353. 2252, Present Day. Tamachi business district, Tokyo. Athan.

In my continuing saga of self-delusion, I’d imagined IkaCo as something of a fortress, with Ichiro sitting at the highest room in the tallest tower, looking down at the filthy plebeians beneath him as he sipped red wine from a skull-shaped chalice and stroked an ugly cat or something.

Or at least, somewhere properly hidden. A giant underground base in a dormant volcano. Or maybe a giant underground base in an active volcano.

But the real IkaCo was neither impressive nor concealed. And not the least bit volcanic. As AEGIS gave our groggy band a rough tour of our new surroundings — now lodged in an equally tiny apartment we were renting out for the week — she made sure to point out the ridiculous, ridiculous number of skyscrapers on the skyline. And one in particular.

“And that,” she concluded, “Is the IkaCo building.”

“That’s it?” I asked. Maybe I’d spent too much time in the Raven’s Nest, or heck, in my own delusions, but it looked like a big fancy building…but just a building.

“I mean, they have like, four other skyscrapers in downtown, and a dozen offices, to say nothing of their other holdings. But that’s the corporate core. That’s where the CEO’s office is, and where all the most expensive and shiny things go.”

It looked…tall. But it was a building and we were standing on a sidewalk so that was pretty expected. I glanced at the others and found them at least equally unimpressed. Lia was yawning under her hood, her eyes dark and unfocused. Karu seemed mostly interested in standing as far out of the flow of foot traffic as possible, shoved against the wall of the building as best she could manage. Saga held her head pitifully.

But at least AEGIS was beaming at me, seemingly delighted with her role as a tour guide, even if her patrons all looked borderline depressed.

“Well could we just…” I looked around at the hundreds of Japanese milling about, dark hair and dark suits, all apparently identical and limitless, swarming the sidewalks like a seething mass of locusts. “…go in?”

“Like, for a tour?” AEGIS asked. “We could ask the reception, but I kinda doubt it.”

“No, I meant like, for attacking them.”

“Oh. Well, we don’t really have a bone with IkaCo so much as Ichiro, right? And even then, we’re focused on finding Moon more than anything.”

“And Tem,” I added.

“Sure. So…I think it behooves us to find out where they are before rushing into some office somewhere, guns blazing.”

“There are literally tens of thousands of people on this street,” Saga said through grit teeth. “Can I please kill like, half of them?”

“Maybe we should get out of here,” I suggested, and AEGIS agreed. As we pulled Karu off the wall, the cluster of Japanese around us bubbled for a moment, as this tall, blonde, short-haired woman in casual wear apparently wordlessly demanded a zone of personal space the rest of us just couldn’t. Or maybe it was the breasts, as I saw a lot of sidelong glances at them, from men and women both.

The reason certainly wasn’t her pale skin, because within moments of attaining celebrity, Karu’s flushed red again, her eyes on her feet as she followed us blindly.

So yeah, this wasn’t at all like I was expecting, and I was beginning to wonder if I was just stupid, or naive, or racist. Charitably, my ‘work’ experience until now had been going to places where the enemy resided and taking them out. On some level, I guess I had thought of this mission as being the same, but the longer we were here, the more I realized how wrong that was, and the more my party was variously crushed in ways I never anticipated.

I mean, Saga dealing with a new language I guess I should have considered. Maybe even Lia struggling with jet lag. But Karu being considered some kind of celebrity? Or AEGIS diving headfirst into full tour-guide mode? I felt like the only sane one here, somehow. Lives were hanging in the balance, and here we were dealing with the most trivial problems.

In the end, through common misery, we wound up cutting our excursion short and just going right back home. Saga and Karu endured the somewhat-packed rail cars as we left the downtown-ish area for the quieter-ish area further north where we’d wound up staying.

-Ish, because honestly, the whole freakin’ city was like a downtown, and none of it was truly quiet; absolutely nothing like where I grew up, even in the times I’d been in downtown LA.  But at least our home base was more residential and less skyscraper, and was reclusive enough to keep Saga and Karu sane, by contrast if nothing else.

Lia impacted the bed face-first in the small two-room unit before the rest of us were even inside, and Saga repeated the maneuver, but on the floor. Karu made a beeline for her luggage, tearing through it while muttering about needing a suit, sunglasses, some kind of hat, and I swear I heard the words hair dye and paparazzi.

And AEGIS just sat down and beamed at me like this was all totally normal. I sat next to her and she smiled more broadly.

“Dude, what are we even doing here?” I asked.

“Well, at the moment…just adapting, I think. I do think a hat might do Karu a world of good.”

“Why do they go for her when you’ve got crazy red hair that’s literally four feet long?”

“Because I’m just weird. They have weird in Japan. They don’t have blonde bombshells. I’m sure they assume I’m a girl in a wig, an obnoxiously outstanding garish tourist, all fake and glamor. I don’t think anyone is wondering if Karu’s all real or not.”

Heavy coat,” Karu muttered. “Sports bra.

“Yeah, there’s no hiding those,” AEGIS continued, almost a little obnoxious in how triumphant she seemed. I was sure part of that was her decision in remodelling Rua down from competing with Karu in the chest compartment, but it wasn’t exactly helpful.

“Not what I meant,” I said. “I mean, what are we doing towards our goals. What are we achieving today that helps us figure out where to strike, or what our enemies are doing?”

AEGIS looked around the room and then gave me a frown. “Uh, we’re not. We’re adapting.”

“To what?”

She blinked at me. “To a new world of crazy shit nobody here is qualified to deal with, obviously. Everyone just needs time to adjust.”

“Time to adjust?” I saw by her face I was yelling at her and worked to tone it down. “For fuck’s…AEGIS, we’re on a rescue mission. We’re here because people — our friends — are in potentially very real danger.”

“Or potentially not, if you believe what Idris said about her father taking good care of her.”

“Yeah, Idris saying something actually tends to make me think the opposite is true,” I snorted.

“Fair point. But whatever is happening to them, whatever you believe, rushing in there isn’t going to help. We need intel, we need a plan, and we need…” she swept an arm across the three neroses sharing the room with us. “…not this.”

“Okay…maybe they’re a mess right now, maybe they need a week of naps or a thick dark hoodie, but what about you?” I asked.

“…what about me?” she replied, her smile frozen.

I swallowed hard, picking up a hint of ice hidden in her breezy words. “I mean, obviously we couldn’t have made it even this far without you. And I appreciate everything you do. But uh, couldn’t you like, um, be gathering intel or something? Hacking the mainframe…”

“Nobody has had a mainframe computer in two-hundred years, Athan.”

“Whatever, you know what I mean. You’ve gone all tour-guide and I feel like I’m the only one who cares about why we came here in the first place.”

She gave me just a little smile, but it was both sincere and pitying. “Oh sweetie,” she said.

“Don’t ‘oh sweetie’ me, I’m asking you here.”

“You really think you’re struggling alone here with a bunch of crazies?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Oh sweetie. You’re the craziest of all of us.”

“What? No, I’m just–“

She pulled my head into her chest and tousled my hair. I struggled to right myself but when she wanted, she was uncomparably stronger than I.

“Athan, you need to calm down a little. Do you remember the last time you just fired from the hip impulsively? Last time you felt emotionally burdened and acted out just because you couldn’t do nothing?”

I struggled to reply but really, just had a mouthful of boob. I knew she could understand me through my muffled speech, but that was hardly any solace when I was literally being treated like a crying baby.

“…did you just bite my boob?” she glared at me.

I muttered my reply and she sighed.

“I don’t know if you realize this Athan, but your leg’s gone. It’s gone. Even if we threw you into a regenerator right now, it’s been too long. New nerves wouldn’t bind with your system right, and your neurons for motor control are already adapting to your limb’s absence. You passed a medical point of no return like, a week ago, and…and for the rest of your life, you’re just gonna be damaged goods, sweetie. I’m sorry.”

I muttered at her but she kept on.

“And I know that probably doesn’t mean much to you. Maybe because it hasn’t sunk in what that really means. Maybe because every time something like this happened before, you’ve had an out. Most likely, you’re just too damn self-destructive and as long as you have a fire burning inside you, you don’t care how much of yourself you have to chop off to fuel it. Which is its own kind of fucked, by the way. But the fact is, it’s unhealthy, and even if you aren’t going to make an effort to take care of yourself, you know I will.”

I asked her something and she shook her head.

“No, I’m not treating you like a baby. I’m treating you like a head case. Which you are. I’m not saying that I value your life more than Moon’s and Tem’s…though I do, honestly. But rather…you’re not in a good place, Athan, and I don’t think you see it. At the very least, you should be able to see your own damage, or else you won’t be able to help as much as you think you can. You’re in such a rush but you’re not all here…if you set off like this, right now, it’d be a pretty shitty rescue.”

I went silent and thought about it. This had been a lesson I’d been taught many times now, and apparently one I still hadn’t learned. It was Mage all over again, I was threatening to jump the gun, to do everything I could, as much as I could. But as Karu had put it, if I gave everything of myself I had, I’d have nothing left to give when it was needed.

I felt myself sag against AEGIS as my thoughts continued. Just like I hadn’t been able to do nothing after I learned about Dragon and the Defiant, and gotten them killed for my meddling. Just like I hadn’t been able to do nothing after Alyssa, just rushed off and got my friends captured and beaten and my leg sheared off.

I mumbled another question, and AEGIS gave me a reassuring hug.

“Well…I was being nice, I guess. People need different things at different times, and you’re…you’re pretty swingy, Athan. In San Francisco, you needed me to pull you up. But here, you need me to hold you back. I’m sure it’s annoying, I’m sure it feels like, no matter what you’re doing, I’m just fighting you. But honest, I’m doing the best I can wherever I can.”

I replied, and she smiled down at me.

“You’re welcome. Should I pull you out of my chest now? Or do you want to stay there for recreational purposes?”

I pulled away while she laughed and then dabbed at the spot of drool her imprisonment had created. “I was about to suffocate,” I pouted.

“Oh please. You have a nose for a reason, and I’m not exactly Karu here,” she said, giving them a bounce. “It just seemed like the most expedient way to get you to listen for five seconds.”

“I’m always listening.”

She rolled her eyes. “I meant actually listening. Like yeah, I could have just pulled my top down and you’d shut up and hear the words, but that doesn’t mean you’re listening.”

I started to reply but she literally went through with her example and flashed me on the spot, and sure enough, whatever I was going to say fled my mind entirely. She shook her head with a patronizing smirk as she put them away.

“Is this too much?” Karu asked, walking in, dressed in her combat armor, sans jetpack and guns.

I blinked at her. “For what?”

“For walking the streets. I must find some attire that does not attract undue attention as I have been.”

AEGIS snorted in her laughter and I suppressed a giggle. “Uh, AEGIS says they have lots of weirdos like her, so yeah, maybe that might work.”

“Really, they’re just polite enough not to stare at a freak, but have a lot less reluctance to gawk at a beauty,” AEGIS commented. “How did you ever deal with attention back stateside?”

“Typically, it was deserved. This is just…bizarre. I have determined I do not enjoy being a minority.”

“No minority ever does,” AEGIS sighed. “Athan, to wrap up our conversation, I’m working on it. There’s a lot for me to do just to keep us afloat, but in my free-ish moments, I’ve got a list of properties I think Ichiro owns, and I’m working on getting myself ‘net access through more than satellite. I agree we need data, and we need a plan. And I thank you for being patient and…and taking the time to adjust.”

I nodded at her, watching Karu re-examining herself in the mirror from every possible angle. Both because it was weird as hell to see Karu being so concerned about appearances, but also because it wasn’t half bad to watch her from every possible angle. I turned to respond to AEGIS and caught her rolling her eyes at me.

“Sorry. Uh. Yeah. You’re right.” I shook my leg at her and the pneumatics whined. And then I gave half a nod at the spectacle right in front of us. “Whatever I happen to think…I can agree we’re a mess right now, and maybe I don’t see it in myself. I should trust others. Trust you.”

“And I should trust you too,” she smiled back. “Though honestly, what greater sign of trust is there than putting tits in your mouth.”

“What?” Karu asked, distracted as she went back for more clothes. AEGIS laughed and changed the subject, turning on the holo in the small entry area and sitting down on the floor, almost atop Saga.

It looked like the news, assuming that was pretty much the same across countries. An older besuited man was facing the camera over a placid backdrop, speaking directly to us. Compared to the mumble of voices I’d heard out on the street earlier, I could swear this one had the news-reporter-y lilt and cadence to it, despite not being able to understand a word of it.

I could see we’d lost AEGIS as she stared at the holo, her eyes moving slightly as this world faded away. Her lips moved as she worded out unfamiliar sounds.

…study…done in…that’s some university…umm…what’s hage? Study showed…ten percent…there’s hage again.

She frowned at the screen but I could see she was enjoying herself anyway. Suddenly her eyes lit up and she turned on me. “Oh! They’ve developed a cure for baldness!”

“Good for them,” I smirked back.

“Good for me, you mean! I understood the news today, all by myself!”

“Do you want a cookie or something?”

“I wouldn’t mind a cuddle. I’d offer to teach you a little bit, but honestly, it’s so stiff and formal, I don’t think there’s too many phrases which would be useful. I kinda doubt you’re going to be like, making formal acquaintance with too many people, though it never hurts to be too polite, especially as a foreigner.”

“I’ll settle for pointing and grunting, thanks.”

She giggled. “You know, even with that, it’s rude to point here. You gesture like this.” She turned and open hand towards the holo, as though some kind of game show host, and I just stared blankly at her.

“You’re serious?” I asked, and she nodded. “Wow, even the most basic thing imaginable and I could screw it up. This place is the worst.”

“It is,” Saga groaned.

“Oh shush. It’s just different,” AEGIS argued. “Just wait until–“

I shushed her because somehow, the holo said a word I recognized, which put my whole body on edge. AEGIS cocked her head, but on seeing the holo, fell silent as well, her eyes narrowing as she focused.

The broadcaster said the word again, in the middle of a sentence this time. IkaCo. IkaCo kabushi-something. That’s about as far as I was able to get before completely losing the sentence, but I saw AEGIS was hard at work.

…statement from IkaCo…something about…doing of…tero…” I saw her eyes flicker back and forth as she trawled the net for a moment. “Terrorism? IkaCo making statements about terrorist attacks. I’m missing a lot of context here. Are they against the company? Is IkaCo like, some kind of contractor against a wave of terrorism? Maybe they’re supplying the JSDF like they’re doing with the XPCA?”

I shook my head, with no idea why she was asking me.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “It’s…probably unimportant, I guess. We’re not…after IkaCo as I just said, we’re only looking for Moon and Ichiro.”

But even though she said that, she was still watching the holo, and the pauses in her speech did little to convince me she wasn’t still watching. She trailed off as she watched the rest of the story, and even when they switched to something else, she was still sitting there, completely focused and completely still, her lips moving as she mumbled to herself.

At long last she turned to me, her head snapping enough to make her twintails whip. Her eyes were wide.

“What?” I asked, feeling like I’d missed something huge here.

“The news story,” she said, unhelpfully.

“Yeah, what about it?”

“It’s a protest group. They claim to be a continuation of the anti-nuke movement which has been a big thing in Japan ever since World War Two. They’re pro-disarmament, and until very recently, have acted politically and peacefully, but apparently have turned to more militant methods recently.”

“…okay, and what about it?”

“They’re targeting IkaCo.”

“Because IkaCo is building nukes?”

She narrowed her eyes at me like I was stupid. “Because IkaCo is building exotics, Athan. Like we already knew. And supplying them to the XPCA, remember?”

It finally clicked in my mind, now that AEGIS had spelled out so completely. I’d been lagging behind with history and culture and language…none of that was relevant here, and I felt a bit stupid that I’d been looking at those levels of it instead of just listening to what she was saying.

“They know about it? The Japanese?”

“Hmm…I mean…yes and no. It seems…maybe like…nobody really listens to this group. They were trying to get that message out there, but…I mean, would you take a terrorist group’s claims at face value?”

“I guess not.”

“Yeah. Except we know better. So this group actually must be somewhat legit. They were lobbying pretty hard and then…oof, IkaCo came down on them and crushed them. And that’s when they turned more militant. What a mess.”

“What are they called?”

Hibakusha. That’s a loaded term. It refers to the survivors of the atomic bombs. Oof again.” She pulled at her hair momentarily, watching the news as the story changed without really seeing it. “Well, either way, not our problem, right? We don’t have an issue with IkaCo on the whole.”

“Right,” I agreed, but as I said it, my mouth was dry. It’s not like I knew better for certain, but it sounded like a lie already.

I was a terrorist, technically. We all were, labelled as such for nothing more than the crime of trying to stay alive. And while that was back in America, and between Exhumans and the rest of the world, I still couldn’t help to think that there were some uncomfortable parallels here. I wasn’t about to go chummy with every terrorist cell in the world out of solidarity or anything — the majority of them were still probably fucking awful people.

But then again, I guess so was I. So it seemed to me that, whether we liked it or not, these Hibakusha might cross paths with us sooner or later.

And honestly, given how few inroads we had towards Moon, I’d take sooner.

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