Infinite Stratos: Athena
Chapter 3: Meeting
========== Infinite Stratos Academy ==========
The day reaches its end as it enters late evening and while some of the Academy students have returned from their respective vacations, most of the school's population is still spending the nights out including Chifuyu and Maya, with the former out to check on her younger brother and the latter merely went out for a short breather.
In their absence, another instructor takes their place within the secretive confines of the Academy's underground operations room. Watching the wireframe overview of the area that's projected on the main holographic screen with her sharp, attentive green eyes and her long, braided red hair reaching down to her waistline. Homeroom Teacher Kaori Murakumo stands in the middle of the room with her arms folded across her chest, frowning at the screen which shows four unknown blips moving erratically around Mount Daisen and another lone blip swerving around the island where the Academy's situated.
"-Aegis Team, spread out and watch for any surprise attacks. Keep an eye on your sensors.-"
Voices from the Academy's six-man security trooper group, generally known to the Academy staff as the Aegis Team, fill the comms while six green blips appear on the main screen. Representing each of the security troopers, the blips are labeled from A1 to A6 and they swiftly encircle the campus' perimeter to form a defensive line. The lone blip that made a complete lap around the Academy's perimeter suddenly turns back towards the other unknown blips over Mount Daisen, passing by the friendly blip A2 as it does so.
"Aegis Two, got a visual on that unknown?"
Brief silence follows which made Kaori felt as though she's just asked a wall. Just as she is about to ask again, she hears a slight static of an incoming reply through the comms.
"-It's a… I don't know, a flying platform of some sort I guess.-"
"-It's pointed on one end, like the blade of a double-edged sword. It doesn't seem to have any weapons on board that would suggest an immediate threat though…-"
Such details would've immediately been conspicuous to any Praxidike staff as the Longboard flight platform but neither Kaori nor any of the Aegis troopers has a clue as to what it is. Nevertheless, Kaori remains alert with her focus occasionally switching between the group of unknown blips and other areas on the overview to make sure no sneak attacks will occur like the previous incident with the Golem.
========== Mount Daisen, Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture ==========
Residents in the neighboring town of Sunosaki turn to Mount Daisen after a booming sound of an explosion robbed their attention. Curious about what caused such a noise, the residents notices a column of smoke and small fire rising from behind the hills that's blocking their sight of the source; Inami, in the Minerva powered armor, putting up his fists to the Jabber drones before him.
The drones draw their respective energy blades and spread out while the middle unarmored Jabber dashes straight towards him with its energy blade held up on the left side of its head, preparing to stab him.
'Guess I'll find out, Bastion-san.'
Briefly reminiscing Gerald's advice about engaging autonomous units in hand-to-hand combat, Inami relies on the Minerva's sensors to keep track of the other two Strike Jabbers as he focuses on the lone Jabber that's about to lunge its blade towards him.
Inami moves his left arm across his chest and tilts his body towards the right as the Jabber lunges its energy blade. It missed and passes over his left shoulder where his left arm springs outwards, swatting the drone's left arm off his shoulder and thrusting his right fist into the drone's left cheek. The sound of his armor-padded fist colliding with the Jabber's head is so satisfying that he unconsciously grew a wide grin on his face. He has no intention of ending the fight so soon.
Rather, a cold aura shrouds him as he proceeds to curl his left hand into a fist then throws it up the drone's chin.
He pulls off a full right spin then roundhouse kicks the disoriented Jabber's chest with the bottom of his right feet, along with a timely burst from the leg's pulse-jet sends the Jabber vaulting a short distance away before crashing into the ground. The Minerva's sensor then alerts him to a Strike Jabber behind and is about to swing its energy blade towards his back.
Thinking that the drone would be going for his head, Inami ducks from the strike and sees the directional arrow on the screen that's pointing to his right, indicating the drone's position. A searing energy blade swipes overhead and he follows the arrow; twisting his body right and channeling the momentum to his left fist.
The second he spots the drone's abdomen at the right corner of his eyes, Inami thrusts his left fist into it.
A direct hit to its mechanical gut and the Strike Jabber steps back with its body hunched forward, holding its abdomen while Inami runs towards it, yet unfinished with the lumbering armored drone. It swings its left arm outwards, trying to fend him off. However, the swing was too early and the energy blade missed, allowing him to push its left arm away with his left hand while he spins to his right, launching his right elbow into the drone's face.
As the Strike Jabber stumbles back, the other Strike Jabber dashes from the right side and twists its body right, springing its left arm and its energy blade towards Inami. He turns and catches the drone's left arm with his right hand while his left grabs its other arm, thrusting his forehead into its chin.
The hologram screen fizzles from the powerful impact but the helmet itself is hardly dented. Inami releases the drone's arms, shaking off the short fuzzy sensation from his head as the sensors alert him to the unarmored Jabber jumping towards his back. He turns and extends his right hand out, firmly gripping the drone's neck before it could even land and pulls it across his body. The helpless drone barely had time to attack before it finds itself pulled past him and his left fist hitting its right cheek which throws off its focus briefly.
Inami uses its brief period of vulnerability to turn to his back where he sees the Strike Jabber with a slightly crooked chin briskly stomping towards him. He turns back, traps the Jabber's head under his right arm and turns his head to look over his shoulder to the Strike Jabber coming around his left side. As the armored drone attempts to attack, he thrusts his left feet up to the side into its torso, kicking it away.
As the Strike Jabber recovers, Inami swings the Jabber he's trapped below his right underarm to his right and tosses it onto the Strike Jabber, knocking it down and trapping it under the Jabber's weight.
With the Minerva's target-assist system on the hologram screen, Inami aims both arm particle guns at the grounded Strike Jabber's shoulder-mounted missile launchers.
Charged particle bolts riddle the Strike Jabber's shoulder launchers, igniting all four big cylindrical missiles within as they begin to emit orange glows.
The resulting explosion rips both the Jabber and Strike Jabber into oblivion but the immense force of the following shockwave violently rumbled the ground and instantly knocks Inami off his feet like a ragdoll. The repulsive shockwave throws him over a long distance before slamming his back into a rocky slope which crumbles upon him on impact.
Even with the ergonomic pads inside the Minerva's armor, the impact felt as though a speeding truck rammed into his back albeit cushioned. Inami slowly pushes himself out of the slope with small bits of rock crumbling onto his armor, leaving a deep imprint his body made on the slope before suddenly falling onto one knee from momentary dizziness caused by the shockwave.
Inami takes slow, deep breaths and the comms activate as he receives transmission from Praxidike.
"-Arisawa, the last one is on the move! Stop it!-"
He looks at the mini-map on the hologram screen which, to his horror, shows the remaining Strike Jabber blatantly resuming its course towards the Infinite Stratos Academy while the Longboard is approaching him from behind.
========== Infinite Stratos Academy ==========
Seeing the remaining Strike Jabber coming straight towards the Academy startles the Aegis troopers into high alert.
"We got incoming. Two, on me."
The two troopers hover alongside each other in their grey Raphael Revive Basic units with their respective Vent rifles drawn, pointing at the lone drone that's coming their way. The Strike Jabber however, has its targeting reticule set onto the Academy grounds. Left with just two missiles after previously exhausting the other two on the Minerva, the Strike Jabber pushes its thrusters to maximum in an apparent kamikaze attempt.
"Attention unknown unit, you are entering restricted airspace! Turn around or you will be fired upon!"
No reply, like any other drone unit would have as it gradually descends, aiming for one of the campus blocks.
"I repeat! You are entering restricted airspace! Turn tail now or we will shoot, that is your final warning!"
"-Leader, we got another one coming in, three o'clock!-"
The lead trooper sees the Longboard approaching the Strike Jabber from the side with the Minerva riding on it. Knowing well that the trooper's threats are pointless, he zips towards the Strike Jabber's path with the Longboard tilted slightly to the right as he attempts to pass by the drone's front. The drone paid absolutely no attention to his approach, its eyes has changed its normal green glow to bright red, signaling every intention to crash itself into the Academy.
Yet, Inami isn't about to let that happen as the previous Golem incident briefly flashes in his mind.
Still a ways from the Academy, he dives from the Longboard and rams into the Strike Jabber. With every momentum channeled to his left shoulder and firing all of Minerva's particle pulse-jets concurrently turn him into a human meteor, instantly knocking the drone out of its flight path and towards the city of Kisarazu. Losing track of its kamikaze attempt, the drone's eyes turn green again and the two crashes into grassy plains, ripping up chunks of earth upon impact.
Back in the Academy's underground operations room, Kaori raised a brow upon seeing the map's interpretation of the ongoing battle outside; two unknown blips collided and is now on an unpopulated area of Kisarazu city while another unknown blip circles around the area.
"Aegis, what's going on up there?"
"-Hell if I know, Sensei… Something… or someone just flew in and intercepted the incoming unknown.-"
Someone…? Kaori was dead sure that the blue area where the two blips collided represented the Tokyo Bay, a whole body of water. People don't just fly and intercept things in mid-air without any forms of flight assist equipment, in which then she immediately recalls Aegis One previously mentioning about a platform-shaped flying object.
"Understood, keep watching the unknowns, Aegis."
========== Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture ==========
Tumbling across the ground as they crash, the Strike Jabber plants its feet into Inami's abdomen and launches him off its body and into another rocky wall of a hillside.
The Strike Jabber ignites its thruster and dashes for Inami with its energy blade deployed. Through the dirt cloud caused by the impact, he sees the shining energy blade being lunged towards his face. He ducks and rolls aside while he drone stabs the wall. The Strike Jabber eyes suddenly turns red again, this time glowing even brighter and its sight is laid upon the Minerva.
Inami draws out his beam saber, growing cautious of the Strike Jabber's behavior as it points its energy blade at him.
The two remained at a brief standstill and the Strike Jabber makes the first move, dashing towards Inami who runs to the drone with his beam saber held up with both hands on the right side of his chest.
He thrusts the saber into the Strike Jabber's chest but the drone deactivates it energy blade at the last second, spreading its arms aside as the beam saber impales its torso. Shocked by the drone's sudden move, he immediately finds himself forcefully tugged onto it. The drone has clamped its arms around his body and holds him firmly against its own, emitting a shrilling static noise as its red eyes flash rapidly while its shoulder missile launchers begin to glow orange.
The infernal explosion created a column of fire so bright that it illuminated nearby expressways, catching the attention of drivers as well as local residents of the surrounding towns and villages. Despite having half the payload when the Strike Jabber self-destructed, the resulting shockwave still caused a minor quake that reaches out to the nearby shrines and the expressways.
Even some of the distant Aegis security troopers that are guarding the Academy were shocked by the explosion.
"-I'm reading strong seismic signals from Kisarazu. Aegis, what happened?-"
Horrified by the sight of the inferno, the trooper could only relay what she saw.
"The unknown… It exploded!"
"-What…? What about the city, the people?-"
"It blew up in the middle of a grass field, Sensei. None of the surrounding towns or villages seemed to have been caught in the blast… But—"
"-Thank goodness… But still, remain on high alert status for anymore attacks.-"
========== Mount Nokogiri, Futtsu, Chiba Prefecture ==========
As dawn of a new day breaks, Gerald and Jinrai are at the observation platform looking out towards the direction of Kisarazu city where they previously saw the explosion caused by the self-destructing drone despite being very distant. The atmosphere is cheerless with troubled thoughts filling their minds.
"Did we manage to get any leads, Gerald?"
Gerald shakes his head. He's at loss for words after witnessing the offensive capabilities of the Jabber drones as they are unlike anything he has ever seen.
"They're not IS units. And we have no idea who's fielding them as well…"
"We lost that unit too… and I have yet to complete the replacement. What do you suggest, Gerald?"
"Keep working on the new unit for now, Jinrai. I have a feeling we'll need it soon enough."
"My thoughts exactly."
Jinrai makes his way out of the platform. The automatic door slides open and Jinrai's greeted by the sight of Inami, dressed in grey pants and white t-shirt with the right sleeve bunched up, revealing bandages wrapped around his right wrist and upper arm as well as around his forehead. Aside from his apparent injuries, he greets Jinrai with a nod and enters the platform deck without as much as a limp.
"How are you feeling, Arisawa?"
"Alive. Just the injury's been giving a few pricks, Bastion-san."
"That's good to hear. All that matters is that you came back alive and in one piece."
Inami reminisces the aftermath of his previous battle; The fizzling hologram screen in the Minerva's helmet which repeatedly flashed the powered armor's power capacity at barely ten-percent, the outer spherical silhouette that indicates the Minerva's barrier strength is glowing red while the inner layers that represents its armor integrity and user vitals are still green. Through the visor, he sees smoldering pieces of the Strike Jabber and the Longboard flight platform, half of it seemingly planted into the ground between him and where the drone was.
"Sorry I came back alone though…"
"It's fine. Using the Longboard as a shield was unprecedented but we had no other choice during then. Both you and the Minerva are Praxidike's gemstones and we can't afford to lose either one. Also, another thing…"
Gerald walks over to Inami's side and puts his hand on his shoulder.
"I've prepared your allowances. For now, you need some time-off, Arisawa."
"Time-off? But Bastion-san, what if the enemy—"
"After two attacks in the row this month alone, there's no doubt that the Academy will be on high alert for a while… The enemy must've known about this too or else they wouldn't have waited a few days after that black IS attack to launch their own."
"Well… If you say so…"
========== Hachijo Island, Izu Islands Cluster ==========
"A single, non-IS unit taking out an entire lance of our Jabbers."
Silently enraged over the operation's failure which also sheds light on the existence of the Minerva, the head of the mysterious terrorist organization turns to a round table where personnel from the hangar bay that's in-charge of the Jabber drones are seated.
"For a maiden operation, we would have been better off dancing our way to the Academy's doorstep in maid costumes with bombs strapped to our knickers."
"And now the Academy's back on high alert. That'll be another three days—no. It'll be a whole week of wait until we can attack again. Get your acts together and work out a better plan or build a better drone, whichever's more convenient within that timeframe."
"A-Actually, sir… about that…"
"What is it?"
One of the personnel inserts a diskette-shaped object into a slot on the table's edge and its content is then projected as a hologram on the table itself. The projected hologram appears as an icon of a pair of rabbit's ears then disappears, immediately followed by a projection of five different schematics, each being one of the few prominent Infinite Stratos units currently owned by some of the Representative Cadets that are studying in the IS Academy.
"…Are those what I think they are?"
"Yes, they are, sir. It's the real deal."
"How did… Where did you get these?"
The personnel turn to each other, realizing the awkward truth that they're about to confess.
"Well… We received a transmission from someone, hours after we lost contact with the Jabbers."
The leader raises a brow, wondering as to why he wasn't alerted about it on a moment notice while folding his arms.
"Only clue we have to the person's identity is that they kept referring to themselves as 'The Genius'."
He tilts his head. "Genius? What arrogant idiot would call themselves that?" Nevertheless, he swipes the thoughts aside before he could dwell further, focusing back on the IS schematics and rubbing his chin as he thinks through various ideas, eventually stopping at one.
"How long would it take to integrate one of these into a Jabber?"
"Umm… Sir? Didn't you say we shouldn't—?"
The leader interrupts by raising his open palm. His heart induces much rage that he desires to lash back but knowing better, he keeps his mind composed and simply stares at the staff.
"I know what I said… and I'll ask again. How long would it take to integrate one of these into a Jabber?"
With the added emphasis, the staffs realize the real question.
"We can do all of them within a week, sir."
========== Oamishirasato, Chiba Prefecture ==========
An hour plus of travelling and Inami finds himself panicking as he stands before the entrance gate of the Katami Dojo, his heart beats with increasing intensity and nervousness. Slightly shaken by thoughts of various possible scenarios flooding his mind, he slowly lifts up his right hand and gently places the tip of his index finger on the doorbell button at the side of the gate.
'Well… Here goes nothing…!'
He takes a deep breath and pushes the button firmly.
The doorbell chime echoes throughout the dojo grounds, soon fills with silence.
Not even a single sign that would indicate that anyone is present in the dojo. Once more, Inami presses the button.
Yet again, silence immediately filled in after the chime echoes into nothingness much to his dismay. However, he has yet to give up for there is another place he can look to.
'Togane. That's where her house is! Maybe she's gone back home!'
Evening begins to set in and the sky gradually darkens with the Sun slowly descending into the horizon. Almost an hour after Inami left for the neighboring city of Togane, a maroon-colored sedan pulls up in front of the dojo gates and the driver, who turns out to be Kiyoshi, exits the vehicle.
"All right, we're here!"
At the sedan's backseat, Tsurugi winds down the window and looks up to her father. Her expression seems woe as though she's missed something… or someone, hesitating to leave the car while Kiyoshi looks to her.
"You all right, dear?"
"Father… Can I… stay at home for this week?"
Her request came off with a hesitant tone, fearing that her father would outright reject it. However, he did not. Instead he looks to his wife, Reika Katami, as she exits the vehicle's co-driver seat. Her hair is of chestnut color as well, albeit more brighter than Tsurugi's, and is tied with a single ponytail. Her eyes are emerald green unlike her daughter's, whose eyes inherit the vibrant ember color like her father's.
"What is it, Kiyo?"
"Well, our child here wants to go back to Tanaka."
Reika hunches forward and pops her head back into the car, looking at Tsurugi.
"It's just… It's been a while since we went back. Thought I could just stay there and maybe do some housekeeping…"
"Your father and I have to instruct classes until the weekends, you'll be living alone until then. Are you sure about this…?"
Tsurugi nods. Though slightly hesitant, Reika knows of her daughter's nature like any mother would of their children and approves her request with a nod, looking back to her husband.
"I'll bring her back."
"All right then. I'll start off with the preparations for tomorrow, Rei."
"Don't work too much, Kiyo. You still need to rest."
"I know, I know. I'll see you this weekend, dear."
Kiyoshi waves with a smile to his daughter as she smiles back to him.
"Yeap! Take care, father!"
========== Togane, Chiba Prefecture ==========
Inami tries his luck again, this time with the doorbell of the two-storey Katami residence which he's, once again, greeted with silence. Even the house's lights are off and the gates have been secured together with a padlock. His arms fall to his sides in disappointment, even though the plaque at the side of the gate is engraved with the words "Katami Residence", he fears that the family might've gone somewhere else.
"Well… Guess I picked a bad time to return…"
Heaving a soft sigh, he looks at the house for a brief moment then walks away for a short distance before remembering something else from the back of his mind.
'Oh right… Since I'm already here, might as well…'
Inami makes his way to a nearby floristry shop, barely remembering the directions within the town.
"Hoh, Inami-chan! Is that you?"
Greeting him is the shop's florist, Usagi Nazumi, who appears to be in her mid-thirties with short, charcoal-grey hair and dons a dark purple kimono with a white sash around her waist.
"Nazumi-san! It's been a long while!"
"Six years, yes. My goodness, you've grown so much! Last time I saw you were like half the height you are now. What have you been doing?"
Within her pearly red eyes is a curious stare, surprised to see Inami suddenly return, all grown up. He could only scratch his head. There's just no way will he bluntly tell her "I've been out deterring terrorist attacks!" even though he knows there's a good chance that she would take it as a joke. Nevertheless, he still doesn't want to risk exposing himself.
"I uh… I've been… travelling."
"Is that so? Tsurugi-chan told me you were kidnapped or something. She's been rather moody when she couldn't find you."
"She— err… Anyways, have you seen her around lately? I went to the dojo but they weren't there so I came here… but they're not here as well."
"That's strange… The whole family left for the dojo like three days ago. They're not there?"
Inami shakes his head in dismay, fearing that he might've missed them for real.
"Oh… I'm really sorry, Inami-chan. That's all I know…"
"It's all right. I came here to get a blue lily too… It's been a while since I've come here so thought it's only right that I pay my late parents a visit."
"Sure thing. Wait here for a bit, yeah?"
The day has entered late evening and the surroundings are mostly engulfed in darkness safe for several streetlights along the roads and pavements. Inami walks into the cemetery with a lighted lantern on one hand while the other is holding a stalk of blue Japanese lily and a small wax candle. Despite the chilling atmosphere, he's hardly frightened seeing as his mind is all set to pay respect to his late parents.
He stops by a familiar gravestone and holds the lantern near to illuminate the engravings; Kazuya Arisawa and Naomi Arisawa, the engraved names of his father and mother respectively as a bittersweet feeling swell in his heart. He gently places the lantern on the ground and takes out a box of matches from his pocket which he then proceeds to light up a matchstick, slowly lowering the stick's burning end on the exposed thread on top of the candle.
As soon as the candle is lighted, he blows out the matchstick, places it back into the box and puts it back into his pocket seeing as he does not wish to litter on such hallowed grounds. The lighted candle is then placed upon the base of the gravestone along with the blue-petal lily. He gets down on both knees and puts his hands together, closing his eyes shut as he silently prays.
Undisturbed by the chilling winds or the softly howling noises within the cemetery, Inami finishes his prayers and opens his eyes. Deep inside his heart, he's still saddened by the tragic loss but his emotions remains strong and his eyes barely shed a tear.
Instead, he grows a soft, sincere smile.
'I'm sorry mother, father. I know it would not be in your best interest to realize that I've been involved in this life-threatening commitment. But you see, something is not right in this world… and I want to set it right again, for the sake of this world. Please, forgive me… I just can't leave the world be as it is. Please… guide me through these times. I just can't do this alone…!'
His heart grows heavy with his sorrowful emotions but he still manages to get back on his feet, picking up the lantern as he takes one more look at the gravestone.
'I missed you two… so much. I love you… I always will, no matter where you are.'
Leaving the lily and the lighted candle behind, Inami begins to make his way out of the cemetery only to be greeted with the sight of another familiar figure standing ahead of him.
It was none other than his childhood friend, Tsurugi Katami, staring straight at him with tears starting to flow from her eyes. Her gaping mouth staggers as it turns into a beaming smile upon seeing her long-lost childhood friend standing right before her, alive and well. She could not control her emotions further, letting loose her tears as she sprints towards him with open arms. Inami quickly puts down the lantern and greets her with open arms as well.
Nothing else mattered to Tsurugi at that moment as the two embraced each other. Her emotions, her thoughts… All she cares about is seeing him, holding him tight to affirm that it wasn't a dream. She was even at loss for words as she could only sob uncontrollably with her face planted to his chest.
Inami could feel her choked breaths through the fabrics of his shirt, slowly stroking her silky hair to comfort her.
"I'm sorry, Tsu-chan…"
"I missed you… Ina-kun… I missed you so much!"
"I know… I missed you too."
Tsurugi parts her face from his chest where she sees wet marks on his shirt caused by her tears. Inami wipes the tears off her cheeks with his thumb as she releases his body, holding both his hands and smiling cheerfully at him.
"How did you know I was here?"
"I didn't. I was just planning to stay alone at home for the week… When mum dropped me off and left, Nazumi-san called out to me and told me you came back and bought a lily. I… I couldn't believe it, I just rushed here without thinking… and here you are!"
"Thank goodness… I nearly gave up when I couldn't find you at the dojo or the house. I thought you were out for a vacation."
She swipes her index finger across the bottom of her nose.
"You must've arrived early then. We were out shopping in Chiba the entire day…"
"Come on, let's go home. We have a lot to catch up on."
The atmosphere within the Katami Residence is much too silent yet very peaceful unlike the tense atmosphere at Praxidike's base of operations, where he constantly needs to be mentally-prepared to sortie at the drop of a hat. Inami relaxes on a cushioning sofa with Tsurugi sitting immediately next to him, both of them holding on to ceramic cups filled with warm tea. Despite their close proximity, the two barely showed any signs of embarrassment as they enjoy the comfort of each other's company.
"How long has it been…?"
Tsurugi breaks the silence between them. Like any other reunion, someone has to break the ice.
"Six years, almost. Seems things have changed a lot during then…"
"It has, yeah… My parents have held classes at the dojo for five years now. Training students from the neighboring towns and villages…"
Out the corner of his eyes, Inami spots four golden plaques of different shapes neatly arranged on top of a shelf. Each plaque has her family name engraved on them along with imprints of various training institutions, almost resembling prize plaques from competitions.
"You took part in the prefecturals?"
Tsurugi turns to him and notices his sight upon the plaques.
"Oh, those? They're plaques of appreciation given by other training schools for our service in training some of their students. From what my parents told me, all the students they've trained excelled remarkably in their respective schools."
"Yeap! So… what's your story?"
Inami could lie or do anything just to make sure his current profession as a powered armor user remains hidden. Yet, he couldn't. It could've been anyone else that asked him this question and he would've instantly come up with an excuse but never when it comes to Tsurugi, someone whom he remembers making a past promise with to not lie.
"Erm… My story…? Uh…"
There's no way he'll be able to escape the question at this point. He knows it well but remains hesitant for fear that she might not take it positively, if it does have something positive about to begin with.
"Actually, Tsu-chan… Throughout the past six years, I've been… well…"
=== [End of Chapter 3] ===