Mid-Interlude – Ayako Mitsuzuri
A few months ago…
The pub was empty. Silent, save the crackle of the furnace. It had been closed for the night early at the behest of Otoko, a rare occurrence in the history of the Copenhagen as the regulars of the tavern would attest, so she could talk to Ayako without interruption or the fear of being overheard in a relatively safe spot.
The normally lively young woman was just staring into the half-empty glass in front of her. Watching as the ice floated in the alcohol with eyes that lacked life. Her first mission without Issei backing her, now that he had become a Veteran, had been less than two hours ago. She’d come back alive.
Her friend hadn’t.
Aika. The surface of the shochu rippled as a tear fell into it glass, knocked loose as she trembled from the memory playing in her head. She’d frozen. She’d frozen in fear and the one to pay the price wasn’t her, but her friend.
Aika was from Western High, not the school she went to. Ayako had met her in the Game Center at the Verde, and their friendship had been born from a competition at a shooting game that lasted longer than it should have. Now she was dead.
A shuddering breath left of her mouth as her grasp on the glass tightened. She lifted it to her mouth and tilted her head back, leaving the clacking of ice on glass ringing in her ears as the alcohol passed through her lips. The cocktail taste teased her tongue sliding down her throat in three audible gulps before it caught and she started coughing, having taken in air in her haste to drink away the bloody memory.
Otoko sighed, softly and dejectedly, as she watched the younger girl huddle over with the drink slipping through the hand she used to cover her mouth. “You’re not used to drinking, so don’t try chugging away at it.”
It was true. Before now she would have never considered so much as touching a bottle of alcohol. After all, her body was a temple—honed through a variety of sports and exercises that she’d experimented with over the years. Anything that dulled the mind and would hinder her was something she avoided, if only so that she would be able to put forth her best without any doubts.
She couldn’t care less about that at the moment as she set the empty glass down and wiped her hand on her jacket. She just wanted something to dull the pain in her chest. Anything was welcomed at this point.
Otoko refilled the glass and wiped the mess away before taking a seat next to her at the counter, a glass in her own hands. Silence followed as they both sat there and took a sip from their respective drinks. Then Otoko exhaled softly to the side before she faced Ayako. “It’s not your fault.”
It is. Ayako opened her mouth to speak those two words that summed up her shattered heart, crushed under the weight of her guilt and displayed in her eyes that had gone red from the last two hours she spent crying after Issei had brought her here. But only a hoarse and strained breath left out, tinged with the scent of the shochu.
The words, the admission itself, were caught in her throat and threatened to choke her. She reached for the rest of her drink and knocked it down all at once again. Another coughing fit followed, leaving Otoko to pat her on the back as her she laid her head down on her arm resting on the counter and cried anew. Aika died because of me.
Though the scenario differed each time, it was a common tale among the Drifters at this point. How a mission would leave friends and allies dead. How mistakes became chains that dragged them down to the abysmal void of self-loathing and misery.
In Ayako’s case, it came down to more bad luck than anything. How could they have known there would have been a sentry hidden in the snow, observing the location just out of their view? That she’d run into a Soldier Taboo for the first time and freeze up at the thought of killing something that looked so human?
It seemed like just another mission to her at first when she answered the call of Nemesis Q under the threat of death. Issei was watching her body in the Temple, so she figured it would be in good hands. She’d already been on the receiving end of his healing after her first blunder and knew what he was capable of, so anything short of death would be healed as long as she completed the mission and returned alive.
The moment she arrived, Aika already being there, Ayako noted the air was even colder than her first two trips into that frigid and barren world that was supposed to be the future—their future at some point. It was borderline freezing, with grey snow blanketing the scraggy, dark stones surrounding them. It took her a moment to realize they were in a mountain range, standing on a precipice that overlooked what she presumed was the target.
In what looked to be a crater, nestled at the base of a mountain, was a structure erected around it that resembled a circular arena to Ayako. Similar to one where they’d held the Archery Competition last year. But there was a cavity within the center that went down further than she could see with her Sense-enhanced sight, delving deep into the earth.
As expected, there were Taboo around it. Quadruped Taboo with bulky bodies that lumbered about on muscular forearms tipped with claws. She could make out a core on what would be their foreheads, the point she had been told to always target for a kill, and on their backs was what looked to be an organic pouch, filled with what looked to be stones of some kind.
It was a new Taboo for certain, at least to her. A strange sight, but not unexpected. What was unexpected was the fact they were being treated as beasts of burden by what looked to be people there.
They were all similar in appearance. White hair and red eyes, while dressed in some manner of fur-lined uniform and carrying polearms. They didn’t seem bothered by the cold in the slightest as they went about standing guard, with a few also pulling off the organic pouches and tossing them into a pod that the Carriers take off with once they were filled.
As other Drifters appeared, Ayako came to realize that she and Aika were the only Fuyuki Drifters. The rest were people she hadn’t met before, with only two others from Japan. Tatsumi was one of them.
Nemesis Q had waited until they had all gathered before announcing the mission: destroy the Illumina Mine.
Whatever Nemesis Q was, it was apparently omnilingual since everyone understood it. But they weren’t. That made coordinating much harder—borderline impossible, if not for the fact that one of Foreign Drifters was fluent in Japanese too.
Of the entire group, Ayako and Aika were among the most inexperienced. The others had more trips under their belts and a stronger foundation with their PSI. So the obvious reason that they were chosen to participate in the extermination mission was because their PSI happened to be among the most destructive available despite their inexperience.
Ayako’s Burst wasn’t as strong as it would become and had a limited range, but she could still do a lot of damage with it. Easy to see why that would be useful. And Aika had the ability to generate shockwaves strong enough to cause a localized earthquake.
Taking those facts into account, they came up with a simple plan. Tatsumi would fly them around the other side of the mountain where the mine was stationed beneath, and they’d use their PSI to cause an avalanche. That would bury the mine and everything in it under tons of ice and snow, accomplishing the task with no losses on their end.
However, no plan survives unscathed.
The howling, frigid winds obscured their hearing and sight as they flew. But not the Taboo. After all, there was no reason artificial creatures that were constructed to work in that terrain would have a need for ordinary eyes and ears. They were spotted by one that was nestled within the mountain and that alerted one of the Soldiers.
The next thing they knew, things had come to a boil in a hurry. Tatsumi’s construct bird was shot down near the mountainside, the man himself knocked out on impact with the snow-laden ground. That left Ayako to carry him on her back as she and Aika tried to salvage things while the others bought them time.
Ayako didn’t see the attack coming. Not until it was nearly too late. Her first encounter with a Soldier Taboo was when it tried to behead her with the blade of a halberd from the side, having managed to catch up to them despite the cover-fire being laid out by the others. She unleashed her PSI in fear and self-preservation, releasing it from her outstretched palm at a relatively close-range as strongly as she could.
In truth, she had been worried about her PSI since she first got it. She was afraid of what it could do to a person if she unleashed it. It was fine against ordinary Taboo, since they turned into ashes when killed and died with a good hit to their Illumina Cores. It was different with the Soldiers, who didn’t have cores to begin with.
The body burst as the explosion ripped through it. Like a watermelon exploding from the inside out, crimson blood and viscera painted the snow and Ayako’s body. Covered in the warm, viscous fluids, she found herself shaking on her knees in stunned silence as she stared at the mess of meat and cloth, feeling nauseous from the scent of the blood covering her.
That’s when the next attack came. Spearing out of the white veil of snow, something cut through the air with a whistling sound that was partially drowned out by weather. Another halberd thrown like a spear with superhuman strength that would have taken her head off if Aika hadn’t managed to push her aside in time, knocking her and Tatsumi onto the biting cold snow that robbed her of warmth.
A wet thump followed after another layer of blood was splayed onto both the snow and Ayako. She turned her head towards the sound to see that Aika was on the ground several feet from them. A pool of crimson spreading out beneath her and…
And the halberd was sticking out of her chest, the sharpened point running her through.
When she recalled that moment, Ayako couldn’t help but feel choked up as tears fell from her eyes as she remembered scurrying towards her fallen friend to see blood frothing out of her mouth as she struggled to take strained wheezes. A fatal wound that would claim her life in less than minute.
Her trembling lips moved to form words without being able to voice the words she wanted to properly. “Lu… ou…”
Ayako didn’t even realize It was a warning she didn’t recognize until the shadow was cast over her. The Soldier responsible was standing behind her, a knife raised and ready to descend for her skull as she looked up to him with tears trailing down her face. Then he froze in place.
It was Tatsumi, on his hands and knees in the snow. The stinging cold had roused him from unconsciousness and he’d fixed his gaze upon the Soldier, a single eye shining like a burning star. His Burst energy shrouded him before lunging forward in the form a massive bird the size of a delivery truck, pinning the Soldier to the ground with its legs before taking the head into its beak and pulling ruthlessly.
Ayako closed her eyes as a wet, meaty sound followed, only to feel the ground beneath her shake. It was Aika, using her PSI before she died. She was going to complete the mission so that Ayako could get back alive, sending shockwaves surging through the mountainside with the intent of bringing it all down as she drew her last breath. The rumbling of the mountain reached the point where ice, stone, and snow were wrench loose and started rolling down the mountainside, triggering an avalanche.
Tatsumi’s bird pulled Ayako and him away, leaving her to watch as the snow entombed her friend’s body before collapsing the mines, completing the mission.
“I-if I ha-hadn’t frozen up, s-s-she wouldn’t have died.” Ayako insisted in grief as she raised her head off the counter. Otoko’s expression softened as she gently guided Ayako to lean against her, offering her a shoulder to rest her head and keep crying on. From there it was a matter of waiting until Ayako simply had no more tears to shed before the conversation continued.
“It’s… it’s never easy the first time,” Otoko said in a measured tone. “Losing friends or killing something that looks human. But it does get easier, which is the worst part because one day you’ll see someone else forced into the same position. Then you realize just how much you’ve changed—what doing this has taken from you in order for you to survive, and that hurts you because it’s not something you would have chosen on your own.
“Yet, if you don’t, you’ll die,” she continued in a disheartened tone, grasp tightening as if clinging to her. “You’ll die and leave behind people who will miss you. That knowledge leaves you feeling the weight of their lives on your shoulders. So you kill to stay alive, pieces of who you were breaking off and leaving only sharp edges that serve as a weapon to Nemesis Q’s ends for one reason or another.”
Ayako sniffled as she listened and then pulled away slowly, trying to get a hold of herself. She wiped away the tears and spoke in a hoarse voice. “I just… want everything to be normal.”
“Hold on to that feeling,” she said. “Because the moment you give up everything that makes you normal, is the moment you’ve really lost it all. All that’s left is another living weapon for Nemesis Q to throw at its problems in the name of saving the future.”
They weren’t people to whatever Nemesis Q claimed to be. They were assets. Weapons. Resources. Some more valuable than others, but all ultimately expendable once they were broken or useless.
After a moment of silent contemplation, Ayako asked, “…Is a future where we have to send people to die worth saving?”
It was almost blasphemous to say, given that it was the future of their world. Not dealing with it would be the equivalent of leaving their descendants in that unknown year to suffer for their inaction. However, after losing her friend to that cold future, Ayako didn’t see the merit in a future that threatened to take everything from her in the present—including her life.
“Any future where I have to sit down with a girl like you and justify why you shouldn’t feel bad about needing to kill isn’t one that’s worth saving,” Otoko said as she traced the rim of her own glass. “All I care about is that all of you make it out of there alive, so that maybe when it’s all over you can at least try to put it past you.”
In the Present…
With a mechanical coldness, Ayako partitioned a pinch of the energy within her body and moved it to the gauntlet on her arm. The string pulled back and a bolt was forged, ready to fire. With her eyes sharpened, she kept her breathing leveled as she lined up a shot towards the Soldier Taboo that was combing through the streets.
Aiming wasn’t exactly necessary. Not when the shots were forged from her Burst and the amount of energy was minimal. Her ability to control the way it moved and hone it in on a target depended on just how much power was behind the shot, sacrificing power for precision.
With a thought, the string on the gauntlet on her arm thrummed as it was released. The bolt flew towards the albino head of a Taboo that looked human. Its head burst as the force of the silent explosion ripped it apart on impact.
That’s six. She exhaled and then moved again before another came to investigate that death. Once thing she’d learned though the different trips was that they had some kind of hivemind that allowed them to share information, so she had been careful to not be spotted as she executed them one after another. They probably already knew what she looked like from past trips, but because of how versatile Burst could be they didn’t know exactly what killed them—and wouldn’t unless she went all out since a full-powered shot was distinct.
As she leapt from the rooftop of one building to the derelict husk of another, she ignored the rumble of crashing earth as the giant Taboo continued its work. It was far enough away from where they had taken refuge that she felt comfortable killing it last and with the remainder of her power—but only after she’d made sure to have killed the Soldiers that would get in her way, since she’d only get one shot.
With any luck, they’d go back to the past and after that… well, there was no good way to handle it. Leaving aside the fact that this would probably be the largest party of survivors, she didn’t expect most of them to come back and try to survive. Maybe half. And those that weren’t killed on whatever mission they had next would be less.
She’d ensure that Himuro, Makidera, and Saegusa survived at the very least. And Tatsumi’s sister. She owed him that much for everything he’d done.
…Neko had been right, Ayako realized after a moment of thought. Even when she thought of Tatsumi’s death it only gave her a feeling of cold anger in her chest now, a pittance compared to the grief that overwhelmed her when Aika died. Seeing others die was common, killing others was easy here.
Her fist clenched as she thought about what would happen next. The trio from the Track Team were ordinary girls. One studious and responsible, one excitable and proud, and one sweetly nurturing and innocent. Even if she could protect their lives, this world would break them in different ways soon enough and there was nothing she could do.
That was part of why she had been furious with Shinji for following her into the future. Not just because he was risking his life for her sake. But because no matter what happened, he would come out changed in the worst of ways.
She watched him struggle to change over the last few months after their talk in the hospital and that had been a source of pride for her. Shinji was a difficult person to get along with given his confidence that bordered on arrogance, born from how naturally he seemed to grasp difficult things. But he was trying to change after whatever put him in the hospital and she had been proud of him for that.
Then she got involved with all of this sometime later and it began to take its toll on her. She slipped up and let her frustration and exhaustion of what this world did to her bleed over to one of the few bastions of normalcy she had. Shinji noticed and tried to do something despite whatever his own problems were, given his falling grades that had Taiga mention he would likely be forced to leave the club if he didn’t straighten them out at some point.
Ayako… couldn’t have really cared all that much at the time. Not since whatever his problems were couldn’t compare to what she was going through. It was just a matter of priorities—and she couldn’t put his ahead of hers when it involved her life.
Besides, Shinji was smart enough to pull himself together and she knew he hated people prying into his life, so she left his problems up to him to solve and focused on surviving. Even if he did get kicked out of the club, he’d been grooming Sakura to take their place as she should have at the start of the year. So, she thought it was fine for the most part.
How could she have known what was going on in his head?
She felt the warmth sucked out of her body as she recalled that momentary decision. Ayako knew what it was like to go through a waking nightmare at times. Having memories, traumatic moments of her past, intruding in her daily life by reminding her of her failures and the deaths that accompanied her.
People she couldn’t save.
Allies who died in her place.
Enemies who often tried to take her life.
Things that other people didn’t go through as they lived their lives day-to-day. Something she felt envious about at times. She knew that Shinji was going through something the moment he first stepped foot on the mountain temple the day after he’d gained his PSI, but said nothing since she couldn’t figure out what triggered him.
That morning was the second time, definitely worrying since it meant his issues followed him while he was sleeping. It would get them killed if he woke one morning like that and Taboo were around. She had planned on trying to coax him into giving them more details when they had time, in the safety of the present. No matter how stubborn she knew he’d be, she would have made him give her a satisfactory answer for his own safety.
Him having a moment right then and there, in the middle of the street, was the last straw. Ignoring a problem that actively interfered with him in the middle of talking, when he was acting as their means of private communication, was just asking for trouble. So she took a gamble and tried to read his mind since they were connected, despite the fact that she’d told him not to do so and that she trusted him not to do that to one of them.
Ayako expected him to be furious in the aftermath. But dealing with his temperament was better than letting him have another moment like that when they were getting ready to deal with a threat and cost all of them their lives. And maybe, just maybe, in helping him deal with his problem she’d find some measure of comfort in the fact that he was involved in this because of her.
She understood how the Mind Jack worked in principle. It was useful enough that, in the worst-case scenario, she wanted to be able to pass that knowledge along for the future. So she tried to manipulate the Mind Jack with her own energy to read his thoughts (pulling them, rather than pushing) and see what it was that was haunting him.
She regretted it.
Her mind came under assault by visions. Things that made her feel horrible in ways that were difficult to put into words. That she didn’t want to, even if she could recall any of it clearly beyond faint impressions and phantom sensations that would likely slip into the back of her mind and fade from her short-term memory in the matter of a day. But the fact was that she was terrified enough that her mind instinctively reacted by severing the connection between them just to escape it in less than a second.
After everything she’d gone through. After everything she’d lost. After everything this abysmal future had to offer. After all of that, what on earth was so terrifying in Shinji’s head that it caused her to reject it on every level as a human being?
In all honesty, she was afraid to give it too much thought. Just on the off-chance she would end up transferring it into her long-term memory and recall whatever it was her mind was so desperate to make her forget. It actually left her afraid of him using that Mind Jack of his on her again, which was part of why she left him behind.
The irony wasn’t lost on her either. She told him not to go around reading minds as it was an invasion of privacy. Yet she tried to look into his mind to see what it was that left him panicking like that, just to understand it so that she could help him. And now she was terrified of something she had no understanding of.
…An issue for later. Taking a deep breath, she continued her hunt with as much focus and mechanical precision as before. That was one positive that came from doing this. By putting all of her effort into it, she didn’t have to think about anything else beyond completing the mission.
Making an apology, getting an answer—everything else could come later once she killed the damn worm.
Lost in her own thoughts, she never noticed the Mind Jack slithering her way in the air from behind before it abruptly faded from existence.