OH MY GOD I'M BACK! _ I know this has been a ridiculous amount of time between updates. Some of you have even thought I or this fanfic was dead! But rest assured, it's not! I've just been going through a lot of changes in my life, and on top of that this has been another really difficult chapter to write. I've honestly probably rewritten the whole thing a few times and I'm still struggling with the second part... *sobs*
But yeah, don't worry, it still lives! And despite the wait, I hope you all will still read it. I've put a lot of thought into it! ^^; So until next time...please enjoy!
Chapter 13- Promises (Part 1)
Rubble crunched beneath Simon's boots as he surveyed the smoldering ruins around him. As far as he could see, the ground lay flat and scorched, the very picture of hell. Nothing survived. Nothing could survive.
"Good," he sneered. "Now they can never bother us again."
He stared at the dark red horizon. He had seen many like it before, and he would see many more yet. His life was now only a constant cycle of blood and fire.
He heard a soft clink.
She had wandered off, trailing behind her the silver chain that connected their wrists. In her white dress, she almost seemed to glow in the darkness, like a pale ghost.
Wordlessly, she crouched beside a heap of debris and began brushing at the ash with her fingers. Within seconds, she had unearthed a body, no doubt alien, but all its features had been burnt away.
Nia stared impassively at the corpse. She did not weep or make a sound. Her face showed not the tiniest hint of sadness or pity.
Simon couldn't recall how long it had been since he'd last heard her voice. He never thought he would long to see her look at him with hatred or sorrow, but it would be better than this. Now, there was nothing. All her passion, faded away. Now, he could not find even the faintest glimmer of what he'd once fallen for in her eyes.
It was all his fault.
Simon tugged at the chain. "Come on," he said, gritting his teeth. "We're going to the next one."
Silently, she stood and returned to his side. She was nothing if not obedient. He turned away as she approached; he could barely stand to look at her anymore.
Sometimes, Simon asked himself if there had been any point in doing anything. In the end, all was the same. Yes, he'd fulfilled his promise. He'd saved her. But in the process, lost her.
Simon awoke with a jolt. Gone was the red horizon, replaced by a dark ceiling. He stared up at it, breathing heavily, hands gripping the sheets.
Then at last, slowly, he turned his head.
Nia slept quietly beside him in bed, long hair splayed across her pillow. She was still the Anti-Spiral Messenger. Still the same Nia he'd always known.
Relief flooded him immediately. But it did nothing to dispel his horror.
He covered his face with his hands. "Dammit..."
He didn't know how long he lay there, unwittingly playing the dream over and over in his mind. Something was different about this one. Dreams of battle, dreams of earthquakes, dreams where he lost everyone important to him...no matter how real they felt, he had seen them so often, he was almost used to them. But this one was new...and yet it felt just as unnervingly possible.
So what did it mean? How did it come to pass? What could he do to avoid it?
Before he knew it, he'd gotten out of bed and found himself wandering the halls towards the main computer room, or what was left of it. The door slid open to darkness, with only the Lord Genome Head's tank glowing in the center.
"Now this is a surprise," Lord Genome said as he came in.
"Shut up," Simon mumbled. "I need to think." He sat down in front of the tank.
After a few minutes, Lord Genome spoke again. "Have you changed your mind?"
Simon frowned. "No. And I said shut up."
"You have yet to come to your senses, then?"
"I still stand by what I said yesterday: We'll find another way."
"You are acting like a stubborn child."
"Well, no one asked for your opinion, old man."
"Then why are you here?"
"...Tch." Come to think of it, in the past, the only reason he ever came to this room was because he wanted to know something. Simon couldn't deny that instinctively, he might have come here seeking advice.
"It is what Nia wants."
"I know that." Simon glared at him. "But what am I supposed to do? Just accept it without a word? /Someone's/ got to stand up for her, especially if she won't do it herself."
"She is no longer a child, or a doll."
"I don't need you telling me that!" Simon growled. "Besides, doesn't this mean I'd just be giving up on her as she is now? I can't do that."
"Which do you care to save more? Her body, or her soul?"
"What?" What kind of question was that? He felt insulted. But then he froze, suddenly reminded of the Nia from his dream. No...could it be...was that Nia the result of this plan, or the result of him rejecting it...?
He buried his head in his hands. "God...dammit! This isn't what I wanted!"
"We are running out of time."
"I know." And he had only himself to blame for that.
"It may not be a perfect solution, but it is a solution all the same. Seizing at the slightest possibility and making it succeed, no matter the odds...was that not the way you did things?"
"This is different. Her life is at stake."
"Were you not always ready to take risks, even if it meant risking everything?"
"Yeah. Yeah, that's right." Simon sighed. "But now, when I look back at everything I've done...I wish I'd been more careful. Then maybe we wouldn't be in this situation..."
Lord Genome was silent for a moment. "...That is true. However, you must also beware the dangers of being too careful. It is only because you were willing to take risks that you have come this far. If not for that, my daughter would still be a slave, and humanity would be no closer to defeating the Anti-Spirals. It is among the reasons why you are capable of going where I could not."
Simon looked up in surprise. This wasn't a biological computer speaking. Nor was it the Spiral King. These were the words of a Spiral Knight.
Lord Genome's eyes narrowed. "Heed my words, boy. Do not let go of this chance. It may never come again."
In the midst of the battle against the Anti-Spiral Messengers, beams flew in every direction, taking people down left and right with sizzling flashes.
Standing back-to-back in the hallway with the other crew members, Boota resisted the urge to lean against the person behind him. There was no time to rest, let alone bandage his wound. He continued shooting with his right hand, trying to ignore the dull ache in his left shoulder.
He looked to Simon at his side and saw his friend staring at the door of the computer room with single-minded determination. He probably hadn't realized the extent of his injury yet, and for the moment, Boota wanted to keep it that way. Simon didn't need any distractions right now. He needed to remain focused on getting to Nia, or else they were all done for.
From his stance, it seemed he was about to run toward the door. Boota prepared himself to follow. But then he heard Yoko shout.
"Gimmy, Kittan! Back me up, we're going in! Taboo, you take over things here!"
Caught off guard, he began to protest. "But I-"
"You're injured, you'll just slow us down!" And without another word, she began firing at the Messengers in front of the door.
Boota grit his teeth. Damn. He'd come this far; how could he be stopped now? But she was right. That room was now the center of the hornets nest; he could do little to help in his condition.
So Boota did as he was told, taking charge of the defense of the hallway instead. The crew responded to his orders at once, and as Simon and the others took off, they quickly reformed into tight circles. His days serving on the main bridge had prepared him for this much at least.
Regretfully, he watched as Simon and the others disappeared into the computer room. The door closed behind them, and didn't open again until back-up arrived, and Boota waved them in, hoping that they might provide some help.
After that, there was no telling what went on in there, and things were chaotic enough out in the hall to risk taking another look. All they could do was try to survive, and hope that those inside were alright.
The battle dragged on. Then suddenly, the Messengers began screaming and clutching their heads.
Alarmed, they all stopped firing to stare in shock. What was going on? What was happening to them?
"Sir, what do we do...?"
Before he could think of an answer, the Messengers began to disappear. Gradually, one by one, they vanished from sight, until at last the hall fell completely silent.
Everyone looked around. Not a single Messenger remained.
"Is it...over?" asked a crew member.
"Don't let your guard down!" Boota warned. "This could just be a trick!"
But through the silence, they heard yelling from inside the computer room. Simon's voice, sounding desperate. "Nia! Wake up! NIA!"
For a moment, Boota feared the worst. Automatically, he moved toward the door, but stumbled, suddenly light-headed. He looked down at his shoulder. The entire left side of his uniform was soaked through with blood.
Simon's yelling stopped. They held their breath. Minutes ticked by slowly.
"What's happening in there?" someone wondered aloud.
Boota moved toward the door again, but then it opened in front of him, and Simon walked out, carrying Nia in his arms.
At once, Simon's eye widened at the sight of the blood staining Boota's uniform. "You..."
But Boota cut him off. "How is she?"
"...She's fine. She's sleeping."
"And the Messengers?"
Boota let out a sigh of relief. And with that relief, the strength in his legs finally gave out.
Someone caught him from behind. Boota grunted at the impact on his shoulder; adrenaline had dulled the pain during battle, but now he felt it fully.
Hazily, he saw Yoko come out of the room next, followed by the others fighters. Seeing his condition, she at once started issuing orders to take care of the wounded. People began scrambling; the hall was full of activity once again.
Boota was gently lowered to the floor. Simon lay Nia down, then knelt beside him.
"Where did they hit you?!"
"My left shoulder."
Simon immediately applied pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding. Boota grunted again.
"Hang in there, buddy! Stay with me!"
Boota looked up at him. Simon's face was dead serious, his jaw clenched. He could already see what must be going through his head, plain as day. But he doubted a simple 'don't worry' would work.
"There is something...not right...about this situation," Boota gasped.
"What?" Simon said distractedly.
"Normally, you're...the one...who's a complete mess. I'm...supposed to be...taking care of you."
Despite himself, the corner of Simon's mouth twitched. "...Shut up."
Boota glanced at Nia, still asleep. It must have been a very deep sleep for her not to awaken with all this commotion. But if she'd held up against the Messengers for this long by herself, she must be exhausted.
"So...she did it, did she?" he asked.
This time, Simon managed a pained smile. "Yeah. She was amazing."
Before long, Boota was taken by stretcher to the medical bay, which was in complete chaos by the time they arrived. Luckily, there were still two beds available for Boota and Nia to use, but the doctor was already busy caring for other patients.
A nurse hurried over, and Simon hovered restlessly as she checked Boota's condition.
"Well?!" he snapped at her.
"He's lost a lot of blood. He'll need a transfusion..." But the nurse hesitated. It was clear what she was thinking. Would human blood even work?
"Use pigmole blood," Simon said.
The nurse blinked. "D-do we have any in storage...?"
"Yeah, I made sure of it. It should be in his type too. Now hurry!"
The nurse rushed off.
Boota looked at him in surprise. "When did you do that...?"
"Three years ago," Simon said quietly.
Come to think of it, Simon did take him to the medical bay immediately after he became humanoid. There, he'd been put through a number of tests, including getting some blood drawn. It was only natural; they'd never seen a creature transform like that before, and Simon wanted to make sure he was at least healthy. But to think he'd gotten this prepared as well...
At last, the doctor came over and began treating him. At the same time, a new wave of patients were brought in, crew members suffering similar injuries. Simon was forced to carry Nia in his arms again in order to free up her bed.
Boota sighed. "Simon...I'll be all right. Please...just take care of Nia. You don't have to worry."
Simon seemed reluctant, but he must have realized they were just getting in the way now.
"I'll come back in the morning. If you need anything, make sure you speak up."
Boota nodded. The painkillers were starting to kick in now. As soon as Simon left, he too fell into a long, deep sleep.
Sure enough, Simon came to check on him the next day. By then, Boota was sitting up in bed, left arm in a sling.
They talked for a while, before Boota asked, "I don't suppose Nia needs an escort anymore?"
Simon smirked. "She's practically being hailed as a hero."
"Yes, I'm sure."
"She makes it look so damn easy."
They shared a laugh over that.
Soon after, Boota asked again. "Is there anything else you need me to do?"
Simon just patted him on the head, ruffling his hair. "The only thing you need to do is get some rest and heal that shoulder."
Coming from Simon, that was a bit rich. But as he lay back in bed later, pensively tidying his mussed up hair, Boota decided to listen for now.
The next time Simon visited, Nia came along too. After taking one look at his bandaged shoulder, she bowed her head regretfully. "I'm sorry."
Boota blinked at her. "You weren't at fault."
"It is an apology from the Messenger who shot you."
And so he learned about Nia's unique arrangement with the Messengers.
"It feels a little like I am connected with the hive mind again, but different," she said. "It feels more personal, and we are much more individualized. In a way, it is both nostalgic and very new."
Nia went on like this for quite a while, explaining the promise she had made to them. It was clear she could not contain her enthusiasm. Simon, in contrast, stood to the side, largely silent and standoffish. It struck Boota then that Simon did not seem entirely happy with this development.
When he thought about it, it made sense. He'd seen Simon's jealousy when it came to another Messenger before. And this time, Nia had essentially dedicated her life to them.
He asked him about it the next day. "I thought you must be used to this sort of thing by now."
Simon snorted. "Sure. My girlfriend has a crowd of people living in her head. Nothing new about that!"
Boota stared at him until Simon finally turned serious, sighing, "Well yeah, it's not like we had much privacy in the first place. Doesn't mean it's not still weird."
"Have you told her how you feel about it?"
Simon glanced away. "No." He crossed his arms. "I mean, she wanted to help them, and I let her. I can't exactly ask her to kick them out now, can I?" He shifted in his seat. "Besides, she really believes in this. Being able to help those Messengers makes her happy. So...what else can I do but just put up with it?"
"I see..." To his surprise, rather than feeling for Simon, Boota suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for Nia. Come to think of it, after he turned humanoid, he too was giddy at the prospect of being able to help Simon, of finally being useful. Of course, in reality, it wasn't so easy as that.
"And what of your goal? Is Leeron helping you as he said he would?"
Instantly, Simon's expression darkened. "...Yeah."
"You're making progress, then?"
"Are you getting any closer to finding a solution?"
Simon abruptly stood up and began pacing. "I don't know, okay? Maybe."
And that was as far as he would reveal. Boota could only assume that the effort to save Nia had gone south again.
That night, as he lay awake in bed, Boota wondered if there was something that he could do. But the answer was obvious. If not even Leeron could help, then what could he possibly contribute? Always, when it came to the most important matters, he found himself useless. Perhaps, after all, the most he could do was to stay here, to put Simon's mind at ease. To be one less thing to worry about.
But at the same time...he could not stand the thought of being left behind. Though Simon tried to visit at least once a day, he still felt increasingly out of the loop. And with everyone so busy, he feared that eventually, he might just be forgotten.
Boota tried flexing his arm, just a little, and pain shot through his shoulder. Even with Spiral Power speeding his recovery, how long would it take him to heal? Weeks? Months? It was humiliating, being put out of action by something so little. It wasn't as if he'd been shot in the face.
The more he thought about it, the more he regretted not going with Simon into that room. So what if, once there, he couldn't have done anything? That wasn't the point. The point was that he wasn't able to keep up.
Nia had told him once that it mattered simply for him to stay at Simon's side, and he took those words to heart...but in the previous battle, he'd failed to do even that. In that case, what was he good for?
Boota sighed. He didn't want to stew on such things, but he had little else to do. And the longer he stayed, the more frustrated he felt.
A few days later, his restlessness finally boiled over, and Boota left the medical bay.
Now he stood on the deck where they kept the pigmoles. Most had long been taken to the colony, of course, but they still had a few remaining on board in case of food shortages. Snorting, they lay around lethargically in their pen. Perhaps his blood donor was among them. Or perhaps it had already been eaten.
Nevertheless, Boota took a small bag out of his pocket, something he had just retrieved from his room. It was filled with dirt that he had collected from the colony. He used to smell it sometimes, just for old times sake.
"Here," he said, emptying the bag in their pen. "It's not much, but I imagine you don't get to see much of this anymore either."
Curiously, the pigmoles stood and approached. With their wide snouts, they sniffed at the dirt, then began jostling each other in a frantic rush to either lick it or roll around in it, squealing excitedly.
Boota watched them, feeling not pity or sympathy, but simply alienated. They were the closest thing he had to family, yet he had never actually bothered to visit them before. He had always felt closer to humans than he did to his fellow pigmoles, and after turning humanoid, he often wondered if he ought to even identify as a pigmole anymore. In a way, he'd turned his back on his own kind...so he supposed it was only fair that they no longer recognized him as one of their own either.
...If he didn't have Simon, where would he go? What would he do? Who would he be? He'd chosen to become like this, something neither human nor pigmole. And for what? To pay back Simon, without whom he would have died a long time ago. But was that all? Was it really just for Simon's sake? Or for his own?
Suddenly, he heard a voice. "There you are!"
Speak of the devil. Turning, he saw his friend come stomping over from the doorway.
"Do you know how long I've been looking for you?!"
Boota looked away. "You didn't have to."
"The hell are you doing here?" Simon looked past him at the pigmoles, raising an eyebrow.
"Giving my thanks."
"Well, let's get you back to the medical bay. You need your rest."
But Boota didn't move. "No."
He sighed. "I'm not going back there. I've tried my best to sit still and rest, but I can't take another day of it. Surely there's something better I can do."
"What about your shoulder?"
Simon paused, then put a hand on his shoulder.
Boota choked down a gasp of pain. But Simon noticed.
"Look, I don't want to throw your words back at you..."
"...but why don't you just save your strength for when you really need it?"
"And when would that be exactly? I fail to see how it would make any difference."
Boota looked at him. "Let's not kid ourselves, Simon. Has this arm of mine ever done anything useful? Even once it heals, would it be of any help at all? If not...then what's the point?"
Simon scowled. "So what, you're just going to hang around for no reason and risk getting yourself even more hurt?"
He knew it was stubborn. He knew it was selfish. But he wanted to stay at Simon's side, no matter what. That was his role. "Yes."
"You..." For a second, Simon seemed ready to bite back. But then suddenly, all the fight left him. "...You idiot." His shoulders slumped. "Do you even understand what that means? That injury of yours...it was meant for me. You only got hit because you were running right behind me. We were lucky it was just your shoulder, but it could've been worse. A lot worse."
Oh no. He was afraid that might be weighing on his mind. "There were beams flying all over the place," Boota quickly countered. "I could have been hit even if I were nowhere near you. It wasn't your fault."
"Maybe," Simon said, his voice nearly a whisper. "But this could easily happen again. And I don't want your blood on my hands."
Boota sighed. He hated seeing him like this. "I understand. But please, at least allow me to remain involved. Even if I have nothing to offer, being put on the sidelines is more unbearable than any injury."
He was reduced to pleading. How pathetic. But somehow, he had a feeling that this argument had more riding on it than whether he'd have to stay in bed a few more days. He had to take a stand, for his own sake.
They stared each other down for a moment, neither budging. Then at last, Simon heaved a frustrated sigh. "Goddammit. No one does what I want..."
He ran a hand through his hair. "Fine, I get it. If you want something to do that badly, could you deliver a message for me?"
Boota nodded resignedly.
"Track down Yoko and the others. Tell them we're having a meeting tonight."
Boota blinked. "Don't tell me...you've reached a solution?"
Simon looked at the floor. "Yeah."
"...Congratulations," Boota said, puzzled. So they'd made some kind of breakthrough? But Simon didn't seem very thrilled about it...
"So will you go find them?"
"...All right. I'll go."
He followed Simon out of the room, staring morosely at his back as they walked down the hall.
Delivering messages. That was something he used to do often after he first turned humanoid. During that first year, he would march proudly down these halls, fulfilling his duty even as the sleeves of his oversized uniform dragged along the floor. He was simply eager to help, no matter how small the task.
What a child he was back then. Did he ever really do anything useful? Perhaps, by delivering those messages, he'd only enabled Simon to further distance himself from others. And now here he was, back to doing the same thing. Sure, the uniform fit him now, but besides that, he hadn't progressed at all.
Fucking great. In trying to placate Boota, he'd gone and said it. Now he had to back up those words, didn't he? Just great.
First things first: he had to talk it out with Nia. So Simon headed to the common room she usually stayed in around this time.
Taking a deep breath, he walked in to find the room empty but for Nia. But she wasn't alone.
"I suppose it can't be helped. If Simon doesn't want to...yes, I am aware. I do hope he changes his mind, but..."
She stood by the window, staring blankly out at the stars, muttering softly to herself.
"I know. Please don't worry. I haven't forgotten my promise."
This was becoming a familiar sight, but it was still a bit disconcerting. Before, when she'd communicated with the Anti-Spiral hive mind, she had always been silent, so he never paid much attention to it. Now, he always found himself wondering what those other Messengers were saying to her out of earshot.
Finally, Nia noticed his reflection in the window. "Ah...Simon. I'm sorry, how long were you...?"
"Not long." He stuffed his hands in his pockets and came to stand next to her.
"Um...did you sleep very much last night? You weren't there when I awoke, so I was worried..."
"I had a bad dream, so I went for a walk," he said.
By now she knew that he did not like discussing his dreams, so thankfully, she didn't ask further. Instead, she tried to change the subject. "You know, I've started having dreams myself recently."
That got his attention. "Really?"
She nodded. "Though I suppose they are the Messengers' memories playing in my mind as I sleep more than anything. But it is interesting. I have been able to see many of their homelands already. Some of the places are very beautiful, and some are very harsh, but even then, the warmth of family and friends helps make them a little bearable." She smiled. "I look forward to seeing them with my own eyes someday."
Simon frowned. He tried very hard not to resent the Messengers, but sometimes he couldn't help it. "Have you had any dreams of your own yet?"
She shook her head. "Not yet. Still, I feel very blessed. After all, it is thanks to you that I've learned how to sleep again, and now it is thanks to them that I have remembered what it's like to dream."
It was such a simple, natural thing, but she treated it as if it were a great gift. And here he was, having spent the whole morning consumed by doubt because of one dream.
In the end, maybe there was no meaning to it at all, just like any of the other nonsensical terrors he experienced in his sleep. There was no point in spending so much time mulling over something that might never make sense. And if he had no way of knowing if he was right or wrong, then he might as well let Nia decide. Whatever came after, he would just have to deal with it when it happened.
Simon sighed. "Nia, I thought it over."
She looked at him.
"...Are you sure this is what you want?"
Nia hesitated. For a second, he wished that she would say no. But instead, in a very measured voice, she replied, "I...believe this is the method that best conserves Spiral Power. If I am to be saved, then...this is the way that I would prefer."
She looked at her hands. "Besides, I think that, if I am to be truly free of the Anti-Spirals, I must shed this vessel that they made for me. So that I can live, not as a part of them, but as a separate organism. ...If it were possible, that's what I would wish for the other Messengers as well."
Now he felt even more torn. The way she spoke of it sounded so...clinical, and he just couldn't see it that way. But...she did have a point.
Nia let out a sigh of relief. She turned to him, smiling. "Thank you, Simon."
"But on one condition: I'm coming with you."
Her smile faltered. "I...think it would be much easier if I went alone..."
"No. You'll be completely defenseless down there. And if something goes wrong..." He looked out the window, glowering. "If that's the method you want, then fine. I'll make sure it succeeds. No matter what happens, I'll protect you. No matter what it takes, I'll get you out of there alive. Just as I promised, I'll grab hold of your future with my own two hands. You can be sure of that."
That's right. A dream was just a dream, it didn't mean anything. He couldn't allow himself to be held back by something like that, not with Nia's life on the line. As long as she remained true to her convictions, so would he to his. No matter the result.
Later that day, they all gathered in the conference room. As before, Simon, Nia, and Boota sat at one side of the table, with Yoko, Kittan, and Gimmy at the other. Leeron and the Lord Genome Head's faces appeared on screens in the middle of the table.
"So, is it true that you've figured out a way to save Nia?" asked Yoko.
Simon nodded. "We've also got the plan to defeat the Anti-Spirals pretty much figured out."
"Mmhmm," Leeron said. "But let's start at the beginning. I analyzed the data you sent me, and comparing it to the Lord Genome Head's analysis, we came to the same conclusion: There's simply no way to salvage Nia's current body. Not permanently, at least."
"As a virtual being, Nia's body is sustained by the Anti-Spiral hive mind," Lord Genome explained. "Thus, if she is separated from it, she will cease to exist."
"We've gone over it again and again, and that's what we keep coming to. At best, it might be possible to maintain her form using Spiral Power, but it wouldn't last long or be very reliable."
Gimmy blinked. "So...what are we going to do then?"
"Why, make her a new body, of course!"
"Think of it like this: When an organ fails you, you get an organ transplant. Apparently, in the past it was possible to grow new organs and body parts just for that purpose. But in Nia's case, what she needs is a full body transplant. Do you follow?"
They gaped. "Is that...really possible?"
The Lord Genome Head answered. "With cloning technology, it is entirely possible. Compared to creating a Beastman, it is a simple matter."
Leeron nodded. "We've already isolated the Anti-Spiral gene in her DNA, so if we turn it off, we'll be able to clone Nia a new body without the risk of it becoming a Messenger again. Alternatively, we can try gene splicing..." He paused.
Half the room looked completely lost.
"But the computers will take care of that part, so you won't have to worry about it!"
They let out a great sigh of relief.
"The real problem is how we would transfer her mind and memories into the new body. I asked Nia to explain as much as she could about how the Anti-Spiral hive mind works, but I'm afraid it's at a level even beyond my comprehension..." Leeron sighed. "We just don't have the means to replicate the technology ourselves."
Nia spoke up. "However, if I were to acquire direct access to the Anti-Spiral hive mind's network, I believe I would be able to operate it. Similar to how I transferred the other Messengers into my mind, I could conceivably download myself into the brain of my new body."
"Wait," Boota said, suddenly remembering the other Messengers, screaming and groaning as their bodies disintegrated. "But doesn't that mean..."
"Yes," Nia said. "Once I've taken this step, I cannot go back. In that moment, my current body will be separated from the hive mind, and it will die."
A silence filled the room.
Boota glanced at Simon, who was staring grimly at the table. No wonder he wasn't happy about this plan.
"You're willing to go through with that...?" Yoko asked.
"I knew it was likely to happen eventually," Nia said tersely. "I am prepared for it."
"But what if the transfer doesn't work...?"
"Well," Leeron said, "in that event, we'll just have to trust that Simon can use his Spiral Power to fix it somehow. I'm told that he already pulled Nia back from the brink before. I'm sure he'll have the proper motivation this time too."
Neither Simon nor Nia said anything. They both looked very tense.
"Still! If everything does go as planned, she'll just be reborn in the new body we'll have ready for her! Simple as that. Then all that's left to do is destroy the hive mind at its source. Then the Anti-Spirals will lose control of their battleships, weapons systems..."
"Two birds with one stone," Simon said quietly. "The battle will be ours."
Yoko's mouth dropped open. "...It can't be that easy. There's gotta be another catch to this, right?"
"You guessed it!" Leeron said. "According to Nia, the source of the hive mind network can only be found on...the Anti-Spiral home planet!"
Their faces fell.
Simon summed it up. "In short, while you guys draw the Anti-Spirals' attention, Nia and I will sneak onto their home planet to transfer her mind and destroy the system."
Yoko sat back, stunned. "A covert sneak attack, huh? Doesn't seem very like you."
Simon raised an eyebrow. "I thought you'd consider it an improvement."
"Oh, it is. I just...didn't think you'd want to try something like this again."
So she'd noticed too, Boota thought. This plan sounded all too familiar.
Gimmy gulped. "This sounds pretty risky..."
Kittan wrinkled his nose. "Sounds like a shit plan to me."
Leeron clicked his tongue. "Well, it's the best we could come up with under the circumstances. And we don't exactly have all the time in the world, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"For the past few weeks, Rossiu's had me working on deciphering some of the messages the Spiral races have been sending each other. And honestly, it doesn't look good. I have reason to believe they're planning for an all-out attack, and Nia was able to confirm my suspicions."
Nia nodded. "After absorbing the other Messengers, I've become privy to new information that I'd previously been cut off from. It seems the Spiral races are mobilizing quickly. The Messengers had been attacking them, but with their absence, there's no doubt the Spiral races will now be doubling their efforts."
"In other words, we're racing against the clock. I don't think you'll have the luxury to come up with a better plan if you get involved in another war, will you?"
They all exchanged glances.
Yoko sighed. "...Okay, so how do we get there?"
Nia took over. "The Anti-Spiral home planet is hidden within a pocket universe of the Anti-Spirals' own making. This pocket universe, called Super Spiral Space, is itself hidden between the 10th and 11th dimensions. The only way to enter is through a dimensional rift known as the Great Dimensional Waterfall."
Gimmy blinked. "A waterfall in space?"
"To be precise, an interdimensional cosmic ether-fall."
Kittan shrugged. "Well, I guess we've seen weirder."
"Can you tell us more about this Super Spiral Space thing?" Yoko asked.
"It is a universe solely under the control of the Anti-Spirals. In other words, they have the power to manipulate it according to their every whim. In that space, they are essentially God. And they will have a trap lying in wait for us. I am sure of it."
"Per usual," Simon said flippantly.
Nia looked at him. "Please take this more seriously, Simon. Remember when I told you they are planning something against you? Whatever that is, I am sure they will unleash it once we enter their domain."
"But you don't know what it is, right? Then how am I supposed to prepare for it?"
She bit her lip. "Most likely, they will be targeting your weaknesses..."
Kittan threw his arms in the air. "Great! We're doomed."
Yoko shook her head. "We might as well just paint a giant target on the bridge..."
"Thanks for believing in me, guys," Simon grumbled. "Really appreciate it."
"In any event, winning this battle will require strength of spirit," Lord Genome said. "Power alone cannot secure victory."
"Speaking from experience, hmm?" Leeron mused. "But good point. Spiral Power won't be of much help when you're sneaking onto their home planet."
"Indeed, the strength of Simon's Spiral Power signature will make his presence hard to go unnoticed," Nia said. "It won't take long for them to realize my presence either."
"Then how's that going to work?"
"Father has agreed to hack into the hive mind again during the battle, to distract them. That might be able to buy us some time."
"Okay, but will that be enough?" Yoko asked.
"Yeah, I think they'll notice when Simon suddenly goes missing from the battle," Kittan said.
"We have that covered too," Simon said.
They looked at him.
"We'll have a decoy. Someone to take my place on the ship, to keep fighting when I'm not there."
Kittan scoffed. "All right, but who can take your place?"
"In order to be convincing, the decoy would require a near equivalent amount of Spiral Power," Nia said. "Besides my father, the only one here who fits that criteria is..."
She turned to look at Boota.
Then suddenly, everyone's eyes were on him.
"...Huh?" Boota croaked.
Simon nodded at him. "You might not be able to use your arm, but you can still use Spiral Power. We know you have a shitload of it, so let's see you put it to good use."
Boota's mouth dropped open. This was the last thing he'd expected when he came to this meeting. "W-wait," he said. "True, I may be the only one among us with comparable Spiral Power, but...would it still be enough to fool the Anti-Spirals?" He turned to Nia. "Honestly, would it?"
"It is doubtful," she admitted regrettably.
Simon shrugged. "That doubt will work in our favor. They won't see it coming."
Boota felt lightheaded. "But they've already seen me take your place once. Surely it wouldn't take them long to realize...?"
"We only need enough time to reach their planet. Once we're down there...well, it's not like they would bomb themselves, right?"
"Even so, we'll be putting all our lives in his hands," Yoko interjected. "And I'm not convinced he's up for the job either. Can you at least train him first, teach him how to use his power?"
"Of course. Hell, I'll make him build up even more power while I'm at it."
Now Nia looked uneasy. "Simon, I don't know...that line of thinking can be dangerous. If you succeed in training him, and that information falls into the wrong hands..."
Simon sighed. "It's not like we'd be building him up from scratch. He already has the potential, he just hasn't used it yet. I mean, if I never had a reason to use it...if I just lived a simple, boring life, my Spiral Power might never have awakened to this point either."
"I agree," said Lord Genome. "He has more than enough potential to be a Spiral Knight. By achieving that form, he has already far surpassed the limits of his birth. All that he lacks now is resolve."
That silenced their worries. Boota gulped. To be recognized by Lord Genome of all people...
"Well?" Simon said, looking at him. "What do you think?"
Boota took a deep breath. Simon never asked him for much. He wanted to say yes, desperately. "If it is something that you need me to do, I'd like to do it. But...I don't know if I will be able to."
There was a pause. Then Simon sat back, crossing his arms. "...Tell me something. How long do you plan to keep following me?"
"What?" Boota said, startled and a bit hurt by the question. Wasn't the answer obvious...?
Simon went on. "You say you want to stay involved. But my path ahead isn't going to be easy. From now on, I'm going to have more than just the Anti-Spirals coming after me. And the larger the target on my back becomes, the more likely that the people around me will get caught in it too. So if you want to keep tagging along, I need you to become stronger." He looked Boota straight in the eyes. "When I train you, it won't just be for this battle. It'll be for what comes after."
So in the end, this was still about his injury. But Boota found himself taken aback by Simon's forward thinking. He'd expected guilt, regret, self-blame; the Simon that he knew was either always looking backwards, or consumed by the thought of battle. To think that he'd consider what came after the battle...
"Don't get me wrong; up to now, I thought you were fine just the way you are. Even when you were a pigmole, I didn't care if you turned humanoid or not. To tell the truth...I hate this plan. If I could have it all my way, I'd rather you just sit this battle out." Simon sighed. "...But you've already made it clear that you'd hate that. So, I leave it up to you: Do you want to stay the way you are? Or are you ready to take the next step?"
So his plea had made a difference after all. But as Boota thought it over, he was further taken aback. Wait a minute...if he agreed to this plan...wouldn't he be playing the same part Kamina did all those years ago? For Simon to suggest such a thing on his own, and with a straight face at that...up to now, it would have been unthinkable. And yet he still offered him this chance...the chance to prove himself.
And then suddenly, it all became clear. He had been so busy pitying himself that he completely failed to see the answer he had been looking for all along. All this time, Boota thought he'd been standing at Simon's side. But in reality, he'd been standing behind him...the way Simon used to hang behind Kamina.
Lord Genome was right. He did lack resolve. Despite having vast stores of Spiral Power, he'd never thought he could be as powerful as Simon- and after seeing Simon's struggles up close, he'd never thought of wanting to. He'd only tried to support him the best he could as his aide. But couldn't he have done more? Despite all his struggles with being useful, was he actually holding back?
What if...what if his transformation into humanoid form was only the beginning of his evolution? Rather than trying to keep Simon afloat, perhaps his true role was to sink down with him...to keep him company in the darkness.
Perhaps that's what he ought to have done from the start. It was so obvious now. If he wanted to take some pressure off of Simon, he should be fighting alongside him. He should be sharing the fate of the Spiral Knight rather than letting Simon shoulder the burden on his own. Only then could they truly stand side-by-side.
Boota clenched his fists with a sense of renewed purpose. He had to get stronger. He would. "I'll do it. You can count on me."
Simon's expression was hard to read. In a way, he looked both relieved and disappointed. But at last, he said, "Good."
He stood up. "Then it's settled. I'll supervise Boota's training. Lord Genome will handle the cloning process, with Nia's help. Leeron, could you keep tabs on the situation with the Spiral races?"
"Can do, hun~"
He turned to Yoko, Kittan, and Gimmy. "And the rest of you can prepare the ship and crew for the fight of their lives."
But the three of them just sat there, looking mildly annoyed at being upstaged.
Simon rolled his eye. "Does that sound acceptable to you, leaders?"
"Sure. Sounds like a plan," Yoko huffed.
With the meeting over, everyone got up and left the room. Boota, however, remained in his seat, still feeling rather overwhelmed by this turn of events. Until he looked up to see Simon looming over him, cracking his knuckles.
"All right," he said menacingly. "Let's turn you into a monster."
They got started the next day, Simon heading for the main bridge, while Boota went to the main engine room, where he found Gurren-Lagann already waiting for him. Simon's Core Drill in hand, Boota took a seat in Lagann's cockpit.
Simon's voice called from the bridge. "All right, this is your first test. Once you clear this, then we can move on to doing something else. Ready?"
Powering the Super Spiral Engine to transform the ship into Super Galaxy Gurren-Lagann. Having seen Simon do this several times, and even assisting him once, Boota pretty much knew what to expect. But this time, he would be doing it all on his own.
Boota licked his lips. "Yes."
"Good. Gurren-Lagann, Spin On!"
Boota inserted the Core Drill in its slot and gave it a twist. Immediately, the monitor lit up with a spiral of green light. The cockpit hummed with energy.
So far, so good. Boota gripped the controls. His shoulder responded with a throb of pain, but he ignored it.
"We've begun accumulating energy," Cibela announced. "Progress currently at 0.15%."
"Just concentrate on keeping a steady output," Simon said. "Clear everything else from your mind and focus."
"All right." Concentrate. Boota closed his eyes, and for a long while, all he heard was the engine's constant hum, the sound of his own heartbeat, and Cibela's voice updating him on his progress.
Then finally: "98.25%...98.5%... Attention, all crew: transformation is imminent."
The interior of the cockpit lit up with light.
He could feel the ship changing, reorganizing its parts, almost as if it were an extension of his own body. With it came an exhilarating rush of power, like he had suddenly broken free from all restraints. This felt strangely familiar. Then he realized why. It was just like when he himself had evolved into humanoid form.
At last, Boota released the controls and sat back, gasping.
"How are you feeling?" Simon asked.
"Exhausted. Powerful." And proud, too. Boota grinned. That wasn't as hard as he'd expected. His muscles ached and he was out of breath, but he still felt like he could keep going. For the first time, he knew what he was truly capable of.
"And your shoulder?"
"Good." It still throbbed with pain, but somehow, it felt better than before. In fact, with all the Spiral Power coursing throughout his body, he wouldn't be surprised if his injury healed itself soon. Boota wiped the sweat from his brow. "So how did I do?"
"It took you almost an hour. Pathetic. Do it over."
The grin fell from Boota's face. "Oh." He wasn't quite expecting praise, but he'd expected more than that.
Nonetheless, he put his hands back on the controls and started again.
"Fourth transformation complete."
"How are you feeling?"
Boota lay back in the cockpit, drenched in sweat and out of breath, wanting nothing more than to eat and sleep for days. "Like...I'm going to pass out..."
"Good. You're down to half an hour. Do it again."
"What...exactly are we...aiming for?"
"Once you get down to ten minutes or less, then we can move on to something else."
Boota groaned loudly.
"Ninth transformation now complete."
"How are you feeling?"
Boota didn't answer. He lay face down on the monitor, struggling to breathe. Now, not only was his shoulder aching, but every cell in his body screamed with pain.
Simon clicked his tongue. "The hell, you've gone back to forty minutes! We're not going anywhere at this rate."
"I haven't...had a break...in hours..."
"That's no excuse. Do it again."
But to Boota's great relief, other voices soon cut in.
"How long are you planning to keep this up?!" Yoko shrieked. "We've been having complaints all day!"
"It's very hard to get anything done with you constantly transforming the ship back and forth, you know," Leite said.
"Simon, perhaps there is another way to train him?" Nia suggested. "This method poses great risk of catching the Anti-Spirals' attention..."
"Fine, fine," Simon finally relented. "We'll do something else tomorrow."
Unfortunately, that something else was making Boota run the entire length of the ship, top to bottom, without rest.
On Deck 165, Boota finally collapsed. The hallway was quiet and empty, so he lay down, trying desperately to catch his breath.
"The hell are you doing?!"
Boota's heart jumped. Simon loomed over him again, having appeared seemingly from nowhere. "Did I say you could stop?"
"This ship...is the size of the moon," Boota gasped. "It's not...possible...to do this in one day..."
"You seriously think you can fight against the universe with such paltry resolve?" Simon's eye narrowed in a glare usually reserved only for his worst enemies. "Don't make me laugh. You won't last a minute."
Boota shuddered. Being on the receiving end of that glare was more terrifying than he'd ever imagined. "Please...just one...minute..."
"You're the one who agreed to this, remember? If you want to rest, then go rest in a hospital bed- and stay there."
"It's not too late to change your mind."
"I won't..." Mustering all of his remaining energy, Boota struggled back to his feet.
He couldn't resent Simon for this, he told himself. It was cruelty born out of concern. Every time he slowed down, Simon must be picturing his death. Yes. That must be it.
But he wasn't the only one taken aback by Simon's complete change in attitude. That night, when Nia came to join them at dinner, she discovered Boota lying face down on the table, plates of food surrounding him, but too exhausted to eat.
This gave her pause. "Simon...he's still injured, isn't he? You don't suppose you're pushing him too hard...?"
Simon shrugged. "I'm not putting him out there unless I'm sure he's ready. And he still has a long way to go. Right?"
Nia nodded reluctantly.
Boota's stomach let out a deafening roar. Simon nudged a plate against his face. "Come on. You need to replenish your energy."
Boota managed to raise his head high enough to plunge face first into the plate of food, which he then proceeded to tear through like any proper pigmole would.
It was only once he'd finished and let out a large belch that he noticed Yoko staring at him from across the table, making a face.
"So...how's it going?" she asked, sitting down with her tray.
Simon pushed another plate under Boota's nose. "Slow. But it's only his second day."
"Uh-huh. Tell me, do you even have this training regime planned out, or are you just making it up as you go along?"
"Mostly making it up."
Yoko poked at her food. "Why am I not surprised?"
"But he seems to be working very hard," Nia said. "Perhaps too hard," she added with a worried glance as Boota struggled to eat.
"Well, I never said this would be a walk in the park," Simon said flippantly. "At least I'm not chucking rocks at him."
This got a chuckle out of Yoko, though she tried to hide it behind her hand. "Is all this really effective, though? I mean...surely there's /some/ research on how to train him properly? Did you even bother looking through the ship's records?"
"Lord Genome said to go with my gut. That's all the research I need."
Yoko turned to Nia. "How about you? Do you know anything that might help?"
Nia blinked. "Me?"
"You know, have the Anti-Spirals ever done any research on how to raise Spiral Power?"
"That..." She lowered her gaze to the table. "That is exactly the opposite of what they are trying to do, so..."
"Come to think of it," Boota finally said between bites, "the Kumpus were putting all of their time and resources into that kind of research, and they still hadn't found an answer, had they?"
Simon made a face as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. "They were trying too hard, that's what their problem was. It needs to come naturally. It needs to be instinctive..."
Yoko blinked, clearly having no idea what they were talking about. "Okay...well, what about a special diet then?" she offered. "If he eats food that provides lots of energy..."
"Are there such foods?" Nia asked, curiously.
Simon thought for a moment. "Pigmole steak."
Boota choked on his food. He went on coughing for several minutes, Nia patting his back as he did.
Yoko sighed. "You're evil, you know that?"
After that, Yoko began checking in on Simon and Taboo as they did their training, at least once in a while. They kept mostly out of the way now, using a spare room as their training area.
Once, she walked in to find them standing waist-deep in a pile of Core Drills. As she watched, Taboo held out his palm, closed his eyes, and materialized a Core Drill out of thin air. Then he added it to the pile.
She stared. "You made all these out of Spiral Power?"
Simon shrugged. "What else?"
As they spoke, a few Core Drills in the corner of the room vanished in a flash of green light.
"Concentrate!" Simon snapped.
Taboo mumbled an apology and quickly remade them.
The next day, she was passing by the room when she heard Simon counting.
"Five hundred eighty four...five hundred eighty five..."
Inside, Taboo was doing one-arm pushups, while Simon sat on top of his back, looking bored.
"Five hundred eighty six..."
Taboo grunted, expression strained.
Yoko watched a minute longer before asking. "Does he have to use only one arm...?"
"His shoulder's injured, remember?" Simon replied matter-of-factly.
Yoko walked out, shaking her head. "Evil."
Then another day, she was walking by when she saw Nia standing outside the room, silently peering in at them. This struck her as odd. If Nia wanted to watch, surely she could just go inside? Why was she hiding out here like some stalker?
"Something wrong, Nia?"
Nia turned in surprise. "Oh...Yoko. No...it's nothing. I just..."
"Want to talk about it?"
Nia gave a noncommittal shrug, which Yoko could swear she must have picked up from Simon. "I was only thinking...in preparing for this battle, Simon is helping Boota to be as strong as he could be. But with me...all he ever says is that he will protect and save me."
She began playing with a strand of her hair. "Of course, I can understand why. This plan is very risky. And when I am in my new body, I won't have the powers of a Messenger anymore. But still..." She sighed. "I suppose this is just another way one treats different people differently?"
Yoko couldn't help but laugh at this. When Nia looked at her in surprise again, she said, "Sorry. But it's so ironic. You know...for a while, I actually envied the way he's so protective of you."
Yoko nodded. "But I guess if he were like that with me all the time, I'd get pretty annoyed too."
"Oh, I am not annoyed! It's just..." Nia lapsed into silence, trying to think of how to express how she felt.
"Yes..." she said, though she still looked unsure. "I suppose that might be it..."