A little girl stands before a misty, vague impression of a classroom. Everything is way too bright, all a bright white. It hurts her eyes. She has a piece of chalk clenched in her stubby hand, the flakes and powder staining her skin a deathly white. Behind her looms the chalkboard, seeming to stretch well beyond her pitifully short reach. There is already writing on it, something someone else wrote; not much, but it all seems to be in the tiny portion at the bottom of the board that she can actually get at. It's frustrating, because there's no eraser in sight, and she doesn't want to use her sleeve, because it's messy. She stares at the writing and feels tears begin to well up.
The instructor came in to talk to me. She acted aloof as usual, but I thought there was something different about her this time. Perhaps a smidgen less disgust, perhaps a small prick of understanding, maybe even a slight hint of forgiveness. But I was uncertain about this, aware I could be seeing only what I want to see. I'd come to learn, in only the past few hours, that my understanding of the world wasn't nearly as firm as I had believed it to be.
I had been taught of things such as Duty, Honor, and Strength since before I could remember. It was my duty to protect my country, above all else. I would eventually come to learn what a country was, what defined it, and of even more complex ideas like borders, treaties, and of course war. But I was never allowed to go see Germany, to see why it's people were more important to protect, why they were better than someone from Congo, or Japan. It was just something I was told, and that I accepted without question.
Honor was a certain code of conduct that would allow us to remain better than the other people, the other countries. Honor could be ignored or skirted when the situation was dire and there were no other options, but it was otherwise a firm guideline.
And strength. For so long, I had been taught that strength meant courage, skill, intellect, and power. Strength would overcome. Strength was what made you a soldier or a failure. Strength was vital. When the experiment with my eye failed, I thought the problem was a lack of strength. My body wasn't strong enough, and could not handle the unfamiliar element. I had done something wrong, somewhere along the line, and I was now paying for the mistake. It had been my fault.
Then I met her. The instructor. She was strong, stronger than anyone I had ever met. Everyone else was scared of her. I was, too, to be honest. But I was also in awe. Here was someone truly strong, and under her tutelage, I began to feel like I could be strong once again, too. I could learn from the mistakes that had resulted in my eyepatch, and perhaps even reach her level of greatness.
In time, I learned of her brother, and how his weakness had held her back. It dimly registered somewhere that if he hadn't been taken, she never would have owed the German government and thus never come to teach us, (to teach me,) but I was able to ignore that, pretend it wasn't the case. No, what was more important was that that fool had kept her from something she so richly deserved. Her strength was held back. And I couldn't forgive that. I didn't even see it as hero worship or pride that drove me to seek his destruction, but simple duty.
What a fool I was.
The girl wants to break down and cry, for this chalkboard seems very important to her somehow. The words up there seem wrong all of a sudden, confusing. She wants to change them, but she cannot, and it's frustrating for her. She wants to break down and cry. But she can't; though the tears are forming in her eyes, they refuse to fall. This only frustrates her more, causes her more distress, but still she cannot cry. It builds, and builds, and builds up even more inside her until she can't take it anymore. She throws her chalk down, and pulls on one of her sleeves until she can grip the collar of it with that hand. She reaches up, placing the heel of her palm against the board, and in one quick, angry motion, draws it across the board. Her sleeve has chalk on it now, but she feels viciously satisfied to see the letters smudged into incomprehensibility.
But the anger suddenly drains away as she realizes what she's done. The smear has removed some of the words, but now without them, the surrounding words look even more confusing, as she examines the flaws in them. The girl can't even write her own words, because the chalk she smeared is still there. Looking at how she only made it worse, she can feel her mind beginning to fragment as she tries to make sense of the confusing words. She rubs her eyes, but the chalk dust from her one hand gets in and begins to sting. Half blinded, with only confusing words and broken ideas before her, and hurting physically and emotionally, she finally begins to cry.
I thought I couldn't be beaten. Once the instructor had dragged me from my post-experiment depression, I determined to surpass even my old heights. I would become almost as good as, if not equal, to her. That she could be surpassed never occurred to me, and even now, I honestly still doubted it. Yes, I was certain that my defeat at the hands of another was simply unthinkable.
But then came the match, and I was paired up with the Shinonono woman, who was as useless as I expected. She was incapacitated by the French boy far too quickly, though I couldn't say I was surprised. No, the part that did surprise me was the way Charles and Ichika worked together, and exploited a flaw in the AIC I hadn't even noticed. The part that surprised me was that they beat me.
I also thought I could trust those who had sent me here, those that had designed Schwarzer Regen, but as I was sucked into a pocket of black grainy material, my consciousness fading, I realized even that was a lie. Only now had I had the chance to realize the full implications of this. Who could I trust? What else that I thought I knew would turn out to be wrong? The world shattered for me then. Nothing was as it seemed. For all I knew, even reality itself was some sort of subversion.
No. My perceptions had been shaken, but I would not allow myself to be unreasonably paranoid. If I lost even the small comfort of knowing this at least was real, then I would surely lose my mind.
A shadow gradually takes shape in the bright mist, stepping forth into the classroom. It's figure still lacks features, but it doesn't seem threatening. It steps close to the girl, reaching down and gently gripping her wrist. Pulling her to her feet, the figure beds down and helps wipe the chalk out of her eyes. The girl stares at her blankly, spent, but the figure has one last surprise. It has had one arm behind it's back the entire time, and now brings it forth, revealing and offering to the girl… an eraser.
And suddenly, it seems like maybe, just maybe, things can be okay again.
"What happened?" Though I'd been awake for some time, only now did I open my eyes, having heard the rustle of cloth; someone else was here.
It was the instructor, looking stern as usual. Perhaps I saw a smidgen less disgust, perhaps a small prick of understanding, maybe even a slight hint of forgiveness. But I did not want to jump to conclusions. I was still hesitant to trust anything. So I simply listened.
"After I talk to you about something important." She promised. "This is a rather important subject, so the incident and everything said here is confidential. But the VT System knows."
It took a few seconds for me to realize what she was referring to. "The Valkyrie Trace system." I had heard about it, but never in too much detail. So that was what had happened. The ones who had given me Schwarzer Regen had never even mentioned it. Perhaps I would have felt betrayed, but after everything that had happened today… I was too drained.
"Yes." The instructor sighed softly. "The IS treaty states that the development and use of, not to mention research on it, are all forbidden. It was installed on your IS. Mental condition, accumulation of damage, and above all, the will of the pilot…" She gave me a long, searching look. "No, a desire? …altogether served to activate it."
Numbly, I recalled what little I knew of it. It had been developed shortly after IS's became widely accepted, but before the treaty. There was a special database for the VTS, with everything from appearance to skills and techniques, of only the very best IS pilots. Any Stratos with the system installed, once certain conditions were met, would place the pilot in a trance-like state and take over, micmicking one of the pilots from the database. Even a victory over one of those units would only result in them becoming more powerful. However, due to the potential mental damage to the pilot, and the dangers presented by a rouge unit, the treaty had included a clause that specifically banned it. The database was shut down. Valkerie Trace was entirely deleted.
So why had it been on mine? The potential meaning behind all of this –that someone out there had built a new database with the Mondo Grosso champions, that either my government was violating the treaty or someone had sabatoged my unit somehow- were staggering.
I didn't particularly care at the moment. All I could feel was shame. Shame because, in the end, "It happened because I wanted it…" I curled up my fist in the bedsheet, feeling rotten. In the end, despite everything I had been taught since childhood, there was still some part of me that knew this was all wrong.
"Laura Bodewig." The instructor sat up straighter, looking down at me with a cold and unreadable expression.
"Yes?" Was all I managed.
"Who are you?" The question caught me off guard, the least because of the dissonance between her arctic tone and what she was actually asking. I opened and closed my mouth several times, trying to speak, but nothing came out.
Who was I? I'd thought I was a soldier. The best of the best of the best. Born and trained for duty, honor, and strength. But now that those were called into question, so was my identity. Who was I, really? What was my purpose? The ones who brought me up had decided what I wanted, or told me to give up wanting at all. They made me want what they wanted.
But what did I want?
I didn't know. I had no idea. I was lost for answers.
I wasn't anything. I wanted nothing, for it never occurred to me to want. I had no purpose, because my purpose had been decided for me. And I didn't know who I was, because I had always been told. But now that what I had been told by others was no longer relevant, what was I, really? I was nothing. I didn't know who I was, because there was nothing to know. I had lived my life as little more than a hollow shell.
"If you're nobody, then that's perfect." The instructor said, continuing as she abruptly stood. "You're Laura Bodewig from now on." I stared at her retreating form. How could this be good?
Then it sunk in. There was one thing extra that she didn't say out loud, but was hidden in her second statement. It's up to you to decide what exactly that means. It's for you to decide who Laura Bodewig really is.
She paused right before leaving, looking back at me. "And… you can't be me."
I stared again as she left. I laid there, staring at the spot where Chifuyu Orimura had been, letting it all sink in.
And then I started to laugh. It was quiet, almost giggly, but oh, how I laughed. I laughed even as the tears began to roll down my cheeks.
The figure helped the girl erase the words and even the nasty smudge. The figure picked up the dropped chalk and placed it back in the girl's hand. And then the figure departed again, vanishing into the mist like it had come.
It left the eraser behind.
Now the girl stands before the chalkboard. It is still vast, and empty now. The girl realizes quite suddenly that she doesn't know where to begin. It seems almost too big now, and she fears anything she may write will be swallowed up by the sheer size. Looking up, she sees that it extends well beyond her vision, the top not even visible through the bright mist.
Her hand clenches tighter around the chalk, and a confident smile, maybe even a smirk, makes it's way to her face.
The girl reaches forward and begins writing.