Hello readers, Neolyph here... again. I know what I said last chapter about not expecting another one so soon, but then this just sort of... happened. I'm not entirely sure how. Regardless, this is when the story proper starts, now that the intro chapters are done. Six year time skip btw before anyone asks. I need sleep now, so enjoy. Read/Favorite/Follow/Review, etc. It really does help. Ciao.
Chapter 4: A Demon Emerges
As the digital alarm clock ticked to eight o'clock, it tuned to the local news.
"—in the financial sector, the Ashford Consortium's stock is up four points today as investors prepare for the incoming Knightmare orders as a new front opens in the European conflict. CEO and Duke Reuben Ashford commented on this during a press release, stating that so long as our great nation requires weapons, the Ashford military-industrial complex will provide them to keep our brave soldiers the best in the world.
No statement was made however on their response to Prince and Prime Minister Schniezel outsourcing his Knighmare development to his own private think tank Camelot. I don't know about you Lilly, but I think it's clear that while Prince Schneizel may be able to build a better machine, Ashford will remain the king of Knightmare mass-production. In other news, Vicereine Carine ne Brittania released a statement today regarding the investigation into the attacks last month claimed by the terrorist JLF—"
"Turn it off," moaned Milly Ashford as she rolled over and buried her face in a pillow. Lelouch chuckled at his girlfriend and silenced the radio. It was a little-known secret around Ashford Academy that their perpetually-bubbly student body president actually took about two cups of morning coffee to get a good head of steam going.
As Lelouch rolled out of bed and sought his underwear that had been discarded the previous night—whether by him or Milly he couldn't remember thanks to the alcohol that had been involved—a light rapping on the door resounded.
"Master Lelouch," called one of his maids from the other side, "are you awake? You asked to be reminded of your appointment with Duke Ashford at nine."
'Shit,' he cursed mentally. He'd forgotten about that completely.
"Thank you Bella," he called back, although that wasn't her real name. All of Sayoko's Shadows abandoned their names once they entered Fulcrum's service. "Could you put some coffee on for Milly? She's not quite up yet, but I think she'll appreciate it once she is."
"Of course, Master."
Now that he was on a timer, Lelouch moved much faster to recover from the previous night's ill-fated bar crawl. It hadn't really been his thing, but Milly loved going out on the Settlement and Lelouch was nothing if not indulgent when it came to those he loved.
He threw himself through a hasty shower before donning a pair of black slacks, a white dress shirt, and a corduroy jacket. As he straightened his tie, he heard Milly begin stirring in the bed behind him. Not wanting the insatiable blonde to try dragging him back for a second round, he beat a hasty retreat.
Descending the stairs from the bedroom of the small mansion the Ashfords had constructed for his and Nunnally's use, Lelouch arrived in the kitchen. Breakfast was in full swing by the time he got down. While Bella brewed a pot of coffee by the stove, her counterpart Lucinda was assisting Nunnally is her meal.
"Bella, Lucinda," he greeted the two Britannian assassins. They were some of Sayoko's earliest recruits—a pair of disenfranchised commoners whose parents were victims of a callous and cruel nobility.
"Master Lelouch," they acknowledged in unison.
"Would you care for some breakfast?" asked Lucinda.
Lelouch's eyes glanced up towards the clock on the wall. "I'm afraid I don't have time for much more than toast," he grimaced.
As the maid prepared two slices for him to take with him, Lelouch quickly moved to greet his sister.
"Good morning angel," he said as he laid a kiss on her forehead.
She giggled at the affection before her face turned teasing, "Good morning to you too, Big Brother. Did you happen to greet anyone else good morning as well? From the sound of it last night, Milly stayed over again."
Lelouch could only redden in embarrassment at the knowledge that he'd forgotten Nunnally's enhanced hearing in his drunken haze.
"Now Mistress Nunnally," chided Bella to his aid as she dabbed Nunnally's mouth with a napkin, "it's not nice to tease your Big Brother like that."
Said brother let out a silent thanks, only to be betrayed as the maid continued.
"After all, it's not like your brother can control his bestial lusts. Every day that goes by I'm surprised he doesn't take them out on my poor defenseless self—Lucinda even more so."
Despite the teasing, Lelouch couldn't suppress a snort. With Sayoko's training and the Meld-based enhancements installed in them, he knew both maids could quite literally take him apart with their bare hands if for some reason the urge struck them. That was why the ninja had assigned them for his and Nunnally's protection while they were at school.
"Now that's hardly fair," chimed in Lucinda as she handed Lelouch a napkin containing two pieces of buttered toast. "After all, given the sounds coming from his room last night, I think Lady Ashford has managed to relieve him for quite a while. Several hours, at the very least."
While the three women giggled at his expense, Lelouch decided that discretion was the better part of valor and made for his meeting with Duke Ashford.
Lelouch was met in the Academy's parking lot by a hulking figure in a finely-tailored business suit. A pair of dark sunglasses hid his cybernetic eyes, but nothing could hide his relief as his lord finally arrived—allowing him to escape the gawking students passing by.
"Jeremiah," greeted Lelouch, "good morning."
While most members of Fulcrum without a Geass bore some form of Meld enhancements, Lelouch's loyal knight had sacrificed more of himself over the last six years than any other. His eyes had been sacrificed and replaced with enhanced cybernetics capable of magnification, enhancement, thermal imaging, and a host of other features installed by Asplund. His bones had been agonizingly laced with titanium, granting him immense durability. Biofibers had been sewn into his skin, giving it the impact-resistance of Kevlar. His enormous size was the result of multiple implants of vat-grown muscle that was stacked on until the knight was barely even human.
"My lord," Gottwald greeted back. "I've prepared the car for you. If we don't hurry, we'll be late for your meeting."
As Lelouch stepped into the armored black sedan, he saw that his daily report had been left on the seat. While he perused it, Jeremiah strode to the front seat of the car and got in.
The car pulled out of the Academy and into the Ashford Complex proper: a network of stockyards and concrete blockhouses expanding outwards from around the Academy; a veritable nexus of military design, research, and testing sites that was home to the largest military-industrial complex in Britannia. It was a good place to hide the even deeper Fulcrum facility.
Reuben had called him crazy when he'd instructed the grandfatherly industrialist to shell out billions in purchasing a full sixty-percent of the former Tokyo's ruined industrial district, but it had paid off in spades with the Ashford Consortium now able to research, develop, manufacture, and test their military technology all in one place.
While the individual stockyards and facilities had tall concrete walls around them, all of them were connected by wide underground tunnels that traversed the entire complex. These in turn secretly connected to the tunnels leading deeper into the Fulcrum bunker.
Lelouch sighed as he read over the daily report. Kyoto had poached another one of their cells. It was occasional annoyance with the more brash resistance cells that Fulcrum supplied. Most of their cells were kept on training and standby, as Lelouch knew that frequent acts of terrorism would result in heightened security around both the ghettos and the settlement, which would be detrimental to the long-term liberation of Japan.
Of course, a few cells didn't appreciate this attitude and would jump ship to Kyoto and all the short-sightedness that entailed once an offer was made.
Still, it wasn't a terrible loss, Lelouch mused. The cell had been one of their latest recruitments, and had only been supplied with a few crates of medical goods for the Saitama ghetto. They didn't know anything that risked operational security and they had stolen nothing of true value.
It would be an annoyance to replace them though, and necessary since they'd been Fulcrum's only asset in Saitama. They'd have to recruit one of the smaller groups instead.
Irritated, he produced an encrypted cellphone from his pocket and sent a message to Sayoko, ordering her to compile a list of Saitama resistance groups suitable for recruitment. He would be by later to review it.
As he put the cellphone away, the car finally arrived at the main offices of the Ashford Consortium. Lelouch looked down at his watch and let out a curse before stepping out of the still-moving car. His bodyguard quickly finished pulling into the parking spot and hurried after him with a speed and grace that belied his enormous frame.
Moving quickly, Lelouch barely exchanged a glance with the familiar secretary before taking the elevator up to the top floor of the skyscraper. Jeremiah had joined him in the elevator and was currently leveling a disapproving glare at his unrepentant charge's recklessness.
The elevator dinged open and the pair strolled into the spacious penthouse office of CEO and Duke Reuben K. Ashford. The man himself was sitting at a table staring contemplatively at a chessboard set up for play.
"Lelouch, my boy!" he cried, giving a nod to Jeremiah before turning back to his pseudo-grandson, "And here I was thinking you might actually be late for once. Black, I presume?"
The prince smirked.
Several hours later, a meeting was called of the Fulcrum Board of Directors. Around the same table which the organization was established, the board members sat.
The roster was largely unchanged from when the organization was founded, with the only new addition being Reuben Ashford.
Sancia, leader of Lelouch's protection detail, lurked in the corner nearest the door while the other three Irregulars stood guard in the remaining corners. Seated around the table were Jeremiah, Lelouch's knight; Kewell, his chief adviser; Asplund, Fulcrum's chief medical researcher; Reuben, head of production and material research; Sayoko, their head of intelligence; and Mao, their chief interrogator. C.C was not a member of the board, but she often attended their meetings. It seemed she had declined this one, however.
"Hello everyone," welcomed Lelouch as he took his place at the head of the table. "I'm glad we could all make it."
Several affirmations went around before Lelouch spoke again.
"Before I begin, does anyone have anything to report?"
Asplund cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. Lelouch nodded for him to speak. "My work with Reuben on the control rig is going well, Your Highness. It's still in an experimental phase and isn't quite ready for instillation on a subject, but the concept is proven sound. Of course, we're still working on building an interface that can be added to a Knightmare post-production rather than requiring one to be built around it, but that should be relatively simple in the grand scheme of things."
"Good," praised Lelouch, "that project was a long shot and I'm thrilled that its borne results. How soon do you expect them to be ready for instillation?"
Reuben looked contemplative and stroked his beard as he did some quick math. "Perhaps two weeks, Your Highness, for a few select working models. Double that for larger production."
Lelouch gave a satisfied nod. That fit within the timetable.
"Anyone else?" he queried. Sayoko raised her hand to speak.
Unlike Gottwald, the ninja had gone for significantly more subtle enhancements. While she too had opted for a pair of blue cybernetic eyes and biofiber skin like Jeremiah, she had refrained from the slabs of muscle and titanium bone lacing. Instead, she had installed much leaner muscle toner that increased elasticity in her existing muscles, resulting in increased muscle tension and flexibility while still providing a smooth physique.
Her pièce de résistance however was something Asplund had spent quite a while working on: synaptic boosters. The nerve cells making up her spinal cord were both broadened and replicated, allowing for more neural bandwidth and thus lightning-fast reflexes. She could move across a room and snap your neck in the time it would take you to even realize she was there.
"The Shadows have sent in more troubling reports earlier today regarding Kyoto and the JLF. It seems that the Six Houses have at least has gained some inkling of our involvement with various resistance groups, although they fortunately have no idea the scope of our reach. Still, they're a problem that will have to be dealt with before they learn too much. Regarding the JLF, my reports are that they're preparing for another raid on one of the Purist bases along the outskirts of the Settlement."
Lelouch considered the report for several moments.
"Have your Shadows position themselves among the Six Houses. If they ever unveil the masquerade, I want the ability to neutralize them with a word. As for the JFL, we can't afford to let them get Carine's guard up so close to D-Day. Have our Shadows in the JLF sabotage and delay the raid. Give them free operational reign so long as we remain undetected."
Seeing that there were no more reports to give, Lelouch moved on.
"I'll get to the key point of this meeting, then. Kyoto has, once again, poached one of our cells. This time, it was the Blood of the Samurai group in Saitama. This puts us in a disadvantageous position with D-Day on the horizon. We need a cell in every ghetto for the plan to work. Sayoko, do you have the list I requested?"
The assassin nodded. "I do, Master. Unfortunately, the Blood of the Samurai comprised the majority of resistance in Saitama at thirty-some members. The few remaining are either incompetent or zealots. Only the Kozuki group seems to be viable, but it only consists of about ten members and their leader was killed just a week ago."
Lelouch motioned for the list and after it was handed over he perused it himself. It seemed that Sayoko's summation had been spot on. Only the Kozuki cell was suitable for approach, but a ten members they were barely worth the time and effort.
Yet at the same time, they needed a cell in Saitama for D-Day to succeed.
"Send a Shadow to approach them," he sighed. It was going to be a pain in the ass to operate this cell.
As Sayoko nodded, Kewell interrupted. "If I may, Your Highness," he interjected, "we have been looking for a cell to establish Zero with. You'll have to lead one on D-Day, and succeeding in your mission with only ten members of a ragtag cell would be quite the accomplishment to found Zero's reputation. Not to mention, with a cell this size, they might need your personal guidance to succeed starting out. They could form the core of the Black Knights."
Humming, Lelouch considered this for a moment. Soresi had a very definite point.
"That's an excellent suggestion Soresi," he remarked. "Change of plans, Sayoko. Have the Shadows get me everything they can on the members of the Kozuki group; names, backgrounds, experience, everything. If one of them has a birthmark shaped like the Emperor's head, I want to know about it."
"It will be done, Master," acknowledged the ninja obediently.
After a brief moment of consideration, Lelouch added on, "Also, have the leader of the Blood of the Samurai and his command staff killed. Not only did they betray our agreement, but it will cause problems if the group starts acting out before D-Day. I want them disorganized and unable to act until then."
The assassin nodded once more.
"Is there anything else that needs to be addressed?" Lelouch queried the room. Nobody replied.
"Alright then. Meeting adjourned."
While the room emptied, Lelouch took an opportunity to relax in the chair. A tugging on his sleeve interrupted him.
"Big Brother," mewled Mao as she climbed into his lap like a cat. He let loose a mental sigh, knowing what she wanted. He shifted in his seat, readjusting so that the girl wasn't in quite as sensitive places. This had been much easier when she was younger—and smaller. And she didn't have the... assets she currently possessed.
He brushed her long purple hair with his fingers as she melted into his embrace.
In all honesty he probably shouldn't have crossed the line he did with her, but he had sworn to her all those years ago that he would do what it took to take care of her for as long as she needed. He just didn't think that she would turn around and use that as an argument several years later when she started getting urges towards him.
Still, the mind-reader had wormed her way into his heart, and he would go to extraordinary lengths to indulge those he cared about. Just like he did with Milly's wild streak or Sayoko's budding taste for submission.
Reaching over, he locked the door to the conference room before turning back to the girl in his lap.
"Only because D-Day's coming and I'll be very busy soon, okay?" he murmured into her neck, sending shivers down her spine.
"Okay, Big Brother," she agreed.
"You need to come out of here eventually Kallen."
The redhead ignored Ohgi as she continued flipping her butterfly knife. The name Japanese letters for "Kallen" were inscribed on the handle in what was undeniably expert craftsmanship. Despite how tight money had been in the last few years, Naoto had shelled out God-knows how much money to get the knife made for her as a birthday present.
And now he was gone. Not even during one of their handful of raids as a resistance cell either. Just at the hands of a few bored Purists who thought he looked 'suspicious' and decided to rectify that with their batons.
He hadn't even been recognizable by the time they were done. She'd been forced to identify him by his shoes since the guards had robbed him of everything else.
"It's been a week."
She could still see him, happy and smiling as he whirled her around her bedroom while they listened to stupid Japanese pop songs.
Only now it was tainted as she saw his caved-in face beside her father's naked, hanging body and her mother's mutilated corpse. Every time she closed her eyes the images came back.
"You need to sleep. You need to eat."
She hated them. She hated everyone. Everything.
"I promised Naoto—"
He was cut off and forced to duck as the knife went sailing through where his head had been just a second ago. It embedded itself in the wall with a wooden thunk.
"Don't say his name," she hissed venomously without even turning.
Ohgi agonized as he saw the little girl he'd taken in with her brother all those years ago tear herself apart with hatred. He'd seen this happen to friends before, and it never ended well. It had nearly happened to him when the Britannians had killed his wife during one of their 'pacifications'.
He sighed and slumped against the crumbling wall of the abandoned schoolhouse they were still using as their resistance headquarters.
How had things come to this? He remembered just seven years ago when Japan had still been Japan. Things had been so simple.
Aged and yellowed papers rustled as wind blew through one of the shattered windows.
Someone else was in there with them.
He wasn't sure how he knew it, but he did. Drawing the aged pistol from his belt he whirled around and aimed it at the shadowy corner behind him. Peering into the darkness, nothing seemed out of place. He wondered for a second if he'd imagined it. It wouldn't be the first trick stress had played on him.
"Fine craftsmanship," remarked a feminine voice from behind him.
Ohgi tried to spin back around with his gun only to have his arm snatched midway and the pistol effortlessly wrenched from his grip. He fell to the ground and found himself staring up at the back of a figure dressed in a black hooded coat with dark utilitarian pants. It was an outfit that nobody would look twice at around the ghetto, where nobody wanted to be noticed. Her face was turned away from him, his gun held absently in her left hand.
Despite her disarming him, Ohgi realized that she hadn't even looked at him during the entire maneuver. Instead, her attention seemed solely focused on the butterfly knife still embedded in the wall.
Kallen had realized the intrusion by this point, but having already thrown her knife she was currently unarmed. She looked between Ohgi and the woman, realizing that an attack just may get him killed.
"Kallen," read the woman as she inspected the blade's handle. With ease she removed it from the wall and gave it an experimental flip. "Nicely weighted," she remarked.
Finally, she turned to face the pair. In addition to the hood, her hair and face were further obscured by a blank white mask. Its only distinguishing features were a thin red line where the mouth would be, and a grey emblem depicting a broken chain across the forehead.
"A gift from your brother, I take it?" she asked, flipping the knife closed and latching it.
Already angry at the woman's handling of her brother's last gift, Kallen was barely able to restrain herself from assaulting the woman then and there—Ohgi or no. "Yes," she growled, "the last thing he gave me before he was killed by the Purists."
The hooded woman somehow managed to convey a grim smirk through her mask. "I can feel your hatred for them. I felt something very much like that once: anger... and impotence. I wanted to hurt them so badly, but I knew that I couldn't. They were too strong to fight. I was in a dark place, just like you. I only saw one way out. But then someone came along and showed me the way. He showed me how to fight them in a way that would hurt them."
Despite herself, Kallen found herself entranced by the words. It was as if the masked woman were bringing Kallen's feelings and desires into words. Placing Ohgi's gun in her pocket, the hooded figure withdrew a plain black card and set it on the table before impaling it with the butterfly knife.
"If you ever want to make a difference in the fight against Britannia, to see it burn before you, then come to this location tomorrow evening. Make the offer to your whole cell, but know that any who fail to arrive that day will have the offer closed to them."
As the woman turned to leave, Kallen found herself calling out without thinking. "Wait!" she cried desperately.
The masked head swiveled back slightly. Kallen gulped. "The man. The one who showed you how to hurt Britannia. Who is he?"
A melodic chuckle tinkled out from behind the mask.
"He goes by many names. You though, you'll come to know him as Master Zero."
"Harder, Master!" cried a bound Sayoko as Lelouch thrusted once more.
After his late night with Milly and his quickie with Mao in the conference room, Lelouch had felt it only fair to show Sayoko some affection before he got too caught up in his role as Zero. That said affection involved rope and a maid's uniform was just part of his indulgence to the desires of his partners.
He still wasn't entirely sure how this relationship had developed. While Sayoko had always been devoted to him, he didn't know at what point that devotion had turned romantic. All he knew was that when he started publicly dating Milly to help keep other would-be suitors around Ashford off her back, it had pushed the Kunoichi into confessing her feelings.
Apparently, there was a long tradition of Shinozaki women serving as wives, or sometimes mistresses, to their chosen masters. Or at least that was the argument Sayoko gave as she propositioned him.
He'd consulted Milly on it, which was probably a mistake considering the energetic blonde had immediately dragged the ninja to bed with the both of them with all the tact of a bulldozer.
Despite Sayoko's... appreciation for the ménage à trois, Lelouch made sure to occasionally give her some one-on-one time to ensure that they maintained a certain degree of intimacy.
This was not one of those times.
A naked Milly Ashford came up on Lelouch from the side, brushing her breasts against his arm as she forced her tongue down his throat. Lelouch reciprocated but didn't let it disrupt his pace as he continued pleasuring the restrained Sayoko.
Right as the ninja climaxed, Lelouch felt a disturbance in the air. It wasn't Bella or Lucinda, as he'd sent them to take Nunnally out to the park to ensure that he didn't suffer a repeat of the previous morning.
Breaking from Milly's ministrations, he turned his head slightly and without looking or caring for his current position he barked out a strict, "Report."
"The Kozuki group has been successfully contacted, Master," replied the Shadow without a hint of embarrassment or emotion. After Sayoko's training and indoctrination methods, almost nothing could make a Shadow break discipline.
"I see," muttered Lelouch as Milly looked past him to glare at the intruder. "And Kallen Kozuki?"
"She'll be bent to your cause, Master. I saw the hatred in her eyes. She'll go to the meeting, and will be molded to your purpose just as I was."
Lelouch smiled. The members of the Kozuki Resistance Group had been largely unremarkable; your average collection of idealists, young hooligans, and thrill-seekers.
But one file had stood out. The young Stadtfeld heiress' file had intrigued him. It read very similarly to his own: murdered parents, single remaining sibling, forced to flee in the night, took refuge in a hostile territory, planned rebellion. Except in Kallen's case, the brother had just recently died in a brutal yet random act of racist violence.
It was the perfect storm to bind someone to his will. With the right words and actions, he'd possibly have a new recruit for Fulcrum. No other resistance groups had anyone that made such ideal candidates—not that Sayoko hadn't already recruited anyway.
But Lelouch didn't see Kallen becoming a Shadow. He could feel that she was destined for something... special.
Really, Kallen was the only one in the cell he didn't consider expendable. In hindsight, he'd realized that he could most likely pull off the Saitama portion of D-Day with some clever use of the Shadows and Jeremiah, but he'd still require some locals to be involved to ensure that it was attributed to Zero. Kallen would serve nicely for that, although he'd probably still try to recruit her cell just to have some disposable bodies to work with.
"Well done Kage," he praised. "Return to your duties."
"Yes, my Master."
Once the Shadow disappeared through the window, Lelouch turned back to see an irritated Milly glaring at him. He knew that he was going to be making this up to her for the next half hour.
"Sayoko," he ordered the bound woman that he was still straddling, "once we're done here I'll need you to prepare my Zero outfit."
The Kunoichi was still too deep in post-orgasmic bliss to speak, but she managed a shaky nod.
"You'll have work tomorrow then, I take it?" sighed a disappointed Milly.
"Aye," he said apologetically, "it'll likely be a while before we can do something like this again. That's why I wanted to make it a bit special."
Milly's pout quickly reformed into a smirk as she pushed him on his back and positioned her mouth over his still-erect member, "Well, if my hard-working boyfriend has work to do, what can I do but help relieve his stress?"
As the blonde set to work, Lelouch leaned back let loose an involuntary moan.
'What a way to start a revolution.'
"Are you sure this is the right place?" whined Tamaki as the group arrived outside an abandoned office building.
It was one of the few that hadn't collapsed yet due to either damage or neglect. That was most likely because of its location right next to the section of the ghetto's border wall that was adjacent to the Saitama Purist Base. If the Purists let it fall over, it could damage a large section of the wall, or even the base itself.
"Of course it is, fucknut," snapped Kallen. Ohgi frowned in concern; ever since that masked woman's visit, Kallen's behavior had been... worrying. She'd finally broken out of her depression, but it had been replaced with a borderline obsession over this 'Zero' figure. She'd been increasingly hostile when it came to any argument against going to the meeting. He could have sworn during their meeting over this that she'd nearly drawn her butterfly knife when Tamaki had protested the trip because he had a date.
Putting his fears to the side for the moment, he tentatively led the group into the reception area. It was as rundown as the rest of the building, but it looked like someone had been here recently. There was a set of enormous bootprints in the dust coating the floor, leading towards the staircase.
"Proceed up the stairs to the top floor," instructed a masculine, synthesized voice that seemed to emanate from the walls. Ohgi looked around, but couldn't identify the source.
"The top floor?" Tamaki complained. "This had to be a fifty-story building! Who does this guy think he is?"
Kallen leveled a venomous glare at the brash resistance fighter as she moved towards the staircase. "Tamaki, shut the fuck up," she growled through gritted teeth. The newest recruit made to protest, but a look from Ohgi silenced him.
With a heavy silence and uncertainty hanging over them, the Kozuki Resistance Group traveled up the stairs until they reached the top floor. An out of breath Tamaki was muttering curses with each exhale, but at least he kept them quiet. Fingering the holdout pistol in his jacket, Ohgi gingerly pushed the door open and found himself stepping into a cleared-out executive office with wide windows wrapping around all three walls.
The group cautiously entered the office and approached the center of the room. Looking out, the border wall was aligned nearly dead-center on the middle window.
"Move to the window," ordered the same voice from before. Wary glances were exchanged, but Kallen marched right up to the window and peered out. Once she was there, the voice spoke again. "Look to your right and tell me what you see."
Without hesitation, Kallen looked out at the ghetto. "I see our people, herded into a cage like animals, slowly starved and weeded out by a tyrant too cruel to simply kill us outright."
"Good," crowed the voice. "And to the left?"
Kallen turned towards the Purist Base on the opposite of the wall. She scrutinized it for a long moment. "I see the enemy," she said simply; pure, visceral hatred lacing every syllable of her words.
The voice chuckled darkly over the speakers, "Go to the roof. It's time we meet."
Not even looking back at her group, Kallen whirled and returned to the doorway. Ohgi and the others scrambled after her, barely able to keep up with her rapid pace. The door to the roof was unlocked, and they stepped blinking out into the sunset.
They were faced with a male figure dressed identically to the woman that had delivered their message, with the exception of his mask—black instead of white, and instead of a broken chain it displayed across its forehead a red marking that resembled an upside-down bird in flight.
He was flanked by two equally-uniformed companions. The lithe female on his right bore a white mask adorned with a grey skull. The man on his left's white mask carried a purple fleur de lis.
Ohgi strode to the front of the group. "Are you Zero, the one that sent the message?" he addressed the middle individual.
"Yes," he confirmed. His mask was aimed right at him, yet Ohgi got the uneasy feeling that his attention was focused on Kallen. "I am Zero. Did you enjoy my tour of the settlement?"
"Your tour?" sneered Tamaki. "Are we seriously listening to this joker?"
The masked man continued on as if the resistance fighter hadn't spoken at all. "I wanted to highlight the difference between the two: the stolen lands taken by the Purists, and the Japanese 'reservation'."
"We know that," said Ohgi, irritated. "There's a huge difference between us and them. It's why we fight them."
To his surprise, the so-called 'Zero' chucked. "Do you truly believe that Britannia will fall to petty terrorism? That Emperor Charles vi Britannia will decide to pack up and go home because the Kozuki Resistance Group blew up some trucks and shot at some soldiers? You're naive fools."
"Why you son of a—" snapped Tamaki as he fumbled for his holdout pistol, only to let loose a whimper of pain as an enormous gloved hand lunged out and twisted his wrist until the gun clattered to the ground.
As the man fell, nursing his abused wrist, the remainder of the group turned and found themselves face-to-chest with a towering brute clad identically to his companions—the only variation once again being his mask; white with an orange shield painted on.
"Thank you, Mr. Orange," said Zero congenially before returning to his speech. "As I was saying: if you wish to hurt the Purists and all that they represent, there are far more effective ways than what you've been doing."
"And what way is that?" demanded Kallen, unable to fight the desperation edging into her voice.
"My way," purred the masked man.
The collective group froze at the inflection of the voice. Despite its synthesized nature, they could tell that it was the voice of one intimately familiar with winning.
"In approximately one month's time," he continued, "I will be conducting an operation that will be the first domino in a chain that will culminate in the ousting of Britannian forces from Japan's shores and the complete and utter destruction of the Purist faction. If you agree to my terms, you will be the finger that tips the domino."
Kallen eyed the figure in something rapidly approaching awe. This man was offering her everything she wanted. Despite herself, she couldn't help but be drawn in by the sheer confidence in his voice. He didn't just think that this would succeed, he knew it.
"Why should we trust you?" challenged Ohgi. "This is grand talk for a man hiding behind a mask, Zero. How do you expect us to play along with this scheme of yours if you and your friends here aren't even willing to trust us with your faces?"
The black mask directed itself towards Ohgi once more, and he got the distinct impression that it was smirking. "Well that's simply the way of it, Kaname Ohgi. If you join me, you'll simply have to reconcile with the fact that my associates and I operate from behind a veil of secrecy—as any proper covert organization should. Any who are unwilling to accept that are free to walk back down those stairs and return to a life of useless mediocrity."
Glances were exchanged between the various assembled fighters. The only exception was Kallen, who was staring resolute at Zero. Her mind had been made up from the second she'd stepped onto the roof, even if she had just now realized it.
As half the assembled fighters eventually turned and peeled off back towards the staircase, Lelouch nodded for Jeremiah to let them pass—although Sayoko beside him was under orders to make note of their names to have the Shadows take care of later. He wouldn't let D-Day be jeopardized by a few loose lips.
Remaining on the rooftop were Kallen, Ohgi, Tamaki, Naomi Inoue, and Toru Yoshida. Lelouch mentally shrugged. It wasn't much, but he could work with it. Kallen he could see was now firmly in his sway, and that was what mattered.
"I take it by your remaining that you agree to my terms?"
"Yes, Zero," said Kallen eagerly, even as Ohgi had been opening his mouth to give his own response. "What now?"
"Now?" said a satisfied Lelouch as the pieces fell into place. "Now, we prepare for D-Day."
"Have you ever used one of these?" queried Zero as he led the group into the basement of the building where a set of ten Knightmare simulators were set up for use. At their hesitant head shakes, he opened one up to display the interior.
"Well take a good look," he said, "because you're going to be spending most of the next month in one. It's a Knightmare frame training simulator."
"Knightmares!" cried Kallen as her intrigue shot through the roof. "Where did you get you hands on Knightmares?"
"Are you with Kyoto?" queried Ohgi, suddenly afraid of the possible disrespect he'd shown.
Chuckles resounded from Zero and his companions respectively identified as Ms. Black, Mr. Green, and Mr. Orange. "No," answered a bemused Green, "we're not with Kyoto. Knightmares are easier to acquire than you would think for those with the right connections."
Kallen stared at the simulators with sheer reverence in her eyes. The only resistance group that had ever been able to get their hands on working Knightmares had been the JLF. The fact that Zero was preparing them for their use was beyond amazing.
"We'll be running you through some basic diagnostics," explained Zero. "Nothing intensive, just a baseline test to determine your aptitude for piloting. Once that's been established, we'll use it to start running you through some training scenarios."
Resolve welled up inside Kallen. A Knightmare was the ultimate killing machine, an unmatched vehicle of war that dominated any battlefield it entered.
And she was going to use one on the Purists.
As she and the group were led into a small room with a set of lockers. They were each given a tight black jumpsuit designed for use by Knightmare pilots, which they quickly changed into.
Back in the room with the simulators, the remaining members of the Kozuki cell each sat down in the simulators and the doors were shut on them. The interior was designed to be identical to that of a Sutherland's—and once inside the main screen lit up and began loading an aptitude test.
Kallen intuitively gripped the two primary joysticks, fire in her eyes.
She was not going to fuck this up.
Thirty minutes later, the scenario was powering down and Lelouch was staring dumbfounded at Kewell as he reported the readouts.
"Eighty-four percent proficiency?" he repeated in shock. "This is the first time she's ever used one! She can't be that high! That puts her within the 'ace' ranking without any training! Are you sure the readouts are correct?"
"Quite certain, Your Highness," answered an equally-shocked Kewell as he double-checked the computer. "The other members came out within expected levels. Kaname peaked with twenty-six, while the irritating one came out lowest with a solid seven."
Lelouch grunted in acknowledgement as he turned the computer screen towards himself and tapped a few keys, bringing up the feed from Kallen's simulation. He watched as she figured out the basic navigational controls in seconds and was soon speedily piloting along the practice course.
Once her slash harkens were enabled, she quickly worked them out too and knocked out all of the provided targets. She went even further by using them to fling herself through the obstacle course. By this point, it was practically no surprise when her Knightmare rifle was unlocked that she demolished the training drones effortlessly. She finished the course in record time, a full twenty minutes before anyone else.
This was beyond intuitive. This was... prodigious. It was like witnessing the first time da Vinci ever picked up a paint brush—or Mozart sat down at a piano.
He knew there'd been something special about her.
With the test complete, the simulators popped open with the hiss of pressurized air being released. Four woozy resistance fighters stumbled out of the pods, with a green-faced Tamaki immediately rushing for the nearby trashcan and emptying his guts into it.
Kallen though, she emerged from the simulator with a grin. It was a feral sort of look, the kind worn by a mouse who after years of terror has not only just procured a rifle, but whom has also discovered the address of the local tomcat.
Lelouch thought it suited her.
Ensuring that his mask was still secured, he strode back out of the computer room with Sayoko and Gottwald at his heels.
As he entered the simulator room once again, he started politely clapping his gloved hands. Kewell came in and led the four other resistance fighters back to the changing room as he began giving them their schedule for the next month, but Lelouch put a hand out and stopped Kallen.
"Kallen," he asked, "do you have any experience with Knightmare frames?"
"No," she answered confused, "but it seemed pretty intuitive. Why?"
"You just took a test designed to evaluate Knightmare pilots for the Britannian military. It measures base aptitude as a percentage. Your typical trained pilot averages around sixty to seventy percent proficiency. Do you know what your score was?"
Fear and worry flashed in her eyes, "No, Master Zero. I don't."
Internally smiling at her use of the appellation preferred by the Shadows, he reinforced it with a firm, mentorly grasp on the shoulder. "You scored an eighty-four percent proficiency on your first try—marking you at ace-level with absolutely no training or instruction. A bit of training... and even I can't say how far you'd go."
The redhead looked at the hand on her shoulders, a series of conflicting emotions flashed across her face before one finally came out the victor.
"Thank you," she said, a burgeoning need to please him clear in her voice, "Master Zero."
As he contemplated her momentarily, a developing idea formed in his head. It was a long shot, but it would be the key to cementing her loyalty if successful.
"I have a special project," he informed her suddenly. "It wasn't something I was planning to use during the operation next month as it's not even really finished yet, but you... I think will be able to make use of it far more than I ever could."
"Me?" she asked in shock at the trust placed in her. "Are you sure?"
Lelouch nodded. "I warn you though, you'll never be the same afterwards. In exchange though, you will become an unstoppable titan on the battlefield. No Purist alive will be safe from you once its installed."
"What is it?" she begged. Whatever this was, she needed it.
"My researchers call it a control rig."
Two weeks after Kallen desperately accepted his offer and Lelouch placed a rush order on a single functional control rig, the redhead was placed blindfolded in a sedan with blacked-out windows and driven to the secret entrance of the Fulcrum base under Ashford Academy.
Once inside, she was brought, still blindfolded, to the surgical center of the facility. Two of Asplund's orderlies in the standard Fulcrum uniform of a black hooded coat, black utilitarian pants, and a personalized white mask led her to a hospital bed and prepared her for surgery. Only once her room was secured was the blindfold removed.
She was still blinking and adjusting to the light when a masked Asplund entered the room.
"Kallen," introduced Lelouch as he indicated towards the white mask that bore a red double-helix, "this is Dr. Blue. He'll be the one performing your surgery today. Do precisely as he says and you'll be fine. He's the most intelligent man I know. You're in good hands."
As he turned to leave the room, Kallen surprised him.
"Wait!" she called frantically. He turned back around and saw her immediately become sheepish.
"Can you..." she asked embarrassed, "Can you stay here, just until they put me under? I always hated hospitals and it's what Naoto used to do for me."
"Of course," he said gently without a hint of the bemusement he felt, taking a seat beside her and going so far as to grasp her hand comfortingly. Her reddened cheeks turned scorching as she averted her gaze.
Asplund moved to the surgical table beside the bed and retrieved a clear mask attached by a hose to a nearby tank. With steady hands, he placed the mask over Kallen's mouth and nose before turning the pump on.
"Count back from ten Miss Kozuki," he instructed calmly.
She began doing so, her face suddenly looking so fragile and vulnerable as the drug took effect. By the time she reached three, she was under. Lelouch gave her hand one last comforting squeeze before rising.
"No mistakes, Asplund. She's far too valuable to loose due to complications."
"Now, Your Highness, when have you ever known me to make a mistake?"
The control rig was the brain-child of Thomas Asplund and Reuben Ashford. It's base idea was a direct neural implant that harnessed the raw data-coordinating and synchronization power of the middle brain and used it for the express purpose of directly manipulating rigged Knightmares.
Essentially, control of the Knightmare would be directly inputted from the mind without the intervention of the body. To the pilot, they would be the Knightmare. Their eyes would be the factsphere. Their feet would be the landspeeders.
This would in theory circumvent the existing problem the Camelot project was having with their frame the Lancelot. The seventh-generation frame was leagues above a Sutherland, but they couldn't find a devicer able to pilot it. Even most Knights of the Round lacked the capability and sheer reflexes required to physically operate the manual controls while moving at the frame's immense speed—rendering its physical enhancements null and void.
With a control rig, any random pilot would be able to pilot any machine, regardless of its capabilities. An ace pilot like Kallen would become unstoppable as she simply operated on a level above any other devicer.
Jeremiah may have been an excellent pilot, but he'd been too enhanced before the idea had been conceived. If they added any more Meld-enhancements to his body, there was a genuine risk that his soul would cease recognizing it as his. Lelouch couldn't do it, as they had discovered long ago that Geass did not mix with Meld. For some reason, the combination of the two in a subject created rather... volatile results.
So in reality it was rather fortuitous that Miss Kozuki had come along when she did. It both created an effective and loyal asset that bridged the gap between Fulcrum and the soon-to-be Black Knights, and provided a convenient test subject for the control rig. It was very efficient.
Precisely Lelouch's brand of efficient.
That was how Kallen felt as she'd awoken in the hospital bed. She'd known what they were going to install, but she was still leagues from prepared for the sensation of having an implant in her brain that connected out to the back of her head.
After a week of recovery, she was ready to try it out. Instead of the masked orderlies like she'd expected, Zero himself had arrived to take her to the Knightmare bay. She was also allowed to traverse the facility without a blindfold. She still wasn't sure what to make of the show of trust. It felt good though, like she'd proven herself.
She nearly gasped when she saw the Knightmare, a Sutherland painted black and highlighted with red trimmings. The faceplate was painted white, giving it the impression of being in the same uniform all of Zero's people wore.
With the assistance of a small lift built into the frame, she climbed up into the cockpit. It matched the layout from the simulator she'd used three weeks ago. The only difference was a small port in the headrest that lined up perfectly with the jack in the back of her head. Gingerly, she reached up towards the jack and grasped the cable. It spun out on a spool, providing her ample length to connect it to the port.
Doing so was...
There was no word to describe the feeling. Nobody in human history has ever had to invent a word to describe the feeling of your consciousness suddenly being uplinked to a four ton war machine.
Instead of fighting it, she gave in and let her mind drift into the Knightmare frame.
She opened her eyes, and saw the Knightmare bay. Her gaze drifted down and she saw Zero, Mr. Orange, Ms. Black, and Dr. Blue looking up at her with inscrutable expressions on account of the masks.
With a shriek of tearing metal, she ripped herself off the docking port to which she was attached. Several hoses disconnected involuntarily and technicians quickly cut them off.
She was no longer piloting a Knightmare.
She was a Knightmare.
And she'd make sure the Purists learned that.