Continuing the rough draft release.
– II –
As I followed Ghost, or at the very least his superimposed image, the bustling sidewalks grew busier the farther we walked and the closer we drew to Ring Zero’s entertainment districts due west of the horseshoe shaped harbor.
Ghost wouldn’t tell me our destination within the district, so I decided pressing him for an answer would be a waste of time, but I had another reason for keeping silent.
I was enthralled by my surroundings.
No longer wet and uncomfortable, I walked straight rather than slightly hunched over with my head bowed.
I wasn’t hiding from the crowds anymore.
I had become one of them, and I wasn’t looking down but ahead of me and upwards.
Standing at an intersection, surrounded by people waiting for the light to change, I brushed aside locks of blonde hair, and looked up at the city buildings.
Even when she wasn’t powered up, Mirai’s eyes and senses were crystal clear, allowing me to perceive my surroundings with greater clarity than during my existence as Ronin Kassius. Because of this, I was able observe and experience the city like never before.
My olfactory organs were nearly inundated by the rich variety of smells they were capturing and cataloging. The smell of people, the smells from the shops, the smell of vehicles on the road, even the subtle smell of metal from the mag-levs racing overhead on elevated rail lines – I could sense all of it, including the veiled scent of the ocean carried on the back of the breeze drafting in from the harbor a few hundred meters away to the east.
On my bare skin, I could feel the cold air, and the warmth of the people around me. When their bodies brushed by me, unable or unwilling to avoid contact on the wide, populated sidewalk, I could feel the texture of their clothes and their skin.
Conversations, shouts, laughter, footsteps, music, the hiss of electro-fusion drives from cars and mag-levs, the whirring of drones overhead, the high frequency hum of photronics lights, the rustling of clothes, all blended into a collage of sounds absorbed by my ears.
Looking up, my eyes feasted upon the sight of the giant pyramidal megascrapers of Ar Telica. They rose a thousand feet high, lit by countless exterior lights rather than by light coming from their windows since the majority of the city’s population was asleep. Because of their slanted walls, they avoided the canyon effect. Rather than take away the sky, they leaned back to offer as much of it as they could. Thus while they loomed over me, I didn’t feel oppressed by them. I knew little about the engineering benefits – in fact, I doubted there were any – but perhaps this was one reason why the general architecture of the city-states was reminiscent of the Aztec pyramids.
I was drowning in the mélange of sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the city.
But while this was the proverbial cake, the icing was the emotional impact.
For me, this was a new experience that went beyond the physical.
I had never walked these streets during the dark side of the morning.
I had never lived in the city as I was living in it now.
I had lived a sheltered routine existence that was safe and secure, that adhered to a mandatory curfew for young people.
From my dormitory balcony I had looked down at the city.
I had never looked up at it the way I was now.
But then again, I could never have indulged in my surroundings to this extent.
Mirai was an entity that felt naked and raw because all of her senses were so sharp.
I remembered reading how autistic people experienced the world to such a degree of clarity that the sensory overload overwhelmed them.
Yet while it was true that I now lived in a world where the proverbial curtains had been drawn aside, the windows opened, and the scales removed from my eyes, Mirai’s mind was coping.
I wasn’t hampered by the rich, vibrancy of Ar Telica’s nightlife.
I was absorbing and relishing it.
I was seeing the world like no other human could.
And as I realized this…I suddenly felt alone.
I was an entity that couldn’t share what I was feeling with anyone else because they wouldn’t understand it.
Describing it with words would never suffice.
You had to be me in order to appreciate what I was experiencing.
But that meant no longer being human.
And knowing that I wasn’t human added to the isolation that now fettered my state of heart and mind.
The sights and sounds of the city grew muted, vague, and indistinct.
What was once so clear was now dull.
I turned my attention away from the city above me, and focused on the immediate surroundings.
Trailing quietly behind Ghost, I began to feel incorporeal, an existence that now lived in a separate reality from the rest of humanity.
I no longer wondered where we were going because the city had stopped feeling real to me.
When we finally stopped, I found myself standing before a civic center, and looked up to see Ar Telica Tower rising some two thousand feet over me.
The place was a tourist location, and one that happened to be open at all hours, though entry was by paid admission.
“It will be fine, Princess. Follow me.”
“No, I mean, why are we here?”
“Princess, you need a change in perspective.”
I frowned inwardly, wondering how was looking at the city from above going to help?
I could have easily sighed as I followed Ghost up the long steps to the building’s entrance, but what would be the point? Would I feel better afterwards?
I wasn’t required to pay to enter the ground floor of the civic center building that served as the foundation for Ar Telica Tower. However, I would have to pay if I wished to ride the fast mag-lev elevators to the observations decks that ringed the tower at various points along its length.
There was a short queue of people waiting on the stepped dais surrounding the elevator bank.
To get up there, I would need to pass through the security scanning gates, and so I hesitated as I was unsure of how they would react to Mirai’s body. There was also the matter of how I would pay for the trip up the tower.
“Princess, you may walk through. I have taken care of the security gates.”
A shiver ran through me again as Ghost calmly reminded me of the extent of his abilities.
If he ever turned against us…we wouldn’t stand a chance.
I swallowed nervously before asking, “How am I going to pay?”
“Isabel val Sanreal has considerable funds to her name. The cost of admission will be deducted from her account when you press your right hand to the scanning plate.”
“So I do have money?”
“Most assuredly. Considerable funds.”
I noticed I sounded reluctant when I asked, “Just how much is considerable?”
“Approximately four million dorans.”
“Four million…?” I collapsed to my knees and then swayed drunkenly. “…four…four million….”
“Princess, please. Compose yourself. As a member of the Sanreal Family, you should expect your net value to be substantial.”
I looked crookedly up at a Ghost. “Four million dorans, Ghost.”
Crouching beside me, he nodded firmly. “Indeed.”
I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Don’t you get it? Four million dorans! I could buy a mansion with that much money.”
“A wise investment.”
Taking a deep breath, I asked, “Why do I have so much money?”
“A welcoming gift from the Sanreal Family to their long lost daughter.”
“I can use all that money now?”
“The terms and conditions stipulate that a stipend is available to you each month out of the four million in your account. Also, a portfolio has been established under your name. At present your investments total an impressive amount.”
I wasn’t just reluctant but scared to ask, “How…how impressive?”
“Three hundred and sixty million dorans…give or take a few million.”
I promptly passed out on the spot…
…and woke up to find myself lying down on something comfortable while a young female medic with short dark hair, and large expressive brown eyes, watched over me.
Seeing me open my eyes, she spoke to someone over her shoulder.
“She’s coming around.”
A male security guard came into view when he stepped up to the bed. “How is she?”
“Like her scan says, she’s in perfect health.” The young woman waved scanning wand over me. “Miss, can you hear me?” she asked while reading the results of the scan on a tablet she held in her left hand.
I blinked slowly at first then a little quicker as my mental faculties rebooted. Giving her a short nod, I cleared my throat and cautiously asked, “What happened to me?”
“You fainted,” the woman replied. “The security drones brought you to the guards’ station, and they carried you to the med center.”
I propped myself up on my elbows. “Where am I?”
The medic looked at me puzzled before saying, “As I just explained, you’re in the med center at the civic tower. You fainted in the foyer and were brought here by the security guards.”
Looking around me, I saw a few other beds, all empty, with flat display screens above their headrests. The place definitely looked like a sickbay, and it certainly smelt like one.
This is bad. They’ll realize Mirai isn’t human.
I turned to the young woman and asked, “Am I free to go?”
The medic glanced at the security guard standing beside her, watching me quietly with an intent expression.
“Miss Sanreal, before we can let you go—”
I flinched. “You know who I am?”
He nodded with a faint frown. “We verified your identity via handprint. Your registered guardian has been notified of your situation. She’s on her way to pick you up. I suggest you lie down and wait for her.”
Erina is coming here! Shit!
In a panic, I swung my legs off the bed. “I have to go.”
The guard stepped up to me. “Miss, you really should wait for her.”
I swept my gaze over him and judged how much of a threat he posed. He was middle aged, and quite trim. His security uniform looked padded, and a stun baton hung from his belt. There was also a thigh holstered electro-dartgun to be wary of.
Looking up at him, I asked, “Are you detaining me?”
He shook his head. “Miss, at this time we have no authority to detain you. I can only suggest that you remain here while waiting for your guardian.”
“Good, then I’m free to go.” Climbing off the bed, I tested my balance and was reasonably confident I wouldn’t be falling over on my way to the door.
I cursed myself inwardly.
What an idiot! Fainting just because I’m rich! How frekking stupid!
While the guard regarded me with suspicion, the medic waved her scanning wand over me one more time, then tapped at the tablet displaying the results.
I stared at the device fearfully until I noticed Ghost standing behind the medic, peering over her shoulder while nodding to himself in satisfaction at what I presumed was his handiwork. No doubt, he was ensuring the device revealed no abnormalities with Mirai’s body.
Sure enough the medic announced, “Well, I can see nothing wrong with her.” Turning off the scanning wand, she added, “If you wish to go, I can’t keep you here.”
“But I would recommend you visit a hospital in the morning. There could be something I can’t detect with the equipment here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Bowing to her quickly, I said, “Thank you. I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused.”
The guard who’d spoken to me, looked reluctant to let me go. “Miss, shouldn’t you wait for your guardian.”
“I’ll be fine.” Slipping between him and the medic, I made my way out of the large room without a glance behind me. Finding myself in a short corridor that I didn’t recognize, I whispered hastily, “Ghost?”
“Which way out of here?” I asked, while quickly reading the signs mounted to the walls.
“That way,” he said, indicating down the corridor to my left.
Walking fast, I then asked, “Where is my sister? How close is she?”
He frowned faintly as he walked with long strides beside me. “Turn right here.”
Rounding the corner, I began to jog, grateful for the sports bra keeping my boobs in check. “Ghost? About Erina—”
“She should be arriving within the next couple minutes. Princess, do you think it is wise to run from her?”
“I don’t want to see her face. I don’t want to be anywhere near her.”
“Princess, eventually you will need to face her.”
I shook my head curtly. “Not now. Not yet.”
Ghost pointed at a set of double doors. “Through there.”
Pushing through the doors, I found myself at end of a short corridor. I hurried to the doors at the opposite end, and pushed them open to see a wide open circular room with a tall ceiling, and a thick column rising through the middle of it. Seeing the security gates and the dais surrounding the base of the column, I recognized the room as the foyer of the civic center.
“You know your way from here,” Ghost quipped.
I didn’t reply, instead jogging to the wide permaglass entrance on the diametrically opposite the double doors I’d come through. At the entrance, I had to wait a moment for them to open automatically, before I could rush outside into the morning air.
“If you wish to avoid her,” Ghost said after coming up beside me, “I suggest you make your way left. There is a mag-lev station nearby.”
I was sweeping my gaze over the city streets before me, watching the cars driving by, when a business grey two-door sports saloon pulled into the civic center’s temporary parking area. Something about the way the car moved made my heart jump, and I stared at it warily. My heart jumped again when I saw Erina jump out of the passenger side of the car, and look about quickly before walking hurriedly to the building’s entrance.
I turned away, but not before she looked up and saw me standing on the landing outside the permaglass entrance.
Erina’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. A heartbeat later she cried out, “Isabel.”
Turning swiftly, I ran away to my right, in the opposite direction Ghost had suggested.
I ignored my sister as I leapt from the edge of the landing all the way to the sidewalk with a jump that carried me a dozen meters through the air.
Landing hard at the foot of the steps leading up to the building, I cushioned the impact by dropping onto all fours, and after a breath, I pushed myself back up to my feet and ran down the sidewalk, away from my sister.
The sandals I was wearing were not made for running, and I briefly considered taking them off and sprinting barefoot. However, by then I was weaving through pedestrian traffic, and my pace slowed dramatically.
“Princess, I recommend making a right turn at the next corner. There is another mag-lev station at the end of this district block.”
I could hear Ghost, but I couldn’t see him, as I hurried between the slow moving traffic on the sidewalk.
Half-running, half-jogging past people, I arrived at the corner and saw the underground entrance to the subway mag-lev station.
With barely a thought, I worked my way across to it, and descended the steps in a hurry, though again I was hampered by the number of people riding the escalators down to the subterranean station.
“Princess, a train will be arriving at Platform Four in the next minute. I suggest you board it.”
“Where’s it going?” I asked while slipping between a young couple holding hands on the escalator. I had to jump over their clasped hands, catching myself with outstretched arms as I landed awkwardly on the stairs. Paying their surprised outcries no mind, I continued downward, leapt onto the landing at the foot of the escalators, and then ran over to the security turnstiles with a steady stream of people flowing through them.
If I’d had my phone, I could have waved it over the scanning plate. Instead, I had to press my palm to the plate, wait for the device to recognize me, then beep its approval before I could pass through the turnstile gate.
Ghost directed me to Platform Four, so all I needed to do was run rather than stop to read the overhead signs.
The mag-lev with a dozen odd carriages pulled up to the platform with a loud sigh as it came to rest on the supporting rail line.
I was still some ways from it when the carriages opened their doors and disgorged their contents, so I broke into a run. The usual innocent pushing and shoving ensued as those disembarking merged with the individuals waiting to board.
Arriving at the mag-lev, going with the flow was the best option, and I was soon swept into a carriage. Once inside, I found myself a spot near the opposite doors, and then held onto the nearest vertical pole stretching from the cabin’s floor to the ceiling. With an eye on the open doors, I peered at them between the bodies of the commuters standing before me, and refrained from sighing in relief when the doors closed exactly sixty seconds after they’d opened.
When the mag-lev smoothly pulled away from the platform, I exhaled loudly – no, I didn’t sigh – and sagged a little against the carriage wall behind me. After a moment, I gave into the luxury of closing my eyes and resting my head back.
“I can’t keep doing this,” I whispered, and then placed a hand over my stomach. “Tired. Hungry.” I opened my eyes and grimaced. “And I need to pee.”
Ghost wasn’t visible. It would have been disturbing seeing him standing merged with the bodies of the passengers crowding the inside of the carriage, so I assumed he’d reverted to voice-only mode.
“I should get off at the next stop,” I whispered.
It might sound strange, but the truth was that I hadn’t felt the need urinate or otherwise since waking up in Mirai’s body. With everything going on around me, I hadn’t consciously thought about it. But it seemed that lunch aboard Erina’s superyacht had finally caught up with Mirai. I cringed inwardly as I thought of the mechanics involved, but if I didn’t make a pitstop in the next ten odd minutes I’d have a disaster on my hands – I mean, panties.
I stared at the ceiling while holding back the urge to urinate. With there being different muscles involved, doing so didn’t feel the same as from when I was male. In addition, I had to consciously think about what I was doing to keep my bladder from voiding and making a mess.
“Princess, what then? Will you continue running?”
I turned away from the inside of the carriage and faced the doors.
There was nothing but darkness outside as the mag-lev raced through the underground tunnel, so the interior of the carriage was reflected in the glass doors, and that included me.
Staring at myself through lidded eyes, I answered him in a whisper. “I don’t know…I just don’t want to face her…just looking at her…turns my stomach….”
“You cannot continue to run away. I will assist you, but I must tell you this will only prolong the inevitable.”
I took a quiet breath, and leaned my forehead against the glass door. “At least until morning…I don’t want to see her….”
A short melody played by soft chimes sounded in the carriage, indicating we were approaching the next station.
I looked up at an overhead display indicating where we were and realized we’d travelled north through Ring Zero. With my eyes, I followed the mag-lev line on the display, reading the district numbers it intersected.
When the doors opened, I remained aboard the carriage.
“Next two stops,” I replied in a hushed tone. “Not here.”
My decision not to disembark meant travelling aboard the mag-lev for another six minutes while restraining my body’s urge to pee.
When my stop finally arrived, I bolted out of the mag-lev, raced up the escalators to the station promenade, then searched for the ladies restroom. Finding one, I dove into the anteroom and through to the toilet area, narrowly avoided colliding with a woman making her way out, apologized in a hurry, then found an empty stall. Locking the door to the stall, I hurriedly unclasped my tight capri pants, hardly thinking about what was to come next as I dropped all articles of clothing in the way, and then sat down to urinate – but not before hastily lowering the toilet seat.
It wasn’t until it was all over that I felt the weight and significance of what had transpired.
Hunched over, I held my head in my hands, and bit my lower lip to distract myself from the unwanted tears slowly trickling down my cheeks.
Frek! Frek! Frekking frek!
I squeezed my eyes shut causing fireworks to explode behind my eyelids, but I couldn’t run away from the truth.
Frek! I’m a frekking girl! Erina made a frekking girl!
My chest ached as I kept my tears and sobs silent for what felt like an eternity. But in truth, it was only a few minutes that went by before I recovered enough of my composure to dry my face with toilet paper from the dispenser mounted to the stall’s wall. Next was the humiliating and embarrassing business of drying myself down below.
I kept my eyes closed as I did so, my gut muscles clenched tightly as I carefully cleaned up.
I didn’t rise until a short while later, dressing myself, and then flushing the toilet after lowering the toilet cover.
Leaning against a stall wall, I took deep, slow breaths for half a minute, then unlocked the door and stepped outside.
The restroom wasn’t vacant. A handful of women were making use of the other stalls, and couple were finishing up at the hand basins mounted to the restroom’s longest wall. I chose not to glance at them. I didn’t need to with Mirai’s wide field-of-vision.
Walking over to the hand basins, I went through the motions of washing my hands, then regarded my reflection in the large mirror before me.
I had to admit, even when tired Mirai still looked good.
Exhaustion diminished her manufactured beauty by only a little.
With a heavy sigh, I reluctantly wet my blonde hair, brushing it with my fingertips for a few strokes, before hanging my head as I leaned on the hand basin with both hands.
Ever since awakening as Mirai, the truth that she was a girl – that I was a girl – was something I’d subconsciously struggled to accept. Surviving against the Gun Queen had kept my mind from delving or dwelling on the truth for long, and during the relative peace and calm aboard the Sanreal Crest, I hadn’t thought about myself as a girl. I’d been preoccupied with puzzling through my circumstances, and in a way, I had been operating on auto-pilot. I was conscious of being female, yet I hadn’t fully accepted it as though my subconscious was rejecting reality. Maybe it was acting like my last line of mental defense, keeping me sane when all other measures had failed.
But now it was impossible for me to deny it any longer on any level.
I couldn’t run away from Erina, and I couldn’t escape from myself either.
Having performed a most basic act of nature, there was no hiding from the reality that I was now a girl.
Raising my head, I looked at my tired visage, but my heart skipped a beat when I noticed the reflection of a beautiful teenage girl standing beside an open stall with her arms folded across her chest, watching me in silence. She had long silky black hair, an oval face, and green almond eyes.
Exotic encapsulated her in a word.
However, it wasn’t her beauty that captured my attention, or the fact that she was watching me keenly. It was knowing that she had materialized out of nowhere, and there was only one person I knew of who made it a habit of appearing unexpectedly.
I sighed and shook my head slowly as I stared back at her, aware that I was alone with her in the restroom.
She waited until everyone else was gone.
Still watching her cautiously in the mirror, I was first to break the silence between us. “Akane Straus, I presume.”
The girl smiled faintly. “That’s right.”
I turned around and faced her with my arms at my sides. “So that’s another body you have.”
“Just how many avatars do you control?”
Her subtle smile turned into a grin. “That’s a secret.”
“You were driving the car, weren’t you?” I asked her. “That’s why Erina climbed out of the passenger seat.”
“How did you find me?”
“I followed you onto the train. I followed you off the train. You were taking a long time in here, so I decided to check up on you.”
Ghost didn’t tell me I was being followed. Was it because he didn’t know about this body of hers? No, more than likely she was using her thermoptic camouflage to hide herself.
Taking a breath, I stated flatly, “I’m not going back. Not yet.”
She nodded once, then shrugged a shoulder lightly. “I figured you’d say that.”
“Your move,” I told her.
“Huh?” She blinked in surprise.
“You’re here to take me back, so it’s your move. Let’s get this over with.”
For a long while, she stared at me with open confusion, before laughing softly. “I’m not here to take you back. I’m just here to keep an eye on you.”
Not the reply I was expecting, and it showed on my face as I asked, “Why?”
“Because I think we should talk.”
I raised my fists at her. “With these?”
The brunette girl that was another of Akane Straus’s mechanical avatars stepped closer to me. “No, with these.” She pointed at her lips.
This change in her approach to dealing with me made me nervous. “What is it that you want? Tell me the truth.”
Straus glanced away as she smoothly planted her hands on her hips, and eventually replied, “To be normal.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
She wet her lips in a very human and girlish way that was surprisingly thoughtful as well. “Fighting you head on is pointless. You won’t change. You won’t give an inch. You’re stubborn like Erina to a fault. I figure this time I’ll just zig-zag.”
“Okay. It’s still your move.”
She pouted in thought, before breaking into a solemn smile. “I forfeit my move. The ball’s back in your court. What will you do?”
I tried to judge her intentions but I couldn’t. I wasn’t accustomed to dealing with her like this, so I was hampered by trying to figure out all the angles at once.
What was she really up to?
What did she want?
In other words, what was her immediate objective?
Confused and uncertain about her ulterior motives, I found my options limited by her passive approach.
“Did Erina put you up to this?” I asked her.
She answered without hesitation and it made me believe her, though I remained suspicious and on guard.
Straus stepped around me and walked up to a wash basin. She stared at herself in the mirror for a while before saying, “Erina and I shared some words.”
“About you.” Straus gently turned her head left and right, and continued studying her reflection in the mirror. “I think it’s the first fight we’ve had in a long while.”
“Are you telling me you had a disagreement? Seriously? Why?”
“Because I didn’t agree with how she’s been treating you.”
I narrowed my eyes at her and snorted. “Like you would care.”
She looked at me. “I have something I need to tell you.”
I shook my head, and began walking away toward the exit. “Not interested.”
“It’s about why Erina shouted at you on the balcony.”
I stopped walking but didn’t turn around. It made it easier to hide the anger that flashed through me. “I don’t care why she shouted me.”
“At least let me tell you why—”
I half spun around. “I told you I don’t care—!”
The door to the restroom was pulled open, startling me.
Two young women, both of them brunettes wearing an unhealthy amount of makeup and dressed for a fun night on the town staggered into the room. Neither of them smelt fresh, and one of them pushed me aside as she helped her more inebriated friend into the room.
“Scuse me! Scuse me! Make a hole. Coming through!”
Straus gave them room as they made their way on rubbery legs to the nearest vacant stall.
Then the least sober of the two promptly wretched her guts out into the throne.
I stared at them in mild disgust before turning to leave the restroom.
Straus approached me from behind. “I’ll tell you why, but not here. Will you come with me?”
Again, I spun around to face her. “Look, how many time to do I have to tell you—?”
“It’s important,” she replied in a low, firm tone that matched her gaze.
I contemplated walking out on her, but I was distracted by the nauseating sounds and smell coming from the nearest stall as the drunkards took turns throwing up into the toilet bowl.
“Okay, fine. Whatever. Tell me.”
“Not here. Will you come with me?”
I didn’t bother hiding my suspicions when I asked, “Where to?”
Stepping around me, Straus opened the door to the restroom leading to the anteroom. “I know a little place nearby. They make great pancakes.”
At the thought of pancakes, my stomach rumbled in response, but it was drowned out by the sounds of vomiting and heavy coughing.
Unable to tolerate another moment in the restroom, I followed Straus out of the toilets and back into the station promenade.
Apologies for the delay and rough nature of this chapter, and thank you for sticking with it for so long.
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