Chapter 16: Silence
"It's about damn time." I mumble as the casts comes off. "I can stop pretending to be crippled completely."
"You're going to want to take it easy on the physical activity." The doctor says as MT nods. "Get accustomed back to using both of your legs, Kazuma."
"I know. Can I get a PT routine, doc? I don't have time to be sitting around in a facility."
The doctor nods, mentioning something about handing it to MT later in the day before leaving the two of us alone.
"Glad to have you back."
"Not at tip top shape, though. Something's changed, hasn't it?" I ask, getting straight to the point.
"You don't beat around the bush, do you?"
"I only ask that because we seem understaffed, we took extra precautions when I came to meet you out here, and we're currently something-hundred miles beneath the Pacific Ocean for this instead of home base. What's the deal?"
"That's not for you to know." MT says, closing a folder. "Your mission doesn't depend on it, four-zero-three-four."
I narrow my eyes at her, even though I know it won't intimidate her. "I'm getting real tired of hearing that, MT."
"I know. But we've got to be extra careful."
"Can I at least know why?" MT is silent at my question. I think about it for a few seconds before everything clicks together. "We've been disavowed, haven't we? We're on our own again, right?"
She closes her eyes, turns away from me, and runs a hand through her blonde hair, which is missing its usual curls"I'm not authorized to divulge the status of our organization to you, four-zero-three-four, and you are not authorized to know. Don't question it any more and return to IS Academy, then continue with your mission."
"You've got to be kidding me."
"Does it sound like I'm joking about this?" She says, narrowing her eyes back at me.
The two of us glare into each other's eyes, neither of us breaking. You know you want me, need me on the field, MT. Tell me to suit up, point me at a target, and let's end this today.
"Four zero three four."
"I know what you're thinking. There's just one issue."
I remain silent, but nod to signal her to continue.
"There simply is no viable target."
I look into her eyes, analyze her facial expression, trying to find some hint of deception. I've known MT for long enough and if there was something she wanted to communicate to me in secret, she'd get it to me. But I find nothing on her face, just cold, passive stoicness. There's no hidden meanings behind it. It's the honest truth.
"Bide your time, four zero three four. There isn't any point to putting you in danger."
MT nods again after that. So that's…
"Can I trust you, MT?"
"Do you have much of a choice?"
I snort at this. MT being MT, I guess. But I trust her. Maybe too much. That wording implies that we've been compromised or at least MT suspects we have. Keeping us here and deploying us as needed would be putting us in danger. So has this entire shipment to IS Academy been a ploy?
A shuffle of sorts, to make it look like Hidden Hand is complying with their orders, while ultimately keeping their aces hidden in plain sight? Mounting a direct attack on IS Academy would be troublesome. Targeting any IS Academy student would definitely be troublesome, too, and doing it discreetly even more so. If that's the case, I can understand why MT kept—and still keeps—me in the dark about all of this.
"I suppose not."
"I'm glad you understand. On another note, the Black Rabbits have extended their thanks to you. There's a gift basket waiting for you, although I've taken the liberty of taking the wine from it, as you're still underage."
"They're quite happy you saved Black Alice. I hear she's relatively back on her feet, now."
"She's doing okay. Takes a little more to Orimura than I'd like, but I guess it only comes natural with the whole saving her thing."
I can see MT crack a smile. "Is that jealousy I hear? Didn't know you had a thing for her. Should I read out our fraternization policy to remind you?"
I roll my eyes at her rapid fire teasing.
"I just don't like Orimura in general. He's not a fighter, or at least, not yet. He's learning, but I'd still consider him a civilian for now. If it were up to me, he wouldn't have an IS."
"And that girl you've been training? What was her name, Nomida?"
"Well, she asked me to be trained. She knew what she wanted to be and what she needed to do. Orimura's just stumbling around, letting other people drag him along. Nomida's made a choice and is actively pursuing it. That's all the difference I need to separate the two. The drive to actively pursue what they need, rather than just moving place to place because you have to. If you want proof of the difference, I'm sure you've seen them both fight. If you put them on even ground technologically speaking, who do you think would win?"
"Are you sure that's all?" MT asks, completely ignoring my question.
I glance at MT, trying to get a read on what kind of answer she wants.
"I don't know what you're getting at."
"It's not like we don't have our own ears. I've heard you don't like Orimura because he's too civilian for you, yet the girls you hang around with, save for the one from Canada—"
"Reinhardt." I say, correcting her.
I realize my mistake too late, with MT giving me a slightly bigger grin, which I resist the urge to scowl at.
"—yes, Reinhardt, of course, are all about as civilian as him. Did you ever give any thought if there's any difference between them, Kazuma?"
It's not a question I've ever given much consideration to. One that I don't have the answer for immediately. But it only takes a few seconds…
That maybe he's a testament to my failure. The name Orimura, would it have gained any traction had I been the victor that day? Would the Infinite Stratos, something that centers around him and by extension his sister, would it have taken the world by storm had I beaten White Knight that fateful day? Maybe him being "too civilian" is all just a justification.
"Who knows?" I say, deciding that it's probably not a good idea to tell that to MT. It'd be a hell of a red flag. "Maybe it's just that the girls I've hung around have more steel in their spine than him. If you ask me, even if they're civilians before, they're a relatively competent fighting force now. Orimura still has a long ways to catch up to them."
I catch what looks to be an involuntary smile on MT's face before she quickly goes back to a neutral expression. Maybe she read me correctly, maybe she didn't.
"I see. Well, just don't take things too far, is all. Last thing I need to hear is you're unable to be called away for a mission due to being a parent."
I give a loud snort to that, making MT laugh.
"Yeah, well, I'll at least be having kids in the future."
MT laughs even harder at that, going for the door.
"Good to see you've at least developed a sense of humor while you've been at IS Academy. Continue your mission, four zero three four. I'll send someone to escort you out and bring you back to a drop-off point."
"Copy that. Four zero three four, returning to my mission at IS Academy, remaining on standby there."
MT silently nods at this before leaving the room, the door closing behind her. Alright, I guess that's acceptable. I'm not being told about all the movements as to make it seem like I'm docile. Or that I'm not going to be a threat, or am at least less of a threat for the time being. I suspect that if we have been disavowed, our "benefactors" will attempt to terminate us quietly.
If they can get rid of the rest of Hidden Hand's infrastructure, it's likely they'll try to pressure us into become formal US pilots as opposed to this cover Mei and I have been using. Two birds in one stone—take out a loose end, pick up some of the best talent we had to offer. Meanwhile, Hidden Hand benefits by placing us here. We can be called somewhat discreetly, IS Academy offers us a place of safety that makes it difficult for the US or any other foreign body of government to target us, and we get training on how to deal with the newest machines on the block.
In short, both parties that are vying over Mei and I want us at IS Academy. Keeping the illusion that Hidden Hand isn't actively communicating with us and feeding us information is a way to keep our benefactors from deciding we have to be taken out.
Of course, this all merits one very big question.
Just who is Hidden Hand saving us for?
"Interesting headline, hm?"
Charlotte—formerly Charles up until about a day ago—Dunois looked up from the newspaper she was reading at the train station bench, waiting for one Orimura Ichika. Instead, she found Mei Cayden, the pilot she suspected to be the legendary 4034. At the very least, she had been aware that Mei Cayden was affiliated with Hidden Hand—she just didn't know exactly who she was within it.
The French girl calmly folded up the newspaper as Mei sat down next to her, playing with her chestnut colored hair.
"Not in particular."
"Are you sure you should be going out so brazenly?"
"It's not like anyone'll easily recognize me. Besides, they probably won't care." The French girl then laughed a bit bitterly. "Maybe they'll even give me a free box of cookies when they say they're so sorry for what my father's did."
It had happened roughly when Weiss had been called away from his casts, that Charles Dunois officially revealed "himself" to be Charlotte Dunois, much to the uproar of IS Academy, and she had given her story as well. The French government was quickly forced to respond along with Abraham Dunois, who after issuing a public statement promptly disappeared from the public eye.
And not in the metaphorical sense, but in the literal sense, in that the man seemed to just vanish into thin air. Rumors and speculations were thrown about—some thought maybe the French government paid him off to disappear and say nothing more about the incident. Others were willing to entertain the thought that he was quietly killed off to prevent any more leaks.
But in the end, it didn't change the story from Charlotte Dunois, one that the media was so happy to jump on. A young woman telling about a man's "corruption" and "misdeeds", from the man's daughter no less. They were all so eager to eat it up, and eat it up they did.
All according to plan.
"I wouldn't say that. I'm sure there's plenty of paparazzi willing to interview you."
Charlotte snorted as Mei leaned back on the bench.
"I'm surprised you're not with your partner."
"Hospital visit, so he can finally start walking around again."
"I see. I wish him well on his recovery."
"I'll let him know."
The two of them remained silent for a few minutes before Cayden spoke.
"What is it?"
"I can tell you're a bit annoyed. All I can say is don't get angry at us. If there's anyone to be angry at, it's the people who forced this situation in the first place."
Mei stood up, stretching her arms as another train rolled in, but before she could continue, Charlotte interrupted her.
"You knew about this? I didn't think you would."
"Well, I have my suspicions, is all. Everything's just a little too well timed, isn't it? And we've worked together in the past, I know which side you're on."
This is a very dangerous girl. Charlotte thought to herself as Mei only smiled.
"But like I was saying, channel that towards taking out the people that forced this hand. There's no use getting mad your allies, after all. Anyways, seems my party's here. Talk to you later, Dunois-san."
With that, Mei waved goodbye as she ran towards the group of girls that Kazuma Weiss had been known to hang around.
Sometimes, Charlotte wondered which was the more dangerous of the "dynamic duo". If you were to ask each one, they'd both say the other was far more dangerous than themselves. But for Charlotte, at least Kazuma Weiss acted much like one would expect an operative of his nature. Cayden Mei, on the other hand… well, she a wolf hiding in sheep's clothing.
Even if they are technically our allies, I'll still have to remain vigilant. I wouldn't want to be in their crosshairs.
"Take me out shopping!" had been Mei's order.
I felt compelled to agree as it hadn't been just the two of us in a while. Although, I told Mei, hadn't she gone out shopping with the rest of the girls just a few days ago?
"Yes, but still!"
Not really a good argument, but I relented.
Besides, I wasn't exactly confined to a wheelchair anymore, and this made good exercise.
"Granted, I think this isn't so much of a leg exercise as it is an arm exercise." I mutter, getting a laugh from Mei who hands me yet another shopping bag. "Where the hell did you get this money, anyways?"
"I'll buy you something, okay~?"
"This is where all of my undershirts have been going, haven't they?"
Mei only laughs harder at this, if only because I'm only carrying two bags. Sure, we get a monthly stipend, but I'm just giving her a hard time.
"It seems all your time in the chair has made you soft, Weiss. We're going to fix that today!"
"Yeah, yeah." I mutter, looking around. It's a 'peaceful' time at the mall. That is to say, there's nothing out of the ordinary. I can't say it's "different", if only because I wasn't raised in a time when the IS wasn't the "dominant" culture. Taken into the badlands at a young age, raised for the most part there, it's kind of obvious that I wouldn't "know" what it was like beforehand.
It's just that there's this burning itch that you get in your gut when you see something's wrong. Maybe it's because the IS culture never really invaded Hidden Hand. The way we operated, it was always equal. Everyone was just a rank, and that's what determined superiority. At other times it was specialty, experience, or whatever was the necessary quality at the time.
I suppose that's why it annoys me so much to be seeing these women yelling at random men to do things for them. Like if a poorly stacked display of shirts falls over, a woman passing by can tell a man he should pick it up. If he doesn't, he'll surely have the mall guards called on him. No questions asked. No fair trial. No chance to explain himself.
In fact, it reminds me a little bit of the badlands.
Like even if your line is pushed in and you're retreating, your superiors will tell you to hold the line regardless. If you retreat, you'll be killed; if you don't, you'll be killed by the overwhelming force of your enemy. No questions asked. No fair trial. No chance to explain yourself.
"Live strong." I say to one such man, putting a hand on the shoulder of a woman who's currently harassing some guy who just happened to be passing by. "Go."
I don't even flinch as the woman in question—I would estimate to be twenty eight, of Japanese descent, black hair brown eyes—slaps my hand off of her right shoulder as the man escapes.
"Who do you think you are?!"
"Just a concerned citizen, ma'am." I say calmly, my hands falling down to my sides. "Good day."
She seems shocked in the next moment, and then she telegraphs her intent to slap me. I drop one of Mei's bags, as it's only clothing, onto the ground and catch her by the wrist, squeezing tightly enough for it to be mildly uncomfortable, but not hurting.
"Excuse me ma'am, but I seem to have caught your open palm heading for my head. You wouldn't want to be accused of assault, would you?"
"I'm sure if you shout for the guards, I'll be one hundred percent helpful. In fact, maybe I should suggest that they take a look at the security camera footage, just to be doubly sure. And I'd be willing to turn over the recording device I have in my jacket, just so they know I didn't actually say anything to aggravate you."
Of course, I don't have such a device on me, but I do have a juice box that at least looks like it could be a rectangular device such as a phone or other recording media which, when in my pocket, and with the right suggestion, would make people believe that I do have one. But at the moment, that's not a bluff she seems to want to call.
"I'm going to release you now. Please refrain from committing assault. I'm sure it won't look good on your surely unblemished record, ma'am."
At that point, I let go of her wrist. She glares at me before running away. I pick up my bags and simply go about my business, not calling attention to it.
Indeed, sometimes all it takes is to lead by example. I might not make much of an impact today, but maybe these people here will reflect on it in the future.
"Good job." Mei says as I find her, flashing a thumbs up. "I saw what happened."
"You didn't interfere?"
"And ruin your glorious moment? Nah, count me out. Bag."
I only sigh as she hands me another bag. It's still pretty light, but this means she should be able to carry it easily. But whatever, I guess.
The rest of the day is fairly uneventful, though I pick up some swim trunks along with two fishing poles. I'll probably buy any bait when I actually get to the beach, rather than worrying about buying it here and remembering to pack it later.
Mei and I quickly check our surroundings. The source of the voice seems to be from a woman, early forties late thirties. Japanese as well. She's dressed in what I would call a "business casual" suit and followed by a man roughly her age as well, dressed in similar fashion.
"Can we help you, ma'am?" I ask, gesturing for Mei to get behind me. I quickly scan around the area, looking for additional threats. This might be a set up to isolate us. The flow of traffic in the mall doesn't seem to be artificially altered right now. I don't see anyone standing around strangely. While I talk, I'm sure Mei's scanning the area as well. She'll let me know if she spots anything.
She hands me a flier. I'm about to make a remark when I realize what it is.
One of those "What would they look like now" posters. I thought these were for kids who went missing, but I suppose that it wouldn't be hard to pass a picture of a child, and with technology we have today, figure out what they might look like now.
The only thing is… this picture looks a lot like me. And of course, the name.
Kazuma Makoto. With my family name written with the same exact characters as well.
"When we saw your face on the news, during that first incident at that Academy, we had to know… Would you please come with us?" The man says. It almost feels like looking into an older face of myself, albeit without as many war scars as I thought I'd have. "Just for a DNA test. It won't take too long, I promise you—"
"You have the wrong guy." I say immediately.
It's highly likely that I am your son. It's highly likely you've been searching for me for a very long time. It's likely that this will make you incredibly upset. For that, I apologize.
But I can't let this get in the way.
"I mean, the last name matches, but it's not exactly uncommon." I say with an air of detachment. "Was your kid born here?"
"Um, sorry to tell you two this, but I was born in America." I say, spitting out my cover story. "Sorry."
I then hand back the paper to the woman who almost immediately starts sobbing. The man pulls out a business card and holds it out.
"If… you change your mind."
"Why would I change about my mind on who my parents were?" I ask with a bit of a derisive laugh. Please, just go away.
...if you keep asking me, I might say yes. So just go away. That life isn't something I can be allowed to go to right now. Or ever. It's not a life I can be asked to lead. But do I want to lead it?
A life where I didn't have to constantly be on guard. A life where I had "normal" friends, "normal" relationships, "normal" worries. Not thinking about what the next big threat is. Not thinking about whether everything I've been tasked to protect will be destroyed tomorrow. Not thinking about if I'm still good enough to fight, to be Sea Glass when needed.
Wouldn't that be...
"Weiss, just take it so we can go, these people are kind of scary… plus we're attracting attention…" Mei says, gesturing to how people are stopping to look at the display. Her voice has the added effect of snapping me out of my thoughts. Ha… thank God.
"Alright, fine, fine. Don't expect a call, though." I say, taking the card. Kazuma Sochiro, huh? Guess that matches, too. "Good luck."
We hurry out of the mall, trying not to make any additional fuss. The train back is fairly empty, save for a few teenagers going around to other places like we were.
"Mei?" I ask as she leans her head on my shoulder.
"Those people were…"
"Yeah." I say, deciding not to talk about my thoughts, though I would assume Mei can read me like a book.
"...I didn't need to. And it'd only complicate things." I mumble back.
"What are you going to do with the card?"
"Probably throw it away. Couldn't find a trashcan to toss it in on the way here."
"Lemme see it."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"I was just curious, really." Mei says I as shift around in the seat, pulling it out of my wallet. She looks at the card for a few seconds. Not like there's anything much to look at his. Just his company, his name, mailing address at work, email, and phone. "Right. Guess there's nothing special."
"What, were you hoping for some secret watermark?"
"But you know, if we're successful, maybe you could, you know."
"I doubt we'll ever really be done." I say with an air of finality.
"What if they wanted you to be done?"
The silence that follows tell me everything I need to know about myself.
"Who's 'they', exactly?"
"I think you already know who I'm referring to, Weiss."
"As if they'd ever." I say, getting up as I hear the announcement for our stop coming up. "Besides, making sure we're on the top of our game is still the utmost important thing. I won't run away. Not from anything and not with anyone."
"Alright. But hey, Weiss."
"What is it, Mei?"
"If my, you know… come for me, too, will you do the same for me?"
So she knew I was faltering.
This entire question is a trap. A test. Something to check what my thoughts are.
And it is a grave of my own making, too. I've tried to shield and protect Mei. I made a promise to myself that she wouldn't be stained with blood like I was. And so perhaps, she never became as darkened as I have. So she'll falter just as much as me.
And now she wants to know what would happen if things were reversed. Would I be willing to let Mei go? Could I let her… finally be absolved of everything? I know Mei would never sell out Hidden Hand, so she'd definitely make a good cover story that would let her go back to society. Or would I condemn her to stay with me?
This is also testing what I'd do for her in another sense. Mei knows that I want to stay with Hidden Hand. But she's wanted me to have that "normal" life, too. She knew I was faltering and I know she's a smart girl, she's probably figured out a lot more about Hidden Hand's situation than me. If we really wanted to, Mei and I could disappear from the face of the globe. Or we could try something to put us into a better position to have a "normal" life. And she knew I was close to wanting it. Close to doing something to push me towards that.
...and yet, knowing that it would've been a future she wanted, pulled me back. So, now she's asking if I would do the same…
Please, put up with my stubbornness a little longer, Mei.
"Do you mean tomorrow, or in the distant future, when whatever's going on has long passed?"
"That's unfair." Mei says with a small pout.
"I guess we'll just have to see. But I think if it comes to it, I'll return the favor."
I try to glance at Mei's face to gauge her reaction, but her expression betrays nothing.
"We're a package, after all. Don't let me go without you. And likewise, don't go without me. Until the end."
Mei gives me a small smile. "I'll be with you until the very end, then."
"But, if you ever change your mind, I'll support you too." Mei says as we get off and start making the walking portion of our trip back to the Academy. "I'm your partner, Weiss, and well, wherever you go, I go."
"And wherever you go, I will go too, Mei."
So as long as you stay with Hidden Hand, so will I, Mei. And that's why it's so important I don't let myself become weak. If I falter, then so will you, and I don't know if we can afford that.
I don't know if the world can afford that.
"At ease, all of you." Meusel said as she entered the operations room. "Are we ready for our preliminary test?"
"Yes, ma'am." The head of the operation, a nameless tech, said as they pulled up a small live video feed for them to watch.
On the feed, US IS Pilot Natasha Faires was preparing for another test with their latest IS, Silvero Gospel. Little did they know what was going to happen in the next few days. Little too, did the US know that Phantom Task had infiltrated their systems, waiting for the moment to strike. Of course, they were not alone in this regard. It just so happened that the US would make a convenient piece to play for their plans.
"How's our progress coming along?"
"...slowly, ma'am. Our mole is having difficulty getting information and data out, so—"
"Postpone the operation, then."
"I won't have us be working with a flawed test. We're only going to get one shot at this, and so we better make it count. How long do you think you need?"
"Maybe a week, maybe less, ma'am."
"That's acceptable. This is going to form a core backbone to our plan, after all."
Remote control of an IS. Unmanned units. Things that if they were possible, would radically shift the paradigm of IS technology. But more importantly, if control could be usurped from a pilot—well, to turn an enemy's strength against himself was the best way to win. Such things were thought to be possible with the AC, but no one had ever put enough research into it.
Theoretically, AMS didn't require physical controls due to the direct neural mapping. But there was a cost. The speed at which an integrated AMS unit could send commands to the physical units of the AC was so much faster than having to send the data from the AMS unit, route it through networks, and reach the end-target AC all in time. In short, there was really no reason to do research into it.
Unless your last name was Lisarene, but there were only two organizations knew of her research. And it was currently forming the basis for Phantom Task's upcoming test on Silvero Gospel.
"Are you sure, ma'am?"
"I'm sure. What about Dunoa?"
"We failed to take him, ma'am."
"...I see. A single operative?"
"No, ma'am. Well, it's possible, but the strike team, or the remnants of it said that there had to have been at least six people with the amount of force and efficiency displayed."
"What brought you to ask, ma'am, with all due respect?"
"A hunch." Meusel said as she turned away and started to exit the operations room. "Let me know when we have all the data for our test on Silvero Gospel. I don't want anyone pulling an itchy trigger finger and ruining this for all of us."
Wow hello holy shit I'm so sorry this took so long, but life comes at you fast. Graduation, an anime convention that I gave a talk at, classes, and a lot of things in life. Holy shit, yeah, uh, not much to say other than that. Sorry about that, I kept saying I should post it but then something else would come up, and I'd forget to post lol Short chapter as well, but just like, I really wanted to just set the stage for next time.
Oh well, I guess it's up now. You all know what's coming up next time. I've waited quite a while to reach this point, so yeeeeeees.
Ah, right, before I forget, REVIEW REPLY TIME, GOOOO!
Kerlongsj Evert Orlejov: Ah, this actually is why Kazuma had his talk with MT at the beginning, I inserted it there as a bit of explanation for the difference he sees between Ichika and the girls. Of course, Kazuma is biased, so you know, you can take his words with a grain of salt, haha. He might just be telling himself things to justify his actions to himself. Anyways, thanks for reading!
Anyways, not much to say. Catch you guys all next time!