– II –
Trailing behind Straus, I followed her – him – whatever – out of the massive commercial and residential building via a bridgeway some five floors above street level.
Continuing southward, we crossed into an adjacent megascraper then descended via five sets of escalators to the ground floor, eventually exiting out onto a sidewalk running parallel to a six -lane street packed with morning commuter traffic.
After reluctantly asking Straus where we were going, he muttered something about a pancake shop and pointed across the street at an establishment with its name, The Hardboiled Café, written in an austere font on its storefront windows.
With a name like that I wondered what kind of café it would be on the inside. However, since it was only a stone’s throw away, I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out.
Arriving at a set of lights, I waited to cross the busy street along with a few dozen other people. Before long the sidewalk became overly crowded and I was propelled into Straus by a businessman – a salaryman – who didn’t even bother to apologize when he shoved me aside.
I snorted as I sourly thought, Girls really have it tough.
Just because they couldn’t defend themselves, that wasn’t a reason to walk over them. Then again, I’d recently discovered that some girls could defend themselves quite well, though two of them were Simulacra and one was a martial arts prodigy.
I found myself clenching a fist as I glared sourly at the salaryman who’d pushed me aside.
However, my sourness spiked when Straus moved to shield me from the people around me, including the aforementioned salaryman cruising for a bruising.
“What are you glaring at?” Straus whispered loudly.
“I was glaring at him, but now I’m glaring at you,” I growled back.
“Care to explain why?” he asked.
“I’ll explain when you explain what you’re doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” he retorted.
“It looks like you’re getting in my way.”
“No, I’m sparing you from getting arrested for beating someone up.”
“If I beat someone up it’s because they had it coming.”
Straus inhaled long and loudly and raised his hands in surrender. “Okay. You want to get bumped, be my guest. You want to get arrested, don’t claim I didn’t warn you.”
I sneered up at him. “No, I’d prefer you get run over.”
Straus lowered his hands. “That’s a really cruel thing to say.”
“It would be if you were human but you’re a fake.” I sighed bitterly. “These days I seem to be surrounded by fakes. Hey, even I’m a fake—oomph!”
Straus clamped a large boyish hand over my mouth, shutting me up in the blink of an eye.
Then he leaned hastily leaned down toward me, and heatedly whispered, “Could you not announce it to the world?”
It wasn’t the shock of having my mouth palmed that left me speechless.
Nor was it his hand plastered over my mouth that stifled my retort in my throat.
No. It was finding myself face to face, in close proximity, with a very human looking boy that was actually a remote controlled mechanical avatar.
It was just too much for me to bear, and a soft, pitiful whine piped up from my throat.
Straus blinked and looked faintly startled. “Hey, are you all right—?”
I know it sounds strange, having spent time in the presence of Simulacra, a Gun Princess, and fought off a Gun Queen, but for some reason that I can’t pin down, I couldn’t bear Straus’s presence. Something about knowing that the teenage boy inches away from me wasn’t real set my hairs on end and made my skin crawl.
Picture coming face to face with the nature of your worst phobia, and then double – no, triple – the resulting anxiety.
With my right hand clenched into a fist, I unleashed a piledriving punch that caught Straus under his chin.
But seeing Straus fly back several feet and then land supine on the sidewalk pavement, I realized in horror just how hard I’d hit him.
Had he been a human teenage boy, there was no doubt my punch would have broken his neck and killed him.
That realization had me trembling like a leaf and I looked down at my discolored right hand balled into a bruised fist.
It burned in agony for a handful of seconds before the Angel Fibers and my ultra-grade Simulacrum body mended the damage I’d incurred.
As the burning sensation faded to a dull throbbing, I flexed the fingers of my hand, both amazed and frightened by how quickly it had healed.
By then Straus was sitting up unsteadily.
Not knowing what it was like to operate a mechanical avatar, I assumed that I’d knocked the avatar’s senses or sensors into disarray, because Straus looked addled as he clutched his jaw.
Yet regardless of how hard I’d hit him, Straus was a machine and I was made of flesh and blood. Thus, I didn’t believe he’d suffered any damage.
But the two salarymen in suits that came to his assistance didn’t know any better. They helped him up, and Straus thanked them.
When one of them suggested going to the hospital, Straus shook his head and assuaged the man’s concerns with a grin.
The other man suggested he call the authorities, but again Straus brushed it aside with a grin.
Then he spoke something in a low voice while looking sheepish, and the two men backed off.
One of them slapped Straus’s back, and muttered something about treating his girlfriend better.
It was then that I noticed the mixed looks I was garnering from the pedestrians surrounding us. Expressions of shock and disbelief, as well as many reproachful glares were directed at me.
More than a few people were muttering deriding remarks, and I heard phone cameras click away, but none of them approached me.
More than a few warning bells had been rung in their minds after watching me knock Straus to the ground with a single punch. Perhaps they subconsciously recognized me as a predator, a lioness amongst antelopes, a shark amongst minnows, a hawk amongst pigeons.
They watched me, they muttered, but they kept their distance.
And though I was quite aware of them, I chose to ignore them and focus on regaining control over my scattered emotions.
Straus bowed politely to the two salarymen, then walked quickly toward me.
Keeping his voice low, he didn’t lean down at me as he spoke in a hushed, guttural tone. “Do you know how close you came to being arrested? What the Hell is wrong with you?”
I sucked in air and reflexively clenched my hands as I hissed back, “You freak me out!”
Straus’s eyes widened before narrowing. “You didn’t have a problem with me before.”
She – I mean he – no, I mean she – was right.
I didn’t have a problem with her when she was operating her Cat Princess avatar.
But I was having a severe emotional reaction to her pretty boy avatar.
And yes, it was a pretty boy looking intently at me. Except it wasn’t a real pretty boy.
So was this some kind of twisted fear of machines that looked like human males?
Was I experiencing an andro-mechano-phobia?
Abruptly I gasped both inwardly and outwardly as I realized a new problem.
What the Hell had I been thinking? Did I really think of this machine boy as a pretty boy? Was this also part of my phobic reaction to him?
I swallowed hard and then took a couple of deep, controlled breaths, as I struggled to rationalize my adverse emotional reaction to Severin Straus who was staring at me impatiently.
“Well?” he ground out through clenched teeth. “Why do you have a problem with me now?”
My breaths were growing slower and shorter, and I could feel my heart gradually easing up. When I felt steady enough to give him an answer, I retorted in a low whisper, “You really wanna know why?”
“A straight answer would be appreciated.”
“That’s because you weren’t giving cross-play a whole new meaning.”
Straus grew still for a long moment before exhaling loudly, just a like a real teenage boy expressing simmering frustration. However, before he could say anything, the pedestrian light behind me began to play a chime and I recognized it for the ‘walk’ melody.
“Come on,” Straus growled and stepped out onto the street along with a hundred other pedestrians.
The people that had been avoiding me now swept me along with them, so I didn’t have much of a choice but to follow Straus across the street.
Arriving at the opposite sidewalk, I took a couple of seconds to regain my bearings as the crowd rushed by me. Being a good twenty centimeters taller than I was accustomed to, I was able spot the sign for the Hardboiled Café above the heads of the sidewalk traffic. But I’d lost sight of Straus, so I decided to walk up to the café’s entrance. I was almost at the door when I saw Straus standing by the entrance looking anxiously for me. At sight of me, he first looked relieved then annoyed.
Shaking his head, he yanked the café’s door open, and stepped inside.
“Thanks for waiting for me,” I muttered acidly as I hurried to door before it closed shut. “Asshole couldn’t even hold the door open for me.”
If she was going to pass herself off as a guy, then she should adhere to the basic rules of social interaction, one of which was holding the door open for a girl.
I made it a mental note to etch that into her psyche…then realized with a stark chill that I was expecting Straus to treat me like a girl.
That brought me to a sharp standstill within the entrance to the Hardboiled Café.
When the heavy door closed behind me, it bumped my backside, propelling me deeper into the establishment and jolting my various trains of thoughts back into motion.
However, the question remained unanswered – did I want Straus to treat me like a girl?
It was true that men held the door open for other men out of politeness as well, but it was something of an expected common courtesy that men treat the fairer sex with respect.
Maybe Straus hadn’t treated me like a girl because I was a girl. In other words, being a girl herself, Straus had felt she didn’t need to afford me any special courtesy and had treated me like an equal. She could also have been pissed at being punched in public. But as a consequence, and perhaps due to my misreading the situation, I was forced to face the broader question of whether or not I wanted people to treat me like a girl.
And I had no answer for it.
On the one hand the notion repulsed me. I had lived for years fearing that one day I would turn into a girl, and now I found myself living as one – albeit as a girl that possessed extraordinary abilities.
But I understood that whether or not I was treated as a girl wasn’t entirely up to me, because leaving Straus aside, if people saw me as a girl then they would naturally treat me as one.
So the question was then what should I expect from them?
I’d read about how girls and women often complained of getting the short end of the stick, so should I expect the same?
Standing in the small foyer, Straus grumbled at me, “Took you long enough.”
I stopped and stared at him.
Was being treated fairly, equally, with common decency and respect too much to ask for?
I decided to reply to Straus in a manner that I felt was justified under present circumstances.
“Up yours,” I swore at him and gave him the finger.
Then I wondered, Is that even possible for him?
A second later, I made two important observations.
One was that being preoccupied with Straus, and questioning how I expected people to treat me, had pushed my andro-mechano-phobia into a back seat.
That was good.
What wasn’t so good was that I was still giving Straus the finger when a young waitress – a pretty, brunette with shoulder length hair – came to greet us.
The girl looked at Straus, at me, then my finger, before asking with a troubled smile, “Um…table for two?”
Feeling distinctly ashamed, I lowered my finger and then hid my hands behind my back.
Straus made a show of exhaling loudly before replying, “Yes, please. Table for two….”
Bastard, don’t sound so disappointed. This is your fault!
Nonetheless, I realized that this time I’d slipped up.
Thus, I trailed silently behind him as the girl guided us deeper into the café to a booth without a window view.
I sat down somewhat absently, taking the bench seat opposite Straus.
When the girl took our order, Straus took the lead and ordered for the both of us. At that, I threw him an icy glare that he pointedly ignored as he sat back with an arm draped casually over his seat’s backrest, and confidently dictated our breakfast order to the young waitress.
Watching him through narrowed eyes, I wondered once again how Straus had been practicing passing herself off as a teenage boy.
And then I was incensed by how natural and cool he looked, and I realized with a pang that the Ronin Kassius part of me envied him.
Straus looked the way I would have wanted to appear to a girl.
Cool, calm, collected, with an air of unbridled confidence.
Even though my envy was misplaced, my emotions swirled painfully within my chest because I knew that I would never be seen that way by a girl.
There was no going back for me, and knowing that made my heart twist unpleasantly in my chest.
Yet I remained in my seat, and allowed the envy within me to burn away.
I had decided back in Ronin’s dorm apartment that I needed to start accepting who I was now, and part of that was not to run away from a situation like this.
But no sooner had I resolved to face my feelings when I glanced up and noticed the girl blushing pink as she jotted down the breakfast order.
My mouth had fallen open and when I closed it shut with an audible clack, the pretty waitress glanced at me, and blanched.
It took me a moment to realize why – I was glaring at her.
I wasn’t staring at her fiercely because I was being territorial.
I was glaring at her because I couldn’t believe how easily she’d been charmed by Straus’s pretty boy avatar.
Afraid to look at me, she smiled sheepishly at Straus, jotted down the last of the order and hurried away.
Watching her retreat to the kitchen, I realized Straus had been expecting her to dart a glance over her shoulder, because he delivered a perfectly time wave with his hand draped over the back of his seat.
At sight of that, my temper spiked and I kicked one of his shins hard under the table.
To my surprise, Straus winced hard as though experiencing the kick for real.
“What are you doing?” he complained.
“I could ask you the same question,” I snapped at him.
“I was having a little fun.”
My mouth dropped open. “Are you serious?”
“Of course, I’m serious.”
I shook my head at him. “You’re unbelievable.”
Straus looked equally annoyed at me. “You’re one to talk.”
“Heh? What the Hell do you mean by that?”
He raised his eyebrows at me. “What? You didn’t notice the way men were looking at you out on the street?”
“What? You mean after I decked you?”
Straus blinked in apparent disbelief at my response, then frowned at me. “No, before that.”
“Then I have no idea what you mean.”
Again, he blinked at me as though perplexed by me. “How oblivious are you?”
I winced and retorted, “I’m not oblivious. I was just having trouble dealing with you so I had other things on my mind.”
“Then you didn’t notice how she felt challenged by you?”
Startled by his question, I drew back. “What are you talking about? Weren’t you asking me about how men were looking at me?”
“I was. Now I’m asking about her reaction to you.”
I bit my lower lip for a moment, then admitted, “No, I didn’t.”
“Then take a look,” Straus suggested.
I pressed me lips unhappily into a thin line, and then looked over in the direction of the counter separating the eating area from the kitchen.
Perhaps it was coincidence, but the young waitress happened to be staring in our direction, and our eyes met. The girl paled in a heartbeat then ducked her head quickly. Conveniently for her, a couple of salarymen happened to enter the café moments later, and she hurried off to welcome them.
Although she had caught me glaring at her earlier, I was still confused by her frightened reaction, and faced Straus. “What’s her problem?”
Straus’s eyes widened before he shook his head slowly.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said in a low voice. “You may be new to being a girl, but you sure know how to scare away the competition.”
My feelings went from confused to sour in an instant. “Thanks.”
“And why is she the competition?”
Straus snorted softly. “You can be surprisingly obtuse.”
“Just answer the damn question.”
This time he sighed. “To you, she’s not. But from her point of view, you definitely are the competition.”
“And why the Hell would she see me that way?”
“Because I’ve been coming here a few times, striking up a little friendly conversation with her in the mornings.”
The absurdity of what he’d just told me made my vision swim, and I slumped in my seat. “Oh my gods, you’ve been hitting on her….”
“I prefer to call it testing the boundaries.”
“Of how convincing I can operate this avatar.”
I didn’t sit up as I stared at him vacantly for a while. “Why?”
Straus shrugged a shoulder. “That’s a secret.”
“Yeah, don’t tell me. I don’t think I can handle it on an empty stomach.”
A chuckle escaped from him, briefly triggering my andro-mechano-phobia – yes, I was convinced by now that I suffered from said phobia – and thus seeking a distraction, I turned my attention to the interior of the café.
Fortunately, it genuinely caught my interest and I found myself intently staring at the various images of men and women captured in time in numerous photos, posters, and murals plastered throughout the innards of the café. I belatedly realized many of the photos depicted movie scenes in which most of the men wore trench coats while the women were attired in long form fitting dresses that emphasized their feminine charm.
Some of the women were depicted as smoking from long cigarette holders while reclining on sofas. I found it puzzling to see those pictures in a commercial establishment such as this café because smoking died out as a widespread public habit a long time ago, thought it was still something of a private pastime.
However, I felt I understood the café’s theme.
“Hardboiled…I get it now.”
“Really?” Straus asked in a faintly snide tone, as he slouched back in his seat, his arm annoying draped over its back.
“Well, I didn’t think hardboiled eggs had anything to do with it,” I replied equally snidely.
“And here I thought you only had Mercy on your mind.”
“If I had nothing but Mercy up here”—I tapped my forehead—“I wouldn’t have scored tenth place in my grade last year.”
“And yet you only qualified for the Delta Tier.”
I pressed my lips together as I exhaled loudly through my nose. “That’s because my brain isn’t malleable enough.”
“So you’ve got a rock in there instead of clay.”
I ground my teeth together and started to flip Straus the bird. But remembering my earlier faux pas, I restrained myself to a harshly whispered, “Frek you.”
Straus snorted. “No thanks. You’re not my type.”
I flinched but not because I felt insulted. Rather, I was startled. “Your type? What? You have a type?”
Straus huffed under his breath. “Every girl has her type.”
I stared blankly at him for a second. “Every girl has her guy type? Or every girl has her girl type?”
Straus cocked his head at me in slowly spreading confusion. “What exactly are you asking?”
After mulling the question for a moment, and sparing the pretty waitress a glance, I decided to just come out with it. “Are you a lesbian?”
Straus’s mouth fell open and stayed open for a long while. “Why the Hell would you ask something like that?”
“Because I noticed you gave my boobs a good look back at the stairwell.” I jutted my chin at the waitress busy greeting another batch of patrons. “And you were watching her ass as she walked away.”
That last bit was a lie, something I spouted on a whim, probably because I wanted to get a reaction out of Straus and I wasn’t disappointed.
Straus slapped a hand loudly on the table and hissed, “I am not a lesbian.”
“Then what are you? Bisexual?”
Straus clamped his mouth shut for a long moment before sitting back and crossing his arms. “No. I’m not.”
“Are you a virgin?” I asked bluntly.
Straus looked shocked then regarded me with a simmering glare. “Mind your own business.”
“I’ll take that for a Yes.”
For a moment, I thought Straus might actually strike me. It was odd that a machine could express such a frightful expression, but I can recognize true anger when I see it, and Straus looked unmistakably angry before turning away to look into the café rather than at me.
Hmm…I struck a nerve.
I thought back to the Akane Straus that had emerged from the Sarcophagus that inexplicably materialized above the apartment’s spacious balcony.
The young woman I saw back then could barely push herself up off the ground.
I acknowledge that my way of thinking may offend some people, but I couldn’t imagine her enjoying a physical relationship with anyone if she was afflicted with such a debilitating disease.
Then again, I knew very little about Akane Straus so perhaps the disease didn’t hamper her life until recently.
But a relationship isn’t a solo experience.
It requires two to tango and two to make it work.
This is where my low opinion of people darkened my outlook on Akane Straus’s chances of finding love. Whether it’s part of my nature, or a trait carved into me by life’s experiences, I have difficulty seeing the good in people – both men and women. Recent events and my present circumstances have done nothing in the way of changing it. So when I thought of Akane finding Mister Right, someone who would accept her and love her for who she was regardless of her disability, I equated it to finding a needle in a haystack.
It wasn’t impossible, but it would be extremely challenging.
Of course, the proverb falls apart if you introduce a superconducting magnet or metal detector to find the needle, but surely you understand my point.
I’m not saying there wasn’t someone out there for her.
I’m simply saying finding that someone would be difficult.
“When did it start?”
The words left my lips before I could stop them.
Straus looked faintly puzzled, shedding some of the anger she’d been silently radiating.
“Your muscular dystrophy…when did it start?” I asked her, my voice and feelings subdued by that memory of her on the balcony. “Was it long ago…?”
“My last year of high school,” Straus replied in a flat tone that was surprising because he regarded me with uncertainty and very little anger, as though he was trying to figure out why I was asking. “Nine years ago.”
Nine years, I thought to myself. “Did you know Erina back then?”
Straus’s uncertainty grew but then he exhaled loudly, and sat back a little deeper in the booth’s high-backed seat. “She and I attended Telos Academy. We weren’t classmates, but we were in the same year. She was the star student, and I was the star of the Track-and-Field team. As friends, we were an odd couple.”
I frowned inwardly. If they were friends in high school, I was tempted to ask if Straus knew of me back then.
Did she know Erina had a younger brother?
But then I felt it didn’t matter. In a way, it was something of a redundant question.
So I discarded it and asked instead, “You were a Track-and-Field star?”
“My times in the inter-state competitions were good enough to earn me silver—twice. But in my third year…well…shit happens….”
Straus turned away. His tone had been flat, but there was a bitter look on his face.
“You dropped out of Track-and-Field in your third year?” I asked.
“Nope. I tried to the bitter end but I failed to qualify for the inter-state championships. I’d lost my edge. I wasn’t the Sprint Queen of Telos Academy any longer.” His lips twisted in resentment. “When life deals you lemons, you can’t always make lemonade…no matter how much you try.”
I waited for a little while, to see if he would continue on his own. When he didn’t, I asked, “So what did you do?”
He looked at me. “You really want to know?”
Straus exhaled again. “I went into a treatment program and underwent therapy. The docs told me I had ten years at best.” I watched him clench his jaw for a telling moment. “That was hard to take.” Straus laughed stiffly. “But Erina took it harder still. She was already doing research into motor neuron disease disorders and a whole lot of other shit, including Prometheus’s Curse. She just added my problem to the long list she had. Eventually, she whittled down her list to just two problems – yours and mine.”
Straus faced me.
“By then she was working for the Telos Corporation. By then they’d pulled her into their dark depths. And that was because of him.”
“Him…?” I tipped my head at Straus. “Who is him?”
“Simon val Sanreal. The lord and master of the Telos Corporation. Eldest son of House Novis and their representative in this universe under the guise of the Sanreal Family. And he’s your sister’s fiancé.”
I blinked slowly as I digested this tidbit of information. “Her fiancé?”
“That’s right, little girl. Your sister is engaged to one of the richest, most eligible bachelors in the known galaxy.”
“So she went for the money,” I muttered sourly. “That’s just like her….”
“Actually, you ignorant twit, your sister was relentlessly pursued by Simon Sanreal for almost two years before she finally caved in and accepted his marriage proposal.”
I expressed a puzzled frown at Straus. “She was being chased around?”
Straus looked annoyed at me. “Are you paying attention or not?”
I bristled a little. “I am paying attention. But you’re telling it thick and fast.”
“Then start keeping up.”
I started to snap out a retort, but then held myself back at the last heartbeat. “Fine. Care to explain in a little more detail?”
“Simon Sanreal expressed a surprising amount of interest in your sister. For some reason she just happened to be his type.” Straus folded his arms across his chest. “Still with me so far, little girl?”
I’d ignored her the first time she called me that, but this time I bristled. “Don’t call me that,” I warned her.
“Then don’t call me kitten,” Straus snapped. “Agreed?”
I really felt like throwing something at him, but instead I just gnashed my teeth a little. “Is that all? Nothing more to add.” I planted my hands on the table. “Because if not, I’m out of here.”
“Like I said already, he pursued her romantically for almost two years before she caved in and agreed to marry him. By then she’d already been working at the Telos Corporation for four years, and was a member of one of their black research division for two years. And that was his doing. At first, he was interested in just her – probably saw her as a worthy challenge – but then he grew interested in her research as well. It wasn’t long afterwards that Erina was transferred into a clandestine division conducting sensitive research.”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “Sensitive? You mean…the Angel Fibers.”
Straus snorted as he nodded. “He pulled her into the dark side of science.”
The dark side of science? Is that an understatement or an overstatement?
But that begged the question: how should Project Mirai be viewed?
From what I knew of how research was performed and monitored, there were a lot of checkboxes to tick. By that I mean that there were rules and regulations on how it should be ethically, safely, and morally carried out. When taken into context with everything that had happened to me, I had trouble imagining that Project Mirai would have ever received government approval. It was undoubtedly made possible because Erina’s black research division wasn’t conducting itself in a sanctioned manner.
In other words, quite a few checkboxes had been skipped over or left unticked because to Erina the ends justified the means.
And now Project Mirai was sitting in a café waiting for breakfast to be delivered.
Project Mirai was also guilty of illegally entering a school boy’s apartment.
Project Mirai had committed the crime of stealing clothes from charity donation bins.
Project Mirai had caused a scene by punching a boy to the ground.
Indeed, Project Mirai was building up quite the rap sheet.
When I thought of Project Mirai that way, I was reminded of those holovid movies where the protagonist is the product of illicit research and escapes from a secret lab and finds themselves in a town or city of unsuspecting humans. Before long the bad guys would come after the escaped research project, and it wasn’t always a happy ending.
I looked down at my right hand and saw no sign of the bruising earned after knocking Straus to the ground.
Like in those holovid movies, I was in a city of blissfully unaware humans, so was I headed for bad ending too?
My thoughts and fears must have been written on my face because Straus was looking at me intently.
I cleared my throat and tried to relax my facial features before asking, “How do you know all this? I mean how long have you been a part of this?”
At first Straus looked ready to fire back an answer, but he stopped and seemed to give his reply a little more thought. “How long have I been involved…?”
I gave him a nod.
“Do you mean to ask, how long have I been a part of Project Mirai?”
I wet my lips quickly. “How long have you known about the Angel Fibers? About Mirai? About the other universe?”
“Ever since Erina pulled me into her world. Ever since she began working for their black division.”
I was puzzled. “Why?”
“Because I became her test subject. She used their biomedical research labs to try all sorts of various things to keep me alive. But things didn’t look up for me until your sister shoved the Angel Fibers she’d cultivated into me. Yeah, she came close to killing me—the closest anyone has come—but it stopped my muscular dystrophy. It didn’t make it any better, but it didn’t make it any worse, and best of all I was still alive.” Straus leaned toward me over the edge of the table. “Do you know what that meant to me? Knowing that I wasn’t getting any worse? Knowing that I wasn’t going to die?”
I shook my head slowly. I wasn’t going to lie to her.
Straus sat back. “Erina and I have had our share of differences over the years, but I owe her. She saved my life. And she opened a new world to me. The world of the Gun Princess Royale avatars.” He pointed at himself. “Without them, without this technology, I’d be an invalid in a wheelchair living a confined life.”
“But you still are,” I pointed out.
Straus shrugged a shoulder and nodded, taking my comment in stride. “I’m aware of that. I’m not denying it. But without one of these, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this freedom.”
I bit my lower as I considered her point-of-view. Then I chose to probe her a little more. “So you were Prototype One for the Angel Fibers.”
“That’s right.” Abruptly, Straus narrowed his eyes at me. “Hey, where did you hear that?”
“From Tabitha. She said there’s not much on you. All your records are under strict lock and key—or something to that effect.”
Straus humphed in contempt. “Nosy little bitch….”
I wasn’t going to disagree with her. However, what I said instead was, “So you’re the same age as Erina. Twenty-seven?”
I’d been doing the math in my head. Erina was eleven years older than me, and the big reason our parents left her in charge when they abandoned us for the sake of their research. She graduated from high school and commenced third tier education at age nineteen. Her studies were funded by the Telos Corporation. In other words, she’d earned herself a scholarship from them, and they pulled her into the fold when she graduated five years later after studying a range of sciences that only an Alpha had the mental propensity to accomplish. And to top it off, she completed her four-year doctorate in three.
She really is special, I grudgingly acknowledged.
Yet I felt no pride in being related to her.
No, that wasn’t right. Let me rephrase that.
I felt no pride having been to related to her when I was Ronin Kassius.
I exhaled long yet softly.
So she was twenty-four when she started working for them.
I swallowed quietly.
Or was she working for them before then? Was the scholarship all part of it? Did they see something in her while she was still a high school student?
“If you keep frowning like that you’ll get wrinkles,” Straus said.
Lost in thought, I’d been staring down at the table. Now I looked up at him nonplussed. “What wrinkles?”
Straus regarded me thoughtfully for a long moment. “You need to talk to your sister.”
I leaned back as though avoiding a slap to the face. “Are you serious?”
“Yes. You and Erina need to talk to each other.”
“I can’t talk to her,” I snapped and almost banged my right hand on the table.
But the waitress had returned with our breakfast order on a tray she wielded deftly on one upturned palm, so I restrained myself and sat quietly as she placed cups and plates on the table before us.
When she departed, I resumed from where I’d left off. “I can’t talk to that woman.”
“Because I can’t stand the sight of her. I can’t—I just can’t tolerate the way she talks to me. I can’t stand how she treats me. I’m not a thing. I’m a person. But that’s not how she sees me.”
Straus took a deep breath and glanced away.
I took a deep breath of my own. “You know that I’m right. You know how she treats me.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”
“So how can you expect me to compromise with her.”
With a glare, he once again leaned over the table toward me. “Because it’s for your own good. You need to stop facing your sister head on. There are other ways for you to deal with her.”
“You mean that passive aggressive nonsense.” I snorted and shook my head. “I don’t know how to do passive aggressive.”
Unexpectedly, Straus bowed his head and closed his eyes. “I told you before you’re my hope.”
I frowned at him. “Yeah. Stop reminding me. It makes me feel really uncomfortable.”
Opening his eyes, he looked up at me. “Well right now, you’re not acting like my hope. Right now you’re the obstacle to achieving my dream of living a normal life.”
“You’re making me responsible?” I replied with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance. “How conceited—”
Straus cut me off by banging a fist on the table, making the cups and plates bounce. “You are not the only one having problems with Erina.”
I only noticed my mouth had fallen open when I needed to swallow.
Straus was making a visible effort to remain calm. “You’re making it difficult for everyone.”
I pressed my lips together unhappily. “That’s a selfish thing to say.”
“No, it’s not. Don’t you understand? With you and Erina butting heads every time you’re in the same room, you make it hard for everyone else to manage the both of you.”
My eyebrows rose in surprise. “Manage?”
“Manage?” I repeated coldly this time.
“Is there something wrong with you ears?”
I folded my arms under my breasts. “I don’t need to be managed.”
“You and Erina are behaving like a pair of Divas.”
I gaped speechlessly at Straus.
As he continued to lean forward over the table, he tapped his fingers slowly on the table. “I know that every time you succeed in pushing Erina’s buttons and launching her into the stratosphere you think you’ve won against her.” He shook his head. “You’re not winning at all. All you’re doing is making life harder for her and for yourself. And when you do that you make life harder for everyone around you.”
I sucked in air noisily, and tightened my folded arms. “Well, that’s just too bad.”
“You and your sister are cut from the same cloth. You’re both recalcitrant and egocentric. And right now both of you can’t see past your own noses.”
I glared at him. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Straus lowered his voice. “I get it perfectly. I get that you hate what happened to you, but you’ve got it wrong. You’re blaming her when you should be blaming Kateopia.”
“Oh, I blame Kateopia. Rest assured. I definitely blame her.”
“And you’re wrong about one more thing.”
“And what’s that?”
“You’re not Ronin Kassius. You’re Mirai. You were never Ronin Kassius.”
Her words were like a knife driven into my chest and they hurt. But it was a hurt that I’d already experienced and had cried over. It was a hurt I was slowly coming to terms with on my own.
“I know that,” I grated at him. “I know that all I am is the keeper of his memories. But I’m dealing with it. I’m dealing with knowing that my mind is male but my body is female. I’m dealing with knowing that there is no going back. So I don’t need you reminding me of what I am.”
“If you’re dealing with it, then cut yourself and your sister some slack.”
This time I banged the table and made the plates and cups bounce. “Never!”
“Why are you being so stubborn? Can’t you see that it makes your life harder—?”
“Because I can’t accept how she treats me! Even if I was never Ronin Kassius but just a copy of his mind, I’m still me. I have feelings, memories, thoughts. I am not a machine.”
“Do you? Do you really?”
“I know what you are,” Straus insisted.
I dropped my voice to a hiss. “Then do you know how hard this is for me?” I paused and held his gaze refusing to let him look away. “Do you? Do you know why I’ve managed to stay sane after everything that’s happened to me? It’s because I’ve been too busy trying to stay alive. But now? Now I’ve got some downtime and it’s catching up to me.”
“You were calm on the boat.”
“Because I was exhausted. I was so completely overwhelmed by what I was told that my mind was still catching up back then.”
Straus didn’t appear to believe me and I didn’t care.
I pushed on. “Erina could have found another way. But she didn’t because her research is more important to her than anything else. And the proof is that she was willing to face an Empress and not back down an inch.”
“Because that research isn’t just important to her. It’s important to humanity.”
I leaned over the table toward Straus. “You see, that’s where your wrong. I get that it’s important and that it has the potential—the potential—to save lives. That doesn’t mean that it can or it will. But when Erina looks at me, she’s not seeing humanity’s salvation.” I shook my head firmly. “No, no, no. To Erina, I’m not humanity’s savior.”
“Then what are you?”
“In her eyes, I’m humanity’s future.”
In a very human way, Straus’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly and a frown faintly creased his brow as he regarded me in silence.
I watched him too, aware that I was looking at a machine and not a handsome teenage boy, but somehow I felt as though I’d moved past my troubles reconciling the illusion with reality. So I was able to meet his gaze as though I was meeting that of a real boy, and not feel unsettled all the way to my bones as my andro-mechano-phobia slumbered in the back seat.
Straus slowly sat back. “If I say that I agree with you…will you listen to my advice?”
My eyebrows rose sharply revealing my surprise. “You…agree with me?”
Straus appeared deeply troubled and bowed his head, breaking eye contact with me. “It’s just a gut a feeling I have…a feeling that Erina is looking for something more in you.” He looked up at me. “A feeling that she has something else planned for you and the Angel Fibers. Something other than what she has told the Sanreals.”
“You said it yourself. Like becoming humanity’s future.”
I felt cold – so very, very cold – and broke into a shiver that made my hands tremble so I pulled them out of sight under the table.
The concern I heard in his voice made me flinch, but it helped me regain control. “What?”
“Will you listen to my advice?”
I snorted softly and turned away. “I know what you’re going to say, so don’t bother.”
“Then what are you going to go? Keep going the way you have? Leaving aside whatever plans Erina truly has for you—and I’m not comfortable with speculating behind her back—”
I huffed this time and threw him a glaring sidelong glance. “So it doesn’t matter what she has planned for me?”
“That’s not what I meant. Would you let me finish?”
I sat back in my booth seat, and then shrugged my shoulders at him. “Fine. Let’s hear it.”
Straus looked briefly annoyed but then exhaled loudly as though expelling his frustration toward me. “If you continue on this path, if you keep going the way you’re going, butting heads with Erina at every turn, then she won’t be able to protect you.”
I frowned hard at Straus. “Erina is protecting me?”
“Yes. She is. Do you know the reason why are living as Isabel val Sanreal?”
“Wasn’t that something House Novis arranged with the Empress?”
“No. The Empress only wanted Mirai fighting in the Gun Princess Royale. The part about you living as Isabel was a proposal that Erina pushed through. Using the influence she has over Simon Sanreal, she convinced him to have you assume the identity of Isabel val Sanreal.”
My frown deepened. “Back on the boat, Erina said that House Novis planned to introduce Clarisol back into the family as Isabel val Sanreal. But I was also told that House Novis planned to have Clarisol live a free life away from them—away from Teloria—by living as Isabel Allegrando, a fake identity.” I cocked my head at Straus. “So which one is true?”
“The latter,” he replied flatly.
So Ghost was telling the truth.
Straus continued in a measured voice. “You’re wondering why she lied to you?”
“Because she wanted to give you the opportunity to experience living in the real world.”
My frown faded as I thought of Clarisol’s consciousness living in her virtual prison, but I didn’t know if Straus was aware that I’d spoken to her so I treaded cautiously.
But there was another reason for me to be wary.
Back on the Sanreal Crest, Erina had warned me about being ‘boxed’.
So I cleared my throat and guardedly asked, “What do you mean by living in the real world?”
“You are valuable to Erina and to the Sanreals. But Kateopia twisted their arm and had them enter you in the Gun Princess Royale where they stand to lose you. With that in mind, the Sanreals had decided to keep you safe when you were away from the GPR. That meant confining you to your Sarcophagus, and using its technology to have your mind experience living in a virtual reality.”
I slowly raised my chin at Straus. “So I was going to be boxed.”
Straus arched an eyebrow questioningly. “Where did you hear that term?”
I lied with a straight face. “From Erina.”
Straus was quiet for a brief moment, but then nodded to me. “That’s right. You were going to be boxed. You’d be released out into the real world when it was time for you to fight.”
“So why wasn’t I boxed?”
“I told you. Because of Erina.”
Straus again leaned forward, and this time rested his elbows on the table as he pinned me with a hard stare.
“The Sanreals didn’t want you exposed to the outside world. To them, it was a huge risk. Think about it. You’re special. You’re the culmination of years of research. By having you out and about they ran the risk of losing you to an accident, to injury, to a whole variety of unexpected circumstances.”
I leaned forward and tapped the table with a fingertip while returning his hard glare. “You’re telling me I’m special, and that they couldn’t risk having me out in the real world. Yet they were planning to send Clarisol away in this body. They were planning to have her live far away from Teloria. That makes no sense to me.”
Straus gave me an incredulous look. “Not right away. They weren’t planning for that until it was certain that Mirai would live for a very, very long time. If it turned out that Mirai fell short of expectations, then they would suspend the plan and wait until Mirai could be perfected or another better Mirai could be made. They were being careful to tick all the boxes. Putting Clarisol in a defective Simulacra was not an option.”
I tapped the table again. “Then about the Angel Fibers. Could they afford to have Mirai or Isabel leave their grasp? Wouldn’t they need her for more research?”
“Erina said she could make another Mirai to continue the research. Once she didn’t need the first Mirai—once she was sure the prototype met the Sanreals requirements for a suitable body for Clarisol—then Clarisol would be free to assume the life of Isabel Allegrando.”
I pressed my lips together and inwardly disagreed.
No, not Clarisol, but a copy of her consciousness. The real Clarisol would still be stuck in that prison for her mind.
However, this wasn’t something I would mention to Straus.
Instead, I gave him a nod and said, “Go on. I’m listening. Tell me the rest.”
Straus gave me a puzzled frown, perhaps baffled that I was expressing this much interest, but continued explaining my circumstances.
“The Sanreals also feared that Kateopia might make a move on you, and steal you from them. Erina had told Kateopia that if Mirai was stolen, Mirai would die.”
Tabitha had said the same thing, so I gave Straus a questioning look and asked, “Is that true?”
Straus looked uncomfortable as he shrugged a shoulder. “Honestly, I don’t know. Your sister won’t tell anyone what precautions she took, and I don’t have a reason to doubt her. You’re precious to her but I don’t know if she’s willing to lose you permanently. With her it’s a war of wills with the Empress and that gives birth to a contradiction. On the one hand, she’s adamant that you’re too valuable to hand over, but on the other she’s determined that her research will remain safe in her hands at the expense of your life. In that context, to the Sanreals, keeping you in the Sarcophagus under the proverbial lock and key suited them just fine. And I like said, your mind could be kept busy living in a virtual world so perfect you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
“So why am I out here and not in there?”
“Because Erina had other ideas. She didn’t want you boxed. She wanted you to experience real life. To live in the world. And so she convinced Simon to make use of the identity of Isabel Allegrando – an identity the Sanreals had carefully created over the span of many months for Clarisol – and to bring Isabel into the Sanreal Family. To amend her existence so that she was the illegitimate daughter of Phelan Sanreal, otherwise known in the other universe as Phelan Erz Novis, the head of House Novis.”
“Why? Why would she do that? Why go that far?”
Did she know that I was going to take my new life hard?
That is, did she know I would have trouble accepting my new existence?
Erina was an Alpha, so perhaps she’d used her enhanced intellect to plan ahead.
But that implied that she cared about Mirai. It implied that Erina had a heart.
I shook my head inwardly at the notion, and dismissed it quickly.
Before disembarking from the Sanreal Crest, Erina had admitted that she wanted me to mature, to evolve, to be more than I was now. I still believed that was a rare moment of honesty from her, and because of that I couldn’t shake off the impression that Erina had long term plans for me. This brought my thinking back to the issue of Clarisol, and if what Straus told me was true, it clashed with the Sanreals’ intention to have Clarisol live out her life in Mirai’s body as Isabel Allegrando.
When I joined the dots this way, I arrived at the same worrying conclusion I had when sitting in Ar Telica Tower’s foyer.
Erina had her own agenda, and it went contrary to those of the Sanreals.
My former sister was indeed playing a dangerous game.
Dear gods in high heaven. Did Erina reveal Project Mirai to the Empress? Did she do all this, challenging the Empress to a dangerous game of threats and counter threats so that the Sanreals couldn’t give Mirai’s body to Clarisol?
I closed my eyes tightly as I leaned my head back against the top of the seat’s headrest.
Why? Why go that far? Is Mirai so special that you would risk my life, your life, and your brother’s life too?
I opened my eyes and stared blankly at the ceiling.
My gods, Erina. What have you dragged me into?
Straus cut in smoothly into my thinking. “Isabel, listen to me carefully.”
I swallowed but continued looking up at the ceiling as I nodded. “I’m listening….”
“The Sanreals are watching you. They are watching me. They are watching Erina. They are watching how you behave around her. They are watching the decisions you make. They are considering how much or how little control Erina has over you.”
I lowered my gaze and met Straus’s eyes.
Those perfectly realistic yet mechanical eyes held my gaze, ensuring that he had my full attention as he folded his arms across his chest.
“If you continue to challenge Erina the way you have been, they will make a judgement call, an executive decision, and take matters into their own hands. They will take you away from Erina.”
He paused and I knew what was coming.
“Isabel, they will box you.”
My deepest apologies for posting this after such a long break.
This part of the chapter require a large amount of work in order to get it up to scratch. There were a lot of issues with it that my editor and I had to work through.
However, we managed to get through it.
I just want to assure readers that I have not abandoned the series. Nor do I have any plans to abandon it.
As always, if you'd like to read or purchase Books 1 and 2, the links are provided below:
Thank you for giving this series a chance.
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Best wishes to you all.
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