What has gone before:
Crystal Tokyo was destroyed in the year 3478. Civilisation fell; a dark age began. Now, the year 4200 is a time of renaissance, and the city of Third Tokyo is defended by a new generation of Senshi. Some of them are old faces, reborn yet again. Others are newcomers. But all of them are in trouble—because the enemy that annihilated Crystal Tokyo was never defeated. And it is waiting for them…
In recent chapters:
Itsuko (now calling herself Seki) returns to the Olympus to retrieve the sacred fire. 'S' Division are waiting for her and she is arrested. The Senshi come to the rescue, but 'S' Division have a prototype anti-Senshi weapon and Jupiter is badly hurt. Then a pack of vitrimorphs attack the office, and are only destroyed when Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Kamen finally arrive. After the battle the ghost of Queen Serenity appears and speaks to each of the Senshi; she also erases all memories of the incident from the 'S' Division group. The Senshi finally work out that the Council is their enemy, and Sailor Moon leads them all in an attack on 'M' Division (where the anti-Senshi prototype was developed). There, while the other Senshi cause a lot of impressive but ultimately ineffectual damage, Mars and Mercury meet M (or Emma), an elderly woman who tells them she is the "real" research department at 'M' Division. Telling Mercury and Mars to leave, Emma erases all of 'M' Division's computers and then mysteriously vanishes herself. As the Senshi retreat, Sailor Uranus privately admits to Moon that she belongs to the Church of Serenity; and when Iku arrives home, she is met by a cold, abusive parent…
Sailor Moon 4200
By Angus MacSpon
Based on "Sailor Moon" created by Naoko Takeuchi
(I Love You I Hate You)
"She said that?" demanded Bendis. "Queen Serenity said that? Really?"
Beth stifled yet another yawn, giving the cat a sour look. She had had far too little sleep to be able to deal with a hyperactive cat this morning. "Yes," she said glumly. "Apparently I really am Lady Aino reborn." The idea gave her a strange feeling: as if a great piece of her life had been torn away and now belonged to someone else. She did not much like it.
"No, no. The other bit. She said she's watched me? Really?"
Beth started to regret ever mentioning that she'd met the ghost of Queen Serenity last night. She finished buttoning her shirt and said, "Yes…she said that too. But, Bendis—"
"Ha!" the cat exclaimed, and leaped forward to pounce on an unsuspecting pillow. "Take that, Artemis!"
Beth sighed and said, "You know, you're going to have to patch things up with him someday."
"Nope," said Bendis gaily. "Not gonna happen. Who cares about him, anyway? Don't you know what this means? I'm official!" She celebrated by sinking down on her haunches, tail waving slowly, and then murdering the pillow once more.
Oh, no. Is she using her claws again? I have to sleep on that.
Beth badly wanted to talk to someone, but clearly Bendis was no longer listening, and this morning she lacked the energy to keep trying. Yawning again, she gave the conversation up as a bad job and went out to the kitchen for breakfast.
Her mother tried to talk to her about something as she ate, but Beth did not pay much attention. Her mind was on other things.
Later, she went out running in an attempt to clear her mind. A couple of kids were playing right outside her front gate, and she nearly tripped over one of them as she left the house. Annoyed, she started to round on them, but they simply fell back, watching her. Beth gave them a puzzled look, then gave up and started to jog away. They had been scrawling with chalk on the pavement outside her gate, she noticed with a grimace.
She passed by Tomoe Park and grinned as she remembered being there a couple of weeks before, fantasising about chasing birds. Then her grin faded and she came to a stop, wiping sweat from her forehead. Had it been her back then, thinking that? Or had it been Aino Minako? Was Lady Aino the sort of woman who had…well, chased birds?
She started to run again, vaguely aware that she was being silly. All the same, what did she actually know about Lady Aino? According to the 'Queen Serenity and her Senshi' anime she had been leader of the Senshi, an all-star international athlete, and an ace mecha pilot. But in Beth's dream last night, Minako had told her that the anime makers might have changed a couple of minor details.
Maybe she ought to finally read that 'Secret Warriors' book that Bendis had been nagging her about. Maybe next week, when the holidays—
She ran into something solid, head-first, as she rounded a corner. The breath was jolted from her lungs. She stumbled backwards, clutching her nose, barely able to see for a moment. When she finally looked up, she saw a young man dressed in jogging shorts, sprawled on the ground. He was holding his own nose, and looking up at her accusingly.
Oops, she thought. Out loud she said, "Sorry! Are you all right?"
He removed his hand from his nose, inspected it, and finally lost the scowl. "It's okay," he said, climbing to his feet. "My fault too, I expect."
He was a Claver like her, she noticed. Tall, lean, dark-haired, about her own age, with a bit of an accent. Rather good-looking, in a smooth kind of way…no. Make that quite good-looking.
"No harm done," she said. Her nose still throbbed, but it wasn't actually bleeding. A little hesitantly, she asked, "Where were you headed?"
"Oh—" He paused, then gave a funny little shrug. "Just out and about, really. Seeing what I could see."
"Hah. I just had to get away from my cat," she said without thinking. She saw his confusion and added hastily, "And anyway, it's too nice a day to stay in."
"Yeah, it is." He cocked an eyebrow at her, and grinned. "Which Enclave?"
That was a common question, from one Claver to another. "Dunedin," she said. "My great-grandparents. You?"
"Alaskay—originally," he said, and laughed as if at some private joke. "I just came here a few months ago." He shook his head and took a deep breath. It did interesting things to his chest. "Anyway, I should keep moving. Good-bye then, Miss Cat."
"Hey!" Beth said indignantly; but she could not quite conceal her smile at the title. And then, quite suddenly, she made up her mind. She did not want to spend the rest of the day alone, trying to cope with a solicitous family and a hyperactive Bendis, and not knowing who she was any more. She wanted to feel…normal.
It didn't hurt, of course, that he was nice-looking. And polite. And handsome. And…
And he wasn't Eitoku, and that was good.
She cocked an eye at him and asked, "Could you use some company?" He looked startled, and she smiled back at him. There had been a time when she would never have spoken out like that. Well, not any more. Maybe it was the Minako in her.
After all, if it turned out that she was actually Aino Minako, a cute guy was nothing more than her just desserts. And if she was only plain old Beth, well, didn't Beth deserve something too?
He gave her another look, frankly appraising. Then he smiled again. "Why not?" he said. "Which way were you going?"
She pointed, and they started to run. He was taller than her, and she had to push a little harder to keep pace with him, but that was all right. She didn't feel tired any longer. She had all the energy in the world.
"I'm Beth," she called out to him, a little breathlessly, and added, "You?"
He glanced at her over his shoulder, and she could have sworn that the sunlight was dancing in his eyes. He answered, "Mark."
Ochiyo slept in. If she had been at home her parents would have woken her, but this was the Olympus and she could sleep as late as she liked. And it had been a long night.
When she did wake, she sat up and blinked around the bedroom, wondering where Miyo was. The whole apartment was strangely quiet, actually, and something was missing: all of Miyo's belongings were gone. Had they been burgled again? Had the Masked Avenger come back? She opened her mouth to call out—
Then she remembered. Miyo was Makoto now, and she and Itsuko (no, Seki) had had to leave. Ochiyo had, rather cheekily, spent the night in an empty apartment. Well, empty for a while, anyway.
Oh, and she—Aizawa Ochiyo—was Sailor Moon. She had known it for a few days already, but still, that one was going to take a little getting used to.
She got out of bed and padded down the corridor to the bathroom. As she showered, she thought about the previous night: the battle, the discussions that had followed, and the raid on 'M' Division. She wondered what the government would make of the mess they had left, and grinned.
Then there was the matter of her new companions. It helped that she knew some of them already—and at last she finally knew why Miyo (no, Makoto) had come to live with Seki. That had been puzzling her for a long time. Though trying to remember to think of them by their new names was getting quite annoying.
And there were the others: the absurd Dhiti and the extravagant Beth, apparently competing for which of them was going to be the team clown. The odd, silent Iku, who gave the impression of being afraid all the time, but who hadn't hesitated to risk her life saving Ochiyo's. And Suzue, who believed that Ochiyo was the daughter of a goddess. That had been oddly affecting, as a matter of fact: seeing her classmate bow down before her, in all sincerity. Ochiyo wasn't sure how she was going to handle the situation, just yet, but she would probably know when the moment came. She usually did.
Oh, and there was the mysterious Tuxedo Kamen. Who had been romancing her in secret for a long time now—and who last night had kissed her, and gotten her all hot and sweaty. And…who turned out to be her father from a past life, reborn. That one was a little disturbing, to tell the truth, and she tightened her lips at the memory. She gathered that he probably didn't remember who he was, and probably thought that she was his dead wife; but all the same, if he tried that again she was going to kick his balls up past his ears.
She stepped out of the shower and dressed, wrapping her hair in a towel. So: over the course of a few days she had learned that she was the heir to a long-dead kingdom; acquired a team of Senshi; and now the government of Japan was trying to kill her with giant crystalline monsters. There was a hell of a beginning, if you liked.
Wasn't there something missing from this whole scenario, though? Under her breath, she muttered to herself, "If I'm Sailor Moon, I thought the position was supposed to come with a cat."
Still pensive, she went down to the end of the corridor and looked through the door into Itsuko's—no, Seki's office. By daylight, it was even more of a wreck than she had remembered from the night before. She had been half-hoping it was all a dream.
She shook her head and turned to go, and then paused as an odd detail caught her eye.
Among all the broken furniture, crystal fragments, papers and other litter that strewed the floor, there were what looked like piles of rags here and there. Ochiyo hesitated, then went into the room and looked at one of them. To her surprise, it looked like the remains of a man's jacket and shirt. But it was ripped almost to shreds, as if it had been inflated like a balloon until it burst. As if the wearer had suddenly…enlarged.
The idea made her think of the night before. She had not been present when the vitrimorphs arrived, but there had been four of them. And—she glanced around the room again. There were four piles of tattered clothes.
"Huh," she said to herself. On impulse, she rummaged through the clothes and checked the pockets. Who knew what a vitrimorph might have been carrying?
To her surprise, she found something in the jacket's inside pocket. A little mock-leather wallet. She flipped it open and found an ID card. KASAMATSU AMANE, it said. Apparently a member of something called the Technical Enforcement Network.
None of it meant anything to her, but the others might know more. She tucked the wallet into her own pocket, glanced around the office once more, and then, with a faint shudder, took a few of the crystal shards as well. Wiping her hand on the seat of her pants, she hurried out the office.
Once the wreckage was out of sight, she realised that she was hungry. She went through to the kitchen and helped herself to breakfast. That made everything feel better. When she was done, she started to leave the dishes; but then she had a sudden mental image of Seki's expression. Making a face, she carefully cleaned up after herself, and found herself wondering if she ought to re-stock the pantry.
All right, so sleeping here had been a little presumptuous. True, Seki hadn't actually said anything after the battle last night; but still, with more than a little regret, Ochiyo decided that she had probably better not do it again.
Anyway, she thought, if Seki-san is really on the run, the police will probably seal the place up.
She started getting ready to go, reflecting that if she couldn't sleep here, then she was going to have to stop working late shifts at the gymnasium. It was a pity, she had quite enjoyed them; but it couldn't be helped. But it did mean that the duty rosters would need to be rearranged; she would have to mention it to—
Her thoughts came to a sudden halt. Talk to whom? Who was in charge at the Olympus now, anyway? With its owner mysteriously vanished, what would happen to the gymnasium, and all the people who worked there? Who would take over?
Please, please, let it not be Yukimi. Feeling somewhat disgruntled, she went down to catch the bus home.
The trip was just long enough to make her feel sleepy again, and she was yawning as she went inside. The house was quiet, but she could hear a chopping sound from the kitchen. She dropped off her satchel in her room and headed toward the sound.
Her mother looked up from slicing vegetables and remarked, "You're late." The air in the kitchen was warm, and something smelled delicious. In the background, the radio played softly.
"I slept in," Ochiyo said, and yawned again. "Extra-late night last night."
Aizawa Nozomi raised her eyebrows. "These late nights of yours bother me. It's not so bad when it's on the weekend, but—"
"Yeah, I know, I know." Ochiyo opened the pantry door and started to rummage. She'd already had breakfast, but the smells in the kitchen were making her hungry again…and there was always room for a little more. "Actually, I may have to stop the late-night shifts."
One of the cake tins was suggestively heavy. She opened it, and made a face. "Oh, yecch. Carrot cake, again?"
"Some of us like it, dear. Why do you have to stop the late-night shifts? Is it a problem with that girl you have to share a room with?"
Ochiyo had planned out an excuse during the bus ride home, but now, suddenly sure that it would be a mistake, she abandoned it. She put the cake tin down and said, "No, not exactly. Actually, Itsuko-san and Miyo-san weren't there. Nobody at the Olympus knows where they've gone; it's like they've disappeared. The police have been looking for them." Almost as an afterthought she added, "Why not chocolate cake for a change?"
"The police?" Nozomi looked up, startled. "My goodness. Do they think they've been murdered?"
"I don't know, I wasn't there when they searched the apartment. Yukimi-san says she thinks Itsuko-san is a criminal on the run!" Ochiyo snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure she knows what's going on."
"Don't be silly; I've met Itsuko-san. I expect it's just a misunderstanding, dear." Her mother went back to her chopping, paused, and looked up again. "Wait a moment, you spent the night there when Itsuko-san wasn't even home?"
"And when the police had been searching the apartment?"
"All right, so maybe it wasn't the best idea!" Ochiyo retorted. "But what else was I supposed to do? It's not like I don't have permission to be there. Itsuko-san gave me the door code and everything."
"I hardly think this was what she had in mind, though," replied Nozomi. "Really, Ochiyo! What if the police had come again this morning? You could have been in a lot of trouble." Her brow wrinkled. "In fact, if Itsuko-san really is in some kind of trouble, you might be better off leaving the gymnasium for good."
The girl stared at her. "Quit my job? I don't want to do that!"
"Hmm. We'll see. Maybe I should call 'P' Division and see if I can find anything out. That Lieutenant Nishihara is nice and friendly."
Ochiyo was beginning to regret ever opening her mouth. "But—" she began. Then she stopped. She had a feeling that anything she said now was just going to make things worse.
Besides, from what she'd heard last night, the police weren't likely to know much anyway. She hoped.
Nozomi gave her a quizzical look. "You still look tired, dear. Did you get enough sleep?" Her eyes narrowed as she studied Ochiyo. "Just how late a night did you have, anyway? You didn't just sit up watching the viddy, with nobody else around, did you?"
"No!" Ochiyo protested, a little too fast.
"I see. Well, that's settled: no more late shifts for you, young lady. Not until Itsuko-san gets back and gets all this cleared up. She's a sensible one, at least." Nozomi sniffed. "Though it's high time she settled down and started a family. That woman isn't getting any younger."
Ochiyo thought about this, and giggled.
"Now, why don't you go and get some more sleep? I'll give you a call when lunch is ready."
"Okay, okay." She yawned. "I guess I wouldn't mind a nap."
"That's good." Nozomi returned to her chopping board and went back to dissecting a pumpkin for vegetable soup. As Ochiyo started to leave, her mother added, almost casually, "I don't make chocolate cake very often because you'd just eat it all and get fat, dear. The rest of us wouldn't get a crumb."
Ochiyo whirled around. Her mother's eyes were still on the pumpkin she was slicing, but she was smiling faintly. Ochiyo stared at her for a second. Then she went over to the bench and hugged the woman. "Thanks, Mom."
Nozomi's smile widened, just a fraction. "Sleep well, dear."
Ochiyo released her and started out the door again. As she went, the song on the radio ended and a voice began, "Now the eleven o'clock news headlines. Last night, a group of vandals broke into 'M' Division offices—"
Dhiti woke up to find Artemis sitting on the foot of her bed, staring at her. Her eyes snapped wide open. Over the last week she had gotten some practise in reading the cat's expression, and the glare he was levelling at her now did not look friendly.
She thought about throwing her pillow at him and going back to sleep. Instead she pushed back the covers and sat up. "Hi," she said, a little muzzily, and yawned. "Did I do something wrong, or did you get up the wrong side of the kitty litter today?"
"Wrong?" he responded stiffly. "Let me see. You go running off in the middle of the night to save Itsuko and don't come back for hours. But that's okay; why would I be worried? I'm just a cat. No need to call me up and let me know what's happening." He glared at her. "Then when you do get home, you've obviously been in serious action, and you've got Iku with you and she's been hurt…but there's still no time to say a word to the cat, oh no—"
"Okay, okay!" said Dhiti. They'd had this conversation before. She rubbed her eyes, sighing, and went on, "Just keep it down, will you? My parents are downstairs. Look, we were busy last night! I never had a chance to call you, that's all."
A moment too late, she remembered that that wasn't exactly true. There had been a few points where she could have called him…if she'd remembered. But she'd been a little distracted; and besides—
"Hey, wait a minute," she said suddenly. "How am I supposed to call you, anyway? You can't exactly answer a commset."
Artemis rolled his eyes. "I have a communicator, of course. Now, can we have done with the Twenty Questions, and talk about what happened last night?"
"You have a communicator? How come I've never seen it?" Dhiti blinked. "Come to think of it, where do you even keep it—? Oh, all right." She yawned again, climbed out of bed, and gave him a quick summary of the night's events as she pulled on her clothes. Artemis primly kept his back turned while she dressed, but his ears were pricked up and his tail held high as he listened.
"Serenity was there?" he demanded at one point, incredulous.
"No, my mistake, it was the Ghost of Christmas Past. He, the Easter Bunny and the Midsummer Mujina wanted to invite us to a clambake." Dhiti rolled her eyes. "Yes, she was there! Sort of. More like her ghost, I think."
Artemis was no longer listening. His ears and tail were drooping; he looked as if he had just been struck in the face by a worldful of bad news. As if—well, as if someone had died. In a low, dismal voice, he said, "She was there…and I missed her? Oh, Serenity…"
"Yeah, and I didn't even get her autograph," retorted Dhiti without a trace of sympathy. She was far too short of sleep this morning; if there was one thing she was not prepared to tolerate, it was a maudlin cat. "C'mon, what do you expect? You couldn't've come with me; you'd never have been able to keep up on foot, and I can't just go carrying you around my neck or something. It'd…it'd look unnatural."
He shot her a mutinous look. "Minako used to do it," he muttered.
"Uh—right." Dhiti decided to ignore that. She eyed him for a moment and said, "You could just turn human, you know. You'd be able to get around a lot of places a cat can't."
Artemis glanced away. "I…don't do that any more."
"Turn human." He looked back at her, but would not meet her eyes. "Not since Luna died. I…don't even like to think of it any more."
Dhiti paused, remembering his story of how the black Moon Cat had died: in womanly form, helping defend the Crystal Palace. Then something occurred to her. "Wow. You've…been pining for her, haven't you? Both of them, Luna and Lady Aino. For the last seven hundred years."
"Pining?" Artemis gave her a suspicious look. "What are you trying to say?"
"Oh, nothing. I'm just, ah…struck by synchronicity, that's all." Dhiti grinned. "You know, you ought to talk to Seki-san about this. She might have some surprising insights into your problem."
"Sometimes," the cat said frostily, "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Who is Seki-san?"
"Oh, right. Let's see, now…" She thought for a moment and then went on, narrating the events of the evening before. In the spirit of pure mischief, she left out Itsuko's part in the interviews with the queen: her confession of love for Serenity, and her later impassioned defence of her feelings. Let the cat find out for himself; it might do him some good. Pining, forsooth!
(Anyway, she thought privately, she was not sure she could do justice to that part of the story. The sight of the stern, haughty Itsuko on her knees before the queen, crying, had been…kind of moving. Dhiti decided that she wanted to think about that one a bit more, privately, before she talked to anyone else about it.)
She breezed through much of the rest of what had happened, but slowed down again when she got to the raid on 'M' Division. That needed more explanation, to tell him how Iku had been hurt and why the girl had spent the rest of the night in Dhiti's room, until Dhiti took her back home early in the morning.
When she finished at last, she waited for the cat's response. None came for some time. Artemis sat on the bed in an almost formal posture, eyes closed, completely motionless except for the tip of his tail, which twitched back and forth as he thought.
Eventually he spoke. "So," he said, "you raided 'M' Division, destroyed a couple of offices, and smashed up all the equipment in a workshop. You also beat up some security guards, broke into a top-secret lab, and prompted the scientist there to erase all of 'M' Division's computer records. Is that what you're saying?"
"Umm…" Dhiti hesitated. "More or less. But when you put it like that—"
"Tell me," he interrupted, "what did Itsu—no, what did, ah, Seki have to say about this plan?"
"Oh, she was against it. She thought we ought to at least do some more investigation first. Uh…why?"
"Because," the cat said, his voice rising, "it's comforting to know that at least one person last night managed to keep a vestige of sanity!"
Dhiti stared at him blankly. "You don't think it was a good idea?"
Artemis took a deep breath. "No," he ground out, "I do not think it was a good idea. Even supposing you're right that the Serenity Council are our enemy, do you have any idea how this is going to look? The Senshi are supposed to be heroes! Not petty vandals!"
"What did you think you were doing there? Striking back, you said? Against who? What enemies did you think you were fighting? None of them were there! You weren't fighting anyone at all—you were acting like cheap thugs!"
"Hey!" Dhiti protested. "They attacked us, remember? We were just striking back!"
"And what a strike it was!" he shot back. "You smashed up a workshop. Yeah, that'll show 'em! That'll teach them what they're up against, all right! They must be shaking in their boots now!" He shook his head, groaning. "It's as if someone bullied you, and you tried to get even by going and kicking his little brother. Dhiti, you're supposed to be the smart one. Why don't you think? What's going to happen when this gets out? When people hear that the Senshi have been burglarising an office building and writing their names on the wall? You're going to become a laughing-stock!"
Dhiti finally lost her temper. She did not do it often, she hated the loss of control…but it had been a very long night. "All right, then!" she snarled. "So we screwed up! Go ahead and rub it in! At least we were doing something, instead of just sitting around wondering what the bad guys were going to do next!" She glared at him, fists clenched. "And don't you tell me you couldn't have gotten to the Olympus last night if you'd wanted to. You decided not to go. And if you hadn't—who knows? You might have gotten to see your precious queen after all."
Artemis stared back at her, his fur bristling. For a perilous moment, she thought something dreadful was going to happen. Then, in a low, half-choked voice, he said, "I've…got to go. I need to talk to Itsuko about this."
He leaped from the bed to the windowsill, and then out. Dhiti ran over to the window and saw him land on the ledge a metre down, then spring to a fence-post and down to the ground.
"Her name is Seki now!" she yelled down at him. "And you don't even know where she lives!"
He ignored her. She saw him stalk over to a narrow gap in the fence, and then he was gone.
By the time Dhiti had showered and dressed, she felt calmer. All the same, she was in a scratchy mood as she went downstairs. Seeing her father sitting in his favourite armchair, reading the morning paper, did not help.
"Good morning," he said without looking up, precisely as her foot hit the bottom step.
She jerked at the words and then scowled, but it was a familiar scowl. He had been pulling that trick on her since she was a small child, and she had never yet worked out how. "Good morning, Father," she muttered in return.
"You slept late this morning," he observed, still apparently intent on his paper.
"I had a late night," she returned shortly. He was always like this. It drove her up the wall.
"And, regrettably, I am forced to wonder who you were shouting at, up in your room. I was not aware that we had a guest."
Dhiti hesitated, just for an instant. She tried to hide it, but she knew he would have noticed. Sharma Praket was a very observant man when he wanted to be. "No," she said. "I was shouting at the cat."
"Ah." Imperturbably, her father turned a page. "Well, I am sure you had good reason. I kept white mice when I was a boy," he added in a musing tone, "but I do not recall ever feeling the need to shout at them."
"Yeah, well, did your white mice ever puke up hairballs?"
"Mm, no. Perhaps you have a point there." Praket gave a thin smile, still without looking up. "I am glad your pet is proving to be educational, then."
"Oh, he's educational, all right," Dhiti mumbled. Artemis did not leave hair-balls, thankfully; or, at least, he had not done so yet. She would have to ask him about the subject when he got back, she mused, and the thought of his probable reaction did much to cheer her up.
If he came back at all, of course.
She left the room before her father could answer. If there was one person in the world who could make her feel completely inadequate, it was him. Grumbling to herself, she headed through to the kitchen in search of breakfast.
She found her mother there, working on a sinkful of dishes. She was humming softly to herself as she worked, the way she often did. The tune was familiar, although Dhiti could not place it immediately. For some reason, though, it sounded comforting.
A moment later her stomach rumbled, and she set the mystery song aside. "Hi, Amma," she said, opening the pantry and rummaging inside for breakfast. She filled a bowl with muesli and spooned yoghurt from the fridge over the top, then sat down at the table to eat.
Sharma Salila looked around, stopping her humming. "Good morning," she said. "I thought I heard voices before. Were you arguing with Miyo-san again?"
"I, uh. Was talking with a friend, yeah. Sorry."
"It's no bother." Salila brushed a stray hair from her eyes. "But you should make up with her, sweetheart. Fighting is bad for you." She held Dhiti's eyes until, reluctantly, the girl nodded. Then, with a smile, she went back to her dishes. After a moment, she started to hum again.
Dhiti returned to her breakfast, grinning in spite of herself. As she ate, the tune caught her attention once more. Why was it so familiar? She found herself humming along with it.
Then, suddenly, she remembered where she had heard it before. It was a lullaby, one her mother had sung to her countless times when she was small. A silly, sentimental thing, but still…hearing it again now made her feel warm, and happy.
She realised that she was smiling at the memory, and after a little she joined in the refrain.
By and by, my darling,
Sun will come again.
There'll be golden mornings
After days of rain…
They finished the song together. As Dhiti started to get up, her mother reached over and neatly plucked the empty plate and spoon from in front of her and slid them into the sink. Dhiti watched her for a minute. On impulse, she leaned over and kissed her mother on the cheek.
Salila looked around, a little surprised at the gesture—it was not something Dhiti did often—and smiled fondly back at her daughter. "Feeling better?" she asked.
"Good. Now, you go back upstairs," she said, "and call Miyo-san again. Make up your quarrel. After everything that's happened, that girl needs her friends." She nodded once, for emphasis, and then turned back to her dishes. Within a few seconds, she was humming once more.
Dhiti headed back up to her room. Her smile faded as she went. She felt like a fraud. Miyo needed her friends now, sure, but she wasn't the one Dhiti had been shouting at. It was Artemis that she really needed to apologise to. Because—damn it—Artemis had been right.
He wasn't there when she got to her room, of course.
In an effort to distract herself, she reached out and turned on her radio. It came on in the middle of a news report and she almost changed the station, but something made her listen.
"—eleven o'clock news headlines. Last night, a group of vandals broke into 'M' Division offices and caused several million yen worth of damage to laboratory tools and instruments, some of which were used to maintain vital hospital equipment. There is no information yet on how much was stolen. A spokesman for 'M' Division stated that he suspects drunken hooligans were responsible, and he beseeches those responsible to give themselves up to avoid a scandal." A pause. "Reports are still coming in of injuries incurred during the Zarigani Mall disaster. Yesterday afternoon, the—"
Dhiti snapped the radio off, rolled over onto her back, and stared at the ceiling.
"Well," she said savagely, "that's just great."
Iku knelt in the dark and tried to hold in her misery.
She was naked, and alone, and the basement was dim and cold. Even in the height of summer, it never warmed up much down here; the insulation was excellent, and Mother loved air-conditioning. Iku huddled her arms around herself, but it did little to stop her shivering.
A thin, grey light filtered through a single, tiny, dirty glass window, and more came down the steps from the open kitchen door. Up above, she could hear the movement as her family bustled about, the clattering of dishes as they ate their breakfast. It made her feel even more forsaken.
She might have wept, but she did not dare make a sound. Every now and then, someone would come to the door and listen for a moment. If they heard anything, her punishment would only get worse. She knew from experience how much worse it could get.
She bowed her head down, loose hair hanging over her face. She clenched her fists as her body shook, and shed hot, silent tears.
Dhiti-san, why did you bring me back…?
She held herself for a long time, until the spasm ended. Then she lifted her hands to wipe the teardrops from her eyes. It did no good to cry. Nobody ever listened.
Besides, she already knew the answer to that unvoiced question. Dhiti had brought her back here because this was where she belonged. Alone, in the dark.
If you want help, Serenity had told her, you are surrounded by people who will do their utmost to give it. Yes; oh, yes. This was the help they gave her. This was what she deserved, and she had been a fool to think, even for a moment, that there could be more.
She drew a long, shuddering breath, and almost gagged from the stench. Partly it was the smell of her own fear and unhappiness: dark, dismal and cloying, a scent she knew well. Partly it came from the pool in the corner, a metre or two away, where she had thrown up after the beating. But mostly it came from a much nearer source.
She had been down here for hours now; she was sure of that, though it was hard to know just how long. Sometimes in the past she had tried to keep track by counting to herself, but once she got above a few thousand it was so easy to slip. She seldom bothered nowadays. Her punishment would last as long as it lasted, and there was no use in trying to measure it. She might start looking forward to an ending, and that only gave her mother an extra tool to punish her with.
Another way to measure time was by how often she had to pee. This was one of the worst things about her punishment (though not the very worst). There was no bathroom in the cellar. Even if there had been one, she was not allowed to move from her kneeling position. She always hung on for as long as she could…and in the end, she always failed.
Her legs and feet were cold and wet. The smell was everywhere, inescapable. She drew it in with every breath. Every time, she hoped that she might get used to it eventually, but it never seemed to happen. It made her head swim, sometimes; it made her want to gag.
So she knelt in the dark in a pool of her own filth, alone and naked, hungry and thirsty and desperately weary, and waited. Waited for something to happen; for the punishment to end, or for someone to find a new way to hurt her. One way or another, the hurting never ended, and by now she knew that it never would.
Certainly her body ached. There was the endless dull throb of her sprained ankle that flared to bright hot pain when she moved it; the rippling cramps in her legs from holding this position for so long; and the sharper, harsher pain in her back from where her mother had beaten her. Oh, Mother was an expert in the art by now; the welts soon faded without leaving a mark. By tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, Iku would be able to go back to school and, why, nobody would know that anything had happened at all.
Back to school, to face Beth and Nanako and the others; back to watch them talk and laugh, and know that this was something she did not deserve. She did not belong; she was the outsider, the unworthy one. The one who should never have been born.
Had she not been told, often enough? She knew that it was true.
So now she had learned another lesson, in misery and pain like all the rest. And oh, she had learned so many, over the years! Keep your head down. Be quiet. Don't talk; don't ask questions; don't call attention to yourself. You're not important, so stay in the background. If nobody knows you're there, they won't need to punish you…
That was how to keep going. That was the way to survive.
A sharp clatter of feet on the stairs made her head jerk up. Mother was coming down; and behind her, his usual arrogant smirk on his face, was her brother Masahiko. They reached the bottom, and Mother flipped the light switch on. Iku winced at the pain in her eyes, and tried to straighten up. Her ankle flared with new pain and she stifled a gasp.
The two of them stood, staring down at her in silence for a few seconds. Then Mother's nose wrinkled; she looked down at the puddle around Iku's legs, and made a revolted face.
"You filthy, disgusting sow!" she said, her voice thick with contempt. "Is there nothing you won't sink to? Have you no self-control at all?" She almost spat the words out. "Or do you actually enjoy it? Wallowing in your own filth! That my own daughter should come to this."
Iku made no attempt to reply. She had not been given permission to speak. And it was nothing she had not heard before.
Her brother, for his part, said nothing. He only stood there at Mother's side and watched Iku, smirking. His eyes paused briefly on her breasts, dropped to her groin, and then returned. His mouth opened for a moment and he licked his lips.
Here was a new terror, one that had been growing slowly over the last few months. Masahiko was younger than her, only thirteen years old. He did his share of tormenting her, joining her mother with punches, kicks and insults of his own. Already he showed a talent for inventive cruelty that rivalled Mother's, though as yet he lacked the strength to really hurt Iku physically. But recently, she had seen a new hunger in his eyes when he looked at her, and the casual blows had been joined by sly pinches and tweaks, hands that strayed to her nipples or her crotch.
He was not strong enough, not yet; but already she had begun to dread being alone with him. In a year or two…
At least that was one thing she did not have to fear from Mother. And at least she did not have a father.
"Well?" her mother demanded, cutting into her thoughts. "Don't you have anything to say for yourself?"
Iku dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry, Mother," she said in a low voice.
"Sorry! Is that all? Yes, you're a sorry one, all right, you miserable creature. I'm sorry, too—sorry that I ever laid eyes on you."
Snake-quick, Mother's hand reached down and seized Iku by the chin, tilting the girl's face up with a brutal jerk. "When I think," she said softly, "of how I suffered for twenty-eight hours to bring you into the world…of all the endless attention I've lavished on you, ever since—and for what? Look at you!" Her voice began to rise. "I don't know why I bother. How could I ever have imagined that you'd amount to anything? Conceiving you was a mistake, and allowing you to be born was a bigger one. You've been nothing but a worthless nuisance since you first drew breath, and you'll be one until you die." She paused, as if waiting for something, then barked out, "Well?"
Iku shrank back with a moan. Fear and despair warred within her; the heartache threatened to drown her. Her eyes were filling with tears again. "I'm sorry," she repeated in a helpless whisper.
"'I'm sorry,'" Mother mimicked scornfully. "Is that all you know how to say? No, don't answer; I don't need to listen to your grovelling. You disgust me. Worthless you are and worthless you've been since the day you were born. But now I find that you're spreading your whining ways to bother other people too! Oh, yes, I know you've been slipping off these last few weeks; don't think I haven't noticed. But now this—weaselling your way into a slumber party last night! Faugh!" She spat. "Burdening others with your selfish demands—forcing that Claver girl to bring you home this morning—"
Releasing Iku's chin, she bent down to look the girl in the face. Her eyes seemed to bore into Iku's own: harsh, angry, pitiless. "Such an inflated opinion you have of yourself, Iku my girl. Do you actually imagine you're that important? Do you have the gall to believe you're worth her time? You pathetic fool. You're an imposition, that's all. You're in the way—and now you're forcing decent folk to go out of their way to cater to your selfish whims. How dare you?"
She straightened up suddenly—and then stepped back and lashed out, striking Iku across the face with the full weight of her arm. Half-blinded by the blow, Iku was flung to the floor by the impact. Her shoulder landed in a sludge of mixed vomit and urine, and skidded. She came to a rest in an ungainly sprawl, lying on her back in the pool.
She sucked in a breath in a gasp of pain, and almost threw up again at the stench that filled her nose and her lungs. She could feel it, cold and thick and clammy, soaking into her hair. Her stomach roiled. Not daring to move, she lay there, naked and filthy, and waited.
Mother gazed down at her, eyes cold. "You've been a blight on enough lives, girl," she growled. "Heaven knows you've blighted mine and your brother's. To think your father left me over you! Left an innocent girl with a squalling, screaming burden, all alone. All the years I slaved over you, working myself to the bone without him, bringing you up, and look at you! I should have had you aborted the moment I knew you weren't his."
For a moment the loathing faded from her voice, and an almost wistful look crossed her face. "My precious Keisuke!" she said. "Him and his damned scruples. One wretched night at a party—what was that? But no, he walked out the day he found out the truth—months before his true son, my darling baby boy, was even born. As if some pathetic by-blow meant more than his wife and his true son!"
The wistful look was gone now, and the anger back in its place. Half-turning, she reached out and rpughly pulled Masahiko to her. He squirmed, then settled into her embrace and looked back at Iku with a smirk. His eyes never left her body; he licked his lips again.
"You think about that, girl," Mother went on in a rasp, one hand playing roughly through Masahiko's hair. "Think about how much harm you've done. Think about how much I sacrificed just for you to be born; how much your brother and I sacrifice every day to feed and clothe you. And this is the thanks we get? A dirty, good-for-nothing guttersnipe; a sneaky, underhanded girl who thinks nothing of dragging other innocents down with her. What do you think that Claver girl would say if she saw you now? Do you think she'd be happy to see her friend?"
Iku tried to stifle it, but failed. A single sob escaped. Her eyes burned, and she felt hot tears on her cheeks.
Mother snorted. "Yes, you think about that. Maybe a few more hours down here will help you think a little more clearly. Me, I don't want to have to look at you any more. The sight of you makes me sick."
She turned and strode back up the stairs, pulling Masahiko after her. At the top, she flicked off the light switch without looking back, and closed the door behind her. Silence fell in the cellar; thick, heavy silence, and the dark.
Iku lay on the cold, concrete floor, in a stinking pool of bodily waste, and clutched herself and cried. Every part of her hurt. She could hardly breathe for the foulness of the air, but she could not seem to move; her muscles did not want to respond. But worse than the pain or the smell was the desperate, overwhelming misery, the utter desolation that was her life.
"I'm sorry, Mommy," she gasped through her tears. "I'm sorry. I'll do better, I promise…please don't hate me—please…"
Silently, deep inside her, something added: Dhiti-san, why?
And last, so deep down that she was almost unaware of it, hardly even knew that she still remembered:
Oh, Koinu-chan, I miss you so much…
Above her, outside, two children crouched in the garden. Young boys, no more than eleven, they were positioned close by the house, out of sight to a casual glance from inside. Both of them looked scared.
They were hunkered down by the cellar window. It was closed, and they had not been able to hear much, but they had heard enough; and while the light had been on, they had seen enough. More than enough.
One boy gave a frightened, sick look to his companion and said in a low voice, "Let's go."
The other boy said, "I…didn't think it would be like this…"
"Come on. Let's go."
The commset let out a shrill buzz. There was no reaction, and it kept right on buzzing. At last, with a groan, Hiiro Yoichi sat up in bed and reached for the handset.
"Hiiro," he said in a voice still thick with sleep. "What is it?"
"Captain, it's me." Aoiro's voice. "Sorry to wake you, sir."
Hiiro sighed to himself and rubbed his eyes. "Get on with it, Aoiro." He glanced across at the clock. God, he'd had, what, two hours' sleep? Well, it was better than some nights.
"Can you please check your gun, sir?"
Hiiro paused. "What?"
"Just check it, sir. Please."
Hiiro took the handset away from his ear and stared at it for a second. Then, lifting it once more, he said, "All right. I hope you're going to let me in on the joke sooner or later."
He climbed out of bed and walked over to the stand where his heavy leather jacket hung, reaching in and pulling his pistol out of the built-in holster. To Aoiro he said, "Okay, what now? Is this the point where the dancing girls burst out? I have it and it looks—what the hell?"
He stared down at the gun he was holding. It was a Saurin Special, one of the finest handguns in the world: double-action, 10.6mm, utterly reliable. And it had very obviously been fired recently, and put away without being cleaned.
Funny how he no longer felt sleepy at all.
With steady hands, he checked the pistol over carefully, then unloaded it. The magazine held only three cartridges. But—He paused, and checked his jacket again. He found an empty clip.
Hiiro lifted the comm handset to his ear once more. "All right, Aoiro, you have my attention," he said. "How did you know? More importantly, what do you know?"
"Your gun's been fired?"
"Obviously. Get on with it, Aoiro."
"Mine's the same. Captain, this isn't possible. I never fired a shot last night, and neither did you!"
"No." Hiiro tried to think. What had happened last night? They went to the Olympus, expecting to wait in hiding and arrest Pappadopoulos when she showed up. Instead they found a full-on confrontation in progress, between the Sailor Senshi and a bunch of giant crystal monstrosities. Hiiro made the decision to back away gracefully. He'd spent the rest of the night explaining himself to headquarters, but in the end Colonel Shiro endorsed his decision.
At no time had anybody fired a shot. They weren't suicidal. And yet, there was the evidence of his pistol.
"Have you spoken to the others?" he asked suddenly.
"Okay. Call Mitsukai. I'll speak to Kuroi. Then—if they're the same, we're going to have some work to do."
He hung up without waiting for a reply, and called Kuroi. Kuroi, as it turned out, had been about to call him.
The team met outside the Olympus building half an hour later. Masao came with them this time. Hiiro hesitated before calling him in, but eventually decided that it was worth a shot. The different viewpoint might be interesting, if nothing else.
Hiiro had one more piece of evidence, too. As he was dressing, he found a card wallet in his pocket. It held an ID for one Odaka Toichi, of the Technical Enforcement Network. Hiiro had never heard of the organisation, or of Odaka. But then, he had never seen the wallet before, either.
Up in Pappadopoulos' office, it only took a few minutes of searching before Kuroi found the first bullet hole. Not long after that, Masao found a chunk of broken crystal that actually held a spent bullet.
Hiiro examined both, and nodded slowly. "Anyone want to bet what the ballistics check will show?" he said, his voice light but his expression sour.
"They came from our guns," said Aoiro flatly.
"Yeah, that would be my guess." Hiiro rubbed his face wearily, and looked around the office. "God, what a mess. What the hell were those crystal things, anyway?" He shook his head, then went on. "Okay. So it looks like we were in a firefight last night—and that's not what we remember happening. I don't really want to consider what that might mean, but…"
"Our memories have been altered," said Kuroi. "Admit it, boss. Somebody's been fucking with our minds."
Hiiro looked at him for a long moment. At last, slowly, he nodded. "That's not certain yet, but…yeah. It looks that way. We'll go ahead and get that ballistics check run, I think; I want to be very, very certain about this. Goddammit!"
He glanced around once more, then began issuing orders. "Mitsukai, contact headquarters and get a forensics team out here. I want them to go over every inch of this place. If somebody's been messing with us, I want to know all about it. After that—" He pulled the card wallet out of his pocket and tossed it to Mitsukai. "See what you can dig up on this guy and his 'Technical Enforcement Network'. I don't think I like the sound of it. What's wrong with your wrist?"
"Uh—" Mitsukai, who had been rubbing one wrist gently, froze. "Nothing. I think. It's just sore this morning."
"Don't sleep on it, then. Right, what else? All of you, hand in your guns; the ballistics team will need them. Kuroi, that means all three guns, please, and don't make faces at me like that. Next—" Hiiro gestured toward the office doors. "Spread out. Check over the rest of the apartment, but keep it hands-off for now. Kitada, that means that you personally don't touch anything. You'd only mess it up for the forensics boys. Clear? Right, everyone, get going."
The team began to move. Mitsukai pulled out her commset and a portable computer; Aoiro disappeared through the hidden door into the fire room; and Kuroi headed into the rest of the apartment. Hiiro gave Masao a nod and they followed him.
Barely two minutes later, Kuroi let out a call from the kitchen, and Hiiro hurried to join him. "Smell the air," Kuroi said.
Hiiro sniffed. "Eggs," he said. "Somebody's been cooking."
"Yup. You think Pappadopoulos came back?"
"Who knows?" Hiiro made a face. "Hell, if our memories have been changed, she could have walked in right in front of us wearing a tutu, danced a rhumba, and then slept here all night, safe and snug in her own bed." He cursed. "Damn it, I hate this, Ryozo. To think that someone can just reach in and do things to your mind like that…"
A clatter of footsteps behind them announced Masao. "The shower's wet," he said excitedly. "And it's a warm day. It must have been used pretty recently."
Hiiro and Kuroi exchanged glances. "Check it for hair," said Kuroi.
They went into the bathroom and examined the shower carefully. Hiiro used a pair of tweezers and lifted a long, fine hair from the basin, laying it on a clean white handkerchief. The two of them examined it. "Too long, and it's not white," Hiiro said. "Not Pappa-san."
"The Hayashi girl?" suggested Kuroi.
"Um." Hiiro used a lens to look more closely. "Isn't she a lighter shade? This looks too dark to me."
Kuroi frowned. "Could be," he said. "Who else, though? You think one of the Senshi decided to take a shower to cool off after blasting a few monsters?"
"At this stage, nothing would surprise me. Let's get it tested, shall we?" Kuroi passed him a small plastic bag and Hiiro used his tweezers to slip the hair inside.
"Maybe Hayashi-san had someone around for a sleepover," said Masao. The other two looked at him, and he flushed. "Uh. Not last night, though. Right."
"At least you're thinking," said Kuroi sourly. Then he paused. "But dammit, that reminds me of something. It's right on the tip of my tongue…" He scratched his chin thoughtfully, and said, "There hasn't been anyone else here, has there? In the last few weeks?"
Hiiro shook his head. "Not since we've been watching. In fact, she hasn't even…" He trailed off. "Dammit, you're right. That does remind me of something. Now, what was it? I wonder if—"
He broke off at a sudden buzz from his commset. He snarled, then lifted it to his ear. "What is it?" he demanded. "I'm busy."
A voice at the other end cut him off. Hiiro listened for a minute, then hung up without a word. He looked around at Masao and Kuroi, hesitated for an instant, and then said, "Kitada—here. Take this." He tossed the plastic bag containing the hair to Masao, who caught it. "Take it to headquarters. Tell them I want an ID. Clear?"
Masao nodded, his eyes widening. Hiiro paid him no more attention; he turned to Kuroi and said, "Get Mitsukai and Aoiro. We've got business."
"Problem?" asked Kuroi.
"Yeah. Apparently the Senshi have murdered someone."
Masao watched the team rush out of the apartment, his mind boiling.
They didn't remember. Hiiro had said that he thought their minds had been tampered with, but Masao hadn't really believed it. Now, he had little choice. The truth had been right in front of Hiiro and Kuroi, and neither of them had been able to see it.
He held up the little plastic bag again, studying the hair inside. It wasn't the Hayashi girl's colour—but it was Ochiyo's. And the two men had forgotten all about her. Masao had watched them, seen them struggle to remember…and fail. She might as well have been erased from their minds.
But Masao hadn't been at the Olympus last night. He remembered her just fine. He even remembered that sometimes, she stayed the night in Pappadopoulos' apartment.
He looked at the hair in the plastic bag again. Who had altered the others' memories, and how? Most importantly, why? Why would someone want 'S' Division to forget a teenage girl?
He could only think of one reason.
And again, in his mind's eye, he saw a white cat in a metal cage, and heard the cat's words: Being true to their hearts…that's the long and the short of it. That's what makes a real hero: someone who stands true. No matter what.
"You never mentioned having to betray the people who trust you," he whispered to the phantom. "How true is that?"
We all make our choices, don't we? commented Artemis. And stand by them.
Masao went into the guest bedroom, and spent a little time searching the floor. Before long, he found what he was looking for and held it up to the light to check. A long, wavy hair, of an unmistakable chestnut colour. He nodded, and took a deep breath. Then he pulled the dark hair out of the plastic bag—using his own pair of tweezers—and substituted the lighter-coloured one he had just found. He re-sealed the plastic bag and put it in his pocket.
"And stand by them," he murmured.
He left the apartment and headed downstairs, to take the hair in to headquarters for identification. Rather to his surprise, he found himself whistling cheerfully as he left the building. He had a feeling that it was going to be a good day.
The whistling cut off sharply as a middle-aged man with short, greying hair came up to him out of nowhere and stuck a gun in his ribs with a broad smile. "Kitada Masao?" he said. "My name is Okuda Jiro. I think we should talk."
Hiiro and his team met Lieutenant Kogecha outside the 'M' Division building. Kogecha, a stocky woman with greying hair and a broad, no-nonsense face, briefed them as they went inside, waving their IDs at the security guards.
"Egami Shosuke was found dead in his home, about an hour ago. I understand there were some…oddities about the situation. He was one of 'M' Division's—"
"I know who he was," said Hiiro sourly.
Kogecha gave him a quizzical look. "You were acquaintances?"
"A little more than that." Hiiro snorted. "Go on."
"Well. The real problem came when we got a report of this." They reached an open door with two more security guards standing outside. "Egami's office. Take a look, Captain."
Hiiro looked through the door, and raised his eyebrows. "Quite a mess," he said. The office had been comprehensively trashed. At first glance, nothing larger than a paperback book had been left intact. He had never seen a computer in quite so many pieces before.
"Okay, so you have a security problem," he went on. "But I'm not seeing a Senshi connection yet."
"That comes next," said Kogecha. "Through here."
She led him to the next door down. Hiiro stepped through—and stopped short with a startled oath. Kuroi, following close behind him, peered over his shoulder and started to laugh.
The new room was a sizeable workshop-cum-laboratory, and it was as chaotic a ruin as the first; but if the vandals in the office had been thorough, here they had been inventive. The centre of the room was dominated by a pile of electronic equipment that seemed to have been welded together into an unsteady tower. Other equipment had been linked together in unlikely ways and allowed to tear each other to pieces, or simply to short each other out. Some unnameable machine lying on its side was leaking a thick, sticky liquid. Still further paraphernalia had simply been smashed, but the wreckage had been carefully arranged in what was almost a decorative effect.
On the wall, in metre-high characters that had somehow been burned into the wood, were the words: "SAILOR SENSHI".
Hiiro found his voice at last. "I, ah, see what you mean," he said weakly.
Kuroi laughed again. Aoiro and Mitsukai crowded into the room to look, and Aoiro let out a short bark of laughter as well. Hiiro sighed and exchanged a look with Kogecha. Thankfully, she didn't seem to think it was funny. Or maybe she'd gotten it out of her system earlier.
"I assume our people have been through here already?" he asked.
She nodded. "Oudo's team left just before you got here. There was a 'P' Division group as well."
Hiiro let his expression tell her what he thought of 'P' Division. "All right. How did they get in? And is there anything else, or is it just these two rooms?"
"Uh. They came in through the window in the director's office. That's been roughed up, too, but nowhere near as thoroughly as these. Looks like fire damage, or maybe—" she shifted uncomfortably "—lightning." Hastily, she went on, "They did something to the building network; took out the security systems and everything else as well. The techs still haven't got it back up. Even the power was out, for a while."
"Pretty good, for a bunch of teenage girls," observed Hiiro blandly.
"Well…" The lieutenant looked even more uncomfortable. "Supposedly, I mean, the legends say Sailor Mercury was good with computers."
"I'll keep that in mind." Kogecha had some kind of phobia about Senshi, Hiiro guessed, or perhaps just with the idea of super-powered girls in general. He couldn't blame her. But he'd worked with her before; she wouldn't let it get in her way. "I'll take a look at that office as well, but I expect—wait a minute. Did you say the director's office? As in, Director Fukuda?"
"Oh, crap. Has he been informed?"
Another nod—and a sympathetic look.
"Double crap." Hiiro screwed his eyes shut, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Any more good news? Or is that it?" She made a negatory gesture, and he grimaced. "Hooray. All right, listen up, everyone—" He raised his voice to address the others as well. "Oudo's forensics team have been through the place, but we're going to do it all over again, because we know a few things they didn't. Kuroi, Mitsukai, go through this workshop. Aoiro, the office. I'm going to call in to Colonel Shiro, then take a look at the director's office with Kogecha. Report back in an hour, and then we're going back to the Olympus to do it all over again, too. Clear? Now, move!"
Ninety minutes later they were on their way back to the Olympus. Aoiro drove; in the shotgun seat, Hiiro was busy going through a folder. The official report on Egami's death, delivered just a few minutes before.
"Anything interesting?" asked Kuroi over his shoulder.
Hiiro passed it to him. "Take a look," he said sourly.
Kuroi flipped through it. "Died of heart failure…no apparent cause. In good health…blah blah blah. Traces of—what the hell!"
"Ah," Hiiro said. "You got to the good bit."
"'Thin clear liquid running from both ears…analysis shows traces of brain tissue'? Holy crap, what happened to him? Something melt his frontal lobes?"
Hiiro did not answer, and after a second Kuroi added in a quieter tone, "Shit. Sorry, boss. I forgot he was your friend."
"Matter of fact, he was the one who lent me the Interdiction Controller," Hiiro said, his voice tightly controlled. "Another interesting link, wouldn't you say?"
"You said it got smashed at the Olympus last night…" Kuroi scratched his jaw. "Come on, 'Ichi, you're not trying to say—"
"No, although it's probably what we're supposed to think," Hiiro interrupted. "But do I believe that the Senshi killed him? Don't be ridiculous. That business with writing their name on the wall—that's the work of a bunch of teenage girls, sure. But killing a man by poaching his brains? I don't think so."
"So we've got another party at work."
"Yeah. But that's not what's bothering me." Hiiro paused, suddenly reluctant to utter his thoughts aloud; but then he said, "Draw a line—call it a moral line—between carving your name in the wall, and boiling a brain. Okay?" Kuroi clearly had no idea what he was talking about, but he nodded. "Right. So, tell me: whereabouts on that line do you put…tampering with someone's mind? Is it relatively innocuous, or is it a kind of rape? Or where, exactly, in between?"
Kuroi did not answer for a long time. At last he said, "I'm not sure I can answer that."
"Me neither. One thing I can say for sure, though. There'll be nothing public about it yet, but within the security forces…the Sailor Senshi have just jumped to the top of everyone's wanted list."
Masao looked up quickly as the door opened. He had lost track of how long he had been a prisoner so far, but he thought it had not been more than an hour or two. They were keeping him reasonably comfortable; the little room he sat in might have been an ordinary, two-star hotel room, except that there were no windows…and the door was kept locked.
His captor nodded to him, closed the door behind him, and sat down in the room's single other chair. "Kitada-san," he said cheerfully. "My name is—"
"Okuda Jiro," said Masao. He had had plenty of time, at least, to calm down—and to start thinking. "I remember. You work for the Hoseki Property Group…but you're really a member of the Sankaku clans."
Jiro was absolutely still for several seconds. Then he relaxed, though some of the affable friendliness in his voice was gone. "Ver' good," he said. "That captain of yours, I bet. He's a smart one. When'd he mark me?"
"Never mind that," said Masao, annoyed. "Why've you brought me here? What do you want with me? I don't know any big 'S' Division secrets."
"You know one big secret," said Jiro softly. "You know Pappadopoulos Itsuko's real name."
Masao froze. He felt the little confidence he had managed to muster trickle away. "I—I don't know wh—" he stammered.
"Please," Jiro said. "Don' try. I been watching the Olympus ver' close, for weeks now. Microphones…cameras, too. Seen all kinds of interestin' things." He paused, letting that sink in, before he went on. "Di'n' see anythin' last night, no—some kind o' static. But this morning, well now. A certain Kitada-san, an' a certain plastic bag…do I need to go on?"
"No." Unconsciously, Masao bit his lip. "What do you want with me?" he repeated.
"Been doin' a little checking on you, Kitada-san." Jiro nodded twice. "A little research, seein' how you look. An' you know how you look to me, Kitada-san?"
Jiro gave him a little smile that was curiously sympathetic. "You look like a man…who's startin' to think that maybe he's playin' for the wrong team. That soun' like a possibility to you, Kitada-san?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Masao. Even to his own ears it sounded weak.
"Yeah? We got one team who wants to arrest Itsuko-chan…an' one team who knows all about her, an' keeps his mouth shut. One team wants to arrest the Sailor Senshi…an' one team wishes 'em luck. So which team you wan' ta be on—really?"
Masao licked his lips. "And why should I believe a bunch of terrorists?"
"Terrorists, hey? That what they really say about us?"
That gave Masao pause. He remembered, distantly, a meeting at 'S' Division headquarters, when Colonel Shiro had suggested that, while the Sankaku supported themselves by crime, in fact they were working toward some other goal.
But what goal? Nobody knew.
"No," he admitted grudgingly.
"No," repeated Jiro. "So I tell you what, Kitada-san. I'm gonna take a risk here. I'll tell you exactly who the Sankaku are—not the story we tell the raw recruits; the real deal. An' then we'll see what's what, hey? 'Cause I been watching you for a while now…an' I got a feeling." He looked Masao in the eye, and said, "A feelin' that you know who to stand by."
He paused expectantly, but Masao did not reply. Jiro nodded, as if satisfied—and then he told Masao the real story of the Sankaku.
And Masao, who as a student had once gotten a good grade in history, thought about it…and then told him "All right," and changed his allegiance for the last time.
Later, as Jiro opened the door to let him out, Masao asked, "What should I do now?"
Jiro chuckled, and said, "Why, you take that hair down to 'S' Division so they can analyse it. After all, don' they need all the help they can get?"
In the middle of the afternoon, Makoto caught a bus over to her old neighbourhood. She hadn't been gone all that long, really—not even three weeks—but it was surprising how unfamiliar the place seemed. She knew it all like the back of her hand, but it no longer felt like home. Morbidly, she wondered if it would have felt the same way if her name had still been Miyo.
She lingered in a little coffee shop until her watch told her it was nearly time, and then stepped outside to wait, standing in the mouth of a narrow alley between buildings. A few minutes later, a little way down the road, a bus drew up and her sister stepped out.
Makoto breathed a sigh of relief. Miliko would be on her way home from a netball match; she almost always caught this bus, but Makoto hadn't been sure. She wondered if her sister's team had won. Three weeks ago, before she had been disowned, she wouldn't have cared; but now it seemed like the most important thing in the world. Miliko certainly looked cheerful enough, so maybe they had.
In fact, she looked almost too cheerful, and suddenly Makoto's resolve failed her. Maybe Miliko didn't care; maybe she'd already forgotten about her big sister; maybe she'd shout insults—
No. No doubts. Miliko was approaching. As the twelve-year-old drew level with the alley, Makoto reached out and pulled her in.
Miliko gasped, and drew in her breath to cry out. Before she could make a sound, Makoto held up a finger to her lips and said, "Shh. It's me."
Her sister froze, staring up at her. There was no recognition in her eyes, and after a second Makoto suddenly remembered how different she looked now: her skin colour changed, her figure camouflaged, but most significantly her hair cut short and dyed black. But then Miliko blinked and said, hesitantly, "O-oneesan?"
Makoto released a breath she hadn't realised she had been holding, and said, "Yeah, Miliko. It's me."
She was hardly prepared for the impact of a small form, the weight, and the crushing full-body hug. She staggered back against the wall of the alley, hitting her shoulder painfully and toppling to the ground, and only gradually became aware that Miliko, her head buried in Makoto's chest, was saying, over and over again, "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'msorryimsorryimsorry…"
"Hey." She reached down and lifted Miliko's head. "Get off, Brat," she said, her voice a little rough. "You're heavy."
Miliko sniffed. "I am not." But she slid off, and the two of them got to their feet once more.
And then they stared at one another, and suddenly Makoto could think of nothing to say. "Uh—" she began, and faltered to a halt.
Miliko solved her problem for her. "You look so different!" she said. "Why? Is it because you're a Senshi now?"
"Uh," Makoto said again. She glanced down at herself. "No. I'm kind of in disguise. And, uh, look, don't talk about the S-word stuff, okay? It could get me into trouble."
She was thinking of eavesdroppers, and word getting back to the enemy; she had not even considered how else that could be taken, until she saw the shock and guilt in Miliko's face. Because, of course, it had been Miliko talking about her being Sailor Jupiter that had gotten her disowned in the first place.
"I'm sorry!" blurted out Miliko. "I know it's all my fault. I didn't mean to, I promise! I never—"
"Hey," Makoto said. "I know. I'm sorry. That…came out wrong." She reached down and brushed moisture from her sister's cheek. "Listen, Brat, I saw Fujimaro last week. I gave him my comm number and we were going to set up a time to meet, him and me and you—"
"I know. He told me. But then, when he called, he got some kind of wrong number, and he told me you were just playing jokes. He was really mad. He said you—"
"It wasn't a joke, okay? Tell him I'm sorry. But things have…kind of gotten complicated. There are some people looking for—" She broke off, shaking her head. "No, never mind that now. Look, here. I had to move again, but this is my comm number now." She handed Miliko a slip of paper. "And my address. Give them to Fuji, okay?"
Miliko took the paper, glancing down at it and then up at Makoto once more. "Can we come see you?"
"Sure." Makoto had not actually cleared this with Seki, but abruptly she decided, the hell with it. Family was important, and if Seki didn't understand that, it was high time someone told her. "Just…be careful, okay? And call first. There really are some people looking for—well, not for me, I suppose, but the person I'm staying with."
"Why? Is it another Sen—" Miliko broke off, looking guilty all over again. "Another one of you?" she finished in a stage whisper.
Makoto tried not to wince. "Not exactly," she said. "It's complicated. I'll tell you if you come over…maybe. Look, Brat, you may know about me, but that doesn't mean I'm going to tell you about all the others, you know?"
"Okay." Her sister nodded meekly, though Makoto was fairly sure that the meekness wouldn't last more than a moment after she left. Then, in a sudden rush, Miliko said, "Oneesan, can I—can I tell the others, too? Ichiyo-niisan, and Mommy, and Daddy?"
Makoto's heart sank. "Brat—"
"I know," her little sister went on, still almost stumbling over her words in her hurry to get them out, "I know that Daddy made you go away, but—but Oneechan, he wants you back really, I know he does! He never talks any more, and he always looks sad, and so does Mommy, and…and…and even if Ichiyo-niisan does get mad when anyone says your name, I know he wants us all to be together again too—"
Makoto laid a finger over the girl's lips to hush her. "Miliko, I'm sorry," she said gently. "I don't think that's going to work. And I think you know it too, really, don't you?"
Miliko looked as if she were about to cry again. "But I want you to come home," she said sulkily.
"We don't always get what we want, though. Sometimes bad things happen, and…and there just isn't anything you can do about it. And it's pretty good where I am now, Brat. You'll like it when you see it."
The girl looked up at her mutinously—and then her expression changed, summer-quick. "Can I come now?" she begged.
"Um." Makoto thought about Seki's likely reaction, and chickened out. "Better not," she said. "Maybe sometime during the week, after school? Anyway, you still have to tell Fuji. He'd be pretty mad if you came without him."
"Well, why not just tell him now, then!"
"Because he won't be home. He's always out Sunday afternoons. Duh!" She rapped Miliko on the head and grinned at her. "Look, Brat, I can't stay. It wouldn't be a good idea if anyone recognised me here. But come see me, okay? Or give me a call sometimes. I don't want to give you guys up."
Miliko gave her that mutinous look again. "Stay! Please? Don't go, not yet. We could—we could—"
Makoto reached out to rap her again, and then changed her mind and gave her a quick hug instead. "I have to go. But I'll see you again, I promise. Good-bye, little sister…"
Then she released her and stepped out of the alley, hurrying down the street. A bus was just pulling up to the stop; she had seen it approaching from within the alley. She waved a hand to signal the driver, and ran to catch it.
She felt eyes boring into her back all the way, but she did not look around until she was safely on board the bus.
Miliko trudged home and went inside. She left her soiled netball gear in the laundry and headed for her room to drop off the rest. Just a few weeks ago, she had shared the room with Miyo, but now it was all hers. A lot of the shelf space was still filled with plants, and she loyally watered them every day. Some of them, waterlogged, were beginning to droop.
As she passed through the living room, her eldest brother raised his head. "Oi, Miliko," he said. "Saw you talking to that tall girl on the street, as I went past. She a coach, or something?"
"No," said Miliko without thinking. Then she could have bitten her tongue.
Ichiyo did not appear to notice. "Oh. What'd she want?" he asked idly, not sounding particularly interested.
"Um…" Her mind was blank. Miliko scrambled to think of something—anything. "She was asking about the game today," she answered at last, in a bright, false voice.
Still Ichiyo was not really paying attention. "A senior asking about a middle school game? She must be keen." He did not really care, Miliko suddenly understood. He just wanted to be talking—about anything. To break the silence.
Then, to her dismay, he said, "Didn't really notice, but I think I've seen her before, somewhere. Funny…"
"I—I have to go," said Miliko, and fled into the kitchen.
Behind her, startled, Ichiyo turned his head to watch her go. "What's eating her?" he muttered to himself, a little irritated.
She had gotten all bothered when he mentioned the girl in the street. Now, why was that? Ichiyo thought about it, and suddenly his expression changed.
On Monday morning, Beth said good-bye to her parents and—privately—to her cat, and headed for school.
As she left, she saw more chalk marks on the pavement outside her gate. Kids playing again! She gave an exasperated sigh. It had been her who'd had to clean the mess up yesterday. At least this lot wasn't so garish: a little circle, and the English letters "SW". She wondered what it was supposed to mean—south-west?—but then forgot about it.
Still, maybe that was what started it, getting her thinking about kids. There were plenty of them around, of course; Kawasemi School combined middle and high schools, so there were students from eleven or twelve and up, all heading the same direction. And yet, the entire way to school, a fifteen-minute walk, she kept on getting the odd feeling that one or two of them were watching her. There was nothing overt about it; only, now and then, she would turn her head and imagine that she saw a face looking quickly away.
She was just oversensitive this morning, she told herself grumpily. Better to think about something more cheerful. Meeting Mark, for example. The run yesterday morning had been quite pleasant, and if he hadn't exactly asked her out, still she had at least managed to get his comm number. Life was looking up.
Also, this was the last week before the summer holidays began. That was a definite plus.
She had plenty of plans for the holidays. The Hiking Club's trip to the Minami-Boso reserve was due in a couple of weeks: three days of tramping through hills covered with heavy forest. Then there were films to see, places to go, things to see, and books to read—real books, not the textbooks she'd been studying in her spare time. Maybe she'd go back to her poetry; it had been a while since she'd written anything new.
And, when she got the chance, there was always hanging out with Bendis and doing more Senshi training. It should be different, now that she knew who she truly was. She was sure of that.
This chain of thought kept her agreeably distracted until she reached school. There, she hunted around until she found Nanako and Eitoku, and chatted with them for a while. The strain from a week ago was gone, mostly, and they were back to the way they had been before.
Mostly. Now that she knew to look, she could see that Nanako and Eitoku were together. Now that her eyes had been opened.
The bell sounded and they went in. Everything was normal; it was a perfectly regular school day. Only halfway through the morning, when their teacher remarked on it, did Beth notice that Iku was not there.
She mentioned it to Nanako at lunchtime. Nanako simply shrugged and said, "Everyone's away sick sometimes, you know."
"Yeah, but Iku-san's away more than most," remarked Eitoku. Then he turned his attention back to his lunch: some kind of fish salad that Beth thought smelled horrid.
"But—" she began, and then stopped when she realised that she had no idea what she had been about to say. Something about not feeling right that she hadn't even noticed. After all, Iku was supposed to be her friend, right? They were fellow Senshi—though of course she couldn't say that to Nanako and Eitoku.
"I suppose so," she finished lamely.
Nanako chuckled and said, "She probably just partied too hard all weekend." Her voice was light, her smile cheerful…but suddenly she looked, well, tense, and her eyes would not seem to meet Beth's.
Eitoku noticed it too. "What's wrong, Nana-chan?" he asked.
"Nothing. Don't be silly." Nanako paused for an instant, then said, "I was just thinking about…parties…at Iku-chan's house."
Eitoku snorted. "Hard to imagine. I don't think I've even seen her smile more than half a dozen times." He grinned. "They're probably all like that at her place. Quiet and dull. Hey, maybe they're secretly Loonies!"
"Idiot." She swatted him, scowling. "No, I've been there once—a while ago, now. It seemed…nice enough. Pleasant. Her mother was friendly. You'd probably like her, Beth-chan."
"Um, okay." Beth was not sure where this was going. "So what's the matter, then?"
"Nothing's the matter," Nanako snapped. "Everything's fine, Beth-chan, everything's just perfect."
Then she looked up at Beth, meeting her eyes at last, and gave her a peculiar smile. "Why, Iku-chan even had a pet once. A puppy. She actually even named it 'puppy'—'Koinu-chan.' Isn't that cute? You should ask her about it sometime, Beth-chan."
She stood up suddenly. Her fists were clenched. She said, to nobody in particular, "I need a drink of water." Then she turned and walked away.
Eitoku watched her go, his mouth open. He glanced over at Beth and said, "Excuse me," then got up and ran after her.
Beth was left alone, watching the two of them. She saw Nanako pause, some distance off, as Eitoku caught up with her. The two of them started talking, and went on together. Neither of them went anywhere near a drinking fountain.
After a little, Beth said, "Huh?"
"So what was that all about?" demanded Eitoku.
"Nothing," said Nanako sharply. "I just couldn't stand—" She broke off, looking away from him. At last she said, in an almost wistful voice, "Do you ever feel guilty, 'Toku-chan?"
"Guilty?" Eitoku shook his head, uncomprehending. There were times—quite a lot of times, to be honest—when he simply could not fathom Nanako. Her mind worked around sharp, twisty little corners, and usually she seemed to be several turns ahead of him. "About what?"
Again she did not answer at once. Then, very quietly, she said, "I'm not sure. I'm…just afraid. I'm afraid I might be right."
"Nana-chan, I don't understand a single thing you're saying." He pushed his glasses up his nose, and in that moment it came to him. "This is something about Iku-san, isn't it? What is it? What do you feel guilty about? This isn't like you—"
"She told me about her puppy once, you see." Nanako's eyes were still far-off. There was a slight catch in her voice as she said, "And I've been running away from it ever since. I suspected, but I…I was afraid. I didn't want to—to look behind the curtain."
Abruptly she whirled and gripped him by the forearm. "But it doesn't matter now. I've given Beth-chan the hint, and now she'll look and find out what they're hiding, and then it'll be all right. She'll do it, 'Toku-chan. You may not think so, but Beth-chan is strong. Stronger than me."
Bitterly, she added, "I'm no hero."
Suzue went to school looking forward to an interesting day. She would be gaining a new schoolmate, for one thing.
It had been a shock when Hayashi Miyo had become Hiyama Makoto, but a pleasant surprise when she'd announced that she would be transferring to Suzue's school. Suzue was sorry that the girl's life was being turned upside-down yet again, of course; but all the same, the rather daunting religious issues notwithstanding, she had come to like and respect Makoto, and looked forward to helping her settle in.
It was a peculiar time to start a new school, just a week before they broke for the holidays; but Makoto had been adamant. "Get it over with," she had said. "Plus, this way I get to meet everyone without having to worry too much about schoolwork for a while."
Suzue made sure that she arrived in plenty of time. When she got there, she saw Keiko and paused inside the gates for a while, chatting idly. They discussed their respective weekends, though of course Suzue left certain details out of her own account. As she spoke, she kept an eye on the school gates.
Five minutes later she saw Makoto walk through the gates, wearing a brand-new Hibari school uniform: dull olive jacket and trousers with copper piping on the sleeves, and a lighter blouse underneath the jacket.
"Excuse me," she said to Keiko. "That's the girl I told you about the other day. I should say hello."
"Oh, the new one?" replied Keiko, interested; but Suzue was already heading away.
Makoto had stopped just inside the gate and was looking around, visibly uncomfortable. When she saw Suzue coming she relaxed, smiling. Suzue smiled back and said, "Good morning."
"Hi." Makoto glanced around again, craning her neck up at the main building. "Looks a nice enough place…I guess." Her mouth twisted in a wry grimace, and Suzue gave her a curious look. Makoto said, "Sorry. Bad memories. In my—" She dropped her voice. "In my last life, when I was a teenager…I changed schools a lot. This brings it back, a little."
"I'm sorry—" began Suzue, but Makoto waved her quiet.
"Not your fault. Hey, don't worry; I'll be fine." For a moment, her face hardened into something tough and cynical: the look of a girl who'd seen it all and wasn't going to let it beat her. Seeing it, Suzue wondered if she were glimpsing the past: Kino Makoto as she had been before she met the Blessed Lady. But then Makoto's face softened once more. She let out a breath, glanced at Suzue, and winked.
"So," she said, "brief me. What do I need to know here? Who are the teachers to avoid? And—" Again, she grinned. "When do I finally meet this boyfriend of yours?"
Suzue felt herself blush. "Minoru-kun is—" She caught herself. "Um, maybe later? And the teachers—"
"Joking, Suzue-chan!" Makoto laughed out loud. "Well—mostly joking. Anyway, I don't really have time for anything right now. I need to go to the school office and do all their paperwork, I guess."
"All right. The offices are this way—" They started toward the main building, but a few seconds later the final bell went, and Suzue sighed. "I have to get to class. Look, the offices are inside the main door, on the left. There's a sign that says 'Secretary'; you can't miss it." Makoto nodded. "I'll see you at lunchtime, all right? Good luck!"
"See you, Suzue-chan."
They parted, and Suzue turned toward one of the side entrances, closer to her classroom. Still smiling, she was nearly at the door when she felt someone grab her roughly by the arm.
"Suzue-chan," said her assailant, "you've been a bad girl."
She turned, bewildered, to see Kubota Rinako standing there—and her heart sank. Rinako had been one of Suzue's particular tormentors at school for years now, ever since the day when a very young and naïve Suzue had stood up in class, introduced herself, and told them all what she believed. Things had been pretty bad for a while back then. It had tapered off eventually, and nowadays the physical bullying was a thing of the past; but while it had lasted, there had been times when it had been savage.
"Kubota-san?" she said, still confused. "What—?"
Rinako pushed her back against the wall, hard, cutting her off. "Saw you talking to the new girl, Suzue-chan. Spreading the Loonie word again." She shook her head. "Too bad; thought you'd wised up. Guess I was wrong."
Suzue froze. A yawning chasm opened up in the pit of her stomach. This couldn't be happening, not now! But the grip on her arm, tight enough to hurt, was far too real, and with a shock she realised that she had been too hasty in thinking it was all over.
"But—no, you've got it wrong, Kubota-san," she said desperately. "I wasn't talking to her about that, honestly! I was just saying hello to her, and—"
"I'll bet." Rinako smiled lazily. She was a big girl, solidly built and strong, with short, mannish hair. She looked stupid but she was wasn't, not quite. Suzue knew that she had no chance of breaking free.
"Maybe that's even true," Rinako said, shaking her head. "Saying hello. Softening her up before you try to pull her in. Is that what the other Loonies teach you to do? Well, it doesn't matter now. The others will make sure New Girl knows what's what."
Suzue stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending. Then she realised, and looked around over her shoulder. Some distance away, near the main doors, another girl—one Suzue knew all too well—had stopped Makoto and was talking to her.
Oh, no. No, no, no.
She felt a cold chill as she realised what was about to happen, and far too late, the words came back to her: My advice would be to tell them soon. The longer you leave it, the worse it will be.
Now it was too late indeed. And as she thought it, as the realisation sank in, she saw Makoto turn her head, look straight into her eyes…and even from this distance, she could see the shock and betrayal on the girl's face.
Then Makoto looked away, and marched into the school building. She was moving fast, her body stiff. Suzue made a frantic effort to break free, to run after her, to try to explain—but it was no use. The hand on her arm did not budge.
"Now, now," said Rinako. "You can't leave just yet. We haven't finished our chat."
With her free hand, she made a gesture, and three more students stepped into view: two boys and a girl. Suzue knew them all, sometimes from her nightmares. She looked around…but there was nobody in sight. Everyone else had gone in to class.
"I think," said Rinako, "that it's time for a little reminder."
She raised her hand, the fist clenched…and the other three moved in to help, and then the talking stopped, and the reminding began.
"So," said Kin, "what's the big news?"
"Well, now." Dhiti studied her fingernails. "Where do I start?"
The two of them were sitting outside, underneath a broad, shady tree. It was lunchtime and the grounds were full of students, but they had the immediate area to themselves for now. A group of boys were playing with a basketball not far away; Mark and Liam were among them. To Dhiti's private delight, Liam kept throwing surreptitious glances in Kin's direction. Even better, now and then she caught Kin looking back.
"I dunno," said Kin dryly, "but I'm sure you'll think of something." She glanced around and added in a lower voice, "Is it something to do with the Senshi?"
"Of course." Dhiti fixed her with an unblinking stare, dropped her voice to match Kin's, and said, "Something happened to Hayashi on Saturday night. She was suddenly kidnapped by aliens from the planet Zelta and carried away to become their queen—ow. You didn't have to hit that hard, Kin-chan."
"Idiot. Just tell me, okay? Is Miyo-chan all right?"
"Um. She's fine, actually. She got into a bit of trouble, but we took care of it." Dhiti rubbed her arm, and gave Kin a reproachful look. "You could just call her yourself, you know. You've got her number."
"I know. It just…feels weird. Having to call her a different name, and everything."
"Try having to see her like that."
"Yeah, yeah. So what," Kin repeated, "is the big news?"
"Ah." Dhiti studied her briefly, and then looked up into the branches of the tree, as if seeking for inspiration. "Actually, I'm not quite sure how to put this. It's, er, about your boyfriend." She gestured out toward Liam.
"He is not my boyfriend!" Kin said automatically. Then she paused, and blinked at Dhiti. "Uh…news about him? What news?"
"See, it turns out that…that is, we kind of think that…well, he might be, er, Tuxedo Kamen reborn. You've been dating Queen Serenity's husband, Kin-chan. Try not to let it go to your head."
"They're talking about you," said Mark in English.
"And why should I care?" replied Liam sullenly, in the same language.
"Oh, no reason. 'Cause, you know, it definitely doesn't mean she's still interested in you or anything." Mark gave him a pained look. "Bonehead."
"Yeah, well, that's probably what they're talking about, then: what a bonehead I am." Liam caught the ball, did a fast sidestep, and took a long shot at the basket. It missed hopelessly. "You too, probably," he added.
Mark sighed. "Look, just talk to her."
"Oh, that's fine advice, coming from you! And how would you be coming along, talking to Miyo Hayashi, then?"
"Dammit—" Mark ignored the basketball that shot past his head, missing him by a hair. "That's not the same thing, and you know it. If I could find Miyo—"
"And if Kin would talk to me," Liam said with a wintry smile. "She's mad crazy, man. She tells me I ought to go join the Loonies, and then she walks away and she won't talk to me since. What am I supposed to do about that?"
"You could join the Loonies?" Mark suggested. A moment later, his grin faded. "But she's still watching you, Li. She still watches."
"Maybe I should try a dashing secret identity," said Liam, his voice and eyes distant. "With a top hat and cane. Sweep her off her feet, and then—" He paused, and suddenly blinked. "What am I talking about?"
Mark studied him carefully. "I have no clue. Let me know if you find out, huh?"
"God damn. Crazy dreams, and now this! I need a break. Thank God there's only a week to go." Liam rubbed his eyes and stood for a moment. When he spoke again, it was in Japanese once more. "You know, Dhiti-san probably knows where Miyo-san is."
"Sure. Maybe I should try following her after school, huh?" Mark grinned. "In my top hat and cane."
"Oh, get stuffed."
"There, you see? You're feeling better already. Look out behind you, by the way."
In one smooth motion, Liam whirled and caught the basketball that was about to hit his face, then jumped up and took a ridiculously long shot from midair. The ball hovered on the lip of the hoop for an endless moment, then went in.
"I suppose so," he said.
"Not funny, Dhiti-chan," said Kin.
"No," said Dhiti. "But this one's true. Sorry."
"But—but—" Kin looked over to where Liam and Mark were arguing, while their basketball game flowed on around them. "But he can't be!" she protested. "He's—" She broke off, then said, more quietly, "Oh, damn, he is, isn't he? He looks just like King Endymion—"
"—Except for the hair," Dhiti finished for her.
"—Except that he's a Claver," Kin finished at the same moment.
They glanced at each other. "Uh…the hair," Kin said. "Right." But then her eyes returned to Liam. "He can't be," she repeated, shaking her head in denial. "King Endymion can't be reborn as a Claver!"
Dhiti glanced down at one dark-skinned hand. "Something wrong with Clavers?" she inquired casually.
"Well, duh. Everyone knows you guys are out to conquer the world and make the rest of us your adoring slaves."
"Oh. That…was supposed to be a secret, actually."
"As if! You just wish—" Again, Kin broke off, her eyes straying back to the young man in the playing field. "Oh, God. He—are you sure, Dhiti-chan? Really sure?"
"Sure? No." Dhiti shrugged. "But we were about to get our asses kicked on Saturday night, Kin-chan, until Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Kamen showed up and bailed us out. And Tuxedo Kamen had a strong Eirish accent. So what am I supposed to think?"
Kin looked at her with haunted eyes and drew a slow, ragged breath. "God. It explains everything, doesn't it?" She paused, then went on, "That night…when we broke up. We were out on a date, and we were just sitting in the park, and he had his arms around me and everything was going just fine—" She flicked her eyes over to Liam once more, then looked down. She was actually wringing her hands now. "And then suddenly, out of the blue, he started whispering in my ear that…that I ought to grow my hair long again and do it up in…in o-odango…"
Dhiti stared at her for one incredulous moment. Then she started to laugh.
"Damn you, Dhiti-chan, it is not funny!"
"Yes…yes, it is, Kin-chan…" Dhiti tried to stifle her mirth, but without much success. "Yes, it is. Oh—oh—oh, my." She wiped her eyes. "Really? He said that?"
"Yeah," said Kin, her lips tight. "It wasn't the first time, either. So I got mad, and told him he ought to go join the Loonies, and he—Dhiti-chan, he looked so confused. Looking back at it now, I don't think he even realised what he'd said."
Dhiti thought about it, finally sober once more. "That might fit. Hayashi said something about him probably not knowing who he was."
"Great. Just great." Kin leaned back against the tree, silent for a few seconds. "So, I've been dating King Endymion…the husband of Queen Serenity…and I can personally attest that he's a great kisser. This is wrong on just so many counts, Dhiti-chan." She shook her head glumly. "What am I going to do?"
Slowly, Dhiti started to smile. "I may have an idea."
Between classes, as they passed in the corridor, Ochiyo saw that Suzue was sporting a new brand-new black eye and a startling collection of fresh bruises. She nodded thoughtfully to herself. This wasn't the first time, though it was the first in quite a while. The work of Kubota and her crowd, probably. She wondered what had set them off.
She and Suzue exchanged glances, and Ochiyo raised her eyebrows and started to speak; but Suzue shook her head quickly and moved on.
Ochiyo continued to ponder the matter for the rest of the morning, in odd moments when she could ignore the droning of the teachers. It was clear that she needed to do something, but she was not sure what, yet.
It would help if she knew Suzue a little better. The two of them had never been close, though; they'd spoken a couple times in class, but that was all. Until Saturday night, when the other girl had revealed herself, knelt at Ochiyo's feet, and offered homage…
And with that thought, instantly, Ochiyo knew what she was going to do.
She even had an idea, at the back of her mind, that today was the perfect day to do it. But that would be easy to check. When lunchtime came, Ochiyo headed for the school library.
Makoto prowled the Hibari school grounds at lunchtime, feeling lonely, bewildered, and (though she tried hard to deny this, especially to herself) a little bit afraid.
The news had come as a horrible shock.
She had been nervous about starting a new school today; she'd had too much experience with frequent transfers in her previous life. On the other hand, it did mean an escape from the undeniable problems at her old school, Aosagi. Plus there was only a week to go before the holidays; and, most of all, she knew that there was a friend here already. So in a way, despite the nervousness, she was almost looking forward to it.
Then came those brief few sentences, murmured in her ear outside the main doors this morning. They were…startling. She did not really believe them, not until she looked across the courtyard and saw the stunned expression on Suzue's face: the horrified look of someone who had been caught out. Then the realisation hit her like a ton of bricks: that it was actually true. That a girl she had been starting to like could be one of those.
Suzue was a Loonie.
It did not take long to confirm it. She only had to ask. Some of the students she spoke to didn't recognise Suzue's name; not too surprising, since they weren't in the same class. But a surprising number had heard of her, and every last one of them agreed.
A Loonie. A member of the crazy cult that worshipped Queen Serenity. Worshipped Makoto's friend, Tsukino Usagi; the very idea was enough to make her feel queasy. She tried to imagine what Serenity would have thought about it, and could only picture her face screwed up in a look of shock and dismay. Heaven knew, Crystal Tokyo had had its share of crackpots—but at least they had spared the queen that.
Yet now, seven hundred years later, the unthinkable was among them. The Senshi had a Loonie in their midst, one of their own number. The idea was simply appalling.
Oh, everyone knew about the Loonies. They were generally shunned, and for good reason. 'Crackpot' was the kindest name that could be given them. They were the ones who handed out incoherent leaflets in the street, or held crazy, impassioned rallies in public places. That much was harmless enough, and mostly people just laughed at them. But there were darker stories, too: articles in some of the newsies about people who'd been kidnapped by the cult and brainwashed; or nightmarish confessions of de-programmed ex-Loonies. Rumours of members who had themselves surgically altered to look like the queen or her Senshi; the very thought gave Makoto the shivers. Even whispers of assaults on Clavers, supposedly prompted by the way Serenity had exiled to Nemesis the malcontents who would not accept her rule. (The histories always made the decision sound so cold. But Makoto had been there, and that was not the way it had been. She remembered the agony of that time.)
Yes, mostly people just laughed. But often, there was a note of doubt hidden in their laughter; an element of uncertainty, even fear. Because there were aliens in their midst, madmen among them, and who knew what they were capable of? Who knew what their crazy religion might prompt them to do next?
Her head was buzzing. Makoto sat down in a shady spot overlooking the tennis courts, but the sound of other students at play did nothing to ease the turmoil in her mind. Try as she might to think of something else, she kept coming back to the situation, again and again. Suzue was a Loonie. A Loonie.
And that was not even the worst part.
Lies. Secrets, deception and lies; that was the core of it. Lies, as she had learned, that cut like a knife. Suzue was a Loonie, and she had hidden the truth from the rest of them.
The voice of her father echoed in Makoto's mind, dark and solemn: A lie of omission is still a lie. She winced, half-closing her eyes as if blinded by the sun.
A Loonie among the Senshi. A cuckoo in the family. Her father had called Makoto that, too.
The truth came back to haunt them all, didn't it?
No. Makoto clenched her fists. She had to be missing something; there had to be more than that. Suzue was a Senshi. She was Sailor Uranus. Makoto could not just dismiss her like that. There had to be a reason. She had to work it out.
She needed, she realised then, to talk to somebody. She thought about calling Seki, but she already knew what Seki would say; she could almost picture the explosion. She thought about calling Dhiti, but Dhiti would only make a joke of it. Who did that leave, that Makoto could trust?
Artemis, perhaps; and at that thought, she felt a feeling of almost palpable relief. The cat was not always reliable—he had done a fine enough job of messing up Makoto's memories—but there was nothing wrong with his judgement. She could go around to Dhiti's place after school and talk the thing over with him. He would find a way to make sense of it all, somehow. She was sure of it.
She glanced at her watch and saw that lunch break was nearly over. Rubbing her forehead—she had developed a headache—she got up and started back toward class.
Inside once more, the pain in her head eased and she walked briskly, feeling almost relaxed. Then, some distance ahead, a door opened and she saw Ochiyo coming out of a room that she vaguely recalled was the library. Makoto blinked. In the midst of everything else, she had almost forgotten that Ochiyo went to Hibari too.
Ochiyo had not noticed her, and Makoto started forward to greet the girl. She was the ideal one to talk to about this whole situation, after all; who could be better? But then, a moment later, Makoto froze in place as she realised something else.
Ochiyo and Suzue had been going to the same school for a long time already. They knew each other; they even shared a Home Ec class. And everyone at this school knew about Suzue—everyone. That meant that Ochiyo knew too.
And she hadn't said a word.
More secrets. More lies.
Feeling more alone than ever, Makoto turned away. Her headache had come back. She spent the rest of her break trying to find another way to look at the situation, but she could find nothing. Turning it over and over in her head, brooding endlessly…
…And starting to get angry.
Another closed session of the Serenity Council. The chairman grimaced. They were becoming far too common, of late; but word had gotten out, and the other councillors needed to be appeased.
At least Twelve wasn't here.
He sat down at the council table, sparing a momentary glance at the small brass plate bearing the numeral '1' set into the table surface in front of him. If he had been alone, he would have scowled at the sight. Back before he'd become a councillor, he'd thought it was a good idea, calling everyone by numbers instead of names. It emphasised the role, rather than the personality; it said that they were here to do a job. Now, though, all he could think was how dehumanising it was.
As if we weren't inhuman enough already!
He nodded to the other councillors, and they hushed. Only Two, Three, Five and Seven were here today; they were the only ones who knew the truth about 'M' Division. And even they, he sometimes thought, were too many.
The chairman cleared his throat and said without preliminaries, "All right. It seems you've already heard the news, so let me confirm it. In brief: the Senshi raided 'M' Division last night. They found the underground laboratory, and M herself has escaped."
No need to mention the matter of the Interdiction Controller to them. That could remain his little secret for a while longer. Until he knew exactly who to trust.
Number Seven was the first to react, as he might have guessed. "How could you allow this to happen!" he whined. "How did the Senshi learn about M? If they've got her now, we don't—"
Five looked around at him, and he cut off immediately. Seven had always been a little afraid of the head of 'W' Division. But she only said, in a mild tone, "Perhaps we should hear the whole story before we panic."
"Indeed," said the chairman. "Thank you. As it happens, we are quite certain that M did not leave in the company of the Senshi. Her exact method of egress is somewhat mysterious, in fact, though the latest report I have suggests that—" he glanced down at a paper on the desk before him "—she somehow managed to fly out," he finished with a faint frown.
"Fly?" exclaimed Three, startled.
"Indeed. After erasing her records quite thoroughly, I should add. We still do not know exactly how she accomplished…either feat."
"It hardly matters how she got out, does it?" asked Seven waspishly. "What matters is that she's gone. That woman is a priceless asset to Japan—a one-woman technological lead over the rest of the world! We created a whole division just to hide her, for heaven's sake. Without her—"
"Let's not get carried away," suggested Two. As ever, he remained calm and in control. "We've had M for twenty or thirty years, and I dare say she's been valuable. But—"
"But nothing," Seven retorted. Scowling at Two, he said, "She invented the Opal single-handed, how's that for valuable? They say only half a dozen other mathematicians in the world can even follow the equations for how the damn things work. Or how about Aracel? She did most of the basic research that led—"
"My point," interrupted Two smoothly, "is that while her loss is significant, it is hardly critical. We survived before her. We will survive after."
"Always assuming it remains a loss," said Five thoughtfully. "Number Three, I assume your people will be looking for her."
"Of course," said Three, nodding. "Her description has been circulated through 'S' and 'P' Divisions. But you'll appreciate that we have to be circumspect; we can hardly tell everyone that they're looking for the Serenity Council's secret super-genius."
"What do you think of the chances of recapturing her?" asked Two. He looked at the chairman, not at Three.
The chairman hesitated. "Quite good," he said after a moment. "The physical evidence in her laboratory suggests that she left in a hurry; it's possible that the Senshi's raid forced her hand in some way. So she was probably not as prepared as she might have liked. Also, one must remember that she has been our prisoner for a considerable length of time. She may find the world outside her laboratory…different from what she expects."
"Exactly," said Three. "She'll be lost, alone, and bewildered. I think our chances of taking her are excellent."
"Hm," Two said thoughtfully. "I wonder."
The chairman raised his eyebrows. "You doubt it?"
"I think that a woman with as formidable a mind as M would not have escaped, in a hurry or otherwise, unless she had a definite goal in mind."
There was a short silence. Then Five said quietly, "And there also arises the question of whether she may try to work against us—or may be used against us. She knows a great deal."
"Mm. Enough to be inconvenient, yes." The chairman pursed his lips. "What, then?"
"We need to anticipate. At a minimum, all 'M' Division security systems should be updated immediately. By preference, all other divisions as well." Five paused, and her lips quirked in the merest hint of a smile. "We can claim it's in response to a Sankaku intrusion, I suppose."
There were nods around the table. Then, slowly, Two said, "I wonder if we should go further than that."
Again, the chairman raised his eyebrows.
"Number Seven is right that M is an important technical loss. Not just for the country, but for us. Genuine polymath geniuses of her calibre are rare, and I dare say we've all benefited from her skills. But there's an ancient proverb about eggs and baskets."
The chairman could not restrain a smile. He said, "And so?"
"Whether she's recaptured or not, I think we should move to reduce our dependence on a single resource. We should significantly expand the R&D facilities of 'K' Division. That will be a popular move in a lot of sectors; putting money into science makes us look forward-thinking. But we can take the same opportunity to expand 'M' Division as well, behind the scenes. Start recruiting technical personnel in all specialities, from all areas. Unconventional thinkers: people with imagination, not career types. It will, at a minimum, leave us better positioned against…well, against a number of fronts."
"Try to substitute quantity for quality?" the chairman inquired with a dubious frown. "Not usually a very effective solution."
"No, but it's a good deal better than doing nothing at all. And if M is recaptured, as our friend Number Three promises—" he shot a sardonic smile at Three, who glared in return "—then the effort still won't be a waste. Basic research never is."
"There are those who would disagree." The chairman shrugged, then nodded. "It's not a bad thought," he admitted. It dovetailed rather nicely with some of his own thinking, as a matter of fact, though he was hardly about to say that out loud.
"We'll need to raise this at a full Council meeting, and discuss a budget with Number Four," put in Seven.
"True," the chairman replied. "But Four doesn't need to know about 'M' Division, of course. I have discretionary funds there; actually, there's no reason not to start recruiting immediately. In fact, there's just one problem…"
Two frowned. "What?"
"You want to expand 'K' Division—but that's Twelve's department. So, do you want to be the one to inform her, or shall I?"
The chairman watched, with well-concealed satisfaction, as Two's eyes widened and the man actually turned pale. Around the table, Three and Seven also stiffened and looked away. Five, he saw with interest, showed no reaction at all.
"I take I should be the bearer of tidings," he said dryly. "Very well. Is there any other business, before we close?"
"Yes, actually," said Five. "We still haven't talked about 'M' Division itself—and the security breach on Saturday night. How did the Senshi know to go there? And what else have they learned?"
"Do they know about us?" added Seven.
The chairman nodded. "Yes," he said, "I believe so." Slowly, he began to smile. "And about time, too."
The meeting went on for another twenty minutes, discussing implications and ramifications. Very little of it was likely to be of any use in the long run, but the chairman did make two or three mental notes of points that had not already occurred to him. He did not write them down, of course; his hands no longer had that kind of flexibility.
Afterward, he spoke privately to Three. "The idea of enlarging our technical base is a good one," he said, "but there's a problem. Where the 'M' Division expansion is concerned, we can hardly advertise what we're recruiting people for! At least to begin with, I think we may want to focus on people who already have a background in…desirable areas."
Three made a wry face. "You're saying you want to strip 'S' Division's best technical staff," he said.
"Only some of them," the chairman replied calmly. "'D' Division, too, and probably a few others. Come, now; you knew this was what we were talking about."
"I suppose so," Three grumbled. Then his expression changed. In a very different tone, he said, "Actually, this might be even useful. There's a group in my division that's been…getting a little too close to some things they don't need to know."
"Well, then," the chairman said, smiling. "You see how easy it can be?"
ATTN: MITSUKAI SENRITSU (LT) CBN466032F
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Early on Monday afternoon, a middle-aged woman with long, lank grey hair knocked on Nakada Akio's window. It startled him a little, because—quite apart anything else—he was sitting in a fifteenth-floor office.
He went over to the window and looked out…and then down. She was not standing on anything; she seemed to be hovering in midair. There was a bulky device of some kind, like a large backpack, strapped to her back.
He took another look. Nope; no jets of flame belching out from the bottom of the device. It wasn't a rocket pack, then. Not that he'd ever heard of a practical, functioning rocket pack; but you never knew.
She knocked on the window again: a gentle rap, this time. "Have you seen enough yet?" she asked politely. Her voice was muffled, indistinct through the glass, but he could make her out well enough.
He cleared his throat. "Ah…yes, thank you."
"Could you let me in, then, dear? I can't stay here forever. Someone down below will notice."
Was this some kind of fantastic practical joke? It was the sort of thing Koji or Senzo would pull if they could, but how? He couldn't see a wire. It suddenly occurred to him that if the woman were dangling from something attached to the backpack—or even if she were wearing a real rocket pack—she'd be hanging heavily from the straps. But she wasn't. She might have been strolling gently down the street…except that her legs hung limply below her.
"Er. The window doesn't open, I'm afraid," he said.
She sighed, almost inaudibly. "Stand back, then. And cover your eyes." She reached for something attached to her belt.
Akio hid behind the desk instead. He was not entirely stupid, and however impossible this all was, he suspected that his office was about to be filled with shards of flying glass.
There wasn't any explosion, though. Instead he felt a wave of heat roll over him, and when he poked his head up again he saw a big hole in the middle of the window. The edges were rippled and distorted, and a little trickle of red-hot molten glass was still dripping from the bottom down onto the carpet. The carpet was beginning to smoke quite heavily.
There was a horrible smell for a few seconds, but then it was blown away by the fresh air coming from outside. If this was a hallucination, it was impressively detailed.
The old woman did something to a control pad strapped to her wrist. She floated up a little, and then forward. She had to duck her head and squirm a little to get through the hole without touching the sides. Akio regained enough presence of mind to reach up and help her down to the floor. He took the opportunity to pick up his drinking water bottle and sprinkle the contents over the burning carpet.
"Thank you," the old woman said. She did something to her control pad again, and suddenly the backpack sagged down on her back. Akio had to put out a hand and catch her to stop her from falling. She was breathing rather hard, he saw now that she was up close. Her face was pale. And her hair definitely needed a wash. So did the rest of her, actually.
"Um," he said. "Um…"
She pulled a little piece of paper from her pocket and glanced at it. "I do hope I've got the right office," she said. "Are you Nakada Akio?"
"Ah. Yes?" He was beginning to enjoy this, to tell the truth. It made no sense, but it was delightfully whimsical.
"Of the Sankaku Clans? Cyber division, Shinpo clan?"
She smiled at him.
And in an instant, his befuddlement was gone, swept away by the rush of cold fear that flooded through his mind. There was no possible way she could know that. This was some kind of trap. And he was standing here gawping at her like an idiot—
He staggered back, then whirled and tried to rush for the door. Before he had got more than two steps, he heard a low humming sound from behind him, and the door handle suddenly glowed a dull red.
"Now, now," the old woman said calmly. "There's no need for that, dear."
He looked back over his shoulder. She was just standing there, watching him. She was still smiling, though somehow the expression no longer looked friendly.
"Who…who are you?" Akio whispered. "What do you want? And…and how did you get up here, anyway?"
She nodded in approval. "Asking the right questions at last," she said. "My name is M—and as for how I got here, this thing on my back is a personal Opal field generator."
It took him a couple of seconds to grasp what she had said. "Personal?" he said stupidly. "There's no such thing. The, the multiplex phase fields can't be made to focus that tightly. It's a physical law."
Her eyes narrowed slightly, and her smile changed for a moment, becoming one of real pleasure. "Really," she said. "How interesting." Then, sardonically: "I guess I can't have flown up here, then."
For no obvious reason, he found himself shivering. He suddenly realised that he was afraid of her, of this mad old woman. There was something unnerving in her eyes, and the way she knew far too much. Something in the way she stood and smiled at him and spoke so politely—and yet kept her thumb firmly on her control pad.
"What do you want?" he asked again.
"Why, I've come here to talk to your leaders," she answered. Her smile widened and seemed to change once more: to become something bright and febrile and almost hungry; and involuntarily, he shuddered.
"You see, I think we might be of use to each other."
Makoto scowled to herself when she saw the dark-haired girl standing at the school gates after school, waiting. She had hoped to avoid this for a while yet, but there was no backing away from it now.
She had spent the afternoon dwelling on the problem, growing steadily more and more furious. How could Suzue do this to them! How could she betray them all like this?
For betrayal was exactly what it was. The Senshi were supposed to be a team; they were almost a family, in a way. They needed to be able to work together, to trust one other absolutely. But Suzue had been deceiving them all, right from the start. She was not in this to fight the enemy, to save the world; she was out to serve her twisted idea of a goddess. And who knew what she would do if the two came into conflict?
Oh, God, Serenity. I'm so sorry. How you would have hated this.
For that matter, who knew what Suzue had already done? That idea had come to Makoto suddenly in the middle of a long, dull math class, and it was scarily plausible. Who might Suzue have told, for example? Her fellow Loonies, surely; it was hard to believe that she had not revealed everything to them. How they must have enjoyed it! How they must have celebrated! And did Suzue enjoy it, too, being feted by the rest of the crazies? Makoto snorted. Of course she must.
(Is this true? her father said in the back of her mind. You are no true daughter of mine, but some kind of…cuckoo?)
What else had Suzue told them, though? Would she have revealed everything? Did the crazies know who Makoto was? Or Seki? Were they out there, even now…watching?
The situation had plagued Makoto all afternoon. But even beyond that was the purely personal betrayal. She had thought she could trust Suzue; she had even thought she liked her. But now she had found that the girl she thought she knew was a sham: a ragged fanatic, a disease in the name of religion. And this was what she and the others had in their midst? This was to be their teammate? It was beyond belief; far beyond tolerable. She could not accept it. She would not.
Somewhere deep inside, a nagging voice kept suggesting that she was being wildly unfair. Suzue was certainly no ragged fanatic; if anything, she went in the opposite direction, trying a little too hard for elegance. She had never given any impression of moral decay. Oh, she could be harsh, acerbic, that was true; but she was seldom wrong, just a little lacking in compassion or tact. And—
And the hell with it. Makoto was not going to make excuses for her. Suzue was a liar and a betrayer, poison in their midst, and Makoto was going to deal with her, and that would be that.
As she approached the gates, Suzue moved to intercept her. There was something odd about her appearance; her face was puffy, and she had a definite black eye. Makoto hesitated at the sight, then ignored it. She waited until Suzue was within speaking range and said, sharply, "Well?"
Suzue flinched. Then, in a resigned tone, she said, "I guess you've been…hearing some things about me."
"Oh, I don't know. What could I possibly have heard? Things like, say, you've been lying to us all along?"
Again, just for an instant, Suzue winced. "I haven't lied."
"A lie of omission is still a lie." Makoto gave a hollow laugh. "My father taught me that. Thanks, Dad."
"And is it so important, that I never mentioned what church I go to?" Suzue shook her head. "Does that really matter so much? Makoto-san, I assure you, I know what people think of it—what you're probably thinking right now. So I kept my mouth shut." She made a wry face, then grimaced as if in pain. "Trust me, I have plenty of practise in that."
"It matters," Makoto said in a cold voice. "It matters when you trample all over my friend's memory. When you…you piss all over everything she stood for. That matters."
Suzue narrowed her eyes at the words, but did not look away. She regarded Makoto for an uncomfortable length of time. Then something in her seemed to wilt. "And you'll never hear anything different, will you? No matter what I say. Your mind is made up."
"Goddamn right it is. You've lied to us, and you've betrayed us all. You've made your bed; now lie in it."
Suzue started to reply, then winced again and reached up to touch her swollen cheek. "And yet," she said softly. "And yet, I spoke to the Blessed Lady Serenity on Saturday night, just as you did. And she did not reject me, Makoto-san."
"Just shut your dirty mouth, all right?" Abruptly Makoto was sick of this. She felt…unclean, and more than a little bit disgusted: with Suzue and with herself. "Just go away. I don't want to hear the sound of your voice again."
"I—" Suzue wavered. Then she nodded. "All right. I'll go now. But you must realise we can't avoid each other. There'll be times when—" She lowered her voice. "When we have to fight together."
"Yeah? We'll see about that." Makoto turned away from her and started to stalk through the gate. Then something made her pause and she said, "What happened to your face, anyway?"
"My face?" Suzue stared at her incredulously, and let out something that could have been a rusty laugh. "Nothing that hasn't happened a dozen times before." She gave Makoto a look that was difficult to read. "What does it matter to you?" Then, without waiting for a reply, she pushed roughly past Makoto and started down the street.
Makoto watched her go, blinking in surprise. Then her darker mood returned. Walk away from me, will you? she thought furiously. She took a step after Suzue—and paused yet again as a hand touched her arm.
"Nicely done," someone said.
She whirled about, to see the girl who had warned her about Suzue that morning, standing there and giving her a friendly smile. "What—?"
"Very nicely done," the girl repeated, nodding in approval and gesturing toward Suzue. "Scrape them off; it's the only way that kind ever learn." She smiled once more, and offered a friendly hand. "I'm Mariko. Arita Mariko."
Makoto stared at her. Then she swatted her hand away, hard. "Just shut up, you," she snarled. "Just…shut up. This is your fault too."
"Well! I would have thought—"
But Makoto did not stay to hear what Arita Mariko would have thought. She flung her satchel over her shoulder and marched away, ignoring the indignant sniff behind her. Her thoughts were whirling; a hundred impulses, all of them crazy, raced through her mind. After a little while, she realised what she had to do.
She found a quiet spot where nobody could see her, lifted her Senshi communicator, and touched the tiny control panel. A second later, the screen lit up with Dhiti's face.
"Hi, Dhiti-chan," Makoto said. "Listen, there's something you need to know…"
When she was done with Dhiti, she called Beth. Then Iku, but Iku did not answer. Ochiyo, she did not need to bother with. Seki, she would see tonight. One way or another, they would all find out. They would all know the truth.
When she had finished committing her own betrayal, she picked up her satchel once more and trudged home. Her belly was churning again; her thoughts were slow and heavy, and thick with disgust and loathing. But the really baffling part was that she could not seem to decide whom she despised more: Suzue or herself.
Dhiti stared at her communicator. Makoto's call had been short; her voice had been terse and clipped, and Makoto herself had clearly been upset, but Dhiti was at a loss to understand why. So Suzue was a Loonie. That was interesting, but why was it a problem?
On the other hand…Suzue was a Loonie. That was interesting. Slowly, Dhiti began to smile.
Beth walked home from school, still turning over in her mind what Nanako had said to her at lunchtime. It was mystifying. What could be so important about a puppy? She was half-minded to call Iku that evening, just to clear the matter up.
Then she got a comm message from Makoto, and when it was finished she had something new to think about. Her thoughts were filled with the awful memory of a time weeks before: of a policeman, one who had knelt at her feet, offered her reverence, and tried to kiss her hand. Over and over again she saw it, and felt again the sickening fear. Knowing that Suzue, whom she had been beginning to think of as a friend, was cut of the same cloth.
By the time she reached home, she was too befuddled and upset to do more than grunt to her mother and Bendis. Any thought of calling Iku was long gone.
When Suzue got home, her mother looked at her face, sighed, then helped her clean up without a word. It was nothing either of them had not dealt with before. Itagaki Aiko had taken her own beatings when she was at school, and since. They were a simple fact of life.
When Suzue peeled off her blouse and pants, there were more bruises underneath. At least Rinako and her cohorts had not drawn blood. They were always careful; blood would make the teachers take notice. Well, whatever their reasons, she was glad of the restraint.
A long, hot shower helped more. Then she dressed again, in her good clothes, and paused a moment in the family shrine to kneel, bow her head before the altar, and trace a crescent on her forehead.
Why can't she see? she asked the painting of Serenity above the altar. It's so obvious, so why can't any of them see?
No answer came from the painting. Instead she remembered the golden figure in Itsuko's office two nights before, tall, beautiful and majestic. Remembered her words: Rise, faithful one. And: I know what trials you face.
She rose. Feeling a lot better, she went out into the living room. Her mother was there, also dressed in her good clothes. The older woman had laid out three plates of food on the table: just a light snack, for now. It was Monday, and they would eat dinner late tonight.
Suzue knelt at the table and picked at her food in a desultory way. Her mother waited a discreet interval before asking, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Suzue sighed. "It wasn't even my fault," she said. She told her mother what had happened, though she referred to Makoto only as 'a friend of a friend' and, of course, left out the Senshi aspect. "She was so bitter, after school," she said. "Nothing I could say…it wasn't like I'd been trying to convert her, or anything. I never even mentioned the church to her! But as soon as she knew about it…she didn't want anything to do with me any more."
Aiko nodded. She reached out and drew Suzue to her, holding her close and stroking her hair. "I know," she said sadly. "They never do, do they? Not most of them."
"I just—I thought she'd be different," Suzue said. "I thought—she ought to be different."
The stroking did not falter. "Oh? Why?"
For a long time, Suzue did not reply. Then she said, "No reason. I'm just being silly." She clung to her mother for a moment longer, then sat upright once more. "I guess I was daydreaming," she said bitterly, half to herself.
Aiko raised one eyebrow, but did not reply. Instead she said, "Eat up. We have to leave soon."
"Yeah. Right." Suzue pulled her plate to her once more. "Where's Daddy, anyway? He's late."
"He called earlier; he's been held up at work. You know they don't make allowances for—"
Aiko broke off as they heard a sudden knock at the door. Suzue huffed, then stood up from the table. "I'll get it," she said. "He probably left his keys at home again. He always—"
She broke off in surprise as she opened the door. It was not her father on the doorstep. It was another face, less familiar…and wholly unexpected.
"Ochiyo-san?" she said, startled. "What are you doing here?"
"Um. Hello," said Ochiyo. This was not the warm, confident girl Suzue had spoken to after the raid on 'M' Division. She actually looked nervous. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I? I'm sorry to interrupt. I guess you're surprised to see me. Um." Ochiyo blinked at her for a moment, then said in a rush, "See, I wanted to ask you something—and it's kind of awkward."
Suzue sighed. "This is about what happened at school today, isn't it?"
"Well, sort of. It's about what you—"
Shaking her head, Suzue interrupted her. "I'm sorry, Ochiyo-san." In a lower voice, she added, "Ochiyo-sama." Then, in a normal tone once more: "We were about to go out—my family and I—and it's really not a good time."
"No! No, that's what I wanted to ask you!" Ochiyo took a deep breath, and went on, "You're going to church tonight, right? I've been doing some reading, and the—the Church of Serenity has services on Mondays, right?"
"Well…yes. Uh, why?"
"Because I want to go with you."
Suzue stared at her, dumbfounded. This, above all, she had never imagined; not in her wildest dreams. The very idea was so ridiculous, so utterly ludicrous that it could only be some kind of joke—
"I want to go with you," Ochiyo repeated. "If it's not too much trouble."
She was not joking, Suzue realised with a sense of utter bewilderment. She actually meant it. "Really?" she said, in what seemed to her to be a frighteningly small voice.
"Yes." Dropping her voice a little, Ochiyo murmured, "The other night, I told you that I didn't know, remember? Well, maybe I should find out. And—" She paused, biting her lip, then said, "This is important to you. Really important, right?" She waited for Suzue's nod, and went on, "So I guess I ought to at least know something about it. Okay?"
"But—" Suzue stumbled for words. "But you don't have to—"
"You don't want me? Or—oh. Is it even allowed? I didn't think, but maybe you've got some kind of rule—"
"No! I mean, yes! I mean—" For the first time, Suzue took a closer look at her, and saw what Ochiyo was wearing. Sombre, dignified, almost formal clothes. Ochiyo was dressed for church.
"You would be very welcome," she finished helplessly.
"Thank you," replied Ochiyo, and smiled.
They hovered awkwardly on the doorstep for a minute longer, before Suzue remembered herself and invited Ochiyo in. They went through to the living room, where Suzue introduced Ochiyo to her mother, and explained what she was here for.
Aiko looked astonished for a tiny fraction of a second, before covering it with a welcoming smile. "Please, sit down," she said, indicating the table. "I'll get you a plate." She hurried out of the room.
Ochiyo's face was bright red. She knelt at the table obediently, giving a slightly dubious glance at the plates. "I'm not actually all that hungry," she mumbled.
"It's a timing thing," Suzue murmured back. "Dinner will be late, after church, so we usually have a snack before."
"Oh. Okay." Ochiyo looked as if she were about to add something more, but at that moment Aiko bustled back in, carrying a fourth plate, which she laid before Ochiyo. It contained rather more than the other three plates, Suzue noticed, and she saw Ochiyo's lips twitch as she realised it too.
"So, Ochiyo-san," said Aiko brightly, joining them at the table and smiling. "You're one of Suzue's school friends? Welcome to our home. But I wonder what made you decide to come with us tonight? Not that we're not delighted to have you, of course. But it's…"
"Kind of unusual?" suggested Ochiyo. Aiko flushed, and Ochiyo went on quickly, "Sorry—I didn't mean to be rude. But I, um—"
"We all know what most people think of us," said Suzue, her voice flat.
"—I guess so. Aizawa-san, I'm not exactly one of Suzue-san's friends. I know her a bit from a couple of classes, that's all. But we ran into each other over the weekend, and got talking, and it made me start thinking about things. And, well, there was another girl who started at Hibari today, and—" Ochiyo glanced at Suzue's black eye, then away. "I suppose you already know what happened. It was all over the school by lunchtime. Not the first time, either."
"We have all been through it," said Aiko softly.
"And I started to think: I've heard all the same things everyone else has, I've avoided you like the rest of them, but when I talked to you on Saturday, you seemed, well, okay. And what do I know, really?" Ochiyo looked squarely up at Aiko and said, "So I came to find out. Aizawa-san, I'll be honest; I may never come back. This may be the only time I go anywhere near the—uh, the Church of Serenity. But at least from now on I'll know what I'm talking about."
"Bravo," said a deep new voice. They all looked around, to see a tall, dark-haired man standing at the living room door. Suzue had not even heard her father come in.
"Daddy!" she said happily, jumping up and running to him.
He gave her a boisterous bear-hug. "Hello, little Suzu-tan," he said with a laugh. Suzue growled at the childhood nickname and tried to punch him in the ribs, but he only laughed again. He caught her chin in one big, strong hand and lifted it up to study her face. "You've been through the wars," he murmured.
Suzue nodded, broke free, and buried her face in his chest again. Then she released him, stepped away, and nodded toward Ochiyo. "Daddy, this is Aizawa Ochiyo-san," she said, "and she's here to come with us tonight."
"I heard," he said and bowed to Ochiyo, who made a slightly awkward bow back. "Aizawa-san, I am Itagaki Kazuo. You are most welcome to join us tonight. I wish more people had your courage. And your integrity."
"Actually, Aizawa-san," Ochiyo replied, a thoughtful look on her face, "I'm starting to be very glad I came."
"So?" His lips twitched. Then he glanced over at the wall clock. "Well, now. It's getting late. Let's eat; and then we must be going."
They made short work of the snack. Then, while Kazuo hurried off to change his clothes, Suzue rather self-consciously invited Ochiyo through to her room.
They sat on the bed, and an awkward silence fell. Suzue watched Ochiyo as the girl looked around with obvious interest, and tried to imagine what she must be thinking. This was the daughter of the Blessed Lady, the daughter of Suzue's goddess—and she was right here before her, close enough to touch—
"Wow," said Ochiyo. "You're really interested in aeroplanes, aren't you?"
Jarred from her reverie, Suzue looked around. Ochiyo was gazing at her shelf of flight manuals, notebooks and certificates. "Oh—yes. I'm learning to fly, actually."
"Really?" Ochiyo's eyes lit up. "That is so cool! I've never been in an aeroplane, never. Take me up, sometime? Pleeeeeease?"
"Uh, well, maybe after I've got my license." Suzue's eyes strayed to her log book, and unconsciously, she smiled. "You'll be the second one I take up—okay?"
"Second?" said Ochiyo, pouting. "Oh, come on! I don't wanna waaaait. You can take me first, can't you?" Then, suddenly, her eyes narrowed. She dropped her voice and fixed Suzue with a penetrating gaze. "Whoever the other one is, they can wait," she hissed. "After all, remember who I am, Suzue-san."
"But I—" Suzue broke off, startled and then appalled. Ochiyo could command her, and she had no choice but to obey. But Suzue had promised Minoru that he would be the first. Surely Ochiyo would not—
She paused. And said, "You're teasing me, aren't you?"
Ochiyo winked at her. "Betcher ass, Suzu-tan."
Suzue groaned, and slowly felt herself relax. "You and Dhiti-san," she said with a sigh. "Honestly."
"But if I'd pushed it, you'd probably have given in, wouldn't you?" Ochiyo nodded thoughtfully. "We'll have to work on that, Suzue-chan."
"I have no idea what you're talking about—"
But at that moment, Suzue's mother tapped at the door, and it was time to go.
The Queen Heart Chapel of the Church of Serenity was only ten minutes' walk away, and normally Suzue and her family would have gone on foot; but tonight, as a courtesy to Ochiyo, they were driving. As Aiko, Suzue and Ochiyo trooped outside, Kazuo, now wearing a dark, formal suit, was unlocking the garage. There was a bright smear of fresh paint on the door, Suzue saw—"LOONIES OUT"—and she winced.
Ochiyo's eyes widened as she saw the graffiti too. "What—" she began.
"We're not just a target at school," Suzue said in a low voice. "Ignore it, Ochiyo-san. It's nothing to do with you."
Kazuo drove the car out of the garage, then carefully closed the door and locked it once more. Then, at last, they drove off.
It was only a little past seven; the sun was still above the horizon, and the sky was deepening into a rich, deep blue. Above it and a little to the south, a thin sliver of silver light was visible: the moon, just past new.
The streets were quiet and Kazuo drove with firm assurance, his hand confident on the steering bar. After a minute, Ochiyo said, "Can I ask a question?"
"Surely," said Kazuo.
"Well, I said I'd been doing some reading, and I think I understood most of it. But I didn't quite get, why Monday? I mean, it must be pretty inconvenient. Why have your services on Monday nights?"
"Ah." Kazuo chuckled. "Yes. That's an easy question—and yet, surprisingly complex. The answer, Aizawa-san, is that Monday is the day of the Moon."
Ochiyo started to speak, but he cut her off. "No—let me finish. Of course it's a trivial answer. Monday, 'getsuyoubi', is 'moon day.' That's easy. But did you know that Monday is also 'moon day' in English? And also French, and Spanish, and Italian, and German, and Dutch, and Afrikaans, and more. Even in Hindi, 'somvaar'—and Tibetan, and Welsh, and a lot of others. Some of those languages are related, of course, but not all. It's quite a coincidence, don't you think?"
Ochiyo did not answer for a second. "Really? Wow."
He chuckled again. "Really. So the answer to your question, Aizawa-san, is that we do not believe it is a coincidence. We believe that Monday is truly the day of the Moon, and so that is the day when we do reverence to the Moon's Lady." He fell silent, but then added, "Some scholars believe that the names may be a distant memory, reaching back to the days of the Silver Millennium itself. It's a sobering idea."
"I suppose it is," said Ochiyo, and fell silent, her expression thoughtful. And a few seconds later, the car pulled to a halt in the parking lot of a broad, solid building with cream-painted walls.
There was more graffiti here, a lot of it, but somebody had been working hard to clean it off. All the same, Suzue found her lips tightening as she went past, and she hoped that Ochiyo would not see. She had never, never expected any of this, that the new Sailor Moon might come here, but it was going so well, and she did not want anything to spoil it…
Ochiyo noticed the graffiti as she walked toward the entrance, and hid a frown. She had not really considered before today just how negative the church's image was. Oh, everyone called them the Loonies and knew they were mad—and Ochiyo was as guilty of that as anyone—but Suzue's beating today, and the scrawls she had seen painted on the Itagaki garage door, and imperfectly erased here, spoke of a depth of animosity that had never occurred to her.
Why, though? She had never really thought about that before, either. Sure, the Loonies believed that Queen Serenity was a goddess, and okay, that was a bit crazy; but all of this was…out of proportion. She had to be missing something, but she could not see what.
She put that train of thought on hold as they reached the door. However it had looked outside, inside the Queen Heart Chapel was clean and dignified. They paused in the foyer to remove their shoes, and then moved on into the main hall. Ochiyo stopped in the entryway, staring around her.
To either side of her, the walls arced around in a gentle curve, forming half of a long ellipse. Soft, slow music was playing. The body of the hall was dimly lit, but ahead of her, at the narrow end of the ellipse, brighter lights shone down on what was unmistakably an altar.
The altar itself was rather plain: a truncated pyramid shape, covered with a simple white cloth. A wide, shallow dish rested on top of it, made of some black material and filled with liquid. Half a dozen other silver vessels surrounded it. As Ochiyo watched, a middle-aged man walked up to the altar, knelt, dipped a finger into the liquid, and seemed to touch his forehead. Then he sat back on his heels, his eyes raised to the figures above.
Almost reluctantly, Ochiyo allowed her own eyes to focus on the arcing tableau that filled the wall over the altar. It was a diorama, a group of figures in high relief; it showed nine women, five on the right and four on the left, their eyes all fixed on a tenth woman in the centre, directly over the altar.
She recognised them, of course. In the centre, Queen Serenity, the goddess of these people, smiling gently down at the altar below; and about her, her Senshi. Mizuno Ami; Aino Minako; Chiba Usagi, the queen's own daughter; Hino Rei; Kino Makoto; Tomoe Hotaru; Ten'ou Haruka; and Kaiou Michiru. The last woman's head was bowed; her features could not be made out. The semi-mythical Sailor Pluto: her true identity never known, even her very existence often debated.
"No King Endymion?" Ochiyo murmured, half to herself.
Suzue must have heard her. "Above you," she answered in a low voice.
Ochiyo stepped forward and turned to look up. Sure enough, the rear wall held another figure, in the same style of the others: tall, bare-headed, a gentle smile on his face, he gazed eternally out across the hall at his wife. And was it Ochiyo's imagination, or, as she followed his eyes, was the statue of Serenity not looking down at the altar at all, but fondly back at her husband? Perhaps it was only a trick of the light; it was hard to tell. But suddenly she found herself smiling as well.
She looked up at the statue of Endymion again. He did look like the young man who had kissed her on Saturday night. Damn it.
Suzue tugged on her arm gently. "Come over here," she said. "Let me show you something."
Ochiyo followed her to the right, over to the long curved side of the hall. For the first time she noticed the series of alcoves spaced around the wall. They paused at the first of them and looked in, and she saw a small, darkened space, just big enough to hold two or three people. At the rear was a shelf that held a little cluster of burning candles, and above this was a painting. The image was mostly dark, but in the centre, in brilliant colour and illuminated by a beam of light, was a woman. Ochiyo recognised her without surprise: Mizuno Ami. She wore a long, flowing robe; her eyes looked directly out at the viewer, her head was tilted slightly to one side, and she was smiling faintly. Ochiyo glanced down again and saw that all the candles were blue.
She stared back at the painting for an instant; then, unprompted, she whirled and moved down the hall, stepping around people, to the third alcove. The candles here were silver, and the picture was—
The woman from her dream. Oh, not exactly; this was a painting, not a photograph. But close enough that there could be no doubt: Princess "Small Lady" Usagi; her own elder sister. Ochiyo could not restrain a shiver.
She moved on to the fourth alcove and looked in, and a painting of Seki looked back at her: a Seki with different hair, but still unmistakably the woman she knew from the Olympus.
The fifth alcove, and she saw Makoto.
She stayed there for a minute, staring in at the painting of Lady Kino, and the green candles beneath it. After a little, she realised that Suzue had caught up to her. She looked up and said, "It's them, isn't it? It's really them."
Suzue nodded. "It's hard to get used to."
"Yes." Ochiyo glanced around the hall. "Are they all like this?"
"Pretty much. Except for Lady Pluto; unfortunately nobody knows what Lady Meiou looked like. There are no known photographs of her; a lot of nonbelievers think she never existed at all. Her painting, and the statue over the altar, are based on a woman some of our historians think might have been an alias of hers. A teacher named Sakurada Haruna."
The name meant nothing to Ochiyo. "Okay," she said. Again, her eyes flicked about the chamber, unsettled, and she realised that she was chewing her lip. An old habit, one that she had never broken. "This isn't what I expected," she confessed. "I thought it would be—well, I'm not sure. But this—it really feels like a church."
"And why should it not?" asked a voice. She looked around to see a man standing nearby: slender, fortyish, with hair just starting to turn grey, he wore a full-length cream robe, its hood thrown back, that had a small gold crescent embroidered on the breast. He gave her a smile that made his face come alive, and repeated, "Why shouldn't it? After all, a church is exactly what it is."
Suzue gave him a deep bow, and after an instant's surprise Ochiyo followed suit. "Sensei, this is my friend, Aizawa Ochiyo," Suzue said. "Ochiyo-san, this is Otani Takeru, our auxiliary Intercessor."
"Priest, that is," said Otani cheerfully. "Aizawa-san, I gather you're not a member of our assembly? Then you're doubly welcome. I wish more people your age had as open a mind as you obviously do."
"Um, thank you."
"Not at all. Yes, Aizawa-san, of course this is a church. Did you expect something more outlandish?" He smiled again—it made him look almost boyish—and winked at her. "There's enough of that out there in the world today, don't you think? What we are, here, is a body of ordinary people who come together to recognise and celebrate some extraordinary truths. And that's not outlandish at all, is it?"
Ochiyo hesitated. "Uh—"
Otani chuckled. "I know; I've put you on the spot, and it's unfair of me. Aizawa-san, please: stay with us for this evening, and hear what we have to say. We think it's important, and we hope you'll agree. You'll see that we have a few rituals of our own, but if they make you feel uncomfortable, well, just don't join in. We won't mind. Afterwards, if you have any questions, feel free to come and ask me anything, and I'll try to explain. Fair enough?"
Ochiyo thought about it, and then grinned back. "Fair enough," she answered. "Thank you, Otani-san. Or should that be, Otani-sensei?"
He laughed out loud. "Let's save that for afterward, if you don't mind. Right now, it's nearly time to start, so if you'll forgive me, I have to go—and you and Itagaki-san need to find a spot for the service."
With that, he was gone, leaving Ochiyo looking after him and thinking that she just might find him after the service, simply because she'd enjoyed talking to him. Which, come to think of it, was probably a valuable attribute for a preacher. Or, what did they call it? Intercessor.
Again, she felt a tug on her arm. "Ochiyo-san," Suzue said. "He's right; we should get ready. They're about to begin."
"Oh. Okay. Where do we—?"
Ochiyo looked around, searching for Suzue's parents. They were not easy to spot amid the rest of the people in the hall. The body of the chamber was not filled with pews, as she might have expected before tonight; instead, thin cushions, zabuton, were scattered about the polished wooden floor. As groups of people came in, they simply pulled together as many as they needed, and knelt down on their heels. It meant that the open area of the hall was a variegated sea of heads, more of them than she would have imagined, and individual faces were hard to pick out.
"It doesn't matter," Suzue replied. "We can stay here, if you like. My parents won't mind, and I can tell you what's happening." She bent down and grabbed a pair of zabuton, dropping them again into an open spot at the side of the hall. "I hope you're comfortable in seiza," she added as she knelt on one, "but you can just sit on it if you'd rather…"
"It's okay." Ochiyo knelt gingerly on the other cushion, finding that it was better-padded than it looked. She glanced around, and noticed uncomfortably that a number of the people nearby were looking at her. At an unfamiliar face, she realised. Turning her eyes firmly back to Suzue, she said, "So, what happens now?"
Suzue gave her a faint smile and said, "Now…you find out."
The service lasted a little over an hour. Parts of it reminded her of what little she knew of Christian liturgy; others, of Japanese, Chinese and even Indian ritual. Some of it was almost incomprehensible; some was…actually rather moving.
Often during the proceedings, the entire assembly would lift a hand to their heads and make a little gesture there. After a while, Ochiyo realised that they were drawing a crescent-moon sign on their foreheads. She nearly laughed out loud, but then the humour faded; they were all so serious about it. Instead she considered for a little, and then joined in. It seemed harmless enough; and after all, who had a better right?
After the final prayers had been chanted and the assembly began to rise to leave, she stood in silence for a time, still trying to take everything in. Suzue hovered at her side, obviously anxious, until finally Ochiyo asked, as politely as she could, if she could be alone for a minute. Reluctantly, Suzue left to find her parents. Behind her, Ochiyo stood for a moment longer, looking around the hall without really seeing anything, and then went to look for Otani Takeru.
She found him near the altar, speaking quietly with a middle-aged man and woman. When he saw her approach, he raised his eyebrows and made quiet excuses, then walked over to join her.
He looked at her face and said, "I think you have questions after all. Yes?"
"Yes," Ochiyo agreed. "Sensei—" suddenly the word came naturally—"why does everyone hate you?"
"Ah." Carefully, he said, "You mean, why do most people dislike the Church of Serenity so much."
"Yes. I mean, I saw all the graffiti outside—and you must have noticed Suzue-san's black eye—and, well, just everything!"
"I know what you mean. It's not an easy question to answer." Otani rubbed his chin for a moment, his face sober. "All right. There are many reasons why we aren't popular. The simplest, of course, is that most people simply don't believe the things that we do; but that's only the surface. A much bigger reason is that a lot of them are afraid that we're right."
Ochiyo stared at him. "Eh?"
He gave a dry chuckle. "Yes, it's not obvious, is it? But think about it; everybody knows what Queen Serenity did, and how powerful she was. At least subconsciously, they cannot help but see that she was more than they are. For all that she strove, all her life, to be at their level, to he human, in the end she was something bigger and greater than they can ever be. And that's an uncomfortable thought! Nobody likes to think that they're inferior. But then they see us, this bunch of people who openly acknowledge what they're trying to hide from themselves, and that makes them even more uncomfortable. So they resent us for it.
"But, Aizawa-san, the biggest reason that people dislike us—I would not go so far as to say hate—the biggest reason, I say, is that they are actively encouraged to do so."
"Yes, indeed; subtly, but almost universally. Aizawa-san, we live in a nation governed by a body called the Serenity Council. By law, they rule 'in the name of the queen, and until her return.' Every year when they first convene, there's a ceremony in the Council Chambers—you've probably seen it; it's always broadcast—where the councillors swear allegiance to her. In effect, they claim to be a caretaker government, until the real one returns." He paused, his face darkening. "And, Aizawa-san—they do not like us."
"Oh." Ochiyo thought about that. "Oh."
"Yes again. It's hard to see why; they surely cannot consider us a threat. Perhaps it's that the worship of the Blessed Lady makes one see those who claim to act for Her in a different light. Regardless…there's never anything official, but the bias is there, and has been for as long as I've been alive. It shows in a hundred ways. Government broadcasting never misses an opportunity to poke fun at us, for example; we've seen stories planted in magazines and newspapers, accusing us of every crime and perversion under the sun. We get a fresh tax audit from our friends at 'F' Division every six months, and woe betide us if a single digit is out of place! Or, if someone breaks the windows of this church—it's happened before, many times—it will do no good to complain to the police; they will take down all the details and promise to help, but somehow nothing will happen. I myself have been arrested, several times, on the flimsiest, trumped-up charges. So have many in the church—including your friend Suzue and her family. 'Congregating in a public place,' they called it once—the 'public place' being this church! They can't hold us for long, of course; but it's a pretty dreadful experience anyway."
He gave a wry shrug. "And so on, in a thousand other ways. All of it filters down, Aizawa-san; people notice. It amounts to a systematic campaign to crush us, to make us look mad…and to make us targets for abuse. And it's very effective! Take your friend Suzue. If someone decides to beat her up at school, which is what looks like happened today, she knows that none of her teachers will help her. Some of them might want to—but they know that doing so would make them look like a Loonie sympathiser, and open them up to the same abuse. It's evil…and it works."
Ochiyo did not answer for some time. On one level, his claims were appalling: the idea that people could act that way, in this day and age. And yet—knowing that the Serenity Council was in the control of the Enemy, it actually made a kind of sense.
More distantly, she found herself thinking that now she knew why Suzue had been so ready to attack the Council on Saturday night.
Aloud, she said, "So, what do you do?"
Otani smiled. "We carry on, of course. We are hardly the first people to suffer for our faith, and I doubt that we will be the last. And sometimes, when a person with an open mind comes and asks us questions, without being afraid of the answers—yes, sometimes I think that it's worthwhile." He looked over her shoulder, raised an eyebrow, and said, "And…I think there are some people waiting for you."
Ochiyo turned, and saw Suzue and her parents standing a little distance away. With a shock, she realised that the hall was virtually empty. A glance at her watch showed that she had been talking to the Intercessor for nearly a quarter of an hour.
Turning back to Otani, she said, "I'm sorry! I never thought—but I ought to go—"
He waved her away with a chuckle. "I should hardly have kept you so long, pouring out a tale of our woes. You have a sympathetic face, Aizawa-san." He paused briefly, and then added in a more sober tone, "Do you mind if I bless you? Then go with the blessings of the holy Lady Serenity. May she watch over you and uplift you, and may you find the answers you seek."
Ochiyo bit her lip. "Thank you," she said, and bowed. "Good night, Otani-sensei."
He bowed in return. "If you ever wish to speak again, I'd be happy to oblige. Good night, Aizawa-san."
He turned and walked unhurriedly to the rear of the hall, leaving through a small side door. Ochiyo watched him for a second, then shook her head and hastened to join the Itagaki family.
Itagaki Kazuo shook his head at her apologies with a deep laugh. "Why should you be sorry for wanting to know more? But come; unless there's anything else you want to see here, it's time to go."
The drive back to Suzue's house took only a few minutes, but this time it was conducted in silence. Ochiyo had a lot to think about. For one thing, she had to work out what to say to Suzue when they arrived.
Otani Takeru shed his formal robe and drew on a light yukata, then went through to the office of Kagawa Chiaki, the primary Intercessor of the Queen Heart Chapel.
She looked up as he came in, and nodded. "Takeru-kun," she said. "I saw you talking to the new girl. Who was she?"
"A school friend of Itagaki Suzue. And remarkably unprejudiced, I'd say."
Kagawa nodded. "You do get that sometimes. Not as often as we used to, unfortunately." She paused, and added, "What did you think of her?"
"Reasonably intelligent, inquisitive…one of the good ones, all told, but I'm honestly not sure if she'll come back." Otani paused, and then added, "It was interesting. She didn't ask the usual questions—about the new Senshi, and so forth. She asked the hard questions instead."
"Oh?" Kagawa raised her eyebrows, and smiled. "She might be worth watching. If we see her again."
The two girls paused outside the front door of Suzue's house. They were alone; Kazuo and Aiko had gone inside. It was dark, but the porch light cast a pale blue glow across the driveway. "Would you like to stay for dinner?" Suzue asked.
"I'd better not," said Ochiyo. "My mother said she'd keep things hot for me until I got back. But thank you."
"It's okay. I'll see you at school tomorrow, I suppose."
"Yes. Suzue-san—thank you for letting me come tonight. It was, well, it was different from what I'd expected. It was actually quite beautiful, in a lot of ways." She bit her lip. "But—oh, I don't know how to say this—"
"You won't be going back," said Suzue flatly.
Ochiyo froze. Then she let her shoulders slump. "No. I don't think so. Suzue-san, it was beautiful—but it's not for me." She shook her head. "I'm sorry. It seems rude, and I know you're sincere…but I don't believe she was a goddess. I just don't. I'm sorry," she repeated.
"All right." Suzue's face might have been made of wood.
"How can I? She was my mother, Suzue-san. If she was a goddess, what does that make me? I'm just a girl, just an ordinary human being."
"Not so ordinary." For a second more, Suzue's face remained cold and expressionless. Then she shook her head and sighed; the stiffness seemed to flow out of her, and she gave a faint smile. "It's all right, Ochiyo-san. Really."
"Can we still be friends?" asked Ochiyo cautiously.
"Of course we—" Suzue broke off. "You're teasing me again."
Ochiyo winked at her. "I have to go. I'll see you tomorrow…Suzue-chan."
Suzue nodded back. Then, as Ochiyo turned to go, she said, "Ochiyo-san?"
"Just so you know," Suzue said, "—I think you're wrong. You are special…and she was a goddess, whether you believe it or not."
After a heartbeat, Ochiyo smiled. She said, "Good."
It was nearly midnight, and stiflingly hot. Heavy curtains covered the bedroom's one small window, leaving the room airless and shrouded in near-absolute dark.
The darkness did not matter. There was nothing much for Iku to see, anyway. One small, battered chest of drawers; a schoolbag tucked neatly away in a corner; a futon that was elderly, threadbare and nearly flat. Strange how such a battered old thing could feel so lumpy in the middle of the night.
Iku lay on her side and stared at the invisible wall. Her breathing was slow and regular, but she was wide awake. Tired, yes, so tired that she could have screamed, but sleep would not come.
She had been hard at work all day. Mother had finally let her out of the basement at dawn, and even then she had been exhausted. Cold, soiled and miserable, lying on a filthy, bare concrete floor, she had barely slept at all the night before. Nor was she given a chance once her punishment was over. First, she had to clean up the mess in the basement. That was only fair. She had made the mess, after all.
It took her most of the day. Her head was reeling and her body faint from hunger, thirst and lack of sleep, but she finished in the end. Every spot of filth was gone, every centimetre of the floor scrubbed and disinfected. The concrete would not take a polish, but it was not for lack of trying.
Only then was she allowed to shower properly. The water was lukewarm—she had used most of the hot in cleaning—but that was all right. It made it easier to drink.
Masahiko was waiting in the bathroom when she stepped out of the shower. He handed her a towel, mock-politely, smirking all the while as his eyes roamed her body. She tried to snatch the towel away quickly, but he managed to get a hand on one breast and twist her nipple painfully before she broke free and ran to her room.
She dressed as slowly as she dared before coming out. It was late evening by then, and naturally Mother and Masahiko had eaten dinner already. She was allowed some cold rice and equally cold miso soup. It was unpleasant, but she did not care; she wolfed it down. That earned her a further strapping for poor table manners.
Then Iku did the dishes. And cleaned the kitchen.
Only then did Mother tell her, with a sour look of disgust, that as a special favour (which Iku did not deserve), she had sent Masahiko to her school to pick up her homework. So Iku spent another hour and a half under Mother's watchful eye, giddy, faint, sore and slightly nauseous from eating bad food too fast, trying to make sense of geometry problems which she found difficult at the best of times.
Iku did not complain. Why would she? She had been bad; she had brought it upon herself.
And now she was in bed at last, and unbearably hot; but she did not dare open the curtains, or remove her pyjamas, because sometimes Mother checked. And she was still feeling a little sick, and her ankle still throbbed, and her hands and knees were raw from scrubbing, and oh, she was so tired…and if she could just sleep, then maybe everything would be all right in the morning. If only she could sleep.
In vain, she reached for her favourite daydream and tried to bury herself in it: the fantasy that someday, someone would come and tell her that there had been a terrible error; that she was someone else's daughter, not Mother's, and her real mother would take her away, and tell Iku that she wasn't worthless, she wasn't a mistake, she was someone precious…
But the dream would not come. To her horror, she could not seem to picture her phantom mother, that face she knew so well from her imagination: the amalgam of every beautiful, kind and caring face that Iku had ever seen. Instead, she saw a golden woman with stern eyes who looked at her and said, As long as you think that, you'll be trapped in your cage.
What cage? Iku wanted to protest; but the golden woman only said, If you want help, all you have to do is ask.
Ask? It seemed so simple…but that was one thing Iku could never do. Because she knew the truth: that she was the mistake, the unworthy one, and if there was one thing she did not deserve, it was to bother others with her own selfish pleas for attention. Mother said so, and so Iku knew it was true.
Instead she lay in the darkness, and stared at the invisible wall, and breathed in and out…and waited. And there were only a few hours to go before she had to get up and start a new day, all over again…
The following day, after sitting in on yet another endless round of negotiations between eleven groups of growers and pickers who all wanted a better deal from each other, Toyotomi Sese took an unscheduled break. Instead of returning directly to her offices in the Council Chambers, she walked three blocks to a little mid-city park. It was a hot, dry afternoon, though there was heavy rain expected the next day. She bought a cold drink from a cart vendor, found a shady spot, and sat down on a park bench to stretch out her legs and sip her drink.
Three minutes later, a small, rat-faced man with a sour expression sat down at the other end of the bench. Sese glanced around the park. It was the middle of the afternoon, and nobody else was about. She said, "You're late."
"You're late," said Trio. "I've been here more than a quarter of an hour."
She smiled. "Then you were early. Politicians are always exactly on time." He obviously didn't get the joke, because he started to argue. She cut him off sharply. "Never mind. What do you have for me?"
Trio grimaced. "Nothing."
"Excuse me?" Sese's eyes narrowed. "After all the time you've had, the access I've given you…and the money you've received, you've come up with nothing? I thought you were supposed to be competent."
"Give me a break," he snarled. "You're asking a lot, lady, and the areas you want me to break into are damn well secured. I'm getting there, but it takes time, okay?" He reached down into a little satchel and pulled out a sheaf of grubby papers. "Here; see for yourself. So far, everything I've checked is above the board."
She took the papers with a moue of disgust, glanced at the top sheet…and then blinked, and read it more carefully. How in hell had he managed to get this? Maybe the man really was competent. She started to leaf through the pages, her eyes widening occasionally. None of this was what she was looking for—but some of it, confidential reports from other divisions, would be useful in her regular job anyway.
"If you knew the amount of crap I've had to wade through," Trio continued in a sour voice. "And everything in legal jargon! Why can't you people write plain Japanese? The only remotely odd thing I've found so far is a weird purchase order, and I've no idea what that means."
Sese looked up. "Purchase order?"
"Yeah, it's in there somewhere. It didn't make any sense, but I can't find anything that relates to it. Maybe somebody's going on an expensive holiday, and charging it to the government." He smirked, revealing bad teeth.
"A purchase order for what?" she asked patiently.
"Oh—" He took back the sheaf of papers, flicked through them rapidly, then pulled one out and passed it back to her. "Here."
She scanned the page, and her face creased into a puzzled frown. "Arctic exploration gear? Thermal clothing? Ordered from Alaskay…and delivered to the Council Chambers supply depot. You're right, that doesn't make any sense at all."
"All right," she said. "Keep working. Let me know immediately if you find anything significant. Otherwise, I'll see you again in a week, yes?" He nodded and started to rise, but Sese was not finished. "And…find out what office ordered that thermal gear. And who collected it from the supply depot."
Trio gave her a dubious look. "You think it's important?"
"I have no idea," Sese replied, and smiled. "Let's find out."
Iku was back at school, Beth saw, and looking very wan and washed-out. Maybe she'd had the flu. She hovered in the background, as usual, doing and saying as little as possible. Really, what was wrong with the girl?
In the back of her mind, she had a vague idea that there was something that she'd been meaning to talk to Iku about, but she squelched the thought. Right now, she had other priorities.
She waited impatiently for a moment when Nanako and Eitoku were not around—probably off making out, somewhere private—and then pulled Iku aside. Iku started to stammer out something about being sorry, but Beth cut her off.
"Did you get a comm call from Makoto-san yesterday?" she demanded.
Iku listened to Beth in utter incomprehension. No, she had not gotten a comm call yesterday; she had not been in a position to receive calls. Not that she could ever say that…but Beth never even gave her the chance. As soon as Iku shook her head, Beth started ranting.
As she listened helplessly, Iku's confusion grew. Apparently Suzue was one of the Loonies; she believed that Queen Serenity was a goddess. For some reason, this bothered Beth.
Iku was aware of the Church of Serenity, of course; she was not deaf, and she spent much of her life listening to other people. She knew the Loonies were not popular. Iku knew what that was like.
For herself, she had no particular opinion. Let them believe what they wanted. After Saturday night, Iku could almost think they were right. Except that the Serenity who Iku had met was no golden paragon. In the end, she had been like all the rest.
Iku might have said as much to Beth, but she never got the chance. She had hardly finished her tirade when Nanako appeared in the background, and immediately Beth left off and started to pretend that nothing had happened. Iku could have told her that Nanako was not fooled for a moment, but she did not try. What would have been the point?
Senshi or not, Beth too was like all the others. Iku was still alone.
After school, Makoto stood on a street corner not far from Hibari. She could not help fidgeting as she waited. What she and the others were about to do…she had to admit that it was necessary. But it could go wrong, in so many ways. The way it had done with her, for example.
And yet, the consequences of doing nothing were…well, not worse, exactly. More tragic, perhaps.
She had only been waiting a couple of minutes when Ochiyo arrived. Makoto gave her a cautious nod. She had not forgotten that Ochiyo must have known about Suzue all along; but now, having cooled down from her explosion yesterday, she was not sure what to do about it. In the end, she took the coward's path and remained silent.
After a little, Ochiyo said, "Keenan Liam. I think I remember him from the Olympus. He usually comes in with another boy—Something Mark, is that right?"
Makoto paused at the mention of Mark, but then nodded. "Wright Mark. They're both Clavers; Liam-kun is from Eireland, Mark-kun from Alaskay. But I think Mark-kun was actually staying with Liam-kun's family for a while, in Eireland."
"That's right; I remember now. It was on their application forms, when they joined up." Ochiyo giggled suddenly. "Mostly I remember his accent."
Forgetting her caution for a moment, Makoto grinned back. "It's kind of unbelievable, isn't it? Remember, that's your father you're talking about."
"What, you think I ought to start talking like that too?"
They laughed…and the ice was broken, at least for now. They chatted idly as they waited, and Makoto almost managed to forget why they were here. Then, just as Ochiyo was saying, "You know, we really ought to talk about—", Makoto looked up and saw Seki coming toward them.
That brought a fresh scowl to her face. She and Seki had had quite an argument the night before, over Suzue and what Makoto had done. Nothing like as bad as that time in Amsterdam; but bad enough, all the same. She still did not understand Seki's attitude; Makoto would have expected the woman to have been breathing fire, but instead she almost seemed to be defending Suzue. When Makoto said as much, Seki got even angrier—but at Makoto, not the cultist. It was incomprehensible. They had ended the evening communicating in monosyllables, and this morning had not been much better.
Seki glanced at her as she arrived, and her eyes narrowed slightly; but otherwise her face remained perfectly composed. "Good afternoon," she said, addressing them both. "I take it there's no sign of Artemis yet?"
"No," replied Makoto, relieved. From the corner of her eye she saw Ochiyo shaking her head and mouthing the word "Artemis," and she remembered that the two had not yet met. She said, "Actually, when I called, he sounded kind of odd. I think he and Dhiti might have been figh—" She broke off suddenly. "Oh, no."
She stared, aghast, as she saw Artemis approaching from the opposite direction. It was not the sight of the cat that bothered her, though. It was the fact that, against all instructions, Dhiti was with him.
And so was Okamura Kin.
"Dhiti, what have you done?" she hissed as the three of them drew up.
Before Dhiti or Artemis could say a word, Kin stepped forward and stuck out a hand, western-style, to shake Makoto's own. Her face was perfectly straight, but there was a devilish glint in her eyes. "Hello," she said. "My name's Okamura Kin—and I believe you're Hiyama Makoto? It's so nice to meet you. Dhiti-chan's told me so much about you, it seems like I know you already."
Then, without waiting for an answer, she had moved on and was shaking Ochiyo's hand in turn.
Makoto rounded on Dhiti. In a low voice, she hissed, "Are you out of your mind?"
Dhiti did not flinch. "She has an interest in this," she said calmly. "You know it's true, Hayashi. And she can be trusted; you know that, too."
"She doesn't need to know who Ochiyo and Itsu—and Seki are!" Makoto hissed back. "And what the hell are you doing here, anyway?"
"I haven't told her who they are, and I'm not going to," Dhiti answered reasonably. "And if you think you can leave me out of—"
She broke off suddenly, and the two of them clearly heard Ochiyo say to Kin, "—Aizawa Ochiyo; it's nice to meet you. And I'm Sailor Moon, of course."
There was a short silence. Then Dhiti said, "Okay, I wasn't expecting that."
"Ochiyo-san, what are you doing?" Makoto blurted out. "She didn't need to know that!"
Kin gave her a hurt look that barely concealed a grin. Ochiyo, for her part, merely raised her eyebrows. "But doesn't she already know who you two are?" she said in a reasonable tone. "Why shouldn't she know about me, too?"
"I can't be trusted," Kin said cheerfully. "Everybody knows it. I'm a compulsive blurter-out of secrets. And I talk in my sleep."
Makoto groaned; but Ochiyo only laughed. Kin grinned back, and then turned to Seki. "Good morning," she said meaningfully. After a second, when Seki did not reply, she added, "And you are…?"
Seki raised one eyebrow. "No," she said. "I don't think so."
Ochiyo snickered, and Kin followed suit. The two of them exchanged glances, and then smiles.
Makoto looked down at Artemis and said, sotto voce, "Why on Earth did you let Dhiti bring her?"
"Did you ever manage to talk Dhiti out of anything, once she'd made up her mind?" he grumbled back. "Anyway, I—wasn't exactly there. I only met her a couple of minutes ago myself, and there wasn't much I could do about it by then."
"Oh?" Makoto cocked an eye at him. "You and Dhiti having problems?"
"We…argued, a couple of days ago. Haven't had a chance to talk about it yet."
"Yeah, well, don't wait too long. Trust me, I—"
Behind them, Seki clapped her hands sharply. "All right, everyone," she said, glancing around to check that everyone was paying attention. "Let's not just stand around all day calling attention to ourselves, hmm? Remember, we did come here for a reason."
Ochiyo, who had been chatting quietly with Kin, nodded. "Yes. Good." She gestured up at the nearby building and said, "So let's go up to his apartment and tell Kin-san's boyfriend—and my would-be suitor—that he's actually my father."
Liam lived on the third floor of the apartment building. As they trooped up the stairs, Dhiti noted the grimy, peeling paint-work and made a face. Apparently Liam couldn't afford anything better. At least the air smelt fresh, with no hint of…other things.
A minute later they stood outside a door halfway along a corridor lined with similar doors. Dhiti glanced at Makoto, who checked a paper in her hand and nodded, and then knocked sharply.
There was silence for a few seconds, except for the distant sound of a viddy. Then they heard footsteps. The door was flung open and Liam stood there. He wore nothing but a pair of white shorts and a string undershirt, and his expression was annoyed. "I told you already," he said angrily, "I don't want—"
He stopped suddenly. "Dhiti-san?" he said. "What—?" Then his gaze flicked to Dhiti's side, and his eyes widened. "Kin-san? What are you doing here? I thought you…And—and—who are all these people? And a cat?"
Dhiti offered him a toothy grin. "You think we can come in?" she asked. She couldn't help adding, "Nice shorts, by the way."
Liam did not seem to hear her. He was still staring, and now his eyes were even wider. "Miyo-san?" he whispered. "Is that you?"
Makoto sighed. "Can we come in, or can't we?" she said grumpily. "I don't want to stand in this corridor all afternoon."
He dithered for a moment longer, then stepped to one side. His face was pale. He shook his head repeatedly as they entered; but as Ochiyo stepped past him, his breath caught, and he lifted a hand to stop her.
"Who are you?" he asked, almost pleading. "I—I know you from somewhere. Where have I seen—" Then he broke off, suddenly confused. "Wait, you're…you're the reception girl from the gymnasium, aren't you? Why did I think—?" He rubbed his brow and muttered, "I must be going mad."
Ochiyo touched his arm. "Let's sit down," she said with a sympathetic smile, "and we'll explain everything."
Liam closed his eyes and opened them again, brushing a stray hair away from his face. "You're…not another dream, are you?" he said, almost in wonder. "I thought—yes, okay." He closed the door behind her and waited while she removed her shoes, then led her back into the living room.
He was resilient, Dhiti thought; he was already bouncing back. Surprised and confused, but in control of himself once more.
Just wait 'til he hears what comes next, she thought smugly.
The sound of the viddy playing was much louder in the living room, but there was no sign of the viddy itself. Liam gestured helplessly toward the two chairs, then excused himself and ran into the next room, closing the door behind him. A second later, they heard the viddy click off.
Dhiti glanced around. The living room was not large, and felt rather full with them all there. It was, to her eye, a cosy mixture of neat and sloppy. Belongings were stacked around most of the walls in unruly piles, or on a single overloaded set of shelves. Everything was, however, scrupulously clean. There were only two chairs, both of them old and battered but comfortable-looking. Seki took one of these; and as Dhiti was still looking, Kin helped herself to the other one with a smirk. Dhiti chuckled and found a clear spot to sit on the floor, and after a moment the rest of them followed suit.
Liam returned a second later, this time wearing a shirt and pants. His expression was odd; for a moment, there was something almost shifty about it. He glanced around the room, pausing for a moment each as his eyes passed over Kin, Makoto and Ochiyo. Then he leaned back against the wall, feigning a nonchalant pose that did nothing to disguise his tension, and said, "So. What would all this be about, now?"
Seki lifted her head and gazed at him for a few seconds. Her lips quirked in a faint smile. "Keenan-san," she said softly, "would you please tell us about your weekend?"
He gave her an incredulous look. "My weekend?" he repeated. "What, are you crazy? Who are you?"
"My name is Hiyama Seki," she said. "We've met…though you may not remember it. Please, Keenan-san. Tell us."
Liam shook his head, and then shrugged. "Okay! Whatever! If it makes you happy. It was nothing special, all right? I mean, there was school on Saturday morning, and I bummed around all afternoon. Went to a movie. Had a quiet day yesterday; did some laundry, watched the viddy. Finished my homework. And that's all. I trust it meets your satisfaction, ma'am?" he finished in a sarcastic tone.
Seki only nodded, as if satisfied. "And on Saturday night," she said, "…did you dream?"
It was fascinating to watch, Dhiti thought. At first his expression showed only polite incomprehension. Then, slowly, the colour drained from his face, and he sagged back against the wall. He stared at Seki in something like awe…or horror.
"Yes, I dreamed," he said slowly. "But it was the craziest thing. Crazy mad! I dreamed that I was…fighting giants, to save a magic princess. Kids' stuff, see? Only, the princess was fighting, too—and somehow I knew that was right. And…" His voice sank until it was almost a whisper, and his eyes grew haunted. "And there was a goddess who told us what we had to do, and when I saw her I thought my heart would burst…"
He trailed off, suddenly embarrassed, and rubbed his forehead. "Okay, it was pretty stupid," he said defensively, scowling around at them all. But then, almost inaudible once more, Dhiti heard him add: "But it was so real…"
Lifting his head defiantly, he stared at Seki. "Well, and is that what you wanted?" he demanded.
Seki did not answer at once. Her eyes, Dhiti suddenly realised, were on Artemis. During Liam's recitation, he had wandered across the room to sniff delicately at the boy's leg. Now, he looked back at Seki and gave a single nod.
"Yes," Seki said, meeting Liam's eyes once more, "I'm afraid it is."
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "And what's that supposed to mean, now?"
She stood and approached him. Despite their age difference, he was still a good deal taller than her. "It means that we are not who you think we are, Keenan-san," she said. "And neither are you."
He raised his eyebrows; but before he could speak, she went on. "My name is Hiyama Seki, I told you; and this," she gestured toward Makoto, "is my daughter, Hiyama Makoto." Again he started to speak, but she drove on over his protest. "But just a few days ago, her name was Hayashi Miyo, and I was Pappadopoulos Itsuko…and long, long before that, we had other names yet. Hers was Kino Makoto, Keenan-san, and mine was Hino Rei."
Liam made an incoherent sound.
"And yours," Seki said, very deliberately, "was Chiba Mamoru."
He stared at her. His mouth opened, and then closed again without a sound. He swallowed hard, once.
"You're mad," he breathed.
"No," Seki said.
"No," echoed Makoto.
And Artemis repeated, "No."
Perhaps Liam was becoming desensitised to shock. He jumped and stared, but not as much as he might have. He looked down at the cat and shook his head—but after a moment, a curious, faraway expression came into his eyes and he said, almost as a question, "Artemis…?"
Seki pursed her lips. "You're already half-remembering, aren't you? We should have come sooner, but I thought it was best for you to live a normal life for as long as you could. Now…I think I was wrong. I'm sorry."
Liam said, "This is all crazy."
She shook her head. "You are surrounded by Sailor Senshi, Keenan-san. Makoto, or Miyo, is Sailor Jupiter. Dhiti-san is Sailor Mercury. I was once Sailor Mars. And Ochiyo-san is Sailor Moon." She paused, then added, "And it is time for you to join us."
"Join—?" Liam began. Then he paused, and licked his lips nervously. "Uh—what are you saying?"
Seki made to answer him, but Ochiyo stood and touched her arm. "We've come to awaken your past memories, Liam-kun," the girl said. "Don't worry; it won't hurt." She hesitated, and glanced at Makoto. "Er, will it?"
Makoto snorted. "It didn't hurt me," she said. "Just be careful this time, okay, Artemis? We don't need him messed up the way I was."
"Now, wait just a minute," said Liam, his eyes widening.
"You're never going to let me forget that, are you?" the cat said in a peevish tone. "Look, I know what I did wrong before. I think."
"You could just stick your finger in a power socket now and get it over with," suggested Dhiti to Liam.
Seki rolled her eyes. "Now, please, Artemis," she said.
"But—" Liam said; but he got no further. He stiffened as a thin, almost blinding beam of light leaped from the crescent moon on Artemis' forehead, striking him squarely between the eyes. It rocked him back, as if by a physical impact. His body seemed to hang against the wall, limbs splayed out, for a second. He let out a groan of horror.
"REMEMBER," the cat ordered.
Then the beam winked out, and Liam fell in a boneless heap to the floor. With a cry of dismay, Kin leaped from her chair and rushed to his side; and Dhiti, watching, realised with astonished delight that whatever she said, the girl really did still care for him.
Moments later, Liam began to stir once more, and Kin was joined by all the others. Dhiti peered down at the boy as his eyes opened. He did not look any different. He simply stared up at them blankly for some time.
Then his face crumpled. In a thin, high voice, he said, "No…!" And then he wrapped his arms around his head as his whole body began to shake with his silent sobbing.
It was like emerging from a tunnel into blazing sunlight. At first there was nothing but darkness and confusion. Then, in a flash, the pitiless light burst in upon him, and he could do nothing but close his eyes against the pain.
Gone. She was gone. How did he know it; how could he? But he did. He remembered, with crystal clarity, the moment two nights before when he had seen the glowing, golden figure appear before Sailor Moon and himself, advising them on the battle to come. He had not understood it then, the burst of heart-rending grief he had felt at the sight of her; but now he knew. With that curious insight that had always been his gift, he saw it: that the two of them who should have been together for always, were now parted by the final gulf. An image of her might yet remain; but only an image. She had gone on, leaving him to live again…without her. And, now as then, he thought his heart would burst.
Lost, all of it. Centuries of time and a whole, brilliant world. And her: most precious; lover, beloved wife, companion of a thousand years; mother of his daughter; heart of his heart and soul of his soul. Lost, lost, lost.
A little later, when he was in control of himself once more, he opened his eyes and let them help him into a seat. Surrounded by girls again! It seemed to be his destiny. But this time, the most important one was missing.
He looked around at them all through reddened eyes: the faces of old friends, Rei and Makoto, familiar even behind their disguises, and the others. He looked at Rei; in a voice that was slightly hoarse, he said, "You are cruel."
She flinched, just barely. Her voice flat, she said, "When I have to be."
"You should have let me be."
Artemis said, "I wanted to."
As he reached down, almost unconsciously, to rub the cat's head, Rei—no, wait, she had said Seki; he would have to ask about that—nodded and said, "So did I. But, Endymion, we had little choice. You were already involving yourself. You were appearing as Tuxedo Kamen again, coming to protect Sailor Moon."
"My dreams," he said softly. "I have been having such strange dreams. I was a cat burglar, once, and a secret agent. Perhaps—" Suddenly his eyes sharpened, and he looked around the girls once more. "Wait. You said, protect Sailor Moon. Who is—?" Then he remembered. "You. The girl from the gymnasium? I'm sorry, I don't remember your name…"
"Aizawa Ochiyo," the girl said. There was something hauntingly familiar about her. It was all mixed up, all blurred together; his dreams, the face behind the reception desk at the gymnasium—and, somehow, his memories of Usagi and Serenity. But why?
"Who are you?" he whispered, half-unconsciously. He stood and went over to stand before her, searching her face. The years fell away as he moved; it was King Endymion who acted now. He reached down a hand to cup her chin, tilting her head up gently so that he could look in her eyes.
"Um," she said. There was a strength in her, he could see, a decisiveness, but for an instant it had deserted her and she looked very vulnerable. Then it returned; her eyes flashed, and she lifted her own hand to strike his away. "Look, buster, I don't care if you are my—"
"I know you," he murmured. "Now, where do I know you from?" He could almost see it; it was right on the tip of his tongue. Not Usagi; not Serenity, the way she had been in his dreams. Not Small Lady, either. Then who? And then he had it, and his eyes widened. "Hikari…"
"No!" Ochiyo rose and stepped back, a little too hastily, leaving a deliberate gap between them. "That's what she said, too, but get it straight, buster. I don't care who you might have been in another lifetime. I already have two parents, and I'm not looking for more. Clear?"
He raised his eyebrows. "As crystal," he said, careful to keep the amusement from his voice. He could hear the determination in her words, see it in her face and the set of her body; but none of it mattered. Hikari, by all that was wonderful! Against all probabilities, his second daughter, alive and well, standing before him. The fates were merciful—
And then, in a flash, it deserted him. The spirit of the dead king receded; his poise left him, and he was only Keenan Liam once more, facing a girl his age whom he barely knew from a gymnasium. Oh, the memories were still there, to be sure; Endymion was still within him. But now his modern life took the fore, and suddenly he hardly knew what to say.
A moment later, and he remembered what he had done to her the last time he saw her. He felt his cheeks burn, and knew that he was in trouble.
Someone else solved his problem for him. "Besides," said Dhiti with a familiar smirk, "I think you've got someone else to worry about right now."
"Eh?" Privately, Liam sometimes thought that Dhiti had been born to try the souls of humankind. He hadn't been on the receiving end of her attention very often, thank goodness, but he'd seen how effortlessly she could drive Mark and Miyo up the wall. "What are you talking ab—"
Then he saw, again, the golden girl standing at her side, and finally realised just how much trouble he was in.
"Kin-san," he said faintly.
"Uh-huh." She stepped forward, gazing up at him with an appraising eye. "So," she said in a lazy drawl, "what have we got? Transfer student with bad hair, check. That's not so bad. Crazy Eirish Claver transfer student…hell, I'm broad-minded. I can cope. Crazy Eirish transfer student who picks romantic moments to whisper in my ear about other girls—now, that's starting to push the boundaries, you know?" With a wry smile, she shook her head. "But crazy transfer student who actually turns out to be a legendary king reborn…" She buffed her fingernails on her shirt and examined them thoughtfully. "Well, I just don't know. A girl's got to have some standards, don't you think?"
Liam looked back at her with a mixture of apprehension and regret. The sheer impossibility of this situation—of any question that they could ever be together again—was so overwhelming that it was hard to see anything else. Once he had had perfection, and he wanted nothing more. He had been the consort of Queen Serenity, husband and father of her daughter; there was no question that their love was destined, and the idea of replacing that magical harmony of souls with this girl was unthinkable. He and Serenity had been together for centuries, and their love and passion had only grown; and even now, even muted by death and rebirth and the memory of a lifetime since, the pain and the recollection of what he had lost threatened to send him to his knees, sobbing in grief, all over again.
And yet. He could not help but flinch when Kin mentioned what he had whispered in her ear that night. He had blocked it out at the time, but now it was embarrassingly clear in his memory. And so, too, was the feeling of her body in his arms, and her lips on his.
She must have seen his indecision. Abandoning the casual pose, she said, "Maybe we need to talk about this. Uh, some other time."
"Kin-san," he said, "you have to realise that there's no way we—"
She held up a finger to his lips, and gave him a curiously knowing look. "No," she said. "Later."
He stared at her, his lips still buzzing from the contact, and tried to think of something to say. She gave him a quick nod, then glanced around the room at all the others and nodded again. "It was…interesting, meeting you all," she said succinctly. "We must do this again sometime." Then, walking casually to the door, she let herself out. Her footsteps faded away down the corridor.
Liam watched the door close behind her back with an unexpected feeling of loss. Almost, he wanted to go after her; but that was crazy. He was not in love with her; he loved his wife. His wife.
His dead wife.
He rubbed his forehead wearily. "Oh, boy," he said.
Her lips quirking, Seki said, "I can recommend a good counselling service."
He gave her a pained look. "You've gotten very sarcastic over the years, did you know?"
She grinned back, and belatedly he remembered that he had dated her, too, once upon a time. Not for long, true, and things never went too far between them; but still, he was fairly sure that he had been her first kiss. Looking at her now, he could see that she was remembering it as well. That was…embarrassing.
"This is all getting too complicated," he murmured, shaking his head. "Rei-san, Makoto-san…Ochiyo-san." He looked over at her, and saw that his daughter was hiding a grin. Maybe that wasn't going to be so bad after all. "And—Dhiti-san, why are you here again?"
Dhiti positively preened. "What, don't you know the big, bad Sailor Mercury when you see her?"
Liam glared at her. "No way are you Mizuno Ami."
"Aha! I'm the new, improved ver—"
Seki cut in before Dhiti could finish. "Ami-chan is dead, Liam-san," she said, her voice flat. "Most of them are. Serenity tried to send you all forward again, but—" In a few words, she explained the situation. After she was done, a silence fell.
"So," he said at last.
Makoto nodded. "So."
He felt a burst of sorrow for the fallen: Ami and Minako; Haruka; Michiru; and the gentle Hotaru gone before them. But that tragedy was soon overshadowed by his own, more personal loss. Small Lady, and Serenity. She had sent him on to live again, but had been unable to follow. He was truly alone, then. He closed his eyes, and once more the grey bitterness threatened to overwhelm him—until he felt a hand touch his arm.
"Come here for a moment," Ochiyo said.
Obediently, still feeling numb, he followed her to the window. "Well?" he demanded.
"Look out," she said quietly.
He did so. Outside, the sun baked down on the rooftops of Third Tokyo. The sky was a clear, aching blue, with only a distant bank of cloud on the horizon. Far off in the distance, an aeroplane crawled southward. Below, traffic rumbled softly by, and the streets were filled with people.
It took him a minute to get the message. Too long; once, he would have been the one delivering it himself. Now, slowly, he nodded. "The sun is shining," he said.
"Yes," Ochiyo replied. "It's not all darkness, Liam-san. There's still light, and hope. Every day."
He nodded again; but, looking down at her, he saw another message in her face: one she had probably not intended. Small Lady might be dead; Serenity might be gone…but he had a second daughter, one who faced a dreadful enemy.
More than ever, she needed help. She needed protection. Whether she knew it or not, she needed Tuxedo Kamen.
Liam smiled at her, and said gravely, "Point taken."
"Hey, Endy-kun," Dhiti carolled out from behind them. "Did you notice that your accent's disappeared?"
Things became a little chaotic, after that, as they often did when Dhiti was around. Before it went too far, Seki stepped in. She could see in his eyes how close Liam was to overloading. As Mamoru, he'd always been the brooding, solitary type, and she did not think that had changed.
"We ought to go," she said. "I think you could use some time to adjust, right?"
Liam gave her a quick, grateful look. "Well, I do have some homework to finish," he said with a half-smile.
She chuckled. "Well, then. Makoto was talking about a Senshi meeting tomorrow evening, to discuss plans, and I think it's a good idea." She could not help shooting a dark look at Makoto as she spoke. There were other things they needed to discuss as well. But then she pulled her attention back to the here and now. "If you want to come, you'd be welcome."
He hesitated for some time before saying, "Sure. You'll have to tell me where."
"Of course." She gave him directions to her house. "Eight o'clock tomorrow, if that's okay."
"I'll be there." He smiled, but she thought that it was not without effort. "In the meantime, if you don't mind…"
They all rose to go. Seki held back to let the girls leave first, but paused at the door. Once the others were out of sight, she said quietly to Liam, "I have a message for you."
He did not flinch. He only said, just as quietly, "From…her?"
"Yes. She asked me to tell you that she loved you. And that you will be together again, in the end. She'll wait." He nodded, but Seki was not finished. "In the meantime…she said that you should move on."
Liam was silent for a long time. His face might have been carved from stone. At last he said, "She must know how impossible that is."
Seki gave him a wry smile. "I didn't like it any better when she said it to me." She paused, and then said, "Don't be afraid to live again, that was what she told me. I think she meant it for you, too. You don't have to spend your life alone. The two of you will not be apart forever."
He did not answer, and at last she turned to leave. She heard the door click shut behind her.
Liam stood in the centre of the living room, his mind in turmoil. He listened to Rei's footsteps fade away. When he was sure she was gone, he said aloud, "All right."
The bedroom door opened and Mark came out. He stared at Liam as if looking at a stranger.
Liam found himself starting to grin. "So," he said.
"That…that wasn't real, right? This is some kind of put-up job."
"And you really didn't know? And…and Miyo-san. Oh, God. She's Sailor Jupiter?"
"Shouldn't have listened in," said Liam unsympathetically.
"Oh, come on! What was I supposed to do? You were the one who told me to just keep quiet! If she knew I was there, she'd just leave, you said, but at least this way, maybe I'd have a chance to find something out."
"Yes." Liam gave a rueful chuckle. "Well, that part certainly worked."
"Oh, God," Mark repeated. "They really didn't know I live here too?" Liam shook his head. "And you're…holy shit. You…didn't know anything about it?"
"Not a clue." Liam hesitated. "Well—maybe a clue. I'd been having the strangest dreams, lately…"
"I'm sitting here with King Endymion, and you're complaining about weird dreams? Damn!" Mark fell silent, shaking his head. After a little he asked, "Are…we still friends?"
"Depends," said Liam. "You wanna be a royal retainer?"
"Up your ass!"
Liam laughed out loud. "I don't think it's going to be a problem. If they were willing to tell Kin-chan, I don't see how they can object to you."
"Uh," said Mark. "You're going to tell them I know?"
"You'd rather I didn't?" Liam paused. "To be honest, I don't think it'll make any difference with Miyo-san. You have to understand: even apart from what happened with her family…she had a rough time with boyfriends, back in Crystal Tokyo. Got married a bunch of times, and none of them lasted; none of them could cope with who she was. In the end—I won't say she gave up, because she never did; but she…"
As he spoke, his words had been coming slower and slower. Now he broke off, frowning, and then suddenly threw up his hands and laughed. "Hell, who am I kidding? What do I know? Maybe you're exactly what she needs. Go for it, man. If you'd rather, I won't say a word."
"Okay. Yeah. Thanks." Mark collapsed back into the other chair, looked up at Liam, and said, "Damn it! You do look like the old pictures. And so does she. Why didn't I ever notice before?"
Liam chuckled. "They do it with mirrors."
"Up yours. You're going to be hell to live with now, aren't you?" Mark scowled at him. Then his expression changed. "Hey—so you used to be married to Queen Serenity."
The levity vanished from Liam's voice. "Drop it, Mark."
"And now you've got Kin-san chasing you."
"I mean it, man. Drop it, now."
"Okay, okay. Only—"
Liam groaned. "What?"
Mark gave him a rather suggestive smirk. "Any pointers?"
Liam threw a cushion at him.
Wednesday morning found Chairman Fukuda sitting at his desk, working patiently. Outside, it was raining heavily: fallout from a typhoon passing to the east. The main storm had missed Japan this time, though there would be others. August and September, just around the corner, were the peak months. For now, typhoon number three was giving them a brisk wind and a downpour, but nothing more.
The chairman finished reading a report from 'F' Division and paused, thinking over the ramifications. The financial markets had dropped when the Senshi had first appeared, amid general uncertainty over whether the girls were about to depose the government. Thankfully, things seemed to have stabilised once more now, and the yen had regained some of its value. The message from the Senshi, disavowing any political intentions and signed with an imprint of Sailor Mars' henshin wand, had helped. So had a carefully worded notice from the Council, pointing out that only Sailor Moon herself had a technical right to the throne.
The chairman wondered what would happen when it became publicly known that Moon had finally appeared. Fresh chaos, probably. 'F' and 'D' Divisions would have their hands full. And now that the Senshi knew that the Council was their enemy, might Moon make the attempt after all?
He gave a dry chuckle. Interesting times. Then he moved on to the next report.
This one was from 'S' Division, with a covering note from Number Three: a summary of the debriefing of Captain Hiiro's team after the events of Saturday night. The chairman read it, and frowned. The report was…wrong, in almost every detail. It said that the team had arrived to find a battle between Senshi and vitrimorphs in progress (though it did not use that word, of course), and had opted to back away. Their commander, Colonel Shiro, concurred with the decision.
But that was not what had happened. Number Twelve had seen the entire affair through the eyes of the vitrimorphs. Hiiro's team had already been there when the vitrimorphs arrived, and they had helped the Senshi. So what was going on here?
The obvious answer was that Hiiro had turned, or been turned. He had thrown in with the girls. It would even explain why they had attacked 'M' Division later that night.
The chairman huffed, and typed a brief note to Number Three. (He could not easily hold a pen to write.) Three would know how to handle it; he had had plenty of experience with Sankaku moles. There'd be nothing overt, of course. They would simply keep a close watch on the team, and be…careful…when they used them in future. It was always useful to know who your double agents were.
Shaking his head, he turned to the next report, Hiiro and his team already forgotten. A notice from 'P' Division: Egami Shosuke was dead. Well, he knew all about that. Skipping the details with a grimace, he tapped in an acknowledgement and moved on once more.
Next. A memo from the technical recovery team at 'M' Division. They had restored the frozen computer systems at last. Ah, that was more like it!
Again, he skipped over the technical details, looking for the important information. The first attempt to restore from backup had inexplicably erased the backup itself—hmm. He chuckled at that; it was a worthy touch on M's part. The most recent usable full backup was more than a week old. And an analysis of Egami Shosuke's most recent project records showed—
He cursed. The records were very incomplete. From the look of it, most of the theory had never been written down; it had been in Egami's head.
The chairman sat for a few minutes, thinking. What he was about to do next would put him forever beyond the pale, if anybody found out about it. The Master and the Senshi; both sides would want his head. But—
Tightening his lips, he typed quickly. Orders: a crash-priority redevelopment of the project, maximum urgency, maximum security; results not to be reported to himself, but to his second. The chairman did not dare learn when, or if, this project showed results. Not when his own mind was not sacred.
He hesitated one last time, his finger poised over the 'send' key; and then, with a faint smile, he pressed it. So; for good or for ill, it was done. It was a heady business, this, throwing his life to the winds.
Then he waited. For what, he was not sure: perhaps for the Master's presence and cold, bitter cruelty to fill his mind, or for Twelve to appear, with that savage, merciless smile, full of teeth.
But nothing happened. The low, droning rumble of the air conditioning and the faint bubbling of the water heating for his teapot were the only sound in the office. After a while he began to dare think that, at least for now, he had gotten away with it.
But not forever. There would be a reckoning eventually, he knew. He thought again of Number Twelve, and shuddered. Maybe she would make it quick.
And again, his imagination provided too many details. What if she didn't make it quick? What if she did to him what he had done to her? A second-stage initiation, a permanent, irrevocable tying to the Master. To have your whole will, your whole mind, forever slaved to such monstrousness. What must that be like for her?
Hell was what he thought it would be like; and, just for a moment, he felt sympathy for Araki Mamiko, the woman within Number Twelve. Was she still alive, buried somewhere in there? Was she screaming silently, endlessly, locked inside her own mind? Never sleeping; never eating; just the cold, eternal presence of the Master, clouding everything else out of her, forever?
He had done that to her, after she panicked and tried to kill the Senshi against orders. Not the Master; it had been his decision. He had not known exactly what it would do to her, but he had known that it would be bad. If he had not done it, the Master would have forced him to punish her, but perhaps it would have been some other way.
Maybe I'm evil after all. Maybe I really am evil. An old, bitter thought.
It crossed his mind, not for the first time, that he could follow Hiiro's example and throw in with the girls. Who knows? They might even be able to protect me, he thought with mordant humour. The idea was almost tempting, in a puerile sort of way; but it stuck in his craw. To cast his destiny with a bunch of super-powered, short-skirted teenagers in archaic costumes? It was worse than ridiculous; it was undignified.
For a moment, he thought back to a time years ago, before he had first been elevated to the Serenity Council. Back when he had been nothing more than a hard-working bureaucrat who had never heard of the Master and never dreamed of what lay below the surface of the world.
Give me those days again! A world with no Master or Senshi. A simple world, where we can make our own destiny…
It was a dream; but at least he still could dream. And if they could get Egami's weapon working again, then maybe, just maybe, it could really come true.
In the meantime, there was work to be done. Deception, lies and politics, and a country to run. For a little while longer—until, one way or another, his time ran out.
On the surface, Wednesday passed like any other school day. There was a suppressed air of excitement, of course, at the approaching holidays. Beneath the surface, though, there were some ominous undercurrents. Ochiyo watched them with interest, but she did nothing to interfere. Not yet.
The most obvious current had to do with Suzue. Ochiyo only shared a couple of classes with her, but the change in attitude had become clear since Monday. Oh, nobody said anything; but still, the other students were subtly avoiding her. Even Keiko, who was supposed to be her friend; and Suzue's expression made it clear that she was aware of it.
All of it thanks to Kubota and Arita and their mob…and Makoto. The other students had known about Suzue before, but Suzue had never actually done anything, so it was easy to ignore or forget. Now her religion was staring them in the face, and they reacted the way they always did.
The way they had been taught to react. Ochiyo was starting to see that now, since Otani-sensei had pointed it out.
Having Makoto in the same Home Ec class did not help at all. The other students might keep their snubs low-key, but there was nothing subtle about Makoto. She was the second dark undercurrent. That automatic scowl whenever she looked in Suzue's direction was hard to miss. It was a kind of blindness, in its way.
Ochiyo considered the situation. She had wanted to avoid stepping in between the two of them: not that she was afraid of being stamped with the Loonie brand herself, but simply because she'd hoped that they could patch things up on their own. But it seemed that they weren't even trying. Failing that, she had planned to take the matter up at the Senshi meeting tonight. But seeing them now…
In a moment, she made up her mind. "Excuse me," she said to Jong Soo, her class partner. Then she walked calmly across the room to where Suzue stood all alone.
Suzue raised her eyebrows as she approached. "Careful," she said in a low voice. "You don't want to get caught in this too."
Ochiyo smiled. "It's okay," she replied. "Just take it easy, hmm? Remember, they aren't all out to get you."
"Oh?" Suzue's lips tightened. "Sure looks that way sometimes."
"No," Ochiyo said firmly. "Actually, they're afraid that you're out to get them."
Suzue blinked, and then frowned as she thought about it. After a little she said, "Thank you, Ochiyo-san. That helps."
"Sure. See you later, okay?"
Ochiyo winked at her, then turned to walk back to her own table. Jong Soo was watching her, and she could feel the gazes of the rest of the class following her as well. She gave them all a big smile. She might regret it later; but for now, their stares felt like an accolade.
After school, she hurried to the Olympus. She was rostered on duty for three hours today, during one of the busiest periods; and after that she had another appointment. It promised to be another long evening.
She changed hastily into her work uniform, then signed in and took over the reception desk from Norie. After that she was kept busy for the next hour or so, taking phone calls, answering questions and giving advice. Word had started to get around that something had happened to the owner, and nearly half the calls she took were anxious queries or outright gossip.
Half an hour into her shift, she looked up and saw a face she vaguely recognised. After a second she placed him: Wright Mark. Normally, he came in with Keenan Liam, but today he was alone.
Not that that meant anything. She gave him a warm smile of welcome, expecting him to wave back and head through to get changed as usual. Instead he hesitated, giving her a rather peculiar look in return. Finally, just as she was about to ask him if anything was wrong, he gave her a rather strained grin, and then moved on at almost a run. Ochiyo stared after him, baffled, for a moment. Then the desk comm rang, and she shook her head and got back to work.
By half past six, things had quietened down considerably. Marisa showed up early, which was a help, and Ochiyo took the chance to sneak back to the changing rooms and change out of her uniform. As she came out, she almost ran headfirst into someone else coming in. To her dismay, she saw that it was Yukimi.
"Sorry," she said hastily.
Yukimi looked down at her with a gimlet eye. "Well, Miss Part-Timer," she said in an acid tone. She glanced up at the clock. "Booking out early?"
Ochiyo hid a grimace of annoyance. The trainer was not exactly the bane of her life, but she might well be the bane of the Olympus staff. Tall, well-padded and elegant, she was also waspish and arrogant. Mito was the only one who could really stand her, and even he tried to do it from a distance.
"No, I was just—" Ochiyo began.
Yukimi rolled on without paying the slightest attention. "You might as well. Why not? Who cares if you're defrauding your employer? It's not as if anyone's going to dock your pay. It's not as if you've got any pay to dock."
"I—" Ochiyo broke off. She had been about to protest that the front desk was covered, and she had every intention of staying until her shift ended. Instead she said, "What?"
"Oh, hadn't you heard?" Yukimi gave her a withering smile. "Nobody got paid last night. All that money, mysteriously missing." She sniffed. "I suppose now we know what happened to our exalted absentee leader. Run off to the Virgin Nation, perhaps. That would suit her, I'm sure."
Ochiyo could only stare at her, shocked not just at the news but at the open malice in the woman's voice. "No," she protested. "It's not like that!"
"Oh?" Yukimi laughed at her. "Go ahead and hide from the truth, then, Miss Part-Timer. Personally, I've got bills to pay. I'll give her a week to show her crooked face again. After that, I'm gone!"
Ochiyo stared at her for a moment longer. Then, her lips tightening, she pushed past the woman and out the door. She heard Yukimi's mocking laughter following her.
Good riddance if she does go, she thought furiously. But the anger did not last. Dismayed, she realised that Yukimi was right. Nobody was going to stay for long if they were not being paid.
Without Itsuko, the Olympus was doomed.
Half an hour later, still wrestling with the problem, Ochiyo left the building and caught a bus over to the Hissomori district. Her destination was only a few hundred metres from the bus stop, but she had to check a map twice. At last she came to a halt in a narrow, tree-lined lane, outside an old-fashioned brick house.
She stood for a moment, eyeing it dubiously, and checked her map once more. When she looked up again, she saw a large black bird perched on the roof, looking down at her out of one unfathomable eye. She gave it a curious look in return, then opened the gate and went through. As she stepped over the threshold, the bird gave a harsh cry and took to the air, flying out of sight behind the house. Ochiyo paused, watching it for a second, and then closed the gate behind her, walked to the door and gave a sharp knock.
The door opened almost instantly and Makoto stood there, a smile on her face. "Hi," she said. "Come in. The others are already here."
Ochiyo smiled back; but inside, her alarm bells were ringing. There was something wrong about Makoto's smile, something false. The girl's body was too tense, and her eyes kept meeting Ochiyo's and then flicking away almost guiltily. She was nervous. Why?
Thinking about it for a moment, Ochiyo decided that she had a pretty good idea of what was coming. Her own worries about the Olympus disappeared, replaced by new concerns. She suppressed a grimace. This was probably going to be messy.
"You don't have to do it, you know," she said impulsively. "You can let it go. There's still time."
Makoto stiffened. After a pause that was just a little too long, she said, "What do you mean, Ochiyo-san?"
Ochiyo paused herself, and let out a breath. "Nothing," she said, looking away. "Sorry. My mistake."
Makoto stared at her for a moment longer, her eyes no longer precisely friendly, and then stepped aside to let Ochiyo in. Ochiyo left her schoolbag with her shoes in a corner of the entryway, and then followed Makoto to the living room. She paused at the door. Yes, nearly everyone was there: Seki, Beth, Iku and Dhiti; and in their midst, looking quite uncomfortable, Liam. Most of them were sitting on the floor, but Dhiti was lounging on, of all things, a bean-bag chair. She was happily chattering away at full speed to Beth and Iku, her eyes alight with mischief. Beth answered back when she could get a word in edgewise, but Iku simply listened, a strange, almost wondering look on her face.
Liam and Seki were talking quietly as well, though Liam kept shooting half-humorous, half-resigned glances over at the girls. Ochiyo wondered if he felt as out-of-place as he looked, and concealed a grin. Somehow, his obvious discomfort made up for the stolen kiss of Saturday night.
As she stepped inside, most of them looked up at her, and the room fell quiet. For a giddy moment, Ochiyo wondered if she was expected to make a speech. Then Seki rose and said, "Princess, welcome." She was smiling, thankfully; a real smile. "Let me introduce you to Artemis and Bendis."
Ah. Ochiyo had already met Artemis, the day before, but had not really gotten a chance to talk to him; and Bendis was still only a name to her. She had almost missed the two on entering, but there they were: Artemis, pure white with a gold crescent on his forehead, and Bendis, very young-looking, a tabby cat with a white circle on hers. Full moon, Ochiyo thought, and the idea pleased her for some reason. She had an aunt who bred cats, and thought absently that Artemis looked rather like an Egyptian Mau: a rare breed of cat. Bendis was similar, though obviously a mix.
The two stepped delicately forward as Seki introduced them and dipped their heads, to Ochiyo's discomfiture. She started to bow in return, but then Bendis looked up at her, fixed her with a piercing eye, and said, "So you're the princess? Huh. I thought you'd be taller."
"Bendis!" Artemis swiped at her head with his paw, but she dodged nimbly.
Ochiyo, for her part, merely raised her eyebrows and said in a grave tone, "Really? Funny, I get that from Moon Cats a lot."
Bendis stared at her—and then laughed. Ochiyo joined in. Artemis retreated, grumbling; but Ochiyo noticed that the look he directed at Bendis was more affectionate than angry. One of those males who tried to hide how much he cared, she guessed, amused.
She looked around for a place to sit, but before she had found a spot, Makoto cleared her throat to attract everyone's attention. "Maybe we should get started," she said.
Ochiyo glanced around the room, and—as she had half expected—noticed who was missing. Uh-huh, she thought. So that was how it was going to be, was it?
She was not the only one to spot the omission. "Wait up, Hayashi," said Dhiti cheerfully. "Suzue-san isn't here yet."
Makoto's lips tightened. "No," she said. "Suzue-san isn't going to be coming tonight."
"Is that so?" murmured Ochiyo. Makoto must have heard her; she threw her a sharp look.
"And why not?" asked Liam innocently. "Sick, is she?"
"No," Makoto said grimly. "I didn't invite her…because she's the one we're here to talk about."
That brought a pause to the proceedings. Then Dhiti said, in a voice filled with dismay, "Oh, Hayashi, no."
Makoto glared at her. "Yes, of course," she said. "Be serious for once, Dhiti-chan. She's betrayed us all. She's a…a snake in the grass, and we have to deal with her somehow!"
Liam cleared his throat again. "Pardon my ignorance," he said. "What, exactly, are we talking about?"
In a few bitter words, Makoto told him about Suzue. His eyes widened as he listened, and he let out a low whistle. Then, as she finished, his eyes narrowed once more. "I see," he said, and Ochiyo noticed that once more, his accent had faded away. "You've called us to sit in judgement. Without her even being here to defend herself. We're your Star Chamber, is that it?"
"Defend herself?" said Makoto incredulously. "She admitted it to my face! What kind of defence do you think she needs?"
"None," said Beth in a low voice. Her face was pale and drawn, as if at some unpleasant memory. She shivered suddenly. "Why are we even talking about this? If she's one of—of those…"
"Is it really all that bad?" piped up Bendis from by her side. "I mean, okay, it's kind of weird, but—"
Beth rounded on her. "Yes!" she said furiously. "It's that bad. You—you weren't there, Bendis-chan. But I remember that night. What that man did…" She shivered again, and Ochiyo wondered what had happened to her, and when.
"I was right over your head, and I saw the whole thing," Bendis mumbled, her voice barely audible. "And I know it freaked you out, but—"
"Beth is right," put in Artemis, paying no attention to her. "It's bad. If nothing else, it's bad enough that she tried to hide it from us. But still…" He looked up at Makoto. "I'm a little disturbed that she's not even here. Liam has a point—"
"You're siding with her?" Makoto burst out, outraged.
"No. I'm saying that if she's…well, to be put on trial, she should be here to defend herself. If she can."
"So, suddenly she's to be tried?" said Ochiyo softly. "For her beliefs? By us?"
Makoto gave her a sour, disgusted look. "And who are you to complain? You've known about her all along, and you never did a thing. That makes you nearly as bad as she is!"
"Ah? I've had such a long time to do anything, of course. Let's see, half a week?" Ochiyo smiled at her, lips slightly parted to show her teeth. "Never mind. I'm sure you'll let me know if you decide to put me on trial for it."
Makoto snorted. "Don't be so—"
"Anyway," Ochiyo interrupted, "I did do something, as a matter of fact. I talked to Suzue-san about it. I wonder if you ever thought to try that?"
"Of course I did!" Makoto spat in return. "And she didn't make the slightest effort to deny it. She admitted it to my face!"
"No," Ochiyo said heavily, "I said I talked to her. There's a world of difference between—"
"Enough!" There was a sudden, loud bang. They looked around, startled, to see that Seki had slammed a book down on the table. The woman glared around the room. "Enough," she repeated, her words cold and angry. "This is going nowhere."
Makoto gave her a mutinous look. "Then what do you—"
"Enough, I said! Another minute and you'll be fighting each other—and we both know where that leads, don't we?" Makoto stared at her, shocked and furious, but then subsided. Seki went on, her voice harsh and angry. "Liam and Artemis were right, a minute ago. You want to put Suzue-san on trial, without even having the grace to let her face her accusers? 'Star Chamber' indeed! Well, I think not."
She lifted her left hand and Ochiyo saw, with mild surprise, that she wore a Senshi communicator. "Now, please," Seki said into the tiny device on her wrist.
The rear door of the room opened, and Suzue came in. She looked around the room and said quietly, "Good evening, everyone." Her face was serene and composed, despite the black eye. Then, unhurried, she knelt down on the floor, hands on her thighs…and waited.
The thunderbolt did not take long to fall.
Makoto had felt a growing sense of disbelief and outrage as the argument proceeded. It wasn't meant to be this way. They were all supposed to leap to her side and support her! They were supposed to understand. Why didn't they realise that this needed to be done? Why couldn't they see?
Makoto had no big issues with religion. Even apart from the Buddhism and Shinto predominant in Japan, in her long life she had known Muslims, Christians, Hindus (a nod to Dhiti, there), Sikhs, Jews, Mormons, and probably others. Even a few really weird ones; she'd worked with a pair of Wiccans for a while in Canada, not long before the Fall, and she had thought they were genuinely crazy; but she had no problem with them. They were welcome to believe whatever they wanted.
But the Loonies were different. When she thought of the Serenity she had known—and, further back, of the Usagi of her youth; and even, long before that, of the delicate, naïve princess she had served in the days of the Silver Millennium—what Makoto remembered was the best, closest friend she had ever had, in all her lives. A true soul friend, take her for all in all; at turns raucous and compassionate, childish yet wise, helpless and yet strong. Such a human friend. And the idea of a bunch of supercilious, upstart newcomers bowing down to this woman—praying to her, for heaven's sake, singing hymns to her—it turned her stomach, it honestly did; it made her feel physically ill. Their blindness and their smug, self-satisfied arrogance and their basic, fundamental wrongness infuriated her beyond measure. She could hardly even bear to think about how they called the other Senshi saints. Gentle Ami, fiery Rei, madcap Minako, and Makoto herself, all of them as human as could be, and they wanted to light candles and ask their blessings? That was even more revolting, if anything. No, it was wrong, it was evil, and she would never, could never accept it.
And yet here one of them sat, presuming to be a Senshi. Sitting here among them, smug as you please, as if she had the right! The living embodiment of wilful ignorance and delusion; the emblem of everything that was wrong with the modern world.
Still, at some level, deep inside, Makoto knew she was not being quite rational about this. She had known Suzue for a while now; she knew that the sombre, serious girl was not an enemy. All she was really guilty of was hiding who and what she really was. Makoto remembered, suddenly, what Ochiyo had said to her at the door: You can let it go. There's still time.
But then, rearing up once more from the back of her memory, she heard her father saying at her, on the worst day of her life: A lie of omission is still a lie. And then, crazily, his voice rose to a wild shriek: No true daughter of mine! A cuckoo! A cuckoo in the nest!
And the old, familiar rage washed over her.
Beth had been feeling confused and upset since Makoto's call on Monday. The news had shaken her, badly. Suzue was…well, not a friend, exactly, but someone she had been coming to trust; a girl who had fought at her side, protected her in battle. Someone to be relied on. Even a partner.
Then, on Monday, everything went topsy-turvy. Her dreams that night, and ever since, had been the same: a darkened street; a police Opal marked nearby; a group of would-be burglars, bound inside her Love-Me Chain; a policewoman stalking away from her, radiating anger and resentment…and the other thing. The man who knelt at her feet and gazed up at her, with worship in his eyes and words of adoration on his lips. The squirming horror she felt as he tried to kiss her hand. And the wind in her face and the dry panic in her mouth as she ran, and ran, and ran.
She had gotten over it eventually. Of course she had. Except that now it seemed that perhaps she hadn't, because the sight of Suzue kneeling there placidly—kneeling!—filled her with the same breathless horror she had felt that night. Only this time, she didn't want to run away. She wanted to hide. She wanted to open her eyes and see that everything was all right again. She wanted Suzue to be gone.
Bendis was wrong. Was it really all that bad? Yes. It was.
Thank goodness that Makoto was here. Beth was no hero, not like Sailor Venus, but Makoto, at least, seemed to know what was what—even if the others didn't. She would do the right thing.
It did not take Makoto long to exceed her expectations.
"Get out," Makoto said. Her voice was low and hard. "You don't belong here. Get out of this house."
Suzue looked up at her slowly. She had been dreading this moment; but now that it was here, somehow, she felt only a calm determination. "I am a Senshi," she said, "and I was invited."
"I don't care about that!" Makoto snapped. "You don't belong here, and you never will. Just get out, and spread your poison somewhere else."
Suzue started to answer, but Makoto turned and rounded upon Ochiyo. "What were you thinking?" she demanded. "Everyone knows what they're like! Why did you invite her? How can you think she could ever be one of us?"
"I didn't invite her," said Ochiyo. Her face, Suzue thought, held a hint of something like sadness.
"I invited her," said Seki.
Suzue had known it was coming. All the same, it was a little disturbing to see the shock and dismay on Makoto's face. A look of betrayal.
"You?" Makoto whispered.
"Me," said Seki. She stood, moving up to speak to Makoto face-to-face. "Suzue-san is right, Mako-chan. She is a Senshi. Like it or not, she belongs here."
"How can you think that?" Makoto asked, almost pleading. "How can you just stand there and accept this? You, of all people! You know how—how deluded she is. You ought to be furious! You should be helping me! How can you take this so calmly?"
Seki paused. Then, reluctantly, she said, "Because I have known about Suzue-san and her beliefs for a long time now."
"Since the day of our first real meeting," Seki admitted. "You remember; she fainted when I told everyone who I was."
Suzue looked away, flushing. She had not wanted to remember that moment.
"After the meeting, when most of the girls had left, she came to me and admitted everything. Bowed down and offered me reverence, cool as you please." Seki's lips twitched. "I was…a little unhappy."
"Unhappy," said Makoto. Her face was thunderous and as she spoke, her voice rose to a roar. "Unhappy? You have got to be fucking kidding me. You've known about her all this time, and you never said a word?"
A silence fell. Most of the room were on their feet, now; only Suzue herself was still on the floor. Liam had moved up behind Makoto, his face grim, as if ready to restrain her. All eyes were on the two women. Suzue watched silently, hardly daring to breathe.
"That's right," Seki answered, stony-faced. "I never said a word, because I thought somebody might go off the deep end. I thought it would be Artemis, though; I never expected you, Mako-chan."
"Damn you, I—"
"And anyway," Seki overrode her, "in the meantime, Suzue and I have discussed the subject. Several times. If it matters, I think she's wrong." She grimaced. "And she thinks I'm wrong. But we can be polite about it, at least."
She paused, and her face softened. "Serenity and I talked about it as well, the other night." She glanced down at Suzue, then back to Makoto. "What she said…well, I suppose she had a point. And she did not reject Suzue-san."
Suzue's eyes widened. Seki and the Blessed Lady had talked about her? She felt a sudden, burning desire to jump up and press Seki for details. A single look at the woman's face, though, told her that none would be forthcoming. With difficulty, she remained where she was.
"Seki," Makoto groaned. "Rei-chan. You can't just accept this. You can't! It's wrong, don't you see? It's…it's sick."
"I do accept it," Seki said quietly. "Mako-chan, it's not such a big thing. It really isn't. Nobody's asking you to agree with her. But is it so much to ask, for you to be able to work with her?"
That, Suzue decided, was her cue, if anything was. She rose to her feet and approached Makoto cautiously. After a heartbeat's deliberation, she held out a hand. "Makoto-san," she said, "please, can't we agree to—"
She never even saw Makoto move. She simply found herself lying on the floor, on her back. Makoto stood over her, fists clenched. There was a fierce heat in her face, right over the un-blackened eye.
Well, she thought muzzily, at least I'll match. Then the pain hit, and she let out an involuntary gasp.
Makoto stared down at her. Her face was a mask of cold stone, almost terrifying in its intensity. "I will never accept you," she said. "Never."
Suzue stared back, and something inside her hardened. "Join the club," she snarled.
Makoto did not reply. She turned and pushed her way through the others, opened the door to the entryway and went through without a word. The door clicked quietly shut behind her.
"Um," said Dhiti. "Maybe I ought to go after her."
Seki let out a sigh. "No. Leave her be. I don't think she'd be in the mood for your brand of soothing right now."
"Ha! I'll have you know, I can—" Dhiti paused. "Or, well, maybe you're right."
Liam cleared his throat, drawing their attention. "In the meantime," he said, "we still need to decide what to do about Suzue-san."
As he spoke, he bent down and helped Suzue to her feet. She stood for a moment, touching her eye and wincing. "Just why," she asked, "does everybody think they need to do something about me?" A hint of bitterness entered her voice. "Why can't you all just let me be?"
Liam gave her a long, measured look. "I think…you polarise us," he said in a reflective tone. "One way or another, what you represent can't be ignored. I'm sorry, Suzue-san, but that's the truth." He paused and then added, shaking his head, "Artemis was right, too. You want to be one of the Senshi, but you hide who you truly are. That's wrong, Suzue-san. How can you expect them to trust you, if you can't trust them?"
She let out a rusty laugh, one that was utterly without humour. "The Blessed Lady said exactly the same thing." She saw the sudden recognition in his eyes; and at the same moment, she felt a sudden tingle up her spine as she realised, as if for the first time, who she was talking to. Who it was that had just helped her up. Endymion. Chiba Mamoru. Consort to the Lady Herself.
Her breath caught, and for one instant, automatically, she started to lower her head in reverence. But then a face swam up in her memory, a tousle-haired blonde woman with cool, clear eyes, and she heard the voice again: Kiddo, you're a Senshi! You have been chosen. That makes you worthy.
No, she decided, and felt her body stiffen with resolve. No more bowing. Not here, not to these people.
"You're wrong, Keenan-san," she said, and knew as she spoke that she was, finally, taking the right tone. "I don't want to be a Senshi. I am a Senshi. And if Makoto-san can't accept that…then that is her problem. Not mine."
"Hmm." He looked at her for a moment longer, his eyebrows slightly raised. Then he smiled faintly. "Well, then."
She nodded back, puzzled but relieved, and then looked around the room. Liam, Seki, Ochiyo, Dhiti, Beth, Iku…and the cats, Artemis and Bendis. And they were all looking at her. Of course.
She took a deep breath, then stepped forward and formally bowed to them all. "Everybody," she said. "I am a member of the Church of Serenity. And I am very sorry for hiding it from you."
Nobody said anything for a little, and after a while she realised that it was because nobody could think of anything to say. What do you say to an announcement like that?
Then Dhiti cleared her throat, and she realised with a sinking feeling that if anybody could think of something, it would just have to be her.
"So," Dhiti said musingly, "you really do believe that Queen Serenity was a goddess?"
"Yes," answered Suzue, keeping her voice calm and patient and resisting the urge to be sarcastic. "I really do."
"And after that big Senshi meeting, the other week…you really bowed down to Itsuko-san? That really happened?"
"Oh, God," said Dhiti, and her face took on a faraway, wistful look. "Oh, God, I wish I'd seen that."
"Dhiti," said Seki, pained.
"Sorry, Saint Hino," said Dhiti, unrepentant. Seki started to turn a thunderous look on her, and she added, with a devilish glint in her eye, "Sorry, Most Holy Lady of the Flame and the Spirit."
A new outbreak of mayhem began to take shape in the room, and Suzue obligingly stepped out of the way as it happened. As she did so, a new thought occurred to her, and she gave Dhiti a long, measuring look. That had been Hino Rei's full, correct Church title. But why would Dhiti, of all people, have known it?
Unless Dhiti had been doing some reading up on the Church, once Suzue's secret was out.
That…was an interesting thought. However, it did not prevent Suzue from standing aside and watching, with a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction, as the Wrath of God descended upon Sharma Dhiti.
Makoto marched out of the house, her fists clenched. It was quite dark now, and a thin crescent of silver moon hung in the western sky, just above the horizon. She stood watching it, so angry that she could hardly breathe.
They had betrayed her. She knew it was not true, she knew that she was overreacting in a drastic way, but still that was how she felt. She had counted on the others, and Seki especially, to be on her side, and they had failed her, every one. They had chosen Suzue, the invader.
And here Makoto stood, on the outside. It was as if she had been thrown from her home, all over again. Once more, she was alone. Cast out. She did not want to cry, but still she felt hot tears of rage and shame pricking in her eyes.
A sudden scuffling noise, not far away in the darkness, made her jump. Her heart pounding, she peered around, trying to see. Nothing was there. After a minute she started to relax—and then the scuffling came again, and she saw a dark shape moving on the fence.
"Deimos?" she called in a low voice. "Phobos? Is that you?"
They could not be the original crows, of course, not after all this time. All the same, there were no other crows around in the area, none at all, and in her own mind Makoto had privately started to call them that. Seki refused point-blank to discuss them at all, but she got a funny smile on her face whenever she saw them. It was all very mysterious and cryptic, and Seki probably liked it that way.
The dark shape moved again, and gave a single harsh cry. Then it hopped off the fence and fluttered to the ground, halfway down the path to the gate. She could see it clearly now, stark black under the ghostly blue streetlights.
Grumbling to herself, her heart still beating fast from the surprise, Makoto leaned back against the front door. She closed her eyes, and the anger and resentment came flooding back in a rush. How could they do that? How could they stand by someone who was a mockery of everything the Senshi stood for?
When she opened her eyes, the crow still stood in the path, motionless, watching her silently.
She eyed it for a long time, and felt the first stirring of curiosity. What was it doing? Come to think of it, shouldn't it be asleep off in a tree somewhere?
She looked away sourly, stubbornly ignoring it. Then, with a huff, she gave in. There always had been something uncanny about Rei's crows, damn them. She stepped away from the house and started down the path toward where the bird waited.
It regarded her with a single impenetrable dark eye. As she drew near, it turned and flew a little distance further away. Somehow, she had known it would. She followed it again.
Little by little, it led her out of the gate and down the narrow road, winding its way along the hillside. She followed it grumpily at first, and then with growing intrigue. She had not been in this direction before; school was the other way and she had not yet had a chance to explore. The road was lined with trees, and the streetlights cast only an intermittent, eerie glow across the way. It was as if she were walking through a dream.
After a minute or two, the crow suddenly left the road and appeared to fly up to someone's house. But no; when she reached the spot, she saw that there was a little alley, almost invisible, that led between two buildings and away from the street. She paused, uncertain. The crow watched her. Then, suddenly, she grinned, and carried on. Her dark mood was almost forgotten now.
The alley wove its way between houses, turning this way and that, and then began to climb the hill in a series of old, worn stone steps. She paused at the foot, eyeing them uncertainly. They looked…almost too old. Then, with a shrug, she started upward.
The way was steep, and she was soon breathing hard. It was treacherous going; the steps were slippery with moss. The surrounding buildings cast a deep shadow over the stairway, too, and at times she had to feel her way. The going became hypnotic: step, feel; step, feel. Soon, she had lost all track of time.
And then, suddenly, there was no new step beneath her foot, and she sprawled forward onto a rough stone surface. She was at the top.
The spell was broken. She climbed to her knees, looking around wildly. The stairs ended in a gateway that opened into a wide, open courtyard paved with dark cobblestones, and bordered by a low wall of rough-hewn blocks. It was dimly lit by the moon, and she could see a marker stone of some kind in the centre of the area. The crow stood perched on top of it, watching her silently.
Makoto took a single step toward it, and it sprang up and flew off with a clatter of wings. She lost it in the darkness almost immediately. She was alone.
She walked over to the marker post and knelt down to examine it. There were letters cut into it, old and worn. She traced them with a finger, but in the dim light she could not make them all out. She could only read:—DAI. It seemed vaguely familiar, but she could not place it.
Shaking her head, she rose once more and went back to the wall. As she reached it and looked back down the hill for the first time, her breath caught. The sight was magnificent. The tallest houses on the hillside were below the level of the summit, and she had an uninterrupted view across Third Tokyo, all the way to the distant glimmer of the Archives Dome at the heart of the city. She was looking down on a vast sea of twinkling, glittering colour. Never before had it all seemed so alive.
She stood for a while, simply drinking it in. Then, slowly, she found her eyes lifting, up to the crescent moon, shimmering on the distant horizon. A reminder of everything she had lost. It had nearly set now; even as she watched, the lower horn began to dip out of sight.
Her eyes were watering, for no good reason. She blinked the moisture away, and shifted her gaze. There: a little higher, and more to the southwest, shining bravely in the night sky. The planet Jupiter.
She watched the stars for a long time.
The new squabble did not solve anything, of course, though at least it broke the ice. Artemis grumbled quietly as the girls settled down once more, but privately he was not dissatisfied. Now, maybe they would be able to get somewhere.
He waited for a lull and then raised his voice to ask Suzue, "Why did you hide it?"
The murmur of voices and laughter stopped almost at once. Suzue, who had taken a seat a little apart from the others, raised her head and looked back at him without speaking for a second before lifting a hand to indicate her black eye. "Isn't it obvious?" she asked.
"No," he said curtly. "It's not enough. Liam-san asked you before, but you didn't really answer. You may be a Senshi, Suzue-san, but are you part of this team? How can you expect everyone to trust you, when you hide what you are? Why did you hide it?"
She shook her head, and winced at the movement. "People don't like us, Artemis-sama. Almost everyone. You can't know what it's like. They break our windows at night, they write graffiti on the walls, sometimes they do worse things—two temples were burned down in the last three years. And at school…" With a sigh, she said, "So we learn not to talk about it, that's all. We know what happens when we do. You saw what Makoto-san thought. Seki-san was nearly as bad, when I first told her. I think you don't much care for us, either. And Beth-san—" She turned to look at Beth, who shied away as if from a blow. Suzue finished sadly, "I think she may be worse than any of you. You just don't like us; but Beth-san is afraid of us."
Artemis had not noticed that at all, as a matter of fact. Concerned, he began, "What did—"
"No," she interrupted. "That's…something for her and me to work out ourselves, I think. Beth-san—" Addressing the girl directly, she said, "I am sorry, I truly am. I started to tell you, that day at the warehouse, but we got interrupted."
Beth said nothing; but after a few seconds she gave a tiny nod, and looked away.
"Anyway," Suzue went on, "I did tell Seki-san—back when I found out who she was. She…wasn't happy, and after that…" She took a deep breath. "I…I just thought, it would be easier if I didn't…"
"You knelt down and offered her reverence," said Liam quietly. "How did it make you feel, doing that?"
Suzue glanced nervously over at Seki. "I…well, scared, I suppose. And, um, embarrassed. It didn't really feel real, you know? I mean, she just seemed so normal, it was hard to believe she was one of the saints—"
Seki cleared her throat meaningfully, and Suzue broke off. Seki nodded, satisfied. But then Suzue went on: "Not until later—after I saw her speaking to the Holy Lady, on Saturday night. After she…said all that to Her." Seki's face was clouding over again, and Suzue finished in an impassioned rush, "After all that, I know better. Now I really believe she's a saint."
"Oh, for—" Seki began in a roar; but she was almost drowned out by Liam and Dhiti, laughing.
Suzue rose and stepped delicately over to Seki's side. Looking down at the angry figure, she said, "You are a very holy woman, Seki-san…and I'm awfully glad that I met you." Then, before Seki could move, she bent down and kissed her forehead, before taking a half-step back and kneeling placidly down on the floor once more.
Seki stared at her, still angry and yet somehow disarmed. Finally she looked away, grumbling. Artemis shook his head, grumbling himself. This meeting was a shambles.
To his left, he heard Dhiti mutter under her breath, "Saint Seki-sama," and giggle. Silently, he groaned.
Across the room, Liam cleared his throat. "So," he said, "is everyone all right with this? Uh, apart from—"
"I'll talk to Makoto," growled Seki.
"It might be better if I did," he said gently, and after a moment's thought she nodded. He looked around and said, "And the rest of you?"
"Hey, it doesn't bother me," said Dhiti at once. "Kind of nice to see under that cool exterior, y'know?" She waggled her eyebrows at Suzue, grinning.
"Ochiyo-san? Beth-san? Iku-san? Bendis-san?"
"Me?" piped up Bendis, surprised. "Er…I don't mind. I don't actually see what all the fuss is about, to be honest."
"Suzue-san and I have already talked about it," said Ochiyo. "I don't have any problems."
"It…it's okay," said Iku, in a voice just above a whisper. She looked nervous, Artemis noticed, and kept glancing at her watch.
Liam turned toward Beth. Again, she looked away, her face taut and expressionless. He waited, and at last she said, in a low, thick voice, "Oh…do what you want. You will anyway."
Liam raised his eyebrows and glanced at Artemis, and after a reluctant pause, he nodded. The cat did not relish the idea of trying to talk the girl around, not when he halfway agreed with her, but someone had to do it. The Senshi needed to be a team if they were to have a chance of defeating the enemy.
Besides, Liam was going to have a much harder time of it, trying to talk some sense into Makoto.
Artemis looked away from the young man, and saw that Ochiyo was watching him. She held his eyes, her face unreadable, and then deliberately glanced around the room and said, "Maybe we should move on."
Seki raised her eyebrows, surprised. "What else did we have to talk about?"
"Everything!" Ochiyo's lips tightened; then she said, "Saturday night, to start with."
"Oh, boy," said Dhiti. "Y'know, me and Artemis had a, well, kind of discussion about that, and—"
"Discussion!" Artemis snorted.
"Hey, I apologised, didn't I?…Eventually?"
"Do you two mind?" inquired Seki.
"Saturday night was a mistake," said Artemis bluntly. "I'm sorry, Princess, but it's a fact. Going to 'M' Division was foolish. It did nothing but give the Council ammunition against you."
Ochiyo's eyes narrowed. "I'm not convinced," she said. "I think it did a lot of important things for us. It put us on the offensive, for one thing. Isn't it better to be acting, than reacting? We should be trying to carry the fight to the enemy, not waiting for them to attack us. For another thing, it told the Council that we know what they're doing, and we're not going to let them get away with it."
"But we don't know what they're doing," pointed out Seki.
"We know that they're creating giant monsters, and working with the evil that destroyed Crystal Tokyo. Isn't that enough?"
"Not enough to let us carry the fight to the enemy," said Artemis bluntly. "A little practical data would help there. In the meantime, you've let them paint you as a bunch of delinquent hooligans! They haven't publicly said that it was you who did it, not yet, but how long do you think it will be before word gets out about that idiotic carve-your-name-in-the-wall trick?" (Suzue flinched.) "What are people going to think of you then?"
"I don't much care," said Ochiyo, to his surprise. Her voice was perfectly calm, but her eyes flashed. As he gaped at her, she went on, "It doesn't matter what people think of us. We're not here to win popularity contests. We're here to fight the enemy, and keep them from destroying the world again. That's what matters."
Artemis stared at her, his mouth opening and closing silently several times. At last he began, "But don't you see—"
"Anyway," Ochiyo overrode him ruthlessly, "that's not what I wanted to talk about. You say you want some hard data about the enemy? Here's some hard data." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a pair of items, setting them down on the floor in front of him. "So, what do these tell us?" She looked him in the eye and waited. The challenge was unmistakable.
Artemis did nothing at first; he simply looked back at her, considering. Finally, with a mental shrug, he looked down. Bendis was already nosing the two objects, and he nudged her away so he could get a better look.
A mock-leather wallet, first. He opened it with one paw and saw an ID card inside, for one Kasamatsu Amane of something called the Technical Enforcement Network. Neither name meant anything to him.
The other item was a long, narrow sliver of crystal, the size of a human finger. That one needed no further explanation.
"The ID card was in a pile of clothes in Itsuko-san's office," said Ochiyo quietly. "Seki-san's, I mean. I'm guessing that those crystal things, the vitrimorphs, were in human form to start with, and then changed. Is that right?"
"Yes," said Seki. She bent and picked up the wallet, studying it closely. The other girls crowded around her to look over her shoulder. "They looked human enough at first…though they acted oddly." She narrowed her eyes in thought. "'Technical Enforcement Network.' That 'S' Division captain mentioned it, too. One of them gave him his ID, and he said he'd never heard of it."
"Maybe," murmured Beth, "we should be investigating this Technical Enforcement Network."
"By which you mean me," grumbled Dhiti. "More computer work. Yay."
"All right," said Artemis reluctantly to Ochiyo. "You may have something there. But what about the crystal? We've seen more than enough of it by now, I assure you."
She shrugged. "That's for Dhiti-san, too. I was thinking: what are these vitrimorphs? Where do they come from? Maybe if she can analyse the crystal, she can—"
"Uh," said Dhiti. "I hate to break it to you, Ochiyo-san, but…you know, I'm not exactly an expert with that computer thing. Er, kind of the opposite, really."
Ochiyo cocked an eye at her, and said, "You seemed to do pretty well on Saturday night."
"Yeah, but—" Dhiti sighed. "Why can't someone else be the computer expert? I don't even like the things! And anyway—" She broke off, looking uncomfortable.
"Yes?" inquired Seki.
"Well…actually, I tried analysing a piece of one of those things already, a few weeks ago." She twisted nervously, and would not meet anyone's eyes. "But it wasn't any use; the computer just started giving me a lot of crazy talk. In the end I had to give up."
Artemis gave the girl a suspicious look. "What sort of crazy talk?"
"Oh, what does it matter?" she snapped. "I don't even remember! Some kind of nonsense about shellfish and cobwebs."
Seki snorted. "You must have done something wrong."
"Yeah, well, maybe you should try it, then!"
Artemis studied her thoughtfully. You had to be careful with Dhiti. She was very good at distracting you when she didn't want to do something; and he was getting the idea that, whatever she had found, it had bothered her for some reason.
"We could try it again," he suggested casually. "I'll help. I saw Ami using the computer, often enough. Maybe together, we can work out what it was talking about."
"Oh, but—no—I mean—"
He watched her flounder, and thought with real surprise, and not a little dread, that she was actually going to take him up on the offer. (He was no better with computers that she professed herself to be. Possibly worse.) But just as he was about to speak up once more, she turned her head away, closed her eyes, and said in a low voice:
"What!" He froze, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Seki do the same. "What did you say?"
"Daimons," said Dhiti. She would not look up, but her voice was clear. "It…the computer said there were patterns in the crystal that matched Daimon traits. And human DNA. And…and star alignments."
"Stars?" said Ochiyo, her tone incredulous.
"Yeah." Dhiti looked up and tried to grin. It looked ghastly. "The stars as they were, two million years ago."
A long pause followed. Then Suzue said, "But that's absurd."
"You think I don't know that?"
"I mean, how could you possibly think—"
Artemis let them argue, not really listening. The ghost of a memory was pricking at him. Something about what Dhiti had said…He tried, but it would not come. He shook his head, disgruntled; and from the corner of his eye, he saw Iku's lips moving silently.
He padded over to her and looked up into her face, normally so shuttered but for once half-open as she wrestled with a problem outside her own mysterious woes. He said, "What is it?"
She started, and shied away from him automatically. Artemis made a mental note, for the dozenth time, to look into what was making her so timid. Was she being bullied at school? Gently, he repeated, "What is it? Did you think of something?"
"Oh—no, I didn't—it's not important—" He waited patiently as she stammered, until in the end, under his patient look, she gave in and whispered, "Human DNA."
He cocked his head to one side. "What about it?"
"I—I was just thinking. Were they human once? A-are we murderers, every time we kill one?" She wilted under the shocked look he gave her, and added, "I'm sorry—I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't interrupt. Please…"
Seki had come over as she spoke, and now the older woman touched her shoulder. Iku fell silent instantly, and her whole body seemed to tense. Looking down at Artemis, Seki said, "It's a good question."
"I know," he answered. "That Kasamatsu Amane—did he die on Saturday night? Did we kill him? But what else can we do, Seki?"
Dhiti and Suzue had stopped arguing, unnoticed behind them. Now Suzue said, "Here's a better question. Was Kasamatsu Amane a vitrimorph—or did someone turn him into a vitrimorph? Because if they did, then they were the ones who killed him. Not us."
Glancing back at Dhiti, she added, "Maybe you really should be looking up that Technical Enforcement Network, Dhiti-san."
The meeting broke up after that. Everyone had run out of things to say. Over the general milling around as everyone got up and stretched, Seki offered them drinks and snacks. Most of the girls accepted happily, but Iku did not stay. She looked at her watch again, flinched, and then hurried away with no more than a breathless whisper to Ochiyo: "I'm sorry—I have to go…"
Ochiyo watched the door close behind her with puzzled amusement. She said, to nobody in particular, "She must get a lot of homework, right?"
Nearby, Dhiti answered, "I don't know; she's always like that. It's a mystery." Raising her voice, she said, "Hey, Beth-chan—you're her friend at school, right? What's the story? What's her problem?"
Beth looked around, jarred out of some private musing. "Who, Iku-san? Um, I'm not sure. She hardly ever says anything at school, either. It's kind of weird. Actually—" Her eyes lost focus for an instant. "Wha—now that is weird."
"Nana—that is, another girl at school. The other day, out of the blue, she suddenly told me I should ask Iku-san about her puppy. I'd almost forgotten about that."
"She has a dog?" said Ochiyo. "Maybe she had to go home to feed it."
"Huh," muttered Bendis audibly. "Who in their right minds would want a puppy?"
Beth rolled her eyes. "Well, they are popular, you know."
"Oh, please. All they do is yap all day and piddle on the carpet. If I did that, you wouldn't think it was cute."
"It's quite an endearing picture, though," said Dhiti with a grin. "If you decide to try it, be sure to let me—" She paused, and the smirk faded from her face. "Huh. Now that's weird."
"Oh, now what?" inquired Ochiyo, clearly amused.
"Well…I dreamed about her the other night. Saturday night, as a matter of fact. Iku…with a puppy."
Imperceptibly, Ochiyo paused. Her eyes narrowed. "You had an odd dream on Saturday night?"
"Uh—yeah, well, don't put too much stock in it. I also dreamed she was dressed as Sailor Mercury."
"Ri-i-ight." Ochiyo looked relieved, for some reason. She grinned. "Wishful thinking?"
"As if! You're not getting rid of me that easily, Ochiyo-san." Dhiti's eyes glinted, and she glanced down at the tabby cat as she said, "Tell you what, though. She can wear a Mercury costume when she sings karaoke. In honour of my victory over Bendis."
"Oh, now this sounds interesting," Ochiyo said over the indignant sputtering of the cat, and leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. "Tell me more."
Beth turned away as the two of them began plotting together, and went back for more snacks. It had not, on the whole, been a good evening, and she was looking forward to leaving. In a few minutes. After she'd tried a couple more takoyaki.
They had probably been made by Makoto, she reflected as she munched happily a few seconds later. But that thought brought the whole unpleasantness back, and she grimaced as if at a bad taste. She wondered where Makoto had gone. Surely she wouldn't have done anything drastic? Maybe someone should have gone after her, as Dhiti had suggested. Or maybe Beth should call and say how much she agreed—
She felt a touch at her elbow, and turned to see Suzue. Involuntarily, she froze.
"We ought to talk," said Suzue.
Beth pulled her arm free. "What's to say?" she said dully. "Everyone thinks it's perfectly all right, so what does it matter?"
"Beth, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, and I'm sorry some idiot from the Church tried to give you reverence and scared you. I really am. But there's no way I can make it up to you, and I…I can't change who I am. I won't change it."
Beth was silent.
"He was an idiot, that man," Suzue persisted. "I mightn't have thought so once, but…well, what you said to me the other day, at the warehouse, it made me think. What if my family found out what I am, and bowed down to me? And—" She made a face. "I thought how horrible that would be."
"You bowed down to Seki-san," said Beth petulantly.
"Yes, and she didn't like it very much either," Suzue retorted. She shot Beth a sidelong glance and said, with a touch of asperity, "Rest assured, I have no plans to bow down to you."
"Good!" The two of them stared at each other defiantly for a long moment—until, with a sigh, Beth shook her head and looked away. "I just don't understand," she said, suddenly tired of the whole subject. "How can you believe all that stuff?"
Suzue shrugged. "You saw her, on Saturday night," she said. "She died, seven hundred years ago, and yet she was there. And you saw what she was like. Beth-san, what I don't understand is why you don't believe?"
"Because—" Beth had to fumble for a reply. It was not something she had ever thought about. "Because what would that make me?" she asked. It was the best she could come up with on the spot. "I'm not a saint…or a goddess."
"Neither am I," answered Suzue slowly. "I think we've been chosen by her, that's all. To act in her name—in the name of the moon. And on behalf of the planet Venus, and Uranus…and all the rest. And that's more, do you see? More than saints; Senshi."
"I don't know…"
"Look, I do it because I believe that we're fighting in a holy cause; I truly do. But you do it because you know how vital what we do is; because somebody must act, and you're the one who can. If anything, that makes you a lot more heroic than me."
That was not exactly why Beth was acting as a Senshi. It was more that, once she had been given her powers, she could not imagine not being a Senshi. It was like living out all her fantasies, all at once. But she did not say that. She said, "Uh…thanks."
"Beth-san, don't you see? I believe what I believe, but I'm not asking you to believe it too. That would be nice…but I don't expect it. All I ask is that you not reject me just because you disagree with me. Is that fair?"
Put like that, of course, it was hard to say no. All the same, Beth did not want to agree. She still felt a little betrayed; and, worse, she felt as if she were being asked to go along with something she knew was wrong, just for the sake of harmony. It was hard to accept.
Minako-sama, what am I supposed to do? she thought. But of course there was no reply.
She found herself studying the girl before her. Black eyes or not, there was nothing but sincerity in her face. And that was the essential problem, in a nutshell: Suzue believed everything she was saying. Faced with that kind of blind certainty, what was there to do? Nothing Beth could say was going to deflect her. Argument was futile, rationality a lost cause…and the policeman in her memory, kneeling before her with his bright, mad eyes and kissing her hand, had won after all.
But then a memory came to her. The two of them on Saturday night, in the workshop at 'M' Division: Venus cheerfully smashing whatever she could, and Uranus offering suggestions over her shoulder as she wreaked her own more careful destruction. Working together.
And another: at Zarigani Mall, a week ago, as she swung across the shattered concourse to escape an avalanche of falling debris, heading straight toward the vitrimorph that waited to kill her—only to see it leap away at the last instant, from the attack of the slender, elegant figure who stepped forward to greet her as she landed. Invited by a new millennium: Sailor Uranus, acting gracefully. Saving Beth's ass.
Did it really matter all that much what Suzue believed? Really?
"I still think you're wrong," she said in a low voice.
Suzue's lips twitched. "You're not the only one," she answered. And then smiled, and added: "But I can live with that."
Hesitantly, Beth allowed herself to smile in return.
Ochiyo broke away from Dhiti when she and Bendis started arguing. (Really, the young cat was adorable! But very defensive in some ways. There seemed to be a rift of some kind between her and Artemis. Ochiyo would have to ask, sometime.) She headed over to the snacks table, but saw that Beth had just finished the last one.
Grinning, she turned away again, and nearly banged into Seki, who was standing nearby. "Sorry," she said.
"My fault," answered Seki. She eyed Ochiyo thoughtfully and said, "You've been taking all of this rather well."
"Not really." Ochiyo shrugged. "I've known something was happening for a while, remember? And it's been—what, nearly two weeks? Since her ghost came and gave me my henshin wand. I've had a bit of time to get used to the idea."
"Even so." Seki paused, and said, "I've been trying to think of a casual way to ask how things have been going at the Olympus since I…left."
"Hah. Okay, I guess." Ochiyo made a face. "I'm probably going to have to give up the late shifts, though."
"Well…I can't really sleep over in your apartment any more."
"Oh! I should have thought of that." Seki grimaced. "It's not that I'd mind. But you're probably right; it would attract attention. You could just catch the late bus home, you know. On the weekends, at least."
"I suppose so." That was something that Ochiyo hadn't thought of. "My mother wants me to quit the job, anyway," she added. "She got nervous when she heard about, well, everything."
Seki snorted. "How're the staff taking it?"
"They're wondering what's happening. 'P' Division searched your office a couple of times, but they won't tell us anything."
"Not 'P' Division," said Seki absently. "It'd be 'S', I should think."
"Really? Wow." Ochiyo thought for a moment, and then said, "Yukimi-san thinks it's proof that you're an international criminal on the run."
"Ha." Seki shook her head, looking sour. "In a sense, that's almost true."
"Not the way she means it," muttered Ochiyo. "But she's always like that, always! Why do you keep her on, anyway?"
Seki gave her a cool look, and Ochiyo suddenly remembered that she was talking to her employer. "Because she is competent," said Seki, her voice flat; "and whatever you may think of her, schadenfreude is not a firing offence."
"Scha—? I don't know what that means."
"Hmph." With a twisted half-smile, Seki said, "You might say that it's Yukimi-san's raison d'être."
"Is that some foreign language?" asked Ochiyo suspiciously.
Seki laughed quietly. "Ochiyo-chan, go home. It's getting late."
"Oh—all right. Good night, Seki-san." Ochiyo looked away, grinning to herself, and went over to collect the other girls. She saw Liam move over to speak quietly to Seki, and nodded farewell to him. He nodded in reply.
In a couple of minutes, Ochiyo was walking down the path to the gate with Beth, Suzue and Dhiti. Dhiti was chattering, naturally, and the others were listening more or less patiently. For herself, Ochiyo was still mulling over what she had carefully not said to Seki: that nobody was getting paid at the Olympus any longer, and the gymnasium was not likely to keep going much longer. There was nothing Seki could do about that without going back, so why bring it up?
A thought occurred to her, and she suddenly said to the other girls, "I don't suppose any of you know anything about accounting?"
They fell silent, looking at her in surprise. Dhiti, and then Suzue, shook their heads; and just when she was sure that her idea would come to nothing, Beth said, "Um…I've read a bit about it. Why?"
Ochiyo grinned. "Great! I'll give you a call tomorrow, Beth-chan. There's something you might be able to help me with."
They parted and went their separate ways. In a few minutes, Suzue was sitting on a bus, rubbing what was probably going to be her second black eye. It occurred to her, in a distant corner of her mind, that the Senshi were supposed to heal fast. Perhaps if she were to try sleeping as Sailor Uranus tonight? But what if her parents came in and caught her?
Most of her attention, though, was on another thought. About Liam, earlier tonight. When he had helped her up, he had been polite, but at the same time coolly condescending. It wasn't until she stood up to him and told him he was wrong that he had started to respect her.
Come to think of it, Itsuko had been the same way. And Haruka too, as a matter of fact, in her dream. None of them would accept subservience. It was something to keep in mind, perhaps, the next time she met Makoto.
But there was more to it than that. For years, Suzue had lived keeping a low profile: hiding what she was, or at least not drawing attention to it. And the others at school—how many of them ever accepted her? They pointed their fingers at the weirdo, the Loonie, in secret, and damn few of them ever gave her any respect.
I know what it costs you to maintain your beliefs, said the Blessed Lady in her memory, but Suzue, that does not excuse you, does it? And also: If you value your beliefs, you need to be prepared to fight for them.
Could it be that keeping a low profile was a bad idea? Perhaps it was time to try holding her head high. She might take some lumps for it, yes, but…maybe she should start standing up for herself.
Whatever the cost.
Inside the house, Liam said to Seki, "Let me find her. Seeing you right now might set her off again."
Seki made a face. "I suppose so." Shaking her head, she said, "This whole thing is pretty messed-up, isn't it? I mean, she's way over the line, yes…but I can see where she's coming from."
Liam chuckled. "I can see where they're both coming from. Don't worry, Rei-chan. I'll try and smooth things down a little."
He made his farewells and left quietly. Outside, he walked down to the gate and stood quietly for a minute, thinking. Now, where might Makoto have gone?
He closed his eyes and gradually let his senses extend. He had never been a warrior in past lifetimes, not the way the girls were. He could fight when he needed to, yes, but his real powers and talents lay in other directions. Psychometry; healing; those he could do.
Now, he tried to open his mind and let the impressions come. It was not a telepathic contact that he sought; nothing so crude. Rather, he was trying to sense the world itself: the flows and patterns of events; the ghostly touch of the innumerable threads of fate as they endlessly wove and reshaped themselves around the countless branchings and decisions that the Earth made, each and every instant. Every single thing that happened, ever, was part of that flow, from the fall of a speck of dust…to the movements of an angry girl as she stormed out into the night.
This was not something he had done before, not consciously; but it was, in a way, an extension of a sense that he already had: that delicate, instinctive knowledge of when those he loved were in danger. He had a special connection to the world's soul; to Elysion. He hoped that it would be enough.
He stood for a long time, eyes still closed. The evening was quiet and still; the sounds of traffic a few blocks away did not impinge upon his senses at all. He let the darkness and the silence sink into him until he could feel nothing but the night.
When he opened his eyes again and looked about, it was as if he were seeing a different world. The street he stood in had not changed, but somehow it seemed to have gained more…depth. It was more real than it had been before; as if he had only ever seen it in two dimensions, but now he could see the third. The world around him was more vivid; it had more colour, and weight.
He gazed all around him with a quiet sense of wonder, delighted with his new discovery. He played with it, to start with. Then, after a little, he became gradually aware that, as his head turned, his eyes kept catching in a particular direction. There was nothing visible to distinguish it; rather, in a way he could not quite pinpoint, it seemed to feel more…attractive? No; more fitting. More right.
Nodding to himself, he turned and started to walk slowly down the street. He did not try to watch where he was going; he was simply moving in a direction that somehow felt better than any other. After a little, he realised that he was even setting his feet down carefully, in particular spots. Places where someone else had stepped, perhaps. He wondered if someone watching him would think that his stride matched that of a teenaged girl.
After a little, still following his ghost path, he found himself turning into a narrow alleyway that led between two houses and up the hill. He did not make the turn consciously; again, it was simply a direction that felt better. All the same, as he moved onward, he became gradually aware that there was something else here, too. Something odd: as if he were coming to a place that he knew from long ago.
The alley became a flight of stone steps that led up the hill, turning this way and that. Liam did not hurry; indeed, the world he moved through was so timeless and still that the idea of haste seemed obscene. But at last, an indefinable period later, the steps ended in a wide, open area, paved with close-fitting stones and bounded by a low wall. A marker post stood in the centre, and he stepped forward to look at it. The name carved into it was so worn that it was almost indecipherable, but with the strange acuity of his vision he could make out the letters clearly: SENDAI. And then, finally, he understood the sense of familiarity he had felt—and even why Rei had chosen this place, above all others, for a bolt-hole when she had had to flee the Olympus. After so many years, she had come home.
Smiling to himself, he straightened and let his otherworldly perception fall away. The ordinary, everyday universe snapped back into focus around him, and he blinked. The night was far darker than it had seemed moments before. And, not far away, a figure was standing, silhouetted against the lights of the city.
"Mako-chan," he said.
"Endymion," she said in return. "Come to fetch me back?"
He had expected her to sound bitter, angry; even tearful. Instead, her voice held only a quiet wistfulness.
"Came to see if you're all right," he replied. Then: "It's…peaceful up here."
"Yes," came her voice, peculiarly distant in the night. He wished he could see her better. "I've been watching the stars. They never used to be this bright, in the old days."
Liam laughed softly. "No air pollution from millions of oil-burning cars," he said. "They were this bright in Crystal Tokyo, but after the first century or so we didn't often stop to look, did we? We took it for granted."
"And in the Silver Millennium, too," she returned. "But back then, people looked. They always looked."
He wanted to follow that up—his own memories of the Silver Millennium were so faint and fleeting—but sensed that it would be a mistake to get distracted. He said, "The others were worried about you, you know."
There was silence for a second. Then Makoto said, "I'm sure."
"Really," he insisted. "You were rather…overpowering back there. You scared me, a little."
He heard a dry chuckle. "Not you."
"Mako-chan, you can't run away from the issue forever."
Again, she was silent. When she finally answered, it was with a bitter resignation. "Damn you, anyway. I just got calmed down and you're trying to get me angry all over again. Can't you let this be?" He waited, silent, and at last she said, "I'm not going to stand for it; that's all. You tell them that. I'm not going to accept it. Endymion, you know how—how revolting it is, what she believes. You know how Usagi would have hated it. How upset she would have been."
"I know," he said, "that Usako would not have attacked her. Or run away from her."
She snorted. "So what do you want me to do? Smile sweetly at her and say, 'Oh, Suzue-chan, your religion makes a mockery of my entire life, but that's okay, I'm just happy you're sincere. Let's be friends!'? I don't think so."
Liam came close to losing his own temper. "Fine, then," he snapped. "You refuse to accept her? Then don't. But, Mako-chan, she is a Senshi, whether you accept that or not." She started to speak, but he cut her off ruthlessly. "So work with her, damn it! Nobody's asking you to approve of her beliefs, no one says you should be happy about it, but if you can't work alongside her in a…a professional way, then she's twice the Senshi you are."
Makoto stared back at him, and even in the darkness he could feel the coldness of her gaze. "Is that all you've got to say?" she ground out.
"No. I've spoken to her, and…" He hesitated, knowing what her reaction would be, but said it anyway. "She's not a bad person, Mako-chan. Whatever she may believe about Serenity, whatever rubbish her church may have filled her head with, it doesn't make her a bad person."
He expected a new eruption, but instead she did not answer for a long time. When she did, her words were so low, almost a whisper, that he had to strain to hear. "Don't you think I know that?"
His head snapped back, his eyes widening. "What? But—"
"Oh, damn it, don't you think I know that already?" she said, more strongly. "I've known her longer than you, Endymion. Do you really think I can't see that she's one of us? But then she suddenly hits us with this, and it's—God, I don't know what to think any more! She—she was supposed to be a sister Senshi, she was almost my friend…but she stands for something I despise, something I just hate so much, and she's proud of it! And I don't know how to take that. I can't…see a way past it, do you understand? I don't know whether to love her or hate her. All I can see is the betrayal. All I can see—" Her voice broke suddenly. "All I can see is my father, that look in his eyes. And…and I finally understand why he had to throw me out. He couldn't see the way past, either."
She was crying, he realised. He did not quite understand the reference to her father, he knew that she had been disowned but not the full story, but that could wait. He stepped forward and took her in his arms, and she buried her face in his shoulder and clung to him.
A long time passed. He held her, there in the darkness, and felt his shoulder grow wet with her tears, though she never made a sound. At last, some indefinable time later, he felt her arms slacken, and he released her gently. She withdrew from him, and the two stood in silence for a minute longer.
"Go on," she said quietly. "Go on back down. Tell them I'll be fine. Tell them I'll—I'll find a way to work with her." She took a deep breath, and let it out. "Somehow."
"I can stay, if you'd rather," he offered.
"No. You go back. It's late, and I—" She paused, and he heard an odd, quiet wistfulness in her voice. "I just want to watch the stars for a while longer."
He nodded and turned away, walking back down the path toward the real world. The last he saw of her, as he glanced back just before she disappeared behind the bulk of the hill, was a slender, dark figure silhouetted against the night sky, her head raised and her eyes focused upon the distant twinkle of the planet Jupiter.
After Iku made her excuses and escaped from the meeting, she headed down the path and along the street at a dead run. Her ankle throbbed with every step, but she ignored it. She was late, late, so very late, and she knew the consequences. Oh, she knew.
At the bus stop, she waited in frantic, fretful silence for her bus. It arrived in less than five minutes, but it could not have come soon enough. On board, she checked her watch again and again as she rattled her way toward home, but it gave the same damning answer every time.
At the last, as she walked the final hundred metres toward her house, her feet dragged, trying to stave off the inevitable. But sooner or later, she had no choice. Nowhere else to go.
When she opened the front door, Mother was waiting. Iku stepped inside, removed her shoes, and knelt down, head bowed, hands clenched in her lap against what was coming.
Shark-like, Mother smiled down at her.
At school the next day, Beth waited patiently at the gate for Iku until the bell rang. There were things she wanted to talk about.
But Iku never arrived at school. Not on Thursday.
It was a little after noon on Thursday, by M's reckoning, when they finally came to talk to her. Her wrist-pad would have told her exactly, but they had taken that away from her. She had not fought too hard. She could make a new one, if she needed to.
She had been held for the last three days in a comfortable room that she could almost have mistaken for a hotel, though it had been a long time since she had seen one of those. The door was locked, naturally, but there was a large picture window so she could look down across the city. It had changed a lot in the two decades since she had seen it last.
Much more interesting to her than the view was the viddy set. They had had no reason not to give her one, she supposed; they had probably not even thought about it. But she had spent most of the last three days in front of the set, watching avidly.
Much of what she saw was trash, of course: soap operas, detective shows, meaningless dramas, children's programs laden with advertising for the latest toys. But it was all useful; she drank it in voraciously. She had been a prisoner down in the Council's dungeon for a long time, and while she had been able to deduce certain things from the demands they made of her, still she was twenty years out of date. That was a long time, in a rapidly developing era. She had no interest in the stories she watched now, but the cultural context they gave her was exactly what she needed. Every new program was a fresh glimpse of the way the modern world worked.
One show did make her pause. It was an anime, apparently aimed at young teens, called 'Queen Serenity and her Senshi'. She watched it all the way through, stunned, and then laughed and laughed and laughed.
News programs and documentaries were more directly useful to her, of course: up-to-date information about what was happening in the world around her. She was in the middle of one when the Sankaku arrived.
There were six of them: four men and two women. She gave a little nod as they came in; she had made a bet with herself that the number of people would be a multiple of three. Two representatives from each clan; it seemed that they took the division seriously. They even stood a little apart from one another. That was useful information, too.
"Good afternoon," she said politely. "Can I help you?"
It made them pause, as she had intended. They recovered fast, though. "That remains to be seen," said one of the men, a man in his thirties with a clear, open face. "What should we call you?"
"Oh, just 'M' would be fine, dear," she said easily. "Or you could say 'Emma' if you prefer." Before he could answer, she looked around the room and added, "Three sides to the Sankaku, hmm? Shinpo, Niji and Paradise clans. Well, Shinpo and Niji are clear enough. Weren't the old Rainbow and Progressive Parties in opposition, back before the Act of Amalgamation created the Serenity Council in '13? The only one I can't work out is the Paradise Clan."
She had struck gold, she saw at once. The consternation in their faces was almost laughable, it was so easy to read. One of the men recovered a little faster than the others and said, with a growl, "You know too much."
"And still in opposition today, I see," she said with a nod. "Oh, don't start posturing, dear, it makes you look smaller. Why don't we sit down and chat, instead?"
She took one of the three chairs before any of them moved, sitting down primly and favouring them with a smile. After a long delay, the young man and one of the women took the other chairs. Two more of them sat on the bed.
One of the men who remained standing, a massive bear of a man with a rich, deep voice, said, "Are you really who you claim to be? One of the Council's secret brain trust?"
"Well, I could claim to be anybody, dear," she said, enjoying herself immensely.
"I know that," he said, imperturbable, and her respect for him rose a notch. "But I want to hear you say it."
"All right, then. I am not one of the Council's secret brain trust. I am, myself, the brain trust. Just me." She paused for a heartbeat and added, "But you already knew that, of course. Otherwise you wouldn't have come here; not the leaders of the Sankaku."
"The device you brought with you was…persuasive," he admitted.
"Have you broken it yet," she asked, "taking it apart to see how it works?"
The bear chuckled. "Not quite. Young Nakada, the man you approached, stopped them tinkering too much. He says he has an idea of how you did it."
"Does he, now?" she murmured. "Yes, I thought he had a brain or two. I picked the right one to go to."
One of the women, a petite lady in her fifties who must have been stunningly beautiful in her youth, said, "And how did you know who to go to? Why have you come to us at all?"
"Oh, that's easy. I cracked your comms net quite some time ago, dear. Just like you cracked the Opal net, a few days ago."
A fresh shocked pause. "The Council's cracked our communications?" said the one who'd tried to threaten her. "Shit, they'll be on us like a ton of bricks."
"If they've done it at all," said the small lady sharply. "We have only her word for it."
"No, not the Council," said M. "Just me." She let that sink in and added, "I haven't told anyone about it, you see. Any more than I told them when you cracked OpalNet. That was quite cleverly done, by the way."
"Why not?" asked the bear. "Why have you come to us?"
"To help you," she snapped back. "They held me prisoner for years, down in their little underground tomb. Threatened me. Made me work for them. Did you know that Monday was the first time in twenty years that I've seen the sun? Well, no more! You want to bring them down—and that suits me fine. I want—I want my revenge. And if you want help, there's no one who can do it better."
There was a short silence in the room. She had let her mask drop, M realised; they had glimpsed the rage in her. Well, so be it.
"Perhaps," said the bear at last. He gave her an unexpectedly penetrating look, but only repeated, "Perhaps."
"Can you crack the rest of their internal communications?" asked the one who'd threatened her. There was still doubt in his voice, but his eyes gleamed with a hint of excitement. "Can you help us make our own net more secure? Can you—"
"Why think so small?" said M, allowing a patronising tone to enter her voice. "I can do ever so much more for you than that."
He hesitated. Before he could reply, the small lady said sharply, "I believe we'd like to see some proof of that."
M smiled at her. "Of course, dear. I'll be happy to show you what I can do." Her smile widened. "And then there's a little something that you can do for me in return."
Wright Mark took the long route home from school. The long route, in this case, led directly away from the apartment he shared with Liam, and into the Hissomori district. He got off the bus and walked for a short time, stopping at the entrance to a narrow, tree-lined street that wound its way along the side of a hill with an ancient name.
He stood there for a while, staring down the street, without moving. Miyo was there, not far away. Miyo who was now calling herself Hiyama Makoto…and who, beyond all probability, had turned out to be Sailor Jupiter herself. He had heard it clearly, and Liam had confirmed it later.
And she was just down the street there, not two minute's walk. Now that he knew her assumed name, she had been easy enough to find. He hovered there, on the brink of advancing…trying to convince himself that she would not turn him away.
A Senshi. He had been trying to woo a Senshi. One of the legendary Serenity's own protectors! No wonder she had turned him down so firmly.
"Man," he said with bitter self-mockery, "when I screw up I don't do it small, do I?"
And yet, not so long ago there had been times when she had seemed, well, not uninterested. Up until his mistake in letting out the news that she had been disowned, the two of them had gotten on rather well. Had that all been a pretence, then?
The truth was, he had set his sights too high; that was all there was to it. And it was not as though he did not have other options. That girl he had met the other day, Beth; she seemed nice enough, friendly, and approachable. And at least she was normal.
And yet, there he was, looking down the street toward Makoto's house; and when he turned away at last, it was not because he had given up. It was because he was not ready. Or she was not. Or maybe both of them. Certainly not because his courage had failed him at the last moment.
How to probe the mind of a monster?
Lady Blue knelt in utter darkness. The attention of the Master was elsewhere, for now, and in its absence the shell of Araki Mamiko, Number Twelve, was little more than an empty husk. Eyes wide open, staring unblinking at nothing, she rested on cold stone in a chamber far below the surface of the earth. Her body was utterly motionless, save for the slow, shallow rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. (Even sustained by the Master's power, breathing was needful.)
Somewhere not far away in the blackness, a great dull, cold light beat and pulsed. Even though asleep, the Master was still active.
The Master slept, yes, but not as common humans sleep. His mind worked without ceasing. It was dulled by his slumber—numbed, yes, and limited—and so he could focus his power only in small ways, on a few things at a time. But that would change soon enough, when he found his complement. When he attained completion.
Centuries before, when the human queen died, duality had been shattered in a manner that defied comprehension. It had been a crippling blow to the Master. Freed after so very long, only to be cast into shadow once more! Shut away from the light he so craved. It was a thing not to be tolerated.
So the Master worked; and so, until his attention fell on her once more, Lady Blue waited. She would be called back into action soon enough. She was his most potent tool; his link to her was far clearer, more direct than that to any of his other playthings.
In the meantime she felt no frustration, no impatience. She felt nothing at all, for she had not been ordered to feel. There was no need for feelings. No need for anything.
Except that now and then, far off at the very limits of her perception, there was a voice.
It came and went, a still, small voice in the back of her mind: ghostly, evanescent, like a guttering candle a thousand miles away. She ignored it, naturally, but it never stopped. Sometimes it spoke to her, begging her to answer, pleading with her to say anything, anything at all. At other times it only wept, or cried out for help. Sometimes it sang old, half-remembered songs in a thin, mad voice. It was irrelevant, of course; it was a distraction. But in her quiet moments, when the Master looked away from her, she could not altogether shut it out.
Please, it whispered, oh, please, just let me go. I'll do anything, I swear. Just let me see the sky again. It's so dark in here…and cold, and so alone…
On and on it droned, an unending stream.
Please, you don't know what it's like. When you send your power through me it's like fire, you can't imagine the pain, it's burning me alive, but so cold, so cold…Oh, please, please, I'm so sorry I didn't obey. I'll do better, I swear, but please, just let me go…
On and on.
Let me eat something, at least. Oh, God, anything. I haven't eaten anything in weeks, don't you understand? Not since you converted me. Your power is all that keeps me going now, and it hurts so much, and I'm so hungry, so hungry…Oh God, it's driving me mad. You don't know what it's like…Please, please, just feed me…let me see the sky, and feel the sun and be warm again, just once…oh, please…
On, and on, and on. Never ending. Number Twelve, Lady Blue, knelt in bottomless darkness and listened to the voice in her head, and waited for the Master's call. And she felt nothing. Nothing.
Friday came and went, and the evening found Dhiti sitting at home, feeling scratchy and disgruntled. She was all alone, except for an equally disgruntled cat. She had called Makoto and they had chatted for a while, carefully skirting the subject of Suzue, but then Makoto had rung off, citing homework, and now Dhiti had nothing to do. She had already finished all her own homework, out of sheer boredom.
She was not much inclined to try chatting with Artemis. She and the cat had made up, eventually, after the argument on Monday, but all the same, there was a new rift there, one that was going to take a while to mend.
Sometimes she wondered why she bothered. Why couldn't he just go back to living with Makoto, now that she wasn't being chased away from home all the time? But reluctantly, Dhiti had to admit that she would miss him if he left. A little.
Sighing, she picked up a book from the shelf by her desk and flipped it open: an ikebana text for her Monday evening class. She read for a few minutes, muttering keywords to herself, and then tossed it aside with a scowl. It had only been a few classes, but she was already getting bored with flower arranging. The basic ideas were easy enough to grasp, but to go beyond that took patience and insight and a little genuine artistic talent…and she had never been strong on patience.
She could feel Artemis' eyes on her.
There had to be something worth doing on a Friday evening. But she didn't want to go out, and she wasn't in the mood for company any more.
Ignoring the eyes boring into her back, she went to her closet and started to rummage around. It was pretty full; there was a treasure trove of junk piled up in there, from old hobbies she'd picked up and abandoned. Sometimes she wished she could just throw her henshin wand in with the rest, and move on. Not very often, but sometimes.
Her hands fell on a small black case, slightly dusty, and paused. She pulled the case out and laid it on the desk, opening the lid. Her trumpet lay inside, shiny and silver. How long had it been since she'd gotten it out?
She looked at it for a moment, and grinned. Lifting the instrument from the velvety lining, she found the mouthpiece and fitted it, and then raised it to her lips. Her first try brought a clear, unwavering note, and she grinned with pleasure. Now, let's see… A moment to recall the sequence of valves, and she managed a creditable scale. Not too shabby! And there ought to be some sheet music around here somewhere—
"Why are you running away?" said Artemis from behind her.
She froze for an instant, and then laid the trumpet down. No escape, then. Was this how it was going to be? "I'm not running away from anything."
"Aren't you? Isn't there a job you're supposed to be doing? Looking for the enemy with your computer?"
"I'm not running away from anything," Dhiti repeated. Before he could answer she went on, "Artemis, am I a clown?"
He did not answer, and she turned to face him at last. He stared at her, head cocked to one side. "What are you talking about now?" he asked.
"I told Queen Serenity that I was a Court Jester. I said that I act the way I do to jar people out of their complacency; stir them around a bit, make them look at things differently. Tell the truths that nobody wants to hear. You know, the whole Shakespearean clown thing."
He gazed back up at her, still uncertain. "That's…an interesting idea," he said cautiously. Then: "Is it true?"
Dhiti grinned. "Nahh, I think I just can't resist the opportunity. But still—" She glanced down at the trumpet in its case, sobering. "I wonder, sometimes. If I'm…you know. Shallow."
Involuntarily, he laughed. "Shallow? You? If I've learned anything about you over the last few weeks, it's that you go all the way down. You…you just wear shallowness as a mask." He gave her a quizzical look. "What brought this on? What's the matter?"
"Oh, I don't know. It's just that—" She broke off, frowning as she tried to work out what she wanted to say. "Artemis, you're lived so long. Is there…is there ever enough time?" she asked at last. "To do everything you want? To see everything, and go everywhere…"
He leaped up onto the desk and sat, tail curled around him, gazing at her with an unexpectedly sympathetic expression in his eyes. "No," he said gently, "never." Then, as she grimaced and looked away, he added, "But that's not a bad thing, you know. That's a triumph! That's the universe telling us that, no matter how far we've come, there's still room for us to grow…"
She did not look back at him, and after a little he asked, "What's really wrong, Dhiti? What's bothering you?"
Still she did not answer. Her head felt as if it were wrapped in a blanket. She stood by the desk, one hand on her trumpet case, and tried to remember how it had come to this. Standing here with the world closing in on her; trapped by obligations, she who should have been as slippery as ice.
And the other thing, the one she did not want to talk about; the one she had been trying not to think about all evening. In the end, there was no escape, was there? Nothing to do but admit it all.
"Those computer scans you want me to do," she said in a dull, heavy voice. "The ones I've been avoiding. The truth is…"
"I'm not running away from anything, Artemis. I'm not. The truth is, I'm trying to get my courage up to stay." She made a face, unable to meet his eyes. "The truth is, I'm afraid."
"Afraid of what?" he asked.
"I don't know. Isn't that stupid? I don't even know." With that, finally, she looked up and gave him a twisted, mirthless grin.
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Tell me about it."
"I can't. That's the problem. It's exactly like I said at the meeting: I scanned a piece of that crystal weeks ago, and the computer gave me a lot of crazy talk about spiderwebs and shellfish. And daimons. That was all. And yet—"
Dhiti broke off and walked quickly over to the window, staring out at the fading evening sky. She felt as if she were suffocating, suddenly. It was hard to think. She was sweating, and her head was beginning to ache.
"And yet," she said in a low voice, "there was something there. Something about what it said, and it…it pulled at me, do you understand? Inside my head. As if—on the other side, just out of reach, there was something…old, and…and horrible, and I couldn't get away—"
"Hush," said Artemis, and she fell silent. She turned away from the window, and was startled at how dark the room seemed. Only a few seconds had passed, surely, while she stood looking out, but it was as if full night had fallen in an instant. The only light remaining in the blackness was the glint of the cat's eyes, sharp and bright; and above them, glimmering faint but clear, a golden crescent.
At the same time, though, another, deeper shadow disappeared. The cloud within her mind was gone: broken first by the sound of his voice and dispelled altogether by the light from the moon symbol on his forehead. Dhiti took a deep breath, and felt the last cobwebs wash away from her. She shook her head, walked across the room and turned on the light.
When she turned back, the cat was studying her quizzically. And—silly!—of course his crescent-moon symbol wasn't glowing. Why would it have been?
"Tell me," Artemis said, his head cocked to one side, "how long have you been having these psychic flashes?"
"Er…what?" Dhiti blinked at him. "Psychic? Me? Have you been at the catnip again?"
"I could be wrong," he admitted, "but I don't think so. I ought to ask Seki to take a look at you, but…well, never mind that for now. Meanwhile…do you feel up to trying that scan, now?"
"The scan. Right." She thought about it, and to her surprise, she found that she did feel up to it. Whatever it had been, that shroud of doubt over her thoughts, it was gone. She shot Artemis a curious glance and said, "Yes, I do. How did you know?"
"Mm. You learn a few things over the years. After all, I've lived so long," he said dryly.
"Oh, don't get your hairballs in a knot. I still don't think we're going to find anything useful; it'll be a lot of random garbage again."
"Well, try the ID card first, then."
"Okay, okay." Dhiti opened her desk drawer and found the card wallet. With no more than an instant's hesitation, she got out the crystal shard as well, laying them both on the desk. Then she pulled out her computer and flipped it open.
"Think you can remember how?" asked Artemis slyly.
She glared at him. "Don't you go getting all psychological on me," she grouched. "I'll have you know I've out-psyched cats smarter than you in my sleep."
"You must tell me about it sometime," he purred. "For now, perhaps—?"
"Hmph." She picked up the ID wallet. "I'm starting with that Technical Enfranchisement guy," she said, opening it. "Um, Kasamatsu Amane. I'll try matching him against everything I got from 'M' Division the other night."
It did not take her long. Her computer had stored all the data it had captured when she was breaking into 'M' Division, and there was a lot of it; but even so, scanning through it all took less time than giving the command. "Nope, nothing on that name," she announced. "But that only means he didn't work for 'M' Division."
"Try the organisation," he suggested. "The Technical—"
"—Enforcement Network, yeah, yeah," she muttered, her fingers rattling on the keyboard. With one final click, she sat back, giving him a defiant glance. "But there won't be any—"
She broke off as her eyes returned to the screen, and then sat forward hurriedly. "Well, what do you know?" she murmured. "There they are."
It was a single reference, but it was there. She pulled up the document and scanned through it. An email from somebody she'd never heard of, reporting back on constructing a 'suitable cover for the test subjects'. Now, what was that all about? She frowned at the screen, feeling uneasy once more. Test subjects?
A sudden jolt to her chair made her jerk upright, heart pounding, and she looked around wildly. It was Artemis, of course; he had leaped up onto the seat back and was now peering over her shoulder. She turned away once more, scowling at her own foolishness, and looked back at the screen.
The message came from an address at a system called TENnet. She snorted and said, "Original." But on the other hand…She typed again, and nodded in triumph. There was a regular data feed from 'M' Division to the same place: copies of data from the secret underground lab. She wondered if the crazy old lady had known.
There were screeds of project reports coming back, too. She flipped through a few of them and paused. "Project…Chrysalides?" she said aloud, fumbling over the word, and her uneasy feeling redoubled. One of the reports included a budget sheet. She read through it, noting the equipment that was being ordered, and said, "Artemis, all these chemicals, the sealed vats, the isolation chambers they're building…they're doing some kind of biological experimentation."
"What!" said the cat, and leaned forward to look closer. "Oh, boy."
"Yeah. And look here. These reports are addressed to Chairman Fukuda."
He let out a breath. "Okay," he said. "Hard evidence that the chairman is involved. That's good. But what else? Who are these people? And where? Any hints?"
"And what are they doing?" added Dhiti. She searched again, and shook her head. "There's nothing there. Not in the data we captured, anyway."
"'Chrysalides' is a pretty big hint, anyway," the cat said. "I'd say we've found out who's creating vitrimorphs."
"Yes, but…" Dhiti trailed off, and then flicked back to the earlier email. "Test subjects? And isolation chambers?" Dhiti did not feel uneasy now. She felt sick. "Artemis, I think they might be using living guinea pigs. Human ones."
He was silent for a long time. She glanced up and saw that he was looking away, his eyes closed. At last he said, "We discussed this at the meeting. You knew it was a possibility."
"I know. But then—who are they using? Where are they getting their…their test subjects from?" A pause, and then she added: "Who are we killing?"
The cat opened his eyes and regarded her steadily. "Something else for you to research."
"Oh, damn it, anyway," she swore. "Why does it have to be me with the computer? I hate the things—"
"So you've said," snapped Artemis. "Repeatedly. But you know what, Dhiti? Sometimes we all have to do things we don't like. It's called part of being alive. And from what I've seen, you're getting pretty good at it, no matter what you keep telling us. So why don't you stop complaining and just get on with it?"
He kept his eyes on her, clearly expecting an angry retort, but Dhiti only chuckled. In an odd way, his anger felt…cleansing. And, well…he was right. "Point to you," she said.
Artemis gave her a suspicious look. "What?"
"Hmm. Hot and bothered cat. Point to me." Before he could reply, she looked back at the screen and said, "I can't check much more from here; the range is too far to connect to the public nets. I should be able to do it from school tomorrow. For now—"
Her eyes strayed to the side, and all her temporary levity vanished in an instant. She picked up the crystal shard.
"Yes," he said, his voice flat. "Why don't you show me what your computer says about that."
She hesitated before responding. Then her lips tightened. She was as slippery as ice, dammit, and she was not going to be afraid of the boogeyman. Her fingers rattled on the keyboard, and the screen lit up.
Once more, Artemis leaned close to see, and she felt his furry body brush against her head. It was tempting to rub her face against his side, to reach up and stroke him…and again, subconsciously, she was avoiding the issue. She forced her attention to the computer.
It now displayed a maze of little readouts, showing a hundred different analyses of the shard: density, composition, thermographic data, maps of internal cleavage lines, and dozens more. "This is where I started before," she said.
The white cat snorted. "Yes, and I'm sure it would be fascinating to a crystallographer," he growled. "What else did you do?"
"This," said Dhiti, and without hesitation she threw the computer into its associative mode.
Obediently, the screen began to fill with data. It went more slowly, now, and some of the specific examples that appeared were different—but the result was the same unsettling mixture that she had first seen weeks before.
A photograph of a massive, spiralling ribbon of a building.
A delicate lace of webbing, sharp against a dark background.
A picture of a chambered nautilus.
A wide-angle photograph of a rural countryside, and superimposed over it, a network of weaving, interlocking lines. And as she watched, Dhiti felt the first renewed stirrings within her, of something akin to dread. The pictures touched something deep inside her. Lines of power, a mesh that covered the world…
A glittering star-field, its patterns strange and unrecognisable. The stars, she knew, as they had been long ago. Unthinkably remote—but still here, a memory buried in the crystalline fragment of something monstrous.
ABORIGINAL ROCK ART
Eerie, haunting symbols painted on a rock face: long, winding serpents and lizards; and figures that might have been human, but they were distorted, oddly misshapen. Almost alien.
A vast, double-spiralling molecule.
The search seemed to end at this point; the screen grew still, and Dhiti released a breath that she had hardly realised she was holding. Perhaps this time…But then, as before, the display flickered again and the computer added one final, damning image.
She looked away from the screen with a scowl. There it was, as plain as day. And yet, something whispered inside her, there was more. More, and worse.
With a sigh, she glanced back at Artemis. He was watching intently, his head cocked to one side. He didn't get it. She could see in his face, that he didn't get it.
"Odd," he said at last. "Very odd. Spirals, and…something else. It's as if—"
Nimbly, he leaped from the back of her chair over to the desk, and studied the computer with care. "What did you do, to get this data?" he asked. Dhiti showed him, and he nodded. "Of course," he said, sounding relieved. "You asked it for an associative search. It's gone right though its whole memory and looked for anything that matches any part of its scan. Naturally, it found a lot of meaningless similarities—"
"I know that!" Dhiti snapped. Unaccountably, she was shivering, though the evening was warm. She held up one hand and stared at it. Her fingers were shaking. She could not stop it.
She closed her hand, clenching it into a tight fist. "I know that," she repeated. "But they're all the same, don't you see? All those associations it found. It's showing us the same thing, over and over again."
Artemis stared up at her. "The same? What do you mean?" He paused. Then, quieter but more intense: "How are they the same, Dhiti? What are you seeing?"
"I don't—it's not—" She broke off, frustrated, unable to describe what she was feeling. "It's as if they're all…I don't know. Reflections," she said at last. "Like…aspects of the same thing? Oh, damn it, that doesn't even make sense!"
He studied her face, his eyes narrowed. Then, slowly, he said, "Oh? I'm not so sure." After another moment he looked back to the screen and said, "Can you get any more details on these matches?"
"Uh. I think so." Dhiti looked at the list of pictures, shrugged, and touched the first one: the strange, spiralling building. Immediately, a message appeared: CASUAL SIMILARITY ONLY. She glanced back to Artemis, and winced at the movement.
"Sometimes a spiral is just a spiral," he murmured, shaking his head. "Try the others." Then, suddenly, he said, "No, wait. Try—try the Daimon."
She studied him with a wary eye. Did he feel it, too? Or was he just impatient to move on? She grimaced, and then turned to obey. At her touch, the screen lit up with a new message.
ANALYSING GENETIC FUSION ANALYSING DNA CODING ANALYSING INTRON CODING
The display halted and Dhiti stared at it. "What's all that supposed to mean?" she complained. "What's an intron?"
Artemis huffed. "It's—" But he broke off as the computer spat out a new set of messages.
VARIANCE DETECTED ORIGIN UNKNOWN (INSUFFICIENT DATA) TIME INDEX: -3.5E6 +/- 3.9%
Another tiny pause. And then:
ANALYSING GENETIC DRIFT VARIANCE DETECTED ORIGIN UNKNOWN (INSUFFICIENT DATA) TIME INDEX: -1.58E14 +/- 14.8% WARNING: VARIANCE DETECTED IN BASELINE WARNING: BASELINE MAY BE CONTAMINATED
Dhiti read the messages over, three times. "Okay, I give in," she admitted at last. "I didn't follow any of that. Artemis, does all this mean anything to you?"
The cat was silent for a little, his eyes narrowed, never leaving the screen. Finally, glancing up at her, he said, "I think I'm starting to see why you were so bothered, before. This is…quite disturbing."
"But what does it mean?"
"A daimon," he said carefully, "was a fusion: a human being, or something else, merged with an egg that had been specially grown in a laboratory and filled with the power of Master Pharaoh-90."
"I knew that," Dhiti snapped. "Well…sort of. But so what? Are you saying your Master Pharaoh-90 is coming back?"
"No! Or at least…well, I hope not. But you asked your computer to match its scans of the crystal against everything else in its memory, and it came up with a daimon—a fusion of human with alien. The same way that these vitrimorphs seem to be a fusion of human and…something else."
Dhiti's eyes returned to the screen. "A genetic fusion," she said, and could not restrain a shiver. "But with what?"
"'Origin unknown,' it said," he reminded her. "But what puzzles me is that mention of genetic drift. Your computer looked way back, and…it seems to be suggesting two events. And the second one is—well, that time index. How long ago is that?"
She tapped out a new query; but even as she did so she had a sinking feeling that she knew the answer. "One point eight million years," she answered. "Plus or minus fifteen percent. And that matches with—" Making a face, she tapped another entry on the screen, the picture of the star-field, and a new set of messages scrolled up.
Artemis' eyes widened. "Wait a minute, the stars as they were two million years ago?"
She scowled at him and said, "Yeah. Interesting coincidence, huh?"
"Damn it," he swore. "Those monstrosities are genetic fusions, but they must have been made recently. But your computer is saying it's finding something else, a long way back. What—?" He broke off, frustrated. "What happened back then?"
"Who knows?" said Dhiti. She meant it to be a flippant comment to annoy him, but it came out wrong. This whole business really was a little disturbing. If she thought about it, she could almost see it in her mind's eye—
A hollow; a muddy waterhole, somewhere in a broad, rolling savannah. Dusk, and the wind soughing through distant trees. Close by, the sound of furtive movement. Cautious, wary-eyed, the ape-folk have come down to drink. They cluster around the water, dipping their faces into it and slurping noisily, grunting and hooting to one another. Then, all at once, they grow very still. Something is happening; something unnatural. It is black night, but there is a light in the heavens: not the familiar sun or moon, but something else, a sickly pale colour, growing brighter and brighter with terrifying speed. The ape-folk eye each other, looking around with mounting fear—and then they flee, barking and screaming, as the sky opens up and something dreadful descends into their midst…
—But that was fantasy, a dream she'd had weeks ago, and she had other things to think about. As she had expected, the analysis had not solved anything; instead, it had only raised new questions. And one in particular.
"What did that last bit mean?" she asked. "About the variance in the baseline?"
Artemis eyed the screen with obvious distaste. "It means you were right," he replied. "Your computer's giving you a lot of crazy talk."
"But what does it mean?"
He sighed. "It means that, once it allowed for genetic drift—the normal pattern of evolution and human development—it found the second instance of fusion in its baseline as well—that is, in the sample that it was comparing the crystal against. And in fact…" He hesitated, then suddenly asked, "Can you compare the two variances?"
"What? Um, I'm not sure. Let me see." Dhiti fussed with the keyboard for a minute, and then made a pleased sound. "Ok, let's try. But I don't see what you're expecting to—"
The little screen lit up with an answer. It was short, and very clear.
"Not two different events," whispered Artemis. "One and the same—but separated by two million years."
"Wait. You're saying that this enemy has been around for two million years?" Dhiti paused. "And then it got released in Crystal Tokyo until Queen Serenity stopped it, and now it's starting it all over again—for the third time?"
The cat did not answer for some time. At last he said, "It kind of looks like it, doesn't it?"
"Yeah." Dhiti nodded, then reached out and turned her computer off with a decisive click. She put it away, and then dropped the crystal shard and the ID wallet in her desk drawer.
As she did so, without looking around, she said, "Artemis? About that baseline. Who would it be taken from?"
His reply was just as casual. "Oh…I expect it was somebody back in the Silver Millennium. Or maybe Mizuno Ami." He paused once more, and then added, in a quiet voice, "Or maybe you."
"Yeah. Yeah, that's what I thought." Dhiti went to her bedroom door and opened it. Glancing back over her shoulder, her face perfectly composed, she said, "I'm just going out for a little walk. I'll see you later. Okay?"
But the walk did nothing to clear her thoughts. She spent the rest of the evening in a quiet, thoughtful mood; and in bed that night, hours later, she dreamed once more.
She saw again the plain, and the waterhole. It was darker; the last of the sunset afterglow had faded, but somehow she knew that it was the same evening. Despite the darkness, she could still make out a few details. Down in the hole, in the middle of the water, something baleful pulsed and glowed. Around the edge of the water, she could see that the apes had returned. Most of them stood motionless, staring into the light; but a few of them moved back and forth in eerie unison. It might have been only her imagination, but she almost thought that they looked different—twisted, changed in some subtle way. One approached the glowing thing and laid something on it, as if making an offering: a half-eaten animal, something like a squirrel.
Then suddenly, in perfect silence, a new light spilled across the plain, and she saw a figure walk toward the waterhole: tall, erect, and unmistakably human. A woman. She wore a costume that, while it was older and less stylised, was recognisably a Senshi uniform; and, in the last moments before the dream faded, Dhiti saw that her long hair shone green-black in the fading light, and she carried a long staff that was shaped like a giant key.
Nanako's pocket comm trilled, and she jerked upright with a yelp. She had fallen asleep on the floor, next to a pile of schoolbooks. She had also, she saw with a scowl, drooled on her homework. Well, there wasn't much on that page; she could copy it again.
The comm trilled again, and she snatched it up. "I'm right in the middle of my homework, 'Toku-chan, so—"
"Nanako-san?" said a high-pitched voice. "Is that you?"
Nanako froze, pulled the comm away from her ear and looked down at the screen. The caller name was blinking in regrettably clear characters. She sighed and said, "What do you want, Hideo-chan?"
"You have to help her, Nanako-san! You have to!"
"Uh…" Nanako paused, her mind blank. "Who are we talking about, exactly?" she asked.
An instant later, before he could reply, she realised exactly who he was referring to, and her momentary confusion became something more like dread.
"Kodama-san," he answered, sure enough. "Nanako-san, I think they hurt her real bad this time. She didn't go to school again today and when we checked, she was still in the—"
"Wait," Nanako ordered. "Wait a minute." She rubbed her forehead, and tried to get a grip on the situation. She did not need this. She was barely awake, and she had homework to finish, and—and oh, God, what did he know about Iku?
A maelstrom of images and feelings boiled through her mind. As always, there was the guilt. Nanako did not know that Iku's family were beat—that they were mistreating her; not for a fact. She had suspected, yes, especially after she managed to drag the story of Iku's puppy out of the girl. But that alone had been appalling enough to make Nanako shy away. Bad things might be happening, but Iku never said a word about it, and Nanako—Nanako was afraid to learn more.
As simple as that. Nanako was afraid. She shied away from even thinking about the matter. The idea that patient, silent Iku was going through that was chilling; it knotted her stomach and made her want to throw up. But doing something about it—that meant having to learn more; it meant having to be involved in the…the thing; and that simply terrified her.
For a long time she had nursed a silent hope that somebody else would notice and do something. A teacher, perhaps; weren't teachers supposed to keep an eye open and report any suspicions? But Iku was so good at going unnoticed, keeping to the back and not attracting attention—for all the world as if she didn't believe that she deserved to be noticed—and the teachers at Kawasemi High, like teachers anywhere, had their hands full coping with the louder, more boisterous students. Iku simply slipped through the cracks. Often, it seemed as if she wanted it that way.
Back when Nanako had started to have her first uneasy suspicions about the timid girl who was always alone and never spoke up for herself, she had salved her conscience by drawing Iku into her circle and telling herself that at least the girl had a couple of friends now. So Nanako was doing her bit, and that was all right, surely? She was…she was doing enough, and so she didn't have to do any more; she didn't have to look any closer. She was safe. Surely.
Sometimes, though, usually at night, and usually after Iku had once more been away from school for a day or two, a little voice out of the deepest, most private recesses of her mind would say to her: You could do something about this. You could help her. All you'd have to do is speak up. And always, Nanako would turn away in dread, and look in the other direction. Afraid to see. Afraid to help. And knowing that no amount of pleasant chatter at lunchtime at school could make up for her silence.
Damn it, Beth was supposed to have done something; she had given the girl enough hints. But as usual, Beth had missed the point…and whose fault was that?
"What do you know about it?" she asked Hideo, her voice thick with bitterness.
"The Senshi Watch," he answered, oblivious to her tone. "We've been keeping track of both the known Senshi, of course—Kodama-san and McCrea-san. We've set up shifts who—"
A little revolted, she listened to him rattle on, forgetting his worries as he boasted about his importance. This was what she got for leaving the kid to his own devices: a squadron of prepubescent boys spying on older girls. It was almost funny, in a sick sort of way.
"So if you're doing so much," she interrupted at last, not trying to hide her contempt, "why haven't you done something about it?"
He fell silent. When he spoke again, she heard the worry and indecision in his voice once more, and regretted her anger. He was, after all, trying to help. "Well—" he said. "It's—you know."
"Yeah," she said dryly. "It's very 'you know'. And I do know."
"But," he protested, "we have to do something! You—you haven't seen what they do to her, Nanako-san. They—"
"Stop," she snapped. He broke off, sounding astonished, and she took a second to get herself under control. She might be able to handle this after all. Yes, perhaps there was a way. "Leave it to me, Hideo-chan," she ordered. "I'll deal with it. And after that…"
She broke off meaningfully, and after a moment Hideo said, "Yes?"
"After that, we will talk about why you've been telling other people who Iku-chan and Beth-chan are…won't we?"
"I haven't told anybody!" he yelped. "I didn't say they were Senshi. I just called them…um, suspects."
Suspects. Nanako felt like grinding her teeth. He was twelve, she reminded herself. Twelve, and a very intelligent idiot.
"Yeah, well, we'll talk about that," she said, her voice sharp. "Right now, I have to move. I'll see you tomorrow, Hideo-chan…won't I?"
She shut off the comm without waiting for a reply, and grimaced. So much for her homework. Now she had to go out start meddling in things, and it was all Iku's fault. She would have hoped that someday the girl would appreciate it…except that, if Nanako had her way, and if she were very lucky, Iku would never find out that she had been involved at all.
Half an hour later she stood outside Beth's house, wondering how to proceed. Her watch read after ten, and it would look pretty odd if she just knocked on the door and asked to talk to Beth.
It wasn't Beth she wanted to speak to, anyway.
She thought back to the day, nearly three weeks ago, when she had come come here for the first time. She had wanted to speak to Bendis then, too. Funny how long ago it seemed. She closed her eyes, trying to remember the layout of the house. Let's see, Beth's room had been to the side, so her window must be…that one. The light was off.
She glanced around to check that nobody was watching, and then slipped in through the gate and around the side of the building. The window she hoped was Beth's was a little above eye level. She stood up on tiptoe, holding the ledge tightly, and managed to peer in.
The room inside was darkened, but some light came in through the open door. She could see a desk piled with books, a bed…and a small, dark shape curled up on the pillow. Yes!
She tapped on the window, and saw the shape twitch. Then, letting her breath out, she let herself relax back to the ground and waited.
Nothing happened for a while, and after a minute she tapped again, a little harder this time. Almost immediately a furry head appeared at the window, peering out. She waved to the cat, and saw Bendis stiffen, her ears flattening back. Very clearly, Nanako mouthed the words, 'I need to talk to you,' and pointed to the street.
Bendis hesitated. Nanako nodded quickly, pointing again and trying to let some of the urgency show in her face. The cat wavered, making Nanako want to scream in frustration, and then finally turned and vanished from the window.
With a muffled sigh of relief, Nanako crept back through the front gate and out into the street again. She stopped by the trees where she and Hideo had spoken to Bendis last time, and waited.
The cat took some time to arrive, and when at last she appeared around the side of the house, Nanako was almost bursting with tension. The two of them eyed each other before Bendis finally spoke.
"Well?" she snapped. "What now?"
"Hey," Nanako said, nettled. "There's no need to be rude. I just want to help. Like last time, remember?"
"Yeah, right." Bendis glared at her. "And yet, here you are, sneaking around behind Beth's back again! I've heard all about you and your secrets, Higoshi Nanako. If you're so eager to help, why haven't you told Beth-chan that you know about her?"
"Why haven't you told her about me?"
They stared at each other. Stalemate.
"Look," said Nanako in a low voice, "this has got nothing to do with me and Eitoku-kun. I really did come here to help, I promise. It's about Iku-chan."
That seemed to throw the cat. "Iku-san?" she said, surprised. "What about her? And why talk to me?"
"Oh, come on. Haven't you noticed anything odd about her?"
Bendis snorted. "What's to notice? She's pretty hopeless. Her powers aren't much, even when she can get them to work. She's…oh, I don't know. Like a mouse, just waiting for m—for someone to pounce on her."
Charming. It wasn't a big surprise to Nanako; Iku seemed to attract that kind of attitude from most people. But she had hoped for more from the Senshi and their allies.
"I think she's being abused by her family," Nanako said.
"Uh—" Bendis paused, suddenly uncertain. "Do you mean, like, she's the runt of the litter?" she asked cautiously. "And not, her parents want to eat her or something?"
"Eat her?" Nanako said, horrified. "Why would they—I—You know, Bendis, humans don't actually do that." After a moment, honesty made her add, "Well, hardly ever."
"You never know," muttered Bendis in a sulky voice. "I've seen humans do some pretty weird things."
"Oh, and cats are so normal," scoffed Nanako. "What, you really think eating your young is so—look, this isn't even what I wanted to talk about! You need to do something about Iku-chan, remember?"
"Me?" Bendis gave her an odd look. "I'm just a cat, remember? Why don't you do something?"
"Because—" Nanako came to a dead stop. That was supposed to be what she was doing. "She's one of you," she managed at last.
"Ah," said Bendis. "And you're only her friend. I see."
"That—that's not fair."
"Wasn't supposed to be," the cat said, her voice flat. "You want me to do your dirty work for you, right? Or me and Beth, I suppose. Keep your own hands clean." She snorted. "Some friend you are."
Nanako started to answer, a protest of innocence of some kind, but then cut it off. What was the point? "Think what you like," she said icily. "At least I noticed something was wrong."
She turned her back on Bendis and walked away, ignoring the indignant sputtering behind her. For a few moments she thought the cat might come after, but after a little she realised that she was safe.
Safe. That was an odd word, she thought a few minutes later, sitting in a bus as it rumbled toward home. Was that really the way she felt? Safe, now that she was…well, removed from the problem once more? It bothered her, for no reason that she could name.
It was true, though; she was confident of that. The—the problem—was dealt with, now. Bendis would be collected and reliable, in a way that Beth had never been. She would make sure that somebody did something. Surely. Surely.
One last thought came to her, troublesome, as she prepared for bed ten minutes later. She had dreaded the idea of speaking to anybody about this, dreaded it enough to make her throat close in hidden panic at the idea. Yet she had been able to talk to Bendis, where she could not have spoken to a human. Now, what sense did that make?
The idea continued to bother her as she drifted off to sleep.
Bendis watched the girl leave, and muttered a few choice words under her breath. Well, here was a fine kettle of fish! And what was she supposed to do about it?
'Abused by her family.' What did that mean, anyway? Were they making her do all the housework? Spanking her for being naughty? Bendis' experience of human woes was pretty limited, but that didn't sound all that bad.
The best thing, she supposed, was to go over to Iku's house and find out exactly what was happening. There was just one small problem with that: she had no idea where Iku lived.
Bendis glanced up at the sky. It was getting late.
She shook her head and turned back toward the house, pondering ways and means. She was the smart one, after all. She was bound to think of something.
The next day was Saturday: a half-day at school. It was also the last day of term before summer break, and there was a lot of suppressed excitement among the students. Dhiti took advantage of it; she arrived early, for once, and went to the school library. It had computers attached to the public nets, though students were only allowed to use them under supervision. That was all right, though; she was not planning to touch them.
She made her way down to the rear of the lobrary, close enough to the computer carrels to be within range, and studied the line of bookshelves there. They held books about Second Dark Age artwork in Americay and Grande Brasile. She decided that nobody was likely to disturb them over the next few hours—especially not today.
She glanced around, making sure that nobody was watching, then pulled out the Mercury computer and switched it on. The screen lit up and she touched a single key. The little screen paused, and then showed a message: Inductance Link Established.
With a nod of satisfaction, Dhiti touched another key, starting a search that she had prepared the previous night. Then, checking once more that nobody was around to see, she slid the computer behind the books on the top shelf, and walked out of the library.
Her search for the mysterious Katamatsu and the elusive TENnet would be limited by the speed of the library's net link, so it might take some time to run. Meanwhile, highly satisfied with her own cleverness and a job well begun, Dhiti went off to find Kin and head to class.
As it turned out, the search took just under two and a half hours. Her computer notified her of its success by sending a message to Dhiti's Senshi communicator.
She had not anticipated how loud the alarm would seem, coming in the middle of a dense mathematics class. (Even in the last class before the holidays, her math teacher refused to slacken up.) She had also not anticipated being half-asleep at the time. The fact that half the rest of the class were either watching the clock like hawks, or were half-asleep themselves, only made it more dramatic.
When her watch started beeping, Dhiti shot to her feet with a wild shout, thrashing her arms around and knocking her chair to the floor. "Yes! Coming!" she yelled, scrabbling at her watch.
Then, far too late, she remembered where she was. Slowly, she looked around.
The entire room was staring at her, open-mouthed. The students who sat closest to her were leaning back, as if to get as far away from her as possible. Up at the front of the classroom, the teacher had frozen in mid-equation, a thing previously unheard of. Today would become legendary among future generations of students. And across the room, damn her, Kin was miming laughter and applause.
There was a long silence. Very long. Dhiti stared around the room and tried to think of something to say.
The teacher cleared her throat. "Sharma-san," she began.
Dhiti's watch beeped again.
She slapped her hand to it, hitting the acknowledge button, and gave the teacher a big, wide smile. "Sorry, Ihara-sensei," she said. "Gotta go. I, uh, left a cake in the oven." She hovered for one moment more and then, unable to help herself, added, "It's chocolate." Then, before she could think of anything to add that would make the situation even worse, she said, "Bye," gave everyone a little wave, and ran out of the classroom.
She retrieved her computer and retired to a quiet spot in the library where she could study the results without being seen.
Slightly to her surprise, the search for TENnet had been the easiest part of the search—though once she saw why, she decided that she should have seen it coming; the camouflage was ridiculously transparent. "Technical Enforcement Network," indeed! Somebody had a sense of humour.
The search for Kasamatsu Amane had taken much longer, and looking back, she was actually surprised that it had succeeded at all. But the photograph her computer had finally come up with was clear enough, and she remembered the face, just before his monstrous transformation. They had not even used a false name.
She looked at the source of the data, and shuddered. It made a brutal kind of sense.
Other aspects of the puzzle, though, did not. The unbelievable openness of it all: the title of the "Technical Enforcement Network", for example, or the way Kasamatsu had been walking around openly, not even in disguise, and using his own name. Dhiti was no fan of spy thrillers, but even she could see how bad an idea that was. It was as if the whole scheme had been cooked up by amateurs, people who were playing secret agent games.
Or, then again, it might be a expression of contempt. Here we are, it seemed to say. Now what are you going to do about it?
Either way, Dhiti knew exactly what she was going to do about it. She glanced up at the wall clock, and saw that there were only five minutes left until classes ended. Impatiently, she waited the time out. Then, as the bell rang and the halls started to fill with the sound of excited boys and girls released for their holidays at last, she started pressing buttons on her communicator.
They met at Seki's house once more. Beth was the last to trickle in, a little out of breath. She raised her eyebrows when she saw that Bendis was there already.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "I was almost home when—" She gestured toward her communicator.
Ochiyo nodded with a faint frown. "You haven't seen Iku-san, have you? I tried calling her three times, but she never answered."
"Maybe she was in the bath," muttered Makoto.
"Um," said Beth. "She wasn't at school today. Or the last couple of days, actually. I've been meaning to ask her about something, but I keep—" She paused, then added with a shrug, "She's always been kind of…sickly, I guess. She was away last Monday, too."
Bendis cleared her throat. "Um, Beth-chan," she said hesitantly. "There's something I need to talk to you about."
Beth shushed her, impatient. "Later, Bendis-chan." She looked over to Ochiyo and Dhiti. "So what's up now? I, uh, sort of had plans for this afternoon."
"Didn't we all," murmured Suzue. Makoto shot her a look, but then turned away again without speaking. The two were seated as far from each other as possible.
Artemis cleared his throat. "Dhiti made a breakthrough last night," he said. "We learned some things about the vitrimorphs—and got some hints about how they're being made."
"Two breakthroughs," said Dhiti. Her face was unusually solemn, almost grim. "I did some more scans on the public nets this morning. I cracked it, Artemis. I know where they're making vitrimorphs, and who's doing it, and how." She paused, and with a twisted grin that was a ghost of her usual smirk, added, "If anyone wants to shower me with accolades, now's the time."
She waited, but nobody took her up on it. Liam, who was perched on the arm of a chair at the back of the room, said, "Now I think we'd better hear the details." His accent was back, Beth noticed.
Dhiti told them. She talked about the records she had copied from 'M' Division, and how they had definitely linked Chairman Fukuda to the enemy; about a mysterious organisation called TENnet; and about her scans of the crystal shard, and the strange hints at a connection to the unimaginably distant past.
When she finished, Beth found herself shivering. "So what happened, then?" she asked. "You're saying that somebody…did something to that man Kasamatsu-san, or to his ancestors I mean, two million years ago? But…that's not possible, is it? There weren't even any human beings back then. Uh…were there?"
"There were apes," said Dhiti, and shivered herself.
"Apes?" repeated Beth, confused.
"The ancestors of humanity." Dhiti's lips tightened. "Savage. Primitive. Unable to resist."
"I…I don't understand."
Liam said, slowly, "A genetic fusion. That's what your computer said? I remember Ami mentioning something, back during the Fall, about a genetic propensity of some kind. But it was tenuous, and she was always too busy to follow it up. I wonder if…"
"What are you thinking?" asked Ochiyo.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again his gaze was hooded, distant. "Two million years ago. The ancestors of humanity would have been primitive apes back then, as Dhiti says. But it seems as though something happened to them. Something came, some dark agency, and…and tampered with the inhabitants. Altered them. Used them as the subjects of some monstrous experiment—one so dreadful that the echoes of it survive even today."
"Spirals," said Artemis quietly.
"Yes. Spirals, and primitive masks, and other symbols. A race memory, buried in the genes. One that might emerge, now and then, from the subconscious—find expression in artwork or dreams. Even the very image of the stars overhead when it happened!" He shook his head, looking grim. "It's a horrible thought."
"All right," said Makoto. "If you say so. It's…disgusting, I suppose. But so what? What's that got to do with anything now?"
"Don't you see?" Liam turned toward her, his eyes dark and troubled, and shook his head once more. "After two million years, it would have spread. Surely that's obvious. Two million years of humanity expanding, breeding and interbreeding…" He glanced around the room, meeting each of their gazes, one by one. Then he looked away, as if ashamed. "It would be in all of us by now, to some degree. All of us. It would have to be. Every person on Earth, everyone in this room, would be descended from the victims."
There was a long silence. Then Makoto said, "That's sick."
"Yes," repeated Dhiti in a whisper.
"And…you think it's the same enemy?" asked Ochiyo. Her face was pale. "Planting the seeds of something long ago, and back now to finish the job?"
"It fits, doesn't it?" said Suzue. "During the Fall, they released something that had been trapped in the ground for two million years. It's still out there…waiting for us." Her own expression was stern and bleak. "So that leaves two obvious questions. No, three."
"What questions?" asked Ochiyo, obligingly.
"First: what was it doing to those apes? And, by extension, to us? Second, what can we do about it?" Scowling, she lifted one hand and studied it, as if trying to probe it for some inner flaw.
"And third?" prompted Seki after a moment.
"Hmm? Oh. Third—what trapped it down there in the first place? I doubt that there were any Sailor Senshi around, two million years ago." Suzue snorted.
Dhiti looked up from her computer and opened her mouth, as if about to speak. Then, with a tiny shake of her head that was barely visible, she subsided once more.
The room was silent for a minute. At last Beth said, half to herself, "None of this makes any sense."
"Perhaps," said Ochiyo thoughtfully, "this Lady Blue of yours might know the answers."
"True," agreed Artemis. "Which, I suppose, brings us to Dhiti's other announcement." He blinked at Dhiti, and added, "See if you can spare us the drama this time, please. I think I've heard enough dramatic news for today."
She made a face back at him. "Spoilsport," she said.
"Well?" demanded Makoto. "Come on, Dhiti-chan. Don't make us wait."
"Patience, Hayashi, you'll give yourself a hernia." Dhiti glanced around, grinning. "Okay. I was looking for this TENnet, and it was pretty easy to find. It's a group called the Tenshin Institute. They're a private laboratory and research think-tank, but they do a lot of work for the government." She glanced down at her computer and added, "Mostly for 'K' Division, as a matter of fact."
"Another link to Lady Blue," said Artemis slowly.
"Uh-huh. And this 'Technical Enforcement Network', too. Now that really is a transparent cover."
"It fits, I suppose," mused Seki. "The Tenshin Institute? I've heard of them. They're not exactly secret; they do a fair bit of government work, right out in the open. But—really? It seems so…obvious. Are you sure it isn't misdirection to cover for someone else?"
"That's what I was thinking, too," said Suzue.
Dhiti shrugged. "Me, too. What can I say? It's where everything points. My computer couldn't find anything to contradict it—and I looked, believe me."
Artemis said, "If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. They didn't have any strong reason to try to hide, after all. This is probably some geeky scientist's idea of a clever joke."
"Or another trap," said Suzue.
There was a brief pause. Everybody looked at her. "Um, what makes you think that?" asked Ochiyo.
The girl gave a shrug. "They keep on pushing us, don't they? Raising the stakes, a bit at a time. If I were them, I'd be laying subtler traps too. Planting hints for us to follow, so they can tell how far we've come by the directions we take."
Another pause. Then Dhiti said, "Okay, that's disturbing."
"Huh," said Ochiyo at the same time. Suzue glanced at her and Ochiyo added, "Sorry. I was just thinking about a lifetime of paranoia, and the directions it starts making your mind go."
Suzue gave her an irritated look. "I'm not paranoid," she said. "And they are out to get us."
Beth laughed. Then she realised that Suzue was not joking, and stopped laughing in a hurry. She felt like echoing Dhiti's words from a moment ago: that had been disturbing.
Liam cleared his throat. "We're getting off-track. Again," he said. "Dhiti-san, it's all very interesting about the Tenshin Institute, but it doesn't actually get us anywhere."
"Actually, it does," said Dhiti. "It gets us the source of the vitrimorphs." She paused, glancing around the room with a very self-satisfied smirk: unable, no matter what Artemis had said, to resist the dramatic moment. "The laboratories at the Tenshin Institute," she said into a sudden silence, "are where the vitrimorphs are being made."
Seki caught her breath. "Really? You're sure?" she asked.
"Pretty sure," answered Dhiti. "I went looking for Kasamatsu Amane, you see…and I found him. Here—look." She turned her computer screen to face them, and everyone clustered around. The photograph was quite clear. So was its source.
"A prison record?" said Makoto, frowning.
"Yes," said Dhiti. She was no longer smiling. "Sixteen months ago, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for armed robbery. He should still be there. But we know differently, don't we?"
"And another one of them, at the Olympus the other night," put in Seki grimly. "That 'S' Division man said something about…one of the men, I don't remember his name, was supposed to be in prison."
"Right. And look here." Dhiti scrolled the display down and pointed to a note at the bottom of the record. "Amane-san was transferred, nearly six weeks ago. No note of where; just that he was being sent…care of the Technical Enforcement Network."
Seki stifled a curse.
"He wasn't the only one," Dhiti went on. Her face was a blank mask; her voice, utterly flat. "I found plenty more, when I checked: dozens of them, men and women, all prisoners. And they're—" Her voice broke, just for a moment. "They're still doing it. Another pair were transferred, just two days ago."
"Hold on," said Liam. He, too, wore a grim frown. "You're suggesting that—"
"Suggesting, hell. I'm saying that the Council are taking prisoners and sending them to the Tenshin Institute to be turned into vitrimorphs." Dhiti drew a long breath. "And then sending them out against us to get killed."
"No," said Ochiyo. Her voice was gentle. "We talked about this already. Do you really think we're guilty, Dhiti-san? Or is it the Tenshin Institute? Or the Council?"
Dhiti looked away. "It doesn't matter," she said quietly. "At the very least, we're participants."
"Then we need to do something about it. Don't we?"
Artemis looked up, suddenly alarmed. "Don't tell me you want to go on the attack again!" he exclaimed. "Not after last time—please!"
Ochiyo gave him a defiant stare in return. "All right," she said. "You tell me, then. What should we do? Sit idle when more people are being corrupted? We really would be guilty then, Artemis-san."
He hesitated, agonised. "But what if you're wrong?" he insisted. "What if it isn't them?"
She narrowed her eyes, for just an instant, and then glanced over her shoulder. "Dhiti-san, how sure are you about this?" she asked.
Dhiti gave her a bleak look in return. "Pretty sure."
Ochiyo nodded, turned back to Artemis, raised her eyebrows…and waited. The cat writhed under her gaze, trying not to meet her eyes, and did not answer. She lifted her head once more and scanned around the room. "Seki-san?" she asked. "Endymion-sama?"
Liam pondered for no more than a fraction of a second. "Check them out," he said, "but quietly. If it's true—then do what you need to." His accent was gone again. "I'll go along, of course," he went on, giving her a faint smile. "After all, if Sailor Moon is there, how can Tuxedo Kamen stay behind?"
"I'll be going, too," said Seki with a grimace.
"You what?" Makoto's head whipped around, her stare incredulous. "What the hell are you talking about? You can't—you're not—"
"Spare me," Seki replied, her scowl not fading. "I'm not planning to join in if it comes to a fight. I'm not a fool. But somebody there ought to have a level head…and Liam-kun is going to be busy."
Ochiyo caught Suzue's eye, and sighed. "Do these things always get this complicated?"
Once the decision was finally made, things began to move faster. Twenty minutes later, they were on their way.
Those minutes were not without further argument. Seki made a halfhearted attempt to persuade them to wait until evening, at least, but she had little hope that they would agree. Dhiti used her computer to check the Tenshin Institute's location—squarely in the middle of an industrial district, business hours Monday to Friday only—and even the arch-conservative Artemis reluctantly agreed that it should be safe enough. Seki could only shake her head and accept the decision. She could see the truth easily enough, if Artemis could not: Ochiyo had tasted blood again, and as before, the others were falling neatly into line.
She gritted her teeth and went along with it. If only Ochiyo were not so certain that she was right all the time! Usagi had been the same, though in quite a different way. It made both of them impossible to argue with.
With a speed that was almost bewildering, she found herself talked into providing transport. The Institute was on the other side of the city: too far to walk, and nobody wanted to attract attention by running there in broad daylight, in Senshi form. Seki's car was small, but it could fit four of them if they squeezed; the others would simply have to use public transport. There was a train station only a few minutes' walk from Seki's house.
Just as they were heading out, there was one final interruption. The comm buzzed, and Makoto, who was nearby, answered it automatically. She snapped "Hello?" impatiently, then listened—and froze. "Fujimaro?" she said in a very different voice.
Seki, listening, saw her face—the sudden vulnerability there—and suddenly understood. She had not met Makoto's younger brother, but she had heard his name a number of times in the last weeks. Makoto tried hard to pretend that she did not miss her family, but looking at her now, Seki could see how much of a pretence that was.
"Yeah. Of course I did," said Makoto into the commset, and turned a little away from the other girls, who were watching her curiously. Her face was beginning to screw up in something like pain. "Yeah. Uh. Now really isn't a good time, actually. No. I'm sorry. It's kind of hard to explain…"
Seki hesitated for a second, and then started to quietly shoo the others outside. She followed them, wondering how she was going to explain this, and found that she did not need to say anything. Dhiti did it for her; she simply looked around the group and said, "Her brother"—and nothing more. Seki saw the ripple of understanding go through the others—they all knew the story about Makoto's family by now—and looked at the dark-skinned girl with fresh interest. So, she can be tactful after all, when she wants to, she thought. Interesting.
Two minutes later the door opened and Makoto emerged. Her face was set and expressionless. She glanced around at them all and said in a flat voice, "Let's go."
The Tenshin Institute appeared, at first glance, to be a very ordinary two-storey office building near the edge of the industrial district across the Ara river; but it was attached via a covered walkway to a second building, longer and taller, that looked for all the world like a giant warehouse. For all its height, though, it had only a single row of windows, near the top. Dhiti, paging through the information she'd pulled down into her computer that morning, announced that this was the Institute's research laboratory building.
She and Makoto exchanged glances. Makoto said, "I bet I can guess what one of their research projects is."
"Gee, you think?" snarked Dhiti. "That wasn't on the public nets, but it's a pretty safe bet."
"So what are we waiting for?" demanded Ochiyo. "Let's go!"
"Hold it!" Seki called out before any of them could move. "Please!" she went on more quietly. "At least do a scan before you go in. Check if there's anybody inside."
Dhiti paused. "Um," she said.
"Hey, that's a good idea," said Beth. "Why didn't we try that last time?"
Another pause. Dhiti cleared her throat and started to redden; and then, unexpectedly, Suzue came to her rescue. She said, "I expect she was more concerned with trying to get through the alarm systems."
"Oh, right," Beth answered, nodding. "I remember."
"Yeah," said Dhiti gratefully at the same time. "That was it." Then she blinked. "Hey, wait a minute. That really was it."
"Okay, okay," said Ochiyo. "Just do the scan, all right?"
"No, I mean, that actually, genuinely was the real reas—Look, never mind, okay? Just skip it. Scanning now." A little disgruntled, Dhiti began to manipulate her computer. Seki hid a smile. She noticed, not for the first time, that despite her complaints Dhiti's hands flickered over the device with no hesitation.
"Right," Dhiti announced a few seconds later. "I've got people in a number of offices in the front building, but the warehouse is empty. No signs of life at all. We should be clear to go."
Ochiyo beamed. "At last," she said, and without further ado she produced her henshin wand and cried out, "Moon prism power, make-up!"
Seki made a face. "Headstrong," she muttered under her breath. Then she turned away so she would not have to watch the other girls as they followed suit. Even now, it still hurt.
A few seconds later, the group moved off, closely followed by Tuxedo Kamen. Artemis gave Seki a slightly guilty look, then went after them, with Bendis on his heels. A silence fell. Seki was left alone, again.
"Naturally," she grumbled, and then laughed at her own foolishness. What had she expected, after all? To join in the fight against any vitrimorphs the girls met? That was crazy.
She leaned against her car door, the sun warm on her back, and tried to rein in her patience as the minutes ticked by. Join in? No, she was here to try to keep the Senshi out of trouble if there were any ordinary people around. That was all. But even that wasn't going to be a problem; after all, Dhiti's scan had already showed—
Wait a minute.
Dhiti's scan had showed no life signs at all. But if there were prisoners inside that building, being warped into crystal somehow, then they should have shown up. The life signs might have been twisted, distorted, but they should have been there—in spades.
So either there were no vitrimorphs here at all, and the girls were following a wild-goose chase, or…
"Trouble," she snarled, and took off after the rest of them at a dead run.
Sailor Venus followed the others, lagging behind a little. She was too distracted to keep up. Something had gone wrong; she'd felt it the moment she transformed. Half of her was missing.
She was still trying to analyse the problem when the others stopped, and she almost walked into Jupiter's back. They were on a narrow open staircase that ran up the side of the big building, near the rear. The door at the top had a mechanical lock, and Venus wondered if they would have to break it down. To her surprise, though, Sailor Mercury turned out to be good at picking locks. Who would have guessed? She kept her visor down and referred frequently to her computer as she worked, but she had the door open within three minutes. Venus made a mental note to add some books on lock-picking to her reading list, and then forgot it again almost instantly.
Inside the door was a very ordinary-looking corridor that ran the length of the building. Windows lined one wall; the other wall had a double door, with a small window in each half, every few metres.
Sailor Moon cocked her head to one side, considering. "Okay," she said. "Check the doors, everyone." The group began to spread out.
Venus let herself lag a little behind the others. Every few seconds she paused, closing her eyes and concentrating, but the result was the same each time. She felt…wrong. Disconnected. Empty.
It had started the moment she changed to Sailor Venus. In the aftermath of transformation she had stood there, henshin wand still raised, and waited for the usual rush of exultant self-confidence and wild strength. Waited, she now knew, for the spirit of Aino Minako to take over.
But instead, there was nothing. She did not feel any different. Oh, she was in her Senshi uniform, yes, and the other physical aspects were there: she was a little taller, a little bustier. But inwardly, mentally, nothing was right.
She did not feel like Venus. She felt like Beth. And she did not like it.
Tense and uneasy, she followed the other Senshi, still trying to think what could have happened. In her dream, the night after meeting Queen Serenity, Lady Aino had been on the point of telling her something. Was it about this? Had Lady Aino been trying to warn her?
She was passing a door. Venus looked through the window, but saw only a long, narrow room lined with shelves and workbenches. She moved on.
What was she supposed to do without Minako guiding her as Venus? Alone, with nobody but boring, hopeless old McCrea Beth to rely on? Could she even function as a Senshi at all? Could she fight? Because Beth had never been a fighter. Beth was the one with her books and her daydreams and fantasies and her soppy poetry about Eitoku. And what use was any of that?
She almost ran into Jupiter's back for the second time before she noticed that the others had stopped once more. They were at the end of the corridor, looking at one last door. Unlike the rest, this one was of heavy steel, and there was a very visible security lock and keypad.
Once again, Mercury was pulled to the fore. She looked the door over, grumbling, and then started to tap away at her computer. Several minutes passed, and Venus began to fidget. She looked around and saw Bendis and Artemis nearby, watching, and bent to pick up Bendis.
"Nothing so far?" whispered the cat.
"I haven't seen anything," replied Venus truthfully.
"Look," Bendis said back in a low voice, "there's something I need to tell you, about—"
Venus shushed her, eyes returning to the door. But then, spurred by the cat's voice, she began to fall into a brown study again. All those lessons in cat-fighting Bendis had given her: could she still use them? Or was it Lady Aino who had learned them, so that if Beth tried it on her own, she would only make a fool of herself—
"Ah!" said Mercury in a pleased tone. A moment later there was a beep, followed by an audible click, and the door eased open a crack. Mercury turned to wink at Venus. "Fire control systems, check," she said with a grin.
Taken by surprise and only half sure what the girl was talking about, Venus nodded in return. Thankfully, Mercury seemed satisfied. She turned back to the door and pushed it the rest of the way open. She had to exert herself; as the door moved, they could all see how thick and heavy it was. Nevertheless, it turned smoothly and without a sound.
Sailor Moon took the lead and they ventured forward. A short corridor lay behind the door, leading deeper into the building. Then it gave way to an open metal staircase, leading downward. Moon went cautiously down a few steps—and then froze and retreated. She turned to face the others, holding a finger up to her lips.
"Bingo," she said in a low voice.
Soundlessly, a ripple of excitement ran through the group. The eight of them looked around, exchanging nods and grins. Venus' heart began to pound; her doubts were forgotten for the moment. Then, moving silently, five Senshi, two cats and a masked man started forward once more.
The staircase descended ten or fifteen steps, ending on a catwalk that ran high along the upper wall of a vast room. They paused there, involuntarily, to look around and gape.
You could fit a football pitch in here, Venus thought, awed. The chamber must have occupied the entire bottom two or three levels of the building. It was easily ten metres high. There were no windows; instead the interior was bathed in a harsh white light from the brilliant glowing panels that covered most of the ceiling. The catwalk where the Senshi stood circled the walls; here and there, narrow metal stairways led down to a spotless grey tiled floor.
On the floor of the chamber was an array of metal cylinders: fifteen of them, in five rows of three. They were massive things: nearly three metres tall, and half as much wide. Each was surrounded by a semicircle of equipment: racks of controls, readout screens, and less-identifiable devices. A dizzying array of pipes, tubes and cables ran to the top of each cylinder, descending from a framework of girders that crisscrossed the room. Narrow walkways extended from the catwalks out into the network of pipes.
Ominously, at the far end of the room, a sixth row of cylinders was under construction, and there was room for a seventh.
The room was virtually silent, but for a faint hum of air conditioning and a regular, high-pitched hissing sound coming from somewhere in the network of pipes. There was a strange, acrid smell in the air.
"We need to get down there and check what's in those things," whispered Tuxedo Kamen.
Moon gave him an incredulous look. "Can't you guess?"
"Of course. But we need to be sure," he insisted. "Sailor Moon, you can't afford to be so headstrong, not when so much depends on this."
She huffed. "Fine," she snapped. "We were going to go down anyway." After a heartbeat, in a disgusted tone, she added, "Father."
"Ouch." Shaking his head, he retired to the back of the group. But, Venus noticed, he was smiling.
Moon started forward once more, her scowl fading to a determined look of concentration. As she reached one of the staircases leading down to the ground, she gestured toward the others: spread out. Jupiter gave her a quick nod and moved on past, heading further around the catwalk. Unsurprisingly, Mercury followed her. Venus paused, having a sinking feeling that she knew what was about to happen. Sure enough, Uranus' lips tightened, and she turned to head in the opposite direction. As she went, she threw one piercing, defiant glance at Venus.
Sailor Venus breathed a silent sigh. It was tempting to stay out of it. She didn't need to pick sides; she could stay with Moon and Tuxedo Kamen quite easily. For heaven's sake, if she did have to choose, her sympathies were all with Jupiter anyway. But…
But somehow, she found herself following Uranus anyway. Why, she could not have said. Perhaps it was out of some lingering sense of loyalty, or an instinct for teamwork. Or perhaps it was simply that she couldn't stand to watch the girl go off, all alone. Because Uranus would do it, Venus was quite sure of that; she was the stubborn sort, and she was clearly not going to give in. So maybe that was the reason. Or if not that, then maybe…well, maybe a lot of things. In the end, grumbling to herself and more muddled than ever, Venus trudged along the catwalk behind Uranus and tried to remember why she had ever agreed that coming to this building was a good idea in the first place.
So, moving quietly but quickly, they filed down to the floor level in three groups: Moon, Tuxedo Kamen and the cats; Jupiter and Mercury; and Uranus and Venus. Sailor Moon reached the bottom first, and the clack of her heels on the floor tiles seemed startlingly loud.
Uranus muttered something under her breath. Venus could not quite catch what she said, but it sounded something like, "…easy."
From this distance, they could all see that the cylinders were not plain metal. Broad sections on the surface of each one were grooved and fitted into recessed tracks. They looked to Venus as though they could slide open, like enormous shutters. As she was still taking this in, Sailor Moon walked boldly up to one of the cylinders and touched it. Then, one eyebrow raised, she leaned close, pressed an ear to it, and listened. "There's something inside," she announced in a low voice. "It sounds kind of…liquid."
"I don't like this," said Tuxedo Kamen. "It feels wrong."
"Yes," whispered Uranus.
"Wrong?" Moon stared at him. "What are you talking about? This is exactly what we were looking for. It's proof that we were right! And you were just saying, two minutes ago, that we needed a closer look!"
"Yes," he began, "but—"
"Well, look!" she said. "Here it is!" She stepped neatly around him, bending for a moment to look at the control boards around the cylinder. Then, without hesitation, she reached out and pressed a button.
With a low, faint rumble, the shutters on the cylinder rolled apart to reveal a heavy glass window. The cylinder was a tank after all, and they could all see the thing that floated inside. Involuntarily, Sailor Moon let out a cry of shock and stepped back.
The tank was filled with a murky liquid. Thankfully, this concealed some of the details; but even so, the form in the centre was all too visible. It might, perhaps, have once been a human being, but now there was little humanity left. There was no way to tell if it had been a man or a woman; it looked as if it had been ripped apart and then welded back together, almost at random. Where there should have been a torso covered with smooth skin, instead they could see a tattered mass of mottled flesh, twisted and mangled into a network of bizarre shapes. From a dozen places, it wept streamers of a thick black fluid. Exposed loops of ropy organs hung out of it, and here and there, great knots of some dark, shapeless material were fused into the flesh, glinting dully in the light. One arm was missing; the other seemed to have been stretched out fantastically, like a long, spindly spider's leg. The last metre or so was bifurcated, and the two ends were twisted, boneless things, devoid of anything like hands. Its legs were similar horrors, grotesquely distorted.
Its eyes were open, and it was staring at them.
"Oh, by the Lady," swore Uranus in horror.
"It—it's alive," choked Moon. "And it's in agony."
The taste of bile was strong in Venus' throat. Even as she watched, unable to look away, the thing in the tank stirred; the ends of its remaining arm twitched feebly, once or twice. That was too much for her, and Venus stumbled away from the tank and threw up.
When she was finished she tried to stand up once more, but her legs felt like jelly. She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see Tuxedo Kamen, watching her compassionately. For an instant she thought she saw another face behind his mask, a boy she had met a week ago, but then the moment was past, and the masked man was helping her rise.
"Are you all right?" he asked gently.
"Sorry," she mumbled, flushing and looking down. "It's just—that—how can you stand it? It's too…too…" Guiltily, her eyes flashed back to the tank, and then away once more. Another horrible thought came to her. "So many of them," she said in a low voice, waving a hand around the room. "They can't all be like that, can they? Can they?"
A few steps away, Moon and Uranus froze. Almost simultaneously, they looked around, each in a different direction. Then, to Venus' horror, Moon walked quickly over to a second tank and pressed a button on its control board. Her face pale and her lips tight, and she walked stiffly, as if she were struggling to control herself, but there was no hesitation at all in her actions.
The second tank began to rumble open, and Venus turned her head away. A moment later, unable to help herself, her eyes returned to it guiltily.
This one was not so bad. Or, perhaps, it might have been worse; because the transformation of the figure within was almost complete. A massive, hulking crystalline form hung there in the centre. It was turned half away from them, but as the shutters rolled apart and the light fell on it, it turned its head toward them. Then Venus saw the last shred of humanity left to it, and maybe the cruellest trick: for its eyes were still unchanged. They were a clear brown, and they stared at her out of a frozen crystal mask.
It knew what had been done to it, she realised. It knew; and Sailor Moon was right. It was in agony.
Another rumble, and she looked around to see Jupiter at a third tank. She started to cry out in protest—Stop! No more!—but it was far too late. Even as the shutters began to part, there came a sudden, heavy thud, and something struck the glass of the window, hard, from the inside. Jupiter leaped away with a startled shout.
This one had just begun to change. It was a young man, naked. The skin over his left shoulder and chest was beginning to darken and pull away from the flesh beneath, and his left hand was thickening into something club-like, but otherwise he still looked human. Human, and in torment. He was in a frenzy; he beat on the inside of the tank, his mouth opening and closing in a silent scream. Was it pain? Rage? A plea for help? There was no way to tell. With a shudder, Jupiter touched the control pad once more and the shutters rolled back.
"This is sick," said Sailor Mercury in a low, breathless voice. Her face was ashen. "I…I never dreamed it could be like…Oh, gods, we have to help them somehow!"
Jupiter made a helpless gesture. "How?" she asked. "How?"
Sailor Moon, looking no less sick, answered. "You know how," she said. "There's only one thing we can do for them, isn't there?"
"You're supposed to be able to heal them!" burst out Venus.
"I wish I could," replied Moon, staring back at her; and Venus saw the sorrow in her eyes. "But how? If I had the Ginzuishou—and if I knew how to use it—but I don't. I'm sorry." She turned back toward the tanks, and a note of grim resolution entered her voice. "But we can stop them hurting, at least."
"No," said Uranus.
"What?" said Moon, startled. "Can you think of another way? Then—"
"It's not going to be that easy," Uranus interrupted. She was looking around the chamber, her eyes narrowed. "Didn't I tell you, before? You think we're going to march in here and destroy them all, just like that? Can't you see it? We've been set up."
Moon paused, just for an instant. She began, "But we did march—"
"Where are the alarms? The guards?" demanded Uranus. "Why hasn't anyone realised we're here yet? Come on! They'd never leave something as important as this unguarded!"
"She's right," said Tuxedo Kamen. His voice was smooth, unruffled; but all at once, his posture had become tense and alert. His cane was in his hand, and now he held it like a sword. "We got in here much too easily. It's got to be a trap."
And a voice from above said, "At last."
They looked up to see Lady Blue, hovering in midair above them. Her face was alight with mockery and malice, and the jewel in her forehead crackled with power.
"Are these really the best you can come up with, moon girl?" she sneered. "They catch on so slowly, don't they?" Her grin widened. "But that's all right. I'll make sure they get a proper greeting anyway." She lifted a hand and snapped her fingers.
Double doors crashed open, and a pair of vitrimorphs stalked in from each end of the room. And Lady Blue smiled.
Sailor Moon gazed up at the woman floating above her, deliberately paying no attention to the quartet of crystalline monsters marching down the room. She had never seen Lady Blue before, but the woman was unmistakable from the others' descriptions. Moon could almost feel the power radiating from her, cold and malign.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked.
Lady Blue laughed out loud. "You pitiful fool. You don't even know what I'm doing." She made an imperious gesture and the vitrimorphs froze in place, only a few metres away. "I'll tell you one thing, at least. You're here too early. I don't know how you found this place so soon, but I'm afraid we can't quite spare it yet. If you want it," she went on with a sneer, "you're going to have to pay."
The contempt in her voice finally made Moon's temper start to burn. "Do you think you can stop us?" she shouted defiantly.
Another one of those infernal mocking laughs. "Wrong question, girlie. Do you really think you can stop me?" Lady Blue snapped her fingers again, and one of the vitrimorphs began to advance once more. "Let me introduce you," she said. "This is Komiya Shingo. He's twenty-two years old, bright, intelligent, with a good sense of humour. He's got a girlfriend that he's planning to marry, and she's pregnant with his first child. Oh…and he's going to kill you. In about thirty seconds." Her grin widened, shark-like. "And would you like to know how Shingo-chan came to be here, moon girl? He was convicted of shoplifting. He was out of work, and he and his girlfriend needed food. They gave him a three-month sentence. Very sad."
Her smile became open gloating. "So go ahead, girl. In the name of the Moon, punish him! Murder him—before he murders you."
Defiantly, Sailor Moon removed her tiara and energised it, ready to throw. The vitrimorph was very close now, and there was no chance that she would miss. It was tragic, anyone would agree, but she had no choice. It was kill or be killed. She had to do it, that was all.
She drew her arm back to throw…and froze. Murder him, Twelve had said. She was about to kill an innocent man. Well, no, not innocent, but…a shoplifter? That was all? He had to die, for that?
Her own blithe words of earlier came back to her: Are we guilty? Or is it the Council? And: We can stop them hurting, at least. In her mind's eye she saw again the young man in the tank, just beginning to change: the rage and the agony in his face, and the terror. He had known what was happening to him, and there was nothing he could do.
She felt sick. She had been so sure of herself! Now she was certain again: certain that she had been wrong. No matter what they had done, they did not deserve to die.
The vitrimorph was right on her now, its arm raised to strike. Suddenly afraid, Moon fell back half a step, and then half a dozen. And then she felt a hard, unyielding wall behind her, and knew she could go no further. No way out. And all the while, the vitrimorph that had been Komiya Shingo advanced.
There was still time; she could still do it. She could kill him. She could murder an innocent man.
She could not.
She was going to die.
The moment stretched out. She could see every detail, as if in slow motion. The other Senshi, horror in their faces: just beginning to come to her aid, and yet far too late. Tuxedo Kamen, her father in another life, lunging toward her with a soundless cry; but again, much too late. The sallow face of Lady Blue, bathed in the cold glow of the jewel embedded in her forehead, twisted into an expression of avid anticipation. The glossy, translucent crystal of the giant figure standing over her. The light, glinting off its arm as it lifted a fraction higher, and then began to descend. And, just visible through the translucent crystal…something moving, high up above. Then a voice.
And a whirlwind of power that slammed down into the vitrimorph and blasted it into shards.
She had time for one incredulous glance up at the catwalk, at the tall, elegant figure in green and black who stood there, beyond all possible hope, hand still raised in her attack posture. Had an instant to take in Lady Blue's face and see a flash of unexpected pleasure there. Then the other vitrimorphs were charging toward her.
She had no more time to consider. Her nerves were on a knife-edge, and as the crystalline army began to surge forward she released her tiara without thinking. It spun away and carved a chunk out of the arm of another monster. Around her, the other Senshi cried out their own attacks…and, at last, the battle was joined.
Seki watched it begin from a hidden vantage point on the catwalk. She had entered the building at a sprint, racing down the long corridor to deliver a warning; but by the time she arrived, it was too late. Lady Blue was already there with a quartet of giant crystalline allies, and there was nothing Seki could do but watch.
Her heart was pounding, her stomach in her mouth as she watched the confrontation below. She saw the vitrimorph advance; saw Sailor Moon fall back before it, unable or unwilling to attack. She saw Lady Blue throw her head back and laugh. And she saw a figure from the ancient past step calmly out onto the catwalk, barely a dozen paces away, and without hesitation raise one imperious hand and fire down into the chamber, blowing the vitrimorph to atoms.
The sight brought a rush of mixed feelings. Sadako had told her that she could still transform, but seeing it for herself was another matter. It was…haunting. Frustrating.
Sailor Pluto, for her part, showed no sign of relief or satisfaction at the destruction she had caused. She turned her head and regarded Seki for a long moment. Then she nodded once, and turned her attention back down into the chamber. Into the arena.
Down below, Lady Blue was staring up at the catwalk. She was not laughing any longer; her face was terrible. As the other figures on the floor of the room surged into action, Lady Blue lifted higher into the air, rising rapidly up to the level of the catwalk. She stopped there, floating a few metres away from Pluto.
The two of them gazed at each other in silence. To Seki, watching, it seemed as if they were ancient Roman gladiators, sizing one another up. Ready to strike.
She wondered if she would survive, when they finally moved.
Jupiter dodged a blow and fired another Supreme Thunder at an enemy to her right. All things considered, the battle was going reasonably well. These vitrimorphs were moving scarily fast, but she was almost used to that by now. In addition, both sides were avoiding hitting the tanks. It meant that there was a lot of cover in the room, and the Senshi were able to take full advantage of it.
There had been a bad moment, true, back at the start, when Moon froze, unable to bring herself to fight. Jupiter could not blame her; it was a terrible position, faced with the reality of killing like that.
But then that unlooked-for help from above. Had Jupiter really heard correctly? Could she have come back from the unknown, after so long?
No time to ponder. She avoided another blow by leaping on top of a nearby tank, and firing another shot while she had the good vantage point. An instant later she plunged down to the floor again as a bolt of energy sizzled past, nicking off a lock of her hair.
Off in the distance she heard a shattering sound and a shout of triumph, and turned her head in time to see a vitrimorph reel back, a rose embedded in its shoulder. The same motion brought Sailor Uranus into view, and Jupiter's answering shout of encouragement died stillborn.
Uranus was having trouble, that was clear. Her attack was powerful, but to be effective she had to hold it on one of the crystalline monsters for some time. That was hard to do in a battle like this. Jupiter shrugged and kept moving. She was not quite petty enough—or stupid enough—to wish Uranus bad luck, but Jupiter had her own problems. Uranus would have to fend for herself.
She fired yet another Supreme Thunder and followed it up with a flying kick that caught her target right where her lightning bolt had struck. She was rewarded with a ringing crack, and a wedge of crystal broke clean off the vitrimorph's leg. She grinned as she cartwheeled away from a new enemy's attack. The odds were improving.
Venus ducked back behind a tank, heart pounding. All the while as the battle began, she had waited for Lady Aino to take over, for the rush of confidence and the wild, almost manic exultation in her powers. But it never happened. She was alone: she, McCrea Beth, stuck in the body of a Senshi in the middle of a firefight.
At first, all she could do was dodge. She had Venus' quick reflexes, at least, and her hair-trigger constant awareness of her surroundings. What was missing was the will. The drive. The heroism.
It took some time before she could work up the nerve to try her attack. When she finally did, as a last resort against a monster that was about to flatten Tuxedo Kamen from behind, she was genuinely surprised that it worked. It seemed that she had all the abilities of the real Venus…except for the mindset.
A roar came from her left, and she dropped to the floor to avoid an energy bolt thrown by a vitrimorph. Without rising, she rolled around another tank, grimacing in anticipation of a new attack that never came. Instead, nearby, she heard Mercury shouting, and the sharp crack as a spear of ice struck home. The sound of the battle shifted, drawing away from her for a moment.
She paused there, kneeling in the lee of the tank, trying to muster the courage to move again. No doubt if she were the real Sailor Venus she would leap up, handspring off the top of the tank, fire a couple of Love-Me Chains in midair to help distract the enemy, and land ready to attack once more. She could picture the moves perfectly; her palms tingled in anticipation. She looked up, eyeing the angles, and even drew herself into a crouch, ready to jump.
But of course she did not move. She was no acrobat, not like Venus.
Thudding footsteps came from nearby. A vitrimorph, drawing closer. The battle was coming in her direction again. She stood, peering cautiously around the side of the tank. Now, what would Bendis tell her to do? Fight like a cat, probably. Fat lot of good that was. And where was Bendis, anyway? She and Artemis had vanished at the start of the fight. Very sensible of them; Venus wished she could do the same.
Why did it have to be so hard to destroy the monsters, anyway? They hadn't been so tough back at the beginning. Back then, all you had to do was hit the third eye. But then the things started coming in all sorts of different shapes, and lately, the Senshi didn't even bother trying. Bringing them down with sheer firepower was easier.
The vitrimorph came into view around the side of the tank, and to her surprise she saw that this one actually had a third eye. Right there, in front of her. And before she realised quite what she was doing—before she had a chance to lose her nerve—she stepped out directly in front of it, aimed, and shouted. "VENUS LOVE-ME CHAIN!"
Love-me Chain. Not Chain Thing.
To her utter astonishment, the chain struck squarely home with a crash of releasing energy, and the vitrimorph froze—and then its entire head shattered into a dozen pieces. A second later, Moon's tiara caught it in the chest and reduced what was left of it to flinders.
Venus was still standing there, gaping, when she heard a cry of warning from nearby, and then the high-pitched chiming of Uranus' Music of the Spheres singing right past her ear, making her teeth ache. Then a heavy pounding sound, directly behind her, as the vitrimorph that had been about to club her down leaped away from the ultrasonic attack.
An instant later, Uranus grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to cover. The two of them stood there for a few seconds, breathing hard: Uranus from exertion, and Venus from the sudden realisation that she had almost been killed.
After a moment, Uranus lifted her head and looked over at her. "You're…not so wild today," she panted.
"Uh," said Venus. "I…"
Uranus gave her a quick smile. "It's an improvement," she said. Then, with a glance around, she nodded and sprinted off once more, leaving Venus looking after her with her mouth hanging open.
Now what did that mean?
High above, Lady Blue spoke at last. "Ancient One," she said. All the mockery and savage humour was gone from her voice. There was scarcely anything human left at all.
Pluto stirred. "Am I speaking to a puppet," she asked, "or to the puppeteer?"
"Does it matter?"
"I suppose not. One is about the same as the other, with you."
"Of course. You have been hiding from me for a very long time, Ancient One. Since your first betrayal. Why have you chosen to show yourself now?"
"Personal reasons," said Pluto. "Nothing that has any bearing on our dispute."
"Indeed? I wonder."
Seki shifted uncomfortably. She was close enough that Lady Blue could easily have seen her, but all the floating woman's attention was still on Sailor Pluto. "So," Lady Blue said. "Is it time for us to renew our own battle, then?"
"You know better," Pluto replied. "You've sealed me quite effectively. There is nothing I can do to stand against you…at present."
"'At present,'" repeated Lady Blue. "But you are the Lady of Time. You span past, present and future. How widely have you cast your webs, I wonder?"
Her eyes flashed, and the jewel in her forehead began to pulse faster and more brightly. "Admit it!" she barked. "You are the eternal plotter. You always have some kind of plan. Why did you come here? What new twist are you setting into play?"
As she spoke, she reached out and closed her hand on nothingness. Pluto jerked and stiffened. An instant later the Senshi floated up into the air, lifted by an unseen power. She came to a stop within easy arm's reach of Lady Blue, suspended far above the floor below.
"Well?" demanded Lady Blue. "Answer!"
There was a hint of strain in Pluto's face, but she remained impassive. She cocked an eyebrow at Lady Blue and said, "I hardly need a plan. You do enough plotting for both of us." She glanced downward and added, "Besides, the girls are doing very well for themselves without me."
"What?" Lady Blue looked down, and cursed. Only two vitrimorphs were left, and the girls were mobbing them. "Damn you!" She made a throwing gesture with her empty hand and Pluto was flung back, landing heavily on the catwalk next to Seki with a grunt of pain. Lady Blue lifted up a fraction and glided forward, as if to attack; but then she paused. The anger faded from her face, and it became a blank mask once more.
"Well played," she said. "That was the last of my reserves. The facility is yours."
Then something dark and malignant sparked in her eye, and she added, "But not quite yet, I think. There is the matter of punishment. 'Pour encourager les autres.'"
With that she spun about in midair and darted away, dropping out of sight toward the lower room.
Seki rose and ran forward to Pluto's side. "Are you all right?" she asked, reaching out a hand to help the woman up.
Pluto took it and rose, rubbing the side of her head with a distant expression. "She's easy to distract," she said thoughtfully. "That's worth remembering. The human influence, I imagine."
Seki gestured below. "You're not going down?"
"They hardly need any help now," Pluto replied. "And in any case, it really isn't why I came." She hesitated for an instant, and then went on, "This battle is the last thing I've seen. The very last. It doesn't matter how hard I try, I can't look any further into the future than right now. After today, I…" She drew a long breath, then exhaled. "I thought I should come and see it out."
"…Okay." Seki eyed her, not quite understanding. But then she shrugged, and let it go. The enemy's words notwithstanding, the girls should be able to handle it. She stood there at the rail with Pluto, watching it end.
And then, watching it all go horribly wrong.
There were only two vitrimorphs left now, and it was obvious to Mercury that they were not going to last much longer. She grinned to herself, marvelling at the turnaround. Not so long ago, a single monster had been incredibly dangerous—just one of them had nearly killed five Senshi at the mall—and yet now it seemed that they were dropping like flies.
What a difference Sailor Moon made.
She fired another Ice Spear at one of the remaining pair, missed, and swore. They were moving so fast! It seemed as though the fewer there were, the stronger they became. That was strange, now that she thought about it. Unless there was only so much power to go around? She'd have to mention it to Artemis later…
She ducked behind another tank, danced around the other side, and used her own enhanced strength to kick the second vitrimorph in the side, rocking it to its knees and making it an easy target for Jupiter, who hit it dead centre in the face. Easy as pie. The sort of stunt Venus usually pulled, in fact, when she was in cat mode. Even as she thought it, she caught sight of Venus, off to the side, firing her chain off and missing badly. Venus had been kind of quiet today, actually. Mercury wondered why.
No time to dwell on it, though. The vitrimorph she and Jupiter were double-teaming was down, but not out. It opened its mouth and fired a barrage of energy bolts, making both of them scramble for cover. By the time they emerged, it was on its feet again, just as fast as before.
Damn it! She had to find a way to make it hold still, even for a moment. Venus could do it, with her chain, but she was pretty off her game today. The alternative was—
Jupiter wasn't going to like this, she thought with a flash of mordant humour.
She looked around and found the girl she needed, not far away, and gestured to her, mouthing the words, "Get ready." At the same time, she threw yet another spear at the vitrimorph, not damaging it but driving it in the direction she wanted. Across the floor, she signalled 'Ready' to Jupiter, who gave her a quick, mystified nod.
The vitrimorph hit the spot she had wanted, out in the open for a second, and right on cue, Uranus' Music of the Spheres struck it from the side. And it froze, just for an instant, the way they always did; the way she had first noticed right back in that battle in the theatre. Maybe it was the ultrasonics, making them vibrate in harmony.
The reasons didn't matter. Before it could escape, she and Jupiter attacked it from either side simultaneously; and under the force of the triple attack it burst into a cloud of shards.
Jupiter and Uranus eyed each other. Then Jupiter deliberately turned her back and jogged away. Damn it.
Barely half a dozen seconds later, they heard Sailor Moon's shout of triumph from the other side of the laboratory, followed by a loud, ringing crack—and the battle was over.
Because here came Lady Blue, swooping down out of the eaves and looking like she'd just eaten a bucket of prunes, and Sailor Mercury just knew that things were about to take a turn for the worse.
"A very pretty piece of work," called out Lady Blue with sour derision as she descended toward them. "My compliments to the chef."
"What are you talking about now?" demanded Sailor Moon. She was hot and tired and in no mood for nonsense. "You lost, okay? Accept it."
Lady Blue's lips parted in a twisted grin. "Not so fast," she said. "After all, you can't have too much of a good thing, can you? And there's still room for dessert."
Before she could finish, the woman in midnight blue flicked out a single finger. With a crack, something that looked like a spark leaped down toward her. It looked dim and feeble, but when it hit Moon felt a massive shock, blinding, as if her whole body had been struck by some inconceivable hammer-blow. She could not keep from letting out a single, strangled scream of pain. Then her throat locked in spasm; she could not even breathe. Her eyes registered nothing but darkness for a second.
Then the universe came back. She sucked in air through a throat that was suddenly raw. There was a dim, greenish shimmer all around her and she realised that was in the centre of some kind of glowing bubble. In another moment she saw that the bubble was floating several metres off the floor.
She lifted a hand to touch the side, and found that it was slick, hard and unyielding. At the same time, it felt strange under her fingers. Cold, and somehow sickly.
"And you," said Lady Blue, looking down toward the others. "I think we can do without your interference."
Another finger and another spark, and this time it was Tuxedo Kamen who convulsed as he was hit, with a harsh cry of agony. He reeled back and slammed into the wall, then slumped to the floor, limp. His mask and top hat had been knocked away by the shock, and Moon could see his eyes, half-open but unseeing. There was no sign of an energy bubble this time; he simply lay there: stunned, helpless.
"You see," Lady Blue said with deadly calm, "we've the retribution to come, yet. You and your friends have just caused me a great deal of inconvenience, moon girl. Now I think you can stand to lose one or two of them…as an object lesson."
And Sailor Moon watched in horror as, all around her, the tanks began to open.
A warning klaxon sounded, somewhere in the bowels of the building, and Uranus tore her eyes away from the energy bubble holding Sailor Moon in midair. Now what?
She was answered as, with a hiss of escaping gases, the front half of the tank next to her jerked and swung open. A wave of thick, dark liquid gouted across the floor and filled the air with a sharp odour, so strong and sickly-sweet that it made her want to gag.
All around her, the rest of the tanks were doing the same. The floor was ankle-deep. Here and there other things, more meaty and solid, spilled out of the tanks too. Uranus stared at them, revolted, and then lifted her eyes once more.
The occupants of the tanks began to emerge.
In a way, the ones that died at once were the easiest to stand: the ones that were far enough advanced in their transformations that they could not survive as humans, but not so far gone that they could exist as monsters. They flopped or slithered to the floor, some in a splash of dissociated flesh and organs, and lay there: a few of them thrashing for a while, others quietly expiring. It was terrible, it was sickening, but she could ignore them; for the others were worse. The ones who were trying to kill her.
The woman, for example, who staggered out of a tank just a few metres away, screaming in a voice still mostly human, but the flesh of her body—and especially her face—ravelled and eroded away to the point where it could barely contain what was within. She came toward Uranus, still screaming as she came, pieces of her falling off with every step, and raised her hands and fired a bolt of energy. It hit Uranus squarely—she was still too stunned and revolted to dodge—but it was so weak that it barely stung. But it drained away whatever life was left in the woman; she seemed to dissolve and wither from within, collapsing to the floor in a wash of tank fluid and blood, and died with a final wail.
There were more like her, ones who killed themselves in an effort to attack. But still, the monster factory had held fifteen tanks, and fully seven of the proto-vitrimorphs survived to join combat. Seven, against four Senshi who could still act.
It felt like murder to Uranus, fighting back; far more than it had against the fully mutated enemy. A sick horror was on her, and every time she struck back it grew worse. She had to keep reminding herself that these people were already dead.
She could not quite make herself believe it.
Jupiter was appalled by the new attack, and sickened by the sheer cold, malevolent callousness of it. When the tanks opened, she was torn between pity, horror and disgust at the unfinished, maimed things that came out. She held her fire at first, backing away from them as they staggered forward.
Then they opened fire on her, and her reticence vanished. What had been done to them was dreadful, yes; they deserved compassion, not death. But they were trying to kill her.
She shed no tears as she fought, but she remembered the discussion from the meeting earlier. What was happening here was not their fault, or hers. The Council were guilty; Lady Blue was guilty. If Sailor Moon was to be believed—and Jupiter fervently hoped she was—these damned souls were dead already. And if not…it was impossible to believe they could be healed. Not after what had been done to them.
She had to keep telling herself that.
Still, despite the situation and its moral ambiguity, she actually began the fight with some confidence. She was tired, yes, but these new vitrimorphs were only half-formed. Only a few of them had survived to fight at all. They could not possibly be as strong as the fully formed ones. Their end would at least be quick.
Her self-assurance lasted right up until, as she dodged around a tank to avoid a barrage of energy bolts, she ran head-first into a young man.
His face was twisted with fear and pain. She had just enough time to register that he was naked. Then he lifted his hands to clutch at her. "Mamma, Mamma," he sobbed. "Help me. Oh, Mamma, make it stop. It hurts. It hurts!"
Shocked, she reached out to comfort him, still trying to fathom what he was doing here. As she gathered him in, something nagged at her—and then, almost too late, she saw that the skin on one of his hands was dark and mottled, the bones strangely misshapen. Her mind flashed back to the tank she had opened earlier, and its occupant, and she started to struggle away; but he was crying again, holding her by her uniform collar. "Help me!" he begged her. "Mamma, help me!" He threw back his head and howled, "It hurts. It huuurRTSSSS—"
And as his scream rose into an unearthly, deafening wail, she saw his eyes flash green, and a glimmer of green fire growing at the back of his throat; and then a bolt of energy erupted out at her.
Jupiter threw herself to one side, barely in time. The bolt passed down her back, leaving a cut in her uniform and a dark thread of blood. She heard a heavy impact and looked around. The young man was nearby, lying face-down in the muck that covered the floor, spillage from the tanks. Heart still pounding, and throat clenched by a dreadful pity, she stepped toward him. Was he dead like the others, drained and consumed by the energy that had poured out of him?
He stirred as she reached him, and she froze. Slowly, he rolled over and dragged himself back to his feet. Thick blood was oozing from his nose and ears. Then he stepped toward her once more, arms outstretched. "Help me," he moaned. "Please. Oh, please."
Sailor Jupiter backed away from him, her eyes wide. Then, unable to bear it any longer, she turned and fled.
Sailor Venus knelt on top of the tank in the far corner of the room, trying to restrain her trembling.
She had thrown up twice more since the tanks opened, dodging a dozen attacks, before retreating, shaking with horror, unable to bring herself to strike back. Monsters she could fight, but these…these were no monsters. They were people; maimed people.
The real Sailor Venus might have been able to deal with this. McCrea Beth could not.
Below her, she watched as the awful, one-sided carnage continued. The proto-vitrimorphs were powerful enough, even half-unformed as they were, but they were simply no match for the Senshi. Uranus and Mercury were fighting back—grim-faced, looking sick as they fought, but they were doing it—and not many of the enemy got up again after taking a single blow.
Murderers. Lady Blue was turning them all into murderers. Venus wanted to cry.
A flickering light drew her attention. Across the room, a bright streamer of energy arced down from Lady Blue's hand to the floor. Venus tensed. What new vileness was the witch up to now?
Nothing seemed to happen at first. A few bubbles floated on the thin layer of scum that covered the floor. Slowly, Venus started to relax. Her eyes flicked to Sailor Moon, still prisoner in the ball of energy that hovered a couple of metres away from Lady Blue. Moon was pounding noiselessly on the interior of the ball. Her lips moved, without sound.
Then Venus' eyes snapped back to the floor where Lady Blue's energy had struck. The liquid was bubbling harder; the surface was beginning to swirl and roil. Something glittered among the ripples.
She looked around the room, alarmed. Sailor Mercury was exchanging fire with one of the more completely-transformed enemies. Her face was grim and tired, but she was slowly beating it down. Meanwhile Uranus was up against a monstrosity that still looked half-human. Venus felt sick again just looking at it, but Uranus was gamely battering away at it, apparently trying to knock it unconscious rather than killing it. Off on the other side of the room, Sailor Jupiter had recovered from her panic and was moving forward once more. Artemis and Bendis were perched halfway up one of the catwalk stairways, watching from a safe vantage point. Sailor Moon was a prisoner; Tuxedo Kamen was lying on the floor, semi-conscious. None of them had seen what Lady Blue was doing.
That just left Venus, who was hiding from the battle. Cowering in a funk.
I can't do this. I'm no hero. I can't.
Her eyes returned to the target of Lady Blue's new deviltry. The whole surface of the liquid around the spot was churning now. More strands of crystal surged up out of the morass, adding themselves to the shape that was forming in the centre. Fragments, Venus realised suddenly. The fragments of a vitrimorph. Being drawn together again…reassembling themselves—
Even as she watched, the last pieces flew into place. A burst of light, white-hot, flared in the centre. And a vitrimorph stood there, glowing with heat where the pieces had fused together once more.
In the air above, Lady Blue threw back her head and let out a wild laugh that sounded like a buzz-saw.
The new enemy looked different than before. It looked as though it were made of knives. Its limbs, its body were jagged: covered everywhere with razor-sharp edges and blades where fragments had not come together perfectly. They made a susurrus of clinking, jingling sound as it began to move. And its face: it was broken, crazed, everywhere a maze of mismatched pieces, like a demented jigsaw that had been jammed together by an idiot.
In a sudden moment of foreboding, Venus wondered if the same was true of its mind. Or whatever passed for a vitrimorph's mind.
It almost did not matter. The others were busy…and already, off in the distance, she could see Lady Blue shooting another arc of brilliant light down into the floor. And then another. Again, the liquid began to boil and foam.
I'm no hero.
Sailor Venus closed her eyes. Reached within herself for the strength that she had once felt in battle, and found nothing. Then she took a deep breath and made her choice.
She leaped from the tank roof and went back to war.
Horrified, Seki gestured down into the chamber. "You've got to help them!"
To her surprise, Pluto shook her head. "I'm not here to fight," she said once more. "They have their chance. It's up to them, not me."
"What?" Seki demanded. "They're going to be massacred down there!"
Pluto did not answer at once. "If I join the fight," she said at last, her words slow and careful, "that woman will see it. The Enemy will take action. He'll think he has no choice."
"Are you crazy? What do you think he's already doing?"
The older woman turned her head from the battlefield, looking Seki full in the face. "He's going easy on them," she said. "Still. Even now. It may not look like it, but it's true. He's still unsure of what I can do, so he doesn't commit his full strength. But if I join in—if I go up against that woman—then he'll react. He'll strike hard and fast. And then he'll see how crippled I really am, and he'll have no more reason to hold back. He'll stop hesitating—and there really will be no hope."
"How…crippled you are," Seki repeated.
Pluto scowled and said, "I am…somewhat accustomed to being able to see the future timelines when I fight."
"You can see every attack before it happens," Seki translated, and shook her head. "Yeah, I can see how that could be useful. But now he's blocked you, and you can't do it any more. He's brought you down to the level of the rest of us mere mortals!"
"Yes," said Pluto, her voice flat. "And he must not know. Do you understand? If he sees that, if he realises that I can no longer see the future, he will think that he has nothing to fear—" She broke off and looked away again. "They have a chance," she repeated. "They can win this. If they dare."
"That's…pretty cold of you. You're staking their lives on a bluff!"
"Then tell me I'm wrong," Pluto said fiercely. "Tell me you can see more clearly, Rei. If you can tell me that…then I'll do it. I'll fight." Her eyes almost seemed to burn. "But be sure. Be very sure, Hino Rei."
Seki was silent for a long time. Then, in a thick, low voice, she said, "I can't."
Pluto nodded. "I know." She watched for a moment longer and added, "It hurts me, too."
The first new vitrimorph took Mercury by surprise, and very nearly killed her before she had a chance to react. She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, a dim reflection in the wall of a nearby tank, and started to turn. It moved her just enough that the blow merely ripped her shoulder open, instead of gutting her.
Gasping in pain, she staggered to one side, dropping to one knee and clutching her injured arm. Her good hand came away covered with blood. She stared at it for a fraction of a second. Then, desperately, she lunged out of the way. The second blow hammered down right where she had been. If she hadn't moved, it would have smashed her skull like an eggshell.
She lurched to her feet and sprang away, getting some distance between herself and the new enemy before she paused to look back. She blanched. The vitrimorph looked like a walking razor blade. Where the hell had that come from?
It paused, almost as if it were relishing her dismay. It opened its mouth and let out a weird howl, and started toward her once more. There was something different in its manner, something quite unlike all the vitrimorphs she had faced before. Something almost…avid.
Seriously unnerved now, Mercury fired an Ice Spear at it. The monster did not even try to dodge. Her attack caught it squarely in the chest, sending shards flying in a cloud of stinging fragments. It seemed to pay no attention at all. It gave another howl, crouched down a little—and then blurred toward her.
This time Mercury saw it coming, but still she had no chance to dodge. It was moving so fast! Faster than she had ever seen one of them go. It slammed bodily into her before she could begin to react. The impact felt like being hit with a brick wall, driving the breath from her lungs. If she had not just blown half the jagged edges off it, she would have been cut to pieces. Even so, she felt a dozen strands of cold white pain searing across her body. She would have screamed, but she had no breath to do so.
The vitrimorph stood over her, one arm raised, one massive, spiked fist clenched, ready to end her. She could not move. It stared down at her with mad, triumphant eyes, and she could not move. It began its strike.
The lightning bolt hit it from behind; the ultrasonic beam from one side. From above, a chain of glittering gold wrapped itself around its neck, yanking it back. Distantly, half-unbelieving, Mercury realised that she was going to live.
The vitrimorph staggered under the three-way onslaught. Another Supreme Thunder struck home; another Music of the Spheres. It could not dodge. It let out a groan: not with its voice, but the sound of physical material stressed almost to the breaking point. But then its mouth opened. Mercury saw the glow inside and knew that it was going to fire. She was lying flat on her back, helpless to dodge. It could not miss.
Instead she lifted one shaking hand, pointed at it, and rasped out, "Ice Spear."
Her attack caught it full in the mouth, a bare moment before it fired its energy bolt. Solid ice, razor-sharp and so cold that it was hard as iron, slammed home into the middle of the energy ball. It detonated, still inside the vitrimorph's mouth. It took the vitrimorph's whole head with it. A second later, its body followed.
Mercury lay there a moment longer, shaking. Venus and Uranus hovered anxiously in the background. Then Jupiter bent down and reached out a hand to help her up. They stared at each other for a moment, not speaking.
"You know, Hayashi," Mercury said, still panting, "there has got to be an easier way to earn a living."
Jupiter started to grin back; but at that moment they all heard the shout from overhead. Seki's voice, taut with fear: "Watch out, you fools!"
The four of them whirled and saw two more vitrimorphs stalking toward them, as brutal and malformed as the last. Mercury felt a ripple of cold fear race down her spine. This wasn't over yet.
Even as she watched, taking in the new situation and bracing herself to begin all over again, she saw a streamer of light arc down from Lady Blue's hand overhead. Moments later, the scum on the floor began to ripple as, unmistakably, the fragments of the enemy she had just destroyed began to reassemble themselves.
No, it wasn't over. It was still getting worse.
Jupiter's legs felt rubbery, and her head swam a little when she moved too fast. She should not feel this weak; she remembered being so much stronger. But that was seven hundred years ago and another lifetime, and right now she felt almost dead on her feet; and she had a battle to fight: one she must not lose. Only she was not quite sure, any longer, if she could win this time.
She sneaked a look at the others out of the corner of her eye. Sailor Mercury was upright once more, yes, but she was a mess: bloody and swaying on her feet. Worse, there was a look in her face that matched what Jupiter was feeling. Mercury was not beaten, she had not surrendered…but she was no longer confident that they would win.
Then there was…well. There was Uranus. Jupiter grimaced. Truth to tell, right now she was too tired to feel anything much about Uranus. The girl was there, and she could still fight—and there was no sign of tacit defeat in her stance. She was tired, but still ready. Right now, that made up for a lot.
That just left…wait. Where was Sailor Venus?
Jupiter had no time to wonder. With the same uncanny speed that the first rebuilt vitrimorph had shown, the next two surged forward. She had no time to do anything but dodge, and her best speed was barely enough. A jagged blade of crystal jutting out of its arm sliced a thin line of pain across her shoulder, but she flipped clear of anything worse and hit the monster in the back with a Supreme Thunder.
The bolt did no visible damage, but it made the vitrimorph light up with a pale blue glow. She snarled at the sight, and got ready to fire again. Before she could do so, she saw something shift in the reflections from its crystalline body—felt a subliminal warning tingle of danger—and dodged without thinking. An instant later, a many-bladed arm swept through the air where she had been, and the vitrimorph that had been right behind her let out a bellow of rage.
She backed away from the pair of them, ready to dodge. Where were the other Senshi, dammit? And why hadn't Pluto joined them? And what the hell had happened to Venus?
The two monsters began to stalk toward her and she watched them warily, ready for the sudden rush of speed. As the glowing one moved, as its body flexed, she saw lines of brighter blue open and close all across its form. Her mind raced. Was she seeing a brighter light coming from within, from the places where it had been fused together? Borders between slabs of crystal, parting for an instant and then rejoining? If so—if the thing hadn't been welded all the way back together—then it might be more fragile than before. It might help…
She saw Mercury and Uranus about to hit the creature in a pincer move, and timed her own attack to strike at the same moment.
For an instant she thought it was going to work. The vitrimorph glowed even brighter, almost dazzling, and its body seemed to sag. Then it straightened up and surged toward Uranus. She dodged out of the way, just barely, and it whirled to begin a new attack.
This time, when it moved, there were no more of the blue lines. It had healed itself somehow. Or, even worse, her own lightning bolt had been the energy source that finally fused it together. She had done nothing but strengthen it.
From behind, she heard a harsh bellow. A third reanimated vitrimorph, coming to join the fight; and overhead, she saw Lady Blue begin working on a fourth.
In the pit of her stomach, she realised the truth. The Senshi weren't going to win this battle. Not without a miracle.
Venus had ducked out of the way again after helping to save Mercury. Maybe it was the coward in her, but one thing was becoming clearer by the second: they could not win this fight. Somehow, somewhere, they had to find another way. Her eyes roamed the chamber, searching for something—anything—that might change the odds.
There was nothing. They were alone, and alone they were going to die.
I don't belong here.
She looked up, to where Seki and Sailor Pluto watched them. Seki's agony, unable to act, was clear in her face. Pluto, in contrast, was cool, unreadable. Her eyes met Venus' for an instant, and Venus almost thought she saw a message there; but then Pluto looked away. Over to where Lady Blue floated in midair, laughing with dark malice as she worked to raise yet another vitrimorph.
Venus turned her head away with a shudder. Her gaze fell instead on Sailor Moon, still trapped, helpless, in her energy bubble. Moon's face held an agony to match Seki's. She pounded the wall of the bubble soundlessly, her mouth opening and closing in silent desperation. No, there was no help coming from that quarter.
I'm not Sailor Venus.
Venus looked down, to where Tuxedo Kamen had fallen. He was moving now, climbing to his feet; but he was still almost helpless. He had to clutch at the side of a tank to stay erect. No help there either. No help from anywhere.
Lady Aino, where are you? Minako-sama, please, help me!
But there was no answer, and she realised that none was ever going to come. She was indeed alone: she, and the other Senshi, and an endless number of enemies. She grimaced, and brushed hair that was lank with sweat out of her eyes. If there was nothing else, at least she could go down fighting with her comrades. For whatever that was worth.
A vitrimorph lumbered past her hiding place, followed by a bolt of ice that was a fraction of the size of those Mercury had been firing when the battle began. Venus took a deep breath and crouched down, as Bendis had taught her, ready to spring.
And then a strange thought came to her. She looked back up at Sailor Pluto, on the catwalk above, and followed the woman's gaze. Not to Lady Blue, after all, but to Sailor Moon: trapped in a bubble of energy.
Just like that, Venus saw what she could do. Not a feline manoeuvre; a human one, so very human. Almost automatically, she judged the angles and saw that she had a chance. It was just barely possible.
A moment later, she realised what the cost would be. She closed her eyes for a second, and let out a breath she hardly knew she had been holding.
I'm sorry, Bendis. I don't think I can be a cat any more.
Then she moved. First, leaping up to the top of the tank next to her, and then across to a second. She was no Venus, but she remembered how it felt, to move with that effortless grace. She, McCrea Beth, could do this.
There was no room for error with this next part. She had to hit her target absolutely dead centre, or she would slip and fall. An impossible task, nearly; but she had done something like this before, back at the fire in the department building. Oh, yes, she had learned her lessons.
She fired her Love-Me Chain and it wrapped itself smoothly three times around Sailor Moon's bubble, as neatly and as easily as a dream. She really had gotten good at controlling the thing; it was almost a pity, actually. The far end of the chain snaked back to her, and she caught it and hooked it onto the tank she was standing on. She saw Lady Blue's eyes snap around to follow her, but the woman took no action. Why should she? Nothing Venus was doing could possibly help.
Venus bet herself that Lady Blue would not have anticipated the next part.
She leaped forward, still holding the free end of her chain, and swung low across the room—just as she had done once before, swinging beneath an Opal in midair. For an instant she felt again the yawning, swooping sensation. Then she landed on the top of another tank, on the far side of the room.
This one was different from the others. It had been damaged by a stray lightning bolt, fired by Sailor Jupiter a few minutes earlier. The cluster of cables that rose from its top, up into the labyrinth above, was smoking and emitting occasional clouds of sparks.
She glanced over her shoulder at Lady Blue, and saw that the woman was finally realising what she planned. But it was too late to stop her now. Venus had learned so much from Bendis: how to move, how to fight. Why to fight. But it was Uranus who had taught her the next part.
"Sorry," she whispered. And then, "Good-bye."
She reached up and plunged the end of her Love-Me Chain into the cluster of live cables. Held it there with her gloved hand. She felt a massive shock up her arm and into her chest; felt her heart lurch once.
And then, nothing.
Uranus saw it happen: Venus reaching out and touching the end of her chain to the live cables. She saw the flash; the Love-Me Chain, lighting up with brilliant energy. And the far end of it, wrapped in a giant loop around Sailor Moon's prison bubble, blazed like a ring of white fire.
The bubble flickered and winked out.
After that, things happened very fast.
Sailor Venus toppled slowly from the top of the tank, her body limp, leaving a trail of smoke.
Sailor Moon dropped to the ground, landing awkwardly on one knee but recovering quickly. Her hand whipped up to her forehead, already energising her tiara to attack.
Above her, Lady Blue cried out in fury and pointed down at Moon, ready to direct some new attack at her. Before she could complete the motion, something flashed up through the air and hit her hand, sticking there. She cried out again, this time in pain, and lifted her hand to stare at the missile in disbelief.
A rose. Tuxedo Kamen was on his feet: pale, wavering, but grim-faced and determined.
An instant after that, Sailor Moon's tiara was whining upward in a golden arc, directly at Lady Blue. The floating woman gave an animal snarl and threw up her other hand to block.
The tiara struck there and seemed to cling for a second, glowing brighter and brighter. Then, with a violent effort, Lady Blue flung it away from her. It hit the wall some distance off with a sharp crack and ricocheted away out of sight. Lady Blue was left hanging in the air, still alive, her face black with rage. One arm hung limp at her side, dripping with dark blood from the rose that still stuck out from the back of her hand. The other hand was blackened and broken where the tiara had struck. But the malice in her eyes was undiminished, and the jewel on her brow pulsed as if alive.
"Enough," she rasped. "I am through with patience for you vermin. This ends, right now—"
Sailor Jupiter's Supreme Thunder caught her directly in the forehead.
The jewel ignited with a blinding flash and a noise that sounded almost like a scream. Then, with an ear-splitting crack, it broke in pieces and tumbled away from her, trailing an arc of blood.
She spasmed in midair, writhing and shrieking, and fell. As she tumbled, a ripple of change seemed to crawl over her body; her midnight blue uniform faded away, leaving pale flesh in its wake. Then she struck the floor with a flat crunch, and her voice ended suddenly.
Around the room, the four reanimated vitrimorphs froze. Then, almost as one, they began to topple over. They seemed to disintegrate as they dropped, coming apart in a multitude of glittering fragments that hissed down into the thin scum that still covered the floor.
A long silence filled the room.
Then Jupiter punched the air, shouting, "Yes!" Her face was smudged and exhausted, her uniform stained, her hair limp and bedraggled, but the triumph and relief in her eyes were unmistakable.
—And behind her, Uranus saw one final figure shamble out from behind the tanks on the far side of the room. It was a young man, naked, hunched over as if in pain, one hand tucked against his belly. He came toward the girl, staggering and reeling, his good hand outstretched as if for help. He opened his mouth, his eyes fixed on Jupiter, and Uranus heard his moan…and saw the flash of green light in his eyes, and the fire gathering in his throat.
Uranus had never moved so fast in her life. She had no time to think; only act. She fired her Music of the Spheres in mid-leap, hitting the man in the side and jarring his aim. His energy bolt cracked over Jupiter's shoulder, missing her by mere centimetres. An instant later Uranus slammed into Jupiter, knocking the girl out of the way. Jupiter cried out in surprise. The two of them hit the floor in a sprawl, but Uranus was still moving. She rolled upright and fired again, and this time she hit the young man squarely. He froze, fell, and lay still. Uranus sank back to her knees, panting.
When she looked up once more, Jupiter was standing over her, gazing down at her with a strange expression. Uranus got up and they stood, staring at each other.
Then Jupiter's lips tightened and her eyes turned to the body lying a short distance away. "Him," she said quietly. "I remember him." She let out a long breath. "All he wanted was for his mamma to help him. To make it better. That was all." She shook her head, glanced back at Uranus, then turned and walked away.
Uranus glanced down at the body, not really understanding, then back up at Jupiter's retreating back. "Yes," she whispered, surprised at the bitterness she felt. "Thank you, too."
Sailor Mercury barely noticed the drama between Jupiter and Uranus. As the last vitrimorph fell, she was hurrying over to the spot where Venus had fallen.
It was not as if she'd ever felt particularly close to the girl. They were rivals, maybe, in an inane sort of way. But what Venus had just done to save them all…that was so far beyond the bounds of anything Mercury could have expected that it simply took her breath away. To do that, to be willing to do that, for a group of—not strangers, no, but not exactly close friends, either—well, it made Mercury wonder. If she had been in the same position, would she have done the same thing? Could she have? Would she have even thought of it?
She rounded a tank and saw Venus. The girl was lying sprawled on the ground, face down, not moving; she did not even appear to be breathing. Her arm, her face and half her uniform were blackened, and there was an ugly, dark red weal running from her hand up her forearm. The air was heavy with a thick burnt smell.
Mercury froze at the sight. "No, dammit," she said. "It's not fair." Then suddenly, without quite remembering how she had got there, she was on her knees, holding Venus by the shoulders and shaking her. "No!" she cried furiously. "Come on, you idiot girl, you can't be dead. You…you…" She broke off, lost for words, and finished in a whisper, "You still have to show Ochiyo-chan how to do accounting, don't you remember? You can't just die like this."
She heard a footstep behind her and looked around to see Sailor Moon approaching, Tuxedo Kamen following just behind her. Hot on their heels came Bendis, yowling with alarm and grief. The cat came to a halt by Venus' head and touched her face with one faltering paw. "Beth," she wept. "Beth. Don't die; don't die…"
Moon, for her part, took on a flat, unreadable expression as she saw Venus' body. She paused and her fists clenched once, then opened. She took a quick breath and started to say something—
And then Venus' eyes flickered and opened. "Oh. Hello," she said in a blurred, muzzy voice. "Did we win?"
Bendis hiccuped into silence. Mercury said, "Uh—"
Venus blinked up at her, her eyes still vague. "You aren't my aunt, are you?"
Perhaps it was her sense of relief, or the stress of the moment, but Mercury could not help it. "Why, yes," she said. "Yes, I certainly am. Happy birthday, Beth-chan."
Venus gave her a dreamy smile. "Thank you," she said, and blinked again. "Where's my cake?"
Behind them, Moon started to chuckle. Mercury smiled back at Venus, and then unceremoniously dropped her head to the floor. It made a hollow clunk. "I think," she said, "my work here is done."
Sailor Moon left Mercury and Venus to their horseplay. Her eyes turned to another part of the room, where one last task remained. She looked up at Tuxedo Kamen, and he nodded. Then the two of them went warily over to the place where Lady Blue lay.
The details became appallingly clear as they drew near and Moon froze, her breath catching. Just behind her, she heard Tuxedo Kamen's own whistle of dismay. From the corner of her eye she saw Jupiter, also approaching, stop short with a gasp.
Moon swallowed, hard, and forced herself to go on. To look down in horror at what had become of their enemy.
A naked woman lay where Lady Blue had fallen. Her body was twisted and broken; but it was more than that, and worse. She looked wasted. Her face was sunken, skull-like; her hair, a thin, matted ruin. The flesh on her body and limbs was all but shrunken away; her ribs protruded in stark outline, plainly visible under a layer of skin that was so thin it was almost translucent. The breasts that lay over them were empty, withered sacs of dry skin.
"God, she looks like she hasn't eaten for a month," whispered Tuxedo Kamen. "No, a year."
And this, too, was not over; for at the sound of his voice, the woman's head jerked and turned, and she looked around with milky, half-blind eyes. "Who's there?" she said, her voice a thin rasp. "Is that—" She broke off with a dry cough that ended in a gasp of pain. "Is that Sailor Moon?"
Moon took a deep breath, and stepped toward her. "I'm here," she said, her voice not quite level.
The woman's head turned a little more toward her; and then those awful eyes closed. "Thank you," she whispered.
"Thank you," the horror repeated. "Oh, thank you for setting me free. Free at last. You don't know what it's been like…" Again she broke off, in a series of coughs that seemed liable to shake her wasted frame apart.
Then Moon understood, and without even thinking about it she went forward again, dropped to her knees in the thin scum that still covered the floor and gathered the woman into her arms. "Hush," she said gently. "Don't try to talk. You—you're going to be all right."
The woman hardly seemed to hear her. "I had such dreams," she said in a voice that was cracked and more than a little mad. "We all did, until we met him. Until he stole our souls." Her eyes opened once more, and this time she seemed to see Moon's face. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Hush. It doesn't matter. It's over now."
The woman shook her head, the motion scarcely more than a twitch. "No. It's just starting. And I am sorry. About the new plan…and the innocent ones. I'm sorry we hurt them." She blinked up at Moon, her eyes seeming to gain focus for a moment, and added, "I wish I'd been on your side."
Moon shook her head and gathered her close, smoothing the hair away from her forehead. Chunks of it came away in her hand, but she gave no sign. "Hush, Araki-san," she said. "It's all right."
"It's so cold," Araki whispered. "I just…I just wanted to see the sun again. That was all." Her gaze wandered away again, and her head fell back against Moon's arm. "Thank you," she said. "Oh, thank you." Her eyes closed, and she murmured, "I'm so hungry."
Then she died.
And, in the Council Chambers in the heart of the city, the voice of the Master awoke in the chairman's mind, after so long, and told him what he was to do next.
He closed his eyes in horror. Then, slowly, moved to obey.
On the catwalk above, Pluto lowered her head. "And so it is over," she said. She might have been discussing the time of day; it was only long familiarity that let Seki notice the slight catch in her voice. "From now on, I am blind."
Seki nodded, and after a pause she touched Pluto's arm lightly. There seemed little point in offering condolences. They had both known this was coming.
"They're on their own, then," she said instead. "No cryptic hints about the future, just relying on themselves." She gave Pluto a mordant smile. "Hell, it's like old times, back when we were fighting Beryl."
A snort. "If you like."
"It's not over, of course. They'd be fools to think so, and I know they're not fools. Now, they'll need to…" Seki thought about it. "I'm not sure. Moon has her own ideas, so I'm not sure what they'll decide to do next." She grimaced and added, "If they ask me…I suppose a good next step would be to look for the others. Saturn, Neptune…they'd be a great help."
Pluto shook her head. "I don't know about Neptune, but don't expect to see Sailor Saturn again—at least not soon. The bloodline of Saturn has been submerged for a long time now. It is slowly moving to awaken again…but not yet. It's still too soon. In another generation or two, perhaps."
With an incredulous look, Seki said, "What, this crisis isn't bad enough to awaken her? Or the Fall, for that matter?" Her eyes narrowed. "How do you know so much about it, anyway?"
"Tell me, dammit!"
"Hotaru died without passing on her potential to an explicit heir," Pluto said tightly. "She preferred not to make anyone else suffer the way she did. With her gone, and nothing to call it up, the Saturn Power fell dormant. I believe it began to revive during the Fall, but, ah, something kept it from surfacing then. Later, with all the mass deaths that followed the collapse, it was driven underground again. Now it is building once more, yes, and I have an idea where it may surface…but not now. Not yet." Her lips compressed. "And, yes, Hotaru and I discussed it; but I had no idea that this crisis was ahead. I could not see it, because…well, you know why."
"And you didn't think it was a good idea to tell anyone about this?"
Pluto gave her a long, unhappy look. "What would have been the point?"
Far too late, Seki remembered how close Setsuna and Hotaru had been. Inwardly, she winced, but she did not let it deter her. "This is the point, damn you," she snapped, gesturing down into the chamber. "Sailor Venus being ready to sacrifice herself to save everyone, that's the point! And all the rest of them, fighting for their lives because they know they can depend on—"
"On Sailor Saturn?" asked Pluto stiffly.
"No! On you! On us! On—on the whole legend! Knowing that if you're keeping important information from them, it's because it's important, not just because you miss Hotaru!" Seki took a deep breath and let it out. When she spoke again, her voice was calmer. "I'll tell you one thing, anyway. This battle might have been the last thing you could see. But it's not the last vision I've had."
Pluto stared at her. She seemed to stop breathing. After a long time, she said, "What, then?"
Seki seriously considered not telling her. But in the end she swallowed her anger and said, in a low voice, "A fireball in the heart of the city. And…and an army of vitrimorphs marching through the streets." She paused, realising. "No. Not vitrimorphs. Crystites."
"Ah." Pluto became still, her eyes hooded and distant. "I see."
"Yeah. So I'll tell you one more thing, Sadako. It's time for you to join the team again. You may have been on Special Duties for the last few thousand years, but now you've been demoted. You're one of the troops again…and the next time there's a fight, you ought to be with them. Clear?"
Sailor Pluto gave her a faint smile. "I'll take it under advisement," she said. With a nod, she turned away and walked back out of the room, leaving Seki alone. Seki opened her mouth to protest—and then closed it again. With a sigh, she went over to meet the weary girls climbing up the stairs from the chamber floor.
Jupiter and Moon had to help Tuxedo Kamen up the last of the stairs; he was still too weak and shaken to make it all the way. Behind them, in turn, Mercury and Uranus supported Venus. Venus kept swatting at their hands and insisting that she could walk on her own. Neither of the two girls seemed to believe her.
In truth, Venus was secretly glad of their help—even if one of the helpers was Sailor Uranus. Her head was swimming in a disconcerting way, and her whole chest ached as if she'd been kicked there. Her legs were kind of wobbly, too.
But she was alive, and her idea had worked. How about that? It had been a desperation move, but in spite of everything she had actually succeeded.
She wondered what the real Venus, Lady Aino, would have done instead.
But that was something to think about later; to discuss with Bendis, perhaps. The cat was just ahead of her on the stairs, continually pausing and looking back to make sure she was all right. She did not seem to realise that this meant that Venus was nearly tripping over her every second step.
The cat meant well, anyway. And it was nice to know that someone cared that much about her. Sometimes she had wondered.
In spite of herself, her mind went back to the last moments on top of the tank. Half in a panic, heart in her throat, because she knew what she was about to do, and what the consequences would probably be. The other half of her, knowing that she could not find any other way out; because there was only herself there, McCrea Beth. The one who should have been in charge was missing.
Mercury had been talking in her ear for some time, and Venus had been ignoring the stream of chatter, but now something broke through and caught her attention. Mercury was saying, "—getting kind of worried about you, y'know. I mean, you're usually kind of wild, but you were fighting so badly today; I thought something must be wrong. But that last stunt…that one was totally deranged. You must be okay."
Venus froze on the step and looked around at Mercury, stricken. Because that didn't help at all. That just made it worse. It left the problem that had been growing in her mind, the vital question, all the more muddled.
Who was she?
Sailor Moon paused at the top of the stairs, allowing Tuxedo Kamen to step away and brace himself against the catwalk railing. He was firmer on his feet now, his face a healthier colour, but still he sagged a little as she and Jupiter released him. Whatever Lady Blue had hit him with, it had been worse than the attack that she had used against Moon herself.
She eyed him with some ambivalence. Ally he might be, but he still represented something that Moon would rather forget. She did not want a new 'father'; she was perfectly happy with the one she already had. A masked figure hovering in the wings, waiting to protect her; that, she wanted still less. The idea was almost insulting.
And there was still the matter of that kiss. Who did he see, when he looked at her: his daughter, or his wife? Or Mercury's friend Kin, for that matter?
With a tiny shake of her head, she turned her back on him. He was going to have to learn his place, that was all. This was a new age, and he would just damn well have to adapt.
Seki was nearby, watching them with a concerned expression, and Moon went over to speak to her. "What can we expect next?" she asked without preamble.
Seki seemed a little thrown by the question. "Uh…well, you ought to leave. Sooner or later someone's going to come and find all this—"
"No, no. What can we expect from the enemy? Araki-san said it wasn't over; she said it was just starting. And she mentioned some kind of new plan. What can we expect from the enemy?"
"Uh. I've no idea. Why would you expect me to?" The woman's brow furrowed. "A new plan? That doesn't sound good."
"Oh. I saw you talking to Sailor Pluto, so I thought maybe she might have said something." With a sigh, Moon let herself relax. "A heads-up on what's next would have been nice."
Seki grimaced. "In my experience, Pluto doesn't have much time for what would be nice."
"Oh. Okay." A new thought occurred to Moon. "Wait, that really was Sailor Pluto? The original one?"
"Wow. She doesn't look anything like her statue." Behind her, Moon heard Uranus choke suddenly, but she did not look around.
"Statue?" Seki eyed her uncertainly.
"Never mind. You're right; we ought to get out of here." Moon turned for a moment to look out and down, across the chamber. "We've hurt them today," she said slowly, "and they've hurt us too. Nearly hurt us more than we could afford." Her lips tightened. "Maybe you were right; we shouldn't have come here."
"No," said Seki. "After what I saw here…it needed to be done; and sooner, rather than later. This was…this place was an abomination."
"Yeah. Maybe." Moon was silent for a moment. "Does it often get this bad?"
"Do you get used to it?"
"No." Seki's voice was flat. "Not if you want to keep your soul."
Sailor Moon cocked her head to one side, taking this in. Yesterday, she would have passed off Seki's words as melodramatic. Now, she thought that perhaps she understood them. "Yes," she said. "Thank you."
Then, raising her head, she looked around the others and said, "Okay, everyone. Sooner or later, someone's going to notice all this and sound the alarm, and we're going to have company. Let's move."
Venus gave her a tired grin in return. "Yeah," she said. "Home sounds good."
"Right," agreed Jupiter. "We need to get together again later to talk about all this, but for now…" She glanced down at her uniform, blotched and filthy and lined here and there with streaks of blood. "A bath might be nice."
"Motion seconded and carried," said Tuxedo Kamen with a smile. He released the rail and straightened up, motioning toward the door. "Ladies…?"
Sailor Moon frowned for an instant at the archaic chivalry, but let it go. He was something of an archaism himself, after all. Instead she led the way out of the ruined chamber.
She was tired herself, as it happened.
'S' Division was called out in force when the alarm came in: twelve field agents and three full forensics teams. The agents went in armed for bear, at maximum alert. Security-wise, the Tenshin Institute rated very high—though nobody was quite sure why.
The alarm was cancelled, very suddenly, two minutes before the teams arrived at the institute facilities. There was a lot of grumbling, and some heated words exchanged with headquarters. Word came down that the institute security people were going to handle it themselves. More words, this time incredulous, were exchanged. Nobody believed that the institute would be able to cope, but in the end 'S' Division retreated. They did it slowly. It seemed pretty likely that they would be called back anyway, when the institute boys fucked things up.
Hiiro did not retreat. He and Kuroi disobeyed orders and went on in, alone.
Captain Hiiro had been part of the squad dispatched to the institute, but he had not been in charge. It was the best Colonel Shiro had been able to do for him. Somebody high-up, it seemed, suddenly had it in for Hiiro.
"Watch yourself," Shiro had told him in private before sending him out. Hiiro, still smarting from the abrupt, unexplained transfer of Mitsukai away from his team, had nodded in complete understanding.
Now, as he looked out over the incredible mess of the Tenshin Institute laboratory floor, he had a whole new appreciation of the colonel's words. Something appalling had happened here, something far beyond his experience. Sailor Senshi or not, he did not like it.
"Shit," said Kuroi in a low voice. "What went on here? A butchers' convention?"
"Let's find out."
They descended to the ground level and picked their way slowly through the debris. Nothing was moving, but there were enough corpses strewn around, most of them deformed to some degree, to make both men cautious.
The deformations were horrifying in their own right. Some of the bodies were barely recognisable as human at all. A lot of them, if not all, looked to have come out of the giant tanks spaced around the lab floor. What the hell had the Tenshin Institute bastards been up to? After a moment, Hiiro added to himself: No wonder they didn't want us coming in here.
He gestured to Kuroi, who nodded, and the two began taking readings to use to ID the bodies later: iris scans when possible, fingerprints when not. Some of the bodies lacked recognisable eyes or fingers, and Hiiro took blood samples instead. For a few damned souls, even that much was impossible.
Some minutes later Kuroi called to him softly. Hiiro went over to join him, and together they stared down at the shrivelled, wizened corpse that lay in a clear area of the floor. This one was different from the rest: it was not deformed at all, other than looking as if it had died of terminal starvation; and somebody had laid it out with curious respect, arms crossed over the sunken chest.
Also, Hiiro recognised it. Even through the ghastly sunken features, the skin that was almost transparent, he knew that face. He had voted for her once.
"It's Araki Mamiko," he said. "Ryo, they've killed a Serry."
Kuroi threw him a startled glance, then examined the body more closely. "Well, shit," he said at length in a reflective tone. "I'd never have…damn, Yoichi, there's going to be hell to pay for this."
"It doesn't make any sense," Hiiro muttered. "Why would they have…what did they do to her?" He paused, and his eyes narrowed. "What's this?"
There was an odd wound on the body's forehead: deep, almost like a cavity, and perfectly circular. He knelt to examine it more carefully.
"Where they hit her?" suggested Kuroi, bending down to join him.
"I don't think so. This looks more as if it was made a long time ago." Carefully, Hiiro reached out a finger. "There's a lot of scarring; looks like burn marks, but—" He hesitated. "Have you ever seen frost burns before? More like that. And…it's all healed inside. Healed."
An odd thought came to him, then, and he looked around. Then, ignoring Kuroi's surprised query, he got up and widened his search. A few metres from the body, he found what he was looking for: a stone lying on the floor. It was a flattened disc, jet-black, and broken into three uneven pieces, one of them little more than a narrow sliver.
He picked up the smallest piece and held it up to the light. An instant later he yelped in pain. The splinter was so cold that it burned like fire. He dropped it to the floor again, shaking his hand—and then watched in disbelief as, in perfect silence, the stone evaporated, subliming away into a cloud of dark mist and then vanishing utterly.
He looked at his hand again. There was a dark mark on his finger, rimmed with pale white. Frostbite? As he studied the spot, a tiny dot of blood welled up in the centre of the mark.
Wiping his hand on the seat of his pants with a shudder, he pulled out a plastic bag and a pair of tweezers. He picked up the other two pieces and dropped them gingerly into the bag. They showed no reaction. On a sudden impulse, he touched the larger piece through the plastic. It did not feel cold. It felt like a lump of stone, that was all.
Back at Araki's body, he held out the bag and compared the pieces to the wound on her forehead. They matched in size exactly.
"What is this, some kind of fairy-tale crap from the old days?" he said, his voice hoarse.
"What are we going to do?" asked Kuroi, ever practical. "Get that thing analysed? But normally we'd send it here for analysis."
"Yeah. I think—" Hiiro broke off. What did he think? "I think we're going to get out of here before the Tenshin boys arrive, that's what. I think we're going to keep our mouths shut. And you know what else I think? I think that in a day or two, somebody's going to announce Araki-san's death in a tragic accident, or a sudden illness. And there won't be any mention of the way her body looks, or of the fucking Sailor Senshi, at all."
"You're saying…this goes high up, then. Maybe all the way to the top."
"I'm saying that right now, you're about the only one in the world I trust. Maybe you and the Colonel." Hiiro's lips tightened. "Come on, let's get out of this place. If I smell that crap on the floor any longer I'm going to throw up."
They left in silence. A single video camera watched them go.
Seki pulled up outside the house on Sendai Hill, and Makoto climbed out wearily. Every bone in her body ached. She felt as if she had been thrown off the top of a mountain, and then had the mountain thrown after her for good measure. Dozens of cuts on her arms, legs and across her back sent jangles of pain through her whenever she moved, as her clothes brushed her skin. She wanted nothing more than to take a long, incredibly hot bath, and then throw herself into bed and sleep for a week. Possibly two weeks.
There was one small problem with that. The problem manifested as two people standing on the doorstep, watching her as she came up the path.
Fujimaro and Miliko.
Makoto paused as she caught sight of them, and then continued on. What else could she do? She must have been quite a sight, though, judging from the way Miliko's eyes widened as she approached. Fujimaro was more reserved, but he too was shocked; she had known him long enough to see the signs.
She heard footsteps: Seki, coming up the path behind her. The older woman went up to the front door, stepping around the two on the porch without a word, and opened the door. She paused on the threshold, giving Makoto a long, silent look, and then nodded once and disappeared inside.
A long silence fell. Makoto, Fujimaro and Miliko stared at one another. Makoto waited for the others to speak, but neither of them did, and after a little she realised that they could not think of anything to say. Then she realised that she could not, either.
Instead she stepped forward and pulled them together in a big, three-way hug. Their arms tightened around her and she knew she had gotten it right.
"Come inside," she said.
Beth did not go straight home after they split up. Instead, she and Bendis went visiting.
In the wake of the battle, as they all de-transformed and stood around, tired and sore, it was glaringly obvious that one of them was missing. Under other circumstances Beth would have let it slide and simply asked Iku about it the next time she saw her; but then Suzue started to make pointed remarks about how Sailor Mars would not have been much help anyway. Beth stood it for a little while, and then quietly lost her temper. She announced, in a tone that brooked no argument, that she would go around to Iku's house and find out what had been the matter.
That shut Suzue up, at least. It also seemed to relieve Bendis, for some reason; the cat had been looking quite shifty there for a while. Before she could ask why, though, Dhiti suddenly volunteered to go with them. Beth could only blink at her in surprise, her anger forgotten.
It turned out that Dhiti knew where Iku lived, though how or why was a mystery to Beth. She was glad, however, because it made her remember that she herself had no idea where the quiet girl lived. (Although, on second thought, Bendis might have known.)
She decided not to ask any more questions, knowing that getting straight answers out of Dhiti could be complicated, and simply agreed. The three of them, two girls and a cat, were about to leave, when Suzue suddenly insisted that she was coming too.
This was much less welcome. Beth was trying to work out how to say so diplomatically when Dhiti said, rather sharply, "Why? Want to kick her for not being holy enough?"
Suzue gave her an irritated look. "Don't be ridiculous." Her lips tightened and she went on, "She should have been here. If she's one of us, she has a duty, and you know it."
Beth nearly lost her temper again, and said, "She might have a good excuse, you know! It could be something perfectly innocent."
"I know." Suzue nodded, studying Beth with thoughtful eyes. "That's why I want to go. Look, there's something weird about her; you know there is. I want to be sure. I want to know that she can be…" She hesitated. "Relied on."
"Trusted?" probed Dhiti with a sardonic look.
"If you like. Yes."
"Of course she can be trusted!" exploded Beth.
"Then where is she?"
Beth did not answer, simply glaring at her. After a brief pause, Dhiti said, "Let's find out."
"Yeah," echoed Bendis, almost inaudibly. "Let's all find out." Beth gave her a surprised look, but the cat would not meet her eye.
So it seemed there would be four of them to visit Iku. Inwardly, Beth fumed as they set out; she still had not quite forgiven Suzue, and it felt as though the other girl were invading something private. Iku was her friend, not Suzue's! But there was nothing she could do about it, and so she went along with it in a sullen silence.
They caught a bus across town and got off in west Kimiyaza. Dhiti was moving a little slowly, and her torn shoulder was clearly bothering her. It took a minute or two for her to get her bearings; as she explained, she had come by quite a different route last time. But after a little while, they stood in front of a small, unexceptional house in a quiet neighbourhood. Dusk was falling.
Beth studied the front door, uneasy. She had never been here before, and when you came right down to it, she didn't actually know Iku all that well either. What would she say when she knocked? 'Hi, Iku-chan, we just thought we'd stop by'? That sounded so lame…
Beside her, Dhiti let out an impatient snort, walked forward, and gave a sharp rap on the door. There was no response for a few seconds; then they all heard the approaching footsteps. The door opened to reveal a middle-aged woman with greying hair and Iku's dark eyes.
"Hello?" the woman said. Her eyes narrowed a little at the sight of Dhiti. "Oh, yes. Iku's…friend, wasn't it?"
Beth froze, but Dhiti showed no sign of being put out by the welcome. "Hi, Kodama-san," she said blithely. "Could we speak to Iku-chan, please? She wasn't at school today and we were worried."
Iku's mother raised her eyebrows. "No, she isn't here. Not at school, you say? My goodness. She left as usual, this morning; I'd thought she was with you, my dear, you and her other friends." Her lips curled, for a moment, in something that might have been a smile. Then her face was clear and friendly again. "Such a lot of friends Iku is making, too," she went on. "Isn't that nice! She's had so many problems, you know, with her health. A chronic illness, poor girl; I've discussed it with her school several times…"
Dhiti tried to get a word in edgewise. "Uh—"
"And it's getting so late!" the woman went on, glancing at her watch. "Oh dear, oh dear. What can have happened? Perhaps I ought to call the police…"
"Um—" Dhiti tried again.
"I'm sure that's not necessary," broke in Suzue firmly. "It's the last day of term, after all. Maybe she just decided to skip school today. A lot of students do."
"Oh, yes, that could be it—it would be just like Iku, that naughty girl—"
Suzue gave her a bright smile. "Well, we'll catch her another time. Sorry to have bothered you, Kodama-san. Good evening."
They exchanged pleasantries and left the house. Beth had a strange feeling as she walked back down the path to the gate: as if she could feel a pair of eyes, boring into her back. But when she looked around there was nothing; just a perfectly innocent-looking house and a closed front door.
They walked down the road for a minute; and then Suzue said, in a slow, thoughtful voice, "I don't like that woman."
Dhiti gave her a surprised look. "Why? I thought she was quite nice. A bit giddy, maybe."
"I've met people like that before." Suzue paused, and then went on reluctantly, "You…learn to recognise them, after a while. The ones who smile and act friendly and pretend to like you; but inside…"
She trailed off. Dhiti waited, but the girl was clearly done. "Um, you don't think you might be overreacting, just a little?"
"She lied about Iku-chan," said Beth.
Suzue gave her a sharp look. "Oh?"
"She said it was just like Iku-chan to skip school. She said she was a naughty girl. But Iku-chan wouldn't do a thing like that; she's never, well, naughty. She's too…"
Beth bit her lip. "Too scared."
Suzue took this in and said, "She might have done it before, you know. Some of the times you thought she was sick."
"I…I don't believe that."
"Mm. I don't think I do, either. It's hard to believe Iku-san would have the initiative to do anything on her own." Suzue scowled. "And I don't like that woman."
"But—" Beth spread her hands. "What do we do, then? If she isn't at home, and she isn't answering her communicator—"
"I know where she might be," said a small voice. Beth looked down, startled, at Bendis. The cat looked nervous, almost guilty. "That is, I have an idea…"
They reached the botanical gardens about twenty minutes later. The grounds were in shadow, but there was still enough light to thread their way between rockeries and flower beds, following the cat. Dhiti looked around with interest as they went. She had never come here before, and she found it fascinating to compare these grounds with the wild, overgrown bush she had seen on their trip outside the city with Itsuko. It was an intriguing glimpse into Iku's character, too. What was it that brought her here so often?
At length, deep in the centre of the gardens, they came to a narrow, winding path, bordered by trees and orchids, that looked as though it led to a dead end. Bendis followed it unerringly, and at the very end she turned into a side path hidden between walls of greenery. A short way down, the path opened out into a little clearing that held a wooden bench. A girl sat there, her head lowered, hands busy with a pair of knitting needles.
"She comes here all the time, when she isn't in school," said Bendis in a voice that was barely more than a whisper. She added, after a moment's hesitation, "At least, that's what I heard."
As they approached, Iku looked up with a startled gasp. The knitting fell from her hands and landed in a tangled heap on the ground. Dhiti saw that her face was pale and blotchy. Was she sick?
"Iku-chan?" she called softly.
Iku remained frozen, scarcely seeming to breathe. Then, at last, she relaxed. "D—Dhiti-san?" she said. Her eyes were in shadow, her voice almost inaudible. "What are you doing here?"
"Me?" exclaimed Dhiti. "What about you? We had trouble this afternoon and nobody could get hold of you; and when we talked to your mother she said she didn't even know where you were!"
There was no answer for a long time. Then, "You talked to my mother?"
"Well, duh! She said she thought you were out with us. But Beth-chan said you weren't even at school today, and when you didn't answer your communicator—"
"Oh." Iku touched her bare wrist. "I…I must have left it at home today."
Dhiti hesitated, eyeing her. "You are all right, aren't you? Your mother said you were sick quite often."
"No! I'm—I'm perfectly fine. I—really, I am…"
"Iku-san," said Suzue, cutting her off. "Are you going to sit here all night?"
Dhiti looked sharply around at her, about to protest, and then subsided. There was something in the girl's face that gave her pause. Suzue seemed perfectly calm and matter-of-fact, but there was a look in her eyes, a quiet intensity, that made Dhiti wonder.
Iku seemed to feel it, too. She squirmed under that gaze, twisting in her seat. Her mouth opened and closed, twice. At last, in a voice that was barely audible, she said, "No. I know. I have to go home."
"All right, then," said Suzue. She was frowning now, just a little, as if something were bothering her. As if, it occurred to Dhiti, she had gotten a test question wrong, when she had been sure of her answer.
She was still pondering this when Iku stood up, picking her knitting up and stowing it neatly away in a battered satchel. Her face was set, almost harsh in the twilight. She gave Dhiti one quick, impenetrable look. Then, her eyes cast down at the ground in front of her, she said, "I'm ready."
They walked out through the gardens in an uneasy group. Iku kept lagging behind a little, but whenever Dhiti fell back to walk beside her, Iku would either speed up or slow down still further. The result was that, even surrounded by her friends, she always walked alone. She kept her head down, and did not speak. Before long, all of them were silent.
By the time they reached the edge of the gardens, the streetlights were coming on, glowing their familiar pale blue. Iku paused at the gate, looking up the street, her expression flat and blank. Then, before any of the others could say a word, she moved on.
Suddenly, breaking the silence, Bendis said, "Maybe I should stay here. Um, you know, not come any further."
The group came to a stop. Suzue gave the cat a curious look. "Why? What's wrong? You were okay before."
"No, I wasn't. I hid outside the gate. You just didn't notice."
"Well, what's the problem, then?" demanded Beth.
"I—" Bendis hesitated, then said, rather guiltily, "I just don't want to…you know, deal with it. The dog."
"Dog?" They all spoke, almost together—even, Dhiti noticed, Iku.
"I just…don't like them, okay? You have a dog, right, Iku-san? You mentioned one before—I think it's the first thing I ever heard you say. And Beth-chan mentioned it, too."
Iku stared at the cat. "Oh." She said it softly, with a queer catch in her voice, almost like a hiccough. "Oh. Oh, no…"
"Huh?" Beth looked at her, eyebrows high. "Come to think of it, Nanako-chan mentioned a dog, too. A puppy, or something."
Dhiti started to mention her dream, and then paused. For once, she decided that now was not the best time to complicate things. Not when Iku was talking again at last.
"No," Iku said again. "I don't…I mean, not any more. I had…I had a puppy once. Koinu-chan…"
'Puppy-chan'? thought Dhiti in mild disgust. How old was she, anyway? She saw Suzue open her mouth and realised that the other girl was about to ask the same thing. She caught Suzue's eye and shook her head. For a wonder, Suzue subsided.
"Koinu-chan," whispered Iku once more. Her hands were shaking, her face hidden in shadow. "I used to…I used to hold him, and he licked my face. He loved me. He truly did."
"Iku-chan—" began Beth.
"How old were you?" asked Suzue, her voice strangely gentle.
"Oh…nine, I think. He, he was a stray, you know. I found him in the park. He was s-starving. I looked after him and I beg—I, I asked Mother if I could keep him, and she said yes, if I kept him quiet and he wasn't a n-nuisance. And I tried. I tried so hard…"
She was crying, Dhiti realised suddenly. Her shoulders shook and her face was wet with tears; but she kept on walking without pause. They were nearly at her house now.
"What happened?" she asked cautiously. "Did he get sick?"
"N-no. It was my fault. I couldn't…I couldn't do it." Her breath caught for an instant. "It was my f-failure. I know that. But he was just a puppy, you see? He loved to play. And I tried, and I tried, but I c-couldn't make him understand that he had to be quiet…"
"So—what, your mother sent him to the pound, or something?" asked Beth. She sounded uneasy.
"Oh, no, not the…pound. One night, when he started barking, she—she made him be quiet. Then she told me, and I had to…to bury him, and she punished me afterward. But—"
"You had to what?" blurted out Dhiti.
"But Mother was right," Iku whispered. "It was my fault. I knew that. I couldn't do what I promised, and I had to—"
She broke off, looking around. They had reached her house. It was mostly darkened, but one light, next to the front door, was on.
"I had to take the consequences."
She looked back at them, just for a moment. Her face was miserable, but resolute. Then, before any of them could speak, she opened the gate and headed up the path. She moved quickly, almost eagerly. As she reached the front door it opened, and they could see a figure standing inside. Iku went in, and the door closed behind her with a faint click.
"What the hell?" demanded Dhiti. "She wasn't serious, was she? She was nine years old and she couldn't keep a puppy quiet, so her mother killed it? And made her bury it herself?"
"She must be joking," said Beth in a faint voice. "She must be. Mustn't she?"
"I wonder," said Suzue.
"Oh, come on! No one would do that—"
Bendis stopped listening. She glanced around, checking that nobody was watching, and slipped in through the bars of the gate. Nanako's words of the day before still echoed in her mind. The girl had said that humans didn't eat their young; but from what Bendis had just heard, and allowing for a little metaphor, Nanako had it dead wrong.
Bendis followed the wall of the house around to the back. She moved cautiously and silently; she had an idea that being caught now would be a very bad thing. The back yard seemed empty but she paused for a minute or two, watching out for any stray humans—or, worse, any stray cats or dogs. But there was no sign of movement and she went on.
The back door of the house was closed. She stared up at the handle, pondering the ironies of evolution and the infuriating idiocy that had left cats without opposable thumbs. There was no help for it, though, and with a sigh she moved on.
She checked the windows next. One was half-open and she thought she could get in, but the light was on and there might be someone inside. She hesitated for a long time and was about to try it anyway, when a faint sound caught her ear. A short, sharp noise, like an impact. She looked around and saw, for the first time, a dim glow coming from the ground not far away. The angles of the house had hidden it before, but from beneath the window it was clear. She padded over and saw that it came from a glass pane set low in the rear wall. A cellar window, she realised. She went close and looked inside.
The cellar was deep, and lined with concrete. Iku was in there, with a woman who must have been her mother. Iku was kneeling on the floor. She was naked. Her arms were wrapped around her stomach, as if in pain. The other woman stood over her, one hand raised. She was shouting, or at least talking vehemently, but the sound was too muffled; Bendis could not make out what she was saying.
Then—Bendis saw it vividly, as if in slow motion—the woman's hand came around, catching Iku on the face and sending her sprawling across the floor. She followed fast with her foot, kicking the girl squarely in the belly. Iku's mouth opened and closed, but she made no sound. Then, slowly, she dragged herself back up and knelt once more at the woman's feet. Waiting for more.
Eat their young, indeed. Bendis could not watch any more. She turned and ran back around the house, back to find the other girls.
Iku's face and belly were a blaze of pain. Her head swam from the force of the last blow; she felt giddy, and it was hard to stay upright. She knelt before Mother, waiting for whatever came next. It had been a long time since Mother had been this angry.
"—Insufferable, disobedient, malicious little cow!" Mother raged. "How dare you? Not just staying out late, but consorting with those other smug little bitches when you were forbidden to! How dare you? Do you want to be punished? Do you?"
Iku did not answer; she had not been given permission to speak. Mother reached out and grabbed her braid, yanking down hard and jerking Iku's head back. She gasped at the sudden pain, and Mother pulled again, harder.
"Well, do you?" Mother snarled.
"No, Mother," whispered Iku. She could barely see; her eyes were filled with tears of pain from her pulled hair.
The grasp on her hair vanished. In its place, a hand planted itself on her forehead and pushed back with frightening strength. Iku could not keep her balance; she fell backward, wrenching her still-tender ankle once more. The back of her head hit the concrete wall with a crack.
That was too much. She pitched forward and threw up on the floor. Her stomach was nearly empty; only a thin, foamy liquid came out, but the cramps in her belly seemed to last forever.
Finally it ended and she braced herself on hands and knees, shaking and gasping for air. A foot came down on her back, forcing her down face-first in the mess.
"You are the most appalling, repulsive piece of trash imaginable," said Mother's voice with eerie calm. "You are a waste of time, a waste of effort, and a waste of space. It is truly a mystery to me why you don't just throw yourself under a bus. The world would be better off without you."
"No," gasped Iku. "No."
"Yes. You are a trial sent upon me. You are a blight. Well, I have had enough, my girl. If you will not see the error of your ways, then it falls to me to show them to you; and if I have to thrash you until you are half-dead then that is what I am going to—"
From upstairs, there came a crash.
Mother looked around, startled. A moment later, they both heard a cry of pain or surprise, suddenly cut off. Masahiko's voice. Mother gave a snarl of fury. She took two steps toward the stairs. Then she paused and returned, staring down at Iku.
"Stay here," she grated. "Don't move. Understand, my girl?"
Feebly, Iku nodded. She had made it up to hands and knees again, but now she froze. Her stomach roiled, and the taste in her mouth was vile. Her head hurt. Everything hurt.
Mother turned and started toward the stairs once more. She never made it. She stopped with a gasp as, with a clatter of heels, three figures descended from the floor above. In the dim yellow light from the single bulb on the ceiling, the white of their uniforms almost seemed to glow.
Iku knew them well, of course. Mercury, Venus, Uranus. But that they should come here, and see her like this—internally, she could feel herself shrivel with horror and shame. She wanted to cry, to cover herself, but still she did not dare. What were they doing here, where nobody else should ever come?
(And at the back of her mind, very distantly, an inner voice said: Dhiti-san? And then: You came for me. You came after all. And something inside her changed forever.)
"Who—what—" Mother stammered. "What do you think you're doing here, you dirty girls? Who are you? Get out! Get out of my house!"
The Senshi did not respond; they simply came on. Spluttering in rage and, at last, a hint of partially-concealed fear, Mother strode forward. "Get out!" she shouted again. "I don't know who you are but I'm calling the police right now—"
"Be quiet," said Sailor Uranus. Her voice was glacial. Then, paying Mother no further attention, she walked straight past the woman. She knelt at Iku's side, staying out of the pool of vomit but otherwise hardly seeming to notice it. "Don't try to get up yet," she said in a low voice. "Wait until you feel steady again."
Iku dared to raise her head a little. "I…I know," she said.
Uranus cocked her head to one side, eyebrows raised. "Yes," she said after a moment. "Yes, I suppose you do."
"Please," said Iku, "you can't come here. She'll get angry—she'll be so angry…" She hardly dared to think about how angry Mother might get. There were no words for how bad it would be.
Uranus did not stir. "I wouldn't worry about that," she said. "I think Sailor Mercury has it pretty well in hand."
Iku looked up once more and saw in horror that Sailor Mercury was holding Mother by the arms and shaking her. Mother was yelling at her and trying to break free, but to no avail. Mercury showed no reaction; her face seemed almost expressionless, but Iku knew her well enough by now to see the simmering anger beneath the surface.
"No," Iku moaned. "No, this is wrong…" She tried to get up again, and made it to her knees. Her head was spinning. Her belly, her ankle, her whole body ached. She felt as if she were about to throw up again.
"Easy," said Uranus, but she moved back a little to give Iku room. She had an odd, almost analytical look: as if she were waiting curiously to see what Iku would do next.
A stifled gasp made Iku pause. She craned her head around and saw Masahiko halfway down the stairs. For a moment her vision swam and she saw two of him. Then there was only one, racing down the stairs and flinging himself toward Mother.
Sailor Venus caught him neatly, snatching him aside and holding him fast. He struggled to escape, squirming and twisting, but Venus' arm around his chest never budged.
"Mama!" he yelled. "Mama, help me!" Venus cupped her other hand over his mouth. His eyes flickered around the room, came to rest on Iku, moved on to Mother, and returned to his sister. He subsided then, his chest rising and falling quickly.
"You monsters!" Mother snarled, still held firmly in Mercury's grasp. "You vicious monsters. Who do you think you are? How dare you? You think you can break into my house—come in here and molest my darling baby boy, and attack an innocent woman in her own home? How dare you? Look at you there, prancing around in your fancy costumes, all lily-white—but I can see your souls and they are blacker than the pit! I tell you, I'll make sure the whole world heard about this! And I promise you, I will never rest until you pay for your sins, my girls, until they hunt you down and string you up and make you pay and pay and pay—"
"That's enough," said Mercury in her ear, and Mother froze. "That's more then enough. If you say one word more, I swear I'm going to break your nose, just to shut you up."
Mother gaped at her for a moment. Then her face contorted and she said, "You vicious, contemptible, lying guttersnipe bitch…"
Sailor Mercury's eyes flashed, and her mouth set in a queer smile. "Thank you," she said. She released one hand from Mother's arm, raised her clenched fist, and—
"No," said Iku. Her voice was a hoarse rasp, but it carried throughout the cellar. "No, please. Sailor Mercury, please don't."
Mercury looked down at her, incredulous. "You're protecting her? After everything she's done to you…why?"
"Because—" Iku fumbled to a stop: unable, in the face of a lifetime of woes, to say or even really understand what she meant. At last, in a very low voice, she said, "Because she's my mommy…"
Mercury stared at her for a moment longer. Then something in her face seemed to crumple. "All right," she said. She looked at Mother one more time, and her mouth twisted in contempt. "Get out of the way, you," she said, and gave the woman a sharp push. Mother lurched and tottered across the cellar, wailing, thumped heavily into the far wall, and slid to the floor, her skirt up around her hips.
Ignoring her, Mercury walked over to Iku's side, knelt down, and picked her up with no visible effort. Mercury's shoulder was hurt, Iku noticed through a daze, but it did not seem to hinder her. "At least," she said, "we're getting you out of this hell-hole. Understand?"
"I—" began Iku. Then she stopped. Something was happening inside her; somewhere, far below, something was being born. A thing that she barely recognised, but unmistakable all the same. For the first time in so long: hope.
"Yes, Sailor Mercury," she said obediently. She laid her head back on Mercury's arm, and let the girl carry her upstairs. It felt good.
They left Iku's mother and brother in the cellar. Uranus stood guard while the others paused briefly in Iku's room to gather some clothes and other belongings. There was disturbingly little to gather.
Mercury did most of the packing. She worked with a brisk efficiency, almost as if she had done it before. Venus, for her part, tried rather ineffectually to help Iku clean up and get dressed. It was difficult, because every time she looked at the girl she such felt a mixture of different emotions. Concern, certainly; but at the back of it was a shrinking, crawling sensation, making her reluctant to touch or go near or even look at Iku. The instinctive shying away from someone who had been damaged.
Beyond even that, though, was the shame. How could she have known Iku for so long and not have realised? Never even have suspected? Was she so blind?
And even: if she could have been blind to this, what else had she never noticed? What else was she simply looking past, every day, without it ever registering? It was a disturbing thought.
"That's enough," said Mercury. She picked up the large, battered pack that held Iku's gear, hefting it experimentally, and slung it across her back. "Let's go, everyone. Iku-chan, can you walk?"
"I…I think so," said Iku. "Um…"
"Where is she going?" put in Uranus quietly from behind her. "To the police, I suppose, or 'E' Division." She frowned suddenly.
"The hell with that," said Mercury in a flat tone. "She's coming with me. We have a spare bedroom at home. She can have that."
"Uh," said Venus. "What will your parents say?"
"Let me worry about that." The grim, determined look on Mercury's face suggested that if her parents objected, she was not going to take 'no' for an answer.
Uranus shrugged, and a faint smile crossed her face. "All right, then. Let's go."
They went outside. The front door still hung open where Mercury had broken the lock earlier; she pulled it shut behind her. Iku was having trouble walking again and after a moment Mercury scooped the girl up in her arms once more. They began to run through the streets.
"What if her mother makes trouble?" asked Venus after a moment.
Mercury snorted. "As if. She says a word, and it'll all come out about what she's done to Iku-chan. She'd be thrown in prison faster than she can blink. If she's smart she'll keep her mouth shut."
"If she's smart," repeated Uranus thoughtfully.
Mercury tightened her lips. "Dammit, I don't like just leaving her either. There ought to be some kind of justice! But—"
"You think you could have given her justice?" asked Uranus.
"Huh? Damn right I could! A lot better than just leaving that woman there without a scratch—"
"No," whispered Iku.
"No," repeated Uranus, nodding. "You couldn't have given her justice, Dhiti-san. All you could have given her was revenge; and Iku-san didn't want that, remember?" She glanced over at Iku and added, in a low, measuring tone, "Nicely done, by the way."
Iku blinked at her. Mercury spluttered and said, "I—what? You think I—" She broke off. A minute later, grudgingly, she said, "Maybe you're right."
"Hm. Maybe." Uranus glanced around and said, "Do you guys mind if I head off now? There's something I want to take care of before I get home."
"Off to see your boyfriend?" inquired Mercury, and grinned at Uranus' expression. "Sure, whatever. We'll be okay."
Uranus nodded, then turned down a side street and sped off. Mercury watched her go and murmured, "Damned if I can figure her out sometimes."
"Yeah," said Venus, heartfelt.
Mercury glanced at her and said, "You want to take off too? Iku-chan and I will be fine; it's only another block or two home."
"Um. Okay, thanks. Uh, see you, Iku-chan…"
Venus paused, watching the two speed off. Bendis, who had been riding her shoulder, said, "What's the matter?"
"Oh…nothing. I mean, it's all okay now, right? She'll be fine. We fixed the problem and everything's all right. Right?"
Bendis did not answer at once. At last she repeated, "So what's the matter?"
"I don't know. Nothing, I suppose. It's just…" Venus groped for the words. "It's all too complicated. I don't know what to think any more. Iku-chan. And…and Suzue-san too, I guess. I thought she was going to be horrible when we found out about Iku-chan, but instead she was…she was…"
"Complicated?" suggested Bendis. "You know, you don't usually talk this way when you're Sailor Venus."
"Uh—" Venus definitely did not want to talk about that. "I guess so. I…oh, I don't know! I'm tired and I'm sore and my head is pounding and I just…don't want to think about anything complicated for a while."
"Go home and get some rest," said Bendis. "Or watch the viddy."
"Rest. Yeah." Venus took the advice gratefully. She jogged home, climbed in through her bedroom window, and de-transformed. Instantly the weariness rose to cover her like a blanket. She lay back on her bed and closed her eyes. As her head sunk into her pillow she heard Bendis pad to the door and go out. Off to watch the viddy, probably. Beth smiled to herself and tried to relax.
After a few minutes, though, she opened her eyes once more. She was still tired, but the thoughts whirling through her mind would not let her sleep. Iku. Suzue. And Sailor Venus, who had gone missing and left Beth in charge. What was she to make of it all?
She sat up, gave a sour look to the pile of books on her bedside table, and gave serious thought to going out and joining Bendis. Then another idea occurred to her. She fumbled through a pile of paper on her desk and found the one she was looking for. A comm number that she'd been given, nearly a week ago. She hesitated one moment more, then punched the code into her commset.
A voice answered, moments later. Beth said, "Hello, Mark-san? It's Beth; we met while we were out running. Listen, are you doing anything this evening…?"
Sailor Uranus did not go to see her boyfriend. Instead she took a loop back through the streets. Two or three minutes later, she stood outside Iku's house once more.
She stood at the gate for some time, pondering what she was about to do. Then she went up to the front door and pushed it open.
In the hallway, she heard the voices coming from the living room: Iku's mother, delivering a ceaseless harangue against her daughter and her new friends, and Iku's little brother, answering occasionally in monosyllables.
Again she paused. The boy couldn't have been more than fourteen. Then she thought again of the looks he had been giving Iku, down in the cellar: hungry, gloating. What must it do to a boy, growing up in a family like this? He would learn to be dominated…or to dominate.
She stepped into the living room, and the voices fell silent in an instant. Iku's mother sat in an ample armchair, the younger boy clasped to her breast. He lay there complacently, but the look on his face was one of boredom. His mother's face was curled into an aspect of baffled rage, but it turned to naked fury as she saw Uranus.
"You!" she shouted. "What do you want now? Come to brutalise an innocent woman further? Or to steal another child?"
"I was thinking," said Uranus, "about the nature of justice."
That shut the woman up for a moment, at least. But she resumed an instant later with a torrent of invective. "Get out of my house, you dirty, skanky little tart. Isn't it bad enough that you've stolen my daughter for your sick little games? I've called the police already and they'll be here in another two minutes, so you'll get what's coming to you at least—"
"I was thinking about justice," Uranus repeated. She did not raise her voice, but Iku's mother fell silent instantly. "I was wondering if I'm capable of it."
"Wh-what are you talking about, you—"
"Is there even such a thing as justice? Or is revenge all there can ever be?" Uranus came further into the room and knelt down, directly in front of Iku's mother's armchair. "I mean, if you want to punish a person who's hurt someone else, isn't that just because you yourself feel hurt by the crime? Even if it's just a feeling of outrage against what's happened to the victim?"
"You…" Mother stared at her. "You're crazy."
"Sometimes I think," Uranus said, "that only someone who truly loves the guilty person and the victim both can give them real justice. Because they're the only one who can weigh the balance properly." Her eyes flicked around the room and she shook her head. "Well, it doesn't matter. I might not be capable of justice. But I can strike a kind of balance." As she stood up, her gaze returned to the two in the armchair and she said, "You need to get out of this house, right now."
Paying them no further attention, she went into the little kitchen attached to the living room. A quick adjustment turned on all the burners on the gas stove. Then she stepped back and said under her breath, "Music of the Spheres."
The explosion rocked the kitchen. Uranus watched for a few seconds until she was satisfied that the walls and ceiling were catching alight as well. Then she returned to the living room.
Iku's mother and brother were staring at her, horror on their faces. Uranus nodded at them, gave them a tiny half-smile, and said, "Be glad that it was me who came…and not Sailor Jupiter."
They broke and turned to run. Uranus followed them out the front door at a leisurely pace. She could feel the heat on her back, growing rapidly. It was the middle of summer, of course; the house must have been tinder-dry.
The woman tried to hit her as she came out, and Uranus side-stepped easily. She looked at the two, standing forlorn in their front yard, and said, "By the way. If I hear that either of you talked about this…I'll find you again. That's all."
Doors and windows were starting to open in neighbouring properties. It was pretty dark, though, and Uranus was confident that she would not be recognised. She jumped up, touching down on the next-door house, and began to leap away over the rooftops. Off in the distance, she heard the first siren begin to wail.
A kind of balance, yes. She might not be able to give Iku justice, but she could see to it that her place of suffering no longer troubled the world. And didn't it make sense that if Iku had to lose her home, then so did the ones who abused her? Although…she could not escape the feeling that Queen Serenity might not have agreed.
But would Ten'ou Haruka? The thought made Uranus smile, just for an instant, as she ran.
Jogging lightly toward home, Sailor Mercury chuckled to herself again as she remembered Uranus' expression. The girl was pretty touchy about her boyfriend; she was a lot of fun to tease on the subject. All the same…Mercury's smile faded. It did rather raise the question of Dhiti's own love life—or lack of it. None of the boys could keep up with her, and it was not for lack of her trying. Truth to tell, none of them had ever really appealed to her at all. She'd have given up, except that being left alone while all the others started to pair off sucked even worse. Sometimes it seemed that she really was as slippery as ice.
She glanced down at the girl in her arms and grimaced. Boyfriends could wait; her house was just ahead. She paused in a nice dark spot, let Iku down, and de-transformed. Her shoulder hurt a lot worse out of Senshi form, but she could stand it. At least it had stopped bleeding, and the dark red stain that had been down her arm did not transfer over to her school uniform jacket.
The pain in her shoulder faded in importance as the two of them walked the last twenty metres to her house. Iku was limping a little. The situation seemed familiar, and after a moment she realised that it felt almost exactly the same as when she'd escorted Iku home after the raid last week. That thought made her realise what had probably happened to Iku short afterward, and the idea made Dhiti's anger start to burn again.
As they reached the house, she threw the front door open and led Iku in. She led the girl down the corridor into the living room and paused at the door. Her father was sitting in his usual place, and her mother was in the chair beside him, reading. They looked up at her in surprise.
Dhiti took a deep breath, and pulled Iku forward into the room. "This is my friend, Kodama Iku," she said. "She's going to be staying with us."
Sharma Praket's eyebrows lifted a fraction, which was a strong reaction for him. He took a moment to respond, but when he did so his voice was calm and mild. "Indeed?" he said. "Then welcome to our home, Kodama Iku. I trust you will find your stay pleasant."
Beside him, Dhiti's mother dropped her startled look and managed to smile. "Hello, Iku-san," she said. "Welcome. How long will you be staying?"
Iku started to stutter, and Dhiti gave her a firm nudge to shut her up. "Forever," she said to her parents in a flat tone. Then, before either of them could reply, she pointed to the stairs and said to Iku, "Go on up. The guest room is the second on the left. Or, wait, I'll show you."
She started up the stairs, pulling Iku behind her. Iku balked for a moment, gave Praket and Salila a deep, frightened bow, and then fled up the stairs after Dhiti.
Artemis was not about, thankfully; no doubt he was off chatting with Seki and Makoto. Well, hooray for them. In the meantime, glad that she did not have to deal with him, Dhiti showed Iku into the guest room. It was half-filled with a clutter of old family belongings, but the bed and one dresser were clear. She dropped Iku's bag on the bed and said, "You go ahead and get unpacked. I'll talk to them."
"You—they—they won't like it," whispered Iku. "They'll be angry."
Dhiti gave her a twisted half-smile. "Well, yeah, maybe. But they'll be angry at me, Iku-chan, not you. Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry, I said. I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
Dhiti went back downstairs and found her parents waiting. Her father said only, "Explain, please."
She told them an abbreviated version of the truth. Iku was a friend from school, and Dhiti had just found out what the girl's family were doing to her. She told them, without hiding any details, what she had seen when she went into the cellar.
"You confronted the girl's family yourself?" asked Praket.
"I had a couple of other friends with me. We managed to keep them busy while Iku-chan got away."
"I see." Praket's gaze grew distant. "Your instincts are praiseworthy, daughter. But I cannot help thinking that the police, and the 'O' Division child welfare office, might handle the situation better."
"Nonsense," said Salila, making him break off and give her a look of mild surprise. "That would just drive the girl through the legal system, put her through a great deal of public scrutiny, and make things even worse for her. Think about it, dear."
Praket considered this. "Perhaps," he said. "But is this the best place for her? What do you intend, daughter? Is she to be some kind of foster sister to you?"
"I don't know," said Dhiti honestly. "But I think…maybe…she can learn to be happy here."
Her father studied her with a long, uncomfortable gaze. Then he gave her a short nod. "Very well. See to your guest, then, daughter."
His sudden acquiescence caught Dhiti by surprise. She said, "Um…yeah. Okay, thanks. Uh…how long until dinner? I'll let her take a bath." She fled up the stairs almost before her mother had answered.
Behind her, Salila exchanged glances with her husband. "You'll look into it?" she asked.
He nodded. "Of course." He turned thoughtful eyes back to the stairs and added, "There is a silver lining. She is learning to care about others." With no little satisfaction, he added, "At last."
Upstairs, Dhiti found Iku sitting ramrod-straight on the guest bed, her face caught somewhere between nervousness and terror. Dhiti stood in the doorway and said, "It's okay. You can stay."
Iku stared at her like a deer caught in headlights. "What—"
"It's okay," repeated Dhiti. "They said so. You can stay. Forever."
"Stay?" said Iku, wonderingly. "Truly? I can—?" Then, without warning, she burst into tears.
Dhiti froze, uncertain. What was she supposed to do? Leave Iku to collect herself? Say something comforting? She had no idea. Hesitantly, she stepped over to the bed and sat down beside Iku, laying a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Hey," she said.
She got no further than that because Iku whirled and threw her arms around Dhiti, burying her face in her shoulder as she continued to sob. Dhiti found herself rubbing the girl's back, rather bemused. So what was she supposed to do now? Comfort her? But how?
As she groped for answers, one long-ago comfort came back to her: the old lullaby, the one her mother had sung to Dhiti when she was a little girl. It seemed trite…but it was all she had to offer. Feeling both awkward and ridiculous, Dhiti started to sing.
By and by, my darling,
Sun will come again.
There'll be golden mornings
After days of rain.
Certain as the dewdrops
On my window pane,
By and by, my darling,
Sun will come again.
Miraculously, it seemed to work. Iku seemed to quieten in her arms, and Dhiti kept on singing as the sobs died away to a faint snuffling. For the first time it occurred to her that she was holding another girl close. Somehow, it was not as awkward a feeling as she would have expected.
Wipe away the teardrops,
Kiss away the pain;
By and by, my darling,
Sun will come again.
Distantly, her father's words came back to her: What do you intend, daughter? Slowly, tentatively, she lifted a hand to stroke Iku's hair.
And then she knew.
SAILOR MOON 4200
End Of Chapter Fourteen
Next: New enemies appear, along with new allies, as the Senshi work to consolidate their roles.