They knew my name. That was fast. I had expected to be the last to be discovered. After all I was attending school under a false identity, and the easiest way to discover our identities would be to connect our civilian identities after uncovering, eg Eva's. The man continued. "I represent concerned parties in the government. Specifically the Defense Intelligence Headquarters and Public Security Intelligence Agency. You broke into the Telecom building and compromised a PSIA server."

"Are you asking for a confession?"

"No. We do not care. You compromised a PSIA server. Why that server?" He dismissed my concern with placid disinterest.

"Ah, that really sounds like you are asking for a confession."

"Mr Lerche, this is a matter of national security. That server was connected to several ongoing investigations, but I suspect your interest in it pertains to a call made on June 16th. 0632 Japan Standard Time. As it happens 'Odysseus,' your interest in the phone call was how we identified you as Sebastian Lerche."

I considered. They knew about the call. They didn't seem to know about the girl's calls. Perhaps some technical or legal limitation regarding intra-country calls versus international?

I decided to ask "Am I correct in assuming this call came from Japan?"

"Yes."

A thought occurred to me. Why limit his activities to Tokyo? Perhaps this was why he limited his activities to Tokyo.

"Tokyo?"

"No. The call came from a restricted defense research facility. Shortly thereafter the facility was found ransacked and the staff, even those not present, missing or dead."

"You believe this facility is related to Mechaner?"

"Yes. The timing is too coincidental. The same goes for the magical girls. Knowing the contents of the call I'm sure you can see why we are interested in the magical girls. Aside from merely the obvious power they wield."

"I don't know the full contents of the call. Do you?"

"No. I'm afraid my superiors did not brief me beyond the 'end the world' part you already know. Perhaps they hold a high opinion of your manipulative or deductive powers."

"I see. I, of course, have no desire to end the world. I will register my opinion that the magical girls have no ill intentions towards the world either."

"We will discover the magical girl's identities, and investigate the warning carefully. We, naturally, do not take this call at face value. However someone knew about the magical girls well before they were public knowledge."

They were being remarkably reasonable. "I will tell you some of what I know, since you have been forthcoming. Mechaner does seem to have a plan. He considers himself an emperor. He has called the magical girls princesses, and seems obsessed with following the magical girl theme.

He has, however, tried to capture them. With serious intent I believe. This might be because I disrupted his careful status quo. I do not think it is a good idea to disturb his obsession without understanding it, as he may react poorly."

"Thank you for the advice Mr. Lerche, we shall consider it. What gave the magical girls their powers?"

"I will answer that if you will tell me what that facility did."

"I'm afraid I am not allowed to answer that question. We are ignorant about much of it anyway. There was significant information loss when the facility was destroyed."

"Some engineered monstrosity escapes government laboratory to wreak havoc on the world?"

"It is not that simple, I assure you the technology level necessary to accomplish what this 'magic' does is far beyond what this research facility was working on."

"But it was working on something related?"

"No. Not exactly. It's ... complicated. I will warn you that some of the upper brass are scared. Too scared to risk threatening Mechaner at all, or letting others seriously threaten him. Do not push him into a corner."

"Isn't he in a corner now?" I queried, half serious.

He responded "Whatever this ploy is, he intended it." At least they realized that.

"Have you considered that the reason he came here might well be to get us captured? Maybe he wants us inconvenienced, maybe he wants the police to do the hard work of identifying the magical girls."

He didn't react so I continued. "I will say that the mechanism by which the magical girls obtained their power selected them in particular. They do not to my knowledge, have any knowledge or connection to this facility."

"I see. There is another point. Footage and pictures of magical girls are being erased. The Americans deny culpability, and they are the only ones we know with such capability.

The deletion is worsening. At first people who posted videos would have their accounts hacked, and the videos deleted. Then a full out sophisticated attack started, aimed at almost every magical girl fan or news service.

The attack became indiscriminate, attempting to compromise nearly every system. It used novel zero days at a frightening clip. By now film camera drones recording magical girls or Mechaner are sabotaged regularly."

"Could it be Mechaner? It's not quite his usual thing, but he pops up with a surprise original minion every now and then."

"Possible. The attacks seem to indicate significant manpower and technical savvy. On the other hand 'magic' is beginning to seem a good explanation for the incredible coverage this attack has achieved. If Mechaner is responsible this is by far the most threatening power he has demonstrated."

"What do you want from me?"

"Everything you know. Your assistance in ensuring the magical girls cooperate completely." He looked like an accountant now. Checking off boring legal compliance items.

"What do you want from them?"

"To assure us they are not involved with Mechaner. To ensure they do not destroy the world. To help us replicate magical powers."

Surprisingly close to my own goals, at least the last two. Well they were the obvious things to do.

"I do not object to those goals. I will need to discuss with the girls - naturally privately. Furthermore we would need to be freed, and free from law enforcement harassment. I'm not sure what we can do to ensure they don't destroy the world except prove good intentions. I'm sure you are familiar with the concept of self fulfilling prophecies, in case you were planning on imprisoning or killing them."

"We are not so rash as to default to extreme measures. I hope you understand, however, that we are prepared to do so if there is sufficient indication of danger."

I nodded, keeping my eyes on his face. "I hope you will be careful not to misinterpret, and allow us to explain before you assume the worst. We also should not be pushed into a corner."

He nodded in turn. I decided to leave the veiled and unveiled threats behind. "Perhaps you can arrange a weekly testing session. I believe I could persuade the girls to participate. Contingent upon full access to any discoveries made due to this testing. We may keep some capabilities secret, but any fundamental insights would be valuable to both of us."

"Something along those lines may be viable. However we cannot ensure your release. The chief superintendent believes I am with the DA office. He will not readily surrender this case; he's an ambitious man and this case has great political potential.

Furthermore he has been obsessing over it for a long time - I'm sure you know it is unusual for someone of his rank to be directly involved in a case like this. I am afraid we do not have the political power to directly gain your release. I recommend you find some way to pressure the police. Otherwise they will hold you indefinitely on basic principles.

If you do escape on your own contact us at this phone number or we will be forced to take direct action. Use the code Slip Hulking Carpet. Our time grows short. Goodbye Mr. Lerche, we will be in touch."

He walked out, a hurry in his steps that matched that in his last words.

The superintendent returned a minute later. "I'm afraid we're going to have to resume in the morning. I hope you will think carefully on just what you have to offer us."

They brought a cot and chemical toilet into the interrogation room. Wow, they must have really worked hard to prepare this place. Sadly they finally stripped me of the rest of my equipment. On the positive side I took a shower, and it wasn't by fire hose.

I was awoken some time later, once again by the superintendent. He seemed strangely cheery. "Your other friend turned herself in. Smart girl to save us the trouble of catching her."

Lina had turned herself in? Dammit what had possessed her? The rapidly more annoying superintendent continued: "Come with me. You have a front row seat ready. We would just bring in a screen, but you know, video doesn't work for long."

I followed them through several twists and turns, before ending up on the other side of a one way mirror. I settled down in an unoccupied seat in front of the fritz-ed out display screens.

Inside the interrogation room Amaterasu sat dejectedly on the folding metal chair. Had they kept her up all night? She had the booby trapped collar on. They must have bullied her into accepting it, agreement or not. I considered asking Lina to melt the building on the way out.

Amaterasu looked at the opening door with a hopeful expression that fled quickly when she saw the superintendent and pair of helmeted and armored police officers enter. The officers must have been chosen for their size, as they towered over the superintendent. Overkill intimidation for her small frame. Of course she could break them with a punch.

Superintendent Koga sat in front of her. He put a folder down on the table, and flipped it open to a picture of her civilian form. "Dinah Fisher. Sixteen. Quite an age to be arrested for suspected terrorism. We have all your friends now."

Amaterasu looked shocked, but mostly exhausted. "What? How?"

He ignored her. "If you cooperate you might be able to talk to your parents. There are plenty of dangerous people that might hurt your parents to get to you. I'm sure you have the best knowledge of such threats - you could warn them."

"Haven't you warned them? Given them protection?"

"No, we haven't revealed your identities to anyone outside the force here - yet. Of course we can't justify going to great lengths to prevent it from leaking if we don't have a good reason. Similarly I'm afraid we can't give police protection to parents of criminals. A repentant and cooperative resource might be a different matter."

A miserable realization swept across Amaterasu's face and form. "You are threatening my parents?"

"Threatening is an ugly word, but whatever you want to call it."

Amaterasu folded her arms around herself and seemed on the verge of crying "I'm not telling you anything else until I talk to my friends."

"Naomi has already agreed to tell us all she knows. The value of your cooperation is rapidly degrading."

Amaterasu hardened her face, tinges of anger coloring her exhausted voice. "What? What did you do to her?"

"We just had to assure her you would be tried as minors, and treated well. Of course that might not be possible if you don't cooperate. She realized it was best for all of you. In fact she's watching right now, we agreed she could make sure you were okay."

He waved at the one way mirror. I looked around. Naomi wasn't here.

Amaterasu straitened her back and glared at the superintendent. "I don't believe you."

He smirked "Why don't you come in, Ms. Inoue. Tell Dinah here to cooperate."

A woman near me stood up. I looked over confused. Oh, she had a disguise field on. She must have renewed it without me present, meaning I couldn't see through it like normal. Why hadn't she said something to me? Was she forbidden, or just afraid of discussing in public? In fact why was she disguised if they knew her real name? I guess it kept the cameras and potential bystanders from recognizing her.

Lina walked into the interrogation room and took a seat in the corner. Amaterasu cycled through several different expressions at seeing her. "Lina?" she asked softly. Lina nodded "Hey. Sorry about this Sunny, but he's right: this is the best way."

Her voice still tight, Amaterasu asked "Is it true you are going to tell him everything?"

Lina shrugged "He threatened my family too. At least this way they'll hold off on releasing our identities until we can get our families some protection."

Amaterasu's new found anger collapsed at the admission. I wanted to scream, Lina was giving up all our leverage! First coming in, then letting them get away with indirectly threatening her family. Even Amaterasu had held out longer and she was hardly well suited to being intimidated and sleep deprived.

What could I do? There had to be someway to leverage both the intelligence agencies and Father's interest in our continued anonymity. What had Jackson been thinking letting Lina surrender?

The superintendent continued pushing, resorting to all the dirty tricks of the inquisitors trade short of physical torture. Amaterasu responded in monosyllables while Lina sat in the corner quietly.

I wracked my brain. Three of the monitors flickered and showed an image instead of static. I glanced around, none of the other people in the room were looking at the displays. They showed what was happening in half a dozen cells. One of the newly cleared displays was just the scene in front of me.

Another showed Mechaner speaking to a pair of agitated policemen. He dragged his left hand across the table with glacial slowness, fingernails scratching shallow furrows in the metal. He had carved a strange relief map in the area his restraints allowed him to reach. The map was detailed enough that he must have been at it for quite some time. Super human fingernails on metal was probably an upgraded version of fingernails on chalkboard. I imagined it was driving his interrogators bonkers. I felt a thrill of spite for the interrogators and strange camaraderie with Mechaner.

One of the people in the room turned as I sniggered and the monitors went back to static. I glanced around. The man sitting next to me was looking at me in annoyance. I shrugged. He looked back at the interrogation. The monitors cleared again.

On the third of screens I saw the cell where Eva sat, once more in her Divine Cognizance Meditation. No collar, I noted with relief. She was completely ignoring the half hearted efforts by her questioners. How long had they been trying without any response?

More relevantly why did the screens clear up now, only to fade out when the other guys look at me, and indirectly the screens. Did the magical girl censor not mind me looking? Come to think of it why had Amaterasu's team photo op worked? Why hadn't that photo been corrupted?

I was interrupted in my considerations by the action in the adjacent room. The superintendent was outright shouting at Amaterasu, who drew shuddering breaths, completely withdrawn. He grabbed her head, forcing her to look at him.

I started towards the door. This had gone far enough. The superintendent had a family too. I'm sure Jackson or Father could find or forge some malfeasance by, say, his children - or perhaps a more direct if still deniable threat was in order. If I left the jammer's range I could use my tooth transmitter to arrange it. For now a threat might suffice.

Apparently I was not the only one to be spurred into action. Lina stood up before I reached the door. "Enough." She advanced and grabbed Amaterasu's shoulder. She addressed Amaterasu, her warm tone contrasting with her previous curtness. "Please repeat with me." Amaterasu looked up confused, but complied. "Morning Light Reveal Me."

The disguise field dropped off of Lina, revealing a sharp faced middle aged woman. The superintendent started, sharing my reaction. The armored police men grabbed the woman, shoving her against the wall.

She called out clearly "My name is Yuriko Holender. I'm a journalist for Asahi Shimbun. I've also contributed to the New York Times and Associated Press. Ms. Lina approached me claiming that her friends were being illegally detained without representation. She also expressed fear of police brutality and threats. I can see her concerns were not misplaced."

The superintendent sat back mouth moving soundlessly. I cheered loudly. The other observers didn't even bother quieting me. The superintendent leaned forward with a belligerent cast to his brow. "Too bad you'll find none of this audio was recorded." He looked imperiously at the window "Junko." One of the observers started and began hesitantly navigating the audio recorder interface. "Because of the known issues regarding footage and photos of magical girls of course."

I stepped forward to stop the deletion, but a strong hand on my arm restrained me.

The superintendent ordered the armored soldiers to begin scanning the woman for recording equipment. It took longer than I expected, but once they brought in a full scanner they stripped her of a surprising amount of recording gear.

The superintendent sighed melodramatically and shook his head. "I guessed you might have some recording equipment. Didn't want to insult you while you were cooperative. Doesn't matter, you can't transmit from in here."

He stretched out the silence with a nasty smile. "Now then. You've made some unfortunate and unsupportable accusations. Moreover you've materially deceived law enforcement during an ongoing investigation in a terrorism case."

His diatribe was interrupted by a plain-clothed woman slipping in the door and whispering in his ear. He frowned. "Bring him in."

Another plain-clothed officer entered the room leading a short, slightly pudgy man in a conservative suit. "He was trying to get to the exit, Sir."

"I see your 'lawyer' was similarly deceptive. Scan him."

They scanned the lawyer. Amaterasu alternated between looking at Yuriko, the superintendent, and the table. Her expression respectively hopeful, apprehensive, and depressed. She was too darn easy to read, no wonder they were focusing on breaking her. 'Darn?' Now I was thinking like she spoke.

I saw a covert questioning look from Yuriko. The lawyer nodded minutely. They finished the scan. The lawyer was clean, but that just upset the superintendent. "Spread out. Search around: maybe he dropped or hid something."

His caution proved wise, as the searchers returned with a strange device. "Sir, this was plugged into an outlet in a bathroom. It looks like a transmitter."

The superintendent cocked his head at Yuriko "Transmitter? You could have relayed something to your 'lawyer,' but there's no way an outside receiver is getting anything out of this building. It's spectrum jammed - on top of practically being a Faraday cage."

Yuriko just smiled infuriatingly. A nervous looking officer entered the room. It was getting quite crowded now. "Sir, ah, Koba wants to see you. He said right now. Also he said to release the journalist at once."

Yuriko's smile blossomed into tiger territory. The superintendent left the room. Yuriko began comforting Amaterasu in a motherly fashion. I mulled it over. Did she get the recording out? It certainly seemed so.

A second stowaway under a disguise spell? No, infiltrating the base via disguise field was useless when the guards were checking for facial detail retention. Some sort of small drone? Collaboration with the DIH or PSIA?

The superintendent did not return. In fact all the officers involved were called off and replaced. Eventually we were united (Jackson excepted), this time in an office building, and with considerably increased politeness.

Lina was there. Amaterasu hugged us all tearily, exclaiming that she had been afraid she'd never see us again. Even I was included in an overly emotional hug.

Lina was excited to see us, but less affected. From her perspective it was an interesting bit of political cloak and dagger. Though she was disappointed she didn't get to forcibly break us out of prison.

Eva smiled and hugged, but seemed unaffected by the experience until she heard of Amaterasu's ordeal. It made me wish Lina had stormed the facility. I mused over fire and lightning to go along with a nice shiv in the superintendent's back.

They had hammered Amaterasu all night. The superintendent tried something similar with Eva, but she Cognizance Meditated and focused on overhearing private conversations. Apparently that made it easy to ignore people shouting in your face. Without any reaction to latch onto the interrogators had been stumped.

Seemed strange that they tried the diplomatic approach with me. Perhaps my lack of magical power made them think they could drive a wedge between me and the girls. A representative from the governor was present at our get together (and the governor himself by phone).

As it turned out all my guesses regarding Yuriko's communication method were wrong. The electrical power system itself had acted as a wired communication network, like some old Ethernet systems.

She later confided that the lawyer had also flushed a tiny memory card attached to a RFID tracker, and bribed a janitor to retrieve another one embedded in the wall.

Yuriko, along with our actual lawyers, succeeded in convincing the governor that revealing the magical girls' identities or pursuing criminal charges was a bad idea.

Assisting this was the fact that the magical girls were very popular. The mistreatment recorded by Yuriko (as well as her well regarded word) could be fanned into public outrage easily enough. The fact that the girls being treated like terrorists were teenagers, on top of being beautiful heroic icons, was the unnecessary final straw on the public perception threat.

Legally we were on shakier ground. The chief superintendent was correct about the enormous (though somewhat undefined) leeway the terrorism classification gave him. Fittingly the tourism revenue argument was much more effective on the governor than on the superintendent.

Balanced against this was the concern we would blow up something or someone important. Ultimately though it was election time, and a scandal was not acceptable. The governor was still recovering from his Mechaner induced ordeal. He did have some gratitude towards us for replacing him on that debate platform.

Ensuring the superintendent and police privy to our identities would keep them secret was more difficult. I proffered a few ideas. Oddly for someone with Yakuza connections the governor seemed shocked by these suggestions. Ah well, I made a mental note to relay them to the spook as soon as possible.

I approached Yuriko afterwards for some details. It turned out Lina and Jackson had already negotiated her fee. "One word. Exclusives. Emphasis on the plural. As long as I keep your identities secret you give me regular exclusive interviews, juicy details about the attacks, or whatever I want. Hell, you pose for portraits and tell me your favorite color."

I tried to look gracious, but it was difficult. How many little obligations were we going to pick up? We finally hammered everything out, and could leave. Technically we weren't even bailed out, since we had never been officially charged.

The girls and I met at the warehouse, after some paranoid maneuvering. Lina proposed going out, but we ended up pulling the mattress halfway off my old cot and turning it into a pseudo couch. We propped up against it and watched one of my research videos. I nixed the depressing one, even if it was the best. We settled on a brain dead one.

Eva and I enjoyed making fun of it at least. Lina watched everyone else more than the video. Amaterasu watched intently for a few minutes before falling asleep on my shoulder.

We all woke up to my cell ringing a good time later. It was Jackson. I listened carefully then informed the yawning girls hesitantly. "The inspector newly in charge of the Mechaner case has requested our presence. The police have discovered Mechaner's identity. Apparently he is willing to talk, but only to the magical girls."

Before Jackson hung up I asked him a question that had been in the back of my mind. "Jackson, Mechaner said he would be known as 'Pando.' What does that mean?"

Jackson responded dubiously "Uh top hit is a large clonal stand of quaking aspen."

I narrowed my eyes. "He's going to become known as a big group of trees?"

"Well, there's not really any other likely hits showing up on a cursory look. The name is Latin."

"What does it mean?"

"I spread."

~~~~

Chapter 11: Pando

Vote for on Top Webfiction

Purchase Complete E-book