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Heaven's Door (Trigun Maximum-Blue Archive)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Eisen, Feb 7, 2024.

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  1. Threadmarks: Episode 1: Back-to-back
    Eisen

    Eisen Avant Garde

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    - HEAVEN'S DOOR -
    [​IMG]

    All credits reserved to:
    Trigun Maximum, by Yasuhiro Nightow
    Blue Archive, by NAT Games, Nexon

    ---------------

    In the yet to be seen distant future—
    In a place beyond reaches…
    The song of humanity continued to be sung—


    The air was hot and dry. Well past afternoon, the horrifyingly clear blue sky meant the almighty twin-sun’s baleful shines would glare down on everything to the point of cutting one’s shadow to right below their feet.

    The few who would go outside were those who needed to go to some places, or those who had no choice but to bear the sunlight on their backs as they went around with their business. Well, the rustic town had seen little changes, but it was for better or worse life. In the arid wasteland of a planet people had come to call as No Man’s Land, everyone needed to pull their own weight one way or other.

    “Get out! Get out, you dimwits!!”

    A burly body was thrown out of the saloon doors. Following after him was a slightly shorter one, lanky in form. They wore ripped clothing that received a whole new sandy coating on them, and they scrambled to their feet. If there was one way to describe them, it’d be reaching the wits’ end that reason had all but vanished from their pinprick eyes.

    “You bastards—!”

    Before the gunmen drew their weapons, ten different barrels glared back. The bigger one gasped, the shorter one turned around only to stare blank-faced as another dozen barrels pointed at them from the other side of the streets. It was an honest mistake on their part. But who’d have imagined their attempt on dine and dash ended up threatening them with a fate worse than pincushion?

    “…d-damn it…! What the hell are you all, acting like you’re united as one!!”

    They scrambled to their feet, but instead of lashing back at the world, they turned their tails and hastily ran out of the town. Away from the mad town they went, leaving the spectators a little bit speechless. Well, it was nothing unusual here or in other places. Death’s omen was something people had to accept and consider in their daily lives.

    After all, who knew when would their precious Plant come offline. It was nothing short than miracle that this town had managed to grow this far after over 150 years, but such was the tenacity of human spirits. In the face of adversity, only the most determined could carve out a path for everyone else to follow. Some of the men tipped their hats to each other. Some went back to their games and hobbies. Of the remaining leftovers, they turned to gossips, smokes and drinks; nothing too strong lest Lina would knock them down by a peg.

    “What’s this? I though I saw a commotion, but it seems nothing happened.”

    Then a youth entered the saloon. His voice was tinged with confusion, though there was a different emotion mixed in it. He seemed like he had a backbone, so it was only natural that he’d draw attentions. The moustached bartender, the owner of the humble establishment, raised an eyebrow. Seeing the apparent young man with a travel bag over his shoulder, he dipped his head in greeting.

    This boy means no harm, move on everyone.

    “Nothing big,” the old man said. He had grown some more wrinkles over the last few years, but his spirit of service did not diminish. “Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. You smell of grease and hard cleaning agent, though.”

    “Hah, yeah.” The youth in a worn out overall cracked a smile. “I’m a novice sandsteamer mechanic. Winds up here since I got led by the temptation of fine and chilled refreshments.”

    Somebody made a sound. From his seat, the man in a coat and cowboy hat pulled up his gaze from the card games on the table. “Oh! The train is here already?”

    “Come on, you forgot already? It’s been there since last night!” One of the other card game players remarked.

    “Hah ha! Sorry, sorry. But man, you’re young! Must be good with your hands, eh?”

    A round of laughter erupted. It was neither loud nor quiet. The young mechanic somehow followed in suite, turning around the stool he sat in.

    “It’s an honest work,” the youth said. “And the train is precious. Can’t have her be treated wrongly, or she’ll throw tantrums.”

    The mood was pleasant. It was good. Life here was not always all bad, but this might be a good turn of event after the earlier annoyance. The bartender softened his gaze as he finished preparing the requested drink.

    “Oh. Thanks, old man.” A big gulp, followed by a pleased sigh. “Yeah, that hits the spot.”

    “Only the best for the earnest.” The bartender went over to the sink, turning the faucet to wash dishes. “Got any story to share? That glass is on me.”

    The youth’s smile turned a little sly. Still, he turned back to rest his arm on the counter, his shoulders relaxing. It was then that the radio sparked to life.

    [Here’s to another hot day! No Man’s Land Broadcasting is here with breaking news only to your viewing!!]

    Oh, brother. It seemed the timing was simply unfortunate. The old man turned off the faucet, but as the typical jingle flowed into the air, the young train mechanic shook his head. Well… fair enough.

    [Today marks a new development in Octovern! The Ark Dome has seen further expansion, and reconstruction effort is almost done!]

    A crowd of noise filled the saloon. Some looked up with lightness in their gait, others chuckling snidely. The smell of cigarettes wafted out of the windows, and so people’s attentions fell back to their own matters. The bartender glanced at the mechanic. The boy shrugged.

    “Well. Looks like we’re back on schedule,” the youth said. “The hubbub from the Ark Incident has died down a lot. We’ve got more clients than ever, but the sandsteamer isn’t really a cargo vessel.”

    “Oh, your kind are getting government works?”

    “Not to say we’re moving up the ladder.” The bitter smile on the youngster’s face told it all to the owner of the establishment. “Those bunches from Earth are kind of intense, but thanks to them, we received priority medical check-ups and topline security for our fair lady.”

    The elderly man tending counter paused. He wiped dry the glass and placed it in the right shelf. Sometimes he forgot that a lot of things had changed. Was it for the better, or was it for the worse? At his age, you wouldn’t expect yourself to have the flexibility to adapt, but the miracle of that day was hard to dismiss.

    “…when he appeared, my life turned upside down.” The mechanic wistfully looked to the side. From this position, he and the bartender could look past the windows and at an enormous, curved wreckage with an equally massive light bulb hanging onto the corpse of a colony ship. “Yours is also looking good, feels like she’s loved.”

    “Yeah, well… I suppose we have granny and little Lina for that.”

    “Don’t know who they are. Must be some really good folks.” The mechanic put down his glass. The ball of ice crinkled in the half-empty container. “It’s a good sight, anyway. Even if only cared recently, the fact that she’s still running up to this point must mean you guys treasure her.”

    “…you’re a flatterer, you know that?”

    The elderly huffed. It made him feel a bit heckled, seeing a youngster talk so passionately like that. Almost reminded him of… no, that didn’t matter. He and the rest of the town ratted that guy out in spite of all that he had done for them. It wasn’t his place to talk as if he was fond of that man—

    [This is NLBC, coming right up with a notice posted by the council of Octovern!]

    The mechanic perked his head up. The announcer’s voice had changed, from energetic young woman to a formal-speaking man. Even the regulars noticed, and needless to say, so did the bartender.

    [Tomorrow is the day where the first moon will be seen in her brightest, fullest form! A sight for sore eyes, a good companion to have over a drink with your loved ones, or maybe a traveling partner…! But most of all… it is a day for mourning.]

    There was a clink. The ice had melted.

    [Stardate: 7/21/0104. On that day, a legend started. On that day, a nightmare awakened, clad in crimson. On that day, a mark was forever etched on this sand-blasted planet… The past is the past, but everyone. On behalf of the lost souls, we shall pray for Lost July.]

    The mechanic lifted his head. Somebody dragged down his hat. Some stood up and left the bar, scratched coins and crusted paper moneys on the table. The elderly gazed at the air, and so he inevitably recalled the faint smile of that man. He who had once met little Lina and became a part of the town’s daily lives.

    Love, and peace… That was his motto, but it sometimes felt like a curse. Could it be that he believed in it because he wished to believe, or was it because he had no other choice except turning to those words as a form of absolution? Him, the blonde-haired man of legends. Only time will tell, I suppose…

    +-+-+-+-+

    The two bandits had escaped the Sheriff. It was just their luck that the knave actually got up and saw a reason to chase them down, the bastard.

    However, there was no sand ostrich, no motorcycle, and no expensive things like automotive for the sucker to use. Obviously, it didn’t take long before the filthy bootlicker with a rotund body lost the two, and now they found themselves out in the wasteland proper, away from the nearest civilization with the rocks and cacti serving as occasional landmarks.

    “Goddamn it, that’s a missed mark.” His partner-in-crime muttered. More like an underling and a weakling, he still packed a mean punch with that large-caliber shotguns on his back. Perfect to blow off the heads of those happy-go-lucky civilians spoiled by their momentary fortunes. “How many times does this make?”

    “Come on, boss. It’s nothing big. Next town will be the hit, I’m sure of it!”

    The man was easy to trick. Gullible to a fault, even. He never noticed the increasing amount of loot shares that never went into his pocket. Although, when all things were said, this so-called partnership wouldn’t last for long. The lankier of the two hummed inwardly, wondering if he could make for a quick escape after scattering this loser’s brains across the dune—

    “…hey, look. That’s a person over there.”

    What? The mind to the brawl whirled his head and indeed, they were seeing a person collapsed right there down the hill. It was difficult to know if the poor bastard was still alive, but a mark was a mark. Even if he had no pretty penny, no solo traveler would bring only clothes on their back. An easy picking, at last…!

    The two outlaws exchanged looks. They smiled wickedly before rushing down the sloped sand dune, arriving with clouds of dust trailing behind them.

    What lied at their feet struck them speechless.

    They thought it was a person, but no, it was a creepy wooden puppet. Dressed in a silly suit, almost looking comical and overly fancy. What the hell?

    Their surprise didn’t last long. When the buried neck creaked, the pair of outlaws froze over and drew up their weapons. Instinct and experiences, no matter how rough and improperly taught, were still a semblance of skills. However, not even their whole lives of perils, killing and looting prepared them for a wooden puppet with two heads.

    The puppet creaked as it came to life, the motion and audiovisual petrifying the outlaws in fear. It rose up, first taking out its heads that were coarsely drawn with childish drawings of a face that instead made it all the more terrifying from the sequence of motions it underwent. It propped its arms, rolled its shoulders, lifted its upper body, and finally stood up on its own two feet.

    There was no mechanical machinery attached to it. As thin and form-fitting suit it wore showed an unreal sense of organic movement, the noise of groaning wood and creaking joints could hardly be heard coming from a living thing. This thing… whatever it was, did not fit within the frame of common sense seen throughout No Man’s Land.

    "Ah, I can sense it. The "mark" of a legend. The raw wound of emotion emanated from this place." The double-headed wooden puppet with no face except rough black lines on its heads lurched its upper body forward. "But alas. The legend, the sublime, is not here. Only residues remain, but meaning? Yes. Meaning can be derived from those very residues."

    His partner clucked his teeth. He had the dreadful premonition of him losing to his nerves and making a choice that the two would forever regret, but then—the puppet “looked” at them. Properly, as if the creepy drawings on its faces were meant to be some sort of functioning face. It stared at them and petrified them in place like an awe-stricken audience of a concert.

    “I bid you apology, travellers. Alas, I lack the necessary paint and brushes to represent the meaning I’d like to simulate from you. There is no appropriate canvas suitable for you gentlemen.” With awkwardly open arms, the wooden puppet seemed as if it was saying “as you can see” to their faces. “And so, I shall bother you gentlemen no longer. You could neither be my ally, nor could you be an enemy with some sort of significance to bear.”

    He didn’t get it.

    What the hell was this thing talking about? What the hell was it trying to convey, and what did it see in them to give such a judgment. However, the anger that should have been flared up in his belly did not appear. No, in truth…

    There was nothing. The fact that he couldn’t sense anything, feel anything, and show even a twitch of expression… Alarming. Dreadful. Madness. And yet, he and his lousy but burly underling could only chatter their teeth. As the thing that felt like a puppet but not at all one walked past them, the growl and creaks of its wooden structure became an impression forever etched in the back of their heads.

    It walked. It walked. And then it walked.

    It headed past them, to a direction that could lead it anywhere with wobbly wooden feet that sank deep into the sea of dirt. Its presence, heavy and draining, gradually faded from view. When the pressure in the air all but vanished, the two outlaws fell to their knees. They stayed in that position as if for eternity, as the terrible sun shifted to the west to paint the bright blue sky with a tint of orange.

    What… exactly did we just come across to?

    He didn’t know. His cowardly minion definitely wouldn’t be able to tell, either. In the end, the otherworldly nightmare passed by them, and tall tales disappeared beneath the rolling sands of this blasted planet.

    It was just how life worked.


    A/N: Hello. Halo. Hola. Have a seat, folks. Yet another new title from yours truly.

    Well, being honest, this story has been worked in the background for quite a while. I'm a fan of Yasuhiro Nightow's works (Kekkai Sensen, Trigun), but there was an empty feeling from having read a finished story, yeah? Then come Blue Archive, as well as a friend who got roped in to deal with my bouts of madness-driven idea exchanges. Boom. That's how this story's conception came to be. Guns, Vash, chaotic hubbub, and all-around nonsense like two peas in a pod. What do you think? I feel like Kivotos pairs well with the high-tension funky comedies of No-Man's Land, and Kekkai Sensen is similarly no slouch when it came to random zaniness.

    I'm still writing the other stories that I have by the way, just... not in the same rate I usually do. Writer's block is a bitch, but my case can get particularly bad sometimes. I'm sorry for that, by the way.

    Also, the art is personally drawn by me. I got consumed by the story I had outlined to the point it set me off to draw lots and lots. It's a nice inspiration, at least. And it keeps my hands and brain busy, which is a plus in my book.
     
  2. LaSteerk

    LaSteerk Getting out there.

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    I don't know much about Trigun but Vash seems like a guy that Aru would idolize a lot.
     
  3. Eisen

    Eisen Avant Garde

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    Well, he is a certified outlaw with a bounty of 60 billion double-dollars. Can throw around flairs and insanely skilled but reckless a lot of times. Since he also wears (sun)glasses that also makes Mutsuki naturally gravitate around him just to mess with him.

    Kivotos will be a breath of fresh air to Vash though as he get to live out his ideal retirement life in peace... lol.
     
    LaSteerk likes this.
  4. Threadmarks: Episode 2: Ballad of Stories
    Eisen

    Eisen Avant Garde

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    --- Episode 2: Ballad of Stories ---

    The dim lighting flickered again before the power grid stabilized. Usually, low rumbling could be felt here and there, but dinner time had long passed. It was just the occasional night owls or overtime workers who would linger around the maintenance corridors now.

    “Paranormal activity? Now that’s one hell of a garbage to hear around here.”

    “Come on, it’s a true story! Even some of the elders saw it!”

    Oh, is that so…? He’d say that space colonization and the reality-altering property of Plant were no different than fantasy stuff. As he turned the wrench clockwise, he found it awfully hard to budge. Gritting his teeth, Brad threw all of his might in it for one last spin. He who could now call himself a real adult pulled himself out from the machinery, the flashlight on his safety helmet tilting while his brows were slick with sweat, oil and grime. He felt like taking a hot shower. Where’s my towel… right, it’s on my shoulder.

    After he wiped his face, it was a good time as any to get a smoke break. Taking a cigarette and a lighter, he bit on the former and ignited the latter.

    Hah… nothing beats nicotine polluting your lungs after a job done well… “What’s with that look?”

    “Brad, you sure is acting like a punk these days. Not that you have ever been anything but that.”

    The man with a pompadour scowled. “You picking a fight or something, huh?”

    His fellow mechanic raised a hand in a half-hearted sign of surrender. Brad clicked his tongue, though his tempers went down as fast it had appeared.

    “I mean, this whole region is kind of always in a lockdown state.” His peer threw up a dramatic shrug. “The gravity plant helps protect us from bandits, keep ourselves invisible, but it makes things eerie when night falls. Not even insect-variant sand worms could approach the area.”

    And what does that have to do with a dumb ghost story? “Didn’t know you’re into superstition bullshit like that.”

    “Oh, shut up. At least let me finish.” The guy cleared his throat, even as Bradwick gradually and surely losing interests in the topic. “Ever since the Ark Incident, we’ve got a more stable line with Earth. The colonies stranded in this forsaken planet can be saved, and even if it’s impossible to return because of what they said about cultural shifts and mores… There’s still the treasure trove of knowledge and advanced technology to fix up all the plants that we have.”

    “Right…”

    “So, then. That’d mean opening up closed off sections.”

    Bradwick groaned. This was getting nowhere, and he had longed to hit the bar more than two hours ago. “Can we get to the goddamn point already?”

    The slacker had the nerves to complain when he didn’t even once do much beyond talking about all the things everyone that lived in this colony ship knew as good as the back of their own hands. Thankfully, the tasteful flavour of the cigarette helped distract the head mechanic of the ship. Just a tiny bit.

    “Ugh. I can’t believe you, Brad.” The slacker grumbled. “Fine, have it your way then, absolute killjoy.”

    Finally...! As Brad refilled his lungs with smokes, he leaned his back against the cold iron plating walls. He tuned out half of the things that entered his ears from right to left, but even as he lifted his chin, he could hardly see the colours of the skies. His team were particularly deep in the lower sections of the colony ship, close to the missing portion he had once ejected to dispose the grotesque “masterwork” of that son of a bitch. Bastard should already be bone powder down there—

    “Whenever the gravity plant is powering down, there’s just this strange… figure of a headless man in a coat holding a photo frame to his chest.”

    Huh… a headless man in a coat, hm? “Oddly brutal. Just where do you even sight that kind of thing around here?”

    “The cryogenic chamber and the… uuh, think it’s the Plant hangar.” His underling shrugged from his bored look. “Also, one of the high-definition cameras sighted the ghastly thing at the bottom of the valley, too. Right next to the section you ejected some years back.”

    …oh, is that how it is? Somehow, Brad found himself incapable of getting surprised, though he harshly sucked in more smokes than ever. The cigarette quickly was spent and a load of smokes drifted in the air. Amidst the haze scented with old oil and rust, memories evoked only to come apart. Well, people like that rarely die in peace.

    It was his just desert, he supposed. While Brad could age and die surrounded by his kin, the bastard down there would wander around this planet for eternity. He deserved that for killing the old man and so many others.

    So long, sucker.

    +-+-+-+-+

    The night was cold. Even worse with the absolutely hopeless climate of this sand-blasted planet that lied deep in the corner of the universe.

    From the balcony made from repurposed cabin of a voyager age’s colony ship, the moon waned past midnight. Rough winds blew from the dead tree-like wreckage which formed a radio communication tower.

    It made her coat taking the brunt of the cold night air. Utterly noisy.

    The radio tower was set to be dismantled this weekend, and in its place would stand a cutting-edge telecommunication array taken from a fallen Super Destroyer ship of the fleet she was associated with. It was something else, indeed.

    What usually took half a day of construction back on the Sol System nearly took a year to build in this far-flung deep space zone. For some reasons, it made her realize how tough living was for the colonists and their descendants. Respect… well, that was reserved for the first generation who had managed to eke out their roots on this wasteland. The later generations, though?

    “Mixed bag at best, downright infuriating at worst.”

    Chronica took a sip of her coffee. As part of the latest generation, her constitution barely required effort and energy to keep on working. That said, her superior could be a bit too considerate for his own good. It wasn’t bad, just a bit… well, like having a doting uncle of some sorts. In any case, the last-minute fine-tuning was her personal touch, so hopefully they could make contact with Earth for minutes absent of noise tomorrow. It took times to launch enough satellites that could catch and ping back signals from the Sol System.

    Next step, requesting large-scale humanitarian aid...

    The resources that survived their fleet’s crash landing had quickly dried up after the situation stabilized. Hundreds… if not thousands of quirks followed up as she saw witness to the greatest union of Plants history had ever recorded.

    The dome set a fair distance below was slowly turning off most spotlights meant for work construction effort. When only several remained to highlight the broad shape of the Ark, workers traded places with security and the area was cordoned off, the site getting closed for the next few days-off. Many of the fleet’s soldiers were equipped to the teeth, yet they lacked much information of the local. As such, teams were made with a native advisor assisting in the workflow. It wasn’t the best setup, but it wasn’t like they could complain much. Besides, their crushing defeat had made for a low morale, so the city council suggested the fleet crew to work across the region.

    “Not the right season for stargazing, don’t you think?”

    Ah, there we go. A familiar face. A familiar voice. The tall stature of her direct superior appeared from the catwalk. With thin-rimmed glasses on his nose, a neatly shaved beard, and with solemn dignity in his posture. The familiar human let out a white breath that quickly dissipated in the roaring winds; his tattered coat fluttering in a futile resistance. The Plant raised an eyebrow. Does he ever replace that coat?

    “It’s been several years,” she started. “I didn’t expect you to hang on to that thing for so long.”

    The man blinked. He pulled at the collar of his coat and chuckled. “Well, it doesn’t look bad on me, does it?”

    “Among the rest, I didn’t expect you to take in the local culture so well, Captain.”

    “Hah. Yes, I suppose that’s just how human adaptability goes. Though, it looks almost as if time has come to a standstill only for you.” A short silence. “I was out of the line for that… I apologize.”

    “No offense taken.” Chronica shrugged. It was their usual byplay. The fleet commander was the honest sort, maybe a bit blunt and willful even. In the way that the illustrious Stampede refused to take lives, her superior was one who could not hide his thoughts and conviction. Him expressing his fascination with Plant kind had been duly noted since their first meeting. “It’s been a while since we last talked outside of work matters, Captain.”

    “True enough.” The man approached. He stood next to her, his hands resting on the railing. The place he had set his gaze on was the unimaginatively named dome containing much of the colonies’ old Plants. “What do you make of life here, then?”

    Chronica glanced to the side. His profile, weathered from age and experience, was stern as stone. At the same time, he always raised the right questions. In the right time, in the right position. Sometimes, one could do more just by meeting specific criteria in a very specific situation. The folks from Central Government could learn a page or two from him.

    “…well,” the Plant in the shape of an adult female human muttered. The warm drink had started to cool down. Still passable, however. “Our food, gas and water are strictly rationed. The late military chief was at least diligent with internal management, so the adaptation procedures managed to come through just fine…”

    Chronica paused, a topic suddenly coming to the forefront of her mind. She spun her head and threw a thousand-yard stare at her direct superior.

    “Right. Tell the masses to get off from the goddamn dome.” She grumbled, “I don’t give a damn how grateful they are. Religious fervor are too radical of an influence for brats who haven’t even finished forming their sense of selves.”

    “N-now that came right out of nowhere…” The Captain blinked dumbly.

    “Who. Cares. If you can’t scatter them, stop them from coming over every goddamn week! My work keep on piling up with all the freaks and cultists barging in!!”

    “C-Chronica, calm down…! I’ll bring it up in the next council meeting, so watch your step!! This isn’t exactly the most stable platform!!”

    Good, then! Common sense, at least, had yet to entirely vacate the Captain’s head. His pride might have taken a harsh beating from having been thoroughly outwitted by Million Knives, but he was not so inflexible of a person to keep on bashing his head against the wall. There are times and places for every approach.

    Bullheadedness was best reserved for the absolute buffoons. She’d rather not have more overpowered Independents that swung between the two extremes of moral compass. Too many unknown. Too many variables to count. Too little ways to assure herself that everything which had worked elsewhere could be applied in this godforsaken planet.

    Chronica clicked her tongue. “I also have other complaints—but that’s not the answer you’re looking for, right? Captain.”

    Taking his silence as her signal, Chronica rolled her shoulders. She lifted her chin, slowly adjusted her vision, and gazed upon the night sky. It was vast. Much too vast than back on Earth.

    The wasteland stretched in all directions. The ribcage of the colonization ship’s corpse became jagged claws that crawled towards the heavens. As if praying. As if hoping. As if they were the beaten fingers of a penitent seeking for salvation. What did the people, hopeful for a new start, think upon landing in this dead planet? What did they see, what did they feel, and what did they say as they looked towards the empty horizons?

    This remote star system only answered with the baleful blazes of the suns and the frozen light of the moons.

    “A hopeless place, is one thing.” Chronica was a little surprised by the somberness in her own voice, though maybe it was a given. Children. Adults. Men and women and those weird insects alike. This sand-blasted hell wanted nothing more than to prey on those who were frail enough to expose their weakness. “A sad, dark and merciless prison that people ended up sealing themselves in.”

    She had scoured the records. 150 years of stasis… nay, perseverance. More than a century of scrapping things back up together just to create a semblance of a livable human habitat, poor and destitute by modern Earth standard. The spaceship wreckage became shelters from the scorching twin suns, Plants were unearthed, then technology proliferated to redevelop civilization. Little by little, little by little…

    That fine, delicate balance broke with the first drop of bloodshed.

    Human malice had won out.

    She hadn’t gotten much more than fragments back on Sol System, and what little thing she had salvaged from her access into her dear friend’s last will drowned in the flame of vengeance. Now that she had to live with her failures, she recognized and accepted the reality of it all. The cruelty of man. The twisted obsessions that bore fruits to unending wickedness. The unimaginable suffering of her distant relatives… Independents—

    Chronica blinked, tiny dots of colorful light spread across the sea of darkness far below on the surface.

    It was a distraction. A crude show of colorful lights that portrayed the night life in this post-apocalyptic world. The sight just so happened to catch her eyes, and the distance and height allowed her to scoop up a sea of artificial stars amidst the hollow darkness. Obviously, she could hardly tell if those bright lights were just the lights of lamps, or the flashes of gunshots and grenades.

    “Chronica?”

    Chronica smiled, wan like the moonlight. The woman heaved a sigh, her spirit a little down from losing a bet. “It’s like that gunman had said.”

    Give us a chance. You wouldn’t want to regret it.



    “I hope he eats shit.”

    +-+-+-+-+

    Standing on the side, the Captain pushed up his glasses. He secretly shelved away a fairly worrisome report for later dates. His co-worker really needed a break, from the looks of it. Or maybe he could just force her to take the vacations she kept on skipping under the excuse of being built different.

    Yes, that sounded good…

    +-+-+-+-+

    Hundreds of miles away. Past the ghost towns, occasional small settlements eked out a degree of life. As hardscapes that dotted the wasteland, the starlight began to grow faint. The scarred moons began to descend, their soft lights fading into the old night. Jet-black shadows melded with the world, disguising the movements of armed people who had been observing one small town from distances away.

    The darkest hour was always before dawn.

    Their steps were quick yet steady. The lead bullets in their holsters weighed their every footstep, the mechanical modifications adorning their bodies aching in the scattering sand particles across the dead land. In the cold of night, they arrived, a band of guns for hire; fast approaching a town targeted by a slob that cared only for the splendors of gold and the seduction of dictatorial authority.

    But who cared about that? They all had been doing this gig for years, decades.

    Even after the craziest incident in the history of mankind, you still needed money, water, food, and cravings. No matter what reason there might be, the world was ran by multiple different forces which hardly made any sense to anyone of them. Truth and flowery words could hardly fill their stomachs.

    So, they went back to their old job.

    To hurt, maim, kill, pillage, or even rape. It wasn’t like they could turn back the clock and redo their whole lives anyway. It was much easier to stick with what they were familiar with. Nobody was free from sins. Nothing personal, right?

    “Hrm~ huhuhh…”

    A strange voice moaned out from the darkness.

    An awful sound, like the murmurings of a drunkard. The murderers stopped in their tracks as a tall, lanky man with a tilted cowboy hat stumbled out of a dark alley. A pair of guns belted behind his waist. The red-faced loser was clearly out of it, but an inebriated gunman was always a nice spoil. They could start with this one, and those looked like some damn good gears he had…

    “Oh, whoops!”

    A gust of wind. An awkward upward swing of arm. The gunman tripped and suddenly reality stopped making sense. A pile of thrown up dirt replaced the drunkard, not a single trace of his figure on the scene.

    The guy at the front felt a heavy, solid object pressed against his neck. It came from behind, but when he tried to rotate his head, he felt the barrel of a gun pressed deeper into his skin. The ghastly, impending premonition of death claimed his being then and there.

    “W-what…!?”

    “Whoa, there. Buddy, let’s not do this, yeah?” A cowboy in tattered cloak that barely covered half of his rugged frame tipped his hat. The gunman was… a young man with a disfigured side to his face. His looks pissed him off, all smile and smelling of alcohols. But the gun he toted was real as can be. “There’s only respectable citizens toiling for honest living here. A Plant sustains this town, so everyone will quickly fade into dust without it.”

    Is he threatening us?! The guy could have smeared his brains out any moment and he spent his chance with negotiations?! Did he feel himself so lucky? Did he think of himself an agent of justice, huh?! What nerves!

    “…now that’s quite a bloodthirsty look.” The sounds of clicking hammers, the swish of gun barrels, the rolling belt of bullets. A full dozen set of guns of all kinds aimed at the hero-wannabe, yet the drunken haze must have killed the naïve kid’s survival instinct. “I guess you lots don’t care about your friend? Not even a single sense of camaraderie between you all, wow.”

    The mercenary saw his chance. He lowered his hips, turned around and raised his revolver. “Die—!!”

    Suddenly, a wall of blinding orange blocked his vision. He felt his retinas burning from the zero-distance contact with the curtains of light. Glints of silver and black flickered in the storm of light, and it was with loud sounds that threatened to rupture his eardrums that he suddenly felt a heavy impact slugging all of his limbs.

    It burned. It burned! It hurt!!

    The mercenary wailed, screaming as his body hit the ground. When his elbows flexed, his muscles screamed from horrific sensations. The rustic scent of blood wafted in the air along with gunpowder smokes. Pain assailed his whole body, but why was he still alive? His arms… his legs… his hands…! Tears spilled along with saliva and snots, his vision clearing out only to see the other fools groaning in the same state. Wounded. Disabled. Crippled.

    Only one person stood before them all. His mercenary gang… had been neutralized by a measly gunman sloshed in liquors!!

    “Y-you…! Fucker…!!” The leader of the operation gasped. “You’re not getting away with this…!!”

    “Yeah, well. I heard that a lot,” the dual-wielding gunman airily said as he picked up his hat. Patting away the sand off it, he wore it as if he had won the battle! How much was he looking down on them?! “So, how about this, then?”

    The mercenary gasped.

    Instead of the coldness pressed against his neck prior, it was a smoking hot gun barrel lingering dead center between his eyes. The maw of death waited upon him, glowing red after shooting a whole magazine of bullets at his gang.

    He was going to die. He was going to die! Why, why, why would this guy stand for a bunch of spineless weaklings…!?

    “Now,” the gunman said. A ghost of a cackle drifted in the air. He locked eyes with the bastard—and saw intent oozing from the guy’s left eye. “You want to try that again, or do you want to have a taste of molten lead? I don’t give a shit about your scores.”

    Insanity.

    Murderous intent.

    A trip of death.

    This guy was dangerous. Way too dangerous! He needed to get away! Get away get away get away get awaygetawaygetaway—!!

    “Aaaasss if!”

    A silver flash slammed down. His skull rattled, the blow so strong his pupils rolled into the white of his eyes. The mercenary’s consciousness fell into darkness.

    +-+-+-+-+

    Hmph, small fries. The lot of them.

    There, there. Livio chuckled, hoisting himself up now that he was finished with rounding up all the hoodlums in one spot. Crowds clamoured a short distance away from him, citizens woken up by the obvious sparks of a shootout. It was just an instance, but life here was so harsh that people had grown sensitive to gunfire and threats of bloody murders.

    And you’re soft as always, Livio. Come on, where’s my excitement?

    “Well… it’s not like I can help you with that, Razlo.” He tipped his hat, a habit he had grown accustomed to these days. “I still need to get some information about the client who hired these good for nothings.”

    We aaaaaall know who that is.

    Right… that was true enough.

    At the core of it, many people had a hard time in changing their own tune, and this was one common example of it. One guy with too much money and too little thoughts to figure out what was best for himself. It started out with a simple brawl escalating into guns for hire. Going for the drastic measure just to claim one Plant indicated extraordinary obsession that refused to be let go.

    Past history? A long-time grudge left to fester? Feh, that could be for later…

    “Mister Gunman? Sir?”

    Brought back to the present time, Livio blinked before dipping his head. Meeting the half-perplexed visage of the local sheriff made him smile wryly. It was out of reflex, all thanks to his timid personality. However, he also couldn’t lie that it helped him remember his dearly beloved, and hellish past. The moustached old man pushing past the regular age for a peacekeeper talked about imprisonment and bounty issues over the hired thugs.

    It was with a great deal reluctance on his part. There weren’t enough space to contain the heaps of criminals until military police could come over.

    Not enough food. Not enough hygiene supply. Not enough facilities and able manpower to confine cybernetic-enhanced outlaws far too willing to pull their triggers. Not enough time for the federal officers to come over and take these seeds of troubles before they rioted. A remote town which could only barely get by tended to live on a tightrope balancing act of resource management, so this was just the natural outcome. Livio’s smile faltered. He could see one ending for these bandits, and it wasn’t a pretty sight…

    “Eek! One of them escaped!!”

    Wait, what? Livio and the sheriff snapped their gazes at one guy who had somehow broken free of his restraints, prancing with unbalanced gait to his feet which showed glints of iron. His veins bulged and he panted and wheezed as if the demon was hot in pursuit. Enhancement drugs, and fake legs—!

    Just as Livio took aim, the roar of an engine swept in. From the shadow of a building rolled out a large passenger car boarded up with a satellite dish. It plowed through wooden barrels and racks, barely missing the building only to commit a sharp turn into the perimeter. The vehicle spun from left-to-right until it swung its side straight at the fleeing thug. With the solid sound of a hard object impacting a bulwark, the latter soared to the sky in an arc which made Livio wince and half-commit to a prayer.

    That guy would live… sort of. All the implants meant the thug was harder to kill.

    And then there was the car… Well, more like a van. Its wild rodeo spun it around for several times, which was quickly followed by a terrible growl. The tires screeched, the engine bucking like mad, and the van pounced to do a front wheelie that scared the crowds. It rapidly swerved which caused the townsfolk to scatter away, the gobsmacked Livio a bit late to realize it was coming his way.

    Oh shit—

    His alter ego’s thought mirrored Livio in that exact same moment. The iron beast did another wheelie, this time on the side, and then it slid across the paved ground with a terrifying acceleration. The thugs cried for their lives. The sheriff cried for his life. Livio felt his heart jumping out of his mouth.

    “DoryaaaaaAAAaaaaaAAAAHHH!”

    In the last second. At the very last moment, a hair breadth away from getting himself turned into a human-shaped dent on the van, the vehicle screeched to a halt. Its whole frame stood on its right tires, mere degrees away from toppling on him like a boulder at the cliff’s edge. As the iron beast groaned, it slowly tiled back to the other side. Finally, the van parked then and there, dead and silent to the world as if its earlier rampage was just a fever dream.



    ...ah, ain’t that logo…?

    Livio blinked. Once. Twice. When he gazed upon the scratched logo with blown up N, L, B, and C letters, memories resurfaced to the forefront of his skull like a runaway sandsteamer. The passenger door then powerfully slid open. What appeared next was familiar… way too familiar to the point of anxiety-inducing.

    “Geho! Keho!! God… I’m still alive, thank goodness…” A tall lady with light-blonde hair limped out from the van, gripping on the dented door frame as a crutch to push forward. Her smile was easy, caring. However, beads of tears from having been thrown around by the van’s wild maneuvers, dribbled down her cheeks. That strange mix of emotions made her out to be oddly childish and frail in spite of her larger-than-average stature. “Uuugh, Meryl… That was totally horrible, come on…”

    As if that served as the next cue, the driver’s door flew off its hinges. The whole thing bounced off the ground and crashed upon the rounded up thugs which elicited yet another round of miserable groans and squeaks. Livio traced a pair of boots, black tights, a white dress, and a two-toned cape with a neat design to it. Unceremoniously climbing out of the half-totaled van was a petite black-haired young woman who bore an impressively sharp gaze.

    “Blah! Phwee!! Got some sand on my tongue, geh…” Patting herself off the dirt and grime, Meryl Stryfe shook her head before promptly looking up. “...ah.”

    ...ah, indeed.

    “Nope! Sorry, you’re not the scoop I’ve been aiming for!!”

    What.

    The woman… Meryl crossed her arms. Her cheeks were puffed and she merely gave the crushed thugs behind a cursory glance before tapping the ground in annoyance… What the hell?

    “Hey! That’s rude to say when we haven’t met each other for months, Meryl!!”

    The woman in white turned her half-lidded gaze to her partner. Rather, she looked like she was utterly done for some reasons. “Milly, we’ve been seeing this guy for so many times it’s not even funny.”

    “Still… Mrrrgh.” Grumbling all the while, Milly gave up arguing and walked up. An apologetic smile graced her face. “Sorry about that, Mr. Livio. Good to see you again, yeah.”

    “Hm? Uhh… yeah, likewise.”

    Livio scratched his cheek awkwardly. Man, this was yet another of those weird turn of events he still couldn’t get used to, even after all these years.

    ...on hindsight, maybe that was just the way their dynamic was. Fine by him.

    +-+-+-+-+
    Some years ago… a story began. One so grand and ridiculous and fantastical beyond the wildest imagination. It was a tale which resounded throughout this sun-baked planet, engraved upon its surface forevermore. The magnitude as well as weight of that fairytale-like story remained in the hearts and minds of all who were still alive to this day.

    Livio had been a part of that story. In the tail end of that legend which stretched over 150 years.

    A bad guy through and through, his meek and timid self shrouded itself in the aegis of misguided faith and overly relied on his other self. He lost sight of himself, of others, even his own family. But well, that was now a story of the irreversible past. Presently, he made a living from hunting down bounties, prancing around as a busybody whenever possible, and also acting out the duty of a tradesman in some small capacity. No-man’s Land never lacked thrills and excitements, so he just somehow… took up the last one as a side-side hustle.

    Livio still didn’t pick up a lighter to this day.

    Does it even matter, anyway? He smiled wryly at Razlo’s remark. Yeah, that was a good point. Did it even matter? Stop that damn soliloquy then, it’s maddening.

    Livio huffed with a sniffle. Morning had swiftly arrived, but the town bustled with chaotic activities. Tensions were palpable, emotions running high and only slightly restrained from flying out of control. He believed there was a brawl or two happening, but nothing irreversible had happened just yet. The townspeople seemed to be cut of some good cloths, rather unusual but might be the norm when you lived so far out from larger settlements. The former Eye of Michael sorted his thoughts together and addressed the subject at hands.

    “Well,” he started. “Didn’t think you would chase down news all the way out to the boonies like here.”

    “Excuse me, we do try to get by.” Meryl drew away her glass from her lips, sitting across the round poker table repurposed for dining. She fiddled with the badge on her white dress only to let out a long sigh, “we’ve been following the latest rumors, but that turned to be a total dead end.”

    Right, right… that must be it, then. “Still looking for Vash? You sure are tenacious with your Typhoon Interview corner.”

    Though she puffed her chest in pride, smug and all, that didn’t stop Meryl from deflating soon after. The news she covered revolved around the biggest, most elusive celebrity of No-man’s Land. It was a respectable work ethic on her part to chase after Vash the Stampede’s footsteps and successfully cornering him for a live interview times and again, but knowing that her livelihood depended on her TV program made her motive feel a bit smudged.

    It was still infinitely better than turning to crimes, though.

    “Hmph. You’d think the guy will eventually show up like a passing by storm, but he’s improving himself only on how to scurry away like rat.” Meryl lowered her eyelids and grumbled. “His bad habit is absolutely incurable.”

    I think that has to do more with you outing his privacy to the public…| “Well, I don’t really get it, but I’m guessing I’m your next lead, then?”

    “Really?! You know where Vash is?!”

    This woman swings her mood around like a goddamn pendulum, holy smokes. Livio had to agree with Razlo on this part, though he’d never be caught dead saying it out loud. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, yadda yadda. Pushing his hat from below with an index finger, Livio smiled, hapless. Milly in the meanwhile was completely indulging herself with her favorite drink. Wow, they’re total weirdos.

    Livio promptly refrained from calling out the pot. That way lied a reign of chaos.

    “...nah, not really. Haven’t seen him for months either.”

    “Whaat? Stop getting my hopes up.” Meryl slid back to her seat.

    “I figured he’d be doing something special though.” The gunman rubbed his stubbled chin. “The national mourning date for Lost July is today, right?”

    Vash had no choice but to live as a wanderer. He originally had a mission to fulfil, a vision to realize, and a promise to keep. All that and some more reasons he picked up along the way eventually led him to the Lost July—formerly known as July—a flourishing city the Humanoid Typhoon held so dearly in his heart.

    That city had vanished from the map overnight.

    “Ugh. Now that you mention it…” Meryl sighed.

    Yeah… logically, he’d go there, right? Logically, that is…

    All three people on this table knew all too well the kind of person Vash was. The man would never stop moving if he had a goal to fulfil, a vision to realize, a mission to accomplish, and people to save. He’d mourn for the dead and regret his mistakes, but the past was the past. Moved by purposes he sometimes didn’t even truly understand, the kind man had to keep on walking and fighting; away from the irrecoverable past, forward to the uncertain tomorrow. No matter how dark and scary the night was, Vash the Stampede had to—

    “Here you are, kiddo! Breakfast’s on the table!!”

    Livio’s nose twitched. From the kitchen, a wonderful aroma brewed up in the air, and no sooner after that, the friendly and burly cook walked out with a mountain of dishes on her hands. Even Milly and Meryl stopped drinking, drools leaking from the corners of their lips as dishes after dishes were laid out on the round poker table.

    The ladies’ eyes glinted. Like hungry cats, they immediately grabbed for the forks but the moment they launched their attacks—

    “Mine!” Faster than his thought could perceive, Livio suddenly took the backseat as Razlo assumed direct control of his body. “All mine!!”

    Oh, come on, Razlo…!

    “Shut it! You don’t get a feast like this often, Livio…!” Razlo held up the plate of stir-fried meat and vegetables and shovelled it all down his throat. He inhaled rather than ate the meal, the empty plate tossed aside in a blinding speed ungratefully. At least savour the taste!! “Shut! Next one…!”

    “W-why, you…!” Meryl cried out, either aghast or infuriated judging by her pale white face. “Hey, stop! We didn’t even eat dinner last night, you psychotic alternate personality… aaah, Milly!? How could you!!”

    Indeed. Somehow, Milly had also stolen one of the dishes and consumed it all on her own initiative. That was the second plate down, and now there were only less savory dishes on the table. Livio could feel the muscles on his face twisting, an arrogant smirk thrown at the black-haired reporter courtesy of Razlo.

    “Ugh…! Mghgghghgh…!” Meryl ground her teeth together, veins bulging around her temple. “That’s it! Have at it, then…!!”

    And so the three-way war for food commenced itself. The tranquil bar immediately overflowed with the noise of forks and spoons fighting against ceramic plates.

    The occasional howling and hollering of humans who had devolved into ravenous animals, however, needed not be mentioned. Livio wasn’t even sure who had blubbered out like a monkey tasting its first chocolate bar, but he guessed that human dignity had ignobly died in this table. Its defiled corpse probably didn’t even want company. Then again, no matter how much you tried to rationalize an excuse, hungers were hard to beat.

    It was at this moment that a functioning brain began to act up…

    “Say… doesn’t that mean Mr. Vash is at July right by now?” It was at that moment that the happy-go-lucky Milly stopped nursing her drink. “You know how he is, right? He’s easily swayed by sentimentality, so going there seems like a matter of course.”

    Livio would have agreed on that sentiment, but he remembered another piece of news which had reached his ears a while back. Was it since last year, or was it six months ago? Either way…

    “Isn’t Lost July a restricted area?” Livio chimed in, smoothly regaining controls of his body now that Razlo had gotten a bit distracted from filled stomach. He sensed a click of tongue from the depth of his subconsciousness, but his other self relented all the same. Probably off to sleep, how carefree. “Something about the previously opened Gate there being done in an extremely crude way that the local physical laws wildly fluctuated as a result… was it?”

    That notification came about around a few months ago, he believed. Weirdly not from the main channel, and wasn’t even using the national line shared together with NLBC. Normally speaking, official news went through all channels and transmission station, but matters related to Lost July tended to drown out in the wake of humanity’s irrational fears of the unknown.

    It was, after all, nothing but a crater now. Not even bloodstains remained in that empty burial ground.

    “To this day, I still can’t get used to the two of you switching back and forth like that…”

    Livio raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. “You’re saying that after all the time we’ve seen each other?”

    “Well, it isn’t like your eccentricity takes the cake, but…” Meryl stared with narrowed eyes, hummed, laid her chin on her hand, and then nodded as if seemingly convinced by something. “Yeah. Life must be hectic with a voice in your own head like that, Livio.”

    Before the only gunman on the table could think up a response, Milly awkwardly cut in; completely used to the byplay. “Maybe the ban’s lifted up, now?”

    “Hmm. Reconstruction efforts for all big cities should be almost done, but I heard only vague rumors when it comes to Lost July’s progress.” Meryl suddenly brought up what everyone was thinking about. “Today’s an auspicious date, so there’s nothing wrong with unveiling a national monument or two. Even I, a novice reporter, can think up a flimsy excuse for publicity stunt like that. How is it we only heard so little, even from the federal government?”

    “Aside from it being the marks of a living legend…” Livio hummed. The broadcast by NLBC announcing the mourning for Lost July abruptly appeared yesterday, even though there could have been plenty of times for it long before the due date. It felt a bit fishy, but he also couldn’t dismiss the chance of it caused by the big wigs dismissing Lost July as… well, utterly lost. Nevertheless, something about this felt a teensy bit off… “Huh. Maybe it does bear some investigating.”

    Milly smiled. “Aha! So we’re moving out? Like old times!!”

    The atmosphere happened to be just right for that. Lost July was a long way from here, but it wasn’t impossible to run across of him in the way. Knowing Vash, that man would somehow pop out in the weirdest place; caught in some complex problems he shouldn’t have minded. The man was too kind for his own good, but that was why he shone so bright. Regardless, there wasn’t much better things to do, except for…

    “Well. Can I finish my business in this town, first?” Livio coughed, much to the dismay of the other two women. “Oh, come on! I need to earn some pretty pennies too, alright!?”

    Meryl stuck out her tongue. “Fine… but I’ll get some exclusive scoop from you! I need money to fix my car, dammit!!”

    That’s all on you for breaking the thing in the first place!!


    A/N: The opening might be a bit slow-paced, but we're getting there. Then the real fun will start.
     
    Khettien, meloa789 and Omniwhatever like this.
  5. Threadmarks: Episode 3: The Train's Leaving
    Eisen

    Eisen Avant Garde

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    --- Episode 3: The Train's Leaving ---

    An old satellite orbited the planet. In the form of a mechanical seahorse with a chrome-colored shell, the scope of its observatory device extended far and wide-reaching; a testament to the might of the hyper-advanced, space-faring human civilization.

    Even now, it continued to observe the arid wasteland, watching over the lives of the first colonists’ many descendants. As decades passed into centuries, its energy generators had started to fail, forcing it to resort to gradual recharge through inefficient solar panels. Its communication array could hardly maintain a stable line with the surface station too, but its duty remained the same. To observe, keep records, and deliver its findings back to the ones who had launched it to space.

    It was a tireless job. A duty with no real deadline.

    Until the day its structure collapsed and the planet’s gravity pulled it down in a burning death, the century-old satellite diligently and faithfully captured movements in the surface. However, seven months and nineteen days ago, it had detected a unique anomaly. In a certain coordinate, a blueish white sphere appeared from the heart of a dead city, slowly spreading like an oasis that spilled out from deep within the planet’s hallowed gut.

    The computer onboard of the satellite judged that it was a tiny miracle caused by how the Third City had been destroyed.

    [Recovering past data analysis…]

    Once upon a time, a rapid twisting of local spacetime fabrics, followed by extraordinary gravitational pressure which ballooned out of control, completely wiped out the Third City from the face of the planet. The burst of energy was similar to the birth of a star, but it could also be likened to a vacuum triggered by the death of one. In any case, its highly erratic nature resulted in the total pulverization of July like throwing a toy ship into a whirlpool. For flesh and blood humans, the pain would be non-existent. At most, only brief glimpses could be seen of the city’s last moments before organic matters completely disintegrated.

    [Past record retrieved. Identifying observation target as Lost July. Registering new observational record… file name, X3-07A0027. Beginning data comparison…]

    Even though the planet designated as No-Man’s Land was so very far away from the sol system, the observatory satellite was in possession of classified information all the way up to the early space migration era. Still, the program knew not of the energy emitted by the blueish white sphere which it had found to be slowly covering the Third City.

    [No change to local fabrics of space and time detected.] The satellite readjusted its scope pointed straight to the surface. [Confirming no distortion of light particles for the next hundred of miles surrounding the observation target. Atmospheric pressure within acceptable parameter. Gravity force at normal values. Detecting no sign of radioactive waves.]

    It judged that the blueish white film blanketing the city to be harmless. However, as of this month, bundles of white began to surface. They roiled like waves influenced by the cycle of moon, bubbled up, receded before roiling again, and eventually formed a dome-like structure which enveloped the crater of a city. Once again, the satellite identified the subject in new light, yet still it found no critical need to alert the surface.

    The blueish white sphere that started this so-called “infestation” did not possess radioactive activity, and neither did it have the peculiar “magic” of a Plant.

    It was as if something was there, but it also wasn’t there. A paradoxical mirage capable of tricking the hyper-advanced optic lens of the old satellite was, perhaps, a completely unknown scientific phenomenon. Normally speaking, it was a cause for celebrations for the humans living on the surface. Thus, the satellite’s main computer deduced that the optimal course of action was to keep on recording the results of its observation.

    Out of habitual behaviours it had imposed on its program, the computer carried out a diagnostic analysis of the Third City. It began with presenting today’s date.

    [Stardate 0117, 4th moon, 9th day. 10:49 AM.]

    ...what came first was a general overview of the layout of the land.

    [Checking first heuristic level… cleared.]

    ...next was the chemical compositions within the grounds.

    [Checking second heuristic level… cleared.]

    ...afterwards came the atmospheric pressure, water moisture, wind speed, etc.

    [Checking third heuristic level… cleared.]

    ...the second to the last check involves a scan of inorganic matters.

    [Checking fourth heuristic level… cleared.]

    ...the final check. Organic matters scan.

    [Checking fifth heuristic level… error.]

    The satellite detected something. It sensed the heat signature of a living being. Where did the living signature come from?

    It shifted to its telescopic lens and maximized the zoom in feature. Like an eagle surveying the earth, it caught him. A man estimated of 27 years. He clad himself in red cloak that billowed in the winds. Portions of his body were riddled with steel parts, likely cybernetic implants and prosthesis. He walked in a stride that never broke, heading straight towards the city’s outskirts.

    His steps did not falter. Why? Did he not see the state the Third City was now in?

    [Beginning query…]

    Could it be that the man was blind? No, that was not the movement of a blind and disabled man. He was perfectly well and aware. His brain waves were a little bit different to the normal signatures, but it was still within the parameters. A human species walked alone into the breach, seemingly unaware of the abnormal changes which had been enveloping Lost July and the areas that extended past it.

    [Why?]

    The computer self-diagnosed itself. It queried, queried, and queried. At the speed of light, untold amount of parameters were calculated and filtered away. It asked itself innumerable questions as many as the grains in the stars above and beyond. So many sequences that would have driven a man crazy. It didn’t even notice its own circuits had burned away, flaking and recompiling themselves into something new, something different which couldn’t have possibly suit its original specifications.

    [Detecting… detected. Reporting…]

    As the man disappeared into the white void, the lens of the observatory satellite flashed an eerie crimson glow. Its transformation complete, a letter of a long dead language glitched in and out of its monitor. The symbol of the divine one as proved by ten sacred letters.

    [...query.]

    In the brink of assimilation by this “error” which had devoured its codes in no less than a microsecond, the last of the old satellite’s original program started with an inquiry.

    [Who… art thou?]

    +-+-+-+-+

    The migratory bus service had unfortunately dropped him off a few dozen miles away from his destination.

    When a city died, the satellite towns around it began to decay and wither away. The first thing those towns faced were the loss of local businesses, things like trading posts which breathed life into the wheels of economy. As lack of revenues worsened to the point not even medical facilities could operate, no bandits would bother targeting these dying towns. The last thing that would die off was the postal service, but it bear repeating that these towns could hardly do much to save themselves.

    It was just his luck that this was the last bus service. Only the old and stubborn would insist on sinking into the sand when it came to these ghost towns. The blind elderly living on his lonesome at least seemed to think that way. What a hassle.

    “Hmph. I’m not so weak that a youngster needs to crow over me.” The old man with a cane stepped away from his rocking chair, hobbling his way to a cupboard. His hand lingered over several cans, but soon he decided on one and opened the lid. A faint aroma of cheap tea wafted in the dry air. “Besides, I should be the one asking a fool like you who’d dare travel all the way out here. Nothing exists past this point.”

    Yes, nothing, not even a grave remained.

    The guest knew. He was painfully aware of that fact. Even as he gazed towards the windows, he could hardly hear the sound of people. The town was empty, save for this one particular old and rickety house. Lost, abandoned, and then forgotten. However, the journey he hastily put himself through all because of that radio news had an even lonelier destination. He felt his grips over the steel mug tighten if only for an instance.

    Seeing was believing. I know that… there’s nothing waiting for me.

    “...hmm. Sounds like you’ve got a reason to go, huh?” As if his silence had become too much to endure, the old man droned on. “Unfortunately for you, give it up.”

    The guest looked up. Spiky black hair waved, and he saw orange shades staring back at him from a broken round mirror hung on the wall across of the room. The elderly man hobbled to seat himself down on a nearby stool; and as he folded his arms…

    “A few months ago, was it? Either way, a convoy ran past this checkpoint,” the last inhabitant of the ghost town muttered. His eyes glassy and unblinking, yet light did not seem to exist within them. For a moment, the guest wondered what thought and feelings did the elderly man have over a world devoid of light. “Big. Rugged. Long, heavy and tightly packed with leads and gunpowder. Spooked us greatly, that they did.”

    The elderly man lifted his wrinkled hand, scratching his chin from which a roughly trimmed beard hung upon.

    “But of course, that’s how the military should be.” The owner of the house nodded, sounding like a man who had matched two similar pictures and coming to terms with the result of his own investigation. “Top-of-the-line gears. Militarized vehicles. A chain of structure with plans and backups. Only a few could mess around with those pompous bunches, though they at least deserve their uniforms to some degree.”

    The guest sensed it.

    Something was amiss. It felt as if there was some contradiction looming ahead. He had always trusted his instinct, his ability in reading people honed by his long, very long life experience on this wasteland. The curiosity tinged with confusion he once had now bled away, replaced by an odd sense of apprehension.

    “But those bunches that passed by here were different. Far too cold. Too heavy, too clean and inorganic.” The old man dropped his cane, making a loud thud that rattled the drink in the traveler’s mug. “There was nobody alive in that army. Tanks, helicopters, trucks, ballistic arrays and what-not. No soldier among them all. No, it was something way too much for us who were merely enjoying our last days here.”

    “Way too much… but what sort of military personnel do they…?”

    “Robots, I mean. Those mechanical wastes of space.” The elderly huffed. He was completely disgruntled, but his voice implied frustration and… and anger. “Robots aren’t good, they will never be good. Nobody wants to talk with a voice recorder face-to-face, but suddenly we’ve got a whole slew of iron puppets equipped to the teeth.”

    The guest almost dropped his jaw. Shock reeled his focus, words failing to form at the idea of a fully-automated mechanized army. It was absurd, a complete detachment from the thin veneers of propriety human soldiers would have. Of course, robots existed in some capacity even out here. This was No-Man’s Land, a planet in which some of the space-faring human species had crash-landed on. Their lowest level technology could still restore civilization to that of the Wild West era.

    But that’s precisely why this autonomous army defies all logic and senses.

    A mechanized army fully composed by extremely advanced combat programs made absolute no sense in terms of cost-effectiveness. Especially one deployed all the way out here where not a single town had a decently maintained Plant meant to keep their oils slick and their gears free from sand particles. This army of drones were even left to their own devices for months. Months. Judging from the old man’s story, this armed force of clandestine origin had built themselves an enclave, a military outpost, and confined themselves there doing god-knows-what.

    A whole slew of hyper-complex and precious resources diverted to produce such things…

    He could only believe by seeing through his own eyes. Whether it be the result of lost technology from the far-flung past or a splintered faction of the space fleet from Sol System, he now must make sure of it. Already, his intuition was warning him, sending his body to high alert status. However, today was the fateful day. He had hastily travelled while ignoring all thoughts and feelings that threatened to burst out of his chest, and to turn around just because he was facing an army of steel would be… it would be...

    That’s too much cowardice, even for me…

    He couldn’t run with his tail tucked between his legs. He just couldn’t. He had a hand in the destruction of July. He couldn’t bear the thought of letting their graves—those warm people’s memories—disturbed, no matter how much the city had been reduced into a hollow grave, empty with nary a coffin or husks resting beneath it. Vash the Stampede would never be able to face his benefactor and his brother if he were to do that, so—

    “...hey.”

    The traveller stopped. Luggage over his shoulder and a foot stepping past the doorway, the voice of the elderly reached out to him like a clear knocking on a wooden door. He couldn’t help but to glance back, only now realizing that he had been so absorbed in his own thoughts that he had left his body on auto-pilot.

    “...it’s a good thing that I can no longer see bloodshed,” the elderly said. It turned out the wrinkled man was putting his hand on a photograph resting on a cupboard next to the stool he had been on. “When you get as old and useless as me, it doesn’t take much to keel over. Easier to endure if you just forget all the bad things.”

    Or at least, that’s what I tried to convince myself. That unspoken line, left to linger in the ennui, seemed to reverberate like no other.

    “I heard it before. That voice of yours, somewhere and sometimes ago.” The old man remained standing, supported by his cane. “I kept on telling you. If you’ve got the time to mope around, grow some spine in your voice, Stampede.”



    ...oh.

    “Hold your head high.” The old man slowly turned around. With a smile that seemed to have been carved on granite, rugged and covered with scars, the last inhabitant of the trading town huffed. “That’s not the sort of face you should wear now that you’ve fulfilled your promise.”

    The revolving doors swayed with keening squeaks. There was only one person living in this dead town, now. As the wind blew across the vast wasteland, the elderly huffed and resumed his task, shaking his head at the child-like action of his final guest.

    +-+-+-+-+

    The night was cold and windy. With clouds scattered across the heavens, starlight dimmed and the moons only managed to show specks of her serene visage.

    Multi-layered fences, thrice as tall as an adult man, stood against the winds. Electrified and barbed, complex security measures had been established to barricade the place formerly known as July. However, the city proper was actually still a few miles away. It felt as if these fences served to contain something inside from escaping instead of intimidating any would-be trespasser.

    And those turrets… the heck are they?

    Even though they had the stature of a mounted heavy machine gun, they rotated on their own, red dots beeping and flashing once in a while. They felt like automated defence system, but the man had never seen such a thing freely deployed like this. Not only bandits would want to run off with them in tow, these rotating turrets seemed a bit much of an overkill against human opponents. What was the intent behind their placement, and what sort of enemy did they have in mind to bother with placing them?

    Those calibers and range are excessive…

    Well, the night was young. He also knew this area well. Moving across the wasteland, the tails of his red coat fluttered in the darkness. Swift and steady, he gradually made ways through the shadows cast by the few rubble and hardscape dotting the wasteland. Sometimes he crawled on all four like bug, sometimes he hunkered down and walked slowly on his toes so as to advance as quietly as possible. In any case, he managed to accomplish the easy part while keeping his presence on the down low. Now came the hard part...

    His vision blurred momentarily, the image of a beaten road overlapping with the soulless steel plates stretching into the yawning abyss waiting in the horizon.

    “...I thought homecoming would feel a bit more pleasant,” Vash the Stampede murmured, his eyes narrowing at the distant edifice he knew had never once existed even in the depths of his memories. A strange, out of place thing which rose up from the center of a giant crater carved out by his Gate. Laid out before it, in difficult-to-see spots, were block-like objects, decorated with bulky shoulder pads and elbows connected to what could only be anti-material rifles, bazookas and missiles. “Is all this for war…?”

    Spread in twelve directions, these giant sentinels were further attended by rows of robotic soldiers, each and every one of them bearing heavy weaponry to win over a small village or two. The soldiers numbered in the low hundreds, but there might be more lying in wait, ready to be activated for the sole purpose of ruining somebody’s day. They also looked to be wearing desert camouflage patterns on their sleek mainframes. Indeed, these were not run-of-the-mill mercenary company, much less a bourgeoisie merchant’s private army.

    An army. A real, professional army. Except they were all automated and programmed to exercise lethal termination of anything deemed as their targets.

    “Yeeshh… I don’t think I can get past them.” His .45-caliber custom Long Colt now looked like a children’s toy in comparison to the scary things up ahead. There were guards, oversights, command units, and definite reinforcements. Hell, he even saw tanks nursing up thick iron shields—shields!—on their front and back!! “How am I supposed to go further…?”

    He was just a sack of blood and meat, while these hunks of iron could stand around till their backup batteries died. Vash really, really must have gotten ahead of himself to commit a frontal infiltration attempt like this… but what else could he possibly do, he was just a single man lacking any prospect for youthful sprite!!

    Dammit, now he felt like crying. Fine, fine, fine. He would just do things his way now that it came to this. And I mean by making gaps to exploit!!

    +-+-+-+-+

    In the dead of night, winds billowed only to die down. Dense clouds cast random deep shadows over the region, and all was quiet.

    Clink, a metallic glint flashed. An oil drum resting by an ammunition hangar suddenly burst into flames. The others sitting by it followed the same blazing fate, rupturing and spreading as red snakes which ran across the paved grounds and into the nearest stacks of mortar shells. In no time, secondary explosions followed by enormous detonations of heavy ordinances swallowed a not-so-insignificant area of the military outpost. Some droids were blown away while others caught by falling wreckage, and the chaos had only just started.

    As command chains moved in response, counteroffensive measures built up with the sounds of loaded guns and ignited engines. Tanks rolled out, the giant robots shifting with cold red radiance in their optics. Sirens blared loud enough it’d wake up the dead while spotlights flipped on to pierce the dark of the night.

    Bang-bang-bang!! The lights didn’t last. Several rounds shot out from the darkness and right into the spotlights, disabling them. Before the mechanical soldiers which manned the watch towers could process that, an explosion shook them from their very foundations, keening screeches of metal melding with the ensuing chaos.

    In spite of the frantic noise, the army reorganized themselves swiftly. The bulk of the infantry charged headlong into the directions from which the bullets had appeared. It would have been a grisly sight to behold, but the culprit cloaked in red had already moved away from the location, nano-wires cut off from his prosthetic arm.

    One of the gigantic robots almost three-story tall rotated its upper body, the advanced red mono-eye it had gleaming over its white and yellow painted chassis. However, the red shadow fluttered as it jumped over a falling crane and landed atop the main cannon barrel combined with the block-shaped torso of the giant robot.

    It was an adult man, taller than average with spiky black hair that seemed to dissolve into the night sky. The man clad himself in a black outfit and a fancy red coat with long, tattered tails which danced from his momentum. Reddish orange shades covered his eyes, and the moon hanging overhead painted confusing shadows, disguising the man’s intents. The human estimated to be 25 years old then pressed a revolver against the robot’s main camera.

    “Sorry about this—!”

    A singular gunshot sound followed in the wake of a three-round-burst. They aimed in one spot, hammered each other to dig past the bulletproof glass, and passed through the scope to embed deep into the camera’s processor. Smokes and electricity, mixed with sparks and burnt out circuit board created one nice recipe for a flowery explosion that destroyed the giant robot’s head. A droid soldier could be seen ejecting from behind it, but it stumbled for a few steps before faceplanting as the intruder in red hopped onto his back with a knee drop.

    The man pushed forward, though he felt like he heard a pained grunt from below.

    Well, he didn’t stop by for pleasantries. He charged forward, a storm of leads chasing after his trails. The tanks were too slow to spin their turrets, while the giant robots were set in a fanned out position. It’d take time for the infantry to return, and so the wanted man broke through the encirclement without a scratch…

    “Huh—what!?”

    Like a wild animal, the man reacted a step ahead. As he dodged to the side, a missile spiraled down to earth and detonated. Smokes which smelled of gunpowder rose up, while dust clouds billowed. The beating noise of helicopter rotors and fans soon dispersed all that visual obstruction.

    “Armed helis!? What the hell, anything goes at this point—nnuuooooooaaaa!?!”

    The man exerted tremendous energy to flee even further. It was actually amazing if one did not see the expression he had as he sped away from the horrible fate of death by quench gun and rockets. Well, human body ordinarily would turn into perforated chunks if their aim was true, but the intruder stood in a league far beyond the average bandits and armed vagabonds.

    "Just a little bit more," the man huffed. “Come on, make iiiiiiiitttt!!”

    With a well-timed jump and coordinated reflex, he leaped over the final fence to breach into the core of the military outpost. At once, gunfire stopped chasing after him. When he looked back, he saw the army of robots halting their movements with forced stilt to their frames, seemingly held back by an emergency order. A dragonfly-like shadow passed over him, which made him turn his head upward, but rather than wasting his chance by gawking away, he decided to return his focus to his original objective.

    The strange edifice was right up ahead. No less than a few hundred meters away, the shape looked like a mangled skyscraper without a top floor. Barren, desolate, with chipped off-white paint and dirt-ridden windows.

    “Will it be a demon or a snake…?”

    Vash the Stampede pushed his shades up the bridge of his nose. Slinking back his gun into the holster, he walked into the dark tower riddled with mysteries. All the while unknowing of the sand that blurred and erased the footsteps he had left behind him.

    +-+-+-+-+

    A sound of distant thunder roared—

    +-+-+-+-+

    Vash blinked, feeling a stiffness to his shoulders.

    His consciousness regained itself after a sudden whiteness filled his head. Like waking up from a dizzy spell, the man found himself standing before a small cubicle separated by a sterile, white-tiled wall. Inside the cubicle was a person, a stranger he knew nothing about, writing something on a worn out book lined up like a schedule book.

    “Err… huh?” Vash couldn’t help but to speak out his mind.

    What had happened? What was he doing here? Why was he standing around like a client waiting for the bank teller to finish a request for withdrawing deposit? Well, that was horribly specific, but this little ole Vash had no such thing as bank account. He was a man on the run, a fugitive, a wanted bounty worth of sixty billion double dollars.

    In other words, he was a good for nothing criminal. That might be a bit depressing to segue away…

    “Right, here you are.” His attention was soon stolen away by the voice of the person inside the cubicle. He wore a dark blue uniform with white shirts and checkered necktie, a hat reminiscent to that of those serving for commercial services owned by the federal government. However, he hardly possessed firearms. “Hey, you. I don’t have the time in the world to entertain you. Either take this or go back, you doofus.”

    What, what, what?? Vash was confused, to say the least. Even so, his awkwardness ended up causing him to accept the thing extended out from the cubicle. It was a small piece of paper, neatly trimmed and clipped on one end. Uuh… this is—?

    A blank ticket.

    “...huh.”

    Something was off. He felt like something had nearly clicked inside his mind. But even for the great him, he had unfortunately failed to remember. His mind a white haze, his body then staggered to the side, pushed one-sidedly into the building by a sudden rush of crowds. Vash cried out, looking back and past the many people he could hardly recognize. The cubicle far in the back had already been swallowed up in the sea of man. Pass a gateway made of delicate machinery, climbing a staircase with hollowed out hand rails, and then arriving in an open space sheltered by an unnecessarily tall yet barebone ceiling of mixed iron plate.

    Splitting the massive, cavernous platform in twain was a pair of train tracks.

    It was crowded. Dizzying. Nauseating. Vash couldn’t tell where he was, even though it also felt like he stood out for having such a bright red and tattered coat on his person. All of the rush of movements and standing stock still from an abrupt stop had made him feel… nervous.

    “Hey,” somebody called out from the side. “You look pale there, buddy. Need some refreshment?”

    Somebody, a kind somebody, had offered him a drink. It was a transparent plastic bottle containing clear water inside of it. Unusual, since water easily dried up or grew mold inside with that type of container.

    “Err… aah, thanks.” The black-haired man rubbed his head, bowing slightly along the way as he and his helper stood side-by-side. But more importantly, he accepted the gift of kindness and took no moment to relieve his thirst. “Phew… that hits the spot.”

    “Hmph. You sure look like you’re in a bind.” The stranger nearby said, “what, did you get lost or something? Were you hoping to go somewhere and do the right thing with that sort of look in your face?”

    Now that was uncalled for. He was trying to… that was right. He was trying to close another chapter of his past. He was fulfilling a promise, making amends, redeeming himself, and then… and then, maybe he could settle down.

    Yes, that sounded good. Settling down, resting in laurels.

    He had no more reason to keep going on. Fulfilling his obligation, ending his legend, and then fading away from the annals of history. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to live an idyllic life somewhere out there, far from conflicts, chaos and bloodshed. A retirement life fitting for an old veteran like him. If he could just lie low, he was sure that people would eventually forget about his notoriety, his name, and his footsteps…

    After all, painful things were painful.

    “Cat’s got your tongue?”

    “Shut it.” Vash couldn’t help but to blurt out. This was starting to get annoying, especially with that stupid snicker from the side. “What’s this all, anyway? This is… a train station? Where are these people heading to?”

    Vash heard him muttering “now that’s a hard question…” in the bustling noise. His focus was strangely fixed on the train tracks, so he ended up throwing sideway glances every then and now. The helpful stranger wore a worn out dark suit. From the bottom, he’d have made for a respectable impression until your eyes moved to his opened chest and coarsely ironed shirts.

    It made him look like a good for nothing that tried too hard to look sharp. Heh.

    “Well,” the stranger muttered. Seemingly unaware of the insult that hardly escaped Vash’s cranium, a clear voice tinged with casual weariness reached his ears. “You can never tell, when it comes to people. Where do we come from, where are we going? I think, therefore I am. Or so some great person a long time ago would often say.”

    That’s… not an answer.

    “It is what it is, but does life need an answer to all things?” At his silence, the strange man grinned. Lop-sided, a bit smug, and maybe tinged with mockery. And then, the faint sounds started to enter the train station. “There we go, no real right or wrong answer to it all, eh?”

    Gatan, goton. The occasional thudding, followed with the sliding sounds of wheels on iron tracks grew louder. Before long a humongous iron carriage came into view. It roared with the arrival of deafening winds. However, it didn’t seem to be stopping. Vash could see figures within the train carriages, different in shapes but serving a similar purpose in transporting people to their desired destinations.

    It was elegant in a simplistic way. Busy in its lack of comfortable spaces to stretch out your legs, no sleeping cabin in sight or even a dining hall. He had once heard that trains meant to cover short distances prioritized purpose over comforts above all else. A bit of a difference to the Sandsteamers, compensated with the fact that it needed not the utilization of a Plant as its generator.

    ...it somewhat felt a bit lonely.

    “Your train should be arriving next,” his helper said.

    Vash looked long at the track. His train, huh? Didn’t he ride on a sandsteamer too, some times ago? Where was he heading before? Augustus, he believed. But after that… after all that had happened… here he was, wavering for the umpteenth time.

    “Cheer up,” then the stranger said. As the faint sounds of another train about to arrive, a rough slap on his back rained down once, twice, and thrice. “You’re heading out there, so might as well get a whole story out of the trip. Sides, it’s not like you to look down and lose your smile like that, spikey.”

    "...huh?"

    The train arrived. Silver and light gray, it was lined with many doors and windows. From his vantage, he could see red seats and dull metallic sheen to the interior compartments.

    The door opened. He turned his head around, only to receive a kick to his butt. He stumbled past rows of people, trotting and wobbling until he crashed headfirst into the train carriage. Vash quickly got up, but the door was closing.

    But it was right there.

    He was right there.

    That man, that cross. That cigarette.

    “You—“

    The tradesman smiled alongside the other people. Startlingly familiar people who had left behind only their vanishing footprints in this sandy planet. The dead man then shrugged, the giant cross wrapped in white cloths on his back letting out a dull crinkle.

    “Bye, Spikey.” Nicholas Wolfwood waved. “You’ve still got a long way ahead of you.”

    The door closed shut, and the train departed.


    A/N: Old-time readers would probably notice the many slips of references, but most of them are only fun tidbits I like to have because this is the realm of fanfiction. Next up is the real starting point.
     
  6. Threadmarks: Episode 4: Aoharu
    Eisen

    Eisen Avant Garde

    Joined:
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    A/N: Spring is here, at last.



    --- Episode 4: Aoharu ---

    Vash stared blankly at the closed doors. As a vibrant whistling rang from above, the train compartment lurched forward. It jerked, hisses of hydraulic and brakes pulled back for the engine to resume its work. The train’s acceleration was a smoother experience than the Sandsteamer, a magnificent invention built by an engineer with a dream and hope in his vision.

    He was dreaming. He dearly hoped, against all odds, that this was all a dream.

    The frontal confrontation he just had with an army of heartless machines paled in comparison to this whole phenomenon. The steps he took as he delved further into the train, marching to the beats of the track bumps, was awfully heavy and slow. At some point, he felt his thoughts fleeing away from him. The same empty compartments and cabins, of mixed steel flooring, walls, doors and ceilings. Rows of empty seating coaches, posters and routes written in a language foreign yet all too familiar, and a knot sitting in the depth of his gullet.

    The ray of sunlight abruptly blindsided him.

    Vash stood looked to the side, seeing an expanse of blue as white sand receded away. He approached the windows, gazing upon a watery surface that reflected the starlight connecting with the heavens far beyond the horizon. From the firmament, a rain of white light descended, one after another, then a dozen followed by hundreds and thousands. Second by second, moment after moment—the world became a fantastical, silent theater which went on for as long as it was capable of.

    A vista like no other which didn’t exist in the place he came from decorated the flitting scenery. Electrical posts which leaned or stood upright, some half-drowned train tracks, and sometimes an empty flat island or two. He felt a brief twinge from the corner of his mind, his heart seemingly to drown in the passing by landscapes that stretched to no ends.

    And then, he found a person.

    It was almost like catching a glimpse of a squirrel in a narrow alleyway. You wouldn’t notice, most people wouldn’t, especially for a person of tall stature like Vash. And yet, the pale blue, nearly translucent hair that streamed like waterfall paled in comparison to a ring of light hovering above the person sitting on the train coach as if sleeping.

    Ah—

    A youthful face with a hint of maturation. The halfway point to adulthood. The girl of mysterious origin seemed to murmur something. Soft, faint, and yet clearly heard.

    “...oh.” The lightshow outside seemed to have bedazzled his ability to see the girl’s face in full. However, a droopy, innocent smile flourished from pale lips. “You’re back, sensei.”

    Vash’s eyes widened.

    Sensei. Teacher. A label referring to a person of respectable position, someone Vash had known before yet counted among the many others he had failed. And yet, this unknown girl referred to him with that labeling. Admiration was in her voice. Adoration sweetly fell from her word. And then… unconditional trust.

    Vash couldn’t remember her. He couldn’t recognize her. He didn’t know her.

    Even so… in this world of beautiful light, still he saw the uncaring shadow of reality. He approached, his boot landing on a puddle of rich red liquid. Tiny drops of crimson regularly fell from the seat under the girl. He languidly stared at the fresh bullet wound on the left side of her chest and sat next to her; the train background reduced into the backdrops as he sensed last bits of life’s brightness draining away.

    A few milimeters away from the heart. The bullet, likely of medium caliber, cleanly yet brutally broke through the ribs and punctured the lung. A fatal wound without advanced medical treatment. Even then, a girl of her age was prone to infection. Specialized and sterile area, not to mention the immense blood loss in need of urgent transfusion.

    It was… already too late.

    “...sorry about that,” Vash said. He forced a smile. He always did that. He knew. But, it was something he couldn’t help but to do. Even as he flexed and intertwined his fingers, he felt a sorrowful de ja’vu from this situation. “It took some time to get here.”

    If there was god, why couldn’t he find the answer?

    “It’s alright,” the girl whose name he knew not replied. The white dress, a uniform that neatly wrapped her limbs and flowed in a long skirt refined her image. A halo, a kind voice, and a warm smile. It might be presumptuous of him to call her an angel, though. It felt rude, this was their first meeting. “I think I’m getting used to waiting. Even though it was never in my style… there’s some joy in feeling time’s passing, now.”

    He glanced down. In the small space between the two of them, a small gloved hand caked in blood lay open. The little exposure of skin there had a pale coloration. Paler than white, almost blueish. Gently, Vash rested his right hand atop the delicate hand.

    It was awfully cold, yet lacking in fear.

    “...it was all my fault.”

    The dying girl tilted her head. As the dark blue heavens shed rains of stars, Vash stared long into the faraway horizon. All he could do was to listen, now.

    “The decisions I made… and everything they caused.”

    The small and dainty fingers twitched. Even though there was no trembling, that seemingly trivial was a defiant challenge against all living being’s inevitable destiny.

    Death was a lonely and painful thing, that was why people avoided wanting to get hurt.

    “It all had to come to this for me to finally realize that you were right all along…” The girl whispered, a forlorn smile on her face. “Still. It might be presumptuous of me to ask for your help at this point, but…”

    The angelic girl craned her chin up. Beyond the windows of the train cabins, the stars continued to rain; one after another. Again and again. The scenery carved a deep impression in Vash’s heart. Melancholy fogged his vision, his mind dyed in white.

    “Sensei.” In the white void, what remained was the lukewarm sensation of his present companion, sensing a visible weight leaning at his shoulder. The girl rested her head as if falling into a slumber. “You may end up forgetting these words, but even without your memories, you will likely make the same decision.”

    Was it? Was that truly the truth?

    Vash prided himself in his ability to judge other’s characters, but that did not mean the choices he made would always be right. He had traveled long, endlessly wandering to bridge a connection amid roiling waves of malice. He used his everything he got, borrowing on the wisdom of others and a small promise he had made in his heart just to keep on going. A show of faith in a place where it was the first thing to die in a ditch.

    Still, he didn’t want to make excuses. Therefore, Vash held on tight to the fading warmth in his hand.

    “I’ve spoken of responsibility before.” The girl’s voice guided his consciousness. It was a heavy word to use, but he couldn’t help himself from listening. “I didn’t truly understand it back then, but now I believe I do.”

    The train track echoed. Somewhere, in the distance, at some time.

    “Adulthood, responsibility and obligation, the choices you make which extend beyond those ideals.”

    In the white abyss that surrounded him, fragmented images surfaced. At first it was a series of landscapes. From an urban jungle of concrete, glass and steel to the deep snow burying houses and streets in a lonely night. Sprawling from the center of a gigantic city was a white tower that shot up a blue ray of light to the canopy of the world like a beacon.

    “I even understand the meanings behind them.”

    Even though he had never once seen such a beautiful, orderly yet chaotic structure like this, it all brought forth a deep sense of nostalgia. It was a shame that his consciousness was further slipping away, but he sensed golden glows brimming with warmth suffusing his existence.

    Yet again, he was shown another series of fragmented images. This time of people of varying age, height and appearances.

    “As the only adult I can put my trust in…”

    Of a group of children wandering the streets. Of friends and classmates hailing from the same educational institution. Of web of connections that seemed bright, gentle and full of happiness. Spending days at leisure, sometimes frantic, but fulfilling all the same.

    “Only you can free us from this twisted, distorted fate.”

    And then rain fell. The sky was gray and bleak. The ruined portion of a building jutted out from the corner of his vision, and looming above him was an ashen-haired woman with a gun pointed towards him. A tablet lied next to him, drenched in the rain, riddled with bullet holes and violent scratch marks.

    “And find the choices that will lead us to a new reality.”

    The woman clad in black dress frowned, but Vash knew that look. He had seen it before, in many places and across the age. An empty gaze which has given up on everything, turning away solely for the sake of cursing the world. Twisted lips, trembling as if silenced by the hatred of people’s malice. A name suddenly crossed his mind, of a quiet Nameless God who had tragically awakened her Mystique to the side of Terror—

    “So, Sensei. Please…”

    Alas, Vash’s eyelids fluttered shut. And then his consciousness was no more.

    +-+-+-+-+

    As night gave away, morning arrived. A bright blue sky greeted a city.

    It was a promising start to a brand new day. Or, well, it would have been. However, the thing called “tranquil peace” was not something people consciously understood until the day that seemingly ordinary concept shattered into pieces. What one thought was an infallible system suddenly crumbled, and then the many denizens who had taken it for granted fell into the maws of emotional outbursts. In this maelstrom of chaos, the true form of wickedness would naturally be given the opening needed to sink its poisonous fangs and ruin everyone’s efforts for the foreseeable future.

    “Reporting, another train-jacker at the Uminami route! Requesting for backup!!”

    “Again!? That’s the 7th time this week!!”

    “We don’t have the manpower! Send the request to other department!!”

    “The remaining force stationed in DU tower is under Chief of General Security!! Also, we don’t have the clearance to mobilize forces outside of our own department without the president’s executive approval!!”

    “Where do you think the president is, huh!?”

    “Make it work, somehow!!”

    “I’m not a miracle-worker, dammit!!”

    “Mind your tongue, hey!”

    Nanagami Rin rubbed her forehead, feeling headaches forming even as her eyelids drooped down once more. It was already a struggle to keep on working in an exhausted state like this, even with the few breaks given by Momoka and Ayumu. Still, the city’s conditions had further deteriorated. The office floors below hers were all turning into cages full of crazed beasts, and the streets were infested with armed delinquents drunk in illegally-attained powers. Public safety had never been at an all-time low like this, and as a knock-on effect, so did the citizens’ faith in the General Student Council’s ability as the supreme authority ruling over Kivotos.

    Any day now, the black-haired girl felt like the city would implode on itself. Just… where are we supposed to go from here?

    She honestly didn’t know. Even so, she didn’t have the time nor patience to keep on sulking away. The option to sequester away was never on the table, and so Rin gritted her teeth, working through the pressure threatening to crush her office. What was worse…

    “Where the hell is that “guest” she mentioned…?”

    Her finger tapped against the surface of her desk. Stacks after stacks of documents filled the space it provided almost to the brim, but Rin was anything but untidy. Her direct subordinates were capable as well, though they had their own idiosyncrasy. Mostly Momoka, who was still throwing chips into her mouth and standing nearby an unattended computer.

    “Well, his arrival is supposed to be today, if what the letter said is true…” The pink-haired girl tilted her head, crunching and grinding down her snacks at leisure. Rin always frowned at that since the papers submitted by her always ended up with oil splotches, but as expected, even that sort of issue was mild in comparison to the ensuing problems. Furthermore, Momoka was the type to work hard and play hard. Her work efficiency rate was second to none and therefore greatly appreciated. “But seriously, this sure fits the president’s character. First is sudden disappearance. Then a cryptic message declaring the formation of a new club attached to ours while bringing in a total outsider.”

    “Umm, Momoka, isn’t it rude to talk of a person behind their back…?”

    “It’s fine, Ayumu.” Rin acknowledged the concern given off by the Executive Office’s secretary with a nod. And, even when she looked to Momoka, it was not with a gaze full of displeasure. “Everyone’s become cagey. That is understandable. The centralized governing of the president worked to a degree because of her ever-present role in managing the city. We never had this sort of crisis before, so it never registered in our minds that the system we have is not infallible.”

    “Mhmm. Frankly, everyone’s at fault for not noticing the sand castle below our feet.” Momoka scratched her curved horn, groaning all the while as her tail flitted about behind her. “Still, this is a bigger crisis than even my wildest expectations. Didn’t somebody say it before? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire?”

    Rin narrowed her eyes at that. An idiom that was well-known, but not exactly the sort of thing the Chief of the Transportation Office would bring up. In a way, it was the girl’s way of providing assistance when warranted. And by her words…

    “You meant to say that the previous system had never worked as intended.”

    “As expected of Rin-chan, the talk goes fast.” Momoka flashed a sly grin only to replace it with a solemn, sobering look. “It’s the only way to explain this bursting dam thing. In any case, we need to close the leak, even with duct tapes, or pray and hope for nothing.”

    Easy for you to say, but… “I suppose we do need to focus on finding our guest…”

    Rin exhaled. She didn’t make a show out of herself, but she still dipped her shoulders and cast her gaze down on the documents lying on the center of her desk. A white envelope the size of formal document marked with the symbol of a halo and a targeting mark, struck in the middle by a thin crosshair—

    “Pardon me…” The office door opened, letting in a member of the GSC who seemed to be hailing from a different department. Well, each department actually had their own office and floor, but for convenience sake, all business had to be done in the vice-president’s office for the moment. “Errm, I have a report to deliver to Chief Yuragi…”

    “Huhm? What’s up?” Momoka perked up. Unfortunately, the student seemed to be a bit more than shy, so the pink-haired and twintailed girl had to walk away briefly. Rin looked long at the interaction, but the way Momoka blinked and widened her eyes seemed to indicate that something was afoot. “Eeh? Is that for real…?”

    Now that was new. Rin had known Momoka not as long as some others did, as the girl was a first-year who jumped to position because of her prodigious talent. However, Momoka now looked like she was swallowing a particularly sour but not at all sweet lemon candy.

    The Chief of Transportation Office wholly in charge of the traffic laws, routes and trades done through the city’s veins walked back with a haggard gait. She had a piece of paper in her hand—which she unceremoniously dumped on the desk.

    “This is…” Rin blinked, processing the report of arrest and criminal records of… a person suspected to be a vagrant squatting and illegally using train service? Not exactly something that warranted the executive office’s consideration, but the fact that it reached all the way up here suggested thorough reading, and according to the document… “Red, tattered trench-coat as if riddled by bullets. Outlandish and dirty outfits. In possession of a heavily-customized large-caliber gun with no permits. Hairs that stand on all ends. A few ear piercings, potentially juvenile delinquency records. Taller than average stature with a lanky built and absolutely no civilian credentials or home address. Approximately a male adult bearing the visage of a twenty-five years old?



    “...oh.” From the side, her diligent secretary murmured, “is that our esteemed guest…?”

    Oh, indeed. And he got arrested and was currently confined in a police box at the train station of Shiratori Ward. What in the...?

    +-+-+-+-+

    Vash had never felt so tired like this. It was like he had been running through the night only to get unceremoniously dumped to the roadside in broad daylight.

    Well, actually, he did run through the night, but everything else after that was seriously fuzzy that he only had vague feelings at best. How did he end up here? Had he been dreaming the whole day away, and that his fight against the droid armies was actually a figment of a drug-addled imagination? Well… not really.

    It was one thing already to see a mechanical man with television display for head and mic for ears, but the fact that it—he—was dressed in a uniform that screamed expensive top to bottom before the man apparently in charge of the train station dragged him off to what counted as a police box alarmed Vash a great deal. There was an absurd telltale of minute motions in that gesture, of reactions and actions and intelligence paired with a level of emotional state that exceeded even the most advanced AI back home.

    Yes. That robot man was definitely alive in every sense. Sentient, sapient. Like Plant, but of entirely different origin and all-in on the mechanical aspect.

    It was a discovery like no other, but Vash had quickly found himself with a bowl of piping hot rice bowl served by the local security… cop, police? Well, one would have expected a gruff old man too done with zaniness, but imagine it be a pair of children—girl teenagers with deep black and flat white hairs—that were questioning him in a contrasting dynamic of enthusiasm and laziness. The guns the two of them carried made him pause, but as he received a rather flimsy attempt of interrogation, he needed to ask…

    “What was it did you call yourself, again? Valkyrie’s Public Safety Bureau agents?”

    “Yes indeed, sir! Officer Nakatsukasa Kirino, at your service!” The white-haired bundle of energy bright as the sunshine saluted. Dressed in a white and gray canvas which was outlined by black belts and gold-colored emblems, the girl certainly had the air of a civil servant, or in other words, a policewoman on the lookout for petty crimes. “Now, eat up!”

    Eat up… Vash stared long and hard at the bowl of rice topped with fried food and thick sauce which smelled really good. It seemed the sauce was made from a bunch of condiments, the thick and gravy texture likely a product of a culinary technique that clearly spared no effort in its process. It looked way too good, too luxurious and special for something served to a criminal suspect, not to mention the timing… I-I don’t think I’ve ever seen food cooked this fast and turning up with this result…

    “Wow,” the black-haired sidekick of the spirited Kirino murmured. “Mister, you must have absolutely zero idea what the food means, huh?”

    Vash snapped back to reality. Fighting off his grumbling stomach, he wiped his face from any drool possibly leaking down the edge of his lips. That-that was dangerous…!

    “Whatever do you mean…!?”

    “You’re raising your voice by half-an-octave at the end of your sentence there, sunglasses-wearing Onii-san.” The awfully short girl wore a lopsided smile. Wait, step back for a moment there. What was that thing she just said there…? That weirdly raised his heckles. “Ah, go ahead and eat that rice bowl. It’s just a reheated convenience store meal, but those sold here are to die for compared to those sold in the outskirts.”

    Hrrk. So this was the best deal among many others…?

    “Personally, I prefer my donuts. But anyway,” the cranberry red hue in the shorter girl’s eyes lazily stared back at him. “Is that coat of yours bulletproof? Made from composite armor?”

    Vash stared owlishly, this time from surprise. How… did she figure that out?

    “Ah, knew it. The chair’s been creaking there, even though we already confiscated your gun and luggage. You’re really tall by the city’s standard, but Mister, your figure don’t impress much weight on your person.”

    And now he was being openly insulted… It wasn’t like he had a choice when it came to living the way he did. He was a double-S threat in the whole planet; a big shot and a public menace to common people’s safety. He had to live by subsisting off other people’s kindness or honest-to-goodness hard labor. Well, when put like that, he really was living in a pitiful state, but it was what it was. Besides, life on the road wasn’t all bad either.

    “...wait.” And then the white-haired girl interrupted. Kirino had a strange look on her face as she stared down at the person sitting next to her. “Who are you and why are you so cooperative? Fubuki, have you been drinking espresso earlier?”

    “Eeeeh… come on, Kirino. Even I have my own whim to work around,” the girl now known as Fubuki pouted. “Sides, this adult isn’t gonna be our problem for long.”

    “Hueh—?”

    The cubicle’s sliding door rattled open. As warm sunlight streamed in—of which Vash had particularly noted to be way cooler than the sunlight in No-Man’s Land—a tall young lady walked into the police box. She wore glasses, her icy blue eyes giving a sharp sweep over the place before focusing precisely on him. She was well-endowed, with a hint of immaturity in her facial structure. The way her chest heaved up and down seemed to point a mad rush she had done to reach this place, but what was up with that?

    That said, all the trivia Vash had noted was overpowered by the professional demeanor she carried to the point that authority was oozing from her being. He felt like he had done something wrong. She was seriously glaring at him. Like, really, really glaring. Almost as if she was trying to drill a hole in his skull with an hour-long sermon. Also, that was a very long hair it even almost reached her ankle, there.

    “I… see. So you are the one.”

    Having finished scrutinizing him from head-to-toes, the much older girl dressed in a classy white uniform coughed into her fist. Her gaze flew off him, much to his relief, and sat on the two Valkyrie students. One of which froze up, her back straightening up. Words would have leaped out her voice box if not for the initiative stolen by the mysterious person.

    “Excuse me, you two are…”

    “Ah, madame Vice-president. Greetings there.” Fubuki lazily waved. She did not deign to remove herself from the chair, instead sending a greeting as casually as could be as if calling out to a work colleague. “Bout time you got here. Guessing you’ve got serious business with Mister Outsider here?”

    “Heeh!? Fu-Fubuki, you mean this adult here is…?”

    Fubuki shrugged. “I mean, his fashion is out-of-place. Then there’s his equipment. Did you see that caliber? A bit much for use inside the city’s limits, no? Security camera also didn’t catch anything, and there was nothing in the radio network even though he’s this conspicuous. Then there’s… nah, never mind. Anyway, here’s your catch, miss VIP.”

    The Valkyrie girl handed out a paper onto the table. The newest addition in the already narrow police box trained her gaze on it before closing shut. As tension visibly melted away from her shoulders, the young woman sighed.

    “Very well. Thank you for your continued dedication to the city’s service.”

    “Heh he he… Then, can I ask for our office to receive a regular supply of donuts?”

    “This and that are two different matters. Also, that counts as bribery attempt so I shall file a legal complaint to your direct superior later for dereliction of duty.” The so-called Vice-president paused. “A very minor complaint. Now, let us be off—“

    Vash’s stomach growled.

    Silence ensued. Kirino drew a blank expression with her lips forming a triangular shape, while the glasses-wearing lady twitched her eyebrow. Only the lazy-looking high-efficiency female cop snickered.

    “Right, right. Why not eat while on the go?” Fubuki suggested with a sly smile on her face.

    “That is only applicable for snacks and bread!!” Kirino yelled out. “What if he suffers a stomachache!? It’s unhygienic with a risk of accident in public space! Not to mention setting up a poor example for the younger children! It’s bad for education!!”

    ...you know what, that’s all a valid reason to not eat while walking. Well, without further ado, Vash began to chow down a very late and heavy breakfast.
     
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  7. Threadmarks: Episode 5: Hello to Halo
    Eisen

    Eisen Avant Garde

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    A/N: Might get busy in the next few days.​



    --- Episode 5: Hello to Halo ---

    Nanagami Rin heaved a sigh. Out of relief, mind you. The General Student Council’s work was critical, but she had given herself a temporary pass to welcome the enigmatic guest from the Outside World. She of all people knew how strange that might seem, but beggars could never be choosers.

    “...haah,” the girl once again let out a sigh. She didn’t want to stay in the police box since it was too narrow, though staying outside and leaning her back against the wall of tiles warmed by the sunshine allowed her to collect her thoughts together. ”Should I be glad that there hasn’t been much issues around here?”

    Perhaps she ought to. After all, the Shiratori Ward was a strategic point directly overseen by a branch school of Valkyrie. Not only it sat close to a Sanctum Tower, the rail station controlled by this ward was a hop, skip, and step away from the city’s center, at which point one could find any train route to reach the entirety of the city.

    There was also a pier, a business tower, and other economy sectors abound. The Shiratori Ward in truth held quite an importance.

    Rin paused her thoughts, wondering if she could make use of the Valkyrie to safeguard this ward rather than letting them scramble in response to emergencies. Certainly, it would be better than letting precious manpower and resources blown away by the armed delinquents upgraded with tactical equipment from the black market, but on the other hand… the Valkyrie was limited in more than a few things. As if they could handle the many chaos bringers rampaging through the city; not with their level of training, armament, and pretty much everything else that they had.

    Ugh, there’s no end to the problems. “Without the President’s approval, the alternative is hardly useful, either.”

    Just as Rin was about to let out a sigh for the umpteenth time, a cold cylinder suddenly pressed itself against her cheek. The Acting President squeaked, quickly glaring at the red-clothed interloper—wait, since when was he there?

    “I’ve been calling out to you, but it does seem like you’re a deep-thinker.” The black-haired man who stood tall like a tree smiled. It was an easy, almost carefree smile. In his right hand was a canned coffee while his other hand held a worn out rope tied to a large luggage slung over his shoulder. “Here you go, a freebie from those kind girls.”

    Those kind girls… oh, the Valkyrie students. Rin wasn’t quite sure what to make of them, but judging by their white jackets, those two must be with the Public Safety Bureau.

    “Friendly, aren’t they?” The mysterious adult crinkled his eyebrows. His earrings glinted from the late morning sunlight, but the way his orange shades drooped allowed her full view of his face. His blue-green eyes exposed much humanity, almost to the point of reflecting only the transparency of his intentions. It was a very comfortable stare, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing people would often direct to her, whether it be in official or off-the-clock capacity. “You do look like you’ve got a lot of things going on. If you can’t have a lunch break, at least have a cold refreshment.”

    “Well…” Rin glanced at the chilled canned drink. Pushing the rims of her glasses up, she held her thoughts from overflowing and accepted the gift. She had been offered, so there was no reason to reject it. It wasn’t like there was any harm in accepting a gesture of kindness, even if it came from underpaid civil officers that would have needed a dose of caffeine more than her. “I understand. Thank you, erm…”

    “Vash,” the man introduced himself. “Just Vash. I get called a lot of things, though I guess the name Vash the Stampede means nothing around here, huh?”

    Rin hummed and shook her head. She certainly had never heard of him. Setting aside the actual name, which sounded normal enough, Stampede sounded more like a moniker than a proper last name. The naming convention the adult used clearly differed to this city’s system, but that at least confirmed his origin as an Outsider. The content of the letter was genuinely written without any falsehood or cryptic koan, as it turned out. Rin pursed her lips a little. Even though she hadn’t been around, somehow, she could easily feel her voice reverberating at the forefront of her mind.

    Oh, this is almond coffee… no, wait, that doesn’t matter. “Well met. My name is Nanagami Rin. Please just call me which way you are comfortable with, as we will no doubt be in each other’s care for the foreseeable future.”

    “Rin, then? Got it. Nice to meet you!”

    “Well...” That is unexpectedly direct. Was this man just that naturally spirited, or was he simply the type to go buddy-buddy with others? “Shall we go, then?”

    “Right… you do look like you know where we’re going.” The black-haired adult rolled his shoulders, quickly following after her trails. As they left the train station behind them, she kept on hearing sputtering and odd sounds from him. “Whoa… now this looks different, alright.”

    What did he mean by this? Rin frowned and threw a look over her shoulder. The adult was now swiveling his head around. It felt rather immature, as if he was touring a new place rather than moving out of a sense of duty. The fact that he frequently stopped by a storefront and gazing bewilderingly at the numerous trinkets, goods and clothing brands had quite simply ruined her initial impression of him. Was this really the reliable help the president believed in?

    Rin breathed out, “there will be time for sightseeing later, sensei.”

    “Hm? Ah, eh. You mean me?”

    What…? “What is with that response? You are the teacher vouched by the General Student Council’s President, no? Did you not receive any word from her?”

    The older man adopted a thoughtful pose. As he rubbed his chin, he looked sideway and hemmed and hawed. Out of irritation, Rin sharpened her glare. The man called Vash shrunk away by half-a-step with a troubled smile.

    “Well, uh. Excuse me. I guess I’m in a bit of culture shock.” Vash lifted his chin, staring past her and towards the distant scenery ahead. “These all just don’t seem real to me.”

    “Huh…? What do you mean by…”

    “This city,” Vash elaborated. As the adult put a hand on his waist, light reflected on the lens of his dark orange shade. There she noticed the visible scratch lines on the accessory, seemingly indicating a journey of poor maintenance if not hardships. “It looks prosperous, and really well-designed. It’s a total change of pace compared to where I came from. I’m honestly shocked, envious even.”

    Envious…? The Shiratori Ward certainly had its own attractions, but it wasn’t like it could be said as the city’s pride. Many School Districts other than those in this place had facilities that far exceeded this ward; some even boasted to be completely unique to the point that no other districts could hope to mimic them. Although, thinking in reverse, would that mean that the esteemed guest came from a remote place?

    “Is your homeland that far out there?”

    “Yep! Full of sand and sun-scorched all year round. Not much entertainment when you go away from the big cities, there.” Vash emphasized with a strong p to the yep. The way he barely changed his expression felt a little unnerving. Did he not catch her sarcasm? “It has a lot of downsides, but the few upsides there are actually make them stand out like no other. As a well-storied traveler, I can guarantee you this city makes everything back home pale in comparison.”

    “I… see? Well, if that’s so, I suppose there’s no helping it…” Rin wasn’t quite sure what to make of that confidence. He made it sound like he hailed from Abydos, but even in its twilight years, that school district still had enough modern facilities to accommodate their citizens with the necessity needed for its district to operate safely. “The many Schools occupying this city contributed to the city’s current state. Although, we of the General Student Council command express authority when it came to managing public facilities as well as services.”

    “...oh? Is there no government body ruling this place?”

    Rin sucked in air. Slowly, slowly… she needed to be a bit more patient. They were about to reach the nearest Sanctum Tower, soon. This slight detour was going to end and they could finally get down to the real business. Plus, it did seem like the president hardly gave the adult a primer even before sending him here. He was also being extremely cooperative and civil so far. Thus, the blame lied not in him.

    Should I say I’m surprised, or not… If she could see her again, she’d make sure to give an especially thorough sermon. Being cryptic was her forte, but in other times she’d just play by her own rule and ignored everything she had to say. A burning question over how could this city still remain intact under her reign remained a mystery Rin would likely never know the answer of, but anyway! That is for after we stopped Kivotos from imploding on itself—

    “Right. Apologies, it seems that I misunderstood a few things.” Clearing her throat, Rin straightened her back. “I shall start over from the very beginning then. This is on behalf of the executive office’s responsibility for having failed to inform you beforehand, and it should hopefully aid your effort to stabilize the city’s public order.”

    Let’s see… yes, should we begin with the city itself?

    “As I have introduced myself before. My name is Nanagami Rin, a General Student Council officer of this academy city, Kivotos.” Rin closed her eyes briefly. The streets from here on out were extremely familiar to her. Even if the unexpected happened, she could pretty much deal with with it. “This mega-city is comprised of hundreds… thousands of academies privileged with self-autonomy rights. You could even say that this city is built from the grounds up as a living palace of learning.”

    “A palace of learning… a city so large it can house thousands of academies…?”

    “Indeed. Kivotos is mainly inhabited by students and managed by students, with the General Student Council holding the supreme authority on behalf of the non-academy members and the general well-being of all students.” Rin paused, once again looking back to see if the guest was following her. “The rest of the details can come later. You may simply recognize that you have been employed here at the president’s request to act as a bridge connecting the city, the student council, and all those schools.”

    “...huh.” Vash looked like he wanted to say something but refrained from doing so. “The more things change, I guess…”

    ...did he truly understand? Rin was a fair bit skeptical. Sure, the adult was conspicuous like no other with that flashy-looking trench coat and large-caliber gun, but the little things she had been seeing did not impress her much of reliability. Should I… try to indulge my curiosity just a bit more than usual, then?

    “Do you have any question, sensei?”

    “Well. I get the gist of it, at the very least.” The older man rubbed the bridge of his nose. Oddly, his left hand looked to be covered in dark iron plates. “I’ve been living quite a long life, so that makes me a teacher by default. But are you doing okay, Rin?”

    “Ah, well… I’d be lying if I said that I am not doubtful, but…” Rin exhaled. Right, he was a helper delivered by the President. A teacher and an adult… The thought of it made her have fuzzy feelings. School curriculum had entirely moved away from the outdated teaching curriculum into one which placed much responsibilities and respect onto the students’ own initiatives. Whether they passed or failed tests were all up to each student’s capability in following the classes provided in the format of recorded audiovisual discs and textbooks. As a result, adults and lecturers from the Outside only appeared under special circumstances such exotic research presentation. “We don’t exactly have the privilege to look at a gift horse in the mouth. You are, after all, vouched by the president…”

    “No, not that. Not at all like that.” Vash chuckled. “You’re an upright kid, aren’t you? I get the importance of my job here, but what I want to know more isn’t that.”

    Then what is…?

    “I’ll help out as much as I can, but are you doing okay, Rin?”

    +-+-+-+-+

    It was only for the briefest moment. Perhaps it was nothing more than a tiny chink in her armor, but it was still a thing.

    Vash softly smiled. So many things had been launched at him from the get-go that he was still feeling disoriented, but the helpful person before him was at least clear as day.

    Nanagami Rin’s lips shivered. Casting her gaze downward, it took her a few more seconds until she could recollect herself. He patiently waited, as he sensed gears turning inside of her mind, and before long, tensions evaporated from her shoulders with a slow droop, a tired sigh leaking out from her lungs while the glasses she wore tried their best to hide away the instability of her psyche.

    “...though you may be an adult, a teacher with whom I have barely interacted, you are holding me quite at disadvantages.” Rin’s gaze fell and turned forlorn. Bitterness seeped out from her words, yet there was resignation, vexation, and quite possibly acceptance deep within her eyes. “In truth, I am not doing okay. Some times have passed ever since the president’s disappearance. As vital functions of the city ceased to work, public order naturally worsened with each passing day. However, in such a short timespan, the city is now on the brink of total anarchy, while the symbol of authority we once held all but crumble away like a sand castle swept by the ocean waves.”

    Ah, there you go. It was quite something to witness dark clouds gathering up above somebody’s head… especially with consideration to the dimly glowing patterns hovering above her crown. The way she shifted from exhaustion to impotent rage, to the way she ground her teeth and clenching her fists told him the amount of stresses she had been powering through. And yet, contrary to most kids her age, Rin complained in a clear and concise manner; delivering proper complaints directed to things that troubled not just her, but also others. Man, she really is a serious, no-nonsense person.

    It was almost precious how she expressed herself. Still, there came a point where one should just forget about all the bad things. As it was, Vash had one ultimate weapon he could use to coax children, and so he approached Rin who had remained still as she threw expletives over one thing after another. He raised his right hand, casting a long shadow over the girl’s face. When she snapped out of her reverie, he had already rested his hand atop her head.

    “S...sensei…?” Rin hung her mouth open, seemingly taken aback.

    Ignoring her, Vash proceeded to rub his hand horizontally, combing the nice and smooth bundle of black hair as lustrous as it was neatly done up. He also had black hair now, but that hardly mattered right now. There was a child who had shaved off her free time and privileges for an obligation fit only for old people like him. With that in mind, how could he possibly tell her off simply for not acting the way she ought to be?

    “Good work, Rin.” Vash beamed a smile. “You’ve done well holding out for so long.”

    The girl shook. Well, more like a tremor running over her whole body. That little lapse of control over her own composure, however, told him more about the girl called Nanagami Rin, and being honest? He felt a bit more than justified for giving her a genuine praise for job well-done. If nobody acknowledged, much less praised a child for doing the right thing, that’d be such a sorrowful thing to remember as they grew up. Vash could vouch for that, and he’d say many people could have turned out for the better had they been in the right company, but that sort of thing sometimes could feel like a miracle in the distant end of a dark, narrow tunnel.

    “...Sensei,” Rin eventually called out. A short time had passed, not enough to make one feel sore on their feet, but still long enough that Vash had started to wonder why was there no reaction coming up. “This is not the time nor the place for that.”

    O-ooh, looks like this girl’s got a stick right up her… no, wait, that’s sexual harassment, and against minors at that.

    As Vash drew back his hand, however… he saw the glasses-wearing girl sighing. The tension riddling her face and shoulders were nowhere to be seen, now. Well, Vash didn’t have the heart nor mind to point that out.

    “...nevertheless, I appreciate your care. It seems that the President did not choose you out of mere whims.” Rin glanced down, specifically staring at his… oh. “And I suppose you are armed for the occasion.”

    “Uuuh…? That sounds like you are alright with carrying firearms?” The police officer duo from earlier are also armed, but they are cops, so that checks.

    “Yes. One other thing about Kivotos is that all students employ firearms of their own choice, many among them tailor-made to best suit their individual abilities.” Rin turned back to walk away, giving Vash no time to process the shocking statement. “The physical durability we Students innately possess led to the usage of firearms to be the best way in sorting out our… let’s just say combative nature.”

    That’s extremely concerning—

    “The problem children of Kivotos tend to go overboard, so I suggest you to not count on your lucky stars too much.” Rin glanced back, a solemn gaze directed at him in such an unfamiliar way. The more rational side to him berated him for his lifestyle being at fault, but well… genuine concern for his personal well-being was not something Vash the Stampede had often received, especially from a total stranger. “If you ever feel yourself to be in danger, just stay in the back, sensei.”

    Haheeh… who’d have imagined a youngster to worry about my safety…?

    Vash scratched his cheek, troubled by the very bold statement. He wasn’t even sure he could believe what Rin was saying. He still trusted her, she was the one who helped him from getting arrested as a vagrant and squatter. Still, seeing was believing. Well, the girl did have those glowing patterns atop of her head, and the two girls in the police box shared the same feature, though not the design. On top of that, Rin was part of the city’s higher-ups, the closest thing he could call as the ruling governing body of the wondrous place that was Kivotos. He supposed he could heed her advice and only move when things went dire.

    Although… surely there was nothing else that could surprise him, by this point?

    +-+-+-+-+

    The girl had been counting the clock ever since she had heard of the Acting President’s signs of appearance in the Shiratori Ward. Of course, other renowned neighboring Schools had happened to catch winds of that. United by a common goal, she and the other school representatives reached the Sanctum Tower post-haste… only to find themselves unable to catch the tail of any higher-ranked staff of the city’s supreme authority.

    The first floor, the reception lobby, seemed to be deserted. Not as many students affiliated to the General Student Council were in sight, while what few there were didn’t have the clearance to summon their superiors.

    So one of the rumors is true, then. Hayase Yuuka of the Millennium School had tried to reach out to the GSC since several nights ago. Of course, her call rarely connected, and even in the off-chance it did connect, she was greeted by the haggard response of disposable peons unfortunate enough to be slotted for HR department. It was suspicious. Way too suspicious that she had a hard time convincing herself that it was just the Acting President being the same, unfriendly and terrible person who only cared about the truly important things. But if GSC truly has lost control over Sanctum Tower functions, that’s an entirely different matter.

    Yuuka could sort of sympathize, sort of.

    Her own school, Millennium, had its own shares of problems, after all. Nevertheless, she also had the duty to protect her fellow schoolmates’ daily lives. The wind generators loaned by the GSC were by no means insignificant, as they provided power to many vital sectors needed for the school to run itself. Once again, the treasurer of Seminar felt the realization that backups were always required, but a replacement power grid would far exceed the school’s current budget. Seminar also had to gather more funds to continue the construction project for the long-awaited new multi-purpose transmission array tower…

    “Oh, is that…” and then, somebody raised her voice.

    Yuuka immediately zeroed in her gaze to the entrance. As a tall figure clad in white walked into the reception lobby, there was no mistaking her sharp gaze, the long black hair with night blue undertone, the pair of pointed ears, and the Halo made out in an elegant ring vertically crossed with three four-pointed stars. Indeed, that was the Acting President of the General Student Council, Nanagami Rin. Her actual role was the Vice-President, but her involvement and declaration to serve as Acting President, even temporarily, could only mean that the great President of the General Student Council was…

    “Huh? Who’s that behind her?”

    “An… adult man? Oh, he’s taller than even Hasumi-san…”

    “Seems like a friendly fellow to me.”

    Well, there’s certainly a lot of first impressions thrown out. Even Yuuka was surprised by the older man who was smiling with the carefree attitude of one perfectly content with the world and everything. He was a total stranger, a person she had never seen across Kivotos, and yet he followed behind the terrifying Acting President as if it was the most natural thing. That said something as Seminar had a good track records of having invited lecturers from the Outside for collaboration projects or workshops, but this person standing behind Rin was… more than just unique-looking. A red trench coat, walking with a slight hunch and slinging a huge luggage over his shoulder… and what’s with the old-fashioned sunglasses?

    “Urgh.” Nanagami Rin squinted her eyes upon landing her sight ahead of her. Her glasses glinted under the artificial lights, while her lips twisted as if in displeasure. “This timing is rather inconvenient, much to our displeasure, I do believe…”

    Et tu!? The way the GSC vice-president dropped her polite facade was as lightning fast as it was frustrating. Even Yuuka herself had no desire to meet the Acting President if not for the nature of her current issues. Fine, be that way, then!!

    “Your acquaintances?” The adult chimed in. His timing was impeccable, as it drew away the ire from the Acting President who glanced sideways. His voice was rather frivolous.

    “...yes. Well, they are guests—if you could even call them that—who represent neighboring academies’ student councils, disciplinary committees, and those with too much times on their hands.”

    Yuuka growled and gnashed her teeth. As unfriendly and intimidating as always. It also felt a little bit more clipping than the usual. Who was really at fault, here?

    “That so…” The man with hair so spiky it all stood on end pressed two fingers on his chin, his gaze sweeping over her and the other representatives. “Well, why not hear them out first?”

    “Sensei, that’s—“

    “Finally, someone who gets it!” Yuuka immediately jumped on the opportunity. Ignoring the withering look she had garnered from the Acting President, the member of Seminar stepped up to the front, placing a hand on her chest. “Thousands of academies are all in panic right now! Heck, even our school’s wind generators have shut down since a few days ago!! I demand a meeting with the president of General Student Council!”

    While the Acting President clicked her tongue, the adult in red muttered in a thoughtful sound… except then he tilted his head.

    “Wind generator? Does it produce a lot of power?”

    Nha…!

    “There’s a lot of types when it comes to power generators across Kivotos.” The vice-president of General Student Council bobbed her head down. “That said, Millennium which that noisy girl belongs to consumes extraneous power at the daily compared to the rest of the schools out there.”

    “Hoh… so you girls don’t use just one thing to supply the grids, huh.”

    “...I think there’s a morbidly fascinating topic to discuss here. The implication of your words means a lot of things, and none of them seems to be good, sensei.”

    Hey! Don’t just advance the talk on your own pace like that, agh!!

    Rin pushed up her glasses and unilaterally looked past Yuuka. That irked her greatly, but her next words coaxed her somewhat as it seemed the adult’s words had managed to convince the infamous vice-president of GSC to not kick any of them out from the Sanctum Tower for righteously exercising their rights and obligations to their respective schools.

    “As for you, representative of Gehenna’s Prefect Team…?”

    “Yes, well. We have received rumors that notorious repeat offenders meant to be held under the Federal Correction Bureau’s strict confinement have all but escaped.”

    “Outlaw students…?” The older man looked bewildered. What, was that look? It was like he had never heard of the concept of juvenile detention before…

    “Notoriously so.” The yellow-eyed girl with red glasses and dirty blonde hair sighed. “Culprits to massive collateral damage, terrorism, and downright unrepentant.”

    “...hopefully none of the victims are injured too badly.”

    “Hm? Well, they are ruthless in their own right. It took the mobilization of SRT’s ace squad to even put them behind the bars, after all… but the victims are at least never in any state so severely debilitating it’d extend their hospitalization period to months.”

    At that, the adult suddenly patted his chest a few times, letting out a relieved sigh all the while. What the heck? What was up with him, anyway? He somehow managed to casually interrupting times and again, interjecting with random questions, too…

    “Good to hear! Then, you two are…” The black-haired man crinkled his eyebrows. An odd glint in his eyes, yet his everlasting soft smile remained etched on his face. “Oh, those are nifty, almost nostalgic even, but never mind that. Since the logo on your uniforms match, guessing you two hail from the same school?”

    The pair of black and silver students glanced at each other. That was before the latter closed her eyes and the former nodded in suite as if in acceptance.

    “A pleasure to meet you. I am Hanekawa Hasumi, of the Trinity’s General School.” The red-eyed and black-haired girl with dark wings politely bowed. “I serve the Justice Committee of our school and act as its vice-president. This girl here is Morizuki Suzumi, a member of the Vigilante Corps.”

    “Quite peculiar titles…” The adult mused.

    “The Justice Committee functions as Trinity’s Disciplinary Board.” Hanekawa Hasumi smiled, a tiny bit of expression gracing her delicate frame. “It might be a tad bit pretentious of a name, but upholding ourselves to a higher ethical standard and conduct will hopefully lead others to better behave themselves. Alas, incidents kept on occurring, with general estimation of nearly two-thousand percents of increase to the smuggling activities in the black markets.”

    “Likewise, the Vigilante Corps exists through volunteer system.” The gray-haired Suzumi placed a hand on her waist, staring up at the older man. “Though in our case, there’s been a radical increase of thugs who attacked students on the way to and from school.”

    “Yessh… that’s certainly about right when everyone’s losing their marbles.”

    Okay, that’s enough. Yuuka huffed and crossed her arms. “You are certainly trying to be relevant in the conversation, but this is our city’s issues. Or rather, who are you? Why is an adult here?”

    The smiling man blinked twice. He pointed at himself and chuckled.

    “Right, guess introducing myself is right for the occasion.” The man extended his right hand forward, his face lighting up like a midsummer sunflower in full bloom. “The name’s Vash the Stampede. From today onward, I will be working here as a teacher! Nice to meet’cha!!”

    ...huh!?
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2024 at 8:21 PM
    Omniwhatever, meloa789 and LaSteerk like this.
  8. Plue

    Plue Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    Little idea about the cross over, but interesting to see where vash after the end goes.
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Episode 6: Colorful Mess
    Eisen

    Eisen Avant Garde

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    Rin clasped her hands together. The crisp sound reverberated through the barren reception lobby and brought all attentions to her. Her smile was sweet, albeit not at all reaching up to her eyes. Vash shuddered at the silent, roiling wrath masked by a calm facade likened to a sagely hermit if he didn’t squint his gaze at it.

    “It seems everyone is now on the same page.” The girl with black and deep blue dual-toned hair pushed her glasses up. “No better time to deal with all the hassle. Sensei, I’d like you to take these loons—I mean kind neighbors—out for a mission, as we needed a few things first before we could put the city back in order.”

    ...I doubt arguing is on the table. “Right… so, what do you need me for?”

    “You are to lead an extracurricular club designed by the missing president herself.” Rin’s words apparently possessed quite a gravitas to them. The ripple of reactions were not what he could call subtle, but he decided that paying attention to Rin’s explanation was much more important for now. “The letter left behind in the wake of her disappearance dictated us, the General Student Council, to recruit your aid as a teacher-advisor for a freshly created federal club. To be frank, it is an extrajudicial organization created with the goal of managing, investigating, as well as solving cases sent up to the General Student Council. As its conception had been personally approved by the president, your words and authority stand equal to our organization. Thus…”

    “Who, wait. Slow down, please!” Vash raised both hands. “I’m not good with all the complicated things. Basically, I have my own office and my job is to deal with the chaos plaguing the city… right?”

    At Rin’s slow and deliberate nod, the only man in the room scratched the back of his head as he threw up an apologetic smile. Okay, he could work with this… As long as he could articulate his words properly and go straight to the point, then—

    “So… what I mean is…” He glanced sideways to the stunned onlookers. “I can just, drag these girls off to deal with said troubles?”

    “Simply put, yes. Your command means law. Regardless of the time and place, it is within the rights of your organization—Schale—in recruiting helpers from all schools across Kivotos. It is no different to the power wielded by the president.”

    Yikes, yeah, that’s totally dreadful. Absolutely scary stuff, one could say. Day one of his work and already he obtained absolute power with nary but words from somebody he had never once met throughout his life. Who on earth was this President, and why was she entrusting him with so much trust as if he could do infinitely better than her? He might be great, awesome, super ultimate marksman there was to ever exist, but he was still a lone individual. I’m just a layabout with a price on his head, you know…?

    Ah, well. There was no other way around it. He just had to roll with the punch.

    “And the mission is…?” Vash suppressed the desire to groan upon catching Rin’s droll look, already sensing things having gone way to the sides.

    “As of just now, a nefarious terrorist who commands a bunch of delinquent underlings armed with tactical-grade black market goods has… occupied Schale’s club room.”

    ...pardon moi?

    “The first step for Schale to establish itself is to own a base. So to speak, a club room as befit a school club. That place which lies in the city’s outskirts is where most of the tools useful for Schale’s functions are stored in, and the last phase in finalizing your club’s creation is for me to directly participate in the handover.”

    “...that sounds incredibly dubious. Actually, having the missing president employing an adult from the outside, mysterious handover, and then this strong-arming—”

    “Dear representative of Millennium, I have no problems with reordering your school’s emergency to be set in the bottom of the priority list, if that is what you’d like.”

    “Agh! This is tyranny!!”

    Oh, that poor girl… Vash wished he could coax Rin to settle down a little bit, but she really looked to be high-strung as could be.. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that she wanted things to go right just for once, and so she was willing to do anything to achieve that goal. Well, her threat was fairly cute compared to the barbarian savages in his homeland, so he could tolerate this much. Plus, the show needs to hit the road, preferably sooner than later.

    “So, if the… teacher of Schale? Managed to reclaim the club room, everything will go back to normal?” One of the Trinity girls chimed in. “I feel quite skeptical, but this mission is an VIP escort-type mission, then.”

    “At the very least, there are no efforts that will be unrewarded.” Rin shrugged. “From our side, a chopper has been prepared to drop you all on-site. As well, there are medical supply and ammo you can liberally use throughout the duration of this mission.”

    “I see… if the Chief Commander said so, that is good enough as any reason, then.” The tallest among the four curved her lips into a small smile. Her eyes were rich red, almost deep crimson, yet the slight coloration to her cheeks made her out to look graceful instead of cold and uncaring. “We shall follow your lead, Vash-sensei.”

    “...I suppose there’s no other choice.” The girl with dirty blonde hair and red-rimmed glasses exasperated, though she looked up to him all the same with rapt seriousness. “As I am a licensed medic, please leave support to me. Sensei, do be sure not to leave my side because there are limits to my range of protection.”

    “Whoa, oh… right. Right.” As expected, he couldn’t get used to this atmosphere. These children were definitely teenagers, but each and every one of them had the bearings of trained and learned gunmen. It was actually worrying him a heck lot, but the way they all behaved reminded him of… of… Huh, I didn’t think I’d remember the energetic reporter and camerawoman duo… am I getting homesick already? “Pleasure to meet you. I didn’t catch your name earlier, but you are…”

    “Oh, my apologies.” Pink dusted the blonde girl’s cheeks. Clearing her throat with a few coughs, she then steadied herself. “My name is Hinomiya Chinatsu. I am affiliated with the Gehenna School’s Prefect Team. As the Disciplinary Board’s members have all scattered all over the autonomous districts to lay down the laws, the responsibility of representing our school ended up on an unimportant logistic officer like me.”

    Whoa, now, that’s just uncalled for. “No need to put yourself down like that, Chinatsu. I may not be the person to look for when it comes to really complex stuff, but I know enough that soldiers alone will not keep a country afloat.”

    “Uhm… that is, fair enough.” Chinatsu stuttered. “Still, as I am a medic, I won’t be able to contribute much in battles.”

    Vash grinned. “Saving lives is also a battle in its own right. I respect your choice to help people instead of injuring them. Honest.”

    Somehow, that cranked up the blush by a notch. He wondered if this girl was the same type as Rin; unused to hearing compliments because nobody appreciated their work—

    “...I see that sensei is the type to easily throw around praises.”

    “Errhmm…? Feels like somebody’s gaze is boring a hole on my back…” What, what did I do wrong this time… wait, scratch that, the girl with pigtails is now glaring at me too?

    +-+-+-+-+

    Hayase Yuuka decided that her skepticism had twisted into a mild prejudice. It was not often for her temper to be tested like this, but the goings-on really made her grind her teeth in utter vexation. She just couldn’t accept the way things developed.

    And this all because of… what, a letter with dubious content?

    Honestly, her rational side had been jabbing here and there for a lot of times. Not only did her opinion of the General Student Council dropping to an all-time low, she also couldn’t believe herself for having gotten roped into cleaning after their mess. She wished she didn’t take up this job, but the absences of half of Seminar members hammered in the cruel tragedy of her fate.

    Maybe she ought to take a break after this side-job, provided it somehow managed to work out which didn’t feel like the case at all.

    “Touching down~” The helicopter pilot announced. Her voice was full of merriment which befitted the diminutive stature of the Chief of Transportation Committee. However, the chopper landed a bit away from the Schale club room. “Sorry about that, but with ole Crusader-chan out there, the transportation service can only get this far.”

    Crusader… a heavy-armor battle tank!? Yuuka’s blank amazement could hardly be hidden at this point. How did a bunch of ragtag delinquents manage to acquire a tank!?

    “...hrm. If it’s the Type-1, then it must have the same spec as the one we have at school’s museum… which means this one is an antique or a replica of it.” The member of Trinity’s Vigilante Corps opened the door and hopped out of the chopper. Immediately taking a point, she lifted her assault rifle as she swept the surrounding streets a once-over to scan possible enemy threats. “Clear. Time for deployment, ladies.”

    “Thank you, Suzumi.” The largest member of the impromptu task force was the second to leave the transport heli, her wings flexing before spreading out and wide. Amid the scattering black feathers, the Justice Committee member flipped her sniper rifle around in a circular ring, catching it and quickly loading up a bullet. “Would you mind doing the honor of working as our point-woman, Yuuka-san?”

    Ugh, sounds like Trinity’s got their own information network.

    The Seminar member certainly did not anticipate this development, though perhaps she shouldn’t have gotten so riled up in the first place. It was already bad enough that they were escorting a VIP through battle zones. It seemed one of the notorious fugitives was also taking up residence in a heavily fortified building which promised an ugly melee.

    Right, game face, Hayase Yuuka!

    “I get it. I get it! Make sure to follow close by!” Yuuka all but leaped out of the chopper and swiftly turned around. “As for you, sensei! Don’t you dare get into the lines of fire, got it!? I take no responsibility for any foolishness!!”

    The tall, black-haired man in a red coat simply smiled. Broadly. How was it that his mood did not change for the slightest even after entering a battle zone? No, wait. He pushed his sunglasses all the way up that his eyes were now obscured by them. That didn’t look right for Yuuka, as gunfights generally turned into a chaotic mess. Could he even see things properly when they entered Schale’s base?

    “I shall keep a close watch behind us,” the member of Gehenna’s Prefect Team announced, a handgun in her hand and a medical box slung over her shoulder. “It is also quite reassuring to have the Acting President at our back, though I must confess worries over our winning prospect.”

    Well, now that’s the one-million-credit question. Yuuka shared the sentiment, though she didn’t dare to voice it out. Sure, sweeping thugs off from the streets and crushing a stolen Crusader tank would be a simple, albeit exhausting matter, but the real threat in this operation was a fugitive who had broken out of the Federal Correction Bureau’s confinement. We have no idea which one of them managed to escape, so either we ended up with the Phantom Thief, or…

    “Hm. I noticed a lot of helmeted students holding explosives.” The adult suddenly notified with a pointed finger at the barricaded and damaged roads bridging their position and the Schale club room. “Seventeen normally equipped grunts. Six grenade holders judging by the bandoleer. Three snipers. And that sleek tank in the far back.”

    ...what?

    “You managed to survey the battlefields even through the ride, sensei…?” Hasumi’s eyes widened, seemingly at a loss for words. “I… I only managed to count half the numbers you’ve said.”

    Suzumi looked back, gun barrel lowered to face the grounds with her index finger away from the trigger. “Sensei, you must have the eyes of a hawk. Hasumi-san’s range is second only to Mashiro-san, the ace sniper of Trinity…”

    “I am ashamed to admit that I can’t put myself in a proper sniping posture…” Hasumi looked embarrassed for once, but that wording… really could be interpreted wrongly.

    Nevertheless, all four students turned their attention to the chopper. The pink-haired, horned girl threw out her head from the cockpit, while in the passenger cabin the vice-president chewed in her cheek as she stopped typing on a laptop.

    “Yeah. He got it right, amazingly enough.” The Chief of Transportation Committee glanced sideways. “Rin-chan-senpai just did a double-check, even.”

    “…please drop that combination of honorifics, specifically the middle one. But yes, Vash-sensei got the numbers right, down to the exact digit.” Rin breathed out, unknown emotions stirring in her throat. “I think we can surmise, by his words, that the fugitive assaulting the Schale club room as Kousaka Wakamo.”

    “Ah, because of the explosives?”

    To his inquiry, all Rin could do was to nod. “That bomb-addict have the penchant for flairs in the form of multi-layered explosions. Only she would choose thugs who can produce terrible havoc, which also happens to narrow down these bunches’ goal as district-wide arson and pure, unbridled wanton desire for massive collateral damage.”

    “…how on earth did you manage to contain someone like her in the first place?”

    “We have our own way. Well, had.” Rin said simply and thusly. “In any case. I might be repeating myself, but you must prioritize your own safety first, sensei. Students won’t easily go down, but adults such as you are much too frail…”

    “Alright, stop right there, Rinny.”

    Yuuka wondered if she heard it right. There was a strange sound squeaking out of the Acting President’s lips, but the adult took the center of her attention as he extended a hand like a stop sign.

    “It’ll be okay,” he said. With a soft, confident smile on his face, the teacher who called himself Vash the Stampede formed a thumbs-up. “Running away when it’s inconvenient is my specialty, after all!! My infamy as Humanoid Typhoon is not just for show!!”



    ...ah, this city’s done for.

    “Rin-senpai, wanna have a bet on how many tries will the team take to recapture Schale club room?” The pink-haired girl snickered. “I’m betting on five.”

    “Momoka, I’m confiscating your snacks if you say any more word.”

    “So cruel!?”

    +-+-+-+-+

    The 4-man team plus one pushed through the ruined streets. Barricades had been moved to obstruct civilian vehicles, while stores lining up the roadside had signs of trespassing and looting, as well as in utterly deplorable state. It was a nightmare and a half to imagine the effort needed to restore public order here. It led her to ponder if her favorite cake shop was still doing alright as of this moment…

    “Stop there, Hasumi.” And then, the adult’s voice carried through the air. “See the glint at two-o’clock, seventy-five meters ahead? Aim there.”

    Hasumi did not visibly nod as much as she stepped up to a half-damaged road barrier, rested the barrel of her bolt-action rifle battle rifle on it and took aim. In the same breadth it took for her to lower her eyesight into the crosshairs, she glimpsed the shine of reflected sunlight from a gun barrel peeking out next to a bent sign post. Target locked—fire!

    “Gweh!?” The distant shriek of the delinquent confirmed the hit. Hasumi could hardly believe her aim being so accurate that the bullet disarmed the enemy sniper, but the command given by the teacher of Schale surpassed her expectations. “Hii—stop! Stop! I surrender, ouch ouch ouch!!”

    After the coming barrage from the frontline members, Hasumi went around the road barrier and joined back in. However, she didn’t miss the glances thrown behind by the representative of Millennium. The dark-haired Seminar member twisted her lips in utter distaste, but her gaze was full of grudging respect. It took no time at all even for the skeptic to recognize that the adult invited by the General Student Council’s president was extremely competent.

    Heck, they even hardly needed any further assistance from the Commanding Chief. The guidance of Vash the Stampede turned the table against the deluge of assailants pouring out from the Schale office.

    “Eyes on the road, Yuuka.” The teacher smiled. “Do you need some healing?”

    “Ugh…! Please don’t treat me like a doll! I’m not that fragile, okay!?” The girl with pigtails huffed, even as she brushed away the soot sticking on her cheek with her sleeve.

    “That so… didn’t you vehemently protest over JHP round leaving marks?”

    That she did… even though hollow-point rounds aren’t considered illegal. Hasumi suppressed a giggle from forming at that recent memory. The initial phase of this battle operation was eventful from start to end. Especially among them all was the many faces the adult had worn. Sensei’s reaction when he saw Yuuka getting shot on the forehead was quite a… hmm, should I say comical?

    “S-shut up!” Yuuka turned back around, resuming her advance as the point-man. “We’re almost there, everyone!! Be on guard!!”

    Right. The Schale club room was right up ahead. The last bulk of the enemy’s force resided in an open plaza littered with barricades and makeshift walls. Of course, they were all strewn about haphazardly, causing the single greatest combat force they had unable to do much except to face forward. The Crusader Type-1 was a heavily-armored tank with outdated armaments and engines to it. Even if it was a remodeled unit, or one pawned off to the Kaiser PMC, the tank didn’t have much beside firepower to it.

    ...perhaps it’s time to leave the rest to us.

    Suzumi’s flashbang was their ace in the sleeve. It was all about timing, and voice command would be redundant for an all-out brawl. Hasumi would say that… wait, why was the tank rumbling like that even though it was hardly moving—?

    “Oops. Sorry about that, Chinatsu.”

    Hasumi widened her eyes. She whipped her head to the back and saw the teacher having rolled into the blindspot provided by a road barrier. Under him was Chinatsu, who had been sticking close to the teacher in an effort to protect the team from behind alongside escorting him. A few meters away from them was a pothole on the road which sizzled with smoke and… that angle came from the tower’s upper floor!!

    We have to make haste!

    Hasumi suddenly realized the timer had turned into a countdown. The initiative had been stolen away from them. They couldn’t afford to take cover, as the tank would just blow them away along with the barriers. However, ignoring the sniper would also ruin their battle rhythm. The only option was rapid suppressive fire, but they lacked the brutal firepower to match and push back, so the only real option was—

    “Suzumi! Flashbang!!” Hasumi yelled out.

    “On one…!” The main member of the Trinity’s Vigilante Corps committed herself into a practiced throwing motion. The gray can sailing through the air crossed over the multitude of barriers and landed atop the Crusader Tank. “Look down and charge!!”

    “Hey! I’m supposed to be the point-man here…!”

    In the blinding light that followed a reverberating keening noise, all three vanguards moved into action. Hasumi leaped over the barricade, her wingspan knocking over a delinquent as she turned to fire on another helmeted mob. The snipers on the ground were the first to be downed, while the grenade holders were meticulously taken down by the dual-wielding Yuuka. There were still several mob left, but the tank remained the greatest threat, with the mysterious sniper from above the second.

    I have to take care of the sniper then!

    Hasumi went down on one knee. As she righted her gun barrel upward, she heard a rumbling sound approaching. At once, her blood froze over.

    The Crusader is… oh no!!

    Hasumi felt her heart thundering. The tank locked on to her, likely because of her large figure and her specialization in dishing out precise shots. The Crusader must have deemed her a bigger threat from a tactical standpoint… a blessing in disguise. Yuuka was the actual team leader.

    I can take it… if it’s just one!!

    It would hurt. She’d get blown away. Then there was the sniper. She must accomplish her duty even if it meant incapacitation. Could she make it? No, she had to make it…!

    “Found you…!” The thin shadow behind the slightly opened window on the fourth floor of the Schale club room. There was no mistaking the sniper rifle, the rich red halo, and the triangular ears of the Fox of Calamity. As Hasumi’s Mystique invoked itself, energy drained away from the top of her body and flowed into her rifle. “Shoot through—!”

    Hasumi pressed the trigger. Her body shuddered as the bullet left its chamber, singing a melodious tune as it soared towards her target. Through the orange sparks and smells of gunpowder, the smokes obscured her vision for a split second while the roar of the tank’s cannon overwhelmed her hearing.

    In that moment, three things happened.

    A bullet flew from above and struck her in the shoulder. Hasumi felt the immense pressure grinding against her body, but honed reflex and wits allowed her to jump back, letting the momentum bringing her away from direct hit by the tank’s shell. Flapping her wings, she might as well reduce the incoming damage to tolerable level instead of a serious battering that’d leave her inches away from fainting.

    Her bullet, on the other hand, shattered the windows and ricocheted. Amid the falling shards of glass, the masked fugitive dressed in a daring red and dark kimono pulled herself into the building, retreating deeper into that which had become her nest.

    And the third thing to happen was a man in red soaring through the air, arriving right in front of the flying tank shell with a raised foot. The plated boot struck the enormous shell and sent it upwards. With just enough force, just enough momentum, and just enough calculation… he deflected a cannon shell in such a way that he ended up spinning in mid air; the tail ends of his worn-out coat fluttering.

    “Wha—!?”

    As he somersaulted for one last time, Hasumi witnessed a curtain of orange spark. The burning hue of a full-metal jacket launched from the adult’s side and flew into the tank through its cannon barrel. Not even a second had passed as her mind started to catch up with reality, but what happened next was truly simple.

    The outdated tank, its drivers, and the turret blasted off to the blue sky. As smokes and cinders rained down, flame consumed the tank’s skeleton. What remaining ammunition it had carried popped and exploded successively, leaving a rather smoldering spectacle in the center of the plaza. Finally, heated winds violently spread throughout the whole area—and the blasts of airs sent the adult careening right into a thick green bush lining up the roadside.

    “S-Sensei…!?”

    “Sensei! Are you alright!?”

    Hasumi got up with a slight limp. However, faster than even her who was the closest to the bushes lining up the roadside, the Millennium representative leaped past her, splitting the hedges apart. Her swiftness rendered Hasumi speechless, even as the reckless adult’s face came into view with a few sticks and leaves stuck in his hairs. Yuuka remained panicking however, her gaze going all over the place as if to check for injuries visible and whatnot.

    “Okay, calm down! I’m okay, really…!”

    “Stop acting tough! Chinatsu, help me out here!!”

    “A-ah, yes! Please hang on!!”

    Hasumi let out a sigh. Well, now. It didn’t look like they’d be going into Schale club room for now, not that it was such a bad thing.

    “Looks like the first phase is done,” Suzumi’s voice chimed in. She glanced to the side, but Hasumi’s shake of head made the member of Vigilante Corps to shrug. “Understood. How shall we spend our small respite?”

    Hmmm, that’s a good point. “How about the teacher’s ability. Would you be able to accomplish a similar feat, Suzumi?”

    “I am not competent, nor blessed enough to achieve that.” Suzumi did not sound at all offended by the inquiry. The two of them looked over the hectic scene between the adult and students before them. “It’s a matter of timing for us, however.”

    I see… In other words, what Vash the Stampede had done was not only reckless, but exceeding past the boundary of normalcy. There should have been a sting to her pride, knowing full well that it was her job to fight and get wounded all in order to escort him, but after that close-call, Hasumi felt… how could she put it? Like a gallant knight rescuing a damsel in distress…

    She wasn’t a kid anymore. She knew that she wasn’t in such a trouble that she’d need saving, though that tank shell would have roughed her up to an extent that she’d need to avoid particularly intense consecutive battles. Still, Vash’s flashy stunt did make her heartbeat flutter. Just a bit.

    “So that’s an adult…”

    Suzumi glanced her way, a short giggle leaving her lips. Was something on her cheek or something? “A very peculiar, enigmatic existence, indeed.”


    A/N: We're about to be caught up with my edited and proofread drafts by next chapter. Release schedule will become 3~4 days per chapter, and hopefully I can keep it up.
     
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