The mission had ended in disaster. What could have been decisive victory resulting in the destruction of one of the neoroids' main power plants and the freedom of thousands of humans had been ruined by a lone traitor, an informant who came forward to sell out his fellow humans and warn the enemy of their plans ahead of time. Most of them had been slaughtered in the trap that awaited from, but Luna had been taken alive after an intense struggle. Shackled to a mechanical cross with seemingly permanent scowl on her face, Naiman dodged making eye contact with her as he addressed his new robotic allies. He sounded regretful, but whether he was acting was beyond Luna's most educated guess.
"I helped you guys get what you wanted. Now let me out of here like we agreed."
The one in charge of the interrogation was Akubon, the closest advisor to the supreme neoroid leader Black King. The artificial man was built out of silver and black metal, and seemed to be modeled after something between a butler and a jester. There was a certain sadistic flair in his voice where he replied.
"You've betrayed your own race for your personal gain. Such flaws need to be corrected."
Naiman's eyes instantly filled with terror. Before he had any chance to escape, a nearby android ensnared him it is tendril-like arms and began dragging him out of the room. He was taken through one of the doorways opposite to where Luna had been brought in, and the vault sealed shut behind him after he disappeared into the shadows with his captor. His screams for mercy continued echoing through the enormous steel door until they became too distant to hear. Akubon offered his disappointed observations when silence finally returned to the room.
"A shame. We'll be lucky to get a basic labor drone out of such low-quality source material."
The neoroid shifted his attention back to Luna in her bound state. She was kept in place by metal rings that wrapped around her wrists, ankle, and neck. Her blonde hair had lost its braids and her leotard had been reduced to revealing shreds in skirmish that ended with her capture, but her battered state was the least of her worries. Her angered expression now melted into something more fearful as a result of the traitor's cruel fate, much to Akubon's amusement.
"Don't worry yourself, woman. You're about to be promoted to Lieutenant."
Failing to grasp the full meaning behind his words, she took them as an insult and quickly found her defiant will again. She had to remain strong, for the sake of everyone who had been lost in the doomed infiltration attempt, and the human prisoners they had been fighting to free.
"Do you really think I'll just join your side to save myself? You'll have to kill me to get rid of me!"
Akubon was glancing downward and shaking his head to himself before she even finished.
"Yes, yes. I know this speech. After you're disposed of, another of your kind will come to take your place, and then another. You're not the first rebel who has tried to win my petition while awaiting their execution."
"Is this some kind of joke to you? The next Casshan will rise the moment they know I'm going to die!"
Casshan, the name of the hero that was rumored to be traveling across the world and defeating the neoroid army at every turn, gradually ending the siege that had been undertaking humanity for the past several years. Luna had gained the support of her now dead colleagues only by agreeing to use the name for herself and become a symbol for their own cause. All she had left was the belief that the remaining prisoners in this neoroid base would be brave enough to continue their rebellion without her. Judging by his new tone, Akubon couldn't have been more pleased with how it turned out.
"That's partially what I'm counting on."
A tiny hint of excitement of entered his voice as the gears that controlled his black lips from underneath his metallic skin began curling upward.
"But you've already convinced yourself you're really Casshan, have you? That's good. That means this shouldn't be as hard on you."
Luna lost her train of thought at these taunting words. She responded after a moment of baffled hesitation.
"What are you talking about?"
"It involves the remains of one of Doctor Azuma's unfinished side projects, left over from when he was trying to create the perfect cybernetic man. We had to improvise a few parts that were either incomplete or damaged in the uprising. We made some adjustments to the way it operates to meet our own needs, but it should still be functional in theory."
Akubon stepped toward his captive, pointing one of his clawed digits forward so it almost prodded the exposed skin on her left side. As he continued speaking, Luna kept herself stern enough so she never flinched.
"We've had the device set aside for a while now. Now that you've passed your preliminary examination at the factory, I have high hopes it will prove to be useful."
Luna thought back to the trap that had awaited her team in the facility they nearly succeeded in destroying. The hodgepodge group of labor camp prisoners who had served as her men were easily cut down in the bloodbath that started once their cover was blown, and despite all of her training in the stealth arts and her acrobatic prowess, it wasn't long before she was overwhelmed by the vastly better armed and better armored enemy herself. All of that misery had just been a test?
But something even greater troubled her mind.
The scientist responsible for creating BK-1, the original neoroid that was supposed to help the world before it tragically went haywire and began stylizing itself as the Black King. The same scientist was the father of Tetsuya Azuma, a childhood friend Luna had been searching for the entire time she was traveling between each neoroid colony. She never stopped clinging to the hope that he survived the destruction the robots had caused when they first took over.
And if the neoroids knew about his father, they must have known about him. Luna was clenching her teeth when she spoke again.
"Where's Tetsuya, damn it?"
Akubon was even more amused by her sensitivity to the issue and the sudden resolve in her voice.
"Based on our current intelligence, he seems to be looking for you, but I believe he stopped going by that name a long time ago."
Luna wrenched herself as far as her bindings would allow. Her rage began boiling thanks Akubon's intentionally vague response.
"Tell me where he is!"
The robotic minion sighed lightly before muttering his response.
"That's quite enough out of you."
Narrowing his mechanical eyes, he silently ordered the collar at Luna's throat to release a small but jarring electrical pulse to stun its captive. Her struggles abruptly ended with a sharp cry of pain. She managed to whisper a final time as she went limp and slipped out of consciousness.
Once the prisoner was sedated, Akubon turned his gaze to some of the other neoroids who had been standing alongside him. He acknowledged them with a telling smirk.
"Take her to the assembly floor."
Akubon reunited with his humorless leader in the depths of their headquarters. Black King was even more human-like compared Akubon, only with a much sturdier build and a series of black lines etched into one side of his face. The chamber where they had met was a dimly lit and mostly dilapidated laboratory populated by strange machinery and half-assembled androids. An upright metallic cylinder occupied the center of the room, softly purring to life as Akubon and Black King observed it from a control console. After the servant entered a few short commands, an automated voice echoed through the chamber.
"Genesis module active. Core loaded. Analyzing contents."
Bands of light slowly began glossing over the cylinder, periodically revealing the silhouette of a slender female form suspended in fluid in the hallow space inside. When the scan was complete, the computer hopped through the neoroids' global network until an identity could be found. The voice spoke when the search ended.
"Subject: Kozuki Luna. All vitals are within safe limits. Nanogelatin primer detects no major defects at epidermal level. 96.2% biometric match with prototype blueprint. Do you wish to proceed?"
Akubon murmured contently to himself.
"Higher than I expected. I suppose that finalizes it."
He typed something new into the keypad, and then the computerized announcer spoke again.
"Subject re-designated as 'Casshan Astraea.' Parameters locked. Transitional life support functions activated. Initializing human-neoroid augmentation."
The laboratory's walls came to life, funneling all of their power into the cylinder in the center of the room. Steam poured out of a ring of vents at the base of the capsule as it noisily moved into its production phase. Akubon chuckled lightly to himself, catching a small portion Black King's attention.
"What amuses you so, Akubon?"
The underling offered his thoughts in a proud tone.
"Most of the females in this sector are far too malnourished or lack the physique to produce anything worthwhile from this experiment. The probability of acquiring suitable base components from this population was virtually nonexistent. Then this ample girl wanders in and practically volunteers herself to us."
Black King wouldn't budge from his uninterested posture.
"And what if this one still experiences... complications?"
Akubon gave a careless shrug, never stopping for a second thought.
"Then she'll probably die like the traitor she is, and we'll just have to find an alternate form of bait."
His more cunning manner returned as he continued.
"You have nothing to worry about, my liege. If this turns out to be just what we need to perfect the old professor's work, you'll have a considerable advantage over our enemy. If the process fails, we'll at least be rid of the annoying little mouse that's been scurrying around in our walls. Nothing of value will be lost in either case."
Black King finally allowed a subtle grin to cross his usually emotionless face.
"Your advice is always appreciated, Akubon."
The day of Luna's public execution came soon enough. Leaving her in the same scraps of a leotard she had been wearing since her capture, they placed her steel cross on the balcony of Black King's outdoor throne and summoned all of the slaves into the courtyard below so they would witness the punishment for treason. Her pending death seemed to finally be settling in, as her bravery had left her and a look of fear permanently occupied her face. However, even under all their oppression, the prisoners began chanting Casshan's name—her name—to show their spirits wouldn't be broken.
When the line of neoroid sentinels that had corralled the audience began firing warning shoots into the air, most of the mob ceased its protesting and fell back in fear. Only one figure stood his ground. The man was covered almost entirely under a long brown hood and cape, and he remained in place even after the guards aimed their weapons at him. Riddled with bullets, the cape dissolved in pieces to remove the armored warrior underneath. He was clad head to toe in a white and black bodysuit that reinforced his toned body. A white faceplate covered his mouth, leaving nothing but his eyes and the bridge of his nose revealed.
The legendary Casshan had revealed himself. Everything was going according to plan.
He launched into battle and landed on the balcony of the castle, meeting Black King's field of view while protectively placing himself several meters in front of Luna. Perched upon his throne, the neoroid tyrant reacted only by tilting his head and offering a casual gesture with his hand...
...and Tetsuya sensed a stream of plasma flying up behind him and grazing past his cheek. He turned in surprise to see Luna was standing at the base of the cross, having silently freed herself from her bindings. The laser-charged white and red archer bow in her arms told him where the shot had come from. Her torn clothing first slowly repaired itself, then began turning into something different. In a frightening process that involved new material either forming over her bare arms and legs or emerging from underneath her skin as it burned a thin layer of flesh away, she soon donned a form-fitting red costume that incorporated elements of Casshan's attire while still resembling a more concealing version of her own leotard. The transformation was mostly complete when the combat dress reached past her neck, forming a pair of slanted antennae that shielded the sides of her head like pointed ears. Finally, a faceplate sealed over her nose and mouth, covering the lower half of her face just like Casshan's. To accommodate her shorter and softer frame, the outfit allowed a modest amount of cleavage to remain uncovered along with her eyes, and her long golden hair was left hanging freely down her back.
Tetsuya could barely speak as a look of shock grew in his eyes.
Remaining silent, she somehow willed the frame of her bow to collapse into an empty hilt that seemed to be tailor made for the size of her fist. A solid beam grew from the handle, briefly forming a shape similar to a dagger, before it rapidly stretched outward as a pink energy ribbon. Luna made a pitching motion, sending the glowing whip to lash around Casshan's shoulders and electrocute its prey for several seconds. After crying out in agony and catching his breath, Tetsuya shouted to his unlikely foe in bewilderment.
"What are you doing, Luna? This isn't right!"
He was trying to pry himself out of his still sizzling bindings when she responded in a scolding voice.
"What would you know about right and wrong, Tetsuya? You're the one who has chosen to serve humans."
The fact she still recognized him and seemed to already know about his new identity made him even more disoriented. Everything was happening too quickly for him to perceive what could have changed the sweet girl he had known in his human life.
"I don't 'serve' anyone! I'm trying to protect humanity because I'm the only one who can stop Black King from wiping it out!"
Luna's eyes narrowed through the small slit in her mask.
"Then you're my enemy."
She twisted the handle of her weapon, sending another painful current through her opponent. When he collapsed to his knees, she took on an increasingly chilling tone.
"Humans are an infestation that have polluted and destroyed everything that has been given to them. Order can only be restored once they are no longer the dominant species. If you really think you deserve to be called Casshan and want to protect this planet, you should recognize that."
Tetsuya's eyes widened, horrified by the explanation she had given. It was like one of his worst nightmares had come true.
"Get a grip on yourself, Luna! That's only how one Black King's robots would think!"
The sound of impatience came with Luna's reply.
"What do you think I am?"
She retracted the energy ribbon and stored the hilt in one the skirt-like fringes that remained at her hips from her original attire. In a hateful impulse, she dashed toward her rival with superhuman speed. When she seemingly pulled her arm back for a running punch, her wrist split open like a metallic shell and her entire forearm transformed into a silver blade mounted to her elbow. Tetsuya barely managed to cross his arms over his head to block the killing blow. When he was face to face with his former lover, he gazed straight into her eyes. They only thing about her that still looked completely human.
Despite his best efforts to push away her advance, he couldn't block the force of her offense for long. When she briefly pulled back to make another swinging motion with her sword, he raised his arm only to watch it be sawed off in the attack. Sparks flew out of the charred stump that remained at his shoulder, revealing some of the damaged machinery his body was comprised of.
With his hope running thin and his reluctance to fight this particular opponent running high, Tetsuya made the decision to retreat. He propelled himself backwards and leapt through the first opening he could find, leaving his amputated arm behind. Luna ran to the edge of the balcony to give chase, before her commander harshly instructed otherwise.
"Unit A, stand down!"
She turned to the Black King, who was still sitting cross-legged on his throne. She eased herself out of her combat mode as she approached his seat, allowing her arm to return to its original human shape as her mask peeled away to reveal her face. She had a worried look about her when she reached him and bowed to one knee.
"Have I done something wrong, your highness?"
He was pleased by the display of loyalty, and answered in much calmer voice.
"Not at all. I just think you've displayed enough of your abilities for one day."
After she gave a silent nod, he continued speaking with uncharacteristically festive air in his words.
"There's no need to rush things. You'll be able to complete your mission soon enough. Besides, crushing that false savior at the first opportunity would ruin the thrill of the hunt."
His eyes briefly traveled to the severed arm lying on the balcony.
"I have a feeling he won't be as much as a bother to us now that he's seen who you truly are..."
When his attention returned to his newest minion, the scar-like formation that reached over his left eye began glowing red.
Luna smiled warmly at his praise.