A tremendous crash overwhelmed my earbuds' safety and shattered my eardrums. Mechaner's body slammed me against the wall. We bounced off and I fell on top of him. I lay there for a moment. My brain wasn't working quite right, still trying to piece together what had just happened.
I rolled off and tried to stand, but could only manage a crouch. My right foot was half gone, and my leg peppered with holes. Blood poured from a dozen places on my body. The guards picked themselves up. They had been knocked down and injured by the blast and bouncing shrapnel.
Mechaner was still unmoving. His shredded constructs writhed without purpose. Blackness nibbled at the edges of my narrowing sight. I staggered towards the door, even the pain fading away. I collapsed just outside the cell, a terrible ringing my only remaining sensation.
I woke up, once again to a terrible headache. I didn't feel dead, or in agony. I sat up and asked, "How long has it been? What happened?"
The four people carrying me shouted with surprise and dropped me. I was a little down the corridor from Mechaner's cell. It was surrounded by police. The Inspector saw me sitting up and ran over. He crouched next to me with a disbelieving expression. "How are you up? You should be out for days."
I realized I could hear him. I looked down at my foot. It was nearly back together, merely looking like I ran afoul of a weed-whacker instead of an industrial lawn mower. Mechaner's spreading heal - it had lasted long enough to heal the worst of my injuries.
So Mechaner was probably back up as well. The landmine had struck him directly, but he had just used the healing power. I shook my head. "Later. What happened with Mechaner? Is he restrained?"
The Inspector grimaced. "Sort of. We got everyone out and locked the door. We're working on drilling a hole and shooting grenades, white phosphorus, napalm, paralytic gas - really anything we can think of, inside. The cell is very tough, so we have some time before he can get out."
Tough cell. How could he get out? He could use gravity or lightning, but neither would do much to reinforced concrete. His disintegrating touch might be able to burrow out. That power wasn't instant, though, and seemed restricted by mass. "How thick are the cell walls?"
That should take some time. The constructs couldn't go through that very fast, if at all, either. "Okay. Watch out, he might be disintegrating an escape path. Make sure you have forces stationed all around the cell, including above. Check the ground sensors too."
He nodded and turned back. I managed to stand, and started to walk towards the exit. I needed to get to the girls. We still had to rescue the school and our secret identities. The latter might be the most difficult operation. Someone would get suspicious if we were the only ones missing during the attack. Especially with the constructs focusing on the girls' families.
A stray question occurred to me: if Mechaner could convert the table and chair why hadn't he just made his collar into one too? Maybe the source material needed to be nearly pure metal? Why not the guards' guns? Maybe he had to touch an object to turn it into a construct, or maybe each construct took some time.
A low rumble filled the corridor. I looked back. The Inspector gesticulated wildly. Had they started the bombardment? Wait. I sprinted to the Inspector, waving my hands. He shouted with annoyance, "What!"
"You said the entire cell was a Faraday cage?"
"Because the concrete is reinforced with a thick steel shell?"
"Yes. It's built into the frame for the whole building."
"Do the bolts you drilled for the chair and table go down to that steel shell?"
He frowned "Maybe. I'm not sure. They were quite long, we didn't want to underestimate his strength."
A shudder ran down the corridor and up my back. I waved at the police, shouting, "Get out of the building! He's turning the entire frame into a wire construct!"
The Inspector looked at me, confusion turning to horror as the floor moved under our feet. He turned and frantically ordered his men to evacuate. They did so, but in the opposite direction.
I wasn't going back by the cell. I started running, hopefully towards the next closest exit. The floor convulsed, knocking me off my feet. Thin trails of dust rained from tiny fractures.
The turrets opened fire, perhaps trying to distract Mechaner. I was ten meters from the exit when the entire building twisted and groaned, like a monstrous bear awakening from long hibernation. The corridor twisted in front of me, the concrete folding with a terrible grinding moan.
I carefully stepped on the remaining concrete, trying to avoid the shifting morass of steel cables now rising from the cracks in the ground and ceiling. The exit moved another few meters, and began caving in. I jumped from one nearly floating concrete block to another. At the last second I dove towards the nearly crumpled exit, aiming for a narrow crack of sunlight.
Questing tentacles brushed against my body, seeking a hold. I scraped through. Once I was thirty meters away I looked back. The containment building writhed in slow motion, clouds of dust spurting into the sky as air was forced out. Tentacles of steel crept across the surrounding land, searching for victims. Two fire support drones floated above, firing into the behemoth with no effect.
Well, I'd done what I could. I jogged away. My HUD had regained connectivity at least. I called Jackson and arranged a helicopter. I also asked him to search for trustworthy actors. By which I meant those with crippling debt or blackmail-worthy secrets. So, most actors.
The school was surrounded by dust devils. They twisted together in a dancing cage. I landed next to Lina. Cautiously I asked about her family's wellbeing. She responded positively, but seemed grim nonetheless.
She punched us a hole through the twisters. I brought all the drones I could fit with me. The inside of the school was oddly untarnished. Occasionally we saw an abandoned backpack or overturned trash can.
We headed towards the auditorium. The auditorium was conically shaped. At the center, an unraised stage was covered in twisting wires. Three rows of tables were arrayed before the stage.
Here, it actually looked like a terrorist attack. Dozens of posters lay trampled on the ground. Yet, incongruously, whole lines of posters carefully supported by cardboard stands remained untouched.
The crowd was mostly pressed against the back wall, surrounded by a slowly growing hedge of ivy. On the stage an eerie metallic hiss emanated from the ceaseless slithering of a dozen wire constructs. The constructs had mainly subsumed the school's computer lab. They were laced with monitors and outdated towers.
Amaterasu and Eva stood in front of the stage, pacing tiredly. They ran up eagerly as soon as we entered. "The constructs aren't choking the hostages when we approach, but with twelve constructs we decided to wait on you." Eva said rapidly, her composure eroded somewhat by the long wait.
I tried to identify Amaterasu and Eva's family. Frankly, they were the priorities to rescue. I thought I recognized Eva's, but Amaterasu's escaped my notice. "Okay, as you heard, Mechaner is escaping. We need to free the hostages soon lest he renege on our deal."
"Yes," Jackson explained. "How did you get him to make that deal though?"
They looked at me with poorly hidden disquiet. I grimaced: no time now. "I'll explain later. Lina and Amaterasu start some visual cover in here. Once that's established: Amaterasu, hit them with your Red Rainbow Resonance on wide beam. If you stand back you can hit all of them. That'll slow them enough that Lina can use Descending Glacier Conjuration to cover the whole stage.
Eva, go in and start dismantling the constructs. My drones will shoot any that don't have hostages. Hit them hard and repeatedly. Shout if they start killing, and we'll switch to disabling them as hard and fast as possible. Lina that means you use lightning - we can restart hearts easier than we can reattach heads."
They nodded. I asked, "Which are your families?"
Eva confirmed my guess, but Amaterasu pointed at a wide-faced woman in a suit dress next to a hulking, slightly overweight man. My surprise was not from the fairly typical middle aged military couple, but from the fact that they were black. Strange, Amaterasu had never mentioned being adopted.
The hostages shifted to get a better look, sensing that our arrival signalled an end to the standoff. I quickly relayed the plan to Jackson, and quietly asked the girls to meet on the roof after we had cleared the constructs. Lina had already begun her storm chant and just nodded. I nudged Amaterasu. "Try not to focus on the one holding your parents, okay?"
She looked up blankly, then gave a short laugh. Eva stood perfectly still. Her twin swords were sheathed, but her fingers wrapped around the hilts. I nodded. Lina quickly filled the room with mist, while Amaterasu fired off two Dazzling Display Diversions.
The constructs tensed and stilled. My low frequency infrared cameras watched as the constructs' pseudo-heads seemed to scan flashing mists. A red cone cut a swath through the mist, striking all of them. It did little more than knock them back a step, but every surface suddenly began growing an icy covering.
My heat detection system stopped working, so I switched to radar. The constructs became amorphous reflective blobs on my screen. The constructs shook, wriggling to escape the thickening ice.
Eva darted forward, swords a blue blur. She ran the length of the stage in an instant. A rending screech announced the effect of her passage, as three constructs fell apart. They dropped their hostage load and began trying to tangle back together.
I directed my drones to fire on the ivy hedge - it didn't seem that dangerous, but I couldn't do much else. Eva froze at the end of her run for an instant, entering her Divine Cognizance Meditation.
The seven constructs nearest Eva undulated, lashing out with long twisted cables. She jumped and twisted impossibly, dodging them all. The other five constructs lumbered forward, throwing their substantial mass at us with deceptive speed.
Amaterasu answered with a more focused Perfect Red Rainbow Resonance. The disabling effect was more apparent this time. Two of the constructs fell to the ground, twitching slowly.
Lina answered the rest with a second Descending Glacier Conjuration, shaping the ice to envelop the temporarily disabled constructs. She ran and jumped, delivering a flying kick to one of the remaining constructs. I was impressed; she had improved quite a bit under Jackson's tutelage. Still not close to Eva's level, but not bad.
Like me, Amaterasu had better things to do. Another construct grabbed her as she backed away to fire another Rainbow Resonance. She struggled, snapping its thinner cables.
That left one construct for me. It held three of my classmates. They looked like they needed a friendlier hug, but I wasn't hoping to oblige. I jumped over a tricky scything blow and backed away.
One drone had a decent angle on the construct's back, so I let the drone unload a series of special rounds. They were basically 40 mm grenade rounds with the explosive replaced with a gritty expanding foam. The foam contained a catalyst that would supposedly alloy with the steel and weaken it substantially. I couldn't tell if it actually worked. Like most cool weapons, it apparently needed too much time to be practical in combat.
The construct lassoed my left arm and pulled me back. I dragged my feet, but discovered the downside to Lina covering everything in ice. She seemed unimpeded though, as she jumped on the construct's head and started hacking at it with a fire axe. My classmates were oddly unappreciative, screaming as the axe ripped through their restraints.
Amaterasu finally finished her foe, and started targeting blasts at the constructs surrounding Eva. Two turned to deal with her. That was a mistake. Eva blurred forward, casually dismembering them.
A few people broke from the crowd at the back of the room and ran for the exits. The damaged hedge made anemic attempts to stop them. Their success inspired the rest of the crowd. I sent a drone to every external door, blocking the way and broadcasting a warning. If they made it outside they would probably get caught up in a twister.
One of the five remaining constructs pulled down the stage curtain and threw it over Eva like a giant net. Points for ingenuity, but Eva simply flicked her swords in an X pattern and stepped through the hole in the billowing fabric.
Eva and Amaterasu took apart the remaining constructs with ease. Lina helped, mainly by keeping them covered in ice. She also continued enthusiastic if not efficient use of the fire axe.
The rescued hostages rubbed the blood back into their limbs and thanked us profusely. I intercepted Amaterasu before she could hug her parents. I grabbed her elbow and steered her towards the stairs, loudly announcing a need to clear the rest of the building.
Fortunately Lina and Eva paid attention and joined us. On the way I directed Lina to whip up a nice misty storm. When we reached the roof it was already starting to interfere with the twisters. Jackson called over "We're ready when you are. Directly above the school."
I nodded unnecessarily "Lina, can you open up a clear path directly above us?"
She frowned with concentration, but after a minute grinned and gestured to the blue sky revealed above us. The storm walls rotated around the clear spot like a miniature hurricane. In the center of the eye a black helicopter descended.
Inside Jackson, and four nervous actors waited. I looked them over. "Girls go stand next to your duplicate. We need to get the hair color right. It's the only thing that transfers memorably."
I checked the hair side by side. Pretty good. I had to get someone else to check my hair against the wig. "Alright. Do the ritual." Each of the girls held hands with their soon to be doppelgangers and chanted "Evening Light Hide Us."
Being present at the ritual meant I couldn't check the effect. It would have to do. "Okay, strip and put on these school clothes. Make sure your double puts on your costume correctly."
I started unbuckling my armor. I was down to my boxers when I realized the girls were staring at me with trepidation and a tinge of color. I rolled my eyes and huffed. "Fine, I'll change on the other side of the helicopter." I grabbed my doppleganger. "You come with me."
I dressed in my school clothes and made sure my double was arguably fitted in the armor. I reluctantly gave him my HUD after disabling it. With dire threats I extracted a nervous promise that my equipment would remain untouched. "Alright, lets go. Don't embarrass me or I'll spread a national news story about your more unsavory fetishes."
He stuttered. "What fetishes? I don't have any unsavory fetishes. Or regular ones!"
Was he stupid? I examined him narrowly to try to discern if he was being stupid or sarcastic. He shied away from my gaze. "Unsavory fetishes I'll make up," I explained.
We split up once down the roof access stairs. The faux magical girl team (did we need a team name? 'The Magical Girls' wasn't quite as descriptive anymore) returned to the lobby to announce the school and surroundings cleared.
We barricaded ourselves inside a supply closet near the back entrance. Our breathless story of arriving late and evading the monsters by locking ourselves in the supply closet wasn't foolproof, but it was at least plausible. The security camera footage of our supposed path would, of course, be found useless - a sad fact of dealing with magical girls.
The police arrived as soon as Lina's storm dissipated Mechaner's twisters. The aftermath was tedious. The police interviewed everyone involved. Even with no more than a few minutes apiece the process took six hours. That meant I was sitting for five hours and fifty-five minutes in a room full of terrified and excited teenagers jabbering nonstop about the attack.
I didn't have access to a computer, and couldn't even debrief with the girls. On top of this, Amaterasu and Eva's families were all over them, apparently having believed the worst. I tried to avoid the tearful reunion, but Amaterasu dragged me into it.
Finally the police let us go, having detained us for an order of magnitude longer than they had detained Mechaner. Unfortunately, the girls' families insisted on taking them home to coddle.
I went back to the warehouse to retrieve a backup laptop and get started analyzing the attacks. I had noticed a difference in the ability of the constructs at the school versus at the containment facility. A few hours into the night I had finally pinned down a nice signal. The girls arrived opportunely. Eva led the way. "Sebastian. We need to talk."
"Yes! Great timing, look at this." I rotated the screen to show the S-curve I had plotted out.
Lina looked sceptical. "What is that?"
Eva started. "Not now." But I was already answering, "I noticed the constructs at the school seemed different than the ones at the containment facility. At first I thought they were slower or less skilled. After I compared some video I have - which, by the way is something else we need to test. Do video feeds of magical girls turn to static when you look at them?"
They looked perplexed. "What are you talking about?" Eva asked.
"Nevermind, we'll test it. Anyway, the constructs do behave differently. In fact they behave somewhat differently between each attack. I looked for various markers. The simplest is the coordination of their twitches. You know how they are always twitching and writhing? Well, I measured how closely timed those twitches were at different points on the construct." Eva nodded slowly. Amaterasu looked preoccupied and Lina already bored.
I continued. "I graphed the relative timing differences against lots of factors. Here's the most interesting one." I traced the sideways S shaped curve. "This is against Euclidean distance from the mean center of the attacks. There are several things this could point to, but basically it means the constructs are getting less coordinated and weaker the farther from this point they are."
Eva blinked and ran a hand through her hair. "The field trip. We were far away, and the grass demon was really weak."
I smiled. "Right. I forgot about that. His demons are weakening the further away they are. This might mean he literally can't attack somewhere other than Tokyo. Is there some sort of control station at the center? A power source? Or, who knows - a magical gateway to an alien dimension? Is it mobile or fixed?" I paused. "Could he make more of them?"
They looked troubled at that. "Can you pinpoint this center?"
I shook my head. "No. Too much noise. I need a lot more data points. I might be able to improve it some by looking at different measurements. I was going to look at the growth rate of those plant demons. Perhaps even more important is what this tells us about the nature of these demons."
Lina laughed. "What, that they have a hankering for Tokyo?"
"No: the curve is not decreasing as the square of the distance. That means it's probably not just some sort of power field or control transmission. It looks like an error function. That's the integral of the standard normal distribution - also known as the bell curve.
Okay, that doesn't tell us much. Everything and its mother is distributed on a bell curve. It does tell us that there's something their coordination or strength relies on that is dependent on distance, and that thing has a normal distribution.
The S-curve function is also referred to as the cumulative distribution function. I suspect that there's some sort of flaw that has a chance of failure based on distance. So the cumulative distribution function would basically be the sum of these failures over the total distance."
"Does that tell us anything about the demons?" Lina was practical.
"Maybe. I feel like it should. Of course there are other possibilities. The S-curve is kinda distorted too - it fades out too fast at the edges. That might be an artifact of the poor data, or maybe there's an underlying function that the failure chance is tied to. Also there is one data point that was a big outlier. The huge construct he made from the containment facility. That doesn't fit the rest."
"Could it have been because he was there? Or there for so long?"
"Maybe. I'm going to mention the importance of a thorough search to the police inspector. The construct didn't last long after it left the facility. Maybe it had a time limit, or a range limit."
Eva nodded. "Okay, good work. Keep looking at it. Focus on trying to narrow down the center of this effect. However, that was not what we needed to talk about."
I looked at her with hooded eyes. This conversation. "Okay. Go ahead."
Eva was detached enough I would have suspected that she was in her Cognizance Meditation if she hadn't been pacing. "Did you torture Mechaner and threaten his family?"
"Yes." I nodded and waited in silence.
Amaterasu spoke suddenly. "Yes? That's it? What exactly did you do?"
I raised my eyebrow. "Do you really want to know?"
She looked sick. "I need to."
"I want to emphasize that I only did this because time was very short and Mechaner was not responding to just talking." I looked each of them in the eye. "And he was believably threatening to kill your family and friends. Giving in to his demands would have just made your family and friends less safe in the future, even if he deigned to release them at the time."
They looked torn at that. I continued. "I used a knife on his hands and fingers. I did pretty substantial damage, removing fingernails and so forth. I also burnt him with a lighter for a minute or so." They all looked revulsed at that.
I sighed. "It wasn't pleasant for me either. Remember that he is very tough. It wasn't like I was even doing permanent damage - he can and did heal it right up."
"And threatening his family?" Eva was still detached.
"I locked a drone in with them. I replicated Mechaner's threat - that I would kill one of them at random for each hostage Mechaner killed. Mechaner didn't believe I would actually follow through, so I programmed the drone to shoot them on schedule if the other drones detected the death of any of his hostages. I locked Jackson and myself out and showed this program to him. He believed that I could still halt the order. So I destroyed the laptop to prove it was out of my hands."
Amaterasu asked. "So you really couldn't have stopped the drone?"
"No, I couldn't. It was necessary to make a credible threat."
"They were children. How could you threaten children?" She seemed genuinely distraught.
"Why does their being children matter so much? It always annoyed me, the weight society puts on that. I mean, I get that being a child means you have longer to live. You are innocent, but so are many adults..."
I trailed off to Lina's disbelieving laughter. I followed her significant look to Amaterasu's hurt expression and Eva's glare.
"Right, well Mechaner had clearly shown that he cared. I was confident that he wouldn't really let them die." Okay, confident might be pushing it. "Remember, he was threatening children too. Should I have valued his nephews above other people's nephews? Should I have valued his family above yours?"
They considered that. Amaterasu spoke up. "Did you do that because I begged you to do something to save my family?"
I hesitated before denying. It had been on my mind. She had seemed a bit unstable regarding the threat to her parents, and we couldn't afford her breaking down. Of course, I also just felt bad for her. "Don't blame yourself, it wasn't just because of you. Admittedly, I might have flinched if the hostages were just people I had no connection to, but that's the tribal nature of humanity I guess."
She nodded, but still seemed awfully guilty. "I thought you would be kinder when you had real friends, but instead they gave you motivation to be more vicious."
Not a bad way of putting it. "Everyone is vicious when they have something at stake. It's silly to blame yourself for asking me to save your parents."
"I wouldn't hurt children. Even to save my parents," she said pensively.
I shrugged. "Not everyone can. Lets hope you don't have to test that."
She raised her eyes to mine. "I couldn't forgive myself if I did. I'm not sure if I can forgive you for what you did."
I sighed. "Okay, listen. Don't tell anyone else. Seriously. None of you can tell anyone else, but the drone was one of our practice drones. It was loaded with training rounds. I was sorta bluffing."
Amaterasu gaped. "Why didn't you say so?"
"If Mechaner learns it was a bluff he'll go after your families again. Hell, if anyone learns it was a bluff all our families will be much vulnerable. I didn't want to tell you because the more people know the more likely it will slip. Besides you would react more believably that way."
Amaterasu looked ecstatic. "I can't believe you didn't tell me!"
Lina shook her head. "He didn't because it makes him seem darker and edgier, of course."
Eva turned to the other girls. "Can you please go grab the streetwear outfits? We need to meet the dopplegangers and switch back."
She turned back to me with narrowed eyes. "I'll need to see the logs for this. You understand it is suspicious that you conveniently mention this fact only after being pressed."
I nodded. "You can see the logs, the video, and the drone. Actually you can have the couch."
She raised an eyebrow. "The couch?"
"The couch I shot to threaten the family. I replaced the damaged couch since it is riddled with training bullets. That would be a giveaway."
She stood still, her nearly human hands clasped. "You're still not saying something. You should have been cackling over pulling off this bluff."
I hesitated. "Well. The drone really was loaded with expanding training rounds, but they were supposed to be used on me. In my armor. I'm not sure what effect they would have on an unarmored twelve year old, but at the least it would have been very painful. It definitely could have been fatal."
"So you weren't really bluffing."
I shrugged. "Sorta. I wanted to emphasize the definitive threat to Mechaner. Pretending the drone was loaded with live rounds was the best way to do that. I could have ordered it to just shoot them a whole bunch - that would definitely kill them eventually. It didn't have the immediacy of a live drone though."
"Would you have? Killed them if necessary? If it was definite, not just a chance?"
"I didn't want to kill them, but if a live combat drone was the only one available? I would have used it. At least I think I would. Like I said: you never really know until you are tested."
She examined me for a moment before nodding. "Very well. I expect you will explain to Amaterasu that the practice rounds could have killed them."
"Okay. Sure," I said, a little perplexed. "Are we good otherwise? I get that you have issues with my methods, but I hope you see why I used them. I didn't have many other options."
"I understand." A troubled heaviness flitted across her otherwise calm features. She nodded once and went to change into a business suit. They had actually left the warehouse when Amaterasu jogged back in. She approached me apprehensively. "Eva said you had something to tell me?"
"Yes. The training rounds would have at least hurt a lot. Possibly killed them."
She frowned but nodded slowly. "Yes, I thought of that afterwards. It means you tried to keep from hurting them though. Right?"
"Yes, that was the only thing I could arrange in time that I thought would convince Mechaner. I ordered a short burst to the center of mass to minimize damage."
She chewed her lip. "You saved my parents. I don't know what I would do without them."
I nodded, surprised by her disclosure.
She continued. "So. Thanks. I'm glad you did, though I feel terrible that I'm glad." She seemed to be working up to something.
"Uh, okay." I uttered elegantly.
She turned away, but didn't leave. "I... did you do it because..." She trailed off, a strange hopeful tone in the question.
"What?" I asked with confusion.
She turned around and darted over, kissing me on the lips. I was too surprised to do anything. She pulled away quickly, looking up at me with questioning eyes. I responded with a dumbfounded attempt at a reassuring smile.
She flushed and ran away. I looked after her, still frozen. That was unexpected. It probably said more about the low quality of my romance-predicting algorithms than anything else. What did the kiss mean? I wasn't sure. I needed to do some research. This time, definitely no manga or anime involved.