Oh. Oh fuck. None of us could remember his facial features.

"Are you saying we donated to Mechaner's political campaign?"

Lina laughed then managed a concerned expression.

Jackson chimed in. "You need to decide fast whether to continue the mission. If Mechaner plans on doing something, he could pull it at any moment."

I thought out loud. "We could get the info, then join the fight if he attacks. He could be after important hostages or something. On the other hand, we could get stuck here with a serious security response - there's a lot of hardware surrounding this place."

Eva decided. "We can't let this opportunity go to waste. Keep your eyes open everyone, in case this is a trap for us."

We reached the telecom floor without incident. I plugged a cracker into the primary terminal. I pulled up the logs on my own HUD, but Jackson got there first. "I have the logs, but the stuff we want is restricted. Even on this secure local network it doesn't let me have access to those calls."

The logs were restricted? More work by our mysterious censor?

"Damn, okay we'll have to try this directly. Can you get the server numbers?"

"Give me a minute."

The server room took up a quarter of the floor. Our stolen credentials didn't work on that security door either. Not nearly as many people needed physical access to the servers, so this wasn't surprising.

As soon as Jackson identified the three servers we wanted I gave up on the lock picking and stepped back. "Lina, if you would." She smiled and started kicking the door off its hinges. It was a very tough door, as it turned out. We were forced to resort to Eva's imbued hair pins.

We sprinted to the correct server rack. There was no audible alarm, but I was sure someone was getting a rude interruption. I found the rack we wanted and double checked the number before extracting the three servers, being careful not to unplug them.

We took off the three covers simultaneously. I upended a small bottle of canned air and sprayed the ram chips. Once they were completely cooled by the volatile liquid spray, I pulled them off and quickly inserted them into a compact power board covered with ram slots. Once we had all three ram chips safely powered we ripped out the hard-drives and slotted similar-looking replacements into the servers.

Eva was replacing the last server when she asked, "Why is there a single expensive server in each of the racks?"

"I don't know - load balancer or something?"

"It's not numbered or labelled."

"So maybe it... let's take it." I had a gnawing suspicion.

We dissected it quickly.

Lina returned from a quick sweep looking flustered. "Security's here. They don't look like they are messing around either."

We rushed out, leaving the server on the floor. We couldn't copy and replace the hard-drives in time, so they would know most of what we had done, regardless. I was hopeful they wouldn't realize the ram chips had been replaced, and hence might think we didn't have any encryption keys that were only stored in volatile memory.

Jackson's voice came over the earpiece. "Mechaner has unveiled. There's gunfire in the auditorium."

"Let's move. Jackson: is there a good exit with minimal security coverage?"

"You could take the stairs on the other side, I don't have coverage of that area. If you want to try it move fast."

I gestured and Lina grabbed me. We didn't want to unleash her on squishy humans, so she was best to tie up with the task of holding me. Being carried at a full sprint was a lot worse without my armor suit. We reached the stairs a few seconds before the full-body-suited special operative types arrived.

This was not standard security, even for the debate. They opened fire as soon as they noticed us. Amaterasu shielded us long enough to get through the door. I activated my lone drone.

Damn, I wish I could have sneaked more in, but the carefully crafted cigarette case was already pushing it. Lina nearly burned out my retinas by melting the door. I sent the drone dropping through the staircase.

We couldn't risk using an elevator, so we would have to run down eighty-seven flights. The girls wouldn't get tired, but I would be bruised. My drone found a second team coming up the stairs. Jackson reported. "The security outside is fighting Mechaner's forces. Mechaner is holding the audience hostage, and forcing them to continue the debate. Security forces are surrounding the auditorium, but seem reluctant to invade it."

With a little risk, we could take the security force coming up the stairs, but I didn't want to attack the cops - bad PR. Of course, these might not be cops. I waved at the door. "Leave the stairs on this floor. We'll drop down the elevator shaft."

The buzz of drones came from below, four floors down and rising fast. We pushed through the door. I glanced at the floor number: seventy-seven. Not far enough. A quad-copter awaited us in the atrium on the other side.

The drone charged, dodging left as Lina's Vengeance Fusillade flashed down. It wasn't fast enough. Amaterasu shielded us from the explosion. The blast crumbled the walls. That was too powerful - it must have been loaded with high explosive. Using suicide drones inside public buildings - that was unexpectedly extreme.

Eva ripped the elevator doors apart, setting off the first audible alarm we had encountered. We looked down. An elevator was coming up fast, but was still far below. Eva jumped on the line and rode it down. A terrible squeal came where her hardened mechanical hand grasped the steel line.

She let go a moment before the elevator reached her. I wondered what the people in the elevator thought. A strange whine. A second of silence, then a deafening thud and the elevator ceiling crumples. In the blink of an eye, the ceiling peeled apart by a beautiful woman. Dodging gunfire, she dismantles your entire packed squadron in a second.

We jumped in the elevator and reversed direction. They knew where we were. Had we dodged past their lines, or were their main forces still inbound? They must have their hands full with Mechaner.

Unless these troops were truly separate from the debate security - military? Eva shouted, "Ama, shield!" Amaterasu shielded us a second before the elevator disappeared, shredded by an oversized fireball.

We dropped in free fall, surrounded by a rainbow bubble. I couldn't see the expression of the RPG wielder we fell past, but I'd like to think it was discombobulated. We hit the end of the shaft pretty hard. Fortunately, the air pressure of the shaft slowed us down enough for me to survive intact.

Jackson reported. "Debate security forces inbound. The full-body-cover guys don't seem to be coordinating with the debate security."

We extracted ourselves from the wreckage. Amaterasu cut a narrow tunnel to the basement. The basement was largely filled with cars - one cut in half by Amaterasu's Rainbow Resonance.

We ran to one of the garage entrances. A tank rolled past and turned its turret. I flinched, even though it wasn't pointing at me. Across the block a second tank shuddered to a halt and started smoking. "Jackson, you didn't mention this was a war zone!"

The point defense on the tank opened up. The blaze reminded me why I had insisted on wearing my common laser wavelength filtering contacts. Several missiles burned out and crashed nearby, but a more substantial drone came within range and turned its oversized belly towards the tank. I pulled my head down half a second before the shockwave.

The tank was in pieces. The pieces were crawling around and reattaching in a random fashion, baled together with thin metal cables. Eva muttered, "Damn. Mechaner is fighting the army with their own equipment."

She continued louder, "We need to get the RAM and hard-drives out of here, but we also need to try to stop Mechaner. Lina, can you fly the gear and hardware out of here? Coordinate with Jackson to find a safe drop-off point. I'll try talking to the security forces, see if we can coordinate against Mechaner - maybe that'll keep them from shooting you as well. Wait for my signal. Odysseus and Amaterasu come with me."

We nodded, and Eva took off in her halting danger sense movement. We went up to the level of the auditorium, halting halfway up the stairs to remove our overalls. Jackson said something I couldn't make out before poking his conventionally disguised bald head around the corner. "Jackson! What are you doing here? You are supposed to be safely holed up across the street."

"Yeah, but you need to make a good impression. I made a run for it." He tossed a large bag on the ground. "I'll hole up in a corner of the basement, and continue providing ops support."

The bag contained our costumes. I was happy to put on that obnoxiously heavy body armor. The whole time I couldn't help but think about how a single stray bullet could kill me.

We dressed quickly, and ran up to find someone who looked to be in charge. We slowed down quickly with a bunch of guns in our face. Eva spoke with admirable calm. "We are here to help. Let us talk to your commander."

A grey-haired man in a standard Tokyo Metro PD uniform approached. "I'm chief superintendent Koga. Make it quick and convincing."

"We are here to help against Mechaner," Eva responded primly, hands crossed behind her back.

"Yeah, I've seen you fight. All over the city. Do you know how many tens of millions in damages you've caused?"

Eva frowned. "We were saving lives. Which is what we want to do now!"

"Too late. You haven't made any contact with law enforcement until now. You've evaded any kind of legal responsibility. Why shouldn't I arrest you right now?"

I stepped in. "These are exceptional circumstances, chief superintendent. As you probably know, they've not only saved hundreds of lives, they've brought in tourism revenue worth ten times of any damages. You are concerned with legal responsibility, but we are concerned with moral responsibility."

He cut me off. "No time for a speech. We can debate the ethics of civic duty later."

I cut him off in turn. "Indeed, no time for speeches or allocating past blame. Let us help save these hostages now."

He growled. "I'm open to suggestions. But I need something substantial."

Amaterasu spoke quietly. "If you agree, I'll promise to come with you peacefully."

I shook my head. "No, I'll do it." Amaterasu was not a good choice for resisting interrogation. Eva would be the best of the girls, but I didn't want to reveal that she was wearing two prosthetics. There couldn't be that many double amputees in Tokyo.

"Not quite what I meant by substantial, but I recognize the difficulties. I'll expect to see all of you after this. As for you, 'Odysseus,' if you try to escape we will use lethal force. Sergeant - don't let this man out of your sights."

I started speaking, uncomfortably aware of how literally the sergeant was taking the order. "Mechaner wants to follow a theme. Your men storming his debate isn't part of the theme. When things aren't part of the theme he gets a lot more dangerous. We'll go in there, try to see what he expects to happen this time. He's taken hostages before, but doesn't seem to mind letting them go as long as they are rescued by magical girls."

The superintendent interrupted. "Our first priority is rescuing the four candidates on that stage. He's covered the lights and camera equipment with those metal cable creatures, and there's these sort of paper vortexes floating in front of the doors. He's forcing the debate to continue. We cut the camera feed, but he knew right away and had a potted plant start strangling an audience member. Right now he's still on the air in Tokyo, but nowhere else. We've pulled back air support outside. He's taken over almost all our ground vehicles outside, but he isn't doing anything with them."

I hesitated. If he wasn't going to mention the shock troops in black full-body armor trying to blow us up, I wasn't sure if I should. I hadn't seen any sign of them near the regular police and military security. We didn't want to get sidetracked into discussing the nature of our arrival.

"Okay we'll open the door and signal that we want to speak. If he lets us in we'll approach slowly and try to separate him from the hostages. You guys be ready to get rid of those vortexes - maybe use fire-hoses. If it goes to hell just get all the audience out. We'll try to direct the fight away from them."

He frowned. "Not really anywhere to go."

I shrugged. "Which wall do you like the least?"

Eva settled into her meditation for twenty seconds. She eyed the huge double doors leading down the center of the auditorium. She set her shoulders and pushed, opening both sides of the door with a resounding slam.

The audience jerked and looked back. The girls posed, in what I hope they didn't think was an intimidating manner. I stood back and tried to look lofty but uninteresting.

Eva shouted, her voice carrying over the omnipresent rustling of paper and the now hushed hum of the speaker. "Mechaner! Your ill wish for power has reached a new low! You pervert the system of democracy with demons and threats! We will rescue these poor people and keep you from stealing the governorship."

She was hamming it up. The audience sat in stunned silence. Then a single clap erupted into a full on cheer. The girls looked around amazed, before breaking into embarrassed smiles. I guess they didn't realize how much people loved them, especially when the audiences' own lives were on the line.

Mechaner waited a few moments before raising his hand. The crowd instantly quieted. They loved the girls, but did they fear him more? Mechaner spoke. "I will allow you to enter. In fact, you may replace my fellow candidates on the stage. I believe we shall continue the debate with new blood."

We moved forward. The sergeant came with me, his pistol now better hidden, but still ready. A pseudo-silence enveloped the room. The rustling was inaudible this close to the stage, but it was replaced by metallic creaks and pings.

The lights and cameras shifted slightly like something alive - and perhaps they were now. We were surrounded by the construct - its tendrils covered the double row of stage lights in the ceiling. The coils looped around the temporary scaffolding over the stage like it was a trellis, penetrating the massive LED screens that dominated the backdrop.

The boom camera darted forward then retracted like a snake as we passed. The other candidates shuffled off the stage, sweating from much more than the sweltering stage lights. We took position. The audience looked longingly at the now open, unimpeded doors and fearfully at Mechaner.

One woman made a break for it. A piece of the catwalk overhead swung down like a guillotine, carving a small fissure in the tiles directly in front of the fleeing woman. The section of catwalk gradually pulled itself back into the air. Mechaner smiled. "Now how about I let one hostage go for each minute all of you are cooperative."

I frowned. "We aren't letting you dictate terms, Mechaner. This isn't a negotiation." We couldn't let him control us by taking hostages or he'd just do it more.

"Ah yes, allow me to put that another way." The double doors crashed shut, and the vortex began again. "I'll leave a small hole in my defenses. The policemen can start evacuating. We can have a discussion, or not. You can fight or do whatever you want. Of course, if a fight breaks out with these people still here there might be accidental casualties."

A small hole began to appear in the wall. A small construct apparently created from electrical wiring in the wall scratched its way out. It left a hole just large enough for at least the slim people to crawl through.

Eva looked at me and I nodded. That was enough for now. More time would help us, at least I hoped. We sat down, not particularly enjoying the comfy seats, as that would require leaning back.

Mechaner took the place of the stammering moderator. "Now before we begin let's make introductions. I am most widely known as Mechaner, though I will be known as Pando and prefer to be called Warlock."

His theatrical speaking style was more appropriate now, though I was still having trouble seeing him without the mask and costume. He did have a handkerchief in his suit pocket with a silver fractal pattern, which I supposed was a polite reference to his costume.

He gestured to me. I started to glower, but quickly reversed it into a confident smile. I was on camera right now, after all. "I'm Odysseus." I paused, trying to think of something else to say, but Mechaner had moved on. "And the lovely lady." He pointed at Eva.

She spoke icily, but with vigor. "I am Eva."

He pointed at Amaterasu. She stood, curtsied, and spoke with a slight, hesitant quaver. "I am the magical girl of light: Amaterasu!"

Nice one. She played much better to the crowd. Mechaner sighed. "It looks we're missing one debate member, but we'll just have to press on. First topic: what is a hero? Eva - care to comment?"

Eva scowled. "A hero or heroine is someone who is admired for their courage, great acts, and nobility."

"Amaterasu, do you agree?"

Amaterasu spoke. "A hero is someone who braves dangers to help other people."

"Would you say you are heroes? Or heroines as the case may be?"

"I try," Amaterasu said earnestly.

Eva shrugged. "We can't really label ourselves heroines, by definition it's up to the people around us."

"So who would you label a heroine? Is a single mother who works hard to raise her children and make ends meet a heroine?"

"You are just choosing an emotionally charged example to make me look bad. No, admirable as that is, it does not typically count as a great act of courage." I winced at Eva's insistence on following the dictionary definition.

"Thank you for your opinion. Amaterasu, what do you have to say?"

"Uh, I guess bravery is really doing something right even though you are scared."

"Why should you have to be scared? If an act is right, should you not be credited for doing it whether you are afraid or not?"

I was getting annoyed by this dancing around - what did he want? "You can argue semantics or ethics, but don't confuse the two."

"I do not. Our philosophy and our language are linked. Is not the real reason we value bravery the fact that it is difficult? If doing the right thing is easy, why reward those who do it? So we reward those who do something difficult, overcoming their fear, by calling it bravery and celebrating it."

I nodded encouragingly. Perhaps he did have the clich├ęd villainous inclination for monologuing.

"It is more than overcoming fear though, is it not? Else we would celebrate any overcoming of difficulty equally. Where do heroes usually earn their title? Why, from war.

It is those who overcome their fear of death; those who fight despite their own best interest and win their group victory. I do believe you are heroines. I intentionally except 'Odysseus' from this.

You fight for your people, against terrible foes - against me. Your people," he gestured to the twofold captivated audience, "should praise and adore you, yet you are their victims more than they are mine."

A steady stream of audience members were being guided through the hole by the police now. Soldiers were coming in too. Gradually spreading out, gaining better vantage points for their backpack turrets and drones. They trod warily, but Mechaner seemed unconcerned.

"You have been raised - brainwashed in a way - to think that to be a hero is the most noble thing. A society that raises its children to go off to war with empty fantasies of glory. Not so wonderful. Yet I do not even blame the society. For if the society does not praise and reward heroes; does not raise their children to emulate heroes, what happens to the society? It dies out, crushed by a society that did."

"I don't disagree with the basic idea of each of your points, but you've put them together into a whole that implies too much," Eva criticised.

Yep, this getting too much even for me. "So? What does this have to do with us?"

"Eva, you have an idea of the costs of being a heroine. Can you look a little girl in the eye and recommend she follow your footsteps and be a heroine?"

Eva grimaced, eyes flicking almost imperceptibly to her hands. "I would tell her to do what she thought was right. And to think very carefully about what was right first."

"Then say it to the cameras. Because you are speaking to tens of thousands of admiring little girls right now."

Eva looked at the camera and set her jaw. The words came out more softly than I think she intended. "Be completely honest with yourself. Decide what is right. Then do it, if you can."

Mechaner clapped. "Excellent! Nobly put. Perhaps a few more disclaimers would be wise, but why sweat it."

He turned to me "Now, Odysseus. I see you as more of the anti-hero. Do you have any insights on the subject?"

I started to respond, but was distracted by Jackson's voice in my ear. "Lina has delivered the payload and returned. She's watching from outside the security ring. Do you want her to come inside?"

I shook my head "No. Not particularly. You are making it more complicated than it is. People have goals. They fulfill or don't fulfill those goals as the case may be. Fame and public adulation is an odd terminal value, but there are worse. The real problem for many people is they don't recognize their goals, or have conflicting goals, or irrationally pursue their goals."

"Ah, so if only we understood ourselves better, applied our intellects harder there would be no need war or heroes to fight in it?"

"When different people's goals conflict they should do the best they can to resolve that conflict - but sometimes it is not possible without someone losing."

"I see, so if my goal is saving the world would you be in conflict with me?" He asked laughingly. Perhaps with a touch of bitterness.

I froze, keeping my worry from showing. Of course that was a tell in itself. Was he talking about the phone call? The prediction that the magical girls would destroy the world?

"Don't be ridiculous. Either by implying we want to not save the world, or that you are saving the world by acting out your megalomaniacal fantasies!"

He ignored that. "Indeed, perhaps we are too alike, Eva, Odysseus. An outside perspective is needed. Amaterasu - or perhaps the magnificent Lina could come in from outside."

I didn't want Lina in here. She was more valuable on the outside anyway. The soldiers had set up some impressive firepower by now. If it became a fight, the biggest issue might be getting out of their lines of fire. I nodded to Amaterasu.

Amaterasu shuffled her feet. "I don't think like that. I just try to help people. I bet that's what most everyone else does too. There are tough decisions. Helping innocent people who are being injured and killed isn't one. You are hurting people. You might think you have great complicated excuses, but it's simpler than that." She frowned. "Besides, this isn't what you've said before! You said you were an emperor, and you could do what you wanted with your subjects."

"Indeed I am Emperor. Does not an Emperor want what is best for his empire? Is it not his right to do as he wills with his subjects, rebellious though they may be?"

Jackson's voice whispered, "Lina hooked up all the hard-drives and RAM chips. I've just gotten started looking at it, but you should know that one of the servers was not a telecom server - it was a PSIA monitor."

The special server was run by a Japanese intelligence agency? Were all telecom stations like this, or was this a special interchange? Maybe the PSIA was the origin of the black-armored response team. Did Mechaner know about this? He was certainly better informed than us. "Mechaner, if you claim to want the best for your 'subjects' you should prove that you are an Emperor. After all they know so little about you, it is only natural that they should assume you are but a mad man. How are you Emperor, where did you come from?"

"I am Emperor by right of conquest. As for the second: is it not fair to trade? Tell the world your true name, and I will reciprocate."

I considered. That was dangerous - my family was powerful, but we couldn't withstand the scrutiny of dozens of the world's most powerful players. Discovering the girls identity would be easy if they had mine, and they were much less prepared for that kind of pressure. I ignored his offer.

"You act like an enemy. Attacking and destroying wantonly. Why don't you negotiate? Give us some token proving you want more than our destruction. Letting us have a better understanding of your nature and goals would aid both of us. If you are serious about saving the world you should want our cooperation."

Mechaner smiled magnanimously. "You've heard my offer. I agree, however, with you in part. The good people of this city and this world deserve a demonstration of my Imperial obligation."

He stood up, facing the police. The tension in the room skyrocketed. Nearly a hundred soldiers and policemen tightened their aim, hovered hands over turret switches. I shifted my weight forward, glancing at Eva and muttering, "Ama, ready shield."

Mechaner raised a fist in the air. Dozens of combat drones spun up. He raised a second fist. The few remaining audience members dove to the ground. He opened his hands. "I surrender."


Chapter 9: I Surrender

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