"Barely anything feels safe anymore. You guys feel safe. The lessons I learn in class feel safe. My bed and dreams usually feel safe. Everything else...not so much. I can only hope this whole thing with Blind Fate can be over soon. It's ruining my mood."
Waking up was a chore that morning. It was as if the day itself was buzzing in Jason's ear, trying to get him to stay in bed, sleep an extra hour. That extra hour, he knew, could not be wasted sleeping. He reached to the bedside table the way he always did, grabbing his glasses, putting them on, and experiencing the sudden rush of light and color. There it was: his dorm room. Laura sleeping in her bed, his coat hanging messily on his chair, his shoes seemingly kicked off by the door. Douglass frowned. It was unusually messy. Looking down, he realized that he was wearing his school uniform since yesterday. He was about to take a shower and get a clean uniform when he suddenly realized that he wasn't the only one occupying his bed.
His head turned cautiously, the figure who was still slumbering peacefully next to him slowly coming into view. When Jason saw who it was, the memories of the night before came flooding back to him. He smiled. "So, you were that tired, too, huh? Idiot girl..." Getting out of the bed, he grabbed a fresh male uniform from his drawers and went into the shower room. Showering was always an issue for him, since he couldn't do it with his glasses on. He had to turn on the water and stand still while cleaning himself, as any incorrect movement could send him toppling. Washing had to be quick and efficient, and Douglass took every measure to keep it that way. After taking a shower, he dressed in the clean uniform and went back into the dorm.
Mishima woke up when she felt an unusual nudging on her shoulders. She opened her eyes sleepily to see that Douglass had been shaking her shoulder lightly, waking her. "Good morning, Mishima. You should change, you don't want to wear a uniform you slept in." Still half-asleep, Kirino sat up in the bed. "It's morning...?" Douglass laughed slightly. "You know, you were the one telling me I need to rest. You look like you were the one who needed the rest all along." He stood up straight. "Come on, get up. I'll ask Laura to let you borrow one of her uniforms, so you go ahead and use our shower. We were both dirty from spending time in the hangar the other day, so you need it as much as I needed it." Mishima nodded, rubbing her eyes. "All right...thank you..."
While Kirino was taking her shower, Jason got together his supplies. He was planning on returning to the hangar before breakfast to check on the progress of the IS recuperation. As he was finishing his packing for the day, the door to the bathroom slammed open and Mishima stormed out with a bath towel around her body. She had a look on her face that screamed that she just realized something. "Douglass! I slept...in the same bed...as you!" She pointed a finger at Jason, who lifted his hands defensively. "For the record, it wasn't me who asked you to do it. I didn't even know about it before this morning." He pointed to the clean uniform he put on the bed. "Wear that for now. You can stop by your dorm and grab one of your own later on." The girl grabbed the uniform and went back into the bathroom to change, looking thoroughly flustered with her face beet red.
Douglass chuckled and zipped up his bag.
"Thank you for letting us use a spare uniform, Bodewig-san." Douglass bowed lightly. "If there's ever any way to pay off the debt, please say so." Laura nodded. "I'll hold you to your word, Douglass-san." With that out of the way, the pair exited the room. Kirino, still blushing, looked down at her feet, rubbing her hands together nervously. "Um...er...That is...eh..." She took in a deep breath. "Douglass! Thank you for not getting angry with me. I'm sorry about what happened." The boy tilted his head. "Don't be so apologetic. It wasn't your fault, you were tired. No harm came out of it, right?" Inside his head, however, Douglass was experiencing some turmoil. After that incident, he wasn't sure how he should treat Mishima, and that could prove to be an annoyance. He decided that, for now, he should interact with her as he usually did, like a good friend.
Mishima smiled up at him. In truth, she understood that what had happened was no accident, she had chosen to stay there with him, and knew that she would fall asleep there. If any distance was created between them because of the incident, she would be upset to no end. Therefore, this was the happiest outcome there could be for her. She hugged Jason for a moment. "Thank you, Douglass. That was the best answer you could have given." She pulled away. "Now! We both have things to do, so I'll see you later. Let's meet up for breakfast." She turned around and walked down the hall, waving to Jason. He nodded with a smile her way, then turned in the opposite direction and headed to the hangars.
Orimura-sensei was already there, checking up on the energy level of the IS machines on the computer. Hearing Douglass's approach, she turned her head. "Almost all of the machines are at full power. You did a good job distributing energy. However, there is one thing that worries me..." Jason tilted his head. "What's going on?"
Chifuyu pointed at the screen. "One of the hangars was opened last night. It was the hangar to your Canyon Splitter. Do you know what was going on there?" Sighing, Douglass rubbed his head. "Yeah, that was me. I needed someone to talk to, and not many people can listen as well as Canyon Splitter can. No talking back, no worthless pep talk. I feel that I can speak to it as much as I want, and it'll listen to everything I say." Orimura-sensei raised an eyebrow. "You know, a personal IS can understand and form a relationship with its owner. I can understand that this could aid in forming such bonds, but if you get too close, it could turn out negatively for you. What if your IS were to do something drastic because of all of the negative thoughts you spilled into it? I recommend that you put some distance between yourself and it."
Though he saw it coming, Douglass couldn't help but frown. However, he bowed politely. "Very well, sensei. I will not act so recklessly anymore." Chifuyu nodded. "Good. Now then, was there something you were here for?" Approaching the computer, Jason typed out some code and observed as some information appeared on the screen. He nodded, and exited from the menu. "I'm done. Everything's set. All of the ISes should be ready for practice when class starts." Frowning, Orimura-sensei looked at the screen. "What did you just check?" Douglass turned away from the screen. "I was looking to see how the machines were feeling. They are almost life-like with emotions, and I noticed that when the system was hacked the other day, they started acting distressed. They seemed to have calmed down about now, but you can't be too careful. Make sure the students don't do anything rash with them, even the training ones."
Orimura-sensei watched him as he exited the room, still frowning. The boy was a strange one. He seemed to be looking to IS machines more that to people for comfort, even with his claim that he felt that piloting them was a curse. It was as if he was trapped there, seeing the IS system as the only thing that kept him alive. She sighed. This was a problem. No doubt he had gone through severe psychological trauma that caused this feeling of dependence. He would have to learn to move forward, or he would be trapped like that forever, and that was a depressing thought.
It was immediately noticed by Mishima that Douglass seemed to lost the strange feelings he was having the other day. This brought a wave of relief over her, and she promised herself that she wouldn't strike out at Jason all day. The two of them ate breakfast in relative peace, Jason, as usual, not eating much. Kirino pointed that out at one point. "Hey, you're a guy, right? I thought guys eat a lot. Especially since you're American." Jason laughed, munching on something. "I'm not like a lot of guys, as you may have noticed." Shrugging, the girl reached over and plucked some food from his tray, eating it herself. "Well, I'm hungry. And if you're not fond of eating, you won't miss that." Douglass only smiled, shaking his head.
As the two were heading to the main building, Jason instinctively turned his head toward the hill with the tree on it. He gulped slightly at the sight before him. There she was, the girl he had seen before, hidden in the shadows of the leaves on the treetop, staring straight at him. Douglass nudged Mishima. "Hey, take a look at that tree over there for a second." Kirino looked over, staring at the tree. "Why? I don't see anything. Did you notice something weird?"
Douglass frowned, looking up. The girl was definitely still there. He spoke up, "No, I just thought I saw someone there for a moment and wondered what they were doing there." Mishima's eyebrows raised. "Someone? You think there's a student around there?" She looked back to the tree. "Should we check it out?" Douglass shook his head. "Nah. I'm certain whoever is there, if there is someone, can take care of themselves." He looked back to the tree, where the girl had not moved an inch. "Come on, we'll be late."
Mishima looked at the tree, with an interested look on her face. She gave a slight nod to herself, thinking that she would check it out later. If someone was hiding or something out there, she would be the one to find out who and why.
Several days passed uneventfully. After a while, the classes began to prepare for the approaching tournament. In this event, the classes would battle within themselves, then the finalists from each class would battle each other. Douglass was usually silent about it, but, inside, he was worrying. He understood that many people in his class alone were extremely skilled pilots, especially Orimura and Shinonono, who piloted 4th-generation IS machines. Relying on things such as Overdrive Pulse would be nearly impossible in other battles, such as a battle against Blue Tears, which never made contact with an opponent's IS.
All of this preparation, along with Douglass's preoccupation with thinking about the lockdown override and the enigmatic Blind Fate left him with little spare time. When he did have such time on his hands, he would usually spend time on the roof of the main building, looking out at the ocean. He never objected to anyone joining him, but didn't provide much conversation. Anyone could tell that he was always thinking about something, and an considerate person would leave him alone to his musings.
One evening, he decided to visit the hangars. He needed to take a look at Canon Splitter and see if he could polish up its systems, see if he could figure out anything about any special programming it had. That evening, after training, he told the others that he would stay at the docking room for a little while, and not to wait up for him. He entered the hangars quietly, and sat down in front of the docking computer. He called up the Canyon Splitter information menu, and from there accessed its systems. He looked the whole thing over carefully, attempting to find a spare line of code, a strange programming quirk, anything that could give him an extra edge. So engrossed he was in his work that he did not notice the presence behind him until it spoke.
"Jason Douglass?" The boy spun around, standing at the same time, and slammed his knee against the table. "Agh! Jeez!" He muttered to himself, distracting himself from the minor injury to look up at who had spoken. The figure was a woman, about as old as Chifuyu, with her long, black hair in a thin ponytail. She was dressed in fairly sleek clothing, making her look fairly nimble with her tall, thin form. A smug smile played on her face. "You're supposed to be the genius? You certainly don't act the part, although you work a computer fairly quickly, if just now was anything to go by."
Douglass gritted his teeth. He didn't like the tone she was using. It sounded mocking, as if she was taunting him. He wouldn't fall for it. "Who are you?" His voice was clear and loud, ringing with authority. In fact, it even impressed him. He'd never really spoken like that. The woman chuckled. "I'm the one whose little game you ruined a couple of days back. You know, when you overrode the commands I put in?" Jason understood. "You're the hacker. You're pretty stupid to come back here, aren't you? I'd have expected such a thorough person to not make foolish moves." He gestured to the computer behind him. "You know how quickly I work. I could put this place in lockdown and you'd have nowhere to run. Or, I could just call my IS. It doesn't feel good to be stepped on, trust me."
The hacker crossed her arms. "Really? If you locked down the area, what would you do then? You couldn't exit this place afterwards, and I doubt that you would be able to catch me even if you could. And I know all about your IS. It's too slow. I have one too, you know." Damn it, he should have guessed that she was a pilot as well. "All right...well, what are you here for? Why would you make yourself seen after what you did? Were you expecting a warm welcome from me? Do you even know what you did to the IS systems here? Just getting everything straightened out was a bother." Grinning, the woman shrugged. "I could care less about your pitiful IS machines. I'm only here to pass something on to you, Douglass. Your mind has attracted the attention of my employer. Said employer was the one who provided me with the codes for the time-activated lockdown. I watched them create it with my own eyes. The boss is one hell of a mind, too, you see? And they are interested in your help. That was what the little test was all about. Take your time to think about it." She pulled out a card and tossed it onto the floor in front of Douglass. "Just activate it when you've made your choice. Don't keep us waiting."
Jason looked at the card for a moment, then burst into laughter. "Wow! Seriously? How can you even expect me to agree to aid a pathetic group of hackers, even if you are incredibly capable. I mean, I thank your boss for the compliment, but, as you know, I'm no idiot. I wouldn't ever agree to thi-" He was interrupted, however, by the woman. "If you take too long, or refuse the deal after using the card, the boss will activate a program that will forever destroy the systems of every IS in this hangar area. Also, if the boss finds out that you've told somebody about this deal, bye-bye to your little metal buddies. So, think quickly. Now, if there is nothing left to say, I'll go." She turned to leave, but Douglass stopped her.
"Wait a moment. Your boss...are they Blind Fate?" The woman blinked. "What are you talking about, kid? I've never heard of a Blind Fate before. You must have mistaken us for someone." She shook her head, running off. Douglass was speechless. He thought for a moment about everything that had been told to him, when suddenly the implications of the threat at the end of the offer hit him. Douglass fell to his knees.
That night, Douglass skipped dinner. He didn't speak to anyone at all, and only muttered responses to Laura when she asked him whether it was ok to use the shower and when she offered him a good night. He was fairly silent the next day as well. Mishima was worried, but didn't say much. She remembered that he had days like this even in the old times, and that all he needed was some time to cool off. Douglass, however, was going through an extreme amount of internal turmoil. He couldn't possibly join the hacker group, but to refuse would mean the death of his Canyon Splitter, as well as countless other IS machines. How could he live, being responsible for such a thing?
Finally, he decided. He knocked on the door to Chifuyu's office, and once the door had been opened to him, he tossed the card on her desk. "I'm going to use this soon. It is an invitation for me to join the same hackers who played with the system several days back. If I refuse it, they will destroy the systems of any IS connected to the hangars. However, this only goes with the ones that are connected. Therefore, I would like to ask a favor of you." Orimura looked at the card, listening to his story, then looked up at him, frowning. "What do you have in mind, Douglass?" Jason crossed his arms. "I would like you, along with a small group of others, to manually disconnect every IS in the hangar from the main system. Once this is done, I will activate the invitation-" Chifuyu nodded, understanding, "And you'll refuse, but nothing will happen?" Douglass shook his head. "No. I would like to see just how good these people are. I'm going to accept. If they know I'm lying, they will activate their code, but nothing will happen. If they don't figure out that anything is wrong, I can infiltrate and destroy them from the inside out. Is that a solid enough plan?"
Blinking, Orimura-sensei chuckled. "You're always ahead of the game, aren't you, Douglass? All right, I'll get together a group and disconnect all the IS machines tonight. For safety, we will not contact you through the system, but I will send a person to deliver the message personally when we are done." To her surprise, Jason fell to his knees and bowed deeply. "Thank you very much." He whispered. "I was unsure if I could relate this story to anyone. When I received this horrible card, I just felt so powerless...it was horrid, beyond anything imaginable..."
He was interrupted from his thoughts by a powerful smack to the head from behind. He turned slowly, and held his breath when he saw who it was. Ichika, surrounded by his usual group, was standing at the door, and in front of the whole crowd stood Mishima, brandishing a book in her hands. "You dumbass! You should have told us first! You need to learn to depend on people, Douglass! Hey! Why in hell are you laughing, idiot?"
Jason raised his head, and sputtered in between fits of laughter, "Because it's impossible for me to cry."
Mishima walked into the control room with Orimura-sensei. "All right, Douglass, all of the IS machines have been manually disconnected." She looked down at her arms. "That was way harder than I thought it would be. It better be worth it, Douglass." The boy nodded, though he was focused on the screen. "Mishima, if you had not done it, all of our IS systems would be destroyed. A little extra work is better than that, right?" He pulled out the card. "In any case, we should be ready. So, without further ado..." He swiped the card and entered some code into the system, and the screen turned red, with a stream of words appearing on it. Douglass took a while typing some stuff out, with more and more code appearing every time he did something. Eventually, however, all of the code disappeared, and the words "Answer? YES, NO" appeared. Douglass sighed, and punched a key.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, a garbled voice came from the computer. "You made a good choice, Douglass. However, your Academy could be an annoyance. Therefore, we will be destroying your IS machines anyways. Please, do not take it personally. Work is work." After a few moments of hushed silence, the voice resurfaced. "Around now, the entire hangar's worth of IS machines should have been ruined. You had no chance of saving them. Do not worry. You have nobody to blame but yourself. A program will soon activate for you that will give you further instruction. Welcome to the fold." The computer screen went blank, then reverted to the original blue color.
There was silence. Then, Douglass turned around. "Somebody, check on the hangars! We don't want something unexpected to have happened!" Chifuyu began to move to the door. "I'll go. You two, watch the computers." As she disappeared, Jason collapsed into a chair, cradling his head in his arms. His stomach felt twisted for some reason. It was a horrible feeling, like something terribly wrong was just waiting to happen. However, he was snapped from his feelings by Mishima's startled cry. Looking up, he saw that the screens had gone a familiar gray color, and huge green lettering was seen on every computer.
"YOU IMPRESS YET AGAIN, JASON DOUGLASS. YOU HAVE OVERCOME THIS TEST WITH SKILL AND AS MUCH EFFICIENCY AS COULD BE EXPECTED. I WILL CONTINUE OBSERVING. THE PATH TO THE LIGHT LIES BEFORE YOU."