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Chapter 13: Those Who Hunt Monsters
The door opened. With nary a whisper, Emiko stepped into my office.
I did not look up. My eyes were pinned to the chaos strewn across my mahogany desk. Dozens of papers littered the surface. Tiny, machine printed letters assaulted my eyes. Faint traces of ink stained my flesh.
With undaunted diligence, I shuffled through the mess.
Where did I put that damn thing? I flipped through the scattered reports. Notes and records were shoved aside. There, buried beneath an eighty page budget report, was the Institute's master list.
My best friend. My worst enemy. Contained within the thick volume were the names, pictures, and profiles of the four-hundred persons who had caught the Institute's interest. In here was the whole of the Institute's population. So too were recorded all who escaped Artemis's reign and those who had opposed it.
I was in here. Hikaru was in here. Even Hecate, and a dozen of her aliases, was captured within.
In the days following Artemis's fall, the master list had become my ally. If I were to meet someone, I would open this book and learn their abilities, personality, and background. The list offered an introduction. Often, that was enough. If I needed more, I could access the Institute's archives.
"Saotome-sama," Emiko called quietly.
I gestured for silence. An endless sea of pages whipped passed my eyes. I searched the depths, reading the headings as I sought a name.
And there it was. Shit.
I scowled. My glower deepened when I scanned the fax sent by the Ministry of Justice a second time.
Thud! The volume slammed closed. With a frustrated sigh, I dropped my head into an open palm. My thumb and forefinger rolled over my brow. The kneading pressure drilled into my skull but failed to halt my brewing headache.
"Saotome-sama," Emiko queried again. "Kuonji-san is here to see you."
"Ucchan?" I murmured.
I glanced up, blinking to clear my bleary vision. Damn I was tired. I had closed my eyes for just a second and already the vapors of sleep had crept up on me. My nights had been thin. I was operating on a bare four hours. That, in itself, was not enough to put me down. But days of shorted rest added up.
Given the mess I had inherited, it was not about to get better anytime soon.
"Yes, Saotome-sama," Emiko answered.
The green vested knight waited at the entrance of the room. An antique suit of armor flanked her on the left. To her right was an heirloom chair.
We were in Artemis's office. My office. It had not changed a bit. A pair of tall shelves were at my back, filled with musty books and ancient knowledge. Elegant paintings decorated the ornate walls, featuring towering turrets and alien landscapes. A collection of relics were sealed behind glass, the contents of which would make an anthropologist green with envy.
And all of it was mine.
Lacking was any personal touch. My zone of influence ended with my desk. Reports were scattered over the top. An empty tea cup and its platter secured a uncovered portion of wood. Artemis's death, and the madness that followed, allowed time for little more. People, politics, and paperwork were devouring my life.
"Tell her to come back later," I ordered. "The cops snagged a Kei Enoki at Tokyo International Airport. From the looks of it, she is one of ours. Grab Akina for me. Tell her to drag that brat into my office so I can strangle her."
"And who is strangling who now?"
Ukyou pushed her way into my office. The brown haired chef glanced around the room, taking in the decadent elegance. I offered an annoyed look, but my irritation did little to dissuade her.
"Wow. So this is where my tax dollars have been going," Ukyou disparaged. "I might be in the wrong line of work." She paused for a moment, considering the portal behind me. "You might want to reconsider the window, Ranchan. It is a bit on the pretentious side."
Towering, stained glass loomed over my back. Beams of colored light flowed through the aperture, casting the semblance of Artemis's seal upon the carpeted floor. Set betwixt the brilliance, I appeared as a shadow. The room was tilted, and my seat high, creating a projection of power that dominated all who entered.
I took a moment to indulge in the theatrics by glaring at my friend. Struck by the atmosphere of authority, Ukyou squirmed.
"Everything here belonged to Artemis. Your taxes paid for none of it," I proclaimed. My harsh eyes fell on the chef. "I am busy, Ucchan. Can this wait?"
My words shook Ukyou from her stupor. The girl grabbed a chair and dragged it toward my desk.
"Busy?" Ukyou scoffed. The brown haired girl dropped into her seat. "And were you busy yesterday? How about the day before that? You have been brushing me off all week, Ranchan."
"And I have been busy all week," I snapped back. I let out a frustrated growl. "Do you want to know what I did yesterday? Do you, Ucchan? Well, I will tell you. I got the joy of being locked in a room with the Prime Minster for twelve hours straight. Yeah. That's right. I got to listen to a bunch of old men yap at each other for an entire day.
"And that is not the worst of it. I am buried to my neck in paperwork. Angry parents are sending letters. Idiot reporters are trying to break into the Institute. And a dumb girl was just caught attempting to hop a plane to-" I grabbed the Ministry of Justice fax, scowled at its contents, then threw it back on my desk. "-South Korea."
The clank of porcelain ended my tirade. I snagged the tea cup Emiko had set upon my desk. The steaming liquid poured down my throat. Scalding pain did nothing to relieve my displeasure.
"Take a break, Ranchan," Ukyou commanded. Her stern eyes were unrelenting. "You can't solve everything. And you will kill yourself trying."
"Believe me, you don't have to tell me that," I grumbled. I leaned back in my chair, a long breath slipping from my lungs. "But I can't rest yet, Ucchan."
I stared into my cup. Transparent, green ripples rolled over the steaming surface.
My feelings were in flux. I was Director of the Pretty Princess Institute, but I had no choice but to trust my organization. I was too green to take charge. Even if I had the necessary experience, it was impossible to singlehandedly control an organization of two hundred.
So, I delegated. The senshi were given operational authority. I did not fear betrayal. Kamiko, Michiko, and Akina were loyal. They were not just allies. They were loving sisters. If I stumbled, they would pick me up. If an enemy attacked, they would serve as my shield. If I asked, they would surely lift my burden.
But, while I did not doubt their faith, I questioned their motives. Artemis was dead. Her machine was not. Her monstrous Institute lived on through all the processes and methods Artemis had devised. Like a bomb, it had to be dismantled piece by piece and wire by wire.
Until that was done, there could be no leisure. The hungry demon had to die, then its ghost exorcised. Nothing less was acceptable.
Ukyou broke the silence. "So, what is this about airplanes?"
"Tenki is classified. Magical girls are military assets," I elucidated. "Crossing the border without official approval is considered an act of espionage. By legal mandate, the Pretty Princess Institute is compelled to enforce such provisions." I took a shallow sip from my cup. "Kei Enoki tried to cross the border without prior approval. She broke the law. It is as simple as that."
Ukyou frowned. "Can you blame her?" she asked softly. "You know what Artemis did, Ranchan. Kei was probably scared. Anyone in right in their mind would be. Hell, when I heard that Kamiko was still at the top, I wondered if maybe I ought to vanish as well."
I understood Ukyou's point. To a degree, I agreed with it. The girls of the Institute did not know me. But they knew my senshi plenty well. For most of them, that would be enough. The fact I was keeping Artemis's organization intact would damn me in their eyes. They would not stop to hear my message. To them, I was Artemis by another name.
And trust, once lost, was hard to reclaim.
Yet Kei had broken the law. Whether or not I empathized with her position was meaningless. I was obligated to carry out my duties as Director. If I continually refused to do so, the Prime Minister would strip me of my position, threat of internal war or no.
"I don't blame her," I replied. "But I don't have a whole lot of sympathy either. Idiots like Kei make my job harder. I am already having a hell of a time negotiating amnesty for the girls Hikaru saved. And don't get me started on my promise to Cologne." I shook my head and returned my cup to its platter. "Do me a favor, Ucchan. If you ever get the urge to skip out of town, see me first and save us a world of heartache."
I closed my eyes and nursed a headache. Ukyou was right, I needed a break. The stress of this job was killing me.
"What does my schedule look like?" I asked, my eyes on Emiko.
"You have a meeting with the senshi in five minutes, Saotome-sama," Emiko answered politely. "Your tutoring session follows directly after. The rest of your day is open."
I snorted. Open. Now there was a misleading term. 'Open' implied nothing more than a lack of pressing obligations. Such periods were quickly consumed. I had paperwork. I had homework. I had training. I was split between the triple obligations of martial artist, student, and director. A few minutes here and there were all I could muster.
There was a reason I was running short on sleep.
"Tell Kamiko that I will see her in half-an-hour," I commanded.
Emiko curtsied. "As you wish, Saotome-sama." The knight swept out the door.
As she left, I stood. With one hand, I plucked a ribbon from my hair. The length unrolled, unleashing waves of pinkish-red.
The tenki carryover process had not slowed at all. Michiko's experiments may have ended, but mine had not. Tenki was the focus of my art. I trained while transformed. In spare moments, I practiced quick transitions. The repeated use of tenki was showing its effects.
My hair was growing impossibly fast. Two months ago, my locks had touched my shoulders. Today they brushed the small of my back. Soon a shimmering curtain of pink would reach my knees. My natural body was slowly shifting. In a year or two, my form would be permanently set to that of my transformation.
Fear had not fled. Resolve could not erase emotion. It merely suppressed it. But my path was set. I would be a magical girl. My duties as director demanded it. And so I would push forward and strive to be the strongest of them all.
"Okay, Ucchan. You've got my ears. Talk."
The brown haired girl shifted in her seat. "Thanks Ranchan. I will get straight to the point." Ukyou took a deep breath. "I am leaving."
I froze. My hand hovered over a pair of silver rings.
"Leaving?" I repeated. "What do you mean by that, Ucchan?"
Motion resumed. My fingers closed. Nerves buzzed when my flesh touched the cold, silver rings. Jeweled hair ornaments. Neural guides. The price of my directorship.
Even as Director, I was not free of Kamiko's tutelage. The guides were our compromise. The silver rings, capped with amethyst, were crafted from the same magic as the tiara. Once worn, they infiltrated my brain. There they generated soft pressure, encouraging the formation of habit. Though this mechanism, my mannerisms would be shaped into those of a well bred lady.
The guides were as much a convenience as anything. They spared Kamiko and I the needless hassle of etiquette training.
Unlike the tiaras, the neural guides were not a restraining device. I could don or doff them as I pleased. Further, I had say over the content of their software. Kamiko's embedded instructions were subject to my approval. I had abused that privilege with abandon, chopping away structures I did not agree with. At the same time, I had ordered Michiko to add a series of useful features.
Thanks to that, the guides were more a reward than a punishment. They improved my concentration, suppressed boredom, and had a mental kick stronger than a mug full of caffeine. While wearing my guides, I could roll through reams of dry government papers. I could sit through long, stuffy meetings. I could wear a polite smile while ignoring the sneers of sexist bastards. I could avoid murdering the entire Japanese Cabinet.
In essence, the guides let me do my job while retaining a semblance of sanity.
I was already an addict. It was only the stubborn insistence that I bull through my duties without a crutch that kept me from wearing them all the time.
"Yeah," Ukyou breathed. "I am leaving. Last week, I caught wind of a rumor that you were transferring schools. That was when I said to myself, Ucchan old buddy, maybe it is time for you to get off your ass and move on."
I frowned and gathered my hair into tufts. I clipped the ornaments in place. Magic pulsed. A buzzing sound filtered through my ears. The world sharpened. Weariness became distant. The throbbing pain in my head eased. With a feminine gesture, I brushed my ponytails back and retook my seat.
"If my transfer is the only issue, I can try and have you moved as well," I offered.
Ukyou snorted. "Don't bother. I did a little research into the place you are headed, Ranchan. Let me tell you, you are in for a real adventure taking classes in rich bitch girl's school like that."
The chef gave a wry smile. "Besides, I have been thinking about this for a while. I need to get away from Nerima, Ranchan. For the last ten years, I have been living my life as my father commanded. I want to move on, Ranchan. I want to find myself. I want to know who the real Ucchan is. And, no offense, I am not going to do while around you."
My expression fell. I wanted Ukyou to stay. My past was vanishing. Everything I knew was turning to dust. My manhood. My future. Now, my oldest friend. The world was turning. Time was passing. My friends were changing.
And so was I.
Part of me wished it would all stand still. But I could not deny Ukyou's feelings. I knew all too well how important it was to seek oneself.
"I will be sad to see you go," I said softly. "But if you need to leave, leave." I released a slow breath. "Can I at least know where you are heading?"
"Wherever the wind blows," Ukyou joked. The brown haired girl gave a helpless shrug. "I don't really have a destination set, Ranchan. I figured I would buy myself a cart and spend a year wandering up and down the coast."
"Sounds like fun," I said, my lips quirking in a smile.
"More fun than paperwork, that's for sure," Ukyou replied, glancing at my desk. "Though I bet it doesn't pay nearly as well." Ukyou's humor vanished. The girl took a deep breath and leaned forward. Her eyes were serious. "Ranchan, before I head out, answer me something. And don't hold back. Did I ever have a chance?"
I paused, closing my eyes for a moment. Ukyou deserved honesty.
My words were firm and lacked hesitation. I should have said it long ago. Ukyou was my fiancée. The betrothal had been arranged by our foolish fathers. In this case, Pop's stupidity was especially egregious. I had already been promised prior to Ukyou's engagement. But I could only blame part of the mess on him. My father begat the sin. I allowed it to fester. Two years ago, I had foolishly named Ukyou my 'cute fiancée'. The phrase had been intended as a joke.
Ukyou had taken it seriously.
And I could not claim ignorance. Her interpretation was made crystal clear in the months that followed. To my shame, I had done little to correct my miscommunication.
"I thought so," Ukyou said sourly. Hard, brown eyes cut across the table. "You shouldn't have strung me along, Ranchan," she accused. Ukyou held my gaze for a moment longer. Then her ire melted. "But I can't say I am not at fault too. I saw the writing on the wall. I just didn't want to read it."
"Ucchan," I appealed. "I might not think of you that way, but-"
"Don't start," Ukyou snapped. "I am willing to forgive you, Ranchan. But, even though I was expecting that answer, I am still pissed. I am sorry, but I think we are going to have to cut this meeting short."
Ukyou stood. Her chair skittered back. The chef's stormy visage faded when she caught my uneasy expression.
Ukyou's hands tensed into fists. She let out a tense growl before forcefully calming herself. "We are still buddies, Ranchan. I just need a little time to myself. That is all." Ukyou shook her head, as though clearing her thoughts. "Tell you what. I will swing by Tokyo a couple of months from now. We can talk then."
I gave a relieved smile. "I will see if I can fit you into my schedule," I quipped.
"You better," Ukyou said, glaring. "Because if you are still booked twenty-four-seven then, I swear I will knock your ass out and drag you off on a vacation."
"If Kamiko is still running me that ragged, I will need one," I griped. My shoulders slumped in relief. "Thanks Ucchan. You are a real friend." I paused then gestured to myself. "Though, with the way things are going, who knows what I will be like by then."
"You and me both, Sugar. My transformation is based on yours, remember?" Ukyou gave a sudden wink. "If it comes to that, we can go shopping for cute outfits together. That way you will be able to share all those fashion secrets you've gathered," she teased. The laughter drained from her brown eyes, leaving them dull in comparison. "Oh, and Ranchan, you need to talk to your parents. Yeah, I know, your father is an ass, like mine. But he is family. Don't burn bridges when you don't have to."
Upon hearing about my parents, I grimaced.
It had been two months since I had seen Mom and Pop. The war with the Institute had provided plenty of excuses. Now that I was Director of the Pretty Princess Institute, I was running out of them.
Pop, I was not worried about. Oh sure, the old bastard would yell up a storm. But, at the end of the day, Pop only cared that I mastered the art and married Akane Tendo. The first was a non-issue. It was the second that would prove troublesome.
Not that I was worried. I was fairly sure I could out stubborn my old man. And if that failed, the greedy bastard was easily bribed. With the all the zeros on my government paycheck, Genma's loyalty was as good as mine. If I so wished, I could have the old man singing praises about his beautiful daughter.
My mother was a more serious obstacle.
The seppuku contract was meaningless. That agreement was void the moment Nodoka had declared me a man amongst men. Even if the contract were in effect, there was nothing to compel my compliance. Nodoka could say what she wanted, but my old man and I were not the type to lay down and die.
No. What I feared for was our relationship. The bond between us was fragile. I had spent the better part of ten years training with Pop. I knew him well. But I had not seen my mother even once during that period.
I did not trust that her love was unconditional.
Exasperating that fear was the fact that Nodoka was a traditionalist. For her, gender roles were not custom but a sacred obligation. The contract had ended. Nodoka's expectations had not. I wanted her approval. To get it, I had to be a man amongst men. And here I was, a lady, a princess, a leader of an organization symbolizing womanhood.
Any meeting between us would be contentious. To sway my mother, I would be forced to evoke honor.
And that was what I feared most. If Nodoka capitulated, she would be quick to insist that I uphold honor by becoming a woman amongst women. Nodoka had old school mores. Her concept of womanhood would make me long for Kamiko's structured etiquette and Akina's feminine ideals.
In theory, I could take a stand. But what child holds such monstrous strength that they can ignore a mother's disappointed glare?
"I will talk to them," I said, not bothering to hide my distaste.
"Don't say it, Ranchan. Do it." My old friend stood and offered a soft smile. "And Ranchan, take care."
It had been two weeks since Artemis's death. The Institute's final battle had been impossible to hide. A firestorm of media criticism had followed in its wake. Political maneuvering had reached an all time high. The opposition had its knives out. The government was spinning half-truths so fast it left me dizzy. And, to top it off, the so called news was grinding away the few kernels of truth, transforming them into a circus fit only to entertain the public.
There was not a scrap of honesty to be found anywhere.
And I was grateful for it.
The official line was that Artemis Serenity Silvervine died while instigating a coup. To back government's fable, I had been forced to provide a list of 'perpetrators'. Chiyo was now designated public enemy number one. Her servants had joined her in infamy. The remainder of those disgraced had been conveniently dead, thereby sparing the living from a fevered witch hunt.
The incessant scapegoating disgusted me. Innocent names were being dragged through the mud. Shame would be heaped upon their families, for in Japan, the mark of dishonor did not stop at the doorstep of the dead.
But I was no fool. Truth was stranger than fiction. Who would believe a such contrived tale? Mind control? Brainwashing? Even to me it sounded like a series of lies conjured up to evade all blame. If fed reality, the public would be quick to call it fraud and demand the heads of half the Institute.
Feelings were irrelevant. My first duty was to the living. It was they who I had to guard. I was inexperienced. I would not win my first foray into politics if I fought on uneven ground. But that would change. I might never master the art of manipulation, but I would devote myself to learning.
Next time, I would avoid dirtying my hands. Better yet, I would escape a 'next time' entirely.
"Director Saotome," Kamiko greeted.
We were gathered in the meeting hall. It was a broad room, lit by a crystal chandelier. A dark, wooden table filled the room's center, ringed by a dozen chairs. Like my office, the meeting hall was situated in the rich wing of the Institute. This space, hidden behind the cathedral, was the sole part of the PPI that had survived the fighting intact.
I nodded toward Kamiko. The hawk eyed woman took her seat. With her arrival, all my senshi were present.
"Sorry for the disruption."
Akina's ruby lips curved into a smile. The violet haired woman leaned back in her chair. "Now, now, Saotome, a director needs not apologize to her subjects."
"Please do not encourage such abuses, Akina," Kamiko countered. "A chaotic schedule only serves to impose greater inefficiency."
"And who is working our poor, little kohai to death?" Akina retorted. "Even an invincible beast needs to rest. If you ask me, Saotome should invoke her authority more often."
"Then it is fortunate that I am the one to set the standards for professionalism," Kamiko replied. Dismissing her companion, Kamiko turned her hazel eyes on me. "That aside, Akina is quite right about one thing. Between your duties as director and your duties as a student, you have allowed yourself little time for leisure."
My hackles rose. We had argued this before, and I would not tolerate Kamiko's scolding.
"My training time is non-negotiable," I shot back.
Hazel eyes continued their challenge. I stared Kamiko down. My schedule was tight. My duties as director were numerous and pressing. But those obligations changed nothing. There were things I would not give up. My art was one of them.
"I am not asking you to surrender your hobby, Director Saotome. I am merely suggesting that you put your training aside until your duties are less trying."
"Non-negotiable," I repeated. I glared at the woman.
Kamiko sighed. "I see this argument is going nowhere." The psychiatrist glanced at her clipboard. Her finger dribbled on the table as she scanned through her notes. "Very well. Let us begin. Michiko, I believe you have made progress on the census?"
The blond haired scientist shifted her glasses.
"Affirmative," Michiko agreed. "Seventy-four percent of the Institute is currently registered. That is a twelve present increase from last week. An additional seven percent have presented themselves but refuse to provide a primary residence. The whereabouts of the other forty-six girls remains unknown."
When Artemis fell, a full half of the Institute vanished. At the time, I had cheered. To me, it had been an uplifting symbol of sanity. If the girls were wise enough to run, then the damage was not as terrible as I had feared.
The Prime Minister had disagreed. He saw chaos, disorder, anarchy. The lack of control was an affront to his rule. The scattered girls served as a lever for his political opponents. An easy way to score points on a defensive administration.
We had butted heads over the issue. A standoff ensued. The Prime Minister personally ordered me to round up my minions. In less than stellar moment, I had told him exactly where he could shove that command. The fight had been short lived. The next day, two-hundred-and-forty-seven arrest warrants were set on my desk. One for every girl that had served the Institute.
In unspoken words, the Prime Minister had delivered his ultimatum. Do as I say, or I will dismiss you.
Backed into a political corner, I was forced to bow my head. But arresting my girls was something I refused to do. So I conjured up an alternate solution. All the missing girls were to be placed under 'house arrest'. A largely meaningless designation. The only obligation required was that each girl list her primary residence and report in on a monthly basis.
Thus had started the census. The first fifty girls were easily found. A shocking percentage of those that went missing had fled to their former homes and families. The rest had made themselves scarce. They had been burned before. Few were willing to trust their fate to the Institute.
"If Kei Enoki is not listed, you can add her to those who refuse to register," Akina interjected. The idol looked at me, her violet eyes twinkling. "So tell me, Saotome. Do you wish to strangle her yourself? Or do you want me to do it on your behalf?"
"Drag her into my office. I am a hands on kind of gal," I said, flashing a smile. My mirth vanished into grim consideration. "What have we heard about Chiyo?"
Chiyo Mori, the biggest existential threat to the Institute. She had reappeared on my radar eight days ago when an idiot cop had tried to bring her in. Chiyo had killed him. Then, to make a point, she had obliterated an entire police station. As a final act to mock my authority, Chiyo had the audacity to flash her pretty smile on the evening news.
Fortunately, the wrong audience had been listening.
Thanks to Setsuna, Juban's senshi had sat out the Institute's war. With Artemis dead, Setsuna's manipulations had ended. When Chiyo had called for my attention, she had received that of Sailor Moon. A series of skirmishes between the Juban's senshi and Chiyo had wracking the capital for the past week. Last I had heard, Sailor Moon had driven Chiyo into hiding.
"Defense Intelligence thinks Chiyo is in China, but the Public Security Intelligence Agency still has her in the country," Akina answered seriously. "But knowing that girl, she won't stay hidden for long."
"If the Chinese want her, let them choke on her," I dismissed. "Anything else?"
"Unfortunately," Akina said, grimacing. "For the last week, I have been hearing rumors that the Institute was still kidnapping girls. I made it my personally quest to hunt down the seditious gossips and see them punished. Alas, I found that there was more merit to the whispers than I would have liked."
Akina gave stapled bundles of paper to each of us. I scanned the front page of the report. Mai Kimoto and Hiromi Harada. Grainy pictures printed in black and white revealed the culprits.
"I found those trouble makers in an abandoned warehouse. They had a victim chained to a rusted out pipe. From what I could see, they had tortured the girl to the edge of death."
"Not torture. Mimicry," Michiko noted. "From the collected tools, the probable motive was crude personality manipulation." The scientist quickly skimmed over the last page of the report before closing the bundle and pushing it aside. "Pointless. The implied technique is ineffective."
I scowled, raking the group with furious eyes.
"How the hell did this happen?" I demanded.
"I fear this is my fault, Director Saotome," Kamiko admitted. The psychiatrist held a page between her nails, as though it were something disgusting. "In order to ease their transition, I encouraged my patients to view their mental transformation as desirable. Given the volume of girls processed, it was likely that one or more would see their change so favorably that they would wish to share it with others."
"Both subjects are T09-3s," Michiko noted.
"Wonderful," Kamiko muttered. The woman sank into her chair, her fingers pounding out a rapid rhythm on the meeting room table. "We have to pull the entire line."
I glanced about the room in confusion. "T09-3s?"
"Emiko Watanabe is XT-09," Michiko explained. "Non-experimental derivatives are designated without the 'X'. In addition, variant branches were developed to address the failings of the original experiment. T09-3 was the third such branch."
Emiko Watanabe, my knight and secretary. The XT-09 experiment had altered Emiko, rendering her incapable of refusing orders given by an appropriate authority. Currently, the only such authority was me. That effectively that made Emiko my slave.
It was an unsolvable problem. No matter my will, Emiko could never be free. I did what I could. I encouraged her to treat my statements as requests. I made sure she looked after herself. But, the mystic fetters would not vanish. Emiko would live her life one command away from inescapable horror.
"The T09-3's tend to be... exuberant in their fanaticism," Kamiko added. Her hard, hazel eyes swept over the group. "No one is to see the perpetrators but me. Mai and Hiromi will be experiencing an emotional schism. Their natural inclination is to align with the Institute, but they are ideologically attached to Director Silvervine. If confronted improperly, suicide is probable."
I nodded my understanding. I approved of Kamiko's concern. Mai and Hiromi were as much victims as the girl they had tortured. The optimal solution was the one that preserved all parties. For now, we would aim for that. If the worst came?
A poisonous feeling curdled in my gut.
"Michiko, please provide a list of the T09-3s and similar derivatives. I will start scheduling interviews this evening. Akina, I will need a small security detachment. Try to find someone discrete. I do not want rumors running rampant."
"Our girls are insufferable gossips. Discrete is hard to come by. But I can promise competence," Akina replied. The idol turned to me, her expression grim. "Director Saotome, I request permission to arrest at my judgment."
"Granted," I answered instantly. "But I want names and excuses within forty-eight hours." I focused on Kamiko. "How can we solve this problem?"
"There is not much we can do, I'm afraid," Kamiko said. "We can use adjustment to resolve the internal conflict and to suppress the criminal impulse. However, personality constructs are prone to crystallization. Thought patterns tend become trapped within the mystic matrix, only to reemerge at later dates. Depending on the individual case, we may need to a schedule routine treatments."
My heart sank. Adjustment. The mere thought of it left me queazy. Repeated adjustment was even worse. And this was no cure. Adjustment merely treated the symptoms. To pursue this tactic was to screw those girls for the rest of their lives.
My brow wrinkled. I searched my brain for distant memories. "The XT-09 experiment involved merging the construct with tenki, right?"
"Affirmative," Michiko confirmed. "The T09 method seeds the personality construct within the tenki core. The tenki carryover process thereafter integrates the construct with the broader spiritual matrix."
I nodded slowly, piecing my thoughts together. "Can we rip it out?"
"Yes. Removal is possible," Michiko answered. "However, doing so would require amputating the infected substrate. Depending on the advancement of the crystallization process, the damage could prove extreme."
"And exactly how 'extreme' are we talking about?" I pressed.
Michiko tweaked her glasses and thought.
"It varies," she said after a while. "Loss of tenki is certain, as the tenki core would be removed. The spiritual damage would depend on the size of the core. Destruction of spiritual matter causes: reduced arcane potency, a weakened immune system, a decreased healing factor, and partial amnesia.
Advanced crystallization would introduce complications. If the spiritual substrate has become hardened, it will fail to heal properly. The fractured edges would serve as a vector for malicious parasites."
Malicious parasites? My expression twisted. I was not sure I wanted to know what parasites fed on a rotting soul. On the other hand, surgery was a permanent solution. The question therefore became, was the cure worse than the disease?
"So surgery or repeated adjustment," I said with distaste. "Do we have any other options?"
"For what it is worth, Saotome, I would rather die than lose tenki. An opinion that many of our girls will share," Akina chipped in. "Though, perhaps you are eager to shed your glamor?"
"Impossible," Michiko interrupted. Her steel blue eyes allowed no dissension. "Crystallization has already reached an extreme state. Removal would be fatal."
"This discussion is irrelevant. I am Director of the Pretty Princess Institute and I will uphold the standards expected of me," I declared with finality. My gaze swept over the group. "Now, the possibility of death brings up an important point. Can the T09s – all of them, not just the T09-3s – be cured without killing them?"
Michiko's head quirked to the side. The scientist fiddled with her glasses, searching the Institute's database.
"There are fifty-seven T09 derivatives. Thirty-three were created within the last year. Depending on individual variation, safe extraction should be possible for that subgroup."
"Thank you, Michiko," Kamiko said. Her fingers dribbled on the table. "We should sort the girls by surgical risk before proceeding further. The T09-3s, at the very least, should be treated. Adjustment is a limited solution. If a relapse occurs at an unexpected interval, this incident could be repeated."
"You know, maybe we ought to ask the girls how they feel before doing anything," I stated. "I, for one, would have appreciated a little input before someone starting hacking away at my soul."
A deathly silence followed my proclamation. Kamiko shifted nervously, a trace of guilt crossing her visage. Why did I see it now? Did she only care because I was Director? Or had Kamiko's feelings always been present, hidden beneath a veneer of professionalism?
"Forgive me for being blunt, but what purpose would that serve?" Akina asked, her silvery voice cutting through the thick atmosphere. "It is not as though any opinion we received would qualify as one given with a clear mind."
True. Akina's logic was twisted, but her point was valid. The Institute manipulated minds. Conditioning, adjustment, dollification, all were methods that altered the victim's perception. What good was the opinion of a modified girl?
"Every form of modification is different, Akina," Kamiko interrupted. "Not all of our alterations leave the patient unable to express an honest opinion. However, your concerns have merit in the case of the T09-2s and T09-3s. The nature of those constructs renders current views suspect." Kamiko's hawk-like eyes turned on me. "Director Saotome, this is a matter that must be decided quickly."
As Kamiko had indicated, waiting would make things worse. Spiritual crystallization advanced with the use of tenki. The surgical damage would increase proportionately. No matter how tempting it was to procrastinate, this was not a decision I could defer.
"I do not care if their wills are sound, we ask," I declared. "We will proceed with surgery on all volunteers, assuming Michiko deems it safe. As for the rest..." I trailed off. My hands tightened. Raw force failed to banish cruel reality. "Kamiko, give me an opinion on each. I will deliver the final verdict."
My decision was cold and crisp. I was the Institute's director. It was my duty to shoulder the guilt. And I would take it all. No matter how deep it piled, I would continue my forward march. Never stopping, never waving, never once looking back until the future of all my girls was secure.
"Michiko and I will provide a set of notes," Kamiko said. "However, that still leaves the question of Mai and Hiromi. If memory serves, they were early implants, which puts them outside the safety window. I would like permission to proceed with adjustment. For them, and for any other T09-3 not undergoing surgical removal."
"I will approve adjustment in the case of Mai and Hiromi," I relented. "But not for the others."
Kamiko's expression turned stern. "Director Saotome, allowing this problem to fester could-"
"Adjustment is a last resort!" I barked. I loomed over the table in thunderous rage. "We do not tweak minds because it is convenient, Kamiko. Nor do we adjust girls because something might go wrong. There are things that are not to be done. Is that understood?"
Kamiko cringed from my wrath. Then she squared her shoulders and sounded her acknowledgement. "Understood, Director Saotome."
I released an angry breath and fell back into my chair. For me, adjustment would never lose its cruel edge. My change had been gut wrenching. It was the helplessness of it that had been the worst. Adjustment had left me with the sense that I could be altered against my will. I would not allow that travesty to be repeated unless it proved an unavoidable necessity.
I shook my head, casting aside the demons.
Kamiko took a moment to ready herself before resuming. "The Diet has appointed a Special Investigator."
"And what inspired this witch hunt?" Akina asked. Her violet eyes found Kamiko's. "Was I wrong to believe the Prime Minister was on our side?"
"He is," Kamiko answered. "However, the opposition party has been gaining strength. Rather than lose control of the situation entirely, the Prime Minster has elected to yield to their concerns while demanding favorable rules."
Politics. My familiarity was passing. But it did not take a genius to see that an investigation of the Institute could go dangerously wrong. The law was lacking when it came to magic. It would be all too easy to accuse the Institute of criminality.
Because the Institute was criminal.
"How big of a problem is this?" I asked.
"The Prime Minister is aware of the fragility of the situation. I doubt he would allow this measure if he had feared the worst," Kamiko said. Sharp eyes cut across all of us. "But please be careful with what you say. The investigator will not be on our side. And, Director Saotome, be polite."
"As though Saotome is capable of such a thing," Akina commented, her ruby lips twisting into a smile. "Rather than politeness, perhaps Saotome should lean on her thuggish nature. A few days in the dive chamber would certainly clear this weasel's head."
"I will take that under advisement," I drawled. I scanned the rest of my notes. Nothing else was on the agenda. "If that is the last of it, let us adjourn until this time tomorrow."
Evening had come.
The sun was on the distant horizon. The fading light poured through stained glass, casting the colors in an orangish tinge. My office was well lit, dozens of mystic candles shedding a warm glow. On my desk were the results of Kamiko's initial interviews. Late though it was, I had decided to troll through them before calling it a day.
I was already regretting it.
Akane Tendo. Chevalier. She had earned lauds for her ample spiritual strength, her exceptional combat ability, and her intuitive arcane understanding. She was marked in the Institute's master list as loyal, a state reached after a mere two adjustments. Akane's only negatives were her explosive anger and rampant jealousy.
She was also a carrier of the T09-3 personality construct.
Which was why her papers were laying before me.
According to Kamiko, Akane was quickly forming ideological attachments to the Institute. It would be a matter of months before her views bordered on fanatical.
The problem was the ideology Akane was attaching to. I was an emotional sore spot for Akane. To this day, she had refused to accept me as director. But the secondary personality imposed by the T09-3 implant would not allow Akane to turn her back on the Institute. As such, the resulting justifications were shaping her into a fanatical supporter of the dead Artemis Serenity Silvervine.
Per my instructions, Akane received a chance to volunteer. She had turned down the offer. Somewhat violently, if Kamiko's notes were accurate.
And now, the choice was mine.
With a stroke of my pen, Akane's ambitions would die. I had lived with the girl for two years. I knew how she fantasized of being both feminine and strong. The Institute was her dream come true. It was no surprise she had broken so fast.
Surgery would destroy her tenki. At the same time, Akane would lose untold years of memories. Her art would crippled. Her education would be stunted. A part of her soul would be torn away. In time, she would recover. Akane was young. All that was taken could be regained.
But sometimes, when people fall, they fail to get back up. Would Akane have the strength to overcome her loss? Or would she be crushed by it?
And the alternative was worse.
Kamiko's notes on the T09-3 personality implant were cold, clinical, and comprehensive. If left in place, the subject would inevitably attach to an ideology. The resulting devotion surpassed obsession. It became the meaning of their existence. In the face of that fanaticism, all morality was erased.
If Akane continued to despise me, if she dreamed that Artemis's reign was greater, her fate would be that Mai and Hiromi. An eternity of adjustment. Again and again, she would be dragged to the dive chamber, her heart full of grief, hate, and anger.
I could not imagine cycling between madness and lucidity. Compared to that horror, surgery seemed a blessing.
But the sickest part was the pointlessness of it. The T09-3 implant had been unnecessary. Akane was theirs. Her mind had been ripe for the plucking. An additional adjustment would have secured a lasting loyalty.
The T09-3 implant had been targeted at me.
It was simple, cruel, and efficient. Ukyou and Akane had been the Institute's bait. With them, Artemis could lure me from hiding. But that had not been enough for Artemis. So she had hatched a ruthless plan. The T09-3 implant had been inserted into Akane. Then Akane had been adjusted to guarantee she would always be theirs.
If I had been a day later, Ukyou would have followed in Akane's footsteps.
Not that reasons mattered. Artemis was dead. Her mess was mine. Akane's papers sat on my desk, the signature line lacking my name. I wished it would go away. It did not. The choice would continue to haunt me until I delivered my verdict.
But I could not move. My hand refused to touch the pen. I could not force the surgery. Nor could I release Akane from the looming threat.
In the end, I brushed Akane's papers aside. Next was an unknown name paired with an unknown face. An imaginary person. I relaxed, breathing a sigh of relief. Yes, it was horrible. But deciding the future of those I did not know was easier than deciding for those I did.
The door of my office creaked opened.
"Go home, Emiko." I did not look up. If I stopped now I was certain I would fail to start again. "Spend some time with your family. I will be fine on my own."
"If it is your lovely knight you are addressing, Ranma-kun, I believe she has already left," a soft voice answered.
Setsuna. Against my will, my eyes lifted. The green haired senshi was wearing a dark business suit and carrying a briefcase in her hand. It had been a while since I had seen the woman outside the guise of Pluto. But it did not throw me. Setsuna's visage had been burned into my mind.
"Who let you in?" I demanded, annoyance coloring my face.
In the last few weeks, my anger had waned. This meeting could have been cordial. But it irked me to see Setsuna drop by unannounced.
"I let myself in," Setsuna said. She offered a sly smile. "A privilege I have recently wrangled for myself."
Ah. Understanding dawned.
"You are the Diet's Special Investigator," I deduced. "I should have known. I would ask how you pulled it off, but I am guessing you called in another favor."
"And you would be right," Setsuna replied. The woman slid into my office, her long green hair swishing with the motion. "If I may offer a suggestion, perhaps you should curry a few yourself. I have found life dreadfully difficult when without them. Imagine, for instance, how hard it would be to get anything done if, say, a smug little investigator was poking his head into your business hoping to scrounge up a politically juicy truth."
Setsuna's smile was all too knowing. I smothered my irritation and glanced at the reports on my desk. With a sigh, I brushed them aside. I had to deal with Setsuna first. As Director, I was obliged to be polite. Kamiko would scold me otherwise.
"As you can see, I am quite busy," I said, gesturing toward the mountains of paperwork. "May I know why you are here? If it is Institute business, I request that you save it until tomorrow. If you need me to save the world, then find a different sucker. I have already paid my dues."
Setsuna laughed lightly. "Ah, Ranma-kun. There is no need to fear. As you say, you have played your part. There is no need for greater sacrifice. No. I am merely here to collect a few things for Artemis's grave."
My eyes narrowed with suspicion. As usual, Setsuna's icy visage yielded nothing.
"Artemis's grave?" I questioned.
"Yes," Setsuna answered. "It is an old Lunarian tradition to see off the dead with the memorials of their life."
I closed my eyes and sank into my chair. Artemis's grave. For a moment, I felt Katengecchi's leather grip pressing into my skin. The steel blade tugged. The edge met flesh. Head peeled from neck.
"I didn't think you were the type," I murmured.
Setsuna gazed at the wall, her garnet eyes growing distant. For a moment, a haze of emotion was upon her face. At first, I thought she was staring at the talwar mounted on the wall. Then, I realized that her eyes were aimed lower so that they focused on a plain sheet of steel. A shield. The iron plate was carved into the shape of a kite. Embossed on the surface was Artemis's coat of arms.
"Strange, is it not?" Setsuna said. "Artemis and I were bitter enemies. We had been plotting the other's demise for thousands of years. But, for all the wrong she had done, I have never been able to forget the shining knight of my childhood." Setsuna gave a huff of amusement. "How silly of me. Trying to see her off as the idol I cherished. That woman never existed. The monster was the truth. The hero the illusion."
"She was human," I declared. "No matter bad we get, that never changes."
I had hated Artemis. I had hated her like I had never hated anyone before. I did not regret killing her. Artemis had to die. She had earned her fate a hundred times. But I still felt guilt. More guilt than I did for the death of the archer. Perhaps because Artemis murder was more direct. More real.
"Take what you want," I said, finally. "But not Katengecchi. The sword stays with me."
"Of course," she murmured.
Setsuna set her briefcase on my mahogany desk. Then, with reverence, she approached the shield. The green haired woman lifted the iron plate. Despite the weight, she held it there, aloft, while her eyes sought the distant past.
"What was she like?" I asked. "Back then. Before it all went wrong."
"A difficult question, Ranma-kun," Setsuna answered. The woman placed the shield in her case. "For those of us born on Luna, Artemis was a hero. A living legend greater than Hercules. Why, when I was a young girl, we used to play a game called 'the knight and princess'. Oh, how we would fight over who got to be Artemis and Serenity."
Setsuna? As a child? Playing ordinary games? I laughed. The notion was absurd. Yet, I could glimpse it. The image was faint, but real.
"Let me guess," I said, raising a forestalling hand. "You played the knight in shining armor."
Setsuna offered a wry smile. "Oh no. I was quite the unpopular child. Always busy with my books. On rare occasions, when I was so lucky as to participate, I served as an evil, Terran minion. My duty was to kidnap the queen only to be slain by the invincible Artemis."
Setsuna paused. Her eyes were closed as she indulged in nostalgia.
"I loved her. I respected her more than Serenity herself. To me, and to many others, Artemis was the greatness of Luna.
"Of course, as I grew older, I came to see the hatred seething beneath her royal visage. But, even then, I found it all too easy to ignore her flaws. Luna was the beacon of civilization. The greatest kingdom in the history of mankind. Surely it was no crime to look down upon our Terran sisters? Ah. So naïve. The rot was hidden from my eyes."
"And then you became senshi," I finished. "With access to the Gates, I doubt your illusions lived long."
Two weeks as director and my hands were already covered in muck. White washed kingdoms only existed in fairy tales. The real world was a dirtier place.
"As you say, the evils of Luna were laid bare. Every secret was revealed. It was an unpleasant awakening."
Setsuna set a pair of glasses on my desk. From a crystal decanter she poured amber liquid, filling each with equal portions. The green haired woman swirled her liquor, drinking the volatile fumes.
"A 1858, Napoleon Empereur Vintage. Artemis always had a love for decadence." Setsuna sipped the brandy, rolling it around her tongue so as to experience every molecule of its flavor.
She resumed her story.
"After my appointment, there was never time to rest. My nights were spent staring into the gates. My days were filled by secret meetings. It was just the three of us: a queen, a hero, and a child.
"The debates raged for hours. Artemis called for force. She spoke of civilizing Terra. She framed conquest as kindness. She painted Luna as a savior that lift a savage world into glory. Yet, always hidden, was her hatred. When I listened close, I could hear her heart. Behind every word was the relentless drive to crush her enemies.
"Serenity differed. Rather than war, she plotted peace. She saw the grudge between our people as the source of our doom. So she sought to heal that wound through love and kindness. Trade agreements, foreign aid, and open borders were her weapons. The marriage between Terra's prince and her daughter, her crowning victory."
"Fat lot of good that did," I snorted. I lifted my snifter and took a curious sip. Kerosene scorched my throat. I coughed, choking on the potent alcohol.
Setsuna laughed at my plight. Then her eyes dulled once more. "Yes. It was all for naught. Though we did not know it then, what the gates had offered was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we struggled against our fate, the deeper we were drawn into its web."
The green haired woman drained her cup. She set her glass on the my mahogany desk, her mind lost in the past. On her face was a rare display. Guilt, bitterness, and regret seeped through Setsuna's frozen mask.
"Often I wonder, who was the greater monster? Artemis, for seeking the death of Terra? Serenity, who refused to see her plot was doomed? I, who stood aside, unwilling to break the stalemate between titans?"
"But, what haunts me the most was the end. The cry of traitor still echoes in my ears." A dark smile floated across Setsuna's lips, an image of loathing. "You see, when Serenity knew our death had come, she begged me to save those that I could. Terran. Lunarian. It did not matter. They were all the same to her.
"So I did as I was told. When Luna's armada arrived too late to save our homeland, they turned upon Terra in revenge. They lit the world afire. The last of humanity would die. I had to save them. So I turned upon my people and murdered them. All of them."
With those final words, Setsuna ended her tale. Silence rang with their meaning. In that moment, I grasped what what drove her. Guilt. A ceaseless, all consuming guilt. Setsuna had tried to save her world and failed. Then she had bathed in the blood of her allies to salvage what was left.
In the quiet, Setsuna filled her snifter. The sound of pouring cognac was made loud by the lack of competition.
"Why are you telling me this?" I asked. This was a story that was not to be heard by a stranger. "Shouldn't you have shared this with your princess?"
"Usagi?" Setsuna laughed into her cup. "Oh no. I could never tell her. She would forgive me."
Setsuna drained her glass a second time.
She did not want to be forgiven. Setsuna had shackled herself to her past. She used it to drive herself forward. Guilt may have crushed her soul, but it also gave her strength. Setsuna's resolve humbled me. The price she had paid to gain it was one I hoped never to share.
The darkness haunting me was great enough already.
"You know, don't you?" I stated. "You know that when I see a senshi, I see a sister."
A tiny smile crossed Setsuna's lips. It was arrogant and mocking. Something more may have lurked behind the veil, but I could not pierce it. Her true emotions remained hidden.
"Of course, Ranma-kun," Setsuna admitted. "Why else would I ask to name you informally when we had first met?"
"Manipulative bitch," I murmured.
My eyes traced the swirling tempest at the bottom of my cup. Setsuna had ripped out her heart in order to claim mine. I admired the boldness of it.
"We all have our flaws," she replied.
Setsuna offered the decanter. I lifted my snifter, allowing her to top my glass. Once my cup was full, Setsuna filled her own. Then she raised her drink in a toast.
"May mankind, free from tyranny, watch the last star die."
I clinked my glass against hers. "What was that?" I asked, snorting a laugh. "Your billion year plan?"
"More like ten," Setsuna said. "But what is an order of magnitude between friends?"
The silence dragged between us. I sipped then grimaced at the alcohol's taste. Setsuna stood and resumed her search. She approached the shelves at my back, roaming through the dust laden trinkets placed between the ancient books.
My gaze was drawn to the papers scattered before me. Akane's fate awaited.
"Does it get easier?"
"Yes," Setsuna said. "But it is never easy."
Not the answer I had been hoping for. But in a way, it was better. Dark decisions should leave scars. I did not want to become a woman who could ruin a life without feeling guilt, no matter how necessary it was.
I stared at Akane's name. What should I do? No. I knew what needed to be done. Akane's heart was strong. She would not break.
I raised my pen. In a swirl of ink, I signed my name. Objection overruled. Tomorrow, Akane's life as a magical girl ended.
I fell back into my chair, wondering if I had done the right thing.
Setsuna packed a handful trinkets into her case. Satisfied with what she had found, the woman sealed the container and turned to leave. As she moved toward the door, I called out.
"Next?" Setsuna repeated. "That is up to you, Ranma-kun. As for me?" She paused. "I will do what I have always done. I will stand in the darkness, bringing flint to steel, so that there will always be sparks of hope with which to light the fires of freedom. Now, if there is nothing more, I must take my leave."
Silence. The door to my office opened. Setsuna stepped through. Then she was gone. For now. I would see her again in the morning.
My thoughts drifted.
It is up to you. Strange words. My future was set. Kamiko would mold me. My duty would shape me. I was chained to a role I did not desire.
Or was I?
My obligations as director were not eternal. In a few months, the chaos would settle. Years after that, my education would be complete. Each passing day yielded to me a grain of time. Artemis had lived for over a thousand years. My life had barely begun. What would I do with it? Who would I be?
Suddenly, I laughed. "Who would I be?" I said, speaking the words out loud.
I stood and spread my arms in answer. "Neaarrowwoom," I rumbled, running across the room. I pivoted, arcing through my office in a pair of pretend loops.
Who would I be? I would be Ranma Saotome. Nothing could change that. If I was thrown into the pits of hell, I would mock my enemies from the summit of heaven. If I was clapped in irons and chained by obligation, I would train against the weights and grow stronger. It did not matter how the odds were arranged. It did not matter if the whole world was my enemy.
I would be victorious.
Call it stubbornness. Call it stupidity. Call it conceit. It was my conviction. A promise I had made to myself. A vow forged by unrelenting grit. I would rise to the top. I would stand tall. Not because I was invincible, but because I refused to break.
So let Kamiko have her way. Let me be a princess. If I were to be reborn, so be it. I would not fear the change. I would embrace it. I would take it within myself and become greater than anyone could imagine.
That was the will of Ranma Saotome. That was the heart of who I was. That was fount of my unyielding strength. And through it, I would carve into the world one irrefutable fact.
I. Never. Lose.