Sorry for the delay in posting. Lost my Mojo. Yep. Fell for a girl, and then I was abandoned. She took my Mojo with her. So I had to grow my Mojo from a tiny seedling all over again.
I'm joking. I've just been flat out with life, and with trying to figure out the rest of the book.
– I –
“What you have to consider is whether she was lying or not.”
Arnval pulled the elevator gate shut with a loud clang, then pressed one of the buttons on the panel beside the entrance. As the elevator car, or more appropriately, the elevator cage, began descending, Arnval regarded me sidelong. “Do you get what I mean?”
Standing at the opposite end of the cage, and therefore as far away from him as possible, I folded my arms under my breasts, quietly unnerved by the elevator’s bumpy ride, and returned his stare. “You mean…about whether her opponents were weak that, and she simply made the best of it?”
I had realized what he was asking, but it didn’t thrill me to know that he was aware of the conversation Tabitha and I had shared back in the replica of Telos Academy’s library. It was a conversation that took place a few minutes before the Gun Queen began bombarding the library with her Arsenal, Conflagration.
“That’s right.” Arnval slipped his hands into his trench coat pockets and stood casually by the closed elevator gate. “Think about it. After she won that year and was crowned Gun Empress, Taura Hexaria didn’t return to defend her title. Neither did her sister, Salome, after winning the championship in the other universe.”
“So they both quit,” I observed, “at the same time.”
“That’s right. They both ran away.” Arnval cocked his head as he looked down at me. “And one more thing. Since then, House Cardinal hasn’t won a single Gun Empress Royale. The Hexaria sisters were the first, last, and only Gun Empresses to win in their name. Afterwards, the closest House Cardinal has come is two Gun Queen’s that proved disappointing during the Empress Royale. And that’s it. They haven’t been able to improve their standing, or gain additional prestige, since the Hexaria twins were crowned Empresses ten years ago.”
“Ten years?” I bit my lower lip before asking, “You mean the year after the war ended.”
He blinked quickly and then nodded. “Well spotted.”
I frowned up at him. “So you think…maybe…she isn’t the strongest Gun Empress around.”
Arnval flashed me a grin. “Bingo, ma chérie.”
I started to growl at him, but he ignored me.
“Don’t be get me wrong,” Arnval continued. “I think she’s good. No doubt about it. I’ve watched her matches and she has talent—real talent—but I don’t believe she’s the best.” He raised his chin and looked down his nose at me. “If she were to face the reigning Gun Empress, she’d have her ass handed to her.”
I remembered what Kristeva, Ar Telica’s reigning Gun Queen, had said about the reigning Gun Empress. Specifically, about the Empress’s speed being something unnatural, and of wanting to test herself against me because she’d heard that Mirai’s specs were above par.
Is she really that good?
To answer that question, I would have to watch some of their matches, both Kristeva’s and the Gun Empresses, and decide for myself.
For now, I dropped my gaze to the elevator’s floor, and then suppressed a shudder that ran through my body as I quietly sighed in thought.
Fifteen minutes ago, Arnval had shown up at the door to my suite to inform me that I’d been challenged by Tabitha to a match between Gun Princesses. A couple of minutes later, Kyoko-chan had arrived with a bundle of clothing – a dark grey tracksuit, black tank top and sports bra, underwear, socks, and trainers. I was irked to learn she’d had other clothing available for me to wear, and I told her as much as I tugged at my tavern maid outfit. But it was a case of in one ear and out the other with Kyoko. As a result, I angrily yanked the clothes out of her hands. Once I changed into the tracksuit, I then followed Arnval down the corridors of the villa to a quaint looking elevator, more or less a cage with a double trellis door for a gate.
That’s where I was now, on my way down with Arnval to what he called the Training Floor.
I had to wonder why there were training facilities under the villa at all. Was it a gym? If so, maybe it was so big it didn’t fit in the villa and had to be built under it instead. At that thought, I reminded myself that I wasn’t on an island but aboard a massive Citadel that would barely fit within Ar Telica’s harbor.
Through the gaps in the metal cage, I watched dark grey metal walls slide upwards.
To think a ship so massive could hide so well within Teloria’s oceans. And to think there were sixteen other vessels like it, except for the Empress’s Citadel that was designed differently, swimming those oceans.
I was jolted out of my musings when an open space came into view through the gaps in the elevator cage.
“Basement Floor,” Arnval announced. “We have ladies underwear, night wear, dresses, swimsuits, and shoes.”
I tossed him a confused glance. “Huh?”
However, a few seconds later, the elevator abruptly lurched to an uninspiring halt to a symphony of loud metallic clanks, and then Arnval pushed back the trellis gates. Stepping aside from the open doorway, he made a gentlemanly gesture with his arms and said, “Ladies first.”
A scowl started to spread across my face, but I held it back knowing it was something I’d probably hear often in the future. Was I going to glare at every man that held a door open for me?
Regardless, I wasn’t going to thank Arnval, and so I wordlessly stepped past him out of the elevator and into a cavernous rectangular room. After a few more steps deeper into the place, I stopped and threw Arnval a questioning look. “What is this?”
He grinned at me as he exited the elevator. “Welcome to the shooting range. That over there”—he pointed to a wide cubicle with transparent walls that curved over it to form a ceiling—“is where you’re going to be spending a lot of time over the next two and a half days.”
I approached the cubicle that was unlike anything I’d seen before now – certainly different from those I’d seen in holovid documentaries – and looked down the range at the far wall that I guessed was some fifty meters away. The left wall of the shooting range was transparent, and I could see a corridor beyond it, probably designed to allow people to safely observe the interior of the room while practice was ongoing. The right wall however had an opaque metallic appearance. It was concave and fitted with recessed light strips at regular intervals. As for the ceiling, it was about three meters above me, with dozens of light sources shining down into the well-lit room.
Taking a deep breath, I let it out, hoping it would expel some of the anxiousness I was feeling. That proved to be wishful thinking. After another deep breath, I looked over a shoulder at Arnval. “Now what?”
His grin grew crooked and I heard him snort softly. A moment later, he jutted his chin in the direction of a recessed door to the right of the room. The door was enormous, large enough to drive a bus through it. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it was laminated with armor plating.
Feeling wary rather than curious, I cleared my throat and then asked, “What’s in there?”
Arnval’s grin widened. “Guns. Lots of guns.”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh?” So that’s why that door looks so tough. “And why are you telling me that?”
“Because we need to find you a new gun.”
“What about the Vipers I was using?”
“Nope. They won’t do.” Arnval walked gracefully over to the recessed door. “It’s time to upgrade, ma chérie.”
I stared at him with faint reproach, then lidded the urge to wipe that annoying grin off his face. “Stop calling me Cherry.”
“Ma chérie, time’s a wasting.”
He was really beginning to annoy me.
Rather than make use of a scanning plate, panel, or console, Arnval stood before the door and said, “Open sesame.”
“Voice and biometric data confirmed as Geharis Arnval. Access granted.”
I looked up to the top of the doorway where a long horizontal strip of light had been glowing faintly red. Now, it changed to a dull green color. The door then split down the middle and both halves slid apart. Pitch black darkness greeted us, but it was chased away when Arnval ventured through the open doorway and triggered internal lighting that revealed what appeared to be yet another large room.
I hesitated for a few seconds, feeling as though I was standing at a threshold I shouldn’t cross lightly. But with Arnval waiting for me inside the room, I didn’t have the luxury of delaying, let alone backing away.
Let’s get this over with, I whispered inwardly, then walked into the room…and halted suddenly when I recognized it for what it was.
Arnval grinned at the expression on my face, and waved his hands about like an ostentatious master of ceremonies.
“Ma chérie, welcome to the Armory.”
I swallowed hard, unable to move from my spot within the room. “…yeah…no frekking kidding….”
It was accurate to describe the Armory as a circular chamber, perhaps thirty meters in diameter, with a four-meter high ceiling. Guns and rifles of every imaginable kind adorned the inside wall, except where it was intersected by the doorway. Standing within the chamber were a dozen columns roughly a couple of meters wide, with upright gun racks mounted on them and these too were populated by a variety of firearms.
Seriously, it was like walking into a spacious boutique that retailed guns rather than shoes, and Arnval was the resident saleslady.
Arnval spun in a slow circle, gesturing at the weapons on display. “Here you’ll find every handgun, assault rifle, and mech weapon authorized for use in the Gun Princess Royale – except for a Gun Princess’s Arsenal. Those are kept elsewhere.”
He stopped smoothly and faced me.
“This is where we’ll find you a new partner”—he held up to two fingers—“or should I say, partners.”
I had been staring at the weapons lining the walls, the vast majority of them upright on their stocks, rather than mounted sidelong, so it was a little difficult to get a good look at them. But I turned to face Arnval and asked, “Two guns?”
“Yes. According to the rules of the challenge, both parties are allowed the use of two weapons. They can be the same. They can be different.”
I gave him a suspicious look. “Do I get to choose, or do you choose for me?”
Arnval held up a finger. “How about this? You pick out what catches your fancy, and I’ll tell you whether it’s a good choice or not.”
I was puzzled as to why he was allowing me pick out my new guns.
Outside of my time fighting the Gun Queen and zombie hordes, I had little experience with live firearms. On that occasion, it was Clarisol who had chosen the weapons to bring along with her. I’d simply made use of what she handed over to me. As for the Viper Vanquish railguns, those had been included with the Princess Regalia. So it wasn’t as though I’d had an opportunity to choose my personal weapons.
Is he testing me?
Shaking my head slowly at Arnval, I asked, “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Sounds like a waste of time to me.”
Arnval smiled drily as he replied, “Humor me.”
Okay. Now I was convinced he was testing me, but I had no idea why.
Exhaling loudly through my nose, I shook my head again, and then turned to face the inside wall of the Armory. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you….”
I walked up to the rifles on display. The weapons lined the inside wall in two rows or rings if you accounted for the chamber being circular.
With so many firearms on offer, I pondered how to best approach choosing my new guns.
As I’d mentioned before, I had limited experience with firearms, always making use of what someone else had decided for me. Thus having to choose for myself made me feel disoriented. It wasn’t an unknown sensation. I’d experienced it before when I realized I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for an exam and didn’t know how to answer the questions before me.
I found myself staring absently at the rifles as the wheels turned slowly in my head.
How do I even start choosing a weapon?
Folding my arms under my breasts, I applied more processing power to the problem.
It was then that I vaguely remembered reading a manga about a boyish girl who was drafted into playing survival games. Choosing weapons had played an important part at the beginning of the story. Because I read it long ago, trying to remember the contents was like pulling at a frayed thread. Pull too hard and it would snap, so I gently coaxed the memories out of the recesses of my mind. When I put together what I had, it wasn’t much, but it gave me an idea on what questions to ask.
Turning slightly, I looked at Arnval over a shoulder. “What’s the duel environment like?”
Arnval’s eyebrows rose slightly, but he looked pleased. “Urban.”
“That may play into it.”
I bit my lower lip in thought. “Urban environment. Something like Ar Telica’s Ring One or Ring Zero?”
“More or less. It’s my understanding it’s a commercial and residential district rolled into one.”
I fell quiet as I quickly considered what he’d told me.
Would it be like the city environment back on that island?
I exhaled softly and regarded the rifles upright in their racks. Now I could see them with a critical eye.
“Too large…,” I murmured. “Too big. Too heavy….”
Indeed, the rifles were much too large. I had no doubt they could stop a rampaging mammoth with a single bullet to the brain, but I remembered how unwieldy a long rifle could be. The Bartley I’d used was an excellent sniping weapon, but in a running firefight it was no good. As for the GVR-30, it could turn an armored vehicle into a Swiss Cheese, but even with Mirai’s strength it was too cumbersome to operate.
I needed something smaller, lighter, but with a stopping power that exceeded that of the Viper railguns.
I began walking beside the inside wall, looking at the weapons on offer until I came to a section with assault rifles, including numerous bullpup variants.
The memories imprinted into Mirai’s brain – memories that didn’t belong to Ronin Kassius – allowed me to recognize the weapons resting in their support racks. I also noticed that whenever Mirai didn’t possess immediate knowledge about a weapon, the information would arrive a short while later as though it was being fed into my brain. Suspecting that the wetware was linked to an online database, I made a mental note to ask Ghost about it later.
I used that data to compare the rifles against each other. I knew their basic specs, and a little about their development history. This allowed me to understand their designs, and why they were made that way. For example, the fact that bullpup rifles had their magazine wells located behind the trigger because this gave them a long barrel while making the overall rifle as compact as possible. This made them ideal in city environments.
However, after studying the weapons for a while, I noticed something odd about the rifles, and again I threw Arnval a questioning look.
“What is it?” he asked while watching over me from a respectable distance.
With a finger, I pointed at a group of firearms upright against the wall. “Most of these are linear rifles. Railguns. But they weren’t originally designed that way. They were converted.”
Arnval stepped closer to me. “So you noticed that.”
I tapped my head. “What’s in here tells me these rifles originally fired ammunition with casings. But it’s also telling me they’ve been modified to use accelerators.”
Arnval directed his attention on the assault rifles in question. “More to the point, they use effect-field accelerators. More efficient and reliable than the old induction methods.”
“Why do that?” I asked.
“You get more bullets per magazine with caseless rounds. And more bullets is a good thing, especially in the Gun Princess Royale.”
“What about phased plasma weaponry?”
He shook his head. “Only ballistic weapons are allowed.”
Arnval frowned pensively. “Because it’s more exciting. C-beam firefights are boring.”
I don’t know why, but I felt both frustrated and relieved. Being shot was preferable to being burnt alive by a c-beam. But kinetic rifles weren’t going to stop a Gun Princess as quickly as a plasma cannon. Then again for all I knew, a Gun Princess may prove resistant to energy-based weapons. After all, the Gun Queen’s avatar had survived the explosion that vaporized most of Telos Academy’s replica.
I folded my arms under my breasts. “But why have so many of the rifles been modified into railguns?”
“I told you. Caseless ammunition means more bullets for every magazine or ammo drum.”
“So that’s really it? That’s the only reason?”
“Well, not the only one. Think about it. A Gun Princess typically possesses a military grade Krono-steel skeleton. Unless it’s a heavy caliber bullet fired at great speed, don’t expect it to penetrate anything vital in her body like the power core”—Arnval tapped his skull—“or the link to her operator.”
I thought of the number of shots the Gun Queen had taken from the augmented Viper before she finally went down. “So you’re saying it takes a railgun to put a hole in a Gun Princess.”
“Or a very big bullet from a very big gun.” Arnval pointed between support columns toward the opposite side of the chamber. “And you’ll find those on the other side of the room.”
“Really?” I turned and walked over to where he indicated, and then ran my gaze over the weapons I could see neatly assembled there. “Oh….”
The guns and rifles I’d seen thus far had all been from the 21st and 22nd centuries. Even in this day and age, the mid-2200’s, our military continued to employ kinetic weapons. Certainly, they fielded particle rifles and phased plasma weaponry, but ballistic weapons continued to play a part in military operations because in some situations they had advantages over their energy-based counterparts.
The rifles mounted to the wall in front of me belonged to the military’s present day kinetic arsenal.
Most of them were heavy caliber and large scale, thereby four to five feet in length, and undoubtedly as heavy they looked. This was because they were designed for use by ground troops wearing power-armor – the kind of armor that turned a flesh and blood soldier into a walking, running tank. Without the additional strength and support provided by power-armor, it was impossible to wield these oversized rifles effectively in battle. A regular soldier could still operate one, but the weight and size would tremendously hamper them. However, a mechanical Gun Princess was a different matter, and perhaps that was why the Battle Commission approved these large weapons for use in the Gun Princess Royale.
I’d grown a little more accustomed to Mirai’s preternatural strength, but as I ran my gaze over the heavy rifles, I realized that they weren’t suitable for me. If Tabitha was to be believed, Mirai was several times stronger than a human girl her size, but compared to a power-armored trooper or a Gun Princess, she was relatively light. That would compromise her stance when firing a heavy caliber weapon such as these rifles. What I needed was a rifle with a decent barrel length for accuracy, yet short enough to avoid problems navigating around tight corners, and lightweight so that I could quickly turn and shoot without having excess momentum through off my aim.
In other words, I had enough weight on my chest without needing a large rifle to topple me over.
I walked away from the 23rd century arsenal and returned to the assault rifles I’d been considering previously, the bullpups. That was when I noticed a quartet of identical rifles on display at a nearby support column.
Something about them caught my attention. I can’t say whether it was because they looked good, but they certainly looked different from the rifles I’d seen thus far.
Walking up to the column, I pulled one of the rifles free from its rack, and then carefully turned it over in my hands.
I judged its length at around 3 feet or shorter. Slipping my right hand into a large hole cut into the rifle’s ventral receiver, my fingers circled around the contoured grip. To my surprise, the weapon felt remarkably light, probably because of Mirai’s immense strength. But even if that was true, I couldn’t ignore that the rifle was splendidly well balanced. And I liked the way it looked. In short, I found it aesthetically pleasing.
Sensing Arnval’s gaze on me, I glanced at him and saw him watching me with a hint of amusement on his face.
“What?” I brusquely asked, annoyed that he was finding me entertaining.
“You tell me. You’re the one that’s smiling.”
“Huh?” With a start, I realized he was right. I was smiling, albeit faintly. Averting my face away from his, I hurriedly wiped the aforementioned smile off my lips. “I wasn’t smiling. Why would I be smiling…?”
Arnval didn’t reply. Instead, he walked up to the column and picked up one of the three remaining rifles that were identical to the one I held.
“Nice choice,” he remarked. “A Mag Hauser LR-81 Punisher.”
My eyebrows pitched down as the weapon’s specs flowed into my mind, probably via the wetware inside my brain. “A linear rifle. Fires ten-millimeter high penetration or explosive tipped caseless rounds at anywhere from sixteen hundred to twenty-four hundred meters per second. Capable of single shot or double-shot modes.”
“That’s right. It has two batteries to power the linear effect-field accelerators. And because it’s designed with left and right magazine wells, you can fit two box magazines at once—one on either side.” He threw me a cunning grin. “Or you could mount two ammo drum instead.”
My eyes widened quickly because I understood the advantage of an ammo drum over a box magazine. The drum carried a lot more bullets.
Arnval resumed running his gaze over the Punisher in his hands. “To think the Mag Hauser company took a fictitious weapon and turned it into the real thing.”
“What do you mean, fictitious?”
“That rifle you’re holding is a weapon born out of a science-fiction story from a couple of centuries ago.” He shrugged a shoulder. “But no matter. It looks cool and after modifying the design a little, and scaling it down for human sized hands, the Mag Hauser engineers produced an assault rifle that works quite well in real life—proving that regardless of its origins the principal design was quite sound.”
I glanced down at the rifle. “So this is a fake gun?”
“It’s not fake any more. You’re holding it, aren’t you?”
I glanced at it again. “I guess so….” When I looked up at Arnval, I noticed the serious look on his face as he stared intently at me. “Wh—what?”
Arnval cocked his head slightly to a side. “Do you want to give it a try?”
I studied the Punisher in my hands for a moment, but I couldn’t think of a reason why not to give the rifle a test run.
I replied to Arnval with a nod. “Sure.”
Arnval broke into a roguish grin. “Then let’s get you some ammo to play with. Lots of ammo.”
I was eager to try out the Mag Hauser Punisher equipped with an ammo drum.
Arnval had other ideas and handed me a box magazine with forty rounds instead.
At first, I had some trouble mating the magazine to the Punisher’s right magazine well, but that was due to my lack of familiarity with the weapon. Once fitted, the magazine jutted out perpendicular to the rifle’s receiver and line of fire. That was one of the reasons I preferred an ammo drum. A drum wouldn’t stick out as much.
“Anything you attach to a rifle will alter it’s balance,” Arnval explained. “You need to learn to shoot straight with a magazine.”
“Then when will I practice with an ammo drum?”
Arnval pointed at the far end of the shooting range. “Get a perfect score and I’ll let you play with the drums.”
Play with the drums?
I snorted when I heard him put it that way.
I was standing in the shooting range cubicle that did not resemble a cubicle in any way. For one, it was large, forward swept, and built with a rounded, blue-tinted, transparent canopy. Because of its design, it made me feel as though I was standing at the bridge station of an immense starship. A second Punisher rested atop a transparent bench top, along with a dozen ammo mags carrying forty-rounds apiece.
Assuming a two-handed shooting stance, I tucked the rifle’s stock into my shoulder. If I didn’t tuck it in correctly, the recoil was likely to bruise me. The stock contained one of the two batteries powering the linear accelerators. The other battery was disguised as a short ammunition magazine slotted into the rear of the dorsal receiver.
A two-tone beep sounded loudly through the air.
At the far end of the shooting range, a holo-field target materialized.
Shaped like a black poker card two-feet wide and three feet tall, the target possessed the outline of a human head and torso traced in faintly glowing white lines. Circles radiated concentrically from the center of the outline’s chest and head.
With the weapon gripped securely in my hands, I felt the wetware embedded in my brain interface with the Punisher’s Assisting Intelligence. A moment later, I was able to precisely sense where the linear rifle was aiming without the need to look through a target scope. After smoothly correcting my aim, I used my thumb to flick the selection lever upwards, thus disengaging the safety while simultaneously switching to single-shot mode. I could have instructed the weapon to do the same via the wetware connection to the Punisher, but it felt more satisfying to physically flick the small lever.
“Play with the drums?” I whispered as I eased my index finger against the rifle’s trigger. “Fine. Let’s start with a crash, boom, bang.”
I depressed the trigger and a flicker of flame lit up the Punisher’s muzzle as the air superheated for an instant.
A tiny fraction of a second later, a soft boom reached my ears.
By then the holo-field target had exploded, fragmenting like glass as it shattered into a hundred pieces.
Feeling the rifle weakly kick back into my shoulder, I watched a barrier field protecting the rear of the range flash violently with an emerald light as it caught the armor piercing round before it could strike the back wall.
When it was over, I surprised by the lack of recoil, and thus I threw Arnval a startled look.
He snorted in amusement. “I take it you’re impressed?”
“Hell yeah,” I replied, feeling a smile spread across my lips. I hastily turned away lest he notice, though he probably had. Feeling the need to say something, I admitted, “It’s a lot easier to shoot with than the Vipers.”
“Ah hmm. Didn’t I say it was time for an upgrade?” He crossed his arms and leaned a shoulder against the cubicle’s transparent enclosure. “The recoil canceller takes the energy and redirects it, minimizing the kick back. You should find your accuracy with the Punisher is far better than what you achieved with the Vipers.”
I took aim at a second holo-field target and promptly blew it away.
I waited for a third holo-field to manifest, and then blew that one away as well.
My shots weren’t hitting dead center, but they were edging closer with each successive attempt.
I spent a minute taking practice shots, calmly focusing on each motionless target until the magazine ran dry. Ejecting it, I swapped it for a fresh, fully loaded magazine. After the Punisher automatically chambered the first round, I took aim, waited a half second for the weapon to power up the accelerators and report ready for action, then spent another forty rounds shooting at motionless holo-field targets. However, the contents of a third ammo mag were consumed on moving targets that sped up with each subsequent shot.
I realized that I was going to need a lot more practice.
I was hitting the targets, but far from dead center.
That said, I’m proud to say I didn’t miss a single one.
Arnval then had me empty another six magazines blasting at rectangular holo-fields that moved about erratically. They would jump up, stop, double back, or duck back down under a low wall that doubled as a parapet that the holo-field targets could hide behind at the far end of the shooting range.
As soon as one target shattered like glass and faded away, another would take its place. And then two targets started popping up at once; then three; then four.
Then they started flying toward me, keeping low as they raced inches above the floor.
They made themselves hard to hit by leaning forward as they flew, thus reducing their oncoming profile.
Then the situation became bizarre when the holo-targets assumed the appearance of giant playing cards.
They consisted of Clubs, Spades, Hearts, and Diamonds.
Even the King, Jack, and Queen showed up. However, the latter would dart about at the back of the shooting range, repeatedly crying out, “Off with her head!”
To say it wasn’t distracting was a complete and utter lie.
I felt like I was Alice in Wonderland packing heat as I used the Punisher to send the Queen’s army into oblivion.
The only way to keep up with the assault was to drop my awareness into an overclocked state, and ignore the Queen card angrily shouting at me.
By the time I fired off the last round in the ninth magazine, I felt mentally drained.
It was as though my mind had been operating at ten times normal speed for hours rather than minutes.
But all the cards were dead – I mean destroyed – except for the accursed Queen.
The final bullet clipped her, and she spun like a ballerina for a couple of seconds.
But she didn't vanish when she stopped spinning.
“Off with her head!” she demanded.
“Oh shut up!” I screamed back at her, and then reached for another loaded magazine only to discover there weren’t any. “Gods damn it.”
Grinding my back molars together, I glared at the Queen that refused to die, then I turned to Arnval. “Hey, give me another magazine— ”
I stopped abruptly when I saw the distinctly ashen look on his face.
“What…?” I asked him, unable to hide my surprise and confusion as I stared at him.
Why is he shocked? Is it because I failed to kill the Queen card?
Arnval breathed in deeply yet quietly, and I suspected he was trying to hide his feelings, but he wasn’t doing a good job. He kept looking at me with a pale face, before handing me another ammo magazine.
I took it and promptly slapped it into the Punisher’s magazine well. “Time to die, bitch!”
However, the Queen vanished the moment I aimed at her.
I glared at Arnval. “Hey, what gives?”
He looked conflicted for a short while, before eventually saying, “Let’s take it up a level.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, and slowly lowered the Punisher. “Are you serious?”
I was exhausted from killing the Queen of Hearts’ army of cards.
It wasn’t one deck of cards that I’d pulverized, but several.
I sighed and asked, “What next? Shoot at the White Rabbit as it hops around crying that it’s going to be late?”
Arnval didn’t reply to my sarcastic complaint and stared at me in silence instead.
Because of this, I entertained the hope that we’d break for a bite to eat. But my hope was dashed when he said, “It’s Wednesday afternoon. You face Taura Hexaria on Friday afternoon. We don’t have time to play around.” He exhaled loudly. “Or do you plan on getting your ass kicked by her?”
Frustrated and weary, I blew air out through my nose, then assumed my two-handed shooting stance.
Aiming the Punisher at the back of the range, I waited for a fresh set of holo-field targets to materialize.
“Let’s get this over with,” I growled unhappily under my breath.
For a change, a three-tone beep sounded within the facility, and then a new holo-field target materialized…except it wasn’t shaped like a giant playing card. And it wasn’t the Queen of Hearts.
Instead, it resembled a young woman with platinum blonde hair and large green eyes. She was wearing a flowing crimson dress that had a Renaissance flare to it, though when combined with thigh high black leggings, stiletto heels, and wide billowing sleeves, she looked more like a pirate. Her outfit was undeniably eye-catching, but what really caught my attention was her enormous bust that was practically spilling out of her dress. Compared to her, Mirai and Anri Shirohime’s breasts paled in comparison. In fact, seeing her bosom on display, front and center, I felt an irrational twinge of inadequacy. I also realized I was gaping – not drooling – at her, but a lesser man would have been enthralled by her hour glass figure and voluptuous chest.
I had no idea why the holo-field target looked like her, but if the intention was to distract me, then it was working.
With the Punisher aimed squarely at her boobs—I mean her chest—I addressed Arnval without taking my eyes off her bulging breasts. “Hey, what’s the big idea?” I snapped.
“Didn’t I say we’d be taking it up a level?”
“There are not buts here, ma chérie. Or do you think you can best Hexaria the way you are right now?”
“That’s not the problem,” I growled, growing annoyed with him.
“Then what is the problem?”
Dropping my stance, I scowled at Arnval while pointing down the range. “Why the Hell does she look like that?”
Arnval was quiet for a moment before asking, “You don’t like the way she looks?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what’s your problem with her?”
I stamped a foot on the ground. “Why does she have giant boobs!”
Arnval’s mouth fell open but he closed it with an audible snap. Then he sighed heavily and his shoulder’s slumped.
“How do you plan on facing Hexaria if you can’t handle a little cleavage?”
“A little cleavage! Are you blind?” I stabbed a finger in her direction. “Look at the size of those things. There should be a law against them!” The proverbial light winked on inside my head. “Wait a minute. Is that what this is? Are you me telling this is what Tabitha’s Gun Princess looks like?”
“I’m not telling you that at all,” he replied. “From where did you get that idea?”
“Then what’s the point—ah!” I gasped as I experienced another epiphany. “This is anti-boob training. Right?”
Arnval’s eyebrows pitched upwards. “Excuse me?”
“Gun Princesses are busty. So this is training to desensitize me—to stop me from being distracted.”
His eyebrows dropped to form a thin line. “Oh. I keep you forgetting. You used to be a guy.”
“Used to be?”
“By the way….”
“Huh?” I faced the shooting range, and true enough, the holo-field woman was running toward, and that’s when I saw the two large guns in her hands. “What the—?”
With my attention transfixed on her melon sized boobs, I’d failed to notice the two large assault rifles she wielded. Now she aimed those guns at me and I watched the muzzles flicker with orange flames as she opened fire.
The air in front of the cubicle flashed red, and a warning sounded.
“Danger. Incoming fire. HP down 10 percent.”
“What the Hell?” I blurted out in confusion. “What’s this?”
“That’s you taking bullet hits,” Arnval explained. “Are you planning on shooting back?” He sighed heavily yet again. “Or are you waiting for her get closer?”
“Why would I do that?”
“For a better look at her chest.”
“Oh, shut up!”
The young woman had run half the length of the shooting range.
With Mirai’s preternaturally sharp vision, I could see every bounce of the buxom blonde’s breasts. They were surprisingly firm, squeezed as they were within her dress.
I wonder if she’ll suffer a wardrobe malfunction?
Then I hastily squeezed off a shot.
The Punisher kicked back slightly, enough to let me know the rifle had fired without the risk of throwing off my aim. That said, there was little chance I’d fail to notice the flicker of flame that flashed in front of its muzzle.
The bullet struck the holo-field woman’s abdomen as she ran toward me.
It slowed her down, made her miss a step, but she recovered quickly and resumed running.
My surprise lasted a second, an eternity when in combat, but I kept my aim squarely on her as I overclocked my awareness.
In the back of my mind, I was mildly astonished by how easily I could slip in and out of an accelerated state. But that was something to ruminate over later.
Focus on her head—not her boobs!
My second shot struck her shoulder, spinning her bodily around by forty or fifty degrees.
I fired a third shot, and it impacted against her chest.
No! I shot her boobs!
There was no blood spurting into the air, just a red wound that appeared between her breasts and collar bone.
A fourth shot near the same area staggered her, dropping her to her knees.
Ah—I did it again!
A fifth bullet fired from the Punisher slammed into her skull, knocking her head back and to the right.
With her progress at a standstill, she swayed for a moment or two on her knees.
I took the opportunity to squeeze off a sixth round.
The bullet scorched the air, and centerpunched her forehead.
She jerked backwards and toppled over. A moment later, she shattered like glass, breaking apart before she could land on the floor, the pieces quickly fading away.
I took a couple of deep breaths, feeling my body tremble, and listened to a single beep pierce the air.
Three quarters down the shooting range, a second holovid image of the same buxom woman winked to life. This time she almost immediately broke into a run, aiming her guns at me as she raced toward me. I heard them fire as their muzzles flashed, and again the air in front of the cubicle was dyed in red.
A disembodied voice reported the loss of more HP.
“You’re losing points,” Arnval reported unnecessarily.
“I know that…,” I grumbled under my breath and returned fire as the young woman ran toward me with guns blazing.
She jerked back, missing a step as the Punisher’s bullet threw off her balance, but regained her footing and momentum within a heartbeat.
With my right thumb, I flicked the selection lever upwards and switched to double-shot mode.
The next time I pressed the trigger, the Punisher fired two rounds a quarter second apart.
At two-inches long, the bullets flew between her outstretch arms, and dove into her cleavage.
They hammered her with enough kinetic energy to pitch her torso backwards, while her lower body continued running.
Unbalanced, her high heels slipped and she fell on her backside.
After bouncing along the floor, she came to a untidy stop.
Part of me was amazed by the realism.
Part of me wanted to laugh at her
Another part of me noticed the bullets pass through her body and hit the barrier-field protecting the back wall.
I fired again, and another two rounds hit her holo-field torso, preventing her from standing up.
Then I fired a third volley while she was still sitting on her bum.
The bullets perforated her skull, and she fell onto her back. The Artificial Awareness or Assisting Intelligence overseeing the shooting range must have concluded it was a critical hit, because she quickly shattered into dozens of fragments that disappeared within seconds.
The single tone beep sounded again, and a third incarnation of the buxom woman was summoned. This time she appeared halfway down the range, and then started shooting with her first running steps toward me.
I skipped lunch, not because I wanted to but because Arnval kept me practicing in the firing range for two more hours before he called it quits.
I think I must have killed the platinum blonde a hundred times by then.
Unfortunately, I died a few times as well when I ran out of Hit Points.
Of course, that earned me a sarcastic remark or two from Arnval.
My only consolation was that Arnval allowed me to practice shooting with an ammo drum fitted to the Mag House Punisher.
I depleted four ninety-round drums by the time the session was over.
Afterwards, I’d been anticipating he would declare a break for lunch. But instead of leading me up to the villa for food, Arnval tossed me a high-energy crunchy bar, then escorted me out of the shooting range, down a couple of long, wide corridors, and then into a dimly lit room the size of an aircraft hangar.
With my ears ringing, and my arms feeling noticeably leaden and sore, I ate the bar while regarding the interior of the room, grateful that the bar tasted good, but unhappy with Arnval treating me like a slave.
“What gives?” I complained. “When do I get lunch?”
“You get to eat after training.”
“When? Before midnight? Am I even going to have dinner?”
Arnval regarded me askance. “I have it on good authority that Mirai can go weeks without food.”
“Yeah, well your good authority is wrong.” I swallowed the rest of the crunchy bar, then folded the wrapper and disposed of it into a tracksuit pants pocket that I promptly zipped up. “I’m hungry and I haven’t eaten since this morning—and you interrupted that!”
“At this rate, Hexaria will definitely kick your ass.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve been telling me that—”
Arnval strode up to me, cutting me off with a glare on his face. “And I will continue to tell you that until you stop complaining.”
I swallowed hard, then leaned up at him by standing on my toes. “Maybe House Cardinal will treat me better than you.”
“Are you sure of that? Are you still thinking of accepting their offer? You really think they’re trustworthy? You might very well find yourself boxed. What then?” He shook his head at me. “Don’t expect to be rescued, Princess, because this isn’t a fairy tale and there is no white knight in shining armor.”
I closed my mouth, clenching my jaw as I ground my molars together. “Fine…,” I muttered. “But no more boobs.”
“I’ve had my fill of boobs. I don’t want to see another pair of giant boobs for a month.” I clenched a fist at Arnval. “Do you know how hard it was not to stare at those balloons?”
“Get used to it.”
I lowered my fist. “I’d like to see you do better.”
He straightened and peered down at me. “What was that?”
I grinned up at him. “I’d like to see you shoot at her without looking at her chest.”
“Unlike you, I’m not an adolescent child. I can handle myself.”
I snorted and then smirked. “Why? Don’t you like women?”
“I like women.”
“Then what? You like them small and flat chested?” I narrowed my eyes evilly. “You have a Lolita fetish?”
“Absolutely not,” he protested loudly.
“So then what? Big boobs don’t do it for you?”
Arnval shoved his hands into his trench coat pockets. “Not that it’s any of your business, but if you must know, I prefer them to be a little more modest.”
“Well,” I drawled out, “we’re finally getting somewhere.” I smiled wickedly at him. “So what’s your preference? C, D, E, or F?”
“I said modest, didn’t I?”
“Then give me an example.”
Arnval’s gaze dropped to my chest. “I prefer them your size.”
“What?” I flinched and almost took a step back. “You need your eyes checked.”
He looked puzzled. “Why is that?”
“Because there’s nothing modest about these two.” I shook my head firmly. “Nothing modest about them at all.”
Arnval assumed a thoughtful pose and tapped his lips with a finger. “You’re a double-D, aren’t you?”
I flinched again, then reflexively crossed my arms over my breasts.
Honestly, I had no idea as to their cup size, but they were large and heavy so that sounded about right. However, I wasn’t going to admit that to him.
“Hey, stop measuring me with your eyes,” I demanded.
“Not too big. Not too small,” Arnval murmured loud enough for me to hear.
I was starting to see red by now. “These are off limits! Capeesh?”
He huffed at me, but it sounded more like a short laugh. “You are such a girl.”
“No, I’m not!”
“Really?” He turned away and faced the interior of the large rectangular room. “What a pity, ma chérie. What a pity….”
I started to snarl at him, but suddenly the room brightened as those ceiling lights that had been dark were now turned on.
Feeling abruptly uneasy, I looked about the interior and recognized it as an obstacle course. There were exercise mats, vaulting horses, hurdles, planks, platforms, you name it.
“What am I doing here?” I asked Arnval.
“You need to grow more accustomed to your body.”
“In what way?”
Arnval took a deep breath, and again eyed me sidelong. “You need to move better.”
I cast a frown his way. “I thought I was moving pretty well.”
Arnval looked shocked. “You have got to be joking. Have you seen yourself move?”
“No. And I don’t want to,” I replied uncomfortably for reasons I didn’t want to delve into.
“Well, you’re not moving nearly as well as you should.” He pointed at the obstacle laden room. “And that’s why we’re here.”
“To do what?”
Arnval exhaled in frustration and whirled to face me. “I told you. To train you to move better.”
“Okay, okay. I heard you the first time.”
Arnval inhaled loud and deeply, then he froze as though struck by sudden inspiration. “Very well, I’ll make you a deal.”
I regarded him with suspicion. “What deal?”
With an index finger, he indicated the interior of the room. “The obstacle course follows a running track. If you complete one lap of the course and manage to stay within ten feet of me, then we’ll break for a late lunch.”
“Within ten feet?” I gave him a sour look. “You’re going to run with me?”
Arnval shrugged out of his trench coat. “Precisely.”
He then proceeded to take of his jacket, shirt, and tie, revealing a black tank top singlet underneath.
I stared at him in growing disbelief, but I also watched him with interest.
Ghost said he was born without complete arms and legs….
If that was true, and his limbs were prosthetic, then they were surprisingly lifelike. With Mirai’s vision being preternaturally clear, I swept a searching gaze over Arnval’s arms and shoulders. I saw skin, hair, a mole or two. When his arms moved, I could see the muscles working beneath them. There was nothing to indicate his limbs were artificial – nothing to suggest they were anything but toned, muscular arms…except for the faint webbing of grey lines flowing over his shoulders and down to his pectorals.
Could they indicate where the artificial met the organic?
Arnval noticed I was staring at him, and quipped, “Ma chérie, have I caught your interest?”
“Huh? What?” I scowled at him. “Don’t get full of yourself.”
“I’ve seen better.”
I heard him chuckle as I turned away from him and directed my attention on the obstacle course full of hurdles, vaulting horses, walking planks, raised platforms, and so forth.
But in the corner of my eye, I continued watching him undress.
Wait! He’s undressing!
Arnval had taken off his shoes and socks. He was now unbuckling his belt.
“What are you doing?” I cried out at him.
He dropped his trousers and I saw that he was wearing running shorts underneath.
My mouth dropped open and I felt disoriented as I watched him neatly fold his clothes into a bundle, and then walk over to deposit it against the nearest wall of the room.
Did that mean he was prepared for this eventuality?
When I recovered my faculties, I asked him in a harsh voice, “You were wearing that all this time?”
Walking back to me, Arnval muttered drily, “It was a last resort. In the event you were uncooperative.”
I was right. He was prepared. Then again, I felt as though I’d been coerced into this situation.
I looked at his legs and feet.
Like his arms, there was nothing out of the ordinary about them, and they complemented the rest of his body. With the running shorts he wore, I couldn’t see where the artificial met the organic, but guessed there was a webbing of faint grey lines around his pelvic area.
The other thing I noticed was his tall, lithe build.
Arnval’s height was around six feet four inches, give or take an inch. Despite this, he wasn’t built like a linebacker. He was more of a swimmer, with long, lean muscles, and well-developed shoulders.
Again, he noticed me staring at him, and this time he broke into a self-satisfied smirk. I expected another wise crack from him, but instead he pointed at the obstacle course. “If you manage to stay on my heels, then we’ll have a late lunch. But don’t think for a minute this means training is over for today. After lunch, we’ll be picking up where we left off. And I won’t be going easy on you.”
I gave the obstacle course another quick look. “On your heels?”
“Within ten feet,” he clarified.
After hesitating for a moment, I reached up and unzipped my tracksuit jacket, revealing the tight tank top underneath that did nothing but emphasize Mirai’s large bust. Unlike Arnval, I tossed my jacket aside and it landed on the floor a few meters away. However, I kept my tracksuit pants on as I wasn’t wearing running shorts underneath them.
Then I beginning to limber up my body by stretching my arms, legs, and contorting my torso, all of which once again emphasized Mirai’s well-endowed chest.
Arnval’s eyes zeroed in on my breasts pushing out the tank top.
Ha! Self-control my ass—made you look. Typical male. Can’t resist—ah! What am I thinking? What is wrong with me?
A hot wave of shame rushed through me.
Hoping that Arnval hadn’t noticed my cheeks burning hotly, I threw him my most determined glare, but it was all wasted.
His eyes were centered five-by-five on my chest.
His attention wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
Once again, I started seeing red.
Arggh! I’m going to slap him! Seriously, I’m going to slap him sideways!
Clearing my throat loudly, I chose to taunt him. “Well let’s see if you can keep up with me.”
Then I stupidly, haughtily planted my hands on my hips, and that pushed out my breasts even more.
With some effort on his part, Arnval turned away stiffly.
He appeared to be experiencing a tug-of-war between his neck muscles and his eyes.
“Ladies first,” he muttered, sounding strangled.
Then I thought I heard him whisper something about E-cups, and another hot wave of shame rushed through me.
At the finish line, I felt angry, deflated, defeated.
But most of all, I felt immensely frustrated.
Allow me to explain why.
Some of my frustration was due to my loss, however most of it was directed at myself.
Initially, I was able to easily keep pace with Arnval. Then the obstacles grew a little more complicated. It wasn’t the jumping or leaping over them that troubled me. It was a question of timing, balance, missteps, and poor footing that caught me out.
My troubles began when I made a jump from the top of one vaulting horse to the next. My landing was less than stellar, and I slipped and fell. Luckily, I managed to land on my feet, regain my balance after a couple of awkward steps, then chase after Arnval. But I’d lost ground to him – at least three meters.
From then on, I never recovered the distance I unwittingly gave away because it wasn’t the only fall I experienced.
Whether it was losing my balancing, or misjudging a jump, I found myself landing clumsily on more than a dozen occasions, and I fell further behind, eventually crossing the finish line – that is, returning to the starting point – some forty feet in arrears.
Afterwards, I sat cross-legged on the floor. As I caught my breath, I replayed in my mind my disastrous run through the obstacle course.
I didn’t lose because of a lack of speed. Arnval was taller and possessed longer limbs, but Mirai was unexpectedly swift. So when I said I never recovered the lost ground, it was because I continued to make mistakes.
I lost because I failed to make my landings stick.
This was something I’d noticed when I was fighting zombies back in the replica of Telos Academy. I had problems with my balance. I could make the jumps, but I couldn’t land right and would frequently stumble, slip, and fall. For example, when I dropped through the wrecked floors of the admin building, I failed to land properly, and that triggered a rubble landslide that caught the attention of the zombie Simulacra infesting the building.
There were occasions where my movements all came together, moments where mind and body achieved harmony. At those times, I was poetry in motion, moving with astonishing grace, but they were few and far between all the mistakes I made.
I hated to admit it, but Arnval was right.
I could move, but I wasn’t anywhere near my best.
In a way, I felt as though I was letting Mirai down.
I was gifted with a body that possessed enviable abilities, yet I wasn’t capitalizing on them. I was driving Mirai as though she were a truck, and not the lethal sportscar that she was.
A shadow fell over me and I looked up to see Arnval regarding me coldly.
“That was disappointing,” he remarked with a frigid tone.
I bowed my head, gritting my teeth together. The shame and humiliation I felt almost brought tears to my eyes. I kept taking short breaths as I struggle to contain my burning, roiling emotions.
“Get up,” Arnval ordered me. “I said, get up.”
I sucked in air through my nose, clenched my hands, and then stood up.
But the weight of my failure was heavier than I realized, and I had trouble meeting Arnval’s eyes.
Arnval sounded angry. “What do you have to say for yourself.”
I took a deep breath, and then released it loudly, though I didn’t feel any better. “Nothing….”
“What was that?”
Again, I breathed in deeply, then I cleared my throat. “I said, nothing. I don’t have anything to say for myself.”
“Then what should you be asking?”
I squeezed my eyes shut, forced down the shame I felt, and then opened them to meet his eyes. “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
Arnval’s jaw muscles twitched as he clenched his jaw. “You can start by dropping the act. I’m not buying it.”
“What?” Now it was my turn to clench my jaw as anger seared away the shame that had been burdening me. “You think this is an act? You think I like losing to an asshole like you?”
“That’s better. Put a little fire into it.” Arnval poked a finger into my breastbone. “I see you moping like that again, I’m putting you over my knee and spanking you.”
I breathed in and out deeply through gritted teeth. “Just frekking try it. I’ll break you in half!”
He arched his eyebrows at me. “You can’t keep up with me. You think you can take me on?”
I swallowed with some difficult as anger and helpless abruptly warred within me.
He was right. I couldn’t keep pace with him. By that logic, it was more than likely that I wouldn’t be able to defend against him. I may very well find myself over his knees getting spanked.
Right now, I was the cub before the lion.
But I decided a heartbeat later, that remaining helpless was not an option.
Without pain, there was no gain, and this cub needed to grow into a lioness.
I swallowed a little easier, and my feelings running rampant within me began to quell.
When I spoke, I kept my voice low and even. “I asked you before, tell me what to do.”
Arnval’s gaze searched my face for a short while, then he straightened. He looked unhappy, but he wasn’t angry at me anymore.
“You need to learn how to jump. That’s your biggest problem. Jumping and landing.”
I’d already admitted as much to myself, but I held my tongue as he restated the obvious.
“Follow me,” he instructed and then walked back to the obstacle course.
He stepped past the equipment that formed the outside running track, and then worked his way toward the center of the room where it was less cluttered.
He approached a couple of elevated platforms facing each other.
They reminded me of the diving platforms you’d find at a pool.
The planks were a few feet above the ground, and some ten or twelve feet apart.
After climbing the short stairs up to the platform, he glanced down at me. “Let’s get you started with precision jumping.”
Coming to a stop nearby, I watched him execute a standing jump.
Arnval sailed in a low arc through the air, and then swung his arms forward as his feet landed on the opposite platform. Turning around, he performed a return jump, then looked down at me. “It’s not what I expected, but you have a bad habit of swinging your arms back when you land. That’s cancelling your momentum, making you lean backwards when you should be carrying that momentum forward.”
I held back a startled frown.
Arnval had been running ahead of me the whole time, so how did he know I swung my arms back on every landing?
He demonstrated the precision jump twice more, and I overclocked my awareness so that I could watch him as though he was jumping in slow motion.
Upon returning to the starting platform, Arnval stepped off the edge.
I was mildly surprised by how lightly he landed on the floor.
“Your turn,” he said to me.
Steeling my insides against a belly full of butterflies that suddenly took flight, I climbed the steps to the top of the platform, and then readied myself for my first precision jump.
I won’t bore you with the details of my physical training that stretched from afternoon to evening.
Arnval worked me through the basics of what he called parkour.
I will admit that I was aware of what it was, and had seen examples of it in action in holovids, but I’d never participated in such an activity before.
As Ronin Kassius, the only exercise I ever performed was the weekly physical education class that I had to endure at Telos Academy.
Ronin wasn’t the most athletic type on the planet, so I drew little pleasure from those P.E. classes. I was flexible and light, but lacked endurance, stamina, and physical strength. Honestly, the girls in my class were stronger than I was. For me, those weekly sessions were like trials that I had to sneak past undiscovered. Perhaps if I’d been more physically able, I wouldn’t have dreaded P.E. class so much.
As Mirai, I faced a new challenge.
My strength and durability were tenfold what I possessed as Ronin Kassius, but I lacked the control I needed to harness that overabundance of power. On the rare occasions that I could, I demonstrated feats of agility and martial prowess that far exceeded human norms, such as when I traded blows with Arnval back at the park in Ar Telica. From where and why those skills suddenly surfaced was a mystery to me. I couldn’t consciously summon them, so they were more like a reflex response to immediate danger.
It was an aspect of Mirai that troubled me when I gave it some thought.
I felt that Mirai possessed too many secrets, but I couldn’t afford to treat these mysterious skills like pinch-hitting abilities.
This wasn’t an RPG, and I wasn’t a game character.
My life and future depended on being able to summon them at will.
In other words, I needed complete mastery over Mirai.
Thus I shut my mouth and refrained from complaining when Arnval decided to extend my training late into the night.
With my head bowed and my arms outstretched before me, I rested my weight against the wall of the spacious glass stall, and stood under the hot water jetting from the shower head, feeling it cascade over my weary body.
It was late Thursday evening, and for two days now, Geharis Arnval had subjected me to a grueling training program that I was convinced would have tested the finest of soldiers. Suffice to say that while I had survived through sheer will alone, my body was drained to the point where I trembled as I stood under the hot water. Thus, it was by the very same sheer will that I remained standing on my feet, as I had nothing left in the proverbial gas tank.
In short, I was running on fumes.
Unfortunately, I had little time to spare for anything but training.
When I asked Arnval if the Empire possessed a hyperbolic time chamber, he scoffed at me and told me I wasn’t living in a cartoon.
As though annoyed I would ask such a thing, he pounded the base realities of something called Jeet Kune Do into me for an hour, leaving me an exhausted mess on the dojo mats.
Oh, as an aside, I should mention that the underground facilities had a variety of dojos interconnected by sliding wooden doors.
Now back to the main topic.
Despite the punishing curriculum of the past thirty odd hours, I was making noticeable progress.
On my final run at the end of Wednesday’s training session, I had crossed the finishing line some thirty-five feet behind Arnval, shaving five-feet off the initial distance between us. To my surprise, Arnval looked pleased with my performance, and praised me on my progress. I stared at him flummoxed and then glared at him hotly when I suspected he was mocking me. But then he revealed he’d upped his pace to ensure he finished well ahead of me. Otherwise, I would have trimmed off a few extra feet, and maybe shortened the gap down to thirty-feet.
With the session over, Arnval took his clothes with him, and escorted me back to my suite. When I asked about dinner, he assured me Kyoko would have something for me to eat once I’d showered and changed into clean clothes. And then he bid me adieu, calling Cherry once again as he walked off, leaving me with mixed feelings and no small amount of unease and confusion over something I couldn’t pin down.
That was how Wednesday night ended between us.
The next morning, Kyoko woke me up bright and early to continue training with Arnval down in the facilities below the Estate. It was more or less a repeat of yesterday’s training schedule, with the notable inclusion of the aforementioned Jeet Kune Do sparring practice, whereupon Arnval availed himself of every opportunity to slam me into the dojo style mats. But by the same token, I also vented my boiling emotions by knocking him to the floor on numerous occasions. Those were the times when I stopped thinking about how to fight him, and instead allowed my body to take over and dish out punishment of its own volition.
It was at that those times that I wondered who was really in control of this body.
Was it me, or was it Mirai? For that matter, did Mirai exist as a subconscious entity? Or was I simply overthinking the situation?
Nonetheless, I was now convinced of two things.
The first was that Mirai possessed a martial arts prowess that seemed to dwell within my body rather than within my mind. If it was anything like muscle memory, the question was how was this knowledge imprinted into her? Maybe this training instilled into Mirai’s body had come from someone, just like her mind had come from Ronin Kassius.
This led me to my second conclusion, that without these physical skills, I wouldn’t have been able to survive Arnval’s training.
I turned the tap handles and shut off the water showering upon me.
A cloud of steam obscured the inside of the en suite bathroom.
That suited me fine as I stood still within the shower stall as it made it harder to see my reflection in the glass walls.
With an outstretched hand, I leaned against the left wall for support, and then closed my eyes.
I focused on the sensation of the water trickling down my skin while listening to the droplets land on the non-slip tiles that covered the floor of the stall.
My muscles ached, but the pain had dulled to a persistent throbbing despite the fact it was only a short while ago that I finished ten hours of running, shooting, jumping, and sparring with Arnval.
As I stood motionless, I could sense the ache gradually fading ever so faintly with each breath I took, and I became a tad uneasy.
Mirai looked human, felt human, bled like a human, but she was not human.
The old saying that if it walks like a dog, barks like a dog, then it must be a dog didn’t apply to me.
Mirai recovered too quickly.
Whether it was from bruises, scrapes, falls, broken bones – she healed at a frightening rate.
I was confident that even if I looked through every xenobiology record on all the lifeforms humanity had encountered to date, I wouldn’t find another creature that could heal as quickly as Mirai did.
Opening my eyes, I looked down at my right hand and arm hanging limply from my shoulder.
The skin was hairless, pale, and smooth. It was almost wrinkle free, even around my knuckles. It reminded me of a baby’s skin, or the realistic material used on lifelike dolls intended as toys for children. Turning it over, I examined my hand and arm critically, noticing the bruises incurred when I fell or was knocked to the ground during training. However, those bruises that should have marred my skin with dark purple blotches were now little more than faint blemishes mere hours after sustaining them. If not for Mirai’s natural pallor and keen eyesight, I wouldn’t have noticed them at all.
And that added to my worries.
No, it added to my fears.
Because Mirai scared me.
I was inside her body, controlling it, using it. It pretty much belonged to me now, since it was impossible to imprint another neural map into her mind. However, none of that stopped me from being afraid of what she was, and of what she could do.
Feeling the moisture on my skin begin to cool, I decided to vacate the shower stall.
Lifting my head, I turned my body the right and pushed open the transparent door.
My heart jumped for a moment when I caught sight of my reflection in the glass wall.
With my heart pounding in my chest, I regarded the translucent girl.
Her crimson eyes met mine, and a shiver broke free and ran down my spine.
What am I?
No matter what I’d been told by Erina, Straus, Ghost, or anyone else, I felt that something was missing in their explanations. Each was expressed from their own perspective, and when I combined them, I felt as though important pieces were absent from the proverbial puzzle.
Thus, I had an incomplete picture of Mirai.
Purportedly she was a Simulacra of the finest grade, and a test platform for the Angel Fibers, but where did those Fibers come from? What were they? And why was I able to influence them when they existed outside my body? More so, Mirai was the body originally intended to effect Clarisol’s escape from the virtual prison that the Empress had thrown her in. Because of that, and through no fault of my own, I felt like a thief who had stolen Clarisol’s future from her.
However, despite knowing all this, I held an unwavering conscious belief that Mirai had been created for another purpose, and a subconscious fear that she was destined for something ominous. Then again, it could be the result of dark figments of my imagination born out of inconclusive explanations from less than trustworthy sources, in concert with my own fears, prejudices, and psychological complexes that made me feel that way about Mirai.
Regardless, it made it difficult for me to accept her.
That said, I had left the proverbial door ajar, and of late that door had opened a little wider, such that I had grown more comfortable with her body. But fully accepting her was something that would take time.
She was too much of a dark mystery for me to openly welcome her with open arms.
The teenage girl reflected faintly in the glass wall appeared to agree, though the sullen glare on her beautiful face gave me the disconcerting impression that she was the one judging me – judging whether I was worthy of her body.
Annoyed with her reflection, I pushed the glass door open and exited the shower stall.
But when I toweled myself dry, I glimpsed myself in the mirror above the vanity, and I stopped to stare at the girl with long dark hair and crimson irises.
This is me.
For a short while, I studied her face, then hesitantly glanced down at my naked body.
This is who I am now.
I closed my eyes, and felt a shudder – not a shiver – run through me.
I’m a girl now.
With my eyes closed, I finished drying my body, only opening them to walk to the bathrobe hitched to the wall beside the bathroom door. Slipping it on, I then padded barefoot out into the bedroom, and found a clean set of pajamas waiting for me atop the bed.
Changing into them, I then made my way to the living room, and into the adjoining dining area.
Tomorrow was a new day.
Tomorrow, I would face Tabitha.
Tomorrow, I would learn if all the pain had translated into a gain.
So it was essential that I get a good night’s rest.
But before then I indulged in the hearty three course meal that had been prepared and left for me in the dining area.
Afterwards, I sat down in the living room and watched the recordings of Tabitha’s Gun Princess Royale matches, eventually falling asleep on the three-seater sofa.
Friday morning began like Thursday morning.
I was up early and dressed in my sweats before Arnval arrived at my suite to escort me down to the underground training facilities.
He took one look at my tussled, knotted hair, and then laughed.
I chose to ignore him because I was simply too tired to care.
I woke up on the sofa sometime during the night, and staggered to the bedroom, falling asleep atop the bed covers.
But pre-match jitters had robbed me of much needed sleep.
Yes, Arnval had laughed at my appearance, but it was only later that I realized it was the kind of laughter that didn’t reach his eyes.
Suffice to say, he wasn’t impressed but he kept his opinion to himself as he supervised more shooting practice, sparring, and parkour training in the underground facilities.
However, he called it quits after midday, following a final run through the obstacle course where I once again succeeded in shaving off a few more feet between us.
I crossed the finishing line some twenty feet behind him.
I fell less, I slipped less, and I was able to execute my jumps, climbs, and leaps with greater agility than during my first attempt two days ago.
Arnval congratulated me on my improvement, but it didn’t sound like praise, not when his tone carried a faint undercurrent of disappointment. In hindsight, I could have put him on the spot and pressed him for an answer, but I was tired and distracted by worries over the impending match, and thus I chose not to.
Besides, I shouldn’t be concerning myself with Arnval’s opinion about my performance.
I needed to focus on dealing with Tabitha.
Arnval gave me a funny look when I asked him how to defeat her. “I was wondering when you’d finally bring that up.”
The urge to strike him was dangerously overwhelming. “Aren’t you supposed to be helping me?”
“I have been helping you. That’s what the past two days has been all about.”
I tilted my head to one side. “Then do you have a game plan or not?”
Arnval pursed his lips together, then smiled weakly as he began walking away. “I might.”
Rather than follow him, I folded my arms over the grey tank top that I wore. “Then can I hear about it?”
He stopped a few steps later and replied without turning around. “You watched her matches last night, didn’t you?”
I replied sourly, “I figured you were monitoring my viewing habits. Yeah, I watched some of her matches. Not all of them.”
“What can you tell me about her? What stood out for you?”
“She was fast.” I thought about my answer a little more, and then added, “She anticipated her opponents’ locations. It was like she had eyes all around her head. She would move before they could line her up for a shot.” I huffed softly. “She was always moving.”
“Yeah. That’s one thing about her that most Gun Princesses don’t do. Hexaria was almost always on the move.” Arnval looked at me over a shoulder. “She was always on the hunt, never the one being hunted. She pressed forward even when the odds weren’t favorable. They say fortune favors the brave, but with her it was more like fortune favors the reckless.”
“Would you call her foolish?” I asked him earnestly.
He glanced away, looking pensive. “No, I wouldn’t call her foolish. She took her chances, but they were all calculated moves. When she pulled them off, they paid off big time. When she failed, she failed miserably. But her actions weren’t foolish. Risky, yes. But never foolish, although some may argue that it was foolish to take such big risks.”
I unfolded my arms and let them hang limply by my sides. “How do I beat her?”
Arnval’s shoulders rose and fell. “I don’t believe you can.”
That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear, but by the same token, I also knew it was entirely reasonable because that’s the conclusion I had arrived at in the morning, after tossing and turning on the bed as I chased after a few hours of sleep.
However, I pressed on without revealing that I agreed with him. “That’s not confidence inspiring.”
Arnval nodded. “No, it isn’t….”
Then he resumed walking away, stopping only when he noticed I wasn’t following him.
“Are you coming or not?”
“Not until you tell me how to beat Tabitha.” I planted my hands on my hips. “I’ve trained for two days, maybe more. I haven’t complained. I’ve swallowed my pride and tolerated your condescending attitude. I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me, and I’ve met every challenge you’ve thrown my way. I know I wasn’t able to catch up or keep pace with you, but I know I’m better than I was before.” I raised my chin so that I was looking down my nose at him. “So I deserve an answer. No matter what you think of my chances—I still deserve an answer.”
Arnval met my words with a stony silence.
Growing frustrated, I pressed my lips together before asking, “How do I defeat Taura Hexaria?”
His rigid expression broke and exasperation crossed his face. Then he strode back to me.
His reply was unexpectedly gentle. “I don’t know how you can defeat her. That’s the truth.”
I tried to keep the shock and disappointment from spilling onto my face, but I failed.
I also felt betrayed. “So you really are expecting me to lose.”
Arnval hesitated before nodding very faintly. “I’m sorry. I don’t have the magic answer. I don’t have a solution to the problem. Not with the way you are now.”
“What do you mean?”
“You lack the training. You lack the experience.”
I frowned up at him. “I know that. But still—”
“You’re not strong enough.”
“But I’ve grown stronger—”
“It’s not enough.”
I gasped softly and then took a breath before asking, “Why not?”
Arnval looked pained and when he spoke his words carried distinct regret. “Right now, I can confidently say you’re as good as any rookie Gun Princess in the Minor League, if not better. You’re fast. You’re strong. And you’re an excellent shot. But up against a Major League Princess, you’d find yourself on the back foot from the get go, and it’s not for lack of speed, talent, or strength.”
“Then what am I lacking?”
“Experience. You haven’t developed that sixth sense that lets you anticipate your opponent’s actions.”
I thought back to what I’d said about Tabitha. “Experience….”
Arnval nodded slowly. ““Every strategy, every idea I had, was based on you growing strong enough to compensate for your lack of experience. I pinned my hope on your physical abilities. If they exceeded my expectations, then there was a chance you could beat her on talent alone. You could overwhelm her purely with superior strength, speed, and accuracy. But that didn’t happen. You fell short. You didn’t grow strong enough.”
“Are you saying I can’t become stronger?”
“No, not at all. I’m saying that it will take time, but time was never on our side. And that’s why, realistically, there is little hope that you can beat her.”
Overcome with frustration, I complained through clenched teeth, “Then what was the point of all this? What was the point of pushing me this hard? Of pushing myself?”
“The point was that you don’t give up until the end.”
“But if I can’t win—?”
“Then what will you do?” he asked me frankly. “Run away?” He shook his head. “There is no running away, ma chérie.”
With my hands balled into fists, I yelled, “Then tell me what to do! Tell me!”
Arnval exhaled heavily, then shrugged his shoulders. “Face her in battle. Don’t run away.”
“That’s not enough. I need you to tell me how to beat her!”
Arnval cocked his head at me. “Someone once said, there are always possibilities. Just because I can’t see them, simply because I’m not good enough to find a solution, doesn’t mean that you won’t find a way to defeat her.”
He took a step closer to me, and I angled my head upwards to look at him.
“I’ll tell you this,” he said. “When it comes to recklessness, you and Hexaria are alike. And you share other traits. You’re both impulsive. You have a propensity to shoot first, ask questions later. You’re not one for small talk on the battlefield. You see an opportunity, and you take it. Hexaria is the same. In many respects, you can think of her as your nemesis.”
Was that really true? I looked up at him with a question clearly written on my face, and Arnval nodded.
“I may not be good enough to be your support. I may not have been able to develop a strategy for you, but maybe that’s what you need.”
“You mean play it by ear. Fly by the seat of my pants?”
I noticed a grin forming on his lips, and told him, “I don’t like to lose.”
“No one does.”
“But if I lose here….”
Arnval exhaled slowly. “It won’t be the end of the world.”
Then he turned around and walked away.
This time he didn’t stop when I failed to follow him.
I'd like to apologize for the delay in posting this. I lost my Mojo for writing, and it took me a lot longer than I thought to get it back. Well, that's what happens when personal matters get in the way of writing. Anyway, I have my Mojo back so hopefully I can roll out the remaining chapters quicker.
However, I may choose to hold back on the last couple of chapters and leave them for the eBook release. I'll decide that in the next few days. The book will be out by the end of March. The delay is to give me more time to polish it and
all that's missing with the web release.
For those of you who are new to the series and would like to read or purchase Books 1 and 2, the links are provided below:
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.