Disclaimer: I don't own either of the two intellectual properties that have been melded into one here today, those being Macross Frontier and the Fate Stay/Night franchises, and certainly don't have the intent to make money of this piece of work, only the intent to make some people smile.
Chapter 14: Legend of Zero
"Alto! Shirou! What are you two doing?!"
I rolled my eyes as the incredibly ear piercing voice of Sheryl Nome, galactic fairy, demanded to know what her two minions were up to. I made a show of checking my watch.
"We're still on break for another thirty seconds," I yelled back cheerfully, turning to face up a long flight of stairs to give the diva a smile and a wave that I knew would infuriate her.
Sure enough, it worked. A pilot suit boot came down forcefully on the concrete at the top of stairs and gloved hands immediately went to hips as she processed what I'd said to her. Saotome glanced up at the pink haired songstress, having been distracted away from a furtive phone conversation he was trying to have by all the yelling in his general vicinity. The slight pause and almost imperceptible reddening around his cheeks spoke volumes about the incredibly striking pose Sheryl was cutting from our point of view, and again reinforcing my belief that her physical assets played a large part in her ability to attract young male fans.
The she opened her mouth and suddenly the image shattered.
"We're shooting the next take now," she yelled back petulantly. "Get back up here!"
"Sorry Ranka," Saotome muttered into his phone in a hurry, snapping out of his semi-trance. "I've gotta go now. Bye!"
Saotome quickly cut the line and shoved the phone into the helmet he was holding in his other hand - the only spare receptacle he had, pockets being for some reason having being omitted in the latest update to SMS pilot suits. We fell into step as we climbed the stairs in Griffith Park up to the area where a pair of Messiahs and a filming crew were waiting. The galactic fairy herself had temporarily skipped out of our view, probably to go give a piece of her mind to the director in charge of the commercial.
I must admit, I was reasonably curious as to what Saotome was talking to Ranka about – there was one line in particular he'd said (or from the sound of it, quoted) that was considerably more sophisticated than I'd have expected out of him. For a brief second I considered dancing around the subject, but quickly dismissed it. The blue haired junior pilot had the annoying ability to see through my personality, so I tended to drop the politeness when it was just the two of us – a course of action I figured I'd stick with here.
"That was a pretty philosophical quote there Saotome. What was it? 'Thinketh not and thou shalt be the blossom. Thinketh and thou shalt not be.'?" I asked him.
Saotome shrugged. "Just some advice for Ranka. She picked up a bit part in a movie and sounded kind of nervous about it. It basically means that you should become the role when you act, or you won't give a fully believable performance."
"I know," I told him, rolling my eyes. "I heard you explain it on the phone a few seconds ago."
The blue haired kid paused for a second as though thinking of something. "It's advice you could take as well," he noted. "It's what really gives you away to anyone who knows what to look for."
I suppressed any outward reaction to his comment, keeping my ghost of a grin up as we made our way up the stairs. Saotome almost never failed take the opportunity to remind me that he knew the face I was showing everyone at our company wasn't my real personality when we were alone, possibly as a way to strike back against the authority I had enforced upon him in our earliest few meetings.
Suddenly the kid frowned. "Although it's not as bad as when we first met. Have you been practising?"
"Not really," I said as we reached the top of the stairs. Although Saotome knew I was hiding something, he never bothered to tell anyone, nor did he try to pry into what it was I was hiding. It made it surprisingly easy to talk to him about this kind of stuff, provided I didn't try to deny what I was doing.
His observation did worry me slightly though - it meant that Saotome thought I was becoming the act I was playing to a certain degree, although in what particular sense I couldn't tell. I decided to steer the conversation onto safer ground.
"So Ranka got a bit part in a movie huh?" I began as we continued to amble towards our Messiahs. "All that promo work she's been doing must be paying off then."
Saotome nodded in way of reply. "She seemed pretty excited, even if it's only for a bit part. I suppose we all start somewhere," he mused, before his expression turned slightly sour.
Perhaps he was reflecting on the fact that there was little excitement left for him in acting - the only reason we were out here was because it was cheaper to hire SMS for use in a commercial shoot than get the military properly involved. Then again, perhaps he'd gone a little sour because he'd just spotted Sheryl Nome, upright, regal and approaching us from the general direction of the director.
"What's that?" she asked in tones of someone confident of getting an answer. "Ranka-chan has a bit part in a movie?"
"Not that it's really any of your business, but yes. The movie about Mayan Island that they're shooting," Saotome replied, the tone of his voice rising as he sensed conflict incoming.
Surprisingly, Sheryl didn't rise to the bait, instead choosing to bring a finger up to her mouth in a thoughtful motion. It looked delightfully charming, although the act failed to impress either Saotome or myself, who by now had enough of an association with the diva that we were capable of seeing through it. It did appear, however, that her lack of rebuttal seemed to have caught Saotome slightly by surprise, and he deflated slightly as it became apparent Sheryl simply didn't care that much for arguing.
"I think I've been invited to the set of that - one of my songs has been licensed as the main theme. . . Grace!"
Sheryl cast about, looking for her dark haired manager - one that I knew for a fact was not around. I had initially been leery about this assignment for a couple of reasons, and Grace O'Connor was one of them. I had recently identified her a possible lead in determining the nature of the Vajra attacks on the fleet, and I wanted to minimise the time we spent in close proximity in public until I'd had a chance to determine exactly if and how she was involved. It wasn't that I wouldn't be able to snoop around while she was about - but if she was the person who set me up for a beating from my new cyborg friend a couple of weeks ago, then it meant she was pretty on the ball when it came to counter-intelligence, and I didn't like my odds of remaining undetected by her if she were around.
Thankfully though she'd disappeared almost as soon as she'd dropped Sheryl at this set, without really stopping to say so much as 'hello' to the director.
Sheryl glanced about hopefully for another second or two before realising that her manager (and by extension, her schedule) wasn't around.
"Guess I'll have to double check that later," the pink haired songstress muttered darkly, before her voice rose into that lilting tone she reserved for trying to play a crowd. "Oh well. Are you boys ready to set the passions of the people ablaze?"
"Absolutely," I replied deadpan, rolling my eyes. I shrugged on my helmet and set the flash compensators to darken the faceplate as much as I could without going completely blind. "Let's get this over with."
Of course, the another reason I was leery about this assignment was the fact that I would be on camera, and especially in such a high profile piece of work (what with being in the background of currently the most popular person in human space). My face on this commercial would make it considerably more difficult to get around safely on other identities when my job on Frontier was done, and easily tip off any potential enemies that I wasn't who I appeared to be if they bothered to do their homework.
Hence the stipulation that I would have my face covered the whole time while shooting. Hell, I originally didn't want to take part in this commercial at all. There was one sole reason I was out here, and she was standing in front of me.
Sheryl had hoped to remind the 'fickle public' as she'd called them about how her home convoy Macross Galaxy was still missing after the large scale Vajra attack a month or so ago. To that end she wove a number of high profile events into a publicity campaign urging people to be prepared to fight the Vajra should they encroach upon this convoy, and by extension help maintain the search for the Galaxy convoy.
What I was in the process of finding out is that as a general rule of thumb, what Sheryl Nome wants, Sheryl Nome gets. Up to and including her choice of pilots to act as backing in a holo commercial.
I'd heard from Bobby, who'd heard it from Lam, who'd heard it from Captain Wilder, who was there during the negotiations; once Sheryl's credit card had crossed the table, our accountants fell backwards over themselves to make sure that every stipulation and demand Sheryl had for the use of our 'services' was met. The main one being the demand that Saotome and myself were the pilots to be provided for the commercial.
"Yeah," Saotome agreed, bringing my mind back to the conversation. "Let's do this."
We both clambered into the cockpits of our variable fighters (the use of EX-gear wasn't permitted as apparently our old fashioned pilot suits made us appear more heroic), leaving Sheryl to follow me towards my VF-25. The commercial called for Saotome to swoop in as I held a singing Sheryl in one manipulator arm and fired blanks out of a gun-pod held in the other.
I felt extra tension on the rope ladder as I reached the top and looked down to find the galactic fairy gamely climbing the ladder after me, as though her being in my cockpit would somehow make it easier for me to safely get her into the manipulator arm. I sighed, swung myself into the cockpit and began bringing my systems online as Sheryl continued up the rope ladder. Her ascent was briefly halted as Saotome's GERWALK-mode Messiah erupted into the air on a plume of jet wash, but it didn't take long for the swaying girl to complete her climb to my cockpit.
"So Shirou," the girl said with no preamble, "when are you going to tell me about you-know-what? I've kept up my end of the bargain."
Ugh. I should have realised something like this was coming when Sheryl decided that I just had to be part of the team for this commercial. Idly I wondered what Saotome had managed to do to get the same treatment, and suddenly felt glad that my darkened visor hid my facial features. The 'you-know-what' was undoubtedly a reference to her glimpse of my Tracing of Gram that I'd performed in order to destroy a red Vajra drone and save both our lives by extension. It was a difficult subject to deal with - at the time I'd manipulated her into keeping the secret of my ability to go toe-to-toe with a space monster twenty times my size by promising that if she kept her mouth shut, I'd tell her how I did it.
I really had no intention of holding up my end of that bargain.
"Later," I told the young woman, before dropping into a considerably more conspiratorial tone of voice. "I'd like to be able to tell you now, but there's someone I've got to figure out before I can trust you with more. I'm sorry."
It was completely true, and totally misleading. I needed to figure out her manager before I would even consider telling Sheryl about magecraft. At the same time, I never was going to tell her about magecraft. Hopefully the implication in my words would keep Sheryl's mind entertained with all sorts of clandestine possibilities.
Sheryl stared straight at the dark visor covering my eyes, as though somehow trying to read my face through the darkened plexiglass. Eventually she decided that it was downright impossible and pouted beautifully.
"Promise?" she asked, bringing her lower lip into full play. Strangely, her tone didn't match her actions - where one would expect a pout to be accompanied by a pleading tone, the pink haired songstress simply applied her usual confident voice to the question, forcing a quick re-evaluation on the maturity of the young woman. It almost made me feel bad about lying to her - she'd proven trustworthy, upfront, mature and discreet where required.
Still, I wasn't going to bend on this matter. "Promise," I replied simply, despite the fact there was no shred of honesty in the word.
It seemed to be good enough for Sheryl though, who retracted her lip with a nod. "I'll hold you to that," she informed me regally.
A tinny voice in my ear informing me of the timing for the shot we were going to take ended that conversation. I gave the galactic fairy a slightly overdone wave as I brought the manipulator arm around for her to climb onto, and with that we made a commercial.
"Wait, what," I said flatly, letting Ozma know in no uncertain terms what I thought of what he'd just told me. "More filming?"
"Weeeell," the greying Squadron Commander drawled somewhat apologetically, "you won't be so much involved in the filming as you will be chaperoning."
"You know Ozma, you're not really selling this to me at all."
"Look Shirou, they only need two variable fighters for this Mayan Island movie. We've got that covered with Michel and Luca. Bobby is tagging along to do make-up for Ranka, but we need someone from the squadron to keep an eye on things for insurance purposes. All you have to do is show up to a resort hotel and watch people film for a few days. You don't even have to leave the bar if you don't want to!"
Wait? Bobby was doing the make-up? I wasn't sure if I would trust a guy whose only demonstration of work I'd seen was setting Saotome up for a practical joke, but if that was the plan, then who was I to argue. To be fair, Ozma knew more about Bobby than I did, so presumably make-up was one of his hidden talents. Better to get on with the relevant parts of this little 'mission' I was being lined up for.
"So why aren't you on this assignment if it's so good?" I asked simply, trying to figure out the catch.
"I may have been, uh, stood down from this assignment by the captain," Ozma answered evasively, prompting me to raise an eyebrow questioningly.
"Care to elaborate?" I asked, although I had a sneaking suspicion I knew exactly what Captain Wilder was on about.
"Something about 'conflict of interest'," my squad commander muttered, very much on the border of audibility.
"Were those his exact words?"
"His exact words were something along the lines of 'they won't be able to film a damn movie if you're trying to use your Messiah to squash everyone who looks at Ranka funny'," he admitted, and I allowed myself to chuckle. My guess was on the money.
"So will you do it?" Ozma continued hopefully, and I weighed up my options. If all I had to do was kick back and keep an eye on things I couldn't really see how difficult that would be, especially if I had the option to stay well out of the action - I might even get time to continue looking into Grace O'Connor's disturbingly clean profile.
Additionally, seeing as Sheryl wasn't actually an actor in the film, it would be highly unlikely to find both her and her manager there, making it a safe enough place to be. It also helped that I knew Saotome was still supposed to be working with the diva, and Ozma hadn't mentioned anything about the long haired rookie coming along with us.
"Yeah, alright," I replied eventually, after making a show of looking thoughtful. "How hard can it be to keep an eye on everyone anyway?"
I'd arrived at filming location on Island 2 shortly after Mikhail and Luca had landed their Messiah's smack-bang in the middle of a shoot, apparently pissing off both the producer and set designers immensely. I didn't really have to deal too much with the fallout of that thankfully, as without the usual belligerence of Saotome, they were quick to apologise and prepare for the takes involving their birds.
Which they were then informed where delayed until tomorrow.
"And that's where we currently stand," Mikhail told me as he casually lounged up against the trunk of a palm tree. I glanced around, allowing that subconscious battle-sense of mine to catalogue the potential terrain advantages and hazards to avoid if I were to suddenly get into a fight. A root here, a scrabbled patch of sand there. . . it all added up in a fight, and I almost found it calming to let my mind go about its business deciding where I would force enemies towards, and where I could safely retreat to if required.
The set was based on a tropical island – part of a large resort allotment on the Island 2 colony ship. Apparently the entire island had been leased for the shooting of this movie, despite the fact that the staff were apparently content to use only the strip of beach that we were currently set up on.
"Sounds wonderfully boring," I replied, my eyes scanning the water and spotting a boat approaching the wonderfully haphazard pile of lashed driftwood that seemed to be the only jetty on this island. Out of curiosity I Reinforced my eyes, snapping the blurry figures on the hull of the craft into focus. There were a crowd of people on it, probably staff for the shooting, or movie extras. My guess was confirmed when I spotted a familiar mop of green hair among the crowd, allowing me to identify Ranka Lee.
Even more noticeable was the incredible mass of curly hair attached to the person she was standing next to - Bobby Margot, the incredibly bipolar helmsman of the Macross Quarter. As it turned out, Bobby was more than just a dab hand when it came to make-up - he was downright famous in the underground make-up scene on Frontier under the pseudonym Jebediah Tong, to the point where he was forced to retire as the deluge of requests from the stars of Frontier's pop culture began to cut deleteriously into his real job.
Or at least according to Ozma; my own digging on our helmsman had turned up none of this information, so I still remained slightly skeptical about his abilities with the powder fluff.
"That looks like the boat Ranka and Bobby are on," I told my squad-mates, nodding towards the approaching vessel. "Want to go say hi?"
Luca agreed with a vigorous nod and pulled himself up off the sand, joining Mikhail and myself as we made our way towards the ramshackle jetty.
"This island really feels like Mayan Island would have," Luca bubbled excitedly, his natural curiosity apparently having risen to the fore while he was setting up his VF-25.
"And how do you know what Mayan Island would have looked like?" Asked Mikhail - gently ribbing his younger classmate.
"It just does," Luca huffed, a touch petulantly. "The declassified documents said it was a tropical island in the middle of the old Pacific Ocean right? This is definitely a tropical island, so it just feels right."
Mikhail snorted. "I'll bet there were all sorts of tropical islands," he said, putting on an air of knowledge. "We don't know all that much about the geography of little islands before Space War 1."
It was my turn to snort, or at least almost. I managed to keep it back, just. As it happened, I did know a considerable amount about tropical islands on Earth pre-Space War 1 - their general remoteness meant they were often used by… undesirables… as bases of operation. Many of these undesirables had earned the ire of the Mage's Association, typically due to forbidden research. In those days earning the ire of the Mage's Association had a tendency to fill your backyard with angry Enforcers. After the Enforcers had cleared the area up Rin was often called out along with Lord El-Melloi (one of the few mages apart from Rin who I'd been able to slightly relate to) to clean up and confirm any rituals had been dismantled - the pair of them having obtained a reputation for this kind of thing after dismantling the ritual that the Holy Grail War was based upon. As Rin's apprentice, I was naturally dragged along in the vain hope I would be able to absorb something about the processes involved.
What I had learned about tropical islands was that they usually came in two varieties. The first were too small to support anything but a small beach and a couple of palm trees. The second type had been similar, in a sense, but large enough to replace 'a few palm trees' with a tropical jungle. This island definitely qualified as the latter. Given that the real Mayan Island apparently supported a tribe of people, it was safe to say that our set would be similar enough to the real thing. I hummed thoughtfully to myself. Mayan Island, huh? I'd heard the stories about it when the reports surrounding the events that had occurred there were declassified. The fact that I hadn't heard of it before meant that someone in the military was doing their job and keeping classified documents hidden and under wraps. I mean, sure, not turning up that information was a bit of a black mark against my general information gathering abilities, but it also meant that someone, somewhere wasn't cocking up their job of keeping important secrets safe from people who could do a lot of harm with them.
It was then that I was hit with a sudden burst of clarity. The dots regarding Mao Nome, the name attached to all those academic journal articles that I'd connected to Grace, intuitively connected in my head. The factor that allowed me to connect my old dusty memories was the name of this damn island that we were making a film about! Once upon a time I remembered Rin telling me that Mao and her tribe lived on Mayan Island, and the discussion about our set had jogged my memory. Actually, if I recall correctly, Rin's actual words were; 'They live on some place called Mayan Island. What the heck kind of backwater is that? I've never heard of it before! Does it even exist? I bet someone is pulling my leg!'
The reason that had come in conversation was business - Mao was wanted by the Clock Tower for questioning (only in the loosest sense of the word - dissection would probably be closer to the mark) regarding possible contact with an extra-terrestrial being. Normally, contact with a Type would have warranted a prompt and brutally efficient response. However, news of this event was simply a rumour that arrived in the Clock Tower a week or so before the onset of Space War 1.
Ahhh… Now that I had a hint of what I was trying to remember, the memories rose in my mind. Rin had told me that the information seemed so absurd that no response was organised for a couple of days so the information could be verified. There had been no corroborating evidence discovered before Space War 1 suddenly hit the planet, and then the Clock Tower suddenly had extra-terrestrial contact out of their ears to deal with - all of it hostile. So Mao Nome managed to obtain a stay of execution as the Clock Tower fought against the Zentraedi, and when the Mages Association went down, there was no-one to enforce the questioning.
I hadn't given it a second thought at the time, but given the contents of the U.N.'s declassified files surrounding the Mayan Island incident; it suddenly seemed blatantly obvious that the information that had reached the Clock Tower wasn't just rumour. Given Mao's attachment to the 117th Expeditionary Fleet as a fairly high ranked researcher by 2047, it would be fair to assume she was… considerably affected by the experience.
My self introspection was interrupted as we made the transition from sand to rickety old jetty and I found myself carefully checking the integrity of the structure for a third time today. The boat ferrying the extra staff across was on the verge of arriving, and one of the crew gestured at us in a vague fashion with a bit of rope. I assumed he was hoping to get one of us to catch it for it, so I held my hand up in response. Sure enough, a flying coil slapped into my hand, and seconds later I was given a heart attack as the (rather bulky) crewman slammed onto the rickety boards of the jetty. Fortunately the damn thing didn't break and send us into the drink.
"Thanks," he said simply, after I'd recovered my wits and handed him the rope.
"Hey guys," came Ranka's voice from the ship. "I didn't know you'd be here!"
Well. It appeared as though Ozma had decided not to talk to Ranka at all about our involvement with the filming and my role as chaperone. That probably wasn't a bad thing, given the fact that our most esteemed Squad Commander was forcibly stood down from this mission, but it was a bit surprising.
"SMS are here to help with the filming," Luca offered cheerfully, waving an arm in the general direction of our parked Messiahs. The sailor had by now finished tying up the boat, and a weedy looking gangplank was being extended from the deck towards the platform.
"Really?" The young green haired girl always seemed energetic, and today was no exception. "Then does that mean Alto-kun…?" She left the question hanging, causing me to idly wonder why she cared whether or not Saotome was hanging around in the wings.
"Not today," Mikhail replied, somewhat evasively. "He's out on other work."
Other work, as far as I knew, meant advertisements with Sheryl, although for the life of me I couldn't figure out why he didn't just let the young girl know that.
It was at that moment the incessant thwop-thwop-thwop sound of helicopter rotors became the dominant noise in the immediate vicinity, and the accompanying gusts of air had Ranka desperately clutching at her dress and hat in order to save both her modesty and her sun protection. A helicopter passed low overhead, angling towards a section of the beach cordoned off as a landing zone, and with a final gale-force blast of sand the helicopter touched down.
"Well, whoever that is, they know how to make an entrance," I noted. The occupants still hadn't disembarked from the helicopter, as the winding down rotors were still tossing sand around and would continue to do so for a minute or so.
"Oh no," crooned Bobby the weird tone of voice that was usually reserved for messing with Ozma or myself. "We'll have to completely redo your make-up now!" I glanced at Ranka, whom he was obviously talking to, and for the life of me couldn't spot any difference between now and two minutes ago. Well, apart from the ruffled clothing and frizzled hair.
"Elmo," Bobby continued, dropping back to his normal tone of voice. "I'm borrowing Ranka for another ten minutes. We simply can't let her be seen like this!"
A micronized zentran with purple hair and unusual glasses looked thankfully at Bobby before bowing profusely.
"Oh thank you, legendary make-up artist. If we have Ranka looking like a star maybe they'll increase her screen time," the slightly rotund Zentran said enthusiastically. Bobby gave a stern nod of approval and led Ranka towards the aft of the ship, leaving the purple haired Zentran to disembark with the other passengers.
"So, you strapping young specimens must be the SMS pilots I was told about," he began jovially as he stepped off the gangplank. "Ever considered a career in acting instead of shooting people?"
I gave the Zentran a bemused look as he continued on his introductory tirade, and idly noticed Mikhail paying a bit more attention to the Zentran than I would have expected.
"My name is Elmo Kridanik, president of Vector Productions and Ranka's manager," he told us without skipping a beat. Just as smoothly, his hand dived into his unbuttoned jacket and returned bearing three business cards, which were then handed out to us three pilots in quick order.
"So are you hiring dashing young men looking to break into the film industry?" Mikhail asked quickly, and I couldn't help but notice the extra fraction of a second he took to frame himself as he asked the question.
"Mmm, well, not really," the middle aged Zentran answered after a moment's thought. "It's a nice ice-breaking line though isn't it?" Elmo offered somewhat apologetically, causing Luca to burst out into laughter as Mikhail slumped in disappointment. While I secretly found the exchange just as hilarious as my younger squad-mate, I simply allowed my lips to curve upwards in a bemused smile.
Further conversation was put on hold as the doors to the helicopter that had recently landed slid open, revealing three people. The first, and most easily identifiable due to a mass of strawberry blonde hair was the galactic diva, Sheryl Nome. The second, and as far as I could tell, the least impressed with the entire situation was my remaining squad-mate, Saotome. The third was a person that I very, very much did not want to see – the dark straight hair, and angular features identified her as Grace O'Connor.
Of all the bloody places to be on this convoy and she had to be here! Sometimes I think someone is up there, writing the story of my life and laughing at all the misfortune they put me in.
I immediately turned my back on the trio emerging from the helicopter and wandered up the rickety old gangplank onto the little boat that had brought the crew to the island. I waved away Luca and Mikhail's confused protests about that action, simply letting them know that I thought they had the situation under control and that I was going back to the hotel. In reality, I didn't want to be around Grace O'Connor at this point in time. Although I was aware the possibility of her being connected to the Vajra was slim, I knew it was a stronger lead than any other I'd picked up during my time on Frontier. I was very wary about her possible intelligence gathering capabilities, and I certainly didn't want to tip my hand in any way, shape or form. So the best option was to get the hell out of dodge for the time being – and a quick check this the boat's pilot confirmed for me that it was going back to the island where our hotel was. It was a good as place as any to run off to, and once Bobby and Ranka had finished with her make-up, we got under way.
Within half an hour the boat had made it to the resort island where the cast and crew for the movie were staying. As part of the stunt staff (read: their variable fighter crew) we were put up in a decent hotel against the movie's budget, which worked well for us. The hotel itself had a cafe downstairs which took advantage of the seafront view the property had, and seeing as it was now approaching lunchtime, I decided to take advantage of the cafe.
I quickly scanned the room before ordering a club sandwich and some iced tea. Nothing incredibly out of the ordinary – tourists made up a large proportion of the cafe's clientele, although there were a fair few people in unassuming business suits. I attributed that to the conference on bio-medicinal science being held at a hotel further down the road. With Grace still (hopefully) on the island with Sheryl, and likely to be busy managing the diva, I figured that here was safe enough to continue digging around for information on the woman.
With that in mind I found a seat that provided a decent view over the rest of the establishment, with easy access to the large windowed section that was wonderfully framing the view - just in case I found myself needing to make a quick exit. My bases now covered, I dug out my portable terminal and started tapping away at the keys.
Despite my best intentions however, another half an hour of digging didn't produce any new information. Given the fact that I'd sunk upwards of twenty five hours during the past week on the endeavour, I wasn't overly surprised that another half hour didn't turn up anything, but I was still disappointed. I glanced at my half eaten sandwich, my food having fallen prey to my ability to get far too involved in my work to pay attention to minor human needs, such as sustenance. I decided to show it some love by taking another bite before continuing the search, and just as I bit into the delicious goodness, I heard a voice that nearly made me choke.
"...all the data we have on the Vajra and the Valkyrie."
As casually as I could, I immediately powered down my terminal while desperately trying not to choke on a piece of chicken that just would not go down the right pipe. That voice! It was filtered and slightly modified, but I was absolutely certain. It belonged to Grace O'Connor!
I finally managed to force down the offending chunk of chicken, and while checking for the third time that my portable terminal was turned off, I quickly fed odo into my ear drums and the innumerable soft hairs used to pick up sound. I couldn't immediately hear her talking again, but I quickly filtered through the rest of the conversations that my suddenly super sensitive hearing was picking up and found a likely candidate for her conversation partner.
"... have no confirmation that the information you've given me is fact, I can't promise anything." The voice was... inconspicuous. It was definitely a male, probably middle aged. Still not definitely the person that Grace was talking to, but the subject matter seemed similar enough.
"Hummm," Grace mused. "This ship has a number of species introduced from Eden, correct? Hydras, for example?"
That confirmed it for me. Whoever Grace was talking to was this middle aged man. I could easily pinpoint the source of the conversation with my reinforced ears, but had kept my head down out of prudence so far – if Grace was onto me, she certainly wouldn't be talking about this kind of stuff if she'd noticed I was around.
I quickly glanced towards the section of the window where I heard the voices coming from, pretending to scan the whole room as I did so in order to allay suspicions.
"What of them?" Asked a man in a horrible hawaiian shirt. He was apparently talking to himself - there was no-one sitting at the table with him. His hair was brown and almost cut in a bowl, and his ferret-like features seemed familiar somehow, although for the life of me, I couldn't place his face. His voice was definitely the one talking to Grace, although the fact that I could hear her but couldn't spot her was worrying me a little. I slowly tightened my hands around invisible hilts.
I heard Grace chuckle, and suddenly realised where her voice was coming from - A suited person sitting directly behind my new ferret faced friend. A remote conversation then. The suit was sitting with it's back towards me, so the only feature I could make out was a short-cut buzz of dark purple hair.
"Eventually you'll find out about the true horror of the Vajra," The suit relayed for Grace. I couldn't determine the method used for relaying her voice, but then again, there was very little I could make out about the suit, who had apparently chosen that spot to hide himself as well as possible.
The ferret-faced man chuckled, perhaps choosing to interpret Grace's words without their due seriousness. I risked another sweep of my eyes across the room, using reinforcement to determine if I could spot anything I missed the first time around. Nothing really… wait. On ferret-face's table. A crystal in a specimen container. It looked extremely similar to the crystal that was the centrepiece of Sheryl's earring.
Suddenly the suit stood up. "You'll be in touch, I assume," is what I heard.
"Naturally," ferret-face replied.
As the suit made to leave the room, I had to make a quick decision. Did I stay to keep an eye on ferret-face, or did I follow the suit out and find out what I could from him? There was definitely something odd going on here, and the fact that I had decided to stop in this cafe for lunch was probably not a coincidence, at least when considering how my benefactor tended to work, so not chasing up one of these leads that had effectively been gifted to me was out of the question.
I quickly decided that following the suit was my best option. Although I couldn't quite remember where I'd met ferret-face before, I was confident enough that once I turned my mind to it I'd be able to identify him. The suit, on the other hand, was a complete unknown, and apparently far more related to Grace O'Connor than ferret-face. Given the topic of their incredibly short conversation, it was also now a fairly safe bet that Grace definitely knew more about the Vajra than a singer's manager would be expected to, which made following that up a higher priority.
Besides, if I was lucky ferret-face would still be here when I finished up with the suit.
I quickly got up and tailed the suit as he left the building, keeping a decent amount of distance between us as I did. Unfortunately there was no opportunity to discreetly capture him before he left the building, but fortunately for me he bypassed the taxi rank and car park on the outside, electing instead to proceed by foot down the hotel strip. I continued following at a distance, using meandering groups of tourists as cover to stay out of view of my mark. Eventually the scenery started becoming a bit more built up, and the crowds started to thin out considerably. The suit eventually turned off the main road into a small side alley about a block ahead of me.
Not wanting to be caught out in an alley again, I was cautious in my approach, once again applying reinforcement magecraft to sharpen my hearing. As I approached the corner, I could definitely hear rhythmic breathing, but no footsteps. Either the suit was waiting for something, or he was waiting for me.
I quickly dove into the wasteland of my soul, bringing back up with me the blueprints of my two favoured weapons, Kansha and Bukuya. I could taste them in the air, merely an application of prana away from being imprinted onto the world of Frontier. So prepared, I stepped around the corner.
Ten metres away from me was the suit. Despite my care in following him, I had somehow given myself away - he was staring right at me, hands at his sides. He was very definitely waiting for me. Now that I was up close, I could quite easily make out the suit's nondescript features. The face was angular, but unremarkable. Sunglasses covered his eyes, but I thanks to my reinforced eyesight I could make out his purple iris' underneath the shades, which matched his purple buzz cut.
Oddly enough, he made no sign of attacking me or running away, which lead me to believe that he obviously didn't talk to my cyborg friend. If he had heard of what we'd gotten up to he'd certainly be either in flight or trying to charge me. Instead, he opened his mouth.
"Shirou Emiya," spoke Grace's voice, minus the filtering and modulation. If I weren't in battle mode I probably would have blinked in surprise. I was expecting some sort of radio device to act as the relay, but this person was actually speaking with Grace's voice.
"You've rapidly become a pest with your constant poking into places best left untouched," he said. Still Grace's voice, and still as cold and detached as when he was talking to ferret-face.
The fact that this person (or voice box) was talking, as opposed to fighting or attempting to flee spoke volumes of his confidence. It was almost laughable, except for the fact that the longer I kept him (her?) talking, the more information I could get freely. Once I captured him, he would speak of course. The only issue was that under duress, the information was less liable to be accurate.
"Grace O'Connor," I replied flatly, giving away no trace of emotion. "I was under the impression you were currently coddling a galactic idol."
"I'm good at multi-tasking," the suit replied. It was unusual. Something was weird. Then it clicked. While Grace's voice had a sliver of amusement in it, the facial features of the suit hadn't changed at all, creating an even greater dissonance between what I was hearing and what I was seeing.
"Good to know," I replied, keeping my face neutral.
"Unfortunately, your clumsy attempts at meddling are treading close to information that I would like to remain secret. Under normal circumstances I'd be prepared to provide you a warning. However," - there was a brief pause as the suit brought up a hand filled with a RPK-47 sub-machine gun - "I'm of the opinion that you know exactly what you're doing, and as such will extend you the professional courtesy of not providing a warning."
The weapon hummed, it's electromagnetic coils spitting bullets at the location I had vacated a split second earlier. I braced myself against the wall I'd just flung myself against before the suit could correct his aim and using my Reinforced legs, flung myself at him. I was yet to complete the Tracing of my two weapons - I was of the belief that the suit still thought it was in control of the fight and therefore a possibility to continue talking freely, given the proper incentive.
Faster than a person should have been able to react, the suit dropped the sub-machine gun and brought it's hands around to parry a bare fisted strike that I launched. We exchanged blows faster than any normal human would be expected to react, and I allowed myself to be driven back a couple of steps after our initial exchange. The suit opened it's mouth while keeping it's guard up, granting me a small measure of satisfaction.
"It would not do to compare this skin to the inferior model you injured earlier," Grace noted idly.
For all his supposed inferiority, my cyborg friend with the unusual dress sense had successfully gotten the jump on me - the possibility of catching me by surprise was something this suit had failed to take advantage of. Not to mention the fact that Grace was currently talking her mouth off through it, something highly dangerous to be doing in this situation. Oh, she definitely thought she had me right where she wanted me.
"Goodbye, Mr. Emiya."
With that, the suit's hand came up again, a replica of the sub-machine gun he had just dropped clasped within it. Again, the hum of bullets sung past the spot I'd been standing at. Dodging bullets, as I'd learned decades ago, wasn't so much a matter of dodging the bullets in the air as it was reading the vector of the barrel and watching for the unavoidable twitches that heralded the trigger being pulled. Once you could read those, it was easy to move before the bullets were even coming.
Of course, this suit had faster reaction than the standard human, which made dodging a bit dicier than usual.
This time I'd launched myself higher onto the wall, reaching back down into my spiritual armoury to pull out a weapon more suitable for what I had in mind. I flooded odo through right hand as I leapt, constructing a sword of simple appearance. Decades of experience, wear and use were implanted into the sword in an instant as it was brought into being - a prefect copy of the original, made from the stuff of pure magecraft.
I gripped the sword by the hilt for a fraction of a second before a flick of my wrist sent it arcing towards the suit, who contemptuously dodged the projectile and brought his gun arm around to fire again...
The sword cut cleanly into the ground, just as I had anticipated. Suddenly the swinging gun arm was brought to an immediate halt as the power of the Black Key took effect - by piercing the suit's shadow to the ground, the Black Key immediately revoked the right of the suit to move under his own power.
I dropped back down to the alley floor directly in front of the suit, Tracing Kansho and Bukuya as I landed.
"Nanofabriaction unit to create a containment field expander," Grace said, an almost unnoticeable sliver of surprise threading through her voice. Otherwise she seemed entirely unworried about the current predicament of her mouthpiece. A touch of what I would describe almost as curiosity entered her tone. "Very impressive of you to get your hands on a piece of tech like this. . ."
It was apparent that Grace O'Connor and myself were on completely different wavelengths when it came to Artifacts, although I wasn't about to correct her. The more she incorrectly assumed about my methods, the more she would be surprised by them later.
"Sorry for overstaying my welcome, Ms. O'Connor," I told the suit, mimicking her earlier attempt to dismiss me, "but it's time to find out what's really happening here."
I kicked the suit in the chest, sending him flying back into the wall behind him. Just before the moment of impact, I drove Kansho through his left bicep and Bukuya through his right one, tearing muscle and spraying blood everywhere. They were calculated strikes - enough to hurt like hell and provide another couple of points to pin the suit down, but not enough to kill; in the short term, at least. Oddly enough, apart from a grunt as the air left his lungs, the suit didn't utter a single sound as he was forcefully pinned to the wall. No scream of pain, no nothing.
"Time to find out what you are," I said quietly to myself, reaching out with my hand and touching the hair of the immobile suit. Information from the Structural Grasp flooded into me, confirming several assumptions I had made about the suit. He was indeed a cyborg - almost half his brain had been replaced with electronics, including what I determined to be a high gain antenna. Sub-dermal armour plating was installed across a number of vital areas, and a second voice box had been installed. The spinal cord had been replaced with a high temperature superconductor, although to what purpose I could not tell, and his right arm below the elbow had been replaced with a flesh coated cybernetic arm.
There was something else there too, installed just beneath the diaphragm. Something that was composed of mostly… cyclotrimethylene trinitramine? Wired into a circuit that had just closed?
"Well played," I muttered in disgust, using my reinforced legs to propel me towards the rooftops. I had barely cleared the ledge of the six storey building I was aiming for when the C4 suicide bomb went off. I didn't bother to hang around, using my reinforced legs to clear several rooftops in the space of a few seconds before choosing a random building to enter and find a way down to ground level.
I didn't want to make too many assumptions, but the logical train of thought led me to believe that the suit was being remotely controlled by Grace O'Connor, using the secondary voice box to talk. The control seemed to be fairly dominant as well - pain sensors and feedback must have been shut off or non-existent, and there was next to no indication that an original personality existed inside the suit's mind.
I was aware that Grace was at least nominally implanted, but nominally the use of implants extended to browsing the net, as far as I understood. My poor understanding of higher level technology was unfortunately shining through here, as I had no idea what would be required in this day and age to so completely dominate and control a cyborg. It did impress upon me once again the level of ability Grace had with electronics though.
That little encounter also convinced me that whatever was going on, Grace was waist deep in it. She had all but admitted as much by letting me know I was getting too close to her secrets. So where did that take me? How deep was this little rabbit hole?
I wandered out the front door of the building I had been making my way down, idly noting that the blast had begun to attract attention, and if the distant wail of sirens was any indication, it was the attention of the local authorities as well. I began to casually meander back towards the hotel cafe where I had left ferret-face, although considering by the time I'd get back, nearly an hour would have passed since I left the place, I wasn't holding high hopes that he'd still be there with his crystal prize he'd won from the now dead suit.
Ugh. I was distracting myself. I still hadn't finished thinking about the situation that I was put in by Grace O'Connor.
I needed to prioritise getting in contact with Sheryl, with the caveat that I a) didn't need Grace to know I was doing so, and b) without having to resort to kidnapping. While that would be effective, sneaking away a galactic celebrity for a little bit of clandestine chat in some hidden dungeon somewhere would be bound to raise a few eyebrows among people who were legitimately trying to perform their security jobs. Not to mention that O'Connor would probably have my name out to the relevant authorities the moment it became apparent Sheryl was missing, whether I was actually involved or not. Despite the fact that if Sheryl was deeply involved with the Vajra I'd have to take her down, the net result for me would be the same; I'd have the whole Frontier convoy out for my blood – not an ideal position to be in.
Of course, seeing as I currently knew that she was out bugging the rest of my squad (or to be more precise, Saotome) on the island where the filming for the Bird Human movie was taking place, talking to her fairly soon was something I could accomplish easily. The real question was whether or not I could do so without the, well, oversight, of Grace. I doubted she'd attack me in front of so many witnesses, but there were a lot of things I just didn't know about the woman.
I sighed as I continued my walk back up to the hotel. Nothing was ever simple when it came to my life. I was currently swimming around in at least three different plots, and trying to find any information to work out what was actually happening in any of them was like trying to untangle a kinked up hose – I'd get one knot undone, which only gave me access to another one to untangle.
There was really nothing for it unfortunately. Despite my observations and instincts telling me that Sheryl wasn't knowingly involved with the Vajra, I'd have to find an opportunity to find out for certain. I knew she trusted me a little, enough not to tell the world that I could create swords out of thin air (despite the fact that Grace was almost certain to know that by now after my little altercation less than twenty minutes ago), so maybe I could leverage that. I supposed it was even a point in her favour - the Gracebot did seem to be surprised when I performed my Gradation Air to create the Black Key, indicating that Grace had no prior knowledge of my abilities before my fight with her suit. And Sheryl did have an unusual urge to bug Saotome and myself at entirely inconvenient times. Maybe during one of those visits I could find a nice quiet office for a serious chat about the general lethality of one's manager.
I guess that would have to do for the time being.
This brought me back to ferret-face. I knew I'd seen him somewhere before, but I still hadn't figured out where or when. I kept pondering the question all the way back to the hotel cafe, where sure enough, I found an overweight elderly couple at the table ferret-face had been occupying earlier rather than my new lead himself. I sat down to ponder the situation, and barely had been sitting for more than five minutes when I noticed a very conspicuous quintet of people enter the cafe.
The group drew a couple of startled stares from the tourists lounging around – hardly surprising given that four members of the group were wearing SMS jackets and the fifth was in a NUNS officer getup. I raised my hand to grab their attention, and the only male in the group noticed me first.
"Shirou," Captain Wilder said, acknowledging me and directing the attention of the rest of the Quarter's main bridge crew in my direction. "Mind if we join you?"
"Not at all Captain," I replied – it certainly would have been out of place to decline them, and there were no dangers that I could spot in the cafe at this particular point in time.
"What brings you guys out here?" I asked as the bridge crew found spare seats and dragged them to the table I was currently occupying.
"Enforced mental health day," the Captain said with a slight cough and a twinkle in his eye. I chuckled. Something was up.
"Which is to say," Lam cut in, "the Captain wants to go surfing, and the rest of us want to see the movie set!"
I glanced at the Captain, who coughed hurriedly, looking a touch put out with his wayward radar operator. Judging by the gleam in the old man's eye and the slight grin he was trying to hide behind his hand, most of that was for show.
"Most of the rest of us," Catherine Glass pointed out in the long suffering tones of someone who took her work seriously. I was suddenly reminded of her father's predicament, as well as his suggestion that maybe Catherine would be able to provide me some insight into the personalities on his staff.
"We didn't notice you complaining too hard," Captain Wilder noted mildly, that ghost of a grin still on his face. Catherine's face flushed a deep red at that point as she scrabbled to find excuses for her lack of resistance to the plan of heading down to the beach, an action which brought sly grins to everyone at the table.
"So if you came for a break, why the uniforms?" I asked idly, killing time as the group ordered some drinks.
And suddenly, I remembered where I'd seen ferret-face before.
Catherine's NUNS uniform must have flicked a switch in my subconscious somewhere, because thinking about it as I made my comment connected it to ferret-face. I'd last seen him wearing a very similar NUNS uniform in a top secret xeno-biology research facility on Island-Three, leading a team of government officials and NUNS officers around. Mina gave me an answer to my question about the uniforms, but my brain half-heartedly filed it away while I tried to visualise the scene. I had been stealing information from a few easily cowed scientists in a room with a view over the twenty metre tall corpse sample. At the bottom of the room I remember seeing ferret-face and using reinforcement of the eyes to read his name tag...
Leon Mishima! That was his name!
I came out of my 'eureka' moment to realise that the faces around the table were looking at me in expectation. I quirked my eyebrow upwards as I recalled and processed what Mina had said while I was on another train of thought (she was asking if I'd join them for a trip out to the island the film was being shot on). No doubt the others now thought I was more than a bit slow – I'd basically been sitting still with an undoubtedly goofy look on my face.
"Uh, I might avoid the filming island for now. I'm back here because I was feeling a bit crowded in over there," I replied with an apologetic shrug.
"Suit yourself," rumbled Captain Wilder, "that's where the best surfing is though."
I shrugged, hopefully indicating that I personally didn't find the idea of surfing to be too exciting. The conversation devolved into general bridge banter - stuff that I felt slightly left out of, but my general knowledge of SMS and my considerably in-depth knowledge of the majority of my fellow crew members characters meant I understood a fair few of the jokes being slung around at everyone's expense. Coffee for the bridge crew came and went, and despite the fact that I wouldn't be accompanying them over to the filming island, in the absence of anything better to do; I decided to follow them to the wharf.
Where they promptly discovered that the last boat over for today had left five minutes ago.
That didn't really bother them too much though. Carrying a surfboard in one hand, a kitbag strapped over his shoulder, and with crew in tow, Captain Wilder lead us to the nearest train station, declaring that he'd happily settle for second best. Again, I decided to tag along, remembering my late night discussion with Howard Glass and his opinion that maybe I might be able to glean some information into his problem by talking to his daughter Catherine. Despite the fact she was looking distinctly more uncomfortable with all the traipsing about their trip was forcing on her, she was still out here. And hell, given my streak of good luck today, she'd already have the plan bottled up and ready to talk to anyone willing to listen.
Another fifteen minutes later, we were disembarking at Jeffrey's Bay station.
Catherine looked like she was struggling a little bit more with her kit bag (which did look a bit fuller than the rest of the crew's), which gave me a good reason to hang back and help her. Of course, that wasn't my only reason for hanging around - with the rest of the bridge crew now a good couple of metres ahead of us and chatting loudly, now was as good a time as any to drag our feet so I could 'help' with her gear.
"Need a hand?" I enquired simply, causing her to jump a little as she realised I wasn't further ahead with the rest of the crew.
"Uh, no thanks, I think I've got it," she replied, her eyes darting about in a bit of a panic, and true to her words she finally managed to heft her bag into what seemed to be a comfortable position.
Why she appeared panicked for a brief second, I had no idea. It could have been something as simple as surprise seeing as I'd never really gotten a chance to just talk to her much, or it could have been something deeper. For a brief moment I wondered if she had suddenly realised I was the same person who had 'babysat' her when she was a couple of years old, under the guise of protecting Howard's family. Whatever it was, it was gone as quick as it came, and some careful probing would let me know if it would be safe to ask questions about her father's men. "So why'd you end up in the NUNS?" I asked, slipping easily into the personality of the congenial vet that was rapidly becoming my public persona within SMS.
"I, uh, I guess I mostly wanted to prove myself," she replied, a bit awkwardly, before lapsing into silence.
"To who?" I asked, wondering immediately if I was getting myself into another personal nutcase as soon as the words left my mouth. Alaya, let it not be so.
"To everyone, I guess. Everyone saw me as just a pretty face coming out of high school," she told me. Well, she definitely got that from her mother, but knowing her parents, Catherine was sitting on a genetic motherload of intelligence and political nouse. Surely joining the military wasn't necessary to prove that.
Instead of voicing that thought, I simply nodded. "Well, you must have showed them then," I said with a faked grin, "I've read your record, and there isn't much you could do to improve it."
"Y-you read my record?" the NUNS liaison asked quickly, her face flushing red for an instant.
"Well, yeah," I confirmed for her. "You were a new member of staff aboard the Quarter, and in addition you're effectively part of my mission control, so why wouldn't I have read it?"
Well, that and the fact that I was searching for discrepancies in her file. I was also just a little curious to see how the two year old I once 'babysat' had grown up. Ahead of us, the rest of the bridge crew had crested a small hill that lead to the beach, leaving Catherine and myself to play catch-up. We picked our pace up as Lam shouted some words of encouragement just before disappearing down the small hill of sand, and I wasn't at all surprised to find Monica, Lam and Mina racing ahead of Wilder, finding a spot to place their gear on the sparsely populated beach.
"I've read about you as well," she told me, that flush of red again staining her cheeks. "You've got quite the flight record."
That prompted a chuckle - not only was the file that she read fake, it would have been nowhere near indicative of my actual combat ability. I quickly covered the chuckle with quiet thanks, hoping that she took my mirth as some sort of plea for modesty.
"How did you end up attached to SMS anyway?" I asked the young woman as we approached a stand of umbrellas that had just been erected by the rest of the bridge crew. "Piss off the wrong people somewhere?"
"Not at all," she shot back quickly, sounding horrified at the thought that she might have gotten in someone's bad books. "SMS has a very high reputation within the NUNS, and when the opportunity came to volunteer to work with such talented people I was first in line!"
Her statement was met with a round of snorts from the assembled bridge crew, myself included.
"The NUNS higher ups might think highly of us, but SMS is a byword for privileged rich arseholes among the NCO's," replied Mina, saying what we were all thinking. "Is that what you were really thinking?"
For someone who was supposedly one of the best and brightest the NUNS had to offer, Catherine seemed a bit put out in social situations. Maybe she'd just sunk into the hierarchical based structure of the real military and was having trouble acclimatising to the more laid back nature of SMS interactions. Regardless, she coloured up a bit again.
"O-of course!" The brown haired woman declared hotly, regaining some initiative, "although I must admit the experience hasn't been quite what I expected."
"I'll bet it hasn't," said Captain Wilder with a knowing grin as he wedged the tail of his surfboard firmly into the sand, "but if you don't mind me, I'm going to get changed and hit the surf."
With that, the veteran Captain turned tail and made his way back up the hill to some changing sheds - which caused some general commotion as the rest of the bridge crew tried to sort out what they were going to do, effectively cutting our conversation with Catherine short. It was quickly decided that I would be staying to keep an eye on our gear while everyone else followed the Captain up the hill, a duty I managed to pull due to the fact I didn't bring any swimwear with me.
I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the beach and gathering my thoughts while the rest of the bridge crew participated in beach activities. I was surprised to find out exactly how good Captain Wilder was on a surfboard – not that I had any skill in the matter to judge him properly, but there were twists and turns happening on every wave where I was expecting gentle rides in. He did look slightly out of place in an incredibly old fashioned striped full length swimsuit though. The rest of the girls split their time between swimming, splashing about and watching Captain Wilder on his board. Monica in particular seemed to spend a lot of time watching the Captain with a wistful look on her face. Good luck with that one, I thought. The age gap just seemed incredibly too severe for what I bet she was hoping for.
I was also slightly worried about a follow up attack from Grace, but we were in a populated area to a certain extent, so the chances of that were slim to none. As it turned out, I was right, and eventually the lighting banks in the Island's superstructure began to dim, simulating a sunset. The bridge crew began filter back to the stand of umbrellas and beach towels that marked our spot on the beach. Mina was the first back, apparently having grown bored of watching Monica make eyes at the Captain, who was still out on his board.
"Hope you weren't too bored Shirou," Mina said as between the pair of us we began folding up our umbrellas. "You kind of didn't have anything to do. . ."
It was thoughtful of her to enquire, to be sure, but I certainly wasn't doing nothing. I had been simultaneously cooling down from my fight with Grace's cyborg minion and keeping a keen eye out for those further interruptions that didn't eventuate, which effectively kept me quite busy – especially if you knew what you were looking for.
"I caught up on my thinking," I told her with a grin. That was partly true as well - I had spent a bit of time debating the merits of flat out asking Catherine what she knew about the people in her father's department. I had eventually decided against it, given that she hadn't actually told me she was engaged to her father's aide, and the reason I'd be asking her would be to basically abuse that particular connection for information. She'd be well within her rights to be suspicious, which would lead me nowhere. I'd have to wait until she volunteered that bit of information that I already knew before I could ask her safely about it - and that sort of inefficiency annoyed me.
"Sure," Mina replied with a laugh as she brought an umbrella clattering into the sand. "That doesn't sound weird at all."
"No more weird than the bridge crew of one of the most advanced combat ships known to human kind taking a day off to go peer on their workmates while they make a movie," I replied with a good natured shrug, eliciting another chuckle.
"What's so funny?" Catherine demanded, as her, Lam and Monica strode up the beach to join in the cleaning effort. Behind them in the water I spotted Captain Wilder paddling out for one more wave.
"We were just discussing the relative normality of certain activities," Mina replied on behalf of both of us. Ram, Monica and Catherine all looked anything but understanding, but didn't bother following up on that line of thought, instead helping us quickly strike camp. Captain Wilder came up while the girls were up at the change sheds, exchanging their swimsuits for their uniforms for the trip back to Quarter.
"Good waves," the greying Captain noted gruffly as he simply threw a jacket and a pair of pants over his striped swimwear, not even bothering to dry off properly before heading off to the changing sheds.
Oddly enough, it was times like these that made me feel that the path I had chosen for my life was not the wrong path to take. Sure - I was perfectly balanced on a slippery slope that ended up in Counter-Guardian-hood without a lot of wiggle room. Sure, I regretted selling my mortality to save Rin only for her to die a few months later anyway. But my efforts up until now had allowed people to survive in a world where a lot of things had it out for them - to survive and enjoy their life, and enjoy their choices. It was a steep price to pay, and that was a fact, but it was also a fact that only I had to pay it, and the benefit applied to the whole of the human race. Seeing people live their lives happily in front of me was something I often didn't pay attention to - but when I stopped to think about it, it definitely lightened my mood.
Sometimes, it was the little things that mattered.
"Looked like you were having fun," I replied, with about as much unforced emotion as I'd used since I'd arrive on Frontier. "Now, we'd better get this gear up the hill before those ladies start giving us crap about it."
The trip back to the hotel was uneventful, although I did take to opportunity to integrate myself into the group a little more with small talk. I also was on the end of a more than a few dirty jokes regarding my so-called conquest of Ramaria, proving to me yet again that the beast known as rumour is a powerful force in a workplace environment. Out of the lot of them, apart from Captain Wilder (who I was already reasonably familiar with), I found myself getting along with Mina and Lam, who were more laid back than Monica and Catherine. That particular development wasn't the best possible outcome for my plan of working Catherine for information, but it was not bad by any means.
We were almost at the stop for the hotel when I realised that not only could I be questioning Catherine about the people working in her father's department, but I could also use her for knowledge about the local NUNS forces - in particular, ferret face. It was one of those sudden flashes on insight that pop up when you've been focussing on a problem for a while, and then take a step back to have a break. Given she was far less likely to be suspicious about me asking about people who she worked with on a regular basis as opposed to those on her father's staff, asking about ferret face… wait… Leon Mishima was his name, wasn't it? Well, that might prove productive. At the very least, there'd bound to be some rumours floating around about him.
"Hey Catherine, you know a lot about the high rankers in the NUNS yeah?" I asked, feeling the waters somewhat. There'd be no point asking about it if she spent too much time being a good little officer to listen to scuttlebutt.
"For the last time Shirou, you can call me Cathy," she chided me, carrying on a joke that had been running all afternoon. "But yes, I know a few things about the local command."
"What do you know about a guy called Leon Mishima? I heard he's in charge of local military research on the Vajra, or something close." I hadn't heard that at all actually - it was an educated guess I'd made after remembering how he was heading a menagerie of soldiers when I infiltrated the xeno-biology research labs on Island Three a while ago.
Catherine suddenly blushed harder than I'd seen her do all afternoon (quite a feat, to be honest - poor Catherine responded delightfully well to the teasing of the rest of the bridge crew), which in turn made everyone else suddenly interested in our conversation. Odd. And frustrating. I was hoping to keep this conversation casual enough that the rest of the crew would brush it off as being too boring for their liking.
"L-Leon Mishima is my father's aide and liaison of the NUNS to the office of the president," she squeaked, and I felt my jaw drop open.
I could see why she was blushing, and I could barely believe it. That would mean…
"Wait, are we talking about the same guy?" I asked in surprise, finally regaining control of my mouth. "Brown hair, horrible face, kind of looks like a ferret?"
"That's him," Catherine replied woodenly, and I immediately began cursing myself internally. Size 12 boot, meet mouth.
The awkward silence was broken as Lam and Mina burst into peals of laughter. Thanks a lot guys.
Although I guess I should be thankful that they didn't know that Catherine was engaged to him. She hadn't explicitly said that they were engaged yet, which was a very interesting omission and could mean a number of things. Things that I'd have to go over later once I'd steered this line of enquiry back to safer ground.
"So, he's not involved in Vajra research then?" I asked quickly.
"Not directly," she replied quickly, apparently as eager as I was to keep this conversation moving towards it's end point. "But because he ends up relaying all the information we gain to the President, he does tend to know a bit. Why do you ask?"
"I just like to be kept in the loop, and I'd seen his name on some of the reports floating around about the Vajra," I said, perhaps a bit nebulously. To be fair, I had seen his name on exactly one report, but surely Catherine didn't run over every report that came down to the pilots. Surely she wouldn't have the intel to call me on my bluff. Surely not. I hope.
"Well, if there is something in particular you'd like to know, perhaps I can ask him," she replied, although the look on her face implied that she'd rather do anything but. Whether that was because she didn't want me asking or she didn't want to talk to Mishima was up for interpretation however.
"No, I'm good, just curious," I responded quickly, thankful enough she didn't spot my rather weak lie. "Thanks though."
With that, we were both happy to let the conversation drop, and a minute later I was leaving the Captain and his bridge crew on the train back to Island One while I got off at the stop for the hotel.
As I made my way back from the station in the now starlit early night, I tried to determine if there were any other hints I may have missed in that brief conversation. The fact that I saw ferret-face Leon Mishima meeting with Grace's cyborg mouthpiece more than likely meant he was involved with her plot - although whether that was as a partner, minion or superior I couldn't tell at the moment. That would make things a bit more complicated, given my new information that he was also Howard's aide. It suddenly made Howard's issue a bit more pressing - I'd have to try and tease out whether or not Mishima was also the one making Howard dance to his tune. Ugh. That would require more time, effort and snooping.
Or maybe not.
Howard certainly wasn't lacking in intelligence, and even if he couldn't openly act against whatever was happening in his office, he had demonstrated he was capable enough to investigate it. Maybe I could give him the name and let the President of Frontier determine if the man he was chasing was indeed Mishima. It sounded like a fairly solid idea, so I made a mental note to get in touch with Howard as soon as possible.
There was also the fact that Catherine had neglected to mention that she was engaged to Leon Mishima when we were on the train. Without knowing the context of why she chose to withhold that information however, that could have meant anything. The list of reasons I could come up with ran from the possibility that Mishima and Catherine were well in cahoots with each other right up to the possibility that she was simply too embarrassed (or professional) to be mixing her private life with work. Until I understood that situation better, I'd have to be on my guard around her - hell, even if she was relatively innocent, her mentioning our conversation to Mishima could well put him on his guard against me. That would ruin my greatest advantage I had when dealing with Mishima - the fact that he didn't know I existed.
Or maybe not. If he was mixed up with Grace, then depending on their relationship, it was possible that she had plans to pass on information about me, if she hadn't already.
This certainly wasn't getting any less complicated, I realised. It didn't take me long to find my way back to my hotel room and I swung the door open, only to find it already occupied by Saotome, Mikhail and Luca.
"Hello, hello, hello," I said with a nod to each of my squad-mates. Mikhail and I were splitting a twin room in order to reduce costs (the producer clearly being a fan of remaining on the good side of his creditors), so I wasn't that surprised to find him and Luca there. Saotome though… he was currently technically attached to Sheryl through the company for the time being, so I expected him to have been hanging around with her for a while.
"How was the filming?" I asked, deciding that I could easily figure out why he was here in casual conversation.
"It was heaps of fun," enthused Luca as he pulled away from a holo he was looking at. "There's so much to do and see at a movie set!"
As it turns out, I wasn't the only one with a busy day – it was pretty eventful out at the filming island as well. The producer was apparently big fan of Saotome's character in one of his earlier kabuki plays, which got our blue haired pilot instant recognition - and some desperate pleading to take a part in the movie. Saotome being Saotome with his well… history… immediately shut them down, but reconsidered after continual pleading from Elmo, Ranka's manager - Mikhail mentioned with a smirk that he was on his hands and knees for nearly an hour as they offered to increase Ranka's role if Saotome accepted a position. Eventually he relented and took a stunt double position for the lead actor, who by the sounds of things was being a bit of a prima donna and claiming underwater shots weren't in his contract.
The more interesting news came after that though. Saotome took over from Mikhail's animated storytelling right after the young playboy pilot mentioned that Ranka had gone missing. That immediately caught my attention, as I was aware that the Vajra apparently found Ranka interesting enough to capture, as opposed to squashing like a bug - which in turn meant that Grace O'Connor would have her reasons to be interested in the girl. Provided they weren't already in cahoots. The truth though, had been a bit less noir, even if it was just as unsettling. Saotome had found our Squad Commander's younger sister on a cape barely a kilometre from the main filming beach, singing. As he approached, some sort of unidentifiable four legged beast charged out the jungle at Ranka, prompting the blue haired pilot to draw his gun and fire upon it. Apparently it was moving so fast it was hard for Saotome to land a hit, but I found it more likely that his lack of ability at the target range was a larger factor in that. Regardless, the ineffectual shots did manage to draw the attention of the creature, which in Saotome's own words 'batted us about like a you might flick a bug from your shirt'.
That was the point where 'a blonde haired weirdo in a purple jumpsuit' stepped out of the tree line.
"Wait, what?" I interjected.
"A blonde haired wierdo in a purple jumpsuit," Saotome repeated for me, in a tone that reminded me of a mother telling her child that yes, if you stick your hand in the beehive, you will get stung.
"And he did what?" I asked. Could this guy Saotome was talking about be . . .?
"I was getting to that bit," the rookie pilot grumbled. "He popped out of the treelike as the animal closed in on Ranka, and made a ridiculous leap of at least twenty metres to put himself between the animal and Ranka."
Impossible leap for a normal human, blonde hair, purple jumpsuit. . . Things were definitely sounding pretty familiar. I wanted to interject but decided to save my questions for the end of the story – if I kept interrupting him, Saotome might get curious as to why I was doing so.
"He smashed it right in the face, which also sent it flying straight through a chunk of rock."
"This part smells of bullshit by the way," Mikhail warned me, wearing an amused grin.
"Shut it Michel," Saotome warned, although his voice lacked it's usual fire. This apparently being the side effect of the pair getting along better - or a result of having had this argument before at least. "Anyways, the beast stood up, charged the wierdo, who extended a knife from his arm!"
"Implanted then," I said flatly. I didn't matter if Mikhail thought Saotome was full of shit, I was certain he wasn't. And I knew exactly who he'd run into. The evidence was far too stacked for this to be a coincidence – it was definitely my new friend.
Saotome gave me a weird look, although for the life of me I couldn't decipher it. "Anyway," he continued. "There was a blur, and suddenly the beast was in two perfect halves, sliced right down the middle."
Sounded about right. My new friend was a combat machine after all – even the most ferocious wild animals wouldn't stand a chance against him.
"He told me his name then left, leaving me to haul Ranka back to camp," Saotome concluded, and I just couldn't stop my jaw from dropping.
"He told you his name?"
I couldn't believe it. I'd spent weeks chasing up information about my new cyborg friend and had nothing to show for it, and suddenly he runs into our resident rookie and bam! He's gives up his name. Saotome gave me a funny look.
"Well, I asked for it," the blue haired pilot told me, a touch of confusion threading into his tone.
I had just managed to pack my jaw back up into it's usual resting position when I heard that statement, and it took a monumental amount of willpower to keep it there.
"So let me get this straight," I said. "You're getting beaten up by a, for lack of a better word, monster. Then someone with combat implants, which are illegal on Frontier I might add, turns said monster into cold cuts. And you ask his name before he disappears into the night?"
So I was feeling a bit put out, more than a bit. Sure, I knew that what Saotome was telling me was more than likely true, or at least collaborated with my own gathered evidence. But! The rookie is not supposed to stumble onto information I'd been trying for weeks to obtain!
"Look, I know it sounds stupid," Saotome began, sounding defensive, "but that's what happened! I took Ranka back to the set and she thought I'd saved her."
I rolled my eyes and raised my eyebrows, hoping that everyone in the room would interpret it as me plainly not believing his story, when in actual fact it was because it was the least violent way I could express my disbelief at his ridiculous luck.
"So, what was his name?" I asked, still using a tone of voice which conveyed the disbelief I was feeling. Although it probably sounded more than a bit sarcastic.
"Brera Stern," the blue haired pilot responded curtly.
"I'll look him up for you," I replied, injecting more sarcasm into my voice, trying to convince him that I wasn't really interested. Saotome gave me a funny look, but as our eyes met I saw a glimmer of recognition there and started cursing myself internally. In my general surprise at the situation, I'd completely forgotten the former actor could see straight through my act.
Regardless, he kept his silence, for which I was thankful - I didn't need Mikhail or Luca knowing that I was hiding things.
At this point, Luca took over the narration from Saotome.
"Anyway, when Ranka and Alto-sempai came back, the director was all over them! Apparently he'd heard Ranka singing on the cape and wanted to use her song for the movie!"
As usual, our young L.A.I. liaison was overly bubbly, as though trying to make up for a rift he perceived to be forming between Saotome and myself. I masked a small grin and nodded at the youngest member of our squadron, urging him to continue.
"So she got promoted to play the part of Mao Nome! Apparently the previous actor had gotten into some sort of accident…" The young boy frowned at that, as if wondering if there was more to that story than what he'd heard, but continued on. "Ranka's going to be a serious star!"
Luca continued talking, but I was already listening with only half an ear as I sunk into my thoughts. I personally had my doubts that a single bump up the actor relevance chain would catapult the younger Lee sibling to stardom, but nodded anyway. Truth be told I was still more interested in what Saotome had said, despite us having left that part of the conversation for the time being. Now that I'd gotten over my surprise (and indignation) that Saotome had met my new friend, or Brera, I should say, I was starting to think about what else he'd mentioned.
To be precise, that my cyborg friend appeared when Ranka was in trouble. He'd either just arrived at the scene, or was biding his time until Saotome had proved insufficient to deal with the threat. The first would have been pure coincidence in the timing, the second spoke volumes about some sort of connection between Grace and Ranka. The problem was, which was it? I had no evidence either way. And, I doubt Saotome was in the frame of mind to notice at the time.
Additionally, even if this Brera had just arrived on the scene, what was he doing there? It was more than likely he was tailing them - no-one takes leisurely walks around the jungle to defend local passers-by from deadly fauna.
Something was fishy here, and suddenly I really found myself hoping that he was trying to investigate SMS instead of several alternatives that quickly ran through my mind. I really didn't want Ranka to be involved in all of this.
Almost as soon as that thought broke my consciousness, a memory of Ranka being kidnapped by a red Vajra drone breached the ocean of my memory.
Dammit! There's too much circumstantial evidence for me to ignore.
"… so it looks like we're going to be busy all week," Luca finished up happily, and I quickly replayed the half heard monologue from my squad-mate in my head. Right, he'd just talked about the filming schedule.
"And release in a month yeah?" I asked quickly, to show that I'd been paying attention. I didn't know much about the film industry these days, but that seemed a little fast to the me who stopped paying attention in the late 2000's.
Luca nodded, continuing his tirade, and I continued to ponder the issues that had come up today, namely Grace O'Connor and how to get Sheryl informed of her manager's intent, how to deal with Leon Mishima (or if I'd have to deal with him at all), and how to start diving into Ranka's connection with this all.
Despite the rate at which that day had progressed, the next week passed slowly. There were no Vajra attacks, and thankfully the Pixie's were on standby for the week, which meant they couldn't come out here to distract me. Having said that, I did receive a hail of texts from an obviously bored Ramaria, and a few emails from Nene, who politely enquired if I could get a few autographs for her.
I had palmed that job off to Mikhail, because with Grace around on the filming island, my ability to go to the set was effectively sealed. I knew she was up to something, she knew I was on to her, she also knew I was interested in Sheryl, but I wasn't sure if she knew exactly what Sheryl knew about me. The smart money was on 'no' at the start of the week, but who knew now?
So as much as I wanted to get onto the island for a quick chat to Sheryl, it was a fairly safe bet that Grace would be monitoring me the minute I stepped on set. In addition, the more time I spent in contact with Grace, the higher the chance I'd inadvertently let something slip about myself. I unfortunately had no choice but to respect her abilities when it came to electronics and intelligence gathering, and that was that. I also still had no idea when, or if, her next cyborg friend would be trying to take my life.
I did get a chance to pass on Leon Mishima's name to President Glass in my downtime though, so hopefully he'd be able to clean up that mess by himself, and if I was really lucky, he'd also be able to find out if Mishima was connected to the Vajra or Grace in any way. I wasn't holding my breath though, and planned to stick my nose into his business if I couldn't safely get my nose into Grace's business.
The filming itself was apparently finished with more than a touch of drama, at least according to Luca's updates. Apparently stuntman Saotome had a kissing scene with Ranka which caused a bit of a stir among them and Sheryl. As a small bonus, the scuttlebutt around SMS suddenly stopped revolving around Ramaria and myself, at least for a little bit.
Eventually, the week dragged into two, then into a month. I couldn't get in touch with Sheryl despite my best attempts. Without the tracker in her bag, I couldn't just follow her at whim, and of course it would be impossible to get a quiet word with the diva at any of her public events. I even tried staking out her hotel for a couple of days, but she was always escorted in and out, in complete defiance of everything I'd learnt about her movement habits up until now. Looks like Grace was cracking down on security, to my detriment.
Speaking of Grace, I was still considerably in the dark about her plans. I didn't want to risk approaching her just yet, and she certainly didn't slip up when I attempted to figure out what she was doing by more circuitous methods. She also had apparently wised up to the fact that sending out hit men (hit bots?) out to kill me would more than likely waste resources. It was frustrating that she was playing this defensive, but not unexpected.
Eventually the month ground to an end, and SMS's mascot, one Miss Ranka Lee, suddenly found herself very popular with the release of the Legend of Zero, a movie based on the Mayan Island incident. I certainly wouldn't call her rise meteoric, because I'm certainly not prone to hyperbole, but it did seem like an awfully short time between her being a struggling performer and an instantly recognisable celebrity, all thanks to one role in a movie. I was honestly surprised at how big of a crowd was at her premier (SMS having obtained tickets due to our role in providing equipment and impromptu actors), and how much of a cheer she got when presented to the crowd. She got more applause than Sheryl, which was something any critic of the industry would be sure to take note of; that was for sure.
One bonus about her growing popularity was that it had spawned a horde of rabid fans that were more than willing to dig up information on her day and post it all around the net, saving me the time and effort of keeping up to date with her daily movements and engagements. In addition her close relationship with SMS meant that she was often around, which made it relatively easy to get one of my trackers into her school backpack. All together, keeping an eye on Ranka wasn't difficult, but unfortunately there was no movements (that I could pick up on at least) to imply that she was working with Grace, or at least that Grace had her eye on the young girl.
All in all, I could feel myself growing despondent. No recent Vajra attacks meant that I had no new leads to investigate, and my current leads were either turning up nothing or stonewalling me hard. Hell, I'd even pressed Luca on the whole fold quartz thing, whatever that was, but he stubbornly held his ground, claiming his brothers hadn't authorised him to hand out that information yet. For such a gossip, he could be remarkably tight lipped when he wanted to be, and of course I couldn't force the information out of him without inciting a falling out with SMS and possibly public incarceration. I fell into a melancholic daily routine whereupon I'd wake up, hit the simulators in the morning, train with Nene in the dojo during lunch, and then spend my hours on standby in the ready room, browsing the net for any new information. It was boring, it was dull, but there was literally nothing I could do about it.
All that changed four days after the movie premier. It was early evening, and Skull squadron was on standby in the ready room when Ozma's phone went off. The rest of us cocked our heads in curiosity towards the greying Squad Commander as he answered.
"This is Ozma."
There was a slight pause as whoever was on the other end of the line said their piece. Ozma's eyebrow went up.
"Wait, who?" he asked quickly.
"Thought that's what you said. On my way, just keep her there."
Ozma snapped his phone shut and gave us as a group a long suffering stare. I just held his eye - we all knew we were listening in to his phone conversation. Finally he sighed.
"Shirou, you're with me. Sheryl Nome has just rocked up at our front door, in disguise."
Well, I don't know what to say. Sorry for taking such a long time would be a good start I suppose. This chapter was born of stop-start-stop-start writing over like what, 6 months? I must have re-read this so many times to remind myself of what I was actually doing earlier in the piece! Despite that, it still feels like a chapter cut into parts with wierd characterisation, especially the last section – I said to myself at the start of the week that it was time to finish this, and I started running out of time, so I started time lapsing. I was so intent on getting this out before the weekend I skipped my usual proofreader Vandenbz (sorry mate), and even then I was a day late and ended up finishing on election day :p
Plotwise, I enjoyed seeing Shirou connect several dots, but I didn't enjoy the logical conclusion of his unfortunate direct encounters with Grace O'Connor's minions – the fact that she shuts up shop and closes off his access to the plot points he needs to advance. I just felt that at this stage of the game, Grace has her networks in place as well as her ability to get digital better than damn near anyone in the universe, so she's entitled to stay ahead of our poor hero in the information stakes. Makes for boring writing, hence the skip of about a month :p
One big thing for me this time was getting a review from Gabriel Blessing – I mentioned right in the first chapter of Wings that this was inspired by his work, so it was nice to have him drop an encouraging comment in. Not going to lie, it motivated me for a good week or so and I thought I was going to get a quick chapter out, but then the usual social life dragged me back into it's clutches.
Thanks for reading, and see you guys next chapter!