"So how about a four star restaurant? Still too much for a first date?"
"Yes. Just take her somewhere fun. Not somewhere you have to spend lots on money on." Yuriko's exasperated voice echoed in my ear. I adjusted the volume down a little. "What about transportation? Should I buy a car? Should I make sure it's not too expensive?"
Now she sounded suspicious. "Are you just messing with me? If you keep it up you'll lose access to my treasure trove of womanly advice. As for the car: very American of you. Just use the subway."
I was, in fact, messing with her. Sadly I couldn't say 'just' though. I had some experience. Two girlfriends and miscellaneous one-off romantic encounters. They were all controlled by Father's subtle but unmistakable hand, which colored the whole thing.
I really didn't know what to expect on a date that Father hadn't arranged (at least that I hoped he hadn't). More importantly I didn't know what was expected of me. Jackson had laughed and refused to help when I requested his advice.
Rin and Naomi were somewhat questionable sources in this instance, but I had requested a little advice concerning Dinah's preferences. Strangely I felt more uncomfortable with Naomi's eagerness to plan every aspect of the date than Rin's implications of death and dismemberment if I screwed up.
Fortunately, I had another potential source of advice. Yuriko had insisted on shadowing us during a demon attack. Since she was similarly vulnerable, I was put in charge of keeping her in safe vantage points. This meant spending some time together - an opportunity to get some female advice from someone who knew our identities. Also, an opportunity to get some petty revenge for the inconvenience of taking her along.
I had extracted a solemn oath that my questions would never grace the humorous anecdote section of my internet presence. If she showed any sign of leaking my dating questions I was considering mentioning my recent torture of Mechaner and threatening of innocents. Perhaps that would be a persuasive discouragement.
So far she had played along gamely. I checked my drones again. This was a minor demon attack, mainly memorable because a locally famous tree had turned upon park goers. The large oak was currently trying to fish a civilian out of a drainage pipe.
A wire construct rolled up. It had eaten a golf cart and a number of randomly flashing cell phones. It decided to assist the tree demon by tearing down a light pole and pushing it through the drainage ditch.
The terrified jogger was pushed out into the waiting branches, which promptly disintegrated, dropping the freshly captured jogger a few feet. Amaterasu stood on top of the embankment and shouted a challenge. Eva ran forward and cut off the wire construct's retreat. Lina opened fire, literally, on the huge tree construct.
I mourned the ancient tree's demise. One more wire construct chugged around the lake wrapped through a paddle boat. It impotently rammed the dock a few times before melting to a flurry of lightning bolts. I sighed with relief after double checking my drones for signs of a trap. Yuriko asked, "Are they usually over that fast?"
"No, this was an easy one."
On the shore of the small lake Lina was goading Eva into attempting to run across water. I chimed in. "One whatever you want to bet with on her lasting to the end of Celerity and then face planting."
Yuriko laughed slightly, then continued in a professional manner. "Is it easier because you got here sooner, or because you are improving, or was it just less constructs?"
"A little of each. There's a widely varying construct count. Often there's some trick or special construct. In this case I think the giant tree was supposed to be that. It just wasn't actually scary."
"Would you say this is a return to normal after Mechaner's elaborate attack on the debate and subsequent escape?"
"Well, yes. Hopefully it indicates he is going back to more whimsical measures. He tends to sprinkle these demon attacks two or three times a week, then participate in an attack himself once every month or so.
The attacks he participates in seem to have an actual purpose, often involving the magical girls. These attacks are also more vicious. It's still a bit early to call this a reliable pattern, but it's something to keep in mind."
"Are you sure you want that off the record? The people of the city should know about Mechaner's patterns."
"If we publicize the pattern Mechaner might deviate from it just to mess with us."
"Hmm, okay. Now, Eva is often regarded as the leader of the group. Do you conflict with her at all in your position as coordinator?"
"No. Eva is still the leader. She makes the calls, I'm just often better positioned to provide important intel or time-sensitive warnings."
Eva sprinted out on the lake. Water splashed up on either side of her like wings. As I had predicted, she sunk immediately after the Celerity ended. She laughed and spluttered before diving deep. There was a few moments of calm water, then a patch swelled and erupted. Eva completed her last dolphin kick and flew over ten meters into the air.
At the apex she flipped around and performed an acrobatic high dive. Amaterasu laughed and clapped. Lina pronounced it an eight, and performed her own version off the end of the dock. On Lina's second attempt, Amaterasu blasted them both with a huge wave created by a wide angle Rainbow Resonance.
Amaterasu gestured for me to come down. I didn't really see the point in swimming in my armor. I waved back, but didn't leave the roof. Amaterasu whispered something in Lina's ear. A water spout formed and lifted Lina into the rapidly darkening sky. She flew over to the roof, and announced "You are going for a swim. Do you want to take off your armor and gear, or have me drop you in with them on?"
"Oh alright. Can you warm it up?" I stripped the armor off, appreciating the brief burst of hot water Lina's airburst Scintillating Vengeance Fusillade created. She grabbed my arm and flew off, leaving Yuriko still trying to take notes on her (hopefully waterproof) laptop. Lina flew me over the lake, then whispered in my ear, "Here's your chance for the high dive medal!"
"Wait!" I squawked. We were still twelve meters up!
She dropped me. I flailed for something to hold on to, then realized I was going to hit poorly and tried to straighten into a streamlined position. I managed to avoid belly-flopping at least.
I surfaced and shook the water from my eyes. Lina cannonballed nearby me, knocking me back with huge splash. She surfaced and gave me three fingers with a mournful expression. Eva gave me a two, while Amaterasu gave me a five. Worse, I believed she honestly meant it - she gave everyone high scores without a hint of intentional inflation.
I splashed Lina in revenge. She retaliated with an overpowered return shot. Amaterasu shielded me. Eva darted forward into the fray, on Lina's side. We lost, but I managed a pretty good surprise attack while they were distracted by Amaterasu's Dazzling Display and frequent Rainbow Resonance powered waves.
I put my armor back on for the flight back. We left Yuriko to travel by taxi. She made us agree to a portrait pose next week. Without magical girl photographs, paintings were useful again.
She promised to have a good artist do ours. She even graciously offered to let us keep the original. As the only painting we actually posed for it would probably be on the cover of half the magazines in Japan, and several international ones.
I didn't ask how much she was charging to license it. It was tempting to try to just buy her out, but she was a dedicated journalist. It might be insulting.
We dried off at the warehouse and drove to a secret underground research facility run by the DIH. Admittedly, it was underground because it was in the basement of a mixed-use converted factory.
There were only five researchers. Dr. Edelstein ran the lab with a strange laid-back enthusiasm. He greeted us at the elevator door with a pitcher of steaming hot chocolate. "Come in, come in! Want some hot chocolate?" He presented the pitcher triumphantly.
When Amaterasu reached out uncertainly, he withdrew the pitcher abruptly and muttered something about cups. He looked around the room and patted himself down, searching for non-existent cups. "Just a second! Have a seat."
He thrust the pitcher into Amaterasu's still outstretched hands and ran off. We took a seat on the faded couches in the huge open basement. Dr. Edelstein rummaged through several stacked boxes before returning with plastic cups.
I accepted mine and sipped gratefully. I was still chilly from the water and flight. Wait, did the hot chocolate mean he knew about that? Not terribly surprising, but still slightly disturbing.
After a bevy of scans he brought us to our first test. A simple weight rack. Each of the girls were tested in several basic lifts. The test involved a couple more specialized machines as well - focused on precisely quantizing particular movements. My previous estimation of their strength was fairly accurate.
Edelstein apologized profusely over the series of durability and toughness tests. For example, the pinch test measured the force necessary to press a needle through a fold of skin. Humorously, the discernment and reflex tests ignited some competitiveness.
The test involved pressing the appropriate button to respond to a random red or green light. Lina insisted on taking it three times, but still failed to best Eva. I queried Edelstein as to their results. His synopsis was that their toughness and strength were well outside of human capability, but reflexes, discernment, balance, coordination and so forth were at the bare upper edges of the bell curve.
The only test I participated in was the IQ and memory test, mainly out of curiosity. We ran out of time before the girls could do more than a basic magic demonstration, to Edelstein's dismay.
We drove to school. Fortunately, I had managed to persuade even Eva to accept half days. Our 'emergency medicine internship' took the mornings, but after lunch we still needed to attend physically, if not mentally.
I actually paid attention during history class. It was one of the few classes where they taught stuff I didn't already know. It helped to observe the Japanese perspective as well.
In class, I eyed the friends who had been selected by Mechaner. Did they harbor suspicions? Had they recognized the common theme to the chosen hostages? Aki, and Naoki were friends with all the girls. Sango was mainly Rin's friend. Koichi and Aoi were primarily Naomi's friends. Dinah was popular enough that several of her friends hadn't been selected. Kazumi and Riko were most prominent among those that were.
I couldn't detect any obvious suspicions. I was ordering basic electronic surveillance of them though. Tapping their communications would catch any incautious leaks. Dinah was making an effort to introduce me to her wide circle of friends. I obliged patiently, but in retrospect I think my careful scrutiny disconcerted them. Fortunately, Dinah's social skills picked up my slack.
I decided on a public outing for our date. She seemed extroverted enough to prefer that. I made the arrangements during home economics.
Dinah and Naomi went home to spend a little time with their families after school. Rin and I went to the warehouse to review Mechaner's interrogation video. After half an hour I realized that now was a good opportunity for some tests. I called Jackson to arrange for his participation.
When he arrived, I set up a surveillance camera and several monitors. "Rin, if you would put up your disguise. Let's see when the camera works and when it doesn't." I quickly determined that the camera feed wouldn't fuzz out when I was looking at video of Eva, or when Eva looked at video of me.
Jackson allowed us to establish the control. The monitor would fuzz when he was watching either me or Eva or even himself when under the disguise field. If the subject was not under the disguise field the monitor never blanked out.
Being 'privy' to the disguise field by being present at its formation didn't affect the outcome. Splitting the video feed to two monitors, one of which I was at, and one of which Jackson was at resulted in only Jackson's monitor going to static.
A quick statistical measure showed that the feed was static even when no one was watching it. Even an encrypted feed had its checksum changed when Eva or I weren't watching it. Yet the encryption key wouldn't be corrupted, even when I used a full one time pad.
I noted that we needed to double check these results with the other magical girls and a different civilian or ten. Yuriko? We could probably arrange a double blind easily enough, which could also simplify getting permission.
The big question was: why were the magical girls exempted from the censorship? Most puzzlingly, why was I exempted? As far as I was concerned this proved that the censorship was at least partially magical - as Mechaner had claimed.
I could see Mechaner exempting the magical girls, but not me. He didn't seem to know I existed until the bookstore fight, but my video and photographic research had been untouched soon afterwards. Had he immediately decided I was part of the team and deserved exemption? He hadn't really treated me that way until the debate.
I shared these ruminations with Eva and Jackson. Eva nodded. She rewound the same section of video. On the screen I asked Mechaner a question. "You admit you are insane. I didn't think insane people would realize they are insane. How do you know what you think happened did?"
"Oh I've been to professionals. In many ways I'm sure I have a better grasp of my mind than you do."
"But you say you are insane. How do you know that?"
"Insanity in this case is defined relative to everyone else. Insanity is embracing this difference. I admit I feared and doubted the transition at first. Worse was I couldn't even discuss it with my supposed councilors. Despite their pretensions of privacy they cared only about the company and the project in the end."
"So you relied only on your already troubled mind."
"I obtained the assistance I needed at the time.
Eva cut it off there. "'I obtained the assistance I needed at the time.' What assistance is he referring to? He just claimed not to rely on the councilors."
I blinked. "A friend? A coworker?"
"A coworker would have the same issue the councilors did."
"Was it someone manipulating him? Or someone he sought assistance from?"
"He did say that at first he feared and doubted the transition to his new perspective. Who would he approach to reassure himself of his sanity?"
"Family? We interviewed Mrs. Kuno, but she claimed not to have contact with them."
Jackson smiled. "He's a scientist - the type of man who wouldn't ask an unqualified person to diagnose his sanity. He mentions professionals in a positive fashion."
I nodded slowly. "Maybe he went to an outside psychologist. Someone not at Diluvian. Someone who would keep doctor-patient confidentiality."
Jackson nodded. "There are plenty of mental health professionals in the area. He might have travelled too."
"I have an idea about where to start." Eva looked grim. "Recently deceased psychologists and psychiatrists. He would have confided in them. Once he decided to embrace his insanity he wouldn't trust them to keep quiet."
"Good point. I'll make some inquiries, but this might be a good job for the intelligence agencies. They have the manpower and legal weight to do this properly."
"Okay. Aren't you forgetting something though?" Eva asked with a frown.
"The time. Don't be late for your date."
"Damn... Wait, I have time."
"Not as much as you think, trust me: get there a few minutes early."
"Okay." I shrugged and went to change.
I drove a standard Toyota sedan to pick up Amaterasu. I had realized that a Bentley might make a good impression on high-school students, but might not convey the image I wanted to her parents.
Amazingly, I found a street parking space. The modest townhouse was pretty far from the city center, but still reasonably large considering Tokyo standards. What rank was her father?
I checked myself in the mirror for anything terribly out of place, then walked up and knocked on the door. Her father answered. "Come in, Dinah will be down in a couple of minutes. Her mother is still at work, I'm afraid."
I smiled smoothly and stepped inside, offering him my hand. "Glad to meet you at a better time, sir."
He shook my hand firmly. "Yes, I wanted to thank you for being there for my daughter during that attack. She told me you kept a cool head."
Okay, technically that was true.
I shook my head. "We were just locked up. Tedious, but nothing compared to your ordeal."
He shrugged, apparently not wanting to debate the matter. I glanced around, settling on a picture of him in uniform. One grey bar: first lieutenant. I asked unnecessarily, "You are with the air force?"
"Yes, been stationed here for two years. It's nice here, hopefully it'll be a more permanent position than my last ones."
"A travelling life? I had a similar childhood with my father's business." A little info volunteered was a useful gesture of openness. The fact that it indicated a similarity between his daughter and me was icing.
I realized he seemed surprised by me. Hmm, was I supposed to be nervous? Less worldly? Fortunately, any questions he might have had were interrupted by Dinah coming down the stairs. She wore a light pink dress and had her hair done up. She looked really good. I reminded myself to mention that to her once out of earshot of her father.
I smiled and offered her my arm. She gave me an odd look. Too formal? I waved goodbye to her father and drove us to the concert hall.
I had selected the band primarily because they were playing tonight, but I had listened to a few songs and they were palatable. The music was a strange fusion of classical and metal. From what I had read the band started out playing pure classical music and gradually added more metal components. Regardless, they were popular and interesting.
We sat in a raised booth. I wanted to give us some privacy while still being in the thick of the crowd. The band encouraged conversations during their performance - if you could manage the necessary volume. Dinah smiled at me with some embarrassment. "You know, you didn't have to ask me out just because I kissed you."
I blinked. "I know. I might not have particularly considered you a romantic possibility, but I'm open to getting to know you better." I did feel I needed to make this clear. "I mean. No promises of course. Um, you're very nice, but this might not amount to anything."
She smiled shyly. "Yes. I understand." Slowly she reached out and touched my hand. I wrapped my hand around hers. It was nice. I felt a sudden sense of being watched. I glanced around, but nothing seemed out of place. Surreptitiously, I slipped my HUD on and checked my scout drones. They scanned the audience and sight angles, but came up with nothing out of the ordinary.
I slipped the HUD off and smiled apologetically at Dinah's concerned look. "Sorry, it's nothing. My father always spied on any date I've been on. In fact he tended to have secretly arranged them from the beginning. I was just paranoid that he was watching." I shuddered. "Or that he arranged this whole thing somehow."
She nodded sympathetically. "Your father had a big effect on you."
"Yeah. I mean I can't really complain - he forced me to make the most of myself. I look at other people and wonder if I would be like them if he had simply acted as fathers are expected to."
"And that would be a bad thing?" She didn't sound critical, just curious.
"Frankly, yes. It sounds egoistical, but I'm better than most people at most things I care about. I like who I am. If I didn't, I would change myself."
"So easy? Could you really change yourself like that?"
"I've done it before. It's why I am who I am."
She was silent for a minute. "Is this why what Mechaner said didn't bother you?"
"Oh, that? No, he was just trying to get to me - get to you. I mean yes, I'm not entirely normal empathy-wise. Maybe I even have some control issues relative to the average person. Sometimes I get a nice plan and I can't help but implement it. I'm not a psychopath though. Even Mechaner doesn't actually think I am."
"How do you know?"
"He didn't actually expect me to torture him. Or threaten his family. He just finished accusing me of being a psychopath, but he wasn't worried when I turned off the recording equipment? I think if he had really believed I was a psychopath he would have connected the dots sooner."
"Doesn't it worry you? That he might be right, even if he doesn't believe it? You did those things after all."
"Not really. He sprinkled in just enough truth to make it seem plausible, then relied on selecting something we would be afraid was true. Besides - with my father? I've been to psychologists too. Mechaner simply wasn't giving a correct diagnosis."
She nodded, not completely reassured. "Don't worry - I don't think you are a psychopath."
"Are you concerned about what he said about you? You shouldn't be; like I said he sprinkled in just enough truth to make you worry about the rest."
She smiled halfheartedly. "Yeah. Classic villain tactic, I know."
"I don't believe it about you either."
She was silent.
"Is..." I paused, considering. "Is this something you want to talk about it? What worries you or whatever?"
She nodded slowly, but I wasn't sure if she was responding to my comment. "Yes. It's true that I'm afraid of being abandoned. My biological mother abandoned me when I was eight. I spent two weeks wandering, begging food. I kept expecting her to come back, and I knew she would get in trouble for leaving me. I didn't want to be a bother, because she'd always complain if I made something difficult.
This was in the fall in Ukraine, so it was cold. When I realized I might freeze to death I talked to a police man. I was adopted after a year. Mom and Dad have been great, but we keep moving because of Dad's position. I leave behind all the friends I make. Eventually we just drift out of touch."
She looked depressed for a moment then smiled and shook her head. "I know it's silly, but I can't help but be sure the same is going to happen with everyone here. Rin and Naomi. All my other friends. At least a little of his accusation that I'm nice just because I'm afraid everyone will leave me is true. At least maybe it is. I don't really know.
When I was in the orphanage I tried so hard to be perfect and nice whenever prospective parents would visit. I was afraid they wouldn't like me, or that I would be a bother." She shrugged, but seemed a little proud. "After a while I found I just liked being nice. Maybe it really is because I'm afraid. I don't think Mechaner is correct, but I guess it's close enough that I'm not honestly sure."
I squeezed her hand. "Don't believe him. Besides, everyone wants other people to like them, it's human nature. Nothing wrong with it." I wasn't quite sure how to convey this point. "Most children - most people - who are mistreated terribly don't act like you did. They don't go out of their way to be cheerful and help others. It's impressive that you did."
"Is it? It's still selfish. I feel happier when I help someone, or befriend them. Am I just doing it for myself then?"
I laughed. "That's a bit of an ancient problem. Why do we do anything. I've seen you try to cheer someone up even when you were in pain, right after the school attack. You had good reason to have other things on your mind, yet you still focused on other people. I think that's really the important distinction.
If you do something only when it gives you immediate positive feedback, then yes, it's questionably motivated. If you do something because you are, or want to be, that type of person? I don't think you can criticize that. Why worry about not even your methods, but the motives behind your methods?"
She nodded. "Thanks. I'm not sure if I agree completely. There are things I don't do both because they are wrong and I don't enjoy them. So what if I did enjoy them? If I don't care about my methods and my motives I can't know what I'll do next time."
"Fair enough. I think you are underestimating yourself, though." I shrugged, turning my attention to the music. We went to a tea shop afterwards, but didn't stay long.
She kissed me goodnight. This time I was able to enjoy it more. Belatedly, I remembered to compliment her appearance. "You look really beautiful. That dress suits you. I was going to say so when I first saw you, but didn't want to do it in front of your father."
She giggled. "Thanks. You don't need to worry, he wouldn't mind. In fact he would love it."
"Hmm. That might be what I'm afraid of," I joked. I dropped her off and drove back to my own apartment. On the way, I dictated a question regarding deceased mental health professionals to the spook - Mr. Nakada.
We went on two more actual dates. Mainly though, we just talked more often, sat next to each other more often.
Three weeks later I finally heard back from the PSIA and DIH. They found a psychiatrist they believed Mechaner had murdered. The psychiatrist had rented a storage space and kept a backup server with patient records there. The DIH had managed to rescue some of the contents after the storage unit was cleared out for non-payment. They requested our attendance.