AFA Part 2
Falling from Grace
Ch. 31 – "Sleepless Night"
"Nene? Nene, are you in there?" Linna asked softly just after cracking the door open. This particular door happened to be the one that she thought her hurt friend was sleeping on the other side of… or, at least, that's what Sylia had told her. A familiar voice from the other side of the door appeared to confirm her thoughts.
"Y… yes, its' me," she stammered nervously, still trying to sort out how to explain her actions of earlier in the evening.
Rustling of cloth preceded a short blond woman wrapped in a blanket materializing from the darkness of the room, shuffling to the cracked open door. The moment her eyes found Linna, a soft smile overcame the lingering effects of sleep on her. "Hey," she said genuinely before a concerned look overtook the smile. "Is something wrong?" she asked, opening the door to inspect her friend in the hallway.
Linna shook her head even as her eyes watered slightly. "No, nothing's…" she began to say before the low light from the hallway illuminated the previously darkened makeshift bedroom. Consequently, she caught a glimpse of the other person sleeping in the room, sans blanket… and as it turned out… sans clothes as well. Her violet eyes widened in discovery as she quickly realized Nene was only wearing the blanket around her body.
When Linna's face flushed beet red, Nene's head swiveled back to the inside of the room. "Ooops!" she whispered loudly. "Forgot we only have one blanket," she added very sheepishly. "Let me throw on some clothes. Be back in a sec!" she promised, quickly shutting the door as she scurried back into the room.
Linna took a step back from the door, one hand covering her mouth while one of her eyes twitched. Suddenly, a pained, almost angry expression overtook her face. "I'm gonna kill Sylia," she whispered to the empty hallway. She hadn't understood the sly grin that the silver haired woman had given her when describing how to find Nene's room. However, now she recognized exactly what the Knight Saber's leader had been attempting to do. With that realization came a grin of her own as well.
A gentle click precipitated the door opening again, a short blond dressed in a black t-shirt and plaid shorts quietly shuffled out and closed the door behind her. As soon as she turned around from the door Linna enveloped her in a strong hug, surprising Nene. "Hey!" she exclaimed at first, before quickly returning the hug.
"I'm sorry Nene, I… I shouldn't have treated you like that earlier," Linna said.
Nene felt tears soak into the fabric of her shirt, causing her to squeeze Linna even tighter. "It's okay. I can understand why you felt that way, especially considering what happened to you with Aoede."
"And Galatea," Linna murmured lowly with even more pained recollections on her mind. She released the shorter blonde, stepping back to give a good look over her. "But still, I should have known it was you, even before Sylia told me what happened to you in Switzerland."
"So she told you everything?" Nene asked.
"Well, she tried to explain what she knew. I still don't think I understand though, Sylia said you were dying, but Mackey, he was able to save you with… hardsuit parts? What…" she tried to ask through her confusion, still eyeing Nene curiously.
The former ADP dispatcher just smiled as she looked up into Linna's gaze with a strong, but pained expression. "Mackey's body was exploding with energy from the inside out, thanks to Aoede. He couldn't stop it, so I tried to grab onto him, to give him something to anchor his… essence to. I really didn't know why I did it, it just felt like all I could do for him in that moment. I felt… well, I've never felt anything like that before, and hope I never do again. I lost consciousness, thankfully, and when I woke up two days had passed. Instantly I knew something was very, very … different," she smiled, looking to the side in recollection.
"But really, I can't see that much of a difference. You look and act like the same Nene that I knew from before."
"Mackey said he was very careful to keep my outward appearance as normal as possible. He wanted me to be able to live like he had, among… well, among normal people. But still, there was so much that was different."
"How was it different?" Linna asked sincerely.
"Because it was if I was wearing my hardsuit," she explained, pointing with one finger to the side of her head, directly at her eyes. "I never expected to see a HUD without a helmet, or enhanced glasses or contacts. But, that's what I could see the first time I looked at Mackey standing over me. It only took a few more moments to realize just how much of my body had been modified, but before I could really panic about it Mackey leaned over and kissed me," she said, blushing. "And when I realized that he was alive… and that he was now himself… that's all I needed to know. But he still explained everything he had done to save my life, and just how much of the phenomenon he had utilized in order to achieve it."
"So that was why you… well," Linna paused, uncertain how to phrase her statement.
"Yeah, that's why I was glowing with a sotai-like power earlier. Because of the fusion process Mackey had to use, some of the anti-seed power was absorbed by my new body. So, I guess I can do a few more things now than I used to be able to do," Nene added somewhat wistfully.
Linna picked up on her tone. "I hope I didn't make you… I mean, you don't feel differently about your body after how I reacted earlier, do you?"
Nene bowed her head in response, before picking up her gaze and replying to Linna. "I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out exactly *what* I can do, and how to do it. It's not like this new body came with a manual or anything, " she giggled with a smile, which caused Linna to smile in return.
"I guess not. So, I suppose you and Mackey are pretty close now?" she changed subjects, asking with a blush.
Nene's cheeks reddened at the question. "Yeah, you could say that."
"I mean, it would have been nice if Sylia would have warned me about that earlier when she told me where you were sleeping."
"She didn't say anything about Mackey?"
"Um, no. I didn't think to ask either. I think she… maybe she wanted me to see the two of you together though," Linna said with one nervous hand held behind her head.
"What? Why?!" Nene said momentarily filled with embarrassment before remembering who they were talking about. "Oh, you think she's up to her old tricks again, trying to get a rise out of you?"
"Well, maybe a little. But I think she wanted me to see you two… together, like that, just to help me understand that I can trust both of you."
"And do you?" Nene asked hopeful.
Linna gave a sincere smile in return. "If that was what she was trying to do, it worked. I still remember just how much you two meant to each other when I came back from Kumamoto, and also right after Galatea was released. Even if both of you are different now on the outside, I know I can trust the love both of you have for each other. No sotai could ever fake that."
Nene's eyes misted up as she grabbed onto her teammate and squeezed her tightly. "Thank you Linna. You don't know how much it means to me to hear you say that."
Linna returned her teammate's embrace, wrapping one arm around her body while her other hand nestled in her blond locks. "You're welcome, Nene. I've missed you," she added.
"I've missed you too."
The two women shared the warmth of their reacquainted friendship for a few precious moments before a low grumble caused them to separate, an embarrassed slant forming on Linna's mouth. "Umm.."
Nene gave her a knowing smile. "Hungry?"
"Starving, actually," she smiled, holding one hand over her stomach. "Honestly, I have no idea how long it's been since I had a real meal."
"C'mon, let's see what we have left for food in the kitchen," Nene said, guiding Linna through the sporadically lit hallways.
While following her shorter friend, a question came to Linna. "How have you been getting food anyway?" she asked.
"Jill and Katsumi have been going out and finding food in the recovered sections of the city."
"Well, more like 'borrowing'," she said with a soft laugh. "Jill has more of a direct approach for getting what we need, and Katsumi is always right there with her. And I've been helping Mackey with getting the building up and running. Sylia can't afford to be seen anywhere right now."
"Yeah, since she was the one implicated by the testimony."
Nene stopped at the base of a stairwell and turned to Linna with a cautious, almost pained expression. "I wanted to ask you a question… about Priss."
Linna paused, waiting for her friend to ask. But when the question didn't come right away, she reached out to her friend. "Go ahead," she replied, nervousness sifting through her voice.
"You were the last one to see her before… before she turned to Genom. Do you have any idea what might have caused her to do that? Did she say anything to you about Sylia?"
Before Linna could answer, her midsection rumbled again. "Mind if I get something to eat first? I'm not sure I want to tackle that topic on an empty stomach."
"No problem," Nene replied, leading Linna up the stairs and to the kitchen area.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, for which Linna was grateful for. At least it gave her a few more moments to try and sort out her thoughts about what could have had happened to her wayward teammate and lost friend.
"Stopping already?" Leon asked, still sitting on his own bike while watching Priss walk away from hers, and walking towards an open hole in the crumbling wall before them.
But Priss still wasn't in the talking mood. She continued to the person sized hole, turning on the flashlight she had taken from the Genom security team. Peering inside the hole for just a moment, she started to step through before Leon's voice halted her progress.
"Hey, wait up!" he shouted when he realized what Priss was doing. He turned off the engine of his bike, lifted up the seat and pulled out his own flashlight from the storage compartment underneath it. He quickly snapped on the light and hurried over to the hole himself.
As soon as Leon started walking towards her, Priss turned away from him and stepped through the hole. She flashed the beam around, inspecting the ruins on the other side before finding the path she was looking for and walking purposefully into the dark underground of old Tokyo.
Leon did his best to keep up with the plain dressed woman, keeping just behind her as she picked her way through the underground caverns. "Where are you going?" he asked. "I figured you would want to just ride, not go ruin-diving as soon as you got back on a bike."
If Priss was listening to him, she was doing her best to ignore his questions as she continued deeper into the maze of cracked concrete, crumbled roads, and shattered glass. She momentarily paused at the edge of another wall, peering into an oddly lit opening for just a moment before crawling through.
Leon cursed to himself as he followed just behind her on his hands and knees, finding this hole just barely large enough to fit his broad shoulders. Appearing on the other side, he had to shut his eyes for just a moment as the bright lights in the adjacent underground walkway temporarily blinded him. "What's going on?"
After his eyes adjusted to the brighter light, he saw Priss following the temporary lighting away from him. He broke into a light jog to catch up, taking note of the somewhat cleared passageway they now found themselves in. From what he could tell, this part of underground Tokyo had been recently explored for some reason.
After passing a vaguely familiar stairwell and a more familiar doorway, a sudden recognition coupled with a dreaded realization swept over Leon. He jumped ahead of Priss, blocking her path and staring down into her surprised face. "Just why the hell would you want to come back down here of all places? Don't you remember what happened to you the last time you were here!?"
Her eyebrows burrowed furiously as Priss swung the flashlight hard into the side of Leon's ribs. The hard plastic casing knocked him off balance causing him to stumble over against the wall as she stomped past him, leaving the big man painfully clutching his side in her wake.
"Dammit Priss, what the hell has gotten into you?" he coughed out, gingerly walking behind her while keeping his distance this time. "Just where … how the hell did you even find this place again?"
His words finally caused Priss to stop. She turned her head to the side, not fully facing him. "If I tell you will you shut the hell up?"
"Fine," he grunted out angrily, especially considering he didn't want to continue to be her punching bag for the evening.
"Aoede," she answered, then turned back to the lighted pathway and continued on.
Leon had to bite his lip to keep from screaming at her. Of course she knew her answer would bring up all sorts of new questions in his mind, which just served to further infuriate the former ADP officer. He continued to follow the former Knight Saber in silence for a few more minutes until she stopped at a branch from their path.
The brown haired woman stared into the dark path to the right for a few moments, then brought the beam of her flashlight to illuminate the unused pathway before she trudged away from the cleared section and into the darkness. Leon clicked on his own light and followed, trying to mentally guess as to where she was going. After making another turn down a debris filled corridor, Priss stopped at a large pile of rubble below a ragged opening in the ceiling above. Carefully placing her flashlight on the top of the rubble, Priss climbed to the top, then reached down and grabbed the light, tossing it through the opening before hauling herself into the space above.
Leon paused for just a second before hearing her footsteps walking away from him. He quickly climbed up the rubble and hauled himself through the opening, just catching a glimpse of Priss turning left into another corridor He stopped himself from yelling out to her, instead quickly but carefully striding to catch up with Priss. Turning the corner he nearly ran into the back of the woman he was chasing.
Priss was stopped in front of another tall pile of concrete rubble, her flashlight strangely fixated on a shiny, metal object lying on the ground next to it.
Leon noticed Priss' light seemed to be shaking, which caused him to lift his own light to check on her. He was certain he caught a shiver pass through the woman as Priss brought one arm across her body, clutching herself tightly even as she tried to focus on the jagged object on the ground. "Priss? Are you okay?" he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.
His touch caused Priss to flinch, which in turn caused Leon to flinch, fearing she would spin around and attack him again. Instead, he felt her tense muscles relax as Priss moved her hand up over the top of his, squeezing it reassuringly. "Yeah, thanks," she spoke with a strange sense of sincerity… at least strange to Leon.
"Is this… is this what you came down here to find?" he asked, still unsure of her motives.
Priss turned around and walked past Leon and turned back towards the opening in the floor. "No," she replied, turning right and disappearing down the dark corridor.
Curiosity got the better of Leon as he brought his light down on the shiny object, inspecting it for a clue as to what caused Priss to react that way. He leaned down and noticed several other small shiny objects, green objects that began to stir memories in the back of his mind. Suddenly the color of the objects hit a cord, triggering an image of a certain green colored hardsuit. The clues of the puzzle began to click into place just as he caught glimpse of another object next to the green metal ones. He picked up the end of a shattered clear tube, and held it up for closer inspection.
"It looks… almost like part of a hardsuit battery."
"Ow ow ow!," Linna complained, one arm reaching over her shoulder as the other arm folder underneath, trying to comfort the sudden spasm.
"What's wrong?" Nene asked worriedly, dropping her pre-prepared sandwich on the table as she inspected her complaining friend.
Linna arched her back for a few more seconds, before the grimace across her face relaxed. "Just, just a back spasm I guess," she answered.
"Here let me help," Nene said, standing up from her chair and walking around the table in the kitchen area. She cautiously placed one hand on Linna's back. "It this where it hurts?"
"Just a bit lower," Linna replied from her chair. She brought her hands to her lap, balling them into fists as she peered nervously from of the corner of her eye.
Nene's hand shifted a bit and then began to glow softly over the taut muscle.
Instantly Linna's hands relaxed and a serene calmness flowed through her body as the spasm dissipated. "Thanks Nene."
The blonde gave her a confident smile as she returned to her seat. "At least I can do something for you."
"Give yourself a little more credit!" Linna exclaimed. "I'm sure you can do a lot more than just that."
Nene let out a sigh. "That's not what I meant."
"Huh?" Linna said, confused.
Pained eyes begging for understanding looked back at her. "I was just wishing I could do something to help you with Priss."
"Oh." Linna in turn stared down at her sandwich, eyes unable to meet Nene's as she feared she would have to address the question asked earlier. Her instincts weren't wrong.
"So, can you tell me anything at all that might help explain why she did what she did?"
The country girl flinched as soon as Nene began speaking. "I… I really don't have an idea. I've been struggling with… I mean… I barely even spoke to her at all before everything went to hell!"
"So, what happened? I heard you had left Kumamoto to go find Priss, but why did she go to back to Tokyo?"
"I guess I'd better start from the beginning then," Linna sighed deeply. She told Nene about Priss' recovery stalling out, her gift of a bike, and then getting a call from someone who she thought was Priss, going to Tokyo, and the events at Hot Legs…
"She kissed you?! Aoede kissed you?!" Nene shouted, standing straight up from the chair and pounding both hands on the table.
"Um, yeah, she did…" Linna blushed slightly, forgetting just how her friend would react to some of the more sordid details of those events.
"But why? Why on earth would she do that?"
"I guess, she said something about wanting to return the favor, I think."
"Favor? What favor?"
"Oh, that's right. You probably never heard those, um, stories about Galatea."
"Galatea? Oh dear god, what are you talking about Linna?
"Yeah, well, remember when Galatea had caught me? Just before, well, before… Mackey…" she paused, uncertain just how to word the horrible events of that night nearly a year previous.
"You mean… when she used Mackey to rip the data from Nigel's mind?!"
"Um, yeah. That. Well, I… I guess I was pretty drunk. Galatea showed up at the store we were raiding, and… I, well, I… hell, I didn't know it was her!" she suddenly yelled out defensively, crossing her arms, her face turning beet red.
Nene stared at her friend, slumping back in her seat as the wheels turned in her mind, trying to make sense of the clues. "So what exactly did you mean by favor? And what does Aoede have to do with Gala… wait a minute… Mackey said that Aoede had absorbed Galatea's memories… which means she would know exactly what happened in the store… and then she kissed you at Hot Legs… but you were drunk in that store and didn't… you didn't know it was her… you… you… tell me you didn't… Linna, please tell me you didn't do what I think you did," she punctuated by smacking her forehead with one hand.
All the brown haired woman could do was bow her head in shame. "… i did…" she murmured.
"You kissed her! You kissed Galatea?!"
"Why the hell would you do that?!"
"I told you! I was drunk, and… I didn't know it was her! I mean, she looked a lot like Sylia…" she was rambling so hard the last part came out completely without thought, and instantly Linna regretted the statement, slapping one hand over her mouth to try and stop her words from further spilling out. But Nene was quick to notice…
"Sylia! Linna, what are you talking about now? Oh… oh dear god… don't tell me you had a crush on Sylia too?!"
"What? No! No no no, I do NOT have a crush on Sylia!"
"That's too bad," a very familiar femine voice acting in a very sad, painful way flittered across the kitchen area to where the two women were seated.
"Sylia!" Nene exclaimed as her head quickly turned to the silver haired woman standing in the open doorway.
For her part, Linna tried to bury her face in her hands. "…this isn't happening…" she mumbled.
"Oh but it is my dear, it is," Sylia reassured her by walking over behind the country girl, placing her warm hands on Linna's shoulders and gently beginning to massage them.
The moment she felt Sylia's hands on her body, Linna's head shot out of her hands, her body involuntarily sitting straight up in the chair.
She leaned over and whispered softly into her ear. "You know, if you really wanted a make-out session with me, all you had to do was ask."
Nene's eyebrows began to twitch as her cheeks flushed in response to the two women on the other side of the table.
However, if Nene was flustered, then Linna was in complete shock at Sylia's actions, her violet eyes opened wide, shaking arms locked at her sides, her entire upper body shining bright red.
Sylia finished the gesture with a soft kiss on Linna's neck, just below her earlobe, then moved around to an empty chair at the table and took a seat with a very sly, satisfied grin glowing on her face. "Now, just what did all this have to do with Priss anyway?"
Neither woman answered right away. Nene might have been able to except she was much too preoccupied watching Linna. That was because Linna's face had already turned multiple shades of red before finally glowing white hot after Sylia's kiss. And that was a prelude to her eyes rolling in the back of her head, her body falling limply on the table with a thud, passed out cold.
If there was one thing Quincy could not tolerate, it was uncertainty. And as certain as he had been about his plans before, the earlier events of the evening had managed to knock his confidence in those plans slightly off kilter. Testing the projection of the phenomenon through the new developing anti-seed worked well enough… at first. But when attempting to implant suggestions into the former Knight Saber, things didn't go quite as smoothly as planned. It appeared as if the intended message had been delivered, however the timing of the transfer, and Priss' reaction to them hadn't been as expected. Most troubling, the research team still hadn't been able to pinpoint just why so much data had been transferred through the medium as compared to their pre-analysis predictions.
With thoughts of the possible ramifications calculating in his mind, he sat at his desk, hands clasped calmly in his lap, eyes closed, head leaned back slightly. If anyone had walked into the chairman's office, they might assume he was asleep. However, sleep wasn't something that his current cyborg body required as much as humans did, but some rest was recommended… at least by Harland's support staff. But there was much more he needed to accomplish in a short amount of time. Thus sleep was something that held a much lower priority for him at the moment.
A soft, repeating beep from the imbedded console in his desk forced Quincy's eyes open. A holo display activated above the desk, showing the face of a dark skinned man in a suit and tie, the logo of the corporate offices of Genom Europe displayed in the corner of the screen. "Yes?" Quincy spoke to the image with more than a hint of disapproval in his voice.
"My apologies Chairman, I had assumed you would be sleeping since it is nearly 4 a.m. in Tokyo. If I had realized you were still awake, I would have responded immediately to your request."
"Enough groveling Mr. Jameson, I really do not have the time for it right now."
"Yes sir, of course," he apologized again, bowing deeply at the camera before snapping upright. "You wanted more information regarding the outcome of the frontier planet development program, correct?"
"I've read the summary and the detailed findings already, Mr. Jameson," Quincy said. "However, why did you leave out mention of a sotai influence on the projections? I assume given that the reports were generated post Galatea and especially after the Battery incident, the sotai influence would be included."
The suited man snarled to the side, vainly attempting to hide his disdain. "After what happened with Hollis at the Battery, there was no reason to include those projections in the final reports, sir. Any use of the sotai would have been pointless."
"Perhaps to you," Quincy boomed loudly through the video connection, even managing to startle Jameson half a planet away. "However, I wish you to humor me Mr. Jameson. I am fairly certain you had included those projections in the report previously. I am sure Hollis would have pushed for it, after all."
"But Hollis was killed by the sotai! By the phenomenon!"
"And Hollis was a bloody idiot who had no idea how to handle a true sotai," the true Chairman spoke calm and evenly, shifting into English to drive the point home. "He had no vision, no real ideals for the true nature of the phenomenon. His only concern was for the Euro's he could generate and the stock price he could command. His death was inevitable the moment he decided to come in contact with the sotai."
"But sir, even if we included the projections…"
"You are assuming we would have no more control over the phenomenon than before, correct? And that there would be no reason to include something in our projections that cannot be guaranteed to succeed?"
"Well, not entirely…"
"And Mr. Jameson, what do your projections of the promise for frontier planet exploration surmise regarding the use of boomers alone? And even with the slave units used by the deep sea experiments?" Of course, Quincy already knew the answers to those questions as he had already read the reports.
"Very limited chances, sir."
"And if the sotai influence was able to be brought to bear?"
"Chairman… I really…" the dark skinned European man began, before a resigned expression softened his stance. "… in all our simulations, it was shown that direct use of a sotai in the frontier worlds nearly guaranteed successful settlements. In fact, if it were possible to… create more… multiple sotais were shown to have the greatest impact."
"Multiple?" Quincy's eyebrow rose with the question. "Mr. Jameson, I trust that you can recover your reports, correct?"
"Of course, Chairman."
"Very good. Very, very good. Please see that you do. I want them sent to me by 7 a.m. Tokyo time," he ordered, his voice shifting back to his commanding Japanese, with the appropriate emphasis on the timing required.
"Yes Chairman!" Mr. Jameson answered, picking up on the directness.
"And, Mr. Jameson, please keep this matter as top secret. Leave the published report as is. Only send the old reports directly to my office."
The suited man bowed in acknowledgement and ended the connection, leaving Quincy to contemplate the ramifications. With those ramifications came evaluations of Aoede's effectiveness, which quickly shifted to recollections of earlier events.
Quincy gave a mental command, illuminating a map on his holo display. A single blue dot lit up in an area he knew well. A smirk crossed the cyborg's face. "I was wondering how long until she visited that site…"
Leon fought back a yawn even as he tracked the footprints down one more corridor. He turned a corner and found a large open space, a parking garage from the looks of the cars littered around the area. The footprints led to one car in particular, causing Leon to bring his light up to illuminate the automobile from a short distance away.
A very dusty four door sedan shone in the darkness. Its tint was probably white once upon a time, but now appeared more gray in color due to the dirt and dust. It appeared to be in good condition still, the overhead ceiling still somehow intact above it. Most of the windows appeared to still be in one piece. As Leon drew closer to the car, he realized the footprints ended at the rear passenger side door. And that was exactly where he found Priss.
Walking up to the door, the glass was broken out of it. He couldn't tell if Priss had done it to get inside the car, or if the glass was already broken. What he could tell nearly stopped his heart. Priss was seated with her legs drawn up to her chest, head facing straight ahead, quiet sniffling sounds wisping through the opening.
Her widened eyes darted up to his, momentarily surprised. Then wordlessly, her focus returned back to the seat in front of her.
Leon realized her whole body appeared to be almost shivering. He stopped himself from asking another pointless question, instead trying to piece together the clues that he had. The instant her eyes met his, he saw something. It was a look he had seen before, but not necessarily with Priss. It wasn't the same horrified glazed over appearance he had found her at here before… here at the wizlab… here, the birthplace and rebirth of Galatea. No, her eyes spoke of a different sort of pain this time. The pain of loss, the pain of desperation, the pain of lonliness… and that's when it hit him.
He was at the parking garage of the Wizlab, and Priss was focused on a car at the Wizlab… likely driven by someone who didn't survive the event, whether it was the earthquake… or the events that led to the use of the earthquake device. And if that someone happened to have worked at the Wizlab, then it was also very possible that the identity of that person should have been known by the daughter of the prime researcher of the lab. It all made sense now…
Leon turned the light off and leaned down to the window. He spoke with calm, even words to Priss… a tone practiced over many times while helping her recover from the ordeals of dealing with Galatea the first time around. And, here he was, trying to help her though the child-god's torturous rampage once again.
"Priss? Priss, is this… is this your father's car?"
To be continued…