When Ken’s peers were performing calculus in their head, he’d still been learning to add and subtract. Had he lived in the centuries before the Onslaught, teachers would’ve considered his three-year-old self a prodigy.
Now seventeen, he held one of the best jobs a Purebred could attain: cleaning the floors at Kyoto Central Peacekeeping Headquarters.
With the corridor abandoned at this moment, he hefted his mop and twirled it circles like he’d seen in one of those 2D movies the ancients used to watch during the Age of Greed. Once Upon a Time in China, when there’d once been a country known as China. Back then, combat flowed like poetry, so unlike the stuttered fighting drills the Peacekeepers practiced.
Spinning, he avoided an imaginary stab and swept the haft through his equally imaginary opponent. Like the legendary master in the movie, Ken left no shadow with his techniques; not because he moved with blinding speed, but rather because of the ubiquitous, sterile light filling the smooth hall. The upswing up his staff—
The maglift doors at the end of the hall swished open.
He snapped to attention, bringing the mop to his side, then dared a glance.
Oyama Keiko, captain of the elite unit of the Peacekeepers. Her braided hair clung tight to her head, framing an oval face with a high-bridged nose, large eyes, and full lips. Nobody, save for some of the Purebred were unpleasant on the eyes, but Keiko was a beauty among beauties.
She stepped out in perfect unison with two male Peacekeepers on her flanks. Like all Xhumans, they stood about half a head shorter than him. Their uniforms clung to them, hers emphasizing the curves of her lithe form. Its grey sheen resembled the underside of a storm cloud, flashing like lightning as they strode toward him. Their clothes ended in toe boots, whose internal suppressors muted the sound of their steps.
Swallowing hard, he bowed his head. “Captain.”
“Ken.” She paused midstride, her aides freezing in synchronicity.
His pulse sped up a notch. She knew his name. And now she was stopping. To talk to him! He kept his head lowered.
“You missed a spot.” Her tone sounded encouraging, like how he spoke to his dog, as she gestured with an open hand toward the smooth, durastrium floor.
“Thank you, captain.” Ken bowed lower.
At least she noticed him. It was better than the others, who looked through Purebreds like they did the cleaning droid. No doubt, it swept floors better than him, both because its sensors and algorithms, and also since the work bored him to tears. And to think, they reserved these jobs to make his kind find fulfillment in life.
With a smile that sent his heart fluttering, she continued down the hall, underlings in tow. A door up ahead to monitoring station six swished open—
Glass shattered in the room beyond. Someone within cursed. The men at Captain Keiko’s side dropped into defensive stances, their hands sweeping sidearms from holsters with fluid grace.
“Ken!” Captain Keiko turned to him, beckoning before she and her men strode in.
If his heart had fluttered before, now it raced. Whatever had happened, he was needed. She needed him. He ran over and looked in.
Several men and women in red, high-collared uniforms bustled about; while others sat watching three-dimensional images. Four officers gathered around one display, pointing.
Ken craned over Captain Keiko’s shoulder to get a better view.
The projected form of a bald, adult Asian male, who might be anywhere from his mid-twenties to three hundred, was looking right at them, head leaned forward. His bushy black eyebrows scrunched together and shifted.
“Pan back three meters,” a major said.
The bald man shrunk, revealing him to be wearing curious black robes. They looked to be right out of the old samurai dramas, save for the decorative silver border along the hems. Staff in hand, his eyes followed them. Around him, shorter passersby in fashionably bright-colored clothes gave him a wide berth, and pretended not to stare.
“Could the scanners be wrong?” the major asked.
The lieutenant beside him shook her head. “The scanners do not detect an ID chip.”
Ken patted his body. He and every other human on Earth had a nanochip that stored everything about them, from their date of birth to the last shirt they bought.
“That can’t be right,” the major said. “He must’ve found a way to deactivate or remove the chip.”
That couldn’t be right, either. Ken’s forehead bunched up. The chip circulated in the blood, making it impossible to find.
The major turned to another station. “Specialist Tani, run facial recognition. Corporal Koda, run spectral DNA analysis.”
“Yes, Sir,” a man and woman said in unison.
The woman’s fingers waved through the air, and in front of her, two-dimensional faces flashed over each other. They looked so similar as the images slowed, it seemed like the stick figures Ken used to draw and flip through in the corner of his books.
“Well?” The major put his hands on his hips. “Is it like the girl who turned up at Honnoji last week? Nothing in the database?”
“Yes, but I’m searching deeper in the older databases.” Specialist Tani’s hand swiped through the display again, and a mix of both the alphabet and the old script danced through the air.
Kanji, they’d once called it. Ken shuddered. Studying the classics had been considered spirit building, to imbue a sense of pride in the Asiatic cultures that once flourished here. That, even though everyone all used the planetary government’s sanctioned alphabet now. He turned back to the image of the stranger who looked to be speaking to a young woman. Words flashed above her, identifying her as Shirai Yuki.
“Have the closest team intercept,” the major said. “Computer, transfer sound to main speakers.”
In the display, the woman waved a hand back and forth and shook her head as the man’s speech came out in a lilting mix of sounds. It was the old language, just like the strange girl from last week who’d turned up out of nowhere, stolen a glowing blue crystal from an old well, and then vanished into nothingness. Analysis of her skin particle DNA didn’t match anyone in the history of Earth, but she was human. Not like the vast majority of XHumans today, but Purebred, like Ken.
“It must be another like that girl,” a sergeant said.
“Maybe.” The major snorted. “The Elestrae know something about it, but they won’t tell us. Computer, translate.”
The stranger approached another man and bowed in the old way. Just like in the really old movies, the words coming out of his mouth didn’t match the movement of his lips. “Excuse me, I am looking for Honnoji.”
Ken’s heart raced. He, and nobody else would have remembered Honnoji if the strange girl hadn’t turned up last week. Since then, it had been all over the news. Investigative reporters dug up old records showing that Honnoji Academy had once been an elementary school. It, in turn, had been built over the ruins of an old temple where the famous warlord, Oda Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his retainers one thousand-three hundred years before.
“DNA analysis says he is Purebred,” the sergeant said.
Just like Ken.
Specialist Tani gasped. “I found a record that matches the DNA… From 2015. Ishihara Ryusuke.”
The buzz of Peacekeepers went silent. No doubt they’d done the math faster than Ken. The man was eight hundred years old. XHumans only lived to three hundred, and the theoretical maximum was four hundred. Chatter erupted again.
“That’s not possible,” someone said. “Life expectancy back then was eighty years.”
Just like Ken’s kind. If the man weren’t genetically modified, his appearance would suggest he was in his late twenties.
“Cryostasis?” the major asked.
A female lieutenant shook her head. “Cryotech wasn’t so advanced back then.”
“The Pointy-Ears have supposedly dabbled in time travel,” Specialist Tani said.
The lieutenant shook her head. “Takes a vast amount of energy, and it’s just as reliable as cryostasis was in his time. Look.”
In the display, three Peacekeepers in light armor approached the man.
“Excuse me kind sirs.” Ishihara Ryusuke. “I am looking for Honnoji.”
The Peacekeepers exchanged looks.
Of course, they didn’t have the benefit of translation, unless they’d thought to activate it. One held up an open hand. “Stand where you are, drop the staff, hands on your head.”
The man cocked his head. “So sorry. My English not good.”
In the monitoring station, murmurs erupted again. He was speaking in the Common Tongue, with a heavy accent. The ancients called it English.
Snarling, the lead peacekeeper seized the staff. The motion blurred in Ken’s eye, the effect of centuries of genetic modification and the reflex enhancements imbued by the armor.
In an even faster movement, the stranger seized the Peacekeeper’s hand and twisted the staff. The Peacekeeper dropped to his knees with a yell. It had happened so fast, Ken would’ve missed it had he blinked.
It shouldn’t have been possible for a Purebred to do that to a XHuman in Peacekeeper armor. But there it was. The end of the staff dug into the Peacekeeper’s wrist, which bent at a sharp angle.
The other Peacekeepers drew their particle guns, but their target released the first and swept the second’s feet out from under him. He let go of the staff—which balanced on the street— seized the third’s gun, and twisted it out of his hands. A simultaneous whip of an open palm sent him flying back three meters.
The man’s motions were so smooth, they could’ve been the master’s from that old movie. Ken gawked.
In that, he was just like everyone else in the room.
While the second peacekeeper rolled onto his side and the first staggered to his feet, the stranger went over to the third’s prone form and seized his wrist. The monitoring room went utterly quiet. In the display, the onlookers covered their mouths in a collective gasp. Many turned their heads away.
Ken winced at what was about to happen. The heroes of old weren’t supposed to really hurt anyone, let alone a helpless—
The man withdrew a pouch from the fold of his cloak, removed something from it, and flicked his fingers in several places over the unconscious Peacekeeper’s body.
“Computer, pan in on Peacekeeper 90210,” the major said, breaking the silence.
The pair grew in size. Something straight and shiny protruded from the peacekeeper’s hand, shin, and forehead. Needles?
With a light groan, the Peacekeeper stirred.
Ken joined in in the collective gasp. Though only he, because of his love of old media, knew of this medicine, ancient even to Age of Greed. The man was an acupuncturist.
Just like the master in the movie.
“Captain Oyama,” the major barked. “Send a team to extract the Peacekeeper on the ground, and apprehend the suspect.”
Captain Keiko saluted, turned on her heel, and gestured her men along.
She paused and met Ken’s eyes, then gestured to where shattered glass lay in a puddle of water. “Please clean that up.”
In the nearly eight hundred years since Ishihara Ryu had crossed into the World of Rivers and Lakes, the land of his birth had changed. Beyond the fact that someone was picking their nose in public, nobody looked Japanese.
Well, the middle-aged woman sweeping the streets did; but besides her, everyone looked to be in their mid-twenties, with a ubiquitous beige skin tone and spikey hair and eyes of varying shades of brown. The latter fact, in itself wasn’t bothersome: it meant that in eight centuries, mankind had finally gotten past superficial distinctions of race, color, and nation.
No, more disconcerting was their awful taste in clothes. His eyes ached at the garish colors, and the zigzag cuts didn’t seem to follow any symmetrical pattern.
The most perplexing fact was that beneath their outward façade of good health lay a fragility in their Three Treasures. Their Ki Energy trickled, their Sei Essence lacked foundation, and their Kokoro Spirit wavered.
A simple Splashing Hand shouldn’t have injured his third attacker so grievously, certainly not when his composite armor had absorbed most of the blow. Bystanders had just stood and gawked, nobody willing to intervene on behalf of these poor warriors. Had he not unblocked his victim’s meridians with acupuncture, the man might’ve died.
At least the soldiers were determined. The first, whose wrist ligaments he’d sprained, had gained his feet, while the second shouted and charged.
Trying not to yawn, he spun away from the man’s punch, and sent him tumbling head over heels with a Crashing Wave shoulder butt. He held back though, so that the force cracked through molded chest plate, and maybe a bone or three. Well, they’d both be all right, with nothing more than a few fractures and bruised egos.
The first, however apparently wanted more. These modern warriors were low-key cute, like the village children who were first learning to circulate their Ki.
Though, why they’d attacked him, he couldn’t fathom. Who assaulted visitors asking for directions? Maybe the village elders were right: that beyond whatever technological advancements mankind might’ve made, these people were morally and culturally bankrupt. It was all the more reason he couldn’t fail in his mission to keep the World of Rivers and Lakes hidden.
The remaining warrior tucked his chin behind his fists and hopped back and forth on the balls of his feet. He looked very much like the boxers of Ryu’s youth, before the sport had been banned for of all things, barbarism. He’d watched in on television, and now marveled how there weren’t any screens anywhere in this city. Of all the things that had changed from his youth, it was the lack of screens among the otherwise sparkling towers, dancing lights, and floating cars.
He let out a sigh and held out a hand. Words in a language he hadn’t used in what, seven hundred and sixty years? came out haltingly. “I no want fight.”
“Surenda, hands on your head,” the warrior shouted, still dancing.
Hands on head. That, he could do, and maybe the warrior would spare himself an injury. Maybe even guide him to Honnoji. Whatever the first word meant, well, English never really interested him in junior high school. He kicked up his staff, caught the butt end on his toe, and balanced it. He then put his hands on his head.
On, the stubble. He’d need to ask about a razor, since he’d already gone a week without shaving his pate as all good Fourth-Rank Water Path Cultivators should. He’d also needed to find comfort in the warm embrace of a woman if he were to replenish his Yin energies…
Though… considering how gorgeous all the women were, he’d probably spill his seed for the first time in eight hundred years and weaken his Sei. And even if he could control it, if modern women were anything like these warriors, their fragile Yin might not even fill his Hara core.
Around them, the onlookers held up open hands with black circles in the middle.
It was all coming back to him. In his youth, everyone carried around mobile phones, and recorded everything from their children’s first steps to idiots trying to launch themselves on bicycles over flaming cars.
“Drop the sutafu,” the man yelled.
What was a sutafu? Ryu cocked his head.
With a shout, the warrior charged in. Jab, cross, hook, cross, lead uppercut, rear uppercut, hook… it was a decent combination which Ryu avoided with Six Harmony bobbing, lest the man hurt his fists. On one foot like a crane, trying to balance his staff on the other foot, it was almost like his Second-Rank Earth Path training seven centuries ago! Well, if the attacker added No Shadow Kicks and Water Whips, it would be.
The warrior disengaged, his expression looking as lost as an unranked Initiate trying to gather his Ki in his Hara for the first time, only to piss over himself. “How are you doing this?”
“May I?” Ryu lifted his hands from his head, slowly, lest his opponent panic and release another barrage of futile attacks. He then pointed at the man’s feet. Sadly, the next concepts were hard to explain in English. “Foot. Must root. Like Tree.”
His opponent froze, perhaps trying to absorb the valuable, if rudimentary lesson. “What are you talking about?”
“No root, no balance, no power. Remember you fall?”
The man’s expression twisted, and was again hopping on his tiptoes.
Some lessons just had to be taught the hard way.
Ryu kicked his staff into the air, and then, as his opponent tracked it with his eyes, ducked down and swept his feet out from under him, yet again. Ryu whirled back up, and before the man hit the ground, slammed his palm down with a Splashing Hand technique. Unlike the first time, he transferred his force to the surface only, shattering the plastic breastplate but not fracturing any bones or damaging any organs.
He reached out and caught the staff.
The onlookers all gasped and pointed.
Smiling, he dipped in chin in a perfunctory bow. He searched his memory for the words in English. “Temple. I go. Temple. You know?”
They exchanged glances and whispered among themselves, fingers pointing every which direction.
Of course. He let out a sigh. Last time he’d been in Kyoto, hundreds of years before the Onslaught, there’d been hundreds, if not close to a thousand temples, and an equal number of shrines. As soulless as these people seemed to be, they probably didn’t know the difference between the two.
“Ishihara Ryusuke!” a female voice called.
His heart soared. Someone knew his name. He turned.
Six men, led by an exquisite woman, marched through the bystanders as they made way. Unlike the first three, who’d worn composite plating, these seven were all dressed in what looked to be yoga pants and wicking compression shirts. Holstered pistols hung from their belts, along with several other devices. Three of the men knelt by the fallen warriors.
Ryu closed his eyes and curled his toes through his boots into the pavement. There was enough moisture connecting them all for him to sense their Ki.
All fragile. In fact, none of the people he’d sensed so far—save for the middle-aged street sweeper— would even rate with the unranked Initiates back home.
The pretty leader. Her companions halted, drew their weapons, and aimed at him. She raised both hands and approached. When she spoke, it was in halting, heavily accented Japanese. “I have a translator. May I?” She brushed her hand from her ample bosom toward his feet.
The six others didn’t look as if they planned on doing any translating, and sadly, she probably wasn’t offering what her sign language had suggested. Still, Ryu bowed his head and beckoned her forward. Though her gait remained confident, she extended a tentative hand toward his head. A black dot was attached to her index finger.
It could be just about anything, and considering how weak all the electromagnetic waves permeating the city made him feel, maybe it was a weapon. “What is it?”
There was nothing but sincerity in her tone and expression. “Translator.”
Oh, so it was a technology. A.I. translations had progressed during his youth, but had not yet made the leap to capture the nuance of human expressions. Ask a computer for basic information, sure; but at least back then, it wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between hardware and what he’d like to do with her. But who knew, a lot could change in eight hundred years. Releasing her wrist, he nodded.
She pressed her finger to his ear, then spoke. “Do you understand what I am saying?”
The sounds of her voice didn’t match the movement of her lips, a little like the vintage Hong Kong movies he’d watched as a child on analog VCR technology. It was those videos that had sent him on his journey to the World of Rivers and Lakes, in fact.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” she repeated.
He nodded. “Yes, do you understand me?”
“Yes.” Her tight expression softened, making her look even more beautiful. “I am Captain Oyama Keiko.”
So she had a Japanese name, despite not looking Japanese. He bowed. “I am…”
“Please, call me Ryu.” Grinning in spite of himself, he bowed.
“I need you to come with me.”
He gestured at the six men surrounding him. “I have a feeling that isn’t a request?”
“No. But it will be easier on everyone if you come peacefully.”
The air crackled and a shadow blotted out the sun. Ryu looked up.
Two large figures plummeted from the skyscrapers. They landed to either side of him. The impact shook the ground and sent webs of cracks rippling through the concrete. They stood head and shoulders taller than him, and twice as broad. Their polymer plated armor made them appear even larger. A six-barreled minigun sprouted from a compartment in one’s forearm, though without any feeding belts of ammunition.
The onlookers who had the presence of mind to flee did, though most screamed and cowered.
“On your knees, hands on your head!” One of the new behemoths ordered.
A machine? No, behind the visored helm glared a pair of brown eyes. When Ryu gripped the ground with his toes and reached out through the moisture, he sensed the Ki, albeit weak, of a living being.
“No!” Captain Oyama grabbed at the one man’s gun, pulling it down.
With a snarl, the giant shoved her away, his brute strength sending her out of the circle of her soldiers and careening into the crowds. He raised his weapon again. “On your knees. Hands on your head.”
Ryu smiled. “Sir, if you shoot and miss, you will hit these bystanders. Or your friend.” He dropped through the beefy arms of the soldier behind him, who’d tried to wrap him up. Ryu back-rolled between his would-be captor’s legs, popped up to his feet, and slapped both palms into the man’s back with Splashing Hands.
The armor shattered, and the man staggered forward, crashing into his comrade. The first extended his arm, and the minigun’s six barrels whined as they started to spin.
Did this man not care for the onlookers? Like all Cultivators on the Water Path, Ryu had trained the fundamentals of the Metal Path. Metal was the Mother of Water, after all, and even untrained Initiates started the rudiments of Iron Palm. He dashed in and rooted to the ground. Guiding Ki to his fingers, he knifed his hand into the whirling barrels. The weapon locked up and jolted free of the warrior’s arm mount.
And mangled Ryu’s digits. Pain blossomed in four fingers, and he had to take a deep breath and calm his mind with the Water Path’s Placid Pool to block it out. He directed Ki up and down the six hand meridians and collaterals, sensing the pathways. No broken bones, just a few partially torn ligaments. Gritting his teeth, he yanked his hand back, minigun still attached.
The two huge men stared at him, looked at each other, and with a nod, stared back. In unison, they clenched their fists, and twin blades of energy sprouted a meter and a half from their wrists. They closed with admirable speed, attacks coordinated.
Ryu lifted the minigun into the path of the blades, which severed the metal like a newly sharpened sword through exposed flesh. With the cut so close to his hand, the unbalanced remains of the weapon were unwieldy. Before the barrels hit the ground, Ryu flipped the minigun over. The next hack of the energy blade sliced through the gun’s body.
A flick of his wrist sent pain jolting through his hand, but dislodged the mangled metal. He executed a back hand spring and landed out of range. One second was all he needed to focus. With his good hand, he drew water vapor out of the air. Bending it to his will, it coalesced into a molecule-thin whip and snapped it across the men’s blade emitters. The light blinked out.
In their moment of shock, Ryu used a Crashing Wave shoulder butt into the closest, shattering his armor and launching him into the second. Both landed in a heap six meters away.
The remaining onlookers gasped.
One of Captain Oyama’s men was first to regain his wits. “Take aim!”
His comrades came out of their stupor and levelled their weapons at him. If they were so foolish as to fire, and he jumped over or ducked under, six innocent bystanders would be hit.
“No!” Captain Oyama’s voice came out weak, from among the bystanders.
Ryu reached into the fold of his robes, plucked a Hara Fortifying Pill from an internal pocket. He flicked the glowing green pearl into his mouth and swallowed. Warmth filled him, energizing his meridians and strengthening his core.
Six beams of blue light shot out. As a Cultivator of the Path of Water, channeling the Path of Wood came easy. He rooted to the ground and sunk his stance. The energy surged through him, like the time when he was a stupid child and stuck a fork into an electrical outlet. He buckled to his knees. The edges of his vision blurred as all faded to black.
Eighteen-year-old Aya was Earth’s greatest criminal, and nobody even knew.
Not her parents, who tried to pretend she didn’t exist.
Not the EtherCloud Sentinels which thought she was one of them.
After all, they never saw her real body, the one which had the dubious distinction of belonging to the only Xhuman who ever hacked up phlegm.
Turned out, she was quite good at a very different kind of hacking, as well. So much that she was the only civilian who’d seen three dozen videos of Ishihara Ryu defeating two Shocktroopers. The raw footage. Not the edited story which the Government released. Witnesses knew to stick to that fiction. To do otherwise would mean their social score would sink so low, they couldn’t even get a Purebred’s job.
While even the simplest A.I. could take one angle and extrapolate details into a 92.7% accurate 3d rendering, Aya had taken all available camera views and merged them into a 99.99997% accurate replay of the fight. Now, she rewound it back to Ishihara’s confrontation with the Shocktroopers, and walked among them.
Her EtherCloud Avatar flickered, tethered as it was to her real body. “Freeze,” she commanded.
Gasping for air, she jacked out of the EtherCloud and returned to reality. Mucous was flooding her lungs. Coughs racked her body as phlegm scoured through her throat and filled her mouth. She spat it out into a glass, leaving a salty aftertaste on her tongue.
Aya heaved a few breaths as she looked around her lavishly furnished bedroom. She snorted. The decorations were a waste; but her parents figured that making her living space as luxurious as possible would keep her from leaving the house.
Because in a world where all humans but the Purebreds had reached genetic perfection, Aya was a one-in-three-billion rarity.
The theory was, her world-renowned chemist mother had been exposed to some base pair solvent when Aya was conceived, and her first cell had mutated. By the time anyone realized, she was left with an incurable disease that had been eradicated six centuries before. Back then, people still used pharmaceuticals; now, nanobots did the work, and the sole sufferer of an ancient disease wouldn’t live long enough for a nanotech company to recoup its investment costs to program a treatment.
At last, fresh air filled her lungs. The ten minutes in real time of open airways translated to what felt like a day in the EtherCloud. She jacked back in, leaving behind the limitations of her flawed body.
Her Avatar, a black-haired beauty with honey-toned skin from her homeland’s brutal past, reappeared in her secured space. Ishihara’s stunningly handsome figure stood to one side, the two Shocktroopers on the other. At full speed, he’d moved like a blur, faster than the Peacekeepers in their reflex-enhancing armor, and just as fast as the Shocktroopers in their power armor.
“Play at one-quarter speed,” she said.
As the scene repeated itself, she froze it in certain places. Ishihara didn’t appear to be wearing any technology to enhance his speed or strength, but perhaps he was one of the military assassins with internal wiring and a tenuous grip on sanity.
His hand had been injured in the minigun; and yet with the wave of his other hand, the Shocktroopers’ blade emitters had just broken off. She leaned in to examine the sheer cut in the tube.
“Reverse to timestamp 11:04:03:91.”
The scene jumped back in time to where the first emitter failed. The cut was just appearing in the conduit.
The image zoomed in, closer and closer with still no sign of what had disabled the Shocktrooper weapons. The resolution surpassed the several civilian videos that she’d knitted into the replay, and was limited to the feeds from the soldiers.
The image froze at the atomic level, where water molecules interlocked into a line, slicing through the emitter.
No, that couldn’t be.
Because if what she was seeing was true, Ishihara could control water at the molecular level.
It was supposed to be only theoretical, the technology the experimental stage. And it didn’t explain how Ishihara could move so fast.
“Zoom back to standard size and resume play.” She watched another second of fight, to where he jammed his fingers into the revolving minigun barrels. “Pause. Zoom in.”
Unlike the revelation of the water molecules, nothing on the surface showed just how he’d been able to stop durastrium alloy rotating at 8000rpm. Thankfully, Government cameras included wide spectrum electromagnetic scans as well.
“Shift to X-ray CT and magnify.”
Filaments of some kind webbed through the layers of his skin and muscle fascia. The protein structure of his ligaments and muscles looked strengthened by coiled proteins. Foreign minerals reinforced his bones, and his blood vessels…
Organic polypeptides in the subject’s connective tissue, her A.I.ssistant voice spoke in her mind. Images of the long-extinct orb spider flashed, along with the chemical structure of its silk. Several different iron alloys made up the network in the subject’s skin.
How was this even possible? If Aya’s Ethercloud form could gasp, she would’ve. After spending so much time exploring the Government’s classified regions of the EtherCloud, she, of all people should’ve already known if these theoretical technologies were already being integrated into prototypes.
Technology? She would’ve gasped again. There were no signs of artificial wiring to explain Ishihara’s speed. Nothing non-organic in him.
This was all genetically engineered. There was no other explanation for Ishihara’s abilities. Maybe the next iteration of the Shocktrooper? After the Onslaught, they’d been instrumental in the vanquishing of the Tivarae. Perhaps Mankind was preparing for the next hostile alien species.
The Elestrae? With a lifespan over twice that of humans, and the ability to channel Istrium radiation, they’d become a formidable enemy if their alliance ever fell apart.
Though that didn’t make sense, either. Ishihara had to be at least thirty, meaning which they’d begun working on him for a long time. Unless they’d sped up his maturation, like the early Shocktrooper models. That would make sense.
For now, this would be her working theory: he’d escaped from wherever they were developing him, and the Military had sent Shocktroopers to capture him before the Peacekeepers got ahold of him.
Well, now that she knew this shadow program could possibly exist, she’d uncover it. On a command, she shed the virtual kimono and donned the carapace of a Government Sentinel. With a wave of her hand, she opened a portal from her lockbox to the Peacekeeper servers, and stepped through.
Besides several other lumbering Sentinels, the only other beings buzzing along the network were the blocky Avatars of real people, operating in Real Time. Aya almost felt sorry for them. In the real world, they’d be swiping their hands left and right, viewing output thousands of times slower than her. Only a handful of hackers had learned how to experience the data like her, and the Sentinels’ A.I.s.
Ignoring them, she tracked Ishihara from the point of his capture, an hour ago in real time. They’d taken him to the closest Peacekeeper facility. Coincidentally, that was just a block away from home at the Kyoto Central Peacekeeping Headquarters. The Ministry of Science had put in a request to transfer him to New San Francisco Bioengineering Laboratories. Unlike the hour-long shuttle civilians might take, the Government’s a high-altitude, sub-light transport would get him there in about three minutes. Of course, without the need for inertial dampeners to combat the laws of physics in the real world, her Avatar could cross the space between the servers in a thousandth of a second.
Now, though, all she had to do was hop over to Kyoto Central Peacekeeping Headquarter’s server.
There, Ishihara’s file glowed like the sun as a thousand authorized Avatars accessed it. The vast majority were Peacekeepers, but some were marked as the Ministry of Science. As of yet, none of the Avatars appeared to come from the Military; but if they’d sent Shocktroopers, they surely knew about him.
Imitating the screening function of a Sentinel, she crept by and used virtual sleight-of-hand to swipe a copy. Then, she returned to her own lockbox and opened the package.
Rifling through it, she discovered yet one more surprise: the Peacekeepers knew only a little more than she did. They had yet to discover the structure of his muscles and bones, and his ability to manipulate water molecules.
Double checking to make sure the package was indeed classified, and not a false trail, she proceeded to the DNA tests. Several had been run, from spectral analysis of skin to saliva testing.
“Analyze subject’s DNA.”
In a billionth of a second, her A.I.ssistant flashed the results in her vision.
No, this couldn’t be. The only thing special about his DNA, when compared to a billion other samples, was that he was totally ordinary. Not even XHuman. He was Purebred.
Aya flipped to the earliest files on him, which were dated from an hour ago in real time.
The information appeared as brushed ink on rice paper. Which meant the Peacekeepers had dug deep to determine his identity. These were ancient files from three centuries before the Onslaught.
An image of a birth certificate appeared, identifying him as Ishihara Ryusuke, born in 2015. He was nearly eight hundred years old! How was that even possible? Even with genetic engineering and nanotechnology, homo sapiens’ maximum theoretical age was half that.
Unless this was some elaborate hoax, fingerprints—to think the ancients used such unreliable biometrics!— and retinal scans all confirmed that this was indeed, a man from Age of Greed. Primary school reports showed he enjoyed something called Physical Education, though his poor health limited him; while Junior High School records noted he hated English—now the common language of Earth.
And then, at age fifteen, all record of him disappeared.
She froze. Poor health? She swiped over to his medical records. “Vaccinations,” whatever those were, were “up to date,” whatever that meant, and he’d broken his radius as a three-year-old.
Then, the words burned on her virtual eyes.
He had cystic fibrosis.
Same as her.
Could it be? She pulled over an image of her own DNA and had her A.I.ssistant compare it. The gene regulating CFTR in both their samples overlapped.
He shouldn’t have lived to reach eighty, let alone eight-hundred. Everything she’d read about the disease suggested that there had been no cure until CRISPR advances had allowed mankind to edit it out of the genome.
In the real world, tears welled in her eyes, and it took all her concentration for her consciousness to remain in the EtherCloud. If he knew the cure…
Not like she’d want to live in the real world. No, with healthy lungs, she’d be able to stay in the EtherCloud indefinitely, tethered, but no longer chained to a frail body.
Again cloaking herself in a Sentinel Carapace, she opened a portal back to Kyoto Central Peacekeeping Headquarters and stepped through. Ishihara’s file still glowed bright as yet even more authorized Avatars from Peacekeeper Facilities all over the world accessed it. Several Sentinels prevented Military Avatars from entering the server at all.
No doubt, once someone near the top of the Peacekeeper hierarchy realized what they had, they’d place the highest level encryption on it. That was a few levels beyond her level to crack. With no Sentinels monitoring the crowd, at this split second, she changed her cloak to level five staff. Just high enough to access his files without drawing undo attention.
A quick scan revealed Kyoto Central was keeping Ishihara in a low security medical unit. He was still unconscious, and staff continued to monitor and run tests. Yet once they’d cleared him, they’d likely transfer him to the top level holding area, which was the most heavily guarded, and also close to the sub-light transport.
Swapping her cloak for a Sentinel’s carapace again, Aya hacked into the medical unit’s cameras.
Ishihara lay on a bed, eyes closed, wearing nothing more than organic-fiber underpants and Ballistrax restraints. Deliciously lean, toned, and hairless, he looked frail compared to the chiseled bulk of Shocktroopers. He might’ve been mistaken for XHuman if he weren’t so tall.
His chest rose and fell. Curiously, his hands laid palms up, index fingers touching his thumbs. Even more curious, his injured hand looked like it hadn’t just been mangled in the rotating barrels of a power armor minigun. Transdermal pads connected various points on his body sent data to several monitors on the otherwise sterile walls. What exactly they were monitoring, Aya didn’t know, but she copied the data stream.
“Another one!” A nurse dressed in a high-collared white uniform threw up his hands and tossed a bent hypodermic needle onto a table with several others. He stomped off.
For the moment, Ishihara was all alone. Well, save for the people connected to the EtherCloud, running tests on him.
So far, they hadn’t looked at his lungs, and this camera couldn’t scan that deep. She switched to another angle, where the camera could do a chest CT.
A young man in the high-collared grey suit of cleaning staff crept in, blocking the path. Mop in hand, he was undoubtedly Purebred, like all people in this line of work. He was quite good-looking for his kind. Still, he wasn’t doing any mopping, and had no business approaching a patient, let alone a high-profile prisoner like Ishihara.
What if this was a disguise, and the man intended to harm Ishihara?
Taking active control of the camera, Aya zoomed in on the boy’s nametag.
“Confirm identity,” she commanded her A.I.ssistant
In a trillionth of a second, a copy of the tag, biometric data, and other forms of identification popped up. This was indeed Tanaka Kensuke, or else someone as good as her had hacked the Government’s databases to falsify his information and steal his identity.
And who would want to steal a Purebred’s identity?
And what would a Purebred custodian want with Ishihara? Was it just pure curiosity?
Ken’s expression showed no sign of ill-intent. No, it was of pure wonder. He placed a hand on Ishihara’s forehead.
Lights flashed in the EtherCloud representation of the server. A remote viewer based in New London’s Peacekeeper Headquarters had seen Ken and was now double-checking. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be there at all, and he certainly should be touching Ishihara.
Still, he showed no sign of doing harm. Aya’s curiosity got the better of her. Hands moving furiously, she made a virtual copy of Ken turning back to the door, while masking the real Ken. The alarm from the remote viewer shut off.
Back in the room, Ken’s hand still rested on Ishihara’s forehead.
Ishihara’s eyes opened.
The tether to her real body tugged. In order to follow Ishihara on the camera, she’d slowed her perception to Real Time, and now her lungs were filled with mucous.
Just when it looked like Ishihara was going to speak.
To Purebred, no less.
And outside of the EtherCloud she wouldn’t be able to shield their conversation from other prying eyes.
For all his seventeen years, Ken was either unseen or treated like a pet by the XHumans. Now, here in front of him lay a man who was genetically closer to his kind, and yet was superior to the XHumans in at least two or three ways.
Which was why Ken had risked his job, and maybe even more, to come here.
Earlier, Ken had taken his time cleaning the broken glass in the monitoring station, taking advantage to watch as Master Ishihara Ryu had overwhelmed two Shocktroopers before finally being subdued by six Peacekeepers. As always, Ken’s cultural invisibility had served him well, because he’d overheard they were bringing him here, of all places, to make sure he survived.
Now, Master Ryu was here, along with the first three Peacekeepers. They were unconscious, but didn’t seem to have been grievously harmed. A military team had scooped up the Shocktroopers and taken them to who knew where.
Technically, Ken wasn’t prohibited from entering the medical unit. In fact, it was on his cleaning schedule; just not today. Still, common sense said he shouldn’t be approaching a high profile prisoner, let alone touching them.
Of course, no XHuman would ever accuse a Purebred of having common sense, and that would be his excuse if someone saw him. A big if, because the Peacekeeper standing guard outside the room hadn’t stopped him.
Every nerve prickled as he approached. Master Ishihara’s lack of clothes revealed a slim body, not unlike the XHumans; yet, he was stronger than even the heavily-muscled Shocktrooper.
Well, in the old movies, the masters all shared a similar build, and always managed to defeat some hulking brute of an enemy. Ken placed a hand on the man’s forehead.
Master Ishihara’s eyes opened.
Ken’s soul just about jumped out of his body. He jerked his hand back.
“You have questions,” Master Ishihara said in a low whisper.
Ken nodded. “I do, Master.”
“I am one rank short of that title, and I’m not your teacher. You may call me Ryu.”
Rank? He had no insignias like the Peacekeepers and Shocktroopers. Ken tasted the name Ryu on his mouth and decided it was inappropriate for someone so exalted. “Yes, Master Ishihara. Your humble servant is Tanaka Kensuke. If it is your wish, please call me Ken.”
Master Ishihara harrumphed. “First, I have a question for you: you are not like the others. Your Sei Essence has Foundation. Your Ki Energy flows. Your Kokoro Spirit is firm. Why are you different?”
If not for all the ancient movies Ken had watched, this would all be gibberish. Of course, it’d all been terminology from fantastical legends, and nothing related to his boring existence. And to think in this, he was better off than XHumans. “I’m Purebred,” he answered.
“What does that mean?” Master Ishihara turned his head as much as the restraints would allow.
Ken placed a hand over his heart. “My people were never genetically engineered.”
Understanding bloomed in Master Ishihara’s expression. “Ah, that would explain why everyone else is so fragile.”
Fragile? Ken scratched his head. XHumans were the epitome of health and longevity. And the Shocktroopers, they were giants of men, engineered after the Onslaught to fight hand-to-hand against the Tivarae.
“Why weren’t you engineered?” Master Ishihara asked.
“It’s different from case to case, but for me, my ancestors belonged to an Unclean class.”
“Ah, I remember such a concept.” Master Ishihara shook his head. “But that was nearly a thousand years ago.”
“We’re told the engineering of the human genome came in stages, and our DNA is too many stages behind current technology.”
“But you!” Enthusiasm bubbled in Ken’s voice. Ken studied the restraints. Made of flexible but near unbreakable Ballistrax, and secured with Durastrium. “You’re like us, aren’t you?”
“Yes. At the most fundamental level.”
Hope rose in Ken’s chest. “If I help you escape, can you teach me?” All he had to do was acquire the keychip.
Ryu grinned. “I can escape by myself.”
Impossible. “Then why are you still here?”
“Whatever they hit me with, drained me. I needed to replenish my Hara with Ki, and wait for my hand to heal.”
Ken’s gaze shifted to Master Ishihara’s hand. Its fingers had been bent at strange angles after its encounter with the minigun, but now it looked normal. “It’s amazing you’re even conscious after getting hit by six particle beams.”
“Yes, they disrupt your bioelectrical connections. At low levels, it’ll slow you down; at higher intensity, it can kill you.”
Master Ishihara let out a long sigh. “What has mankind become?”
With genetic engineering, nanobots, and technology… “Perfection.”
“Hardly. But I do need your help for something.”
Yes! Ken nodded enthusiastically.
“The translator on my ear. Remove it.”
“Remove it?” Ken cocked his head. “Why?”
“I don’t want to damage it.”
Damage it? How? Ken removed the dot from Master Ishihara’s ear.
“San Kyu,” he said, sounds now matching the movement of his lips. “Stand back.”
Bobbing his head, Ken backed to the wall.
With a deep breath, Master Ishihara’s chest, arms, and legs expanded. The monitors blinked out. All of the restraints snapped.
Closing his gawking mouth, Ken hurried over to pull the transdermal pads free. Maybe if he showed his enthusiasm and assisted the best he could, Master Ishihara would agree to teach him.
“What the—” a voice cursed from the doorway.
A Peacekeeper stood there, gawking for a split second before levelling his gun. “Prisoner has broken out of his restraints, I need backup.”
Ishihara sat up.
The Peacekeeper squeezed his weapon. A blue line appeared, passing through where Master Ishihara had been just a split second before and striking one of the monitors.
Ken looked left and right.
Master Ishihara stood over the unconscious Peacekeeper. He turned to Ken and spouted out gibberish.
“I don’t understand. Speak in Earth-tongue!”
Rolling his eyes, Master Ishihara pointed to his ear, then to the translator in Ken’s hands.
Oh. Ken hurried over and affixed it.
“Thank you. Now, where are my things?”
In Ken’s excitement, he hadn’t bothered to find them. However… “They are probably on the third level technology labs for examination.”
“What level are we on now?”
“How do I get there?” Master Ishihara asked.
Ken shook his head. Besides the fact it might as well be a maze… “It’s heavily guarded. We can get you new clothes.”
“I like mine.” Master Ishihara punched toward the door, hitting a Peacekeeper as he ran in.
How stubborn could the man be? “You’ll look good in today’s clothes. With a good haircut, you’ll blend in.”
Master Ishihara shuddered. “I must retrieve something that as in my robes.”
“It can’t be more valuable than your life.”
“It’s even more important.”
Excitement stirred in Ken’s chest. “What is it?”
Master Ishihara searched his eyes. “It’s something which will keep my village hidden.”
Ken gawked again. A secret village! Probably with more people like Master Ishihara. Maybe with someone willing to teach. “This place is a maze! You’ll never find it without my help.”
Was that true? Ken had clearance for the hallways to the medium security zones, which included the technology lab.
“You should stay here,” Master Ishihara said. “It’s dangerous.”
“Wait.” Ken held up a hand. “Pretend to take me prisoner.”
“I hate to say this, but from what you’ve told me, I don’t think they’ll care.”
No, the Peacekeepers probably wouldn’t. Then again… “They don’t treat us badly. They just sort of ignore us. And they make sure we’re taken care of.”
The master raised an eyebrow. “I guess that is a theory we can test. Let’s go.” He wrapped an arm around Ken’s neck.
His eyes just about bulged, and Ken slapped at Master Ishihara’s forearms. No matter how slim the man’s limbs were, they radiated power.
“Oh, sorry. It doesn’t bother the village children.”
So he was no better than a child where Master Ishihara came from.
The master kicked at a table, sending several bent hypodermic needles into the air. He caught one, then hustled Ken out into the hall.
Several Peacekeepers dashed toward them, particle guns in hand.
The needle pressed against Ken’s neck without penetrating.
“Stop,” Master Ishihara said. “Or I will kill this boy.”
The Peacekeepers froze, but still held up their weapons.
“He’s lying,” a disembodied female voice echoed in the hall. “We heard them plotting it.”
Damn! Of course there’d been visual and audio monitors in the room.
The Peacekeeper sergeant pointed his gun at Ken and shot.
Master Ishihara pushed Ken out of the way. More streams of blue light crisscrossed through the hall. The master zigged and zagged between them, his form little more than a blur. Then he was among the Peacekeepers, sending them flying against the walls and into each other.
A control panel sparked and shot flames. Smoke rose, and the water sprinklers engaged.
By the time Ken staggered to his feet, just in time to see a female nurse in a white, high-collared uniform sneaking up behind Master Ishihara with a hypodermic needle in hand.
Ken lunged toward the back of her legs, but she sidestepped, sending Ken tumbling to the floor, yet again.
“Are you all right?” Master Ishihara asked without turning around.
“Yes!” And at the very least, Ken could protect the master’s back. He climbed back to his feet and threw a punch at the nurse.
Setting the needle between her teeth, she stepped closer, blocking his hand with one arm and attacking with the other. Her fist landed in his chest.
Pain flared, and he coughed as he stumbled back.
How foolish to think he could take out an XHuman with one punch, even if she were a head shorter than him. He charged again, this time swinging with a flurry of punches.
With each one, she responded with a simultaneous attack and defense, battering Ken to the point that he wobbled on his feet and would’ve fallen if not for Master Ishihara’s supportive arm.
“Not bad,” Master Ishihara said.
Ken’s cheeks burned. “But I didn’t land a single hit!”
“Oh, I was talking about her.” Master Ishihara stood Ken up, then sidled past to the woman. “I see Krav Maga is still practiced.”
Whatever Krav Maga was, that’s not what the Peacekeepers used. Ken was about to clear up the misunderstanding, when the nurse launched a quick punching combination, followed by a low kick. Master Ishihara swam through them all.
“My apologies for my inappropriate behavior,” he said, setting an open palm into her chest. Her knees buckled, and she fell. He swept an arm behind her and lowered her to the floor.
Ken had probably gawked more times today than he had in the last year.
A blue particle beam stabbed through the air, and would’ve hit Master Ishihara had he not spun out of the way.
“Ken, step away from Ishihara.”
He craned past the master to see Captain Keiko. She held a pistol in either hand. Behind her stood at least ten of her elite tactical squad, their weapons levelled.
The master nudged him away, and he stumbled to the wall.
“Surrender, Ishihara,” she said. “We’ve blocked this sector off with force fields.”
Ken swallowed hard. He’d only ever heard of internal force fields on spacecraft, used to reinforce hull breaches.