I woke up with a headache again. Not nearly as bad as the last time, but not pleasant. I was on a military cot in a normal office. My ribs were bound and I was on a IV drip.

I groaned and covered my eyes. It wasn't because of my headache. I had lost the project to my father. I simply wasn't necessary. My semi-undercover approach might lend results eventually, but there was no need for it when he had the girls already.

Other than the potential for befriending them, I was no better than hundreds Father could hire. Oh, I had my notes and ideas, but nothing Father couldn't figure out for himself. Especially now that he had them in his power.

I still had to try. I pulled myself out of bed and checked the time; 3:00 AM, thirteen hours after the fight. I ate the sandwich on the table, dressed in the provided suit, and marched out the door with purpose.

Mechaner was powerful and monstrous, but he was insane, and any man could be a monster. Time to face a truly dangerous foe.

Father awaited me in his office. His body shape was what was popularly called bearish. You expected him to be wearing flannel and cradling a giant saw. The opposite of me, in other words.

This impression lasted until he opened his mouth or you looked him in the eye. Silky smooth, perfectly controlled. "Welcome, Sebastian. You've put your head in the hornets nest this time."

I began to respond, but he continued. "This disguise field is very disconcerting. Immensely useful, certainly, but disconcerting to see on you. We'll have them remove it soon of course."

I wet my lips and decided to ignore the second point. "I needed to get into the action, Father. I have a unique opportunity."

"You took excessive personal risk. More pertinently, you concealed your endeavour from me."

"You wanted me to prove myself with an independent project? Well you can't blame me for trying to keep the project independent."

"I don't blame you, but it is important to note. You were setting yourself in opposition to me."

"Then treat with me based on my resources and potential. I found the magical girls first, I am still the expert on them, and I have the most potential to befriend them."

"Expert? Perhaps, but we will get the information from them eventually. Your value on that front is fast decreasing. You don't have much time to leverage your knowledge."

"I'm sure you've seen the same videos and done the same research, but I have two weeks of direct experience."

"Ah yes, you could start by decrypting your computer. Jackson tells me you acquired a good corpus regarding the magical girls." His voice was still perfectly calm, but something felt off.

I frowned. I could pretend I had more exclusive information there than I actually did, but I had tested father before, and knew that wouldn't work. "Why do you need it - I'm sure you've replicated most of my research."

He paused for a moment. "Information, particularly photographs or videos of the magical girls and the demon attacks, is being suppressed."

I waited. He would predict my questions regarding that.

"From what we can reconstruct, it began, or at least significantly ramped up, shortly after your capture. A major power is acting to reduce available information. I would suspect the Japanese government - they are the most likely to benefit from such suppression - but my sources there indicate complete disarray."

"How is the suppression being undertaken? Are we talking stormtroopers in the dead of night, or something more subtle?"

"Primarily electronic infiltration, but law enforcement in several countries has been involved. It is unclear how their intervention was obtained. The perpetrator has significant resources. We have counted five previously unknown hardware level exploits, and that is a bare minimum."

"That... still seems impossible. Surely someone has a memory card with videos on it, or went on vacation without internet access. I'll decrypt my research if you let me continue my project my own way."

He shook his head. "Not enough."

"Don't underestimate them. It's much safer and easier to let them work with me of their own free will."

"I believe you are overstating their trust in you. They kept you chained up - not a positive indication."

"How did you learn that? Besides, I've been making progress. I've learned more chained up by them than you'll get by chaining them up."

"You are overestimating high school students. We've already obtained substantial information."

He turned and picked up a remote control, turning on a huge CRT in the corner. I glanced at him aghast. Despite not being able to see my look he responded. "We're limiting exposure of any digital device to anything magical girl related. The information-suppression effort is disturbingly effective at compromising supposedly secure systems."

He pulled out an analog pad with several joysticks and buttons. "We installed a purely analog surveillance system in the bunker and surrounding area."

On the screen the image zoomed in on Amaterasu. She was leaning back in a comfortable chair talking to a smiling elderly man. She wasn't obviously restrained, and her posture was relaxed. Had she really started talking right away? I felt disappointed and even a little hurt. Did I really seem so untrustworthy in comparison?

"May I?" I asked, pointing at the control pad. He handed it to me without comment, observing me closely. I switched to a different camera. She was too relaxed; her eyes glazed.

"You drugged them."

"Mainly just pain medication. A few more obscure drugs to encourage their loquaciousness. It's always possible we'll come under scrutiny, so we might as well start with deniable measures."

"What have you learned?" On the screen I had located Eva and Lina. They were both in separate rooms. Eva was ignoring her interrogator - she seemed even more out of it than the others. Perhaps she had resisted and was sedated more?

"Just fragments so far - a downside of the drugs. The fact that they're high-school students, some details about Mechaner, their abilities, and their everyday lives. Not enough to pinpoint their identities yet, or the source of their power."

I realized that the behavior Eva exhibited had another explanation: she was in her Divine Cognizance Meditation. I waggled the camera that was most likely to be in her field of view.

"No matter," Father continued, "dependence should take two weeks. They'll be thoroughly interrogated at that point. If they aren't ready to cooperate at that point, then the withdrawal should convince them."

I wanted to look at him, but was afraid I'd reveal my feelings about that. I concentrated on maintaining a contemplative expression.

Eva glanced at the camera when it moved. I wracked my brain for a way to get them out of the bunker. The most obvious plan was to threaten the interrogators. Of course, that wouldn't work on my father, and the girls wouldn't be willing to.

My father watched me with hooded eyes. I feared he suspected my thought process. The whole bunker was buried in bedrock. Maybe Lina could burn her way out or Eva could cut her way out, but it would take a while. The door would be penetrable, but was doubtless heavily guarded.

On the other hand, Father didn't have my level of research. Did he know the rate at which the girl's bodies metabolized toxins? Maybe he expected them to be disabled for much longer.

The bunker was tough, but it wasn't a prison. They were inside the bunker - a bunker designed to be controlled from within, not without.

I waggled the camera until I was sure Eva was looking at it. I started moving the camera in jerks, returning it to the original position after each jerk. Long short long short, pause, long, pause. Eva winked.

I needed to stall Father a little longer. I changed the focus to the camera watching Lina. I faced Father and turned the controller so my arm hid the small movements of the joystick. Short long short, pause, short long short short.

"What if whoever is responsible for their powers gets upset they are missing?"

"You believe someone is responsible for their abilities?"

"Someone or something. The powers smack of intelligence."

"I agree, but the candidates are either nonexistent if you require evidence or in abundance if you accept mere hypotheses."

"Regardless, isn't it safer to not disturb the status quo? Especially when they have been keeping Mechaner at bay. He might be insane, but he's caused a lot of damage, and conventional forces haven't been successful at preventing him."

I had completed my message: "CTRL CNTR 2 LFT BLK DOOR USE CODE H39MV19OA"

"The reasons for the ineffectiveness of law enforcement are complicated and, I suspect, tied up in this whole mystery. I can't believe you seriously think the magical girls are acting in an effective manner, so I won't argue the point."

I opened my mouth to respond, but stopped. Point enough in his favor to pretend to be ruminating on that. The silence dragged on long enough that I felt I needed to say something lest he become suspicious. "You risk..."

An earsplitting wail filled the room. I quickly flipped through the available feeds. Eva blurred out of the control room and past the slumped form of her interrogator. She had input the code I gave her. The biohazard lockdown was beginning. That would slow down any response.

"Father, they are escaping. I need to go!"

He responded with a polite smile. "They are attempting to escape."

On the screen I saw the magical girls reunite. They discussed something shortly, then turned and began storming the guards, who were setting up defensively in front of the vault door exit. Amaterasu cast Dazzling Display Diversion and the exit room filled with illusory fireworks. I could make out nothing else.

The camera from outside the vault showed ten mercenaries - all those within this compartment of the biohazard lockdown. A nervous pair pulled coils of razor wire in front of the vault door before diving back behind sandbag entrenchments.

They were preparing a heavy machine gun and something that looked like an attack helicopter's missile pod. Father saw me looking and explained calmly, "Mixed HE and WP. The girls have normal pain response, so I doubt they can fight with white phosphorus burning into their skin. We took a page out your book and loaded the machine gun's rounds with a paralytic agent."

The vault door began to glow dimly. The mercenaries shuffled nervously. The vault door reached a brilliant yellow glow, the light reflecting off the sweating mercenaries.

With a thump that I felt through the floor twenty stories above, much of the vault door blew outward in half-melted fragments. The mercenaries dropped down behind the sandbags and were unscathed.

By the time they raised their heads, Amaterasu was visible through the blasted gap in the door. She shouted a spell, but I couldn't tell which it was from the angle.

Why were they not sprinting through the gap? Was the door still too hot to go through? A small area like that made them perfect targets for the firepower arrayed in front of them.

The machine gun and missile pod opened up. I felt the HE rounds through the floor as well. The camera could barely see what was going on. The sheer volume of firepower, explosions and white phosphorus smoke made the effect difficult to discern.

A green cone shot through the door and blasted one of the three sandbag embankments. How? She couldn't have shielded or the bullets would be reflecting. I didn't think she could hold out under this type of bombardment either - Lina could blast down her shield quickly in practice.

Another beam took out the machine gun. For that matter, she couldn't use any other abilities without dropping the shield. A third wide beam knocked over the nearly expended missile pod.

The view was hopeless with all the WP smoke. I flipped back to the view from inside the bunker. The illusory fireworks were gone. The three girls stood untouched behind a Solid Light Reformation of the vault door.

Amaterasu fired a wide beam Red Rainbow Reformation through the translucent door. The white phosphorus smoke reached the mercenaries and they scattered, defenses destroyed. Amaterasu dismissed the reformation and the girls strode out into the roiling smoke.

I turned to Father, a polite smile on my lips. He was speaking swiftly into a practically antique phone. He hung up. "We'll use my personal elevator; it's not locked out by the biohazard alarm. I have a helicopter on the roof. No, it's not going to be taken down like yours was. Significant reinforcements are on the way."

I was still following the girls out of the corner of my eye. They were checking rooms as they passed instead of sprinting for an exit. Father had noticed too. He wore a fractional frown.

"They are looking for me, trying to rescue me," I said pleading. "If I get in position I can pretend to be held captive."

He frowned. "I suspect you are complicit in this debacle. Nonetheless this proves you have succeeded at extracting a modicum of obligation. I will leave the situation in your care for now. Keep me appraised if you don't want further interference."

I judged their progress and likely path, while quickly asking, "Where are the clothes I came in with?"

He shrugged and replied. "At a forensics lab."

Damn, I didn't have much time. "Then find me some poorly fitted casual clothes."

He nodded and went into the attached bedroom. The magical girls went through another squad of mercenaries, this time with a surprise attack by Eva. The ruins of her hands (thankfully covered with bandages now) meant she had no weapon, but her feet proved easily sufficient.

Father returned with a pair of jeans and a nondescript T-shirt. They were sized for him. I took them with an incredulous look. He laughed with a glimpse of real humor. "I like going out incognito sometimes. That means ditching the three piece suit."

I quickly stripped and dressed. Father handed me a strangely shaped half ring. "Since you removed your implanted tracker, take this. Wear it around a back molar. There's a switch you can flip with your tongue. It will vibrate slightly if activating, so you can turn it off within five seconds if you turned it on accidentally.

It will send a distress signal and audio feed with more range than the passive chip. We will confirm receipt by sending three short buzzes. It only lasts for one hour once activated. I will keep the surveillance limited to aerial drones at a distance if you wear this."

"Very well." I took the device and wedged it on. I could already tell it was going to be irritating. I took another glance at the monitor to get a fix on the magical girls' location. "A key, please. One to an office on floor three."

He handed me a key. "It will work on any of the rooms on that floor."

I stepped into the elevator and pressed the third floor button.

"Sebastian?"

"Yes?"

"You dealt with me successfully, forcing my hand. I'm proud of you."

I paused, unsure how to respond, then nodded as the door closed.

The private elevator opened onto a segment of ten offices bounded by sealed automatic doors. A few houseplants waved in the breeze from the air vent. An occasional bweep and a red tint to the lighting were the only signs that things were amiss.

I locked myself in an office with a couch and hid the key. I sat on the couch, messed up my hair, and tried to look surprised.

A storm pounded the full wall window. Lina's work no doubt. The door rattled before crashing open. Eva led them into the room, all looking a little worse for wear. I tried to look grateful as they approached me.

Lina wrapped an arm around me. Huh? I felt a flood of confusion. She was awkwardly hugging me? Had those drugs really worn off? Eva kicked out the window and a blast of rain pelted us.

Lina marched me towards the opening. Maybe they weren't coming to rescue me. "I was trying to help you!" I squirmed and tried to catch my feet on something, but she was too strong. "No! Wait!"

Implacable, she pulled me to the edge. I looked down at the abyss and mindless panic overwhelmed me. I thrashed and clawed to get away from the edge, but it wasn't enough.

Paradoxically, free fall was less terrifying. I opened my eyes. Lina had jumped with me. She held me in one arm while supporting Eva and Amaterasu with the other. A blast of wind and rain hit us from below, driving us into the sky.

~~~~

Chapter 5: Into the Sky

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