…Walker is more powerful than you thought. It’s a difficult challenge, but you have a winning chance.”

“One hundred points! He’s on track to starting a world war, and I’m the only one who can stop him. And stopping him is changing the world. As a bonus, I get to avoid fighting Ria.”

“Ria?”

“Valeriya Varrenikov.”

Ken had mentioned the Russian mob boss when he explained his circumstances.

Mashiro shut her eyes and rubbed her temples. “This is a little hard to swallow.”

“You don’t have to take my word for it. You can investigate Walker’s scheme yourself. Just don’t get found out. On second thought, be as nosy as you want. Then you’ll be dead without it being my fault.”

“You need to work on your people skills.”

“I’m usually a lot more amiable. You just tick me off. Anyway, don’t even think of trying to stop Walker. He’s my prey. Ageha stole Karasuma and you from me. That’s not happening again.”

“I can’t agree to something with so many unknowns.”

“I’ve given you more than enough information. I’ve also compromised as much as I can. All I ask from you in return is to stop meddling in my affairs. I can’t kill you because of my promise with Ageha, but that protection doesn’t extend to anyone else.” Kaika stared into her eyes with a blank expression. “If you tell your father about me, I will kill every single person that goes after me except you. Many people will die because of your selfishness. Think about it carefully. Justice doesn’t exist for its own sake. It’s there for people and their happiness. Pursuing justice by causing more suffering is the height of hypocrisy.”

“How do I know this isn’t one elaborate lie?”

“You don’t, but that doesn’t matter. Just tell your father about me if I don’t keep my end of the deal. You lose nothing.”

“You speak as if I hold power here. I can’t do anything while I’m your captive.”

“That’s why you’re free to go.”

“You’ve gotta be joking.”

Kaika shook her head. “I only wanted to talk to you from the start, but you kept ignoring my calls. I even made them myself. In fact, I called so often I started hearing your secretary’s voice in my dreams. It’s your fault I resorted to kidnapping.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Mashiro still doubted Kaika’s proposition, but hearing about her freedom drained her tension. She sighed deeply and leaned back on the chair.

A subtle rumble came from her stomach.

“On second thought, stay here a bit longer.” Kaika got up and patted her on the shoulder. “It’d be rude to let a guest leave hungry. I’ll have Ageha bring some food in. It won’t take long, so relax. Now if you’ll excuse me.” She trotted out of the room.

Mashiro came to her senses and hurriedly rushed to the door, but it closed before she could catch it. She turned the doorknob.

Locked, of course.

She could make a ruckus to demand immediate freedom, but she decided not to push her luck. Mashiro also wanted a chance to speak to Ageha. He had saved her life not once, but twice. Her curiosity compelled her to investigate why.

Deciding to wait for him, she sat back on her chair and counted the stains on the ceiling.

A few minutes later, a delectable aroma wafted from outside. Soon after, Ageha waltzed into the room with a tray carrying food and utensils. He quietly prepared the table and served her a plate of pasta.

“You seem used to this,” she asked.

“Part of chef training. Just call me when you’re done. I’ll clean it up. There was only canned food on hand, so don’t expect too much.”

“Wait, I wanna ask you something.”

Ageha raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but try the pasta first. It’s not good cold.” He grabbed the empty chair, moved it to the other side of table, and took a seat.

Mashiro twirled the angel hair pasta on her fork and took a bite. “You really used canned goods for this?”

“Why would I lie?”

“This is too good for that to be true.”

He smiled. “Preparation can go a long way. You can talk in between bites, so go ahead and eat.”

She gulped down another forkful and muttered, “Now I understand why Kaika was wary of headhunters.”

“Thinking of poaching me? I just declined another job offer. No offense, but I don’t think you can match it.”

“From Ria?”

He heaved a sigh. “What did Kai babble about this time?”

“I’ll leave that to your imagination. Back to my question. Kaika told me you’re the reason I’m still alive. I don’t mean the Mitchell incident. She said you stopped her from killing me. Is that true?”

“Not exactly. I didn’t help her kill you, that’s all. She was the one who came up with this whole convincing nonsense. I assume she already tried and failed, right?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t agree to a war no matter what the reason.”

“Good. I would’ve killed you otherwise.”

“…It’s hard to tell if you’re a good person or not.”

“I kill people for a living. You decide.”

“Then help me do just that. Why did you keep me alive?”

“None of your business.” Ageha placed his palms on the table and began standing up.

“Of course it is. It’s my life we’re talking about. Please. I need to know.”

He paused for a moment before sitting back down. “Because I like you.”

“Sorry, but I like someone else.”

“Not that way, you nit. I meant as a person. …I admire you. Aside from Kaika’s objective, I agreed to kidnap you to confirm something. You know Ken Minami, right?”

“Yeah. You killed his sister.”

“I did. And he became… like that because of it. I wanted to know if that was your doing.”

“What!? I’d never-”

“Yeah, I got that from seeing his face earlier. He looked much healthier than he did at Tokyo station.”

“Then you bashed him around.”

“He’s fine. Trust me. I’m an expert.”

“So why would an expert killer admire me?”

“Has anyone ever told you that you ask too many questions?”

“I get that all the time. C’mon, humor your captive. Who knows, maybe I’ll develop Stockholm Syndrome. Why do you admire someone like me?”

“…Because I couldn’t be like you. Isn’t it natural to admire people who can do things you can’t? I think people like you are necessary.”

Mashiro sensed a deep disappointment in his tone. “Can I ask what happened?”

“You just did.” He shrugged. “It’s nothing special. My friends stabbed me in the back, and I lost an arm in an accident. Things went downhill from there. Thinking back, it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“Sounds big to me.”

“Other people have lived through much worse. I’m just a quitter. I wanted to do the right thing, but that got too hard as things piled up. So I took the easy way out. I accepted that I wasn’t any different from the scum I get rid of. I’m just a killer, unlike you. When you tried to save Donald Mitchell, I knew you were the real thing.”

Mashiro realized Ageha was a broken idealist, something she almost became when Makoto was shot.

“…That’s not true. If you hadn’t killed him… If you left right after defeating his men… I might’ve killed him myself. I tried to save him because you were there for me to stop. It’s always easier judging the mistakes of others.”

“That’s still more than I could ever do.”

Mashiro stared at the half-eaten plate of pasta. “I don’t get it. Why would someone like you work for that bitch?”

“Just so you know, Kai calls you the same thing.”

“Oh I know.”

“We met by coincidence. She offered me power, and I took it.” Ageha chuckled to himself, his face tinted with nostalgia. “Then a lot of things happened, and my reasons changed. Now, I just want to keep the people I care about safe, that brat included.”

“You have no eye for women.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that? And doesn’t that reflect badly on you too?”

“Sorry, but I like someone else.”

“Time for a new joke.”

Mashiro laughed. She could not believe she it, given the situation, but the laughter came naturally. “I have one more question.”

“Go for broke.”

“Can I trust Kaika?”

“Depends. What did she say?”

“She told me she’ll give up on inciting war and stop it instead.”

“She told me the same thing. She raised a fuss about it while I was cooking that pasta.”

“Do you believe her?”

“I do.”

“What makes you so sure? She’s the type that tricks people for fun.”

“I know that better than anyone else, but we have a promise between us. She can’t lie to me. If she does so even once, I walk.”

Mashiro concentrated on his face, watching carefully for insincerity. He seemed to be telling the truth.

“That has nothing to do with you, though. Worry about yourself. Lie to her if you have to so you can get outta here. But be careful when lying to her. She’s like a psychic.”

“She told me I could go anytime.”

“Then you better take off as soon as you can.”

“…Why are you going so far for me?”

“Far? What makes you think that? I don’t have a stake in Kai’s plans. I only work for the pay and benefits, mainly the benefits. As long as she’s safe, it doesn’t matter if she fails.”

His eyes reflected his affection for Kaika. They had shown the same glint when he warned Mashiro. He was sincerely trying to save her.

Mashiro concluded she could trust this man. “I need to tell Kaika something. Can you take me to her?”

“…Sure. Let’s go.” Ageha got up.

“Let me finish this first.” Mashiro shoveled another forkful of pasta in her mouth.

He sat back down smiling.

 

***

“Get outta here, kid!” The tall blond man shoved Ken away from the main door.

“I need to see Nick! He’s not answering my calls!”

“The boss threw him and his guys out a few days ago.”

“…Can’t be.”

“Look for your owner somewhere else. Can’t believe I had to bow out of the poker game for this shit.” The man shut the door and locked it.

Breaking into Valeriya’s building would be easy for Ken, but it was pointless without Nick inside. He needed help to find Mashiro and knew no one else capable of that. Whether Nick would actually aid him was another matter, but he was grasping at straws.

Ken fell to his knees. His body had not recovered from the beating Ageha gave him. With no leads and too much stress from Mashiro’s kidnapping and Nick’s disappearance, he began to panic.

What do I do!?

Mashiro had been taken away by the same bastard who killed his sister, and he had no way to find her. He clenched his jaw hard enough for his gums to bleed.

“You look like crap.”

Ken raised his head and saw a girl looking down at him with a frown. “Sakuya… What are you doing here?”

“Just heading out for a stroll when I heard you shouting.”

“This late?”

“Or early, depending on how you look at it. It’s the only time I can walk around without Viktor on my tail.” Sakuya crouched beside him. “What happened?”

“Nick’s gone.”

“Yeah, Ria threw him out after they got into a fight over you.”

“Me?”

“Sort of. Ria got pissed that Nick sent you after Kaika without informing her. They’re still allies, but Ria kicked him out and told him to leave you alone. Just so you know, I may have something to do with-”

“Dammit!” Ken punched the ground, cracking the concrete. “I need to see Nick! What’ll I do now!?”

“…I have absolutely nothing to do with what happened.”

“Why am I always so powerless!? Why does the world hate me so much!?”

“As emo as ever.” Sakuya straightened up and pulled him to his feet. “Stop moping and tell me about it.”

The two teenagers sat on the stone steps leading to the main entrance. Ken told Sakuya all about Mashiro and what happened earlier that night.

“Why are you so desperate to save this Mashiro?” Sakuya wore a dissatisfied expression. “You barely know her.”

Ken thought about it. Why was he so adamant about saving Mashiro? Did he want her help to get revenge on Ageha? Was it because she treated him well?

The reason came quicker than he expected.

“She reminds me of my sister Sumire.”

“Your sister. I see.” Sakuya’s frown relaxed as she nodded in understanding.

“Yeah. But I don’t know where Ageha took her.”

“Ageha? Ageha Shikimi?”

“You know him?”

Sakuya grinned. “You can say that. I can help you, but only if we know where to go.”

“…You’ll help me?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“I also have a bone to pick with that guy. This is a good chance to settle things. First, we need to find her. Maybe I can convince Ria to help.”

Ken grabbed her hands. “Thank you, Sakuya!”

“N-No problem.” She blushed faintly.

Black vans drove up and parked on the street in front of Valeriya’s building. Ken recognized them, but with Mashiro gone, he could not be sure if they were allies.

He stood up and stepped in front of Sakuya. “Stay behind me.”

Sakuya rose to her feet. “Who are these guys?”

“Mashiro’s men.”

A young man stepped out of the front van. His right arm was in a sling. Not minding his injury. the man rushed over to them. Ken raised his fists and prepared for a fight.

The man stopped a few feet away and raised his healthy arm in surrender. “Easy there. I’m Makoto Kaburagi, Mashiro’s friend. You’re Ken, right?”

Ken had heard of Makoto from Mashiro before, but there was no guarantee the person in front of him was the same man.

“What if I am?”

“Great, that saves me the trouble of knocking on Varrenikov’s building. I’ve seen your picture but wanted to be sure. The guys in the vans said you disappeared after fighting Shikimi earlier. Good thing Mashiro told me you used to stay here.”

“You know where she is!?”

“Yeah. I’m going to save her, and I wanted to bring you along.” Makoto glanced at his injured arm. “As you can see, I need all the help I can get. You coming?”

“Y-Yeah!”

“Then get in the van.”

“Wait a second,” said Sakuya.

Makoto stared at her face. “Who’s the brat?”

“Call me that again and I’ll pull out your tongue and hang you with it.”

“Your girlfriend is scary.”

“G-Girlfriend!? …You might not be such a bad guy.”

“Sorry, missy. We have things to do.”

“You mean rescuing Mashiro from Ageha? Do you guys really think you stand a chance against him?”

“What do you know?”

“I fought him before. Almost killed him too.”

“…We don’t have time for jokes. Let’s go, Ken.” Makoto headed for his vehicle.

“Listen to me! Ken, wait for me here. I’ll drag Gen out of bed and force him to bring out the latest model. That geezer will jump at the chance to pit it against Ageha.”

Ken thought about it for a few seconds and then nodded. “Kaburagi-san, I’ll go if Sakuya comes with us.”

“…Geez. Hurry up. Time is the one thing we don’t have.”

Sakuya rushed to the rear entrance. Ten minutes later, she appeared with an old man in a lab coat. The doctor was dragging a large luggage case behind him.

“This is Gen,” said Sakuya. “He’s coming with us.”

Gen focused on Makoto. “Lend me a vehicle. I need to set up.”

“What’s this about?” asked Makoto.

Sakuya stomped her foot. “Just do it. It’s necessary to beat Ageha.”

“Fine. This better be worth it.” Makoto spoke with the troopers and asked them to vacate one van. Given the number of vehicles, there was room to distribute them among their comrades.

Gen dragged the case to the empty van before quickly returning to his lab. After coming and going a few more times, several computers and imposing machines blocked the sidewalk. The van had foldable bench seats on both sides. Gen folded up the left seat to make more room for the equipment. Makoto and Ken watched the process from behind the van. With everything inside, the van only had enough space for three people.

Makoto stared at the various machines, which looked like something from a hospital intensive care unit. “I don’t see how these contraptions are gonna help us fight Shikimi.” He reached out to touch a small satellite dish Gen had propped up with a metal stand just inside the van’s rear door.

“Don’t touch that,” said Sakuya. “Just shut your trap and wait.”

After Gen finished connecting the machines, Sakuya sat down on the bench inside the van and put on a large helmet. Gen activated the machines by typing on his keyboard. A minute passed with nothing happening.

Makoto grabbed Gen’s shoulder. “What are we waiting for? If this is some kinda trick, I swear I’m gonna beat you up.”

“Why me? This was her idea.”

“As if I could beat up a small girl! Listen, we need to save-”

“I don’t care about your objectives. I’m only here to test the latest model.”

“You bastard!” Makoto hurled his fist at Gen’s face.

Something grabbed his forearm from behind.

Gen lazily took a seat inside the van. “Speed is within expectations. Bring it inside, Sakuya.”

The thing that stopped the punch passed between Makoto and Ken before entering the van.

Ken could not tear his eyes away from the faceless being. It was about as tall as Ageha, though far less muscular. The athletic female form had no skin. Like an anatomical model, its metallic joints and muscle fibers were in plain view, reflecting the machine lights around it.

Makoto stared in wonder. “What in God’s name…”

Ken looked at its featureless face. “Sakuya..?”

““Well? What do you think?”” Sakuya and the gynoid responded simultaneously.

“Th-Tha…” He took a breath to calm himself. “That’s so cool!!!”

““Thanks. What are you two standing around for? I thought we were in a hurry?””

“Now I’ve seen everything.” Makoto dragged himself around the van and into the passenger’s seat.

““You can ride with me, Ken.””

“But there’s no space.”

““You can sit on my lap. If you want, you can even check out my body. I-I mean the robot’s lap and body, not mine.””

Ken happily nodded and hopped inside.

Gen yawned. “Children.”

 

***

 

Saya entered the safe house and saw Kaika sitting alone in the living room. “I have returned, Ojousama.”

“How’s Arashi?”

“The doctor said she is going to be fine. She wanted to come back with me, but I told her to stay put.”

“Good call. I don’t want her pushing herself. We’re just about done here anyway.”

“You successfully convinced Mashiro!?”

“Not yet.” Kaika snorted and pointed her thumb at the locked room. “Ageha is in there now finishing the job.”

“Ageha? I do not think he is a good candidate for persuading Mashiro to accept our objectives.”

“That’s not what he’s doing. He’s in there to trick Mashiro into believing my story.”

“I do not understand. I thought you wanted to break Mashiro’s resolve and invite her to our side.”

“Sorry. I know you went through a lot of trouble blackmailing Rodin into betraying her agenda, but that turned out to be unnecessary. I realized the original plan wouldn’t work when that bitch saved Arashi’s life. Ageha was right. Threats and failures mean nothing against her. She won’t break with just that.”

“Then what is Ageha saying to her?”

“While you were gone, I talked Ageha into lying to Mashiro. Basically, I feed her with lies, and Ageha supports them. I only need to keep Mashiro quiet until Walker makes his move.”

“…What did you say to him?”

“Nothing much. I said I’d kill Mashiro if he doesn’t do as I say. Ageha isn’t a great actor, but he’ll do great against her. Lies are caught because of guilt. But he’s lying to her to save her life. What could be more sincere than that?”

A complicated cocktail of emotions swirled within Saya. This was not the first time Kaika manipulated Ageha, and Saya had done similar things herself. However, Ageha suffering was the last thing she wanted. Being forced to desecrate something he truly admired could not be easy for him.

“How did you even get them talking?” asked Saya. “Mashiro is smart. She would grow suspicious if you suddenly put them in a room together.”

“Simple. I made her curious enough to want to talk to him herself. Then I set up the perfect excuse.”

“Excuse?”

“Hunger. It’s almost morning, and Mashiro has been tense the entire time. That’d starve anyone. When I told her she was free to go, she relaxed, and her stomach rumbled right on cue. Then I said I’d get Ageha to make her something. That way, she thought it was a coincidence. Seriously, that bitch is a handful. Ageha is much easier to control in comparison.” Kaika frowned. “Don’t look at me like that. You were the one who forced me to choose.

Saya’s heart sank upon realizing what her mistress meant.

“You knew…” Saya gulped nervously. “I thought you misunderstood what I said that night.”

“I did, at first. I’d never seen you so angry, after all. But after giving it some thought, I realized what you really wanted to do.”

“But you got engaged with Max.”

“Yeah, I have to thank you for that idea. Your jealous outburst inspired me to get a fake lover. I realized that wasn’t necessary when I figured out your true intent, but I realized it was the perfect way to milk info from Garvey. Seducing Max worked much better than I expected. He even turned against his mother and Mashiro for me. If it weren’t for his efforts, Mashiro would’ve squealed to her father long ago. He even warned me that bitch was planning to call her father tomorrow.”

“So that’s why we had to kidnap Mashiro tonight.”

Kaika nodded with a bored expression. “Are you happy, Saya? You gave me a choice, and I have chosen.”

Kaika had tempted Max into betraying those who trusted him. She had persuaded Ageha to lie to Mashiro, someone he wanted to protect. And if all went according to plan, Kaika would succeed in keeping Mashiro quiet, tarnishing her justice in the process.

The devil himself did not sin. He merely tempted others into doing so. Kaika emulated that perfectly.

“W-What have I done?”

Saya thought she was fine with whatever path her mistress chose, but the dread in her heart right now proved otherwise. Unconsciously, she had hoped Kaika would find happiness without carnage, but her actions had pushed the girl in the wrong direction.

“Don’t misunderstand, Saya. I’m not blaming you. I’m grateful. You were right. This is what I am.”

It’s not too late.

She still kept her promise with Ageha.

I need to explain properly!

“Ojousama, that was not-”

“You’re back,” said Ageha as he walked out of the interrogation room.

Saya swallowed her words and crafted a fake smile. “I-I just arrived.” It took all she had to keep her cheek from twitching.

“Good timing. Our guest needs a ride back to town.”

Mashiro cautiously shuffled into view from behind Ageha. “Kaika, we need to talk.”

“Go ahead. I don’t keep secrets from my family.”

Those words stabbed Saya’s heart like poisoned needles.

“Very well.” Mashiro glanced at Saya for a moment before continuing. “I accept your terms. But don’t forget, I’ll watch you like a hawk to make sure you keep your word.”

Kaika extended her right hand to her. “I’ll do my best to give you a good show.”

Mashiro glanced at her hand for a moment before shaking it. “I need to borrow a phone. I have to tell my men about our truce and set up a pick up point. I don’t completely trust you yet.”

“How do I know your men won’t ambush us when we deliver you?”

“I’m not you.”

“Good point.” Kaika handed her mobile to Mashiro. “It’s not bugged. We’ll give you some privacy. Ah, for your own good, don’t open the photos folder. ” She headed for the main door. “Let’s go.”

Only Saya could see her face.

On it was a cold yet beautiful smile, more chilling than Treachery but brighter than the morning star.

 

Next Chapter

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