Kōzu-shima (140 kilometres south-southwest of Tōkyō), three years ago . . .

"Let this serve as official notification that Tomobiki Junior High School Year Three Class D has successfully concluded this week's Program." An amused chuckle echoed over the volcanic island that formed one of the Izu-shotō, one of the several chains of islands leading south from Tōkyō Bay towards the Marianas. "Sorry about that, Moroboshi-kun, but there are certain formalities that must be acknowledged."

"I must personally confess that I believe the DVD collection for this particular episode will sell through the roof, especially among the martial arts fanatics out there," Kamon Yonemi stated as the soldiers assigned to this particular episode of The Program - officially designated as Event 64/04 - monitored the lone man walking calmly through the forest towards the elementary school that had served as base camp for the Internal Security Ministry's team watching over this event. "Your personal profile never said anything about you practicing the martial arts, Moroboshi-kun." A chuckle. "Well, surprises do happen on occasion, though we do try our best to control them. Anyhow, have a safe walk back to the hut. The helicopter's on its way."

Out in the forest, a lone man with the body of a track runner and shaggy brown hair styled off the collar slowly walked between the trees, clearly unbothered by the sights of dead people around him, most of them shot with either guns or arrows, the others stabbed by knives. The looks on their faces ranged from either total surprise to twisted anger to looks of peace and acceptance. Though the lone survivor - he hardly saw himself as having "won" this sick "game" - did not focus his eyes on any of them, he couldn't help but note who they were. And while he ached deep in his heart at the senseless deaths of forty-one of his classmates over the previous two-and-a-half days, he wasn't in full control of his body . . . and hadn't been that way since he had woken inside one of the classrooms at Kōzu-shima Elementary School with a Model 22 "Guadalcanal" explosive-equipped tracking collar wrapped around his neck, soon to learn he would either have to kill to survive within the next three days or be dead.

Fortunately for him, Moroboshi Ataru had some help in that regard.

Was this the ONLY way to do that, Onē-san?

A voice that sounded like all the dead of the Greater East Asia War speaking out from their graves then echoed from somewhere deep within his mind, It was necessary, Ataru. The tactical situation was against us in every aspect. The overall social and cultural situation surrounding this event also was against us even if we somehow aided all your classmates in trying to resist the Program. The only true solution - both immediate and long-term - was to 'play' to survive. We did that. A pause, and then that dark voice added, Be thankful that for those we had to confront directly, we were merciful to them. They did not suffer before their spirits slipped into the Dào.

He nodded. So what do we do now?

We await Noa's coming to us. When I discussed this possibility with her several weeks ago on her last trip to Tomobiki, she vowed that once we were alive and free of the government's surveillance, we will be extracted and taken to Sagussa. Once there, the Promise can at last be fulfilled and we can live separate lives.

Another nod. It'll be so strange seeing them all again.

Their love for you is enormous, Ataru, that voice then advised. Far greater than anything your blood-relatives or few friends have ever expressed. Living with them will be much more desirable than living a virtual pariah here in Japan, known throughout the country as a person who survived while so many of his peers died.

True . . .

Tomobiki (west of Tōkyō), two hours later . . .

"There it is, Young Master."

Mendō Shūtarō took a deep breath, and then slowly exhaled as he turned to gaze to the south as a lone Republic Army helicopter moved to land on the nearby helipad. Like many of the people standing there awaiting the arrival of this week's Program winner, he felt a mixed storm of emotions deep in his heart. His usual feelings of disgust when it came to Moroboshi Ataru, a man who fancied himself a ladies' man yet acted like a total boor when it came to their female schoolmates. The sense of relief at knowing that since another class at Tomobiki Junior High had been selected to participate in The Program, he and his own friends in Class 3-C were totally safe. The horror and sadness - thought held back by years of self-discipline and the belief in bushidō he had been trained to hold dearer than his own life - at the thought of forty-one of his schoolmates having died in the service of their nation. And . . .

Admiration . . .?

"Amazing that he survived virtually unscathed."

Hearing that comment from Aisuru Satoshi, Mendō nodded. "Hai, Megane-san," he affirmed, calling the other man by his preferred nickname. "You would never suspect such a thing from Moroboshi of all people. He was in excellent physical condition and he did have some martial arts knowledge . . . " - his hand gripped the shin-guntō that he carried with him at all times; being the elder son of one of the richest families in all of the Greater East Asia Republic, he was exempted from the standing regulations when it came to carrying personal weapons so he could defend himself against hooligans who might want to target him to obtain bribe money from his parents - " . . . but I never suspected he was something quite like what we saw on the television."

"How did he learn that sort of stuff, anyway?" Urayamu Akira then asked. He - along with Megane's other friends, Shitto Kōsuke and Daremo Hiroyuki; "Chibi," "Perm" and "Kakugari" as they were normally known as - had come together with the scion of the Mendō fortune to await the arrival of their old elementary school classmate. "I never saw him go to a martial arts dōjō. And he doesn't have one at home."

"Don't know, Chibi," Megane breathed out.

"Did you see his dad?" Perm asked.

The others gazed on him. "What do you mean?" Kakugari asked.

"When we were watching this in the school gymnasium," Perm said. "I looked at his dad shortly after Ataru made his first kill. He looked like he recognised something - something that was plain EVIL! - in what Ataru was doing."

The others considered that as the helicopter flared to a landing. "What could such be?" Mendō wondered as the side door opened, allowing two white-clad soldiers of the Non-Aggressive Defensive Army to step out, and then they moved to help someone else - a person dressed in the standard dark blue gakuran that was normal school dress for over half the junior high and high schools in the Republic - to disembark.


The five men watched as a sobbing Miyake Shinobu raced out of the crowd of well-wishers towards Ataru. Watching the survivor of this week's Program episode, Mendō was quick to note the other man perk on hearing his childhood friend cry out his name, and then he stood still as she moved to hug him . . . only to side-step at the last moment, allowing poor Shinobu to trip over his outstretched foot and slam face-first into the asphalt of the landing pad. Without any sort of acknowledgement to her whatsoever, Ataru then slipped his hands into his pockets, and then moved to head for the main gate, AWAY from his peers and teachers who had gathered to welcome him home.

"Moroboshi . . . " Mendō breathed out, outrage billowing deep in his heart on seeing the beautiful Shinobu treated in such at fashion. "How DARE . . .?"

"Leave it, Mendō."

He stopped, turning to stare wide-eyed at Megane. "Megane-san . . .?"

"If YOU had been the one who had just come off that helicopter after being forced to fight through the Program of all things, how would YOU feel?" the other man asked as he gazed at the young scion of the Mendō fortune.

Mendō considered that for a moment, and then nodded. "Young Master, your orders?" the Kuromegane that had been standing close by then asked.

A sigh. "Let Moroboshi leave the grounds unmolested," Mendō ordered as he gazed on the crowd that had been waiting for Ataru, all of whom hadn't moved from where they had been standing, they watching silently as Ataru walked away from them, none moving to go after him. "He obviously needs time alone after what he's endured."

A deep bow. "Hai."

On a street near the Moroboshi home, fifteen minutes later . . .

We are not being followed.

"Good. Where's Noa?"

"Right here."

Ataru stopped on hearing that lilting voice, and then he turned to gaze wide-eyed at the older woman that had just stepped out of the alley to his right. Dressed in somewhat plain clothes - jeans, T-shirt, cardigan-knit sweater, sunglasses - she had stylishly-tapered red-brown hair and dark blue eyes on a face that looked almost Ainu-ish from a distance. Of course, Ataru knew this woman wasn't Ainu or any other of the known races that were native to Japan . . . to say anything of Earth itself.


"Hi," Aruka Noa breathed out before she walked over to gently draw the younger man - both physically and chronologically - into her arms. "You're safe."

"Where is everyone?"

"Right now, aboard the Hasei'cha," she stated as she pulled away to gaze into his soft brown eyes. "We retrieved all your personal belongings from your house. Lufy and Priss both expressed their deep displeasure at your parents' lack of support when it came to your surviving the Program. Pity those two kimei'aidoei didn't survive long, especially after Lufy told them about what really happened to Kaeru."

Ataru perked. "Oh?" he trilled, clearly not caring a bit over what happened to his parents Muchi and Kinshō. "That must have gone over well!"

Noa giggled. "Oh, it did. Especially after a subspace message was sent to Nagussa and Kaeru told your parents right to their faces - figuratively - that he wished to have nothing to do with the 'rampantly illogical, immoral and corrupt society' they were a part of ever again . . . and that he did not acknowledge as his own."

He staggered, grasping his chest as if he was about to suffer a heart attack. "Oh, that must have really hit them hard! You're so cruel, Noa-chan!"

Both of them shared a look, and then they laughed before warmly embracing once more. "So . . . are you ready to leave this rampantly illogical, immoral and corrupt society as well, my beloved daimon'cha?" Noa then whispered into his ear.

A sigh. "Take us home, my sweet and perfect ashi'cha."


A second later, a ringing noise that would make most Star Trek fans immediately think of a transporter being energised echoed through the streets of Tomobiki . . .

Vengeance of the Phoenix
by Fred Herriot

Based on Battle Royale, created by Takami Kōshun; and Urusei Yatsura, created by Takahashi Rumiko.

Including characters from Kidō Keisatsu Patlabor, created by Headgear (Oshii Mamoru, Itō Kazunori, Izubuchi Yutaka, Takada Akemi and Yūki Masami); Gall Force and Bubblegum Crisis, created by ARTMIC, Youmex and AIC; NOëL, created by Pioneer LDC; Azumanga Daioh, created by Azuma Kiyohiko;

Also including characters and situations from the fanfic series The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot.

WRITER'S INTRODUCTION: Another plot-bunny that's been preying on my mind for the last while, which wasn't totally satiated when I included the Battle Royale characters in Avalonians and Questors. This story - while still conforming to the history of the Greater East Asia Republic as I came up with in A&Q - has Moroboshi Ataru as an actual near-peer of the Shiroiwa gang as well as a Program survivor. And as always with my work, Ataru did (as demonstrated in the teaser) serve as the host-body for the Saikō Jinseijutsu, also known as Moroboshi Negako. For those familiar with both A&Q and its prequel story Phoenix from the Ashes, Ataru will not wind up with more sisters than before; I don't want to overcomplicate this story. All daishi'cha mentioned here are - as was what was depicted in The Senior Year - namesakes of the characters they resemble from the various anime and manga series listed in the title blurb; unlike what I did for initial drafts of TSY, there will be no "-chan" or other identifier behind their name to tell them apart from their namesakes (if they appear in the same scene).

So sit back and enjoy!

Lagrange Point One, close to the Moon, today . . .

" . . . dumb-ass bird . . . call. Hear it? I gotta . . . gotta go . . . "

"Go where?"


A surprised gasp escaped the muscular and tall man who had lying on the bed as he bolted up, looking wildly around for a moment before the strangeness of the room he was in made him pause and blink as his mind started to take in all the weird details. Painted a soft white overall, it had a futuristic feel to it, though it was clearly meant as more of a guest room at some hotel than anyone's permanent living quarters. As he took that in, he noted a nightstand to one side of the circular bed he was in - which was large enough to fit a couple of people comfortably - with a lamp and what appeared to be some sort of mini-laptop computer on it. He then looked around to see a doorway - probably leading to a bathroom - a large, oval-shaped window with shutters closed over it, a small living area with what appeared to be a television on a table, two couches, a coffee table and a lone reclining chair, then a set of doors without handles leading out to somewhere else, and then a small dresser unit where . . .

"Keiko . . . "

The tall and statuesque young woman with the long brown hair done in a thick French braid and the deep brown eyes smiled as she rose from the chair beside the dresser unit, moving over to sit down on his bed. "Hey, Mister Smug," she said as she reached over to pass a hand over Kawada Shōgo's chest, which made him jolt in shock on feeling a real hand touch him. "Can you figure out what just happened to you?"

He blinked in confusion. "I died and went to Heaven?"

She shook her head. "No, this isn't Heaven. Try again."

More silence.

"Oh, fuck!" he breathed out. "We're in Hell, right?"

"No, this isn't Hell either," she teased. "Try again."

Still more silence.

"We're alive . . .?"

Inoue Keiko nodded. "Yeah, we're alive. Everyone from Event 67/19 - that's the official code for the 'episode' you and your friends were involved in - except for two people." She then smirked. "You helped TWO people ESCAPE the Program. Why?"

Shōgo blinked before he sighed. "I had to know."

She blinked. "About what?"

"If I could feel like you wanted me to do."

Keiko blinked as she looked at him, and then she smiled, her eyes glistening with tears. "Baka . . . "

She then leaned in to kiss him hard. Surprised by that show of raw emotion from his would-be girlfriend - whether or not they really had dated before that dark weekend a year before when his life was forever changed thanks to the Program, he didn't really understand - Shōgo remained still for a moment, and then he relaxed as he wrapped his arms around her to draw her into his lap. Feeling her up - though he still felt himself too much of a gentleman to not touch her in more intimate places - he was quick to sense that she had no obvious wounds of her body and that whatever had brought her back to life had also restored her to what appeared to be a perfect level of physical health. What the fuck could that be? the once-volunteer scrub nurse for a doctor that had worked in the poorer sections of Kōbe then wondered. The government makes DAMN sure that there are no survivors save for the set 'winner' of any Program episode! Kamon told me that before I gave him a pencil tracheotomy! How the fuck is Keiko still ALIVE . . .?

Keiko then pulled away from him as she fixed him with a knowing look. "Magic."


"How I'm alive," she admitted as she leaned her forehead against his. "Sorry. Your thoughts were broadcasting so loudly to me, I couldn't help but listen in."

Shōgo blinked again. "'Magic?'" he then repeated her answer.

"Well, it's actually described as a high form of meta-psionics," she explained. "I don't understand half of it, so I just equate it to a type of magic." Keiko then smirked as she gently passed her fingers over his chest. "The people who rescued our old class, your current class and all the other classes that were forced to 'play' since two years ago have such a high level of technology - genetics, meta-physics, meta-psionics, all the standard sciences and even types of sciences I don't even BEGIN to understand - that it was quite possible for them to snare our very SOULS from our bodies just as we were about to reach the point where any form of resuscitation couldn't have saved us . . . and then they deposited those souls into new bodies cloned from our original ones." She then pulled up her hand to gaze at it. "With some interesting add-ons."

He tensed. "Like what?"

"Telepathy. A type of touch-telepathy, like the Vulcans on Star Trek could do," she answered matter-of-factly. "Empathy; no need to be in physical contact to sense someone's emotions, but you don't have the power to change a person's mood. An eight-hundred year lifespan; once you hit adulthood, you age one year physically per twelve years chronologically. And a very fast healing factor that just gobbles up disease viruses like a kid eating cotton candy."


"I can't believe that," he then declared, shaking his head.

She smiled sympathetically at him. "That's what I said a year ago when it happened to me." Taking a deep breath, she got up and walked over to the dresser, opening it to pull out what looked like a golf shirt and a pair of track pants, then she pulled out a pair of slippers from a nearby wardrobe closet. Noting that, Shōgo was quick to note that Keiko was dressed in a similar fashion. Her shirt had a stylised firebird insignia over her left breast, her name was stitched in scripted Rōmaji on her right breast and a weird glyph system ran up-and-down along the outer seam of her pant legs. "These were prepared for you ahead of time," she said as she placed the clothes on the bed. "Our benefactors don't believe in underwear, but you won't need them; the pants have moisture capture fibres that'll catch anything. You won't need to go to the washroom just yet; your body is fresh out of a gestation tank, so you haven't eaten anything yet. I'll let you get dressed."

And with a wink, she walked to the doorway, it whooshing open to reveal a hallway of some sort beyond. After she walked through it, the door automatically closed behind her. Some sort of motion-sensor system? he wondered as he moved to slip the covers away from his body, and then he picked up the clothes. Pausing as he scanned around to find a mirror, he then hummed as he gazed on the other doorway leading out of this room. Shrugging, he then walked toward it. Instantly, the door opened, which made him jolt before he sighed. "Oh, man! Convenient," he breathed out before walking in, and then he relaxed. "Okay, standard high-tech bathroom," he mused before his grey eyes locked on what he needed to use. "Ah, there you are!"

With that, he walked over to stare at himself in the mirror . . .

. . . and then he gaped. "Holy SHIT!"

What looked back was not what he had been like when he was still attending Kōbe Second District Junior High School up until a year ago. And it certainly wasn't what he had looked like when he attending Shiroiwa Junior High School just before being sucked once more into the Program. His body resembled what he should have turned out to be at his current age had he not "played" at all in that sickest of "games." Full head of almost-black hair to the level of his collar, parted in the centre and styled in ragged bangs over his forehead and ears. No scars anywhere on his body, not even those the Program had marked on his face. Perfect muscle tone everywhere; Shit! I almost look like a bulkier version of that Sugihara guy who was in the class! he mused . . .


He jolted on hearing that very feminine shriek, and then spun around . . .

. . . to see a madly-blushing girl who was also quite naked and carrying the same type of clothes he had been given standing at the OTHER doorway leading into the bathroom. Quickly moving to cover himself, Shōgo turned away. "Sorry!"

"I'm sorry!" the girl cried out as she looked away.

He then perked on recognising that voice. "Minami?"

She perked, and then turned to stare at him, revealing a plump face with acne scars and freckles on her cheeks, black hair that went to the shoulder and wide, innocent blue eyes, though currently not under glasses. "Who . . .?" she began before her eyes locked on his face, and then the colour vanished from her cheeks as she began to quake. "No . . .!" she gasped, her eyes instantly tearing as she tried to stumble back from the door. "No, please, Shōgo-san . . . don't hurt me . . . please don't hurt me . . .!"

She soon got far away enough for said door to close, blocking her view of him. Shōgo remained still for a moment, and then he moaned. "Oh, fuck . . . I need a damned smoke!" he muttered before turning to walk out of the bathroom into his bedroom again. Quickly slipping on his trousers and shirt - he was quick to note that his given name was written with a macron over the first "o" - he then moved to put on his shoes, and then marched over to the main door, it opening as he came close. Stepping into the hallway, he looked one way, and then turned . . . before crying out on seeing Keiko standing there. "Damn it, Keiko! Don't scare me like that!" he spat out.

She moaned. "What happened?" she asked, crossing her arms.

"Oh, nothing much!" he stated in a mock-casual way. "Other than my finding out I'm sharing a bathroom with a girl I put a fuckin' SHOTGUN ROUND into on that damned island where we were forced to 'play!' Whose fuckin' idea was THAT, anyhow?"

Keiko blinked, and then she moaned. "Ayumu . . . "

He stopped. "Huh?"

A shake of the head. "Sorry about that, Shōgo. The Sagussans who are helping us mean well, but they sometimes don't get things right." Keiko looked behind her to the door one down from Shōgo's. "Who's in Minami Kaori's room?" she called out.

The door then whooshed open to reveal a tall woman with long blonde-brown hair in a high ponytail, pale blue eyes and freckles on a face that had a certain Western cant to it. "Just me, Keiko-chan," said woman said in a clearly accented voice. "She's okay."

"Can you get someone to put a security lock on her bathroom door, then do the same to Shōgo's bathroom door so they don't surprise each other, Sempai?"

"Hai, hai!" And with that, the door was closed.

Shōgo blinked. "Who's she?"

"Nishimura Tina-sempai," Keiko explained. "Kōka Girl's Academy, Junior Year Three, Class A, out from Yokohama. They 'played' the year before we did, the tenth episode that year." She took a deep breath. "They were the first ones to be rescued this way; they just got cleared to help out with recovery support whenever the Sagussans go out to save everyone from dying, just like you guys almost did."

He blinked several times. "Who are the Sagussans?"

Keiko smirked. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Something alien?"

A nod. "Yeah," she answered with a matter-of-fact tone, one which made him realise that whatever was going on here, it was REAL. "C'mon, let me get you something to eat and I'll show you."

With that, they headed back into his quarters. Motioning him to sit down on the bed, Keiko then walked over to the nightstand and tapped a control. "Inoue to Bridge."

"Bridge, Okano here."

"Yuka-sempai, is someone coming around with the breakfast tray soon?"

"About ten minutes. I assume you would-be hubby's awake."

Shōgo jolted as Keiko tried not to blush too much. "Sempai . . .!" she moaned in embarrassment.

An amused laugh. "Well, you begged the people running this show to come out since Shōgo-kun WAS doing a repeat run, Keiko-chan!" said person scolded.

"Can you tell the galley staff to hurry it up, please?" she wondered.


The link was cut, and then Keiko sighed as she moved to head to the window. "Ready?" she asked as she gazed in expectation at him.

He nodded. She then flicked a control, which made the window shutters retract up to reveal solid, pitch-black night beyond, that dotted with many stars . . . and a familiar half-globe shape way off in the distance. As the view towards Earth was opened up, Keiko tried not to wince on sensing the flood of shock and disbelief surge up through her would-be boyfriend's heart, and then she gave him a sympathetic look. "We're about three hundred thousand kilometres away from Tōkyō right now," she said. "Well out of range of any sort of satellite surveillance system, so no one on Earth is aware that we're up here. It's about two days after your 'episode' ended, so all we can do concerning Shūya and Noriko is track them down and make them disappear. And once body-swaps have been done, we can also make it look like they died."

"They'll be in Kōbe," he advised after finding it within himself to talk once more after realising he was in deep space somewhere close to Earth. "I told them to head that way before I passed out on the boat and wound up here. Some people my old man knew who would be willing to help out with getting them to the States."

"Alright, I'll pass that up," she said, nodding in appreciation, and then she sighed. "You obviously have some questions. You might as well start asking."

"Are we really . . . well, 'us?'"

Keiko blinked before she gazed at him. "Yes," she said with a firm nod. "The device that was used to pull your soul out of your body is . . . " A shrug. "Well, in layman's terms, it literally warps Reality to whatever the person using it wants to have happen. If you want to punch back in time to save someone from literally dying - as we hope to do eventually with all the Program players all the way back from 1947 when this whole insanity started - then that's what this device does." She then reached into her trouser pocket and pulled out an oval-shaped, diamond-shaded crystal. "Once your soul was freed from its original body, it was placed in something like this." She tossed it to him, smiling as he caught it single-handedly. "It's called 'meson,' which is short for 'mesonium.' It's got a very high atomic number and doesn't exist naturally. But once it's created, it's incredibly stable and able to resist anything, especially if it's charged up with any sort of energy. Like the electrical impulses that fire up our brains." As he gaped at her, she added, "Once your soul was placed into that crystal, it was then inserted into the body you have right now. Cloned as I said before, but upgraded to Sagussan genetic norms, not Terran. I told you all the advantages about it already." A sigh. "Once your soul fully meshed in with your new brain, the meson then disintegrated into molecules that flooded your blood-stream, augmenting the regenerative enzymes - something produced by your body's lymph nodes and pumped right into your blood or so I'm told - and helping you stay healthy within reason." She held up her finger. "It's a one-time deal, though. If you die anytime soon in the future, that's it."

"It's either Heaven or Hell for us," he mused before tossing the crystal back.

She caught it. "Yeah. Our hosts don't believe in that sort of thing - as soon as you fully awaken to your new body's abilities, you'll understand why - but you have to admit, living like this is much better than dying as a 'player' in some sick game forced on us by the government for whatever warped reason has kept driving it for sixty-four years." Slipping the crystal into her pocket, she crossed her arms as if she was hugging herself. "It's not a bad life. We're living on a planet over 33,000 light-years from here. Practically Earth-normal climate, though right now, it's somewhat like the Sahara Desert these days with a lot more water. They're making it better every step of the way. And if current Earth technology develops as it's going right now, it'll be centuries before our people could get out there. And hopefully by then . . . "

"No Greater East Asia Republic," he finished for her.

A nod. "Yeah."

"So who are these . . . Sagussans, you called them?"

A chuckle. "You ever hear of the 'Silent Killer?'"

Shōgo perked. "Wait a sec' . . . " he breathed out, and then he nodded. "Yeah, I've heard of him! He played in one of the early episodes three years ago, right?"

"Event 64/04," Keiko supplied. "Tomobiki Junior High School, Class 3-D. Moroboshi Ataru is his name." She sighed. "It turns out that the Sagussans had met up with him eleven years ago, just before he started elementary school. Back then, they were emotionless robots. Again, like Vulcans from Star Trek. The why is pretty easy to understand, but I'll explain that later." She gazed at him. "They all share the same type of powers we have. Telepathy and empathy. There were a hundred thousand of them. Perfect logic machines. And a six year-old boy was brought in to live amongst them for two whole months. Guess what happened to them."

He blinked as he considered that, and then he whistled. "Damn . . . "

"Yeah," she said. "So when he was forced to play in the Program, they - and they were monitoring him covertly - were quite pissed off. In a way, they helped make sure he survived it, then whisked him away after he was brought back to Tomobiki. After he recovered from what happened, he decided that since it wasn't just plain fair that he survived when so many others didn't, he'd use the Sagussans' technology to save everyone he could. Starting with Yuka-sempai's and Tina-sempai's class two years ago, he had ships sent here to pick everyone up - save for the survivors, though they're constantly watched over by automated reconnaissance probes so they can be helped if they decide to suicide - before they could pass on into whatever awaits us in the next life." A smirk. "And no one in Japan is any the wiser."

Silence fell as the doctor's son from Kōbe considered that, a nod slowly twitching his head as he considered what had just been revealed to him. "Damn! Who the hell would suspect this sort of thing?" he wondered as an admiring smile crossed his face, and then he sobered up. "I take it informing the relatives . . . "

"That was left to the members of each class to decide what to do," she admitted. "I can tell you that right from Tina-sempai's class onward, people have pretty much voted to NOT tell their relatives anything." At his surprised look, she explained, "In their eyes, the fact that our parents just sit back and let the Program carry on without stopping it is reason enough to 'stay dead' in their eyes. Why give them the right to be happy to know their baby ultimately survived the Program?" A snort. "Just like you said to that mother whose baby got scalded that one time. Remember that?" At his nod, she sighed. "If our parents and all the elders in our society don't seem to care about what happens when we're made to kill or be killed, why should we make them happy by revealing to them that we all survived? Or will survive once the Sagussans figure out a way to go after the people from before Tina-sempai's class who died?" A sigh. "Hopefully, one of these days, people in Japan will finally clue in and overthrow the Central Committee once and for all time." The Central Committee, Shōgo knew, was the senior ruling body of the Greater East Asia Republic, the council ruled by the Senior Chairman, the modern-day shōgun who ruled the land in the absence of an heir to the long-dead Shōwa Emperor, who - with his whole family - had been killed by a rogue Nazi atomic-tipped V-2 rocket launched from a barge towed by a U-boat back in 1945, the very year the Empire of Japan officially was re-named the "Republic of Greater East Asia."

"Doubt it'll happen anytime soon," he admitted. "With over two hundred million people in Japan and all the island territories around us - AND with a still-growing birth rate - there's loads of would-be 'players' out there for them to choose from."

A sad nod. "Yeah."

"So what are these Sagussans like? Are they human?"

A nod. "In almost every way that counts, they are. Some will look way too different from what we might accept as 'human' - pointed ears, horn-buds on the head, wild skin colours from electric blue to dark green to a metallic tan-brown shade, people that look like Klingons from Star Trek, hair colours across the spectrum, people who have WINGS and TAILS like demons in Western mythology - but they're all humanoid deep down in their heart. Red iron-based blood; you can have kids with them . . . " Keiko then smirked. "According to a theory their scientists like to use to explain it, there was this 'Race X' millions of years ago that seeded the inhabited planets of the galaxy with DNA to allow whatever sentient species that grew up there to evolve in a way so that, when they all got out into space, they could interbreed with each other with no problems at all."

He hummed. "Weird, but I'll buy it." He then blinked. "So why didn't these Sagussans take Moroboshi away when they first met up with him eleven years ago?"

"Because they did respect the fact that he - at the time - did care for his parents, though they later turned out to be like those idiots who bet on who ends up winning a Program episode," she answered him. "When they came to get him three years ago, two of them went into his house to get his personal belongings." A shake of the head. "His mother was moaning about how unlucky she was to have a son that was too stupid to NOT get killed in the Program." As Shōgo gaped in shocked disbelief at her, she added, "And his father was just hiding himself behind the daily paper and not saying anything to her. Let's just say that when Lufy-san and Priss-san got to hear that, they decided to express their displeasure at them in a rather terminal manner."

He breathed out. "Fuck . . .!"

"Yeah," she said. "I guess after hearing that, Yuka-sempai and her friends all wondered if it was just worth it, running into parents who might actually be relieved to NOT have to worry about their children anymore." A shake of the head. "Well, it doesn't matter in the long run. We're alive, we're living our lives free and we can make new futures for ourselves and our friends. It's an easy trade-off . . . "

A chuckle. "Yeah . . . "

A chime echoed through the room. "Come!" Keiko called out.

The main door opened to reveal a smiling woman in the same model of shirt-and-track pants Keiko had, though she had green-tinted black hair and chestnut eyes, the name Kotomi written on her breast. She was guiding in a floating cart - Some sort of anti-gravity system? Shōgo thought to himself - with large glasses full of what had to be some sort of milkshake-like drink. "Some breakfast for the hubby, Keiko-chan?"

Keiko blushed. "Kotomi-sempai . . .!"

Shōgo laughed . . .

A half-hour later . . .

"Damn . . . "

"Freakin' awesome, ain't it?"

Shōgo perked on hearing that voice, and then he turned to see a slender fellow with spiky grey-black hair and deep blue eyes walk up to stand beside him. Much to his amusement, the only two-time player (that he knew of) in the Program was quick to see the hoop rings hooked into the lower lobes of Mimura Shinji's ears. Where the hell did this wise guy get hold of them? Shōgo wondered before nodding as he gazed around the circular dual-level bridge of the rather LARGE spaceship they were now aboard. "Yeah, it is," he admitted. "You startin' to hit on all the girls aboard the ship already?"

"You mean girls like Kaho-sempai?" Shinji asked as he gazed in appreciation at Shimizu Kaho, a green-eyed girl with deep red hair who was now leaning over Okano Yuka's shoulder to check out some system on the ship; neither of the just-revived Shiroiwa Junior High School students had been given much of a tour, though Keiko had gone back down below decks to make sure everything was okay with the thirty-eight other people who had been literally reborn this day. "Nah! I'm willing to wait until we get back to Sagussa and check out all the babes there! You hear about that?"

A smirk. "Every teenage heterosexual and bisexual man's - and bisexual and lesbian woman's - wet dream come true, magnified to the nth degree," Shōgo mused before taking a moment to sip from the delicious shake that had been prepared for him. "At least Moroboshi's willing to SHARE! How big was the count in the end?"

"A hundred-and-four thousand, nine hundred-and-fifteen Sagussans PLUS over two-point-five billion Avalonians. And ALL of them are good-looking GIRLS!" Shinji said, trying not to leer. "Gods, add all the people from the Program to that . . .!"

"When they get to rescuing them all," the other man advised.

"Amen to that," Shinji noted before sipping his own shake. "What are you going to do now, Mister Two-Time Player?" he asked. "We can't go home - much that I don't think many of us COULD go home - so we have to think of new lives for ourselves."

"Haven't thought that far ahead, Shinji," Shōgo admitted. "I'm still getting over the shock of being ALIVE, much less being reunited with Keiko."

Shinji nodded; Kaho had briefed him in on what had been going on with all of his classmates in preparing him to fully come to grips with what had happened on Oki-shima. Of course, Shōgo's story had impressed the younger man; to learn that someone had died because she had loved him THAT much - and to grieve for that person to the point where he was willing to risk his life ONE MORE TIME in the crucible of the Program to understand what her sacrifice meant - was a really admirable thing. He then sighed as he remembered what else Kaho had told him about. "Hear about Kazuo and Mitsuko?"

A sigh. "Yeah, Keiko and Tina told me," Shōgo stated. "In a funny way, Kazuo had the purest reason to fight in the Program. He never was taught the difference between right and wrong and he couldn't feel any sort of emotions. Kinda explains what he said before he passed on." At Shinji's questioning look, he quoted the former boy-gang leader, "'I can feel again.'" A shake of the head. "Definitely some extreme version of Klüver–Bucy Syndrome. Where you lose the ability to fear anything that could threaten you. In his case, he lost not only the ability to fear . . . "

"But to love, hate, like . . . " Shinji shuddered. "Jeez! Poor guy!"

Shōgo nodded. "He's going to have problems adjusting to being 'normal' again," he warned. "New body with a completely intact and operational pair of amygdalae. And since the accident that killed his mom happened when he was six, he's missed out on NINE years of developing normal human emotions." A sigh. "Hope there're some good psychologists on Sagussa who can help him out in that case. He'll need it."

"Not just him."

Shōgo blinked, and then he breathed out. "Yeah. Mitsuko, you mean."

"What type of sick fuck would RAPE a NINE year-old girl?" Shinji hissed.

"A sick fuck that deserves to be castrated," Shōgo mused. "Then again, Mitsuko did something just as bad. Sickin' a Yakuza fighter in to kill both him and her mom?"

Shinji chuckled. "Yeah! I will admit, that was class!" A shake of the head. "Damn! I used to think of her as a psycho-bitch from hell. But now . . . "

A nod. "I hear you, Shinji. I hear you."

"You want to hear something else?"


"Yūichirō's got a big crush on her."


"Yūichirō . . . " Shōgo repeated as he tried to recall that name, and then his eyes widened as he remembered who that person was. "Oh, one of the little guys in the class! Takiguchi, right? He's friends with Hatagami! The anime fan?"

"Very same man," Shinji said. "He's having a ball looking over all the pictures of the Sagussans that he can access on his terminal in his bedroom, guessing all the names that Moroboshi-sempai gave them all. He's got them right almost all the time."

"You're kiddin' me!"

"No joking, amigo! He's in Heaven, that boy!"

Both men laughed . . .

In another cabin below decks . . .

"So Ataru-sempai named as many girls as he could after characters from anime so that he didn't have to use their sequential numbers, right?"

"Hai," Wakura Kotomi said as she picked up the empty milkshake glass and placed it on the cart, then held out her hand to take the glass Sōma Mitsuko had in her hand, which she gave over with a slight nod of thanks. "It's rather strange that they would accept his giving them Earth-like names - after all, there are loads of Sagussan names to chose from - but since they all love him so much, they let him call them by those names." She smiled. "Not everyone has a name yet, but Sempai's working on it. We're joining in - not to mention all the other classes that've been saved so far - so hopefully soon enough, every one of the daishi'cha will have a name."

"And they were all reborn to help literally give birth to a whole new race on that planet?" Takiguchi Yūichirō then asked. "To replace the one that died out there?"

A nod. "Hai." Kotomi then winked at them; like Keiko when it came to putting Kawada Shōgo and Minami Kaori in adjoining rooms, Kotomi was upset at the fact that Takiguchi Yūichirō and Sōma Mitsuko were in adjoining rooms. Honestly! What the HELL is that Ayumu thinking of? the green-haired former student of the Kōka Girl's Academy railed to herself yet again. "Anyhow, try not to go crazy with each other while I'm gone getting you some light snacks from the kitchen. It's okay to feel nervous with each other, but remember: You're NOT playing in the Program anymore! Alright?"

"Hai, Sempai!" Yūichirō said with a grin as Mitsuko simply nodded.

With that, Kotomi headed out of the room. As soon as the door closed, Mitsuko breathed out as she crossed her arms. "So . . . what should we do, Yūichirō-kun?" she asked, her voice far more timid and shy than what she had used when she had been together with Yūichirō and his friend Hatagami Tadakatsu on Oki-shima.

He blinked, and then he sighed, though he did reach over to gently grasp her hand. A sense of relief then came over him as he sensed that she wasn't going to yank her hand away from him, and then he blushed as she leaned over to rest her head on his shoulder . . . just like a girl would normally do with a man she cared for when they were out on a date. And even though Yūichirō knew what his current companion was all too capable of doing when she was provoked, he felt a small spark of hope that somehow, this terribly hurt and abused woman would finally crawl out of whatever emotional hell she had been forced to live through for the past five years, then go forth and live a life that wouldn't be dominated by teenage prostitution and petty thievery.

While he DID remember the last moments of his "first life" - as he had come to call his time in this existence to the point where Mitsuko had driven her kama scythe into his throat while they were together on the northern side of Oki-shima, when she had been trying desperately to "save" him from dying by having sex with him - he hoped she could finally overcome the horrid demons haunting her soul and be the beautiful person he believed deep down she was. And - thanks to what Kotomi had told him about what Mitsuko had endured in her life to date - he realised now that she had been honestly trying to save him a couple nights before; the words he had said to her just before that happened had struck a deep chord within the young woman's fractured soul, touching the innocent child that was buried in her heart. All he had to do was keep using words like he had in those last few moments - to NOT LEAVE HER when she clearly needed someone she could care for and TRUST the most! - to help the "good" side of Sōma Mitsuko out of whatever cage trapped her now and make sure she would always remain in control for the remainder of their lives.

"Well, I guess I could hold off on looking on a computer screen," he said as he tapped off the small unit on his nightstand. "After all, I've got the girl I've always thought of as the prettiest girl in the whole world in my cabin right now." As Mitsuko stared at him, he blushed. "And even now that I know what that girl's been through in her life, I . . . " He then bit his teeth before surging onto his feet.

"Yūichirō!" she gasped.

He walked over to the window to gaze out into the starry night beyond; the cabin he had was on the starboard side of the vast command superstructure of a nine-kilometre long, swan-shaped vessel called the Lyna'cha, which meant that he could only see the Moon at a close distance in lieu of the Earth several hundred thousand kilometres away. Taking a deep breath, he tried not to gulp. "I . . . I really don't know the right words to say to you, Mitsuko-san," he then admitted as he looked over his shoulder at her. "If I flub it up somehow, please don't get mad at me."

A shudder raced through her, and then she looked away as she felt that warm, inviting stare emitting from his blue-green eyes wash over her. "Am I bad?"

He perked, and then he shook his head. "No. It's like I told you all along," he answered. "You were lost, Mitsuko-san. And now I kinda understand why you were lost. I . . . " He paused as he closed his eyes. "If you don't want talk about it - or want me to talk about it - well, I can understand that . . . "

Another shudder, this time with tears in her eyes. "Please don't . . . "

A nod. "O-okay," he said, and then he took a deep breath. "You've always been forced to go look for something. I guess it's really love that you've wanted all along. And it's something we all want. But you never got it . . . and you were never taught how to find love and accept it as love. I . . . " He bit his lower lip. "I know you can't really trust people, Mitsuko-san. I'm not asking you to trust me. I've no right to demand anything of you. No one does. But . . . I want to help you discover the love you want, Mitsuko-san. I want to help you find what you're looking for . . . if you'll let me. So that you . . . " His own eyes began to tear. "You won't be lost anymore."

Seeing the young anime fan on the verge of breaking down and crying, Mitsuko froze as her heart seemed to skip several beats. Instantly, a cold chill then gripped her heart as the image of a badly torn-up and dirty rag doll flashed through her mind.

He's taking our trust . . .

Yūichirō blinked as he felt . . . something escape the girl in his room, and then he turned to see the woman seated on his bed staring at him with a pair of dead eyes that instantly made his heart go cold as he remembered other times he's seen that.

And it was the one thing he - and so many others - feared.

"Hardcore" Sōma.

"Liar . . .!"

"Mitsuko-san . . . "

Shuddering, she got up, moving to side-step away from him, retreating for the main door. "You're no different!" Mitsuko hissed out, her voice picking up in volume as she raised a shaking hand to point at him. "Just like every other man I've been with! You take my trust, you say nice words to me and then you LEAVE ME!"


With a scream, she turned to run out of the room . . .

. . . and then gasped as a hand clamped down HARD on the juncture between her neck and shoulder, making her cry out in shock as something surged right through her nervous system to overwhelm her. As she collapsed towards the deck, two strong arms then caught her, and then she was lifted gently into the arms of a woman looking to be about twenty or so, with long brown hair styled in curly bangs over her forehead and eyes of burning chestnuts on a face that had a particularly metallic-like tan. And on her right cheek was a curious tattoo looking like some sort of musical eighth note symbol crossed with a hunting knife. She was dressed in what Yūichirō recognised was the standard duty uniform of a serviceman in the Sagussan Republic Navy: A dark blue short-sleeved jumpsuit with red trim that flowed into a stylised firebird-like symbol on her chest that showed off all the cleavage in the world, though she had dark green pants over her red buccaneer-style boots. On her shoulders were rectangular rank epaulettes similar to what American officers still loyal to the central government had worn on their tunic shoulders during the Civil War, said epaulettes bearing four square diamond-shaped studs in a row. Yūichirō didn't know what the rank actually represented since he had only barely begun to study everything about the race that had saved his life before Mitsuko had come in to visit him. "Ano . . . " he began.

The woman who had stunned Mitsuko with a nerve pinch took a deep breath. "Lucky thing I was close by to keep a mental 'eye' on this kid," she mused . . .

In another cabin nearby . . .

"So this whole - 'Grand Design' as they call it - is an effort to create a singular race from the mixing of the genetics of all available compatible humanoid species in this half of the galaxy . . . with the additional modifications to their DNA to give them all the same level of psionic capabilities. Given the precedence of the previous 'republic's' myths, that is the reason this Gatherer ship was sent out to obtain only women to become daishi'cha, leaving it up to them to later select men to become their daimon'cha. Which they began eleven years ago with this Noa woman's meeting Moroboshi Ataru?"

"That's it in a nutshell, Kazuo-san," Noda Satomi said as she sat back on her host's bed, gazing at the information flashing on the communications/information terminal posted on the nightstand nearby. "Of course, given that Moroboshi-sempai was also a Program survivor, when he elected to start rescuing the rest of us from being killed, he prompted them to obtain this 'bioroid factory' from the planet Phentax Twelve - where a different group of old Sagussans had placed it fourteen thousand years ago - so that replacement bodies could be created for all the players that could be found. After it got reprogrammed to be able to create male bioroids and after all the bioroids it had created to date had been rescued from their 'masters' throughout the Phentax star system." A smirk. "And no one in the Greater East Asia Republic would be any the wiser." She moved to lie back on the bed. "So Moroboshi-sempai moves to ensure we get the chance to live . . . "

"While those of our elders back home who are made to believe we are all dead continue to suffer, thus joining the ranks of all those since the Third Year of the Republic who have had to mourn a lost child," Kiriyama Kazuo stated as he gazed out the portal at the distant blue jewel hovering far away. "And given the veil of secrecy that this whole operation has been conducted under - thanks very much to the advantages Sagussan technology grants our benefactors - there is no possible way that people in government can come to realise what is happening. And if they did hear something like it . . . "

"It'll be the same as all those UFO reports that show up from time to time in the trash tabloids," she finished for her classmate. "Who would believe it?"

A nod. "Indeed."

Silence fell over the room as the two people there considered what they had just discussed, and then Satomi sighed. "Well, I for one am looking forward to living in a society where I can be as free and as successful as my talents take me. Much that our so-called 'esteemed leaders' proclaim all the time we've become the technologically most advanced society on Earth, one doesn't have to be that smart to realise that Japan is slowly but surely heading for a dead end in the near-future. The Program, all the hype over keeping our culture closed from any form of Western 'contamination,' the suppression of new ideas and new dreams . . . " A shake of the head. "They teach us world history to point out all the mistakes the 'stupid white man' has made in their bid to conquer the world in the name of Christianity, but it's easy to see that we're making all the same mistakes. And because our leaders are so blind and the people so meek . . . "

"When revolution does erupt in Japan - and I agree, it WILL come - it will be bloody and quite disruptive," he finished for her before closing his eyes, and then he gazed at her. "So what will you do when we resettle on Sagussa, Satomi?"

"Well, I haven't made any sort of decisions yet. We've only been awake in these bodies for just a few hours," she noted with a smirk. Even if his soul now resided in a brain that no longer was damaged thanks to a tragic automobile accident that had also claimed his mother nine years ago, Kazuo was still frightfully intelligent and quite disciplined enough to keep his mind locked on important matters. "As they've done for previous classes before ours, we'll be spending some time here in orbit over the Moon bleeding off all the feelings that overwhelmed us while we were forced to play in the Program. There's also Shūya and Noriko to worry about as well; Okano-sempai and her friends don't want to return back to Tere'na City with two people missing from our class."

He nodded. Though he knew now that he could once more fully express emotions just like all of his peers, he realised it was easier in this new body of his to keep control over whatever feelings might overcome him, thus make a clear judgement over what he was facing at this remarkable time. He felt satisfaction in that; while certain memories of his actions - especially on Oki-shima - still troubled him, he knew the Program was now well in the past and he could continue with his life without the need of confronting another impending life-and-death situation anytime in the foreseeable future.

And while he realised that Noda Satomi had her own troubled feelings stemming from her actions on Oki-shima to confront sometime soon - like all of his classmates, Kazuo had been fully briefed on what had happened to everyone else while he was striving to win their episode of the Program - she was remarkably intelligent, took pride in her schoolwork and was motivated to succeed in everything she did. And since she was now revelling at the new freedom she felt they all possessed thanks to their being reborn as Avalonians - or as "Terran-turned-Avalonians" as the official race/species designation for their type of sentient being was addressed as - she was going to plunge forward, grasp whatever opportunities to learn and expand presented themselves to her, then make as best of a life for herself and her future prodigy as she could.

Prodigy . . .

"Satomi, what are the requirements for males such as myself when it comes to helping the daishi'cha have children to carry out the Grand Design?" Kazuo asked.

Satomi hummed. "Well, from what I read, other male Program survivors beyond Moroboshi-sempai have been asked to contribute their own DNA through sperm into genetic databanks in the main medical centres in all three Sagussan continental provinces - Tere'na, Kyre'sha and Ly'sha - to allow any daishi'cha or any Avalonian now living on Sagussa to access them should they be interested in having a baby. It can be done either in a clinical procedure, with a companion android replica of a daishi'cha - such machines exist for all of them - or with the actual daishi'cha or Avalonian in question." She then smirked. "No one's being forced to do that sort of thing, Kazuo-san. In their eyes, what's happened to us is child abuse and child abandonment at the hands of our native society, cut-and-dried. They will not be interested in pressuring people like you into becoming fathers if you are, in whatever way possible, reticent of becoming one."

"Would fathers be allowed to influence the development of their children?"

"If they live with and help raise the child, of course," she answered. "The chances are good that all of you boys - and all of us girls, too - won't ever live on Earth again. If we ever appeared anywhere on the planet - even in nations like America, Canada, Australia or Western Europe - the resulting social earthquake is going to be CATASTROPHIC! The Program is just too well known across the planet; what happened to Shūya and Noriko is already headline news on CNN, BBC and all the other main world-wide broadcasters. And because of that, the daishi'cha are quite comfortable telling all those who have been restored to life before us that it's best for all of them - and us, too - to cut all ties to our families and go forth to live new lives on Sagussa. Or on New Avalon or one of the colonies they're setting up close to Earth."

"Would you want to go back?"

She paused to consider that for a moment, and then she closed her eyes. "No. In a way, I can agree with everyone who's had to make that choice. If the Program was something that people hated and didn't want to have happen, why the hell didn't they DO something about it before we were made to 'play?' The Non-Aggressive Defensive Army is nothing more than a glorified army division even if passionate support for the Program is a pre-requisite to get into their ranks. If I recall my military studies correct, an army division numbers about 15,000 people. There are over TWO HUNDRED MILLION people in Japan and all the surrounding islands. It wouldn't take much to launch a revolution, Kazuo-san. And if the Republican Navy and Army decide it's in their best interests to support such a revolution, all the hard-core Program supporters are doomed."

"True," he admitted. "Well, that is - as you just indicated - no longer any of our concern. We have new lives ahead of us now. It's best we concentrate on that."

A nod. "Agreed." She then sighed. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go find Kanai Izumi. I once overheard her say that her brother was a big fan of the Program. Maybe she can give me some clues about the type of man who saved our lives."

He blinked. "I will see you later."

With that, Satomi got up and walked out of his bedroom. At least whoever set up the cabin arrangements for all of us made use I didn't face any of the other girls from the lighthouse right away, she mused to herself as she walked over to a computer terminal built into a nearby bulkhead, then tapped a control. "Bianca, please locate Kanai Izumi."

"Izumi is in Cabin 21-A7, Satomi. Please follow the hull lights there," a rich woman's voice echoed from all around the bespectacled teenager.

Noting a section of lights on the deckhead flashing, Satomi nodded. "Arigatō, Bianca," she said to the Lyna'cha's main computer as she headed aft down the corridor towards the rear of the superstructure. The superstructure of a ship that's so large, she could take in all of Shiroiwa and the surrounding townships with room to spare, she added to herself as she considered that, remembering the schematics of the battlecruiser she had literally been reborn on that she had seen on her own nightstand information unit. If they call the Lyna'cha a 'battlecruiser,' what in Buddha's name would be a battleship? Something that could swallow up all of Tōkyō itself?


She perked on hearing that voice, and then she turned around as a cabin door behind her opened, revealing a handsome man with flowing shoulder-length black hair, dark brown eyes and the aura of someone who was in as much control over himself as he wanted to be. "Oh, Hiroki-kun," Satomi called out on recognising Sugimura Hiroki. "What is it? I was going over to talk to Izumi-chan for a moment."

"I'll come with you," the young fighter stated as he fell in beside her. "I was just worried about you, how you were adjusting to what happened to all of us."

She jolted, her cheeks flaming lightly on sensing the honesty in his voice at his expressing that concern. "I'm . . . recovering," she admitted. "I haven't talked to anyone in the class outside Kazuo-san since I woke up; we have side-by-side cabins. I'm . . . " A sigh, and then she whispered, "I'm nervous about facing the other girls from the lighthouse."

He took a moment to comprehend that, and then he nodded. "It's the way it was meant to be all along, Satomi-san," he said as he reached over to gently squeeze her shoulder in support, which made her tense before she gazed on him. "We were put into a situation where there were no rules save one: Kill or die. And given what I heard happened when Yūko-san saw Tatsumichi get killed by his own machete when he lost it and tried to attack Shūya and Noriko-san . . . " A shake of the head. "What happened to you girls in the lighthouse was something the monsters that forced the Program on all of us wanted to see happen, Satomi-san. Besides, think about it: YOU could have been the one Yūko-san accidentally poisoned." As she perked, he smiled. "How would the others've reacted?"

She blinked as she considered that, and then she sighed. "True . . . "

By then, both had arrived at a door that had lights flashing on both sides of it. "This must be the place," Hiroki said before reaching over to the doors . . . which did not open. "Ah, they discovered the locking mechanism." With that, he knocked. "Izumi-san?" he called out. "Izumi-san, are you in there?"

The door then swooped open to reveal the woman in question. "Hai?" Kanai Izumi called out, and then she blushed. "Oh, Hiroki-kun!" She then perked on noting who was with him, which struck her as a little odd. "Satomi-chan? What is it?"

"Sorry to bother you, Izumi-san, but we came here to find out some things about Moroboshi-sempai," Hiroki said. "We've all heard that your brother is a big fan of the Program, so if anyone might know about him, it just might be you."

Izumi blinked, and then her grey eyes twinkled with delight. "Well, if you're interested in knowing the TRUTH about the Silent Killer, step inside!" she bade them. "I've got some of the others in the room who wanted some info on him! C'mon in!"

Both then walked inside . . .

. . . and then Satomi froze as four familiar faces gazed upon her.

"No . . . " she moaned out . . .

Back in Yūichirō's cabin . . .

"Um . . . Priss-san . . .?"

The woman now looking over the unconscious Mitsuko blinked before she turned to gaze on Yūichirō. "You guessed," she noted, an amused smile crossing her face. "Let me guess; it was that anime series that Ataru likes a lot, right?"

He chuckled. "Y-yeah, Bubblegum Crisis. And Bubblegum Crash, too!" He then gazed intently at her. "So what are you, anyway? The Priss from that series didn't have tanned skin like you do, not to mention that tattoo on your cheek."

She smirked. "Well, I was born on a planet named Yehisril, which is about . . . oh, about five hundred light-years that way. You would call someone like me as a 'Yehisrite-turned-Sagussan,'" she said as she pointed somewhere aft, up and to port. "Back then, my name was Gilpizra. I was born on the continent of Falcros, which is sort of like what Africa was to you Terrans." At his curious look, she added, "The place where my birth-race first began to develop as a modern species."

"So why not call yourself that?" he asked.

A sigh. "Well, when we all died and were reborn in the regeneration matrix aboard the Gatherer, almost all our memories of our first lives were wiped out of our brains," she explained as she gently pressed several points on Mitsuko's face, locations Yūichirō quickly realised were shiatsu points. "For eight hundred years and more, all I knew of myself was that I was Daishi'cha number Two-Two-Eight-Six-Zero. Or Eieiioao-o as we would say it in the Sagussan language." At his nod, she then smiled. "Then Noa brought Ataru to us eleven years ago and we all started to change. We began to feel the emotions that we could have felt all along but never understood how to feel because the two supercomputers that controlled the whole Grand Design from Day One didn't know how to program those emotions into us. And as our emotions grew, flashes of our past lives began to replay deep in our heads. But . . . " She stopped, and then sighed. "When Ataru was with us, he always did his best to remember our sequential numbers. But he couldn't do it all the time - he was only six, after all! - so he always called me 'Ei-chan.'"

"You love him."

"We all do," Priss noted, and then she continued to work on Mitsuko. "So when we brought him back after that little fun 'vacation' he had on Kōzu-shima, well . . . " A smirk. "He was almost in as bad shape as many of you were when we pulled you out of your old bodies and got you into new ones. Up here, that is." She pointed to the side of her head in emphasis. "And we felt it was only right to let him vent himself out. Work out all the grief and anger he felt at being forced through all that." The smile then turned nasty as she added, "Pity that he never got it into his head to order us to turn the government headquarters of your so-called 'republic' into a nice big bomb crater. Or even better, drop a meteor on the damned city! Make it all look natural!"

He ruefully chuckled. "Yeah, that would have probably saved some lives." The smile then slipped from his face. "And kill people that didn't deserve to be killed."

She blinked, and then nodded. "Yeah, that's true. That's the down side of the whole Non-Interference Directive we follow. Or rather . . . " - an amused chuckle - " . . . we try to follow. It doesn't work all the time, but we do try."

"You mean like in Star Trek."

"Yeah, same idea. Don't do anything to interfere in the proper development of another culture and all that jazz." Priss shook her head. "But sometimes, Fate has a weird way of making DAMN sure that despite all the preventive measures you take, if there's going to be any sort of unsolicited contact, it's gonna be spectacular."

"Like what?"

"Well, our taking Ataru away from Earth for example," she noted as she began to press several points on the side of Mitsuko's face. "You see, Ataru wasn't alone inside his head when he was dragged off to Kōzu-shima. For eight years up to the weekend after that event, his subconscious mind played host to the being that really deserved to be called the 'Silent Killer.'" Priss then smirked. "Or as she's known otherwise to different people throughout Japanese history . . .

"The Earth Angel . . .

"The Black Death of the Martial Arts . . .

"Imperial Special Agent Number Forty-nine . . .

"The Silent Ghost of the Darkness . . . "

"The Saikō Jinseijutsu . . .?"

Priss perked. "You've heard of her?"

"I thought it was just a crazy urban legend!" Yūichirō blurted out.

"Oh, no," she said with a chuckle as she finished tapping a point on Mitsuko's cheek. "Moroboshi Negako's no legend. She's as real as you and me." She then got up. "Anyhow, let your girl sleep for a bit. She's a real mess inside, but there's a part of her that's locked onto you hard, Yūichirō. Give her time and you'll be fine. I'm gonna get something to eat, then do some rounds to make sure any of the other potential hot-heads on the ship don't lose it and start making a mess of things. See ya!"

And with that, she walked out. Yūichirō watched her go, and then he breathed out. "Man, Hiroki's gonna FREAK when he finds out about this . . .!"

Izumi's cabin . . .



Before a shuddering Utsumi Yukie could surge up to her feet and lunge over to grab Satomi with her hands and strangle her, Hiroki had immediately dodged in her path. His barked scream had caused her to freeze, making her - not to mention the three other "lighthouse girls" that Satomi had been with before Sakaki Yūko had joined them: Matsui Chisato, Tanizawa Haruka and Nakagawa Yūka - stare wide-eyed at the martial artist. Noting that he got their attention, Hiroki then sighed. "Look, girls! I know you all feel upset over what happened on Oki-shima. But do you really think that just going on and hating Satomi for what happened on the island is necessary NOW?"

"You weren't there, Hiroki-kun!" Chisato snapped as she pointed at the woman who had shot her down in the lighthouse. "You've no right to judge what our feelings are! We were trying to stay together so we could all survive the damned Program . . . "

"Which was what Kamon and the others who set that whole thing up never wanted to happen!" Hiroki cut in, making Chisato jolt. "That was the whole idea, remember? Forty-two people go in . . . and only one comes out! And when Yūko-san accidentally poisoned Yūka-san, that was enough to get her suspicious! Not to mention the rest of you!"

"Hiroki-kun, please . . . "

He paused, and then gazed on Satomi, who had turned her eyes down and away from gazing at the people she had hurt. "I'll come see you later, Izumi-chan," she then said before turning to walk out of the room. "Sorry to bother you . . . "

The door whooshed open.

"Satomi! Wait!" Yūka then called out . . .

. . . as Satomi walked out of the room . . .

. . . and slammed right into the side of a tall man in solid black-and-gold.

As the bespectacled teen gasped and collapsed to the deck, the passer-by then turned to gaze down at her. "Hey! Sorry about that!" he said in a jovial voice. "You okay?" he then wondered as he leaned down, offering his hand to her.

Satomi looked up . . .

. . . and then her eyes went wide. "Moroboshi-sempai . . .?" she gasped.

To be continued . . .