I saw red. I wiped off the face mask, paint streaming off the hydrophobic surface. The entire room was completely covered in red paint. The girls' costumes had been transformed from cheery to macabre.
"What. Was. That." Lina sounded like she wanted to be angry, but couldn't manage to overcome her pure confusion.
We heard a voice over our earbuds. "A win for red team. Good job, Amaterasu! Blue team come on up so we can debrief."
Anyone who didn't know Jackson well wouldn't realize he was nearly cackling right now. We trudged up the spiral stairs to find Jackson and Amaterasu sitting in cushy recliners situated improbably among the wreckage. Jackson spoke once we were arrayed in front of them.
"I expect you are put out, so understand why I arranged for Amaterasu to betray you. The most dangerous thing in combat is surprise. A threat you didn't anticipate, that doesn't adhere to your assumed limitations.
I already tested you against conventional threats on the way in. I needed a way to surprise you, make you think outside the box. Make you fight an enemy that fights more like Mechaner than like a modern military force.
I didn't do it to make you worry about traitors. I hope you are all mature enough to continue to trust each other and not hold this against Amaterasu. She was strongly opposed to even pretending to betray you - which is why she was a perfect choice.
I convinced her that it was better to hurt you, even emotionally, in training than risk someone else hurting you in real life. Now, regarding your responses. Eva, you froze at first, taking her attack instead of dodging, which you were fully capable of doing. You could have run with the briefcase as soon as the door was open instead of staying to fight.
Lina, the storm was a bad choice in those small quarters. An ice chant into Glacier would have been more appropriate. Sebastian: you didn't act when Amaterasu apologized to you - though she shouldn't have done that, and your enemies are not going to.
You should also have recognized the greater threat of the bomb and tried to disable it or evacuate instead of uselessly plugging away at Amaterasu's shield. All of you could have noticed Amaterasu dropping the Solid Light on the newly created shaft, and hence recognized her escape plan.
On the positive side, I'm glad you all adhered to the safety standards we drilled before this exercise - even in the face of surprise. There were some tense moments where I was afraid I'd have to activate the safety foam."
I think we took it pretty well. We argued some points, but on the whole Jackson had us convinced.
Halfway through the flight back Amaterasu - no, Dinah when out of disguise - sat next to me with her head bowed. I looked over a little confused. Dinah spoke, still looking at her lap. "I know you said you didn't mind, but I'm really sorry. Jackson promised he wouldn't ask me to do something like that again. You don't have to worry around me."
Surprised, I just said, "Yeah, don't worry about it."
She cast a tentative glance up and apparently saw that I was already returning to my drone coverage update. She stood clumsily and started to leave. I reached out and grabbed her hand. "Wait. Sorry, I just take some time to task switch. Why are you worried? You did a great job. We don't blame you for helping Jackson with the training."
"Aren't you..." She fidgeted. "Couldn't you be afraid of me now? If I can pretend well enough to trick all of you, how can you trust me?"
I frowned. "Okay, first of all: I think we should play poker because I can totally read you better than I did during the test. Secondly, I am not going to be scared of you just because you tricked me in a game. Thirdly, wasn't it fun? Stop worrying about us and congratulate yourself on beating all of us."
She smiled hesitantly. "It was a little fun. I was even more scared than normal, though."
I nodded. "Good. Friends should be able to have a little fun at each others expense. Like pranks. Doesn't mean anything."
Dinah hesitated, looking away and then back to me. "Sebastian. Eva told me you were the one who got Hiroshi in trouble with the police. Why?"
Uh oh. "He wasn't a nice guy, and he was harassing you. I didn't really do that much to frame him, just made sure he was caught at a bad time with some extra product."
"You did that to help me?"
I wasn't sure how much trouble I was in. Her tone was undecipherable.
"Yeah, I did it because he was harassing you. Uh, and you did thank me when I got you away from him last time he was harassing you."
"But why did you care? He wasn't really that bad."
"He seemed pretty bad when I was watching. It wasn't difficult to do or anything. Besides he rubbed me the wrong way."
She watched me carefully but just nodded with a small smile before continuing to the cockpit, presumably to talk to Jackson.
I sighed and tabbed back to the magical girl anime. It was for research. Plus I was almost to the finale. Mechaner at least seemed to expect this whole situation to fall into standard magical girl tropes.
There were some strange similarities. I did have some criticisms: if this was a magical girl anime it could do with more fan service. Shorter skirts for one thing. I thought back to the effect falling long distances had on the skirts. They were more realistically modest, but maybe there was some fan service.
If it was that type of story, there would have to be a romance. I pondered. Rin would be the cold one who acted like she didn't care. We had the most in common, character-wise. She was definitely beautiful and very intelligent. Most importantly, she had some real understanding about how to use her intelligence. Her personality... hmm, probably too much like mine.
Naomi the spirited one. The classic logic and passion duo. Plus she plays video games and has Xena's body type.
Dinah would be the kind and innocent one to balance out my ruthless ways. I probably understood her the least, despite her apparently simple beneficence. Nevertheless, she was the most ... relaxing to be around. You knew she would be happy to see you, happy to talk to you.
Of course maybe it was a different type of anime. Maybe the romance was with them all! Hmm, that required some mental imagery. Or maybe the romance was between the girls. Naomi x Dinah? Rin x Naomi? Dinah x Rin? Hmm. "What are you thinking about?"
I started guiltily. "Uh, nothing!" Apparently I had been zoning out, because Eva stood next to my seat. The suspicious look on her face made me wonder what my expression had been. "Eh just about this, um, surveillance pattern." I chuckled nervously.
I alt-tabbed adroitly and turned my computer to show a completely mundane drone path. Eva still looked suspicious, but seemed to give up on it. "Whatever. Did Dinah speak to you?"
"Yeah," I said slowly. How much of that was in confidence?
"Did you say something to her?"
"Yes." Better nip this in the bud. "Just that she didn't need to worry, that I still trusted her, and that she should see it as a prank or something."
She narrowed her eyes, but nodded thoughtfully. "Okay. Good. That's fine. She is surprisingly upset about this. Do not implement one of your plots to 'help her.' Don't even plot one of your plots. You can speak to her supportively, in fact you should, but don't say anything hurtful or I'll hurt you worse."
"Ah, okay. Sounds good."
Two weeks, three thwarted Mechaner attacks, and two feel-good drug busts later I sighed with contentment. Time for some answers - and a nice high class soiree. I made the finishing adjustment to my bow-tie and stepped out of the black SUV.
I gave a quick look around before offering a helping hand. Lina scowled and exited unaided. The gubernatorial debate was coming to town, and the enormous paired towers chosen for the readily televised auditorium also happened to house a telecom station. Specifically, the nexus of servers and antennae that the mysterious call I had received at the beginning of all this originated from.
The girls' calls were not routed internationally, so those records were gone by the time I started to look. The opportunity was too good to pass up. The security demand for the debates ensured that only a skeleton crew would be manning the upper floors.
We had forged identity cards and copied access cards. We had a sloppy night watchman's codes, and we had invitations as important donors to the cheapest candidate. We had disguise fields activated, and weren't wearing anything identifiable.
I had the majority of the hardware - you could hide a lot more in a tuxedo than you could in a modern dress. I suspected Eva of having martial intentions for those hairpins though.
So yes, we were embracing cliché and infiltrating by attending a party. Two flutists and a subdued pianist entertained the pre-debate mix and meet. Several tables laid out in no discernible pattern held sculptures competing for 'made from most inconvenient material.'
The candidates mingled with their donors. Several of them seemed to have teleprompters hidden on their aides. They probably had earpieces and were being fed names and donation figures. We nodded politely to random people, before being accosted by the candidate we had donated to. "Mr. West, a pleasure to meet you in person!"
Oh right, I was Mr. West. "Indeed err," I blanked on his name. Jackson's amused voice filled my ear. "Dr. Nakamura" Okay, maybe I couldn't criticise the politicians. "Dr. Nakamura. We look forward to your performance."
"Oh, I am confident it will be exceptional. Afterwards we must have an in-depth discussion. I have some great plans for Tokyo, and I'm sure you do too. Once we get to know each other better, I hope I can convince you to lend me your whole-hearted support."
"Of course! Perhaps start with lunch. Have your assistant contact mine." A last minute contender, he didn't have a chance. No wonder he was trying to scrape a connection to these surprise donors.
I forgot his face and name the moment he turned his attention to the girls. Unsurprisingly, he seemed even more excited to make their acquaintance. I was excited to acquaint myself with wonderful array of delectables.
After half an hour of politicking and an hour of sitting the debate began. We stopped by a bathroom and slipped on some technician overalls (optimized for packability). A bored ID check and a security elevator ride later, we were on the 85th floor.
The sole attraction this floor held was a huge aquarium tank. One we could float in invisible to sonar, radar and thermal scans. The security crew would finish sweeping the floors above, and hopefully miss us on their way down. Sadly, we couldn't take the elevator to a floor above one they had already swept - they weren't that careless.
I had nixed James Bond strategies like crawling up the glass exterior or climbing the elevator lines. Security drones patrolled a wide periphery of restricted airspace, and accessing the top elevator without setting off alarms was pretty darn tough. We would simply wait for the security team to pass us, then walk up the stairs.
We had the access codes to bypass security doors and alarms, and the building surveillance was unmanned. We could either delete the security footage, or rely on the forces that were censoring all magical girl photographs and footage.
Unfortunately I hadn't planned entertainment. The security crew was taking its time, and I was bored floating in the dark. "Jackson, any update?"
"Well the debates are exciting."
"How so?" I was suspicious he was being sarcastic.
"Dr. Nakamura has accused the two leading candidates of Yakuza connections."
"Oh really? I'm starting to like this guy."
"Yep. He's right of course."
"Oh yes, it's common if unspoken knowledge among the political elite."
"Wait, so the two leading candidates for the second most powerful position in the country are Yakuza? And people know that?"
"Well only one of them is actually Yakuza, the other guy just has some arrangements."
"That doesn't really make it much better."
"It's not that odd. Yakuza are more institutionalized than other organized crime. They keep things nice and orderly. They don't make waves for the legal side of the populace, and in return the legal populace doesn't make waves for them. The leading candidate is straight up Yakuza, and half his platform is law and order. Frankly, he's the best positioned to deliver it too."
"So Nakamura is making waves."
"Yep. You know someone else who is making waves? You guys. The Yakuza are not happy with you guys or Mechaner."
"Maybe the donation wasn't a waste after all."
"He still doesn't have a chance. Everyone who matters already knows what he is saying. Sure it's embarrassing to have it publicly pointed out, but if anything it'll lose him volunteers and dedicated supporters. The common citizen doesn't want to associate with anti-Yakuza sentiment."
Eva chimed in. "So we need to check our backs for Yakuza."
Jackson agreed. "Yes. They are a lot more unscrupulous than the police, obviously. If they discovered your civilian identities your families would be in danger. Of course you would also be in danger from several foreign and domestic agencies."
I expounded on the subject for a bit. "The nation states seem to have kept themselves surprisingly out of it. Probably don't want to start something with everyone else ready to jump in. Criminals might not be so reluctant."
"Well, Dr. Nakamura's got balls then. Handsome too. At least I think so - I wasn't really paying attention. What's he a doctor of?" Lina wondered idly.
"Sure, you weren't paying attention." Amaterasu giggled. "Just enough to notice he was handsome and a doctor."
"Hey! It's true. I was too busy trying not to be suspicious to check him out," Lina objected loudly.
"A little quieter please." Eva was too nice about it, in my opinion.
Jackson cut in calmly. "PhD. Doesn't say what in. He's got the Japanese poker face down pat anyway. The Yakuza candidates are quietly apoplectic. Poor moderator, he's having a meltdown - can't keep anyone on topic."
The security team began their sweep of our floor, so we all hushed until we were certain they were gone.
Show time. "Alright, let's move fast. Eva, take point as usual. I'll follow with Lina. Amaterasu, take rear."
"Got it Odysseus." Eva put a special emphasis on my still unfamiliar codename.
We rolled out of the aquarium and took swift (and dripping) steps toward the stairs. After two floors of stop and go progress, Amaterasu cut in. "Guys. What does Dr. Nakamura look like?"
"Not now!" Three voices silenced her. Even Lina sounded annoyed.
"But ..." she whispered with a helpless tone.
"Shh," I hushed her.
"No!" She stopped, and braced herself before raising her voice slightly. "Answer my question."
"I don't know, I wasn't paying attention," I bit out. We would discuss this inanity after the mission.
I turned to gesture Eva into motion, but she just stared at Amaterasu with a horrified expression. "I don't remember either."