Time: Seven years after Project A-Ko Final.

Place: Graviton City, Empire of Japan

Snow. A combination of two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, with a temperature reduced to below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. It was crystallized into a rough hexagonal shape, with a variable lifespan, depending on location, outside temperature, and time of year.

Snow. A paradox of nature. Though turning to water when melted, enough of it could transform anyplace into an unfriendly desert of unending white and unyielding cold. As it did to Siberia, Antarctica, and the North Polar Ice Cap.

Snow. A shower of sugar from the sky, frozen stardust falling through puffed clusters of gray laundry lint. The prime ingredient in making snowmen: the prerequisite material for sledding and skiing: the herald for Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere.

It fell in a brief, silent dusting over the whole of southern Japan that November evening. Though half-covered in the gray gauze of the storm clouds, the full moon poured its treasure of silver light upon Graviton City and its prefecture. The city slumbered underneath a drowsy sky, the late-evening commuter traffic sparse that night. The commuter trains also lacked passengers, their cabs almost empty of shoppers and second-shift workers returning home.

In the distance, a soft, mournful sigh of "Hok-kai-do!" blended in with the quiet gusts of wind that rose and fell with the storm's progress.

The Spaceship Hotel and Conference Center, once a mighty star cruiser of a transgalactic kingdom, shut off the lights to its restaurants and shops early. Customers went home unexpected; no one seemed interested in eating out. Many guests returned to their rooms for an early sleep. Even the vigilant Security and Maintenance Teams, former warriors and engineers, were relaxed in the face of an uneventful night.

A cry of "Shi-ka-ku!" drifted with the gusts, gentling to a breeze.

Graviton City's sprawling suburbs were still, untraveled streets sleeping as flurries landed on pavements and lawns. Streetlights seemed eerie and bleak, snowflakes falling past them faster with the plodding minutes.

A wail of "Hon-shu!" fluttered into the air.

The mansion of the Daitokuji family, the newest member of the New World Order clique, stood grave and solemn under the tumult of dandruff from the sky. The fountains slept, their statues like gargoyles of old, keeping watch over the complex.

The name "Kyu-shu!", in lamentation, rose into the lonely night.

An open-air gazebo, added to the complex seven years before, had five shivering figures under its roof. Twelve blazing torches surrounded them inside it, lending more light than heat. Four of them wore dark, hooded robes. Three of the four stood in the rear, each carrying a long flaming torch in her hand. Towering above the rest, the fourth held a silver box in her hands, and standing behind the fifth and central figure. Dressed in a thick white woolen robe, lined with ermine, she knelt before a huge statue by a far wall.

"Cee-ee-ko!" the figure barked, in time with the sound of rubber smacking flesh.

"Cee-ee-ko!" With the second slap, the three torchbearers ran behind the statue, holding the flames above its head.

"CEE-EE-KOH!" With a third and louder slap, the flames were lowered over the head, making the painted yellow curls and flower jewelry above the ears glisten.