Nyo Ho Ho Away We Go~~
Rework rewrite. Start up again Chapter 2:
Why did I ever agree to this?
Jaqcues Van Maark tried to keep a firm grip on his emotions as he watched the presentation ahead, not sure how embarassed he should be at the comedic pace of it. The brown hair was already a quarter-white with all the stress. As screens open everywhere, the manic pace of the presenter threw most of the media and other scientists off-kilter.
Tabane Shinonono tended to do that, what with the strange bunny ears she wore and absolutely oddball way of speaking. As Van Maark massaged his temples from the oncoming headache, he was spending more effort trying NOT to listen to that voice.
"...such and advanced design could only have been developed by the idol and genius that is me! Chuu chuu Uchuu kitta!"
I don't know what those words mean, but they're damned annoying, Van Maark wondered if he could borrow a couple of pens to stick into his ears. Rendering himself deaf would be a mercy. For all her genius, does she REALLY have to talk like a twelve-year old on a sugar rush?
Being on the design team of the exoskeleton, Van Maark was against reporting their findings and prototype to the world at this point. Shinonono insisted on calling the system <Infinite Stratos>, as it was to be a space exploration aid-literally a device that granted mankind access to the infinite vastness of the stars and sky.
That was when he heard one of the men in the audience speak up, a question Van Maark had been dreading they'd ask: "It can only be piloted by women?"
"Yes!" Tabane replied with a huge smile on her face. "I have no idea why, but it only works when women pilot it!"
"If only women pilot it, won't that limit its usefulness?"
"It doesn't matter! All you need to do is replace men with women!"
Oh lord, Van Maark wanted to sink into his own personal black hole. There was a barrage of questions followed by doubtful shaking of heads and disappointed, even angrily mocking chatter.
This is why I said we should have kept quiet until that bug was fixed! Van Maark started banging his palm into his forehead. Although he insisted on further research, to determine why the <Infinite Stratos> refused to function unless by a woman, Tabane simply went ahead and broke the news. We are now the laughingstock of the world. The project is doomed. All because you just had to brag, Tabane!
As the meeting turned into a circus, Van Maark finally walked away from his chair. It was too much for his considerable pride to take, all the effort he and the rest of the space exoskeleton research team put in reduced to a gag footnote in history.
He had taken but one step, maybe two, before he found someone who stood in his way.
"Doctor Van Maark."
"Yes?" He replied. It was a woman whom Van Maark had not seen before, one with a gaze that seemed to belittle him. She possessed an athenian beauty-that is, tall and statuesque with an athletic build and the bearing fit for a goddess of war. Silken-black hair and horn-rimmed glasses framed a face of european bearing. The kind of woman that men found utterly beautiful and threatening all at once.
"As project team leader, what's your opinion of the <Infinite Stratos> system?"
Van Maark was taken slightly aback-the woman hadn't bothered to introduce herself, and yet he felt she was no journalist. No, she was adorned in a businesswoman's suit and jacket. Her bearing was not at all like the annoying press. An investor? He weighted his options quickly and responded.
"It's incomplete. I think Tabane jumped the gun, insisting on putting this out so early." Van Maark allowed himself a sigh of defeat. "That exokeleton is the key to humankind's future among the stars. Additional funding is needed to develop it further."
"It's more than just an exoskeleton, Doctor." The woman had an odd, wicked smile to her face. "It is the key to society's future."
"I think you have very high expectations," Van Maark smiled weakly, but fearfully. Something about this woman started to frighten him, set the warning bells in his head off. The instincts of his body told him to flee, but his will and logical brain refused. "What's your interest in it?"
Without another word, the woman decided to walk on-but not without one hand shoving a slip of paper into his. It was almost like a secret tryst, had it been less of fear that Van Maark was feeling.
What was that all about?
Finally, Van Maark managed to have a look at the slip of paper he'd been handed. Three words were scrawled on it, but it was the most terrifying statement the scientist had ever read.
-Tabane is lying.-
Why am I going through this experience? Kokuto Haruko cringed in spite of herself as she followed her compatriot through the streets of the small shopping mall. While she was not a shopping addict like most women of her age and income, there was no normal reason for her to dislike trawling malls.
Except when her partner <Ren> asked her to come along. Then it turned from guilty pleasure to an exercise in stress management.
At the moment, she and <Ren> were silently trailing the movements of Orimura Ichika as he passed the summer vacation time. Haruko was only along to keep notes, but more often than not she'd been shoved in broom closets, cafes, and other little alleyways by <Ren> 'to avoid being spotted' by Orimura's other companions.
"If you could trail him without being spotted, why in the world did you even bring me along, <Ren>?"
"Seriously, Kokuto. I thought you'd love the opportunity to go window-shopping." <Ren> smirked evilly, even as she bit into a crisp apple. The girl kept her baseball cap on, trading her jacket for a more practical shirt and jeans. Her right arm was covered in a muffler-like sleeve, concealing the crimson tattoo underneath. "And I thought you would enjoy stalking a handsome boy without his knowledge."
You're just saying that because you know it makes me suffer! Haruko bit her lip, suppressing what was either a moan of pain or a groan of impending disaster.
A noise stopped them, as the sounds of gunfire had erupted just across the street.
"What was that?" Haruko excalimed, then realised <Ren> had already gone ahead, in the direction of the noise. With an angry huff, Kokuto picked up her pace--but it was hard to run in heeled shoes, low-slung as they were.
By the time Haruko caught up with <Ren>, a crowd had formed around the site. <Ren> herself was standing to one side away from the crowd, arms crossed as she mockingly waited for her partner.
"Didn't you drink enough coffee this morning? That was slow."
"Shut up!" Kokuto managed to snap back with a wheeze. Taking another breath, she asked: "What's going on here?"
"Armed robbery, looks like." <Ren> looked oddly relaxed, as if she were contemplating the weather rather than the kind of violence implied by the sounds earlier. "I'm not too worried. It looks like Dunois and Bodewig are in there as well."
"Dunois and Bodewig are in there?!" Haruko stammered at the fact. "Then you've got to act, right? Orimura would get dragged into this mess, wouldn't he?"
<Ren> fixed a sleepy gaze at Haruko. "I said Dunois and Bodewig."
A couple of screams, random gunfire erupted. And then silence.
And then cheering.
"Messy, but effective. Bodewig must have started it." <Ren> tucked her arms behind her head and began to walk away, ignoring the jaw-dropped look of amazement on Haruko's face. "And Dunois is capable enough to keep her from going overboard. There's no need for me to act."
"The-that-those-" Haruko shook her head and followed her nonchalant partner, who had now stopped. "What was that all about?"
"It was a random encounter. You'll need to file a report." <Ren> was silent, staring now at the figure in a male IS Academy uniform loitering the area, a curious look on his face. "At least it wasn't as stupid as the water park fiasco between Fan and Alcott."
"DON'T remind me about that." Kokuto growled, then looked up.
<Ren> was no longer looking at the boy. Instead her eyes were fixed on a girl of fair complexion and mature form. Also in an IS Academy uniform, she had short hair the color of light ocean blue, with a folding fan in one hand and a smile as mysterious as her intentions.
The serpent-like eyes glimmered with thinly-veiled hatred.
"<Ren>? Is that who I think it is?" Kokuto quickly realised her partner's intentions and grabbed her shoulder. "Don't approach her, <Ren>."
"I'm just going to talk." <Ren>'s voice was colder than an arctic winter, enough to freeze the summer air that hung in the area. With a casual brush of her hand, she released Haruko's grip on her. "Wait. Here."
Am I supposed to believe that?! Kokuto mimed the words but made no sound, helplessly watching as her partner approached the girl with the fan.
The girl with the fan was aware of <Ren> as she approached without any effort at stealth. At this she was lightly amused, though she knew it was playing with fire to joke with this girl-she who had eyes like a snake.
Still, she could not help but quip lightly: "Not even a hello?"
<Ren> stood silently beside the girl, who was much taller than she.
"I see you've taken an interest in today's events as well." The hidden smile behind the fan seemed to mock her approach.
"Watching over Orimura Ichika from the shadows is my duty." <Ren> did not look at the other girl, instead eyeing the crowd and the media circus that erupted from the day's events. "Not yours, Tatenashi Sarashiki."
The eyes of the girl named Tatenashi twinkled. "That may change."
<Ren>'s own eyes seemed to hiss. "Explain."
"You probably shouldn't have made that mess with Dunois security troupe a few weeks ago." Tatenashi snapped the fan closed, cat's smile evident on her face. "Seriously. Most of the heads of security in Japan, and even a few in other countries think you went overboard with the Cousseran affair. It's raised some concerns over your suitability for this role."
"Suitability. Ha." <Ren> forced a laugh that was devoid of all spirit.
"I heard Dunois Industries were going to send in a prototype 3rd-gen IS to take Charlotte-san back, but apparently let Cousseran act first. What happened next, though?"
"It was necessary." was all <Ren> would say.
"Was it?" The cat's smile was still there. A smaile that infuriated <Ren> to no end. "The Johohonbu have spoken with the Sarashiki family and given their approval. As I am already enrolled in IS Academy, it's for the best if I protect and train Orimura Ichika."
<Ren> remained silent, so Tatenashi tried a different tack. "Do you want Tatenashi-onee-chan to pass on your love letters to him?"
"Do that and I'll cut open your throat where you stand."
"Really, you." The cat's smile finally fell from Tatenashi's face.
"Kutsuwagi Juuzou." <Ren> crossed her arms. "The principal of IS Academy is showing a little bit of favoritism, isn't he?"
"Now, now." Tatenashi replied with a light voice but without her normal cheer. "Your family and mine have been doing this for a long time. You take life too seriously.
"And you don't take life seriously enough." <Ren> replied back, with a little more ice in her voice than was normal. "This has nothing to do with family. Since you're also in IS Academy as a student, you don't have as much freedom to act behind the scenes."
"Oh, I actually do. I AM Student Council President, after all," Tatenashi opened up her fan again, cooling herself against in the summer heat. "On the other hand, you have no access to the academy itself."
"There was that incident with the Golem attacking IS Academy." <Ren> threw back. "I didn't see you doing anything about that."
"Couldn't be helped. That was before my IS <Mysterious Lady> was completed." Tatenashi's casual shrug showed how light of a threat it was. "There were other attempts to IS Academy security that I had to deal with on my end."
<Ren> replied with dead silence. Tatenashi did not answer further, as she recognized the tactic. Whoever speaks first, loses.
Unexpectedly, <Ren> quietly turned to walk away.
You can only win by cheating, can't you? Tatenashi craned her head to follow and call out to the other girl. "Best of luck, Storm-"
"Shut up." <Ren> snapped back as a viper would when struck. Her snakelike eyes coldly bored into Tatenashi's laughing ones. "Don't you dare mock my Father's name and title."
"I meant no offense."
"Every word out of your mouth is offensive."
"I'm only trying to be friendly." Tatenashi made a genuine effort to approach the other girl, but it was pointless. "I honestly wish we could work together."
"We won't." <Ren>'s heart was covered in armor, like a snake's skin shed constantly to protect itself. Her cold voice remained level. "Deal with it."
As she watched <Ren> walk away, Tatenashi could only shake her head.
"Does being a snake mean you have to bathe in venom every living moment?"
"We're going home."
"Eh?" Haruko blinked as <Ren> stormed past her, not even stopping. "But that incident. All those police. And that Sarashiki!"
<Ren> did not even honor the questions with an answer. She merely strode on, silent and bitter.
It had been more than a decade to Van Maark since he'd set foot in Japan. The clean, efficient movement of people and places interspersed with sharp and colorful images felt familiar.
The view was far from nostalgic to Van Maark.
Irony now, as he saw women ordering men around with casual brutality. Not long ago, Van Maark voiced his dislike of Japan's male-dominated society. Now it had been turned on its head in the ten years since the introduction of the <Infinite Stratos> system and its subsequent application to the world.
It's hard to say what happens. In some countries like America and France, the shift was subtle but generally did not change gender relationships. For countries like Japan those relationships were blatantly reversed. Still others, like Israel and most Middle Eastern countries, had absolutely no change at all.
You knew this was going to happen, didn't you Tabane? Van Maark felt a chill as he quietly and meekly passed customs. The fear for his life grew as he walked on. Strange I should come back to this place after so long.
In his pocket was that note, still there after ten years. Van Maark took it out, the crumpled paper well-preserved with the writing clear as day.
-Tabane is lying.-
Turning it over, his lips turned to a firm crease as he read a contact number. He'd only rung it once before ten years ago, curious as to who it connected to. Struggling with his rusty command of the japanese language, Van Maark took a minute to purchase a pre-paid phone before leaving the airport. Once he'd activated and confirmed the mobile number, he took a breath before dialling.
It was not a long wait, but it felt like forever to Van Maark.
"This is the front desk of Japan Defense Intelligence Headquarters (Johohonbu), how may I help you?"
The face was unforgettable, laughing eyes and ocean blue hair with a mischievous smile hidden behind a folding fan.
"How dare you."
<Ren>, all alone in that long-familiar field of grass blades. Through the green soft swords she could see the tall blue-haired girl laughing with a boy, teasing him in ways only a girl can.
"How dare you."
Skies purple-red with misery and the sense of blood scattered across the heavens.
The scene of the blue-haired girl and laughing boy was distant, like a picture on a canvas seen through a sea of sharpened grass. They were taller than <Ren>, and she looked at her hand.
"Why didn't you come find me?"
Her arm, short as ti was when she was but five years of age.
"How dare you."
Again, the pain across her right arm as lines drawn in blood tore through her skin. The mark of her family.
Her father's mark.
"It's just not fair."
Eyes awake and open to the night, <Ren> scowled as she heard a low drone. Her hand clawed at her pillow as if strangling someone, and indeed she felt like murder.
Haruko was snoring again.
Sitting up in her bed, <Ren> had more than once been tempted to catch a bug to drop into her partner's mouth. Preferably a cockroach.
It didn't happen often, as <Ren> usually slept at different times to her partner. But during quiet periods such as this, the noise was sanity-breaking.
Another loud, rattling snore.
"I swear, it's because of all that coffee you're drinking." <Ren> decided to step out of bed and wash her face. Summer was still in the air, and it made her cringe to wake up with sweat cooler than the air outside. Haruko often chided her for wearing jackets in the heat, but <Ren> needed them. Partly to hide the tattoo on her arm, partly to hide all the knives and blades she carried on her person.
The cold water refreshed her as it splashed across her cheeks. <Ren> did not switch on the lights, as she could see quite well in the dark room. Looking up at the mirror, she stared back at the serpent eyes of the reverse-image girl within.
"It's just not fair."
Haruko's snores could be heard all throughout the apartment.
"I'm going out, Haruko." <Ren> declared to the sleeping for as she picked up her clothes. "For your sake. If I listen to you any longer, I'll have to kill you."