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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Choice Givers Part 2

Chapter 9

  "So why exactly isn't your little sister here?" Kotone Miyamoto asked Chiharu in exasperation.
  "She had a date tonight. It's her first date ever. But she told me everything she knew." Chiharu reassured the assembled crowd. They were all at Kotone's place again, after a quick ring of phone calls. Everyone except Isao, because that hopeless boy was somewhere on the other side of the world, no doubt risking his life and enjoying it, nevermind who worried about him back home.
  “Well if it’s her first date, it can’t be helped.” Kotone replied, mollified. First dates were important. “In that case, would you be so kind as to explain what happened?”
  “Last night Aiko had a dream, it was extremely vivid, and it makes too much sense to be just her imagination. In a sense, it was an extremely powerful form of mind reading, where she read his mind so closely she became the target’s stream of consciousness. But in another sense, it was extra-sensory-perception, where your psionic powers go out of their way to tell you things you need to know, even if you don’t know you need to know them. And in another sense, it was a foretelling, in that it was a prophecy of things to come that are of vital interest to her, and us, the dark wyrd’s greatest enemy. Or you could just call it a true dream. In folklore, all of these thought processes are related to telepathy, so we need only assume Aiko’s a telepath, not just a mind reader, and it all works out. I assume no one’s going to tell me we shouldn’t believe my little sister?”
  No one considered that an issue. She wouldn’t lie or be mistaken about something so important. The Dead Enders were back and there was no point not facing facts.
  “The dream was pretty simple. A man named Abhi Durai is an extremely intelligent Indian from a low caste whose life had been stymied by the system every step of the way. Eventually he grew sick of life as we know it and decided on a completely alien life form to replace us. His fantasy stopped at that until the dark wyrds found him, and gave him the power he needs to change his dream into a reality.” Chiharu explained.
  “Do we know if he really gained the power he needs? Maybe he got something completely unrelated, like me.” Kotone asked.
  “Logically, Aiko wouldn’t have had a prescient dream like that unless her ESP felt she needed to see it. Therefore we can assume that any time Aiko has a dream like this, the threat is real and Abhi Durai is even now working to slime the world.” Chiharu answered.
  “Slime?” Shiori laughed. Shiori tried to make a slimy face by puffing out her cheeks. “Glooooop!” She waved her arms threateningly.
  “Stop, this is serious.” Rei instinctively chided her sister, but then she started laughing too.
  “Okay, so it sounds impossible. But like I said, it must be possible or Aiko’s magic would have seen fit to ignore it. Furthermore, the dark wyrds think it has potential, or they wouldn’t have made a contract with him. Their scrying must see the end of all possibilities, just like Aiko’s dream sees the end of the world. If you think of it as an out of control biologically based nanoswarm, it’s not outside scientific parameters to turn the entire world into artificial goo.” Chiharu only allowed herself a smile.
  “So what should we do? We can’t detect one Dead Ender among the billions that inhabit India, no scrying is that accurate.” Kotone pointed out. “And until he actually invents whatever formula he needs, he won’t appear anymore dangerous than anyone else. It’s easiest to just let him find us, like before.”
  “That won’t work this time. The dark wyrds have learned from their mistakes. They aren’t going to attack us anymore. Aiko’s dream had no indication of that.” Chiharu said.
  “But Magnolia said that so long as we lived, the Dead Enders couldn’t determine the future, so they have to come after us.” Shiori objected.
  “And they will kill us -- at the same time as they kill everyone else. It’s actually quite elegant.” Chiharu pointed out admiringly. “Why fight us when you can create a situation wherein we’re bound to die, all from the safety of your own home? There can’t be many more dark wyrds left, so they’re trying something new. The best threats to end the world possible, conducted in utter secrecy, and only revealed when it’s too late for us to do anything to stop them.”
  “But they didn’t foresee Aiko.” Kotone breathed. Chiharu was right. They were up against a different breed of enemies this time, far more terrifying than the last.
  Chiharu nodded. “No one could have foreseen Aiko. A source of information even better than scrying. Not only is she aware of the threats before they happen, but she has a telepathic link with the targets she dreams of. She can lead us right to him, because she knows everything about him, as though she were him, whenever she wants to be. Which means we have to take Aiko with us to India.”
  “So it’s preemptive war, huh?” Kotone sighed. The logic was impeccable. They couldn’t wait until he invented the slime before they punished him for trying, by then it would be too late for the world. But it still felt strange for their group to go around aggressively attacking Dead Enders instead of the other way around.
  “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.” Chiharu offered. “If it’s just one Dead Ender, he shouldn’t be a problem for, well, me alone. His magic probably has no use in combat either. Their only weapon was their secrecy. With Aiko, that weapon is gone, and they’re at our mercy. Hopefully all the remaining dark wyrds form contracts like Abhi Durai’s, so we can finally cleanse the world of them. This is more an opportunity than a problem.”
  “No, if it’s the world coming to an end, no matter how easy it sounds, we have to do everything we can to stop it. I’m coming too.” Kotone Miyamoto insisted.
  “Me too.” Shiori Rin said.
  “Me too.” Rei Rin followed.
  “I’m coming too.” Masanori Miyamoto stated.
  “I don’t think you should come, Masanori.” Chiharu said. “You’re more valuable than the entire world put together. The fate of dozens of universes relies on Angle Ark, and we haven’t sent even a single group through yet. You should be expediting their evacuation in case we fail. Angle Ark is all the more important now. And what if, by a freak chance, you die? All our dreams for the future will amount to nothing.”
  “If you think I’m letting you girls fight while I stand aside in the safety of the rear, forget it.” Masanori brushed Chiharu’s objections aside.
  “But if you think about it logically -- ” Chiharu tried again.
  “I won’t. If you want Angle Ark to succeed, then you’ll just have to keep me safe, just like I intend to keep you safe, just like I intend to keep my wife safe. Without me, you would have died last time and I’m sure you would mess it up and die this time too. Then what? How could I find these Dead Enders again with Aiko gone? How could we have forewarning again if Aiko dies? I need to be there. I’m strong. I could be the difference.” Masanori asserted.
  “It isn’t about strength or lack thereof, its about indispensability.” Chiharu replied calmly, ignoring that she was interrupted.
  “It’s hopeless, Chiharu. You won’t change his mind. He’s very protective.” Kotone smiled warmly because she loved that about her husband. Even if Chiharu was right, Masanori could never accept logic that meant she would fight without him.
  “Fine. So we’re all going on a trip to hunt Dead Enders together. The poor fools won’t know what hit them. The only remaining question is how we fit this into our schedules. Kotone, you’ll let us use your company’s private jet, right?”
  “Of course.” Kotone agreed, smiling. Money was so very useful.
  “It will be tough to get my parents to agree to letting Aiko miss school without explaining that we’re saving the world. So I hoped we could make these missions fall on weekends only.” Chiharu said.
  “That’s a good idea. We can’t miss our college classes either.” Rei Rin agreed. If she missed any classes, she’d never catch up. She wasn’t smart enough to catch up.
  “Did Aiko say we had to act now?” Shiori asked Chiharu.
  “No, however the ESP works, it didn’t leave an impression on her that the threat was grave and immediate. Just that it was real.” Chiharu replied.
  “Then let’s trust Aiko on this. I know you can’t afford to disrupt your college courses either.” Shiori courteously took Chiharu’s wishes in mind, because Chiharu wasn’t impolite enough to mention them herself.
  “So, every Saturday when Aiko gets out of class, we board our jet and go on an adventure. Finish it in a day, then fly back on Sunday. I’ll tell my parents that we’re taking Aiko on an educational tour of the world, with all of our newfound money. They shouldn’t mind if it’s just for the weekends.” Chiharu said.
  “Who’s Aiko’s date? Are they going steady? Is he cute?” Kotone asked, now that the immediate problem was solved.
  “Ask her that next week on the plane.” Chiharu smiled. “All of you should get to know her now. She’s our comrade in this, our second wyrd war. I’m so proud of her right now. I had no idea she’d come this far this fast.”
  “Has anyone tried to call Isao?” Kotone asked.
  “I tried, but it was off like usual.” Chiharu shrugged.
  “His suit can’t conceal anything but himself and his suit, so he folds out his cell phone while he’s working. Which is always.” Kotone pouted with bad memories.
  “That boy works too hard.” Shiori complained.
  “What can we do? Scrying says he’s doing the right thing.” Masanori pointed out. “It’s hard to criticize a Choice Giver’s choices.”
  “Well I’m going to criticize them.” Shiori decided. “Kotone, when is Isao coming home?”
  “I’d guess this summer. For, well, you know.” Kotone became sad just thinking about it.
  “The anniversary of his friends.” Shiori thought aloud.
  “No matter how much he cares about his work, he wouldn’t miss visiting their graves. Not Isao.” Kotone said confidently. “But it’s okay, we can do this without him. Like Chiharu pointed out, we’re going to take these Dead Enders by storm, Isao or not.”
  Kotone put her hand out in front of the table. “Magical Girl Kotone, returning to duty!”
  “Shiori Rin, back in action.” Shiori smiled and put her hand on top of Kotone’s.
  “Masanori Miyamoto, reporting.” Masanori put his hand in the circle.
  “Chiharu Sakai, and in absentia, Aiko Sakai, weekend warriors.” Chiharu grinned, putting her hand in the circle.
  “Rei Rin, volunteering for another round.” Rei put her hand on top.
  “Alright. We need a name for our team. Quick.” Kotone told the crowd.
  “Choice Givers?” Shiori offered.
  "But Aiko and Rei aren't even -- " Chiharu began.
  “Good. We’re going with that.” Kotone agreed with Shiori immediately. “On three, everyone shout: “Choice Givers, victory!”
  “One, Two, Three -- Choice Givers, victory!” Kotone shot up her arm, and the group of friends shouted in unison. The world was at stake, but it was so fun to be back with her friends again. All in all, she considered the situation a plus. There was no need to mention the news she had this morning. If she had told everyone she was pregnant, they definitely would have kept her out of the fighting. But her baby was just as much at risk being turned to slime because she wasn't fighting as being killed in battle because she was fighting, and Kotone hated living life as a mere spectator. The future belonged to her, now. It belonged to her baby. She wasn’t going to let Abhi Durai have it.
* * *
  Kip Miles watched Ms. Hunter enter the classroom with only mild curiosity. Even though he looked perfectly average in the mirror, with brown skin, brown eyes and black hair, it was a dirty family secret that he was far too intelligent. He learned things faster than his classmates in school, enjoyed reading complicated books from old, far too sophisticated authors, and made startling connections between what looked like to his parents completely unrelated things. They were all the symptoms of that peculiar mental illness, the egghead complex, that could get anyone excoriated by the public and virtually unemployable if corporations ever found out. His mother had once begged him to be just a bit dumber, and offered him an endless supply of pot to smoke. Pot was good at reducing intelligence, which in his case would be medically beneficial. But Kip had refused. He hated the smell of pot, and it made his eyes water even when others smoked it in the same room. He couldn't imagine smoking the awful things every day for the rest of his life. But he had to admit his intelligence was a major disability. While everyone else had made plenty of friends, started sleeping around regularly with each other, and genuinely enjoyed the challenge of the course work they were given in school, Kip found everyone and everything tedious. He was sixteen years old, and algebra just wasn't enough. Nor was learning yet again that Columbus was the most evil man who ever lived, except for Hitler, who was even more evil, every year in history. "Many millions of innocent people died because of Hitler and Christopher Columbus. Therefore, everything they believed were the worst possible beliefs, precisely because they believed them. Case closed." Kip was fine with hating Columbus and Hitler alongside everyone else. He deplored the deaths of millions like anyone else. But he wished he could learn something, anything else during a new school year. He had understood Columbus and Hitler were evil by age five, and he really hadn't needed any further proof of the issue since then. As for algebra, he had mastered that by age ten. Intelligence really was a curse. He counted the minutes until he could escape school every day, while everyone else giggled and made out in the hallways between class. The world of dumb people was just so much happier.
  "Today I have an announcement," the immaculately dressed Ms. Hunter stood before her podium, adjusting her glasses and taking out her written down speech to read from. Kip slouched back in his chair, putting his feet into the cage that held textbooks in the chair in front of him, and waited. It would probably be something about a field trip to a farm where they could watch 'life in the real world,' and people who did what 'really mattered.' Schools loved mocking any intellectual pursuits, making sure everyone knew that farming was good enough for anyone. It was arrogant to consider anything more valuable than food. And arrogance was the worst crime of all. Kip had no reason to argue with the school about it, obviously food mattered more than anything else, and thus farmers were the most valuable workers imaginable. It was just so boring to literally watch plants grow. Field trips were the worst. Most of the other students paired off and sneaked into the woods. But Kip, even at sixteen, was still a virgin. He hated field trips.
  "Due to certain uncivil reactionary retrogrades in our community, the government has been forced to take further action in the interests of world peace and equality. Henceforth all marriages will be arranged by the state, serving the public interest. No longer will individuals be allowed to flaunt their arrogant selfishness by refusing to fit in with the system, which is the only hope of producing a truly just and harmonious world. There is only one race, the human race, and it is time certain recalcitrants learned this fact once and for all.” Ms. Hunter gave a polite cough, staring daggers at the girl in the back row, who spent every day looking out the window, her fist under her chin, with a cold, distant aura that kept everyone from talking to her. Unprecedentedly, she had refused every single boy’s offer of no-fault sex. Kip blushed to remember those cold, despising eyes narrow as she had rejected him. It wasn’t considered polite for a girl to turn down a boy’s offer, because it made a girl sound arrogant, like she was too good to make love with just anyone. Most girls would rather die than be considered arrogant. But Autumn was shameless. She didn’t care what people thought. That was only half the problem.
  The other half was the color of her eyes. They were blue. Blue eyes at this day and age were impossible. But there she sat. She had blue eyes, an impossibility after centuries of indiscriminate racial mixing. She had blonde hair, another impossibility after centuries of indiscriminate racial mixing. And she had alabaster skin, a third impossibility after centuries of indiscriminate racial mixing. She was a child of impossibility. A child of those people. Racists who thought their physical features were better than anyone else’s. And even though it wasn’t fair to condemn children for the sins of their parents, she didn’t even have the common courtesy to get a deep tan from the freely available public tanning booths, that could have made her skin at least halfway decent. She could have dyed her hair a proper black, like everyone else’s. She could have worn contacts. But instead she sat, her long blonde hair cascading down her neck and over her shoulders, her fair skin so clear veins were visible snaking through her arms, and her bright blue eyes glowing with scornful defiance, like a raptor searching for prey, refusing to look away from anyone who tried to confront her. Maybe her parents made her keep the looks she was born with. In that case, what choice did she have? Autumn Brewnell wasn’t necessarily a racist. She could hate her own body and be the first victim of her parent’s reactionary primitiveness, but be unable to escape their parental authority when it came to her appearance. Kip wanted to think the best of her, so long as he could.
  This was because, no matter how much Kip internally condemned her, he was fascinated by the girl in the back row. Autumn rarely spoke. When groups of students gathered to pull her hair and mock her for being arrogant, racist, eggheaded and the product of incest, the only possible way she could still have fair skin and blue eyes, she never replied. She just stared at her classmates with a bored detachment, waiting for the litany of insults to end. She had cried out in pain when one particularly resentful girl had torn out a lock of her hair. But then she had recovered, simply staring at the girl, as if to ask whether she was now satisfied. That translucent porcelain face, that practically revealed her bones underneath, never, ever revealed what she truly thought or felt. Kip wanted to know the answer to that one mystery more than anything else in his life. She was the single not boring entity in school. The single not boring existence he had ever come across in his life. Therefore, so long as Kip could find an excuse for her, he would forgive Autumn Brewnell anything. Even that she turned him down. Even that she turned him down knowing he hadn’t asked anyone else in class -- an honor any other girl should have, would have fallen for. Instincts were instincts after all. Even if no one wanted to be thought of as special, every girl wanted to be considered special by their lover. It was one of the only chances to be unique in life. Kip was sure it would work, that he would succeed where the others had failed. But she had seemed even angrier and more contemptuous of him than anyone else. Like he had disappointed her. Why? He never insulted her or pulled any pranks on her. He didn’t hold her parents’ racism against her and treat her unfairly for sins she never did. It wasn’t fair.
  “Furthermore, there are disturbing reports of eggheads who cling to their intelligence as a sign of superiority over their brethren. This dangerous activity must be eliminated once and for all. Everyone knows intelligent people are pied pipers, who use their forked tongues to convince real people who do real things and stick to solid, common sense all sorts of heresies and scandalous falsehoods. Recently, an egghead was overheard to say that “all things weren’t equal, take for instance bugs and people, surely we could admit one was better than the other.” The class gasped. Better was a forbidden word. A vulgar word. A word that meant you could never be employed for life. Better was like the other word. That word couldn’t even be thought, much less spoken. Kip didn’t let his mind dwell on it too long.
  “It would be fine if these reactionaries were simply wrong, a tolerant society can allow some measure of foolishness. But they insist on marrying only other intelligent people like themselves, no matter how high we raise the financial penalties and taxes on these families. Even forcing these families to wear blue ovals at all times to let people know they were eggheads who wouldn’t mix with the rest of us hasn’t been enough to deter their deviancy. And using this intelligence, they insist on persuading others, through their sneaky fraudulent tactics they call logic and reason, when everyone knows common sense is the only proper method of argument, to join in their deviancy. This destabilizing force has to end, or the world will never be able to fully embrace the joys of normalcy.” Ms. Hunter took a drink of water and then continued.
  “It was the wisdom of our forefathers to realize equality could only ever be realized in a world where marriage served the public interest, and was no longer bound to the chains of private prejudice. For centuries we have tried to use subsidies, awards, persuasion, fines, any voluntary measure we could think of to bring our last vestige of retrogades into the light of day, to banish their awful arrogance and allow them back into human fellowship. We regret to say that they have refused all of our advances, all of our offers, and like cave men insist on living in the past. Well the past is past. Since voluntary measures aren’t enough, and since world peace must happen, and peace will never happen until humans have full and mutual respect for one another, and respect is best proven by mixing of the genes, the only way we can be sure people honestly respect their fellow man, whoever he or she might be, as an equally worthy half of their children’s DNA, the world government has enacted a new law: The Defense of Equality Act. Until every last retrograde has been mixed and remixed, until every last holdout in our society has been blended into a perfect mediocrity, marriage will no longer be subject to choice. Henceforth, everyone’s partners in life will be decided by lottery, the only objective manner of choosing. The future belongs to fairness, not discrimination, and we will take whatever measures are necessary to combat this social poison, this cancer in our midst.” Ms. Hunter finished her speech.
  “By lottery?” Julie, a girl in the first row gasped. “But I love Jack. We’d already agreed to marry at eighteen!”
  “Don’t blame the government, Julie.” Ms. Hunter said compassionately. “These sorts of freedoms were preserved for centuries, in the hopes the government could peacefully integrate society. They were only forced to this extreme because of certain people. I think you know who is to blame, Julie. I think everyone here knows who is to blame forforcing the government to this extreme.”
  The entire class turned to look at blonde haired, blue eyed, white skinned Autumn Brewnell. Julie Lasquelle had a face contorted with hatred. She knew full well who was to blame.
  “Freedom must be practiced with responsibility. When children do not show enough responsibility to be trusted to do what is right, their freedom must be taken away, and measures have to be enforced directly. Because of certain people who didn‘t treat their freedom responsibly, we must all lose our freedom. No, the government can’t be blamed when selfish people go their own way. This is all the fault of the retrogrades. Everything has been the fault of the discriminators since the dawn of history. Isn’t that right, class?”
  “Yes, Ms. Hunter.” Kip quickly agreed with everyone else. Everyone but Autumn Brewnell, whose nose was flaring, her eyes narrowed, her forehead wrinkled, and her hands balled into fists. Kip stared at her in amazement. She had always agreed in the past. You had to agree with the teacher every time she pointed that out. It was detention otherwise. Detention, and a mark on your permanent record. What was Autumn doing? Kip silently willed her to speak up, quickly, and save herself.
  “Isn’t that right, Ms. Brewnell?” Ms. Hunter asked insipidly, a delighted smile breaking out on her face. Finally, finally, divine justice was being visited on this holier-than-thou-trollop. Finally Ms. Brewnell was cracking.
  Autumn shot up from her chair, pushing her desk forward in her haste. Her hair flashed behind her in a sinuous wave back and forth. Kip could see her pulse in her throat. Impossibly, her face became a shade of scarlet, as if her skin were that of a chameleon’s instead of a human’s decent brown. Autumn put both of her fists on her desk, leaning forward with a look of pure hatred at her teacher. The arc her back made was like a snake in motion.
  “I will never marry against my will.” Autumn Brewnell said, her voice shaking with emotions Kip couldn’t begin to fathom. “This means war.”
  Kip didn’t know what he was looking at anymore. This girl with hair of molten sunlight, this falcon who flew just by standing, was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. She stood like a queen commanding armies, defying her teacher, the class, the law, the world, and everyone’s opinions of her, a living testament to her hatred of the system. And with her invisible legions, queen of her invisible kingdom, she had just declared war on the rest of mankind. Impossible. Is she insane? How could a lone individual declare war? She was going to get arrested!
  “Now you’ve said it, Ms. Brewnell.” Ms. Hunter cackled and clapped in triumphant glee. “I knew you were a racist like your filthy parents, but I never thought you’d name yourself a terrorist. You must know all conversations in the classroom are recorded. I’m afraid this is the end for you.” Ms. Hunter hit a button, connecting her to the principal’s office.
  “Hello, this is Ms. Hunter, from class 2-b. I’m afraid we have a disciplinary problem. Would you mind summoning the security staff?” The security staff patrolled every modern school, police with full powers, after the incidents of schoolyard fights had markedly increased over the decades. As people became more normal and average, schools had become increasingly impossible to administer, until the new disciplinary measures had been put in place. Now everyone knew to toe the line, or else. The chaos of the past was long past.
  “Say you didn’t mean it.” Graham Momba suggested to Autumn, suddenly. “Apologize, quickly! You’re just overwrought. No one’s blaming you. Please just say you were joking and didn’t mean it.” Kip’s hopes soared. Way to go, Graham! Why didn’t I think of that?
  Autumn Brewnell just turned her icy blue eyes to Graham and stared. Eventually Graham’s hopeful face melted into consternation, and then his eyes slinked away from her. Stupid girl! Just because we all know you meant it doesn’t mean you can’t apologize! It’s all right to pretend to believe things you don’t for the sake of social harmony! He was only trying to help! This is why no one likes you!
  “I’m afraid Ms. Brewnell is an unsalvageable retrograde, Mr. Momba. There’s no point wasting any pity on her. Trash like her are the cause of everything wrong with this world, aren’t they, class?” Ms. Hunter grinned triumphantly at her helpless student.
  “Yes, Ms. Hunter.” Kip immediately replied alongside the rest of the class, feeling sick to his stomach. You had to answer yes to that question. It went on your permanent record.
  Cops started pouring into the classroom. Ms. Hunter pointed at her quarry and the men leaped at Autumn. She made no move to resist, but they tackled her to the ground anyway, holding her arms so she couldn’t brace her fall. Autumn let out a squeal of pain, and a brief look of panic surrounded her face before she could mask it again with her traditional scornful defiance. They tied her wrists together behind her back, yanked her neck by pulling the back of her hair, and with coarse laughter at the bruises appearing so well against her pale skin pushed her out the classroom door.
  Kip Miles realized he was never going to see Autumn again.
* * *
  “This. . .” Kioshi Nishimura gulped, breaking away from the printout. “This is good. I had no idea you could write like this, not from your description. I thought it would be, more. . .well, debatey.”
  Aiko’s heart fluttered in her chest. She couldn’t handle her nervousness. It was bad enough to be alone in the same room as her boyfriend with the door closed on her first date. He was reading her book, her first attempt at a book, and judging her by it, too. And worse, she was judging him by his reaction to the book just as much. The world felt like it hung on a tightrope. If she even breathed she would fall to her doom.
  “I don’t think debatey is a word.” Aiko tried unsuccessfully to keep her voice normal.
  “Well, it should be. Anyway, you understood what I meant.” Kioshi shrugged.
  “Yes but you’ll sound stupid if you use nonexistent words.” Aiko Sakai rolled over from her back to her belly, changing her view from the ceiling to Kioshi’s face. She had lain still in bed, not making a sound, not stirring an inch, as he read. She didn’t want anything to disrupt or distract him. But now she needed to see his eyes. It was important.
  “I thought intelligence wasn’t a big deal?” Kioshi reminded Aiko, raising an eyebrow.
  “I. . .” Aiko pouted, not knowing what to say. “Anyway, keep reading!”
  “I can’t. I’m in sensory shock. These pages are riveting enough already.” Kioshi pushed the pages away.
  “Is that bad or good?” Aiko pleaded. She tried to read his mind but all she got was how much he enjoyed looking at her laying on the bed facing him with her legs up and her skirt dangerously high. Boys!
  “It’s good. It’s really good. I love your description of the girl from the boy’s point of view. I know exactly how he feels. Girls have no idea what they look like to us. Well, except you get it. Girls aren’t even human. They’re forces of nature. They’re tempests of elemental beauty. I don’t know how you captured that. But you did. I have such a clear image of Autumn in my head.” Kioshi said.
  “I don’t care about my imagery! The moral message! What about the moral message!” Aiko’s relationship was dependent upon how much Kioshi liked her. Her values. Her beliefs. Not her talent or skill. Evil people could have talent and skill too.
  “Obviously, marriage by lottery is taking non-discrimination too far.” Kioshi raised his arms palms outward in self defense.
  “But don’t you see how inevitably we must arrive at that state, so long as we consider non-discrimination, anti-racism, tolerance, harmony, or whatever our highest virtue?” Aiko demanded.
  “If it’s emphasized too much, of course. But you could say that of any virtue. You can take anything too far.” Kioshi said.
  “That’s not true.” Aiko said, authoritatively. “Some things can never be taken far enough.”
  “Oh? Like what?” Kioshi challenged Aiko disbelievingly.
  “The moral absolutes. Love, Beauty, and Truth.” Aiko recited her lesson from Chiharu.
  “You can abuse those virtues too.” Kioshi said.
  “How?” Aiko dared him.
  “I could love someone so much I neglected the rights of others.” Kioshi suggested.
  “A) That’s not even wrong. We can’t care about everyone equally. It’s enough to love the people around you, who are the people who need your love most, and the only people you interact with anyway. B) True love isn’t just romance. It’s affirmation of the whole world and everyone in it. It’s not just love, it’s Love. Surely you know the difference.” Aiko replied crisply.
  “Okay, well the Truth can hurt people’s feelings.” Kioshi switched targets.
  “It can. But if it’s True, it also sets you free. Isn’t that a price worth paying?” Aiko replied. She knew how precious the Truth was. It had changed her entire life, and all for the better. She’d accept any pain to keep on learning from that well.
  “Beauty can manipulate people into wrongdoing.” Kioshi tried again.
  “Beauty isn’t to blame for people’s desires, or their actions. Beauty is beautiful.” Aiko replied.
  “You’re dodging the issues.” Kioshi accused Aiko.
  “No, I’m really not. If you look carefully, with unclouded eyes. Truly, really, search your heart -- Is Love, Beauty, or Truth ever evil? Ever? Is there ever too much Love, Beauty, or Truth in the world? I believe there isn’t, with all my heart. I want there to be more, and more, and more. I’m not dodging your accusations, I’m just saying they aren’t valid. Love, Beauty, and Truth aren’t to blame for anything humans do wrong. It’s only when we aren’t loving enough, perspicuous enough, admiring enough, that things go wrong. You must see that. When have you wanted to not understand something? When have you wanted to not appreciate something? When have you wanted to not be cared about? Have you ever once thought there was too much love in your life? Once?” Aiko raised her voice to its highest note on that last word.
  “I. . .fine. So maybe there are some virtues less abusable than nondiscrimination.” Kioshi sighed.
  Aiko smiled happily, relief seeping through her nerves. “Then why not judge people by those virtues and no others? The ones you can count on? The eternal virtues that matter the most? Why not judge everyone by them, and not useless side questions like nondiscrimination, which evil people can easily do, and good people can easily not do? Don’t you see? It’s a revolution against true virtue, to put any other virtue but the moral absolutes at the crown of Olympus! It’s killing the world, like a parasitic vine choking the lifeblood of the world tree. Humans want to be virtuous, they want to be good, but they can only try so hard in any one direction. The more you tell them good is nondiscrimination, the less you can tell them good is Love, Beauty, and Truth. The more you tell them to be tolerant, the less you can tell them to be compassionate, honorable, noble, courageous, dignified or ebullient. You only get so many morality points. Why not stress the only virtues that matter? It has to be love, beauty, and truth. Nothing else survives.”
  “So you want people to be judged by how loving, perspicuous, and admiring they are -- and nothing else?” Kioshi asked.
  “Nothing else that conflicts with those three. It’s fine to judge people by anything, even how good they are at checkers, but you can’t lose sight of what’s important. Most of all, you can’t sacrifice what’s important to what isn’t. You can’t make the unimportant important. And you can’t make the important unimportant. According to Aristotle, that’s man’s greatest sin -- calling good evil and evil good. It’s worse than any other sin, it’s worse than rape and murder -- because the consequences are longer lasting and far more catastrophic.” Aiko said.
  “Wait, so you’ve read Aristotle too?” Kioshi asked, his eyebrows lifting.
  “Of course. How can you read Plato without reading Aristotle?” Aiko asked, puzzled.
  “Normally a girl would ask how anyone could read either!” Kioshi moaned. “What have I gotten myself into?”
  “If you praise me a little more, I’d imagine a kiss.” Aiko blushed. After all she had told Saki. But she couldn’t keep her excitement down. It was her first date. And Kioshi liked Changeling. Compared to that, a kiss was nothing. She was ready to give him her firstborn.

Chapter 10

  "I'm home." Chiharu announced, tiredly pulling off her shoes and taking off her coat and scarf. Winter still clung to the land, even though the land had long since gotten tired of winter. It was most definitely an abusive relationship. Sort of like the Miyamotos teaming up to not let her finish a single sentence all night. Chiharu sighed. If only everyone were as rational as she was, life would be so much simpler.
  "Welcome home," Saki replied from the living room. Chiharu put on her indoor slippers and walked to her youngest sister. Saki was lying sideways on the couch, in a cute green shirt and white skirt, idly watching a drama show about doctors.
  "Is Aiko still upstairs with her date?" Chiharu asked her youngest sister.
  "No, he's already left. Aiko's in the bath. Want me to tell her to get out?" Saki asked.
  "I bathed at Kotone's. Her hot springs can't be missed. I just need to talk to her before she goes to bed." Chiharu explained.
  "Hmmm? You two talk a lot now." Saki's voice seemed disinterested, but her eyes were watching Chiharu very closely.
  "I'm thinking of taking her on a trip with my friends. To Europe, America, everywhere really. We're going to use Kotone's private jet." Chiharu explained innocently.
  "Seriously? In the middle of the school year?" Saki's eyes widened. "What about college?"
  "Don't worry, we're only spending the weekends abroad. Actually the trips will be 90% flying. Stupid, huh? But this is the only opportunity Kotone had." Chiharu lied smoothly.
  "Take me with you." Saki sat up from the couch, ignoring the TV, her eyebrows lifting into perfect puppy dog eyes.
  "Maybe when you're older." Chiharu smiled. The rest of her friends were certain she was forming her own private army of wyrd contracted Sakais, and they would get another wyrd once Shiori's upward folding plan succeeded. It would be a shame to break the symmetry by not completing the Sakai cycle now. But before Saki could be entrusted with anything like that, she would have to become a much better person. Hopes and expectations were two different things.
  "No fair." Saki flounced. "Aiko gets everything."
  "Hey, I don't have a boyfriend either." Chiharu smiled, pinching Saki's cheek.
  "Stop it, you bully." Saki complained.
  "That's right, I'm a bully. So watch out!" Chiharu smiled but let go. Saki rubbed her cheek, but Chiharu thought she was hiding a smile too. It was a ritual they had repeated many times over the years.
  "What do you know about their date?" Chiharu sat down on the couch next to Saki and whispered conspiratorially.
  "Kioshi, that's his name," Saki paused a moment to impart that vital detail, "was blushing furiously by the time he left. Sister was too. They kept bowing to each other at the doorway."
  "Suspicious." Chiharu nodded sagely.
  "I know! After she said they weren't even going to kiss. They probably -- mmfff." Saki's next words were cut off by Chiharu's hand over her mouth.
  "Now now, ten year olds have no idea what a boy and a girl could probably do beyond kissing. And you know Aiko better than that." Chiharu admonished.
  "I do too know." Saki fought Chiharu's hand off her mouth. "Honestly. I watch TV." Saki gestured at the doctor drama, which really explained all that was necessary.
  "Yes, but cute girls pretend they don't." Chiharu remonstrated.
  "I don't need to be cute in front of my sister." Saki punched Chiharu in the thigh.
  "But you do need to be fair." Chiharu said.
  "I know. I know she wouldn't. I just. . .nevermind. I left the room ahead of time so that they could be together. I hope it works out for her, I really do. I just hate being reminded every day what she can do and I can't."
  "Just by looking at her body?" Chiharu guessed. Saki nodded, pushing back the tears.
  "You're going to be happy someday, Saki. I promise." Chiharu had two hundred million yen set aside for her to make that happen. "Just hang in there. It gets better."
  "I read her book." Saki switched gears, too embarrassed to talk about herself anymore. "I was the first."
  "Oh? She must have trusted you a lot then." Chiharu was surprised. Aiko was writing a book? I thought she only enjoyed reading them.
  "Of course. We're roommates, after all." Saki tried to wipe away the proud grin on her face and act cool, detached, indifferent and natural.
  "Practically lovers." Chiharu teased.
  "Moohh. Don't say weird things." Saki stiffly turned her attention away from her older sister to watch the television.
  "Was the book any good?" Chiharu prompted her little sister, genuinely curious. Oh no. Please don't tell me she just wrote a book about us, wyrds, magic, and what really happened six years ago. If she wrote it all down and passed it off as fiction to Saki I'm going to kill her.
  "It was amazing. Especially when Autumn used her telekinesis to take out like a hundred guards." Saki's voice lifted and her eyes twinkled, remembering the scene.
  Chiharu's tension emptied out of her. Okay, so Aiko wasn't a complete idiot. "Wait, start at the beginning!" Chiharu complained. "Who's Autumn?"
  "She's. . .well, she's Autumn. Just read it yourself." Saki held up her hands and shrugged.
  "Maybe on the plane." Chiharu mused, watching the doctors trade witty lines while saving indescribably injured and diseased patients.
  "Take me with you." Saki asked again.
  "No." Chiharu replied.
  "Bully." Saki said.
  "That's right, I'm a bully. So watch out." Chiharu replied. The two sat on the couch together, watching in silence, their thighs touching. Neither moved away until the end of the show.
* * *
  Aiko Sakai carefully picked her way through her dark room and started to undress back down to just her Bubbles-wrap.
  "Is that you, sister?" Saki's voice floated across the room in a whisper.
  "Yes, sorry to wake you."
  "I wasn't asleep yet." Saki reassured Aiko, though her voice did sound really sleepy. "Are you going? On the world tour?"
  "Yes. Father said okay." Aiko yawned and slipped into bed, finding the covers and then pulling them over her. It was still cold outside and the extra comforter was a necessity.
  "Will you buy me souvenirs?" Saki begged.
  "I don't know. If I have time." Aiko replied.
  "What was it like?" Saki asked, even more quietly.
  "The date? I don't know. I was so nervous I never had a chance to just enjoy myself." Aiko replied.
  You know what I mean. I guess she won't tell me though. All that stuff this morning sure didn't last long, Saki thought grumpily.
  Aiko took a deep breath. "The kiss was warm, and wet, and it set my heart racing. I was terrified he would try for more, but I also wished he would, which was even more terrifying."
  "Is it. . .I mean. . .as perfect as it looks on TV?" Saki asked, amazed that Aiko had suddenly opened up again.
  "It's even better. It leaves you tingling everywhere, and breathless, but somehow more full of life than ever before. Kissing is. . .it's wonderful. I'm so grateful I found a boy I could trust enough to. . .share my first experience of that with. Someone who won't let it go to waste. I can still feel him on my lips now." Aiko gushed.
  "Are you going to go further?" Saki asked.
  "No. I hope not. Not if I can help it." Aiko replied.
  "Even though it feels so good?" Saki whispered.
  "Because it feels so good. Something like that. Saki. It's powerful. It's too powerful. It. . .it would change my life forever. Forever. I would never recover if anything went wrong. Before I feel something like that, I need to know I won't lose it, or him, ever. Ever." Aiko's second ever was more determined than the first.
  "But what if you can't help it?" Saki whispered, worried.
  "I don't know." Aiko confessed.
  "Thank you for telling me the truth. For. . .the entire day. I love you, Aiko." Saki said, content.
  "I love you too, Saki." Aiko replied, smiling, even though the darkness hid their faces.
  There was a long pause where both drifted towards sleep, then Saki suddenly said, "Autumn's awesome."
  "Isn't she?" Aiko smiled even more. Then there was another long silent pause between them.
  "Goodnight, sister." Saki surrendered to the night.
  "Goodnight, sister." Aiko replied. I'll protect you. She swore to herself. And then she was dreaming.
* * *
  Aiko was Cho Kai. He was the most prestigious scientist at Seoul National University, renowned for his work on stem cells all across the world. The president had once described him as a national treasure. His research had been turned into five different spin-off companies. But no one understood. As of yet, he didn't understand a thing. He hadn't succeeded, he had failed. All his life he had failed to reach the central truths of this universe: How did life begin? How did it evolve from simple unicellular organisms to the complex organs and capabilities it has today? Was there life on other planets? Was it sentient, like life on Earth? How intelligent were animals? What was the source of human intelligence? What, exactly, made the human brain so smart, and why were some people so much more intelligent than others? Was sentience an inevitability wherever life emerged, or was it a rare or singular exception? Was it possible to fully recreate the human mind, in an immortal digital form, using binary logic? Or were there quantum levels of intelligence no computer could currently emulate? Was there an intelligent soul that couldn't be emulated by any material construct?
  What was dark matter? What was dark energy? Why was the universe the way it was? Where did its laws of physics come from? Why were they suited to life? Is this the only universe, or were there others? Did parallel universes interact with each other, or were they forever untouchable? Did time travel exist? Did wormholes exist? Could the speed of light barrier be overcome? How did particles entangle themselves and coordinate states instantaneously across space? Did this universe have a beginning and an end, or was it an eternal cycle? If it did have an end, was that the end of everything, or was there a supernatural plane that picked up where the material plane left off? Was consciousness transmittable between new stages of existence? Could reincarnation fundamentally preserve a person's personality and character, only switching out minor differences between lives? Or did people just die when they died?
  Was the universe chaotic or determined? Flat or curved? Did time truly exist or was it just a perceptual illusion? How many dimensions did the universe really have? Was it eleven, ten, four, three, or two? Was the fundamental quanta of the universe energy, information, mass, or something else? Was the universe really quantized? What was the smallest particle? How many particles were there? A set number? Or infinite variations at higher and higher energy levels? Did humans have free will? Was there a God? If there was, why hadn't he shown himself? Was there a meaning to the universe, or did humans have to make one up on their own? If it was made up, did that make it any less real? Did people have the right to impose made-up meanings to the universe on others, or were all possible interpretations equal, because all of them were equally false? How could Einstein's theory of relativity be made to fit with the findings of quantum mechanics? What was the theory of everything?
  He was dabbling in a kiddy pool while the entire ocean waited, just outside his reach. It was maddening. Cho Kai had realized by age thirty, still single and still studying how to coax cells into specializing into the types he wanted, that he would never know. The answer to anything. The answer to any of it. He had been born too soon. He would die before the great mysteries were solved. No matter how frantically he studied the questions, there wasn't the time or the resources to come to a definitive conclusion. Everything that was worth knowing. Everything that needed to be known, to make this world intelligible, was unknown and unknowable. It was maddening. Everything he knew, everything in his head, was false. Every single fact he thought he knew, was an inaccurate picture of the world, destined to be obsoleted by future scientists, just like the theory of aether in space, and the illusory phlogistan that transmitted heat. He had studied, and experimented, and won awards, for nothing. For a bucketful of pig's slop, that was neither true nor important in any way. Cho Kai could care less if he saved lives. Scientifically, the value of life hadn't even been proven yet. If there were infinite universes with life forms far surpassing mankind, it was a joke to even concern himself with the fleshbags of this world. Not only would there be infinite happiness felt by infinite beings all across the multiverse, there would be infinite suffering felt by infinite beings all across the multiverse. Once you were dealing with infinites, it was comical to bother adding or subtracting to the balance sheets on this lone world. Worse, if the theory of parallel universes was true, any action he took would not actually improve the situation, it would simply split off his universe from his other self who didn't act. Ie, every good deed he did had a corresponding alternate universe where he instead did a bad deed. Conversely, every time he chose to do something bad, an alternate universe where he instead chose to be good broke off from this universe and went its own separate way. Since all possibilities were accounted for by an infinitude of equally true timelines all playing out in their own untouchable separate spheres, itdidn't matter what he did. It all balanced out. If he chose the worst possible route for his life, he was just doing all his alternate selves a favor, by soaking up that possibility for the team. His other possible selves could go about taking the best possible route without him, and it would all balance out. If the multiple worlds theory was true, all actions were equally valid and equally meaningless. But since he didn't know if the multiple worlds theory was true, he couldn't becertain there was no point to life. God didn't tell him. Science didn't tell him. There wasn't enough data.
  There was never enough data. So when the government had come to him last year, asking if he would like to involve himself in a new field of research, his answer had been simple: How much funding would he receive? With more funding, he could get more data. With more data, he could reach firmer conclusions. With firmer conclusions, he could leave the kiddy pool behind and finally surf the ocean of mysteries, just outside his grasp. The answer had been quick -- 100 trillion won. Project Ares would be given to him as sole administrator. He was welcome to hire any assistants he pleased, and to fund any line of research he pleased -- so long as it produced weapons. The government needed weapons. Stronger weapons than ever before. Strong enough to deter China, which had grown restless now that its North Korean buffer state had disappeared. Strong enough to destroy China, which was now the sole remaining dictatorship in Asia. Strong enough to kill China if they ever attempted to reconquer the province they had never really given up, the entire Korean peninsula which had been under their domination more often than not. Stronger than nukes, but less apparent to outside sensors and spies. The strongest weapons of mass destruction ever made, something that completely outclassed China's nuclear arsenal, while being completely undetectable until the project was complete and the arsenal available for use. Cho Kai was their best hope. His work on cells hinted that they expected biological weapons from him. Further suggestions and hints had been offered that the best possible weapon would be an ethno-plague. Something that would infect and kill all Chinese, while being perfectly harmless to Koreans, due to subtle genetic differences. And while he was at it, he could go ahead and construct an ethno-bomb that would kill all other humans except Koreans, for the ultimate deterrent. Of course, ethno-bombs directed at other singular nations would also be welcome. Just make them quietly. Make them quickly. Do what you have to do. Human experimentation was fine. Just give the government a call and they would provide whatever samples he needed, Korean or non-Korean. Cho Kai, personally, didn't care whether China conquered Korea or not. But he did care about 100 trillion won devoted to any science he preferred, ready to answer any questions he wanted answered -- so long as he developed a weapon of ultimate destruction. It wasn't Cho Kai's problem what the government did with it. If that was their price, that was their price. It was their responsibility whatever happened from there. Besides, the government was elected, so really it was the Korean people's responsibility how his weapons were used. He was just doing what he was told. Cho would make their damn bomb. Cho would make ten different versions of it, just to be safe. But he'd spend the rest of the money on science of his choosing. A lot of science could be covered by the penumbra of military applications. With 100 trillion won, he could do it. He could build a bomb and his own dream laboratory. And there would be more precious data.
  If he didn't build it, someone else would. Even if no one else in the world did, some alternate universe's Cho Kai would, just to satisfy the necessity of reality including all possible timelines. But this way, this Cho Kai would get the answer to his questions. He was going to surf the sea of mysteries. Not Cho Kai sigma. The truth will be discovered by Cho Kai prime.
  Overlooking his army of labcoat wearing assistants from his plush one-way windowed office, the peons looking through their microscopes and filling vials and putting labels assiduously with each sample, Cho Kai thought upon all of these things, and found them to be good. It will be within my lifetime. The answer to the real questions will now, finally, be within my lifetime. I won't have to wait much longer. But his pleasure was interrupted by a sudden glow of purple light. It was coming from a floating orb, not suspended by a string or wire or any magnetic field that he could detect. Most curious.
  "Greetings, Cho Kai. The wyrd council has been watching you. I am Ube. You desire the truth of this world. We desire your research to succeed. Let us exchange knowledge. Form a contract with us, and we will show you a world beyond your imagination." The purple sphere flashed along with its words. Now this was new. It would have to be investigated.
  "What must I do?" Cho Kai asked, so excited his hands were shaking.
  "Repeat after me, via tu lusches, Ube. And then listen, and learn." Ube commanded.
  "Via tu lusches, Ube." It seems he had hit the jackpot.
* * *
  Aiko Sakai gasped awake, the night not even half done. The Dead Enders were coming. And she was stuck at school for the next five days. Even though it was cold, she found herself covered in sweat.

Chapter 11

  Kip Miles estimated it would take fifteen minutes or so for the principal to assess the gravity of Autumn's offense, and another fifteen minutes or so for police from outside to drive to school, pick her up, and take her away. Though the accused had all sorts of rights, this was an open and shut case. The girl had clearly announced a plot to commit treason against the state, in front of everyone, in front of a video camera. The trial would be short and simple. Though the death penalty had been banned long ago, there was no probation for enemies of the state. Autumn was sixteen years old, but that was old enough to be tried as an adult in the case of serious crimes, which included all political offenses. The laws had no mercy for her type. Neither did juries, or judges. Autumn was essentially dead to the outside world. Odds were her parents and siblings would be arrested too, and their home searched for evidence of a conspiracy to commit treason, now that Autumn had alerted the government to the threat. Guilt by association was a classic deterrent to political offenders, but it was also almost always accurate. People didn't come to aberrant conclusions in vacuums. They always had some sort of support network that secretly agreed with them, to one extent or another. Tracing treason through that network was the quickest and easiest way to net all the culprits in one sweep. Just like antibiotics had to be taken so thoroughly that nothing survived, or else the disease would simply reassert itself in greater strength later, political dissidents had to be traced back to their roots, and those roots had to be uprooted permanently, or the problem would simply reemerge in the next generation.
  Kip understood the logic. Ordinarily, he would have agreed with it. But he wasn't in an ordinary state of mind. He had been transfixed by Autumn's pose, her eyes, her fury, and that flowing blonde hair, until he couldn't tell up from down anymore. All he knew was this: Autumn was beautiful. He wanted to see her again. He didn't want her to disappear. He wanted to know the mysteries behind that pale detached mask of a face she wore. Who was she? Why did she act so differently from everyone else? What did she think about when she stared out the window? She was the only thing he hadn't understood instantly in his life, and then been bored to death repeating day and night every year at home, at church and at school.
  One of the curses of intelligence was a heightened sense of curiosity. It made you think about things you shouldn't, and want to know things that only caused trouble. He didn't like his curiosity, he hadn't meant to become fascinated by this exotic looking creature from a zoo or an old history book, but even so curiosity possessed him. He couldn't get rid of it. If Kip just let Autumn disappear, without ever getting her to answer his questions, he would regret that decision forever. It would dominate the rest of his life. He had condemned her as filth and trash, alongside all of his classmates, before she was taken away. If he left things at that, that would be her last memory of him in her life. He didn't want that to be the last impression he left on her. He didn't want that to be the final verdict when it came to what he thought of himself. If he didn't apologize to her for that, he would know himself a coward for the rest of his life. Some things were worse than death. The loathing he felt for himself every second he sat at this desk, knowing Autumn's time was running out, was one of them. He had to do something.
  He had to rescue Autumn Brewnell.
  Kip Miles raised his hand.
  "Yes, Mr. Miles?" Ms. Hunter asked politely. Kip had never caused trouble in class, and so Ms. Hunter had never caused him any trouble in turn. But all of a sudden he hated the woman. He hated her more than he had ever hated anyone in his life. Kip tried to keep the feelings away from his face and voice.
  "Sorry, but may I be excused to the restroom?" Kip asked politely.
  "Of course, Mr. Miles, take a five minute pass and be quick about it." Ms. Hunter proceeded to forget about him and return to instructing the class, yet again, about the differences between verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Most of the class seemed confused and still didn't get it. Kip had understood the terms the moment they had been defined. When he was six. He was happy to leave this class behind.
  Kip was leaving his whole life behind. But he found that he didn't mind that much either. He had never connected with his parents. They had been ashamed of him all his life, because of all of his eggheaded tendencies. They had wrung their hands and wondered aloud how he could possibly be their son, upstanding salt of the Earth common sense folk that they were, right at the middle of the pack. He had apologized to them multiple times as a child, telling them he had never meant to be eggheaded and he wished he weren't, but that it just happened against his will. But eggheaded was eggheaded. His parents, just like society, had never forgiven him for it. There wasn't anything to return home to. In fact, Kip Miles had never had a life in the first place. This was the first time he had ever done anything because he wanted to, instead of because someone else had told him to do it that way. This was the beginning of his life.
  Don't fool yourself, Kip thought wryly. This is also the end of your life. But oh well. It would be a splendid five seconds or so. If those last five seconds of his life were sublime enough, because he could finally be proud of himself for living them. . .then it was lifetime enough. It was lifetime enough to apologize, too. Five seconds was enough time to make a lot of important decisions. For some people, even with five years, or fifty, they still wouldn't have enough time to make even one. That was the difference between courage and cowardice.
  Kip walked through the hallway in a daze, letting his memory guide him, not even looking at his surroundings. He needed a weapon. A baseball bat from the equipment storage room would serve. He kicked the locked door until it broke off its hinges. His body had always been fitter and stronger than others. He tried not to let it show in gym class or as a child during recess. Athleticism was a type of arrogance. But he was glad of his strength now. Kip felt like he was a spirit watching his own body move from outside. Who knew he could kick down a door so easily? Who knew he could break into the principal's room with a baseball bat? But here he was, doing it, and his mind drawing a curious blank when it should have been screaming and screeching in panic and doubt. His mind was as clean as a mountain stream. He felt everything and nothing. He was ready to kill and die for a girl who had done nothing but insult and despise him. Well, it wasn't any more foolish than Agamemnon, who had launched a thousand ships to retrieve an adulteress, and sacrificed his own daughter to the gods to make sure his voyage succeeded. If he recalled correctly, Helen had had blonde hair too. Maybe all blondes were witches. That could explain what he was doing. He was definitely bewitched.
  Kip Miles took an opaque sack used to carry basketballs and stuck in his bat. Video cameras would alarm people too soon if he walked through the school hallways weapon bared. He slung the sack and two others, each carrying their own sports equipment, over his shoulder and walked nonchalantly out of the shed. Hopefully if he was interrupted or observed by any of the hallway security, they would assume he was on some designated errand, to be carrying so many bags. Kip knew confidence while carrying something heavy was generally a pass to walk anywhere in the adult world.
  It had been eight minutes since Autumn had been dragged through the classroom door. Kip kept his stride from speeding up. There was still plenty of time. No one would see him coming. Security would be lax. There would be two guards at most. The first wouldn't know what hit him. The second? Well, he was stronger than most people. He'd handle the second somehow. They would have the key to her handcuffs, unless she was still just bound by a plastic strip. Those could be cut easily enough. Everything was still fine.
  Kip nodded politely to anyone he passed in the hall. The others barely saw him, having their own duties to attend to, and assuming Kip was following his. People didn't tend to be original in the modern day. They could be counted on to conform, because everyone was virtually identical in the first place. It should have worked for Kip too. But he had met Autumn. Normalcy was impossible now. Kip knocked on the door to the principal's office, sliding his bat out of his bag and holding it behind his back, while letting the rest of his luggage go. It was do or die. His stomach jumped up towards his throat, a strange numb tingling sensation twisting it into a knot. Nevermind. It's too late to stop now.
  One of the guards opened the door in a careless motion, already turning away to look back at the woman he was assigned to restrain. Kip walked into the room, past the doorway, and swung the bat from behind his back all the way to his target's head in one fatal arc. The man's head made a cracking, smushing sound against his bat's wood. If he wasn't dead, he was out of the fight. Kip surveyed the rest of the room for his next opponent. There was only the principal, looking paralyzed with shock. Kip didn't hesitate. The spirit that was outside his body watched Kip walk up to the desk and swing his bat for the man's head. It cracked, and the man slumped into his chair. He hadn't even moved or yelled to sound the alarm. That was good. That gave him time.
  "Are you okay?" Kip asked, finally turning to look at his Helen of Troy. His voice was shaking, which was odd, because he still felt perfectly calm. She didn't look any worse for wear than when he had last seen her. That felt like a lifetime ago. But it was probably only ten minutes. What did he expect, a guy with iron knuckles slugging her for the last ten minutes for no reason, with her not resisting her arrest at all? His brain wasn't working right anymore.
  "I'm fine. You, however, are insane." Autumn Brewnell replied. Even though she said that, her eyes were different from before. The loathing she had always viewed him with was more muted. Her eyes were wider than normal, like they were trying to see what was in front of her, because she couldn't understand or recognize it as things stood.
  Kip shrugged and checked her handcuffs. They were plastic. He searched the room for a pair of scissors, found them, and cut her free.
  "I've come to rescue you." Kip explained.
  "How?" Autumn asked, rubbing her wrists where the red marks had chafed and cut off her circulation.
  "I don't know. I suppose we can threaten a motorist to get out of his car and drive away from there." Kip suggested.
  "No one gets away in a car chase. They'll have hundreds of cars after you for this." Autumn replied.
  "Me? This is your escape too." Kip protested.
  "I haven't done anything to resist arrest yet. This is entirely your doing. If I sit here and wait, they can't accuse me of anything." Autumn looked at Kip levelly.
  Kip's mouth fell open, staring at this inexplicable existence. "You can't be serious."
  "I suppose I'm not." Autumn sighed. "You have forced my hand, Kip, and I will not thank you for it. If we're going to escape, you will walk behind me, and do exactly what I say. For now, don't ask any questions. You are hopelessly out of your depth right now." The way she said Kip made it clear she felt the name was somewhere between snail and slug.
  "Do you have an idea where we can flee? Somewhere we can hide?" Kip asked.
  "I said no questions." Autumn reminded him. She walked to the principal's desk and picked up his phone. She didn't seem to see the bloody mess a foot or two from her hand that had been their principle. Autumn dialed a number and waited for someone to pick up.
  "Yes, mother? Did you hear the announcement?" Autumn said, her voice suddenly happier than Kip had ever heard in school. Tense, yes. Nervous, yes. But somehow freer. Like a bird that was finally allowed to fly again.
  "I'm afraid I made a bit of a scene. I was arrested. Your place will probably be raided next. You might have an hour." Autumn explained.
  "Yes mother, I'm sorry." Autumn said. But Kip thought she didn't sound very remorseful. "I just couldn't stand that creature anymore. That was my line in the sand."
  Kip waited with increasing worry, standing outside any shooting lane from the door he had closed and locked. Eventually a guard would notice the video camera taping the scene of the carnage live. Or the police who had been called to pick up Autumn would arrive. The girl seemed to be having an ordinary conversation without a care in the world. But maybe that meant she had a plan. Maybe it meant she still had hope. In which case not interrupting her right now was a very good idea.
  "A good Samaritan decided to break me free. No, I don't understand it either. No, I don't know him. Yes, it's very strange. So now I need help getting away from here. What can you give me?" Autumn asked. Kip felt a little nervous that she was only using the singular tense for the last two sentences.
  "Norn? On the corner of Chesterfield and 5th? Oh, thank you Mom! That would be perfect. Okay, I'll see you at the mill. Love you." Autumn hung up.
  "Police!" A voice shouted from behind the door. And then without further ado they sprayed through the wooden door with a machine gun. Kip dodged back behind his book case, glad he had taken precautions. But if they were pinned down here, their life was going to be measured in seconds either way.
  Autumn was standing, her hair flowing down to her waist, the gunfire creating a slight wind that swirled it back and forth, in the middle of the doorway.
  "Get down!" Kip shouted, panic ripping through his guts.
  "I told you already, didn't I? Get behind me. I can't protect you if I don't know your location." Autumn pointed to where he needed to stand imperiously. The door had shredded apart. Bullets were flying in a storm directly where Autumn was standing. Whatever miracle had preserved her so far couldn't possibly last another instant.
  Autumn Brewnell wasn't hit. She wasn't afraid. A sea of bullets were piling up a meter in front of her, making a clink clink clink as they scattered off the ground. All of their tips were deformed, as though by a violent impact. Then the guns went silent, because their barrels had been twisted like pretzels. Then the cursing police went silent, because their necks had just been twisted 180 degrees. Kip stared. He had gone mad. No, he was in complete control of his senses. The world had gone mad. The world had gone mad ever since this morning. Kip stood up and walked to where Autumn had pointed. He was willing to believe anything now.
  "Follow me." Autumn walked out of the principal's office. Another barrage of machine gun fire caught her in a crossfire from both hallways. Police were running towards their location from all directions. Autumn stood like a rock against the crashing waves, carefully looked at her opponents one by one, and their necks snapped too, the heavily armored SWAT team falling like so many rag dolls from the gaze of a basilisk. A blue eyed basilisk. No, a blue eyed reaper of souls. Kip watched her as a grenade's explosion harmlessly stopped at an invisible line in the air, her hair streaming behind the toss of her head and turn of her shoulders, and could only think of one line. He was sure it was a quote, but God only knew from where.
  The hallway, which had been a den of chaos, fell silent again. Everyone within sight was no longer moving. Autumn motioned Kip with her hand and started jogging towards the exit. At one intersection a hail of gunfire ambushed her from the side, but the bullets didn't hit her this time either. Kip was suddenly very glad he was following her closely. His baseball bat felt very, very useless. Autumn turned with that customary look of scorn on her face, her chin tilted slightly to the right of level, and fixed her gaze on the man who had thought he was clever. The firing stopped again. The rest of the hallway passages out of the school were clear. Whatever reinforcements the police had called for would be coming from places much further away now. They were free and clear. Autumn broke into a quick run. She didn't check to see if Kip was keeping up. He followed her, keeping his breathing even. It's not like a girl could outpace him. Even if this was practically a sprint. He could sprint for longer distances than most people could jog. Not that he had ever tested his ability against anyone else before. It was just one of those embarrassing things he never revealed, since he had never had to before.
  "What is Norn?" Kip asked, finding air enough for the words even at their pace.
  "I told you, no questions, Kip." Autumn turned her head sideways, so that her voice would carry behind her, the disgust she attached to his name very clear. Her blonde hair was streaming almost horizontally now with the wind, and her face had an elated smile. It looked monstrous on her. He had never even imagined her face could crease that way. Elated because they were running so fast? Because she had escaped from life in prison? Or because she had just killed so many men? Who, or what, was Autumn Brewnell? And why was she still so achingly beautiful to him?
  "You're keeping up. Good. Then we're increasing our pace." Autumn informed him. She turned her head forward again, and suddenly she bolted ahead of him. Kip blinked. She was just a girl. Her leg muscles didn't look anything special. But she was an Olympic class runner. Before they had banned the Olympics a century ago, because it was a symbol of the ancient fascist elitism. A relic of the past, a sickening cult of the forbidden word. The word Kip couldn't even bring himself to think. But how else could you describe that speed? Kip released all of his limiters, every instinct he had taught himself to stay slow with. He was suddenly sprinting faster than he ever had, and it was still a race to catch up. He started gasping for air, his lungs pulling in more and more strength, letting the pounding of his legs find a stable rhythm. They were racing through city blocks, weaving their way through traffic, and all of a sudden Kip found himself smiling too. He had never run this fast. He had never thought someone else could run this fast, either. He felt drunk on his own pounding blood. His heart beat so hard it felt ready to leave his chest. Kip dropped his worthless baseball bat and pumped his arms to keep his balance, his hands like knife edges to cut the wind.
  The world narrowed down to his next few steps, her streaming flying hair, her hips rolling back and forth, and the colors that came and went at the sides of his eyes. He was keeping up. And in four minutes, at a pace meant only for the shortest bursts, they were both at Chesterfield and 5th. She peeled out in a curve, slowing herself down with every step. He passed far in front of her before he could stop, clutching his knees and gasping for air. He hadn't made a fool of himself by losing to a girl, thank God. But if she had run even a tenth of a second faster. . .
  "Get behind me. We're walking from here. Catch your breath and cool down." Autumn ordered.
  "Walking?" Kip gasped in consternation between big gulping breaths for more air. Even so, he stepped back behind her, the only place she had guaranteed his safety.
  "What part of 'no questions' do you not understand?" Autumn gave him an ugly glare.
  "The necessity." Kip quipped. Autumn stared at him, like she was trying to make sense of an exotic lifeform, and then she started laughing. Her voice had that same carefree tone she never used during school. It was full and true and free. It made him smile without even knowing what the joke was.
  "I suppose you're right, Kip." Autumn used her familiar drawled out pronunciation of his name. "It isn't necessary anymore. I suppose it's up to mother if we kill you. But if we don't kill you, now's as good a time to know the truth as any. We're walking the rest of the way from here. Just stay close behind me, and we should be fine. I'll answer any questions you like. Fire away."
  "What is Norn?" Kip started, curiosity finally surging back to the fore of his mind, fiercer than any previous moment in his life.
  "Norn's a girl who was sitting in a car that's long since driven off now. She's my friend." Autumn replied affably.
  "Why are we safe now?" Kip tried to keep his questions orderly. He wanted to know everything.
  "She telepathically wove a mask around us. Anyone who sees us, even through a video camera, will see an arranged fake identity. You could say it's a thought-mine. The police can't chase us anymore. As far as they're concerned, Autumn Brewnell and Kip Miles simply disappeared at Chesterfield and 5th." Autumn replied.
  "Why didn't we die at school?" Kip asked.
  "I wove a telekinetic barrier around us in a sphere," Autumn kept walking leisurely ahead of him, keeping her head halfway turned enough to talk without having to raise her voice.
  "If you're this strong, did you have to kill anyone?" Kip asked.
  "You heard me in the classroom. I didn't call the government a bunch of poopyheads. I declared war." Autumn's voice was unwavering.
  "Are you really a racist?" Kip asked. He probably shouldn't be challenging a girl who killed without a second thought. But she had promised him the truth. And for some reason, he trusted her to fulfill her promises. Even though such a concept was entirely outdated. It was too judgmental to hold people to standards. Even ones they set themselves. Hypocrisy and lies were normal, after all. Avoiding them smacked of arrogance.
  "No." Autumn answered.
  Kip sighed a breath of relief. "So this is all just a misunderstanding, right? You're not against the system. You just want the freedom to marry the person of your choice. Like Julie!"
  "Don't get me wrong, and don't lump me in with the likes of her. Racist implies I belong to a certain race, and the rest of you belong to another race, and I think my race is superior to yours, which is why I would oppose miscegenation. That's not true at all." Autumn smiled toothily at him, her blue eyes waiting for a desired reaction.
  "I'm not a racist. I have nothing against miscegenation. I'm a speciesist. I'm opposed to bestiality." Autumn smiled sweetly. Kip knew he would never begin to understand this girl.
* * *
  Chiharu Sakai laughed out loud. Chapter One was over, and she was hooked. Oh, Aiko, what a wicked, wicked,wicked child you are. No wonder Bubbles worries you're going to drown the world in blood. But what a blessed wickedness. This was just too good.
  Aiko looked nervously across the aisle from her recliner. She was reading a book, like always, zoning the rest of the circle out. Shiori and Rei were playing War against each other, while Kotone was sleeping, her head pillowed over Masanori's chest, who was idly curling ringlets of her hair in his fingers. Aiko's unspoken question floated across the aisle.
  "Where did you learn this? My parents never taught you to think this way." Chiharu put the loose sheave of printed pages down on her lap.
  "Plato, Nietzsche, Rand." Aiko shrugged. "Father didn't have to say anything. Our library says it all."
  "This is so great. That last line." Chiharu laughed again. "Where's the next chapter?"
  "I have a bit, but you'll have to wait. It's not ready yet. Mainly it's just in my head." Aiko's proud smile at Chiharu's praise was radiant.
  "What's the forbidden word?" Chiharu asked.
  "Merit." Aiko answered.
  "Ohhhhhh," Chiharu thought back, making connections. "And the divergence between her group and the rest of us?"
  "Hundreds of years of selective breeding. Mankind selected for the lowest common denominator. The dissidents selected for the greatest common factor. The results were inevitable." Aiko pointed out.
  "Why a white girl as your banner? Couldn't it have worked just as well with a psychic of any breed?" Chiharu asked.
  "To stick it in the equalitarian's eye." Aiko replied maliciously. "I refuse to run away. Why can't a white girl care about merit? Why can't she consider herself superior to her inferiors? She has the same right to hold her beliefs as any other 'colored' psychic. If I back away, what's the point of my entire book? I'm just another coward like Kip, repeating Ms. Hunter's socially demanded lines."
  "Kip is the changeling. He's a psychic too." Chiharu realized.
  "Of course. Hence the title. He is the main character." Aiko smiled.
  "I can't wait to see his ability. Is he sick too?" Chiharu asked.
  "Way stronger than us, I'm afraid." Aiko laughed. "But then he has a tougher opponent, too. So I guess it all evens out in the end."
  "You stay behind me." Chiharu warned. Aiko had to be with them to locate the Dead Enders. But Chiharu would not let anyone lay a finger on her. Not like six years ago, when at thirteen they had all been cut and beaten and zapped to pieces. She would protect Aiko with her life, and she had the tools and training to do so. Counter, Deflect, Reflect. Vectors were the strongest defense imaginable.
  "I will, sister. But I already thought of something I could do. If I read Abhi's mind, I could warn people when an attack is coming." Aiko offered.
  "Go ahead, but I don't think it would help much. I mean, by the time you warn someone, the attack will probably be on its way. And most magic does require you announce your move ahead of time. So. . ."
  Aiko sat back on her seat, putting her right arm over her eyes, and sighed. "I worked so hard to come up with that idea, too."
  "You're doing plenty, Aiko. More than anyone else. I'm proud of you." Chiharu reached her hand across the aisle and squeezed Aiko's left hand gently.
  "I'm trying. I'm trying so hard to get better. But Bubbles keeps saying the same thing. I'm still a Dead Ender." Aiko rubbed her eyes with her right hand, her left hand squeezing Chiharu back.
  "There are only forty Choice Givers in the world. It can't be that easy. I know we're called team Choice Givers, but you don't have to take it literally. You could follow someone too." Chiharu offered.
  "Who?" Aiko asked. "I can't even follow you, sister. My personality's too different. I can't get motivated by the same things. I can't want the same things. Maybe if I met another Choice Giver. But I can't emulate anyone here. I'd fail miserably even if I tried. So I just have to keep getting better. It's like a game of hearts. I'm already committed, so I may as well shoot the moon."
  "Well, just, don't say that while cackling evilly in the rain over our shattered corpses. "I've become this evil, so I may as well shoot the moon."" Chiharu grinned.
  Aiko laughed. "You're so dark."
  "So I hear." Chiharu rolled her eyes. "Just promise you'll follow our advice. You are a Dead Ender, so there must be something wrong with your thinking, and we're here to help."
  "I promise. I've been doing that all along." Aiko nodded respectfully to her sister.
  "Good. Then get back to writing chapter two. I need it to read for the plane ride home." Chiharu smiled. Nothing could go wrong. They were the hunters this time, not the hunted. This fight wouldn't be a challenge at all. Chiharu understood this. It was just her stomach that refused to believe.

Chapter 12

  Their private jet landed in a small airfield in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Stepping out of the plane was a shock. It was pleasantly warm outside, perhaps 25 degrees Celsius. While Japan was still locked in the grip of winter, India was having its finest weather of the year. Kotone Miyamoto donned a pair of sunglasses and a wide-brimmed white hat to protect her skin. As a model, she couldn't really afford to laze about in the Indian sun. Though, once she'd folded into her magical girl outfit, she was doomed to bake anyway. Would sunscreen fold out when she transformed? Probably. Kotone sighed. She'd just have to put it on after she'd changed. It seemed a little embarrassing to rub on sun screen after turning her hair pink and donning winged shoes, but it couldn't be helped. It was her job to worry about things like this.
  The city stank. It was dirty. Sewage wasn't disposed of properly. Water supplies were sporadic and rarely clean enough to bathe in. They had entered an alternate universe. Kotone held her handkerchief to her nose, then thought of a better idea and just tied it around her face like a bandit's mask.
  "Kotone, I understand how you feel, but won't that offend them?" Masanori asked her.
  "I'll just say I have a cold." Kotone mumbled through her handkerchief. "Cough, cough."
  "If you say 'cough, cough,' I think your disguise will falter." Masanori grinned.
  "I'm not taking it off." Kotone glared at her husband, but he couldn't see her eyes through her sunglasses, so the effort was wasted.
  "Fine, fine. Everyone, gather around. We're about ten miles away from our enemy's location. We can assume he's been given a laboratory of some sort, and Aiko tells us he does have a few foreign assistants, no doubt hired by the dark wyrds for their technical expertise. As I've had more experience fighting Dead Enders than anyone else here, does anyone object to me being the captain of our punitive expeditions?"
  "No objections, sir!" Kotone saluted sharply, and the others followed suit.
  "Then, as my first order, take off that handkerchief, Kotone." Masanori smiled triumphantly.
  "This and that are two different things!" Kotone objected.
  "Mutiny is punishable by flogging." Masanori pointed out.
  "Fine. I just have to take it off, right?" Kotone ripped off her handkerchief and stuffed it in her pocket. It had been a great idea, too.
  "Alright. Choice Givers give off a brilliant beacon to any wyrd worth their salt, so there's no way we can sneak up on our opponents. We will simply have to beat our opponents with overwhelming force. However, to avoid disturbing the public at large, I suggest we only transform once we reach the enemy. It's inevitable we'll draw some eyes, but at least we won't be seen flying over the city in tomorrow's news." Masanori reasoned.
  "I hear it is your policy to talk with any Dead Ender who will listen. Furthermore, we'll be trying to use angle exile to banish rather than kill this Dead Ender if we can. There's no need to do more than is needed, and really, the dark wyrds are to blame for these occurrences. Extending a little mercy to their human hosts, from that point of view, is perfectly reasonable. However, does anyone have a compelling argument they could make against a man who loves slime?"
  Shiori looked to Rei for help, who looked at Chiharu. Kotone shifted her feet and kicked a pebble.
  "If no one minds, I could try?" Aiko volunteered. "Since I'm an apprentice Choice Giver, it could be a good experience. . ."
  "Very well, Aiko. You know his mind best anyway. Talk away, we'll protect you if he tries anything unfriendly." Masanori clapped her on the shoulder.
  "I'll try my best." Aiko bowed to her commander.
  "Everyone remember: Protect yourself first, protect your friends next, and only worry about defeating your opponents last. Rei, Chiharu and I are all experts at defensive magic. Obviously, we should all act to defend whoever we can, but I'm assigning a particular duty to each of us. Rei, you will be protecting Shiori as your highest priority after yourself."
  "Yes." Rei Rin agreed happily. That had been her intention all along.
  "Chiharu, you will be protecting Aiko after yourself." Masanori designated.
  "Yes." Chiharu agreed, having planned that already.
  "And I will protect Kotone after myself." Masanori drew his third line in the sand, showing the pairs. "Kotone and Shiori are our forwards. They will be the ones who take Abhi Durai out, if necessary. Forwards, concentrate on defeating the opponent and trust in your guards. If you see a chance to kill, take it. Don't take unnecessary risks for the sake of our opponents. Guards, focus on defense. It is your responsibility if you or your forward is hurt or killed. Don't forget to focus on self protection as well as protecting your precious person. If you die, you lose everything, including your ability to protect the girl you love. Self sacrifice is not good enough."
  "I would like to say one more thing. If Aiko Sakai dies, it's game over. There is another Dead Ender after this one, by name of Cho Kai, with essentially the same plan as Abhi Durai. If the dark wyrds have made two world-ending contracts, they probably have plans for more as well. The only way we can learn of these schemes in advance is with Aiko's premonitionary dreams. Chiharu, I trust you to do whatever is necessary to protect your sister, who has no fighting capacity whatsoever. For the rest of us, there is no excuse for failure. But for you, failure is literally not an option. Protect Aiko no matter what. Protecting Aiko is exactly equivalent to protecting the world. Aiko's death is the exact equivalent to the end of the world. I wouldn't give you your position as Aiko's guard unless I thought you could do it. Understand?" Masanori looked Chiharu in the eyes.
  "Yes sir." Chiharu nodded, gulping under his no-excuses stare.
  "Alright everyone. It's six on one. Let's show them what Choice Givers are made of."
  "Ohhh!" Everyone shot their fists into the air.
  "Umm. Xanadu? How do you call for a taxi in Hindi?" Masanori asked his wyrd apologetically.
  "So uncool." Kotone pursed her lips at him with delighted revenge. Their marriage was definitely on the rocks.
* * *
  Aiko Sakai stepped out of her taxi and waved at her friends emerging from a parked taxi a little down the street from her.
  "It's two hundred yards from here, more or less. I think he's underground. My link is pointing diagonally down." Aiko told her team.
  "Alright. Everyone, transform." Masanori ordered.
  "Out here in the open?" Chiharu asked.
  "It can't be helped. You guys were transformed in the middle of Inazumu for hours, right? There's no point getting shy now." Masanori said.
  "Yes, but we were already transformed back then. This time we'll be transforming in front of everyone." Chiharu stressed.
  "Mutineers will be flogged. I'm not going to risk an ambush with our suits off." Masanori said.
  "Yes sir." Chiharu gave up. "You heard the boss. Coi, Cyan!" Chiharu's body was surrounded in sparkles, her old clothes folding out, and her new suit folding in. In moments, the image cleared, and she was standing in her blue carbon power armor, with futuristic helmet visor and Laser Mark 7,000 rifle in hand. Cyan glowed brilliantly from his new location, embedded in the middle of her breastplate.
  "Magical, miracle, Coi, Magnolia!" Kotone lifted her right hand to the sky, and her wide-brimmed hat sparkled away with the rest of her clothes. As the sparkles faded, she was wearing a white dress with a sky blue petticoat, a blue belt with a white heart shaped buckle, with a bright red ribbon over her chest. Her white dress ended soon after her shoulders, but she had two white lacy gloves that extended up past her elbows. In her right glove shined the embedded Magnolia, a brilliant pure white. She held a pink rod with a heart in a circle near the top, with white wings unfurling to either side. Her underskirt stopped at her knees, but dainty white laced boots reached well up her shins, showing only a tiny layer of skin between the two. To top everything off, her hair had turned pink, forming itself into pigtails bound by two white ribbons.
  "Coi, Onyx!" Rei's street clothes disappeared into sparkles as she reappeared in her layered gothic black dress and a frilly white under-dress that peeked out at the neck, sleeves, and legs. She was wearing tall, mean looking black boots with tons of extra straps wrapped at various angles around her legs, stopping just short of her knees, where her white petticoat quickly took over. Her long, silky black hair was kept back by a black headband. To top it off, violet-chased black butterfly wings sprouted from the small of her back, where Onyx was embedded in her dress, large enough to frame her entire body's silhouette. The violet dots and stripes just seemed to emphasize the darkness of the rest of her faerie like wings.
  "Coi, Xanadu!" Masanori's clothing vanished into a sea of sparkles, shortly to reemerge as a traditional kimono with a bright red sash around his waist. A silver sword appeared in a white scabbard strapped to his side, with the silver Xanadu glowing brightly in the middle of the scabbard. The overall color of the kimono was red, but it was hard to see because of all the golden roses and dragons curling around and over each other all across the red fabric underneath.
  "Coi, Awesome!" Shiori disappeared into sparkling light, returning to view with a silver tiara across her forehead, Awesome embedded in the middle of the crown glowing a bright red like a third demonic eye. She wore brown and red gloves that stopped at her knuckles to leave her free to punch, and silver metallic boots twice the size as normal shoes that marched halfway up her shin perfect for running and kicking beyond human strength. Over a simple red t-shirt and shorts were a series of embossed thick metal plates, that covered her chest, back and thighs, but left her limbs free to twist and move as her martial arts dictated.
  "Together, we are: Choice Givers!" Kotone lifted her knee up halfway and held out her arms at dynamic angles that framed her face.
  The rest of the group gave her a pained look, but Kotone smiled brightly, not in the least ashamed.
  "I always wanted to say that." Kotone explained happily, dropping out of her pose that no one else had joined in.
  "These clothes sure are nostalgic. After this, we should take another group picture." Shiori picked approvingly at her shirt.
  "I'm just glad they changed to still fit us." Chiharu replied.
  Aiko looked around nervously, still in just a blue t-shirt and blue jeans, feeling like the unfashionable member of the group. A large group of shopowners and gawking kids started clapping for them, and Kotone twirled and bowed to them happily, giving them her V peace sign. Then Aiko pointed to the building they needed to descend into, and everyone put on their most serious look. It had been a long time coming, but there was no longer any way to avoid it. Aiko reminded herself that she had been the writer of Kip's courage, so she could hardly be seen falling short of it, and led the rest of the group forward into the unknown.
  Luckily, the lights were on, but she wasn't relying on her eyes either way. Her mind was reaching out in all directions to catch the least notice that they had been discovered. Scrying wasn't as accurate as mind reading, so all Abhi Durai would know is that Choice Givers were nearby. There shouldn't be any traps ahead, because thinking through his eyes, he still never looked forward to any or hoped for any to succeed. Aiko had a dizzying moment where she didn't know which person she was anymore, and then concentrated on descending the rest of the stairs.
  "Hello? Is anyone home? I'm Aiko Sakai, an apprentice Choice Giver. I'm here to talk. I don't think what you're doing is right." Aiko announced herself, once she was only a couple rooms away from where she knew Abhi was tinkering away at a microscope with his lab assistants. The rest of team Choice Givers fanned out to either side of her, waiting alertly with spells on their lips.
  "Oh? So they did come." A tall blonde girl opened the door, walking out into the middle of the underground chamber.
  "Brother, we have guests." The self-assured girl called, and two more blondes stepped into the larger warehouse-cellar area.
  "Welcome, Choice Givers. The wyrd council said something like this might happen." The boy smiled affably.
  "Guests? And look, they're all Japanese! Does that mean we should serve tea?" The youngest blonde girl asked her older brother.
  "Don't think you're the only special ones." The tallest girl's eyes narrowed. "Coi, Arsenic!" Sparkles surrounded the older girl, and she emerged wielding a dark gray trident with a gray gem embedded in the haft. She wore a simple blouse and skirt of a navy blue color, but it was overflowing with golden celtic knot work marching across the breasts, legs and sleeves.
  "I am Cecily Marne." The girl grounded her trident and stared at Aiko defiantly.
  "Coi, Folly!" The central boy called, and sparkles surrounded him until he emerged with a violin and a tuxedo suit. Over his breast pocket, where a flower would ordinarily be kept, was his embedded hot pink gem brimming with power.
  "I am Rhodry Marne." The boy gave a polite bow to his opponents.
  "Coi, Thistle!" The youngest girl cried, whose eyes were green instead of the other two's blue, but her hair just as effervescent a shade of blonde. Sparkles hid her as her normal clothes faded away and new ones returned. She wielded a knife in each hand, one held forehand and the other backhand, and had a green scale mail covering everything but her joints and green eyes that made her look like a dragonkin. Holding her hair back in a clip was a purple gem so clear it was nearly white, shining a sort of halo over the short girl who was ducking yet further down in a combat stance.
  "I am Elsie Marne." The girl announced proudly. "If you wish to see the professor, we will be your opponents."
  "No, like I said, we just wanted to talk." Aiko gulped, looking at her equally astonished friends. Why were there four Dead Enders here? Her telepathy hadn't caught it at all! Some premonition!
  "Ohhh?" Cecily cocked her head at the little girl standing in front. "So what have you come to tell us, apprentice Choice Giver?"
  "Don't you think you should give it up? You know, sliming the whole world. I mean, it's slime. . . after all." Aiko looked to her left and right, but no one was stepping forward to help her.
  "Slime? I love slime." Elsie replied with cheerful defiance. "It's slime time!"
  "But why?" Aiko asked desperately. Was there really a giant proportion of mankind that secretly wished to drown the world in red goo? How had so many assembled behind this plan?
  "If the whole world becomes one entity, there will be no death and no war. Things like the terrorism in Northern Ireland won't happen anymore. No one will be able to hurt anyone else, in fact, even the feeling of pain will be outside the slime vocabulary. If you think about it, it's obvious, isn't it? We're giving birth to a God, an avatar of Gaia, the spirit of the entire Earth. Why do you want to interfere?" Rhodry replied.
  "So is that it? You three siblings are tragic orphans of terrorism in Northern Ireland, and so you turned to the dark wyrds in the hopes of stopping all future wars?" Aiko asked.
  "What? No. We're from Ireland, not Northern Ireland. Plus the terrorism died down decades ago. We just like peace." Rhodry answered.
  "So none of you have any tragic back story at all?" Aiko asked in desperation.
  "My ice cream cone melted once before I could eat it." Elsie provided helpfully.
  "Keep heart, Aiko!" Shiori cheered her on from behind.
  "You can do it, you're doing fine!" Kotone joined in.
  "What conversation are you two watching?" Aiko turned and stamped her feet at them. "You're the real Choice Givers. Say something wise! At this rate -- "
  "Even we can't convince everyone, Aiko. Do you really think a trio of siblings wouldn't stick together until the bitter end? Would you turn on Chiharu or Saki if you heard a good argument to do so? We were going to fight these three from the beginning. Loyalty trumps logic. I wouldn't have it any other way." Kotone Miyamoto smiled toothily at Cecily across the room. The wyrds on both sides kept up a steady translation for everyone.
  "That girl says some good things." Cecily lifted up her trident and stabbed it forward, her dark gray gem shining.
  "That's right." Cecily nodded to herself, coming to a decision. "If our chat is over, it's time to fight. Whether the world is composed of slime or humans, only battle can decide." Cecily jumped forward, stabbing at the girl in front, which was Aiko, straight away.
  She's stabbing at my right side. Aiko's mind reading went into overdrive. If I roll to my left, I'll be safe! Aiko dived away just as the trident stabbed overhead, her hands and knees scraping painfully over the concrete floor. In seconds the entire area exploded into chaos. Aiko started crawling away, ramping up her danger sense more and more, until the least possible hint of a Dead Ender aiming for her would ring in her ears. She couldn't tell what was happening anymore. There were glowing wyrd lights and yells everywhere.
  A bell triggered in the back of her head, and she turned to see Abhi Durai emerge from the door. Or more properly, gloop through the crack in the door. Apparently his transformation was what he had loved and desired the most. He was already Slime.
  "Everyone, watch out, Durai's here too!" She shouted into the chaos, but she couldn't tell if anyone heard.
  "Ice javelin." Rhodry Marne announced.
  "Counter!" Chiharu responded.
  "Arsenic, Counter her counter!" Cecily Marne responded in turn, and suddenly Aiko's danger sense screamed a warning. Aiko didn't know what to do, so she just started rolling over and over towards the nearest wall. The shattering sound of ice hitting concrete crashed just where she'd been.
  "Trance." Elsie Marne announced, her daggers in a vicious close combat with Shiori's gloves and boots.
  "Aiko's dead!" Chiharu screamed, ashen faced. "Just like that! What are we going to do?"
  "Pull yourself together!" Masanori shouted. "She's fine." Masanori slashed toward Cecily with his shining sword, but she wisely chose to run away rather than test an unknown magic with a parry.
  "What are you talking about?" Chiharu threw her gun down and rushed to a spot on the floor, cradling air with a look of horror. "There's so much blood!"
  "Frozen Tomb." Rhodry called out happily, and jaws of ice started growing to either side of Chiharu to snap her in twain.
  "Eternal Zero!" Rei responded desperately, freezing the hallucinating, almost bitten Chiharu in place. "Shiori, take out Elsie! She's making us hallucinate!"
  "Don't you think I'm trying?" Shiori shouted, her fists furiously trying to find an opening around Elsie's knives while her legs kept pushing forward a step or two, kicking to trip her opponent who continuously kicked Shiori's feet back down to stop her.
  "Too late. You're already in my spell." Elsie smiled happily, both of her daggers plunging for the back of Shiori's neck, her true self suddenly appearing.
  "Stasis shield!" Rei pointed towards her sister, and the daggers froze in place, no matter how much Elsie tried to pull them back out.
  "Get that butterfly girl! She's clearly the strongest!" Rhodry ordered.
  "Chains of Andromedae." Cecily swirled her trident, her gray gem flaring. Rei watched in horror as metal chains appeared out of both the floor and the ceiling, all heading towards her. She was already using both her shields to save someone else. There was no time to dodge! The chains swept around her, then through her, leaving no mark at all. Of course. She was ethereal.
  "It's okay Rei!" Masanori insisted. "Keep fighting!" He flew towards Cecily again with single minded determination.
  "Arrows of ice." Rhodry chanted from the back rank, stacking up rank upon rank of frozen death, to strike Rei in an intense flurry. How did they see through Masanori's move so soon?
  "Sting snipe!" Kotone shouted out from above, having completely disappeared from the enemy's view. The sharp needles rained down on Rhodry, stabbing and stabbing until his mangled body was nearly staked to the concrete floor.
  By God. If anyone let down their guard for even an instant. . .it ended like that. . .Aiko felt sick to her stomach. Wait, where had the slime gone?
  "Shiori, jump!" Aiko screamed. Abhi Durai had already oozed in a pool beneath her.
  Shiori didn't look to see why. Awesome glowed a brilliant red and she launched herself away in a magnificent leap. A second later the gloop had swirled upwards to devour her. No doubt it had the same dissolving effect as his dream Slime would have when the world ended.
  "Trance." Elsie pointed up at Kotone in fury. Suddenly her flight path went askew and she rammed painfully into a concrete wall. Her unconscious body fluttered helplessly to slam once again onto the floor.
  "Kotone!" Masanori shouted. "That does it!" His sword started to gather in more and more light. "Angle Death!" He cut a small hole between dimensions, the other universe being the heart of a burning star. Pressure and heat propelled a jet of hot plasma gas through the hole, simply vaporizing everything in its path. First Abhi disappeared into nothing, then Elsie, followed by the wall which started vaporizing into thin air behind her. Masanori closed the portal as quickly as he could, shocked by its destructive power, before the entire room heated up to unlivable temperatures.
  "Not good enough." Elsie teased, appearing in a separate place entirely. "You only see what I want you to see. Tsk tsk tsk. And now the professor is dead too. You'll pay for that."
  "Eternal Zero." Rei trapped Elsie's image, if that really was her, which simultaneously released Chiharu. With Rhodry dead, the ice jaws disappeared the moment time began to flow again. She was gambling that the trance had ended too when Elsie had redirected it at Kotone.
  "How many times must I say it's not good enough?" Elsie smiled cheerfully.
  "Firefly!" Shiori shot out a barrage of fireballs at the short dragonscale girl.
  "Counter." Cecily protected her little sister.
  "Counter!" Chiharu inverted Cecily's spell.
  The fireballs passed through the afterimage of Elsie the immortal as she laughed.
  "Counter." Chiharu pointed to an obscure corner of the room. Cyan's light didn't shine. "Counter." She pointed a meter to the side and down. Cyan's light didn't shine. "Counter." Chiharu pointed again, a meter to the side and down. Cyan's light didn't shine.
  "What is this, a game of battleship?" Elsie appeared directly in front of Chiharu, slicing with one dagger forehanded and the other backhanded to decapitate her in a single stroke.
  "Like I'd let you!" Masanori pointed, and the daggers passed through Chiharu painlessly.
  Cecily lunged at the opening, her trident finally stabbing past Masanori's katana. The trident passed through him too. Masanori spun around behind Cecily, removing his body from the trident, then solidified just long enough for the back arc of his spin, his sword neatly chopping Cecily's head off at the neck.
  "Sister!" Elsie screamed. She threw her dagger at Masanori in fury, but it just passed through him too. Chiharu used Elsie's distraction to run back and retrieve her gun.
  "Counter." Chiharu pointed directly at Elsie. Cyan still didn't respond. Chiharu smiled. The lack of a glow meant there was nothing to dispel, which meant the Elsie in front of her was no illusion.
  "Sorry, but that's the end." Chiharu pulled the trigger. A lance of light shot through Elsie's armor and made a black mark on the other side of the room. Elsie gave a look of fear and pain, and then her eyes became fixed into the wide eyed realization that she had lost as she slumped to the floor. Chiharu sat down beside her, and pushed her eyelids down quietly.
  "You were splendid." Chiharu whispered to her dead opponent. Aiko wanted to cry. The room was still echoing with the sounds of battle, as though it hadn't realized the killing was over.
  "Kotone." Shiori said in a panic, rushing to her side. Her head was bleeding from a surface scratch, and bruises had appeared wherever she had fallen. But her heart was beating. The only hits she had taken were from her own momentum.
  "Oh thank the gods." Shiori patted Kotone's hair away from Kotone's face.
  "How is she?" Masanori dived down next to Shiori, his sword sheathed.
  "I think she's fine. Isn't she?" Shiori asked Masanori back worriedly.
  "Aiko, you're alive!" Chiharu poked Aiko's face just to verify she was real this time.
  "I'm sorry, sister. I made you worry." Aiko mumbled numbly.
  "Don't talk nonsense. I'm so glad you're okay." Chiharu hugged her tightly. She was trembling from what she thought she had seen, which to her eternal zero'd timeframe had only been seconds before.
  "We should check her in to a hospital. But I don't trust any hospital in India." Masanori picked Kotone up easily in his arms and pulled her up until she was riding him piggyback. "We're going back to the jet, and then we're going home."
  "Yes sir." Shiori agreed, happy to leave the scene as soon as she could. She hadn't been any help at all. And she had almost dissolved into goo. What a horrible fight. Were they rusty? Or were their opponents just that strong this time? She couldn't tell. She was shaking with the reaction though. It was supposed to be easy now. Six on one. The dark wyrds hadn't exhausted their power at all. They were still playing to win. And they had come this close.
  "Get it together, Shiori." Shiori Rin slapped her cheeks with her hands. "We won and they lost. It doesn't matter how close a game is at the end of the match. We won again. Just like we won every close match when we were kids. Just like we'll win every close match from here. Because we make the impossible possible." And with that, she forced herself to cheer up. The past was past. Kotone was fine. Tomorrow she'd go back to her World History class in college, and forget about all of this. And next weekend, they would tackle Cho Kai.
  He couldn't be harder than this.
* * *
  Kotone awoke woozily laying in a completely prone airplane seat. Since it was their private jet, their chairs could fold down, spin around to face other chairs, or do whatever they pleased. She checked to see if she could move her limbs, and one of her shoulders twinged in pain, not wanting to be lifted. She used her other hand to check her face. A model had to protect her face. . .but as she touched each piece, nothing seemed to be missing. Ears, mouth, eyes and nose were still all there.
  The baby. Kotone thought in a panic. Both of her arms shot to cup her womb, despite her shoulder's agony. And then she laughed nervously. It was their beautiful, brilliant, baby. But as of yet it was still just a tiny unformed dot in her uterus, not big enough to even lift her stomach. There was no way to hurt her baby without running her through, as of yet. And her stomach was still in one piece. The baby was fine.
  "Kotone? Is that you?" Masanori stirred, himself asleep until he heard her laugh, his senses all jumping back into place.
  "Yes dear. I'm sorry. I slipped up, didn't I?" Kotone stuck out her tongue.
  "Hush. You were brilliant. That move would have worked on anyone." Masanori cupped her hand and squeezed it painfully hard, until her bones were being squished together.
  "Everyone's okay?" Kotone asked.
  "No one else has a scratch." Masanori assured her.
  "Your guard plan was brilliant. We saved each other again and again. You really are the brightest light in the stars, husband." Kotone looked into his eyes, her own swimming with love.
  "I didn't guard the one thing I love most in the world. I'm still too weak. And, I may have overreacted a bit and nearly fried the world. . .when I saw you falling. . ." Masanori looked away a little timidly, afraid of being lectured.
  "But you didn't. I'm sure you knew your limits." Kotone squeezed his hand back, even though hers was now an aching mass thanks to him.
  "I'm not sure. The gods must be with us. I wasn't controlling my attack at all. All I wanted to do was kill that illusionist. I forgot about the entire world." Masanori sighed.
  "Then let's pray at the shrine when we get home. I want to pray to the gods in thanks too." Kotone whispered.
  "Why?" Masanori asked, catching a strange tone to her voice.
  "Because, you're a Daddy." Kotone smiled up at him. "I didn't want to tell anyone yet. . .but you sound like you need cheering up."
  "Oh, Kotone." Masanori picked her up out of her chair and hugged her onto his lap. Tears started to wet her shoulder. She was still in her magical girl costume, since folding her real clothes back took an act of conscious will.
  "There, there." Kotone patted him on the back with her one good arm. She could move the other if she needed to. But this was not one of those times. "How's Aiko? This was her first fight. I remember what my first fight was like." Kotone said compassionately.
  "Asleep. Everyone's asleep. It's just you and me." Masanori said, his hand sliding to cup her right breast.
  "You devil. You'd take advantage of me at a time like this?" Kotone whispered, her eyes widening in mock astonishment.
  "Stay quiet, or we'll be caught." Masanori grinned, and then they started kissing.
* * *
  Aiko was Hank Elroy. He ran on a few radio stations based out of Georgia, and scraped out a living by being extremely frugal with the money his gig earned. He was 32, married once but divorced, because his wife had gotten tired of learning the truth about this world. Hank couldn't help talking about it. It possessed him. It woke him up every day in the morning, abuzz with thought, wondering how he could make a more entertaining show, a more persuasive argument, for his listeners. The truth was out there, but the public wouldn't listen. Even his own wife hadn't listened to him. If she had listened attentively, she would have agreed, and then she wouldn't have divorced him and left him in a trailer on his own. But no one had the time or the motivation or the courage to do that one simple thing. To make matters worse, America was going to hell in a handbasket, and vast conspiracies were afoot, all of which meant total catastrophe if the public didn't heed his warnings soon. He had to make better shows. With better shows, he would be picked up by more stations. With enough radio stations, he could change public opinion. And then a truly informed citizenry would make the right decision at the election booth. Hank Elroy for President? It could happen.
  It was time to start the show. "Good afternoon, my fellow Americans. This is Hank Elroy, broadcasting from the fair city of Athens, Georgia. I'm glad you could join me today. Let's take a look at the daily news. Oil prices are up -- guess who predicted that? The dollar's value is down -- guess who predicted that? And we lost three more heroes from our armed services fighting the War on Terror today. When will the President take off the kid gloves and start fighting to win this war? Huh? The American people don't want or need another Cold War, Mr. President. Make it a hot war. Nuke a straight line from Morocco to Indonesia, for all I care. And throw in France while you're at it. That would be hot enough to make these Muslims think twice before they mess with the U.S. of A. But Presidents never think about solutions. They just think about getting reelected, and who paid them their campaign donations to get them there. I swear to God, if we had just one honest President in the White House, we could fix all the problems of the world in around two hours. Two hours. Mr. President, why won't you release the aliens being kept in Roswell, New Mexico? The aliens have been contacting our government for over fifty years, and not a single President is honest enough to tell the American people the truth. Maybe we wouldn't have to rely on Saudi oil if the alien technology used to fly all these UFO's floating overhead were bargained for. But then, that wouldn't serve Big Oil's interests, so it'll never happen. This is how the world works, folks. We've had a replacement for oil for half a century and nothing is ever done, because we haven't had an honest president in half a century who genuinely wanted to help the folks out."
  "Now, I wanted to introduce my first guest of the afternoon, the esteemed scientist Malcolm Jones. He's here today with proof positive that he can create cold fusion. That's a nuclear fusion power plant run at room temperature, folks. But the government won't give him any funding. A few million dollars to build a room temperature fusion power plant, which would give the whole world infinite energy for the rest of time, but the President won't accept his grant request. It's a conspiracy, Americans, and it reaches all the way to the top. Why does the government want to keep us so dependent on foreign oil? Why are they deliberately destroying the worth of the dollar? It's all heading in the same direction. It's all approaching the same master plan. A master plan with so many facets I don't have enough time in the day to describe it all. . ."
  When Hank's hour was done, he took a welcome swig of beer and thanked his coworkers who handled all the technical aspects of his radio show. It was time to go home, drink a bit, watch a ball game -- he didn't mind which, he just shifted sports with whatever was in season -- and feed his dog, also named Hank. He thought over the broadcast, but he still felt like he wasn't quite saying it right. He wished his thoughts weren't always so jumbled together, leading him first in one direction and then the next. He would be the first to admit it was hard to follow his train of thought, but it always arrived at the truth in the end. That was the difference. He reached the truth, but everyone else got mired in lies. Lies put out by the government and the corporations and the special interests that ruled this world. But how toarticulate the truth. That was the question. If only he could rely on a friend to co-host with him, and perhaps say the same things more eloquently, and thus lighten the load. Saving the whole world was a crushing duty for a man living on a shoe string. God knows he deserved some help. Wasn't he doing the Lord's work? Hank drained the last of his beer and tossed it into the trash can. Well, he'd done his best, and that's all he could do. Tomorrow he would come back and do the same. When the good Lord was ready, he would open up a way. The Lord worked in mysterious ways, but when a man of true faith knocked, He always opened a door. It was a promise directly from the Bible. God would grant his prayers so long as he had faith. So long as he had faith that God would give him a way to save his country, God would make sure it happened. But first came the trial period. God couldn't grant everyone the prayer to reform the country -- the prayers would become mutually contradictory. Which meant he had to outlast all of his competitors, and be the most faithful servant of the Lord among the whole bunch of knockers. That was okay. Hank was patient. He had endured much worse than his current life. Whenever you're ready, God, I will run for President, and together we'll fix this shambles of a country. Thy will be done.
  When Hank got out of his car and sat down in his extremely comfortable recliner in front of the TV, something was off, though. There was a small, dark blue, shining, floating ball waiting for him in the kitchen.
  "Greetings, Hank. I am Zaffre, from the planet Xiboo. We are impressed by your wisdom, Hank Elroy. You were right -- there are aliens walking the world. But this isn't the only subject the government is keeping from you. We have come here to help mankind, to free them from their oppressive yokes of material want and spiritual depravity, only to find that your governments categorically refuse to cooperate, or even reveal our existence to the broader public. Your program, Hank, is correct in all things. It must be inspired by the Heavens. From our vantage point, it is clear that you are the wisest man to ever live." Zaffre spoke.
  "Except Jesus." Hank corrected the alien.
  "Except Jesus." Zaffre bobbed in the air apologetically. "Therefore, we have taken the only measure we could imagine left. How would you like for the two of us to cooperate? The truth as spoken by a human will be more acceptable to other humans than if we try to tell it to them directly. All you have to do is keep telling the truth to the rest of the world -- we of the wyrd council will take care of the rest."
  "How?" Hank asked, excited at the possibilities. God had answered his prayers, it was clear, and opened a way. But he still needed guidance from above as to how best to use this miraculous opportunity for the good of the world.
  "Our technology is far beyond yours, to the point that you would call it 'magic.' Therefore, we would like to form a partnership with you. If you say "Via tu lusches, Zaffre," the contract will be complete. Then you will be able to use our magic. Why not use it to open up the hearts and minds of your listeners? With magic, we could get people to really listen to what you have to say, in a fair and unbiased manner. The results would be magnificent, Hank. Just think, you telling the truth every day, and everyoneeveryone who hears it agreeing with you -- because all of their prejudices and fears are removed ahead of time. Without any obstacles, the truth you speak could quickly become the most popular show on Earth. And then, who knows? Maybe they'll elect you President."
  "Just so long as it only removes obstacles to the truth. I don't want to trick anyone, you know." Hank shook his finger at Zaffre.
  "Of course. We're only removing obstacles to the listener's ears. It's of course up to them whether they'll accept the truth, once they've finally listened to it with an open mind for the first time. It's up to you to make that truth compelling. We just want to help." Zaffre promised.
  "Well, okay. That sounds swell, Zaffre. What was it again? That contract?" Hank asked good naturedly.
  "Via tu lusches, Zaffre." The alien repeated patiently.
  "Via tu lusches, Zaffre." Hank Elroy repeated, and a warm glow filled his body, which proved God approved.
* * *
  Aiko woke up with the rising sun. The plane was just rolling into the airport, and she had school in just a couple hours. The dream was still vivid enough in her head to be recalled word for word. She groaned quietly to herself. Would the dark wyrds ever run out of ammunition? A radio host that made everyone believe in mutant cow milk that would kill you if you drank it and an earthquake machine the government was deploying to encourage GDP growth. It would destroy the world to believe his siren song in short order, but in the most ridiculous way imaginable. Everyone would just be as stupid as humanly imaginable, and ruin their own lives. I guess when force doesn't work, dark wyrds have no compunction against resorting to fraud.
  Aiko Sakai had to admit one thing though, dark wyrds were really good at scrying. To find Dead Enders this bad was an art. Hank Elroy's ideas were so stupid, they weren't even wrong.
  Aiko would tell the others when they woke up, but it changed nothing. Their objective next weekend was Cho Kai in Korea. Hank would just have to wait until the weekend after. She hoped she didn't have more than one dream a week. That would create a massive headache with their scheduling.

Chapter 13

  The flight to Korea only took a few hours. From the airport, they walked to the nearest secluded park they could find. Then there was a medley of battle cries:
  "Coi, Awesome!" "Coi, Magnolia!" "Coi, Cyan!" "Coi, Xanadu!" "Coi, Onyx!" Rainbow sparkles flashed brilliantly throughout the grove of trees, and team Choice Givers stepped forward in their magical garb. Aiko, of course, was already wearing Bubbles.
  "Everyone, good work last week. Let's keep up this pace. Protect yourself first, protect each other next, and worry about defeating your target last. Are we ready?"
  "Yes sir!" The five girls saluted their commander. Masanori picked up Aiko, Rei picked up Shiori, and Kotone picked up Chiharu to fly the rest of the way to the remote mountain laboratory. Aiko's telepathic link had mind read not only Cho Kai's location, but also lifted from his mind the layout of the guards and checkpoints surrounding all approaches to his facility. The solution they had all come to was simple, fly high in the sky until they were directly overhead their target, shoot a hole through the roof, dive directly down the hole, neutralize Cho Kai, then fly away before anyone could respond. Fighting Dead Enders was one thing, but no one wanted to get involved in a fight with normal soldiers. This would be a strictly surgical operation. In and out in less than five minutes. After another half hour of pleasant and uneventful flying, this time by magic instead of by plane, they hovered directly over their target. Aiko confirmed the shot telepathically one more time, and waved an okay sign to Rei.
  "Everything should just return to zero," Rei Rin chanted, her butterfly wings throwing off darker and darker waves behind her.
  "Amplify," Cyan's blue light started pulsing in sync with Onyx's black.
  "Eclipse!" Rei pointed her finger and a black beam shot forward ahead of it, erasing the steel and concrete of the ceiling and every floor of the facility, as well as a good deal of the bedrock underneath.
  "Before any reinforcements come, let's hurry." Masanori snapped, and the three flyers swept down the newly constructed passageway, each carrying their own non-flying girl.
  "Stop! This floor, take a left. Can you see him yet? The one with the fancy desk." Aiko guided the team. When they were only a meter off the ground, Masanori dropped Aiko, Rei dropped Shiori, and Kotone dropped Chiharu to the floor. Everyone turned to face off against their new opponent. No ambushes this time. It looked like the dark wyrds didn't have the manpower to marshal that many forces every fight.
  "Cho Kai, prepare yourself! We're team Choice Givers, and in the name of Choices, we will punish you!" Kotone pointed her left hand's index finger and pinky at her target while crossing it over her right forearm.
  Everyone stared up at Kotone in disbelief.
  Kotone stuck out her tongue and bit it apologetically to her teammates standing below her. "I just always wanted to say that."
  Shiori shook her head, ridding it of cobwebs. "You heard Kotone. We know all about your scheme to make an ethno-bomb. We have you outnumbered six to one. If you know what's best for you, surrender!"
  "What would you girls know of the wonders of science?" Cho Kai glared at the girls who had crashed through his precious lab's roof. His assistants were scattering in every direction for their lives.
  "And as to being outnumbered, I wonder who really has the upper hand here -- Coi, Ube!" Sparkles surrounded their target, and his outfit changed from a labcoat to -- a labcoat. But this one had a purple gem over his right breast radiating light. He was also carrying a wicked looking laser pointer.
  "Everyone, be careful, his magic is to change one life form into another." Aiko shouted across the room.
  "Really?" Rei asked excitedly.
  "A surveillance type, huh? How clever of you, Choice Givers. Every day in the lab, I use my magic to switch a gene here and a gene there, then try again. Failure after failure, failure after failure, every day I change the samples and try again. But it's all worth it. In exchange for making their bomb, they've given me money, assistants, authority, and the lab of my dreams. You may have figured out my secret project and my secret power, but did you know my magic can do something like this?" Cho Kai swept his magical lab-coat equipped arm upwards dramatically:
  "Gigaaaaaaaaaaaaaa---Gigantorrrrrrrrrrrrr---Victoryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!" With each word Cho Kai became less himself, and more something else. Sparkles surrounded his body as it started expanding and growing taller and taller, until his head smashed through the roof of the building and kept growing further still.
  "Aaaghh!" Kotone flitted back and forth on her rainbow wings, dodging the falling rubble.
  "Everyone, gather together!" Masanori ordered. He was already slicing his sword in a circle over his head. Everyone jumped to the center of the room.
  "Behold my perfect form!" Cho Kai boomed. He was no longer a labcoat suited scientist. He was a giant robot. The body was mainly painted white, but it had red wings, yellow eyes, and a dizzying pattern of blue stripes and rectangles. There was a purple glowing furnace in his chest, and more distressingly, lots and lots of missiles poking out of various compartments. That, and he was carrying a laser gun larger than a bus.
  "GIGANTOR BEAMMMMMMMMMMMM!" Gigantor Kai leveled his cannon at his foes and pulled the trigger.
  "Angle Exile." Masanori invoked. The cut circle rotated into a haze of empty space, and the blinding bolt of energy disappeared above them into the great unknown.
  "Chiharu, aim for the legs!" Shiori shouted.
  "Roger!" Chiharu said, crouched beneath their angle shield as she started charging her own laser gun for a return shot.
  "Rapid fire." Shiori said, and jets of flame appeared on her boots.
  "EVERYONE STOP!" Rei shouted at the top of her voice.
  First all of her friends turned to look at her, confused.
  Then Gigantor Kai stopped to look in confusion as well.
  "However much money they're giving you, I'll give you more, so please just stop making bombs!" Rei Rin pleaded upwards at Gigantor Kai at the top of her voice.
  "Done!" Rei Rin shouted back.
  "Ehhhhhh?" Kotone turned to stare at her friend. "That's almost ten trillion yen you know!"
  "I'm sorry!" Rei put out her hand vertically in front of her face to Kotone. "I'll pay you back somehow, I promise! I'll quit college and get a job!"
  "Ehhhhhhhhh?" Kotone was smiling awkwardly. "Even if you say that. . ."
  "Rei, I'm rich, but that's more mining than the entire world economy can consume in a year, no matter how much I dig up. . .and I don't even know how long it would take to mine that much. . .wouldn't it be better to just beat the robot? For my sake?" Masanori gave Rei a hopeful look.
  "You can't! I need Cho Kai to marry Onyx!" Rei started blushing furiously.
  "Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh?" Now Kotone, Magnolia, Chiharu, Cyan, Shiori, Awesome, Masanori and Xanadu all responded in shocked unison.
  Rei bowed to Masanori, then turned her face upwards to give him her widest puppy dog eyes. She looked ready to cry if he said anything more.
  "Umm," Masanori rubbed the back of his head, unable to resist Rei any longer. Turning, he shouted up to the robot in the sky. "Can you accept payment in installments?"
  Gigantor Kai rubbed his robo chin with his left, non-gun-carrying robo arm. "IF I COULD BUILD A TELESCOPE TEN TIMES THE SIZE OF THE HUBBLE. . ."
  "You could, you could!" Rei shouted encouragingly.
  "You could, you could!" Rei nodded vigorously.
  "THEN. . ." Gigantor Kai turned into a blizzard of sparkles, and his form started shrinking again, gradually turning from a series of metallic rectangles back into curved human flesh. "I guess we have a deal. I never liked working for the government anyway. It's just a distraction from experiments of real worth, if you ask me."
  "Yataaaa!" Rei shouted, flying into the Korean's arms for a giant hug.
  "I guess this counts as Rei's conversion." Shiori smiled proudly, looking at her twin sister, who wore the happiest face Shiori had ever seen.
  "What are you talking about?" Kotone scoffed in indignation. "This totally counts as Masanori's! She's spending his money!"
  "I think you've picked up the wrong impression somewhere. It's not like we're all required to convert at least one world menace.. ." Chiharu reminded her friends.
  "Then, half and half?" Shiori smiled and held out her hand to Kotone.
  "Half and half." Kotone shook Shiori's hand. Both of them looked ridiculously pleased with their negotiating skills.
  "I wonder who Isao will convert?" Shiori asked.
  "That's a tough one." Kotone agreed, tapping her lips with her index finger. "He doesn't exactly talk much to his opponents, what with the stabbing out of nowhere and all."
  "Umm, guys, you've got it all wrong. . ." Chiharu started, and then she shook her head and turned away. "Forget it. . .No one listens to me anymore." Chiharu sighed. Shiori and Kotone laughed and tackled her in a three way hug to console her.
  That's two down, Aiko thought happily. And one more to go.
* * *
  Their return flight had one more person than their original. It was readily agreed that Cho Kai would live in Kotone's mansion for now. There were enough guest rooms that it wasn't a burden in the least, and the Choice Givers wanted him nearby to make sure he was abiding by his half of the bargain.
  "Listen," Rei Rin sat down across from Cho Kai. "I need a super convenient magic on your part. Can you make the wyrds into some sort of hybrid species? I want them to keep their ability to use magic, especially scrying, because no wyrd would go without that sense for an instant, but to also have a fully functional human form. Plus, when I say, "Coi, Onyx," I still need that human form to transform into a proper wyrd gem for my suit. Also, the wyrd still has to obey me like before. Don't change that! Basically keep everything the same but make him human too. So human we can have kids together. If you can turn into a giant robo, this should be easy, right?"
  "The key is imagination. If it can be imagined clearly, it can be done. If I don't understand how it could possibly work, it can't be done. If I could just generate a life form based on people's wishes, I could have finished an ethno-bomb long ago." Cho Kai shrugged, unwilling to promise anything.
  "But it can be done? If you studied the problem?" Rei asked encouragingly.
  "There's nothing I can't do if I study the problem." Cho Kai adjusted his glasses. "But I'm saying humans don't really understand what makes a wyrd a wyrd. They don't have DNA, so how could I preserve a wyrd's abilities if they were human? How could I code into DNA the ability to revert into a miniature magical being at will? It sounds like a paradox."
  "We're Choice Givers. We use magic. There's no such thing as impossible in this world." Rei Rin stressed, squeezing her hands together worriedly. "This is one hundred trillion won we're talking about. And this research doesn't end up killing the world. Please? If you want, you could start on me. . .like, turn me into a wyrd and back. . .instead of Onyx into a human and back. I'll be your test subject."
  "I. . .doubt that would help." Cho Kai looked at the short, long haired girl again, still amazed she was nineteen. But he couldn't hide the admiration from his voice. She wasn't pursuing her goal half-heartedly. She was fighting for it like a lion. A spirit like that deserved some sort of response. "But I'll certainly call you if the need arises."
  "Then, you'll do it? It would be so much help to everyone." Rei smiled joyously, thinking of the prospects. "I know Awesome and Magnolia would like to be together, and Cyan's already proposed to Chiharu. . ."
  "Hey! Don't spread weird ideas." Chiharu interrupted Rei. "I never said yes to Cyan. He doesn't have a graduate degree or a good job."
  "But Chiharu," Rei gave her a crooning voice. "You know he could do that easily once he's human. Cyan's brilliant, and he's always serious. He's an alien from a higher civilization. How hard could our math and such really be for the likes of him?"
  "Well, who knows? The point is we aren't betrothed, and we won't be until he proves himself, just like anyone else." Chiharu said.
  "You don't have to be so reserved." Rei replied. "You can be happy about this too. You two were made for each other. Isn't that obvious? Wasn't that obvious from the day you met Cyan? It was obvious from the day I met Onyx."
  "Yes, well." Chiharu looked sideways, starting to blush. "Just don't go marrying people on your own. Cyan will start getting ideas. . .I won't lower my standards just because I love him. . .that is, just because I've known him for a long time, and he took advantage of my girlish innocence when I didn't know how to say no. . ."
  "Honestly. Like you were ever innocent." Rei scowled.
  "Says the girl who tried to destroy the world." Chiharu scowled back.
  "Well sorry for that." Rei Rin glared.
  Chiharu looked stricken, realizing what she had just said. "Oh, I'm so sorry Rei. I didn't mean it."
  Rei shook her head, immediately tossing away her assumed pique. "It's okay, you know. It's been six years. I don't need coddling forever. Actually, it hurts more that no one ever teases me. I'm always that half step further away as a friend than you three are to each other, because you're so worried about hurting me. Tease me as much as you like. It doesn't hurt anymore. You did a great job of making it not hurt anymore. All of you."
  "So, umm, Cyan, are you listening?" Chiharu was suddenly nervous that they had been sleeping together every night.
  "Yes." Cyan's blue light flashed out of her necklace that always lay just under her shirt.
  "Would you like to become human?" Chiharu asked.
  "Yes." Cyan replied.
  "And, would you like to go to graduate school? And get a good job? Like, say, an accountant or a lawyer? You'd make a great lawyer, don't you think?" Chiharu asked.
  "I think I could handle that." Cyan said.
  "And. . .you still haven't changed your mind about marriage?" Chiharu asked nervously.
  "Honestly, I never proposed in the first place." Cyan sighed. "But I suppose I haven't changed my mind. You're the most beautiful girl in the world to me. There's nowhere else I want to be than by your side, for as long as I live. Now that the prospect has emerged, yes, I want to marry you."
  "No fair." Rei turned on her wyrd. "Onyx, you haven't even said that to me yet!"
  "There's nowhere else I want to be than at your side, great mistress." Onyx flashed waves of darkness.
  "It's too late for that!" Rei hmphed and turned her head away. Even so, Cho could see her cheeks coloring.
  Cho Kai didn't understand what he was watching. These young girls were enjoying their lives, but they didn't know the answer to a single important question. It was a contradiction. How could anyone be happy without knowing whether string theory or quantum foam theory was the correct model of the universe? There was something wrong with these people. Who imagined having a romance with your wyrd? Ube was a tool. A data device. What else could he be? Did girls think of nothing but marriage no matter who they met? And why did he have to work for such a childish dream? He was the greatest scientist on Earth. He should be researching something great. Not how to make a girl happy. Even if she hugged me for it. Even if that's the first time I've ever made anyone happy. It's all nonsense.
  Cho Kai decided to break the project down into pieces. If a wyrd's structure could be digitized, like he digitized his own brain for Gigantor Kai, then that digital blueprint could then be transferred into a DNA code, just like Gigantor Kai was reverted to Cho Kai. If you think about it that way, a transformation wasn't impossible. All information could be contained in binary code. Whether it was condensed magical essence or carbon, there was a digital translation. They key was extracting all the necessary data, so that nothing was left out from the original. Once the brains were completed, bodies were easy. He had long since been able to construct working cells out of base elements. And magic made up for the mass-energy conversion issues easily. A drop of magic from the etheric plane was worth an ocean of energy in this plane, due to their fractal relationship. The bodies could be as healthy and attractive as the girls liked. There was nothing mystical about fertility. It was all just stem cells. He understood stem cells.
  The question was how to digitize the information inside a wyrd's magical chemistry. Plus, the conduit had to be upkept. If the tube was severed, he doubted it could be reconnected. How could DNA be tuned to still be able to wield magic? It wouldn't work for non-wyrds, because they didn't have conduits to the the etheric plane to tap. It would be like having the nerves to move a hand but no hand in the first place. But it just might work for a wyrd. . .
  Cho Kai got out a pen and started scribbling onto his notepad. He didn't care anymore about the consequences. He just wanted to know how it could be done. Knowing was happiness.
* * *
  Rei Rin opened the unlocked door to their house. The flight to Korea was faster than most, so it was Saturday night instead of Sunday night. She was still exhausted, for various reasons that had little to do with how long she'd been awake. Feelings kept rushing through her, and the runaway stampede had never stopped. Hope and fear. Worry about her new, ten trillion yen debt to her friend, and wondering if Masanori would be okay paying for it all. Hoping Cho Kai wasn't really a bad person, knowing she had taken a huge risk leaving him alive and free to study whatever he pleased again. Her thoughts went round and round. And then there was the knowledge that she would soon be a bride. She had never even gone on a first date with a boy, and she would be married soon.
  "I'm home." Rei Rin called out, slipping off her outdoor shoes.
  "Welcome home." Daddy called out from the living room, watching the news as he was accustomed to do. "Did you have a fun trip?"
  "Yes, Daddy." Rei slipped into her indoor slippers and walked over to the TV, leaning down over the couch and hugging her arms around his chest from behind.
  "What's this?" Daddy looked at Rei curiously.
  "Nothing. I just might be moving out soon. And I might be introducing you to a boy I like soon. And I'm going to miss this. I'm going to miss my life here so much." Rei fought back her tears. Today was a happy day. It was the day her dreams had come true. There was no point feeling melancholy about it!
  "In other news," The TV anchorwoman spoke, "A giant robot was seen over a remote branch of Seoul National University's research wing. After firing what seemed to be a laser cannon, which left enormous structural damage to the building and even a giant hole in the rock beneath, it appears to have. . .flown away to places unknown. Tell me, Mr. Nakamura, how much energy would it take for a laser to vaporize this much rock?"
  "It's a truly astounding weapon. If I hadn't seen the damage myself, I would have imagined it was another trick of the notorious hackers from six years ago. But now I think Korea has questions to answer. What weapons has it been developing, and why? Where did this giant robot go, and why won't they admit they're the ones behind it?" Mr. Nakamura wondered aloud.
  "The United Nations has already called for a comprehensive diplomatic rapprochement between all concerned parties. Worries that China might respond with a giant robot of their own aren't unwarranted. Isn't it time that the free world either guaranteed the safety of Korea or demanded free and fair elections in China, the last despotism in East Asia?" The TV anchorwoman asked.
  "I think that's a question we have to be asking ourselves. The United States in particular, with their long history of friendship with South Korea, needs to reaffirm their commitment to defending United Korea as well. Simply picking up their troops and going home when North Korea fell has obviously caused an unnecessary panic in the Korean government, or a secret weapons program like this giant robot never would have been designed." Mr. Nakamura agreed sagely.
  "In unrelated news, Seoul National University's leading scientist has announced his resignation, and has been hired by Angle Corporation to begin working on a space telescope, he says, will be ten times as large as the Hubble space telescope. Mr. Nakamura, can you hypothesize on why Angle Corporation would be seeking a telescope at this time?"
  "It can only mean their mineral rights are running low. Rather than seeking new leases in the competitive field of terrestial mining, Angle corporation must want to find particularly rich asteroids to mine from outer space. If, for instance, they could spot an asteroid with an orbit that crosses near the Earth, it's conceivable that with just a few pushes, or even by shining a laser on the asteroid, it could be guided into a safe location in the Australian desert. A mining interest could make great use of a space telescope that precise. A single asteroid could supply the whole world for years when it comes to any number of metals. . ."
  Rei and Shiori looked at each other in astonishment, and then they started giggling. Rei reminded herself to never trust the news again.

Chapter 14

  The Miyamoto's private jet landed at Athens-Ben Epps airport, and team Choice Givers filed out of the plane. The past week had passed uneventfully. Most importantly, Aiko Sakai hadn't had any further premonitionary dreams. Once this mission was done, they were caught up with their dark wyrd backlog. Hopefully, this wasn’t because the dark wyrds had gone on vacation, but because Aiko’s telepathy had completely stymied their plan such that they must have agreed to abandon it as unworkable. No one really thought they had managed to neutralize every last dark wyrd left who could make a contract. But if the dark wyrds couldn’t beat them in a straight fight, and couldn’t sneakily kill them while they weren’t watching from a distance, they would have to relapse into inaction again. If they could just beat Hank Elroy, this round of the battle was over. If the dark wyrds committed any more resources, they would only be throwing good money after bad. Once they had realized what was happening, they had stopped, just like any general would cease using losing tactics that was wasting their men. Which meant wyrd war two was coming to an end. Aiko wouldn’t miss it when it was gone. War was scary, and even when you had to kill the person standing against you, it felt like such a waste. . .because even those people still had good things about them you could respect. Even those people would’ve been better to have as friends.
  Knowing the wyrd’s sense of time, their new plan may well be to wait until Aiko died, and then find a new Dead Ender with a world-ending agenda. She wouldn’t put it past them. But by then, new Choice Givers would emerge in time to stop them. The dark wyrds wouldn’t win. Because in the end, good people were stronger. Despite the efforts of evil men across the ages, the world had progressed this far. That arrow of progress would continue into the future. It was life’s destiny.
  In just the six school days team Choice Givers had taken off, Hank Elroy’s radio show had drawn in millions of new listeners, as word of mouth spread that ‘this man talked sense.’ He had been invited onto a debating show on a cable news channel, and had completely floored his opponents, who had all been eager to agree with him by the end of the hour. All of the viewers of that news channel had similarly become fervent advocates of Hank Elroy. Soon he was invited onto additional shows, because his popularity was stratospheric among the ‘Hankatrons,’ and drew higher ratings every time he was invited on.
  Generally level-headed news announcers found themselves bubbling over with praise for Hank seconds after he opened his mouth. Those who hadn’t heard Hank on the radio or watched him on TV found it all very strange, because the man had no credentials and never made any sense in print. But they had seen these sorts of celebrity fads come and go before. They had no idea how close to the endpoint of Hank Elroy’s exponentially growing popularity the world was tipping. If multiple world leaders listened in to one of Hank‘s rambling dialogues, there was a possibility of immediate nuclear war. Hank himself had no idea what he was doing. The poor fool was basking in his success and humbly thanking the Lord for his sudden reversal of fortune. But he had to be stopped. He had to be convinced to undo all the harm he had done and cast away his use of magic, or killed. Just one flippant remark about how all genetically altered crops should be banned could cause world famines. One humorous mention that atheists deserved to be burned at the stake like in the past and millions of people would die. While his popularity still hadn’t quite metastasized, they had to end things now.
  Giving someone the power to make unpersuasive arguments persuasive was truly one of the most terrifying dead ends imaginable.
  “Alright, everyone. After we’ve transformed, remember to insert your earplugs. Just in case his magic is visual, be sure not to read his lips either. We’ll have the wyrds translate what he’s saying for us. His persuasive power seems to be an emanation from his suit, not his magical forte, which means it can’t be countered or reflected like the last compulsion user we fought. I can’t think of how we could lose this fight, since Aiko has told us his ability in advance, but stay alert anyway.” Masanori advised his squad.
  “Yes sir!” His squad of teenage girls of varying beauty saluted him.
  “In that case, let’s find some taxis and get a ride to his trailer park. Aiko says Hank Elroy doesn’t even know what he’s doing. If we can convince him to tell everyone to forget everything he said, and turn over his wyrd to us, this can all be resolved peacefully. But either way, this is our last battle, and we’re going to win.”
  “Ohhh!” The girls agreed cheerfully, punching their fists into the air. They piled into some taxis that serviced the airport and gave Aiko’s precise directions to the driver. Aiko swallowed, remembering how bad a negotiator she had been last time they relied on her. This time she definitely wouldn’t volunteer. Chiharu said Shiori made great speeches. Aiko could just leave it all up to her. She’d already done her part just by guiding them to Hank’s location and telling them his magic. That was more than enough for anyone.
  Once they had piled out of the taxis and paid their fare, they lined up one more time:
  Coi, Xanadu!” “Coi, Cyan!” “Coi, Magnolia!” “Coi, Onyx!” “Coi, Awesome!”
  Team Choice Givers inserted their earplugs, nodded to each other, and then Shiori stepped forward to knock on Hank’s door.
  The sound of a barking dog greeted them, followed by a few dense footfalls. Hank opened the door and gave them a gruff question, which the wyrds immediately translated with magic: “Who is it? I told my fans not to bother me at home.”
  “I’m Shiori Rin, a Choice Giver.” Shiori bowed politely. “We wanted to talk to you about your wyrd.”
  “I’ve never told anyone about wyrds. Who are you?” Hank asked angrily.
  “Like I said, we’re Choice Givers. We have wyrds too, so it isn’t surprising we know about yours. Your wyrd has been deceiving you, Mr. Elroy. The magic you’re using is poisonous. You aren’t convincing people with good speeches, or the help of the Lord. It’s pure brainwashing. People are helpless against the sound of your voice. He’s using you to destroy the whole world.” Shiori explained.
  “Oh, I get it. You’re from the government. You’ve come to hush me up. You’re part of F-12. I know all about you. I know what you want. You plan to eat half of mankind when the global cooling starts, and silence anyone who finds out. Whether you have alien collaborators or not doesn’t matter. The Good Lord has assured me I’m doing His work. I can feel it in my heart. I don’t have to answer to cannibals.” Hank sneered.
  “Mr. Elroy, please, we aren’t working for anyone. I don’t know what F-12 even stands for. . .” Shiori tried to get back on track.
  “Fight Force Fraud Fatally -- Favored Few Fumigate Fools -- Fellowship Finders Fake Forever.” Hank Elroy rolled off his litany.
  “Umm.” Shiori bit her cheek. Were the dark wyrds getting better at finding people who simply could not be convinced? No, there had to be a way.
  “In any case, we’re not from F-12. We’re just concerned citizens. Please go back to using your own voice in public. If the Lord favors you, He can do so without cheap magic tricks, right? Face the public on your own two feet. It would be good for everyone. Isn’t that the pride of a professional?” Shiori asked.
  “If you aren’t from F-12 you’re transformed space lizards who deal in human skins on the interstellar black market. I can see it in your eyes. Never mind, I will cure you of your mistakes, like I’ve cured everyone else. Did you really think earplugs would make a difference?” Hank Elroy walked back into his trailer.
  The Choice Givers gave each other a despairing look. Could they really kill a man for stupidity alone? But what other choice was he giving them?
  There was a squeal from an overhead radio box. Everyone looked up.
  “Oh no.” Chiharu said. Simultaneously, everyone realized the noise had been loud enough for them to hear.
  “You will all cease your evil ways and listen to the Lord’s truth, Hank Elroy’s wisdom, from today forward!” The trailer’s sound system blared at maximum volume. Aiko ducked in pain, trying to cover her ears. Are you kidding me? Did we just fall for this? At the very last stage?
  “Take out your earplugs and abandon all hostile intentions!” The radio blared.
  “That seems reasonable.” Masanori said, tossing his earplugs. The other girls agreed and tossed their earplugs to the ground, giving a starry eyed stare towards the trailer in the hopes that Hank would share more wisdom with them.
  Aiko watched them. She didn’t feel anything. “Bubbles, what’s happening?” She asked her partner in a whisper.
  “Telepathy can instinctively parse truth from lies. Your truth sense has saved you. Thank God you use magic at all times, just like him.” Bubbles replied magically through her ears.
  “So these earplugs are useless?” Aiko whispered back to Bubbles.
  “It seems so.” Bubbles said. “How will you beat him? Do you have any hidden talent for martial arts?”
  “I’ll continue the debate.” Aiko said fiercely, tossing her earplugs aside.
  “With Fight Force Fraud Fatally Favored Few Fumigate Fools Fellowship Finders Fake Forever man?” Bubbles blinked in bewilderment.
  “Choice Givers can break down any wall, right? I can beat him with words alone. I have to beat him with words! He’s like three times my weight!” Aiko hissed back.
  “Now that everyone has calmed down, I’d like everyone here to admit they’re space lizards.” Hank sat down on his trailer’s steps, getting out a cigarette.
  “Certainly.” Rei agreed.
  “Of course.” Chiharu nodded.
  “What else?” Kotone watched Hank admiringly.
  “Go to hell.” Aiko Sakai put her fists on her hips and stared down her nose at him.
  Hank dropped his cigarette unlit, a shock running through him. “Admit you’re a space lizard now.”
  “I’m not a space lizard, and neither are my friends.” Aiko replied. “What’s wrong? You aren’t used to disagreement anymore? Why don’t you try to beat me in a fair fight, words against words? What does magic have to do with anything?”
  “Without Zaffre’s magic, no one gives me a fair hearing. They just call me a conspiracy nut and laugh. They aren’t willing to consider the evidence. They shut their brains down before my words enter their ears. I’m just leveling the playing field.” Hank Elroy replied defiantly.
  “And if I promise to give you a fair hearing?” Aiko asked him.
  “What does it matter. I know everyone but me is a liar.” Hank shrugged her off.
  “And if I promise to listen and talk to you until you yourself have changed your mind?” Aiko asked him again.
  “Ridiculous. The evidence is overwhelming. We both have aliens. What more is there to say? All the conspiracies are true.” Hank said with fervent conviction.
  “If it’s ridiculous, you wouldn’t be afraid to take me up on the bet. I’ll give you a fair hearing, and nothing but a fair hearing, whether you try to use magic on me or not. In return, if I change your mind, you give up your magic and tell everyone to forget everything you’ve said ever since the day you received that wyrd.” Aiko dared him.
  Hank spat in his palm and held it out. “You’re on, little missy.”
  Aiko closed her eyes for three seconds, then spat in her palm and shook his hand, trying not to cringe. “The name’s Aiko Sakai. From here on, I will be your opponent.”
  “Do you deny the world’s temperature is actually cooling, not warming?” Hank began.
  “I don’t know anything about that.” Aiko replied quickly.
  “Then, do you deny the government can cause earthquakes?” Hank’s eyes started sparkling again.
  “I don’t know either way.” Aiko replied quickly.
  “Then, are you aware that Monsanto has been inserting special parasites into their genetically modified crops that eat our brains?” Hank challenged.
  “I can neither confirm nor deny that.” Aiko answered.
  “But. . .then, what is there to debate?” Hank looked at her in confusion. “What happened to your promise?”
  “I’m arguing with you as promised. I just consider all of these facts irrelevant.” Aiko answered.
  “Irrelevant! The world’s at stake!” Hank bellowed. “How can these things be irrelevant?”
  “Because you aren’t asking the right questions. Here, how about you try answering some of mine. Why do you think you know better than anyone else? Why do you care what happens to the world? Why do you have so little faith in your fellow man?” Aiko stabbed at Hank with her eyes. She had come a long way since being afraid to talk to strangers.
  “Of course I know better. I’m the only one with an open mind, who really consults the evidence. And who doesn’t care about the world? And it’s not like everyone’s evil. It’s just those few conspirators at the top, that’s all I’m saying.” Hank defended himself.
  “How do you know you’re the only one with an open mind? Because you’ve already decided you were right, and therefore any open mind would agree with you. But that’s just a circular argument. What if there were plenty of people with open minds, but you’re wrong? Wouldn’t it make sense for them to disagree with you then?” Aiko challenged him.
  “What?” Hank rubbed his head.
  Aiko sighed. Maybe logic wasn’t going to work after all. “What do you love about the world, Hank? If it’s just idiots who will believe anything and do whatever they’re told and their cruel cannibal mind virus overlords, why protect it?”
  “It’s the world, you know. It’s where I live. It’s natural to care about it.” Hank objected.
  “But what about the world do you love?” Aiko asked.
  “Well. . .I dunno. . . ball games, I guess.” Hank replied.
  “So you have to stop the space lizards and the earthquake machines and Monsanto and K-12 so you can watch more ball games in peace?” Aiko asked.
  “No. I mean. Jesus told us to love our neighbors. It’s my Christian duty.” Hank changed tack.
  “What is love? Is it loving to not trust anyone else’s opinion but your own, on anything? Is it loving to think the absolute worst of everyone else on Earth?” Aiko asked.
  “People can have some flaws while still being good in other ways.” Hank complained.
  “But this many?” Aiko asked, giving him a pitying look. “Do we really have, as a body, this many flaws? Have you ever once believed in a conspiracy of good people that were secretly trying to help the world?”
  “I. . .conspiracies live in the shadows. Good people can thrive in the light.” Hank guarded her attack.
  “Hank, I’m part of a conspiracy to help the world. I’m secretly saving the world, over and over, precisely because the world won’t accept us acting in the open. You’re part of the conspiracy to destroy it. The wyrd council is the conspiracy to destroy the world.” Aiko stressed.
  “Why should I believe you? You’re just a particularly effective space lizard, what does your word matter?” Hank stood up angrily.
  “I don’t matter at all.” Aiko shook her head, her black hair flaring behind her. “I only ask you to believe the whispers of your own heart. Ask me the questions I asked you, and then decide for yourself.” Aiko dared Hank.
  “Then, why do you want to protect the world. Why do you believe you‘re always right? Why do you think so little of your fellow man?” Hank said.
  “Answer One: I want to protect the world because I love it here. I love myself. I love my sisters. I love my friends. I love my parents. I love my country. I love eating, and sleeping, and bathing, and kissing. I love learning. I love breathing. I love color. I love sound. I love reading books. I love writing books. I love the characters in other people’s books. I love the characters in my books. I love thinking. I love wind. I love stars. I love storms. I love cities. I love comedy. I love tragedy. I love it when people praise me. I love it when people pay attention to me. I love it when I win at something. I love it when I catch boys staring. I love knowing I still have an entire lifetime of these things left to live. I love knowing that someday, I’ll give all these gifts to my children, and grow them from nothing out of my own flesh, and then I’ll get to love them too.” Aiko took a breath.
  “Answer Two: I don’t think I’m always right. But that’s okay. I don't have to have all the answers, because I can always learn them from someone else. If I'm mistaken or confused, I don't have to figure it out. I can just ask someone else. Artists, scientists, philosophers, friends, family, or even aliens! There's no answer that someone doesn't know. If I keep an open mind, if I just keep on learning, I'll always stay on the right path. Humans become stronger when we rely on one another. I don't have to be perfect -- if the shards of perfect wisdom are scattered across the whole world, just a tiny bit in each person's soul, then I'll just gather them all up! That's why I read minds. That's why I read books. And that's why the whole world, past and present, communicates with each other every day.” Aiko paused.
  “Answer Three: You’re right, I don’t have much faith in mankind. But I don’t need them to justify my own life. Whether they’re victims or oppressors, what does that have to do with me? My choice is to keep getting better! The rest will take care of itself!"
  And in that moment, Bubbles started to glow an incredibly bright sky blue. “Aiko! Aiko!”
  “Not now, Bubbles!” Aiko hissed.
  “You did it! Your neighborhood. . .It’s a city!. . .It’s a metropolis!. . .the skyscrapers are a hundred stories tall. The roads are snaking around each other in a giant maze. And everywhere I look. . .on top of every roof, there’s still scaffolding building up to the next floor!” Bubbles glowed so brightly it was pouring through her shirt.
  “What does that mean?” Aiko asked, staring down at her wyrd in astonishment.
  “Your city has infinite possibilities! Aiko, you’re a Choice Giver!” Bubbles shouted in glee.
  Aiko couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t see her debating opponent anymore, even though the world was at stake. Everything was blurred behind a veil of tears.

Chapter 15

  Shiori Rin waited in the one place she needed to be. She was wearing a summer one piece white dress with thin straps that left her arms and shoulders mostly bare, a wide brimmed straw hat with a daisy blossom stuck in its headband, wooden sandals with red thongs and thick white socks. It had been five months since the end of wyrd war two. Now that it was summer, Isao would definitely return. She had a lot to tell him.
  Steps could be heard from behind. "Shiori? Is that you?" Shiori smiled before she even turned around. Kotone had really helped her out this time.
  "What is it, Isao? Don't tell me you've forgotten my face already." Shiori teased.
  "It's not that. What did you do with your hair?" Isao asked.
  "I grew it out a little bit." Shiori passed her fingers through her hair, lifting it up and letting it fall back down over her shoulders. "Is it no good?"
  "No. It suits you." Isao said. Then he walked by her towards his true destination. The flowers in his hand and the bucket and ladle full of water made his intentions clear. He put the tied together bouquet of three white roses in front of Ryo's grave, and knelt down onto his back heels to pray. He closed his eyes and sat quietly. Shiori sat quietly on a bench nearby. She understood his priorities. She wouldn't have had them any other way. It was a hot day, and the cicadas were still out and about. But there was a refreshing breeze that kept playing with her hair and pushing it in front of her face. Long hair was so troublesome. But he had said it suited her.
  The two meditated in silence, and then Isao stood up and bowed to his departed friend. He dipped his ladle into his wooden bucket, and then carefully poured the water over his tombstone. The water was instantly sucked into the granite, turning it a darker gray. Isao clapped twice and then bowed again. Shiori didn't dare join in the ritual. It would be presumptuous. Ryo wasn't her friend.
  Isao stood, his eyes as clear and bright as ever, not showing a hint of pain. "If you wanted to contact me, you could have called." Isao said, walking over to her bench and sitting down beside her.
  "I could have." Shiori agreed. Isao smiled when she didn't continue.
  "So? Is something wrong?" Isao asked.
  "Will you listen to a long story?" Shiori asked him. She stared at her sandals and socks, not wanting to look at him just yet. Her white dress created a sort of unfolding fan around her legs.
  "I'm free for the day." Isao agreed.
  "Kotone married just a few days after turning eighteen. I was her best maid. Masanori wanted you to be his best man, but you didn't come. We all missed you." Shiori said.
  "I was busy." Isao explained.
  "Was that all?" Shiori asked, her voice rising a bit before she got it back under control. "This Christmas, you were invited again. We all had a great time at Kotone's house. But you weren't there again, even though we had a wonderful surprise to show you. We all missed you."
  "I was busy." Isao said.
  "Yes, you were. After that, a lot of crazy things happened. Did you know? We all became billionaires. You did too. Masanori and Kotone promised to give everyone involved in saving the world a hundred million yen every year for the rest of our lives. When we tried to turn her down, she got down on her hands and knees and begged us to take the money. She said we deserved it, and it was the least she could do. Have you thanked Kotone for that?" Shiori asked.
  Isao shook his head.
  "Idiot Isao." Shiori said just loudly enough to be heard. "The surprise was that Masanori had perfected his Angle Exile technique. Instead of it just sending things who-knows-where, he could pinpoint where the portal would open up on the other side. He opened up a portal to another world. I ran into it and picked a fern. It's still in my room. You would have been amazed. Rei said it meant 'we won.' That life could never be stopped again, that we've outraced the threat of death forever. I was really happy. We were all really happy."
  Isao nodded.
  "After that, we started recruiting people from around the world, with essay tests and scrying, to come populate our new universes. Masanori, Kotone, Chiharu, Rei and me all worked together to filter out the perfect seed stock to people new worlds. We could have used you then too. But you were busy." Shiori said.
  Isao nodded.
  "Chiharu's little sister accidentally found Bubbles, and there was a big uproar. She became a magical girl, like us, even though she was still a Dead Ender. Before too long, she started having bad dreams. Dreams of Dead Enders with new plots to destroy the world, plots that didn't even involve confrontations. We never would've noticed these Dead Enders in time if not for Aiko. Masanori was so concerned for our safety, he became our squad leader. Even though we hadn't populated a single new world, he had to fight on the front line for all of us. Because you were busy." Shiori said.
  Isao winced.
  "Kotone nearly died in the ensuing fight. Because you were busy." Shiori said, her anger rising despite herself.
  Isao bit his cheek.
  "After that, things went a bit better. We bribed a Dead Ender to switch sides, by leveraging all of Masanori's future wealth as well as all the wealth he had, in a direct bidding war with Korea. He found out how to turn wyrds into hybrids, who could be humans or wyrds at will. He cast the spell on each of our wyrds, but not on Black, because you were busy." Shiori said.
  Isao looked suprised.
  "Rei, my sister, married Onyx, her wyrd, a few days later. I was her best maid. You would've been invited. But you were busy." Shiori said.
  "After that, Awesome married Magnolia, because I ordered him to, I'm afraid." Shiori stuck out her tongue and bit it. "But I knew he really wanted to, if he just ever summoned up the courage. I think Kotone may have ordered Magnolia to agree." Shiori giggled.
  "You would've been invited to that wedding too. But you were busy." Shiori got back on track. "Then, an amazing turn of events came about. Oh, before then, I should tell you that I was throwing a bit of a fuss in the winter, because I heard that our wyrds were going to die not in 200 years Earth time, but just fifteen. I didn't want our wyrds to die in fifteen years. So I worked with Awesome, Rei, and Cyan to send a message to the etheric plane. "Fold upwards. It works." That's really the only clue we could give. But it was enough. A couple of months ago, a new wyrd blipped into our dimension with the news. Her name is Capri. She's a bright blue color, and very energetic. She volunteered to come to Earth, because she thought it would be fun. We made her into a hybrid wyrd/human too, but because she was so young, she ended up being just ten years old. She's adorable, you know. Kotone and Masanori agreed to take her in. They said it was 'practice' for their own child. Kotone's pregnant, you see. She's due in a couple months. But she couldn't tell you. Because you were busy." Shiori said.
  "But I was talking about Capri, wasn't I? Capri told us how the wyrds did it, acting on our clue. They evacuated about one third of their universe, and used it as fuel to launch a single machine to a higher dimension. It wasn't very big. Maybe as big as a pencil eraser. But it still blew up a huge region of space. It sucked out almost all the remaining magic in their plane. It was an all or nothing gambit." Shiori said, her hands pressed tightly against her thighs. She hadn't turned to look at Isao directly once.
  "The device had a program in it, once it reached the new plane -- its first job was to replicate itself. The energy density up there was far beyond anything the wyrds had ever used or needed. Once it had harvested enough matter and energy, it switched to stage two -- building a folding device. The entire process was input into its memory. When it was done, it folded the original nanite back down to the etheric plane -- opening up a conduit. The wyrds are eating a new energy source now. It will last a long time. And when it runs out, why, they can sacrifice a third of the new universe to fold even higher, and replenish it with energy from even higher. Since scrying shows we're alone in the multiverse, they can harvest as many planes as they want, without ever hurting any other sentient life. They're saved. I was a first rate Choice Giver, you know. I gave hope to an entire species. Everyone will go on living happily, now, because of me. I wanted to tell you. But you were busy." Shiori started crying. She had never been good when it came to crying. She cried over everything.
  "Idiot Isao." Shiori spun her face up, tears running down her cheeks. "We're your friends, aren't we? Didn't Kotone say we'd be your new friends? Didn't that mean anything to you? Where were you? Where were you, idiot Isao? I missed you so much!" And then Shiori punched him in the chest.
  "Enough, Shiori." Isao said gently.
  "I missed you!" Shiori said again, punching him with her other fist.
  "Enough. It's okay now." Isao said.
  "It's not okay! Why don't you understand --?" Isao leaned down and sealed her mouth with a kiss. Shiori blushed, not knowing what to do or how to do it. She tried to pull back, but he grabbed the back of her head and leaned even further into her. After a few seconds she wrapped her arms around his back, clutching him with all her strength. The kiss went on and on. She lost track of time, she lost track of space, there was only him. When they parted, Isao had a happy look on his face.
  "A lot of things happened while I was away, huh?" Isao summed up.
  "Unn." Shiori nodded, wiping fiercely at her cheeks.
  "A year here for every year out there. What do you say?" Isao promised.
  "Unn." Shiori nodded again.
  "Then, Shiori Rin," Isao slid off the bench and onto one knee on the ground, taking her nearest hand into his and looking up into her eyes. "Will you marry me?"
  "Unn." Shiori nodded, tears welling back into her eyes. And then she dived into his arms and into another kiss. It was just her second kiss ever. It was the best kiss in her life.
* * *
  Aiko Sakai was walking back from tennis practice with her friends. She wore her sky blue underwear, like always. Bubbles didn't get many chances to live his own life. But that was okay. Wyrds lived forever compared to humans. He could spare a few years for her sake. And he kept telling her she was so beautiful to scry, and that he was so happy that Mother wouldn't scold him, that she figured she had given back plenty to their relationship. That or she was just too heartless to be fair. Either way. Aiko smiled to herself. Before the next national high school tennis tournament, she had to fight her way into the starting lineup. As a first year who had only just started playing tennis near the end of middle school she hadn't been good enough, but next year it would definitely be her turn. She would play singles, while Sayuri and Mizuki would play doubles together. If they both won, their team would only need one more winner among the remaining three matches to advance each round. The goal was nationals. Why stop at anything short? To reach it, she had to keep getting better. There just wasn't enough time in the day.
  "See you tomorrow." Aiko waved to Sayuri, turning down the corner that led to her house. It was a long walk, but tennis players needed their exercise. She had given up on riding the bus long ago.
  "See you tomorrow!" Her friends waved back happily. Once they were alone, Bubbles started blinking.
  "I feel like we forgot something today." Bubbles said.
  "Hmm? What is it? I have my school bag." Aiko held it up for Bubbles to see in front of her.
  "It wasn't school related." Bubbles responded, and then he started silently musing to himself again.
  "Ohh!" Aiko tapped the bottom of her fist into her open palm, her face brightening. "You're right. Capri was coming over this afternoon, wasn't she? Kotone asked me to take care of her because she had museum work she absolutely couldn't get out of. I totally forgot. Tehee."
  "Don't Tehee me! Capri's at our house unsupervised! How could you forget something like that and play tennis this late?" Bubbles flashed.
  "Don't mind don't mind." Aiko waved her hand at Bubble's worries to swish them away. "She'll still be in human form. What could possibly go wrong?"

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