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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Choice Givers:

Chapter 1

  "The box disappeared because the time limit ran out. It's that simple." Chiharu Sakai insisted. It was Christmas Eve, and all of Chiharu's friends had gotten together to celebrate it once again. For six years they had celebrated Christmas Eve together, through middle school, through high school, and now at age nineteen two semesters into college. Chiharu had been worried about going to college. She couldn't stray from her life plan, which clearly stated her next step after graduating high school was to get a bachelor's degree. But she also couldn't imagine life without her friends. Chiharu doubted she could make new ones, because truth to tell she wasn't very good at understanding others. It was hard enough understanding her friends, much less strangers. It was even harder putting up with strangers' obvious stupidity and nonsense.
  Chiharu was spoiled. She had known four of the fifty best people on Earth personally, and she was pretty sure her family, and her friends' families, were also somewhere high up on the shortlist. She was walking back from the supermarket with various party necessities, a strawberry shortcake in her left hand and fudge brownies in her right, with two of them. They were her best friends, Kotone Miyamoto and Shiori Rin. They were walking back to the home of the third, Kotone's husband Masanori Miyamoto. The fourth, like always, was wandering around the world, killing everyone he disliked. Chiharu hadn't seen Isao Oono in a long time, but he'd been great during the time they did share. Isao was a very practical, to the point kind of fellow. She could understand him. That was the wonder of it, she could understand all her friends, because they were all Choice Givers. Well, and one ex-Dead Ender. Rei Rin was a special case.
  To make matters worse, Chiharu was spoiled in a lifelong confidant who she slept with every night, and whose mind was sharper than anyone else's she'd met. To be fair, Cyan was just a blue floating orb. But as blue floating orbs went, he was top of the class. If, for some reason, Chiharu couldn't talk to her family or her friends about something, then she still had a wyrd who couldn't leave her side and couldn't disobey her no matter how he felt as a last ditch companion. But Cyan didn't want to leave her or disobey her. Cyan thought she was beautiful. Cyan loved her. All their wyrds did -- Shiori's Awesome, Rei's Onyx, Kotone's Magnolia, Masanori's Xanadu, Phyllis' Sunglow, and Isao's Black. Love was a wonderful thing, even from a small blue gem, because it carried with it affirmation. Chiharu could believe she was good because at least someone, somewhere appreciated and admired her. At least someone somewhere thought she was good, and valued her for it. Affirmation meant a lot from anyone. It meant even more from a wyrd who could use magic to scry out the depths of your soul. Since Cyan knew Chiharu better than she knew herself, and promised her she was a blooming field of flowers, who, if followed or emulated, would lead the world to infinite possibilities, Cyan's affirmation carried more weight than any ordinary mortal's. For that matter, it was a more weighty affirmation than anyone else could have given her in the first place. Most lovers stopped their comparisons at the moon and the stars -- Cyan immediately went with infinity. How could you beat that?
  Between her wyrds, her two little sisters Aiko and Saki, her parents, and her friends, it was simply too much. She was spoiled rotten. Everyone else was so annoying, in comparison, that she just tried her best to avoid them. Listening to high school girls gossip between classes about the coolest boys or the least popular girls after saving the entire universe at thirteen from an evil alliance of dark wyrds and Dead Enders was about as bad as fingernails on a chalkboard. It was a good thing Chiharu was a category one Choice Giver -- she didn't need to understand other people. She just needed to install rational laws and make people obey. Category One made sense -- "If something was immoral, it should be illegal." If you kept that in mind, the world could never stray too far. Of course, Chiharu wasn't sure how she could impose her iron fist on the outside world. Knowing that your choices were right via an alien's unimpeachable judgment, and getting others to admit that your choices were right, were two separate things. But that was okay. If she couldn't rule the world, she would settle for it leaving her alone. No one had tried to kill her in six years. After being thrown through a wall and struck by lightning twice, she felt being left alone by the outside world was a decisive improvement.
  "It left because I asked it to. Everyone saw it. And we are giving a thank you prayer to Box when we get back, I promised to remember Box forever, and so should all of you." Shiori replied smugly.
  "That makes no sense. It was a box. How exactly was it listening to you?" Chiharu complained.
  "Awesome told us from the very beginning that Choice Givers could evaporate dead ends like puffs of smoke. The box was forcing the world into a dead end. So I Choiced it away." Shiori explained.
  "Was that really Awesome? I think Cyan said that." Kotone frowned prettily. Everything Kotone did was pretty. Chiharu may have been a field of flowers on the inside, but Kotone was beautiful from any perspective. She was a wonder to behold at nineteen, everything her childhood had promised and more. Combining her looks with her happy marriage, she seemed to glow even without Magnolia's white light.
  "It doesn't matter who said it. There's no such thing as 'Choicing' obstacles away. All we can do is provide good examples for others, and the magic we manifested from our contracts. Obliterating dead ends with our will, or our very presence, is just unscientific." Chiharu returned to the overriding point.
  "Maybe Shiori could do it." Rei Rin suggested timidly. "Maybe there's a level of Choice Giving beyond Choice Giving, and, you know, at that point even reality, even inanimate objects. . .maybe even the gods start listening to you and wanting to follow you."
  "Thank you, Rei. You see? At least my sister loves me." Shiori tried to hug Rei from behind, but it didn't work too well since they were both carrying stuff in their arms. The best Shiori managed was a squishy bump. Kotone couldn't help but laugh.
  "I could solve this dispute." Kotone offered. "What if you're both wrong? What if, secretly, Robo was on our side. If Robo manipulated Mastermind to tell us about folding up, while protecting us in the box so we couldn't be hurt, maybe it was all to get us to sit down and think, without any distractions, about how to turn off the dark wyrd spigot. Then once we had solved the problem, Robo saw fit to release the spell, and let us hurry back to foiling Mastermind in the nick of time."
  "There's only one problem with that." Cyan flashed beneath Chiharu's shirt in her specially designed necklace. "We scryed Robo just like the others. Robo was a nasty Dead Ender, darker than nearly anyone. How could Robo secretly be a good guy?"
  "Maybe Shiori's promise to love the box forever and ever made Robo waver for just a second, and remember all the good things in life, like birds singing, and Robo just lost heart and let us go." Kotone rapidly shored up her position.
  "I hope not." Rei said. "I'm the one who killed Robo."
  "Robo was shooting at us! No one could ever blame you!" Shiori quickly came to Rei's defense, just like Rei had quickly come to Shiori's.
  "I don't think the mystery of the box will ever be solved." Magnolia flashed humorously. "You guys have gnawed at it for six years, you were already arguing about it two seconds after it came down, and still nobody can agree how it happened."
  "The mystery is solved: The time limit ran out. The argument will never end, though, because I'm surrounded by idiots." Chiharu corrected Magnolia.
  The others started laughing and Rei patted her on the back, which meant hitting her with the plastic grocery bag containing their eggnog and cranberry juice.
  "I wish Isao were here." Kotone sighed.
  "Wouldn't that be a little much? After you married someone else?" Chiharu asked.
  "What are you talking about? Isao dumped me." Kotone blinked at her.
  "Are you kidding?" Chiharu asked.
  "Apparently I talk too much. Plus I'm needy. After the third "this looks cute" text I sent him during an assassination mission, he almost threw his phone away. Instead he sat me down carefully next time he was home, and explained that I was driving him crazy, and he couldn't afford distractions right now. He couldn't focus while trying to think of some fun conversation to entertain his girlfriend with at night. Actually, he couldn't think of anything to say at all at night, that he hadn't said before. Once he realized he was dreading my voice before I even called, well. . ." Kotone shrugged, blushing.
  "I can't believe it." Shiori laughed. "Poor Isao!"
  "Poor Isao? I got to see my boyfriend once a month if I was lucky, and I had to worry about him dying every day between that month, without me having any way to ever find out." Kotone glared at Shiori.
  "Yes, but at least you didn't have to worry about being called by chatterbox Kotone." Shiori laughed.
  "Yes, well, I'm trying to work on that. I realize boys don't like to talk as much as girls, and this time I'll figure out when I just need to go do something else and leave Masanori alone. Like I said, I wish Isao were here. I don't blame him, I miss him. Nor is it just because I miss him, I'm sure Masanori misses him too. And I'm sure he misses us too. I want Isao to have a merry Christmas too." Kotone concluded.
  "That's a relief." Chiharu said. "I like Isao, but if you two didn't get along, I couldn't talk to him either."
  Kotone gave Chiharu one of her special smiles. "Thanks Chiharu, but you know how happy I am. I'm with Masanori now, now and forever. I'm trying to get pregnant. For all I know, I already am."
  "So soon?" Rei's eyes widened. It was hard thinking of Kotone with her career and family being the same age as the rest of them. Everyone else had just followed the routine of eternal adolescence, leaving one school and joining the next. They all felt like children around Kotone.
  "We can't spare any time. Sperm becomes less healthy and less fertile every year, and he's already forty-three." Kotone pointed out unashamedly. Kotone was never ashamed of anything, she refused to let herself be shamed out of doing anything she knew was right. "Hopefully the youth of my eggs will make up the difference, but that's just half the battle. I want my children to know their father at least until they're twenty. If I have a child every year for the next five years, that means Masanori has to live to at least sixty-eight. Considering the injury he took and his lost kidney, I don't even know if I can rely on that."
  "Five kids?" Rei squeaked.
  "As many as I can handle." Kotone replied. "Rei, think of it. Masanori and I are both Choice Givers. If we don't have kids, we're spitting in the eyes of the gods, of the spirits, of our ancestors, of all that is holy in this world. We owe life, we owe the future, as many kids as we can make. It's the most important thing I could ever do, to continue Masanori's light. Xanadu says he's the brightest light in the stars."
  Awesome flashed a sulky red. Shiori's wyrd had plenty to say about that.
  "But, I mean, you could teach kids in school, or adopt kids. . .good choices can be taught to anyone." Rei protested.
  "It wouldn't be the same." Kotone shook her head. "I love him. I want his kids. I'm hungry for them. He's going to die so long before me. I need a part of him to still be here, I need his kids around me at his funeral, or I'll never make it." Kotone took a deep breath.
  "But it's not even that." Kotone continued, this time with an even more challengingly truthful tone. "I don't believe for a second that a child of two Choice Givers is no more or less likely to be a good person than a random stranger. Nor do I believe for a second that a child we picked up off the street is just as likely to become good as our biological children who share our genes. I have my pride, Rei. I meant what I said, way back at the cave. One of our kids will be a Choice Giver, and inherit Bubbles, whether it's mine, Shiori's, or Chiharu's. I have too much faith in our worth to think otherwise."
  "On that note, where is Bubbles?" Awesome asked curiously.
  Chiharu searched her jeans pocket, then blushed. "Umm. It seems I forgot him."
  "You left him in your house?" Shiori widened her eyes.
  "It's no big deal. What could possibly go wrong?" Chiharu asked lightheartedly.
* * *
  "Sister, I'm coming in." Aiko Sakai knocked, then waited politely. There was no response. That's right, Chiharu was off having a Christmas Eve party with her friends. Well, it couldn't be helped. She needed the book Chiharu had borrowed back, or she wouldn't have anything to read for the rest of the night. Being without a book was like being without air. You could hold your breath, even endure for perhaps a full minute, but then it was find a book or die. She couldn't fathom how other people survived. TV was a wasteland, and there hadn't been a good movie released since Star Wars. Video games were plotless and characterless, which meant there was no point winning or losing. Why collect bananas and coins? Why shoot other people or win a race? The people in books were always doing something for a reason, they always had their feelings on the line. What was ever at stake in a game? And as for 'conversation,' what was the point of even comparing people's idle thoughts about non-Earth-changing situations when books were the most polished thinking of the brightest minds of history about the most important topics to ever touch their lives?
  Aiko admitted to herself that she wouldn't mind talking to living people too, that sometimes she was even a bit lonely. It was just that she didn't know how. Even the thought of speaking to someone she didn't know frightened her. The thought that they might dislike what she said frightened her even more. It was easier to just stay inside her shell, where it was safe. No one criticized a quiet girl who kept to herself. But once you voiced an opinion, you would make enemies who disagreed with you. You were committed. Saying anything, to anyone, was like challenging them to a duel, or flying the skull and crossbones. From there on it was a life and death mortal struggle to see whose opinion, whose words, whose thoughts would prevail. It was so much better to just avoid a confrontation and keep your thoughts to yourself.
  Aiko opened the door of her older sister's room and turned on the light. She checked Chiharu's bed, then her bookshelf, then her closet. Nowhere. Where on Earth had Chiharu hid Aiko's book? Surely she hadn't brought it with her to a party. Aiko sat down on Chiharu's bed and surveyed the room. Chiharu had her own room, but Aiko still had to share hers with Saki. Her parents had unreasonably had three children in a house built for two, and the inevitable result was that the younger siblings lost out. Fortunately, Aiko got along well enough with her little sister. Since Aiko didn't say much and just did her homework or read a book in bed, she generally forgot her little sister was even there. Besides, Saki liked to spend a lot of the time on the couch in the living room, usually doing homework while watching TV. In a sense, they both had their private space most of the day long. It was embarrassing for Saki to see Aiko's breasts keep growing and growing, with Aiko fifteen and Saki still a mere ten, but it couldn't be helped. Besides, Saki had only admired her older sister for looking so womanly. To tell the truth, Aiko was pleased with the changes herself. Certainly, some parts weren't fun, like the aches and the bleeding. But some parts were fun, like how beautiful she felt, and how adults treated her with more respect, and how boys would rather look at her than chase bugs or kick a ball around all day.
  Aiko had read endless romance stories. Not the steamy kind. Just romantic stories where boys fought to protect the girls they loved, and would never betray their faith. Of course Aiko knew all about sex and what boys really wanted, it was impossible to not know intimately about it in this day and age. But she still hoped for a romance like the ones she read. And that meant being beautiful enough to attract a boy's attention, and make all of that romance worth his time and effort. And if said boy showed that Aiko was worth all that time and effort to him, maybe then she'd give him what he wanted. Maybe then she'd want it as much as him. Her body was proof that she was ready for all of it, but until she figured out how to talk to a boy without looking away and whispering inaudibly, she didn't think her heart was quite prepared. There was something about a boy disliking you that was even more painful than a girl's dislike. The risk of their disdain was even worse than that from other women. It felt too close to a final judgment that she would never be attractive to any guy, that she was ugly, or annoying, and would be alone forever for lack of anyone thinking she was worth the effort. No matter how many girls liked her, if boys didn't, what was the point? It was better to not even make the attempt. So long as she didn't try to win a boy's affection, she wouldn't fail. So long as she hadn't failed, she could still have hope that she would someday succeed.
  Aiko discovered one last place she hadn't looked. Of course Chiharu would put it in the drawers of her desk. She probably read there anyway, and it looked tidier when things were put away. Aiko got back up off the bed and opened the top drawer. There were various notebooks and textbooks, but not the book Aiko had let her borrow. Still, if one drawer had books, others could too. She was getting warmer. Aiko opened the next drawer down.
  "Oh, thank goodness. I was wondering what had happened. Aren't we going to be late for the party?" A light blue light was pouring out of the drawer from a gem that looked almost exactly like her sister's favorite necklace.
  Aiko yelped and slammed the drawer shut.
  "Is everything okay?" Aiko's mother asked from downstairs.
  "Sorry! It was nothing!" Aiko shouted back reflexively. She opened the drawer again, slowly. This time the gem sat still, just a dull glass orb. Aiko stared at it for a while. She thought she saw it tremble. That gave her some confidence. If it was trying to hide from her, she probably didn't need to hide from it.
  "You can give it up now. You already blew your cover completely." Aiko gave the orb a glare and put her hands on her hips. "What are you doing in my sister's desk? Who are you? What are you? Is my sister's necklace just like you?"
  "I'm not obligated to answer any of your questions." The orb floated out of the desk drawer, glowing a bright sky blue. He had a very fussy voice, like someone who was trying to be dignified and brave but could never quite get the tone right. Aiko was encouraged by that too. If the orb stayed on the defensive, it meant she could stay on the offensive.
  Aiko snatched the orb out of the air and squeezed it in her palm. It was warm to the touch. It was alive, not a communications device. How incredibly strange.
  "You'll answer my questions or no one will ever find you again. I'll bury you in concrete and throw you into the sea." Aiko had no idea how she could do that, but if the threat worked for the Yakuza, she figured it would work for a floating gem.
  "You wouldn't dare. Chiharu would. . ." The orb flashed skittishly in her palm.
  "Oh, so you do have a connection." Aiko smiled victoriously.
  "I won't give up anymore. You're not a Choice Giver, so I can't talk to you. Please understand! I would have to stand trial if we made a contract, I'd, I'd practically be a dark wyrd!" The orb said in a panic.
  "What's a contract?" Aiko asked. This interrogation was almost too easy. The orb couldn't stop dropping hints.
  "If anyone says via tu lusches, Bubbles, I'm bound to them for life, and have to do everything they say. Because I was sent down here without any Choice Givers available, I've just been living with Sakai. Wyrds are expressly forbidden from contracting with anyone else. That kind of power in the wrong hands could, well, it could destroy the universe! So, kindly just put me back in that drawer and forget about all this. Your sister has everything well in hand, really." The orb said.
  "I don't get it. Why would just saying via tu lusches, Bubbles make you do anything? Surely you have a say in it too, if it's a lifelong contract of obedience." Aiko felt a strange ring of warmth settle on her limbs, then shrink inwards into her heart.
  Bubbles sat there, shocked in silence, then wailed. "You tricked me! You harridan! You termagant! You, you -- I'm doomed! Doomed! I'm a dark wyrd obeying a Dead Enderrrrrrrrrrrrr."
  "tricked you?" Aiko's voice kept rising.
  "Is something the matter?" Mother asked again, this time sounding more annoyed.
  "No! Nothing, Mother! Sorry, I'll keep it down!" Aiko shouted back in a panic. What more could go wrong?
  "Listen here, Bubbles. If you tell someone your secret password and then say 'no matter what don't say this secret password,' no one on Earth won't say the secret password. It's like putting a giant red button on your spaceship with a sign saying "Do Not Press!" If you didn't want me to know, why on Earth did you tell me? More like, what have you gotten me into, and why?" Aiko whispered violently, shaking Bubbles in her closed fist.
  "I'm not good at handling pressure! I -- you said you were going to encase me in concrete -- I -- can you imagine simply sitting underwater for two hundred years, unable to move, unable to see, until I finally die? And that's if our timestreams are properly synchronized. For all I know, I could float underwater for a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand Earth years before two hundred wyrd years pass! I was never taught how to endure torture in my diplomatic corps! It couldn't be helped!" Bubbles protested.
  "It couldn't be helped?" Aiko squeaked. "I didn't even know you had a password, and you couldn't help but give it to me? I was asking your name and why you were here! Where does 'what's your secret password' come into this?"
  "You wouldn't possibly want to reconsider being a Dead Ender, would you?" Bubbles asked hopefully. "My mother would never approve of me wrecking the world. Oh, if she saw me now!"
  "You are the most absurd creature I've ever seen! You're impossible! How could I destroy the world? I'm just a schoolgirl, not. . .whatever you said." Aiko sat down on Chiharu's bed with Bubbles firmly in her grasp. Her mind was reeling.
  "Oh, oh, oh. I've really done it now. Sakai will kill us both when she gets home. She'll kill us both. A dark wyrd contracted to a Dead Ender. Oh, oh, oh." Bubbles was flashing mournfully in synch with his 'oh's'.
  "Are you crying?" Aiko asked, a wedge of compassion breaking into her clouded thoughts.
  "What's it to you? I suppose I have to call you mistress now. What evil mission do you want to engage in first? No doubt we're going to ambush Sakai when she gets home. Oh, oh, oh." Bubbles blubbered.
  "Which is it? Are you crying because Chiharu's going to kill me, or because I'm going to kill Chiharu?" Aiko couldn't help it. She started laughing. The whole situation had gone beyond the ridiculous.
  "Look, we haven't introduced ourselves properly yet." Aiko took pity on her crying orb and let it out of her palm. It was hers now, hers for life. She hadn't meant to do it, this 'contract' of its, but she had done it. She couldn't deny the entire situation was her responsibility now. She couldn't just leave Bubbles crying like this.
  "I'm Aiko Sakai, a human from Inazumu, Japan, Earth. . .err. . .Milky Way galaxy. I'll be under your care from here on." Aiko Sakai gave Bubbles a deep bow.
  "I. . ." Bubbles suppressed a sniffle. "You can't fool me. You were going to torture me."
  "I'm sorry I said that. Please forgive me, Bubbles." Aiko kept her head bowed. At least, she was sorry now that it had happened. If he had just answered the questions I had actually asked -- !
  "I'm Bubbles, a wyrd from the etheric plane. It's, well, a folded dimension far above this one. So I can't give you the name of a galaxy. I. . .I'll be under your care from here on." Bubbles trailed off sadly. "What is my mistress' first evil command? I'm sure we can steep ourselves in blood and darkness before sunset."
  "Are you certain you don't want to do evil?" Aiko laughed. She thought she understood Bubbles. Bubbles was just a baby. A baby totally out of his depth. She even felt the need to protect him.
  "I wanted to contract with a Choice Giver. But that's all gone now. I guess I can try to learn the joys of looting and pillage, mistress." Bubbles sighed.
  "I don't know how you got that impression from me, but I would certainly not approve of you 'learning to enjoy' looting, pillaging, blood or darkness. If we're going to live together, we should try to care for each other. And I only care for kind people like my family, and the heroes in my favorite stories. You have me all wrong." Aiko set Bubbles straight.
  "You say that, but I can see the darkness in your heart. Scrying is never wrong." Bubbles sighed.
  "The darkness in my heart? I haven't taken any drugs. I haven't slept with anyone. I don't even get into fights with my younger sister, even though we share the same room. The darkness in my heart? Bubbles, I do my homework every day!" Aiko defended herself. Why did she have to take this from her own servant?
  "It's more fundamental than that. Wyrds have perfected a magic skill, scrying, that lets us see the consequences of someone's choices, if the whole world were to act like them. You're just like the other Dead Enders. Somehow or other, you'd lead the world to ruin." Bubbles said. "And now that you have my magic power, you're more dangerous than all the others, because you have the power to back up those awful choices, to take them to their logical conclusion. This is why wyrds can never talk to Dead Enders."
  "Tell me what choices I'm making that would ruin the world." Aiko challenged Bubbles.
  "I don't know." Bubbled bobbed up and down in the air.
  "What are you talking about? You just said you could see the consequences of my choices. So what am I doing wrong?" Aiko asked defiantly.
  "I don't know. Scrying is extremely complicated. We can't just tell you, 'this is good,' 'this is bad.' We just see the sum total of your soul. It's all there. I'm sure doing your homework is a good idea, but, in the end it's all a dead end. If it helps, I don't think you're as evil as some others."
  "Oh, well, gee. Thanks." Aiko sighed. She had never thought of herself as evil. But Bubbles seemed pretty certain about it. She didn't have any reason to doubt him. "Is Saki evil too?"
  "Maybe evil's the wrong word. She's a Dead Ender, and dead ends are evil, but generally it's unintentional. They just don't know any better. Maybe I should have said misguided." Bubbles blinked apprehensively.
  "You're kidding me. My ten year old sister is also a threat to the universe?" Aiko asked. "Behind her innocent veneer, she's plotting the end of the world?"
  "Well, yes. . .but you have to understand, unless she were to get enough power, it really doesn't amount to much." Bubbles admitted.
  "And my parents are world destroyers too? All these years they've lived as perfectly decent, upright citizens, the years they spent raising us, all of that was a mask and really they wanted to destroy the world?" Aiko asked.
  "Actually, no." Bubbles flashed with relief. "They're fine. They belong to the third category, those who follow or emulate Choice Givers."
  "Really? So who are they following? Who's their inspiration?" Aiko challenged Bubbles.
  "Chiharu Sakai, of course. Who else but the Choice Giver under your roof?" Bubbles replied.
  "Oh." Aiko managed to close her mouth, but she did fwump back onto her sister's bed. Aiko wished Chiharu would come home. Apparently, she had a lot to learn from her. Like how to become good, for starters. The story of Chiharu's necklace could come next. Maybe she should have paid a little more attention to Chiharu all these years. They just lived together and got along. Isn't that what all families did? At least Saki's as evil as I am. Great. Now I'm drawing solace from beating a ten year old.

Chapter 2

  Shiori's arms hurt from carrying her share of groceries, but she didn't mind because the scenery was so beautiful. Inazumu had lights strung up, some pure gold, others a dazzling array of blue, green, and red, in all the stores, over all the trees, and sometimes across people's houses and yards. Even though it was night, the streets were still busy, often with young couples on their treasured Christmas Eve date. Inazumu was too far south for a white Christmas, but people still wore thick winter coats and scarfs. Partially because it was cold, but also partially because it was just a chance to wear them, and they looked great alongside the Christmas spirit. This was her favorite time of year. When she had caught a fever as a kid, it had almost been Christmas. Daddy had remembered a prayer from Christianity that he remembered liking and found it online. Then he had printed it out and held the page in one hand, and her hand in the other, and prayed for Christ to heal her. Shinto was a very understanding religion, it didn't worry how many gods there were, and didn't mind if Christ was one more. And since it was nearly Christmas, Daddy had hoped he was listening more intently than the other gods.
  Shiori had gotten better, but she had asked Daddy to read it to her again and again, every night thereafter, like he had the first time. Eventually she had learned it by heart. That was when Christmas had become her favorite time of year.
  "Neh, Awesome." Shiori said, getting his attention. "Do you think a wyrd contracted with Jesus, and that's why he could do all those miracles? Maybe Jesus was a super duper Choice Giver."
  "We only discovered how to fold a few years ago. The first contact between wyrds and humans was, well, you and me." Awesome replied.
  "But Xanadu ended up ten years back in time, even though you scryed me the same day you came down to Earth, ten years after Xanadu arrived." Shiori pointed out. "Not only Xanadu, by the time you got here, tons of wyrds were here, with Choice Givers and Dead Enders. Miyamoto was fighting them for years."
  "I don't get it either." Awesome said. "I'm not a scientist, so I don't know what hyperdimensional tubes can do. But isn't time just another dimension? If we're folding dimensions, we're probably folding time too, on our trip to Earth. But as far as I can tell, time is traveling much faster in the etheric plane than down here. After I discovered you, months went by. I met with the government, we designed a folding machine from scratch, pioneers went through first, and all the while you had just barely gotten to bed the same day we met. Or take Bubbles, only a few hours passed between when we sent the message, and when we beat Mastermind. But when we emerged from the cave, he said an entire government raid, practically a war, had been completely wrapped up. How long did that take in the etheric plane?"
  "So maybe wyrds started folding down only a few years ago, from your point of view, but ended up folding down all across human history, from our point of view. We know for a fact this is what happened with Xanadu." Shiori said.
  "But that was just a ten year gap. That's just like a parachute landing falling slightly off course. You're talking about a two thousand year gap. And not just for one anomaly. For tons of wyrds." Awesome countered.
  "Wouldn't it be wonderful though? What if Jesus really could do miracles, because that's the magic he manifested? What if the Holy Ghost was just his wyrd, and the Father was the God of wyrdism? Remember, Jesus also said God was Truth, and that God's highest commandment was to "Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself." Doesn't that sound really similar?" Shiori smiled excitedly at the idea.
  "Christians would burn you at the stake if you told them something like that." Awesome chuckled.
  "They don't do stuff like that anymore. And I'm serious! This theory could explain everything. Take Hitler. He survived two different assassination attempts. Once, a bomb was set on his plane, but it didn't go off. Another time, a bomb was set right next to him, and it killed other people around him, but he was totally fine. Suppose Hitler had the support of a dark wyrd? Couldn't that explain everything?" Shiori asked.
  "Wasn't Hitler Japan's ally in World War II?" Awesome asked.
  "That's totally different. Japan joined World War II because America was bullying us, they cut off our oil supplies and demanded we return colonies that we'd owned for decades, with signed treaties and deeds and everything. The same America that had tons of colonies itself. It would be like if Japan had demanded America return all the land it conquered in the Mexican-American war, and blockaded all of America's trade until it did so -- even though they won that land in a war, signed a treaty, paid for it, and held it for a century! Japan was fighting in self-defense, we just allied with Germany because it was also the enemy of America. We're no different from Finland. Do you know the story of Finland?" Shiori asked.
  "Refresh me." Awesome suggested.
  "Finland was also part of the Axis powers. But their entire war was in self defense. Russia had invaded them first, and though Finland fought as well it could, it had to give in to the overwhelming power of Russia, and cede away some of its land to sue for peace. When Hitler invaded Russia, the Finns declared war too, and used all of their military force to take back the land they had just lost. They never left truly Finnish soil, they were only fighting back against an aggressor, but they're 'an ally of Hitler' in the history books."
  "So Hitler had the help of a time traveling dark wyrd, but Japan was fighting in self defense?" Awesome blinked an unbelieving red.
  "Precisely. But that's not all. Remember Ghengis Khan? He was told by 'God' to conquer the whole world, and that nothing could oppose him. So long as he lived, the Mongols were unbeatable. They conquered half the world! Then he died, and the Mongols started being defeated on all fronts. But wherever the Mongols conquered, all they left was death and destruction. They were the perfect Dead Ender civilization. What if a dark wyrd gave him that prophecy, that religion, and the power to win every battle? Once the lifelong contract was broken, the wyrd couldn't interfere anymore, so history returned to its normal course. And normally, nomads can't beat civilizations that outnumber them a million to one, no matter how well they ride their horses or shoot their bows." Shiori continued.
  "Or, think of this one! What if a dark wyrd gave the Aztecs their power, and all of that stuff about human sacrifice to keep the sun aloft? Doesn't that sound like something a dark wyrd would try? The Aztecs weren't a powerful tribe, and then suddenly they're winning wars on all fronts, and slaughtering tens of thousands of people and making their streets run with blood to their dark god. But what if it was just a dark wyrd? Oh! And is there really any chance Cortez and a hundred conquistadores could really have defeated millions of Aztecs like the storybooks say? He must have been a Choice Giver with a contracted wyrd who came to free South America from the dark wyrd's evil grip. He probably had some incredible magic that took down the dark wyrd and all the Dead Enders alike. Saying he waved his sword, shot a couple guns, and conquered Mexico is way more ridiculous than believing in magic." Shiori enthused.
  "So now we're to blame for everything humans ever did wrong in history?" Awesome complained.
  "You get to be the good guys too. Why do you always concentrate on the negative?" Shiori asked.
  "Let's ignore the number of historians currently rolling in their graves right now. I just want to know: When did you learn all this history?" Awesome complained.
  "I am in college now, Awesome. I know all you care about is how big my bust and hips have grown in the past six years, but we humans take pride in learning more about the world as we grow up." Shiori said primly.
  "It's not like they've grown that much." Awesome grumbled.
  "What was that?" Shiori shook her fist at Awesome.
  "Nothing. You're just hearing things again." Awesome blinked defiantly.
  "You are such a pevert. I don't even know when you've been looking. You probably carry a tape measure around and ambush me in my sleep."
  "I don't need a tape measure to see what's obvious to anyone!" Awesome retorted.
  "Umm, you two?" Kotone put a hand on Shiori's arm. "I hate to interrupt, but, we're here."
  Shiori started blushing, wondering how much the others had heard. Trust Awesome to embarrass her the first time she'd seen Kotone in months! But she stopped worrying about it when her eyes tried to take in the house and yard they were in front of. The whole place was decorated with white Christmas lights in the most intricate patterns. Shiori was sure Kotone had done it to match Magnolia's light. Kotone was always thinking about others like that. Shiori put down her bags and ran to the other side of the street. Even then, with her eyes as wide as possible, she couldn't take it all in.
  "Kotone, your house is huge! It's so beautiful!" Shiori wanted to move in immediately. Kotone probably had ten guest rooms!
  "I did marry the richest man on Earth, technically. I mean, he can make as much money as he wants, whenever he wants. Did I tell you he's figured out how to mine platinum and uranium?" Kotone looked at her house and smiled with evident pride. "Besides, I told you, we're going to fill this whole house with love. Just thinking about all the kids running around in the yard, with the dog -- and yes, we'll get a dog for them, we all agreed that dogs were necessary to a good life after all. . .it makes me want to cry. A big family deserves a big house. And good people deserve good things. You should have seen the place Miyamoto was living in. It was this awful dusty apartment, I was afraid he was going to get sick again. And he ate instant ramen practically every day! A bank account that can't fit enough zeroes in it, and he was eating instant ramen!"
  "That's just the half of it though. Let's go inside. I want to show you our bathroom. You know how annoying it is to spend all night waiting on each other's bath to finish? Well, if I'm going to have five kids, we wanted them to enjoy their bathtime. So, well, we just made our own hot springs resort. You can bathe whenever you want, and even though the pools are huge so that everyone could bathe together if they wanted, they're still numerous enough for privacy and different temperatures too." Kotone bragged.
  "That sounds like heaven!" Rei sighed. "We only have one bathtub for all four of us at home."
  "Kotone, can we move in?" Shiori asked instantly.
  "If you want. All of you are welcome. I'd give any of you anything, you know that." Kotone replied, smiling.
  "Shiori, we can't! Mother and Daddy would miss us so much." Rei reprimanded her starry eyed sister.
  "We're already going to college, Rei, our parents have to let us go eventually. And look at this house! We could have our own rooms, and our own personal hot spring!" Shiori begged her sister.
  "No means no. And since when did you dislike sharing a room with me?" Rei glared up at her twin sister, crossing her arms beneath her breasts. Rei was still shorter than everyone else, and still had a slender figure. But she couldn't be mistaken for a child. Her eyes and voice conveyed too many long years.
  "Just wait until you see the rooms. They're sound-proofed, which will be great for when the baby's crying, or the kids are screaming at each other and banging pots. Plus, each bedroom can set its own temperature. No more fights over the thermostat! Naturally, everyone gets a computer with high speed internet. And we have a giant theatre room, a 3-D HD TV with like 6,000 channels. I think I'm forgetting something. Oh, yeah, we have a ballroom for dancing and hosting parties. That's where our Christmas tree is set up. It's seven meters tall, and absolutely gorgeous." Kotone said.
  "You host parties?" Chiharu asked dubiously.
  "Actually I have to, from time to time, for work. The modeling business is all about social networking. So my agency invites tons of people over and I dress up in a formal gown and go talk to everyone personally, and eventually someone will call me and ask for a photoshoot." Kotone explained.
  "What kind of modeling?" Shiori asked. Everyone knew she was a model, that's why Kotone hadn't bothered with anything like college. She knew what the gods had blessed her with and had always liked being the center of attention anyway. But this was the first time they had gotten a chance to talk about it face to face.
  "Any kind, so long as its decent." Kotone smiled. "I'm a Choice Giver, so I can't set a bad example. But the modeling I love most is the cosplaying."
  "Show me pictures!" Shiori begged. "Do you wear cat ears?"
  "Of course." Kotone laughed richly. "I love cat ears. I love tails. I love all of it. But most of all I love dressing up as the girls I've seen in all my favorite anime. Do you have any idea what an honor it is to cosplay as Nagisa from Clannad, or Misaka from Railgun, or Deedlit from Lodoss War, and then have those pictures spread in magazines all across the world? I feel like I'm sharing in this special love with all my readers for those girls. It's. . .how can I explain it? I'm just so blessed to have the opportunity to borrow that dream and turn it into a little bit of reality for the rest of the otaku community."
  "We're never going to get indoors like this." Magnolia chided Kotone gently.
  "Oh! I'm so sorry, everyone." Kotone held her hand in front of her face. Then she input the code to open her gate and guided them through the front yard, complete with a carp pond and a little bridge arching over it, a bamboo water clock and a raked rock garden, and a shaded gazebo surrounded with flowers.
  Kotone opened the door and stepped into a massive entranceway. Stairs spiraled up to an upstairs balcony to their left and right, and everything was deeply carpeted. Hallways promised to lead mysteriously deep into every direction.
  "Darling, I'm home." Kotone called.
  "Sorry to intrude." Everyone else politely followed, taking off their shoes and putting on the provided indoor slippers.
  Masanori Miyamoto appeared from upstairs and quickly came down to greet them. He was in his dragon and roses kimono, with Xanadu embedded in the scabbard of his sheathed sword.
  Kotone quickly ran forward to hug him, then kissed him with infinite fondness on the lips. She would never be ashamed of her love for Masanori. It was her fiercest pride. "You should have gone shopping with us. We talked about so much, I'm afraid we've already enjoyed half the party."
  "I'll just have to hope the second half is twice as fun." Miyamoto grinned, picking Kotone up easily and setting her down out of the way.
  "Everyone, welcome home. It's great to see your faces again. Plus, I have all sorts of announcements." Masanori met each of the girls at the entranceway with a hug. They had all saved each other's lives at some point. They were more than friends, even more than comrades in arms, if that were possible. There simply wasn't any distance left when it came to members of this group.
  "Kotone's pregnant?" Rei squealed.
  "Is she?" Masanori looked over at his wife hopefully.
  Kotone shook her head, blushing. "I don't think so."
  "Well, then not that announcement." Miyamoto grinned. "But maybe something almost as good. Here, I'm sure everyone's tired of carrying their bags. Let's go to the kitchen and eat. Oh, and Merry Christmas, everyone."
  "And thank you, Box, for giving us this day. And Happy Birthday, Jesus, the very first wyrd contracted Choice Giver." Shiori added.
  "Did I miss something?" Masanori looked at the others quizzically.
  "Only half the party. Actually, none of us can keep up with Shiori's trains of thoughts either, so it really doesn't matter when you join the conversation." Chiharu grinned. Shiori didn't mind the teasing. She already had her mind set on the strawberry shortcake.
* * *
  "Shiori and Awesome were arguing about this on the way back, and I thought you'd be the perfect person to ask about it. Masanori, you're a soldier, what do you think about World War II? Were we in the right?" Kotone asked her husband over the dinner table, starting the conversation back up now that they had gotten as full as possible and were just relaxing, drinking tea, and digesting while listening to Christmas carols.
  "World War II, huh? I guess it is irresponsible for Choice Givers to duck the hardest questions. Well, first off, I think we can all confidently say that there were no good guys in World War II. It was an awful, stupid war. The only right answer to World War II would have been for everyone to not fight it. How many people died in World War II, sixty million? And for what? So we could start a Cold War immediately afterwards that almost killed the rest of mankind. Are you aware that Krushchev, during the Cuban Missle Crisis, authorized the use of tactical nukes in defense of Cuba? That only his subordinates managed to restrain him from a runaway Armageddon?" Masanori asked the coterie of pretty young girls he had all to himself for the evening. Chiharu nodded, but the others looked shocked.
  "But that answer is too easy, it's too flip for the most important war in world history. So we have to go back further. The important thing to remember about World War II is that everything must be taken in context, the context of the times. We can't judge them by what we know now, we can only judge people by how they acted within the context of the era. Nor can we judge each country in isolation, they have to be judged within the context of what the other nations of the world were doing at the time. It is impossible to understand World War II without looking at the entire web of interconnectedness that was propelling each of the countries individually into war. The world back then looked vastly different than the world looks like today. What makes no sense to us makes perfect sense to people of the times. So let's give everyone a history lesson." Masanori paced himself.
  "The story begins with Commander Perry opening Japan to the West in 1854. When the West arrived on our shores, they had a decisive military advantage over Japan. The rest of the world had undergone the industrial revolution while Japan was still living back in the feudal era, deliberately isolating itself from world progress just so that the Shogunate could continue to maintain its iron grip on power over the peasantry. Japan at the time was a dead end, with a government deliberately keeping its people in stagnation merely to retain the power of the samurai class over the peasants via its decisive military advantage in training, weapons, and armor. The outside world shocked us out of that dead end, that presumably could have been maintained indefinitely, if Japan had been left alone. Unfortunately, they didn't do it for our sake. They used their superior position to extract unequal trade agreements from us, starting with America, and then followed by the British Empire, the Russian Empire, and the French Empire. The Western imperialists of the time were either outright conquering all the territories of Asia, or forcing them into subordinate positions through militarily imposed treaties of duress like the ones the Shogunate was forced to sign. Japan realized that if it wished to survive as an independent state, it was going to have to beat the Western powers at their own game. We would have to modernize, industrialize, militarize, and imperialize better than anyone in our own back yard, or we would just become one more colony like the weaker nations around us that had already fallen. Because we are Japanese, any such task set before us isn't a problem. Once we knew what we had to do, we managed in a mere forty years to transition from a feudal agrarian state to a new modern industrial power along the same model as the Europeans we had learned from." Masanori continued.
  "This brings us to 1894, precisely forty years after our first disequilibrium from our isolationist bows-and-arrows age when Perry sailed into our harbors. Let's take a look at the Asia of 1894. The Philippines belonged to the Spanish Empire. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Polynesia belonged to the French Empire. East Timor and Macau belonged to the Portuguese Empire. Indonesia belonged to the Dutch Empire. Papua New Guinea belonged to the German Empire. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma belonged to the British Empire. Korea belonged to the Qing Dynasty, which originally conquered all of China from their base in Manchuria. This same Qing dynasty, by 1894, was a shadow of its former self, having lost multiple Opium Wars to European powers and lost twenty million people in a civil war called the Taiping rebellion, which was attempting to ban all the abuses of the decadent Qing like foot binding, slavery and opium smoking. Naturally, the Europeans aided the Qing dynasty in crushing this revolt so that they could continue to sell opium to the Chinese in exchange for the silk and tea they so craved. Just get a picture of this in your head. The European Empires of the era were so uninterested in Asian freedom, Asian welfare, or Asian life that they killed millions of Chinese in order to enforce their right to sell a dangerous and destructive drug to tens of millions of additional Chinese, all so that they could drink tea back home. This was the state of Asia outside of Japan. There wasn't a single free, prosperous, modern, developed independent state in the entirety of East Asia outside of Japan. And if we showed any hint of weakness, if we hadn't miraculously managed our Meiji Restoration and modernization process in just forty years, we would have been just like them." Masanori painted the picture.
  "At this time, Korea decided to try its luck at gaining independence from the fading Qing Dynasty. When the Qing sent an army in to recapture their lost tributary state, Japan decided to act and claim the peninsula for itself. Remember, Korea back then was not like the Korea of today. It was a backwater, with no modernization. It was not an independent state, and had never known freedom or human rights. Korea was a land of impoverished peasants, not a thriving capitalist hub of commerce and high tech industries. Japan has always tried to expand into Korea when its fortunes waxed and China's fortunes waned. Wars between Japan and China over ownership of Korea were nothing new -- Korea was much like the Kingdom of Armenia, a buffer state held equally by the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, never really belonging to itself. Invading Korea just seemed like the natural thing to do when the opportunity presented itself." Masanori explained.
  "That was just part of it though. At the same time, Japan had its own interests to worry about. Japan had managed to modernize its industry, but it still had severe problems if it wished to compete with, survive and overcome the ravenous appetites of the European Empires. Our population was restricted by our small landmass, much of it mountainous, all of it subject to earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and volcanoes. And our industrial might had no matching natural resources to work with. Everything we built, all of our manufacturing and infrastructure, had to come from steel, coal, oil, and rubber imported from abroad. Imagine how this must have felt in the age of mercantilism. There was no guarantee that Japan would have access to these raw materials. The European Empires had no interest in free trade, and zealously hoarded all of their foreign holdings' raw materials to themselves. Japan, without a hinterland, could be crippled in the space of a few months or years, and brought down to the same pitiable standing as the rest of East Asia, simply if the European Empires decided to turn the screws on us. Given their track record, it was absurd to think we could trust them to treat us compassionately or fairly. The security of Japan meant having our own natural resources we could count on being able to extract to continue fueling our economy and thus our military capability for self defense, and a population that could finally grow and expand beyond the limited opportunities of our tiny island fortress." Masanori said.
  "Obviously the war went well for Japan. The Qing dynasty had no military or industrial capability to speak of, it had lost every war in the last century against all comers, and thus Korea fell effortlessly into our hands. When the war was over, the Qing dynasty had ceded ownership of Korea, the Liaodong peninsula and Taiwan to Japan, which could properly be called the Japanese Empire for the first time. Just to give you a picture of what the world was like back then, however, this didn't result in Japan's ownership of the Liaodong Peninsula. Instead, it created a massive diplomatic uproar among the European Empires, and Liaodong was ceded to, of all people, the Russian Empire. Soon afterwards, Russia was demanding Korea itself. This just goes to show that in the dizzying age of Imperialism, there was never any option for a weak state to belong to itself. If the Qing dynasty didn't keep Korea under its thumb, and if Japan hadn't done anything at all, Korea still wouldn't have been a free, sovereign state. The only difference is it would have belonged to the Russian Empire instead of our own. The choice was never for Japan to nobly allow East Asia to be a land of free, prosperous democracies, or to become an evil conquering tyrant. It was simply whether Japan wanted to own an Empire with enough power and allies that it could defend itself, or if it wanted Europe to own all of Asia, and use those resources and territories as a springboard to ultimately conquer Japan." Masanori laid it all out.
  "So now let's zoom forward ten years, to 1904. The Qing dynasty has continued to weaken, and into the vacuum there were only two possible results. Korea and Manchuria would either belong to the Russian Empire or the Japanese Empire. There was never any hope that the Qing could hold on to them anymore, nor that either of them would be set up as free and independent capitalist democracies. If Japan stepped aside and did nothing, the Russians would have gladly taken the lands without a pang of conscience. So when you ask yourself why Japan was conquering foreign territory, you can never compare whether Japan should have left Manchuria and Korea 'free.' You can only ask yourself who you wanted these lands to belong to -- the Russians or the Chinese, who later proved themselves to be the most murderous tyrants in human history? Or the Japanese, who were already the primary power in Asia and later proved themselves to be the second greatest economy on Earth? The Japanese Empire felt both Japan, and the regions they were conquering, would be far better off than the alternatives. To remind you of the spirit of the times, in just the last ten years from Japan's war with the Qing dynasty, the United States of America had conquered the territories of the Spanish Empire, including the Philippines, and annexed the independent Kingdom of Hawaii, becoming yet another ruthless Western Empire that had no respect for 'freedom' or 'sovereignty' in Asia. When the Philippines fought a war for their independence, their American 'liberators' crushed them, killing by some estimates a million natives. The German Empire, meanwhile, had bought a vast collection of Pacific islands from their previous owners, the Spanish Empire. The German Empire now owned the Solomon Islands, the Mariana Islands, and the Caroline Islands. Nobody thought to consult the native inhabitants of those islands whether they wanted to belong to the Spanish, the Germans, the French or the British. They were traded like poker chips at a card game." Masanori said.
  "In 1904, Japan was alone in Asia, surrounded by an ever-increasing number of European Empires, that now included America and Russia as well as all the old hats, and the Qing dynasty's territories were being carved apart and distributed before our eyes. Sitting still and doing nothing would have meant suicide. Therefore, we asserted our rights to the land we had fairly won ten years earlier, and went to war with Russia. And because we were Japan, and not the Qing dynasty, or the natives of the Philippines, or Hawaiians, we won. Japan was the first non-Western empire to win a war against a Western empire in centuries. With the Ruso-Japanese war, we changed the course of history. It was Imperialist Japan, imperial Japanese thinking, planning, and decisiveness, that gave us this victory, this first check on Western Imperialism. We were the last hope of Asia, and if we had lost the Ruso-Japanese war, they could have annexed us too. But we won. And with the freedom and strength we won for ourselves, we also offered a whispered promise that someday we would restore all of Asia to the Asians. That, if we were going to live in a world of a dozen empires that owned all the land on Earth, at least Asia would be an Asian empire. An Asian empire led by the most modern, effective, and enlightened country in all of Asia, Japan. Not because I think so, not because I'm biased, but because the facts speak for themselves. We were free, we could beat European powers at their own game -- while everyone else had long since folded and lost. All of Asia would unite under the Japanese Empire, or face eternal slavery to faraway despots who would freely kill millions of us for a drink of tea. Given the context of the times, that was the only possible future Japan could foresee in the world." Masanori took a long sip of tea to keep his voice.
  "After defeating Russia, we gained Korea and the Southern Sakhalin islands. During World War I, we sided with Britain against Germany, and therefore gained all of Germany's Pacific islands as spoils of war. Between World War I and World War II, we conquered Manchuria and began the conquest of China proper, whose Qing Dynasty had now fallen and was in the midst of a chaotic civil war between a repressive dictatorial Kuomingtang party, and Mao Zedong's Communist party, which just so happened to prove itself in later times as the most murderous government in world history. We weren't the only people still making new Imperial conquests. The British and the French Empires happily incorporated the remains of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. Italy was conquering Libya and Ethiopia. Japan was just part of the mores of the time -- the strong had to conquer the weak, in order to stay economically and militarily strong enough to not be conquered in turn. Whoever fell behind, like Spain, would soon find themselves colonized in turn. In 1898, Spain lost their Empire. In the 1930's, they were being contested over by Germany and the U.S.S.R as a puppet state . Either your empire grew and prospered, or you collapsed and disappeared off the world map. There was no in-between. There was no hope for small or backwards countries that kept to themselves. And while Japan was engaged in the midst of this business-as-usual, the European and American Empires, in a supreme bout of hypocrisy, told us to respect the independence of a sovereign Asian country. They told us to be humane and stop killing massive numbers of Chinese civilians. They told us to renounce our dreams of Empire and retreat from our recent hard-won conquests. Demands they had never made of themselves, demands they had never implemented themselves, were all of a sudden leveled en masse against us. Accompanying these outrageous demands were crippling economic sanctions, denying us the oil and steel and foreign credit we needed to function as a modern nation that were exercised against us for a full year before we bombed Pearl Harbor. It was precisely the threat of, and use of, these sanctions that necessitated Japan's continued aggressive quest for a hinterland. So long as we weren't self-sufficient, having all the raw materials we needed within our own borders, we would always be under the control of hostile foreign powers who could turn the screws of economic sanctions on us whenever they wanted, over any topic they wanted. Rather than deter Japanese imperialism, America's sanctions only redoubled the scope of our ambition and the depth of our resolve." Masanori waved his hand contemptuously.
  "Nothing can be understood about World War II without this context. Looking back, we see that it is morally right for countries to be free and independent, based on free elections and the consent of the governed. In this day and age, countries with no military power to speak of, countries the size of golf courts, are sovereign and free all across the globe. From this perspective, obviously Japan was in the wrong to be conquering their neighbors. In the modern day, wars are fought to minimize civilian casualties, and the loss of human life is considered a tragedy. Those who indiscriminately kill others during war are obviously the bad guys, they are like mad dogs that must be put down. But at the time, there was no such concept. Human life was cheap everywhere. The U.S.S.R. was starving millions of people to death in their recently conquered regions of Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The Chinese were merrily killing each other, just as they had previously killed twenty million of their own people, with European aid, during the Taiping rebellion, and just as they were about to kill forty million more once we Japanese were driven out and Mao Zedong claimed full possession of China. The Allies during World War I had enforced a blockade so harsh that they caused a famine in Germany, which led to the influenza virus, which killed thirty million people, all 'civilians.' No one had ever cared about killing civilians before World War II. Japan was no different. The Chinese were our ancient enemies, who had previously tried to conquer us just like we were now trying to conquer them. They were backwards and weak, not deserving of our respect. And their numbers were so vast that no matter how many we killed, there would always be more. To top matters off, it was a time of war, and no war in history had paid any respect to civilian casualties as being of any importance. Only after World War II was there any anti-imperialist sentiment. Only after World War II was there any talk of avoiding civilian losses. And only after World War II did Japan, like the rest of the world, learn the value of human life and the importance of reducing bloodshed to the bare minimum, even in times of war. We learned this lesson more painfully than anyone else on Earth. We learned it with the screams of our women and children burned up in the inferno of Tokyo's firebombing. We learned it in the flash of instant death that consumed the women and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We learned it from the relentless bombing campaigns that reduced our country to ash, with barely a single building standing, and no food left for anyone. If the Allies want to preach to us about civilian losses we inflicted during or before World War II, all I can do is point to our memorials. We never leveled entire cities for the sake of victory. We never deliberately killed as many people as possible, simply to strike terror into our enemy's hearts. And still they want to preach to us about our treatment of China." Masanori scowled.
  "Looking back, it was obvious that an Empire was completely unnecessary. Japan could be prosperous and free without hurting anyone else. Because after World War II, the shamefaced Western powers of the world, gradually and reluctantly, gave up all their foreign empires that had gobbled up the world, and promised to never threaten free and independent countries again. After World War II, the idea of using trade as a weapon of war or economic competition was abandoned, and everyone was guaranteed free trade, which means free access to all the natural resources of the world, no matter whose soil they are buried under. After World War II, Japan could rest secure that it could import the food it needed to feed its island population, it could import the metals it needed to fuel their factories, it could import the oil it needed to fuel its daily needs, and despite Japan being a barren rocky corner of the globe, it could suck in a vast percentage of the raw materials of the world for re-exportation or simply for our domestic consumption. AfterWorld War II, there was no national interest in waging war abroad. We didn't need secure trade networks, we didn't need to free Asia, we didn't need to preserve our military might by staying stronger than any other Empire in the region, we didn't need access to raw materials within our own territories, we didn't need to modernize and industrialize our neighbors with railroads and universities. After World War II, Europe stopped threatening us, America guaranteed our defense, the outside world began to develop their own robust economies without our guidance, and all the trade barriers that threatened our viability as a people came crashing down. Before World War II, all Japan saw was a struggle for its existence. In a world consumed with wars and an ever dwindling battle royale of Imperial players, Japan, and Japan alone, had managed to stay above water. Before World War II, all of our fears were justified, all of our needs were nonnegotiable, and all of our plans were necessary." Masanori said.
  "Which brings us to the original question: Were we in the right? When America cut off trade with us, and denied us access to vital materials like iron, steel, and oil, without which no military, no modern economy, and no population can subsist, with an ultimatum that we should surrender all of our recently conquered lands, were we right to join World War II? Should we have tried to liberate Asia from the American Empire, the British Empire, the French Empire, and the Dutch Empire who at the time held it all, and bring it all under a Japanese Empire that could at last be an economically self-sufficient and militarily defensible union as powerful as anything the West could throw at us? Should we have tried to take the metal, the rubber, and the oil that was abundantly available in the imperial colonies around us, since no one was willing to trade with us for them? The answer is, before World War II, yes. After World War II, no. If the West had been the morally responsible actors they were after World War II, before World War II, we could have been the morally responsible actors we were after World War II, before World War II. But as the situation stood, given the context Japan was in, there was no way to know or imagine any other solution. Given the context, Japan had to make its bid for Empire, even if it meant defeating America. And though the Americans proved a little much, we sure showed the British, French, and Dutch a thing or two. We took hundreds of thousands of their armed forces prisoner and vast chunks of the globe away from them, all with practically no losses and in just a few months. You could even say it was our conquest of all their Imperial holdings in Asia that ultimately drove them from the region, after the war. And in that case, all of Asia has us to thank for their freedom. At least by Japan holding firm and making the West pay for their Asian Imperialism, we provided some checks and balances on their appetites."

Chapter 3

  "Does anyone else have an opinion?" Kotone asked.
  "Not only were the Allied powers bullying us, America tricked us into war, just so it could gain domestic support to attack Germany." Shiori Rin gave her vote of support emphatically. "They never cared about China in the first place. F.D.R. wanted us to bomb Pearl Harbor. He knew we were going to bomb it ahead of time, and deliberately kept the base uninformed so our raid would do maximum damage, just for the sake of better headlines. We were just a part of a staged event, a political ploy. Roosevelt was reelected on the basis that he would stay out of World War II. By making that absurd ultimatum and embargo against us, he knew we would have to counterattack before our oil ran out and we became militarily helpless. Because we needed any ally against America we could find, we had to sign the tripartite pact with Germany, which we did two months after America imposed their sanctions. And because Germany was our ally when we attacked Pearl Harbor, America finally had an excuse to go to war with Germany. The entire Pacific war was just a 'necessary sacrifice' for F.D.R. to circumvent the will of his own people and break his election promise. Japan, all of our people who died to America's bombs, all the land we lost, was just 'collateral damage' to ram his unwanted war with Germany down the throats of his electorate. The American people never wanted war with Japan. They never wanted to war with anyone. It was a giant, orchestrated lie."
  "I don't think I can agree." Kotone argued. "Even if everyone else was doing the same thing as Japan at the time, that doesn't excuse Japan for joining in on it. We should have just tried our best, peacefully, inside our own borders. If that meant being conquered by Russia or England or whatever, well, look around! All the European colonies were eventually freed. Japan would be independent a few decades later once more, and without the blood of so many innocents on our hands. I wish we had just surrendered to the ultimatum. It was our last chance to save Japan from a horrible war."
  "That's just the thing, Kotone." Masanori protested. "Looking back, we see that the colonial era was coming to an end, and that Japan didn't have to fear anything from the West. But how could anyone perceive that looking forward? How could the Japanese at the time have known? The European empires had been relentlessly expanding for centuries, and slaughtering everyone who got in their way. Slavery, genocide, nothing was beneath them. We couldn't just meekly surrender and hope for the best. Sometimes a man has to fight. You have to draw a line and say clearly, "No further!""
  "With open eyes and a loving heart, anyone can see anything. We could have trusted them to treat us fairly. We just didn't want to. We wanted the wealth and power and glory of Empire, and we killed millions of innocent people for it. Just for the good feelings that come from victory. It was shameful." Kotone insisted.
  "I'm glad we bombed Pearl Harbor." Chiharu finally gave her vote.
  "You too?" Kotone sighed.
  "Yes, but don't worry Kotone. It's not because you're wrong." Chiharu smiled and reached over the table to squeeze her hand. "We don't know what would have happened in world history, if we hadn't bombed Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the United States never goes to war, like Shiori said, having no excuse to convince the American people to get involved. And perhaps then Germany wins and conquers all of Eurasia. Or perhaps the U.S.S.R. wins and conquers all of Europe. But once America was involved, the world couldn't go too far wrong, because America at the time was the most moral country on Earth. In the end, America won World War II, and dictated terms to the world. Not Stalin. Not Hitler. Not our own Tojo. Not even Churchill, who was an avid imperialist in his own right. No, the new world was created by President Truman. Truman kept Europe and South Korea free from the communists. He spent America's own money to feed the hungry and rebuild the economies of Germany and Japan. He gave us our democracy, constitution, and security. Because America won World War II, and with nuclear weapons no less, everyone had to do what Truman said. And everything he said, basically, was right. If it took losing a war and foreign occupation to teach us how to run an effective, humane government, then it was worth going to war to learn these things. Ultimately, America spent her own blood and treasure to defeat the U.S.S.R. next, and that redeemed all the loose ends of World War II. America also shamed the rest of the world into renouncing its imperial holdings abroad and convert to free, peaceful democracies. Now everyone is free to rule themselves. And it's all because we snapped America out of its isolationism, and got them back involved with the world. Pearl Harbor was like their Commodore Perry moment, waking America up to the fact that there was an outside world that needed them, and history was rapidly passing them by. If good people do nothing, they can't stop bad people from controlling everything. Japan paid a price to wake the sleeping giant, but we also gained a great friend and a great model to emulate, when all was said and done. I don't think anyone benefited as much as Japan did from America's victory in World War II."
  "That's just another argument from hindsight." Masanori sighed. "I can't get any of you to understand the idea of judging the morality of something from within the context of what was known and what wasn't at the time."
  "Maybe it's impossible to make a moral judgment concerning World War II without infecting it with our hindsight." Chiharu said. "Like it or not, we all care more about results than means. We know the result of World War II being won by the Allies is this Christmas party today. So how passionately can we hate the Allies, or their victory, really? Can we really refight the war in our heads without secretly hoping things end up the same way they are today? At that point, I'm willing to concede that America was right about everything, and everyone else was wrong, and just be done with it. The world we have today is America's gift to us. I'm grateful for it. So I'll gladly admit Japan was in the wrong to oppose them. America proved itself beyond all doubt as the conscience of the world. The rest of us were rotten children in comparison."
  "Rei? Any thoughts?" Kotone asked politely.
  "No, none. I. . .I do think it's rotten to provoke Japan into a war just to convince your own people to go to war with someone else entirely. Shiori's right there. And I think it's totally hypocritical for empires, including America, to tell us we couldn't conquer an empire. But I guess it was rotten of Japan to mimic the imperialists, instead of finding their own path to peace and prosperity. Bad behavior doesn't excuse more bad behavior. Someone has to break the chain." Rei finally expressed herself.
  "Then we're done." Kotone smiled in relief. "A good thing too, because we did have some other things to talk to you about, besides World War II."
  "What is it this time? The Warring States period?" Chiharu grinned.
  "It's why Masanori is in his magic suit, silly. We wanted to show you the fruit of his efforts, over the last six years." Kotone made a graceful gesture with her hand, and Masanori stood up and took a few steps from the table. Then he drew his sword, which flashed a bright silver, and in a whirr of motion cut a hole in reality.
  "Angle, ark." Masanori intoned. The blurred lines cut sideways and revealed a portal into another world. The sky was blue, but the sun was white, and the plants were like nothing they had ever seen.
  "By all the gods." Rei whispered.
  "Is it safe to go through?" Shiori asked tentatively. "Can I come back?"
  "So long as I keep channeling magic into the portal, it will stay open." Masanori smiled welcomingly.
  "Then, I'm off!" Shiori shouted, and jumped through the hole in the air. Rei gasped. But Shiori was just fine. She was on the other side now. Not just the other side. In another universe. In another dimension. And she was jumping up and down and waving at her friends. Rei felt increasingly terrified that something would go wrong and the tenuous thread between worlds would be snapped.
  "Shiori! Please come back! I'm scared!" Rei begged.
  Shiori searched for some flowers to pick, but couldn't find any. Apparently there weren't any flowering plants yet in the new world. She settled on picking a fern and ran back through the hole.
  "It's real! I mean, it's nothing special. Actually, it's not even one tenth as beautiful as Earth. But. . .wow. You named your move after Noah's ark, right?" Shiori asked Masanori excitedly.
  "Of course." Miyamoto smiled.
  "Do you realize this makes me the first person to make contact with an alien race, and the first person to set foot on another planet? How much more special can I get?" Shiori asked herself.
  "Actually, Masanori already tried it out. And I met him ten years before you met Awesome." Xanadu spoke up for his master.
  "That's only in Earth terms. In the wyrd timeline, Awesome met me first, you only came much later, and only because Awesome met me and told you about me anyway. I'm the first contact. Plus I have a fern showing I went to another world. I bet you don't have a fern." Shiori stuck out her tongue.
  "Shiori! Please focus!" Kotone complained. "Everyone here knows what this means, right?"
  "It means life's won." Rei whispered in awe, looking at the white sun. "No matter what goes wrong now, nuclear war, a supernova, entropic decay. . .we've won. Misfortune will never be able to hunt us all down. Not across an entire multiverse. No single event can destroy everything. We'll regenerate, recover, and move on, somewhere. We'll. . .become infinity."
  "This is the true meaning of infinite possibilities." Kotone smiled. "We're going to give these portals to the world. But it has to be secret, and it has to be controlled. If Masanori dies, obviously it's all over. And we're seeding an entire new world with life, with possibilities, so we have to make sure the settlers deserve it. I don't want entire dark worlds, dark universes populated by Aztecs or slavers. Everyone has to have a good Constitution, a good plan. We can't allow any Dead Enders through our filters. But we can't just leave the Dead Enders of Earth behind either. We were born for their sake, to help them, not just ourselves. It's a devilishly big problem, and I hoped all of you could give us your advice."
  "One more thing." Masanori said, sheathing his sword and letting the portal close. "We take your advice very seriously, and so, starting today, we're paying all of you 100 million yen a year, in perpetuity, even if you never open your mouths again."
  "We couldn't possibly -- " Rei protested, holding up her hands and backing away.
  "This isn't debatable." Kotone slipped her arm around Masanori's waist to stand beside him and gave all of her friends a good glare. "Shiori, Chiharu, Rei, you three saved my husband's life. You saved the world from Mastermind. You deserve more money than the world will ever know, and more gratitude. If saving the world wasn't enough to earn this veteran's pension, if getting hit by lightning and sliced by swords isn't enough to earn this pension, if being loved by your friends isn't enough to earn this pension, then look at what we've done. Because you saved Masanori, we could complete this spell. And now we've saved the future. Please, I don't want any of you to suffer hard times. It's just absurd. This can pay for college, it can help your parents, it can let you raise as large a family as you want, as soon as you want. Please let us help you. We love you. You could use this money. You've earned it over and over. Please, I can't look you in the eye if I hoard all this wealth to myself, knowing how much I could help." Kotone got on her hands and knees, and bowed her forehead to the carpet.
  After that, even Rei couldn't refuse.
* * *
  It was late at night by the time Chiharu got off the bus and headed for home. Everyone had of course tried out the indoor hot spring, and checked the ballroom with the twenty foot Christmas tree, but they had finally dragged themselves away from Kotone's humble abode because they had promised to spend time with their families on Christmas day. Masanori didn't seem to have a family, or at least anyone he was still in communications with. But Kotone was eagerly looking forward to showing her parents, her brother, and her sister-in-law her new home. Chiharu was sure Kotone would invite all of them to live with her if they wanted to as well, and give them enough money that they would always be okay. It was the privilege of wealth to be able to help your loved ones. Chiharu was already busy planning what she would do with her hundred million yen a year. Obviously the first order of business was paying her college tuition. Then she would give her parents the first two years of her revenue, to repay them for all they had done and give them a nice retirement egg. The third year she'd reserve for herself, for spending money. By then she'd probably be ready to buy a house and car of her own. The fourth and fifth year would be for Aiko and Saki. Then. . .well, then she'd give herself some more money, and then Aiko more money, and then Saki more money. 100 million yen was nice, but it wasn't enough to go through your entire life comfortably. 200 million yen would be much better. Once that was done she could start saving up for her kids and grandkids. Kotone was right, it was wonderful to be able to marry as soon as Chiharu wanted and have enough money to ensure a good life for all her descendants. Chiharu didn't worry about being spoiled by free money. She was a Choice Giver. Besides, she had no plans to alter her life plan. She had decided long ago to never deviate from her course. After college came graduate school, and after graduate school came a prestigious, lucrative job, and a husband who had reached the same level as her. The job wasn't just about the money, which was no longer necessary. It was also about your standing in the community, even your standing within your own family. It was about showing your willingness to get along with and fit in to the larger whole. As for her own children, it didn't really matter if they were spoiled rotten. Chiharu wanted kids not for their sake, but for her own. She wanted the joy of making a new person from the ground up, the joy of their company, and the joy of sharing a child with her husband -- half her, half him, their love finally coming together into one undivided whole. Whatever her kids wanted to do with themselves from there was their problem, not hers. If they wanted to blow all their money and laze about, the money would run out eventually, even if it took great-great-grandchildren to run out, and then they would have to get back on the grindstone like everybody else. It's not like any of her children would be stupid enough to take drugs, and that was about the only possible way they could self-destruct while owning a handsome inheritance.
  Chiharu thought about investing the money, but she didn't trust any institution to be perfectly safe. The money was sufficient to pay for everything conceivable -- so long as she didn't risk it by gambling on the stock market, company bonds that could go bankrupt, national bonds that could be defaulted, real estate prices that could tank, or any other crazy scheme. If she could find a bank that offered inflation-protected bonds, she would put the money there, even if it had a negative yearly return. She didn't want a return on investment. Just keeping her money from being inflated away was enough. Hyperinflation destroying the Yen wasn't an idle risk, considering they were the most indebted country in the civilized world. As for charity, that was a waste of time. The poverty in the world couldn't be solved by her measly funds. It would require the collective effort of the whole world, trillions of dollars funneled to the weak every year, just to keep their heads above water. She would rather help herself, and those like herself, even if they were distant descendants in the far future. Even her distant descendants would still have a little Chiharu Sakai in them. Even Aiko's and Saki's distant descendants would be better recipients than complete strangers I don't know or care about in the least.
  Chiharu walked up her driveway and opened the unlocked door of her ordinary looking house. Kotone's world seemed like a dream already, but Chiharu knew she would be planning her own dream mansion soon enough. The question was how Kotone hired enough help to take care of the garden, pools, and rooms. There's no way a single person could look after it all, especially since she already works. How expensive were all those services? Kotone didn't have a butler or any live-in residents, so help must be called in regularly.
  "I'm home." Chiharu announced, taking off her shoes and unwinding her scarf.
  "Welcome home." Mother replied, walking from the living room to greet her.
  "Welcome home, sister." Saki called from her favorite spot on the couch, still watching TV. Aiko was sitting on the stairs, strangely enough, a book on her knees, giving Chiharu one of those silent intense gazes she sometimes wore. Chiharu smiled up at her, which of course made Aiko retreat back to reading her book. Aiko didn't talk much, but that was okay. She never caused any trouble or hurt anyone's feelings either.
  "How was your party? I trust everyone's well?" Mother asked, taking Chiharu's coat and hanging it up in the closet.
  "They're all fine, Mother. Kotone is really happy, she's so pretty it hurts to look at her, and half of that comes from her marriage. She doesn't walk anymore, she just floats everywhere she goes." Chiharu reported.
  "I hope she isn't giving you any ideas. Marrying at eighteen in this day and age. She's much too young." Mother complained.
  "Kotone couldn't afford to wait, Mother. I can. Though, looking at her, sometimes I do wonder why I am waiting." Chiharu smiled ruefully. She got into her indoor slippers and walked to the living room, where Father was reading a book and Saki watching a kid's show.
  "Merry Christmas, father." Chiharu said. "I have something I need to talk to you about. Don't worry, it's good news."
  "Merry Christmas, Chiharu. How was your party?" Father asked, setting his book down. It was only because Father liked reading so much that Aiko had such a steady supply of new books to feed her. It was cute when she tried to steal the books he'd just bought to read first herself.
  "We talked about World War II, mostly." Chiharu reported.
  "A bunch of nineteen year old girls get together to celebrate a holiday and the first thing you think of is World War II?" Father raised his eyebrows.
  "I can't help it if my friends are too intelligent and knowledgeable to talk about nail polish all day." Chiharu retorted.
  "Well, what was your conclusion?" Father asked.
  "We couldn't agree. It's strange, isn't it? We're all really close friends, but even between us, there's disagreements about everything." Chiharu said, scooting Saki's legs aside and sitting down on the couch.
  "Without a controlled experiment there's no path to certain knowledge. Politics especially has this problem. Our beliefs are based on predictions of what the consequences of our actions, or inactions, would be. But if we take one course, we don't know what the consequences of all the other courses would have been. The proponents claim it would have been better than the course we actually took. The opponents say it would have been worse. And then we're at a stalemate, because there's no way to determine who is right." Father explained.
  "It would be nice if we had certain knowledge of the consequences of people's actions." Chiharu smiled with a twinkle in her eye.
  "That or a peeping glass into parallel worlds that separated from our timeline at the exact disputed point." Father agreed.
  "Do you think there are parallel universes?" Chiharu asked, again quite satisfied with herself.
  "I don't know. There's no evidence for them. But there's no reason why they shouldn't exist, or wouldn't be there, either. If life came to be through chance, it stands to reason there must be billions, infinite alternate universes, given how unlikely life emerging from nothing is. But I don't know if they would be parallel to ours. Maybe just different." Father decided.
  "So. . .that talk I need to have with you alone?" Chiharu finally suggested. She had such brilliant parents. Without meeting any wyrds at all, Father had practically pieced the true nature of the universe together through pure reason. That's why living at home was so fun, even if it was cramped.
  "Of course, let's go upstairs then." Father left his book open upside down on his chair's arm rest and got up. The two squeezed by Aiko who quietly gathered herself sideways when she saw them coming.
  Father walked into his bedroom and closed the door. "So, what's this about?"
  "I got a job." Chiharu wondered exactly how to phrase the issue. "Kotone hooked me up. You see, her husband is the owner of Angle Corporation. It's a mining company, it deals in precious metals. Well, they hired me as a consultant. And, well, the pay is really high. Actually, I received my first paycheck tonight, all legal and above-board, taxes paid and everything. And, well, I wanted you to have it." Chiharu fished the bank account report out of her pocket and put it into his hands.
  Father smiled at her gesture, then looked idly down at the amount.
  "One Hundred Million?" Father gasped. "I thought you said this was above board!"
  "It is. I promise, I swear to God. Father, it's all above board and legal! We just make really good profits!" Chiharu blushed. She knew this would be the hard part.
  "What is he consulting you about? What could be worth 100 million yen to know?" Father demanded.
  "The best places to find new mines, and, who we should hire to work for them. . .I guess some other stuff too. Anyway, he really values my advice, and it's just a pittance to him. It's nothing at all to Angle Corporation, one hundred million yen. But I know it would be a lot to you, to have this. You must have spent this much raising the three of us already. I want you to have this. I'll just earn more next year." Chiharu said.
  "Angle Corporation is paying you one hundred million yen a year?" Father asked, even more stunned.
  "Yes, is that so bad?" Chiharu asked him plaintively.
  "If this is hush money, or. . .well. . . you know. . ." Father couldn't even accuse Chiharu of it, but she understood.
  "I promise, it's just a mining business, and I really did earn my pay. This is a good thing. This is Kotone's husband we're talking about, Father. I'm going to take care of you, and my sisters, and everyone, if you let me. I know it's a shock, but this is such a wonderful thing. Don't turn your back on good fortune when it comes. I just want to help. It's too much money to spend on myself." Chiharu begged.
  "I. . . of course I trust you. I'm just a little shocked. One hundred million yen? And you want to give Aiko and Saki this much too?" Father asked.
  "More. They're my beloved sisters. I won't leave anyone lacking for anything." Chiharu smiled, relief welling up in her stomach.
  "That kind of ruins the point of all my effort, doesn't it?" Father complained.
  "Not at all. There was no certainty I would get this job, and I only got it just now. Your work mattered too. Plus, if you hadn't given me life and raised me to be who I am, how could I have gotten this job and given you this money?" Chiharu coaxed.
  "Well, there is that." Father sighed. "We could build an addition on the house. I'm sure Aiko will want her own room, and there's no point waiting until you're out of college now."
  "My thoughts exactly. Let's start making everyone happy." Chiharu cajoled.
  "I don't know how to tell your Mother." Father sighed, staring at the bank account printout yet again.
  "I can tell her, if you want." Chiharu volunteered.
  "No, it's my responsibility. You came to me because you wanted me to convince her to take the money. Of course that's why you did it. So it's my responsibility. Let's go back downstairs. It is Christmas Eve after all." Father got back up and opened the door.
  On their way back downstairs, Aiko scrunched sideways to let them pass again. But then she rose her voice unexpectedly when Chiharu was at the bottom of the stairs.
  "Sister, I want to talk to you alone too. Whenever it's convenient." Aiko's voice trailed off for the second half.
  "Of course." Chiharu agreed readily. This was odd. When was the last time they'd sat down for a long conversation together? Maybe it was boy trouble. Though, if it was, Aiko would be sadly disappointed with how useless her older sister would be. I'm not cute or girly at all, and too plain to attract a guy's notice even if I were. Her high school life had been totally devoid of romance.
  "Let's save it for Christmas. It's already late." Chiharu suggested.
  "Christmas, then." Aiko nodded. Then Father escorted both of them into the living room to play a game of trivial pursuit together. It was the sort of dorky thing smart families ended up doing together on a Christmas Eve. But they were all very good.
* * *
  When Chiharu finally undressed and slipped into bed, she remembered to open her desk drawer and apologize to Bubbles. She hadn't meant to leave him out of the festivities, it's just that her one and only wyrd was Cyan, so she kept forgetting she was responsible for both of them. Fumbling through the dark, she opened the second drawer down with an apology on her lips.
  Bubbles wasn't there. Oh no. Chiharu had a guess where he was now. Shiori would never let her live this one down.

Chapter 4

  When Christmas morning came, the Sakai family had a fine breakfast together of miso soup, fish and rice. Then they clustered together around the Christmas tree and sorted presents. Chiharu had bought Aiko a book and Saki a doll. As for her parents, she had bought Father a tie and Mother a glass figurine of a bird. Chiharu liked birds and so the figurine had just called out to her. Maybe Mother would like it too. When it came to Christmas presents, your odds of giving someone something truly useful were pitiably low. If someone actually wanted something, after all, they'd have bought it long before the end of the year. But Christmas presents were a tradition, and traditions had a way of maintaining themselves no matter what reason opined.
  Chiharu received a book from Aiko and Father, probably ones they had particularly enjoyed reading. Saki gave her a pair of belled green ribbons for her hair. Mother gave her a white flower vase chased with a blue flower design that flowed up the base towards the lip. It was gorgeous, but Chiharu would first have to receive flowers from a boy before she could ever use it. Well, maybe she could put some flowers in it herself, just as a test run. It might look good next to her alarm clock near the bed.
  With the gift-giving out of the way, Chiharu signaled to Aiko and they both walked upstairs into Chiharu's room. Chiharu sat down on the bed and shoved her gifts beneath it for now, Aiko watched and then did the same with hers.
  "I have an idea about what you're going to say, but I'd rather be sure before I said anything." Chiharu said. "Please, take a seat, here beside me on the bed or my desk chair is fine."
  Aiko sat beside her on the bed. She crossed her legs Indian style and then turned to look her sister in the face. "I bonded Bubbles."
* * *
  Aiko braced herself for the storm. It wasn't long coming.
  "Wait, let me get this straight. You didn't find Bubbles. You didn't talk to Bubbles. You didn't kidnap Bubbles. Youbonded Bubbles?" Chiharu asked, aghast.
  "It was an accident." Aiko blushed. "Even finding him was an accident. I was just searching for Night on the Galactic Railroad."
  "Oh. It's in my backpack, if you want it back." Chiharu said idly.
  "Yes, please." Aiko said. Then the two laughed nervously. They hadn't come to talk about getting Aiko her book back.
  "So I gather this is all Bubbles' fault." Chiharu sighed. "Did you plan this, Bubbles? I know I'm not a perfect master, but contracting with my little sister just to relieve your impatience is going too far."
  "It was her fault." Bubbles protested his innocence, floating out of Aiko's jeans' pocket.
  "It was an accident." Aiko repeated. "No one's to blame."
  "How do you accidentally make a contract together?" Chiharu asked bemusedly.
  "By being very stupid." Aiko blushed. "But I'm the one who needs questions answered, sister. What on Earth is all this? Aliens? Magic? Bubbles says you're some sort of Messiah!"
  Chiharu smiled and unclasped her necklace, then popped her gem out of its groove. "This is Cyan, a Wyrd from the etheric plane." Chiharu introduced.
  "Hello Aiko." Cyan flashed a dark blue.
  "Ah. Umm. Hello." Aiko bowed halfway from her sitting position.
  "Six years ago Cyan came down to Earth through a hyperdimensional tube. He's still connected to the etheric plane by that tube, it's a conduit that feeds him the magic he needs to live and do minor tasks. But wyrds have to contract with humans to anchor the magical flow, which allows wyrds to perform higher-order magic. A wyrd can only make one contract, once in their lives. It's different for humans. If our wyrd died, a new wyrd could come and make a new contract with us. But the wyrds are, well, especially devoted lovers. That's probably the best way to think of it. The contract is entirely one sided, wyrds can't even live long away from their contracted human, and must do whatever they're told. The magic the contract manifests is dependent on the human's imagination and personality. Wyrds don't mind this because they take special care choosing out the host they want, through scrying. Scrying allows wyrds to know the beauty of our souls. Wyrds are only supposed to form contracts with a certain type of human. A human whose way of thinking, if emulated or followed by the entire world, would lead to infinite possibilities. They call us Choice Givers." Chiharu explained.
  "I don't get it." Aiko complained. "How could everyone doing the same thing lead to infinite possibilities?"
  "It sounds like a contradiction, right?" Chiharu smiled. "That's why so few people qualify. Only forty or so people on Earth, now. But it is possible. If your principles are flexible enough, if they delineate the essence of good and evil, morality can be extrapolated to answer all situations. Imagine an x-y axis. Everything starts at zero, but there are still infinite points you can plot. It's the same for Choice Givers. All possibilities are inherent in our beliefs, they can be extended into all possible directions. The ability to extend your belief is a measure of its strength. The more people who can follow it without destroying the future, without driving it into a dead end of stagnation or extinction, the more beautiful, the stronger your philosophical system is."
  "Then, what does it mean, to 'follow or emulate' a Choice Giver?" Aiko asked. She knew that in order to graduate from Dead Ender-hood, following Chiharu was the only way. She wanted to be good. If the wyrds said that meant being like her sister, then she wanted to be like her sister.
  "Just what it says. Outside of the forty Choice Givers' philosophies, everyone else's belief systems lead to a dead end, which makes them Dead Enders. Actually, even Choice Givers' philosophies might lead to dead ends, in the great scheme of things. For all we know there is only one true path, or no successful paths at all. Scrying can only see so far, before the possibilities overwhelm wyrds' brains and they have to stop. But we know that our philosophies are the best we have, and last at least a very long time. Hopefully, by the time all the current Choice Givers' paths lead to dead ends, new Choice Givers, better than us, will have been born, and then people can follow or emulate them. Anyway, it stands to reason, then, that everyone who can't formulate a good enough belief system should follow or emulate those who can. By doing so, they can lend their strength to the cause of life, and benefit from a better philosophy than any they could personally invent. Not everyone has to be a Chief, the world also needs Indians. Both would be useless without the other." Chiharu said.
  "What's the difference between following and emulating?" Aiko asked. She needed to know which course to aim for.
  "Following doesn't try to understand the person they are following. They just concentrate on loyalty, trust and obedience. A follower can simply say, "I believe in this person, I put my faith in him. Where he goes, I'll follow. I'll do whatever he asks of me. It's my honor to serve." I think this is easier for most people, because it's hard to understand someone else's way of thinking, another person's personality, another person's soul. So much of who we are is how we feel about things, not just what we think or say about them. Following avoids all that and just trusts the person to know what is right, and acts accordingly." Chiharu said.
  "Emulating is different. It's more like 'aiming' for the person. You aren't content to just obey. You want all of it. You want to be like your guiding star, you want to grasp the same essence they do, feel the same way they do, agree using your own reason with the conclusion they reach, because you also worked out the question parallel to them. Emulators can even seek to surpass their targets. It's a passionate feeling that treasures both the objective and the self as equals. If it were sports, you could try to emulate a favorite player by becoming even better at baseball than he ever was. It would be the same for Choice Giving. If we inspire someone to embrace our way of life, they can try to fulfill it even better than we ever could, as a sort of competition. But because it was our idea, our inspiration, they're still a tier below us. Even if you surpass your target, you're still emulating your target, and so it only does your target greater honor when you perform the role so admirably." Chiharu said.
  "Why did you leave me and Saki to our fates? You must have known we were both Dead Enders. It seems cruel." Aiko Sakai asked, looking her sister in the eyes.
  "It wouldn't be right." Chiharu sighed. "We all thought about it, years ago. Whether we should take wyrds, scrying, and magic public. Whether we should announce that our philosophies had the 'mandate of heaven' and that everyone should simply bow down to us. But the difficulties were insurmountable. How could we prove that wyrds can really scry the future? They only have our words on it. How could we prove that wyrds were telling the truth? Again, we only have the wyrds' words on that aspect. People will believe whatever they want to believe is true. If we told them they were wrong and we were right, just because a wyrd says so, they'd ignore us. They'd call it a clever trick, a deception of some sort, and go on living and thinking as they're accustomed."
  Chiharu held up one finger to list her first problem. "That's just the surface of the problem though. The second dilemma runs like this: Suppose everyone believed us, what if they really did take our wyrds' scrying on faith, and obeyed all of our commands? Would that really change the world for the better? My friends couldn't agree to that. We don't want people following or emulating us because a wyrd said so. We don't want to become a religion, where people just have to take us on faith, due to our inscrutable hidden knowledge and power. We didn't want to be prophets, channeling messages from God. We were Choice Givers before wyrds ever met us. These are our philosophies. They stand on their own merit. They were good or evil before any of the aliens, the magic, or the soothsaying got involved. They should be spread on their own merit, without artificial props. This isn't just a matter of pride. If they aren't spread on their own merit, they will only spread across the surface. Our beliefs will just be an overlay, a sort of flimsy coverlet, to people's souls. They'll accept what we say is true, but they won't really believe it. This is because it isn't because they know in their hearts that we are right, that what we are saying is good. They just think it's some mysterious prophecy they have to blindly obey. We want people to embrace our choices freely, fully, after reflecting on it, after thinking about our cases on their own merit. Then, if someone chooses to follow or emulate us, we know it's because we've touched their souls, we've really changed that person. Those are the only conversions we're interested in, and the only conversions that will have true power and endurance within the breasts of the people we touch." Chiharu held up her second finger.
  "I do care about you, Aiko. I even care about Saki." Chiharu smiled. "But you two are very young. It's only natural your philosophies aren't super-amazing, that they would eventually lead to a dead end. I hoped you would notice good things about the people around you, and learn from them. That way you could emulate your way beyond your own mistakes. If I tried to sit you down and lecture you about morality, would you have listened?"
  "Of course." Aiko answered promptly.
  "Out of courtesy." Chiharu stressed. "But I'm just your older sister. I don't think you admire me, especially. Whatever I told you would just be needless interference. You were happy with who you were. What good would it have done? Before you could listen to my lectures, you had to want to listen. You had to open your heart to me, and consider the possibility that I had something to teach you. That's why I hoped you would learn without having to talk about it, just from all the good examples our family provides."
  Aiko sat on her side of the bed and thought about it. Could she have learned anything from Chiharu, without Bubbles making her want to learn? Would she have patiently and seriously considered her sister's words, as someone who should really be listened to as a respected authority? It probably would have been a lost cause. But because she had met Bubbles, she was willing to consider Chiharu's words now. Didn't that mean telling everyone about wyrds was the right decision? That it would make people more willing to listen to your case? It wouldn't create a 'shallow conversion,' the case would still have to be strong. But it could have gotten people to suspend their disbelief and listen seriously for a while.
  "But now I do want to learn from you, and all because of Bubbles." Aiko said. "The same would be true of Saki, or anyone. You're keeping too many secrets."
  "There's a third problem with going public." Chiharu held up a third finger. "If we reveal our nature, the governments of the world would get involved. We have powerful magic, but we can't defeat entire armies. They could imprison us, kill us, enslave us, do whatever they want. That's something we can't risk. Every single government on Earth is dominated by Dead Enders. In a sense, the world is our most dangerous enemy. We don't want them to know about us. We are a threat to the established philosophies, the established religions, the established governments of the world. We are a revolutionary threat that posits, with divine authority, that all of them are wrong and only we are right. Can you imagine the resentment and fear that would generate? So long as we operate in secret, we can exert an influence on the world. If we just threw ourselves headfirst in a contest of strength with the outside world, the world would crush us, and then mankind would spiral downwards into a dead end. I couldn't trust you or Saki to keep our secret. I can't trust anyone but other Choice Givers to do what is right. And the stakes are simply too high to risk." Chiharu said. She took a deep breath before continuing:
  "I'm going to tell you something you probably don't know yet. When wyrds scryed for Choice Givers, across all the universes they could see, they only found us. We are alone in the universe. We might be alone in the multiverse. Our first priority as Choice Givers is to survive. We are the only chance life has. We have been nurturing that chance, sheltering that chance, in the shroud of secrecy. The second thing nobody else knows is that we have found a way to seed the universe with life. Softly, secretly, we'll gather those who follow or emulate Choice Givers, and send them to new worlds. Worlds free of the threat of Dead Enders. Empty worlds, and empty universes, that can suddenly develop along a plan of infinite possibilities. By the time our thinking turns bad, or our followers stray from the path we gave them, new Choice Givers will have been born among them, to take their hands and lead them onwards. Onwards into infinity. Compared to a mission that sacred, that important, your soul's alignment is nothing. I am a spy behind enemy lines, Aiko. My enemy is the majority of mankind. You were a Dead Ender. I couldn't predict how either you or Saki would respond to this knowledge."
  "Then why stay? Why didn't you just leave all of us long ago?" Aiko complained.
  "Because we love you. Every Dead Ender is just a lost sheep, waiting to be saved. Including you and Saki." Chiharu concluded.
  "I. . .thank you, sister." Aiko bowed. Even though everyone in the family got along, they didn't normally talk about their feelings like this. Aiko had never realized how many layers there were to her sister's character. Was Saki also like this, layer upon layer, feeling upon feeling, an enormous tangle of yarn just behind her childish face? How little do I understand anyone?
  "Tell me how to be good. I'm ready now." Aiko gathered her breath and sat upright like a soldier to her sergeant.
  "I can tell you, but, it won't necessarily work." Chiharu warned. "If your personality grates with my style, it would be easier to follow or emulate someone else. There are lots of Choice Givers out there, and I'm just one of them."
  "But you're here, now. So I'm asking you." Aiko pressed.
  Chiharu pondered for a moment, then began to recite from memory. "These are my cardinal rules: Work hard. Study. Get along. Be nice. Be honest. Keep quiet. Get good grades. Dress properly. Behave properly. Stay calm. Don't say anything you'd regret later. Obey those who are placed in authority above you. Get a good college entrance exam grade. Get a degree. Leverage it into a graduate degree. Leverage that into a secure, high paying, but not particularly difficult job. Find another graduate degree holder with a good job who has done all the same things. Marry him and have smart, well behaved kids. If they make you happy, have more, until they stop making you happy. Teach your kids everything you know about the game of life by age ten, so they don't make any mistakes either."
  Aiko stared. "That's it? That made you one of the forty best people on Earth?"
  "Hey, don't knock it until you've tried it." Chiharu smiled.
  "But it's all just. . .advice. It sounds like Mother's nagging. Shouldn't it be poetic, or deep? I don't feel enlightened at all." Aiko complained.
  "Well, there's more to it than that. It isn't just what I believe, it's how I feel about what I believe. For instance, did you know I've pretty much kept to that code unfailingly, since I was ten years old? If you want to follow or emulate me, you have to share that same willpower. You have to maintain that same level of focus. You can't be distracted halfway, or try to find something better. You can't accept failure. Not when it comes to marriage and children, and not when it comes to being nice or staying calm. It's hard to keep a perfect watch on yourself, to regulate every little thing you say or do, before it happens. It's hard to stay focused, and never let your standards slip, even when you ask someone to pass the soy sauce. I'm living these cardinal rules every second of my life, every breath I take. I'm never free of them. They determine everything about my life before it happens." Chiharu said.
  Aiko nodded. That did sound hard. And unpleasant. Could she be that driven? Decide her entire life course from here on, and then just shoot towards it like an arrow? Even if the life course wasn't asking much, even if it was common sense, could she never deviate from it for even a split second? And Chiharu had been doing this since she was ten? That meant she was this serious at Saki's age. Was I thinking about my future at ten? Not at all. Nor did I exactly strive to get along or be nice. There was a difference between Chiharu and ordinary mortals. Between her and me.
  "Even then, these days, it's just a part of my swamp of obligations. As a Choice Giver, I have to be a moral legislature for the world. As a category one Choice Giver, I have to enforce that moral legislation, because I believe what is immoral should be illegal. People should not even have the option to do wrong. What's the point? If we know something is wrong, then there's no excuse for anyone to do it. I don't have the authority to legislate, and then execute, my policies. But I still have to come up with them, and have the moral fortitude to judge people by them, to fulfill my role as mankind's guiding light." Chiharu said.
  "What's that mean, a category one Choice Giver?" Aiko asked.
  "Years ago, I worked out three possible categories Choice Givers could fall into. Category one is the assertion that little choices that govern our day to day interactions have an exact equivalent in the big laws that determine right from wrong, the obligatory from the forbidden. Thus, "That which is immoral should be illegal." Category two is the assertion that the same guiding principles, the same seed, that correctly determines our day to day decisions should be the muse of our big laws that determine right from wrong, and good from evil. If you think long enough and hard enough about why you do what you do, you can unlock the answer to why everyone should do what you do, and give an overpoweringly persuasive argument for them to do so. You could summarize category two as, "Know thyself." It concentrates on virtue and reason as a path to an ideal individual and an ideal state. Category three is the assertion that universal truths are impossible to discover, and people should stick to the realm of personal relationships as the whole of morality. You could summarize category three as "Do what you feel is right." Isao Oono and I are Category one Choice Givers, we know what we want and we set about achieving it. Masanori Miyamoto and Kotone Miyamoto are category three Choice Givers, they care more about specific people than any abstractions. Their life orbits around interacting with the people they treasure, not things, and not even ideas. That's probably why they get along so well together. Shiori Rin is a Category two Choice Giver. She understands herself completely, and understands others completely, and uses that understanding to persuade others to her cause. You should have seen her arguing with Claus Reinhardt. She was splendid. Just amazing."
  "All your friends are Choice Givers?" Aiko spluttered.
  "We tend to be attracted to each other. It can't be helped." Chiharu smiled. "But Rei Rin isn't a Choice Giver, if you're afraid I'm too elitist. She follows her sister. And I'd like to be your friend, too. In that case I could have a Dead Ender, and a complete trifecta."
  "Don't be my friend for the sake of symmetry." Aiko glared. "Besides, I'm going to improve myself. I don't know how yet. And I don't know if I can follow your rules. But I know I want to be better. I won't just stay a Dead Ender forever. You weren't just keeping magic and aliens secret from me. You were keeping a larger world secret, a world of meaning and morality and destiny. . . how do I say it? I've never thought about stuff like this. Not really. Never once in my life. I feel like an idiot for never noticing. You were living like this since you were ten, but I'm fifteen and I haven't thought of anything. I have to start thinking. I'm going to start thinking about this from here on, and, I'll be under your care from here on." Aiko bowed to her older sister again.
  "It would be my honor. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you anything sooner." Chiharu bowed back to her little sister.
  "I guess that's it?" Aiko asked, wondering how long they'd been secluded.
  "Not quite. There's one more secret you need to know, now that you've joined my world. We aren't alone. We're at war with another group of wyrds, dark wyrds, who wish to destroy mankind. They've tried to kill us multiple times. Now that you've contracted with a wyrd, they'll either try to recruit you, or try to kill you." Chiharu said gravely.
  "Then, that accident during school?" Aiko asked.
  Chiharu nodded.
  "And the day you and your friends all skipped school and just came home and went to bed? Father was furious." Aiko remembered.
  Chiharu nodded again.
  "You've been fighting all this time?" Aiko asked, floored.
  "Not really. We fought until we won decisively, six years ago. The dark wyrds don't bother us anymore. But they're still out there, plotting something. They could come back for us. The ones on Earth, or new ones from above. There's just no guarantee our peaceful lives will continue. You've put yourself in great peril. It would be a good idea to learn magic to defend yourself. Have you summoned a suit yet?" Chiharu asked Aiko.
  "A suit?" Aiko asked, nonplussed.
  "Sakai, I know you care about your sister, but teaching a Dead Ender magic. . ." Bubbles flashed a sky blue in protest. "Shouldn't we just leave well enough alone?"
  "No, we shouldn't. You heard your mistress yourself, Bubbles. She wants to become better. She's trying to be a good person. Why can't you respect that?" Chiharu asked.
  "Because even now, when I scry her, she's still a Dead Ender." Bubbles protested. "Giving her magic could lead to anything. Power should stay in responsible hands."
  "There's a difference between a Dead Ender who's satisfied with herself, and a Dead Ender who isn't satisfied with herself. Aiko is on our side. I won't have you insulting her, when she's earnestly trying her hardest, and making an effort to become what you want. Now tell her, Bubbles." Chiharu ordered.
  "Yes, tell me." Aiko agreed. Bubbles gave out a mournful flash, trapped by his mistress' direct order.
  "Imagine a magical suit. Weapons and armor you can wear or carry, that make you strong. To wield your magic, you have to transform into this suit first. It's like flicking a switch from off to on. Then, when you're ready, say, "Coi, Bubbles!" to summon the suitWhatever magic you manifest will depend on your inner nature. You can usually get a hint at what it will be, if you think about it. Your inner nature is constantly influencing your thoughts, after all. If you think long enough about what you'd like to do with your magic, that's probably the magic you can do." Bubbles explained listlessly.
  What kind of magic would she want to use? Aiko thought to herself. If I could do anything, within reason, what would it be? Would it really just be magic to defend myself? When there hadn't been any fights in years, and Chiharu had handled them just fine until now anyway? That was a waste. If magic could do anything, she should try for something closer to her heart, like something that helped her write a book. I think that's my deepest desire in life. I wish I could write books as good as the ones I read. But even when I try, nothing worthwhile comes out. Could I have magic like that? What kind of suit would allow me to write good books? It would have to be something convenient. If she could only use magic while in her suit, she wanted a suit she could wear all the time. She wanted to always be wielding magic. It was silly to turn it off sometimes. Instead of showy weapons or armor, the best suit would be a bra and panties, something you could wear beneath your clothes, and thus wear whenever. Aiko smiled. They could be sky blue, like Bubbles, and impossibly comfortable, and they would always be clean, and there could be a lacy design on top of them so they wouldn't look boring to wear all the time. Aiko was ready.
  "Coi, Bubbles!" Magic exploded through all of her nerves in a rush of energy, and sparkles only slowly faded from around her body. Aiko was in a very pretty set of bra and panties, and nothing else. To make matters worse, Bubbles was directly over her clasps that hooked her bra together at the front, nestled between her breasts.
  "Get off!" Aiko squealed.
  "It doesn't work that way. Wyrds are embedded into suits, to channel your magic. I can't move." Bubbles flashed back up at her.
  "Then close your eyes!" Aiko said, standing up to look for her clothes. Where had they gone?
  Aiko certainly has a strange taste in armor. Chiharu thought.
  Heh, that's about where I end up embedded on Chiharu. Cyan thought.
  I knew this wasn't going to work. Why me? Bubbles thought.
  "Stop that, all of you. Someone tell me where my clothes went." Aiko begged.
  Stop what? Cyan thought.
  Life is so unfair. My little sister is already prettier, and I think bigger, than I am. Chiharu thought.
  If only mother could see me now. Oh, oh, oh. Bubbles thought.
  "Chiharu!" Aiko covered her bosom with her arms.
  "Oh, your clothes? They folded out, of course. They switch places with your suit, back and forth. They're waiting in another dimension. If you want clothes on top of your suit, you'll have to put them on afterwards."
  "Not that! What you were saying!" Aiko couldn't even look her sister in the face.
  "But I didn't say anything." Chiharu said.
  "You did. About. . .my bust. . ." Aiko trailed off, flustered.
  "I didn't say anything except to answer the question about your clothes." Chiharu insisted.
  "Oh." Aiko said, forcing herself to look down at her steadily glowing Bubbles. She thought she knew what her magic was. I guess when you're too shy to talk to people, your unconscious naturally prefers magic like this.

Chapter 5

  "What do you think?" Shiori Rin asked Rei Rin. They were both lying in their own beds in their slightly cramped room. Even with their new acquisition of two hundred million yen, their house only had two bedrooms. It was only fair that her parents shared one, and the kids shared one, even if they had outgrown sharing the same bed. Nothing could be done immediately with the new money, and since they had offered all of it to their parents this first year, it was no longer Shiori's concern. If they wanted to build a new house with it, that was fine. If not, that was fine too. What mattered most was she had been able to repay the debt she had accumulated to her parents over so many years, without jeopardizing her ability to provide for herself or her future kids, which was a dream come true. After Kotone's speech about Choice Givers having a moral duty to reproduce like bunnies, Shiori had felt the pressure to hurry up and find a guy. She had managed to avoid thinking about boys all through high school, since there was always plenty of other things to do. She had her friends, her dog, softball, Taekwondo, studying, the wyrds, and her status as a Choice Giver to live up to. How could she possibly fit in a boyfriend? But now that she was earning 100 million yen a year, her earlier priorities just seemed childish. Why play around, or even study, when you could start a family and create something of true value? Shiori didn't feel the need to prove herself in the workplace, saving the world was surely enough public service for a lifetime. But she did need to keep moving forward into adulthood. Receiving this money accelerated that need, because it removed all further excuses to delay. Becoming an adult meant two separate things, financial independence and starting a family. She had achieved the first a little earlier than expected, but that meant there was no reason left to not move on to the second. Even if she knew that, she was still at a loss. How did one go about meeting boys? Who could possibly qualify? Why would anyone who qualifies want her? It's not like she had had to fight boys off with a stick during high school. Maybe it was time to grow out her hair.
  "I still think it's a terrible idea to hire me on as a consultant. I'm not like the rest of you." Rei sighed and rubbed her eyes.
  "For all we know that makes your insight all the more valuable." Shiori countered. "Besides, I'm not letting you put all this work off on me."
  The two were staring at printouts of endless essays sponsored by Angle Corporation. They were simple questions, "What is your ideal society? Who would it be composed of? How would it be run? How would you like to see it evolve? What beliefs are non-negotiable? What do you value most and why? What can we learn from the past? What needs to be changed from the world of today?" The essays weren't sent to the judges until a minimum of ten thousand people had signed their petition, which changed it from an individual's dream to a viable settlement. The winner had been promised a chance to make their dream come true. Ostensibly, Angle Corporation had bought a number of islands in the Pacific that were currently uninhabited, and was willing to give them away to anyone with a group that wanted to people them, provided they write a good enough essay answer. In reality, the winners would be scryed to filter against Dead Enders. If they passed this test, their leader would be told the truth, under an oath of secrecy, that they were being given a ticket to another world entirely, if they had the courage to take it. It was up to the hired consultants of Angle Corporation to decide on the winners of the essay contest though. For such an obscure reward, the chance to start a new, albeit extremely small, sovereign nation, there had been an overwhelming response. Essays had poured in from around the world, written in every language, which the wyrds had had to translate for them. Despite the seeming contentment people had with their place of residence, it was obvious many still dreamed of something better, and were ready to abandon everything to pursue that dream. Shiori loved Japan, so leaving to an alien world didn't especially appeal to her. But what of people born in Uganda? Or Yemen? Or Pakistan? Or Haiti? Or Venezuela? What hope did they really have? What freedom, what opportunity, what happiness could they expect to enjoy? Wouldn't a chance to start anew be worth anything to them? And what of the people who felt America, or Canada, or France, or even Japan was a Uganda or a Haiti compared to the quality of their dream nation? What if people felt like they were in Yemen even living in the free world, it fell so far short of their ideals? Couldn't these people also be willing to abandon everything for a chance to start over?
  Obviously they were. Which meant Angle Corporation had a healthy number of contestants to choose from, and that their job as consultants really was going to take a bite out of their lives.
  "I think it's fine. I'd give them a planet." Rei said.
  "Even though they have a public dress code?" Shiori asked.
  "Sure. Every country has public decency laws of some sort. So what if this one's a little stricter? Everyone who signed it is clearly willing to abide by it, so who exactly does it hurt?" Rei challenged.
  "Their unborn children, who never had a chance to agree ahead of time." Shiori said.
  "The same children who will be escaping much worse if their parents leave their current countries. I don't think they have much right to complain." Rei replied.
  "I still don't like it. Why is purity their highest value? They're so worried about losing what they have they'll never concentrate on creating more." Shiori said.
  "Should we just throw everyone out that doesn't answer "Love, Beauty, and Truth?"" Rei asked.
  "I don't know. It would certainly lower the number of entries. Is there anything else people could credibly value?" Shiori asked her sister.
  "Temperance. Justice. Wisdom. Piety. Courage." Rei offered.
  "Isn't that Plato?" Shiori asked, recalling their college course.
  "Yep, or Socrates if you prefer. Never a mention of love, beauty, or truth in his works. Are we going to throw out Plato as beneath our notice?" Rei asked.
  "I guess not. So love, beauty, truth, or Plato?" Shiori suggested.
  "Plato was just an example! We have to check them all, idiot." Rei threw her pen at Shiori from across the room.
  "Fineeeeeee." Shiori sighed, shuffling her endless papers. "But is purity specifically good enough?"
  "It could be. Purity could include all sorts of things, like honesty and devotion. If purity is interpreted loosely enough, it could contain an entire world's worth of virtue." Rei answered.
  "Well, if you like them. . . I guess we have plenty of worlds to spare, we may as well give them one." Shiori placed the essay into the 'passed' box.
  "Do you know how ridiculously wealthy that makes us sound?" Rei asked, laughing.
  "It's only for a brief moment, until Masanori dies. It's not like mankind has become all-powerful. We have to use this opportunity while we can." Shiori protested. "Magic is wealth. If we're too stingy, if we don't help anyone with it, I could never forgive myself."
  "Actually, it's briefer than that." Awesome flashed a deep red.
  "What do you mean?" Shiori asked, rolling over on her bed to look at her wyrd directly.
  "If time really is moving ten times faster in the etheric plane than down here on Earth, that moves the timeline of my magic's depletion up from two hundred years. . .to twenty. Since that prediction was six years ago. . .wyrds, including Xanadu, now have fourteen years left before we all die." Awesome admitted.
  "That. . .that's impossible." Shiori felt like someone had punched her in the stomach. "You were supposed to outlive me, and my children, and my grandchildren. It was supposed to be some problem that never came up. You were supposed to watch over us until all of humanity was healed. That was the plan!"
  "I'm sorry, Shiori. The part about folding time was outside our calculations." Awesome blinked. "It only occurred to me after our Christmas conversation, that I had dramatically shortened my own lifespan by coming down here. It's okay. We can still carry out Project Angle Ark. That's enough."
  "It's not enough!" Shiori retorted angrily. Tears were starting to burn in her eyes, and her throat was constricting. Why am I crying about something fourteen years away? Stupid! Get it together! You don't like Awesome anyway! "I was promised two hundred years! Fourteen isn't enough! How could you? We promised to be together for life, didn't we?"
  "Yes, well, if I die, that kind of fulfills the promise, doesn't it?" Awesome joked.
  "No, it doesn't!" Shiori's angrily wiped at the tears running down her cheeks. "It doesn't fulfill our promise at all, stupid. You have to stay with me until die, it was a promise for my life. You can't just teleport into a girl's room, beg her into forming a lifelong contract with you, and then die. It's not supposed to mean that! That's too cruel."
  Rei looked stricken, even though she wasn't crying. She hugged Onyx to her bosom and refused to let go.
  "It can't be helped. Wyrds are a doomed race. A dead end. Let's just focus on the positive, at what magic can do while we have it. There's still plenty of time." Awesome coaxed.
  "I can't just watch someone I love die while focusing on the positive!" Shiori shouted. "That's it. We're saving your world. I'm sick of this deadline. I'm sick of your dead end. I'll smash it to pieces! You can't just leave me. I refuse. You're a lying cheating philanderer if you leave me at, at. . ."
  "Thirty-four." Rei offered helpfully.
  "At thirty-four!" Shiori finished indignantly.
  "Where does philandering come into it?" Awesome blinked in high pitched protest.
  "You just are!" Shiori said. "And I'm telling Magnolia you love her too!"
  "You promised you wouldn't!" Awesome flashed angrily. "How is she supposed to respond when we're all glass orbs? And how can we turn a circle of three friends into two lovers and a third wheel? Don't you understand how counterproductive it is?"
  "That was years ago, it no longer applies." Shiori brushed his concerns aside. "If you're going to die in fifteen years, I will not let you two just drag your relationship on and on like this. And I'm sure glass orbs can bump or something."
  "I don't know where to start." Awesome glowed, amazed. "You were just lecturing me about keeping promises. . .and bumping?"
  "I would be overjoyed if I got to bump the boy I loved. Don't look down on bumping." Shiori set her jaw determinedly. "And it's only important to keep promises when the person you made the promise to benefits from your keeping it. I need you to keep your promise, but you need me to break mine. The situations are entirely different."
  "For that matter, why is it urgent I confess to Magnolia if you're going to save our lives? In that case, I'll have thousands of years to find the right time." Awesome complained.
  "So you admit I will save you?" Shiori smiled.
  "No! This isn't a matter of persuading me. I want to live on, so what more could you tell me to do? It has nothing to do with Choice Giving. Sometimes things happen entirely outside of our control. Only God could change that." Awesome said.
  "And sometimes people give up too soon, and need persuading before they try again. In which case, I can do something." Shiori replied.
  "And that's if Shiori can't persuade God to answer her prayers to save you." Rei pointed out.
  "Who's the expert here? You earthlings, or me?" Awesome flashed. "I scryed all of this out long ago. There's no more magic. There's no right answer. Our civilization has invented everything. If there were a new source of magic, we would have found it. There's no other power supply that can remotely sustain us, compared to magic. All the energy of this universe is like a thimbleful of magic to us. Folding downwards is inherently useless, because everything beneath us is microscopic compared to us. There's no way to fold upwards. . ." But Awesome trailed off, remembering a certain someone.
  ""It was working."" Shiori quoted, a look of awe on her face. The group was silent. Everyone knew what that meant.
  "In retrospect, smashing Mastermind's computer may have been a bad idea, huh?" Onyx flashed wryly.
  "This doesn't change anything. Mastermind had a unique magic, it's impossible to reproduce." Awesome said doggedly.
  "Anything that exists in the natural world can be replicated. There is no such thing as a unique event. If we recreate the circumstances, we can recreate the event. That's just the laws of physics. If there is a magic of upward folding, it's still out there. A spell, a process, that your civilization could use too. There is a way to fold upwards. To extend a conduit up, just like you've sent one down, to a world of such greater size and magnificence, that the magic of your entire universe would just be a thimbleful compared to its energy. Magic is just energy, if used correctly, it can do anything we're doing. Even whatever Mastermind and Miyamoto were doing. You just have to find out what." Shiori encouraged her wyrd.
  "There has to be some technical reason why it won't work." Awesome said. "My scrying is perfect. Wyrds have reached a dead end. It has to mean there's no other way to harvest magic."
  "Wyrds reached a dead end the moment they gave up on themselves." Rei said, realizing. "You're just like me. It was never magic that ran out. It was hope. You just ran out of hope."
  "So what, all wyrds, simultaneously, lost the will to invent a new power source, and preferred to die, even though there was a perfectly easy, available, foreseeable one right there in front of them?" Awesome challenged.
  "Awesome, I know you don't want to hear this." Rei looked away uncomfortably. "But the way to kill a planet is to kill its Choice Givers. Wyrds ran out of Choice Givers. . .so. . .yes, you could have stopped inventing things. . .you could have fallen into despair. Just like we would have. . .just like Onyx wanted us to do here. It's not impossible at all."
  "We didn't run out of Choice Givers, not the way you're implying, that's impossible. A society as advanced as ours, with scrying that keeps us all following the light, only a material cause could make our best wyrds fail to find a route. If our magic hadn't been running out, we would have all sorts of wyrds to follow, just like you." Awesome said.
  "That's just pride talking. Wyrds aren't flawless, or else they wouldn't have tried to kill us. It's stupid to doom your universe because you're too proud to admit that. Awesome, forget your pride for a moment and think of this: You either believe in me or you don't. Am I a Choice Giver, or not? Can I break down dead ends, or can I not? Is this my job, or is it not? Can I make the impossible possible, or can I not? It's this simple: Do you trust me?" Shiori stared at Awesome with her wide, straightforward eyes.
  "You. . .know I do." Awesome sighed.
  "Do you trust my judgment over your own?" Shiori asked.
  "You know I do." Awesome said.
  "Mastermind said "It was working." If wyrds had ever thought about it, like Mastermind had, they could have invented a process to fold upwards too. But you all gave up instead. All your scrying showed you was that you were going to give up. Now that humans are here to give you new ideas, all of that goes out the window. Wyrds still have Choice Givers they can choose to follow. Us. All of you are Dead Enders by choice. If you want to live, follow us. We're here for you. I'm here for you, Awesome. Don't push me away." Shiori ordered.
  "I. . .what do you want me to do?" Awesome surrendered.
  "Well, for starters, I'm going to call Chiharu, to bring Cyan over to translate the morse code. Then we're going to kill you a few thousand times. It's time to talk to your pals up top again." Shiori smiled, energy welling up through her chest. She was going to do it. She was going to save the world again. Just a different world this time.
  "I hate using eternal zero like this." Rei sighed. "I have to say the same words a trillion times."
  "We have water this time." Shiori comforted her sister. "Plus, we'll demand they bring down medals with their next wyrd, when they tell us it's worked."
  "I guess we still have Saki to give an extra wyrd. Since Chiharu seems intent to bond her whole family." Rei giggled.
  Shiori laughed too. "What could possibly go wrong?" Chiharu had said. And then she had confessed to everyone that her sister had bonded Bubbles while they were away on Christmas Eve. Shiori would never let that one go. She dialed Chiharu's number on the cell phones Masanori kept funded for their Choice Giving hotline.
  "Hello, Aiko?" Shiori asked innocently.
  "You have the wrong number." Chiharu grumbled.
  "Oh, sorry, I was just trying to reach the nearest wyrd contracted Sakai. Can you fetch Aiko?" Shiori asked.
  "It's way too late, she has school tomorrow, and you are not funny." Chiharu said.
  "I guess you'll have to do then. I mean, since the much more reliable, dependable, and qualified Aiko is occupied." Shiori thought she was hilarious.
* * *
  Aiko Sakai wasn't unpopular in school. To be unpopular, you had to be noticed. Aiko was a ghost. During class, she always sat at the back. She did her classwork, and her homework, and efficiently got A's on all of it, as a matter of habit. When called upon during class to answer a question she would always answer promptly and correctly. Otherwise, she wouldn't volunteer to answer anything. She didn't get into any conversations with the rest of her classmates, and thus never made a verbal slip that could have drawn any attention to her in the first place. She was pretty enough that no one made fun of her looks, but not so pretty that anyone would single her out for them either. Therefore, she had perfected the technique of complete invisibility. When she had free time, she would get out a book and read it, effectively blocking out the outside world. Since she was rejecting everyone else, no one could perceive her as a pitiable girl rejected by the outside world. She received neither antipathy nor sympathy -- she had made her choice of companions, books, and everyone just left her to them.
  But there was a difference between today and her entire life up until this point: This time she was wearing her sky-blue, Bubbles-begemmed underwear, and instead of being shut off from the rest of her class, she was more deeply aware of everyone in it than even the closest of friends. Her magic was mind reading. She could only receive thoughts, but how she received them still included a great deal of versatility. She had quickly learned to shut her mind off from minds she didn't want to read, and to focus in on a mind she did want to read. There were also dexterous ways to catch people's surface thoughts, without getting an entire deluge of their full emotions and self-identity. She felt like a brain surgeon, able to peel away any number of layers of her target's brain, just like an onion, getting as shallow or deep a distance into their souls as she pleased. Certainly, it was an invasion of privacy, but Aiko didn't worry about that. The rules of privacy existed for various purposes -- people didn't want to be embarrassed, no one wanted their reputations to be hurt, no one wanted to be taken advantage of through insider knowledge, people didn't want to trust strangers with sensitive information, and so on. So long as the violator of a target's privacy didn't follow that up with some malicious or selfish act that harmed the individual affected, Aiko couldn't see any valid objection to mind reading.
  In truth, people fundamentally wished to be understood. That was why speech and communication had been invented in the first place. The fact that she could understand people without being deceived by lies just meant she could gain all the positives of human communication without any of the negatives. Good people who wished to communicate accurately had no reason to fear a mind reader who could understand them accurately, who wished no harm to them or anyone else. Since everyone wanted to be understood, which was the same wish that everyone shared to be loved, she was actually doing good people a service. As for bad people, she certainly wasn't doing them a disservice, and she tended to not dwell on their thoughts for overly long periods anyway. There was little worth understanding about them.
  Chiharu had already told her that there wasn't a single Choice Giver she'd ever met who didn't believe the ends justified the means. This was because anyone hung up on worries about means could find themselves trapped, pinned, outfoxed, and doomed into an obvious absurdity. One simple example was a case where an alien being threatened to blow up the entire planet unless a single virgin was sacrificed to it, in which case it would fly away and never bother Earth again. Since there was no way to defeat the alien, by definition, and by definition the alien was telling the truth, the question came down to a simple either/or: Either the whole Earth, including the virgin, dies by the alien's hands, or a single virgin dies by your own hands, and everyone else is saved. Anyone who could not, or would not perform this simple moral calculus was not suited to Choice Giving. In fact, they weren't suited to holding any authority or to make any judgments, about anything, whatsoever. The cases could be less exotic, and thus more applicable, in small simple steps. For instance, Immanuel Kant was so opposed to lying that he held it immoral to lie even to a murderer carrying a bloody axe as to where his fleeing victim's location was, if the teller knew the truth of the answer and the murderer asked him. This sort of means-first thinking always led to similar absurdities. War, for instance, was always wrong, even if the other person started it and their sole goal was your extermination. Or it was always wrong to collect taxes, because taxes were coercion, which was theft, even if the taxes were what preserved an orderly and prosperous society, which no one had the benevolence to support of their own free will. The stumbling blocks of means-first thinking were manifold and they were everywhere. They could always be identified by some strident speech about rights, or principles, that trumped everyone and everything else. What Dead Meansers didn't realize is that nothing trumped life. Nothing trumped life's ability to continue surviving, growing, changing, and progressing into the future. This was a good that no right, no principle, and no justice could oppose, on pain of its soul.
  Before anything else, life's possibilities had to be preserved. Before any other morality could exist, it had to affirm life's right to do whatever it took to live, and to continue evolving into its destined potential as an infinite being. If that right was not asserted first and foremost, it would always come into conflict, and lose to, some other meaningless, petty goal. It was terrifying how petty the means-first goals could be. Politeness, for instance, the wish to not hurt anyone's feelings, could strangle off and kill life's infinite possibilities, by simply removing the ability to even debate false ideas, or condemn evil ones. Or a supreme reverence for all living things, and thus the refusal to use any 'evil means' to restrict birth rates, could translate to poverty, resource depletion, and ecological disaster, because the principle did not take into account Malthus's simple mathematical formula that birth rates grew exponentially, while the ability to support life could only ever grow arithmetically. Conversely, walling off any means to encourage births as an 'intrusion into people's reproductive freedom' could likewise call for the death of the entire human race, if the culture tended towards below-replacement birth rates. Between this Scylla and Charybdis of 'means-first thinking,' that stated either that all life was sacred and must never be impeded, or that freedom was sacred and even the freedom to erase the future was up to each individual woman, regardless of the wishes of the unborn whose fate dangled by their whimsy's thread, there was only one solution: Ends-first thinking. And the end was always the same, if you wished to avoid a dead end -- the end had to be protecting life and its infinite possibilities. However it was threatened, whyever it was threatened, whoever threatened it, and whatever cause was inspiring the threat to it. Life, and life's possibilities, were simply off-limits to moral scruples. It was a non-negotiable proclamation of Choice Giving: "We will do anything to ensure that life, and its infinite possibilities, continues. If you can't stomach this, if this creates some awful unacceptable objection within your moral system, then we'll just smash you too."
  Naturally, not everyone who believed the ends justified the means was a Choice Giver. There were plenty of Dead Enders who believed the same thing, but became fixated on some other, completely petty and unrelated end of their own. Most of the time it was their own well-being. Other times it was some fantasy delusion, like the Kingdom of Heaven. Rarely, it was something close to the mark, but would inevitably over time stray off course. This is because any slight deviation from the one true path would, if multiplied by infinity, become infinitely distant from said path. The future was an extremely strict judge of beliefs, because it multiplied everything deep into its implications, long after any human's predictions could foresee. But wyrds could foresee it, and they could tell ahead of time where your thinking led. So very, very few truly led to the promised land. If you were right about 99% of all subjects, still you were a Dead Ender due to the remaining 1%. There simply was no mercy, and no room for error, when it came to preserving the world from extinction or stagnation. And this was why, no matter how hard Aiko tried, she was still a Dead Ender. She had taken to asking Bubbles to scry her every night, and being told she was a Dead Ender each night had only renewed her determination to change. She would become better. And this meant she would use her mind reading to become better. And this meant she would use the 'evil means' of invading people's privacy for the sake of the good end of understanding herself, understanding other good people, and understanding how humanity as a whole ticked. This would allow her to become a good enough writer that she could write a true, beautiful, and loving book about what she had learned, publish it, and change the world thereby in the direction it needed to go. It was a long road, but it started with her overcoming her deficiencies. Aiko was too shy to simply strike up deep conversations with everyone around her, in the hopes of striking gold. This way, she could have the conversations on her own terms, where it was safe, and no one could judge her.
  This way, she could find the friends who would accept her and cherish her, rather than enemies who would bully her or use her, friends like Chiharu had had to make to become a Choice Giver herself. The road to self-improvement, the way to emulate her sister, had to start at the beginning. Chiharu herself admitted that she was good precisely because of the good people she had surrounded herself with, and clung to like a badger. The first step to moral absolution, the first escape from her own personal Dead Ender-hood, would have to follow the same course. Which meant she didn't care about any ethical standards that would bar her from this step. They were implicitly false. It was ridiculous to say she couldn't use whatever ability she had to find true friends who she could grow to love, and who would grow to love her. It was ridiculous to say she shouldn't be allowed to understand the truth behind the world. It was ridiculous to say that she should never be allowed to craft a thing of beauty. Therefore, 'the right to privacy' was false, and could be thrown away into some dustbin of failed ideas, like the trillions of other 'rights' Dead Meansers had come up with over the years that all led to dead ends. Mind reading was a blessing, just like any power was, so long as it was in the service of virtue. That was why wyrds had come down to form contracts with us in the first place. Because they had wanted to lend us their power, because they knew power in the service of virtue was Good.
  Aiko had no need to mind read answers to the subject material at hand from her classmates or the teacher. Like the rest of her family, she was smarter than the people around her, and was perfectly capable of reaching the answers herself. But she was a novice at making friends, and finding out what people were looking for in a friend was an answer no amount of intelligence could derive. The only problem was, it wasn't like her mind reading could ask questions and receive answers. She could only learn what the other mind was currently providing. From what she could see, she had to extrapolate the rest of her target's personality, which she was never any good at because she simply didn't know enough control samples to categorize people effectively. Concentrating on boys in her classroom was the worst. They were always thinking about the same thing. I wish I could touch Akane's breasts. I wish I could drill Haruka right there on the desk. If she waited long enough, they would even turn their gaze to a new girl and wish the same thing on a different person within seconds. Sometimes they even fantasized about her. Apparently her shyness and bookishness had the allure of mystery, and that was enough for them to mentally stroke and squeeze every portion of her body -- before moving on to the next girl in their gaze. She refused to get flustered, Aiko had always been told it would be like this, that boys were a different kind of human and they couldn't be trusted when it came to sex. But hearing about it and listening to it were two different things. The sheer power of their fantasies, the passionate desires they held for complete strangers -- for her, who they had never once talked to! -- wasn't something she could have imagined on her own. At least they cared about girl's faces, eyes, lips, hair, necks, and everything else too. The romance novels weren't completely wrong. A boy could be enraptured over the simplest things, and think about it for minutes, like how beautiful a girl's nose, or forehead, or fingers were. They also loved a girl's mannerisms, her voice, her posture, her grace, her walk, her scent, and everything else imaginable. As far as Aiko could tell, boys were very tolerant, accepting types. They found a way to love practically anything about a girl. Which was strange, because most of the things they found miraculously perfect about girls, they had themselves, and never thought twice about. It wasn't like eyes were in such shortages among the male sex. But nevertheless, they could stare at a girl's all class long.
  It was no wonder boys got lower scores in school than girls. They spared perhaps a third of their attention for what was actually being taught, one third on the girl they were currently looking at, and a third for completely unrelated subjects. A lot of them were looking forward to eating, or going home so they could go back to bed, or worrying about some nearly due school project they hadn't even started on, or hoping their club sports practice would be on the easier side this afternoon, or fuming over some slight some other boy had given them and how to repair their reputation before they started looking like permanent losers. All it had to be was a look, and a boy started fuming. There was an entire world of power relations Aiko had never even noticed, that were as important to the boys as food and sleep combined. Boys hated injustice, no matter how unimportant it was. One boy she concentrated on, Daisuke, was still repeatedly going over in his mind, in a hazy red aura of pure hatred, the fact that Igumi had been allowed to drink from the water fountain before class started but he hadn't been. Aiko was worried Daisuke was going to stand up and rip off the teacher's head at any moment, until she began to realize this sort of anger was actually the norm for boys. It no longer surprised her why boys were so much more likely to be criminals, either. There's no way she could have controlled that kind of anger, but they had to grapple with it at all times, over everything.
  If she could make friends with these boys, she didn't know how. Was it possible to be 'just friends' with a boy who wished he was having sex with you every few minutes, in gory detail? Could their quicksilver emotions really be kept up with by a quiet, serious, and well-grounded girl like her? She didn't know what to think of boys, other than how strange they were, but treating them as potential friends was a long shot.
  Reading the minds of girls was a return to sanity. Most of them were thinking about class, and studiously taking down notes. Some of them were thinking about their hair or what clothes they'd like to wear after school. A lot of them thought about food they wished they could eat, but couldn't, because it was too fattening. Their fantasies about food were almost as detailed as boys' about girls. But they all shared that same mild, cautious feeling that she came to associate with being a woman. Not wanting to hurt, not wanting to be hurt, and not wanting to become the center of attention or be thrust into a conflict. Compared to the boys, who were always searching for ways to win conflicts, girls were complete cowards. But there was very little that was promising in the friendship market. No girl even thought of her, and none of them were pining away in loneliness either. Some had a boy they admired -- usually all the girls wanted the same lone boy -- but few actually had any relationship with him. Most of them had a circle of friends they could rely on, in class or outside it, who they would casually think of every now and then, as someone they wanted to tell what had happened during the day. Aiko had discovered through connecting enough minds that some girls were friends with practically everyone, and everyone considered her a close friend. Reading enough minds, she realized that essentially everyone in class considered Korumi the nicest, most wonderful, most interesting girl on Earth, who would always spare you her full attention and a warm smile whenever you talked. Aiko hadn't met Korumi, so she couldn't mind read her, but she suspected all of the feelings were genuine, on both sides. It's just that she didn't want an unequal friendship like that. She was sure Korumi could manage to expand her number of friends from one hundred, to one hundred and one, to include Aiko. But she wanted a true friend, someone who loved her, not just mankind and socializing in general. Making friends with a girl like Korumi wasn't the right path.
  After scanning everyone in her classroom, and being given a crash course on the complete division between the sexes, Aiko had to admit she had come up empty. There was no one here who would really welcome Aiko, or want Aiko to open up to her. No girls secretly liked her and wished Aiko would talk to them. No girls even thought about books, like she did, or about how to improve themselves into a higher philosophical mold, or about how much they would like to have a friend. There was simply no foundation to work with. She felt exhausted, even though the constant output of magic mainly fell on Bubbles' shoulders. It was simply the emotional fatigue of conversing with so many separate individuals, trying to get to know so many people, and finding out that not one of them liked you in the least. Unless I count the boys who want to strip me. I guess that's something.
  When the school bell rang, she sighed, stood up, stretched, and gathered her things. She kept her mind reading open for shallow thoughts as she walked through the halls, hoping to catch someone who was thinking about her from afar that wasn't in her class, but it was simply a mishmash of random thoughts that never concerned her. She took off her indoor shoes and put them in her shoe locker, stepping with practiced motion into her school uniform's outdoor shoes for the trip home. But she didn't want to admit defeat. With the power of mind reading, there had to besomeone she could meet. Aiko started walking instinctively towards the tennis courts. Whenever the weather was good, she came here to read, instead of going straight home. There was no point cooping herself up in the same room as her little sister if the outdoors were pleasant, and when she got home there would just be ordinary chores to look after. Homework, dinner, bathing, washing the dishes, and all the rest. Before she got home, her time was her own, and that meant she could read beneath her favorite cherry tree. It was January, so the tree was currently bare. But soon, so refreshingly soon, her tree would become the most beautiful thing on Earth. Then she could sit beneath its shade in the spring, watching the petals fall in a carpet around her and into her hair, take in the scent of the flowers, and listen to the wind rushing through the branches. Everything would be pink, and green, and alive once again, in a season that only Japanese truly got to enjoy. The rest of the world, with their worthless pines and oaks, simply had nothing on a grove of cherry trees.
  The tree, and her book, was only part of the attraction though. The other half were the girls running around, so full of excitement and drive, playing each other like the fate of the world hung in the balance, down the hill on the tennis courts. Their voices easily carried up to her, full of euphoria or agony over scoring a single point. She loved watching this world that was completely foreign to her. All the tennis club girls felt more alive than she had ever felt, or she really saw among the outside world. There was something warm about their lives that she liked to soak in, like sitting near a fire. It was just hitting a ball back and forth over a net, it wasn't saving the humpback whale or nursing the elderly, but it felt closer to humanity's true purpose than anything adults talked about or paid people for. Even so, she had already picked out her two favorites, the ones she watched more often than the rest. They were a doubles tennis pair, the best in Reika Gakuen. Watching them play together was simply a joy. Not because of their skill, Aiko knew little about tennis and never watched professional doubles play on TV, which she was sure had a much higher level of expertise on display, but because of their faces. They looked happy together. They smiled, high fived, nodded, called out to each other to 'cover that,' and basically had a mental rapport no short of her own mind reading. They always knew where the other girl would be on the tennis court, what balls they needed to hit and which they could let the other cover, and how to press their attack on the opposing side. Aiko had watched them play so often that generally their happiness at winning flooded into her, the spectator, and became her own, as though she were somehow personally involved and invested in what happened down below.
  She tried reading their minds, but it wasn't very helpful. Obviously, all they could think about right now was Run, right, forearm, spin it, oh no! Curses. How did they get that to go in? Aiko relaxed her magic and allowed herself to sink into her book.
  "I wonder what she's reading," someone thought. Aiko whipped her head around, but everyone was just passing by as usual.
  "I wonder what she thinks about when she is reading," the same voice repeated. And then there was a simple, "Ah, well" of resignation, followed by attention towards cleaning a hallway with a broom.
  Aiko stood up, instinctively smoothing out her dress and her hair, and looked back up at the school windows. It had come from someone doing after school cleaning. A boy, not in her class. A boy who hadn't immediately started raping her in his head. Who was interested in her. But she didn't know who it was, and thus, the moment his thoughts turned away from her, he was lost again. Sometimes this magic was more frustrating than not knowing entirely. Whoever the boy was, she couldn't see him from here. Aiko sighed.
  "What's wrong?" A girl asked from behind her. Aiko jumped.
  "Oops, I didn't mean to startle you." The girl apologized. Aiko turned to see who had, of all things, gone out of their way to approach her. It was the first time this had happened in middle school, and she had no idea why. I was supposed to approach them, after carefully clearing a prospect in my head. Why would someone come to me, now, unbidden? It was the doubles pair from below. The girl in front was the obvious spokeswoman for the two, she had bright eyes and a steady smile, like one you would give for a kitten you didn't want to scare away. The taller girl who stood a couple steps behind had a reserved, noncommittal look as she sipped her water bottle through a straw.
  Aiko bowed. "No, it was my fault, I shouldn't have lost track of my surroundings. And nothing's wrong, not really."
  "Hmmm?" The girl looked unimpressed. "Behind every 'nothing,' there's usually a 'something.' I don't believe in 'nothing' provoking sighs out of maiden's hearts, but I guess you can tell me when you're ready." The girl smiled, apparently pleased that Aiko was even responding to her.
  "My name is Sayuri Ito, and this is Mizuki Kichida. It's nice to meet you." Ito gave a polite bow, which Kichida copied a half-second later.
  "I'm Aiko Sakai, it's nice to meet you." Aiko bowed, hoping she was doing everything right.
  "Love child, is it?" Ito asked. "That's a pleasant name. Were you born out of wedlock, in some sort of glorious heartbreaking romance?"
  Kichida looked scandalized at her friend, while still laughing.
  "No, nothing like that." Aiko blushed. "My parents had three daughters, so they created a sort of triptych, that just followed the course of their relationship. Chiharu is my older sister, 'a thousand springs,' because she was the beginning, the beginning of something they hoped would continue in the same way forever. I'm the middle sister, 'love child', because I was the natural progression of their love for each other, I guess you could say I was when the family's love for itself hit its stride. My younger sister, Saki, is the last, because she's the full 'blossom' of our family's potential, the final product of their completed creation. I think the names show they love all of us, even though I'm their 'beloved child,' each in our own way. We're all symbols of something they love about themselves."
  "That's so poetic! Does your whole family talk like that?" Ito asked.
  "Pretty much. . .we like to read a lot. . .Father and I. . ." Aiko blushed, not used to being praised.
  "I'm just a 'lily,' because lilies are pretty. Mizuki is 'beautiful moon', maybe she has a good story too. Mizuki, did your parents conceive you on some romantic night of the full moon? Or are you perhaps a werewolf?" Ito asked her friend with an innocent smile.
  "I. . .guess they could have. Why would they tell me, even if they did?" Kichida complained. "It was probably just a pretty name they liked."
  "So in the end only Aiko's name has meaning?" Ito pouted.
  "I think you're pretty as a lily." Aiko blurted out.
  Ito smiled, giving a triumphant look at her friend, who surreptitiously avoided it by taking another drink from her water bottle.
  "We thought we'd come up here and talk to you, while our rest break was still ongoing. I'm sorry we don't have much time, but I always noticed you watching us, from under your tree, and it made me want to get to know you. I think I understand you now, Sakai, and why you were watching us. How about it, do you want to join the tennis club?" Ito asked excitedly.
  "Join. . .a sports club?" Aiko asked, startled.
  "Sure. You aren't fat. We can teach you how to play in no time. You don't have any other club activity after school. You're a perfect fit." Ito explained.
  "I. . .do I have to buy my own racket?" Aiko asked.
  "Of course." Ito responded. "What, are you actually a homeless waif who survives by selling matches outside the doors of rich men while being piled under by snowdrifts?"
  "You've read that story?" Aiko blinked excitedly.
  "I've heard about it." Ito laughed, pleased with all of Aiko's reactions. "And don't change the subject. You're joining the tennis club, not the literature club."
  "I. . .if your advisor will have me." Aiko bowed. Tennis had always looked fun, though she'd never imagined herself playing it. More importantly, if she rejected Ito's offer, she was damning her own soul. That much was clear to her. When the gods arranged the answer to your hopes and dreams, you couldn't trample on their open hands.
  "In that case, please keep calling me 'lily' from here on. Not just because I'm pretty. But because I'm your friend." Sayuri smiled at Aiko and grabbed up both of her hands into her own. Aiko was overwhelmed with joy. In the end, she'd made a friend without using mind reading at all. How ridiculously easy it had been, in retrospect.
  "Of course, Sayuri. Please take care of me from here on." Aiko answered breathlessly.
  "You too, Mizuki! Don't leave me stranded!" Sayuri turned to glare at her friend, while still holding Aiko's hands captive.
  "Please call me Mizuki, Aiko, and not because I'm a werewolf." Mizuki bowed with affected cheer.
  "So you are a werewolf." Sayuri exulted in her perceptual powers.
  Aiko laughed. "Thank you, Mizuki. Please take good care of me too. I. . .I'll never forget this."
  "What are you talking about?" Sayuri asked pleasantly, squeezing her hands. "We just needed more members for the club. We would have recruited a stick if it had joined. You'll love our tennis outfits. They're way cuter uniforms than our school skirts. They're white, not plaid, and they're way shorter -- but don't worry, we all wear black shorts underneath. The black and white go perfectly together, don't you think?"
  "Unn." Aiko agreed vociferously. Everything about Sayuri went perfectly together.

Chapter 6

  Kotone Miyamoto wore her hair up in a ponytail high enough to be called a topknot. Beside her were the men she had hired to build and run her fondest dream -- a museum for anime. The three of them were taking questions from the assembled journalist audience, and the gossip magazines that followed all celebrities to get their every thought on everything. She didn't resent the gossip magazines, she was eternally grateful for them. They were her access to the outside world, her chance to spread her message far and wide, to anyone who cared to listen. They wouldn't find any dirt on her no matter how long they searched, so it was never an issue. And if they caught her topless or something with a hidden camera, well, it couldn't be helped. She looked very good topless, in the grand scheme of things.
  "Why did you choose to build an anime museum, Ms. Miyamoto?" A journalist asked, to get the questions started.
  "Because I love anime." Kotone responded.
  "Well, then, why build it in Inazumu, so far away from other major tourist attractions?" The journalist followed up.
  "Because I live here. Someday my children will live here, and I want to take them to this museum all the time. It would be troublesome to take a train every time I wanted to visit!" Kotone smiled, and the crowd laughed.
  "But you're right, it's probably not a good business decision. But that's okay. If the museum is fun enough, people will come from all over Japan, and all over the world, here to our little city of Inazumu, just like the tens of thousands that visit Haruhi's school, or K-On's school, or Lucky Star's shrine, just to see the real basis for what they saw in their favorite shows. Anime fans are dedicated, they want to go places, and now they have somewhere to go. This should be the first place any fan comes, from anywhere in the world." Kotone followed up.
  "Do you think many people will come?" The reporter followed up.
  "I hope they do. That is their decision. But whether they come or not, the Museum will stay open. This museum is my gift to Japan, and to the entire world. It is an act of charity, not a business decision. As Mrs. Miyamoto, I can afford a few charities, here and there." Kotone smiled happily. She loved pointing out she was married to Masanori. That's because it thrilled her every time she was reminded of it, a shiver of unreal joy that she had waited for so long, and now finally had. It had been a long, long test. But she had passed it. And today, every day, was her reward.
  A new reporter stood up. "How much did it cost to buy the copyrights for all these series, or to restore the old videos of your older works? Did you find a lot of cooperation within the anime business community?"
  "Yes, very much." Kotone replied. "Everyone in the anime business was enthusiastic about the idea of my museum. Piracy is one thing, which threatens the heart of our greatest industry, and our finest workers in the country, who deserve much more than they're paid, and work much harder than anyone else can imagine. But a museum isn't piracy, because it's too difficult to come all this way just to watch a few shows for free, neh? For this reason, securing the rights to all these shows, to show within the walls of my building, was actually very cheap. If I hadn't refused, I could have gained most of the rights for free. But now at last there is a place on Earth with the copyright to every anime ever made, with all of its shows on record, free to view, and we promise to continue buying every series that comes out, and add them to our collection, for as long as the Museum lives, which I hope is much longer than myself."
  "Would that even include hentai, Ms. Miyamoto?" The reporter stabbed at a topic that would be controversial and thus newsworthy.
  "It does, though of course you will have to be of proper age to gain access to it, just as ecchi shows will require a proper age to gain access to them. I will not be the gatekeeper of 'good' and 'bad' anime, I will leave that up to the fans to decide for themselves. I just want a warm place, a home, for anime and its fans. A place that welcomes everyone and every series ever made." Kotone replied.
  "It's been said that your favorite word is 'warm,' and your favorite phrase is 'Please, everyone, spread the warmth.' Would you care to explain the meaning behind that phrase?" A gossip magazine reporter asked.
  "Yes, I would love to. Actually, let me start by saying it now: Please, everyone, spread the warmth." Kotone gave the audience her best smile, saying the words as beautifully as possible. If she had one chance to give the world this vital message, it was today. She wanted to make the idea stick.
  "I hope everyone has an innate idea as to what I mean. I think we all know some things are warm, and some aren't, just by looking at them. I want a world where everyone tries their best to stay on the warm side, around the warm things, doing what they know would be the warm thing to do. I know we all have instincts that pull us away from that, desires that aren't warm at all. But I think if we make a conscious effort, if we check ourselves, if we will ourselves to be as warm as we can be, we can overcome those instincts and those desires. We always know, right before we commit ourselves to some fateful decision, or some fateful sentence, whether what we are doing is motivated by warmth, or something else, something much colder. In that case, I hope people spread the warmth with their fateful decisions and their fateful sentences, and bite their tongue and defeat the cold, beat it down, until it's all gone and floats away with the wind, before it ever leaves their head or their mouth, otherwise." Kotone pleaded.
  "Can you give a specific example?" The gossip magazine reporter followed up. "For people who don't understand what it means innately?"
  "Hmmm, well, I guess I could try. Suppose someone offends you, you can either retaliate or forgive them, and still try to connect on other things. I wish people would do the latter. Or suppose you're rich, and others are poor, I would want those people to pay their taxes gladly, and give away even more, out of love for others. We could just be a little more grateful to our friends and family, and always more forgiving of their faults. If your husband asks to make love to you, you could say yes, even if you have a headache. That would be warmer. So you see, it's everywhere, warmth. It permeates everything. And your heart always knows what's the right thing to do. We just have to be willing to do it. I know it's a sacrifice, and that it's hard, and that people want other things, cold things, just as much, like justice, or dominance, or revenge. . .I don't know, so many things that trump our love for each other. . .that's why I can only beg people, with a please in front, to make that sacrifice and forego all those pleasures, because I think warmth is worth it. I think it's worth anything." Kotone answered.
  "Getting back to the museum, what sort of attractions do you offer and at what price?" A reporter in the back row asked.
  "Entrance to the Museum is free. Inside the museum there are various things that do cost money, however. We have theatres that are showing currently airing anime movies, which require tickets to enter like any other theatre. We have a food court that serves anime themed food, like curry, nabe, takoyaki, taiyaki and crepes, which you have to pay normal prices for. We have a souvenier shop that sells figurines and cosplay outfits, for rent to take pictures in and for sale, that all cost normal amounts. But if you just want to watch anime, or stroll by endless good anime openings, it's as free an experience as a trip to the park." Kotone explained.
  "Is the food served by cute maid waitresses?" The reporter followed up.
  "There's nothing like that." Kotone waved her hand with a practiced blush. "The food is kept fresh in dozens of separate stalls, ready to order, so you just pick it up off the counter and find a table for yourself to eat. Everyone should eat as much as they please of whatever favorite food they like, but then they should get back up and start walking around again, as soon as possible. That's our hope with a food court."
  "How do you plan to give everyone a pleasant audio experience with so many conflicting shows in each room playing?" A new reporter asked.
  "There's an app for that." Kotone said, and the room laughed. "No, really, we thought it over, and we decided everyone owned a smart phone by now, so we wondered how we could make use of this. Eventually we made a computer program where each individual, simply by standing or sitting in front of a screen, has their choice registered by their app, and using the earphones of their own personal device, like say an ipod, personally receives the synched audio necessary to enjoy the screen they've parked in front of. The hallways have giant flatscreen TV's one after the other, repeating a series of five separate openings, that are grouped intelligently, for instance all the openings of a series will be given in sequence on the same screen, unless it has more than five, in which case it will carry over to the next flatscreen TV on the wall. Then there are the cubby-holes, that can seat around ten people, where people can get comfortable and watch the anime of their choosing. Without their own device, they won't be able to hear anything, but in the modern age I don't think that's asking much from our customers. As far as the outside world is concerned, the only noise in the museum will be people's walking and talking."
  "Is there enough room to show every opening of every series on your walls?" The reporter followed up.
  "I don't think so, no." Kotone consulted her museum curator. "The plan is to keep the more popular and memorable openings up at all times, and to cycle the rest. In general, the further you are from the entrance, the more obscure and rare the openings will be. It might take many visits to 'catch them all.'" The reporters smiled, knowing how fanatical some anime fans could be when it came to 'complete collections.'
  "What do you hope to see from this museum?" A gossip magazine reporter asked.
  "I would love to see couples on dates taking a cubbyhole together, or walking through the hallways holding hands, eating dinner together, dressing up in costumes and taking pictures together, or watching a movie together in the theatre. I'd also love to see families taking their kids out to see a fantastic variety of anime all at once, in the efficient manner of just showing the openings, so that they can be overwhelmed with how beautiful it all is. I think our museum would be the best introduction to anime for anyone, so I hope many adults who have grown up loving anime bring their kids here first, to start their indoctrination. Let's see, what else? Oh, yes, we will be inviting prominent members of the anime community to talk about what projects they are currently working on, and their thoughts on projects they've already completed, so that the public can have a better understanding of why certain shows are in hiatus or why others were picked to be animated. I would like fans and producers of anime to get along better because of this museum. I would also like to see this museum raise the popularity and recognition anime has as a whole, as works of art just as deserving of display as any paintings in the Louvre. Anime won't be treated equally to art in museums until it's featured as art in a museum. Maybe now we can hope to see more respect from the wider community, now that I've given anime the trappings of respectability that so many stale paintings from yesteryear are given so reflexively. In truth, I don't think the artistic power of our anime loses to anyone, Titian, Rembrandt, Botticelli or Michelangelo. By creating this massive and prestigious palace to host our Japanese artists, our anime works, I'm firing a shot across the bow to all the Europeans. Come here, tour this, and tell me if you didn't really enjoy it as much as your still lifes of fruits in bowls or portraits of old dead kings! Tell me if you dare! It's time anime is given the respect it deserves, and reaches many, many new people who, for lack of public respect, never gave it a chance. I hope my museum, ultimately, makes anime a staple in every home, and thereby transforms every soul in the world. Thank you very much." Kotone stood up and bowed deeply to the reporters, then gave a sideways V salute framing her left eye, then left the press conference. She was exhilarated by the lights, the attention, the completed building, and her chance to say what was in her heart. The only way life could be any better is if I'm pregnant. Kotone smiled and cupped her flat stomach, willing it to grow with new life. Children were warmer than anything.
* * *
  Aiko Sakai had been practicing tennis, and friendship, for a full month. Surprisingly, mind reading hadn't been much use. Her friends were already honest with her, and most of the thoughts they kept to themselves were things no one would be interested in hearing anyway. When you thought about it, the words people chose were like the brain's final draft -- no one preferred the first draft of a book, so why would they prefer the first draft of someone's thoughts? They were almost always jumbled and senseless until actually put into words. Now, if she were a trial judge allowed to convict criminals on the basis of mind reading, without even bothering to go through the court system, her ability would be extremely useful. It's just that for a middle schooler in Inazumu, Japan, opportunities to capture or prosecute criminals were few and far between. Besides, she'd never be able to explain to the authorities what her evidence was, so they'd all get off anyway. One time, getting frustrated over how much worse she was at tennis than her ace friends, she had read Sayuri's mind the entire game to know where she would hit it with what spin ahead of time. She had won that game, which had been extremely satisfying at the time, even the look of astonishment on Mizuki's face and chagrin on Sayuri's at having lost to an amateur. But now she just felt ashamed of it. She was even more ashamed that she couldn't admit what she did to her friends, and apologize to them for it. It was so like a Dead Ender to cheat. She had to become better than this. She didn't want to be the person Bubbles scryed every night.
  At least his scrying had changed. Wyrds saw pictures in their heads when they scryed, not 'numbers' or something that rated your good or evil points on a chart. It was more complicated than that -- and her picture had changed, recently. Before, she had been a small house, tidy and inconspicuous, like any other you might see. But now she was a house with scaffolding, a house preparing to build a second floor. It was progress. Thank the gods. It might sound petty compared to Chiharu's field of flowers, but Aiko was trying her best, and she was succeeding. That still made her smile every time she thought about it. Bubbles wasn't so bad, now that he admitted she was improving. His worst fears and wild delusions, at least, were past. Aiko had spied on Bubbles' mind a few times, and secretly, he was becoming more hopeful that she wouldn't be a total blight upon the world.
  She had also begun her novel. She didn't have any spare time, really, to write it. Between her conscientious attention to getting A's in school and improving at tennis with the rest of her club, the day was simply too short to include anything else. Her body had never been worked so hard. Every day they were running at least two kilometers, and that didn't count zigzagging sprint drills that trained you how to change directions on the court quickly to intercept the ball. Then there was swing practice to strengthen her arms, and squats to strengthen her legs. The explosiveness of her first two steps was key to reaching the ball in time, wherever it was hit, and that all came down to the strength of her muscles. It had been miserable going at first, and she never really enjoyed exercise -- it was always exhausting while you were doing it -- but at least she'd gained the endurance and confidence that the drills were no longer a problem for her. She didn't cramp up the entire rest of the day after practice, still aching the next day when she woke up, just from a little running. She didn't have to quit and walk halfway while the rest of the club left her behind. It was okay, she was a beginner, everyone understood, but it was still so frustrating that she hated it with all her heart. She'd never be one of them until she was physically fit and could start winning games. Stuff like writing had to take a back seat until she fit in to her new community.
  But even in that back seat, she had found time to write. What was her novel about? She had thought about it endlessly. What was a book she could write? What would be entertaining enough to read? How could it impart a valuable moral lesson to the world? These were her three criteria she had to funnel her ideas through. She had access to the most moral people on Earth, not that she'd used it much -- she was just too busy to meet Chiharu's friends and Chiharu had already told Aiko everything she believed in a nutshell. But would people believe her morality, or theirs? Without the help of scrying to back up their word, as just a work of fiction, could she really make a difference? It all came down to her skill with words. Aiko thought she had a great plot. In a world of enforced equality, measures had been continuously taken to encourage indiscriminate marital mixing such that no one stood out and no one was left out. These measures had been propaganda based, education based, financially based, and peer pressure based, until the story begins. Secretly, a group of heretics had continued to marry each other on the basis of merit, prizing each other's fitness, intelligence, physical beauty and moral virtues over society's love of equality, and paying any price to marry as they pleased, despite the increasingly draconian punishments the government placed upon them.
  So many centuries had passed, and this group had selected so highly for intelligence, that the current generation had even developed psychic powers. The families of the secret underground had already arranged marriages between all the children with psychic powers to match with each other, when they came of age, in the hopes of creating a whole new breed of humanity. At the same time, the governments, tired of these dissidents ruining their perfect homogeneous mass and 'spoiling the picture' with their cancer of elitism and selfishness, not aware whatsoever of the children's psychic powers, passed a new law declaring that henceforth all marriages would be arranged by the state in the interests of equality. They would get rid of all freakish abominations, like people whose skin color gradients were outside the normal, average brown, whose intelligence fell more than a standard deviation from the mean and thus were capable of making other, normal people look foolish, whose beauty was too much remarked upon, which made other people look ugly, or people who refrained totally from normal vices like smoking, drinking, or pot, which made everyone else look undisciplined and undignified.
  There was going to be a brilliant scene, in the very first chapter, where the leading girl, whose name was Autumn, stood up in class when this announcement was made. She would be sixteen, almost an adult, and almost ready to marry her destined partner, fully raised in her own dissident culture that prized excellence above all else. She would be the smartest, most beautiful, most virtuous girl in the school, the subject of everyone's open hatred and secret jealousy, with pale white skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. These traits were a sign of open rebellion against the system, because all three were recessive genetic traits that only discrimination in breeding partners could preserve across centuries. Secretly, she would be a psychic, one of just twenty in the world, ten boys and ten girls, who were the hope and joy of their underground network. In short, she was a member of the nobility, an aristocrat in an age of total and complete equality, and she stood like an aristocrat, looked at people like an aristocrat, and spoke like an aristocrat, always asserting dominance and superiority. She was like a falcon in flight, everything about her was as sharp as a falcon's beak or talons. Her contempt was withering, and any slight recognition or smile she gave you instead of her normal scorn for the outside world was worth a thousand pounds, so rarely was it earned.
  "I will never marry against my will." Autumn would announce. And then, without any explanation for her decisions or why she disapproves of the current system, a simple: "This means war."
  The boy who fell in love with that girl, not because she was average, tolerant, normal, meek, humble, or conformist, but because she was a falcon soaring above everyone in the wind, was Aiko's other main character. He was a changeling, a boy who through some disastrous mix-up in a hospital, had been born to underground resistance parents, but given to normal parents to raise. Because he looked average, with black hair, brown skin and brown eyes, he had always superficially fit in. Before he met Autumn, before that fateful day she stood up in class, he had always accepted what he had been taught about the virtue of averageness and normalcy, as just something natural that wasn't worthy of debate, such a background belief that he had never even thought to question it. But when the authorities came to arrest and interrogate her for this speech, he had broken her free, and the two had together fled into what was turning into a rebel army. On one side of this new civil war was the collected force of the government and their endless armies with full citizen approval that they stamp out the 'elitists' and 'discriminators', as, after all, it was discriminatory to prefer to marry one person over another -- and on the other side was a large population of people who were smarter, fitter, more disciplined and more determined that formed the ranks of the underground, and their spearhead of twenty psychics. The boy hero, Kip, would gradually learn of this entirely foreign culture to himself, and compare it to what he had always been told was true. Each time he would unlock a part of his brain, realize how stupid the outside world had been, and grow closer to the philosophy of the rebellion that he had only joined because Autumn was in it. In this way, Aiko would be able to crush every stupid argument for equality and nondiscrimination in the world, one by one, just like Kip's beliefs were crushed, one by one, by the rebellious faction he lived around. Ultimately it would be discovered that Kip was 'the missing psychic,' the one whom Autumn had been arranged to marry when she was five, and had faithfully waited for all this time, preferring death to the dishonor of abandoning her promise to her fiancé, whoever he might be. He hadn't shown any psychic powers because his parents hadn't diligently been training him in them, like the rest of the underground society had been training theirs, but upon being DNA tested, his secret identity is revealed. Kip would then develop the strength he needed to help win the war, gain Autumn's respect, which he had only had flashes of while they were both in school together, gain independence for his culture and people, marry Autumn, and start a new breed of mankind, psychic powers and all, together with her, his indomitable falcon.
  It would borrow from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. It would also draw inspiration from the short story "Harrison Bergeron," where smart people's ears were fitted with devices to make crashing loud noises to disrupt any train of thought, so that they wouldn't be any smarter than the rest of the community. But mostly it was straight Plato. Plato, who had always favored an aristocracy of merit, who had divided people into 'golden, silver, and brass' classes, who insisted on a life of virtue, who pursued the truth fearlessly no matter who it upset, whose mentor Socrates martyred himself in defense of the truth that "If there were gods like Zeus and Aphrodite, the myths about them must be wrong, because they would never perform shameful acts like adultery." Socrates was a philosopher who refused to believe divinities would be less moral than mankind, and insisted on the concept of the sacred, the pristine, an unpolluted reverence for the Good which was the hallmark of true religious feeling. For this he was killed by an irate mobocracy, for the crime of 'corrupting the nation's youth,' ie, challenging tradition. His life and death proved everything Plato ever said. Socrates was definitely from the 'golden' class of man, and his killers from the 'brass.' In Aiko's book, Changeling, all her characters would be golden, and all their opponents brass, and in this holy war between the aristocracy of merit, and the mobs of mediocrity, she could show everyone the truth about how evil the principle of nondiscrimination could become.
  The story hadn't gone very far. Actually, she hadn't even finished chapter 1 -- writing a page, for some reason, took way longer than reading one. But she was doing something she'd never had the courage to do before, and that's what mattered. She thought her father might like to read it someday, but it was simply too controversial to broach with anyone else. Most of all, she dared not risk her friendship with Sayuri or Mizuki by offending them with her heretical ideas. The book would have to be written in secret, and that was that.
  Meditating on what she would write the next chance she got, perhaps this Sunday, the lunch bell finally rang, and Aiko stood up with a long stretch. She immediately regretted it.
  Wow, look at them rise!
  She's doing that on purpose.
  What I'd give to. . .
  Aiko blushed and lowered her arms, gathering her bento quickly and heading for the roof. It had not been intentional. It wasn't her fault she had breasts, or that they moved when she moved. Boys were all the same. Even with her mind reading limited to what people were thinking about her alone, the embarrassing sexual fantasies kept flowing in, and it was the only subject they ever thought about when it came to her, too.
  Sayuri and Mizuki shared the same class, but Aiko was in another, so they had started eating lunch together on the roof instead. At least when the weather was nice outside, neither too hot nor too cold. A lot of other students had the same idea, but the roof was large enough to accommodate many groups, and soon the three had found their own little unused corner, which the other students got used to leaving to them ahead of time.
  "Mizuki!" Aiko waved happily, reaching the top of the stairs and spotting her friends already sitting down on a blanket. She made it a point to include Mizuki, because Mizuki was terrible about retiring into the background if you let her, never saying a word. She was friends with both of them, and if Mizuki was reserved, well, Aiko was shy, and they both just had to work harder. Sayuri shouldn't have to be their go between, like some sort of mediator. She should be able to enjoy herself too, without worrying about us.
  "Good afternoon, Aiko." Mizuki waved back. "Do you have anything tasty today?"
  "Let's see, I haven't checked yet." Aiko answered, sitting down in a triangle with her friends and excitedly checking her box. Her mother was a great cook, so she never doubted it would be good. Sure enough, it was fried eggs, rice, and fish patties, as luxuriant a meal as Aiko could have hoped for.
  "Itadakimasu." Aiko politely put her hands together while holding the chopsticks. Then Mizuki grabbed the first fish patty and Sayuri stole the second. Her stock of meat had just decreased by half. Aiko wanted to cry.
  "Mmmm. Delicious! Your mother really is a great cook!" Mizuki praised Aiko.
  "Thank you so much." Aiko rolled her eyes, grabbing the third fish patty, at least, before they got any ideas to take the rest for themselves.
  "Come on, I'm taller than you, obviously I need to eat more." Mizuki explained.
  "Then tell your mother that when she packs your bento." Aiko replied.
  "You can have some of my lunch, Aiko." Sayuri offered.
  "No, no, it's fine. I'm sorry if I sounded angry. You can eat all my lunch, every day, if you want. You two know that." Aiko quickly moderated her tone.
  "You sound like we're delinquents with baseball bats collecting lunch money fees." Sayuri laughed.
  "I didn't mean that either!" Aiko blushed, flustered.
  "Say 'ahhhh'." Sayuri Ito demanded, holding her piece of lemon chicken in her chopsticks.
  "Ahhhh." Aiko obeyed, leaning forward.
  Sayuri expertly deposited the chicken into Aiko's mouth without touching her chopsticks to either side, and then smiled. "You too, Mizuki."
  "Ahhhhh." Mizuki opened her mouth.
  Sayuri punched her shoulder. "I meant feed Aiko too!"
  Aiko giggled at Mizuki's deliberate misinterpretation, quickly grabbing her last fish patty and depositing it into Mizuki's mouth. Mizuki smiled and chewed triumphantly, while Sayuri rolled her eyes. Friendship was hard if you cared about your food, but it was easy if you cared about your friends. Aiko told herself to remember this for later, so that her house would be larger tonight.
  I wish she'd do that for me. A boy sighed. She looks so happy today. So beautiful.
  Aiko stood up like a bolt. "Found you." She announced triumphantly.
  "Found who?" Sayuri asked.
  "I don't know yet." Aiko grinned. Beautiful, am I? She quickly surveyed everyone else on the roof, and sure enough, she caught a boy looking at her, who promptly buried his face in his food. Found you, found you, found you! Aiko stared at him happily, drinking him in so she could place him in long term memory.
  "Who's that?" Sayuri asked her again, following her line of sight to a group of boys on the other side of the roof.
  "My boyfriend." Aiko announced happily.
  "Ehhhh? When was this?" Mizuki protested, blinking.
  "Just now. I decided just now." Aiko couldn't stop smiling. "I have to go talk to him, but. . .I'm too afraid. I don't know any of those boys."
  "What if all three of us go over to them. Would that do?" Sayuri offered.
  "Oh, yes, please, thank you. Will you come too, Mizuki? I just have to ask him out, that's all, then we can go back." Aiko said, all her courage summoned just to stay standing.
  "Don't you need to find out his name first?" Mizuki protested.
  "That can always come later." Aiko waved her concern away.
  "Well, if it has to be, it has to be. Let's go." Mizuki stood up, and grabbed Aiko by the elbow. All three girls marched across the roof stiffly, aware they were making a scene. Aiko was at the rear and being pulled along by Mizuki, even though this was her idea. She wanted to look calm and cool, but her legs were shaking too hard.
  When the three reached the other side, the entire roof was watching them in anticipation. All the boys were looking at them with slightly guilty faces, wondering what they were about to be tongue lashed for.
  "This is Aiko Sakai, and she has something to say to you, the boy in the middle." Sayuri pointed at him as she spoke, bowed, and then pushed Aiko to the front. Aiko gulped. Even though she was with her friends, she felt very much alone.
  "Y-yes?" The boy stood up, half looking at her face, half looking away.
  "I. . ." Aiko stood frozen for an eternity. She couldn't do this. She could never assert herself like this. She was the center of the whole world's attention right now. She had to run away. She had to find a better time for this, someplace private. She knew his face, she could always meet him again later. There was no rush. She didn't even need a boyfriend. What was she doing?
  "I. . .please go out with me!" Aiko bowed halfway over, her face pointed directly at the ground, her arms pinned to her side. She could hear the whole roof gasp. Or maybe that was her soul giving up its last breath and floating out of her body.
  ". . ." There was a stunned silence. Aiko couldn't see his face because she was bowing towards the ground. She couldn't read his mind because it was drawing a total blank. The stupid idiot! How long was he going to make her stand like this? I know your answer already. Answer me!
  "Yes. Anything you want." The boy forced out. The crowd started clapping, and there were a few whistles of appreciation too. Most boys had to wait well past fifteen before they got their first girlfriend. He had just risen around 100 points in stock.
  "Then, I'll meet you after school, at the shoe locker. Don't - - Don't be late." Aiko stuttered. As though you could be late to a shoe locker after school. And then she turned around and walked, very briskly, back to her lunch on the other side of the roof. She felt burning hot, and her hands were shaking. That was the hardest thing she'd ever done. I can't believe I did that. That was amazing.
  "What brought this on? Love at first sight?" Sayuri asked excitedly when they had all sat down again.
  "He's the only boy I can trust." Aiko was shaking too hard to hold her chopsticks correctly. She just buried them in the rice, not daring to lift it to her mouth. "The only one who thinks of me, not my. . ." Aiko blushed.
  "Men are all wolves." Mizuki agreed. "They all come to watch our tennis matches, but they never watch the boy's tennis. It's so creepy."
  "Not this man. Oh, I'm sure he's a wolf too. I know he is. But that's okay. Because he actually likes me. It's all the difference in the world." Aiko tried to take a bite of rice, but it fell into her lap. She sighed and put her lunchbox away. It just wasn't going to happen today.
  "He's staring at your back right now." Sayuri reported.
  "Is he blushing?" Aiko asked.
  "Yes. He's totally red." Sayuri said.
  "See? Then it's okay. A boyfriend can look at his girlfriend's back as long as he wants." Aiko defended him.
  "Or other things?" Sayuri giggled.
  "Or other things." Aiko agreed, her face burning hot. She had her romance. Now she just had to not screw it up. She had to keep getting better.

Chapter 7

  Aiko Sakai waved her friends goodbye and then took a deep breath. She had her back to the shoe locker's wall, staring out towards the school gate, as she watched various classmates filter back out towards home, generally in clumps of friends, each having their own conversations about the day. She could eavesdrop on them if she liked, with magic, but what was the point? They'd surely be thinking about dinner or the like. If someone was thinking of sneaking up behind her and stabbing her, her magic would convey the thought ahead of time. Keeping her mind reading at a higher sensitivity just wasn't worth it. Even though she had told the boy not to be late, she had had after school practice with the tennis club. It's not like the coach would accept an excuse like, "Sorry, I have to go see my boyfriend," and so now she was late. She hoped he wasn't mad. She hoped their relationship didn't make a record for shortness at half a day.
  There she is, a familiar mind thought. The same mind that had spied on her a month ago, she'd finally caught out by coincidence, by sharing the same roof. Her mind reading had really paid off this time. If she had dated a boy at random, it never would have worked. But she felt safe around this boy. His mind felt safe. The previous time, and this time, his thoughts were as gentle as a feather. There was a tenderness to them, that her magic could catch, because ultimately emotions were just thoughts too. Aiko didn't turn around and look for him, it wouldn't do to look too prescient. She waited anxiously, butterflies in her stomach, for him to enter her line of sight.
  "Good afternoon." The boy said, walking up from behind her. He was nervous. Is this all just an elaborate prank, because she caught me staring at her too long? He wondered. Really, the nerve of the boy. Like she was capable of doing something like that.
  "Good afternoon." Aiko bowed pleasantly. "You've been watching me. For how long?"
  Two years. The boy thought. "Two years," the boy said. Good boy. You pass. "I didn't think you had noticed. I didn't mean to trouble you."
  "It wouldn't have been any trouble to talk to me, you know." Aiko reprimanded him. "If you really liked me that much."
  "I. . .that would be impossible. Until recently, you were so unapproachable, there was just an invisible wall that warned everyone to stay away. I. . .besides, how could a boy the same age as a girl interest a girl? I knew it was helpless, all the way up until you asked me on the roof. . .actually, all the way up until you actually showed up here. . .actually. . .I still think it's hopeless." The boy laughed nervously. "This is like a dream."
  "You know my name, but I don't know yours." Aiko pointed out.
  "Oh, forgive me." The boy drew himself up and bowed politely. "My name is Kioshi Nishimura, it's nice to meet you, I'll be under your care from now on."
  Aiko gravely bowed back to him. "My name is Aiko Sakai, it's nice to meet you, I'll be under your care from now on."
  "So. . ." Kioshi trailed off, not knowing what to say next to a complete stranger who was already his girlfriend.
  "'Pure', is it?" Aiko seized desperately upon the same introductory technique that Sayuri had succeeded using with her. "That's a wonderful name. You really are so pure."
  "I, well, I try to be. It is my name, so I don't want to shame it, or my parents who named me." Kioshi Nishimura replied.
  Aiko smiled. She could like someone like this. He was honest. He was humble. He was safe. And for whatever reason, he adored her. He had passed every test so far.
  "This isn't a dream, or a trick. I really do want to be your girlfriend," Aiko reassured him. Then she stopped and thought about it for a while. "Let me rephrase that: I'm lucky to be your girlfriend. I'm glad I'm your girlfriend. I'm grateful I'm your girlfriend, and not someone else's, who would love me half as much and treat me twice as badly. It looks like you've forgotten entirely, but I'm an hour late!"
  "Oh, that. That's nothing. I just got out a book to read, I didn't even notice." Kioshi said. Aiko kept her smile to herself. Liar.
  "What are you reading?" Aiko asked.
  "Oh, you know. . .Index." Kioshi shrugged.
  "That's. . .the light novel, right?" Aiko tried to recall. It was a popular series geared towards boys. Science fiction, she thought. But it was hardly literature. Father wouldn't be caught dead buying something like that for her.
  "Right. It's about a guy with anti-magic in a city of super technology and people with psychic powers. . .just silly stuff. . .really. I guess it sounds silly if you haven't read it." Kioshi trailed off, embarrassed.
  "Really? It's about psychics? Then maybe you could help me. I'm trying to assign twenty different psychic powers to the characters in my book." Aiko brightened energetically. "I could use all the psychics in Index as reference points." Aiko laughed. She was a psychic talking about psychics in science fiction/fantasy, silly stuff that could never really happen.
  "Well, Misaka Mikoto can generate electromagnetic waves, and her best friend can teleport." Kioshi supplied readily.
  "So in Index, psychics can do anything? It isn't just constrained to telepathy or telekinesis?” Aiko asked, relieved. She had wanted to do something similar, allowing her psi powers to fit any authorial need she had, and be more expressive of her character’s personalities. After all, these psychics had to fight and win a war for her.
  “No, that’s old hat. Nowadays psychic means someone who can manipulate reality to fit what’s in her mind, in a way she’s expert at. I guess you could say they’re reality programmers, but very low level. I don’t know if I’m making sense.” Kioshi said worriedly.
  “No, I understand. I’m rather smart, if you didn’t know. I can handle big words and complex sentences.” Aiko joked.
  “I know. Smarter than me.” Kioshi was extremely worried about that, her mind reading told her. How to assuage his fears?
  “What are your grades?” Aiko asked.
  “A’s and B’s. But you know that isn’t the proper measure of intelligence. The proper measure is I read Index while you read Plato.” Kioshi said.
  “A's and B's are fine, and if you like to read anything, you're already a step above the competition . If you let me borrow Index from you, I'd love to read it.” Aiko said. “But how did you know I read Plato?”
  “You took it out under that tree, the one you always read at. I saw it walking by. Actually. . .I arranged to walk by that tree at that time on my way home every day. Just to see you one more time before I went home. Sad, huh?” Kioshi confessed.
  “It isn’t sad, it’s charming. Thank you for wanting to see me.” Aiko replied.
  “You’re welcome.” Kioshi said.
  “There, that’s better." Aiko nodded encouragingly. “Intelligence isn't everything you know. My whole family's bright but we’re just an ordinary family, we have our own faults too. I know people way better than me who aren't nearly as intelligent.” Except the ordinary family part was a total lie. Well, we’re an ordinary family in some ways. It wasn’t a total lie.
  “So this book you’re writing, what’s it about?” Kioshi asked, wanting to get off a sore point quickly.
  “The perils of nondiscrimination.” Aiko said. This was another test. If she couldn’t tell him the truth about her values and beliefs, if he couldn’t understand and respect her values and beliefs, then there was no future together. There was no point drawing a relationship like that out.
  “The perils of non-discrimination?” Kioshi asked, making sure he had heard right.
  “Precisely. If the principle of nondiscrimination is enshrined as the highest good, then it would be natural for the government to start supporting it with 'positive action' laws. In my story, nondiscrimination has become such an overriding wish that even choosing your own spouse is considered discriminatory and who you marry and have children with is instead determined the only fair way, by lottery. It's the only way to stop racism, classism, oppression and exploitation, you see. Only indiscriminate mixing can ever erase all differences between groups, and so, since everyone agrees nondiscrimination is a good thing, eventually the state just mandates it." Aiko explained.
  "But you're worrying about nonsense. Isn't discrimination, not nondiscrimination, the real problem of today? Isn't that why there's still so much crime, poverty, and war in the world?" Kioshi asked.
  "You're just like the bad guys in my book." Aiko laughed. "No, discrimination isn't causing anything. All the problems of the world are due to people's own incorrect beliefs. They have no one to blame but themselves. If they made fruitful choices in their own lives, they would prosper, no matter what someone else thought about them or what nasty names they were called once upon a time. War is because people incorrectly believe that if they just kill some hated group, their lives would improve, without having to improve themselves in any way. Poverty is because people incorrectly apply themselves to systems that don't yield results, like communism or corruption. And crime is because people incorrectly show mercy to criminals, when a tough enough policy can virtually eliminate any incentive to ever dare go down that route, and at the very least stop recidivism cold."
  "So racism has nothing to do with any of these problems?" Kioshi asked with a severe degree of disbelief.
  "Correct, and I'll prove it: Take the Jewish people. They were the most hated and despised ethnicity in history. A few decades ago, Hitler nearly managed to kill them all. But did that stop them? No. Today they're richer than ever, with a slew of Nobel Prizes to their name, and even their own country. If Jews can overcome that level of external bias, so could anyone else who had the ability and the will. Racism isn't holding anyone back. But that culture of entitlement, of always wanting to blame someone else for your own failures, sure does. To make matters worse, continuously campaigning against discrimination, blaming all evil on Earth on discrimination, has the capacity to mutate into a world devouring beast. If discrimination really is the cause of all suffering on Earth, then obviously it should be banned, right? And if discrimination is banned, then how could Japan control its borders? How could any state discriminate between foreigners and citizens? How could we enforce the law? Isn't that just discriminating against the perfectly valid alternate lifestyle of criminals? How could we even live in families, shouldn't husband and wives and children all be in common, so that no one favors one person over another? Is love even possible without some form of discrimination?" Aiko challenged Kioshi.
  "That's just hyperbole. No one's against that kind of discrimination." Kioshi replied.
  "Aren't they? But it doesn't matter, because someday they will be. They'll have to be, if they continue to insist that discrimination is innately evil. My book's villains are just the full flowering of the ideas we already see in their infancy today. I want to write about the issue now, when it can still do some good, and a science fiction thriller where psychics fight the forces of enforced mediocrity is the best answer I have." Aiko concluded.
  "Hmm." Kioshi pondered her answers for a short time, then nodded to himself. "Instead of talking about it, how about I just read it?" Kioshi offered. "I could proofread, comment, and give you reference materials for your fight scenes. If your book's argument is compelling enough, I'm sure to change my mind." And with that he passed her final test.
  “Okay.” Aiko agreed to his offer happily. “Would you like to come over to my place? We can look over my book in my room. Or I could go over to yours. Your parents are okay with you dating someone, right?”
  “I wouldn’t have agreed to date you if I knew I couldn’t.” Kioshi quickly reassured her. “They’ll just insist we don’t. . .and it’s not like I was. . .so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
  “My parents feel the same way. This is going to be really juvenile stuff, you know. They won’t allow anything, and I don’t want to risk upsetting my future just to get a head start on. . .something we can have whenever, if we’re real.” Aiko told him.
  “It’s okay if it’s juvenile. It’s strange. I always wanted to talk to you. But I never thought this is what you’d say.” Kioshi said.
  “You can still dump me, no harm done. I’m not invested in you emotionally yet.” Aiko proffered.
  “No. That’s not what I meant. Your shell is different, but your soul is exactly what I thought it would be.” Kioshi corrected her.
  “Just from watching?” Aiko asked.
  “Just from watching.” Kioshi affirmed.
  “So, this weekend, your place or mine?” Aiko pressed.
  “Yours.” Kioshi chose.
  “I want this to last, Kioshi. I’ve read a lot of romance novels.” Aiko warned him.
  “I want this to last too. Having you was my dream.” Kioshi Nishimura said simply. He was telling the truth.
* * *
  Isao Oono studied his quarry, sitting patiently on the floor as the dictator of Chad watched TV before bed. It was late into the night, and his official duties were done for the day, whatever they were. Isao supposed they were rigging elections and crushing rebellions, which is what every dictator in Africa spent all their time doing. Because of these people, Africa was still the basket case of the world. The moment colonialism ended, tribalism and cronyism began, and civil wars led by opposing dictators from opposing tribes and religious affiliations wracked the entire continent for decades. It would have made more sense for colonialism to have only ended once a secure and efficient government was already in place to take over from the imperial powers, but the Africans were so anxious to be free, and the Europeans so anxious to leave, that such a hypothetical never could have happened. Which meant Africa, largely, was still in the chaos the Europeans had originally left it in, only now with five times the population, courtesy of modern medicine, foreign food aid, and a complete disregard for birth control. The women were too poor to afford it and too powerless to insist on it, and thus the spiral continued. Isao was here to break the spiral in the only way he knew how. At the very least, he could dethrone unpopular dictators and give the people the chance to choose their own future. If a new dictator came to power in Chad, he'd kill him too, until the country figured out only a democracy would be accepted by whatever higher power kept striking down the world's tyrants. Isao Oono was twenty-one years old, but he'd already changed a large portion of the world. North Korea had already surrendered to and reunified with their brothers in the South, who had footed the bill to lift the North from poverty just like West Germany had done for East Germany when the wall came down. Burma had lost its military junta and held free and fair elections. Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam had all lost their current leaders, until they promptly announced to the public that they were modernizing the bureaucracy and introducing an elected parliament that would henceforth carry on the duties of the state. Isao was ashamed of how many dictators had still been allowed to rule Asia, ostensibly a civilized region on par with the West, but he had finally cleaned out the whole nest.
  It was time for Africa to share in some of the terror that had forced Asia's hand. But something held Isao's killing blow back. His instincts felt something was out of place, and so he waited, and studied, and watched.
  This was definitely the dictator of Chad, Black's scrying was never wrong. The armor he had chosen for his suit was simple, complete invisibility. When he had imagined the armor, he had thought the best armor possible wouldn't need to divert any blows, it would just mask your presence magically such that no one could hit you in the first place. The magic was perfect, just like he had imagined, nothing could observe him. Weight sensors didn't pick up his weight, infrared cameras didn't detect his heat, eyes couldn't see him, guard dogs couldn't smell him, and sound sensors couldn't pick up his footsteps. The armor was perfect, but it only masked himself and his magical weapon, which he had imagined as an extremely sharp spear to pierce his opponents with at close range. If he tried to carry in a gun, it would be seen as floating in the air, which meant all the assassinations had to be up close and personal. The suit had served him well so far, but it still had its limits. He couldn't carry in extra explosives or hold people's hands and thus make them invisible too. It was just him and his spear versus the world.
  His magic had been less straightforward. He had dimly wanted 'ninja moves' to go with his ninja clothes, and his magic had delivered. But most of his spells were stupid. He could conjure smoke bombs or illusionary replicas, but those were just worse stealth modes than his suit. His flash move, which accelerated him twenty meters for every step a normal human took, was almost as dangerous to himself as it was to his opponents, since he would end up careening into walls and obstructions at splatter-speeds. And some of the magic was just dumb, like the ability to magically hold his breath underwater so that he could stylistically swim up on his opponents unseen, or a grappling hook so he could break into people's houses through their windows. What was the point when you could just walk into a building through the door unobserved? Isao Oono was proud of the magic he had been allowed to design, his suit and spear. But the part he couldn't design was just embarrassing. He knew exactly how Kotone felt.
  I can't be thinking of Kotone right now. That's done. I've got to figure out why all my instincts are telling me to just get up and leave, to not kill this guy and just move on to another country. The man's completely oblivious. My suit is foolproof. So why am I afraid to move?
  There were no bodyguards to worry about, they were all left outside to protect the dictator's privacy. There was a wife or a concubine in the other room, already asleep, but he would be gone long before she could raise an alarm. Invisibility did have one weak point, if someone saw you deliver the killing blow, they by default knew you were there and could begin their counterattack. The spear was visible the moment it touched another person's body, but even if it weren't, the impact of the spear would be visible. After Isao killed his target, preferably while he was alone, like in the restroom, it was always a good idea to leave quickly. But were there more weak points? Was there a risk his unconscious was telling him was here, now, right in front of him?
  Isao Oono scanned the room for at least the tenth time. There shouldn't be any hidden cameras. No dictator would want his own room bugged. If there were any, he couldn't see them. His eyes scanned over his quarry, again for the tenth time, and stopped.
  His shirt was very, very thick. Why was the President of Chad, only slightly north of the equator, wearing a long sleeved sweater? The shirt wasn't bulging tight against the man's body as though he were fat. It was thick in and of itself, taking up its own space. A sweater or coat like that wasn't out of place when it was cold, or even if it was some formal business suit attire. But this man was wearing it to bed, in his own home.
  He's rigged. Isao gulped, finally putting the pieces together. He's wrapped in a suicide vest, with a detonator primed to his heartbeat. The moment his heart stops beating, he's going to blow. And he's going to take the 'tyrant reaper' with him. Isao wasn't trying to hide what he was doing, he was trying to make it as clear as possible, to convince tyrants it was hopeless and their days were done. But it seemed his enemies had come to a different conclusion. And he had almost fallen for it.
  If he had gone this far, there were probably secondary and tertiary layers to the trap as well. Why not rig the entire house to blow the moment the first explosion caught the guard's notice? No doubt they'd set dynamite around the entire palace, ready to take it and everyone in it down just to catch him. The dictators of the world knew he would be coming for one of them, and one of them would have to die to flush out their prey, but if they all agreed to work together, they also knew this would be the last one who died, and all the others would be safe to tyrannize their people again. There probably were hidden cameras in place after all. Why not? What if there were steel doors set to slam down the moment an emergency button was hit and trap him in a cage? Isao's spear could probably break through them eventually, but by then the area will have been sprayed with poison gas, or machine gun fire, or just plain heated steam. Heat was a great equalizer. It pierced all armor and killed everything in a given area.
  Okay, so now I know their trap. The next question was how to beat it. Isao was not going to let this man go. Not him, and not any other tyrant on Earth, would ever be able to relax and enjoy themselves while he still lived. If they were finding countermeasures, he just had to find counter-countermeasures. If they were no longer afraid of him, or in awe of his supernatural abilities, he would just have to become even more terrifying and even more supernatural.
  How do I kill this man while still being safely outside the range of their trap? Isao scanned the room again, then walked into the adjacent apartment and scanned the bedroom with the girl.
  Perfect. He looked with satisfaction at the window. Isao started stripping out of his suit. He already knew it covered more of his body than where it exactly overlaid, because he had left a classic horizontal slit for his eyes in the original design, but was still completely undetectable. So long as he was still wearing part of the suit, this should work. He carefully tied a knot around his spear with his shirt, then a knot from his belt to his shirt, and then a knot from his headpiece to his belt, and stood in just his trousers and boots. Then he tested throwing his makeshift chain and sickle in a clear area of the room. No matter how much noise it made, it was undetectable. So long as he didn't stupidly break something, no one would notice his practice. It was awkward, but he was accustomed to learning things on the fly. By his fifteenth throw or so, he had a wickedly fast snapping crack of his clothes-whip and the spear tip went where he wanted. It was a very sharp spear. And if it blew up in the guy's suicide vest, along with half his suit, it wasn't an issue. Suits and weapons regenerated while they were folded away, and were good as new next time you summoned them. His suit had even changed in size as he grew up, always fitting him perfectly. Magic was nice like that.
  Isao climbed up to the window, cutting a hole in the hardened bullet-proof glass like it was paper with his spear. He kept the glass in place even though it was cut, ready to be knocked out whenever he pleased, but indistinguishable from not being cut until that time arrived. Then he waited. Assassinations were always about waiting. The strike would reveal itself when the time came. Isao retained his focus. The man would have to come to bed eventually, and then he would be in range. He will be in my range, but I won't be in his. Not even if this whole mansion explodes. This is my win.
  An hour later, Isao sitting on the windowsill as patiently as a stone, Chad's dictator finally retired to his bedchamber, his stuffy sweater still on. If I didn't know already, that confirms it. He's never going to take that sweater off, probably not even in his bath. Isao practiced the move in his mind, over and over. He knew exactly where the man had to stand. He was only a few steps away. The strike always announced itself when it was time.
  Now. Isao whipped his shoulder, his elbow, and his wrist, which whipped his clothes whip, which whipped his spear through the air. The crack of his whip was only loud to him, the outside world detected nothing but silence, up until the spear plunged with a thunk through the man's ribcage, straight through the heart. Isao didn't wait to see the results, he knew it had been a killing blow the moment his wrist twitched. Isao kicked the cut glass out from the window and jumped through the hole, gathering his body into a roll to hit the ground. Behind him there was an explosion. Poor girl. Oh well, next time don't marry a bloody tyrant. Those who sanction evil and ride on its coattails are equally to blame. They can all blow up together for all I care.
  Isao hit the ground and rolled, regaining his orientation and making sure the path in front of him was clear.
  "Flash move." Isao shouted, and he was whistling like an arrow through the air. Three steps later he had cleared a good fifty meters. That was when the second explosion rocked the ground behind him. Pieces of the mansion fluttered through the air, raining down around him.
  Too late, suckers. Isao smiled triumphantly, turning to look back at his handiwork, a good thirty meters deep into the safety of the night. You can't catch me. I'm the gingerbread man.

Chapter 8

  Aiko was Abhi Durai. Long ago, he had been turned down for admission into college because his family was too poor to pay the necessary bribes. It didn't matter that he was a perfect student, his line was originally from a lower caste, and even though no one said these things mattered anymore, they still did. He had been forced to sell tires for a living, and marry a stupid ugly girl well beneath his station, all because his parents hadn't paid for his ticket to success. In India, it was easily possible to become fabulously wealthy -- with the right connections. For everyone else, there were the tides of fortune, sometimes lifting people up, sometimes tearing people down, without rhyme or reason. The idea of merit was for a country like America. Indians knew of the place, they got to see it in their movie theatres, but they couldn't imagine it ever spreading here. Not to India, where beggars still deliberately mutilated themselves and homeless children to increase their take. Not where people still lacked toilets and sewage mingled with the water supply. Not where cities were so crowded and hot that people could simply faint and die while walking across town. Not where Muslims would randomly machine gun crowds of Hindus, and Hindus would randomly burn Muslims to death, in a country of a dozen different language groups and at least three different separatist regions. No, the dream of anything working in India, of anything being livable or decent in India, was just for the theatres. India was soon to be the most populous country on Earth, exceeding China, which had instituted a one child policy decades ago, and thus clawed its way out of poverty, finally having enough money to invest in its citizenry rather than just wonder how to feed them all. The men of India wouldn't abide by such a plan here, though. They were too manly to let a woman stop them from having as many children as they wanted. They were also too manly to not beat their wives or cut off their heads if they disagreed with or dishonored them in any imaginable way. Muslims and Hindus hated each other, but they were in perfect agreement when it came to the treatment of women. And Sikhs. They both agreed what exactly should happen to Sikhs too. Even though it was the modern era, the majority of Indians were still employed on their own tiny farms, toiling away over their rice fields even when the water table was only capable of supporting wheat fields, because rice made more money in the short term. Many of them were illiterate. All of them were poor. Most of them were hungry.
  But what could you do with them? What could you do with India? China had already stolen the low-end manufacturing jobs of the world, America was the center of innovation, Europe and Japan were the high-tech exporters, and service jobs had to be done domestically. India's only natural resource was its rivers, which meant its farmland, so where else would Indians find employment? If they didn't farm, then what? The unemployment rate of Indians was already 11%, and that was with the majority of Indians still working on their farms. What if all those farmers threw down their hoes and tramped into the cities, looking for work? Unthinkable. No education. No skills. No real grasp of English, the language of world commerce and Indian unity. What jobs could you give these people? So very many Indians to employ. 30% of their population was still under 15, which meant every year 25 million Indians would be entering the workforce, needing a job. Meanwhile, only 6% of their population was over 65, which meant only a million people a year would be ready to retire and give up their job to someone else. Where were the 24 million surplus jobs to come from? Annually? Unthinkable. India was unthinkable. Hiding behind its ancient cultural legacy and its skyscrapers and enclaves of the super rich, the fact that India's per capita GDP was in a tight race with Africa's was somehow forgotten. Another thing people didn't understand was that India had a higher population than all of Africa combined. Which meant most poor people didn't live in Africa. They lived in India. The outside world had no idea. India, not Africa, was the heart of darkness and the pit of despair. If you lumped in their south Asian cousins in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the poverty was even worse. The violence was even worse. And looming over it all was the prospect that, someday, another war would break out between Pakistan and India, and this time it would be nuclear, a nuclear war that took out all the major cities of both countries, and blanketed the entire world in dust and ash, which would lower the Earth's energy intake from the sun, and thus the Earth's crop yields, for years. A world with grain reserves that would only hold out for a few months. Earth lived hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, when it came to harvests. There was no wiggle room. If the whole world simultaneously had a bad harvest for two years running, billions could perish. But that didn't stop the lunatics in Pakistan from threatening to do it anyway. It didn't stop them from attacking our Congress while it was in session, or shelling across our borders, or any number of acts of war that no other country had to put up with.
  Someday India's patience would break and there would be war. Pakistan would lose the conventional war, like it always did, and then it would launch its nuclear arsenal. India would retaliate, and the pit of despair which was South Asia would become the world's funeral pyre. Abhi Durai knew India too well. He had lived in it all his life. Breathed it, listened to it, watched it, and suffered it for too many years, to think there was any hope for his country. They would never reform themselves, and no one would ever try to help them. Which meant mankind was no good. Mankind had failed him, failed India and failed itself. He was tired of mankind. It was time to move on to some other species.
  As a tire salesman, he had lacked the necessary funds to start his science lab. But the idea had grown on him year after year, scrawled notebook after scrawled notebook. He had found the perfect organism, something that would make a mockery of mankind. It would be smarter than anything humans could imagine, because it would share just one consciousness the whole world over. It would never go to war, because it would be the only self on Earth, and thus have no one left to fight. It wouldn't feel pain, so it couldn't feel hot or hungry. If it got sick or injured, it would simply slough off that region of its body. Any part of the perfect organism was as good as any other, all of them could regrow the whole, so there were no centralized vulnerabilities. It would be, therefore, immortal. It would not reproduce in times of excess; it would only grow. It would not die in times of want; it would only shrink. It was such a beautiful creature. Every time he looked around him at the harried, wrinkled, downcast eyes of his people, he imagined how beautiful his slime was in comparison.
  Yes, it was Time for Slime. It was time for Slime World, the Age of Goo, the Era of Ooze. The whole world would be composed of slime, and slime would become the collective unconscious of the world. It was pantheism made real. Abhi Durai would be the slime’s very first meal. With him as feedstock, the reaction would start in his lab and never stop. Everything was edible to his slime. So long as there was something edible nearby, the slime would continue to grow and spread in search of more. Slime would devour the oceans; it would devour the soil; it would burrow into the crust and only stop at the mantle. The world would no longer be blue and green. It would be one, vast, red gloop. Slimy tides would lap away at slimy shores, following the orbit of the Moon. Slimy appendages would soak in the light of the sun, photosynthesizing everything it needed. And the world slime would think slimy thoughts, gazing upon its universal demesne, and finding it good. It was wonderful. It was simply too wonderful to even picture. It was utopia.
  It was in the middle of one of these slimy reveries, as he sweated in his tire selling shop, swatting idly at flies that had somehow found their way through the door, that a brilliant brownish-orange light had begun to shine from a small, smooth, perfect sphere.
  "I am Fulvous," The sphere spoke. Abhi Durai's eyes widened in disbelief. “The wyrd council has scryed you, and found you worthy. Rejoice, human, for you will be the agent of our revenge. Repeat after me, via tu lusches, Fulvous!And together, we will complete your dream."
* * *
  Aiko Sakai awoke from her dream, the last sentence still ringing vividly in her memory. "Together, we will complete your dream." Either she was very good at imagining what a mad scientist might be like, or her magic wasn't just mind reading. It seemed to include a few more psychic powers, like ESP. And her ESP had just warned her that something was very, very wrong. Chiharu told me they hadn't gone away. The naive hope that I wouldn't be dragged into this war was just my own imagination. I wonder if they expect me to fight. How can I, with just a bra and panties for armor? But they won't know where to go without my telepathic link to the bad guy. I'm sunk. I was sunk the moment I opened up that stupid desk drawer. Stupid Bubbles. Stupid, stupid, stupid Bubbles. Aiko Sakai sat up in bed, looking down at her magical underwear which she now wore day and night. It magically stayed perfectly clean, just like she had originally imagined it, so she had no problem sleeping and waking in it without changing. Plus, suddenly not hearing people's true thoughts was as terrifying as going blind these days, she relied on it so much. She had had to simply accept that her wyrd would always get to see as much as he wanted of her. If she thought of him as a dress ornament, she could forget Bubbles, most of the time. Not that most beads were warm against your skin, but that could be ignored too. A lot of things could be ignored when you put your mind to it.
  Aiko sighed and rolled out of bed, pulling open her closet to find something to wear. Today was her first date with Kioshi. She was not going to interrupt it, even if it was just hanging out at her own house. It's not like Mr. Slime was going to invent a world eating super amoeba in a day. I hope. I think. Well, I'll tell Chiharu about it the moment she wakes up, but I am not skipping my first date. I can skip school tomorrow to go hunt Dead Enders, but girls have their limits. The first date with her very first boyfriend was one of them. If the world turned to slime before then, then let it be slimed. Without her, nobody would have known there was a problem in the first place. That meant everything she did to save the world was pure bonus, morally speaking.
  But why slime? I mean really. Whose utopia was slime? Where did people come up with these things? I think I'm a Dead Ender because I can't get close to people I do know and I don't even care about strangers. I'm working on both of those traits, I really am. I summoned up the courage to talk to Kioshi in front of everyone, didn't I? I fed Mizuki my own bento, didn't I? I vacuumed the carpets without Mother asking me to, didn't I? My house grew into a whole neighborhood, with scaffolding still going up on every roof, didn't it? I'll have these dead ends licked in no time. And then I'll be a Sakai Chiharu, Father, Mother, and even Saki can take pride in. Then I can be proud of myself again, like I was before I knew I actually sucked. If only Bubbles could just tell me what I was doing right and wrong, this would be so much easier. She hated having to guess what it meant to be a good person, flailing around blindly with only progress reports to guide her.
  How much harder would this be for someone without a wyrd, and without an in-house Choice Giver to give helpful advice? Aiko didn't know. She thought the people around her were wonderful, but Bubbles had told her when asked that they were all Dead Enders too. Even Sayuri, which had surprised her the most. It was hard. Maybe it was impossible to make the whole world so good individuals could be trusted with infinite power, or even a tiny fraction of it. But didn't the wyrds say they had done it? A world of pure Choice Givers and followers? But that was only for a time, eventually they ran out of Choice Givers, and now they're a world of pure Dead Enders, even worse than us. It was hard for them too. It was just hard.
  How much harder would it be for Abhi Durai? Born in a place like that, in an environment like that, what did she expect? I had two of the most amazing parents on Earth, two of the best sisters on Earth, two of the best friends on Earth, and I'm still a bad girl. How much could you ask of a low-caste tire salesman whose whole life was ruined by things outside of his control? Whose whole life was ruined just by being born in India instead of Japan? Though she didn't know where the slime came into it. She could understand if the guy liked to kick puppies and throw his bowl at his wife when she served overly mild curry -- but where did slime come into it? Never mind. The world is vast. There are seven billion people on Earth. One of them had to love slime.
  "Nnn. Sister? What time is it?" Saki sat up in her bed, wearing a giant shirt she had stolen from Father ages ago and panties. She rubbed a sleeve against her eyes, since her arm wasn't long enough to escape the shirt sleeves unless she really tried.
  "I'm sorry, Saki. I didn't mean to wake you. I just had a really weird dream." Aiko turned around to talk to her little sister, while stepping into her favorite green short skirt. She wanted to make a good impression for her first date after all.
  "I bet it was about your boyfriend." Saki giggled.
  "Go back to sleep, silly." Aiko turned back to her closet to find a cute blouse. It would be white, the color of purity. That would be perfect.
  I wonder what it's like to have a boyfriend, Saki thought to herself enviously. Aiko has everything now. Chiharu talks to her, but she doesn't talk to me. She's prettier than all of us, and now she's got a boyfriend coming over, already at just fifteen. And what do I have? I have nothing. No special traits. No hobby I can share with Father. Nothing I can talk about with Chiharu. No breasts. No club activities. No boys. Sister's just moving on without me. Soon I won't even matter to her anymore, even though we share the same room. She'll tell me to get out this evening, so she can have the room to herself with her boy. I'm just in the way. She probably didn't want to talk to me now, either, and that's why she's telling me to go back to sleep, as though someone could just sleep again once they're awake.
  Aiko bit her cheek. She had planned to tell Saki to stay out of her room while Kioshi was over. But wasn't that their right, to have a little privacy? Kioshi deserved to be alone with her, didn't he? But Saki was hurting. She was hurting, and Aiko never would have noticed without her blessed Bubbles. She had to say something.
  "Do you want to know what I talked to our older sister about, this Christmas?" Aiko asked Saki cheerfully, nonchalantly.
  Of course! Saki thought, surprised. "If you want." Saki shrugged, walking to her closet to get dressed herself.
  "I asked her how to be a good person." Aiko smiled, remembering. That felt like a lifetime ago, but it was only a couple of months.
  Saki turned around to look at her sister, her hands frozen on her gathered up nightshirt which she had been preparing to take off. "You don't think you're a good person now?" Saki asked again, just to confirm.
  "I used to think so, but not anymore." Aiko confessed.
  "And what did she answer?" Saki asked.
  "You wouldn't believe it." Aiko laughed.
  I would. After Christmas, you've been so happy and active, I would believe anything, Saki thought. "Tell me anyway." Saki ordered, finally taking off her sleeping shirt and taking out a new one from her closet. I'll wear a green one, to match my sister, Saki decided, pushing shirts back and forth on her clothes hangers.
  "Study hard. Work hard. Be nice. Be honest. Obey authority figures. Get a graduate degree. Marry a guy with a graduate degree. Have kids until it isn't fun anymore. I think there were some others. But isn't that so sad? It's advice anyone could have given. What's the use of being told what you should do, when no one tells you how you can gain the strength to actually do it? What if I don't want to be nice? What if I don't want to study hard? What's the use of advice that people can't actually follow?" Aiko griped.
  Saki smiled, changing her panties now that her new shirt covered her modesty. "It sounds like something Mother would say."
  "It sounds like something every Mother in the world would say. But I did learn something she didn't tell me, that she just lived by. I learned that if I wanted others to love me, I had to love them first. Not just abstractly love them. I had to reach out to them, my feelings had to actually reach them. I had to make them feel cherished and happy around me, or what were my abstract feelings worth to anyone? That's something I had never noticed before. As to how towant to be good, which is the true secret to being good, I'm still working on it. But if you want, I'll tell you the moment I find the answer." Aiko offered.
  Saki put on a white skirt to complete her new day's outfit, a mirror opposite to Aiko's clothing. "You could give me a guess. You know, a first draft." Saki smiled hopefully.
  "If a good person is someone who gets along with everyone and everything . . . don't you think that pretty much sums up what a good person is?" Aiko asked, not wanting her logic to break down by taking too many steps at a time.
  "Sure. That's as good a definition as any." Saki sat down on her bed, truly interested. Aiko never talks to me like this. Aiko never talks to me at all, except stuff like 'How was your day?' and 'Pass the salt.' What's going on?, Saki thought.
  "I wonder if Chiharu would agree." Aiko tapped her lips. Can I really be Saki's mentor? I'm just a Dead Ender myself. Everything I say is probably just making things worse. But Aiko was lonely because I'm ignoring her. It has to be me talking to her. So I just have to become wise enough to say the right thing, right here and now.
  "Anyway, I think how to be that sort of person, how to summon the strength to be that person, is to always ask yourself, Will I be the person I want to be if I do this? Will I be the person I want to be if I say this? If you want to be that person enough, if you admire that idealized person enough, you can do it. I started doing things I thought I could never do, just by asking myself all the time what I had to do to keep getting better. That's how I made friends, and that's how I got a boyfriend. I just kept asking what a good person would do in that situation, someone braver and nicer and more empathetic than myself, what decision they would make if they had the same opportunities as me. Then I did it." Aiko said.
  "But how do you want to be that person enough? You're using the same logic as the Hindu sage. Remember?" Saki asked.
  Aiko grinned. "The world is held up by an elephant, and the elephant stands on a turtle, but what's holding up the turtle?"
  "'It's turtles all the way down!'" Saki grinned back. The story of the flummoxed sage was a Sakai inside joke.
  "You say it's impossible to follow Chiharu's advice, because before then you have to want to follow it enough to actually do it." Saki explained her allusion. "And so you put a new foundation underneath Chiharu's advice, which is, to want to want to, and then you can do it. But now your new foundation needs a foundation, to want to want to want to, and we're no closer than when we started." Saki complained.
  "You're right. I didn't solve the question either, did I?" Aiko shook her head. "If you find out how to want to want to want to, could you tell me?"
  "Yes, sister." Saki smiled. She cares about my opinion. That's amazing. Even though I'm ten, she listened to my objection and took me seriously. I hope I do find the answer. It's a tough question, isn't it? I never get any tough questions in school. Maybe Aiko really does love me? Does that mean Chiharu loves me too? Saki thought.
  "Listen, if you want to stay with me and Kioshi this evening, it's okay. I'm not going to kiss him on the first date, you know. He's just reading my book. Which is exactly one chapter long so far. Actually, I was hoping to write some more before he got here." Aiko blushed, remembering how little she actually had to show him, after talking her book up so highly in front of him.
  "You're writing a book?" Saki asked excitedly.
  "Yes, but it's probably boring and awful, so don't admire me yet. Do you want to see it first? Before Kioshi? You'd be the first person to read it." Aiko offered.
  "It won't be boring at all. You read so much, after all. I bet you're a great writer. You learned from the best, right?" Saki said encouragingly.
  "All I learned from the best is that they can do things I can't." Aiko laughed, sticking out her tongue and making a bitter face. Saki laughed with her. Aiko pulled out her printed sheets that she'd prepared for Kioshi last night, and motioned to Saki to come sit on Aiko's bed with her, so they could read it together.
  If this doesn't work, I could always buy ice cream for her for lunch. Ice cream is love in any language. Aiko crossed her fingers in the depths of her heart for luck.
* * *
  Rei Rin was sitting on her bed, her hair carefully gathered to her left side, where she was carefully brushing it out. It was a Sunday, so she didn't have anywhere to go today. She intended to spend the whole day in bed or at her desk, doing college assignments and reading Angle Corporation essays. It was a lot like the other days of the week, only she had more free time and had gotten more sleep last night. But those two bonuses really did make the day feel brighter. Now if only this winter cold would wear off. February was the worst part of winter, because it felt like the Earth was gradually losing all of its heat, getting worse instead of better every day, and because it had been so very long since a genuinely warm day had gone by. Rei's slight figure didn't help, either. The cold lanced through her, unobstructed by any layers of fat. Someday this figure will be the envy of my peers, when I'm forty or so. But now it just makes me look like a kid and keeps me freezing at all times. She could make an effort to eat more, but the last thing she needed was to be short and wide, like a sphere. It was too late for her to grow any taller with extra food, so staying thin was a necessity. There simply was no perfect solution.
  "I'm going outside to play with Melody." Shiori, on the other side of the room, announced. Melody was an old dog now, but still healthy, which was a blessing. If Rei moved out before Melody died, that would be another blessing. I don't want to be here when she dies. "Do you want to come?" Shiori asked.
  Rei shivered at the thought. "No thank you. It must be freezing outside."
  "You're such a baby. Inazumu's in southern Japan, we don't even get snow here. Freezing? This is good running weather." Shiori teased.
  "I hate running in the cold. The air stabs my lungs and makes me cough, it's miserable. I'd rather run in the middle of summer, at least then I can breathe." Rei said.
  "Until you collapse from heat stroke." Shiori said. "In the cold you can run forever because you won't sweat out your electrolytes."
  "So I'll drink a lot, horrors." Rei smiled at her sister. "You're the only person who actually likes exercising in the first place."
  "Have it your way. See you soon." Shiori shrugged, nevertheless putting on a coat, which completely proved Rei right.
  "See you." Rei replied, rolling her carefully brushed hair into a bun and then pinning it all in place with a hair band. She took out a sheaf of essay papers and looked for where she had left off last night, grabbing a bag of rice crackers to keep her company as she read. To think that each of these essays comes with the endorsement of ten thousand people. She must have analyzed the dreams of millions of people by now. How many people wanted to emigrate somewhere, anywhere, so long as it wasn't home? The ability to transplant your entire community, culture, and family intact with free land on the other side was certainly compelling. But in a way they were offering less than emigration to established countries, because there was no infrastructure and no job market and no safety net already in place. Actually, Rei supposed that billions of people would have responded if free emigration to established countries was being offered. Receiving the replies of millions of people was a response to the lower economic incentives. But they were being given something far greater than any job prospect, if they only knew. A whole world to shape however they pleased, and all its riches kept to themselves and their posterity. For those with the willingness to work, a new planet was worth much more than the advantages of in-place infrastructure, markets and taxpayer funds. It would be tough the first couple generations. But think of the fortunes to be made after that. Not to mention the freedom to start all over, with any beliefs you wanted, just like the pilgrims who traveled to America in search of freedom. Because America was a chance to reboot, it had created the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which eventually became the guiding light to the world and the richest, most powerful, and freest country on Earth. America's glory days were already behind her, but it didn't change the fact that freedom, a clean slate where communities could create whole new systems of governance, could pay off even higher dividends than even a continent of unused natural resources. So long as the new system was as bright an idea as the Constitution. Which was up to Rei to decide. For some strange reason.
  What will I do with one hundred million yen a year? Rei wondered, now that she was thinking of fortunes. The two hundred million yen Shiori and Rei had given their parents had pretty much set them for life. The next two hundred million yen Rei received would set her for life. Which meant the rest had to be spent somewhere. If I ever do have a family, I'll save some for each of my children. But who will fall in love with me, with this flat body? I could fit in at a middle school without comment. There had to be boys who appreciated small girls, but where would she meet them? In college? Maybe if I had joined a club and went to parties. But it's all I can do to keep up with my studies. I'm not smart enough to be in college, not really. I have to study and work non-stop, until I want to scream. How could I find time for a club on top of that? Shiori quit all her club activities too, she has the exact same problem I have. We're both going to stay single forever. Well, at least my sister won't move away then. I couldn't live without her nearby. When she said she wanted to move in with Kotone my heart stopped. Shiori's going to leave me, she wants a big mansion and a family of her own, she wants to be like Kotone now that she can afford it. It's only a question of when. I can't keep relying on her forever. But I don't want to stop either.
  Nevermind that. Think happy thoughts. One hundred million yen a year, what should I do with it all? Rei Rin closed her eyes, staring at the essay in front of her but not seeing it. She didn't want anything else for herself in the world. The things she did want money couldn't buy. She just wanted to be loved. She just wanted not to lose the things she loved. But Melody was going to die, Shiori was going to move away, and she would have to move out of her parent's house in a couple years if not sooner. She was going to be totally alone again. Totally alone and rich. It was all so useless. If aging just means losing everything, I wish we had never aged. I wish we were thirteen again and I still had six years to spend with everyone. Now it's all just downhill. I lose things, but I never gain any. I'm like the entropy of the universe. Rei sighed. If money couldn't buy anything she needed, she may as well give it away to charity. Did orphanages accept charity? Rei thought they were publicly funded. Should she just donate it to help pay off some tiny portion of the Japanese national debt then? What a hopeless gesture that would be. I'll just give it to the Red Cross then. They seem to know what they're doing. She liked that the Red Cross involved itself in disaster relief, which meant people who were in bad straits through no fault of their own. That was a better target for charity than people who were their own worst enemy. Since there were always new disasters in Japan, the land of earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, the Japanese Red Cross could always use her money to save lives and comfort the unfortunate. The Red Cross, then, until she had a family, and then it could be spent on her family again, until they were also set for life, and then back to the Red Cross.
  Why am I working so hard to pass my college courses when I'll never need a job? Because so long as I'm in college, I can keep hanging out with Shiori and Chiharu, and living at home. Such a simple, fleeting wish. She worked the majority of every day on subjects that were far too difficult for her to understand, because she wanted things to stay the same. If only money could buy that, she wouldn't have to go to college. Why did things have to change? High school was so fun.
  "Do you think they got the message, Onyx?" Rei asked her wyrd, suddenly not wanting to be alone.
  Onyx floated up out of her purse, flashing waves of darkness. "Of course. It's a tough scientific problem, how to use magic to fold up. Mastermind didn't solve it either, you know. And whatever progress he made on the answer, it was destroyed along with his folding machine. I'm sure they're just busy researching the issue."
  "I don't want to lose you too. You're the only one I really have, the only person who will always stay with me. If you die. . ." Rei Rin's heart felt gripped in ice.
  "We'll know the moment the invention is made. All we have to do is keep scrying the wyrd world. If even one wyrd isn't a Dead Ender, due to our future having no future, then you saved wyrd-kind." Onyx blinked.
  "It was Shiori's idea." Rei pushed his praise away.
  "It was your ability." Onyx insisted. Rei smiled. Onyx always took her side.
  "So now that wyrds will live again, do you think the dark wyrds will give up and become good again?" Rei asked.
  "They won't believe it until they see it, which could be years from now." Onyx blinked dishearteningly. "Then again, they haven't attacked us in years. So maybe it will resolve itself peacefully."
  "Would they change their mind, if they did see a new source of magic? Would they spare the Earth? I mean, their most hated enemy did save their lives, or we're about to, anyway." Rei pointed out.
  "I don't know, Rei." Onyx said. "I think they might just hate us even more for that. They'll resent us for saving them when they couldn't save themselves. It will just become one more grievance. Killing us could be wiping out the shame of having had to rely on such a primitive backwater for advice. There will always be an excuse for dark wyrds to hate and kill humans."
  "So the fighting will never stop?" Rei asked.
  "It will stop when we neutralize the rest of the dark wyrds that got down to Earth before the spigot closed. Of course, it'll just start over again when a new faction of dark wyrds builds a new folding machine, sooner or later." Onyx flashed grimly. "Honestly, Shiori was foolish to keep us alive. We're so much stronger than you, and we can chase you across dimensions. If you had just let us die, then Angle Ark would have succeeded. Now all it takes is another group of terrorists from the etheric plane to hunt down and kill every new settlement wherever Miyamoto sets them up. We can scry out all their locations, you know, just like we scryed out Earth and folded here."
  "Don't say that. Wyrds don't deserve to die just because some of you are bad. You're a wonderful civilization. You have just as much a right to exist as we do. If we killed everyone who posed any threat to ourselves, where would that principle lead?" Rei rebuked Onyx.
  "I'm just saying mankind signed their death warrant by sparing wyrd-kind. I'm not saying there was a better solution." Onyx replied.
  "We'll see about that. I think wyrds are going to have a renaissance once we've introduced all of our ideas to them, and we'll have a renaissance once all the wyrds' ideas have been introduced to us. We'll love each other, and live together, and . . ." Rei suddenly realized where her thoughts were leading.
  "Onyx, if you could, would you marry me?" Rei Rin asked.
  "How could I?" Onyx blinked. "We took on these forms because these are the only ones your plane would support. Out of necessity."
  "But magic can do anything, can't it?" Rei pressed.
  "If we knew how to use it to do anything, maybe. If someone's magic talent down here on Earth was to use it in exactly that way, maybe. But what are the odds?" Onyx blinked rhetorically.
  "But, if you could?" Rei asked.
  "There's no point answering that since I can't." Onyx replied.
  "But, if you could?" Rei asked.
  Onyx floated silently in the air. Rei sighed, feeling a little stupid. She thought at least one person in the multiverse accepted her, thin figure and all. Stupid. Of course an alien doesn't have any interest in you romantically. They're aliens. We must look horribly ugly to them.
  "Yes." Onyx finally admitted, breaking the silence. Rei looked up, her eyes widening.
  "Really? Not just because I'm your mistress?" Rei's heart beat faster.
  "Yes, really." Onyx filled the room with darkness. "I love you. If the others asked their wyrds, they'd all say the same thing. We chose you, each of you, as our perfect soulmates. Of course we'd want to marry you, if we could. But it's impossible, so it's all just nonsense."
  "But do you think I'm attractive?" Rei immediately needed to wash away her doubts.
  "Wyrds have eyes, and ears, and touch, just like humans. But those senses are all just subsidiary. They aren't very important. True beauty. . .what really appeals to us. . .is what we see when we scry your souls. Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this, I'm giving away some trade secrets here." Onyx blinked with embarrassment.
  "Then. . .when you say we're beautiful, you really mean it? Like, 'I want you' beautiful?" Rei asked.
  "Yes and no." Onyx admitted. "We don't have. . .quite the same urgency humans tend to display. Romance is a very leisurely process for us. We can't have more kids than the number of people who die, or we'd have exhausted the amount of magic in the etheric plane in a flash. We only die to extreme old age, by accident, in war or willingly. So we gradually evolved away from constantly wanting. . .to reproduce. It was just painful, since the urge couldn't be met."
  "So you don't want me." Rei corrected her statement.
  "That's not true either." Onyx blinked in frustration. "Look, it's like this. Wyrds stopped being lustful long ago, so we lost all the instinctual triggers that would make us 'want' someone. But we still retained our capacity to appreciate beauty, and the most beautiful attribute of a person is their soul, what we see when we scry them. If someone is beautiful, you of course want to possess them, just like you'd want to possess a beautiful painting to put on your wall. So if the other wyrd lets you, you do end up possessing each other, but as a mark of. . .commitment, I guess you'd say. Ownership. Marriage. Passion doesn't come into it."
  "That isn't so distant from us. Girls, at least, have sex with boys they love because then they finally belong to us, and we to them. The act isn't as important as what it symbolizes here either." Rei Rin explained.
  "I still don't see the point of this conversation." Onyx muttered.
  "I just want someone to love me, and no boys are offering." Rei sighed. "If I could marry you, I would. You've always been there for me. You always will. Why find someone else I could never trust even half as much as you? I'd rather marry you."
  "Does that mean you find me attractive?" Onyx asked.
  "Of course I do. I'm not made of stone. It doesn't matter that you're an alien. You have a brain and a heart. You understand me and you care about me, more than a normal boy ever could. We've lived together for six years. Why can't I fall for you?"
  "Aside from the obvious?" Onyx blinked.
  "Aside from the obvious." Rei admitted. "But I'm going to work on that. And then you'd better fulfill your word."
  "Yes, mistress." Onyx replied.
  "What do you see when you scry me, anyway?" Rei asked.
  "A firefly in a jar. When you light up, you fill the jar with light, and when you quiet down, the jar returns to total darkness." Onyx answered.
  "What does it mean?" Rei asked.
  "Something beautiful." Onyx answered. He wouldn't be any clearer.
  "Rei," Shiori said, re-entering the room a bit later. She had a pinched look on her face. "I just got a phone call from Chiharu. She says Aiko had a dream, a foretelling dream or something, with her magic. It's the Dead Enders. They're back."

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