She lifted her eyelids, feeling the passage of time from how heavy they were. Above her hung a minimalist square paper ceiling lamp with a sakura tree imprint. While she loved all things cute, she was also partial to anything Japanese, and this piece, one she used in her private chambers, was a favorite.
There were more important things to ponder than a lamp, such as her physical condition, the future of her organization, the loss of her reason for living and what that entailed. However, she felt exhausted, enough to not even bother checking if her toes could move.
She remembered everything with absurd clarity, from the start of the battle with Ageha to the moment she died beside her daughter. She also remembered their ethereal farewell. Being agnostic to all things supernatural, she would normally not place any value or meaning in a dream, but the sound of the waves, the chill of the sea breeze, the warmth of her daughter’s chest, the roughness of the sand, all of it still lingered on her skin.
“I’ve gotten old…”
“That’s something I never expected you to say, even in this state.”
Her eyes languidly sought out the voice, quickly finding a bald geezer with a stern, almost pained expression. Alas, no rest for the weary.
“Do you remember?” He leaned closer to her, slightly lifting his weight off the bedside chair.
“Yes. Everything.” Valeriya closed her eyes. “You didn’t let me die.”
“I considered it. I can’t let a demon of revenge run our organization into the ground.”
“I’m no demon. I lost to one though.”
“…Does that mean you won’t take that path?”
“I don’t feel compelled to. Even if that changes, I won’t drag anyone else into it.”
“That’s good enough for now.” With a relieved sigh, Viktor revealed his right hand, previously out of Valeriya’s view, and holstered the gun it held.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
“Not long. The doctor said you’d regain consciousness any day now, so I’ve been dropping by when I could.”
“How long was I out?”
“Eighteen days. You went into a coma after the surgery, but your brain activity shot up two days ago. Your chest wound has healed significantly since the operation. I messaged the doc, by the way. She should be coming any minute now.”
Valeriya finally registered her surroundings. Her bedside tables had been replaced by medical machines with wires, tubes, and nodes connected to her neck and face. A thin white cast covered her mangled left arm and hand. Bandages peeked out from the low neckline of her light blue hospital gown. Her cybernetic right arm, as one would expect, was completely undamaged and moved with ease.
“Can’t believe I survived, really.”
“You have me to thank… or blame for that.”
“I’ll do neither. It was my fault we lost. It was my fault Mitsuki and Sakuya died.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Everything was due to my incompetence.”
Valeriya forced out a wry smile. “You never did hold back.”
Viktor was not being harsh in his judgment. Even the possibility of his defeat against Arashi was factored into Valeriya’s plans. That was why she had left an extra android near Mitsuki as a failsafe. She could not place any blame on him for the overall failure of the operation.
The bearded Russian shifted his legs, the chair creaking from his bulk. “Who shot you?”
“I don’t know. It might’ve been a sniper Kai hired as a last resort. Maybe that’s why Ageha broke the bank’s wall with his shield. Maybe it was a different faction. Mei Xing, the Americans, heck even Nick could be the culprit.”
“You sound as if you don’t care that much about it.”
“I guess I don’t. I set up the biggest fight in my life and lost. That sums up how I feel right now.”
“That’s something the old you would say. A little unexpected.”
“The old me?”
“Before you adopted Mitsuki.”
Valeriya inadvertently fell into contemplation. Who was the old her? Who was the new her? And who was she now? Did she actually die in that fight and only an empty shell revived in her place? She knew none of the answers. She oddly felt… nothing.
After surfacing from the depths of her thoughts, she shot him a teasing look. “Isn’t that what you wanted? You would’ve killed me if I became consumed by revenge, right?”
“This… isn’t what I wanted. I just didn’t want you to lose yourself, for everyone’s sake. But you…” Viktor pursed her lips, trying to find his next words. “I have never seen you so…”
“What is it? Fess up.”
A faint splintering noise came from within her chest, but she ignored it. Before Valeriya could quip at the rather rude comment, knocks came from the door.
Viktor let the doctor in. “I’ll leave her in your care, Doc.” He turned to face Valeriya and rotated his shoulder. “I need to get back to your work. I’ll be back again tomorrow morning.”
“Sorry for the trouble.”
The words of apology faded before they even left her lips, like echoes of an evanescent soul leaking from its broken shell.
“As you can see from the background, I am not in the Oval Office. The reason for that is simple. My actions have earned me the ire of many corrupt, powerful, and therefore dangerous people. While I do not belittle the ability of the Secret Service, it is also a fact that my subordinates were able to infiltrate their ranks and capture the former President Sanders during the coup.”
“Haa!!!” Makoto plunged his machine reinforced fists into a round pillar of concrete, exploding the upper half into a rain of gravel and a cloud of dust.
“Can you keep it down?” asked Mashiro, who was watching the speech projected on the white training room wall. She pressed on the screen of her mobile terminal to increase the volume.
“Why do we have to listen to this again? Isn’t he your enemy now?”
“That’s precisely why. Nothing is more valuable than enemy information.”
“Even when he provides it himself? That’s nothing but propaganda.”
“Yes, but only if you analyze the info with that in mind.”
Butler’s stern face looked thinner on camera than in real life. However, the sheer amount of work and he had done in the past few weeks could be making him lose weight. Mashiro had not seen her foster father for a while, so a change in his appearance would not be surprising. The worry she felt for his well being gave her a double dose of guilt, part coming from their conflicting standpoints, part coming from being unable to help her father and mentor.
“Hyaa!!!” Spinning around, Makoto swung his outstretched leg at another pillar like a longsword, cleaving through the concrete as if it were cake.
“I said shut up!” After confirming Makoto flinch under her glare, Mashiro refocused on the video.
“I must apologize for not speaking to you, the American people, live. Again, this is for my security. Call me a coward if you must, but I cannot change this country if I perish. Dying for the nation is indeed heroic but should only be done as a last resort.”
“Why is he saying stuff that’ll make him look bad?” asked Makoto as he dabbed sweat off his brow with a towel.
“Transparency. That’s something the corrupt US government didn’t have at all for the past few decades. By openly admitting his faults and intentions, he creates the illusion of being honest. At least to the average viewer.”
This was not Butler’s first speech addressing the nation. Initially, the American people had shown great anger and dissatisfaction towards him and the coup, but Butler had immediately explained everything he did and the rationale behind his actions. He had not shied away from admitting to the cruel aspects of his reformation plan, at the same time providing arguments about how they were unavoidable for the greater good.
After seeing Butler being true to his words, the masses, who never really concerned themselves with politics that much, had grown ambivalent or even supportive of their new, more trustworthy leader.
“The first step our country needs to take is to reinforce the military. Due to the economic boom fueled by the advent of unlimited energy, the very idea of international warfare had been perceived as primitive or even obsolete. Without competition for resources, conflict would not arise. That has held true for many decades since then.” Butler furrowed his eyebrows ever so slightly. “But that is true no longer. In the past decade, our country’s right to self determination has come under fire from the rapidly growing military strength of China and Russia. While we sat on our laurels, these nations have rightly seen through, or rather learned from our former policy of prioritizing military strength, and are continuously consolidating more power for themselves. Our benefits from international trade agreements have suffered from the constant threat of conflict, which we avoid like the plague. Our government bowed down to the inhumane practices and unreasonable demands from the other world powers, an act that contradicts the very core of what makes us Americans.”
Mashiro could not help but roll her eyes at the sheer hypocrisy of the last line coming from the leader of a bloody coup. Not caring about her thoughts, the footage of Butler rolled on.
“That should be enough to teach us a hard lesson: Even in a world of plenty, competition never ceases. Standing at the top is something every human being wishes for, and that is not necessarily evil. The important thing is who should be allowed to take that spot. That is why we, every single citizen and resident of this country, need to change America’s direction. This change is not about war or violence. This is a move towards equality, fairness, and freedom, not merely on our soil but within the international community. Force was never primitive nor obsolete, but something fundamental in human society, and should be perceived with the respect and rightful wariness it deserves. And that is what we shall do. We will retake our seat as the world leader and make America great again.”
“I can’t believe people are buying into this,” said Makoto. “He’s talking about the possibility of war here. And his regime is what they call martial law, right?”
“Not exactly.” Mashiro lowered the volume of the video stream and prioritized her discussion with Makoto. “Despite launching a coup and killing many political opponents, he preserved the three branches of government and the administrative systems in place. He basically rooted out the toughest weeds and let the weaker ones join him in fear.”
“I get the officials. They’ve always wagged their tails to power, but what about the people? They should see how twisted this is.”
“I think they welcome the change. People have practically lost all trust in the government due to blatant corruption. Many even think elections are constantly rigged nowadays, and the sad part is they’re probably right.”
“But isn’t it the people’s fault for letting it get that bad? They could’ve given a shit earlier on and done something about it.”
“Technically yes, but I can’t blame them. It’s safe to say that any organization has a certain level of corruption in it. However, the governments around the world have it worse. Makoto, what do you think prevented corrupt governments from collapsing on themselves throughout history? If we go by the logic that corruption is rot, then if left unchecked, it will eventually destroy itself, taking the people with it.”
“Drawing a blank here.”
“It’s poverty. When a government is extremely corrupt, it always leaves the people with the short end of the stick. The wealth goes to the leaders while the people suffer from poor governance and extreme taxation. If you push the people too far-”
“They’ll rebel and depose you.”
“Right. Aside from that, the officials also worry about their own livelihoods. If the leaders keep their corruption unchecked, the system they enjoy so much would collapse. If you think about it that way, it’s in their interest to curb their own wrongdoings. They are balancing sustainability and profitability, just like how one handles any other resource. Except these bastards prey on people and livelihoods.”
“Okay, but what does that have to do with not blaming the people for letting things get so bad?”
“Because the element of poverty, at least in developed countries, practically vanished with the introduction of sustainable fusion energy.”
Makoto snapped his fingers, realizing what Mashiro had been trying to say. “Because the people weren’t impoverished due to the good economy, they didn’t particularly feel the need to mess with the government.”
Nodding, Mashiro gave her student a smile as a reward. “Even if they lose trust in the government, as long as their affluent livelihoods are sustained, they wouldn’t risk losing that same livelihood to fight an ideological battle. That’s what allowed the US government, along with many others around the world, to degrade as much as it has. The rich and powerful are free from the fear of being deposed and can pursue their depravity to the extreme. Did you know that there are underground fighting arenas in Japan where people are made to fight each other to the death like gladiators? And those cesspools are supported by the bet money and sponsorship of the very same people controlling the country. They play with the lives of people just for kicks. How can anything be more appalling?”
“That’s pretty sick. Where’d you hear that from?”
Makoto raised an eyebrow. “You guys, uh, talk?”
“We chat from time to time since my kidnapping incident.” Donning a sweet smile, Mashiro looked into the distance, as if remembering a fond memory. “He keeps me up to date with their activities.”
Makoto’s features tensed into a frown, an expression Mashiro intentionally baited. It was always nice to be wanted.
Crossing his arms, he grumbled out his next words. “Seems like Stockholm Syndrome to me.”
“Seems like Othello Syndrome to me.”
“Huh? What’s that?”
“Look it up later.” Mashiro taunted him with a smirk but quickly relaxed her face. “Back to my point. The reason the American masses are so quick to accept their new leader is because he has delivered on all his promises so far. The way he handled the coup was inhumane, but everything after was praiseworthy. ‘For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so to result in rapine and bloodshed; for these hurt the whole State, whereas the severities of the Prince injure individuals only.’”
“Where’s that from? And don’t say look it up later.”
Mashiro laughed out loud. “The Prince by Machiavelli.” Mashiro stared blankly at the video feed showing a news anchor discussing the contents of her father’s speech before muting it. “Father drained the swamp by exposing corruption and using expedited court hearings to bypass all the red tape. He even televised the proceedings to let the people see the institutional overhaul happening in real time. Despite his forceful entry, he has done nothing to affect the livelihoods of the common folk. Not only does he allow people to organize rallies against him and the current government, he even addresses their concerns in his speeches and executive actions. It’s like he trimmed away all the fat that made the country run so slowly but kept all the muscle needed for it to move. It’s fascinating, really.”
“Uh, why are we going against him again?”
“Because what’s wrong is wrong. He needs to be tried for his crimes. The same can be said for Kaika and Ageha. As for the positive changes Father achieves until that time, well, we can just keep and build on them.”
“I’m not sure who the villain is here.”
“Hey, I’m just making the best of the situation you know? And don’t forget what Father said in the speech earlier. Diplomatically speaking, that was America declaring its willingness to wage war on other world powers. We have to stop him. American lives aren’t the only ones that matter.”
“The bigger problem is the how…”
“The obvious route is to gather opposition against him. He doesn’t have a shortage of enemies. I already have a short list of who to approach.”
“You mean the corrupt officials and financial elites he forced out of power and into hiding? Are you okay teaming up with those vermin?”
“Call it a temporary truce. We’re already in the same situation with the Nikaido faction.”
Mashiro gingerly glanced into Makoto’s eyes. “Disappointed?”
“All depends on how it ends, I guess.”
“Hey!” She jabbed the exposed part of his left arm. “You’re supposed to say ‘Of course not!’ or ‘Never!’ there!”
“I looked up Othello’s Syndrome.” Makoto grinned with a generous serving of smug while showing off his mobile terminal.
“Not bad, you cheeky brat.”
Their youthful laughter mingled within the spacious hall.